Updated: Mar 4
Evil stepmothers aren't born—they're made.
Girl in the Dark is a YA dystopian fantasy novel by Nicole Adrianne. Check out the first chapter of this clean, thrilling tale featuring a villain's origin, a flawed, fierce heroine, and a swoon-worthy slow-burn romance.
The keepers told me that our journey together was almost over. It was funny how they used the word together as if we all were equal participants in their grandiose scheme. As if we weren’t being herded toward an unfamiliar destination against our will.
Pine needles scattered beneath my boots as I plodded through the trees, scuffing the ground with each step. I should have been relieved to hear the journey was nearly complete. Yet, as I watched each of my breaths become fog in the crisp forest air, I just couldn’t make myself feel comforted.
At least I wasn’t alone in my misery. My traveling companions’ hard eyes and blank faces told me everything I needed to know about their outlook on our new lives. Empty. Meaningless. A stretch of unknown and unknowable days loomed in front of us, engulfing us in a dark void to our dying breaths.
The keepers at the front and back of each group probably told themselves that our numb stares were a natural result of cold and exertion. Deep down, we all knew better.
Even my sister, Ellena, whose delicate face usually shone with weary joy, kept her eyes downcast, focusing on the wet leaves in front of us. The strands of her pale hair had begun to free themselves from her loose white headband.
The moisture and mud squelched with every step we took, spattering our cream-colored aprons with even more dirt and filth. Our clothes had never been extravagant, but throughout our mandatory journey they’d become nearly unrecognizable.
A droplet of dew rolled down my neck, bleeding into the neckline of my dress. I raised my hand to my face and found that a light mist had condensed onto my skin while I walked. Closing my eyes, I started to scrape the thin film of water off my cheeks, cursing every step I’d taken since leaving my homestead. We’d been tasked to repopulate a city devastated by the Plague, to replace the thousands of people that died there decades ago. To revitalize the economy after years of political instability, to claim opportunities for wealth and power.
But if the opportunities in the city of Lumihavn were so grand, so tempting, then why did the government have to force thousands of villagers like us to move there? None of it made any sense.
My entire body jerked as pain jolted through my toes. Adrenaline coursed through me as the ground loomed closer to my face. I reached out to break my fall, but the earth was already slamming into me.
I opened my eyes to a blurry canvas of green, yellow, and brown. Blinking my surroundings into focus, I recognized a thick layer of vegetation in front of me. My cheek tingled with cold as slimy leaves pressed into my skin. Beyond the leaves and undergrowth, boots passed in and out of my vision as my fellow travelers continued our journey, either oblivious or apathetic to my distress.
“Vespera!” Ellena knelt beside me with a pained sigh. She shook my shoulder with a gentle, slender hand. “Are you all right?”
I closed my eyes once more, trying to focus on the parts of my body that hurt the most. My chin burned, scraped raw by the wickedly sharp edges of twigs and stones, and my outstretched palms that had failed to catch me were covered in dirt and forest grit. Deep within my body, though, past my chilled, lacerated skin, there was no injury. Only shock from the fall.
Ignoring the pain in my hands and face, I pushed myself up until I noticed the dull reflection of Amma’s burnished bronze hairpin lying in the mud beside my prized paperback. A wave of grief washed through me, strong enough to make my stomach churn. One of the pin’s twelve metallic blossoms had broken off, wrenched from the safety of my satchel after the fall and probably crushed under the weight of my body. My most poignant link to my late grandmother was ruined. I scooped up the pin and its broken blossom from the forest floor and cradled them in my hands as I rose to my feet, savoring the delicate, metallic weights. I could let go of Ardinn, of the farm, of Moxie, but not Amma’s pin. Not today. Maybe not ever.
“Here,” Ellena said quietly, handing me my favorite book—the only one I’d brought from Ardinn. Mud and morning dew now drenched its yellowed pages and spine. Even its title, Crime and Punishment, was barely legible beneath the leaves that still clung to the red-and-black cover.
I accepted the book from Ellena, wiped the wet leaves and muck off its cover, and slipped it back into my brown leather bag along with Amma’s hairpin. I tightened the bag’s shoulder strap and patted the fabric hanging loosely at my hip, scanning the mud around me.
Had anything else fallen out?
After brushing my hands on my filthy apron and shaking the dirt out of my dark brown skirts, I wrapped my fingers around my bag’s leather shoulder strap. While I’d collected my things, the crowd of journeyers had kept moving along the broad forest path in family-sized groups. Our parents were nowhere to be seen—they’d been far enough ahead of us that I doubted they would even notice our absence. As another three groups of travelers trudged through the trees, I took a deep breath and braced myself to continue.
“Are you able to keep moving?” a keeper with a soft, compassionate voice asked from behind me. He must have noticed my fall from his post at the rear of the caravan.
Despite his calm tone, my stomach sank at his words. Had he seen me shove Amma’s hairpin and my book into the satchel?
Heart pounding, I turned to face the keeper.
His black hair and light brown complexion surprised me—growing up in rural Ardinn, I’d rarely seen anyone without creamy pale skin. His jacket bulged at one hip, where I knew his taser rested, but his arms hung at his sides.
The keeper’s dark red uniform presented a deep contrast to the dying leaves around us, the color a proud symbol of his service to the Crown. Its bright, artificial dye clashed against the neutral, earthy tones of the clothing in the crowd.
I ran my fingers along the edge of my satchel, confident that I could keep moving now that I’d secured my precious few possessions, and nodded at the keeper.
He held out an arm to escort me and Ellena back into the flow of journeyers.
“We’ll have a break in an hour or two,” he assured us calmly. “You can rest then.”
“Okay,” I replied.
I didn’t need to rest. My hands and chin had already stopped stinging from my fall, and I’d gathered up the last of my scattered belongings. Still, more rest meant more time before reaching the sprawling capital. Lumihavn, they called it. What an obscure new name for such an old city.
The keeper faded back into the crowd as Ellena and I picked up the pace to catch up with our family. I spotted our parent’s graying heads, bobbing as they plodded along a few hundred meters in front of us. When Ellena noticed them, she flashed me a contagious smile.
I looked back at the ground, watching the shadow of my foot cover dappled lines of sunlight with each step. A bird sang deep in the forest, far away from our unhappy caravan, and papery, half-dead leaves rustled dryly in the morning breeze, or maybe underneath the feet of invisible creatures. Slender white tree trunks marked our movements, serving as barren, observant sentinels. Even the breeze, which occasionally spiraled dead autumn leaves toward the sky only to throw them back down once the fun was over, had settled into a low, wheezing whistle.
The minutes passed slowly. As we walked, I would choose a tree at the edge of my sight and focus my gaze there. Eventually, the tree came closer and closer, and I’d have to choose a new one as the first tree disappeared behind me. I only lost my focus twice—both times because a child wailed somewhere behind us.
I wished the whole journey would disappear behind me as easily as the trees I passed, a bad dream dissipating into wisps of fog. Yet, every step took me closer to a new life, a new identity I’d never asked for.
The keepers ahead of us each raised a red sleeve into the air, their fists signaling a stop. Soundlessly, Ellena and I caught up to our parents, searched for a flat place to sit on the forest floor, and set our belongings next to us on the ground. The murmurs of soft conversation floated through the forest, buzzing around our heads like flies.
“It looks like we’re almost there,” Mother said, unlacing her leather boots with cracked, swollen fingers. “Only a few more days, by the looks of it. Those demanding royals had better welcome us with open arms, after everything we’ve done.”
She pulled off her socks and then grunted, stretching her bare feet to show us her calluses. “If you ask me, we can’t get there soon enough. I’m growing corns on my bunions and bunions on my corns.”
“Great,” I replied dryly, looking over my shoulder to see how far away the keepers stood. They’d already begun to distribute the food swinging in their horses’ saddlebags, systematically working their way through the crowd to feed us all.
“Don’t be sarcastic, Vespera,” my mother said, fanning her bunions with one hand. “This journey is easier on you than anyone else in this family. You have nothing to complain about.”
I sniffed, reaching for my bag and ignoring the absolute lie she’d just told me. Every step of our journey had torn me farther away from my home and offered no hope of return. Who was she to say it was easy for me?
“Why shouldn’t I be sarcastic?” Flipping the top of the bag open, I rummaged around inside until my fingers touched metal. The mud covering my bronze pin was dry, and it crumbled beneath my fingers as I handled the piece: Amma’s final and only reminder of her days in the nobility of Lumiallis, surrounded by luxury—and my only reminder of her. She would have been devastated to see how far her daughter’s family had fallen.
“This could be a wonderful opportunity for us,” Ellena said, sitting cross-legged on the forest floor. Her cheery voice grated on my already-frayed nerves. Still, her optimism and genuine, radiating goodness calmed the spark of anger that Mother’s words had lit inside of me. “New city, new government, new jobs—”
I interrupted Ellena as I set to work, diligently shining the metallic pin with a clean cloth from my bag. “If it’s such a good opportunity, why didn’t more of us volunteer?”
Ellena closed her mouth, her pale skin flushing, and Mother wouldn’t even meet my eyes as she flapped her hand around her sweaty red feet. Father looked around nervously, his gaze falling on the closest keeper.
“Last I checked,” I continued, “an opportunity wasn’t something forced on you.”
“Don’t let them hear you, Vespera. Besides, there’s no point in talking about this,” my father said quietly as he picked through the items in his backpack. The few surviving strands of hair on his head fluttered in the wind. “We don’t have a choice.”
“Richard!” Mother called, diverting my father’s attention back to her. “Will you fan, please? I’m too exhausted to care for this myself.”
She pointed to her bunions.
Father did as Mother asked as I sighed, eyeing the keepers again. After uprooting us from our homes and forcing us to go live in their fancy new city, the least they could have done was distribute the food in a timely manner. A few trees away from us, the desperate arms of hungry travelers reached out and grabbed bars of food from the keeper’s hands.
A sharp whistle pierced the air, a descending two-toned shriek that broke me from my starving reverie. All the murmurs and soft voices in the distance came to an immediate halt as Mother’s hand fluttered up to her chest. I’d only heard that whistle once before: the day the keepers announced their arrival in Ardinn. Their shouts echoed through the trees, faraway words I couldn’t decipher.
Ellena and I glanced at one other. Her dark eyes widened.
The crowd waited in uncomfortable silence with huge eyes and pursed lips as the unintelligible shouts continued to reverberate through the trees, steadily moving closer. The words grew closer, clearer, heralding a message that could have been passed to an entire crowd in just seconds with the right technology—the kind of technology that only the royals had. The kind of technology that Amma used to cherish, that Mother sold to pay off the frivolous debts she’d incurred after Amma’s death.
“What do you think that’s about?” Ellena whispered, pushing her hands deeper into her pockets.
I shrugged, working a final tiny clod of dirt loose from beneath a bronze blossom with my fingernail. “Nothing good, I’m sure.”
Triumphantly sliding the spotless, shining pin back into my bag, I stood and stretched. “I’m sick of waiting around for food that may or may not be coming. Ellena, are you up to foraging with me?”
Ellena stood up quickly. The blood in her head must have rushed down her body a little too fast, because she paled a bit and swayed, shutting her eyes.
“Careful.” I poked her arm and she opened her eyes, nodding to let me know everything was fine this time. A long journey in the middle of the forest was hardly the place for one of Ellena’s dizzy spells.
“I’m ready,” Ellena said.
We left our satchels at our parents’ feet and turned toward the woods. Only a few paces in, though, feet crunched the leaves behind us as someone said our names.
“We’re just going to find some food—” I said curtly, expecting to see a nosy kid or a keeper. But the tension in my chest eased when I turned and found myself looking into Mindy’s light brown eyes. Relief flooded over me at the sight of our oldest friend as Ellena bounced on her toes and gave us a short wave.
“Oh! Hi!” I said, nudging Mindy’s shoulder with my own.
“Thought you two could use a hand.” Mindy smiled, stepping between Ellena and I as she tossed her long, pale hair over her shoulder. “Or some more eyes, or something.”
“Definitely.” Ellena pulled back a tree branch for Mindy to duck under.
We crashed through the leaves, with me in front, Ellena in the middle, and Mindy bringing up the rear, the same order we’d kept since we were children exploring the trees surrounding Ardinn.
I scanned the undergrowth carefully for any bright reds, golds, or dark blues—colors of the edible plants most commonly found in Lumiallis—while leading Ellena and Mindy in an arc through the forest.
As we foraged, Mindy chattered happily about our destination. “I’ve heard the castle has three floors and three hundred windows.”
“That’s excessive,” I muttered, combing through each leaf of the short, gnarled forest bushes in search of berries.
Mindy hardly heard me. “And the king and queen have crowns made of real gold, and the prince is so handsome. It’s a shame about Princess Lea, but at least the little princess is okay.”
I couldn’t stop myself from rolling my eyes. Why did Mindy care so much about the royal family, anyway? They certainly didn’t care about us.
Ellena spoke softly, holding out her apron for Mindy to pile berries into. “A handsome, single prince for you, Mindy! No wonder you’re so excited about visiting the castle.”
Mindy blushed. “I’m sure he’d never notice me. They’ll marry him to a noblewoman, or a foreign princess, or...”
I stopped paying attention. The thought of Mindy marrying a stuck-up, corrupt royal was quelling my appetite.
Thankfully, though, within just a few minutes, our cream-colored aprons were full of bright lingonberries, savory chanterelles, and sweet elderberries.
Looking over my shoulder, I noticed Ellena lagging several paces behind me, with Mindy sticking loyally to her side. In my excitement over the food we found, I’d forgotten that Ellena couldn’t move as fast as we did without getting sick. I slowed my gait so that she and Mindy could keep up, glancing back every few seconds to check on Ellena. Eventually, we made it safely back to my parents with food to share.
“Did you hear the announcement?” Mother asked as soon as we entered earshot. She’d gone back to fanning her feet, this time with a flat piece of bark.
“No,” I answered, taking a clean square of cloth from my bag and piling my collection of food on top of it. “We were a little busy.”
I gestured toward the pile of food, which grew rapidly as Mindy and Ellena dropped their bounty onto the cloth.
Mother didn’t react to my pointed tone as she scratched at her bunion with the bark in her hand, then flung the bark away.
“They said there’s going to be some special new program for the kids.” Mother reached for the food we’d gathered and popped a few berries into her mouth, chewing quietly as she talked. “A way to make them into nobles, whatever that means. These berries sure are dry and tart, aren’t they?”
“That sounds exciting,” Mindy responded, gingerly reaching for a golden mushroom while I bristled inwardly at Mother’s complaints. After she bit into the chanterelle, Mindy wrinkled her nose at the fibrous texture and peppery flavor. Still, she had the good sense not to complain about our foraging. Raw food was better than no food.
“Did they say which kids? Or is it for everyone?” I asked, before throwing my head back and letting a handful of elderberries roll into my mouth.
“I hope they don’t mean little ones,” I continued. “If they want to turn that wailing brat behind us into a noble someday, they have a lot of work ahead of them.”
Father looked down at me from his makeshift chair, a flat tree stump. “Do you mean that blond boy?”
I nodded, pushing aside a mushy-looking chanterelle in favor of a bright, golden cap.
“He was poking around your bag while you were out walking,” Father said, craning his neck in the direction of the boy’s family. “You’d better check to make sure everything’s still in there.”
“What? Are you serious?” Grabbing at my satchel’s strap, I yanked the bag onto my lap and rummaged through its contents. My cheeks flushed red with anger as I clenched my jaw. “He was in my bag? Why didn’t you stop him?”
Father gave me no answer, and, sure enough, my burnished bronze pin from Amma was missing. My hands shook with a mixture of rage and panic as I silently cursed my father, the blond boy, and the royals for conspiring to take the last of my prized possessions away from me.
Clenching my hands into fists, I stood and marched over to the boy’s family. A tired-looking new mother, a young, boisterous father, and an older dark-haired woman who might have been an aunt all sat in a circle of soft conversation just a few meters away from where mine had stopped to rest. They turned their heads to look at me when I towered over them.
They wouldn’t get away with this.
The boy stood in the middle of his parents, pretending to drive a stone while making vaguely train-like noises. I squatted down to the boy’s height and looked him right in the eyes. He looked about five years old: old enough to realize what he’d done.
“Give me back the metal pin you took,” I said, slowly and clearly.
His little blue eyes shone with glee and triumph as he shook his head.
The mother put her arm around the child protectively, her eyes narrowed. “Excuse me?”
“Your son was poking around my bag over there a few minutes ago,” I said, pointing to where my parents and Ellena dined. “Now, a priceless family heirloom is missing. I’ll excuse you once my item is returned.”
“I’m quite sure my son didn’t take anything from you,” the mother said, glancing at the boy’s father. “He was just playing.”
The boy’s father nodded from where he sat a few paces away. “I didn’t see him holding anything when he came back.”
I looked the kid in the eyes one more time, hardening my face. “Hey, little man. I was just out in the woods, and I saw a big, hungry bear. He asked if I knew any thieves or liars he could eat. I told him no, but if you don’t give me back my pin, I’m going to go get him and bring him back here. If you’re a thief or a liar, he’ll smell it, and then he’ll snap you in half and eat you. So, I’m asking one more time. Where’s my pin?”
The boy’s relatives stared at me in absolute disgust and horror. But, just as the mother opened her mouth to speak, the child’s face contorted into a tight grimace. Letting out a wail, he reached into his pants and pulled out my pin. He threw it on the ground, and the metal point scattered a tiny stream of frigid soil as it landed.
Retrieving my pin and holding it between my thumb and index finger, I nodded at the parents, who at least had the decency to look guilty.
“You might want to teach your son some manners,” I suggested. “If one of the keepers catches him stealing, he’ll wish a bear had found him first.”
As the boy screamed into the air and started sobbing, I walked back to my family, dropped the pin into my satchel, and finished my tasty mid-morning snack with a clear conscience and a smug smile.
By the time the keepers finally made their way to us with daily rations, I was barely even hungry. Mindy had already returned to her family, fed and satisfied from our forage. But my full stomach didn’t stop me from reaching out my hand to accept a protein bar from one of the red-clothed soldiers.
“Not so fast,” the keeper said, snatching the food out of my reach. “Before we keep moving, we’re asking every family to pare down their belongings to essentials. Again.”
“Okay,” I answered, reaching for the bar again. “I only have essentials.”
The keeper raised one thick eyebrow, revealing an ugly, dark eyelid that matched the bags under his eyes. “Really? Because a couple with a very scared child told me differently.”
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Girl in the Dark!
Evil stepmothers aren't born—they're made.
After a devastating plague nearly destroyed humanity, Vespera never expected to leave the safety of her rural homestead. But the ruling royals chose her to help repopulate the kingdom's capital city, and a single peasant girl can't defy a power-hungry new government without a death wish.
Things go from bad to worse when, instead of rewarding her loyalty as promised, the city officials doom her to a life of servitude and labor in the lowest class of society. When blind obedience to her rulers leaves her unemployed, homeless, and estranged from her family, Vespera’s attempt to change her fate and avenge the peaceful life she lost leads to even more trouble.
Because in a city swarming with nobles, soldiers, and rebels, revenge will come at a desperate cost...
If you can't get enough of Grimms' twisted Fairy Tales, Kiera Cass' The Selection series, and Marissa Meyer's Cinder, then this is your next addicting read.
Grab a copy of Girl in the Dark to start this chilling, villainous royal dystopian fantasy story today!
This article was written by Nicole Adrianne.
Nicole Adrianne is an autistic author living in Stockholm, Sweden. She writes lush, compelling, and clean YA dystopian fiction. Check out more of her work by clicking any of the book covers below.