The Withering Trials of Gwendolyn Gray
(The Chronicles of Gwendolyn Gray, #3)
Publication date: November 18th 2023
Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Young Adult
She Saved the City, But Lost Her Life
What would you do if your parents disappeared? How would you live, barely scraping by, lying to everyone in your life?
Two years ago, Gwendolyn Gray saved the City. But The Blackstar stole her parents and took them to another world. She lost her powers, her portals, and even her hair. So while the rest of the City is reveling in its newfound freedom, Gwendolyn has spent two years dodging the clutches of the Childkeeper and the Home for Unclaimed Children. Balancing work and school and impersonating her own parents hasn’t been great for her bipolar disorder, either.
So when a school bully and a vengeful faerie bring her carefully constructed lies crashing down around her, Gwendolyn seizes the chance to travel through the realms of story again, trying to find the world where her stolen parents are hidden. But battling bills is nothing compared to the gothic vampires and eldritch horrors she’ll meet along the way. And on a world of smoke and lightning and metal, a teenage rebel holds the key to saving her parents and getting back the life she lost.
Because growing up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
An Unexpected Party
The phone rang, and Gwendolyn squealed in surprise. She sprang out of bed and dashed into the ruined living room, but she tripped over something dark and furry, and fell flat on her face.
The black cat rubbed itself against her cheek.
“Ugh.” Gwendolyn shoved the cat away and got to her feet. “As if destroying my home wasn’t enough. This is the last time I take in a stray.”
The cat bounded away and Gwendolyn started toward the phone in the kitchen, but at that moment, there was a knock at the door.
She froze, torn between the ringing and the knocking. But an unexpected knock was almost certainly a sign of trouble, the kind that made scratched up furniture seem tiny in comparison. The kind of trouble where polite men would politely tip their pointed caps and politely pack her away to the Home for Unclaimed Children.
But when Gwendolyn opened the door, it was not to a man in a blue uniform and shiny badge, but one in a grey suit and black bowler hat.
“Excuse me, Ms. Gray, er… Gwendolyn, is it?”
Gwendolyn squinted warily. “Yes? Can I help you?”
He took off his hat and held it in front of his chest. He had thinning hair and round features. “My name is Mr. Mason. I’m here on your mother’s invitation. Might we come in?”
An icy rush of terror swept over her. Mr. Mason was her publisher, and one of the richest men in The City. Well, he was her parents’ publisher, or so he thought. Gwendolyn had never actually met the man before. All their correspondence had been by mail (and one awkward phone call where Gwendolyn had done a passable job of imitating her mother’s voice). If he was here, he would know that his star authors were really a fifteen-year-old fraud, and would find out that her parents were missing, and he would call the police, and the Childkeeper would come and take her away—
But a word tripped her racing thoughts.
“Invitation? What invitation?” She darted into the hall and closed the door behind her, blocking his view of the wrecked apartment.
Mr. Mason took a startled step back, and produced a card from the inside pocket of his coat. “Your parents’ dinner invitation. I would have RSVP’d earlier, but I didn’t see it in the mail until a few hours ago. I’d have overlooked it completely if my daughter hadn’t found it just in time, thank goodness.” He stepped aside to reveal a girl Gwendolyn’s own age, but taller, slimmer, blonder, and prettier in every way.
Cecilia Forthright. Standing at Gwendolyn’s door with the posture of a gladiator who has scored a lethal blow on his opponent, and is preparing to feed him to the lions. It was a very specific sort of posture.
“Ce—Cecilia, what are you doing here?” Gwendolyn tried to adopt some semblance of normalcy, but her hands decided that this was the time to start trembling violently, and had persuaded her legs to join in the shaking. It seemed Cecilia would not confine her bullying to the walls of the School. “Mr. Mason, I didn’t know… I mean, my parents never mentioned that you had a daughter.”
A wicked gleam shone in Cecilia’s eyes. “Silly Gwendolyn, I’m sure I’ve mentioned him before. After all, he knows your parents so well.”
Mr. Mason nodded. “I must say, I was quite flustered when Cecilia brought me your invitation. I hope you’ll excuse the state of me.” He gestured to his wardrobe, which was perfect in every respect as far as Gwendolyn could tell. “And since the two of you are such good friends from the School, I didn’t think you’d mind if I brought her along. She did quite a bit of begging, and I can never seem to say no to her.”
He gave his daughter a adoring smile, and Cecilia beamed up at him, as innocent as a baby. Then she turned back toward Gwendolyn, innocence melting into malicious glee.
“But…” Gwendolyn murmured. “Your last name is Forthright, not Mason.”
Cecilia’s grinned even wider. “Oh, Mason is just the name he uses for business. Daddy hates it when people make a fuss over him. Always pestering him to read some manuscript or other.”
Mr. Mason shifted his weight. “Er, may we come in? I’m quite anxious to meet your mother and father. They’re so terribly secretive. Between you and me, I was hoping to convince them to do some book signings. Did you know they’ve never made a public appearance?”
“No!” Gwendolyn shouted to absolutely everything he had just said. “Father isn’t feeling well. I’m sure they wouldn’t want company just now, I’m sorry—”
“Oh, pish-tosh. Go and fetch your mother darling, Marie and I can sort this out.”
His tone turned hard. “Stop. I will not have my business dealings dictated to me by a child. Go and get your mother.”
“I can’t! I mean, not yet. Mother’s not done straightening up, and I know she wouldn’t want you to see an untidy home. So, forgive the awkwardness, but if you could just wait out here for one moment…”
“It’s no trouble, we’re more than happy to wait in the living room—”
“Take your time, Gwenny!” Cecilia said, her voice dripping with sickening sweetness. “Believe me, we’re in no rush. We’re looking forward to a very enjoyable evening. Oh, and here. You dropped this at the School today. I begged Daddy to let me come along just so I could give it to you in person.”
Cecilia held up a notebook. It was blue, with white flowers on it. She let the front cover flop open, and there the words Property of Gwendolyn Gray were written in a flowing hand. “I know how important it is to you. I couldn’t wait to see the look on your face when you got it back.”
The phone rang again.
“Oh! Excuse me, I have to get that.” Gwendolyn snatched her notebook, darted back inside, and slammed the door before either of them could get a good look. She pressed her back against the door and tried to slow her breathing.
Gwendolyn flipped through the notebook, noting her drawings, her stories, and more importantly, her journal entries. No doubt Cecilia had read every word. How her parents had been taken by the Faceless Gentlemen, and how Gwendolyn had spent the last two years impersonating them, making a living as a writer under their names, and dodging the clutches of the Home for Unclaimed Children. And likewise, there was no doubt as to who had written this “invitation.”
Knowing all of this did nothing to fix the situation. Gwendolyn looked at the apartment. The place was an utter disaster. The torn furniture bled stuffing, the dining room was in disarray, and the kitchen wasn’t so much cluttered as it was downright unhygienic. She hadn’t exactly been the best housekeeper before the cat had ripped the place to shreds.
But how long could she stall them? And what sort of dent could she make in this war zone? And that blasted phone just wouldn’t stop ringing.
Maybe she could whip something together in the kitchen. She’d just gone to the store, so she could pretend both of her parents were sick in bed and send Cecilia and her father away after a quick bowl of oatmeal—
“Oh, poor Rosecap, what have we here?”
Gwendolyn whirled to see someone sitting on the counter. A man, barefoot and clad in tight black trousers and a tight black jacket over an orange tunic that was open nearly to the naval. He was androgynous and beautiful, the very picture of eternal youth, with rich brown skin and a tousled mop of dark hair. He glowed, quite literally, filling the kitchen with a soft orange light. His pointed ears twitched as he casually flipped through Gwendolyn’s copy of The Annals of the Fae. He looked up, cocked one eyebrow, and gave her a fox’s grin.
“Dost mischief come and pluck my ear?”
Gwendolyn could not have been more surprised if a dozen dwarves had shown up on her doorstep. She stood frozen, with nothing but the incessantly ringing phone to break the silence.
“Puck Robin!” she cried out when she had found her jaw and picked it up again.
“A fellow now, as you can see, so Goodfellow is what I’ll be.” Robin gestured to indicate that they were currently in their male form, when they went by Robin Goodfellow. When in their female form, they preferred Puck Robin. Of course, there were those times when Robin was somewhere in between, but everything about Robin was fluid and unpredictable. For example, turning up uninvited in Gwendolyn’s kitchen.
“Where did you come from?” Gwendolyn asked. Then she noticed the green book he was holding, full of the stories of the Fae. “Did you come out of the book?”
Robin hopped down from the counter. “No, I’ve been here since the break of day, you brought me in and bade me stay.”
“What? You certainly have not, I… No, no, no, you were the cat, weren’t you?”
“You’ve seen that I can change my shape, it’s not just biped forms I take.” He started rifling through the cabinets and plucking out all the dishes.
“Stop that!” Gwendolyn snatched a plate from his hands. “You ruined my apartment!” She slapped him on the arm, which she knew was only possible because he chose not to dodge the blow.
Robin grinned again. “A bit of fun is all I’ve had, and what’s more fun than being bad?”
“Is that why you’re here? For fun?”
The faerie began juggling cups and plates, a dozen at a time. “A favor, I recall you owe. It’s time to pay, so off we go.”
“I can’t leave now! This is a very inconvenient time for me to have a faerie in my kitchen, and—oh, for heaven’s sakes, hang on—” She picked up the still-ringing phone and slammed it back down again, silencing it.
Robin stopped juggling, and the dishes crashed to the floor and shattered. “An inconvenient time? Do tell. Have I the chance to raise more hell?”
“I don’t have time for this, I have to…” But Gwendolyn had a sudden idea. “Robin Goodfellow… How would you like to help me play a little trick?”
Robin crossed his arms. “A trick, you say? A game to play? On whom shall we this mischief lay?”
Gwendolyn put on a somber face. “On a girl most foul and loathsome. She has brought her father here to trap me and take me from my home. You say you can take any shape you wish. So how about my mother?”
“I’m no ones’ mum, you little sprite. That is not my kind of night.”
“But think it through! You can pretend to be my mother, help me with dinner, and play a grand game of pretend to fool these… uh, foolish mortals. Such good fun. And then, once our trick is played, I’ll take you to the Revels.”
Robin put a finger to his chin. “A revel, eh? That just might do. Show me a good time, and I’ll help you.”
“And then we’re square, yes?” said Gwendolyn. “No one owes anyone anything?”
“If I have a night of fun, then we’d be square, our bargain done.”
Gwendolyn was about to clarify what Robin’s idea of fun was, but there was a sudden banging at her front door. She groaned in frustration. “Just… stay here! I’ll see if I can stall them a little longer.” She dashed out of the kitchen and through the living room. “Though I’ve no idea what we’ll do for dinner…”
But no sooner had she turned the handle than Mr. Mason burst through the door. “Young lady, I won’t be made to stand out here in the hall like some common salesman. I demand that you fetch your mother, and—” He stopped, glancing around the room.
“Let me explain—” Gwendolyn whirled around. Then she nearly fell over in shock.
The apartment was clean. More than that, it was immaculate. It hadn’t looked this good since Gwendolyn’s mother had been here to clean it. And maybe not even then. The black leather upholstery had been restored, the glass topped coffee table was clean enough to be nearly invisible, and all the chrome furniture legs had been polished to a high sheen. Pictures hung on the walls again. The carpets were free of the stains that had built up over the past two years. Even the air was fresher, carrying a hint of the woodlands of Faeoria.
And then Gwendolyn’s mother came out of the kitchen.
“Oh. Hello there. I wasn’t expecting you.”
Of course, it was merely Robin Goodfellow under one of his glamour spells, the image of Mother no doubt plucked from Gwendolyn’s mind by magic. But knowing this did nothing to stem the impact of seeing her mother for the first time in two years, standing right there in a red evening dress with white polka dots, her platinum hair styled up and sculpted into large curls that framed her face.
Gwendolyn felt as though she’d been hit in the gut by the monorail. She couldn’t breathe, her throat tightening, her eyes stinging.
I don’t have time for that, she thought. She had to stay in control of herself, and the situation. She’d had enough trouble balancing her bipolar disorder today, and she couldn’t afford an anxiety attack.
Yet, she still found herself throwing her arms around the woman and giving her a fierce hug. “Mother. You look lovely.” And even if it wasn’t really her mother, it still felt wonderful to hold her, to feel her, to smell her. Good lord, she even smelled right. If it was all an illusion, she might as well enjoy it while it lasted. But if she wasn’t careful, she would slip into a manic phase and start glowing as brightly as the faeries.
Mr. Mason and Cecilia traded an awkward glance. He cleared his throat. “Yes. Right. Er, did you say you weren’t expecting us? I have your invitation right here—”
Robin-Mother pulled away from Gwendolyn and swooped toward Mr. Mason. “No, I only meant that I wasn’t expecting you so soon. What a pleasant surprise.”
Mr. Mason looked down at the phony invitation Cecilia had made, then at his watch. “But you said to be here at six, and—”
“And you are right on time.” Robin-Mother took him by the arm and patted his elbow. “But punctuality is such a rarity that I’m surprised when anyone is on time for anything. There is an appalling shortage of manners these days, don’t you agree?”
Gwendolyn marveled at the speed and cleverness of Robin’s lies. Of course, to Robin lies were as natural as breathing. Faeries couldn’t tell an outright falsehood, but they could bend and twist the truth in ways that would make a contortionist blush.
Robin turned toward Gwendolyn. “Darling, you haven’t properly welcomed our guest.” She raised an eyebrow and gave a subtle nod at Mr. Mason.
Gwendolyn took the hint, and prepared to drop some names. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Mason. Mother, I don’t believe you’ve met his daughter, Cecilia.”
“Charmed.” Cecilia gave a snarky smile that was anything but charming.
Robin shot back a look of mocking disdain, one that was safely hidden from Mr. Mason’s view. Then she led him to a door in the hall. “Come, Mr. Mason, I’ll show you around and we can give the girls a chance to catch up.”
“This is a coat closet.”
Robin shot a glance at Gwendolyn. “Of course it is, I was only offering to hang it up for you.”
“But I’m not wearing a coat.”
“And yet it is still polite to offer, isn’t it? I pride myself on being a gracious hostess…” And their voices trailed off down the hall.
Cecilia whirled on Gwendolyn and planted a finger on her chest. “All right, oddling. What are you playing at?”
Gwendolyn swatted her hand away. She wanted to snap back, to shout at Cecilia for starting all of this, but now that she knew Cecilia was her boss’s daughter, shouting hardly seemed wise. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said haughtily.
“Yes, you do!” Cecilia seemed to have no problem shouting. “I read your diary! I know that’s not your mother. Your parents are missing. You’ve been living here, all by yourself. Playing house, pretending to be a grown up, living off my daddy’s money, you lying little—”
Gwendolyn forced a laugh, which stopped Cecilia mid-rant. “Oh, that! A bit of fiction. All those stories of monsters and men with no faces kidnapping my parents. Surely you’ve wished the same thing sometimes.” She put on a look of mocking concern. “You didn’t think it was real, did you? Silly Cecilia.”
Cecilia’s eyes flicked side-to-side and she bit her lip. “No. You weren’t making that up. You… it was too real…”
Gwendolyn laughed again. “Don’t be so gullible.” She leaned in close, right into Cecilia’s face. “But making up fake dinner invitations? Whatever it is you’re planning, it’s not going to work.” At least, Gwendolyn hoped it wouldn’t. There was no telling what Robin might do. And she hoped Cecilia hadn’t noticed how her hands were shaking.
Cecilia narrowed her eyes. “You think you’re so clever, don’t you? Well, you’re not the only one who’s clever. Just you wait and—”
Laughter interrupted the two girls’ argument, and Gwendolyn’s not-mother came back into the room, leading Mr. Mason by the arm. “What an amusing anecdote. I had no idea that a publisher’s accounting practices could be so funny!”
“Thank you for that… little tour,” he said. “It was a very interesting, er, hallway.”
Robin shot a withering glare at Gwendolyn that looked all too much like her actual mother. “Yes, this place does have much fewer rooms than one would expect… hard to imagine how one could live in such a cramped little hovel. Now, if you could all have a seat in the living room, I’ll get dinner on the table.”
Robin went into the kitchen, and Gwendolyn followed. “What are you doing? We don’t have anything to feed them. Do we?”
“Double, double, toil and trouble, cauldron burn and cauldron bubble,” Robin said with a wink. She did entirely too much winking for Gwendolyn’s taste.
“Is that a yes?”
Robin rolled her eyes. “Please, child. Who do you take me for? So far, this night has been quite a bore. Your revels best be quite the show, or my displeasure you shall know.”
Gwendolyn frowned. “You’re speaking in rhymes again. You weren’t doing that a moment ago.”
“That would ruin the trick, wouldn’t it? I’ve told you before, I can speak however I please.”
Gwendolyn gave a groan of exasperation. “Then why do you do it at all?”
“Because I’m terribly clever. Now, go care for our guests, young lady!” And she pointed to the living room.
“All right. Don’t get too into character.”
B. A. Williamson is the award winning author of The Chronicles of Gwendolyn Gray. When not mining the unfathomable depths of consciousness for new words to sling, he can be found wandering Indianapolis, directing plays, taming children, and probably singing entirely too loud. Direct all complaints and darkest secrets to @bawrites and bawilliamson.com.
a Rafflecopter giveaway