by Joanna Mildanoff (@joannaobviously)

YA Fantasy
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STONEBOUND is a dual-POV 85,000-word YA fantasy with a subtle blend of horror and romance, inspired by local Bulgarian legends of the “Devil’s Bridge.” With a queer cast, it will appeal to fans of the haunting romance in Together We Rot by Skyla Arndt, and the eerie atmosphere of The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

Elina Belar has spent her life with a voice in her head—the scattered whispers of a dying boy, spoken in the old language. It’s the curse that has tormented her family for generations, and so, she keeps it a secret from everyone, hoping for the day the whispers will quiet for good. But when her father succumbs to the anguish of the curse and takes his own life, Elina digs into her family’s history, determined to escape her father’s tragic fate.

All clues lead Elina to the decaying village of Ardino, and its eerie blood-stained bridge, but unraveling its secrets proves challenging for an outsider. So, when she meets Diman, a local boy with a curse of his own and a death date hanging over his head, the two team up to explore their familial curses—both linked to the bloody bridge and its dark forces.

The closer Elina and Diman get to the truth, the more the bridge’s malevolent forces stir up, compelling them to harm each other. With this new threat looming, and Diman’s fast-approaching death date, the two desperately seek salvation in their linked histories. But as they dig into their ancestors’ secrets, Elina uncovers that her family isn’t the victim, but the cause of both their curses. Now, Elina and Diman must find a way to unlink their fates from the wrong-doings of their families before they run out of time—or they’ll become the latest in a long line of senseless deaths, and those who come after will suffer the same fate.

I'm a freelance editor and a volunteer at the Bulgarian heritage school in Toronto. Born and raised in Bulgaria, I strive for my stories to reflect my identity as an immigrant and a queer woman. You can find my short stories in the Moss Puppy Magazine.

Thank you for your consideration!

First Five Pages

Chapter One:

Elina’s father had tried to drown her in the Kozare river not once, but twice.

The second time, she’d been smart enough to carry a pocketknife. He’d gotten away with a cut on his arm that day, and she’d hoped it healed—jagged, distorted, ugly … something to remember her by.

The river waters were calmer today than they had been on that cursed evening six years ago, and their gentle ebb did little to muffle the harsh whispers from the local bábas dragging their feet behind her, empty water pails dangling from elderly hands.

“… that wretched girl, Elina…”

“No father deserves a child like that.”

“… and only bad omens follow with her.”

Elina had heard worse. In places like Kozare, rumors spread like ripples in a pond, and unsurprisingly, people believed her father’s false claims. And why wouldn’t they? The townsfolk had always thought Elina was “bad news”—chased her own mother away, brought death to her aunt, stabbed her father. All while dear Papa played the part of “beloved apothecary” with an unscathed reputation. Elina put a few more steps between her and the gossiping old goats, but didn’t turn in contempt to give them the satisfaction.

Instead, she traced the blooming nettle along the riverbank with her gaze, the heavy summer heat forcing sweat to bead at the back of her neck as she slogged down the trail toward the drinking fountain. A beautifully carved arch topped a mosaiced wall of limestone stood tall on the bank of the river, peppered with free-flowing spouts that pumped spring water from the bowels of the earth, up and into the oblong pool at its base. She could almost feel the splash of chilled water over her face as she washed the day’s grime away—if only for a little while. But before she could indulge, she had a pressing matter to deal with, and so, she took a narrow path leading east. Behind her, the whispers faded, swallowed by the rippling stream of the fountain spouts, and Elina adjusted the carrying pole on her shoulder, its empty copper pails swinging from both ends with a low screech.

The path wound through weeping willow trees and rosehip shrubs, curving far from prying eyes. And there, leaning against a thick tree, her bright apron a gash of bloody red, Elina’s clandestine customer, Boyana, rolled a dry stick between her fingers. She was a long way from her bakery in the nicer part of Kozare—where the houses were stone-clad instead of lime-washed, their wrought-iron gates woven into exquisite designs.

Elina placed the carrying pole on the ground and approached Boyana, arms crossed. The woman stood a tad too close to the water for Elina’s taste. Especially on a day like this.

“Has no one taught you to be mindful of the river during the Dry Days?”

Boyana didn’t exactly roll her eyes, but it was a near thing. “They’d hardly choose me.”

Elina pursed her lips. Every year, on the last of the Dry Days, the waters turned darker. Devious and unruly, they lured their next victim in. And even though the townsfolk lit up their ritual bonfires sky-high to summon the rains and appease the water spirits, someone still drowned in the Kozare river. Elina’s chest heaved. Her aunt had been one such victim, though everyone blamed her for it.

Boyana sighed and pulled a handful of coins from her apron pocket. “Did you bring what I asked for?”

Elina nodded, and produced the jar of tatul seeds from the hidden fold in her skirt. Boyana immediately reached for it, but Elina didn’t let go. Instead, her fingers tightened around the jar.

“I want to make sure you don’t kill anybody.”

Boyana frowned. “A funny thing to say for someone who sells poison, and deals with demons.”

A chill wound its way up Elina’s spine as gooseflesh rippled over her skin. Her father’s ravings meant this was the only way for her to do business—in shadow and dark corners, where none would condemn those who solicited Elina’s skills.

Elina took a deep breath and briefly squeezed her eyes shut. “I don’t sell poison,” she spat, fixing Boyana with a glare. “I sell plants. Knowledge and dose are the difference between poison and medicine. So, pay attention.”

Boyana pressed her lips into a thin line, but stilled her hand and dropped it flat to her thigh. Annoying as she was, Elina knew Boyana had no intention of hurting anyone. Rumor had it her mother suffered terribly with her knees—all swollen up like apples, red and painful. Tatul seeds were hard to find, but that wasn’t why many apothecaries avoided selling tatul mixtures without a doctor present. More than a few people had used the plant for malicious purposes.

Elina cleared her throat and held Boyana’s gaze. “Mix the jar of seeds with ten jars of your father’s highest proof rakia, then let it rest for a week. After you drain it, the infused alcohol will be good to rub over the skin.” Boyana nodded, her expression stern and focused, and Elina added for good measure, “Please keep this locked up. I won’t be responsible if anyone’s stupid enough to drink questionable concoctions and kills themselves.”

“Tactful as always, I see.”

Elina huffed a small derisive snort before she could stop herself. “Tact isn’t known to prevent accidental poisoning.”

Boyana bit her lip as if to hide a smile, though, Elina didn’t find anything funny. She handed the jar over, conscience clear that she’d performed her due diligence to keep Boyana from accidentally becoming a matricide, and pocketed the coins before turning on her heel, gathering her pails, and retracing her steps.

Back at the water fountain, the gossipers were gone. Elina placed her empty copper pails beneath the waterspouts and dug through her dress pocket for the trinket she’d woven earlier that day—a simple lacing of red thread wrapped around a sprig of weeping willow.

She placed the trinket atop the heated stone arch. Her offering wasn’t alone. Many people had left colorful gifts for the samovili who guarded the spring, some, to pay their gratitude, others, in hopes to appease the mischievous sprites. An irate samovila could be viler than a serpent’s bite. She brushed her fingers over the letters carved into the arch by the unknown stonemason who’d built the fountain. Stone is permanent, water is eternal … and so were samovili. Villagers had been leaving trinkets here for centuries.

Elina smiled. The sun hung low in the sky, but during the Dry Days, its heat lingered, locked into rocks and dry soil for hours after it dipped beyond the horizon. The barely-there breeze carried the faint scent of woodsmoke—townsfolk had already lit the bonfires to call for summer rains. They wouldn’t have to wait much longer—heavy, gray clouds crawled across the sky from the north.

Splashing a handful of water over her face, Elina was half bent over to heave up the full pails of water, when the lulling quiet screeched to a halt. The voice—the boy—whispered gibberish inside her head again … perhaps summoned by Boyana’s foolish talk of demons.

Deserve . . . dead . . . deserve . . . dead . . .

Anguished and frantic as always, now Elina discerned notes of rotten glee. She swallowed hard. Most days she kept the voice subdued, but when it pushed through against her will, it always spelled that trouble would follow.

Demon, her father had called it. The same thing he’d called her when he’d pushed her under the water. The same demon who’d propelled Aunt Dariya, her father’s sister, toward madness—until she’d jumped from the bridge, and tried to pull Elina down with her. Except, Elina had ripped herself away and survived. The rumors that she’d been the one to drive Dariya to her death, though … she’d never been able to escape them.

Still, the voice mumbled, low and harrowing, half the words incoherent. Elina hummed, trying to drown out his whispers.

Another . . . dead . . . he’s dead . . . DEAD . . .

On days like this, she wondered if her father had known that Aunt Dariya had heard the demon-boy before her death. Had her father tried to kill Dariya too? No wonder Dariya had avoided him like he’d been cursed.

Elina pressed her hand to the back of her head and rubbed her fingers into the roots of her hair. Inhale. Exhale. Then another. Shut up, shut up, shut up, she chanted angrily in her mind. The demon-boy only laughed, and his whispers grew harsher.

Dead . . . deserve . . . ELINA!

Shock ripped through Elina, and she stumbled, hitting hard stone as she fell. Heart hammering in her chest, the breath tore through her lungs like shards of glass. Never, not once, in all the years he’d whispered to her, had the demon-boy ever said Elina’s name before.

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Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

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