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It was nigh on midnight by the time Rosa left Edda's cottage, full of far more than soup. It had been the old woman's name day, and every member of her family had visited her with gifts and blessings. Edda had insisted Rosa eat some of the cakes Edda's toothless maw could no longer devour, and tell her what they tasted like.
Then she'd prepared the medicinal tea her grandmother had sent, and read to Edda from the great bible the Baron himself had sent her. Tales of men rising from the dead, when even the weakest witch knew such things were not possible. Magic could only accomplish so much.
When Edda's eyes drifted shut and she began to snore, Rosa dared to close the book and set it back on the table. Rosa wrapped her cloak around herself and set out for home.
Halfway there, she wished she'd brought a lantern, for the cloudy sky and blowing snow made it too dark to see, but the wind would have only blown it out. Fortunately, the cold meant everyone kept their fires burning through the night, and enough light peeped through the gaps in the shutters that she could discern the houses.
Even if she hadn't lived in the village her whole life, she'd have known her family cottage by the smell of soup – evidently Lule had made it, with some to spare. She pushed the door open, careful to make as little noise as possible, and closed it behind her.
Rosa frowned. The fire burned low in the grate – as though no one had stoked it before going to bed. Strange. And the soup still hung over the coals, bubbling sluggishly. That wasn't normal, either. Inside, the smell of soup was so strong it was almost overpowering, but there was a whiff of something else lurking beneath it, too. Something…rotten.
Like the Baron's slaughterhouse close to Midsummer feast day.
Ah, it was late. She could help her mother search for the offending piece of meat in the morning, when it was lighter. Now, she should rekindle the fire, set the soup somewhere to cool, then head up to bed.
She threw a handful of kindling on the coals, then grabbed a cloth to unhook the cauldron from the fire. She could barely lift it – why, the cauldron was almost full, as if her family had prepared dinner, then not eaten it.
Rosa felt the air behind her shift, almost imperceptibly, and whirled to face whatever had caused it, swinging the cauldron around with her.
Soup splashed out, covering the enormous, ghostly shape that was there one moment, before it retreated into the darkness again.
Rosa seized a torch and thrust it into the fire until the pitch caught, then turned to face whatever it was.
Blue eyes burned in the darkness, where someone crouched low, ready to spring. Someone, or something?
"Show yourself," Rosa hissed, hoping she sounded braver than she felt. "I said show yourself, coward!"
She hadn't imagined it. Something huge and white came soaring out of the shadows. Something with teeth bigger than any human she'd ever seen.
Rosa's grip tightened on her torch, splinters digging into her fingers, but she didn't care. The oozing blood would be the monster's undoing, not hers, as she summoned her magic and swung the torch.
The flaming end of the torch collided with the creature, and a gust of air came from nowhere, adding power to the blow so that it carried the creature past Rosa and into the fireplace itself, where the flames blazed to life.
The creature yelped, then howled, as it struggled to get up with its white fur on fire. A streak of orange and white and red, it fled for the door, hitting it with such force that the door flew open, releasing the beast into the blizzard outside.
Rosa blinked, trying to make sense of what she'd seen. In her mind's eye, it had been a giant, white wolf, like something out of a fairytale. A scary fairytale.
A red and white wolf, her memory reminded her. The red of blood…
Her hand flew to her mouth as the leaping flames lit the scene she hadn't seen until now. A pair of feet stuck out from under the kitchen table, wearing Lule's house slippers. Father lay behind the door, blind eyes staring at the rafters as his hands seemed to reach for his throat, which was no longer there.
Mother lay facedown behind the woodpile, as if the creature had brought her down as she tried to run. Her neck, too, was a bloody ruin. Beside her was a basket of straw, which had started to smoke. Sparked by the beast running past her with its fur ablaze.
Even as she hesitated, the basket flared up fully, flames licking at the curtains.
Rosa's weary mind was slow to make sense of it all. Her family was dead, some giant wolf had killed them, and now her home was on fire.
Her home was on fire. And filling with smoke.
If she didn't want to join them in death, she had to get out. Now.
Coughing, Rosa staggered for the door, pausing only to grab the poker. If the wolf waited for her outside, she'd take the bastard with her to hell for this.
But outside there was nothing but clean snow, with no sign of the beast, or anyone else, either.
"Fire!" she coughed out, hoping someone would hear her. "Fire! Help!"
Doors began to open along the street, spilling light out onto the snow.
But it was too late. By the time the sun rose the next day, all that remained of her family home was a burned out shell, where her family had breathed their last.
The other villagers headed home, to breakfast and all the normal things they did every day.
Rosa knelt in the ashes and swore an oath of vengeance. The beast would die at her hand for what he'd stolen from her.
* * *
"Your Majesties, may I present to you, the renowned knight from far off lands, the hero of countless battles, the mighty Sir Chase!" the herald bellowed.
Glad his helmet hid his grin at such flowery exaggeration, Chase strode into the hall. His stupid armour turned his usually smooth stride into more of a stiff march, but no one seemed to notice his discomfort. Instead, all they seemed to want to stare, wide-eyed, as though they'd never seen a man in armour before.
The king – Erik, Chase reminded himself – rose and announced, "On the morrow, we shall hold a tourney so that you may all test your skills against such a legendary hero – "
Whatever else he said was drowned out by cheers and toasts to the king's health as the hall erupted on either side of Chase.
When Chase finally reached the dais where the king sat, instinct told him to kneel, but he could not – his benighted armour wouldn't let him.
"Fool," the queen muttered, as if reading his thoughts.
Chase whipped off his helm.
A gasp drew his eye from the queen to a girl – a princess, perhaps? – further along the high table. She blushed. Definitely a princess, ripe for marriage to some rival kingdom. Before some handsome knight stole her heart and her virtue, too.
But seducing princesses would have to wait until his place here was assured. Chase bowed from the waist, praying his armour would not slice him in two.
"Your Majesty King Erik," he said. "I am honoured by your hospitality. I wish only to serve."
He knew he should reach for his sword and lay it at the king's feet as he knelt, but even if he could reach his sword, kneeling was beyond him. He thought quickly.
"I eagerly await tomorrow's tourney, for what better way to show a man's fighting prowess? Yet there is more to a knight than his sword," he continued.
The princess blushed redder than ever. Perhaps she knew more of such things than a maiden should.
Then the queen laughed.
And he could think of nothing but her. A hush fell over the hall, as it seemed every man there shared his thoughts.
Her mocking smile made him wonder once more if the queen could indeed read minds. "Pray continue, Sir Knight."
"As you wish, most beautiful queen." He wet his lips. Abraham had been the one with a way with words, especially when it came to women. He racked his brain for something that would impress the queen. "A true hero must keep his wits as sharp as his blade. His honour must shine as bright as his armour, and never be allowed to tarnish." Chase glimpsed a fly out of the corner of his eye, flicked away by the princess's impatient hand, and inspiration struck. He continued with more confidence: "So that if his liege or his lady is plagued by the most enormous monster or the tiniest gnat, he can dispatch it forthwith."
He turned to face the princess.
"Allow me, Your Majesty," he said.
He reached behind him for his bow, notched an arrow to the string and let it fly. His arrow lodged in one of the tapestries high above the princess's head, missing the fly completely. Not that anyone would know for sure without climbing the wall to examine his arrow.
He had the princess's attention for certain now. But he needed the queen to be equally impressed.
A fly circled the queen's head.
Chase drew another arrow. He'd only have one shot at this, and his aim had to be perfect. He breathed out and loosed.
His arrow arced up over the queen's head before embedding itself in the wax encrusting a lit candelabra at the back of the dais. The candles wobbled for a moment, but thankfully did not fall.
The fly, still unharmed, flew toward the princess, whose eyes met his. If the queen was a mindreader, so was her daughter. And the daughter knew he'd missed the fly twice.
He winked at her and said, "Fear not, young maiden. A knight's duty is to save every lady, not just the queen."
Chase reached for a third arrow.
The fly buzzed back toward the queen.
Chase released the arrow, just as the queen flicked her fingers to shoo the fly away.
His heart leaped into his throat. By all that was holy, please, no.
Queen Margareta leaped to her feet. "Guards!"
A thin line of blood trickled down the queen's fingers to where the arrow had lodged in the table before her. As if taunting him for his poorly timed shot, a shimmery wing was all that remained of the fly, now squashed under the weight of his arrow.
Chase didn't feel the guards seizing his arms – his armour was too thick for that – until the men started to drag him back, out of the hall.
No. This was all wrong. He was supposed to impress the queen, not shoot her.
"Your Majesty, I meant...I meant to rid you of a pest, not..." He was mortified to hear the weakness in his voice. Begging.
"Silence!" Queen Margareta thundered.
Chase had never been more relieved to obey a woman's command.
At her side, King Erik rose. "Anyone who seeks to harm my queen commits treason. Such a heinous crime is punishable by death."
No. He hadn't. He'd wanted to impress her, help her, not harm her. He'd never harm a woman. Never. Why, when his own sister lay dying, begging him to leave her to find her husband, to bring him home, Chase had not been able to release her hand. He'd learned archery so he could defend her. Like he wanted to serve this queen. Not…
"He's telling the truth!" The high, clear voice could only belong to the young princess. She stood eye to eye with the queen over the head of the woman who sat between them. Her nurse, Chase presumed, for the woman was trying to make the princess sit down, but the girl was having none of it. "He shot a fly. Look!" The princess pointed.
A silent battle raged between mother and daughter.
Chase's own life rested on the outcome, he knew, but he couldn't think through his fascination at these two compelling women. The queen was formidable, but the princess did not fear her.
Whoever the girl married…he'd better not rule a rival kingdom, for that would mean war.
Somehow, the queen's eyes had moved back to Chase. Her voice was quiet but deadly. "Get out. This once, you may leave with your life. Set foot in this kingdom again and you will not be so lucky."
The princess had won, but he did not dare risk a glance of thanks in her direction, lest the queen change her mind.
He bowed, then fled, leaving his hopes in tatters on the flagstone floor.
Would you like to read more?
A witch’s vow. A knight’s quest. A wolf hunting to kill.
Once upon a time…
Six years ago, Rosa lost her family to a wolf attack during the coldest winter in living memory. But now the wolf is back, as bloodthirsty as ever, and she vows vengeance.
Work is hard to find in the dead of winter, and Sir Chase welcomes the chance to slay wolves if it means he’ll have a warm bed and food for the winter. He never counted on having to compete with a woman for his prize.When the wolf proves more than one hunter alone can handle, can the unlikely pair join forces to defeat the menace?
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