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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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About the Author
Red Riding Hood Retold
A tale in the Romance a Medieval Fairy Tale series
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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In memory of Snorri Sturluson, a medieval twister of tales and mythology.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2018 Demelza Carlton
Lost Plot Press
All rights reserved.
"Once upon a time, a king fell in love with the goddess of love. They were very happy together, and she bore him a son.
"Though he had many older sons by his previous wives, she wanted him to name this child his heir. But the king did not.
"This king worshipped an ancient god of the forest, who had protected his kingdom for generations, and he prayed daily at the god's altar.
"One day, when he was at his prayers, his goddess wife came to find him. Instead of praying like he usually did, the king had her son lying on top of the altar, and the king beseeched his god to take the boy as his servant, to better protect the kingdom.
"The goddess was incensed – the boy was hers, he did not belong to some god of trees – so she snatched the child up in her arms. Only to discover that the boy no longer drew breath – the king had sacrificed him to his barbaric god, who relished such things.
"She raised her hand to strike the king dead, as he had struck her son, but the king's youngest son, whose mother had died birthing him, came running in, and wrapped himself about the queen's legs, for he saw her as the only mother he had known, and loved both her and his little brother dearly.
"The king feared for his son, and begged for the boy's life.
"The queen – not just a goddess, but a powerful sorceress, too – called down a terrible storm. The raging winds destroyed the palace, and lightning struck each of the king's sons, killing them instantly. All but the youngest, who she allowed to live.
"The king she turned into a white wolf, so pale the shepherds of his flocks instantly saw him coming, and chased him away until he vanished into the deep woods, high into the mountains.
"The youngest son became king, building a new capital closer to the trade routes, and he ushered in a time of great prosperity for the kingdom, because he was greatly favoured by both his father's god and the goddess of love, his stepmother.
"She favoured him so much that she allowed him to marry one of her own daughters by her new lover, and both king and queen were very happy and had many children.
"But the old king, the white wolf...he stayed in the mountains, hidden from humans, until the worst winter snows covered the towns. Only then would he venture out, his white fur blending perfectly with the snow, as he hunted for the enchantress who had killed his sons."
"But did he ever find her, Grandmother?" Rosa asked.
Grandmother flashed an enigmatic smile. "The tales never say, so I suppose he did not. Perhaps his time came, and he died, and that's where his story ends."
Rosa wrinkled her nose. "Or perhaps it is nothing more than a tale, and this king never truly lived at all."
"Perhaps," Grandmother agreed. She glanced out the window, where the late afternoon light was already turning the shutters rosy. "But it never hurts to be careful, especially on your way home through the forest. Practise your magic, too, on your way. I'm not sure what will fall first, snow or night, but you'd best be home before both. And don't forget to take the medicine for Edda. She might not last the winter, but we must help her all we can to see the spring."
Rosa thought of the ancient woman, who never left her cottage now. "Edda has seen many springs already. What good is one more?"
Another enigmatic smile. "When it might be your last, you will always fight for one more. One more season, one more day...perhaps even one more minute, for a lot can be said in that time. But I pray it is a long time before you know the truth of it in your heart. Now, go home, child, and don't forget your cloak, for you will need it in the snow."
"Yes, Grandmother." Rosa lifted the brand new cloak her grandmother had given her only hours before, and flung it around her shoulders. The fine red wool hung heavily, so that none but the strongest gust of wind could disturb it. It was the cloak of a lady or a princess, not a carpenter's daughter. All her other cloaks had been brown, to match her humble station. To wear something so rich and vibrant seemed to scream for attention from the very heavens themselves.
"The village needs to see you for what you are, for one day, when I am gone, you will be their witch, and they will need to know who to come to," Grandmother said, as if reading her thoughts.
If she was simply a healer, a woman who knew her herbs, it would be fine, but if the town knew her magic was the elemental kind, and far more powerful than her grandmother's...Rosa gulped. The other girls already thought her strange. If they knew what she could do...
"Be off with you, child! And practise!" Grandmother shooed her out of the house.
For the first time in his life, Chase didn't know what to do. Now Maja was gone, and Abraham, too, he was all alone in the world. But one thing was certain: the king had made it clear he could not stay here. So, he would depart.
Chase sold Abraham's horse for a good price, and tucked the coins into the pouch at his waist. He had enough money to get him to almost any kingdom in the civilised world, and for the first time in his life, he was free to choose who he served.
King Erik's court in Aros was famed for its tourneys, and he could win any archery contest with his eyes closed. Perhaps it was time to aim high and attach himself to a royal court, to see how his fortunes fared there. Better than his brother's fortune, he'd wager, for Heber's land was not so fruitful of late, or so his last letter had said.
Yes, he would go to Aros.
There was nothing left for him here.
Rosa hurried home. She told herself it was because of the lateness of the hour, but in her heart she knew the truth. Her wild imagination had been so caught up in her grandmother's tale that more than once, she fancied she saw a shadow lurking behind the trees, following her home.
She tried to distract herself by practising, as her grandmother had said, but her magic didn't seem to want to cooperate today. Snow started falling, too, and she couldn't be sure if the flurries were her powers at work, or the natural movement of the breeze.
Snow already lay thick on the ground in the village by the time she reached it. She reached for the door of her family's cottage.
"Lule, I told you to put down your sewing and cut up the vegetables for the soup!" Mother scolded.
"Why can't Rosa do it?" Lule whined.
"Because she's still at your grandmother's, and if the snow keeps falling like this, she might not be home until morning. Your father's bringing fresh straw for our beds, and as soon as he gets home, I'll be busy dealing with that. Do you want supper or don't you?"
Rosa drew her hand back under her cloak. She hated cutting onions, and there were always so many for the soup. Let Lule do it for once. Rosa could take her grandmother's package to Edda in the meantime. Maybe when she came back, the soup would be ready and she wouldn't have to make it this time.
Sir Chase rode through the gates, sparing a nod of approval for the stout construction of the King of Aros' castle. The thickness of the walls spoke of the kingdom's strength, while the gaily coloured clothing of those who walked within its walls whispered of wealth. Service here would suit him well.
A groom appeared to take care of his horse, and Chase dismounted. He lingered long enough to throw his saddlebags over his own shoulder before allowing the beast to be led off. He'd heard the telltale thwack of arrows in the practice range, and he fancied taking a shot of his own. One that would reach the ears of the queen.
In one gate, out another, and he found the practice field, where a trio of men at arms took their turns at a target. They certainly needed the practice – none had managed to hit more than the outer circle of the target. Chase's father would not have tolerated such sloppy shots, especially at that distance. Why, he stood three times the distance as they did from the target, and he had the perfect shot.
His bow was off his back and in his hands before he'd finished the thought. He strung it with the ease of practice, and plucked an arrow from his quiver. He drew, sighted, breathed and loosed, his thoughts following the arrow's flight between the three men, then across the field to sink squarely into the centre of the target.
Exclamations of horror came from the men as they turned to find the source of the arrow, which turned to words of wonder at the size of his bow and the strength it must take to wield it.
Chase held it out. "Here, you try," he offered. The bow was taller than the man who took it from him. But Chase thought the stocky guard might have the strength to draw it, all the same.
A pleasant afternoon of archery ensued. Chase could definitely get used to this. Maybe even call Aros home.
The sound of a throat clearing drew Chase's attention and that of his companions.
"Sir Knight, Her Majesty, Queen Margareta, requests your presence at dinner in the Great Hall," the herald said.
Chase grinned. "I'd be honoured. Is there anywhere I might bathe and make myself presentable to greet Her Majesty?"
"An apartment has been prepared. Follow me, Sir Knight."
"It's Chase. Sir Chase," Chase said.
The herald breathed a sigh of relief. "Sir Chase. Whence have you come, Sir Chase?"
Chase considered. Who knew how far word had spread about Abraham? He did not dare risk it. "I have travelled from lands so far away I doubt you have heard of them," he said grandly.
The herald's eyes widened. "Are you a Crusader, sir? Or have you come from the Holy Land? Have you fought in many battles?"
Chase chose the truth. "Many battles indeed." Fought with his brothers and Abraham in the courtyard, with sticks and then swords. Abraham had always bested him with a sword. Ah, but he would miss the man, brother in all but blood.
"His Majesty, King Erik, is fond of tales of battle. Perhaps he will ask you to regale us at dinner," the herald said.
"I fear I am no bard, or teller of tales. I speak best with sword and bow," Chase said.
The herald led the way inside. "Then you must tell what you can to one of the Queen's bards, so that he may tell the tale."
Tell Abraham's story? Who would believe it? Chase himself barely believed it, and he'd seen most of it with his own eyes. Enough to know the truth when Abraham had told him the rest.
He only had to look at his tourney armour to be reminded, for after many jugs of ale, he'd persuaded Abraham to lay his hands on the well-crafted leather. Now it was as beautiful as it was useless, for Abraham's warning that gold would be too soft for combat proved only too true. But if it would buy him a place in the royal court of Aros, he would consider his armour a small price to pay.
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.
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