An excerpt from my short story, “Her Majesty's Wolf” included in the anthology Once Upon a Forbidden Desire: Fairy Tales and Other Stories releasing on September 13, 2022.
The eerie quiet of the woods was interrupted by a steady thwack thwack thwack, which grew louder as Shani approached. Her paws crossed the carpet of leaves soundlessly. The oppressive heat of the mortal lands clung to her fur, so much stickier with humidity than home in Eventide ever became.
Smoke scented the air, sweet with the aroma of baked treats. Through the trees up ahead, she glimpsed the outline of a cottage nestled in a small clearing. This had to be the place she sought. The place her people had dreamed of finding for decades.
The home was far less auspicious than she would have imagined, just a collection of logs, really, although sturdily built. There was no stable for a carriage or horses, and the building itself was too small to house many servants.
The thwacking stopped. Shani crept closer on silent paws to peer through the leaves of a low bush into the clearing. A young man was chopping wood. His shirtless form was … impressive. Lean with skin as dark as freshly tilled soil. Sweat glistened down the muscles of his back. Long legs snugly filled his trousers. His head was tilted back as he drank water from a ladle. Then he wiped his mouth and picked up the ax again. Shani panted, then forced her wolf tongue back into her mouth.
The cabin's door opened, and a woman came out. Straight-backed. Grayhaired. The breath left Shani's lungs as recognition set in. She sank flat on her belly in a submissive pose, even though she was hidden from view.
Queen Lucrezia. Never had she laid eyes on the ruler who’d been exiled before Shani was born, but even fifty years later the woman matched the likenesses etched into coins saved from the Usurper’s smelters. Though dressed as a peasant in a simple brown dress, the queen retained a regal bearing. Her warm ochre skin was barely lined with age.
Shani was too much in awe to hear the words the queen spoke to the young man chopping wood. He must be one of her servants. She waved him inside, and he acknowledged her with a deferential nod.
Excitement sparked Shani’s blood. The seer back home had not led her astray; she had found the place where the queen had been hiding for all these years. And now Shani would be the one to bring her home.
* * *
Rowan dipped his entire head into the bucket of water outside the front door, then shook himself like a dog before toweling off the sweat and grime. Waiting inside were Gran’s famous apple tarts—well, famous to him, at least. A suitable reward for his hours of labor.
Every other week, he visited his grandmother to help around her cottage. Before Grandfather died last year, Rowan had planned to finally leave Everhollow. To travel and see something of the world, like many of the boys he’d grown up with. Adventure was calling.
But Gran was all alone now, and he knew how difficult that could be after witnessing his mother’s challenges since his own father’s death. So he made the trek from the village to Gran’s isolated cottage. He patched the roof, chopped the wood, fixed the cracked glass in the windows without complaint. His love for her made it no hardship. Adventure would just have to wait.
He replaced his shirt and went inside to find himself enveloped in the scent that had been taunting him all morning. Sure enough, the pastries were cooling on the table.
“Thank you, dear,” Gran said. “I know you have better things to be doing than coming out here and helping an old woman.”
“You’re not that old,” Rowan said with a chuckle. “And I’m happy to help you. Happier even when I can get one of those tarts.” He reached out, but she smacked his hands.
“You’ll burn your tongue. They’re fresh out of the oven. Patience, boy.”
He stepped back and, when she turned away, grabbed one anyway. She was right; it was too hot, but he stuffed the entire thing in his mouth anyway, wincing at the burn to his tongue. Gran laughed and started to chide him, when a knock sounded at the door.
They both froze.
He’d never known Gran to have visitors. The cottage was off the main path through the forest. He rushed to swallow the apple tart, which had turned sour in his mouth. Gran had hardened to marble, her expression flinty as she peered at the door as if she could see through the wood. When she made no move to answer the knock, Rowan stepped forward.
He paused, but she said no more. He’d left the ax outside near the woodpile and there were no weapons inside the house, aside from kitchen knives. The village of Everhollow was a safe one, with no crime other than mischievous children. But Gran’s reaction was severe enough to have him thinking defensively.
The knock sounded again, firm but not menacing. “Could be someone lost in the wood,” he murmured.
When his grandmother still made no movement, he cast off his apprehension and opened the door. The figure on the threshold had him blinking in surprise.
A young woman of perhaps his own age of twenty summers was dressed in battle leathers. Across her chest lay an unfamiliar crest: a sun, a moon, and a shield. She was a head shorter than he, with hair that was shorn close to her head, making her eyes appear even bigger and brighter. They were stars of dark honey, too light for her acorn-colored skin. He nearly stumbled where he stood. He’d never seen someone so fierce and lovely.
“Greetings.” The rich, mellow voice held an accent he couldn’t place. “My name is Shaniloa Impisi, lieutenant in the service of Her Majesty, Queen Lucrezia of Eventide.”
Rowan swallowed, words forsaking him. Then Gran was at his side, pushing him back. Her expression cooled the late summer temperature to that of an ice bath.
“Lupkin knight, you are not welcome here.”
Shaniloa immediately dropped to one knee and placed a fist against her chest. “Your Majesty, it is an honor. We have been searching for you for so long. I bring news of Eventide.”
Majesty?? Rowan looked down at the woman on the doorstep and then up at Gran. Whose face registered neither surprise nor amusement, only frost.
“What’s going on?” he asked, incredulous.
She ignored him. “Go away, Lupkin, and do not return. I need no news from you.” Gran stepped back and would have closed the door on the young woman, but Rowan’s body was in the way. Finally, she met his eyes, and the glacier melted a fraction.
His mouth struggled to form words. “You would never speak of where you came from. Is it true? Are you … royalty?”
The kneeling woman looked up. “Queen Lucrezia has been in exile for over fifty years, thrown out by the Usurper Gannulf. But Your Majesty, there has been a resistance ever since your ouster. It has grown under the Usurper’s brutal regime. If you will but listen—”
“I do not want to hear anything about this,” Gran said, slashing her arm through the air.
Rowan shook his head in disbelief. “Why not hear her out? Didn’t you always tell me to take care of my responsibilities? To never shirk them in pursuit of pleasure or sport?”
Gran’s proud face crumpled. Rowan felt bad for challenging her, but he’d never seen her be so rude to anyone before, especially a stranger.
“Please, stand,” he said to the kneeling woman, holding out his hand.
She looked up, focusing all of her attention on Gran, not moving an inch until the woman jerked her head slightly. Then she ignored his hand and rose smoothly.
“Thank you,” she said solemnly and swept inside the cottage.
Her movements brought the scents of pine and rain and the undeniable certainty that her arrival would change his world forever.