The Snow Queen’s Tale

Would you like to read a FREE sample of Melt: Snow Queen Retold? Well, you can...with the exclusive excerpt chapters below:

"Leave us," the Sultan commanded. He waited until they were alone in the room before he held out a hand. "For heaven's sake, Briska, take it, and get up."

Unwillingly, she grasped his hand – colder and harder than Amani's ever were – and rose to her feet. "What do you want?" she asked coldly. He'd make it clear since Maram's birth that he wanted nothing else from her.

"The truth." He surveyed the room, as though looking for a suitable throne from which to deliver justice, but Briska's apartments were a place of leisure. If he wanted to sit, he could sit on one of the floor cushions. That would seat him lower than her. He sighed. "The guards tell me they saw a man who looked like me enter the harem several hours ago. But the midwife didn't see him, as she was busy with the mother of my son, so she sent a messenger to my quarters, telling me about the boy's birth. So when a second Sultan appeared…the guards knew there was something amiss. Tell me the truth. Did he come to you as me? Did you think…?" There was a yearning in his eyes, the like of which Briska had not seen for years.

Perhaps the fool still felt something for her, after all. A fool who had just ordered the death of the man she loved.

"The moment the doors closed, he revealed himself as the only man I could ever love," Briska snapped, feeling a spark of satisfaction as the hope in his eyes died. "Even without magic, he's ten times the lover you ever were. I begged him, many times, to do away with you and take your place as Sultan, so that I could be his wife in truth, but he was too honourable to break his oath to you. And now he will die at your hands, not because he was a traitor, but because he was too loyal."

His shoulders slumped. "If you say he tricked you, I could still save you, Briska. Nothing will save him, but you…"

She shook her head. "I would rather die with him, than live forever as your wife, knowing I will never see him again. Summon your executioner and take off my head, like I know you want to." She tried to make the words sound brave and forceful, pushing them out as a shield to hide the yawning pit of despair where her heart had once beat for joy. Never again. "You want the truth? I tricked him. Cast a spell on him, so he would fall in love with me. If anyone's a traitor, it's me, not him. Take me. Arrest me, and let him go." Hope blossomed within her. If she could save Amani…

The Sultan laughed. "Even if it were true, I cannot do it. If I let a traitor go unpunished, it will only embolden others. No, he will die a traitor's death, but you…I don't want to see you die, Briska. He must…but you can still live."

"I will not betray the man I love," Briska returned.

The Sultan sighed. "Very well." He raised his voice. "Send in the courtesan!"

Then he began to mutter under his breath. The words sounded like the ones she'd prayed to hear more times than she could count, but…why now?

The door cracked open and a woman sidled inside, then flung herself face-first on the floor. "Your Majesty."

His regal mask had returned. "Rise."

The courtesan – for that was what she was – sprang to her feet with more grace than Briska expected. Her face was veiled as though she'd come from outside the palace, but the gossamer thin silk hid nothing, allowing anyone to glimpse her golden skin and perfect curves through her translucent clothing. Why, Briska could see her peaked nipples clearly through the cloth.

The Sultan did not seem to care. "This is the enchantress, who confessed her treachery. She used magic to commit treason against me." He pointed at Briska, not even deigning to look at her any more. "I respectfully submit her to the justice of your people."

Your people. Panic flooded through Briska and she bit her lip, desperately trying to cast a portal that would take her to safety. Away from the fate worse than death that awaited her if she stayed.

The courtesan merely smiled and waved her hand, freezing Briska so she could no longer move. "Her magic is weak, this enchantress. One wonders how she thought she could succeed in her betrayal."

Now Briska wanted to tell the truth – that she hadn't bespelled Amani at all, until she knew his love for her was as strong as hers for him. It was no crime to increase a desire they already shared. But her mouth was closed, and she could not open it. Could not even sink her teeth into her lip for another drop of blood to cast a spell, any spell, that might help her.

A servant came in, carrying a mirror, which she set on the table, before she bowed and retreated.

The courtesan placed a ringed hand on the mirror's surface. "Now we may start. Your Majesty, a drop of blood?"

She drew a dagger from her belt and held it out, point-first, to the Sultan. He touched his finger to the tip, leaving a bead of royal blood.

She swiped her ring across her hand, leaving a shallow cut behind. The ring's jewel seemed to glow red through the layer of blood coating it.

"Kneel," the courtesan commanded, and Briska was forced to obey. "Now lift your chin."

Briska held her breath as the dagger came closer and closer, ready to slash her bared throat. The courtesan's gleeful smile was the last thing she'd see. Better than a lifetime of slavery as a queen or a…

The dagger pricked her, just above her collarbone, then retreated.

NO! Briska screamed in her head, but she didn't make a sound. She couldn't.

The courtesan touched her blood-dipped dagger to the ring, then leaned on the table. "By the blood of the ruler you betrayed, I bind you in servitude, djinn. By your own blood, the blood of a traitor, I bind you in servitude, djinn. And by my own blood, the blood of the judge who names you guilty of crimes against your ruler, I bind you in servitude, djinn."

Tears sprang to Briska's eyes and fell, unchecked, for she could not even blink them away. The courtesan had turned her into a djinn, a slave, forced to obey her master for eternity.

"Do you want her?" the courtesan asked the Sultan.

He shook his head. "As my Sultana, by my side, I would have given her anything. Now, she is nothing to me." And he said the words Briska had wanted to hear for so long, but now it was too late. "I divorce you, Briska." Three times he said it, until the marriage was void. He looked at the courtesan. "I beg you, take her away from here, and do whatever you want with her. I never want to see her again. See to it, Mistress Kun."

Briska couldn't even exclaim her horror. Slave to a courtesan? She couldn't imagine a worse fate. Having to share a bed with the clumsy Sultan had been bad enough, but a courtesan took dozens of lovers. If she commanded Briska to give herself to a man, any man, as a djinn she could not refuse. She would have to endure…

The courtesan lifted the mirror, so Briska could see the misty surface. Blood marred the frame where the courtesan had touched it, but the surface gleamed in the lamplight. "Look closely, for you will need this in my service," the courtesan said. "You may move now."

The force holding Briska upright vanished as quickly as it had come, flopping her forward in a deep bow. "How may I serve you, Mistress?" The words were out of her mouth before Briska could stop them.

The courtesan smiled. "Oh, you will be of great use to me."

"I am not very skilled at entertaining men, Mistress," Briska said. "Or at magic. The only man I ever seduced against his will just divorced me." Oh, how she wished she could have done things differently on her wedding night. He'd sworn not to consummate their marriage until she was willing, but she'd cast spell after spell at him until she forced him to take her maidenhead. A clumsy, painful encounter that she'd endured every night until she knew she carried Maram.

Maram. What would happen to her now?

"My daughter. Maram," Briska choked out. "What will he do with her?"

The courtesan stared at her. "You mean the Sultan? Is she his?"

"Of course. Amani did not come to court until after she was born."

The courtesan said, "Then the girl belongs to the Sultan. She will stay, but we must go."

"Where?"

Mistress Kun smiled. "Wherever I command you to."

"I am not very skilled – " Briska began again.

"Then you will learn to become so. Oh, not at entertaining men. No, you're going to do some matchmaking for me. Up in the Southern Isles, a daft name for such a northerly place, if ever I heard one."

"I have never…"

Mistress Kun snapped her fingers. "Silence! Bring the mirror, and come with me." She opened a portal and stepped through.

Briska had no choice but to follow.   

Would you like to read more?

An enslaved enchantress. A magic mirror. Whose match will be made next?

Once upon a time…

When Queen Briska is accused of treason, she flees to the mountains, building an icy wall around her broken heart. But she cannot flee her punishment – she is forced to help other couples find love. A tough task, when the man she loves is dead.

Amani knew his life was over the moment he was enslaved to a magic lamp. But when a strange twist of fate frees him from the lamp just as he discovers the woman he loves still lives, Amani sets out to find her, and free her, too.

Will the power of love be enough to melt two frozen hearts?

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What Would You Wish For?

Would you like to read a FREE sample of Wish: Aladdin Retold? Well, you can...with the exclusive excerpt chapters below:

Lying on his thin straw pallet, Aladdin could not sleep. Maram and her melancholy haunted him. The perfect princess, whose kiss had awoken a longing he'd never known before.

When day dawned, Aladdin was no closer to getting the girl out of his mind. He trudged to the alley where he and the other labourers waited for work that never came. Day after day, he made the journey there, then home, in a dreamy haze that wouldn't lift. Hunger gnawed at his insides, but he ignored it.

"I can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. The Sultan's daughters will mistake you for a prince, you will be so wealthy, and you may have your pick of them!"

Gwandoya's boasting burst through the haze in Aladdin's mind, as though he heard it for the first time.

Aladdin rose to his feet. Yes, he wanted to pick one of the Sultan's daughters. Because he dreamed of nothing else but Princess Maram.

"What about Bugra? Did you make him rich, so he married some princess?" Berk asked. "Is that why you need someone new?"

Gwandoya shrugged. "The boy made his fortune so quickly, he now has more gold than he can carry. He has no desire to work for me any more. Will you be next?"

Berk spat on the ground at Gwandoya's feet. "Not me. I'm not crazy."

"What about you?" Gwandoya looked Aladdin up and down, no doubt seeing what the other men did – that Aladdin was not strong enough for hard labour. Too many years with too little to eat had seen to that. "You will be able to eat like a king for the rest of your life if you come and work for me."

Aladdin would settle for sharing his meals with Maram. "What would you have me do?"

"Come with me and I will show you," Gwandoya said.

Berk caught Aladdin's shoulder. "Don't, man. Bugra's likely dead in the gutter somewhere, and if you go with him, you will be next."

If he didn't find work soon, Aladdin knew he'd be dead in a gutter anyway. He hadn't eaten in two days, and his mother was too tired to spin. A quick death was better than starving to death, and if there was a chance he might be able to free Maram…

"So be it. I shall take my chances," Aladdin said. He dropped his voice to a whisper that he hoped only Berk would hear. "If I survive, I swear I will return here, if only to tell you the truth of what happened to Bugra and the others. If I do not…please tell my mother that I love her, and my last thoughts were of her." Whatever happened, he would no longer be a burden on his mother, for her spinning was enough to support her alone without him.

Berk looked like he wanted to say more, but he pressed his lips together and nodded. "May you have better fortune than the rest of us."

Gwandoya clapped Aladdin on the shoulder. "Good boy! You will be rich, you shall see!"

Aladdin wanted to believe him, so he hoped, but in his heart, he dreaded what would come next. Anything that made a starving boy rich had to be unpleasant. Otherwise, why would Gwandoya share such riches with anyone?

* * *

By the time Gwandoya called a halt, Aladdin was ready to leap off the camel with the sincere wish never to ride one again. Whatever flesh he'd had on his backside had been bounced off by the crazy animal's gait between the oasis and what looked like a pile of boulders.

Gwandoya grinned, his teeth surprisingly white in the afternoon light. "We are here, yes?"

Aladdin wasn't sure how to answer, so he didn't bother.

Gwandoya led Aladdin to a rock that didn't appear any different to the others, then knelt beside an old fire pit. He took a leather flask from his belt and poured the contents over the half-charred timbers. Then Gwandoya pulled out a tinderbox and set about rekindling the fire.

Aladdin considered telling the man it was pointless to attempt such a thing with damp wood, but nothing this man did would surprise him any more, so Aladdin sat down on a nearby stone instead.

The fire flared to life faster than any Aladdin had seen before. The liquid must have been lamp oil, Aladdin realised. Gwandoya spread his arms wide and began to chant in a language Aladdin didn't recognise as he danced about the fire.

For a moment, Aladdin thought he saw wisps of smoke rising from the man's hands, but he shook his head. He must be imagining it. Except the smoke was thickening until he couldn't deny it was real. Sparks jumped between the smoke clouds, like nothing he'd ever seen before. And still Gwandoya chanted.

The man was a magician, Aladdin realised, dread clenching at his stomach. Aladdin had heard stories about dark magicians who used blood to cast spells. Was that why he needed Aladdin – to provide the blood in this unholy ritual? Is this how the other men had died?

The smoke cloud surrounding Gwandoya streamed toward the stone, taking the vague shape of a man, though a giant man. The smoky figure grabbed the stone and pushed it to the side, revealing the dark entrance to…what? The underworld?

Gwandoya didn't look surprised. He had done this many times, Aladdin guessed. But not enough to succeed in his dark purpose, which was why he needed Aladdin.

"We're going in there?" Aladdin asked.

"No, we are not."

Aladdin breathed a sigh of relief.

Gwandoya continued, "You are entering alone. You will journey through the underground city to the treasury. Touch nothing on the way. Once you reach the treasury, and this is very important, tuck your robes up around you so that not even the hem touches the gold in there, for if you touch it, you will surely die."

Like Bugra.

"You are looking for a lamp. An old, brass lamp that will appear out of place amid such treasure."

"So why is it there, then?" Aladdin asked before he could stop himself.

Gwandoya glared at him. "It has great personal value to me."

Aladdin didn't believe a word. He might be a street rat, but he'd been raised to be a merchant, who had to know the difference between truth and lies as much as he needed to be able to sort brass from gold. "So I find this old lamp of yours, and then what? Where's the wealth you said I'd find?" Aladdin asked.

Gwandoya lifted his chin proudly. "Bring the lamp to me, and I shall richly reward you."

Another lie. But Aladdin merely lowered his eyes and nodded.

Gwandoya pulled a ring from his finger and held it out. "You will need this. This magic ring will allow you to open doors in the city."

Aladdin took the ring gingerly. It seemed real enough, the blackened silver speaking of its great age. "Do I have to do the dancing and chanting thing like you did?"

"The inner doors are not as stubborn as the city gates. You will only need to command them to open, and they will."

No chanting, then.

"Do I get a torch?" Aladdin asked hopefully. The city gates really did look like the gates to the underworld.

"There are torches inside. They will allow you to reach the treasury," Gwandoya said. "Find the lamp, and it will light your way back to me."

The lamp that wasn't his, but Gwandoya wanted so badly he was willing to kill as many men as it took to bring the thing to him. But not enough to venture into the city himself.

"Right. Here I go, then," Aladdin said with forced cheer.

Wishing he'd stayed in his own city, where he belonged, Aladdin stepped into the dark.

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A sultan’s daughter. A pretend prince. Can a genie make all their wishes come true?

Once upon a time…

When Princess Maram and street rat Aladdin meet in the marketplace, sparks fly, and Aladdin swears to move heaven and earth in order to make the lovely courtesan his wife.

He steals a magic lamp with a genie inside, thinking all his troubles are over…only to find they have barely begun.

Can Aladdin win the princess’s hand without losing his head?

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Hansel and Gretel…Not the Tale You Thought You Knew

Would you like to read a FREE sample of Return: Hansel and Gretel Retold? Well, you can...with the exclusive excerpt chapters below:

Rhona did not sleep well, so she slipped into the stillroom for some willow bark to ease her headache on her way to breakfast. Dealing with Doireann and a headache was more than any saint could be expected to endure, and Rhona was certainly no saint.

Yet as she entered, she had the distinct feeling that something was wrong. The drawers were not all closed properly, and she made a particular point of shutting her jars away from all light so that the herbs might keep for longer. The books were out of order, too – Blanid's carefully drawn herbals, listing every plant she'd ever heard of, and quite a few that Rhona knew would never grow on Rum Isle. Rhona knew them by heart, of course, but occasionally she still checked some of the more exotic ones before administering them to anyone. She didn't know how her grandparents had procured some of the plants they possessed, but they'd made sure Blanid's stillroom held everything their own garden could supply.

"Lady Rhona, her ladyship demands to know when you are ready," Ciara said.

After Belen took up the title, they'd all started doing it, and Rhona could not bring herself to tell them to stop. They didn't look at her differently, nor curtsey at her like she was some princess, but now they came to her as they must have once come to Blanid. The message was clear – the staff saw Rhona as the lady of the house, not Doireann. It earned her more of Doireann's dark looks, even as it lessened the weight of her father's disappointment, just a little, but not enough to make her feel safe in her own home again.

And now someone had been through her herbs – since she'd left the stillroom last night.

"Ciara, did you or any of the others come in here last night, or this morning? Perhaps to get some willow bark, or herbs for cooking?"

Ciara shook her head. "Not me, mistress. I wouldn't know one herb from the other."

"But the herbs are all in my books, and I was still abed. You or one of the others might have opened one of the herbals to read…" Rhona stopped when she realised Ciara has trying to smother a laugh. "What is it?"

"You forget, Lady Rhona, that the only ladies who can read in the house are you and your sisters. Unless it was a matter of life or death, we would all let you sleep, and ask you for what was needed when you woke."

Of course. No wonder the girl laughed. Her sisters would wake her if they wanted something, knowing they would have it faster from her than from a lot of tiresome reading. "What of Doireann?" Rhona asked urgently.

Ciara shrugged. "I do not know. But surely she would summon you if she wanted something…"

Unless Doireann wanted something she did not want Rhona to know about. Medicines could be poisons if used in the wrong dosage, as Rhona knew well.

"Have my sisters come down for breakfast?" Rhona asked.

"Yes. Her ladyship insisted. Then she asked for some small cups so that they could all drink a special cordial…"

Rhona swore. Whether by design or mistake, Doireann might have poisoned the girls already. "Tell her I'm coming." She rummaged through the bottles, but she couldn’t be sure which one Doireann had taken. Unlike the cupboards, the bottles appeared untouched. Everything seemed to be there, unless Doireann had poured the contents of one into a bottle of her own. And Rhona wouldn't know which bottle to check – it wasn't like she kept track of how much was in each one. Blanid might have known, but she wasn't here now.

Rhona paused to grab a cloak before heading outside, where Doireann sat on the box seat of a cart. A cart full of chests and casks, which were occupied by her bleary-eyed sisters. Sleepy from being woken too early, or because they'd been drugged?

Please, don't let it be the second, Rhona prayed silently as she approached the cart. "It will take longer by cart," Rhona said.

"I am not leaving my things here to be stolen by raiders. Show me to the place where we will be safe!" Doireann insisted.

Reluctantly, Rhona climbed onto the cart beside her sisters and they set off down the road, or what passed for one on Rum Isle.

"Which way?" Doireann demanded every time they reached a fork where the cart tracks went more than one way.

Rhona would respond with right or left or to continue straight, until she felt as drowsy as her sisters in the summer heat. She'd brought a cloak, but perhaps she should have thought to bring a hat.

"I'm thirsty," Sive announced.

Before Rhona could stop her, Maeve uncorked a flask and held it to her sister's lips. Sive gulped the liquid down, her eyelids drooping, before she slid off her box and lay down on the bottom of the cart, sound asleep. Beside Nuala, Rhona realised in horror. Then Maeve picked up the flask and drained the contents. She toppled to the floor, too.

Rhona snatched the flask from Maeve's slack fingers. "What did you give them?" She inhaled deeply at the lip of the bottle, trying to discern the contents. Strong spirits burned the inside of her nostrils, softened by the scent of lavender. That couldn't be all she'd given them. Some poisons had no odour, but one could taste them…

"Just a draught to put them to sleep, so that they will stay quiet. Now, tell me where Rum Isle hides its riches, and nothing worse will happen to them," Doireann said, her eyes flashing.

"Rum Isle's secrets are known only to its own. You may have married my father, but you will never be one of us," Rhona spat. She tipped up the flask and let a drop of the treacherous liquor fall onto her tongue. Spirit burn and lavender sweetness, without the one thing Rhona dreaded – the bitter gall of opium from the Holy Land. Perhaps Doireann had not found it yet. As it was, the liquor was a strong sleeping potion, no more, that would leave the user with a hangover and headache when they awoke, at worst. She let the flask slip from her fingers.

Just in time to see something dark blot out the sun before it collided with her head, and all the lights went out.

* * *

It seemed almost no time at all before the final feast was over and the Council dispersed to go home. Grieve rode with Dermot, Damhan and the boy whose name was Brian, while his father lagged behind, discussing serious matters with Lord Ronin. At least, they looked serious – Father could be discussing a chess match with the man, for all Grieve knew.

Ships lined up in the harbour, waiting for the tide to take them all home.

Grieve made to follow Father to their vessel, but Father shook his head. "You're to go with Lord Ronin. He needs an archery instructor for his men, as he has no sons of his own. Albans will strike at Rum Isle before they make it to Myroy, you may be sure, so it behoves the lords of the inner isles to keep up their defences to give the rest of us warning in the event they send more than a raiding party."

Lord Ronin inclined his head. "Your father tells me you have the makings of a good master-at-arms, young Grieve, and some skills with a bow."

Grieve lifted his chin proudly. "I have trained my father's men since I came to manhood, Lord Ronin, and I was easily the best archer among the boys on shore today. But with practice, they might be able to match my skill."

Father laughed. "He'll never be good at chess, like I told you. Too forthright for playing at politics. But I hope he will be just the man you need, Ronin." He gave the command for his crew to raise the sail and was soon out in the bay, out of earshot.

No word of farewell, or when Grieve might be allowed to come home. Maybe never.

Lord Ronin eyed Grieve. "We shall see. Come, boy. You're too old to be a proper page or fosterling, but still young enough that I can call you my squire. Master-at-arms and other such offices can wait until you've had time to prove yourself."

"Yes, my lord. And I will," Grieve swore.

Lord Ronin smiled. "Good man. Climb aboard." He gestured toward his boat.

For a moment, Grieve was lost. An unproven boy, a new squire, a good man…what was he really? He had no home, and no family around him any more.

Time to choose his own fate. Grieve strode aboard the ship bound for Rum Isle, vowing to show Lord Ronin, his father and any other man with eyes to see that he would prove he was every bit as good as his brother. Better, maybe. 

* * *

The bright summer's day had given way to miserable weather, but the rain pattering on the ground was nothing to the drumming inside Rhona's head. Rhona groaned, sat up, then groaned again.

"Where are we?" Nuala asked.

Rhona blinked. Her sisters huddled together under a pine tree. Of course, they hadn't thought to drag her under shelter, too. Then again, if they'd drunk enough strong spirits to send them to sleep, they wouldn't feel much better than she did right now. In no shape to be dragging anyone's body.

"Not at home, where we should be," Rhona grumbled. She shuffled under the tree with her sisters. Only now did she realise fog had crept over the island, as it did on days like this. They could be spitting distance from home, and she would not be able to see it.

Rhona bit her lip, hoping to stir up a breeze to improve visibility.

"I'm cold!" Sive moaned, climbing into Nuala's lap.

Rhona let the breeze swirl away into the woods. Yes, the fog lifted just enough to show the tree trunks before it was all whiteness once more. They could not be far from the edge, if Doireann had dumped them from the cart. She would not have had the strength to drag Rhona far from the road, unless she'd had help.

But who on Rum Isle would help Doireann against Lord Ronin's children? No one Rhona knew. And as the mistress of Blanid's stillroom, she knew everyone on the island.

"We must wait for the fog to clear, and then we will find shelter from the rain. I'm sure there is a cottage or croft quite close, but we might miss it in the mist. Once we know where we are, we can go home," Rhona promised.

"Can you tell us a story to pass the time?" Maeve asked.

"The Three Little Pigs?"

Maeve shook her head. "Something else. Something new. We have heard that tale too many times."

And there would be no nurse come to save them today, Rhona knew. It would be up to her and her sisters to find their way home. She thought of the tale Belen had told her, the first night she'd called her Lady Rhona. That might do. "Have you heard the tale of Hansel and Gretel?"

The girls shook their heads.

 Rhona drew in a deep breath. "Once upon a time…"

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An unlikely duo. A wicked witch. Whatever it takes to find their way home.

Once upon a time…

Rhona is certain her stepmother wants to kill her and her sisters, and she’ll stop at nothing to do it. Leaving them in the woods alone, drugging their food and drink…is nothing safe?

Bitter at his brother’s betrothal, Grieve is banished to Rum Island as a squire to Rhona’s father. Grieve thought he had enough trouble with Rhona’s stepmother and the threat of war with Alba, until a witch takes Grieve and Rhona prisoner.

Can Rhona and Grieve survive long enough to find their happily ever after?

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The Big Bad Wolf – Is He Really So Bad?

Would you like to read a FREE sample of Blow: Three Little Pigs Retold? Well, you can...with the exclusive excerpt chapters below:

Midsummer festival fever had caught them all in her heathen coils. The higher born boys fought with practice swords in the yard, their bouts descending into pitched battle with no guard or master at arms to break it up. Rudolf found himself stunned in the dust, unnoticed by the others as they pursued longer held grudges against boys they knew, and he scrambled to his feet. Retreating from the yard seemed the most chivalrous thing to do, for he had more training than most of them, though not enough to stop the fight like his cousin Reidar might have.

 Outside the walls, pine had been piled up for the bonfires, huge as haystacks, that would be set alight after dark to feed some ancient, beastly god. Now, the fresh, life-giving scent of the pine lay sharp over the bed of long-dead peat from the bogs, reminding him of the inevitability of death, even in the bright summer sun.

His thick furs itched in the unaccustomed heat that was so little like home, but he did not dare take them off. They marked him for what he was, a Viken prince among these Islanders, who wore linen and leather that was surely more suitable for summer.

Peat smoke spiralled in a dark prayer to heaven as it roasted pork to what he hoped would be perfection. The rich smell took him back home, to his farewell feast and the roasted beast that had been Reidar's first kill. Oh, now that had been a feast. Could these foreigners match it?

The crack of what sounded like a spitting cat forced his eyes open. No, it was just the beast's flesh spitting at the coals that roasted it, like its last act of courage before the old gods took it to Valhalla. Did pigs go to heaven, though, he wondered. The men of the new faith said no, but he didn't know enough about the old to be sure.

Hogs probably went up to the great feasting table in the sky, much like their bodies had here. Such was their fate, as this exile was his. At least he was not a pig, however much he roasted in his northern clothes.

He headed away from the clamour, toward the cliffs.

"Boy, boy!" an imperious, elderly voice called.

Rudolf turned. He'd learned the hard way not to ignore an old woman's commands. If he hadn't sat on that throne for a moment and Queen Regina hadn't caught him, then he wouldn't be here, exiled at the other end of the world. Better alive than dead, though, and alive, he could train more so that one day, he could better serve his king. The man whose backside belonged on that cursed throne.

If the approaching woman was Queen Regina, Rudolf would have run. As it was, he forced himself to hold his ground.

The woman everyone called Nurse limped up to him. "Have you seen them? Wee devils, they are. Their father insists they must attend the feast dressed in their best, and I cannot find them anywhere!"

The Lord Angus's daughters were missing? Rudolf's heart turned to ice, as he remembered the day he'd lost his little sister to the ice on the fjords.

But there was no ice here, and little water, either, for the burns that had flowed only yesterday were little more than mud now after days without rain. It truly was a different world to Viken.

If he had a choice, today he would be in the swimming hole the other boys had spoken of. A pool they said never dried up.

A place deep enough for a little girl to drown.

Panic gave his feet wings as he crested the rise, following the dried up burn. If he could get there in time, perhaps he could save them. Perhaps…

A shrill scream stopped his heart, but not his feet. Still he ran. If a girl could scream, she could breathe, and he could still save her. By all the saints in heaven, please let him save her.

Low hanging branches sliced at his face, but still Rudolf ran on until he almost fell over the lip of the pool, or what had been the pool. Perhaps even this morning, it had still held water, but now…now it held three wriggling, shrieking girls as they played in liquid mud. Alive. Safe. All three. Portia, Lina and Arlie, so covered in mud he couldn't tell them apart – not that it was an easy matter anyway, given the girls looked identical.

Rudolf's heart dared to beat again and he took a deep breath. "Nurse!" he shouted. "I have found your three little pigs!"

* * *

Portia reacted to the king's demands the way she always did when something vexed her: she went shooting.

Her bow was a comforting weight in her hand as she marched to the practice field. The smooth wood was exactly the right size for someone of her stature – as Rudolf must have known, for he'd given it to her on her last name day. Much easier to shoot with than his own monster bow, easily taller than he was. It had taken her years before she'd had the strength to fire anything from his bow, but when a lucky shot clipped the target, Rudolf had made good on his promise – a bow of her own, and archery lessons to keep her from shooting him instead of the target.

Not that she'd meant to do that. The arrow had accidentally gone through his boot, and she'd told him so. She wasn't sure he believed her, though. She sighed and took aim.

She emptied her quiver in record speed, wishing the plain wood target had a picture of the king's face painted on it. She did not even know what the bastard looked like. She imagined King Donald as old and fat with thinning hair, a petulant fool who demanded things that were not his like the spoiled child he'd once been.

She fitted an arrow to the bowstring.

How dare he try to claim her lands. Her father's lands, truly, but hers, too, for she was his firstborn.

She drew the arrow back.

How dare he insist they pay him tribute. A man who had no right to their lands, or the fruit from it.

She sighted along the arrow, blowing out her breath in a rush.

How dare he call their people foreigners. How dare he!

She released, and the arrow flew toward the target. It lodged in the side, so close to the edge that it only hung there for a moment before it fell to earth.

Earth that sorry excuse for a king had no claim on!

Portia stomped her foot for emphasis.

"Looking at the target, I wondered if Arlie had picked up a bow for her annual archery practice. But Arlie doesn't stamp her foot like that." Rudolf gestured at the target across the field. "Are you feeling sorry for the target, Portia? Trying not to hit it because hitting it would be cruel?"

Portia's face turned as red as her hair. Trust Rudolf to bring that up. No one else remembered something that happened ten years ago, except him. "I still think butchering pigs is cruel, but nothing I can say or do will stop it, for the rest of your will still eat it. So will I, and be properly thankful to the animal that gave its life so that we may eat its flesh." She sounded like the priest at last Sunday's mass, and she knew it. Before Rudolf could tease her for that, too, she continued, "It won't matter if I miss my target, anyway. Men all bunch up in an army, so if I miss one man, I'm bound to hit the one beside him."

He laughed. "Since when are you riding to war? Your father is not so short of men he'll need you to fight." His gaze travelled from her feet up to her face. "Unless you plan on wearing a man's garb. There's many a man on the island who's dreamed of seeing you without your gown, but I'm sure none of them imagined you'd be wearing armour."

Just as her blush faded, it flamed into life once more. Only Rudolf could say these things with such brutal honesty, without apology. Not for the first time, she wondered if he'd been one of those dreaming men. Men who would soon be off to war, with no time to dream of anyone, she told herself sternly. "I have no need to ride to war. Raiders come in boats when they see fit, and if the menfolk are not at home, then it falls to us women to defend our homes."

Rudolf inclined his head. "So it does. Here in the south, right up to Viken in the north. But your father will never leave you here unprotected, and you will always have me." He drew a dagger from his belt and sent it flying toward the target. He hit the centre. "I will defend you with my life, Portia."

That serious look in his eyes heated her all over again, but not just her face this time. There was something about Rudolf that lit a fire inside her. The kind of fire she liked, but could never stoke. "I'm sure my father will be very grateful for your service," she said sweetly.

He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Then he shook his head, as if to rid it of ideas that had no place there, a feeling Portia understood well. Finally, he said, "But it would be lax of me to stop you from practising, when you so sorely need it."

"Why you – " Portia began, then stopped as Rudolf grinned. When he smiled, the man was charming enough to coax a honeycomb from an angry bear. Not even she was immune to him. Perhaps that's why she felt so hot inside. "Help me retrieve my arrows, then."

Rudolf pulled the lucky few from the target while she hunted through the grass for the rest. When the quiver was more than half full once more, she marched back to where she'd left her bow. Rudolf with his longer strides got there first, lifting the weapon in readiness, though he didn't hand it to her.

"First, I must check your stance, Portia," he said. "Show me how you stand."

Never one to like being ordered about, Portia set her hand on her hip and waved an arrow. "You'd better hope I don't decide to make you my target instead."

"You wouldn't do that," he said easily. "You like me."

No matter how much he irritated her and make her feel other unwelcome feelings she had to ruthlessly suppress, Portia had to admit she did. Not aloud, though. "I might also like to see you hopping around with an arrow in your foot again."

"You have your dreams and I have mine. I like mine better. Now, do you wish to practise, or no?"

Portia relented and stepped up to the bow, angling herself so that she faced Rudolf and not the target. She fitted her arrow to the string. "There. Good enough for you?"

Rudolf inspected her, even going as far as to march right the way around her, before he nudged her foot with his. "Your stance needs to be a little wider, pointed to where you wish the arrow to go." His arms came around her, lifting the bow so that the arrow no longer pointed at the ground.

Portia wanted to relax into his embrace, and surrender to the promise of protection he offered. It would be so easy, and yet it was something she could never do. Rudolf was a foreigner, a ward sent from Viken to learn to fight in her father's house. One day, he would be summoned home to fight for whatever Viken lord his family owed fealty to. Portia was her father's eldest daughter, and heir to Isla. The man she married would follow her father as Lord of Isla, the largest and most powerful of the Southern Isles. She could never marry a mere household knight. It would take a lord at least, or a lord's son, to hold Father's place in council. Rudolf knew this as well as she did, which was why he never took liberties, though he made it very clear he would like to. But that was an invitation she could never offer.

She straightened, paying more attention to the bow and arrow than the boy whose breath tickled the back of her neck. "Which foot do you like best, Dolf?" she asked.

"Your left one, because that's pointed at the target," he said, cupping her elbow in his hand. "Now draw, sight along the arrow…" His hand slammed into her gut, just below her breasts, forcing her to exhale. "Now I've made you breathless, you may shoot."

The arrow whistled across the field and thwacked into the target. Not in the centre, marked by the divot from Rudolf's knife, but nearer than any of her earlier attempts.

"There!"

Rudolf inclined his head. "Not bad. If you were aiming for a man's heart, you might have hit him in the throat. But we can improve on that."

With infinite patience Portia knew she would never possess, Rudolf helped her empty her quiver – all into the target this time. Then he headed across the field with her to retrieve the arrows again.

When the quiver was full, he held it out and asked, "Are you still angry, or have you done enough shooting for one day?"

Until she hit the centre of the target every time, it would not be enough. She sighed. A landless knight like Rudolf would not understand. "One more time," she said, reaching for the quiver.

Rudolf caught her hand in his. "You're bleeding. I say you have done enough. We should get you inside, so one of your sisters can bandage these fingers. You can practise more on the morrow, but first, I must get you some pigs' ears."

"Pigs' ears are no use to anyone, except the pig itself," Portia said, snatching her hand back. Her fingers tingled where he'd touched them, a hint of magic that called for more. She refused to yield. Isla would not yield.

Rudolf chuckled. "Get you to your sisters. I'll return your things to the armoury, and find you inside." He shouldered both her quiver and her bow and headed across the yard.

Portia sucked on her bleeding fingers as she headed inside. Arlie would exclaim over the blood, fanning herself in case she fainted. Lina would be the one to clean and bandage her, like Nurse had taught her to before age and infirmity had called the old woman from this life.

As it would one day call them all.

But not yet, if Portia had any say in it.

* * *

The moment Arlie spotted Rudolf, she cried, "Dolf will go to war to save us! Won't you, Dolf?"

Portia hushed her. She might only be a few minutes older than her sisters, but sometimes the difference felt like years.

"If you ladies need saving, I would be honoured to be of service," Rudolf said as he approached. He met Portia's eyes without a hint of laughter and bowed low. "From what must I save you? Is there another spider?"

Lina laughed. "No, only Portia screams at spiders. This time, it's some pompous king, demanding tribute from all the island lords, which they will not pay."

"That's no way to talk about your liege," Rudolf said mildly. "I've never heard anyone call King Harald pompous before."

"That's because it's not him!" Arlie giggled. "It's some silly foreigner called Donald. He calls for tithes and men, to combat what he calls our foreign invaders, so that he might help us make the Southern Isles great again."

"Nay, he wants to make Alba great again, but he insists we are an important part of it," Lina corrected.

Portia frowned. "Important enough to attract his interest, because he thinks we might offer him men or money. No king has every offered us anything we didn't have to pay for. Not King Harald or this Donald. The lords of the isles know this, and they will refuse him, which will mean war."

"The lords are in the right of it. The isles are under Harald's protection, and they do not belong to some man called Donald. If he wants them, he will have to fight for them, and pay dearly," Rudolf declared.

Now Portia thought of it, he did sound like one of the lords. Somehow, over the years, Rudolf the boy had turned into a man, or at least something like one. A pity he would never be one of them. Because if he was…

"Perhaps this Donald should just ask to marry Portia. We all know no man on the islands is good enough for her, for she turns her nose up at all of them. Would a king suit you, Portia?" Arlie teased.

Rudolf's eyes were upon her, and Portia found she could not meet them. "Father knows as well as I do that I can only wed a man who can hold the islands. Hold them, and defend them, like he has. All this Donald has done is blow wind at us, and the isles have withstood greater gales than anything he's thrown at us thus far. I will wed when a strong enough man presents himself, and not before."

"See? Portia will never marry for love. Or she'd have picked Rudolf, long ago," Lina declared with a smile.

Arlie dissolved in a fit of giggles, falling back to kick her legs in the air.

Once again, Portia felt far too hot. She rose and marched out of the room, the sound of her sisters' laughter following her. And booted footsteps. Rudolf, of course.

"Portia," he began cautiously, as if wishing to warn her of his presence.

She turned and held up her hand to halt him before he said any more. "My sisters like to joke at my expense. And yours. I'm sorry if their levity sounds insulting to your ears. You are a strong and skilled warrior. Both my father and I know that. So do my sisters, I think. But when we hear whispered news of war…well, you see how we react. Lina will pick herbs to dry for every wound and ailment imaginable, and fill the cellars with all the food she can possibly preserve. Arlie…she will make light of everything, as she always does, for laughter is her way."

"And you shall shoot things, because even if every man on this island dies in battle, you will still defend it while you have breath left in your body," Rudolf finished for her. "Isla is your home, and the Southern Isles are your kingdom as much as Harald holds Viken, or Donald does Alba."

Now it was Portia's turn to laugh. "No one understands me the way you do, Dolf. I swear it is as though you have some magical power to see into my head. I'm glad I didn't shoot you."

Rudolf laughed with her. "I'm glad you didn't shoot me, either. If it comes to war, I hope I am never on the opposing side to you and your father. I meant it when I said I would protect you." He held out his hand. "Here."

Portia glanced down and recoiled. "What in heaven's name do you intend to do with those?"

"Give me your hand."

Reluctantly, she did as he asked. He wrapped the pig's ear around her middle finger, the leather surprisingly warm and soft from being in his pocket. Next, he threaded a thin leather thong through the holes edging the ear, until he'd laced it like one of her gowns. He pulled the whole thing taut, then tied it at the bottom. "Now the others." Soon he'd shrouded all three of her middle fingers in pigs' ears. The leather was paler than boot leather, as though the pigs' ears were tanned differently. In fact, the pigskin was so close to the shade of her own skin that it looked like she wasn't wearing the finger guards at all. "Next time, wear these when you need to shoot out your frustration. Your arms will tire long before you make your fingers bleed. Pigs' ears are tough."

"Thank you, Dolf!" Portia threw her arms around his neck. Too late, she realised as her body moulded to his that she shouldn't do such things any more. Though he cared for her as much as any brother, Rudolf was most certainly not one of her siblings. Awkwardly, she peeled herself away from him, only now realising that he held his arms stiffly at his sides. Stopping himself from returning her embrace, or pushing her away? Oh, she was so stupid.

"It's my pleasure, Portia," he said. With a slight bow, he left her.

Portia sighed, only now realising she held her well-wrapped fingers over her heart. If only she was as free as her sisters. But the world didn't work the way she wanted to, for life was nothing like a fairytale.

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Three sisters. An absent prince who promised to protect them. And the wolf is at the door…

Once upon a time…

When war breaks out, Rudolf promises Portia and her sisters he will protect them. But his father falls in battle, and Rudolf is forced to return home to command his father’s armies.

Shifting alliances turn Portia and her family from friends to sworn enemies. To win the war, Rudolf must conquer her home, and risk losing her forever.

When the wolf is at the door, who will win – love or war?

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The Princess Who Refused to be a Prize

Would you like to read a FREE sample of Appease: Princess and the Pea Retold? Well, you can...with the exclusive excerpt chapters below:

Princess Sativa played with her amber ring as she waited for her father to notice she'd arrived. For years now, it had been too small to fit on her fingers, so she wore it on a thong around her neck.

Her heart went out to her grey-haired father, for now he looked like an old man.

Her father had aged a lot since the dragon came. First the loss of her mother, then the dragon plaguing the city, and then the final blow of losing her sisters in one fell swoop, just as the seeress had predicted, though Queen Dorota had not lived to see the dragon devour her daughters.

Sativa's sneezing had kept her indoors, away from the parade where her sisters had died that day. It was bittersweet, to know her affliction had saved her from a fiery death. If the dragon had only torched the fields of straw instead, perhaps she would have seen some bright spot in the animal's advent, but no. It stole sheep and maidens, and only burned knights who tried to slay it.

Or it had until last night, when everyone within a hundred miles had learned of the dragon's death. How it had happened, no one knew – not even those watching from the city walls, for there'd been so much fire and smoke no one had been sure the dragon was dead until a man walked through the gates, carrying a maiden, and announced that he'd killed the beast.

And now her father wanted to hold a feast for the man? It was too much. They were still in mourning for her sisters. To host this sort of celebration when…

"Sativa, my dear! How go the preparations? Do you need a new gown to wear?" Her father was so cheerful it could only be a lie.

Yet she forced a smile that matched his. "The castle kitchens are cooking up the feast to end all feasts, they say, they are so happy the dragon is dead. But I thought, so soon after the loss of my sisters…something more sombre might suit…" She caught the look of horror on her father's face and lapsed into silence.

For a moment, she stared into eyes that mirrored hers. All the guilt and devastation at such a tragic loss, the wish that it had been her instead, and the complete and utter despair of having to live knowing the girls were gone, shone through his irises.

"Your sisters would have wanted a celebration. The biggest, grandest feast ever held in our halls to mark the death of that foul beast. They would want it to be remembered. It is the end of mourning, for today we celebrate a triumph over the devil himself!" Father said fiercely. "You and all the court will wear your brightest raiment. We will commemorate this day! A thousand years from now, they will still talk about how the dragon was slayed!"

Sativa hoped that sometime in the next thousand years, someone found out how the dragon had been slayed. So far, the only part of it they'd found was its head.

"Yes, Father," she said dully. She would do as he asked, because he was the king, and if he gave in to the despair she knew filled his heart, they would all be lost.

* * *

"I find that hard to believe, Sir George. You've slayed monsters that were more troublesome than a dragon?" Father asked.

The dragonslayer – a shoemaker, Sativa had been horrified to discover, who her father persisted in addressing as though he was a knight – looked down at his food, abashed. It took him a moment before he managed to say, "Your Majesty, every monster is troublesome. Your dragon is certainly the biggest beast that I've ever faced, but size is not all that matters. Some of them are so cunning, or there are so many of them, or they are so intent on killing you…why, it's a wonder I'm still alive. There was this pair of unicorns up near your western border…"

Sativa beckoned a server over to refill her cup. She half-listened to the shoemaker's story, which seemed to include pigs, giants and his paragon of a squire, who had saved his bacon more times than he could count. Every time he mentioned his squire, his gaze swept the hall, settling on a table at the back, where the squires sat. Most of them squabbled over the food, focussed only on stuffing their faces with more meat than most of them had seen in months, judging by their ravenous appetites, but there was one on the end, smaller than the rest, who sat aloof from the fighting.

The small squire turned to look at the dais where Sativa sat, and she found herself staring back in the most unladylike way. The squire was no squire at all, but a woman, wearing leather armour that had clearly been made to accommodate her breasts.

She had saved the shoemaker's life?

Surely not. Had she been the maiden the shoemaker carried off the field yesterday? She must have been hurt fighting the dragon, yet she showed no signs of any injury now.

Sativa shivered. Something about the girl's eyes, even across the hall, chilled her very soul.

She began to pay attention to the shoemaker's story in earnest now, eager for details on what this woman had done.

"Truly, I couldn't have killed the dragon without her," the shoemaker concluded.

Father laughed. "You are too modest, Sir George. But the time has come to make you more than that." He rose to his feet, more unsteady than usual. He'd drunk more wine to maintain the cheer he insisted upon for this event.

"My subjects!" the King shouted. "Lords, ladies, knights, men! We are here to celebrate a great victory. Sir George has defeated the dragon that oppressed us for so long." He raised his cup in a toast, then drank. "And he shall be rewarded!"

The crowd cheered and drank with him, but Sativa merely bowed her head. With all eyes on her father, no one would notice that her cup stayed on the table where it belonged.

"Kneel, Sir George!"

The shoemaker stumbled a little and Sativa prayed that he would not embarrass her father by sprawling at his feet. Someone must have heard her prayer, for the shoemaker managed to regain his balance and make his way to her father without any further mishaps.

Now Sativa drank as the shoemaker droned his way through his vows of fealty to her father. Someone must have coached him, she suspected, because he didn't stumble over the words as he presented her father with his sword.

Her father made him more than a knight – when the shoemaker rose, he was a lord.

This seemed to make him even more nervous – it took him a couple of tries to get his sword back into his scabbard, so that when he succeeded, a cheer rose up from the hall for the newly minted lord.

Even Sativa managed a smile at this.

"And as a final reward for his heroism, I have decided to bestow my only remaining daughter, Princess Sativa, on him in marriage this very night. My personal confessor and priest will marry them in the castle chapel after the feast, and if I'm not mistaken, Lord George will have an heir on the way before the night is through!"

Sativa's smile died.

* * *

In the flurry of activity around the new Lord Shoemaker, Sativa slipped away before her welling tears fell. The crown princess could not cry before the court.

She barely made it to the corridor before tears blurred her vision, but there was no one to see her distress as she fled to her chamber. A chamber she had once shared with her sisters, but was now cold and empty.

No one had lit a fire in here, and horror enveloped Sativa as she realised why. She was not meant to return here tonight – she was supposed to spend the night in her new husband's chamber. Crushed under the body of some shoemaker, as they consummated a marriage she did not want. Had not agreed to. Would never agree to, while she was betrothed to Prince Reidar of Viken.

Her fingers flew to the ring she wore on a thong about her throat, a solid reminder of the boy she had not seen since their betrothal. The prince would be a man grown now, strong enough to challenge the shoemaker for his rightful bride.

The thought of Reidar made her smile through her tears. He would ride up on his charger, wearing armour like the knights who'd come to fight the dragon. Only he would come to fight for her honour, and her love. He would make short work of the shoemaker, before lifting Sativa herself in his arms and carrying her off to his kingdom.

Her heart swelled at the thought. Yes, yes! Reidar would save her.

Sativa darted to the table and seized a quill, then searched for a clean piece of parchment. She would write him a letter, telling him about the dragon and the shoemaker and Reidar would come…

Too late.

Because her father would have her marry the shoemaker tonight. Tonight, the lowborn boy would take her maidenhead and make her miserable. Would Reidar even want someone so tainted when he arrived weeks later? What if she was carrying the shoemaker's child?

Sativa shuddered. She would not give her body to a man who did not deserve it. Who did not love her. Better to be devoured by a dragon, like her sisters had been, than that.

As long as she stayed in the castle, she would not escape this marriage. Her father would force her to it, for he could not go back on his word.

But Sativa refused to go back on her word. She'd promised to wed Reidar, and she would. She'd leave the castle tonight, and by the time her father realised she was missing, she would be far from his walls. There was no time for farewells, and who would listen, anyway? Her sisters were dead, and her father had given her away like some bauble. No, there was nothing for her here.

Down went the quill. Instead, she collected what coins she could find. Her sisters had no need for money now, and she had no idea what the price would be for passage to Reidar's kingdom, she told herself as she pawed through the chests containing her sisters' belongings. For if he could not come to her, she would go to him. With him, she would be safe.

She bundled together some spare clothes, then donned a cloak in the hope that it would hide her. Sativa paused for a moment to say a silent farewell to her sisters' spirits and the home she had known for all her life, before she turned her back on it forever.

* * *

Sativa had managed to saddle her mare, Salt, and fasten the saddlebags to the animal, when she heard approaching footsteps. Swearing silently, she slid into the stall with Salt, praying that the intruder would go away. She held her breath as she peered through the gaps in the stall wall.

Whoever it was did not respond to prayers, for they came into the stable. One of the squires, she thought at first, until the squire came into view.

Sativa almost swore again as she recognised the flaming hair of the woman the shoemaker had been staring at all night. The one who'd been so indispensable at slaying all those monsters. She would not let her lord's bride escape.

"Who's there?" the woman demanded, sliding her dagger from its sheath. "Show yourself!"

Sativa sidled deeper into the stall, hoping the woman wouldn't see her. She refused to be dragged back to the hall, to be a prize for the shoemaker. The straw shifted under her boots and Sativa nearly fell on her behind, but caught herself in time. Salt lifted her head from her dinner and snorted at Sativa, blowing fragments of straw everywhere.

Sativa gasped in horror, the worst thing she could possibly do.

The tickle started in her nose, building until it was unbearable, as if an angry bee had lodged up there and wanted out. Sativa couldn't stop it. She couldn't.

She sneezed.

Damned pea straw.

The door to the stall flew open, and the flame-haired woman stood in the breach, blocking Sativa's escape.

Sativa kept her head down, hoping the woman wouldn't recognise her, doing her best to keep the horse between them.

"Princess?"

 Too late.

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A princess who refuses to be a prize. A prince’s promise. Perhaps dragons aren’t so bad after all.

Once upon a time…

Promised as a prize to any hero who can slay the dragon, Princess Sativa flees the palace in search of the prince she was betrothed to as a child. But there are many miles between her and the boy who has become a king.

Can a lone princess cross the sea and convince the king she’s the princess of his dreams?

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A Brave Little Tailor Indeed

Would you like to read a FREE sample of Embellish: Brave Little Tailor Retold? Well, you can...with the exclusive excerpt chapters below:

Melitta would never forget the day she decided she would become a hero. It was the holy day of St John, and the entire court was present in the Great Hall for the feast. 

"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.

From her place at the high table, two seats away from Queen Margareta, Melitta had an ideal view of the knight who strode into the Great Hall, haloed by the rosy rays of the sinking sun behind him. His armour caught the candlelight from all directions, bathing him in gold. Gasps rose from the long tables on either side of him. Only the king and his knights could afford so much metal, while most of them wore leather. To wear such glorious armour, for surely it could not be real gold, this travelling knight must be rich indeed. And if it was real gold…why, he must be the best knight in all the lands, and a true hero.

The kind she wished to be.

King Erik called for a place to be set for the knight, before announcing grandly that there should be a tourney on the morrow, so that his own men could test their skill against such a legendary hero.

Cheers erupted around the hall and men raised their cups to toast the king's health.

Melitta didn't need to read the men's minds to know they all shared the same thought: every man present wanted to beat the newcomer in a fair fight, for honour won in battle, even a mock battle, was more precious than life itself.

"Fools," Queen Margareta muttered to Mother, loud enough for Melitta to hear. Whether she included her husband in that, Melitta didn't know.

As if the knight had heard, Sir Chase bowed his head and removed his helmet.

Now it was Melitta's turn to gasp.

Sir Chase was the handsomest man she had ever seen. Dark hair warred with light coloured eyes, and yet the outcome of the battle was…mesmerising. No wrinkle or a scar marked his face, beneath a thatch that bore not even a single white hair. He appeared younger than even their ever-youthful queen. Too young to be a hero, yet here he was.

Sir Chase bowed low before the dais. "Your Majesty King Erik, I am honoured by your hospitality. I wish only to serve."

This was when he would whip out his sword and lay it at the king's feet, Melitta knew, as he pledged his fealty and honour to the king's service. She'd seen enough knights sworn in to know the way of it.

Yet Sir Chase's sword remained firmly in its scabbard.

"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."

Queen Margareta's musical laughter rang out across the hall, silencing all conversation. "Pray continue, Sir Knight."

"As you wish, most beautiful 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. So that if his liege or his lady is plagued by the most enormous monster or the tiniest gnat, he can dispatch it forthwith."

Gnats? In summertime, they had more problems with flies, Melitta thought, shooing several of the buzzing nuisances away from her meat. How did they manage to seek her out so fast? She'd been so focussed on Sir Chase she hadn't seen them appear.

"Allow me, Your Majesty," Sir Chase 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 Melitta's head.

What was he doing? In her momentary distraction, Melitta must have missed something Sir Chase had said.

Melitta bit her lip, and concentrated on his thoughts.

His gaze centred on a fly buzzing above the queen's head as he drew another arrow. The point followed the insect until he had a clear shot, when the knight released. His arrow arced up, skewering the insect before embedding itself in the wax encrusting a lit candelabra at the back of the dais. The candles wobbled for a moment, but did not fall, to the knight's relief.

Evidently deciding that Melitta's meal was a far safer target than the queen's, a fly zoomed past Melitta's face.

For a single, heart-stopping moment, Sir Chase's eyes met Melitta's. His eyelid drooped in what was definitely a wink.

She clearly heard him say, "Fear not, young maiden. A knight's duty is to save every lady, not just the queen."

His arrow point followed the fly as it finally left her alone and bumbled toward Mother.

Melitta felt a burst of satisfaction from the knight as he released the third arrow. It would meet its target, the queen would be impressed, he would have a place at court, he…

Queen Margareta leaped to her feet. "Guards!"

Melitta stared. A thin line of blood trickled down the queen's fingers to where the arrow had lodged in the table before her. A shimmery wing was all that remained of the fly, now squashed under the weight of the arrow point. The knight had shot the bug, all right, but he'd been so intent on his target that he'd unwittingly hurt the queen.

Sir Chase was too stunned to resist as two of the king's trusted men seized his arms, and a third reached for his sword. "Your Majesty, I meant…I meant to rid you of a pest, not…" Sir Chase stammered.

"Silence!" Queen Margareta thundered.

At her side, King Erik rose. "Anyone who seeks to harm my queen commits treason. Such a heinous crime is punishable by death."

Sir Chase's thoughts were a jumbled mess of panic as he found he could not speak. Yet rising through it all was a scream of horror that he had not meant to harm the queen. Melitta believed him.

But the queen did not.

"He's telling the truth!" Melitta was surprised to hear her own high voice echo across the hall. Somehow, she'd risen from her seat, and now her knees wanted to wilt so that she could sink under the table and hide from what seemed like every eye turned toward her. Yet Sir Chase's talk of honour and heroes emboldened her, and she forced herself to stand tall. Maidens could be heroes, too. "He shot a fly. Look!" She pointed at the arrow with a hand that shook.

Mother shoved her back into her seat, telling her to hush, but it was too late. The queen had heard every word.

Glittering dark eyes seemed to survey Melitta's soul. Melitta stared back defiantly. Until, miracle of miracles, the queen inclined her head and yielded.

Queen Margareta turned to the knight. "Get out," she said softly. "This once, you may leave with your life. Set foot in this kingdom again and you will not be so lucky."

Melitta slid out of the knight's mind as easily as she'd ventured into it. He bowed one last time toward the dais before making a hasty exit. And while Sir Chase vanished from her world, he never really left her thoughts.

Only it wasn't his handsome face, or his shiny armour that stayed with her. No, it was his words. And the dead flies.

And the hope, one day, of being a hero once more.

* * *

After St John's Day, Melitta resolved to spend more time on archery. She dusted off her bow, took a few minutes to remember how to string it, then headed to the field reserved for the archery butts. It appeared that everyone else shared her passion for archery practice, for the normally deserted butts now had queues of men and boys waiting their turn.

 Everyone in the training grounds seemed to want to best Sir Chase at his fly-shooting, even if the knight himself had departed in accordance with the queen's command. While they were waiting, a bunch of boys Melitta's age had climbed the fence into the next field and were shooting at a pile of horse dung.

"I got that one!" one boy cried excitedly.

"No, you didn't," another boy snapped, looking like a smaller version of the boy he'd contradicted. Brothers, Melitta assumed. "It just flew away and you didn't see it."

"Watch where you're shooting!" cried a third boy, as horse dung splattered his shoes.

"You're aiming too low," Melitta said, jerking her chin at the boy who'd caused the splatter. "When they notice movement, they fly up and off. So you need to aim higher, for where they're going to be."

The boy she'd tried to help glared at her. "What would a girl know about archery?"

His friends joined in.

"Yeah, what would a girl know?"

"Girls can't be knights!"

"Girls don't belong in the practice yard."

"Shouldn't you be in some chamber somewhere, practising your sewing?"

Melitta regarded the boys coolly. "I’m already better at sewing than you are at archery. Maybe you all would be better off inside sewing."

"What's going on here?" The deeper voice of a man cut through the boys' enraged protests. The master-at-arms, Sir Faris. "Shouldn't you boys be practising, instead of flirting with girls?"

More shouting ensued, until Sir Faris waved the boys into silence.

"What are you doing here?" the knight asked Melitta.

She lifted her bow. "Waiting for my turn to practice."

Sir Faris' eyebrows rose. "Is King Erik's army so weak we need girls to man the walls? I see more fighting men here than any other kingdom in the world can boast. We would be in dire straits indeed if we had to rely on girls to protect the castle."

"Queen Margareta once protected the king from a dozen men," Melitta returned. She had heard the tale many times.

"Is that the tale your mother tells you? I heard the queen distracted the men with her womanly charms so that the king could slay them and lay their bodies at her feet for daring to attack her." Sir Faris' gaze held pity. "Girls on the practice field or the battlefield are little more than a distraction. Go home to your mother, child."

Melitta met his gaze. "My mother is with the queen, and she shall hear of this. After I have had my turn at the butts. I have as much right as any man here."

Any pity Sir Faris had shown vanished. "Then pick a queue, girl, and be prepared to wait a while. My men have been here since dawn, when a little lady like yourself was fast asleep in her bed." He stalked away, cupping his hands to his mouth to shout instructions to a man sighting on the furthest target.

Melitta surveyed the field. At this rate, it would be several hours before the men tired of archery and let her anywhere near the butts. In the meantime, she could stand around, watching, or she could join the boys in shooting shit. Neither appealed to her. Sure, she could carry out her threat and tell the queen what had transpired, but she knew her mother was working on a dress for the young princess's betrothal ceremony, and if Melitta joined them, she'd soon find her hands full of pins and silk. So much for her hopes of being a hero.

Melitta marched to the armoury, resolving to put her bow away until later in the evening, when the men were gone. She wasn't giving up, she told herself. Merely postponing practice.

The armour-master was nowhere to be seen, but Melitta heard a clatter from the darkness at the back of the cavernous cellar that housed King Erik's armoury. "Sir Bruno?" Melitta ventured.

"What is it, boy?" a gruff voice demanded. Sir Bruno, the armour-master, emerged from the darkness carrying a pile of shields almost as high as his head. "Who are you?"

"Lady Melitta, Lady Penelope's daughter," Melitta replied. From girl to child to boy, Melitta had had enough of diminutives for one day.

Sir Bruno scratched his bald pate. "What can I do for you, my lady?" Before she could respond, the stack of shields unbalanced and clattered to the floor. Sir Bruno growled out a string of colourful curses, only half of which Melitta understood.

One of the shields rolled, hit the wall and toppled over at her feet. Melitta reached down to pick it up and was struck with the design on the round shield. Concentric circles, much like the archery targets outside. A dark stain marred the design. "What are you doing with these?" she asked.

"Throwing them out, milady. Some of these are centuries old, captured from Viking raiders, and no use to anyone. Even if they weren't mouldy like the one you hold, lady." Sir Bruno reached for the offending item.

Melitta clutched it to her chest. "So if I wanted to use it for an archery target, no one would mind?"

Sir Bruno laughed. "If you were to throw it in the fire, not even the king himself would object, my lady."

"Good." Melitta surveyed the mess. "May I have another?"

"You may have them all. As many as you can carry." Sir Bruno laughed.

Oh, so he thought a girl couldn't lift a shield or two? Melitta fumed. Bolts of silk might not seem like much until you had to carry them halfway across the castle to the queen's chambers, up and down stairs until your arms ached. She selected two more and hefted all three in her arms. Heavy, yes, but no heavier than an armload of silks for her mother. "Thank you," she said sweetly, hitching her quiver higher on her shoulder as she turned to go.

"Any time, my lady," Sir Bruno called after her.

* * *

Melitta set up her practice range in the corridor outside her mother's apartments. She wedged her shield target in the window, then stood back to take aim. Her first arrow hit the wall and clattered to the stone floor with a sound reminiscent of mocking applause.

Practice, Melitta told herself. The more practice she got, the better she'd become.

By the end of the morning, she could at least hit the target on every shot. She hadn't forgotten how to shoot, at least. She kept at it until she managed to hit the white circle in the centre three times in a row. Only then did she set down her bow to massage her aching fingers. It wasn't enough. She'd have to soak them.

Melitta headed inside her chamber, intent on finding a jug of water. She immersed her whole hand in the one on the table, beside the dinner a maid had delivered for her hours ago. Only now did she realise how hungry she was.

As she devoured her dinner, Melitta mused that there must be a simpler way to heroism than hours of archery practice. Her fingers would be a mess of callouses before the week was out – she wouldn't be able to sew a stitch. Her mother would not be happy.

Too bad. Lady Penelope had made her own choices in life. Melitta was old enough to marry, which meant she got to make choices, too. If she chose not to spend her whole life at a loom like her mother, it was her choice.

Melitta tore off a piece of bread and dipped it into the dish of honey. The movement set off a small swarm of flies that she hadn't seen until now.

Dropping her bread in disgust, Melitta reached for her quiver. At this distance, she could stab the flies with the point of her arrow – no bow required. Yet her fingers closed on the strap that held the quiver to her shoulder. There was a faster way to swat flies that didn't require a bow or arrow.

Carefully, she raised the strap. The flies buzzed on, oblivious. One or two even settled on the surface of the honey once more.

Melitta took a deep breath, then struck. The strap slapped against the table, making her tray jump before it landed with a clatter. For all the noise, it didn't look like she'd caught a single one. Chagrined, Melitta flipped over the strap to see if she'd perhaps caught a particularly slow fly.

She counted. Then counted again. No, surely not. After a third count, the strap dropped from her nerveless fingers. "A dozen," she breathed in disbelief. "A dozen dead with a single blow. Take that, Sir Faris and anyone else who says a girl has no place in battle. Sir Chase killed them one at a time, yet I can take a dozen in a single stroke!"

Seizing the strip of leather, she took the steps two at a time to the practice range. Most of the men had gone, but the boys were still there, taking their turn on the butts.

"You're wasting your time!" she called, flapping the strap. "You're using the wrong weapon! Look, I killed a dozen in a single blow!"

"Let me see that, girl." Sir Faris seized the strap. "A dozen currants? Deadly foes, indeed!" He laughed, and the boys joined in.

"They are not currants, or any kind of fruit," Melitta snapped. "They're flies, the same as the ones they've been trying to shoot all morning. I killed a dozen with one blow. More than even the great knight yesterday managed to do!"

"The one the queen threw out of the kingdom? He wasn't so great," one of the boys mocked to more laughter.

Melitta folded her arms across her chest. "So you say, yet all of you are out here, working on your bow skills so you can do better than him. Well, you've been bested by a girl. How many of you can kill a dozen with one blow?"

The boys howled with laughter.

Sir Faris laid a hand on her shoulder. "They have the right of it, girl. Catching flies will never win a battle, and a knight who thinks so is little more than entertainment at a feast. Forget your dozen and do something more suited to your station."

 Melitta shrugged off his hand and stalked away. Sir Faris was wrong, she swore to herself, and one day she would prove it to him, and the world.

Would you like to read more?

A maiden dying for adventure. A prince on a perilous quest. Monsters that must be slain.

Once upon a time…

After losing a battle with a dragon, George is desperate to salvage his reputation. Only he can’t do it alone – he needs an assistant.

Royal tailor Melitta longs for adventure, so when she hears of a job opening for an apprentice hero, she jumps at the chance. Slaying monsters must be more exciting than sewing.

Can the unlikely pair still succeed at their quest – or will they fall for each other instead?

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Which Romance a Medieval Fairytale series heroine are you?


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Sleeping Beauty Awakened

Would you like to read a FREE sample of Awaken: Sleeping Beauty Retold? Well, you can...with the exclusive excerpt chapters below:

When Rosamond awoke the next morning, she couldn't smell breakfast.

"Monika?" she murmured, but received no answer. Perhaps it was too early and the maid was still preparing it. Rising, Rosamond decided to begin making herself presentable for the day. There was still a jug of water half full from last night, so she used that to wash before hunting for a comb to untangle her night-mussed hair.

A terribly unladylike snore made her stop, for it came from Monika's pallet. Surely the maid had not allowed a guardsman to sleep in her mistress's pavilion? She would soon feel the rough edge of Rosamond's tongue if she had. Wait until the queen heard about it.

Rosamond marched over to Monika's bed and wrenched the coverlet aside. Monika herself lay there alone, breathing so laboriously that it sounded like snoring.

"Monika, wake up. I need breakfast," Rosamond ordered.

The maid slept on.

Angrily, Rosamond shook the woman, but Monika simply fell back to her pallet, as limp as one of the rag dolls Rosamond had once played with as a child. She seemed unusually warm to the touch, too.

Feeling fear for the first time, Rosamond cupped Monika's cheek so she could gaze upon her face. The maid's eyes were closed, but her skin had the same waxy sheen as Melitta.

Rosamond tore her hands away from Monika and stumbled out of the tent as fast as she could. "It's Monika! She won't wake. She won't wake!" she shouted.

Strong hands fastened around her shoulders, spinning her around to face Sir Warin. "What's this about Monika?" he asked, his eyes filled with concern.

"She didn't wake. She usually wakes before me. I called her. I even shook her, but she won't wake!" Rosamond babbled, shaking her head. "She is ill. The same ailment as the weaver's daughter, I know it!"

Sir Warin gestured to the nearest guard. "Is anyone else ill?"

The man shook his head. "I don't think so, sir. I'll go check the other men." He returned a few minutes later, still shaking his head. "No, sir. Not a single man still abed, seeing as the sun is so high in the sky and all. If the princess had risen earlier, as is her usual habit, maybe one or two might have been but…" He coughed. "I'll go help saddle the horses, sir."

"Monika usually wakes me," Rosamond said. "I don't understand. If she is so ill, why am I not ailing? She rarely leaves my side."

Sir Warin's eyes narrowed. "What has she done that you have not since we left the city?"

Rosamond spread her arms wide. "Everything." Princesses did not do things for themselves, Monika and her mother had told her so many times it had become a habit. "She cooks for me, packs my things, brings water to wash with, sets out my clothes and helps me dress, even mends my clothes when I tear them. When we get home, she says I must have new gowns made with the queen's gifts, because my travel-stained dresses will not be fit for anything more than rags. Those new velvets will be perfect for court…" She might have prattled on for longer, but Sir Warin held up a hand to silence her.

"You said the weaver's daughter was ill, and Monika has the same ailment?" he asked.

Rosamond nodded.

"Did you touch the cloth the queen gave you?"

Rosamond's mouth seemed suddenly too dry. "I…no. It came in so many chests, and you were angry, so Monika said…she said she would load them onto the packhorses. The weaver's daughter unpacked those chests when they arrived, at about the same time we did, but no one else had touched them…" She stopped dead, clapping her hand to her horrified mouth. "You don't think Queen Margareta gave us cursed cloth?"

"Mayhap the queen herself did not know. Whether she did or no, the curse is undoubtedly real. We cannot take it home." Warin pointed at four guardsmen. "You! Fetch more wood. We must have a bonfire before we leave this spot."

The men obeyed, piling wood beside the small morning cookfire. They coaxed the cheerful flames into a roaring blaze under Warin's watchful eye, until he nodded and strode off.

"Where are you going?" Rosamond demanded, following him.

"To the picket lines, where the packhorses' burdens are piled, to fetch the cursed cloth. I will do what I must to protect you and the kingdom." He marched grimly to the pile of bags, seizing several before heading back to camp. When he reached the fire, he unfastened one of the sacks, reached inside, and tossed the bundle of cloth onto the flames.

"No!" Rosamond shouted. "You can't burn the queen's gifts. They are gifts. To do so would start a war." She seized the next bundle of cloth before Sir Warin could throw it into the fire. "You can't!"

Warin wrenched it out of her grip. "Do not touch the cursed stuff, Princess. What the queen does not see, she will never know. Unless you know how to remove curses, we must destroy it with fire. Can you break curses, Princess?"

Rosamond wrapped her arms around herself as tears sprang to her eyes. No one had ever spoken so roughly to her before. "No. I am a healer, and I help plants. Only a powerful enchantress – "

"Then let me do my job, Princess, which is protecting you." Another bundle of bright-coloured cloth landed in the fire, sending up a shower of sparks, followed by two more.

Realisation dawned. "If she was cursed by merely touching the cloth, then so are you." Rosamond gulped. "So am I."

"I pray that you are not, Princess." Warin would not meet her eyes. He turned and cupped his hands to his mouth, shouting for the attention of his men. "Ride for the capital. Tell the king we were taken ill on the road. God willing, we will be but a day behind you." He gave Rosamond a hard look. "You should go with them, Princess. Monika and I are cursed, but you are surely free of such evil spells."

Rosamond's fingers itched where she'd touched the velvet. "No, I cannot. What if you are wrong, and it is not a curse, but some plague that others can catch from me? I dare not bring it home."

"Go with them, Princess," Warin said through gritted teeth. "They will keep you safe. When this illness takes hold, I know that I cannot."

She lifted her chin as she glared at him. "Who will keep them safe from me if you are wrong? I am a Princess and a healer, and they will be no help to me when they are dead." She swallowed. "Or if I am dead, for surely the disease will take me first." She closed her eyes in horror. She didn't want to die. She didn't want him to die. Or Monika. Or anyone.

"Can you heal it?" Warin demanded.

Rosamond thought of Melitta. "Yes, perhaps. But it may take some time. We can't stay here beside the road, where any traveller might happen upon us, lest they be afflicted, too. We will need shelter while I try to heal you."

"Heal all three of us," Warin corrected, surrendering the last piece of cloth to the flames. "First Monika, then yourself, and if you have the energy and I still live, you can heal me."

Rosamond did not know how to heal herself, but she didn't tell Sir Warin that. She drew herself up. "Find us shelter, and I shall."

He nodded. "There is an old convent near here that I know of. It is one of the best spots in the kingdom for hawking, but as the king and queen are not fond of falcons, we should be safe."

"What about the nuns?" Rosamond demanded, horrified. "Their faith will not save them from whatever disease we are carrying, or a curse."

Warin flashed a bleak smile. "The convent has stood empty for my lifetime, Princess, and that of my father. The order who built it left, and did not come back. At least if we die there, it will be on hallowed ground."

Rosamond did not want to die, but she saw no other choice. "Help me with Monika. We must get her to this convent you speak of so that I may heal her." Before it was too late, she thought but didn't say.

* * *

After travelling for most of the afternoon, Rosamond wanted to scream at Sir Warin for his mistaken idea of what nearby meant. Even when they stopped, she saw no sign of any building at all. Perhaps the knight had only imagined this convent.

"In here," he said, taking Monika in his arms. He carried the unconscious maid toward a rock covered in thick briars.

No, not a rock. A stone wall, Rosamond realised. The briars bore so many flowers that they hid the joins in the stonework. "How do we get in?" she blurted out.

"When I was a boy, there was an entrance here. Under the briars, it will be here still." Sir Warin glanced down at Monika. "I will set her down. Keep watch over her while I work." He placed Monika carefully on the grass, then unsheathed his sword.

"No!" Rosamond cried out. "You don't need to cut them. I will ask the plants to move." The instant the words left her lips, she regretted them. Yes, plants usually did her bidding, but these were not the small rose trees in her garden at home. No, these were mighty monsters, wild and free. Yet she swallowed and stepped up to the tangled briar. Cupping her hands around a full-blown pink rose, she felt the sting as the tiny, needle-sharp thorns at the base of the bloom pierced her skin. "Permit us to pass," she whispered, closing her eyes.

She felt an answering whisper of greeting as she heard the rustle of leaves, moving in the breeze and scraping against stone. Except…there was no breeze in this still hollow.

Rosamond's eyes flew open. Before her, the briars had parted to reveal an arched portal into the building. She expected it to lead into darkness, but the ruined roof was open to the sky, letting in dappled sunlight.

Sir Warin stared at her with an intensity that made her feel uncomfortable. "I am glad to be on your side, Princess. I would hate to be your enemy," he said. He lifted Monika's limp form and strode into what remained of the convent.

Rosamond hesitated for a moment, before following him inside what turned out to be a chapel. Little remained except the stone altar, which was now wreathed in roses. She stepped up to the altar, brushing aside the leaf litter that had collected on its surface. "Put her here," she commanded.

Now it was Sir Warin's turn to hesitate. "Witchcraft in a holy chapel? Won't we be struck down?"

Rosamond made an impatient sound in her throat. "We are already struck down with a curse, remember? Perhaps the holiness will help. We will need all the help we can get, for I am but a novice at this."

Reluctantly, he set Monika on the altar. Then he backed away, staring at the maid in horror. "She looks like one already dead, laid out for burial," he whispered. "Save her, Princess. Please, I beg you. Save us all." He dropped to his knees.

Save them all. If only she could.

Rosamond wrapped her hand around a tangle of briar, feeling warm blood slick her palm, before she set her other hand on Monika's breast and sent her healing magic flowing through the dying maid.

* * *

Three days it took her to heal Monika of the disease, for Rosamond's waning strength took its toll on how much magic she could use before she swooned. Even calling on the roses for assistance did not help as much as she had hoped…for Rosamond knew the disease coursed through her blood, too, threatening to steal her life, even as Monika recovered.

Sir Warin had caught a plump bird, which now roasted over the fire he'd built in the old convent courtyard. "Good evening, Princess," he greeted her, wiping at the thin sheen of sweat that seemed to permanently coat his brow. He had caught the plague, too, Rosamond realised, but he would not allow her to heal him until Monika was well.

Which was now.

"It is a good evening," she replied. "The last of the disease is gone from her body. She sleeps now, but soon she will wake. Monika is healed."

He flashed a tired smile. "Then you are truly a good witch and a worker of miracles, Princess. I am grateful for your care, and I am certain that when she wakes, Monika will be, too."

"I must heal you," Rosamond insisted. "Monika will be weak for a while yet. She will need your help, and you cannot return to the city if you carry the sickness."

"She will have you, Princess. You have enough strength for a whole kingdom."

Rosamond wanted to laugh at the irony of his statement. She barely had the strength to stand. She knew what the knight did not – that she had contracted the disease when she healed Melitta, and soon she would no longer be able to hide it from him. She suspected she had only lasted so long because the healing energy coursing through her into Monika had kept the disease at bay somewhat. Not enough, though. It was only a matter of time before the disease won. Rosamond could not heal herself – magic didn't work that way.

If Sir Warin would not allow her to heal him, then she would wait until he was asleep tonight and take care of him then, Rosamond decided. She had so little time left.

Fortunately, she didn't have long to wait. Sir Warin had scarcely finished his dinner before he stretched out before the fire, mumbling something about the lateness of the hour.

Rosamond's eyes darted to the sky, where the sun had not yet set. Sir Warin was sicker than he was willing to admit, too.

He had chosen a patch of grass to lie on, so Rosamond lay beside him. One of the briars on the wall had sent runners snaking through the grass, which was all she needed to help her heal him. At least, she hoped it would be enough.

Grasping a handful of thorny runners, she sent a wave of healing through Sir Warin's sleeping body. She would not have days for this; if she did not heal him completely in one go, she might not manage to heal him at all. So even as her head ached and her body grew numb, still Rosamond worked her magic. The brave knight must survive, even if she did not.

The full moon had risen high in the sky by the time she had rid Sir Warin of his ailment. He would sleep for some time yet, as his body still had healing of its own to do. If she were stronger, she would help him, but as it was…

She climbed laboriously to her feet. Rosamond wanted to check Monika one more time before she lay down to await her fate. There would be no healer to save the princess, but Rosamond knew this was the only way to save the kingdom. She could not carry this curse home.

Rosamond had already chosen her resting place. She believed it had once been a kind of courtyard, open to the sun and rain, because very little of the roof had fallen onto the mosaic tiles still visible beneath the leaf litter. In the middle of it stood a fountain, though it held no water now. Instead, the basin had filled up with roses, so that it resembled a bed of flowers. This would be her deathbed. Far more befitting of a princess than the cold vaults beneath her parents' castle. A castle she would never see again.

Would her last sight on this earth be of sunny blue skies or sparkling stars? Rosamond wondered. It mattered little. She would be surrounded by the scent of roses, which would be enough.

With considerable effort, she made her way to the chapel where Monika lay resting.

Rosamond laid a hand on the maid's forehead, searching for signs of the disease, but finding none.

"Mistress?" Monika croaked.

"Rest. You were ill, but you are better now," Rosamond soothed her, struggling to keep her voice from shaking. No one would reassure her when the time came. "Sir Warin sleeps in the courtyard, but he will wake when he is well, too."

"What of you, mistress? Who cares for you?" Monika asked.

No one. Rosamond didn't dare speak the words aloud. "I am well cared for, I assure you. My sleeping chamber is over there. The roses guard me while I sleep. They will allow no harm to come to me." For she would soon be beyond harm, and the kingdom would be safe.

"Mistress…"

"It is time for me to retire. I only came to check on you. If Sir Warin survives until morning, you must return with him."

"What of you, mistress?" Monika said again, more urgently this time.

Rosamond smiled sadly. "If I do not succumb before morning, then I will return with you. If my body lacks the strength to fight this plague…you must leave me here. Do not bring my remains home. Tell my parents I died on the road, of an illness that I would not wish to visit upon my people. Promise me, Monika."

"No, mistress!" Monika tried to rise, but she was too weak.

"Thank you for your service to me. Please thank Sir Warin, too, when he wakes."

And with that, Rosamond bent her final steps toward the rose-shrouded fountain. Perhaps it was selfish to use the last of her strength to reach the pretty courtyard, but she did not care. She had used so much of what she had left to heal others. If she did not put enough distance between herself and her travelling companions, they might contract the disease again from her remains, and she would not be around to heal them a second time.

When she reached the stone basin, she nearly tumbled in, she was so tired. The briars would not let her, though, snaking beneath her to hold her weight until they formed a proper bed. Thorns shredded her clothes and some pierced her skin, but she felt little any more.

The world was no more than a dream to her now.

Rosamond lay on her bed of roses, weaving her fingers between the blossoms. She could feel the disease running riot through her blood, though it had not invaded her lungs as it had Melitta, Monika and Sir Warin. As her energy waned, she fancied she felt the tiny disease motes slowed their dance, almost as if they would die with her. That was a good thing.

The briars she touched – a dozen bushes, at least, all sending their runners toward her – offered her welcome, wishing her health in ways that felt like sap running through her veins instead of blood.

Protect me, she told them, envisioning vines closing off the courtyard to all but the sky, so that no one could reach her while the disease still survived in her body. Protect the kingdom. In her mind's eye, this involved all the plants in the kingdom forming up like armies for battle, keeping anyone at bay who might threaten her people with a plague like hers.

She lay facing the sky, but Rosamond saw neither stars nor moon as her eyes closed and her consciousness sank into oblivion, surrounded by the plants she loved, promising to obey her wishes.

While she lay alone in the moonlight, briars wove themselves into an impenetrable wall, blocking off the courtyard. Leaves whispered in the night breeze, telling trees and bushes of the princess's desire, until every bush along the borders had heard her final command.

Roses cradled her body, while berry bushes built a wall of their own around her lands. They would keep the kingdom safe for her, they promised, as only plants can.

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A sleeping beauty. A kingdom frozen in time. Only one can save them all.

Once upon a time…

Lord Siward intended to go hunting, but when he stumbles upon a ruined castle and accidentally wakes the mysterious maiden sleeping inside, he knows his holiday is over.

With the kingdom in trouble, Siward should be protecting the realm, but every time Rosamond looks at him, he gets lost in the girl’s green eyes. Who is the mysterious beauty, and why does he feel she holds the key to the kingdom’s deliverance?

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A Medieval Little Mermaid

Would you like to read a FREE sample of Silence: Little Mermaid Retold? Well, you can...with the exclusive excerpt chapters below:

The ocean sang in harmony with the oncoming storm. Though she stood on deck, Margareta could hear the song so clearly she wanted to join in. Three times the captain had tried to persuade her to go below decks, or into his cabin at the very least, but she hadn't budged. As long as a single man stood on deck, so would she.

Besides, the cabin was crowded enough with the young prince, his entourage and the cloying reek of seasickness.

She smelled it first, before the fine down on her bare forearms stood on end. Then blinding light erupted from the deck, consuming the mast before splashing across the sky. She clapped her hands over her ears, but it did little to quiet the thunderclap when it came.

After that, silence descended on the ship, for the thunderclap had deafened them all.

When the smoking mast cracked into pieces, smashing through the cabin and all those within, no one heard their screams, or the horrible ripping squeal as the ship's beams broke asunder, surrendering to the sea.

While panicked sailors raced around, trying to put out the fires or save themselves, Margareta sat on the deck and calmly removed her shoes and stockings. There wasn't time for more, as the deck was already awash. The ocean licked at her bare toes, enticing her in.

Margareta climbed over the railing, until there was nothing between her and the waves below. She closed her eyes and dropped, feeling the ocean's cold embrace welcoming her home.

It would be so easy to change into a more suitable form for swimming, and let her mermaid instincts take her to depths where no human could follow, but Margareta resisted. She was supposed to be on the surface, not in the sea. She was the daughter of the Master of Beacon Isle, and Beacon Isle was where she belonged right now.

The island was miles away, and it would be a much easier journey in a boat than relying on her own fins. Maybe one of the lighters had survived intact.

Margareta surfaced to survey the wreckage floating amid the waves. A hatch cover, what looked like a cabin door, barrels, corpses, the curve of an overturned boat…

Smiling, Margareta swam for the boat. A well-placed wave set it right way up. All she had to do was climb in and the ocean would take her home.

She had one hand on the gunwale when she clearly heard someone shout, "For God's sake, help me!" before the words ended in a gurgle.

Among the floating corpses was someone who wasn't dead yet, though he would be soon, if no one helped him. He clung to a splintered chunk of mast that rolled in the waves like a drunken sailor. As Margareta watched, it rolled him under the water before bringing him to the surface again, coughing and spluttering.

"Help!"

Margareta did. Guiding the boat to his side, she reached out to haul him in. He was heavier than she expected, though he was the same size as she, and the boat nearly capsized, but water was her element, so Margareta won him from the ocean.

He flopped into the bottom of the boat, the most unlikely catch ever landed. His fine clothes marked him as one of the prince's entourage, but his gasping mouth made him look more like a fish.

"You're just a girl!" he said.

She was far more than just a girl, but Margareta had more important matters to attend to than educating one of the prince's servants. "I'm the girl who saved your life, and I'd have thought you'd have learned better manners as the prince's pageboy."

"Squire," the boy corrected. "I am…I mean, I was…Prince Philip's squire." He was silent for a moment. "They're all dead now, aren't they? He asked me to fetch them some wine, so I was on deck when the mast crashed into the cabin. It must have crushed them instantly."

Margareta surveyed the corpses, then closed her eyes. "Yes, they are all dead. We are the only ones left, and to survive, we must reach the shore. Do you think you can – "

She should have kept her eyes on the ocean, for she knew how treacherous it could be. One moment they were in the boat, the next a wave sent them tumbling back into the water.

Margareta came up cursing. She'd bitten her lip, so it was with blood on her tongue that she commanded the ocean to do her bidding. The waves brought the boat to her, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. "Find him," she said tersely, ducking under the surface to search for herself.

A glint caught her eye – metal reflecting the lightning above – and she dived, shifting to her tail to give her the power to drag the boy back to the surface. This time, she made the waves lift him into the boat as she hauled herself aboard.

"Take us home," she ordered, and the waves obeyed, parting to form a path before her as a powerful surface current pushed the boat along it.

Satisfied that the ocean would continue to do her bidding without her watching, Margareta turned her attention to the boy. There was no gasping now, nor breathing, either.

"Don't you die on me, squire, or I'll throw you back over the side," she threatened.

No response.

"I saved your life, so it belongs to me, not the ocean. You hear me? No dying on me, now!"

She pounded his chest and back until he coughed up the water he'd swallowed and began to breathe again.

"Who are you?" he croaked out.

"I’m the girl who saved your life," she said again. "So what's your name, squire?"

He mumbled something that Margareta couldn't quite make out, but before she could ask him to repeat it, he fell back against the boards, unconscious. At least he was alive.

Leaving the stormy ocean in her wake, Margareta's vessel sailed for home.

* * *

The journey took so long, Margareta stretched out along the bottom of the boat with the boy to get some sleep. She didn't wake until she felt the keel scrape along the sand, and then it was to the bewildering sight of the boy's arms wrapped around her, as she embraced him. She only had a moment to reflect on it, before a wave tipped the boat over on its side and they both tumbled out onto the wet sand.

The wave retreated faster than it had advanced, taking the boat with it.

Margareta considered for a moment, then let the sea have its fun. She had no further need of the boat, for she was back at Beacon Isle. She felt refreshed by her swim and short voyage, but the boy looked the worse for wear. That he was still unconscious worried her. She dragged him further up the beach, out of reach of the playful waves, but still he didn't rouse. Perhaps he had been injured. The surgeon in Harbour Town would know what to do.

She rose, straightened her salt-dampened gown, and marched up to her father's house. Pausing only to ask a maid to have some water sent up to her chamber so that she might wash, Margareta headed for her father's chamber, where she was certain he would be at this time of the morning.

"Good morning, Father," she greeted the Master of Beacon Isle. "We have a man on the beach in need of medical attention. A boy, really, but he claimed to be the prince's squire before he nearly drowned."

"Good morning, Margareta. I – " Father broke off to peer at her. "I thought the Golden Eagle wasn't due back in port until tomorrow. I didn't hear it return."

"And you won't," Margareta said bluntly. "It was more of a wallowing duck than any kind of eagle. The stupid captain sailed her into a storm and she sank."

Father sighed. "Margareta, what have I said about sinking ships? I realise it is your nature, but – "

"It wasn't me!" she protested. "I haven't sunk a ship in my life! I told the captain about the storm, but he didn't listen. Lightning struck the mast and it exploded into flaming pieces. There was little I could do but return home."

"What of the prince? The captain and his crew?"

Margareta sighed with genuine regret. "Dead. All dead. Except for the boy I left on the beach, of course. If he survives. Can you send a surgeon down there, please, and some strong men to carry him to the house?"

"What, aren't you going to carry him up here yourself? You've played the knight in shining armour, rescuing him and all. Let him play the swooning princess while you carry him up to your chambers to seduce him." Father grinned as though he'd made the best joke.

Margareta frowned. "I don't intend to seduce him. The boy nearly died. You must think me a monster, Father, if you believe I would do such a thing. I…I'm going to wash, and change into fresh things that aren't encrusted in salt. Please have someone see to the boy." Not waiting for her father's response, she swept out of the solar.

* * *

When she was dry and dressed, Margareta returned to the beach where she'd left the boy. She was surprised to find no one but a few fishermen mending their nets, like they normally did in the afternoon. Her father had heard her, after all, she marvelled.

But when she asked the servants which guest quarters he'd been given, no one could tell her anything. It was as though none of them had yet seen him. Her father would know, she was sure of it, so Margareta marched back to her father's solar to ask him.

She found him bowed over the desk, with his head in his hands.

"What's wrong, Father?" she asked. "Is he dead?"

He glanced up. "Who?"

"The boy on the beach." Margareta wished she'd thought to ask the squire's name.

"I know nothing of any boy, except my own. And they have flown." He sighed heavily. "Something terrible has happened to your brothers."

Margareta clutched the table so hard her knuckles went white. "What happened? They're not dead, are they?"

He shook his head. "No, but they may as well be. While they were hunting, they met a witch, who took offence at some imagined slight. Before they could stop her, she cursed them. All of them. She turned them into birds and made them fly far away."

Knowing her brothers, the slight was probably not imagined, Margareta knew, but she didn't say. For all her reputation for seduction as a siren, even the most chaste of her brothers could boast more romantic conquests than she. Most likely one of them had made a coarse comment, and the others had joined in, until she cursed them all.

"Is there a way the curse can be broken? Did you speak to the witch? Perhaps – " she began.

Father silenced her with a wave of his hand. "She presented herself right here in my solar, and told me she would never lift the curse. But the curse could be lifted by a maiden who loved my boys enough to make a huge sacrifice for them." He reached for her hand. "Margareta, I know you like to save people. Here is your chance. Do you love your brothers?"

She might not like them at times, but… "Yes, I love them," she said steadily.

"Are you willing to make sacrifices to save them?"

Margareta hesitated, before she finally said, "What kind of sacrifices?"

"She said they could be saved in one of two ways. If each of them could persuade one woman to declare her love and dedicate her life to one of your brothers, a dozen girls in the same night, they might break the curse themselves."

Margareta burst out laughing. "If my brothers – all twelve of them – agreed to get married at all, let alone on the same night, to women who truly loved them…Father, that would be a greater miracle than raising a man from the dead. If that is their only chance, then my brothers are truly lost."

"There is another way."

She managed to stop laughing. "There had better be, or they shall be birds forever."

His grip tightened around her fingers. "If one maiden is willing to sacrifice her voice for as long as it takes to break the curse, they will be set free. She cannot speak or laugh or even whisper."

"One maiden. That would be me, I imagine? You wish me to be silent for…how long, exactly?"

He shook his head. "I do not know. Weeks. Months. Maybe even years. Until the witch believes you have sacrificed enough to make her lift the curse and restore my sons to me."

"Father, find someone else. I must find the boy. He was unconscious, and needed help. I can't find him if I can't ask anyone about him."

Father captured her other hand, squeezing both in a desperate entreaty. "Margareta, my darling Meg, there is no one else. If you love me, as you love your brothers, you will do this. Save them. I will find a place for you in the priory, and tell them you have taken a vow of silence. You can roam through the rose garden, or spend all day in the library, or do whatever you please, as long as you do it in silence. I beg you to save your brothers."

The library and the rose garden were her two favourite places on the island, as her father knew well. It would mean staying longer on land, too, without returning to the ocean where instinct might take over and make a monster of her as it had so many of her mother's kind. She needed very little persuasion when he offered her such things. But… "What of the boy?" she asked sharply. She needed to know he was safe.

"I will find him, and make sure he is safe. If you will save my sons, my heirs."

Margareta took a deep breath. "All right, Father. I will do it. Silence my voice to save my brothers."

"Thank you!" He threw his arms around her, hugging her as he hadn't since she was a child.

 And from that moment, not a sound passed her lips. For her father was right about one thing. If she chose to save someone – be it her brothers from some folly or some nameless squire from a shipwreck – she would not rest until she had succeeded.

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A little mermaid. A prince to save. Only silence can break the spell.

Once upon a time…

The mermaid Margareta saved Prince Erik from a shipwreck. Wanting to see the prince again, Margareta strikes a bargain with the Master of Beacon Isle. If she saves his sons from a terrible curse, he will reunite her with Prince Erik. All she has to do is stay silent until the curse is broken.

Silence is a virtue…until Prince Erik arrives early, searching for the mermaid who saved his life.

Can two hearts speak louder than words?

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Twelve Dancing Princesses

Would you like to read a FREE sample of Revel: Twelve Dancing Princesses Retold? Well, you can...with the exclusive excerpt chapters below:

"We should have made the wedding this week," Dokia said, lacing her fingers through Vasco's. "Waiting eight more days is torture."

"I call it delicious anticipation," Vasco replied. "Besides, if we got married this week, we wouldn't have a house to live in. Tomorrow I'll make a start on the roof, so that when you become my bride, we'll be able to spend our wedding night under a roof."

She lifted her gaze to the sky and sighed. "Right now, I would be perfectly happy with the stars as my roof, the night I become yours. If I have you, I will have everything I ever wanted."

"Right up until it rains," Vasco said.

Dokia laughed. "And that is why you're my lord and provider, or you will be, after next week. I cannot think of rain while the sun still shines."

"Ah, but the sun is setting now. And once the sun is gone, I'll make sure that all you can think about is you and me." Vasco raced into the trees, pulling her along until they reached the clearing they had claimed as their own.

Kissing Dokia was like air – he couldn't get enough of her. Their kisses grew more heated, and their clothes began to loosen before they started removing them entirely.

Vasco laid her on the soft grass by the stream, where she gazed up at him with eyes full of love.

"With all the practice we're getting, you will be perfect at this when our wedding night comes," she teased.

"Only because you are already perfect, my Eudocia," Vasco said, kicking off his boots.

"Flatterer," she replied, undoing the lacing of her gown to expose most of her chest. "What about these? Perfect enough for you?"

"Too perfect for me," Vasco replied. "Much like the rest of you. I don't know what madness made you accept me, but before you recover your senses, I will accept anything you offer me."

She parted her gown completely, laying herself bare. "I offer you everything I am, and everything I have. Take me, Vasco."

Vasco opened his mouth to respond, but another voice cut in, "That's a mighty pretty morsel. Too pretty for some peasant boy."

Something crashed into the side of Vasco's head and he fell lifeless to the grass. He never heard Dokia's screams pierce the air, or those from the village as it burned. When he awoke, there was nothing but silence and death to greet him.

For hours he walked the ruins of his home, looking for hope where there was none. So he did what any young man would after everything he had known was dead and buried: he joined the army, figuring that death would find him soon enough.

But fate had a different plan for Vasco.

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Twelve princesses. One wounded soldier. A mystery that must be solved.

Once upon a time…

Princess Bianca is sent with her sisters to the summer palace, a place no maiden has ever returned from. While her sisters seem perfectly happy, she has only one desire: escape.

Vasco, a wounded soldier on his way home from war, stumbles across the summer palace and sets out to solve the mystery no man has managed to yet. If only they let him live long enough…

Can the fair maiden and the wounded soldier uncover the sinister secret before it’s too late?

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