Alison McBain, The Rose Queen
The Rose Queen
Publisher: Fairfield Scribes
Date: July 21, 2018
Length: 328 pages
The Beast doesn’t always wait for Beauty. Sometimes, Beauty is the Beast.
Princess Mirabella is betrothed to a repulsive old man a year after her mother’s death. She refuses the marriage, only to find out her betrothed is a sorcerer as well. He takes his revenge by transforming her into a savage and frightening beast, giving her an ultimatum: she has three years to solve the mystery of her curse-or die.
Exiled to her mother’s estate to hide the scandal, Mirabella learns that the sorcerer was not alone in keeping secrets. Her grandfather was murdered before Mirabella was born, and her mother’s death is looking less and less as if it came from natural causes. The only point in common to all their ruined lives: her father, the king.
Faced with a conflict between saving her family and saving her own life, the choices Mirabella makes will change the future of the kingdom-and magic-forever.
This chapter starts after Mira has been transformed into a beast, when she is just starting to learn about her new form.
* * *
Because she kept no track of time, Mira didn’t know when the change happened. It was a day when she was alone, as a sudden cold snap had brought the ache out in Brina’s bones. She’d left Goliath behind too, since he sometimes had trouble keeping up with her fastest speed. They’d been at the estate long enough that Mira knew where the wildness gave way to human settlements, mostly so she could avoid them. She was picking her way through a snarl of thorns to get to a favored glen when she felt another’s presence pull her into alertness.
Rising to two feet, she swung her head back and forth to see and smell. A flash of movement to the right-grey against black tree trunks, gone before she could place what it was. After the sight, a woolen scent of fur and the cloying tang of old meat. She flexed her fingers, the claws scraping gently against her palms. Then over there-another flash, but she turned too late to see more. The bitter tang of wild animal sat at the back of her tongue as she breathed in and out. She tilted her head to listen to the stillness all around her. Even the birds fell silent, and only the leaves rustled ominously.
She turned back to see a new movement, now unhurried. A wolf loped forward from behind a dark tree and over the soft ground, each paw leaving an imprint behind him. At five yards, he sat down and stared at her with moon-yellow eyes. There was no fear in those eyes, only an awareness of her presence.
I am a hunter and one of the kings of the forest, he seemed to be saying. What are you?
Frozen before the challenge, she could do nothing but stare back. The instincts of the beast pushed for confrontation while the small human part of her yelled: Run!
She did neither. The beast’s golden gaze was hypnotic, and they faced each other for a handful of moments. Insects skittered by, unconcerned with greater things.
The impasse faded when the wolf shrugged and stood up. She found she could move again, breathe again. The creature stretched leisurely, indolently, and yawned, showing a neat row of sharp teeth. He turned to leave, but glanced back over his shoulder as if waiting for her to speak. She said nothing, knowing nothing to say.
Run with me, the yellow eyes beckoned as she stood there, hesitating. Be free with me.
He stood there, panting gently, a beauty that defied her humanity and called to the creature within her. She longed to give in.
Looking down, she realized that mud was oozing through her clawed fingers. She’d fallen to all fours and was gripping the ground. It was hard to tell if she was preparing to run or trying to stop herself from following the other creature. A fierce joy rose within her, the same desire she’d felt on that first day, a brazen lust to leap and fly.
The ground gave way beneath her claws as she pawed it in indecision. The wolf grinned at her and his tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth, a canine laugh. With a bunching of his hindquarters, he was gone through the trees, through the indistinct shadows and leaves of springtime.
She shook her head. There was the trail, clear as a path to follow. She could-or could not. It was an invitation.
Humanity faded before the rising tide of longing. Wind whipped her face, a blur of movement as the trees fled before her tracks. Soft moss and the supple crumbling of the earth beneath her paws as she jumped over a rotted trunk. Under a low-hanging branch, then a sudden springing up, up, up to grip and careen off a narrow opening between tree trunks. There-a glimpse of white, the brown-pink pads flashed in mocking as the wolf tilted an ear back to listen to her pursuit. She followed him around a dense thicket (movement inside, small and scared, but no time to explore). And-there! A quick flash, an opening in the trees ahead, slowing now and then-
-stopped with the smell of woodsmoke, the smell of man, and a faint echo of something she should know, something she should remember. The wolf immobile before her, an ear twitching in greeting, but his muzzle pointed toward something.
His golden eyes welcomed her to his game. See? they said. This is what we’ve come for.
Beyond the edge of trees, there were two people. One larger, one smaller. They stood together, and the domestic scene seemed to promise peace. She heard a thin thread of sound: a child’s nursery rhyme recited in a deep voice as the small figure was lifted into the air and swung around and around with feet trailing through the air.
“Shadow fall beneath the sun
Ending brought to everyone.
Blood to earth
Death to birth.”
A young girl’s laughter followed-innocent, unaware of any danger.
The wolf smiled at Mira. Blood and death, his eyes promised. A swift flash of movement and he was gone into the clearing before she could register his intent.
She froze for a second, maybe a fraction of a second. Time seemed suspended. Until the young girl saw the wolf running towards her, and a human scream shattered the ice holding Mira.
Not again! Mira didn’t quite think the words. It was more a feeling, deep in her bones and breast and heart. Evil, she swore, her vision filling with the memory of the sorcerer’s black eyes, will not win against a helpless girl again.
Mira leapt atop the wolf before she finished thinking, and raked his back with her claws. Snarling at his sudden enemy, the wolf shook her off. He bared his teeth and shrank back defensively and she noticed, for the first time, he was smaller than her.
There was a scar across his muzzle. Once, some prey had fought back, or maybe it was his former pack who had forcibly rejected him. He was, after all, alone and inviting strangers to play.
She wasn’t a stranger, at least not to his prey. She was human too, no matter her outward form, and she wouldn’t stand by and see a small child bleed and die before her.
She growled, and quivered in shock at the echoes of the vicious sound, but only for a moment. It felt like there were two people within her, one questioning and one decisive.
Did that sound come from her?
No, it couldn’t have.
Truly, from her throat?
Someone else’s, maybe.
From the princess?
At that thought, she let go. The princess had no place in a life and death struggle. The creature within her rose up in savage glee, and she allowed it to surge to the forefront.
She let that joy into her heart, let the desire and call of freedom swell upwards through her limbs and brain. It was a release, a shaking off of suppression. There was savagery at the heart of her, beneath her skin and in her blood and bones. The wildness had always been there, but contained and caged, almost dead since her childhood. It was exhilarating to let go control, to allow the creature to take over.
She stalked forward. The wolf retreated, his teeth locked in a snarl, black lips pulled back. His eyes, those beautiful golden eyes, were molten with rage and betrayal and fear.
Step by step, she sidled forward, veering left to place herself between the predator and his prey. The screaming was in front of her, then to her right, then behind her. The wolf backed up, then backed again as she circled, forcing him to retreat before her.
He wanted to run, she could see that. But if he ran, perhaps he would return here once she was gone and finish what she was here to prevent. The beast roared in her and she leapt, taking him by surprise. He lifted his head too late and her claws raked his muzzle and snapped his face to one side.
The sounds from his throat were savage with pain and hate. They were too close now for him to turn. He sprang forward and she ducked instinctively, but he only raked her shoulder with his teeth and twisted at the last moment to go around her and escape.
No! She turned with a marvelous contortion of her torso. She caught the meat of his tail in her jaws and he whirled, snapping. She raked his sensitive nose again and blood sprayed her face as he yelped in agony.
He crouched low to the ground at her attack, but flung his head back at the pain across his snout. She let go the grip on his tail in an instant and lunged at his exposed throat. The salty blood dripping from her mouth was red, as red as her vision was becoming with the lust of violence. Snap! Her jaws closed.
Blood, blood bloodbloodblood-it filled her mouth, dribbled from the edges of her lips and slid molten down her throat as the wolf convulsed in death. She gnawed and swallowed, a growl rumbling unnoticed from her throat. The carcass was still, but she was lost in the carnality of the kill. She wanted to bathe in the stink of the wolf’s death and tear his flesh from his fur.
It wasn’t until a shrill noise stabbed at her ears that she brought her head up, prepared for defense. She blinked and blinked, trying to clear her vision, but everything remained dyed in scarlet-red clearing, red grasses, red sky.
Another movement, and there was the figure making the noise-a sound she knew. In a minute, she would remember what it meant.
Aha, she had it now. A scream. The girl was screaming.
She blinked again, feeling sluggish, as if waking from a deep sleep. The girl was important, there was something about the girl-
Her head snapped up at a movement in her peripheral vision. Was that another animal? No, it was the man, not a wolf, the larger figure she had seen before with the girl, running toward them. He had disappeared during the fight and then returned. He brandished something long and thin, gleaming under the sun. A knife, she remembered fuzzily.
She realized, as blood dripped from her face and fur, that the man was charging toward her. That he was attacking her.
She backed up in confusion. “But I-” she tried to say, but no sound came from her lips except a low snarl.
The man hesitated just enough at the sound for her to turn and push away. She heard a shout, another scream, then she was gone, fleeing from the brutal truth in the man’s eyes.
She was a creature of the forest, like the wolf. No matter she had saved the girl, no matter her intentions had been good, no matter that she was human beneath the fur.
To the man in the clearing, she was, quite simply, a beast.
Copyright © 2018 by Alison McBain