This is Chapter One of my fairytale novella The White Wolf.
“Goodbye, Father!” Elaine cried. “Don’t forget my pearl necklace!”
“Or my silk dress!” Corinne called.
As her elder sisters waved lace-edged handkerchiefs from the door, Brianna ran down the palace steps.
“Oh, Father,” she said, “can’t I ride with you just to the gate?”
“Of course,” the King said, holding out a hand to help her into the carriage.
As the carriage rumbled across the stone pavement, Brianna leaned her head on the King’s shoulder. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you, Father.”
“And I don’t know what I’ll do without you, little Brianna. I wish you could have come with me.”
“I wish so too,” Brianna said. “But I guess Mother knows what’s right.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” the King said. “But I’ll miss you all the same. Are you sure there’s nothing you’d like me to bring back for you? You don’t want a dress, or jewelry, or—or anything?”
Brianna shook her head. “No, Father—but wait! I do know what I want. It’s a wreath of wildflowers, because to bring that, you’ll have to remember not to stay away too long.”
“I will bring it, then, my dear,” the King said. “I promise.”
The carriage reached the city gate. The King kissed his daughter on the forehead, and they shared one last hug. Brianna climbed down from the carriage. “Farewell, Father!”
“Goodbye, my dear!”
Brianna waved her hand to her father for as long as she could see him, but his carriage rolled around a bend in the road, into the trees. Soon all the wagons and mounted retainers disappeared too, and Brianna was left standing outside the gate by herself. She bit her lip—for though she would be her father’s little girl for as long as she could, a girl of seventeen was too old to cry in public. Of course her father would be safe. Even if it were still there, the ogre which people said lived in the forest couldn’t attack such a large company, and what else could happen? Her father would come back quite well, and before autumn. “Don’t be silly,” she whispered. “There’s no reason to worry.” But her head drooped as she turned back into the city.
Brianna looked up, and tried to keep from sighing as she saw Sir Peyton jogging toward her, a wide smile on his pink face. He stopped in front of her, bowed, and smoothed his blond hair toward its customary degree of buttery smoothness.
“Princess Brianna,” he said between gasps, “please allow me to accompany you back to the palace.”
“Yes, Sir Peyton.” Brianna put her hand on the arm he offered her.
“It’s too bad that you have to be parted from your father for so long,” Sir Peyton said. “But he’ll probably be back before the end of summer, and it’s only four months from April to August. That’s just a third of a year, and unless things go wrong, he probably won’t be kept longer than September or October. And I suppose we’ll be able to make it through the summer without him, and really there’s a lot to do here. We’ll go Maying, and have a dance at midsummer, and then I’m sure your mother will be willing to host another ball…”
Brianna pressed her lips together as Sir Peyton led her through the city, thankful that it was unnecessary to answer him beyond a few yeses and noes. He was trying to console her, she reminded herself, and yet… and yet.
Still chattering, Sir Peyton deposited Brianna in front of her mother, who had already returned to the palace.
“Here is your handkerchief, Brianna,” the Queen said. “You dropped it on the steps.”
“Thank you,” Brianna said, accepting the lacy square. “I had been wondering where it was.”
The Queen sniffed. “You must really learn to be more ladylike, dear.”
The King shook his head as he leaned back against the silken cushions of the royal carriage. What would he do for months without his little girl? Well, this royal tour must be endured… his chancellor said it was so necessary… and the Queen said it was proper for princesses to remain at home. Well, he’d get back as soon as he could—with those flowers.
But April turned into May, and June came, then July, August, September, and still the King was busy in far reaches of his kingdom. It was October before his carriage again rumbled through the woods around the castle, and his heart should have been light as he found himself ten miles from the home he loved so much and had left so reluctantly. Yet his face was glum as he leaned against the finely-carved carriage window.
“I have the necklace of pearls,” he told the trees. “I have the silk dress. But I have no wreath of wildflowers, though that is all that my little girl wanted. Just one wreath of wildflowers, and I would pay any price for it; yet there are no wildflowers in the markets, none by the roadside. What can I tell my Brianna?”
A grey bird sprang fluttering from a tree nearby, but that was all. The King resettled his chin in his hand as he stared out the window into the forest, still hoping against hope to see a few late flowers among the red and gold-leaved trees.
Miles away, a young man sat in a tree near a small castle. His arm was draped over a branch and his head lay back against the rough bark. Staring into space, his eyes half shut, he took interest in neither the flame-colored leaves around him nor the autumn woodlands beyond them, until a small grey bird dove through the leaves, landed on the branch his arm lay along, and began to chatter. The young man lifted his head.
“Well,” he said when the bird was quiet, “that’s interesting. That’s very interesting. Thanks.”
He swung down from the tree and headed toward the castle.
Nine miles… eight… seven… six… five… four…
“Morris,” the King said, “tell Sir Stephen I bid him ride ahead and give word that we are almost home.”
“Yes, Sire,” the footman said.
The King sighed as Stephen rode away, thinking that very soon now Brianna would be expecting him and the flowers he could not bring. He glanced out the carriage window and saw, between an oak and a walnut, a white wolf, wearing on its head a wreath of yellow, white, pink, and green. The King rubbed his eyes and looked again, but the animal was still sitting there.
“Morris,” the King said, “tell the coachman to stop… Now look right, and tell me what you see.”
Morris delayed his answer, and when he gave it, his voice was hesitant, very unlike his usual cheery shout. “Sire, I—I see a wolf. A white wolf with something on its head.”
“Flowers?” the King asked.
“Yes, Sire,” Morris said, clearly relieved to know that his master saw the same thing as he did.
“Then, Morris,” the King said, his heart leaping, “Go and fetch me that wreath of flowers.”
“Yes, Sire.” Less cheerful again, Morris began to climb down off the box.
“Sire,” a voice like a young man’s called, “you need not take the flowers.”
“Who said that?” the King asked.
“I did,” the voice said, and it came unmistakably from the woodlands on the right.
“Morris,” the King said, “did you hear a voice just now?”
“Yes, Sire,” Morris said.
“And, er, Morris, that voice—did it seem to come—”
“From the wolf, Sire.”
“I thought so,” the King said.
“Sire,” the white wolf called again, “I will give you the flowers, but I must have something in return.”
“What do you want?” the King asked. “I will give you rich treasure.”
“What use have I for metal and stones? No. Promise me the first living thing you meet on your way home. I will come for it in three days.”
The King licked his lips. It would be a dreadful nuisance if he had to give the wolf a woodcutter or something; yet in four miles of woodland he was far more likely to meet a bird or a wild animal than any human—or other wild flowers. “Very well. You will have your price.”
Rising and shaking himself, the white wolf loped toward the King’s carriage, and Morris went and took the wreath gingerly from his head.
“Farewell, O King!” the wolf called. “Do not forget your promise!”
Then the wolf trotted away, melting into the woodlands, and Morris gave the wreath of flowers to the King, who laid it on his lap; Morris got back up beside the coachman, and the royal entourage creaked into motion.
The King rubbed his forehead and wondered whether he had really just conversed with a talking wolf. He could almost think it hadn’t happened… yet in his lap lay a wreath of daisies, yarrow, red campion, and gorse…
“Morris,” the King said, “keep a sharp eye out for birds or animals.”
But as the carriage rumbled on, the woods seemed strangely quiet to the King.
“Your Majesty,” Sir Stephen said, bowing to the Queen, “it is my glad duty to bring you word that His Majesty is within four miles of this castle.”
“Oh!” Brianna said.
As her mother smiled and her sisters both began to talk at the same time, she tumbled her sewing out of her lap, hugged Sir Stephen despite his dismay, and went to the door of the chamber.
“Brianna!” the Queen said.
“I’ll be back soon, Mother,” Brianna called. She ran through the castle, out the doors of the great hall, and down through the city streets to the great gate of the city. Standing just outside the gate, Brianna gasped and laughed as the wind disarranged her hair and stung her cheeks to pink. It was a chilly wind that blew from the many-colored October forest to a princess who had forgotten to put on her cloak before she went outdoors; but even while Brianna beat her hands together and rubbed her nose against the chill, she found herself smiling and bouncing up and down a little on her toes.
For four miles, the forest was silent and motionless except as the wind blew through the trees and tossed down their red and golden leaves, and besides trees and rocks and running water, the King and his train saw nothing—not a deer, not a fox, not a rabbit, not even a squirrel or a bird.
Finally the carriage rattled around the road’s last curve, out of the forest, and the King saw his home, the strong grey outer walls, and the city’s roofs sloping up to the castle, which rose, turret on turret, with gay banners flying; and in front of the great gates, waving her hand and calling to him, was his youngest daughter.