Big Small Town Books is proud to unveil the cover for its hot new fantasy title A Knight for a Queen, the debut outing from Hannah B. Olsen.
In Olsen's gender-swapped. Cinderella-inspired tale, Chara is the princess of a country ravaged by war and on the verge of surrender. Elliot is a peasant boy who fights to regain all that he has lost. When the two meet, Chara must convince Elliot to join her cause and begin a journey that she hopes will lead to peace.
But along the way, deception will throw their trust into doubt, and Chara and Elliot will be forced to decide how far they're willing to go to achieve their tasks.
Here, at last, is the cover for A Knight for a Queen, with artwork by Sierra Palmer:
Read on for an EXCLUSIVE first look at A Knight for a Queen and be sure to add the book to your Goodreads shelf here! The book will release on Tuesday, December 8, 2020.
I dug my heels into the mud and stopped my blow short, the tip of my blade hovering just above his heart. If this were a battlefield, he would be dead at the foot of his princess.
The cheering crowd faded to a buzz, their colored garments and flags blurring into a faded tapestry in the distance. The world slowed as I waited, my breathing still ragged.
His chin fell to his chest. Defeat.
The thrill of victory sparked through me, dancing like firecrackers into every crevice of my being. Despite the biting cold of the early spring day, nothing could touch the fire that now pulsed through my veins.
The iron slats of my helmet distorted my view but I could clearly see the frustration etched into the wrinkle of my opponent’s forehead. He had made it through four rounds of fighting before facing me in the finale. And this was the first tournament of the spring season: the highest bets, the biggest prize.
But I couldn’t stay to collect my winnings and risk anyone questioning who I claimed to be. It’s not like I needed the coins anyway. That’s not what I came for.
His emerald eyes glistened with disappointment, the depth of which struck me. I hadn’t expected to find such motivation in the forbidden tournament ring. He was only a peasant, after all, and one who chose to spend his few hours of freedom pissing away any coins he could get his hands on. But still, his ardor paired with his exquisite bladesmanship brought a smile to my lips. Perhaps he would fit my needs.
A few stray snowflakes appeared in the air around us, clinging to our still recovering bodies.
“I’ve traveled from the northern ice melts to the Almoran straits,” he said, his disappointment cut with awe, “and I’ve never seen a man fight like you.” My smile grew wider as I reached down and offered him a hand. I pulled him to standing, his rough fingertips brushing my tender palms. Callouses from a bow.
A hunter. Well-traveled. Knowledgeable of the land. And an accomplished fighter? This was it. He was the one I’d been looking for.
His face now inches from my helmet, he dropped to a whisper. “Who are you?”
His voice thrust me back into full reality after the shock from my win and the volume of the crowd sounded deafening once more. When I didn’t respond, my opponent turned to face the crowd, lifting my hand high into the air, and bellowed, “Show them the face of their victor!” His cry dripped with bright enthusiasm but I could feel the anger simmering just below it.
I pulled my hand from his rough grip, knowing that the longer he held it, the more likely he was to realize that I was not the man I claimed to be. Or a man at all, for that matter. I smiled at him through my helmet, anticipation, fear, and excitement swirling together in my stomach. “I’ll be in touch,” I murmured under my breath, words that I knew would go unheard over the roar of the crowd, before turning and splashing my way across the arena. Mud had formed a thin sheet of ice over its surface which crunched under my boots.
I leapt over the fence. My high quality armor—a lightweight chest plate with matching arm and shin guards—did not slow me down. Risking a glance back, I saw the fallen fighter being clasped on the shoulder by a familiar one-legged man. But I didn’t have time to stare. I darted through the crowds, ignoring their shouted requests for me to show them my face.
My heart hammered as the crowd closed in on me, but I was just fast enough. Breaking into a full sprint, I made it to my grey mare. Stell was outfitted with a plain brown saddle, a change from the regal attire she usually bore. I untied her from a tree just beyond where the crowd gathered.
We galloped away from the Woodland Games, heading towards the forest edge to the country road that would lead us home. I leaned forward and squeezed my legs together until Stell was at full speed.
I hurried, not to escape the peasants but to escape my mother’s suspicion. Now that I had found him and my plan was finally in motion, I couldn’t do anything to tip her off to my disappearance. The last thing I needed was the Queen’s Guard breathing down my neck. Skipping high church was one thing, but not showing up for Sunday dinner was another thing entirely.
The woods gave way to the gravel road which led to the bridge spanning Walter Ravine. On the far side of the deep granite canyon, I rode through the city walls and onto the cobble covered streets of Swanstone. The capitol city was abuzz with people just getting out of high church and making their way home for dinner. I salivated at the scent of fresh bread wafting through the streets, enticing nobles to grab a loaf on their return.
I pressed on faster, I could not be late.
I passed by the red watchtowers and the golden arched gates that led to the palace courtyard, navigating instead towards the town stables. The stables held one of Swanstone’s best kept secrets: the town stables and the royal stables were connected, just on opposite sides of the palace wall. Those who had a key to the gate within the stables could pass from one side to the other. It was a narrow, but very heavy, gate made of wood and iron. It was just wide enough for a carriage to pass through. Most probably assumed it led to grain and hay storage, very few knew the truth: that the gate hid the only entrance to the castle grounds besides the front.
I navigated Stell into the stables at a full gallop, and down the aisle between where horses neighed and stamped their hooves at the disturbance. We wound around a bend in the brick cavern and I jerked the reins. Stell lurched to a stop in front of the unassuming gate where Grimm sat waiting impatiently on a bale of hay.
“Your Highness, you’re back. Thank heavens,” he thrust the thick iron key in the matching lock hurriedly, “Master Marchale is expected back any minute and I have to return the key before he finds it missing.” The gangly ginger stable boy took Stell by the reins and led us across the threshold onto the castle grounds before turning to lock the gate behind us. He offered a hand to me, but I was already swinging my leg over the horse’s back and hopping down. With a sigh of relief, I lifted the helmet off my head, allowing the snarls of my thick and rebellious auburn hair to topple off my head and past my shoulders. I lifted the mess of waves off my neck as I shoved my helmet towards Grimm.
“Oof,” he blurted, as my helmet caught him unexpectedly in the gut. I followed the line of his sight to find a young woman with golden hair running across the courtyard with one arm flailing and the other clinging yards of fabric that I recognized as my dinner gown.
“You said you’d be upstairs an hour ago!” Emily chided as she neared us. “Now there’s not time!” When she reached the stable, she carefully laid the gown over a bale of hay, put her hands on her knees, and took a moment to catch her breath. One beat later, she began to undo the strips and straps of my armor. “You. Take care of the horse,” she ordered Grimm about as if he were her stable boy and, for some reason, that made me smile.
Maybe everything was going to make me smile today. I’d done it. I’d found him. I had finally found a way out of this mess that was my life.
Em shoved me back into an empty horse stall and forced the dress over my head as soon as I was free of the armor. Her voice dropped low, “I swear, m’lady, if this plan of yours makes you late for one more dinner, I’ll kill you myself.”
I laughed loudly and began to fasten the buttons that trailed up the front of my dress.
She tied the bow at my back nimbly and I whipped around to give her a hug. “No time for that!” she yelled, shrugging me off in annoyance, “Go!”
I didn’t bother to collect my armor or weapons as I knew Grimm would take care of it.
Emily stayed right on my heels as we raced through the castle grounds. She was still fussing about with my hair as I stood in front of the ornately carved wooden doors that led to the dining hall. One was ajar.
Swanstone’s clock tower tolled in the distance. Quarter after. I was still late, but not unreasonably so. I peeked into the hall.
“The Norrfalters have already compromised one of our borders,” a small droplet of spittle collected in the center of the Grand Duke’s white mustache. His fists were clenched so tight, I chuckled thinking about how tight other parts of him may have been clenched. “They could invade any day,” he went on, “we need more troops. Another round of conscriptions might not even be enough!”
My mother sat by his side at the end of a long wooden table, surrounded by empty tufted chairs. Her hands were folded neatly in her lap, her dinner plate already clean. A gold, diamond shaped pendant with our family crest on it hung from her neck, as it always had since my father had gifted it to her at their wedding. Her dark red-brown hair was neatly braided away from her face and twisted into a tight spiral. A perfect vision of the perfect queen.
My matching hair fell tangled and unbrushed down my back, still slick with sweat. I twiddled the brass ring on my finger. A simple band that my father had found on the hunting grounds. I wore it always.
“Grand Duke,” my mother addressed him with her usual formality, “We are a small, peaceful kingdom. The peasants don’t know how to handle these conscriptions, and I would prefer not to spark a rebellion.” My mother had been leading the country on her own since the death of my father two and a half years prior. She had always had a heart for the commoners and trying to persuade the Grand Duke to have one as well was never an easy task.
“Has the Norrfalt king agreed to the terms of the alliance that we have proposed?” she asked begrudgingly, “Surely more conscriptions will not be necessary once the alliance is confirmed and the date is set.”
My skin prickled with betrayal at the mention of the alliance on my mother’s lips. I knew she only agreed as a last resort, but the thought of my own mother trading me like land or goods still burned like a brand.
At first, I held onto hope that the enemy king would reject my mother’s offer, opting to wed his son to one of their own nobles. But when my hope faltered, I hatched a plan, a plan that Emily insisted I could not pull off alone and, begrudgingly, I knew she was right. But if it weren’t for her, I would already be gone.
Together, we decided that I needed an ally, someone who could confirm my cover story and could hold their own in a fight. Someone almost as good as me who would enable me to do what needed to be done, to change my destiny. All the years of swordsmanship training—initiated by my father when I was still toddling—all the sweating, all the spars, all brought me to this day. To him.
“Not yet—” began the duke.
“Ahem,” I interrupted before I had to endure any more details of my delivery to an enemy state packaged in white.
My mother swiveled her eyes towards where I stood, disheveled but at least dressed, in the doorway to the large dining room. I picked off a piece of hay that clung to my skirt. The table had seats for fifty, but only the queen and the Grand Duke were present. “Ah, Princess Charissa, better to arrive late than not at all, I suppose,” my mother’s eyes flashed, even while the rest of her face remained completely calm.
Mother had done her very best to raise a proper princess; yet somehow she had still ended up with me. If only my parents had been able to have the son they had desired, instead of leaving me to be the sole heir to the kingdom, bound to serve forever under some man or another. In Mittelan, a never-wed woman—even the sole, rightful heir—was obligated to serve under a regent upon her coronation until she was married. At which point she would rule under her husband.
When my father died, my mother named the Grand Duke of Swanstone as head of her cabinet and regent in the case of her untimely death should I be found unwed. I swallowed my revulsion at the thought of him leading Mittelan while I sat helpless under an ornamental crown.
But marrying an enemy prince and being forced to live in his ice palace of the north was an even less preferred option.
“Mother, Grand Duke,” I curtsied to them each. “I apologize for my tardiness… I umm… lost track of time.”
“You know, Princess,” the duke waggled a large finger at me, “A queen would not be late to dine with her king.”
“Well, then it’s quite lucky for me that I don’t have one of those yet.” I flopped into a chair sideways, my feet over the armrest.
“Chara!” Mother admonished, using my childhood name in surprise.
I swung my legs around and sat rightly in the chair.
She composed herself quickly, “I mean… Princess Charissa, you shouldn’t speak to the Grand Duke that way. Or anyone at all, for that matter.”
“More apologies, Grand Duke,” I said as I removed my elbows from the table so the servers could fill my plate. My stomach growled audibly and I paid no mind to the reactions of my company as I stabbed a potato greedily.
“If you want the Norrfalt prince to even consider you as a bride, you are going to have to start acting like more of a lady.” He eyed me as he spoke but I refused to meet his gaze. Hearing the plump man drone on and on about acting like a lady made me actually nauseated. I suppressed the feeling by cutting a bite of the braised beef and popping it into my mouth.
However, ignoring him did not make the duke stop. “You need to start acting like a princess, or better, a queen! This war is costly and we no longer have the upper hand. Your marriage may be the only hope we have to unite our countries. Don’t you understand that, Princess?”
“Grand Duke, must we really put all the pressure of maintaining a kingdom on the back of a seventeen-year-old girl?” my mother asked, eyes fixed on her plate.
I could feel her unease and knew she hated the thought of sacrificing her daughter to politics, but my mother had been a queen long before she was a mother. Her sense of duty to her country was unwavering.
“And yet, here we are. Each battle we lose brings us one step closer to either her wedding,” the duke didn’t take his eyes off Mother as he pointed the tines of his fork at me, “or seeing our government totally overthrown.”
Her jaw hardened but she said nothing.
A wave of heat washed over me at the thought of a white dress hanging in my wardrobe, of actually having to live in the ice country of Norrfalt, away from my home, from Emily, from everything I knew and loved. The alliance, once finalized, would surely stop the war and the wedding planning would begin. I had months to carry out my plan—but a terrifying thought lingered in my mind—what if I ran out of time?
I replaced the thought with the memory of the man I’d triumphed over today. Although he didn’t know it yet, he was my key out of here. I was sure of it.
After a long swig of wine, I returned the duke’s narrowed stare. “I’d rather you send me to the battlefront than force me to marry anyone, let alone some dodgy prince whose country finds it acceptable to invade their peaceful neighbors just to increase their own borders.”
With that, the Grand Duke was rendered momentarily speechless while my mother sat silent, a proud smile toying on her delicate lips.
Excerpt Copyright © 2020 by Hannah B. Olsen. All rights reserved.