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Read The Queen of the Tearling
Read the first chapter of Erika Johansen's much anticipated dystopian fantasy The Queen of the Tearling.
THE GLYNN QUEEN— Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, seventh Queen of the Tearling. Also known as: The Marked Queen. Fostered by Carlin and Bartholemew (Barty the Good) Glynn. Mother: Queen Elyssa Raleigh. Father: unknown. See appendix XI for speculation.
—The Early History of the Tearling, AS TOLD BY MERWINIAN
Kelsea Glynn sat very still, watching the troop approach her homestead. The men rode as a military company, with outliers on the corners, all dressed in the grey of the Tearling royal guard. The riders’ cloaks swayed as they rode, revealing their costly weapons: swords and short knives, all of them of Mortmesne steel. One man even had a mace; Kelsea could see its spiked head protruding from his saddle. The sullen way they guided their horses toward the cottage made things very clear: they didn’t want to be here.
Kelsea sat, cloaked and hooded, in the fork of a tree some thirty feet from her front door. She was dressed in deep green from her hood down to her pine-colored boots. A sapphire dangled from a pure silver chain around her neck. This jewel had an annoying habit of popping out of Kelsea’s shirt minutes after she had tucked it in, which seemed fitting, for today the sapphire was the source of her trouble.
Nine men, ten horses.
The soldiers reached the raked patch of earth in front of the cottage and dismounted. As they threw back their hoods, Kelsea saw that they were nowhere near her own age. These men were in their thirties and forties, and they shared a hard, weathered look that bespoke the toll of combat. The soldier with the mace muttered something, and their hands went automatically to their swords.
“Best be done quickly.” The speaker, a tall, lean man whose authoritative tone marked him as the leader, stepped forward and knocked three times on the front door. It opened immediately, as if Barty had been waiting there all along. Even from her vantage point, Kelsea could see that Barty’s round face was lined, his eyes red and swollen. He’d sent Kelsea out into the woods that morning, unwilling to have her witness his grief. Kelsea had protested, but Barty wouldn’t hear refusal and finally simply pushed her out the door, saying, “Go and say good-bye to the woods, girl. It’ll likely be a long time before they’ll let you wander at will again.”
Kelsea had gone then, and spent the morning roaming the forest, climbing over fallen trees and stopping every now and again to listen to the stillness of the woods, that perfect silence so at odds with the abundance of life it contained. She’d even snared a rabbit, for something to do, before letting it go; Barty and Carlin had no need for meat, and she took no pleasure in killing. Watching the rabbit bound off and vanish into the woods where she had spent so much of her childhood, Kelsea tried the word again, though it felt like dust in her mouth: Queen. An ominous word, foretelling a grim future.
“Barty.” The leader of the troop greeted him. “A long time.”
Barty muttered something indistinguishable.
“We’re here for the girl.”
Barty nodded, put two fingers in his mouth, and whistled, high and piercing. Kelsea dropped soundlessly from the tree and walked out of the cover of the woods, her pulse thrumming. She knew how to defend herself against a single attacker with her knife; Barty had taken care of that. But she was intimidated by the heavily armed troop. She felt all of these men’s eyes on her, measuring. She looked nothing like a queen and she knew it.
The leader, a hard-faced man with a scar down the edge of his chin, bowed low in front of her. “Your Highness. I’m Carroll, Captain of the late Queen’s Guard.”
A moment passed before the rest bowed as well. The guard with the mace bent perhaps an inch, with the slightest perceptible dip of his chin.
“We must see the marking,” muttered one of the guards, his face nearly concealed behind a red beard. “And the jewel.”
“You think I would swindle the kingdom, man?” Barty rasped.
“She looks nothing like her mother,” the red-bearded man replied sharply.
Kelsea flushed. According to Carlin, Queen Elyssa had been a classic Tearling beauty, tall and blonde and lithe. Kelsea was tall as well, but she was dark in coloring, with a face that could charitably be described as plain. She wasn’t statuesque by any stretch of the word, either; she got plenty of exercise, but she had a healthy appetite too.
“She has the Raleigh eyes,” another guard remarked.
“I would prefer to see the jewel and the scar,” replied the leader, and the red-haired man nodded as well.
“Show them, Kel.”
The Queen’s Guard would cart her back to the Keep kicking and screaming, if need be, and imprison her on the throne, and there she would sit, hung with velvet and silk, until she was assassinated.
Kelsea pulled the sapphire pendant from beneath her shirt and held it up to the light. The necklace had lain around her neck ever since she could remember, and right now she wanted nothing so much as to tear the thing off and give it back to them. But Barty and Carlin had already explained that they wouldn’t let her do that. She was the crown princess of the Tearling, and this was her nineteenth birthday, the age of ascension for Tearling monarchs all the way back to Jonathan Tear. The Queen’s Guard would cart her back to the Keep kicking and screaming, if need be, and imprison her on the throne, and there she would sit, hung with velvet and silk, until she was assassinated.
The leader nodded at the jewel, and Kelsea shook back the left sleeve of her cloak, exposing her forearm, where a distended scar in the shape of a knife blade marched from her wrist to her bicep. One or two of the men muttered at the sight of it, their hands relaxing from their weapons for the first time since they’d arrived.
“That’s it, then,” Carroll declared gruffly. “We go now.”
“One moment.” Carlin stepped into the doorway, gently nudging Barty out of the way. She did so with her wrists, not her fingers; the arthritis must be very bad today. Her appearance was impeccable as always, her white hair pinned up neatly off her neck. Kelsea was surprised to see that her eyes, too, were slightly red. Carlin wasn’t one for tears; she rarely demonstrated any emotion at all.
Several of the guards straightened at the sight of Carlin. One or two even took a step back, including the man with the mace. Kelsea had always thought that Carlin looked like royalty herself, but she was surprised to see these men with all of their swords daunted by one old woman.
Thank GodI’m not the only one.
“Prove yourselves!” Carlin demanded. “How do we know you come from the Keep?”
“Who else would know where to find her on this day?” Carroll asked.
Several of the soldiers chuckled unkindly. But the soldier with the mace stepped forward, fumbling inside his cloak.
Carlin stared at him for a moment. “I do know you.”
“I brought the Queen’s instructions,” he told her, producing a thick envelope, yellowed with age. “In case you didn’t remember.”
“I doubt many people forget you, Lazarus,” Carlin replied, her voice tinged with disapproval. She unwrapped the paper quickly, though it must have played hell with her arthritis, and scanned its contents. Kelsea stared at the letter, fascinated. Her mother was long dead, and yet here was something she had written, actually touched.
Carlin seemed satisfied. She handed the piece of paper back to the guard. “Kelsea needs to gather her things.”
“A few minutes only, Highness. We must go.” Carroll spoke to Kelsea now, bowing again, and she saw that he’d already dismissed Carlin from the proceedings. Carlin had seen the transition as well; her face was like stone. Kelsea often wished that Carlin would get angry, instead of withdrawing into that inner, silent part of herself, so cold and remote. Carlin’s silences were terrible things.
Kelsea slipped past the standing horses and into the cottage. Her clothing was packed into her saddlebags already, but she made no move to approach them, moving to stand in the doorway of Carlin’s library. The walls were lined with books; Barty had constructed the shelves himself, of Tearling oak, and given them to Carlin on Kelsea’s fourth Christmas. In a time of vague memory, that day was pure and bright in Kelsea’s mind: she had helped Carlin shelve the books, and cried a little when Carlin wouldn’t let her organize them by color. Many years had passed, but Kelsea still loved the books, loved seeing them side by side, with every single volume in its own place.
But the library had been a schoolroom as well, often an unpleasant one. Rudimentary mathematics, her Tear grammar, geography, and later the languages of surrounding countries, their odd accents first difficult and then easier, faster, until Kelsea and Carlin could switch easily from tongue to tongue, hopping from Mort to Cadarese and back again to the simpler, less dramatic language of the Tearling without missing a syllable. Most of all, history, the history of humanity stretching back before the Crossing. Carlin often said that history was everything, for it was in man’s nature to make the same mistakes over and over. She would look hard at Kelsea when she said so, her white eyebrows folding down, preparing to disapprove. Carlin was fair, but she was also hard. If Kelsea completed all of her schoolwork by dinnertime, her reward was to be allowed to pick a book from the library and stay up reading until she had finished. Stories moved Kelsea most, stories of things that never were, stories that transported her beyond the changeless world of the cottage. One night she’d stayed up until dawn reading a particularly long novel, and she had been allowed to skip her chores and sleep away most of the next day. But there had also been entire months where Kelsea became tired of the constant schooling and simply shut down. And then there were no stories, no library, only housework, loneliness, and the granite disapproval of Carlin’s face. Eventually, Kelsea always went back to school.
Barty shut the door and approached her, every other footstep dragging. He had been a Queen’s Guard a lifetime ago, before a sword to the back of his knee had left him lame. He placed a firm hand on her shoulder. “You can’t delay, Kel.”
Kelsea turned and found Carlin looking away, out the window. In front of the cottage, the soldiers shifted uneasily, darting quick glances around the woods.
They’re accustomed to enclosure, thought Kelsea; open space alarms them. The implications of this, the life it foreboded for her at the Keep, almost overwhelmed her, just when she’d thought that all of her crying was done.
“This is a dangerous time, Kelsea.” Carlin spoke to the window, her voice distant. “Beware of the Regent, uncle or no; he’s wanted that throne for himself since he was in the womb. But your mother’s Guard are good men, and they’ll surely look after you.”
“They dislike me, Carlin,” Kelsea blurted out. “You said it would be an honor for them to be my escort. But they don’t want to be here.”
Carlin and Barty exchanged a look, and Kelsea saw the ghost of many old arguments between them. Theirs was an odd marriage; Carlin was at least ten years older than Barty, nearing seventy. It took no extraordinary imagination to see that she had once been beautiful, but now her beauty had hardened into austerity. Barty was not beautiful, shorter than Carlin and decidedly rounder, but he had a good-humored face and smiling eyes beneath his grey hair. Barty didn’t care for books at all, and Kelsea often wondered what he and Carlin found to talk about when she wasn’t in the room. Perhaps nothing; perhaps Kelsea was the common interest that kept them together. If so, what would become of them now?
Carlin finally replied, “We swore to your mother that we would not tell you of her failures, Kelsea, and we’ve kept our promise. But not everything at the Keep will be as you thought. Barty and I have given you good tools; that was our charge. But once you sit on the throne, you’ll have to make your own hard decisions.”
Barty sniffed in disapproval and limped over to pick up Kelsea’s saddlebags. Carlin shot him a sharp look, which he ignored, and so she turned it on Kelsea, her eyebrows drawing together. Kelsea looked down, her stomach tightening. Once, long ago out in the forest, they had been in the middle of a lesson on the uses of red moss when Barty had blurted out, apropos of nothing: “If it was up to me, Kel, I’d break my damned vows and tell you everything you want to know.”
“Why isn’t it up to you?”
Barty had looked helplessly down at the moss in his hands, and after a moment Kelsea understood. Nothing in the cottage was up to Barty; Carlin was in charge. Carlin was smarter, Carlin was physically whole. Barty came second. Carlin was not cruel, but Kelsea had felt the pinch of that iron will often enough that she could understand the shape of Barty’s bitterness, almost feel it as her own. But Carlin’s will had ruled in this matter. There were large gaps in Kelsea’s knowledge of history, and information about her mother’s reign that Kelsea simply didn’t have. She had been kept from the village and the answers it might have provided; hers had been a true childhood in exile. But more than once she had heard Barty and Carlin talking at night, long after they thought Kelsea was asleep, and now she understood at least part of the mystery. For years now, the Regent’s guards had ranged over every part of the country, looking for a child with the necklace and the scar. Looking for Kelsea.
“I’ve left a gift in your saddlebags,” Carlin continued, bringing her back to the present.
“A gift you’ll discover for yourself after you leave this place.”
For a moment Kelsea felt her anger resurface; Carlin was always keeping secrets! But a moment later Kelsea was ashamed. Barty and Carlin were grieving . . . not only for Kelsea, but for their home. Even now, the Regent’s trackers were probably tracing the Queen’s Guard across the Tearling. Barty and Carlin couldn’t stay here; shortly after Kelsea’s departure, they would be leaving themselves, off to Petaluma, a southern village near the Cadarese border where Barty had grown up. Barty would be lost without his forest, but there were other forests for him to learn. Carlin was making the greater sacrifice: her library. These books were her life’s collection, saved and hoarded by settlors in the Crossing, preserved through centuries. She couldn’t take them with her; a wagon would be too easy to track. All of these volumes, gone.
Kelsea picked up her night pack and shrugged it onto her shoulders, looking out the window to the tenth horse. “There’s so much I don’t know.”
“You know what you need to,” Barty replied. “Do you have your knife?”
“Keep it about you always. And be careful what you eat and where it comes from.”
Kelsea put her arms around him. Despite Barty’s girth, his body was shaking with fatigue, and Kelsea realized suddenly how tired he’d become, how completely her education had taxed energy that Barty should have conserved for growing old. His thick arms tightened about her for a moment, and then he pulled away, his blue eyes fierce. “You’ve never killed anyone, Kel, and that’s well and good, but from this day onward, you’re hunted, understand? You have to behave so.”
Kelsea expected Carlin to contradict Barty, Carlin who always said that force was for fools. But Carlin nodded in agreement. “I’ve raised you to be a thinking queen, Kelsea, and so you will be. But you’ve entered a time when survival must trump all else. These men will have an honest charge to see that you get back to the Keep safely. After that, Barty’s lessons may help you more than mine.”
She left her post by the window and placed a gentle hand on Kelsea’s back, making her jump. Carlin rarely touched anyone. The most she seemed capable of was a pat on the back, and those occasions were like rain in the desert. “But don’t allow reliance on weapons to impair your mind, Kelsea. Your wits have always been sound; see that you don’t lose them along the way. It’s easy to do so when you pick up a sword.”
A mailed fist thudded against the front door.
“Your Highness?” Carroll called. “Daylight fails.”
Barty and Carlin stepped back, and Barty picked up the last piece of Kelsea’s baggage. They both looked terribly old. Kelsea didn’t want to leave them here, these two people who’d raised her and taught her everything she knew. The irrational side of her mind briefly considered dropping her luggage and simply bolting out the back door, a bright and tempting fantasy that lasted two seconds before it faded.
“When will it be safe to send you a message?” she asked. “When can you come out of hiding?”
Barty and Carlin looked at each other, a quick glance that struck Kelsea as furtive. It was Barty who finally replied. “Not for a while, Kel. You see—”
“You will have other things to worry about,” Carlin broke in sharply. “Think about your people, about fixing this kingdom. It may be a long while before you see us again.”
“It’s time to go.”
The soldiers had remounted their horses; as Kelsea emerged from the cottage, they stared down at her, one or two of them with outright contempt. The soldier with the mace, Lazarus, wasn’t looking at her at all but staring off into the distance. Kelsea began to load her baggage onto the horse, a roan mare that seemed somewhat gentler than Barty’s stallion.
“I assume you can ride, Your Highness?” asked the soldier holding her reins. He made the word highness sound like an infection, and Kelsea snatched the reins from him. “Yes, I ride.”
She switched the reins from hand to hand as she put on her green winter cloak and buttoned it closed, then mounted her horse and looked down at Barty, trying to overcome an awful premonition of finality. He was grown old before his time, but there was no reason he shouldn’t live for a number of years yet. And premonitions often came to nothing. According to Barty, the Mort Queen’s own seer had predicted that Kelsea wouldn’t reach her nineteenth birthday, and yet here she was.
She gave Barty what she hoped was a brave smile. “I’ll send for you soon.”
He nodded, his own smile bright and forced. Carlin had turned so white that Kelsea thought she might faint dead away, but instead she stepped forward and reached out a hand. This gesture was so unexpected that Kelsea stared at the hand for a moment before she realized that she was supposed to take it. In all her years in the cottage, Carlin had never held her hand.
“In time, you’ll see,” Carlin told her, clenching her hand tightly. “You’ll see why all of this was necessary. Beware the past, Kelsea. Be a steward.”
Even now, Carlin wouldn’t speak plainly. Kelsea had always known that she wasn’t the child Carlin would have chosen to train, that she’d disappointed Carlin with her ungovernable temper, her lax commitment to the enormous responsibility lying on her shoulders. Kelsea tugged her hand away, then glanced at Barty and felt her irritation vanish. He was crying openly now, tracks of tears glinting on his face. Kelsea felt her own eyes wanting to water again, but she took the reins and turned the horse toward Carroll. “We can go now, Captain.”
“At your command, Lady.”
He shook the reins and started down the path. “All of you, in kite, square around the Queen,” he called back over his shoulder. “We ride until sunset.”
Queen. There was the word again. Kelsea tried to think of herself as a queen and simply couldn’t. She set her pace to match the guards’, resolutely not looking back. She turned around only once, just before they rounded the bend, and found Barty and Carlin still standing in the cottage doorway, watching her go, like an old woodsman couple in some tale long forgotten. Then the trees hid them from view.
Kelsea’s mare was apparently a sturdy one, for she took the uneven terrain surefootedly. Barty’s stallion had always had problems in the woods; Barty said that his horse was an aristocrat, that anything less than an open straightaway was beneath him. But even on the stallion, Kelsea had never ventured more than a few miles from the cottage. Those were Carlin’s orders. Whenever Kelsea spoke longingly of the things she knew were out there in the wider world, Carlin would impress upon her the necessity of secrecy, the importance of the queenship she would inherit. Carlin had no patience with Kelsea’s fear of failure. Carlin didn’t want to hear about doubts. Kelsea’s job was to learn, to be content without other children, other people, without the wider world.
Once, when she was thirteen, Kelsea had ridden Barty’s stallion into the woods as usual and gotten lost, finding herself in unfamiliar forest. She didn’t know the trees or the two streams she’d passed. She’d ended up riding in circles, and was about to give up and cry when she looked toward the horizon and saw smoke from a chimney, some hundred feet away.
Moving closer, she found a cottage, poorer than Barty’s and Carlin’s, made of wood instead of stone. In front of the cottage had been two little boys, a few years younger than Kelsea, playing a make-believe game of swords, and she had watched them for a very long time, sensing something she’d never considered before: an entirely different upbringing from her own. Until that moment, she had somehow thought that all children had the same life. The boys’ clothes were ragged, but they both wore comfortable-looking shirts with short sleeves that ended at the bicep. Kelsea could only wear high-necked shirts with tight, long sleeves, so that no chance passersby would ever get a look at her arm or the necklace she wasn’t allowed to remove. She listened to the two boys’ chatter and found that they could barely speak proper Tear; no one had sat them down every morning and drilled them on grammar. It was the middle of the afternoon, but they weren’t in school.
“You’s Mort, Emmett. I’s Tear!” the older boy proclaimed proudly.
“I’s not Mort! Mort’s short!” the littler one shouted. “Mum said you supposed to make me Tear sometime!”
“Fine. You’s Tear, but I’s using magic!”
The dusk was deepening, and although Kelsea knew she should try to find her way home, she couldn’t tear herself away from the scene.
After watching the two boys for a while, Kelsea marked the real difference, the one that commanded her attention: these children had each other. She was only fifty yards away, but the companionship between the two boys made her feel as distant as the moon. The distance was only compounded when their mother, a round woman with none of Carlin’s stately grace, came outside to gather them up for dinner.
“Ew! Martin! Come wash up!”
“No!” the little one replied. “We ain’t done.”
Picking up a stick from the bundle on the ground, the mother jumped into the middle of their game, battling them both while the boys giggled and shrieked. Finally, the mother pulled each child up and then held them both close to her body as they walked inside together, a continuous walking hug. The dusk was deepening, and although Kelsea knew she should try to find her way home, she couldn’t tear herself away from the scene. Carlin didn’t show affection, not even to Barty, and the best Kelsea could hope to earn was a smile. She was the heir to the Tear throne, yes, and Carlin had told her many times what a great and important honor that was. But on the long ride home, Kelsea couldn’t shake the feeling that these two children had more than she did.
When she finally found her way home, she had missed dinner. Barty and Carlin were both worried; Barty had yelled a bit, but behind the yelling Kelsea could see relief in his face, and he’d given her a hug before sending her up to her room. Carlin had merely stared at Kelsea before informing her that her library privileges were rescinded for the week and that night Kelsea had lain in bed, frozen in the revelation that she had been utterly, monstrously cheated. Before that day, Kelsea had thought of Carlin as her foster mother, if not the real thing. But now she understood that she had no mother at all, only a cold old woman who demanded, then withheld.
Two days later Kelsea broke Carlin’s boundary again, on purpose this time, intending to find the cottage in the woods again. But halfway there, she gave up and turned around. Disobedience wasn’t satisfying, it was terrifying; she seemed to feel Carlin’s eyes on the back of her neck. Kelsea had never broken the boundary line again, so there was no wider world. All of her experience came from the woods around the cottage, and she knew every inch of them by the time she was ten. Now, as the troop of guards moved into distant woods with Kelsea in their center, she smiled secretly and turned her attention to this country that she had never seen.
They were riding south through the deepest heart of the Reddick Forest, which covered hundreds of square miles on the northwestern part of the country. Tearling oak was everywhere, some of the trees fifty or sixty feet tall, forming a canopy of green that overspread their heads. There was some low underbrush too, unfamiliar to Kelsea. The branches looked like creeproot, which had antihistamine properties and was good for making poultices. But these leaves were longer, green and curling, with a reddish tinge that warned of poison oak. Kelsea tried to avoid putting her mare through the foliage, but in some places it couldn’t be helped; the thicket was deepening as the land sloped downhill. They were now far from the path, but as they rode over a crackling golden carpet of discarded oak leaves, Kelsea felt as though the entire world must be able to hear their passage.
The guards ranged themselves around her in a diamond, remaining equidistant even with the changes of speed demanded by the shifting terrain. Lazarus, the guard with the mace, was somewhere behind her, out of sight. On her right was the distrustful guard with the red beard; Kelsea watched him with covert interest as they rode. Red hair was a recessive gene, and in the three centuries since the Crossing, it had bred slowly and steadily out of the population. Carlin had told Kelsea that some women, and even some men, liked to dye their hair red, since the rare commodity was always valuable. But after about an hour of sneaking looks at the guard, Kelsea became certain that she was looking at a true head of red hair. No dye was that good. The man wore a small gold crucifix that bounced and glimmered as he rode, and this too gave Kelsea pause. The crucifix was the symbol of God’s Church, and Carlin had told her many times that the Church and its priests weren’t to be trusted.
Behind the redhead was a blond man, so extraordinarily good-looking that Kelsea was forced to sneak several looks at him, even though he was far too old for her, well over forty. He had a face like those of the painted angels in Carlin’s books of pre-Crossing art. But he also looked tired, his eyes ringed with hollows that suggested he hadn’t slept in some time. Somehow, these touches of exhaustion only made him better-looking. He turned and caught her staring and Kelsea snapped her head forward, blood flaming in her cheeks.
On her left was a tall guard with dark hair and enormous shoulders. He looked like the sort of man you would threaten someone with. Ahead of him was a much shorter man, almost slight, with light brown hair. Kelsea watched this guard closely, for he looked nearer to her age, perhaps not even thirty yet. She tried to listen for his name, but whenever the two guards spoke, it was in low tones that Kelsea was clearly not meant to hear.
Carroll, the leader, rode at the head of the diamond. All Kelsea could see of him was his grey cloak. Occasionally he would bark out an order, and the entire company would make an incremental change in direction. He rode confidently, not seeking anyone’s guidance, and Kelsea trusted him to get her where she was to go. This ability to command was probably a necessary quality in a guard captain; Carroll was a man she would need if she was to survive. But how could she win the loyalty of any of these men? They probably thought her weak. Perhaps they thought all women so.
A hawk screamed somewhere above them, and Kelsea pulled her hood down over her forehead. Hawks were beautiful creatures, and good food as well, but Barty had told her that in Mortmesne, and even on the Tear border, hawks were trained as weapons of assassination. He’d mentioned it in passing, a bit of trivia, but it was something Kelsea had never forgotten.
“South, lads!” Carroll shouted, and the company angled again. The sun was sinking rapidly below the horizon, the wind icy with oncoming night. Kelsea hoped they would stop soon, but she would freeze in her saddle before she complained. Loyalty began with respect.
“No ruler has ever held power for long without the respect of the governed,” Carlin had told her countless times. “Rulers who attempt to control an unwilling populace govern nothing, and often find their heads atop a pike to boot.”
Barty’s advice had been even more succinct: “You win your people or you lose your throne.”
Good words, and Kelsea saw their wisdom even more now. But she had no idea what to do. How was she to command anyone?
I’m nineteen. I’m not supposed to be frightened anymore.
But she was.
She gripped the reins tighter, wishing she’d thought to put on her riding gloves, but she’d been too anxious to get away from that uncomfortable tableau in front of the cottage. Now the tips of her fingers were numb, her palms raw and reddened from the rough leather of the reins. She did her best to tuck the sleeves of her cloak over her knuckles and rode onward.
An hour later, Carroll called the company to a halt. They were in a small clearing, ringed with Tearling oak and a thick layer of underbrush composed of creeproot and that mysterious red-leaved plant. Kelsea wondered if any of the Guard knew what it was. Every Guard unit had at least one medic, and medics were supposed to know plants. Barty had been a medic himself, and while he wasn’t supposed to be teaching Kelsea botany, she had quickly learned that almost any lesson could be sidetracked by discovery of an interesting plant.
The guards closed in around Kelsea and waited as Carroll circled back. He trotted up to her, taking in her reddened face and death grip on the reins. “We can stop for the night, if you like, Your Highness. We made good time.”
With some effort, Kelsea released the reins and pushed back her hood, trying to keep her teeth from chattering. Her voice, when it came out, was hoarse and unsteady. “I trust your judgment, Captain. We’ll go as far as you think necessary.”
Carroll stared at her for a moment and then looked around the small clearing. “This’ll do, Lady. We must rise early anyway, and we’ve been long on the road.”
The men dismounted. Kelsea, stiff and unused to long riding, made a clumsy hop to the ground, nearly fell, then stumbled around until she regained her footing.
“Pen, the tent. Elston and Kibb, go for wood. The rest of you take care of defenses. Mhurn, go catch us something to eat. Lazarus, the Queen’s horse.”
“I tend my own horse, Captain.”
“As you like, Lady. Lazarus will give you what you need.”
The soldiers dispersed, moving off on their various errands. Kelsea bent to the ground, relishing the cracking in her spine. Her thighs ached as if they’d taken several sharp blows, but she wasn’t going to do any sort of serious thigh-stretching in front of all of these men. They were old, certainly, too old for Kelsea to find them attractive. But they were men, and Kelsea found herself suddenly uncomfortable in front of them, in a way she had never been in front of Barty.
Leading her mare over to a tree at the far edge of the clearing, she looped the reins in a loose knot around a branch. She stroked the mare’s silken neck gently, but the horse tossed her head and whinnied, unwilling to be petted, and Kelsea backed off. “Fine, girl. No doubt I’ll have to earn your goodwill as well.”
“Highness,” a voice growled behind her.
Kelsea turned and saw Lazarus, a curry comb in hand. He wasn’t as old as she’d first thought; his dark hair had just begun to recede, and he might still be on the early side of forty. But his face was well lined, his expression grim. His hands were seamed with scars, but it was the mace at his belt that drew her eye: a blunt ball of iron covered with steel spikes, each sharpened to a pinpoint.
A natural killer, she thought. A mace was merely window dressing unless wielded with the ferocity to make it effective. The weapon should have chilled her, but instead she was comforted by the presence of this man who had clearly lived with violence for so much of his life. She took the comb, noting that he kept his eyes on the ground. “Thank you. I don’t suppose you know the mare’s name.”
“You’re the Queen, Lady. Her name is whatever you choose.” His flat gaze met hers briefly, then slid away.
“It’s not for me to give her a new name. What is she called?”
“It’s for you to do anything you like.”
“Her name, please.” Kelsea’s temper kindled. The men all thought so badly of her. Why?
“No proper name, Lady. I’ve always called her May.”
“Thank you. A good name.”
He began to walk away. Kelsea took a breath for courage and said softly, “I didn’t dismiss you, Lazarus.”
He turned back, expressionless. “I’m sorry. Was there something else, Lady?”
“Why did they bring me a mare, when you all ride stallions?”
“We didn’t know if you’d be able to ride, Lady,” he replied, and this time there was no mistaking the mockery in his voice. “We didn’t know if you could control a stallion.”
Kelsea narrowed her eyes. “What the hell did you think I was doing out there in the woods all these years?”
“Playing with dolls, Lady. Putting up your hair. Trying on dresses, perhaps.”
“Do I look like a girl’s girl to you, Lazarus?” Kelsea felt her voice rising. Several heads had turned toward them now. “Do I look like I spend hours in front of the mirror?”
“Not in the slightest.”
Kelsea smiled, a brittle smile that cost some effort. Barty and Carlin had never had any mirrors around the cottage, and for a long time Kelsea had thought that it was to prevent her from becoming vain. But one day when she was twelve, she had caught a glimpse of her face in the clear pool behind the cottage, and then she had understood, all too well. She was as plain as the water beneath.
“Am I dismissed, Lady?”
She stared at him for a moment, considering, then replied, “It depends, Lazarus. I have a saddlebag full of dolls and dresses to play with. Do you want to do my hair?”
He stood still for a moment, his dark eyes unreadable. Then, unexpectedly, he bowed, an exaggerated gesture that was too deep to be sincere. “You can call me Mace if you like, Lady. Most do.”
Then he was gone, his pale grey cloak vanishing into the dusk-shadows of the clearing. Kelsea remembered the comb in her hand and turned to take care of the mare, her mind moving like a wild thing while she worked.
Perhaps daring will win them.
You’ll never win the respect of these people. You’ll be lucky not to die before you reach the Keep.
Maybe. But I have to try something.
You speak as though you have options. All you can do is what they tell you.
I’m the Queen. I’m not bound by them.
So think most queens, right until the moment the axe falls.
Dinner was venison, stringy and only barely edible after roasting over the fire. The deer must have been very old. Kelsea had seen only a few birds and squirrels on their ride through the Reddick, though the greenery was very lush; there could be no lack of water. Kelsea wanted to ask the men about the lack of animals, but she worried that it would be taken as a complaint about the meal. So she chewed the tough meat in silence and tried very hard not to stare at the guards around her, the weapons hanging from their belts. The men didn’t talk, and Kelsea couldn’t help thinking that their silence was because of her, that she was keeping them from the entertaining conversation they could otherwise be having.
After dinner, she remembered the present from Carlin. Taking one of the several lit lanterns sitting around the fire, she went to retrieve her night bag from her mare’s saddle. Two guards, Lazarus and the taller, broad-shouldered man she had noticed on the ride, detached themselves from the campfire and followed her to the makeshift paddock, their tread nearly silent. After years of solitude, Kelsea realized, she would likely never be alone again. The idea should perhaps have been comforting, but it created a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach. She recalled a weekend when she was seven, when Barty had been preparing to travel to the village to trade meat and furs. He made this trip every three or four months, but this time Kelsea had decided that she wanted to go with him, wanted to so badly that she honestly thought she would die if she didn’t go. She’d thrown a full tantrum on the library carpet, complete with tears and screaming, even kicking her feet against the floor in frustration.
Carlin had no patience with theatrics; she tried to reason with Kelsea for only a few minutes before disappearing into her library. It was Barty who’d wiped Kelsea’s face and sat her on his knee until she cried herself out.
“You’re valuable, Kel,” he told her. “You’re valuable like leather, or gold. And if anyone knew we had you here, they’d try to steal you. You wouldn’t want to be stolen, would you?”
“But if nobody knows I’m here, then I’m all alone,” Kelsea replied, sobbing. She had been very certain of this proposition: she was a secret, and so she was alone.
Barty had shaken his head with a smile. “It’s true, Kel, nobody knows you’re here. But the whole world knows who you are. Think about that for a minute. How can you be alone when the whole world is out there thinking about you every day?”
Even at seven, Kelsea had found this an extremely slippery answer for Barty. It had been enough to dry her tears and calm her anger, but many times in the subsequent weeks she had turned his statement over, seeking the flaw that she knew was there. It was only a year or so later, reading one of Carlin’s books, that she found the word she’d been seeking all along: not alone, but anonymous. She had been kept anonymous all those years, and for a long time she had thought that Carlin, if not Barty, had hidden her out of cruelty. But now, with the two tall men right on her heels, she wondered if her anonymity had been a gift. If so, it was now a gift long gone.
The men would sleep around the fire, but they had put up a tent for Kelsea, some twenty feet away on the edge of the clearing. As she stepped inside and tied the flap closed, she heard the two guards stationing themselves on either side of the opening, and after that there was silence.
Dumping her pack on the floor, Kelsea dug through clothes until she found an envelope of white vellum, one of Carlin’s few luxuries. Something shifted and slithered lightly inside. Kelsea sat down on the bedding and stared at the letter, willing it to be filled with answers. She had been taken from the Keep when she was barely a year old, and she had no memory of her real mother. Over the years, she’d been able to glean a few bits of hard fact about Queen Elyssa: she was beautiful, she didn’t like to read, she had died when she was twenty-eight years old. Kelsea had no idea how her mother had died; that was forbidden territory. Every line of questioning Kelsea undertook about her mother ended at the same place: Carlin shaking her head and murmuring, “I promised.” Whatever Carlin had promised, perhaps it ended today. Kelsea stared at the envelope for another long moment, then picked it up and broke Carlin’s seal.
Out slid a blue jewel on a fine silver chain.
Heart racing, she listened for any sound from the two guards just outside her tent, but heard nothing.
Kelsea picked up the chain and dangled it from her fingers, staring at it in the lamplight. It was a twin of the necklace that had been around her neck all of her life: an emerald-cut sapphire on a thin, almost dainty silver chain. The sapphire glimmered merrily in the lamplight, casting intermittent blue flickers around the inside of the tent.
Kelsea reached into the envelope again, looking for a letter. Nothing. She checked both corners. She tilted the envelope up, peering inside against the light, and saw a single word scrawled in Carlin’s writing beneath the seal.
A sudden burst of laughter from the campfire made Kelsea jump. Heart racing, she listened for any sound from the two guards just outside her tent, but heard nothing.
She took off her own necklace and held the two side by side. They were indeed identical, perfect twins right down to the minutiae of the chains. It would be all too easy to mix them up. Kelsea quickly put her own necklace back on.
She held up the new necklace again, watching the jewel swing back and forth, puzzled. Carlin had told her that each heir to the Tearling throne wore the sapphire from the day they were born. Popular legend held the jewel to be a sort of charm against death. When Kelsea was younger, she had thought more than once about trying to take the necklace off, but superstition was stronger; suppose she were struck with lightning on the spot? So she had never dared to remove it. Carlin had never mentioned a second jewel, and yet she must have had it in her possession this whole time. Secrets . . . everything about Carlin was secret. Kelsea didn’t know why she had been entrusted to Carlin for fostering, or even who Carlin had been in her old life. Someone of importance, Kelsea assumed; Carlin carried herself with too much grandeur to live in a cottage. Even Barty’s presence seemed to fade when Carlin entered the room.
Kelsea stared at the word inside the envelope: Careful. Was it another reminder to be careful in her new life? Kelsea didn’t think so; she’d heard chapter and verse on that subject in the past few weeks. It seemed more likely that the new necklace was different in some way, perhaps even dangerous. But how? Kelsea’s necklace certainly wasn’t dangerous; Barty and Carlin would hardly have allowed her to wear it each day otherwise.
She stared at the companion jewel, but it simply dangled there smugly, dim lamplight glinting from its many facets. Feeling silly, Kelsea tucked the necklace deep into the breast pocket of her cloak. Perhaps in the daylight it would be easier to see some difference between the two. The envelope went inside the casing of the lamp, and Kelsea watched the flames devour the thick paper, her mind pulsing with low anger. Leave it to Carlin to create more questions than answers.
She stretched out, looking up at the ceiling of the tent. Despite the men outside, she felt entirely isolated. Every other night of her life, she’d known that Barty and Carlin were downstairs, still awake, Carlin with a book in her hand and Barty whittling or playing with some plant he had found, mixing it up into a useful anesthetic or antibiotic. Now Barty and Carlin were far away, already heading south.
It’s only me.
Another low rumble of laughter sounded from around the campfire. Kelsea briefly debated going out there and attempting to at least speak to the guards, but she discarded the idea. They spoke of women, or battles, or perhaps old companions . . . her presence wouldn’t be welcome. Besides, she was exhausted from the ride and the cold, and her thigh muscles ached horribly. She blew out the lamp and turned over on her side to wait for uneasy sleep.
The next day they rode more slowly, for the weather had turned murky. The air had lost its icy feel, but now a thin, sickly mist clung to everything, wrapping around tree trunks and moving over the ground in visible tides. The country was gradually flattening, the woods growing sparser each hour, trees giving way to thick undergrowth. More animals, most of them strange to Kelsea, began to appear: smaller squirrels and drooling, doglike creatures that would have seemed like wolves but that they were docile and fled at the sight of the troop. But they didn’t see a single deer, and when the morning was well over, Kelsea identified another source of her growing uneasiness: not a single note of birdsong.
The guards seemed subdued as well. Kelsea had been awakened several times during the night by the continuous laughter from the campfire and had wondered whether they would ever shut up and go to sleep. Now all of their mirth seemed to have departed with the bright weather. As the day wore on, Kelsea noticed more and more of the guards shooting hunted glances behind them, though she could see nothing but trees.
Near midday, they stopped to water the horses at a small stream that bisected the forest. Carroll pulled out a map and huddled around it with several guards; from the snatches of conversation she overheard, Kelsea gathered that the mist was causing problems, making landmarks difficult to see.
She limped over to a large, flat rock beside the stream. Sitting down was excruciating, her hip muscles seeming to peel away from the bone when she bent her knees. With some maneuvering, she got herself sitting cross-legged, only to find that her bottom was also aching from hours on the saddle.
Elston, the hulking, broad-shouldered guard who had ridden beside Kelsea for much of the journey, followed her to the rock and stationed himself five feet away. When she looked up, he grinned unpleasantly, showing a mouthful of broken teeth. She tried to ignore him and stretched out one of her legs, reaching toward her foot. Her thigh muscles felt as though they were being shredded.
“Sore?” Elston asked her. His teeth gave him difficulty with enunciating; Kelsea had to think for a moment to figure out what he’d meant.
“Not at all.”
“Hell, you can barely move.” He chuckled, then added, “Lady.”
Kelsea reached out and grabbed her toes. Her thigh muscles screamed, and Kelsea felt them as raw flesh, seams that opened and bled inside her body. She held her toes for perhaps five seconds and then released them. When she looked up at Elston again, she found him still smiling his jagged smile. He didn’t say anything else, only stood there until it was time for them to mount up again.
They made camp near sunset. Kelsea had barely dropped to the ground when her reins were plucked from her hand; she turned and found Mace guiding the mare away. She opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of that and turned back to the rest of the Guard, who were also going about their various tasks. She noticed the youngest guard pulling the makings of her tent from his saddlebags.
“I’ll do it!” she called and strode across the clearing, holding out her hand for some tool, perhaps some weapon, she didn’t care which. She’d never felt more useless.
The guard handed her a flat-headed mallet and remarked, “The tent does require two people, Highness. May I help you?”
“Of course,” Kelsea replied, pleased.
Given one person to hold things and one to pound them in, the tent was a simple enough business, and Kelsea talked to the guard as she moved along with the mallet. His name was Pen, and he was indeed relatively young; he appeared to be no more than thirty, and his face held none of the wrinkles or wear that seemed tunneled into the faces of the rest of the guards. He was handsome, with dark hair and an open, good-natured face.
But then again, they were all handsome, her mother’s guards, even those over forty, even Elston (when his mouth was closed). Surely her mother wouldn’t have chosen her guards only for their looks?
Kelsea found Pen easy to talk to. When she asked his age, he told her he’d just had his thirtieth birthday four days since.
“You’re too young to have been in my mother’s guard.”
“That’s right, Lady. I never knew your mother.”
“Then why did they bring you on this errand?”
Pen shrugged and made a self-explanatory gesture toward his sword.
“How long have you been a guard?”
“Mace found me when I was fourteen years old, Lady. I’ve been in training ever since.”
“With no ruler in residence? Have you been guarding my uncle?”
“No, Lady.” A shadow of distaste crossed Pen’s face, so quickly Kelsea might have imagined it. “The Regent keeps his own guard.”
“I see.” Kelsea finished pounding a stake into the ground, then stood up and stretched with a grimace, feeling her back pop.
“Are you adjusting to the pace, Highness? I assume you’ve undertaken few long journeys on horseback.”
“The pace is fine. And necessary, I understand.”
“True enough, Lady.” Pen lowered his voice, glancing around them. “We’re being tracked hard.”
“How do you know?”
“The hawks.” Pen pointed skyward. “They’ve been behind us since we left the Keep. We arrived late yesterday because we took several detours to throw off pursuit. But the hawks can’t be fooled. Whoever controls them will be behind us now—”
Pen paused. Kelsea reached out for another stake and remarked casually, “I heard no hawks today.”
“Mort hawks make no sound, Lady. They’re trained for silence. But every now and again, you might see them in the sky if you’re looking out for them. They’re devilish quick.”
“Why don’t they attack?”
“Our numbers.” Pen spread out the last corner of the tent so that Kelsea could stake it. “The Mort train their hawks as you would soldiers, and they won’t waste themselves by attacking a superior force. They’ll try to pick us off one by one if they can.”
Pen paused again, and Kelsea waved the mallet at him. “You needn’t worry about frightening me. I must fear death no matter which stories you choose to tell.”
“Perhaps, Lady, but fear can be hobbling in its own way.”
“These pursuers, do they come from my uncle?”
“Likely, Lady, but the hawks suggest that your uncle has help.”
Pen looked over his shoulder, muttering, “It was a direct order. Should Carroll ask, I’ll tell him so. Your uncle has dealt with the Red Queen for years. Some say they’ve made alliance in secret.”
The Queen of Mortmesne. No one knew who she was, or where she came from, but she had become a powerful monarch, presiding over a long and bloody reign for well over a century now. Carlin considered Mortmesne a threat; an alliance with the neighboring kingdom could be a good thing. Before Kelsea could ask further questions, Pen had moved on. “The Mort aren’t supposed to sell their weaponry to the Tear, but anyone with enough money can get hold of Mort hawks on the black market. My guess is, we have Caden behind us.”
“The assassins’ guild?”
Pen snorted. “A guild. That’s assigning them too much organization, Lady. But yes, they’re assassins, and very competent ones. Rumor is that your uncle has offered a large reward to anyone who can track you down. The Caden live for such challenges.”
“Will our numbers not stop them?”
Kelsea digested this information, looking around her. In the middle of the camp, three guards were hunched around the pile of gathered firewood, cursing assiduously as it refused to light. The others were dragging felled trees together to make a crude enclosure around the camp. The purpose behind all of these defenses was clear enough now, and Kelsea felt a helpless trickle of fear, mixed with guilt. Nine men, all of them now targeted along with her.
Carroll came stomping out of the trees. “What is it?”
“Hawk, sir. From the northwest.”
“Well-spotted, Kibb.” Carroll rubbed his forehead and, after a moment’s deliberation, approached the tent.
“Pen, go help them with dinner.”
Pen gave Kelsea a brief, mischievous smile that seemed to convey goodwill and disappeared into the dusk.
Carroll’s eyes were dark circles. “They come for us, Lady. We’re being tracked.”
“Can you fight?”
“I can defend myself against a single attacker with my knife. But I know little of swords.” And, Kelsea realized suddenly, she had been trained in self-defense by Barty, whose reflexes were not those of a young man. “I’m no fighter.”
Carroll tilted his head, a flash of humor in his dark eyes. “I don’t know about that, Lady. I’ve watched you on this journey; you hide your discomfort well. But we’re coming to the point”—Carroll looked around and lowered his voice, then continued—“we’re coming to the point where I may need to split my men to evade pursuit. If so, my choice of bodyguard for you will depend much on your own abilities.”
“Well, I’m a fast reader, and I know how to make stew.”
Carroll nodded in approval. “You’ve a sense of humor about all this, Lady. You’ll need one. You’re entering a life of great danger.”
“You’ve all placed yourselves in great danger to escort me to the Keep, yes?”
“Your mother charged us with this task, Lady,” Carroll replied stiffly. “Our own honor would allow nothing less.”
“You were my mother’s man, were you not?”
“Once I’m delivered to the Keep, will you be the Regent’s man?”
“I haven’t decided, Lady.”
“Can I do anything to influence that decision?”
He looked away, clearly uncomfortable. “Lady . . .”
Carroll made a helpless gesture with his hands. “Lady, I think you’re made of much stronger stuff than you appear. You strike me as one who might make a real queen one day, but you’re marked for death, and so are those who follow you. I have family, Lady. Children. I wouldn’t use my children as a stake in a game of cards; I can’t set their lives at hazard by following you, not in the face of such odds.”
Kelsea nodded, hiding her disappointment. “I understand.”
Carroll seemed relieved. Perhaps he had expected her to begin blubbering. “Because of my station, I would know nothing of any specific plot against you. You may have better luck asking Lazarus, our Mace; he’s always been able to discover what others can’t.”
“Be wary of God’s Church. I doubt the Holy Father bears any special love for the Regent, but he must love the person who sits on the throne and holds the keys to the treasury. He’ll play the odds, just as we must.”
Kelsea nodded again. Carlin had said something very similar, only a few days ago.
“All of these men in my troop are good men. I stake my life on it. Your executioner, when he comes, won’t be one of us.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Kelsea watched as the guards finally lit a fire and began to fan the small flame. “I guess it will be a hard road from now on.”
“So your mother said, eighteen years ago, when she charged me to bring you back.”
Kelsea blinked. “Didn’t she charge you to take me away?”
“No. It was Lazarus who smuggled you out of the castle when you were a baby. He’s invaluable that way.”
Carroll smiled, remembering something Kelsea couldn’t share. He had a nice smile, but again Kelsea noted the gauntness about his face, and wondered whether he might be ill. His gaze lingered on the sapphire, which had once again escaped from Kelsea’s shirt. He abruptly turned away, leaving her with a muddle of information to sort through. She dug deep into the pocket of her cloak and felt the second jewel nestled there.
“Your Highness!” Pen called from the campfire, which was burning brightly now. “There’s a small stream to the east, if you wish to clean up.”
Kelsea nodded, still turning Carroll’s advice over in her mind, trying to analyze it as a practical problem. She would need a bodyguard and a staff of her own. Where was she to find people loyal enough to resist the Regent’s threats and bribes? Loyalty couldn’t be built on nothing, and it certainly couldn’t be bought, but in the meantime, she would have to eat.
She wished she had thought to ask Carroll about her mother. He had guarded Queen Elyssa for years; he must know all about her. But no, every Queen’s Guard took a vow of secrecy. He wouldn’t divulge anything, not even to Kelsea. She gritted her teeth. She had automatically assumed that the transition to a new life would bring an end to all secrets; after all, she would be the Queen. But these men would be no more willing than Carlin to give her the information she sought.
She had meant to try to take a bath tonight after they stopped riding; her hair was oily, and she was beginning to smell her own sweat whenever she moved. The nearby stream would serve her purpose, but the thought of bathing under the watchful eyes of Pen or Elston, or worse, Lazarus, was unthinkable. She would just have to bear the filth, and take some comfort in the fact that her guards certainly didn’t smell any better. She gathered her greasy hair and fastened it into a bun, then hopped off the rock to go and find the stream.
That night the guards were boisterous around the campfire again. Kelsea lay in her tent, first trying to sleep and then fuming. It was hard enough to nod off when her brain was crammed with questions, but the constant bursts of drunken laughter made it impossible. She wrapped her cloak around her head, determined to ignore them. But when they broke into a filthy song about a woman with a rose tattoo, Kelsea finally tore the cloak off her head, put it on, and left the tent.
The guards had set up bedrolls around the fire, but none of them appeared to have seen any use yet. The air was heavy with an unpleasant, yeasty smell that Kelsea deduced must be beer, although there had never been any alcohol at the cottage. Carlin wouldn’t allow it.
Only Carroll and Mace stood when she approached. They appeared to be sober, but the rest of the Guard simply regarded her unblinkingly. Elston, she saw, had fallen asleep with his head on a thick oak log.
“Did you need something, Lady?” Carroll asked.
Mace spoke up. “Your uncle isn’t the only one who wants you dead, Lady."
Kelsea wanted to shriek at them, to let out two pent-up hours’ worth of sleeplessness. But then she looked around at their reddened faces and thought better of it. Carlin said that it was easier to reason with a toddler than with a drunk. Besides, drunken people in books often disclosed secrets. Perhaps Kelsea could actually get them to talk to her.
She tucked her cloak beneath herself and sat down between Elston and Pen. “I want to know what happens when we reach New London.”
Pen turned a bleary gaze toward her. “What happens?”
“Will my uncle try to kill me when we get to the Keep?”
They all stared at her for a moment, until Mace finally answered, “Probably.”
“Your uncle couldn’t kill anybody,” Coryn muttered. “I’d be more worried about the Caden.”
“We don’t know they’re behind us,” the red-bearded man argued.
“We don’t know anything,” Carroll announced in a shut-up voice, and turned back to Kelsea. “Lady, wouldn’t you rather simply trust us to protect you?”
“Your mother always did,” added the red-bearded man.
Kelsea narrowed her eyes. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Dyer, you’re not dealing with my mother. You’re dealing with me.”
Dyer blinked owlishly in the dim light. After a moment, he murmured, “I meant no offense, Lady.”
She nodded and turned back to Carroll. “I was asking what happens when we get there.”
“I doubt we’ll actually have to fight our way into the Keep, Lady. We’ll bring you in in high daylight; the city will be crowded this weekend, and the Regent isn’t brave enough to kill you in front of the wide world. But they’ll come for you in the Keep, without doubt.”
“Who is they?”
Mace spoke up. “Your uncle isn’t the only one who wants you dead, Lady. The Red Queen has everything to gain by keeping the Regent on the throne.”
“Isn’t the castle inside the Keep secure?”
“There’s no castle. The Keep’s enormous, but it’s a single structure: your castle.”
Kelsea blushed. “I didn’t know that. No one told me much about the Keep.”
“What the hell were you learning all these years?” asked Dyer.
Carroll chuckled. “You know Barty. He was a great medic, but not much of a details man. Not unless he was talking about his precious plants.”
Kelsea didn’t want to hear about other people’s experiences with Barty. She cut Dyer off before he could reply and asked, “What about our pursuers?”
Carroll shrugged. “Caden, probably, with a little Mort assistance. The hawks we’ve spotted may be merely hawks, but I think not. Your uncle isn’t above taking help from the Mort.”
“Of course not,” slurred Elston, sitting up from his log and wiping drool from the corner of his mouth. “Surprised the Regent doesn’t use his own women as shields.”
“I thought the Tearling was poor,” Kelsea interrupted. “What would my uncle give in return for such an alliance? Lumber?”
The guards glanced at each other, and Kelsea felt them unite against her in silence, as plainly as if they’d had a conversation.
“Lady,” Carroll said apologetically, “many of us spent our lives guarding your mother. We don’t cease to protect her just because she’s dead.”
“I was never in Queen Elyssa’s Guard,” Pen ventured. “Couldn’t I—”
“Pen, you’re a Queen’s Guard.”
Pen shut up.
Kelsea looked around the circle. “Do all of you know who my father is?”
They stared back at her in mute rebellion. Kelsea felt her temper begin to rise, and bit down hard on the inside of her right cheek, an old reflex. Carlin had cautioned her many times that a wild temper was something a ruler couldn’t afford, so Kelsea had learned to control her temper around Carlin, and Carlin had fallen for it. But Barty had known better. He was the one who’d suggested Kelsea bite down on something. Pain counteracted the anger, at least temporarily, sent it somewhere else. But the frustration didn’t go anywhere. It was like being back in the schoolroom with Carlin. These men knew so many things, and they wouldn’t tell her a single one. “Well, then, what can you tell me about the Red Queen?”
“She’s a witch,” the handsome blond guard announced flatly. It was the first time Kelsea had heard him speak. The fire highlighted his face, chiseled and symmetrical. His eyes were a pure, wintry blue. Had her mother chosen them for their looks? Kelsea shied away from the thought. She had a very specific idea of what her mother should have been like, an idea created in her earliest days and then woven, embellished, each year she remained trapped in the cottage. Her mother was a beautiful, kind woman, warm and reachable where Carlin was cold and distant. Her mother never withheld. Her mother would be coming for her someday, to take her away from the cottage and its endless routines of learning and practicing and preparation in a grand rescue. It was just taking a bit longer than expected.
When Kelsea was seven, Carlin sat her down in the library one day and told her that her mother was long dead. This put an end to the dreams of escape, but it didn’t stop Kelsea from constructing new and more elaborate fantasies: Queen Elyssa had been a great queen, beloved by all of her people, a hero who made sure that the poor were fed and the sick doctored. Queen Elyssa sat on her throne and dispensed justice to those who couldn’t seek justice for themselves. When she died, they carried her body in a parade through the streets of the city while the people wept and a battalion of the Tear army clashed its swords in salute. Kelsea had honed and polished this vision until she could invoke it at any moment. It dulled her own fear of being Queen, to think that when she returned to the city at nineteen to take the throne, they would give her a parade also, and Kelsea would ride to the Keep surrounded by cheers and weeping, waving benevolently the whole way.
Now, looking around at the group of men around the campfire, Kelsea felt a trickle of unease. What did she really know about her mother, the Queen? What could she really know, when Carlin had always refused to say?
“Come on, Mhurn,” Dyer replied to the blond man, shaking his head. “No one ever proved that the Red Queen’s actually a witch.”
Mhurn glared at him. “She is a witch. Doesn’t matter whether she’s got the powers or not. Anyone who lived through the Mort invasion knows she’s a witch.”
“What about the Mort invasion?” Kelsea asked, interested. Carlin had never explained the invasion or its causes very well. Twenty years ago the Mort had entered the Tearling, carved their way through the country, and reached the very walls of the Keep. And then . . . nothing. The invasion was over. Whatever had happened, Carlin skipped right over it in each history lesson.
Mhurn ignored Carroll, who had begun to scowl at him, and continued, “Lady, I have a friend who went through the Battle of the Crithe. The Red Queen sent three legions of Mort army into the Tearling and gave them free rein en route to New London. The Crithe was wholesale slaughter. Tear villagers armed with wooden clubs fought Mort soldiers armed with iron and steel, and when the men were dead every female between five and eighty—”
“Mhurn,” Carroll murmured. “Remember who you’re talking to.”
Elston spoke up unexpectedly. “I’ve been watching her all day, sir. Believe me, she’s a tough little thing.”
Kelsea nearly smiled, but the impulse dried up quickly as Mhurn continued, staring at the fire as though hypnotized. “My friend fled his village with his family as the Mort army approached. He tried to cross the Crithe and make for the villages in the north, but he wasn’t fast enough, and unfortunately for him, he had a young and pretty wife. She died before his eyes, with the tenth Mort soldier still inside her.”
“Christ, Mhurn!” Dyer got up and staggered off toward the edge of the camp.
“Where are you going?” Carroll called.
“Where do you think? I’ve got to take a piss.”
Kelsea suspected that Mhurn had told his tale merely to shock her, and so she kept her face still. But the moment their attention was diverted from her, she swallowed hard, tasting something sour in the back of her throat. Mhurn’s story was very different from reading about unrestricted warfare in a book.
Mhurn looked around the campfire, his blond head lowered aggressively. “Anyone else think this is information the new queen shouldn’t have?”
“I only question your timing, you ass,” Carroll replied softly. “There’ll be plenty of time for your tales once she gets on the throne.”
“If she gets there.” Mhurn had located his mug and now he took a great gulp, swallowing convulsively. His eyes were bloodshot, and he looked so tired that Kelsea wondered if he should stop drinking, but could think of no way to suggest it. “Rape and murder went on in every village in their path, Lady, in a straight line through the country, all the way from the Argive to the walls of New London. They even slaughtered the babies. A Mort general named Ducarte went from the Almont Plain to the walls of New London with a Tear baby’s corpse strapped to his shield.”
Kelsea wanted to ask what had happened at the walls of New London, for that was where Carlin’s tales always stopped. But she agreed with Carroll: Mhurn needed to be reined in. Besides, she wasn’t sure she could handle any more first-person history. “What’s your point?”
“My point is that soldiers, most soldiers, aren’t born wanting to act that way. They aren’t even trained to act that way. War crimes come from one of two sources, situation or leadership. It wasn’t the situation; the Mort army went through the Tearling like a knife through warm butter. It was a holiday for them. Brutality and massacre happened because that’s what the Red Queen wanted to happen. The last census found over two million people in the Tearling, and I’m not sure they know how precarious their position is. But, Lady, I thought that you should know.”
Kelsea swallowed, then asked, “What happened to your friend?”
“They stabbed him in the gut and left him to bleed to death when they moved on. They did a poor job, and he survived. But the Mort army took his ten-year-old daughter in their train. He never saw her alive again.”
Dyer came sauntering back from the trees and plopped down on his bedroll. Kelsea stared into the fire, remembering one morning at her desk in Carlin’s library. Carlin showed her an old map of the border between the Tearling and New Europe, a ragged line that ran down the eastern end of the Reddick Forest and the Almont Plain. Carlin was a great admirer of New Europe. Even in the early wake of the Crossing, when borders were barely drawn and the southern New World was a battlefield for warlords, New Europe had been a thriving representative democracy with nearly universal participation in elections. But the Red Queen had changed many things; now New Europe was Mortmesne, and democracy had vanished.
“What does the Red Queen want, then?” Kelsea had asked Carlin. She had no interest in maps and wanted to wrap up the lesson.
“What conquerors always want, Kelsea: everything, with no end in sight.”
Carlin’s tone had left Kelsea with a certainty: Carlin, who feared nothing, feared the Red Queen. Queen’s Guards were supposed to fear nothing as well, but as Kelsea looked around now, she saw a different story in their faces. She strove for a lighter tone. “Well, then, I’d best not let the Red Queen invade again.”
Dyer snorted. “Precious little you could do, Lady, if she took it into her head.”
Carroll clapped his hands. “Now that we’ve had our bedtime story from Mhurn, it’s time to sleep. And if any of you want a good-night kiss from Elston, let him know.”
Elston chortled into his mug and then spread his huge arms. “Aye, for all who enjoy the tough love.”
Kelsea stood up, tightening her cloak. “Won’t you all be hung over in the morning?”
“Probably,” muttered the dark-haired guard named Kibb.
“Is it really a good idea for so many of you to be drunk on this journey?”
Carroll snorted. “Lazarus and I are the real Guard, Lady. These other seven are window dressing.”
All of them burst out laughing, and Kelsea, feeling excluded again, turned and wandered back toward her tent. None of the men followed her, and she wondered whether anyone would guard the tent tonight. But when she turned around, Mace was right behind her, his tall silhouette unmistakable even in the dark.
“How do you do that?”
He shrugged. “It’s a gift.”
Kelsea ducked into her tent and fastened the flap. Stretching out on her bedding, she tucked a hand beneath her cheek. She had put on a bravura front by the campfire, but now she was shivering, first in her chest and then spreading to the rest of her body. According to Carlin, Mortmesne loomed large over its neighbors. The Red Queen demanded control, and she had it. If the Regent had truly allied with her, she even had control of the Tearling.
A hacking cough came from the direction of the campfire, but this time Kelsea didn’t find the noise irritating. Digging inside her cloak, she took out the second necklace and squeezed it tightly in one hand, her own sapphire in the other. Staring at the apex of the tent, she thought of women raped and babies on the points of swords, and sleep didn’t come for a very long time.
Taken from The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen