Sarah Beth Durst

Excerpt from The Queen of Sorrow
Book Three of The Queens of Renthia

(Beware, if you haven't read The Queen of Blood and The Reluctant Queen, the following contains some spoilers.)

Chapter One

Everything will be better soon, Daleina thought.

She'd climbed to the top of the canopy and was balancing on two slender branches. Spread before her, the forests of Aratay looked magnificent. Red, orange, and yellow leaves blazed like candle flames in the late-afternoon sun.

This high up, she could see across all of western Aratay, even as far as the untamed lands beyond the border. Shrouded by a thick mist, the untamed lands looked as if they were boiling. As she watched, a mountain burst out of the soupy haze, and then it crumbled. Beyond the borders of the world, everything was as ephemeral as a sand castle washed away by waves.

So long as Aratay had a queen, it would never be like that.

And right now, we have two!

It was a heady thought, because with two queens . . . We can fix all that was broken.

Below her, she heard Naelin -- the second queen of Aratay -- huffing as she climbed up the tree. Daleina wanted to tell her to call a spirit to fly her up to the canopy, but she didn't bother. She knew how Naelin would feel about that. The other queen despised using spirits for "nonessential purposes." In truth, she's afraid of them, Daleina thought.

And honestly, it was a sensible way to feel.

Today, though, Daleina didn't want to be sensible. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath of sweet, fresh air. Today, we begin!

The branches jiggled as Naelin popped her head up between the leaves. "And why can't"--she puffed--"we do this midforest?"

Daleina tilted her head back to feel the sun on her face. It was as warm as Hamon's caress. She stuffed that lovely thought away, to save for later, when she wasn't with Naelin. "Because it's beautiful up here."

"Beauty." Naelin humphed and heaved herself up. "Sure, it's beautiful. But it's also reckless, and we have no heirs."

Daleina flinched -- she was the last person who needed to be reminded of that -- but she refused to let it destroy her mood. Opening her eyes, she pointed to a hole in the canopy. As she'd hoped, from this high up, it was easy to spot the damaged areas. "We'll start with that one."

Once there had been a tree filling that hole, probably a grand one with sprawling branches and dense leaves, but now . . . The barren patch looked like a black island in the sea of green. Merecot had left countless dead zones in the wake of her invasion. Yet another thing I can't quite forgive her for. She'd wounded Daleina's beloved Aratay when she'd attacked -- killing its spirits killed the land. They'd pushed the queen of Semo out, but her influence was still visible throughout the country.

The time for fighting was over. Now was the time for healing.

"Come on." Dropping down, Daleina scampered over the branch until she found a wire path. She hooked a carabiner over the wire. "The closer we are, the easier it will be."

"Can't we just--"

Kicking off, Daleina sailed through the leaves. She whooped, and whatever the other queen was saying was lost in the rush of wind. She knocked yellow leaves off their branches, and they filled the air, making her feel as if she were flying through a cyclone of gold.

She reached the next tree quickly, landing on a platform. Unhooking herself from the wire, she waited for Naelin to join her.

"You're torturing me on purpose," Naelin said as she landed. She was sweating, her doelike brown-and-gray hair sticking to her forehead. Her cheeks were flushed.

"Not on purpose." Daleina crouched, peering through the trees. "It's just a happy accident." She flashed her a smile, to show she was only joking. Of course, she wasn't entirely sure that Naelin had a sense of humor. They hadn't spent much time together, at least not without either Naelin's children or Ven.

No matter. I thought it was funny.

A rope bridge led from the platform toward the barren area -- very convenient. She wondered why . . . Oh. A village must have been there. Her heart sank. When the tree died, the villagers' homes had been destroyed. Maybe lives lost. Moving more slowly, Daleina led the way from the tree to the bridge. She tried not to imagine how many could have lived there.

I did the best I could, she told herself, not for the first time.

Per usual, it didn't make her feel better.

The nation wasn't the only thing that needed healing.

The ropes were mossy and frayed, and the bridge swayed and bounced as she and Naelin crossed to the next platform. From there, they could see the barren area: roughly a circle, the width of one of the massive oak trees that commonly held homes in their branches. Below, very far below, the ground was dry and gray, lifeless. It was ringed by thick underbrush that wouldn't creep even an inch into the dead land-- Not until we fix it, Daleina thought.

Daleina reached into the pack she carried and pulled out a coil of rope. She selected a sturdy limb and secured the rope. She then swung herself onto it and began rappelling down the trunk of the tree.

"Really?" Naelin said.

"Or we could call a spirit and fly."

With a sigh, the other queen began rappelling too.

Despite the reminder of her losses, it was nice to be out of the palace, away from the courtiers and counselors, away from the minutiae of running Aratay. Only one problem lay before her today: healing the land. And I can do that.

She could have done it from a distance -- as queen, she had the power. And Naelin certainly had more than enough power at her disposal. The other woman practically radiated strength. But for this first barren patch, Daleina wanted to do it in person, to show Naelin how it was done. "It's a necessary training exercise," she'd told Ven. As champion, he couldn't object to additional training for the new queen, especially since Naelin had jumped from woodswoman to queen with barely any instruction.

He'd seen right through Daleina, of course. "You just want a break from the throne."

"It is an uncomfortable chair," she'd agreed.

"I'll hunt for more pillows while you're gone." And to demonstrate, he'd notched an arrow into his bow and shot it into the nearest couch. Down feathers had puffed into the air.

Halfway down the tree, Daleina and Naelin switched from the rope to a ladder that had been built into the trunk, presumably for the villagers to descend to the forest floor to forage for berries and hunt for deer. It was easier climbing the ladder, and soon they reached the ground and waded through the bushes to the barren area.

It was as lifeless as Daleina had thought. Or, actually, more so. She'd seen what drought could do, but even then, there was always a sense of something in the soil. Now, though, she felt nothing as dust swirled around their feet while they walked. Kneeling, she scooped up a handful of the dry earth, letting the dead grains fall through her fingers. Sitting on a rock, Naelin drank from her canteen. A few drops landed on the ground and were quickly sucked into the earth.

"When the spirit, or spirits, who belonged to this tree died, the land died," Daleina said. "Bringing it back to life is more than just instructing a water spirit to bring rain or a tree spirit to plant a few seeds. We have to tie spirits to the land -- otherwise, it either stays a dead zone or, worse, the spirits run rampant over it, like in the untamed lands. The trick is that all the nearby spirits are already tied to their own trees or streams or bits of earth, so they'll need to be encouraged to claim more." She caught Naelin's expression out of the corner of her eye. The other queen's lips were curved up in amusement. "What?"

She was definitely laughing. "Nothing."

"This is serious. Homes could have been here. People could have died."

"I know. It's . . . For a minute, you sounded exactly like Headmistress Hanna."

Daleina sighed. "Yet I'm young enough to be your daughter?" She was half Naelin's age and had been queen only for a year longer than Naelin, but she was still more experienced. She'd attended the Northeast Academy, trained for months with Champion Ven, and fought spirits at the Coronation Massacre. It was hard not to wave those credentials in front of the older queen.

Naelin winced. "I wasn't going to say that quite so bluntly, but yes." She put her canteen back in her pack and stood. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty. Teach me how to heal the land."

"Call to the spirits, the nearby ones. Draw them here. And then give them the land. They want to be connected to Renthia. They just can't do it without a queen."

"You know, that sounds pretty, but it doesn't actually make sense."

"Look, when you became queen, when the spirits chose you, what did you feel?"

"Besides regret?"

Daleina resisted rolling her eyes. "Yes."

"Power. Lots of it. Like I'd been whispering my whole life and could suddenly shout."

Good. Yes. "And . . . ?"

"And I felt the spirits, all of them, across Aratay. I could see their thoughts and feel their feelings. Like they were . . . part of me now." Naelin visibly shuddered.

"Exactly. You're connected to them. Linked to them. We both are. That's the difference between queens and, well, anyone else. So now you have to link them to the land the same way they're linked to us." If Daleina concentrated hard enough, she could feel cobweb-like strands that connected her to the spirits. All a queen had to do to fix the barren area was stretch those strands between a few of those spirits and the barren land. The problem was, she couldn't explain it any better than that. Naelin either felt it or didn't. Daleina was confident in the older woman, though -- she was being honest with herself when she noted how powerful the other queen was. Naelin had started out much stronger than Daleina. When she became queen, that impressive power was amplified a hundredfold. "Just try. Do as I do."

"But--"

"Don't be afraid. There's nothing here you can hurt." All the dying is already done, she thought. "Come on. We'll do it together."

On her knees, Daleina plunged her hands into the dry dirt. She concentrated, reaching for the closest spirits. She felt them just beyond the circle: a tiny earth spirit burrowing with the worms, a tree spirit hidden between two nearby tree roots, a water spirit skipping through a stream. Gently, she called to them. Come play? Play here?

And then she felt a whoosh.

Uh-oh.

"Daleina?"

"You called too many," Daleina said flatly. It wasn't the first time this had happened. Ven had worked hard with Naelin on her control. Apparently, though, it was still an issue.

"Yes. It appears so."

"Too many" was a bit of an understatement. Spirits flooded the barren area: tiny dandelion-fluff air spirits filled the air, massive eagle-winged air spirits blocked the sky, mud-coated earth spirits dug out of the ground, and various tree spirits -- some the size of acorns and others the size of a man or a wild boar -- ran along the branches toward them. Daleina felt rain spatter her face from the air spirits and a chill wind as a solitary ice spirit zipped past.

"Calm them down!" Daleina shouted.

"But they're bonding with the land! Isn't that what we want?"

She was right -- Daleina could feel the dozens of spirits reaching for the air and the soil . . . No! Stop! There were too many trying to claim too small a space! They'd--

The spirits attacked one another.

An air spirit with talons shredded a feathered spirit. Snarling, the earth spirits leapt at one another. A bear-shaped spirit made of rocks pounded its boulder fists into a bark-coated tree spirit.

She felt their rage course through her, and for an instant, she was there, in the grove again, with her friends dying around her, and Daleina felt herself screaming and she couldn't stop.

Kill. Hurt. Destroy.

The spirits screamed inside her head and then turned on her. She felt their white-hot hate sear into her, and she felt pain as they slashed into her skin. Caught in her memory, she couldn't form a clear thought to--

STOP!

Coming from outside, from Naelin, the word reverberated through her -- Daleina felt it echo through all the spirits and into her, and as one, the spirits halted, as if frozen. She felt arms around her shoulders as Naelin gathered her up and rocked her against her chest as if she were a small child. She didn't resist. She let herself, for a moment, be comforted.

But only for a moment. She was still queen, and she had a duty. Daleina pried open her eyes. She breathed deeply, slowly, as she pushed the memory back down into the tiny box in her mind where she kept it, the day she'd saved her world but failed to save her friends. "Choose a few," she croaked, "and send the rest away."

"How?"

"Reach through your bond to them. Feel it like it's a rope tethering you to them, and then imagine you're tying that rope to the air and the earth. As to the rest, praise their home. Make them want to return. Think of the forest, the streams, the rocks, the sky, and make them want to be there." As she spoke, she felt her heart return to its normal thump.

She felt the spirits obeying Naelin and tried to keep her own mind as calm and clear as possible. She let Naelin do it all -- keeping her distance, Daleina sensed the spirits struggle and then cave. Naelin had a different style: she ordered more than coaxed. But it worked.

"I'm doing it!" Naelin cried.

"Great. Now fix a picture of the forest in your mind, and tell the spirits to make it grow like that here."

She felt raindrops hit her cheeks. Faster and harder, until it poured down on the dry earth and the two queens. Beneath her, she felt the soil soften, and she sensed the earth spirits swimming through it, drawing life back into it.

An air spirit flitted overhead, dropping seeds into the wet earth, and three tree spirits scurried to the seeds. Green sprouted throughout the barren area. Moss spread and lichen blossomed across the rocks. Vines chased over the forest floor, toward the queens. Daleina felt them curl around her wrists and ankles. "Um, Naelin?"

But Naelin's eyes were closed, her expression blissful.

Daleina elected to stay silent.

She watched as the vines weaved themselves up Naelin's legs. Moving slowly so as not to make a sound, Daleina shook a vine off her arm. Another vine wrapped around her stomach, and flowers bloomed around her waist. She let them stay.

Soon, the grove was draped in color: a cluster of purple flowers, vines filled with yellow and white blooms, and a dancing stream that skipped over green mossy rocks. The luscious scent of honeysuckle filled the air.

Daleina saw Naelin open her eyes and smile, looking all around her.

And then she saw Naelin notice the vines that bound them both.

Daleina felt her lips twitch. Don't laugh. She reached out with her mind and caught the attention of a tiny tree spirit with twig arms and a birdlike beaked face. It hopped over to her and began to peck at the vines with its beak as it untangled them with its long stick fingers.

Naelin met her eyes.

And they both burst out laughing.

I think . . . we can do this, Daleina thought. With the strength of two queens, they'd heal what was broken, restore the harvest, and bring an era of peace and prosperity to all their people.

So long as Naelin can avoid destroying everything.

 

Chapter Two

"I'm home!" Naelin called, and then, bemused, halted beneath an exquisite archway of carved wooden leaves inlaid with polished blue river stones. Exactly when did I start thinking of the palace as "home"? She supposed it was close enough these days.

Home was wherever her children were.

And these days, they all lived in the white-tree palace in the heart of the arboreal city of Mittriel, the capital of Aratay -- a long way from their tiny cottage tucked in the outer forest. Life takes strange turns, Naelin thought. "Erian? Llor? I'm home!"

"They're with their father," Ven said, coming out of the bedroom. He had a towel wrapped around his waist, and droplets of water clung to the scars on his skin before dripping off his muscles. He was drying his hair with a second towel, and clumps of his hair were spiked up, stuck together with water. "Meant to greet you at the gate, but I didn't know when you'd return -- sorry."

Crossing the room, she plucked the second towel from his hand and dried water from his neck before smoothing his hair to the side. "We came in through the tower, so you would have missed us anyway." She breathed in the smell of soap as he hooked his arm around her waist and drew her up against him. He was still damp, but she didn't mind. She felt herself smiling -- he always seemed to bring a smile to her lips, even without saying or doing anything particularly smile-worthy.

Right now, though, so close to him, she had plenty of reason to smile.

"Everything okay?" He nuzzled her cheek.

More than okay, she thought. She kissed his neck below his beard. "Yes." Her fingers slid down to the knot in the towel. "Daleina and I fixed twelve barren areas. By the last few, I was even able to avoid any violence."

"Lovely. Avoiding violence is a plus for any day." He ran his fingers through her hair and kissed her. He tasted like pine tea and mint, and his beard was as soft as moss. She loosened the towel around his waist -- and then heard the guard at the door:

"Your Highnesses." The children were back! "Master Renet." And her ex-husband. "Queen Naelin has recently returned," the guard told them. "She will be pleased to see you."

Naelin shoved the towel at Ven and shooed him back into the bathroom. "Quickly! Come out when you're presentable." He was smiling at her, silently laughing as she closed the door behind him. She knew she was wearing the same silly smile. She flattened her hair down and smoothed her shirt as she turned to face the door.

It swung open and her children, Erian and Llor, spilled inside. They raced to her -- Erian's legs were longer, but Llor was like an arrow. He embedded himself in her waist, wrapping his arms firmly around her with so much force that she let out an "Oof!" Erian, only slightly more dignified at age ten, stretched over Llor to hug her.

Llor's words spilled out like water from a spigot. "Mama, Mama, Mama! Father tried to take us out into Mittriel, but the guards wouldn't let him, not without your permission, so we went to the treasure pavilion instead, but it was boring so we went to the weapons room but the guards wouldn't let me play with any of the swords, even though I promised to be careful, and then we went to the kitchen and ate pie. I don't like cherry pie. It's slimy. Like slugs. Cherry pie is red slug pie."

"Don't be disgusting, Llor," Erian scolded him. "Besides, how do you know what a slug tastes like? Have you ever eaten one?"

"I will if you dare me to."

"I dare you."

"I double-dare you," he said, then cackled with delight. "Now you have to!"

"Do not."

Still in the doorway, Renet lingered with a wistful expression on his face. Naelin knew he wanted her to invite him inside, but she wanted to be alone with Erian and Llor. She got precious little time with them, in between the schedule the palace seneschal set for her and Daleina's requests. "Thank you, Renet," she said, and hoped he understood.

He took a cautious step into the room.

"I'll bring the children by to visit tomorrow. You may go." Inwardly, she winced at herself. That was a terrible way to talk to the man who'd fathered her children. Later, when she had more time, she'd explain . . . Except there's no good way to say "Thanks, but I don't want you in my life anymore." Leaving him should have been enough to communicate that. She shouldn't have to keep saying it. Maybe someday it will be easier.

Yes . . . maybe.

It would be nice if they could be . . . if not friends, then at least two people who didn't conjure up a mess of sadness, guilt, and regret for what could have been but wasn't. That was easier said than done, though. So much history couldn't easily be rewritten. She supposed it would take time.

She left the words unsaid as the guard escorted him out, and he shot one last forlorn look at her, Erian, and Llor. Pushing the issue of Renet aside for now, Naelin hugged her children tighter. "I missed you today!" she told them.

"We don't like when you leave," Erian said seriously.

"You're safe here. All the guards know to watch for you, and if any spirits were to . . . misbehave, Queen Daleina and I would feel it and hurry back. You don't have to worry anymore. Nothing's going to happen to you."

Llor rolled his eyes -- he hadn't quite mastered the expression, and his eyes darted back and forth before they went up in an exaggerated way. Naelin schooled her face into bland seriousness so he wouldn't think she was laughing at him. "We aren't scared," he said. "We miss you!"

"Then I have good news: how would you like to come with me on a little trip?"

Erian's face lit up like a firemoss lantern. "You'll bring us with you?" She hugged Naelin again. "Yes, please!"

Naelin laughed. "You didn't even ask me where."

Behind her, the bathroom door opened, and she twisted to see Ven emerge, fully dressed, his hair still wet but brushed, sloppily, to the side. Both Ven and Llor paid about the same amount of attention to their hair. "I'll ask, then," Ven said. "Where?"

Llor catapulted himself across the room and into Ven's arms.

Ven caught him neatly and swung him in a circle. "Hey, tiger."

"Roar!" Llor growled.

"To the villages in the outer forest," Naelin said. "It's Queen Daleina's idea. She thinks the people will feel better if they meet me. I can reassure them that the invasion is over, that we're at peace, and that we'll be helping restore the harvest and rebuild their homes before winter. I can also heal any barren areas I come across." Privately, she thought she'd be more useful healing the dead zones than parading in front of people, but she hadn't argued. Well, not much. She had insisted on no entourage. Just her, Ven, the children, and Renet (who wasn't an ideal choice, but she'd need someone to watch the children when she and Ven were working). Also the wolf, Bayn (who was an ideal choice -- the children adored him, and Naelin felt safer when the wolf was near).

Llor tugged on Ven's sleeve. "Ven, Ven, Ven! If you double-dare someone, and they refuse, what do you do?"

"Challenge them to a duel." Ven then flipped Llor horizontal and charged forward at Erian, holding Llor like he was a battering ram. Llor shrieked with delight, roared, and clawed at the air as Erian scampered over a table with gorgeous carvings of flowers and over a couch with golden embroidered edges until she reached the fireplace. She brandished a fire poker like a sword.

Naelin swooped forward and intercepted the poker. "Bad idea." She replaced the poker with a pillow. "Better idea." She then scooped up a pillow of her own, and both she and Erian attacked Ven and Llor with pillows.

"Retreat!" Ven shouted, and then, carrying Llor, raced into the bathroom.

Naelin and Erian collapsed on the couch, laughing. "Nicely done," Naelin told her.

"You'll really take us with you?" Erian asked. "You won't leave us behind, like today?" In her daughter's eyes, Naelin saw a hint of fear -- it had been lurking there ever since the invasion and never seemed to go fully away.

Naelin cupped her daughter's face in her hands. "There may be days when I have things I have to do and people I need to help. But I'll never leave you," she told her, trying to make her believe, trying to erase that touch of fear. "Ever."

*     *     *

Ven knelt beside the wolf and ruffled the fur on his neck. "Ready for another run, old friend?" He chuckled at Bayn's expression, which said as clearly as words, More ready than you, old man.

He stood as Bayn trotted down the bridge away from the palace. Watching him, Ven didn't bother to tell him to be careful -- the wolf knew the forest as well as he did. He'd find his own way northwest and most likely be there at the first village on their list, waiting for them, thumping his tail impatiently at the slowness of humans.

Behind him, Ven heard his traveling companions -- Erian and Llor teasing each other, Naelin worrying over whether they'd packed enough socks, and Renet bragging about his woodsman skills.

Maybe I should have told Bayn to let us get a head start.

Naelin joined him. "I think we have everything."

He surveyed their packs, which were bulging. "Are you sure?" he asked mildly. "Perhaps we could squeeze in a mattress? Or a dozen more gowns?"

She fixed him with a glare. "It wasn't me. The palace caretakers insisted."

He loved that glare. It made him want to wrap her in his arms and kiss her until she smiled again. Turning that glare into one of her smiles was his new favorite pastime. Later. "All right then. Let's go. We should reach northwest Aratay in four days."

*     *     *

It took them eight days.

Naelin loved every second of it, even with the overstuffed packs, even with Renet and his sad puppy eyes, even with Erian and Llor daring each other to more ridiculous climbing feats that Ven would have to rescue them from.

For eight days, she was just Naelin, an ordinary woodswoman, traveling through the forest with her family.

And then they reached the first village in northwest Aratay. Bayn was waiting for them just outside the village, looking extra-plump -- judging from the chicken feather stuck to his fur, she gathered he'd helped himself to the village's hospitality. She made a mental note to reimburse them for whatever he'd eaten.

"Wear your crown," Renet told her.

"I'm not in the palace," Naelin said. She knew he was right: she was supposed to be introducing herself as their new queen, which meant gowns and crowns. But she hated the way it poked her scalp.

Admit it, she told herself. You hate what it represents.

She waved off his argument before he could make it, dug the crown out of her pack, and stuck it on her head. Erian arranged her hair beneath it, and Llor solemnly handed her a flower. She tucked it amid the silver filigree on the crown.

"You can do this," Ven told her.

In a low voice so only he could hear, she asked, "What if they don't believe I'm the queen?" Despite living in the palace, despite being able to sense all the spirits in Aratay, despite the incredible (and rather terrifying) boost in power she'd felt ever since the moment the spirits had accepted her as their queen, she still didn't feel royal. She was just a woodswoman, with two children, graying hair, bony elbows, and calluses on her palms from years of mending the shingles on her own roof and scrubbing her own floors. What if these people sense that? She was supposed to reassure them that all was well in Aratay, but how could she do that when she didn't feel reassured? In fact, now that she was here, near a village that was not so different from where they used to live in East Everdale, she felt more like an imposter than she ever had.

For decades, she had known full well who she was -- had liked who she was -- and now she was supposed to be someone new. It made her feel like a teenager again, which was not a phase she had any interest in reliving. It's bad enough that I'll have to relive it through Erian and Llor's eyes.

Ven shrugged. "Just instruct the spirits to eat a few of them. They won't doubt you then."

She shot him a withering glare.

He grinned back at her.

"You're impossible," she informed him.

"I think the word you're looking for is 'hilarious.' Or you could go with 'supportive.' 'Ruggedly handsome'? 'Very strong'?"

Llor giggled. "'Very silly'?"

Ven nodded solemnly. "Also 'ticklish.'"

"Really? You?" Llor's mouth dropped open.

Ven poked his elbow. "Right there."

Both Erian and Llor attacked him. He collapsed dramatically, writhing on the ground and howling with laughter.

Naelin watched them for a moment. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bayn watching them as well with a long-suffering expression on his lupine face. Ridiculous humans, he seemed to be saying. Playing like pups when there's work to be done. Her lips twitched, and she and Bayn exchanged glances.

Leaving Ven with the children and Renet, Queen Naelin of Aratay and the great forests of Renthia swept into the village with only a wolf by her side.

No one doubted who she was.

*     *     *

They moved on, and in each village they went to, the people of Aratay rushed to welcome her. They insisted on housing her and her companions in their finest home, feeding them a feast, and entertaining them with tales and songs. As word spread ahead of them, the villagers would be eagerly anticipating their queen's arrival, ready to fawn over her -- and to present all their requests in interminable meetings with the village leaders.

By their eighth stop, a tiny village called Redleaf, she barely had a few seconds alone with Erian and Llor each day before she was whisked away to greet everyone and hear their litany of complaints. "Let me take the kids on a picnic," Renet begged. "They need a break. You can't ask them to sit through another meeting where they can't be near their mother and they're bored to tears."

Naelin refused. She didn't want them out of her sight.

But it was true that Erian and Llor were bored. After sitting through the introduction of half the town's population, Llor began begging and pleading and wheedling and threatening his father's case. "If you don't let us go, I'll sing the alphabet song. Loudly. Over and over. So no grown-up can talk."

She was tempted to let him do just that. Smothering a smile, she glanced over at Ven. If he were to accompany them, then she wouldn't worry. . . .

He shook his head. "I stay with you. It's my job to protect you." He didn't have to say how important Naelin was to Aratay, especially when there were no viable heirs.

"I will guard them with my life," Renet pledged.

"Send Bayn," Ven suggested, ignoring Renet. "He can protect them from all ordinary threats, and with you nearby, no spirit will dare attack them."

"You can make the spirits watch us!" Llor said.

"Absolutely not. That will draw their attention to you." Even as she said it, though, Naelin considered their request for an outing. She looked at Llor's wide eyes and clasped hands. Saw how hopeful Erian looked. Even Renet's expression tugged on her heart. It's not fair to make all of them suffer through my being queen. "Very well. Take Bayn, and don't stray too near the border. We're close to Semo in the north and the untamed lands to the west. Be aware of your surroundings. Don't do anything to upset the spirits, and be careful not to step on any weak branches."

Erian kissed her cheek. "You worry too much, Mama. We can take care of ourselves. And we won't let anything happen to Father either."

She forced herself to smile, even though she wanted to say, I don't like this.

No, it's not the picnic that I don't like. It's the fact that I can't be with them. I don't know how to be a good queen and a good mother at the same time.

Something had to change if she was going to be successful at all this. But for now . . .

"You may go."

 

Chapter Three

The wolf had never, not once, wanted to eat the queen's children, even on the day when Llor tried to ride him like a pony and Erian (unintentionally) shot the tip of his tail with an arrow. He did, however, want to eat their picnic lunch. Knocking the lid aside with his nose, he delicately lifted the cooked bird out of its basket. Laying it on the branch, he gnawed at it -- the bones crunched, and the flesh tasted nutty. He'd grown fond of cooked meat after all his time with humans. Almost as fond as he was of the humans themselves.

Not that all the humans were as fond of him, of course -- Renet, for example, showed no love for his children's wolf guardian. On occasion, Bayn liked to amuse himself by startling Renet. But today Bayn left him alone, because the children were so happy to be with their father and the day would be cut short if Renet needed to return to the village to change his pants. The wolf understood enough of human behavior to be sure of that.

He understood rather more than an ordinary wolf should, which seemed to disturb other wolves when they encountered him, but had never bothered him.

What did bother him was what he felt from the spirits in the nearby trees. Right now, there were three tree spirits midforest and one in the canopy, plus an earth spirit burrowing beneath the roots of their picnic tree. Spirits were always odd this close to the untamed lands -- annoyingly skittish -- but this felt . . . more. He sensed them like itches in his fur -- and they felt increasingly agitated, enough to interrupt his meal and cause him to stare hard at the trees.

The forest was still.

Just a breeze that rustled the crinkled leaves.

Just a squirrel that squawked at the sight of a wolf high in a tree.

The autumn sun was still warm, soaking into the branches and into Bayn's fur, and the air carried the sour smell of overripe berries, rain-soaked moss, and the familiar scent of his humans.

He sniffed the air, alert. Nearby, Erian was showing her father the new knife moves that Champion Ven had taught her. She mimed stabbing a spirit in the eye, a target Bayn approved of. It was always wise to aim for the sensitive parts. He preferred a bite to the throat, but the girl lacked the jaw strength for that. Her father was trying not to look appalled at the sight of his ten-year-old daughter thrusting a knife into the air and talking cheerfully about eyeballs. I would make a better father for her, Bayn thought.

Llor, who was nearly seven years old, was competing for Renet's attention by tiptoe walking out onto the narrower part of the branch. "Watch me, Father! Look at this!"

"Llor, come back here!" Renet said. "Erian, that's very nice. You're very fast. Does your mother know Champion Ven is teaching you this?"

"It was her idea," Erian said. "She says even people who are smart and kind and careful sometimes have to stab things."

"Your mother said that?" Renet asked faintly.

Bayn thought he looked a bit wild around the eyes, as if he were a rabbit who wanted to bolt back into a nice, safe hole . . . like the spirits around them were doing.

The spirit in the canopy was swinging away, dangling monkeylike from a branch then leaping to grab the next one. Something is frightening them, Bayn thought. He sniffed the air again and let his tongue taste the scents around him. The three spirits at midforest were scattering -- one running down the tree, one worming itself inside the tree, and the third fleeing to the next tree. Far below, the earth spirit was burrowing between the roots, its claws scrambling furiously at a mat of dead leaves.

Getting to his feet, Bayn growled.

Shooting the wolf a look, Renet said in a sharper voice, "Llor, come back right now."

"But Father, I'm fine! I can do this--"

An air spirit dove through the canopy. Its leathery wings hit the branches, knocking off bright red, orange, and yellow leaves that swirled in its wake. Seeing a flash of a long, sharp beak, Bayn bounded across the branch toward Llor.

Llor was screaming when Bayn plowed into him, knocking into his stomach so that the boy tumbled over him onto the wolf's back. He felt wind from above as the spirit hurtled toward them. Launching himself forward, Bayn crashed down hard on the end of the branch.

Crackle, crackle . . .

Crack!

They fell.

The spirit's talons brushed his fur, just missing them. The boy was screaming, but Bayn landed in a crouch on the branch below and was running a second later.

Above, though, the girl was in danger.

Hoping the boy had the sense to hang on tight -- and from the grip around his neck, Bayn thought that yes, he did -- the wolf leaped from branch to branch until he was back up to where they'd been having their picnic. Erian was jabbing at the spirit with her knife while her father was pounding on its back with a branch the size of his arm.

The spirit pivoted its head and snapped its bladelike beak at Renet. The man stumbled backward, and then his foot stepped onto open air, beyond the branch. He fell, arms flailing, screaming his daughter's name as the air spirit turned back to Erian.

Bayn had a quick decision: save the girl or save the man.

It was a simple choice.

You save pups.

Always save the pups, for they cannot save themselves.

He barreled toward Erian. As soon as they reached her, Llor slid off Bayn's back into his sister's arms, and the wolf launched himself at the air spirit.

The spirit was twice his size, with that vicious beak and talons. But Bayn was fast, strong, and far more intelligent. He feinted for its neck and then clamped hard on the tendons in its wing, ripping backward as the air spirit pulled away. He tasted its blood -- crisp mountain air, the tang of pine, and the acrid bite of soil choked with stone. Not the usual taste of the spirits of Aratay.

There was no time to consider what the odd flavor meant, however. Behind him, Erian cried, "Bayn, watch out!" Turning his head, he saw she was pointing at the sky.

Five more spirits streaked toward them. Alone, he might have fought them, but he couldn't risk Queen Naelin's children. Baring his teeth, he crouched low and jerked his head, hoping the children understood what he wanted.

They did. Llor and Erian climbed onto his back. As the air spirit he'd injured shrieked to the others, Bayn tensed all his muscles and then sprang away from the branch. He sailed through the air in a graceful arc, landing smoothly on a branch of the next tree -- if anyone had been watching, they would have been shocked to see a wolf travel through the trees this way, but both Erian and Llor were too young and too scared to question it. He felt them through his back, shaking, tense, and terrified, but he didn't dare pause to comfort them.

He jumped from branch to branch while the spirits streaked through the air after them. Instantly, he knew he'd made a mistake -- if he'd fled east toward where Queen Naelin was visiting Queen Daleina's childhood village, Naelin would have known her children were in danger and could have compelled the spirits to stop, but instead he'd run west.

Or more accurately, he'd been driven west.

Maybe they're not as stupid as I thought.

And they were proving that. Every time he tried to switch direction, one of the spirits would cut him off. He raced down the trunk of a fallen tree and hit the forest floor. Running faster, he weaved between the bushes and the roots. Crying to one another, the spirits chased him, skimming over the bushes and zigzagging between the trunks. He saw one out of the corner of his eye, pacing him.

No longer screaming, the children were whimpering into his fur. He smelled their fear in their sweat, and it made him run faster. He covered one mile, then two, then three, farther and farther from Naelin and safety.

The spirits, he realized, were trying to trap him against the border of the untamed lands. He'd seen this hunting technique before. In fact, he'd used it himself.

No one ever went into the untamed lands. Not even if they faced death. He'd taken down prey within inches of the border, tearing them to shreds when they'd stopped, terrified, their deeply ingrained fear of the untamed lands overwhelming their fear of a predator.

And now he was the prey.

He sensed the spirits, flanking him, so he dodged right. The children held on as he veered around the trunk of an oak tree and then plowed through the underbrush. Two spirits darted in front of him. He ran left. Another spirit shot forward, forcing him to swerve again.

I am not fast enough, he realized.

Soon, they'd have him corralled.

Ahead, he caught a glimpse of the untamed lands. Through the branches, it looked like the haze above a waterfall. It shimmered and darkened, and Bayn had a brilliant and terrible idea. Switching directions, he did what no ordinary animal would do: he ran toward the border.

Caught off-guard, his pursuers faltered for a moment before chasing after him.

Once more, he heard the whimpers of Erian and Llor. He felt the crunch of fallen leaves beneath his paws. If I can just reach it, the spirits won't dare follow. . . . Ahead, he saw the haze trembling and shifting as, beyond the borders of the known world, mountains rose and fell, trees sprouted and died, and streams flooded and dried. He heard Erian cry, "Bayn, no!"

But before he could reach the border, two of the spirits broke from the others and attacked from above. He felt Erian and Llor being pulled from his back. He heard them scream. Pivoting, Bayn leapt and snarled, but the other four spirits closed around him.

He was driven back, as the two spirits carried the screaming children up toward the canopy. Fighting, he tried to run after them -- but it was impossible. The other spirits cut him off. He retreated, losing inch by inch, backing toward the untamed lands.

As the two spirits carrying Erian and Llor burst through the canopy, he knew he'd lost. Oh, Great Mother, he prayed, I'm sorry my best was not good enough. And then to the children, he thought, Stay alive. Until we meet again.

He broke off fighting and did the unthinkable.

Turning, he ran without stopping, without slowing, without even hesitating. Behind him, he felt the spirits pull up short, watching, as he plunged into the untamed lands.

And the haze closed around him.

 

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