Read a free excerpt from The Queen of the Tearling, the first book in a new fantasy series by debut author Erika Johansen, out on July 8th from Harper, in which a young princess must reclaim her dead mother’s throne, learn to be a ruler—and defeat the Red Queen, a powerful and malevolent sorceress determined to destroy her.
On her nineteenth birthday, Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, raised in exile, sets out on a perilous journey back to the castle of her birth to ascend her rightful throne. Plain and serious, a girl who loves books and learning, Kelsea bears little resemblance to her mother, the vain and frivolous Queen Elyssa. Despite her royal blood, Kelsea feels like nothing so much as an insecure girl, a child called upon to lead a people and a kingdom about which she knows almost nothing.
The quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun—a wondrous journey of self-discovery and a trial by fire that will make her a legend . . . if she can survive.
The Tenth Horse
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.”
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 God I’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 herat the Keep, almost overwhelmed her, just when she’d thoughtthat 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!”
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 though 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.
The Queen of the Tearling copyright © Erika Johansen 2014