Read an Excerpt From Queen Among the Dead

In the kingdom of Eire, banshees chill the air, and water-wights lurk in the rivers. But magic is outlawed by the king, and jealously hoarded by his Druid priests.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Lesley Livingston’s Queen Among the Dead, a Celtic YA fantasy adventure out now from Zando Young Readers.

In the kingdom of Eire, banshees chill the air, and water-wights lurk in the rivers. But magic is outlawed by the king, and jealously hoarded by his Druid priests.

Neve is the youngest daughter of the king, and Ronan is a Druid’s apprentice turned thief, making a living by selling stolen spells. They should be enemies, but their shared hatred of the Druids—and a dark magic that has marked them both—makes them unlikely, if uneasy, allies.

When Eire is threatened by a power struggle, Neve must seize the chance to take her rightful place on her family’s throne, with the help of Ronan and the realm’s most dangerous outcasts. Their journey takes them to the outskirts of Eire, where magic still runs free… and where an outlaw and a warrior princess might carve out a future with spells and swords.


 

 

The barrow grounds hadn’t seen another living soul that day, except for one.

At thirteen years old, Ronan was still lean and wiry enough to be able to cut away a square of turf, shift a stone or two, and navigate the passageways of most of the tombs without leaving behind obvious signs of desecration.

This evening, the boy’s leather satchel bulged with a cache of stone fragments carved with spells and prayers that he’d liberated from the tomb of the recently interred chief óglach—leader of the Dagda’s own personal guard. The boy felt no twinge of remorse over the pillaging. The man was dead—and, by all accounts, had been of an odious disposition—so what need had he of incantations? At least, that’s what the lad told himself.

The óglach’s tomb had been rich and stoutly constructed, the stones cunningly laid, and it had taken some doing to get in and out again, even for a practiced tomb robber. Now, with a storm coming on fast over the hills, Ronan decided against a trek back to Blackwater Town, where he shared a hut with a handful of river rats and outcasts. Instead, he stashed his pickaxe and spoils in a half-finished cairn he found, then curled up, sheltered by stone and earth, to wait out the deluge.

As the sun sank below the horizon and the winds began to howl, he heard a noise.

A thin, high shriek that raised his hackles.

Ronan poked his head out of the depression where he hid and, shielding his eyes from the biting gale, peered into the purple-tinged gloom. About thirty paces off to his left, there was a small shape cowering before a whirlwind rising up from the ground.

A wash of poison-green light spilled out over the barrows, and a terrifying wail erupted. The boy saw the hunched shape throw an arm up in defense and realized it was a young girl crouching in front of what looked like… a ban sidhe demon.

Ronan swore under his breath.

One scrawny urchin missing from the muddy streets of Blackwater wasn’t his problem. But a ban sidhe on the loose with a taste for fresh blood is, he thought. Or, at least, it will be if I don’t do something.

He’d never actually seen a real demon before, but—having studied under the harsh tutelage of the Druid priests since he could barely walk—he knew the wraith would feed on any living thing it came into contact with and, unchecked, grow stronger and more deadly. Just like the thunderstorm bearing down on the valley. Eventually, the Druids would have to be called upon to banish the ban sidhe back to its forsaken realm.

And, in the meantime, that would cut into his profits. Maybe even his life expectancy…

The girl screamed again. Ronan raked his fingers through his dark hair in frustration, then dropped back down into the dugout. He reached for his satchel and rifled through his bounty of sharp-edged stone strips, careful not to nick his fingertips. Spilling even a drop of blood into that bag full of magic would have been… unwise.

As he’d pilfered spells from the óglach’s barrow earlier that evening, he’d noticed that one of them had borne the mark of a fuath—a particularly nasty kind of water demon whose name literally meant “hate”—which, under normal circumstances, was not something to be trifled with. And even if the boy were reckless enough to want to trifle, the barrows were too far from any water source normally required for a successful conjuring. But circumstances that night were hardly normal.

As Ronan held the spell stone up in front of his face, and the girl screamed again, the skies opened up and the fury of the thunderstorm poured down upon them both.

Plenty enough water.

Now, all he needed was the hate.

Ronan peered at the slashes and knots chiseled on the stone and hissed through his teeth to think that some “mourner” had placed such a vile spell stone in someone’s grave. Designed not to soothe or protect, but to torment the soul of the barrow’s inhabitant. It would fetch him a good price if he sold it in the dark market of Blackwater Town—

Focus! Time enough to think about profit later. If he managed to survive.

“Good thing I’m a quick study,” he muttered, scanning the lines of symbols. The incantation was crafted with a complexity beyond what the boy had learned from the Druid priests. “I hope…”

Lightning lashed the underbellies of the thunderheads as Ronan heaved himself up out of the trench and ran, throwing himself in front of the girl right as the ban sidhe demon lunged for her.

The demon’s taloned hand scraped Ronan’s shoulder, sending agony rippling down his arm. The girl shouted a startled warning, and the sound was enough to distract the monster for an instant—barely—but a string of word shapes plucked from the carvings on the spell stone was already forming on the boy’s tongue and in his mind.

“Fuath!” he cried, his voice cracking. “Hear my summons, Hated and Hating!”

Above Ronan’s head, the torrential rain twisted into tortured skeins, winding and weaving into a monstrous shape—half horse, half serpent, all malevolence—a feral creature of darkness and evil. Rage given form and purpose. A shriek split the air as Ronan’s conjuring became reality, and the fuath’s head canted on its sinewy neck, fixing a baleful glare on the boy. Ronan knew in that moment he was meddling with forces beyond what even a skilled Druid should. He wasn’t even quite sure how he’d managed it. But he had, and he only had a moment to act.

He swallowed the tight knot of fear in his throat. Now, to set the fuath upon the ban sidhe like a hungry beast on a baited trap, he thought. With any luck at all, the two demons would duel to their mutual destruction.

“Obey my command!” he shouted. “Release your fury on one deserving of it!”

Ronan swept his arm in the direction of the ban sidhe as it loomed over the girl. The fuath shrieked again and charged. The ban sidhe’s head whipped around, green-fire eyes peeled wide, howling as the ghostly serpent-horse bore down on it. Flickering veins of indigo darklight raced across the fuath’s sickly pale, scaley hide, crackling in its mane and tail as it pawed at the air and reared back to strike at the ban sidhe.

In that moment, the boy ran for the girl and grabbed her by the wrist, yanking her out of the way of the two spectral combatants. They ran, stumbling, across the grass, slamming into a moss-robed stone. The boy threw his arm up to shield them from both storm and spells and, in the gloom, he saw the girl’s face—a handsbreadth from his—and was caught, suddenly. Snared like a rabbit in the circles of her dark golden eyes.

She stared back at him as large glistening tears spilled down her cheeks. Without thinking, Ronan reached up and caught them on the pads of his thumbs.

“Stop that!” he said. “Do you want to summon another one?”

Then he squeezed his fists shut around his thumbs. He stared in wonder as her tears sizzled and vanished, sending tiny flares of indigo light sparking between his fingers. In that very same moment, the ban sidhe shrieked and exploded into nothingness and a sudden void of silence.

The girl’s mouth fell open, and Ronan blinked in astonishment at the demon’s sudden demise. His masters had always told him that strong human emotions—manifested in blood or tears or even, sometimes, sweat—were keys to unlocking powerful enchantments. At least they were safe now. From the ban sidhe, at least…

The fuath was another matter. Ronan tensed as he felt the flickering threads of the enchantment that held the demon bound— just barely—to his will begin to fray. The bonds were snapping, one by one, and in another moment, the boy’s own conjuring would turn and devour them both.

“Run!” Ronan scrambled back as the serpent-horse struck at him. Missed shattering his skull by a hairsbreadth. Reared back to strike again—

And then, suddenly, the girl was there.

With a shout, she brought down Ronan’s pickaxe with all her strength onto the serpent-horse’s head. The boy watched, frozen, as the sharp iron spike pierced between the thing’s eyes, stabbing down through the roof of its gaping mouth.

The fuath shrieked and writhed…

And shattered into sparkling dust blown away by a gust of wind. Ronan collapsed onto his knees. The thunderstorm quieted down all around them as if it, too, had been fueled by some kind of demon energy now banished. Ronan offered up a brief heartfelt prayer to whatever god watched over blacksmiths. Iron was not only an exceptionally rare commodity but also one of the only material elements that could disrupt a magical conjuring. That morning, Ronan had, on impulse, stolen the pickaxe—a fine tool, clearly intended for a rich patron—from a blacksmith’s hut on his way to the necropolis. He offered up a second prayer to the protector of thieves.

“How…,” he panted, “how did you know that iron would disrupt the fuath spell?”

The girl shook her head, equally winded. “I didn’t,” she said. “I just thought I’d try hitting it with something sharp.”

The two of them looked at each other and burst into laughter. “What’s your name?” he asked when their laughter subsided. When the girl hesitated, he held out his hand.

“I’m Ronan,” he said. “Apprentice Druid priest. One day I’ll practice real magic in the stone temples and oak groves, and I’m going to have to remember that fuath spell. It’s a good one.”

“You’ll have to get it right if you want to serve the gods,” she answered, but not in a dismissive way. Just sort of matter-of-factly, as if she believed that one day he actually might. “I’m Neve,” she said, reaching for his wrist. “And if you ever tell anyone ever that I was crying, I’ll summon another demon and command it to drag you down into the darkness and fires of Teg Duinn.”

He stared at her and she turned away.

“Now where’s my pony gone?” She put her fingers to her lips to whistle. There was an answering neigh from behind the near barrow, and she started in that direction.

As he watched her go, Ronan felt a sharp sting pulsing on his palm and glanced down to see a thin line of crimson welling up. A few paces away, he found the fuath spell stone lying in the grass where he’d dropped it. His heart stopped cold when he realized that the shard bore a bright trickle of blood along its jagged edge.

Ronan held it up in front of his face, not daring to move or speak or even think until the rain had washed the stone clean.

When he looked around, Ronan realized he stood all alone in the darkness and the dying storm. No girl, no demons.

It would be many years before he would see either girl or demon again. And when he did, Ronan would come to realize that once he’d managed to conjure one, the other would soon follow.

 

Excerpted from Queen Among the Dead, copyright © 2022 by Lesley Livingston.

citation

Back to the top of the page

0 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.