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The Warrior's Curse

Jennifer A. Nielsen

  Para Alejandra,

  Porque cuando te haces parte de la

  familia, se te dedica un libro.

  También porque eres un regalo

  en nuestras vidas.

  Face me with swords or with weapons of might,

  I won’t be afraid of that fight.

  Threaten me, curse me, or crush my heartbeat,

  Just watch me. I’ll stay on my feet.

  But …

  If you come near me and fall on your knees

  With kind words and warm whispered pleas,

  If you should hold me, say I am the one,

  I’ll tremble and may have to run.

  Or maybe I’ll stay and give you my heart—

  Keep it safe; don’t tear it apart.

  Now nothing forever can be the same.

  For love is a dangerous game.


  Title Page



  Chapter One: Kestra

  Chapter Two: Simon

  Chapter Three: Simon

  Chapter Four: Kestra

  Chapter Five: Kestra

  Chapter Six: Simon

  Chapter Seven: Kestra

  Chapter Eight: Simon

  Chapter Nine: Simon

  Chapter Ten: Kestra

  Chapter Eleven: Kestra

  Chapter Twelve: Simon

  Chapter Thirteen: Kestra

  Chapter Fourteen: Simon

  Chapter Fifteen: Kestra

  Chapter Sixteen: Simon

  Chapter Seventeen: Kestra

  Chapter Eighteen: Simon

  Chapter Nineteen: Simon

  Chapter Twenty: Kestra

  Chapter Twenty-One: Simon

  Chapter Twenty-Two: Kestra

  Chapter Twenty-Three: Simon

  Chapter Twenty-Four: Kestra

  Chapter Twenty-Five: Simon

  Chapter Twenty-Six: Kestra

  Chapter Twenty-Seven: Simon

  Chapter Twenty-Eight: Kestra

  Chapter Twenty-Nine: Simon

  Chapter Thirty: Kestra

  Chapter Thirty-One: Simon

  Chapter Thirty-Two: Kestra

  Chapter Thirty-Three: Simon

  Chapter Thirty-Four: Kestra

  Chapter Thirty-Five: Simon

  Chapter Thirty-Six: Kestra

  Chapter Thirty-Seven: Kestra

  Chapter Thirty-Eight: Simon

  Chapter Thirty-Nine: Simon

  Chapter Forty: Kestra

  Chapter Forty-One: Simon

  Chapter Forty-Two: Kestra

  Chapter Forty-Three: Simon

  Chapter Forty-Four: Simon

  Chapter Forty-Five: Kestra

  Chapter Forty-Six: Simon

  Chapter Forty-Seven: Kestra

  Chapter Forty-Eight: Simon

  Chapter Forty-Nine: Kestra

  Chapter Fifty: Kestra

  Chapter Fifty-One: Kestra

  Chapter Fifty-Two: Simon

  Chapter Fifty-Three: Simon

  Chapter Fifty-Four: Kestra

  Chapter Fifty-Five: Kestra

  Chapter Fifty-Six: Simon

  Chapter Fifty-Seven: Simon

  Chapter Fifty-Eight: Kestra


  About the Author

  Also by Jennifer A. Nielsen


  Winter had come, bringing harsh winds that cut like knives through my cloak, the land frozen beneath my feet each morning and continuing to chill, even when the sun rose. Not that we saw much sun in such a forsaken place.

  Loelle had taken me here, to All Spirits Forest, forcing me away from Simon, away from every reality I had ever known. For the first few days, I refused to speak to her, refused to acknowledge that she even existed. I was utterly miserable.

  How could I be otherwise in such a place?

  A generation ago, in the War of Desolation, Lord Endrick had cursed these woods. The trees and bushes had lost their leaves, lost their life. Now they were mere blackened posts in a dead earth, unable to renew and offer hope to the land, unable to return to their former glory.

  Winter had brought cold to the forest, but no snow, no hope of springtime. Only more eternal decay.

  Every morning, I tried to leave the forest. And every morning, I was blocked by some invisible barrier I eventually came to understand. The half-lives who existed here, who had once fought against me entering the forest, were now working to keep me trapped within these same borders.

  Lord Endrick’s curse wasn’t targeted at the woods but, instead, at those whom he had corralled here at the time of the cursing: thousands of Halderians, his enemies. For nearly twenty years, they had been trapped here, in a midway point between life and death, like the trees themselves, unable to die, with no hope of living.

  “You can save them.”

  It wasn’t the first time Loelle had said this to me, though every time she did, she revealed a little more of her plans and purposes. This morning, she stood behind me as I combed my fingers through my brown hair, weaving it into a long braid. When I looked up, she repeated, “You can save these people, Kestra.”

  “Why would I care to save Halderians?” This was always my answer. Much of my life’s misery was a direct result of their actions against me.

  “My people are here too,” Loelle said. “We call ourselves the Navan. Help us, and we will help you.”

  That part was new. I had known that Loelle came from a people foreign to Antora, and that some of them were here in the forest, but this was the first time she had spoken their name, and certainly the first time she had openly confirmed that I was here to help them. I wasn’t here as a prisoner; she had brought me to be a servant. My temper warmed. “How can they possibly help me?”

  “It’s the reason I brought you here.” Loelle put her hands on my shoulders, but I brushed them off. “Kestra, they are your only chance to defeat Lord Endrick.”

  “That isn’t true.” I stood, pushing back my chair. “I have no chance to defeat him from here, nor can I leave, thanks to your people!”

  She stood as well. “Then help them leave.”

  “You want me to restore thousands of people to life? That’d take years.”

  “No. I want you to bring the forest back.” I began to walk away but Loelle called after me, “Nature is less complex, and the curse is in the people more than in the land. Bring the forest back, and at least my people won’t be trapped.”

  I stopped and looked back at her. She had my interest. “They’ll still be half-lives.”

  Loelle smiled, in a way that told me her plan was far deeper than she had let on so far. “Yes, they will remain as they are.”

  I considered that a moment, then said, “Let me heal Darrow. I know my father is here. Let me heal him, and then I’ll do what you want.”

  Loelle’s eyes were sympathetic but unflinching. “Do as I ask first, then I’ll send your father to you.” When I didn’t respond, she added, “Give me this one day, Kestra. If you don’t wish to continue afterward, then I’ll ask nothing more of you.”

  “And if I don’t continue, these half-lives will let me leave?”


  I grunted and marched over to the door. My cloak hung there from a hook, and I tossed it over my shoulders, shuddering against the wind when I walked outside.

  Loelle followed, pointing out a blackened stump very near her small wooden hut. Whatever it had been once, I couldn’t tell. “If you can pull strength from a person, I believe you can pull a curse from this tree.”

  “When I pull strength, I become stronger.” My eyes darted to the tree. “What happens when I pull in a curse?”

  Loelle sighed. “I think we both know. I�
�m so sorry, but there’s no other way.”

  At first, I wanted to ask what she meant, but then I realized that I did know the answers to all my questions. All of them … except for the one I knew she would not answer: No other way to do what?

  My only hope to find out was to move forward.

  Loelle set my hands on the trunk of the dead, blackened tree, whispering into my ear, “Take the curse.”

  It wasn’t about giving strength to the tree. I needed to pull the curse from its roots and stems and branches, drawing it into myself. As I focused on my task, Endrick’s curse immediately flooded through my veins, expanding into every hollow of my body. I felt its ugliness, all its hate and desire to control life and love and hope, and especially its will to control me. To consume me.

  I tried to let go. Every instinct within me rebelled against what I was drawing to myself, but I’d become bound to the tree, trapped in place until the tree had emptied itself of its curse.

  When it was over, I collapsed to the ground, Loelle at my side, waiting until I had recovered enough to open my eyes. Hoping to quell the pain, I curled into a ball and whispered, “No more of that, Loelle. Whatever Endrick did to that tree, that curse, it’s burning inside me.”

  “Let it pass,” she replied. And slowly it did, the sharp burn fading into a small pit inside my chest, something cold and dead. As Loelle promised, after a few deep breaths, I began to feel strong again. Not just strong, but powerful in a way I had never experienced before, that perhaps no one had ever experienced. When I nodded at her that I felt well enough to move on, she smiled and said, “Look up.”

  I did and was surprised to find the tree was changing, its withered black trunk becoming brown, bark forming around perfect, new wood. The branches were spreading, even regaining the leaves it must have once had at the time it was cursed. They fell to the ground beside me, as winter leaves must, but new leaves would return to this tree with the coming spring.

  It was so beautiful, so hopeful, and so tangible in its healing that I suddenly realized I wanted to continue on in the work, despite its effects. After so much fighting, so much destruction caused by my powers, finally I could heal something, and add peace and promise to this land. And so I began, working for nearly a month to heal the forest.

  Every day, moving from one area to another, I’d work for as long as my strength endured, emptying and refilling myself over and over. It never seemed like enough before I had to quit, but gradually, the pockets connected and the forest began to come to life. Birds could be heard in the distance, the ground softened, and snow began to fall again.

  Sometime in those weeks, I also became more aware of the half-lives who lived here, the target of Lord Endrick’s curse.

  “Let me heal them too,” I begged Loelle, every single day. “Darrow.”

  “We cannot, not yet” was her daily reply, with no further explanation.

  Still, I continued, so focused on my work that I was becoming immune to the cold. I felt the chill in the air, but it no longer bothered me. Rather, it was the heat from Loelle’s evening fires that made me uncomfortable, so I began to sit near the door, leaving it cracked open enough that I could rest.

  The evenings were most difficult. That was when my thoughts drifted toward Simon, wondering if he was still the Halderian king, wondering if he was now married to Harlyn Mindall. Wondering if he had ever tried to find me.

  Then, one morning, I said to Loelle, “Simon was wrong about me getting magic.”

  Loelle looked up from a book she had been reading. “Oh? In what way?”

  “He thought it would corrupt me, but consider all the good I’ve been able to do for these woods.”

  Loelle’s smile saddened. “Yes, you’ve done what no one else could.”

  “Let me heal Darrow,” I said. “I’ve earned that much.”

  “You have,” Loelle said. “Soon, Kestra. I promise.”

  Soon. I would see my father again soon.

  Until then, I had work to do.

  We were a month into winter, and there hadn’t been one sign of Kestra anywhere in Antora, nor beyond. With the permission of Captain Tenger, the leader of the Corack rebellion, Trina and Gabe and a few other Coracks had been combing the land for Kestra, and so far, their search for even the barest hint of her had come up empty. Despite recovering from a terrible illness at the time Kestra left and my new responsibilities as king of the Halderians, I’d ventured out myself as often as possible, but every trace of her had vanished.

  Loelle had hidden her well, likely with the use of whatever magic she possessed beyond her abilities as a physician. I was certain she would keep Kestra alive, but I couldn’t fathom why Loelle had taken her away in the first place. All I knew was that Kestra’s absence had pierced a hole in my heart and it only became worse with each passing day.

  Every time I returned home from an attempt to find her, Harlyn met me in the stables. She never asked about Kestra directly, likely because she already knew how I’d answer.

  Instead, her question today was, “How is your arm?” She’d asked this before, and I’d come to understand that she was really asking, “How are you?”

  Barely looking at her, I said, “Everything’s fine.”

  Which was true only in the sense that my arm was fine. I, on the other hand, was miserable.

  I dismounted, and as I did, she touched my right arm, pretending to study it when we both knew she wanted a reason to approach me.

  “It hasn’t softened,” she said.

  “It never will,” I replied. “You know that, Harlyn.”

  In the battle with the Dominion, I’d discovered a Rawkyren, a young dragon, being tormented by Ironheart soldiers. I had rescued the dragon, but somehow its blood had mixed with mine, and now the flesh beneath my right arm was as strong as a dragon’s scales.

  At first, the Rawkyren could land on my arm without causing injury, despite digging its claws into my flesh for support. But the Rawkyren was too large for that now, almost the size of the Dominion’s giant condors, and growing more each day. It accompanied me on every search for Kestra, though it usually remained on its own in the wild while I was here in Nessel.

  Harlyn lowered her eyes. “I do know that. But I fear the injury did more than turn your arm to stone. I believe it turned you to stone. Will you never look at me with anything but contempt?”

  I placed my hand over hers. “It’s not contempt, but we both know you haven’t told me everything about the night Kestra left, about why she left.”

  Her eyes became teary. “Gerald already explained it to you.”

  “Did he?” I pulled my hand free and stepped back. She remained where she was, but as I started out the stable doors, Gerald walked in, giving me a quick bow. I glanced over at Harlyn, wondering if this was yet another secret plan, but this time she looked as confused as I did.

  “Come with me, now,” Gerald said.

  We immediately followed. He led us through a rear corridor of the manor that served as a sort of castle in exile, with me as a king in exile, ruling over a people I barely knew, and with Harlyn the only connection between us. Gerald brought us to the doors of a room where I met with the officers of what little army the Halderians still had. The door was slightly ajar, and Gerald motioned for Harlyn and me to come forward where we could hear.

  “… but like it or not, Simon is the king.” The man who was speaking was named Edgar, and he was one of the finest officers in the cavalry. “We serve him.”

  “But who does Simon serve?” This man was Reese. He was the current head of the cavalry. “Not us, not our people.”

  “Master Thorne assured us that Simon was the king we’ve been waiting for. Commander Mindall trusts him too.”

  A third man, whose voice I didn’t recognize, said, “Commander Mindall is too sick for his word to be trusted, and even so, he only supports Simon because his daughter will become the queen.”

  “We would serve her,” Reese said. “But has Simon gi
ven any indication of wanting to marry her? No. I say the rumors are true, that the king is in love with the Infidante.”

  “If he is, then he’ll have to be removed,” the third man said. “It was bad enough that the Infidante is a Dallisor, that she’s one of them. But now she also has magic, which means she must have Endrean blood too, the blood of the tyrant. I’ve heard rumors of the real reason Kestra Dallisor was sent away from here, and it’s worse than you can imagine. If our king has any place in his heart for Kestra Dallisor, he will have to be removed too.”

  “Removed?” Edgar asked. “That’s treason.”

  “Call it what you want, but it must be,” Reese said. “We can’t afford to have our people divided, not in these dangerous times.”

  I turned on my heel and marched away, my hands balled into fists. Gerald and Harlyn followed until we reached my room, then Gerald shut the door behind us.

  “We have to find Kestra,” I said. “If they mean to harm her—”

  “Weren’t you listening?” Gerald asked. “They intend to harm you!”

  “We have to prove to them that she’s on our side, that they’re wrong—”

  “They’re not wrong,” Gerald said. “She is more like Endrick than us, and you know for yourself that she has begun to corrupt. I didn’t bring you to hear that conversation for Kestra’s sake. I’m trying to protect you!”

  I glanced over at Harlyn, whose eyes were lowered. She wouldn’t look at me.

  “Listen carefully,” Gerald said. “There is a supper tonight. When it is finished, Simon, you will offer marriage to Harlyn, and, Harlyn, you will accept.”

  Harlyn opened her mouth to say something, but Gerald quickly added, “I know that neither of you wants a marriage to happen this way, but it must and it will. Refuse, and believe me when I say that within the week, there will be a challenge for the crown, and one way or another, it will end in death. When I see you tonight, after the supper, I will raise a toast in honor of the king, and, Simon, you will raise it in honor of your new queen. Are we agreed?”

  “Where is Kestra?” I asked, not for the first time. “Do you know?”

  And not for the first time, he replied, “Let her go. She—” Gerald stopped as a knock came to my door and a page opened it with a note in his hand.