The Queen of SorrowSarah Beth Durst
For Lynne and David
About the Author
Also by Sarah Beth Durst
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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.
br /> 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 for only 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?”
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.”
“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.
“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—
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.”
“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.
“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.