The Queen of BloodSarah Beth Durst
FOR RICK KEULER
About the Author
About the Publisher
Don’t trust the fire, for it will burn you.
Don’t trust the ice, for it will freeze you.
Don’t trust the water, for it will drown you.
Don’t trust the air, for it will choke you.
Don’t trust the earth, for it will bury you.
Don’t trust the trees, for they will rip you,
rend you, tear you, kill you dead.
It’s a child’s chant. You jump over a rope, faster and faster, as you name the spirits. Trip on the rope, and that is the spirit that someday will kill you. Fire, ice, water, air, earth, or wood.
Clutching her rope, six-year-old Daleina slipped out her window and ran along the branches toward the grove, drawn to the torchlight. Her parents had said no, absolutely not, go to bed and stay there, but even then, even when she was still so young and eager to please, Daleina would not be kept from her fate. She’d run toward it, arms open, and kick fate in the face.
All the other children were already gathered on the forest floor, under the watch of the local hedgewitch. Dropping from the branches onto the moss, Daleina joined them. Her cheeks pink from her run and her hair wild from the wind, she swung her rope and began the chant. “Don’t trust the fire . . .”
Ribbons fluttered around them, bright colors to represent each of the six spirits. Buried beneath the ribbon poles and dangling around them and between the torches were charms. The children’s chant and the ribbons would tempt the spirits, but the charms would repel them. It was as safe as the hedgewitch knew how to make it, and she smiled at the children as she circled counterclockwise and spoke the words of protection as she’d been taught.
The children jumped faster, repeating the chant. At least two dozen girls and boys, the youngest six years old and the oldest twelve, had come to the grove to prophesy their future. Some were dressed in their finest, with lace in their hair and starch in their shirts, blessed with their parents’ approval. Others, like Daleina, wore their nightshirts and dresses and had uncombed hair and bare feet.
As she skipped, Daleina saw the first tree spirit poke its sharp nose between the leaves. It scurried over the branches and hung upside down to watch them, its shadow large in the torchlight. “Don’t trust the water . . .” Another wood spirit separated from the trunk of a tree, its bulbous body covered in a thick mat of moss and leaves. Teasing the edges of the charms, an earth spirit, hairless and brown, bared its rocklike teeth. “Don’t trust the air . . .”
One child faltered.
Like Daleina, they’d seen the spirits emerge from the dark forest and encircle the grove. “Don’t trust the earth . . .” Her bare feet squished on the soft ground. It had rained a few hours before, and mud stained her toes. She imagined an earth spirit reaching up through the muck to grab her ankle, and an air spirit swooping her into the air and dropping her from high above. Squeezing her eyes shut, she kept jumping. “Don’t trust the trees . . .”
Because her eyes were closed, she didn’t see when the tiny tree spirit launched itself off its branch and over the charms, or when the other children stumbled and fell, every one of them, tripping on their ropes. “. . . rip you, rend you, tear you . . .”
Hers was the only voice, until the screaming began.
She opened her eyes as the hedgewitch shouted and the children shrieked. Blood stained the woman’s bodice, and the gnarled, leaf-coated creature clung to her shoulder. Daleina’s foot stuck in the mud and she forgot to jump as the rope swung down.
Her parents ran toward her—her mother first, with a knife—and sliced the rope as it swung toward Daleina’s motionless feet. The two halves of the rope fell on either side of her.
Other villagers poured into the grove. Swarming past Daleina and her parents, the others scooped up their own children. Several hurried to help the hedgewitch. Still clutching the ends of the limp rope, Daleina saw the spirit, blood on its shriveled, leafy face, flee up the trunk of an oak and then disappear into the night.
“Wood will not take you,” her mother murmured into her hair. “Nor fire, nor ice, nor water, nor earth, nor air. You will live, my child. You must live.”
“I’m fine, Mama,” Daleina said.
“You were stupid.” Lifting Daleina’s chin, Mama forced her to meet her eyes. “Just because something is a tradition doesn’t mean it’s smart to do, or necessary. Promise me you won’t ever endanger yourself again.”
“I’ll try,” Daleina said, her cherubic face solemn, “but, Mama, I can’t promise.”
DALEINA WAS TEN YEARS OLD WHEN THE CHILDREN’S PROPHECIES came true. She’d grown into a miniature of her mother: hair streaked with autumn-leaf colors—oranges, golds, reds, and browns—and calloused hands tan from the sun and roughened from days spent climbing through the village. She’d been charged with taking care of her younger sister, Arin, who was four.
On that afternoon, Daleina was leading her sister home from school. The sun filtered through the leaves and laid a patchwork of green and yellow shadows across the tree trunks and the huts and over Daleina’s bare arms and legs as she clambered up the branches.
“Come on, Arin, keep up!” she called.
“When I’m older than you, I’m going to tell you what to do.” Arin hooked her harness clips over a branch and scrambled her pudgy legs on top of it. Her cheeks puffed with the effort.
“You can’t be older than me.”
“Can too. Got a birthday and then another and another, and I’m going to catch up. And then I’ll be bigger than you, Mama said so, because I eat my oatmeal.”
Reaching down, Daleina helped her sister hook onto the next branch. All of the routes through the village were marked with anchors and hooks, to help the very young and the elderly travel between the trees. “You might get bigger, but I’ll still be older. I’ll always be older. That’s how it works.” She thought she sounded very reasonable.
Oh no, she thought, tantrum coming. Mama said that Arin had honed her tantrums to artistic perfection: First, she’d twist her lips into a perfect rainbowlike frown, then she’d pool tears on her lashes. Her face would flush pink, with darker rose staining her plump cheeks. As the pink deepened, she’d begin on the whimpers. She wouldn’t scream, not outside—it wasn’t safe—but she’d bleat, like a beaten lamb, until whatever neighbor was closest came out to see who was torturing the poor, innocent, angelic Arin. “If you cry, I’ll feed you to the wood spirits,” Daleina told her. It was the most terrible threat she could think of.
Arin’s eyes grew round, her mouth dropped open, and her lower lip q
Wonderful. I made it worse.
“I won’t,” Daleina said quickly. “I didn’t mean it. But please don’t cry, Arin.”
She spotted the wood spirit then, above Arin, a few trees over. It was a small one, with pale leaves poking out of its skin and berries ripening in its hair. Its eyes looked like walnuts, and its long, twiglike fingers curled around the branch it perched upon. It was watching them.
“Come on, let’s get home.” She eyed the spirit—it didn’t seem to be moving any closer, but she didn’t like that it had noticed them. Mama always said to be careful never to catch their attention. When Daleina was five, her uncle had caught the eye of an unstable spirit and been torn apart in his own orchard. The rogue spirit had been caught and sent to the queen for punishment, but that didn’t mean other spirits were to be trusted. This far from the capital, a lot of spirits liked to test the strength of the queen’s do-no-harm command, or so people said whenever someone died unexpectedly. “I’ll stay with you, but you have to try to climb a little faster, okay?”
She helped her sister shimmy up the trunk of a thick oak, boosting her so that she could wiggle onto the bridge. Backpack bouncing, Arin flopped onto it, and Daleina crawled up after her and stood. Almost home. Inhaling deeply, she breathed in the smell of pine, of mildewed leaves, of fresh laundry, and . . . ah, there it was: gingerbread! Mama had baked today, as she’d promised.
The laundry smell was from their neighbor. Near the base of the village tree, old Mistress Hamby straddled two branches as she hung out her wash. Her husband was on their roof, tucking new charms in between the shingles. He waved as Daleina and Arin passed. Daleina waved back, and Arin inexplicably wiggled her elbows.
“Don’t be rude,” Daleina told her.
“Don’t be boring,” Arin shot back.
Higher up in the tree, a few of Daleina’s friends called to her to come play—Juju, Sarbin, and Mina. She waved at them and pointed toward her sister. She’d have to play later, after Arin was delivered safely home. Using the rope ladders, Daleina and Arin climbed up past Mr. Yillit, who was pounding nuts to make nut flour. The fine dust coated his arms and clung to his arm hairs. He smiled and nodded at them. Arin did wave back at him. Daleina knew her sister liked Mr. Yillit because he was missing a front tooth, like Arin herself. Higher and to the left, they saw their second cousin Rosasi, who was stretched out in the crook of a branch, her bare feet stuck in a patch of sunlight, high above their house. She had a pile of knitting on her lap, though she wasn’t working on it. Mama often said that Rosasi was allergic to work. But she told excellent stories, about queens and heirs and their champions. When she tucked Arin in at night, as she did sometimes when Mama had late-night whittling to do, Daleina liked to listen in from her bed in the loft.
Like the other village houses, Daleina and Arin’s house was woven into the branches. Its floors and walls were living parts of the tree itself. Village history said that two generations ago, a queen had commanded the spirits to grow their village from a handful of acorns. Daleina wished she could have seen that. The only power she’d ever seen up close was the local hedgewitch, and her skill was mostly with charms, not commands. To make a tree like theirs . . . Their tree housed twenty families, in homes that budded from thick branches above and below Daleina’s family’s, spiraling up the massive trunk. Ladders, pulleys, and bridges connected them. In the day, it was swarmed with people, going about their business and living their lives, and at night, jars full of firemoss were lit everywhere, making the tree look like it were covered in lightning bugs. Mama liked to say there was something to love about their tree during the day and night, as well as every season. In fall, the leaves changed to red and gold, and in winter, it was laced in ice. In spring, the villagers coaxed flowers to grow in buckets and troughs of earth, spilling out of every window and covering every roof. And in summer, now, it was fat and green and heavy with swelling, unripe fruit. Mama said there were hundreds of trees like theirs in the forests of Aratay, but Daleina had never left their village. Someday, she promised herself, I’ll leave and see other villages, maybe a city, maybe the capital, maybe even beyond. Up north, near the mountains of Semo, the trees were said to stand like sentinels, with white limbs that stretched straight like raised arms. And in the west, where the forest touched the untamed lands, it was said that the trees were a wild tangle so thick that nothing grew on the floor below. There were even areas of Aratay that had been abandoned to the wolves, bears, and spirits, and were full of sights that no one had seen and sounds that no one had heard for years.
I want to see it all!
Mama waited for them on their front porch. Seeing her, Arin sped across the bridge and scurried up the ladder without any help at all. Daleina followed behind.
“Any trouble?” Mama asked.
Daleina glanced back, but she didn’t see the small tree spirit, only the thick mat of leaves and the west bridge. “None, except Arin’s teacher said that Arin didn’t eat her lunch.”
“Tattler.” Arin stuck out her tongue at Daleina.
“Arin, that’s not polite. Also, you’ll catch flies on that if you stick it out too long.” Mama wiggled a finger, flylike, toward Arin’s tongue, and Arin quickly pulled it in. “I packed your favorite lunch. Why didn’t you—”
A drop of red splatted on Arin’s cheek. Her fingers touched it, and she pulled her hand away and stared at her bloodstained fingertips.
For a split second, all three of them stared at it, and then Mama said, “Inside. Now.”
“Mama, I’m bleeding! I’m hurt! Mama!”
She wasn’t. It wasn’t her blood. It was from above. The tree was raining blood. Daleina ran for the house as Mama caught Arin in her arms and ran inside. “Where’s Daddy?”
Mama didn’t answer. She slammed the door behind them, drove the bolt across it, and then ran to each of the windows and locked them. “Daleina, the charms, quick!”
Daleina hurried to each window, shoving charms into the crevices. She pushed them in so hard that her fingers hurt.
“Mama, where’s Daddy?” Arin was crying, full out sobs.
“Hush,” Mama ordered. “I don’t know. He’s fine. He’s hiding. We have to stay inside too. Quietly.” She dropped to her knees. “Please, baby, be a good, strong girl for me.” Arin gulped, trying to swallow her sobs, but they burst out of her. Mama crushed her close to her breast, stroking her hair. “Shh, shh . . . Calm down, baby, calm down.”
Daleina shoved charms under the door and into the fireplace, filling it, until she ran out of them; then she ran back to her mother, who wrapped her arm around Daleina too. The house began to rattle and shake.
“Your papa is hiding. Don’t worry. It will all be fine,” Mama said. “The spirits won’t hurt us. They won’t dare. The queen won’t let them. ‘Do no harm,’ remember? It’s her command. Her promise. Her duty. Trust in her. Believe in her.” She rocked back and forth as Daleina and Arin clung to her. Arin sniffled against her blouse, and Daleina buried her face in her mother’s hair. Outside, the screams sounded like the cries of a wounded hawk that Daleina had once heard, but louder and multiplied by a dozen. The leaves in the walls shook, and the wood in the floor cracked.
Mama held them tighter.
Daleina watched the cracks appear in the wood, chasing one another up the walls, fracturing like an eggshell as the house shuddered. The windows rattled, and Daleina saw shadows pass in front of them. Arin was shaking as hard as the walls, but she was too frightened to cry anymore.
Something pounded at the door, and Arin whimpered and burrowed deeper into their mother’s lap, pushing Daleina out. She thought she heard her father’s voice.
“Daddy?” Daleina whispered.
“Stay here,” Mama commanded.
Daleina began to pull away. He was calling. Wasn’t he? It was difficult to hear a single voice within the screams and the cries and the crashes and the thuds. Listening, she focused, trying to separate the strands of sounds
—there, Daddy! She heard more pounding at the door. He was here, out there, trying to get in! Wrenching herself away from her mother, Daleina ran toward the door.
“Daleina, no!” Mama cried, her voice a rough whisper.
“It’s Daddy!” She yanked at the bolt, pulling it back.
Behind her, she heard Mama push to her feet, but she was slowed by Arin, who stuck to her like a pricker bush. A weight on the door shoved it inward, and a shape fell inside, hard on his knees—Daddy!
A squirrel-size tree spirit clung to his shoulder, its teeth dug deep into his flesh. Daddy’s face was slicked with streaks of red, and blood speckled his hair. He surged to his feet, and the spirit gripped him harder.
“Get off him!” Daleina screamed. She grabbed at the spirit’s waist while Daddy pushed at its face. Its claws tore his shirt and chest. One claw sliced the back of Daleina’s arm, and a thin bead of blood popped onto her skin. “Leave him alone!”
It hissed and spat.
And then Mama was there, a rolling pin in her hand. She bashed at the spirit’s head and back. “Get out! Out of my house! Away from my home!”
It twisted its head and fixed its eyes beyond them.
Releasing Daddy, it ran toward Arin, faster than any of them could grab it.
Scrambling underneath the kitchen table, Arin screamed, high and shrill.
No! Don’t hurt my sister! Daleina felt as if her whole mind and body were screaming the words, as if they were ripped away from her and thrust outward. “Stop!”
And, amazingly, it did.
The spirit halted, mid-run. It pivoted its head to look directly at Daleina. Its eyes were red with veins that spread outward from its red pupil. It shifted from foot to thorny foot, hissing.
“Go away!” Daleina said. “Leave us alone.”
“Again, Daleina,” Mama said, her voice low, strangely calm. “It’s listening to you.”
“Leave us alone,” she repeated.
Leave us alone, leave us alone, leave us alone. “Leave!”
The spirit tore its gaze away to look again at Arin. Its spindly fingers reached toward her, but its feet didn’t move, as if it were rooted to the wood of the floor.