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The Queen of Sorrow, Page 2

Sarah Beth Durst

  Right now, though, so close to him, she had plenty of reason to smile.

  “Everything okay?” He nuzzled her cheek.

  More than okay, she thought. She kissed his neck below his beard. “Yes.” Her fingers slid down to the knot in the towel. “Daleina and I fixed twelve barren areas. By the last few, I was even able to avoid any violence.”

  “Lovely. Avoiding violence is a plus for any day.” He ran his fingers through her hair and kissed her. He tasted like pine tea and mint, and his beard was as soft as moss. She loosened the towel around his waist—and then heard the guard at the door:

  “Your Highnesses.” The children were back! “Master Renet.” And her ex-husband. “Queen Naelin has recently returned,” the guard told them. “She will be pleased to see you.”

  Naelin shoved the towel at Ven and shooed him back into the bathroom. “Quickly! Come out when you’re presentable.” He was smiling at her, silently laughing as she closed the door behind him. She knew she was wearing the same silly smile. She flattened her hair down and smoothed her shirt as she turned to face the door.

  It swung open and her children, Erian and Llor, spilled inside. They raced to her—Erian’s legs were longer, but Llor was like an arrow. He embedded himself in her waist, wrapping his arms firmly around her with so much force that she let out an “Oof!” Erian, only slightly more dignified at age ten, stretched over Llor to hug her.

  Llor’s words spilled out like water from a spigot. “Mama, Mama, Mama! Father tried to take us out into Mittriel, but the guards wouldn’t let him, not without your permission, so we went to the treasure pavilion instead, but it was boring so we went to the weapons room but the guards wouldn’t let me play with any of the swords, even though I promised to be careful, and then we went to the kitchen and ate pie. I don’t like cherry pie. It’s slimy. Like slugs. Cherry pie is red slug pie.”

  “Don’t be disgusting, Llor,” Erian scolded him. “Besides, how do you know what a slug tastes like? Have you ever eaten one?”

  “I will if you dare me to.”

  “I dare you.”

  “I double-dare you,” he said, then cackled with delight. “Now you have to!”

  “Do not.”

  Still in the doorway, Renet lingered with a wistful expression on his face. Naelin knew he wanted her to invite him inside, but she wanted to be alone with Erian and Llor. She got precious little time with them, in between the schedule the palace seneschal set for her and Daleina’s requests. “Thank you, Renet,” she said, and hoped he understood.

  He took a cautious step into the room.

  “I’ll bring the children by to visit tomorrow. You may go.” Inwardly, she winced at herself. That was a terrible way to talk to the man who’d fathered her children. Later, when she had more time, she’d explain . . . Except there’s no good way to say “Thanks, but I don’t want you in my life anymore.” Leaving him should have been enough to communicate that. She shouldn’t have to keep saying it. Maybe someday it will be easier.

  Yes . . . maybe.

  It would be nice if they could be . . . if not friends, then at least two people who didn’t conjure up a mess of sadness, guilt, and regret for what could have been but wasn’t. That was easier said than done, though. So much history couldn’t easily be rewritten. She supposed it would take time.

  She left the words unsaid as the guard escorted him out, and he shot one last forlorn look at her, Erian, and Llor. Pushing the issue of Renet aside for now, Naelin hugged her children tighter. “I missed you today!” she told them.

  “We don’t like when you leave,” Erian said seriously.

  “You’re safe here. All the guards know to watch for you, and if any spirits were to . . . misbehave, Queen Daleina and I would feel it and hurry back. You don’t have to worry anymore. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

  Llor rolled his eyes—he hadn’t quite mastered the expression, and his eyes darted back and forth before they went up in an exaggerated way. Naelin schooled her face into bland seriousness so he wouldn’t think she was laughing at him. “We aren’t scared,” he said. “We miss you!”

  “Then I have good news: how would you like to come with me on a little trip?”

  Erian’s face lit up like a firemoss lantern. “You’ll bring us with you?” She hugged Naelin again. “Yes, please!”

  Naelin laughed. “You didn’t even ask me where.”

  Behind her, the bathroom door opened, and she twisted to see Ven emerge, fully dressed, his hair still wet but brushed, sloppily, to the side. Both Ven and Llor paid about the same amount of attention to their hair. “I’ll ask, then,” Ven said. “Where?”

  Llor catapulted himself across the room and into Ven’s arms.

  Ven caught him neatly and swung him in a circle. “Hey, tiger.”

  “Roar!” Llor growled.

  “To the villages in the outer forest,” Naelin said. “It’s Queen Daleina’s idea. She thinks the people will feel better if they meet me. I can reassure them that the invasion is over, that we’re at peace, and that we’ll be helping restore the harvest and rebuild their homes before winter. I can also heal any barren areas I come across.” Privately, she thought she’d be more useful healing the dead zones than parading in front of people, but she hadn’t argued. Well, not much. She had insisted on no entourage. Just her, Ven, the children, and Renet (who wasn’t an ideal choice, but she’d need someone to watch the children when she and Ven were working). Also the wolf, Bayn (who was an ideal choice—the children adored him, and Naelin felt safer when the wolf was near).

  Llor tugged on Ven’s sleeve. “Ven, Ven, Ven! If you double-dare someone, and they refuse, what do you do?”

  “Challenge them to a duel.” Ven then flipped Llor horizontal and charged forward at Erian, holding Llor like he was a battering ram. Llor shrieked with delight, roared, and clawed at the air as Erian scampered over a table with gorgeous carvings of flowers and over a couch with golden embroidered edges until she reached the fireplace. She brandished a fire poker like a sword.

  Naelin swooped forward and intercepted the poker. “Bad idea.” She replaced the poker with a pillow. “Better idea.” She then scooped up a pillow of her own, and both she and Erian attacked Ven and Llor with pillows.

  “Retreat!” Ven shouted, and then, carrying Llor, raced into the bathroom.

  Naelin and Erian collapsed on the couch, laughing. “Nicely done,” Naelin told her.

  “You’ll really take us with you?” Erian asked. “You won’t leave us behind, like today?” In her daughter’s eyes, Naelin saw a hint of fear—it had been lurking there ever since the invasion and never seemed to go fully away.

  Naelin cupped her daughter’s face in her hands. “There may be days when I have things I have to do and people I need to help. But I’ll never leave you,” she told her, trying to make her believe, trying to erase that touch of fear. “Ever.”

  Ven knelt beside the wolf and ruffled the fur on his neck. “Ready for another run, old friend?” He chuckled at Bayn’s expression, which said as clearly as words, More ready than you, old man.

  He stood as Bayn trotted down the bridge away from the palace. Watching him, Ven didn’t bother to tell him to be careful—the wolf knew the forest as well as he did. He’d find his own way northwest and most likely be there at the first village on their list, waiting for them, thumping his tail impatiently at the slowness of humans.

  Behind him, Ven heard his traveling companions—Erian and Llor teasing each other, Naelin worrying over whether they’d packed enough socks, and Renet bragging about his woodsman skills.

  Maybe I should have told Bayn to let us get a head start.

  Naelin joined him. “I think we have everything.”

  He surveyed their packs, which were bulging. “Are you sure?” he asked mildly. “Perhaps we could squeeze in a mattress? Or a dozen more gowns?”

  She fixed him with a glare. “It wasn’t me. The palace caretakers insisted.”

He loved that glare. It made him want to wrap her in his arms and kiss her until she smiled again. Turning that glare into one of her smiles was his new favorite pastime. Later. “All right then. Let’s go. We should reach northwest Aratay in four days.”

  It took them eight days.

  Naelin loved every second of it, even with the overstuffed packs, even with Renet and his sad puppy eyes, even with Erian and Llor daring each other to more ridiculous climbing feats that Ven would have to rescue them from.

  For eight days, she was just Naelin, an ordinary woodswoman, traveling through the forest with her family.

  And then they reached the first village in northwest Aratay. Bayn was waiting for them just outside the village, looking extra-plump—judging from the chicken feather stuck to his fur, she gathered he’d helped himself to the village’s hospitality. She made a mental note to reimburse them for whatever he’d eaten.

  “Wear your crown,” Renet told her.

  “I’m not in the palace,” Naelin said. She knew he was right: she was supposed to be introducing herself as their new queen, which meant gowns and crowns. But she hated the way it poked her scalp.

  Admit it, she told herself. You hate what it represents.

  She waved off his argument before he could make it, dug the crown out of her pack, and stuck it on her head. Erian arranged her hair beneath it, and Llor solemnly handed her a flower. She tucked it amid the silver filigree on the crown.

  “You can do this,” Ven told her.

  In a low voice so only he could hear, she asked, “What if they don’t believe I’m the queen?” Despite living in the palace, despite being able to sense all the spirits in Aratay, despite the incredible (and rather terrifying) boost in power she’d felt ever since the moment the spirits had accepted her as their queen, she still didn’t feel royal. She was just a woodswoman, with two children, graying hair, bony elbows, and calluses on her palms from years of mending the shingles on her own roof and scrubbing her own floors. What if these people sense that? She was supposed to reassure them that all was well in Aratay, but how could she do that when she didn’t feel reassured? In fact, now that she was here, near a village that was not so different from where they used to live in East Everdale, she felt more like an impostor than she ever had.

  For decades, she had known full well who she was—had liked who she was—and now she was supposed to be someone new. It made her feel like a teenager again, which was not a phase she had any interest in reliving. It’s bad enough that I’ll have to relive it through Erian’s and Llor’s eyes.

  Ven shrugged. “Just instruct the spirits to eat a few of them. They won’t doubt you then.”

  She shot him a withering glare.

  He grinned back at her.

  “You’re impossible,” she informed him.

  “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘hilarious.’ Or you could go with ‘supportive.’ ‘Ruggedly handsome’? ‘Very strong’?”

  Llor giggled. “‘Very silly’?”

  Ven nodded solemnly. “Also ‘ticklish.’”

  “Really? You?” Llor’s mouth dropped open.

  Ven poked his elbow. “Right there.”

  Both Erian and Llor attacked him. He collapsed dramatically, writhing on the ground and howling with laughter.

  Naelin watched them for a moment. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bayn watching them as well with a long-suffering expression on his lupine face. Ridiculous humans, he seemed to be saying. Playing like pups when there’s work to be done. Her lips twitched, and she and Bayn exchanged glances.

  Leaving Ven with the children and Renet, Queen Naelin of Aratay and the great forests of Renthia swept into the village with only a wolf by her side.

  No one doubted who she was.

  They moved on, and in each village they went to, the people of Aratay rushed to welcome her. They insisted on housing her and her companions in their finest home, feeding them a feast, and entertaining them with tales and songs. As word spread ahead of them, the villagers would be eagerly anticipating their queen’s arrival, ready to fawn over her—and to present all their requests in interminable meetings with the village leaders.

  By their eighth stop, a tiny village called Redleaf, she barely had a few seconds alone with Erian and Llor each day before she was whisked away to greet everyone and hear their litany of complaints. “Let me take the kids on a picnic,” Renet begged. “They need a break. You can’t ask them to sit through another meeting where they can’t be near their mother and they’re bored to tears.”

  Naelin refused. She didn’t want them out of her sight.

  But it was true that Erian and Llor were bored. After sitting through the introduction of half the town’s population, Llor began begging and pleading and wheedling and threatening his father’s case. “If you don’t let us go, I’ll sing the alphabet song. Loudly. Over and over. So no grown-up can talk.”

  She was tempted to let him do just that. Smothering a smile, she glanced over at Ven. If he were to accompany them, then she wouldn’t worry. . . .

  He shook his head. “I stay with you. It’s my job to protect you.” He didn’t have to say how important Naelin was to Aratay, especially when there were no viable heirs.

  “I will guard them with my life,” Renet pledged.

  “Send Bayn,” Ven suggested, ignoring Renet. “He can protect them from all ordinary threats, and with you nearby, no spirit will dare attack them.”

  “You can make the spirits watch us!” Llor said.

  “Absolutely not. That will draw their attention to you.” Even as she said it, though, Naelin considered their request for an outing. She looked at Llor’s wide eyes and clasped hands. Saw how hopeful Erian looked. Even Renet’s expression tugged on her heart. It’s not fair to make all of them suffer through my being queen. “Very well. Take Bayn, and don’t stray too near the border. We’re close to Semo in the north and the untamed lands to the west. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t do anything to upset the spirits, and be careful not to step on any weak branches.”

  Erian kissed her cheek. “You worry too much, Mama. We can take care of ourselves. And we won’t let anything happen to Father either.”

  She forced herself to smile, even though she wanted to say, I don’t like this.

  No, it’s not the picnic that I don’t like. It’s the fact that I can’t be with them. I don’t know how to be a good queen and a good mother at the same time.

  Something had to change if she was going to be successful at all this. But for now . . .

  “You may go.”

  Chapter 3

  The wolf had never, not once, wanted to eat the queen’s children, even on the day when Llor tried to ride him like a pony and Erian (unintentionally) shot the tip of his tail with an arrow. He did, however, want to eat their picnic lunch. Knocking the lid aside with his nose, he delicately lifted the cooked bird out of its basket. Laying it on the branch, he gnawed at it—the bones crunched, and the flesh tasted nutty. He’d grown fond of cooked meat after all his time with humans. Almost as fond as he was of the humans themselves.

  Not that all the humans were as fond of him, of course—Renet, for example, showed no love for his children’s wolf guardian. On occasion, Bayn liked to amuse himself by startling Renet. But today Bayn left him alone, because the children were so happy to be with their father and the day would be cut short if Renet needed to return to the village to change his pants. The wolf understood enough of human behavior to be sure of that.

  He understood rather more than an ordinary wolf should, which seemed to disturb other wolves when they encountered him, but had never bothered him.

  What did bother him was what he felt from the spirits in the nearby trees. Right now, there were three tree spirits midforest and one in the canopy, plus an earth spirit burrowing beneath the roots of their picnic tree. Spirits were always odd this close to the untamed lands—annoyingly skittish—but this felt . . . more. He sensed them like itches in his fur�
��and they felt increasingly agitated, enough to interrupt his meal and cause him to stare hard at the trees.

  The forest was still.

  Just a breeze that rustled the crinkled leaves.

  Just a squirrel that squawked at the sight of a wolf high in a tree.

  The autumn sun was still warm, soaking into the branches and into Bayn’s fur, and the air carried the sour smell of overripe berries, rain-soaked moss, and the familiar scent of his humans.

  He sniffed the air, alert. Nearby, Erian was showing her father the new knife moves that Champion Ven had taught her. She mimed stabbing a spirit in the eye, a target Bayn approved of. It was always wise to aim for the sensitive parts. He preferred a bite to the throat, but the girl lacked the jaw strength for that. Her father was trying not to look appalled at the sight of his ten-year-old daughter thrusting a knife into the air and talking cheerfully about eyeballs. I would make a better father for her, Bayn thought.

  Llor, who was nearly seven years old, was competing for Renet’s attention by tiptoe walking out onto the narrower part of the branch. “Watch me, Father! Look at this!”

  “Llor, come back here!” Renet said. “Erian, that’s very nice. You’re very fast. Does your mother know Champion Ven is teaching you this?”

  “It was her idea,” Erian said. “She says even people who are smart and kind and careful sometimes have to stab things.”

  “Your mother said that?” Renet asked faintly.

  Bayn thought he looked a bit wild around the eyes, as if he were a rabbit who wanted to bolt back into a nice, safe hole . . . like the spirits around them were doing.

  The spirit in the canopy was swinging away, dangling monkeylike from a branch then leaping to grab the next one. Something is frightening them, Bayn thought. He sniffed the air again and let his tongue taste the scents around him. The three spirits at midforest were scattering—one running down the tree, one worming itself inside the tree, and the third fleeing to the next tree. Far below, the earth spirit was burrowing between the roots, its claws scrambling furiously at a mat of dead leaves.