The Queen of Blood, Page 2Sarah Beth Durst
“Leave us alone!” Daleina shouted, and she shoved every bit of fear and anger inside her into those three words, driving it all out through her body. She felt as if something were shattering inside her from the force of her shout.
As if the words were physically shoving it, the spirit ran, skittering and shaking out the door—and Daleina caught a glimpse of outside. The bridges were broken, swinging from the upper branches, and the nearest house had collapsed. A man in green raced from branch to branch, a sword in his hand. Before Daleina could ask what was happening and who he was, Daddy slammed the door shut, and Mama slid the bolt.
The house began to shake harder, and Daleina heard scraping at the roof, as if something were tearing the shingles and shredding the wood. Mama and Daddy dragged the cupboard in front of the door, and they upended the table and pushed it against a window.
“Command them,” Mama ordered Daleina.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Daleina repeated, “Leave us alone, leave us alone, leave us alone.” Thrusting the words out of her, Daleina sank to her knees. The cries outside drew back. Arin whimpered, and Mama and Daddy shushed her, and still Daleina kept chanting. The scraping on the roof stopped.
Outside, through the walls, she still heard terrible sounds, but they were more distant now.
At last—at very long last—it was quiet.
Daleina pried open her eyes. Her eyelids felt gummy, as if they’d been glued together. In the corner of the room, she saw her family. Her father was slumped against the wall, breathing heavily. Her mother was pressing a cloth hard on his arm. The cloth was soaked red. Arin was curled in a ball underneath one of the chairs. Tears had stained her cheeks so they looked slick. “Daddy?” Daleina asked.
“Did they hurt you, Ingara?” Daddy asked, pausing between each word to suck in air. “Daleina? Arin?” He winced as he tried to sit, and he clutched his side.
“They’re all right, and you aren’t dead, and I want to keep us all that way. Tell me how badly you’re hurt,” Mama commanded.
“I’ll be fine.” He puffed.
Daleina rose shakily to her feet. She looked at the door. A crack ran, jagged, through it. Her legs felt as trembly as a newborn deer’s as she walked toward the door. She pressed her face to the crack, trying to see through, and saw a sliver: sunlight and green but that was all.
She pressed her ear to the door, listening.
She didn’t hear screaming anymore. Or anything. Just silence. Horrible silence that was somehow worse than all the noise. Stepping back, Daleina stared at the door.
Daddy’s breathing was the loudest sound.
“You need a healer,” Mama said to Daddy.
“Don’t,” he said.
“It’s quiet,” Mama said, standing. Daleina thought she’d never seen her mother look like that, so fierce and frightened at the same time, and in that instant, she decided she wanted to be exactly like Mama when she grew up. “Whatever the spirits were doing, they’re done.”
Grabbing her wrist, he stopped her. “Or they’re waiting for us to feel safe.”
Mama removed his hand. “I’ll never feel safe again.” She took a rolling pin in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other, the long knife that she always kept sharp enough for meat. “Open it, Daleina, slowly.”
Taking a breath, Daleina slid the bolt and cracked the door open. She braced herself, ready to shove it shut with all the strength in her ten-year-old body, but nothing pushed against the door. She inched it open more and peeked outside.
What she saw didn’t make sense.
Widening the door, she stared out and tried to understand. All she saw was trees, just the unclaimed forest, thick with trunks. No bridges. No houses. Leaning out, she looked up—all the higher branches had been shorn off the tree. Only their house was still attached. She looked down, down, straight down to the forest floor. A mass of broken boards lay tangled on the forest floor. She saw a chair and a table, upturned. Clothes were strewn between the branches, like ribbons leftover from a birthday party.
“Are they out there?” Arin asked, still under the table.
“No,” Daleina said. Her mouth felt dry, as if she hadn’t swallowed water in a very long time. “No one’s out there.”
“What do you mean, ‘no one’s out there’?” Mama asked, nudging Daleina aside so she could fit in the doorway. Side by side, they looked out at the pristine forest, above the wreckage. Sunset was coming, and the shadows stretched long between the trees. The wind was still, and nothing moved. No spirits. No animals. No people.
“Fetch the healing kit.”
Daleina didn’t move.
Hurrying, Daleina ran to the cabinet over the sink. She pulled out a basket filled with bandages, tonics, and dried roots and herbs. Sunlight slid through the cracks in the closed window over the sink, as if it were a beautiful, ordinary day outside. Daleina didn’t want to open the window.
“Mama?” Arin asked. “What are we going to do?”
“First, we fix up your father.” Returning to Daddy, Mama opened his vest and peeled his shirt away from blood-sticky skin. “And then we go out and see.”
“If there’s anyone left,” Mama said.
Arin began to cry again.
Wordless, Daleina helped Mama, fetching water from the kitchen sink, as well as bandages and herbs as instructed. Mama washed out the wounds—there were many—on Daddy’s neck, legs, arm. His thick clothes had blocked some of the bites, making them bruises instead of punctures, but there were still so many that his once-white shirt was speckled red all over. While Mama worked, Daleina listened for the sounds of their neighbors—surely someone had seen Daddy rush in, injured—but no one came to check on them or help them. She thought of the man in green she’d seen, or imagined.
“Spirits aren’t supposed to hurt people,” Arin said, her eyes glued to the bandages and Daddy’s shirt. “The queen won’t let them.”
“I know, baby,” Mama said.
“Why did she let them?” Arin asked.
“Maybe she couldn’t stop them this time,” Daleina said. “Maybe she was sick or distracted. Maybe she didn’t know what they were doing. Maybe the spirits decided we’re too far from the capital for her to know.” And maybe they’re right, she thought.
“But she’s the queen,” Arin said. “She’s supposed to keep us all safe.”
“We aren’t safe here,” Daddy said. “We need to find the forest guards, before the spirits come back. Alert them to the danger. Tell them there may be villagers who need healers.” The fact that Daddy was able to say so much without gasping for air made Daleina feel better. She had her parents, whole and safe, and they’d take care of her and Arin. Everything would be all right, and this would become one of those stories that Rosasi told at night.
After Mama bandaged Daddy up as well as she could, she rigged the basket on the pulley—the one they used to lift heavy supplies from the forest floor—and climbed in. “Everyone, in. We stay together. Daleina . . .” Mama hesitated. “The spirits listened to you. Can you make them listen again, if you have to?”
All three of them looked at Daleina, and she shrank back. No, their parents were supposed to take care of them, not the other way around! She’d just begun to feel safe. “I . . . I don’t know.” She didn’t know how she’d done it, or why it had worked. She’d never been able to command spirits before, and no one in her family had ever shown any affinity for them. Maybe it was a fluke. Or a coincidence. Maybe it wasn’t her at all.
“You can do it,” Mama said. “You did it once; you can do it again.”
Daddy smiled at her—a weak ghost of a smile, but Daleina saw it as she climbed into the basket, alongside Mama and Arin. “We always knew you were special,” he said.
Arin stuck out her lower lip. “I’m special too.”
“Of course, Arin.” He smiled at her, a real one this time,
as he climbed in with them, and then as Mama lowered the basket, his smile faded.
From the basket, it was clear that of the twenty homes that used to fill the village’s tree, theirs was the only one left. All the others had been torn from their branches and then ripped apart and scattered on the forest floor. Kitchen tables, pantries, food, bowls, cups . . . beds, chests, toys, sheets, clothes . . . all the innards of two dozen homes were spilled below the trees and mixed together. Daleina saw the strand of laundry, clothes tangled in it, that belonged to old Mistress Hamby. And then she saw Mistress Hamby, her body twisted by what was once a door. Her eyes were open. She was missing her arm, and her chest . . . Daleina looked away. The basket jerked lower, and she saw more.
Legs. Arms. Faces. The faces were the worst.
“Don’t look,” Daddy said, but it was much too late.
Rosasi. Sweet, funny, work-averse Rosasi, who told such wonderful stories. Her throat looked like a red flower. Her hands still clutched her knitting.
She saw her friends: Juju, Sarbin . . . She didn’t see Mina. Didn’t want to. But she couldn’t stop looking, her eyes roaming over the tangle of their torn village, until she stopped on the figure of a man in dark green, alive, walking toward them.
He was flanked by two men and a woman, one in white and two in black—a healer and two guards. The man in green held a sword. His eyes swept the branches above them while the others poked through the debris.
“Over here!” Daddy called and waved.
When the strangers reached them, the man in the white healer cloak darted directly for Daddy and began checking his wounds. The two guards flanked them in protective stances while the man in green considered them and their intact house. “Which of you has the affinity?” he asked.
Mama and Daddy both gestured at Daleina. “Our daughter, sir,” Daddy said. “But we didn’t know it until today.”
The man in green looked at Daleina, and Daleina felt as if he were looking through her skin to study her bones. His eyes were pale water-blue, and his face was scarred beneath his black beard. He still held his sword, and Daleina saw it was thick with tree sap and specked with rustlike red. “She must be trained.” Without waiting for a response, he said to the guards, “Take them with the other survivors.”
“Oh, thank the queen, there are others!” Mama said.
The healer laid a hand on her arm. “Only a few, I’m afraid.”
“Then we shouldn’t say thank you,” Arin said, clutching Daleina’s hand. Her pudgy fingers were slick with sweat, but Daleina held on to them. “The queen didn’t help us. We shouldn’t thank her.”
“Hush, Arin,” Daddy said.
“Daleina should be queen,” Arin said. “She kept us safe.”
Mother clapped a hand over Arin’s mouth. “Arin! Quiet! This is a champion!”
Daleina stared at the man in green—she’d never seen a champion before. There were only a few, charged with training the heirs and protecting the queen. She never imagined one would be in her village, or what was left of her village.
For a brief instant, she imagined him sweeping her away, taking her to the capital, and proclaiming her his chosen candidate. It happened that way in the tales: a champion would appear in a tiny village, test the children, and pluck one to be trained to become an heir, and the heirs became legends themselves, creating villages, securing the borders, and keeping the spirits in check, in conjunction with the queen. She imagined herself in the palace, a circle of golden leaves on her head, with her family beside her, safe because of her power. Never again huddling afraid in a hut in a tree.
Her story should have begun right then, in that moment. Fate had declared that her power would emerge in her village’s tragedy, and chance had put the champion in the nearby trees at the moment the spirits attacked, too late to save the village but in time to meet Daleina. It should have been the beginning of a legend, the moment he recognized her potential and she embraced her future with both arms.
But it wasn’t.
The champion looked away, across the ruined village and the broken bodies. “Only the best can become queen. And she is not the best.” Daleina felt his words hit like slaps, and then he added the worst blow of all: “If she were, these people would still be alive.”
Champion Ven knelt in the ruins of the village. Sifting through the rubble, he lifted out a broken doll, its pink dress streaked with dirt and its pottery face cracked.
There was always a broken doll.
Why did there always have to be a damn doll?
Other stuff didn’t bother him—the broken dishes, the bedsheets, the clothes, all the evidence of lives lived and then cut off—but the dolls got him every time. He used to collect them, in the wake of whatever tragedy had struck this time, take them to a toymaker to be cleaned, and then give them to kids in nearby villages. After a while, though, he decided that was too morbid.
He tossed the doll aside. There weren’t many survivors. Two children. A handful of adults. They’d be taken to another village, given new homes and lives. The older girl would be trained and maybe become some village’s hedgewitch someday. If she was lucky, she wouldn’t see anything like this again. But she’d always have nightmares.
Ven knew the nightmares well. He hated sleep. A day like this, he wasn’t fond of being awake either. Straightening, he admitted that he wasn’t going to find any other survivors, and the spirits weren’t going to come back to let him beat on them more.
He wished he could track the ones responsible, make them pay, or at least make them understand. . . . But they’d never understand that what they’d done was wrong, and destroying the spirits would only hurt the forest and leave more people homeless.
“Champion Ven?” It was one of the guards. He’d forgotten her name. She favored an ax and left her right side open for a half second too long when she fought. She was decent with throwing knives and slept lightly, waking often to check their camp. He’d traveled with her for five days. Still didn’t remember her name. “The survivors want to bury the dead.”
He shook his head. “The queen will take care of it.” She’d have the earth spirits subsume the village and cleanse the entire area with water spirits.
The guard flipped a piece of wood with her toe. Underneath it was a hand, gray and bloodless, already stiffening. “Like she took care of them when they were alive?”
Ven raised both his eyebrows. He knew that look could quell most people. This guard, however, was made of sterner stuff, or else she too was unnerved by how thoroughly the spirits had decimated this village to care about his best fiery expression. This village—what had it been called? Greytree?—might have been on the outskirts, but it was within Aratay’s borders. It should have been safe.
The guard met Ven’s eyes steadily. “Is she dead?”
He flinched at the word, picturing the queen’s body broken, like one of these villagers, but it was a fair question—after a queen’s death, the spirits always went wild, until the heirs called for a coronation, suspending the spirits’ power. “I heard no bells.” Three tolls for the death of a queen, repeated across the forest. “Even if she were, she has many capable heirs.” If Queen Fara died, they would undergo the coronation ceremony, and one of them would reaffirm the queen’s commands. That was the entire point of heirs, and the purpose of champions. Champions found and trained potential heirs, to ensure that Aratay would always have a queen and that the spirits would always be controlled.
Except they hadn’t been controlled here, Ven thought, echoing the guard’s snark.
He swore under his breath, colorfully and thoroughly.
If he wanted to be sure this didn’t happen again, he had to find out why it had happened here, why the spirits had defied the queen, and he wasn’t going to find an explanation in the outer forest. He had to go back to the capital, talk to Fara, determine why her protections had failed. He was a champion. It was his responsibility. It was the only way to find the an
swers he needed, the answers that these people deserved. “I’ll speak to the queen.”
“She must be told,” the guard agreed.
“She won’t be pleased to see me. I’m not welcome at the palace.” He winced, aware that sounded perilously close to a whine, which was not behavior becoming a champion, especially in the wake of a tragedy he’d been unable to prevent. Assuming a sterner voice, he said, “See to it that the survivors are settled safely and then resume patrols. I’ll return as soon as I can.”
“Just try not to break any heirlooms.”
“It was an accident,” he ground out.
“You broke her crown.”
“I thought she was being attacked!”
“She’s the queen,” the guard said. “She could have defended herself against a vicious twig.” The queen’s crown was made of twisted living branches that grew flowers every spring and leaves every summer, despite being severed from the earth. He’d thought it was turning on its wearer. He wished that story hadn’t spread. It made him look like an idiot. Just because he’d acted like an idiot, that didn’t mean all of Renthia had to know.
“Send word if there are any more attacks,” he said.
The guard sobered. “Run quickly, Champion Ven.”
He nodded once and then he sprinted for the nearest trunk. Using the village’s anchors, he climbed up, looking back only once to see the guard kneel in the wreckage and pick up the broken doll.
IN THE CITY OF MITTRIEL, THE CAPITAL OF ARATAY, IN THE HEART of Renthia, the white limbs of the palace tree shone in the moonlight. The shadows seemed softer, and Ven felt as if he was coming home, even though he hated the place.
He’d traveled through midforest, watching for other signs of unrest among the spirits, but hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. In every village and town, men and women went about their lives without fear—or at least with no more fear than usual. When you lived surrounded by mindless, powerful creatures whose primary instinct is to murder you, a little healthy fear is normal. Even champions weren’t fearless. We just carry larger knives, Ven thought.