The True Queen
On the first day of new spring, we march out through the gate of Vasterut and turn to the west, toward Kupari. My new wool cloak hangs in thick folds down to my calves, and I have a shining set of daggers strapped to my forearms and sheathed at my side. I think that I look fearsome and sure, the type of person who can sit on a throne without inspiring laughter.
Then I think the same thought again, because I didn’t quite believe myself the first time, and when that doesn’t carry me all the way, I remind myself that I have time to practice being queenly before we get there.
With that in mind, I keep my head high as I wave to the Vasterutians who have come out to cheer our departure. They seem elated, and why wouldn’t they be? We were
the barbarian invaders, the fearsome marauders, and now we leave their city as a tribe without a homeland. Through their patient scheming and alliances with the Korkeans and Ylpesians, they brought us low, but together we defeated the evil of Nisse and drove his son and heir, Jaspar, away—along with hundreds of rogue warriors. The Vasterutians treated Thyra and those of us who were loyal to her with respect after that, but it was always clear what they really wanted.
Thyra catches my eye and gives me a wry smile as the Vasterutians’ shouts of joy rise to the heavens. “It’s clear they are missing us already.”
The humor in her voice, the morning sunbeams glinting gold in her hair, the easy affection on her face—all of it melts my tension. “Yes, I expect they’ll enter a period of mourning now.”
I look over my shoulder, up the hill to the walled tower fortress where I spent the last several months. Halina might be watching us from one of those windows. Like all the rest of her people, she is relieved and triumphant to see the Krigere finally clear out of her city, but I like to think she will also miss me and Thyra, just a little. She certainly enjoyed laughing at me, both before and after she knew I was a destined queen.
Behind me and Thyra, our warriors stride forward, their steps certain and strong. Thanks to our hosts, who in their eagerness to be rid of us were generous with the food and supplies we would need for our journey, Preben and Bertel and
all those who traveled with us from the north have lost the hollowness in their cheeks. As we prepared for this march, they trained and rested in equal measure to regain their vigor.
Just outside the wall, our andeners have camped. The nights remain cold but the days are warmer now, and we agreed to move them out of Vasterutian homes so that the rightful owners could return, in exchange for help building this temporary city outside the city. Now there are tents sprawled across the grassy hills and spreading all the way to the dunes by the shore of the Torden. Our andeners have many skills and know how to fend for themselves as long as they are not being raided or attacked, and for now, we must leave them behind. It is safer this way.
Their cheers are of a different tone and tenor than those of the Vasterutians. In their shouts, I hear desperate pleas, searing hope, and delicate but growing faith. Not in me—in Thyra. She’s their chieftain. I’m just her war counselor. We haven’t explained the other things I am just yet—only our small band of senior warriors knows that—for fear it would be more confusing than reassuring. But as I pass close to Gry, Cyrill’s widow, whose belly is swollen with the baby of one of Jaspar’s traitorous warriors, her hands go white-knuckled over her children’s upper arms, and she yanks them back. Thyra gives her a sharp look, but the widow’s chin rises in defiance. A few others withdraw from the side of the road to avoid me, too, including Aksel’s mother—and she stares hard at me and spits on the grass at her feet as our procession reaches her.
Something tells me she has long since realized that I am the one who killed her son. If I thought it would help, I would explain that he tried to kill me first in a warped effort to avenge his father, who died after challenging Thyra’s chieftainship, but I already know it won’t change a thing. To her I am a monster. An enemy.
I don’t call Thyra’s attention to Aksel’s mother because I don’t want to raise the memory for her. My murder of Aksel nearly tore us apart, and I will do anything to keep us from being separated again. When I glance at her, though, it is clear that Aksel’s death is not on her mind. She’s looking toward the boundaries of the camp and biting her lip. “Did you go over the plan to guard the camp with the watch group?” she calls over her shoulder.
“Twice, Chieftain,” Bertel replies, shielding his eyes from the sun as he looks toward his own andener, a stout woman with skin as pale as his is dark. He jokes that together they are time itself, night and day made one. I believe that is his way of saying he loves her, and I can see it in his face when he catches sight of her. “Alfrida told me to assure you they have a plan. If there is a raid, the Vasterutians will offer them safe haven.”
“Good,” Thyra says. “And the signal?”
“Lantern flashes by night, red flags by day. The Vasterutian sentries will watch over both the camp and the road that leads to the forest.”
Thyra’s smile returns, but this time it’s grim. “And they’ll protect our families, because if they don’t, they know we’ll exact a price in blood.”
Bertel tears his gaze from his mate and nods at Thyra. “For that we’re thankful, Chieftain. It makes it possible to leave them.”
“We’ll send for them as soon as we can,” I say, wishing my heart weren’t skipping at the thought of what we’ll have to do to ensure that future. “You’ll be reunited before you know it.”
“When that happens, a group of us would like to ride as escort and guard,” Preben says, clapping a scarred and calloused hand over Bertel’s thickly muscled shoulder. “We don’t want the andeners and children to travel without protection.”
“I will grant that request,” Thyra replies, her eyes on the horizon now, where the distant black line of the Loputon stretches from the lakeshore as far south as can be seen.
Somewhere in that forest, our enemies hide. Jaspar and his seven hundred warriors, well-armed with stolen weapons and well-nourished from months of thieving food from the mouths of the Vasterutians. He has Elder Kauko at his side or in his possession, and the old man is full of magic and cunning. He also has over a hundred horses and a few hundred andeners who, with the right materials, can forge weapons, craft armor, and heal wounds. With so many people and animals, one would think that it is impossible to be secretive about one’s whereabouts, but Kauko’s magic made it possible. Vasterutian scouts lost the trail at the edge of the Loputon, when they encountered a blizzard so massive that it nearly took their lives.
Sig told me it was a sign that Kauko has only grown in power, most likely the effect of drinking a bowlful of my blood. The scarred fire wielder lurks on my other side, wearing a light cloak with the hood pulled up to shield the back of his neck from the morning sun, which is already making him sweat. He, too, has grown stronger over the past weeks. Now that the elder is gone, Sig seems calmer and slightly less unhinged. His Krigere has improved as well, so he has been able to tell us more about what we might face when we arrive in Kupari. But as the time of our departure neared, he became quieter and more withdrawn, disappearing for hours at a time without telling anyone where he was going. His furtiveness explains Thyra’s frown whenever her blue-eyed gaze finds him.
We need him, though, and she knows it. Swords alone will not be enough in Kupari, and only Sig truly understands the place—and the magic that seems to ooze from the land, finding its way into the veins of its people. Sig is an expert wielder, though he suffers because he only has fire and no ice to balance it. As for me . . . I have both ice and fire, so much that I am supposedly infinitely powerful. Except instead of balancing each other, these two elements inside me seem to be at war, with my body as the contested territory, my skin as the battlefield. My fingers stroke the bloodred runes of the cuff of Astia, which is wrapped heavy and snug around my right wrist. It somehow acts as a peacemaker. I have not taken it off since the moment Sig put it on me.
I’m scared of what will happen if I do.
Our steps are rapid and certain as we snake our way along the road to the west, leaving our cheering andeners behind. After an hour of hiking, the laughter and jovial conversation fueled by the joy of being in the crisp open air fades to quiet murmurs and low rumbles of uneasiness. And by the time the black of the forest turns emerald green in the afternoon light, all I hear are footfalls on packed dirt, the occasional clink of iron bits and weapon blades, and the cries of the seagulls that dive and swirl above our heads. We tread a path wide enough for five or six warriors to stand shoulder to shoulder or three horses to pace, and in all that means we have perhaps fifty rows.
We are not an overwhelming force, but we’re hoping we won’t have to fight anyway. We’re hoping my claim to the Valtia’s throne will be enough. If the pretender who currently occupies the temple is willing to give it up, we’ll have a new home for the four thousand andeners we had to leave outside the protection of the Vasterutian walls. But if that impostor queen tries to cling to her power, then we will have a battle on our hands.
It’s not about me having my throne. Honestly, I’m not so sure I want it. It’s about the Krigere having a homeland—something we lost in waves, first when the Kupari Valtia decimated our warriors and ships, then when Jaspar forced the rest of us to march south in an attempt to merge our tribe with Nisse’s traitorous band. Now we are small in number, more vulnerable than we’ve ever been, but Thyra thinks we have an opportunity. She wants us to remake ourselves as
an independent people, to live and thrive without raiding, without killing. I have come to believe in her vision of our future. I’m determined to make it reality and lay it as a gift at her feet. I glance over at her and barely resist the urge to kiss a drop of sweat from her temple. It is hard, sometimes, to be this close to her and not touch her. Even now, as we lead a procession of our only surviving warriors toward an uncertain fate, my fingers twitch for the feel of her body and my eyes stray to her.
As two warriors, we should not be paired. But I know what I want, what I’ve always wanted when it comes to her. I want my chieftain safe, happy, and victorious.
And I want to spend every single night of the rest of my life in her arms.
“The boundary of Kupari,” Sig says, his accent thick. It curls around the words, softening their edges. “Just within the tree line.”
Thyra squints. “I didn’t think it extended so far south.”
Sig nods. “Do you want to rest your head on Kupari soil tonight, Valtia?”
Every time I hear that word these days, my stomach drops. “That’s up to the chieftain.”
Thyra laughs quietly. “Once we cross into Kupari, we’ll be in your domain.” Then she leans toward me and whispers, “My queen.”
Her breath sends a cascade of shivers across my chest and down my spine, drawing me taut as a bowstring. I let out a nervous laugh just to dispel some of my sudden unsteadiness.
“How I wish I had a few subjects to hunt down some fresh meat and cook it over a roaring fire tonight. But I think I’ll have to fend for myself.”
“We’ll have plenty of time before sunset, and it’ll give us a chance to explore the edge of the forest.” Her throat moves as she swallows. “I’m not sure I want to lead everyone in there before we’ve scouted.”
“Jaspar and Kauko,” Sig says. He is sweating in earnest as his eyes rake the boundary between meadow and forest.
Thyra grunts in agreement as he names the threat. “There are so many places to hide, and they have weeks of practice now.”
The sun hangs at midsky over the trees by the time we reach the edge of the wood. Our warriors begin to make camp, breaking into groups of ten or twelve and straying along the edge of the forest to gather kindling and branches. We have rations that don’t require cooking, but the warmth will be welcome when the chill hour of midnight comes. We are not moving with stealth—there is little point. And we are much more powerful than we look; Sig and I can burn the entire forest to the ground if we need to.
Once again, I rub my palm over the cuff. The hum of its ancient power, one only I can hear, seems to be growing louder as we near the land where we were both created. Up to this point, it is my ally, my shield. With it, I have been much steadier.
I want to believe that the cuff is strengthening me, but the closer we get to the edge of the Loputon, the shakier I feel.
“Are you all right?” Thyra asks quietly as I shed the rolled bundle of weapons, rations, and blanket that I’ve been carrying on my back. We’re only fifty yards or so from the forest now, and setting up our own little camp with Sig, Preben, and Bertel. The latter two are helping the others manage our horses and Sig has wandered off, and so we are as alone as we’ve yet been today. Perhaps that’s why she reaches over and touches the backs of my hands.
They’re trembling. So much so that I cannot unbuckle the strap around my blanket. I drop the bundle and wipe my palms on my breeches. “It’s nothing.”
She gives me a look. “After all we’ve been through, you don’t get to say that to me.”
I run my hands through my short hair, and they come away damp with sweat. “I think perhaps I’m just nervous. We don’t know what we’re facing.”
“That is almost always true these days.”
“But there is so much at stake!”
“Also very true, at all times.”
“I’m not sure of myself,” I snap, turning away. “I’m so tired of not being sure.”
“But you said the cuff—”
“It helps.” For some reason, though, my whole body is thrumming with an energy I haven’t felt before. “Maybe I’m just hungry and tired and nervous. Nothing a good night’s sleep won’t fix.”
Thyra has gone still, and her blue eyes are locked with mine. “It’s me, Ansa,” she murmurs, and then she strokes
my cheek. “I can tell something is happening to you.”
I wince and hug myself as a burst of frigid wind ruffles our hair. I don’t know if that was me or just the weather. It feels like it could have been either. I give her a pleading look.
“I knew this wouldn’t be easy for you,” she says. “This is the land of your birth. Our people ripped you away from all of this. Returning is not as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.”
“You understand very well.” I put a hand on my stomach. “Maybe that explains why I feel like the ground beneath me is about to shift right out from under my feet.”
She chuckles. “Maybe we should keep your feet moving, then. Shall we gather wood?”
I raise my eyebrows. “I could keep you warm tonight, if you like.”
She moves a little closer. “I’d like that very much. But I don’t feel like sharing you with Preben and Bertel.”
I laugh as we start to walk, and heaven, it feels so good. “Then I suppose we should scrape up some kindling.”
When we reach the shade of the trees, she takes my hand, lacing her fingers with mine. “As we enter Kupari, I want you to remember what I said to you a few weeks ago.”
We are weaving our way through dense brush, brambles scraping against the leather of our boots. “We’ve said many things to each other over the last few weeks.” My tone is light, but my voice wavers.
“You know very well what I’m talking about. Maybe
the Kupari impostor will back down quickly, but maybe she won’t. People in power tend to want to stay that way.”
“But to the Kupari, we are the stuff of nightmares. It could work in our favor.”
“Not if we want to make our home here.” She pulls an errant twig from her hair. “We must try to keep the peace. What we do not want is what we faced in Vasterut.”
Nisse and his rogue tribe may have conquered the Vasterutians on the surface, but beneath their skin, in the thick silence in the streets, there was mutiny brewing, seasoned with incredible determination. They never really surrendered and were only biding their time. “Agreed. But once they recognize me as the—the V-Valtia—”
Thyra smiles as I falter. “I look forward to the day you truly understand what you are. Then you will rule us all.”
I shiver. That strange unsteadiness has set my heart galloping. “I d-don’t want to. You will always be my chieftain.”
“I will not always be anything, Ansa. Nothing lasts forever. And we don’t know how things will change in this new land.”
I stop, leaning against a tree because it feels solid and safe. “I don’t deny that. But I will always be your wolf.”
She puts her hand over mine and moves near enough to nudge my nose with hers. “I think I am the luckiest chieftain in the history of the world, then. Although”—she looks around—“we might be in Kupari now. Sig said the border was just inside the tree line. Maybe you are the ruler here.”
When her lips touch mine, the smoldering heat inside
me jumps to full flame in an instant. I can feel her smiling against my mouth, and the taste of it is sweet on my tongue. Somewhere in the branches above us, a bird trills, and in this moment I cannot think of a more joyful sound. As if they can feel my soaring mood, an entire flock of winged creatures suddenly explodes into flight, screeching to the heavens. Thyra chuckles and cups my cheek. “We’re unsettling the entire wild wood.”
I laugh, but it seems to be true—I can hear the sudden rustling all around us, claws scrabbling in the underbrush, which waves and bounces as creatures flee. “Perhaps Kupari forest creatures are simply polite and want to offer us priv—”
A deafening crack silences that happy thought, and the ground beneath us drops. We land in a hard sprawl, Thyra’s head colliding with my breastbone and knocking the breath out of me. Nausea and panic churn in my gut as the entire forest pitches, branches lashing and snapping and raining down like sharpened pikes. One slams down on Thyra’s leg, and she cries out, a sound that echoes inside the chambers of my racing heart. I throw my arms around her and roll, shielding her with my body as the world falls apart.