The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
The Tenth Horse
THE GLYNN QUEEN—Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, seventh Queen of the Tearling. Also known as: The Marked Queen. Fostered by Carlin and Bartholemew (Barty the Good) Glynn. Mother: Queen Elyssa Raleigh. Father: unknown. See appendix XI for speculation.
—The Early History of the Tearling, AS TOLD BY MERWINIAN
Kelsea Glynn sat very still, watching the troop approach her homestead. The men rode as a military company, with outliers on the corners, all dressed in the grey of the Tearling royal guard. The riders’ cloaks swayed as they rode, revealing their costly weapons: swords and short knives, all of them of Mortmesne steel. One man even had a mace; Kelsea could see its spiked head protruding from his saddle. The sullen way they guided their horses toward the cottage made things very clear: they didn’t want to be here.
Kelsea sat, cloaked and hooded, in the fork of a tree some thirty feet from her front door. She was dressed in deep green from her hood down to her pine-colored boots. A sapphire dangled from a pure silver chain around her neck. This jewel had an annoying habit of popping out of Kelsea’s shirt minutes after she had tucked it in, which seemed fitting, for today the sapphire was the source of her trouble.
Nine men, ten horses.
The soldiers reached the raked patch of earth in front of the cottage and dismounted. As they threw back their hoods, Kelsea saw that they were nowhere near her own age. These men were in their thirties and forties, and they shared a hard, weathered look that bespoke the toll of combat. The soldier with the mace muttered something, and their hands went automatically to their swords.
“Best be done quickly.” The speaker, a tall, lean man whose authoritative tone marked him as the leader, stepped forward and knocked three times on the front door. It opened immediately, as if Barty had been waiting there all along. Even from her vantage point, Kelsea could see that Barty’s round face was lined, his eyes red and swollen. He’d sent Kelsea out into the woods that morning, unwilling to have her witness his grief. Kelsea had protested, but Barty wouldn’t hear refusal and finally simply pushed her out the door, saying, “Go and say good-bye to the woods, girl. It’ll likely be a long time before they’ll let you wander at will again.”
Kelsea had gone then, and spent the morning roaming the forest, climbing over fallen trees and stopping every now and again to listen to the stillness of the woods, that perfect silence so at odds with the abundance of life it contained. She’d even snared a rabbit, for something to do, before letting it go; Barty and Carlin had no need for meat, and she took no pleasure in killing. Watching the rabbit bound off and vanish into the woods where she had spent so much of her childhood, Kelsea tried the word again, though it felt like dust in her mouth: Queen. An ominous word, foretelling a grim future.
“Barty.” The leader of the troop greeted him. “A long time.”
Barty muttered something indistinguishable.
“We’re here for the girl.”
Barty nodded, put two fingers in his mouth, and whistled, high and piercing. Kelsea dropped soundlessly from the tree and walked out of the cover of the woods, her pulse thrumming. She knew how to defend herself against a single attacker with her knife; Barty had taken care of that. But she was intimidated by the heavily armed troop. She felt all of these men’s eyes on her, measuring. She looked nothing like a queen and she knew it.
The leader, a hard-faced man with a scar down the edge of his chin, bowed low in front of her. “Your Highness. I’m Carroll, Captain of the late Queen’s Guard.”
A moment passed before the rest bowed as well. The guard with the mace bent perhaps an inch, with the slightest perceptible dip of his chin.
“We must see the marking,” muttered one of the guards, his face nearly concealed behind a red beard. “And the jewel.”
“You think I would swindle the kingdom, man?” Barty rasped.
“She looks nothing like her mother,” the red-bearded man replied sharply.
Kelsea flushed. According to Carlin, Queen Elyssa had been a classic Tearling beauty, tall and blonde and lithe. Kelsea was tall as well, but she was dark in coloring, with a face that could charitably be described as plain. She wasn’t statuesque by any stretch of the word, either; she got plenty of exercise, but she had a healthy appetite too.
“She has the Raleigh eyes,” another guard remarked.
“I would prefer to see the jewel and the scar,” replied the leader, and the red-haired man nodded as well.
“Show them, Kel.”
Kelsea pulled the sapphire pendant from beneath her shirt and held it up to the light. The necklace had lain around her neck ever since she could remember, and right now she wanted nothing so much as to tear the thing off and give it back to them. But Barty and Carlin had already explained that they wouldn’t let her do that. She was the crown princess of the Tearling, and this was her nineteenth birthday, the age of ascension for Tearling monarchs all the way back to Jonathan Tear. The Queen’s Guard would cart her back to the Keep kicking and screaming, if need be, and imprison her on the throne, and there she would sit, hung with velvet and silk, until she was assassinated.
The leader nodded at the jewel, and Kelsea shook back the left sleeve of her cloak, exposing her forearm, where a distended scar in the shape of a knife blade marched from her wrist to her bicep. One or two of the men muttered at the sight of it, their hands relaxing from their weapons for the first time since they’d arrived.
“That’s it, then,” Carroll declared gruffly. “We go now.”
“One moment.” Carlin stepped into the doorway, gently nudging Barty out of the way. She did so with her wrists, not her fingers; the arthritis must be very bad today. Her appearance was impeccable as always, her white hair pinned up neatly off her neck. Kelsea was surprised to see that her eyes, too, were slightly red. Carlin wasn’t one for tears; she rarely demonstrated any emotion at all.
Several of the guards straightened at the sight of Carlin. One or two even took a step back, including the man with the mace. Kelsea had always thought that Carlin looked like royalty herself, but she was surprised to see these men with all of their swords daunted by one old woman.
Thank God I’m not the only one.
“Prove yourselves!” Carlin demanded. “How do we know you come from the Keep?”
“Who else would know where to find her on this day?” Carroll asked.
Several of the soldiers chuckled unkindly. But the soldier with the mace stepped forward, fumbling inside his cloak.
Carlin stared at him for a moment. “I do know you.”
“I brought the Queen’s instructions,” he told her, producing a thick envelope, yellowed with age. “In case you didn’t remember.”
“I doubt many people forget you, Lazarus,” Carlin replied, her voice tinged with disapproval. She unwrapped the paper quickly, though it must have played hell with her arthritis, and scanned its contents. Kelsea stared at the letter, fascinated. Her mother was long dead, and yet here was something she had written, actually touched.
Carlin seemed satisfied. She handed the piece of paper back to the guard. “Kelsea needs to gather her things.”
“A few minutes only, Highness. We must go.” Carroll spoke to Kelsea now, bowing again, and she saw that he’d already dismissed Carlin from the proceedings. Carlin had seen the transition as well; her face was like stone. Kelsea often wished that Carlin would get angry, instead of withdrawing into that inner, silent part of herself, so cold and remote. Carlin’s silences were terrible things.
Kelsea slipped past the standing horses and into the cottage. Her clothing was packed into her saddlebags already, but she made no move to approach them, moving to stand in the doorway of Carlin’s library. The walls were lined with books; Barty had constructed the shelves himself, of Tearling oak, and given them to Carlin on Kelsea’s fourth Christmas. In a time of vague memory, that day was pure and bright in Kelsea’s mind: she had helped Carlin shelve the books, and cried a little when Carlin wouldn’t let her organize them by color. Many years had passed, but Kelsea still loved the books, loved seeing them side by side, with every single volume in its own place.
But the library had been a schoolroom as well, often an unpleasant one. Rudimentary mathematics, her Tear grammar, geography, and later the languages of surrounding countries, their odd accents first difficult and then easier, faster, until Kelsea and Carlin could switch easily from tongue to tongue, hopping from Mort to Cadarese and back again to the simpler, less dramatic language of the Tearling without missing a syllable. Most of all, history, the history of humanity stretching back before the Crossing. Carlin often said that history was everything, for it was in man’s nature to make the same mistakes over and over. She would look hard at Kelsea when she said so, her white eyebrows folding down, preparing to disapprove. Carlin was fair, but she was also hard. If Kelsea completed all of her schoolwork by dinnertime, her reward was to be allowed to pick a book from the library and stay up reading until she had finished. Stories moved Kelsea most, stories of things that never were, stories that transported her beyond the changeless world of the cottage. One night she’d stayed up until dawn reading a particularly long novel, and she had been allowed to skip her chores and sleep away most of the next day. But there had also been entire months where Kelsea became tired of the constant schooling and simply shut down. And then there were no stories, no library, only housework, loneliness, and the granite disapproval of Carlin’s face. Eventually, Kelsea always went back to school.
Barty shut the door and approached her, every other footstep dragging. He had been a Queen’s Guard a lifetime ago, before a sword to the back of his knee had left him lame. He placed a firm hand on her shoulder. “You can’t delay, Kel.”
Kelsea turned and found Carlin looking away, out the window. In front of the cottage, the soldiers shifted uneasily, darting quick glances around the woods.
They’re accustomed to enclosure, thought Kelsea; open space alarms them. The implications of this, the life it foreboded for her at the Keep, almost overwhelmed her, just when she’d thought that all of her crying was done.
“This is a dangerous time, Kelsea.” Carlin spoke to the window, her voice distant. “Beware of the Regent, uncle or no; he’s wanted that throne for himself since he was in the womb. But your mother’s Guard are good men, and they’ll surely look after you.”
“They dislike me, Carlin,” Kelsea blurted out. “You said it would be an honor for them to be my escort. But they don’t want to be here.”
Carlin and Barty exchanged a look, and Kelsea saw the ghost of many old arguments between them. Theirs was an odd marriage; Carlin was at least ten years older than Barty, nearing seventy. It took no extraordinary imagination to see that she had once been beautiful, but now her beauty had hardened into austerity. Barty was not beautiful, shorter than Carlin and decidedly rounder, but he had a good-humored face and smiling eyes beneath his grey hair. Barty didn’t care for books at all, and Kelsea often wondered what he and Carlin found to talk about when she wasn’t in the room. Perhaps nothing; perhaps Kelsea was the common interest that kept them together. If so, what would become of them now?
Carlin finally replied, “We swore to your mother that we would not tell you of her failures, Kelsea, and we’ve kept our promise. But not everything at the Keep will be as you thought. Barty and I have given you good tools; that was our charge. But once you sit on the throne, you’ll have to make your own hard decisions.”