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Authors: Sarah Beth Durst

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BOOK: The Queen of Blood
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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.

Arin.

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.

“Again.”

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.

“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.

“Liar.”

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.

Nothing
.

“Fetch the healing kit.”

Daleina didn't move.

“Now.”

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.”

“See what?”

“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.”

BOOK: The Queen of Blood
2.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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