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The War of Two Queens: Chapter 13

The short journey into the Pinelands surrounding Oak Ambler, beyond the initial rows of bowed trees, was quiet. The only sounds were the snapping of needles and twigs scattered across the road. The dappled sunlight lent a peacefulness, one completely at odds with what was to come.

I sat stiffly in the saddle, holding Setti’s reins just as Casteel had taught me. The armor was thin and formfitting, especially the cuirass covering my chest and back, but not exactly the most comfortable thing I’d ever worn. The armor was a necessity. I may be able to survive most wounds, but I didn’t plan on being unnecessarily weakened, especially if I ended up needing to use the eather.

Emil rode to my left and had never looked more serious than he did now, continuously scanning the thickly clustered trees. Kieran was to my right. It was just the three of us riding toward Oak Ambler.

Or so it appeared.

I wanted to give those at the Rise a chance to make the right decision. Showing up with an army would immediately put them on the defensive, making it unlikely they’d open the gates and allow anyone who wished to leave to do so.

But we were not alone.

The wolven had spread out through the forest, moving quietly as they looked for Solis soldiers possibly hidden among the pines.

Weight pressed down on my chest, stirring the pulsing eather in my core as Setti crossed a narrow creek that had overtaken the road, kicking up water and loose soil. We’d been on the brink of war when the Blood Queen killed Ian and took Casteel. The war had started when I killed King Jalara. But this…this was the first battle. My hold on the reins tightened as my heart thumped heavily.

This was really happening.

For some reason, it hadn’t struck me until now—that this felt different than Massene. This was actual war. All the planning and waiting, and now it felt surreal.

What if no one took the chance to trust us? What if they all remained in the city, even the Descenters? My heart began thumping heavily as the potential for the kind of carnage I wanted to prevent became more and more likely with each passing minute.

I couldn’t help but think that if Casteel were here, he would say something to lighten the mood. He’d bring a smile to my face, despite what awaited us. He would also probably say something that annoyed me…and also secretly thrilled me.

And he would definitely, definitely like the armor and weapons.

“There,” Kieran advised quietly. “Ahead and to our left.”

Too afraid to allow my mind to speculate about what he’d seen, I scanned the fractured sunlight.

“I see them,” Emil confirmed at the same moment I saw.


They walked along the sides of the dirt road, several dozen—maybe even a hundred. They slowed as they spotted us and moved farther away from the trodden path, giving us a wide berth. I tried to dredge up some semblance of relief, but the group ahead wasn’t nearly big enough when tens of thousands lived in Oak Ambler.

The deep breath I took erased the disappointment I felt settling into my bones. A hundred was better than none.

Emil guided his horse closer to Setti as we neared the group of mortals, many of which carried large sacks upon their backs and in their arms. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that he had slid his gloved hand to the hilt of his sword. I noticed Kieran tense beside me. I knew he too had moved a hand closer to a weapon.

I opened my senses to them and almost wished I hadn’t. All I tasted was a nearly overwhelming mixture of thick concern and fear-coated dread. Their drawn features mirrored what they felt—twisting faces of those most likely only in their second or third decades of life. Mortals who had lived so many years under the Ascended’s rule.

They slowed and then stopped, staring in silence as we rode past. Their gazes pressed upon me, and a few in the crowd were so worried that they projected their emotions, thickening the air around us. I managed to close down my senses.

After spending so many years forbidden to be looked upon and veiled, I still wasn’t used to this. To being seen. Every muscle in my body felt as if it would start twitching under so many open stares, and it took all my effort not to start squirming.

I didn’t smile as I looked down at them. Not because I worried that I looked foolish—which would’ve concerned me in any other situation—but because it didn’t seem right when none looked me directly in the eye, either out of fear or uncertainty.

None except a small child toward the edge of the group.

The young girl’s gaze met mine, her cheek resting on what I assumed was her father’s shoulder. I wondered what she saw. A stranger? A scarred Queen? A face that would haunt her sleep? Or did she see a liberator? A possible friend? Hope? I watched the mother, who walked close to the two, place her hand on the little girl’s back, and then I wondered if that was why they’d taken this risk. Because they wanted a different future for their daughter.

“Poppy,” Emil warned quietly, drawing my attention. I slowed Setti.

Farther down, a man had stepped away from a pale-faced woman who held a boy barely reaching the waist of her cream, woolen coat.

“Please. I mean no harm,” the man spoke thickly, words spilling from his trembling lips in a rush. “M-my name is Ramon. We just had a Rite. Less than a week ago,” he said. My stomach clenched as he glanced at Kieran and then Emil. “They took our second son. His name is Abel.”

My stomach tightened even further. Rites were held at the same time throughout Solis—when they actually took place. Sometimes years and even decades passed between them. That was why second sons and daughters were given to the Court at varying ages. The same as the third-born, who were given to the Priests and Priestesses. I had never known two Rites to be held within the same year.

“Abel…he would be with the others. In the Temple of Theon,” the man continued. “We couldn’t get to them before we left.”

Understanding dawned. Knowing what he feared, what many others in this group likely feared, as well, I found my voice. “We will not besiege the Temples.”

The man’s relief was so potent, it broke through my shields, tasting of spring rain. A shudder rocked the man and echoed in my heart. “If…if you see him— He’s only a babe, but he has hair like mine, and brown eyes just like his momma.” His gaze darted between the three of us as he shrugged off the strap of a sack and tore it open.

I lifted a hand, stilling Emil as he went to withdraw his sword. Unaware, Ramon dug around in the sack. “M-my name is Ramon,” he repeated. “His momma’s name is Nelly. He knows our names. I know that sounds silly, but I swear to the gods he does. Can you give him this?” He pulled out a fluff of stuffed, brown fur. A small, floppy teddy bear. Leaving the sack on the ground, he approached, nervously glancing at Kieran and Emil, who tracked his every movement. “Can you give this to him? So he can have it until we can come back for him? Then he’ll know we haven’t left him.”

His request burned my eyes and stole my breath as I took the floppy bear. “Of course,” I whispered.

“T-thank you.” He clasped his hands together and bowed, backing up. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

Your Highness…

It sounded different coming from the mortal. Almost like a benediction. I looked down at the bear, its fur patchy but soft. The black button eyes were stitched tightly. It smelled of lavender.

I wasn’t their Queen.

I wasn’t an answer to their prayers because those prayers should’ve been answered a long time before me.

“Diana,” someone yelled from behind Ramon, and my head jerked up. “Our second daughter. Diana. They took her during the Rite, months ago. She’s ten years old. Can you tell her we haven’t left her? That we’ll be waiting for her?”

“Murphy and Peter,” another shouted. “Our sons. They took them both in the last two Rites.”

Another name was yelled. A third daughter. A second son. Siblings. Names were shouted to the needled branches, echoing around us as Emil’s and Kieran’s expressions hardened with each name yelled. There were so many names that they became a chorus of heartbreak and hope, and when the last one was cried out, my heart had withered.

“We will find them,” I said. And then louder, as a part of me deep inside, next to that cold, hollow place shriveled, I repeated, “We will find them.”

I gripped the bear as shouts of gratitude replaced the names—names I suddenly saw carved into a dimly lit, cold stone wall.

“There are others,” a woman toward the back said as we passed her. “There are others at the gates trying to leave.”

All those names overshadowed what relief that brought. My shoulders tensed. A knot lodged in my throat as I nudged Setti forward. I didn’t want to consider what drove the Blood Crown to hold two Rites so close together.

What that meant.

We traveled several yards before Emil spoke. “I don’t know what to say about that.” His amber eyes were glassy. He cleared his throat. “Two Rites back-to-back? That’s not normal, right?”

“It’s not,” I confirmed, placing the bear in a satchel strapped to Setti.

“That can’t be good.” His jaw worked.

No, it couldn’t be.

“Nothing should’ve been promised to them,” Kieran stated quietly.

“I promised that we would find them.” My voice was thick as I reached for the pouch at my hip and squeezed until I felt the toy horse inside. “That is all I promised.”

Kieran looked over at me, catching my gaze. “We will save as many people as we can, but we cannot and will not save everyone.”

I nodded. But if they’d held a Rite just a week ago, there was hope. A chance that the children were still alive.

That was what I kept telling myself.

Through the thinning trees, small farms and cottages stood eerily silent, doors and windows boarded up. There were no animals in sight. No signs of life at all. Did the owners remain inside? Or had they already been taken in a Craven attack as they lived outside the Rise, risking their lives every night to provide necessities to those inside the city?

After a few more moments, I saw the Rise. Constructed from limestone and iron mined from the Elysium Peaks, the massive wall encircled the entire port city. The portion I’d destroyed before the Handmaiden stopped me became visible. Relief filled me when I saw that it wasn’t a complete loss. About ten feet of it stood, and scaffolding already lined the upper destroyed portion. Still, guilt scalded my insides once more. I forced it aside. Wallowing in my remorse would have to come later.

Closing my eyes, I searched for the unique, springy and featherlight imprint that belonged to Delano. Finding it, I opened the pathway. Delano’s response was immediate, a touch against my mind. Meyaah Liessa?

We are nearing the gates now, I told him.

We are with you.

I opened my eyes. “Delano and the others know where we are.”

Both Emil and Kieran lifted shields from the sides of their horses. A handful of guards visibly patrolled, but I knew there were more, likely on the ground below the Rise. But for those on the battlements, the glare of the sun was directly in their path. They had yet to become aware of us.

That would soon change.

“Hear that?” Kieran inclined his head with a frown.

At first, I didn’t hear anything except the flutter of wings in the trees above and the call of birds, but then I heard the distant yelling and then shouts of pain.

My heart sped up. “It must be those still trying to leave.”

“Sounds like a sizable crowd, which explains why so few guards are on the Rise,” Emil noted, lifting his helmet and sliding it on. “For now.”

Kieran looked over at me. “You still want to give them a chance?”


I really didn’t.

That taste had gathered in my mouth again. The one that came from that shadowy, cold place inside me. The taste of death. It coated my throat as I looked up at the guards. They had to know what was being done to cause those pained shouts. I wanted to strike out.

But that wasn’t the plan.

“Yes.” I nudged Setti forward, and they followed, shields at the ready as we broke through the trees, entering the cleared land below the Rise.

A guard near a tower spotted us quickly. He swung an arrow in our direction. “Halt!” he shouted, and several guards whipped around, nocking arrows stored in the parapet. “Do not come any closer.”

Setti pranced restlessly as I guided him to a stop. Adrenaline coursed through me, ramming my heart against my ribs. My skin hummed as the eather throbbed in response, sending a series of shivers across the back of my head and over the nape of my neck. Somehow, I managed to keep my voice steady, even as dread, anticipation, and fear collided. “I want to speak with the Commander of the Rise.”

“Who the hell are you to make such a demand?” another guard yelled as I opened my senses, letting them stretch toward the guards.

“Perhaps they do not see the crests on the shields,” Kieran murmured, and Emil’s shield muffled his snort. “Or you should’ve worn your crown.” A pause. “Like I suggested.”

The crown was where it belonged, beside the one meant for the King.

My hand tightened on the reins. “Tell your commander that the Queen of Atlantia wishes to speak with him.”

The guards’ shock was an icy splash against the roof of my mouth. “Bullshit,” one of them exclaimed, but I also sensed great unease. They recognized the white of my clothing and what that symbolized. They had to know we were coming. “No Queen would be stupid enough to march right up to our gates.”

Kieran glanced over at me, his brows raised.

“Perhaps none would be so daring,” I suggested.

“Nah. You ain’t no Queen. Just two Atlantian bastards and one Atlantian bitch,” the light-haired guard said.

“At some point,” Emil said under his breath, “I hope we kill that one.”

The snap of the bowstring was deafening, silencing my response.

Kieran moved quickly, his reflexes far more honed than any mortal’s. He lifted his shield within the span of a heartbeat. The arrow smacked off its surface.

“They shot at you!” I exclaimed.

“Yes, I’m aware of that.” Kieran lowered his shield.

My head swung back to the Rise, anger building. “Do that again, and you will not like what happens.”

“Stupid bitch.” The guard laughed, reaching for another arrow. “What are you going to do?”

“Stop!” A guard raced across the battlement, grabbing the archer’s arm. He yanked the arrow from his hand. “You jackass,” he said as the guard pulled his arm free. “If that’s really her, it’ll be your head on a spike.”

If he fired another arrow, he wouldn’t live long enough to be impaled to any spike.

“I want to speak to the commander,” I repeated.

“You have my attention,” a voice boomed a second before a man appeared at the top of the Rise, the white mantle flowing from his shoulders a symbol of his position. “I’m Commander Forsyth.”

“Well, look at that,” Kieran said. “He came with friends.”

He’d arrived with a lot of his friends. Dozens of archers rushed the battlement, arrows at the ready.

“The Queen of Atlantia?” Forsyth dropped a booted foot on the edge of the Rise and leaned forward, resting an arm on his bent knee. “I heard rumors you were in Massene. Not sure I believe it then or now.”

When I wore the veil of the Maiden, no one knew that I was scarred. But after I went missing, news of my appearance traveled far as a means of identification. From their position, it was unlikely they were able to see my scars, especially since they had faded a bit after my Ascension.

“That’s her,” one of the newcomers said, an archer farther down the battlement. “I was here the night she damaged the Rise. I know her voice. Never will forget it.”

“Looks like you left an impression,” Kieran commented.

I had a feeling I would leave another as wind whirled through the meadow, carrying the stench of the city. “Then you know what I’m capable of.”

Forsyth abandoned his relaxed pose, standing straight. “I know what you are. You’ve got these people in here believing you’ve come to either free or terrorize them. Caused quite a bit of drama by spreading the word, telling them they needed to leave the protection of the Ascended. Because of you, many of them will die in the streets they called home. Because of your lies.”

The essence flared once more. I concentrated on the commander, letting my senses reach him. What I tasted was the same as I’d felt when I passed our soldiers before riding for Oak Ambler. Salty resolve.

“You would think that the Duke himself would be out here, defending his people,” Kieran countered.

“The Ascended honor the gods by refusing the sunlight,” Forsyth shot back. “But you, being of a godless kingdom, wouldn’t understand that.”

“The irony,” Emil drawled quietly, “is painful.”

“You know why they don’t walk in the sun,” I said, doubting that the Commanders of the Rises were unaware of exactly what they protected. Forsyth’s head tilted back, and I picked up the faint trace of something sour. Guilt? I seized on that. “But it’s you who is out here. You and your guards—protecting the people. Those who wish to leave the city, by the sound of it. The reason shouldn’t matter, should it? They should be allowed to leave.”

“Both you and I know that’s not the case, Harbinger,” the commander replied, and I sucked in a sharp breath as Emil’s gaze cut to me. “Yeah, like I said, I know exactly what you are. The Harbinger, Bringer of Death and Destruction. Some of these people may have been convinced otherwise, but I know better. Many of us do.”

Dear gods. If the people of Oak Ambler—of Solis—had been told about the prophecy… I couldn’t allow myself to think of the ramifications at the moment. “You believe in prophecies?”

“I believe in what I know. You already attacked us once,” Forsyth said. “You are no savior.”

In the back of my mind, I knew there would be no reasoning with him. That there may not be any reasoning for any who believed I was the Harbinger. But I still had to try. “No harm will come to those who wish to leave. Abandon the Rise,” I ordered, while silently begging that they listened to me. “Open the gates and allow the people to choose what they want—”

“Or what? If you could take down the gates, you would’ve already,” the commander barked. “There’s nothing that can take down these gates.” He turned away.

Feeling Emil’s and Kieran’s gazes on me, I looked at the archers, saw that many exchanged nervous glances, but no one moved. I could already feel those marks cutting into my skin. My heart hurt for what was to come.

“So be it,” I said, letting my will swell inside me.

A distant rumble answered, echoing with the wind.


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