The Cursed Queen
As the spray from the Torden kisses my face, I trace my fingertip along the four notched scars that decorate my upper arm, and then along the space below them, where soon there will be more. By the time the sun rises tomorrow, I plan to bleed all the way down to my elbow at least, and hopefully my wrist, though that might be too ambitious. I glance at Sander, to my left, dark hair, dark eyes, dark heart. He already bears kill marks down to his forearm, one at the bottom still new and scabbed over, earned from a reckless lone attack on wandering travelers a week ago.
He smirks when he sees me looking. “Down to my knuckle by morn,” he says. “Catch up if you can.”
I scowl at him, widening my stance to keep my footing
as the longship rolls into a trough. The black sails are full, lightening the load on the oarsmen and pulling us along at a ferocious speed. The collision of bow and wave jars my bones, but the last thing I want is to fall on my face in front of Chieftain Lars, who is squinting into the distance as if he can already see the Kupari peninsula. Both his arms carry over fifty parallel silver notches, from shoulders to the tip of his middle fingers. He has five on each cheek, too, beneath his eyes and above the edge of his beard. The marks of a true warrior.
Someday, I think. With those marks, no one would dare question whether I belong.
But today I will settle for holding my own. “If you can manage that many kills today without getting killed yourself, Sander, I’ll be happy to cut you.”
Sander leans down as if he wants to emphasize the difference in our heights, to remind me of the relative smallness of my body. My heart quickens, not with fear, but with triumph. He, like so many other men, doesn’t realize how dangerous it is to give up the advantage of reach, to put himself within my strike range. It would be so easy to pull the knife from the sheath on my forearm and jam it into his exposed throat. He of all people should know better. Instead, he merely looks amused. “I’ll do the same for you, Ansa, unless you’re afraid I’ll slice too deep. Your skin seems rather thin.”
I laugh. “And yours is as succulent as lamb, if I recall correctly.” Quick as a darting fish, I reach up and flick the
base of his ear, where the smooth, soft drop of his lobe once hung.
Until I bit it off.
He grimaces, and his fingers close over the handle of the ax at his side. Thyra steps between us and elbows him. “What did you think you were going to get in return for goading her? Isn’t the result always the same?”
He rolls his eyes. Thyra stands up straighter. “Either focus on what’s coming or take another turn at the oars.” She cuts her gaze to me as a gust off the lake blows her short light brown hair away from her forehead. “You too. Maybe take a breath before attacking.” Her lips twitch. “For once.”
I force the corners of mine downward, though all I want to do is smile when she looks at me. “Oh, I’m focused—on getting as many kill marks as I can.”
“Is that really all you think about?”
“No, of course not. I think about the copper and silver I’ll plunder too.” I think about having so much that I will never want again.
“Those people have no idea what’s coming for them,” she mutters. “But there are rumors of a—”
I hold up my hand. “No matter what’s waiting for us, I’m ready.”
“Let’s hope so.”
“You doubt me?” My gaze drops to the lean curve of her upper arm, where she bears three marks, one of which is rightfully mine. A forbidden gift to protect her; a secret that binds us.
She shifts so I can’t see the marks on her skin, but her blue eyes are warm as she says, “I never doubt you, Ansa. Only fate and all mortal-made plans.”
So like her. “Don’t let him hear you say that,” I murmur, nodding at Chieftain Lars’s back. Thyra glances up at her father. Our chieftain is now in low conversation with Einar and Cyrill, his war counselors. Their cloaked shoulders are so broad that they block my view of the carved wolf head that juts from the prow of this mighty vessel. Ours is the lead, but the others, nearly one hundred fifty in all, sprawl behind us on either side like a massive flock of lethal birds. With a crew and a half on each, enough for all of us to have a break from the oars for part of the journey, we are a force of more than four thousand, tribes gathered from all parts of the north and united under Lars. Nowhere in this world is there a more dominant or deadly army, and we will cut through any Kupari resistance like wolves in a fat herd of sheep.
Not for the first time, I am confused as to why Thyra does not take more pride in all of this.
She will be chieftain one day. The only other rightful claimant to the chair—Lars’s brother Nisse—was banished in shame this past winter. Thyra is our future.
She sees my frustration, I think. Something defiant and bold flares behind her eyes. “I wish us nothing but blood and victory,” she says, her voice taking on a commanding edge that I envy and crave at the same time.
“Blood and victory,” I repeat.
“They call us Soturi, I hear,” she says. “Cyrill told me it means ‘warrior’ in their language.”
I suppose Cyrill would know. He has a Kupari slave in his household. “That’s nice. I’m happy to hear it doesn’t mean ‘dung eaters.’ ”
She gives me a half smile, and I stare at her face. She’s a few inches taller than me, but on my tiptoes I can match our heights and bring us close. After she pushed me away the one time I tried, though, I won’t do it again.
I so want to do it again.
“Skiff ahead!” shouts our lookout, his voice nearly lost in the wind as he calls down from his perch high on the mast.
“Probably a fishing vessel,” calls Einar, the braids of his beard swinging as he turns to Lars. “It could warn them we’re coming.” He glances over and winks at me, and I grin—he’s been like a father to me, and he’s the only one I will claim. My real father was not strong enough to protect me, and on bad nights my dreams are haunted by his vacant eyes and bleeding body. He is always deaf to my screams.
“Do we know the size of their militia?” Cyrill asks, pulling me from unwelcome memory. “None of our raiders have encountered them.”
“Whatever they have, they can’t match us. A warning won’t matter,” Lars rumbles.
Thyra frowns, and I bump her with my shoulder. “It won’t,” I say. “Think of the stories from Vasterut.”
She rolls her eyes. “And I’m sure tales of Nisse’s easy conquest were not exaggerated in any way.”
I bite my lip. Nisse now occupies the throne of Vasterut after his takeover of the southern city-state just before the spring. Though I meant only to offer confidence, mentioning him was probably a mistake. There are rumors he was plotting to assassinate Lars, since he could never best him in the fight circle. Thyra knows more, but she refuses to talk to me about it. One morning we simply woke up to find that Nisse had fled in the night, banished from the tribe. Lars allowed him to leave with those loyal to him, perhaps because he couldn’t bring himself to slaughter his younger brother, perhaps to prevent us all from killing each other. With so many tribal groups gathered and sides to take, it would have been costly. Nearly one in five left with Nisse, including his only son, Jaspar. There’s a pit in my stomach every time I think of him, though I haven’t uttered his name in months. We all assumed he and all the rest of them were walking to their deaths in the dead of winter, so when news of Nisse’s easily won victory and riches reached us, it was as good as a challenge for Lars.
Winter is coming once again, and Lars has told us we will spend it warm and fat and rich.
“Have you heard the stories of the witch queen of the Kupari?” Thyra asks quietly, moving close and raising goose bumps with the soft puff of her breath in my ear.
I shake off the tingles. “You doubt stories from Vasterut, but you’re willing to believe those wild tales?”
Her tanned cheeks go ruddy. “I didn’t say I believed them.”
“Good.” We’ve all heard stories about the source of the Kupari wealth and supposed strength. Not an arsenal, not an army—a witch. “But if she tries to use her stinking, evil craft on us, she’ll end up with her head on the end of Lars’s spear.”
Thyra gives a curt nod. “She might anyway. The suspicion of witchcraft is enough.”
“That little boat is definitely running,” says Cyrill with a laugh. Standing at the front next to Lars and Einar, he leans on his spear, and its deadly-sharp tip gleams like a beacon. “I think it’s going to be hard for us to sneak in unnoticed.”
He gestures grandly at the warships in formation behind us, and the warriors all around me guffaw. So do I, louder than the rest. My blood sings as I feel their strength, the simple aliveness of us. I am so proud to be among these men and women. I wasn’t born a Krigere, and I have spent the last several years trying to make people forget that. What should matter is my spirit, my willingness to fight. We all bleed red, as Lars always says, and I trust that he means it.
Thyra is smiling, but not laughing like the rest of us. And I can’t help it—I grab her shoulders and shake her a little. “Come on!” I say, still chuckling. “Don’t tell me you’re not lusting to stick your blade into one of their fat merchants. Easiest kill marks you’ll ever earn.”
“Are those the only things that make a warrior?” she says under her breath.
Annoyance spikes through me, and I grab for the hilt of her dagger. Her fingers close over my wrist, hard. “Careful,”
she says in a rough voice. “Not here. Not now.” There is something like a plea in her eyes.
It makes me want to push her. I want to replace that plea with fire. Thyra is not an eager fighter like I am, but when she commits, she is a thing of absolute, cutting beauty, and I hunger for the sight. I reach for her weapon with my other hand, and she catches that one too, right as I grasp the hilt. She presses my wrist to her side just as Sander leans over to watch.
“Well, you told Ansa to focus,” he says with a sly glint in his eye. “And her focus is never better than when it’s on you, Thyra.”
With a near-frantic glance at her father, Thyra shoves me away so abruptly that I nearly stumble onto the front row of oars.
My cheeks burning, I right myself. “Say that again and I’ll gut you, Sander.”
He starts to step around Thyra to get to me. “Go ahead and try, you scrawny little—”
“Enough,” roars Lars, turning on us like a bison ready to charge. “Dorte, Keld—take a break. Let these two cubs burn off some of their bloodlust on the oars.”
Einar gives me an exasperated look. “Can you at least try not to kill someone until we make it ashore?” he asks, though he looks like he’s about to laugh.
“I’ll try,” I grumble.
Dorte and Keld, who have been huffing away with their backs to us, lift their oars while the others keep at it.
I march over and take Dorte’s oar, even though my break isn’t supposed to be over until the sun sinks to quarter-sky. I don’t want to hit the shore fatigued, but whining about it is unthinkable. Einar would probably throw me overboard himself for the sheer shame of it.
Dorte squeezes my arm with her scarred fingers. “By nightfall you’ll show him what you’ve got,” she says as she looks at Sander out of the corner of her eye.
“Assuming I let him live that long.”
Letting out a harsh laugh that crinkles her weatherworn face, she lifts my elbow, examining the four kill marks. “I hope you’ll give me the honor of making one of the new cuts after you’ve tallied your total.”
“If you let me do the same.”
She winks. “Maybe even two.”
I plop onto the bench and place my callused palms over the skin-warmed wood of the oar. The simple, easy confidence Dorte has in me nearly makes me forget Sander’s insult and Thyra’s shove. Nearly, but not quite. I glance over my shoulder. Thyra’s standing by her father now, her back to me, her posture stiff.
I face the rear again, telling myself not to look at her. Not to care what she thinks, not to worry about her. Frustration fuels each pull of the oar. Beads of sweat prick my forehead and glisten on the fine coppery-gold hairs of my arms. I hear the Kupari favor copper; I wonder what they’ll think of me, the flame-haired warrior who will descend upon them like a starving wolf.
I’m not fooling myself. The sight of me does not inspire fear.
But it should. Anyone who has entered the fight circle with me knows it. Especially Sander, though he’ll never admit it. I glance over to see him glaring at the vast array of ships following ours, the hard muscles of his arms taut. “Keep up, runt,” he barks, reminding me of my task.
My back aches as I push the oar forward to match the pace of the lead oarsman and pull it to my stomach at the same time as everyone else. I treasure the cool breeze off the Torden and concentrate on becoming one with the others, as we all move in time like the flex of a horse’s powerful loins. I’ve never rowed this distance before. Some of the warriors around me have; a few have made the journey at least a dozen times. Each time, they brought back livestock and tools the like we’d never seen. Each time, they gave us stories of a land so rich it practically bleeds copper. A few times, they’ve brought back slaves who wailed about how their witch queen, who they call the Valima or the Voltana or some such ridiculous name, will save them. Avenge them.
Surprise, surprise, she never did.
I hope I can be there when Lars marches into her throne room, when she begs for his mercy. He won’t offer it. If you want to live, you must earn the privilege. I learned that lesson at a very young age.
I peek over my shoulder at Thyra again, and I blow out a long breath as I take another stroke of the oar. I want her
to turn around and look at me, to punish me for provoking her. I want her to charge at me, take me down right here on the deck. Pin me. Dig her hip bones into mine. I want to feel her strength and know she’s willing to do whatever she needs to. I want to bring the violence out of her, even if it means bleeding at her hands. I’d paint it on her skin, swirls of red to harden her spine and awaken her thirst for violence. It has to be in her. Lars is the greatest warrior the Krigere have ever produced, and Thyra’s mother might have been an andener, a nonfighter, but she was a skilled iron smith who could fix any blade and would slice anyone who wasn’t willing to barter fairly for her services.
Thyra carries this ferocity somewhere inside her; I know she must. She’ll be a magnificent chieftain one day if she can summon it. My heart squeezes as she runs her hand along the hair at the back of her head. I cut it myself, just a few days ago, and she returned the favor. We’d let it grow a bit in the summer months, when the air grew too hot to ride out to raid, when we snuck away mornings and found a pretty spot among the dunes to tussle and eat the salted meat and biscuits we’d stolen from camp. In those moments, alone, no eyes on us, Thyra would touch me, just a hand on my back, or a brush of her fingertips to move my hair out of my eyes. Unnecessary, unbidden, but so, so wanted. She gave me hope. She made me wish.
Until I tried to make that wish reality.
I’m still trying to figure out if she pushed me away because she doesn’t feel the way I do, or if she simply wishes
she didn’t. I think about it way too much, in fact. Especially because it’s pointless.
We can’t be together. We’re both warriors now, but we are not the same status. I was a raid prize three times over, passed from one victor to another. I have no idea where I came from, only the memory of flames and blood. My history is so violent that some say it explains the red mark on my right calf, shaped like a burst of flame. I don’t deny it. I usually add that it also explains how I survived—I am made of fire and blood myself, and it is why I fight so well. I have scrapped and killed for my place in this tribe, because without one, I have nothing. I am nothing.
Thyra, on the other hand . . . she is the daughter of a great chieftain, bred for war. She needs an andener as a mate, one who will keep her blades sharp, her fire stoked, her stomach full, her wounds bound, her bed warm.
One of us would have to lay down her weapons so the other could fight. It is forbidden and foolish to do otherwise—no warrior can survive without an andener to support him or her, and both of us must choose one soon to establish our own households now that we’ve reached our seventeenth year. Sander already did—a raid prize like me, taken from deep in the north. He was still able to win the heart of Thyra’s sister, Hilma. He hasn’t been the same since she died near the end of the winter season, taking their unborn son with her.
As for me, I’ve fought too hard for my status to give it up, but the thought of Thyra’s skin against mine, of taking care
of her and having her take care of me, makes it tempting. My heart skips as I glance over my shoulder yet again to find her looking at me, as if she felt the stroke of my thoughts.
“Three more skiffs ahead!” shouts the lookout. “Coming this way!”
“Are you certain?” Chieftain Lars calls. “Coming toward us?”
Still rowing, I turn as far around as the motion of the oar will allow. The water is piercing blue beneath the clear sky and bright autumn sun, and it’s possible to make out a few specks on the horizon. I even think I can see the distant shadow of land several miles behind it.
“Closer now,” calls the lookout. “Definitely approaching fast.”
“Odd,” says Einar. “They’re coming against the wind.”
“Maybe it’s their navy,” Dorte suggests, drawing a laugh from the rest of us. I check to see if Thyra’s joining in, if for once she’ll shed her seriousness and just enjoy herself.
She flinches and wipes her face, then looks up at the sky.
“Did a bird get you?” I grin at her, hoping to ease the tension between us.
Her brow is furrowed as she turns toward me. “Raindrop.”
The oarsman in front of me tilts his head to the cloudless expanse above us. “Not sure how you came to that.”
I tense as I feel a drop on my cheek, and another on my arm. A shadow passes over the boat, like a hand closing around the sun.
“What is that?” the lookout says, his voice cracking with alarm.
“All oars rest!” shouts Lars. I turn around and face forward as he peers at the sky.
We halt our rowing, our ship still cutting through the waves, blown by a sudden, fierce gust of wind that fills our sail nearly to bursting. Behind and around us, I hear captains in other boats calling for their oarsmen to lift their oars from the water and wait. In the space of a few minutes, the sky has changed color, from blue to purple to a faint green, and now clouds are bursting from nothing, swirling with the wind around a dark center. “What’s happening?” I whisper.
“Freak storm,” mutters a warrior behind me. “Bad luck.”
“Skiffs still approaching fast,” our lookout shouts.
I squint ahead to see the three silhouettes much closer than they were before—impossibly, they seem to have covered at least a mile in the last few minutes. The prow of the lead boat is grandly decorated, a column of copper that shimmers as lightning flashes within the clouds above. I don’t understand—is this their navy? Just three tiny skiffs? And—
A deafening crash makes me yelp as rain lashes at my face. Thyra grabs her father’s arm to stay upright. Our boat roils with a sudden wave, followed by another.
I blink rain out of my eyes—the foreign skiffs are even closer now, and I gape at the one in front. The copper column isn’t a prow decoration, I realize. It’s a woman, skin
white as winter, hair as red as my own. Her dress billows in shimmery folds behind her as she raises her arms.
It’s the last thing I see before the lightning stabs down from the sky like a Krigere blade, slicing the world apart.