Lyss’s feathered fly sparkled in the sunlight before it dropped lightly onto the thrashing surface of Weeping Creek. Planting her feet, Lyss pulled back on the rod. “Don’t yank on it,” her brother Adrian whispered. “Let it come to you on the current. Mayflies don’t swim.” “Maybe mine do,” Lyss retorted. “If you want to pull it along, you should use a streamer fly,” Adrian said. He reached for his carry bag. “I have one that you might—” “Would you stop bossing me around?” Adrian was thirteen—only two years older than Lyss—so he didn’t have to act like an expert on everything. Even if he was. “You stop yelling, or you’ll scare the fish,” Adrian said, reaching for her rod. Trying to avoid his questing hand, she stepped back from the water’s edge. Her foot slipped on a loose rock and she landed, hard, on her backside. “Blood and bones!” she swore, rubbing her tailbone. Adrian collapsed beside her on the riverbank, helpless with laughter.
Lyss would have punched him, but then she realized that it was the first time she’d heard him laugh since their sister Hana died. Still. She needed something to laugh about, too. So she pushed him into the creek. He surfaced, sputtering, but still laughing, his head sleek as an otter’s. He reached the shore with a few quick strokes (he was an expert on swimming, too) and hauled himself up on the bank. “Well,” he gasped, “we may as well quit fishing. By now there’s no trout within miles of here.” “Does that mean we have to eat dried venison again?” “I’m not the one who scared the fish.” Lyss struggled to control her temper.
That came hard. Her mother the queen always told her to think before she spoke, but thinking always seemed to happen after. Her older brother was different. It was nearly impossible to start an argument with him. Their father always said that Adrian had a long fuse. Once lit, though, it smoldered on forever. There was no putting it out. Never ever. They lay on their backs, side by side, squinting against the late summer sun that filtered through the shivering aspen leaves overhead. Adrian was shivering, too, and Lyss felt a flicker of guilt.
It wasn’t his fault their sister Hana was dead and her life was in shambles. “I don’t want to go back,” Lyss said. Adrian grunted in reply. “I’m serious. We could stay up here and live off the land.” “Guess it’d have to be the land. We’d better not rely on fishing.” “I’m good with a bow,” Lyss said. “Da says so. And you know all the plants and where to find them.
We could build our own lodge before the snows fall. Or move into the ruins down there.” She waved toward Queen Court Vale below. “We could call it Lodge of the Exiles.” Adrian closed his eyes and breathed out a long, shuddery breath. She could see the lines of pain in his face. They both needed to get away—she just had to convince him of it. Sitting up, Lyss pulled her journal from her own carry bag and wrote the name down. Lodge of the Exiles. Then sketched it—a crude rendering of the broken summer palace, smoke curling from the twin chimneys, with the two of them looking out of the windows.
Nudging her brother, she thrust the journal toward him. He usually admired her stories and drawings, but this time he shook his head. “How long do you think it would take for the clans to find us?” “Until they do, somebody else will have to be queen.” “Somebody else is queen. Our mother isn’t going anywhere. You won’t even be named princess heir until your sixteenth name day. That’s five years away.” “But once I start walking that path, there’ll be no turning back, or to either side.” She paused, eyeing him. “Why can’t we have a king once in a while?” “If you’re thinking of me, the answer is no,” Adrian said, giving up on ignoring her.
He scooted into a sitting position and rested his back against an aspen tree. “What about Finn?” “Finn?” Adrian rolled his eyes. “I know you’re sweet on him, but—” “I am not sweet on him!” Lyss said hotly. “Look, nobody wants a king, let alone a wizard king. The clans would go to war over it, and Arden would walk in and take over.” He slid a look at Lyss. “Speaking of Arden, King Gerard—he’d love to step in.” “I didn’t mean him,” Lyss said, her voice trembling with rage. “He will never, ever get his hands on the Gray Wolf throne. Somehow, someday, I’ll make him pay for murdering Hana.
” Their sister Hana had died in a skirmish with southern soldiers in the borderlands. Though the king of Arden hadn’t swung the blade himself, it was his soldiers, his orders, his fault. “Don’t you think that might be easier to do if you were queen?” Adrian said. He had a habit of telling her things she knew, deep down, but didn’t want to dredge up. Lyss closed her eyes, but it was too late. A tear escaped from under her eyelids and trickled down her cheek. “It isn’t fair,” she whispered, a sob shuddering through her. “I was never supposed to be queen.” Adrian reached out and took her hand. Feeling magic trickling through his fingers, she yanked her hand back.
“Stop that!” she snapped. “Stop soothing me.” Adrian frowned. “Aren’t you wearing your talisman? Didn’t Fire Dancer tell you that you should never take it off?” “I didn’t think I’d have to protect myself against my own brother.” “It doesn’t matter who you’re with, you wear your talisman,” he said, going straight back to bossy. When she didn’t respond, he continued, in a softer voice. “What’s wrong, Lyss? What are you really afraid of?” “Everybody loved Hana,” Lyss said miserably. “She would’ve been a great queen. I’m just not cut out for it.” “That’s not true.
Just because you’re not Hana doesn’t mean you won’t be a great queen,” Adrian said. “You’re strong in your own way.” “Such as?” It took him a minute to come up with anything. “You tell the truth.” “Maybe I do,” Lyss said, “but it only seems to get me in trouble.” “You don’t put up with scummer.” “That’s what queens have to do all day long. Plus shovel some of their own.” He laughed. “See? You know a lot about being queen already.
” Lyss just grunted. She saw no humor in her situation—none at all. After a moment, Adrian started in again. “You’re a rum observer—you notice everything. You’re great at tracking game, good on horseback, and a deadeye with a bow. And you’re really good at writing and drawing and playing the basilka. The songs you write go straight to the heart.” It was true. When she put things in writing, it gave her time to think and edit. Unlike when she opened her mouth.
“Maybe I’ll write King Gerard a nasty note,” Lyss said, rolling her eyes. “That should send him packing. They can put that on my tomb: ‘Better on the Page.’” “Is that what you’re afraid of? What people will say about you?” “That’s part of it,” Lyss said. “The queendom has been here for more than a thousand years. I don’t want people to remember me as the queen that ruined it.” “If the queendom is ruined, it won’t be you that does it,” Adrian said, his jaw tightening. “I’ll get the blame. I need to be queen during a boring time—not when we’re in the middle of a war.” “There’s no boring times around here.
Things were a mess twenty-five years ago, when our mother took over. They’re a mess now.” He waited, and when she didn’t say anything back, went on. “The war can’t last forever. Anyway, you have to do it, there’s nobody else.” “What about Julianna? At least she looks like a queen.” Julianna was her cousin, her aunt Mellony’s daughter. She was slender and graceful, and she always seemed to say the right thing. People loved Julianna. Adrian snorted.
“You really think she would be better than you? She doesn’t have the backbone that you do. Or the heart.” Anybody would be better than me, Lyss wanted to say, but she knew it wasn’t true. Maybe she didn’t want the job, but she didn’t know who else should fill it. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Adrian said. “You’ve just had your eleventh name day, and Hana was twenty when she died. You’ve got to stop comparing yourself to her.” “Everybody else does,” Lyss muttered. “You’ll probably be an old woman when you take over,” Adrian said. “You’ll have a lot of time to figure it out.
” “It’s easy for you to say,” Lyss said, though she knew that wasn’t true. “You can do what you want. You’ll go off to Oden’s Ford and never give us a thought.” Adrian scooped up a flat skipping stone and sent it skittering all the way across the river. “I don’t know if that’s even going to happen now.” Lyss stared at him. “What do you mean? I know it’s a few more years until you’re old enough to go to Mystwerk, but—” “I’d like to go now, and train with the healers,” Adrian said. “A wizard schooling with healers? I never heard of that.” “That’s what everyone says when I bring it up. And now, since Hana was killed, Mama won’t even talk about Oden’s Ford.
” Lyss found her own stone and side-handed it, but it only skipped twice before it disappeared into the water. “She’ll change her mind.” “Why is it always easier to be optimistic about somebody else’s worries?” Adrian said with a bitter laugh. “Anyway, we didn’t come up here to talk about me and my problems.” Lyss bit her lip, feeling selfish then. “We can, if you want.” He shook his head, his blue-green eyes fixed on her face. “I didn’t bring you here so you’d have a better hideout. I brought you to the old capital because you descend from a line that ruled the entire continent from here. Sometimes you have to get away to remember who you are.
Believe in yourself, Lyss. You’re strong and smart enough to do this job. Never let anyone tell you different. You love these mountains, and our people. You’re honest, you know what’s right, and you don’t back down. You’re tough, and you’re not full of yourself. That’s the kind of queen we need. I’d rather have one of you than fifteen Juliannas. Or five hundred Finns.” Lyss felt a spark of hope that quickly sputtered out.
“I just keep having these dreams, where everyone’s dead and I’m all alone on Hanalea Peak, just me and the wolves.” “You won’t be on your own. Mama will teach you, and Da will help, and you’ll have a bound captain like Captain Byrne. And I’ll help you, too, any way I can, whatever you want. Even if I do get to go to Oden’s Ford, I’ll come back and help when I’ve finished.” I’d rather help the queen than be the queen, Lyss thought. Still, it would mean a lot to know that her brother would be at her side. She came up onto her knees, facing him. “You promise?” she said, taking both his hands. “You promise you won’t leave me on my own?” “I promise,” he said, looking straight back at her.
“You will write your own story as queen, and I’ll play whatever role you give me.” It was like a benediction. They remained, knee-to-knee, for a few more seconds until he said, “Now we’d better find a good camping spot before the sun goes down.” 2 WEEPING CREEK Lyss dipped a cup of water from Weeping Creek and used it to wash down a dry mouthful of cheese and waybread. She wished she could wash down her memories as easily. The rest of her squadron was sprawled around her on the creekbank, grabbing a quick rest and a bite, once they’d made sure that their ponies were well watered. Lyss followed the waybread with a few strips of leathery venison and a handful of dried fruit and nuts. She was so bloody tired of campaign rations. An army on the move had no time for hunting or roasting fresh meat. Just four years ago, Lyss and her brother Adrian had camped on the banks of this creek after Hana died.
Four years ago, her brother had made her a solemn vow. You won’t be on your own. And then, just a few months later, at Solstice, her father and her brother were ambushed in the streets of Fellsmarch. Her father was murdered, and her brother Adrian carried off, leaving his blood-smeared remedy bag on the cobblestones. They’d buried her father next to Hana in the Cathedral Temple, then waited on tenterhooks for news of Adrian. What they expected was a demand for an impossible ransom from the king of Arden, or some grisly token proving his death. What they got was . nothing. After four years with no word, Adrian was presumed dead—by nearly everyone but Lyss. Despite evidence to the contrary, she still believed in miracles.
She couldn’t help hoping that he might be alive, held captive, perhaps, in a southern dungeon, even though common sense told her that he’d be better off dead than Arden’s prisoner. If he was dead, I would know it. At first, she’d seethed with plans to go looking for him. Her mother had strictly forbidden any adventures of that sort, and had assigned a full-time guard to her sole surviving child to make sure she didn’t sneak away. Eventually, over Lyss’s strenuous objections, they’d held a funeral for Adrian. Eventually, Lyss grew up enough to know that, even if Adrian lived, she’d have no idea where to start looking. She still had dreams that he showed up at their door, demanding to know why no one had come looking for him. This is the land of broken promises, she thought. Get used to it. I’ve been kind of busy since you left.
Lyss skipped a stone across the water, but it sank before it reached the other side. Next to her, Sasha dug in her kit, no doubt hoping to surface some scrap of food she’d missed. Nobody in this mixed bag of soldiers had an ounce of fat on them, but Sasha was big, and she had an appetite to match. “Here,” Cam said, tossing her a sack of dried berries. “I’ve had my fill.” Sasha tossed it back. “Eat up, Private. I’ve got a lot more meat on my bones than you do.” It was true. Cam always looked like he could use some feeding up—he was thin as a reed, with hands and feet that hopefully he’d grow into one day.
Sasha Talbot and Cam Staunton were the two members of the queen’s Gray Wolf guard assigned to Lyss during the marching season. Though they wore the spattercloth of the regular army, they had one purpose and one purpose only—to keep the heir to the Gray Wolf throne alive. That job was getting harder and harder as the war dragged on and Lyss’s patience eroded. Staunton was relatively new to the guard. His mother had been a corporal in Lyss’s squadron. She’d been killed in the Fens the previous year, leaving Cam to support two younger brothers. The funeral fires were barely out when twelve-year-old Cam came to Lyss, asking to enlist in the Highlanders. “I’d like to fight for you, ma’am,” he said, chin up, shoulders back, already at attention. “Everyone says I’m sure to see some action if I’m with you.” “Stay at home a little longer, Cam,” she’d said.
Though Lyss was only two years older, it felt like decades. “You was fighting in the war at twelve,” Cam said. “Mama told me that. When you was thirteen, you grabbed the Gray Wolf banner from the cold, dead hands of your commander and led the charge that drove the southerners into the sea at Hallowmere. And, just last year, you—” Lyss held up both hands. “Don’t believe everything you hear,” she said. “Stories have a way of growing. And there’s a lot they leave out.” Cam clenched his jaw. “There’s lots of my age-mates in the Highlanders.
The only reason I never signed up is Mama wouldn’t let me. She always said I had to look after my brothers.” Lyss knew that any other commander would have signed him right up. He was likelier than many they had in the field. There was nothing to stop him from going elsewhere if she refused. “Who’ll look after your brothers if you go to war?” she’d said. “I have older cousins near West Wall,” Cam said. “They can stay there during the marching season.” “What about school?”