The Queens of Innis Lear – Tessa Gratton

IT BEGINS WHEN a wizard cleaves an island from the mainland, because the king destroyed her temple. The island is raw and steeped in her rage, making the people who grow there strong, and sharp, and ever quick to fight. Mountains claw upward in the north, and a black river gushes south and west, spreading fingers east into smaller streams that trip through the center of the island. The rush of water gathers up all the trees and flowers, giving them the blood to grow wild and tall, feeding the roots until they dig through the rock itself. Where roots merge with stone, new clear springs are born. The people build stone shrines around these rootwaters, making holy wells in which to bless themselves, their life rituals, and their intentions. Soon these wells are the centers of towns and at the heart of every fortress or castle, connecting the people always to the blood of the island. Lords from each quarter of the land come together to build a cathedral in the White Forest, where their four domains kiss. That is the heart of the island. Every generation a child from each quarter kingdom is given to the wild forest for dedication or sacrifice. One lord offers his firstborn, and that is a beginning, too: the beginning of a line of wizards so strong, the other lords rise up together and bury the ashes of the unruly family in saltwater sand. But the magic survives. For centuries after, the island bristles and growls, all wind and scoured moors, valleys of pasture lined with protective oak forests, and the jagged north mountains break for rubies and the western cliffs gleam with copper. There is iron in the southern marshes, too, raw mineral that whispers to those who can hear, and when it is forged with magic, it never cracks. The rootwells run strong, and the thin earth is more fertile than it should be, and so the island thrives, fed on the blessing of star prophecies and the teeming love of the roots.

* * * IT BEGINS WHEN a lord of the island reads ambition’s reward in his stars, and rallies the strength of iron and wind to defeat his rivals, uniting all under one crown. He calls himself Lear, after the wizard who cleaved the island. In her honor, he raises a great fortress in the north, along the shores of a black lake so deep many call it the island’s navel. He crowns himself on the longest night, the holiest time for star prophecy; offers his blood and spit to the island’s roots, his breath to the birds and the wind, his seed to the iron, and his faith to the stars. * * * IT BEGINS FAR away from the furious island, in a place so different in name and air that the one could not recognize the other as being born both of the same earth. There, a young woman asks her grandmother for a ship with which to sail out past the edges of their empire, for she has a hunger to understand the world, to experience something not more broadly but more deeply, until that one thing becomes an entire universe. She says her curiosity is like sand in a storm, scouring bones smooth as glass. Her grandmother agrees, though suspects she’ll never see this daughter of her line again. “God will bring us back together,” the young woman says, and her grandmother replies to her with only an old desert prayer: “Do not forget: you will be air, and you will be rain, and you will be dust, and you will be free.” Perhaps that is an ending, too.

* * * IT BEGINS ON the day two bright hearts are born to the island, one just past dawn as a crescent moon rises, and the other when the sun is brightest, obscuring the glow of stars. Their mothers knew they would be born together, as witches and best friends often do, and though it is the first child for one and the last for the other, such does not come between them. They sit beside each other, arms stretched to touch the other’s swollen belly as they grit their teeth and tell stories of what might become of their children. * * * IT BEGINS WHEN a queen sits in a pool of stars. * * * IT BEGINS WITH seven words with which to bind a crown, whispered in the language of trees: eat of our flower, and drink of your roots. * * * IT BEGINS AS the sun sets, the last time the final king of Innis Lear enters the cathedral at the heart of the island. This Lear has never been devoted to the roots, or paid much mind to well or wind. He is a man driven by the stars, by their motions and patterns, their singular purity and steadfastness, bold against the black reaches of night. To him, the cathedral is redundant; a person devoted to star prophecy has no need of rootwater or navel wells. Two vast halls of carved limestone and blue-gray granite cross in the middle of the holy place, east-west arms aligned with the sky to trace the path of the sun at the summer solstice, so the Day Star rises precisely over the eastern spire; the other hall aims as true north as the ever-constant star Calpurlugh, the Eye of the Lion.

In the center point where the halls cross, a well sinks deep into the core of the island, fresh and mossy, a dark channel from the womb of the earth. No ceiling caps the edifice, for what would the purpose be in closing away the sky? When it rains, water scours the stone floor and soaks the wooden benches. It cleanses the quarter altars and fills tiny copper bowls, making simple music with only the natural touch of water to metal. On sunny days, shadows caress living vines and the poetry and icons etched into the walls, counting seasons and time of day. Clouds lower themselves in the spring to nest around the highest spires, curling soft and dewy and cool. Nothing separates sky from land here at the heart of Innis Lear. Now it is night, and a heavy moon tips against that eastern spire. Another beginning, ready to burst. The king walks on the soles of thin slippers, his embroidered robe dragging off his shoulders. He is old, though not old enough to look as ravaged as he does, his hair wild and damp, his eyes tight from grief.

An undyed tunic falls to his knees, nearly the same pale gray as his lined face and those long fingers. Straight to the well goes this royal wraith, and he presses his hands to its stones, breathing deep of the moss, the metallic smell of the earth’s blood water. A shudder wrenches down his spine, and he grimaces. “Now,” he commands, turning away. Seven strong men come forward with a flat, round piece of granite. Carved off one of the massive standing stones that once marked this holy well, before the cathedral was erected around it, the granite glimmers bluish in the moonlight. The retainers roll and twist it awkwardly, straining against the ropes that bind it. Slowly they walk, turning it up the aisle. One of them is glad of this mission, two unmoved by the significance of their actions, three too worried to be quite as indifferent as they would prefer to be, and the last one alone wishing, with every ounce of his heart, that he’d been strong enough to stand against his king, to protest that this was wrong and unholy. The men position the stone, and in a moment of desperate hesitation, the last retainer looks fearfully at the king’s expression, hoping for a reprieve.

But the king’s brows are drawn as he glares at the well, as if the well itself is responsible for everything. The retainer lifts his eyes instead to the open sky above, consoling himself with the reminder that his king does nothing without permission from the stars. And so this must be fated. It must be. Tears glimmer in the king’s lashes when the granite slab falls forward, the sound of stone on stone filling the sanctuary. With a final pull of ropes, the navel is eclipsed. The smell of rootwater vanishes, as does a slight echo that the king had not even noticed, until it was silenced. He puts his hand atop the stone cover, caressing its roughness, and smiles grimly. With his fingers, he makes the shape of the tree of worms, a sorrowful, dangerous constellation. * * * IT BEGINS, TOO, with a star prophecy.

But there are so many prophecies read on the island of Lear that to say so is as good as saying it begins with every breath. THE FOX IN A QUIET, cool grove of chestnut trees, heart-leafed lindens, and straight-backed Aremore oaks, a fox knelt at the edge of a shallow spring. Scars and fresh scratches marred the rich tan of his back and arms and thighs. He had already removed his uniform, weapons, and boots, piling them on a wide oak root. The Fox—who was also a man—poured clear water over himself, bathing and whispering a cleansing song that married well with the babble of spring water. He’d traced this source at the first light of dawn, glad for a forest heart from which to ask his questions. A breeze came, tightening his skin with cold breath, and the canopy of leaves chattered welcome. Ban the Fox replied, That’s encouraging, in their tongue, shifting his vowels to match the cadence of this Aremore forest. The trees spoke wider and more graciously here than on the rocky island where he’d been born. On Innis Lear the trees tended toward hard and hearty, shaped by ocean winds and the challenge of growing against the bedrock; not green and radiant so much as gray and blue with the coolest brown barks, lush moss creeping around in hollows, and thin leaves and needles.

They spoke softly, the spreading low mother oaks and thorned hedges, weaving their words into the wind so their king could not hear. But in Aremoria there was room and soil, enough for loud trees more concerned with bearing fruit than surviving winter storms or heartless kings. They conversed with each other, sighing and singing to please themselves, to taunt colorful birds, to toy with the people’s dreams. It had taken Ban months to win the trust of the Aremore trees, for he’d arrived angry and corded over by bitter flavors, far too spicy at such a young age. They’d not welcomed an invading thistle, but eventually he charmed them, grew to be as familiar as if he’d been rooted here. Slipping deeper into the spring now, Ban untied the tiny braids patched through his thick, dark hair. His toes sank into silt as water curled about his ankles; he kept up his idle banter with the nearby linden trees, who had a vibrant sense of humor. Finally, with his hair loose and falling stiffly at his ears and neck, Ban ducked himself entirely into the spring water. All conversation dulled. Ban held his breath, waiting to hear the pulse of this forest heart.

A deep well might serve better, but the spring was natural, built only of the earth. He needed the rhythm under his skin to properly connect, to find the paths of magic he could use to track the loathsome Burgun army and certify their retreat. Peace and cold solitude surrounded Ban. He parted his lips to allow in a mouthful of water and swallowed it, drinking in the tranquility. He slowly stood up. Water streamed off his rising form. A small man, with not a strip of comfortable fat, Ban was all tawny muscles and sharp edges. Dark hair blackened by water hung heavy around large eyes, the brown and dark shadow green of forests. He blinked and droplets of water like tiny crystals clung to his spiky lashes. Had anyone witnessed his emergence, it would’ve been easy to think Ban a thorn of magic, grown straight from the spring.

Refreshed and blessed, he crouched at the shore to dig his hands into the mud. He spread it up his wrists like gauntlets, smoothing the gray-brown mud into a second skin over his own. With it he painted streaks across his chest, down his stomach, around his genitals, and in spirals down his thighs. He slapped handprints over his shoulders, splattering them down his back as far as he could reach. Now, fully a creature of this specific earth, adopted child of these balmy trees, Ban the Fox picked his way back into the forest. Every footstep brought him words whispered up his legs: starwise, starwise, forward, this way, turn here, this way, starwise again, and nightwise now! The trees directed him toward the goal he’d requested, and finally Ban reached the tallest of them, at the edge of the forest, where he might best catch hold of a wind willing to report on Burgun. A spreading, ropey old chestnut waited, roots buried several horse lengths off the line of trees. Ban glanced all around, at the churned earth of the valley, where days ago the Burgun army had camped. No grass still lived except in scattered clusters, the rest trampled and flattened and gone dry. Abandoned fire pits were scorched scars, and he could see the heaped dirt of covered privy lines.

No men or women remained, and so Ban dashed across the narrow strip of open land, using the speed to launch himself up the trunk of the chestnut. He caught the lowest branch with a grunt, swung up, and climbed high. The tree was sturdy enough that it never shivered with his weight, merely chuckled at his tickling grip. Three small birds burst away from his intrusion, and the chestnut warned him to mind the eastern circle of limbs, where he’d already angered some brown squirrels. Ban climbed along the ladder of boughs, up and out, toward the highest northwestern branch. There, a line of charred lightning strike allowed him a perch with a view of the valley for miles ahead of him, and of the rolling green forest canopy behind. He pushed aside long, serrated leaves and gripped a branch at his shoulder, only as wide as his wrist, to steady himself. Ban stood, balanced carefully. Wind caught his hair, pulling it out of his face. He asked the tree to warn him if anything approached, animal or person, then opened his mouth to taste the flavors of the air.

Smoke, old death, and the dusty musk of crows. Ban lifted onto his toes to reach into the air. He caught a feather, black and smooth. In the inky color he saw shifting waves of men and horses; he saw a cliffside and clouds of reddish smoke, sparkling rocks, rotten flowers, and an empty white hand. He slid the edge of the feather along his tongue, spat onto the back of his hand, and rubbed it against the chestnut bark hard enough to score the skin bloody. The language of birds was full of dreams, and impossible for men to interpret, it was said. But Ban had learned otherwise, these six years in Aremoria, at least if he could use pain, or blood, to facilitate the translation. His hand throbbed now, and Ban closed his eyes to recall the pulse of the tranquil spring water. Slowing his breath, he brought his heart into alignment with the forest heart, through this focus of tender skin. The crow’s many images became one: an army dressed in maroon limped far from here, a full day and night’s ride, backs to him and Aremoria, facing the north cliffs of Burgun.

Thank you, Ban said in the language of trees, and tucked the feather into the crook of leaves where it became a gift for the chestnut. He offered to trim the dead branch, but the chestnut was pleased with its storm-gifted scar. Ban rather liked his own scars, too, for how they proved his experiences and belonged to none but him, and he told the tree as much as he returned to the ground. Ban landed in a crouch, cold suddenly in the shade. The sun sank over the far mountains bordering the edge of Burgun lands, and Ban wished his clothes were nearer. He’d return to camp, report to Morimaros, and then eat, drink, sleep the short summer night away, not once looking up at the glinting stars. The evening forest whistled and hummed. The trees observed the usual yawning transition to twilight: they watched animals wake for the hunt, wondered if the king of deer would drive off a lone wolf trapped here, apart from her pack, by the armies, or if that most gentle rabbit would neglect to avoid the oak full of owls. Hungry himself, Ban considered joining the fray, stalking that wolf to try his own hand at her. He smelled like the mud of the forest now, and just a slight trail of his dried blood.

It would keep their advantages even. But if he did not return to camp before darkness set in full, the king would worry, though Ban had tried for years to teach him that there was no need to be concerned with the Fox’s safety in a forest. It made his lips curl in a small, involuntary smile to think on: a man as good and bold as Morimaros of Aremoria concerned for a bastard like Ban. So distracted was Ban, it took a scream from three young linden trees to alert him to the man who had invaded the heart spring grove. Immediately alert, Ban crouched low to make his way around from the south, where the canopy was thickest and more shadows would hide him. Listening to the gentle prodding of trees, Ban crawled along, only his eyes gleaming. At the edge of the grove, he lowered himself onto his stomach and slipped under a rose vine, enjoying the delicate perfume even as the hooked thorns brushed the dry mud on his shoulders. Seated on the very root where Ban had left his belongings was none other than King Morimaros. A midsize, handsome man with short, practical dark hair and a matching beard, in the regular uniform of the army except for the long orange leather coat and the royal ring on his forefinger. Ban looked about everywhere, confirming with the trees that Morimaros was alone.

Casually reading a letter. Exasperation and a shot of fear made Ban grit his teeth and creep backward. He’d show Morimaros how stupid it was to be alone, even with the war over, even with Burgun fled. He climbed up an oak, whispering a request that the tree hold still, and then the next, too, as he stepped across to it, so that they would not shake their leaves and reveal to the king his location. Thus, Ban walked gently from tree to tree, like an earth saint, and sank finally into the embrace of the oak under which Morimaros sat. Ban climbed down, and even when the king looked suddenly out at a cracked branch in the west, Ban was invisible to him, directly above. In one swift motion, Ban dropped onto the king’s back, threw an arm around his neck, and pulled. But Morimaros grasped his arm and bent, flinging Ban heels over head, hard onto the muddy shore of the spring. Ban rolled onto his hands and the balls of his feet, and glared at the king, eyes and teeth bright in his muddy, wild face. Morimaros had his sword free, knees bent, ready to defend himself again.

“Ban?” he said after a slow moment.

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