Home > The Lost Queen (The Lost Queen Trilogy #1)

The Lost Queen (The Lost Queen Trilogy #1)
Author: Signe Pike

I.


I have been a drop in the air.

I have been a shining star.

I have been a word in a book.

—“Cad Goddeu” (“The Battle of the Trees”), translated by Robert Graves, The White Goddess

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 


* * *

 

Cadzow Fortress, Strathclyde

Land of the Britons

Late Winter, AD 550

I was dreaming of the forest. This time no rustle of wind, no birdcall, no sliver of light penetrated the thick canopy of trees. Silence thundered in my ears like a band of warhorses. And then, through the gloom, I heard my mother call my name, her voice soft and hollow-throated as a dove’s.

Languoreth.

I woke with a start as my brother tugged back the covers and a rush of cold air met my feet. Lailoken’s sandy hair was unkempt. He watched impatiently as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and reached for my dress, but as I tugged the wool over my head, my mind quickened and the memory came rushing back.

Mother was dead.

Nine days had passed since the sickness took her. Sleep—when it came—brought some relief, but each morning when I woke, my wound tore open anew.

“I dreamt of her.” I looked at my brother. “Mother was calling my name, I’m certain. If only I could have seen her . . .”

I waited a moment, hoping for a response, but Lailoken only frowned and handed me my cloak. The purple rings beneath his eyes told me he’d been up through the night again, seeking her spirit in the Summerlands. For a moment, Lail looked envious I’d dreamt of her. But if my brother did not sleep, how could he dream?

“Tonight you must rest,” I said. “There is sickness yet beyond Cadzow’s walls.”

Lail’s face only darkened.

“Lailoken.” I caught his sleeve. “Sooner or later you will have to speak.”

He ignored me, reaching instead for the door’s iron latch.

“You cannot force her to come to you,” I said. “After all, the Wisdom Keepers say—”

Lail turned on his heel, his narrowed eyes unmistakable.

Don’t be stupid—you’re going to wake Crowan.

I bit my tongue. I didn’t want to wake our nursemaid any more than he; Crowan would never allow us to go down to the river this time of morning. And though neither Lailoken nor I could explain it, we knew the beast waiting in the shallows waited for us alone. As though it were ours alone to see.

I followed Lailoken down the dark corridor, softening my footfalls as we crept past the entryway to the great room with its sleeping warriors and softly dying embers.

Yes, Mother was dead. Now our rambling timber hall felt like a husk without her.

I swallowed the stinging that rose in my throat and followed Lailoken out the heavy oaken door and into the milky morning light.

In the courtyard, mist swathed the late winter grasses. Past the fallow kitchen garden, Brant stood watch on the platform of the inner rampart, breath clouding beneath his hood. At the sound of our footsteps, his grip tightened on his spear before he caught sight of us and smiled.

“Ho, there, little cousins. And where do you suppose you’re off to?”

“We’re only going down to the river,” I said.

Brant looked at Lailoken. “Still no good morning from you, eh, Lailoken?”

“He isn’t speaking to anyone.” I shifted my weight, and Brant’s brown eyes softened.

“Right, then. Down to the river.” He gestured us through. “But you two had better mind each other. The cliff trail is slick as a snake’s belly.”

“We’ll be careful,” I swore, but as we hurried through the gate, I made certain Lailoken felt my eyes on the back of his head. It was hurtful and foolish, his vigil of silence.

“Do you imagine you miss her more than I do?” I said. “You are not the only one who lost her, Lailoken. Mother’s gone and we cannot bring her back.”

My brother stiffened as he ducked beneath a low-hanging bough, but at the sound of hurt in my voice he glanced back, reaching for my hand.

An offering, an apology.

I joined my fingers with his and we wound our way along the forest path to the place where the towering outer rampart ended. At the cliff’s edge, a deer trail stretched down hundreds of feet to the gorge below. A thick sponge of moss lined the narrow trail where the first tender shoots of fern budded from their peaty winter beds. We edged down the steep path toward the river, mud caking the leather lacing of our boots, and I breathed in the earthy smell that always brought relief. My mother had spent endless days in the forest with us, plucking mushrooms from fallen tree trunks, gathering blackberries and marshmallow and nettle, using the knife she kept at her belt to strip the bark from hazel and birch. Mother was the wife of a king. But she had also been a Wisdom Keeper, trained in the art of healing. It was the lady Idell our tenants visited for a tonic to ease their child’s cough, a salve to slather on their horse’s foot, or a remedy to ease the aches of old age. And it was by her side, in the woods, under our great roof of trees, that I felt most at home.

The river Avon glinted like liquid glass as we emerged at the cliff bottom. Stooping low, we moved softly through the underbrush until we neared the bank of the river and Lailoken squeezed my hand. We crouched at the water’s edge, just out of sight, as I struggled to quiet my breathing.

The red stag was magnificent—nine points on each of his antlers. We watched the river course round his black hooves as he drank in the shallows, the graceful muscle working in his throat. It was strange to spot deer this late in winter, and stranger still to find one so close to our fort; most had been hunted into the deepest glades beyond Cadzow by now. Surely such a beast was wise to the ways of men. And yet, each morning since our mother’s death, we had descended the steep banks of the gorge to find him standing in the current as if he, too, were keeping vigil.

Now the only sound was the soft gurgle of water over rock. Fog pillowed over the dark sheen of river and I opened my ears to the sounds of the stream, longing to hear the sweet strains of the melody my mother so often hummed while walking the woods.

Then, a movement flickered in the corner of my vision. I turned instinctually, looking upriver. At first I could make no sense of the shadowy form that appeared where nothing had stood a moment before. I blinked to clear my eyes. But there, in the water, rising out of the mist, stood a figure, her dark hair flowing over her simple green dress. If my fingers hadn’t been stinging with cold, I would have been certain I was still dreaming.

Mother.

Her skin was no longer flushed by fever or marred by the blisters that had come. Her face was smooth and her lips wore a smile, but her gaze was unsettling; her eyes were wild and dark in the river’s dim. I opened my mouth to cry out her name, but the stag bolted upright, nostrils flaring. I glanced back upriver, and my heart sank. My mother had vanished as quickly as she had come.

Or had she been there at all?

I balled my fists until my nails bit into the flesh of my palms. How could my eyes play such cruel tricks? There was nothing now but the soft wash of water. Only the great stag stood regarding us, his tawny pelt shimmering in the growing light of morning.

Of course I hadn’t seen her. We had scattered her ashes high in the hills. But next to me Lailoken let out a puff of breath.

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