Queen rising, p.1
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       Queen Rising, p.1

           Danielle Paige
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Queen Rising


  Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  EPILOGUE

  THE PROPHECY

  1

  In the beginning there were two of them. A sister and a brother who did not always like each other but would die for one another if it came down to it. They lived in Algid, in a home with parents who did not want them or care about them. They were a burden, a place for their parents to lay their anger—and sometimes their hands. The girl’s name was Margot. The boy’s was Goddard. Margot called him Go. She tried to shield Go because he was smaller, because he was younger, because he somehow always managed to find the creak in the floor or the exact thing to say to set off the powder keg that was their father or the battalion that was their mother.

  But one day, the powder keg disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving them alone with her. And the mother made a decision. She woke them up and took them outside. At first the girl believed that perhaps this was some kind of lesson. Some kind of punishment that was really her mother’s way of dealing with her father’s absence. But when they arrived at the palace, the girl knew this wasn’t a punishment. This was a chance at freedom.

  Margot had tried to talk Go out of loving their mother. But Go was so very young—Margot thought there was a world of difference between being four and being seven—and it was like trying to teach the North Lights not to glow in the sky. Part of her was almost grateful for today because today he would stop wanting to be their mother’s son. Today their mother would finally do something unforgivable. Today she was selling them—her own children—to the palace.

  It was the monthly Havening, a day when families could trade their young for coins. It wasn’t as harsh as it sounded; there had been too many abandoned children left to the streets or the woods in Algid. This was better. The children could find a place in the palace. To live and work, and their families could get back on their feet. Very few families returned for their children. Margot was quite certain her mother would never come back for them.

  If they were lucky they would wind up apprenticed to the house servants. But they had never been lucky, and they were not the most attractive of children. They would probably end up in the fields. It was still better than what they were leaving behind. Margot would rather give up her freedom and live under the King’s rule than be her mother’s daughter for one more day. And she believed that in time her brother would feel the same . . . just maybe not right away.

  Go’s face was lit up by the Lights but also with the excitement of seeing the palace. Children were lined up with their parents in the courtyard. There was a balcony above, where the King and his son sat watching the action, as if it were some kind of sporting match instead of the buying and selling of children. Little Prince Lazar looked to be about Go’s age, only he was stuffed into a stiff, royal suit. The heavily embroidered blue silk suit was so closely tailored that he had little room to move his arms. He managed to raise one and point it in Go’s direction.

  An older man, a soldier apparently in charge of the proceedings, followed the Prince’s finger. He nodded at Go, and looked at their mother. “We’ll take the boy. Leave with the girl.”

  Margot’s brother clutched her hand, oblivious, as her insides swirled and sank.

  “Lucky boy. He’s going to be a companion for the King’s son, so I will give you double,” the man said.

  Margot had heard rumors about the Prince who never left the castle and never went to school. But she did not know what to make of him. She also didn’t know that the King was in the habit of buying him companions.

  It had never occurred to her that she and Go could be separated. She knew her mother was cruel and her father was gone. But she did not know that the world had another blow ready for her. She had never imagined this.

  She looked at her mother and pleaded with her. “Please,” she whispered.

  Margot’s mother shifted away and looked up at the North Lights. She had no attachment to her children, so how could she understand their attachment to each other?

  “Please,” Margot repeated, so loudly that some of the other parents turned and looked at her. It hurt her to ask her mother anything, but the prospect of losing Go made her forget every bit of her pride. She gripped her brother’s hand tighter.

  “Find someone who will take both of us. It is the only thing I will ever ask of you.”

  Her mother smiled a smile that Margot knew well. One that dismissed Margot’s protests, one that meant her mother was going to do whatever she thought was best.

  Margot knelt down next to her brother knowing that she had no time left for bargaining. It was time for making promises. It was time for good-bye.

  Her brother cast his long lashes in her direction. He looked from her to Prince Lazar on the balcony to the purse of coins their mother now held. What was happening was finally sinking in.

  Margot had always hated disappointing him in small ways. There was never enough food to eat in their home. There was never enough of anything, but they had always had each other. Now they would not have that.

  “No, you can’t do this,” Go said, looking at their mother.

  She glanced down at him and pat him on his head.

  “You don’t know how lucky you are. One of my babies is going to grow up in a castle.”

  “I am not your baby,” he bit back, sounding much older than his four years.

  Margot knew she needed to make this right, as much as she was able to. “Listen to me, little man. You are going to spend some time learning all about this castle. You’ll find out where the best hiding places are. And when I come back next month, you’re going to show me, okay? I’ll visit you.”

  Go opened his mouth to protest again, but Margot spoke over him, pulling him close.

  “No arguments. This is how it has to be for a while. But I will always come back for you. I promise you.”

  She could feel his small arms clinging tighter to her neck, and when his wet cheek met hers she didn’t know where his tears ended and hers began. She felt the air between them again as their mother pulled them apart and handed Go off to a soldier who carried him away.

  The ache was physical now. Margot sank to the ground, not caring as another set of arms picked her up. It was the soldiers who were lifting her, and pushing her toward her mother.

  “Feed her something in the interim. The girl is all bones.”

  Her mother laughed. The idea of feeding her own child was humorous to her.

  Then, Margot’s mother dragged her out of the courtyard and back out into the day.

  “I’ll take her,” a voice chased after them as they made their way down the winding road in front of the palace. The voice belonged to a strange looking treelike creature that could only be a witch.

  Margot’s mother stopped in her tracks, and Margot almost fell from the change in momentum.

  “How much do you want for her?”

  Margot’s mother let go of her hand and looked at the witch. “How do you expect me to let go of my last child?” But she took a step toward the witch, ready to negotiate.

  When their business was done, her mother turned to Margot.

  “You should thank me. Today I have taught you something that you were bound to learn eventually. There is no such t
hing as family. Your father left me and I am leaving both of you.”

  “I will never leave Go,” Margot replied.

  “Then he will leave you. It’s how it works. We try, but we fail. Love is an illusion. Only this is real,” Margot’s mother said, clutching the purse with more passion than any hug she had ever given either of her children. “I have saved you a lot of time and tears. You do not believe me now, but one day you will.”

  Margot looked at her mother for a long beat and then spit in her face.

  Her mother wiped it away with a laugh and turned away. It was the last time Margot ever saw her.

  2

  “If you like, I can turn those coins I gave her into leaves,” the witch said gently.

  Margot felt a question rise in her throat. How many coins had the witch traded for her? How many for Go? Could the witch use her powers to show her the contents of her mother’s purse? It had been empty when they arrived at the palace. A part of her needed to know her price and that of Go’s. Somehow seeing the coins—knowing the exact number—suddenly felt necessary. If she knew the number, she could let go of her mother forever.

  “Let her have them,” Margot said instead. Looking at her smiling mother weighing the purse in one hand and then the other was enough. She realized she had let go of her long ago.

  “I am Cassia, Witch of the Woods,” the witch said as she took a step toward the edge of the forest.

  Margot fell in step with her. Her head filled with thoughts of what it meant to go home with a witch, thoughts culled mainly from fairy tales. Would she be dinner? A servant? What on earth did the witch want her for? Was the person who bought children really any worse than the mother who sold them, especially if the person was a witch?

  They stopped walking near the edge of the water and made a sharp turn along the bank of the river. Margot looked up and saw what looked like a castle made entirely of trees. But the trees were still alive.

  “Welcome to the Hollow,” the Witch of the Woods said.

  She touched the tree nearest them and it opened up. A flight of stairs spiraled down into the dark, but there was light radiating at the very bottom.

  When Margot took a step forward, ready to see more, Cassia held her back with one of her branches.

  “When I gave your mother those coins, I was not buying you. I was buying your freedom. You are your own Margot now. Your mother was not completely wrong. We make no promises. There is no bind that cannot break. There is no promise that will hold forever. I am not your mother or your family. I am your witch, if you choose to have me.”

  Margot blinked hard, not sure what it meant to have her own witch.

  “You may stay here. But it is not forever. Do you understand?”

  Margot nodded and took her first step into the tree.

  3

  At the bottom of the stairs, a second witch stood in the center of a room next to what looked like a stone hearth. Or at least Margot thought she was a witch. It was her dress and her eyes that gave her away. The dress was in tatters and on closer inspection, it looked as if the gray fabric were scorched in places. Her eyes flashed at Margot, eyes as black as coal but with a rim of gold behind them. They looked like mini-eclipses. The rest of her face was unremarkable in comparison; her nose was sharp and her lips were thin and pursed.

  But Margot could not stop looking at those eyes.

  “Another one,” the second witch said disdainfully.

  “This is Margot,” the Witch of the Woods asserted. “Margot, this is Scoria, the Fire Witch.”

  Scoria opened her mouth and a flame came out of it, reaching in Margot’s direction. Margot jumped behind the Witch of the Woods for cover, only to see that the flames stopped short of reaching her. Instead they lit the hearth in the room’s center.

  Margot looked from the fire pit to the Fire Witch. Flames dotted the tips of Scoria’s eyelashes and her flesh glowed red through the scorched places in her dress. The dress’s hem was edged with fire. Scoria, perhaps seeing the horror that played on Margot’s face, looked down at herself and stamped the flames out. Her lashes extinguished themselves in a single blink.

  “Did you get this one from the cemetery? She looks half-starved,” the Fire Witch said, picking up the conversation with the Witch of the Woods as if breathing fire were an everyday occurrence. Margot assumed that it very well might be.

  “You should see her little brother. He was positively robust . . .” the Witch of the Woods paused dramatically as if making a point that neither Margot nor the other witch could see. “The girl knows sacrifice.”

  Margot shook her head. It was never a sacrifice to feed her brother first. Seeing him hungry was worse than any gnawing in her own belly.

  “We will see . . .” said the Fire Witch as she busied herself with tending the flames.

  Margot followed the Witch of the Woods down more circular stairs to a small room with an even smaller bed.

  “Let’s get you some food and clothes.”

  Margot lapped up the strange green soup that the Witch of the Woods brought her and then changed into the nightgown that she was given. It took her until just before she closed her eyes to recognize the texture of the gown. It felt like cloth on her skin, but upon closer inspection it looked more like paper.

  The Witch of the Woods had given her clothing that was made of her very self. In just a few hours, she had shown Margot more kindness than her mother ever had.

  4

  In the morning, Margot met a girl, prettier than any she had ever seen, in the hearth room. The girl had blond hair that fell in curls down her back and one of those faces with full lips and wide-set eyes that belonged on one of the palace’s statues.

  “I’m Ora. You must be Margot.” she said. “I’m the seamstress around here. Among other things.”

  Margot nodded, her hands idle for the first time in her life. Growing up, mornings had always meant making sure everything was clean and in its place so that her mother would have nothing to erupt about.

  Margot could feel her new companion’s piercing brown eyes on her as Margot used her palm to sweep some crumbs off the floor.

  “You are not here for that,” Ora said.

  “Then what am I here for?”

  “To learn.”

  “What are you talking about? What do I need to learn?”

  “How to be a witch of course,” Ora said casually.

  “Is that what you’re here for, too?”

  “No, I’m already a witch.”

  “But you’re so pretty,” Margot blurted. “You look nothing like . . . them.”

  “Thank you,” Ora said, smiling brightly. “Witches come in all shapes. And beauty is not a tenant of the witch. Beauty is a human concern.”

  Something about the way she smiled at the compliment made Margot unsure if Ora agreed with the witches or not.

  “Why did the Witch of the Woods pick me?” Margot asked. “There were a lot of kids at the palace. Why did she bring me here?”

  “Because they are hoping for something more from you.”

  “What could they possibly want from me? Why me?”

  “You have more of something than most people in all of Algid.”

  Margot could not for the life of her think of anything she had that anybody would want. Her brother was the last thing of value she had had in all the world. And as for herself, she had no skills, save for cleaning. And according to the back of her mother’s hand, she had never been good at that, either.

  Ora laughed. For whatever reason—pure kindness it seemed—Ora had taken to interpreting the witch world for her. “Witches like me and the Witch of the Woods and the Fire Witch are born with power. But humans like you might be able to access it—some more than others.”

  “Access it? How?”

  “If you aren’t born with magic—and even if you are—magic requires payment. Words, sacrifice, blood, pain . . . They all control magic. If you have magic like me, you can sacrifice a little less.”
<
br />   Margot felt the dull ache of recognition upon hearing the word “pain.” She felt as if her reason for being here, for being bought by the witch, had suddenly crystallized. But the idea of her pain being worth something still seemed somehow inconceivable. Almost as unimaginable as being adopted by witches had seemed a day ago. Yet here she stood.

  “What is your magic?” Margot asked.

  Ora blinked and then opened her palm. A small flame danced in the center of it. Ora closed her palm, snuffing the flame out.

  “You’re like the Fire Witch,” Margot exclaimed with wonder.

  “Yes, and not at all.”

  Ora didn’t elaborate. Margot could see the physical difference: Ora’s eyes had remained their pretty brown instead of turning into fiery eclipses. And she did not appear to be burning through her dress.

  “I would give anything to be able to do that,” Margot blurted.

  “Be careful what you wish for. You might just have to . . .” Then she laughed a sweet little laugh, but it chilled Margot to the bone.

  “I see you’ve met Ora,” the Witch of the Woods said, which Margot thought was a welcome interruption. “Are you ready?”

  “For what?”

  “To see what you can do. To see if you have magic. To see what power is within.”

  5

  There were a dozen other would-be witches who lived in the Hollow. They formed a semicircle around a fire near the River, along with the three witches of the coven: the Witch of the Woods, the Fire Witch, and the River Witch.

  Margot stood in the center in a special stark-white dress that Ora had made just for the occasion. The others were dressed in white as well and the light of the fire danced shadows upon them.

  “We call fire, water, earth, and air.

  Will you come to our new guest?

  Will you make her our sister?”

  Margot looked around, unsure of what was going to happen next and worried she would be a huge disappointment for the witches. For all of her life, Margot had been utterly normal. Her only talents were being silver-tongued, quick on her feet, and lightning swift with her hands. But those were skills brought on out of necessity to stay three steps ahead of her mother and to keep her brother out of trouble. Would the chanting change her? Would she sprout branches like the Witch of the Woods? Or tentacles and fins like the River Witch? Would she breathe fire like the Fire Witch? Or worse yet, would nothing happen? Nothing at all?

 
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