Chapter no 26

The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air, 3)

Y‌ou’re not healed enough,” Tatterfell gripes, poking my scar with her sharp fingers. The imp has been seeing to me since I got out of bed, getting me ready to face the serpent as though I was going to another banquet, and complaining the whole way. “Madoc nearly cut you in half not so long ago.”

“Does it bother you that you were sworn to him, but you’re still here with me?” I ask as she finishes the tight braid on top of my head. The sides are pulled back, and the rest of it is pinned into a bun. No ornamentation in my ears or around my throat, of course, nothing that can be grabbed.

“This is where he sent me,” Tatterfell says, taking a brush from the table where she has laid out her tools and touching it to a pot of black ash. “Maybe he regrets it. After all, I could be scolding him right now, instead of you.”

That makes me smile.

Tatterfell paints my face, shadowing my eyes and reddening my lips.

There’s a knock on the door, and then Taryn and Vivi come in. “You won’t believe what we found in the treasury,” Vivi says.

“I thought treasuries were just full of gems and gold and stuff.” I recall, ages back, Cardan’s promise that he would give the contents of Balekin’s treasury to the Court of Shadows if they would only betray me and release him. It’s an odd feeling, remembering how panicked I felt then, how charming he was, and how I hated it.

Tatterfell snorts as the Roach comes in, pulling a chest behind him. “There’s no keeping your sisters out of trouble.”

His skin has returned to its normal deep green, and he looks thin, but well. It’s an immense relief to see him up and moving so quickly. I wonder how he was recruited to help my sisters, but I wonder more what the Bomb said to him. There is a new kind of joy in his face. It lives in the corners of his mouth, where a smile hovers, and in the brightness of his eyes.

It hurts to look at.

Taryn grins. “we found armor. Glorious armor. For you.”

“For a queen,” Vivi says. “which, you may recall, there hasn’t been in a little while.”

“It may well have belonged to Mab herself,” Taryn goes on. “You’re really building this up,” I tell them.

Vivi leans down to unlock the chest. She draws out armor of a fine scale mail, worked so that it appears like a fall of miniature metal ivy leaves. I gasp at the sight of it. It truly is the most beautiful armor I’ve ever seen. It appears ancient, and the workmanship is distinct, nothing like Grimsen’s. It’s a relief to know that other great smiths came before him and that others will follow.

“I knew you’d like it,” Taryn says, grinning.

“And I have something you’ll like almost as well,” the Roach says. Reaching into his bag, he takes out three strands of what looks like silver thread.

I tuck it into my pocket, beside the hair I plucked from Madoc’s head. Vivi is too busy taking out more items from the chest to notice. Boots covered in curved plates of metal. Bracers in a pattern of briars. Shoulder plates of more leaves, curled up at the edges. And a helm that resembles a crown of golden branches with berries gathered on either


“well, even if the serpent bites off your head,” says Tatterfell, “the rest of you will still look good.”

“That’s the spirit,” I tell her.



The army of Elfhame assembles and readies itself to march. whippet- thin faerie steeds, swampy water horses, reindeer with jutting antlers,

and massive toads are all being saddled. Some will even be armored.

Archers line up with their elf-shot, with sleep-poisoned arrows and enormous bows. Knights ready themselves. I see Grima Mog across the grass, standing in a small knot of redcaps. They are passing around a carafe of blood, taking swigs and dotting their caps. Swarms of pixies with small poisoned darts fly through the air.

“we’ll be prepared,” Grima Mog explains, walking over, “in the event that the bridle doesn’t work the way they claim. Or in case they don’t like what happens next.” Taking in my armor and the borrowed sword strapped to my back, she smiles, showing me her blood-reddened teeth. Then she places a hand over her heart. “High Queen.”

I try to give her a grin, but I know it is a sickly one. Anxiety chews at my gut.

Two paths are before me, but only one leads to victory.

I have been Madoc’s protégé and Dain’s creature. I don’t know how to win any other way but theirs. It is no recipe for being a hero, but it is a recipe for success. I know how to drive a knife through my own hand. I know how to hate and be hated. And I know how to win the day, provided I am willing to sacrifice everything good in me for it.

I said that if I couldn’t be better than my enemies, then I would become worse. Much, much worse.

TaPe three hairs from your own head and Pnot them around the bridle. You will be bound together.

Lord Jarel thought to trick me. He thought to keep the word of power to himself, to use it only after I bridled the serpent, and then to control us both. I am sure Madoc doesn’t know Lord Jarel’s scheme, which suggests that part of it will involve murdering Madoc.

But it is a scheme that can be turned on its head. I have tied their hair to the golden bridle, and it will not be me who is bound with the serpent. Once the serpent is bridled, Madoc and Lord Jarel will become my creatures, as surely as Cardan was once mine. As surely as Cardan will be mine again with golden straps digging into his scales.

And if the serpent grows in monstrousness and corruption, if it poisons the land of Elfhame itself, then let me be the queen of monsters. Let me rule over that blackened land with my redcap father as a puppet by my side. Let me be feared and never again afraid.

0nly out of his spilled blood can a great ruler rise.

Let me have everything I ever wanted, everything I ever dreamed, and eternal misery along with it. Let me live on with an ice shard through my heart.

“I have looked at the stars,” says Baphen. For a moment, my mind is still too lost in my own wild imaginings to focus. His deep blue robes fly behind him in the early-afternoon breeze. “But they will not speak to me. when the future is obscured, it means an event will permanently reshape the future for good or ill. Nothing can be seen until the event is concluded.”

“No pressure, then,” I mutter.

The Bomb emerges from the shadows. “The serpent has been spotted,” she says. “Near the shoreline by the Crooked Forest. we must go quickly before we lose it again.”

“Remember the formation,” Grima Mog calls to her troops. “we drive from the north. Madoc’s people will hold the south, and the Court of Teeth, the west. Keep your distance. Our goal is to herd the creature into our queen’s loving arms.”

The scales of my new armor chime together, making a musical sound. I am handed up onto a high black steed. Grima Mog is seated on an enormous armored buck.

“Is this your first battle?” she asks me. I nod.

“If fighting breaks out, focus on what’s in front of you. Fight your

fight,” she tells me. “Let someone else worry about theirs.”

I nod again, watching Madoc’s army set off to take up its position. First come his own soldiers, handpicked and stolen away from the standing army of Elfhame. Then there are those low Courts that took up his banner. And, of course, the Court of Teeth, carrying icy weapons. Many of them seem to have frost-tipped skin, some as blue as the dead. I do not relish the idea of fighting them, today or any other day.

The Court of Termites rides behind Grima Mog. It’s easy to pick out Roiben’s salt-white hair. He is on the back of a kelpie, and when I look over, he salutes me. Beside him are the Alderking’s troops. Severin’s mortal consort isn’t with him; instead, he’s riding beside the red-haired mortal knight whose nose was bloodied by Nicasia’s selkie guards. She looks disturbingly chipper.

Back at the palace, Vivi, Oriana, Heather, and Oak wait for us with a retainer of guards, the better part of the Council, and many courtiers

from Courts both low and high. They will watch from the parapets.

My grip tightens on the golden bridle.

“Cheer up,” Grima Mog says, seeing my face. She adjusts her hat, stiffened with layers of blood. “we go to glory.”

Through the trees we ride, and I cannot help thinking that when I pictured knighthood, I pictured something like this. Facing down magical monsters, clad in armor, sword at my side. But like so many imaginings, it was absent all the horror.

A screech carries through the air from a denser patch of woods up ahead. Grima Mog gives a sign, and the armies of Elfhame stop marching and spread out. Only I ride on, weaving around dead tree after dead tree until I see the black coils of the serpent’s body perhaps thirty feet from where I stand. My horse shies back, chuffing.

Holding the bridle, I swing down from its back and move closer to the monstrous creature that was once Cardan. It has grown in size, longer now than one of Madoc’s ships, head large enough that were it to open its mouth, a single fang would be half the size of the sword on my back.

It’s absolutely terrifying.

I force my feet to move across the wilted and blackened grass. Beyond the serpent, I see the banners with Madoc’s crest fluttering in the breeze.

“Cardan,” I say in a whisper. The golden net of the bridle shines in my hands.

As if in answer, the serpent draws back, neck curving in a swinging movement as though evaluating how best to strike.

“It’s Jude,” I say, and my voice cracks. “Jude. You like me, remember?

You trust me.”

The serpent explodes into motion, sliding fast over the grass in my direction, closing the distance between us. Soldiers scatter. Horses rear up. Toads hop into the shelter of the forest, ignoring their riders. Kelpies run for the sea.

I lift the bridle, having nothing else in my hands to defend myself with. I prepare to throw. But the serpent pauses perhaps ten feet from where I am standing, winding around itself.

Looking at me with those gold-tipped eyes. I tremble all over. My palms sweat.

I know what I must do if I want to vanquish my enemies, but I no longer want to do it.

This close to the serpent, I can think only of the bridle sinking into Cardan’s skin, of his being trapped forever. Having him under my control was once such a compelling thought. It gave me such a raw rush of power when he was sworn to me, when he had to obey me for a year and a day. I felt that if I could control everything and everyone, then nothing could hurt me.

I take another step toward the serpent. And then another. This close, I am stunned all over again by the creature’s sheer size. I raise a wary hand and place it against the black scales. They feel dry and cool against my skin.

Its golden eyes have no answer, but I think of Cardan lying beside me on the floor of the royal rooms.

I think of his quicksilver smile.

I think of how he would hate to be trapped like this. How unfair it would be for me to keep him this way and call it love.

You already Pnow how to end the curse.

“I do love you,” I whisper. “I will always love you.” I tuck the golden bridle into my belt.

Two paths are before me, but only one leads to victory.

But I don’t want to win like this. Perhaps I will never live without fear, perhaps power will slip from my grasp, perhaps the pain of losing him will hurt more than I can bear.

And yet, if I love him, there’s only one choice.

I draw the borrowed sword at my back. Heartsworn, which can cut through anything. I asked Severin for the blade and carried it into battle, because no matter how I denied it, some part of me knew what I would choose.

The golden eyes of the serpent are steady, but there are surprised sounds from the assembled Folk. I hear Madoc’s roar.

This wasn’t supposed to be how things ended.

I close my eyes, but I cannot keep them that way. In one movement, I swing Heartsworn in a shining arc at the serpent’s head. The blade falls, cutting through scales, through flesh and bone. Then the serpent’s head is at my feet, golden eyes dulling.

Blood is everywhere. The body of the serpent gives a terrible coiling shudder, then goes limp. I sheath Heartsworn with trembling hands. I

am shaking all over, shaking so hard that I fall to my knees in the blackened grass, in the carpet of blood.

I hear Lord Jarel shout something at me, but I can’t hear it. I think I might be screaming.

The Folk are running toward me. I hear the clang of steel and the hiss of arrows soaring through the air. It seems to come from very far away.

All that is loud in my ears is the curse Valerian spoke before he died. May your hands always be stained with blood. May death be your only companion.

“You ought to have taken what we offered,” Lord Jarel says, swinging his spear down toward me. “Your reign will be very short, mortal queen.”

Then Grima Mog is there on her stag, taking the weight of his blade. Their weapons slam together, ringing with the force of the impact. “First I am going to kill you,” she tells him. “And then I am going to eat you.”

Two black arrows fly out of the trees, embedding themselves in Lord Jarel’s throat. He slides off his horse as a cry goes up from the Court of Teeth. I catch a flash of the Bomb’s white hair.

Grima Mog whirls away, battling three knights from the Court of Teeth. She must have known them once, must have commanded them, but she fights them just the same.

There are more cries all around me. And the sounds of battle ebbing. From the shoreline, I hear a horn.

Out past the black rocks, the water is frothing. From the depths, merfolk and selkies rise, their shining scales catching the sunlight. Nicasia is rising with them, seated on the back of a shark.

“The Undersea honors its treaty with the land and with the queen,” she calls, her voice carrying across the field. “Lay down your arms.”

A moment later, the armies of the Undersea are rushing the shore.

Then Madoc is standing in front of me. His cheek and part of his forehead are painted in gore. There is a glee in his face, a terrible joy. Redcaps are born for this, for bloodshed and violence and murder. I think some part of him delights in being able to share this with me, even now. “Stand up.”

I have spent most of my life answering to his orders. I push myself to my feet, my hand going to the golden bridle at my belt, the one tied

with his hair, the one I could have used to bind him and the one I can bind him with still. “I am not going to fight you.” My voice sounds so distant. “Though I would not delight to see the straps sink into your skin, neither would I mourn.”

“Enough blustering,” he says. “You’ve already won. Look.”

He takes me by the shoulders and turns me so that I can see where the great body of the serpent lies. A jolt of horror goes through me, and I try to wrench out of his grip. And then I notice the fighting has ebbed, the Folk are staring. From within the body of the creature emanates a glow.

And then, through that, Cardan steps out. Cardan, naked and covered in blood.


0nly out of his spilled blood can a great ruler rise.

And all around, people go to their knees. Grima Mog kneels. Lord Roiben kneels. Even those who moments before were intent on murder seem overcome. Nicasia looks on from the sea as all of Elfhame bows to the High King, restored and reborn.

“I will bend my head to you,” Madoc says to me under his breath. “And only you.”

Cardan takes a step forward, and little cracks appear from his footfalls. Fissures in the very earth. He speaks with a boom that echoes through everyone gathered there. “The curse is broken. The king is returned.”

He’s every bit as terrifying as any serpent. I don’t care. I run into his arms.

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