The Exiled Queen

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CHAPTER ONE

THE WEST WALL

Lieutenant Mac Gillen of the Queen’s Guard of the Fells hunched his shoulders against the witch wind that howled out of the frozen wastelands to the north and west. Looping his reins around the pommel of his saddle, he let his horse, Marauder, navigate the final half mile descent to the Westgate garrison house on his own.

Gillen deserved better than this miserable post in this miserable corner of the queendom of the Fells. Patroling the border was a job for the regular army—the foreign mercenaries, called stripers, or the Highlander home guard. Not for a member of the elite Queen’s Guard.

He’d been away from the city only a month, but he missed the gritty neighborhood of Southbridge. In Southbridge there was plenty to distract him on his nightly rounds—taverns and gambling halls and fancy girls. In the capital he’d had high-up connections with deep pockets—meaning plenty of chances to do private work on the side.

Then it had all gone wrong. There’d been a prisoner riot at Southbridge Guardhouse, and a Ragger street rat named Rebecca had jammed a burning torch into his face, leaving one eye blind, his skin red and shiny and puckered with scar tissue.

In late summer he’d taken Magot and Sloat and some others to retrieve a stolen amulet over in Ragmarket. He’d done the job on the quiet under orders from Lord Bayar, High Wizard and counselor to the queen. They’d searched that tumbledown stable top to bottom, had even dug up the stable yard, but they didn’t find the jinxpiece nor Cuffs Alister, the street thief who’d stolen it.

When they’d put the question to the rag-taggers who lived there, the woman and her brat had claimed they’d never heard of Cuffs Alister, and knew nothing about any amulet. In the end, Gillen had burned the place to the ground with the rag-taggers inside. A warning to thieves and liars everywhere.

Sensing Gillen’s inattention, Marauder seized the bit in his teeth and broke into a shambling run. Gillen wrenched back on the reins, regaining control after a bit of showy crow hopping. Gillen glared at his men, sending the grins sliding from their faces.

That’d be all he needed—to take a tumble and break his neck in a downhill race to nowhere.

Some would call Gillen’s posting to the West Wall a promotion. He’d been given a lieutenant’s badge and was put in charge of a massive, gloomy keep and a hundred other exiles—all members of the regular army—plus his own squadron of bluejackets. It was a larger command than his former post at Southbridge Guardhouse.

Like he’d celebrate ruling over a dung heap.

The Westgate keep guarded the West Wall and the dismal, ramshackle village of Westgate. The wall divided the mountainous Fells from the Shivering Fens. A drowned land of trackless swamps and marshes, the Fens were too thick to swim in and too thin to plow, impassable except on foot until the hard freezes after solstice.

All in all, control of Westgate keep added up to little opportunity for a man of enterprise like Mac Gillen. He recognized his new assignment for what it was: punishment for his failure to give Lord Bayar what he wanted.

He was lucky to have survived the High Wizard’s disappointment.

Gillen and his triple splashed through the cobbled streets of the village and dismounted in the stable yard of the keep.

When Gillen led Marauder into the stable, his duty officer, Robbie Sloat, swiped at his forehead, his pass at a salute. “We got three visitors to see you from Fellsmarch, sir,” Sloat said. “They’re waiting for you in the keep.”

Hope kindled in Gillen. This might mean new orders from the capital, at last. And maybe an end to his undeserved exile.

“Did they give a name?” Gillen tossed his gloves and sopping cloak to Sloat and ran his fingers through his hair to tidy it.

“They said as they’d speak only to you, sir,” Sloat said. He hesitated. “They’re baby bluebloods. Not much more’n boys.”

The spark of hope flickered out. Probably arrogant sons of the nobility on their way to the academies at Oden’s Ford. Just what he didn’t need.

“They demanded lodging in the officers’ wing,” Sloat went on, confirming Gillen’s fears.

“Some in the nobility seem to think we’re running a hostel for blueblood brats,” Gillen growled. “Where are they?”

Sloat shrugged his shoulders. “They’re in the officers’ hall, sir.”

Shaking off rainwater, Gillen strode into the keep. Before he’d fairly crossed the inner courtyard, he heard music—a basilka and a recorder.

Gillen shouldered open the doors to the officers’ hall to find three boys, not much older than naming age, ranged around the fire. The keg of ale on the sideboard had been breached, and empty tankards sat before them. The boys wore the dazed, sated expressions of those who’d feasted heavily. The remnants of what had been a sumptuous meal were spread over the table, including the picked-over cadaver of a large ham Gillen had been saving for himself.

In one corner stood the musicians, a pretty young girl on the recorder, and a man—probably her father—on the basilka. Gillen recalled seeing them in the village before, playing for coppers on street corners.

As Gillen entered, the tune died away and the musicians stood, pale-faced and wide-eyed, like trapped animals before the kill. The father drew his trembling daughter in under his arm, smoothed her blond head, and spoke a few quiet words to her.

Ignoring Gillen’s entrance, the boys around the fire clapped lazily. “Not great, but better than nothing,” one of them said with a smirk. “Just like the accommodations.”

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