One of EW’s favorite fantasy trilogies — Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling series — is finally coming to a close this November. We’ve been waiting to learn the fates of characters like Queen Kelsea, the Mace, and the Fetch (leave it to Johansen to actually make Fetch happen) since last summer, but now, EW is thrilled to reveal an exclusive sneak peek at the prologue of The Fate of the Tearling, below. The Fate of the Tearling hits shelves November 29, but is available for pre-order now.
Excerpt from The Fate of the Tearling
Prologue: The Orphan
Long before the Red Queen of Mortmesne came to power, the Glace-Vert was already a lost cause. It was a forgotten taiga in the shadow of the Fairwitch, its hardened plains revealing only the barest hint of grass, its few villages mere huddles of huts and mires. Few chose to venture north of Cite Marche, unless no other option presented itself, for life on these plains was harsh. Each summer the villagers of the Glace-Vert sweltered; each winter they froze and starved.
This year, however, they had something new to fear. The frozen hamlets were sealed tight, surrounded by newly built fences, and behind these fences men sat sleepless, hunting knives across their knees, little more than shadow sentinels. Clouds covered the moon, though these clouds did not yet signify the snows of Fairwitch winter. On the foothills above, wolves howled in their strange language, mourning the scarcity of food. Soon, desperation would drive the packs south into the forests, to hunt for squirrels and stoats, or the rare small child foolish enough to venture alone into the winter woods. But now, all at once, at ten minutes past two, the wolves fell silent. The only sound heard over the Glace-Vert was the lonely moan of the wind.
In the shadow of the foothills, something moved—the black ﬁgure of a man, climbing the steep slope. He was sure of foot, but he moved carefully, as though anticipating hazards. Except for his quick, light breathing, he was invisible, nothing more than a shade among the rocks. He had come through Ethan’s Copse, stopping there for two days before continuing northward. During his time in the village, he had heard all manner of tales about the plague that beset its inhabitants, a creature who walked in the night, taking the young. This creature had an old name in the upper Fairwitch: the Orphan. The Glace-Vert had never had to worry about such things before, but now the disappearances were spreading south. After two days, the man had heard enough. Villagers might call it the Orphan, but the man knew the creature’s real name, and though he ran like a gazelle, he could not escape his own sense of responsibility.
He’s free, the Fetch thought bleakly, wending his way through the thorns on the slope. I didn’t end him when I had the chance, and now he’s free.
The idea tormented him. He had ignored the presence of Row Finn in the Fairwitch for many years because the man was contained. Every few years a child would disappear; unfortunate, but there were greater evils to contend with. The Tearling, for starters, where dozens of children disappeared every month under a state seal of approval. Even before the vast evil of the shipment, the Tear had always been like a wayward child, needing constant care. The Raleighs alternated between indifference and predation, and the nobles fought for each scrap while the people starved. For three long centuries, the Fetch had watched William Tear’s dream sink further and further into the mire. No one in the Tearling could even see Tear’s better world any longer, let alone muster the courage to dig for it. Only the Fetch and his people knew, only they remembered. They did not, did not die. The Fetch stole to entertain himself. He took a petty enjoyment in tormenting the worst of the Raleighs. He kept his eye on the Tear bloodline, almost idly, trying to convince himself that it might matter. Tear blood was easy to track, for certain qualities always presented eventually: integrity, intellectualism and iron resolve. A few Tears had been hanged as traitors over the years, but even under the noose, they never lost the subtle air of nobility that seemed to distinguish the family. The Fetch recognized this nobility; it was the aura of William Tear, the magnetism that had convinced nearly two thousand people to follow him across an ocean into a vast unknown. Even the Mort bitch, ﬂawed as she was, carried a tiny hint of that glamour. But the Red Queen did not breed. For a long time, the Fetch had been convinced that the line was lost.
And then, the girl.
The Fetch hissed as a thorn dug into his hand. It did not puncture the skin; he had not bled in lifetimes. Many times he had tried to end himself before giving it up as a lost cause. He and Row, both of them had been punished, but he saw now that he had been blind. Rowland Finn had never stopped plotting for one moment in his life. He, too, had been waiting for the girl.
She was the ﬁrst Raleigh heir who did not grow up in the Keep. The Fetch had observed her often, visiting the cottage in secret when he was idle, and sometimes even when he was not. Initially, he could not make out much. Kelsea Raleigh was a quiet child, introspective. Most of her education seemed to be in the hands of that eternal battle-ax, Lady Glynn, but the Fetch sensed that the girl’s personality was being quietly and surely shaped by the old Queen’s Guard, Bartholemew. As she grew older, the girl surrounded herself with books, and this, more than anything, convinced the Fetch that she merited special attention. His memories of the Tears were constantly fading, losing their bright shine and becoming dim. But this he remembered: the Tears had always loved their books. One day he had watched the girl sit under a tree in front of the cottage and read a thick book all the way through in four or ﬁve hours. The Fetch had been hidden in the trees more than thirty feet away, but he knew absorption when he saw it; he could have crept up and sat down across from her and she would not have noticed. She was like the Tears, he saw now. She lived inside her head as much as out.
From that day on, one of his people had been on the cottage at all times. If a traveler showed a bit too much interest in the occupants—men had followed Bartholemew home from the country market several times—the interested party was never heard from again. The Fetch wasn’t even sure why he exerted so much effort. It was a gut feeling, and one thing William Tear had drilled into them from the beginning was that instinct was a real thing, a thing to be trusted. The Fetch sensed that the girl was different. Important.
She could be a Tear, he told his crew one night over the ﬁre. She could be.
It was always possible. There were several men in Elyssa’s Guard whose origins he did not know. Tear or not, the girl demanded close scrutiny, and as the years passed, he subtly shifted his course. Whenever Thomas Raleigh showed signs of forging an actual alliance with one of the powerful nobles of the Tear, the Fetch would turn all of his attention toward that noble, robbing caravans and storehouses, stealing crops, then vanishing into the night. Enough theft on Thomas’s watch and any potential alliance was quickly soured. At the same time, the Fetch began to lay his own groundwork in Mortmesne, just beneath the Red Queen’s feet. Should the girl make it to the throne, the Fetch knew, her ﬁrst test would come in dealing with the shipment. Mortmesne was wide open to anyone who knew how to exploit unrest, and after years of patient work, there was a healthy rebellion underway. So many things to attend to over the years, and so he had naturally let Row Finn slide.
A shape rose suddenly from the rocks ahead, halting his climb. To anyone else, it would appear to be merely a dark silhouette, but the Fetch, who had a great gift of night vision, saw that it was a child: a young boy, ﬁve or six years old. His clothes were little more than rags, his skin pallid with the cold. His eyes were dark and impenetrable. His feet were bare.
The Fetch stared at the child for a moment, chilled to his marrow.
I didn’t end him when I could have.
The boy darted forward, and the Fetch hissed at him, like a cat. The boy’s eyes, which had brightened in anticipation, abruptly dimmed, and he stared at the Fetch, bewildered.
“I am not meat for you,” the Fetch snapped. “Go and get your master.”
The boy stared at him for a moment longer, then vanished into the rocks. The Fetch covered his eyes, feeling the world tip crazily inside him, a dark vortex. When the girl had cracked the New London Bridge, certainty had crystallized inside him, but all moments since then seemed like a parade of doubt. She was in Mort custody, and Howell’s last message made clear that they were preparing to transport her to Demesne. The True Queen had arrived at last, but she had come too late.
Something was descending the slope. Just a wisp in the darkness, but it had been a long time since anyone could sneak up on the Fetch. He stood his ground, waiting. The last time they had sat down for a conversation had been . . . when? More than two centuries ago, James Raleigh still on the throne. The Fetch had wanted to see if Row could kill him. It had turned into a cutting party, all right, but neither of them had shed a drop of blood.
We were friends, the Fetch remembered suddenly. Good friends. But those days had vanished into the distant past, several lifetimes gone. As the black shape before him resolved into a man, the Fetch steeled himself. The settlers of the Fairwitch had created a great deal of apocrypha around the Orphan, but at least one piece was true; they said that the creature had two faces, one light and one dark. Which one would he see today?
Light. The face that turned toward him was the same one the Fetch had always known, pale and autocratic. And sly. Row had always been able to talk circles around anyone; long ago, he had talked the Fetch into the worst decision of his life. They regarded each other in silence, standing on the windy slope, all of Mortmesne laid out behind them.
“What do you want?” Row asked.
“I want to talk you out of this.” The Fetch swept a hand at the mountainside below them. “This course you’re on. No good will come of it, not even for you.”
“How do you know my course?”
“You’re moving south, Row. I’ve seen your things stalking at night in the villages below the Glace-Vert. I don’t know your end game, but surely poor Mort villagers can have no part of it. Why not leave them alone?”
“My children are hungry.”
The Fetch sensed movement on his right; another of them, a little girl of perhaps ten, perched on top of the rock, watching him, her eyes ﬁxed and unblinking.
“How many children do you have now, Row?” “Soon they will be legion.”
The Fetch stilled, feeling the dark hole inside him open a bit wider. “And then what?”
Row said nothing, only smiled wide. There was no humanity in that smile, and the Fetch fought the urge to back away.
“You already wrecked Tear’s kingdom once, Row. You really need to do it again?”
“I had help in wrecking Tear’s Land, my friend. Has it been so long that you’ve forgotten, or do you absolve yourself?”
“I feel responsible for my sins. I try to repair them.”
“How are you faring with that?” Row spread an arm to encompass the land below them. “Mortmesne is an open sewer. The Tear continues to sink.”
“No it doesn’t. It’s been propped up.”
“The girl?” Row laughed, a hollow, dismal sound. “Come now, Gav. The girl has nothing but a loyal retainer and a gift for public relations.”
“You don’t fool me, Row. You fear her as well.”
Row remained silent for a long moment, then asked, “What are you doing here, Gav?”
“Serving the girl.”
“Ah! So you’ve swapped loyalties yet again.”
That stung, but the Fetch refused to be baited. “She has your sapphire, Row. She has Tear’s sapphire, Tear’s blood. She’s been there.”
Row hesitated, his dark eyes unreadable. “Been where?” “To the past. She’s seen Lily, she’s seen Tear.”
“How do you know?”
“She told me, and she’s no liar. It’s only a matter of time before she gets to Jonathan. To us.”
Row didn’t answer. His eyes darted from rock to rock. The Fetch, sensing that he had ﬁnally broken through the wall of indifference, swallowed his anger and pressed forward. “Do you not see, Row, how this changes things?”
“It changes nothing.”
The Fetch sighed. He had held back a last bit of information, tucked it away, to be used only in case of direst need. This was a desperate gambit, one which would put Row on the hunt. But these were desperate times. The Queen was in Mort custody, and without her, the Fetch feared that the Tearling would tear itself to pieces, Row or not.
“The crown’s been spotted.”
Row’s head snapped up, like a dog scenting something on the wind.
“The crown?” “Yes.”
The Fetch did not answer.
“How do you know it’s not the Raleigh crown?”
“Because I destroyed the Raleigh crown, years ago, to make sure Thomas could never wear it. This is the real crown, Row.”
The Fetch’s heart sank. Once upon a time, he had helped this man, not just willingly, but eagerly. They had both committed terrible crimes, but only the Fetch had repented. Row grabbed and took and never looked back. For a moment, the Fetch wondered why he had even bothered to come up here, but he pushed the thought aside and plowed onward.
“If we got hold of the crown, Row, we could give it to the girl, ﬁx things. We could make up for the past.”
“You spend all of your years tortured by guilt and assume that others do the same. Don’t imbue me with a conscience. If my crown is out there, I will take it back.”
“And then what? All the kingdoms in the world won’t change what’s happened to us.”
“I see your idea now. You think the girl can end you.” “It’s possible.”
“Will she do it, though?” Row’s mouth crimped in a malicious grin. “She’s an easy child to read, and she’s besotted with you.”
“She sees only a handsome young man.”
“Why did you come up here, really?” Row asked, and the Fetch caught a gleam of red in his eyes as he moved closer. “What did you hope to accomplish?”
“I hoped to come to an agreement. Help me ﬁnd the crown. Help me repair the Tearling. It’s never too late, Row, even now.”
“Too late for what?”
“To atone for our crimes.”
“I have committed no crime!” Row hissed, and the Fetch was
pleased to see that he had touched a nerve. “I wished for better, that was all.”
“You should leave.” Row’s eyes were burning brightly now, the ﬂesh of his face turning pale.
At least he still feels, the Fetch told himself, then realized how little that meant. There was no emotion in the world that would ever outweigh Row’s hunger.
“And if I don’t leave?”
“Then I will let my children have you.”
The Fetch glanced at the girl who perched on the nearby rock. Her eyes shone almost feverishly, and against his will he found himself uneasy. The child’s bare feet, her toes clenched on the frozen rock, bothered him deeply, for no reason he could ever articulate.
“What are they, Row?”
“You were never a reader, Gav. This is old magic, older than the Crossing, even older than Christ. Ancient creatures, these, but they serve my will.”
“And you let them loose in the Glace-Vert?”
“They have just as much right as the next animal.”
This statement was so much in character that the Fetch nearly laughed. He and Row might have been right back on the banks of the Caddell, fourteen and ﬁfteen years old, each holding a ﬁshing pole.
“Go, now.” Row’s voice was low and venomous, his skin so white now that it seemed bleached. “Do not get in my way.”
“Or what, Row? I long for death.”
“Do you long for the deaths of others? The girl?” The Fetch hesitated, and Row smiled.
“She has freed me, Gav, broken my curse. I have no use for her anymore. If you get in my way, if she gets in my way, I will finish her. It will be the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”
“Row.” He found himself suddenly pleading. “Don’t do this. Think of Jonathan.”
“Jonathan’s dead, Gav. You helped me kill him.”
The Fetch hauled back and swung. Row went ﬂying, crashing into a nearby rock, but the Fetch knew that when Row got up, there would be nothing, not even a mark.
“Ah, Gav,” Row whispered. “Have we not done this enough already?”
“You make your new world, and I make mine. We’ll see who comes out on top.”
“And the crown?”
“My crown. If it’s out there, I will have it.”
The Fetch turned and stumbled away, nearly losing his footing on the slope. Ten steps downward, he found that his eyes were blurred with moisture. The wind bit through him. He could not think of Tear without crying, so he turned his mind to what came next.
The priest had been missing for more than a month, and the trail had gone cold. The Fetch’s people were spread out over northern and central Mortmesne, but he would need to get some of them back. Lear and Morgan, perhaps Howell. The Fetch had spent a long time crafting the rebellion that now raged across Mortmesne, but the crown was paramount. They would all need to hunt for it. And then there was the girl—
He sensed eyes on his back, turned and felt the chill of the wind penetrate more deeply into his bones. The slope behind him was covered with small children, white faces and dark eyes. Bare feet.
“God,” he murmured. The night seemed ﬁlled with phantoms, and he heard Jonathan Tear’s voice, centuries away but very close.
We won’t fail, Gav. How can we fail?
“We did fail,” the Fetch whispered. “Great God, we failed so badly.”
He turned and continued down the slope, too fast for caution, almost running now. Several times he nearly lost his balance, but he could not get down soon enough. As he reached the bottom of the slope, he broke into a sprint, tearing across the foothills toward the copse where he had tethered his horse.
On the hillside far above, the children waited silently, a still comber that covered the wide slope. They breathed steadily, a hoarse rattle that echoed against the rocks, but no plume of air was visible between their lips. Row Finn stood at the forefront, watching the tiny ﬁgure below. Once upon a time, Gavin had been the easiest man in the world to manipulate. Those days were long gone, as was Gavin himself, his real identity subsumed and steeped in the mythology of the man they called the Fetch. That man would be real trouble, but Row remained sanguine as he surveyed the pale ocean of children around him. They always did as they were told, and they were eternally, unrelentingly hungry. They waited only for his command.
“The crown,” he whispered, feeling a great excitement course through him, excitement he recognized from long ago: the hunt was beginning, and at the end there lay the promise of blood. He had waited almost three hundred years.
THE FATE OF THE TEARLING. Copyright © 2016 by Erika Johansen. Reprinted with permission by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers