Prologue

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When I had real friends, I was the long-lost queen of the elves.

A warrior queen who hitched up her skirt and wielded a blade. Who held her retainers in thrall. Until they left me for their goddesses.

Love. A curse that snatches friends away.

One day, when only two of my retainers remained, the old crone who lived on the northern outskirts of the village was our prey. It was twenty points if you spotted her. Fifty points if you got her to look at you. A hundred points if she started screaming at you.

You won for life if you got close enough to touch her.

"Noll, please don't do this," whispered Jurij from behind the wooden kitten mask covering his face. Really, his mother still put him in kitten masks, even though eleven was too old for a boy to be wearing kittens and bunnies. Especially ones that looked likely to get eaten for breakfast by as much as a weasel.

"Shut up, I want to see this!" cried Darwyn. Never a kitten, Darwyn always wore a wolf mask. Yet behind the nasty tooth-bearing wolf grin-one of my father's better masks-he was very much a fraidycat.

Darwyn shoved Jurij aside so he could crouch behind the bush that was our threadbare cover. Jurij nearly toppled over, but I caught him and set him gently upright. Sometimes I didn't know if Jurij realized who was supposed to be serving whom. Queens shouldn't have to keep retainers from falling.

"Quiet, both of you." I scanned the horizon. Nothing. All was still against the northern mountains save for the old crone's musty shack with its weakly smoking chimney. The edges of my skirt had grazed the dusty road behind us, and I hitched it up some more so my mother wouldn't notice later.

If she didn't want me to get the blasted thing dirty, she should have let me wear Jurij's trousers, like I had been that morning. That got me a rap on the back of the head with a wooden spoon, a common occurrence when I was queen. It made me look too much like a boy, she scolded, and that would cause a panic.

"Are you going or not?" Darwyn was not one for patience.

"If you're so eager, why don't you go?" I snapped back.

Darwyn shook his wolf-head. "Oh, no, not me."

I grinned. "That's because you're scared."

Darwyn's muffled voice grew louder. He stood beside me and puffed out his chest. "I am not! I've been in the commune."

I poked toward his chest with Elgar, my trusty elf-blade. "Liar! You have not."

Darwyn jumped back, evading my blow. "I have too! My uncle lives there!" He swatted his hand at Elgar. "Get that stick away from me."

"It's not a stick!" Darwyn never believed me when I said that Elgar was the blade of a warrior. It just happened to resemble a tree branch.

Jurij's quiet voice entered the fray. "Your uncle lives there? That's awful." I was afraid he might cry and the tears would get caught up in the black material that covered his eyes. I didn't want him to drown behind the wooden kitty face. He'd vanish into thin air like everyone else did when they died, and then we'd be staring down at Jurij's clothes and the little kitten mask on the ground, and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to stop myself from giggling. Some death for a warrior.

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