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Point of View: The Hencha Queen Chapter One

The Hencha Queen - J. Scott Coatsworth

Another tease for next week’s release. But first, some great deals on the earlier books in the series. Both books one and two – The Dragon Eater and The Gauntlet Runner – are on sale wherever eBooks are sold for just 99¢, so this is a great time to get in on the series:

And order any one (or all three and let me know at, and I’ll send you the prequel – Tales From Tharassas – free!

Now, on to chapter one, Rise:

A SHARP CRACK FILLED the wine cellar. Kerrick swung the heavy mallet back and then assailed the flopwood boards that blocked the tunnel entrance again. The ancient wood splintered under the blow, sending shards clattering across the stone-paved floor.

It felt good to work out his frustrations. Still, the stubborn wood held out against his assault.

He rested the mallet on the black-tiled stone floor, wiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. Even after a hundred years, the barrier was strong. He’d tried to pry the boards out of the solid stone, but they’d been fastened in too tightly. Brute force it is.

“You’re doing great!” Cor’Lea’s voice was artificially bright, and she was as tall as he was, maybe a little taller, peering over his shoulder at the sealed tunnel entrance.

Silya had tasked her with bringing him down here to check out these hidden caverns under the Temple, in preparation for the coming war. Important, sure, but also clearly an excuse to get him out from underfoot while she prepared for her official Raising.

He grunted. “Thanks. These boards are hard as iron.” And hard as Silya’s will.

One day things would be different between them, once this crisis was over. I just have to be patient.

Coral laughed. “I’m sure a big, strong man like you can break through them easily.” She squeezed his bicep appreciatively.
He shrugged her off. He wasn’t sure if the gawky initiate was flirting with him or just trying to encourage him to get on with it, but either way, he wasn’t interested. “Stand back.” He hefted the hammer again, and she scurried out of his way.

He suppressed a smile, swinging the mallet around for another heavy blow.


This time the board buckled inward visibly. Another few hits should do it.

He pulled back the heavy iron hammer again and hit the same spot with blow after blow. Craack. Craack. Craack.

The mallet broke through and a board fell away into splinters, clattering across the stone floor. One down, three more to go. “Why did they seal this cavern up?”

Cor’Lea gestured at the natural chamber. “There was a winery here before the Temple. Sister Dor said they used to use it for extra wine storage.” She looked around the natural chamber, which was now filled with wooden shelving holding a variety of bottled food stores “When Jas ordered the Temple to be constructed, they kept this wide cavern and blocked off the rest of the tunnels.”

“Just in case the gully rats got in?” That thief Raven had apparently made his home in one of the underground tunnels. Who knew who else — or what else — lived down there?

Cor’Lea snorted. “Maybe.”

Are tunnels all connected, somehow? That was one of Silya’s most urgent projects, to map out the network of caverns beneath the city. Another reason she sent me down here — to get me out from under her robes.

A few more whacks at the next board served to both break it and let out his frustrations at the situation preventing him from doing his sworn job and keeping them apart. And at what she said was coming.

Craack. Craack. Craack.

The board snapped in half, and he judged that he’d cleared enough space to step through into the blocked-off tunnel. “Hand me that lantern?”

Cor’Lea complied, taking the opportunity to brush his hand.
He rolled his eyes. I should be flattered. But his heart was already taken.

It was times like these he wished his brother Enrick were still alive. He’d know what to do. He’d been absurdly confident about everything, even though he’d been younger than Kerrick.
Kerrick wasn’t great with women.

He took the lantern and stepped over the bottom board, holding it in front of him. The bright light temporarily blinded him as he sought to get his bearings.

“What do you see?” Cor’Lea peered through the hole behind him.
His sight adjusted, and the tunnel’s walls came into focus.

He whistled. Stacked along the side of the tunnel were hundreds of crates, all strapped together in groups and sealed. “It’s … I don’t know what it is. But I’ll bet Silya will be surprised.” They’d have to find a place to put all this stuff — whatever it was, it was likely rotten after all this time. Silya needed somewhere to store people, not ancient goods.

Cor’Lea stepped carefully over the splintered boards to join him. “What do you think’s inside them?”

The long row of crates disappeared into the darkness. Who knew what the ancients had considered valuable enough to stash down here. Coin? Lost treasure? “One way to find out. Does the Temple have a crowbar?”

• • •

Silya shifted uncomfortably on the hard seat of the throne. Her cobalt blue robes made her itch, and her muscles ached from the hour she’d spent on the training field with Hes’Enn. The Temple sword master had pushed her as hard as when she’d been an initiate, and she had the bruises to show it.

And why shouldn’t I? Even the queen needed to stay in fighting form. Still, her aches and pains argued for a little relief.

The fact that her connection to the hencha had strengthened only made things more complicated. They were curious as children sometimes, poking at her and asking what this meant or what that sensation was. Quiet!

Cor’Lea had helped her sort out her gully bird’s nest of hair into some semblance of order before taking Kerrick to the cellar. But that was as far as she’d been willing to go in a nod to regal decorum.

Sister Dor had shaken her head, but hadn’t said a word out loud.
“… solemn responsibility to the hencha gatherings and to the people of the Heartland …,” Dor droned on, reading from the official Raising text.

Silya wished she could hurry things along. She couldn’t wait to see what Kerrick found, and she had a million other things that needed doing. Besides, the sooner she could get off this uncomfortable chair, the better.

Patience, little one. Her mother’s voice from childhood came to mind unbidden, making her want to squirm all the more.

She lifted her thumb, making a small blue flame appear and disappear there. I’m a human flint.

“Mim’Aya!” Dor stared pointedly at her thumb. “Please show a little respect for the ceremony.”

She hung her head. “Sorry, mim.” And just like that, she was an initiate again, despite being raised to the highest post in the land.

The other sisters present, Tela, Aster, and Sallia, shook their heads and whispered softly amongst themselves.

Silya blushed. I am acting abominably. She sat up and squared her shoulders, ashamed of the bad example she set. Surely I can sit still and not fidget for all of five minutes.

Dor nodded and continued. “By the power vested in me as first aide, I hereby name you the Hencha Queen, Seventh in the Royal Line. Sister Tela, the staff, please?”

Is it finally over? She barely remembered the staff. She’d last seen it from a distance in Yen’Ela’s hands, when she was a little girl.
Sister Tela lifted up a black-cloth-wrapped bundle as if it weighed fifty kilos and handed it to Dor, who balanced it awkwardly and slipped off the covering to reveal the staff.

Silya whistled. It was beautiful. Entwined ebony branches twisted around one another, capped with carved hencha leaves. She reached out to touch it, and a thrill of blue fire ran up her arm. It looked ancient and new. “May I?”

Dor nodded, a slight smile quirking the edge of her lips. “It’s yours now.”

She stood, took the black staff, and lifted it into the air, her various aches and bruises vanishing in an instant. It was lighter than she expected, yet filled with the weight of years. It felt alien to her touch, setting up a strange buzzing in her arm, and yet it felt comfortable, as if it had always been a part of her. The strange dissonance intrigued her.

Sister Tela’s eyes widened. “It’s true. ‘She will carry its weight as if it is nothing.’”

Foolish human. That thought was not her own.

Silya repressed the urge to chuckle. Even the hencha were bored.

Instead, she closed her eyes and slammed the butt of the staff into the ground, making her audience gasp.

She felt the weight of it now, and the gathered power of the hencha. They were right — this ceremony was a farce, a human foolishness. What need was there for all this pomp and circumstance? One either did things or one didn’t, and whether one had an official Raising didn’t make a lick of difference.

Still, she knew the ceremony’s rituals weren’t for her. They were for the sisters.

Someone gasped.

She opened her eyes. She had grown, or the room had shrunk.
The sisters drew back in fright, their faces washed in blue by the light that emanated from her. She held out her arms — they were as black as the staff, gnarled like wood.

A flight of wisps appeared from the doorway, dancing toward her like embers from a fire. They encircled her, spinning around her like bright blue sparks. She felt alive, electric, bursting with energy as the hencha poured themselves into her.

The sisters dropped to their knees and put their heads to the ground. “All hail the Hencha Queen!” they intoned together. “May she live a hundred years.”

The voices held more than a little fear.

She tried to speak, to tell them to get up off the ground. Surely that can’t be good for old joints? But all that came out was a raspy sound, like wind through the branches.

Just beyond her sight, she could feel the world. Beneath her feet, thousands of living things thrived and scurried through the darkness of the caverns that riddled the spines. The Elsp teemed with little flashes of life, fish swimming in its channels and avoiding fishermen’s lures.

Further afield were hencha gatherings … vast fields cultivated by humans. Or were they the ones doing the cultivation? There were stands and forests of trees — flop trees and violet pines and ring trees, and even a few she didn’t recognize. Trees with huge heart-shaped leaves, and spindly dry things in the deserts to the south.
Erphin and verent and eircat and ix, and even tiny rainbow-winged orinths. All a part of the vast tapestry of the world.

All connected to one another … and to her — so different from humans’ independent universes, where people touched only flesh to flesh.

The hencha had been speaking to her more regularly since Sister Daya’s end-of-life ceremony in the gathering the night before, but this was different. Deeper. She was different, and it scared her. She wanted to feel more, to be more. What if I lose myself in this vastness?

She gasped and let go of the staff.

It fell heavily to the ground with a clatter.

She blinked and looked around. She was back to normal size, her skin pink and firm once more. The sisters were slowly getting up to stand before her, and the wisps were gone.

She staggered, feeling suddenly light-headed.

Dor caught her and eased her onto the throne.

For once she was grateful for its solid weight. “Is that normal?” She used the sleeve of her robe to wipe sweat off her forehead.

“No, Mim. Not that I’m aware.” Sister Tela stared at her as if she was one of the woman’s precious leather-bound books. “You are unique, my dear.” She patted Silya’s hand gently.

She gripped the arms of the throne, feeling every bit of the fancy carved swirls beneath her palms. Why did I choose this? She swallowed hard. Now that she’d finally achieved her dream, a part of her just wanted to be normal, boring old Silya again.

She let the hencha go, and the world slipped back toward something she recognized. She took a deep breath and gathered her wits about her. “Get up, the lot of you. I may be the Hencha Queen officially now, but enough with the genuflecting. I’ll not have you poor sisters scraping around on your old knees every time I lift this damned staff.”

Tela pulled herself up off the ground, her grateful smile quickly hidden. “Yes, Mim. Congratulations. You are now officially the Hencha Queen.”

Well, I’m the vessel for the Hencha Queen. But she knew what Tela meant. “Thank you, Sister.” She nodded, trying to maintain the solemn dignity of the moment, only slightly ruining it by scratching her nose, which suddenly itched like crazy.

Dor picked up the staff with some difficulty. “I can put that away for safekeeping —”

“Thank you, but I think I’ll keep it.” She accepted it gratefully, admiring its beautiful craftsmanship. She was well and truly the Hencha Queen now. Tri’Aya would be proud of her, and that both annoyed her and made her happy.

“Yen’Ela only used it for formal occasions —”

She met Dor’s gaze. “I’m not Yen’Ela.” She meant to be a new kind of Hencha Queen. What that meant, exactly, she wasn’t sure, but she felt it to her bones.

Dor held her gaze for a moment, searching her eyes. A ghost of a smile crossed her lips, and then she looked away. “Of course.”
Silya ran her hand along the intricately carved wood of the staff. If it helped her connect more easily to the hencha, it would be worth it.

And it would signal to the people that she was more than just Sil’Aya — she was the Hencha Queen. That would be important in the days to come, annoying or not.

Besides, she longed to feel that interconnectedness again.

She touched Dor’s shoulder. “I trust you. But you need to trust me in this.” She closed her eyes for a second, feeling the greater world around her.

Her aide nodded. “I do, Mim.”

Her eyes widened. “So we’re back to that again?”

Dor chuckled. “Yes, Silya.”

“That’s better.” She stood, running a hand through her hair to put it back in order. “Thank you, sisters, for attending this —” She chose her words carefully. “— necessary ceremony.”

Even Tela snorted at that one, though she covered her mouth quickly and had the grace to blush.

The sisters had been greatly disappointed to have such a small Raising, but it felt right to Silya, given the circumstances. Now was not the time for pomp and circumstance, unless it advanced the cause. End of the world and all. “So, what’s on today’s agenda?”

All four sisters started speaking at once.

“I’ve drafted a list of tasks the Temple needs to deal with most urgently …” Dor held out a piece of hencha parchment, shaking it wildly.

Sal’Moya cleared her throat. “The initiates are frightened. We must do something to settle them …”

“I’ve been searching the archives …” Sister Tela tried to get a word in edgewise.

She was elbowed out of the way by Sister Ast’Una, who had her own ledger that she shoved forward into Silya’s face. “We can’t possibly store up enough grain to feed the whole city for a day, let alone weeks. Look here —”

“Enough!” She drew herself up to her full-yet-unimpressive height and slammed the staff into the paved flooring with a satisfying thwack, taking advantage of the dais and her newly vested power to silence the bedlam. “We’ll address all of those issues, but you need to share them with Sister Dor, who will prioritize them for me.”

“Thank you, Mim.” Dor practically glowed with satisfaction.

“Please get things in order. I’ll meet you upstairs shortly.” She caught sight of Kerrick hovering in the doorway at the back of the room. “Meanwhile, I have other pressing things that need attending to.”

For one thing, her communication from her mother was overdue, and that worried her. What’s afoot in the highlands?

Dor curtseyed. “Come with me to my new office, Mims, and we’ll get all of this sorted out.” She seemed inordinately proud of that.
The woman was a godssend, and richly deserved the new quarters Silya had found for her next to her own. Sister Sallia had been less sanguine about being relocated, until Silya had pointed out her new room’s proximity to the dining hall. Sal’Moya did enjoy a good foldover at mealtimes. Or six.

“Ser Kek needs me,” she said softly, gesturing to him. “I’ll be back up to my rooms as soon as I can.”

Dor looked over the other sisters as if they were mere initiates, a scowl on her face. “Yes, Mim. Don’t worry. I’ll corral this lot and have an organized agenda prepared for you.”

She squeezed Dor’s shoulder gratefully. “Thank you.” She retreated to the vestibule behind the throne, set down the staff to slip out of her fancy robe, and hung it on a hook there to be retrieved later.
Kerrick popped his head into the small chamber. “May I come in?”
She nodded. “Of course. I’m just getting changed.” She slipped on a much smaller robe — still blue but made out of a more suitable fabric. Dor had impressed on her quite firmly that she could no longer wear the initiate’s robe in public, comfortable as it might be, now that she’d been officially Raised.

She turned her attention to Kerrick. “What did you find? I’d imagine at least an inch of dust.”

He grinned. “Yes. Lots and lots of dust.”

Her eyes narrowed. “So why are you grinning like a gully bird who just caught an inthym?” He was in an uncharacteristically good mood, after sulking around for days.

“Because we found something else. Are you free to come take a look?”

Now he’d piqued her curiosity. “Of course. What is it? Some hundred-year-old bottles of wine?”

He shook his head. “You’re not getting it out of me that easily. You have to come see for yourself.” He took her hand, barely leaving her time to grab the staff, and practically dragged her out of the vestibule and back through the throne room, which was thankfully now empty. It wouldn’t do to have someone see her being hauled along like a child, no matter how enthusiastic he was about his mystery find.

She pulled her hand away. “I can get there on my own.”

He smirked. “Of course, Your Highness.” He sketched an elaborate bow.

She sighed. Sometimes she missed being just Silya.

She followed him out into the hallway, debating whether to simply carry the staff or to tap it on the ground every other step, which made her feel a like an old woman. She settled for something in between, carrying it aloft but tapping it on the ground when she nodded at the other sisters and initiates they passed.

Their course took them down four short flights of stairs, by a number of surprised sisters who genuflected when they saw her and the staff. Silya smiled gamely at them, trying to keep her poise, wondering what the rush was about.

At last, they descended below ground level, a long stairway that led down to the storage caverns. The staff came in handy for counterbalancing on the steep stairs.

She hadn’t been to the cellars in almost a year and hadn’t known about the tunnel entrance, which had been all but forgotten until Dor had mentioned it during dinner at the Mansion House.

The final stairway had been cut into the rock and led down almost a hundred steps. Their footsteps echoed as they followed it down, but otherwise it was quiet. Too quiet. “I never did like this place.”

He glanced at her over his shoulder. “It is a bit stifling.”

At last, they reached the end, where a wide, metal-banded flopwood door stood ajar.

She stepped into open space of the cellar, relieved to be free of the narrow stairway. The high-ceilinged natural cavern was thirty meters long and about half as wide, lit by electric lights like the rest of the Temple. Its stalactites and stalagmites formed a beautiful backdrop to the shelves and shelves of preserves and grape and hencha wine and other stored foods and goods. Its floor had been filled in and paved with flat stones at some point in the distant past.
He led her past the wine racks. Each bottle was neatly labeled with date and vintage. The small vineyard adjoining the hencha field didn’t produce nearly enough grapes to fill the cellar, but the hencha wine more than made up for the difference, providing income that helped support the Temple and its work.

She was slowly learning all about products and income streams that provided the Temple its revenue, but she had grown tired of crop reports and bank accounts and the like. She had enough on her plate already. We need to hire a good accountant.

She was surprised the quakes hadn’t caused more damage down here, but most of the casks, bottles, and assorted chests and crates were strapped down tightly.

Cor’Lea emerged from the newly exposed tunnel entrance as they approached. Seeing Silya approaching with the staff, the gangly initiate bowed halfway to the ground.

Silya pulled at her collar. “Enough of that. Get up, girl.” Even though we’re just a year apart. She tried to keep the irritation from her voice. She was starting to understand why her mother’s voice always sounded so clipped. Responsibility for the work and behavior of others was annoying.

Cor’Lea got up and brushed off her robes. “Yes, Mim’Aya. It’s … this cavern is amazing.” Her eyes were as big as saucers.

“What is?” The broken boards that had sealed up the tunnel were piled neatly in the corner, so much firewood now.

She peered into the dim light of the tunnel. Something was stacked up against the wall, visible in the flickering light of a single lantern hung from a protruding hook in the ceiling. “We’ll need to string some more permanent lights in here.”

Cor’Lea nodded. “Working on it, Your Highness.”

She growled again. “So what did you find?”

“Crates, mim,” Kerrick said, picking up a wooden panel that had apparently been pried off one of them.

Silya stepped into the narrower space and her eyes adjusted to the dim light. The staff began to glow, shedding a blue light in the tunnel. Her eyes narrowed as she assessed its black wood, now shot through with blue lines the same color as the wisps. What other secrets do you hold?

He whistled. “That’s handy.”

She shushed him. He was right about the tunnel though. There was dust aplenty, enough to make her sneeze.

“Hencha bless,” Cor’Lea whispered.

“Thank you.” And there were crates. Lots and lots of crates. “What’s in them?”

Cor’Lea shook her head. “We don’t really know. We’ve only opened a couple. Glass bottles in the first one, and some strange black boxes in the second.”

She rubbed her nose to ward off another sneeze. “All right. I want to get Sister Tela down here to catalog what’s stored here to see if any of it might be of use.” So they’d used this tunnel as an old storeroom. “And for godssakes, let’s get this dust cleaned up.” She sneezed again despite her best efforts.

“Yes, Mim. I’ll get right on it.” Still, she lingered.

Why was Coral hovering about? Once the initiates had emptied the tunnel, they could start preparing it for the siege to come. Her blood ran cold at the thought.

She turned to Kerrick. “We’ll need to get this cleared out anyhow, if we’re going to house people here when the time comes.”

“Of course.” He grinned. “But that’s not all. When did they seal up this tunnel?”

She frowned, thinking back to the notations on the old tunnel map Sister Tela had brought her from the archives. “Maybe a hundred years ago. Why?”

He held up the panel, under the lantern light. “Look closely.”

It was covered with dust like the rest, but someone — probably Kerrick — had wiped off the worst of it.

She squinted at the writing there, in neat block script, but it was hard to make out in the blue light. “I can’t see what it says. Bring it out into the cellar.” She stepped back into the larger, better-lit cavern.

He followed, carrying the lid.

She peered at the letters again and gasped, almost dropping her staff. The writing stood out clearly in the bright electric light.

Attn: Silya Aya.

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