Crown of Renewal is the final instalment in the Paladin's Legacy series – a fantasy epic of kingdoms under threat, politics and magic by fantasy legend Elizabeth Moon.
Andressat, winter of the previous year
Winter storms, one after another, cut off the high plateau of Andressat from the lowlands around it as Midwinter Feast neared. On the morning before the nightlong vigil, Meddthal Andressat, the Count of Andressat’s second son and present commander in the north, woke to hear the thud of the inner door closing, then voices in the tower’s main hall: exclamations, then quieter tones.
Someone, he gathered, had sent something to someone as a gift. Found it by the door. Sighing, he pushed back the covers, dressed quickly, and went out to see what was going on. Families did not normally come to the towers to leave gifts for their kin on duty, especially not during winter storms. Especially not without pounding on the door and coming inside. He thought immediately of treachery, poisoned food, perhaps, sent by an enemy.
“Whatever it is, don’t eat it,” he said, coming into the mess, then stopped short as he saw the wide eyes and horrified expressions turned toward him and the quick movement of men hiding something from their commander. “What?” he demanded. “Show me.”
The sergeant who had served with him since Meddthal first gained command shook his head. “Sir, you don’t want to see this.”
“Of course I do. Stand aside.”
“Sir, please. It’s . . . it’s horrible . . .”
Meddthal could feel the hairs on his arms rising; cold foreboding struck like a blow. His younger brother Filis had been missing since the previous summer, disappearing on a routine trip from Andressat to Cortes Cilwan. Almost certainly Filis had been captured by the one man in Aarenis who would want an Andressat son in his hands: Alured the Black, self-styled Duke of Immer.
“It’s Filis,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
“There’s a letter, sir. To Count Andressat.”
Meddthal moved forward. “It’s more than that by the way you’re all acting. Stand aside. I must see to report to my father.” He braced himself for horrors: Filis’s head, Filis’s body. Then he saw it, and his breath came short, his vision darkened.
The box had been made with great skill, leather laid over a framework of wood. Filis’s face formed the top—skillfully padded enough to show the contours, like a mask, though much flattened, the ears—those distinctive ears—forming a hideously decorative border to left and right. Meddthal struggled to think about that, not that it was Filis’s face, the familiar face of a brother he had loved and quarreled with. Not—absolutely not—about how it had been taken from Filis, whether Filis had been skinned before or after death.
He struggled to stay upright, to breathe, to hold back the nausea that threatened to shame him in front of all. He became aware gradually that the sergeant’s arm was around him, steadying him—a strong, warm arm, and most of all a live arm. That his men were looking away from him, giving him time to recover, stirring about as if it were a normal morning and they were getting ready for another day. He dragged in one lungful after another of the chill air—air that would never be warm after this. And looked again.
He could not unsee what he had seen. He could not unthink the thoughts that raced through his mind, deadly as a flight of arrows. He had known—they had all known—that Filis was likely dead, killed by Alured or at his command. They had told themselves that; they had even—as his father had said aloud first—hoped he was dead and past suffering. Had it been Filis’s severed head . . . even a body bearing marks of torture . . . it would not have been so bad.
Filis’s hair fell over the back of the box, carefully braided with ribbons in Immer’s colors and formed into a decorative knot. On one corner was a scar Meddthal recognized from Filis’s shoulder . . . then he saw the fine stitching that had attached that piece of Filis’s skin to the others. A tube—it must be the message tube with the letter to Count Andressat—protruded obscenely from Filis’s mouth.
Rage shook him as suddenly as horror had. That scum had planned all this to the last detail . . . to foul one of the year’s holiest days, Sunreturn, with such horror . . . to make of it not the day of hope and joy Midwinter Feast had always been but to stain it with the memory of Filis’s death.
“It was in a sack, tied with a green ribbon,” one of the men said. “There was a message: Send it to Count Andressat as a Midwinter gift from his liege, it said.” He pointed to the sack, crumpled on the floor, coarsely woven, and the ribbon with a wooden tag still attached.
Meddthal shook his head. “He has no liege, and it would kill him.” To his surprise, his voice sounded almost normal.
“You’re never going to hide it from him—”
“No. I’m not going to hide it. But he will have word from me, to blunt the blade, before I send it. Now, however, I will open Immer’s letter. Simthal, is the food ready?”
“For Midwinter, sir? I thought—”
“We have much to do, and days are short. We will eat, and we will prepare for the attack that is surely coming.” Already his mind was working again, offering alternatives and the problems with each. In Midwinter, no one could ride from this tower to Cortes Andres in one day’s light . . . but had Alured’s men sent a message directly to the Count? No . . . they wanted to unnerve the border guards first. “Tell the cooks: breakfast now. And we will observe most parts of the Midwinter ceremony, though we will not be fools and exhaust ourselves in games this day. We will honor Filis’s memory best by saving Andressat from the same fate.”
They nodded. Someone handed him a mug of sib, and he sipped cautiously . . . his stomach kept it down. The tears burning his eyes did not overflow. He took the tube from between the lips, leaving a gaping hole in the face, and untied the green and black ribbons.
It was written in blood; the rusty color could be nothing else. “Brother,” he murmured, and kissed it. Filis had died, no doubt a terrible death, but this was proof he was no traitor, as some had thought. The words made it clear what had been done and when and how. A terrible death indeed. The box had not required all of Filis’s skin . . . the rest had been made into a rug for Alured’s bedside—“and as I stand on it each day, so will I stand on Andressat: master of all.” “Thebest parts” of Filis’s broken body had been cooked and force-fed to the Count of Cilwan and his wife before they were killed and their bodies fed to dogs, their skins added to the rug.
So Alured had killed not only Filis but their sister, and his father had lost two children. Thank the gods their child, the count’s grandson, was safe in Cortes Andres. A few tears slipped from Meddthal’s eyes. Nerinth had been married to Cilwan young, unwillingly and had endured years with that—Meddthal cut off the thought. It would do no good now to despise Cilwan’s timidity and avarice. He blinked back more tears and read on.
The rest was yet more boasts and threats. Meddthal thought of burning it, saving his father that knowledge, but the old man would not thank him. He rolled the letter once more and put it back in the tube, then put the tube into his belt pouch.
Cooks had brought in bread, porridge, pastries, roasts; for a moment his stomach turned again. But vengeance required nourishment. Starving himself, heaving his food out: neither one would help him defeat Alured. He forced down a bowl of porridge and a slab of bacon. Others ate after seeing him eat. He went to the door and opened it, shut it behind him, then opened the outer door. A gray day, just enough light to see, barely past dawn. Low clouds like a lid shut them away from the sun. Wind cut through his clothes like a knife. He went back into the vestibule when the wind had frozen the tears on his face, and brushed the tiny ice chips away.
Kolfin was his best rider, and his own horse the fastest. Meddthal wanted to go himself, but if Alured did plan to attack—and he himself would have—in the next few days, he needed to be here to command the defense. He went back inside. “Kolfin.”
Kolfin stood up from the table. “Sir?”
“Finish quickly. Take two days’ ration, and you’ll ride my horse to Cortes Andres with my letter. Be ready to ride when I’ve written it.”
He sat down with pen and ink, and his mind blanked again. Filis. This . . . this abomination . . . but his father must know something, and as soon as possible. He wrote quickly, plainly.
Father. Bad news. Filis’s death proved; Alured has sent—
He paused. He could not say it all, not like this . . .
—proof of what he did to Filis. It is beyond my words to say. Laid on our doorstep here last night; no doubt it is Filis. I expect attack when he thinks we are unmanned by grief; I remain here to command defense but will come at your command, bringing what was sent. I send also the letter he wrote you, written in what I am sure is Filis’s blood, admitting he killed the Count of Cilwan and your daughter as well.
He sealed that, put it and the letter from Alured in a message bag, and gave it to Kolfin, who had already saddled Meddthal’s horse. “Take a spare horse,” Meddthal said. “Ride fast but warily. Those who did this may be looking to intercept any messenger.”
“Yes, sir.” Kolfin took the message bag; another soldier brought out another of the horses, saddled it, and transferred Kolfin’s saddlebags to the second horse.
When Kolfin had ridden away, Meddthal set about readying for attack. By midday, he had completed that chore as well as sending couriers to the two nearest towers to warn them. “Half of you must rest this afternoon,” he said. “If they attack, it will be when they think we have all spent a sleepless night in the dark after a day of grief and worry or perhaps drunken rage. Tomorrow—or even the day after—is when they will come.”
“What about tonight, sir?”
“Tonight we will do as we always do. Today and tomorrow, however, we will rest as much as we can, to be fresh when they attack.”
“And . . . that? Him?”
Meddthal looked at the table, at Filis’s face staring upward from the top of the box. It felt—it was—indecent to leave it there like any other box. But he could not close it into the storeroom . . . or put it outside . . .
One of the youngest men, Dannrith, spoke up. “Sir, someone dyin’ or dead should have a candle and someone by. They wouldn’t of give him a candle . . . We should.”
A scrape of boots on the floor as others considered that, and a low murmur, then they all looked at Meddthal. The silence lengthened as Meddthal tried to think, in a mind suddenly fuzzy, whether to say yes or no, where to put the thing, in here or in his quarters or . . .
“I’ll stay with ’im,” said another. And then a chorus of offers.
That settled it. “In here, then,” Meddthal said. “Bring a trestle and a blanket. We’ll do this right.”
Very shortly the grisly box had been placed at one end of a plank, with a blanket laid flat below it and Meddthal’s best cloak spread over it, hiding the face and making, with the blanket, a pretense of a body laid straight for burial. Though it was not yet sundown, they lit a candle, and one at a time, as if for a new death, each spoke a word about Filis, for all had at least seen him, if they had not known him.
Then Meddthal sent half of them to bed, to be wakened at full dark, and the rest took up their duties except for the watcher. At each turn of the glass another took his place. At full dark, when all assembled, the hearth had been swept clean and a new fire laid but not lit. Only the feeble glow of one candle outlined the shape on the board and the face of the one who sat beside him. The others turned their faces from the light and began the long night’s watch for Sunreturn.
When it was Meddthal’s turn to sit beside his brother’s remains, he wondered if his father would send for him or for the box alone.
Jeddrin, Count of Andressat, looked at the face of his dead son and wept. Rage burned in his heart, but grief drowned it for the moment, and he made no attempt to hold back the tears. Let them fall; let them flow; let them be emptied like a bronze bowl so the flame of vengeance could burn higher.
When the tears ended, he looked more closely. Honoring the dead, especially those who died in war, required the mourners to see and respect every mark life had made on them. “We’ll give him his rightful colors,” he said, and began unwinding the complex knot that the braided hair had been coiled into. “He’ll not go under earth wearing that scum’s.” After the knot came the braids themselves. Three braids; his sons Narits and Tamir, Narits recalled from Cha earlier in the year and Tamir recalled from the south ward, each took one, and he took the last. Deft fingers unbraided the hair, pulled out the black and green ribbons.
Narits finished first. “You’ll want just one braid, won’t you, Father?” he asked.
“Yes—we’ll have to comb it all.”
Narits took up the comb. “There’s blood,” he said.
“Of course there is,” Tamir said. Next to Filis, he had been the hothead of the sons. “What did you expect—”
“The hair’s clean,” Narits said. “They must have washed it, or this didn’t bleed much—”
He had parted the hair and was peering closely at the scalp. “It looks . . . almost like . . . fingernails dug in. Not scratches.”
The others had finished now and leaned over to look.
“Let me finish,” Narits said. “I think there are more marks . . .”
“Of pain,” Tamir said, turning away. “What does it matter?”
Narits ignored him and ran the comb through the hair, parting it every half fingerwidth to look for marks. “It’s code,” he said finally. “Like the old scrolls. Father, can you read it?”
Andressat looked. “Not like this. Can you copy it, Narits, one mark at a time, onto paper?”
When he had done that, it was clear that the marks—each a slightly curved line—formed a definite design. “Alured’s work,” Tamir said. “Maybe an evil spell?”
“No,” Andressat said. “No, it’s Filis’s.” His voice wavered. “He . . . managed to give us warning. He must have known—” He cleared his throat and went on. “Filis knew what was coming. With only his fingernails to use—knowing Alured was going to send me his skin—he used them where Alured would not see. Under his hair. Perhaps Alured told him he would leave the hair to make sure we recognized him. This—in the old language of Aare, the old writing—tells us that Alured is controlled by a demon inside him, a demon who looks out his eyes at times and has a different voice. That is like the stories from the north of the Verrakaien who stole bodies.”
He looked around at his family and his most trusted servants. “Think on this, any of you who thought Filis might be a traitor. Captive, alone, tormented, yet he thought of us—of saving us—and tore his own skin to warn us. Think what courage that took.” He bent down and kissed the hair, then the forehead, and finally the lips. “My son, you deserve every honor that we can bestow on you. You will be remembered as long as our lives endure. And you will not go under the earth but be borne aloft in Camwyn’s Fire, as if with a dragon for your mount. From Esea came all life; back to Esea you shall go.”
“By Camwyn’s Claw,” everyone responded. “It shall be done.”
“Though first I must write to the north,” Andressat said. “Lord Arcolin must know of this, and his king. Perhaps his captains in Valdaire can get word to the north even in winter.”
Two days later, the funeral pyre stood ready on the cliff just outside the walls of Cortes Andres. On it lay the box, now drenched in oil, and in the box was Filis’s badge. “If it is Camwyn’s will that this fire may send every bit of Filis left below, wherever it may be, on the same smoke rising to the sky, then I invoke Camwyn’s Curse,” Andressat said. “By the Claw and the dragon who bore it, and by the power of Camwyn and the dragon together, I invoke it.”
When they lit the fire, the flames roared up to the sky as if drawn by the air itself and burned the pyre completely; white ash lifted and swirled like snowflakes. Then far, far above, a white line of fire raced across the sky, from above Cortes Andres to the east, and vanished.
“Camwyn consented,” Andressat said. He felt hollow of a sudden, and then a pain as if a horse had kicked him in the chest took all his breath, and he knew he was falling.
A servant’s screams brought the Duke of Immer from his study to his bedroom to find the bedside rug—patched together of skin from Filis Andressat, the Count of Cilwan, Cilwan’s wife, and several other people he’d had flayed—in flames, flames that quickly spread to the bedclothes. More servants ran in with pitchers of water, but the flames could not be stopped until every flammable thing in the room had burnt to ash: stinking, black, oily ash that clung to and dirtied whatever it touched.
“How did you start the fire?” he asked the servant. “I—I didn’t, lord. I swear—I was sweeping when it—it burst into flames. Then I screamed.”
“Nonsense. Leather doesn’t burst into flames by itself. You dropped a lighted spill if you didn’t start it by intention. And the way the bed burned—what did you do, splash oil on the bed?”
“No! I didn’t!”
He made a gesture, and one of the guards ran her through. Even as she fell, a commotion broke out in the courtyard below. Immer looked out the window to see a fire in the kennels. He looked back at the guards. “It seems we have more than one firestarter. See to it.”
Some time later the guard reported that the dogs in question had been seen to burst into flame while in the dog yard. Nothing burned but the dogs . . . and not all the dogs. Only the dogs that had been fed human flesh. Immer shrugged. Someone had thrown a curse at him, clearly. Given the time of year—could it have been the old man, Andressat? He hadn’t thought the man had that much power—any power at all, in fact. He’d never been spoken of as a mage. But he claimed to be bred of Old Aare, a true line, so perhaps—perhaps he had been hiding it all these years.
Ferran Andressat, heir to the title, stood watch over his father’s body turn and turn with the others. No attack had come after all, and he had called Meddthal in from his guard post for the mourning. They must all be there; in the absence of a king to confirm any of them in the title, they used a ceremony passed down in the family for generations. But that would come after placing Jeddrin’s body in the appointed cave. Until then . . . they stood watch.
While he watched, each of his brothers had other chores to complete. Narits received visitors, then ushered them one by one into the chamber where Jeddrin’s body lay. Meddthal organized the household for the reception that would follow the funeral, and Tamir organized the funeral itself. Ferran had given them those assignments. No one had argued.
As the day wore on and he took his turn at his own assignment—reviewing the status of his father’s governance—servants brought meals he ate, out of necessity, but did not really taste. He knew his father had insisted on the need for nobles to work, but he had not realized how much of the work of managing Andressat and its outlying lands his father had done personally.
He ate the last meal of the day with his brothers in the room where the body lay—it could not be left alone—and nodded his approval of what they had accomplished. “We are ready for the burial, then, thanks to you. How one manages alone—how our father managed—I do not know.”
“And how stands Andressat as a whole?” asked Narits. “I know he had been concerned about the costs of governing the South Marches.”
“Solvent and whole, thanks to him, and may we do as well now that it is up to us.”
“Indeed,” Narits said.
“Do you remember, Ferran, the time you told him you were not going to spend one more morning in the library? You must have been ten or so.”
Ferran grinned. “I do indeed. As I recall, I spent that entire day copying lists and wishing I could do it standing up.”
“I was in awe,” Meddthal said. “Arguing with him? Amazing. But seeing the result saved me the trouble of trying it myself.”
They shared memories for a while . . . times with their father, with their mother, with both. The candles around Jeddrin’s body burned bright, flames standing up straight, without a flutter. At last Ferran said, “I need to stay with him tonight—go, sleep, and I’ll sleep tomorrow, after—after it’s done.”
When they had left, he sat by the body and began the old Song of Death his father had taught him. It was in the language of Aare, which he had been forced to learn, as had they all, though none could speak it but themselves.
The candle flames stirred. He sang on, the near drone of the song fitting his mood, fitting death itself.
There is a lord above all lords
And a death below all deaths
Go to the highest lord, to the court of that one
And be free of death, but never return,
Or lie in restful sleep, safe from harm
Far below, below the deepest death
And never return.
This night decide, before the death is done,
While still the spirit has will enough
Make that choice, make it soon,
For the sand runs through the glass
And candles shorten and daylight ends the night
Come, spirit, make that choice
So this body may be laid in honor
Where it should be laid
Then never return.
The cloth over his father’s body quivered like the candle flames. It lifted over his mouth, and Ferran quickly folded back the cloth. Out of Jeddrin’s mouth came the spirit, a pale wraith of Jeddrin, shivering, trembling . . . and then it steadied.
“Son?” The voice was softer than a whisper, the merest touch of sound on Ferran’s ear.
“Ferran, Father. Death came suddenly, but not from an enemy.”
“I choose light.” The wraith leaned to a candle flame, and at once the candle burned brighter, a clear white light bright as summer sun, and the wraith was gone. But in the silence, inside Ferran’s head, his father’s voice said one more thing:
“I leave you my magery.”
No answer came.