Averil, once hunted across the land and sea by her uncle the king, is now the Queen Lys. But if she cannot defy and defeat her late uncle's sorcerous masters, she will never live to be crowned.
Kathleen Bryan's highly praised romantic fantasy trilogy concludes with The Last Paladin.
About the Author
Kathleen Bryan lives in Vail, Arizona. She is the author of The Serpent and the Rose.
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THE LAST PALADIN (Chapter 1)
THE KING WAS dead.
The sea had swallowed him and all his magic, and every traitorous thought and plan that he had cherished. His kingdom was free.
The young queen came over the sea on the wings of a storm, sailing into sunlight and bitter, bone-cracking cold. A tide of wild magic carried her; hosts of wildfolk flew and sailed and swam over and around and beneath the ship that bore her. The air was full of wings and talons and shrill eerie voices, and far and subtle beneath, the slide of scales.
They left her with her escort on a barren and stony shore, streaming ahead of her as if to show her the way. She stood on the shingle, earthbound and struck to the heart, as the full burden of the kingdom fell upon her.
So much darkness. So much sorrow. So many lives lost, souls taken, hearts and spirits broken. By the good God and all his hallows, who was she to take this on herself?
She drew herself up with all the strength she could muster. Her men had moved on past her, some to take the sense of the land, others to greet the folk of her own country who waited on the shingle.
They were not the Knights of the Rose whom she had thought to see, nor were they from her own duchy of Quitaine. These were warriors but not mages, and their commander was a lady in fine wool and furs. The face within the hood was both familiar and unexpected.
As the ship that had brought her over the sea came about and caught the tide, running back swiftly to Prydain, Averil found herself enveloped in a perfumed embrace. "Mathilde," she said as she extricated herself. "Is there trouble?"
Her old ally from the royal court held her at arm's length, smiling, but the dark eyes were somber. "You were wise to insist on coming fast and quiet, lady," said Mathilde. "Come, we'll bring you where it's safe and out of the cold. Then we'll tell you everything."
Averil glanced at the commander of her guard. Mauritius was fully as somber as Mathilde. So were they all, both those who had waited and those who had come over the sea.
She had been locked within herself since she set sail from Prydain. The king was dead; there was a kingdom to claim, to heal, to make new. All of her mind and thought had focused on what she would do and how she would do it.
Now she opened her eyes and saw what her escort had seen since...when?
Not so long, or they would have done their best to prevent her from coming across the sea. She looked inside herself, where all of them were, a shining web of magic that wove itself wherever the warrior mages of the Rose still lived.
They had tried to protect her, to shelter her from fear. When she saw what they saw, she could almost understand why they had done it.
Almost. She nodded sharply. "Best we go," she said.
A horse was waiting for her, with her own Squire of the Rose at its head--she should not think of him so, but it was the only truth either of them knew. Gereint's grey eyes were watchful, measuring each man and committing him to memory; measuring Mathilde, too, with intensity that made Averil shiver.
He should have warned her. But now was not the time or the place to speak of it.
He lifted her easily into the saddle. His touch lingered no more than it must. Even in her anger at him above all, she would have preferred that it linger longer. But he was wiser sometimes than she.
She took up the reins. "Follow," she said.
THE LAND WAS sick.
The others knew of the plague that ran across it, but not of the deeper sickness beneath. That was nothing new for Gereint: his eyes persisted in seeing where the rest of the world was blind. Averil felt it because he felt it; it weighed down her spirit, which in turn weighed down his.
The land was sick, and the king's death had done nothing to heal it. Even the return of the Rose to the kingdom's heart, the presence of the Knights' power in the places where it had been broken and cast down, barely lightened the darkness.
THAT FIRST NIGHT of the queen's return to Lys, her escort camped in what had once been a chapter house of the Rose. Its walls still stood; its roof was charred but mostly intact. Averil's Knights walked the borders and restored the wards, hanging bits of glass and living crystal wherever a window or a door had been.
As the sun set, giving way to stars that glittered like the wards of heaven, they gathered round a fire that was half mortal and half magic. After the frugal supper that all had shared, most of the men had either retreated to stand guard or gone to sleep in sheltered corners.
Averil granted the Knights and the lady no such indulgence. Gereint would not sleep while she did not, and one or two others--the Squire Riquier, the Novice Ademar--hung about until the flash of her glance drew them in.
She let them wait while she studied each one. Some suffered that scrutiny more easily than others. Only Mathilde seemed unperturbed, wrapped warmly in her furs and sipping the last of the spiced wine.
At length Averil said, "Tell me, messires, my lady. When were you intending to inform your queen of the plague upon her kingdom?"
It was Mauritius who answered. "Lady, when you were ready, the knowledge was there for your taking."
That was a rebuke, however gently expressed. Averil was in no mood to flinch from it. "Yes, and I have taken it. Was I taught awry, then? On the Isle I learned that when a sorcerer dies, his sorceries die with him. The undead that he raised, the foul things that he wrought, are all undone. Only work of the orders endures beyond death, set forever in glass. Is that a lie? Or did I misunderstand?"
"It is no lie, lady," Mauritius said.
"Truly? And yet when I woke from my soft and coddled dream, I found my kingdom as sore beset as it was when my uncle was king."
"Perhaps it is not as bad as that," said another of the Knights, the tall and deceptively gentle scholar Alain. "The king left a great broil of confusion behind him, armies without will or command, men stripped of souls and wits but not of breath. It is a great plague, and must be destroyed. But without its guiding force, it cannot grow."
"Do you know that?" she asked. "Are you certain? The king was not the only Serpent mage in the world. A gathering of them, a coven if you will, could wreak havoc with the workings that he left behind."
"So they could," Alain said, "but conspiracies need time. Conspiracies of magic, even more so. Your swift action, as little as we liked it then, will have caught them off guard."
"You hope it has," she said.
"Lady," said Mauritius, "if you believe that you are in danger, the ship is not so far away. We'll call it back; you can return to Prydain. We'll bring you here again when the land is safe to live in."
She fixed him with a hard stare. He met it blandly. He knew her best of any but Gereint; he must know what his words would do to her.
That was a game, and she was in no mood to play it. "We don't know if I am endangered, do we? All we have is a creeping under the skin and a sense of impending doom."
"We have a little more than that, lady," Mathilde said. "The king's men are everywhere, roving bands that are small and seem aimless, but they are a great nuisance. We rode from Lutèce with the Knights and mages who had promised to meet you when you came to land, but all too soon it was clear that they could only make the way safe for you if they devoted themselves to destroying the king's men. So they stayed behind and worked their magics, and I ran ahead with my escort." She paused. Her breath caught just perceptibly. "It's a grievous thing to find and slay the soulless ones, lady; they're brothers and husbands and sons, after all, and sometimes one recognizes a face."
Averil could not let herself feel the grief of that. She could not feel anything, not now, but determination to do what she must do. "So: they succeeded? They've cleared the way?"
Mathilde shook her head. She seemed close to tears. "There are so many, lady--and more, it seems, the closer we are to the sea. The last Knight rode away from us this morning, aiming toward St. Dol. We eluded several bands thereafter. Something in this country appears to draw them."
"The sea," said Alain. "Their master lies beneath it. It may be we'll be fortunate, and they'll all march blindly into it."
"Maybe," Mathilde said. She did not sound convinced.
"We need to know," said Averil. "If something is bringing them here, we have to find it, to know what it is and why."
"There is no 'we' in that, lady," Mauritius said with all courtesy. "We will seek and find. You will stay as safe as you may."
Averil opened her mouth to object, but such sense as she had restrained her. An uncrowned queen was the most delicate of creatures. There would be no adventuring for her, no riding out, no scouting the land. Her duty was to reach her royal city alive and intact, and take the crown. Nothing else must interfere.
There was nothing to prevent her from searching in other ways. She lowered her eyes and composed her face and said, "In the morning we will ride, with our scouts ahead of us. I must come to Lutèce, messires, my lady--and the sooner, the better."
"That is our plan, lady," said Mauritius. "Tonight we rest and gather our strength. Tomorrow we brave the roads."
They all bowed to that. He had taken command as was proper; it was his rank and station.
Even as he spoke, Averil felt the prickle of awareness in the web as he reached to his brothers for both knowledge and wisdom. They were so few, spread so thin; the burden on them was so great. But Averil could not afford to be merciful. She had to spend what she had, or lose it all.
AVERIL'S UNEASE MADE Gereint's shoulders tighten. He had strength in plenty to give her, but no one could take the weight from her shoulders. That was what it was to be a queen: the burden was hers to carry, no matter how heavy it might be.
He withdrew from the fire if not from her heart. A small crowd of wildfolk fluttered beyond the wards; their plaintive chirps and chitters tempted Gereint to break the bindings and let them in. But that would not have been wise.
Gereint slipped outside instead and let them come to him. They flocked over and around him, shrilling their gladness. Their touch was as soft as moths' wings, their voices too high almost to hear.
They felt the sickness in the land, too. It was no worse for them than the agony of magic constrained to rigid order, locked in the harsh planes and angles of glass. They suffered the twofold onslaught because Gereint was there, drawing strength from the earth for them all, and because Averil was part of him and he of her. Averil was their queen even before she was queen of mortal Lys.
Mortal Lys was mortally ill, poisoned by the late king's magic. It clotted the rivers and roiled in the earth. The paths of power were knotted and confused; the wild magic was now so weak it was nearly gone, and now so strong it was a danger to itself and all about it.
Gereint knew well the perils of that. Having given these wildfolk what aid he could, he left them to the currents of heaven and slipped back again through the wards. The walls of air and magic brushed past him like wind and fire, but they never touched or harmed him.
"Did I just see what I thought I saw?"
Gereint started. He had settled, unobtrusively he thought, on the edge of the firelight. But Riquier had seen him.
Riquier was both teacher and friend. Gereint trusted him as completely as he trusted anyone in this world. But there were things he never had quite come round to telling his brothers in the Rose.
This would be one of those things. Riquier squatted on his heels beside Gereint, peering at him in the flickering dimness. "You did, didn't you? You walked through great wards as if they hadn't been there at all."
Gereint could lie. Or he could say, "Not exactly through. More around, and inabout."
"Would I understand if you explained?"
Gereint shrugged uncomfortably. "Can you explain how you breathe?"
"That easy, is it?"
Gereint shrugged again. "It's just something I do. Am I in trouble? Is this forbidden?"
"It might be, if anyone knew it was possible." Riquier shook his head. "Every time I think we've got the measure of your magic, you show us whole worlds we'd never thought of. What else can you do that you haven't happened to mention?"
"I don't know," said Gereint. That was not a lie, either, exactly. "Some things I just do. I don't think about them." And some things were between Gereint and Averil.
He held his breath in dread of what secrets Riquier might pry out of him, but his brother Squire only sighed and said, "Thank the good God you're our ally and not our enemy, or you'd be honestly dangerous."
"I am that," said Gereint: "both honest and dangerous."
Whatever Riquier might have replied, he lost it in the flurry as the queen rose and withdrew to her bed. She might not sleep for the depth of her trouble, but she would lie down at least, and close her eyes. That counted for something.
Gereint's watch was not until nearly dawn. He remained by the fire, alone but for the wildfolk who hovered still, high above the camp and its wards.
AVERIL WATCHED HIM from the shelter of the tent Mathilde had insisted she sleep in, even beneath the most solid remnant of the roof. That lady was deeply and peacefully asleep on the other side of it. Averil should rest; she needed all the strength she could muster. But there was no sleep in her.
Gereint had a keener sense of the land than anyone she knew. Maybe it was because he was a farmer's son: he had grown up with his feet in the earth and his eye on the long round of the year. Yet even she, who had been raised on the Ladies' Isle and known little of Lys until she was brought to it by her father's will, scarcely two years past, could feel the wrongness here.
Her great burden and most unwelcome treasure, the pendant of intricate enamelwork that hung always between her breasts, was warm enough to burn. The prisoner within slept as it had for twice a thousand years, no nearer escape than it had ever been. She should have taken heart from that.
Nothing was as it should have been. She burrowed into the warmth of blankets and tried to shut out the world and its sorrows.
Instead she only succeeded in making them stronger. In the darkness and the sharp scent of new wool, she felt the emptiness of bodies stripped of souls, a strong force of them and all too near.
Mathilde had been certain that the king's men wandered without will or intent, gathering in bands of a dozen at most. There were several times that, counted in shivers on her skin, and they did not feel aimless. They felt as if they had a purpose.
Mathilde had not lied, surely; she simply did not know. The soulless were warded against the more common sorts of magic.
Someone had to be leading them. They could not think or act of their own accord; they existed to serve a sorcerer's will. Who that sorcerer was, or what he intended, Averil could not tell. The wards were too strong.
Averil had been a fool to hope that if she came to Lys soon enough, others would not have moved before her. They were all moving at once, and the prize was more than a crown. It was the world.
THE LAST PALADIN Copyright © 2009 by Judith Tarr
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Her English are hard to understand. The Trilogy could have been done in one book.
Averil has become the queen of the Kingdom of Lys with the death of her wicked uncle King Clodovec. However, the evil he did lives after him; there is no good interred with his bones as the sorcerers who used her odious relative continue their quest to bring forth the Serpent God of Chaos and their soulless armies continue to kill anyone in their path.
Averil knows she must confront the amoral sorcerers before the Serpent God arrives; if she fails to stop their incantations in time, Chaos will rule over Order. Her magecraft bondmate Squire Gereint reluctantly supports her quest to take the battle to the enemy, but her loyal subjects fear her death means the end of the Light. None can prevent the final war between Order and Chaos with the Serpent God apparently ready to lead Averill¿s enemies.
The final War between Order and Chaos (see THE SERPENT AND THE ROSE and THE GOLDEN ROSE) is a great ending to a strong quest trilogy. The courageous Averil and her brave bondmate have gained wisdom as both sadly understand what she must do. However, it is the Serpent God who makes the tale as he also comprehends that even Chaos has a need of Order. Although the ending appears too formulaic for this extremely complex character driven fantasy saga, Kathleen Bryan¿s fans will relish the final battle between the forces of Order and those of Chaos.