The funeral of the Dragon King lasted three days, and his mourning continued for thirty. During this time Wertwin and the armies of Ameronis, Lupollen, and the others arrived—greatly saddened and contrite, for the news of the king’s death had overtaken them on their way. They were in pursuit of the Ningaal who were fleeing back along the Arvin toward the sea, where their ships still waited. The lords slew many of the enemy in their flight, and the rest were driven into the sea at lance point.
Eskevar’s body was taken at once to the castle, where it was placed upon his own bed. Durwin, aided by Biorkis, came to minister to the body, washing it and composing it for entombment. Inchkeith worked long hours over the king’s armor, pounding out the dents inflicted upon it in the last battle and shining it bright as new. Queen Alinea herself dressed her husband in his finest garments; Bria and Esme adorned him with his most treasured jewels. And then he was taken to the great hall, where he was solemnly laid upon his bier.
The king’s body lay in the great hall for two days, guarded by a sorrowful contingent of knights and nobles throughout the day and night while a steady procession of tearful subjects filed past the litter. The miserable, wailing peasants filled the ward yards, and afflicted citizens roamed the streets of the town, inconsolable with grief. The great Dragon King had passed; no one had ever thought to see that dark day.
Quentin remained in his chamber and would see no one. He did not even venture to the battlements to watch the funeral pyres of all the brave dead of the king’s proud army as they burned upon the plain. He held himself to blame for the king’s death, reasoning that if he had arrived but a few heartbeats sooner, Eskevar would still be alive. Quentin would neither eat nor sleep, but sat slumped in a chair before the darkened, empty hearth.
At midnight on the second day, Quentin bestirred himself and crept quietly to the great hall. The mourners had gone, and no one lingered in the hall except the ten knights standing as statues of stone around the body. Torches burned on standards at the four corners of the bier, casting a soft, hazy light over the pall. Quentin moved closer, mounting the flower-strewn platform to kneel beside the body.
In the lambent glow the king’s features were relaxed and calm; except for the unnatural stillness, he might have been asleep. Gone were the traces of illness that had so wasted his noble frame. Gone, too, were the lines of care and concern that had creased his features in the last few days. The years seemed to have been rolled away, and Quentin saw a younger Eskevar than he had known. His hair was dark and swept back over his temples. The high forehead was smooth, the nose straight and well formed above a firm but not ungentle mouth. The hard jut of the jaw had been softened, revealing a man at peace within himself, and the deeply cleft chin spoke of the unflinching purpose of the man who had been. The king wore his armor and held his helm nestled under his left arm. His sword lay upon his chest, where it was held at the hilt in his right hand. The writhing dragon device on the king’s breastplate seemed to twist and wink in the firelight. A cloak of royal blue edged in silver and gold was fastened at the throat by a golden chain and the king’s favorite dragon brooch. Eskevar appeared ready to leap to his feet and ride once more to the trumpeter’s call.
Quentin bowed his head, and hot tears fell upon the bier. He recalled so vividly the time when he had seen his king just so, held in the evil Nimrood’s spell. Then, by an impossible miracle, the necromancer’s enchantment had been broken and the Dragon King freed to live again. But it was a far more powerful sorcery that embraced the king now, one that claimed all men in the end and from which there was no release.
Quentin heard a soft step behind him, and he felt a light touch on his shoulder. He glanced up to see Queen Alinea, dressed all in sable, looking down on him, her green eyes deep pools of sorrow, but shining more beautifully for the compassion with which she regarded him.
“I have sought you these past two days, my son.” The queen spoke softly, and the tone eased Quentin’s troubled heart. He did not speak.
“You must not blame yourself, for in the end he chose his own course, as he ever did. It was his wish to die serving the kingdom he loved. And of all his loves, this one, his love for his realm, claimed his highest devotion. He was a king first and a man only second.”
“Thank you for your words, my lady. They do soothe me well. I will not blame myself, though I did at first. I know now that his course was set for him long ago. He would not bend to another.”
“Not and remain Eskevar for very long. Look at him, Quentin. See how peacefully he slumbers. Death held no terror for him; he had conquered it many times. The thing he feared and hated most was that his realm would fall before him, and he would not be able to save it. That gnawed at him; it poisoned his last days. But he conquered that, too, in the end.”
“How well you knew him, Alinea.”
“Knew him? Perhaps I knew him as well as anyone could, and I loved him with all my heart; he loved me, too, in his way. But a king does not belong to himself, or to his family. He belongs to his kingdom. Eskevar felt this more intimately than any I have known. He died for Mensandor as he lived for it.
“But there was much that even I did not know of him. The long years of war, years away from his home, took more than time away from us. Many was the night I cried out in loneliness for my husband and would have had a strong hand to hold my own. There was none. Eskevar was away, fighting for his kingdom. Even when he returned, he never rested; he was always turning his eyes here and there, searching every remote corner of Mensandor for any sign of weakness or trouble.
“He once told me—by way of apology, I think—‘If you seek to know me, know first my kingdom.’ He was Mensandor; its life was his.”
Quentin looked upon the dead monarch, realizing there was much he would never know of the man who had adopted him to be his own. “Now that he is dead, what will happen to his realm?” he wondered aloud.
“It shall live on in the life of the new Dragon King,” murmured the queen softly. She bent over her husband’s body and removed the dragon brooch and chain. She then turned and drew Quentin to his feet. “You will find this to be far heavier than the weight of its gold, my dear one. But he wanted you to have it, and all that goes with it.”
Quentin shook his head slowly, fingering the golden brooch the queen had fastened on his cloak. “I was never his son. As much as I love you both and am grateful for your kindness to me these many years, I am not fit to be king.”
“Who would be better?”
“His trueborn son, perhaps.”
“You know he had no male heir. But I shall tell you something. I have always thought it strange that a man who valued his throne so highly would have—”
“Given it away so freely,” muttered Quentin.
“No, he did not give it away at all, Quentin. You see, Bria was born just before Eskevar went to war with Goliah. When he learned that I could have no other children, and his offspring was female, I expected him to be angry. I offered to relinquish my crown so that he could take another, but he would not hear of it. He said he was content, that he would trust whatever god that ruled him to provide an heir when the time came. He never spoke of it again.
“So when he asked you to be his ward, I knew he had found his heir. How he knew, I cannot say. But he saw something in you that pleased him very much.”
“It seemed a kingly whim to me, my lady. Not that I was not overjoyed to receive his high favor. But as much as I loved him and Askelon, Dekra is my home. He must have known that.”
“It did not matter. He wanted for you only your happiness. He knew that when the time came, you would fulfill his hopes and expectations, so deep was his trust.”
“I hope he was not mistaken. I pray he was not,” said Quentin. Alinea looked upon the still form of the king and, drawing a long breath, turned away at last, offering Quentin her hand.
“He was not mistaken, my son. All is as it should be—as he would have had it. You will see.”
Quentin cast a glance toward the body and withdrew with Alinea on his arm. Their footsteps echoed in the darkened hall, and when they had gone, silence again reclaimed her own.
The next morning the body of the king was taken to the Ring of the Kings, the ancestral resting place of the Mensandorean monarchs established within the green walls of Pelgrin Forest.
The funeral cortege, made up of knights and nobles on horseback and loyal subjects on foot, wound through the hastily cleared streets of Askelon. Townspeople stood among the ashes of their ruined city to pay a last farewell to their sovereign. Quentin rode on Blazer, next to Alinea and directly behind the funeral wain. Bria and Durwin followed and were in turn followed by Theido and Ronsard, who led the procession of noblemen. Others came on in turn, riding beneath their colorful devices and banners. At the head of the cortege, the Dragon King’s own standard carried his red dragon hung with pennons of black.
The king rode to his tomb on his bier beneath a sky of radiant blue sown with tufts of white clouds. A cool wind freshened the summer air and bore sorrow far away, though here and there a tear still sparkled in an eye. The sun shone down upon the body of Eskevar fair and full, and the wind ruffled his hair as his armor glinted hard and bright in the sun.
Eskevar was placed in one of the beehive-shaped barrows within the Ring—the very barrow Quentin had found him in years before to rescue him from Nimrood’s fell scheme. The barrow was clean and well ordered, having been swept and appointed by Oswald, the queen’s chamberlain.
With much ceremony and dignity, Eskevar was laid to rest upon his stone slab, which had been spread with fur coverlets from his bed. His most highly prized possessions were placed about him, and when all had looked their last upon the king, the tomb was sealed and the entrance filled in with earth. Quentin assisted in this work rather than stand by and watch. And when it was over, he turned away and did not look back.
As the funeral party emerged from the green silence of the Ring of the Kings, they were met by a party of lords led by Wertwin. The noblemen bowed in their saddles and gazed down at Quentin, who still walked beside the queen, holding her arm. “We are told,” began Wertwin, “that you are to be the king’s choice to succeed his throne.”
“I am,” Quentin said flatly. No one could determine from his tone how he felt about the matter.
Wertwin appeared disconcerted and glanced at the lords around him. “We mean to offer you our fealty,” he explained.
Quentin only stared at them. “He who wields the Shining One is our king!” said someone from among them. A chorus of hearty approval endorsed this statement. From somewhere nearby Toli appeared, bearing a sword in his arms. Quentin smiled at his friend and took the sword.
He felt the quick warmth of its grip as it touched his fingers, and he heard the blade whisper as he drew it forth. Then suddenly the forest glade was awash in a brilliant light as Quentin lofted the sword for all to see.
The assembled lords dismounted at once and came forward to gather around him and to kneel. Quentin held the sword high and said, “May the god whose power burns in this blade burn in me as well. I will accept your fealty.”
The forest rang with cheers and shouts of acclaim. Theido and Ronsard shouldered their way to his side and clapped him on the back, and then he was borne away on the shoulders of loyal subjects.
A jubilant parade returned to Askelon, in marked contrast to the one that had issued from the gates earlier in the day. Although the official period of mourning would continue for many more days, from that moment the healing process throughout the ravaged land was begun. In Eskevar all the dead were buried and the old order laid to rest. In Quentin the new order was present with a promise bright as the future that shone like the light of the Shining One at his side.
A new age had dawned, and a new king had been chosen to lead the way. And of all those who reveled in it and welcomed it, only Durwin, the faithful hermit of Pelgrin Forest, knew it for what it was: the priest king had come at last. The promise of the ages had been fulfilled.