The Crimson Crown

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1. Clan Princess

It was the largest gathering of the Spirit clans Raisa had ever seen. They came from all over the Fells—from Demonai Camp to the west, from Hunter’s Camp to the east, and from the rugged northern reaches and the river valleys near the West Wall. Some traveled all the way from the fishing camps along Invaders Bay. Demonai warriors rode in from the wilderness, proudly painted, feathered, and braided. Sun-weathered traders journeyed home from throughout the Seven Realms, bringing exotic goods and news from the down-realms.

Even the elders said that the only other such celebration in their lifetime was the one that marked Raisa’s mother Marianna’s wedding to Averill Demonai—the first marriage of a Gray Wolf queen to clan royalty since the Great Captivity began.

This time they feasted together on the lower slopes of Hanalea to celebrate the crowning of one of their own—Raisa ana’Marianna, called Briar Rose in the high country—as queen of the Fells. The camp was bedecked with garlands of thorny high country roses—Raisa’s clan totem, which always came into bloom near the time of her birthday.

Each camp came bearing gifts, competing in honoring and celebrating the new queen. Raisa accumulated enough finery to last for years to come. Clan metalsmiths presented her with a circlet of roses and thorns in beaten gold. They provided silver fittings for her saddles and bridles crafted by leatherworkers.

Demonai Camp brought her a made-to-measure longbow and a quiver of black-fletched arrows to replace the weapons she’d lost when Micah Bayar carried her off from Oden’s Ford. Marisa Pines Camp gifted her with lotions, remedies, and fragrances that would remind her of the high country in her flatland palace.

Hunter’s Camp contributed haunches of venison, fish from the Dyrnnewater, braces of rabbits, and wild boars, which had been roasting on spits all day.

Storytellers and musicians showered Raisa with songs and stories, predicting a long and glorious reign. This premature praise made her squirm. She was superstitious enough to believe in not tempting fate.

I just don’t want to be known as the queen who inherited trouble and transformed it into disaster, she thought. And that was a distinct possibility.

This celebration was distinguished—some said ruined—by the presence of wizards. Wizards had been forbidden in the Spirit Mountains for a thousand years. Hayden Fire Dancer had, of course, been born into Marisa Pines Camp, the mixed-blood son of the clan Matriarch, Willo Watersong. And Han Alister insisted on coming to the celebration as Raisa’s bodyguard.

His presence made a tense situation even worse.

It’s unfair, Raisa thought. After all, it was the Demonai who had called Han home from Oden’s Ford to help them fight the Wizard Council.

Raisa was acutely aware of Han’s presence, unable to dismiss memories of shared kisses and fierce, desperate embraces. All day long she’d felt the pressure of his blue-eyed gaze. He burned like a meteor in her peripheral vision.

He wore clan garb—leggings that showed off his long legs, and a feast day coat that Willo Watersong had provided, his amulets tucked discreetly underneath. Han knew his way around Marisa Pines Camp. He’d fostered there every summer before he’d become a wizard.

New barriers had grown up between Raisa and Han since her coronation. They both knew there could be no marriage between a wizard thief and the queen of the realm, but disagreed on what to do about it.

Han’s idea was that she abandon the throne and run off with him, and she’d said no. Raisa had proposed that they become clandestine lovers, and he’d said no. Now she couldn’t seem to regain her footing with him. And the constant crowds around Raisa prevented a heart-to-heart.

She still wore the ring that Han had given her at her coronation. The moonstones and pearls glittered next to the time-burnished gold of Hanalea’s wolf ring.

The day began with horse- and footraces in the cool of the mountain morning. There followed games, including a dangerous ball game played from horseback. After that, mock battles and archery competitions.

Night Bird won the archery competition, and Nightwalker came in second. Raisa placed in one of the shorter horse races. “You ride like a Demonai,” her father said proudly. He and Elena were constantly beside her, introducing matriarchs and patriarchs from all over the Spirits. Elena Cennestre especially basked in Raisa’s reflected glory, greeting old friends and rivals, throwing her head back to release her delicious laugh.

Averill’s pleasure was more muted. Like Raisa, he still mourned Queen Marianna.

The feasting began in earnest at dusk—all the guests seated at long tables under the darkening sky. Her father sat on one side of Raisa, her grandmother on the other; Willo next to Averill, and Nightwalker next to Elena, in a position of honor.

Except for Willo, they’re all Demonai, Raisa thought. That warlike clan seemed ascendant. They had married into the Gray Wolf line, and now even the reigning queen carried Demonai blood.

It was a warm night, and Nightwalker wore a deerskin vest that bared his muscular arms. His Demonai amulet glittered in the torchlight, his dark eyes shadowed by the chiseled terrain of his face.

Other than Demonai, Raisa’s table consisted mostly of matriarchs and patriarchs from other camps. Searching the clearing, she spotted Han, exiled with Dancer to a faraway table in the fringes of the trees.

Bonfires flared on the peaks all around them, each blaze marking the resting place of one of Raisa’s ancestors, the Gray Wolf queens. Sparks spiraled upward to mingle with the stars—a tribute from the uplanders who’d been unable to attend the feast.

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