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Peven's Tower

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Raederle refused to accept that Morgon had simply disappeared after battling the shape-changers in Erlenstar Mountain. He might choose to be invisible to his enemies, to the land rulers, and even to the wizards, but why would he hide from her?

He was alive, Raederle was sure of that, if only because the whole world seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for him to reappear. And yet she could not sense him anywhere. The realm felt cleansed of his presence. His voice, his bare-earth smell, the heartbeat she’d grown so used to on the road to Lungold—all gone. She was glad he was alive. And yet some small, childish part of her felt abandoned, left behind.

Exhausted, she flew south as bedraggled crow, drawn towards the comfort of Anuin and her brothers, though she doubted she still had a right to call An home. Rather say, perhaps, that it was a place she’d loved, and where she’d been loved, before she’d cast her lot with the wild and the rootless. Even in crow shape, her heart ached for the girl she had been there: a girl who thought herself fearless only because she hadn’t known all there was to fear; a girl whose many questions had never pierced the dark heart of the riddles her father taught her, riddles to which he’d bound her future and her heart.

An looked different from this perspective, a pretty patchwork of crops and meadows, of houses whose disrepair was invisible from the air. It unfurled itself tranquilly below her, but her crow’s eye saw traces of its violent history everywhere: fields pockmarked by battle scars, gullies where nothing would grow, the short shadows of burial mounds. Was this what her father had seen, Raederle wondered? Was this the map he’d used when he’d plotted out her life? If she’d never learned to change shape, would she ever have seen it for herself?

As if conjured by her thought of Mathom, Raederle felt the roiling of An’s dead, their uneasy awareness of abandonment. Their bonds were loosening; the King of An had been away too long. A half-formed fear that their wraiths might follow her to Anuin, as they had once before, made Raederle change course abruptly. She let herself be buoyed by a current of air eddying around a range of hills on the border of Aum. The current led her into a narrow valley, shadows lengthening as the space between the hills narrowed. The valley ended in a dim cul-de-sac, hemmed in on three sides by rocky slopes.

When Raederle realized where she was, the shock flung her back into her own body. She found herself on her knees on the sparse furze, staring at the crumbling tower.

++

Raederle remembered the first time her father had turned away a suitor. She hadn’t wanted to marry Ris ap Dafydd—she hadn’t wanted to marry anyone—but she’d been of an age where the ritual of courtship intrigued her, and Ris, a Hel lordling as handsome as he was ambitious, had seemed as good a partner to practice with as any.

When Mathom had refused Ris, and instead revealed that he’d promised his daughter to the unknown man who could complete an impossible task, his male offspring had been furious. “Now you tell us?” Duac had asked. “Don’t you think this might have been useful information in the trade agreements you’re always making me negotiate?” Rood had said much worse things—she remembered the chaos that resulted from at least one adolescent shout.

Raederle, however, had been more curious than angry. Her interest in Ris and the intricacies of flirtation had dissolved almost instantaneously in the face of this better puzzle. Love, and everything that went with it, seemed pleasant, if silly, but she doubted she would ever be in love. There were plenty of more interesting things to do—study riddles with her father, or learn bits of magic with the pig woman. She’d quickly realized the advantages of her situation. If Mathom’s vow had been a kind of prison, it had also offered her freedom of a sort. She was off the marriage market indefinitely—permanently, if history was any guide. She could ignore all the imprecations of the fractious lords of An. She could let her hair grow wild and go barefoot whenever court shoes grew uncomfortable. So she reserved her curiosity for her father, not the foolish men who ventured into Peven’s tower. “What did you see?” Raederle had asked Mathom over and over again; “Why did you promise?”

Her curiosity had even driven her to this place once before, as if seeing this dark tower would give her insight into Mathom’s dark mind. But after three days hard riding from Anuin, the penurious tower, girt round with flagstones riven by weeds, had disappointed her. She’d walked twice around the crumbling walls, listening to the ghostly challenges emanating from within. Then she’d decided she wasn’t ready to give her life to a riddle game, and ridden away.

++

Now, the rocks dug into the soft flesh of Raederle’s knees. The riddle game had caught her in the end. She shivered in the darkening air; she was tired, and hungry, after days of eating who-knew-what as a crow. She looked at her human hands and barely recognized them. Who was the girl who had come here a few short years ago, armored in her certainties and indifference? Would that girl have recognized the women she’d become? Raederle doubted it. That girl had had no idea of the way that love and riddles could fling you out of your life, the way they could make you abandon your very shape, without a second thought. She liked to think she would have been kind to her future self, but she couldn’t be sure.

“You!”

Raederle looked up, startled out of her self-pity by a querulous voice coming from somewhere above her head. She squinted in the dusk and made out a bony nose, a wisp or two of white hair.

“You’ve been here before. You’re the one they used to call the Treasure of An, aren’t you?” A peevish cackle split the evening air. “Don’t think they’d call you that now—not without a good wash at any rate.”

“Peven? What are you doing here?” It seemed impossible that he would still be here, still stuck in the very place that had set the whole ruinous chain of events in motion.

“You tell me.” The ghost was indignant. “I certainly don’t deserve to be. I petitioned your father to release me on several occasions. I lost my life; I lost my crown. Why should I continue to be humiliated? But does anyone care? Mathom never answered. So here I remain.” The bitterness in the last words was so heavy, Raederle expected them to hit her skin like rain.

“I’m sorry,” she said, though how Peven’s confinement was her fault, she didn’t know. “Mathom’s—well, he’s—“

“Gone. Yes, I know. I may have lost my crown to that farmer”—he spat the word— “but I’m not an imbecile. I can tell when the land-ruler has left the land.”

Suddenly, Raederle was furious at the wraith’s self-absorption. The sentiment lifted her off her knees to point an accusing finger at the tower. “Look,” she said. “I’m sorry about your crown—not that I ever saw it—but there have been too many other things going on for people—especially the King of An—to worry about—“

“Yes, yes, I know. One of my miserable descendents comes by to keep me informed.” A sudden gust of wind set the starlings in the tower’s eves squawking. It was, Raederle realized, Peven’s sigh. “It’s just that I’m tired. Very tired.”

Unexpectedly, his plaint touched Raederle. Her anger evaporated as quickly as it had formed. Unpleasant as he was, Peven was as much of a pawn in whatever game the High One was playing as she herself. They were, in a sense, each other’s mirror: Peven bound to this tiny, isolated plot of land, and she placeless, harried across the realm by love and riddles.

“I may be able to help,” she told him. He didn’t say anything, but the air around her grew expectant. Raederle sent her awareness into the stones of the tower, into the spaces between them, and found the iron tendrils by which the kings of An had bound Peven here. She didn’t have Morgon’s gift for land law, but she had more experience than she wished with the dead of An.

As she explored, Raederle found unexpected traces of the man Peven had been: not the vengeful, jealous ghost she’d always heard of, but a scholar king—arrogant and cold, but also joyful in his knowledge, loyal to the complicated forms of riddlery. How like Rood he was, she thought, and wondered if some of Peven’s blood had gotten into their family tree. In the end, it wasn’t hard to free him. The bonds were already loosening under the strain of Mathom’s long absence; she merely eased them into dissolution.

“There,” she said, undoing the last of the tendrils. “Go in peace.”

++

Too exhausted to go farther that night in any shape, Raederle built a fire on the broken flagstones of Peven’s now empty tower. She had nothing to eat, and couldn’t bear to hunt, but the flames warmed her and she felt a bit better.

She caught a flame on her palm and played with it idly. She tried to sketch Morgon’s face with it by memory, but she only got as far as three red stars before giving up. What would she do if he really was gone forever, she wondered, her earlier despair returning? Live among the shape-changers in the sea? Or stay with her human family, like Ylon, always yearning for something else?

A burst of cold air interrupted the warmth of her fire and the gloom of her reverie. “Peven?” Raederle asked. “I thought I’d set you free.”

She could barely make him out in the firelight. He seemed diminished, more scholar now than king, an ancient, ill-kempt man in a robe two-sizes too big for him.

“You are the first person in many centuries to have done me a kindness,” he said. “So I thought you might do me one more. I was a riddle master while I was alive, and I find I cannot rest until I know the answer to one more riddle.”

His voice, too, had changed. His strident tone had vanished, replaced by something almost tentative. For that reason, perhaps, Raederle said, “Ask.”

“Where is Peven’s crown and how did it get there?”

“At the bottom of the sea,” she told him. The second part took a good deal longer to explain, and by the time Raederle had finished her fire had burned to its embers.

“I see,” said Peven. He was becoming more translucent as dawn began to creep into his valley. “I can understand why you were so angry before, and sad. And now I have a riddle for you, daughter of Mathom.”

“I should know better than to trade riddles with you,” Raederle said.

Peven laughed creakily. “I can no longer exact a forfeit for not knowing, but I doubt I would have to. Who was Rugg of Hel?”

Raederle wondered at his choice; Rugg was one of the very first riddles her father had taught her. “Every child knows that one,” she said. “Rugg lost his wife and his farm to a flood, leaving him with three daughters, each smaller than the last. Despairing, he wandered into the woods, and in his grief slipped into a crevasse. As he lay at the bottom, his leg broken, he realized he wanted to live. But there was no way out. Then he saw a tiny hand reaching down for him. It was the smallest of his daughters, lowering herself into the pit, with the next smallest holding onto her feet, and the least small holding onto her feet with one hand, and a tree above with the other. They had followed him, and agreed to risk their own lives to pull him out. And so they did.”

“And the stricture?”

“That love fills not a single soul but forms a chain.”

Raederle drew a breath and slowly let it out. The riddle had seemed a warning when Mathom drilled it into Raederle as a girl, family chaining you to a life, even then you were eager to escape. But the stricture sounded different now. Those tethering hands, those frail bodies willing to share the risk—the image made the prospect of love newly bearable. Was that what Peven had meant to convey? She turned to ask him, but whatever remnants of himself he had gathered to ask the riddle had been dispersed by the first rays of the sun.

The morning blew a fresh breeze into the valley. On it, Raederle thought she could hear the faintest hint of harpsong.