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The End Is Where We Start From

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The funeral was a traditional affair, as befit the funeral of a king, and the first king of Dalemark to die in two centuries and more. While the earls and lords and guild masters showed their respect to the old king in coin and guns and wheat, the king's singer recited the lay he had made for Amil the Great. It told of the ten great deeds of the king, of the seventy peaceful and prosperous years of his reign, and of the seventy times seventy wise proverbs that had fallen from his lips. While the king was laid in his tomb, the singer appealed to the One Whose Names Could Not Be Spoken to guide the king's spirit swiftly from the Dark Land to the Great River and out to the Sea, and if there'd been anyone there who knew the old man or cared about the old songs, they might have been surprised that the singer laid aside his own ancient cwidder for the song and borrowed a modern one from his nephew, who'd been a singer before he became an earl. But there was no one.

And when the tomb was sealed, silence fell. The singer stood contemplating the fantastic shadows cast by the tomb until the sun had set. 'Farewell, Amil my king,' he said quietly, and he did not weep.

Later, much later, when the moon had risen, and the kitchens and cellars of Tannoreth Palace rang with calls for sweet pastries and sweeter wines, and the Earl of Holand had quarrelled with the Earl of Andmark (for some things would not change even with the passage of seventy times seventy years), a bent figure approached the tomb, and the sweet slow notes of a lullaby sounded on the night air. He seemed to have as little trouble with the tomb's seal as with the guards who slumbered by the entrance (they must have taken too much ale with their funeral loaves). Within the sepulchre, the crisp stripes of lantern light painted such deceitful shadows that the imaginative might almost fancy the corpse stretched out on the bier had been a man approaching middle years, and not an aged and venerable king. The singer placed a kiss on the cold brow, and his calloused fingers smoothed back the steel-grey hair from the king's ageless face. Then he perched cross-legged at the end of the bier, surprisingly limber for a man of his years, took up his cwidder and began to play.

It was a stirring song, a call to battle. Sung or spoken, carved or woven, there is magic in words, and when the singer reached the chorus, 'Awake, sons of Dalemark, awake!' the king opened his eyes.

'Flaming Ammet!' he said, sitting up and stretching. 'I swear it's as chilly in here as the midwinter sea off the coast of Aberath.'

'Hello, Mitt,' said Moril as calmly as if people awakening from the dead were an everyday occurrence. 'Don't blame me! You designed the place—you should have included a heating system, instead of all these ridiculous towers.'

'I didn't intend to live in it! What kept you? A three-legged tortoise would've been quicker.'

'The king's singer has to put in an appearance to play the lament at the king's funeral feast—particularly when rumours are rife that he might have been the last person to see the king alive. There's enough talk flying round the palace tonight about why I declined the honour of babysitting your grandsons on their round Dalemark tour by Royal Train—though I'm sure they'll do just fine with the court reporters from the Kernsburgh Gazette.' Moril added, a little wistfully, 'Who'd want a ballad nowadays, when they could have a front-page headline?'

'If I know palace gossip,' said Mitt, 'come morning they'll be accusing you of poisoning me.'

It was so near and yet so far from the truth that both men burst into peals of helpless laughter. Moril, always the first of the pair to sober up, asked, 'But are you absolutely sure no one suspects?'

'People have always seen what they want to see and ignored what they don't understand. They've forgotten the old ways—you should know that, Moril.'

'Sometimes I'm glad to have grown old.'

'Navis was the only one who ever worked it out, the crafty old bugger,' said Mitt. 'He made it his business to know everyone's secrets. You know he advised me on his deathbed to bleach my hair grey and avoid posing for photographers?' Moril nodded. 'And Biffa, of course. She always knew what I was thinking—usually before I did.' Mitt sighed, and stroked a large-knuckled finger over the tablet commemorating Queen Enblith the Wise. She had lain with her fathers in Ansdale these twenty years past. 'No one living, I swear.'

'Even so, it'd be wise to go by a new name,' said Moril. 'Al, perhaps.'

Mitt winced. 'No.'

'Ham, then.'

'I knew a Ham once. He died.'

'People do. You'd best get used to it. Sometimes I think we mortals get the better deal.'

'It's coming apart that frightens me,' said Mitt. 'All that time, and no one to hold you together!'

'You'll find people—heroes always do.' Moril uncurled from his marble perch, stiff with cold, feeling all his years, and never more relieved that he was only the storyteller. 'But for now we'd best be going.' He wrapped his cloak tight about him, slung his cwidder over one shoulder and his pack over the other. 'I don't know how long the guards will stay asleep, and I've no wish to be hanged for grave robbery by King Amil the Second.'

Mitt grabbed his wrist. 'Moril, are you sure you want to come with me? I'm not your king any more. When all those rag-tags at court find you gone you really will get suspected of doing away with me.'

'I was your singer, Mitt, before ever you were crowned king. With you gone, there's nothing for me to do here but die—and someone needs to keep to the old ways.'

Mitt grinned, and for a moment there stood the lanky boy of more than seventy years earlier, sailing the wind's road. 'Then we should head for the Point of Hark, I think,' he said, 'and get passage to the Holy Islands—I hope that great pack of yours is hiding some stolen pies—I'd like to talk with Old Ammet and Libby Beer again. And you haven't lived, Moril, till you've ridden one of the White Horses of the Sea...'

And as the two friends slipped out of the tomb into the night, the man who had once been Amil the Great slipped from the pages of history and into song.