Epilogue :: The Last Blessing

by Tenshi

The merchant sat in silence, staring at the glowering remains of the fire, and wiped his hand across his tired eyes. Outside the north wind howled, the sound said by many to be the cry of to be restless dead, and breathed frost on the glass window panes.

"Where are you bound?" The stranger asked, his tale finished, the darkness around him complete.

"There is welcome in the Greylands," The merchant said heaving a sigh and stomping chilled forgotten feet, shaking himself free of the tale. "I thought to have a pint of good ale from the Duke's cellars; he takes a wife this Yuletide and his generosity is better than the word of any prince."

"Young Duke Bardorba." He might have smiled, somewhere in his shadows. "I know him of old." Silver gleamed in his hands, a shiver of chain and the stillness of swan wings. "My path does not lead me that way. But as payment for the tale, bear him, if you will, a gift for his bride." He lifted the brooch to his lips, as if in benediction or farewell, and breathed softly on the silver, misting it with warmth. "To bring her luck, and bear him a son."

He stood from his seat, and the gleaming treasure fell into the reluctant merchant's weathered palm, shining and warm as a newly-minted promise. The merchant turned it over with trembling fingers.

"...It is said," He whispered, as though afraid of calling his words into being, "That there is a man who cannot die, wandering the world collecting the souls of those poor few who cannot pass beyond. He keeps them inside, lest they roam the world, cold and bitter to feed off the joy of the living. No man knows his name, and none can recall his face, yet he passes through the lives of common men like a dream that knows no waking."

The stranger was still, his hand on the back of his chair, tankard dangling empty from his fingers. "Do they, now? Men say many things."

"This is not your only story," The merchant looked at the swan song, silent in his hand. "You have thousands, beating in you like the wings of caged birds."

He turned, and the light of the dying fire fell on a face like any other man's. He could have been anyone: father, son, or soldier, stopping in an inn for a tale and a soft bed, resting aging bones. A log broke on the hearth and for a moment the fire flared. It was his eyes that betrayed him then, wordless and deep, their color nameless. The shadows behind the stranger were more than the fire had power to throw, and they rustled and whispered like a vast invisible crowd. For a second the brooch in the merchant's hand quivered like a living thing, wings stirring and heart beating under warm soft feathers.

"...Come to me in the end," Ashley said, "and I will tell them to you."

And he was gone.

Walking from the shadows
a fear of sadness grows
your heart is in your hands
your knowing looks
our time is gone
my time is gone
swan's dying song


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