.The Last Blessing. Introduction :: Remembering Days of Yore
All the feelings they remain like a still life
a dying swansong's forever lost
your cries of glory
--"Sad Clown," Sarah McLachlan
"They say a cold like this will rob a man blind." The merchant put his feet up near the hearth, and patted his waistcoat in search of his pipe.
"Do they?" The traveler asked, for politeness' sake if nothing else. He sat shadowed in the other chair drawn up to the fireplace and had, to the merchant's knowledge, sat there all night, eyes glittering. The common room was thinning out by this point, locals long since gone home and guests up to their rooms. But the traveler had been there when the merchant came in at four o' clock, and now, with the innkeep locking the massive oak door, showed no signs of stirring to retire.
"Aye, that they do." The merchant groped by his chair for a bit of straw and lit it in the flames, bringing the smoldering tip to the bowl of his pipe. "A thief like winter will take a man's dearest possessions, my boy. His life and that of those he loves. Bitter winter. Years since I've seen the like. You wouldn't remember one, though, I'll wager."
"Yes," the traveler said, and the merchant did not know if he was agreeing or contradicting. He seemed inclined to say no more, hands folded on his lap, eyes reflecting fire. He was a dark one, leathers dyed the color of a churchyard at midnight, and he did not shift or stir or stamp his booted feet, not even to move away when the fire grew too warm.
"Can't stand sleeping in these inns in winter." The merchant took a long pull of his pipe, teeth clicking the ivory stem. "Drafty old rooms. I'd rather a fire and a story, see? Better on bones as old as mine."
The traveler tilted his head a fraction, and the merchant knew those dark eyes were now on him. It was not that the man was quite in darkness so much as he seemed indistinct, fire and shadow moving too quickly to make his face show clear. "You like stories, then?"
"Oh, aye." The merchant stretched his stumpy legs, scratching comfortably at his chin. "Collects them, I do. Maybe I'll put 'em all in a book when I'm too tired to journey anymore." He smiled widely around the pipe clenched in his teeth. "I don't suppose you’ve got one, lad? Not another tale of the twelve courts, or Agrias's heroics, no. One I've not heard. One no one has heard."
"You ask for an untold story," the traveler said, and on his breast for a moment was a flash of silver, as of bird's wings. Darkness sank again in folds around him and the glimmer was lost, no matter that the merchant's shrewd eyes searched for it. "Untold stories most often belong to dead men."
"Aye, that they do." The merchant nodded. "It's why they're untold, my boy, and there's a ghost hound on the moors for every name unspoken in these lands. But I'll let you keep how you came by it, and ask only your tale. I know you must have them, lad, I can smell them on you."
The traveler was silent a long moment, and the fire cracked and popped. The innkeep brought them one last tankard, and then vanished up the stairs. "Very well," the traveler said, at length. "I will give you what you ask."
"Mm." The merchant scrunched down in his chair, and blew comfortably at the foam on his mug. "Don't scrimp on it, son. I like it laid on as thick as butter."
The traveler's chair creaked, and he closed his eyes for a moment, collecting his thoughts. "You say the cold can rob a man. I know of such a tale, winter of the soul, not of the sky. I would not freeze your blood with it, but that you have asked." A chain jangled musically, and in the traveler's palm lay a silver brooch, a swirl of wings and slender arching neck. "They say the swan only sings before its death, and only then tells the story of how it was brought to ruin, so that those who hear cannot save it, they can only weep for what cannot be undone."
The merchant eyed the pendant keenly. "You speak of a lovely lady, perhaps, who gave this to an unfit suitor? I expected a better tale than that." He was lying, of course. He was as skilled in the trade of tales as much as the trade of pearls and ribbons, and knew a good story a mile off.
The traveler smiled, as if knowing what the merchant was thinking. He closed his hands and the brooch on its chain winked out like a star. Outside the snow began again, and the traveler began his story.