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Akallabeth in August
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Yet they achieved only the art of preserving incorrupt the dead flesh of Men, and they filled all the land with silent tombs in which the thought of death was enshrined in the darkness.

The Embalmer's Apprentice: Chapter Two by Lyra

I arrived at the citadel a full hour before the appointed time for fear of being too late, and was promptly apprehended by the guards.

"And what business do you think you have here?" I was asked.

"I am to serve the Keepers of the Dead," I said.

They exchanged a glance, and the mood changed subtly. The lazy grin disappeared from the one's face; the other looked me up and down, and began leafing through a small, leatherbound book.

"Your name?" he said.

"Azruhâr, sir, son of Narduhâr."

He apparently found the right page; he nodded, and made a mark in the book with a quill.

"You are early, Azruhâr. Do you know the way?"

I shook my head. "How should I?"

He sighed. "You turn left behind the gate, then follow the wall street for about four hundred feet. Behind the fountain there are two doors. You want the second. Can you remember that, or do you need an escort?"

The other guard snorted."An escort for a beggar?"

I felt my face grow hot. "I can find the way," I said.

"I daresay," the guard said. "Mind you don't lose your way. You'll be punished if we find you straying around the citadel."

I tried to give him a reproachful stare. "Do I look like I need to be told?"

He raised one eyebrow. "You won't have been sent to the Keepers for nothing." The other guard chortled. I studied my feet. I had put on boots that day, to make a somewhat better impression, but the leather was already beginning to crumble at the toes. No wonder he recognised me as a beggar.

"Well, off with you," the first guard said. "No point in standing in the way here." They unblocked the gate. I, with a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, went through.

The citadel was, of course, in the best part of the city. I had already passed many grand and imposing buildings on my way there, and admired the white-paved streets and the beautiful gardens; but the citadel was more beautiful than all of them. On my right-hand side was the wall that kept lowly intruders like me out, and even that simple wall was beautifully decorated with little arches and glazed tiles and stones arranged in patterns, and without the scribblings I was used to from the walls in my quarter of the town. On my left-hand side was another wall, equally artful, that secured the foot of a hill, so that I walked through a kind of moat. Even here the street was very clean, paved with white cobbles that were free of dust, as though somebody had just swept them clean. Occasionally the wall on my left was broken by stairs that led deeper into the heart of the citadel. Sometimes I could glimpse the walls of buildings, and I would have liked to follow the roads up-hill to see where they led. But I remembered the guards' warning and kept to the trench-like road along the outer wall, counting my steps until I assumed I had gone about four hundred feet. There was indeed a fountain, a few more steps ahead: Three bowls piled on top of each other, with a stone fish upon the topmost. From the fish's mouth there was a steady flow of water, which cascaded from bowl to bowl with a merry gurgling sound. Otherwise the street was silent, the noises from the city muted by the high wall, and no noise, no hoofbeats or barking or cries, coming down from the citadel. Perhaps anybody living there was still asleep. Or maybe it was always silent like this here?

My thoughts threatened to run astray. I called myself to order, and walked on. There was a gate, rather non-descript, that seemed to lead into the hill; and when I had passed it, I saw another. That must be the gate the wardens had told me of.

I could not immediately muster the courage to enter. While I was here I was still free, for a few precious moments. Through that door was thraldom.

And death. Though at least not my own – not yet.

The bells on the towers rang the half-hour. I still had time, I thought. I could sit here and wait until the third hour had come.

And risk the guards finding me and dragging me off to that dark prison again, with my luck. I took a deep breath, and knocked on the door.

There was no reply.

I knocked again, and waited. Again no answer. I looked around furtively, and saw no one. I debated with myself whether it was not enough that I had tried. Maybe I could go back home now?

Of course I could not. As the King's councillor had pointed out, I would be found and put to death. There was little choice.

I tried the door. It opened. Cold air streamed out into the warm summer morning. I gasped involuntarily. I thought, foolishly, The breath of death has touched me, and half-expected to stop breathing any second. I almost ran away, then.

When I had mastered my fear, I went through the door, my heart beating in my chest like a drum.

The door opened to a dark corridor. At one side it led to a small alcove that contained a cold stove, and a few cooking vessels. On the other side there was a larger room like a bath, with a large, water-filled stone basin. There was a heavy smell of incense on the air. Ahead of me I could see stairs hewn out of the grey rock, spiralling downwards into the dark. I shuddered, and told myself that it was only the cold. For it was cold. I was grateful that I had not come barefoot, for the rock floor was bare. My thin shirt was little protection; I could feel goosebumps rising on my flesh, and hugged myself for warmth.

"Hello?" I called. Again, no reaction. I closed the doors, shutting out the last bit of warmth and sunlight, and walked slowly towards the stairs. "Hello?" I shouted, louder this time.

No one hailed me in return, but straining my ears I could hear voices far below, echoing in the stone vaults. I took another deep breath, bracing myself, and descended, feeling rather than seeing my way down the steps.

The voices grew louder and gradually more discernible, so I stopped, and called out for the third time.

Finally I heard a reply. "Yes?" somebody called from below, and then, "I'll be right there!" And softer, hardly audible, spoken obviously to someone closer to the one who had answered, "That'll be the new man, I am sure."

Torn between relief and anxiety, I continued my descent.

After a while I saw a glimmer of bluish-white light that moved up the stairs. Even accompanied by footsteps which suggested that it was carried by a normal person, it was an eerie thing, and again I was tempted to turn around and run away. I managed not to give in to that temptation, but I could not go on. I stood stock-still until the light-bearer turned around the corner. The light, I saw, came from a very strange lantern, probably of Elvish origin: A kind of ball made of thin wires twisted into a delicate web, with something very bright in its centre. It looked like a bluish stone that gave off a cold light. The man who carried the lamp was thankfully human, though very pale in the odd light. He did not appear to be much older than I; in fact, his face had a rather boyish look to it. He smiled. "Hey," he said. "Are you the new addition?"

I nodded, and because I did not want him to think me dumb, I said, "I am Azruhâr. Are you… Master Târik?"

He laughed. "Not I! I am but a humble apprentice. My name's Mîkul." He mock-bowed. "Master Târik is downstairs. We expected you to come later – we would've come upstairs to welcome you, and give you light."

"I came early. I am sorry," I said, and he laughed again.

"Well, never mind – you found your way and didn't fall down the stairs in the process. Come along and you'll meet the others." He took the lead, and I followed.

"Tomorrow you should bring warmer clothing," Mîkul said. "As you probably noticed, it's pretty cold down here."

"I don't have warmer clothing," I mumbled, embarrassed.

Mîkul kept his eyes on the steps ahead, and shrugged. "Oh well. Next week, then." I did not point out that I would hardly own warm clothes in a week if I didn't have it now.

After what felt like a very long time the stairs finally ended in another corridor, which in turn led to a great vaulted chamber. I did not fully take it in at first glance, but I saw that it, too, was lit by lantern-stones like the one Mîkul carried. It was also colder than the corridor above, or even the stairs: It was so cold that I could see our breath turn into white clouds.

There were two more men here. One was tall and firmly built; his hair was still dark, but he was bearded already1. The other was small and stocky, shaped somewhat like a barrel, with lighter hair. Both looked pale in the blue light. Their breath, like mine, steamed in the cold air, which smelled of sweet incense and something else that made the hair on my neck stand up.

The tall man came forward, and I was relieved to see that he looked by no means as grim as I had feared.

I bowed. "Azruhâr, Narduhâr's son, reports to service," I said.

I bowed. "Azruhâr, Narduhâr's son, reports to service," I said.

He laughed. "So formal! Well, well. Welcome to the catacombs, Azruhâr Narduhâr's son. I am Târik. He," he indicated the stocky man, "is Kârathôn. Mîkul you've already met, and the lady in yellow over there is called Ûrinzil. The dead fellow once was, and may one day again be, Lord Ciryamir of Nindamos." My gaze followed his pointing arm. The former Lord Ciryamir lay upon a stone slab, naked; if he had not been dead when he came here, I suppose the cold would have done him in. There was no fog above his face. I turned my face away quickly, instead searching for the mysterious lady in yellow. It took me a moment to discover her: She was a small bird perching in a cage with little bells attached to its base. It was easy to see how she had gotten her name, for her feathers were indeed sunflower-yellow.

I blinked. "A bird? Does she serve here with us?"

"Oh yes," Master Târik replied. "She does indeed provide a most vital service. She tells us whether we are still safe down here. If there isn't enough air left, she'll drop off her perch – that gives us warning, and possibly enough time to return to daylight. They usually do that in mines, but it's certainly useful here, too."

Suddenly the pretty little bird lost its innocent charm. "I see," said I, swallowing hard. "Does that happen often?"

Master Târik laughed again. "Only once in my time. We're not exactly many people down here – not many, at any rate, who draw breath – and there are shafts to provide us with air; they work fine. But there's also the incense. And sometimes we work with chemicals here, and they're not always entirely harmless. Better to be safe, lest we all join the Sleepers next door." There was another room, I gathered, where the dead were usually kept. It was a gruesome thought: another vault like this, maybe of the same size, full of dead bodies.

"Now Lord Ciryamir, on the other hand, will not stay with us forever," Master Târik explained in a matter-of-fact voice as if oblivious of the horror. "When we're done with him he'll be transported to the Noirinan where the kin of kings is put to rest. That's our other working-place."

The Noirinan, the Valley of the Dead, was at the Southern foot of the holy mountain. The journey there and back surely took the better part of a day. "Do we go there often?" I asked. "It is not exactly nearby."

Kârathôn, who had so far held his silence, spoke now. "Not too far, with a good horse."

"But I have no horse," I said softly.

"Then you can ride on the hearse, and keep his lordship company," Kârathôn said. "At any rate you'll doubtlessly have a horse within a month or two." I blinked, bewildered. Master Târik patted my shoulder. "You'll learn your way around here soon enough, I'm sure. Now, have you ever seen someone dead? I mean, from close by?"

I had to look away again. "I did the funeral rites for my father, two years back," I said.

"Well, that's a start. You've touched a dead body then. Of course there's rather more we get to do here. But all in its time. Can you read and write?"

I shook my head.

"Then you must learn it," he said firmly. "As soon as possible."

I must have given him a very incredulous stare, for he explained, "We have not yet found the perfect way of dealing with the dead, which means we must improve the ways we know and try entirely new ways, too. Whenever that happens, it is absolutely necessary to write a precise protocol of the steps taken and the tools and chemicals used – few things would be worse than a successful experiment that could not be reproduced because nobody remembered just how it was done. Likewise it would be a waste of time and resources if a way that has once been proven fruitless was repeated because others did not know that it had already been done. So you must learn to write a protocol, and read those written by others. Do you know someone who can teach you?"

I nodded. "My wife can read and write."

"Excellent; so it will cost you nothing. So you are married already, eh? Good for you."

"Thank you, lord," I said, not knowing what else to say. Then I remembered something he had just said. "What do you mean, 'the perfect way of dealing with the dead'?"

Kârathôn clapped his hands. "I like this man! He comes straight to the heart of the business!"

Master Târik looked amused. "If you want to explain it, Kârathôn, be my guest."

The barrel-shaped man cleared his throat. "Very well then. As you have doubtlessly noticed if ever a mouse died in your cupboard, or you walked through the slaughterer's district on a warm afternoon, dead meat fairly soon begins to rot. Neither pretty nor kind on the nose. Unfortunately human flesh is no different to that of lesser creatures. To whit: the incense. Any questions up to this point?"

Yes, I almost said, where can I throw up if I need to? But I controlled myself, shaking my head instead.

"Right!" said he. "Now technically we are part of a greater endeavour: the victory over death. The main purpose is, of course, to stop people from dying at all or, failing that, to bring them back to life after they died. For the latter, there are the Raisers of the Dead. They are studying to find a way of returning the spirits to the bodies of the dead. You passed the entrance to their part of the catacombs when you came here, if you came through North entrance."

I nodded again.

"Now while they are still studying, people are dying just as they did before. And that's where we come in."

Master Târik took over from him. "Our task is the preservation of those already dead until they can be raised again. Occasionally we will be asked to provide a body for the Raisers to experiment on, but for the most part we just store them."

Kârathôn continued, "Now as I began my lecture, I reminded you of the unfortunate tendency of flesh to rot. That is what we must prevent, you see? And that is where we lack – as yet – the means of doing it perfectly."

I frowned. "So the bodies keep rotting?"

"Not exactly, fortunately," Master Târik explained. "We know by now how to keep them from rotting. Just not – perfectly. Let me show you something."

A large wodden box was brought fourth and opened. I peered in, then jumped back, forgetting to breathe for a second.

The box contained a human body wrapped in a shroud. Or rather, something that had the shape and size of a human body. It did not smell of rot or death: That was not why I was out of breath. The smell was not actually unpleasant, reminiscent of chalk and herbs. Still, it was a body.

But it hardly looked real. It looked as though somebody had tried to make a life-sized doll. It was thick and bloated, enough so to make the face unrecognisable, the dead person's features smoothed out by swollen flesh. What was visible of its skin was yellowish, but most of it was covered with a strange crust of something white and flaky.

"It looks like a rag-doll," I said. My voice sounded pathetically shaky even to my own ears.

"Yes," Master Târik said. "Hardly like the human it used to be. But at least it will no longer rot. When the Raisers find a way to bring them back to life, they – or we – will have to find a way of bringing them back into their old shape, of course."

I felt dizzy. "Is that not impractical?" I asked, almost despite myself.

"Oh yes," Kârathôn said. "But we cannot do their work on top of our own. This is so far the best way we have of preserving the bodies of the dead, and until we find a better one it's what we must do. If we knew how to keep them in a more life-like state, we would."

Master Târik closed the lid of the coffin again, and sat down on it. I could hardly watch. "It is a most unsatisfying way. And that is why we try to discover something better. Most of our work indeed consists of experiments, with varying success. At least these days we no longer have to experiment with, how shall I say, our actual clients. We did that until, oh, a decade or so ago. It... had its disadvantages."

"What happened?"

"An aunt of the King… well, there's no point in beating around the bush. Her body decayed in its wrappings – rotted and melted. You cannot imagine the smell, and the mess it made. Worse, of course, was that she was of royal kin. My own master and his other apprentice were executed for the blunder. I was spared only because I drew the longer straw, and because one man was needed to continue down here."

I shuddered. "Is that not terribly wasteful, to kill two living over a dead body that, well, did what dead bodies do?"

Master Târik gave me a stern glance. "You should forget that kind of thinking. The King takes great interest in our business, which is at times a curse, but also a blessing. Either way we must follow his judgement. Down here the dead are more important than the living."

"It just seemed strange."

"You will encounter all kinds of strangeness here, Azruhâr."

I bowed my head.

"But do not fear: These days we no longer experiment on dead nobility. We are given the bodies of the poor, or parts of criminals, for that purpose."

"Parts of criminals," I repeated. I was now certain that the cold I felt had little to do with the temperature of the room.

Mîkul gave me a sympathetic glance. "You get used to it," he said. "I know how that sounds, but you really do."

I could not imagine it.

I was shown around. I learned where the well was that provided us with water to wash the dead, or our tools, or ourselves – for I was told that we had to keep very clean, because of the poison of death and because of the dangerous substances that we worked with. I looked at all the glass vessels that contained salts and ashes, spices and oils, sand and chalk and peat and other things. All the vessels had signs on them, denoting their contents, which I supposed must be a great help if one knew how to read. I did not even try to remember all the glasses and their contents – there were too many. I saw the tools, the different kinds of knives and hooks and syringes. I was shown the books of old protocols which I could not read, with drawings in them that I did not dare to study too closely. Mîkul took me to the tomb next door, another stone chamber that was indeed full of dead bodies. Not all of them were hidden in coffins. I knew that it would feature in my nightmares for months to come: a cold, domed room dark except for Mîkul's small lantern, with rows of long shelves that held bodies like loaves in a baker's display.

Then we dealt with dead Lord Ciryamir. I was told to help them wash the body with herbal vinegar. I felt seriously queasy by then, but the acrid smell of the vinegar helped to keep the nausea at bay. Touching dead skin was as dreadful as I remembered, and Master Târik was meticulous; every inch of skin had to be lathered and dabbed at several times until he was satisfied. Every now and then the bells on Ûrinzil's cage jingled as she hopped from perch to perch, and every time we would pause and look whether she was still alive, which she was. I had no feeling of time, then. It felt like several days had passed until he decided that it was time for a break.

"Better to eat before we start to work with arsenic," he said.

We scrubbed our hands with icy water, though the smell of the vinegar remained. Then we sat – I was lucky enough to sit on a work-bench, not upon the box with the dried body in it. Master Târik unwrapped a loaf of bread and a large chunk of cheese, and cut generous slices for all of us. I was deeply grateful. My breakfast seemed to be eternities away, and it had not been much in the first place. I ate half of my ration, then wrapped the other half.

"What are you doing?" Mîkul asked, chewing. "You can hardly be full already."

I had hoped that my little theft would go unnoticed, but now of course Kârathôn and Master Târik were looking right at me.

"My wife," I said lamely. "She is pregnant; she needs the nourishment."

Master Târik studied me. I almost squirmed in discomfort. "Have you nothing else?" he asked eventually.

"Not much," said I, truthfully enough.

He pursed his lips as though displeased, but he said, "Eat your part. Your wife can have the rest of the loaf."

I frowned in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"You needn't save that slice of bread I gave you," Master Târik explained. "Eat it. I'll give you the rest of the bread when you go home."

I blinked, and said, "Thank you, lord." He nodded, and began a conversation about some actress whom the others obviously knew, though I had never heard of her. I chewed in silence, surprised by his generosity. It was good bread, too – grey bread, not the white bread rich folk eat, but it was properly leavened and evidently made of good flour, ground in a proper mill, without the sand I was used to from our own bread.

I felt a little better with food inside me, and told myself that I should count myself lucky to have found such kind company, although the work was horrible. After dinner we mixed salt and powdered arsenic – "So maggots and the like cannot live in the flesh", Kârathôn explained – with diluted whitewash, which explained the white crust. This mixture was then smeared on the dead body in great quantities, even poured into the ears and nostrils. It was almost as compelling as it was repulsive.

"You are doing well," Master Târik observed at one point. "I've never as yet had an apprentice who wasn't sick at this point."

I shrugged, uncertain whether I should feel flattered.

When the first layer had begun to dry, we applied the chalky mixture for a second time. Only then was the body shrouded and laid out to dry.

"Now we'll let him marinate for a while," Master Târik said, "and let the salt do its work." I looked at the jars that we cleaned away, and thought that Lord Ciryamir's body was filled and covered with substances that would have cost me several months' work – not that I would have been able to buy arsenic in the first place. Whitewash was common enough, though, and I had never had enough spare money to buy a bucketful for my house.

"Now you know the beginnings of the craft," Master Târik said. "This is our ordinary way of preserving a corpse. There is another, much simpler, but it will not result in such a good body – yes, the one you saw was actually quite good."

"But poisoned," I observed. "Is that not a problem?"

"It may be," Master Târik admitted. "But if the Raisers do find a way of tricking Death, a little arsenic should no longer be a problem."

"Oh," said I.

"Alternatively you can put the body in a stone coffin full of peat, so nothing but peat will touch it; that way it won't be poisoned, but the result is not exactly pretty. Mîkul, show him the hand."

Mîkul opened another box, much smaller this time. It really contained a hand, cleanly cut off at the wrist, on a bed of wood shavings. I shuddered.

The hand was not in the least bloated; instead all the flesh seemed to have fled from it. The skin was drawn tight over the bones underneath, and had a leathery look to it; moreover it was discoloured to a dark, almost black, brown. It reminded me of a chicken's claw. I looked away quickly.

"Yes," Mîkul said cheerfully, "you see the chalk is not as awful as it looks at first."

"Which is why we only use this method now when there is no other way – when we are out of whitewash, or out on a campaign. Well, now you know our tried and true ways; let's turn towards the experimental."

He studied the smaller boxes in the nightmarish storage room and chose one, seemingly at random, though I am certain the markings on the boxes aided his decision.

"There," he said, handing me the box. "Take it out."

I held my breath and opened the box, and removed the severed head that was within.

Or that is what I meant to do, until I saw the dead man's face. Then I dropped head and box, and gave a squeal, and did not manage to make it to the washing basin before I was violently sick. For despite the pallour, despite the rigid features, the man's face was still clearly recognisable. I had last seen it less than a week ago, attached to a body.

It was Lôbar's.

Master Târik was kind about it. I was neither struck nor shouted at; instead he waited until I stopped retching, and then handed me a bucket and a cloth. "Here, clean that up," he said, and when I took my time to pull the water-bucket up from the well, he did not call me out on it. When I was done with the cleaning and my tears also had stopped, I brought up the voice to apologise.

"Don't worry," he said. "That always happens, sooner or later. Our trade takes some getting used to it." I nodded miserably.

"It helps not to think about them as human," Kârathôn spoke up. "Do not think about its story."

I hugged myself. "I cannot help it," I whispered. "I knew him."

"Oh," Mîkul said in a sympathetic tone. "Was he a friend?"

"Yes," I said. To be honest Lôbar and I had not exactly been friends; but we had often worked together, and I had known him well, and I could be generous with friendship if I had nothing else. "But for the King's Mercy, that might be my own head. We were caught in the same crime." My foolish eyes welled up yet again.

For a while the others were silent. Master Târik rose, and put Lôbar's head back in the box so I did not have to see it anymore. Mîkul patted my shoulder, but it did not help to make it better. I was ashamed of myself, and realised too late that I had told them why I was here. Perhaps they had so far thought me a volunteer; now I had betrayed that I was indentured to work here. Doubtlessly they would look at me more unkindly now. What a fool I was.

But if they thought less of me they did not immediately show it. Master Târik let me clean the tools and the slab instead of making me work on further dead people, while Mîkul and Kârathôn dealt with the head discretely, somewhere I did not need to watch them. Whatever they did, they did not take any longer than I took for the cleaning. After that, Master Târik mercifully called it a day. He gave me my own Elvish lamp to carry, and took Ûrinzil's cage from its hook in the wall; and we walked up the long winding stair together. My legs were tired and aching, but the relief to be returning to the world above the earth was strong enough to overcome the exhaustion.

After the hours spent in the freezing catacombs, I had to remind myself that I had thought the corridor upstairs cold when I had arrived. "Wait until you get outside," Mîkul said, grinning. "You won't know what hits you." Before we left, however, we first took a bath in the cold basin, using absurd amounts of soap, trying to wash away the smell of death and vinegar and incense.

After the bath there was another surprise. While at work, the other three had been dressed not much differently from me: boots, breeches and shirts, though warmer and of better make than mine. Now they changed into different robes. Master Târik, best of all, wore elegant robes in an expensive tone of blue, lined with actual silk. Kârathôn wore a fashionable tunic in a rather wasteful cut, with an intricate pattern embroidered at the sleeves and collar, and breeches of soft leather. Even young Mîkul had a tunic with pretty embroidery that had definitely been made by a tailor, not a mother, and the shirt he wore underneath looked rather like silk, too. I stepped into my old, worn clothing again; but I could not help gaping.

Mîkul laughed. "Oh, don't look so shocked! It won't take you long to buy some pretty robes of your own, and keep your old stuff for work only."

"Which is a necessary measure, because you'll never get the smell out of the fabric," Kârathôn said.

I looked away. "I don't know what makes you say that," I said, and tried not to let envy colour my voice. I cannot claim that I was successful.

"Experience," Mîkul said. "I know the rates of pay."

"But I'm a slave," I pointed out. "I'll hardly be paid. I'm lucky to be alive."

Master Târik musters me again. "What makes you think so?"

I still could not face him. "I have been condemned to work here, instead of meeting the same fate as Lôbar. – Don't think I'm not grateful for the chance!" I added hastily. "I am! But I would not have come here of my own volition."

My shameful confession was met with amusement.

"Do you think we are any better of you?" said Master Târik. "Do you think we'd be working here if we had a choice? Oh no. We are all recipients of the King's Mercy, young Azruhâr; we are all criminals. Say, what did they send you here for?"

I swallowed hard. "I was involved in a burglary. A man was killed. I did not kill him," I reassured them quickly. "But I was there."

There was no condemnation. "Mîkul did kill a man, you know," Master Târik said instead. I stared, disbelieving, at the cheerful young man. He was not cheerful now; instead his face was flushed, and he could not meet my gaze. "It was an accident," he mumbled.

"It was that," Master Târik said, "but you still killed a man."

There had been a tavern brawl, I learned. Both Mîkul and the victim had been badly drunk, and quarrelled over some trifle. "I only meant to hurt him. I think I wanted to break his pretty nose," Mîkul said. But the other man had died, and Mîkul faced charges for murder. His parents, I learned, were rich enough to bribe the right people so their son's 'accident' was mentioned in the King's hearing, and so he had been saved.

"And you?" I said, looking at Master Târik.

"I broke an oath to my lord Terakon," Master Târik said. Unlike Mîkul he did not sound the least bit abashed. "I still feel quite justified; he is a harsh man, and what he demanded of me was wrong. Still, an oath is an oath, so naturally my defense was met with scorn. The King was more reasonable than most men, and offered me this post to redeem myself. Well, here I am." With that he finished his tale, and did not go into details.

Kârathôn, it turned out, had been a poor man like me, and like me had turned to ill means in order to change his fortune. He had forged coins. "And I thought my work well-done," he said, "but it did not take long until they discovered it. Normally they might not have remembered a man of my low standing, but I was betrayed by my stature and my hair. It has a reddish hue," he said when he saw my confused look. "You'll see it when we return to the light."

I had spent all day in the company of criminals, I thought, and was shocked until I remembered that I was no better myself.

"At any rate, all of us are paid, and paid well, too," Kârathôn concluded. "I should be surprised if they hold you to a different measure."

Master Târik nodded. "As I told you, the King takes great interest in the success of our craft. And you must keep in mind that it is a craft, like carpentry or bakery. We are organised in a guild, together with the Raisers, the gravediggers and the coffin makers. We have our masters – well, currently I am the only one – and our journeyman – again, only one at this time – and our apprentices. At the end of each week we get our wages. And our pay is extremely generous, as the King hopes to attract more people to our craft."

"I never heard of that," I said, frowning.

"No, somehow all the gossips of this town are deaf when it comes to the upshots of our work. And to be fair there aren't many, aside from the money. You constantly smell of death, you constantly deal with death. People are superstitious. You'll see for yourself. Friends suddenly forget that you exist, strangers refuse to shake your hand when they learn what you do for a living. People will avoid coming close to you. They may bear your presence as long as you give them coins – but they won't love you."

Mîkul nodded soberly. "I no longer live in my parents' house. They did not say anything directly, but they hardly spoke with me anymore. And they went out of their way to avoid seeing me. I assume they were relieved when I left. I have not heard of them since."

"My wife left me, and took my son with her," Kârathôn said. "She returned to her family, and sometimes her father or uncle will tell me that they are well. She no longer speaks with me."

"I was not married when I became a Keeper," Master Târik said, "and now I never will be." He sighed, and picked up Ûrinzil's cage again. "I hope you can hold your wife."

The heat was overwhelming after a day in the cold catacombs. I had almost forgotten that it was summer. The sun was still up. As I went home I felt how the dreadful cold left my limbs, heat and light taking care of both the physical discomfort and the gloomy thoughts.

Amraphel was at home when I arrived, which dispelled the last worries Master Târik's words had incited in me. She, too, had been busy: She had gathered wild oats and berries and herbs. She embraced me and kissed me in greeting, then shoved me away playfully. "You smell like a whore," she said.

"I could also smell like a corpse," I pointed out. "Would you prefer that?"

She made a face. "No, of course not. I'll get used to the perfume." I smiled, for 'I'll get used to it' did not sound as though she planned leaving me any time soon.

She, on the other hand, sobered. "So how is it?"

I shrugged. "The work is horrible, of course. We're stuck in those really cold cellars underneath the citadel, and except for the four of us everybody is dead."

"Well, don't let it rub off on you," Amraphel said dryly, sounding less shocked than I had feared. "So there's a whole four Keepers of the Dead?"

"I think so," I said, and then I described Master Târik and Kârathôn and Mîkul. She knew of Kârathôn, it turned out: He had bought a horse off her father with his forged coins. I also told her of Ûrinzil, and of the many jars and vessels full of precious and poisonous substances. I told her that we had cleaned a dead lord and smeared him with whitewash, but did not go into detail. I did not speak of the second chamber, nor did I mention Lôbar's head.

Instead I gave her the bread. "Master Târik has given this to me."

She looked at the half-loaf. "That is kind of him," she said. "I'm glad to hear you have found some decent company among the dead."

"He is kind," I said. "That reminds me, though. Master Târik wants me to learn to read and write. As soon as possible. You could teach me, could you not?"

"I can," she said. "Oh Azruhâr, that is a good sign. If he wants you to read and write, he surely means to use you as a clerk rather than a thrall."

"They tell me," I said cautiously, "that I am no thrall but an apprentice. They tell me that I will be paid at the end of the week, as any other apprentice."

Amraphel studied my face. "No offense to your Master Târik," she said, "but I'll believe that when I see it."

I agreed with her, secretly. I was certain that the others had got it wrong.

But on Eärenya2 we emerged from our work to find the King's scribe entering the corridor, carrying his unavoidable book.

I was scared, to be honest. I had felt reasonably content throughout the week, but I had not forgotten the councillor's threat, that I would be put to death if I did not work to Master Târik's satisfaction. Master Târik had not expressed any displeasure to me directly, but what did that mean, really?

I bowed to the scribe, and he nodded with a wry smile. He remembers me, I thought. And the last time he saw me I was down on my hands and knees and weeping like a child. I felt my cheeks grow hot and hoped that the blue light would hide it.

The others were not at all put out by the scribe's appearance. "Master Quentangolë!" Master Târik said in a cheerful tone. "Master Târik," the scribe replied, still smiling. Even in my anxiety I couldn't help thinking what a strange name he had. Quentangolë. I tried to imagine it written – Amraphel had begun to teach me the shapes and the names of the letters – but found it difficult. They all looked far too similar.3

"You are early today," Master Târik observed. "We've had no time to bathe yet." The scribe laughed. "I'll survive it, I am sure. I started my round from the other side today. Perhaps I should accordingly give you the guards' wages, eh?"

"Don't you dare!" Kârathôn said, but he was laughing as well. A guard's wages, I surmised, were less than his own.

"Don't worry, don't worry," Quentangolë said, grinning. "It's all written out properly; it'd be far too much of a hassle to change things around. Very well then. Master Târik, here's yours," and he took a full purse from his belt, and from it took a small bag of coins that he handed to Master Târik. He made a mark in his book, and continued while Master Târik opened the bag and counted the money. "Journeyman Kârathôn, here's your part, which you should share with some poor guard some time," and he handed four silver coins to Kârathôn. Quentangolë's quill scratched over the paper4. "Apprentice Mîkul?" Mîkul stepped forwards and received his share. The scribe paused. "So, Master Târik, how's your new apprentice doing?" I held my breath.

"Hm?" said Master Târik. "Oh, he's just learning the ropes, of course. He's apt enough, though."

"Full pay, then?" Quentangolë said.

"Full pay," Master Târik said, and the scribe held two coins out to me.

I took them, stammering my "Thank you", and looked down at the coins in my palm. I couldn't help gasping involuntarily. Both coins were made of silver, glittering almost white under the Elvish lamps: a silver Crown, and a Half-crown5. Never before in my life had I owned so much money at once.

I did not pocket the coins immediately so I could not be accused of hushing up a mistake – for surely it was a mistake. An apprentice in another craft would be considered lucky if he went home with a Crown and a half after a full month. But none of the others seemed to see anything untoward with my sudden wealth.

"What did I tell you?" said Mîkul when Quentangolë had left us. "Of course you're getting paid."

I nodded, slowly. "And had you told me how much, I would have believed you even less." I couldn't believe it even now. "Why do we get so much more than other apprentices?"

Master Târik laughed. "Well, you must consider that you are not getting house and board from your master, as normal apprentices do. You are too old for that, anyway, and you're married, too. And as I said, the King is trying to make our work attractive."

I wondered whether I would have applied to become a Keeper of the Dead, had I known about the rich pay. I had hardly been aware that they existed, so it was hard to tell. I wouldn't have thought the career enticing, that much was certain – but for a Crown and a half?

No, I thought, not even for a Crown and a half. Those were delightful, more so after I had feared I'd have to do the miserable work for no pay at all; but it was still miserable work. I did not fear or loathe the dead any less now than I had a week ago, and if I were given the chance to start an apprenticeship with a smith or a baker or even a tanner for a fourth of my pay, I would take it at once. All the money in the world could not make the horror of working among the dead more attractive.

But it was, at least, some consolation.

"I got paid," I told Amraphel when I got home that evening.

She looked up from grinding oats for gruel. "You did? That's good news." She put the stones aside and got up. "So how much do they pay you for picking over corpses?"

"Amraphel!" I was shocked at the brazenness with which she spoke of my work. I showed her the coins in my hand. She gave me a searching look.

"Are you certain you should have taken those?" she said.

I knew I deserved the question, but it still hurt. "Mîkul got the same," I said defensively. "I am told that the King takes great interest in this matter."

"It certainly seems so. My goodness. What do you want to do with all that money?"

I had not really thought about that yet. "I thought you'd decide that," I admitted. "Buy food for the week, I suppose. If there's anything left, it would be nice if I could have a warm shirt. Nothing fancy," I added before she could think that I was vain. "Just a warm woollen shirt. It's very cold down in the catacombs."

Amraphel gave me a sympathetic look. "I'm sure we'll be able to afford a shirt for you, or even two, with a Crown and a half."

"Good," I said. "And… well, perhaps we should give something to Lômenil? She must be destitute."

"She has sold the hovel and returned to her mother's house," Amraphel said, "so she is all right for the time being. But we can invite her for supper some time. If she wants to come into the house of an embalmer, that is."

I stared at her. "What do you mean?"

"There's already been talk," she explained. "People have heard what you're doing. They are… nervous."

"I'm not doing anything wrong."

"It's not that. I think they are afraid that you will bring something out of the catacombs. As if death is contagious, or something of the sort."

"That is absurd. Master Târik has been working there for decades, and he's still alive."

"That may be so, but people are still afraid. That's just how it is. I mean, why are people afraid of touching the dead?"

I did not know the answer even though I myself was no different. Why had it been such a horror to anoint my father's dead body? Why did I feel such dread when cleaning or wrapping the dead at work?

"Because the dead were alive once and now are dead, and we know that we who are alive will die, too. We don't want to have anything to do with that until we must," I suggested.

"Yes," Amraphel said. "So people do not want to have much to do with people who deal with the dead, either."

I sighed. "I do not want to be an outcast."

"Nor I," said Amraphel, "but we do not have much of a choice. Well, Lômenil may not mind. I will certainly ask her. I just thought I'd warn you."

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  1. In my personal ethnography of Númenor, it is customary that younger men go clean-shaven (possibly to look more like the ever-young Elves) while the more elderly (who can no longer pretend to be anything but mortal) wear beards. In later days, I assume even the old men would have shaved their wrinkled cheeks in an attempt to appear younger. Perhaps they even dyed their hair? Oh, the possibilities!
  2. Thursday: the day preceding the free "high" day, Valanya, and thus payday.
  3. I am assuming that, despite the predominant use of the Adûnaic tongue, the Númenoreans would still have used Tengwar in order to write it. The Notion Club Papers imply as much, at least. The idea of a distinct Númenorean script is fascinating, but, alas, there is no proof that one existed. Perhaps there were attempts to introduce a patently "Adûnaic" script that just never succeeded. Because the Tengwar, like any decent Fëanorian invention, won by sheer awesomeness. Well, and habit.
    Hmm, a new plotbunny!
  4. Parchment is very expensive, a pain to produce, and also a pain to write on. I am sure that a culture as progressive as the Númenorean would long have realised the blessings of cheap, user-friendly paper.
  5. We are told depressingly little about the monetary systems of different Tolkienian peoples. That may all be very well for Valinorean Elves, who probably don't need money in the first place, but I can't imagine that the more complex and less happy societies all around didn't at some point stop exchanging goods or weighing ores or counting shells in order to invent some kind of normalised coin system. Probably the Dwarves, who passed it on to the Sindar, from whom the Noldor learned it; or it's a result of the trade relationships between the Dwarves and Caranthir. Either way, the Númenoreans would surely use some kind of minted currency.
    I have tried to come up with something as endearingly confusing as the old English coin system. The names of the coins, because I am uncreative, are taken from what they depict. This was relatively common in our history (cf. the Swiss Rappen ("black horse") or the old German Kreuzer ("crossling")). Alternatively it was popular to name coins after the place they came from (cf. Francs, Dollars and the like), but as Númenor (unlike Europe) is a unitary country and probably all the five provinces used the same money, that'd probably be kind of ineffective. Besides the names would've ended up to long.
    For the purpose of this story, there are copper Stars and Ships, silver Crowns and Trees, and gold Towers. Their Adûnaic names are up to conjecture.
    Five Stars will make one Half-Ship, two of which make a Ship; three Ships make a Half-Crown, two of which make a Crown. Three Crowns make a Tree. Ten Trees make a Half-Tower, and two of those make a full Tower. So there's 10 Stars to a Ship, 60 Stars to a Crown, 180 Stars to a Tree, and 3600 Stars to a Tower.
    Everybody confused now? Good!
    I am told that the English got along just fine with their wonky currency system until they reformed it according to the decimal system in the 1970s. :)
    Let's assume that a loaf of bread is prized somewhere around four Stars, to have a frame of reference.
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