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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 Four by Lyra

We got up early on the holiday morning, preparing for the journey even before the sun had risen. The robes felt no less strange when I put them on for the second time, though Amraphel assured me that I looked very fine in them. She braided my hair after she had braided her own, and put a garland made of rye and wheat and cornflowers on my head. Even Azruphel got a tiny garland, though she kept taking it off to pull at it and chew on the flowers, and after the first hour there was not much left of the original wreath. But she was beautiful even without it: The tufts of hair had grown into soft dark curls, her cheeks were red, and her eyes had taken on the grey colour of Amraphel's eyes and looked at the world with cheerful curiosity. In her white dress with eyelet embroidery she could, I thought, as well have been a nobleman's daughter, and I couldn't help feeling a little pleased with myself. Who would have thought that I should ever be able to dress my child in such finery?

The air was cool and crisp when we set off, the approach of winter no longer deniable, but once the sun was up, the day soon grew warm. We joined the throng of white-clad people streaming out of the city with baskets of fruits and vegetables, cakes and pies and sausages, pots of wine and ale and mead. All were walking briskly, for it was a good distance to the Mountain, but we were singing and jesting as we went, and in such cheerful company the road did not feel long at all.

The rich and noble, journeying on horseback, were of course there before us. Many had pitched open tents and pavilions under which to sit and take refreshments. The most beautiful pavilion belonged to the King and his household, with proud banners flapping in the autumn breeze, dark blue before the bright blue sky. The King's guards had already removed their sword-belts, and the shafts of their spears were not, as usual, crowned with blades but instead with bundled sheaves of corn.

The ascent began as soon as we had joined the waiting crowd, following the winding road around the steepening slopes of the Mountain. Amraphel and I took turns carrying our daughter and our basket of food that contained hard-boiled eggs and cold pancakes and honey, grapes and apples, cheese and small pies filled with the sweet pulp of the pumpkins that grew in our garden. I was somewhat afraid that Azruphel would begin to cry when she grew bored or hungry, as she was wont to do, for I knew that one had to be silent when climbing the Minultârik. But Amraphel had assured me that even the very youngest understood the holiness of the place and held their peace, and indeed Azruphel remained silent for the full length of the ascent and ceremony and descent, though she watched the proceedings with bright, curious eyes and occasionally pointed at things or people or reached up to pull a stalk of wheat or another cornflower from my wreath. There were other parents with young children, I saw, and they behaved in a similar manner, so after a while I stopped being anxious about Azruphel. At any rate the climbing soon grew harder, so that I had little time for idle thought, being instead forced to pay attention to the path and my feet. My robes were far too long, threatening to trip me up when I stepped on the hems more than once. Many of the nobles wore even longer robes that trailed behind their feet, as though it was no concern to them that the fine fabric might be sullied or torn. I found it surprising that nobody trod on them, and felt even clumsier for having such trouble with my own robes. The exertion of climbing also took its toll, making my breath quicken, and I felt sweat on my skin that soon soaked my robes. I was reminded, strangely, of the winding stairs I climbed each day at work, and had to smile because it was so absurd to think of that dark stairwell on the sunlit spiral path up the Minultârik.

From the ground the mountaintop looked slender, but when we got there I saw that it was in truth a very broad place somewhat like a bowl, broad enough to offer room for all of us, even though there must have been several thousands of people all in all. The sky seemed to be very close, though it was hard to tell with no clouds to judge the distance by. High above us the eagles circled in the clear air while we spread out, circling around the King, who stood in the centre of the bowl, alone.

So many people, I thought, overwhelmed and elated, and all of them smiling, all clad in innocent white, and all silent – although of course our feet and the hems of our clothing, and the wind whistling around us, playing with our hair and robes and the King's banners, did make some noise. But nobody spoke, or coughed, or hissed at his neighbour to make room. Only when there was no more walking and shifting around, when everybody had found a place to stand and watch, the King broke the silence.

I did not understand more than a word or two, for he spoke in the Elvish language. Or rather, he sang: He did not use his normal voice (which I knew, after all) but intoned the alien words in a high singing voice so that they were audible even for those standing further back. He bowed, and held aloft a great plate made of gold filled, like our baskets, with all sorts of harvested fruits and grains, singing a long piece. I did not understand the words, as I said, but I felt an enormous feeling of joy and gratitude build up in my chest, a warmth that not only existed in thought but spread from my belly into my limbs. I made my own prayer in my own feeble words in my head, or tried to; but I did not know how to put the words, and was not entirely certain that the words I had were strong enough to convey what I was truly feeling. In the end I gave up on putting my heart in words. I was glad that with so many important people around, and the King himself singing his prayer in the middle, my awkward thoughts would surely be accepted unexamined. Azruphel caught one of my braids and tugged on it, playfully, and I lowered my head to kiss her smooth baby brow.

After we had returned from the mountaintop, we should have joined the rest of the family for a small feast, but Amraphel did not even try steer towards her parents (though we had caught a glimpse of them earlier on). Instead we joined a group of people from a different quarter of the town, and because it was the holiday and they did not know my craft, they welcomed us cheerfully and called us friends. We introduced ourselves and sat down in the soft grass, and everybody shared the contents of their baskets.

I had just eaten one of our pumpkin pies when a hand touched my shoulder, and I turned around to look at the King's scribe. I felt a pang of guilt at once, although I wasn't aware of anything in particular that I should have been guilty of.

Around us, conversations were hushed; some of the others, I assumed, had recognised the scribe, and now they were curious what he wanted.

"Master Quentangolë," I said, feeling inexplicably nervous and rather exposed. "What can I do for you? – Would you like a pasty?" I added as an afterthought.

Quentangolë laughed. "No, thank you, Azruhâr; I have another feast waiting. No, I have come for a different matter. His Majesty saw that you were here, earlier..."

Now I could be certain that even the last distracted talker was listening intently.

"Oh," said I, wondering whether it was forbidden for the Keepers of the Dead to attend the ceremony on the Mountain. "Yes, I saw that his Majesty was here also," I said, and there was some laughter. I could have kicked myself – what a stupid thing to say. Of course the King was here. Where else should he be, on this day?

Quentangolë did not laugh this time. He merely grinned, with a mischievous glint in his eyes. "His Majesty has asked to see you," he went on. Amraphel shifted, next to me, and hastily put some eggs and some pies back into our basket.

"Oh," I said again. "Right now?" I hoped that Quentangolë would smile and say that of course I was not required right now, and stared at him, pleading with my eyes; but he did not do me the favour.

"If you have the time," Quentangolë said, smirking. I cast a desperate look at Amraphel, who smiled and squeezed my hand and pushed the basket over to me. I could feel the eyes of our companions on me. I swallowed hard.

"Yes, of course," I said, took the basket, and rose. "As his Majesty commands."

I caused more laughter when I arrived at the King's pavilion, for I knelt like a girl, holding the skirt of my robes up with one hand. I felt a little resentful at the nobility's amusement. It was all very well for them, but I did not want to make grass stains on my only set of good robes on their very first airing. At least I was more appropriately attired than the last time I had seen the King.

Quentangolë spoke to the King in a soft voice, announcing (I assume) my presence. "Ah, yes," the King said. "Azruhâr."

"My lord King," said I.

"We remember you," said the King, and I felt embarrassed again. "You look better today."

I did not know what to reply, and blushed because I had been thinking the same thing just a moment ago. "Thank you, your Highness," I finally managed.

He smiled. "Rise. Come, sit with us."

I am to this day not certain whether I managed to conceal my horror. I knew I should have felt honoured to be invited to the King's table, but all I could think of was how clearly I did not belong there, and how likely it was that I would say or do something stupid ere half an hour was over.

But there was indeed an empty chair, just across the table from the King, and he gestured at it invitingly. I tried to swallow my anxiety and to keep my face blank if I could not manage a smile, and stepped up.

A page took my basket while another moved the chair for me, and as I sat down, keeping my eyes downcast to avoid the stares of the courtiers who were doubtlessly all wondering who I was, that page filled a goblet with clear golden wine and set it before me. At that point I decided for the sake of my sanity that the whole thing was some kind of bizarre dream.

"My dear, this is Azruhâr, one of my Keepers," said the King, turning to his wife, and I found the Queen's gaze upon me. Like the King's, her face was wrinkled with age, and her hair was as white as her robes. Azruphel would not have managed to pluck her garland to pieces, for the grains in it were made of gold, the flowers of bright jewels. She gave me a kindly enough smile and a nod, and said "Good day, Azruhâr."

I bowed my head. "My Queen."

The Crown Prince, on the other hand, just gave me a disdainful stare before turning back to the courtier next to him, which signalled to the others that they could recommence their conversations. I was left under the eyes of the royal couple, and still did not know why I was there. I had assumed that the King would maybe ask questions concerning my work, but after my introduction he did not mention the Keepers at all. Instead I was passed a plate and tray after tray of food (even my humble pumpkin pies had ended up on a silver tray), and invited to eat.

I figured that I would not be expected to make conversation with my mouth full, and after some hesitation helped myself to the dishes offered. There were all kinds of pies and cakes, cold meats and pickled vegetables and fruits, not all of which I was able to recognise. I wondered where they came from, and whether the nobles gathered here had prepared the dishes themselves. Probably not, I decided after risking a look at them. In their impeccable robes, with their smooth, fair-skinned hands, they did not look as though they knew how to hold a knife. My own hands were ruddy and callused, though at least the skin was no longer so raw since I could afford oils to counteract the desiccating effects of the whitewash and salts at work. I was tempted to hide my hands under the table, and would have done so if I hadn't needed them to eat and drink. At least my pies did not taste too poorly next to all the rich fare, so I did not need to be ashamed for them.

"We hear that your wife has given birth to a healthy daughter," the King said. "Congratulations."

I felt my face grow hot. Did the King know such details about all his subjects? Perhaps it was all written down somewhere in Quentangolë's books, and related to the King as the need arose: This is Azruhâr, he has a baby daughter, and that is Mâgan, he is a smith and his son is a fast runner, and that is Zâmin the weaver, her mother died three weeks ago?

"Thank you, your Highness," I said.

"Oh, you are married already?" the Queen said. "But you look very young."

"I am but fifty-two years of age1, your Majesty," I said.

"But fifty-two years! Your wife is much older than you, then?"

"No, your Majesty, only by three years."

"And a child already! Can such a young man feed a family, then?"

My blush intensified. It had indeed been foolish to marry so young, I knew, and it had been especially foolish to marry the young daughter of a rich merchant, who was bound to disapprove. But at least I could answer the Queen's question in the affirmative. "By your husband's mercy, I can," I whispered.

"Hah!" said the King, obviously pleased. "Well spoken. We wonder, Azruhâr, whether a gift would not be appropriate for your daughter's birth?"

I stared at him directly in my shock, trying to find out whether he was joking; but he was not even smiling, instead studying me. I looked down at my plate. "Your Highness, that is truly not necessary."

"We know that," he said. "Still, we can reward a loyal man who serves us well, if we please. For that is what you do, is it not?"

No, I thought, it is not. I still did little but practice my poor writing, and had so far done nothing that Master Târik and the others could not have done without me. I wished it were otherwise, but I could not in truth say that I served him well. I wish I could!

I bowed my head, saying, "As well as I can, your Highness. Yet I could not accept such a gift. If not even my parents-in-law saw fit to send a gift for their grandchild, how should it be right that the King himself does?"

"We decide for ourselves what is right for us to do," the King pointed out, and I hastily whispered, "Of course."

"So your in-laws see fit to shun you, do they?" he went on. "Would you like us to have them punished?"

I looked up, horrified. That was not what I had meant!

"No!" I cried, causing the conversations around us to falter. "Please, no, your Majesty," I repeated in a softer voice.

I was relieved to see that the Queen, too, looked rather shocked by her husband's proposal; but when she spoke, she added to my mortification instead of easing it. For she said, "Fie, Ancalimon, shame on you!" – she really and truly chastised the King like a misbehaving child, in front of the court – in front of me! I braced for a storm, but it did not come.

"Oh, never mind," the King said as though it did not matter either way, and waved for a page to bring a bowl of water to clean his hands. "Will it please you to walk with us?" he said to me, and I rose obediently and bowed low to the Queen and Crown Prince, bidding them farewell.

We walked away from the pavilion, and indeed from the other revellers. No guards walked behind us, not even Quentangolë accompanied us. The King put an arm around my shoulder, and my mind went entirely blank; had not the King marched me along, I think I would have stood like a statue, or maybe flared up in flame and crumbled to ashes.

After a while of walking in silence, my mind began to recover a little. The King was leaning rather heavily on my shoulder, and I understood that he was steadying himself rather than embracing me. He was, after all, an old man. I was surprised – silly, really - to realise that, underneath the silk and gold and jewels and the heavy crown, there was a tangible person made of flesh and blood.

"The Mountain has worn us out," he said as if guessing my thoughts. "We are no longer as strong as we should like to be, so you must bear with us."

I thought that there were certainly worse things to bear than the King's arm upon my shoulders, and said, "Gladly, your Highness."

He laughed, softly, but sobered at once. "We are worried about the future, Azruhâr," he said.

I chewed my lip, wondering what to say. "But your Majesty has a powerful son," I finally pointed out.

"Oh, not that," the King said. "The country will be well-provided for. No, we are worried about our own future." He stopped walking then. We had left the crowds behind us, and I now realised that we had moved towards the Noirinan. At our backs there was song and laughter, the striking of harps and the hum of conversation. Ahead of us was the ominous silence of the tombs; I imagined that even the rustling of the leaves was hushed around that place, that the birds held their breath while close to the entrance of the valley.

The King turned to look at me, those bright eyes in his wrinkled face boring into mine. "We are old, Azruhâr, and beginning to feel it. Do you know what it is like when your body begins to betray you – when your fingers grow stiff, and your joints ache, and you can no longer move as you once could? I could have run up that path, once, and would have felt no worse for it; I could have ridden around the shore of this land, slept on the hard ground each night, and grown stronger rather than weaker..."

I did not know what to say. I remember that I noticed that he was now speaking differently of himself, as if I had somehow become familiar. I could not decide whether I should be honoured or terrified.

The King went on. "My mind, likewise, is not what it was. I get distracted more easily these days. I remember things from the past well enough, but more and more often I forget what happened a day or two ago."

"Your Majesty remembered even me," I said in a feeble attempt at consolation. I expected him to laugh, or say something scornful. That would certainly have been more reassuring than this strange confidence.

But he remained serious. "Yes, because there is one thing that I can no longer forget: I will die. Perhaps in a year, and perhaps in fifty: But I will die. And I do not want to die. I am old, and growing weak, but I am not too old to love life. It is a good life, all in all. And I think I am a good king. It would be wrong to tear me from my people."

I knew less than ever what to say. "I pray that your Majesty may remain with us for many more years," I tried. He merely shrugged. "Another decade, two perhaps. That may seem like a lot of time to one so young as you are, but at my end of things it is nothing. And what if my weakness grows greater? What if in a few years' time I can no longer walk, or speak? It would be a shameful end. And to what purpose?"

"I don't know," I said.

"No, indeed," said the King, and angrier he added, "And we are told it must be so. A gift! they say. A curse, say I. And I will do all I can to break it, even now." His speech grew more intent. "I do not want to die, wherefore the healers try to find a way of keeping death at bay: Without success, so far. But if I must die, I do not want to stay dead, wherefore the Raisers try to find a way of undoing death: Without success, so far. But if I must die and remain dead for a while, at least I do not want to rot. But even you Keepers have so far been unsuccessful."

"We can keep a body from rotting," I pointed out.

He snorted. "You can make dolls of dead men. You let a body keep a human shape, just barely, but you cannot keep it a fit house for a soul. That is hardly more than another form of rot. I do not want to end up such a mockery of human form. You know what I mean, do you not?"

And I did. "Yes, your Majesty," I said.

"Nobody will bring life back to those white-washed dolls," said the King, and I could hear pain in his voice, and trembled. "When future generations finally find how to call the dead back – and they will, Azruhâr, one day they will – they will leave them to lie in their graves. Who would bother with them? But I do not want to be left. I want my body preserved as it was in life, when life is wrested from it. Then when one day the Raisers know how to rekindle that spark, they will remember me."

I nodded numbly.

"Will you do this for me?" the King went on. "Will you find a way of keeping me incorrupt, until I can be brought back?" Again there was an imploring quality to his voice. I shivered to think that one so mighty should implore me to do something for him. He could have commanded me, and I would have been bound to do what he wanted. And yet he asked. Mere months ago I had grovelled at his feet begging for my life, and yet he asked.

But perhaps that was why he asked me: Because I knew what it was like to know death at hand, and because I knew how precious it was to be saved from it. If only I could have saved him as easily as he had saved me.

I clasped his hand and pressed it to my forehead, kneeling. "I swear that I will find a way to preserve you, my dear lord," I said. "Or die in the attempt."

And the King smiled. "Stand, Azruhâr. I am glad. Let us return to the revellers, now, for my mind is at ease again."

So I served as his crutch once more as we walked back to the royal pavilion. His mind might be at ease, but mine certainly wasn't. It felt swamped with questions and worries, and the brief moment of determination I had felt when making my oath had passed swiftly. Find a way to preserve him? I did not even have the skill of writing, which was surely simple compared to what I had promised to do. The King's confidence had flattered me, and I had sworn rashly; but in truth I could not hope to fulfil that oath.

"I still owe you a gift," the King said, tearing me out of my thoughts.

"Your Majesty has already been most generous," I pointed out.

"I like to be that, when I can," he said. "Now, is there anything you need? Servants, perhaps? A new house? "

I thought of Master Târik, unhappy in his noble house. "I have everything I need, and more, your Highness," I said. I felt bad enough about being paid so well for so little work.

"Do you?" said he, with a wry glance at me. "What a rare blessing. But surely there must be something you would like, even though you do not need it." He stopped again to study me, and finally smiled. "I know! You have come here on foot, have you not? But surely you would not say no if I chose to give you a horse."

"I could not say no to anything your Majesty chose to give me," I said. "But I cannot ask it."

"Well, I am not waiting for you to ask," said the King. "A good horse, then, to carry you on your roads. I like that. Or two, better, for your wife and yourself?"

I could not deny that I was tempted. Who wouldn't have been? I would have gone out to buy a horse soon enough anyway. It just felt wrong to receive such a rich gift from the King himself – with nothing but a promise to justify it.

But the King brooked no resistance, and I did not dare to defy him overmuch. In the end I had to accept his offer.

I had hoped that I would have some time for reflection, after the King had allowed me to return to my family. I needed to order my thoughts. But when I came back to our company, I saw with a sinking feeling that Amraphel's parents were there.

Compared to other meetings, their treatment of me was civil this time. Both acknowledged my presence and addressed me by name, which was new. Even stranger was that Amraphel's father, after looking me up and down, gave me a polite nod that was almost a bow. I returned it, wondering what had happened.

"I hear his Majesty called on you," my father-in-law said.

"His Majesty did indeed, sir," I said, cautiously.

Amrazôr smiled jovially. "Well, well. Who would have thought! What business do you have with the King?"

I was still confused by his sudden interest in me, and unwilling to discuss my work in front of all those strangers. They had so far been welcoming, but they would doubtlessly think twice about sitting with us once they believed that I was surrounded by some kind of death-cloud.

"My business, sir, not yours," I said, and bit my lip directly after. I had not meant for the words to come out so harsh. "His Majesty apparently wishes to give us horses," I said, half-turning to Amraphel.

My father-in-law's smile turned almost sickeningly sweet. "What an amazing offer!" he said. "You are honoured indeed. The King owns the best horses in the country – though I daresay I have a fiery stallion or two that would adorn even the royal breeding grounds…"

I began to understand. I was no longer a meaningless day-taler; I was a man who spoke to the King, and thus worth knowing. I cannot say that I was thrilled. Of course I was glad for Amraphel's sake that her parents remembered her now, for I knew that she had suffered from their refusal to see her. But I could not help feeling that if they only spoke to us because they thought me useful, it'd be better not to have them speak to us at all. Probably he expected me to mention his name – and his fiery stallion or two – to the King, bringing him in direct line of business with the palace.

I remembered the King's words -- Would you like us to have them punished? -- and wondered for a moment what would have happened if I had said yes. Nothing, likely, I told myself. Surely the whole thing had been a joke, albeit a joke in bad taste. Or maybe the King had tested me, wanting to know whether I was vengeful. I was not. Nothing good would have come of it.

But I could not stand Amraphel's father pretending that he cared for me when all he cared about was his fortunes. And that was why he was here, I thought, and to my surprise found that I was disgusted. When he had grunted commands at me, when he had struck me, when he had argued with Amraphel about my lack of suitability – at least he had been honest then. Still, I did not mean to offend him. He was my wife's father, and insulting him would doubtlessly hurt her. I did not want that. But something took hold of me then. I know that the words came out of my own mouth, but it felt as though a stranger was doing the talking, an emboldened stranger who felt affronted and sought revenge, and who did not ask what I wanted.

"I am tempted to accept," I told Amraphel, and then the stranger took over and said, "That way I will not have to enrich your parents."

The sweet smile froze on Amrazôr's face. "Now, now. There is no need to speak like that, my son. I am sure we could come to some friendly agreement."

My son, I thought. Not long ago you had me whipped for 'seducing Amraphel', and now you call me son. I stared at him. "Some friendly agreement? What is that supposed to mean? Shall we pretend that your appalling behaviour towards your own daughter never happened? Shall we pretend that you love me, or that I love you, now that you suddenly deem me of worth? Is that the kind of agreement you have in mind?"

Amrazôr clucked his tongue. "Proud words from a man who, not two years ago, came to my door begging for work. But so a man's character is revealed. Give a beggar money and he'll be prouder than any nobleman. Yet he will never be noble, and his pride will only make his baseness more apparent. For that is what you are, Azruhâr: a base wretch. So you are wearing fine robes now, and conversing with the King? You are still a wretch. Do not forget your place. Arrogance doesn't become one so lowly."

I felt my face flush. I did not need the reminder, I thought resentfully. And less than anything did I need it with all these people watching. For of course they were watching now. Our argument had more attention than the minstrels' play. But it was not just the reminder of my baseness that stung. Just as bad, or maybe even worse, was the accusation of arrogance. I did not think of myself as a proud man. I would not have known what to be proud of.

The smile returned to Amrazôr's face as he saw the effect of his words, and his eyes sparked triumphantly. He grabbed me by the collar, disordering the pleats of my robes, and pulled me close. "You will remember this day, and you'll wish you'd have tamed that impertinent tongue of yours," he said. "You may have fallen into the King's favour, but just as soon you will fall out of it. Then you will wish that you hadn't refused my offer of friendship when you had the chance."

I was afraid, and very aware that he was likely right. Still I could not help replying, "When I fall out of the King's favour, then I am sure that you'll forget your offer of friendship, no matter whether I take it or no." He looked startled and let go of me, and I felt a certain elation at having bested him. "For you, too, have revealed your character," I added, and now my voice was fierce. "You gather friends while they are useful to you, and when they no longer suit your purposes, you let them fall. And so it has ever been."

He raised his hand, and I was certain that he was going to strike me down. I did not care in that moment. I suspect I would not even have felt the pain. I stood my ground, hands balled to fists – it felt as though my feet had never been rooted so firmly, my back never been so straight, my chin never raised so high – and he, impossibly, let his hand drop without touching me.

"Ungrateful cur," he spat. "May all that you love be turned to ashes."

Amraphel rose, then, clutching Azruphel to her chest. Her face was pale, and her eyes glittered with unshed tears. I felt dreadfully sorry then, for now I had ruined her reunion with her parents. The triumph left me as suddenly as it had come, and I was ready to beg Amrazôr for forgiveness. But before I could humble myself, Amraphel spoke.

"You forget, sir, that you are speaking to my husband," she said.

All fell silent, except for Azruphel, who began to wail - scared, perhaps, by all the angry faces.

"Amraphel," my father-in-law said after a helpless pause, and I saw the horror in his eyes as he realised whom his curse would hit first. My heart softened towards him then. So he did love his daughter after all.

"I did not mean that," Amrazôr said; and then he fled, Râphumil in his train.

I began to tremble, and when I turned to Amraphel, she was trembling also. She recovered quicker than I, though, having Azruphel to look after while I slumped to the ground.

"I don't know you, or him," said one of the watchers, putting a jug of ale in my shaking hand, "but I think you did right."

"I am not arrogant, nor ungrateful," I whispered, not certain whether he was even listening. "But I am no cur either."

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That was the last time that the King went to the hallow upon the Mountain. In spring, the following year, he decided that the climb was too much of a strain on his old limbs, and so the ceremony did not take place. After that it was first expected that the Crown Prince might continue the tradition, but Telemmaitë pointed out that it was the King's duty, and while his father still held the throne it would be wrong for the crown prince to do part of his father's work. The Elf-friends made quite a bit of noise about this, heedless of the King's age and health, criticising his refusal and demanding that if he could no longer fulfil all his duties he should pass them on to his son entirely instead of clinging to his office beyond dignity. There were arguments in the streets between those who faithfully supported the old King and the traditionalists who recklessly demanded his abdication. Sometimes they exchanged more than just words. At first I thought that the Crown Prince was behind the latter group, trying to wrench the sceptre from his father's hands; but it turned out that he was as disgusted by the Elf-friends' cries as most of the people. The King certainly suffered under these attacks against his person, as I heard from Quentangolë: His health deteriorated gravely, and he often had to be reminded of his own decisions, forgetting in the afternoon what had been said in the morning. I wished for a way to pass his afflictions on to those who demanded his abdication.

But I did not have overmuch time to waste on politics, for after the holiday I had taken up my work with new fervour. I put more effort into my studies now, and slowly I managed to memorise the letters and discover the patterns governing them. Mîkul still found misspelled words on occasion, but I could produce legible protocols before the year was over. Master Târik then allowed me to experiment on my own, which I did with passion. I often skipped lunch to have more time for my work, and when that did not suffice I stayed longer in the evening, leaving Master Târik to walk downtown alone. The others joked, on occasion, about what they called my obsession. "You are young, Azruhâr," Master Târik said. "You don't need to put the work of several years into a few weeks."

"I am young, but the King isn't," I pointed out. "And I must find a way to preserve him ere it is too late."

The others exchanged bemused glances. "You must have a care for yourself, lest you never see such ripe old age," said Master Târik. "Nobody asks that you work yourself to pieces in the process."

I shrugged. "He would not ask it, but it would be right if he did."

Kârathôn raised an eyebrow. "Who?"

"His Majesty," I said. "He has been more than generous to me. I cannot hope to repay him, but at least I can fulfil my little oath." And I told them about my conversation with the King.

The others again looked at each other before turning back to me. "Be careful, Azruhâr," said Master Târik. "It is right and just that you should serve the King well; but do not forget that he is mortal as we all are, and fallible as we all are. If he demands the impossible, you cannot gain it."

"I wish I could," I said fiercely.

"Yes, I can see that," Master Târik said without smiling. "You are obsessed, you realise that?"

"I am not," I protested. "I owe him as much. As you do. Anyone in their right mind does. He is the best King we could have."

Now he smiled, briefly. "And how many kings do you know, Azruhâr?"

That stopped me for a moment, for of course I only knew the one. Master Târik patted my shoulder. "My dear Azruhâr, I'm afraid you've fallen into a bit of a trap there."

I pursed my lips. "All I know is that he is kinder to me than I deserve. Why should he do so much for me, who has nothing to offer in return, if not because he is a good man?"

Master Târik turned his head, pensively. "There are several ways of ruling people, and a king may use one or more, as he chooses. Of course we are all duty-bound to obey the king, but not all people will be governed by a sense of duty. Some people are ruled only by fear of punishment. And others yet are ruled by love: because they do not wish to disappoint somebody they love. All these ways lead to the same place. You do what the King wants you to do. But depending on your way you will think differently about him, and in the end the way used most determines how people will remember the King, when he is gone. When a man reaches a certain age, he begins to think about how he wants to be remembered. Kings are no different, I suppose. Perhaps our King wishes to be remembered not as Tar-Ancalimon the Terrible, or mere Tar-Ancalimon the Old King, but Tar-Ancalimon the Merciful. So he wants people to love him, or to admire him for his kindness, at any rate. That seems a wise choice to me – and of course I have benefited greatly from it. And you, too. But you should not think that he is kind to you entirely without thought for his own gain."

"It doesn't matter," I said. "Even so I have gained more than he."

But for a long time my efforts availed nothing. Instead of finding the perfect way of preserving flesh, I produced a series of failures. Very often these failures were disgusting in the extreme, and in two cases the smell was so dreadful that the others fled upstairs while I had to clean the mess away. It was a good thing that I was so intent on my work at that time: Otherwise I don't think I could've borne the results of my more unfortunate experiments.

Other failures were more amusing, though no less spectacular. When I tested the effects of different salts I preserved a hand perfectly (if stiff and dry) in form, but the skin turned a deep inky black. I also managed to achieve tones of blue and green and, on one notable occasion, purple.

At that point the King had decided that, since he could no longer master the stairs that led down to the catacombs, we had to report to the palace once a month. I dreaded these meetings a little, as we had no success to speak of; but when we had a particularly interesting failure to show, even the King was amused, though he would never dismiss us without exhorting us to do better next time.

The Erulaitalë week drew nearer, and again both King and crown prince declared that they would not ascend the Mountain. "If it is indeed necessary for me to march up there and sing praises," the King said, "I don't think it's too much to ask that I be given the vigour to manage the climb. If Eru wants me upon the Mountain, He may feel free to rejuvenate me." I thought he had a point, but the Elf-friends again raised their voices in dissent, and there was strife in the city until one of the protesters said that in the old days a King too old to climb the Mountain would have laid down his life, and went so far as to suggest that Tar-Ancalimon should do the same. This smacked of high treason, and many of the Elf-friends seemed to decide that it was too dangerous to be seen on the same side as that traitor. Thus they fell silent, and peace was restored.

I did not care much either way; I had, after all, work to do.

But one morning, while I was absorbed in a book of old protocols, Master Târik closed the book right before my nose. I had not even noticed that he had entered, so I was rather startled. "You haven't heard a word of what I've been saying, have you?" he asked in a voice that was half-angry and half-amused.

"No, Master Târik," I admitted.

Kârathôn broke out laughing. "Let's hope the world doesn't end while Azruhâr is working, or he'll miss all the screaming and in the end wonder where everything disappeared to." My cheeks reddened.

"There, that's more like yourself," Master Târik said. "And you should be ashamed to miss such happy news."
I frowned. "Is the King feeling better?"

"Obsessed," Kârathôn said, shaking his head. "Can't you think of anything else? No, you fool, your master is getting married!"

I stared at Master Târik. "You finally asked her?"

He gave me an exasperated look. "'Finally'? We've known each other for barely a year."

"She's been hoping for you to propose since last fall," I said.

Master Târik groaned. "You never told me! Why didn't you tell me? And here I thought she'd think ill of me if I did not wait. A fine friend you are!"

I was sufficiently embarrassed. "I am sorry," I said, and was. "I didn't think you'd want me to interfere in your affairs."

"If that's the reason, you're forgiven," he said. And it certainly was part of the reason, although to be honest I had forgotten about his affairs altogether in the past months. But I thought it wiser not to mention that.

"Congratulations," I said, trying to make up for my blunder with a broad smile. "When's the happy day?"

"Eärenya in two weeks," he said, smiling even broader. "You're all invited, of course. Bring friends, if you can. It's time we bring some life to my house."

I rode to Rómenna to invite my sister and her family, and thanks to the holiday week they came. We hadn't seen each other since they had moved to Rómenna, so that was the first time that I met my young nephews, Barinôr and Barazôr. It was delightful to have them visit us, though our little house was quite full for days (after the King's gift, the planned addition had to be a stable after all). They admired my wealth, and I was glad to be able to grant some of their wishes: appropriate clothing for the wedding, and a small dagger for each of the boys.

Amraphel and I helped Lômenil with the preparations at her mother's house. Now that the wedding was imminent, even Lômenil's mother no longer objected to Master Târik. Lômenil for her part was excited like a young girl. She was hardly recognisable in the dress she had sewn with Amraphel. Master Târik had paid for the fabric, so it was a splendid thing, looking quite out of place in her mother's hut: shining silks in blue and green, adorned with pearls. Doubtlessly Master Târik would also have paid for a grand dinner at his house – or so I had promised my brother-in-law and the children.

In contrast, the wedding company was rather small. Aside from my contribution only Mîkul and Kârathôn, and Lômenil's mother, waited along with us; not even Lômenil's brothers had come. Normally that would not have been a problem, for more people were sure to follow in the train of a wedding, once the groom brought the bride to his house. But Master Târik was too well known as an embalmer, so when the people who at first came running when they heard us clamouring in the streets recognised him, they fell back soon.

So the ten of us sang all the louder to make up for our lack of numbers. I remembered my own wedding, begun in secret because Amraphel's parents would never have allowed her to leave the house if they had known of it – but at least we'd had a goodly following of my fellow day-talers with their families. We had run out of food and drink fairly early, but while the feast lasted it had been cheerful.

There was no risk of running out of food at Master Târik's house. When we reached it and Lômenil and Master Târik stopped in the unkept garden to pledge their troth, our company still had not grown; and I could see a brief look of pain in Master Târik's eyes when they passed over us few. A couple in such glorious robes, walking all the way from the outskirts to the heart of the city, should under normal circumstances have attracted dozens of people. There were onlookers even now, but they kept their distance, and they did not join in our song.

But then Master Târik turned back to Lômenil, who was watching him intently as though nothing else mattered, and the joy returned to his face. They held each others' hands and promised each other their love and faith until death, and we showered them with petals and coins and dried beans, for felicity, prosperity and fertility; and again we cheered loud enough for at least twice as many.

We made so much noise, at any rate, that we didn't hear the marching soldiers until they stopped under the gate.

The crowd of onlookers had grown, I noticed. I felt angry to think that they would not cheer for a man getting married, but would watch intently when they expected him to get into trouble. The guards wore the King's livery, and I am certain I wasn't the only one gripped by fear at the sight. I could not imagine what wrong we had done, yet I couldn't deny that the guards were here, and doubtlessly with some reason.

We fell as silent as the watchers on the street, and stared at the guards in shock. Master Târik in particular looked haunted, and I wondered whether the King objected to his marriage. Perhaps he was afraid that Master Târik's attention might henceforth be divided between his work and his wife?

But there were no swords drawn, and when the leader of the troup stepped forward, he bowed politely. "His Majesty sends his congratulations, and his best wishes for your marital bliss and joy," he said in a loud voice, and there were astonished gasps from outside the gate. I must admit that I couldn't help smirking. The crowds had doubtlessly gathered to gloat at whatever misfortune might befall Master Târik, and I was glad to see them disappointed so severely.

The guard held out a small, sealed package wrapped in silk paper, which Master Târik took after some hesitation, touching the packet to his brow in reverence. Then he spoke to the soldiers. "I thank you," he said, sounding confused, "and I thank his Majesty most abjectly. Can I invite you to join our feast, or drink a cup of wine at least?"

"Not on duty," the captain said. "But we may come back later, if you are still celebrating after sundown."

"By all means," said Master Târik.

The guards left, but the crowd did not disappear. I would have liked to send them away, but it was neither my house nor my wedding, so I held my peace while Master Târik broke the seals and unwrapped the parcel. This time we all gasped in amazement, for the parcel contained silver and pearls and amber: two bracelets, two brooches, and a triple-rowed necklace that was likely worth as much as the house. Lômenil covered her lips with her hands in surprise; my sister gave a small cry of astonishment. Even Master Târik, far more used to such precious things than we others, was dumbfounded. He caught himself in the end, but found no words. In silence he fixed the necklace around Lômenil's shoulders, and we could all see his hands tremble. Lômenil, her eyes never leaving his face, took a brooch then and clasped it to the chest of his robes, and he put the other brooch on her dress. They likewise exchanged the bracelets, all in silence. Lômenil's mother wept. I suppose it must indeed have been overwhelming to see her daughter adorned like a lady of the court, wearing jewels sent to her by the King himself. I wondered what my parents would have said if they had seen me in my fine robes, a silver fibula at my throat – or their granddaughter, in tiny robes with silver clasps in her braided locks, learning to walk with tiny boots on her feet. If my sister's reaction was any indication, they would have been amazed and overwhelmed as well. Imagining their delight, my eyes welled up, and I had to swallow a lump that had risen in my throat. I reached out for Amraphel, and she took my hand and squeezed it.

"So you are rewarded for taking me as your husband," Master Târik said to Lômenil, and she gave him a strange look. "I am rewarded already by getting you as my husband," she said; and then they finally kissed.

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  1. According to The Lost Road, the Númenorean legal age seems to be around fifty years. Unfortunately "legal age" is a rather fuzzy term between different cultures, so instead of giving us a nice easy point of reference it just means that a Númenorean of roughly 50 corresponds to a "normal" human at some point between 16 and 25 years. I suppose 21 is a fairly safe bet. As we are told that the Númenoreans (or their royalty, at any rate) tend to marry and have children late in life (most of the Kings seem to have fathered their firstborn after their 150th birthday), Azruhâr has started very early indeed.
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