A/N: I have tried to finish this story in the most fitting way possible, and I hope I've succeeded. It didn't feel right to me to end the entire story with just Endon's death, so I ended up writing one more chapter to sum it all up nicely. And also I had a hard time letting go of it- I've been writing it for around a year and a half now. ;) I've come to love Endon's story and his character, and I wanted to give it the best ending I could.
Thank you so much to everyone who has been following this story to its conclusion- I'm grateful for it and hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I've really, truly appreciated all the reviews and views this story has gotten. So, thank you for reading. ;)
Sharn sat rigidly on the wooden platform, her ears ringing in the somber silence that followed Endon's passing. It was a respectful silence, a fitting tribute to the death of a king who had borne so much in this life and who had meant so much to his family, the royal family of Deltora. Tears sprang into Sharn's eyes to see it, from the people who had passionately hated him in their mistaken belief that he had cared so little for them that he had abandoned them to their fates over sixteen years ago.
Endon's body was still warm; she could feel it underneath her fingertips. She knew that she should let go, but found herself unable to. In a detached way, she knew that her already grimy, dust-wrecked skirt was sticky and moist with blood- her husband's lifeblood- but she did not care. Why should she care of such things, when Endon was dead? Endon, who had not deserved any of it. Endon, who she loved with all her heart, and much more besides.
She bowed her head, Lief's hand held in her own. Here was Endon's legacy, and her's. A king, wise in the ways of his people, who would guard the Belt of Deltora and their kingdom from the Shadow Lord with all his heart. Lief would not make the mistakes Endon had; his parents had made sure of it, raising him to know his people, and care for them. Growing up in a city devastated by tyranny, Lief had come to know deep in his bones the price of a king breaking faith with his people, whether it was done a-purpose or not. He would not risk it happening again. That was one mercy: there would never be another Shadow Lord invasion as long as Lief lived.
Sharn felt herself shudder, and repressed it. She had to remain strong, now, to reassure her stunned people and bring order to the city. It was what Endon would have wanted her to do. She could grieve later, in private, during her vigil over Endon's body which, by palace tradition, would last until dawn. Until then, she would give her people what support she could. She was the Queen of Deltora; she could do no less.
She lifted her head, feeling the burden settle on her like a mantle.
'Barda,' and she turned to where the former palace guard knelt, head bowed in grief. He looked up, seeming slightly startled at the command in her voice. 'Arrangements must be made for my husband's burial. I-we-' She looked at Lief, who nodded-'would like him to be laid to rest, as is his right, in the chapel, beside his forefathers. Will you oversee it?'
With wide eyes, the big man nodded. 'It will be done, Anna... Sharn. You may be sure of it.' Tears glinted in his eyes, and Sharn knew she had chosen aright. Barda had always been completely loyal to herself and Endon and Lief, ever since that fateful first meeting nearly seventeen years ago. She knew he would carry out this sad task as steadfastly as he had the others she and Endon had asked of him over previous years.
'And,' she added, glancing at Jarred. He raised an eyebrow. 'If the Resistance has finished in the palace, would they scour the city to be sure there are no more of the Shadow Lord's servants left?'
'They already know to do so,' the scarred man said. 'Though as the Shadow Lord has gone, most of his servants will have died at the loss of their power source. But nothing should be left to chance.'
'No,' Lief broke in, agreeing. 'Then-' he broke off again, his eyes widening as a sudden thought occurred to him. 'Someone must get word to Withick Mire,' he said, urgently. 'Ailsa is there, waiting. She will be worried; we left there in haste, and toward danger. She will be fearing that we are dead.'
Almost desperately, he searched the group, now consisting of themselves and the six freed prisoners who had gathered around them in the moments following Endon's death, for a willing volunteer. All were injured in a fashion; some could barely stand, Sharn noted, scanning the group of strangely assorted Deltorans. They would be tended to, in due course, as would all that had been present at the Place of Punishment that day. She herself would see to it that every person in Del was cared for to the best of her ability.
'I will go,' and a short, stocky woman stepped forward, her eyes shining fiercely. Sharn noted with surprised that she was dressed rather strangely, in a shirt made of a rough hide- or fur- and pants of a similar material. 'On the honour of the Dread Gnomes, it will be my pleasure, King Lief.' She bowed her head at him, and Sharn saw tears glitter in her son's eyes.
'Well, then...' and Lief looked at Sharn, unsure. He was young, Sharn thought, and only just coronated. He had to be feeling overwhelmed, and as heartsick as she. Briefly she experience a pang of mingled maternal pride and regret. She knew she would always be proud of her son, for all he had done to save their kingdom and his readiness to take on the mantle of leadership. However, she did feel sadness that it had to be under such circumstances, upon the heels of his father's sudden death.
She squeezed his hand, and stood, gently setting her husband's body aside. It almost killed her to do it, but it had to be done. She could not hold on to what was left of Endon forever; sooner or later, she would have to let him go. Besides, Lief needed her now, as did the whole of Deltora.
Strong. She had to be strong, for just a little longer. She took a deep breath, and lifted her chin.
'I suggest we retire to the forge,' she said firmly, 'to rest and recover from what was a frightening ordeal. We will see to King Endon's burial, and send whatever messages that need sending.' She let her gaze encompass all present, and smiled. 'A great miracle was wrought this day. Our Enemy was banished. Our people freed from tyranny. A new king was crowned. But we must not forget all that was lost and sacrificed in doing so.' Sharn blinked rapidly, feeling hot tears sting in her eyes at the thought.
There were murmurs of agreement among the group. From the corner of her eye, Sharn saw Barda murmur something to Jarred, and quickly leave with several others toward the palace. The Dread Gnome was nowhere to be seen; she had most likely slipped away already, and was heading for the city gates.
As the group was dispersing, an elderly woman in a flowing scarlet robe made her way to Sharn's side, straight-backed and proud. A Toran, Sharn realised incredulously, gazing at her silky dark hair and eyes, so much like her own. For her entire life, she had been told that she was of Toran blood, and had felt pride in it. Now, she felt a sudden jolt at the thought that there were other Torans that she could befriend, once that great city of the west re-established relations with Del. Other Torans like herself, who would understand her heritage and teach her more of it, as she had always longed for. For all that she had poured through the ancient texts for information concerning Tora, and had made queries, she had never learnt much of that part of her ancestry, other than that her features were so obviously Toran. She barely knew anything about that ancient city, and the thought of finally learning of her Toran heritage filled her with something akin to delight.
Bewildered, Sharn stared as the woman knelt at her feet, her head bowed humbly.
'I am Zeean, of Tora,' the older woman said. 'On behalf of all Torans, I express our relief and joy at finding you safe and alive. We are sorry at the death of your husband the king. Fate was cruel to take him so suddenly, and swiftly.' Sharn swallowed hard, and nodded, feeling her eyes prick.
Zeean's voice trembled. She looked up at the queen, tears glimmering in her luminous eyes. 'We are so sorry for everything. For all that you have endured,' and Zeean's gaze widened to encompass Jarred and Lief as well, who had stayed standing at Sharn's side during the exodus of their allies and the common people of Del. Jarred, who had risked his own life, and that of his wife, to take the royal couple's place on the road to Tora- a fact which Zeean now knew.
'In our pride and folly, we forgot our ancient vow to Adin, and our loyalty to the crown. We should have supported you as our far-sister, and your husband the King with you. Instead, we tore up your plea for sanctuary, and turned you away in spite and anger.'
Sharn's heart ached at the pain of guilt that was evident in the old woman's expression. She, along with the rest of the people of Tora, had believed they had been asked to give shelter to the rightful King and Queen of Deltora and their unborn heir, when in truth, it had been Jarred and Anna who had been seeking sanctuary. How terrible Zeean must feel! Though Tora should have sheltered Endon and Sharn if they had fled as originally planned, and Sharn could see that Zeean was guilt-ridden at Tora's refusal to support their far-sister and the bloodline of Adin, she also saw that the realisation that their folly had also drastically endangered three other innocent lives almost broke Zeean.
'If we had known...' Zeean's gaze lingered briefly on Jarred, who stared back impassively. She shook her head, and sighed. 'I do not know what we would have chosen. I only wish we had chosen differently.'
'I am sure you did what you thought was right,' Sharn said.
'No,' and Zeean shook her head again, sorrow in her eyes. 'We did what we thought was best for ourselves. We were selfish, and filled with pride and resentment toward a king we considered a stranger, who we thought had abandoned us when we needed him. We were wrong, so wrong, to do so. We should have put aside out petty grievances and pay more heed to what was happening outside our marble city. We should have given shelter to anyone who asked for it, whether it be the king and queen or an ordinary couple. Because we believed you to be the king and queen, we turned you away, when we should have offered shelter in the name of our ancient vow.' There was bitterness in her eyes.
Gently, unable to stand anymore of Zeean's remorse, Sharn helped the old woman to her feet, and kissed her cheek. 'Dearest Zeean, know that we cast no blame on Tora for what occurred sixteen years ago. You acted as you thought you must. Myself, and Endon and Lief, found a place of refuge right here in Del, thanks to this man who stands beside me now. And Jarred and Anna found a safe haven, as well.' Sharn glanced quickly at Jarred, who nodded in confirmation.
'Zeean,' Sharn went on, more hesitantly, for she did not know how her next words would be received. 'I grew up sheltered in the palace, and know almost nothing about my Toran background. I would be honoured if you could teach me, tell me more about my heritage. If you would be willing, that is. I would like it if we could become friends.' She tried not to let a note of longing creep into her tone. She had never had a close friend before, and not one that was as close to a cousin as one could get. She waited, nervously, for Zeean's response.
Zeean's face lit up in a wondering smile, and she gently touched Sharn's arm. 'It would be my honour, Queen Sharn,' she said. 'I hope, as well, that we may become friends and strengthen relations between our two cities once more.'
Then, all of a sudden, she pulled Sharn into a tight, warm embrace that conveyed the strength of her feelings. And for the first time, Sharn felt the tears she had held back stream steadily down her cheeks.
Later she sat in the chapel, staring between the flickering candles surrounding Endon's body. It was almost dawn; she could see the blaze of the sun slowly edging up from beneath the horizon, flooding the room with soft pink-grey light. On the platform, Endon lay in state, seeming at peace in death as he had never been in life. If she had not seen him die with her own eyes, she would have almost believed that he were merely sleeping.
Only Sharn had remained for the entire time, from sometime past dusk until dawn, as palace tradition dictated. Lief had come for a time, but had gone again, having business to attend to with Doom, Barda and Jasmine, much to his regret. However, Sharn knew Endon would understand, if he were there, that Lief had his duty to the kingdom to think of, even mere hours after his coronation. It was what they had tried to instill in Lief, after all, time and again.
At some point during the small hours, Barda had also sat with her for a time, his head bowed in deep grief, but he too had been called away in the end, to organise the formation of a new palace guard. Sharn did not blame him for that; it was a relief to be truly alone, so that she could give into her grief. She would not have, otherwise, she knew.
The first hour had been the worst. As soon as she had entered the chapel, her grief had overcome her. She had fallen to her knees before the platform holding her husband's body, nails digging painfully into the hard edge, and a cry of anguish had burst from her throat, so torn and broken in the dead silence that it had frightened her deeply. But she could not stop herself; she was too far gone for any voice of reason to be of use. She had lay curled on the floor, her chest heaving and aching, as hot, sticky moisture flowed down her cheeks and into the corners of her hair. It was then that the loneliness was most unbearable, when she felt the absence of Endon so keenly. It made her weep with even more abandon to think of it.
She did not know when she had hauled herself from the floor and into a pew. Time seemed to blur, so that she could not tell exactly how long she had spent ensconced in this room which held so many memories, both good and bad. She only knew that she had risen, at one stage, still weeping, to collapse into the pew closest to where she had been curled. She was not ashamed of it, this unabashed weeping; she had her right to grieve in her own way. It was simply the suddenness of it, and the way it had burst from her like a wailing torrent, that had produced a deeply unsettled feeling inside of her. She had never expected it of herself, to express grief in such a way.
It was close to dawn now, Sharn could tell, noting the dim light slowly blanketing the horizon outside the chapel window. Though she could feel the dark smudges underneath her eyes, she did not feel on the brink of exhaustion. Her need to keep the traditional vigil over Endon's body had energized her, as had the grief that she could still feel swirling in her heart. It had happened so quickly, and with little forewarning. There had only been Lief's agonized shout, and the enraged look in Fallow's eyes, before his knife struck into Endon's chest with precision. Endon, oh Endon! How cruel of fate, that Endon should meet his end just as they had achieved what they had waited so long for!
She could feel the tears burn in her eyes once more. Endon would never know the peace and joys of a free Deltora, a Deltora free from the rule of the Shadow Lord, and also a royal family free from the dangerous, restricting Rule the previous Chief Advisors had conjured up as a means of weakening the power of the monarchy. How much had been lost because of it! It had been because of the Rule that Endon had been reluctant to listen to Jarred and wear the Belt of Deltora; it had been taught him, from birth, to obey the Rule and listen to his Chief Advisor. He had always believed it to be his duty, until the unthinkable had happened.
Now Endon was dead. And it was a relief to know that the monster who killed him was dead as well. Fallow, who had destroyed their home in the forge and sought to break them both in his attempts to make them speak of their complicity. He had failed, Sharn thought with bitter satisfaction, but not without a terrible cost. She could still feel the marks where the Grey Guards' iron rods had cut into her back with burning precision, and feel the phantom pain of the metal carving into her flesh. It had been mere days ago, when she had been a prisoner of the Shadow Lord under interrogation in the palace dungeons and separated from Endon. Now, she was free once more, while their enemies and Endon were dead. How quickly their fortunes had changed.
At the sound of footsteps approaching she felt herself tense; when Jarred appeared at the doorway she felt herself relax. It had become a habit of hers, she feared, to start at the sound of footsteps. She looked up as Jarred entered, hurriedly wiping away the tears that stained her cheeks and darkened her eyes.
It was the first time he had come; Sharn did not know why he had not come earlier. He walked into the room slowly, his expression grim and slightly hesitant. The scar gleamed pale on the side of his face.
She smiled at him weakly, struggling to keep her composure. For the past ten hours she had been a wreck, barely able to form a proper string of words without weeping. She had always been the stronger one; and yet, at her husband's death, she had reverted into a stammering, weeping wreck. It almost shamed her to think of it now, though she knew there was no reason to feel that way.
He sat down beside her in the pew, touching her hand briefly in a gesture of support.
'Jarred,' she began, and her voice trembled with emotion she fought to suppress.
'Doom,' he said quickly, frowning at her. 'I am Doom, now. I cannot think of myself as Jarred; I am not that person anymore.'
For a moment she stared at him; then, she felt herself nod.
He had changed; so had she. She barely recognized this scarred man as the young man she had met in this very chapel nearly seventeen years ago, the man who had brought them to safety in the forge and given up his home and identity for them.
'I was not sure you would come,' she said quietly, after a moment. 'It is almost dawn.'
'How could I not?' Jarred-Doom-looked at her with surprise in his eyes. 'Endon was like a brother to me, once.' His mouth twisted bitterly. 'I almost did not come,' he muttered. 'But I knew I must. Whatever I thought of him, he was still my friend. And I think he would have wished it.'
'I am sure he would have,' Sharn said gently.
For a time, they sat in silence, gazing at the body on the platform surrounded by light. He looks so at peace, Sharn thought sadly, much more so than he had ever been in life. Perhaps now he has found the forgiveness he has been longing so long for.
She must have made a small noise, because Jarred-Doom-looked at her.
'He would not want you to weep, Sharn,' he said. 'He died at peace, knowing that you and Lief were safe, and Deltora freed. It is a better death than he could have expected.'
Sharn knew; the chants of double-branding and death still rang in her ears. She shuddered. 'It just happened so quickly,' she said. 'All of it. And just when we were so close...' She drew in a shaking breath, struggling to hold back the tears she could feel forming in her eyes.
At least Endon had lived to see the defeat of the Shadow Lord, and the Belt shining for Lief. It had indeed brought him peace; Sharn had seen it in his eyes, in his final moments. Jarred was right-her husband had died with a light heart and a clear conscience. It was something Sharn was glad for. In life, Endon had always been so conflicted, so sorrowful, that she had felt anxious for him at times. Even in the most joyful occasions, there had been a slight shadow in the depths of his eyes, that spoke of guilt, bitterness and determination to restore the Belt and undo what he believed he had inadvertently helped cause. Sharn had never believed that he was at fault, and had always told him so, and yet, it was that very guilt that had fueled his purpose to restore the gems to the Belt and free Deltora from the Shadow Lord's tyranny. Without that purpose and leadership, they would surely have given up long ago.
Doom was gazing at Endon, his eyes dark with emotions Sharn could not name. 'I had thought we would not meet again in this life,' he said. 'I am glad to have been proven wrong. I am glad that he died as he did-quickly, and almost painlessly. It is a better death than any he would have received at the hands of the Shadow Lord.' He turned to look at Sharn, his expression unfathomable. 'And I am glad that you and your family are safe, have been safe for all these years. Fate is indeed merciful.'
'But was it worthwhile for you, truly?' she asked him, her voice shaking. His wife was dead, that much was plain; she would be there with him if she were not. He was scarred and distant and a completely different man than he had been sixteen years before. Did he really think it worth it still for himself and his family, even after all these years?
He stared at her as if she had gone mad. 'Of course,' he answered impatiently. 'For if I had not done as I did, you would be dead, Lief with you, and the cause lost before it had begun. Deltora would have been under the shadow forever.' As she stared back at him numbly, debating her next words, he continued to speak. 'Tora refused you refuge, Sharn. It was as well Anna and I went instead. You and Endon would never have survived in the countryside by yourselves; if you had gone, you would have been destroyed by the dangers lurking there. I have seen them. You would not have stood a chance.'
She almost flinched at the hardness in his tone; his gaze pierced into her like a knife. 'And did you know, there were Grey Guards posted on the road to Tora, killing any man and woman with child they saw. If you had traveled down that road, you would have died, all of you. It was as well that the message from Tora came when it did,' he added almost musingly. 'Otherwise we would have been lost. But we survived.' His eyes were sad, Sharn saw, and she felt her heart ache within her. 'You would not have.'
Tears stung in the corners of her eyes. He was right, and always had been. It still hurt, though, that Endon was dead, that so many sacrifices had been made, with terrible consequences for Jarred and Anna. Sharn did not know the whole of it, and knew she most likely never would. But Doom did not look like a person who had led a life of peace and comfort, and neither did his daughter, Jasmine. She shuddered to think of what had happened to Anna. Whatever it was, it had broken something inside of Jarred- or Doom. She could see it in his eyes, and was saddened by it.
'Endon had always longed to see you again,' Sharn said. 'It would have pained him if he had died before he could.'
'I know,' Doom murmured.
'We were to die, both of us.' To her dismay, she found herself shaking quite badly, and struggled to still herself. 'Double-branding and death. I had thought that we would die, until Lief saved us all. I...' Her voice trembled; she felt the world tilt around her dizzyingly. Gritting her teeth, she straightened and looked Doom firmly in the eye, or attempted to. Her vision seemed to blur around the edges; she could almost see the black dots dancing before her eyes.
Before she could fall, Doom grabbed hold of her arm. 'You should rest, Sharn.' He peered at her with a concerned frown, and shook his head. 'You look as though you would keel over right now. When did you last eat and sleep?'
'I do not know,' she admitted. Too many hours ago, she thought. Sharn dimly recalled eating a meal sent to her hours before; she could not recall the last time she had slept properly while imprisoned in the palace dungeons. She had not taken the time to rest before beginning her long vigil; there had been too much to do all over Del, too many people who had needed her attention. Shortly after their leave-taking of the Place of Punishment, Sharn, along with Zeean of Tora and Nanion of D'Or, had walked through Del, stopping from house to house, giving out foodstuff and blankets to all, and also tending to the sick and injured whenever possible. It had been exhausting work, but necessary. How could she think of resting when so many of her people desperately needed her help?
Now, she felt a wave of exhaustion sweep through her, and swayed, gathering support from Doom's arm placed on hers. The adrenaline rush that had sustained her was wearing away, leaving her utterly tired.
'I cannot leave him yet,' she whispered. It was truth- she was not ready to leave Endon, not yet. She was not ready to say goodbye. Her heart ached at the mere thought of it.
'He would want you to look after yourself and rest.'
Sharn shook her head. 'I cannot, yet,' she repeated. 'I must wait until dawn.'
Doom looked at her thoughtfully, and then nodded. 'In that case, I will stay with you. I do not think you should be alone now.'
There was a deep sorrow in his voice, and anguish lurking in his eyes. With a jolt, Sharn realised that he did not offer just for her, but for himself as well. He grieved, too, for the boyhood friend he cared for like a brother, who he had expected to never see again after that fateful night nearly seventeen years ago when the Shadow Lord invaded. How must he feel, to be reunited with his childhood friend just as Endon lay dying?
'Thank you,' she whispered to him, gently squeezing his hand, and she could feel her voice tremble with the force of her feelings. 'Thank you.'
They sat in companionable silence until the first rays of light began to filter through the chapel window. Sharn and Doom looked at one another, saying nothing. There was nothing to say. Endon had been her husband and king, and Doom's closest-and only- friend. There was nothing either of them could say that would make the loss any easier to bear.
Sharn gripped Doom's hand, drawing strength from its calloused feel. 'I would like to know all that has happened, since the Shadow Lord's invasion, if you wish to speak of it,' she said.
He gazed at her with raised eyebrows, and his lips twitched ever so slightly. 'Perhaps, in time,' he agreed. 'When we are both ready.'
'Yes,' she said softly, holding his gaze for a long moment.
Unsteadily Sharn stood, and walked to the edge of the raised platform, and stared down at her husband's dear, beloved face. It was peaceful, content, grave- everything it had and had not been in life. Yet, it was more. Gently, she held a trembling hand to his cheek, cupping it as she always had when he was alive. It felt pallid and cold to her fingers. She held onto it for a moment longer, and then turned away, biting her cheek to stop the tears from falling.
Endon was dead, but she was alive. Somehow, she would have to go on living without him; she could not think of how she would manage it. Endon had been the love of her life, the man she had grown to care deeply for in all their years of marriage. She would never forget him, the king who had lost so much but had never given up on their kingdom when others had. The blacksmith king, hidden in plain sight for sixteen years, waiting for so long to reclaim his kingdom and see his son inherit.
Someday, Sharn vowed, she would record Endon's -and her-story. Someday, she thought, she would tell it to her grand-children along with their parents' exploits, and they would marvel at the bravery and determination of their grandfather, and learn from his example. Someday, Endon's memory would be celebrated, and not thought of with the scorn and resentment so many Deltorans had expressed during the hard years of the Shadow Lord's rule. Sharn would make it that way.
With a calmness she did not feel, Sharn accepted Doom's offered arm with all the grace she could muster, and they walked out of the chapel, leaving a body ringed with flickering lights behind them. Goodbye, her heart whispered.
From somewhere above, the spirit of Endon watched them go, with the peace and serenity that only death could bring. He would always watch over them, Sharn most of all, and Lief. The new king, who would set his kingdom and people to rights and rule with a better hand than his father before him ever could. Already his people loved him, for he had freed them from tyranny and given them the hope they had never dared to feel or think. Lief would not take their faith in him for granted, as his father before him had done. Lief would always remember that the trust of his people was an important part of his power, and he would wear the Belt of Deltora and never let it out of his sight.
And the spirit knew, without a doubt, that he had been right all along: his son Lief would indeed be the best and most loved king Deltora had ever seen.