by Rajiv Moté (Fantasy, 3,600 words)
Sajun drew rein at the foot of a hillock, where a footpath switched back and forth up to an unexpectedly ordinary whitewashed cottage. He could imagine Tankrit already standing at the top, her night-black hair and robes waving in an unfelt breeze, expecting him through some arcane prescience. But her kind of magic disappeared from the world, and if the one-time necromancer did live here, he would have to knock on her door. As if she were an ordinary woman.
Sajun knew better. He hadn’t steeled his nerves and ridden these leagues seeking ordinary.
Years after writing his history of the War for the Light, Sajun still felt himself living out a tale, if no longer one that any would care to read. The compelling part was over. Sajun was neither poet nor harper, but he had written the story as he and his remaining companions remembered it, and granted himself liberties only where none alive could say otherwise. He’d tried to be honest about his own small role, with neither false heroism nor modesty. The story had an ending. In the way of tales, the grander movements came full circle. Yet–with heartbreaking exceptions–life went on. The last twenty years felt like a story told too long.
This ride, north and west from the New Capital, felt different. Though the landscape had changed, it brought back memories. For the first time in years he was excited, apprehensive, and focused as an archer on what could happen next.
Around the cottage, the sun shone golden on a countryside painted vibrant greens, yellows, and browns, sloping toward an ocean of white-capped blue. It had been twenty years since light, beauty, and bounty returned to the world. Even now, it dazzled him. Magic had returned, for those who understood. Too many didn’t. He knew what it had cost, and never took it for granted. He made it a ritual to stop and bear witness.
The sun had followed his journey, and was now westering toward the ocean. “It’s long past time,” Sajun told the golden light slanting across the hillock. “I’m turning the page.” New page, but the same story, he thought ruefully. Others had opened entirely new books after the war. He had tried.
Last he’d seen Tankrit, she had sailed off on a ship, a pirate king’s arm encircling her waist. That was over, but if Tankrit wasn’t ready to move on–or had moved on already, the town he’d passed through had cider halls enough to drown in. It had been only a village when he, Tankrit, and their companions had passed through on their first journey. It was the last place of safety they’d known for a long time. The notion that Tankrit wanted a connection to their past gave his heart a twinge of hope. So did he. Sometimes it felt as though nothing in his remaining years could compare to the history he’d written of their youth.
Near the footpath was a stand of olive trees and a pool. In the shade he removed Lily’s saddlebags, checking the small wine casks. The outline of a book showed under the leather of one of the bags. Not his book. He hadn’t had the chance to check how he’d written Tankrit before he set out. He hadn’t expected to see her again, and may have taken… liberties. No, this book was Saarya’s notes, which she’d given him before he knew her plan. Before she ascended. Share it with a mage you trust, she’d told him. Tankrit wouldn’t have been Saarya’s choice.
He offered Lily an apple, which she ate eagerly. The slope rose gently, but he walked the switchback path all the way up. Tankrit would have sneered. Always following the rules. She would sneer even if they were her rules. He thought that was what drew her to her pirate king, back when he and Tankrit were young.
Two benches and a table stood near the door. He’d learned enough carpentry, after his knighthood became meaningless, to mark them as solid work. For breakfasts watching the sunrise, or suppers watching the sun sink into the sea. The former necromancer and her pirate king had found a place, their adventures done, where they could grow old together. Marelio never stayed still for long, yet for Tankrit he had. His leaving must have been her decision.
Before the door, tension coiled in him from toes to teeth, like when sighting a Khalit horde cresting a ridge. A young man’s dreadful thrill. Forward.
The door took long to open.
Her eyes were no longer accented with kohl, and her hair was pulled back in a tight bun, but the face that peered out had changed little. He always remembered Tankrit as taller. Memory was tricksome.
“What do you–” The words died on Tankrit’s lips. Had he not been watching, Sajun would have missed the expression that ghosted across her features. Pain, from an old hurt, quickly tamped down and wiped away. He hadn’t expected that. He didn’t know what it meant.
“What brings you to my door, Sir Sajun?” That cool voice, mysterious and low, conspiratorial. It hadn’t changed at all. Even with her head tilted up, she somehow seemed to look down from a lofty height.
“Hello, Tankrit. It’s just Sajun, now that there’s no need for knights.” Behind her, it looked like a gale had swept through the cottage. Laundry. Mending. Herbs drying from the rafters. Mismatched furniture needing repair. Scroll panes and books, everywhere. Texts on magic, he guessed. Old ones, from before the Necromantic School. She’d have no squad of walking corpses to tidy up for her now. Maybe his instincts on Saarya’s book were right.
Her eyes flickered to his hip. “You’ve left behind that sword. Not wearing it suits you.”
Sajun smiled as cheerfully as he could. “No need for a sword either. The land is thriving and peaceful.” Gone were her black robes like glistening snakeskin. Tankrit wore a simple country dress patterned with, of all things, little embroidered wildflowers. She wouldn’t have been out of place on Farran’s farm. No plunging neckline, no silky flash of thigh. And yet. Memory threw long shadows, shaping all they touched.
“I’m surprised you let it go.”
Sajun stopped his hand from wandering to where the black sword once hung. “It’s just a sword now. It’s locked away. Even I couldn’t get to it.” Not easily. He would be happy never to touch the thing again, necromantic magic or no.
Tankrit stared at him for a stretched-out moment, and it was like before, when he had the uncomfortable feeling she was sifting through his mind to see what he kept from her. She always fixed on that cursed blade. But she only said, “I nearly didn’t recognize you with that thing on your face.”
Sajun smoothed his beard. “You like it?” She hadn’t moved to invite him in, but she hadn’t sent him away either. He’d foolishly hoped for a warmer reception. That wasn’t Tankrit. But an embrace? Why not, after all they’d gone through together? Maybe if their old companions Farren, Lys, and Telemar had come too. Maybe if Saarya… He glanced out at the western sky. No, not Saarya. Not for this.
“It looks like a family of black squirrels are living on your face.” She pointed to the bench by the door. “Sit there,” she said imperiously.
Sajun sat. She returned with a comb and scissors. “Turn,” she said, nudging him, “so the wind blows away the fur. Hold still.”
Sajun smothered an amused smile. Once he had been outraged by the liberties she took, but Saarya had explained that the necromancer pushed to see where limits really lay. “She’ll stop if you tell her to,” Saarya said, and Sajun hadn’t understood why she’d sounded sad. Not back then. He shook his head. He didn’t want to think about Saarya now.
“I said hold still.” Tankrit held the side of the scissors to his cheek.
Sajun moved only his lips. “What does a former necromancer do in this new world?” From the way she tugged his whiskers as she snipped, he’d flubbed the question. Still, best to get it out of the way. The world changed even more for her than for him. Remember that, fool.
“Barbering, apparently. What does a former knight do in peacetime?”
“I try to be useful. I spent a few seasons on Farran’s farm. Knights are done, but we’ll always need farmers.” He hoped mentioning their old friend would get her talking about the history they shared. But maybe she had moved on, from all of it. He thought of her expression of pain at the door.
“I’ve learned some carpentry,” he said, remembering the cottage’s furniture. “In the capital, grown men and women are taking apprenticeships again. Everyone’s learning a new place in the world.” Or trying to. Once, he was on a path to becoming a knight. A hero. But his true role was to help the real hero ascend–by killing her. After that, he was nothing. For a long time he believed nothing was what he deserved.
“Herb lore still works,” Tankrit said, as if to herself. “Not for everything, but enough for balms and cures.” Scorn edged her words. “If nothing else, I’ve become an exceptional cook.”
“Oh really.” Sajun seized the opening. “When’s supper?”
“You take liberties, squire.”
That left a silence except for the soft snip of the scissors. Finally, she took his head between her hands, angled it this way and that, and nodded. She hadn’t shorn him bare, but his face felt tidier. “There. No more squirrels.”
Then her lips were on his.
She kept a fierce hold on his beard, and she stepped in when he wrapped his arms around her waist.
Breathless time passed. Tankrit released him and stepped back. Reluctantly, he let his hands fall.
“Well,” she said. “Now that that’s out of the way, I ask you again. What brings you to my door?”
“I’ve forgotten,” he said thickly. Out of the way? For whom?
He raised his hands in a gesture of peace and took a steadying breath. “I’ve brought you something.” He gestured to his saddlebags. “May I?” She’d thrown him off balance. Yes, he daydreamed writing another kiss from Tankrit into his histories after Marelio paid him a visit, even planned the steps to get there, but this was all out of sequence. Out of the way indeed.
He returned with one of the casks and a pair of wooden cups he’d carved, smoothed, and stained. A brand was burned into the cask’s slats. “I’ve acquired some of that death-black wine you love.” He set the cask on the table and tapped the bung. “I’d thought to develop a taste for it myself, but better to share with someone who already had one.”
Tankrit’s dark eyes went wide. “You procured a Hostur?” She sounded impressed. She seemed about to ask the obvious question, but decided against it. “Pour, Sir Sajun.”
Their cups touched. How can something taste of loss, but so sweet? How could that final bitterness hold such savor?
At last, she asked Sajun about their old companions, the ones who survived the war. She hadn’t seen any of them since she’d climbed onto the deck of Blackfish with her pirate king, without a single look back. He’d attended Farren’s wedding in the country, and Farren had attended Sajun’s knighting–the last such ceremony to be held in the Great Court. Telemar, for whom Sajun had squired, served on the High Council now, with little time for anything else. Lys was Lys, scheming for the love of schemes more than the coin they brought. “If you need me, put word out on the street, and I will come,” she’d sworn, but Sajun never had. It was a promise of a favor, not friendship, which made Sajun sad. They had all moved on to new stories.
He and Tankrit reminisced. She dwelt on the time before a swaggering pirate smuggled them to Stormcastle on a dare. She corrected memories he’d invented for his book. She did something Sajun couldn’t remember seeing her do. She smiled. She laughed, a simple expression of joy.
“Perhaps I shall favor you with my cooking after all,” Tankrit proclaimed. “Stay there.”
Sajun stretched expansively, and took a deep, sea-kissed breath. He smiled, luxuriating in how well this new story was going, despite his upset plans. Her unexpected kiss lingered. The black wine was potent, a little dangerous, especially on an empty belly. It had him falling deep into his head, looking out through his own eyes like a spy.
Don’t get sloppy, he warned himself.
When Tankrit returned, her hair was down. The wine in his head, Sajun felt like he had fallen backward in time. She brought a wedge of pale ewe’s milk cheese, a dish of olives, cool slices of roast mutton, and a bowl of soup or sauce with unfamiliar but alluring aromas.
Sajun inhaled deeply over the bowl, trying to puzzle it out. “You just made this?”
Tankrit gave him a level look. “Of course not, squire. But tell me this day-later doesn’t beat any just-cooked meal you’ve ever had.”
He closed his eyes after the first bite. Maybe the excesses of King Galt’s table had some of these flavors, but there was subtle craft here. Depth. He would have eaten the bowl of sauce on its own, but with the roast… “This is magic.”
She’d always kept herself reined in, but the wine was flowing and she allowed herself a grin. “Never doubt me, Sir Sajun.”
The golden sun brushed the treetops, deepening in color and throwing long shadows. Warm. “I used to be afraid of you,” Sajun said softly.
“With good reason.” Tankrit swirled the black wine in the wooden cup as though it were stemmed crystal. It reached her fingers. She touched the drops to her lips.
“Not the witchlight, the black smoke, the spirits. Not the magic. You. You knew so much. You were always so sure.”
Tankrit’s face receded into the shadows. “So says the Chosen One’s chosen one.”
There, one of the two names left unspoken.
It had taken him a long time to understand how he and Saarya fit together. What they needed from each other. What they didn’t. Why he followed her mad plan. He may not have truly understood until he wrote it into his history, after she was gone. “It wasn’t like that. Saarya…”
“She loved you, squire. Never tell me you didn’t know. That would have been stupidly tragic. And I’m altogether done with tragedy.”
Sajun stared at his cup. Me too. “I knew.”
“Good then,” Tankrit said primly. “You know, in town they say Golden Saarya still watches over us all. Some more than others, I’d say. Where did you get this Hostur? Answer me plain. I’ll know if you lie.”
There it was, the other name.
“Blackfish anchored two months ago, and Marelio rowed ashore.” He watched Tankrit’s face become a mask. “It caused quite a scramble. The High Council had disbanded the army years ago, and the constabulary was more for breaking up tavern brawls than fending off pirates. But he’d just come to talk.”
“So you knew. You knew he left.”
He nodded. And you stayed. “He planned to take Blackfish across the sea. To start a new story, he said. You know how he is.” Marelio chose again. So can you, Tankrit. “He wanted to say goodbye to old friends. I suppose I counted as one, after everything.” Marelio’s face had added lines, and that great black beard had more than one streak of gray, but otherwise he was the same. Brash and bold as an untested boy. Sajun envied the older man’s swagger twenty years ago, but it was ill-fitting clothes now. Perhaps Tankrit found it so, too. That possibility planted the seed of this journey.
Tankrit’s mask held firm.
“We talked. We drank. Finally he declared he was done waiting for me to ask after you. So I did.”
“He sent you to me.” The mask hadn’t slipped, but it twisted into something frightening. “To ease his conscience.”
“What? No, Tankrit.” Did he? Whose story is this? “I asked where you were.” Sajun held up his cup. “I bought his Hostur.”
Tankrit raised one eyebrow
“He gave me as many casks as I could carry.” Maybe I was wrong. Marelio loved you in his own way.
Tankrit threw up her hands, a dramatic gesture surely from the wine. It affected him too. He took a deep breath. He knew why he was here.
“I was afraid of you because I wanted you.” Tankrit’s stare should have struck him dead, magic or no. “I mean, I wanted you to see me as worthy. So much of what I did back then was… to impress you.” And now? How well do my own clothes fit? An unsettling question the Tankrit not of his pages would force him to answer.
“You only had eyes for her. Our milk-skinned, golden-haired savior who gorged on all the magic and became a goddess. And left me like this.” Her gesture took in herself, the cottage, the entire world. “Ordinary.”
No. Saarya had brought magic back from the Shadowlands, where the Necromantic School had squandered it, draining the world of light. He and that cursed sword sent her there. She’d closed the Shadow Door so it would never be abused again. Magic shone down everywhere now, ready for anyone with the wisdom to use it. And with Saarya’s notes. But Sajun didn’t want to talk about Saarya. Certainly not now, to Tankrit. The former necromancer wasn’t the only one to look at them askance, the golden savior and her dark squire. But Saarya had ascended far beyond them now. She’d saved them all from eternal night. And now she’s gone. Or near enough.
“Ordinary? Never you,” Sajun said quietly. “I remember the Tomb of Visuakant.”
Tankrit’s eyes hooded. The night they’d hidden from the marauding Khalits in the ghost-ridden tomb, in the very sarcophagus of Visuakant, had fueled his own nightmares for months.
“I wrote about us,” he said. “About all of us, and the war. And the tomb. It’s strange how the years can change how you remember something. You notice different things, looking back, trying to make sense of it.”
Sajun stared into his wine, its black surface afire in the sinking sun. “You bargained with Visuakant’s specter to hide us. He would if we allowed him to feed, but he wanted only you. Even though I had the black sword. I… it… had gorged itself on Khalits, Tankrit. I had so much more for Visuakant to… eat.”
“You don’t understand necromancy,” Tankrit said.
“Maybe so. But there I lay in Visuakant’s dust, you on top of me, and old Visuakant wrapped around you like a cloak, eating your life. Outside, the Khalits ransacked the graves but didn’t dare disturb Visuakant. You were dying. So I asked you to feed on me. I couldn’t give you the blade–it had bonded. But I knew you could take my strength. I’d seen you do it to King Galt. But now I remember–” Sajun smiled. I didn’t invent this. Something beautiful in all that horror. “It seems you didn’t have to kiss King Galt.”
Tankrit blinked, and then laughed in astonishment. “Oh my squire! You thought, as I drained the robbed souls of a dozen Khalit berserkers through the most dangerous necromantic artifact in the world, while an ancient demon-ridden spirit fed on me, my thoughts were upon kissing you?” She wiped tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.
“I may not understand necromancy,” Sajun said, “but I know a kiss. I just now had a reminder.”
Tankrit opened her mouth with a ready reply, and then decided against it. “Well and good that you know,” she said. “Sajun.”
Oh, the way she said his name. The knowing that reached back twenty years.
Behind her the sun had sunk below the treeline, and through the branches the sea sparkled in the red-orange light. Birds overhead returned to their roosts. The air was alive with the trilling of insects. Tankrit moved down the bench, swung her legs over to watch the sunset, and patted the seat beside her. Sajun rounded the table to join her. The air turned crisp. A delicious shiver.
There would be more kisses. It wasn’t like when they were young, and something always got in the way. Someone. Himself. Now, there was time.
Tankrit rested her head on his shoulder. An ordinary gesture, yet for them, altogether extraordinary. Magical.
“I thought we had our ending twenty years ago,” she said.
The former necromancer’s hair smelled of flowers and herbs. Of life.
“Maybe endings are just for stories.” Or maybe, if we both wanted, we could continue our story forever.
Something glimmered golden between the trees, against the setting sun and sparkling waves. It was beautiful, but Tankrit filled Sajun’s eyes. Saarya’s book could wait. The story would go on, one epic of magic yielding to another. But after twenty years Sajun finally found the page where he wanted to linger, where he and Tankrit could write the words together.
Have you ever been so immersed in an epic fantasy world that you never wanted the story to end? Because ending meant a return to the ordinary world, without magic, without purpose written in prophecy, without thrilling possibility? What if the characters in that epic fantasy felt the same way?
This is the purpose of epic fantasy epilogues. They are a place to linger, a slow off-ramp from the story world. They show readers who have invested sometimes years of emotion and imagination that the world continues, it remains a place of wonder, and there are stories yet to be told–even if it is only in the readers’ own daydreams. The epilogue is where the story is passed on to the readers.
I find these movements immensely satisfying, and I wanted to write a story that captured them. I wanted to write an epilogue to an unwritten epic, from the point-of-view of a secondary character for whom the epic was the greatest thing to happen in his life, and leaving it behind for an ordinary world was hard. The pandemic was starting to take hold, and I also wanted to write something self-indulgent–comfort food for myself, with yearning, melancholy, wine, food, and the comfort of a moment I knew couldn’t last. “Epilogue to a Lost Epic” is dear to me for those reasons.
Earning the emotional movements of an epilogue, when I hadn’t written the multi-volume epic fantasy that precedes it, was the first challenge. This simple tale of a sad man trying to reconnect with an old crush is laden with backstory. I needed to sell that Sajun and Tankrit have history together, and that history is epic. I leaned into fantasy and mythology tropes to give readers (at least, readers who had read the same things as me) familiar scaffolding. I learned from early Star Wars (before corporate licensing canonized the fan fictions of hundreds of writers) that just a few details could create a rich story that existed in invested fans’ minds–the so-called “headcanon.” The handoff to readers’ imagination that epilogues perform is a future-facing headcanon. This story had to construct both future-facing, and past-facing headcanon. It asks a lot from the reader. Maybe more than any reader will grant. This is no Star Wars, after all. But I’m proud of the experiment.
There is another genre of writing that excels at building headcanon: narrative songs. Two songs in particular ran through my head as I crafted this story of Sajun reconnecting (for all the wrong reasons) with Tankrit. “Little Earthquakes” by Tori Amos and “Suffer the Fools” by Belly are both about relationships that have outlived their joy, but the couple traps themselves by being unwilling to move on from their shared history. If you enjoy Easter eggs, see if you can find all the lyrics that became plot points. Like I said, I was feeling self-indulgent.
Sajun still felt himself living out a tale, if no longer one that any would care to read.
“Epilogue to a Lost Epic” was rejected by 19 publications over the last year and a half, but it remains my favorite story I’ve ever written. Part of it might be the IKEA Effect: I put in a lot of work on this story that never appears on the page: an outline of the lost epic, a magic system that explains the ecological disaster that the epic averted, and the plot threads that could become the epic that follows this one. One of the more common editorial criticisms was that they would have rather read the lost epic than this story. I think that’s fair, but it’s also the point. So would Sajun. This story is about trying to move on from those youthful exploits. But the gravity of one’s epic history is, perhaps, inescapable for characters and readers alike.