Penultimate

The room was dim and hot, and heavy with the scent of incense. Alanna perched awkwardly on the stool set by the bed.

"I worshipped you," she said abruptly, then had to admit, "And was terrified of you. We all were, I think."

Duke Gareth's lips curved up a bare fraction. It only emphasised his gaunt face and sunken eyes, but it was enough to reassure Alanna. She continued.

"You seemed immoveable, unchangeable, to us pages. A veritable force of nature." She tried to smile, but it twisted and turned out hard and full of hurt. "When I came back with the Dominion Jewel, and I saw you looking frail and old I felt as if the world had turned upside down, and sea was now the sky. Well," she amended, "Jon being King might have been part of that too, but the King and Queen were dead, and I thought you were dying, and I'd never had someone I loved die before."

Duke Gareth didn't respond in word or movement. His face was looking up towards the ceiling, but his eyes were glazed and, Alanna thought, unseeing.

"You see?" she said softly, even as her eyes counted every rise and fall of his chest. "That's what you taught me. To speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and now I can't speak anything else."

Duke Gareth's eyelids flickered slightly, but Alanna thought that might have just been a blink. She bit down on her lip, hard, then continued, and was proud her voice was steady.

"You had a greater influence on my than my own father, and I know you'd like that, because you always liked to get the better of him. You shaped my generation of knights into honest, upstanding men. And women. It is a badge of honour to have been trained by Duke Gareth the Elder. Your memory will live on in Jon, and Raoul, and Gary. And me." Alanna paused, hands clenching into fists around the bedclothes. She felt helpless. Her sword was of no use to her here, and Alanna had never been as good with words. Finally, she said, "I pray that you find peace. You will not be forgotten," but the words sounded hollow and empty.

Duke Gareth's breathing was becoming more ragged, and Raoul had still to speak to him, so Alanna leant over and kissed his cheek.

"Goddess bless, my lord," she whispered, and her voice trembled for the first time. She stood to leave, but as she turned away something bumped her leg gently. She glanced back, and saw it was Duke Gareth's hand, now lying limply on the bed again. She looked up at his face, hope rising suddenly and painfully within her. He was looking at her, his eyes sharper than they had been in weeks though his face was still ashen white. His lips moved, mouthing something that Alanna thought was 'bless', but then his eyes slowly unfocused, gazing at some point in the distance over her shoulder.

Alanna stood still, stricken, before very slowly lifting his frail hand, already bereft of its Ducal ring, and kissing it. It seemed to take all of Alanna's strength just to keep moving, but she stood and left the room, brushing past Raoul as she did so. Outside, people were standing and sitting in grim silence, most too exhausted by Duke Gareth's long slow failing to weep. Gary was there, his face as ashen as his father's.

There was nothing to be done. Alanna joined the dry-eyed crowd to wait.