The following is an excerpt from Keepers, a work in progress by Rachel Burkholder.

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Klaron followed the Keeper to the preparation chambers where she and her kind prepared the bodies of the royal house for the afterlife. Klaron, though he had been trained for such an event, had never been to these lower parts of the castle. He was still young. His training complete, it was understood that he would reside first among the living before he would be sent below to guard and protect the body and soul of his departed charge. His age was why he had been chosen for the future child of the King. It was not assumed that he would outlive his charge.

Klaron carried his charge down the cold dark steps. The glow of the touches lighting the way. Here modern technology never made its way down. Here in the depths of the castle the superstitions of time out of mind still held sway. The Tombs were timeless, ancient, perhaps older than the hills in which the Tombs and catacombs dwelt. At the foundation of the castle before the catacombs were the preparation rooms—cold whitewashed rooms that smelled of disinfectant and embalming fluid. In the middle of the first room was a large stone table. Etched into the sides was the sacred symbols of the gods—Orn the Death God, Innye the reaper goddess of the corn, Daysh god of war, Mead goddess of the drink, Plenthor god of the north wind and Gaust god of the hunt. Before Klaron could enter a Tomb Protector stopped him. The Tomb Protector unbelted Klaron’s firearm. No mechanical weapons were permitted in the Tombs.

Klaron walked inside, set his bundle in the center of the table and then stepped back as the Keeper took over. The Keepers spread the white linen out around the infant boy. They all wore crimson robes and black gloves except for one. She wore white gloves and a white sash. She was the Mother Keeper. She sang the Song of the Dead. The Keepers movements were like a dance; they moved in and out and around the stone table without bumping, dropping or otherwise missing a step as the song rose and fall about the white washed room.

The young champion felt out of place. His tired body swayed with the music and his vision blurred. He was seeing mysteries that he could not and did not comprehend. No one truly did. These were the rites of the Dead. The Keepers kept the ways given to them by the gods. Only their children and children’s children would know and perform these rites. The fact that he had even seen these happenings was like a rite of passage. They were initiating him into the ranks of those who have seen: seen and lived. Only Keepers and other Champion’s of the Royal Kins who take their charges to the tombs have witnessed. He was a Champion but now as he entered the Tombs he was a Yoeman of the Soul. He did not have a Living charge. The Body of the royal kin did not need protecting it was the Soul that he now had to guard.

The Song of the Dead consumed Klaron’s thoughts and filled the room. A cold breath spread over him and the once bright room dimmed. He thought he could see the Spirits floating in and out with the music. A tiny spirit of the infant hovered just barely inside its body. Klaron fought to keep with his training—strong, alert, unwavering. He watched dizzily as the Keepers preformed the last rites. The Mother kissed her thumbs and pressed them on the tiny eyelids. If they had been opened she would have closed them. The Keepers slit the tiny chest from clavicle to the umbilical cord. In the haze of the song Klaron thought he saw the soul of the infant flutter free of its body. The Keepers tenderly removed each organ and placed it in an ebony box carved with shapes of the guardians—Spirit beings of the wolf, the griffin, the dragon, the sphinx, and the gargoyle. Everything was washed and embalmed. The shriveling umbilical was shorn off and the incision sewn with the finest thread. The infant was cleaned. Fresh linens were brought in and the child wrapped. It lay like a doll dressed in white

When the song finally died away, Klaron could hardly move. The Mother beckoned for him to come. Stiffly, Klaron picked up the infant. He cradled it in his arms. One of the Keepers picked up the ebony box. They followed the Mother out of the preparation room out into a long warmly lit corridor, which led to a cathedral like hall. Klaron had been here once as a boy when the late king had been laid in state on the stone table by the dais. The hall had already been prepared. The banners of the royal house had been hung and the table or altar was already covered in the clothes and cushions all barring either the royal crest of the holy symbols of the eternal gods. Klaron walked up and placed his charge in the middle. He arranged the pillows and some of the linen so it appeared that perhaps the infant was just sleeping. One of the Keepers caught his eyes as he stepped away. She gave him a faint but reassuring smile.

“Come,” the Mother said, and again Klaron followed. She led him to a small recess on the far side of the Hall. A statue of Innye the Goddess Reaper of Life with her hood thrown back and her body arched in mid swing with her scythe stood in front blocking most of the view. But Klaron could see a bench. It was strewn with pillows and a few blankets. “Rest here Yeoman,” she said. “I will wake you when the Viewing begins.” Klaron nodded too exhausted to speak. He collapsed into a deep sleep.

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