Son, priest, ruler-to-be . . . Halwende faces a challenging duty.
After eating, Halwende drank more warm water with sun-stem in it, then went to the Scavenger’s temple. It sat away from the keep, at the edge of the cleared area reserved for day-work, and the first of the ovsta and cattle pens. The Scavenger’s voice spoke for Yoorst, determining the day of fall slaughter, if no priest of Yoorst happened to be available. It also marked the place where final rites for the dead were conducted. The pile of wood, as high as Halwende’s chin, stood waiting. Oil too had been prepared and yet waited inside the keep. He looked at the mound of wildwood, cut firewood, and other pieces of brush and tree, and nodded. Go in. He can’t yell at you any more. He took a deep breath, turned, and walked to the temple door. It opened. He bowed and stepped inside.
The hard-edged incense he associated with the Scavenger . . . No, a gentler scent met him from the silent darkness. Lamps burned on either side of Duke Hal’s bier. Halwende bowed to the hooded figure standing behind the altar, then approached the body. His father lay with his arms along his side, his body draped with rough black cloth, a thin white veil over his face. He looked— Halwende sought the word. His father looked at peace. He had done his duty, he had died easily, he had paid his debts save one. He could enter the Scavenger’s presence with a quiet spirit, perhaps.
The flames of the lamps swam, and wet trickled down Halwende’s face. Duke Hal—his father—lay dead. Truly dead. Now what? He went to one knee and covered his face with his hands, fighting to control himself. Fear for the future warred with anger at the old duke. “How dare you rest quietly, who never allowed your sons to know quiet? How dare you?” The words hissed out of him, impious and bitter, as bitter as the tears on his face.
“My brother,” a soft voice murmured from the darkness. Fabric rustled, and Halwende lowered his hands. Wulfhilde extended one black-gloved hand. He took it and rose. “Come.” He followed her past the body and the altar, pausing with her to bow to the One for whom she spoke. She pushed open a hidden door and led him into the tiring room. A window allowed the cloud-softened morning light into the chamber. “You cannot repair black vestments with black thread by lamp light,” she told him. “Sit.”
He sat. She sat on the other side of the small table, facing him. “Younger brother.” She said nothing more, but the sympathy and warmth in her voice undid his effort at control, and the tears began once more. He let them flow. A different door opened, and Eticho came in, wearing a darker version of his usual garb. He sat beside Halwende and rested one hand on his shoulder. Neither priest said aught more, but their presence helped. The tears and rough sobs ended. Eticho offered a bit of much-washed cloth. Halwende wiped his eyes and returned the material.
“So,” Wulfhilde began. “Since we are almost all here. In two days, the rites begin when the sun crosses the peak of the sky, so that his grace’s remains will be burned by nightfall.” The two men nodded. “Halwende, you will speak for the Lady of the Forest. You know the proper words?”
He nodded. “Yes, I speak as the Lady, and give permission for the wood that was gathered to be used for the rite, and I bless his grace as appropriate to his sex and station.”
“Good. You will not light the flame.” The black hood turned toward the healer-priest.
“No, that’s my job, and I hope no one needs me afterwards, because I’m going to be flat on my back.” He sighed. “Halwende, remember your headache after throwing fire?”
“Yes.” He winced as a phantom throb bounced through his head.
Eticho nodded. “That’s what I’m going to feel like, since his grace was not born to and born for Rella.” A heavy sigh. “I do not begrudge the gift of Her flame, but I wish I was a fire-priest instead of a healer.”
A quiet snort came from the depths of the hood. “A fire priest in the forest. I’ve heard that song.”
Who hadn’t? Even if no one was supposed to sing songs like that, ones that made fun of the clergy. Well, given the songs making fun of the nobles . . . It was pretty mild, really.
“Roget has the least to do, at least during the main rites,” Wulfhilde continued. “He will bless the breads of the feast, once the flames of the death-fire die. Then what?”
Halwende half-closed his eyes so he could see the page in the book. “I, no, Valdher’s speaker has to ensure that the ashes are cold. The wood ashes, and that all embers have died before the remains are gathered and taken to the place of burial to return to the soil.” Those ashes could not be used for making soap or other things. “And I need to find the proper place today, since we have no place set-aside for the bones and ashes of the family.” Some clans did, but the Valke tended to move every few generations, and had never begun the tradition.
“Yes. And you will need to lead Eighth-Day worship on the Eighth-Day, as Valdher’s speaker.” She patted his hand. “I get to sleep.” A hint of laughter came from the hood, and he imagined her sticking her tongue out at him.
He did not returned the gesture.
Eticho chuckled. “I will be sleeping, whether I want to or not, and I assure you, brother, I will want to. So don’t get bitten by an einar or fall of the wall, or get run over by an ovsta storm until after noon.”
Halwende managed a weak smile. “I will endeavor to stay out of trouble, Master Healer.”
Wulfhilde sat bolt upright, head turning to the chapel. “My, this changes things,” she whispered. “Stay here.” She stood and went out into the chapel.
“I hope that doesn’t mean that Duke Hal’s spirit has returned to scold me one last time,” Halwende grumbled, trying to hide a spike of fear.
Eticho snorted. “If he does, our sister will have firm words for him, and will need both of us to deal with whatever is pretending to be his grace.”
Cold chills shook Halwende, and he swallowed hard. That was one thing the priests never, ever discussed outside of their own company, and then behind locked doors.
The door opened, and Halwende and Eticho both stood as a brown clad man in a traveler’s cloak, with a traveler’s staff and hat, ducked into the room ahead of Wulfhilde. The man wore a large rectangular pendant of brown and gold striped cat’s eye, hanging from a heavy gold chain with red and brown enamel. “Well met, brothers,” Marsdaam’s Son said.
The others bowed. “Well met, sir,” Eticho replied. “You come at an auspicious time.”
“Indeed.” The stranger removed his hat and pointed to Halwende. “I know you are in mourning, Duke Halwende, but your men are needed in the west, to watch and guard. Lord Ruthard seeks to make trouble. Don’t go yourself, but warn your men.”
Only being in the Scavenger’s Own house kept Halwende from erupting with rage. Crimson filled his vision. He— How dare— The twice blasted son of a— One, two, three, four, . . . He got to twenty before he could open his mouth and speak in calm, quiet tones. “I think you, sir, for your counsel, and I go to warn Master Lothar and the others. If you will pardon me sister, brothers?”
Wulfhilde waved at him, then made a shooing motion with her right hand. “Go. Your role tomorrow will not change.”
He bowed and departed by the outer door, the one not into the chapel. He eased past two storage rooms and out a concealed side door. That put him face to face with the wood for the final rites. He drew magic, then stopped himself. No, no anger, not now. This is not the time. And you’ll have to gather more wood. He trotted to the keep, and to Master Lothar’s domain near the weapons’ practice areas. Of all the times to push things . . . Ice replaced fire. He wants me to be foolish, and rash. And then I will join my brothers and parents. Somehow he knew, just knew, what Ruthard hoped would happen. Thank You, Lady of the Forest, Scavenger, for holding me back.
That night he put on the robes of Valdher’s speaker, took his priest’s staff, and went to the Scavenger’s temple. Marsdaam’s Son met him on the way, and Halwende bowed. “No, brother, do not bow,” the older man said, voice quiet and rich, a warm medium-deep voice. “We stand as equals this night, hands of the gods alone.”
Halwende still opened the door for the Son, younger for elder. Together they bowed to the Scavenger. The Dark Lord loomed in the flickering lamp light, a shadow clad in darkness, His robes of black concealing face and much else. Black and silver patterns marked the edges of His knee-length cloak, and silver capped the ends of the staff standing at His left hand. He wore black trews tucked into black boots. His right hand rested on the head of a very, very large rat. His left reached forward, palm up, fingers curved in a gesture of welcome, or perhaps of command—come. No man could refuse the Scavenger’s call, no matter how young or brave or wise. Some said that the Scavenger was the fairest of the gods, the most just, for He ignored all rank and station. Even the Northern Emperors passed into His domain.
“Well met, brothers,” a cool voice murmured from the shadows. “By twos we stand vigil, by twos we rest. Gember’s speaker, Rella’s speaker, and Yoorst’s speaker come also. The tiring room is open to all.”
“Our thanks, sister, for the hospitality and welcome,” Marsdaam’s Son replied, equally quiet. “Shall we,” he gestured to Halwende, “begin?”
“Yessssss,” came the cold, sibilant reply. Halwende swallowed and inclined toward the voice, as did Marsdaam’s Son. Heavy, dull steps retreated toward the tiring chamber’s door. The lamp flames bowed to the Scavenger, then straightened.
Halwende bowed as well, then took his place on the left side of the bier. Marsdaam had been Duke Hal’s born-to and born-for patron, so the Great Traveler’s Son stood on the right. Halwende held his staff in front of himself, butt resting on the floor, and shifted to “ready-relaxed” as he would for a long ceremony or court. He gazed down, at the edge of the bier and the floor. Four long, slow breaths, then he opened his mind the way he did if leading worship.
Calm, the watchful calm of a cervi doe alone and safe in the forest, filled him. A soft green bloomed at the edges of his vision, the green of sunlight through leaves in late spring. He contemplated the forest, of life and death and the proper way of things. A great tree died, fell in a storm or burned in a fire, and new life arose from the roots and ashes, fed by the light and water and the life returned to the soil. Hunting animals killed prey animals, then died in their turn, and the eaters of the dead returned the bodies to the soil, renewing the life therein. Birth and death, mating and rest, spring and summer and fall and winter, all passing in their turn, the proper round. As with the forest, so too with men.
The soft scuff of boots on the floor caught his ear, and he slowly emerged from his meditations. He turned his head, with great care, and looked to the sound. A lean man in Gember’s golden brown robes stood waiting. Beside him, an unfamiliar older priestess in Yoorst’s black, brown and cream nodded to Halwende. He turned, bowed to the Scavenger, then stepped back. He cleared space for Yoorst’s voice to take his place. She walked forward, bowed to the Dark Lord, and turned to face the bier. Only then did he follow Marsdaam’s Son to the dim quiet of the tiring room. Herb-laced warm water waited for them, along with light food appropriate for wakefulness. Unlike the others, he and Marsdaam’s Son would stand extra watches until the dawn.
Marsdaam’s Son helped himself then sat. “Sit, brother. Our sister rests, since she has the greater duty tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir.” Halwende got a little food and more water, then sat as well. How old was Wulfhilde? Probably not young, but he could be wrong. He’d never know, and it didn’t matter.
The older man studied him. Halwende liked his brown eyes and solid features, and his calloused hands. The priest worked. That was good. Halwende drank some of the herbed water and didn’t make a face. It smelled like sweet spices, but tasted more bitter than sweet. Eticho’s work, I should have suspected. That or just something that simmered too long and went bad, like some fish had to be cooked for hours, or waved over the fire, but nothing in-between.
“Have you ever stood death vigil before?”
Halwende finished his swallow. “No. I only became Valdher’s voice at midsummer, when the former priest died. No one has died yet who was born to Valdher.” He thought about the people he knew. “The senior huntsman, Pol, and I, and one of the maids who works in the kitchen may be the only people born to the Lady of the Forest currently living in the keep or close to the keep.” A number had been born for Valdher, but born to other deities. “We don’t have many Scavenger-born, either.”
The Son frowned, a thoughtful expression rather than with anger. “Interesting. That may explain some things.” He shrugged and drank. “I ask because you seem both comfortable with your duty, and hesitant.” He smiled a little.
Halwende nodded and shrugged in turn. “Meditating on life and death . . .” He turned one hand palm-up in a sort of shrug. “I’m a hunter and forester, or was before my brothers’ deaths. That is all life and death, looking to see that the trees are taken at the best time with minimal waste, if possible, dealing with fires if they endanger farms and villages.” He inhaled. “As a pathfinder, I seem to walk closely with danger and death. But I’ve never stood vigil before, sir. I’m not sure, other than falling asleep or letting my mind wander in, ah, improper directions, how I would go wrong.”
“Those are the main ways. Since no other family members stand vigil, talking or other people sleeping isn’t something you have to worry with.” The Son frowned again. “Have Duke Hal’s brothers and sisters been told?”
Oh dear. This will be— No, be honest. “Sir, messengers were sent. Only Lady Valeria accepted the message, his grace’s youngest sister. The others sent the messengers back with the unopened message.” [snip]
“Hmm.” Neither spoke after that. Halwende concentrated on drinking, then taking care of the used water.
The second vigil passed as the first. The third, however . . . As the lamps burned lower, the green at the edges of his vision spread, filling his eyes with a vision of the forest. A woman in hunting clothes, her face hidden by the hood of her green cloak, waited at the edge of a clearing. A dark, shadowy figure watched as well, half-hidden by an old, fire-blackened tree trunk. Halwende went to one knee, head bowed. The rustling whisper filled his ears. My servant, my pathfinder, patience. Watch and wait. The cervi will come to your hand, and justice come with it.
Lady and forest faded into darkness. Halwende managed to stay on his feet, but he swayed a little, then regained himself. Thank You, Lady of the Forest. Thank You, Scavenger, for Your mercy and guidance. He had no excuse to go seeking revenge, not after that! Yes, and now he had every reason not to court danger, at least not until Valdher gave Her sign. He shook a little, then studied his grace’s body and returned his thoughts to the appropriate meditations.
At first light, Eticho and Wulfhilde took his and the Son’s place. The doors of the small temple opened, and those who wished to could pay honors to Duke Hal before the final rites. Halwende retreated to Valdher’s chapel in the keep. He recited prayers of thanks and honor, and savored the calm and quiet. Then he ate.
(C) Alma T. C. Boykin 2022 All Rights Reserved