Skin of Glass

Funerary Rites

They came back to Hill Crown a little after dawn. It was a just a few survivors, approaching quietly, looking as if they might bolt at the slightest sound. Tired, white faced, apparently beaten down by fear. Rowan watched them approach from the one of the wall towers. As they got closer she went to wake the others, but found Misara already awake.

"There are some people coming. I think they are surviving villagers."

Misara nodded. "Do you want to meet them or should I?"

"I'll go meet them."

"Then I'll stay on watch here."

"I'll call out if there is any trouble," Rowan told her.

"I'll be ready."

Rowan climbed down from the tower and then went to meet the returnees. She chose a place near the front gate where she would wait. She hoped that a friendly and human face would lessen their possible fear.

One of them noticed her as he came close. He stopped, and looked like he might bolt, but instead waved his hand, bringing the other people to a stop.

She could see them better in the growing light, and now that they were closer. She did not think they were a threat to anyone but themselves at that moment.

The man who had seen her called out, softly, "Who are you? What do you want here?" He looked as if he was ready to run.

"My name is Rowan Jassan, Paladin of Sune," she called out in a loud voice. It made the people cringe, as if the noise might bring enemies. "The creatures that brought such harm to this village have been destroyed."

The man looked at her, a mixture of disbelief and relief warring on his face.

"I'm..." he started, and then looked back at those with him. Whatever he saw there seemed to give him strength. "I'm Joseph Glaizer, my father is," he paused, "was the headman of Hill Crown."

Rowan nodded. "We came here yesterday, a few hours before the sun set."

"They attacked yesterday morning. We did not know what was going on at first. It was sudden, our friends and family began attacking us... We did not know what to do, only a few of us managed to get away."

"There were two creatures, devils. They've both been destroyed."

"Were there... Were there any survivors?"

Rowan shook her head. "No, I'm sorry. Everyone was dead when we arrived."

A woman in the back of the group let out a cry, and then collapsed to her knees. Rowan closed her eyes, not wanting to see the open grief on the woman's face. After a moment she opened them. "We can help you, a little," she offered. She was thinking of money, and a few other things she had Misara might do for them. It would not be much.

Joseph took a step closer. "Thank you, we would appreciate that."

Hours later Rowan stood on a small rise, looking over the village's graveyard. The number of fresh graves far outnumbered the older graves, and more we being dug even as she watched.

That was what she and Misara had been helping with since the morning. Bodies had been placed in a few coffins available-the carpenter had been among the dead-and then, when the coffins were gone, wrapped the remaining bodies in whatever cloth was available. A few surviving oxen were dragging wagons filled with the dead up the hill to the gravesites. Iron had also been pressed into service to pull the wagons, doing it far faster than the other animals.

The horse was as untiring as its mistress, Rowan thought. Misara had been digging graves without stop, saying a prayer over each body as it was lowered into the earth. Rowan had been doing the same, but she had grown tired and had needed rest.

As she watched Misara pull herself from a grave she wondered how many times the elven woman might have done similar work. She turned away and walked up the small hill, to the top, where Olpara sat under a tree. The halfling stared down at the work below, but Rowan suspected that she did not see it.

She took a seat beside Olpara, brushed the dirt from the knees of her breaches and then said, "They are not staying."

Olpara blinked her eyes a few times and then said, "What?"

"The surviving villagers, they are not staying here."

"Too many bad memories," Olpara said quietly.

Rowan nodded. "Some of them even wanted to burn everything down, but Joseph convinced them otherwise. Maybe they will come back here, after some time."

"Someone else may claim it," Olpara said, and then asked, "Where will they go?"

"One of the other villages in the area. I think Joseph hopes to bring back a group of young men and women, with the promise of lands and homes."

"This will be a haunted place," Olpara said.

Rowan sighed. "Likely so, but Joseph seems to be unwilling to give up." She paused. "I think you should go with them."

Olpara turned to look at Rowan, a look of surprise on her face.

Rowan continued. "It's far too dangerous. I realise that now. I'm sorry that I have put you in such situations. Go with them, head home," she smiled, "go see that flying boat."

Olpara shook her head. "I don't want to leave."

Rowan said nothing.

"You don't understand. I didn't understand until yesterday. Rowan, you find me attractive, don't you?"

Rowan smiled. "Yes, but that has nothing to do with things."

"I liked that when we first met. Everyone likes to feel that they are attractive to others. And when you asked me to come along with you, after," she paused, "the moors, I thought that you simply wanted to be with me. That's not it though."

"I did want to be with you, but I also thought that setting out with Misara and I might be good for you. It might help you get over what happened."

"I lost myself on those moors," Olpara said. "Lost who I was. I realised that yesterday, when I was too frightened to do anything. That's not who I am. If I don't come with you I may never find that person again. Please," she reached out and gabbed one of Rowan's hands in both of hers, "let me come with you."

Rowan was at a loss. She knew, knew for certain, that Olpara would be in great danger if she continued to travel with she and Misara. And at the same time, she could not ignore the desperate pleading in Olpara's eyes.

She wanted the halfling to be safe and happy. Sadly she did not think that it was possible that Olpara could be both, not now.

"You can travel with us, if you wish to," Rowan finally said. "We'll be happy for your presence."

Olpara did not smile, but she relaxed slightly. "Thank you," she said.

Rowan nodded, and freed her hand from Olpara's grasp. She did not feel as if Olpara should really be thanking her.

The last of the bodies was lowered into the grave. Someone had brought a rain barrel to the site and Misara took a moment to wash the dirt from her arms and hands. She turned back to the grave and reached to her belt pouch, removing the bottle of holy water from within. She sprinkled a few drops upon the cloth wrapped corpse and said a simple prayer.

When she was done she helped the others in filling the grave. A piece of board was pounded into the dirt as a marker. They were done.

Misara stretched, reaching her arms into the air, feeling the slight burn in her muscles. It had been hard work, digging the graves. She would be glad to take some time to rest up.

Joseph shuffled up to her, looking down at the fresh dirt. "I guess we're done," he said.

Misara nodded, but said nothing.

"Do you think we should leave now? Or maybe into the hiding places in the woods, wait until morning."

Misara moved her head from side to side, stretching the muscles in her neck. "I plan to spend the evening in the village," she told him.

"But, after all the evil that happened there, well, it can't be safe."

"It's likely safer than hiding in the woods, or wandering the roads in the darkness." She turned to look at him. "There is no danger there right now. And the future danger is likely to come from sources outside."

"What do you mean?" he asked, sounding slightly alarmed.

She turned and looked down at the village. "If you do not return soon, I see this place becoming a base for marauders."

Joseph shook his head. "We will return soon. Just as soon as we get some more people to come back."

"Are you certain of that?" she returned her attention to the man. He shifted from one foot to the other, obviously uncomfortable.

"I'm sure that many will want to come back with me. The offer of farms, and homes, and..." His words trailed off and he looked lost.

"I hope that you are right Headman Glaizer."

He acted almost as if she had slapped him. He shook his head. "No, I'm no Headman. I couldn't be."

"Are you certain?"

He nodded emphatically.

"Well, I'm sure that you'll find someone willing to take that responsibility." She turned away from him and walked towards where Iron was chewing on the spring grass. She began to take the harness from him, knowing he would be happier once free of the wagon.

The stars were bright in the sky above. Misara, clean, dressed in a silk shift, sat in one of the watchtowers, her sword close at hand, watching the sky. The cool air did not bother her, nor did the hard floor of the watchtower. She had rested, drifted in and out of reverie for the past few hours, and was simply waiting for the sun to rise so that she might continue on.

Below her she heard the low conversation between two of the villagers on watch. The fear in their voices said far more than their words. She knew that Joseph's hope of attracting a new population to the village was a lost one. The fear of the survivors, if nothing else, would see to that.

Perhaps if Joseph had been willing to take up the role of a leader, to passionately take up his own plan and fight for it, then that might have made a difference.

The village would sit empty until something moved in that was not concerned about the haunted place it had become.

She thought that maybe she should set the village to the torch, after the surviving villagers had left of course. It would really be for the best. It would also be far easier destroying the village now before it became a base to some evil creature or another.

Some would likely curse her for such an action, but Misara knew the history of lands like this, had lived that history, and she knew that destroying the village would be for the best.

She shifted silently to her feet, walked across the wooden platform, and stood on the edge. She looked up at the stars, and then at the quiet, empty fields around her. The tactical part of her thoughts recognized that she was a target-with the pale shift she wore, and her pale skin-to those with good night vision. She was not concerned with that.

It was, in its way, a beautiful place. It was unfortunate that it had the poor luck to be on her path, that someone who had wanted to attack her had felt the need to hurt these people to do so.

Gently she dropped to the platform, her legs folding under her so that she knelt on the edge. She remained so in quiet contemplation until the sun rose.

In the end Misara did not burn the village down, but that had more to do with not having the chance rather than having reached any decision on the matter.

The people of the village, with carts loaded full of their possessions, and anything of real value, knew that they would present a tempting target to bandits. Misara did not feel she had the time it would take to escort the people and their possessions to the nearest settlement, but she did not say no. It would be day wasted, perhaps two, but all she could hope for was to make the time up later.

They set out when the sun was still low in the eastern sky, the carts creaking as the oxen slowly plodded up the road.

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