Almost never do I regret the tradition I chose; granted, lots of clerics and whatnot say that we don’t choose our traditions, they were chosen for us the day we were born. I don’t buy into that “we are fated to do (blank)” shit that they like to sling to the gullible and the hopeless. Any choices I make, all the fuck-ups that I have done, are mine and mine alone. Nobody forced me to do any of them, and I take full responsibility. To me, leaning back on the “it wasn’t meant to be” thought process is just a crutch for the weak, and I’m definitely not weak.
But getting back to what I was saying, I almost never regret the path that I’m on…except in times like this. My magic is more subtle, more utilitarian in nature; it’s definitely not the flashy magic of sorcerers or the powerful prayers of clerics. And, it’s not like the incredible strength of the wizards, which is a shame because right now a wizard would sure come in handy. I thought all of this as I leaned against the shovel, aching back reminding me that I wasn’t as young as I used to be. That saying always bugged me, since by the same token you’re not as old now as you will be one day; yet, that little nugget of wisdom never gets touted out at all.
I knew I was stalling, and I also knew why I was doing that. You would be too if you were in the middle of digging a grave big enough to house roughly twenty men, women and even, Gods help me, children. All the inhabitants of the Ronan caravan, all gone now. Fuck, this was going to be a lot of paperwork we had to fill out. A giggle burst out of me, and I stopped any more from emerging since I recognized hysteria setting it. After a day like we had today I was entitled to some craziness, but it wouldn’t do Natalya any good to see her protector like that.
Speaking of the half-Elven girl, I turned towards where she crouched next to another Ronan body. Even though she couldn’t hear her own voice, she was still humming a hymn that her people sang when they were preparing someone for burial. Although they were mainly a verbal people, they had written down the words and the tune once, just so she could participate in the ritual. It was off-key, of course, but it was still beautifully haunting, and I could hear my partner on the other side of the massive hole taking out a handkerchief and blowing his nose after listening to Natalya’s song. You would have to be made of stone to not be moved by a little girl preparing everyone she knew for the grave, since there was nobody else to do it.
She had signed to me that it was her people’s belief that after death, the body was just an empty vessel, and it would be best serve the world by being buried in it, so it could break down and enrich the soil and feed insects. And so she and I had gone back to her caravan, acquired the funeral rites oils and other various sundries from the headmaster’s wagon, and returned to where the bad man had killed them. When I had offered her my assistance, she had smiled sadly and asked me if Dorf and I could dig their graves, since she wasn’t strong enough to do it. With tears in my eyes, I had assured her we would do just that.
Normally, Natalya had signed to me, each person would get their own grave; not out of any type of respect, but mainly because they never had death en masse like what had occurred here. But, under the circumstances, she fully understood why we couldn’t do that. Not only was there not enough free and cleared space around this part of the forest to make that feasible, but it would take Dorf and I days to do it. She said that their spirits would understand, and they would not haunt us for our actions.
Dorf had given a start when I translated what she signed out loud. Like many, he believed the rumors that all Ronan were capable of unleashing powerful curses on their enemies. I had asked Natalya about that, and she had hesitated before telling me. It seems that only their seers, the ones who cast the fortunes for others, could do such a thing. Mana flowed inside them, which was what powered their abilities. Never in all of my studies had I heard that term, but I guessed that it was their way of explaining those who could be casters and those who couldn’t. She didn’t hesitate to reassure me that they would have seen all that occurred, and that my defense of their family (that being her) would cause them to bless my actions.
As for the people of Aerdale, that was easy. While going through all of the houses and buildings for supplies, we had found that most of them had a small altar to the Trinity, which made it easy to decide what to do with their bodies. One of the Trinity’s teachings was about how since space inside the cities was at a premium, once a person died their body was cremated, and their ashes scattered around their former domicile to grant them a place of rest and familiarity. While they didn’t have anything steam-tech out here, they did have plenty of oil for their lanterns, and so after we got done here that would be our next task, burning all their bodies.
“So, after we get done torching the former people of Aerdale, what did we decide to do?” Dorf asked me as he shoveled another pile of dirt over his shoulder, breathing only through his mouth to try and block out the smell like I was doing. Just a little bit longer, and I felt the hole would be deep enough so that any wild animals that did come back here wouldn’t dig them up, looking for food. Not sure how the Ronan felt about that, but for me it felt like the right thing to do. Although I wasn’t sure that anything living besides plants would ever come back here. The bodies of the animals had been lying there for over a few hours now, and not one ant had crawled on them; it may be that whatever magic was used, it had tainted this place forever. It made me shudder with revulsion.
“We take their ashes and circle the village with them. Gods know there’s enough ashes to do that. And, with the well now being unfit for consumption, I doubt that anyone will ever settle here again. I’ll block it off with a stone and seal it with warning runes after we’re done. Oh, and don’t let me forget when we get back to Aerendor to file the paperwork so that someone can come out here and harvest their crops so they don’t go to waste.” I said all this while putting my back into my work, shoveling more dirt out of the grave.
Clearing his throat, Dorf said softly, “Yeah, I get all that, and will do. But, I was mainly referring to what we’re gonna do about her.” He nodded his head towards Natalya, who had moved onto another body and was anointing their forehead with her oils, making sure to cross their arms over their chest and to tie their arms together so they didn’t slip. Just a few more bodies and she would be done, roughly the same time we would be done with our task.
Turning back towards Dorf, I scowled at him. “What, do you think we should just leave her out here? Put her on her wagon and send her on her merry way? ‘Hey, sorry everyone you know is dead, here’s your stuff, and good luck!’?!” I was incredulous.
Waving his hands back and forth, Dorf hastily replied. “What, no! Fuck Jonas, what kind of a man do you take me for? All I meant was, do we take her back to Aerendor? Does she have any other family besides everyone that was in the caravan? You noticed that there was no Elven men among the bodies, so what happened to her dad?”
Shrugging my shoulders, I took out my frustrations on the dirt, jabbing the blade of the shovel down before furiously flinging the dirt behind me. “I don’t know! But, he’s obviously not here, so I doubt it was for a happy reason. She just lost everyone she knows, do you want her to relive potentially painful memories from her past as well?” At the end, I was growling.
He’d been my partner long enough that he could recognize when I was about to lose my temper. “Hey, hey partner, calm down. You’re right, we’ll just bring her back to the city with us and figure out where to go from there. OK?” Still fuming and not trusting myself to speak, I could only tersely nod, and he gave a sigh of relief. “That’s good. After we get done with all of this, we’ll spend the night in the pub, resupply, and head back in the morning. Sound good?”
Still not trusting myself, I gave him another nod and then we both went back at it. About thirty minutes later, both of us covered in so much dirt and sweat that we appeared muddy, the grave was finally big enough that I felt confident it would hold everyone. I climbed out first, and then went over to give Dorf a hand up. It was always easier to climb into a hole that size than to climb out of one. Facing Natalya, I saw that she was ready with her preparations, and that all that was left to do was to lower the bodies down into the grave.
Using some rope we had scavenged from the village and a nearby tree branch, I rigged up a pulley and lowered the bodies down as gently as I could. All the while, Natalya just stood there, unshed tears glistening in her eyes. She reached out her hand and took a hold of Dorf’s, not minding how dirty he was. I could see that this surprised my partner, but he didn’t let his discomfort stop him from giving her whatever support she needed, and he took her hand gently with his callused and meaty one. It was very touching and sweet, and I knew that this was one of those times I wouldn’t be teasing him about doing something nice for somebody.
Another fifteen minutes later, and it was done. Even though I knew that the rope could be reused for something, I threw it down on top of the last body. Let it rest along with all the Ronan. Natalya’s mom was the last body atop the pile, and I could tell that the half-Elven girl had taken extra care with her mother’s corpse, trying her best to make her look beautiful again. She had even made sure to tie a rope around the back of her mom’s head so it pitched forward, helping to hide the gruesome slit in her throat.
Reluctantly, Dorf let go of Natalya’s hand, and he and I began to fill in the hole and to cover the bodies. All too soon, the deed was done, and we used our shovels to pat the dirt down so it was less likely anyone would disturb them. After that, the three of us stacked the villagers on a pile of dry wood we had found behind the pub. We put the pile on top of the mass grave, partially out of respect and partially because it was one of the only cleared spots on the forest floor that would fit them all. None of us thought they would mind. An equal number of people as the Ronan, the residents of Aerdale soon were ready for their proper send-off.
After that grisly work was done, we all went down to a nearby stream, lantern light leading the way (I was too drained emotionally and physically to cast any magic right now) so we could get cleaned up. None of us wanted to pay our final respects looking filthy. When we were all washed up and looking somewhat presentable, we went back to the funeral pyre and between Dorf and I, we managed to get all of the bodies completely soaked in oil. Offering a small prayer, I lit a torch off of the lantern and tossed it onto the pyre.
Standing there, lost in my own thoughts, I was startled when I felt Natalya snake her fingers through mine. I watched as on the other side, she did the same to Dorf. Then, when we were joined, she began to hum loudly the same song she’d been singing when she was preparing her people. After a minute, my partner and I joined in, his deep bass blending nicely with her formless tenor and my baritone. Under a moonlight sky, the three of us watched as the fires consumed all of the bodies, sparks floating up into the air as if they were spirits being released to take another journey. Even though our throats got dry, we never once thought of stopping; they deserved that much.
It was probably around 4th Bell by the time we were finished; I was just guessing, since most villages didn’t have clocks like we do in the city, but that felt about right. After we had sang the farewell song of her people, Natalya barely made it a few steps before she passed out. I had been waiting for that, so when I saw her start to stumble and her head began to droop, I scooped her limp body up and carried her cradled in my arms. The funny thing was, I could have sworn that Dorf had started to lunge down to grab the poor half-Elven girl before I did, but that couldn’t have happened, since he disliked children so much. I’m sure that’s what he kept telling himself as he unconsciously rubbed his arms while we walked.
Once we arrived back at the pub, I carried Natalya up the stairs and tucked her into the small child’s bed that was in the same room as the innkeeper’s, probably belonging to a small child of theirs. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind that we were putting it to good use, since I was positive that if the half-Elven girl woke up by herself in a strange dark room she would freak out; Gods know that I would, if I was her. Dorf seemed relieved when I told him that I would take the master bed in this room, and he could have one of the other rooms. Saying good night to my partner, I laid down on top of the bed, fully clothed. Even though I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep, within seconds of my head hitting the pillow, the stress of the day’s events caught up to me and dragged me under, and soon I was mercifully asleep.