tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Solitary Arrow Ch. 22

The Solitary Arrow Ch. 22

bymack_the_knife©

While the citizens of Embalis were glad of the arrival of the Windy Island Rangers, mood was somber this day, though as it was a day of mourning. The people greeted the newcomers with polite words, and with generous smiles and warm embraces, but slight was the joviality in the meeting. The rangers, for their part, noticed this subdued mood and restrained their natural exuberance.

Thirty-two of the Rangers of Morrovale and seventy-five of the elven guard and villagers had died. A hundred and seven small pyramids of wood were on the large field that had been the site of the battle. They had buried the, more than three hundred, traitors in the woods over three miles from the village. A geomancer had just opened a massive hole in the ground and the bodies laid at the bottom of it, and then he had refilled it. The priests said a prayer over the Isolationists' bodies, but none of the villagers mourned their passing, at least not in public.

It was, by far, the largest funeral that the citizens of this village, save a few who had fought on the Windy Isles, had ever seen. Some of them walked in silence among the pyramids of wood. They read the parchment attached to the foot of each, detailing the name and some part of the history of each fallen. The elves and men who moved among them were reverential, and many wept.

Seeing a widow of the battle being already comforted by a new lover seemed odd, at least it seemed so to Harlen. Yet, he saw the wisdom of it, she now had someone who could comfort her, rather than forcing her to endure it alone. Her having a new lover did not diminish her love for her former mate, but she could gain from the presence of someone who cared for her now. No few widowers were among the survivors, as many elven women had manned the battle lines, as well, though not in the numbers that males had. Some of these men also had new lovers with them, to help them in their time of mourning.

Some pyres had no survivors to mourn them, and some few families had experienced no losses. The members of that clan would attend to those with no mourners, by showing their own respect in a form of a transferral. They repaid with their grief for the unmourned, their fortune for having no losses of their own. Clan Yavanaur was one such clan. They took for their 'adopted' fallen a man of Morrovale. A huntsman Harlen had known for some time, but had never had a family, and had no one on the expedition into Windir to mourn him. His name was Kenik.

Kenik had fallen in the initial charge, pierced through the heart by a traitor's spear. He had died in mere moments. No one could aid him, any normal elf, or even their skilled healers.

A grim thought came to Harlen why elves used many piercing weapons in warfare. Their healing ability was of almost no use against deep punctures, such as arrow, spear, or stabbing hyandai. Weapons that impaled were the deadliest things to elves, and they reflected it in their choice of armaments.

As Hyandai had explained, "No man who put himself in harm's way for us will go without his proper remembrance. His spirit is forever welcome in Embalis." She gathered up her brother, sister, father, and Harlen, then she escorted them to the pyre of Kenik.

Wendy was with Tammer, who had lost a nephew in the battle, and mourned alongside his own son, Padrick, whom Harlen had never known very well. Padrick had still come, though. As had their fallen kin, Mallon. An elven girl, a scant twenty years of age was with them, wearing a long flowing white gown. She was to sing the dirge for Mallon. Hyandai would do so for Kenik. Every pyre had a white-gowned elven maiden standing by it, preparing to sing at the first touch of the sun on the horizon.

They would sing until the sun had set, then the people would light the fires. It would be a massive inferno this night. It would be visible, reflected in the skies for miles. Harlen, in his heart, hoped that the traitors would see it and it might give them thought as to the death their ways wrought. Many remained.

They were beaten and broken as an army, but they might still cause some measure of trouble. Reports from returning deep-forest scouts were beginning to trickle in. It seemed many of them were moving toward the coast. They hoped that there the Isolationists would take ship and leave Windir. Perhaps they would go to Starre Island, where they would be able to live out their lives free of humans and other non-elven folk. Or so they hoped.

Hyandai had spent the day asking other huntsmen about Kenik. She, like all the other singers of dirges this night, and regarded her duty with serious solemnity, and was learning all she could regarding the man to whom it was her part to dirge. Harlen, himself, had spoken to over twenty other elves. The dirgers asked him what he knew of the fallen humans of the battle. All of the singers had been very diligent, and very serious.

"I have never partaken of a mass dirge before, Harlen," said Hyandai, looking around and wearing an expression of immense concern.

Harlen smiled at her, and kissed her brow. "You will sing perfectly, I am sure," he said. He had just watched Hyandai comfort the girl with Tammer's party, who seemed to share similar concerns. "I remember the dirge you sang for Melanie, in Morrovale, and it was flawless."

Hyandai smiled and nodded. "I will do my best, then," she said, sniffing back a tear. The time was growing near, and the people were all congregating to where they would be for the ceremony. It was not an organized thing, this mass dirge. So they had told Harlen, it was what occurred when the many related deaths faced a community. They held all elven funerals at sunset, as was their tradition, it symbolized the ending of a thing, and did so well. They held many Morrovalian funerals at such an hour, as well, for much the same reason.

One voice rose, a distance from Hyandai's group, it climbed with inexorable power into the darkening air and seemed somehow to fill the entire valley. Harlen looked toward the voice's origin and saw it was another young elven girl, no more than twenty-five. A lower toned voice soon joined her clear soprano, but with equal power, from another direction.

They did not coach, nor tell the singers when to start. They started when they were ready. It took almost two minutes for them to all begin singing, and by then the sound of the dirge was staggering. Harlen felt his heart clench, as if steel bands were wrapped about it. Tears stung his eyes and started rolling down his cheeks.

The lives cut short, the regrettable necessity of the battle, the people whom their loved ones far away again would never see. It struck Harlen as unjust that he was happy now when so many would be sad for a long time. More than a hundred good men and women had passed to protect those remaining. These hundred and seven had stood before the enemy and paid in their blood, the toll that fate demanded for the freedom and happiness. Did they begrudge it?

No. Great hearts did not begrudge others' fortunes, their spirits rejoiced in the happiness of those for whom they sacrificed. They asked that people but remember them, and perhaps, thanked a little. Harlen was sure that those men who had been his colleagues for several seasons, some of whom had born arms alongside Harlen before, were good men. They would not resent his happiness, no more than he had theirs.

The voices rose high and sang of the glory that the fallen had brought upon themselves. To give of oneself was worthy. The spirits would guide their new companions to peaceful places in the afterlife. Oneians among the gathering knew this place of succor was with the One, but it mattered little if they had angelic or elven guides to find it. The Oneian faith also taught that elven folk were angels made flesh, thereby making the point moot.

Harlen could see Kenik, wielding his broadsword with a fell hand in defense of people he had never met, and would now never meet. Kenik was a thoughtful man. He knew what he risked. Still, he risked it, for his friend, for an oath, and above all, to save good people.

Those that fought alongside him told of how he had smote the hateful elf that had pierced him. Then Kenik had thrown himself to the fore to stop an attempted charge of many elven spearmen. His sacrifice had gained precious time for the Rangers of Morrovale to consolidate their line in the first swirling wave of the melee. Thereby he helped prepare the way for the rangers to drive a deep wedge into the faltering Isolationist ranks.

Not all the stories of the fallen were so glorious, but all were just as important. Each had a voice, and they sung each dirge with warm heart and gentle thanks. As the harmony blended, many eyes saw the fallen. They stood in a long file, shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to stand, even after giving all, in defense of others again, if they called them.

Now free of the bonds of the flesh, they could go anywhere, it was known. But, they were invited to stay with the spirits already in Embalis if they wished. Else, they could go wherever it was they thought they would be happiest, and the most at rest. None would know what their choices were, save the clerics of the elvenkind, whom the elven folk said spoke with them. These clergy were sworn never to give away the secrets of the spirits, though, and would not, unless a spirit, itself, bade such.

The sun's top touched the horizon, and the voices lifted in a stirring crescendo. This was to send the spirits forth to their rest on a gale of beautiful sound and with the blessings of the living gathered at the ceremony. Then the voices, almost as one, dropped off. In their place was a stunning silence. It seemed to last a long moment, then they could hear the wind again, and birds, and the sounds of people's shifting.

Elven boys, and young huntsmen, wearing long tunics of purest white moved toward the pyres. Each held a long torch, unlit. The first set his torch to the wood, and it burst into flame, the next down that row followed suit, doing the same, then the next. Down each row, the flames began to leap, crackling and red at first, then darkening to blue at the base. The elves had treated the logs with some mixture of the elves that caused the wood to burn with an intense heat. Within a mere moment, all the pyres were aflame.

The cool air tried to subdue the heat of the fires, but it failed, and it grew quite warm in the valley that evening. The sky reflected the orange glare of the fires, as it was thought. Indeed, folk would see it for miles about, perhaps even as far as the nearest other elven communities. People, both men and elves, stood before their chosen pyramid of flickering flames, and they talked in hushed tones among each group.

The pyres burned well into the night, full dark was now upon the valley, as the elves had extinguished all other lights for this night. The people started to move back toward the main village in small groups. There they sat in quiet pairs, trios, and a few groups of more and talked with reverence by the sole light source they had this night.

"Still so many," said Hyandai to Harlen as he held her. He stood behind her and had his arms about her shoulders. She rested her hands upon his forearms.

Harlen kissed the top of her head. "It is this way with the battles of men, every time," he said, coming out of deep thought. His voice had the sound of resignation. "Or worse. I have seen far larger bonfires for the fallen," he said.

"How terrible," said Hyandai.

Harlen's face grew dour. "Do you still think blending with the humans is a good idea?" he asked. "Yes," replied Hyandai without pause, "perhaps it will lessen humanity's desire for war, having elven blood tempering their emotions."

He smiled. "Perhaps it will," agreed Harlen.

Wendy approached them, and stood beside Hyandai, facing the fires, her face lit by the dancing flames. Harlen moved to between them and put one arm about her shoulder, as well. She smiled back and up at him, and rested her hand on his forearm, welcoming his touch.

"It was beautiful," said Wendy in a soft voice.

Hyandai nodded. "It was," she agreed, reaching out a hand to touch Wendy's still tear-streaked cheek.

The young ranger who spoke Westron, Rigilus, approached the trio. "Commander Harlen?" he asked, "may I speak a moment with you?"

The use of a formal title took Harlen aback, but he nodded nonetheless. He kissed Hyandai on the top of her head again and then kissed Wendy's brow as he walked toward the Windy Islander.

They walked on a path perpendicular to the long line of burning pyres, both of them spending long moments watching the flickering flames of the hundred fallen. "So, what can I do for you?" asked Harlen after they had moved a good way from the women.

"My commander has requested that I to go to Morrovale with your company, when you depart on the morrow," Rigilus said with his ever earnest voice. "They wish me to act, in part, as an emissary between your rangers and ours."

Harlen gave a slow nod. "I see," he said. "We, of course will welcome you, but you will need to secure the permission of our duke to remain in Morrovale. I foresee little trouble in that, though."

He thought a moment. "Why did you not speak to Master Tammer of this?" he asked.

Rigilus coughed in his discomfort. "Commander Tammer told me to speak to you," he said. "He said that he would be standing you in his place once this campaign is completed."

"Did he?" asked Harlen, eyes widening. "Well, that's something I wish they had told me of sooner." Harlen donned a wide smile. "Very well, then. Of course you may join our march back to Morrovale tomorrow, and you are most welcome."

"Thank you, sir," said Rigilus with an air of immense relief. "I have not been a ranger for long, and the idea of trekking through a long stretch of Windir alone was somewhat daunting." "You should understand one thing, though, Rigilus," cautioned Harlen. "We are not the same as your rangers in the Windy Isles. We do not organize ourselves at most times. We are huntsmen first, and foremost."

"So I have heard," said Rigilus. "I will, then, try to fit in within that structure, sir."

Harlen nodded. "Conveniently, there have been recent vacancies in allotments, I fear," he said, looking with much significance toward the bonfires. "Given your more thorough training, I fear not that you will be a fine huntsman, perhaps the very best of us."

Rigilus blushed and lowered his head in humility. "I have heard of your company's prowess on the field," he said. "I would not belittle your skills as either warriors or huntsmen, sir."

Harlen chuckled, and grabbed the smaller man's shoulder. "Diplomatically said, Rigilus," said Harlen. "You will be a fine emissary."

They had managed to walk all the way to the far side of the village. They now stood upon a low hillock that just a day ago had been one of the defensive positions of the village. Harlen marveled at how thorough and efficient were the elves whom had cleared away the detritus of battle. A large portion of the palisade was now burning as part of the pyres. The grass was already regrowing and several saplings that were planted just yesterday in place of felled trees were already showing many years' worth of growth.

True to Hyandai's promises, the villagers were constructing new homes in the boughs of the mighty ornthalion trees of the village. No homes would be on the ground now. Civic buildings and places that had to be so, of necessity, were all that would remain ground-bound. One such was her father's smithy, which Harlen intended to visit ere the Morrovale company left on the morrow.

"Am I dismissed, sir?" asked Rigilus.

"What?" asked Harlen, blinking. "Oh. If you wish to be," he said. "You will learn quickly. We are not a military group, Rigilus. We do not stand on formality," Harlen paused, "or ranks."

Rigilus nodded. "Commander Tammer said you would say that," he said, smiling. "Just as well, sir, as I would ask a few questions of you."

Harlen turned from his survey of the village. "Please, ask," he said.

"Rumor has it that you are betrothed to an elven woman," said Rigilus.

A brief nod from the huntsman answered him.

"What is Lady Hyandai like?" He asked, with eager eyes.

Harlen looked at him a moment. "You know of her?" he asked.

"Of course," the young ranger replied. "She was with our greatest general when he died, and she now carries his wisdom. He was Verus, a former Abian Centurion who led our armies after the Abians fled our nation."

Harlen remembered, in part, tales of that war, despite its distance from Morrovale, and the duchy's utter lack of involvement. The huntsman had been but ten when it had ended.

"So that is why she was the Warleader of Embalis," muttered Harlen. "You say part of his mind is within her?"

Rigilus nodded. "Indeed, the very part that made him a great general, his knowledge of warfare and combat," he replied.

"Well," said Harlen, thinking a moment. "She is an amazingly loving woman, Rigilus, and she is kind, and strong."

A broad smile formed on Rigilus' face. "I am glad she is now happy," he said.

Harlen blinked at that odd statement. "Why is that?" he asked.

"After she took part of Verus into herself, she became something of a pariah," said Rigilus, showing obvious discomfort. "My people held her in awe, and the elves feared her." He thought a long moment. "They were afraid she would go mad from absorbing the war-spirit of a human, moreso one so steeped in military ways. We, of course, held her in awe that she could even do such a thing. To know that there is a man who can look past all that and sees a woman, who she could love and would love her, it gladdens me."

"Well, certainly, love her I do," said Harlen. "But I knew not of Verus until recent days. Though, I wager, it would not have changed my heart, had I known when I first met her."

They continued a circuit of the village, walking about its outer periphery. Harlen asked Rigilus many questions of the near mythical figure Hyandai was to the Windy Islanders. In turn, he asked many questions of Harlen, always respectful, of the real person who was Hyandai.

"She was always something of a hero to me in my youth," confessed Rigilus, again lowering his head in embarrassment. "Well, Verus was my hero, but to know that the warrior of him was within her mind made me a devotee of hers as well."

Harlen nodded. "That makes two of us," he said, without any trace of sarcasm. They were again approaching the two women, and Hyandai was sitting upon a log with Wendy laying her head in the elven woman's lap. Hyandai shushed them as they approached, and Wendy was asleep, the elven maiden stroked her dark hair with a gentle hand. Somehow, Wendy looked even younger asleep than awake, with her attractive features softened and at rest.

Rigilus nodded and bowed low. He then withdrew and walked away in the direction of the barracks in which all the rangers, both Morrovale and Windy Island, were quartered.

He regarded the beloved Wendy for a long moment, then lifted his eyes to Hyandai. "You are amazing, do you know that?" asked Harlen in a whisper as he bent to kiss her brow.

Hyandai blinked up at him a moment, then smiled. "Why do you say that?" she asked. "Did that Windy Islander tell you tales of my amazing abilities?" Her eyes widened in a half-mocking gesture of surprise.

Nodding, Harlen sat beside her. "In a manner, yes," he whispered. "You fascinate him."

"As all men should be," said Hyandai with a flick of her head, sending her long red tresses flying over her shoulder.

"Yes," agreed Harlen, leaning inward and kissing her.

Hyandai responded to the kiss with passion, stroking his cheek with her free hand while continuing to pet Wendy's soft hair with her other.

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