Rowen is a halfbreed who is hired by the Emperor to be a warrior, spy, and a healer.
Letting that serenity drift over me, I fell to my knees beside the creek. I didn’t flinch as the icy current seeped into the fabric of my pants, nor as I plunged my bare hands into the shallow depths. I watched as the water washed away the sins of the night. I kept my hands submerged long after they were cleansed. A heavy weight settled on my shoulder, my head bowing. My braid grew heavy as it slid across my shoulder and sank into the water.
My hands looked so at odds compared to the rest of me. I stared at them as if they were a stranger's hands. Hands that had not seen battle hours before, that had not taken lives and weren’t tainted. Disgusted with myself, I slid my hands into the sandy bottom, pulling handfuls from the bed. Methodically, I scraped the course shards up my arms, ignoring the pain in my tender, bruised skin. I smeared mud over my arms, face, and neck. Every exposed piece of skin, I covered with earth. When I finished, I tilted my head back to the sky. The sun had almost wholly risen, beginning to chase away the mist. The owl had fallen silent, the birds dominating the cerulean sky.
I swept the heavens, trying to look past that blue barrier as if I could see the kingdom of the gods that lay beyond it. I imagined them looking down, observing the aftermath of the night. I could see Sorne and Idros on their thrones, the gods of war peering down with pride. I wondered if the warriors they wagered on had made it through the battle. We lost many good men in the raid. I prayed the king of death would welcome them to his hearth.
Slowly, I eased to my feet. My knees creaked in protest, my joints eager for a rest. With one step after another, I waded into the cold embrace of the Tulle River. The kiss of the Gold Mountains was evident in the frigid knife that stole my breath. I clenched my teeth to keep them from chattering, locking my jaw. My knees submerged, then my waist. When the water eased up to my chest, I stopped, my braid carried downstream. In the deeper part of the river, the current was stronger, fighting to take me away. I dug my feet into the ground, rooting myself.
I wiped at my arms and my neck, washing away the dried mud. With numbing fingers, I unbraided my hair, rinsing it as clean as it could. The starlight strands drifted in a graceful dance, arching and twisting. With a quick intake of air, I dipped my head beneath the surface to wipe the mud from my face.
I stayed under until my lungs burned. With a rush, I broke through, rising from the water clean and renewed. With the remnants of blood went my lingering battle lust. Left in its wake were weariness and hunger.
Sloshing my way towards the shore, I pretended not to notice the lone figure watching from atop the hill. A new weight settled on my shoulders, a heaviness that had nothing to do with my soaked clothes. One step after another, I left the river behind, my thighs burning as I eased my way up the steep hillside. Lorcan stayed where he was, his eyes on the horizon. Idly, his hands played with the rope in his hand, as if his fingers weren’t yet ready to be still.
I slowed to a stop beside him, reaching up to pat the pretty sorrel on the nose. The gelding nickered, lifting his white tipped nose to breathe in my face. I drew in the scent of horse and leather, letting it chase away some of the darkness.
When the steed dropped his head to inspect the grass, I found Lorcan watching me over his neck. His steady gaze never wavered, pouring into my own with a thousand questions. I broke the contact first, skimming my gaze over in a quick look for new injuries. Blood splattered over his clothes, stiffening the linen his armor didn’t protect. There was a rip in the cloth of his upper arm, and a new scrape across his cheek. Nothing he couldn’t handle, and far from as bad as it could have been. His was on the same level as sparing cuts. It was the mental wounds, though, that I feared the most.
My thoughts must have betrayed themselves in my eyes because he looked away back towards our camp. A fair amount of the warriors were sitting around campfires, huddled together in solemn silence. Meats roasted, coffee percolated, and somewhere beyond that, I knew the stench of blood greeted the morning. There were fewer men now, compared to when we arrived. We'd lost too many.
“They died a warrior’s death.” Lorcan rested his hand on his horse’s back, slicking the damp hair into place.
“If that’s what you want to call it.” I spied my own bay stallion grazing among the grasses with the rest of the herd, his coat glossy and blood-free. I should have been the one to wash him. No doubt, if I went back to the tent, I’d find my armor tidily put away, my weapons stored in their places. I glanced at my brother, who only watched me patiently. “Thank you.”
He didn’t respond. Just untied the lead rope from his horse and shooed him back towards the herd. Side by side, we picked our way through the wildflowers and knee-high grass, towards the open area to the right of camp. Already men began to gather, some hauling logs from the woods, others tucking away stretches of linen. The closer we got to the funeral rites, the more the details became clear.
The pyres all towered above our heads, with an even number of deceased neatly laid out on top of them. The white fabric fluttered in the gentle breeze, perfumed with incense. As we neared, the rest of the camp emerged like ghosts between tents, all in various stages of after-battle recovery. Some hadn’t even taken their armor off yet, still spattered with gore, while others had already washed. I nodded at those who met my eyes, the various shades with little life in them. I offered condolences where I could, a smile here and there. It was all well-meant but felt halfhearted.
We slipped to the front of the crowd as a middle-aged man made his way atop a smaller, less ornate platform. His crisp white pants were similar to the material they had wrapped the dead in. His broad chest had been left to the elements, still decorated with the evidence of his battle. On each of his arms, tattooed knotwork laced up his wrists to his shoulders, meeting across his collarbones to begin the wings of the raven that spanned most of his chest. Red eyes peered out at us as if they were the eyes of the death god himself.
Teryn waited until almost all of us had gathered until the sun breached the trees to shine down on us. “I don’t need to tell you all why we’ve gathered here. It is evident enough. We lost a good many brothers and sisters last night. The northern horde fought strong, but we prevailed.”
There were no cheers of triumph from those gathered. We all watched as Teryn spoke of the bravery of the eighteen men and women we lost had presented. He talked of how the battle goddess, Sorne, blessed us with her wise counsel and battle strategy, and how they all fought with such fearsome battle lust, that even the war god would be proud. There were a few chuckles when he mentioned what awaited the fallen in Iasis’s pleasure halls, a gift to the fallen from the goddess of lust and love. He talked of the prizes gifted to all valiant warriors upon entering the Halls of Erabor, and asked the death god, Baylorn, to welcome them with open arms.
“We'll miss them,” he mentioned. “But now they don’t have to worry about the cold, or the rain, or the worries of man. But we are still here. And we will still fight with honor, while they watch from above and place bets on who will be the most victorious.”
That got a chorus of agreements. I knew when it was my turn to speak, because a heaviness grew in the air, and those with torches moved closer to the pyres. For a brief moment, Lorcan’s shoulder brushed against mine. I drew strength from that touch as Teryn’s eyes looked to us.
“Crown Prince, please lead us in the rites of death, so that we may send our brothers and sisters home.”
Teryn stepped down as Lorcan, and I stepped forward. He led the way, squaring his shoulders as he took the steps to the wagon that would be our stage. I stood off to his left, gazing over the sea of warriors before us. My brother began to speak, the words of the funeral rite slipping into one ear and out the other. While he spoke, I gauged the energy of the crowd or lack thereof. They were all tired, more than ready to go home. I glanced to the south, where home and the capital lay. More than three days of hard marching, some through the depths of the Gods Wood.
I emerged from my thoughts when Lorcan wrapped up the rites. “And may the gods guard us as we move through this world.”
I gave him a tight-lipped smile as he glanced at me, the breeze whipping his raven hair into his eyes. With the pyres fully ablaze now, the heat scorched my back. The stench of burning skin and hair replaced the comfort of the cooking fires.
With the funeral rites having ended, some of the men dispersed. Lorcan stared at the bodies, where he’d no doubt stay until there was nothing but embers. His tortured mind would spend the rest of the day analyzing the night's battle, trying to determine where the weakness was in his strategy, what he could have done better to lessen the death toll. I left him to his thinking, leaving him and the dead behind. I had the living to tend to and heal.