The delirium was subsiding. Lucidity, returning. Droplets of rainwater fell hard from the drenched canopy above to strike Len's ice-cold face. He'd spent years running through the forest with his lifelong friend Cyrrienne; they had been the most important years of his life. So it was fitting that he'd die here in amongst the darkwood trunks. There were trees at the heart of these woods that were older than the Fifth Age. Trees that had seen dragonriders and global war. Trees that had seen Halestar at the height of his power, before the Senescence. And these trees surrounding him now might be trees that would live a thousand years more, trees with the memory of his death.
Why now, as the exposure and starvation and countless small but untreated injuries murdered him, why now was his clarity of perception returning? He'd seen death before. He'd held the dying hand of his teacher and caregiver, the abbess of his childhood home, as close to a mother as he'd ever had. She had died surrounded by loving inhabitants of the abbey, all sons and daughters to her. He had held her hand and watched her die. In her slide towards death, when she could see the next life before leaving this one, her coherence gave out before her body. A person’s famous last words are usually anything but; an apposite quotation noted down long before the last things said in a person’s voice. The mind tires at the end, dying breaths a fading nonsense unfit to represent the true value of what was about to be lost.
So why now? Why for months had it felt like Len was a passenger in his own mind, watching the fevered madness run his body all over the land, making it shout incoherent noises at others, neglecting it rest and food and care? Why now, having finally collapsed in exhaustion with broken bones, emaciated from starvation, why now has the madness subsided and put him back in the driver's seat? Aware enough just in time to experience dying, too late to do anything about it.
The water dripping on his raw, cold face hurt every time, but he savoured it for as long as he could.
"I don't see why we have to pick through this blasted forest," whinged the bard. “My clothes are getting muddy and all torn up.”
"We're taking this shortcut because you are late! The thief can only meet us at night, tonight, or we won’t see him for four weeks. We need to get to the rendezvous before daybreak. We need to get out of this forest before sunset. You need to pick up the pace regardless. Move it!"
The bard grumbled. He'd grown exceptionally good at grumbling lately, of which he’d forewarned his allies before they forced him out of his nice, dry, warm study, crammed a lute in his hands and made him join their troupe of travelling performers. He was surly. He was snappy. He picked fights he knew he would lose. They *were *late because of him. His cousin had to come to the courthouse to pick him up after he was detained. Those who choose the life of an artist need to develop a thick skin, accept criticism and shrug off disinterest. The bard couldn’t or wouldn’t, and the results were usually mess. When the town militia got to the taproom last night, he was down one in-tact lute and the heckler was down one unbloodied head and there was plenty of fight still to be had.
Lost in the fond memory, the bard did not move his satchel away in time from the sharp branches clawing at him as he trudged forward through the repugnant outdoors. A meaty rip sounded and a cascade of writing implements, ink bottles, scroll cases and various trinkets spilled out of his linen bag and onto the leafy forest floor.
The jester looked back in time to see the bard’s eyes darken. He bellowed a curse word from an ancient dead language so vile that she flinched.
"That’s it! I’m not going anywhere. I’m sitting right here and not moving ever, ever, ever again. I don’t care." The bard slumped to the leafy ground and immediately rolled off his seat. “Oh what is this now? It’s never easy, is it?” He reached his hands into the leaf pile ready to rip up the errant branch or whatever uncomfortable rock or stump he’d sat on. Leaves went flying everywhere as he scrabbled through the pile to reveal a human leg. The fury dissipating in the thrill of the mystery, the bard more carefully brushed aside more and more of the fallen leaves to uncover a body. Human. Male. Young hands but a horribly aged face and greying hair. He was wearing cleric’s vestments but they were so dirty and tattered there was no way to tell which god he worshipped. But there he was. Dead. Alone. Had been for a few days, it seemed. The bard threw aside more of the surrounding leaf-fall. There was no evidence the body had been dragged here. In fact, it looked like the man had walked out here and just collapsed.
"Hey, cousin," the bard called out to the jester. “Come look at this!”
The jester sighed, lamenting the delay again. She skipped agilely through the trees back to where her cousin was crouched.
"What am I looking at?" she asked. “Some lost camper? A kid from church who wanted to spend forty nights in the wilderness like his heroes? An adventurer who bit off more than he could chew?”
"I don’t know. Don’t you want to know? Whoever he is, this seems like a weird death. If he’s a pilgrim, where are all his belongings? If he’s a camper, where’s his tent and supplies? People don’t just go wandering out in the woods and die. If he’s an adventurer, why didn’t his companions bury him?"
"I don’t know! And I don’t care! Get up, get all your dropped quills and get a damned move on. Look at the sky! We’ve got minutes here, not hours. The thief won’t wait for us and I don’t want to wait weeks to speak to him."
"So what about the thief? So what? This is important. If you are not going to help me figure out who he is, then we are going to bury him and have a proper funeral and hold a service."
"You are really losing it, cousin. How hard did that drunk hit you last night? I need to talk to my brother and you need to come with me. We don’t have time to stop here and hold a funeral."
The bard did not care. Four months of sleeping in ratty inns or ratty carriages. Four months of strumming the same three chords on his lute. Four months of singing day after day to rooms full of drunkards, none of them taking it in, none of them even comprehending the danger they were all in. Four months of being pushed around by his bullying cousins, having to traipse from place to place in this fragile, stinking human body with its unfamiliar parts and needs and flaws. Four months of being socially interacted with by these simplistic beasts. Four months of following the gods-damned rules, not being able to take these apes by the shoulders and shake into them the severity of what was happening. Walking through the streets and seeing the boarded-up stained-glass windows of churches to Halestar and overhearing them, the people, talking about it like it’s an unexpectedly mild evening’s weather. Like if one day you woke up and the sky was green and the grass was red and the sun was a spinning purple triangle in the sky that these morons would think nothing of it, would just go down to the market and buy a funnel of sheep’s butter and think, "ho hum, so, the sun’s a triangle now, then!" The bard wasn’t yet despondent enough to abandon the plan he’d agreed to. He wouldn’t pack in their chance to actually make a difference, even if the rules felt they’d been contrived to specifically render him powerless. But right here, right now, the bard was going to have his moment of defiance. He was going to hold a funeral service for this fallen cleric, and he was going to say to the body everything he wished he could say to the whole mortal plane.
For about half an hour, while she still thought they could make it if they got a bit of a hustle on, the jester was antsy and alternated between fidgeting and trying to physically drag the bard away from his digging. But then when she spotted the red-streaked clouds and the setting sun through the treeline, she resigned herself to missing their rendezvous and began to help dig. The bard was using the neck and broken soundboard of his lute as a makeshift spade. Fortunately the autumn ground was just muddy and moist, and not yet frozen solid like it might be in a few weeks’ time, so he was able to make some headway towards a shallow grave. The jester began scouting for nearby large rocks, to make a small barrow if possible, otherwise a little cairn to mark the grave.
The moon was high in the now-cloudless sky, throwing just enough light on the bard and the jester for them to step back and survey their work. It was crude, as mortal burials went. This little earthen mound did not challenge the heavens with a mighty spire, or bear the image of the deceased in a stone bust, nor did it even wish the departed well on his journey with a holy symbol. The manual work had calmed the two cousins to a quiet stillness. The hot words that the bard wanted to shout into the grave had boiled off, leaving a cool peace inside. They stood together at the foot, and the bard kneeled.
"Mortals are strange to watch from a great distance. Where I come from, we know a lot about the experience of death, but nothing at all about surviving a lost loved one. But we will. And now it seems like we could learn from your lot about how to deal with it. I don’t know who you were, little human. But wherever and whoever you are now, I hope it’s all fine. You’re not with us in body any more, but I won’t forget this."
The bard turned to walk back to the jester and saw that past her, deeper in the forest, the thief had come looking for them. Softly, the bard touched the jester’s arm and gestured behind her. The thief was silent, merely nodding with respect at the two, and then again towards the grave. They turned back again to look. Another figure was emerging from the woods at the head of the grave. A childlike hand extended from a garment made of ferns and leaves to caress the stones of the cairn. The figure knelt down and whispered softly to the mound of earth. A gentle breeze opened up the knit-together canopy above, flooding the area with moonlight. Hair-thin vines snaked up and around the cairn and gently bloomed into silver blossoms. The dryad stood up and backed off a respectful distance into the tree cover.
An elderly man, bundled up to the neck in heavy robes and leaning on a tall staff stepped carefully over the exposed tree roots and fallen leaves, disturbing nothing on the forest floor as he approached, coming from a different direction than the dryad had. He made his way to the assembled stone pile. From one deep pocket inside his many layers he produced a small silver disc, no bigger than a copper piece, and slid it onto the topmost flat rock of the cairn. He withdrew wordlessly, just barely visible now in the shadows of the midnight forest.
The five stood in silence for long hours, the only sounds were the occasional rustle of leaves in the breeze. Seemingly even the forest wildlife was still and quiet this night. Perhaps the owls and mice, like the five onlookers, were too touched with a feeling of unity and peace in the sight of the grave. The moon above was beginning to descend behind cloud cover, and would throw the scene into darkness within minutes. A stick snapped to the right of where the bard, jester and thief were standing. Their heads whipped round to see a dwarf, shirtless and wearing a brown leather smith’s apron, awkwardly stepping through the forest. The jester’s sharp intake of breath as she tried to call out, "Elder Brother!" was cut short by the bard’s hand clamping down over her mouth. He stared his most knowing look into her eyes and she blinked in acknowledgement, consenting to stay silent.
The dwarf picked his way over the uneven ground, using his oversized smithing hammer alternately as a makeshift cane to support his weight climbing and like an ice pick, hooking on to trunks and pulling himself through the trees. When he reached the grave, he pulled a scrap piece of pig iron from the pouch of his apron and tossed it neatly onto the dirt over where the man’s heart was. He did not stop to say any words, but immediately withdrew, just as the moon’s light was obscured by a stormcloud. When the jester, bard and thief’s eyes all adjusted to the darkness, they were the only three remaining. They all looked at each other for just a moment before the jester exploded into talk.
"HE WAS HERE!" she screamed, breaking the peace and the silence at once. Some flock of something winged fled from a nearby treetop at the sound. “Elder Brother was here. He was right there. You saw him, I saw him, we all saw him. Where has he been? Why did he come back? You should have let me talk to him!” she shrieked at the bard.
"He doesn’t want to talk to us. If he wanted to talk to us, he would have come when we asked. We have been given a gift. You saw who was here. The druid, the smith, the warrior. The other three members of the family don’t know he’s still around. Whatever he’s doing, wherever he is, we know he’s safe, and he let us know it in secret, still following the rules." The bard was always so clever. He was a scholar by profession.
"How did you know?" asked the jester. “How did you know to stop here and bury this body? Who even was he?”
"I don’t know and I don’t know. I was just feeling angry and belligerent and all I wanted to do was defy your insistence to meet the thief. I would say it’s something about these mortal forms. They’re more perceptive than the mortals who inhabit them really realise. But who he was? Maybe we’ll never know. Elder Brother seemed to know, though. We have to assume that the Dark Lady does not know, or else this man likely would have been shredded by death cultists rather than perishing out here alone."
"I can find out," interjected the laconic thief.
"Do that. How did you find us, by the way?"
The moon was setting, and the jester was rummaging through her pack for something to light and heat the area, and their tents that they could catch some sleep for the night. She withdrew two magical tokens. The first token, a little silver horseshoe, she placed into the ground and it grew into a tall curved archway with a hanging canvas flap. She walked through the flap from the front and into a canvas-lined pocket dimension replete with cots and clothing storage. She reached into one of the wardrobe flaps and drew forth a spare bedroll for the thief. The second token was a bright orange spessartine stone, which she dropped to the canvas floor. It burst into a bright campfire that warmed living creatures in the area but did not scorch the ground or set fire to anything.
The thief and the bard followed her inside and they lay down. But by daybreak, none of them had slept a single wink.