Chapter 6: Saying Goodbye

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THE ENTIRE VILLAGE turned out at dusk, gathering on the village green. A pyre had been laid at some point during the day. I had to suppress a shudder at the sight of the bodies wrapped in shrouds and resting on the pile of stacked wood; I'd never seen a funeral fire so large, and I never wanted to again. I had intended to find a place near the back, where I could remain inconspicuous in case my emotions overcame me, but, to my surprise, Volya caught my eye and motioned me forward to where the elders and warriors were arrayed at the front.

With another shock, I realized that I was a person of importance now. The Horse Master of Draebard. The thought circled my mind like a carrion vulture, refusing to settle. Almost against my own will, I slotted myself next to Andoc—a familiar face amongst a sea of intimidating elders. He wrapped an arm around my shoulders and squeezed for a moment before letting go; it was all I could do not to abandon my tight control and sag against him.

As twilight deepened, the eerie sound of drums broke the near-silence. From the direction of the temple, torches flared into life two at a time along the edge of the main road through the village, coming ever closer. As they approached the green, I could see the surviving acolytes, Reston and Crenelo, lighting the torches in tandem before moving on to the next pair, and the next, and the next. Behind them, Senovo followed with measured steps. Where he had been slumped and weary earlier at the temple barracks as he watched over the High Priest, he now stood straight-backed, his chin high. His eyes were lined with the kohl that had first drawn my attention and admiration when I moved to the village three years ago.

He was, in a word, beautiful.

When the last of the torches arrayed in front of the pyre were lit, sending curls of greasy smoke into the night air, Senovo raised the ceremonial bowl he was carrying high over his head.

"Mighty Deresta, She-Who-Burns," he began, his sonorous voice carrying easily across the green. "Goddess of sunlight. Goddess of immolation. Tonight your children stand before you in grief. We commend our many dead to your purifying caress, that their ashes might return to feed the earth, and their souls might return to the sky, carried upon your smoke."

"Ever shall it be so," chanted the crowd, as one.

Senovo lowered the bowl, balancing it in one hand. He moved to the end of the long pyre and dipped the fingers of the other hand into the sacred oil within, flicking a few drops on the first shrouded figure.

"Wyarra," he said. "Wife of Denuto. Beloved mother and sister." He moved slowly to the next body, flicking more oil. "Cuscan. Mighty warrior. Protector of Draebard even unto death." The next shroud was heartbreakingly small. "Monis. Treasured son and source of great joy... "

Taking his time, Senovo continued around the pyre at a stately pace, his voice never faltering as he recited the names and associations of the dead. Sounds of grief and weeping swelled at some of the names, as bereaved friends and family members were embraced and comforted by those around them. Many of the names belonged to Senovo's fellow priests. Eventually, he reached the final two figures.

"Gretya. Mother and provider not only to her beloved daughters, but to all the village."

Grief swelled in my chest as I remembered a gap-toothed smile and the smell of good food, distributed with love and care. Senovo moved to the final shroud, flicking oil over it.

"Jorun," Senovo said. "Horse Master of Draebard. Caretaker of the herd. Mentor and father to his apprentices."

A choked sound forced its way up from my chest, and I felt suddenly dizzy. Before I could properly begin to panic about making a scene, a strong hand settled on the small of my back. Rested there, quietly. I glanced up through burning eyes at Andoc standing next to me, but he was facing straight ahead, his face a mask.

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