(OOC: Set shortly after the Lions winter campaign of 1112, written by Dorian Grey)
The pyre waited, ready-built, when the funeral procession reached the small plateau behind the city. The pall-bearers lowered their burden gently into place and stepped aside. Fionnuala and Karen moved up beside Ciara and Seraphim, and the other mourners filtered quietly into place. There were more than Fionnuala had expected. Her own family, of course. The paladins of the Order of Water, who’d carried the bier. The Order of Celestial; Irenaye moving up to join Nethanial. Some of the Lions’ healers. Alrisha and Caileb. What looked like the entire population of the Temple. Most of Armengar’s healers. Most of the ex-Calebii “new citizens”. Bríd and several more of the market women.
At the head of the pyre, Connlaí was speaking. Fionnuala didn’t listen. She knew what he was saying – she’d said the same things herself, more times than she could remember, at so many, many funerals. She wondered if the mourners at those funerals had found her words as irrelevant as she did Connlaí’s.
This was supposed to be the time to say goodbye. But she had said goodbye already; goodbye had been a Lay to Rest dragged up from the marrow of her bones in a frigid pavilion on Emmerix, where the blood and the dirt and the tears had been half-hidden by the darkness as she fulfilled the promise she’d made so long ago. She had no goodbye to say here, nothing at all to say to the figure on the pyre, carefully cleaned and dressed and made nice, the marks of death hidden, looking tidier than she’d ever known him to in life. This was not Elrood, this was some puppet, some model of a knight of Celestial, all shining and neat. Not the man whose hair was never neat even when he’d just tied it back, whose clothes bore the ground-in stains of mud and blood that were an occupational hazard of being a battlefield healer, who even managed to look rumpled in his dress uniform. Not the man who had banished her ghosts and shown her what marriage really was.
The red-gold light of the setting sun lent a deceptive flush to the death-pale face, gilded the star on the tabard. Flashed briefly off the silver fittings on the wristband she’d given him. She closed her hand over the pendant of the necklace he’d given her.
Connlaí was still talking. Something about being taken too soon. She thought of Elrood’s goodbye letter. He’d written thinking he’d meet his end in battle, doing his duty as a paladin. He’d never thought he’d be murdered, by stealth and cowardice, out of jealousy and spite. That, she thought, she might never forgive. That he had been taken from her for such a petty, stupid reason.
Karen nudged her, and she realised that Connlaí had stopped talking and was looking at her and Karen expectantly. Oh. It was that time. The sun was halfway below the horizon. She and Karen walked forward to take the brands from Connlai. They lit them at the brazier behind him, moved to either side of the pyre. Fionnuala closed her eyes and thrust her brand into the piled, oil-soaked wood. It caught with a soft whoomph noise. The heat on her face was only beginning to be too much when hands grasped her elbows and pulled her gently back.
The gathering stood, watching the flames, for a time, and then people began to move, pulling up logs and rocks, setting up camp-stools, unfolding blankets, bringing out bottles. Fionnuala found herself sitting with Ciara, and Karen and Seraphim, Alrisha and Caileb. Ciara uncorked a bottle and passed it to Fionnuala.
She took a drink and spluttered. “Ancestors, Ciara, what is this?” she exclaimed.
“Caledonian whisky,” her sister replied. “Don’t worry, I’ve wine too. But I thought you could do with a shot of the hard stuff just to start.”
Fionnuala took another pull at the bottle. Now that she was expecting it, it went down a lot easier. “It’s so different,” she said after a moment. “When Conall… It was just me, then. Traitors don’t get big funerals full of mourners. So there was just me, and him, and a pyre… And I sat there all night, drinking wine and thinking what a fucking relief it was to be rid of him. Came the sunrise, I nearly followed his ashes over the cliff, I was that drunk.” She looked around, at the crowds of mourners, now sitting in groups around the plateau, drinking, talking, in one case singing softly. “It’s so different,” she said again.
Hours later the pyre had burned to ash, the wine was gone, the stories told, and those gathered were beginning to shiver in the pre-dawn chill. As the eastern sky lightened, a bell began to toll somewhere in the dimness. Fionnuala stood, stiffly, and moved towards the burned-out pyre. Taking one of the bowls that were stacked nearby, she scooped ashes into it, stepped to the cliff-edge. Others followed, till the entire edge of the plateau was lined with people. As the sun cleared the horizon, the bell tolled one final time, then fell silent as the mourners tossed their bowls of ashes over the cliff. “Go well, beloved,” Fionnuala whispered as the ashes fell. “Celestial keep you.” Maybe she’d had a last goodbye to say after all.