“… and so, we commit these our friends to the Pit of Rise’er, ever prayerful that Ol will have mercy on them and make their stay in Gil-Pazulyrken short.”
The priest bowed his head at the conclusion of his sermon, as did the large gathering around him. Devron looked at the ground for a moment in prayer, then raised his eyes back to the funeral pyre upon which a good two dozen bodies had been placed. Acolytes of the Olean temple touched torches to the carefully laid logs, which quickly took to the flame.
“Goodbye, Fiona,” Devron whispered. The flames would see that his beloved wife and all the others on the pyre with her made it to Gil-Pa’en, the fiery, burning pit where all souls went to meet their judgement. It seemed intensely unjust that after suffering so much through the Red Plague that she should now be served as food in the Feast of Rise’er — punishment inflicted on those in Gil-Pa’en until they became truly repentant — before she could finally take her rest in the pleasure of Kisil-Doon, the gods’ realm.
His eyes heated with tears. He closed them and listened to the crackling of the fire, accompanied only by the wheezing coughs of those gathered around him. Why did Ol have to take his Fiona away from him? How on ‘diar could he go on living without her?
He looked over to where Fiona’s parents stood. They were not wailing and pulling their hair the way they had when Fiona’s younger sisters had died in Yule. Like everyone else, they had seen so much death that they only stood and stared at the funeral fire. Devron could not go over to them, for he did not know what to say. He was ashamed of his tears as well; he had only lost a wife, while they had lost four children this summer. He wondered if a wife could ever be “only”.
Who was that standing just behind Fiona’s parents? Devron had not noticed anyone standing there before. Like everyone else, she wore mourning blue and had a shawl wrapped around her head so that he could not see her face. He shifted his position to get a better look, filled with a sudden and unexplained sense of curiosity. This woman seemed to be family; indeed, she placed a hand on Fiona’s mother’s shoulder in comfort. Then she looked in his direction and he could see her face.
Sad, but still very, very beautiful. Pale and sickly, but unmistakably Fiona. Devron froze and he stared. He felt as if his body had been suddenly encased in ice. Only his eyes could move, growing wide in disbelief.
“Fiona?” he mouthed, for he could make no air pass his lips.
No, she was on the funeral pyre! He had nursed her through the last, terrible days of the Red Plague … In the end she had been so feverish that she didn’t even recognise him. And yet, there she was. She still bore the telltale rash of the plague, but stood otherwise alive, a hand resting on her mother’s shoulder. Could she have returned to Makdiar as a ghost?
She saw him, her gaze locking with his. Her eyes, too, widened as if in surprise. Her ashen lips parted as if to say something …
Devron turned and ran as fast as he could away from the funeral grove and the people gathered around it. The city of Dargon was not far to the south, and he sprinted towards the protection of its buildings. It didn’t take long for him to reach the outskirts of the city at Murson Street, then the busier Traders Avenue.
His heart pounded in his chest as he scrambled past a dog and a pig fighting over a discarded bone lying in the gutter. The dog abandoned its claim and barked at him as he passed, but it did not pursue him. He pushed his way through the crowded streets of Dargon until he was lost. He huddled in an alley that stank of excrement and death and cried.
What fear had gripped him so at the sight of the one person who might give him comfort? He looked out onto the street where a body cart trundled past, men in blue walking beside it striking pieces of metal together and bellowing for people to load the recently deceased of their households on the wagon. People hacked and coughed as they shambled by; peddlars loudly announced the sale of rare ointments that could cure the dreaded plague; and self-proclaimed prophets exhorted people to repent of the wickedness that had brought the plague. What could possibly be worse than this life, that he would run in terror?
The Feast of Rise’er could be worse. Devron shuddered. It was an old tale that he had been taught from childhood, that husbands and wives would sometimes return shortly after their deaths to retrieve their loved ones and take them to the Feast of Rise’er — to Gil-Pa’en — with them, there to be feasted upon by the ancient tyrant, then brought to life again and served once more as one of the thousands of courses in that never-ending and unholy banquet.
He had never been a particularly religious man, but now that he had seen Fiona, raised from the dead, he believed with terrible certainty. The realization that Gil-Pa’en existed — oh gods! If only he could live long enough to appease Ol and the other gods, that he might be feasted upon by Rise’er for but a little while before moving on to Kisil-Doon.
“Oh, Celine,” Devron prayed to the goddess of tranquillity. “Please give my wife your peace; send her to Kisil-Doon; let me live a while longer before facing the terrible meal!”
Devron stood in the stone-flagged kitchen of his home some time later. He wasn’t sure exactly how long it had been since the funeral. He had lost track of time, wandering the streets aimlessly before arriving back at home somehow. He supposed his feet had walked the streets of Dargon so many times before that they could find their own way to the dilapidated three-storey building with its black timbers that framed dirty, white-washed walls.
He stood over the hearth, staring at the cold ashes lying at the bottom. He should start a fire and prepare some food, but he was not hungry. He was not cold either. He could not muster the energy to do much of anything except stare into that wispy, grey soot that had once burned with the flames of life.
He felt as if a part of him had been cut violently from his chest, leaving a large, empty hole there. He had known life with Fiona for so long, nigh on five years, that he now felt like a ship without a rudder. He didn’t know what to do.
The single door to the little cabin banged against the wall a couple of times, blown by the wind. Devron realised he must have neglected to close it properly. He turned around to come face-to-face, once again, with his beloved Fiona. Her hands moved up to cover her mouth, and her eyes welled up with tears. As when he first spotted her at the pyre, Devron could not move.
Fiona was garbed in the mourning blue that he had seen her in before. She did not speak, but only looked back at Devron. He had never seen a ghost before, having only heard of them in tales meant to scare children, but he was amazed at how lifelike she looked. The same as before she had succumbed to that last fever: her large, dark eyes as deep and inviting as always, her pert lips … Of itself, his hand reached out to touch her, but she drew back like a timid dog.
Of course, Fiona knew the legends as well. If she had allowed him to touch her, he would have died and gone to Gil-Pa’en at once. Devron nodded his head in understanding and closed his eyes, whispering a quick prayer of thanks to the father, Ol. Fiona’s ghost turned away and moved over to where a small shrine to Olean gods rested in a niche where two walls of the house met. She knelt there in prayer.
“Yes,” Devron thought. “Repentance is the only way out of Gil-Pa’en, and up to Kisil-Doon. I believe now, father! Give me but a while to show you!”
He moved beside Fiona and knelt before the grouping of statues. He begged Celine to set Fiona’s spirit free and take her up to the celestial castle, Kisil-Seed, and release her from her captivity here and in Gil-Pa’en.
Devron opened his eyes. Apparently he had fallen asleep while praying, for he was now lying on the cold flagstones that made up the floor and what light there was trickled in from an east-facing window. He rose to his feet and looked around. Fiona’s ghost was not beside him any longer. In fact, she — it — was nowhere to be seen. He was alone once again.
He hugged himself and looked down at the rushes that were strewn on the floor. He could feel the searing heat of tears forming in his eyes and his vision began to blur. By Ol, how was he supposed to live like this?
A muffled thud from upstairs interrupted Devron’s thoughts. He looked quickly towards the narrow stairwell; perhaps Fiona was still here after all, visiting their bed chamber one last time before going to Rise’er? He scurried up the stairs, only to find the room empty, save for the meagre belongings that he and his wife had shared: two chests, only one that they owned; three stools, one broken; a lavarium; a few changes of linen; and a faded wall hanging showing Balphiryon and Hengnra that had been given to Fiona by a client of hers who had not been able to pay his fee otherwise.
On one of the plaster walls hung Fiona’s striped lawyer’s cloak. Devron walked over to it and took the heavy gown in his hands. He held it to his face; Fiona’s gentle scent still clung to it. He could remember her putting her lawyer’s uniform on each day and heading down to the Harbourmaster’s Building where she would loiter for bells, trying to attract custom. Devron looked up at the ceiling. She would often sit for bells up in the garret under the eaves, which served as her study. If they had finally been able to conceive, that was going to be the children’s room.
At that thought, Devron could feel a tightening in his throat. Then he hurriedly replaced Fiona’s cloak on its hook and returned to the narrow passageway where stairs led both up and down. Perhaps the sound he heard had come from Fiona’s study. He wouldn’t touch her if he saw her, but should he see her again, if only for a brief moment, he would talk to her this time and tell her how much he loved her. Then, maybe, she could return to Gil-Pa’en and speed her journey to Kisil-Doon.
Unfortunately, the small room was also abandoned, but it bore more familiar smells that made it seem as if Fiona had not left. Though he did not know how to read or write, the parchment, vellum and leather were a comfort to him because of the smell. He moved over to the small desk and sat at the chair behind it, looking at the finely honed quills, thin cutting knife, and grey stone of pumice for smoothing the white-scrubbed parchment beneath.
He noticed that there was something written on the piece of parchment lying at the centre of the desk. It bore only a few lines. He wondered if it was perhaps a document she had been preparing for a case. But no, she had been too sick to have any clients for some sennights before she finally succumbed. In fact, Devron suddenly realised that he had carefully packed all of Fiona’s parchment away while she was sick, fearful that rats might get at it.
How had this gotten out here, he wondered. Perhaps Fiona — Fiona’s ghost — had taken these things out in remembrance of her life? He took the parchment with writing on it and, after carefully folding it, placed it in a pocket on the front of his jerkin.
On his way outside he considered taking some bread from the cupboard on the way out, but he was not hungry. He wasn’t even sure why he left the house, except that there seemed nothing better to do. The street was full of the regular noise and bustle of the city. A group of the local children were tossing around an inflated pig’s bladder, while two clerks hastened past the game towards the castle. A woman emptied a chamber pot out an upper-storey window only to be cursed roundly by a passing couple who were nearly hit by the cascade. Devron’s neighbour, John Mawsby, stood just opposite Devron’s house, shouting at his apprentices who scurried back and forth with bales of cloth, leather belts, purses, and other clothing.
John did not look Devron’s way, and Devron moved quickly down the street before the merchant noticed him. He did not wish to talk to anyone, let alone his wealthy neighbour with his large, healthy family and overly cheery smile.
Devron wandered for a time through the dirty Dargon streets before finding himself on Temple Street. He had to step off the road to avoid a cart as it trundled by, bodies piled high on it. The men pushing the cart shouted loudly for people to bring out the bodies of household members who had died in the night. An acolyte from the Manifest shrine, who was not very healthy-looking himself, staggered up to the cart carrying a body wrapped in fine robes. He kicked aside a large rat that tried to nibble at his toes and tossed the corpse atop the others. Devron shuddered and wondered to himself if he was not already in Gil-Pa’en.
He continued down Temple Street, eventually coming to the gates of Dargon Abbey. As with the other houses of worship along the broad avenue, it was surrounded by a bustle of activity. At the best spot for attracting custom, right next to the open gates, sat a middle-aged man on a stool with a small wooden table in front of him. On the desk were several inkwells, quills, and piles of paper and parchment. Devron recognised the man as Tozak, a notary and friend of Fiona’s who had sometimes assisted her in drafting complex writs or warrants.
Devron remembered the parchment in his pocket and he removed it. He looked down at it for a few moments, examining the graceful curvature to the letters Fiona had drawn on it. He had never been able to read, but he still appreciated the gentle touch she’d had with a quill. He approached Tozak and placed the parchment just to one side of something the notary was writing.
The older man didn’t bother to look up, but continued to scribble with his quill. “My fee is nine Sterling for transcription,” he mumbled.
“I don’t need a trans– whatever,” Devron said. “I just need you to read it for me.”
Tozak didn’t react, but instead continued working on his document.
“Sir,” Devron said. “You knew my wife, Fiona. I was hoping that you could just take a mene to read this for me.”
Devron had never felt ashamed of his inability to read before. As a miller, he had no need for the skill, and besides, on the rare occasion that there was anything that needed to be read, Fiona would do it. But now, being ignored by the notary, he felt his cheeks heat.
“I accept payment in kind if you haven’t any silver,” Tozak said, still not looking up from his work.
“Ah, go roll with yourself!” Devron growled, his embarrassment turning to anger at the pompous scribe. “I’ll get someone else to read it for me. It’s not like you’re the only one on ‘diar that can cipher!”
As Devron reached for the parchment, a soft breeze pushed it away from his finger and onto Tozak’s document.
“Oh, all right,” the notary adjusted the glasses perched on his nose and took Fiona’s parchment into his free hand. “Let’s see what it is, anyway, then we can discuss a price:
“‘My love has gone away, but I will see him again soon, at our secret shore’ …
“What is this supposed to be, poetry?”
Devron could hear the scribe continue to speak, but the miller was already walking swiftly away, losing himself once again in the crowd. “Our secret shore” was a little inlet in the Coldwell River, not far from the causeway that linked the Old City and new, where Devron had asked Fiona to marry him. It was hardly secret, but it was a quiet place where they had often been able to spend time alone together.
She was summoning him; it seemed fitting that he would join her in the afterlife at the place where their life together here on Makdiar had begun.
The giant bells in the tower behind Dargon Abbey’s stone walls began to clang loudly. Devron looked up to watch them swing mightily back and forth, sending forth a rich clamour. The buzz of the crowd around him changed in tone, and the flow of traffic seemed to swirl around the main gate. He turned to look back at the gate and noticed that people were making a path leading out of the abbey.
Of course, he thought, the tune the bells were playing was for a wedding. He had not recognised it immediately, since worshippers of Ol preferred to mark marriage with lutes and drums. But sure enough, through the gates emerged a young man and woman clad in traditional yellow clothes for marriage. A few of the Stevenic monks, wrapped in their white habits and black cloaks followed behind, along with throngs of dancing and singing family members. They threw flowers in the air and hugged and kissed the onlookers standing on the street.
It was a lovely sight; it made Devron remember his and Fiona’s wedding, and how wonderful things had been. For at least a brief time, the people here had forgotten the ravages of the plague, the struggles of daily life …
Devron turned and ran through the crowd; he rushed down Atelier Street, then followed the Street of Travellers until the causeway was in sight. He didn’t pause for a breath the entire time he ran; somehow he felt light on his feet and his legs did not tire.
“I am coming, my love!”
He broke off the street and hurried through the bushes and trees. He finally emerged into a clearing that led to a small, sandy beach. Beyond the beach he could see the Coldwell River, and Dargon Keep standing proudly on its cliff. And there, waiting on the shore, was Fiona. He ran up to her, stopping but a few hand-widths away from her.
For the first time since he had seen her ghost, she spoke, “Devron, I prayed to Ol and he led me here. And you have come.”
Devron marvelled at how beautiful she was. The marks of the plague were gone from her face and a slight blush warmed her cheeks. Her dark eyes, no longer glazed-over with fever, were a marvel to behold.
“Fiona,” he said. “I can’t be without you any longer. Even if it means going to Rise’er’s Feast to be with you, I welcome it!”
They came together and kissed as passionately as on their wedding night.
“You say this is Fiona, the lawyer?” Mariam Byer, captain of the town guard asked.
“Yes, it certainly is,” Tozak, the notary replied. “Why, I saw her only yesterday, a sennight after her husband was taken by the Red Plague.”
Captain Byer moved around the lone body laying peacefully on the sand, but did not draw too close. “Did she also suffer from the plague?”
“She did,” Tozak replied, “but she was one of the fortunate few who recovered. Last I saw her, she appeared quite healthy! Do you suspect foul play?”
Now Mariam knelt and turned the body’s head so she could examine it. As the notary had indicated, it was free from blemish. There were no signs of violence, either. In fact, quite the contrary, for the dead woman looked content, a hint of a smile at the corner of her lips.
“Foul play? I doubt it.” Mariam looked up at Tozak. “Have you ever heard the Olean legend about spouses being reunited in death?”