Loric floated just above himself. There was a warmth surrounding him and a buzzing in his ears. An eternity later is seemed, the buzzing resolved itself into speech. His eyes came into focus and he stared long at the canopy of trees above him trying to decide if he was above or below them, and when someone walked around the edge of his vision, he knew that he had not gone to the Spirit as he thought he should have. Something must have held him back…
‘It must have been the Teline,’ Loric thought disjointedly to himself, ‘How else can it be that I have died and yet I still see?’
The tendrils of the Devatha have released me. I see many of the Downlanders… their dead brown faces holding masks of mourning. The wailing of the women is loud but I can not move to cover my ears!
I see Dernhelm dispatch the Devatha with a single stroke. He breaks the horn from it’s head stalk and I am surprised to see that it is dry and hollow inside.
He blows the call of loss thru it and is anwsered in the village. DEE-ath! DEE-ath! I do not want to be dead! I shake myself hard to show him I am alive but my body doesn’t move.
Look at me uncle! I live! I saved the kesh-blade of my father from the Pit. It’s there on the ground at your feet! Two masked villagers come and lift me up. I am moved but I cannot move. I do not feel their grip on my arms and legs.
The sound of Bullroarers announces our arrival in the Village-under-the Trees. They lay me on dried rushes among my friends. I get a glimpse of Jakul and Hiram both with matted hair and covered with a light blue clay. Were they in the Pit too, I want to ask, or some other trial? I want to cry but my eyes are a dead man’s: they will not cry for me now.
I try to look away but my eyes will not close. All I can see is the sky and the treetops. Did I do well? What are they doing now? The Village is so quiet. Have they all left us here for the birds to find? Did we shame our families and they are refusing our bodies?
I can hear Dernhelm talking, but his words are unclear. He’s mumbling something and the Downlanders are responding. Chanting. Mumble memble chant mumble mumble memble.
Ah! Now I see him at the edge of my eyes. He’s leaning over Jakul. There’s his father Koonial–what are the doing with those switches- -They’re striking his body!
Koonial turns to Dernhelm and says “He is dead, my son is dead, the tribe has lost a hand.” Behind him I can see a long, somber line of villagers.They all have switches. Each strike Jakul’s body and then toss the switch on top of him.
Now Dernhelm’s moves to Hiram. Hiram’s mother Joulin is coming with his sister Teelan helping her. She hasn’t walked alone since the night the nets fell on her and took her husband and my father.
My Father! Who will come for me? There is none to show the Downlanders I am dead! My father died on the nets, my sister had left to seek her own song and Oldsir had his second vision and is with the Spirit of the Wood now. I wonder if they will hang me in a tree or plant me among the Adinase so that Eidie can come and ask my spirit who should dance for whom?
Now Dernhelm is giving Joulin the switch. She’s hitting Hiram on the head, the chest, and the legs. I see little puffs of blue dust each time she hits. Are you dead Hiram? Was your song strong enough to join the Spirit of the Wood or are you there, trapped like I am?
“My chief, my son is dead, the village has lost a hand.”
Teelan is in line behind her, she’s smiles as she strikes, the switch sings it’s pain path each time. Ah, Teelan, If you had danced for me before I died I would have been a strong father for your children and eased the days of your mother…and I would teach you not to strike my friends so hard, even if that friend is your brother.
Dernhelm is looking at me now. He’s going to hit me. I should have guessed! My uncle is the only Tolorion left in the Village. I try to feel the pain but it isn’t there, the world has gone to fog. One ,two ,three! I am dead! Is that my blood on the switch? How can I bleed?
“My brother’s son is dead, the village has lost a hand.”
Pyres! I understand now, thought Loric, feeling distant and uncaring of the living world, they mean to burn me! Thank you Dernhelm, thank you my chief! I will be free to go to the Spirit now, thank you….
For a moment Dernhelm thought he saw his nephew’s mouth twitch like he was coming back from the dead. His open, glazed eyes were disconcerting in the torch-light. If the boy came to life now it would look bad. The ceremony must be finished.
With a frown he leaned down and closed Loric’s eyes and motioned for the Speaker-for-animals to come forward. The Speaker howled and growled and hissed a song of mourning for the fallen boys and for the many animals that would not feast on their catch this day. Then he jumped from pile to pile snorting flames from his nostrils to set the dry rushes aflame.
Dernhelm grimly watched the switches pop and smoke darkly. Waiting until the right moment to signal the final passage from the death of a boy to the life of a man.
Finally when the flames all but obscured the bodies and he could smell the hair begin to singe, he blew on the horn of the Devatha three short bursts.
He smiled cynically as the pyres collapsed in on themselves. He knew that under the supports the boys were being wrapped in hides and coated with healing salves. He turned to lead a procession of Downlanders to the river where they would keen and smite the water and call upon the Spirit to receive the boys with favor.
There were rush boats to be built, octli to be consumed and tales to be told all night long. Later, after the elders had joined them he would leave quietly to care for Loric’s ‘body’. After the boy had been sealed in a caul and left for the Spirit to care for him, I can look forward to a quiet turn of the moon.
The boy was too much like his Grandfather to come back after a day or two with only a tale of his death and of singing with the Spirit. He would actually try to bring something to the village to help us understand the Spirit of the Wood better.
Dernhelm’s smile faded as he passed into the trees remembering when he too believed the Spirit guarded them. That was before he had become chief and had revealed to him the mysteries that surrounded every action the Downlanders took from birth to death and birth again. When Loric joined the Spirit he would make no hearth-fire for his brother’s son–could not, for the Spirit did not move him anymore.