“It was not the thorn bending to the honeysuckles, but the honeysuckles embracing the thorn.”
-Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
The old man was dead, and he was still turning the world upside down. If Mother Wytlaf had been the sort to curse she would have cursed his name and his memory and his ancestors, she would have cursed his flesh and his bone and all his posterity. She’d have cursed him three times three, standing, sitting and lying, with spittle and piss and blood, in song and shadow and silence.
Not being the sort to curse she stood instead on the banks of the river watching as the small narrow boat drifted downstream, fire already catching in the oil soaked cloth and straw that surrounded the old man’s body.
A warrior’s funeral he had asked for. Here in the high valley of the moon where no weapon could come and no blood shed save for life and healing. He’d asked for a warrior’s funeral and her maidens had pleaded for his request to be granted.
Those same maidens stood by her on the riverbank too, tears in their eyes reflecting the reds and orange of the old man’s final journey, the moon invisible in the dark sky above them it being her time of hiding.
How fitting, thought Mother Wytlaf, that the moon will not lend her presence to this travesty. How fitting that now it was only the blazing light of the old man’s corpse that illuminated the scene. After all he’d remade everything else in his image hadn’t he?
He’d arrived one whole moon earlier, and the sky silver had been hiding that night too. Old he was and failing, with old wounds on his body and bitter humour on his lips. He was dying, he told Mother Wytlaf, and had sought out the high valley of the moon to pass his final days in peace and comfort.
That was his right, the right of any who came seeking succour and who did so in peace. She had welcomed him and set her maidens to tend him, to ease the pain of his old injuries, to soothe him in his last days, and to hear his stories.
And oh, he could tell stories. He told them of his strange birth, and the trial of his childhood as he was smuggled from mountain to woodland to deep caverns, to high crags. He told them of his master at arms and the ordeals he faced to earn the runes of war etched on his forearms. He told them of his loves both won and lost. The maidens listened as they tended him, and laughed and wept in turn. And he told them of the war. He told them of the war still raging beyond the world they knew, beyond the mist in the far fields and plains and woodlands and mountains.
And they listened.
He told them of the warriors striving to keep back the darkness, of the innocents falling before the foe. He told them of the hopelessness and the need for healing and wisdom.
And they listened.
And as the old man burned, Mother Wytlaf knew his words burned too in the hearts and souls of her maidens.
When the vigil was done and the fires burned out, Mother Wytlaf knew, the maidens would gather their things and don their deep blue cloaks, and they would depart the high valley of the moon forever.
She wished she had it in her to curse the old man, but a sister owed her brother the peace he never knew in life, and she held her tongue.
Finn Cullen’s novel A Step Beyond Context is now available in paperback and Kindle format from Amazon.