The menhir stood solitary atop the hill, bare in the harsh autumn wind. What little lichen grew on it had begun to die off months ago as autumn approached, and several web-like cracks splintered along the base where water and plants had worn away the stone. Small pots of earthenware lay empty or overturned in front of the massive rock, their contents long since dried up and blown away. A small carved rock figurine nestled against the base of the rock, a thin crimson ribbon – a wedding band – tied around the neck.
Further across the craggy slopes, a figure slowly plodded towards the plinth, his approach hampered by heavy winds and bitter chill despite the sun high above. Once his struggle to reach the rock was over, his true challenge began; he set about cleaning up the rock itself, removing the overgrowth and righting the small pots. Much of the stone had been worn by the elements, but there were several designs masterfully chiseled along the face of the menhir, and they gave him pause as he stood back to admire the cleaner scene.
“Bloody fine spot you chose.” He muttered, glaring at the rock, then cracking a grin. “But I suppose you did prefer the way-watcher’s post.”
The wind calmed as he set about making camp: a lean-to sheltering him from the wind as he stoked a rude campfire, bringing a thin broth to heat. Gazing out at the surrounding countryside, his weather-worn face settled into a scowl.
“Me? Couldn’t stand it out here. Used to drive me mad, you gone from home for days on end.” His musings interrupted by broth-soaked bread, he continued, “Come up to find you nearly frozen to death one week, then three months later half-dead from heat. And always with that damn smile on your face.” He punctuated the thought by kicking a loose stone down the barrow.
“There I was, a lad no more than twenty summers, ready to sail off and leave you to your own miserable devices. They kept you from me, so why shouldn’t I do the same thing?” He dusted the crumbs from himself as he stood, facing the stone with an accusing finger. “If your self-appointed task was to keep you away from me…from us…”
The wind howled in response to his unspoken thought.
“…then I’d say it did a damn fine job of it.”
The sun crept behind a wispy cloud, casting the ridge into shadow. All was quiet then, save the wind in the grass and a soft, low hum from the stone itself. The markings seemed more evident in the dimmer light, and this served only to enrage the man further.
“You chose to stay atop this lonely little hill by your lonesome, and for what?! The thanks of a traveler, the occasional coin or shared meal of dried meat and stale bread?” He began to beat upon the stone in his rage. “If you wanted respect, or admiration, or appreciation for your work, you could have just stayed with me!” Shallow sobs broke through his savagery, developing into harsh, chest-racking bellows that shook his body with every breath.
“You could have been Safe.” His whisper was lost in the sudden wind. Sunlight peeked back into the world, the shadow passing and leaving heat and light in its wake. It burned to feel such a happy thing in that weak moment, and so the man crawled into his lean-to, away from the warmth. He rested in the cool shadow of the great monument, bundling himself with furs near the fire. Then, the humming started.
Certain stones, they said, could become as musical instruments when the right wind went through and around them. Some said they heard humming; others claimed to hear divine music. But in that moment, all the man could hear was a whispering voice, a voice quieted by more than wind.
The man had heard something familiar in that siren call, and he longed to hope for something good to come of it all. But that voice was an impossibility. No magic stone would bring his lover back.
No magic stone that kept his bastard lover from him for weeks and months on end, making him sick and exposing him to so much danger in the middle of nowhere; No, there was no magic here but bewitchment and illusory taunting. Saden huddled under the furs and drifted into uncomfortable sleep beneath the menhir’s gaze.
Saden blearily opened his eyes to the stars twinkling overhead. The voice hadn’t stopped calling to him in his sleep, plaguing him with memories best left in the past. “Go away, you spirit. I want none of your false hope or company.” He muttered, forcing himself not to look at the stone.
Suddenly a face, familiar and surprising, came between him and the stars above.
“Sade.” The woman said, her beaded braids clinking faintly in the heavy wind. “What are you doing up here, man?” Her tone was admonishing but kind, the way an old friend would elbow your ribs when they knew you were being foolish. “Come. The bonfire is soon, and I could use your company.”
He stood without realizing how stiff he had grown on the craggy hill, and stretched in the suddenly cold evening. “Rieva…I’m sorry. I couldn’t be there, not with them.” He used the stretches to hide the shame on his face.
“I know.” She spoke solemnly, holding her hands in front of her. “But if he taught us anything, it was to ‘forget what people thought they knew about you,’” She jabbed lightly at his chest. “’and remember what You know about you.’” She gave a sad smile to the stone and nodded. Saden only sighed as he packed up his shelter.
The walk back was silent, partly for the wind in their faces, and partly for the awkwardness left in the wake between them all. Losing a loved one was never an easy thing to process, but their situation made it more complex. Saden was glad for the silence, as it gave him time to compose and convince himself those dreams were merely stress, not a ghost or illusion.
He hoped, silly though it felt.
As they approached the beach from the hillside, the murmurs of the crowd hushed, and at once the lapping of the waves against the sand was the only sound to be heard over the crackling torchlight. Most of the surrounding community had shown up to bear witness to the passing of one of their own, despite most of them only hearing of his great deeds after his death. For Saden, it was a mockery to have these false friends crowded around the bonfire. Barely more than a handful were close to him, and most else had met him in passing, one way or the other.
Rieva was somber, though he could see tears in her eyes as they began to greet the assembled crowd. He fought back the same tears as people gave their thanks and offerings for the bonfire. It was all he could do not to break down as four children, faces wet with mourning, offered up small wooden animals, that they might bring joy to that man’s beautiful, stupid face once more. He was thankful for Rieva, who came to accept them on his behalf as he stifled a sob.
The time was nearly upon them, and the crowd seemed to pulse with the energy of it. Sending a soul off in such a fashion was not common for their region; often enough, they were given a small boat’s funeral, or a simple wooden casket to be lowered into the ocean. This custom was His, and he would have wanted it that way. What was it he used to say? I don’t want to spend my afterlife underwater, Saden. Better to go flying on wings of flame.
The fire was a welcome boon in the cold of midnight on the windy spit, the torches guttering as they tried to light the tinder at the bonfire’s base. It took many minutes for the wood to catch, but once the wind caught a flame, it tore into the kindling with a fierce hunger. In less than a few breaths, the pyre was ablaze, the heat intense enough to drive Saden back. But not Rieva.
She stood, sweat and tears mingling as they streamed down her face, in front of that ferocious inferno, staring through slitted eyes at the body wrapped so lovingly in linens, now engulfed in the fire. She barely moved, and no one tried to pull her back – this was her way to grieve, and no one could take it from her.
Not after all that had happened.