Her home was empty, both of noise and of another home within it, as a song without a melody. Her bones felt the chill of autumn’s touch all too keenly from the open windows, but she could not bring herself to close them. Something in her said that it was right; his spirit could not find her if the house was shut up like a tomb, could not bade her fond farewell or show her to their mutual love. Saden had been missing for nearly three days since the passing, and she would not hold the wake without him. Not only for his sake and company, but for Syf’s spirit to know they were both there at the last.
Another hour crept by in the chilled house before Rieva roused herself from her stiff seat, finally resolving that a wandering soul such as Syf’s would not have any difficulty finding her if he needed. She shuttered the windows and stoked the hearth, leaving several thick cords of pine to warm and feed the scarce embers within. Her body felt cold in many ways, so she knew she must seek out the warmth left to her in Saden, wherever he had found himself in his fitful walking.
Over hill and dale she roamed, greeting the farmsteaders with the grace of a queen fifteen years younger, though she was neither. The people offered her their condolences, and warm food and drink, but she politely declined the most of it; however, at the last house before the Waywatcher’s Stone, she supped with Yern, an old goat farmer and her husband Polt, a skilled weaver.
The couple had always been kind to her, even after the messy situation of her ascension to leadership in Treyah and the discomfort her relationships brought to some. Yern had just finished her second mug of warm spiced mead, and a thick glow coloured her wrinkled, wind-worn features. Polt, for his part, was silently staring into his cup, face drawn haggard with the years and recent events.
“I’ve not seen your Sade since the passing, I’m afraid.” She smiled sadly at Rieva, raising her mug in silent respect. “But I think we both know where he’ll end up. Since they were boys, those two always ended up at that old menhir.”
Rieva nodded and raised her own mug, a sly grin touching her cheek. “The first time I met them, they brought me there. Such pride in those two, like it was a spot nobody dared brave but them.” Memories flitted to and fro across her mind, tinged with an ache hidden behind the images, as if someone had spilled something across papers and simply let it dry.
“My husband won’t say so, but he always loved those two like they were his sons. You mark me, we’ll be there tonight, and any night you or Sade need us.” Yern’s gnarled hand reached across the table to rest over her own, squeezing it firmly despite its aged appearance. Polt sat in his chair at the table, his hands dyed multiple colours from the years spent at his loom, and said nothing; his eyes spoke loud enough to shake the earth, tears kept at bay like a placid lake in a windstorm.
Rieva returned the gesture to Yern, and to Polt, finally letting a few of her own tears escape. She felt an overwhelming urge to stay, to revel in the warmth of their company and let Saden mind himself; in the end, she stayed only half an hour’s time, keeping them company and singing Syf’s favourite song with Yern while Polt played soulfully on the mandolin, a smile heavy with sorrow and joy draped over his weary features.
As she bade them farewell and set back across the moors, setting her sights on the shadowy pillar of the distant menhir, she carried their warmth in her heart. Even as boys, Saden and Syf had been known across their little spit of land, constantly traveling and adventuring into forests and up steep hills. When she had met them, Saden was nearly twelve, and built like a ship ready for war; Syf was lankier but no less lean, and shorter than Saden though he had two summers over him. She had grown to love them both in certain ways, and life had been good to them all, despite the troubles of late.
Saden had been there with her when they found Syf half-dead up on that hill more than a dozen times, frostbitten or ill with heatstroke. They both knew that it was only a matter of chance that he survived such bitter conditions, and that one day they might find him past the point of saving. He was as a flame in the rain, always in danger of being snuffed out for good. But as with all eventualities, his passing hit them both harder than they could have planned for.
The pang of that day stuck in her side as a pin or splinter would, unable to be pulled out and eventually buried beneath the skin. Raw as it was now, she clambered over the increasingly hill-strewn fields on her journey to the menhir, fighting the wind as much as her own self. Her power, her friends and family, all that she owned; she would have given it all up if it meant she could simply weep in that open expanse, curled in the dead heather and sage until her body gave in.
Her will to find Saden was more powerful by far, however, and as the moon rose high behind the clouds, she finally found him – resting in a crude lean-to in the howling wind, a scorch on the stone where his fire had been. He was swaddled in furs like an infant, thin beard and thick hair all. She wondered how long he’d been sequestered up here, and for a fleeting moment, she thought he too might have passed without her knowing.
Fear threatened to strangle her voice, but she uttered his name once, then twice.
He stirred, muttering and rolling over as he squinted at the sky, and her confidence grew like a fire in the cold wind. She moved in closer to him, smelling the familiar herbs Syf always put in his broth. She spoke louder, more openly this time.
“Sade.” His reaction was one of surprise, and she grinned despite herself. “What are you doing up here, man?” She kept her tone light and friendly, knowing he was in the same shape as she. “Come. The bonfire is soon, and I could use your company.”
He smoothly stood and began to stretch his limbs, saying between breaths, “Rieva…I’m sorry. I couldn’t be there, not with them.”
“I know.” Her hands had folded in front of her as they did when she was being patient, and she struggled to find something to say that hadn’t already been said about their situation. Then, as if Syf himself had whispered in her ear, she poked at Saden’s chest and smiled. “But if he taught us anything, it was to ‘forget what people thought they knew about you, and remember what You know about you.'”
Saden just sighed as he began to pack up, and she directed her smile instead to the menhir, familiar patterns etched on the stone jumping out to her eyes like familiar friends.
He had been so proud when he showed Saden and Rieva his additions: the gnarled roots at the base and sides; the flowering buds trailing up the center; and a glimmering sun of copper and bronze, painstakingly inset and weathered from the countless years it had stood vigil. Saden may have been their rock in the storm, and she their guiding star in the evening, but Syf was always their bright light in the dark. Now it remained to be seen if they could survive the harsh nights of winter without him.
As they approached the beach from a silent trudge across the land, the noise they had heard began to fade, leaving only the crackle of torches and lapping of the waves. Saden looked at the crowd with bleary eyes, face red from the wind, and Rieva laid her arm over his shoulders to guide him forward. The people here all knew them by name, familiar but distant, like relatives you saw once a year – Rieva thanked them for their gifts and offerings, as did Saden.
As the children of their village ran up, tear-streaked faces hiding behind proffered wooden animals, Saden finally let loose some of his sorrow, turning away from theirs. Rieva stepped in smoothly and accepted their gifts to Syf with a matronly air, embracing them lovingly and shedding a few tears as she admired their handiwork; Syf had loved the crafts of the children, simple though they were – he said their art was more honest, more powerful and raw.
As the procession continued down the beach to the pyre upon which Syf’s body lay, bounded in linens and wreaths of pine and rosemary, she hesitated. Everything in her told her to move, but she stood stock still for a moment, the weight of it finally settling in her heart. With a mighty effort, she pushed through the block, smiling to the worried onlookers as she fought against the waves of nausea, anxiety and shock.
Her speech was short, careful and loving, and she looked to Saden many times to ensure he was still there – to his credit, he stood stoically and bravely, but could not bear her gaze for long before shifting his head. She was beyond intense, speaking strongly despite the rage and heavy sorrow that roiled inside of her, and as they attempted to light the pyre, many stood back, unsure how large and hot the flames might be.
But she never once moved, barely a meter from the stand. She faced her lover’s death with a ferocity matched only by the blaze that sparked under him, a rising inferno that engulfed his shroud and left her covered in sweat and tears. Saden stood back with the crowd, firmly fixed on the sight of his lovers, one alive and full of fire and the other made part of it, and wept silently. He wouldn’t cry alone any longer.
Not after all that had happened.