River of Anguish
It was still dark outside, but dawn was near. The birds told him. They always knew. At first it was a gentle, sleepy twittering and rustling, barely audible. Gradually it grew, a symphony of countless chirrupings and tweetings, mingling together as one mighty dawn chorus, sweeping across the mountains and plains of Kalion, growing ever stronger with the first faint blush in the eastern sky. As they had from time immemorial, the birds of Kalion sang their welcome to the Fire of Life as She slowly rose from Her couch beyond the rim of the world.
Edrun stretched out his hand, his eyes still closed by the soft fingers of sleep. It slid up and down the bedclothes, cold on the left hand side of the bed. Cold where it should have been warmed with the heat of her slender body. The side of the bed where she should have lain beside him. The side of the bed that would never again feel the gentle pressure of her smooth skin.
How can this be? How can this be? This is wrong! This is all wrong! She should be here, here beside me! The words ricocheted back and forth within his mind like a leather ball being tossed against the walls of a barn. Instantly awake, he sat bolt upright so fast that for a moment nausea wrenched his stomach. Gasping, sweating, he gripped his head in his hands for long moments, slowly, slowly drawing his legs up, across and onto the floor.
She is gone. She is gone.
Edrun pulled the curtain back from the little window of his room and opened the shutters, letting the cool, clear air of morning into his room. As it faced more or less east, the window looked out over the mountains, still clad in their capes of winter white. Uzvath, the Queen of Heaven, the Fire of Life, was rising in all her blinding majesty above them, burning away the night shadows where lurked the demon servants of the Visitor, forcing them back into the underground realms where they would remain, quivering in terror at Her coming, until once more She slipped below the western horizon. Edrun stood before the open window in the attitude of prayer to briefly murmur the morning greeting to Uzvath.
From the village below came the sounds of chanting and singing, of the striking of gongs and the clarion of horns, as Priests and Priestesses of a dozen different shrines welcomed this new day, this latest gift of the Gods to mortals. Throughout the village, and all across Kalion from north to south, people paused in their tasks to stand for a few moments in prayer, giving thanks.
A knock came at the door. Edrun jumped, startled by the sound so deeply had he been in reverie. He realised he was still standing, naked, before the window, and turned to the door. It opened without his asking.
"Are you awake, dear?" His mother put her head around the door first, then opened it wide. "Good morning, sweetheart. Do get dressed, Edrunaraugiscal. We are waiting for you."
"Yes, Mother. Good morning. I shall be down in a moment." Edrun smiled to himself. Edrunaraugiscal. The Abundant Rain of Spring. Only his mother ever called him by his full name, which, like that of most rural Kalionali, was long, complex and grandiose. It was the custom amongst rural woman to name their children from omens of their own observation. The moment the first pangs of birth began, a new mother would look outwards to see something, or hear something, or feel something that might be a sign from the Gods indicating something of the child's future. As Edrun's mother was about to give birth to him that spring morning twenty years before, it had begun to rain lightly, which Tissa had seen as a good sign and had named her son accordingly.
Edrun chuckled to himself. It could have been worse. His elder brother Tai was 'Carhoansuanephorema Taivielanambairsunaran' - 'The gently waving grain is the gift of the blesséd Phorema', the first line of a hymn to the Lady of the Harvest. A group of Priestesses had been singing as they processed past the window when Tissa was about to go into labour, and she, devout soul that she was, was delighted. The problem was that hardly anyone could remember Tai's full name. Even Tai himself sometimes had to think for a moment to remember it, which made things a bit awkward on those occasional religious observations when it was necessary to speak one's name fully and completely.
This whimsical train of thought brought Edrun back out of the black mood into which he had been rapidly descending. He quickly sloshed water on his face from the basin on the dresser, whipped his loincloth on, threw his tunic over the top, grabbed his shoes and leather breeches and dashed down the narrow stairs to the big kitchen below.
Fully thirty adults and an uncountable number of children were passing plates, stirring pots, frying bacon, drinking proxa, running back and forth and generally forming a maelstrom of movement. Nobody looked at Edrun as he descended the stair, but he knew full well that all were instantly aware of him. As he approached the table a place was made for him, seemingly spontaneously, but he knew that it was deliberately done.
In another three days, when the sixteen day period of mourning was over, everything would revert to normal again and breakfast would be attended by the usual dozen or so currently living in the house of Jaran, Edrun's father; Jaran and Tissa and Edrun himself, Tissa's mother, Kondra, Edrun's two unmarried younger sisters, and a handful of servants. For the moment, however, the house was full of people, and they were there for him, to guide him through the period of mourning. For the sixteen Days of Bereavement he would never be alone unless he specifically requested time to himself. Always someone would be with him, keeping him company, talking to him, ready to listen to whatever he might want to say.
As he looked around the big room, Edrun felt his throat tighten. There were uncles and aunts, and cousins and nephews and nieces as well as his brothers and sisters. Most of his extended family was present to care for him, to nurse him through his agony, to share his pain, spreading it around amongst them, lessening its impact. The love in the room was so strong that almost it seemed as if it was visible, a shining mist that drifted throughout. But his father was banging the table with a spoon.
Silence fell. All hands were joined as Jaran draped the shawl of an Acolyte of Phorema over his shoulders and sang the first part of the three way grace, the prayer of thanks to the Harvest Mother for the Gift of Food.
"Lady! Mother!" he concluded. "Our thanks for your bounty."
"Lady! Mother!" murmured the crowd in response. "Our thanks for your bounty." Then Tissa, wearing the pectoral of an Acolyte of Bariog, bringer of rain, sang the prayer to the Lord of the Mountains.
"Lord! Father!" she concluded. "Our thanks for your bounty."
"Lord! Father!" came the response. "Our thanks for your bounty." Finally Tai, the eldest of the children, stood holding the Horn of Haldin to intone the last part.
"Lord! Highest!" he sang softly. "Grant us your peace this day." And he tipped the horn to let a few drops of wine slip to the floor in libation.
"Lord! Highest!" sang the people in reply. "All Praise to our Lord."
"Go about this day in peace under the guidance of the Gods." As Jaran sat, the room erupted in chatter and laughter as the family fell upon their food. The day had begun under the supervision and proper oversight of the Gods, as was only right.
The world of the Kalionali was populated by countless spirits and unseen powers, some benevolent, some malevolent, some who cared nothing for mortals but should nevertheless be left undisturbed. The world was a quagmire of hidden perils, its paths tortuous and shifting. Only through the guidance of the Gods, the protectors of mortals, could those paths be navigated, but the Gods were fickle and needed continuous attention. Only the meticulous observance of ritual and prayer ensured the safe passage of the day and the night ahead of it. To ignore the Gods was to court disaster, to disobey them catastrophic. This Edrun knew well. And yet - ! And yet - !
Thirteen days before the family had sat at this very table, the Three Way Grace had been said, and the rituals performed correctly, rituals to ensure that all travelled the journey of the day in safety. Yet at the end of it they were one less. Edrun shook himself mentally. This would not do. He had to engage with his family, who were here for that very purpose. He had to chat and smile and discuss the small matters of the day.
After breakfast he and his father and brothers walked across the yard to the wagon-sheds where they began the work of the day. Jaran was a cartwright, and well-to-do by the standards of the little village of Chernugo. Over the years he had built up a thriving business - repairing carts, building new carts, hiring out wagons and carriages, and running a large livery and bait stables. As well as his two sons, he employed fifteen men and women, making him one of the biggest employers in the village, and his order book was always full.
This morning was no exception, and work in the sheds and stables swiftly swung into motion. Edrun was given tasks, which he performed with his usual skill and diligence, but his father and brothers, watching covertly, could see that his mind was not on the crafting of wagon wheels or the repairing of harness. They stayed close, careful not to crowd him, but never getting too far away. Various other members of the staff, mostly cousins, nephews, nieces and assorted more distant relatives, came and went so that no-one was ever with him for long, but someone was there all the time. At mid-morning Jaran could watch no longer.
"Go for a walk, son," he said. "Your mind is not here. Walk in the hills and see if you can find it. Come back when you feel ready." He clasped Edrun on the shoulder.
Edrun squeezed the familiar hand, strong but gentle. "You are right, Father. I shall clear my head. But I want to go alone."
Jaran nodded and patted his son's shoulder. "As you say, son, so shall it be. Go carefully. Be safe from evil."
"Be with Phorema, Father. I shall be home for supper."
Edrun turned, walking out of the shed and across the yard to the road. Within moments he was amongst the crowds jostling good-naturedly in the little market square. For a while he wandered around the stalls, looking at merchandise, greeting friends, stopping to chat briefly. But only briefly. Courtesy dictated that he stop and exchange pleasantries, but he was in no mood to do more than that. He passed by some of the several little shrines that clustered about the square, and was induced to take a mug of ale with some farmhands that he knew as they sat outside tavern.
He passed the time of day with them, and it was pleasant to sit in the morning sunshine. He could have been tempted to linger, but it was not his way to drink so early in the day and he bid his friends farewell. With a somewhat lighter heart he strolled along the lane that led to the Temple of Cuennu on the high ground on the other edge of the village. Below him to his left wound the road to the ford over the little stream that fed into the Nogoldhere River, to his right the water meads and the beginning of the path that led down to the big river itself.
His legs striding out purposefully as if they had a will of their own Edrun headed along the path, over the pastures, beside hedges, scrambling over the stiles of the drystone walls, until he stood on the banks of the Nogoldhere River.
For a long, long time Edrun stared down at the swirling currents. The Nogoldhere River men called it now, but of old it was Zuthirass, the Black Water. No truer name could it have, Edrun's spirit cried out within him. Black waters, black as my heart! With a sob he slowly crumpled to the ground, covering his head in an agony of grief. She is not here! She should be here! But she is not! She is gone! She is gone!