Burying a Friend

by Christian O'Kane

Edmund found himself aimlessly wandering the halls, rooms and corridors of Metamor keep. It was late and he should’ve been asleep but wasn’t tired, he had too many things on his mind. Instead he walked the halls thinking and pondering the future. Soon he lost all track of time.

Suddenly a clock chimed midnight faintly somewhere in the distance. He stopped short when a figure stepped in front of him. It was dressed in a flowing black robe that covered it completely. Even the head was concealed by a large hood. No trace of the figure beneath was visible. A cloth sleeve was held up to the paladins chest but he saw no trace of a hand in those voluminous sleeves.

“Hold Sir,” a voice as cold as a grave said.

Edmunds hand grasped the hilt of his sword but did not draw it. “Sir?” he asked in a stern voice.

The end of the sleeve, where a hand should be rose up to the cowl to about where a face might be hidden. “Shhh. Show reverence for the dead.”

Unsure of the meaning of that the paladin simply stood his ground and waited for he knew not what.

Behind the mysterious person was a doorway that opened onto a corridor that ran perpendicular to the one they were in. In that corridor a figure appeared moving at a slow, stately pace. Like the figure in front it too was dressed in a black robe that covered the whole body down to the stone floor. The difference was that this figure had the hood pulled back to reveal the whole head. It was one of animal changed keepers. The thick, black fur covered a canine head which was oddly enough topped by only one ear. Where the other should have been was a black bandage. With a start Edmund realized that this stark figure was Misha Brightleaf! How strange the scout looked with his fur dyed all black and moving at such a slow, measured pace.

Behind the fox came Caroline, George and Finbar, all dressed the same as Misha. Each of the four were grasping the corner of a large, oblong box which was covered with a black flag. A coffin. There was no doubting what that box was or what it contained.

As he watched the four moved past carrying the coffin at the same slow, stately pace. Behind them trailed a dozen keepers. Some were walking, others were being helped along on the shoulders of friends. Two were actually being pushed along in wheeled chairs. All were dressed in the same black robes. He recognized the lithe form of Danielle looking very strange with her fur dyed black. This was all the Long Scouts, even the ones who should have been in bed recovering from their wounds.

The strange procession passed the knight in total silence. No footfalls, no voices, not even the soft ruffle of cloth broke the silence. Each moved with a slow flowing motion as if they were floating across the stone floor instead of walking on it. It was as if he was watching a ghostly procession. A supernatural glimpse of some event long past.

He was watching a funeral procession. But who were they burying at this late hour and why? He could understand the black robes and covering but why so late when no one would see them? Were they ashamed of the deceased?

Then they had gone past him. The robed figure glided backward into the corridor and then followed after the procession. Without understanding why the paladin fell in step behind, his footsteps as measured and silent as the rest.

The procession proceeded in silence through the halls and corridors of a Metamor keep that was devoid of life. They saw no other living things nor any sign of life in their journey through the ancient edifice. Not even the air stirred with life, but hung lifeless about them like the musty air of a long forgotten crypt. The halls they moved along seemed ancient and long forgotten. It was if they were the first people to set foot in them in centuries.

After an eternity of moving through the haunted halls they reached a door made of wood and iron, long weathered and rusted. Despite the corrosion the door swung open on rusted and corroded hinges without a sound. A draft of cold air rushed past them sending a shiver down Edmund’s spine.

On the far side of the door the passage sloped down at a shallow angle turning clockwise as it did. The procession moved through the doorway and down the passage. As he moved along behind Edmund noticed that the walls and floor had changed. No longer were they made of stone blocks, instead they were made of a soft, gray bedrock. The rock itself seemed to have been shaped and smoothed without leaving any mark of chisel or hammer. He knew magic that could do that easily but somehow he doubted that was how it had been done.

The procession moved slowly along, deeper and deeper into the bedrock as they walked down the constantly turning passage. Soon the paladin lost track of time and knew only the gray walls and his ghostly companions.

Suddenly the passage leveled and straightened out into a wide corridor that was well lit by a soft light that seemed to be everywhere and come from no where in particular.

Without breaking stride the procession moved out into the corridor taking no notice of the change. After a short distance the line seemed to waver a moment then paused. He saw Misha suddenly stop then bow deeply to his left before moving on. As each person passed that one spot they too repeated the vulpine’s strange behavior.

It wasn’t until he reached that place did Edmund understand what was happening. The wall to the left was covered with stone flowers, trees and vines intertwined to form a beautiful archway. Over that arch was the words “Here lies Llyn FarStrider. Great Warrior, Great Friend.”

Beyond the archway was a good sized room lit by the same warm glow of the corridor but somehow softer and warmer. In the center of the room was a large coffin resting on a bier, both of the same soft, gray stone that surrounded them. Carved into the top of the coffin was the full figure of mink woman dressed in a fine dress. The statue was so realistic that he could almost expect to see her sit up and climb down. At her feet was a long bow and a sword in a gold scabbard. Unlike the figure, the two weapons were real. The bow made of a fine grained, dark wood, the sword’s hilt, ivory wrapped in a light colored leather. The figure, the bier it rested on and the floor of the entire room was covered with flowers of all colors and shapes. He wondered how they had managed to find so many flowers in the dead of winter. Here was the last resting place of someone beloved.

As much as he wanted to look and ponder he was drawn onward. He bowed once to the entombed woman and followed after the departing procession. In a moment he caught up to them and again fell in step.

The group turned a corner and the light around them grew noticeably darker. They moved silently down a long, empty corridor until they came to a blank wall that marked the end of their journey.

Set into the wall on the left was an archway like the one he had seen before but this one was plain and unadorned. Over it were the words “Here lies one of our own”. Nothing else, not even a name.

Beyond the archway was a room as large as the one holding Llyn, it even possessed a bier in the center. This one was open, it’s massive stone lid laying on the floor next to it. The lid was as plain as the doorway and no flowers covered this room, there was only the cold stone.

The four holding the coffin came to a halt but the procession didn’t. The black robed people slowly filed past and into the room with the same, slow gait. They formed a circle around the bier. Off to one side stood two of the fully robed figures, one of those had been the one that had halted him much earlier but he couldn’t tell which. Both looked exactly the same. They stood with bowed heads and their arms folded behind them. He wondered what lay beneath those robes, animal, woman, man? Was there anything beneath? Perhaps only the dead? They certainly would be fitting in a place like this.

Only when the last of the procession was in their appointed place did the four carrying the coffin move. With a slow stilted gait they stepped forward into the tomb their feet hitting the floor in perfect unison. But still they made no sound and the ritual went on in total silence. The four lifted the coffin above their heads and straddled the bier with two on either side. When the coffin was suspended directly over the stone dais they halted.

With a slow movement they lowered the coffin into the open bier. It settled into the stonework with the same silence as everything else. They then stepped backward but stopped short of the ring of people around them.

The two black robed, mysterious figures glided forward till one stood at each end of the massive, stone lid. They bent down and the end of the sleeves draped the edges. With a startling ease the stone lid was lifted clear of the floor. They moved over to the raised stone coffin and carefully lowered the lid into place. Despite it’s great size and weight it dropped into place without the slightest sound or adjustment. Then the two slowly backed away and slid quietly out of the room.

Misha came forward and stood at the foot of the sarcophagus. Behind him stood George and Caroline. The black robed otter stepped up to the fox and held up both arms. In her hands was a long bow. The leader of the Long Scouts took it from her. He bent over and broke the weapon over his knee. The CRACK of the wood breaking boomed out and Edmund involuntarily jumped slightly. The fox then carefully placed the broken pieces on the top of the bier.

As Caroline stepped back, George stepped forward. With his arms raised. He was holding a sword in a scabbard of unadorned black. Misha took the offered weapon and broke that was well. Then he placed this weapon next to the bow. The fox stepped backward three steps and stopped, standing fully erect.

One by one every Long scout came to the foot of the sarcophagus and remained there for a moment with bowed heads. Then they took three steps backward, turned around and left the room. One after the other they all passed by the bier and took their leave of the crypt. None made a sound or even acknowledged Edmund as they passed him.

Last was Caroline who stopped even with Misha and placed her hand on his shoulder. Misha softly kissed her hand and after a long moment she too left the crypt leaving only the fox and the paladin.

Misha stood as still as stone for a long time staring at the sarcophagus. The stillness seemed oppressive. He should leave but his heart told him to stay. He had been led here for a reason.

“I thought he was a friend,” Misha said, speaking for the first time. His voice seemed oddly fragile, wrought with emotion. “I personally chose him. We trained together, relaxed and got drunk together. We fought side by side in countless battles. I trusted him with my life.” He paused for moment and began to shake. He didn’t speak for a long moment.

“How did he repay that trust?” he asked in a voice as hard an brittle as ice. “During the Yule assault he poisoned twenty people who were guarding the south gate and let Nasoj’s assassins in. At the end he tried to betray Long House itself.”

The paladin pondered for a long time before he answered. “Some people loose themselves my friend. They get seduced by what they think is important in life and forget friends and family. Even the Great One was betrayed once.”

Misha nodded slowly. “It hurts,” he said in a whisper.

Edmund placed a hand on Misha’s shoulder. “I know but do not forget all the friends who have stood by you.”

“I don’t forget the friends I lost. But I never lost any as close as Craig or Llyn.” His shoulders heaved in a sob. “I was a siege engineer, for the love of God. We lost more people to the conditions on the battlefield than in actual combat.” Edmund could see his clenched fists shake. “And we never, ever, had one betray us. I can’t understand how anyone could do this to me!”

Edmund just sighed and shook his head. “Nor do I, Misha. During my life I have been fortunate enough to command men of honor and loyalty.”

“So you have never even faced it?”

Edmund opened his mouth like he was going to respond but stopped himself. Misha saw a pained expression cross his face before he responded. “I remember the betrayal of Judes in the canticles. That is a lesson that should suffice for all.”

Misha’s tail flicked a bit in agitation. “And if it does not?”

“Then I would suggest finding someone more familiar on the subject,” said Edmund calmly. “For some betrayal comes all too easily.”

"Personally I've always had problems with betrayal. The groups I was raised in always promoted loyalty above all else.”

"I thought you left those groups," Misha commented.

Shrug. "I left, yes. But never did I betray them, never did I do anything against them. I may have disagreed with them in the end, but they were still all the family I ever had. You don't go against that."

"So you were young and stupid. I was a merc like you, once, I know how things are out there. A better offer comes, you take it."

Rick gave him a quick, slightly annoyed glare. "I don't know about you, but I only walked when I knew I would be dead if I stayed, or if going wouldn't make a difference." He took a drink. "But you can't honestly sit there and tell me that all you have with the Longs is some glorified group of mercs."

Misha just sat silently beside him.

"That’s what I thought. There's a saying where I came from. 'The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life.’" He reached over and patted Misha on the back. "You've still got a hell of a family, Misha. Don't forget about them."

"I thought they were all my family. Now I'm not so sure. Is there another traitor among them just waiting for the right price?"

"Do you think there is?"

"I don't know who to trust anymore Rick. You've lived your life with suspicion and treachery. How do I find out?"

"The way I look at it, you've got two choices. You can embrace your suspicion and paranoia and begin treating everyone like a potential traitor. And destroy all you've built up over the last eight years. Or, you do everything you can to give the rest every reason in the world to never even CONSIDER following Baldwin."

Misha didn’t speak for a moment. "I thought I HAD done that."

Rick sighed deeply. "Then I don't know, Misha. I honestly don't know. I've never been a good leader."

Misha openly laughed. "You never a good leader?"

"What can I say? I've never wanted to lead. I just do what I need to survive, Sometimes people follow me. I've ordered people, yes, but I've never inspired them. Let me put this another way. Why did you start the Longs in the first place?"

“To protect Metamor and the people I care for. I didn't mean to start the Longs. They just seemed to come to me. I remember Craig asked to go out with me one day. And that started it all."

"Have you ever regretted it?"

"NEVER!" Misha answered forcefully. "I've made too many friends. And it brought me my sweet Caroline."

Rickkter nodded and stood up. "Then that's your answer. If it was worth all the sacrifice, all that you've been through... then don't let this stop you. What I said about inspiration earlier was true. And of all the commanders I have ever served under or with, only a handful have ever shown true leadership and set the example to follow." He gave Misha's shoulder a squeeze. "If things were different for me, I would be honored to be a member of your scouts."

"They'll always be a place for you in the Longs. You are a Long, even if you'll never admit it to yourself."

Rick just chuckled at that, gave him a final pat on the back and headed off. "Always good to know. Oh," he added, turning back. "If you still have doubts about... things, just ask the rest of your scouts what I've asked you. You should be able to see the answer in their eyes. That will tell you if it really was worth it."