Vera indicated to Cnán that she should help with the wrapping of the dead. “It is time,” the Shield-Maiden said to Raphael, her stern eyes unusually soft. “No amount of drawing will bring life back to this face.”
The other Shield-Brethren came down from the hill and carefully carried the body to its final resting place. Without speaking, they lowered Finn’s corpse into the deep trough they had hacked out of the rocky hilltop. It was deep, Raphael noted. Deep enough that the body might never be disturbed by the carrion eaters. Feronantus waved them off, and even Percival relented, letting their aged leader undertake the task of filling the hole by himself. They stood around awkwardly for a little while, watching Feronantus scoop and pack handfuls of sand and rock into the hole. Once a thick layer had been carefully laid over the body to protect it from being crushed during the burial process, Feronantus would shovel dirt in more readily. A cairn would be raised and words would be spoken, but until then, they had little to do but wait.
Death itself was always quick, Raphael reflected, staring off at the distant horizon. It is the survivors who feel pain the longest.
“Where’s Istvan?” Vera asked.
Raphael blinked away from his thoughts and scanned the surrounding countryside. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Chasing Graymane,” Cnán offered, pointing toward the west.
Raphael vaguely recalled their pursuit of the Mongol commander after Finn’s death, the long line of horses strung out across the plain. One by one, their steeds had faltered, until only Istvan and Alchiq remained, two tiny dots dancing in the midmorning heat. “He hasn’t returned?” he asked, caught between surprise and apprehension.
Cnán shook her head. “I find myself hoping that he doesn’t. At least, not today.” She looked at Raphael and Vera, and they both saw their own pain mirrored in the Binder’s eyes. “If he is still hunting, then he might still catch him. If he comes back, we’ll know if he was successful or not.”
Vera nodded. “I don’t want him to return empty-handed either. Better he not return at all.”
None of us are going to return, Raphael thought as he turned and looked back at Finn’s slowly filling grave.
That night the company made no fire, and the stars wheeled dizzyingly overhead. The air grew cold quickly after the sun vanished in a burning haze of gold and red in the west. They hobbled their horses near a band of scraggly brush that the animals appeared to be interested in eating, and then they wandered off to make their respective prepartions for sleep.
Raphael tried to make himself comfortable. The lush grasslands surrounding the river had given way to flatter terrain, and he found the sere landscape to be oddly distressing. The muscles in his lower back and thighs kept twitching, phantom fears that the ground would suddenly tilt and he would slide away. But slide away into what? They had passed beyond the edge of the world that he—or any of the Shield- Brethren—knew. His hands pressed against the blanket beneath him, pressing the wool against the hard ground.
His reaction was not a sign of madness; it was simply a reaction to the unfamiliar. Men were drawn to civilization; only the most severe ascetic among them relished isolation. Penitent hermits craved seclusion. Being away from the squalor of humanity was an integral part of their spiritual monasticism. They could talk more readily to God in the silence of their mountaintop cave or their desert isolation.
It was easier to believe that the voice you heard responding to your queries issued from a divine trumpet if there were no other souls nearby.
But he was a soldier. He slept more soundly when surrounded by the sounds of men preparing for war. His mind was less prone to fearful speculation when he rested behind a stout battlement. Even the sounds of domesticated animals were a welcome lullaby: cows calling to one another in the pasture; the nervous clucking of chickens as they scratched in the yard; dogs, barking at shadows.
On the steppes, there was nothing but the sound of the wind through the grasses; when there was no grass, the wind had no voice, and the silence was unsettling.
He heard her bones creak as she lay down next to him. A blanket fluttered like the wing of a large bird, and he shivered slightly as the cloth descended upon his chest and legs. Her breath hummed against the skin of his neck as she pressed her head against his. Their hands found one another beneath the blanket. Beneath the stars.