A Song for Efishti
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No Fear of the Owl

Part II: A Song for Efishti

Orpek woke with a stiff back and mussed fur.

This burrow was well-built. Orpek could tell purely because he wasn’t covered in a layer of dust from the ceiling. A blessing. He sat up and wiped the sleep from his eyes with his thumbs in two perfunctory motions. He was getting old, he reflected. Another blessing. He stroked his facial fur flat, feeling the ridge of an old scar where a blade had cut through to the bone. His fingers lingered on it for a moment. He remembered how it had felt. The cold metal. The shock. The betrayal. Blood and rainwater.

He stood, quiet eyes sweeping the walls of the burrow’s main hall as he shrugged on his belt. He checked through the contents of his pack, more out of habit than any suspicion of the burrow. Nothing missing. Good people. Good shelter. More than good enough.

How long to stay? The mice had been polite enough to dodge the question, for now. But the rat didn’t know. A day, two days, long enough to lend his strength to a construction project, short enough not to tax this distant burrow. Under normal circumstances. But not this time.

The body. That wound.

Predators ate their kill. Blades did not cut so ragged, nor so deep.

Orpek sighed.

He would talk to the Elder.

Anhol woke up cold. His fur had raised in the night to trap little pockets of warmth as he burrowed under the loose rushes but that had done little to dissipate the chill in the little sleeping nook. It was quiet in the burrow, the ghost of the morning chill that slipped down the ventilation tunnels carrying the faint scent of green things and mist.

He didn’t want to move. He never wanted to move, because to move was to get up, and to get up would start time again, and if time started again then soon enough it would be time to bury Efishti, and if they buried Efishti it would all be real, and she wouldn’t be coming back.

“Ani? We have to get up.”

Anhol watched the wall.

“Ani, please.”

There were patterns in the cracks of the clay worked into the walls.

He heard his mother sit down beside the hole. “I’m not angry about the doorway, Ani.”

If he looked carefully there were the marks from where paws had laid the clay down for the insulating layer to dry.

“Ani, please, talk to me.”

There was a pause.

His mother’s voice shifted to quiet humour. “I can be cross with you about the doorway if you want, Anhol of Hilldown.”

Anhol caught himself smiling with a sudden jolt of wrongness and fought it down into a sneer.

“Why?” he snapped.

He could hear his mother hesitate. “Why what?”

“Why did she have to die?”

“I don’t know,” his mother said softly. “But we all have to die some day, and Efishti just… had to die bravely.”

“You don’t know that,” said Anhol suddenly, pulling himself up and storming past his mother in a sudden burst of tense movement, rushes falling from his back. “You don’t know she was was brave.”

His mother watched him go. She couldn’t blame him for being angry at the world. She stood, noting each breath she took. In and out and in and out and in and… she wondered where that anger had gone in her. Somewhere deep? No, she thought. It had just built up a callous until she couldn’t feel the injustice any more. It was still there, raw and hot and sharp and metallic, embedded in her chest like another rib. She had just learned to anticipate the pains.

She ran her paws from her snout to her ears, drawing the weariness away.

When Anhol arrived much of the burrow was already waiting in the main hall, the place where all journeys started. Elder Fensht was standing by the body with Efishti’s wife, Hertip, a customary space around the shroud-wrapped corpse cleared in the crowd of early mourners for her to say what she would to the departed. She looked like she had already done so. Hertip stood still, blinking infrequently, shoulders hunched like the only thing holding her up was the body in front of her.

Orpek stood in one corner, head bowed, hands clasped. The other mice seemed to have forgotten to object to his presence.

Anhol found he couldn’t look at the linen-wrapped form. He blinked and the image of what might be below the slightly yellowed cloth appeared to him in viscous detail. Red meat black with rot and Efishti’s eye empty, empty and drawing him in-


“Sorry,” he muttered without thinking. He felt a paw rest on his arm and instinctively pulled himself away.

It was Etkin, he realised without turning.

“It’s okay to be…” Etkin trailed off, the adage she had half-remembered falling flat. She didn’t know what to do any better than he did. What to feel any better than any of them did.

Silently, he reached for Etkin’s hand. She took it without hesitating.

Out the hall, up the long path to the palisade, through the gates with the guards standing anxious watch, out into the openness of the hilltop under the sky.

They buried their dead in the morning, in the quickening light of the dawn. Under the watch of the split tree and the protection of the gravemark, at the place where one thing ended and another began. Where the dew hung and the mist was gentle and made the world seem traced with the wondrous unseen.

They would bury Efishti like they had buried his father, like his still-born brother, like gentle Otarp who fell backwards and split his skull on a sharp stone, like Elder Fensht had buried Elder Tapen, who had buried Elder Nopha, who had buried Elder Wreni, who had buried Elder Lotsen, who had buried…

They buried their dead knowing they died knowing they would be buried, like this, like they buried them.

Elder Fensht stopped and, without a shuffle, without discord, the procession stopped behind him, because they knew funerals better than births.

The rain had stopped in the night and the early winter sun cast stark shadows from every blade of the grass that ringed the artificial clearing around the burrow entrance. Narrow paths wound off through the grass, which sprouted higher stalks the further into the thicket they got, any that were close cut back for visibility. Behind the sloping entrance was Tree, withered and blackened with rot, its trunk split crudely in two by a lightning bolt from generations so long ago to have passed from memory into myth. One reached for the sky, a pointed, jagged peak with a ladder hammered into it and a cramped watchpost perched at the highest point. The other curved away, hanging on by splinters. It cast a long, twisted shadow down the hill which our burrow reached down into like the roots of Tree itself.

The burial ground was at the edge of the clearing. The gravemark stood cold and solid, a huge, rough-hewn lump of granite in the shape of a frog, standing watching with its stone eyes shut. The graves around it were marked with lumps of flint, sharpened to points to discourage scavengers. Tight-packed to conserve space for future generations whose bodies could be found and brought home.

There was an empty grave already dug. The sides were neat and carefully squared. The gravemark lay beside it.

The hole was very small.

Elder Fensht trudged to the graveside, his stick making a neat line of holes in the softened earth which clung to our feet. He turned to us, eyes on something beyond the gathered mice.

The bearers laid Efishti down beside the grave. Hertip stood facing away from it.

“We remember Efishti,” Fensht began.

“We remember,” the call came back, whispered, tentative, sorrowful. My tongue seemed to catch in my throat.

“We remember who she was,” Elder Fensht continued, his voice battling his age as it rose.

“We remember,” we returned, my voice returning as more than a whisper, hidden in the safety of the chorus.

“What she did, we remember,” Fensht said.

The reply lit a fire in the mist. “We remember.”

“We see her in the air,” said Elder Fensht. “We see her coming down with the rain. We see her in the warmth of the sun and the cool of the moon.”

“We see you,” they spoke, voices overlapping and rising and calling, calling out to the things we couldn’t see or touch or feel, to those who could not make reply.

“We see you, Efishti of Hilldown,” said Elder Fensht.

“We see you,” said Anhol, his words crumbling in his throat but being lifted, swept, carried away, off into the mist, down to the river where the banks splayed out with silt and mud under the cliff of the bankside, edged in grass, the place where the ropes were laid to climb down to swim in the summer when the weather was clear and the way was safe to the still pool beside the rippling current. The place Efishti had been, Anhol suddenly remembered, and it was as if he could reach out to her, half-smiling as she made sure none strayed too far from the shallows.

“For we have no fear of the fox, nor the stoat, nor the falcon, nor the owl,” said Elder Fensht, and he slammed his staff into the ground with his words, the charms clattering and a silence descending on the gathering, “for death is just an ending.”

The group seemed to breath at once, and the reply was as steady as the flint in the earth of their home, voices high and low and tired and rough and gentle together against the mist and into the dawn.

“No fear of the owl.”

Anhol’s voice was carried in the multitude and in that moment, in that instant, he understood that Efishti was gone, really, truly gone, and he let himself cry.

And his mother watched a little more innocence drain from her son and knew, as certain as the earth, that he was just as ready for the world as she had been, and her heart lurched against her little ribcage.

Orpek watched the funeral from the background and offered his own prayer.

I am sorry, child of the burrow. Efishti of Hilldown. Such a proud name.

The world is cold and unfair. You were too young to learn that.

Maybe we all are.

I wish you had not gone to sleep learning that there was a new danger so close to your home.

The bowed heads and flattened ears of the crowd were breaking up as the formality drained from the gathering and was replaced by smaller scenes of individual grief and acceptance, the Elder moving slowly through the mice and speaking calmly with those who needed it. This burrow would miss their Elder when he passed, he reflected. Fensht had a soul of willow. Pliant, even soft, but when the storm came almost unbreakable.

Strong enough, he hoped.

What killed you, Efishti?

The little linen-wrapped form, seen through the crowd of patiently grieving mice, gave no reply. He watched as Hertip finally bent, laying a shaking paw down on the linen.

Orpek sighed.

No matter.

I know this path, for better or…

So many places. A thriving trade centre at the lee of a river. A church in the metal corpse of an Old One. A wicker-bridge burrow strung through the branches of a lone fir tree on the edge of a cliff. Innumerable sleepy little burrows with innumerable clawed things in the dark outside.

Enough bodies to fill a dozen little graveyards.

And the place he had come from, a lifetime away in miles west. Stone walls. Swollen clouds seen through narrow windows. That horizon, ever-present, the only thing left to welcome him once Kerden-

Orpek quietened the thought.

He focused on the sky and tried to imagine Efishti as she would have been in life.

He mulled over the words, slowly, deliberately formulating a promise. Promise. A word that meant more to him than any oath.

As best I can…

The wind gusted and he rolled his shoulders, feeling the shifting of his scars. He blinked slowly, left hand tapping at the place where his nail would have been.

I will see to this.

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