She Prays for Victory

Tossing the ax into her other hand, she pushed the old man away. He stumbled and fell to the ground, but more barred her way, thronging in front of her in their bullhide garments that blurred together into a faceless mask of resistance. In the dim half-light of the trees, a few flecks of sunlight glimmered down from a gap in the leaves above, and her vision swam for a moment as the branches shifted.

“Back! Back, woman!” cried one of the old fools at the center of the group. “Already you have brought a curse upon yourself. Don’t compound your profanity any further.”

Clenching her jaw, she took a step forward, but a hand closed around her ankle and pulled her back. She looked down at the man who had first confronted her, reaching out to clutch her leg. Yanking her foot away, she smashed the heel of her boot into his face. His nose broke, and he rolled away, screaming.

Turning toward the others, she gripped the ax in both hands and marshaled her authority to address them in a clear voice. “Out of my way, all you charlatans, or I’ll hew you to the ground along with your empty symbols. Worship as you will, but if you hinder me, I’ll put your faith to the test.”

Such determination flashed in her eyes as she strode forward that the first of them gave way before her, and she passed between them untouched, raising the ax over her shoulder.

A narrow shaft of cold, gray light fell upon her husband’s face where he lay within the tall mound of earth. The chill air outside filtered into the grave, and she shivered as she looked down on him, arrayed in his finest garments and with many tokens of his great wealth arranged about his body. Even in death a fleeting remnant of his smile, at once proud and gracious, still hung about the corners of his lips. She smiled in return, running her fingers along the back of the hand that had so often caressed her skin, had held her as they danced together under the stars, and had, many years ago, clasped her own as the rope had bound them to each other.

“Wherever you have flown, my heart flies with you,” she whispered to him, stooping to press her lips to his forehead. Then, ducking her head to pass through the opening of the mound, she emerged into the open air, her hair and skirt fluttering in the wind.

Her husband’s daughters stood nearby, having already made their farewells. Lavena wept freely, but Mave, the elder, only stood watching as the bard assigned to perform the rites passed inside to whisper his last instructions to the dead. Meeting Mave’s eyes for a moment, she tightened her lips into a comfortless smile, and she saw her step-daughter’s face twist with an involuntary spasm of grief. In a single breath, though, she had smoothed her countenance back into a mask of stoicism, and she turned her eyes toward the burial mound once more.

Leaving her daughters to comfort themselves with the funereal rites, she turned away and began walking up the sloping ground toward the house that stood on the hill far away, dark against the gray of the overcast sky. At the corner of her vision she saw Lavena open her mouth to cry out after her, but Mave clutched her sister by the arm and shook her head without a word.