Dragon Hunt - Part Eight
In another time, in another reality, two females revelled in the splendour of the treasure which surrounded them, spread across the cavern floor like a carpet.
Lana would have thrown handfuls of sheening gold and platinum coins into the air, showering herself and Brunnhild while the cleric wrapped strings of lustrous pearls around her neck. The pair might have admired their reflections in sheening silver plates and chalices, placing jewelled rings upon their fingers and fixing sparkling tiaras atop one another's head. They would have whooped and giggled like unruly children as they rolled in the glittering, gleaming wealth.
After a second’s aberration, Lana’s thoughts wrested back to reality with a suddenness which felt like she had been knifed in the stomach. Burrhus was dead.
She swallowed salty tears as she did what little she could to improve the gruesome appearance of his torn body. She re-packed his insides and wrapped his abdomen in bandages, tying them tightly. It seemed like a pointless exercise.
"We must return him to Thyatis," she declared in breaking tones, "so that he may be Raised. Could one of your fellow priests do it? For a price, of course. We have plenty of gold to pay them, after all."
Brunnhild regarded her employer sadly. "That is not Thor's way."
"What?" A cold emptiness crept over Lana, a feeling she had not experienced since Aasla.
"Thor teaches that we have but one life to live. Burrhus embraced that concept as if he was one of Thor's own. According to our faith, once a spirit dies it can no longer inhabit a mortal body. It would be improper to meddle in the affairs of departed spirits. Burrhus would return as lesser man than he was. As we speak…" she gazed into the distance, seeing what Lana could not and speaking in a voice which was almost not her own, "his fate is being weighed. If he is found to have lived in a worthy manner, his spirit will be taken by the Valkyries who are Odin's handmaidens, and he will be raised to a table in the great halls of Valhol and Bilskirnir. There he will feast and fight with the bravest of the fallen until Ragnarok, the Twilight Hour which will mark The End of Days."
Ragnarok… The term was known to her, thanks to Karnus' reading on the subject. Despite that, Lana could not help but recall the drowning of the river bandits and the episode with the farmer's wife, no doubt among other shady episodes of Burrhus’ mortal life. He had mentioned something about performing favours for senators' wives, among other indiscretions.
"What if he is not judged to have lived in a worthy manner?"
"Then he will be consigned to the Underworld where the Dark Queen holds sway over lost souls."
Lana shivered. "You're saying it is impossible that he return to life." She spoke the words; they sounded empty as they passed her lips.
Brunnhild nodded. "If he wishes to receive Thor's grace, yes. He died valiantly, that is the best any of us can hope for. Thor smiles upon him."
"But he never worshipped Thor in life…"
"Not by prayer. But by his deeds he would make a worthy guest in the celestial palace. I will call upon Thor to grant him grace."
Her words floated at the edge of Lana's consciousness while she remembered the man Burrhus had been. He had not declared himself a follower of any Immortal. Yet he had lived each day as if it might have been his last and that was Thor's way. Perhaps the Northern Immortal would be his benefactor in the afterlife, and would keep him from Hel's domain. Lana might find another cleric be found to raise him, but what greater affairs would she be meddling in? He might be restored to half a life - condemned to live knowing he had once fallen. Lana knew the feeling, having fallen herself. Her experience had been different - she had remained close to the light and had not strayed to darker place such as the paths Burrhus might now walk. She remembered Alphatia's grace - rainbow colours flaring around her as she reawakened. The sensation had been utterly sublime. Perhaps the joy which was to be found in Valhol was similar to that feeling, but perpetual... at least until Ragnarok. But that would be the greatest ever conflict and a chance for Burrhus to hurl himself back into action with the gusto he had exhibited during his mortal life…
If Burrhus were to enter Thor’s great hall, surely there could be no happier afterlife for him. She concluded that she could play no part in drawing Burrhus back from paradise, if there was any chance that was where he now dwelled.
"How are funerals conducted among your people?" she asked in a small voice. It was nearly breaking.
Brunnhild answered solemnly. "In many cases we build a pyre."
Lana shook her head. "Burrhus fell to fire. And the wood for miles around is scorched and blackened. We should bury him instead."
Waving her hand, she caused an earthen giant to rise from the ground at the side of the lair entrance. It was as good a spot as any, she thought, commanding a magnificent view south over the mainland empire.
Brunnhild looked up at the elemental, undaunted as ever. Her gaze passed to the cleft in the ground from whence it had risen. "As you wish."
The earth elemental needed only a short while to dig the grave, then was dismissed. Between them, Lana and Brunnhild laid their companion's body within the hollow, placing his two-handed blade atop him. They also severed one of the largest dragon's horns and placed it in the soft earth. Across Burrhus' waist they laid a jewelled belt from the hoard and placed a silver chalice, inlaid with garnets, at his side.
"These are fitting tributes," Brunnhild declared, "and will elevate his status in the afterlife. Mighty Thor, deem this fallen warrior worthy and call him to your side in the celestial abode."
Nothing more needed to be said. The surviving companions set about lifting rocks, Lana using her ring of telekinesis. Within no time Burrhus' body was obscured by neatly piled stones. The cairn, and the females' farewell to him, was complete.
Lana wiped away tears before turning to Brunnhild. "Burrhus has received his share from the hoard. What would you like?"
"Oh no milady." The cleric shook her head, indifferent as always. Clearly avarice had no sway over her. "I am a retainer paid to accompany you on this mission, I have no entitlement."
"I am aware of the contractual position, and I do not wish to enforce it. Please, I will not be able to transport all of the dragons' wealth. I would like you to help yourself to what remains."
"I should not, milady. But the Church could use of the coin, were I to return with others to transport it."
"Then we're agreed," Lana said, "take what you can for now and I will do what I can to conceal the cave until you return." She surveyed the entrance; there were a few roots and brambles here and there, scorched but likely still living. They would rise up to create enough of a barrier to hide the entrance and keep it impassable.
Something occurred to Lana and she returned to the hoard to investigate. The air in the cavern seemed a great deal cooler now that the dragons were dead. But had they been the main source of heat…? The wyrms had piled their gold and gems around a boulder which, now that Lana inspected it, had ceased glowing. She felt certain that while the dragons had been living, it had exuded a colossal amount of heat and had glowed red hot like lava. Now it was nothing more than plain rock. Perhaps it had been linked to the dragons' lifeforce. Or more likely, Lana thought, it had been caught in one of her Ice Storms during the fight. Whatever magic had been placed here - by the Alphatians or whoever else - to help the dragons grow had been negated.
A bitter wind was blowing so they camped that night inside the lair.
The next morning Lana memorised two castings of Teleport though truthfully she did not expect that she would cast them both. She and Brunnhild exited the lair, saying few words to one another. It was a comfortable silence.
"Are you sure you won't permit me to Teleport you? You’d get home a great deal quicker."
“My home is in the North.” Brunnhild shook her head, declining the offer. “Your offer is kind, but no. I will return to the city on Burrhus' pegasus."
Lana expected this response; Brunnhild had already attached her sacks of coin to the flying steed.
“Have you ever flown… a pegasus before?” Lana posed the question knowing that she had not.
“Flying horses are not unknown among my people; Freyja herself has one as her symbol.”
“But that’s not to say you'll stay safe?”
Brunnhild regarded her companion solemnly. “I have my hammer to keep me safe and my runes to guide me. Thor will see me safely back.” For the first time in Lana's presence the cleric’s expression formed what was close to a smile, perhaps brought on by Lana’s concern for her wellbeing. “I would be pushing my luck by asking Him to smile on a wizard's Teleport spell.”
Lana engaged her retainer in an embrace and was pleased when Brunnhild more or less returned the gesture.
She observed her depart through softly falling snow. She found herself thinking that she might have passed for one of Odin’s own handmaidens - those Valkyries whom Brunnhild had mentioned - if not Freyja. Once the pegasus and its rider were gone from sight, she cast her gaze back over the newly constructed cairn. Alone in bleak surroundings, she was overcome by emotion and felt her tears return. The cairn represented a portal to the Afterlife, to the paths Lana had come close to walking. Was a part of her still there, in the deep dark? She took a moment longer to reflect upon those other places then bid her consciousness return to the present moment.
The sun was about to fully clear the horizon to the east and it would be a beautiful day.
“Thank you, Burrhus,” said Lana quietly to the cairn.
Then, with a screen of gorse raised over the entrance to the cave where the gladiator had given his life, she held her belongings close and transported away.
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