Nathaniel sits up in bed, silencing the tinny alarm from his watch almost as soon as it had begun. It was 3am, late enough that most would be asleep, and early enough that few would have risen yet. Sleep had eluded him anyway, his mind full of the various things that were going on, second-hand stress from Aoibheann over the Lughnasadh preparations, and mostly, fretting about the distasteful things he had to do. The thought of it filled him with disquiet. These four men had been comrades in arms and friends, and while he knew, from contacting their spirits at the point of death that they had accepted their fate, he could still not bring himself to accept this method of the disposal of their remains. For a few moments, he rebels, and considers going to Maric and saying that he could not do it. It had been Maric’s agreement with the damned Crow, not his, he thought, and he should be the one to take this last journey with his former comrades. He sighed, swinging his legs out of the bed and proceeding to get dressed. “It is my duty,” he mutters. “Yeah, but sometimes, duty sucks,” he answers himself, dipping into idiom he was sure he had picked up from Gwyn.
A few minutes later, he was in the vaults, fortunately, a part of the vaults not separated from the castle, in the place that had been prepared for the departed, a cold and lifeless room that served to preserve, by the chill and unknown magics, the remains of the slain. He visits each body in turn, paying his last respects and preparing them for this last journey. He had already divested them of their armour, had done his best to stitch up the more grievous wounds and wrapped them in burial shrouds. He addressed them all quietly – “Bojan, Sreten, Czeslaw and Predrag,” this last receives a more sorrowful glance as he had requested the dark gift, but had not survived the transition. “You served your lord, your town and me well. May whatever gods you believed in speed you to where you should be. Wherever you are, you should know that this last journey, this last sacrifice, will also serve to protect your lord, your town, and the people you died to protect. Peace be with you, my comrades, my colleagues, my friends.”
Nathaniel sighs and wipes a pink-tinged tear from his eye. He gently lifts each body onto a small hand-cart he had procured for the purpose. Then he reaches into his bag and pulls out a small wooden plaque bearing their names, one that he had made some days before. Thus prepared, he sends out the call for his Cait companion, Royce. After a few minutes, said Cait pads around the corner, sits down and fixes Nathaniel with a steely glare from his on eye. He stares for a moment before speaking. “You called?”
Nathaniel manages a weak smile. “I did,” he says. “Thank you for coming. I need to take a short trip into the Roads. I need to go from here, and I need to go somewhere in the Roads, somewhere were SHE won’t be, but may be in the near future. I have one final piece of business to attend to.” He gestures towards the waiting body on the cart.
Royce gives Nathaniel an incredulous look and then pads over to the bodies, walking around the cart, wrinkling his nose. He looks up at Nathaniel, having completed the circuit of the cart. “You know she will not like this?”
Nathaniel gives a weary shrug. “I care not what she likes any more,” he says flatly. “The agreement was that she should have the bodies of those that died during our sojourn in the Shadow Roads. By the grace of whatever gods look after us here, these were the only fatalities we suffered during said sojourn. These men died serving their lord in battle, and fortunately, they were the only ones. Our sojourn in the Roads is now over, and so, I wish to complete the terms of that agreement. After what she did to young Tomas, I have no desire to speak with her, or even see her, for I doubt I could keep a civil tongue in my head. These were my friends and comrades, and they deserve a better fate than this, but, I will abide by the agreement, so please, just take me through, and let me be done with this.”
Royce gives him a sceptical look, followed by the feline version of a shrug. “I say again, she won’t like it, but, as you wish. Just be quick about it, I have little desire for her company either, even if she is our mother.” He stalks over to a space in front of the cart and reaches up with one paw, his claws extended, tearing a hole in the fabric of whatever, to reveal the chill, stark landscape of the Shadow Roads beyond. He steps through and looks around before looking back and beckoning Nathaniel to follow.
Nathaniel picks up the handle of the cart, leans into the weight of it, and starts to pull it slowly through the portal, and into the Roads. For all of Royce’s assurances, he could not help but keep looking around, nervous that, at any moment, he would see that black silhouette against the ravaged sky. Never had the Roads seemed so lonely and desolate, and he could feel the chill deep into his bones, despite the effort in pulling the cart. Unlike previous visits, he felt no sense of being watched, could see no eyes glinting in the spare scrub that dotted the frost-whitened ground. Perhaps even the Cait, whose home this was, did not wish to look upon this final act.
Conscious of the short time they had, he unloaded the bodies carefully but quickly, laying them side by side on the ground, and then placed the wooden plaque by their heads. He pulls out a note from his pocket and lays it on one of the bodies, weighting it down with a small stone.
“Our time here is done,” it reads, “and these are all that passed during our time here. Their names, should you care, are Bojan, Sreten, Czeslaw and Predrag. They died serving their lord, to protect their people, and they deserve better honour than this. Nathaniel, Steward of Mysthaven.”
Nathaniel straightens up, and stands, head bowed for a few moments. “Farewell, my friends,” he says in a weary voice, “Be at peace.” He bows one last time and then turns away, taking up the handle of the cart and heading back to the portal. Before passing through he turns and sees that Royce is still standing there. “Are you coming?”
Royce shakes his head, his face solemn, perhaps moved by the care Nathaniel had shown. “Go, I will close the portal behind you. And I will stand vigil a while, for your fallen comrades. Go now, go.”
Nathaniel feels himself choking up, and can just about manage a whispered thank you. He looks one last time at the row of bodies and then turns, heading through the portal, back to the welcome warmth of the castle. Even as he turns to look back, the sound of the wind that whistles through the Roads fades, as does the view, leaving no trace that there had been a portal there at all. He sighs and turns towards the door, heading up to his room, grabbing a bottle of wine on the way. This night, he had no wish for sobriety. Soon, he is sitting in one of the armchairs by the fire, a glass of wine in one hand, his other hand fingering his mother’s locket. He stares unseeing into the fire. The long night had only just begun.