Vathi was dead.
That thought echoed in Kort's head, a recurring litany of loss. Vathi is dead. My Vathi…how could this happen? He heard soft footfalls behind him, but didn't stir.
"Go away, Arda," he said quietly.
Arda padded next to him and sat, nosing his shoulder gently. "You need company right now, veg kirak."
Kort shook his head. "No, what I need is to be alone. Leave me, Arda, please."
"Your eyes are red and your arms weak from grief, and yet you tell me to leave you? I will not. You do not know what you need, it seems, but I see with clearer eyes. I stay." Arda lay, his body pressed against Kort's side.
Kort looked at the yellowish-brown wolf at his side, and sighed. "You're too stubborn as always, Arda."
"You should talk about it. No one will tell me what happened, and Orgir is missing, so she cannot tell me."
Kort started. "Orgir is gone too? I didn't know." Why would his wife's wolf have vanished as well?
"You are not to be blamed for dulled senses. I am told sadness does this. But yes, Orgir is gone. I cannot feel her as I usually do when she is away from camp, and this makes me worry. She is not dead, or I would know it, but all the same…" he looked up at Kort, and Kort saw the pain in his eyes.
"I will help find her," he said, laying a hand on Arda's shoulder. "When all this is over, you and I will find her, together."
Arda's tail and ears flicked once. "Thank you, Kort. That means much to me."
"I know what it is to lose a loved one." He gave a brief chuckle, the first hint that his grief was lessening by the wolf's presence. "Indeed, it would seem we both know that now, eh?"
"Indeed. So what happened to Vathi? Will you tell me now?"
Kort nodded slowly. "I wish I knew, Arda, in truth. I came back from the hunt last night, we both did, you know that. While you went back out, I went to our tent to sleep. I saw Vathi already in the bed, and thought she was asleep. When I touched her, she was cold, and…I knew. I knew even before I lit the fire to see her properly, I felt …I felt fear, Arda, in my gut. I have not feared in a long time, and I do not relish it."
"It is natural," Arda declared. "No one likes to lose what they care for. Fearing it means that you cared for it."
"That's not the strange part," Kort continued. "She was not dressed for sleep. She was in her finest clothes, laying on the bed already prepared for her pyre. All she needed was the flame, I could have lit the bed right there and Gwynned would have accepted her. It cannot be a natural death, Arda. How would she have known it was coming? Something killed her, positioned her and prepared her like that. And whatever it was will feel my vengeance."
"Our vengeance," Arda growled softly in agreement. "I cared for her too, not as you did, but as a packmate. We will seek vengeance together, as we will seek Orgir together. Let the grief burn bright your hate, Kort, and together we will kill whoever harmed our pack."
"You know what we must do then. We need to talk to Vrama, have you and him perform ynar-tathak. "
"Tomorrow morning," Arda nodded. "Or not. In a few days will be better. I will go to him and see that it is done, but you have things to do as well. See to your mate, Kort, and send her skyward so her flame can burn brightly for Gwynned. Our task can wait for that."
"And after, I will see to it that my part of things is complete as well. You go to Vrama, and I will prepare myself. Agreed?"
Arda rose, shook himself, and looked into Kort's eyes with a frightening intensity. It is agreed, his voice spoke into Kort's mind. He padded off, and Kort rose as well, dusting off his trousers and picking up his spear.
Back in camp, Kort sat in the tent he had once shared with his wife. It felt empty now, without her. Not physically without her, at least not yet; her body still lay prepared on their bed. He sat across the room, staring at her body, remembering how she had looked when she was alive.
"It's not right, you like this, is it my love?" He whispered, his voice raising in volume as if his wife could still hear him. "Your flame always burns brightest, brighter than anyone I've ever known. To see it snuffed out…it's like seeing a piece of wood compared to a tree." He rose, and gently traced her face with one finger. "I don't want to be without you, my love, my Gwynned. You and I were to grow old together, to have scores of pups to care for us in our old age and make us proud with brave deeds."
He laid his other hand on the swell of her stomach. "Our son would have been born this spring," he whispered again, his voice breaking slightly. "We hadn't decided on a name yet…I thought Kranan perhaps, or Utkortha. Oh Vathi…" He gave up entirely on speaking, and sobbed over his wife's body. It's not right! He cried inwardly. I'm not ready to be alone again, it isn't FAIR! A slight cough behind him made him turn, trying to hide his grief as quickly as it had come.
"It's only me, my son." Melrakki stood, head cautiously poking through the tent opening. "Can I come in or would you rather be alone?"
"Enter," Kort waved him in. "She would have wanted you here too." He sank back onto the chair across from Vathi. His father sat next to him, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"I know what you feel," he began.
"Don't," Kort snarled. "You have no idea, father."
"I do!" Melrakki growled back. "When Asa died, and Shegra…I know what you are going through. More than know, Kort. You have yet to lose Arda, and this pain will be as nothing compared to that, so do not speak to me of knowing and not knowing. To lose a wolfmate is to lose part of your soul, and you cannot understand that, not yet." Tears began to show in his eyes as well. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to lose my temper. Her loss hurts me too, you know that."
Kort nodded. "I know, father."
They sat in silence, neither quite knowing what to say. Melrakki was the one to break it.
"What do you plan to do now?"
"After her funeral, Arda and I will find her killer, and Orgir."
"You know who killed her then?" Melrakki sounded surprised.
"Not yet," Kort shook his head, "but I intend to find out. Arda and Vrama will do ynar-tathak in a few days, and we'll know then."
"A wolf-vision? Are you sure?"
"They're never very clear, even to those who ask simple questions, Kort. Something like this…you might not get the answers you seek. And so soon…don't you think you should wait, let your grief pass first?"
"No. I will use my grief to keep me strong, and use that strength to face her murderer. You can't change my mind on this, father. Arda and I have agreed."
Melrakki shook his head, but smiled. "Ah, my headstrong son. I know I'll never talk you out of anything, so I suppose all I can do is to wish you luck." He looked at Vathi's prostrate form on her bed. "She is still beautiful, even in death. It's a shame, for her to leave us so soon. Oh! That reminds me," he dug into a bag slung around his shoulders, emerging with a leather mask, embossed with stylized, swirling patterns. "I have this for her."
"Already? That's quick work, even for you, father."
Melrakki shrugged. "Grief inspires me I suppose. You vent your grief into anger, I vent mine into creation. And if you're wanting to set out as soon as you can, isn't it better to have her funeral now, rather than later? May I?" He gestured the mask towards Vathi. Kort nodded. His father slowly walked to where Vathi lay, and placed the mask gently over her face. "There. Now she is ready. I'll leave you two alone now. You will be watching over her I assume?"
"And Arda, if he wishes, but yes. Thank you, father. For everything."
Melrakki laid a hand on his shoulder. "Of course, my son. Think nothing of it. Burn brightly."
"And you." Melrakki quietly left the tent. Kort sighed, and readied himself for the night to come.
Kort. Wake up, Utasha.
Kort's eyes jerked open. "Wha-?" He looked around in alarm, then calmed. Vathi was where he had left her, looking no different. Arda sat in front of him, head turned towards Vathi. "I fell asleep?"
"Yes," said Arda simply. "I watched her as you rested. Have no fear; she was never without eyes on her."
"Thank you, Arda." Kort wouldn't have wanted to admit it, but sleep had helped his mood. "Where's Gwynned?"
"Leaving. It is almost time for Vathi to join her, that is why I woke you. Do you need help to carry her to the pyre?"
Kort shook his head. "I can manage. You go and let the others know."
"They already know, Utasha. They await only us three."
Kort grunted, and stood up. His back was stiff from sleeping in the chair. He stretched, and let out a groan. "Go ahead, Arda. I'll carry her on my own."
"As you wish, veg kirak." Arda ducked his head, then slipped from the tent. Kort stepped to his wife's body, and gently lifted her into his arms, holding her as straight as he could.
"This is it, my love. It's time for you to go." His eyes stung, but he held back the tears with a sudden resolution. He had mourned, last night. Tonight was not the time. Wordlessly, he left the tent, and made for the center of the encampment.
The whole tribe was gathered, men and women and wolves and children alike. In the center of the throng stood Vrama, old and wizened, leaning on a staff in one hand and holding a torch in the other. Next to him stood Ormr, the chieftain, also holding a torch and looking solemn. Arda paced to Ormr's left, and in front of all of them was the pyre, bundled with wood and soaked, ready to carry his wife skyward. Step by step, he slowly made his way to them, feeling all eyes upon him. Slowly he laid Vathi down on the pyre. He took a torch from Ormr and lit it from his as well.
"Friends," he called out, and his voice broke for a moment. He paused, then began again. "Friends, clansmen. We are here tonight to send the soul of Vathi, daughter of Gunna, and my beloved wife, back to Gwynned. Her flame was bright; there can be none brighter. I know that she will serve our Lady well. Our hearts are heavy, our fires dim, here on the earth. But let us fan our lifelust strong again, knowing that Vathi, daughter of Gunnar, is reborn stronger and brighter beyond the Wolf-Fires! She would not have us stay long in sadness. Her way was the way of life and happiness, and in her memory, let us do as she would have wanted: be happy, and full of life, until again we meet." The crowd cheered its approval of Kort's eulogy, and for a moment, his heart was light; the pain, dulled. He thrust the torch into the wood, lighting it, and Ormr, Vrama, and even Arda with a torch between his jaws, did likewise.
"Kirenu kinr avar vyg Gwynnedir,
Avu orfnr vyg orbar,
Avu maknr vyg morna'ar,
Avu ananr dara'ar.
Airafu dornr avar vyg orbir,
Avu agnr nisa Shalf-Airen.
Avu gornr fen Gwynned.
Kirenu fen lunnen du shoren kinr avar,
"To Gwynned we send her,
Daughter of Flame.
Skyward she flies,
Earthward she looks,
Home, she remembers.
Skyward smoke carries her,
Beyond Wolf-Fires she lives.
With Gwynned she serves.
With love and howls we send her,
Daughter of Flame."
When the prayer was done, they all watched in silence as the flames consumed the body that had once been Vathi. The heat washed over Kort's face, close as he was, but he refused to look away. When the fire finally went out, he and Ormr laid a spear on either side of the charred body and lifted it between them, carrying it off the pyre and to the cooler ground in front of them. Kort looked at the corpse.
"Vathi has gone," he declared. "And flesh remains. Let us howl our thanks to Thrith and Gwynned for this gift." He howled, and the wolves howled, the clan howled, together as one pack. Then they ate as one pack, and the crunching of bones and tearing of flesh was the only sound to be heard.