The funeral procession left at dawn and rode through the quiet streets of Askelon, bearing the body of the beloved hermit on a black-draped bier drawn by two of Toli’s finest white horses. It went to the north, where Pelgrin Forest met the plain at its closest point to the castle, a distance of about a league.
The day was fair and warm, the sun rosy-gold in the treetops as it climbed into heaven’s great bowl of cloud-scrubbed blue. The air, soft and still, held the sweetness of wildflowers that grew in haphazard clusters across the tableland—pink and yellow sunlilies, buttercups and bluebuttons, white laceleaves and tiny purple lady’s slippers.
Toli rode Riv and led the bier; Esme and Bria followed, and Alinea came in a coach with Princess Brianna on one side of her and Princess Elena on the other. Nearly threescore mourners made up the cortege— lords and ladies, knights, squires, household servants, and townspeople— all friends of the hermit, for he welcomed every man, whether of high position or of meaner birth, as friend.
And though their errand was a sad one, the day was so bright and the feeling of life so intense that it was not possible for any of the mourners to remain genuinely sorrowful.
“How strange it is,” remarked Bria, thinking about this very thing. “Today I feel newly cleansed. As if the past days have been an unhappy dream that vanished with the dawn.”
“Yes,” agreed Esme. “I feel the same way. And yet, I have not changed—the whole world seems to be newborn.”
They continued to talk this way, and behind them in the coach, the little princesses plied their grandmother with questions. Princess Elena had never attended a funeral, and Princess Brianna only one—that of Yeseph; but she had been a baby less than a year old and did not remember it.
“Grandmother, what will happen to Durwin?”
“Nothing bad, my child. His body will rest now in the earth,” Alinea answered.
“But won’t he get cold?” piped Elena.
“No, never again.”
“I know what will happen,” said Brianna importantly. “He will turn into bones!”
“How awful!” cried little Elena, her eyes sparkling at the mystery of it. “Will I turn into bones, too?”
“Not for a very long time, my dear one. But someday, yes. Everyone dies, and their bodies turn into bones and dust.”
“I do not think I shall like it,” said Elena, growing pensive.
“I will!” announced Brianna, determined to make the best of any situation.
“I do not believe you will even know what has happened, nor will you care. You will begin a wonderful new life somewhere else.”
“Where? Oh, tell us about it, Grandmother,” they said.
“Very well. There is a great kingdom far away—the kingdom of the Most High. When you die, you will go there and live with him. It is a wondrous place and more beautiful than anything you have ever seen. You will leave your body—you will not need it anymore, because you will have a new body—and go and live in happiness forever.”
“Is that where Durwin has gone?”
“Yes, that is where he has gone—to be with the Most High.”
“Will we see Durwin again when we get there?” asked Elena.
“Of course. He will be waiting for us.”
“And Grandfather Eskevar, too?” Brianna wanted to know.
“Yes, Eskevar too.” Alinea smiled. The children were so trusting, so innocent and unsuspicious. They believed what she told them without needing proofs or assurances. Theirs was a most simple and indulgent faith, with room for many questions but little doubt.
“Oh,” said Brianna matter-of-factly, “I shall go at once then. I should love to see Grandfather.”
“It would make us sad if you went right away, dear one,” replied Alinea, smoothing the girl’s hair. “For then we would not see you anymore. Stay with me a little while longer, please.”
“Very well,” agreed Brianna, “I will. I would not like to leave you, Grandmother.” She snuggled in closer.
Of all who traveled in that party, only Toli did not feel the wonder of the day. He rode silently, eyes ahead, unseeing, his mind concentrating on affairs that ripped at his heart and made him want to cry out in agony. I have failed Quentin. I have disgraced myself and brought ruin upon the king. He was right; it was all my fault. My fault alone. Yes, Durwin’s blood is on my head. I am responsible—I should never have left them alone. If I had been there, Durwin would still be alive, and the prince would be safe. None of this would ever have happened. I failed in my duty and am no longer worthy to be called a servant. I must make it right, even if it costs my life. My life—what good is it to me now?
They reached the site and brought the bier to the grave that had been prepared the day before. It was just a little way inside the forest, on the bank overlooking a shaded pool—the pool in which Durwin had waded many times gathering his healing plants.
Alinea had chosen the spot, remembering how he had loved to come here to wade, or just to sit and contemplate. Many times she had found him stretched out on the bank and sat with him as he talked about this or that herb, or shared his musings about the Most High.
“Quentin should be here,” said Bria, “and Gerin. How they both loved Durwin. I wish they were here.” She was quite over her trauma of the night before; in fact, she did not really remember it as having happened to her. It belonged to the dream, the bad dream she had left behind with the new day.
“They will come here soon. I am certain.” Esme watched her friend closely, looking for any sign of the malady that had stricken Bria.
Bria caught her scrutiny and said, “I am much better now.” She paused and then glanced toward the grave. “It is just that it does not seem right without Quentin here.”
“He would be here if he could; you know that. Quentin’s first duty is to find the prince and bring him back safely. The king cannot rest until his son and heir is safe.”
“You are right.” She paused and added, “But look at Toli. It tears at my heart to see him like this.”
Esme observed the slim, silent Jher and nodded sadly. It touched her deeply, too. She wished nothing more than to be able to go to Toli and comfort him; and she would have, but for fear of Toli’s rejection.
For his part, Toli had told no one but Theido of Quentin’s harsh words. Those had been his due; he had deserved them. He signaled to several of the lords and knights in attendance, and they moved to the bier. Laying hold of the long plank on which the body rested, they lifted it to their shoulders. Bria and Esme went to the litter too, and Alinea; they took up bouquets of flowers that had been placed on the funeral wain early that morning and followed the body to the grave.
The men lowered the hermit’s body into the hole dug in the rich, black dirt. Sunlight filled the hole and fell on the pallid face. He seemed to be at rest, content. But he was not now the same Durwin they had known; he had changed. In death he appeared so much less himself that it was impossible for any of the mourners to look upon him now and say, “This is the man we knew in life.”
Durwin—the true essence of the man they had loved—was gone. He had left only a worthless husk behind.
Alinea went to the graveside and knelt to place her flowers by him in the ground. Bria joined her, and Esme. Toli stood silently over the open pit and watched, his eyes hard as polished stone.
Others came to the grave, too, and paused briefly to pay final honor to the man. Here and there a tear sparkled in an eye, but there was no sobbing, no wailing, no evidence of unendurable grief common at so many funerals. All who had come knew that this interment was different: this was the burial of one of the Most High’s trusted servants. And no one who looked upon the body in the grave felt that the man had ceased. The presence of his spirit was strong among them. It would be wrong to regard the holy hermit of Pelgrin Forest as having fallen into shadowy nonexistence in the underworld of the gods. Even those who had never heard of the Most High or his great and wonderful kingdom believed that Durwin had gone to a far different, far better place.
Inwardly, all who saw him in his grave wished that their own deaths could be so: assured, dignified, and peaceful. And many believed from that day forth that Durwin was right about the Most High, for they, too, wanted to go where he had gone.
When at last all had paid their respects to the body—Princess Brianna and Princess Elena being the last to lay flowers in the grave— Toli and five knights shoveled dirt into the hole; then, one by one, the mourners took up stones and placed them on the tomb.
“Quentin would have wanted him buried in the Ring of the Kings,” observed Bria as she watched the stones being placed over the grave. “But this is better, more fitting.”
“I agree,” replied Alinea. “Here among the trees he loved, where wild things lived . . . This is where he belongs.”
They turned then and made their way back to the castle, leaving any lingering sadness behind—all except Toli. He stayed when everyone else had gone and stood unmoving over the grave for a long time. Then, at last, he mounted Riv and left. But he did not ride back to Askelon Castle with the others.
“Where is Toli?” asked Esme as she swiveled in the saddle, looking for him. But he was not among those who followed.
“Strange,” said Bria. She craned her neck around too. “I do not see him anywhere. I thought he had come with the others.”
Esme turned her eyes back toward the grave site, but there was nothing to be seen. Toli had vanished.