Barniel stood looking over the battlefield, mourning the dead, and also mourning the ruined crops. Since King Ulric died, his brother Earl Estonum had been trying to usurp the throne. The rightful heir Duke Urnath had gathered loyal forces to stop him. The battles had gone on all through the growing season. Shaking his head, Barniel turned his attention to the dead horse nearby, preparing to skin and butcher it. The meat would feed the family for some time, and his mother could use the skin for clothing.
He was about to start removing the saddle and bridle when a low moan made him turn. He found that the man he had thought dead was looking at him, trying to speak. Quickly, he knelt.
“Yes, what is it? I do not think I can do much for you; your injuries are too severe. But I will do what I can.”
The man’s head moved weakly side to side. “No, I am dying. Please, take this …” his hand moved slightly, just barley lifting the top of a padded bag. “If you are able to use it, do, or give it to someone who can take my place. I am Perciander, the court bard.” The whispering voice failed and the head fell to the side.
Barniel touched the man’s chest lightly, and felt the faint movement of breath. “I will take your instrument, sir, and care for it. I have been training with our Speaker. I do not think I will ever become a bard, but I will do the best I can to honour your memory.”
The dying man opened his eyes again, and whispered “bless me, please,” Barniel hesitated a second, wondering what he could use. Then he noticed the bard’s knife, quite plain but the leather hilt was bound with silver wire, and it had a good steel blade. It would do as a symbol. He removed it from the sheath and held it up so Perciander could see it. The bard’s lips moved as he whispered his prayer to the Gods. When he was done, Barniel put the knife to the bard’s lips, then raised it.
Very softly, he said “May the great God Lugh, God of Harpers, Healers, Poets, Historians, God of Light, take you in his arms and carry you to the land of the West. May you dwell there with him in peace.” The bard’s lips moved in a smile and the words ‘thank you.’ His eyes closed and his last breath wafted out in a sigh. Barniel closed the eyes, and put the knife back in its sheath. For a moment he knelt there, head bowed. But duty called, and he must be up and doing.
He rose to his feet and gathered the padded bag and the leather sack from the dead man’s side. He took the sheathed knife and placed it on his own belt. ‘I can’t just leave him like that,’ he thought. ‘He deserves more honour.’ He looked around and realised that the body was on the edge of a long dip in the ground. Using the man’s cloak for a shroud, he wrapped the body and rolled it into the lower area. Working as quickly as he could, he pushed dirt and leaves on top of the body. But that was not enough.
Turning, he unsaddled the horse and placed the saddle over the dirt with the saddle cloth on top. Then he hunted around for as many large stones as he could find and used them to weigh down the cloth. At last he had the mound covered. In his search for stones he had found a sword. He took that and pushed it firmly into the ground at the head of the mound. He stood for a moment, but was not satisfied. He reached into his shirt and pulled out an amulet of the God Lugh that the Speaker had given him. It was strung on a leather cord, and he hung it over the pommel, and stood back. Yes, that was right. The Speaker would understand, and approve, he was sure. Satisfied at last, he turned to the horse, and began the arduous task of skinning and butchering it.
The night was almost over, a faint light growing in the eastern sky, when the grisly job was finished. With most of the crops ruined in the fighting, the meat would go far to keep the family fed through the winter. They had reaped as much as they could of the crops that were left, and gathered roots and vegetables, fruits and berries and nuts. All now was stored in the complex of caves where he and his Mother had moved the family for safety. Father had helped move as much of the household goods as possible before he had had to answer the call to war. Barniel didn’t know if he still lived. All he could do was pray, and hope that when the fighting was over, and Urnath was crowned King, Father would come back to them. Meantime, it was his responsibility.
With a sigh, he placed the bags over his shoulders, lifted the bundle of horsehide stuffed with meat onto his back, and trudged off. The sun was rising as he finally entered the cave. His Mother met him, and together they took the meat to the cold lower cavern.
“Well done, my son. Now, go and wash. There is a bowl of gruel by the fire, eat it and then go to rest. You have done the work of two men tonight. When you wake, you can tell me all about it.”
He gave a weary smile, kissed her, and did as she said. Later would be time enough to tell her about Perciander.