Embalmed

4.54/5 (6)

Warden Ugresh stiffened his neck and pretended not to hear as another round of hoarse sobs started up from behind the door; it had been nearly a decan since they’d given the thin, wasted, little corpse to the sands, and Khamle hadn’t left her bed since. His wife’s mother, the ever-present and never-welcome Prasel, swallowed the last of her sulfur-wine and pushed away the bowl with a grimace of disgust. 

‘Shameful,’ the old woman sneered, her bony hand absently tracing the glyph of blamelessness on the low chorwood table between them. The warden shifted uncomfortably on his mat, and busied himself with the last dregs of his stew. 

‘I raised her better than this,’ continued Prasel, and, like the squall of dust that foretells a sandstorm, Ugresh heard the beginnings of a speech in her voice. “I buried five infants, and never uttered a sound! You’d think she’d never seen a corpse before, the way she-“

‘Enough,’ Ugresh cut her crowing short. Her eyes, already taking on the sheen of an impassioned orator, refocused into a shocked glare. Neither of them was nobility in any sense of the word- and certainly not according to the strict definitions of the Nectrontyr- but nonetheless, Prasel’s line had served the Rytak throne as Lychguard for seven generations. Ugresh’s fathers had been elevated a mere five generations before, and there was no question as to which side any children born from the uneven union would owe the greater share of their prestige- not that any had survived their first few breaths upon the birthing mat. Still, for this reason, Prasel had never shown any reluctance to speak her mind in her pact-son’s house.

‘What?’ The scowling crone demanded, but Ugresh found himself unwilling to relent. 

‘You’re too harsh with her,’ he said, a lifetime of soldier’s discipline holding his voice level, ‘Your daughter is…’ 

He struggled for a word that carried the meaning of tender or sensitive, but could think of none in the Rytek dialect that were not also synonymous with weak. Alas, even as one of the few commoners allowed the gift of literacy, Ugresh had never been a poet. His broad hands flexed in frustration, and he decided to simply call the thing by its name.

‘She wanted a child to take with her.’ He cast his eyes down to his crossed legs, ashamed now that the words had been spoken. ‘This was her last chance.’

Prasel, for what may have been the first time in living memory, had nothing to say at first. When the warden glanced back up to her, her features had softened; not into sympathy, exactly, but the weary patience with which a handler treats a headstrong skolapendra. Seeing that she had his attention, she proclaimed, ‘The glory swallows the grief,’ then rested her elbows on the table as if that settled the matter. 

After a few moments of blank-faced silence from her pact-son, Prasel sighed. ‘Proverbs of Sayhenyet, Scroll 15, Maxim 12,’ of course, thought Ugresh. Prasel viewed her knowledge of the classics the way he viewed his prize phaseblade: both as a mark of honour, and a favoured weapon- and none more favoured than long-winded Sayhenyet, tumours take him. 

‘I am… not as well-read as you, honoured pact-mother,’ he said, his fists balling beneath the table. Prasel snorted in derision.

‘Then, oh my slow-minded kin, I shall cut this morsel into smaller chunks, that you may chew it,’ she told Ugresh in what he thought of as her study chamber tone- Ugresh, who had once duelled a rival to the death for mocking the cut of his sandals. ‘We will be gods soon, all of us. Then, this little grief will trouble her no more than the chill of the night air. What cause have the strong to weep?’ 

Ugresh shook his head once. ‘I pray you are right. For my part, I hope she forgets.’

‘Forgets?’ Prasel regarded him sceptically. 

‘She will be immortal, yes. But if the memory of what she lost follows her into eternity- the memory of what she could’ve had, what she will never have…’ He stopped short, dreading to put the possibility into words, dreading that, like a ghost of the deep desert summoned by the sound of its name, the awful thing would appear to sink its teeth into his own soul.

Grief, embalmed and deified. A poisoned divinity. A rot to endure until the end of time, consuming a body which would never die. 

Ugresh snatched up the tankard of sulfur-wine, poured himself a long draught, and drained it in a single swallow. Prasel, showing uncharacteristic wisdom, said nothing. The weeping had stopped, and the only sound in the house was the warden’s slow, heavy breathing. 

When he next spoke, he didn’t meet his pact-mother’s eye. ‘When all about is ugliness, the weak envy the blind.’

‘Who’s that? Nykarehk?’

‘Perhaps. I don’t know,’ Ugresh whispered. ‘My father said it to me the day I was blooded, near the end of the Third Throne War.’ Another pour, another long swallow. ‘All around us were bodies half-devoured by gauss fire. One of them was my shield-brother. I wanted to close my eyes, turn away. But he saw. He cuffed me, then made me look at every one of their faces. Those who still had faces.’

‘I don’t…’

‘He told me that if I make myself blind, if I turn away from ugliness and grief and try to forget such things, then I’m a weakling and a fool. That to be strong, I must be able to look horror in the face.’

Another pause. Prasel, unwilling to admit that she didn’t understand, waited in impatient silence for him to continue.

‘But, if we’re gods- when we’re gods- perhaps strength will come naturally. Perhaps she- we- will be able, then, to enjoy the luxury of blindness. To forget what we once were.’ He closed his eyes wearily. ‘To rest.’

Prasel nodded, looking suddenly unsure of her own great wisdom. ‘Perhaps.’

About the Author
Lincoln Addington lives in Virginia, USA with his wife and 3 cats, all of whom crave the strength and certainty of steel. His obsession with Warhammer 40,000 continues to grow to new and worrying heights.