The Wake

Night had been declared with the clattering of scrap-metal gongs. The quality of the light had not changed: darkness lit only by fire and the harsh dimness of blocked reflectors from above. Ghouls had dropped their tasks incomplete. In the lightness depths no air nor person would disturb them. They had returned to their leather-and-bone huts until the priests attacked the gongs once more, to declare the beginning of the wake.

No one had eaten, for it was considered a sign of respect to allow no other food to pass the lips until daybreak. This was a technicality. The identity of those who would be asked to the feast was usually known. Still, the ghouls all feigned ignorance and abstained. Purified water was permitted, as even many of the ghouls would collapse in the heat without water. The amount a ghoul could claim remained unchanged though. They had sipped only slowly from their skins.

The preparation of the body was performed in the technical darkness of night. The priests alone oversaw the dismembering of the flesh, as their sun-blistered eyes prevented them from seeing. Only when the gongs crashed again would the ghouls leave their huts and gather round the fire. Meat boiled in a pot while the heart, mind and soul were seared on spits. First broth, then memories, then honours.

Mordred felt the broth settle warmly in his stomach and this time welcomed it. He remembered his first wake. Not the first few wakes he had seen, when he had not been asked to feast, not as a relation and certainly not as an honoured guest. It was when his adopted sibling Garet had died. His mother had defended him against accusations of murder and insisted on his inclusion amongst his sibling’s relatives. There had been anger at that. Mordred remembered only a sickness, not understanding what he was being asked to do or why. He had thrown the broth up later and cried. Now he drank it. He felt his tears without needlessly spilling them.

The memories were various. Most of them were quiet. It was respectful to tell the truth at a wake, not transparent praise, but those with much hatred stayed more respectfully silent. Morgan had been universally admired. She had not been universally liked.

Uren defended his oft-time mate as forceful and determined. He knew that some of the whispers coming from beyond the firelight were cursing her for independence and ignored them. Morgan’s child by him, Ywan, did not weep as Mordred would have done at his age. His tale was a meandering child’s dream. An older mate called Lot clearly wanted to say more than he did. Once he had been stricken with disease, and Mordred had taken on his tasks in addition to his own. Lot held his peace, and largely held his tongue.

There was no fixed order to who spoke, but between each speaker faces turned expectantly towards Mordred. He always let someone else break the silence before him.

His thoughts turned on many things. Morgan had fought ghouls twice her size to keep her child. He remembered the complete darkness of a storage crate where he hid for three days while Lot raged until Morgan drove him away. Later, Mordred remembered choosing his name. The choice was uncommon, if not unusual. Morgan had been delighted. She had bartered a week’s water for a couple of mushrooms from a higher level and roasted him a gift. Their bitter musty taste was something Mordred would never be able to forget.

At last he did speak.

“The first thing I truly remember… Morgan’s face. Lined. Her nose misshapen from when she fought in her first raid. She was angry, but when she found me in the dead arms of my birth mother something changed. It was like those moments when the lights flicker briefly on. She reached out and pulled me from my birth mother’s death-grip. I fought her but she wouldn’t let go.”

He fell silent. No one wanted to speak after him. The priests took their cue. They drew the heart, soul and mind from the fire and gave them to those Morgan had decided. The head priest Orel took the brain for the mind, to retain Morgan’s deeds for the tribe. Ywan took the stomach for the soul, to grow strong as his birth mother. There were nods of satisfaction at that from beyond the firelight. It should go to the eldest child, and this snubbed the outsider Mordred. Then the shock. Mordred took the heart: the most precious possession of any human.

There was a silence as he took it. None thought to challenge him.

Mordred had not expected it either. He had known that his adopted mother had loved him. He knew that her adoption and defence of him had been a continual battle, for which he would remain in her debt beyond even his own death. Those in debt do not expect to be honoured.

Murmurings brought him back to the fire and the heart in his hand. He ripped a chunk from it and bit it clear. Her heart tasted salty as he chewed it. He realised that he was no longer able to hold back his tears. The ghouls watched him silently as he ate and wept, awed by this up-worlder granted the highest honour of their kin.

He swallowed the last of it and stood tall. The blind priest Orel nodded approvingly. There was another clattering of rusted iron and the wake was over. The break of day had been declared. Most of the ghouls scattered to their work immediately. Ywan gave Mordred a weak smile as he loped back to the workshop. Only Mordred tarried. Orel busied himself around the fire, but he was taking his time. It was as if he could see the conflicting emotions running across Mordred’s face.

“You know why Morgan placed so much trust in you,” he said finally. Mordred shrugged. In his hands he clutched a trinket, all that remained to him from his birth father. A brass five-pointed star. The name ‘Camelot’ was printed in the script of the up-worlders.

“If I must go, I shall go,” said Mordred eventually.

“I shall be waiting for your return,” replied Orel.