Liliedhe: The Mothers' Gifts
The morning fog hung low beneath the branches of Aidimal, mother of memory, the spirit tree, preserver of history and last resting place of the dead. Her white needles covered the ground like a carpet. Sergeant Kauvas made no noise as he trod along the path through the sacred grounds barefooted and clad in a mourner’s robe.
It was three months now since Brother Otso had fallen, taking a lascannon shot meant for him. He knew it was the lot of all of them, the price of being elevated to the Emperor’s Angels, but he also knew what he owed to his dead brother.
The mother rose above him, high enough to tickle the stars. Her crown was wide enough to span the heavens, a white cloud of feathery needles, soft and hard at the same time. A stairway of rusting, fading metal wound around the mighty trunk and disappeared among the lowest branches, hundreds of meters above him.
His eyes closed, as was custom, the sergeant began to climb. His feet felt the scarred and pitted surface of the stairs, his hands were swinging loosely by his sides, touching neither bark nor handrail. The one would have been blasphemy, the other was unnecessary. He had gone this way already, the last time during Otso’s first funeral, the funeral of an Angel.
The entire company had been there, and their Chaplain had held the funeral rites. Unbidden, the words rose in his memory.
“We are the Emperor's Angels, her Dark Hands to do her will. As we were made with two hands, all gifts we receive come in twos. Even our births and deaths are twain.”
He whispered the words in unison with the memory, repeating them softly, until he finally stepped from the stairway onto the platform erected on the lowest branches of Aidimal’s crown. Unlike the stairs, it was made from Adamas wood, worked in ritual ways by the Chapter’s shamans. He opened his eyes again, as he felt the black hardwood beneath his feet, warm despite the moisture in the air. Here, the smell of death was strong.
Around him, craddled in the crooks and boles of her branches, lay the recent dead. As always, he felt there were too many, stretched out on mats of white, woven needles and feathers, to be left to the birds and insects sheltered by the mother’s crown.
Kauvas did not, could not, look at them, not out of a desire to avoid the gruesome look of half eaten, decomposing corpses, but out of respect. What happened here was sacred, the second sacrifice every Battle Brother was called upon to give. Instead, he kept his eyes to the wooden floor and walked to where he had placed Otso after the funeral.
“As a human womb births us, the universe through Adamas, mother of trees and tribes, gifts us with flesh and bone. And when the Emperor, Mother of Angels, shapes us, we are born again as Angels, gifted with strength and tenacity, to carry out her will.“
The body was where they had left it, supported in its hammock of white, now stained with blood and other fluids. Only the dark bones were left, with the last few scraps of tissue falling off as he picked the mat up and wrapped it around the remains. This pathetic bundle in his strong arms, he made his way back down, eyes closed, and the second part of the dirge on his lips.
He was so immersed in his sad task that he almost spilled his precious burden when a voice like the rustle of leaves on the wind addressed him as he stepped on the ground again.
“There you are, Brother.”
Kauvas opened his eyes, clutching the bones to his breast to keep them from spilling. Another Dark Hand was sitting only a few meters from him on one of the mother’s largest roots. He wore a robe of pale blue, perfectly dry despite the fog, and his long, whiteish blond hair was bound with leaves and sacred bark. Eyes the same pale blue as his robes took in the sergeant’s appearance and then the Shaman Tuovanen nodded in approval.
“All is in readiness. I have spoken to Aidimal, and she is waiting.”
Where an Angel’s first funeral was a grand affair, with the dead brother’s comrades all in attendance, the second one was private, normally conducted by a Shaman alone. Only rarely did – and could – others attend, as duties had often called them away by that time. Kauvas made it a point to attend for the members of his squad, though.
Tuovanen waited in silence until Kauvas had reached the hole opened among the tree’s roots.
“And as we have been born twice, we also die twice, to give back both gifts. The Angels live in service to their Mother, in duty and in battle, till in death does duty end. The human life of flesh and bone, we give back to Adamas and the trees, until at last we can be remembered in honour, and our gifts return to be given again, as both mothers will it. “
As Kauvas gently removed the bones from the mat to place them inside the ground, he spoke the final part of the litany. The mat was placed last, covering the remains. The ground closed as the tree roots moved back to claim what was left of Otso’s two lives. His debts now paid, he could go to his rest, and be remembered.
The sergeant stepped back and looked up at the Tuovanen, who still sat with his back against the mother, eyes closed. Sweat streamed over his sunburnt face. The Aidamal’s bark began to ripple. A soft crunching sound emanated from the ground. Kauvas felt a pressure build inside his head, behind his eyes and he closed them instinctively.
Branches creaked, leaves rustled. A shower of white needles fell on him. And then, just as suddenly, the pressure was gone again.
“You may look now.” The Shaman sounded tired. Kauvas opened his eyes and gazed up. There, on Aidamal’s trunk above Tuovanen, a face had formed in the living bark. Brother Otso’s face, grown from Aidamal’s heartwood, black and smooth, capturing his every likeness, from his scarred cheeks to his daring smile. Kauvas blinked away his tears and stared, from Otso’s face to the one beside him, and the next, and the next, the memorial winding up and up and up along the trunk, commemorating every Dark Hand to have ever given his lives in service to the Emperor, Mother of Angels.