Four sets of hands lifted the transparent body, its weight so ponderous in death, ungainly and slick with blood. Four shoulders set to bear the sad burden, four sets of legs to move it from its hiding place and bring it forth for all to see. The clan would feast round their dead, a table in their midst, the bodies laid out upon it. But this sightless corpse, now unseen, enchanted so by some cursed mage, would have no witness of sad-eyed kin to hold it within the grave.
* * *
"This is Eadnoth?" Nosnra reached out a reluctant hand and touched it to the corpse. The chilling flesh beneath was tacky with a coat of blood. He held a bony shoulder in his grip and brought his other hand to hold the lolling head.
"Here," he said to the nearest bearer of the dead, "put an arm about his neck. He is your kin, not some slab of meat for the kitchen block!"
He brushed the bearded face in passing and felt the gaping wound, a throat laid open wide by a coward's knife, and drew his hand away. From the outer doors a thunderous approach came pounding and Eadwig, soaked and dripping, ran with a manic speed to confront the mortal shell of his most hapless brother.
* * *
The Chief's private hall was crowded, filled with the base rumble of angry giants. Across the passage the Great Hall itself resounded with the noise and bustle of several dozen booming voices.
"Close that Door!" Nosnra commanded from his padded chair within his hall and a warrior leapt to obey. The din inside the Great Hall surpassed that of the celebration the night before. Huon's wife had begun a keening wail at the sight of her dead husband. His son, only a few years short of a warrior's age, sat with his father's sword across his bony knees and Huon's two young daughters hid their faces, crying into their mother's skirt.
Eadnoth's corpse lay upon the high table; Nosnra had the bearers set it there by his command. Eadwig sat nearby and held his brother's transparent bespelled hand between his own. He made no sound, no movement but the steady rise and fall of his vast chest. His head was bowed and his eyes were closed.
A clatter rang from across the hall. The Chief's wife Estrith summoned the matron of the kitchen, an ancient giantess, but one still possessed of an indomitable spirit and wiry strength, and ordered her to begin a second feast; this one a celebration for the dead.
Ingigerd the Old, such she had been called when Nosnra's father, Tofig, had been a babe. She had seen the sun rise upon this hilltop before the steading's first timber had been set. She was the eldest of the kindred here, and perhaps eldest of all the halls and manors, huts and hovels, eldest of all her kind that still breathed upon the Oerth.
Estrith, proud as her husband's father Tofig, blinked her eyes beneath the stern gaze of the willful crone. Though she was mistress of the steading, second in power and will only to her husband, and some would say that it was he who was not her equal but second to her forceful will, here, among the pots and pans, among the firepits and scurrying slaves, here she was overawed and outmatched. Once, years ago, in a fit of temper, Estrith had struck Ingigerd, the insubordinate fossil, a cruel blow that might have felled a young warrior or a small tree, but Ingigerd simply endured and shrugged away the pain. Without a word she turned her back to the red-faced chieftainess and walked away. Estrith, in a silent rage, shamefaced, stood and suffered the humiliation of her ineffective wrath.
The matron had won and Estrith proved the weaker of the two. Now her orders were accepted but not obeyed, as if they were mere suggestions and not commands. Ingigerd need only look to her underlings and they would rush to their duties. Her dictates needed no shouts, or threats of dire consequence, only a silent nod or gesture.
Without awareness, Estrith sought to emulate Ingigerd's noble bearing, but her unruly nature escaped her attempt at quiet dominance time and again. The women of the steading left their places among the tables of the Great Hall. Some gathered the young and lead them to a far corner, others returned babes and toddlers to the relative safety of the creche where each member of the clan was raised, mothers taking such care in turn, and many followed the matron into the kitchen to prepare the feast that would last till the mourning was done. Estrith looked on in silence, arms folded across her ample bosom and watched with unconscious envy the deference paid to this decrepit churl, deference which rightly belonged to her alone.