My head bowed, my hands folded within the sleeves of my cloak, I hummed along with the Prayer of Death as I followed the procession. I kept my head down, even though I walked behind Oren. As long as I didn't look at him, I didn't think about having to bear seeing him in mourning, didn't have to think about how the minute I'd catch the sorrow in his eyes, my feet would be taking me to him, my hands would be reaching out. I couldn't let myself lose control. He wasn't mine.
I didn't even look up when Oren suddenly stopped. I chalked it up to nerves, emotions. Any minute now, we would round the corner to lead Haram's body through the center of the village. There, everyone could wish his departed essence farewell one last time before we led him to his pyre.
The shuffling of Oren's feet seemed at odds with his mood, though, and, in the end, I just had to look up. I only barely kept my jaw from dropping. Oren had taken his shirt off. Before I had time to process his actions, we moved on. With great reluctance, I dragged my sight away from Oren's gorgeous, broad back. I had no right. He wasn't mine.
My resolve lasted as long as it took for us to reach the center, and a collective gasp greeted us. Everyone looked away from Oren. Everyone but me and Oren's sister, Ajuna, who walked next to him, her hand firmly planted in the small of Oren's back to support him. I swallowed, clenching my hands within my sleeves. As much as I wanted to reach out, I couldn't. He wasn't mine. Ajuna would have to be the pillar Haram had always been for Oren.
The Guide, a tall, slender cloud elf, preceded us with wings folded, head bowed, his long, white hair bound back, and his voice dark and clear in the unnatural silence. He didn't look around, didn't look up, he merely led the way, ignoring the reactions of our peers.
I looked at Oren and couldn't help but smile. Walking shirtless and proud as he led his lover's body to his pyre, showing his love for Haram for all to see, was a sign of respect for the bond they shared.
The ones who looked away didn't understand, couldn't grasp what he was showing them. I could see it in their averted eyes: their shock, their disdain. They thought abuse, but I knew better. I saw the wonder of the art he carried; Haram's art, my art. Oren's bared upper body showed a mass of ridges and bumps, all carefully placed, creating a beautiful picture.
I couldn't deny it; Oren was a gorgeous tree elf—tall and built like a sturdy tree, with messy, short, golden curls, and the most beautiful blue eyes. Those eyes always reminded me of the sky on a sunny day...
Kicking my feet into the ground, I lowered my head again, though the image of Haram's designs on Oren's bare back was burned into my mind. Again, I wished I could touch him, could touch his art, wished I could add to it. I bit my lip and stopped my sinful thoughts. On the day we brought Haram's body to his pyre, I should not be thinking these things. I should be praying; should be respectful of the dead. Haram died barely a week ago, and Oren was mourning. We were all mourning.
I fell back a step or two and laid my hand on the edge of the cart to pay my own respects. Haram had been my healer and my friend. One of the closest friends I've ever had, one who never held my desire against me, though he made it very clear Oren was never to learn of it. Haram didn't share.
Haram was a force to be reckoned with, and it was difficult to believe a stray arrow from a hunter's apprentice had been all it took to defeat him. I shook my head at the injustice.
When the cart stopped, I kept my gaze on my hand resting on the edge of it until a sob tore my view to Oren. Oren gathered Haram up in his arms, and my heart broke when he touched his lips to Haram's forehead, sobbing freely. I caught Ajuna looking at me, a clear question in her eyes, and I swallowed. Oren was my friend as much as Haram had been, and here I stood, awash with feelings I shouldn't have, while he suffered.
I nodded at Ajuna and stepped around the cart to help Oren carry his burden. Oren barely acknowledged me, but I felt his grip on Haram loosen as I helped him place Haram on the pyre. The care, the love, with which Oren righted Haram's attire, pulled and shifted the bearskin covering him until it lay just right, brought a smile to my face. I let Oren work at his own pace and kept others with less patience away. This was Oren's right, and I was going to make certain he got all the time he needed.
The Guide moved next to me. We stared at each other for a moment before he nodded at me and moved to Oren's other side, shielding him from nosy well-doers. Ajuna stood behind her brother, her hand, once again, in the small of his back in support. I pushed down the urge to swat it away. He wasn't mine, I reminded myself. If only my body would listen for once. It had made its mind up the moment I'd spotted Oren in his bakery over two turns ago.
When Oren finally stepped back, the Guide lit a torch and looked at Oren expectantly. Oren took a folded piece of paper from inside his sleeve and handed it to me. I started to shake my head, but Oren's pleading eyes stopped me, and I could do nothing but nod. Ajuna would have been a far better choice, but he chose me to be his voice. Who was I to disrespect his decision?
I unfolded the paper and read Oren's meticulous scrawl. A man of few words—no one would be surprised at that—but his writing was full of heart, full of love and respect for the man he'd lived with for over a decade.
"You were my life," I read the first line aloud, "my love, my keeper. You saw me for who I was, and helped me be who I wanted to be. I am proud to wear your marks, to show my bond to you, my vowed." I swallowed, "And one day, my handsome Haram, with Ma'terra's blessing, we will be together again."
Tears streaked Oren's cheeks, and his hands trembled as he took the torch from the Guide and lit the pyre. He stood there, frozen, watching the pyre light up, with one hand stretched towards it. My heart burned for him.
The Guide started up the prayer of Death again, his voice almost too loud in the silence. Oren staggered back. I reached out to steady him, nodding to Ajuna to let her know I had him. She stepped back, but Oren didn't even seem to notice the lack of her touch. He just put his head on my shoulder and cried.