The Century Hunt
A Funeral In Ecjodu
A Funeral In Ecjodu is a first-person account of an event rarely witnessed by foreigners in the eponymous nation. The author, Torvald Zent, was a friend of the deceased who was so captivated by the funeral that he quit his guard job to become a writer. The following is an excerpt of his autobiography.
The carriage from Battos arrived in Damje well before what I knew to be twilight, but the dense jungle canopy throttled the rays of light into thin, gnarled strips. In the meager illumination, I could see the faces of elves, humans, some of the other major races, and even a stray Wilden. They were already rushing to their evening meals, as the workday for all but the town guard had ended some time ago. Based on the caravan drivers’ taut faces, I knew our business was best concluded quickly.
Originally, the plan had been to arrive the previous evening, so I could spend the early part of the day taking in the sights and smells of my recently departed friend’s hometown. However, unseasonable rains had soaked the dirt roads leading from Czikas, the closest major city, and significantly delayed the caravan with which I had been riding. It was only with a fair bit of coin (more than I am willing to divulge, for the sake of my pride) that I was able to persuade one of the wagons to move ahead. The roads may be clear in other lands in the Era of the Hunt, but this was Ecjodu, after all!
At last, the carriage stopped at a small customs house established by a minor trade organization headquartered in the Nexus. It stood apart from the other buildings in Damje with its tightly-woven roof and solid, opaque walls. I could see some magical light spilling out from beyond the tapestry serving as the office’s door; if the spot could have been any more high-elven, the roof would have had pointed ears! Nevertheless, I thanked my scowling travel companions and strode inside.
As I entered the little office, a clerk raised his finger towards me, never taking his eyes off the page he was slashing with his quill. I turned to some ancestral artwork draped across the wall, racking my brain to figure out which of the major houses this branch was owned by. My futile attempt was interrupted by the clerk’s tinny voice.
“What business do you have?” the ferret-faced man asked. I faced him as slowly as possible, making sure my eyes only met his after a significant pause.
“I’m in town for the funeral of Nibda Oubtenam; would you happen to know where I can find his family?” The clerk snorted and returned to his work. After signing a paper with his full name, the elf looked up once more.
“Haven’t the foggiest. Try checking Ikta.” I slid out the door, thankful for the nights I’d chewed ada root and listened to Nib’s stories instead of sleeping at my post. I knew Ikta was the name of the local tavern, based on the dung-eating grin Nib would get whenever he talked about the place. I wasn’t going to rule out “brothel”, however, so I made my way to the center of town.
As I walked, I could see small, cozy lights peeking out of the cracks in the walls. In the darker parts of Damje, the glow looked like ghostly orange needles sticking an enormous pincushion. I found the largest building with a four-letter Ecjodan word on the outside and plunged into the thick air of the interior. It was indeed a tavern, to my simultaneous relief and disappointment. Most tables were empty, since most residents of town were eating with their families. The only patrons beyond myself were a couple of alcoholics, a few loners, and the carriage driver with his two companions. I nodded curtly and took a seat at an empty table. To my surprise, the driver signaled for me to join him.
“Come, Batossi, sit!” he beckoned in unfamiliar Common. The crocodile grins of his compatriots sent a shiver down my spine, but I wasn’t about to refuse a request from potentially the only way out of town. I trudged toward their table, keeping a close eye on the position of their hands. There was no telltale small sheathe stitching on their leather armor, so finding my end at the tip of a dagger seemed unlikely. I allowed my shoulders to release their weight as I took the chair the driver pulled out for me.
“It’s a good thing the rains passed,” I chuckled as the moist seat began to dampen my clothing. The driver did not respond, and the guards kept smiling. As I tried desperately to remember whatever Ecjodan I could, the driver lifted an open, wooden pot and poured into an empty cup on his side of the table. He grasped the top of the cup tenderly with his fingers and placed it in front of me. The guards’ expressions transformed into an expectant stare.
“Drink, please!” he beamed, and I obliged. The drink was extremely hot, though from what I’d heard of Ecjodan cuisine, burning my tongue would not turn out to be a wholly unfavorable experience. The taste, however, was bitterer than any ill-brewed ale I’d had in my life, and it took all my fortitude to keep from spitting it out. Something about my expression must have thoroughly amused my new friends, and they began laughing. I furrowed my brow, gulped the liquid down, and took a larger swig. The bemused Ecjodans watched as I finished the cup in less than a minute.
“That was very good,” I announced slowly, “What is it called?” My tongue tingled in a mildly disconcerting way.
“That was tea from bark of the tdadi,” the driver replied, smiling wider than ever. I knew I’d heard that word before from Nib, but I couldn’t recall its exact purpose. My head felt light and the lights of the tavern began to move. “It is a poisonous, stinging plant here.”
Instinctively, I reached for my throat with my left hand and my knife with my right. Rather than defend themselves, the caravaneers laughed harder than ever. I angrily gripped the hilt of my dagger, but my fingers had minds of their own. As the others howled with laughter, I felt my senses sharpen once more. My throat felt better and the sensation in my mouth had subsided.
“I should add that it is not fatal as tea,” the driver said. “Only in pure form can it kill fast. You had less than a child at his first entegammen!” This last comment appeared to amuse the guards greatly, so clearly they understood Common as well. I sighed, and picked my teeth to make certain none of the damn bark’s shrapnel had become stuck in my teeth. During this laborious task, the food arrived.
Though each of us got a plate with a single item on it, the three Ecjodans immediately reached over and plucked food from others, including mine. The food in front of the driver was a carefully wrapped leaf from some of the middle-height trees in the jungle, and it presumably contained a nasty surprise inside. In front of the guards were cooked and aggressively spiced meat of unknown origin and a brownish-purple fruit of some kind. On my plate, a leering, burnt rodent’s head. The others picked charred skin off its scorched face and ate merrily.
I took my chances with the leaf dish. As bitter as the tdadi bark tea had been, at least it was watered down. There was no such luck with the squishy material inside. I struggled to fight the urge to vomit, but I felt a few tears stream from my eyes. Fortunately, my eating companions were too hungry to mock me again, so I tried some of the seasoned meat. Also bitter, but palatable. Once sated, I pushed the charred head to the center of the table so the others could pick it apart.
I managed to find and purchase a small bottle of imported Dalpherian spirits from the barkeep, the ridiculous markup made more bearable considering the lingering taste of dinner. I grabbed four small glasses, aiming to exact some measure of revenge from my tormentors. I poured a bit for everyone, slid the glasses to the other three men, and sipped my own expectantly. The driver took a single, polite sip and set his glass down. The guards stared, not moving towards their glasses.
“What’s the matter,” I smirked, “Afraid it’s too strong?” The guard to my left shook his head.
“No, we have tasted this before,” he answered, pushing the glass back towards the bottle. “It rots the teeth. Though Ishhe have drinks pleasing to the tongue, we can not.” I threw a puzzled glance at the driver.
“Sweet Ones,” he explained. “Thank you for the drink.” The Ecjodans rose from their seats. “We are going to sleep for the night. If you are still traveling tomorrow, please meet here at mid-day.” And just that quickly, my companions departed. I sullenly finished all four glasses and tucked the lighter bottle into my coat. I left the hazy comfort of the tavern to find Nib’s family and pay my respects.
Night had fallen, even in Battos, so I searched the village for Nib’s family. After a couple of confused conversations with locals, I finally found one who spoke Common, and she pointed me towards the hut that housed the other Oubtenams. In retrospect, it should have been obvious, as it was the only house in the area with people gathered outside. Disoriented by the darkness and more than a little drunk, I took a spot along the outside where I could lean against a rock covered in a thick, greasy moss. Enough time passed that I considered asking one of the mourners near me what was going on, when a diminutive figure exited the hut and approached me.
“Are you Torvald?” the wrinkled woman asked me. I straightened myself slowly, as the rock was quite slippery.
“Yes, that’s me. Are you Nib’s… Nibda’s mother?” Silently, she took my hand and led me into the house. The brightness inside was in sharp contrast to the jungle-enhanced darkness I had left behind, and it took me a moment before I was able to gaze upon Nib’s corpse for the first time. Knowing the man I’d grown to love as a brother while in the Guard of the Six had died was one thing; it was quite another to behold his lifeless form. Nib looked just like he did years ago in The Nexus, with maybe an additional line or two on his face. He must have died with a cleric on hand, though obviously not a powerful one. I coughed back a quick tear in spite of myself, and turned once more to the old woman to ask how he died. I never got the chance.
The other members of the small congregation slipped a hand gently under Nib’s body and lifted him into the air at shoulder height. Once he was raised, I placed a hand under his left shoulder blade and walked with his family outdoors. Wading through the crowd of funeral-goers, which had grown much larger since I abandoned my rock, the procession left Damje entirely and walked into a small gap in the foliage. What little light I could still see was now completely extinguished.
We walked for hours deep into the jungle. The sounds of animals just off our barely perceptible path, I was prepared for. What I did not expect was the caress of hungry vines, patiently wrapping themselves around my arm or leg even as I kept moving. Every leaf of every plant seemed to long for me to stumble, so they could devour me. I did my best to avoid recoiling from their touch, but the first few startled me noticeably (enough so that I received admonishing sighs from others in my party). At last, we reached a small clearing and the procession stopped.
Setting Nib’s body down to the soft forest floor, I gingerly removed my hand and stood a step away from my friend. I could see the barest outline of a man holding a jar, lifting it, and pouring its contents onto the deceased. A horrible stench rose up to my nostrils, though not a bitter one as everything else that had assaulted my senses that day. It was a sickly, honeyed smell reminiscent of embalming fluid, though I knew that wasn’t its goal. The withered paw of the old woman once again took my hand, and the group left the clearing single-file back towards Damje.
After a few minutes, I heard a howl of unknown origin and the group leader stopped. The party moved to the left side of the path, some of them pressing closer towards the ever-encroaching vines. As one rested expectantly on my shoulder, teasing my chin with an errant thorn, it suddenly withdrew. The air felt hot and I knew a different kind of threat was nearby. A quiet panting came from somewhere in front of me, and a large creature emerged from the vines. It stalked past our group, paying none of us any mind, and headed directly for the clearing we had just abandoned. When it had passed, I was pushed towards Damje with some urgency, and I happily obliged.
As the Oubtenams and I moved briskly but silently back home, I could hear the unmistakable sounds of flesh rending and bones snapping behind me. My first thoughts were of rage, towards both the beasts that were eating my friend and the family that so willingly fed them. As the need for silence and dull darkness persisted, however, I realized why this particular custom was so important for Ecjodans. First, space was limited, so burying the dead was obviously out of the question. Second, a funeral pyre would likely attract unwanted attention in such a small town, if the beasts in the area already possessed a taste for human flesh.
But more importantly than either was the word “Isshe”. I understood why my attempt to ingratiate myself with the driver and his guards in the tavern had been met with such respectful disinterest: every aspect of life in Ecjodu was bitter. The food, the huts, the terrifying wildlife: all bitter. There was bitterness at every turn and table, but there was also love in those places. The only thing that was sweet in Damje was the smell of death. Not only death, but the moments leading up to damning what’s left of someone you loved to digestion inside a creature incapable of appreciating what you gave to so many people, or the many lives you touched while alive. The bitter roots take hold in Ecjodu; the “sweet ones” only decay.
After another couple of hours, the funeral group returned to Damje. I quietly thanked Nib’s family and walked to the tavern once more. It had closed for the night long ago, but a sturdy table and some woven chairs were outside, so I took a seat and watched the sun rise over the trees. I dined on ash-choked rodent bacon and sipped the juice of a squeezed vine fruit of some kind, and when the caravan assembled I departed. When Damje left my view, I slept until nightfall.