He lay in a trough of earth. A pale, bruised young man; couched on a bed of dry pine boughs and waxy cones. He had been stripped down to his breeches and undershirt, both wet with maroon stains. In his wan, slack face, one eye, slightly deflated and leaking humors, had been turned askew by an entry wound adjacent its orbit. He was dead.
Around him, beside a high pile of musty soil piled neath the pine canopy, stood three cutters in leathers and brown capes. Two wore downturned expressions. One was teary-eyed, rubbed her red and drippy nose, head bowed. Beside her, a swarthy man clutched a hastella, a wooden charm shaped like a star-headed spear, to his chest. He let the painted beads of its lanyard slip, counted, through clasped, dirty hands as he prayed, cracked lips mouthing whispers.
The third stood with a burning taper in hand, a spade at his feet, behind the mourning two. He was red of hair and bore a look of knitted impatience.
"Petro," he said, addressing the praying man.
Petro shook his head, still mouthing accented rites. Another bead passed under his thumb. Beside him, the sniffly woman shot the redhead a miserable frown.
"Why pray? He was a bloody Firl, like me." *
Petro, finishing the last of his rite, crossed a complicated symbol over his chest, bent to place the hastella upon the dead man's bloody sternum. "But he was human, compadre. Aveth's rites are for all mankind."
Beside him, the woman sniffed, nodded. The redheaded cutter scoffed. "But he wouldn't have cared, 'cause…" He pulled an apologetic grimace. "Well, no offense, but we don't believe in "grace," or whatever you Southerners call it. In a heaven. In the North, we just light 'em on fire and have a laugh over beers at all the shite they did, afterwards."
"No offense taken." The dark fellow turned, smiled at him. "But I do mean for all of mankind. Meaning a funeral is for the living, as much as the dead. To instill grace in us."
Petro nodded, turned to the corpse. "Step up, then, Calumn. We will say words in remembrance, before sending him away."
Calumn shrugged. He joined them, taper smoking, stood beside Petro. For a moment, they simply stood. A chill, dry breeze rattled the pines, shook a rain of brown needles from on high. They scattered over the pale man, lodged around the holy charm on his dark-stained chest.
"Avetha," began Petro. "We commend to you this soul. Not because he knew you, but because he was a companion along our violent way. We will remember him for his skill and his selflessness. Deliver him unto grace, that he may know gentler times." He produced a pouch, took a pinch of grey salt from within, and tossed it on the dead man. Grains stuck to the wreck of his eye. Petro passed the pouch the the woman.
"Goodbye, friend," she said, in broken Firlish. "Go well. We will join you in the end," she said, sniffing. Salt glittered as it fell. She passed away the pouch.
Callumn took it, hesitantly. "Ay…" Petro nodded at him.
"Okay," said Callumn, straightening. He took a pinch of salt, looked at the corpse. "Sorry you're dead, mate. Shit luck you got shot in the eye." He frowned. "You were a bit of an ass; never let me take point. And you hogged too much porridge. Also, I took your boots, hope you don't mind." At that, the Southerners looked at him, blankly.
"Uh," said the redhead. He scratched behind an ear. "But you were a good cutter, overall, 'n you taught me to whistle. And you saved us from that troll." He nodded. "There really ain't many with courage like you." At that, he let the pinch of salt scatter, looked to Petro.
"Now, it is time," said the Southerner.
Callumn knelt, touched his taper to the bed of pine leavings. It flared fast, ate up needles and cones with snapping, waxy intensity. Flame licked around the dead man's limbs. The cutters watched, squinting for smoke, until the blaze thickened. They turned, capes flapping in the ashen wind.
As they did, Callumn spoke. "A right shame." He looked ahead.
"I hope we'll ever earn the fortune to meet another like him."
Indeed, these small favors to the dead are the performed not for the dead, but for the living; for few horrors unhinge mind and morale so effectively as the thought of one's companion abandoned in a black forest, or sprawled in chilly tomb corridor; a horrid lump from which to avert the eyes on every passing delve in search of gold. No sane Littoran*** will find heart venturing in a locale already littered with the abandoned husks of those who came before, especially if they fear the added danger of gruesome plague within those selfsame corpses.
Thus, cutters, regardless of faith or superstition, prefer to hold proper obsequies for the casualties of their violent trade, for there is no fortune in forsaking the dead. Indeed, many believe it especially fortuitous. They believe that a proper and safe disposal of former comrades bodes good fortune in the hire and befriending of those to come. Such is the queer mindset of hardened cutters, of jaded venturers who have seen come and miserably go no end of briefly-held brothers and sisters in arms and woeful ambition.
The following is a mechanism from the Incunabuli Playtest:
Any of the above obsequies which involve grey salt require a half golden pound of grisodate in order to perform.
Another XP bribery mechanic from the playtest. Check it out here.
The bonus XP values will need to be tweaked depending on your system. The playtest assumes a lot of value per point, so 20 is a nice present. For D&D 5e, it really only works if you force your poor players to start at level 1. I might suggest giving them inspiration, instead.
As always, Incunabuli is made possible by Jacob Kent and fellow Patrons. To join them and read exclusive articles, resources, and adventure notes from the author, support Incunabuli on Patreon.
* The Firlish are notably atheist. They assign little value to Aveth or any faith.
** Despite danger, many Avethans request they be buried, rather than cremated. Their faith's regard for human sanctity frowns upon burning the human form.
*** "Littoran" refers to any inhabitant of the Coast, the world of Incunabuli.