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Tears welled up in Ianeke’s eyes as she watched her partner, Manoro, scoop up his son. The look of ecstasy on his face was priceless. The consuming jealousy she felt for them rocked her to the marrow.

When she married Eckhart, they both agreed to wait until their lives were settled before attempting to build a family. Three years passed before she felt like they were missing out on a part of life. Eckhart was more than happy to give her a child; he only put it off because he had no desire to pressure her. For three months, they enjoyed trying, to no avail, but there was no pressure. They had a lifetime to build a family.

Now she stood under the scorching summer sun childless and husbandless. Ianeke racked her brain in search of what terrible crime she could have committed to anger God so, that he would snatch away her Eckhart. Maybe some choice she had yet to make condemned her love to this cruel fate.

She lost not only her reason for living, well before his time. The leader of their unit was gone. Leaving monumental shoes for her to fill.

Ianeke took a deep steadying breath, straightening her uniform jacket. She would not disgrace his funeral by entering with tear-stained cheeks. Her composure regained, Ianeke nodded to Manoro before moving forward off the gravel parking lot onto the manicured green lawn of the graveyard.

Sinai, Manoro’s woman, laid her hand on Ianeke’s shoulder. The grass, still wet from the morning’s rain, crunched under their measured footsteps. The smell of disturbed earth clung to the air at Eckhart’s grave; his coffin perched on the trellis ready to return to the earth.

As per the ways of their order, he lay in a simple pine box, his body unpreserved by the chemicals of the modern world. He would fertilize the earth as God intended. That brought Ianeke little comfort.

The crowd had already gathered graveside. The line of soldiers, in robin’s egg blue, stood tall against the glare of the sun. Ianeke caught sight of Eckhart’s parents, seated in the front row. His mother’s face was veiled but the sorrow in her eyes could not be contained. His father held his emotions at bay but his back was stooped, not by the years, but by the pain that tore his heart in two.

Taking a knee before the parents of her deceased beloved, Ianeke took a minute to let the grief take hold. She placed her head in her mother-in-law, Bonae’s lap, taking in the rosy scent of her. Bonae stroked her hair gently and whispered in her ear.

“Be strong my child.”

Zaci, her father-in-law, lifted her face. His light grey eyes pierced the depths of her, his slender hand held strength she would not have guessed. He seemed to pour courage into her, not a word needed between them, for understanding.

Her respects paid, Ianeke joined her brothers and sisters in blue at the opposite side of the casket, Manoro at her side once more. The white cloaked priests stood at the head, their faces stoic, having had to do this too many times in recent months.

“Let’s bow our heads in remembrance of our fallen brother,” the orator intoned. “He was a brave solider, fighting hard for our freedom, not quickly forgotten. He has passed on into the hands of God, no longer having to worry about the pains of this life. It is we who have to suffer on without him, waiting for that day when we will be reunited. Take hope in the knowledge that you will embrace your brother, husband, son, once again. Pray now and say your goodbyes, until the kingdom comes.”

Silence spread like wildfire as they prayed for Eckhart and the strength to carry on without him. Ianeke added a wish for justice to her whispered pleas. There was no more point to her than to make sure his death was not in vain, that vengeance was served. After that deed was done, she would be more than happy to join him in the rest of the grave.

“Honor Guard,” Manoro called out. “Present arms.”

Ianeke stiffened, aware of the finality of the next act. Her heart wanted her to fling herself on that coffin and ride with her beloved into the darkness. Her head told her that would be a waste of whatever life she had left and a dishonor to his memory. Her emotions so raw there was no sense to them, so she stayed rooted to the spot.

“Fire.” The seven guns rang of as one, eerily in time with her heartbeat. The ground rumbled and the heavens burned with the sound of them. Once, twice, and a third. Why didn’t one of them find her chest and end her struggle? That would be too fine a death for so pitiful a thing as she.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From the earth we came and to the earth we return,” the priest said as if that was enough explanation as to why Eckhart was gone.

The music started to play and the wench whirled to life, its mechanical squeal at odds with the organic melody of harp and flute. Ianeke kept her eyes on the horizon knowing, if she watched her heart lowered into the ground, she would never climb back out again. Instead, she focused on what came next. As a guardian, she had a job to do.

Her husband had caught a bullet protecting the princess. With him gone, that left her and Manoro in charge of the detail. During this tumultuous time in the country’s history, that job was more important than ever. The fourth world war was five years running and the death toll was greater than the first two combined, with no end in sight.

Eckhart wasn’t the first their unit has lost and he won’t be the last but Ianeke was determined to fight that much harder in his memory.

“Rest now my love,” she whispered against the wind. “Till next we meet.”

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