Seconds stretched into minutes while the stranger stood without introduction; however, his white hair and weathered skin introduced him all the same. He was Pentacacas.
And something more.
His severe attire of fur and leather looked frightening against the court’s finery, the blood stained vest drew more than a few uneasy stares. Clearly, he was a warrior, but his manner carried authority beyond those in rank. Nor was he bothered by the lack of an introduction, for he stood motionless, surveying the assembly with the keen intensity of an animal come to a clearing. He focused on Blatico and, without a word, the famed wit folded himself into the crowd. He surveyed the Warrior King, hardly more than a skeleton awash in a sea of robes, taking in the Skylls as well. Oren relaxed almost imperceptibly as he noted the somber clad gentleman among them, whose silvered hair and lined countenance reflected none of the Skyll’s fey blood.
Elymas was his final target, but the Earth Skyll was prepared and rebelled at appraisal. Elymas perched on his special stool designed to accommodate his deformity and glared like a fishwife at the stranger. His brown robe was dyed in hues of cinnamon, and around his neck hung a large gold medallion that seemed to collect the remaining light, and winked intermittently as he sat to the left of the throne.
Neither man looked away; fortunately, Cull, the Inner Guard, chose this moment to interrupt.
“Your Majesty,” Cull peered around the stranger as a tentative shoot might peep around a massive trunk, “I announce Oren Whitehair.”
The arrival of any Pentacacas Warrior would have have caused a disturbance, but the announcement of this particular Whitehair filled the room with equal parts fear and awe.
The man standing in the Great Throne Room was the sort from which legends — or nightmares — begin. This was the man who had risen during the Blood Wars when victory seem secure and outmaneuvered Casoria’s finest with a remnant of howling, half-naked men. This was the man whose strategies had danced elusively through their council chambers. This was the man whose shadow had lain across their flight from Ron Jonna, allowing them no quarter to salvage their pride or bury their dead.
Mothers used his name to frighten unruly children.
Yet, for all his exploits, he’d never been seen close-up until now, for those who had seen him clearly were dead.
“Come closer,” commanded the Warrior King and then, bearing down on the peasant woman, said, “Take the pig and get out.”
With a squawk of gratitude, the woman gathered her pig to her pendulous breasts and ran down the aisle with surprising agility. She skirted widely the Hunter, and the burly farmer followed, saving his curses for the street.
The oaken doors closed and all was silent.
Oren Whitehair approached the throne and stopped.
“What say you?” asked William.
Oren dropped to one knee and bowed his head with the usual deference. “Peace from the Pentacacas of High North and greetings from the Shautu who watches over the Northern Sky.”
“The Shautu! Yes, I was hoping . . . wait.” The King pushed back his voluminous sleeves and placed the scepter across his knees. “Before we begin, I’ll give you the blessing.” William began the ritualistic motions. “The face of the King is turned toward you, the ears of the Kings are attuned to you. The mouth of the King evokes–“
“Your Highness, dusk has fallen.” The brown robed Skyll leaned forward, his clubbed foot hooked around the leg of the stool. “It’s time for the people to be blessed and dismissed. The third day on the presence of shadows, that’s when the ceremony is concluded. Oren Whitehair insults us with his tardy appearance; he is simply too late.” Elymas’s voice, though soft, was certain. Without waiting for the King’s permission, he motioned the Inner Guards forward. Restlessness touched the crowd.
“There are still places where the shadows have not fallen!” William’s anger erupted, freezing those who shuffled among the crowds. “I’ve decided to hear him out.”
Whether from weariness or annoyance, William chose that moment to close his eyes. It was just as well he didn’t see the guards shrink back against the walls or Elymas’s nod that they should.
“Not since the Blood Wars has a member of your tribe journeyed to Casoria, and then not to court,” William continued. “I’d hoped to see a Pentacacas this session or the next. I never thought it would be you. It seems life is full of surprises, even at its close. As our guest, you will be treated with courtesy and your words heard without interruption.” The King motioned Oren to his feet and he rose. “And please forgive the rudeness of the Earth Skyll, Elymas. His impatience to end no doubt masks a concern for my health. Is that not right, Skyll?”
Elymas mumbled something that might have been a curse or an agreement. No matter. The King ignored him.
“Not long ago, Oren Hunter, I made a vow to the Shautu on the bluffs of Ron Jonna that I have kept. He made a promise to me as well. If you carry evidence of its fulfillment, I beseech you to produce it at once.”
Oren nodded and from the inside of his vest drew a flap of soft leather. He unfolded it and lifted out a fragile object. Casorians and Skylls alike strained forward. For most, the view was blocked, but those who did see fell back, perplexed. If they’d expected a brilliant stone or a trifle worked in gold, they were disappointed. What appeared was a feather — an incredibly blue feather, but a feather, nothing more. The King, however, reached for it as a dying man grasps for hope. His hands shook so badly that the Hunter didn’t release it even when it seemed safe within the King’s clutch.
“It is mine now,” said William, firmly. “Have no fear.”
Oren had stepped up on the dais with his offering, now he stepped down. For a brief moment, his eyes flashed in a smile.
“When the Shautu asked me to deliver this, I was skeptical of my mission. Now, I no longer doubt its importance but am curious of the cause. If I may ask, what does a blue feather mean?”
“Freedom,” said the King promptly. “My father is released at last. Could any of you have delivered this? Could any of you have cheated the Void?” He turned his head to look at each of the Skylls. All dropped their heads save for Elymas, who stared straight ahead. They didn’t answer, for William was talking as if a man alone. He turned the feather over and over until the blue was lost and the feather became a dark sphere. “I fought a bloody senseless war, but I would do it all over again to have this. My thanks, Oren Whitehair. I’ll make a suitable reply to the Shautu before you go. Ondred will see you to your chamber.”
Ondred stepped down from the dais, waiting for the Oren to follow, but the hunter continued to stand before the King. “Majesty, there is more.”
“More?” William grimaced, then broke into a coughing fit. “A feather for me as well, no doubt.” With his sleeve, he wiped the spittle from his mouth. “Well, hand it over. I’ve struggled with thoughts of my own death long enough.”
“No, not that.” Oren shook his head, and drew again from his vest. This time he brought forth a rolled parchment. “The Shautu has a request.”
“I’m surprised and flattered that the wise and powerful Shautu should seek advice from a mere King,” he said, finally. “Truly, I’m honored. But I’m also the ghost of a man, probably dying, and the better part of dusk has fallen. If you seek counsel or redress, I will do my best to render fair judgement, but I ask you to be brief. My critical powers, though still intact, are limited by endurance.”
“It isn’t a matter of judgement I seek. I’ve been wronged by no man. Nor has the Shautu. I bring an announcement.”
The King straightened his spine against the throne. It cost him a searing pain in his right lung, but he contrived. He was the Warrior King and recognized the winds of trouble stirring about his throne. For the moment, the feather lay forgotten in his lap.
Oren unrolled the scroll. The parchment crackled, a flimsy thing when held by giant hands.
“To His Royal Highness, William III, High King of Casoria and his gracious and noble Queen Laveth,” Oren read. “The Sea Star spends its glory at the Axis child’s birth, while all that is hidden rejoices in the passing of a Skyll into the very Deep. A new three stripe has been born. Surely, thy reign has been blessed.
I hesitate to interrupt what must be a time of joyful festivity, but let the Authority of the Blue Stone prevail over thy natural inclinations. I do not use this authority as a whim, only at urgent need. Send them both to me, the babe as well as the new Earth Skyll. Danger abounds, and much is at stake.
Oren will guard them and Oren is my right arm. He wears a mark as well, token of the heaven’s trust.
Signed by my own hand,
Shautu of the Blue Robe,
Keeper of the Precious Stones,
Guardian of the Eld Forest.