The men waiting at the bottom saw their ruler drop to his knees and tensed. A clipped order from their captain, however, stopped any sudden action. Captain Jennet was of Lannish blood, a tribe known to have intermarried with the Pentacacus, and knew what such things meant. A ron tikkum was in progress, a ceremony of cleansing. Captain Jennet watched with undisguised relief.
At last it was over. The Warrior King rose. The Shautu stepped back and unashamedly wiped tears from his eyes.
“It has already begun. I can feel it,” said William, thumping his chest. “The burden of a dead man has been released.”
“For me as well.” The Shautu cleared his throat. Suddenly, he appeared ill at ease. “I’ve pledged my blood to keep the Sacred Forest inviolate. Most of the time, my blood isn’t necessary. I have certain arts, certain camouflages that cause the forest to appear what it is not, making it seem smaller, unappealing. My arts had no effect on your father. He marched right in and would have done the unthinkable. Had I offered up my blood that day, it wouldn’t have mattered. He’d have seen it as the sign of a cowardly man. I sent him away in disgrace, knowing the effect it would have on a man of his mettle, yet I had no choice. He’d nocked the arrow.” The Shautu walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down at the men below. “So much spilled blood. So many children left unsired. There’s no seed in a dead man’s loins.” He stepped back and faced the King. “A moment ago you asked the Elyon for forgiveness for your father. Now, your forgiveness is needed as well. I ask that you forgive me.”
The request came like a shock of cold water. William blanched visibly, then turned his back, struggling to regain composure. He was flooded with a myriad of emotions ranging from rage to a sense of absurdity. The world seemed unreal; his men at the base of Ron Jonna mere puppets. The King heard only the sound of the wind. Only the wind while the world tilted.
“It’s not required,” said the Shautu. “It will not affect the lifting of the anathema if you refuse.”
“It’s not a refusal, Seer, I don’t know if I can.” The King’s voice was a rasp. He suddenly looked older, drained by the years. “I was young but I remember my father as a plunging warhorse who ran straight ahead. Fearless, but not always wise. I can imagine it, that day in the forest. Would things have gone differently if I’d been along? Try turning that over in your head.” Tension showed in the cords of his neck. His voice took on a self mocking tone. “But I wasn’t with him. I was rolling dice with my friends.” He faced the Shautu, allowing him to see his self-loathing. “Yet, I can imagine how it all began. Once my father made a choice, no other choices were possible. But forgiveness?” William snorted. “Where would I begin? The friends I played dice with are dead, picked off by war in one way or another. My father’s soul has twisted in torment for close to twenty years. He never died; I carried him with me. My mother, Queen Aubra, died screaming, tortured by the thought of sharing my father’s fate.” The Shautu made a sound of protest, but the King continued. “I have no wife, for marriage negotiations require tact, and I’ve not had time for even cursory diplomacy. My days have been filled with blood, muck, and the sounds and smells of dying men. Your Whitehair arrows shoot deep. So when you ask for forgiveness, I don’t know if it’s possible. In some respects, I, too, am a dead man.” The Warrior paused, adding, “I can give you understanding. That day in the forest, yes, I can see it. I can imagine how this bloody mess began. Yes, it’s understanding I can give.”
Flight, copyright Joan Spilman