William whirled about. A man of indeterminate years clad in a bluish gray cloak stood in the clearing. A bird perched on his shoulder, blinking dry, black eyes. Another three-spotted falcon. There was no mistaking the unusual pattern on the bird’s wing.
“I am my father’s son,” the King replied. “If that is what you mean.”
William observed the gold chain about the Shaman’s neck. Some sort of stone dangled from it, but William only caught a glimmer of the clearest blue before it buried itself in the folds of his cowl. Without warning, the bird spread its wings and flew high, higher.
William couldn’t resist watching its perfect, effortless flight. When he faced the Shautu, he felt red-faced and weak. His father had been caught in this trap.
The Shautu, as if reading his thoughts, dismissed them. “You called me here,” he said, “Now, tell me why.”
“For peace,” said the King, equally blunt. “Although it tears at my gut, I seek more than a laying down of arms. I’m prepared to offer a treaty, and if you accept, know that I will honor my terms. But before we begin, I must know: how fares my father’s soul?”
“As well as any knocking at the Void. He suffers. He burns,” replied the Shautu. “He is strong, but his spirit slackens. Ondred’s perception was not amiss.”
“How did you know about —“
“It’s not important,” interrupted the Shautu. “But rest easy, you don’t have a spy in your midst. As for your father, he longs to fully enter the Deep.”
“Will a truce, nay, a solemn vow never to enter the Eld Forest again and to defend her against any who would so so, lift the anathema?”
“It would be a start. Once the truce is in effect, I’ll call the Brethren of the Blue Stone and begin the rite to lift the curse completely.”
“Let us begin now. Providing, of course, you’ve accepted my terms,” added William.
“I accept. Now, you must kneel.”
The Warrior King gave the Seer a shrewd look. “Even for one so spiritual, there must be pleasure in humbling a King.”
“It’s not to me you kneel, but to the Elyon. I’m merely his vassal. I desire no man’s tribute, but if it’s humbling you chafe at, then . . .” Abruptly, the Keeper of the Blue Stone fell to his knees. “As you are the High King of Casoria, chosen city of the Elyon, I render you the respect and honor due your crown, and as much allegiance as I can give any many. Know also it is my heart’s desire that our purposes never cross again.”
William stared down at the man kneeling before him, noting the sloping shoulders, the thinness of his neck. No, he was not a warrior, not as William knew them, but the King doubted if he could kill him all the same. Saar’s bones, he thought, he probably couldn’t even break the chain he wore. What a strange, slight man this was!
“Accepted. You may rise,” said William and the Shaman rose. There was an awkwardness as they faced one another but relief as well. Pride to the Warrior King was no longer a heavy thing. “There is a sect in my city that swears total allegiance to the Elyon, same as you, but consider it blasphemy to pray or speak to him.” William confided, nearly smiling. “They call themselves the Shivelites. When I wasn’t engaged in the field or at my war table, I thought of them and thought them a puzzle. What do you think?”
“I think there are many lost souls.”
A shadow crossed the King’s face.
“My father will soon be one.” He dropped to his knees. “Let the cleansing begin.