Flight, Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter 21

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The crowd stared at the newcomer uneasily.

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.

Oren Whitehair.

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.

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