Peace without Forgiveness
The Blood Wars continued, and in the spring of the twentieth year, a plague entered the city, and there were not enough men to sweep the dead from the streets. The Warrior King sat in his council chambers and listened to his advisors. One faction believed the Shautu had sent the plague and should be aggressively attacked; others wanted to wait out the plague and go to war in the fall. When an elderly gentleman rose from the back of the room, the clamoring abruptly stopped. Clad in somber black, silvered hair his only ornamentation, the lord could have easily passed for a Casorian version of a seer. He surveyed them all before speaking. Some held his gaze, others looked away as if he’d tapped into some secret guilt, for this Elder was known to adhere to the old god, the Elyon.
“Majesty, I would speak,” he said.
The King inclined his head. “I would listen.”
As one of his late father’s most trusted advisors, the Warrior King always treated Lord Alexy Ondred with the utmost respect.
“The Shautu hasn’t sent the plague,” he said, bluntly. “The Shautu wouldn’t send the plague any more than he would force men to serve him. This is a war of ideas, not disease. I have met him and he is an honorable man.”
The King slashed his scepter for silence even before the outcry began. He signaled for Ondred to continue.
“For those of you who have heard what I’m about to say, forgive me. It is an old story. There are no new twists.” He leaned forward on the table, supported by gnarled hands. “It was a bright day. We were young. I was new to Casoria and thought to curry favor with the King by encouraging him to pursue a small bird called the three-spotted falcon.
“I alone encouraged him,” he continued, shaking his head. “In Bornea, we worship gods of our own choice when we bother to worship at all. The name of the Elyon meant nothing to me. I’d heard it perhaps a dozen times in my life, and then coupled with cursing. I was ignorant of sikenta. I thought the fears of the other men silly and weak, and so I supported the King by emptying my head of every silly myth I’d learned since childhood. The others were unwilling. Even the falconer tried, but the King was–” Ondred paused, “rash. The obstacles only made the bird more desirable. We entered the forest and became lost in it. Anjhest was terrified. Then the Shautu appeared. He asked us to leave; he begged us. I think it was Creath who called him a lice-ridden peasant. It might have been me.” Ondred surveyed the assembly, his sadness plain for all to see. “It should have never come to this. It was never meant to be thus, all blood, gore, and malice. It was simply a days outing to fetch a bird.” Ondred looked only at the Warrior King. “Let this be over, Majesty. You are now the High King. I say go to the Shautu and make peace.”
There was a stunned silence and then came the expected outcry. Again, the King silenced them with slicing through the air.
“Are you finished?” William the III asked. His voice was level, betraying nothing. “Do you have more?”
“Aye, there is more,” Ondred smiled slightly. If the moment was dangerous, he chose to ignore it. “I practice the Old Way now, and your father’s soul is at stake.”
The Warrior King looked as though he might jump from his chair onto the dais, then, with a touch to his crown, he pressed back against the throne.
He said nothing, only stared at Lord Alexy Ondred.
“I didn’t ask for this knowledge.” The older man tried to straighten to full height, and failed. “It was given to me. With no rest in sight, he fights the fire that would burn him clean, and soon he will burn out. Then comes the void from which no man can escape. I say go to the Shautu and offer a treaty in exchange for the lifting of the anathema. Your father can tarry no longer in the Deep.” Ondred again leaned heavily on the table. “If you approach the Shautu in peace, you need fear no danger.”
“What if the Shautu refuses peace?”
“The war continues as before. You have lost nothing.”
“Only my pride.” A short answer but not bitter. “Leave me now, all of you!” The room was filled with the sounds of the scrape and bump of benches. To Ondred, he said, “I will consider this.”
Less than a fortnight later, the Warrior King’s request for a meeting was met with a polite response, delivered by a falcon carrying a missive that summoned him to High North. He took with him a small retinue of horsemen and archers. Leaving his men at the base of Ron Jonna, he rode alone to the designated bluff. A stick with a rag tied around it was thrust in the ground to indicate he was on the right spot. The clearing was deserted. There was no one in sight nor could he hear approaching sounds. The Warrior King kicked idly at the marker, then stopped, recognizing the scrap of material as a weathered glove. Uneasily, he remembered the story of Creath. Was this the Seer’s idea of a joke? Was he lost as well?
William walked to the edge of the overhanging rock and surveyed the horizon. The sky was bare save for dull splotches of clouds; when the rains came, they would be cold and penetrating. The men below craned their necks curiously, but William ignored them. The clouds broke apart, revealing a pale sun, and still no one appeared. William felt his anger build. He thought of Ondred and was suddenly glad he’d denied the old man permission to join them. At the moment, his mood was black, and he had no use for pious prattle.
The Warrior King strode to the marker and kicked again, breaking the wood apart. Under his heel, the gloves came apart in the dust.
“You are not unlike him,” said a voice.
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. Though he’d never seen one, the Warrior King recognized the species at once. There was no mistaking the unusual pattern on the falcon’s wing.
“I am my father’s son,” the King replied. “If that is what you mean.”
William observed the gold chain about the Seer’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–“
“It is not important,” interrupted the Shautu. “But rest easy, you do not 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 do so, lift the anathema?”
“It would be a start. Once the truce is in effect, I’ll call my 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 am merely his vassal. I desire no man’s tribute, but if it is humbling you chafe at–” Abruptly, the Keeper of the Blue Stones 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 man. Know also that 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. Sarr’s bones, he thought, he probably couldn’t even break the slim chain he wore. What a strange, slight man he was.
“Accepted,” said William finally, and the Seer 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 Elyon, same as you, yet they 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 cross the King’s face, fleet and sharp.
“My father will soon be one.” He dropped to his knees. “Let the cleansing begin.”
The men waiting at the bottom saw their ruler drop to his knees and tensed. A clipped order from their captain, however, forestalled any stupid action. Captain Jennet was of Lannish blood, a clan known to have intermarried with the Pentacacus, and so he knew what such things meant. A ron tikkum was in progress, a ceremony of cleansing. Captain Jennet watched the ceremony with undisguised relief.
At last it was over and 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. “I have carried a slain man inside me. He has been a heavy burden.”
“To me as well.” The Shautu cleared his throat. Suddenly, he appeared ill at ease. “I have 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 appear 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 would have seen it as the sign of a weakling, 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 rock and looked down on the waiting men. “So much blood has been spilled. So many children left unheired. There is no seed in a dead man’s loins.” He stepped back from the rock and faced the King. “A moment ago you asked the Elyon 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 away, struggling to regain his composure. He was flooded with a myriad of emotions ranging from rage to a sense of absurdity. The men at the base of Ron Jonna looked like puppets. The King heard only the sound of the wind. Only the wind while he stood, saying nothing.
“It is not required,” said the Shautu, flatly. “It will not affect the lifting of the anathema if you refuse.”
“It is 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 see that day clearly. 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 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 have had not time for even cursory diplomacy. My days have been filled with blood, muck, 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. “I can give you understanding. That day in the forest, yes, I can see it. I can imagine how this whole bloody mess began. It’s understanding I can give. Yes, I can give you that.”
“Understanding is enough for now,” the Shautu agreed. “At least I’m not a monster in your eyes. Not entirely.”
Prompted by a sudden image, the King asked. “Can you really change into a bird?
“Falcon,” the Seer clarified. “The answer is yes. It is one of the requirements of the Blue Robe.”
William eyed him speculatively, but the Shautu shook his head. “Never mind how. There are many complexities involved, some of which I don’t understand. Now, I have a gift for you.”
“A gift?” The Warrior stared pointedly at the Seer’s empty hands.
“Nothing tangible, but a prediction, a prophecy. You will have a son.”
All tentative camaraderie fled. William looked stark and disturbed. The subject of a son had struck home.
“When the gypsies come to our village, we chase them with dogs and stones. Had I known of this prediction when you stood in the clearing, I might have done the same to you. Have I humbled myself to a fortune teller then?”
The Shautu was not put off. “I have certain gifts which do not include concocting unless potions or lying to lovesick girls. You will have a son. I’m telling you the truth.”
The King gave an odd bark of laughter. May it be as you predict, but I’m an old man at thirty seven. I ache and chill, sleep is often denied me. My physicians tell me it is none of the plague, chiefly because I’m still living, but I wonder. The earth Skyll, Elymas, claims to have a remedy. He is concocting it for me even as we speak.”
“Despite his remedy, you will have a son,” the Shautu replied, then added, “In a twelve-month.” He stretched out his arm and without warning, the falcon landed. “You’re father’s soul has easement, but not until I gather my brethren for the final absolution will he truly know peace. I will send a feather from my falcon.” Lightly, he touched one of the white circles on the bird’s wing. “A feather dyed blue. When you receive it, know that your father has found his road in the Deep.”
“Peace this day and each day waking between the Royal House of Casoria and the servant of the Elyon,” said William. “As long as there is breath in my body, the Eld Forest, as well as the other siketras, are sacred. I will keep my word.”
“Well spoken.” The Shautu nodded in agreement.
The King turned to go, then turned back to the Seer. “Will we meet again?”
An odd look of sympathy rested on the Seer’s face. “I can’t say. It is still possible, but if we never meet again, know that I will meet you in the face of your son.”
The Warrior King rode home that day with the war behind him. Forgetting cares and the tonics of Elymas, he repaired to an old barn of a castle in Glynnis Fen to hunt with his friends. There, he caught golden-haired Laveth stealing wood from the royal forest, but rather than exacting outrage, he took her to bed.
That an heir was conceived before the royal wedding was of no consequences to the general population and didn’t concern William at all. The child was born in due time, one month short of the Shautu’s projected twelve month.
With Laveth recovering in childbed, the Warrior King turned his energies to the reconstruction of Open Court. All documents kept by William the Fair had been lost, and his father hadn’t bothered with records. The Warrior King had only memory to guide him, and he could only recall that it had been twice a year, once before spring moon and once before harvest, and in the Great Throne Room. A slim beginning, but even so the great doors opened.
That spring, the Warrior King sprawled on his throne, a beloved and happy man.
In autumn, the doors ground open to startling changes. The great hall was a hushed and darkened room. Thick draperies covered the casements while fat tallow candles sputtered and burned in the brackets along the walls. William sat on the throne, pale and shaking, while Elymas, ever solicitous, hovered nearby with a chalice. The Warrior drank sparingly form the cup and judged fairly but it was clear to the people who came from the fens, the mountains, the stinking fishing villages, that the scepter that held sway over them was gripped by a dying hand.
Next: Casoria, Monday, Nov. 25th