Soul of the Wild Wood
By Brenna Hanson
Date: August 8, 2021
Ch. 77

I looked down at my hands where they rested in my lap. A wistful sadness and shame filled me. I knew what it was like to be Fate’s plaything.

“His son will remember,” River said touching my cheek. “King Ember will remember his father in joy because King Fern was a loving father. Those memories will shape his reign. They will shape how he raises his own children with you. In the end, the goodness of King Fern will live on. That is what matters.”

Standing at the foot of the dead king, River’s words repeated in my head. I saw King Fern in the light that she had shone him in and felt honored to be allowed to carry the good things forward. Ember looked over at me and gave a sad smile. My heart broke for the boy I saw behind his warrior’s eyes. He reached for my hand again. I took it in mine, squeezing lightly to let him know that I understood. I hoped he also understood that I would do my best to make sure the better memory of his father was brought out from beneath the shadow of death.

Then it was time for the feast. Ember and I walked hand-in-hand to the long banquet table. He seated me in one of the two middle chairs facing the inner courtyard of the village. I felt him brush a light kiss on the top of my head before taking the chair beside me. The gesture gave my heart an extra beat and brought a blush to my cheeks.

My thoughts were further scattered when I noticed a deep, thrumming beat coming from the surrounding forest. Drummers marched out dressed in a variety of formal attire that named the village they came from through color and decoration.

Our people come, King Ember signed. When I made to stand, he placed a hand on my thigh. They come to pay respects to my father first. Later, they will greet us and we will accept their oaths.

I nodded.

Ash-covered men wearing hooded robes the same deep green as my dress stepped silently up to the platform. Everyone in the audience stood. As one, the men dropped their hoods and raised their faces to the sky. Everyone else dropped their eyes to the ground. River had told me earlier that these men were the Monks of the Final Birth. Their job was to free the soul of the king from the weight of the choices he had made for his people. Only then would that soul become light enough to move on. What she had not told me was that the monks freed that soul through song.

Theirs were the first voices other than River and Nettle that had reached my ears since I had come to live with The People of the Trees. The song they sang began deep and solemn. I could not understand the words but knew within my heart that they were meant to coax out a soul burdened by grief. I felt tears streaming down my cheeks. Ember’s hand took mine. I held on to him as if he were my only tether to the world in a sea of sorrowful voices.

Soon, the song began to shift in pitch and tempo. It grew, stretching out of sadness and duty as if shedding an old skin. By the last note, my heart was bursting with joy. I touched my fingertips to my heart and then spread my arms to embrace the sky just as everyone surrounding the empty bones on the platform did. I could believe no less than that King Fern’s final journey had been into not only peace but true happiness.

When they were done, the monks replaced their hoods and filed past the table where King Ember and I sat. They carried a black feather in each hand. One by one, they stopped before us. The first to arrive placed a feather before each of us and bowed. Not all of the monks followed suit. Some placed their feather only in front of King Ember and would not include me in their bow. Some turned their back to both of us before moving on. Ember frowned at each of these monks who did not accept their new rulers as they should but he said nothing. In the end, over half of the monks had placed a feather before us both. River said that would be enough to ensure their combined support of the throne. I had to believe that would carry us through our needs.

When they were gone, Ember took my hand again. Neither of us said anything about the missing feathers.

Then the best part of the night began. The trill of flutes joined the drums, then the wailing sound of bows drawn across strings. Finally, the crash of small cymbals and clapping hands exploded into the village with music both wild and beautiful. I caught my breath on an overjoyed laugh and could barely keep from rising from my chair to clap in delight. I met Ember’s eyes and made the sign for beautiful.

Yes, he signed back. But not nearly so much as you.

Before I could respond, dozens of men and women poured from the trees. Their nearly nude bodies were painted in whorls, stripes, and dots. Streamers made from dyed grasses tipped with bright feathers were tied around waists and into hair. Their steps were so light that I wondered if they even touched the ground as they spun and tumbled. They danced around the bones on their platform raising their hands to the sky in joyous sendoff. Then, as one they turned to Ember and I and stopped. Everyone who had come to the funeral shifted their attention to the new king – and his foreign bride. Most managed to school their faces into the mask of mild curiosity and greeting. A few, though, looked at me with open contempt if not hostility. Ember made a sign to tell me that all would be well. He made it low so that no one else could see. I gave him a small smile and squared my shoulders to meet my people with graceThe dancers began once more. Their dance began slow. It was a timid greeting for the new rulers before them. Then they broke out into joy once more lifting my heart with the feeling that they included me in this celebration of a new day for their people. As the food was brought out, the dancers skipped through those feasting stealing a bite here and there as they went. Those whose food disappeared gave thanks to the thief.

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