Chapter 75

It was all just ritual and symbol, Blair knew that. Playacting and memory. Tradition. At some time in the distant past, far away in the mists of prehistory, perhaps the King of May had been sacrificed in earnest, a luckless god-king chosen from among his fellows to reign for a few days or a few hours before being hurled to his death. But that was all in the past. This was a bloodless, if not entirely innocent, celebration of spring. The oak bough Jim had carried and the Cascade PD badge were only symbols of his office given to the gods of the land, not the man himself.

Blair told himself that, anyway, as he watched the bough and the glittering badge fall through the gauzy curtains of water rising from the base of the falls. There was nothing to be frightened of. No reason for the sinking feeling of dread that chilled him to the bone, despite the dappling of sunlight across the lush grass at the head of the cliff. It should have gladdened his heart; Jim was a magnificent King of May. The white of his tunic glowed in the morning light, and his eyes looked bluer than Blair remembered seeing before. Jim stood head and shoulders above the other celebrants, and with his noble brow wreathed in laurel, he could so easily have been one of the god-kings of old. The strongest, the most beautiful and wise, cut down and sacrificed in his prime in order to appease the jealous old gods of the earth.

Blair shuddered at the thought. There was such a thing as too much knowledge. Imagine him thinking about old blood sacrifices here in the Greenwood on such a beautiful day. He pushed his way through the crowd of celebrants, trying to reach Jim. He wanted to comfort Jim, who looked so serious and grim Blair wondered miserably if he had told Jim about this ritual's darker history. It didn't really matter, the man could figure it out whether Blair had told him anything or not. The symbolism was clear enough. Blair redoubled his efforts, frantically eager to banish Jim's fear and allow him a few hours quiet and peace in the forest. There were too many people around here anyway. They should go away somewhere alone together, leave the mob with its noises and demands behind them.

"Jim!" he shouted, frustrated by the wine-drunk, blissfully unhurried crowd. He snatched the roses from his hair and flung them to the ground, wanting to set himself off from the foolish, beautiful people around him. "Jim, over here."

Blair knew Jim heard, because he saw him flinch as though his voice had been a lash. For a long instant, though, Jim's head didn't turn, and the dull, cold embers of foreboding in Blair's breast burst into flame. "*Jim!*" he screamed.

Jim had to turn then, and on his face was written such wild, hopeless grief Blair cried out in despair as well. Jim closed his eyes and bowed his head, as though the sight of Blair was too much for him to bear, and for the first time Blair saw that what he had mistaken for garlands of flowering vines around Jim's wrists were in truth coarse, knotted ropes. There was no crown of laurel around his brow either, but a circlet woven of hawthorne branches. It had been forced down upon Jim's head so cruelly the long thorns pierced his flesh, and the blood was drying in long brown rivulets down his cheeks.

The blows had made Jim dizzy and disoriented, so at first he thought the sense of movement was merely his own vertigo and he looked around himself, expecting his surroundings to be dipping and weaving in a merry-go-round dance. It was all the more surreal to find he was the one moving, gliding above the silty grit as he was carried by two of the faceless mob, their hands digging like claws into his upper arms. Without being able to see where they were taking him, he knew with absolute certainty he did not want to go there, and he tried to get his feet underneath himself in order to resist being dragged forward.

The position he was in, hanging from his arms, left him no leverage and he couldn't force his legs to catch up with the rest of him. Quivering and protesting, his muscles sent back flashes of jagged pain instead of responding with the thoughtless, easy control he had always taken for granted. Gasping for breath, he lifted his head, trying to see where he was being taken, and what he saw made his bones feel watery with fear.

Looming above him was his father's house, its windows dark, many of them broken, the empty interior barely visible inside. Straggling shoots from long-dead rose bushes reached from the sand around him like black skeletal arms, grasping at him with wickedly hooked thorms dried to the consistency of old bones. Below the peeling, shifting walls of the blank-eyed house, the crumbling foundation was a wall of wet, dark concrete exuding the scents of decay and stale sewage. Like an open wound, a roughly arched cave entrance leered at him, leading to some hidden depth so dark he could see nothing at all inside, except for the malevolent gleam of two greenish-golden eyes glaring out at him.

A faint hint of pointed teeth were limned under the eyes, and the low, rumbling sound of a threatening growl made Jim jerk back frantically, yanking against the fierce holds on his arms. He had met that beast many times in his dreams, and all he could remember was he had always lost his life to it.

The Greenwood withered around Blair. As the great hardwoods twisted and shriveled, the bluebells at their roots turned gray, and a wind that smelled harshly of salt and the sea dashed the brittle petals away. The roar of the waterfall became the soulless crashing of the surf, and Blair screamed in rage and grief, because he recognized this place, and he could not bear to be here again. He could not bear that Jim should be here again. Not upon these terrible sands where the light and life in those gentle blue eyes had turned gray and brittle as the lost bluebells. He saw Jim just for an instant as he had been on the beach, crouched and mindless, crying out with the howling of the wind, and the picture seared Blair's soul. He would not live through this again. He could not.

He lurched forward across the beach shouting to Jim, weeping in rage, his own sanity a house built upon the shifting sands. If only he had been strong enough, if only he had known, this never would have happened. Yet it was happening again. It was more than heart and mind could bear, and Blair swore, with every quickening step, that he would change this. He would give his life to change this. And so the world changed around him as he ran. The air still smelled of the sea, but the ground underfoot became marshy and wet, and over the fishy stink of the ocean was the stagnant reek of the marsh. A bleak, gray dawn colored the sky. Gulls were screaming, and the legionnaires ranked across the boggy ground blocked his way.

Some were in uniform, but more were not, and the salty air was sour with raw wine. It was bitterly cold, but the soldiers did not seem to notice, intent only on the spectacle before them. Stationed at this bleak post at the outermost edges of the Empire, hungry for memories of home, they battened on a stern old winter festival. The Lord of the Saturnalia was bound to a crude scaffold before them, the remnants of his purple robe knotted about his thighs and a crown of iron weighing down his head.

It must have gone on for hours. Stripes from the lash criss-crossed the powerful body, trembling now in weariness and pain. As Blair tried to force his way through the line of soldiers, the lash fell once more, the crack of leather on flesh shocking in the stillness of the gray dawn. Jim's head came up, a grunt of agony escaping him. His face was streaked with blood and tears, but more terrible to Blair was the expression of exhausted resignation in Jim's shadowed eyes.

Jim knew. Blair could fight his way through every human society he'd ever studied in his young lifetime, and it still wouldn't change anything. Jim had known from the very first, the truth was old as mankind. The bravest and the strongest, the ones who loved most wisely and most well were always cut down by the rest. Mankind had never gotten over its old habit of offering up the beautiful ones first in the hopes of deflecting the jealous rage of a spiteful cosmos. Bound to the altar of Saturn or sent undercover to break up a smuggling ring, the end was the same: Jim's heart blood running red across the sand.

Blair hardly felt the hands of the soldiers upon him. All he knew was that he was not allowed to go to Jim's side. The men around him laughed as they forced Blair to his knees on the marshy ground. Not cruel or angry laugher, just the boisterous amusement of soldiers a long way away from home, finding what entertainment they could in bleak surroundings. Someone bent down to offer him a a wineskin, and when Blair turned his face away, upended it over Blair's head. The wine was warm and smelled like vinegar and blood. Blair heard the lash crack against Jim's bleeding body again, and when he screamed in protest, begging them to stop, someone planted a knee in the center of his back and pushed him to the ground.

He struggled for a moment, but there were too many above him, and they were far too strong, and so he spread his hands wide on either side of his head in silent surrender, and at once the pressure on his back lifted. A comradely hand wrapped around his arm and yanked him to his feet, and someone else whapped him on the back. They hadn't even noticed how desperately he was fighting. "Sober up, man," someone told him, and Blair realized they simply thought he was drunk. "Or you'll miss everything." Blair was pushed from man to man, scarred faces thrust close to his, laughing at him before pushing him on. Blair stumbled but managed to keep his feet, and then the last man he fell against grabbed his arm and yanked him around, and Blair found himself at the foot of the crude altar itself. The stones were spattered with blood.

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