They no longer killed the King at the end of his seven years. They were civilized now, with houses built of wood and brick and clay, sturdy doors, real windows, chimneyed fireplaces, not dark and smoke-filled withy huts. They had paved streets, not muddy paths, and city walls of dressed and fitted stone, not the ancient palisades of ring and ditch and mound. They did not need to kill the sacred king to make the sacrifice.
Other sacrifices were made instead. Sacrifices of goods, of time, of status, of sanity. For there was still a Sacred King, chosen as in time immemorial by lot, and the privileges, duties, honors and appurtenances were all as they had been for hundreds – nay, thousands – of years. The lottery was held at Beltain, the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, and for the season of summer there was harmony between the Young King-to-Come and the Old. Lughnasa – the turn from summer to autumn – saw the Young King grow in strength, defeating the Old King in the games, the red-grain fields yielding more than the white, and the black-barked trees of the sacred grove stood crowned with scarlet, the sunfruit – green and gold and ripening toward winter – plucked to make the coronation wine, the wild-honeycombs from the bees that lived in their branches and the hollows of their trunks harvested with care to brew the mead of kings.
When the new mead was well into fermentation, a portion was drawn off and combined with the last of the Old King's coronation-mead. The Summer Queen and the Winter (they succeeded without conflict, a result of women's mysteries to which the men were not privy) prepared the vessels, the traditional herbs (heather and woodruff, mistletoe and thyme), the precisely measured spices, all the sacred, secret ingredients that made up the Cup of Kings. This too, had not changed.
On Samhain-eve, the mid-point betwixt the autumn balance the the depth of winter, at the hour the sun dipped below the horizon, the Young King and the Old, the Queens of Summer and Winter, met in the sacred grove, and what took place there was witnessed by those with right to speak for the people, those close in blood or oath to the principals, and those blessed (or cursed) with the ability to converse with the spirits – of the dead, of the gods, of the elements. At the rising of the sun of the first day of Winter, the Young King, the newly-anointed Sacred King, strode forth with the Winter Queen, and the Old King passed from the knowledge of men.
(Blood and seed still held the land, mingled: young and old, living and departed, newly sacred and the long profane. It was their compact and understanding with the powers of the world Unseen, and gave them a strength in the world Seen that gave their enemies pause, their allies hope. None had conquered their lands in any age where the rituals of the Sacrifice, the King to the Land, had been kept.)
But where once the King-defeated, the King-deposed, had made final sacrifice to the Land with his life's blood, his last breath and seed wrung from him, his body given to the elements unliving: bones to the earth, flesh to the fire, blood to the water and spirit to the air, now the ritual takes from him breath and will in oaths, blood and seed in symbolic, measured amount. His bones will be given to the earth when his body dies in the ordinary passage of time. The king's death was now symbolic, but no less a death. It is the kingship that dies, leaving the man who had been king still living.
If living it could be called.
Oh, he is not exiled (far from it: indeed, one element of the oath was a binding geas on his flesh, forbidding the leaving of the land) nor made destitute (provision was made for shelter, food, raiment, even employment, after a fashion) nor denied the company of family and those close to him, should they choose to go with him from the places of power and the heart of the city.
The man who had been King (the Sacred King, keeper of the spirit of the land, bearer of the great tools: the Star Sword, the Shield of Peace, the Cauldron Everfull, the Diadem of Light whose nine stones served each season in turn to bring to life the fires of hearth and altar, watch-point and beacon, street-lamp and vigil-candle) walks alone from the grove on the first day of Winter, clad in a shroud of undyed linen wrapped over with length of unwashed wool, bare of head, empty of hand, dazed of heart and mind. A living ghost. The kiss of the new King burns cold on his forehead, stings at the seven sacred points, raw and naked to the air, bereft of weight (bronze, iron, wood, stone, crystal, gold), of warmth.
Nameless – oh, he may use the name his mother gave him, that his father saw written in the lists of boys-become-men, the name that was called in the drawing of the lots, inscribed in the Roll of Kings, and hardly heard since then, but the person those syllables meant is long gone, and who he might become is not even a dream – he stands in the liminal space where wood gives way to grassland, the high moor that holds the graves of every King that ever was. There are sandals in the leathern sack that was waiting at his side when he awoke, but now his chilled toes feel the stiff, dry grass, the stoney, sleeping earth. Wind pats at his face, shaping him out of shadow, nipping at nose and ears and fingertips. The sun is behind him, ribbons of dawnlight running before him, pale and bright. Nameless and alone.
There is bread in the satchel, a waxed-leather bottle of water, a twist of salt. There is even a tinderbox, with flint and straw, an iron blade that may strike a spark. There is a narrow strand of woven, braided, twisted gut, a noose for rabbits. There is no map, no pen, no ink or words. The city lies beyond the grove, the other side of the forbidding, ancient trees.
There is a path, farmsteads, hunters, hawthorn hedges, rowan-withy huts, wells and streams along the way. There are voices in the wind, and a memory of warmth. The gates will open for him, does he find them. A lodging welcome him, with a knob-handled brush of broom-straw, and a sweepers place at the hearth. Come the advent of Spring his family may seek him, should they desire, and bring the wanderer home if he has not yet found his way.
They no longer kill the King, but few survive the winter.