As Johan watched Islinn ride away, his need for her was so overwhelming, so great, he dropped to his knees in the road. He hadn't thought he could experience the same level of sorrow as when he had lost her before but he now knew that not to be true. Some pain never healed, it only waited in the heart. And it always came back, the same loss,only presented differently, over and over again.
He sat back on his heels and felt the heat of the sun on his back and shoulders. The heat of his tears on his face. After Westerfox, he'd known she'd be taken from him. At the time, he hadn't been sure how or where but what had happened there had shown her to the world and they'd seen her through his eyes. But for her to return…and renunciate. He'd always thought he was a man who knew what pain was but he truly hadn't. Not until now,as he watched her ride away without a backwards glance.
Westerfox had cost him far more than he'd ever been prepared to give. And it had started out as nothing. Less than nothing. They had made camp, all of them shivering around a meager fire during the third heavy snow that winter. The man who had ridden up on the rattle-boned stag had stank of desperation. And sin. He owned some rathole tavern called the Pigkeeper's Inn and needed JoHan's children to come and save one of his whores and her bastard whelp. JoHan could still hear the man's thin,reedy voice.
"You gotta come. She won't eat or sleep or fuck, all she does is hold that whelp she pushed out a few days ago. "
JoHan had shaken his head and swept his hand towards his followers.
"That's not what my children do. It sounds like you need a healer. My children take care of spiritual matters."
The little man had shook his head and contemptuously spat on the frozen ground.
"They done come and said I needed you. She threw that whelp against the wall and smashed its head open. But she still thinks it's alive and keeps talking and singing to it. And I know its dead, half its head is smeared on my wall. The healer said she was possessed and said I should get you. You comin?"
JoHan had barely heard what the man had said after the part about the woman killing her own child. His mind reeled at such atrocity yet…he wasn't surprised. It was a thick-skinned life in these squalid little towns.
"So…" He ventured. "You're worried about the sins she bears?"
"Shit,I could care less about that." The man had retorted. "Tilda is my best whore and she ain't fuckin. She ain't turnin' any coin. You go in there and take care of her sins, get that thing from her, and bury it."
He should have said no. He knew he should have. But he'd been weak. It was so cold out and his children were suffering so he'd made them go in hopes of having some warmth and comfort in repayment. And it had been a child. Not much of one, that was for sure, but after being birthed by a whore in a tavern with the ignominious name of the PigKeepers Inn, JoHan felt the child deserved to be touched and held by at least one kind pair of hands before being placed in Brede's caretaking.
It had been worse than he'd ever dreamed possible. He still closed his eyes at night and saw the filthy room on the back of his eyelids. The smear of blood and gray matter on the wall. Not much blood though. And not many flecks of gray. Such a tiny little thing it had been. And the whore. On her knees clutching the still bundle with a fierce joy on her face as she sang a song of no words. He had knelt down and held his hands out to her and felt the power of Brede within him.
His faith had strummed in his bones, a rolling tide of confidence and compassion as he held out his arms for the ruined child. He'd spoken to her gently, and promised her child safe passage to Brede. He had told her he loved her. And that Brede would welcome her back to his fold. He had been so overcome with compassion he'd felt the moment had defined him. Had stripped away his insecurities and doubt. He felt…powerful. Clean. It was only him. This woman. And the child. And JoHan had inherently known that between humility and perfection, there was sacrifice.
She had spat on him and turned away. The saliva had mingled with his righteous tears and burned a furrow down his face. And in an instant, it had all disappeared. The confidence, the overwhelming sense of compassion, the strength of his faith.
"She's beyond our help." He'd stated tersely. There was nothing he could do. Brede had chosen to curse this woman with madness. It was a simple matter. JoHan had felt he needed time. He needed to re-group and think about what had just happened because he was badly shaken . That queer little sense of knowing from nothing had never failed him before.
And it had been Islinn. She had pushed her way through the whores crowded in the room and gone over to the woman in the corner. JoHan had watched her push the cowl of her robe back as she knelt down and the whore had reached out a trembling hand to touch her blond hair.
"I don't know how to pray." The woman had said with ruinous dignity as she clutched her broken child.
"You don't have to. I'll do it for you." Islinn had whispered as she held out her hands. JoHan had been sure that the whore would spit on her too but she hadn't. Instead, she'd held the bundle out and offered it like a gift.
"I didn't mean to. I didn't mean to. Forgive me, I didn't mean to." She mumbled, and had made a whimpering, crooning sound deep in her throat. And then Islinn had said something JoHan would never forget for the rest of his days.