Sheridan approached the table slowly. He took his seat and pulled on the gloves. Not a single person condemned to the Red Trial had ever successfully completed it. The crowd loved it. Expected it. Hoped for it. He could think of nothing else as he grabbed the uneven, red ball. He stared at it, as if confused. He held it, as one would a babe newly born. He realized suddenly that the quiet continued to reign. He looked up and around. Not a single pair of eyes did not meet his own. He looked at the dais. At the king and the queen. At his son. With a deep breath, he began to dig into the tough, outer skin.
“He is innocent, I tell you,” the queen once more asserted to her husband, the protector of the realm, the keeper of justice.
“Do not be fooled. Your spirit compromises your reason.” The king did not raise his voice. His breathing did not change. His face remained expressionless.
“At the very least, reconsider the sentence. No man deserves such a fate.” She was pleading.
“Treason is intolerable. The people need to know as much.” He swept past her on his way to the courtyard. It was time.
Sheridan sat in the black silence of the dungeon. Drops of water echoed in the distance, making their way toward him as they bounced off the uneven walls. Sweat rolled down his face as his thoughts raced his heart. Days after the sentencing, disbelief and terror still held their ground. They still held his breath. Things were so different only a few days ago.
Sheridan’s life was simple. He and his son lived on a farm nestled deep in the rolling countryside that surrounded the castle. Rane, but twelve years old, was still too young to understand most things. Though, he knew with certainty that his family was different. It was smaller than most. He did not know his mother. He did not even remember having met her. His father told him and anyone else that asked that she died while giving birth and never a word more. Still, Rane would occasionally ask about her, hoping to come away with something, anything, that helped him see her in his head. On such occasions, Sheridan looked away before telling Rane that he no longer remembered.
Sheridan’s life was peaceful. He did not meddle in the affairs of others, and he expected, and generally received, the same treatment in return. Rane was his purpose. He hoped to give to his son a better life than his own. He worked from dawn until dusk so Rane wouldn’t have to. He invested in Rane’s scholastic and military education to give his son the privilege of choice. He taught his son to aspire to the strength of a knight, the virtue of a saint and the wisdom of a king. Rane would be more than a peasant. With such thoughts Sheridan rose in the morning, and with such thoughts Sheridan retired in the night.
The dungeon denied him rest. His sleep was fitful and his body haggard. As he wavered in and out of consciousness, his thoughts marched to the rhythm of the distant dripping. He loved his son, the joy of his life. Drip. Sheridan did not know why he was accused of treason. He did not understand how he was found guilty. Drip. He wanted to close his eyes and feel his son’s body wrapped up in his burly arms, struggling to wriggle away. He wanted to see his son smile as he ran home towards supper. Drip. Rane’s mother was beautiful, and she loved him dearly. Drip. His son was his purpose, and his son had been taken. Sheridan felt failure, resentment, pity, and he wept. Drip. Does blood fall softer? Does it sound at all? Drip.
A key ring chimed. A guard pulled open his cell. It was time.
He dug grooves into the shell of the fruit with the slight edge that remained of his fingernails through the lining of the glove. Dig too deep, and the red flows. Dig not deep enough, the fruit does not open – and still the red flows. He carefully traced two intersecting circles that wound their way around the pomegranate’s surface. He took the orb between his hands, cupping his palms around the fruit. Most people met with fate at this junction. One must apply pressure inward and outward at once to break the whole into pieces. Only then can one begin to excavate the deeply entrenched seeds. Sheridan observed his hands. They did not tremble. Sweat did not distort his vision nor loosen his grip. He was focused, determined to free his son, resolved to triumph. He pulled. And the chunks came apart without a single seed falling. Without a single seed dying. A sigh of relief escaped him.
The courtyard at the center of the castle was massive. Yet, people swallowed nearly all of the smooth, gray stone. Masses of farmers and merchants, hordes of banners and flags, throngs of screaming fists and impassioned gibberish saturated the space. The king and queen sat upon an elaborate dais at one end, surrounded by armed guards and bearded counselors. Attendance was obligatory, noncompliance punishable by death. Only enemies of the realm would not wish to see justice served. Sheridan was escorted to the small square of space reserved for him at the center of the madness. A rock caught him in the cheek. Spit collected in his hair and on his clothes. The words, though, were the worst. That is, until he entered the space reserved for him and lifted his eyes. Upon a table sat a pomegranate. And beyond, bound and deathly still in a heap at the king’s feet, was his son. Sheridan screamed. The deafening crowd took that, too.
The king slowly lifted his right hand, and silence fell.
“Welcome, my loyal denizens. Today, we bear witness to the Red Trial, for we have before us a traitor, a vile and abhorrent abuser of the king’s trust and the peoples’ faith. Do you understand what it is you are to do and what is at stake, villain?” The king addressed Sheridan directly, who, unable to speak, just shook his head.
“You will don the gloves that lie upon the table. You will then proceed to extract every seed from the pomegranate there placed. The slightest bit of juice that falls on a glove will render its entirety a crimson red. You must injure not a single seed. Should both of your gloves turn red before you have completed your task, I will behead your son. You will then share the same fate.”
“Please, my lord, is there no other way? Is there nothing I can do to save my son?” Sheridan found his voice in search of hope. His attempt to look at the king was thwarted by the blur in his eyes. He wanted to appeal to the queen, but his fear would not allow it.
“Someone akin can willingly take your son’s place. Have you a wife, traitor?” The king did not raise his voice.
“No, my lord.”
“Siblings? Other children? Parents?” His breathing did not change.
“No, my lord.”
“Then it is settled. You may begin.” His face remained expressionless.
Sheridan set to work on the largest of the chunks. He carefully pulled back a thin membrane that coated the seeds lying on the outermost edge. Pulling the gloves as tight as possible so as to gain maximal dexterity with his fingers, he began to wedge the seeds out of their resting places. The seeds could not be plucked like apples or oranges. Squeezing them was too risky. Instead, one must push on one side, hoping that the root gives way and falls harmlessly to the table. Intense and unified was his concentration. Too much so.
Stirring awake, his son rolled over to look out at the crowd. He saw his father, his best friend and only family member, his protector and his caretaker, his inspiration and his happiness. And he called for him, not thinking, only feeling. “Father!” With a gasp, Sheridan looked up. The crowd gasped as he looked into his son’s eyes. Rane yelled again, this time louder, more hysterically. The roar erupted anew. Sheridan looked down. Blood coated both his hands.
“No! Please, no! Please, do not do this! I’ll do anything.” Sheridan watched in agony as the king reached for his sword. Silence fell.
“Let this be a lesson to you, traitor, and to all those in attendance. Prosperity and peace are no less fragile than the seeds of that fruit. They come at a price. Sacrifice and justice are inseparable.” The executioner brought to the dais a block. Rane’s head was placed across it.
“No, please, have mercy. Have mercy” He sobbed, begged, as one does when he is about to lose the only thing he cares for in this life.
“Have you any final words for your son?” The king did not raise his voice. His breathing did not change. His face remained expressionless.
“Enough. ” The queen rose. The crowd stood unnaturally still, paralyzed as reality shattered violently around them. Rane looked up through bleary eyes at his queen, his mother. Her face bore a smile tragic in its love, triumphant in its defiance.
It was time.