The tangled branches of the forest’s tallest oaks allowed only a sliver of moonlight to reach the font’s chalcedony surface, but still the liquid within glowed a silvery gray. The small congregation, huddled at the edge of the cloistered clearing, watched as a commanding figure raised his silk-strewn arms to the trees and spoke.
“Regan Blackson, Thomas Blackson, you have sought and found redemption through the grace of God’s eternal church and his Holy Prelate. Through this baptism, may your holy commission be complete. You must forgive and forget, be forgiven and be forgotten. Will you take this call upon you?”
A woman’s voice rang out earnestly. “Yes, of course.” Regan looked to her husband, clutching his arm with both hands.
“Yes,” Thomas responded with a half-smile, “as long as there’s no celibacy clause I’ve overlooked in this contract.”
His grin was short-lived as he watched Regan wilt slightly at his levity. He sighed and looked to the leaf-strewn ground.
“Just yes then.”
The Prelate turned to a robed man behind the couple.
“Acolyte Brenner, are the contracts in order?”
“Yes, Lord Prelate. All names have been collected, understood, and signed.”
“Very well.” The Prelate nodded and extended an arm toward the couple. “Mrs. Regan, you first.” With a final squeeze to her husband’s shoulder, Regan followed the bare-chested Baptizer to the pool, slipping into the shoulder-high depths with a shudder.
The Prelate continued. “Regan Blackson, as your earliest sin was confessed to have been committed at age eleven, beyond your ten years of grace, a penance of 20 seconds will suffice to cleanse you.” He bowed his head. “May God redeem your mind and soul.”
Regan took a deep breath, and the Baptizer seized her proffered wrists and immersed her. Acolyte Brenner began counting down as the audience watched on in silence.
At twelve seconds remaining, there was a slight stir in the water. At eight seconds, it became a churning. By four seconds, the Baptizer was grimacing as his muscles strained with the effort of keeping Regan submerged. At the pronouncement of “Zero, and cleansed!” the congregation repeated solemnly “and cleansed,” and Regan was heaved from the pool, sputtering and gasping for breath. The Baptizer led her to the stone edge, where she clung tiredly.
Thomas let out a breath with such relief it surprised even him.
The Prelate moved to stand before Regan at the edge of the pool. She looked up with wide, inquiring eyes. “What happened?"
“You have been saved,” the Prelate replied simply.
“Oh, thank you,” Regan replied sincerely. She turned to the Baptizer. “Thank you, I must have fallen in. I couldn’t breathe.” Her eyes widened as she took in the forest around her. “Where am I?”
“The Pool of the Church of God,” the Prelate explained, “surrounded by his Holy Prelate and congregation.”
Regan shook her head slowly. “I’m sorry... I don’t remember... must have gotten lost....”
“Do you remember your name?”
“Regan Fairwood,” she replied quickly.
Acolyte Brenner approached with a blanket and helped to pull Regan from the pool.
“You mean Blackson,” Thomas said loudly, taking a step forward. “It’s only been two years, but still, it’s Blackson now.”
Regan glanced quizzically at him. “I’m sorry, sir, my father is Ryan Fairwood of the Glen Hills. I know no Blacksons.”
Thomas’s mouth dropped open. “But, the market,” he sputtered. “The trading market three years ago.”
Regan blushed and pulled the blanket tighter around herself. “Sir, I’m hardly old enough to attend market.”
“Too true, too true,” the Prelate added, shepherding Regan toward the congregation. “Eleven years old is much too young to be trading.” As he approached, a matronly woman with gray streaks in her short, brown hair stepped out of the crowd. “Ah, thank you Miss Taylor, will you please take Miss Fairwood to the enclave? I’m sure she’s exhausted.”
Miss Taylor wrapped one arm around Regan, grasping her elbow with the other, and led her down an ivy-crowded forest path. The rest of the women in the congregation followed.
Thomas made as if to go as well, but the men quickly blocked the path. “Bring her back!” Thomas shouted. His voice cracked.
“I’m sorry, Thomas,” the Prelate replied, “but she must be properly taught. She’s in such a vulnerable state now.”
“I can help her. It should be me.”
The Prelate shook his head. “You’ve read the contract. You know as well as I that only the Sacred Shoal may enter the enclave. The forgiving and forgetting, forgiven and forgotten. You, yourself signed your commission.”
“Because she wanted it,” Thomas yelled, his cry sinking into the earth around him. He could no longer see the women among the trees. He looked frantically from path to Prelate to pool.
“Yes, she did,” came the Prelate’s soothing voice, “and it cannot be undone. You, of course, are free to leave now should you so desire, but she is half saved and has brought you halfway with her. She can complete the journey on her own, but you could make it so much simpler for her. My child, would you stop now? Would you make her efforts worth so little?”
Thomas looked up through the trees, seeking out the moon. He turned to the pool. The Prelate smiled.