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Week three under the power of the plodding mules saw another change in the landscape. The forest waned until flat grassland took over. Evidence of a large migration was everywhere. Boot prints were so common that the grass evaporated near the road into clumps of muddy depressions, strewn with debris such as coins, buckles, strips of cloth, animal bridals, and rinds of bread. This then was the Army’s path.
This was what had been the Eastern Empire until the Emperor’s victory. It frightened me to think, then, that the heretics could have come so close to Adea. How monstrous it would be to chart the spread of such a foul and damnèd profanity as this soul-killing pestilence? The doctrine was clear, the Hexaliturgy told no lie. Those not of the Faith were doomed to abolishment from the world upon death. Heresies bleed out the good from the afterlife, and are repulsive to the Saints.
We past several burned villages too, and one ransacked fort at the edge of the town of Agica. More buildings were burned down in that town than not. The peasants were not disposed toward us, leering out of the few remaining buildings, though we still held a short sermon in the town center.
Tigula and I reenacted the dialogue of mercy from the Hexaliturgy. I played the part of the unwilling rescuer and he the part of the victim of circumstance. Having nothing else to do, other than rebuild their town, a sizable audience gathered. Yet, for all the faces, none spoke or cheered or even reacted, as is typical of an Adean audience. They watched and were silent all fifty or sixty in the that square; not one word, not a smile or a grin. Even the children watched and said nothing and were still. Afterwards, we gave a little spoken lesson to that unnaturally quiet audience and then continued down the road.
We did not then encounter a soul for three days, until we came upon a lone Imperial courier. This man happily supped with us. According to him, the Army was only two days away camped around the great city of Kathage.
Yonas clapped the man on the back and said, “I’m very glad to hear that.”
“We can finally be rid of these mules,” Tigula said. “No insult intended, they are the Saint’s finest creatures, I’m sure, but they do smell. And they’re slow.”
We had our meal standing up around the back of the cart, for none of us wished to remain seated on the cart’s little wooden benches all day. Only the courier sat on the back of the wagon. A fine fellow, he kept his oiled hair in tight plaits around his head and his armor, made of interlocking scales, glittered in the sun as we took our lunch on the roadside.
“Yes,” the courier nodded. “But what they have in slowness they make up for in hardiness.”
Yonas agreed: “Horses are great at covering ground, but they take more feed, and are generally harder to rear.”
For the benefit of the reader I’ll say that our discussion of mule husbandry was purely academic, for none of us monks had any experience with horses, and the courier might have had none with mules, perhaps. There was no way to know. But speaking about such things passed the time pleasantly.
We further learned a bit about the courier. He was from Theodora, where his family had been ensconced as a tithed family to the Army. They traditionally pledged their younger sons to the Army to make their fortunes and our dear courier was the seventh generation to serve the Empire. Courier wasn’t a bad position, he told us. The job was honorable because it required a lot of walking, sometimes riding, through tough country or enemy lands, for the mail had to run to keep the Army functioning.
After lunch, we bid the man farewell, with the promise that if we were ever in Theodora we’d visit his family and bless them.
The going eased and on the second day near noon, we breasted a hill and came into sight of the city. The first sight of the Army was surely one of the most beautiful things I had seen since the divinity at the statue. The sun dappled from the sky onto the city of Kathage, creating a tapestry of moving light and shadow, for rain clouds pressed heavily upon the land. From our vantage, Kathage looked like hundreds of blocks of sand, dirt, and mud stacked together. Because the Kathagians construct their homes out of a material called adobe; a mixture of dried mud, clay, and grass; the entire city looked like a child’s sandbox fortress.
Around this town of dirt, the Army camped. According to tradition, the Army could not pillage after fourteen days, and as the whole assembly could not fit into the city walls, a vast camp of tents had been set up. Arranged around Kathage, they appeared as a second city of points— a crown of golden thorns around the mud brick city.
We were met on the road by a soldier dressed in the same sort of shining armor the courier had worn. This scaled armor extended to his warhorse, a beast so huge the it dwarfed our mules in its dragon-like magnificence.
“Brothers,” this man said. “General Polyate wishes to see you at once.”
This fine soldier led us to the general’s tent, although we had to stop many times to bless the soldiers who often approached us as we entered the camp.
The general’s tent was much grander than the others, trimmed in red on its yellow flanks. Surrounded by aquila as if they were talismans, there was no doubt that whoever rested there was in charge.
Inside was dim, except where shallow bowls filled with phosphoric fluid threw their pale blue light. The ambience was weird and meant to impress. Tigula and I entered solemnly behind Yonas.
Polyate’s reputation was known to me, but the man was not. I expected a scholarly type, for this man’s reputation was built on firm knowledge of tactics and his excellent teaching career. He was said to be a great teacher and so, I hesitate to say, I carried a certain prejudice regarding the appearance of scholars as reedy men with weak eyes from reading and perhaps a bald head in the style of the teachers of Adea. He who greeted us was a man of forty, dark-haired, muscled, oiled, and nearly naked, except for a metal-scaled skirt that did not hide his indecency for he had his leg raised on a chair. Many servants were carefully shaving that leg with long straight knives. They must have previously finished his barrel-shaped chest for it was smooth and bare except for two ancient scars that crossed his chest like a star.
“Excellent,” he said as we were announced. He didn’t even turn his head toward us. The anvil-shaped features stayed facing the far tent wall, but his voice was loud enough that there was no doubt who he was addressing. “But you are too late, Brother Monks. Kathage’s fate no longer depends on its soul. My soldiers secured the temples, executed the false priests, and have restored the Faith.”
“You’ve done our job for us?” Yonas asked slowly.
“I have not,” Polyate said. “For there is always work to be done and will always be men to do it! There’s a town on the coast some three miles hence called Ishopia. We liberated it, but unlike Kathage the townspeople will not renounce their Heresy. Perhaps they think the Army is too far away and have become bold. They are mistaken.”
We shifted uncomfortably for the general’s voice was picking up volume and had a crazed tone to it.
“It’s a nice town with a good view of the ocean, cool sea breezes, and much to recommend it. It’s not unlike the town I grew up it. I’d hate to raze it. Brothers, I give you a month to bring Ishopia back to the Faith. If not,” and here he moved from the chair and came to stand before us, heedless of the many gashes from his servants’ knives. The blood ran freely down his calf. “If not,” he said, raising his fist as if to crush the town with pure psychic will, “I will murder everyone there. The men, the women, the children, even their dogs, for heresy is an abomination in the Saints’ eyes and if the good medicine of the clergy can’t cure this infection then the surgery of war can.”
Tigula and I took a step back, but Yonas was made of sterner stuff. He stood still and said nothing.
Tigula hesitated, but eventually said, “General, mercy is perhaps the best medicine. If the town is not in arms… perhaps…”
“I have no time to waste on insurrectionists and their pejorative apostasy,” Polycate said. “They will proclaim the Faith, or I will cut them down.”
Having no choice, we consented to the new mission. We decided to pass through Kathage before taking the road north and found that while the Faith had been restored in the city after a fashion, the monks and priests were clergy from before the rebellion and had been much thinned in number. Those that survived, had been reinstated on the city’s fall, yet were universally resentful of the Army for looting the temples, smashing holy artifacts, and murdering the population. One prioress we spoke to talked of “improprieties against women” which I take to mean barbarous acts too wicked to set down on the page.
Everywhere we went the signs of the war were obvious. The houses, being mud, would not burn, but some were knocked down and the beaten people watched us solemnly, not daring to approach.
On the other side of the city, we encountered the Army tents again. Tigula suggested we perform a service for the soldiers. Hundreds of them packed around us to hear our divine lesson. Acts of barbarism must drive men to religion, for at the time I had never held so populous an audience. They collectively held their breath at the dramatic bits of animal parables, the sound was audible as the breath was sucked out of the crowd.
I left with renewed confidence. Our Army’s loyalty to the Faith was secure. I prayed to the Saints it would remain so.
Toward twilight, I left the cart to find a chamber pot and upon my return, I encountered a shaking soldier, nervous to his heart, which must have unwound in battle. Young, nineteen, he looked like a broken older man.
“Brother, oh brother monk,” he said, advancing on me with trembling, imploring arms.
I let him seize me. He did not have a sword, and there were hundreds of rescuers in shouting distance if he turned out to be mad.
“Yes?” I asked. “What is it?”
“I need your help,” he said. “I NEED help.”
“If it is in my power,” I said.
“I’ve done something horrible,” he said releasing me. I could see the tears in his face reflecting the cool blue of the evening light.
“Tell me,” I said, “and we will see what I can do.”
“I killed a man—.”
“No great crime in war,” I said. “The man would have killed you.”
“No,” the soldier said, shaking uncontrollably. “We were in the city, searching the houses, when we came to one that was locked. I kicked in the door. A man and a girl were there. I say, brother. I say. I say it is hard to say, brother.”
“Best to let poison out than to keep it in,” I said, dreading what I was about to hear. “Let me hear this spoken poison so that I may provide a spiritual antidote.”
“I killed the man. I ran him through with my sword, and then in a madness—. Sir, Brother, please! It’s so hard to say!”
He sank to his knees.
I placed both hands on his shoulders and said, “Speak.”
“I saw the girl,” he sobbed. “I slew her over her father’s corpse. Later I came to my senses and now…” He held out his trembling hands in front of his face as if they were the cause of his anguish. “I did it because I thought that’s what soldiers did, all the others say that’s what they do. I mean, this girl… I can’t stop seeing her face. Tears and Saints save me! She must have been only twelve years old.” He could not go on.
I forced myself not to back away and I thought deeply. There were Penance Manuals, with lists of millions of sins and the proper penance for them, but I did not have any memorized and I’d never heard a confession such as this. I felt pity for the boy, but also a deep revulsion, as if the only proper penance for this lost child would be to have himself drown in my recently evacuated chamber pot. But, regardless of my personal feelings I had to say something, preferably something comforting and wise, and so I placed my personal feeling aside and said:
“It is indeed a grave sin to have done this. You must try to undo the damage of what you have done and that is a hard thing to do. When your service in the Army is over, you must go into the Faith. Join an order that helps the poor and rebuild as many lives as it takes to remove this evil from the world.”
“How many will that be?” he asked.
“Only you can know that,” I said. “When you no longer feel guilty perhaps.”
I gave him small words of comfort before I departed, wondering if I had helped the boy, or if I had done the right thing. In the long term, maybe I had helped a few destitute souls, if the boy followed my penance. In the present, I doubted I had done anything significant. His road ahead was harder than mine, and I did not know if the Saints would forgive him of such a crime. O Saints who watch from the Firmament! I need nothing, I want nothing, I am as sound as a rock! Spare me your healing graces! Glance instead to the sick, the miserable, the wretched, and supply their needs so that they can join me in my happiness!
I returned to the cart, sick to my soul, and I related the story of the soldier to my companions Tigula spoke first.
“I don’t see where your doubt comes from, Motley,” he said. “Of course, you helped him. That was wise advice.”
“You gave him a purpose,” Yonas said. “And you supplied him with a way to save his soul.”
“And what of the man or his daughter?” I asked. “What can we do for them?”
“We can only hope they were of the Faith,” Yonas said. “Saint Æsarea said that in a state of purity women can not be defiled and her father, if of the Faith, will be even at this moment a spirit near the Saints.”
I looked up at the stars just beginning to peek out from under the skirt of night and wondered how many men were among their number glittering in rapture. I did not point out to Yonas that the incident had happened before the Faith was restored, that it happened during the sack of the city and that bleak as it was the doctrine was clear that neither man nor daughter was in a state of purity and that their souls were doomed to wander the infinite wastes of time divested, devoid, and depraved— away from Heaven.
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