45th Day of Ripening Season, 342 years After Mourning
I awoke to the sound of scuffles, words or thoughts I know not which, trudging past, too weary to veer from the path they began. Once the confusion faded, a faint stripe of filtered light pushed back the darkness. I whispered the prayer of thanksgiving. I am alive! I repeated the prayer a second, and then a third, time, while sobs of relief racked my broken body.
The words pushed past my swollen lips and ignored the blood when they cracked open. The emotions flowed through me, emptying me. When the terror, and anger, and grief, and pain, and sadness for all that had transpired dwindled away into embers, still painful to the touch, but no longer able to scorch my soul, I pushed myself up.
My hands groped in the dark until they clawed across a tray. Broth spilled across my fingers. Praise the Divine Seven and the Creator! I winced at the saltiness, but somehow managed to slurp the liquid down without crying out. The ale I left alone, for now. My swollen eyes, slowly becoming accustomed to the darkness, fell on the other object on the tray. Unwrapping the square linen, my journal fell out, along with a quill and a small vial of ink. Hidden within a sachet of sand, I found the priest’s coin and kissed the words written on it, To Serve, Unto Death. When my strength returns, I must repay Wohlrin for his bravery in slipping me the items.
Sisters, you do not need the trivial details of the past two days; you were there as your servant huddled helpless against the attacks. I do not presume to bore you with historical recounts. No, I write these words because a heavy curtain has fallen over my heart and I fear my time is coming to an end. Not now, but soon. You have not bestowed me with visions or premonitions. They would have been unnecessary. I can hear the whispers of my fate closing in. Someone must know the truth. Someone must warn the children.
They came for me at dawn, two days ago. Five priests led me to the altar when Sister Imorgan waited. Her upper lip rose a fraction and I remember wondering what sin I had committed to cause her such displeasure. I fear I shall always see her that way now, her lip curled up and disdain bleeding from her eyes. There is great pain there, or great ambition, or both.
“Borchain,” she began, the omission of my title rang louder than the chime of the temple’s bell. “You reek. Blood stains your soul. Do you deny this?”
“I cannot,” I said. “I have killed a man and the stench that covers me is my guilt. I come seeking forgiveness from my peers and from the Seven. I would be cleansed.”
“Your guilt?” She held up the man’s ring to the light. “As always, you think only of yourself, Borchain. Shall I tell you what I smell? I smell the death of a life cut short and the blood of a man whose soul cries out for justice.”
Isn’t it odd how a challenge affects the guilty and the innocent alike? Oh how I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to circle that room, telling each of them what happened. I wanted to hold their shoulders and scream how this callous thug had harmed a child. I wanted to transport them to that room where fear and innocence shimmered together in the heat. My tongue, however, wanted to do no such thing. My lips clamped shut and whatever words I could have used in my defense were lost to me.
Sister Imorgan sneered.
“And after you are cleansed, what then, Borchain? Do you presume to hold your title here among us? That a ritual absolves you of your crimes and we would be so inspired by your honesty and humility we would flock under your leadership like witless lambs?”
I had. How foolish of me. I had.
And she knew it. It was all she needed to leverage her own power.
“By your own admission you are guilty. I invoke the old blood law. You are hereby relieved of your rank and title. Your cleansing ritual begins today. Tomorrow, you will face the penance ritual. The Holy Sisters hold your life, whatever is left of it, in their hands. Should you survive the next two days, you are reborn, a simple priest.” Sister Imorgan nodded and two priests seized me from behind. I searched their faces and realized with a shock that I had never met them before. Too much had changed while I was away.
“The ring—” I began.
“Does not belong to you,” she interrupted, making it disappear within the folds of her robe. “Unless we need to add thievery and greed to your list of crimes?”
Within her eyes, I saw something . . . something hidden. I never got the chance to question her. The priests dragged me away and shortly thereafter, the beatings began.
There is no need to recount those. Suffice it to say, Sister Imorgan lied. The priests took turns with whips, thorny branches, and balls of baked clay on a chain, but never with their hands. After two days, they threw me in a cell, where I was positive I would spend my last labored breaths before you called me away, dear Sisters.
But today, I awoke. I am alive and as Sister Imorgan has reminded me, in your hands. Dear Sisters, guide me. Show me the path that opens before me, once again.
I do not know how many perished today, but I do know that sheltered under Mercy’s wing, one has survived. She may have stripped my rank away, but she cannot destroy my vow. To that, I hold true . . . unto death.