Clovir: An Overture

Part X: Deliverance

Sacrifice. Honour. Duty. How much would you be willing to give up for your own ideals? What is the limit of love? In this story about a holy man from a small town in Thrairn, set shortly before the start of The Yoga of Strength, an answer is offered.


Deliverance

There’s a beast that can’t be tamed, with its dark and evil ways, making its home inside each one of us.
The beast’s attack is heard, not seen. It lies right behind my teeth. It can’t create, it only deconstructs.
Have you heard the word?
We all whisper against our enemies. And we whisper against our friends.
We murmur, breathing out murderous talk, whispering wounds we cannot mend.
— Whispers, The Arcadian Wild

It began with a sound, the way these things usually do. It was a sound that was uttered true from the lips of him that said it, but it landed upon the ears of one who was not partial to what he heard. Not partial in the least. When a man who is not partial to what he hears wields the power to do something about it, a test of the man’s character is put upon him. If this tested man has a heart a as blackened by life as the withered thing that beat within chest of Bishop Charles Mountpence, well, the result is almost always a terribly ugly thing.

In this particular instance, the mold was not broken.

-----

“What do you mean – these sinning animals are simply entering Thrairn and no one is doing anything about it?”

“Er, no, Bishop,” said Jakob Eustace, the priest who had delivered the news to the head of the Church in Thrairn. He was dressed in his cerulean habit and an enormous wooden crucifix hung from a beaded necklace across his chest. “Allow me to explain again, I must have chosen my words poorly. These are people who have come here, claiming political asylum from their homeland. The Queen in Liseria, or whatever her title, rules with an iron first. This couple, they did not pay the priests that minister their religion enough respect-“

“Christ-man save us,” growled Bishop Mountpence. “Giving the spiritual its due: at least the heathens have that going for them. Though they are horrifically misguided by their clerics, worshiping land and mountains like dirty animals. The only way to God is through the Christ-man, as we both know.” The Bishop sat back in his chair and glanced out the window of his study, a little room buried deep within the heart of the Rectory attached to the Blue Cathedral. Through the window, he could see the stone peaks of the houses owned by the nobility, shaped with all the skill of masons at the height of their mastery. Below, the cobbles of the street were empty, aside from a pair of City Guard patrolling, the inverted triangles blazing crimson in the waxing Maia Month sun.

“This city – this country – it cannot be expected to simply accept the heathen cast-offs from those unclean lands like Liseria or Erifracia. If we do not defend our way of life, all that we have worked for will be lost.” Bishop Mountpence turned back to gaze at his guest, who was sitting on one of the chairs across his desk, made of intricately carved wood and blue upholstery. “Our… ahem, benefactors, do allow me some latitude in how I wish to conduct affairs of the spirit in this country. And as head of Holy Mother Church, I will do what the Lord wills for me to put an end to this.”

Bending slightly to open a drawer hidden from Jakob’s view, the Bishop removed a letter that had been sealed with the ultramarine wax of the Church of the Christ-man. “This arrived, just this morning. It was from a Father Benedict - your junior at the Parish of Bloomsdale. He informed me about these snakes in our midst, and asked for my permission to take care of our ‘guests.’” The Bishop settled back in his chair. “Quite the enterprising young cleric, this Father Benedict. He offered up a plan, one that would the end to many problems. And I agree with him: we must ensure our borders are kept safe. You will take my response back to him, post-haste.”

-----

Thinking back on the exchange as his wagon drew him out of Isha and onto Regent’s Way, Father Eustace realized that it was at about that point that he had lost track of what the Bishop was saying. He had come to the head of the state religion in Thrairn with a matter in confidence, to ask how the Bishop thought that issues like care for refugees should be dealt with in the future. In the manner that the Christ-man might have done. Jakob understood the naivety of his rosy view of Bishop Mountpence soon after he had told him about Yoshi and Ayumi’s flight from Liseria into his chapel in Bloomsdale, a town in Ecta Province not far from the southern border with Thrairn’s officially-hated neighbour.

Here was a couple that refused to allow the priests of the Repository, the headquarters of Liseria’s own state religion, to circumcise their little boy and feed him some strange brew of herbs, with the intent of purifying the infant’s soul. Many children died as a result of the extreme ritual, and these people simply did not want to risk little Akira’s death. When they failed to show up for the ceremony, the new parents knew that they had to either flee Liseria under dark of night or be put to death – all three of them.

They arrived in Bloomsdale, hungry and desperate, and of course Jakob took them in. It is what the Christ-man would have done. It is what any decent human being would do. And now, when Jakob had come to Isha to simply ask the head of Holy Mother Church to commence a program of charity for these unfortunate souls who legitimately disagreed with the deadly dogma of their home religion, he found himself betrayed by his closest confidant. Taking his cues from Jakob’s pupil, Bishop Mountpence decided that Jakob Eustace and Hubert Benedict were the perfect pair to start a pogrom of foreigners in all the border villages. Aided by the Magistrates, the aliens were to be burned on pyres, like animals dead of pestilence.

Christ-man – how was the world created so cruelly? What possible reason could God have for this kind of depravity? It was not the first time Father Eustace questioned his own faith, but it was certainly the darkest night of the soul he ever had to endure.

More than once, the somber priest considered throwing his habit from the cart and starting a new life in one of the villages he passed. But every time, something stayed his hand. It was not reason – for reason was screaming at him to abandon his role as a priest and take up a new name and a new trade as a craftsman in Hume Province. It was something else, the call of something deeper than that. He had to do something. What that was still remained unclear. But whatever might come, this quiet voice within told Jakob to return to Bloomsdale and deliver the response as his Bishop had ordered.

-----

It took nearly a fortnight to reach Bloomsdale. When he arrived, the children of the village swarmed his cart, looking for the sweets that he had promised to purchase from the confectioner’s in Isha. Laughing, Father Eustace stepped down into the throng of desperately wailing children and produced a little black sack, drawn by a string of gold and filled with hard crack candy. The knobs were flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon, and a host of other spices delivered to the Thrain capital from far off Kashya.

The kids shelled him out within a matter of seconds, leaving the priest to climb back upon his cart and render his hired horse to the livery stable, where it was fed and watered. He dismounted and grabbed his bags from the cart, then exchanged a few words with Ronald, owner of the stable and the horses. Coin purse drawn open, silver coins were removed and dropped into Ronald’s rough hands. If nothing else, Bishop Mountpence had seen to ensuring that Father Eustace would have plenty of money for his dark work. Shaking Ronald’s hand, he kept his grip for seconds longer than would have been proper.

“Eh, y’alright, fadder?” inquired the stablemaster, breaking away from him and unconsciously wiping his hand on his shirt. Father Eustace’s hand was slick with sweat.

“Err… yes, yes, Ronald, thank you. It has been a long ride and I am feeling a bit out of sorts.”

Ronald smiled then. “All went well in Isha, I expects?” the man added, not waiting for a response. “Ya knows we’re glad ta ‘ave ya ‘ome wit’ us. Da missus ‘as been tellin’ us dat it was about time ya returned and gave us one of yer ‘appy sermons. Dat Fadder Benedict is awlright, but always wit da judgment and fire ‘n brimstone-“

“Yes,” said Jakob, his mood drooping at the reminders of the more fearful portions of the Thrain faith. And his recently exposed nemesis. “Yes. It is unfortunate to hear that my apprentice focuses on such topics, but he has a good heart. As do we all.”

“Dat’s da kind of t’ing I’m talkin’ about! Always lookin’ on da bright side.” A silence hung heavy for a few moments as a look of consternation blossomed on Jakob’s face. “What am I even sayin’?” Ronald continued. “Yer da fadder, fadder. ‘owever ya wants ta do it is fine by us. Just ‘appy ta see ya ‘ome.”

Father Eustace smiled thinly at the man. He thought to tell him that he too was happy to be home, but honour was paramount to his faith and his character. And to lie would be a breach of that honour. Inclining his head at Ronald, Jakob turned around and walked out of the stable, towards the Magistrate’s large log edifice next to the miller’s.

-----

“So, burnin’s, is it? I expect yer boy Benedict’ll be happy with that one, fadder.”

“He suggested it,” said Jakob, waiting for a short moment to see if the Magistrate would react. He did not. Sighing, Father Eustace added, “I am duty-bound to honour Bishop Mountpence’s wishes. He is the head of the Church, after all.”

“Well don’t be so friggin’ gloomy about it, then!” roared Magistrate Kelvin. “You’ll recall that it’s these fuckin’ Liserians that are the reason that our boys in the Red Order are showin’ up dead and needin’ to be replaced with fresh pincushions every fortnight!”

Father Eustace glanced around the Magistrate’s business chamber. Ornately detailed vases and beautifully embroidered images created in the Liserian style were placed at intervals around the massive desk behind which the Magistrate sat.

“Yet trade in black-market Liserian goods does not seem to be slowing down,” Father Eustace observed. “If Bloomsdale were to pay its fair share of Thrain taxes whenever the collectors come by-“

“Careful, Father,” the Magistrate said, enunciating carefully and leaning forward in his chair. A corvid outside, either a crow or a raven, screeched in unison with the creaking of the Magistrate’s opulent seat. “Representative of the Bishop or not, I would be very careful in what you say, especially when the tax collectors are here. Do I make myself clear?” Seeing that Jakob had been properly chastened by the threat, the Magstrate sat back and began to stroke his long red beard. “You knows you’d be cut in on the action, if only you’d let us use yer contacts in the Church to move some of the goods in towards the capital. Not that yer not complicit as it stands: Lord knows the ample bounty you collects in yer plates every Sol’s Day morning for the Church doesn’t come from the sheep’s wool and butter trade.”

Father Eustace felt his shoulders slump. If the order to burn heathens had not been enough, he had forgotten and been reminded that his hometown as a whole was engaged in a smuggling and tax evasion scheme that took advantage of the Royal Prohibition on trade with Liseria. He looked to the walls again.

Oh, how the Liserians made beautiful things. Thrain artisans could not dream of such success in their endeavours. Nonetheless, they remained illegal, a slap in the face to the King in Isha. The Christ-man had made it clear that one must obey the laws of the land. But what of Jakob’s heart?

“You know that I will not dishonour myself in this way.”

“But burnin’ those that you give shelter to – that’s alright? A strange moral compass you bear, fadder.”

“Strange or not, we have our orders. Prepare the pyre and notify the militia. We will need to keep this orderly. I will tend to the Liserians – they shall have their Last Rites.”

-----

After Father Eustace left the Magistrate’s, he walked to Father Benedict’s small residence not too far from his own. He dragged his heels, thinking up different schemes he might involve himself in to escape from Thrairn. Perhaps he would use the plan he had hatched for the Liserians. Maybe he would go with them. The idea did tug at him. But no, he would not dishonour himself by running away.

Certainly the notion of failing to deliver the letter to Hubert crossed his mind several times. He could simply pretend as though he lost it, or that he had forgotten about it. He knew that that was short-sighted and dangerous. If Father Eustace failed to play his part in the slaughter to Bishop Mountpence’s satisfaction, the crusty old bastard would declare him an apostate and have him stoned to death in the eastern market of Isha. Besides, Father Benedict would just send another letter, asking for a follow-up. And the Bishop would no doubt give it to him.

Then murder danced through Father Eustace’s awareness. A stiletto in the guts for Hubert Benedict. It was a short-lived fancy, one that Father Eustace would have been happy to never entertain again.

Jakob spat on the dirt in front of the cabin before he jammed the letter into the space between the frame and the door and hammered a few times on the wood. He took off at a clip, around the back and through the woods to his own house. He could not face him, not yet.

-----

“I am sorry about this, I truly am.” Father Eustace’s Liserian, gleaned mostly from smuggled texts and a series of lectures he attended at the University in Isha in his youth, was actually quite good. He prayed that he could transmit the contents of his heart properly. “This was my fault. In my pride, I thought I could ameliorate things for you. I should have remembered that the people who run this country are deeply corrupted by power.”

“There is only one escape for you now,” he added, staring at the couple, huddled together with their infant in the small room of his cottage. “And there is absolutely no time to spare. On my way back from Isha, I stopped into a little village called Kalingshire. There is an Erifracian man there, by the name of Lykander. He is an upright fellow, a travelling priest of Yaruz. As an Erifracian, an ally of Thrairn, he himself will not be subject to the pogrom declared by Bishop Mountpence, but this kind of thing tends to spill over. To some zealots, a foreigner is a foreigner, and the slayings will get their blood up. So he will not linger. He told me that he would wait a week – no longer – for your arrival. If you are not in Kalingshire in four days, he will leave without you.”

“I spoke with Ronald, the stable-master,” Jakob said finally. “I have purchased a horse for you, with blood money.” He patted the pouch on his hip. “Just follow the Regent’s Way east and take the fork south that leads to Erifracia. There will be signs. The symbols you are seeking are drawn here.” Father Eustace produced a folded scrap of parchment, put it in Yoshi’s trembling hand, and closed it, letting his hands linger on the terrified Liserian’s. “Kalingshire is very close to this fork. You will not need to travel more than half an hour before you arrive. Go to the inn immediately.” Jakob’s voice became firm. “If you see anyone bearing military dress, get off the road and into the forest until they pass. It is very dangerous to be a Liserian in Thrairn right now.” A small smile crept onto the priest’s face. “I shall pray for your deliverance.”

“T-thank you, sir,” said Yoshi in clipped Liserian. “What about you? What will happen to you?”

“I leave my fate in the hands of God.”

-----

“Father Jakob Eustace, we know that you are in there. Come out with the filthy Liserians – the good people of Bloomsdale shall see the Lord’s Justice done on this day.”

Jakob had been ruminating on the day he had elevated Hubert Benedict from moneylender to priest in service to Holy Mother Church throughout the morning, ever since Yoshi, Ayumi, and Akira had managed to flee under cover of darkness in the wee hours before dawn. Hubert had been a devout parishioner, a man who sought his answers to the mystery of life within the bosom of the Church, just as Jakob had done in his youth. But where Jakob had found his light, it seemed that Hubert had been drawn to some festering darkness, hidden from Father Eustace until well after Father Benedict had been frocked. By then, of course, it was too late.

Owing to his seniority, Father Eustace was always primary in matters of their spiritual vocation. But the pair did share the duties of shepherd for the souls of Bloomsdale, with Jakob trying to get the villagers to see the value of humility and service, while Hubert attempted to coax them into belief through fear and judgment. Father Eustace was less than surprised that the crowd that had gathered outside of his small parish house was led by a bloodthirsty Father Benedict.

Father Eustace took one long breath, expelled it, opened the door, turned, and closed it behind him.

“They are not here,” said Jakob, looking upon the mob of three dozen or so villagers behind Hubert.

“Not here!?” roared Father Benedict. “Where are they? Have you taken them to the pyre already? We were just there, I cannot imagine that– “ Hubert halted in his expectorations. “You helped them to escape, did you not? Of all the yellow-bellied, devil-worshiping–“

“I will not lie to you, Hubert. Nor will I lie to the rest of you,” Father Eustace said, glancing around. “I did help the Liserians to escape this madness. I was entrusted to lead this ‘great cleansing,’ as Bishop Mountpence called it. But you will not find me participating in this slaughter.” Jakob removed the weighty coin purse from his belt and threw it onto the dirt next to Hubert. “There are many more than thirty pieces of silver in there, but I am no Judas. Do with me what thou wilt.”

A grin blossomed on Benedict’s face, then. It was the look of a cat that had finally caught the prey that it had been chasing for a very long time.

“This man is no lover of the Christ-man!” shouted Father Benedict. “He has fallen into Satan’s power – this is as clear to me as the sun rises in the sky to the east. Our very own Bishop Mountpence, head of our Church, thought that he could trust in this man. You see now what this trust has come to – traffic with those who would see Thrairn burned to the ground and some heathen devil raised up in the stead of the Christ-man! You shall pay the price owed the Church in their place! You will burn!” A long finger extended towards the elder priest.

“Wait now,” said Ronald the stable-keeper. “You just hold yer ‘orses there, me b’y. It’s Fadder Eustace that done made ye a priest in the first place, does dat mean dat dere’s something wrong wth ye as well?” A murmur bubbled up at Ronald’s words. “I don’t t’ink dat dis is right, burnin’ our beloved Fadder Eustace. Wouldn’t ya agree wit’ me?” pleaded Ronald to those gathered around. “Innit better we don’t do no burnin’s? ‘Specially not Fadder Eustace!”

“I must say, Ronald Phillips,” said Father Benedict, whirling on the stablemaster. “I am a little concerned about where Father Eustace managed to find steeds for the Liserians on such short notice. I would not be surprised to find that they came from your livery. Aiding and abetting in the escape of heathen savages – there is room on the pyre for more than one!”

Ronald gulped and looked around at the other members of the village. There was not an ounce of sympathy on any of their faces. He bowed his head and stepped back, sadness sweeping over his own visage as he expressed his apology to Father Eustace with his eyes.

“I must agree with Ronald,” said Magistrate Kelvin, stepping towards Father Benedict and speaking very carefully. “It seems very hasty to me. To go from preparing to burn heathens, an act sanctioned by Holy Mother Church, straight into burning our Father Eustace.”

“He is a heretic – you have seen it!” Hubert produced the letter from his blue habit, the wax of the broken seal nearly the same shade as his clothing. “He has disobeyed a direct command from the Bishop, the voice of God here on Clovir! You all know the punishment for disobedience in this manner. It is death.” Somebody coughed after Father Benedict had finished speaking. Silence hung for a moment before Hubert took up the reins again. “Harold, how did your mother die last spring?”

“Liserian raidin’ party got ‘er wit’ an arrow,” said a portly man, standing in the middle of the crowd. “Paisin took ‘er.”

“Liserian poison – who else had a family member die to the heathen venom?”

A dozen hands went up.

“Frida,” continued the priest, “where is your daughter?”

“I dunno,” said the pinched-faced woman who could not meet Father Benedict’s eyes. “She ran off t’ree years ago an’ ain’t been back since.”

“Where do you think she is?” demanded Father Benedict icily.

“Taken,” said Frida, trembling. “Taken by da Liserians.”

“Probably being raped at this very moment as a comfort girl to the Liserian Army,” said Hubert, twisting the knife into the wounded woman. “We all know the character of these animals! And this man, your ‘gentle priest,’ allowed a chance at revenge to go fleeing into the night! Bishop Mountpence is trying to save you from this heathen scourge! And this man let them go, so that they might spawn and continue spreading their plague across this, your homeland!” Father Benedict stated Father Eustace in the eye and pointed directly at him again. “Burn! Burn! Burn! Burn!”

After a moment, a couple of the villagers picked up the refrain. It was a flame that caught in dry kindling, spreading to the other disaffected citizens, people fed up with the endless war and slaughter on their doorsteps. Old wounds visited by the enemy were opened and rubbed raw until the chorus reached a fever pitch.

“Militiamen!” screeched Father Benedict over the din. “Seize him!”

-----

Just as this thing began with a sound, so did it end. But unlike the sound that started it, the sound that ended it was pleasant. It was the hum of a cherished hymn, voiced by a condemned man as he was marched through his hometown, up the steps of the hastily arranged dais, to the mixture of hay and wood that was his funeral pyre. He had completely resigned himself to these: his final moments.

When some men looked back on that day and the death that it heralded, they saw a foolish man, one who was willing to risk everything to save three strangers, strangers from a country that had been at war with his own since time incalculable. Most, though, most saw something that was sadly rare in their world of corruption and sin. They saw a sacrifice of the boldest order, the kind that breathed the winds of hope into the gloomy desperation of the Kingdom of Thrairn. It was a mirror reflected back on the faces of people who had forgotten their own.

Faint light awash in a sea of darkness: Father Jakob Eustace’s death was humanity itself.