PenanceThe Holy City of Paterdomus, and its Country
Early Spring, 315 P. F.
The road from Marcester to Paterdomus was fairly well travelled and accordingly in fairly good condition--which is to say that it was identifiable as a road and that it was unlikely you would complete a journey without seeing another soul. Sir Aulus of the Knights of the Searing Dawn had made his way upon it for several hours so far without so much as glimpsing the signs of another person, for which he was (in this rare instance) extraordinarily grateful. Ever since he'd slain that... thing, whatever it was, something
had been wrong with one of his eyes. He could feel a strange warmth from within it as his heart beat, and it felt as though a claw or a talon had raked its way across his vision like a lash--but despite that, he could still see through it as though nothing were wrong until he looked at something that felt dark
. When he settled his right eye upon it he could swear that it seethed within his skull and threatened to burn it to ash from the intensity of the feeling, and he could feel a pall of profanity settle over him like a shawl. It'd happened with the innkeeper's son, and with an Arcosi merchant, and he'd had to avert his gaze from them to avoid them noticing his reaction--thankfully, as a Knight Templar, he was mostly accustomed to peasants trying very pointedly to avoid
his gaze. The thundering of hooves brought his thoughts back to reality as he rode back towards Paterdomus, and he heard the sound of a convoy approaching from that direction which settled his gaze upon it.
A fellow knight--a Sir Luci of the Argent Verdict, if his fiery red hair and distinctive shield were anything to go by--seemed to be headed out at a pace leisurely enough that he could wait for an opportune moment to call the beleaguered knight over for a brief conversation. As if on cue he raised his hand to his eyes, and bellowed out a "Ho there!" with wide swings of his right arm in the air. Sir Aulus stiffened his grip upon his reins instinctively, and turned to look at his fellow as the distance between them lessened. Thankfully only the barest coals of an ember lay dormant in his eye upon the knight coming into his field of view more clearly. In but a moment or two the pair were side by side, just at the westward edge of the road, and they exchanged greetings and blessings of the Exalted One in the fashion expected and proper of them.
"Hail, Sir... Aulus? A little early for travel, is it not?"
Sir Aulus smiled grimly with just the right corner of his mouth, and beckoned at his fellow knight with an open sweep of his palm.
"I could say the same to you, Sir Luci. I set off from Marcester immediately after my prayers, for I have news to bring to my order," he replied, somewhat flatly, attempting to play his stress off as simple fatigue from an overlong journey. He gave a quick, weak smile and shuffled his hands about the reins of his horse tentatively, and it let off a whinny at just the right time to give off the illusion of impatience.
"Safe travels then," Sir Luci began, giving a deep nod and a friendly wave as he turned back to the road and continued his gentle pace onward. Sir Aulus likewise began the process of coercing his mount to motion, but took one final look at the knight and the road to see whether or not he would ask further questions--and though he did turn briefly it was mostly to look at the sky, and resulted in a brief but friendly smile. Something about his smile sparked that barely contained heat within his eye, and in its fervor it railed against the leash of his willpower terribly. He winced sharply and brought a hand to his eye, but it only took a second for that same infernal heat to spread throughout his skull and spots of a strange and oily black to coalesce within Sir Luci's form. He averted his gaze as quickly as he could, but something about what he'd seen stuck with him for a second and he had to fight the urge to choke and sob at the same time. Then it was over as quickly as it had begun, and before he could really collect his thoughts or his breath he was already back on the road to the Holy City.
Father Caius wiped a bit of sticky apple juice from his chin as he made his way through the grandiose foyer that led into that main chamber in the Temple of Brazen Justice, the one where the trials were being held. He had to be back in his place so that the next case, that of Caius’ man, could resume as slated; however, there was still a short time left, as his meager meal of the one good apple hadn’t taken long. And before him he saw a familiar face!
“Aulus,” he breathed, forgoing the formality of giving the knight the ‘sir’ that he was due. There was some degree of familiarity permitted between holy men, especially those who had been long friends, and Caius had known few for as long as Sir Aulus. The knight had been one of the two others from Caius’ village on that fateful day when old Father Titus (Exalted preserve his soul in the heavenly halls) had come to claim a new generation of boys for service in the church. Aulus had been a bit older and stronger, so they’d gradually drifted apart as one boy took to books and law and the other was given to the temple knights for training, but each of them still remembered their childhood friendship back in Stonetree, and that fondness had never faded.
Even though he wasn’t as familiar with Aulus as he might have liked, Caius still hadn’t failed to see how the knight had winced at his gaze, how he carried himself with a troubled and almost pained
countenance. Caius found it somewhat disturbing; he saw in his old friend the same bearings that he saw in all too many men that ended up being found guilty. “Aulus, my friend,” Caius started again. “Is something amiss?”
Sir Aulus had been hurriedly walking through the hallowed halls of the city when he'd bumped into Caius--and though it took more than one attempt to stir him from his reverie his face was a picture of genuine joy and even relief when he looked into Caius' eyes and saw nothing awry. He did not quite choke back a breath as some part of him desired to, but immediately the weight of whatever had been troubling the knight dissolved and he embraced the man in front of him with a single arm and a wide grin."Caius! Did I make it back in time?"
Aulus offered a deep laugh and swept a sandy brown fringe of hair from the front of his face to his right, then took a moment to shake himself off as he smiled expectantly as his friend. Next to the man he looked absolutely bedraggled--where Caius was dressed in fresh and clean garments, practically all of Aulus' gear (sans his tabard, which had miraculously remained mostly free of grime) was coated in some mixture of muck, sweat, or blood. He'd not even thought about quite how dishevelled he actually looked until seeing Caius had brought his attention back to reality instead of his thoughts (and, admittedly, a few prayers). Sir Aulus made a motion with his free left hand to motion for Caius to walk further into the temple with him so that they'd be efficient with their time, a habit he'd picked up from his training under the Temple Knights (and Drusus specifically, who very much valued the virtue of good timekeeping)."You look good. Ready. I am sorry that I am not in a better state to..."
he began, before cutting himself off to allow Caius room to actually speak and settling his focus squarely upon his friend's silhouette.
Caius might have allowed himself a small grin and a chuckle, but the thought of making light of another man’s trial (and all the dread that it must have entailed) was not one that sat well in his stomach. “Justiciar Drusus is just about to preside over my man, the very first one that I was assigned to counsel. Alas, I had little sage advice to offer him save to suggest that he confess and plead to Drusus for penance; he stands indicted for thievery against the church itself, and the evidence against him is strong. But I ramble! You...what happened to you? Trouble on the road?”
Aulus' face fell a little as he heard Caius' tale, suddenly overcome by an inch of worry for his friend. He was not trained in the law like Caius was, but possessed understanding and experience enough to empathise with the predicament this left Caius in. Justiciar Drusus was a truly worthy of the title, and as long as the criminal confessed he would be spared the worst of the Exalted's wrath and instead find contrition--but getting the smallfolk to see that was never an easy situation, Aulus had found as much in his own trials, and he gripped Caius shoulder gently and firmly in resolve."As long as he shows that his commitment to penance is true I am certain that he will emerge better,"
Aulus began, taking a moment to breathe in through his nose and let out a sharp exhale. He stopped in his tracks and turned to Caius, narrowing his gaze to a steely point of resolve (his "knightly" face, they'd often japed as children) before talking."A charge of apostasy and witchcraft, though it ended messily. A local ‘wise woman’ had been... consorting with something, and I caught her in the middle of some blasphemous ritual within the local Temple--it... it just shook me that such foulness could be attempted in so holy a place. I am glad to have ended that threat before it progressed further, truly."
Suddenly it was Aulus' turn to feel the merriment sink to the pit of his stomach and vanish from the situation. He wanted to go into further detail, but voices up ahead seemed to be growing in volume and it became abundantly clear that the time for the adjournment to end imminently. Aulus nodded swiftly to Caius and ushered him forward, waiting to step in and be told what to do with himself by the Justiciar.
So Caius returned to his place as the Justiciar once more ascended the dais, held up an oversized ceremonial sword, and carried out a prayer just as he had earlier in the morning. Drusus was ever diligent in that manner of thing; to hear him say it, if you ever presumed to judge a man without first praying to the Exalted for guidance, then whatever decision you proclaimed was no true justice at all. When the ritual was complete and the sword laid down upon the Exalted’s altar with proper reverence, the next case began.
Caius’ man was brought forward from the benches by a Temple Knight serving as bailiff for the day, and Drusus’ eyes peered into the accused man without betraying anything of the Justiciar’s thoughts.
“I was told that you wished to confess to this crime and plead for penance?” Drusus asked after a time, though his words came across more like a statement. The man, a little slow and doubtless terrified, remained still and silent. “Well, did your lawyer tell me true? Speak!” the Justiciar prodded after the awkward pause.
Then it was Caius
who suddenly grew cold and pale. Was this man about to make a fool of him, to decide at the last moment to demand trial by combat or deny the crime, and right before Sir Aulus too? After Caius had already told Drusus that the man would conf--
“Y-yes, Father,” the accused finally stammered. “I confess it.”
Drusus raised an eyebrow, silent.
The thief gulped, realizing it wasn’t enough. He found his courage again after a moment and said, “I confess to taking the jewels from the temple. Jewels that wasn’t mine to take.” The man breathed. “But I didn’t--” he started, then stopped himself. Caius had begun to panic; he’d warned the man a dozen times not to make excuses before his judge, told the man that it’d make him look unrepentant.
“You what?” Drusus pressed, a bit of fire creeping into his tone and eyes.
“I--nothing, your honor, I got no excuses to make. I did it without thinking, ‘twas wrong. I confess that I done it and that I’m sorry, and I beg for penance.”
And then the fire was gone from the Justiciar (though it’d been there long enough to singe the man!) and Drusus nodded. “I see. You shall have your penance, and should your heart be true in its regret, you will emerge better and more learned from the ordeal, as will all these present to witness.”
The Justiciar signaled to another one of the Knights Templar attending the room in the back, standing just beside Sir Aulus (who Drusus’ gaze lingered on for just a moment). That knight nodded and quickly disappeared to another room, emerging moments later with an iron brazier in hand. Caius’ man looked on in anxious confusion, but then another knight produced a sack of coal and dread coursed through the room as all came to realize that this was to be an ordeal by hot iron.
“...and it is written in the scriptures that our Exalted God wielded no weapons, for his hands were ever burning, and with nothing more than his fiery grip did he deliver justice. It was his flaming hands that wrought a flawed world twisted by the Black God into one of good, when he cast down the Great Enemy,” Drusus had been didactically explaining, though few seemed to be hearing his words in the moment. Caius spun to look upon his man, and he saw a face pale as milk.
Balbus -- that was his name, the poor man whose house and village had been burnt by the marauding warband of orcs, the man who had taken jewels from the ruined church to feed his family and then tried to flee elsewhere in desperation -- Balbus was frozen. A thousand thoughts raced through his mind in a second, though he’d never been the smartest of farmers or had a sharp wit. He’d never thought so fast before, nor conjured so many foolish ideas at once. The thought of the brazier and fiery irons terrified him even more than that cruel old judge did! He wanted to shout out that he hadn’t done it, that his confession was false, that his brother or somebody else had stolen the jewels, that anything
had happened but that he’d done it! No lie was beyond him in that moment when all his thoughts were consumed by fear and self-preservation, and yet he was paralyzed, unable to speak or do anything.
He remained transfixed to the Justiciar even as the man showed him his back and stepped away from where he’d been on the dais to go behind the altar, kneeling down and murmuring something. And then he rose and stepped back to the dais with a flat hand raised to the vaulted ceiling and the stained glass depiction of the Exalted One above. “...and so in the name of our Divine Lord and Master and the spirit of his teachings, this humble servant claims a spark of His fire.”
And then Drusus, who the boys mocked as Candlehead, suddenly did not have a head that seemed afire, but fingers. It started as just a tiny flicker at the tips of each one, but then the Justiciar uttered one sacred word (and every man in the room heard something different) andthe tiny flames burst into life. They spread, and suddenly his upraised hand was immolated from fingertip to palm, burning and yet not blackening, not being consumed at all.
Balbus’ eyes were still
glued to Drusus when the priest’s hand suddenly combusted, and he felt a wetness creeping down his trousers, accompanied by a sour smell -- but his entire body was already hot and sweating so much that his clothes clung to him as tightly as the pungent reek of fear. His knees began to wobble as Drusus walked closer. The priest with fiery hand was as terrible to look upon as the sun, and Balbus’ eyes watered, but he could neither blink nor turn away. And then Drusus and the brazier were suddenly both right before Balbus, as was the knight who held up the sack of coal.
“These black stones represent the gravity and the weight of your sins,” the Justiciar proclaimed as he reached one hand into the sack, the other one still flaming and held aloft. “One for every gemstone that you took from the Exalted’s temple,” Drusus announced as he took one, two, three, four lumps of coal out and placed them upon the brazier. Had it been that many?!
And then Drusus knelt in one quick motion and brought down his fiery hand to rest beneath the brazier, the sudden movement fanning the flames enough for a small wave of heat to wash over Balbus’ face. And suddenly the coal brazier was alight, and Drusus was standing once more, murmuring something into his palm before closing his fist and extinguishing the flames that he’d grasped within it.
“The White God’s flames represent purification. The true and the devout need not fear them; this brazier is your soul’s salvation,” Balbus heard the Justiciar say, but his eyes stared into the brazier and saw only agony and doom.
Conversely, as another set of eyes laid themselves upon the brazier, thoughts of hope and redemption blossomed within the chest of Sir Aulus. He could detect no such malignancy as he’d been forced to suffer that day within the heart of Justiciar Drusus, nor in the holy magic he appeared to be wielding to inflict this penance upon the farmer. Though the cold throes of fear settled into his veins as his eye gazed upon the thief and saw plain the tiniest seeds of Darkness he had ever imagined might exist, he took heart in his faith in the Exalted One and was moved immediately to sink to his knees in prayer.
As he spoke the words he did sincerely feel a weight lift from his shoulders, and as he raised himself off of the ground after his exhortations had concluded he found himself drawn towards the burning brazier. His foot did not take another step forward--the discipline of his training saw to that--but the fiery impetus to act blossomed in his face and in his fists. Even after taking a short breath in he could not cool the passion, and so he closed his eyes but found that his right eye would not remove itself from the spectacle occurring in front of him. His right hand found itself to the pommel of his sword and he clenched it fiercely, until his knuckles themselves were also white and he found himself unable to will himself to move further.
The blaze stretched and grew, long fingers of fire and heat stretching and grasping ever further upward. But Drusus suddenly cast his eyes towards the kneeling knight. “Sir Aulus,” he finally addressed his returned charge, “I see that you have returned from your task.”
And the Justiciar’s sweeping gaze made quick note of Aulus’ disheveled and sullied whites, and seemed to know
then what the outcome could be. He had been a paladin in his day, so he could see the signs. “Does your blade require cleansing?” Drusus asked.
The knight nodded, and drew his blade reflexively for the Justiciar to inspect. He took a step forward to ensure that it was fully in view, and he found himself listening to his mouth speak the words: ”Yes, Father.”
He bent his knee slightly and kept his gaze down, towards the sword and the ground, to show proper deference to the Justiciar. It also did not hurt to play up a certain sense of awe around the smallfolk in the room after such a display, and the thought of striking the fear of their Exalted God into the heart of the thief brought him no small amount of satisfaction.
So all eyes were turned to Sir Aulus and the naked steel he held. The blade was sharp and drenched in ruby-red from the reflection of the burning coals, yet neither any chips nor scar marred its form, and the diligent knight had of course already washed free the blood that it had been made to shed. Still, some taints were not so readily visible to an untrained eye. Drusus claimed the sword and raised it high for the confessed-thief Balbus to bear witness.
“And just as the coals are your sins and the flames are your purification, this blade represents you
, for all men are but instruments in service of the Exalted God. Like you, this blade bears a weight upon it, for it has shed unholy blood and such stains are not easily removed.”
Drusus laid the sword across the top of the brazier and left it to bathe in the heat. A ewer of water was brought forth and its contents were blessed before the crowd. “And this is the Exalted One’s grace and forgiveness, your salvation. You must claim the sword that is your body and douse it in this water. Steel your nerves and do not falter, for the steel grows only hotter with every moment of trepidation.”
Balbus’ eyes widened. ’Go,’
thought Caius, ‘go now!’
He even mouthed the words, hoping that his man would look, but the thief was of course transfixed solely upon the blade. He stepped forward and reached out to grab the thing before it had become red-hot, yet his fingers hovered just a hair’s width away from the hilt, doubtless feeling the heat radiating out from even there. Drusus observed silently.
Balbus at last found the resolve to clench his fingers around the hilt, and he winced at the pain but did not cry out. He lifted the blade from the rim of the brazier and took one, two, three shaky, rapid, and desperate
strides to the ewer. Panting, he thrust the sword’s searing point into the water before releasing the blade with a gasp of pain. The sweat upon the man’s brow was complemented by the beginnings of tears welling up in the corner of his eyes, and he fell down to his knees, but it was a joyous enough moment. All attendants murmured blessings and prayers or made holy signs with their fingers, and Balbus was released -- without the clerics rendering any aid to his hand, of course, for the lasting pain was his burden to bear and it would be half the penance. If the wound festered, it would be only due to a heart that hadn’t been fully repentant.