The penitent

Written by István Orosz

Victom also dreamed of his childhood home the night before his execution. The farm building was filled with the smell of bread baked by his mother, through the window could be heard the rattling of carts passing along the nearby dirt road and the lowing of northern cattle returning from the pasture. He awoke that morning to screeching. The blood-red dawn light streamed in through the window of his cell, but he did not rise from the sack that served as his bed. With a heart heavy with fear, he listened to the carpenters as they assembled his bito wood. The sun will be high when he steps on a box and the faceless executioner will loop a rope around his neck. If the guards are kind to him, the rope will break his neck the moment the wooden box is kicked out from under his feet.

He didn't even look at the food brought in by the guard, even though it was red-fried chicken rubbed with forest herbs and served with white bread. How could he know as he looked at the ceiling and prayed to the guards for some miracle. Perhaps the police can still enter with the news of his innocence. He stared at the door expectantly, but instead of its creaking, he still only heard the hacking of the executioner carving the gallows.

"You're going on a long journey," came a cheerful but respectful voice. A man stood in the middle of the cell, his round face covered with a gray beard. He was wearing a dark robe, and a golden pendant in the shape of a cash register dangled around his neck. Mark of Meltor, Judge of Penance. "You have to take the first steps."

Victom sat on his sack.

"I…I'm innocent," he answered.

"I will not judge you," said the penitent. "And I can't save you the way you want me to." I can only give your soul a chance by forgiving your sins.

"You came here unnecessarily."

The confessor smiled.

"The rules say you deserve forgiveness too."

"I didn't poison the prince's wine!" he snapped. "No need for forgiveness!"

"If you didn't do it, why are you here?" the executioner pointed around.

-  I do not remember it.

He could still see the scene before him. He walked along the corridor with his usual, measured steps, as if he could smell freshly baked bread in his nose. He found this a little strange, because the castle's baker always baked the bread in the morning. Then he returned to his agenda and continued on his way. He brought his master a fresh roast and steamed vegetables, accompanied by fiery Darelonian red wine. Which must not have been poisoned. It was brought from a reliable dealer, in sealed barrels. There were those who tasted it and did not find it poisonous. But lo and behold, the prince's face still turned red when he leaned on the desk full of documents. He immediately jumped to help his master, but he was already dead by then. The consciousness of failure took root painfully in his soul, and he hit it with a shovel when the bodyguard commander grabbed the butler's wrist and turned it palm up. Brown spots on the palms and fingertips.

Scorpionberry, said the bodyguard commander in disgust. Tiny berries, their flesh overflowing with poison. You just had to crush it and squeeze the juice into the wine. Why? Why did you do it Victom?

The question was asked again and again. When the whip bit into his back. When fireballs, tongs and nails appeared. Then the torture stopped and he was left in the cell.

"I didn't come to judge you." Just to save him, said the priest calmly. "I will release you, Brother Victom."

The former cupbearer shook his head and buried his hands in his palms. Even though the priest was sitting next to him, he felt alone.

"Alhern, lord of the honest, raise your ice sword to me for protection." Ravenor, lord of hosts, raise your shining banner, show light in the darkness, he prayed softly, raising his hands to the sky. "White Guard, lift it up, lift it up."

  "Why are you begging them?" said the priest. "Are these gods at all?" Are they gods that man can defeat?

Victom turned to him in astonishment. The dark man smiled, and for a moment he forgot about the digging outside and the executioner's whistling.

- What?

The priest chuckled.

"They can't get him out of here." Either they don't care about your fate, or your gods no longer have any power.

It tests my faith, he thought and resumed reciting the prayers. It could be about that.

"Do you think they deserve your respect for leading you down this path?" What god's will is it that you have been made a traitor?

"I'm not a traitor!" Victom snapped, jumping up from the bag.

"Who put the poison in your master's wine?"

The legs of the former cupbearer trembled. As always, he tried to recall who he might have met in the corridor. He looked at the priest and found his features unfamiliar.

I could see him in the castle or in the city. Yes, in the castle. He could meet me in the corridor and he came to me. Yes, he came to me and stealthily put the scorpion berry in the wine and smeared it on my hands. A killer with guilty thoughts in his head. Only he could do it! Victom thought. The light of hope melted the icy armor of the fear of death for a moment.

Then he smelled the bread again, and for a moment he was in the scene of his childhood, at the end of a long wooden table. The lowing of cows coming home could be heard from outside.

"You never saw him in the town or in the castle," said the priest. Victom's heart sank with superstitious fear. "Although we met a long time ago."

The priest stood up and, stepping closer to Victom, looked him in the eye.

"If you tell the guards and they come here, it doesn't do any good," a reverent smile appeared on his face, which turned into a sneer. "You did what you were born to do." Don't start begging those weak fools who couldn't hold their own kingdom. Do not fall on your knees, rather think that you have taken the first steps that will lead us to new glory.

Victom did not listen to the priest. He went to the door and started knocking. Then again and again, finally he called out for security.

"You're not worth anything," sighed the priest. "Oh, don't beat the door so hard anymore and don't be afraid of that hanging." Believe me, by the time I get a rope around my neck, you won't be anywhere.

- What are you talking about? Victom turned around and was amazed. The old priest disappeared. At the far end of the cell stood a perfect replica of him, though he looked maybe a few years younger. His narrow chin was not beaten out by the beard, and his face was not so pale. "What kind of magic is this?"

"You'll soon disappear like fog in the summer heat," answered the other Victom. "It's magic that has affected my soul." There are many people in this region who do not like having weak masters on our necks. If the beggar comes into your house and says loudly that it is his, you do not start to praise him, like the ancestors of your dear prince, but you make him look and show him where he belongs. Our people came from the ruined Quoronia to claim the land of Maeron and build a new empire. I tore out a piece of my soul and shaped you out of it, so that you can walk unsuspectingly in the corridors of the castle.

"The last few years weren't… they weren't true."

The other Victom looked out the window and smiled. He smelled the bread again, which in the next moment turned into the stench of incense and some other magical substance. The image of the parents' house gave way to a dark and damp chamber.

"The last two years you spent here were the right ones." And some memories of my own that I have passed on to you. There were empty holes, but you patched them up quickly. You hate me now, I understand. But when they tortured you, I stepped forward and answered their questions.

"What did you say in my name?" fell out of Victom.

The other sat down on the cushion and looked at his fingernails before looking up at him.

"That all of this is revenge for all the humiliation and suffering that Dérhalom, puffing haughtily at the top of the hill, inflicted on Árnyvölgy in the past summers and winters," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "And it is time for Maeron's true people to take back what is theirs." You could kill him now, right? But those were heroic words. Words that drive our people, including yours, to rekindle the ancient flame and remove the rabiga that Ravenor and his fallen companions placed around their necks 500 years ago. Your sacrifice will serve the kingdom to come.

Victom just stood and stared at himself. Hope arose that this was a nightmare and that he might wake up from it. To find yourself back in your own bed. However, this did not happen.

I might die, but there was still something they could do. I can try to show this conspiracy.

He turned and slammed his fist on the door again and again.

"Guard!" he roared. His muscles steeled with readiness to perform one last act of heroism. "Guard!" Someone!

- Indeed? asked the other one. "Are you throwing away the role that fate assigned you?" The purpose for which I created you? He stepped forward, his face still frozen. "I'm kidding!" You don't gain anything from this!

"Shut up, you delusion!" he shouted back. Pain shot through his fist as blood spurted from his knuckles. "GUARD!"

The other snorted and took a step forward, then another.

"It hurt, though." Think, no one will believe you! You are the prince's killer and everyone knows it! His voice trailed off. "Consider that we owe the war to you." The first victory of the Holy War of the Ancient Blood! If we defeat the dogs of Athreia and Ravenor and crown a new king. A king strong and just, whose greatness will shine so bright that the old guardians of Quornoia, who have turned their eyes from our people, will look back upon us again and receive us into their graces. Is that why the case is not worth the stake?

"Guard!" Guard!

"I'm kidding!" exclaimed the daze, then reached forward. Her fingers dug painfully into his shoulders. The smell of freshly baked bread permeated the air. He could already hear the footsteps of the guards from afar. Just hold on. He had to hold on, for the sake of scum and peace!

He greeted the two crimson-armored guards sitting on his sack. The grey-bearded guard stepped forward while his companion drew his sword.

"What do you want, bastard?" - asked. His voice was bitter with anger.

Victom looked at him. A cold anger flared in his eyes, and the rhinestone's eyebrows rose.

"Tell the prince that this is his last chance to let him go," he said. "My lord will do anything to free me from the cells." He will come here with a whole army and tear down stone by stone that pen that you mock as a fortress.

The guard spat in response.

"We will let you go," said the warden. "But alas, you will be much easier, bitang." You're going to the gallows soon, you wretch.

He kicked Victom in the side, and he fell on the sack, feeling his ribs. The soldiers left him there alone. He sat up slowly and wiped his eyes. He could not risk that the little piece of soul that he had carved out of his own self with painstaking pains and meticulous work would tell the prince everything. There was a chance that he would be dragged before the young man sitting on the throne for a final word. His vision of the warriors marching under the banner of the Ancient Blood could not be lost because of a small mistake. He pulled his legs under him and prepared for his final journey. He didn't regret anything, and he even had time for one last good deed.

The prince's cupbearer, who sprouted from a small fragment of self like a tree from the tiniest seed, sat in a bread-scented room in a Maeron farmhouse. He woke up from a terrible nightmare where he was waiting for his own hanging for killing his prince. Soon he will have breakfast and help his father drive the cows out into the field. Then he will play at the haystacks until he grows up. Then he will have his own estate, where he will spend a lifetime with his wife.

He doesn't know that what is a year for him is a minute there, in the cell that smells of rotten straw.

There's a good chance he'll die between the pillows when I step on the deathbed - smiled the servant of the Ancient Blood in the dimness of the cell.

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