Read by Damien Barnes
For days, weeks, months, years, decades, the old man laid in the cell. The only words his gaolers ever heard him utter were gentle words of forbearance and forgiveness. He adhered to the Other God, whose disciples had been slaughtered a generation ago, but as the last and highest of their holy men, the High Priest of the New Faith had decreed that instead of being executed, the old man should be made an example of.
“Imprison him until he converts,” the High Priest commanded, and so they had. Even twenty years ago, the old man was not young; the faded frailty of extreme age clung to every withered limb and white hair. But he submitted uncomplainingly to his punishment, never raising his shallow whisper of a voice in protest, but never converting, either.
When the old man’s wife was beaten before his face, the thin lips trembled and the eggshell skull shook in grief and disbelief, but “Bless you,” was all he said.
When the High Priest killed the old man’s children, tears cascaded down the papery cheeks, but the only words he uttered were “Bless you.”
When the High Priest ran out of things to do to the old man’s family, he authorised torture to hasten the old man’s enlightenment. But this, too, had failed. Though the soles of his feet were bludgeoned raw, his back whipped bloody, his fingers bent and broken, the old man’s swollen tongue would never stir to confess, to plead, to beg, to convert: it would only say “Bless you.”
Now his old body was covered with weals and scars, and his much-broken hands and feet were crabbed claws, but still he cleaved to the Other God, and nothing would change him.
When at last the High Priest died, his gaolers feared the old man had been forgotten. They no more wanted to spend the rest of their lives guarding him than he did being guarded, but they didn’t dare ask the new High Priest for fear of causing embarrassment, or worse, incurring his wrath by reminding him that the spark of the old religion was not quite stamped out.
The old man had two gaolers: Coren, a grizzled old soldier who guarded him during the day, and had the dubious privilege of leading the torture sessions; and Eadghar, Coren’s young nephew, a raw recruit who watched the old man by night. This was by far the inferior role, as by night the old man talked (to himself or to his heretical god, nobody could quite tell which) and his babbling prayers had driven previous night-gaolers slowly to distraction.
Eadghar, however, was a dull, silent boy who took little notice of anything, and so Coren had found him the only job in the army for which he was well-suited, hoping that it might just keep the lad alive until the Holy War was over. The Holy War had been raging for almost as long as the old man had lain in his lonely cell, swallowing many a young soldier in its bloody maw. Many of the New Faith had secretly hoped for a truce when the old High Priest died, but his successor had been, if possible, even more fanatical, more convinced that ultimate triumph was destined to be his.
The New Faith would conquer the world, so it was written; but the prophets had not warned the faithful of how long it would take, nor how many lives it would claim. Coren had seen much slaughter in his army years, and feared he might live to see more. He had suffered, in his own way, almost as deeply as the old man whose ritual beatings he rarely cared to administer, nowadays. Both of his sons had been killed in battle, his daughter and wife were dead, and his sister, Eadhgar’s mother, had lost her reason when her eldest boy had returned from the war eyeless and crippled.
The time came when the blood of the young Faithful was all spilled, and the boys and old men were called into service. Coren made a bargain with his superiors: he would go back to war, if Eadghar were allowed to stay. After all, he told them, straight-faced, someone must guard this dangerous blasphemer.
From that moment forth, Eadghar was both day and night-guard to the old man. Every week Eaghar dutifully flogged him until the blood ran, and every week the old man gently blessed him. One day, Eadghar asked him why he did not curse his torturer, and the old man smiled as though this were the question he’d been awaiting all his life.
“My God is a God of forgiveness,” he said through cracked lips, “and I would fail him if ever I raised a hand or spoke a word against my fellow-man. He is gentle and kind, and we who worship him must strive to emulate him.”
Eadghar thought he’d never heard anything so stupid in all his life, but the laughter died in his throat as he thought of his brother, mutilated, his mother, driven mad, his uncle, fighting even now in a war against – what? Nobody had ever really explained what the New Faith was fighting against; only that the Faithful must fight. Confused and angry, he struck the old man in the face to silence him.
“Bless you,” muttered the bloody lips, and the old man fainted.
The war did not end that year, nor the next, and the old man did not convert, nor die, either. He and Eadghar stayed forgotten in the lonely cell, and as time went by the old man talked more, and Eadghar beat him less, for he had no other company now and the old man fell silent when he was in pain.
They did not talk of religion after that first time, but of things and people they had loved: Eaghar of his mother, brother and sisters, and the purple of the dawn sky over the great wetlands where he was born; the old man of his wife and children, and the taste of a certain herb from the Horizon Mountains.
And when one day the old man’s gentle lips closed at last, and his forgiving voice was heard no more, Eadghar smuggled his body out of the gaol and buried it in his own family plot, next to his mother, brother and uncle Coren, and watered the grave with his tears.
Then he went to the Captain of the Faithful Guard, and told him what he had done. The Captain, disbelieving, asked why he had committed this treason.
“Because he was a good man,” said Eadghar simply.
“Good? Are you mad, man? Only the New Faith is good! I’ll hear no heresy from you!” The Guard struck Eadghar in the face with his mailed glove, bursting his lip so that the blood ran freely down the gaoler’s chin. The lad mumbled something the Captain could not hear. Infuriated, he pulled him close.
“What boy?” he roared, “what have you to say in your defence?”
“Bless you,” whispered Eadghar, smiling through broken teeth. “Bless you.”