The heretic spat at Brother Baskara, spittle flecking the corners of his mouth as his eyes blazed with contempt.
“Bless the light eternal, Brother Confessor,” he said through gritted teeth. Confined to a chair by hempen rope, sweat smearing his round bearded face, he looked like a beast being denied his prey in the dancing torch light of the small stone room.
Baskara pulled a kerchief from his side pouch and swabbed the saliva from his surcoat and brooch. He lingered on the silver circle wreathing a candle and flame.
“Blasphemy without end,” he said, depositing the kerchief back into the pouch. “But the Light Giver’s mercy can still be yours, Ignus.”
The man puffed out his lips and nodded in mock repentance. “You serve such a benevolent god,” he said. “Such fine quarters he provides for his guests.” The heretic looked around the oppressive square room - the wall sconces flanking his left and right, the clay bowl of oatmeal remains sitting in the corner. “Is he as kind to rats as he is to people?”
Baskara was used to men, and sometimes women, rebuking the Light Giver, but not all heretics were as brazen as this man.
“Sarcasm is the last refuge of the lost,” he replied.
“And platitudes are the eternal refuge of witless imbeciles,” Ignus shot back, eyes as big and hot as the sun. Baskara narrowed his gaze and pursed his lips. He knew better than to be baited by a wretch.
“Do you know the charges against you?” he asked, folding his arms across his chest, his back stiffening. Ignus chuckled while shaking his head.
“The pursuit of justice, though you would call it heresy. Or perhaps sowing sedition amongst your precious Candle Bearers. Is that it, Brother?”
“Indeed,” Baskara said, nodding gravely. “With but one amendment: Treason. In sowing the seeds of discord in public, and in attempting to organize a cadre of non-believers to hunt down the Brothers of this priory, you have challenged and insulted the rightful god and threatened the stability of everyone on the Jenaian peninsula. Life outside the walls of this priory and below this mountain must follow the precepts of the Light Giver. Without them, order cannot stand.” A flash memory of fire and steel erupted in his mind.
“Your order, you mean,” Ignus said with a snarl, then leaned his head forward. “Tell me, Brother. How did you come to serve this priory?”
The clash of steel against steel echoed in Baskara’s ear, the remembrance causing his jaw to clench.
“I am asking the questions, brother Ignus.” Ignus barked with laughter at the honorific.
“‘Brother’ now? Blood of my blood, how gracious to call me so,” he said. “Cut me loose and pour the wine for kith and kin.” His lip curled in arrogant insolence.
“All men are brothers in the eyes of the Light Giver,” Baskara declared. “Whether pure of heart or blasphemers.” His tone tapered to a point on the final word, but it did not faze the scabrous soul before him.
“And you, Brother?” he said. “Are you pure of heart?” His eyes held a dangerous invitation, like flames gleaming behind dirty glass. Baskara’s chest rose and fell. He measured his words, thinking back to his rhetoric classes on the east side of the cloister.
“I am a Candle Bearer and the Head Confessor of this priory. Like all Candle Bearers, my calling is clear: To overcome my mistakes and agitations. To advance spiritually so that my heart is cleansed and relaxed. To become an unblemished wick for the Light Giver’s flame.”
“You are evading the question, Brother,” Ignus said. He appraised Baskara, from his close-shaved head to his leather sandals. “And were you wound any tighter, I fear you would coil up and disappear within yourself.” Baskara caught himself glowering. Ignus chuckled deeply from his chest, the air escaping his nostrils before laughter fled his throat and resounded off the stone walls. The light flared in his eyes.
Baskara stepped to the right side of the room and leaned against the wall, arms still crossed, his gaze dwelling a moment on the torchlight in its sconce. He closed his eyes, feeling the dappling warmth of the flame on his lids, then took a measured breath, loosening the tension in his neck and shoulders, the smell of ancient stone filling his nostrils.
He would not allow this wastrel to rattle him.
When he opened his eyes once more, he avoided Ignus’ gaze, instead looking past him into a world only he could behold.
“I understand you, brother Ignus,” he said, his voice deep and distant. “You question the Light Giver because you detest his subjects. You see Candle Bearers as weak-minded fools, incapable of governing themselves. And now you have come to this priory and judged the same of its Brothers. Of me.” He lifted a hand to his chin, cupping it between thumb and forefinger.
“Perhaps there is some merit to your judgment. No man walks the path of light without stepping into the shadows from time to time.” He paused and moistened his lips, drunk on the swirling of his own logic. “But it is the returning to the path which is important. It is the admission of imperfection that opens us up for continued spiritual growth. And that growth requires guidance: Priories. Churches. Places of prayer and refocusing.”
“Even if the belief itself is grounded in baseless superstition?” Ignus interjected. Baskara blinked rapidly, returning from the mists of his mental sojourn and turning his attention back to the heretic.
“So you say, but I will entertain your misguided perspective, brother Ignus." He held his hand out before him as if he were holding a flower petal between his thumb and forefinger while he spoke, occasionally covering his lips with the hand between thoughts. "It is the spiritual substance and practical consequences of the belief that are important. For the sake of argument, let us imagine that I am entertaining your lack of belief, to which I shall say this: Whether the sacred texts are historically true, or whether there is a Light Giver or not is irrelevant in the end. It is the belief and the value they add to human life which gives it worth. We provide a light for the lost.”
Ignus ground his jaw. Were it not for his bonds, he would lunge.
“A light for the lost? Old words, old arguments, Brother,” he said. “You and your ilk are dispensers of lies and destroyers of lives. You value love of a non-existent candle maker over love of one’s family.” He nodded towards the brooch on Baskara’s surcoat. “You wear that piece of silver and sell its false promises to people with the only price being obedience and a loss of will. There is no good in that, and I am beginning to wonder if there is good in you. Tell me, Brother, were you always a hypocrite, or did this priory turn you into one?”
Baskara strode back to the centre of the room in a storm and glared at Ignus. The heretic had lit the wick and sat gaping at the Candle Bearer smoldering like a far-off forest fire suddenly closing around a deer.
“Very well,” Baskara said, his eyes narrowing. “I will tell you how I came to be here.” Ignus shut his mouth, his expression stolid. Brother Baskara paced slowly, his sandals like petals on a pond.
“I grew up just below this mountain. This priory was always in the background of my life, looking down on all of Jenai. I knew little of it but what I had been told by my parents and teachers. ‘It is a place for monks and spiritual learning,’ they said. ‘The spiritual examples of all Candle Bearers.’ That was all.
“Life moved as it always does. It was a peaceful existence, but history would not see it continue as such. Perhaps you recall the day the usurpers came to the shores of Jenai over thirty years ago.” Baskara sized up Ignus, but could not divine his age. He could only say that he looked older than Baskara himself.
“I know my history, Brother,” Ignus said slowly.
“Then you know the Brothers of this priory took up arms to fight the invading heathens. They broke their vows of non-violence in service of protecting their land and their people. They fought alongside farmers, tailors, woodworkers, and fishmongers. Brother Von, the Head Confessor at the time, led a force of twenty five monks. Over half of them perished, but enough survived to ward off the invaders.
“I watched from my window as the Brothers took up spear and sword to preserve the blood of this land. And the people were grateful. From that day forth, this priory has been a beacon of hope and stability for all of Jenai."
Baskara held his arms out as his sides, his palms open towards Ignus.
"I became a dedicated Candle Bearer then, and eventually moved up this mountain to pursue a deeper connection with the Light Giver. I believed and still believe that the Light Giver is essential to Jenai. Which is why, brother Ignus,” he lowered his arms, quenching the wildfire of the past. “I cannot have men like you trying to crack its foundation.”
Ignus nodded, his eyes cast to the ground. “And what of the foundation of family?” he said. “As I said, I know my history, Brother.” He closed his hands into limp fists at his sides, lifting his head to meet Baskara’s gaze. “My father was one of the men who died that day.”
Baskara felt a prickling on the back of his neck and his breath caught in his throat.
“But he was not a hero. He was an abandoner. He was a good father and husband until the religious fever ignited in him, and he abandoned my mother and I for this bloody mountain to pursue Brotherhood. And then was slain for the glory of the invisible Light Giver.” He looked through Baskara with eyes of a different flame. “Your foundation is built on broken families, Brother. And it has been nourished with blood.”
“Only the blood of those who would shed it first,” Baskara managed to say. Ignus shook his head.
“Philosophically moral but hypocritical. Does not the Light Giver teach mercy?”
“You shall have the opportunity to ask him yourself,” Brother Baskara replied, duty-bound and far away.
Ignus chuckled, sapped of energy.
“I like you, Brother. You are at least open with your contradictions. I almost feel bad for wanting to put you in the dirt below this mountain.”
“Your pity is heard,” Baskara said. “Do you wish to repent for your crimes?”
“My conscience is clear, Brother. I pray yours is also.” He paused. “Though I doubt it is so.”
“Bless the light eternal,” Baskara replied. “May the Light Giver be ever clement.” He made the sign of the candle. “Goodbye, brother Ignus.” Baskara turned and pulled open the wood door.
The next morning, with the entire priory looking on, Ignus burned from a pyre atop the mountain, screaming to an empty sky, Brother Baskara standing at the edges of the flame.
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