Chapter 1: Tried by Fire and found Pure
It was no place for a god. But at the pinnacle of the ancient stairs, past the two priests who stood like sentinels on the bottommost step, and still farther past the point where blackness concealed all, hid just that, our god. Atop an uncountable number of steps, Tsor watched us from the blackness with penetrating eyes. Eyes that beheld centuries of mankind’s birthings and dyings, now watched our quarrel unfold at the bottom of those long and darkened steps. Eyes ever watching. Ears ever hearing. Mind ever judging.
Twenty-three of us huddled at the bottom of the steps in the light of two solitary torches, seven chairman, seven jugars, seven archpriests, Marcell’s wife, and myself, the prentice.
Asiron stepped to the front of the group with back to the stairs and the sentinel priests. Asiron pushed the trial into motion, with flat tones. “Demos, please come forward.”
I stepped from the crowd. Without the safety of the others surrounding me, the cavernous empty room unsettled me. I stepped into line with Asiron, trying to hide my tremors, then turned to face the crowd I’d left. I felt the unrelenting eyes from the top of those stairs searching my every part, seeking the truth.
Asiron projected for the congregation and the deity to hear, his words repeated off the walls. “Demos has served as Marcell’s prentice the past nineteen months and was the first to observe the anomaly. Marcell has taken the jugar’s oath to Tsor’s Code, therefore, judgment of his crime will be decided by Tsor himself.”
Asiron stepped forward once, then turned to face me. “Demos, please explain to all here what you have observed.”
Asiron joined the crowd again, leaving me alone. Forty-eight mortal eyes now stared into me. My eyes met Marcell’s. His were strong and unflinching, surprising for a man on trial. I met Marcell’s wife’s gaze, reddened and watery. She blinked and a wash of tears welled out, I turned away. I met Asiron’s eyes, brave and empowering. I stayed focused on him through the duration, trying to forget the two amortal eyes behind me in the dark of the stairs.
“I had been working with Marcell for some time when I first noticed it.” My voice seemed tiny in the cavernous room, mine didn’t echo in Tsor’s Hall as Asiron’s had. “I think most people just overlook a man’s gyve and token. I think that’s why it took so long to notice it.” I found myself unwittingly spinning my own token inside my gyve. Clink. Clink. After every twirl, the clanging of the iron token coming to a rest inside the gyve around my wrist drew the eyes of most of my audience. Though it distracted them, it was far more beneficial for me as a distraction from my own wandering thoughts. The token stopped another rotation, with a flick of my finger I sent it spinning again. Clink. Clink.
“We were in the jugar’s office. It was a slow afternoon, all we had done that day was paperwork. The sun had hit Marcell’s token just right, something seemed off. The iron in the token just wasn’t right, it didn’t look like something Tsor’s smiths would have done. It looked amateur. I tried for a closer look when he caught me staring. He became visibly upset, and sent me home for the day. Instead of going home, I went to the Archpriest in Northern Shkhem.” I gestured to the Archpriest of Northern who stood in the crowd, “Would you like to explain?”
The Archpriest stepped out of the crowd one step. “Demos, wanted to check the census records for a specific token number. At the time, he didn’t tell me where he had seen that particular token number. So, I checked the number against the census records, it didn’t belong to Marcell. The number on Marcell’s token belonged to a man in Southern Shkhem, Eron.” The Archpriest waved a hand to gesture to Eron, Asiron as I knew him. The Archpriest stepped back into the crowd.
Clink. Clink. Clink. My token spinning resumed as I spoke. “When I left the Archpriest, I ran to Southern Shkhem to find Eron. I asked to see his token, when he did I confirmed that his number matched Marcell’s. I told Eron what I had found. Then Eron called for this trial.” With awkward grace, I wedged back into the crowd. The pressing of the other’s against me as we crammed together eased my tension, somewhat.
Asiron announced from his position in the crowd. “Marcell, please step forward and present your case.”
Marcell stepped forward from the crowd, his wife’s arm extended into the void his departure from the crowd created. A sob or two from her gave way to streams of tears. Marcell’s face was flat, resolute, and unremorseful as he took the attention of all at the bottom of the stairs.
Marcell stood in silent defiance. Feet planted like trees. Shoulders like sea cliffs. Eyes like iron. The man seemed to take control of the room, despite the deity above.
“Marcell,” Asiron called, “please present your case.” Asiron’s tone was professional and calm, yet insistent.
“What case would you have me present? How can I argue with numbers? Demos has said the truth. Compare our tokens Eron, you’ll find the young man tells the truth.”
“Why do you they match Marcell?” Asiron insisted.
“Am I a census taker? Am I the record keeper? Am I one of Tsor’s smiths? Am I a forger of tokens? Why is this my trial? Why aren’t the record-keepers, smiths, and you on trial as well?”
“You will present nothing in your defense then?”
“Check the numbers if you must. The numbers are what they are. Let the god decide.” The last of his words echoed in the subterranean temple, almost as if Tsor himself was saying, “Let the god decide. Let the god decide. Let the god decide.” The echoes played over the sound of his wife’s weeping. Marcell still unmoved, unafraid.
Asiron spoke out again, “May I have the Archpriest of Northern and the Archpriest of Southern step forward with the census records.”
Two archpriests stepped out.
“Please present for the audience your findings.”
One of the priests spoke out, “We have compared our independent records, it would appear as those Marcell has altered the census records of Northern and used his jugar privileges to avoid the census. Had he not abused his jugar status, we would have found the discrepancy during the census, and he would have not had access to the census records to alter the data.”
Marcell swallowed once. Then set his jaw.
Asiron stepped from the crowd to stand next to Marcell. “Archpriests, if you wouldn’t mind, please come compare our tokens. Tell us what you find.”
After only moments of study, the Archpriests unanimously concluded, “Marcell’s token is a forgery. This was not crafted by one of Tsor’s smiths. The quality is poor. Whoever made this was not trained properly in the art of ironcraft.”
The Archpriests moved to enter the crowd once again. Asiron stopped them at the last, “One more thing, do you know who has Marcell’s original token?”
“No, we do not.” The Archpriests joined the crowd.
“Marcell, for the crimes of record alterations, crafting of Tsor’s sacred metal, and possibly numerous other crimes related to this deception, you are being tried. As your peers we will not judge you, but you have oathed yourself to Tsor and his Code. As such, Tsor will weigh your actions.”
Silence followed in anticipation of some sign from the dark, a burning signal to indicate Marcell’s innocence as the god saw it. Marcell’s stance was as strong as ever, but his face betrayed him with furrowed brow and quivering lips.
Silence continued. Pops and crackles from the two burning torches were all that filled the room, we all held our breath. His wife held her sobs.
Fire burst into light at the top of the stairs. The ignition created a push of air through the room I felt on my skin and in my ears. A swell of heat rushed past even at the bottom of the steps. The group upturned their downcast faces to see what burn above. White flame was all that could save Marcell, any other color would mean Tsor had found Marcell guilty. In unison, all we mortals beheld the flames atop the stairs, save for one man standing defiantly at the bottom of the stairs, regarding his wife’s face.
His wife charged through the crowd. Her arms embraced him, dissolving his strength. He reduced to a heap there. The two held each other for moments, then it was as if his strength were transferred to his wife during their embrace. Passion burned in her. Hatred and anger stoked her fire. Her hands clenched. Her feet set hard against the ground.
She abandoned the man heaped there at the bottom of the steps. She rushed for the stairs, blowing past the sentinel priests who made no movements as she stepped onto the bottommost step, or any steps that followed. She held no weapons, but she scaled the stairs ready to kill, her fists the only threat. In moments, she disappeared into the black of the steps, rushing toward the blue-green flames that sentenced her husband to death at the top of the steps.
Marcell, now on his knees, spun to see his wife charging up the stairs. Marcell cried, “No! No! Aida, no!”
All sight of her was gone, but her labored breaths as she flew up the steps signaled her progress up the mountain of stairs.
I regarded the blue-green flames again, a shadow passed in front of the flames, an eclipse. A god.
The patting of her feet on the old stone steps told us she continued on her path. Then, her footfalls silenced. Then, her breaths silenced as well. Thud. Thud. Thud.
The sound of softness hitting stone over and over again repeated after the thuds. The muffled hits increased in speed as they came closer, sliding down the stairs.
Out of the black, Aida’s body tumbled down the last stairs to come to rest directly before Marcell.
A collective sigh from the crowd.
An Archpriest came to Marcell, and the body. The Archpriest removed a tool from his robes, then took Marcell’s right arm in his hand. With the tool, the Archpriest pried open Marcell’s gyve. It screeched open in a rusty cry, Marcell’s token toppled out of the gyve and tinked to the stone floor, a tiny echo. The Archpriest gingerly took Marcell’s wife’s arm, then opened the gyve shackle on her arm. Her token tinked to the floor, an empty echo. The Archpriest bent to retrieve Marcell’s forged token and Aida’s true token, others could use her token now. Corpses needed no food rations or identification. The Archpriest pocketed both tokens. The gyve opener swung in one hand, and two empty gyves swung in the other as he walked for the exit behind us.
The two sentinel priests abandoned their posts, to extinguish the two burning torches. The only burning light was the blue-green flame of guilt at the top of those stone cold stairs. The priests continued to usher our congregation through the exit.
Blue-green light produced two shadows at the bottom of those ancient steps. Just before the door to the cavernous room shut, I saw the fire atop those steps extinguish. The two shadows at the bottom of the steps disappeared into utter blackness.
In the lobby outside of that dreadful room, as Marcell received his punishment hand-delivered by a god, I steadied against the wall with the knowing weight that that man’s blood was on me. My knees buckled.
Leaning against the wall, a heavy hand came to rest on my shoulder. I turned to see a man towering shoulders above me.
His long blond beard that gathered into five groupings, each grouping weighed by a thick black bear claw, left no doubt he was the jugar of Nabatene. He gave me a knowing nod of support, no words were exchanged. Only nods and understanding eyes. His hand lighted off my shoulder, along with it some of the weight Marcell’s blood burdened me with. The bulky jugar from the North followed the others as they exited the lobby.
One remained in the lobby with me, Asiron. As the last of the others disappeared, Asiron approached with hand outstretched. A moment passed before I took his hand to shake. As I did, he pulled me from the wall, bringing me upright. Asiron’s free hand slapped my upper arm forcefully, striking rigidity back into me.
“Look at me Demos.”
I did so with weak and wearied eyes.
“Don’t you feel sorry for that man, not even for a breath. He knew the Code, he took the Oath. That man is a traitor, worse than rebels and false prophets. He was an icon. He has dashed the hopes of all who upheld him, he has betrayed them. He earned his disgrace and his punishment. You have earned honor. You have done your land and your god well. You were tested, you’ve passed. Tried by fire and found pure.”
I took a breath, held it. Exhaled deep to feel weightless, strengthened.
“Thank you, sir. That means a lot.”
“No, thank you.” Asiron took our still clasped hands and shook them. Not the shake of a man meeting the subordinate that I was, the shake of a man meeting someone worthy of great honor. He broke hands, and Asiron left me in the lobby.
Asiron turned the corner and I was alone in the lobby.
A scream of pain ushered from the adjacent cavernous room.