Short Story Feature: Confessions

I’m a tad short on time this week, thanks to a Day Job promotion that really should have been called “Now you get to do two positions for the price of one” and various other mountains of to-do list items avalanching (yep, I made up a verb! Go me) everywhere. But I still wanted to give you something fresh, rather than dredging something up from the archives. What is this fresh something? Well, remember how I said a couple weeks ago that I wanted to start featuring some of my shorter fiction? No? Here’s the reminder, then.

This week, I’m showcasing my third published short story — Confessions. Set in a fictitious (so don’t get your britches in a bunch people, it’s not meant to be thinly veiled social commentary) world, it’s a story about losing faith. The thing I’m most proud of, though, is the non-traditional format. For this particular story, I chose a circular narrative, attempting to mimic aspects of cinematography. Did it work? Well, I’ll let you be the judge. ;)

**Note: This is another one that’s on my list to revise and re-publish, so keep that in mind as you read. It was polished enough to be snatched up by a magazine, but I’m well aware of the flaws it contains. That said, feedback is always welcome, so feel free to comment!**

 

Confessions

by Kisa Whipkey

She was trapped; pinned between justice and an impossible fall. The sky was red as the blood she’d left pooling on the tiles of the cathedral floor, silhouetting her as she stood with her back to us, contemplating her choice. Tall stucco buildings glared from hollow eyes, disapproving of our pursuit. I agreed with them as I pushed my way to the front of the guards, closer to her.

I know what I had witnessed, but even so, no one deserved this. Either way, she would die. And I wasn’t entirely convinced she was wrong, that we weren’t the ones inflicting a corrupt sense of justice. I wasn’t sure why I had followed her, or what I hoped to accomplish, but some small voice urged me to try and talk her away from her fate — to try and save her.

As if hearing my doubts, she turned to face the guards splayed out in cautious defense. She smiled at the spears trained on her, the look a cobra gets before it strikes. Her dark eyes locked on mine.  In that instant I could see she wasn’t repentant. She believed in her mission; she knew she was right. Her certainty made mine waver even more, but before I could step forward to intervene, she spoke.

“Forgive me my sins,” she said calmly, as if she and I were the only two people on the low rooftop. I froze, knowing in my soul what she was about to do. I could have stopped her. But instead, I watched as her smile widened and she stepped backward off the roof, falling gracefully with arms outstretched, welcoming oblivion.

***

“Stop, wait . . . go back. Let me start over, this time at the beginning.”

The bored Inquisitor across from me merely nodded assent, his eyes glazed as he idly carved a repetition of swirls into the wooden desk. He didn’t care what I had to say, none of them did. They knew the fate of the criminal. I was simply a formality. One of the wronged, but only marginally since I had survived. I knew if I wore anything other than a priest’s robe, they wouldn’t have bothered to hear my tale. It didn’t matter though. My mission was to impart the truth, even if they didn’t want to listen.

Taking a deep breath, I started over, determined to make him understand, or at least to question.

***

She was a soldier, a warrior of the gods; chosen to help eradicate the blemish of the Saharians. Her sacred duty was to rid the earth of those who refused the teachings of Helerian; who persisted in spreading heresy and corruption into the civilized world. With their strange eight-legged deity, the Saharians were surely the spawn of the underworld. And she had no qualms sending them back where they belonged.

Her horse danced under her, its gray coat shimmering in silver ripples of anticipation. She held the high-strung Arabian in place with impatient hands, waiting for the order to descend on this village of the enemy.  With one hand, she adjusted the fabric that wrapped around her head and face. The robes of a crusader were a beautiful thing. Comfortable without being constraining, the sand colored fabric allowed her to blend with her surroundings and fulfill her divine destiny.

Finally, Devriath raised his sword, glinting light to the waiting soldiers in a signal that would end the lives of many. She ground her knees into her horse’s sides and the animal bolted forward. The dull thud of hooves against the sand was the only warning the condemned villagers would have before the crusaders fell on them like a dust storm.

Screams rose into the heat of the desert as the first Saharians fell. She drew her weapon in anticipation, a smaller, curved blade that mimicked the wicked smile of a young moon. Without slowing, she galloped through the streets of the village, slashing her way through anything or anyone in her path.

Suddenly her horse stopped short, rearing with a shrill cry of fear as one of the villagers waved a torch in front of its face, the orange flames licking hungrily toward the velvety muzzle. She tried to keep the panicked animal from losing its senses, but instinct won over loyalty. She jumped from the saddle as the Arabian spun and bolted, its raised tail flowing behind it like a flag of surrender.

Rolling to her feet, she advanced on the man with the torch. She could see his fear in the quiver of the flame, but she didn’t care. He was one of them. He had to die. Calmly, she brought the steel of her blade slashing across the man’s chest in an elegant spin any Scarf Dancer would envy.

“Murderer!” a child’s voice screamed behind her. She stopped, stiffening. She’d been called many things in her career of death, but there was something different about this taunt.

“Makaris, no!”

Turning, she saw a woman run forward, clutching the small boy to her and trying valiantly to pull him out of danger.

“Why? What did he do to you?” he cried, his blue eyes accusing through the welling tears as he rigidly ignored his mother’s efforts.

His voice pierced her emotional armor as surely as an arrow does skin. He spoke with the same cadences she did, not the foreign accent she had been expecting. Horror filled her, truth dawning like a sunrise, as she stared into those small, fierce eyes. They were blue . .. blue! Not the sand color of the Saharians. This boy was Theinan — one of her own people!

Stricken, she looked at the mother and was met with a pair of fearful green eyes; Theinan eyes. Gasping as the air suddenly grew thin, she swept her gaze over the chaos, and for the first time in a long time, really saw what was happening. None of the villagers trying desperately to defend themselves were Saharian. The crusaders were slaughtering their own kind!

She staggered back against the nearest wall, bracing herself against its solidarity. This was wrong! Why were they attacking their own? Crumbling as surely as her conviction, she folded in on herself, covering her face with her hands. The scimitar thumped against the ground, forgotten. This couldn’t be happening. She must be mistaken! There was no way the church would condone this — killing was strictly prohibited in the great Book of Truth, especially the butchering of decent, devout people!

But when she forced her eyes open again, the scene was the same. Unsuspecting Theinan citizens were falling like fragile saplings against a strong wind, their lives taken for an unknown reason. This went against everything she believed in, and she knew the gods would be displeased.

She watched the melee for what felt like eons, the slaughter unfolding before her in slow motion. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do. This couldn’t continue, but how could she possibly stop something as inexorable as an avalanche? Shaking off her lethargy, she let instinct guide her.

Picking up her discarded weapon, she threw herself toward the nearest crusader, stepping between his falling blade and the intended victim. Metal sparked as it clashed with squealing protest. The hazel eyes of her fellow soldier widened in shock and confusion, but she moved before she had a chance to change her mind. Her blade bit into his sand colored robes, staining them a dark red as his life ran from his body.

“Helerian, forgive me,” she murmured, turning away. The man he had been attacking shuddered before her. A flicker of hesitation dawned as what he had witnessed sank in, and she saw gratitude and uncertainty flood across his features. Quickly, he scrambled away, retreating into the recesses of one of the huts. She wasn’t sure if he would find safety there for long, but he wasn’t her concern anymore. She needed to find Devriath and get him to sound the order to fall back before every one of them was condemned to the underworld.

Her glance flickered to the body of the soldier and she felt the pang of remorse. She wouldn’t have time to reason with every one of her comrades, and most were so stubbornly ingrained with doctrine that few would even pause to listen. She would be deemed a traitor in a matter of seconds — one of the Lost, condemned to instant death without hope of salvation. It was either her, or them. Her one chance to escape with her robes intact was to find Devriath. And find him fast.

She prayed that she would be able to convince him as she ran toward the focal point of the battle, the screams and clash of weaponry rising to a near deafening pitch as she drew closer. Devriath would be in the middle of the chaos. He always was. Like the core of a fire, he never failed to be at the heart of the most intense battles.

She scanned the crowd, searching for the shining double blades of their leader. As she had expected, she glimpsed him at the dead center of the throng, his swords glimmering like deadly liquid.  Taking a deep breath, she threw herself into the fray, hoping vaguely that she could reach Devriath without having to murder too many more of the crusaders.

She darted beneath the blades of friend and foe alike; an avenging angel moving toward the heart of the conflict. She had already butchered three more of her fellow soldiers, saving two families and one lone woman, when she was suddenly tackled to the ground. Snarling, she rolled with her attacker into the shadowed recesses of an alley, away from the heat of battle.

Her breath slammed out of her as she was roughly pinned to the ground beneath her assailant. She tried to bring her blade up and felt it deftly stripped from her by a booted foot. Her hands were forced into the sand near her head with such strength she felt the tiny granules embed themselves in her knuckles.

“Enough!” he growled. “Constia, what are you doing?”

The familiar tones brought her gaze to meet the silver stare of the man above her. She didn’t need to see the rest of his face to know him, or to tell that he was furious. Shock, confusion and rage warred within his eyes and silently demanded an explanation.

“Let me up!” she spat, struggling against the weight of battle-toned muscle.

“Not until you explain what’s going on,” he answered, silver eyes glinting dangerously. “Have you completely lost your mind?”

“How can you sit here calmly, when innocent people are being murdered?” she challenged.

“I’m not! You’re not out there anymore, are you?”

“No, not the crusaders, the villagers!” She felt a satisfied flush as his eyes clouded with confusion. “Or didn’t you realize that?”

“What, in Helerian’s name, are you talking about?” He sat back on his haunches, letting go of her arms, but still holding her pinned with his legs.

“Look behind you Bannar, none of those people are Saharian. We’re killing our own!”  When he shifted to look over his shoulder at the fighting, she tried to regain her scimitar, her fingers creeping stealthily toward the vicious blade. Without looking, his hand shot out, covering the blade and holding it pinned as surely as his body did hers. Frustrated, Constia slammed her fist into the sand and settled for glaring up at the man who had once been her friend and lover.

“I don’t understand, Constia,” he said, turning back to her, “One minute you’re with us, and the next thing I know, you’re attacking another crusader. One of your friends! Why would you do that?”

“How can you not see what’s happening? These villagers have done nothing wrong; they’re Theinan for Helerian’s sake!” Now it was her turn to feel confused. Why wasn’t he understanding? While they were arguing, more Theinan citizens were being murdered!

“I know,” he murmured, a pained look bringing his brows together and his shoulders slumping. Constia felt shock crush her and she stared in horror at the stranger above her.

“You know? Why aren’t you trying to stop it then?” Her mind whirled as she tried to make sense of what was happening. A cold pit of foreboding settled in her stomach like a bad meal and she knew she wasn’t going to like what she was about to hear.

He looked at her with pitying gray eyes. “I’m doing what I was ordered to. This isn’t the first time we’ve done this, Constia. Surely you realized that?”

“No! What are you talking about? Those others were Saharian; I would never have killed our own people willingly!” She shook her head vehemently, denying his words with every shred of her being.

“There are no Saharians, Constia, not anymore. They were a race that died out long before we got here. The Church uses them as an excuse; a way to condemn those that aren’t loyal enough, a way to instill fear in the rest of us,” he explained softly, his voice gentle and filled with pain.

“But, that’s political,” she said, looking up at him with questioning eyes. He simply nodded and she felt tears begin to swell as betrayal set in. She had been used; her faith had been corrupted. Her chest felt like it had been cleaved with a sword, all her nerves raw and her spirit shriveling in despair. How could she have been so blind? So stupid?

She closed her eyes and turned her head into the sand, feeling anguish wash over her like a scalding bath. Bannar released her then, kicking the fallen scimitar well out of easy reach as he moved a few feet away, watching intently. But she had lost her desire to move, her limbs numb and cold with defeat. What was she supposed to do now? Everything she had believed, everything she had done, was all a lie!

“Constia?” The soft query barely managed to break through her haze of self-pity. “I’m sorry, Constia. I thought you knew. We all did.”

That last sentence dispelled her anguish like a fog in a swift wind and she felt rage raise its hackles, its teeth bared to kill. Her eyes snapped open, their chocolate depths flashing with hate. Bannar tensed, his hand straying to the dagger at his side.

“You all knew? Every last one of you?” she asked coldly. He nodded. “Then you’re no better than them. You all deserve to die! You’ve condemned us to the underworld, and you don’t even care!” She rose and brushed the sand from her clothes with tense motions that spoke volumes to her agitation.

“ If none of you will set things right, then I will,” she declared, “Just answer one more thing, if there are no Saharians, then how do you explain the people we’ve fought? The ones with a different language and different coloring?” She glared at him, waiting to hear what twisted version of the truth he was about to expel.

“They are of Saharian blood, but they are also Theinan. Ages ago, the two races merged. The people in this southern region have kept more of their original language, and the genes are stronger here than they are in the north. But there are people of Saharian descent everywhere,” he explained, his eyes narrowing before he added, “The color of your eyes hints that even you possess some.”

“Lies!” she screeched, lunging at him in blind fury. She had no weapon, but she would make him pay for even suggesting that she was Saharian. He evaded her attack easily, capturing her flailing arms behind her back, his knife blade resting lightly against her throat. Refusing to accept defeat, she struggled, trying to kick him. They danced awkwardly, her kicking like a donkey while he easily avoided the expected blows. He had always been able to read her too easily, always besting her in sparring matches. Finally, he brought the knife more firmly against her skin, the sharp edge lacerating her neck just enough to subdue her.

“That’s better,” he mumbled behind her. Her chest heaved with anger and adrenaline, but she stayed still.

“Well, what am I going to do with you? Obviously, you are Graell-bent on killing everyone around you, so letting you go isn’t an option…” he trailed off, and she waited, eyes narrowing. All she needed was an opportunity. The history between them no longer mattered. He was corrupt and she would kill him as surely as she would have a Saharian.

Without warning, she felt him grab the bottom of the fabric that covered her face. He wouldn’t, she thought. With a dancer’s grace, he twirled her away from him, the fabric that had protected her identity unraveling and leaving her exposed. She screamed in outrage, turning to face him, her dark hair swirling around her in exuberant freedom.

He stood there, holding the strip of fabric in one hand, the dagger in the other. For a moment, she saw the old look of desire infused affection light his eyes, replaced quickly by a sadness she didn’t understand.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Constia,” he said, advancing slowly toward her, “But I can’t let you go either. So here’s what we’re going to do; I’m going to use this to bind you. I’ll leave you here in the safety of the shadows and go get Devriath for you. If you believe you can convince him of the error of his ways, then be my guest. But I can’t let you murder any more of our friends. Fair?” He waited, holding the fabric ready, his eyes searching hers for the resistance she knew he expected.

Instead, she aqueisced, nodding once and holding her wrists out to be tied. Warily, he began to bind her, his hands hesitantly winding the fabric around her. She remained compliant and in a matter of seconds he had securely bound her to the lintel of the door behind her. Apparently satisfied that there was no possible way she could cause damage to herself or anyone else, Bannar turned to leave.

“I’ll be back as soon as possible,” he said before disappearing into the melee. Constia sat, her limbs constrained by the very fabric she had once found so freeing. Wearily, she let her head droop and her mind wrestle with the overwhelming truth that had finally been revealed to her.

***

Hours later, the battle was mostly over; the villagers were either dead or had been rounded up to be taken back to Mercuriar for trial. The church enjoyed publicly displaying the price of heresy so they had standing orders to bring back at least a few of the Lost from every raid. Buildings were being systematically searched, anything of value was taken and the rest destroyed in the cleansing flames writhing over the thatched roofs. Any rebels left were soon hunted out like rabbits and killed.

With the aftermath of battle well underway, it was time to deal with Constia. Bannar informed Devriath of the earlier confrontation as the two men made their way to where she was bound. Neither spoke as they drew closer, each lost in thoughts of how best to deal with the situation.

Both men stopped short as they turned into the alley, staring at the lintel where Constia had been tied. There was nothing there; she was gone. The fabric Bannar had secured her with lay like a shed snake’s skin in the sand, barely discernable against the element it so resembled.

Bannar felt a smile of admiration tug at his mouth. He wasn’t sure how she had managed to escape, but it didn’t really surprise him that she had. He had never met a woman he respected more; or feared for that matter.

Devriath’s expression wasn’t so kind. His brows were knitted and his blue eyes slitted in apprehension. He had no doubt that Constia was dangerous. He only wondered where she would surface, and whether he was her next target.

***

Finally the last sinner left. Sighing, I turned and placed my hands on the altar, letting my weariness be bolstered against its solid weight. I hung my head and simply stood, letting the day’s events cloak me like an ill-fitting garment. It was my job to listen to the wrongs of humanity and offer Helerian’s forgiveness, absolving them of their disgraces and fears. But some days were harder than others; days like today when the blackness of the human soul threatened to pull me under its turbulent waters.

“Do you have time for one more confession, Father?” a voice asked softly behind me. I shook my head without turning. It was nearly time for the Ritual of the Stars, the evening ceremony that welcomed the night and warded against the evil spirits that lurked in the dark, preying on the unfaithful.

“I’m sorry, my child, I do not. You will have to return tomorrow. I can promise that Helerian’s judgement will wait until then.” I wondered if I could indeed promise something like that? What if this poor person died in the night? Their sins would be unforgiven and they would face Helerian in all their shame. Would he have mercy because I had promised he would?

The hiss of a blade being unsheathed cut through my speculations and I tensed, my weariness instantly gone. Slowly, I turned to face the intruder, this desperate soul who would attack a priest rather than wait for forgiveness. The woman stood a few feet from me, her sword trained on my chest with obvious intent, its polished steel winking in the flickering candlelight. I couldn’t see her face, but her dark eyes were clear, harsh. She wore the robes of a crusader, the sand-colored fabric obscuring her identity and only hinting at her gender.

“I insist, Father,” she said, motioning with the tip of her sword to the curtained partition that was the confessional. I nodded slightly and slowly made my way back to the side that was mine. Her dark gaze followed me, the blade moving as slowly as I did so that it remained pointing at me with deadly interest. I lifted the dark burgundy curtain and stepped inside, letting it fall into place behind me. The inside of the small alcove was shadowed, the sparse furnishings discernible only as blocky shapes in the semi-gloom. I moved with certainty until I found the oversized pillow beside the low wall that separated my side from that of the confessor’s.

As I waited, it occurred to me that the crusaders weren’t home yet; they’d been sent far abroad to eradicate several pockets of the more troublesome heretics. What was this one doing in Mercuriar, and what could she possibly need to confess so badly that she would risk further condemnation by drawing a blade on a priest?

I heard the rustle of fabric as the crusader settled on the other side of the wall. I smiled in the darkness, certain that the slight noise had been for my benefit. The crusaders were highly trained in stealth, and she could have been right beside me without my ever knowing it if she’d wanted.

“What is your plight, my child?” I asked softly. The sooner we got this over with, the sooner I could get on with my evening.  An ironic huff of a laugh floated over the low wall, piquing my interest even more and setting uneasiness slithering through my limbs.

“My plight’s a little complicated, Father,” she answered dryly, “You see, it isn’t really mine in the first place. It’s yours. You and the other leaders I so foolishly trusted my faith to.”

“I don’t understand,” I murmured. There was a dangerous undertone to her voice that I didn’t like; bitterness?

“Of course you don’t. If you’re lucky, you won’t have known anything more than I. But I need answers, Father; answers only you can provide. If you give me what I need, then you will be the salvation of all your brethren. If you don’t, you will join them in the underworld.”

I stared at the void above the low wall, suddenly wishing that it was made of something more substantial than simple air. There was nothing separating me from this dangerous creature and this was clearly not a normal confession. My only choice was to try and reason with her. Maybe I could get her to calm down enough to escape and summon the guards.

“Who has wronged you, my child?” I asked, dreading the answer.

“The church.”

I choked, my throat strangling around the air I had been trying to breathe. She was definitely not the average sinner seeking forgiveness.  “Please, explain.”

“I have always been a devout woman, Father — a woman who has given her life to following the ways of Helerian, and who has devoted herself to helping in the fight against those who renounce him. And I have been used by the very ones I trusted; the priests and leaders of our mission, who told us that the Saharians were evil, that they must die because they spread poison against Helerian, spread corruption among the faithful . . .” she trailed off and I waited tensely, unsure where this was heading.

“The Saharians are evil. What you do in the name of Helerian is honorable and beyond judgment,” I ventured into the silence, hoping that maybe all she wanted was reassurance, knowing it would take much more than that.

“Lies!” she hissed angrily, the sound slithering over the wall to settle around my throat like the snake it resembled.  “Do all your kind lie, Father? Do you think that we are too stupid to realize the truth? That we can’t see that you manipulate us through faith, turning belief into a weapon of politics?”

“I don’t follow you, my child. What I have said is the truth.” I was confused. Nothing she had said sounded like a direct accusation, none of it seemed to equal the level of anger and betrayal lacing her voice. There was only one thing I could think of that might set off a reaction like this, but I sincerely hoped I was wrong.

“There are no Saharians!” she screamed, confirming my fears on the source of her anger. “Did you know that? The crusaders are slaughtering our own people! Killing Theinan citizens with fanatic zeal because the church — because you  told us to! Did you know about that too, Father? Did you?”

I flinched away from the storm of her words and for the first time felt true fear grip my heart in its cold embrace. I did know what she was talking about; I abhorred it actually. But I was a lowly priest, a servant of the people, and had no say in the decisions of the higher clergy. The ones claiming to know the will of Helerian better than the rest of us; they were the ones she wanted, not me. How was I going to make her see that?

“You are right,” I said softly, cringing. This could backfire immensely. Either she would be surprised by the admittance or would take the affirmation as fuel for her vengeance. I held my breath, waiting.

“Did you hear me? I said, you are right…You’re right! What the crusaders are doing is wrong. The high priests have corrupted the mission of this church, of our faith, and are using devout people — people such as yourself — for their own goals.

“But what you are planning is not right either. I can feel your anger; feel your intentions, child, but they will not ease the pain you feel. Only Helerian can do that. And we must trust that he has a plan bigger than we can ever know, that there is a reason why he is letting such horrible things happen to his children,” I stopped abruptly, realizing that I was preaching, the words pouring from me in a rush of vehement conviction. I sucked in a breath, waiting to see what my hasty words had caused.

“So you knew.” Her voice was cold, dead of inflection, and all the more scary in its flatness.  I didn’t answer her; I had already admitted more than I should have. I felt like I was holding a firework, watching the fuse burn closer and closer to the inevitable explosion.

“Didn’t you?” she asked again, more forceful this time.

I closed my eyes in resignation and answered, “Yes.” It was a breath only, a sigh of defeat and shame. “Yes, I knew. But I promise you, there was nothing I could do. If I had been able to stop the high priests, I would have. You must believe that I am as appalled as you,” I whispered, hoping the sincerity of my tone would diffuse what was coming.

“Thank you, Father.”

The fabric rustled softly, noiselessly, more a shimmer of air than of sound as she left. I waited, curling in on myself, knowing I had failed.

***

Constia moved swiftly. She had learned what she came for; learned that the church was every bit as corrupt as she had feared. Well, there was only one way to deal with the corrupt—the church itself had taught her that lesson.

She didn’t pause as she left the confessional, the heavy fabric falling back into place with barely a rustle. She was sure now; her mission clear. Her blade was held ready as she headed into the main hall of the cathedral, where the rest of the priests would be gathered for the Ritual of the Stars. She had timed her arrival well, there would be no others present, just the religious workers — just those who needed to die.  They thought they could play with people’s lives, jeopardize their immortal souls without their knowledge and there would be no consequences. They were wrong.

She burst into the great hall like a clap of thunder. The startled priests turned to face her, shocked into immobility, their hands frozen in the midst of whatever part of the ceremony they had been performing. She shrieked her war-cry and fell on the nearest robed traitor, her curved sword slashing through numerous layers of fabric. The man screamed in pain and crumpled, but she was already moving on, dancing through the stunned religious leaders with the grace of a practice form, as if there were no opponents, just her and the blade, a beautiful melding of feminine fluidity and deadly technique.

All around her, men were falling, clutching at various pieces of anatomy as their blood flowed, mingling in a communal pool of betrayal on the tiled floor. None resisted, none knew how. In a matter of seconds, the entire cathedral of priests lay dead or dying at the feet of the retribution they never saw coming.

Constia stood at the center of the massacre, her blade held in ready stance above her head, blood dripping from its sharp edge to fall past her shoulder. It would only be a matter of minutes before the guards were alerted.

A strangled gasp brought her whirling around to face the side door she had entered from. The priest who had confessed the church’s betrayal stood there, horror and grief twisting his features. Slowly, he sank to the ground, like his knees had simply stopped supporting him.

Constia gazed at him, trying to decide if he should join his brethren. He had openly admitted what so many had tried to hide; had professed the same level of horror and helplessness as she. Did he deserve the same fate as his lying brothers? His eyes rose to meet hers, and widened in fear. Their gazes locked, each searching the other for understanding, for that flicker of empathy that was the definition of being human. Slowly, Constia lowered her sword and walked toward him. He remained on the floor, cowering slightly. She stopped before him and very slowly reached up to undo the fabric wrapped around her face and head, the second head piece she had renounced in as many days.

His hazel eyes watched her intently as she revealed herself to him, stripping away the differences between them until they were simply two people staring at each other. She dropped the garment on the floor. He looked at it in confusion, his eyes flickering between it and her face.

“I am no longer a crusader for this church. I am a crusader for truth and for justice. No longer will I wear the mask that ‘faith’ has bound me with. I will avenge those who have been wronged, and I want my identity known.” She sneered down at the fabric she had once found comforting, the fabric that had trapped her in lies.

“You were kind to me, Father. And honest. I appreciate that. So I will spare you, but with one request. In exchange for your life, I ask that you tell everyone — whether they want to listen or not — what the crusaders are doing. Spread the truth, Father. Will you give me your word?” she asked. He looked up at her, the fear draining from his eyes as a grudging respect took its place. She raised an eyebrow as the silence dragged on, her grip tightening on the sword at her side.

“Yes. Yes, I give you my word,” he said finally, lowering his gaze.

Shouts from the street outside echoed down the vaulted ceiling of the great hall. The guards had been alerted to her presence. Without another word, she bolted, disappearing through the side door just as the main entrance to the cathedral flew open and uniformed guards rushed through. She didn’t wait to see if the priest would betray her; she knew he would.

She ran, streaking out the servants’ door to the street beyond, pausing for a split second to sheath her sword. Turning, she sprinted down the street, shouts and the thrum of footsteps telling her pursuit was near. The city was a maze, but staying on street-level wasn’t an option; sooner or later she would run into the reinforcements she was sure were being sent. Taking a deep breath, she leaped at the nearest wall, grabbing the awning over the door and swinging to the roof in an acrobatic move the peasants below envied. She could hear their awed murmurs fade as her feet pounded up the slanted roof to the strange path at the peak. She had never understood the purpose of this trail; this flat pathway that ran smoothly over a string of roofs, like a pedestrian road from one side of the city to the other. Whatever its true purpose, it worked to her advantage now.

She paused to get her bearings, searching over the many forks of the rooftop trail for the most likely route of escape. Below, she heard shouts of frustration as the guards reached her point of ascent. She had only moments before they would be on the roof. Finally, she found her target — the path that led to the river-front homes and a sheer drop into the water below. It was a long shot, but it was her only option.

The service door to her right flew open and for a second she locked eyes with the priest she had spared. Shock flooded her features. Why was he pursuing her? Why wasn’t he leaving it to the guards? She sprinted away, ignoring the cry of the priest behind her. Did he think she was stupid enough to let them catch her?

She ran headlong down the path, vaulting over slight obstacles and staying low to the rooftop. She could hear the priest calling to her, begging her to stop, but she ignored him.  She should’ve sent him to the underworld when she had the chance.

She skidded to a stop when she reached the end of the path. Breathing hard, she gazed down at the impossible fall awaiting her. The river below winked in the dying light of the sunset; liquid metal all too happy to consume her. Her hands balled into fists as she considered her options. She could turn and fight, but she couldn’t fight the entire army of Mercuriar alone. She didn’t want to kill more innocent men; the guards were simply doing their job. In their eyes, she was a criminal, a murderer.

Her only other option was to jump. A fall of at least a thousand feet left slim chance of survival. The river was deep, but would it be deep enough?

She squared her shoulders, her decision made and was about to turn when a flicker of something caught her gaze. She narrowed her eyes, trying to focus on the spot that had caught her attention. There it was again! A shimmer of light against the rock wall, almost as if something was reflecting the last rays of the sun’s light directly to her.

It couldn’t be, she thought, peering intently into the shadows of the cliff face. Vaguely, she could make out the shape of a familiar figure as it once again signaled her with the tilt of a blade into the light. Bannar!

He was waiting half-way down the cliff on a slight ledge. As she watched, he pointed his sword at her then swung it in a slow arc toward the river. He then leaned away from the rock, tugging on a slim line of rope that held him suspended. She wasn’t sure what he was saying, but she trusted he had a plan. With a flash of light against steel, he signaled her again. It was now or never.

She smiled as she turned to face the men splayed out before her. The guards had their spears nervously trained on her. The priest stood in the forefront, watching her with pain in his eyes. His hands were raised in a placating gesture and he watched her cautiously, knowledge blooming in his gaze like a rare flower. He knew what she was going to do.

“Forgive me my sins,” she said softly, finishing the confession she had started in the cathedral. She saw his eyes widen as she stepped backward off the roof, her arms outstretched.

She felt like a stone, plummeting through the sky. She turned her body as she fell, arcing into a swan dive. She closed her eyes and waited for the impact.

Abruptly something slammed into her, knocking the breath from her lungs as it tangled around her in a confusion of limbs and sharp elbows. Her momentum shifted, swinging out to the side. Carefully, she opened her eyes and looked into a grinning face with silver eyes. Bannar had caught her mid-fall, plucking her from the sky like he would’ve caught a sporting ball, leaping from the small ledge to meet her descent. The rope tied to his waist and gripped tightly in one hand was responsible for the change in flight pattern, swinging them safely to the ground. When they landed, he let her go, swiftly untying himself from the rope that had saved them. A strong tug loosened the skillfully tied knot from its moorings, bringing the rope puddling at his feet. He gathered it quickly, erasing any evidence that would suggest she’d survived.

“Bannar, what? I don’t understand . . . what are you doing here?” Shock was causing her words to rush together, tumbling over each other in their effort to demand an answer. He just grinned at her, his features bare of the head wrap of the crusader.

“Shhh . . . you were right, Constia. I’m joining you. But we can talk about that later. Come on!” he said, grabbing her hand and pulling her into the depths of a small cave and away from inevitable discovery by the guards already making their way down to the river bank.

***

The Inquisitor turned mildly interested eyes on me, but I could tell that everything I had told him had fallen on deaf ears. He hadn’t even registered that I suggested the criminal had lived. That was my proof that he really wasn’t listening to me.  I would have omitted the part about her escape if I thought he had been. Because I was sure she had escaped.

The search of the riverbank had produced nothing to verify my theory — rather it had seemed to discredit it. The guards had recovered a scrap of sand colored fabric from the water. It had lodged against a protruding root, floating there like the cleverly placed decoy I knew it was. The fabric was a head covering, but I knew that she had left hers in the cathedral, discarded at my feet when she declared her mission.

I could’ve spoken up then, could’ve informed the guards that she was alive, that she had escaped.

But I didn’t.

Instead, I smiled to myself and turned away, returning with them to this little room, relating what I knew to an Inquisitor that didn’t care. At least I had kept my promise; I had confessed the truth.

The End

Copyright © 2009 by Kisa Whipkey. All Rights Reserved.