The Church

The meek and mousy little man wore wire-rimmed glasses, a rarity outside the largest cities. His hair was the color of ripe wheat, with touches of gray. His eyes, perpetually darting hither and yon like a rabbit seeking predators, were sunken into his skull and surrounded with crow’s feet. He would not be given a second glance among the hard-living farmers of the Chiridon Valley.

Guardian Angel by Ozakuya

He wore the white and gold livery of the Church, underneath a frock-coat which clearly had not been tailored for his meager measurements. His black gloves were a constant feature, even indoors. Only once, when the maid at the inn came to serve him unexpectedly early, did the scarred hands underneath reveal themselves.

He was the new minister after the incident. Father Isander had drowned in the pond, they said. Very tragic. A strident, valorous man, Father Isander. A fiery orator and an equally passionate defender of the downtrodden. He would be missed. Nobody could remember what this new man’s name was, so they just called him “Father”, and he seemed content with that.

Not once did he condemn the injustices that had drawn Father Isander’s eye. Not once did he speak out against the cycle of violence that jealousy and greed could spark, even among the goodfolk of any village - not this village, of course, whose citizens were moral and upright. Never did he raise his hand to defend the honor of a woman who strayed too close to the tavern doors after nightfall. The village all agreed that this new man was nothing like the late lamented Father Isander, and row upon row of smiling faces greeted him during services.

Well - there was one thing. The new preacher shared Father Isander’s habit of coming into the room quite uncomfortably close to a conversation that might have offended the delicacies of a man of the cloth, or compromised a confidence between gentlemen. More than once did the goodfolk see a shadow lurking outside of their window, but after running outside with torches in hand, they could see no sign of an intruder. That was acceptable too. The pond wasn’t going anywhere, and the blacksmith kept his lengths of stout black chain links hanging on the wall of his shop.

The night it happened, the men of the village were gathered in a ring around the twin daughters of a travelling merchant. The man’s wagon had a selection of valuable wares, which were being redistributed by the boys of the village - for they were being raised to be their fathers’ sons, as was proper. The twins cried for help, but their pleas were greeted with laughter and the oddly anticipatory chuckle.

The prayer went unnoticed, as the new preacher often did. It had a curious end. "In thy name, in the name of the Church, I call thee." And in the midst of the crowd, standing over the twin girls, erupted a figure of light and grandeur and terror. A muscular humanoid, golden light radiating from its eyes, feathered wings sprouting from its back. A flaming sword was sheathed at its side. And sometimes the skin would ripple and deform and bulge, as though some strange inhuman shape of even greater majesty and awfulness waited inside for the chance to emerge.

“Men of Chiridon Valley, attend,” boomed the voice at a volume that woke the village. Those nearest should have been deafened immediately, but they would not be granted this mercy. "You whose sin is known to me, bear now the Mark of Truth. No longer can a false word leave your mouths." Quick as striking lightning, the figure’s hands lashed out and struck at the foreheads of half a dozen of the gathered men. Where it handed on each brow, a sigil bright as the sun appeared for a moment.

"To all those gathered here who watched and did nothing, bear now the Mark of Memory." The divine messenger’s hands waved. More holy runes manifested. “The right to forget your shame has been removed from you. Carry always the weight of remembrance. Now depart, and sin no more.”

Unable to move or speak heretofore, the villagers slunk away to their homes. Not one spoke a word, nor for the rest of the night. Sleep removed the worst of the night’s terror, and to their horror and shame, the men so marked discovered the truth of the messenger’s words. Not a single falsehood, even a small comfortable lie, could they tell.

The Father whose name they did not know disappeared the next day. Of course he had been cursed like the rest of them. Of course he had fled in shame. Perhaps he could have explained the divine messenger, but none needed to hear just what it was or why it had come. Perhaps it was better that he was gone.

He could find some other village with its own problems and dwell there for a time. Yes, that would be for the best.