In the bloodied histories of the Church of the Penitent God, there have been many great fighters. Consider for a moment a warrior monk at prayer; he has fallen on one knee, head bowed and eyes closed, a humble supplicant wearing crimson armour. His fingers reach to graze the hilt of the sword thrust into the ground before him, ready to rise and do battle in the service of his God.
The history of the Church, if it could be written, would be more than a dozen scribes could complete in their lifetimes. This, then, is the tale of one man only, not a monk but perhaps the greatest of all the fighters. It is the story of his fall from grace and dreadful journey of penance.
Like all who grow up in a time of peace and plenty, the very great fighter had not understood his good fortune. Still, he loved his wise and holy King, who held both Church and Crown in blessed harmony and saw how he toiled so that all the lands could be fed and secure.
In time, the very great fighter became Captain of the Royal Guard and would ride with his King and the two Princes to do battle for the protection of the Church and Realm. He came to count the Princes as friends and all the beautiful ladies loved him because he was such a great fighter and tall and handsome into the bargain. The one who loved him most of all was the most beautiful lady in the land and he loved her back and made her his wife. Even the raggedy old women swooned to see him pass and only his wife’s best friend, Mistress Taile, raised a voice against him, for she was a healer of great renown and hated war and fighting.
Hearing daily of his own greatness, the very great fighter became selfish and thought only of himself, but it seemed that every time his beautiful wife became dissatisfied, there would be some new act of heroism that would bring him back into her heart.
It is known that Kings will often die before their time, maybe poisoned by their very own child. Had the very great fighter discovered the Royal Prince’s evil secret, that he had murdered his Father, this story would have been very different.
After the untimely death of the King, the lands were plunged into uncertainty with bloody war cracking its yellow eye, hoping to seize its chance as the two proud sons of the King vied for power. One son, the wicked murderer of his own Father, demanded he now be called The Royal Prince, while the other, the Bishop of the warrior monks, invented for himself the title Holy Prince.
The very great fighter had become closest to this man who would be called Holy Prince as, unlike his cowardly brother, he had drawn sword and fought at the very shoulder of his Captain. But now the two friends were thrown in conflict, for the clear duty of the Royal Guard was to protect the Royal household, even against the Church.
The Royal Prince, meanwhile, was a vain and scheming man, who kept more jealousy in his heart than any heart should naturally hold. He plotted to crush his brother, the Church and all. The instrument he would use would be his Captain, that favourite of the people, the very great fighter.
The Royal Prince watched the very great fighter’s beautiful wife and his eyes were shaded and covetous, but he knew that, for now at least, he had need of loyalty from his great fighting captain. But, this was a sly man who knew how about biding time and keeping counsel.
The fierce monks who served the Penitent God, and so their Bishop the Holy Prince, knew him to be a great swordsman in his own right, and loved him. They should have noted that his untoward pride made him ill-suited for the pious title he had given himself.
The wily Royal Prince, knowing how to use this conceit against his foolish brother, made him a challenge that he should have refused. He challenged him to a single combat against his champion, the very great fighter, saying that if the Penitent God truly supported the Holy Prince, his brother would prevail and be King.
But, if the very great fighter prevailed over the Holy Prince, The Royal Prince would wear the crown.
The Holy Prince, mistaking pride for faith in his God, agreed, and met the very great fighter in the arena in front of all the City, calling out how The Lord would strengthen his arm. The arena was silent as the Prince waited in the centre of the great arena, looking noble and more handsome than ever in his crimson armour, correctly on one knee, fingertips brushing the red sword before him.
The very great fighter walked slowly to his old friend and bowed respectfully before drawing his famous sword, stepping nimbly back after the Prince rose in one clean movement to thrust at him. After knocking the blade from his opponent’s hand, the very great fighter did not slay but instead hacked deep into both legs, one after the other.
He told his fallen foe, loudly so the shocked crowds could hear, “Your brother, the new King, will permit our great healer, Mistress Taile, to attend to you.”
Mistress Taile spoke to him with some anger, “You have hacked too deep. I can staunch the bleeding but his legs cannot be made to work.”
The very great fighter only smiled and said, “Of that I am aware. He will be a cripple, crawling the Earth to warn against my King’s displeasure. By his leave this usurper may live, but in exile, with every coin confiscated to the Royal purse.”
Taile, no coward herself, stepped close to whisper in the great fighter’s ear “Your King is a cruel man who rules only by fear of your sword. The people will ever love the Penitent God, and this man who you have so cruelly cut down. I hope you may come to know your error.”
There followed dark days for the Church of the Penitent God. The very great fighter put aside his beliefs and fought the warrior monks, who the new King had outlawed. Many were slain but many more threw down or hid their red swords and armour and accepted anointment as King’s knights or the pike of the Army.
Not content with destroying the monks, the King went on to outlaw the Church itself. Many chapels were burnt to the ground and the people took to worship in secret.
Not long after this, the vain and foolish King argued with a Sultan of the East and there was a war far more terrible than anything that had gone before. The King was delighted to stand beside the very great fighter’s wife to wave his army off. Maybe only Mistress Taile saw the calculating look in his eye as it slid across his Captain’s wife and heard the weasel in his words as he sought to comfort her.
The very great fighter fought the Prince’s dreadful war. He fought too many battles, winning renown even as he grew tired and disgusted with the damage he wrought. He fought ever more desperately in ever more distant lands and it seemed that, even as his fame grew, he lost sight of his own self. He sometimes received injuries but none of significance until the final battle where arrows rained down like murderous hail. The very great fighter led his men through the torrent to the archers and made bloody havoc, slaying right and left even as he wept. In the confusion, an unknown archer let his arrow fly wild and at the very last it struck the heel of the very great fighter.
The battle was over. The very great fighter had won the King’s foolish war but could take no further step. His wounded leg would no longer do his bidding. It would not bend nor straighten nor hold his weight.
The very great fighter lay injured and close to death in a foreign tent on the wrong side of the world. He lay thus for a long time and one day awoke to find himself alone.
He pulled himself from his stinking bed but still could not will his leg to move. He crawled out onto the burning sand and looked around him but could see only more and even more sand. Abandoning his armour and his famous sword, he started to crawl.
The man who had been the very great fighter disappeared from sight and mind for a long time. Years passed and his wife finally accepted her husband must be dead and agreed to marry her King.
Mistress Taile, who grown to hate the works of the very great fighter, yet told her friend he was ten times the man the King would ever be. Hearing the bitter truth in the healer’s words, the new Queen could no longer bear to look upon her. The two friends spoke no more, even as their summers flew by and they grew old.
Then, one day, it happened that a crippled beggar in a faraway dusty town was sitting with his back against a baking hot wall, staring into the wilderness. This wretched beggar found his eye caught by a movement in the distance and thought it a jackal or some other low animal, slinking on its belly towards town.
But this strangely unsettling creature was too low and too slow to be any jackal and, after a time of staring, he saw it was indeed a man, crawling. There had been rumours of a crawling man, hauling himself bodily over the broken earth for mile out of number, but the beggar had dismissed them as fancy. He called out and soon the populace roused and some hurried out to see and accompany this strange crawling creature into the town.
The man was crisped and bearded and ruined, yet the beggar knew him. He waited until the townsfolk had fed and watered and finally grown bored of this strange novelty then he pushed himself across on his little cart, one that a great healing woman had made for him in years gone by.
Alone with the crawling man, he whispered “I know you.”
The crawling man turned his strange eyes, burned white yet still able to see, on the beggar. “None know me.”
“But I do. You were a great fighter once.”
The crawling man seemed astonished. Finally, he answered, “That might be true. I thought I had dreamed it.”
The beggar pulled his rag aside to show his hideously hacked legs, “You did this to me.”
Again, a pause. Then, “The Penitent God save me, I remember.”
He stared straight into the scorching sun, never blinking. “You were a Prince. And my friend.”
“I called myself Holy Prince. Your sword disabused me of my foolishness.”
“I am sorry I cut you so cruelly.”
“For a long time, I thought my travails were penance for my pride. But I lost that belief long since. I have sustained myself all these years on the bitter dregs of revenge, dwelling on how I would one day pay you out for what you did.” He took out a dagger that once belonged to a wealthier man, in a different life.
The crawling man, seeing the dagger, closed his eyes. But the beggar did not stab. Instead, he bent forward and took the man’s face in his pinching fingers. “You have one good leg. Why do you crawl, man?”
The crawling man took a long time to answer. Finally, he said, “Crawling is my station.”
Mistress Taile had heard rumour of the Strange Companions, the crawling man and the crippled beggar, many months before her assistant brought the report that they had arrived at the gates of the city. She hurried down, curious. It was surely impossible that a man could crawl a thousand miles as this one was reputed to. She wished to see this bizarre sight.
“Be careful, Mistress!”
Her assistant’s hissed warning was not needed, it was more habit. The days of freedom in these lands were long gone. The monks were no more and worship of the Penitent God had long been outlawed on pain of death. Still, people prayed in secret, often kneeling before a hidden red sword, thrust into the ground to await the return of their God. She would be lucky to catch sight of this crawling man before he was arrested and seen no more.
The mood in the streets was not that of idle curiosity; it was rather excitement, mixed with fear. She stopped a man hurrying away and asked what news.
“There is a wretched crawling man, true, Mistress. But his companion! It is the Holy Prince of old, returned. Turn away, run, I beg you.”
You may have understood enough of Mistress Taile to know that she did not turn away. Soon enough, she pushed through an excited throng to find herself face to face with the Strange Companions. The crawling man was indeed a wretched and upsetting sight as he scraped himself bodily along the ground, but beside him was another that she thought never to see again, still on the very cart she had built for him after he had been cut down by a long dead champion.
She hurried to them and hissed. “This way! Quickly, for you are in grave danger.”
Back at her house she dismissed her servants for their safety but her assistant would not leave. She gave her guests food and wine and sat opposite them. She looked one to the other; the Holy Prince, older, thinner, terrible worn and ragged, but still recognizable. And the crawling man, whose face looked as though it had been burnt by the fires of Hell so that his eyes had lost all colour. Yet he watched her with a strange intensity, so could not be blind.
She spoke to her old Prince. “You will lose your head. Why are you come?”
“It was the road given to us.”
“To us?” She looked at the crawling man.
The man nodded, and when he spoke his voice was as parched and cracked as his skin. “Our path was laid before us.”
She opened her mouth to speak but, in that instant, knew him and found that she could scarce breathe.
He made no answer and after she had caught her breath she said, “Your wife is remarried.”
“I have no wife.”
“Your house and…”
“I have no possessions.”
“What is this now? How can this be?”
The Prince smiled, a heart rending echo of his brilliant grin of old. “You know why. Because the Penitent God wills it.”
The Mistress stood then and walked to a screen that she drew aside. Behind, a blood red sword had been thrust into the bare earth. But before she could speak again there was a commotion at the door and she hastily dropped the screen to hide her shrine, in the very moment her assistant was thrown bodily into the room. Behind him came a truly enormous man, dressed from head to toe in black armour and carrying a sword few others could wield; the Captain of the Royal guard.
He roared with a voice that hurt all ears, “Stand for your King!”
The King, who had ever been plump, was now so fat that he seldom risked his knees. He walked now, into the centre of the room, to stare at the crippled beggar.
“So, it is true. Here you are, dragging with you some hideous crawling creature.”
“I have returned, brother.”
“But I exiled you on pain of your death.”
“The death, I fear, will be your own. God will strengthen my arm.”
For a moment the King stood amazed, then his enormous belly shook with laughter and tears ran down his face.
“These were the very words you said, before my Captain made you a cripple.”
“My words were true then as now, but none of us can know the path God lays for us.”
“Even now you are a prideful fool. Bring him.”
“And the lady, Majesty? This crawling thing?”
He glanced disdainfully from one to the other. “They are of no moment. Leave them, for the nonce.”
And so, a crippled beggar, who was once the Holy Prince, was taken to the Tower. And Mistress Taile was left alone with a man who had crawled a thousand miles.
She said, “Show me this leg.”
The King’s first wife (he had himself a harem, which many still in their hearts deemed sacrilege) had heard the astonishing rumour of the King’s new prisoner and it brought all the guilt she had harboured across the years to her mind. The Holy Prince, a proud but good man, had been cut down by her first husband. It was his cruellest act and one that set him on the dreadful path that the King had made for him, destroying the very things he loved and in so doing destroying himself. This was a trap that she had allowed him to walk into and in truth, she loved him yet.
More than that, she had never truly believed him dead. As time passed and she grew to understand the wickedness and manipulation of the King, she came to wonder if he had planned her love’s death. She became sure of it.
Yet she had married him. And so, she became the elder wife, the derided wife, the one the younger wives mocked and called hag.
Now she hurried the polished corridor but stopped quietly at the door to hear a conversation between the King and the huge Captain.
Mistress Taile sat back, satisfied. “You do know that there is nothing wrong with your leg?”
“It cannot stir. I was injured by an arrow.”
“It pierced your heel only. You are whole.”
“I am not whole.”
“No. you are not. I chose my words poorly. But you can stand, if you chose to do so.”
“What are you saying?”
“It was no arrow that cut you down, man. You could not walk another step in service of murder. Now you have dragged yourself bodily back to where it all began. Time to stand again.”
“I am not the man I was. I am weak.”
“You are the strongest man I have ever known.”
“I am old.”
“You are the legend of the realm, the very great fighter of fable. If you stand, others will stand with you.”
She surprised him then, putting her hand on his. “I will stand with you.”
The lady rose and once more pulled back the screen to show the sword she had thrust into the mud many years ago. Despite the redness of the blade, its edge gleamed in the candle light.
“Will you stand?”
The King laughed, gleeful and cruel. And, his hidden wife thought, relieved.
“A champion? They intend a champion?”
The Captain nodded. “If my spies tell true, my Lord.”
“The fools! I have known this brewing many a year. And now, with the return of my idiot brother, I feared insurrection. But they choose single combat? And I with the greatest warrior in all the Kingdoms to command. Ha-ha! I will draw the sting of this foolishness and be unassailable.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Send word. A Royal proclamation. You will finish the work of the very great fighter of old and behead my brother in the arena, tomorrow at Noon. All must attend on pain of my displeasure. Let us flush out this champion.”
The sun bore down hard on the arena and it seemed the whole City must be there. The King sat his throne, high on the dais, with his wives, even the old one, standing behind him. His crippled brother, still in rags, knelt at his feet, with the huge Captain towering over, his massive sword drawn.
The King called out. “Many years ago, this deceitful man claimed dominion over the lands, challenging his rightful King.”
Guards and lackeys booed and hissed, but the majority stayed silent and sullen. The King continued.
“He claimed right by blood and the very wicked Church. In my benevolence, I offered a pardon, but exiled him, on pain of death. Now, as you can all bear witness, he brazenly returns.”
He looked out across the crowds. “Is there even one here who supports his wicked claim?”
For a while, all was quiet, then there was a movement at the far end of the huge circle, a parting of the crowds, and a tall man walked into the arena. He wore no armour, but held a red sword by his side and there was something in him that many found familiar.
Some of the older soldiers in the crowd started and muttered, and began crying out. The crowd at first seemed confused, then the word was passed as the young ones asked the old, is it he? Is it truly he?
By the stars. It is he. Holding the red sword of the Penitent God.
This was an older version of the man many had known, his face scarred and dark and forbidding as though it had fought the Devil himself and returned. The crowd, who had been muttering and whispering, now started cheering. One old soldier bent his knee, sword before him in prayer to the old God, and was quickly dragged away, shouting how he owed the very great fighter his life ten times over.
The King, stepping back from the crippled beggar at his feet, motioned for silence, but none became quiet. He nodded to the Captain of the Guard who roared, “Silence before your King, you dogs!”
A sort of quiet fell. But it was not a safe, tame quiet. It rustled and whispered like over dry leaves awaiting the torch.
The King, fretting on his throne, asked his lackeys, is that truly he? How can it be?
Then there was a flash of cloth of gold and his wife, the old one, was past, hurrying down the steps to the sand.
She ran out, as murmurs swelled, to stop before her true husband.
“I am sorry, my love. I should not have doubted you lived yet.”
“I am no longer that man, my Lady.”
“I know who you are even now. But we are both so old. You must understand that you cannot fight that monster.”
At a whisper from the King the huge Captain stepped down from the podium in his black armour, starting towards where the very great fighter and his wife stood, drawing his sword as he strode.
The very great fighter smiled to his old love and said, “You must be gone. We each have our penance, my love.”
The old woman blinked in surprise then turned without another word to run into the crowd.
Three paces away and looming a head over the very great fighter the giant Captain stopped and laughed. “This!” he pointed with his sword, “This ruined old man. This is your hero?”
Then he moved, suddenly, amazing fast for such a colossal man, and stopped with his sword inches from the very great fighter’s face.
The very great fighter did not flinch, nor did he raise his own blade. Instead he stepped forward so the tip of his opponent’s sword touched his bare forehead.
His voice, when he called out, was surprisingly strong. “I did not crawl a thousand miles to fight. I am no longer a fighter.”
The Captain shook his head at this foolishness and drew back his sword but the King could not help but ask the question, stalling his man’s killing blow.
“What are you then?”
The very great fighter stepped around the Captain as though he was of little interest, walking to where the beggar knelt in his chains.
He looked around the crowd as though it had been they and not the King who had asked the question. “What am I?”
He fell to one knee, driving his sword into the sand before him. “I am a penitent.”
It was as though a massive shudder ran through the crowd. A tall, elderly woman stepped forward, Mistress Taile. She said, in her fine loud voice. “I am a penitent.”
The crowd were waving, kneeling, many shouting out that they were penitents. The first of the guards to kneel was briefly grabbed by his fellow, who was blown away like gossamer. Other guards, some of them monks of old, were kneeling now, driving their swords into the earth before them, hands outstretched to the hilt in prayer; warrior monks once more.
And now the huge Captain, who had frozen in his surprise, was in motion, running up behind the very great fighter to hew his head asunder.
The very great fighter might have been able to pull his sword from the sand and roll and turn the blow. It may have been possible, who knew? He didn’t have to. The Captain fell with an arrow in his throat.
The very great fighter got painfully to his feet. He did not look at the body behind him, as he had seen enough killing for any lifetime. He handed the beggar his red sword and knelt before him as loyal guards surged to protect their King and others drew weapons against them.
“What would you do,” asked the beggar, as weapons clashed and confusion swirled around them, “if I bade you to hack deep into the legs of this false King? To deal with him as he dealt with me.”
“I am done with that, my Lord. I did you an insult and will do no more.”
The cripple smiled. “Then you are a true penitent.”
The King was running as well as his overstuffed and underused legs would allow, along his secret tunnel, having left the few remaining guards foolish enough to defend him to their fate. He was not yet done, not by a long way. At the end of this tunnel was his boat and he could sneak out of the City and then, if he could meet with his Generals…
He came to a stop, scowling a-feart into the gloom. “Who is there?”
His first wife stepped out from the shadows. He spat at her, right in her wrinkled face.
“You stupid old hag. I don’t want you with me. Get out of my way.”
The woman had once been the rare beauty of the Kingdom, but he was done with her now. And yet, she did not step aside. He aimed a blow at her face but she avoided it, remaining in front of him.
“I have no time for this!” He pulled out his long knife, wickedly curved and razor sharp.
When she pulled out her own short dagger, he felt his legs wobble just for an instant. Then he raised his weapon and said. “You foolish woman. Do you think you can come at me without being slain yourself?”
To his surprise she smiled. “We each have our penance.”
Mistress Taile sat with the man who had once been the very great fighter and held his hand as their carriage followed the Beggar King’s, progressing through the street.
She said, “I haven’t heard them cheer like that since you left for that horrible war.”
“I was so proud then.”
She laughed. “You have at last won the right to some pride.”
He looked at her in surprise.
“Why would you say such a thing?”
Now she leant over and kissed his cheek. “Because, at the last, you are a very great fighter.”