The Heretic

The way of pain wound from the city through the boulders and barrows towards the hill with the stake. Crowds had gathered by the road to hurl stones and offal at the heretic as he passed. In the morning, when the sergeants had come for him, the heretic had been watching sparrows hop from branch to branch in the prison courtyard. Only peace reigned in his heart. Now, as dust rose from the way with the shouts of his accusers, the stumbling, chained heretic began to feel strange and disconcerted. It was not the false accusations, not the miscarriage of justice, nor the grim gazes of the cardinals, priests and friars. Nor had death and its fear crept into his heart. From time to time, the grip of the sergeant’s hand on his arm almost felt comforting. When the boulders fell away and the path straightened out to ascend the bald hill, screams of anger, horror, or madness filled the air. Stones struck his face and legs, which were already filthy. Once, the sergeant stopped and shot a bystander with his crossbow, but the crowd seemed not to notice. The heretic wanted to vomit now as he looked into the contorted faces. The faces of those who knew nothing of his trial or his heart, who themselves hid crimes and heresies, who should have burned alongside him, if burning had any justice to it. At the base of the hill, the heretic fell down, coughing and vomitting bile and blood. Once again, the kindly grip of the sergeant lifted him to his feet. Other sergeants and soldiers formed a ring around the hill and shot several more bystanders as the fury grew into one droning, yearning scream. Then silence fell as they led him to the stake. Firewood and old blankets soaked in pitch surrounded him. The sergeant approached with a torch, and gazed calmly into the bewildered eyes of the condemned man, saying: “The second heresy is worse than the first. That is why they scream.” The heretic looked up to heaven and asked, “What is the second heresy?” The sergeant tossed the torch onto the pitch-stained logs and blankets. “Escape. Peace.” The fire exploded with billowing clouds of black smoke. The sparrows fled into the distant hills.

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