7 The altar
As the days pass, I come to the understanding that my poet wasn't the first nor the last one to meet his fate through the drugged fountain. The young boys who arrive to get his body - and rob him of his belongings in the process - proceed quickly and efficiently. I know how to say farewell, and I must confess, in his last few months, Basir hadn't been pleasant company.
That's how I come to find myself exhibited on cool marble, at the feet of a heathen Goddess of medicine. I rest, among the votive gifts on the altar; coins, necklaces, rings, cups, a scroll with floury poems and argil replicas of certain body parts.
Objects with a story, signs of hope, and therefore, signs of despair.
From the outside world, people, alone or in group, come to this place of healing in search for the doctor managing the temple. Beggars, farmers, merchants, fishermen, mothers and fathers, they come to stand before the altar and beg for help.
Sweet, sweet, hopeful believers, searching for a remedy for your diseases. How would you react, I wonder, were it to come to your understanding that I hunted your ancestors and heathen healers into their graves. How would you react were you to realise that the big piece of bark on your Goddess' altar used to bear a human skin and a name that was whispered in fright?
'Would you ask me whether I regret my actions? Would you ask me whether I would do it differently? Whether I would act upon other beliefs?'
"I ask you to bless my child," an expecting mother kneels.
'Would you care that, even after centuries, I don't have these answers myself?'
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"I ask for youth."
'Would you see my curse to be bound to this wooden body as righteous?'
"I ask for health."
'Would you burn me in rage before your mind has even drafted a question?'
"I ask for you to protect us, guard us here in your temple, I beg of you!" A man in gowns pleads towards the healer, who sighs, shakes his head in desperation and ushers them inside. Men and women go into hiding in the corners of the temple, behind the altar, the pillars, the stone benches.
So, they have come, the descendants of my regime. The children of the church. I hear them now, barging at the door. Are you frightened, heathen healer? I used to believe your frightened mind to be entertaining, I never felt empathy while hunting you down. I never saw it as anything but a necessity in order to uphold the society which I ruled to the best of my knowledge. Does that make me a bad person? I handled out of the idea that I was in the right, that I was sent by my own divine being to make sure your beliefs were cast out of the world. Believing I could save you from yourself, I handled with the idea of doing good work, even though I realised my actions were bad.
As the Holy Roman Emperor, what was I to do otherwise?
The chief of the soldiers has the door rammed and enters on horseback. His hooves break the granite graves of late healers buried under our feet. Upon arriving at the altar, he slams down the statue, it nearly misses me in its downfall, chipping as it hits the floor.
The burning candle on the altar - the healer pleads and calls upon the goodness of the chief' heart - must not go out.
Without dignifying the plea with a response, the man leads his stallion towards the other, taking the candle and putting fire to the hairs of a woman attempting to hide behind him, turning her into a screaming torch.
"The candle must not go out," the chief laughs.
Others have entered the temple as well, many are veterans, even more are young and foreign, sons from conquered lands who were given the choice to either be slaughtered or enrolled in the army. I know them to be the cruellest, not out of malice, but out of fear. They maim their victims without killing them, calling it mercy. How far are you from home, young men? Who did you leave behind in your far away land? Do you write your mothers once you have finished removing the bodies of the slaughtered from the battlefields? Do you think of your brothers and sisters while cleaning your swords? Is there a girl waiting for you back home, believing you will still be the same naive boy once you return?
Probably not. Not when I see you hungrily eying the young women hiding behind the pillars and stone benches, not when I recognise the look of a boy who no longer believes in returning home. Do you think about your childhood sweethearts when you bury yourself in these innocent souls?
I watch, I merely watch as there's nothing else I am capable of doing, how the young women are dragged along towards the barracks to be raped until they bleed to death. Mia, sweet innocent Mia, it are your round cheeks glistening with tears in the ruthless desert sun when I see this situation unravel before me.
Though empathy is not the word to describe my feelings today, as they are more of a self-loathing nature when I envision these used to be my armies, my soldiers, my men who committed such cruel acts. It has come to a point where those envisions are followed up by the memories of every act and decision I made as a ruler, which a good man may consider to be cruel and unjust. Yet what does a good man know about governing an empire? Good men don't end up on the throne.
'So, what if I never fitted into the concept of a decent person?' I ask the chief though the man wouldn't care even if he could hear me. Hence I'm left wondering up to what degree I care about this revelation myself.