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THE CONDEMNED WOMAN
The accorder Gronthus knocked lightly on the door of Bishop Hugal's chambers. When he heard the voice inside bidding him to come in, he entered. The Bishop of Lochlaund, a portly man with a heavy jowl and skin that had seen little sunlight, was sitting at his oaken desk. He was robed in the long gray of his order, and the cowl was pushed back from his head, revealing a pate pallid as a lump of tallow sparsely covered with wisps of hair just beginning to turn gray. The only sound was the scratching of his quill on the parchment in front of him. He did not look up from his work as Gronthus entered the room.
"We have the woman, your grace," said Gronthus.
"Bring her in," said Hugal without lifting his eyes.
Gronthus left the room and returned moments later, followed by two guards holding between them a young woman. Her only covering was a frayed sheet, wrapped loosely around her body. Her wrists were chained in front and her head was bowed, her long, disheveled hair hanging about her face, hiding it in a cavern of darkness. The guards thrust her toward the bishop and stood back. The woman did not look up, but struggled as best she could with her chained hands to keep the sheet tucked securely about her.
Bishop Hugal finished the line he was writing before he looked up at the young woman. He gazed at her as she struggled with the sheet and slowly licked his lips. "What is the accusation against this woman?" he asked.
"She isaccused of adultery, your grace," replied Gronthus.
"How do you plead, woman?" asked the bishop.
She did not reply, but great tears began to fall from the cavern of her hair like raindrops from a dark cloud, splashing on the floor at her feet.
"What evidence of her guilt do you have?" Hugal asked.
"We caught her in the very act," said Gronthus. "We have been watching her for weeks and have discovered a pattern of deception that has been repeated many times. We followed her from her own home to the house of the man she seduced. She always arrives shortly after his wife leaves for the market. If she sees a white rag hanging from his window, she knocks on his door with a basket in her hand to give the appearance that she is an eggseller. The man takes her inside, and she leaves a half-hour later. Today we followed her and waited until she had been inside for some ten minutes, then we entered and found them together in his bed. We wrapped her in his bedsheet and brought her to you just as we found her. There is no doubt as to her guilt, your grace. The woman should be put to death."
"What do you have to say for yourself, woman?" said Hugal.
Still she made no reply, but her shoulders began to convulse as tears bathed her chained hands and splashed to the floor.
The bishop sighed. "Well, if you offer no defense for yourself, we shall judge you by the evidence presented. You have committed a great evil and must face trial for it. We will stand you before King Kor as soon as it can be arranged."
For the first time the woman looked up. "King Kor is a good king, he is. Don't ye think his majesty might show a bit of mercy to a poor one like me?"
"The king will follow the recommendation of the kirk," replied the bishop, "not only because it is the law, but because he is a personal friend of mine." Hugal could hardly resist boasting of his standing with the king, even to the lowliest of Lochlaund's citizens.
At the wave of the bishop's hand the guards lifted the woman to her feet, and he watched as they led her toward the door. The sheet loosened and slipped, exposing her white, slender back. Hugal's breath came deeper as he gazed. When the door closed behind them, he picked up his quill and resumed his writing.
* * *
On that same afternoon as King Kor held audience on his throne, Bishop Hugal entered the great hall and stepped ahead of the line of supplicants awaiting their names to be called. He walked the length of the room, lined on either side with clusters of knights and noblemen watching the proceedings, and breathing as if he had just run a race, stood before the king.
"Your majesty, we have a matter needing your immediate judgment. The accorder Gronthus has apprehended an adulterous woman we have been watching for weeks. In our continuing effort to bring such cases to a swift conclusion, I ask you to hear the case now."
King Kor hesitated, and for the briefest of moments his brow knotted, giving him a look of defiance that Hugal had not seen before. But the look passed and the king said, "Very well, bring the woman in."
At Hugal's signal the doors of the hall opened and Gronthus entered, followed by two guards holding the young woman between them. She was still clad only in the ragged sheet, still shackled, and still hanging her head in shame. She neither struggled nor looked up as they forced her down the hall and thrust her toward the foot of the dais before King Kor. She sank to the floor as if her legs had turned to sand.
"State the charges, Bishop Hugal," the king said.
Hugal rehearsed to King Kor the account of the woman's sin and arrest. "We left her dressed just as Gronthus found her so you could see that our evidence is unassailable. The woman is obviously guilty. She has flouted the law and pursued pleasure in defiance of the Master of the Universe. She must be condemned to death."
"What is your name, woman?" asked Kor. But the woman, quivering with fear and shame, could not reply.
"You have heard the charges against you. How do you plead?" continued the king.
Still she did not reply but stood with her head bowed as convulsive sobs wrenched her body.
King Kor seemed uneasy. He shifted his position and ran his hand across the back of his neck. "Gronthus, the bishop has told us that the woman was caught in the very act. Obviously, the man was caught as well. Why is he not standing before me?"
"Your majesty," replied Gronthus, "the man bears less guilt than the woman because she enticed him. She sought him out, not vice versa. And you know the teachings of the Master on the relative guilt of men and women: Adam's sin was reckoned lesser than Eve's because the woman enticed him."
"Nevertheless, it takes two to commit this particular sin. And who really knows how this little arrangement beganwhether the woman enticed the man or the man seduced the woman? Who knows whether the guilt of one is greater than that of the other? The one clear thing here is that two sinners were caught in the act, but only one was brought to trial. Am I the only one who senses a bit of unfairness in that?"
"Your majesty," said Bishop Hugal, "your sense of fairness is most commendable, but you make your task too complex. The law is simple and clear. It tells us without ambiguity that adulterers must be put to death. Whether other adulterers run loose on the street who should be condemned as well is beside the point. The point is we have a guilty woman before us who deserves nothing less than death. It is that simple, sire."
"It is not that simple. I am increasingly troubled by the Kirk of Lochlaund's disregard of fairness and mercy. How can we claim to administer justice if we ignore fairness? As King of Lochlaund, I choose not to follow the recommendation of the kirk in the case of this woman. I grant her clemency. She may go free."
Bishop Hugal arose immediately, utter consternation clouding his heavy face as he sputtered, "Your majesty will forgive me for pointing out that the king is not above the law. In the Seven Kingdoms even the monarchs of the nations are subject to the laws of their kingdoms and, especially, to the laws of the kirk."
"But surely neither the kirk nor the state has a law against mercy."
"There is no law against mercy, but there are limits to the application of itlimits set and enforced by the kirk. In the chaos that swept the Seven Kingdoms after the death of Perivale over 120 years ago, the kirk stepped in and became the arbiter of moral law in all the Seven Kingdoms. To prevent the rise of anarchy in the absence of a strong, centralized government, the kirk has insisted on the strict enforcement of morality, punishing violators uniformly as a deterrent to sin. Clemency breeds disrespect of law."
"Nevertheless, the law must be applied evenly," the king insisted. "Where such impartiality is lacking, I choose to grant clemency."
"The king will forgive me if I point out that the kirk has long assumed the right to veto clemency in matters of morality," said the bishop. "Fortunately, you and I have always been in agreement on such matters, and the issue has never arisen to divide us. I would regret to find that your judgment today marked the first time the Kingdom of Lochlaund pitted itself against the Kirk of Lochlaund."
King Kor rubbed his sweating palms on his robes. "The kirk merely assumed this right. It does not bind me, because it was never written into law."
"It has become law by precedent of a hundred years. To defy it is to place oneself in jeopardy of heresy."
Everyone in the hall gaped in stunned silence at the unexpected drama unfolding before them. Beads of sweat now glistened on Kor's brow, but his voice was firm and strong. "Bishop Hugal, do you mean to tell me that the kirk considers an act of mercy to be a heresy?"
"Yes. When it is performed in defiance of the judgment of the kirk."
The king's face turned red, and he stood and pointed a finger at the bishop. But before he could speak, a voice rang out from a cluster of assembled noblemen watching from the side of the hall. "Your majesty, would you allow me to approach the throne?"
"Lord Kenegal may approach the throne," said Kor as he lowered his hand and resumed his seat.
Kenegal mounted the dais, knelt beside the throne, and spoke in low tones that only the king could hear. "Your majesty, forgive me for intruding into this debate. But as a longtime advisor to the throne, I wish to express a concern before you continue."
"Say on, Lord Kenegal."
"More than a century of precedent and usage has given the kirks right to veto moral decisions of the kings the status of de facto law. It now has force of authority equal to laws that are passed and ratified by the Hall of Knights. I know that you have sometimes chafed under the kirk's insistence on rigid justice, but I wonder if now is the best time to mount a challenge."
"When is the best time to begin administering justice with mercy? I think I have waited too long already."
"I fully understand, sire, and your desire for mercy is most commendable. But I see two reasons for choosing a time more opportune than now to pit yourself against the kirk. First, what would happen if you choose to defy the kirk in this matter today?"
"It's possible the kirk would declare me a heretic."
"Precisely," replied Kenegal. "And if I know Bishop Hugal, such a declaration is not merely possible but probable. As you know, just as the king appoints the bishops of the kirk in his kingdom, the kirk has the right to depose a heretical king. If the Kirk of Lochlaund exercises its right to conscript the armies of the Seven Kingdoms to depose you, are you confident that Lochlaund has the military power to defend your throne?"
The king's eyes narrowed at the question. "No, I'm certain Lochlaund could not stand against the amassed armies of the Seven Kingdoms. But should I let even my own safety be a factor in choosing whether to administer fairness?"
"Of course not, sire. I commend you for your courage and selflessness. But your own safety is not really the issue here. Think of the well-being of the kingdom. What would a conflict now between the kirk and the Kingdom of Lochlaund say to King Aradon of Meridan? How would it play into his dream of a united Seven Kingdoms? Would he look at Lochlaund as a renegade kingdom too full of internal strife to enter the confederation? Do you want this one judgment you render today to put Lochlaund at risk of being left on the outside looking in as the other kingdoms unite and build this island into a mighty alliance of unprecedented prosperity?"
King Kor sat silent for the space of seven breaths, his brow knitted as he stared unseeing at the great oaken doors at the far end of the hall. Finally, with a tired gesture of his hand, he waved Lord Kenegal away. "No doubt you are right." Looking suddenly haggard and drawn, he sighed like a deflating blacksmith's bellows as he turned to Bishop Hugal. "The throne accedes to the wishes of the kirk. Do with the woman as you will."
The bishop's face took on a look of self-satisfied triumph as he turned to the crowd and boldly declared, "It is the will of the kirk, acting under laws prescribed by the Master of the Universe, to condemn this woman to be cast into the Devil's Mouth."
"No! Please, not that!" the woman wailed. She looked up at Bishop Hugal, her face contorted in anguish. "I know I done wrong, but not that wrong. Take a sword and cut off my head clean like, or put a rope on my neck and hang me from a tree, but please, your grace, don't feed me to the Devil's Mouth. Please!"
"You should have thought of the consequences before you gave in to your lusts," the bishop replied. "You are of the devil and to him we shall return you. Take her away."
The woman sank to her feet sobbing and wailing, trying to wipe her tears with her chained hands.
Without another word the king arose and left the hall by a door to the side of the throne. Gronthus nodded to the guards, and they lifted the weeping woman to her feet and half dragged, half carried her out of the hall. Bishop Hugal, standing at the foot of the dais, watched the undulation of the sheet playing about the contours of her hips as the little procession disappeared through the wooden doors of the hall.
* * *
King Kor sat deep in the cushions of the oaken chair in his chambers, staring into the fire that flickered in the hearth. In the flames he saw the writhing form of the woman he had just condemned. Her anguished wails echoed in his mind as if from the caverns of hell. He tried to think of other thingshis son Lanson, the confederation treaty with Meridanbut to no avail. Why could he not get the woman out of his mind? Her guilt was certain, and he had sent others to their deaths for the same crime. Why were such sentences becoming so abhorrent to him?
As he sipped from his goblet of wine, a knock came at his chamber door and Bishop Hugal entered.
"Oh, come in, Hugal. I had forgotten it was Tuesday. Take a chair and I'll have a page bring a pitcher of water for you."
Bishop Hugal sat down, casting a longing glance at the king's ale as his mouth salivated at the aroma. After a moment of awkward silence, he spoke with a hint of coldness in his voice. "What were you trying to do today, sire? Never have you taken it upon yourself to cross the kirk with your judgments."
"Oh, get off your high horse, Hugal. We've known each other too long for you to ruffle your feathers simply because I happen to call in question one of the kirks practices."
"I hardly call the death sentence for a grievous moral sin merely one of the kirks practices," Hugal snorted. "It is at the core of our control of morality in the Seven Kingdoms. Your attempts to substitute your own ideas about mercy for the demands of the law would undermine justice on this island. The kirk cannot yield this principle. But you have known that as long as we have been friends. Why the sudden change?"
King Kor sighed and shook his head. "I hardly know myself, Hugal. Yes, throughout my reign I have strongly supported the kirk in all its dogma and practices. But I'll admit that lately I've had second thoughts about the kirks lack of mercy. No doubt all those we have condemned deserved to die, yet it seems to me that many were genuinely repentant and might well have turned from their evil had we granted them clemency."
The bishop sat rigid in his chair, his face set like stone. "Begin granting clemency and you can be sure that immorality will run rampant. The strictness of the penalty is the only deterrent against the pursuit of beauty and pleasure."
"And that's another thing," said Kor. "The kirk tells us that beauty and pleasure are intrinsically evil, created by the Master of the Universe as lures to test whether mankind will resist temptation and remain dedicated to him. But don't you sometimes wonder whether beauty and pleasure are really evil? Is it possible the kirk has missed the meaning of them somehow?"
"I can hardly believe what I'm hearing, sire." Hugal's voice rose as he glared at the king. "Surely you know such thoughts are heresy."
"Is merely thinking and wondering heresy?"
"Yes!" Hugal's fist came down hard on the arm of his chair. "There is no need to think further on the laws of right and wrong as determined by the kirk. They are true and correct, and any variance from them is evil. The kirk must hold us accountable, not only for what we do, but for what we think as well."
"And who holds the kirk accountable?"
"The Master of the Universe himself, of course. His laws are absolute and immutable, and the kirk must adhere to them utterly."
"But as a kirkman you know how difficult it is to understand and interpret many of these laws. How can you always be sure whether the kirk understands them and upholds them as the Master wills? Aren't errors of interpretation possible? Isn't it a good thing to examine our beliefs and convictions again and again to assure ourselves that we are truly aligned with his will?" The king gazed at the bishop with eyebrows raised.
"It has already been done, sire. Scholars over centuries have delved into every detail of the law and amassed huge bodies of work examining every facet, every nuance, every jot and tittle of every ordinance the Master ever gave." Hugal punctuated his words by jamming his forefinger into his fleshy palm. "We have the truth, now. It has been handed to us shaped to perfection like a finely cut diamond. Our duty is to accept that gift without looking askance at it as if we lacked appreciation for the labor that went into giving it to us."
"Surely no one has a lock on all truth," the king said as he leaned toward the bishop. "We all have our own blinders. We can become entrenched in our own interpretations shaped by our individual experiences and prejudices. Perhaps we need a constant check on our view of truth to be sure it is solid."
"I must say I have never heard you talk this way before, and I admit that I am alarmed. But I'm inclined not to lay it all to your charge. I suspect you have been listening to a voice that has planted these seeds of doubt in your mind." Hugal leaned toward the king and looked directly at him. "Tell me frankly, sire, are you expressing ideas you have heard from the mouth of Sir Maconnal?"
"You know that Sir Maconnal is a most learned and valued advisor to the throne." The king sipped his wine and gazed into the fire.
"And I suspect that he is also a heretic, though I've not been able to prove it," replied the bishop. "Tell me what he says to you and let me judge whether he has departed from the teachings of the kirk."
"No, Hugal." The king set down his wine goblet and spoke firmly. "I would not violate your friendship by repeating your private conversations to him, and neither will I violate his. Indeed, in spite of the dangers, which you have so eloquently described, I value hearing all sides of an issue. I am convinced that merely hearing and considering options contrary to what the kirk teaches is not heresy. We should be judged not for our exploring the truth but for the rightness of our decisions."
"I can appreciate your loyalty to your friends, sire. But in this case it is misplaced. You may not know that Maconnal was expelled from an abbey in Rhondilar before he came to Lochlaund."
"Yes, I know that. But his expulsion was not for heresy; it was because he raised questions the abbot did not want to face."
"What he questioned was the validity of some of the kirks teachings. And it concerns me greatly that this man now has access to your ear. Not only that, he is tutoring your son, Lanson, who is the heir to your throne. This is most disturbing. As you know, I've objected to Maconnal before, and I now object to him again. He may be the most dangerous man in Lochlaund."
"Hugal, are you trying to rule Lochlaund by dictating my every decision? Already today I have relented and given you the sentence you demanded for the adulterous woman. I will not give you the right to determine my counsel. I will continue to listen to Sir Maconnal just as I will continue to listen to you. But neither you nor he will make my decisions for me." King Kor pushed himself up from his seat and began to pace the room.
Bishop Hugal looked hard at the king and opened his mouth to speak but thought better of it. He would let the matter drop for now. Settling himself comfortably into his chair, he gazed into the fire and the two men began to talk of broader topics as they had done every Tuesday evening for more years than either could count. He valued his close access to the king not only for the prestige it brought him, but for the influence he was able to wield in shaping the policies of the kingdom. He was even on the verge of securing from the king a promise to betroth Prince Lanson to his own niece, Lady Lamonda. In spite of the alarming new direction of the king's thoughts, the bishop saw no need to push the man further tonight. Why risk severing his ties to the throne while the issue of the betrothal was yet unsettled? If he could get his niece on Lochlaund's throne as queen, he would have his yeast in the loaf and his influence over the kingdom would be virtually unlimited.
Hugal eased the tension between them by turning the conversation to the topic he knew was most dear to King Kor's hearthis son, Prince Lanson. At the mention of the young prince, the king relaxed, settling back down into his chair and becoming his old self again. Like a farmer seeding a field, Bishop Hugal often dropped into the conversation glowing accounts of the accomplishments and virtues of his niece Lamonda, ever building in the king's mind a picture of the perfect match between the crown prince and the most virtuous, upright girl in the kingdom.
Before the hour grew too late, the bishop took his leave and returned to his chambers in the abbey at the edge of the city of Macrennon. Long after the departure of his longtime advisor, the king sat in his chair, utterly still, gazing into the flickering flames as the cries of the condemned woman reverberated in the chambers of his mind.
God's Two-Minute Warning J. Countryman
By JOHN HAGEE
Copyright © 2000 John Hagee. All rights reserved.
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