Colonel Shane T. Manahan stood by the rectory window, a cup of coffee in hand. One of the privates brought it in earlier, presenting it as requested—heavy on the whiskey, light on the coffee. He stared out the window and took a sip. A blue-gray light permeated the haze of fog and smoke that covered the landscape, and across the field inky shadows of trees stood like a phalanx of soldiers preparing to meet the enemy. The fighting had been intense last night. The air still carried the scent of burned out buildings from a nearby village. The morning report, detailing the casualties suffered and the troops remaining, had not yet come in, and Manahan was eager to know how the day might go. In the distance the muffled beat of snare drums could be heard, the enemy signaling its march out of camp.
"I guess today's fighting will be here soon enough," he said. "Anything you want to discuss? Any prayers you would like to offer?"
Tied to a chair, the priest said nothing. The room was adorned with only a bed, a desk, and a table with two chairs, one now occupied.
Manahan glanced over his shoulder. He stared at the hard lines furrowing the old man's brow, and then turned his eyes back toward the window. "I didn't think so."
Another ten minutes passed in silence, long enough for Manahan to finish his coffee. Finally, one of the lieutenants entered with the report. They had lost fifty-six men; now, only eighty-three remained. Hearing the news, Manahan closed his eyes. It would most likely be a short day—assuming, of course, they made it through the morning.
"Send a couple of men to scout the woods. Once the king's men are within range, we'll take the priest and march him out with the rest of our troops."
The lieutenant nodded his understanding, turned on his heels, and left. As the door closed, the priest finally spoke up.
"Don't you fear God?"
"God? Yes. You, however..." Manahan shook his head. "And certainly not the man you serve, the one who thinks he has God's favor."
"You think the Holy Father doesn't have God's favor?"
"I wouldn't know. I was talking about the king."
"But I don't serve the king."
"And yet the king's army knew to check that village and who to round up."
"And you think I had something to do with that?"
"Not me. Your own bishop said as much... before he died." The priest blanched. Manahan leaned against the wall. "You asked me, Monsignor, so let me ask you. Do you fear God?"
"My conscience is clear. I have the support of the Almighty."
Manahan frowned. "Really?" From the table he pulled the other chair over and sat down. "You know, I understand why the king and his court do what they do. Though blessed by the church, nobody really confuses the fact that they're still men, that they still rule by their own desires and needs and will pillage the wealth of the people in order to secure their own hold on power. And if that's not enough, they'll slaughter a whole village, women and children included, in order to prove that point. But the church? Unfortunately, too many people still hold fast to the idea that at least the church will do what is right. That it will feed the poor, clothe the naked, and lead everyone on the right path according to the scriptures. But what if it doesn't fulfill its mission, Monsignor? What if the very priest the people trusted turns on them? And when he tells the king's army who, what, and where—what then?"
Manahan let that sit in for moment. He stared long and hard into the eyes of the priest, but found nothing there—no shame, no conviction, no repentance. Instead, the priest clenched his jaw and stared back.
Manahan shook his head and stood. "You disgust me."
As he stepped away, the priest said, "You're just an angry man on the losing side of a bitter war. I know. I heard how you lost your wife and children." Manahan turned and stared as the priest continued. "But that was not God's fault. You can't blame Him for that."
"Make no mistake, Monsignor, I don't blame God. He's not the one who spoke to the king's men."
"You say you don't blame God, but yet you attack His church?"
Manahan walked toward the window.
"I'm not a young man anymore, Monsignor. I am not easily swayed. I admit that there is at least one priest who still lives the noble life. I have met him. I have broken bread with him. And who knows? There may be more like him. You, however, are not one of them. And as far as I am concerned, you are no more a holy man than I am."
With that, the priest fell quiet, and the only sound that filled the room was the steady beat of drums, growing louder by the minute. A knock at the door broke the silence between the two men. The lieutenant entered. He announced the enemy was within range, and Manahan looked at the priest.
"I think we're ready then," he said.
The lieutenant nodded and left the room, returning a moment later with a uniform and a pair of boots.
"These are for you to wear," Manahan said to the priest.
"And if I won't?"
"You have no choice."
The priest stared at the clothes. "Know this day, that you will stand before God. You will account. And then you will burn."
Manahan sighed. "That may be true. But when the priests side with the king, when they twist and bend the scriptures to serve their own interests instead of God, then we're all damned to hell. You're just going first."