All week we are publishing (with permission), a number of the shortlisted entries from the 2022 Outsideleft Short Story Competition (details here). We will announce the winner on Friday. This entry, Fatum Divina is by Sean Taylor.
As the sun hung low in the sky, shadows looming over the city crowds, the men they had all been waiting for appeared. Covered in dust from the trail, the Penitent and the Temple Guard shuffled through the throng. A rope, bound to the Penitent’s neck and held by the Guard, bound them as fast as the quiet that heralded their appearance. Every eye followed their journey down the cobbled street.
They came to a halt in the courtyard, where the curious crowds had gathered in their thickest number. The young Penitent, though he stood tall and upright, took in the crowd through heavy eyes. When he bared his teeth to breathe, they flashed through a rough, dark shadow that coated his sunken cheeks. Children whispered at the sight of him, but even they fell silent when the attention of the crowd was drawn towards the staircase of the Temple.
Three figures strode forth. An aged man in a flawless white robe descended the marble steps, flanked by a pair of incense-casting priests. His eye swept the crowds, whose heads were bowed in reverence under his sight. Either side of him braziers flared to life in his wake, gouts of smoke trailing in the wind like burnt banners.
The Templar halted halfway down the steps. He looked down his bony nose at the Penitent, fixing him with an arresting glare. The prisoner squinted back at him, craning his neck to meet his gaze.
The Templar sniffed, smoke and incense mingling in his nostrils. Then, he spoke:
“Here, in the sight of the gods, we ask for their guidance. Before us, the assembled faithful, stands a man whose sins are lost to the reckoning of mortals. The crimes of which he is accused, denied. The veracity of his accounts, unknown. Except to those who sculpted our mountains, carved our rivers, and seeded our fields. Today, their knowledge of the truth shines through the filth of our humble ignorance. Today, the gods make known this man’s guilt or innocence. In doing so he will be reborn from the womb of the earth, facing the fate of which he is deservant.”
With a nod from the Templar, the Guard pushed down on the Penitent’s neck, forcing him to kneel before an open wooden box of wet, pliable cement. The Penitent gave the Templar one last brow-lined look before he angled his crown towards the earth, closing his eyes tightly. His chest heaved, his shoulders drew back, and he sank his head into the cement, pushing into its cold embrace. Three words echoed in his mind: Find the reed.
Cement shored up the bridge of his nose until it trickled into his nostrils, a fickle but important reminder not to inhale through them. His mouth followed, sinking into a breathless tomb. His head was barely mobile in the thick of the substance but, with lips pursed, he felt something brush against them. Blowing bubbles in the concrete, he wrapped his lips around the stout reed, breathing heavily through its narrow insides.
The Templar looked on, teeth gritted under his white beard.
A short while of waiting followed. No-one dared to speak while the concrete dried around the Penitent’s head. Then, the Templar raised his hand. The Guard tugged on the rope.
The Penitent gripped either side of the box, and pulled his head from it. He rose to his feet, head encased in the hardened cement, and raised it towards the Templar.
The Templar spoke:
“The gods have granted this man favour for his first trial. Now, onwards, he shall proceed.”
He turned around and began ascending the steps, the incense-bearers mirroring his movements. The crowds filed behind in two lines as quietly as they could, as they listened to the Templar’s words:
“Now he is blind, and so shall be led by faith.”
The Guard tugged on the rope, guiding the Penitent towards the foot of the precarious steps.
“Now he is burdened, with sins yet to be absolved.”
It took every muscle in his upper body to maintain balance. He recalled the advice he received in a tavern years ago about the Temple steps: “If you ever find yourself having to do it, take every step forward until you hit the step, then put your foot down.”
“Now he is bowed, in humility for those sins.”
The Penitent staggered forth, the weight of the concrete block dragging his head downwards.
“Now, he is bound, until the gods make their judgment.”
The Guard held the rope, but not too tightly. If the Penitent fell, he might be taken with him.
One by one the steps came, great gusting breaths muffled by the penal stone. The Penitent leaned forward, pointing his head towards the Temple. With bowed and flexing legs, he bore the weight of the concrete, focussing on his breathing to distract from the terror of the dark, and the nausea that came with it. Finally, his feet met air rather than marble as the ground beneath him evened out.
Inside the Temple, the pillared arcades cast long shadows in the torchlight, looming spectres flickering on the walls. The Penitent was pulled along until he came to the altar, behind which stood the Templar. He handed the Guard a hefty pickaxe with a broad metal head.
“The gods have blessed this man with good fortune for his second trial. And now, here in their house, under their eye, will they make their judgment.” The Penitent’s head was forced forward to rest on the altar.
The Guard raised the axe skywards.
“If this man be innocent, let the gods embolden the rock with their strength! If he be guilty, let it shatter like the clouds before lightning!”
The sharp tip of the axe slammed upon the concrete. A decisive crack echoed around the Temple hall.
The Guard withdrew his steel.
From the fracture driven into the concrete, a dark red liquid seeped from the stone and onto the Temple floor.
© 2022 Sean Taylor (all rights reserved)
About Sean Taylor
Sean Taylor is a writer of horror, historical fiction, fantasy, and, when the mood takes him, poetry. Since graduating in 2022 he has received multiple awards for his writing, including first prize in the NAWG Member's Competitions 2022 in the Horror category. He has been writing since he was four years old, and aspires to transform his love of writing into a career. When he is isn't writing or reading, Sean enjoys music, streaming, and going on long walks. Contact Sean here
The Outsideleft 2022 Short Story Competition: Concrete
Lisa Blower and Jenny McCann
Harriet Bradshaw - Always April
Sean Taylor - Fatum Divina
Callum McDonald - Alice
Claire Griffiths - Man on a Bridge
Alice Gregg - The Little Village Wall (unpublished)
Sourav Roy - The Chalky Bit
And the Winner is...
The winning story revealed here
Special thanks to the Bear Bookshop in Bearwood for helping out
Main image on this page from Pexels by Archie Binamira