By R. C. Capasso.
Sometime in the early hours a man wrestled with the heavy beam lying across the town gate. At his third effort it lifted, and he guided it silently to the ground as the wide doors creaked open. The enemy entered.
The occupation was quick and rarely bloody. Too many sleepers, too few sentries, and the precious element of surprise. Within hours the fires were contained, within a day the dead were thrown outside the walls, and in a week the citizenry stumbled through their new lives as slaves. They had little time or stomach to think of the traitor.
“It was one of us,” a man muttered as he bent his whipped back on the road that would soon help the captors to move troops and arms.
No one answered, but the idea took root.
“It was someone strong, to open the gate. Maybe two men?” They cursed and drank filthy water.
The men who had been asleep with their families that night felt a tremor of relief. No blame could fall on them.
They stared as the victors tromped through town or rode in chariots, proud and aloof. No one from the town rode with them. No one had suddenly become rich or donned fine robes or was spared a place in the work crews. No one profited from his treachery. Did the victors simply refuse to give the reward they’d promised? Did they like to keep the town’s suspicions alive, like the germ of an illness, with no easy, clear hate to bring relief? The townspeople knew only that a traitor moved among them. And if ever they were free, the betrayer would be punished.
In one dark lean-to, its back formed from the city wall, an old man sat alone. Dica knew what he had seen that night, but he had no one to tell. His only daughter was with the occupiers, taken to be someone’s mistress, and he didn’t dare go out in the streets alone.
When the town was liberated, people barely understood their good fortune. Early one morning the occupiers fled, throwing their stolen goods into wagons and rushing off through the gates. An hour later, warriors arrived. Their own men, their own language, bringing tales of the war the town had missed, flags and hunger, intense interest in the town’s women, and freedom.
Men stumbled from their work camps and found their families again. Women burned the dresses they’d been forced to wear for the occupiers. No one looked hard at the children for a family resemblance. It was peace. It was over. No one was guilty of anything. Except the man who opened the gate.
When old Dica’s daughter came home, shocked at how small the dark hovel appeared, he raised his voice. “I know who let them in.”
She stared, reaching for a knife. “Who?”
“I must tell the Council. It is not for you to know.”
She could have told him about revenge and what a woman knows of that, but the neighbors heard her cries and came running. They pulled Dica to the newly formed Council.
Five men sat uneasily in a spacious room where, if one listened hard, echoes of the occupiers might still be heard. But Council determined to hear no echoes, only the winds of the future, freedom and restoration.
“I know who opened the gate.” Dica squinted from one face to another.
Chief Councilor Birran stood, body straight and upright, head noble and grayed before its time. “How do you know?”
“I saw him.”
The councilors stirred and looked at one another, but Birran remained calm. “When?”
“At what hour?”
“How can I know? In the dark. But I saw him, then I heard the enemy steps.”
Birran studied the old man’s face. “Who was it?”
They all fell silent. Most didn’t know the name, and those who did had never coupled it with infamy.
“Bring him here.”
Stefa Vager entered like a man with thoughts as empty as his hands. Tall, broad-shouldered with skin burned dark from breaking stones into pavement. Massive arms, wide back and legs like columns of a temple.
Birran stepped forward, meeting Vager eye to eye, and asked without preamble, “Did you open the gate?”
For days Council would wonder about the changes in his flat, square face. The color paled under his dusky cheeks, and his eyes darted to each of them in turn, before dropping to the floor. His lips opened a slit, then pressed closed. He shook his head.
The only other witness they ever found was Stefa’s brother, Vel. Vel refused for a week to utter a word. Then, weeping, he admitted that for hours that night, Stefa was not in the room they shared. Vel swore his brother was innocent, but, of course, a brother would.
Council was divided. Two were certain of Stefa’s guilt. Two believed that Vel might have had a hand in the job.
“We cannot condemn anyone with such poor proof.” Birran squared his shoulders. “How good are the eyes of old Dica?”
Some wondered if Birran had some friendship with the Vagers, but it was not so. The occupiers had assigned Birran a tolerable job working in the stables. Perhaps the horses had preserved his spirit, letting him think more generous thoughts. He stood before Council, feet planted firmly. “We must think of the future, not the past. There’s been enough bloodshed.”
Council remained divided, but they had much work to do applying for reparations to the town. No one charged Stefa Vager, in any court, at least. But the town quickly decided, and for a time Birran ordered a guard to walk reluctantly by the brothers’ rooms at night, to keep him alive. One afternoon, as Stefa worked outside the walls harvesting, his left arm was slashed with a sickle, and he nearly bled to death. Only his brother would bind or tend the wound. As it was, Stefa lost use of the arm for all but the crudest movements. He never named his attacker, but Birran summoned the people.
“I will punish anyone who attacks this man. He has not been proven guilty. If this town intends to be lawless, I will leave.” Because the townspeople needed Birran, no more overt attacks fell on Stefa.
Before the war, Stefa had been betrothed to Limay, but after the liberation and the rumors, she shut her door to him. Instead she married one of the few townsmen who had left before the siege to join the local militia. Half crippled by battle, he was a worthy man, and Stefa could say nothing against the marriage. Stefa sometimes saw their four children playing in the streets.
Vel married and had two boys. Although it was custom to name a son after a brother, Vel could not do that. No more boys would be named Stefa in that land for generations. “It’s bad enough to carry your family name,” Vel’s wife muttered. Before the boys reached the age for schooling, Vel took the family away, over the mountains to an unfamiliar town, not telling Stefa where they went.
Stefa made no move to leave. With Vel gone, he lost his room and was driven outside the walls. He found a corner in his old ramshackle barracks, those thrown up during the occupation to house the slaves building roads, digging wells and maintaining the walls of the town. A few other derelicts camped there, but even they kept their distance from the town’s betrayer.
Stefa took a disused corner of land near the barracks and made a garden. Surprisingly, his plants produced fruitfully.
“The sun doesn’t care about traitors,” people would say, shaking their heads.
Stefa offered the extra food to the other derelicts, but they tossed it to the ground, spitting on it. They preferred to steal from the plants at night.
“No one wants your penance,” one old woman told him.
“What’s wrong with penance?” Stefa asked.
Even as he grew old and thin, people remembered his treachery. His name had become an insult. “Vager! Dirty Vager!” boys would shout to one another.
When they found him dead, some were indignant because it appeared that he died of simple illness and age. He was buried without ceremony in a far corner of the graveyard, with other untended and unmarked graves. Only Birran stopped by late in the day, with his grown son at his side.
“I’m surprised he was given an ordinary burial, considering the hatred this town bore him.” The son, Tamon, stared at the fresh earth.
“I saw to that.”
The young man’s eyes swiveled to his father. “Really? Why?”
“I thought it only just. He was never proven a traitor, after all. Just accused.”
“Yet surely, he must have done it. You found no one else. Unless it was his brother, the one who left. Some say he did it, and Stefa protected him.”
Birran stood immobile. “Some are right.”
Tamon started and took a step back. “What are you saying?”
“I spoke to Stefa years after his brother was gone. I suggested that he acted to protect his brother.” Birran glanced at his son. “After all, Vel said that Stefa was not in their room. But who was there to say where Vel was?”
“Did Stefa accuse Vel?”
“Stefa said that he was indeed out of the room for part of the night, drinking. Drink was his vice of that time. Cured by the occupation.” Birran gave a tight smile. “But when he returned in the early hours, his brother Vel was not there.”
“Stefa said Vel did it?”
“Stefa believed Vel was with a woman, but he couldn’t be sure. He asked me not to investigate. He preferred to carry the guilt.”
“So you believe Vel actually opened the gate?”
Birran turned to face his son. “No. I know he did not. I did, son.”
“You…?” Tamon’s eyes grew wide, his mouth constricting.
Birran stood like a soldier at ease. “Our people were fools, hiding behind their wall, thinking they could ride out the war. The enemy was too strong, and ready to lay siege to us for years if necessary.”
“You opened the gates?”
“I communicated with the enemy and set a time to let them in without bloodshed.”
“How could you betray—?”
“You cannot understand because you were not there. Or, rather, you were in your mother’s womb. I could not let either of you be at risk. And I knew that a siege would be horrible. Starvation, suicides, cannibalism. Better to give ourselves over to the conqueror quickly, safely. They were basically civilized. One could even say they were more advanced than us. Look at the roads they left us, the wells.”
Tamon had turned pale. “You let that man live as a pariah his entire life.”
Birran took a breath. “I protected him as much as I could. His life was no worse than many another innocent man who was…misunderstood.”
Birran stepped closer. “If I had somehow exonerated him years later, would people have accepted it? He let them believe he was guilty, let them mistreat him as an enemy. He put them in the wrong. They wouldn’t forgive that, not truly.”
Tamon took a half step back. “But justice…”
Birran’s breath quickened. “The Vagers were hardly our best citizens. I had to think of the future, of what this town would need when peace came. The necessary leadership. I was to lead, as you are. That is why I am telling you this now, so you learn the cost of wisdom.”
Tamon bit his lower lip, and for the first time the shadow of doubt clouded his eyes.
R. C. CAPASSO enjoys learning languages, travel, and writing any kind of fiction or nonfiction. Recent publications appeared in Bewildering Stories, Fabula Argentea, Infective Ink and Black Heart Magazine.