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"Watch your step, Father - the stairs are beginning to molder."
Something about the jailor's face, gray in the flickering torchlight, reminded Father Adrian of the face of his father's murderer. Only, that face had had a cruel glimmer in the eyes, a glimmer that this man's honest glance was lacking.
And it had had a jagged scar over the left eyebrow.
The priest winced and looked away, watching his shadow follow him as he made his way down into the dungeon. Twenty-three years. Twenty-three years, and he still remembered. It was a shameful thing for a priest to cling to - shameful, that the memory of his only human enemy should remain so vivid in his mind. After so many years of hearing confessions, after so much time devoted to the salvation of souls and the forgiveness of sins, shouldn't it be easy for him to think on that face with indifference? Shouldn't it be just another face to him, blurred, confused, and finally lost in the sea of faces that crowded his memory? It should have been. But it wasn't. Still those glittering eyes, that jagged scar over the left eyebrow, jumped out at him more clearly even than the image of his murdered father.
"Here we are." The jailor came to a halt, and the light of his torch jerked a wild dance on the cold stone walls. Father Adrian looked on the cell door before him with interest. Within lay a soul in desperate need of medicine, of reconciliation with the God whom it would soon meet face to face. The priest brightened. If he could not offer his own forgiveness to the face that haunted his life, at least he could offer God's forgiveness to others.
The jailor's keys jingled and turned in the lock, and the dungeon door gave a stubborn creak. It groaned open as though relenting a long hold on some priceless object, allowing the jailor's light to cast its ghoulish light within. Father Adrian stepped in with it.
There was not much in the cell - just the usual comfortless walls and floor and a musty pile of straw. On this sorry bed, the priest could just make out his wretched patient, an emaciated form stretched out limp and dejected on the ground.
Moved with pity, Father Adrian strode forward and dropped to one knee. The prisoner did not move, but remained with his face to the wall. For a moment the priest feared he had been called too late.
He reached out and laid a hand on the bony shoulder. The figure trembled a little at his touch.
"Who is there?" came a feeble voice.
"A priest, come to offer you God's mercy."
There was a moment of silence. Then the man gave a little moan. With a great effort, he rolled over and turned his face towards Father Adrian.
The priest felt his heart stop. The torchlight had shown him something he had never expected to see, save in his imagination.
It was an aged, thin, utterly miserable face, and the cruel glimmer was gone from the eyes; but over the left eyebrow was a distinctively jagged scar.
"Father," from this face wavered a pathetic and desperate plea, "can God forgive even a man as bad as me?"
Father Adrian swallowed. A memory flashed before his mind - his father lying dead on the floor, the murderer standing over him with a crimsoned blade. All the helpless rage of a grief-stricken child came rushing back over him.
Only now, he was no longer a helpless child.
Now, his father's murderer lay before him weak and defenseless. Now he, the wronged son, could take his revenge. It was in his power, he knew, to refuse this man absolution. He could deprive him of the one thing he wanted; he could let him die in despair. His father would be avenged.
But - no. That must not be. It was not his own forgiveness this murderer was asking; it was God's. The priest closed his eyes against the scarred face and the tempation it brought. Who was he to refuse God's boundless mercy to a soul in need?
And who was he to hold a grudge against a man God would forgive?
"Yes," he said at last. He looked the man in the eyes. That unforgettable scar, that unrelenting face, had followed him all through his life - not to incite him to bitterness, but to invite him to forgiveness. "Yes, my son. God will forgive you." He lowered his voice to an inaudible whisper. "And so do I."