I used to have a lot of friends.
There were so many of us: worshippers of the old gods, followers of the true religion. Our temples were always full, our priests numerous, and our adherents devout. And then that philosopher came to our city.
He walked along the dusty, meandering road that came from the west, walking alone in raggedy clothes. Our city had no special importance to him. It was merely on his way. Whether or not he even intended to visit it, or even whether knew its name before his arrival, I have no idea.
His arrival was barely noticed, except by the most gossipy of housewives, for despite the dust and unshaved stubble that hid his face, he had a striking, handsome appearance, and a bold nature, one that encouraged him to meet directly with the duke, who was known to have an unhealthy fondness for foreign philosophy.
The philosopher spoke with him, expounding the tenets of his beliefs, how the sparrow cannot understand the eagle, and how he knew the happiness of fishes, and the benefits of death, and much other nonsense besides. But instead of following the practices of our venerable ancestors and exiling the corrupting philosopher, he instead deigned to engage with him.
“Your ideas are fascinating, Philosopher,” he said, “but I must say, you have so few followers. How useful can they be? I require a problem to be solved, and if you can find a solution, I shall promote your teachings.
“The wind blows the clouds away before they reach the duchy. Because the clouds do not come, no rain falls. Because no rain falls, the crops die. Because the crops die, the people starve. I have consulted many diviners, and they all agree on the solution: a sacrifice. I am to sacrifice the most devout worshipper in the duchy, to bury them alive beneath the busiest crossroads of the capital, and if I do this, the clouds will return, and the peasantry will be able to eat their fill once again.
“But how am I to determine the devotion of men? I cannot look into their hearts, only see their actions.”
“I see many who appear to worship the old gods, Duke,” the philosopher replied. “But how many of them truly do so? Men do what is advantageous to themselves. Among birds, they tweet, among cows, they moo, and among dogs, they bark. To find what a man truly is, make the truth a penalty.
“I propose you issue a proclamation. All those who dress as worshippers of the old gods, but do not truly worship them and know the religion will be executed. Those who remain are the devout.”
The duke laughed at the cunning of the philosopher. “Let it be done!” He issued the proclamation to the duchy.
Messengers went from town to town, proclaiming what the duke had ordered. I could only watch, helplessly, as those I had considered my friends and comrades abandoned their robes, their charms, their amulets, and anything else that might be taken as a sign of their devotion to the old gods. The alleys filled with their thrown away refuse, ignored even by the beggars and vagabonds, who dared not get caught by the duke’s men.
After five days, I walked through the city alone. My friends were almost unrecognizable, so thoroughly had they eliminated all vestiges of their former beliefs. “What are you doing?” I asked, gripping onto their robes as they tried to walk away. “Are you so greedy for life? Do you not know that the gods can reward you far more richly than any earthly duke, and punish you much more harshly, besides? Why risk such profits and punishments over something so meagre as your mundane existence?”
But it was no use. They kicked at me, spat at me, pushed me aside. “Leave us alone, you old fool,” they grumbled. “If you wish to die, so be it, but don’t drag us to the gallows with you.” How mistaken I had been, to think that our beliefs were the same. They had only done what was common and popular, what had gained them comfort and wealth, and when the old gods no longer brought earthly rewards, they were abandoned as easily as a piece of rotten fruit.
And so I became the last worshipper of the old gods in the city. The philosopher’s plot had succeeded. Guards stormed into the temple and found me, alone at the altar, barely responsive as they grabbed me and dragged me to the palace. Not a single person we past cast a sympathetic glance at me. Only contempt and derision were aimed in my direction, as though I were a fool to stick to my beliefs.
Yet even in this state, the philosopher could not stump me. Every question he asked me about the old gods, I answered correctly and thoroughly. My piety was neither sham nor act. I would not abandon my faith.
I passed my examination. The duke smiled. “You are truly a devout worshipper of the old gods,” he said. “We were wrong to doubt your faith, and you shall be rewarded for your piety. Your name shall be remembered.”
I thought that was the end of it.
I was wrong.
The diviners agreed that next week was the best time for me to be sacrificed, though at that time, I did not yet know of such things. I only thought I was being rewarded by the duke, who I took to be more traditional and reverent than I had suspected him to be. Anything I requested was brought to me: food, wine, women, books, even students were brought to me for their edification. I was happy. My faith had been rewarded in this world, even before my death: a rare occurrence.
The day came. I was led to the crossroads amidst a grand parade, still ignorant of my fate. I was brought before the pit that was to be devoted. A sacrifice was to be made, the duke said, the philosopher behind him. How naïve I was not to question that statement further. I allowed myself to be mollified by the presence of several oxen. The duke praised my devotion and my piety before the gathered crowd. I must confess, I bloated with pride, and to see the looks on my friends’ faces who had so recently abandoned me to what they thought was a death sentence, ah, it was very nearly worth what came next.
They gagged my mouth and bound my arms and legs. As I was thrown into the pit, the duke proclaimed the necessity of what had to be done, and explained the findings of the diviners. It was little consolation to me.
Cold, loose earth fell on top of me, shoveled in from above. My muffled screams did nothing to stop them. The dirt blocked out the sun and the sky, blinding me. The weight pressed against my chest. I managed to spit the gag out of my mouth, only to choke on the soil as it filled my mouth and lungs. The last thing I heard was the dull thwumps of dirt filling my grave as I ran out of air in the darkness.
But I was not forgotten.
The old gods welcomed me warmly to the afterlife. They had witnessed my devotion to them, and I was to join their ranks. As training, I was granted governance over my old city.
As I peered down through the clouds, I saw the duke and the townsfolk celebrating, assured that good weather would soon arrive. Every one of them, cheering my death, happy to take advantage of my sacrifice, yet so quick to abandon me when I had needed their aid.
I used to have a lot of friends. But now I have a lot of toys.