The old man strode along the road, grey cloak covered in dust. His pace never slowed, never quickened as he strode onward. After hours spent in timeless walking he entered the outskirts of a village.
Without warning, a stone struck him in the back. His walking never slowed. Another stone flew past his head unheeded. The young boy was about to throw again when a hand grasped his arm.
"Look at his cloak! Don't you know who he is?"
The boy ran home, mute with terror. He did not speak for days.
Slowly, those remaining in the village lined the street leading to the one inn, knowing this must be the dusty man's destination. When he reached the door he paused to shake the dust from his cloak before entering. In a deep raspy voice unused to speaking he said a single word. "Ale." He placed some small coins on the bar, but the innkeeper, pale and sweating, ignored them as he filled a leather jack.
A long slow drink cleared some of the road from his throat, and as the cloak was thrown back the old man seemed to shed his years. Instead of age, his face showed but a score and a half years. His eyes though, told a different story, were any brave enough to look. Not one of the crowd forming inside the inn dared, as they knew the grey cloak well. Not a one knew the man, but the symbol was familiar to all.
"I have been drawn here, I am needed here." It was a statement, a question, a challenge. Who would be brave enough to speak?
"My father. He is sick. He..." the words lay on the tall man's tongue like lead. He resorted to pointing out the back of the inn to the sickhouse. The grey cloaked man stood without a word and moved through the crowd of people, all shifting silently to let him pass.
The old man lay in the bed, sweat pouring down his face. He knew his time was near, had seen his children and their children for the last time. As he lay dying, his thoughts turned to his life. He had, as all men, lived a life without thought of death. At first he was too young to die. Then, as he aged, death was an inconvenience that was not worth considering. Now though, when he stood with one foot passing through the gate, he reflected on his life. On all the missed opportunities. On all the mistakes. Crimes committed in the name of family, of love, of hope for a future. Crimes that now haunted him, faces long gone staring at him from every corner.
The door creaked, a shadow blocking the light.
"So, you have come for me?" A laugh turned into a fit of coughs, dry and painful. The shadow moved closer, revealing the man in the grey cloak. "Sineater!" the old man gasped, clutching at his chest as the man moved to kneel next to the bed.
"I absolve you." The words were soft, barely spoken. "Your crimes are forgiven. I take upon myself your pain, your memory, your sin." Gentle hands moved to hold the shoulders of the dying man. "You will leave this world as you entered, with clean slate." The words now barely heard, yet resonating. Lines appeared on the sineater's face, aging him as he took on another soul's burdens, allowing the pain caused by every act, every crime, all the suffering caused in a lifetime to flow through him. "Be free," the sineater gasped, flinging his hands into the air.
The son, courage fortified by harsh spirits, sneaked carefully into the sickhouse. His father lay smiling, chest still. The grey cloak was now rumpled and soiled, spread like wings around its wearer, slumped by the bed. With strength born of grief the son kicked the man.
"Leave this place!" he shouted. Another kick and the sineater staggered to his feet, face worn with a burden almost too much to carry. He stumbled out the door and down the road, to the shouts of a son wrought with grief and little understanding.
Grey cloak covered in dust, the man strode along the road, seeking his next destination, knowing that it might be his last. The burden too much to bare. He kept walking, alone.