Featured Military Author
Story by Alexandru Constantin
Belsant must get her dying liege to the temple of Vallays in time to perform last rites, but the Seneschal has betrayed the city, and her Holy Order has been branded as heretics by the new priest.
Belsant knew lord Giraurd De Vallays would die by nightfall. Fever shook his body and the gash across his belly festered. She tightened the straps holding him on top the old horse and started across the bridge.
Stone walls surrounded the ancient town which sat atop a jutting piece of rock overlooking the river Lys. Wisps of morning mist snaked from the valley below rolling over the moss covered bridge obfuscating the familiar view of the temple’s solitary tower. Vallays was one of seven ancestral seats of the Southern Lords, who embraced the Good Faith and swore to protect pilgrims and true believers.
Belsant was filthy, covered in sweat and dried blood, red hair tangled and caked with mud, her fine armor abandoned during their escape. Throwing back the rotting wool cape to reveal the gilded cross of her holy order she hoped the young gate guard would recognize her.
“Lord Giraurd is wounded. I have to get him to the temple before it’s too late for his rights,” she said.
The guard seeing the cross bowed. “Lady Prefect, excuse my lack of recognition,” he said, “word was that you and the Lord fell during the massacre.”
“The Gods willed our escape, but I fear our enemies are in pursuit. Send word to the Seneschal. Tell him I will perform the final rites for his brother at the temple. I’m sure he will want to be present for the ritual.”
Three days prior, Legate Arnaud’s army broke through the walls of Bairez and routed the small garrison led by Giraurd. Arnaud was sent South by the Bishops of the Northern Church to stamp out Southern heretics for teaching their intimate mode of worship. Lord Giraurd a believer in the Southern Rites refused to open the city gates beginning the first battle of a long-anticipated religious war.
Arnaud’s army composed of Northern Lords seeking favors from the Church, and paid mercenaries, easily overwhelmed the unprepared and ill-equipped defenders. Breaching the walls of Bairez they poured in and slaughtered men, women, and children with religious fervor. The streets were filled with the blood and bodies of Southerners deemed guilty of worshiping the Gods in the wrong fashion.
During the carnage of the battle, Belsant found Giraurd unconscious and gravely wounded. Around him lay the bodies of several attackers he dispatched before succumbing to his wounds. With the aid of an old peasant, she managed to drag him through the chaos and escape the city using a hidden tunnel. Once outside the walls, they were helped by pious refugees who provided her with a horse so she could get him to Vallays.
For three days she led the fatally wounded Giraurd towards his home. As Prefect of the Holy Order, she dedicated her life to the protection and spiritual instruction of true believers which entailed the administration of the final rites. The rites cleansed a man’s soul, allowing it to approach the Paradise of the Gods free from the weight of worldly sins. An uncleansed soul would be denied Paradise and return to live another life of misery and hardship. Giraurd’s lifetime of faithful dedication deserved Paradise and she was determined to perform the proper rites in time.
The road that led to the temple took them through the center of Vallays. It was a narrow dirt street lined by squat stone buildings which housed tanneries, blacksmiths, and other craftworks. Peasants ducked through doorways going about their usual morning routine. Belsant did not see a single sign of preparation for the inevitable siege. At Bairez, Giraurd hastily prepared the city but his efforts were not enough. Here she had the chance to warn the seneschal and prepare a proper defense. Men positioned along the walls, supplies secured, women and children could be evacuated to safety. Vallays should be able to hold off the Legate’s army until the remaining Southern Lords could muster a counter-offensive.
She steadied the horse at the bottom of the temple steps and began to unstrap Giraurd from the saddle. The temple was a simple building, crowned by a single leaning bell tower. Unlike its northern counterparts, it lacked extravagant architecture and statuary. It was intended as a simple meeting place for believers to share in communal ritual and learning.
Bracing Giraurd with her shoulder they made their way up the stone steps. He was conscious but unable to speak. She felt the feverish heat coming off his pale skin and smelled the sour stink of infection and dried sweat. His body trembled and every few steps he let out a series of dry coughs forcing her to take on more of his weight.
The large temple doors swung open and out rushed four men. She recognized the Seneschal Alain, Giraurd’s younger brother dressed in a finely embroidered cape. Behind him stood two massive guards wearing well-polished armor. The fourth man, old and wiry, was a stranger to Belsant. He wore the plain robes favored by missionary priests but lacked any visible symbols of faith.
“Graces! I almost did not believe the messenger,” said Alain and motioned the guards towards Giraurd.
The two large men rushed to take the burden from her. They laid Giraurd across the top of the stairs and begun inspecting his wounds. With his weight off her shoulders, she adjusted the sword on her belt and faced Alain.
“Your brother and I barely escaped.”
Alain’s face was clean shaven and soft, but his eyes were red and swollen betraying a lack of sleep. “You will have to tell me how you managed to evade your pursuers,” he said.
“I’m afraid your brother is dying my lord. His wounds are severe and beyond any meager healing skills that I possess,” she said.
One of the kneeling guards looked up from his examination, “She speaks truth Lord. He has an hour or two at most until he succumbs.”
“We need to get him inside the temple,” she said, and began motioning instruction to the Guards. “I have to prepare for the final rites. When the ritual is complete we need to gather the guard captains and prepare the city defense–“
Alain motioned for her to stop. “That will not be necessary. The defense of the city is taken care of.” He turned to the guards. “Take Lord Giraurd to my keep.”
“The rites need to be performed inside the temple. I don’t understand, he won’t have enough time if you have him taken to the keep,” she said, her voice betraying desperation.
The old priest breaking his silence stepped from behind Alain. “You are right, you don’t understand. This temple is no longer home for your heretical rituals. The time for your blasphemies have come to an end.”
“How dare you,” she said. “This is our temple. Lord Giraurd himself was brought to the faith behind those doors. It’s his right to receive the proper rites inside the temple.”
She could feel her body tremble with anger. Giraurd’s time was running short; she had to begin the ritual soon.
“Enough,” Alain said rubbing his hands together. “Belsant, our friend might be a bit feverish with religion, but nonetheless speaks the truth. Unfortunately, we are going to forgo the rituals for my brother’s departure.”
“Your brother deserves the final ritual. He deserves to be sent to paradise in the proper way. Why do you let this pig insult him while he lies bleeding on the steps of our temple?”
Pushing past the priest she placed her hand on Alain’s shoulder. The two guards sprung to attention eyeing him for instructions. At the base of the steps a group of peasants gathered, watching and whispering among themselves.
Alain pulled back, breaking free of her grasp. He looked at his dying brother, the priest, and at the gathered crowd.
“My brother’s superstitious soul is not worth the lives of Vallays. Faith did nothing for the people of Bairez. Your prayers did not keep the Legate’s army from torturing and murdering,” he said.
“We fought bravely. Our faith will be rewarded. The war just started. We have many cities and keeps on our side,” she said.
“The war is over you fool, it was over as soon as the Legate’s army marched south. I will not allow my people to be massacred over silly peasant superstition,” he said and motioned towards the priest. “Legate Arnaud sent Lardat to offer us terms and I accepted.”
“The terms are simple,” began the priest. “Surrender the city, forgo all heresy, and embrace the teachings of the true Church. All past transgressions will be forgiven and Lord Alain, once properly anointed, will inherit his brother’s titles and holdings as Lord of Vallays.”
The betrayal fell into place. Alain traded his brother and the faith of his people so that he could hold on to his titles. Belsant felt nauseous. She kept Giraurd alive for three days only to fail so near to the final task. Her legs felt weak and it took all her strength to keep from falling.
“Of course,” the priest cleared his throat and continued, “the Legate demands the surrender of all who fought against his most Holy Army. That means you Lady Belsant.” He looked down at Giraurd. “Don’t worry. If he passes before the Legate arrives I will personally make sure he receives final rites.”
Alain pulled the cape across his chest and began down the steps. “Take my brother’s body to the keep,” he repeated without looking back.
The guards began to lift Giraurd off the steps. His body looked limp in their hands and Belsant could barely make out his labored breathing.
“Put him down,” she said, with as much authority as she could muster. “Do not dare disrespect your lord in this manner.”
The two stopped their task and lowered him back onto the steps. They looked at each other, betraying their guilt at having to perform such a task.
The priest pushed his way over to Giraurd’s body and gave him a vicious kick. Giraurd rolled down several steps, coming to a stop where he began coughing and shaking violently.
“Enough of your sacrilege. Get this filthy heathen off my temple steps,” the priest said, spit dripping down his chin. “When the Legate arrives I will have all of you burned for your continued desecrations.”
Seeing Giraurd sprawled across the steps convulsing in pain was more than Belsant could bare. She rushed the steps, closing the distance between her and the priest, drew her sword and put the whole length of the blade through his gut. She slowly pulled it out, watching blood pool in his mouth. The priest fell forward, rolling down several steps, before coming to a stop in a contorted position.
The guards ran down the steps through the stunned crowd. Time was short; her fate was decided. She hoisted Giraurd onto her back and went through the open temple doors. Behind her she could hear the now frantic crowd chatter. Once inside the entryway she laid him down and barred the large doors behind them.
The main temple chamber was a large circular room. In the middle, a bare altar sat on a raised platform. Well-worn pews separated by aisles encircled the room. The walls were decorated with wide hanging tapestries and lit by numerous candles burning on iron stands and set into alcoves along the walls. Two small passages towards the back let to where the relics and scrolls were kept.
She laid Giraurd across the altar. He lived but his breathing was shallow. His face was gray and cool to the touch. Belsant knelt beside him and crossed his arms on his chest, cupping his hands in hers.
“Hold on friend. I will fulfill my promise,” she said and lowered her head onto his chest and listened to his heartbeat.
Read the rest of “The Death of Giraurd De Vallays” in issue #4 of Red Sun.