Till Death Do Us Part
"I take thee to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge myself to you." -Traditional Protestant Wedding Vow
The man and his wife approached the Holy Fortification just as the sun dropped behind the wide Salisbury plain. Standing at the gates, Edgar saw that they were young, and were both very beautiful, through travel-worn. They took ablutions, heads bent, shivering involuntarily with both cold and exhaustion, mumbling their thanks and their glory-to-gods with educated, but vaguely foreign, accents.
Longinus, who was counting the alms of the day when they arrived, immediately went scuttling away for Bishop Osmund when heard them speak. Their words – if not their dress – announced that they weren’t peasants, and so the Lord Bishop must be notified at once.
When the Bishop – a lean, feral Norman who had arrived in England eight years earlier with the army of William The Bastard – arrived a moment later, he was outwardly composed. However, in the privacy of his own thoughts, he was seething. He had been interrupted at particularly difficult moment, hastening to copy the latest modifications to the Text before the sun set. And now, he saw, the sun was nearly gone, just an angry red welt in the west.
The Bishop huffed. This was an imposition.
Smiling with great clam, Osmund greeted the pair in his most formal Latin to both announce his position and also to see how they would respond and thus give him a guess as to their origin and purpose, and was pleased at their immediate and quite correct responses in that most holy and sacred ancient language.
Switching effortlessly to the vernacular, the man said, “My Lord Bishop, we have come many leagues, crossing both sea and desert, to reach you this day.”
“We are honored to receive you, My….Lord?” Bishop Osmund enunciated carefully, watching intently for any reaction.
“Lord Purson,” answered the man, who the Bishop – now seeing him more clearly as the sun flared momentarily bright red while it sank the last eighth below the hills – judged to be no more than twenty years in age, responded in a firm – almost clarion – voice. “And we are in your debt. Thank you for accepting us.” His blue eyes moved to indicate the woman. “This is my wife: Beleth.”
There was an awkward pause as the Bishop’s eyes crawled involuntarily to and over the lovely young woman. She was auburn-haired and instantly beautiful but also mud-stained and somehow severe in her even gaze. Their eyes locked for an instant and Osmund thought he saw laughter in them. He looked away hurriedly, his cheeks hot. An obvious object of lust, he concluded, standing there so demurely at her husband’s side, her tiny but perfectly formed and unscarred right hand entwined loosely in her lord’s rough grasp) but with the Devil’s Laughter dancing away in her eyes.
The Bishop looked back to the man, and then again to the rough hands: They were large, thick-knuckled, oft-scarred and well-worn with heavy work: Like a blacksmith’s, Osmund mused, still studying them closely. Or a–
A blade of ice stabbed his belly when the Bishop saw the mighty sword at the man’s hip.
–Or a warrior.
“We do not—” the Bishop began a moment later, a lump in his throat – “allow those of the lesser sex onto our grounds, save for Easter Mass and for –”
“—Desperate Spiritual Crises?” The woman called Beleth said, and her voice was music, light and free and uncaring and somehow both at once enticing and scornful. It hit Osmund like a smack in the face. She noticed this with a woman’s instantaneous perception, and cracked a little crooked smile at him that touched him deep in his prostate.
Now bewitched, the Bishop was still trying to follow his original thought to its ultimate conclusion when Lord Purson took his upper arm and said in words both urgent and hushed, “I assure you, my Lord Bishop, that this is a matter of the utmost spiritual importance, not just for Holy Mother Church but for the world. I would not bring my wife hence were it not so.”
Purson pointed over his shoulder at his bride with his chin.
With a disturbingly difficult effort, the Bishop looked again at Lady Beleth Purson (who would haunt his fantasies later that night and for many nights to come) and then back to her husband. His and Purson’s eyes locked and for a moment seemed to battle their opposing gazes in the air somewhere between them.
Then the Bishop issued one styptic blink and looked down.
“If it were of a holy matter, one bearing great import…” Osmund purred, smiling, and Purson returned it at once, almost eagerly. Gaining strength from the Lord’s agreement, Osmund noted that Purson was indeed most handsome, his almost delicate face unmarred save for a long scar running down its left temple to the jaw line which narrowly missed the left ear, resembling a lugubrious purple viper writhing with the fluctuations of his jaw muscles as they bunched and flexed with the effort of Purson’s speech. “Then we can afford to be somewhat… indulgent,” Osmund said in his most liquid and eloquent Latin, still regarding the inkvine scar.
Awful. A sword cut. Or a blade of some kind, at least, but a clear reminder of a violent wound, perhaps received somewhere in one of William’s conquests. The Bishop mused. And even if not, obviously a man too dangerous to trust.
“It is a matter of the highest importance,” Purson replied with deep and sincere earnestness.
And the young wife Beleth suddenly laughed aloud at this proclamation, a potent female trilling that sent a deep and complex male ache through Osmund, like some kind of primal female lightning.
The devil’s work. The Bishop thought as he began to turn back to the grinning Beleth.
But Purson again called him back to attention, instantly kneeling before him and placing his forehead upon the Bishop’s bejeweled hand. “Father, hear my confession.”
To the Bishop’s open surprise, the laughing wife Beleth also dropped before him, but to both knees and, head bowed in submission, added, her voice now hushed and penitent, “And I…I also…I beg God to forgive me: Hear my confession.”
The Bishop was moved by their display of penitence, as moved as he had been in decades, and yet he still felt an odd mixture of titulation and fear as he hovered over them mumbling a prayer of gratitude, a quickening of the pulse, before he quickly ushered them inside to speak in his offices, for Osmund had grasped the reason for this visit, for these unexpected travellers, with their scars and wicked tongues.
The door to the his offices slammed behind them. Others watched the stout door for a long moment as the echo died out, all thinking the same thing:
War has come. Again.
Then they all shook their heads and got back to God’s good works. Yet, they were all wrong in their estimation of the portents of this visit, for the couple did not in fact come heralding war. However, if they had seen the smile the young couple shared as they glanced at each other from the corners of their eyes, their heads securely and demurely bowed, momentarily safe there beneath the Bishop’s lofty prayers, they would have known that something worse than War was to come…
For that shared smile was worse – and far more cruel – than the man’s rippling inkvine scar.
Far, far worse.
“Is there no wine?” Beleth said, seating herself at the Bishop’s table in the refectory. “I thirst.”
Purson waited until Osmund had seated himself behind his desk before he began, but the bishop raised a hand and indicated the pitcher and goblets against the wall. The young bride hopped from her seat on the edge of the desk and plucked up the pitcher, sniffed it interrogatively and then smiled and poured the dark, red rich wine into one of the goblets.
“My love?” She said, lifting her own goblet to her lips.
“No,” Purson said evenly.
She shrugged and went back to the bench in the corner and proceeded to slurp the wine.
Osmund’s patience was about to break. “You spoke of a spiritual matter of great import, Lord Purson?”
“I did.” Purson stood stone still. “And you will hear it now.”
Without a word, Beleth rose up again, kissed her husband on his cheek and went to the door and then plopped into a cross-legged sitting position in front of it, the goblet splashing purple onto her very dirty dress. When she sat, one of her calves peered out from the confines of her skirts, the pale skin like a secret never before exposed to the light.
“Without interruption.” Purson said, in a deeper and firmer voice. He said this looking over his shoulder at his wife, who was just drinking straight from the pitcher now, the corners of her mouth stained violet. Swallowing hard, Beleth made a “not-bad” facial expression and tossed the empty pitcher to the floor, where it shattered. “Yes, my love?”
“Got it,” she said sweetly and then belched. “I’m all over it. We’re good. Lay it on him.”