“Milady?” Asgeir called out before pulling back the flap of the small tent. “His Grace the Archbishop is ready to depart.”
Janne nodded. “I’ve almost gathered my things,” she replied, wiping a final tear from her eye as she placed a worn journal inside a weather-beaten satchel. “I wasn’t expecting to leave so soon, since there were still injured.”
“I understand, milady.” Asgeir held the flap back as Janne shouldered her pack and stepped out. “My wife requires a full fortnight to ready herself for a trip to the town market.”
Janne glanced at the wiry page as she moved past him. “You’re married? How did you come by your position?” she asked. “Those who follow the order of the keys don’t often wed.”
“Archbishop Broddrson selected me in part because I’d taken a marriage oath,” he answered, crossing his arms with a self-confident smile. “He wanted someone who knew what it was to keep an oath to the point of death. I think it helps him, too, to have someone else near him who knows what it’s like to serve a family and the Church at the same time.”
“That’s quite an honor he gave you,” Janne noted with respect as the two walked towards the edge of the camp. “Your wife must be proud.”
“It depends on the day,” Asgeir mused. “She’s not pleased when I have to leave, but she understands the sacrifice that service requires. Her service at home is no less noble than our service abroad.”
Janne nodded. “Well spoken. You do her justice.”
“I try,” Asgeir responded. “I certainly owe her that much.”
The two fell quiet as they neared Valgard. The other bishops stood at attention around him as he gave parting orders in hushed, stern tones. “…and don’t relent. Their oaths rest on your shoulders. If they fail again, the consequences rest with you. You cannot fail.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” the bishops replied in unison, making the sign of the sword over their tabards. They backed away, and Janne could see the weight of their anguish etched in their faces. Valgard turned from them to face his page.
“We move out,” Valgard commanded his page. “And we move quickly. She was right about Rorik’s blade; I’m not willing to risk her being right about his intentions. Gather two more horses – one for you and one for our guest.”
“As you will, Your Grace.” Asgeir bowed slightly and backed off, leaving Janne alone with the imposing Archbishop. He looked her over once, frowning slightly.
“This is your first time in an active field of battle,” he stated. “You’ve never seen blood shed before.”
Janne trembled. “Yes, Your Grace. I’ve led my parish to battlefields, but only after the fighting had ceased. This was the first time for many of us.”
“Battle should never be an easy act to witness. Remember how you feel, and hold it close.” He turned from her to reflect on the field, soldiers shambling in the encroaching dusk. “There are oaths sworn on both sides, oaths that cannot be fulfilled by the dead. We take that burden on ourselves so that others do not need to bear it.”
Janne stepped forward, standing next to the Archbishop and looking out on her companions. Two days ago she had shared meals with many of them. Now, they would never eat again. They would not sleep, they would not laugh, they would not grieve for loved ones they would never see. The oaths that bound them in life kept them bound in death. She shuddered again, a sob she tried to suppress.
Valgard looked down at her again. “You think this is cruel,” he stated again. His tone was softer this time, the gentle tone of a father speaking to a scared child.
“Forgive me, Your Grace,” she whispered. “It is the will of the Church, and so it must be right. I just…”
“You feel compassion for them. For their families.”
Janne nodded silently.
“I forgive you, as you have asked,” Valgard continued gently. “Know that your compassion is no weakness. Consider: if they were not given this second chance to fulfill their oaths, where would that leave them?”
Janne’s breath caught in her throat. This continued service was horrible, but the alternative was too wretched to even speak out loud.
“So you understand, then. This is compassion.” Valgard waved a black-gloved hand at the reanimated parishes. “They may yet fulfill their oaths. May we all have such a chance to right the wrongs we’ve done.”
Asgeir cleared his throat; Janne turned to see the page approaching. “I’ve brought the horses, Your Grace,” he reported. “What is your will?”
Valgard looked out one last time at the milling troops before pulling himself up on his own steed. “We ride,” he ordered. “There is little light left, but my son has a great lead. We must make up the distance.”
“I still don’t understand, Your Grace,” Janne spoke up. “Is the Cardinal in danger?”
“No.” The edge was back in Valgard’s voice. “It’s quite the opposite, bishop – if what I was told comes to pass, he is the one that endangers us.”
Find the other parts of The First Oath here.