Prelude to Heaven
Disclaimer: I don't own Balian or anyone from the film. I wish I did.
Chapter 18: Heaven Lost
Something was wrong. Jocelyn could feel it in her heart. The cottage was quiet; too quiet. "Balian?" she called. There was no answer. Where could he possibly be? The baby's basket beside their sleeping pallet was empty, and the little coat she had made for their child still lay where it had been the night before, abandoned. Who would have taken the child out into the cold without dressing it in something warm? She tried to get up, but her legs would not support her. Where was her husband? Where was her baby?
The door to the cottage opened, letting cold draughts flood the dwelling. Balian came in, looking as if he hadn't slept for days. His shoulders were slumped and his steps were heavy, as if he was carrying a great weight on his back. With his head bowed, he did not notice that she was awake until she spoke.
"Balian, where's the baby?" she said.
He looked up with bloodshot eyes. "His name is Auberon," he whispered.
"Where is he?" Jocelyn demanded once more, starting to panic. "I need to see him. Where is he, Balian?"
"He's..." The young man's grief overwhelmed him once more and robbed him of his voice. He swallowed several times, his throat moving up and down. "He's..." It came out as a grating whisper. It pained him to say it, and he just couldn't voice it. He put his face in his hands and took a deep ragged breath, sinking to his knees in defeat. To Jocelyn's horror, he began to weep. And she knew.
Jocelyn screamed. The sharp grating sound made Balian jerk back into reality. He couldn't break. His wife needed him, depended on him. He scrambled to his feet and rushed to her, taking her into his arms. Her hands beat feebly at his chest and then she sank against his body, wracked by violent sobs.
"It's my fault!" she cried. "My baby..."
"No..." said Balian. His face was wet with tears also. "It's not you..." They clung to each other in the gloom, desperately trying to find hope, but they could see none. Each blamed themselves, and Balian was beginning to blame God.
The forge stayed silent for three days. The blacksmith was seldom seen and when they did see him, the villagers averted their gazes, as if looking at him would bring his curse and ill-fortune upon them as well. Of the blacksmith's wife there was no sign at all.
Guillaume was secretly very pleased. Finally his bastard brother was getting what he deserved. The rumours, silenced by his heroics during the two wars, had awakened again, louder and stronger than ever. God knew how hard he had tried to fuel them during his sermons about infidelity. His cultivation of these rumours was finally producing fruit.
On the fourth day, the blacksmith came out of hiding; his wife had convinced him that she didn't need him by her side for every moment of the day. "I'll be fine, Balian," she said, ushering him out of the door. "You have work to do. God no longer gives us manna. We'll starve if you don't work the forge." She even managed to smile at him, even though it was terribly forced. Balian remained unconvinced, but he could see the reasoning in Jocelyn's words.
"If for any reason, you need me, just come and get me," he said. "Promise you'll look after yourself."
"I promise," said Jocelyn, even though she felt bad for lying to him, but there was no other choice. She needed to get him away. The young woman already had a plan forming in her mind. She understood very well that she was the reason they were being punished. She was impure; befouled. She was the one thing holding Balian back and denying him the life that he deserved —happiness with a worthy woman who could give him the sons and daughters that he so desperately desired. And she was convinced that she did not want to live this life anymore, no matter how much she loved her husband. She couldn't bear it, hounded by malicious rumours and facing one disappointment after another until all the love and patience that she had between her and Balian were spent, leaving only bitter lees.
"I'm sorry, Balian," she whispered into the emptiness of the cottage. "I'm sorry for everything. Please forgive me, but I can't go on like this." She found a rope, fashioned a noose out of it with shaking hands and hung it from the rafters. She pushed a stool beneath it and stood on it so that she could reach the loop of rope at the end.
For a moment, as she slipped the noose over her head, she hesitated. In truth, she was reluctant to leave Balian. He was so good to her, and she loved him. But her fear of disappointment and the malicious rumours strengthened her sill. Soon, she would be with her baby, and she would not be able to hear the accusing whispers of the villagers. "Goodbye, Balian," said Jocelyn softly, and she kicked the stool over.
Night fell, and Balian felt better than he had for days. The monotony of work was a relief after the pain of losing his baby son. It stopped him from having to think; to wonder and to regret. Jean-Pierre volunteered to stay behind and tidy up the forge, so the smith went home alone. He opened the door. It was utterly dark inside. The fire in the hearth had not been lit. At once, he knew that something was not quite right. "Jocelyn?" he called. There was no answer, only the howling of the wind outside. As his eyes adjusted to the lack of light, he could make out the dark outline of a stool lying on its side on the dirt floor.
His eyes travelled upwards...to his wife's dangling body, her pale face tinted with blue and her empty eyes dull and lifeless, staring down at him. For a moment, he stood as still as a statue of stone. His body would not move as this turn of events sank in. A thousand thoughts flitted through his mind. Images of Jocelyn laughing, smiling, planting the tree, their courtship and their baby passed before his eyes. And then they all faded, leaving him with cold harsh reality, and his wife's corpse, hanging from the rafters like some giant grotesque fruit.
He opened his mouth as if to scream, but his voice escaped him. No sound came out. He could only form his wife's name with his lips. Snatching the bread knife from the table, he sprang into action, climbing onto the stool and sawing desperately at the rope around Jocelyn's neck. Her body was cold and stiff against him. She fell with a dull thud. Balian dropped the knife. He forgot about everything and collapsed onto his knees, taking his wife into his arms and holding her closely as if his love and the warmth of his sincerity could somehow bring her back.
The tears finally came. Silently, he wept, rocking back and forth with the cold lifeless body in his arms. Time slipped by unnoticed. That was how Jean-Pierre found him. The boy gasped when he saw what had happened. The rope, still hanging from the rafters, was testament enough to what Jocelyn had done. He tried to pull his master away, but the blacksmith clung on stubbornly, as if he could somehow protect her from the horrors which now surely awaited her in Hell.
Jean-Pierre did not know what to do. The last thing Balian needed was for the whole village to find out and gather to see the spectacle. But the blacksmith desperately needed help, something which his apprentice did not know how to give in a time like this. Jean-Pierre ran to fetch Arnaud and Bishop Gavin. Thomas the baker had a kind heart but his mouth worked faster than his mind.
Despite the boy's efforts to keep this inconspicuous, his master made it impossible. When Arnaud and the bishop tried to pry Jocelyn away from Balian, the blacksmith fought like a mountain lion defending its cubs. Maddened by grief, he could not see that they were trying to help him. The villagers gathered to investigate the noise. Other men lent their help and finally succeeded in pulling the stiff corpse from Balian's arms.
The blacksmith gave an anguished cry and lashed out wildly. His grief gave him rage, and his rage made him strong. Gavin had no choice but to order him to be taken to the old barn which served as the village's prison, where he could not harm others or himself. In this state, he was very likely to try and follow his wife.
Wrapped in a dark cloak, Guillaume stood some distance apart from the crowd, hunched against the cold. He could not help but smile as he watched his bastard brother's misfortune further unfold. 'You can't escape God's wrath,' thought the priest. With Balian thus incapacitated and incarcerated, the forge would go to him, the old smith's rightful heir. Guillaume had no desire to work but he did not doubt that the forge, the cottage and the land would sell for a good amount. "Father Guillaume," said Gavin as the men dragged Balian away. "Take care of your sister's affairs." Guillaume hurried to do the bishop's bidding, wondering why the churchman cared about Balian so much.
As the door of the makeshift prison was closed, Balian fell into a silent stupor. He had sunken into the grip of his memories. And they were good memories. In his mind, he relived the day when his beautiful wife, swollen with child, had planted that little cherry tree in their garden. She had looked so radiant that day, so happy, like one of God's angels. 'Was that why You took her away?' he wondered. 'Was she too good for me? Too good for the world?' In his memories, he saw her smile at him, and he smiled back. This memory he relived over and over again, trying to stop time and hold onto those precious few moments when he had glimpsed Heaven.
A cold day dawned, bringing with it no light. At the crossroads, a group of men were digging a grave at the foot of a large stone cross. A body, shrouded in white, lay nearby. There was the sound of horses neighing. A mounted company was riding towards the village. One of the riders, a squire from his garb, urged his horse forward. "Crusaders," said the tall and thin gravedigger, with a notch in his ear. He regarded the warriors of God with awe.
"Clear the road if you will," said the squire to the priest who was supervising the burial. Guillaume nodded at the gravediggers, who hurriedly moved out of the way to let the company pass. At the head of the riders was a dignified old knight wearing a rich cloak trimmed with fur. On his belt, he bore a beautifully crafted sword with a ruby in its hilt.
Ten years later...
A young boy was picking cherries in the sunlit garden. Red juice stained his mouth and hands. His father stood in what remained of an old burnt down forge and watched him with amusement. Around them, roses bloomed, wild and unchecked, giving off their array of scents. The boy waved at his father. "Papa! Come down and have some cherries!" he shouted. "They are the best!"
Balian grinned. "Even better than oranges?" he said to his son.
Young Barisian shrugged. He had blue eyes, just like his mother Sibylla, but his hair and his grin were identical to his father's. "That's different," he said. "Oranges are oranges; they're the taste of the East. That's what you said, isn't it, Papa?"
"Indeed, it is," said Balian. "My father told that to me when I ate my first orange."
"Well, these cherries, they're the taste of the West!" declared Barisian. He held out a handful of the plump red fruits to his father. Tentatively, Balian took one. He had never dared to eat the fruit from this particular tree before. He slipped it into his mouth. Juice burst onto his tongue as he bit into it. It tasted of love and passion, of hope and disappointment, of joy and sorrow. But not of regret.
"Did you like it?" asked Barisian, having consumed another handful himself.
"I did," said Balian. "These are very special cherries, because they come from a very special tree." He smiled gently at his son. "One day, I will tell you the story, but not now."
"What is this place anyway?" asked Barisian as they climbed the steep path which led to the forge and the village beyond it.
"I lived here when I was young."
"You mean, before all your adventures? That's odd. Why would you live in a place like that? I mean, it's very nice, but the house is not."
"I was lucky to have a house, but you won't understand until you're older...much older."
"You always say that."
They passed villagers on the dirt track as they continued on their way back to the castle at the top of the hill. Men and women alike bowed respectfully to them, and Balian nodded in acknowledgement. He was still not used to it, even after the three years of being the Baron of Ibelin. Nièvre would never achieve the harmony which Ibelin had had, but it did not stop the new baron from trying to establish a haven. He had returned almost two years ago to his home with a young son in tow, to find that Reginald de Nièvre —his uncle on his father's side— ailing and heirless. Balian's father Godfrey had killed Luc in that fateful skirmish. It made Balian uncomfortable to think of Luc as his cousin, but that was the ugly truth. The only way Reginald had been able to stop outsiders from getting their hands on his family inheritance had been by making his newly returned nephew his heir, just shortly before he had succumbed to his illness.
The villagers had been very nervous at this strange turn of events. Balian owed them nothing, and they had not been kind to him when he had been one of them. They had condemned him for being what he was; a nobleman's son born out of wedlock. Much to their relief, the new baron held no grudges. He was just, and he made their lives better. They now loved him.
Jean-Pierre, now the village's much respected blacksmith, stood outside the new forge. He had a little fair-haired and blue-eyed babe in the crook of his arm; his second child. "I swear, Jean-Pierre, he looks just like you," said Balian, going over to speak with his former apprentice. He tickled the baby under the chin, making it laugh and gurgle.
"The little thing has some appetite," said Jean-Pierre heartily. "So when do you think there'll be little brown-eyed tots with curly dark hair running about up in the castle?"
"There is already a little tot with dark curls running around up there," said Balian, ruffling his son's hair.
"Papa!" protested Barisian. "I'm grown up now!"
The two men laughed, and then more seriously, Balian added "I have no idea what is going to happen." He sighed. "I wasn't born for this."
"You're the best lord this place has ever had," Jean-Pierre assured him. "How many other lords can boast that the peasants loved him?"
"Not many, I guess," said Balian. "But all this politics, it's so confusing!" He was in the middle of marriage negotiations with the neighbouring count, old Roger de Cormier, whose son had also been killed in that forest skirmish ten years ago. Now the count only had an heiress, and he was eager to pair her off with a young lord who had both a good reputation and endless potential. Balian, however, was not so eager to be married to her, although he knew that this alliance would be priceless.
Jean-Pierre and Balian spoke about other more mundane things for a while and then Balian excused himself. There was a lot of work to be done back at the castle. "Papa?" asked Barisian in all seriousness. "Where did I come from?"
"The Holy Land," said Balian promptly.
"Is that where everyone goes to get babies?" asked the boy. "Why did Uncle Jean-Pierre tell me about the stork then?"
Balian's mind worked quickly. He would kill Jean-Pierre later. "The storks live in the Holy Land, and they look after the babies, until their parents go and get them."
"Oh," said Barisian. "How do you know?"
"Well, Baby Jesus came from the Holy Land."
"Then what does Mary have to do with it? Why do people praise her if all she did was go and get Jesus from the storks?"
Balian searched his mind for an answer as he tried not to blaspheme. He could feel his face growing hot. That had not happened in a while. Before he got the chance to answer his son's innocent question, his steward Marc came running down the hill, looking flustered. "My lord!" he shouted. "Bad news!"
"What's the matter?" asked Balian.
"The Pope, he's just issued a Papal Bull, excommunicating you from the Church and labelling you a traitor to Christendom! There's a price on your head and they've sent out the Inquisitors! What have you done to make him do this to you?"
Balian cursed inwardly. So Rome had finally discovered that he was alive and well in France, and the hypocrites had started the hunt for the man who had surrendered Jerusalem to Salah-al-Din.
"What will you do, my lord?" said the steward. Balian was troubled. He couldn't just leave his people to the mercy of the other lords. He glanced down at his son. He couldn't let the Roman wolves harm his son either.
"Marc, take anything that you might need and take Barisian to England," said Balian. "No one will look for him there. Once I have settled my affairs, I will follow you."
"Papa, I don't want to go," said Barisian. "I want to stay with you."
"Do it for me, mon petit bonhomme," said Balian, getting down onto one knee so that he could look the boy in the eye. "I'll be there soon." The boy threw his arms around his father's neck and hugged him hard. Balian held onto his son, not ever wanting to let him go and yet for the boy's sake he must. He kissed Barisian's forehead. "Do you remember the code?" he asked. The child managed a teary smile.
"Anyone who falls behind is left behind?" he said.
"No, not that one. You're not a pirate."
"Uh huh, I remember the knight's code."
"Good. If you remember that, I'll always be there with you."
From the battlements, Balian watched his loyal steward take his son to safety. He wondered if he would ever see his beloved child again. 'God, what is it that you want of me?' he asked. There was a breeze, and he fancied that he could hear an answer but whatever it was, he could not decipher it.
A/N: And I end with a cliffie. The epilogue is linked to the Chance Encounter series, and no, I do not plan on leaving this story like this. We all want to know what happens with Balian vs. Pope (at least I do, LOL). So never fear, there will be an instalment, just not that soon. Keep a look out for it. And thank you so much to everyone who read and reviewed! I really appreciate the reviews. They give me inspiration and incentive to continue writing.