A Lady Under Siege
Author:B.G. Preston

6

Sylvanne invited the priest into a small anteroom off her husband’s bedroom. She didn’t close the door. She could hear and see her loyal servants, maids and men, paying their tearful respects to her dead husband laying upon his bed. She stood by a narrow gothic window, little more than a slit, through which she could also hear sounds of the besiegers below. The news had reached them, it was clear. They were shouting and whooping, in high spirits, calling on those inside the castle to surrender. “On our Lord’s good word, no harm will be done you. No judgment. No reprisals. You are free to come out in peace.” She had asked her servants to wait while she composed herself. She didn’t want that rabble pouring in and seizing her like some living bauble. The gates would be opened soon enough, she’d told them, but on her own terms. First, there would need to be a simple, immediate funeral for her husband, done with regrettable haste but as much dignity as possible. Before that, she wanted answers from the priest.

“You heard my husband’s dying words,” she addressed him. “You heard me tell him that my knowledge of the Good Book is limited. He spoke of Judith. What is her story, and how might it affect me?”

“If I were you, I wouldn’t make too much of such words as issue from a dying man’s mouth, m’Lady,” the priest answered. “In that feverish moment he may not have been in his right mind. Judith’s tale barely merits inclusion in our Bible. A most inappropriate fable, really. Quite unworthy of the Prince of Peace.”

“Still, I wish to hear it,” said Sylvanne.

“So be it. It’s like this, Madame. An Assyrian army, under the great and fearsome general Holofernes, laid a strangulating siege to the Israelites at the walled city of Bethulia. Now within those walls, the widow Judith, a Jewess of great beauty, hatching a plan, shed her widow’s sackcloth, washed her body, anointed her skin with perfume, attended to her lovely hair, put on bracelets and rings, and altogether clothed herself in her finest attire. Thus adorned, she could surely captivate any man who might look upon her. She and her maid, a loyal woman named Abra, snuck out of the city, and presented themselves to Holofernes’s camp.

“Now Holofernes, charmed by her, invited her to sup with him, in the tent that served as his bedchamber. Encouraged by her, he drank a great many cups of wine. He dismissed his servants, leaving himself alone with the beautiful young widow.”

The priest hesitated, for effect, letting the implications of his words sink in.

“Continue,” Sylvanne bade him. “I’m not such a delicate flower as that.”

“Yes, m’Lady. The scripture is not exact as to what transpired between the two. It states only that after some time Holofernes, sodden with wine, lay back upon his bed. He was thus defenseless, and brave Judith took up his sword, unsheathed it from its scabbard, and raising it high, struck him on the neck. She cut off his head! Bone and flesh and gristle, all was severed by her, using his own blade against him. Then she coolly rolled that great general’s head into a sheet, and gave it to loyal Abra to carry away, tucked under her arm. Together they fled from the murderous bed, and hurried through the night, back to the city of Bethulia upon the mountain. In the morning the Assyrians looked to the city, and saw the bloody head of their own supreme leader displayed to them, high upon a long pike above the walls. They fell into panic at the sight. At that moment the gates to the city burst open, and the Jews in their armor poured forth from Bethulia, and smote their confused and trembling enemy.”

The priest fell silent. “There’s no more,” he said at last.

Sylvanne spoke in a solemn whisper. “I fear I’m not so brave, or strong. I’ve never used a sword. I’ve never tried to hurt anyone.”

“The Lord gives strength where needed, m’Lady.”

“Then let him hoard some, and give it all to me in that moment.”