Lotharingia - Charlemagne's Heir

Other submissions by Lara Byrne:
If you want to read their other submissions, please click the links.
The Road to Canossa (Historical Fiction, Writing Award 2021)
Lotharingia - Charlemagne's Heir (Historical Fiction, Screenplay Award 2021)
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Lotharingia Kindle e-book cover
Countess Matilde, heiress to Tuscany despite her sex - and to her mother's mysterious relics - is forced into a marriage she hates. When her overlord King Heinrich rescues her from her abusive husband, friendship blossoms into forbidden love. But her personal journey has only just begun.

I.

Bay of Ostia, 25 April 1062

Being sixteen and a woman, Countess Matilde had never set foot on a warship, or even travelled by sea. Yet here she was, on her fifth day aboard the admiral galley, a few knots from the fleet’s destination.

The previous week, the German troops of Antipope Cadalus had breached the Civitas Leonina. Saint Peter had fallen, and Cadalus had recited Mass over the tomb of the Apostle.

Holed up in the walled hilltop monastery of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, the legitimate pope, Alexander, could not hold out forever.

Dawn was spreading across the water when she joined the first officer on the stern. She was dressed to blend in, in black hose and tunic, light leather armour protecting her chest and back.

‘Not long.’ The first officer’s eyes scouted the shore, silhouetted by dark woods. ‘The south-westerly blew us all the way.’

Gottfried, her stepfather, arrived, helmet in hand, with the defiant grin of a warrior before battle. ‘The hard part begins now.’

He had agreed a truce with Cadalus to escort the Holy Father out of Rome. A squad of his best fighters was waiting on the starboard side.

She looked him in the eye. ‘I am ready to play my part.’

‘You are untested in battle.’

‘You made a promise to my mother.’

‘Follow me.’ He descended the command platform. Even before they were out of earshot, he waved an admonishing finger at her. ‘Do not question my orders. Do you know what the punishment for insubordination at sea is?’

‘I only ask that you keep your promise—’

His chest heaved under the armour. ‘I made two promises to your mother: you will play a role in this, and you will be safe.’

‘What role do I play sitting here?’

He rolled his eyes. ‘Would you rather take charge of the fleet?’

‘Of course I would.’

He studied her, both eyebrows raised. ‘The fleet is yours then – until I come back.’

Nerves made her feel sick, but she would not have it any other way. In charge, despite her sex. ‘What are your orders?’

‘Avoid interception. If intercepted, flee. Preserve the ships at all costs. No fleet, no journey back.’ He put the helmet on. ‘Marco, the first officer, stays with you. Rely on his knowledge. No-one sails like a Pisan.’

He climbed back onto the command platform as the ship prepared to anchor. Sailors lowered the square sails, and below deck the oarsmen slowed their pace to the rhythm of the rolling waves.

Gottfried was talking to Marco, presumably about her being in charge; the first officer received the news expressionless.

They had reached the mouth of the Tiber, the contours of the riverbanks hazy in the early morning light. The fleet scattered around the admiral. Rowers locked their oars and sailors dropped the anchor. Ropes lowered launches into the water.

Gottfried patted her on the shoulder. ‘May God be with you.’

‘And with you.’

From the bulwark, he slipped into the launch on the starboard side. Four of his men joined him, with another five lowering themselves down the port side to fill the second launch.

Similar operations took place on all galleys, and soon a swarm of small vessels rowed off, disappearing past a bend in the river. Local henchmen waited there, ready to let them into Rome for handsome pay.

Matilde scanned the deck. She had to assert her authority at once, or they would question her abilities. ‘Place lookouts along the bulwark and up in the crow’s nest. Everyone else on standby.’

Marco shouted the command to the second officer at the bow, who repeated it across the water. The watchmen took their positions.

The silence amplified the murmur of the waves. All twelve galleys, sails furled, lay waiting in half sleep. Twelve galleys, twelve like the apostles – a good omen, according to her stepfather. She tried not to think of Judas.

Gottfried expected the mission to last most of the day, even provided things went to plan, inside the city, and there, on the Tiber.

The fleet’s presence would not go unnoticed; German silver made easy friends; the Normans ventured along the coastline and upstream, in search of ransom; as for the Saracens, she could not afford to worry about ending up a slave in Cordoba or North Africa.

Her mother had not let fear deter her when, two months earlier, Antipope Cadalus’s army had crossed the Alps in the melting snow. While the subalpine lords, torn between their oath to the child king Heinrich of Germany and their oath to the Holy Roman Church, had laid low, she alone had stood in his way.

‘God will be with us,’ she had said, ordering her soldiers to dig a trench across the Roman road between Verona and Modena, forcing the Germans to a temporary but humiliating halt.

Trust God, not fear, Matilde reminded herself, slipping into the commander’s seat.

Blinding sunshine flooded the deck, conferring on the events that had led a young woman to lead a fleet in the Tyrrhenian Sea the texture of a strange dream.

Her father, Margrave Bonifacio of Tuscany, the most feared warrior of his generation, killed when she was six… Her brother and sister’s deaths… She becoming her father’s unlikely successor, unless her overlord King Heinrich objected… Her mother who saw herself as equal to men and taught her to do the same... Her confessor Anselmo da Baggio, who had strengthened her faith in God and in herself with the love of a father for a daughter, before being called to Rome and becoming Pope Alexander.

She was here because could not bear to lose him. ‘Trust God, not fear.’

The lookouts were intent on their jobs. If they were uncomfortable with the idea of a woman in charge, they were careful not to show it. Marco was checking the horizon.

‘Time for fresh men?’

He went off to execute her order, and she sat, cross-legged, staring into the blue.

Marco re-joined her. Still no news. Peaking, the sun started its descent into the sea. Neither spoke, and she was grateful for the silence.

 ‘They are coming!’ One lookout pointed his tanned forefinger towards the bend of the river.

The rowers were spitting their lungs out, as if they had enemies on their tail. Gottfried, on the first vessel, was slamming an oar. He was sharing his seat with another man, wrapped in a dark hooded cloak. It had to be him. The launches pushed closer, and the sailors threw rope ladders to help the men onboard. Hands grabbed hands.

The anulus piscatoris, the pope’s ring, caught the pink light on top of the bulwark. Gottfried’s solid frame helped the Holy Father onto the deck.  

Matilde kissed the ring and Pope Alexander lifted her face to his. ‘God will not forget your courage, daughter.’

Gottfried tugged his cloak. ‘Let’s lift anchor. I don’t trust that snake. Your Holiness, let me show you to my cabin. You and I need rest.’ He winked at her. ‘Matilde and Marco, sail us back to Pisa.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Her face was neutral, but her heart was singing. She had won Gottfried’s trust as a leader of men.

The sun was fanning flames, low on the water. On the platform, the air was heavy with the living smell of the sea, and foam wetted her plaited tresses and sprayed her face.

She did not wipe it off; it would dry on her skin. A few drops of it slipped through her lips and she tasted salt on her tongue; the taste of adulthood, the taste of freedom.

II.

Lucca Bishop’s Palace, 1 May 1062

Greetings between Pope Alexander and Margravine Beatrice were always awkward. As the Holy Father, he was her and Matilde’s shepherd, with the power to judge and excommunicate. As the Bishop of Lucca, he was their subject.

‘This is not feudal homage,’ he said, kissing her mother’s ring. ‘I owe you my life.’

In return, Beatrice’s lips brushed the anulus piscatoris. ‘You will repay me by saving my soul.’

‘I am also indebted to Matilde, our distinguished admiral, and to our brave Duke Gottfried.’

Her mother squeezed her hand.

‘After dispensing all this praise and gratitude, you will need to protect me from the sin of vanity, Holy Father,’ Gottfried joked. ‘Thank you for calling me duke, though.’

‘When this struggle is over, I will back your claim to your ancestral title in Lotharingia.’

Smugness spread over Gottfried’s face. ‘You would make me the happiest man.’

Beatrice cleared her throat. ‘I have news from Germany.’

Gottfried eyed her. ‘Good news, I hope?’

He and Matilde arranged four chairs to form a small circle in the middle of the hall.

‘Significant. King Heinrich has been snatched from his mother and is now in the custody of Archbishop Anno of Cologne.’

Pope Alexander voiced Matilde’s thoughts. ‘The poor child.’

Gottfried raised an eyebrow.

The pope noticed it. ‘I cannot condone kidnapping an eleven-year-old. The boy was barely five when they placed him on that throne. He deserves compassion.’

Gottfried scratched his beard at the light rebuke. ‘Beatrice, where is Empress Agnes?’ Although the king’s mother, Agnes was his regent, and politics seemed to be all that mattered to Godefroy.

Her mother replied in turn. ‘Her whereabouts are unknown.’

Gottfried rubbed his hands. ‘So, Empress Agnes, the architect of Cadalus’s election, is consigned to history!’

Pope Alexander made his nod slow. ‘Being the Crown’s Arch-chancellor for Italy, I hope Anno appreciates the disadvantages of her policy.’

Beatrice pursed her lips. ‘I would not be so sure.’ Regardless of his theoretical loyalty to Rome, Anno had not prevented the empress from backing Cadalus.

Gottfried shrugged off her pessimism. ‘He is minor nobility but fancies himself a cardinal. This could play into our hands.’

‘On the subject of cardinals, any news of Ildebrando?’

‘My son sent word to me in Pisa,’ said Gottfried. ‘They are on the Via Cassia; they should be here soon.’

At his words, Matilde froze. In their time at sea, Gottfried had never mentioned that his son, her betrothed, was in Italy, involved in the mission. The bars of her cage were closing in, and after the freedom and hope she had known at sea, she could not bear it.

In Beatrice’s chamber, maids armed with needles and silk threads were at work on a tapestry portraying her ancestors.

Matilde often thought that needlework was an apt expression of her mother’s true self: a weaver in the fashion of Athena, a warrior of the mind.

Beatrice’s pale blonde tresses and slight frame disguised a sharpness of wit and an indomitable spirit.

Femininity had prevented her from leading armies on the battlefield and maybe from seizing the crown of Germany. But when it came to diplomacy, she would outdo any prince of the empire.

She waved. ‘Join us, Matilde.’

 ‘I am useless a needlework.’

Beatrice handed silky threads of vibrant colours to her women. ‘I did not know about Godefroy either.’

‘Is Gottfried trying to put pressure on me?’

Beatrice drew away from the tapestry, out of earshot. ‘It could put ideas in his head if I asked.’

‘I do not need a husband.’ She meant it.

‘I know. But I am a woman, regent for another woman. This has never happened in the history of the Holy Roman Empire. The Lotharingians are our allies. We need to bide time, at least until King Heinrich comes of age and confirms you as your father’s successor.’

Too much time, perhaps. ‘Heinrich is eleven.’

‘Right now, his age is a positive, Matilde. For the sake of peace, your marriage should receive your overlord’s approval – when he comes of age.’ Beatrice smiled briefly. ‘Gottfried can press as much as he likes; Pope Alexander will stand firm; he has promised.’

The joy of her time at sea returned for a moment. Matilde hugged her mother. 

There was a commotion in the palazzo courtyard. Below their window, next to a Benedictine monk, a cloaked man with a hunched back was handing his horse to a guard.

Technically, Matilde’s betrothed and stepbrother, Duke Godefroy, was not a duke. His father had been stripped of his ducal lands in Lotharingia before marrying Beatrice. But he demanded to be addressed by the title. 

A full-grown man, of average height and strong built, six years older than her; apart from his hunch, he was not unsightly. But she wanted nothing to do with him; he scared her. She had heard stories of his cruelty in battle, unnecessary cruelty: burning harvests, starving villages, torture.

Next to him, the smaller and angular Ildebrando di Soana, in his grey Benedictine cassock, was holding the reins of his mount. A little stable boy came forward to help.

‘Faster!’ Godefroy shouted at him.

Ildebrando placed the bridles in the child’s hand and set off across the courtyard. The little helper began to pull the horse towards the stables.

‘Look at me when I speak to you.’ Godefroy snatched the whip from him.

Trembling, the boy stopped.

Ildebrando, on the opposite end of the courtyard, stopped in his tracks.

Grabbing the boy’s collar, Godefroy slapped him across the face.

Ildebrando shook his head but dashed off.

Godefroy let go, and the child fell to the ground, face forward. He was not moving. Her betrothed kicked him a few times.

 ‘No-one keeps the Duke of Lotharingia waiting, piece of scum. I will use the whip on your face next.’

Matilde’s gaze met her mother’s. Horror mirrored horror.

Beatrice called a maid away from the tapestry. ‘A boy in the courtyard needs help.’ She had tears in her eyes.

III.

Lucca, 2 May 1062

Reading Ildebrando’s motives was impossible, but passions would fleetingly colour his coal-dark gaze. He was pleased to see Beatrice.

‘Madonna.’ The archdeacon lay his quill aside, pointing to a seat. A sheet of parchment was open on the table, and he placed weights at both ends to let the ink dry. ‘So thoughtful of you, furnishing me with fresh vellum before my arrival.’

 ‘I knew you would be aching to resume the work of God.’ She smiled. ‘Especially considering the developments in Germany.’

‘Before we delve into that discussion, I finally have the opportunity to thank you for the trench. In bravery, you tower above all the great lords of the empire.’

Interesting language. The great lords of Germany, Burgundy, and Italy, be it dukes, margraves or archbishops, called themselves princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Ildebrando’s choice of words highlighted that the only princes, for him, were the archbishops – subject to an imperial pope.

‘I just answered God’s call.’

He rolled the sleeves of his grey cassock. ‘Now, Germany. Have you heard from the empress?’

‘No,’ she lied. Agnes had asked for help, but Ildebrando did not need to know. ‘I have… my sources.’

He tapped his finger on the table. ‘Is the boy unharmed?’

‘Physically, yes.’

‘Still in Anno’s custody?’

‘As far as I know, yes. Although I imagine Anno will look for partners in the regency. I would, in his shoes. Sharing power could shield him from future blame, be it from other factions, from the empress, from the boy when he comes of age…’

‘He might also fancy proving to the lords that he can reconcile with Rome at the stroke of his quill.’

‘What do you make of those troubling reports – that he secretly encouraged the empress to back the antipope?’

‘I believe them. But every crown bishop has a price. Anno’s currency is power. If I put on the scale our willingness to acknowledge him as regent… he may trade us Cadalus for that.’

Changing his mind on Anno was not her priority. ‘The tide is changing in Germany. Whether through Anno or otherwise, I am confident we will defeat Cadalus. Whilst you take care of such negotiations, I am drawing up plans for the Holy Father’s protection.’

‘What are your plans?’

‘A half of my knights and footmen will remain at his disposal here in Lucca.’

He was not the smiling kind, but his gaze brightened. ‘The Highest will reward you.’

‘Actually, I dare to hope for a small reward from the Holy Father.’

Surprise on his face. ‘What exactly?’

 ‘I have been steady in my loyalty to Rome.’ Defying King Heinrich, risking a second charge of treason, after the one she had suffered for rising against his father the emperor, paid for with exile and the death of her son…

‘You do not need to remind me of that.’

‘The moment we defeat Cadalus, Rome will finally secure the room it needs to reform the Church. The king will be controlled by regents for a little while longer, and when he comes of age, he will need time to assert his power.’

‘What are you planning to request of the Holy Father?’

She threw down the gauntlet. ‘A stronger Rome and a weaker Germany; this scenario opens an opportunity to review my daughter’s future.’

His gaze speared her. ‘Your daughter’s future is decided.’

She made her tone more submissive than the actual meaning of her words. ‘There is a betrothal, but a marriage has not happened.’

‘It needs to happen.’

‘Have I ever failed Rome? The alliance between Tuscany and Lotharingia will continue, thanks to my marriage to Gottfried.’

‘What does he say about this?’

‘A discussion with him is premature, but I can bring him around. He loves his son, but he cares for Matilde too.’

Something in his countenance whispered: ‘stupid woman.’ The dark coals of his eyes darted at her. ‘Matilde needs a warrior husband at her side, to protect the exceptional claim of a woman to her father’s lands.’

 She snapped. ‘It is in Rome’s interest to support her claim, to avoid Germans at the gates.’

He lifted his seal as if it were a weapon, their breathing the only noise in the room.