Lara Byrne

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I am a part-time marketing manager, with a PhD in 20th-century literature and a life-long passion for medieval history. Years ago I won a national short story competition, but motherhood and work took over...
I mentor women-led business startups and am a girls football volunteer.
I adore travelling - anything with ancient or medieval architecture will do, ideally by a wine-coloured sea....
My writing is enriched by my travels. I make a point of visiting the settings of my stories as much as possible.

My other great passion is yoga.
Award Category Finalist
Award Submission Title
One day Countess Matilde will rule her lands like a man, but she remains her husband's property. When the enigmatic king Heinrich rescues her from an abusive marriage, their friend blossoms into forbidden love. Unbeknown to them, their relationship could shatter the foundations of the Roman church.
My Submission

Mantova, 31 May 1064

Matilde stepped into the great hall of the royal palace. Between these same walls, twelve years earlier, she had received the news of her father’s death. But too much was at stake today to linger on the past. The Pope's deposition was a distinct possibility and would dash all her hopes. The hearing was about to start. The royal chamberlains had just finished hanging above the dais the standards of the princes in attendance. Most of the seats were already full. They were all men – apart from her mother, who was seated in the front row with her second husband, the man Matilde still struggled to address as ‘Father.’ A few heads turned in acknowledgement and others with curiosity at her arrival. Because of her sex, her military exploit of two years earlier had been on everyone’s lips. She took her seat in the third row, pretending not to notice. Never look weak, she reminded herself. But she still felt weak – and exposed. She hated the magnificent blue silk gown she had been forced her to wear. It was making her young woman’s body more conspicuous than her coronet. She knew she had to get used to that kind of attention and be superior to it, like her mother. But she was not her mother.
She held her head high and directed her gaze towards the front row again. She made out Pope Alexander’s white hair. He was seated between his two most eminent Cardinals. She wished she could be there with him, to support him through his ordeal, to help him secure his victory. But that would have placed her in her overlord’s line of sight. That was the last thing she needed. She had had no contact with King Heinrich since returning to Italy eight years earlier. But Tuscany and the German crown had not exactly been best friends recently.
The noise abated. Preceded by his tutor, Archbishop Anno, Heinrich walked in. Matilde kept gazing at the hem of her gown, her breath caught in her throat. Her red-blonde tresses, barely covered by a translucent silk veil, would be hard to miss. According to her stepfather and mother, the royal regent had more pressing concerns than making an example of her, but she could not take that for granted. In the letter that he had taken the trouble of writing to her mother, the young king had used the word “treason.” He knew, surely, that Matilde had been an active part of that treason. She had joined her stepfather’s expedition to Rome, sailing the length of the Thyrrenian sea. When hed had entered the city to rescue Pope Alexander, she had taken his place on the admiral’s deck, in charge of the fleet. The taste of the sea salt on her lips had felt like the taste of freedom.
Dreams of ships gathering wind and snapping their sails vanished from her mind. In the eerie silence, Heinrich’s steps resonated past her, softening with the increasing distance. Despite her nerves, she shot a quick glance towards the dais. He was climbing the steps to his throne. It was impossible not to admire the royal regents’ masterful choreography: the thirteen-year-old Heinrich was seated higher than the Pope, a powerful visual metaphor for his hierarchical position in the great scheme of the universe. The Holy Father would have to stand when invited to speak, and would still not be level with the King of Germany.
Heinrich was staring blankly ahead, so Matilde found the courage to lift her head and look on. From a distance, under the weight of the diadem, he bore no resemblance to her former playmate. The stern but cherubic five-year-old of her memories had been replaced by a tall youth, weighed by clothes devised to make him look like an adult. His hair had lost the straw colouring of childhood; his curls were a darker bronze blond. For a moment, fear was replaced by a longing for a distant version of herself. Time had turned her stay at the German court into a string of happy images, suffused by the golden haze of childhood. Both for herself and for Heinrich, that past had been swept away forever by the turns that life had taken. According to his own mother, he was merely a pawn in his regents’ hands. Even if she had found the courage to tell him why she desperately needed Pope Alexander to be confirmed as the legitimate successor of Peter, it was unlikely he would listen, let alone help.
‘Cardinal Anselmo da Baggio, come forward.’ Anno, standing next to the throne, had opened the proceedings, addressing the Pope by his real name. It did not bode well. Her heart froze in her chest.
The Holy Father rose, holding a book. Thanks to his height and straight posture he appeared assured – and unfazed by the choreography. Matilde whispered a prayer under her breath. The Pope was wearing a plain white mitre, to symbolise a power bestowed by God, rather than by earthly jewels.
‘Do you own up to betraying our emperor, by entering into an alliance with the Normans?’
Heinrich had not been crowned emperor, yet, but Pope Alexander did not take his opponent's bait; he ignored the debatable choice of words. He lifted the book high above his head, so everyone could see it was a Bible. ‘I swear, by the God I have served all my life, that I have never betrayed this king or his father before him,’ he said. With his back to the dais, he made eye contact with the princes in the front row, one by one. ‘I was lawfully elected by the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. I urge anyone who can prove the illegality of my election to come forward.’
‘Long live the Pope!’ shouted her stepfather in the front row. Everyone knew which candidate he was backing, so, judging by the faces of the noblemen and prelates in her row, his rallying cry did not shift the mood. Anno was calmly looking on.
Another voice reverberated from the back of the room. ‘Long live Alexander, the Pope chosen by God!’
All eyes turned towards the entrance. An imposing man of about forty years, clad in the austere grey habit of a Cluny monk made it to the centre of the hall and stopped next to the Holy Father. Matilde had never seen him before, but the attendees’ reaction made his identity clear. He was Hugh of Cluny, the most powerful abbot in Christendom and Heinrich’s godfather. He clasped the Holy Father’s hand and kissed his ring. ‘Vassals of King Heinrich, raise your hand if you believe in Pope Alexander’s innocence.’
A crowd of hands sprung up.
Matilde closed her eyes, relieved. The nightmare was over. Pope Alexander had retained his seat, and the power to help her. There was still hope of escaping marriage to Godefroy the Hunchback.
Anno adjourned the proceedings to the next day. Heinrich took his regent’s cue, rose to his feet and stepped off the dais. As he approached Matilde’s row, he slowed down and glanced towards her. There was nowhere to run – not that she wanted to. The time she had dreaded had come, but she had promised herself that she was going to take her punishment with dignity, and she was going to stick to her promise. She held his gaze. To her surprise, he immediately looked the other way and hurried past, joining one of his archbishops at the back of the room.


Mantova, 31 May 1064

Leaving her guards outside, Beatrice of Canossa stepped into the dark interior of the church of Sant’Andrea, outside the Roman walls. She slipped into the front pew and knelt. She did not lower her hood. The golden vessels of the Holy Blood sparkled like dark stars on the main altar. After what she had lived through, there was not much that could unsettle her. Yet, a familiar knot formed in her stomach at the sight of the vases. God had chosen her, above all people, as the guardian of the blood spilled by Jesus on the cross. Pride melted into longing. Bonifacio, her first husband had beamed under his thick dark beard, when she had shown him her discovery – a treasure more valuable than anything in the Emperor’s coffers, marking her bloodline as the chosen one. He had been murdered before the goldsmiths had finished their work and the relics displayed in all their glory in Sant’Andrea. Was his soul ever going to find peace? She whispered a prayer for him.
The soft swish of fine silk broke the silence of the church. A tall and well-proportioned man knelt down next to her and cast his mantle onto the pew. As customary of German bishops, he was wearing princely robes, with only the pendant cross and the ring to mark his status of a man of God.
‘I hoped to find you here,’ he whispered in his tongue, her birth tongue, making the sign of the cross, ‘in the company of your relics.’
She did not need to turn to recognize Adalbert’s voice. But she did. She had not seen him since leaving court eight years earlier, after young Heinrich’s coronation. Time had been kind to the Archbishop of Bremen. His perfect features were crowned by a mane of blond hair that age had streaked with grey but not yet thinned. The only change was the wrinkles around his piercing blue eyes. Perhaps the responsibilities of regency, taking the art of intrigue to the highest level, had taken its toll. She redirected her attention to the reliquaries, waiting for him to uncover his cards – at least some of them.
‘Unlike your august colleague, you do not mind a woman opening her mouth in church?’ She teased him to break the ice.
A smile flashed on his lips, but his tone, when he replied, was serious. ‘Where is your husband the Pope-maker?’
‘Paying homage to your royal charge at the banquet.’
He remained completely still. ‘That man has nerve. Is your daughter with him?’
‘Matilde is not comfortable at banquets as she is at war.’
He turned towards her. ‘Although Mantova is under your jurisdiction, I was surprised to find you at the council, after the letter my lord wrote to you…’ His blue gaze dissected her nonchalant expression, ‘surprised but extremely pleased.’
Of course, he would mention that. The previous spring, antipope Cadalus had crossed the Alps at the head of a Salian army, the moment the passes were free of snow. Of all the nobles of Northern Italy, she alone had stood in their way. A platoon of her best soldiers had dug a trench across the Roman road from Verona to Modena, forcing the Germans to a humiliating halt. She had shown them all what she was made of, and what her daughter would be made of when the time came to hand over her power. She gave him an amused smile that he reciprocated.
‘Digging that trench was not your best idea,’ he said.
She steered the conversation away. ‘We are not here to talk about the trench, are we?’
‘You should trust me a bit more, Madonna Beatrice.’
He was too intelligent not to appreciate the magnitude of his request. Empress Agnes insisted that Adalbert was a man of integrity and may be willing to help. But he had been the Emperor’s most cherished advisor, and the Emperor had instigated Bonifacio’s murder.
He must have sensed the struggle in her heart. He let his invite sink in, his gaze lost in the golden vessels. He was a man of taste, someone who could appreciate the goldsmith’s exquisite craftsmanship. He turned to face her, eventually. ‘You may recall I was the only German bishop not to vote for antipope Cadalus.’
‘What do you gain from supporting Pope Alexander?’
Outside, steps approached. His gaze shifted to the entrance, but the footsteps slowed down and then continued further away. ‘I am not supporting him,’ he said. ‘That would jeopardise my position at court. Let’s just say I am delighted that this synod has turned into a personal victory for you.’
Perhaps Agnes was right. ‘The Empress praises your discretion. I need your word that this conversation will remain between me and you.’
He gave a slight nod. ‘Before our Saviour’s blood, I swear.’
She dropped her mask. ‘As regent, you would be aware of my daughter’s marriage commitments.’
‘Of course.’ Young Matilde’s betrothal was a Damocles’ sword hanging over the future of the empire.
Her voice dropped to a whisper. ‘If Pope Alexander signalled a willingness to entertain different options for my daughter…would that mollify the royal views on him?’
‘Anno and I are not always on the same page,’ came his warning. His archepiscopal ring caught the light of the chandeliers, as he placed his hand on the front of the pew. ‘Besides, I have reasons to believe he is on friendly terms with your husband.’
She cast him a complicitous glance. ‘You have always been smarter than Anno, Adalbert.’
He shrugged off the compliment. ‘I trust the confidentiality clause goes both ways.’
‘Of course.’
‘You may need to watch your papal friend very closely tomorrow. The likely outcome of the synod may be a… trigger for some of his enemies.’
Her silence gave away her surprise. ‘I shall give him the required support,’ she whispered eventually. ‘Thank you for your trust.’
Footsteps entered the church. They shifted away from each other and lowered their heads, as if collected in their Compline prayers. Ildebrando and Anno would place spies everywhere. ‘I shall go imminently,’ she said in a hushed voice. ‘With regards to my daughter…’
His gaze was still on the golden vessels, his hands joined as if he were in prayer. ‘I have no interest in advancing your husband’s dynasty further, given his disloyalty to the Salians.’
Hope made her heart skip a beat, but she needed to be sure of his meaning. ‘Will you lend us your support?’
‘If your candidate is confirmed as Holy Father tomorrow, and decides to help beautiful Matilde, I will urge the German court not to get in your way.’ He made the sign of the cross and stood up. ‘We shall leave from different doors.’

* * * * * * * * * * *

A full moon was shining over the bell tower of Sant’Andrea, whitening the city walls as Adalbert showed the watchmen his safe-conduct and crossed the gate back into town. A catfight nearby made him smile. He slowed his pace to take in the soft calm of the night. The day had been hot and the night breeze was pleasant on his face. It brought a smell of flowers and the promise of high summer. His footsteps thudded on the worn paving of the Roman road. He struggled to name the tension in his body. It was not excitement; it could possibly be admiration. No matter how hard he tried, he could never fully get the measure of Beatrice; he had accepted that a long time ago when she was the flower of Emperor Conrad’s court. There had always been steel under the grace. The trench had been nothing for her. Here was a woman who had always seen herself as superior to the Salians – a widow who had defied the Emperor against all odds and somehow survived. After Margrave Bonifacio’s murder, she had married her cousin Gottfried in secret, without their overlord’s permission, well aware that the rebellion could cost her her freedom, or worse. Fate had been kind to her; the Emperor his master had died unexpectedly at barely forty, and she had exploited the vacuum to claw back every single bit of her power. Like a phoenix she had risen from the ashes, and she would do so over and over if life threw her fresh challenges. The image of a queenlike young Beatrice dancing with him in the imperial palace of Nijmegen flickered in his mind.
He was glad he had tipped her. She could take decisions quickly, like a king, and normally the right ones. He had heard enough half conversations to be sure something was going on. He did not care if Anno was involved. He needed to protect Heinrich. He had no proof the boy was privy to the plot, but even a crowned Holy Roman emperor would not get away with murdering a Pope that easily, and Heinrich was just a boy king not yet out of minority. The plot had to be stopped. He had a promise to honour, a promise to his late master – and to Empress Agnes. He inhaled the summer air. Wheat was almost ripe. Beatrice would take care of things, preserve her Pope at whatever cost, brave, competent, cunning.
She would to anything for her daughter. Beautiful Matilde had inherited her mother’s eyes. He wondered if she had inherited any of her mother’s spirit. Her intriguing stab at admiralship suggested she had. Even more reason to deplore the failure of the Empress’s plan – the girl deserved better than being Ildebrando’s pawn.


Dan Brockington Fri, 02/10/2020 - 07:29

I think you are writin about my favourite historical period. Best wishes for the awards ceremony. Dan.