Ash hung in the air like a blizzard, the sky was lost behind a dark cloud. Crows stood on mangled heads hung on pikes, buzzards pecked on charred bodies and carrions, ripping out eyes and offal. The stench of the massacre was obnoxious to him and amidst the carnage an ominous emotion grew in his heart.
Charles stood at the edge of a cliff and watched the decaying mass. It felt like all the happiness in the world was gone and he was responsible for it. War was always a bitter business and he took no pleasure cutting down men, but he had a duty to his father, the king of Franks. He had done his duty well; annihilating the enemies west to the city of Ravenna. But he was growing out of patience, having heard no news of his father’s forces in the city.
At his young age of nineteen, Charles had established himself as a leader. Always, he tried to emulate his patron knight, Saint George, the dragon-slayer and did what he could to meet required expectations. A combination of blood, sand and sweat, rested on his chiseled face, circled around his blown eyes, and even his dark hair had almost turned brown with grime.
Three figures approached from the distance. As they drew closer, Charles hurried to his steed and drew out a bow strung to its saddle. He aimed at the riders racing towards him, but then recognized the banners fluttering above their shoulders, and retracted his bow.
The riders urged their steeds to a halt, and one of them dismounted. He was clad in a gleaming silver plate adorned with the crest of a spurting golden flame, sigil of the Carolingian dynasty. Charles recognized it as his father’s banner. As a kid, he had always been fascinated by the golden flames spurting from the sun in a red background, and now he could easily spot it miles afar.
The man pulled off his helmet and pressed it upon his side, revealing an oval face and a short thick brown hair.
“Brother,” he walked proudly to Charles and then turned his gaze to the battlefield, indifferent the mass of dead men. “It seems the day has been kind to you.”
“Carloman?” Charles raised his voice. “By God, you look like father in that armour.”
Despite his looks, Charles had always been assumed by folks, as the younger of both brothers, but it did not bother him much. He could still remember his mother, attributing Carloman's burly feature to their famous grandfather, Charles ‘The Hammer’ Martel.
“Father has taken the city of Ravenna, he wants to you to be present at his gifting to the Holy church.” Carloman spoke softly.
Charles stood silent for a moment, and then he walked to his brother. “Why did you come here? Father could have sent a steward or any of those many pretenders worshipping at his feet.”
“Perhaps I came to gloat, for my victory today was quite a sight.” Carloman boasted with his arms wide open, “I led the attack on the city and won it flawlessly.”
“Good for you,” Charles retorted. “So you came to rub it on my face, expecting me to be angry because my little brother did well today?”
Charles turned away from Carloman. He pulled the reins of his big black steed, urging it to walk slowly behind him and finally stopped at the other side of the cliff. At the foot of the hill, an infantry of five thousand men stretched far into woods, camped with their horses and awaiting his command.
Charles watched them for a moment. His heart was ripe with joy, home beckoned, and it was an end to a battle slated for months that had quickly rose to years. In his mind, he could feel and see his mother, sister, and friends, waiting for him at the gates of his home in Aachen. It was all he wanted, all he dreamt of, all he hoped for, but it was not over yet. He knew his father’s summon meant another endurance of unwanted drama and bickering of power hungry feudal lords.
He stretched forth his arm. “We ride to the city,” he shouted.
Bellowing cries of victory filled the atmosphere, in response. The soldiers mounted their steeds, raising dust into the air like a sandstorm. Charles mounted his steed, and raced down the cliff to join the infantry.
The city of Ravenna was filled with armed troops and horsemen prancing proudly, in the city’s streets. Banners of the Carolingians lined the stones walls, from the gates to the court house, some fluttering in the high winds and others just flowed down. But either way they sent a cold message, the city has been taken.
Charles urged his steed to a trot, as he passed through the city’s gate. Slowly, he took in the city’s amazing sight, twisting his head to capture every image. He was amazed at the city’s old stone structures, which have managed to preserve their beautiful masonry despite their age.
Deep in his admiration, he strayed from his path and did not see the cavalcade heading towards him. A lead horseman crashed into him and sent him flying several leagues from his horse. The next he heard was a loud thud like the sound of a falling rock, followed by a roar of laughter.
He found himself amidst tomatoes and cabbages, some stuffed in his mouth and others adorned his hair. He looked around, staring at the faces of soldiers and civilians laughing uncontrollably at him. Despite the humiliation, he was glad he landed on a soft spot, or else he would have been giving his account to his God in the afterlife.
On the floor, he saw a large shadow approach. He cocked his head up and saw Carloman, atop a horse and looking down at him, face bearing a devilish grin. Another rider halted beside his brother, and dismounted quickly. He walked hastily towards Charles and stretched out an arm.
“Come on,” He called.
Charles ignored his arm and helped himself up. “Thanks, but I can get up fine on my own.”
“Why the grim look?” the man asked, his eyes fixed at Charles. “Even great men fall, you should know that.”
For a moment, they both stared at each other. Their faces bore ill expressions of ire, like enemies pitted against one another in a fight. Suddenly, Charles opened his arms wide.
“Arnulf, it’s good to see you,” he gave the man a hug.
“Long time my friend; it’s good to see you too.” Arnulf replied.
Charles turned and saw the rider who crashed into him, coming with two heavily built men at his side. He noticed the crest etched on their mails, and it was not one familiar to him.
“Watch where you go boy,” The man raised his voice. He reached into his pocket and brought out a gold coin.
“On behalf of his lordship, Desiderius of Lombardy,” He threw the coin to Charles, “For your troubles.”
Charles searched his mind, trying to understand why the name sounded familiar. He craned his neck to get a good look at a beautifully adorned carriage in the cavalcade. One he believed might hold nobles or perhaps Desiderius himself. He had never seen the man before, but he had heard of him in his father’s court.
He could barely see from the distance, but he could make out the bright colours of ladies, and hear their chuckles. It finally came to him why the name sounded familiar, the gossips traded amongst his peers told of four beautiful daughters born to a house of Lombardy.
Charles felt the coin In-between his thumb and index finger; he smiled, threw it in the air and caught it a few times. But his enthusiasm was not shared by his friend Arnulf.
“For his troubles?” Arnulf yelled, as the man turned around to leave. Charles watched as he drew out his sword and pointed it at the man.
“Do you know that he is the son of the king?”
The man- a Lombard emissary- turned to Arnulf and unsheathed his broad sword. “Careful where you point that or you will find your body absent head.”
“And I would strike you down where you stand.” Charles approached the emissary, one hand ready to unsheathe the sword at his side. “The Lombards are no friend to the Franks, what business does your master have here?” He asked, bearing a fiery look.
“Whoa, whoa, easy Charles, Desiderius is a guest of father’s. Sheathe your swords. He is an envoy of the Lombards.” Carloman spoke quickly as he rode in with several of the king’s liegemen.
“Father never informed me of this.” Charles spoke sternly.
“That’s because you haven’t seen him for six months. Now if you don’t mind the court awaits its guests.” Carloman rode out gently and beckoned to the cavalcade to follow him.
Arnulf ran to his steed and turned to face Charles, “on your steed quickly, you wouldn’t want to miss this.”
They both hopped on their horses and followed behind the cavalcade.
The court of Ravenna held a lively atmosphere, bright, airy, and filled with the scent of jasmine. Its grey walls were adorned with carved reliefs depicting historic events, and crusted with amethyst. Charles sensed the difference to his father’s court in Aachen, but also noted a great similarity. He watched the faces of noblemen and women gathered at the court. Some expressed warmth, and others expressed animosity with subtlety. Now, that didn’t seem any different from the court back at his home.
His household, the Carolingians, were growing powerful in Europe, and that meant they were gaining more enemies. Charles knew his father hungered for power and dominion over Europe. His father had asked him and his brother to join his campaign after accepting a request from the Holy church to retake the Exarchate of Ravenna, under the guise of doing his duty to the Holy Roman Patriarch. But he knew his father well and pain without gain was not of his nature, especially now that the lands of Europe are teeming with enemies of different kinds.
The Court’s steward stood on the dais and announced to the nobles. “His Grace, King Pepin. The third of his blood, Lord of the Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoth and Slavs.”
King Pepin walked gracefully. He passed Charles without noticing him, and sat on a chair resting upon the dais, two armed guards positioned themselves behind him.
“His Holiness, Pope Stephen, the Third.” The Steward called again, and the Holy Patriarch went and stood beside the King.
Charles got tired of watching and hearing the steward call several nobles to the high court. He pushed towards the dais, hoping his father would at least spare him a glance since he had not spoken a word of merit to him after he had successfully held the flanks during the war. But, his father cared less and only showed keen interest in the court’s procession. He noticed everyone had turned their gaze to the door, and he did the same. There, Carloman walked into the court and beside him was the Lombard Lord, Desiderius and four Highborn Ladies walking elegantly behind.
“My King,” Carloman bent a knee before his father. “His Lordship, Desiderius of Lombardy.”
The King rose from his chair, “Desiderius,” he called. “How fare your kinsmen? I’m sure they still have eyes on my territories.”
“Your Grace, I’m only here for peace.” Desiderius answered solemnly.
The King chuckled, “of course, why not. After all, your King, Astulf, have fled to the winds.”
Desiderius shifted to one side, to allow the King and others a good view of his daughters, much to Charles’ delight.
“To show my support for peace, I present my daughters and pray you take one for your bride in the hopes of uniting our two great Houses.”
The King chuckled again, “Lord Desiderius, I have a Queen, two heirs, a daughter and several bastar…” a man walked quickly to the King, cutting short his conversation.
Charles recognized him. He could never forget the scar faced Lord William, his father’s appointed Duke of Aquitaine. He never liked the man, never liked his look, the hatred always lurking in his eyes. Many in his father’s court ignored the lord, and think him harmless, but Charles could tell a turncoat when he saw one. Lord William was not far from it, impassive, cold and calculating.
His father cleared his throat, after a quick conversation with Lord William. “I have no need for another bride, but I would ask that your daughter be given to my eldest son and with it make allies of the Lombards.”
“I couldn’t have asked for any better, King of the Franks.” Desiderius spoke calmly. He turned to his eldest daughter, Desideria, and held her hand firmly, leading her to Carloman.
“I hope she pleases you, Prince of Franks.”
He gave her hand to Carloman, who willingly accepted with a broad smile on face. Charles found himself admiring the lady. She was a maiden with a comely figure, a long auburn hair descended down her back and decorated with garlands at the top. She wore a white linen dress, belted at her slender waist and was everything all the men had imagined she would be.
“That’s not my eldest son!” the King raised his voice. “Where is Charles?”
“Father,” Charles replied as he came forward.
“Have you been hiding again?”
“No father, I have been here all this while. You just didn’t seem to care.” Charles spoke angrily, ignoring the many ears in the hall.
The King leaned forward, “watch your tone, boy!”
“Are you Charles?” Desiderius turned to him.
“Yes,” Charles answered.
“You have acquired the ire of most of my kinsmen. I heard you were responsible for the demise of Astulf’s armies in the hills west of the city.”
“You seem to be the only one who noticed.” Charles turned away.
He didn’t believe a word Desiderius had said about wanting peace. Men like him are always hungry for domination. Now, that King Astulf of the Lombards had fled, Desiderius was the next in line to the throne of Lombardy, and his is putting several plans in motion to conquer Franks. To Charles, the marriage was just one of them.
Charles saw his brother Carloman, sulking at a corner. He could see the disgust written all over his brother’s face, been chosen over him this time. He felt pity on his brother, because he knew how it felt to want something so badly and even have it in one’s grip, only for it to be ripped away. Desderia had been everything he had imagined her to be, but his eyes were set on someone else.
“Father,” Charles called. “Perhaps…”
“Perhaps, what!” the king retorted.
“Perhaps, Carloman should marry the Lombard Lady.” He spoke, ignoring the fact that Desideria was standing there.
He felt something. She was clutching his hands, even though she wasn’t aware, as it seemed her mind was elsewhere. Charles noticed the look on her face; she was scared and seemed to favour him instead of Carloman.
“Or not,” he spoke under his breath.
The look on his father did not yell agreed. He had seen that look before and its aftermath was always unpleasant. He didn’t blame him, as it appeared both his heirs were toying with him in front of his subjects.
“Desiderius of Lombardy,” the King rose from his seat. “Forgive me, but this is a matter I must settle in the company of my Queen in Aachen.”
“I understand, Sire.” Desiderius bowed and walked to join the gathering at the left.
“Now we must commence with handing the Exarchate of Ravenna to the Holy Roman church.” The King turned to the Holy Roman Patriarch.
“I call upon the Dukes of Aquitaine, Burgundy, Provence, Neustria, and a Lord of the Lombards to bear witness on this day...”
Charles watched three lords join his father on the dais, but the lords of Burgundy and Provence were absent. He turned and twisted, watching every corner, hoping to see them emerge from somewhere.
“Lord Robert of Burgundy, Lord Richard of Provence.” The steward stepped forward and called.
A stark silence descended on the hall. Everyone turned around, searching intently with their gaze, as if they cared.
“Vultures,” Charles whispered to his friend Arnulf who had joined him. “They are all Vultures, big hairy ones, pretending that they give a care about the missing Lords.”
“Look at that one,” he pointed to a noble whose eyes seem to be bulging from their socket. “I’m sure he is praying earnestly in his heart that they‘ve been taken hostage, so that he can swoop in and claim their lands.”
“Look at that one…” Loud screams of noblewomen struck the words off his mouth.
Charles followed the gaze of the gathering up to the roof, where two men hanged upside down, with arms dangling off their shoulders. At first, it seemed vague. But he pushed through the panicking men and women, and a clear view revealed both men to the two absent Lords. Instead of the glorious look of nobility they usually wore, they were dead, nude and mutilated. Blood dripped from their fingers, and on their torsos were carved the words;
Rex Francorum, King of the Franks.