The executioner raised his ax. The blade descended, severing the head with a flawless stroke. Blood spurted from the trunk, then ebbed to a trickle; the executioner wiped the blade with a rag before reaching for the head and holding it up to the crowd gathered in the square outside the royal palace. They didn’t break into cheers today. In silence they stood in the fierce August sun, staring at the body slumped against the block.
The Emperor Henry turned away from the window. “He’s got a way with an ax, that headsman.”
There was a faint distaste on Walter of Palear’s sallow features. Perhaps, he thought, I’ve seen too much of Henry’s methods. The man had not been a criminal, but a member of the Sicilian nobility, who had rebelled against the emperor’s harsh rule.
Henry looked down at the square again. The crowd was dispersing slowly. He pursed his lips. “What do you make of that rabble, Walter?”
The chancellor cast a thoughtful look at his new master.
“Your Grace,” Walter said, “I must tell you frankly that you cannot rule Sicily through fear alone. The Sicilians see you still as a stranger. They resent the increased taxes, the shipbuilding levies, the lands you’ve given your German barons. If the common people were to unite with the nobility . . .”
“Damnation, Walter, as part of the Empire Sicily will be greater than ever, greater than under the Normans. It will be my granary, feeding my army as I conquer Byzantium. Think of it. One realm, from the Bosporus to the Baltic.”
And he’s capable of it, too, Walter thought with reluctant admiration. Since becoming emperor, Henry’s name had become a byword for ruthlessness. The rebellious German princes, the king of France, even Richard the Lionheart, had all been bested by him. He was a strange man, this German emperor who had wedded their queen. He looked much older than his twenty-nine years. Bearded, of medium height, with a muscled body, and an already deeply lined forehead, he was a man of Spartan tastes, indifferent to wine, women or the trappings of wealth. Ambition was his only passion.
Henry sat down, his brow furrowed. He wiped the sweat off his forehead. After a moment, he asked: “Where’s the letter to the empress? Constance must come to Sicily at once. Add a postscript, telling her to come south without delay. Once they’ve got their queen back, your people might become more docile, and I can get on with building my fleet instead of wasting time with traitorous whoresons such as that one.” He jerked his head toward the square. “Particularly if the babe is a boy. Not that I can understand why the Sicilians are so loyal to the Hautevilles. After all, they, too, were foreigners not so long ago.”
Walter stared at him. “But my Lord, the empress, in her condition, at her age . . . By the time your letter reaches her, it will be September or even October. To travel from Germany over the Alps in winter is dangerous. Would you risk . . .”
Henry waved his objections away. “Constance is as strong as an ox. She’s a Norman, after all. Write the addition yourself. I want her arrival to take everyone by surprise.”
Walter nodded. The price of remaining in power was compliance with the emperor’s will. He dipped the quill into ink, ready to render Henry’s blunt summons into elegant Latin. It never ceased to amaze him that this harsh man, who ruled half of Europe, was the son of the affable and cultured Barbarossa. It was Sicily’s misfortune that the last of the Hautevilles was a woman. True, they had begun as adventurers, like all great dynasties, but what a cosmopolitan culture had they created, what tolerance had they shown their subjects. Henry would do well to take their example to heart if he wished to rule Sicily without the sullen resistance they had both just witnessed.
When he had finished, Walter read the postscript to Henry.
“Very well,” the emperor said curtly. ‘dispatch it at once. I need her here before Christmas.”
JESI, Adriatic March, December 1194
A dusting of snow lay on the red-tiled roofs and ramparts of Jesi. On this second day of Christmas, townspeople, their cloaks of coarse homespun wool wrapped around them, thronged the narrow streets, pushing and shoving their way to the marketplace. There, an enthralled audience surrounded Berengaria, Jesi’s most respected midwife. She shook her head. “I tell you, it was horrible. How the poor thing struggled, shivering despite all her fur rugs, for a day and a night. That child wouldn’t come.” The women shuddered, remembering their own searing pains, the screams and blood and deaths of so many childbeds.
“I never thought she’d live, in that icy tent, and her first babe, too, at nearly forty. Oh, we forced hot wine mixed with henbane down her throat, tried all we could to help her push the child out. From time to time her screams would turn to deadly silence. She’d just lie there with closed eyes. Then she’d start to moan again and we’d give thanks that she was still alive. During the night they sent for a Saracen physician.”
The old midwife spat and drew her dark cloak closer around her. “But it was through the mercy of the Virgin, whose Son, too, was born at Christmas, that the empress and the little prince were saved. I tell you . . .”
Fanfares sounded. An expectant murmur ran through the crowd in the marketplace.
“Ges’, it really is a miracle, look, there she is, look at her.” Berengaria pointed at the bishop’s palace on the far side, rising above the great red and green tent still standing in the piazza. A wintry sun pierced the clouds, gilding the facade of the palace. Above the portal, the open loggia, its balustrade hung with tapestries, was thronged with courtiers and churchmen parting to make way for the empress. Constance advanced until she stood at the parapet. She was wrapped in a fur-lined mantle of blue brocade. Her fair braids were entwined with ropes of pearls, coiled on her head to support her crown.
The townspeople broke into jubilant cheers. Constance raised her hand and smiled. Only her pallor betrayed the effort she was making. She turned to her friend Matilde of Spoleto. “Give me the child,” she said. She took the swaddled infant and held it up. Then, with an age-old gesture of infinite grace, she parted her mantle and held the child to her exposed breast. The little prince began to suckle hungrily. A roar of approval went up from the crowd. “Viva! Viva! Viva Costanza! Viva la figlia di Ruggiero!” they chanted, throwing their caps into the air and stamping their feet.
I was right, she thought. Just as every instinct of statecraft had told her that she must subject herself to giving birth in a tent, before the nobility of Jesi, to quell the rumors that her pregnancy was fictitious, so she had known that she needed the common people’s approval of her son’s legitimacy. And here, on the Adriatic March that separated Sicily from the Empire, they acclaimed her as her father’s daughter, not as Henry’s wife.
Pride welled up within her, and a fierce love for this child she had so longed for. To bear her first child at nearly forty was almost a miracle. She looked down at him, at the thin fuzz of auburn hair. She could feel the warmth of his little face pressed against her breast. Frederick of Sicily . . . She whispered his name, dizzy with happiness. Suddenly weakness engulfed her. She felt her knees buckle; everything around her began to spin in a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors. She swayed, trying to hold her balance. Her ladies rushed to support her, lifting the heavy ceremonial mantle. Hands reached out and took the child from her. Someone shouted for a litter.
Constance steadied herself on the balustrade. “Leave me,” she said in a shaky voice. Summoning the last of her strength, she squared her shoulders, shifting the weight of her cloak. Her head held high, one hand at her throat, she left the loggia, followed by her retinue, with the little prince in the arms of Matilde. Behind her, the bells of Jesi pealed in celebration.
The chamber in the bishop’s palace was dimly lit by oil lamps, the thick crimson curtains drawn.
“Drink this, it’ll warm you and make you sleep.” Matilde held out a cup of steaming wine.
Constance sat up and drank while Matilde plumped up the pillows behind her back. The hot, spicy wine warmed her cold and exhausted body. “Thank you.” She smiled at her friend.
“I wish I could have spared you this dreadful journey,” Matilde said. She brushed a strand of hair from Constance’s forehead. “Henry’s selfishness could have killed you, and the child, too.”
Constance had to smile. It wasn’t often that Matilde gave vent to her dislike of Henry. The fact that Matilde’s husband held the duchy of Spoleto from Henry tended to curb her tongue. ‘don’t fret, it doesn’t matter any more. The child is strong and I am alive, and we’re going home to Palermo.”
Matilde, folding garments and putting things away, didn’t reply.
Constance watched her as she moved about the room amid open traveling chests, placing her rings, her crown, and the gold necklet with the enameled reliquary back into an ebony jewel coffer. Dear Matilde, so thoughtful, so loyal. She, too, was no longer young; she must be nearly fifty. Matilde’s hair was streaked with gray, and her movements had lost the suppleness of youth. When they had first met, years ago in Germany, Matilde’s hair had been the color of ripe corn. How glad she had been to have found a friend. A bitter smile twisted Constance’s lips as she recalled her unhappiness when she arrived in Germany as Henry’s wife. She hated the drafty castles and icy, long winters, so different from the sunny Sicily of her youth. She had longed to be back at her father’s cosmopolitan court in Palermo, with its urbane Christian, Jewish and Muslim courtiers and scholars. The German barons, in contrast, were unlettered ruffians.
The only one who had been different was the old Emperor Frederick, Henry’s father. Redheaded, red-bearded, imposing and jovial at the same time. The common people, who loved him, nicknamed him “Barbarossa” because of his flaming beard. How he used to make her laugh, telling outrageous stories in elegant Latin, and always treated her with courtesy and kindness. Partly, no doubt, because she would bring the Hohenstaufen the crown of Sicily, but also, she thought, because he genuinely liked her.
What would he have made of the manner in which his grandson had been born? Constance closed her eyes and felt herself again being jolted along in the hide-covered wagon in which she had travelled from Germany. She remembered her panic when she had felt the onset of birth pains, weeks early. Thankfully, they had been close to Jesi, whose bishop had ridden out to welcome her. Constance remembered with amusement the consternation on the good bishop’s face when she had refused the comforts of his palace and instead ordered her great tent to be erected in the marketplace. The heir to the Empire, she had told the bishop rather sharply, between deep breaths, as she anticipated the next wave of pains, must be born in public.
Her little son had reddish hair; would he resemble the old emperor? Or would he take after her husband? Henry was taciturn and brusque, lacking his father’s charm. I have never loved him, Constance thought, I don’t even like him much, but he has given me what I have always wanted: a child and an heir for Sicily. He has served his purpose.
And if her son were to take after her father? A smile curved her lips. That would be the greatest gift of all. Please, oh Lord, she pleaded, let him be a Hauteville king rather than a Hohenstaufen emperor. Keep him safe, far from the dangerous rivalries of German imperial politics. Many obstacles lay in the path of Henry’s ambition to have their son elected as the next emperor. With the Lord’s help, these might still prove insurmountable, even for Henry.
Constance yawned. The poppy juice in the wine was beginning to take effect; she felt tired, so tired.
“Matilde, I think I will sleep now.”
Matilde came over. “I’ll just go and look in on the little one, and then I’ll come back and bed down here. Sleep well, dearest.” She brushed Constance’s cheek with her lips and walked to the door, closing it quietly behind her.
©2005 by Maria Bordihn. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.