The end of a king
This is it Death. Not now. Soon enough though, if the not so worried facial expressions of his sons are to be believed. What he knows is this is to be his last day in his last bed. He will never reach his sixty-sixth birthday. He thought he could; the believed he could go hunting like a young man in the deep forest of Compiegne. He was wrong.
He is an old man who has suffered a nasty fall. A broken leg has led to infection followed by gangrene. He will die body intact. He has saved his leg; his honour… The king will be buried complete. Will his soul be deemed as defect-free as this tired body of his? Who knows? God knows.
God has a son; a son he can be proud of. For him, he has four sons. Four feral sons. Just like a long time ago when he was the youngest yet the most dangerous of his own brothers.
His breathing is slowly getting more laboured as the priests carry on their infernal sing-song. They call this music made for the Divine. He bets the Divine would cast the choir in Hell if He was to suffer His ears to attend his Deathbed.
Heavy or not, his eyelids open glancing at each and every son born from his royal loins. Sons present today; sons he has denied… sons he has condemned to death. They are all here today. The living and the dead. All of them eager to get a share of his inheritance. All somehow unworthy. Unworthy yet though no doubt, soon one will rise from this pack of wolves, tearing his siblings apart and uniting once again this realm under a firm ruthless hand. Just like … just like he has done. Many years ago.
The boys who are no more boys, who are men and seasoned warriors, look at him. What do you see, my heirs? What do you really see behind the wrinkles, the thick long grey mane? A feeble hand manages to reach his chin.
Unshaven. Mother would frown upon this lack of manners. Sweet dear Mother. A saint they call her now. A saint probably if saints can nurture revenge for decades and allow the murder of their own grandchildren.
- Kill them rather than allow them to be shriven. Better be dead than be shamed into priests!
Mother, the perfect mate for Father. The alliance of the best education bestowed to a princess of the court of Gundobald, King of the Burgondi. Blended with the obstinacy of a Christian when she chooses to be Roman Catholic rather than Arianist like most of the Germanic tribes who now rule over Western Europe. Beauty, intelligence. Fearless…
They do not understand the smile dancing on the lips of their old man. The woman they have called grandmother was already a recluse in the convent of Tours. A convent which had been previously the Royal Palace. Before her and her husband had decided to call Paris their capital. Tours, the city of his childhood. Warm summers by the lazy River Loire.
Once widowed, Chlothildis had returned to the place she had called home as a young bride.
What were you thinking, mother, as the chariots laden with treasures were taking you back South? Were you remembering that night? When pursued by Gundobald henchmen, you had galloped, like these Greek female warriors, to meet your betrothed? Fearless Mother who had managed to meet Father’s envoy. Who had succeeded at catching the attention of the newly widowed Kings of the Northern Franks. Mother escaped death, that night, riding like the wind to meet her husband-to-be. Fearless and ruthless…. A good definition of what he has become.
More unpleasant shivers leave him exhausted. But alive. Still alive. The priests seem to have run out of hymns. Good. Rather they mutter prayers. Prayers he needs. He needs a lot of them. Pray monks! Pray, bishops!
Pray my useless daughters. The ones who died before their prime as children do. Robbed by Death from my loving arms. The ones old enough to enter nunneries who pray now for his soul. His dark soul. The soul of a king. A king surrounded by nuns…
A sharp sigh escapes him. He hates nunneries. Except but for Tours. Tours which has seen the old palace being turned into a convent for noble ladies eager to dedicate their autumns to the worship of the Blessed Apostle of Gaul: Martin. He approves of Tours. Only of Tours.
Yet, it is Soissons which had heard his first roar. Future kings do not wail! They roar. They are lions…even in their infancy. He has roared. Again and again. And they will remember him as a king who …
Fever confuses him. Sweat runs on his forehead until a gentle hand brushes it off with a cool cloth. Gentle hand. Hope against hope, he darts at the hand’s owner. Indeed hope against hope as it is not the owner he is looking for. Another heavy sigh is followed by closing eyes.
Where was he? When a king is preparing to meet his maker… Yes, this is it. A king. He is a king. A true king. Son of a king, grandson of a king, great grand-son of… until… until the beginning of time. Because before Time was the time of God. Of Gods.
There are no Gods. No Gods. Father may have worshiped Wotan and other idols. He is a good Christian King. He was born a Christian and dies a Christian. Surrounded by all the tokens of the religion of Christ. Christ and not Wotan. How will he explain to Him, the curious decision to call his now second son Battle Raven? Gunthramm. Gunthramm always finding time to spend with bishops…
Father would have had a laugh at this unorthodox name for his grandson. Father, upright to the very last day. His oldest is almost as old as Father was when he entered the sleeping fields of the Christian After Life. Father.
Ruthless does not describe it. King for the age of 15 and hardly stubble to show, Father has eliminated one by one all the obstacles to the great Frankish realm on which he rules today.
He is king. King and not his sons. Not yet. King like Father. Gone for good are the remainders of loyalist troops to the old Gallo-Roman order. Dead are the Alamanni; dead is Alaric the leader of the Goths of the West. Gone his people who have retreated behind the safety of the Pyrenees Mountains. Like Father, he rules a kingdom where only the accidents of geography determine borders. Better. Better than Father as he has succeeded where his sire had not. Frisia is his; Provence is his but for Septimania. Only a few acres of Brittany are missing. Father would be proud. The founding father of his bloodline would approve of the great eating-beast he is. Eating lands, keeping lands at whatever cost it may be.
He is a wolf, a predator; a king. If they call him ruthless, without mercy…cruel’ so be it. He is the King. He is Chlothar the Pitiless. King Chlothar. The sacrifices which must be made to earn the nickname of Great, he knows. Father… King Clovis the Great. Father, like he, has not spared blood. This includes family members.
Clovis has got rid of any would be competitor and he has done the same. Yes, this is the line he will hold when he meets Him. If he has killed, and killed he has, it was for a greater good. Following Father steps. Killing himself nephews barely older than his own toddlers. Stabbing each; sparring only the one who was shriven to serve the Church. Just like Father who would have done the same without doubt. Without remorse.
The beady eyes are open again; scanning each of the four men standing by his bed. His last bed. Who will kill whom?
Will it be Charibert, who loves law-making? A wise past-time for a king though he wishes his eldest would spend less time debating of arcane jurisdiction and more with women begetting the much needed male heir any king needs. His oldest looks at him, giving a sad smile.
No, not Charibert. He is a wolf who loves his pack.
Could it be Gunthramm who also loves women with a passion tempered by the passion he has for the Church. The two brothers who are so close both shared the same cot are still close in life. Gunthramm has given nephews to his sibling; the uncle is not jealous. Both take after the equanimous character of their gentle mother Ingunda. Sweet love of his youth… she has given him generously sons and daughters. When her looks started to turn gaunt, he has turned his predatory eyes to her sister. Enlarging her belly with his seed; missing it was not too many child-bearings which were making her less handsome. She said nothing when he repudiated her; logic would have had that their children blamed him when the reason of her stoicism became obvious.
Rather, his sons laid down at their aunt the reason of her death. When they should have approved of his decision to choose a healthy consort, his three oldest sons chose to build up a united front against Aregunda and her cuckoo son. Naturally, he has generously bestowed gifts on the convent where she had taken refuge. St Martin must be a very contented saint in Tours. If he misses their mother, he will never tell his sons. He will never give them this crumb of his grief. This weight of his remorse.
He has so much to bear; so many crimes he will never admit to have committed. All for the bloodline; all for the people of Frankia. When one is a king, one behaves as a king. Wimps are unfit to rule and he is no wimp. All these people he has killed or ordered to die, he takes full responsibility for it. All is for the greater good. Never complain, never explain. Strike; let them debate afterward. Kings do not have to give answers. Kings rule. Only He knows his dark soul and how lonely is the great predator sitting on the throne.
If he has not killed his brothers, he has killed some nephews… he has spared a bastard to kill another bastard. Chramm… Charmm, the traitor. Chramm, so bright… Too intelligent to live long. Too much like him. Cunning, walking on a tight rope like one rides a horse. Chramm, his Crow boy. Like his older half-brother, the Crow could make Wotan proud by his sharp wit. But unlike his kinsman, Chramm does not… did not know when and where to stop.
They should be five, his surviving sons. They are only four because a rabid one turned against his pack. He could do with a son prone to fits of pique; he could not allow a son trespassing into rebellion against his rule. When a rebel becomes an ally to an enemy, the name to be used is traitor. Chramm betrayed him; the prodigal son was dealt with accordingly. No fasting banquet; a hut where his strangled body was thrown in along his wife and daughters. Just as innocent as his nephews. The blood of the girls, the happy little girls who were bringing him naïve bouquets of flowers is on his hands. Curse you, Chramm1 Curse you…
All they hear is Chramm as Charibert and Gunthramm share the same thought. Chramm, the favourite is still the one their father prefers despite his treason… Sigebert stiffens. Of the same age or about as Chramm, he does not accept his father’s philandering. His aunt elevation as queen has made him sick just as much as the large belly of his father’s concubine has offended him. Sigebert believes he is a step above everyone. He will not marry but a real princess, born to the purple. For the rest, it is just hygienic mating unworthy of bothering with the consequences born 9 months later. Sigebert is the one who looks the more like him though like Charibert and Gunthramm; there is something in him of his mother’s softness…weakness. Sigebert is trusting, Charibert kind and Gunthramm forgiving. His three sons will make good kings because all in all, there are rather good men; will they find him them the extra inch to become killers since this is the prerogative, the duty of a king to be able to kill if needs be?
The one who really takes after him is not born from Ingunda or Chunsina. Sired to the same father and to a sister of his discarded aunt, Chilperic looks extraordinarily like his three half-brothers. Looks are not all. This one has his heart. His dark, deadly heart. Just as blond, just as fair. Same lanky frame, same blue-grey eyes; here it stops.
Chilperic will kill for the pleasure; will not delegate if he can avoid it. He is a wolf matched with a hyena. In Paris, he enjoys attending the arena which is still going on the Left bank. He likes to see pain inflicted and blood gushing out. Just as much as he likes words which wound and tears flowing out of a nasty contest of wits. Chilperic probably hates him for his mother’s sudden elevation followed by the cruellest downfall. If he has no issue with his aunt’s repudiation, he sees in his father the man who has betrayed the two sisters. Gladly he would remove this obstacle; but he cannot.
Chlothar is still alive; as for the cause of his mother’s humiliation, she is not living in the palace. This ‘cause’ has avenged all the women betrayed by Chlothar by publicly humiliating him. Making him the laughing stock of the realm as a cuckolded husband! A husband unable to keep his wife! A husband left hanged dry while the love of his life had chosen the most glorious destiny ever to be: a bride of Christ.
Radegund. Beautiful, maddening, spirited Radegund. The word beauty is an insult when one thinks of her. Fresh morning dew, soft petals, silky skin. Eyes to damn a saint except she had chosen God as consort. His soul was lost when he met her: royal hostage from a king of Thuringia. Expediting her family was done without the blink of an eye; killing her surviving brother as gift on their honeymoon was the step too far. This blood was not to be shed.
The child who had grown into this marvel decided on the spot or about to enter a convent to pray for her menfolk: to pray for their souls. This did not stop him from storming the convent dragging behind him a reluctant wife. He tried everything; hate was better than nothing. What wounded him was when she found in her pure heart the strength to forgive him.
Only, on that day, has he accepted he has lost her for ever. Hate he can live with. Forgiveness as one forgives a trespass, he cannot. He is not a sin, not a trespass; he is the king. He is kingship. Cruel, violent, unremitting. He is rage when his warriors ransacked the land of the Saxons and the Brittons. He revels in the blood on his enemies; the enemies of his realm, of his father’s realm. Women are preys, chattel. Children are to obey. To be forgiven is the worst offense he has suffered; suffered he has because he cannot, cannot uproot this love for Radegund which has been killing him for too many years.
Death is kind; as kind as Radegund. May be in the afterlife, he will have this second chance to make it right. To be kind to his wives, generous to his children; wiser with his sons. A better king.
Death is kind. Unless it is God.
The long body has a final shudder and it is over. Chlothar is dead. From now on, his fame will depend on the reputation clerks who know nothing about kingship or mortal love will give him. Monks know nothing about Hate; monks do not know much.
The four men kneel by the bed. Far from Compiegne, in the solace of the convent chapel, Radegund cries softly.
Death is kind.