9 Those distant days - 1211
It is laughable, truly, how I personally only killed a few people, while I indirectly killed so many. War is a curious thing. My first hadn't been as emperor, but as the newly crowned king of Sicily. Another, Otto IV, had taken the liberty to usurp the emperor' throne in the absence of a fully aged successor upon my father' death.
I would claim my father' title at the age of twenty-six, yet before that time I would wage war as a mere fourteen-year-old boy, in order to reassert my power over Sicily and southern Italy, where local barons and adventurers had usurped most of the authority.
Ah, how eagerly I went to war as a young man, just as misguided about its glory as Lorenzo.
1211 - Southern Italy
The night had fallen and the battlefield had quieted, but the cries hadn't ceased. Returning to my tent, desperately in need of sleep after debating tactics and manoeuvring my troops over the fields, my patience had perished. Turning in the saddle - and silently cursing the hard metal plates that punctured my hip whenever I did so - I asked: "What's happening?"
"Your soldiers have fought today, your majesty, and even though we reached Calabria without much resistance," Phillip of Palearia responded, pointing out said troops, "many died, more are wounded."
The cries continued and I cringed at the sound. These weren't men, I was sure of it, they could not cry so horribly.
"Wounded horses," said Alessandro, coming up on my left.
It was unbearable. It was the moaning of the world, it was the martyred creation, wild with anguish, filled with terror and helplessness.
"God, for God's sake! Cut their throats," I cried.
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One could no longer distinguish where it came from; ghostly, invisible, it was everywhere, between heaven and earth it rolled. Phillip became aware of my distress and shouted; "Silence them! Silence them, can't you? Damn you!"
A soldier nodded and ran off.
"They must look after the men first," I said with a quiet tone, shaking my head, praying they did so quickly. The more I focused, the louder the screams seemed to become. Looking around feverishly I hoped to spot the animals; if I could see them I might endure it better. Without paying attention to the clear disapproval of my guards, I turned my horse in the direction of the battlefield and reached the top of the hill - where I had overlooked the clash of the armies earlier that day - in a matter of minutes. I spotted large black clumps moving around; the wounded horses. Some galloped away in the distance, falling down, and then ran on further. The belly of one was ripped open, the guts trailing out. I had been wrong. So wrong! It didn't make it any more bearable. These visuals matched the sounds perfectly, this appalling noise, these groans and screams penetrated my soul in harmony with the sight of the hundreds of human bodies lying twisted in the grass.
The sunlight reflected a drawn blade and a black heap convulsed and sank down miserably. Some soldiers couldn't overtake the wounded beasts who fled in their pain, their wide, open mouths full of anguish. A man got down on one knee, the flash of a sunlit blade - a body dropped - then another. The last animal propped itself on its forelegs and dragged itself round in a circle, apparently its back was broken. A soldier ran up to it, ending the horrendous merry-go-round. Slowly, humbly, it sank to the ground. The cries were silenced, only a long-drawn, dying sigh still hung in the air. I tell you, it wasn't the sight of dead men that made the tears burn behind my eyes.
I went back. My entourage hadn't moved from where I left them, some had descended their rides, but all had awaited my return. Some looked away in respect, others tried to hide their expressions. I couldn't blame them, I would have laughed as well when a boy with a crown on his head started mourning some horses.
"I hope you have a good night, your majesty," Alessandro of Catania bowed his old head and gestured for an attendant to help him down. His neck - which seemed to dissolve into his torso without any sense of proportion - shook adversely when the stallion refused to remain still as the aged man descended.
The injured horses weren't the only ones to be slaughtered that night. One of my lower-ranked officials was to be beheaded on accusation of provoking infighting. Phillip had warned me that in every war I would have to deal with a few rioters.
"The simplest solution is often the most efficient," he told me, advising me on the situation while we rested. The man cut for an impressive figure; his dark hair framed his face as iridescent eyes gathered the light from all directions. His chin was hidden by a beard with subtle silver strands. I regarded his armour, the black cloak that draped his shoulders and fell to the ground when seated, the dark blue gloved hands with which he held a cup of wine, "kill him, set an example. As long as it happens quickly and with respect for the soon-to-be executed, the soldiers will get the message without being outraged."
Stroking my hair, I pressed my lips together and leaned back in my chair, "if you think so..."
I was hesitant to follow his suggestion. Was killing not considered a sin? Are murders not scorned and loathed and shunned by society for the exact same reason? Are they not punished by the executioner for killing others? Why don't we punish the executioner for killing?
I found it appalling. Yet I knew Phillip was one of those few men who I could entrust my life to. The duke had been my late father' confidant, and I should have counted myself lucky to have obtained his loyalty. Around that time, word had been spreading; how the young rightful heir was a tactical genius. Sadly, during that first year, the truth had been less impressive; I was incompetent where it concerned battle. I had grown up in a secluded environment, ripped away from the realities of the world. Two years prior, I had been crowned and declared the righteous heir of the Imperial throne. If not for Phillip' support, I would have been beheaded by the usurper.
"Can I talk to him?" I asked, "what if this was all a mere misunderstanding? Why does he hate me?"
"There is no need for you to go out of your way to interact with those of the lower classes." Phillip regarded me closely, "you are destined to become the next emperor. Don't let yourself be distracted from that objective."
Your objective, I thought. Your objective, and mother's objective, and all those other people who are afraid they supported the wrong side of this war.
"As a smith's child becomes a smith and a merchant's offspring takes up their parents trade, so are you, as the heir of your line, destined to become emperor," the discerning man rose, turned to the table to place down his drink and came to stand before me, "it is no use fleeing from your fate. While it is certainly true that it is no easy road, as we bear a heavy burden. But as you were born a royal, you have no other path in life but to rule over others."
I nodded and regarded the floor. From outside the tent, cheers and laughter could be heard.
"One more thing. I don't want to see you crying anymore. Exposing weakness in your heart to others is something only the frail and piteous do. Those of our status keep those things locked in our chests. Do you understand?"
"Then raise your head and look me in the eye."
"Get some rest, we'll reconvene in three hours," he said, finally distancing himself.
I looked after him as he left.
At that moment he must have been one of the most famous men in our society. Though the pinnacle of his career lay behind him. In his mid-forties, his health was failing, he was tired, battle-scarred and suffered from attacks of epilepsy which were rumoured to become more frequent. He was still enormously charismatic, gifted beyond many of his contemporaries and outed an energy you sensed the moment he entered a room; a man in the late afternoon of his life.
Only telling me lies, I thought. I won't be deceived. If my claim upon the Empire's throne is justified, why am I despised by our opponents? Everyone around me merely hopes to further their own prestige within our society.
"Why?" My throat tightened. "Why do they love it all so much?"
After my armour had been taken care of, I found myself alone in my tent. I had come to the understanding that in an army settlement, one never felt quite alone. The metal scratching of the guards in front of my tent mingled with the murmurs of the soldiers resting and walking in between the endless rows of campfires. I heard laughs, angry shouts, snoring and fat sizzling when it dropped from the meat into the fire. While becoming accustomed to the sounds and typical unsavoury smells of a large body of men packed together, my ability to sleep anywhere had improved. This came as no surprise as my average nightly rest had been a mere four hours.
I awakened to the clatter of steel and the smell of smoke. My first conclusion was confirmed when one of my guards stormed inside and beckoned me to put my armour on. Night hustlers. The enemy had taken advantage of the night in order to surprise us. Emerging from my tent, I was able to distinguish near nothing in the chaos. It must have been five in the morning, the pale sky made the faces of passing soldiers look grey, contrasting the red glow of the fires. Smoke took away most of my vision as the broad arms of my guards pulled me down and along. I allowed them to guide me towards what I hoped to be a safe destination.
I felt stricken down. The initial reaction of panic had been repressed by the sheer fright running through my limbs. Hoarse breaths escaped my throat and I felt something running down my leg. I did my best to become ignorant of the events around me, one, two, one, two. One foot in front of the other. My sword wasn't clasped properly and bounced in rhythm against my calves, one, two, one, two. An arm pulling me to the left, one, two. One foot in front of the other, don't trip - screaming - don't look up, keep your eyes on the heels of the guard before you. One, two. A body collided with one of the men around me.
One, two. Keep running.