19 An ineffectual struggle - 1215
1215 - Flanders
After Konstanz, I had booked substantial progress, and it seemed as if only the symbolic death of the usurper would become the crown on my seemingly ensured victory. The Duke of Urslingen had pledged his support, and arrived in April at the head of a few hundred men. Upon hearing his daughter had joined him, I rejoiced. She would stay close by, at a well-disposed castle, sympathetic to our goal and few hours from our campement. I could only think of her, in the knowledge that she once - jokingly - had mentioned in one of her letters that she expected me to visit her were I ever waging war close to her home.
Louis shook his head in contempt as he pictured a highborn lady finding herself on the verge of battle, "what would be said of us if we led ladies of gentle birth to the front."
Reclining back in my chair, a grin lingering on my lips, I halfheartedly acknowledged his arguments. Though the Duke of Bavaria seemed fairly concerned.
"Send her back."
"No," I said.
"Talk to her."
"She could get hurt."
"I imagine she knows that," I said, another grin betraying my amusement.
I wasn't to be persuaded, and soon enough I found myself galloping towards her temporary residence. A youngster, still enamoured by the idea of affection; solely in love with the idea of love, as people so often are.
Once I arrived, I paused to admire the orchids that bloomed, fragrant and purple, in the gardens surrounding the estate. I lingered with the dogs that ran along my feet, barking in greeting. Though the stars, glistening like dewy pearls in the fading velvet sky of night, held no longer a fascination for me when she joined me on the balcony, and I held her.
The morning after was a fine morning, hot and brilliant. I glanced up, admiring the beauty of this new day, stretched my arms and shoulders, soaking in the balmy heat of the rising sun showing through the slits of the fragile curtains. My bare chest warmed under its rays, tensing as I reached for the fabric to open. As tired and hungry as I was, I felt complete. Never had I known such happiness. My mind would not focus and images of Adelaine would not be held at bay. My hands tightened on the cover. Her mouth, her sigh, her hands upon me had shown me pleasure like no other, and yet we had been awkward at best, hesitant and unschooled beneath one another's touch.
It had been so different from the dutiful night I had shared with Constance.
I swallowed. My body throbbed in response to my memories. The smell of her, her sighs, the quiver of her skin beneath me, the slight catch in her breath when she had moaned softly against my throat... She had been my undoing.
She had fallen asleep in my arms. And I had watched her. In the candle's glow, her full cheeks had been flushed, her skin dew-kissed from our lovemaking. My eyes had pored over every inch of her, etching her curvaceous form into my mind.
I set myself upright, leaning against the cushions of the headboard. Her hair twined about her, wrapping her opulent waist. I smoothed it back letting the brown silken strands slip through my fingers. She sighed and rolled onto her side.
I kept my visits rare, though I was convinced of the quietude of the guards accompanying me. Soon enough we broke up camp and marched West, tailing the usurper.
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A hillside, close to the town of Bouvines, in the county of Flanders, was the scene of battle.
A coalition had been assembled against King Philip Augustus of France, consisting of Flanders, England, Holland and Lorraine. Otto IV had associated himself with the Allies.
On the advice of Phillip of Palearia, I had my delegation debate with that of Phillip II of France, concerning the upcoming battle. The French forces would continue to be the main force, whereas I would focus my strengths against the Brabant forces aiding the Allies.
Dawn broke, and I found myself overlooking the masses of our opponent.
The superior discipline and order of the French knights allowed them to carry out a series of devastating charges, shattering the Flemish on the allied left wing. In the centre, the Allied infantry under the usurper enjoyed initial success, scattering the French urban infantry and nearly killing Philip II. Though soon the fortune of the day turned, and all things became adverse for my opponent. A counterattack by the French smashed the isolated Allied infantry and Otto's entire centre division fell back. The man fled the battle and his knightly followers were defeated by the French, who went on to capture the Imperial eagle standard. The Allies were killed, captured or driven from the field.
The crushing French victory dashed English and Flemish hopes of regaining lost territories.
Full of vigour, and spurred on after witnessing the devastating defeat, I pursued my enemy. I caught up to him but a few kilometres from the scene of battle.
Upon spotting my men, Otto IV must have realised a confrontation was inevitable and turned. The last of the usurper's guard was drawn up in three lines, and either from choice or accident, the front of the third line was covered by a morass. The place was deep with ooze, sinking under those who stood, slippery to those who advanced; their armour heavy, the waters deep.
At the beginning of the action, the son of Louis, a youth around my age already associated with the honours of battle, was slain by an arrow, in the sight of his afflicted father; who, summoning all his fortitude, admonished the dismayed troops that the loss of a single soldier was of little importance to the cause they pursued. Never have I known another who would display such strength of character and mind in a situation as devastating as he found himself in.
The conflict on Louis' flank became terrible; it was a combat of despair against grief and rage.
The usurper's guard was now, on every side, surrounded and pursued by my men. The main force of his troops had perished in the cataclysmic fight against the French, and the exhausted usurper could no longer afford subsistence for the remaining multitude of his licentious guards. Reduced to this extremity, Otto's men would gladly have surrendered, gaining the permission of an undisturbed retreat. But I, confident of victory and resolving, by the chastisement of the men who had sided against me and to strike a salutary terror into these regions, refused to listen to any terms.
My sword no longer wavered.
The first line of the enemy at length gave way in disorder; the second, advancing to sustain it, shared its fate; and only the third remained entire, prepared to dispute the passage of the morass, which was imprudently attempted by the presumption of Phillip and his men.
The usurper' guard, after an ineffectual struggle, was irrecoverably lost. Nor could the body of the usurper be found. Such was the fate of Otto IV, in the fiftieth year of his age; after six years on the throne.
"So that's how you young men do it these days," Louis said as he joined the celebration that night. The man had shed tears, you could see it in his face, in the worn expression of his eyes, but his remark was a genuine attempt at joviality, so I simply bid a page to serve him a drink.
"You mean efficiently?" Julius said.
A polite laugh engulfed through the circle of officials. Outside, you could feel the victorious tension amongst the troops. This was their night. Their victory. They would drink, they would eat, they would feast; long live the empire, long live their emperor, and long live them; the victors of the war.
They cursed and laughed at the dead usurper, cursed his name. They cursed and spit upon the captives; who pitied their own fate.
"Efficiently?" Phillip said, aiding his old friend, "with all due respect, five years to kill one man is hardly called efficiency."
Another round of laughter.
Such were the few pleasantries that were thrown around in the main tent. As the hour grew late, most of them were in the right frame of mind to join the soldiers, though some retired to their billets. I stayed behind with Louis, who stared into his cup and looked as if he was anywhere but here. His hair obscured the view of his face. It cast a long shadow due to the light of the candle behind him. By then, I knew how sunken and bloodshot his eyes were. For the whole night they had widened at the slightest sound of distress, had appeared to be vacuous and unblinking, and had occasionally darted away. At that moment in time, I was unable to grasp the loss of a child. A grievance I would be spared from for another few years.
I don't know when I fell asleep, but when I woke someone had put a hulk blanket around me and I heard Phillip and Louis talk in hushed voices. I didn't mean to listen in, yet unwilling to disturb them, I kept my eyes closed.
"He was a fine boy, would have made a great man. Looked like my brother, you know," I heard Louis say.
"I never knew you had a brother," Phillip said.
"Yeah, my boy could have been his twin."
"Where is he?"
"Dead as well."
"You don't need to be. It was when we were kids, " I heard Louis have a taste of his drink.
"Was he older than you?"
"A year younger."
"What was it?"
"A horse turned on him."
"How old were you?"
"Don't talk about it if you don't want to."
"You really never knew about it?"
"For a long time, I thought everybody in the world knew about it," Louis said, "it's strange when you are a child. The horse bucked and he let go. I came back and he didn't."
"Where was it?"
"Up in Bavaria. Our parental estate. We had gone hunting. I don't think my father ever forgave me but he tried to understand. I've wished it was me in the past but that never did me any good."
"What was your brother' name?"
"You named your son after him?"
"As I said, from what I can remember, they looked alike," Louis had another taste, "now the heavens got them both. You never work those things out, I guess."
"We're old enough not to talk that way."
"I tried to get him but I was hauling the boar we got, you see, helping our huntsmen," and after a while, more to himself than to Phillip, "my boy liked boar hunting as well, wouldn't shut up about it."
"You've still got his mother."
"Magnificent woman. Married her for her wit. Ever told you how we got married?"
"Magnificent woman," Louis said once more.
"Maybe you're right. You never get over these things," the rhythmic tics of Phillip' fingers on the arm of his chair momentarily filled the tent, "I'm hardly the one to say; I never married."
"No," Louis said, "you never get over it but sooner or later you have to talk about it. I'm ashamed of it."
"You've nothing to be ashamed about."
"Yes, I do. I told you once. Let's not get into that."
"We'll think of it later on, when we're old men."
"We are old men."
Upon hearing that Louis laughed at last.
"It's life I guess," Phillip said.
"Yeah, another day, another battle."
"Another emperor," Phillip said, and I knew him to be looking at my still form.
"Yeah, let's see how this one does. Fond of him, aren't you?"
"You're ought to be," Louis scraped his chair back.
"Where are you going?"
"Out, let us show ourselves to the men. Think we should..?"
"No," I heard the sharp click of the cups as they were put down, "let the boy sleep. The soldiers will celebrate him anyway."
"Ever think of his old man?" Louis asked.
"I do," a pause, Phillip was presumably looking at me again, then he made way towards the entrance, "ever told you -"
That's the last I heard as the fabric closed behind them. I turned and felt the stiffness of my limps due to the upwards position in which I had been sleeping. As I was glancing up, my eyes tracing the well-known pattern on the roof of the tent, I waited for it to dawn on me. I was still here. I hadn't perished. My claim upon the empire' throne was the last one standing, and soon, I would officially be crowned king of Germany.