Under This Sign You Will Conquer

 

Karen Galarneault

 

Divinities and Kings Series, part III of III

Aachen, Germany circa 800 A.D The light in the western sky faded into twilight much like the candles being snuffed out in the church sanctuary. Worshippers came here to light their tiny flames in remembrance of loved ones who were ill. Others came for the souls of the departed. Many of the deceased had died in battles fueled by periodic Saxon raiding. The men, women, and children, younger ones clinging to their mother's skirts, wore black, in bleak contrast to the crimson cloaks of the king's household guard. The priests standing by in the vestibule sighed in disapproval of having armed soldiers in the church.

One, named Gerald, sighed fatalistically, "strange times make strange brothers" he said. His name was Gerald. He resembled a rat. His long patrician nose hooked slightly as if it had been broken once and never healed properly. His small eyes narrowed as his glance crossed that of a tall man dressed in a gray cloak. The man's crimson surcoat stretched tight across his broad shoulders. He wore his blond hair shaved close to his head the better to fit underneath a helmet. His men respected him as both their liege lord and as their field commander, and adopted the same style. His elite guard took pride in being called 'King's Own.' The shirts his men wore underneath their armor were emblazoned with house tokens of the Franks, which the king had made into his personal emblem: a golden eagle on a red flag.

The man Gerald recognized as the king lounged up against the far wall and observed the proceedings with a detached if respectful attitude.

Charles, who styled himself Charlemagne, had seen too much and done too much in the past thirty years to scoff against Mother Rome's ingrained religion. He had taken part in the mass, had marched up with the rest of the congregation to partake of the communal bread and wine, and listened to the bishop preach the homily, in his golden escritor robes and gleaming miter. The king had raised his voice to sing the psalms. The mass ended with the orator's exhortation for the people to 'go forth and serve the Lord.'

The congregation trickled out of the church. The act of lighting the candles did not disturb Charlemagne, although he felt a slight twinge of conscience, similar to an irritating itch that he couldn't reach around his back to scratch. Perhaps he should light a candle for his dead brother, Carolman. His brother's passing from the temporal world meant that Charles was now sovereign king over all the Frankish tribes. His coronation was on the morrow.

Although he was called the King, Charlemagene did not yet hold the title of emperor.

Gerald crept away from the shadowed vestibule, letting the woven tapestry fall softly into place with a whispering of velvet cloth. Creeping alongside the far wall, he moved into a position closer to the tall man, in time to hear the man say,

"I have mourned my brother enough in private, nor need I waste tears now. The Lord above knows how I loved my brother, and that I did not resent being a joint ruler. No one, not the common folk, not my advisors, can think I had a hand in my brother's death." He muttered under his breath and made the sign of the cross over his armored chest. "What can I make of this information?"

Gerald whispered. "I might be able to use this to my advantage. Certainly, for all his piety, Charlemagne, King of the Franks is still half-barbarian. And his Latin is barely passable for an educated man," Gerald said as he turned and returned to his chamber.

Pivoting on his heel, Charlegmagne left the church. His page ran up to his side, tugging at his sleeve to gain his attention : "My Lord, if I may have a moment? Your horse is ready, shall I add your banner to the flagstaff?" The boy asked anxiously holding up a square of silk with the eagle emblazoned on it, the fabric was longer than the boy was tall.

"Take a moment to catch your breath, Chardin." When the boy had done so, he said, "My Lord, Einhard sends his greetings. I have a letter from him that he wished to be given to you." The boy untangled himself from the banner, pulling a folded sheet of parchment from a pocket.

"Einhard? I have not heard from my friend for months. Save it until we reach the palace, Chardin. The last I heard from him he was stationed along the Gaulish border attempting to put down another damnable Saxon uprising."

The boy stood frozen in shock. Ordinarily his lord never shared his thought about politics or warfare with his page, who was only a servant. Such ideas were beyond him, something must really be troubling his lord.

"Chardin, don't mind my rambling this night. My head is full of thoughts, and there will be great doings tomorrow morning," Charlemagne said, as Chardin stared up at his liege with shining, adoring eyes. Noting the look, Charlemagne shook his head in fond irritation. "Save it, I'd like to read the news from my friend when I'm home in Aachen."

"Yes, my Lord," the boy said, taking a deep breath as he pocketed the letter. Both mounted, Chardin on a sway-backed palfrey, Charlemagne on a gray stallion. Trooping up the packed-down mud from the late December snow melt, they guided their mounts up the road. The weather was cold but not enough to make traveling in the open unpleasant. The king's guard eventually caught up with the two riders and fell in beside them. The Romans, even in these late days of the Empire, constructed excellent roads, wide enough for several wagon trains, or seven columns of mounted companies to ride abreast.

The road had parallel tracks equidistant from the main thoroughfare that allowed for pedestrian traffic. The road was lined on either side by stone and timber buildings spread out from the church like spokes on a wheel. The church, by far the tallest structure in the town, dominated the landscape. Its golden spire soared upwards, vanishing into the cloud-wracked evening sky.

While seemingly absorbed in his own thoughts to the exclusion any external distractions, the king noted that the steady decline of the western portion of the empire was beginning to trickle over into the eastern holdings; trade was already falling off. One of the many reforms he planned to implement when he became emperor was to immediately remedy that situation.. He also planned to expand the empire almost immediately. If nothing else, Rome laid claim to the territory lost in the west's collapse. If he put a force into the field, it would put Rome's enemies in their place. It would take a strong man behind the armies to accomplish that. He wanted to be that man.

Charlemagne wanted to prove himself that he would be a strong emperor, not for himself, but for his dead brother, for the people, and for Rome. These thoughts kept him preoccupied through the long ride back to the palace. Aachen was a beautiful place. Although Rome of the seven hills had been the capital of one of the mightiest empires the world had ever seen, the long string of weak rulers had ground it into the dust. His annual visits to his brother had shown him the glories of the imperial city in it heyday, but in recent years, had also shown the gradual decline, the shabbiness subtly hidden underneath the gilt, the loud laughter at the state parties, the false pretense at hospitality. He would never understand these people's fascination with the blood-sports held at the giant amphitheater built by the Casears's. He knew he would never finally comfortable ruling from there. The West had lost its grandeur. It was time for the East to prove its worth.

The riding party turned at the last bend in the road, thankfully soaking up what was left of the brittle winter sunlight before it faded completely. The long ride had been worth the wait. Constructed on the highest point of land in the area, the manor straddled a grassy hill. Standing several stories high, it was built of wood and granite in the manner of architecture that Rome was famous for even in these late days. One the soldiers who carried a trumpet raised it and sounded a note that signaled the gate-warders that the royal party wished entry. Results were almost immediate, and the king's party entered Aachen.

Handlers came forward to take the horses to the stables allowing the riders to disperse to their various rooms with the residence.

Later that evening, Charlemangne dispensed with his bodyservants who usually conducted him to his chambers, the king undressed and lowered himself into the steaming pools of water. Fed by constantly warm water pumped through Roman aqueducts from Aachen's famous mineral springs. He let his body soak, feeling relaxed and buoyant, as the dust from the road melted away. Retrieving the letter from the pile of his clothes, he unfolded the parchment.

He read: "Dear Charles,
I hope that when this missive finally arrives, it finds you well. It grieved me deeply to hear the loss of Carolman. He was a good king but a better friend. I wish I could have been there for the funeral, a sorrowful occasion, but I congratulate you on the morrow for your coronation, a more joyous one. However, as you're aware, my duties prevent me from attending. The Saxon tribes are about as fleas on a cur. They've started making half-hearted forays against our borders. Stab Telgard's eyes! He's been stirring up trouble. The Saxons have always been raiding, that's old news. It hardly qualifies as news. Mothers tell their children to behave or the Saxons will get them. Telgard has put feelers in place among the tribes, I think he means to unify them. Whatever he's planning, it is Big, very big. Be careful, Charles. Your friend, Einhard
."

The king reread the letter several more times and then crumpled it and then dropped the parchment into the pool.

The next morning, Pope Leo III's litter -bears carried him into the audience chamber, a vaulted, high-ceilinged room that he often thought resembled a fantastic skeleton of some giant ocean-dwelling beast.

"Perhaps I am being uncharitable" he murmured to himself, " to the man I will call Emperor, my superior on God's green earth and ruler of men's corporeal bodies. I would have preferred that his younger brother had survived and been raised to the Imperial throne. This one, Charlemagne, has a proud, and martial bearing, he's a good king, but that does mean that he will make a good emperor?"

His bearers put the litter at the foot of marble dais set prominently in the center of the vast room. Wooden benches had been constructed along the length of the room so spectators to take part in the coming ceremony. On top of the dais, wooden high-backed chairs with red velvet cushions waited in place for the participants.

Charlemagne entered, robed in red, decorated with six gold disks, each bordered in dark blue and red. The colors of his garments corresponded to the gonfalon flags that draped the walls. The purple that was the right of emperors was not yet his. It would be given to him during the coronation. A roaring surged from the expectant crowd as the king entered it became subsumed into a low trembling current of sound when the Pope rose to his feet in a grand, solemn movement. Lifting one hand for silence and began his speech:

"All of you gathered here today, men, women, and children, know that according to the calendar this is indeed a special date. For today, Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior was born. So our celebration this season is made doubly joyful that the rising of Rome's might corresponds with the blessed event of the Holy Family. It is tragic that our own royal family is missing one its most beloved members. Although we mourn for Carolman's loss, our hearts must be full of joy for unto us a Savior is born," he said. A moment of silence fell over the assembled crowd.

"I ask the people: Do you wish this thing to be? Answer yea or nay."

The resulting roar from the crowd almost drowned the cutting wind from outside and made his next words difficult to hear. Taking that as a yes, he proceeded with the coronation ceremony.

"Do, you Charlemange, son of Phillip and Finella, swear to uphold the Commandments as given by Our Lord?" he asked the ritual questions, almost chanting them.

"I swear," Charlemagne responded in a similar manner.

"Do you promise to judge wisely and not arbitrarily noble and commoner alike? To render punishment when necessary, to safeguard our borders that maintain our hard-won peace? Do you swear to fulfill these obligations which I, as the head of Mother Church, have inveighed upon you, to the best of the ability that is within you?" Pope Leo III concluded the ritual questions.

"I swear by all that is within me, with what skills the Lord Above has seen fit to bestow upon me, that as Emperor I will not rest until the Empire is the way it was meant to be," he responded. It was break from tradition, from the way it had been done by countless other emperors who had proceeded him. Some of the older advisors present let out an involuntary astonished gasp, but quickly suppressed it. They had learned from experience that the man standing in the dais in his robes of state, was going to prove to be something unexpected.

"So you have sworn. It has been witnessed by those present here, and by the higher authority that even an Emperor is subject to, by God himself. I declare Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans on this day, Christmas Day, 800 A.D. Kneel, Charlegmagne, that I may perform the investiture and crowning."

Beckoning with his left hand, Pope Leo summoned one of his acolytes to hand him a bowl filled with holy water and a container of scented oil. Making the sign of the cross, he sprinkled the water onto the kneeling Charlemangne's brow and then anointed him with the oil from the container.

"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."

Striding a few paces over to a cloth-covered altar he picked up a red velvet pillow upon which reached a golden crown. Raising it high above his head, he briefly showed it to the crowd then turned and with elaborate care he placed on the Charlemagne's bared head.

"Rise Charlemange," he whispered in an undertone, then louder, "Citizens of Rome, I give you The Emperor of the Romans!"

"As God is my witness, all of you have seen with your own eyes, I am now your Emperor as I am of Rome, I am yours. Although, the West has fallen, The East will survive," he announced in ringing tones that resounded like the bells sounding the hours.

It was all over except for the shouting.

Having taken the time to change outfits in the antechamber, in favor of a crimson cloak and white tunic, the newly crowned emperor returned to the audience chamber. At Aachen, it was expected that he hear petitions and announce his intentions.

Settling back in the ivory and gold enameled throne, that took several strong men to carry in, he prepared himself for the long haul. Taking a deep breath he announced: "Times dictate a number of changes that need to be implemented immediately. Many people here make their lives by subsistence farming. I plan to introduce more efficient methods. Everyone will pay equal taxes, with no favoritism shown to the high or low among us. The tax will pay the army who maintain our peace and protects our borders."

It was a long standing custom for people to seek any number of things. Several courtiers came forward to protest that the wealthy should be given priority, while the serfs yammered that they couldn't afford to pay, that they would starve. Charlemangne waited patiently, letting their protests and counter arguments spill over one another, as he sat listening with his arms folded across his chest. Finally, it appeared they had run out of steam.

He raised his voice. "Peace! I do not intend to beggar the kingdom! On the contrary I want to enrich it like it's never been seen before. I will now hear any petitions you wish to bring forward."

A man wearing a travel-stained gray cloak, mud spattered over his black boots, shuffled forward. Throwing back the hood, the face that emerged was dominated by a broken patrician nose and the eyes of rat. Gerald had seen this a prime opportunity to present innuendo that the Charlemange's brother had been the victim of foul play.

"My Lord, My name is Gerald, I was the escritor at your noble brother's court in Rome. I fear to be the bearer of bad tidings on what should be a joyous occasion, but I also feared that I would be too late."

"What news do you bring? an advisor asked.

"I believe that I have proof that Carolman was the victim of foul play."

"Liar!" the assembly shouted. "He only seeks to gouge gold for his own purse!"

"Father Leo, what do you know of the veracity of this man's claims?" Charlemange asked in suspicious tones.

"My Emperor, I have never seen this man before. I do not know him . And the truth of his claims I can not attest to," Pope Leo said.

"No! NO! I swear its true," Gerald protested.

"What proof do you have?" Charlemagne demanded.

Gerald could only dry wash his hands and stare in mute appeal at Pope Leo.

"As I thought, he has no proof. Take him to a dungeon cell, give him bread and water. When he has had time to reconsider his rash actions, send him on his way back to whatever monastery he came from," Charlemange ordered.

The guards came forward, dragging the perplexed Gerald away.

"My Emperor. With that unpleasantness out of the way. I must implore you, I know as the representative of the Holy Church, it is not my place to instruct you in safeguarding our borders..."

"My Lord Pope, throughout history, if it teaches us anything, the rulers of men and the shepherds of men's souls, have not shirked from condoning some wars."

"You understand my meaning?" he said, astonished that Charlemange would admit so readily that the Church would sanction a declaration of war.

"Yes. I think you are implying that the Church would not shirk from condoning a declaration of war against the Saxons. I have my own sources of information as do you. I agree it is time, long past time, that the barbarian tribes of the Saxons were shown that the Roman eagle still has a few talons left."

"It has been witnessed." Pope Leo announced solemnly. God's grace on us all."

Waging War against the Saxons

Two months later, Charlemagne's army sprawled across the river valley of the Rhine. It appeared that Telgard, the Saxon war-chief, and his confederates from the barbarian tribes, were going to comply with orderly dawn starting times for battles after all. A fortunate turn of events; there was nothing a Saxon liked better than surprise attacks and night raids. Both armies, mounted, and foot, stared with enmity at one another, as terrible as an army with banners." Charlemagne thought, "Solomon had the right of it." he thought.

The Romans displayed the Emperor's personal sigil, a two-headed eagle on a red background, and the triangular-shaped Oriflame embroidered with golden lilies shaped like embers of flame. The Saxons, by contrast, displayed their house tokens on their bronze shields. Most were on foot. Only their chiefs were allowed to ride in the chariots pulled by a set of matching horses. The Romans wore ringmail over their leather tunics, gauntlets, and steel helms. Their red cloaks clung to their backs, sticky with sweat.

No words need be spoken to indicate when battle would be joined. The declaration of war message had been delivered, and the response had been swift in coming. No quarter would be given. The simultaneous distinctive ringing of swords being pulled from scabbards, spears smacking one into the other, echoed in the chill dawn air. The sky lightened, sending lancing rays of sunlight piercing through the cloud cover. Charlemange and Telgard raised on arm straight up with their left fists clenched. That was the signal. Both Roman and Saxon rushed to meet each other with the shuddering kiss of steel. After that, the valley rang with echoes as they clashed head-on.

"The wolves will be howling, and there will be a raven's feast," Charlemange said, pulling down his visor and spurring his gray stallion into the melee.

"We will make sure the Saxons are better hosts for the ravens then us." Einhard said, pulling up beside his friend.

The border-patrol captain had managed to catch up with the main army from his garrison headquarters at the last minute. The battle came alive around them. They heard hoofbeats, boots slogging in muddied and bloodied dirt. They heard the scrape of steel and the hiss of arrows racing across the intervening gap before finding their targets. Charlemange remotely heard the terrified screaming of a thousand horses, and men shouting curses and begging for mercy, with no quarter given.

Meanwhile, the battle quickly disintegrated into a sea of horses and men, and the clang of steel. Charlemagne became separated from his friend, Einhard. Pulling up in his stirrups, he scanned the immediate area, but men in armor and helms look one much like one another. He gave up, cursing the helm that blocked his peripheral vision, swearing, he yanked it off. At that moment, a large, hirsute Saxon armed with a spear, thrust at his stallion's unprotected legs, toppling Charlemagne from the saddle.

"Rather ignominious way to go," he muttered while staring up at a hairy brute with the ground and the sky switching places.

The Saxon, even without the benefit of words, could understand when someone had the business end of a spear level with his, opposite his beating heart.

"Now, little man, Telgard kills Iron Man."he said, just as he pulled, his eyes widened and the spear the would have found a resting spot in Charlemagnes's chest, dropped from his fingers in shock. The Saxon's war-chief gaze had gone slack, fixed on the sky.

The slate sky and the dim orb of the sun that had borne witness to the struggle had become white as new-fallen snow. Most astonishingly, it had been overlaid by a gigantic field of flame. The sky was on fire; a fire that didn't burn, didn't give warmth, or fall from the sky, It simply Was.

"What the hell is that?" Einhard's familiar voice whispered, as he bent down and offered Charlemagne a hand up.

Telgard stood dumbstruck. He wasn't the only one. It seemed both armies had stopped dead in their tracks. Charlemagne accepted the hand and gave a closer inspection to the uncanny fire in the sky.

The red that overlaid the white resembled the shape of a cross. It couldn't be his imagination, could it?

Telgard turned to him. "Iron Man, Telgard says that your gods are more powerful than those of our Druids, than the old gods. Telgard does not ignore such clear signs. Telgard, War-Chief of the Saxons, surrenders," he announced solemnly, picking up and offering his staff of office, hung with red and black tassels.

"Telgard, of the Saxons, I, Charlemagne, Emperor of the Romans accepts your surrender," he said, grasping the war-staff. Whatever else he would have added became drowned out by what followed next.

"IN HOC SIGNO VINCES!" a disembodied voice proclaimed, thundering down out of the sky, sending tremors and echoes reverberating from wall to wall of the valley, knocking Romans and Saxons alike off their feet.

When their sight and hearing gradually returned to normal, the sign and the voice had disappeared.

Einhard turned to Charlemange: "I guess you were destined to rule after all. You couldn't have asked for a clearer sign than that."

"Moses had his burning bush, what do I get? The Lord sets the sky on fire,"

"What now?" You'll have to see the reparation of the Saxons, discuss surrender terms...Get this army back to Aachen... " Einhard trailed off.

"One crisis at a time." Charlemagne laughed.