“What’s happening Urs?”
With a sigh, Ursula of Welf clunked her dolls down on the stone floor. Turning from her beloved doll house, she rose on tiptoes to lean across the broad sill of the window. Craning her neck and squinting her eyes she identified the figures on the other side of the bridge below.
“It looks like Mama and the king are still talking.”
“Is she standing or kneeling?”
“Kneeling of course, Matteus. He is the King! She’s kneeling on both knees.”
She’s not kneeling, she’s begging.
Matteus would have spat if he could. Instead he weakly shook his head on the plump goose down pillow.
“He is no more a king than a goat in the mountains. No one here believes he is our monarch. Everyone in Bavaria supports uncle Henry. King Henry the Lion. King Conrad doesn’t even sound right…” he trailed off in frustration.
“Mama’s standing up. The k…he’s patting her on the shoulder.”
“Like patting a dog” muttered Matteus. “I’m sorry Duchess Uta” he mimicked in an aristocratic manner. “But your husband and his pesky brother have opposed me for the last time. I will be taking Weibertreue as my own, and those inside will be put down as the dogs you all are.”
“Don’t say that Matteus!” squealed Ursula.
“Well what do you think he’s going to say Urs? Uncle Henry and father have been causing him trouble since grandfather died. Running him ragged through all of Bavaria. That buffoon has the support of the treacherous princes, Rome itself. He can do what he likes now that he’s caught up with them.”
Ursula looked over at her bedridden brother, her eyes shining with moisture.
“Don’t say that Matt.”
Matteus managed a thin and unconvincing smile, regretful at the words which had escaped his bitter lips. Ursula was only ten, five years younger than he. Still a child. And his only regular companion.
His sister had no idea of the politics of war. No idea that Conrad, camped outside the castle for ten days, had run out of options. Their father, Welf VI, and uncle, Henry “the Lion” had defied him for months. Their refusal to forfeit the castle of Weibertreue must be infuriating Conrad. Surrounded by his inactive and frustrated troops, he would be forced to take the action of a king, whether a rightful one or not. Matteus knew what his little sister did not. The siege would only truly be over when their brave father’s head sat on the point of Conrad’s battle pike.
Ursula had returned to play. Matteus watched her golden ringlets bobble as her wooden dolls engaged in tea parties and small talk inside their beautiful home. The doll house, an heirloom passed on by their grandmother, was his sister’s whole world. Within its gloriously lacquered doors, its sumptuously decorated walls, Ursula’s dolls lived their lives without conflict, hatred or fear. Without the reality of war and the inevitability of death.
Ursula herself had somehow carried the heavy blackwood house up the steep stone steps to his room. Although she was good enough to keep her invalid brother company, her most prized possession had to come up those sharp stairs as well. Matteus remembered the tantrum she’d thrown when they were forced to take refuge in Weibertreue. Having to move quickly before Conrad’s advancing army, Ursula refused to budge until one of her father’s men agreed to strap the doll house to his back and bring it along. More than a pretty wooden doll house to her, it represented her hold on childhood. It held her dreams, her imagination and her innocence.
In the ballroom of her little house, Lord Applehead and Lady Lavender laughed and danced their wooden waltz, while across the grey bridge outside their mother begged for the lives of real people inside the walls to be spared.
Mostly confined to bed for the best part of two years, Matteus’ mind had grown sharp, nurtured by the words of Lords and Generals, while his body paled and weakened beneath the covers. He’d deduced the almost certain conclusion to the situation they were now in. Conrad would allow the women to go free-it was unlikely the new king would want to be known as a murderer of women. For the men inside the castle however, there was no hope whatsoever. Conrad would not be allowing any of them to oppose him in the future, and to make sure of it, all would be slain. Matteus accepted this readily, a simple and logical reality of war. He did not blame his father, he could not. Welf was brave and honourable. His father Henry the Proud, the rightful king, was stripped of title, land and wealth in a coup by the corrupt princes of Bavaria, who promoted Conrad III in his place. Henry’s sons, Matteus’ father and uncle, supported by the Saxons, continued the resistance to the injustice their father had displayed until his death the year before.
Nor did Matteus fear death. Since being struck down with the sleeping sickness, he expected the Reaper to come for him sooner rather than later. Barely able to move, let alone fight with the others, he saw himself as no more than a burden. If he hadn’t been born the son of Welf VI, he would have already been left behind as a liability.
Ursula giggled. Lady Lavender had once again fallen in love with the handsome Lord Applehead as she did on a daily basis.
Matteus smiled sadly, a hard lump in his throat. Very soon his sister would be forced into a very different reality. With her father, uncle and brother gone, she and her mother would most likely be forced into the servitude of their enemies. The elegant polished doors of her doll house would close on her innocence forever, either reduced to the kindling of a victory fire or worse for Ursula; claimed by one of Conrad’s brood-a child’s spoil of war.
He closed his eyes, trying unsuccessfully to contain his tears. When he opened them again Ursula stood over him, eyes also wet.
“What’s wrong Urs?”
“You’re crying Matt!” she said hoarsely. “You never cry.”
She stared at him as though seeing him for the first time. When she spoke again, her voice sounded as fragile as the most delicate crystal.
“You never cry. You’re so courageous. So strong.”
Matteus frowned up at her. Courageous? Strong? Was that what she really thought? Foolish girl. He felt neither, and cursed not only his escaping tears, but his part in stealing from his sister’s childhood. He couldn’t stand the distraught look on her face another moment.
“Look again Ursula! Tell me what you see” he demanded.
Reluctantly she turned away from him and hoisted herself up to the window ledge. The sun was beginning to set, bringing the light stinging cool of the evening breeze across her reddened face.
“What do you see Urs?” asked Matteus, taking the chance to wipe his eyes on a nightshirt sleeve.
“Mama is returning.”
“How does she carry her head?”
“Is her head up or down?”
“Down. And she’s walking really slow. Like an old lady.”
Matteus hated the thought of his proud mother being forced to beg before the false king. His sadness escalated with frustration and resentment. He formed a tight fist, surprising himself with the surge of strength.
“Oh!” Ursula put her hand to her mouth.
“What is it Urs?”
Matteus closed his eyes, jaw set tight as he shared his mother’s anguish. The response to her desperate plea had been as he expected.
“They’re helping her back across the bridge Matt. Do you think she’s hurt? She looks like she’s sick.”
“Urs, listen to me. Mother will need you once she gets back inside the gates. Fetch a blanket and go down to her.”
“But she has her ladies with her.”
“Trust me Urs. She will need you. Go to her right away. Give her a big hug. An Ursula hug.”
His sister edged uncertainly towards the door.
“I’ll be fine. Just go. Give her a hug. From both of us.”
Ursula darted to the bed and pulled his blanket a little higher.
“Thank you” said Matteus quietly. For a thousand reasons.
She backed towards the door, unable to decipher the strange look on his face.
“I’ll be quick. I’ll take her a big warm blanket. Give her an Ursula hug.”
“A Matteus hug too.”
The gold ringlets bounced lightly as she nodded. “I will.”
Screwing her face into grin she slipped through the door. He almost laughed aloud as he heard the heavy bolt slide across.
That suited him just fine.
As her slippered feet descended the stairs, Matteus pushed back the covers. He swung his thin legs over the edge of the bed, feeling the blood surge through them. They tingled as sensitivity returned to them. Carefully he pulled himself up, wobbling unsteadily for a moment before shuffling unsteadily to the window.
In the valley below the crimson banners of Conrad fluttered boldly over his vast encampment. To the south east, Weinsberg lay dark and silent, most of its inhabitants now within the tall arms of the castle. The town had been decimated, reduced largely to ash and rubble by the zealous hordes. Conrad had attacked Webertreue fiercely as well, pelting the walls with cannon fire until he realised its trapped inhabitants presented no real threat. To continue attacking would simply be damaging an asset he was to acquire soon enough anyway. Matteus knew from the moment his father had ushered the last of the townspeople inside that despite their brave obstinacy, Weibertreue would not be their salvation. It would be their tomb.
Conrad’s men occupied most of the plain back to the river Sulm. Since the start of the siege their numbers had swollen, as soldiers facing death had swung their allegiance to the side with the obvious advantage, joining the king’s platoons who had rejoined the main body of men. But not only fighting men filled the trampled fields below. Matteus heard musicians, those of bow and lute and drum, using song to amuse the restless throng. Cooking fires crackled, the slaughtered beasts of nearby forests roasting on spits. No doubt to be accompanied by the famous wines of the valley, plundered along with everything else of use. The voices of women carried on the sunset breeze, supplemental to the camp with their cooking, mending and nursing. A particularly high pitched laugh reached his ears, and Matteus presumed there were also women present to indulge other interests of the soldiers. The fifteen year old was aware not only that such women existed but also how they eased the tension of men. And though he would never himself experience the charms of such a companion, here, on the last night of his young life, the thought held no remorse for him. Only one regret hung over him and he spurred himself to action because of it.
From under his bed he extracted a coil of coarse rope. On the fifth shaky attempt he managed to throw it over the heavy wooden roof beam.
Concentrating hard, he fastened the rope so it would not, could not give way.
Ursula made her way down stairs; past soldiers and villagers who a week earlier would have dipped their heads in courtesy and now did not. She reached the store cupboard which held sundry bedding but found it bare. With a shrug of her small shoulders she closed the door, taking a step toward the next flight of steps leading down to the front of the castle. Then she stopped. Instead, she turned the other way, padding softly along the corridor to the gallery above the dining hall. Using the broad stone pillars for cover, she edged along the gallery to a place she had once used to sneak a look at a reception for her grandfather. There was a spot between a large earthenware vase and one of the pillars that someone very small could squeeze into. Here she secreted herself and waited.
A few minutes later the doors of the great hall swung open, allowing entry to just three people before closing again. Peering over the low bottom edge of the railing Ursula saw her parents in a deep embrace. She bit her lip for not following her brother’s instructions, wondering if her father’s hug was anything like an Ursula hug. But if she’d met her mother at the gate Ursula couldn’t have been privy to the meeting in the hall below.
Uta broke from her husband’s embrace and prostrated herself before Henry the Lion.
“Please Uta. Get up.”
Quickly she did, throwing herself into his arms as she had Welfs.
“There there’ cooed Henry, straightening her up.
Now Ursula could see her mother’s tear streaked face. Her stomach lurched at the sight. It was like looking at a stranger. Unlike her father-prone to emotional outburst, Uta had never shown weakness and it scared Ursula, gripping her insides with icy fingers of fear. The large empty hall carried her unsteady voice easily to Ursula’s hiding spot.
“He is past talking my liege. He seeks no more parlay. No more negotiators from within Weibertreue.” Her words shook with the trembling of her body.
“Conrad says his patience is worn to its end. That ten days is ample time to surrender a struggle that cannot be won.”
The Duchess of Welf dropped her head.
Her husband reached forward, gently raising her chin. “Go on Uta. Continue.”
“At first sun tomorrow we have but two options” she said quieter. “Open the gates. Or not.”
Ursula’s hands gripped the railing tight. She remembered the joking words her brother had said. Imitating the fake king with that silly voice. Words too terrible to be anything but a bad, bad joke.
“If we open the gates, his troops will not storm straight in. They will allow the women to leave unharmed. Only the women. They may cross the bridge and be free.”
Now Ursula was shaking too.
“Then Conrad’s men will enter the castle and put every man to the sword.”
A joke, thought Ursula. They will take them prisoner, surely. Their families had been friends. Her aunty had married Conrad’s brother. She wanted to run to her doll house and be in a world where it always worked out. Where you could start again the next day no matter what. There had to be a next day. There had to be a next day for her father.
“If the gates are not opened at the trumpets of dawn, he says he will knock them down. If he is forced to do so, no one inside will be spared. These are the only two choices.”
“The monster!” snapped Welf.
“A firm hand clapped him on the shoulder.
“It’s over my brother. We no longer have the numbers to oppose him. The arms to oppose him. The supplies. We have no choice but to open the gates. This outcome was always a possibility Welf. You know that. Uta and the other women did not take up arms. Their hands are clean of this. They do not deserve our fate.
Shoulders slumped, Welf nodded. “Yes Henry. I know. At least the women and children will be spared.”
Uta fell forward, shaking her head. Trying to form words through her sobs.
“Uta! Our sons Uta? The young ones?”
Her mother’s words were too quiet to hear. Perhaps they weren’t even spoken. But her mother’s head, like a metronome on her father’s chest. No. No. No. No. No. Henry dropped to his knees beside them.
No male was to be spared. Not just the men. The boys. The babies.
Ursula pushed herself out of her hiding place. She fell backwards, her head hitting the flagstones with a crack. Ursula didn’t care if they heard her. She scrambled to her feet and ran for the stairs.
She struggled with the bolt, finally sliding it free.
Hanging from a beam was a length of rope. She ran to the window it led to and looked down. A frayed end showed her the rope had snapped ten feet below the window. Another sixty feet down the surface of the moat water lay black and still in the creeping shadow of the castle.
His eyes opened to an unfamiliar ceiling. Matteus watched it waver in rippled torchlight. His entire body screamed at him in pain except the lower part of his left leg which he couldn’t feel at all.
“Hello young man.”
He managed to roll his head in the direction of the old woman’s voice. She sat near him on a low wooden stool. A long white shawl covered her head and shoulders, over a simple dark dress.
“Try not to move. You have a broken leg. Possibly a broken back as well. My men pulled you out of the moat. They think you were trying to kill yourself.”
“I didn’t j—j-j jump.”
“I know. I saw the rope. You were trying to climb down. You fell.”
“Yes Matteus. It broke.”
“You know my name? How?”
“I was at your christening. I haven’t seen you for a long time but I knew you when you were very young. You haven’t changed much.”
“I’ve been sick.” His voice was thick with blame. The woman paused at his accusatory tone.
“It looks like it. Which leads to a very interesting question. Why does a sick young boy try to climb down from the clouds and into the arms of a man sworn to take his life.”
“I need to speak to your son.”
“Oh, so you recognise me?”
“Y-y-yes. You are Agnes. Wife of Frederick I. Conrad’s mother.”
“He is not my king. Nor even yours.”
The woman’s eyes widened a little. “Not our king? I’m afraid you’re wrong about that. Conrad was crowned by the Princes of Germany.”
“The corrupt Princes! Cheats and thieves. Traitors. My uncle has the support of the people. Surely that makes him a more worthy king than your son the charlatan.”
“You have found your strength quickly Matteus of Welf. That poor little body hides the heart of the lion.” She rose from her seat with a wry smile. “And the mouth of a crow.”
Matteus tried to sit up, indignant at the insult. The pain forced him back down.
“Is that how you would address the King of Germany?”
“No. But it’s how I would address your son.”
Agnes smiled more genuinely. She walked to the door of the tent. Looked out at the long twilight shadows.
“What do you wish to say to him, Matteus?”
“That is between he and I.”
Agnes laughed softly. “You are very brave for one so young. I admire that. But Conrad will not meet with you. His wishes are known. The King has spoken.”
“He is not my king.”
“I’m afraid he is Matteus. No matter what you may think, how you may delude yourself. Conrad is King and does not wish to debate with his enemies any longer.”
“Then I will speak to him as his subject.”
Agnes laughed. She turned back to him. “There is nothing you can say to him Matteus. He has decided. This is the way of things. You have come for nothing but to lose the life you would beg him to save.”
“I did not come to beg for my life. I know that to be futile. I am not oblivious to the ways of siege and war. Nor do I beg for the life of any other.”
“Oh? Then why are you here?” asked Agnes in surprise.
“Because of my sister. Ursula.”
Agnes walked back to the stool and sat down. She leaned forward.
Matteus licked his dry lips. Looked into the eyes of the King’s mother. And told her about a ten year old girl and a doll house. Agnes listened intently. When he finished speaking she rubbed one eye with the back of her hand. Then she stood, smoothing her gown. She gestured to the guards across the room Matteus hadn’t seen.
“Pick him up. Bring him.”
Ursula sat numbly on the floor. She stared straight ahead in shock. Lord Applehead and Lady Lavender stared back with glassy button eyes. Mechanically she picked them up by their stiff legs. They danced.
The dance of no tomorrows.
They stopped before a wide black marquee. Matteus knew the significance. The King took the black tent as a symbol to those inside the castle. Game over. Conquest. You lose.
“Stand him up.”
The guards lowered Matteus onto his good leg. One of them wedged a crutch into his armpit. He swayed, gasping a painful breath of cold air.
“Can you walk in?”
“Yes” he winced.
“I’ll bet you can. Listen to me young man. I can open the door for you but beyond that I cannot guarantee anything except your almost certain death. The king may not even see you. If you do get a chance to speak, chose your words well. Do not waste them. Are you ready?”
“ May I ask one thing first?”
“What is it?”
“Why are you helping me?”
Agnes looked at him thoughtfully.
“I doubt that I’m helping anyone right now. Except perhaps myself” she shrugged. “But I’ll tell you one thing Matteus of Welf. If I had a brother..” She paused, glancing toward the castle which was now steeped dark in shadow. “..like you Matteus, I do not believe that kingly qualities are only held by those beneath a crown.” Agnes leant to his ear. “And, if I had an older brother, I would be honoured to have one such as you.”
With that she stepped through the flap of the tent. Her guards held the doorway open so Matteus could hobble through.
The King and a tall armoured man leant over a long candle lit table. Maps and charts lay unfolded across it, illuminated by fat flickering candles. Conrad looked up; tired eyes behind bushy brows complemented by a coarse beard.
“What is it?” he growled.
“Your majesty.” Agnes bowed low before her son.
The armour clad man turned quickly at the interruption, as angry as the king looked fatigued.
“Who is this?” he demanded angrily.
“This is Matteus of Welf, Captain Berkemmer” announced Agnes calmly.
“What?” he roared. In one swift action he drew his sabre, pointing the tip towards Matteus’ chest. “You dare bring the son of that dog into the King’s presence? Against his orders?”
He raised the sword, touching it against the boy’s throat. A thin line of blood trickled from it. Matteus didn’t react. He concentrated on not letting his battered body fall forward.
“Piece of shit” sneered Berkemmer. “You should be trembling in fear before King Conrad.”
He kicked away the crutch with his boot. Matteus collapsed, a shallow wound opening across his throat as he slid along the blade and to the ground. He howled in pain, the broken bone protruding through the flesh of his lower leg.
“Tell me…. Captain…….” panted Matteus. “Is your king a…… good man?”
“How dare you! Of course he is a good man! The best of men!”
Matteus raised his eyes to the fanatical soldier. He drew several more quick breaths.
“Why should I fear the best of men?”
“You!…” Berkemmer lifted his sword. Conrad grabbed his wrist, preventing the strike.
“No. He is a cripple Berkemmer, unarmed and on the ground. And yet he has bested you in moments with mere words. We will keep some honour this day.”
The red faced Captain angrily resheathed his sword as his King stepped past him. He squatted in front of the boy, looking over his thin figure.
“So you are the son of Welf VI? The nephew of Henry? You prove your bravery is beyond them both simply by being here. Or perhaps you share their foolishness.” He looked up at his mother, trying to read her implacable visage. Without breaking eye contact he continued.
“You have one minute before I turn you over to Captain Berkemmer.”
There was a thud against the gate of Weibertreue. A guard checked through a small viewing window. Two soldiers were retreating back across the bridge. A misshapen object lay in front of the gate, a note pinned to it. The guards had heard that Matteus had gone missing. With trepidation one of them squeezed through the barely open gate. By torchlight he bent to the small figure. The fluttering fire revealed the bloodied corpse of Welf’s son.
“Fetch our lords. It’s the boy.”
Gently he scooped up the battered body, carefully carrying it inside the castle. Placing Matteus on a low pallet, he fetched cloth and water. He attempted to clean the boy’s face, but had done little to hide the butchery when hurried footsteps arrived.
Welf pulled him away from the body. “Matteus” he sobbed. Uta appeared at his side and fell to her son as well. Eyes wide and fixed in shock, she reached for the parchment attached to him.
“Matt! Is it him? Matt!”
“Keep her back” growled Welf. He spun his head to the sound of his daughter’s voice. His face softened in grief. “No Ursula. You cannot see him this way.”
Obediently she ceased to struggle with the arms that restrained her.
Uta unrolled the page. Those near her could see the red wax seal of Conrad on it.
“What does it say Uta?” whispered a voice that all in the castle knew. It was Henry that held Ursula still.
Men of Weinsberg this is your fate. Your stubborn, and foolish leaders, not I, have led us all to this outcome. Unfortunately neither of them possess the bravery nor the honour of this boy. He made one selfless request which in respect I concede to grant. Upon leaving the castle, the women of Weibertreue may take one personal possession each. No weapons. No jewellery. No baskets, bags or carts. An item which they carry by hand. All other conditions remain.
Uta rose and turned to her daughter. “He did this for you Ursula.” She covered her face with her hands for a moment. Their hopes had turned to muddy nightmares but her sweet son had brought some humanity back to the valley of Sulm. Standing next to his corrupted body, she formed an awkward smile. “Matteus.”
Ursula could not see her brother clearly, but what she could was ragged and red. Her uncle stroked her hair, she like one of her dolls in his large hands. A large crowd had formed, standing in silence around the men they had followed without question up to this point. But here among them, the charismatic Henry and the passionate Welf were no more than mere mortals. Their tears fell just the same. Their pain just as deep. At sunrise the women would be clinging to their trinkets while the ground ran red with the blood of their fathers, their husbands. Their brothers and sons.
Welf met the gaze of his brother, the familiar glint of steel in his eye.
“Send the women to gather what they chose Henry. Let us see what weapons we can gather.”
“I will not give my life without a fight! I will not stand by while children are slaughtered around me.”
“The fighting is over my brother. We are outnumbered by twenty to one. If we resist, Conrad is sure to make it worse for the boys. For the women. We must accept his terms. If we do not, he has no reason to either. Everyone will die Welf. What sort of hell will we be assigned to if we condemn Uta and the others to death when they can be spared?”
Ursula leant back from her uncle’s grasp. Her tear stained face looked up at him. The ten year old had realised what no one else but Agnes had seen. A strong body, a velvet robe, an ill fitting crown, even the support of the people did nothing to make a king. Her invalid brother had shone with a wisdom and compassion beyond those noblemen who decided who would live and who would not. He had given them a tomorrow.
Henry the Lion bent down to the girl tugging at his tunic.
“I know what to do.”
At the first streak of dawn, Conrad’s trumpeters bleated their tune, calling an end to the siege of Weibertreue Castle. The King’s men lined the bridge in single file on both sides, murmuring in expectation. Conrad himself stood at the edge of the meadow on the other side, in the full regalia of a German king. Behind him, fifty columns of soldiers waited in the dull light of sunrise.
“Open the gates!” bellowed Captain Berkemmer from beside his king.
With a loud groan the thick wooden gates were pushed open. All heads turned to the dark space beyond them.
For a few moments there was no movement, until a small girl emerged, struggling under the weight of her load.
The muttering amongst the soldiers ceased. They watched in silence as Ursula struggled slowly across the bridge, desperate not to drop and forfeit her burden. Conrad saw Berkemmer flinch next to him, instinctively reaching for his sword.
“No Captain. I gave my word.”
Agonisingly slow, Ursula stumbled along, perspiration and tears mixing and pouring from her young face. Still short of the meadow, she staggered and nearly fell. One of Conrad’s young soldiers, unable to restrain himself, moved forward to assist her.
“Stay where you are!” demanded the frustrated Berkemmer.
Each small step she took resonated throughout the Sulm valley. The long conflict now distilled into this one time and place. Conrad’s men were confronted by something beyond the cries of battle and the clash of weapons. Many had wives, sisters and daughters of their own. The pitiful sight before them was humbling, extinguishing the euphoria of victory in its poignant simplicity.
Finally Ursula stepped onto the grass. She pitched forward, falling with her brother’s body in her small arms. She lifted her grimy face. Through her sweat bedraggled hair she sought the face of the king of Germany. She found him, dipping her head in acknowledgement. In return he did the same.
All along the bridge, soldiers lowered their weapons. Many simply dropped them to the ground. Emerging from the gateway were the women of Weibertreue. Each carried a man, a boy or a baby toward the freedom of the meadow.
Unseen by others, Agnes placed a hand gently on the shoulder of her monarch. Conrad put his own hand over it, not as king but as son. His eyes wandered to the small sign bearing the castle’s name. It leant over near the foot of the bridge, where for ten days it had been brushed past and ignored.
“ Weibertreue.” The faith of women.
He squeezed his mother’s hand, then signalled for his men to stand down.
Ursula sat with Matteus, hugging him to her. An Ursula hug. Holding him in the way only the most precious of things can be held.
(from the short story collection “nine”-available on Amazon)