I have to say: If I wasn't already drawn into this story before, that chapter right there would've done it. The tension is practically thick enough to cut with a knife. Kenneth is certainly in dire straits.
@ DensleyBlair: Thank you, DB! He is indeed in a bit of a pickle. I hope you will enjoy the resolution!
@ Revan86: I appreciate the compliment! I've been reading through Conn Iggulden's books again, trying to learn from his masterful style of tense and gripping story-telling. I am glad to hear that it is paying off in my own writing as well!
@ JakobWerle: Thank you, my friend! I appreciate your kind words in the awAARd thread!
@ crimson_king: Thank you! I'm glad you like the Italian. I thought it would be a nice touch.
@ Avindian: Glad you like it! I'm hoping to take this one far.
@ Specialist290: High praise indeed! Thank you very much, my friend! Glad you are enjoying the tale!
@ Salik: Glad to have you on board! I'm not even 30 years into the game yet, and I can already tell you this is going to be very exciting!
@ Tapscott: Glad you are liking it so far! There's plenty more to come!
To all readAARs, my current plan is to get the next chapter up by this coming weekend. So hopefully not too much longer. I know you're all eager to see how our prologue ends, and I'm chomping at the bit to tell you! As always, thank you for your patience and encouragement.
I apologise for the delay! But at last the final part of the prologue is up! After this, the AAR begins in earnest!
____________________________________________________________________________________________________ FRESH BLOOD ON ANCIENT SOIL A Saga of the Scottish Kings of Aquitaine
PROLOGUE Chapter V: Reunification
June 30, 1202
Blood splattered across Kenneth’s face as he slew yet another foe. His sword arm ached from overuse, and he marveled at the fact that both he and Raoul were somehow still alive. With no armour, and only the swords and bucklers they had picked up earlier, the odds were terribly against them. He knew not how much longer they could hold off.
Then, suddenly, a battle cry was heard from the stairwell. And Italian soldier found a sword in his back, and soon the many foes that were crowding the gatehouse found themselves under attack by five more men. The newcomers fought with incredible ferocity and drove the enemy back. One of the four called out, “Hold the doors! Don’t let the bastards back in!” Two men held each door, keeping the enemy out of the gatehouse. The one who had spoken turned to Kenneth and smiled, “Are you alright, my prince?”
A relieved smile spread across Kenneth’s blood-covered visage as he called out, “De Muret! You’re alive!”
Adam de Muret gave the prince a friendly wink and said, “You can always count on me, sire.” Then, pausing for a moment to stretch his muscular arms, he proceeded to open the gate, adding, “Let’s get your father in here so he can help, eh?” Kenneth moved to help, but de Muret shook his head. Then, with a smile, he said, “You’ve had a rough day, sire. I can handle this.”
From outside, cheers could be heard from the Scottish and Aquitanian troops. Thousands of them poured into Orvieto now. The Italian garrison put up a brief fight, but within minutes they were overwhelmed and surrendered. The enemy stopped trying to break back into the gatehouse, and Kenneth, Adam, and the others sank to the ground, exhausted. As he caught his breath, Kenneth counted the men in the gatehouse with him. Seven. Seven of fifteen were still alive. Given the nature of their mission, that was a miracle.
After a time, footsteps were heard ascending the stairs into the upper chamber. Suddenly, King Magnus came into view, his surcoat covered in blood. Upon seeing his son alive, the king was so filled with joy that, uncharacteristically, he showed no restraint. He pulled Kenneth up from the ground, exclaiming, “My lad! You’re alive!” Then he took his son into his strong arms and embraced him. “When the gate would nae open, I thought I had lost you.”
Kenneth replied, “You nearly did, da’. Raoul and I were surrounded. We would surely have fallen but for the timely intervention of Adam de Muret and the others.”
The king turned to de Muret, “You saved my son’s life?”
De Muret nodded, unsure of how to answer the question without sounding arrogant. Magnus offered the man his hand, and together they clasped forearms in a soldier’s handshake. The king looked de Muret right in the eyes and said, “You have my thanks, Adam de Muret. I am in your debt.” De Muret nodded again, now utterly speechless.
The king then returned to his son, put his arm around Kenneth’s shoulder, and said, “Come now, my lad. We must get you cleaned up. For with the sunrise comes Vigilius’s trial for heresy, and when he is found to be guilty, he will burn. Then Urban III will be installed as Pope over all Christendom. The Papal Schism will at last be ended.”
- - -
July 1, 1202
The “trial” was merely a formality. Everybody knew the verdict before it was given, and Kenneth marveled at the things men would do to save their skin. The same cardinals who three years ago had unanimously elected Vigilius as the “Defiant” Pope now, at sword-point, unanimously condemned him as a heretic and anti-Christ.
As Kenneth watched the proceedings he noticed the changes in Vigilius’s disposition. When first brought in, clad in a beggar’s outfit and badly bruised, Vigilius still bore a defiant look upon his face, his eyes filled with hatred. Then, as the cardinals declared their verdict, one by one, his expression turned to one of despair. He knew that he would never again see the sun set. He knew that future generations would remember him as an anti-Christ. His name would forever be invoked along with the name of Judas Iscariot in speaking of the worst of men.
At last one of the cardinals read the final verdict and sentence aloud, “This holy court has found you guilty of heresy and of alliance with the devil. Your life we hand over to the secular authorities for termination by burning at the stake, as the church is forbidden to take a life. Your soul we deliver to Satan, to burn with him forever in Hell.” Kenneth could see Vigilius’s eyes. The despair had turned to terror as the reality of his horrific fate sank in. The prince’s heart broke for the man, and he was startled to realise that he felt a tear running down his cheek. It was all he could do not to weep as he watched Vigilius be dragged from the church screaming, “Miserere mei! Miserere mei!”
The crowd now shuffled out to watch the execution, while the cardinals met to elect the new Pope; another formality. Everyone knew how that would turn out. And Kenneth found himself questioning the legitimacy of all this, just as he had a thousand times before.
Everything was perfectly timed and orchestrated. Once Vigilius was chained to the post, the flames were lit. And as the smoke from the flames began to ascend, another pillar of smoke was seen—this one arising from where the cardinals had convened. It was the last thing Vigilius would see: the final proof that he had been replaced, and Urban III was now Pope not just in Crossraguel, but of all Christendom. Kenneth looked to his father, and saw the king’s cold, emotionless face; there was no sign of pity or remorse. Turning back to the condemned, the look of terror on the man’s face was more evident than ever. Kenneth’s heart broke afresh as Vigilius’s desperate screams could be heard, “Domine! Domine! Serva me!” This time the prince could not help himself. He bowed his head, pulled his hood over it, and wept silently.
- - -
Kenneth did not join in the victory celebration that night, and his presence was sorely missed at the banquet. Two hours in to the festivities, Magnus grew concerned for his son and left the banquet to find the lad and speak with him. The captain of his guard began to follow him, but a quick glance told the man that this was nobody’s business but the king’s. Magnus first checked his son’s chambers, but found them empty. After a brief search, he found the lad outside, on a balcony, gazing into the night sky. Kenneth must have heard his father approach, because he said, “Can God ever forgive us for what we have done?”
Magnus inhaled through his nostrils and spoke, “We have committed many sins in this war. Which of them dinnae ye think He will forgive?”
Without tearing his gaze from the sky, Kenneth answered, “Our crimes against Vigilius. He did not deserve this fate, he was not the man who started the schism. A simple deposition should have been enough.”
“I dinnae know if He will, my lad. But I will buy an indulgence, and dae penance for the rest of my life. I know this afflicts yer conscience, my lad. You are like yer da’ in tha’ way. When I heard Vigilius’s screams they tormented my soul. It will be a long time ere I can sleep peacefully again.”
A prince questions his world…
Kenneth was not satisfied, “I know you are a master of the ‘cold face’, da’. But how could ye look upon such a sight and show no signs of pity or remorse? You seemed inhuman. How could ye dae this tae him?”
Without making eye-contact, Magnus simply stood next to his son, rested his hands on the railings, and gazed into the same night sky. He was silent for a moment, although to Kenneth it seemed like an eternity, and then spoke, “Vigilius did nae deserve this fate. In that you are right, my lad. But an example had tae be made. The Schism had tae end, no’ just for now, but for all time. If I had let him go, others would have risen later. But now they will nae. The horrors that ye saw today were seared intae yer mind. They will be with ye until the day you die. You will never forget them. Neither will anyone else who was here today. And they will tell of what they saw, and the story shall spread to the far reaches of Christendom. The Papacy had become too corrupt, and Popes answered to secular men. Now they never will again, for now all men know the price of tha’ corruption. There will nae be more Schisms. Christians will nae longer kill each other in the name of one Pope or another. I sacrificed the life and soul of one man tae save the lives and souls of millions who are nae yet born. And I will have tae live with tha’. My conscience may never rest again, but Christendom is united. That is a price worth paying. As king, you dinnae have the luxury of doing what’s best for you. A king who is responsible with the charge God has given him will weigh his decisions not by how they benefit him, but by how they benefit first his subjects, and second his fellow Man. For myself, this was perhaps the worst possible decision. But for Scotland, Aquitaine, and Christendom, it was the best. You will soon be King of Aquitaine. This is a great cross to bear, but with God’s help, you will bear it well.”
Kenneth was silent for a long time, before at last sighing and saying, “I just pray that I never have tae go through this again. I think it would destroy me.”
“Then let us pray.” Magnus took his son’s left hand in his own right, and the two knelt down, side-by-side, at the balcony. The king then looked intently into the heavens and prayed aloud, “Almighty Father, Everlasting God, hear Your humble servants this night. You chose me as You chose King David: tae be Your warrior-king. By Your aid I have crushed heathen and heretic alike, and restored Christendom tae a power she has nae known since Charlemagne. Christendom is restored, but like David, my hands are covered in blood. Just as You blessed me with the victories and glory of David, now bless my son Kenneth with the wisdom and prosperity of Solomon. Through him, usher in a new golden age for your people. Preserve Your Church, that the horrors which we have witnessed these past years may never again be seen. St. Andrew, first-called of Our Lord, watch over my son. Keep his feet on the path which you have trod longer than any other. St. Martial, patron of Aquitaine, protect my son, and grant him victories against the enemies of your fair land. This we humbly pray, in Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.” The two men made the sign of the cross, and then arose.
Kenneth now looked at his father, for the first time since that afternoon, and said, “Thank you, da’.”
Magnus smiled, “My lad, you will make a magnificent king. I am no prophet, but I foresee your glory outshining even my own. I am proud tae call you my son.” The two men embraced, and for a moment—just a moment—Kenneth felt that all would be well.
Just wondering, but have you ever watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; in particular the episodes 'Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges' and 'In the Pale Moonlight'? This chapter seems to be struggling with the same issues, and in similar ways.
@ DensleyBlair: Thank you very much! Glad you are enjoying it!
@ Revan86: I am a HUGE Niner! I've seen most episodes (including the aforementioned) several times, and have watched through the entire series from "Emissary" to "What You Leave Behind" twice. It is my not-so-humble-opinion that DS9 is the greatest TV show ever aired. The writing is excellent, the characters very real and believable. It has definitely been an influence on my own writing.