Winter, Anno Domini 814
The agony of waiting for news left me wakeful throughout the long, cold hours of the night. Though they were hidden from me by darkness, I heard the other unmarried women in the dormitorium turn and heave in their beds. They had not found sleep either. A quiet sob rent the stillness. I envied her, whoever she was, for the small relief of weeping. Frozen in a rigor of apprehension, my heart was mute.
The Emperor had been ill many times before. He had always been quick to recover, even in his old age, but this time seemed different. Karl the Unconquered’s strength had run out. This illness, a vicious fever that stole the very air from his lungs, would be his last. I labored to breathe as well, as I contemplated the void that would be left by his death. He was the anchor of Christendom, and without him we would be unmoored, lost…
The bells of the palatine chapel clamored the twelfth hour of the night, signaling the end of the first sleep. The coverlets rustled as Adelaide left the bed we shared. I watched her dark form as she laid new fuel in the brazier and stoked the flames back to life. It was very unlike her, to perform that task herself. Once her labor was complete, she sat in one of the chairs placed around the fire. One by one the other women joined her, clutching blankets around their shoulders as protection against the shrieking draft that blew under the shutters.
I did not go to the fire with them, but slid out of the bed and knelt beside it. I rested my throbbing head on my folded hands, my knuckles like cold stones against my forehead. Jesu, I pleaded, but could get no further. Even the prayers I knew by rote had abandoned me.
The women spoke to one another in hushed, tight tones. The conversation moved in anxious circles. Lulled by their voices, I wandered into a shifting mass of uneasy dreams, escaping only when the tick shifted as Adelaide came back to bed.
She turned toward me, a malicious glint in her eyes. “You’re not as holy as you pretend to be, Dhuoda.” She spoke in low tones so as not to disturb the others, who had also returned to their beds to seek second sleep. “I know you wish for his death.”
Her words struck me like the blow of a cudgel. I rose and stood over her. “How can you say that?”
“I’ve seen the letter.”
Breath caught in my throat, and my eyes dropped to the mattress, where I had concealed the missive.
A sly smile flitted across her face. “I saw you take it out to read when you thought no one was looking. You’ve been communicating with the Abbess of Ely, though everyone knows the Emperor forbade you to become a postulant there. His performing pet, plotting to fly away from him! Well, once the fever has ended him, no one will stop you.”
My desire to escape the cold won over my reluctance to be near her. I lay down in the bed and curled in on myself. Adelaide, who ranked highest among the unmarried women, had chosen me as her bedmate because I was small, but she always complained that I took up too much space.
“I would not leave court without permission,” I whispered, as I slid my hand to the underside of the mattress. The sound of crinkling parchment reassured me: she had not destroyed the letter. “I thought a guaranteed place in the abbey would help to convince him when I asked again. I have never wished his death!” Facing away from her, I clutched the coverlet close around my shoulders.
There was an ache beneath my ribs, a desperate longing to be back in the house of Einhard, my adoptive father. I had spent my days reading in his library or taking instruction from the masters at the imperial school. At night he would entertain learned men, courtiers, sometimes even the Emperor himself in his hall. After his servingwoman saw me to bed in my little room under the eaves, I would fall asleep to the sound of spirited discourse drifting through the cracks in the floorboards along with smoke from the fire. But that was my childhood, never to be reclaimed. I had become a woman, and that meant learning feminine skills. I should have felt honored to be placed in the household of the Emperor’s kinswomen, but even now, after almost a year, the bruised feeling remained. The imperial court could never be my home. My future was in Ely.
Desperation made my insides crawl. Adelaide could ruin everything. “Will you tell anyone? About the letter?”
“Why would I? Once my uncle is on the throne, you’ll meet no further resistance to your plan. Hludowig is a pious man. He’ll send you off to Anglia without a second thought, and then we’ll be free of your dour countenance and false piety.”
There was a knock on the door, quick and soft. The sleepy whispers that had infused the room quieted. In the silence Adelaide drew in a sharp breath, and I knew we shared the same thought: It’s over. He is dead.
Adelaide leaped from the bed, her tiny feet beating an urgent patter on the floor. But I was quicker. I pulled the door open, the leather hinges emitting a loud groan. A slavewoman called Zorya stood in the corridor, her red hair as bright as embers in the light of her lamp.
Adelaide pushed me aside. “What is it? Tell me!”
“The Emperor has called for Dhuoda,” said Zorya, her accented voice harsh and grating. She jerked her sharp chin over her shoulder. “Come with me.”
I felt a wave of relief at the news that Karl still lived, then confusion.
“That’s ridiculous.” Adelaide hissed. “Why would Grandfather want to see her?”
“He didn’t share his reasons with me, my lady,” Zorya said. She stepped forward to glower several inches down at Adelaide, who, with a black look, moved aside.
What could the Emperor want with me, now, in the middle of the night, when he was so close to death? In a daze I looked down at the old woolen dress I wore over my shift, protection against the frigid night. I wore no jewelry or adornments, not even a veil. “I can’t be in audience dressed like this.”
But as I turned back to fetch better clothing, Zorya caught me by the shoulder. “There is no time for that.”
I acquiesced and stepped out into the passage, Adelaide close at my heels. “I want to see him,” she said. “It might be my last chance.”
Zorya’s mouth twisted. “I was ordered to fetch Dhuoda. They don’t want you.”
Adelaide stared at Zorya, then me, then back again, her face pale with rage. “How dare you speak to me in such a way?”
“I mean no insolence,” Zorya said, although it was clear from the brightness of her eyes that she did. “But do you want to explain to Berta what you’re doing there, when you have not been summoned?”
Without another word, Adelaide went back inside the dormitorium and slammed the door.
Zorya led me through the warren of timbered passages, and I followed, feeling as though I still walked through a bewildering dream.
When we arrived at the antechamber outside the Emperor’s private apartments, all was quiet. Usually two paladins flanked the massive double doors and kept watch day and night, but tonight their post was abandoned.
The oaken doors were carved with a battle scene, and as Zorya pulled one open, the dying horses and wounded men seemed to lean out toward me in an attempt to escape the destruction within. She stood back and held the door for me, but my feet wouldn’t carry me over the threshold. Gesturing, Zorya pulled back her lips in what perhaps was meant to be a smile, but the effect was more like an animal with bared teeth. I forced myself to step into the crowded room.
My stomach turned at the smell of blood and sour fever sweat. A low susurrus rose from the teeming mass of courtiers who hovered around the great bed like flies on a corpse. Afraid to jostle people who so far outranked me, I stood still.
Then the crowd parted as Rasul the Saracen passed through, followed by a slave who carried the physician’s rosewood chest of remedies. I peered through the gap in the crowd and, picking out the diminutive form of Einhard, darted toward him.
He was staring in the direction of the great bed, and I was obliged to tug on the sleeve of his disheveled scholar’s robes to get his attention. “Why is Rasul leaving?” I asked, my chest tightening with apprehension.
“Dying men have no need of a physician,” he said. “But I know Karl will find some comfort in your presence.”
“My presence?” I repeated. Einhard only nudged me forward.
The skull of Abul Abaz, the great elephant that had once been the jewel of the imperial menagerie, hung above the bed. Beneath the arcs of the huge, yellow tusks lay the Emperor, naked except for a cloth around his hips, the scars of a thousand battles standing out on the wasted flesh of his arms and torso. His hair had been shorn in order to cool his fever, the long white locks reduced to a hoarfrost that clung to the contours of his head.
He was asleep, his eyes shut and jaw slack. I extended my hand to rouse him, to learn what it was he wanted, but before my fingers could touch that fever-slickened skin, someone swatted my hand away. This was all a mistake.
“Get out of here, Dhuoda,” Berta whispered. Her face was pale with exhaustion; she had been sequestered with her father since he had first fallen ill.
“He…he summoned me.” My heart was beating so fast I thought it might stop in its rhythm altogether.
“Yes, he did,” Berta replied. “The fever made him obstinate, and he would not quiet until we sent for you. But, as you see, he is finally at rest, so you serve no purpose here. Go back to bed.” She flapped her hand to dismiss me.
A hot flush of shame rose up my neck, and I turned to leave.
“Who is that?”
The words came out in a gasp, a hiss. The crowd murmured.
Berta gave me a little push, and the crowd swallowed me up. “It’s no one,” she said. “Do not trouble yourself.”
“Who?” The voice was weary but insistent.
Curious, I turned back and saw Berta bow her head in submission, then beckon me forward. The Emperor’s fever-bright eyes sparked in recognition as I came near. His lips moved to form the syllables of my name, but he had no breath to speak. He twitched his fingers, indicating that I should sit on the stool by the bed. I sat.
“Father,” Berta pleaded, “you must rest.”
The Emperor glared at her, and she at him—a silent battle of wills. He looked away first, but I didn’t think it was he who had lost. He drew a deep breath, which caused him so much pain that his lips pulled back in a grimace.
Berta took a bronze chalice from the table beside the bed and offered it to him, but he held up his hand. “I can smell the opium. Would you hasten my end, daughter?”
Disgust etched Berta’s haggard face. “It’s for the pain.”
The Emperor struck the goblet from her hand. Spots of spilled wine bloomed on the sheets. He coughed, the spasm growing in strength like a storm until it seemed enough to break him apart. An attendant thrust a copper basin under his chin, and bloody sputum splattered the sides, bright red with the life leaving him.
When the fit of coughing passed, he closed his eyes and sagged back against the pillows. His cheeks were a hectic red. All fell silent, and we watched as he battled for each breath. Slowly his pallor faded, and his limbs began to tremble as the fever turned to chills.
He revived for a moment, his gaze traversing the length of the room. “Lothar,” he whispered.
The muscles in my neck bunched as the prince emerged from the crowd. I hadn’t noticed him when I first entered. As Lothar bent down to hear his grandfather’s request, his eyes flicked toward me, and his jaw tightened.
After a moment he opened the carved chest at the foot of the bed and withdrew a cloak made from the skin of a white bear of the North. He brought it to the Emperor and slipped an arm behind the old man’s back in order to arrange the bear skin around his withered shoulders. I wondered at this behavior, so unlike Lothar’s customary manner. Usually he gave his grandfather only the barest respect, and they argued often.
The Emperor quirked his mouth by way of thanks. With the yellow-white fur wrapped around him, he was transformed from a pitiable old man to a warrior-king.
He crooked a finger at his concubine, Ethelind, who stood far to the side. Swiping at tears with the hem of her veil, she went to him. She was one of my few friends at court, and it pained me to see her so distraught.
“Get into this bed, woman. I can’t get warm.”
At his words fresh tears coursed down Ethelind’s face, but she didn’t allow herself to sob. Instead she slipped into the bed with him, and her arms twined around him like flax on a distaff. She laid her plump cheek over his heart.
The Emperor clasped her to him and leaned back against the pillows. He lay as still as death. Then he stirred, raising his head to meet my eyes. He stretched his hand out to the table beside the bed and tapped a book atop a haphazard pile.
It was a small volume, but heavy. Its gold covers were studded with gemstones of every color, spiraling around an inlay of pearl shell as large as a denarius coin. I opened the cover. The first page bore a brief inscription, written in Frankish:
This book was commissioned for my lord husband, Karl, King of the Franks
Anno Domini 794
I traced the place where my kinswoman had signed her name at the bottom. She had died long before I came to court, but everything good in my life had been given to me not for my own sake but because of the affection the Emperor had felt for Luitgard.
When I looked up, he offered me a weak smile and seemed to want to say more, but was prevented by a fresh spasm of pain. “I leave it to you, little starling,” he said, through gritted teeth.
Regret dragged at me. Would this be the last time he ever called me by that pet name? “Thank you,” I said. To distract myself, I paged through the psalter. The vellum was thick and luxurious, the words of the psalms written in a refined, even hand. The margins were crowded with flora and fauna, illuminated in vivid inks and gold leaf. To own such a thing was far beyond my reckoning. Tears prickled behind my eyes, and I shut the cover so the pages wouldn’t be marred.
Karl’s fingers fluttered as he reached toward the book. “One. Three. Eight.” The words were only thin gasps, and once they were said he sagged back onto the pillows and clutched Ethelind to his chest, burying his face in her hair as if he wanted to take her scent with him.
He had often called upon me to demonstrate the supremacy of the palatine school by reciting long passages of scripture or poetry before visiting scholars and dignitaries. He took delight in my ability to repeat back anything I read or heard. It was for this reason that he called me “starling,” after the speckled little birds that mimic human speech.
The one hundred and thirty-eighth psalm was his favorite. I left the psalter closed on my lap and turned my eyes to the flames in the brazier, calling the words up from my memory. “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise, you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you, LORD, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me…”
When I reached the end of the psalm, I moved on to another, then to still more. The room quieted; there was nothing to do but wait. When my mouth grew dry, I stopped. My eyes were drawn to the Emperor, and I saw that the lines of pain had cut still deeper into his features. His skin was the damp gray of an uncooked mussel; his half-open eyes revealed eerie crescents of white. He still breathed, but so shallowly that it could not sustain him long.
Theodulf, his wild, graying hair and untrimmed beard making him appear more like a desert ascetic than the Bishop of Orléans, came to the side of the bed and knelt. He began a litany in his thunderous voice, calling on those who had gone before to aid the Emperor in his journey. The onlookers joined in, but I couldn’t bring myself to say the words.
Shortly after the bells rang the seventh hour, the Emperor tried and failed to draw one more breath. Then he slumped against Ethelind. The concubine let out an anguished wail, and Berta leaned down to examine the vacant face. I stifled a sob of my own and bolted from the stool, the psalter clutched to my chest.
“Send for my brother,” I heard Berta say as I fled. “My father is dead.”
I first met Dhuoda of Septimania, author of the medieval manuscript Liber Manualis, in 2006, when I was completing my Master’s Degree in Library Science. While researching female writers of the medieval period for a semester project, I encountered many remarkable women, but Dhuoda struck me especially because of her resilience in the face of personal tragedy.
In the middle of the 9th century, Dhuoda’s husband, the perfidious Duke Bernard of Septimania, exiled her to one of their estates and gave their two sons as political hostages to guarantee his notoriously fickle loyalty to King Charles the Bald. Unable to be near her children to educate and nurture them, she wrote the Liber Manualis (literally “Handbook”) for her sons so that, “even if I am apart from you in body, the little book before you may remind you, when you read it, of what you should do on my behalf.”
My curiosity piqued, I researched Dhuoda and the time in which she lived well beyond what was required for my semester project. Being a woman in the “Dark Ages” was very different from what I had initially thought. Dhuoda, like many women of the time, was highly educated and had tremendous power over the administration of her husband’s lands.
But as much as I learned from my research, there was information I wanted that simply wasn’t available. Dhuoda offers few clues about her personal life before she began her book. Her parentage is unknown, although her level of education and marriage to a cousin of Charlemagne indicates that she was a member of one of the upper echelons of Carolingian nobility. I found myself wanting to know more about her upbringing and what could have happened in her early life that made her into the passionate, thoughtful, and melancholy woman she revealed herself to be in the Liber Manualis.
I decided to write a novel to fill in the holes in Dhuoda’s history, and to highlight the power struggles that flared among Charlemagne’s heirs. In The Starling and the Empress, I have made Dhuoda an orphan with murky parentage, who grew up in Charlemagne’s court and believes that her destiny lies in a contemplative life in an abbey. After Charlemagne’s death, a rebellious faction tries to prevent his heir, Louis the Pious, from taking the throne. As the uprising is quelled, Dhuoda witnesses a violent act and is too fearful to intervene. The experience causes a separation from God that she has never known before, and also galvanizes her to accept an offer to serve as handmaiden and spy for Louis’s wife, Ermengarde. The Empress is a powerful woman, ruthless in her efforts to preserve the fledgling dynasty. Dhuoda feels unsuited to the role and doesn’t understand Ermengarde’s interest in her, but she is determined to remake herself in the Empress’s formidable image so that she will never again be helpless in the face of evil.
Eva Mays is the author of The Gravid Cadaver: A Novelette of Body Snatching, Backstabbing, Friendship, and Love. She is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University and the University of Pittsburgh, and works as a Library Associate for West Virginia University Libraries. When she is not reading, writing, or in the library, Eva can most often be found raising spirited children, walking her rescue dogs, and trying to resist the urge to watch one more episode before bed.
Embark, Issue 15, October 2021