By Alexander S. Jenkins
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It was the women’s screams that got him, every time. His mount’s ear twitched as another chorus was ripped from the village below, making the mare shift uncomfortably beneath him. The horse let out a discontented snort and Barnabas I of the House of Habsburg, Holy Roman Emperor, readjusted himself in the saddle, an imperceptible twitch to his lips. As the smoke rose higher from the burning barns and thatch roofed houses, he decided it was time. He signalled his retainers, then kicked his horse into a trot down the hill.
The fighting was over, what resistance remained was down to desperate women fending off the sinful advances of the victors. Gathered in the muddy village centre was the captured rebel leadership. As Barnabas and his bodyguard emerged from the smoke filled street, a ripple of anger shuddered through the kneeling men, his presence stirring them to resistance.
“All hail the tyrant!” spat the bravest among them, attempting to stand, before being pushed back down into the mud.
Barnabas eyed the man, a former Hungarian Baron, who had seen fit to raise an army and the countryside against his new Emperor. He was middle aged, with a balding pate and sallow skin. For three months he had waged war against Barnabas’ regime, but a string of recent defeats had seen the Baron Oláh brought to a remote village, where he’d hoped to escape the wrath of the victorious Holy Roman Emperor.
Barnabas dismounted, the sound of his chainmail and plate armour chinking heavily as he hit the ground. Each step grating steel on steel as he approached the leader of these ragged and battle weary men. He stopped a metre from Baron Oláh, a cold look in his eye. With a dispassionate sneer, he drew his longsword.
“You will never truly hold this land, for you will never hold the hearts of my peo-” The man’s head fell to the mud with a thumping squelch as blood gushed from the stump of his neck.
Every man in the village square, loyalist and rebel alike, shifted in reaction to the sudden killing, as the whimpering cries of women leaked from inside the barns and houses where soldiers reaped the spoils of war.
“Let it be known that this!” Barnabas boomed as he addressed the gathered troops, gesturing to the desolation around them. “Is the fate of all those who align themselves with traitors such as these!”
The men cheered as their Emperor turned and walked away from the captured rebels, mounting his horse as they were put to the sword. Barnabas took one last look at the horror and devastation he had visited on the hapless village that had seen fit to shelter his enemies, then turned his horse to leave. That was when a messenger came galloping out of the smoke, breathless, his mount’s flanks foaming with sweat. The young man swung himself out of the saddle before coming to a total stop, bending the knee before his Emperor.
“Your royal highness.” He panted, head bowed low as he soaked into the mud.
“Lord, a message for you. Your mother has arrived at the camp, she requests an audience with you urgently.”
Barnabas turned his gaze to the heavens and let out an exasperated sigh, his voice rising several octaves. “Aw- For fucks sake, what’s she doing here?”
He didn’t miss the perplexed glances exchanged between the messenger and his retainers. They were never sure what to do with colloquial modern English.
The morning’s mist was burning off as they returned to the camp, where immediately it was clear to Barnabas that the mood had changed. They should have been celebrating, this rebellion had been crippling his expansion east for months and that morning’s work had finally seen an end to it. But instead, people flitted through camp, disquieted and uncomfortable.
“Ethan!” A shrill and unsuitably cheery voice called as a woman emerged from his tent. “Oh, you’re…”
Barnabas curbed his mount as he rode to meet her, whilst she trailed off in reaction to the blood soaked tabard he wore over his armour.
“Mother.” He greeted her coldly as he dismounted.
“‘Mother’- you don’t have to be so formal with me, hun. Now do I get a hug?” She smiled, scolding him for his ‘theatrics’. “Oh, on second thoughts.”
He had just bent to embrace her when she recoiled. “Mum, you’re embarrassing me in front of my retainers.”
“Oh, but you’re covered in blood- I hope that’s not yours, though I’m not sure what’s worse.”
“It’s not real blood, mum.” He muttered as they hugged.
“Yeh, well, it feels real.” She tutted as they pulled apart. “Oh, look it’s all down my dress.”
“Uh, you don’t need to clean it.”
“Well someone has to.”
“They’re not real either.” He snapped as he hurried her inside his tent.
Before them lay a table, laden with meats, cheeses and succulent fruits. Barnabas went to sit at the head, whilst a serving wench pulled a chair out for his mother by his side. As soon as he was seated, he ripped a leg from the nearest chicken and began tearing into the cold flesh.
“You’re not due to visit for another two weeks.” He grunted as he chewed a mouthful of the meat, swigging ale from his jewelled cup.
She sighed. “No, that’s what I’ve come to speak to you about.”
“You not eating?” He grumbled, unable to meet her gaze.
“It’s hardly vegan is it.”
“I told you before, it’s not real and you can chose for it to taste like whatever you want.”
Just then the serving girl returned with a carafe and made to pour some wine for his mother.
“Oh thank you. What did you say your name was?”
The girl looked terrified, but answered in a trembling voice before bowing her head. “Hilda, Lady.”
“Oh, please, call me Sue.”
“Mum.” Barnabas chided. “I told you, you need to respect social protocol here, I can’t have my serving wenches calling the mother of the Emperor ‘Sue’.”
“I don’t see why not.”
The tent flap was pulled aside then and one of Barnabas’ advisors ducked inside. “Your highness, word has just arrived from Baron Freiherr, the French have begun amassing on the border.”
“What?!” Barnabas spat, gobbets of masticated chicken hurtling across the table.
“Ethan, don’t talk with your mouthful.” His mother scorned him.
“Ready the troops, we break camp immediately and make for Riegersburg.”
“Lord.” The adviser bobbed his head and left in a hurry.
“Not now mum, this is urgent.”
“But Ethan, we need to talk about something, it’s why I’m here” she said softly.
“Uh! Fine, you can talk to me when we are on the move, but we need to hurry now, this is important” Barnabas snapped as he stormed his way out of the tent, suddenly faced with a challenge he had not anticipated this soon. He had had King Louis’s France lined up for invasion, but only after he had secured his eastern front, now the sly nob-end was forcing his hand.
The bulk of Barnabas’ army was several miles north, where they had so recently defeated the rebels, despite this, the marching column and subsequent baggage train he now lead west to his castle at Riegersburg, stretched from horizon to horizon, through the twisting hills the rebels had hoped to find shelter in. He rode astride his favoured mare, an old horse he’d started out with. Whilst his mother, who was supposed to be sitting quietly in the royal carriage, struggled instead to keep her horse walking alongside his.
“I’m not going to talk to you through a waggon door.” She protested again when he tried to insist that she return to the carriage with the promise that he’d come and visit once they were well underway.
Barnabas sighed. “Fine, fine, just tell me why you’re here. Has Duncan won another big contract at work?” He asked sarcastically.
“Don’t be nasty about your brother. And I’m sorry you didn’t feel that warranted a visit, I just thought you’d like to know how he was getting on in-”
“Don’t say it.” Barnabas shot his mother a warning glance.
She sighed, this was an old argument. “I did promise that I wouldn’t drop in unannounced again, unless it was important and until now I haven’t ‘deviated from our schedule’… but Ethan, I’ve got some bad news.”
“Worse than a potential invasion by the French?” He chortled for the benefit of his retainers, who rode a few metres behind him and laughed obediently.
“Ethan, it’s your gran. She died yesterday afternoon. They took her to hospital, but by the time the ambulance arrived, she was already gone.”
Barnabas looked at his mum, it was the first time he had really looked at her since she’d arrived. She wore a fine dress, befitting of the Emperor’s mother, the coif embroidered with fine stitch-work and her neck hung with jewels, but her attire did little to hide the distress in her eyes. He looked away, ashamed. He hadn’t seen his gran in years, because he’d been too busy conquering half of Europe. But when he was a kid, she had always been his favourite grandparent.
“How’s dad?” He asked in a small voice.
His mother’s horse strayed from the road to crop at some grass, frustrating her attempts to comfort him. “He’s- He’s not great, but. Ugh!”
One of the servants hurried to chivvy the beast on and soon his mother was back by his side. As this pantomime was being played out, Barnabas thought of all the happy memories he had of his gran, recalling the holiday he and his brother had spent with her and their grandad one summer. He was even considering taking the time to attend her funeral, the Empire could look after itself for a day or two.
“Your dad will be alright… but, Ethan, there’s more.”
“More?” He asked, as tears gathered in his eyes.
“Yes…” His mother looked down at the reins in her hand. “She left a will. She left quite a bit of money for you and Duncan. Only, she stipulated that you weren’t to receive any of it unless you left your game and came back home for good.”
Barnabas, who had lain waste to armies and cities alike, who had set his heart in stone since taking the throne, had felt a thawing in his bones when he’d heard the news of his grandmother’s death. But upon hearing this ‘stipulation’, he felt a burning rage consuming him, flushing his face red and pushing sweat through his skin. How dare she try to control him through disinheritance, as though she could weaponise her death to wrench him from this world he had made his own?
With a hardness in his heart, Barnabas spurred his horse into a gallop and beat his way to the head of the column, pursued by his bodyguard and leaving his mother to amble along with the supply train.
They arrived as dusk fell over the Austrian forests, the sky bruising a deep, purply blue. The gates to the castle lay wide open and the Emperor’s entourage entered amidst a flurry of activity. After a few moments of respite, they were shown to the feasting hall, where the Baron and his men were gathering to welcome their overlord. It was a brisk affair, with Barnabas too distracted by both his mother and the news from the west to pay them proper attention.
It was as they dined on roasted boar, stuffed with pheasant, that the door to the hall opened and a party of women entered.
“Queen Leonor and her ladies in waiting.” The herald announced as the young woman made her way to the top table, where Barnabas and his mother sat.
“My love, I heard the news of your victory and came as soon as I could to join you.” She said tenderly as she curtsied before them.
“My love? Is she talking to you?” Sue asked of her son.
“Eh… yeh, she is.”
“Ethan, who’s she?”
“Mother, this is Leonor. She is my… wife.” Barnabas made the introduction with a wince.
“Lady Habsburg.” The young woman curtsied again after a panicked look crossed her delicate features.
“Goodness, Ethan, you never said you’d met someone?”
“No wonder you’re so determined to stay here.” His mother made to stand with a delighted expression on her face as she flapped her napkin, intending to introduce herself properly, but Barnabas put a hand on her arm to stop her.
“Eh… mum, she’s just an NPC.” He explained with a squirm.
“A ‘non player controlled character’.”
“Ah-I… see.” His mother smiled at the young woman, still standing before the head table. “Well, love is love, who am I to judge.”
“Ehm, we only married for political convenience.”
Sue sighed, sinking back down into her chair. “Of course…”
An awkward silence descended between the two of them as Queen Leonor, made to sit on her husband’s far side.
“Ethan…” His mother began, leaning close and speaking in hushed tones. “I probably don’t want to know the answer to this, but… are you sleeping together?”
“Don’t want to talk about it mum.” He replied through a mouthful of boar meat.
Barnabas chose to neglect to mention that he had fathered not only legitimate heirs to the throne, but also a hearty number of bastards.
It was as the feast was drawing to an end that a messenger entered the hall and approached Barnabas, leaning in close to whisper in his ear. The Emperor froze, his goblet pressed to his lips. Setting it down he stood and left the room, a dark look consuming his features. His mother made polite excuses to the other diners and followed him, finding herself in an antechamber, where Barnabas was holding a man by the throat and pinning him against the wall.
“Ethan! What are you doing!” She screeched as she made to pull him off the struggling man.
“Mum! What’s the matter with you, can’t you see I’m busy?” He yelled at her, dropping the man, who fell to the floor, spluttering for breath.
“Oh I can see what you’re up to alright.” She crossed her arms and looked scornfully at her son.
“Jesus mum, I’ve just been told that a Russian army has entered my Polish territories and that the Danes are in revolt!”
“Well no wonder, if this is how you treat your subjects.”
“I should never have left Hungary, now I’m a days march behind in mobilising my troops against the Russians and when the French hear about it they’ll think I’m disorganised and it’s the time to strike.” Barnabas raved to himself. “This is your fault, you distracted me! I’d never have rushed back here if you hadn’t shown up.”
“Well I’m sorry Ethan, I had to tell you about your gran – can’t you just go back a save or restart the game if you lose?”
“I can’t believe this… I have built an empire far greater than anything my historical counterparts ever did, I have crushed my enemies in Rome, expanded my borders north, east and south, and stood ready to push the French into the sea! And you want me to throw all that away and start again? This isn’t a game, mum, this is a virtual reality.”
Just then Queen Leonor entered the room, wondering where her husband and mother-in-law had gone.
“Ethan…” His mum breathed dejectedly.
“No! No, mum.” Barnabas ran his hands down his face and stood straight again. “I can’t do this with you here. I need you to leave.”
“Ethan, you’re not thinking straight, I know how much you loved your gran. You should come home and take some time to grieve.”
“No. Mum, I hereby banish you from this realm.”
“You wha-” His mother began but before she could finish, she was gone, inciting a scream from his wife.
“Rrraaaaagh!” Barnabas howled with rage, turning to kick the man he had been strangling in the stomach.
As rumours of a Franco-Russian alliance circulated, Barnabas returned to his capitol of Vienna, where he conferred with his advisors on the best course of action to save his empire. But as night fell, the Emperor sat on his throne, surrounded by squabbling courtiers, churchmen and hysterical vassals, all attempting to sway his opinion in a way that would suit them best. His only solace, was the sight of his children, who played amongst the tiresome dignitaries, immune to the fear that had suddenly gripped his realm, from Denmark to Sicily, from the Bosporous to the border with France and in the hearts and minds of all in-between.
“Lord, did you hear what I said?”
Barnabas turned to see that his Queen was leaning in close to speak with him. He blinked slowly. He was so tired, it felt as though he hadn’t slept for days.
“I said, that the only route to salvation lies in forgiveness.”
“What?” He narrowed his eyes, genuinely perplexed by what she was telling him.
“This is a punishment from god almighty. For the way you treated your mother, in banishing her, you rejected the love that comes from heaven, through the virgin. Mary, mother of God, is ashamed of what you have done. If a man as close to god as you, second only to the Pope, can treat his mother as you did, then what hope is there for the Empire?”
Amongst the clamour and desperation that had consumed his court, Barnabas watched his children at play. The heirs to his throne, the heirs to the empire and his life’s work. He thought then of his grandmother. For when he died, all he had lived for, would be inherited only by an NPC. As his enemies besieged his realm, as his court descended into chaos and his empire crumbled, Barnabas I, Holy Roman Emperor, died. But Ethan, was reborn.