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Castlehead, Lydia, A.D. 801
"A ship approaches, Your Majesty. Her sail is spread with the Carolingian cross." Renwick, chief messenger among the Lydian guard, bowed low before the king.
"Charlemagne." His Royal Highness, King John of Lydia, lowered the sword with which he'd been sparring with his younger brother, Prince Luke. Why would the Holy Roman Emperor send a ship to Lydia unannounced? Charlemagne's realm had expanded vastly under his leadership, but John had assumed the renowned ruler would have no interest in the tiny kingdom of Lydia. Was he wrong?
King John turned to face the messenger. "She approaches directly?"
"Making for the wharf at high speed, sire," Renwick panted as though he, too, had run to reach the king quickly.
"Then we shall make haste, as well." Sheathing his sword, John headed for the courtyard gate, the fastest route to the Mediterranean shore.
"To the lookout tower, Your Majesty?" Renwick appeared confused by the king's choice of direction.
"No, Renwick." John led the way. "To the wharf."
Prince Luke ran beside him. "Why would Charlemagne visit Lydia? We are not his vassals."
"I doubt it is Charlemagne himself," King John acknowledged. "The emperor regularly sends emissaries throughout his empire to report back to him." He prayed that was true this time, irregular though it might seem.
"But Lydia is not part of his empire." Luke chafed visibly at the idea.
"We are part of Christendom. As such, we ought to ally ourselves closely with the Holy Roman Empire. Such a position could prove to be advantageous." John reached the end of the wharf and shielded his eyes from the sun, examining the quickly approaching vessel, her sails emblazoned with the distinctive Carolingian cross, four tri-quetras joined at the center to form the distinctive symbol of Emperor Charlemagne's reign.
"Three masts!" The sight filled John with awe. Lydia had no ship to match it. And yet, "She looks to be wounded."
"Aye, brother." Luke clapped one hand on John's shoulder and pointed with the other. "Her foresail has been rent and hastily mended. Do you think she has weathered a storm?"
"Or an attack." John met his brother's eyes.
"Saracens?" Prince Luke spoke the word softly, as though saying it aloud might draw the vicious pirates closer.
"They raid the Mediterranean waters regularly."
"Never so close to Lydia."
"We don't know how far this ship has come," King John acknowledged. "Or whether the Saracens may have taken her."
"Taken her?" Fear sparked in his brother's blue eyes as he looked out to the ship and back at the ramparts of their castle. If the pirates had taken the ship, they could approach under Charlemagne's cross and dock before the Lydians realized trouble had reached their shores. The castle's defenses might be breached before they could even prepare for battle. "Why would Saracens approach so boldly?"
"For no good reason." John shook his head. He didn't want to believe that Saracen pirates had taken the emperor's ship, but given her condition, it was a distinct possibility. "Let us pray for Lydia's safety."
While the brothers murmured hasty yet heartfelt prayers, King John heard the rumble of boot steps on the wharf. He turned to find Eliab and Urias, two courtiers who'd been his father's close advisors, panting as they trotted down the wharf.
"Your Majesty," Urias called out. "You should not be out here!"
"This does not look good." Eliab gestured to the ship as he bent to catch his breath.
"His Majesty should hide until we've determined the motives of the approaching vessel."
John dismissed their concerns. The pair often treated him as though he was still a child, though he'd weathered twenty-eight winters and had ruled Lydia capably since his father's death four years before. "I may determine their motives much faster if I stay here."
"They've put down a boat!" Renwick had hardly taken his eyes from the ship.
"They're worthy seamen, then." John approved of the ship's rapid loss of speed. They'd obviously put down an anchor. It was wise. He'd never docked such a large vessel alongside the wharf, and though he couldn't be sure the depth of the ship's rudder, he doubted they'd have made it to the dock without scraping against the submerged rocks that hid not so far below the water at low tide.
"What are they loading?" Luke studied the men as they carried a large fabric-draped bundle onto the boat. From the care they took in handling it, the cargo must have been delicate. The dark green cloth glistened in the sunlight like silk. Whatever was wrapped inside must be quite valuable.
A plump, wimpled figure was loaded next, with no shortage of howling admonitions. Then six burly men boarded and took to the oars with vigor, slicing through the water as though Charlemagne himself was watching.
"I believe that bundle is a person." John observed the way they'd propped the bundle in the stern with the wimpled woman fussing over it. "A slender figure, perhaps a youth or a child."
"Or a woman," Prince Luke offered.
"On a ship?" Urias scoffed.
"It is possible," Luke pointed out as the boat drew nearer and its contents easier to see. "The cut of the silk clothing is certainly suggestive of a female. And it would explain the lady in waiting."
"Bah. A nurse to the child," Urias insisted.
"Whatever it is, I hardly think myself to be in immediate danger from it." John felt glad that he hadn't run and hidden as his father's advisors had suggested. Granted, he had an obligation to protect the throne. Urias and Eliab were understandably skittish about the issue of safety, having been with his father, King Theodoric, when he'd died defending one of Lydia's villages on the Illyrian border.
But King John had two younger brothers and a much younger sister, as well. Prince Luke was a worthy leader, and Prince Mark would be, too, if he ever returned from his long journey by sea. God would provide a leader for Lydia. When his wife had died in childbirth three years before, John had resolved that his line would end with his death. He would not ask another woman to risk her life trying to bear an heir for him.
"You don't suppose it's a ruse?" Eliab watched the fast-approaching boat with skepticism. "To lull us into thinking we've nothing to fear and take us while our guard is down."
"Eliab, you are far too suspicious," John chided him. As the boat moved closer, the shrieks and groans of the white-faced woman in the wimple grew louder. If she was part of a ruse, she was overplaying her role. Rather than pay the woman much heed, John examined the faces of the other men in the boat. To his relief, none of them had the stature or features of Charlemagne.
John had met the emperor once, before Charlemagne had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor of all Europe. Then King of the Franks, Charlemagne was an impressive bull of a man who ruled with an iron fist. Despite the power and gusto with which he governed, the man was also an intellectual and a devout Christian of renowned faith. John not only respected and admired him, he also feared him.
And he feared, too, the reason for this unannounced visit under Charlemagne's sails. Protocol would have had them send greetings well in advance of their visit so that John would have an opportunity to make preparations to host them. Obviously, there had to be some reason the men hadn't wanted him to meet them well prepared.
The wimpled woman howled. She swayed on her feet but refused to sit. Her cries carried ahead of the rowboat through the warm August air. "Must you lurch so? Oh, I fear I shall faint before we make it to the shore!"
The rowing men grimaced, and John suspected they'd have liked for the woman to faint, if only to still her cries. As the boat drew nearer, the man closest to the prow, the only man without an oar in his hand, called out, "Greetings in the name of Charlemagne, Emperor of all Rome." The man spoke in impeccable Latin. "What lands are these?"
John could only hope his own linguistic training was up to the imperial standard. "Friends, this is the Christian Kingdom of Lydia."
A relieved smile spread across the man's face, and John realized his expression had been quite anxious up to that moment. The man tossed a rope. "We seek King John, the healer."
"You have found him." The symbol of cross and crown that decorated John's habergeon signified his position. He caught the rope and pulled the boat toward the dock with a mighty heave. Behind him, Luke and Renwick grabbed the line, while Eliab and Urias stumbled over themselves.
The man's smile grew broader. "Then God has surely been with us. I am sorry to arrive unannounced, but we had no alternative." As the boat was pulled alongside the length of the dock, the man bounded onto the wharf and bowed low. "I am Boden, a servant of Charlemagne and acting captain of the emperor's ship."
"Acting captain?" John looked the man over. Clearly the youth was a strong and strapping lad, but he hardly seemed old enough to be a captain. Indeed, he was certainly younger than John or Luke.
"Alas, my beloved father was commissioned captain by Charlemagne himself and vested with a mission of the utmost importanceto carry the emperor's most precious cargo. But we were attacked at sea by Saracens, and my father died defending his ship." Boden's face blanched as he spoke.
"You have done well to continue on his mission." John hoped his words would provide some comfort to the youth.
But Boden only shook his head. "I implore thee, Your Majesty John the healer. You are our only remaining hope that this mission might succeed." He raised his hand toward the boat.
The wimpled woman had quit her moaning and now peeled back the silk veil that covered the face of the bundled figure the men had so carefully loaded onto the boat.
John saw a flushed jawline and rosy lips that could only belong to a woman. So Luke had been right. This was no boy but a female of about twenty years of age. In fact, whoever she was, her features were beautiful, her complexion pale, save for a flush John recognized all too well.
Her drawn lips confirmed it. The woman was suffering. No wonder Boden had twice referred to him as John, the healer. It was a title he was loath to use, but one which desperate men rushed to give him, especially when they had need of a man to stand between their loved ones and the advancing scythe of death. Yes, he'd been trained by his mother as a healera practice her family had observed for generations. When he'd taken to his studies with far greater success than his brothers, some had said he had a gift.
Now he considered it a curse. He hardly considered himself worthy of the title healer. Not when he'd failed to save his own wife or the mother who'd trained him.
Boden nodded to the lady in waiting, who peeled back more of the cloth.
"Ah!" Urias and Eliab recoiled at the sight of the infected gash above the woman's right eye, which followed the curve of her eyebrow. The angry wound had swollen her eyelid shut, festering across her face in fever-reddened waves.
John understood immediately. He'd seen injuries that had deteriorated to a similar state before. Rarely had the sufferer survived. Rather than ask the men to lift the young woman, John lowered himself into the boat and approached her. He could smell the rancid scent of the infection and recognized with dismay the golden yellow crust that seeped from the gash.
The sight and smell carried as clear a message as any tolling death bell.
The lovely woman had less than a day to live.
And the herb that could save her grew half a day's journey into the mountains, in the borderlands Lydia shared with the Illyrians. John's father, King Theodoric, had died defending those borderlands. And yet, as John observed the woman's fever-flushed features, he realized she'd have to have crushed hare's tongue leaves applied to her injury by nightfall. Even then, it might be too late to save her.
He turned to Boden. "Was she injured two or three days ago?"
"Three days," Boden answered. "How did you know?"
Relieved that the Saracens hadn't attacked closer to the Lydian coast, John nonetheless felt the weight of the young woman's grim prognosis. She'd already gone too long without treatment. "Infections of this nature always run the same course. Once the secretions turn yellow, the sufferer has less than a day to live."
Boden's face blanched, and his men at the oars hung their heads.
John didn't doubt the sailors had been at the oars to bring the ship to Lydiawith her sails rent and patched, they'd have rowed in desperate hope of saving the woman's life. Obviously the woman must have meant a great deal to them for the men to take on such a strenuous task. John wished he could tell them their efforts hadn't been in vain. "You mentioned the emperor's precious cargo." He began the question slowly and found his throat had gone dry.
As he'd feared, Boden pointed to the woman. "She is the precious cargoPrincess Gisela, one of Charlemagne's daughters. She has been pledged to marry an Illyrian prince. We were to have her delivered by Christ-mastide."
"You were running ahead of schedule."
"That we were," Boden acknowledged with a bittersweet smile, "until the Saracens found us. If she dies, there will likely be war."
"War!" Urias exclaimed.
"And you've gotten us involved in it?" Eliab added.
John raised a hand to quiet the courtiers. "Boden made the right choice." He looked at the flushed face of the princess and felt sorrow rise inside him. Such a beautiful young woman. It would be tragic for her to die so young. His heart beat out a desperate prayer that somehow, in spite of his failures as a healer, God would see fit to spare the princess from death.
Princess Gisela felt the boat rock as someone stepped out from it. The sun burned hot against her face, even hotter than when the stifling veil of silk had covered her. Or perhaps her fever had grown that much worse.
"Can you save her?" Hope sprang to Boden's voice.
"I could." The voice of King John, the healer, followed him as he climbed back onto the dock. "Hare's tongue leaves have proven an effective cure against this type of yellow secretion. But the leaves must be freshly picked, and the nearest plants grow in the mountains on the Illyrian borderlands. A swift rider could reach them by nightfall."
"Then send your swiftest rider," Boden insisted. "We will pay the expense"
"It is not the expense that worries me. The rider must know what he is looking for." King John's tone grew pessimistic. "And have daylight enough to find it. Besides that, if the hare's tongue leaves are not applied today, there won't be time to stop the spreading infection. She'll be dead by morning."
"She is a vigorous one," Boden insisted. "There is fight in her."
"I can see that. Otherwise she would be dead already."
"Oh!" Hilda, her maid, who'd been simpering through the conversation, sounded as though she might faint.
Another voice, similar to the king's, spoke with challenge. "You could find it, John."
Gisela noted that the man hadn't addressed the king with his title. A peer of some sort? Perhaps a brother or uncle.