One Girl Destined to Fulfill A Prophecy
Lotharingia - Charlemagne's Heir
Tuscany, 1062. After a long-held feud has claimed the men in her family, young Matilde prepares to succeed her father as margrave of Tuscany. A descendant of Charlemagne, heiress to the most prestigious relics in Christendom, and a trained warrior, she could rule on her own. To her dismay, the Church will support her extraordinary claim to power only if she accepts a traditional role and marries the Duke of Lotharingia - a man who fills her with dread.
Across the Alps, the late emperor's son, King Heinrich, has come of age, in a court rife with passions and treasonous ambitions. When, after a chance meeting, Heinrich rescues Matilde from her abusive husband, friendship blossoms into forbidden love. Is Charlemagne's prophecy about to come true?
'A superbly constructed probable tale, spell-binding, sensual, and bittersweet, loaded with exquisite detail, and entirely engaging.' GoodReads
Augsburg countryside, late February 1070
Heinrich had gone for a ride outside the city walls to clear his thoughts. Countess Matilde of Canossa had not changed much since the Mantova council of five years earlier, so despite her riding garments, he recognised her from a distance. He was surprised to find her in Bavaria. Then he remembered that Welf of Este, a local lord, was her cousin.
Her horse was grazing next to her, under a majestic oak tree. But why was she alone? He spurred his mount in her direction. It would be rude not to congratulate her on her recent wedding.
She did not move as he edged closer. He tethered his stallion to a tree trunk. She recognised him and curtseyed, but her movements were rattled. As he drew nearer, he understood.
She had a cut under her eye, and various bruises. The blood had coagulated but still looked fresh. Her cheeks were streaked with grey lines of drying tears. ‘What happened to you, Matilde?’
She lowered her gaze as if she wanted to be swallowed by the forest floor. ‘He had sworn.’ Her breath was rapid and shallow. She burst into sobs, shaking.
‘What did he swear? Who?’
She gazed upwards and then down at her feet again. ‘The marriage...’ She swallowed. ‘They said it was going to be just on paper. That I… he…’
His unease grew. ‘Did you not intend to perform your bridal duties?’
Her gaze transfixed him, and he felt stupid for asking.
‘I am sorry.’ He was not used to comforting women. But the sadness of forced marriages was too familiar. He wrapped his arms around her, careful not to hurt her. She stiffened, like an injured animal scared of physical contact.
‘Our families have been enemies, but that is in the past. I will not hurt you.’
She nodded but could not be still. She kept looking over her shoulder, her eyes scouting the forest for dangers.
‘Where is he?’ he asked.
The question must have re-awakened her memories. Her chin, her shoulders were shaking. ‘We were in Ulm, on our way back from my cousin’s in Ravensburg. He is either still there or looking for me.’
A light, cold February rain started to fall, painting the leafless trees a darker shade of grey. Realising that she was not wearing a mantle, he took his off and wrapped it around her shoulders to keep her warm.
He had to get the facts. ‘Did he do all this?’ he asked, delicately moving a strand of red-blonde hair away from her face and pointing to her bruises.
‘The real scars are in my soul.’ Fresh tears mixed with raindrops on her face.
This was a young lady who could command fleets and troops, and that animal had broken her.
Heinrich was not sure how to handle it. Drawing her to him, making her rest her head on his chest, holding her as gently as possible, to make her feel safe –
it seemed to help.
He pulled his mantle over the top of her head, to prevent her hair from becoming completely soaked. For a while, they both listened to the rain falling softly, relentlessly on the barren late-winter fields.
* * * * *
Matilde’s right cheek leaned against Heinrich’s chest. It hurt every time he breathed. She was afraid of speaking to him, and afraid of moving away. She swallowed her sobs.
The soft fur lining of his mantle made her feel safe. At the same time, she wished she could feel the rain on her hair again, washing away the dirt, the horror, the memories... She had to stay in the present. Heinrich seemed concerned. It sounded like he remembered her from childhood; perhaps he could help.
He adjusted the cloak around her shoulders. ‘I am sorry.’
Her gaze crept upwards, a flicker of hope in her heart.
‘I cannot punish him, Matilde. A good half of my princes probably abuse their wives.’
The breath died in her lungs. That was all he could muster: a king’s cynical analysis of her situation.
The corner of her eye found the sword Rolando had had made for her, hanging from the side saddle of her mount. She pulled away and grabbed the silver hilt, unsheathing the sword. Gottfried had forced her to surrender it, said it was offensive for her to keep weapons in their chamber, and the next night he had forced himself on her.
When he had left to go drinking and hunting to celebrate his deed, leaving her like a lump of flesh on the floor, somehow, despite her terror, she had known she could not run away without it; her sword was more than a weapon for protection; her sword was her dignity.
The rain made the hilt colder. She handed it to Heinrich.
Dumbfounded, he grasped it.
Hopefully, it would do its job quickly. She dropped to her knees, her fear gone. ‘If you cannot save me, finish me. Please. Here, now. I would rather die than go back to him.’
In a moment, she would join her father, her brother, her sister and be free. She was grateful for the rain across her face. Her last memories would be the touch and sound of water, cleansing her soul, just like it was renewing the dripping woods around them. It was a decent way to go.
Heinrich was clutching the sword, his gaze blank like a statue. Then he placed it on the grass and knelt next to her.
‘I cannot do that.’ His voice was low, reassuring in her ear. ‘Come with me to Augsburg. You will be safe for a few days.’
"I have loved history for as long as I can remember. There was, after all, a castle in my village, which one day will form the setting of one of my novels."
After spending too long in a corporate career, Lara Byrne has taken redundancy to follow her dream: turning the period and characters she loves into stories. Her fiction, a blend of romance, politics, and mystery, aims to cast in a fresh light the women who changed Europe at the turn of the first millennium.
Lotharingia, her debut, made it to the shortlist of the 2020 Page Turner Awards and is the recipient of a 5-star Highly Recommended badge from the Historical Fiction Press.
Lara is currently busy with Lotharingia's sequel, entitled The Road to Canossa. Its draft manuscript has been shortlisted for the Page Turner ScreenPlay Awards 2021.
Currently based in London with her family, cat and dog, Lara tries to visit all the settings of her novels, throughout Italy and Germany.