Queen of the Darkest Hour, Chapter 1

October 783, Worms

Fastrada forced a smile to hide her unease with the short fourteen-winter-old youth King Charles had introduced as his eldest son. The cause wasn’t his stooped shoulders—she had long known about that deformity. In fact, he was better looking than she had expected. His dark blond hair framed a handsome face with her betrothed’s long nose. But something seethed beneath the surface of his large, dark blue eyes.

“A pleasure to meet you, Lady Fastrada,” Pepin said politely.

Fastrada shivered in the chill of the morning air and drew her marten-fur-lined cloak close with gloved hands. A breeze scattered red and gold leaves on the palace’s courtyard, which was framed by a colonnade and three large rectangular stone buildings with many windows. The royal manor and the curved-end chapel flanked the barracks. Guards in the manor’s tower could see past the city walls but not much farther. This land was so flat, unlike her hilltop fortress at Büraburg. Of course, she reminded herself, this palace sat in the middle of a guarded city, and the Saxons were across the vast Rhine and leagues to the north and east. Yet she doubted she would ever shake her fear of those heathens no matter how far away they were.

Shoving aside her worry about the Saxons, Fastrada focused on her immediate concern: her place in the royal family. She wanted to be a good mother to Charles’s children. Would they accept an Easterner who spoke and dressed differently, especially one who had seen only two more winters than the eldest child? Did they pine for Queen Hildegard, dead only a few months?

“And this is my son Karl,” Charles said to Fastrada and her father, Count Radolf.

About to see eleven winters, the boy was large for his age, close to surpassing his older brother. If he did grow to be as tall and brawny as his father, Fastrada wondered, would he obey her when Charles was away?

“We must get you a new wooden sword,” Charles told his son in a tenor Fastrada was still getting used to. “The hilt on this one is worn.”

Karl frowned. “I want a real one.”

Charles chuckled. “When you’re old enough.”

Pepin scowled, and Fastrada’s brow creased. Why did he seem envious of his brother? Her gaze fell to his belt, where he had only an eating knife and a dagger. She hadn’t expected to see a sword, not for the youth destined to rule the archbishopric of Metz. Why would Pepin want a costly weapon that would sit unused at his hip? For vanity? One look at him revealed he was from a noble family—he wore a fine wool tunic fringed with silk and had plenty of gold and silver around his neck and on his fingers. Why was he unhappy, when Charles had been so generous? Fastrada had heard about a mother selling her misshapen baby into slavery to forget the sin that had brought God’s curse upon the child. Instead, Charles had his stoop-shouldered bastard at court with his siblings. No one would accept a hunchback on the throne, but someday, Pepin would control the riches of the see of Metz and wield all the influence that went with it.

As the king presented his daughters, Fastrada turned her attention to the girls. All three were staring at her. Charles’s features softened, and his voice took on a tender note as he uttered their names.

“My lord king,” cried a high-pitched voice.

Both Fastrada and Charles turned. A young woman about Fastrada’s age, her gem-studded girdle tied above a swollen belly, hurried toward them from inside the royal residence. Charles glanced at his bride, then at the noblewoman, and stood a little straighter, like a soldier bracing for a punch.

The noblewoman gazed up at Charles, her eyes pleading. “Is it true, my lord king? Are you going to marry this woman from east of the Rhine?”

Fastrada bristled but held her tongue. How could this woman not know? Oh, was she the concubine the merchants had gossiped about?

“Kunigunde,” Charles said calmly, “Lady Fastrada will be my queen tomorrow.”

With a gasp that sounded like a sob, Kunigunde laid her hand on her heart and hunched over as if she had been hit with a stone.

“Don’t get overwrought,” Charles said. “I will acknowledge the child just as I acknowledged Pepin.”

Fastrada’s throat tightened, and she pressed her lips together. Don’t cry. Not with her watching. Not with Father watching.

“You told me you were not going to remarry,” Kunigunde said, her voice choked. “You didn’t want any more heirs.”

I heard the same thing. Obviously, he changed his mind. Fastrada clenched her fists, trying to cage the jealousy roaring within her. She dared not speak and release a torrent of tears.

“After this summer’s battles,” Charles said, “I realized I must marry again for the good of our people.”

“But what will happen to me?” Kunigunde asked.

Why should he care about a slut? Fastrada’s throat grew tighter. Her eyes stung.

“My lord king,” Radolf said, seizing Fastrada’s elbow and dragging her away, “my daughter is not well and needs air.”

“Of course,” Charles said. Was that relief Fastrada heard in his voice?

Still holding Fastrada’s arm, Radolf pushed his way through the crowd, and soon, people moved aside on their own. Although age had stolen most of his hair and lined his face, Radolf was still strong enough to wear armor and command soldiers. As Fastrada fought back tears, she and her father rounded a corner of the manor, passed its south wall to their right and apple trees to the left, and turned again. A garden still vibrant with radishes, cabbages, and other fall vegetables greeted them. Several cart lengths away, she spied servants coming in and out of the kitchen.

“She’s trying to steal him from me!” Fastrada bawled.

“Stop that!” Radolf said in a low growl. “How many times have I told you never to cry in front of anyone? They’ll think you’re weak.”

“But … but she claims to be carrying his child!”

“He believes her.” Radolf shrugged.

“Why won’t you defend me?” During negotiations for the betrothal, her father had refused to insist Charles send the concubine away—to even discuss the matter—and it still irked her.

“She’s nothing to you.”

Fastrada had let herself believe that until she saw Kunigunde’s round belly. “The baby will tie Charles more closely to her.”

“No one cares about a bastard. You need to make sure Charles is fair to the sons you’ll have with him. We need a man with our blood ruling our lands and Saxony.”

“And he will.”

Her father smiled. “That’s my girl.”

“I don’t want to be only a duty to Charles!”

“You will be queen of the Franks, and your sons will be kings. Most women would be happy with that, even if her husband swived every maid in the palace.”

Fastrada envied Kunigunde’s curves, so unlike her own tall, willowy figure. Did Charles and Kunigunde share only lust or was there something more? And if there was something more, she might face a more difficult battle on her own sons’ behalf, especially if Charles wished to strengthen his bond with Hildegard’s brother, Gerold, by favoring his late wife’s boys.

“He could heed Kunigunde and ignore me,” Fastrada said softly. “She could turn her son against me and mine. How do you know Charles won’t do to me what he did to his first wife? She bore him a son, and Charles threw her away like a threadbare rag.”

“You’re confused,” her father said with an eerie calm. “The Lombard princess bore him no children, and she got what she deserved.”

Fastrada glared at him. That was only half-true. Her father had told her just a few weeks ago that Himiltrude, Pepin’s mother, was Charles’s first wife, not a concubine, and Charles had divorced her to wed the Lombard. In fact, Radolf pointed out that Himiltrude’s appointment as abbess of the royal double monastery at Nivelles was the price for peace with her family. Why would he attempt to deceive her now by repeating what Charles wanted people to believe?

Oh. Her father wasn’t trying to trick her. He was warning her: she had better act like someone was always seeking an opportunity to use her own words against her, even if no one was within earshot. It was never this way at home.

She swallowed, loathing the lie she had to accept. “Your pardon, Father.”

“You were a little girl at that time,” he said, “much too young to remember.”

That much was true. And that was what she would say if anyone brought up Charles’s early marriages. She would not talk about the tension between Charles and his late brother. Or the Lombard princess Charles had set aside to marry Hildegard or the war that resulted between Charles and his enraged former father-by-marriage. But she would never forget that first war in Lombardy taking her father away for almost a year and the vengeful Saxons’ attack on Büraburg while he was gone.

Our people paid the price. Again, she was seven winters old in a chapel crowded with monks from the Abbey of Fritzlar and refugees from neighboring villages, all praying before the stone box with the relics of Saint Wigbert. Boulders from Saxon catapults thundered into the fortress walls and rattled the floor, even the air. The smoke from burning houses and the fields filled her throat.

Her father’s voice brought her back to the present. “The king stayed true to Hildegard.”

“She was an Agilolfing.” To seize his late brother’s lands, Charles had needed an alliance with one of the realm’s most powerful families, which included the duke of Bavaria.

“We’re just as important,” her father replied. “We have allies right where the king needs them.”

“But I will never capture Charles’s heart. It still belongs to Hildegard. Or Kunigunde.” Fastrada looked down.

“Marriage is about the head, not the heart. Charles is fond of you, and that is enough for most brides.”

“It wasn’t this way for you and Mother,” she mumbled.

“At first, it was. We married to bind our families and barely knew each other when we made our vows.” He sighed. “She was a good wife.”

With those words, the ground felt more solid under Fastrada’s feet. Maybe there was hope to win Charles’s affection. She raised her chin.

“And, Daughter, don’t lose your temper with the concubine or anyone else. I won’t be there to rescue you.”

Fastrada nodded slowly. Her father loosened his grip.

While she was growing up, Charles had been the hero who fought the Aquitainian rebels, the Lombards who threatened the Church, the Saracen tyrant in Hispania, the Saxons burning their way through East Francia—the man who avenged last year’s disastrous battles against the Saxons in the Süntel Mountains. She had wanted her father to promise her to a handsome, young count as brave and intelligent as Charles.

Over the past few months, she had wavered between dread of marrying a man old enough to have sired her and pleasant surprise at how her charming suitor showed as much vigor as a warrior ten winters younger. Her father’s announcement that she would marry Charles had been like a draught of the strongest wine, but now that wine had become vinegar, sour in her mouth.

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