An Appropriate Death for a Woman
Today, I thought I’d treat you to one of my short stories. And as such stories should work without an extensive introduction, without further ado allow me to begin:
“No sooner has a man found his bed but he is dragged out of it,” Eskil Gyllenstierna complained. He hastened down the narrow cobbled street towards the royal castle, keeping a firm hold on Kristina’s arm. “Three days of drinking has my head near on split in two – I had hoped for a nice, long nap.”
“At least you enjoyed the coronation celebrations.” It had been a lavish affair, presided over by a triumphant Christian II. Kristina grimaced; it had been like swallowing bile to watch the Danish king crowned king of Sweden. Had not Sten died, none of this would have happened. Kristina sucked in a breath, trying to dull the jab of grief her husband’s name elicited.
“Why a coronation in November?” Eskil took a sharp turn to the right, skipping over a pile of horse dung.
“Why not?” Kristina slipped and clutched at her brother. “As his majesty is so fond of reminding us, he is king and can do as he pleases.”
“King for now,” Eskil muttered, throwing her a sharp look out of red-shot eyes.
“It should be Nils on the throne,” Eskil muttered.
“It should have been Sten,” Kristina corrected. Her Sten, dead in his prime, killed by a Danish cannon back in January of 1520, and now here they were, hastening to bow and scrape to the Danish king. At times the wheel of fortune turned too quickly.
“Sten would have wanted it to be Nils.”
“Nils is a boy. We must be patient.” Kristina smiled at the thought of her eldest son. Keep him safe, she admonished herself. Make sure he makes it to manhood, and then we’ll see if Christian II sits as easily on his throne. The thought revived her somewhat; her son, a future king.
Just as they hurried over the bridge leading to the castle, Kristina placed a hand on Eskil’s arm. “No heroics, dear brother. I have no idea why the king has convened this meeting of nobles so late in the day, but promise me you will not do anything to draw the royal eye.”
Eskil smirked and pulled himself up straight, presenting her with the full glory of his presence. A handsome man, Eskil was also vain and had expended a small fortune on his garments. His doublet was of French damask, his hose was of silk, and the lace at collars and cuffs was from the nunnery of Vadstena – as fine, if not better, than the Brussels lace the Danes favoured.
“I shall melt into the background,” Eskil said. “Well, try to, at least.”
Kristina laughed. “You do that.” She patted him fondly on his cheek.
The great hall of the castle was thronged with people. Kristina and Eskil moved through the crowd, greeting friends and relatives. No other women, Kristina noted, throwing a nervous look in the direction of the silent guards that stood at every door.
“I don’t like this,” she muttered to Erik Vasa, her brother-in-law. She gestured at the guards. “They’re all heavily armed.”
Erik gave her a bleary look, making Kristina sigh. Vasa was not the brightest of men, and even less so when in his cups. His companion, however, straightened up and studied the guards, his features setting in a scowl.
“You’re right.” Joakim Brahe shifted on his feet. “I don’t like this either.”
“Don’t be silly. The king is merely displaying his power. And…” Erik broke off as the king entered, accompanied by a bevy of Danish nobles. In black – not surprising, as Christian II was much taken with the sobriety of the Holy Roman Emperor’s court – and with a fur lined cloak that hung almost to the floor, he strode down the room, the light of the candles and torches reflecting off his rings and the jewel-encrusted embroidery that adorned his chest . Thick reddish hair, a well-groomed reddish beard, a longish nose that some people whispered made him look like a Jew, and dark eyes under reddish eyebrows – the Danish king looked more like a well-to-do merchant than he did a king, but that was an opinion Kristina kept to herself.
Among the king’s men, Kristina caught sight of the recently reinstated Archbishop Trolle. The churchman saw her, wrinkled his nose and turned away, the heavy robes of his office swirling round him.
“What is he doing here?” she hissed to Eskil.
“Trolle!” Kristina swallowed nervously. The Archbishop had been deposed by the Swedish parliament several years ago, effectively decapitating the Danish faction in Sweden – to no use, given that the Danes had emerged victorious. Kristina crossed herself and groped for the crucifix she kept hanging at her waist. It was a blatant breach of canonical law to depose an archbishop, and the parliament had only done so after days of deliberation –and at the instigation of her dead husband. It had been bad enough to witness a most hale and hearty Archbishop Trolle perform the coronation rituals some days ago, but for the man to be here, looking as smug as a bedbug in a brothel, no, it didn’t sit right.
“I smell a rat,” Kristina said, eyeing the guards that not only stood by the doors, but also lined the walls. Joakim muttered an agreement, but her brother’s reply was lost in his bow, and Kristina curtsied deeply when the king passed by.
“Ah, our Lady of Stockholm,” the king said, motioning for Kristina to rise.
“Your Grace,” she replied, a sensation of disquiet rippling through her at his use of that particular title.
In the aftermath of her husband’s death, she had headed the opposition against the Danish king, refusing to surrender Stockholm. Only when she saw no other option, had she negotiated a truce with the king, demanding amnesty. The king had agreed, but it was said that Christian II had a long memory – and no reputation for leniency. She smoothed nervously at her stomacher, her skirts, while Christian regarded her in silence. Kristina was hard put to refrain from squirming. She didn’t like the way the king’s mouth seemed to be pursed round a smile wanting to break forth, nor the brightness in his eyes – as if he walked about in a fever of expectation.
The king continued his stroll towards the raised dais upon which sat his chair. The archbishop whispered something in the king’s ear, and Christian smiled widely – to Kristina a most blood-curdling vision.
“We must leave.” Kristina urged her brother towards one of the doors. As if on cue, the doors banged shut. Bolts were drawn and the guards unsheathed their swords. Some heartbeats of silence were followed by a wave of loud mutters as the assembled Swedish nobility looked at each other, at the heavily armed guards, at the king.
Christian II took his time, regarding his audience until the mutters died away. He sat down, arranged his cloak and displayed his teeth in a victorious grin.
“The day of reckoning is here,” the king said.
“Reckoning?” Joakim Brahe’s voice carried like a war horn. “What reckoning, my liege?”
“For your past sins, of course,” the king replied.
Kristina pushed her way forward. “You gave your word.” A deep breath to calm her racing heart and she approached the king, cleaving a path through the assembled men as if she were Moses parting the Red Sea. “You gave amnesty for all previous perceived traitorous actions, you promised clemency to all. Those were the terms of my surrender, Your Grace.”
Christian sat back and stroked his beard. “Maybe I lied,” he said mildly.
“True kings don’t lie. They give their word and hold to it.” She raised her chin, refusing to break eye-contact.
“What an innocent you are at times.” The king chuckled, eyeing Kristina as if she were an enervating chit of a girl, no more. He sat up straight and his expression hardened. “How dare you presume to tell me how kings should behave? You, an upstart female I should have drowned in a barrel for your rebellious resistance to my rule?” He stopped to draw breath, and the silence was such that should one have spilt a drop of water, it would have echoed like thunder in the vast hall. The archbishop placed a hand on the royal shoulder. With an irritated shrug, the king waved him away.
“I have never rebelled against anyone,” Kristina said. “I have but defended my country from the rapacious grasp of others.” There was a collective gasp from the men surrounding her, and she thought she could hear Eskil moan her name. Too late; she’d thrown caution in the wind, and from the expression on Christian’s face she would pay dearly. Lord, keep my sons safe, she prayed. Whatever fate You burden me with, please keep them safe. Once again, she clasped the crucifix in her hand.
“You I will deal with later,” the king said. “But first, we will listen to Archbishop Trolle.” He waved his hand at the archbishop who stood, cleared his throat and proceeded to speak.
Kristina’s head reeled. Accusations of heresy? The archbishop droned on, insisting that all those nobles who had actively participated in deposing him were nothing more than heretics, and as such deserved to be punished as such.
“You promised!” she yelled, interrupting the archbishop’s monologue. She pointed at the king. “You gave amnesty for all acts against Danish interests, including that of deposing your pet archbishop.”
The king smirked and opened his arms wide. “Alas, it is out of my hands. The Church demands restitution, not me.”
“But you swore…”
“Silence!” the king roared. “As I said, it is out of my hands.”
From all over the room, loud voices rose, yelling that this was a farce, a violation of the newly anointed king’s oaths. Men pressed forward, demanding that the lying archbishop be thrown out.
“He’s the rebel!” Joakim Brahe screamed. “It was Trolle who betrayed his country, not the other way around.”
Trolle backed away from the angered mob, eyes darting in the direction of his king. Christian gestured, and the guards closest drew their swords, using them to force the crowd away from the dais. The king rose to his feet. “Either you listen to what the archbishop has to say in silence, or I will have you all thrown into the dungeons.”
“He is speaking of heresy!” someone yelled. “We all know what that means. If found guilty, we die!”
The king held up his hands in a placating gesture. “You will be accorded a fair hearing – as your king, I promise you that.”
“Our king?” Kristina closed her eyes when she recognised her brother’s voice. “Our true leader lies dead since ten months back,” Eskil continued. “And we all know Trolle just wants to get his own back.” He spat in the direction of the archbishop. “A pox on you, Gustav Trolle. You are no archbishop of ours, you’re just a cur, grovelling at your Danish master’s feet.”
There was a slap, and Eskil staggered back, holding his hand to his face. One of the guards shook his sword at him. “Next time I use the cutting edge, not the flat.”
The archbishop resumed his litany. Kristina swayed when she was named as one of the heretics, as was her deceased husband, her brothers, Joakim Brahe, Erik Vasa – everyone who had supported her husband was on the archbishop’s list – truly a divine coincidence, she thought bitterly. Voices were raised in protest, people screamed and yelled, and at one point something flew through the air to land with a splat on the archbishop’s robes. At the king’s command, the accused noblemen were dragged off at sword point to be locked up for the night. As Kristina was manhandled past the archbishop, she spat at his feet.
“May you rot in hell for what you just did to your countrymen.”
“I live to serve God and my king,” Trolle replied mildly, turning his back on her.
After a sleepless night, Kristina rose just before dawn and kneeled down by the eastern window, her eyes affixed on the returning light as she said her prayers.
“Mother of God, give me resolve,” she whispered. “Help me through this day, my Lady.” She crossed herself and got to her feet. She could hear the guards shuffling on their feet in the antechamber, saying something in that ugly language of theirs.
When the guards came to fetch her, Kristina was standing in the middle of the room, back straight, hands clasped lightly in front of her. She took a deep breath. She would show no fear. She took yet another breath and raised her chin. Show no fear. She moved towards the waiting guards.
The travesty of a trial was concluded by noon. A council of bishops found the accused guilty of heresy, and with barely contained glee the king sprang into action. One by one, the condemned men were dragged out into the central square, there to be beheaded – or hanged, depending on their station. Kristina was hauled to the window to watch as her brothers, her brother-in-law, her cousins and her menfolk in general, were decapitated.
“Eskil!” she shrieked when he was dragged fighting towards the rudimentary block. “Eskil,” she sobbed when his head was tossed into the fountain. The cobbles of the square ran red with blood, the gallows groaned under the weight of all those slowly spinning bodies, and Kristina was hoarse with weeping, her eyes so bloated she could scarcely see.
A soft chuckle from behind her made her turn. The king was standing a yard or so away, studying her with interest.
“What? Are you not enjoying the spectacle?”
She shook her head, incapable of speech.
The king laughed again. “Tomorrow we will burn their bodies – and as we speak I am having your husband disinterred to burn him with them.”
Kristina moaned a ‘no’, sinking down to her knees. “Please, my liege, leave Sten to rest in peace.”
The king regarded her with amusement. “So you beg for the body of your husband, but not for your life.”
Kristina swallowed. She’d thought herself reprieved. Her hands rose to her neck. She didn’t want to die.
“You will burn in hell everlasting for this,” she told him.
“And you will die. But I won’t drag you out to the square to meet your death like your menfolk have. It would be quite inappropriate, for a woman to die like that.”
“Inappropriate.” Eyes reminiscent of pebbles drilled into hers. “So, my lady, I give you a choice. Do you prefer burning at the stake or being buried alive?”
She collapsed to the floor, her head filling with the sound of Christian’s laughter. All she could see were the toes of his boots. To burn or be buried alive – two appropriate deaths for a rebellious woman. Show no fear. Kristina Gyllenstierna crawled on the floor, clutching at the king’s leg.
“Mercy.” Show no fear. “Mercy, my liege.”
The king just laughed and laughed.
(And if you want to read Kristina Gyllenstierna’s full story, go here!)