It takes the cart a fortnight to travel from Salerno to Ostia. By the time she arrives, Trota feels as if she has aged a decade. None of her bones are where they belong, and the mute solemnity of the cart driver has long since driven her into an internal contemplation which only the strangeness of her destination rescues her. Despite the numbness, she gazes from side to side with open interest as the cart rumbles through the paved streets. Ostia is a seaside town. The sights and smells— even the sounds— are alien to her country senses. Gulls wheel in abandon through an overly-blue sky. The clothes that flap from lines strung between the two and three-story houses are a bright profusion of unknown colours. The language of the locals as they shout to each other like frenzied children is only vaguely familiar. Trota catches words here and there, but the accent is sharper, more nasal than she is used to. She may as well be trundling through a maelstrom of Frenchmen as her fellow Italians. After so long in her road clothes she feels drab, and stupid, and as dusty within as without. If she were a patient at her clinic, Trota would advise herself to rest in warm water and rub her ankles with salt. But there is work to be done, and she does not have time to rest. Such a summons as the one that set her on this road come rarely, if at all, and are not to be delayed. The cart slows as the narrow road opens out into a piazza, and she looks up in a paroxysm of anticipation.
It is beautiful, a cobbled circle surrounding a three-tiered fountain that splashes with a voice like singing children. For a moment Trota is lost in the splendour of the water, then in astonishment at the locals who trudge past it without a glance. Nonetheless, her sense of urgency overrides any further consideration. She nudges the driver, points across the plaza to the road rising towards the bishop’s residence at the summit of the hill overlooking the bay. He doesn’t even acknowledge her, simply clicks at the mule and spurs it on to a slightly quicker shamble. They rise away from the scene of rustic beauty, past houses that grow in stature and the ornateness of their façades, through roads that become avenues and, finally, broaden out into a square surrounded by buildings whose size dwarf anything she has seen since her arrival. A golden gate stands at one end: beyond it, rolling gardens border a gravel driveway that sends the cart up to doors wider than even those at the University where she makes her home. For a moment, Trota considers ordering the driver to turn around, to take her away from the towering frontage of white marble that looms over her, crushing her vision and self-image with its sheer presence. But the driver has already dismounted, and slung her satchel to the ground. Faced with his mute resistance, she has no option but to clamber down and watch the mule recede to the relative safety of the known world outside.
She is pulled from her reverie by a discreet cough behind her. She turns, startled, to see a tall, grey stick figure of a man staring down at her from the top step. His cleanliness makes her feel like a vagrant.
“Are you the woman?” The arrogance in his voice triggers a lifetime of insolence. Automatically she raises her chin, and returns his stare with haughtiness of her own.
“Are you the water boy?”
“I am Francesco, personal secretary to his Excellency, Hugo of Ostia.”
“Oh.” Trota grins. “No chance of you taking my bag, then?”
Francesco’s gaze turns to ice. “Follow me.” He swivels on his heel and strides along the front of the residency, not waiting to see whether she follows. Trota grabs up her satchel and dashes after him. He rounds the corner of the building and strides across a wide, perfectly smooth lawn at an angle. Trota catches up, and glances at him sidelong.
“So, what? I only deserve the tradesman’s entrance?”
“You do not deserve the residency at all,” he says without turning his head. “His Excellency does not wish to be troubled by your presence.”
“What?” For a second, she is too stunned to keep up, and falls a step behind. Then anger overcomes her, and she dares to reach out and grab the man’s wrist. “I beg your pardon? I come all the way here because he calls me, I abandon my studies—“
“You did not.” He shrugs her off. “You were summoned by the Church, woman, not His Excellency. You would do well to keep your mouth shut and remember who you speak to.”
The lawn ends at a high hedge a hundred yards from the building. Francesco leads her towards it in silence, and through a gap so cunningly hidden she cannot see it from twelve steps away. On the other side the hill rolls down a mile or so to a cliff. Orchards cover the hillside, and through them, a gravelled path winds down to a walled villa perched on the cliff edge.
“Down there,” Francesco said, “Begone.” Before she can reply he slips back through the hedge and is gone. Trota stares at the hidden villa. Suddenly, the days on the cart catch up with her bones. The thought of trudging all that way, with no real idea of why she has been summoned or what awaits her, seems too much to bear. Her knees want to give way, to draw her onto the rough ground. All she needs to do is lay her head against her bag, close her eyes, and never wake again. The hillside is silent. No birds cry in the salt air, no insects chitter in the surrounding leaves. She is alone in the world, a long way from comfort. For a moment she considers picking her satchel up and striding back through the hedge, marching through the gates and down into Ostia, turning her back on the summons and losing herself in the winding seaside alleyways for the price of a bed and a bowl of soup. Then she sighs, hefted the bag, and trudges the long mile to the villa.
Seen close, it is less humble than small in scale. The compact garden at its front is flawless, an exercise in geometric perfection that draws a nod of admiration from the weary traveller. Its low stone wall gleams white in the sun, and she can find not a single crack in its smooth, unbroken render. The gate swings easily on oiled hinges as she passes through. A man sits on a bench in the clean-swept portico. He rises at her approach, and reaches out to take her bag.
“You are the chirurgeon, Trota?” he asks in a soft, strangely-accented voice. Trota glances up at him. He appears to be in his fifties, past the full strength of his manhood. His skin is pale beneath a reddish beard, and beginning to sag across his bones. The hands clutching her satchel remember, rather than contain, a workman’s strength. His eyes are red and wet, although they gaze at her with a keen measure. His hair is full, mottled red and grey, and swept back in a style she has not seen since her youth. Despite the gentleness he exudes, Trota is instantly wary.
“I am,” she acknowledges. “And you are?”
“Call me Nicholas,” he says, smiling to himself as much as her. Trota raises her eyebrows in surprise.
“Not an Italian name.”
“No,” he said. “I’m Roman by occupation, not by birth. Please...” He indicates a richly carved wooden door behind them. “Come inside. I’ll show you to your room, and have a bath drawn. The journey must have tired you.”
“Yes.” She allows him to take her by the elbow and lead her inside. “I’m afraid so.” She barely notices her surroundings as they wander through corridors towards a small but comfortably appointed room towards the rear of the building. He leaves her at the door with a promise to send for her when she has rested. Trota waits impatiently while silent women fill a copper bath with steaming water, then closes the door upon the world and lowers herself into it with a long sigh of pleasure. She lies with her eyes closed until the bath is too cold for comfort, then drags herself out and rummages in her bag for a clean shift to wear. Another soundless housemaid leads her to a small kitchen, and a simple meal of soup and bread. Trota demolishes three bowls before noticing Nicholas standing at the end of the table.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She wipes her mouth. “I didn’t realise I was so hungry.”
“No need to apologise,” he replies. “The mushrooms are grown in the fields outside, and the sisters have more than they know what to do with.” He gestures to a door at the other end of the room. “I think it’s time to get to work.”
Trota stands. “Yes, I’ve been wondering… why have I been called here? Do you know what this is about?”
“Follow me.” He precedes her towards the far end of the complex, across a courtyard straining to contain a massed profusion of ferns and into a private sanctum. Trota has time to marvel at the richness of the furnishings as they step inside. Whoever this home belongs to, they have more status and power than perhaps even the Bishop himself. Finely woven tapestries adorn the walls. Busts and vases of immeasurable beauty sit in alcoves along the walkways. Thick, soft carpets embrace her feet as they walked. And everywhere, silent women in simple shifts of pure white move to and fro on innumerable, unknowable errands. Nicholas points her toward a pair of ornately carved doors at the end of a short corridor, and gestures for her to wait while he slips inside. A few moments later, he reappears.
“You may enter,” he says, and when she makes to move past him, raises a hand. “I must warn you. You are about to meet a person of the greatest power and privilege. You will address her as ‘Your Holiness’, and show due deference.”
Trota frowns. “Your Holiness? That’s...”
“Remember.” Nicholas opened the door and ushered her through before she could complete her thought.
Trota stumbles as she entered, and took a moment to process her surroundings. She is in a room more richly appointed than she has seen in her life, with fine draperies so expertly woven they glow in the light of a string of braziers, and rugs so thick they tickle her ankles as she shuffles towards the massive four poster bed that dominates the room. It stands flat-footed like some sort of mythological beast, piled high with so many heavy blankets that she can barely see the woman who lies amongst them. There is a moan, and movement on the far side. Something in the bed squirms. A blanket is wrenched to one side as a long, pale hand grips it and spasms.
“Go on,” Nicholas mutters into her ear. “To her side, if you please.”
Trota edges past the end of the bed. Once round to the other side she sees the woman more clearly. She is tall, taller perhaps than even Nicholas, and older than Trota expected, being perhaps in her mid-thirties. Long black hair is splayed across a bank of pillows, and her olive face is pale and drawn close in pain. A nightgown is bunched up above her knees and stretches tightly across the rounded bulk of her stomach. A white-shifted old woman dabs ineffectually at her forehead with a damp cloth. She scurries out of the way as Trota approaches, and shuffled from the room, crossing herself and murmuring respectful words as she passed Nicholas. He waves her on her way, and directs Trota to sit on the vacant stool.
“This is your charge,” he says. “She is close to birth, but for the last month there have been... problems. Increasingly so.”
“Why...” She sits, takes the woman’s long hand in her own, and gives it a soft squeeze. The woman turns pain-squinted eyes towards her. She clenches Trota’s hand hard enough to hurt, and hisses as her gut spasms. “Why is there no doctor here?”
“She summoned you.”
“I’m two weeks away!”
“You are the only chirurgeon to whom Her Holiness has granted admittance.”
“You let her lie here for two weeks in this sort of pain. What the hell--?”
“Watch your mouth!” Nicholas’ sudden rage rocks Trota back on her stool. “You are in the presence of holiness. You will not use those words.”
“Holiness?” Trota stares at him in confusion. “What are...? Who are you?”
He points towards the woman on the bed. “You have been summoned to attend to her Holiness’ welfare. The baby is due, and you will deliver it.”
“Her Holiness?” The words are finally filtering through Trota’s shock. She gazes at the pregnant woman, then to Nicholas. “Who... who is she?”
Nicholas watches the woman also. “Her Holiness Elizabetta IV. Pope of God’s church.”
“The...” Trota snatches her hand back as if stung. The woman on the bed whimpers at the loss of contact, then rolls over and grasps her stomach, uttering a guttural half-prayer that descends into a growl as her legs rise convulsively into the foetal position.
“Heresy.” Trota rises in one, abrupt movement, pushes past Nicholas before he can arrest her escape, and runs to the door before he is halfway out of his crouch. “Heresy.” She pulls at the heavy wooden door, but it will not budge. “Let me out!” She bangs on it, pulls at it again, but it does not move. “Let me out!”
Then Nicholas is upon her, dragging her away from the door while she kicks and screams at him. The woman plays counterpoint, her squeals rising in discordant time to her struggles. Nicholas manhandles Trota back to the bed, and shoves her onto the stool once more. He kneels down before her and grabs her shoulders.
“Listen.” He shakes her. “Listen!”
“I said listen!” Slowly, his entreaties and the woman’s cries slow Trota’s panic. She turns white-rimmed eyes upon him. He lets her go: slowly, warily, ready to pounce upon her at any moment. When he is assured that she will not bolt again, he leans back on his haunches.
“This is the Pope,” he says. “The true Pope. Daughter of the line of John Anglicus—“
“That is a myth.” The words are out of Trota’s mouth before she realises. Nicholas raises his eyebrows in response.
“Who was raised to Pope and discovered to be a woman, and who was banished for her duplicity.”
“Killed.” Trota recalls the story. Whispered myths have persisted in the background of University life through hundreds of years, rising into the consciousness of every student who passes through the doors. She has been at Salerno for so long she has heard every variation, every minor detail, been disabused and educated by a generation of historians and priests. “Killed in the street and the baby destroyed.”
“Banished,” John replies. “To the diocese of Ostia and Velletri, to rule from behind the male Popes who could confirm the Church in the eyes of the people.”
“Killed,” she reiterates, her voice firmer, her eyes narrowing.
“Killed.” Nicholas snorts. “Kill a Pope, you say? You educated woman. You think that could happen? That the Church could kill God’s messenger? Do you really believe any man has the right to do that? No.” He indicates Elizabetta. “The people could accept a woman Pope, especially one who had proven herself a wise and just shepherd. But once she submitted to the sin of carnality, she was forever more woman than Pontiff. She was brought here, to rule out of the public eye, and a replacement was installed to receive her directives and relay them to the populace as if they were his own. When she died, her daughter replaced her, and gave the Church a daughter in her turn, fathered by the only man who might be forgiven for assaulting her sanctity.”
“You can’t tell me—“
“Whether you believe it or not. And that is how it continued, through daughter and daughter, until Elizabetta was called to serve, and pass her instructions through her servant, and bear a child in turn. Until this moment, when her body labours to deliver and no result is forthcoming. And the Church is threatened.”
“I...” Trota shakes her head. It is too much to absorb, too many lies to believe. Nicholas runs hands through his hair in frustration.
“Then see this,” he says, and stands up. “A woman is suffering. A woman who needs your help. For the sake of simple Christian charity, will you at least do that?”
Trota licks her lips. “Yes,” she says at last. “Yes, I can do that.”
“Finally.” Nicholas smooths the hair away from Elizabetta’s sweating face. “Your Holiness,” he murmurs. “Your Holiness, I will return.”
The woman grunts her assent, then lays back on the pillows and turns her face to Trota. Trota stands. Slowly, with great uncertainty, she bends over the woman’s stomach.
“I...” She takes a deep breath, and her training asserts itself. “A bowl of water,” she says to Nicholas. “Some rags, and the bag from my room. Quick as you can, please.”
He nods, and leaves. Trota puts matters of belief aside, and sets out to ease her patient’s pain.
It is dark outside when she knocks at the door again. It opens immediately. She shuffles through, to find Nicholas waiting on a bench outside. He rises, and she nods.
“I’ve made her comfortable,” she says. “Any competent village doctor could have done the same.” He makes to move past her, and she raises a hand. “She’s sleeping. Let her get some rest. I’m going to do the same.”
He nods, and lets her go. She trudges to her room, closes the door behind her and leans against it. When she is sure nobody is listening she loses her pretence of fatigue and races about the room, throwing off her linen and slipping her road clothes back on, and shoving equipment back into her satchel. She douses the lights when she is finished and waits by her window until she can see into the garden. She spies nobody patrolling the dark, no couriers or guards traversing the paths. Quietly she slips through the bedroom door, steals along corridors unnoticed until she finds a door leading out into the night, and unlatches it. Then she is outside, back bent as she dashes from shadow to shadow, through the gate and into the orchard, racing for the hedge at the top of the hill.
She is in sight of escape when soldiers step out of the darkness and bar her way. The pale, ascetic face of the Bishop’s secretary appears behind them.
“Francesco!” Trota drops her satchel and holds her hands out to him. “Please. Let me pass, please.”
“The woman,” Francesco says to himself in surprise, then, “I have received no authorisation. This is utterly deplorable.”
“Francesco, please.” She waves towards the villa, invisible in the dark. “Down there,” she says. “I must get to--”
“You shall not tramp through his Excellency’s grounds at this time of night. I will not have... Your Holiness!” Francesco blanches, then drops to one knee. Trota spins around, her heart freezing at the thought of the heavily pregnant Elizabetta labouring up the steep incline in pursuit of her.
“Quiet, woman.” Francesco’s hissed warning goes unheeded. The tall, white figure before them nods to the guards, and they instantly disperse.
“Thank you, Francesco,” he says, and holds out his hand. Francesco kisses it.
“Go back to bed.”
“We will be fine, thank you.”
“Of course, Your Holiness. Thank you, your Holiness.” Francesco hurries through the hedge, leaving them alone. Nicholas glances down at her satchel.
“Disobeying a Papal summons?” he says quietly. “That is a serious matter, Trota.”
Trota shakes her head. “That…” she begins. “She...” She points down the hill, doing her best not to shake, not to reveal her fear in front of this quiet, dangerous man. He smiles sadly.
“Yes,” he says. “She is. But even if you do not believe, that is not the summons to which I referred.”
“What? But you...” And then she stops. “You,” she says. “You are...”
“I am Nicholas of Bedford, who is also called Breakspear. I am ordained Adrian IV. And I serve the Church and the woman you refuse to acknowledge as my master.”
Trota’s lips move, but no sound emerges. Then her legs give way, and she is kneeling before him, her hands clasped to her breast. “Forgive me,” she begs. “Forgive me, your Holiness. I did not know. Please, please forgive me...”
“Get up.” She does so, wiping clumsily at her knees as she rises. He reaches down and retrieves her satchel. “I am not so young as I was,” he says as he hands it to her. “These nights play havoc on my joints.” He turns, and begins to stroll down the hill. “I will visit Elizabetta in half an hour,” he says over his shoulder. “You will attend me, please.”
Trota watches him diminish in the dark. Then, slowly, she hefts her bag and follows him.
The woman on the bed turns in her sleep, searching for a comfort that is no longer there. Trota stands next to Nicholas and looks down at her.
“I am almost 55 years old,” Nicholas says. “I was not expecting to be called upon to play a father’s role. But Elizabetta’s mother lived to her late eighties, and so she was raised to the Papacy at the same time I was. Such is the way of things.” He turns from the dozing woman and regards Trota. “The Papacy has survived two hundred years of John Anglicus’ dynasty. It is not for me to decide whether or not that is a good thing. It is God’s will, not mine, nor my predecessors’. We are His instruments, as is the baby struggling for life inside Her Holiness’ womb. It falls to you to preserve the succession.”
“But...” Trota stares up into his wet eyes. “I can’t...”
He sniffs. “You have performed a procedure. To bring forth a baby, alive. In the... caesarean manner.”
“I...” She gazes at the sleeping woman. “Yes. Once.”
“More than once.”
“Twice. Seven times. Twice on a pig. To show students. But the mother...” She turns to him, her face bright with anxiety. “The mother dies. Every time. I’ve tried.” Her hands rise towards him, beseeching. She lets them fall. “Every time.”
“I know.” His eyes are closed. Tears have escaped their corners, and moistened his cheeks. “I know what I am asking.” He opens them, blinks away the moisture. “But the dynasty must go on. The Church must endure.”
Elizabetta shifts in her sleep, moans softly.
“You’re asking me to kill this woman.”
“I am commanding you to save her child.”
The room is empty. The Pope has departed, to lead the household in prayer within the villa’s chapel. Trota watches as Elizabetta, the true Pope of the Catholic Church, struggles towards wakefulness and a day spent combatting the torment of her baby’s enforced occupation. Her eyelids flutter open, and immediately close to slits. Her breathing is irregular and forced. Trota comes round the end of the bed to kneel at her head.
“He wants me to kill you,” she says. “If you are who he says you are... he wants you to die.”
Elizabetta raises her long hand. Trota takes it in both of hers, presses it to her face. “What can I do?” she says. “What am I supposed to do?”
“My daughter.” Her voice is calm, despite the pain that causes her body to stiffen into lines of stress. “The Church must preserve the succession.”
“I am nothing.”
“You are the Pope!” She is surprised by her sudden vehemence. It is as if the touch of this woman’s skin has removed all doubt, as if the smoothness of her words has washed away all resistance. She is in the presence of the most Holy, and she wants only that it should be preserved, forever and always.
“I am His servant. As are you. We are commanded to do this by a higher power than either of us can understand.”
“The baby will live.”
“But...” The thought hits her, and she feels so small and unworthy to even consider it that her face blooms red in shame: what about me? What happens to me, who takes a knife to the Pope and kills her? Perhaps Elizabetta understands. Perhaps she simply reads it in the intake of breath and the sudden widening of Trota’s eyes.
“She who does God’s will,” she says softly, her fingers curling over Trota’s own. “Is most beloved of God.”
They sit together in silence, while the night drains away, and shadows emerge from the rising light. And in the morning, when the prayers of the household have been replaced by the muted sounds of anticipation, Trota unpacks her tools, and brings the newest daughter of John Anglicus into the light of day.
This story originally appeared in Crusader Kings II.