R.N. Roveleh is a 34-year-old Romanian writer and artist, doctor in medieval literature, traveller, explorer of thoughts, emotions and experiences. She is fascinated with liminal spaces, like the clash between cultures, and diversity in historical settings. Her travels return her, again and again, to Mediterranean shores.
Soon, Giovanni of Formia would walk into the church. Proud and mighty out there, pious and humble in the house of God, the man would attend the ceremony like a commoner among commoners. He would be immersed in prayer, atoning for his blackmails, bribery, forgeries and embezzlement, torture or assassinations –or whatever he may be guilty of, Yngvar didn’t know- then starting them all over again as soon as he stepped back out into the balmy sun. From the hand of the priest, he would take the Blood and Body of Christ to purify his soul. And, then, Yngvar would take his blood.
Who Giovanni was in Formia and what he had done to deserve death, it mattered little to Yngvar. That he was anti-imperial, belonging to one of the Roman families rival to the Saxon leader of the Roman Empire and his supporters, was of no consequence to him, for Emperor Otto the Red was not his sovereign; Yngvar’s homeland was over a dozen tylptir1away, in Iceland. Where Formia was, he cared not; he had spent too little in Italy to know its geography. That the man was unscrupulous, meant only that he was successful in politics or business; Yngvar –son of an Icelandic chieftain, one of the goðar2 – knew well that corruption and greed were the universal language. That the assassination would take place in church, Yngvar cared not; Oðinn was his god. All that mattered to the young mercenary was that his employer, Konrad, a Saxon nobleman and supporter of Emperor Otto, wanted Giovanni dealt with. So, dealt with he would be.
Built five centuries before, the building was under renovation under papal orders, and artisans and workers were reconditioning its walls and columns and roof, adding to its elaborate and expensive fixtures and fittings. As a day-labourer there, Yngvar had familiarised himself with the surroundings to bring his real mission to completion. The great city of Rome saw intersections of people from all around the world, and he could easily pass for one of the Saxon workers which were a common sight, but he had covered his clothes with a grey tunic and his uncommonly fair hair with a cap, because he could not afford drawing attention in any way.
At Agnus Dei, you strike – at Agnus Dei, you strike – at Agnus Dei, you strike, the boy repeated in his mind.
There was a blood vessel behind the knee which, if severed, could cause a man’s death within mere moments. A blood vessel, buried deep between skin, tissue and bone – hidden save to those who know where to look, but vulnerable enough to make a man bleed out when cut open. What a wondrous machinery, the body! Every important piece, armoured within layers of natural fibre! The heart locked within a cage of ribs, the brain inside a thick helmet of bone, vessels weaving through it all like roots inside the earth. To know the secrets of the body is to have power over life and death! It is the truest magic of all.
When the priest says Agnus Dei parishioners would rise to receive their share of bread and wine; and then, when Giovanni stands and moves away, Yngvar would strike. In the last few days, while working with artisans, aiding in their craft and carrying their tools and materials, he had prepared for the moment thoroughly. He had envisioned the scene a myriad times: the priests chanting, the crowd echoing –the vessel pumping blood –the blade cutting deep –the panic and commotion that would allow him to escape – the blood trickling inside the ripped trousers to pool upon the floor –the shock in the man’s eyes as realisation struck: he would soon be dead.
Yngvar held out his hand: steady as a rock, no tremor signalling that it was about to stab a man.
Tanned and leathery, his hands seemed alien to him now, the usual fairness of his skin altered under the glare of Roman summer. Upon his face, shoulders and neck, sun-ravished patches, scarlet and blistered, tried to tell him he did not belong there. Against their redness, his eyelids seemed white, one of the few reminders of the boy who had left Iceland almost four years ago to travel through Europe. But perhaps he need not be reminded. He’d seen men in Rome, especially from Al-Andalus, lining their eyes with kohl mixture and he tried it too, finding it could attract sunlight and shield his fair eyes against its glare. He now looked like his old self less than ever.
The church provided shelter from the heat already building outside even though it was barely morning. Her domed and arched ceiling rose high above his head, and Yngvar’s gaze was drawn up to the image of the mosaic that decorated it. The ground was a meadow of flowers, the sky a deep blue. Trees spread their palm-like leaves up into red and blue clouds, and upon one of the branches rested a wondrous fiery bird. Two cities of stone rose on either side, the likes of which he had never seen, and Christ himself –nearly life-sized- stood dressed in gold at its centre.
When Yngvar had first seen the church –light playing upon the tesserae of glass and ceramics, as if the figures of saints and angels and beasts would spring to life at any moment!- his heart had begun to beat faster. He did not believe in Christ –a god unspoken of among his people- but there was something almost divine in that image above his head. As if he were beholding something out of this world.
Konrad had been with him. He was an architect, in charge of church renovations and erecting buildings that stood the test of centuries. Where others saw stones and pictures, Konrad saw the skeleton –the machinery inside- and the craft employed to make it. The secrets of such structures opened before his eyes like the future which reveals itself to a seer casting runes, where others see but lifeless stones. From the little he had found the time to explain to Yngvar –about architecture, history, the letters, a multitude of things the boy had not even thought existed- Yngvar had understood how little he knew. How much there is to know.
At sixteen, he knew how to kill a man with stealth and precision, and could do it without panic or incapacitating remorse, without even a shake of the hand. His mother, the vǫlva3, had taught him the secrets of the human body and how to exploit weakness; his father, the goði, had taught him how to do what needs doing without hesitation; and the art of killing he had learned from skilled warriors and well-versed assassins in Iceland and beyond. It was the only art he knew. But he was ignorant in all other respects.
Perhaps Konrad had seen this realisation on the boy’s face when he had first taken him to church. He looked at him with sympathy, and smiled:
“Now that’s what’ll give you away. Walk around the city. Explore. Feel its pulse.”
On Mediterranean shores, Yngvar’s skin had been burnt by the scalding sun, and he had fainted once under heat unthinkable. But he had also rested in the shade of trees no one back home had ever seen. He had tasted fruits his people did not even know existed. He had eaten foods enhanced with spices of myriad flavours and colours. He had stood dwarfed by marvels of architecture, each with its own story of a great nation as old as history itself. He had walked in the shadow of the Colosseum –a monster of travertine, tuff and concrete sporting arches and columns towering over a hundred faðmar4 high and wider than any farmland he had seen-, he had wandered by the cemetery at its centre and the houses and workshops around it and had learned that it used to be a scene for public spectacles, fights and hunts and make-believe unravelling under the gaze of a hundred thousand eyes! These were the work of giants, giants upon whose shoulders the world was built.
How could he have lived sixteen years on this earth and not know such places existed?
And beyond it, far far away over tylptir of land and sea, was his country, Iceland. Behind closed eyes, the young man saw his childhood home: a cluster of little farm houses of dark wood, a sky ashened by rainclouds, the stagnant waters of a fjord bordered by black sand, sheep scattered on endless tan grasslands, and snow eternally on barren mountains – a vast nothingness as far as the eye could see.
Rocky fields where nothing grows but grass, slaves labouring in mud that rarely dries, hunts and horse-races to pass the day, cups of imported wine to drown your misfortunes, silk and gems to stir your rival’s envy, a ship to plunder richer lands and a suit of armour to hope you don’t get what you deserve: even the richest in Iceland could not hope for more than this.
Be grateful for the privileged life you have, Yngvar! his mother would say, wrapped in her furs and gems and downing cup after cup of wine. Follow in your father’s footsteps, be a leader of the people! she’d say, teaching him to order slaves around. Fight to make a better future for the country! his father would say as he fought for power and a position in the government until nothing stood in his way. Kiss the ground beneath your feet –earth means tradition, family and faith! he had said before he died at the hands of rivals. What did his parents know, anyway? They had seen nothing of the world outside of Iceland and Norway. Knowledge enlightens and expands the mind, and yet they’d lived in more darkness than a pauper of Rome.
Patriotism –how ridiculous a notion! How arbitrary! To be born in one land and not another was but pure accident –what pride can there be in it?
So, all the more: how could he go back to Iceland now? It would be like homecoming to a beggar who’s been king for three days.
Sudden motion in the church startled Yngvar from his thoughts.
“Clear out, boys, the service is starting,” the supervisor announced. He was one of the workers, so he conformed. After he carried the last two buckets of debris outside, he waited. Soon, he thought. Soon.
Parishioners arrived, one by one, taking their places inside. It was only when the church began to fill, and the priest took his place to let the believers confess their sins, that a carriage stopped a few feet away. He’s here, thought Yngvar. Giovanni of Formia stepped down, removing his embroidered silk hat before he entered the house of God, in a gesture of deference and humility.
As calm as Yngvar was before, he now felt blood pumping in his veins. There was no sensation as mind-sharpening as this, he realised, and all he could focus on was the details of the job before him. There was no thrill as great as that of doing something dangerous, no challenge as the one fraught with great risk and the possibility of unexpected occurrences, no feeling like that of doing something forbidden. Killing someone in plain sight! Such an act takes all of you, mind and body working at maximum capacity to get every detail right, to strive towards perfection. It was when he felt alive, when he felt powerful and humble at the same time, when…
But something broke the thread of his thoughts. Behind Giovanni, another figure stepped out of the carriage: a young girl. Chatting, she sprinted to catch up with the man, and something she said made Giovanni laugh; he patted the girl’s shoulder and, like this, they stepped into the church. The exhilaration Yngvar had been feeling was broken by a trickle of cold sweat under his damp and dusty shirt. Today of all days, Giovanni had decided to take his child to church with him.
At Agnus Dei, you strike – at Agnus Dei, you strike – at Agnus Dei, you strike, Yngvar repeated as he took his place in church behind Giovanni, in an attempt to push all other thoughts from his mind. He had killed fathers before, even fathers of children he knew, but something in that display of tenderness and friendship between the two had disconcerted him. Though he tried to focus on the priest’s speech, the words were in Latin and Yngvar understood nothing of them, so his mind roamed unwillingly.
And there he was, back upon that fateful day in Iceland, when his father and him had gone to collect money they were owed and had found themselves surrounded by armed men. Yngvar, stay on your horse, his father had said. If anything happens, you ride back home. But the boy had stoically shaken his head; they were invincible, he used to think, his father could handle everything and he, Yngvar, had to follow in his footsteps. Just go, son, I don’t want to worry about you. He had spurred the horse, in panic, but he had turned back to watch. The ground was reddened with blood.
Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. Beati qui ad cenam Agni vocati sunt,
spoke the priest and raised the Eucharist. The words brought the sellsword back to reality. Though they preached inner peace and purity, Yngvar’s heart now throbbed with renewed energy and concentration, as if time had stopped for him and he was aware of everything. He had a moment –a moment only!- to get it right. But he was an artisan who would let nothing stand between him and his greatest accomplishment.
Giovanni stood up. Yngvar stood too, his hand moving swiftly to thrust behind his knee, where the blood vessel sent life coursing through his victim’s body, so precisely as if he could see through skin, tissue and bone. Giovanni grunted and turned, and there was scurry around him.
But by the time Giovanni realised what had happened, by the time people rose to find the attacker, Yngvar had already backed away towards the exit, losing himself in the agitated crowd. Once under the sun, he doffed his hat and his dusty shirt, letting the pearl-blond hair flow free upon his shoulders clad in white. A horse waited for him at an appointed place, and he rode it through the streets.
It was only when he reached the outskirts of the city and the wild beating of his heart began to quiet that realisation hit: Giovanni of Formia was dead.
By now, he had surely bled out, under the eyes of his daughter who had watched the scene powerlessly, who had screamed and cried and called for help, who had begged her father not to leave her, who would never forget the tragic and sordid moment.
Yngvar knew well how the girl was feeling now –he had been on the other side of it not long ago. She was despairing at the unexpectedness of it, crushed by the injustice of it, unable to comprehend why. But today she was learning that life is frail and ephemeral, that man is wolf to man, and everyone is flawed and fallible, including those we most admire. Yngvar’s hand was but the hand of retribution in a world eternally unsated with power and blood. It was the hand of a beast, yes, but what is man if not a glorified beast?
The mission had been a success.
The rush in his veins had simmered down, and he breathed deep of the warm clear air as he rode up one of the hills that bordered the city. Soon, in early afternoon, he would reach Konrad’s villa. He would find him outside in the garden, reading under a lemon tree, enveloped in the sweet strong smell of the vineyard stretching downhill. He would smile and nod at the news of the mission’s success. He would have already sent someone to verify his rival’s demise.
Then Konrad would ask him to sit at his table, they would eat together and drink wine spiced with lemon juice. Then, if Konrad had time, Yngvar would ask him about the book he was reading and the man would talk to him about it, about history and architecture and stories of great heroes, about places he had seen and people he had met.
But, sooner than he wanted, Yngvar’s uncle would arrive to take him away. “What are you going to do with your life now?” Konrad would ask, as if there was any other choice for him but to go back to the North where he had lands and supporters and he wasn’t but a nameless sellsword from a strange land. So Yngvar would leave Konrad’s villa for good; and he would never sit under a lemon tree again, enveloped in the smell of vineyards under scalding sun.
The young man reached the top of the hill and turned around to see Rome once more, probably for the last time. He beheld the villas and the churches and the towers and the bridges and the fields and the vineyards and the sheep grazing among ancient ruins.
An unfamiliar pressure built in his eyes. The sun and the dry air, and the beauty, and the end of his adventure pressed against them, and the boy squeezed his eyelids shut to smother the weight. What it was, he could not exactly tell. But it felt like longing; a longing for something unattainable.
1 Tylpt – a dozen sea miles; Norse unit of measurement of approximately 200 km (Old Norse)
2 Goði – ruler of a district, a prominent political title in the Icelandic Commonwealth from the early Middle Ages until the 13th century (Old Norse)
3 Vǫlva – seeress (Old Norse)
4 Faðmr – Norse unit of distance measurement the estimated length of outstretched arms (approximately 2 yards) (Old Norse)
Prose in this post: © R.N. Roveleh
Published with the permission of R.N. Roveleh