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An old man's last fight

8 months ago
Commended by mizal on 7/21/2022 6:15:12 PM

This will be a short-ish story I will hopefully be writing over the coming weeks. It's not my best work but it's intended to bring me out of my stupor and hopefully help me write longer and better things. This is a fictionalized account of the life of John of Brienne, a crusader born around 1170 AD who went from being a minor nobleman in France nicknamed "Lackland" to being first the king of Jerusalem and then the emperor of the realm now known as the Latin Empire, the result of Frankish crusaders being diverted by the Venetians into instead sacking and taking the city of Constantinople from the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. Historically, John died in Constantinople (the only Latin emperor to actually die in the city) after becoming a Franciscan friar. In this retelling, his fate will be slightly different. I hope you all enjoy. EDIT: for those who wish to know a bit more about the actual historical figure

Part 1 - Time

A high-pitched scream caught John by surprise as his sword was still lodged in a man's stomach. Pulling hard, it came free with a squelching noise and he immediately turned around in a defensive stance to see an enemy fighter rushing towards him with his weapon held high. It was evident to a man of John's years when a foe lacked experience, and as such, it was a simple matter for him to suddenly dash forward and impale the charging man through the chest before he had a chance to react. The man slumped forward, still trying in vain to swing his crude mace but already lacking the blood flow to do so. With John's blade still in his chest, he knelt down and spat out blood and some manner of curse in Greek. John was able to see his face clearly now, and found himself staring at the eyes of a young man, barely more than a boy. The young, always rushing to meet his old friend Death. How many had he sent her himself? John had been like that at some point, but age and fatherhood had tempered him.


Still, the memories came alive whenever he heard the clashing of plates and blades, and of horse hooves cracking the skulls of those who laid down to rest their injuries. He remembered being a fiery young warrior that was always the first into the fray, headbutting breastplates like a bull and cutting off limbs with every swing of his sword, trampling over dozens of men atop fierce steed. Age, however, did not forgive even him and time had been the one foe he had been unable to keep at bay. Still, with age he found himself becoming more dangerous, not meeker. He traded fierceness and foolish courage for cunning and ice-cold focus. While countless men died in their first battle, John had survived all of them, and he had gained an almost preternatural understanding of both strategy and personal combat.


Time had not turned him into a decrepit old man withering away in his castle, but into an experienced killer, who knew instinctively how to move his body in the span of seconds to both evade threats to his life and efficiently dispatch his foes. Many younger men, like the Greek lad now slumped over his sword had overestimated their chances against the old soldier only to find themselves head-to-head with a trained killer of men, who surprised them with his speed, instinct, and the promptness with which he cut their lives short. John had certainly made Death very happy with all the offerings he'd sent her. How many times had he come close to being one himself? He did not remember, but he did feel like his counter was running out.


A series of tugs dislodged his blade from the now dead youth, whose body finally fell face down into the mud. A shake and a wipe on his leggings took care of most of the fresh blood on the weapon and after ensuring he would not be charged by another boy with a death wish, John took the time to look around. The bodies of both his Frankish soldiers and the Greeks they had slaughtered to the man laid strewn around, on top of each other and some hacked to pieces so thoroughly that they were almost undistinguishable from the clumps of mud around them. The red and gold banners of the Greeks who still called themselves emperors of Rome from the city of Nicaea fluttered with the wind, splattered with blood and mud. In truth, if he didn't remember crossing the Bosporus to get here John would probably have trouble remembering whether he was fighting the Nicenes, the Epirotes, or the Trebizondians, all of whom claimed to be the rightful emperors of Rome and Constantinople from their corners of what was once the eastern empire. All three were the domains of powerful Greek families, some of which like the Komnenoi of Trebizond had risen to the office of emperor before Constantinople was captured by John's fellow Frankish and Italian crusaders during the ill-fated Fourth Crusade.


John himself had not participated in the so-called crusade, which had been supposed to take back the city of Jerusalem by first conquering Egypt, the powerbase of the Ayyubid sultans who held the holy city. Instead, the crusade was thrown off course and manipulated by the greedy Venetians and other powerful Latin nobles into first sacking the Christian city of Zara and bringing it under Venetian control, and eventually sacking and conquering Constantinople itself under the guise of pushing the claim of a Greek pretender in return for aid in their crusade. None of it ever materialized and the crusaders instead declared one of their own, Baldwin of Flanders, as emperor. This "crusade" therefore ended with the conquest of two Christian cities, and virtually none of the crusaders even setting foot in the holy land.


The crown and the city of Constantinople eventually passed over to the house of Courtenay, a branch of the French royal house because of the marriage of one of their scions to Baldwin's sister Yolande. But when Yolande's eldest son died without issue, the crown passed to his ten-year-old brother Baldwin II. And thus, began the period of John's life as ruler of Constantinople. Chosen first as regent and then as co-emperor for the young Baldwin, John was once again at the helm of a crusader state after his tenure as regent and de-facto king of Jerusalem. And with the memory of his time back in Jerusalem, inevitably came the memory of his little queen, the greatest love of his life. And also, his greatest regret. But before he was able to lose himself in the memory as he often did, a booming voice brought him back.


"Sir!" exclaimed the armored knight in front of him. John had never insisted on imperial honorifics when his men addressed him, specially so when they were men he knew well as was the case with Jacques, the man now calling for him. Jacques had joined John when he left Italy and gathered support from around Europe to travel to Constantinople after being offered the position of regent. Of the couple hundred knights that had set sail from Venice with him, only a couple dozen remained, most having returned to France and Italy a couple years after John's coronation and others having died in battle against the multitude of enemies that John had faced in his first years as emperor from the three Greek rump states, to the Bulgarian empire of Ivan Asen and even the occasional skirmish with the Seljuk Turks that now occupied large swathes of Anatolia. Jacques was a loyal man, honest and true. He had fought in the Fifth Crusade just like John but they never met until John was forced out of Jerusalem by the scheming crusader lords and Frederick of Germany, a name that John tried not to recall lest it brought back the pain he tried so hard every day to keep at bay. Snapping out of his stupor, John finally addressed the knight.


"Apologies Jacques, I was... somewhere else."


"You seemed miles away sir," the younger knight answered with concern on his face, "are you alright?"


At that, John scoffed. "As right as I can be these days," he said with a small smile. He wasn't lying. Nowadays, when he parried a swing of a blade, he could feel his bones rattling inside of him. Jacques nodded. John knew he didn't buy it, but the man respected him too much to question him on personal matters. Instead, Jacques shifted the topic to their current predicament.


"The last of them ran away before the battle was over. Those that remained we cut down to the last man," he calmly explained as he gestured towards the field of dead men. The smell was intense now, potent enough to make many of the younger soldiers resting their wounds gag and empty their stomachs. John and Jacques felt no such compulsion after years walking among the remnants of armies and cities. Jacques looked over the horizon and focused his senses. "I think I still hear fighting on the other flanks. Do you think we should regroup and move to support one of them?" he asked ass he turned back to his emperor.


John did as Jacques and listened. Sure enough, the faintest hints of steel clashing and men screaming echoed through the air. But leaving an entire flank open was only ever an option if they knew there were no more men to try and take it, and John did not know that. What he knew was that the Nicene force that met them in this flank was smaller than what John had gotten used to after years of fighting them.


"No. Tell the men to rest another five minutes and then form ranks again. They are going to hit us again." At this, Jacques nodded and darted away, barking orders at the men nearest to them.


What John hadn't told him, was that he did not expect them to survive that next engagement. What good does it do a man to know he will die soon? John had been certain of that fact for the last few months and it certainly brought him no joy, but it didn't really make him despair either. He was mostly unaffected by this certainty, but he was himself and he did not assume the news would be as well received by all the young men fighting by his side. Perhaps they could retreat. Cross the Bosporus back into Constantinople and defend the walls like they had done two years ago against a combined force of Nicenes and Bulgarians, but John was not certain they could hold out once more. The last time, they were only saved by the timely intervention of a combined Venetian-Genovese fleet and the ships of Geoffrey, the prince of Achaea and a vassal of Latin Constantinople. This time, John feared they would get no such miracles. As it was, John's duty was clear. When the crusader lords of Constantinople named him emperor, he understood that this honor was not bestowed lightly, and that it was bestowed for a reason. His duty was not to rule the fragile empire like a despot, but to safeguard it so his co-emperor Baldwin could one day rule it as was his right, with John's daughter Marie at his side as empress. As such, John's duty demanded that he remain here and do his best to repel or delay this incursion lest it reach Constantinople and end Baldwin's rule before it began, even if it cost him his life.


Sitting down on a nearby rock, his children came to mind with the thought of Marie. The eldest, she had been promised in marriage to Baldwin when John accepted the position of regent for the young boy. Past experience had made him hesitant at so freely giving his daughter away, but his interactions with Baldwin had assuaged his fears. The boy was cordial, well-mannered and intelligent, never resenting John's position as co-emperor and instead seeking to learn from him when possible. While John feared for the future that awaited Baldwin as the ruler of this crumbling empire, he was sure the boy would perform admirably even if the empire realistically could not survive much longer, and he was young enough that he would still be able to make his mark on the world elsewhere. More importantly, he was sure that Baldwin would be a good husband to his daughter. After Marie, John and his current wife Berengaria had three boys. Alphonse, Louis, and John were all still youths but John had already arranged for positions in the French court for them, both in an attempt to prevent tensions between them and Baldwin when they grew up and because John had grown weary of the nobility of the crusader realms like the empire of Constantinople and the kingdom of Jerusalem. The further his children were from this mess, the better.


John had also fathered a son with his second wife, an Armenian princess named Rita more than a decade ago, but the boy had been sickly from birth and died of a wasting illness when he was around four years of age, only a few months after his mother. And then, there was Yolande. Yolande, or Isabella as she came to be known after her coronation was John's first child, born from his first wife Maria of Montferrat, queen of Jerusalem. The first time John held the newborn Yolande in his arms, it was as though he suddenly understood something about life that had been hidden to him until then. But what exactly this understanding was, John could still not say for certain now, twenty-five years later. It was shortly after her birth that John left the mad warrior behind to give way to the cautious soldier, in the hopes to see more days with his young daughter by his side. When asked who the greatest love of his life had been, John would answer that it had been Yolande. Every moment he spent with his daughter was a moment in which he knew for certain that his life had meant something for it had brought him there.


John knew enough about love to know that the love he felt for Yolande was different than the definitions of love he had read and heard, which mostly referred to the romantic notion of it. This love was a pure thing, and at its essence, it was a promise. A promise that John would always protect her and keep her from harm, that he would cherish her and that if it ever came to it, he would lay down his life for hers without a second thought. And it was a promise that he broke. As far as romantic love went, John was certainly no expert. He had married three times, and he never really felt in love with any of his wives. While married, John did not have lovers nor did he keep mistresses. He had never felt a compulsion to sate his desires outside of his marital bed, and he found the idea dishonest and off-putting. Still, before he was married for the first time John was in love once.


Blanche of Navarre was a daughter of the king of Navarre, and countess of Champagne by her marriage to Theobald de Blois. John's family, before involving themselves in the crusades and marrying with Italo-Norman families, were barons of the small county of Brienne, from whence came the name that John and his family would be known by, "de Brienne". The Briennes were sworn to the counts of Champagne, and John was a younger son of the ruling baron. At first seemingly destined to a monastic life, John instead found his calling in the martial arts, training from a young age and eventually participating in the many tourneys held across the kingdom of France. A prodigy at jousting and a capable duelist, the name John de Brienne was soon in the lips of many in the kingdom. Called "Lackland" on account of his wandering lifestyle, John nevertheless acquired a good deal of fame from his participation in these events. Eventually, John's brother died and his only son, Walther, was still a child living in Italy with his mother. As such, John temporarily assumed the title of baron of Brienne to act as regent until his nephew came of age. Now bound by duty to remain in Brienne, John could no longer participate in many tourneys. Still, he continued to attend if they were close by. In one such tourney, held by his liege the count of Champagne, John met Blanche for the first time.


He was around thirty, and she was in her early twenties and married to the count. John had never before met such a graceful woman, whose every move seemed rehearsed a thousand times. John had always been a charming man, and he and the lady were soon chatting and laughing merrily. The tourney came and John won easily while wearing Blanche's favor, dedicating his victory to the lady as well. This act raised no concern. Married men would usually represent their own wives, while bachelors like John could, if allowed, wear the favor of an unmarried lady to impress her, particularly if they were already courting her. Otherwise, it was not uncommon for both married and single men to choose to wear the favor of an important married woman, such as the local queen or in this case, the wife of the tourney's organizer. Such an act would be seen as a compliment to the lord. But John knew how he had meant it. Still, the tourney ended, and though the feast that followed it allowed for further conversation and even a dance between the two, in the end nothing came of it; John was too honorable to involve himself with another man's wife and Blanche was too pious to betray her husband. John left Champagne with a kiss of Blanche's soft hand, and he returned home with her face etched into his mind.  


Perhaps a year later, Theobald, count of Champagne died in a hunting accident, making a widow of the pregnant Blanche. Survived only by a daughter, it was the hope of his court that Blanche would birth him a posthumous son who could take up his titles and offices. In the meantime, and presumably until the theoretic son came of age, Blanche would rule Champagne as regent. At the same time, John became an increasingly common sight in Blanche’s court, acting as her champion and general advisor. The lingering glances between the two did not go unnoticed by the rest of the court, and the tension suddenly became too great for the enamored John and Blanche. Her pregnancy ensuring that no bastards would be born of the union, they finally had leave to act on the passions that had first sparked in the tourney a year ago. Time spent with Blanche was always the highlight of John’s day. From standing at her side in court, to walking the gardens with her, to spending the nights at her bed. Blanche was beautiful, quick-witted and lively. John felt ecstatic whenever she favored him with a secret smile in court, or a well-hidden, sudden and playful rise of her dress meant for him alone. In time, both of them began to consider the possibility of a marriage. It would have been an advantageous union in the political and social sense, as a son of a powerful family sworn to Champagne could help in the regency of the county until Theobald’s possible son came of age. Not to mention the obvious affection and genuine love that was often missing in the marriages of their peers.


Unfortunately, two obstacles stood in the way of this endeavor. One was the precarious position that Blanche found herself in after her husband’s death. Theobald had brothers and other family, including nieces that had married into powerful families of the crusader kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus. All of them felt entitled to the lands and incomes Blanche had inherited, and this led her to seek protection from them. And thus, came the second obstacle: Philip, king of France. By then, it was no secret that Blanche and John were romantically involved. It was also no secret that the king of France himself had been infatuated with Blanche since she first arrived at the French court before her marriage. As such, John’s entanglement with Blanche certainly did not earn him the king’s friendship. Even then, Blanche was pressured to seek protection from the king against those who desired her son’s inheritance. John was a realist and knew that as the younger son of a minor noble he could not grant Champagne the protection it needed. And Philip, perhaps as a slight against John, decided to grant Champagne his protection under a contract that granted him many of the county’s incomes and most importantly, prohibited Blanche from marrying without his permission. This was mostly done in order to prevent foreign rulers from acquiring land within a kingdom through marriage, but in this case the intentions were clear for John. Both feared that the clause was intended not only to prevent their marriage, but to potentially save Blanche so the king could take her as a mistress, or even to set aside his wife again and take Blanche in her place. Nevertheless, Blanche had no choice and with John’s hand on her shoulder she signed the contract and gave birth to a healthy boy soon after. Their romance turned chaste afterwards, but no less sincere.


Not long after, envoys of king Philip approached John with an offer. Through the Pope, the barons of the kingdom of Jerusalem had requested the king to recommend a capable, honorable and martially inclined noble to marry their young queen, Maria of Montferrat daughter of the Italian crusader Conrad of Montferrat and Isabella, queen of Jerusalem. John understood that the king had put his name forward not as a favor, but to rid himself of John. Still, unwilling to brand himself an enemy of the crown and to spurn the Pope himself, John accepted. Saying goodbye to Blanche was bittersweet. There was no anger or despair from neither of them. They understood that their lot in life had to follow its course, and their duties stood in the way of their love. Still, this understanding didn’t ease the hurt that came with their last kiss. Blanche’s last words to him would forever remain with John.


“In another life.”


An old man's last fight

8 months ago

This is clearly very well-researched, and the dialogue flows very naturally, which is difficult to achieve. It is interesting to see a story with an emperor of the Latin Empire as protagonist. It's usually portrayed as the antagonist in historical accounts. Only issues are a couple spelling mistakes.

An old man's last fight

8 months ago

Thanks for reading. Admittedly I got lazy in the end and just put the whole thing through Word's spellcheck, which resulted in some hilarious mistakes like "ass he turned back". As far as the Latin Empire goes, I've definitely seen it villified a lot particularly by Roman/Byzantine weeaboos. I don't think they were particularly any more antagonistical/assholeish than any other realm at the time, but naturally being one of the main contributors to the fall of Constantinople has left them with a bad rep. Perhaps a case could be made for the initial 4th crusaders and the Venetians as outright villains, but future emperors and nobles like John were mostly trying to prevent being slaughtered by angry Greeks.

An old man's last fight

2 months ago
This is a really good story that no one ever read. Dark, are you aware of how easy it is to get a feature in the historical section right now? Except HelpConn, but he tripped and fell down a well or something, or that's what I heard.