It is 741. After subduing the pagan religions in the east, halting the march of Islam in the west, and conquering the continent for the Merovingian kings, mayor of the palace Charles the Hammer has one final ambition-the throne. Only one thing stands in his way-he is dying.
Charles cobbles together a plan to divide the kingdom among his three sons, betroth his daughter to a Lombard prince to secure his southern border, and keep the Church unified behind them through his friend Bishop Boniface. Despite his best efforts, the only thing to reign after Charles's death is chaos. His daughter has no intention of marrying anyone, let alone a Lombard prince. His two eldest sons question the rights of their younger pagan stepbrother, and the Church demands a steep price for their support. Son battles son, Christianity battles paganism, and Charles's daughter flees his court for an enemy's love.
Based on a true story, Anvil of God is a whirlwind of love, honor, sacrifice, and betrayal that follows a bereaved family's relentless quest for power and destiny.
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ANVIL OF GOD
Book One of the Carolingian Chronicles
By J. Boyce Gleason
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 J. Boyce Gleason
All rights reserved.
Quierzy AD 741
Stepping into the darkness of the stairwell, Sunni inhaled the musty scent of aging stone and stretched out her hand as a guide. Although the stairs were steep, she climbed with ease, having made this journey to watch for Charles every night since her husband left for Narbonne.
She did this more out of duty than necessity. When the army's banners were sighted, news of their arrival would be shouted from the rampart and echoed throughout the town. The fate of the entire court was tied up in Charles's success, and everyone from the lowest servant to Bishop Boniface would storm the staircase to see who had returned from campaign and who had not.
The banners would appear above the horizon along the eastern road, advancing in successive waves of color. The ranks of cavalry and foot soldiers would follow. In time, the sounds of their march would reach the walls, and the court would strain to see the knights' standards.
Because the absence of a standard from the ranks foretold a knight's death, those who could see would call out to those who could not, and a strange dichotomy would take over the assembled crowd. Cheers would greet the names announced while shouts for those unnamed were called forward. "Where is Stephen D'Anjou? Can you see Stephen?" and "What about Wilfred? Oh my God, not Wilfred!"
Sunni had seen families collapse in grief beside others who danced in celebration. Sobs and laughter would blend on the rampart in a discordant release until the hands of the celebrants stretched out to those who mourned, and the court would grieve its loss.
Arriving at the top of the stairs, Sunni discovered she would not be alone. A dozen steps away, Charles's daughter Trudi stared out at the horizon. They watched as the sun dipped low, casting a reddish glow to the underside of the cloud cover. A cold blast of wind made the girl shiver. Without thinking, Sunni kissed the locket she wore around her neck to ward off the night spirits.
"God help me," Trudi said. There was pain in her lament, but Sunni was reluctant to intrude. Stepmothers, she knew, are not always welcome. She found her own place on the rampart to watch the eastern road.
Trudi had her own reasons to await Charles's return. She was eighteen, old for a maiden. Charles had declared that, upon his return, he would decide whom the girl would marry. Although Trudi had never spoken to Sunni of this decision, her distaste was visible to any that knew her. Her body was coiled tight, her face a stew of emotions.
Sunni had argued for the girl, hoping to stop Charles from using his daughter as an instrument of his diplomacy, but he had insisted. Trudi would wed someone of noble blood. Charles would send her away to marry a noble on the Roman peninsula, or in Alemannia or Frisia, wherever there was an alliance to solidify, a political gain to be made. Her marriage would seal a bargain she knew nothing about.
She would be forced from the people she loved, away from the life she knew. She would be alone. Sunni's eyes welled. It was not so many years ago that she had shared a similar fate. It was, perhaps, the only thing they had in common.
Trudi had her father's face, which, although a man's face, was still handsome on her. Unfortunately, it was not the only trait she had inherited from him. She was tall for a woman, with broad shoulders and uncommon strength. Thank God, the girl had breasts and hips, Sunni thought, or she might be mistaken for a man. Trudi's hair was by far her best feature. It cascaded past her shoulders in waves of brown curls that Sunni envied for their thickness.
To Sunni's frustration, Trudi rarely did anything to enhance her beauty. Most girls her age were using the latest creams and powders. Trudi wore none. She refused to wear a dress, preferring pantaloons and vestments more suited to boys. Sunni had never seen her flirt. She had never seen her blush. The girl talked to boys her age the way they talked to each other.
Sunni had, over the years, tried to involve Trudi with the other girls at court. Such efforts, however, never kept Trudi's attention.
"They spend their time spinning thread and mooning over knights," Trudi would say, her eyes rolling. "They talk about each of the boys as if he was a prized horse. 'Look at his legs,' or 'I just love his shoulders.'" Trudi preferred to find her friends among the boys her age.
Making matters worse, Charles had indulged the girl's fantasy of becoming a warrior. Against Sunni's objections, he let Trudi train with the boys who would become his knights. Trudi strutted about court in armor and dismissed Sunni's advice. Sunni gently persisted, only to suffer the girl's continued rebuff. The one time Sunni's advice had been welcomed was when the girl's menses had set in. Even then, Trudi had declared it nothing more than "a nuisance."
"How do you stand it?" Trudi demanded, without turning to look at her. Sunni jumped in surprise. She hadn't thought the girl was aware of her.
"How do you stand being married to someone you don't love?"
"I do love your father."
Trudi turned to confront her. "It wasn't even an arranged marriage. He just took you."
"That's not true."
"Of course, it's true." Trudi turned back again to the horizon, reciting the history. "When Charles stormed Bavaria, he deposed the crazed pagan duc—"
"Grimoald isn't crazed."
"Grimoald married his own brother's widow, flogged a priest, and performed pagan rituals over his own son."
"His son was dying. The doctors couldn't save him," Sunni said.
"So Charles got rid of Grimoald, put your uncle Odilo in his place, and married you, a Bavarian princess, to bear his third son. Am I missing anything?"
Sunni's face flushed. She looked down at her hands.
"So how do you stand it?" Trudi repeated.
How dare the girl? Of course, Sunni knew the stories. She had helped spread most of them. She was the "price" for making young Odilo duc de Bavaria in place of Grimoald. She had been "tamed" by Charles, who subdued her pagan upbringing through his iron will and firm hand.
The truth was that Sunni had seduced Charles from the start. She had seen the reality of their situation. The Bavarian royal family was in disarray, and Charles's army was too large to resist. Poor Grimoald would never be acceptable to Charles or his alter ego, Bishop Boniface. And an alliance between her family and the Franks offered not only a solution, but a tremendous advantage to both families.
The day she met Charles, Sunni knew she would have him. Tall, strong, fearless, Charles had been forty-two and a widower for a year when he came to Bavaria. He had a light in his eyes that made everyone else's seem dull. He was magnificent.
And he looked at her in that way that a man does when he needs to bury himself between the legs of a woman. In less than a week, she had bound him to her. He was bound to her still.
Now at thirty-two, she played the part of the "tamed" Sunnichild for Boniface and the court. She said all the Christian words, performed their rites so that she could have Charles. But she was no Christian. She still had her cache of herbs. She still prayed to the morning sun and the phasing moon. She still communed in secret with her brethren. She even shared some of their rites with Charles. Wedding Charles Martel had been her choice. She hadn't lied to Trudi. She did love the man.
"Hiltrude," she said, "mostly I find that men's stories tend to be about men. I do love your father. And if truth be told, I chose him. Women are not powerless, despite what you think. I wasn't powerless when I met your father any more than you are powerless now."
"What do you mean?" Trudi turned abruptly.
"Rarely do men tell you anything about the role that women play in their stories."
"No. Why do you say that I'm not powerless?"
"Because you are not."
"You of all people should know my plight," the girl said.
"Women are never powerless," Sunni said. "Perhaps when you are better prepared to listen and less prepared to judge, I will tell you about it."
Sunni started for the stairs. She could feel Trudi's stare follow her.
"If anyone is interested," Trudi called down after her, "the army has arrived."
Back on the rampart, Sunni saw Boniface raise a green and red signal flag to let Charles know there was urgent business to discuss. She groaned inwardly. To Charles, matters of state always took precedence over his family. She and Trudi would have to wait until Boniface had his say.
She turned her attention to the approaching army and saw Carloman's bold red banner with the white cross and the lion of St. Mark. Charles's eldest, at least, was safe. Although, she had never been close to Carloman, Sunni liked the serious, young man he had become. Her only reservation was Carloman's rabid devotion to the Church. Boniface had been named godfather to both Charles's older boys, and the bishop had taken the role to heart. He had taught them the catechism and imbued in them a strong foundation of faith. Of the two, he was closest to Carloman. The young man willingly accepted the bishop's counsel and shared the man's passion in Christ. At twenty-seven, Carloman had grown into a formidable warrior and a clever politician, but it was Boniface who pulled his strings. And that made Sunni nervous.
Charles's second son, Pippin, was another matter. In many ways, the young man was a mystery. He had spent six years being educated on the Roman peninsula in the court of King Liutbrand and become so close to the Lombards that Liutbrand had formally adopted him as a son.
Sunni took solace in the fact that Pippin was very much like his father. Pippin looked like him, swaggered like him, commanded troops like him. And much like Charles, there was a sullenness that clung to Pippin that oft times made him combative and cruel. Sunni enjoyed a closer relationship with Pippin, but she had to admit that the young man could exhaust her. One Charles in her life was more than enough.
Pippin's green banner with the white eagle flew alongside the blue hawk of Charles's stepbrother, Childebrand. Carloman's son, Drogo, flew his banner next to Charles, as did Gripho, her son by Charles. Sunni at last let herself smile. Gripho was safe. All the heirs were safe.
Sunni descended to the main hall, but, as she suspected, Charles chose to meet with Boniface to discuss the priest's urgent news. The two disappeared with Carloman into Charles's private chambers off the main hall. Never one to be left out, Sunni went up to her quarters and stole down the back stairs into the servants' quarters. She snuck through the kitchen, stopping to taste the evening's stew, and stepped into a closet that bordered the room where Charles and Boniface met. Years ago, she had bored a small spy hole into the wall.
Through it, she could see Boniface to her right with Charles and Carloman facing her. The bishop appeared to have just finished relating his news. Silently, Sunni cursed her tardiness.
She heard Charles reply, however. "Tell him, no."
"It is a tremendous opportunity, worthy of a great deal of consideration and debate," Boniface said.
Charles dismissed this with a wave of hand. "We're not going to Rome."
Sunni's mind raced. Rome?
"It's a perfect opportunity," Boniface pleaded. "By aligning your house with the pope, you elevate it above all other families. It grants you stature with churches in every region. The pope is in a desperate place. The Lombards threaten him from the south. The emperor in Constantinople won't help. His ancient ally Eudo of Aquitaine is dead. You are the only power who can come to his aid. He's offering you the protectorate of Rome."
"We may not get this opportunity again," Carloman said.
"We're not going, Carloman. We just returned from war in Provence, and there's trouble in Burgundy."
"We crushed Maurontus and the Saracen," Carloman said. "We plundered half of Provence. And it will only take a small force to handle Burgundy. We could do it with half our troops."
"If the Saracen are committed to campaigning on this side of the Pyrenees as they did with Maurontus," Charles said, "we will need the Lombards' help ourselves. Or are you so anxious to become a follower of Muhammad?"
Carloman looked insulted. "We could split our armies. Leave Pippin at home, and I'll ride with you to Rome."
"I think you underestimate the threat, Carloman. The Lombards are formidable."
Sunni couldn't agree more. Liutbrand was a strong and clever ally, but if Charles marched on Rome, the king would become a strong and clever enemy. Charles spent years cultivating relations with him.
"If we turn up in Rome," Charles continued, "Liutbrand will unite his cousins against us as a common foe. No, they won't be so easily mastered. It will take more than a title like 'protectorate of Rome' for me to turn on them."
"How about 'king'?" Boniface asked. Sunni held her breath.
Charles squinted. "Did Pope Gregory say that?"
"Without a Merovingian on the throne, and with you controlling all realms of the kingdom, it's the next logical step."
"Did he say that?" Charles insisted.
"The subject can be raised."
"Then there will be too many strings attached."
"Father, this isn't like you!"
"We're not going, Carloman."
Sunni turned to go. She had known Charles long enough to know this conversation was over.
* * *
Trudi ducked under the sword and spun right, away from her attacker. The thrust had been clumsy. She positioned herself to his right, where he could do the least damage. Ansel, she knew, was better with his right arm. She would have better luck defending against a backhanded blow.
He came again. This time she parried, feinted right, and spun left, going for the back of his right knee. He dropped his shield to take the blow and chopped downward with his sword toward her shoulder. Again, he was too slow.
Trudi had been training with the warriors since the age of eight. She had started a year later than most of the boys because it had taken her a year to convince her father to give his permission. Ultimately, Charles had relented and given her a sword made by the Saracen. It had a curved blade that was lighter and more flexible than the broadswords the boys used, though it had only one edge and tended to break against the larger blades.
Her armor too was different. She didn't wear the heavy chain mail the older boys draped over their torsos. She favored the Saracen leathers protected by small armor plates strapped to her chest, shoulders, legs, and arms. She could move more quickly than they could and had developed a number of spinning moves that gave her an advantage over them. The boys liked to challenge her because she presented a different kind of swordplay. It required more than brute strength to beat her.
She and Ansel often sparred at the end of the day on the practice grounds, choosing to compete again after the others had finished. Today, the air was so thick and hot that her armor felt like it weighed three stone, and her leathers stuck to her skin like tar. Waving for a rematch, Ansel stripped to his waist and grabbed a lighter practice sword. Trudi almost wept with relief and doffed her small plates of armor to fight in her leathers. At nineteen, Ansel was massive, his muscles shining with sweat in the heat of the day. Trudi noticed that he was smiling—not at her, but to himself. Clearly, he was doing more than staying cool; he was trying to limit her advantage.
Ansel picked up a small shield. Trudi picked up a second but shorter practice sword. A shield would help her little against Ansel. He was so strong that he'd break her arm if she tried to withstand one of his blows. Speed was her only ally.
They circled inside the practice ground wall, each looking for an opening. After several feints, Ansel rushed her, hoping that the force of his larger body would unbalance her. She spun to her left. As he lumbered past, she tried but failed to trip him. They circled once more.
Trudi feinted and kicked to make Ansel overreact. The slightest opening could be exploited when fighting with two swords. Ansel blocked each legitimate threat and refrained from reacting to her feints. Trudi swore under her breath. He knew too many of her moves. They circled again.
Excerpted from ANVIL OF GOD by J. Boyce Gleason. Copyright © 2013 J. Boyce Gleason. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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