IN A DARK AGE OF UNENDING WAR AND VIOLENCE, ONE YOUNG WARRIOROPPOSES A MIGHTY KING TO FORGE A NEW PATH TO PEACE...
During the savage Frankish-Saxon wars, the moving force of his age, Karl der Grosse, King Charlemagne, fights and rules like the pagan enemies he seeks to conquer. But in the long shadow of war and genocide, a spark of enlightenment grows, and the king turns to learned men to help him lead his empire to prosperity.
One of these men is the unlikely young warrior Sebastian. Raised in an isolated fortress on the wild Saxon border, Sebastian balances his time in the training yard with hours teaching himself to read, seeking answers to the great mysteries of life during an age when such pastimes were scorned by fighting men. Sebastian's unique combination of skills endears him to Charlemagne and to the ladies of the king's court, though the only woman to hold his heart is forbidden to him. As the king determines to surround himself with men who can both fight and think beyond the fighting, Sebastian becomes one of the privileged few to hold the king's ear.
But the favor of the king does not come without cost. As Charlemagne's vassals grapple for power, there are some who will do anything to se Sebastian fall from grace, including his ruthless cousin, Konrad, whose hatred and jealousy threaten to destroy everything Sebastian holds dear. And as Sebastian increasingly finds himself at odds with the king's brutal methods of domination and vengeance, his ingrained sense of honor and integrity lead him to the edge of treason, perilously pitting himself against the most powerful man of his age.
This fast-paced adventure story brings Charlemagne's realm to life as the vicious Christian-pagan wars of the eighth century decide the fate of Europe. Filled with action, intrigue, and romance, Sebastian's Way is a riveting and colorful recreation of the world of Europe's greatest medieval monarch.
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By George Steger
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 George Steger
All rights reserved.
The Siege of Adalgray
The blind man leaned over the parapet and sniffed the air, cocking his head toward the north. "I hear chopping," he said flatly. Heimdal, the forest hermit, had been blind from his youth and relied totally on his other four senses, which resulted in making him a curiously logical man. He rejected the superstitions of the age and the narrow-mindedness and fatalism of most of the people, which ironically had the effect of creating his reputation as a legendary wise man.
An hour before dark, Heimdal had come down the rough track from the woods, tapping his way slowly through the town up to the tower gate of the old Roman fortress. The sentries obligingly helped him onto the wall walk and listened with him. They heard nothing but dared not dispute his claim, for it was well known that Heimdal could hear the grass growing.
In the forest a league away, a peasant rounding up a few skinny cattle foraging in the woods also heard the sound of axes. He quickly beat his animals back into the brush and crept to the edge of the woods. What he saw made him shudder: hundreds of grim-faced soldiers, cutting down trees and fashioning them into crude scaling ladders and heavy battering rams, with teams of oxen waiting, carts loaded with siege supplies and weapons.
The peasant watched long enough to identify the war banners on the lances. They were those of Count Welf, a ruthless and powerful noble, whose land lay between Fortress Adalgray and the Saxon territory to the north. The frightened drover made haste for Adalgray, gliding as lithely as a deer through the underbrush. He despised Welf, who abused and cheated his peasants, leaving them hungry through the winter, and he wished no harm to his own benefactor, Count Athaulf, a fair and usually generous master. The peasant arrived just at twilight as the guards began to shut the fortress gates. Heimdal nodded as he listened to the report and then persuaded the watch sergeant to send immediately for Attalus, constable and acting fortress commander.
Shortly after dawn the next morning, the sentries on the walls heard the rhythmic chanting of marching soldiers long before they saw their streaming banners.
The garrison had worked frantically all through the night to bring weapons and supplies to the walls. The town was in a panic; its people streamed through the fortress gate, where sergeants of the guard divided them immediately into groups, assigning everyone tasks to prepare for the defense. Children and mothers with babies were herded into a makeshift nursery. Serfs, slaves, and the town boys were organized into a battalion of runners, firefighters, and porters. Able-bodied women were given stations around the walls to care for the wounded and provide food, water, and other supplies. Every free man was detailed to the walls.
As the soldiers raced to ready their positions, three of Adalgray's preeminent residents confronted each other tensely in the empty great hall of the fortress: Konrad, a husky, red-haired Frank in full armor, whose bear-like young body was already sweating with excitement; Attalus, an older warrior, whose somber, heavily lined Gallic face and silver-streaked, raven hair reflected not only his Aquitanian roots but also his years of experience and responsibility; and Ermengard, a handsome Frankish lady, somewhat short and a trifle stout now with the years but still fiery, dignified, and bursting with lifelong righteous authority.
An uninvited fourth presence—Sebastian, a tense, slender youth of twelve—breathlessly watched the heated exchange from under a rugdraped bench against the wall.
A war council was in progress, and the air was thick with disagreement. Sebastian's mother, Ermengard, was barely able to contain her impatience and anger as she sat in her customary place at the table of her brother, Lord Athaulf, the absent Count of Adalgray. Ermengard's eyes never left the face of Konrad, her belligerent young nephew, the son of her brother and the heir apparent of Fortress Adalgray, her own face reflecting a mask of silent, bird-of-prey aggressiveness.
Konrad was haranguing his aunt and his father's Master of Horse, Attalus, a famous constable and soldier who was now retired from combat service. Attalus had served the counts of Adalgray for most of his life.
"We are under attack—or will be shortly! It's an outrage!" ranted the young warrior. "Count Welf, that wolf's turd! He's supposed to be my father's peer and friend, the fawning bastard! He waited until he was sure my father was out chasing Saxons with most of our soldiers, and now the jackal expects to pluck us like a ripe pear. Well, I will give him pears! We must ride out at once with our best men and strike him! You must agree, Attalus—time is essential. We must thump him now before he can organize a siege. I will lead our cavalry in a blow dead against his center. Our strength and boldness will rout him before he is even able to bring up the bulk of his men."
"What strength, Master Konrad?" questioned the constable, his calm words a marked contrast to Konrad's high-pitched, nervous tirade.
"You yourself just said that your father has most of our troops already in the field, and the best ones at that. How many mounted warriors do you suppose you could muster to throw against Count Welf's center?"
"Why, I have ... at least a troop," stammered Konrad, after brief thought. "It would be enough for a quick strike, enough to demoralize Welf, if we strike hard and quickly."
"Aye, my lord, you do have almost enough for a troop—perhaps forty men. But your father took the best horses as well. Have you considered what you would seat your troop upon for this bold move? You would be lucky to find twenty animals one could reasonably call warhorses. And do you know at this point how many men Count Welf may put into the field?"
"His county's no larger than ours. He has no great army. I would wager no more than a few score men."
"Perhaps, my lord, but we do not know; he may have all of his men with him. If he does, he will have at least three hundred fifty. And we have scarcely fifty men at arms—counting old men and boys."
"No matter!" shouted the young lord, the veins standing out in his neck. "We can outfight them! If we counterattack now, we will have the advantage of surprise. It is our house, by God! We cannot allow this! We'll not be bottled up by this usurper, this ... this thieving Bavarian goat."
"Konrad!" Now it was Ermengard's turn. She had waited, simmering, but she was close to boiling over. She knew her nephew would never accede to the horse master, a man he considered of low birth and no property. She rose abruptly and moved directly in front of the agitated young man. Fixing him with a cold stare, she played the one card she knew would give him pause.
"Your father has not won King Karl's favor by being a rash fool! Have you even thought of the consequences of a failed battle?" she raged at him. "You will show beyond a doubt that you are unworthy to lead your father's people. You will lose this fortress and all your father's possessions. You will lose your life and probably all of ours as well. You know you must rely on the experience of our constable. He has been a warrior three times as long as you have been alive. He has organized and commanded a hundred defenses. You must rely on his judgment! We have no time for this ridiculous bravado."
"Madame, if I may," Attalus interjected tactfully, "your nephew may indeed have a worthy idea. A successful foray may be possible—but not now, not in broad daylight. Count Welf is no fool. He will come with spear points up and ready. We can make our counterattack later, at night perhaps, when he has relaxed his guard. For now, what we really need is every available man on the battlements and a ready reserve—commanded by our most courageous fighter. I refer, of course, to yourself, Count Konrad.
"You see, sir," the old veteran continued in a soothing voice, "we won't have enough men to cover every foot of the battlements. We must wait and see where they will attack and what siege machinery they may have, and then use the reserve to plug the gaps if they break through. It is the indispensable key to any successful defense. I should think ten or fifteen of the young warriors would comprise the reserve and still leave us enough on the walls for now. Only you can command the reserve, Count Konrad. It may be the key to our survival."
The headstrong youth was mollified by the old warrior's deference and secretly pleased by Attalus's premature reference to him as Count. More compellingly, he was, as always, intimidated by his aunt. She had conjured up exactly what he feared most—failure in his father's eyes.
Konrad protested briefly out of pride but finally withdrew to choose his men, complaining under his breath as he went, "How long shall I have to endure fainthearted men and harping women?"
Shaken but inflated with excitement, Sebastian waited impatiently for the great room to empty before he crawled out of his hiding place and flew to the walls to watch Attalus mount the defense.
* * *
The attack on the fortress proceeded predictably. Count Welf's spies had enabled him to pick his moment carefully, taking advantage of a recent Saxon raid that had drawn Count Athaulf into a long pursuit. Welf was also counting on a sense of distraction and instability among the people caused by the division of the Frankish kingdom between two brothers. Karl, the elder, was generally regarded as the new high king, but many people said his father, King Pippin, had favored Karl's brother, Karloman, and had given him the better part of the kingdom.
Convinced that the fortress was only lightly defended, Count Welf was not expecting much of a fight. He sent three horsemen with white flags as emissaries to demand the surrender of Adalgray.
* * *
"Hear ye now, whoever commands this place," said the foremost rider, a herald, as he waved his flag back and forth in front of himself.
Attalus, as constable and fortress commander, stepped forward in the tower above the gate. He did not look like the fabled veteran of more than a score of annual campaigns during his lifetime. He never bragged or threatened but largely went about his business quietly, generally keeping his own counsel. Nevertheless, his reputation was known throughout the realm, and his very presence as a great fighter and a proven marshal visibly impressed the emissaries. He spoke now, softly but clearly, in the still air.
"Have your say, men of Welf, but be quick. We have little patience for cowards who would threaten us, and we will not listen long."
"We come on behalf of our lord, Count Welf," the herald announced in a strong, imperative voice. "He makes claim that this fortress of Adalgray is his by rights insofar as he, Count Welf, is the northern markgrav, and has for many years defended the Frankish realm against the Saxon menace."
"How is it, then," Attalus replied casually, "that the high king himself acknowledges that this land is in the keeping of Count Athaulf? Have we missed something?"
The emissary answered hotly: "King Pippin gave this land to Count Athaulf's brother, Grennig, who was killed fighting the Saxons. There is no charter giving the land either to Athaulf or to Grennig's wife, the lady Ermengard. Since Grennig's death, Count Welf has done far more than Athaulf to keep the Saxons at bay throughout the long wars of King Pippin. As reward, Count Welf should be the master of Adalgray."
"It has been two years now since the death of King Pippin and five since the death of Grennig," Attalus replied. "Do you not think King Karl, in his wisdom, would have seen this error and corrected it, if indeed there were such a mistake?"
"Furthermore," the herald pressed on, ignoring Attalus's reply, "there are two kings now, and King Karl's brother, Karloman, has never been consulted about this benefice. Count Welf therefore declares his intention to take Adalgray forthwith. He asks only that the defenders listen to the voice of reason and avoid the inevitable massacre should they resist."
If Welf's men expected to intimidate and frighten the defenders into giving up without a fight, Attalus's measured reply gave them no comfort.
"Tell your master that he holds his own land precariously and only at the pleasure of Karl, who is high king, and the king will find no pleasure in this affair. Tell him that he has no more than a wolf's claim here, and that we hold him in highest contempt. If he is foolish enough to attack, he will find us ready, and he had better make sure to kill us all if he can, for there will be no forgiveness, not by us and not by the king."
Withdrawing, the horse master flung over the battlement at the very feet of the messengers' horses a black Frankish lance with a white feather attached to the shaft.
Standing halfway up the ladder to the battlements, Sebastian heard every word and was filled with pride and admiration for Attalus, whom he had known since birth and loved almost as a father. Clutching his small dagger, he longed to be on the battlements himself to take part bravely in the heroic defense of his people. He would soon witness in horror the reality of such lofty notions.
Ermengard was furious. Not only had Sebastian absented himself without her permission, he had finally been found after frantic searching on the battlements at the very point of Count Welf's impending attack. Because all the available men were conscripted to the walls, Ermengard sent female household servants to bring Sebastian back to her quarters. Humiliated that women had been sent to fetch him, the boy vigorously refused to come, providing some welcome comic relief in a tense moment for nearby soldiers on the walls, behind whose legs and shields Sebastian wedged himself against the clucking corps of matrons.
Finally, Ermengard herself was forced to retrieve her son. She caused a considerable stir as she stormed up the ladder to the battlements, ordering burly men-at-arms to help her up and get out of her way. A calamitous scene between mother and child was narrowly avoided by the timely appearance of Attalus.
"Attalus! How can you allow this?" Ermengard demanded. "He is only a child!"
"Madame," hissed the constable between his teeth, "you must get down from the battlements at once. Their attack is imminent!"
"I will not get down, not without my son," she replied defiantly.
Casting a nervous eye over the walls where he could see archers assembling and ladders moving forward, Attalus quickly bent down and grasped Sebastian by his bony shoulders. He looked for a long second directly into the boy's eyes, then whispered something into his ear. Sebastian went immediately to the nearest ladder and began to climb down. Somewhat taken aback, Ermengard started to follow.
Before she could descend, Attalus touched her elbow. "Madame, a word." With a voice full of concern, he explained, "The walls are too lightly defended. We need every available man now. That includes the boys. We must have runners to bring messages and to carry water and arrows. Sebastian may be small, but he is fast and strong."
She glanced down at the boy, fear mounting in her eyes. Attalus grasped both of her elbows, brought his face close, and whispered: "Ermengard, we need him. And I have already promised him a part in this battle. He will not go with you."
On the verge of crying out, Ermengard put a hand to her mouth, sucked in her breath, and cursed the Master of Horse in a low voice.
"May God damn your soul to hell, Attalus, if that boy is hurt in any way. If he dies, it's on your soul, and I will seek you out and find a way to kill you." With that she hurried down the ladder, leaving the shocked fortress commander speechless and badly distracted.
Sebastian stood sturdily at the foot of the ladder, ready to defend his decision to remain with the men. His resolve wavered, however, as he saw his mother's anguished face and the tears welling up in her eyes. She bent toward him and put her hands on his shoulders. "Sebastian, Attalus says you must stay and help with the battle. If it must be, then God wills it. But listen to me: Take no chances, stay off the battlements, and pray constantly. Pray! Do what Attalus and the others tell you, but one thing you must promise me—you must not try to fight. You are not ready. They will kill you if you do, and I couldn't bear it. Promise me that at least. Promise!" she demanded.
Abashed by her tears and worry, Sebastian could only mutter: "I promise, Mother." She embraced him briefly and hurried away, shouting something about sending him armor.
The hours that followed were filled with terror and physical exhaustion. Sebastian and the other boys too young to fight were constantly sent racing from one corner of the fortress to another bringing water, food, and additional weapons. Those who were fleetest of foot, including Sebastian, were used to convey messages from Attalus to his captains on each wall, or to Konrad, who waited with the reserve at a strategic point in the fortress yard. A horn was used to bring Konrad quickly to one wall or another but Attalus used the messengers to alert the reserve and warn it about the likely point of attack.
Excerpted from SEBASTIAN'S WAY by George Steger. Copyright © 2013 George Steger. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Historical Moment.................... xiii
Prologue Treason.................... 1
Chapter 1 The Siege of Adalgray.................... 7
Chapter 2 Refiner's Fire.................... 14
Chapter 3 The Widow's Ploy.................... 25
Chapter 4 Passing the Bar.................... 36
Chapter 5 Fernshanz.................... 46
Chapter 6 Venit Rex.................... 60
Chapter 7 Saxon Hubris.................... 70
Chapter 8 Learning to Fight.................... 82
Chapter 9 Learning to Read—Among Other Things.................... 93
Chapter 10 The Wolf Hunt.................... 102
Chapter 11 The Spanish Dagger.................... 111
Chapter 12 Worms and a New Level of Life.................... 119
Chapter 13 Eros.................... 133
Chapter 14 Disaster.................... 151
Chapter 15 What a Warrior Does.................... 158
Chapter 16 The Irminsul.................... 166
Chapter 17 Out of the Ashes.................... 176
Chapter 18 Andernach.................... 188
Chapter 19 The Pilgrimage.................... 202
Chapter 20 Wayfarers.................... 213
Chapter 21 The Plague.................... 223
Chapter 22 Lothar the Magician and Simon the Radhanite.................... 234
Chapter 23 Of Silks and Success.................... 247
Chapter 24 Gersvind.................... 255
Chapter 25 Old Wounds.................... 262
Chapter 26 Changing the Way.................... 275
Chapter 27 God's Punishment.................... 281
Chapter 28 Alas, Adelaide.................... 294
Chapter 29 The Suntel Mountains.................... 302
Chapter 30 Day of Reckoning.................... 310
Chapter 31 The Third Way.................... 320
Chapter 32 Idyll's End.................... 331
Chapter 33 Widukind.................... 340
Epilogue The Torchbearer.................... 349