First Chapter of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar

July 772, Eresburg, Saxony

Leova fought the urge to seize her children’s hands and bolt out of the longhouse. No, she thought, listening to her husband’s quick strokes of the whetstone, we will need food; we will need knives.

Dust clouded the sunlight from the open door and stuck to Leova’s face and hands. Her home’s wooden walls could not keep out the clamor from the village—the women’s screams, babies’ cries, hooves pounding on hardened earth. Through the noise, a deep voice bellowed, “Invasion from the west! Invasion from the west! Men to arms! Women and children to the forest!”

Her guts clenching, Leova blindly threw barley bread and dried beef into her bag. She had abandoned her bean stew, still simmering in the hearth. The warrior’s shouts added little to the earlier message from the fortress’s horns.

Leova’s slender twelve-winter-old son scowled. “I should be fighting,” Deorlaf said.

Derwine set aside the knife he was sharpening against the whetstone and slapped his son with the back of his weathered hand. “Stop wasting time! Release the swine and pull carrots and onions like your mother told you!” He raised his hand again. “Now, Deorlaf!”

Deorlaf looked down, mumbling “not fair.” Snatching a sack, he grabbed a wooden trowel and stomped out of the longhouse.

“Father?” whimpered Sunwynn.

Leova dropped her sack, marched two steps, and shook her fair nine-winter-old daughter. “Father is busy,” she hissed.

“But the night terrors,” said Sunwynn, her body rigid.

“Our charms will protect us,” Leova replied, hoping it was true.

Sunwynn gazed at her wiry father, her clear blue eyes wide.

“Your mother is right,” Derwine said. “Now put the cups and rags into the sack.”

Sunwynn ran.

Leova cursed under her breath. In her haste, she had almost forgotten to ask the gods to protect her home! She dashed to the open door and blinked back the dust stinging her gray eyes. Her throat tightened as she watched young mothers clutch their babies to their breasts and flee helter-skelter. Men raced past her to the fortress. Squealing pigs rushed in all directions, almost trampling the squawking chickens. Leova again suppressed the urge to run.

A horn blasted. “Make way!” a man’s voice boomed.

Turning toward the sound of thundering hooves, Leova beheld a mounted party through the dust. Grim but determined, Westphalian Herzog Widukind and Eresburg’s chieftain, Adilstan, led the horsemen. On their heels were Adilstan’s wife and seven-winter-old son, the priest, henchmen, and guards. The party sped by, followed by packhorses and a light horse cart, its cargo of wooden chests banging against the sides.

In the horsemen’s wake, Leova knelt then leaned forward until her elbows touched the hardened earth. She folded her hands and gazed up, hurrying through the incantation to Wodan, the war god. “Glory is some token. It holds troth well…”

As the words tumbled from her lips, she felt Derwine’s fingers reach under the folds at the waist of her faded green wool dress and slip her eating knife from its sheath on her belt. Tilting her head, she listened to his feet pounding against the clay floor, followed by the knife rasping against the whetstone.

At the end of her spell, Leova added, “Grant us victory, and we will sacrifice the black bull.”

She rushed to Derwine, her golden braids and skirt flaring. He handed her the eating knife and the large kitchen knife. With a nod, she tucked both into her belt. She picked up her bag and tossed in the healing and sacred herbs. Derwine ran to the door. “Deorlaf, come in here,” he shouted.

The boy ran to the longhouse, panting and sweating, clutching a laden sack.

“You all must leave now,” Derwine said. “Sunwynn, Deorlaf, here are your eating knives. If anyone attacks you, aim for his throat.”

“Yes, Father,” Deorlaf said. He put down his sack and took the knife.

Derwine laid his hand on his son’s shoulder. “I have something else for you.”

He gave Deorlaf a sheathed dagger and then removed his own ring from his third finger. He seized Deorlaf’s free hand and pressed the ring into his son’s palm, closing the boy’s fingers over it. Derwine had carved the ring from an ox’s bone and inscribed it with the shape of the two top bent branches of the Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven.

“Take these,” he insisted.

“But I should be…” Deorlaf squeaked.

“Quiet! It’s your duty to protect your mother and sister.”

“Listen to your father,” Leova said, struggling to appear calm. “Now drive the cattle into the forest. You know where to meet us.”

Deorlaf squared his shoulders and stuck out his chin. After tucking the dagger into his belt and placing the ring on his thumb, he snatched his sack and sprinted out a back door.

Derwine hugged Sunwynn. “My dearling, be good for your mother.”

Leova dropped her sack and ran to her husband. She held both his calloused hands in hers and looked up into his clear blue eyes. His face was tanned, much of it covered by a pale blond beard hiding smallpox scars. Well over thirty years of farm life had hardened his muscles, and the scar under his left eye gave him the look of a Saxon warrior.

“Leova, my love, as soon as it is safe for you to return, I will find you,” he said. “If I die…”

“Husband, don’t speak of that. You must live for my sake and the children’s.”

Derwine kissed her long and tenderly. They lingered in their embrace. “No man could ask for a better wife. Stay safe, for my sake.” He gently pushed her away. “Now go.”

Leova and Sunwynn took three sheepskin cloaks from the pegs on the wall and picked up their sacks. For a moment, Leova hesitated and turned back for a last look at Derwine. Despite her terror, she did not want to leave him.

“Go!” Derwine yelled. “Leave now!”

Leova swallowed her tears and held her burden more tightly as she and Sunwynn stepped into the hot, dusty chaos of the road. Surrounded by screams and wails, Leova looked to her left and gazed down at the Irminsul, standing tall near the drought-shrunken Diemel River. As long as the oaken pillar stood with its treasure, the gods would favor the Saxon peoples. Leova made out the warriors kneeling before the Irminsul, vowing to sacrifice the first captives and booty they won in battle. Her gaze traveled up the pillar’s great length to the top, where it divided itself into two bent branches and the idol of Wodan stood.

An invading army would take the steep, winding dirt road connecting the river below to the fortress and village at the top of the high hill. Turning instead to their right, Leova and Sunwynn barreled out of their village, downhill past the fields of parched barley and rye toward the forest.

Lower lip trembling, Sunwynn asked, “The gods will protect us, won’t they?”

“Of course, they will.” Leova tried to keep her voice steady. “The gods protect their people.”

 

Bounding toward the trees with Sunwynn, Leova tried to close her ears to the panicked cries and the livestock’s trampling hooves. Sunwynn whimpered and sniffled, but to Leova’s relief, the girl kept up. Shortly after they passed into the cool, green shade of the trees, Leova heard a whistle and spied Deorlaf. Behind him, cows were running deeper into the forest, but they would have to leave the beasts and hope to retrieve them after the battle.

With other villagers descending the hill, the three of them made their way through the maze of ancient trees, trying to avoid the briars that caught at their clothes. As the woodland animals scurried away, Leova focused on the task at hand: get to the refuge near the spring in the valley and leave few tracks. But questions pounded against her skull, quickening her pulse and breath.

“Who are these invaders?” Deorlaf asked, voicing one of those questions.

“I don’t know,” Leova answered sharply. “There was no time to ask.”

Deorlaf kicked a stone, sending it down the slope. “How do you know they will arrive soon?”

“The lookout would know,” Leova said, shifting her burden. “The trees would’ve concealed the invaders’ movements until they were almost upon us. We must move as fast as we can. We don’t want them seeking us out to avenge themselves of their defeat.”

“What do you mean?” Sunwynn asked.

Leova regarded her slender daughter, a pretty child with pale blond braids and her father’s eyes. The freckles dotting her oval face enhanced rather than detracted from her comeliness. Beauty can sometimes be a curse.

“If they find us,” Leova said, “the soldiers will rape us.”

 

Leova kept looking over her shoulder while she and her children wound their way between trees, making sure their footing was solid. She was glad to see a boy about Deorlaf’s age climbing up an oak. He was a lookout. The spring was close.

Soon, the ground became level, and they joined other families near the spring. Filled with children’s cries and the buzz of low voices, the site was far from the road, concealed from human enemies by many trees and tangled undergrowth. But the forest was home to otherworldly beings who could haunt Leova’s dreams or strike her children ill. She tightened her grip on her sack, reassured by the sacred herbs it held.

Widukind’s and Adilstan’s household servants—the women and children who could not fight—crowded with the villagers. Remembering the packhorses and cart trailing the horsemen, Leova straightened her spine. Adilstan’s family was fleeing Eresburg, braving kobolds, spirits, and bandits, rather than risk becoming prizes of the invaders. She made the sign against evil, hoping the wights of the forest would protect her folk.

Seeking a clear space, Leova spied her sister-by-marriage. Ealdgyth’s beauty had long faded—her slenderness turned bony, once smooth, pale skin now tanned and leathery, and dandelion yellow hair streaked with gray.

“Uncle Leodwulf would want us to join her,” Leova muttered to her children. “She is alone.” Which Ealdgyth is here? The pleasant one or the shrew jealous of my brother’s affection?

As Leova set down her bag, Ealdgyth nodded a greeting.

“How do you fare?” Leova asked.

Ealdgyth shrugged. “I am worried. My husband and sons are in the fortress. You are lucky your son is too young for battle and can stay with you.”

Giving Ealdgyth a warning look, Leova placed her hand on her son’s arm. “Deorlaf is here to protect us, as his father wills and as his Uncle Leodwulf would as well.” She hoped to convey another message: one more barb to Deorlaf’s pride and she would take her family and the food they intended to share elsewhere.

“I will protect you, too, Aunt Ealdgyth.” Deorlaf patted his dagger.

Leova and her children spread their sheepskin cloaks on the ground. When Deorlaf said he was hungry, Leova realized they had not eaten today. She had left their dinner of bean stew at the longhouse, the flames still under it. She mouthed a profanity, remembering she had also left the plow to be plundered by the invaders. Would the enemy trample the crops? Burn the longhouse? Ealdgyth’s low voice broke into her thoughts.

“I have bread I baked for the whole family this morning. Leodwulf insisted that I take it all. We will need to be careful with it. There might be nothing left after the battle.” Reaching into her sack, Ealdgyth looked around as if she feared the invaders would hear, even at this distance.

“We have vegetables and dried meat,” Leova said. She looked in the direction of the fortress, seeing nothing but dense woods. “We should not light a fire during the day. The invaders might see the smoke.”

“Agreed,” Ealdgyth said.

Families sitting nearby also shared what they had in their sacks and baskets. Leova passed a couple of carrots to a young mother with an infant. The woman gave some deeply lobed, dark green cabbage leaves to Leova.

“Who are these invaders?” Ealdgyth asked, nibbling on bread. “I haven’t heard of Adilstan feuding with anyone lately.”

Leova shook her head. She couldn’t think of any fellow Westphalian Saxon in a dispute with Eresburg’s chieftain. Nor was Widukind fighting the leader of the Engern to the north or any chieftain among the eastern peoples.

“What about the Christian villages our men raided?” Sunwynn asked. “Would those men not be angry?”

“The ones with the strange priests from Britain?” Deorlaf asked.

Sunwynn nodded.

Deorlaf snorted. “They are not warriors.”

“The Franks,” Leova whispered, shivering despite the heat of the day. “They are from the west. They’ve used raids on Christian villages as an excuse to attack Saxony before.”

“That was many years ago, before Deorlaf was born,” Ealdgyth said.

The attack on Sythen was devastating, Leova thought. She had been barely out of girlhood and unmarried then, but she could still remember the scowl on Leodwulf’s face when he returned from the battle four days west of Eresburg and delivered the news: slaughter at the fortress, many survivors taken into slavery, a forced tribute of three hundred horses a year. Widukind ended that humiliation.

“Widukind will defend us,” Deorlaf said.

“It’s our good fortune he was here for Midsummer Festival,” Leova said.

With one blue eye and the other dark brown, Widukind had Wodan’s mark, a sure sign of triumph in battle. His presence gave Leova a trickle of calm.

Deorlaf wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I’m still hungry.”

“We need to make the food last,” Leova said. “Go set snares for rabbits, but not too far away.”

Suddenly, they heard a rumble of men’s voices, hooves, and carts. With white knuckles, Leova gripped her knife. For them to hear the invaders at all meant there was a great host of men. Was this force too much even for Widukind?

“Mother?” Deorlaf asked, his voice barely audible.

Leova dared not voice her thoughts for fear of panicking the children. We will need all the aid the gods can give us.

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