772 AD: Charlemagne’s battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her beloved husband died in combat. Her faith lies shattered in the ashes of the Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. The relatives obligated to defend her and her family instead sell them into slavery.
In Francia, Leova is resolved to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her own honor. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman attracting the lust of a cruel master and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family. Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon and is Sunwynn’s champion - but he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.
Set against a backdrop of historic events, including the destruction of the Irminsul, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar explores faith, friendship, and justice. This companion to Kim Rendfeld’s acclaimed The Cross and the Dragon tells the story of an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances.
How Loving Your Husband Makes All the Difference
By Kim Rendfeld
When I chose a family of pagan Saxon peasants as my main characters for The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, I also needed to decide on the relationship, my heroine, Leova, had with her husband. Leova is fictional, so she and Derwine could have any relationship I wanted - abusive, apathetic, comfortable, or loving.
Medieval marriages were arranged, and among aristocrats, they were a means to build alliances. Girls as young as 12 or 13 were considered marriageable, and parents often betrothed both sons and daughters at even younger ages. If the bride was a 15- or 16-year-old Christian, the Church required her consent. However, in an epoch that didn’t recognize child abuse and considered wife-beating a right, consent could be beaten or starved from a girl. It’s easy to say that girls were pawns. An alternative perspective is that they were important partners for their families when having the right in-laws could prevent feuds or wars.
Whether the couple was Christian or pagan, social considerations always came first. Heck, the couple didn’t even need to like each other. So if your husband didn’t leave you bruised and bloody and didn’t get so drunk he couldn’t work the farm, you’d consider yourself lucky. And a man would think himself fortunate if he could trust his wife not to stray and to take care of his children and the household.
In Leova’s case, her older brother married her off to his good friend to appease his wife, who was jealous of the siblings’ bond. At first, I thought Leova and Derwine were going to have a comfortable relationship like I just described but not much more than that. My characters decided otherwise, that they would love each other.
A happy medieval marriage is not as unusual as you might think. Some historic marriages were loving, even if the reason to wed was political. When authors of the Royal Frankish Annals typically did not trouble themselves with how a couple felt about their reunion after months apart, the 787 entry says King Charles (Charlemagne) and Queen Fastrada “rejoiced over each other and were happy together and praised God’s mercy.” In a letter from Charles to Fastrada, composed before he went to war with the Avars in 791, he greets her as “our beloved and most loving wife,” and when you read the letter, you get the feeling this is not an empty platitude.
Leova and Derwine’s deep love for each other improves the story. It makes Leova’s losses all the more devastating, heightens her guilt when she gets involves with another man, and makes her decision on what to do about Hugh, the Frankish friend who killed her husband, all the more difficult. In other words, love raises the stakes.
Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne (translated by Jo Ann McNamara)
Carolingian Chronicles (includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories), translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers
P.D. King’s Charlemagne: Translated Sources
This scene takes place days after the Saxons’ defeat at Eresburg. Leova and her children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn, have found Derwine’s body. Her sister-in-law, Ealdgyth, and nephews, Wulfgar and Ludgar, have offered to assist with the funeral.
Tucking the cloak under Derwine’s body, Wulfgar held Derwine’s shoulders, while Ludgar grabbed his calves. Although the young men paused several times carrying Derwine’s body, the mourners reached the barrows, where the air was thick with smoke and reeked of charred flesh from other families’ pyres.
Leova forced her tired limbs to move and gestured for her children to follow her into the forest and gather wood for Derwine’s pyre. Ealdgyth built a smaller fire, while her sons collected large branches. When the pyre was waist high, the twins laid Derwine’s body atop it. Leova left her cloak on her husband, unable to bear another sight of his mangled body.
“Farewell, Husband,” she murmured, stroking the cloak, “you died a hero.” She wanted to say more. How his plain face had become handsome to her. How she missed the touch of his calloused hands. How he had made her happier than she had ever thought possible. How she feared life without him. But if she opened her mouth and said those things, she would weep, and Derwine’s spirit would linger.
Deorlaf leaned toward where his father’s ear had been. “By the ashes of the Irminsul, I will avenge your death.”
“I love you, Father,” whispered Sunwynn, her eyes welling.
Leova and her children backed away from the pyre. She picked up a long stick, dipped it into the smaller fire and held the flame aloft. “Mother Holle,” she shouted, “welcome my husband, Derwine, son of Deorhelm, into your hall and to your table. He died protecting us.”
She thrust the branch into the pyre, and her children did the same. The small twigs were the first to start burning; then the fire reached out and licked larger branches. It grew, gobbling Derwine’s body, consuming a piece of her heart.
Just when Leova thought she could not shed another tear, she wept. She wept for the loss of her husband and the children’s loss of their father. Sunwynn clung to her mother, sobs wracking her body. Deorlaf reached up and laid his hand on Leova’s shoulder.
“He will dine well in Mother Holle’s hall,” he said, a crack in his voice. Tears streaked his face.
A former journalist and current copy editor for a university public relations office, Kim Rendfeld has a lifelong fascination with fairy tales and legends, which set her on her quest to write The Cross and the Dragon and its companion, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. She lives in Indiana with her husband, Randy, and their spoiled cats. They have a daughter and three granddaughters. For more about Kim, visit her website, www.kimrendfeld.com, or her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com