Saving the Holy Roman Empire
The Savior of Europe
In 8th century Europe, the Germanic kingdoms were in chaos. The Saxons and Frisians to the north and the Bavarians to the east were constant threats to the Frankish borders. Worse, the Muslim hordes had recently conquered al-Andalus and were swarming northwards to Aquitaine and Burgundy. This was more than a threat to the Frankish Empire: It was a death-knell for their very way of life, the delicate culture that was daily embracing Christianity while holding on to pagan gods and practices.
From the political and military turmoil stepped up the illegitimate son of Pepin, the Mayor of the Palace. That son, Charles, was determined to restore the unified kingdom of his ancestors. Just when he believed he had accomplished his goal, he discovered that he faced the greatest challenge of his life: overcoming insurmountable odds to save the burgeoning Holy Roman Empire from the Islamic invasion.
The silent band of men rode across the verdant field, easy in their saddles despite their armor and the heat of the day. Most were covered in light leather headgear and a breastplate, while a few wore heavy metal helmets and chain mail.
The landscape was lush with vibrant green grass and multi-hued trees all around, but few eyes appreciated the natural beauty. The clomping of unshod hooves hitting the ground and the occasional heavy snort or whicker from a horse was the only sound to disturb the tranquility around them.
That was the problem.
Not a bird sang in the trees, not a cricket chirped in the grass. It was so still not even the heat and time of day could explain the silence.
Grimoald surveyed the men around him. They were nearly fifty strong, including his brother, Drogon. Each man was alert, heads turning to search for possible danger behind every piece of cover.
They were less than a day from Lingzau, their first destination in Alemannia. Grimoald was a sturdy rider, but looked forward to resting his rear on a soft cushion and drinking a large tankard of the famous wines the Romans had left as their legacy in the Rheingau. He turned to Godfrey, his friend and lieutenant, to share his thoughts. Words had not formed on his lips when an arrow whizzed from a copse of trees and buried itself deep in Godfrey’s chest.
In less time than it took for Godfrey to fall from his horse, the twang of arrows rent the still air, followed by the shouts of men, the shrill neighs of horses, and the ring of swords pulled from their scabbards.
The rain of arrows ceased as the enemy charged from the trees. There were hundreds of them, each screaming with rage to fuel their courage. The shouts and clang of metal on metal filled Grimoald’s ears, a deafening clamor he had never experienced. Grimoald fought to control the young pony bucking beneath him, wild with fear, as he simultaneously strove to hack and hew at the hordes of men who surrounded him. His brother struck valiantly about as well, wielding his battle axe with a surprising ferocity.
Within seconds it was clear their assailants were winning. Grimoald spied a familiar crest on one of the enemy shields.
“Drogon, get home!” Grimoald shouted above the cacophony of battle. “Tell Father the Agilolfing duke sent treachery.”
Drogon’s flailing arm never paused. “I will not flee!”
“You must take word,” Grimoald insisted. “Go quickly, before they take us all down.”
Reluctantly, Drogon turned his horse to escape. Grimoald struck at a man who would have stopped him, nearly severing the man’s head in two. He released a quick breath as his brother broke through the surrounding foe and galloped for safety.
Drogon was nearly clear of the field when an arrow struck him in the back. As he fell from his horse, a dozen attackers shouted with glee and raced to finish him off. Then Grimoald was pulled from his own horse, and the rest of the defenders were quickly slaughtered.
His ears rang and his blood gurgled in his throat. Grimoald realized he could only hear because the clamor of battle had completely faded, saving only the groans of wounded men. Through the gathering darkness, a voice came from directly above him.
“Did we get both sons?”
Another voice answered: “Yes, m’lord. Both are dead.”
The last thing Grimoald saw was the first speaker nod with satisfaction as he sheathed his bloody sword. Then he heard and saw no more as the second man made certain of his claim.
Childebrand lounged against the door, his arms folded on his chest. “You’re late. That’s not like you.”
Charles grunted. He couldn’t tell if his brother was chiding him or jesting. “I was in the training yard when summoned. I had to wash my face and put on a clean tunic before coming to see Mother.”
It was often hard for him to read Childebrand. Although he was nearly ten years younger, it sometimes seemed to Charles that he, in his early twenties, was the elder. He was more serious, more dedicated to serving the family interests. The feeling was enhanced by their size. Charles was huge, even taller than their father and thick as an oak, while Childebrand was average in build. They both wore their blond hair long and flowing in the traditional style, but Childebrand was careful to clean and groom his, while Charles paid very little heed to his body other than to keep it in top fighting shape.
“Of course you did. You’re always so fastidious in your appearance.”
Charles grunted again at the obvious jibe. “Shall we stand here and let you make sport of me, or shall we go in and hear what Mother wants to tell us?”
Childebrand was suddenly serious. “You’re right, of course. At this time, we should not keep her waiting. And I should not make light of this situation.”
Childebrand knocked on the door and led the way into their mother’s private apartments, which were simply furnished. The floor displayed a Roman mosaic—still in surprisingly good condition after a couple of hundred years—of fawns drinking from a lake. A beautiful tapestry of the local countryside hung on one wall. Otherwise the sitting chamber featured one large divan and several wooden chairs with plump cushions to make them moderately comfortable.
Their mother rose from the divan as they entered.
In her early sixties, Alpaida was still a beautiful woman. While Charles took after his father, Childebrand had inherited more of her refined, even features. Both had gained the intelligence of their parents, but Childebrand was quick and creative, while Charles was careful, prone to slower decisions but more determined action.
The brothers approached and kissed her cheek, saying “Mother” in respectful tones. She nodded to each in turn.
“We must talk,” she said abruptly. “As you know, your father is gravely concerned for the future after this … unexpected event. This tragedy.”
They both nodded.
“You both know we’ll do whatever we can to help,” Childebrand said.
“Whatever he commands of us,” Charles added.
“I know,” Alpaida assured them. “Come, sit.”
She sat back on the divan, and the brothers plunked themselves into chairs. Unusually, she offered them no food or even drink. This was to be nothing but business. They both sat straighter in their chairs at the realization.
“Naturally, he’s concerned with the immediate succession. But the greater problem is what will happen to Francia when he ….” Her voice faltered. “He cannot hold on much longer.”
They nodded again without speaking. Although their father had largely ignored them in childhood, having prepared their half-brothers Drogon and Grimoald to rule upon his passing, they were very aware of the political machinations that went on throughout the kingdom and its surrounding neighbors.
Alpaida smiled, seemingly pleased with her sons’ reactions. Although they were obviously eager to help, and curious as to what their father may have said, they both waited patiently for her to explain. She leaned forward and put her hands in her lap. She clearly felt there was no point in keeping them in suspense.
“He asked me what I thought of your ability to lead.”
“To lead Austrasia?” Childebrand’s mouth gaped. “And Burgundy, of course.”
Charles raised his eyebrows. He was not surprised the load should fall on Childebrand’s shoulders. He was only concerned that Childebrand would take his duties seriously enough to hold together what they had, and perhaps work to expand it. Childebrand’s thoughts flew, while his plodded along the ground. The problem was, one never knew where his brother’s thoughts would finally alight. His own always seemed to arrive at the proper destination … eventually.
“Yes. Like Drogon and Grimoald, one of you to take Austrasia and one to take Burgundy.”
Childebrand gave a quick glance toward his brother, who did not change his expression. “If that’s what Father wants, then I must accept the responsibility of mayor.”
Alpaida gave a slight frown. “Not quite. After our conversation, your father felt it might be best if, well, you become Duke of Burgundy. He will talk with Charles about becoming the mayor.”
Childebrand blinked several times, and the muscles in his jaw twitched. But what he finally said was: “I understand. It’s probably for the best.”
On the other hand, Charles was not at all certain it was for the best. Although he had been taught to read and write, most of his upbringing had been spent on mastering horse and weapons, certain he would employ his strong right arm to defend the rule of either Drogon or Grimoald. Although he had wondered who would assume command after their deaths, he had not given much thought to the possibility that he might be thrust into that role—and certainly not to the possible opposition from within as well as without. Now it seemed he must consider such things.
“What does Lady Plectrude have to say on this?” Charles asked.
The corners of Alpaida’s mouth quirked. “To my knowledge, your father has not yet asked Lady Plectrude for her opinion. However, I think we all know what she’ll say about it.”
“Hah!’ Childebrand scoffed.
Charles glanced at him, but turned back to his mother. “So it’s not yet certain that’s what Father wants?”
“No, not certain. However, I think once he speaks with you, he will see it’s the right decision.”
“Is it?” Charles frowned. The right decision for whom? But he knew where his duty lay. “Then I await his summons for an audience, and hope I can give him whatever assurances he desires that my loyalty and labors are always at the service of my family and Francia.”
“Actually, you’re summoned now.”
Charles blinked several times, a frown tightening his mouth. “Now? You mean … right now?”
“Right now. He said there wasn’t a moment to waste.”
“But—” Charles looked down at his clothing. “I’m not suitable to visit with the mayor.” He would hate to look like a ragged peasant on one of the rare occasions he was asked to meet privately with Pepin.
Apaida frowned. “This is your father’s command. It’s not for you to decide when it’s appropriate to obey. He’s waiting for you now.”
Charles flushed red. “Of course.” Was his mother displeased with him for his hesitation, or because she might now have more doubt about his suitability to be mayor? He bowed slightly. “I’ll obey instantly.”
The room was dark, with a smell that spoke of lingering decay. Pepin of Héristal, Duke of Austrasia and Mayor of the Palace of King Dagobert III, the most powerful of the four fiefdoms of a divided Francia, lay dying.
Charles frowned again as he thought about his informal appearance. His expression became a grimace: How could he be thinking of himself when his lord and father lay near death, and with no bloody sword in hand to ensure his entry into Valhalla? No matter. He had been commanded to appear immediately, and he had sworn to obey the mayor without question.
From the light of a single taper, Charles saw his father wave him forward. He slowly advanced toward the bed at the back of the room.
He had not seen Pepin since before the illness had taken root, more than a year before. The once strong, erect body was now a withered skeleton. Pepin’s hair had fallen in clumps, and the sparse covering was now white as the snows in winter, but without any of the moisture. Charles worked to keep the shock from his face.
Pepin waved his hand toward a goblet on the table beside his bed. Charles started to move toward the pitcher beside it, but before he could a figure darted forward, grasped the pitcher firmly, and poured some liquid. Charles had not noticed the servant in the dark corner. She disappeared again as soon as she completed her task. As only one goblet was visible, Charles expected this would also be only a brief conversation—or perhaps an examination.
After a long drink, Pepin cleared his throat. “How do you fare, boy?”
“I fare well, Lord Father. I am only saddened to see you brought so low.”
Pepin waved his hand, the emaciated fingers like drowned worms. “Death comes to us all, boy. It’s what we’ve done during our life that counts. I’m satisfied with that.”
Charles nodded. “Indeed, my lord. You have good reason.”
He couldn’t be certain if Pepin’s pause signified lack of hearing, dissatisfaction at his low-key response, or just a wandering mind. Finally, the old man continued. His voice strengthened.
“You know, of course, that Grimoald and Drogon are dead.”
Surprised that Pepin would state that so baldly, Charles blinked several times. “I am aware, Lord Father. I would express my deepest sorrow, but I know that would neither bring them back nor give you any comfort. I shall miss them.”
Pepin nodded his head slowly several times. “Yes. And so shall we all. But the living must now deal with what is. Do you know the circumstances?”
“I only know it’s rumored the Agilolfings were responsible.”
“Yes, probably Theodo or Theodbert. Maybe one of the others.” Pepin grunted. “You have any idea of why they might have done it?”
Charles paused before answering. “I only know they’re a subject duchy and pay tribute to us.” He failed to add that he was sure they wanted their independence.
“Yes, tribute that helps finance our ongoing war against the Saxons. Which is good for them as well.” Pepin cleared his throat and took another sip. He continued through labored breaths and frequent sighs.
“They traveled from Trier to the capitols of Alemannia and then Bavaria to collect the tributes. I insisted on a large guard for such a simple mission, especially one passing through territory conquered long before their births. I wanted them to be aware that danger is always around the next tree.”
After a long pause, during which Pepin took several sips while staring off to space, Charles gently prodded him.
“And your caution turned out to be wise.”
“I wanted to ensure my sons would become well known in the vassal states, and then safely returned to Trier to take over the growing kingdom when I die.” Pepin’s voice was stronger, angry, as though Charles had made some sort of accusation against him. “I never once suspected such treachery.”
“I’m sure you could not have, my lord. What happened?”
Pepin sighed, which ended with a rattle in his throat. When he spoke, his voice quivered with anguish.
“They were in a meadow, mostly open ground. There must have been hundreds of the bastards. The guard was made up of my best soldiers, yet they were slaughtered to the man. I’m certain they took many with them, but the odds were clearly overwhelming.”
Charles held a respectable silence. Then, after a couple of minutes, he voiced his thoughts. “Were there signs of the enemy, my lord? I mean, such as battle shields or arrows.”
Pepin frowned. “They carried all their own dead away. There were no shields, and no other weapons. Other than the hundreds of arrows, of course. The scout who was sent to find them didn’t look for such things.”
The silence enveloped them both as they imagined the scene of death and horror. Pepin made sounds of distress, several times clearing his throat and then sipping heavily of the liquid in his goblet. He held it aloft, and the serving woman scuttled out to refill it before she melted back into the dark corner.
When he next spoke, Pepin’s voice was again strong, commanding. “So, what should I do about it?”
Charles blinked in surprise. “My lord?”
“What do you advise I do about this unprovoked murder of my sons … and your half-brothers?”
“My lord, I would not presume to give the mayor advice on politics or attacks on his sons.”
Even in the murky light, Charles could see the frown on Pepin’s face. “Alright, then. Let’s say you were the mayor. What would you do about this?”
Charles repressed a sigh. He knew he could not avoid giving an answer, no matter how ignorant it might sound. Knowing this was much more than a hypothetical exercise, Charles took the question literally.
He leaned forward, his heavy square jaw resting on his strong right fist. He thought for many moments, during which time Pepin sipped slowly at his drink, coughed and cleared his throat several times, but otherwise did not disturb his thinking.
What if I were the mayor? How would I deal with treachery and murder of members of the family—especially those chosen to be the future rulers of the kingdom? What effects would any action have on all of the other duchies, and both the allies and the enemies all around them?
Rather than an impulsive judgment, he wanted to put his answers in view of the larger picture. Charles decided to review what little he knew of the history of the kingdom going back several hundred years, as well as the current situation.
After the death of King Clovis, his four sons had split apart the Frankish kingdom. Two of the fiefdoms still vied for control. Austrasia held a tenuous supremacy, with Burgundy comfortably under its sway. There were also several vassal states, such as Bavaria and Alemannia, which buffered them against invasion from the east and helped to fill its war chest for defense against Frisia and the Saxons to the north. However, Neustria to the west still harbored serious ambitions of its own.
Aquitaine to the southeast had gained virtual independence under Duke Eudes, and became focused on its southern neighbor rather than the internal strife. For several years, Duke Eudes and his subjects had been fighting against Roderic, the king of Hispania. That war had only ceased because the Moors had recently conquered the entire realm of the Visigoths, an offshoot of the Franks’ own Gothic origins. But, with that war over, if Austrasia did not provide a smooth and powerful transition in leadership, it would become a widespread battle as to who ruled the Frankish states and how the future kingdom was shaped.
Finally he straightened up, and Pepin fixed his eyes on him.
“First, I would send scouts into Alemannia to view the scene of the attack. I would want those versed in weaponry, such as being able to say if the arrows were fletched in the manner of the Alemanni or the Bavarians. Then they would make quiet inquiries in both duchies to hear any news of soldiers being sent out or perhaps mercenaries hired.”
“Scouts,” Pepin repeated. “To plan for a quick strike or a full invasion?”
“Neither, my lord.”
“Neither?” Pepin’s voice was sharp, but he did not raise it. “Then to what end?”
“I think it would be wisest to first determine who actually made the attack. It would not sit well with either allies nor enemies if we invaded either duchy and created slaughter with no strong proof of their guilt. Even so, should we kill all of the Agilolfing or Bavarian dukes and so destroy the delicate balance we have with our vassals, or only those we know to be guilty?”
Pepin nodded. “That’s reasonable. So that we know of how strong a force to send, and have good reason to strike at the serpent.”
“Eventually, my lord.”
Pepin’s eyes narrowed. “You would not act as soon as you had that information? Are we to look weak in the eyes of our friends and foes alike? Do you not understand that the mayor must also be a general? How else do we justify assuming the role from the king of protecting the kingdom?”
“I beg your pardon, lord. However, right now we are weak.”
Pepin bristled. “We have more than five thousand men at arms in Cologne, Trier, and on the border. We can call out a heerbaan of tenfold that number, if necessary. How then are we weak?”
Charles spread his hands, feeling weak and defenseless himself at the mayor’s obvious scorn. How could he be honest and yet state his points so that they would not offend?
“My lord, I can only say my thoughts. To call the heerbaan now would be to spoil the coming harvest. But to send our full-time guards would invite invasion from both Neustria and the Saxons. I know you want to avenge your sons—I truly desire that as well—but not at the expense of the kingdom.”
“The ‘expense’ of the kingdom? Thor’s hammer, boy, our family is the kingdom even more than the king, and our downfall would certainly lead to the destruction of Austrasia and then Francia.”
Charles nodded unhappily. “I know my duty to both, my lord. But I think now is not the time.”
“So, you would simply let their blood curdle in that field, with no punishment meted out to their murderers,” Pepin said bitterly.
Charles did not flinch. “Not yet, lord. No. But while we honor them fittingly at home, and my scouts were finding out the truth of the matter abroad, I would build a standing army.”
At this, Pepin looked truly surprised. “How mean you, a standing army?”
Charles hesitated. What he meant was something along the lines of what their conquerors, the Romans, had boasted. But would that be insulting to their own heritage? And would that even be possible in their society? But he had said it, and now needed to explain it.
“A—a force larger than we now support all year round. Men who are armed and trained to fight, not merely the heerbaan.”
“Hah!” Pepin scoffed. “And how would you support such men? We have neither the armorers nor the quarters for this ‘standing army’. Not to mention any way to pay them.”
Charles bowed his head. “No, my lord.”
“And what would they even do?”
Here Charles could speak with more confidence. “They would protect our borders, Lord Father. Not only against the northern barbarians, but against Neustria. Ragenfrid is clearly eager to attack, and we should not leave him an unguarded door. Further, if we were to leave our eastern borders weak, Duke Eudes might well seek to gain our lands, or perhaps ally with Ragenfrid. We cannot leave our rear unguarded merely to seek vengeance on those who have done us insult, but can do no serious harm.”
Pepin raised himself on his elbows. “The murder of both my sons—your half-brothers—is a mere insult to our family?” He fell back weakly to the bed.
Charles sighed in exasperation. How could he get himself out of this deepening pit of excrement he had created?
“No. Not in the least, Lord Father. But you asked me to think as the mayor, not as an avenging brother. I would simply make certain my borders were well protected from our more threatening enemies before I took part of my army away to punish those who have done us injury, but pose no long-term threat to the duchy.”
“Humph.” Pepin took a long draught, then held up his goblet once more for a refill. As the serving woman responded to his summons, Charles idly wondered if the contents of the pitcher were a medicine or ale, or perhaps even wine. Then he scoffed at himself. What did it matter? His father was soon to die no matter what, and why should he not enjoy whatever it was he chose to eat or drink?
As soon as he had quenched his parched throat, Pepin waved vaguely with his free hand. “Anything else you would do?”
Charles did not hesitate. He had already thought it through. “Once the murderers have been punished, I would point that army east. I know it has long been your desire to reunite the kingdom. This struggle with Neustria only grows, and Aquitaine is now free to take sides. I would seek to finish what you have started, Lord Father.”
Pepin nodded slowly. His eyes moved as though watching various thoughts flit from one place to another.
“I see. Well, you have given me your answers, and left me with something to consider. You may go now.”
It was an abrupt dismissal, and Charles felt the sting of the reproof sharply. As he exited the bedchambers his shoulders sagged. It was strange in that he had implied to his mother he really did not seek to be the mayor, which was true. And yet he was sad that he must be deeply lacking in some way that he was not qualified to be Pepin’s heir.
Well, it was simply one more thing in life that must be borne. But he was more determined than ever to protect his family and his country in whatever manner he could.
Don Maker received his B.A. in English and Comparative Literature from the University of California, San Diego, and his M.A. in Education from Chapman University. He has had the pleasure of traveling extensively, either living in or visiting every continent except Antarctica. He is a former member of the California Writer’s Club, Mt. Diablo Branch. After teaching for a few years, he wrote a novel based around education in the 1950s, “The Grindstone”, and a YA magical realism novel, “Miranda’s Magic”, which is meant to encourage middle school students to love science. He has broadened his horizons with a surrealistic play based on the life of Sigmund Freud, “Sigi and Carl”, and a sports comedy, “The Jersey Jupiters”. His focus is now on historical fiction. Don has published “Zenobia”, a novel set in the 3rd century Roman Empire, and just released “The Savior of Europe”, the story of Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles “Martel” (The Hammer), who was responsible for uniting the Frankish Em