J.’s Novels

Anvil of God

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 tree sons, betroth his daughter to a Lombard prince, 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 high price for its 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.

Anvil of God

Map from Short History of the World

Chapter 1

Charles Arrives

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.

“Your pardon?”

“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.

She looked to Ansel’s eyes to anticipate his next move. But what she saw didn’t make sense. She stepped back. She was certain that he had been looking at her breasts. He noticed her look and backed away, averting his eyes. And in the breadth of that moment, everything changed.

Her breasts, straining against her leathers, suddenly felt out of place. And she was terribly aware of his naked chest and shoulders. Again he looked at her, this time openly. Her heart raced, and she took another step back. Her stomach clenched. Blood rushed down her torso and coursed back up to her face. Ansel saw her reaction and smiled.

Furious, she took three steps forward, swung her short sword in a feint across his body, and used its momentum to throw her upper torso toward the ground. Pivoting on her left foot, Trudi swung her right leg in an arc high over her body so that her foot caught Ansel on the side of his head. The blow nearly toppled him. He stumbled. She hurled herself at him, spinning and hurling blow after blow with her two swords, pressing her advantage. Ansel backed and twisted to meet the attack, suffering the onslaught off balance. She went for a killing blow to end the contest, but he blocked it and slammed her square in the chest with his shield.

Stunned, Trudi backed up to regain her footing. Ansel, with an anger she had never seen before, drove at her with a series of blows that she barely checked. He advanced. She retreated. She tried to spin. He blocked her. She found herself backed up against the wall of the practice grounds. Ansel barely hesitated before he chopped his practice sword down in a finishing blow. She crossed both her swords over her head to catch his blade. Had it reached her, her head would have been crushed. They stood motionless against the wall, straining against each other.

Trudi looked up into Ansel’s face and spat out the words, “I yield.” When that produced no reaction, she shoved his arms away and let down her swords. He still didn’t move. They stood against each other, breathing heavily. She saw his face change from rage to something else, something hungry. She looked away. Her face grew flushed. Short of breath, she dropped her sword and put her hand against him. He didn’t move.

“Ansel,” she said, looking back into his eyes. She had to get clear. She pushed against his chest until he gave way. Without a word, she left the training ground. She didn’t look back at him. When he called after her, it took everything she had not to run.

In the following days, Trudi refrained from warrior training, which brought a serious rebuke from the warrior master. She avoided church, because Ansel was one of Carloman’s “Knights in Christ,” who attended mass every day. That brought a rebuke from Boniface. She ate in her room and went out only in the company of women—if she went out at all. When Ansel passed her on the villa grounds and called to her, Trudi ignored him. When he saw her on the street, she turned away.

She knew Ansel couldn’t very well call on her in her rooms. He couldn’t send her a note; neither of them could read or write. At best, he could send an intermediary. But there was little chance of that. The court was too small, and she was too central to it for any chance of secrecy.

Try as she might, however, Trudi could not stop thinking about him. How long had he been looking at her like that? Why had she reacted the way she did? She had never felt this way before. She had always thought of her breasts as something that got in her way.

Alone in her room, Trudi sat on her bed and thought of Ansel looking down at her breasts. A ripple of heat descended into her. She closed her eyes and imagined him pushing against her. Her stomach fluttered, and her skin flushed. Lying back, she pictured their last combat and imagined Ansel pressing her against the wall. She felt him pin her hands above her head while his mouth descended to her neck. His arm circled her waist to draw her to him, and he pressed into her with the length of his torso. Looking up into his eyes, she saw that raw look of hunger take over his face.

She imagined that her hands were Ansel’s hands and that they followed the heat down the length of her body to the wetness she found there. “Oh, Ansel!” she gasped, her body convulsing as a flash of white blanketed her vision. Again it happened, this time stronger, and she collapsed into her pillows.

Shame filled her. Then anger. She covered herself with her sheets and lay still for a long time. She wanted Ansel. She wanted to feel his hands on her body. She finally understood the desire to be desired. She rolled onto her stomach and buried her head in her pillows. She had no idea what to do. She had no one to turn to. Most of her friends were the boys who trained with her. They would be of no help. The girls at court were not like her, and she was afraid that they would gossip. Her father, if he knew, would kill Ansel and marry her off to some faraway ancient noble, or worse, send her to a nunnery. She never felt more powerless.

Then she thought of Sunni. Sunni had said that women were never powerless. She would know what to do. She would help her have Ansel. For the first time since she had fought Ansel, Trudi smiled. In a moment, her fingers again were buried deep inside her.

“Good Lord, man. Have you lost your senses?” Boniface folded his hands in prayer and brought them to his lips, struggling to contain his outrage. If Charles or any of his sons had heard the confession he had just received, they would have killed the knight kneeling before him.

“She felt something too. I’m sure of—”

“Enough!” Boniface held up his hand and prayed to Michael the Archangel for strength. Boniface shuddered. This was dangerous ground. He rose to ensure that they were alone in the sacristy and closed the door to keep away any acolytes that might happen by. Charles would take Ansel’s head if so much as a rumor of this reached his ears. And he would not respect the fact that Boniface was bound by the confessional to tell no one of the boy’s sin. Thank the Blessed Mother that the boy had come to him before anything more serious had happened.

He had to think. Ansel had confessed to lusting openly for Charles’s daughter and to pinning her body against the practice field wall with his own. The two had had no further contact, but the panic in the young knight’s eyes suggested that this was still a very volatile situation. The pain on his face was palpable. Ansel did not trust himself. Lust had the better of him. Boniface sat back down and put his hand on Ansel’s shoulder.

“You do recognize, my son, that you cannot marry Hiltrude.”

“Yes, Father.” The boy looked miserable. “But I have this … this need for her. I can’t stop it. I tried to pray it away. I tried exhausting myself on the training ground. I even touched myself to rid my body of this demon seed.”

“All appropriate responses.” Boniface nodded.

“But it only makes it worse. Thoughts of Trudi, of, of Hiltrude return. And she is always naked and—”

Boniface again raised his hand to stop him.

“You are not to speak of this again. Not to anyone. Not to Hiltrude. Not to me. Not even to yourself. And you will stay away from Hiltrude. You will no longer ‘practice’ your swords with her. You are forbidden to be in the same place as her. She arouses a demon in you that you can barely control.

“Now. As to your penance.” Rising again, Boniface went to a closet in the back of the sacristy and brought out a leather flagellum. He held it by the handle so that the whip’s tails hung before the young man’s eyes.

“Do you know what this is?” Boniface let the fear grow in the young man’s eyes. Ansel nodded. “This will be your path to salvation. And you must not spare yourself from its power. In the end, you will be stronger for it. And with God’s help, you will tame your demon and restore your self-control.”

“Thank you, Father.”

Boniface put his left hand on Ansel’s head and with his right made the sign of the cross, saying, “Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat; et ego auctoritate ipsius te absolvo ab omni vinculo excommunicationis et interdicti in quantum possum et tu indiges. Deinde, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

Boniface found his godson inside the family chapel praying.

“Sed libera nos a malo,” Carloman said, one hand extended before him across the altar with its palm turned upward in supplication. The other hand clasped a holy icon that Boniface had given Carloman the day of his elevation to knighthood. It was a finger bone of the blessed St. Martin of Tours. Carloman wore it around his neck in a small wooden canister.

Though still young, Carloman’s unusual height and lean body gave the impression that he was a man hardened by time. The right side of his face and his nose had been broken in battle and had never quite healed. From time to time, he had to sniffle the small amount of mucus that occasionally dripped from it. Though he reeked of intensity, Carloman’s actions always were measured. Boniface took great pride in the religious conviction of his godson. Together, they had planned an alliance with the larger monasteries to rid the world of the pagan horde. Carloman’s “Knights in Christ” were dedicated to this work. Yes, thought Boniface, Carloman was the key.

When his godson stood, Boniface led him back to his chambers. “Charles has announced that he will raise Gripho to knighthood,” Boniface said. “He named a day early in September to let it coincide with the fall assembly.”

“How he dotes on that boy,” Carloman said. “Gripho’s barely been in battle. In Provence, my father kept him with the rear guard until Maurontus’s line broke. He only sent him in for the kill.”

“He is young, Carloman.”

“My father is growing soft. He had me in the front lines at that age, Pippin as well. He’s raising this one differently.”

As the two walked down the hallway, Carloman glanced into a chamber off the hallway and stopped abruptly. Boniface followed his gaze and saw Ansel, kneeling on the floor, naked to the waist, flogging himself. A grunt escaped the knight’s lips as each blow landed. Blood covered his back. Ansel’s face was distorted. His eyes shined with fanaticism. Carloman looked questioningly at Boniface, who merely waved his hand at the chamber.

“Nothing to worry about. The young man came to me in the act of confession. Sometimes mortification of the flesh is the only solution to the carnal desires of young knights.”

“He seems awfully intense about it,” Carloman said.

“It is … a special case,” Boniface said.

Once in his chambers, Boniface unrolled the maps to show Carloman the monasteries whose allegiance they would need. “There are some, such as Saint Wandrille, we could approach now,” Boniface said. “Others will have to wait until you and your brothers are named mayor.”

“Brother,” Carloman corrected. “Gripho is too young to be mayor. Father will never raise him up as an equal to Pippin and me.”

“Nonetheless, you’ll have to regard him as a successor. Bavaria and Neustria will help him assert his rights.”

“Let them.” Carloman pointed to the map. “Why will these monasteries have to wait?”

“Charles seized much of their land early in his career and left them with less than a third of the resources they had acquired.”

“Are you saying we should give it all back?” Carloman asked.

“Only to those that are important for the relics they house or the influence they wield. If we combine your endowment with a papal decree to centralize the Church, we can align your family with the Church and mandate Christianity throughout the continent.”

“What about the pagans?”

“Conquer them. Take their hostages. Baptize them.”

“If they refuse?”

“Over time, the Church will win out. We supplant local rituals with our own, oftentimes using their words and rites. Birth, death, wedlock, knighthood—it is our rituals that tie us to God. It may take a generation or two to succeed.”

“You’re being optimistic,” Carloman said.

“Then we will take stronger measures,” Boniface said. Carloman frowned.

“Have you seen their rites?” Boniface began to pace. “They are an affront to God. They drink blood. They sacrifice humans. Their ‘communion,’ a name that insults the Church, involves unspeakable debauchery.

“Yes, stronger measures may need to be taken,” Boniface repeated, his face reddening. “Christians cannot coexist with such as them. If they do not submit to the Church, we must drive them from the land, imprison the leaders, and purge their followers. They are sin itself.”

“Yet you suffered Charles’s marriage to Sunnichild.”

“Charles was adamant that he have her. She converted and married him within the Church. There was little I could do.”

“I’ve heard rumors that she still practices the lore.”

“If she does, she hides it well,” Boniface said. “The real question, however, has always been Gripho. What if a son of Charles was pagan? Imagine the legitimacy that would give their lore.”

“I asked him to join the Knights in Christ,” Carloman said. “He refused.”

“Perhaps that is merely a younger brother wanting to be seen as an equal.”

“Let’s hope so,” Carloman said, “for his sake as well as ours.”

Twice Trudi turned away from the door to her stepmother’s chambers, and twice she turned back. Could Sunni be trusted? What could she do, if Charles made all the decisions? And what did she mean by “power”? Trudi had disdained Sunni’s advice so often that she couldn’t believe she was asking for the woman’s help now.

She offered, Trudi reminded herself. Standing outside Sunni’s chambers, however, she felt a new fear take hold. How do I dare tell her about my thoughts of Ansel? She flushed with embarrassment. How can I tell Sunni about the hunger inside me, my need for him? Oh Jesus, how can I tell Sunni any of it?

I can’t. The clarity of this knowledge swept across her, quickly followed by enormous relief. I can’t tell her, Trudi decided. I won’t. She turned to go.

“I was beginning to think you had changed your mind,” Sunni said, appearing in the doorway.

Trudi’s stomach squeezed into a knot. “I can’t.”

Sunni took her hand and smiled. “Of course, you can. You have nothing to fear from me.” Without waiting for Trudi’s response, Sunni led her into her private quarters.

The rooms were small but thoughtfully adorned. Though too feminine for Trudi’s tastes, the rooms were not overdone like those of some girls at court. Sunni used color as a subtle weapon to banish the coldness of the plaster walls. Red pillows lined the bed, and blue tapestries adorned the walls. And her furniture, though delicate, was purposeful and reserved—a desk and chair in the outer room, a small couch and chairs inside. In the bedroom, a gray mat lay in front of the hearth, which housed a small fire that took the chill from the air. Across the room, Sunni’s bed was piled high with blue and gray pillows and white blankets. It was there that Sunni led her, and together they sat on the edge of her bed.

Oh my God, thought Trudi, I’m going to tell her. Trudi’s face reddened, and her breath grew short.

“Tell me,” Sunni said, her eyes reassuring.

To Trudi’s horror, tears flooded from her. Before she could stop them, sobs wracked her frame, and she fell helplessly into Sunni’s arms. The older woman cradled her, rocking her like a child until the tears were gone. When Trudi spoke, the words poured from her mouth in a torrent. Sunni said nothing. She just stroked Trudi’s hair. When Trudi finished, Sunni sighed.

“That boy will never do,” Sunni said.

“But I can’t stop thinking about him.”

“You need a man,” Sunni said.

Trudi didn’t understand.

“You have grown into a powerful young woman,” Sunni said. “Why should you be surprised to find powerful forces inside your body?”

“You know I can’t sleep with a man out of wedlock,” Trudi said, reeling internally. “Father would—”

“No one condemns Pippin or the girl he lies with.”

“That’s different.” Although she wasn’t sure why it was different.

“Your father wants to barter with your body for an allegiance or a treaty. That is why he will not suffer you lying with a man out of wedlock. There are fewer questions about succession if the bride is a virgin. Boniface, of course, will condemn your sin. But you must remember that you are the daughter of Charles Martel. You will be his daughter even if you have lain with a man. In the end, your hand will still be sought by every noble family on the continent.”

Sunni’s calm in the face of Trudi’s emotion was troubling. She sees no shame in desire? Another man? It was inconceivable. “But isn’t lust one of the seven deadly sins?” she asked.

“There are no deadly sins,” Sunni said. “Those are the teachings of people who seek to steal your passion for their own purposes.”

There it was. Heresy. And Sunni had stated it as if it were obvious.

“So,” Trudi whispered, “the rumors are true. You are pagan. This is what the Church warns about.”

“A Church run by men,” Sunni said. “It banishes all teaching that is not focused on serving the needs of men, particularly those men who run the Church. You were born of woman. Your body is a vessel that brings the power of the earth into focus. The passion for physical communion is only one of these focal points. You have many. Instead of subjugating those passions, you need to harness them.”

“I don’t think I could do that,” Trudi said.

“Can you live without the passion you feel for Ansel?”

Trudi hesitated. “No,” she said.

“Then you have already defied the Church. The question you must ask is: will you defy yourself?”

“But I want Ansel.”

“You already know you cannot have Ansel. Your father would have him flayed, then drawn and quartered. Besides, Ansel is a brute, unworthy of a woman like you. He wouldn’t come close to satisfying your needs. No, you need a man.”

“I don’t think I could do that,” Trudi repeated.

“You have more power than you know,” Sunni said. “When you are ready to harness that power, come to me. But you must promise me that you will speak of this to no one. Not your father. Not Boniface. Not Carloman or Pippin. They are men and do not understand our bodies or our needs. Helping you will put me in grave danger. But I can see that your need is great, so I am willing.”

“I can’t take your advice,” Trudi said. “But I came to you in confidence, so I will leave you in confidence.”

Sunni walked Trudi to the door, hugged her, and kissed both her cheeks. “Consider who has been teaching you and ask yourself whose interest they are trying to protect. If you decide you want my help, come see me.”

Trudi left more disturbed than when she had arrived.

Two days later, Trudi rounded a corner to find herself directly in front of Ansel. Her heart leapt at the sight of him. Her face blushed deeply as she took a tentative step toward him.

“Ansel.” She reached out her hand to touch his chest.

“Stop!” Ansel said, his voice so strained it sounded like a gurgle.

“Ansel,” she said again, surprised.

Ansel’s face twisted into a grimace. “Temptress! Stay away from me!”

His eyes seemed to push out of his head. “I must have nothing to do with you. Hear me, she-devil? Nothing!”

That night, she returned to Sunni’s chambers, pausing again on the threshold. Sunni invited her in and closed the door behind her.

“How can I help you?” Sunni asked.

“Tell me about power.”