25 January 2017

Meet My Protagonist: Leova, from THE ASHES OF HEAVEN’S PILLAR

Leova is an ordinary medieval woman but not a typical protagonist for historical fiction set in early medieval times. Nor are people like her found in the annals, which ignore commoners, portray pagans as brutes, and treat war captives like booty.

When I wrote THE ASHES OF HEAVEN’S PILLAR, I wanted to tell the story about the 8th century wars between the Christian Franks and the pagan Saxons from a peasant’s point of view, and I wanted to delve more into the slavery that existed at the time. I needed Leova.

My heroine looks good for her age, 28, but is not a blooming maiden. Although illnesses and the possibility of famine make conditions tough by 21st century Western standards, Leova thinks she had a good life. At the beginning of the story, she has a loving husband, two healthy children, a small farm, and a freedom she takes for granted.

She is a pagan who believes the Saxons will ultimately triumph as long as the sacred pillar, the Irminsul, stands. Her religion involves human sacrifice—a thanksgiving to the war god for triumph in battle. It’s a reality she accepts. Like the Christians of her time, she believes supernatural beings are responsible for all that happens in her world, from a fruitful harvest to an illness to a military victory.

Everything falls apart in 772 with Charlemagne’s first war in Saxony. The Frankish king’s soldiers burn the Irminsul, and she loses her faith and all that makes her life good—except for her children. For their sake, she refuses to surrender to the blackness threatening to overwhelm her as the pyres claim her brother then her husband. Her son and daughter, Deorlaf and Sunwynn, come first.

After the family is sold into slavery by relatives, she will set aside her pride and kneel before a master she fears and loathes to prevent her children from starving. She will let a kinder master use her body for his pleasure if that keeps her family intact. And she will risk the slow strangulation of hanging to protect her daughter from a lustful count and being sealed in a barrel and drowning as a witch while she begs one of her old gods to bring her lost son back to her.

There is a lot to like in Leova: her devotion to her children, her willingness to sacrifice, her courage, her determination, and a strength she draws on despite her lack of power and privilege.

**An Excerpt from 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.

* * *

Kim Rendfeld is the author of THE ASHES OF HEAVEN’S PILLAR and its companion, THE CROSS AND THE DRAGON, both set in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign. Connect with Kim on her website (kimrendfeld.com), her blog (kimrendfeld.wordpress.com), Facebook (facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld), and Twitter (@kimrendfeld).