Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi 751, November, Soissons, Francia (In the year of our Lord Jesus Christ, November 751, Soissons, France)
Today, the world changed. Leonard looked across the courtyard where the last Merovingian do-nothing King Childerick III stood on the portico. Four of Maior Palatii Pepin’s men secured Chiderick though not much protection was needed. Others filled the courtyard, waiting for their leader in all but title to claim the power of his position. Leonard raised his face to the day’s sunny warmth. Above the roofline of the wooden buildings encasing the courtyard, the distant tower of Saint Medard Abbey pointed into the sky toward heaven. Today’s cloudless sky enveloped the abbey and the gathering of men like the blue of the Virgin’s mantle, proof, perhaps, of God’s approval of what would take place. Bishop Bonifice would consecrate Pepin as Francorum rex, the Franks’ new king, in the church sanctuary tomorrow.
At least, so his father had declared. As if denying their relationship, he had ordered Leonard to address him by his title, Dux Radulf, especially in public. Leonard did not mind, for he hardly knew the man, except for his infrequent visits to his own manse, Albrecht. Radulf had added in a dry voice that today the long and madness-riddled dynasty of Clovis, the first Merovingian king, would end.
Leonard spoke to his charges. “The bones of Saint Medard prove his power over good weather. For November, the saint has provided Maior Palatii Pepin a rare, summer-like day.” He lowered his gaze and smiled at the boys.
“They stink.” Karl, Pepin’s son, sniffed and nodded at the men crowding the courtyard. One of the day’s sporadic breezes caught the boy’s pale blond hair and blew it across his face. Karl pushed the strands away. He stood tall for his age, nearly to Leonard’s shoulders. “I noticed their stench when we walked among them. They should have bathed before presenting themselves to their future king.”
“Your nose is too open,” Nithgard said. Karl’s young cousin hung from a crossbar between portico supports, swinging from his extended arms. Nithgard, younger and smaller, made several exaggerated sniffs to show how his cousin sought out smells. “And no one washes as much as you.” Nithgard grinned as he shook the hair out of his eyes.
He looked little like his cousin. Light reddish-brown hair and hazel eyes did not distinguish his blunt, child’s features.
“You do not walk, you race,” Leonard said, and roughed Nithgard’s hair while he looked around the courtyard. “Your fathers will be displeased with your conduct.”
Leonard knew both the boys’ minds and bodies galloped in wild activity. His charges’ antics had tried his patience during the wait for the meeting to begin, but Pepin had ordered him, probably at Radulf’s suggestion, to this duty. Pepin wanted young Karl and Nithgard to watch him take power, although they were too young to participate in the proceedings. Leonard was their watchdog, but Radulf had referred to the duty as guard.
Franks from all over Gallia gathered. Pepin’s loyal duces and comtes, bishops, and court officials, had come with their liegemen from Neustria. Others came from Burgundia, Provence, and Austrasia, and a few solemn-looking leaders arrived from Aquitaine. They stood in the courtyard, most dressed in the furs, leather, and linen common to the Franks. Leonard smiled. Franks had ruled ancient Gaul so long they called the land Francia. The men’s voices created a drone of noise broken by sporadic shouts and laughter. The air held the scent of the wood burning in the center of the courtyard.
Those from Austrasia stood on the crowd’s edge. Leonard recognized their discontent and knew the reason for their sullen and edgy looks. Their leader, Pepin’s brother Carloman, had abdicated his position as their maior palatii to join a monastery.
Leonard also knew disguised enemies gathered here but felt surprised to find himself present. Until a year ago, he had never traveled. Now, he rode with Radulf every day and saw the world as he never knew it. His brief travels had expanded his concept of living outside the confined home he knew at Albrecht. He had lived with Radulf’s sister with infrequent visits from his father. Now Radulf wanted Leonard to become one of his liegemen. He did whatever his father asked, including learning the warriors’ craft in the harsh training drills his father ordered. His always aching body testified to that.
A subtle noise change in the crowd drew Leonard’s attention back to the courtyard.
“There is your father,” Karl said, pointing.
Karl’s comment drew attention from those standing nearby. Few there knew he was Radulf’s son. Many turned their heads to stare briefly at Leonard. He understood not only most Frankish dialects, but also Latin and Greek, so had heard the subtle slurs toward the ‘Roman,’ against Radulf, despite his Frankish name.
Leo’s gaze found his father on the porch gallery across the courtyard, holding position next to Pepin. His father stood a head taller than Pepin, but somehow appeared finer and more powerful than the other men standing behind Pepin. His short hair differed from most of the braided and chin length hair of the other men, and his clean-shaven face made him stand out.
The first time Leonard had heard the slur “Roman” against Radulf, his father had looked at him and smiled. “We have the blood of old Rome, not of Eastern Rome.”
“Is that why you shave?”
Radulf had shrugged. “Long hair and a full beard feel uncomfortable to me and itch.”
His claim might be true, but Leonard thought his father blatantly proclaimed his Roman heritage to those who vilified his claim to power. This did not stop the haters of the Eastern Roman Empire and its emperor. To them, Roman was Roman. Most of Roman ancestry in Francia tended the land rather than ruled over it.
Some few in today’s crowd, like his father, wore costly silk garments beneath their leather and fur. Radulf always told him, “Do not flaunt either ancestry or wealth, but do not hide your past or your possessions for fear of offending anyone. If they think we are Roman, well, such is the truth. Many Franks bear Roman blood. Most just do not acknowledge it.”
Movement caught Leonard’s attention. He watched Childerick, the last Merovingian King, led to stand at Pepin's side. He also noticed his charges drew the stares of nearby men.
Karl and Nithgard exchanged casual insults while the younger boy hopped and twirled in circles. The portico’s wooden planks reverberated with the sound. Leonard returned to watchdog duty. He grabbed Nithgard to still him. “Quiet! Both of you.” Karl gave him a hurt look. Looking into the boy’s face he said, “The change begins,” and glanced at Childerick.