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I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide on one word – west or south.

The current draft of my second novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, has the Saxons of Eresburg taken by surprise by an invasion from the west in 772. It was 14 years after their last battle with the Franks, who inhabit territory to the west and south. Yet an author of a recently published nonfiction book has the invasion coming from the south, and it is plausible.

No one knows the exact route Frankish King Charles (Charlemagne) would have taken. Those selfish Frankish annalists did not consider 21st century novelists when they wrote down their version of history, and the Continental Saxons did not even have a written language as we know it.

The extant annals pretty much say Charles held an assembly in Worms, invaded Eresburg, and destroyed the Irminsul, taking its silver and gold. He parleyed with the Saxons at the Wesser River and got 12 hostages, the medieval form of insurance for the vanquished to keep their promise to stay vanquished (and it often didn’t work).

So many questions are left unanswered. How many troops? How did they feed the soldiers plus horses and oxen transporting humans and supplies? And where did Charles cross the Rhine – a river that might remind Americans of the Mississippi – at a time when only a few bridges existed?

Sometimes the annalists throw us a crumb. In this case, it’s letting us know that in other years, Charles crossed the Rhine at Cologne and Lippeham, both sites with bridges. A Roman road from the bridge at Cologne would take them most of the way to Eresburg. However, this road would go through Saxony, past Syburg (a fortress mentioned three years after the first battle at Eresburg) and Paderborn, a settlement at that time.

A 14th century depiction of a war between Charlemagne and the Saxons

A 14th century depiction of a war between Charlemagne and the Saxons, from Chroniques de France (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

I have no doubt Charles would have invaded with overwhelming force, even though it made a lot of noise and raised a lot of dust. He played to win. His army would make short work of a settlement like Paderborn and “forage” for food and supplies. And Syburg? That’s more complicated. If a fortress stood on that site in 772, it would have been an obstacle – one worthy of mention if conquered. It is not mentioned in 772 but is in 775, along with Eresburg being reconquered.

In Charlemagne’s Early Campaigns (768-777): A Diplomatic and Military Analysis, Bernard S. Bachrach speculates that Charles chose a different route, using waterways through Frankish lands east of the Rhine to transport heavy equipment like battering rams. He could have rested the animals and gotten supplies at the monasteries of Fulda and Fritzlar, then proceeded north to invade Eresburg.

When it comes to writing fiction, though, the story must be told through a character’s eyes. Leova, the heroine of Ashes, is a peasant woman who lives with her family near the fortress. She wouldn’t know about the invaders’ specific route, only the direction from which they are coming.

So what’s a historical novelist to do? In this case, leave this part of the manuscript as it is. I have the Franks going home on the road mentioned earlier. (The annalists are even less helpful when comes to route back to Francia. After Eresburg, they write, Charles spent Christmas in Herstal.)

My characters’ experiences on that road – such as a 12-year-old boy in a big, foreign city for the first time – are too good to pass up. And I don’t want to bog down the story by explaining how the Franks could come from the south but take a different direction to return to their country. But maybe I will add a sentence or two in the historical note explaining this uncertainty. In other words, why sometimes a novelist must make stuff up.

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