About twenty years later.
"I suppose you and Mother never heard from Elerde again." Peter tossed bits of dry bread from a pouch to the geese that floated below the bridge.
"Not a word," Lawrence answered. "Not even about him. He either died soon after or went very far away. Either way, I am content."
"But was Mother?"
"I have no idea. She never let on."
"So much has changed since that day. I don't remember all that much about that time. I think I remember Lindisfarne, a little. And going on a boat, but that could be a blend of all the boats I have ever been on."
The king sighed. "I suppose the biggest difference is Rory."
His son laughed. He licked the tip of his index finger and mimed making a mark on a tally. "Aye, one less rival for you."
"I prefer to think of it as happiness for himself," Lawrence responded reproachfully. "When Shannon went traveling without him that year, Rory had time to think about everything. I heard he talked not only with me, but with his priest, his friends, others. Then he found Ceridwen. He told me once he wondered if he had simply put himself on the shelf until she came into his life."
"Nevertheless, Rory came to his senses, renounced his vow to Mother, and fell in love. Have you seen their daughter Grainne lately? What a beauty!"
Lawrence shook his head. "Now you know better than to add her to your tally of conquests, don't you? Besides the fact that she is a very sweet, innocent girl, her father can do you a lot of damage with his storytelling."
"At least Shannon is not around to write nasty songs about me. Don't worry, Father. I have kept my hands to myself with the fair Grainne." He noticed when his father made the sign of the cross. "I am sorry, Father. I did not mean to make a joke of Shannon's passing. I loved him, too, just as we all did."
"And God be thanked that Rory had his wife and children to help fill the void of his loss. I don't think McGuinness ever forgave himself for letting us all think he was dead for those long months."
He put an arm around Peter's shoulder. "Did the King of Mercia talk to you about his daughter?"
Peter smiled ruefully. "Aye, Father. It appears that King Offa will succeed where you and Mother never could. I am finally to marry. Her name is Ælfflæd. They say she is pretty."
"You are going to be utterly faithful to her, you understand?"
Peter's glance was resentful. "Aye, Father. No lectures needed. I know how you feel, and I agree. Even if Ælfflæd and I never have yours and Mother's love match, I have enough regard for Mother never to treat any woman dishonorably."
His father accepted his statement graciously. "I pray you and the lady are as happy as your Mother and I." He tried to lighten his demeanor when he went on. "Tavish is happy for once he is not the son of our bodies. Otherwise he would not have been able to wed your cousin Ystradwell. Now that is a love match!"
Peter laughed. "She's as pretty as her mother Larisa and he's as dull as Uncle Lorin. It's not surprising they are happy. I am not so sure of Caithness."
"She certainly likes being queen of East Anglia. Her husband adores her, in his way. I just wish she had your Mother's easy childbearing."
"Of course, I have not seen her since her last baby died, but it seemed to haunt her in spite of her frivolous nature. "
Lawrence nodded sadly. "That is one thing for which I shall e'er thank the Good Lord, that your Mother never had to face the death of a child."
Peter desperately wanted to lift the conversation's mood. "I think Elaine made a love match as well."
"To be the bride of Christ? I should think so. And about to be named Abbess. One of my last acts as king."
Peter shook the last of the crumbs into the river. He handed the pouch to a servant. He turned his back to the barrier on the bridge and leaned against it. Crossing his arms, he looked at his aging father. "Father," he began, "did you ever think, way back then, that you would give up being king someday?"
Lawrence was not blind to the mixed feelings expressed in his son's tone. "Some days I longed to do it. Other days only death would have separated me from my crown."
Peter was thoughtful. "You are doing the right thing, Father. Críslicland should thank you. Even if Offa never decided to go to war to win it, and I am certain someday he would, we cannot fight our neighbors and the Danes raiding the coast. I hear some have taken land as far south as Northumbria and are settling. If they should ever take a notion to come in great numbers, there would be no more Críslicland at all."
The catch in his son's voice startled him. "You feel the terrible conflict as I do, to love our kingdom so deeply but have to give it up to preserve it."
Peter shrugged. "At least Offa would preserve some memory of what you did here."
Lawrence shook his head sardonically. "I wouldn't count on that."
"Like you always say, Father, nothing lasts forever." His tone was bitter.
A horn blast drew the two men's attention. "They are back from Ruallauh's funeral and Ceretic's coronation already?" Peter asked.
The Crísliclandian delegation to the ceremonies of state came slowly forward. There in the fore on a donkey rode Josephine, who waved at them as they watched her come. Lawrence and Peter came forward, Lawrence's limp causing him to reach her after her son had helped her dismount.
Josephine had hardly changed. She was sturdier now, not the delicate-looking thing she had been at her marriage. Her skin was as fair and smooth as a girl's, save for the slight creases at her lips and eyes from a lifetime of smiles. Only Lawrence and her serving women knew she had wisps of silver among the gold of her hair. Her eyes twinkled as she kissed her son.
Peter watched her turn to her husband and let him draw her into his embrace.
"Are you at peace with this, my love?" She examined his face carefully.
"My dearest, I am. I plan to spend the rest of my life gazing at you while you do your needlework. I think my leg will keep me out of Offa's wars." He leaned to kiss her with as much tenderness and ardor as he ever had.
Peter smiled at his parents. "I guess some things do last forever."
Next? The Options
Before there was the novel, there were the stories...
by Nan Hawthorne, who also writes under Christopher Hawthorne Moss, Books and Stories b ChristopherHawthorne Moss at http://authorchristophermoss.vlogspot.com