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

Saturday, October 17, 2009

New Stories: Elerde and Rory (Happened)

Summer 769

The Breton mercenary grimly examined his small retinue as they gathered for the return to Keito Uxello before the forces of Críslicland arrived to circle and isolate Ratherwood. After a tense but seemingly resolved dispute with Malcolm the evening before, Elerde had had the surprise as he broke his fast with his commander and the Fleming, Ricbeorht, of being coolly informed that he was no longer second in command. Under the amused gaze of the Fleming Malcolm had told him his failure to capture the Queen of Críslicland, uniquely valuable hostage that she would be, had convinced him that Elerde had not been the correct man for the job. He would be under the command of the Irishman now, Finnegan O'Donnell.

Elerde seethed under the humiliation. Malcolm had been only too ready to make use of his antagonism towards the lady's husband, Lawrence of Críslicland, not to mention their longstanding comradeship in arms to advance his own ambitions. They had in fact, at least as far as Elerde had known, kept planning of the coup and takeover between them, telling the other commanders no more than they needed to know. From the sneer on Ricbeorht's face it seemed that Elerde had been misled. But there was naught he could do but try to find mercenary work somewhere else, giving up the little he had gained for his troubles already. Though he was hot enough to slam down his fist and do so, one thought kept him silent. Josephine. As long as he was there, he could at least try to protect her from these villains. This was going to be quite a bit harder to manage now that the search for her would be controlled by the ruthless Irish commander.

"Had I known she would be present.." he thought for the hundredth time with regret.

The Breton was aware of the activity around him and his retinue. Ratherwood was all but prepared for a siege. Ricbeorht's troops had succeeded in slowing down the King's forces by setting fire to villages, harrowing the edges of the force, putting obstacles on the road. In fact Malcolm's desire was to have Lawrence around the fortress where he could do little good for some time , and could have his hand forced later on. With Críslicland a half day away it was time to set the plan in motion, and that included Ricbeorht and Elerde taking their leave.

Elerde saw Malcolm and his personal guard approaching and waited for further humiliation which for Josephine's sake he was going to have to endure. Out of the corner of his eye, among his men, he caught site of the fey Irish minstrel who had traveled with them. The man had his hood pulled up so that it almost obscured his face, though it was a warm and sunny day. Elerde thought to himself, "I shall have to think about what this man might wish to conceal here." He had had little interest in the man, even some mild dislike, but suddenly something stirred his curiosity, even suspicion.

Elerde was mounted already and did not dismount to offer his obeisance to the commander. He responded to Malcolm's glare with a bow from where he sat and a half-hearted salute. "That superciliousness of yours will be the end of you someday, my friend," the commander said threateningly. Elerde did not reply. Malcolm went on, "O'Donnell will get your orders to you shortly. You will follow them to the letter, do you understand? If not, not only will you lose Keito Uxello, but likely your liberty and even your life. I don't think it need come to that." He moved to the Breton's stirrup and said in a lower voice, "My friend, if you can but wait, the lady shall be yours. Do not oppose my ways. Do not take decisions into your own hands."

Elerde recognized that his old comrade was giving him one last chance to retain his status and opportunities. He nodded without saying a word, while thinking to himself, "Never shall I allow the likes of O'Donnell or any of you put a hand on the Queen."

Elerde's and Ricbeorht's forces shared the road to the west as far as the crossroads that led north to Horsfort, south to Hucknall Hall and west to Keito Uxello in the forested foothills. There they separated. Elerde was for one glad to see the last for a while of the Fleming's smirks. He and his retinue made their way to the opening into the forest and the ride throughout to Earl Ceretic's manor.

The Breton was preoccupied and did not spend any time renewing his observation of the minstrel. Rory himself had pushed back his hood once the Fleming's force was out of sight. It felt good to have the gentle forest breezes on his face and on his hair made damp from sweat from the heavy cowl. He had managed, he thought, to stay out of sight as much as possible at Ratherwood, save for some servants who spotted him, remembered him from the Queen's progress through the fortress on her way to Keito Uxello. He knew well, and thanked God for it, that soldiers do not look at servants, or if they look it is not to see them. Even had Malcolm or Elerde noticed a serving man glance puzzled at Rory they would not have taken note of it. Now they were safely away from the fortress, and he could relax somewhat.

Rory continued to play a role he hoped would mislead the Breton commander. The Saxon word was nithing and connoted a man who was less than manly, with whatever implications the individual placed on the impression he gave. Because he knew songs in their language and could tell stirring war stories, Elerde's men had accepted him. As long as he stayed with this contingent he hoped he could keep an eye on Josephine's aunt and uncle and possibly even make contact with her. At best he could learn of some developments the King should know and find a way to inform him.

Exhausted though they were after marching over a path made uneven by tree roots that were invading its ancient surface and this while wearing full mail and carrying weapons and shields, the force needed little encouragement to quicken their pace as they approached some now familiar landmarks that told them Keito Uxello was near. It was now that Elerde gestured to Rory to come up to his stirrup. Rory sprinted forward at the command and took Elerde's stirrup to keep pace with the rider. He nodded an obsequious reverence and asked, "Aye, me lord?"

Elerde considered the man. He was tall enough that Elerde hardly had to look down to talk to him. He noticed for the first time as Rory hung onto his stirrup that the Irishman's upper arms were fairly muscular. If he had thought of it at all, he had assumed this man would be soft, no master at arms by any means. Rory followed the Breton's gaze and tripped over his own big feet to distract him.

Elerde chuckled. "Nothing. But stay with me as we enter the courtyard." Rory made a sharp compliant nod and letting go of the stirrup, kept pace with little trouble.

The gate was open when the force arrived, Elerde and Rory in the fore. There was an odd sound coming from within that both men, being Celts, recognized instantly. Keening. Elerde pulled his horse up sharp and crossed himself, Rory standing still and doing likewise. Lagu came alongside Elerde opposite Rory and looked for his directions. "Go, see what it is," Elerde commanded.

Lagu dismounted and led his horse through the gate, returning moments later without the horse but with a grim ace. "The old man, the Earl. He's dead."

Rory saw from the corner of his eye that Elerde closed his own eyes, bowing his head, and registering regret and grief on his face. "He does love her, then," the minstrel thought to himself, feeling a similar sorrow for his own beloved Queen, now bereft of her uncle and the head of her own mother's family.

"When?" Elerde asked simply.

"This morning. In his sleep. No doubt his heart, they say."

Rory said quietly, "Thank the saints for mercies rendered."

The Breton commander nodded sadly and urged his horse forward. Rory followed, wondering how he could get in to see Modron, the man's widow, without raising suspicion for taking such liberties.

In the courtyard of the decaying manor, those servants about moved as if through marshland, slow, purposeless. As Elerde came well into the center and prepared to dismount, the lady of the manor appeared in the doorway of the house. She stood with her arms tight across her chest, glaring at him. He pretended not to see her look and once his feet were on the ground, he came towards her with a look of concern and sympathy. "My lady, I have been told about your husband, the Earl. I am most sorry for.."

Modron reached up and slapped him across the face, causing Elerde to jerk his head backwards in surprise. "Sorry?" she retorted. "You killed him."

Elerde subtly gestured back those soldiers who had, hands to hilts, stepped towards them. He kept his eyes down as he nodded to her. "My lady, I did not wish it."

Modron glared at him still. She had a triumphant glint in her eyes. "Why should you care?"

"I … care for .. your niece.. and her grief," he admitted, so quietly he hoped only she would hear.

The gesture only served to enrage the older woman further. "You have a peculiar way of showing your affection for her, sirrah. Coming to her family's home, disrupting it, scattering her cousins, killing her uncle, and bringing ruin to her country." She shot a look at Rory. Her voice softened. "Oh, Rory, I am so glad you are here. You and Shannon gave Ceretic such joy. I hope you will sing at his rites." She had turned and reentered the house and did not catch the flustered look on Rory's face and the surprised one on the Breton's.

"Ah, I should have realized," Elerde thought to himself. Aloud he simply breathed, "Shannon?"

Rory gave him a sheepish look and shrugged ineffectually.

Elerde's face did not change. "You may go in to her. She needs your comfort and artistry. You and I may speak later."

Rory gave the man a resigned nod and followed the old woman in to the dead man's bedside wondering how he himself might have to live.

Next: Elerde's and Rory's Understanding

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About the author

Nan Hawthorne now writes under the name Christopher Hawthorne Moss. You can contact Christopher at .