Laura and I had quite a differnce of opinion about something in this story. When you get to the point when Elerde shoots back at Josephine, "He took an arrow in the shoulder!" answer this question, "Would Elerde be bitter or angry about Lawrence's attack or would he, as Laura contends, understand and regard it as simply part of battle?" I absolutely disagreed. Laura persisted seeing Elerde as an honorable man. I see him as having variable honor. What do you think?
That same day...
"Lord, cart tracks," Lagu said as he pulled his mount alongside Elerde's. He had ridden ahead of the small troop of soldiers carefully examining the rough track that was just wide enough for simple carts. Riding back he turned to point out the spot where someone had carefully kicked the dirt about to cover the tracks.
"Fresh enough," the Breton warrior confirmed. "Come with me." Calling to the rest of the troop, he commanded, "Stay here and watch the path. Stop anyone who passes.. and if we flush the quarry, hold them." He and Lagu urged their horses forward into the woods, unhurried.
Though the forest floor was thick with old leaves and underbrush, it was not difficult for an experienced tracker to assess where a cart might have been able to pass. Though leaves had been kicked back to cover any sign of wheels, the dry leaves bore the marks of pressure and were unnaturally disturbed and torn. As slowly and quietly as possible for riders, the two picked their way along, pausing frequently to listen. The breeze rustled through the mostly bare branches and occasionally a small animal scurried through the brush. The canopy was thick enough here that what birds were about mostly flew between neighboring trees and no further. The air was thick with verdure and the smell of life poised to reawaken.
"Hold," Elerde called. Lagu stopped to listen. The breeze had favored them momentarily. It had brought the sound of a small child's crying, if only for the span of a respiration. "Dismount."
The warrior and his lieutenant tied their horses and advanced on foot towards the direction of the child's voice.
Josephine stopped as she crouched to calm the child. She stood quickly and listened. There was no sound. Only an intuition. She cast her eyes about the small depression in the ground where her uncle's servants had pulled the carts and left them, loosing the horses and taking them some distance to slap on their rumps sending them to find their own way home. The danger of their uncontrollable whinnying and snorting made them too much of a danger to keep close by.
Josephine bade the servants, Cingen's and Ioruert's wives all fall silent and to quiet the children as best they could. She closed her eyes and listened with her ears and with that other sense that seemed to have become alert inside her. She slowly let her heart do the listening. Someone was near. But who? Who could stimulate that sense to caution?
"You," she called to a young servant. "Come with me. We need to draw whoever is tracking us away from the children. The rest of you, stay. Keep the children as quiet as possible. If men accost you, cry out for us."
The young man Josephine had called to pulled a seaxa from his belt just as did she. He followed her as she, cursing the inconvenience of a kirtle, moved as silently as she could through the underbrush, taking care not to set a foot down inadvertently in a hollow.
Lagu put up a hand to signal his lord to stop. Elerde followed his gaze and saw it. The glimpse of a person moving stealthily towards them. Lagu and his lord crouched to watch. The figure was joined by another, though few could have detected the motion unless looking at them and nothing else.
Elerde signed to his lieutenant to circle around and hold the second figure. He began to move crouched low towards the first.
Josephine spun as she heard the rustle of leaves on the ground and the briefest cry of surprise from the man who had come with her into the woods. She saw to her dismay that the man was held from behind by a man in mail. The man, who resembled someone she had seen before but whom she could not place, held a dagger to the young man's throat. Her servant's seaxa was dangling from his hand, useless.
"Drop it," came an all too familiar voice from behind her. The servant dropped his weapon and was pulled away from it by the man who held him.
Josephine, her face paling, slowly turned, her own seaxa in her hand at plough ward. She looked directly into a view of the legs of an armed man standing on a slight hillock. Her gaze rose to see Elerde standing, sword drawn, smiling.
"My lady, you have a skill that methinks you did not have last time we met." He nodded at the weapon in her hand. "It looks well on you."
Josephine stared. The man looked different, more hardened since she had shared her love of Roman verses with him on a bench in her garden. He had cut his hair for battle length, and now it curled, as thick and luxuriant as the minstrel Shannon's. His brow was set but his lips were soft and smiling, as were his eyes.
"Elerde! What are you doing here?" After her momentary shock she cast a glance back at her servant. "What is the meaning of this, sir?"
Elerde gestured with his head for Lagu to take the servant off to the side. He sheathed his sword. After a moment's hesitation and a glance at the Queen's drawn weapon Lagu stepped away, pulling the servant along by his neck.
Elerde walked past Josephine to retrieve the servant's weapon. To do so he had to pass within easy striking distance of her own seaxa. He betrayed no fear. But when she moved her arm to ready the weapon to strike, he spun, pulling his dagger and confronted her.
"Will you kill me then, sirrah?" she shot at him. "Did you think my skill charming but not sufficient to defend myself"
The Breton relaxed, but he did not sheath his dagger. "I see well that the seaxa is not ornamental. I bid you put it away.. or I shall take it from you. You may be fast, but, lady, I am faster. Care for a demonstration?"
She glared at him but, realizing if she sheathed the weapon she would at least still have it, she did as he suggested, the sliding the long blade home into the scabbard at her left shoulder.
Elerde put away his dagger. "I did not expect to find you out wandering in the woods, my lady."
"You have not yet explained your own presence here, sir. Are you part of the force that has taken mine uncle's fortress?" Her eyes had not left his.
"So you know about that." The warrior cast his eyes around. "So someone saw and warned you… and mayhap your cousins are now on their way to try to take the fortress back or.." He looked back at her considering "Or they are just sizing up the situation.. and will be back here soon enough."
Josephine stood with her hands at her sides, her right hand flexing, longing for the feel of the hilt of her sword in it. She made no reply, realizing that she had already given him information she wished he did not have.
"I will answer your question, lady. I owe you that at least. Aye, I am more than part of that force. I am that force. Keito Uxello is in my hands now. Your aunt and uncle are unharmed. I intend to let them remain, particularly as your uncle the earl is clearly not well."
Josephine's hand went to her throat. "Not well? What has happened to him?"
Elerde looked at her a moment. "Then he was better before I arrived. Aye, he must have been, or you and your cousins would not have left him alone and gone.. wherever it is you are returning from." He continued to assess the situation. Then he cast down his eyes. "I regret to say that my arrival has apparently caused him to lose ground in his recovery., Is it his heart then?"
Josephine's eyes flashed. "If he dies now, it will be at your hands, sirrah. You shall have killed mine own kin. If you ever held any regard for me, I hope you will feel the regret of doing a grievous harm to me and mine own."
Elerde struggled to hide his outward signs of sorrow. Then he shot back at her, "'Twas one of your own who tried to dispatch me to the gates of Hell, my lady,. Just a twelve month past."
Josephine shook her head, replying "Nay, sir. That is a fiction you have yourself invented to justify your actions, whatever the purpose of these actions may be. "
Elerde suddenly reached with his right hand and pushed aside the mail shirt and padded brigantine beneath it. He exposed a red and evil looking scar to the upper left breast. "Is this a fiction, lady?" His eyes burned into hers so intensely she had no choice but to avert her own fiery gaze. She felt an urge rise to go to the man and touch the angry scar and soothe him. She hastily shoved the urge down.
"He did not mean.."
Elerde stopped her with a bitter laugh. "So he would have you and all else believe. I saw the look in his eyes, my lady. If he was a better shot, I should not be here now to speak with you."
Josephine said nothing, afraid of betraying too much in her voice.
He stood staring at her, then pushed back the brigantine and mail over his scar. "Your good Saxon lord now has two reasons to be ever in my mind."
Josephine lifted her eyes to his and something of her regard for him was reflected there. "Oh, Elerde, what is it? What have you done?"
He considered her a moment, then stepped to her. Stopping just before her, his eyes now downcast to meet her gaze. He saw a softening there that warmed his heart, but at the same time he saw her fear and anger. "Your kingdom, my dearest lady, is now returned to its Briton masters. Since your noble brother has relinquished his claim on the throne in favor of your Saxon husband, it has reverted to its next rightful king, Earl Maegwig."
"Maegwig? That buffoon? Through my mother's line, any one of mine cousins have more claim than does he. His right is all in his head." She was well aware of the dissatisfied earl of the fortress of Cross Gates in the northeast of Affynshire.
Elerde replied superciliously, "But your cousins are too closely allied with the Saxon, my lady, and your people look to the pure Celtic line for reclamation of their honor and pride." He put ironic emphasis on the words "people" and "pure".
"So Ratherwood is fallen? And the governor general?"
Elerde continued to look into her face, though her gaze was averted to the side now. He felt her closeness with every cell in his body. Her breathing betrayed that she felt his as well. "The man no doubt has met his eternal reward by now. We have Ratherwood, Hucknall Manor, and Matrlock Hall.. as well as, of course, Horsfort, Cross Gates and.. Keito Uxello."
"Horsfort? Ah, Earl Malcolm. I cannot imagine he would not find it tempting to be part of this infamy."
Elerde laughed in spite of himself. "Part of? Leading, more like."
Josephine glanced up at him. "So you are not at the heart of this then." There was a hint of relief in her eyes.
He firmed his mouth and jaw. "'Heart' is exactly where I am, my love." His voice was softer than his expression seemed able to produce.
Josephine's eyes grew hard. "I am not your love, sirrah."
Elerde smiled wistfully. "Nay, 'tis that I am not yours. You shall e'er be mine own."
Josephine turned her back on him. She did not want him to see what thoughts and emotions she could not be sure she hid on her visage. Even so she had to fight to keep her voice even. "And what now are you going to do with me? I suspect I would make a magnificent hostage."
Elerde replied, "Aye, that is the one part of the Saxon's great love for you that is to my own advantage." She waited for him to go on. "I beg you consider coming back with me to Keito Uxello. You can remain with your kin there. I am your champion, my lady. The other conspirators.. that is, the new lords of this land, may not have the same concern for your well being I most ardently do. I can protect you."
Josephine turned slowly back to him. "You.. you beg me? Does that mean I have a choice?"
Now Elerde was the one to avert his eyes. "Aye, I have no desire to .. harm.. you. I will let you go, though 'tis with misgivings beyond measure. I would keep you.. safe."
The Queen looked hard at him. In a quiet, steely voice she replied, "Sir, I shall never willingly go with you. Not even to the gates of Hell."
Elerde nodded sadly. "Oh Josephine, you are a rare one. You make me adore you all the more." He looked up into her eyes, which were full of pain and defiance. "Then you should go. Go far away, hide yourself. Malcolm will not stop his hand at anything to take possession of you. He will sell you dearly to the Saxon."
Her eyes flashed. "The 'Saxon' you refer to is the rightful king of this land, and my dearest lord and the father of my children."
Elerde said almost absently, "Do I not know that.. though 'twas the Witan that made him king.. the Saxon Witan, which your own people reject. We Celts, as you know well, though only half a one, respects its royal lines. It does not give over to a council to select its kings." He instantly felt regret for his emphasis on "half".
"You forget, sirrah, that we Celts also respect the female line. The 'Saxon' may be king, aye, but I am the Queen of this country, by right of birth. By your own reasoning, you are committing treachery.. to me."
"What will you do with my kin? My cousins?" she pursued
Elerde looked up again. "We will let them pass today.. if they do not take arms against any of my men. Thereafter I cannot vouchsafe their passage. If they are captured, they will be held. If they take up arms against us, they will be killed." He looked hard at her. "As will you, my lady. I cannot prevent it."
"And my lord Lawrence, do you believe he will sit idly by and watch you and the other blackguards do as you will with us and our land?"
She was startled to see Elerde's lips curve in a smile. "I count on him to come blazing across Christenlande to rescue you. His haste will make him unwise. I shall have, I hope the personal pleasure of catching him up. I am owed a debt."
Josephine glared at him with all her might. "Are you that bitter, Elerde? Where is the soft spoken, gentle lover of verse and of rides in the winter snow?" She both expressed her own longing and wished to disarm him.
"He took an arrow in the shoulder, my darling. Now go. I will go back to the fortress and let you and your people escape. I will not send a man to follow you. On my honor," and here he glared at her amused response," On my honor I shall not uncover your hiding place.. yet. Call it foolish sentimentality. Call it just folly. It is my choice."
He took her hand and kissed it. She did not resist it. He turned and called to his lieutenant, "Lagu! Release the boy. Come."
Josephine stood shaking, watching Elerde and his lieutenant go. She watched until she could not detect the glint of light on mail any more. She thought she heard a horse snort and then quiet sounds of hoof in the leaf mould. She turned and went back to the others, the servant walking at her back.
When her two cousins and the house carls returned to where the carts had been secreted, they went immediately to where the Queen sat on a fallen log with a small child in her arms. She looked up at them with a look of resignation that made them hesitate to speak.
"The kingdom is fallen. Maegwig is on the throne. Keito Uxello is in the hands of Elerde of Brittany.," she stated flatly.
Cingen inquired, "My lady? Jo! How do you know?"
"He told me. Elerde told me."
Cingen and Ioruert exchanged looks.
"We had better get back to the camp," Josephine sighed. "He won't let us remain here long."
Next: A Day Apart
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