Early October 769
Rory lay in his prison curled up on his side in the filthy, damp straw. He could not bring himself to move. He knew at least two or possibly three of his ribs were broken. His face was swollen and he could barely open his eyes. His lips had split and he could still taste blood on them. His groin was pure fire. The guards had been thorough with his beatings. He thought of how both O'Donnell and MacDhui had said how beautiful he was. He started to chuckle and then groaned with the pain when his chest muscles moved.
He could barely move but he could think. He thought about his likely impending death. He was not quite to the point of wishing for it, but he wanted to make his peace with God over all he had done and been in his life. He also thought about Josephine, the woman who had won his heart utterly but who, even if she had not been married would have been too far above him for any chance at love. Now he was glad he had kissed her at Beltane. He gingerly reached one hand to his face and touched his swollen lips, trying to remember that brief touch before she jerked away in surprise.
And now he was going to die for her. How many times had he sung of a lover's dying for his sweetheart. He thought of Josephine and how she would know he had sacrificed himself for her sake. He prayed she would be able to think of it as a sign of his love and be warmed by it, not wracked with guilt and grief.
Though he had resigned himself never to have a real love in his life, it chilled him now to realize that with his death that prophecy would be fulfilled irrevocably. His face smarted where it was cut as the salt tears ran out of his eyes. NO children either. He had wanted children. But now all he could look forward to was a violent death of some kind. Like his mother, he thought. Raped and murdered on the path. At least he hoped that now with God's grace he would see her again.
Shannon. How would Shannon handle Rory's death? Would he even know? Poor broken Shannon. Rory had to bear the agony as his body shook from sobs thinking of his friend and how desolate he would be. He tried to pray for him, but he could not still his grief-stricken mind long enough to murmur the words.
But then God or someone like Him took pity on him and let him sleep.
Rory was able to pull himself up to a sitting position with his back against the cushion of straw he had made days before. The shed had smelled before, but now it was rank with the smell of blood, urine and his own waste. All he could do is sit huddled for what little warmth he could manage and wait for what would happen next.
He heard shouting and footsteps outside and the latch being slipped on his shed door. His heart raced, thinking he would now be dragged out and killed. He murmured a Pater Noster and let the tears come again. The door opened, full sunlight coming in and blinding him. He felt hands roughly grasp the arm he held to shield his eyes and the other which hung at his side protecting his broken ribs. He screamed with pain when they hoisted, then dragged him out into the courtyard. Someone dumped a pail of ice cold water over him, then another. He gasped and spluttered, then groaned as his body reacted to the jerk of surprise and the ensuing coughing.
He could see now, as the guards dragged him to the Hall. He was frozen with fear. He took in everything happening without any thought or reflection. He found himself released to fall face first on the ground at O'Donnell's feet. He could not see O'Donnell's expression of grim satisfaction, nor the wince on MacDhui's face from where he stood at one side.
"Pull him up so he is on his knees," O'Donnell commanded his guards. Rory, cringing at the pain, was hoisted and then left kneeling, his head bowed. He did not want to see the man's face.
"You look like shit," the chief commander said, unmistakably amused. "I wager you feel considerably worse. How are your balls, my friend? Do they burn? I hope so." He started to circle the kneeling man, inspecting how well his men had carried out his orders. "Very good, very good. Just what I had in mind."
Rory tried to speak. "What was that terrible noise?" O'Donnell taunted.
He tried again. "Are you going to kill me now?" he croaked out in Irish.
O'Donnell stopped his circuit and stared down at Rory. "Do you want to die?"
Rory feebly shook his head.
"Do you want a second chance?"
Rory paused, then shook his head again.
O'Donnell kicked him hard in the ribs. Rory cried out but managed to stay in a kneeling position. Behind him MacDhui averted his face.
"I will let you live if you will crawl and ask my forgiveness." O'Donnell continued more quietly in Irish, "I wouldn't want you now anyway.. look at you. You are hideous. You will never be perfect again. And I am ready to make that a certainty." He had drawn his belt knife and was holding it towards Rory's face menacingly. "All I ask is that you crawl and beg me to forgive you."
Rory had started shaking. He looked up at last at O'Donnell's face and saw the hatred there. He closed his eyes and said a quick prayer. Then he said, "I will do it… I will beg your forgiveness."
O'Donnell grinned and sheathed his knife again. "Excellent. Make it a sincere plea." He stood in front of Rory with his hands on his hips, relishing the whimpering and groaning as Rory started to come forward slowly on his knees, making every bone and muscle cry out. Rory came forward, the tears streaming, a desperate and agonized look on his upturned face. He stopped immediately before the standing man and, weeping, started to beg.
"I beg ye, please, for the love of God, for all the saints, " he cried out in Saxon, knowing O'Donnell wanted a very public humiliation for him and victory for himself. "I am sorry I hurt you, I was stupid and mean to do it, and I beg you to forgive me."
O'Donnell shook his head. "Not good enough. Grovel."
Painfully Rory threw himself down at O'Donnell's feet. He writhed on the rush strewn floor, continuing to beg forgiveness. He put his arms around the man's ankles and put his cheek against his shin and wept. He kissed O'Donnell's ankle.
"None of that, fool!" O'Donnell admonished in Saxon, then in Irish, "It's too late for that now, and I will kill you here and now if you do anything like that again."
Rory turned his swollen face up to the man and pleaded for his mercy. He as much as climbed up his legs with his arms as he begged for his life with passion. When he had his arms around the man's waist O'Donnell tried to push him away. "That's quite enough! I will give you your life."
Rory held on but then let go. In the act of apparently pulling back onto his haunches he reached out with all the speed he could muster and grabbed O'Donnell's belt knife out of its sheath and stabbed up at his belly. He made contact but the leather jerkin the man was wearing stopped the blade from reaching his flesh. MacDhui was on him instantly, pulling him back and knocking the knife away. All sympathy in the Scot's face was evaporated. O'Donnell screamed with rage and kicked Rory in the face hard, breaking a cheekbone and sending him reeling back onto the floor where he could only lie twisted and moan.
"Take the bastard to the town and tell the reeve he has a hanging to prepare." O'Donnell spat on Rory and whirled and left the Hall.
"You stupid god damned idiot," MacDhui shot at Rory. "Well, you want to die and now you will have your wish."
Several guards grabbed Rory who now passed out from the pain. He woke to being thrown over the back of a horse. The motion of the horse's quick pace sent him senseless again. He found himself being dragged off the horse in the town of Hucknall by two of the reeve's men. MacDhui was issuing instructions to the reeve to get ready to hang Rory for spying and sabotage at dawn the next morning.
"He'll have to share the guardhouse. We have a thief who is to be hanged as well," the reeve said. "It does not look like this one will disturb the man's peace at all though." He laughed cruelly.
Between grief and pain, Rory hardly felt the passage of time in the stone chamber where he lay on the floor at the feet of a tall man who already was nursing a stump where his hand had been severed. He knew that someone was talking to him incessantly. He had a sense of others coming and going. He thought he heard low voices, one with MacDhui's brogue, in some sort of negotiation. He felt the floor becoming colder and colder against him until he could no longer feel the arm that lay under him. He thought he heard someone crying and pleading and wondered if it was himself.
Mostly he lay senseless and dreamless. From time to time though dreams would come, brief and insubstantial. Mostly faces. His mother's. Shannon's. Josephine's. O'Donnell's.
He thought he detected the darkness of night. Then he thought he saw the sun on his closed eyelids. But instead of being dragged to the tree and pulled up with a rope around his throat to hang until he flailed and choked and died, it seemed the dawn came and went and the sun was higher in the sky. He thought, "I must be dreaming still."
He was startled awake by rough hands picking him up. "Now I will die," he said conclusively but with little emotion. He felt himself carried out and put in a wagon. How odd that a blanket and straw were being placed to cover him. He heard MacDhui's voice again, the clink of coin on a palm, then the sound of a sword being unsheathed. He thought he heard a carter urging a mule forward, the cart wheels bumping on an uneven path. He opened one eye when he heard many voices and was able to look up through the straw at a man hanging by the neck from a tree limb. He had a hood over his face. Rory again wondered if he was dreaming. Or perhaps the hanged man was himself.
Blessed unconsciousness enveloped him again as the cart lumbered out of the town gate and onto a country road.
MacDhui quietly passed into O'Donnell's chamber in the Great Hall. The big Irishman was sitting at a table drinking mead, clearly already drunk. "Is it over?" he asked in a grim voice.
MacDhui went over to put his hand on O'Donnell's shoulder. "Aye, he is gone."
MacDhui pictured the small cell the thief and Rory had occupied and the negotiations with the reeve and then the other prisoner. The thief had agreed to stay silent as he was taken, hooded, to the gallows tree in exchange for a mercy blow at the last minute of the hanging. The threat to make it last longer instead made up the man's mind for him. He thought of the reeve with his toothless grin as MacDhui handed over gold coins after the man had substituted the thief for Rory before the hanging. Then he saw in his mind the fear on the reeve's face as he pressed his sword blade to the man's throat and said in no uncertain terms that if he revealed the ruse, he would die painfully. Then he saw the cart as it rumbled away with Rory concealed.
"I want to see him," O'Donnell cried drunkenly. "I want to see him. He was so beautiful."
He was starting to rise, but MacDhui pushed him down again. "Nay, you do not want to see him. A hanged man is a terrible thing to see. Worse than any sight you have beheld in war. Let your memory of his beauty be unclouded by that sight, my love."
O'Donnell looked up at MacDhui's face and nodded sadly. "I did love him, Roddy. I really did. I did not want to kill him."
Roddy MacDhui held the man's head against his belly and stroked his hair. "I know, Finn, my love. I know."
Next: The Leave-taking
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