I am very proud of this particular story.
etheric took in a lungful of the crisp morning air. He closed his eyes and smiled at the pleasure, wondering if it were even possible to identify the many different aromas with which each breath flooded his nostrils. Of course there were the familiar smells of any courtyard, the animals and their dung, smoke from hearths and braziers, usually the rich scent of food being baked, roasted, and otherwise cooked. This particular dawn did not hold the cooking aromas as the whole fortress was asleep.. except for him. That is, if anyone was awake, he did not hear or see them. The night before the governor general had hosted a huge feast to thank his Beltane guests who would leave today.
The man walked carelessly across the courtyard, scattering a few chickens that pecked for what nourishment they could find in the dry dirt. He liked the light at this hour as much as the morning smells. It was softer somehow, with the faintest gold of the rising sun. Where the rays touched his shoulders he could feel their warmth in spite of the cold and damp of an early May morn. He knew it would be a bonny day, sunny and cheery with the sense of spring all around.
He listened carefully for a moment as he headed for the stone and timber fort's gate. He could hear birds, of course. He thought he heard a horse's nickering. Then there was an answering nicker from another horse closer by. He could hear the faintest stirring of people in the servants' quarters in the fortress. Not enough were up for him to worry about.
Aetheric stopped at a watering trough that lay not far from the heavily barred gate. He frowned at the wrist of his sleeve, leaned to the water, and left a faint pinkness in it as he rinsed the blood that had gotten soaked into the cloth. He had been as careful as he could as he had come up, waving a greeting and bringing a pot of ale to the guard on the crenulations, coming around behind him and then using his left hand to jerk the man's chin up and a dagger in his right to slit his throat so the guard sank noiselessly to the wooden palisade. The first guard had gone down just so, but this man's blood, spurting out of the veins in his neck had spilled differently and some had gotten on his sleeve. What a nuisance, Aetheric thought, noting that there was still a faint stain. Well, it could not be helped.
He lifted the heavy bar and slid it as quietly as humanly possible so that the double doors of the gate started to separate. He pulled the one on the right farther open. He made a sound like a bird singing in the dawn's light.. No one in the fortress was awake enough to notice it was the song of a nightingale, distinct from the dawn chorus that filled the enchanted air.
At a distance he could see the armed men, many of the ones in the lead, mounted, who came from woods and ravines into view of the fortress. There would be no alarm sounded. Aetheric had taken care of that.. at the expense of his fine jerkin. If anyone but a guard had seen the men approaching they most likely would not have responded with fear until they saw the sheer size of the forces, as Beltane festivities had brought men, women and children in many configurations a-horse and afoot and even in carts to the fortress for days now.
"Good work," the commander of the force called to Aetheric as he rode through the gates. "Where is Cynewulf?"
Aetheric thumped his chest with his closed right fist. "Welcome to Ratherwood, lord. Most likely he is in his mistress's chamber. I saw him leaving the feast with her last night. Shall I take some men and dispatch him?"
Malcolm of Horsfort nodded sharply and turned to his lieutenants. As he began to direct them to their tasks, Aetheric motioned to a number of men armed with round shields with heavy iron bosses and swords to follow him into the keep. He heard Ricbeorht's carls following close on their heels.
The master of Horsfort gazed around the courtyard. "Sven," he said to the savage looking Swede whose horse was anxiously scraping at the ground beneath its front hooves, "Send your men to the stables and loose the horses, them set the stables ablaze. The man nodded and called to his own raiders in his native tongue. The force veered off towards the many outbuildings within the wooden timbers that made up the outer wall of the fortress. Malcolm called out to them, "Take care not to burn the wall timbers. We want to keep this fortress intact." The purpose of loosing the horses and setting the stable afire was to foment chaos, not destroy valuable property. Malcolm wanted that for himself and his men.
Aetheric took the stairs two at a time as he dashed into the keep, past the confused looks of the sleeping men on the rush-strewn and filthy floor of the great hall. As he and his small band climbed the stairs they could hear Ricbeorht's swords and axes making short work of the useless men at arms and soldiers who had barely any time to sit up no less grab swords and shields to defend themselves. The screams and groans they heard had among them, though they of course could not have identified which, the sound of Ricbeorht's Flemish and Mercian attackers. The majority of the death cries came from the house carls stationed in this lead fortress of the Christenlandian province of Affynshire.
Well familiar with the layout of the keep, Aetheric led the swordsmen in his command to the chamber of the leman of Cynewulf, Ratherwood lord and governor general of the province under King Lawrence. He left a few men to deal with sleepy eyed people who gingerly looked out of doors cracked open to see what the commotion had been. Aetheric himself went unerringly to the room where Cynewulf was now rising and reaching for his cloak and his belt knife. His sword was in his own chamber, useless.
Cynewulf cried out as Aetheric entered, "What is it, man? Are we under attack?" Then he groaned as Aetheric's sword pierced his belly as he got to his feet. The woman in the bed screamed. Cynewulf's blood spurted from his head as the second blow of Aetheric's sword cleft his skull. Some of the blood spattered her bare breasts, redder still even than the areola that looked out like eyes from over the wool blanket that covered her lower body.
Aetheric eyed the woman, but turned and shot a command at a soldier to make sure she had no access to a weapon, and nodded curtly as the man stammered a request. He heard the woman scream again as the man approached her where she sat up on the bed.
Out in the corridor his men and many from Ricbeorht's force were dealing with any resistance from the occupants of the chambers quickly. He passed them and went down to stand in the doorway of the hall where he saw the bodies of many men, mostly carls, some servants who had unwisely tried to join in on defense of the fortress. "What a stinking mess," he thought, then turned to gather some of his own force. "Are the servants' quarters being searched?" Hearing screams from that part of the castle, he nodded in answer to his own question, then gestured to his men to follow him out to the courtyard.
The scene outside bore no resemblance to the still and redolent courtyard Aetheric had crossed in the dawn. Now there were already numerous bodies on the ground. They were mostly men, with some older men and boys, but there were a few women who had been less trouble to kill than to subdue.. The living women were either being held out of the way or were being dragged off to be raped by some of the invading men. The sounds of screams and wailing were just part of the cacophony of the devastation of the fortress.
The stables and at least two other outbuildings were aflame. The horses and other livestock had been pulled out before soldiers had set the ubiquitous thatch roofs alight with torches and the animals were skittishly milling about a makeshift holding area, terrified of the flames. The soldiers' who were a-horse were having some success keeping their mounts calm, a feat that was all but miraculous. They rode them about the courtyard to harass those few people still at liberty or to smaller groupings of men bent on some act of violence and looting or another.
Malcolm was afoot now, his horse being looked after by a low rank soldier. He spotted Aetheric and strode over, a bloodied sword in his hand. He wiped it on the cloak worn by one of the dead men on the ground and sheathed it. "Cynewulf?"
Aetheric bowed slightly. "Dead. Along with most of the men sleeping in the hall."
"I know. Ricbeorht has been out to report. It looks like little more than to clean up this carnage is left."
Aetheric looked up beyond the vertical timbers that made up the fortress defenses. "The sun is yet low in the sky. 'Tis not even midmorning."
"Aye," Malcolm replied. "We can thank the lax hand of the late Cynewulf for that. And of course your skillful preparation…"
Sven Ormyngel rode up on his huge stallion to join the conversation. He stayed mounted, his horse pawing the ground with his hooves. His own sword was as bloody as the others'.
Aetheric asked, "How long do you think it will take for us to know how the Irishman and the Breton are faring?"
Malcolm shrugged. "I am not certain about O'Donnell. Hucknall may have been tough to subdue. I am sure we will hear from Keito Uxello by dark on the morrow. 'Tis not that, far and I doubt Elerde had any resistance to speak of."
Ormyngel grinned lewdly. "At least everywhere but in the lady's bed…"
Malcolm glared. "If the man does anything to the Queen, I shall personally geld him. She is too valuable a prize."
Sven pursed his lips. "Let us hope then that he had her secured. He is cagey. I do not know what his intentions are with her.. if not what I think they are, they may be not so much in our favor."
"What do you mean, man?" the high commander demanded.
"Methinks the Breton has an honorable side." The adjective had been uttered with venom. "I would not trust him not to let her go."
Malcolm growled, "That is my longtime comrade in arms you are maligning."
"I beg your pardon, lord," the Swede replied with just as much deference as required and no more..
Malcolm continued to hold the man's eyes, then let his own move back to Aetheric. "Let us gather the captives and see what we have. Kill all the Saxons.." He looked at Aetheric with a sly grin. "Present company excluded, of course. We can choose those to leave in service here.. and which to sell to Mercia." Assessing the courtyard around him, he went on, "I think we have quelled all possible resistance." He gestured to a man in mail who sat astride a horse and seemed to be holding back from the violence in the courtyard. He caught Malcolm's eye and cautiously spurred his mount over.
"My lord, your kingdom," Malcolm said, making an expansive gesture with his right arm, his voice dripping with irony.
Maegwig of Cross Gates nodded testily. "It is done, then?" he asked.
"Aye, your rightful throne is yours for the taking. Do not slip in your own vomit as you cross the Great Hall to it." Malcolm heard rather than saw the scoffing chuckle that Sven Ormyngel rewarded him with for his remark.
The Affynshire earl, pale and watchful, tried his best to overlook the insults. It would do him no good anyway.
Malcolm said to Aetheric, "Post messengers to Hucknall, Matlock Hall and Keito Uxello that the governor general is dead and the rightful king is in possession of Ratherwood. Let Christenlande find out in his own good time."
Malcolm bad the new monarch of Affynshire to dismount and go with him into the keep as Aetheric, bowing, went to do his lord's bidding. They left Ormyngel astride his own horse in the courtyard as the clamor and chaos started to fade ever so slightly. The Swede spurred his horse towards where his own men were guarding his share of the booty.
Next: Encounter in the Woods
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