I hear you asking yourself, "Well, I am patiently reading all these stories. Is there any point in getting the book?" I am here to tell you that the novel is not precisely the same as what you read here. Nevertgeless, you are welcome to choose either or both. My goal with An Involuntary King is and always has been to get the stories and characters into the minds -- and hearts -- of readers. I'll get rich on other novels...
The master archer Ruallauh watched his royal cousin struggle to bend the bow he had set aside. "My lady, few men can bend that yew but I." He came up and gently took it from her hands.
Josephine crossed her arms over her breast and rubbed the opposite upper arms with her hands. She considered him evenly, then shrugged. "I could but try," she stated.
Ruallauh gave her an understanding but respectful smile. "Not all who undertake to master must master in the same manner. I have the strength to bend this bow and to shoot it. But I have been practicing hours a day since I was but a small boy. Mayhap had you had that chance, you would share at least some of that strength."
Josephine had thrown every bit of her energy, emotional, mental, and physical, into her long and well loved pursuit of archery. Since she had known she was trapped in her own homeland by those who had taken it into their own greedy hands, she had chafed at being unable to be more than a Queen in hiding and took advantage of both illusion and reality as she prepared to fight on her own behalf.
She turned from her cousin and started to walk away. "My lady," he called after her. "Josephine. Will you not stay to hear what your particular skill is?"
She spun, regarding him. "What is it, Ruallauh? To inspire? To grace with my beauty?" Her tone was icy.
Ruallauh sighed. "Nay, my lady 'Tis the accuracy with which you take aim while riding. That takes wit and an excellent eye, not just brawn."
The Queen looked up at her cousin frankly. "Aye?"
Ruallauh's face was grave but sincere. "Aye. And 'tis your skill we need to do our work, yours and others', for we are not lined in battle against men at arms and other archers, but lying in wait to harry and discomfit the enemy."
The thinnest of smiles crossed Josephine's lips. With grim assurance she nodded.
Soon after taking flight again having determined that their family stronghold, Keito Uxello, was now in the hands of a Breton commander in league with revels, the three sons of Earl Ceretic had gathered to them what men and women they could to talk over events and make plans to take a part in some manner to defeat the usurpers. Ruallauh, reputed the best archer in the north, had taken the lead by consensus and had shared his time between training and planning. One of his students was his own cousin, the woman whose husband, the King of Críslicland, was now on the eastern border of Affynshire preparing to enter and wrest back control of his wife's patrimony.
The resistance that Earl Ceretic's sons and men formed scattered in the mountainous forest only to meet from time to time to firm missions at the old hunting camp at Ingbirchworth. Scouts and spies kept the place under watch and had reported the interest shown by the Breton's forces and then, some time later, a new force thought to have come from the northern stronghold of Horsfort. The two forces had come and gone, discovering nothing. That was in part due to the great skill of Ceretic's middle son, Cingen, able to track and hide in thin air and to teach others to do so, or so it seemed.
The third son, Ioruert , lent his own unique skill, his sword arm and leadership. While he at once fretted and waited to have an opportunity to join the Crísliclandian forces he trained others to fight and to take his place, honing his cousin's skills with a seaxa or sword just as his eldest brother did with the bow.
The Breton. The brothers well knew that for all their prowess they owed the lax effort of the first search party to root them out of their lair to something their cousin, the Queen, fretted at. The man had let them go when he and his men had come across her in the forest near the stronghold. She would not talk about the incident nor of the Breton's motives, but it was not difficult to guess. He was clearly in love with her. The three brothers had known her all their lives, first as a rough and tumble little girl, later as the fiercely proud woman she was now. They knew without asking how that pride smarted as she knew no accomplishment of her own wit or strength had gained them their opportunity to flee and form this band. They also sensed how bound she felt as two men who loved her prepared to risk their lives while she could do little. No wonder then she trained and practiced as hard as any man among them.
Ceretic's sons included her of course in all councils. She was the Queen of this land and had its very existence in her heart as much as in theirs. She had been part of the decision to create small bands of men and women who would fall upon the troops that came dangerously near so that the rebel forces were forced to spread themselves more thinly than they should have had they needed merely to occupy and defend strongholds. The entire west border of Affynshire, save in the far south and far north, was mountains and woods. The natural protection the west offered could act well as the basis for these risky and audacious raids and ambushes.
Josephine was schooling herself with all the concentration she could muster to move forward, to act, and not to think about the present conditions of her life. She had a unique single mindedness in this matter, though she herself was largely unaware of this. Just days before the takeover she had used this talent to ignore then deflect then overlook the passion of the man she tried hardest not to think about now, the Irish bard, Rory McGuinness. She could not stop her mind from going to him from time to time, but she counseled herself to assume he had been off and away to other parts long before the country of her birth had been embroiled in war.
The man she did think about often was her husband, the King, of whom dispatches from those who could obtain news of any kind, reported was first on his way with his army, then on the border, now expected to take the very bridge his and her fathers had caused to be built over the Trenta, connecting their kingdoms. She thought of Lawrence, worried about him, reassured herself of his skill as a general and as a swordsman. She thought of their children, realizing they were alone now back in Lawrencium, left with only her brother Lorin to comfort them, deprived even of the Irish bards who had so thoroughly become part of their young lives.
As Josephine and Ruallauh approached the camp they could tell that a dispatch had just been brought in and rushed to hear what news was within it. They found Ioruert and his brother and the others standing with a man rank with the smell of horse sweat and gulping down a bowl of ale as Ioruert held and unrolled scroll and read it. His face grew into a smile as he read.
"What news?" Ruallauh called.
Ioruert looked up at him and then at Josephine. "My lady, your royal husband took the bridge at Cromwell with the lightest of casualties to his forces. His strategy appears to have sent the guard there in all directions. They will soon, probably by now they have, been on the road to Ratherwood."
Josephine smiled grimly. "God be praised," she said sedately. There was a part of her that wanted to fall asleep and wake when this was all behind them. The desire was palpable. But she knew she had to wake throughout. She would spend those waking hours struggling alongside her loyal countrymen. She had to. Lawrence was doing the same. She would not allow him to do it alone.
The raids and ambushes that the mountain bands visited on the enemy consisted primarily of waiting for news from scouts that troops or supply convoys were approaching some part of the forested region. Then the variously configured bands would attack with deadly ferocity and sweep away seemingly into nothingness. This band that the Queen took her part in was made up of archers with some few mounted swordsmen. They swooped down on the Roman road called the Ermine Way as fresh troops and stores came from Horsfort on their way to Ratherwood and the other occupied fortresses. It had not taken long for Cingen's men to identify that much of the support was mustered on the other side of the border in Mercia. Whether Mercia was directly in league or simply turning a blind eye was not yet known. But thanks to the nuisance and interference of the resistance it was no sure thing that reinforcements or needed food and supplies would make it much further south.
On the day of the Queen's first kill the band had secreted themselves in thickly laden trees in the fullest growth of midsummer. They had the advantage of a clear view of the old Roman road. The troops passing along were watchful and wary, but as they daily changed their spot for ambush and found ways to mislead or distract the troops own scouts, most of the ambushes were successful. This particular day the spot was far south near the junction of the road from where it wended east to Ratherwood and thence to Lincoln and where the mountain road led off to the west to Keito Uxello where the Earl and his wife, their status now unknown, had been when the Breton had moved in.
Looking at the crossroads the Queen thought of her own journey that took her there just months ago, and of the arrival of Elerde, the Breton, at the same spot as he rode to steal her uncle's land and position.
The troops were no doubt congratulating themselves as the Ermine Way took its turn to the east. They had managed to get by the resistance this time. But just then the arrows flew. The onslaught caused confusion, the horses dashing every which way, the commander whipping his head about to try to identify where the shots had come from. Caught in the act of changing direction, his men showed shafts in their own and their horse's bodies and in the sides of the carts that told a conflicting tale of attack from apparently multiple directions.
Josephine was dead calm as she watched the troop come south, clearly growing more boisterous and confident as they started to turn east. She took aim, as she was trained, and waited for the signal. She heard Ruallauh's faithful rendition of a bird cry and she found her mark and loosed her arrow. This time she did not miss nor did she hit a cart nor just wound a man. She saw with blood rising in her head as the arrow she had loosed struck a marching man just as he turned to look back at the woods. It pierced his heart so truly he had little time for shock before he was crumpled and dead on the road.
Her heart was thudding. She thought she was prepared for this. She had seen the man's helm fly off the back of his head as he jerked backwards. He was a young man, a peasant. She could see the anxiety that had frozen on his face the moment the arrow took him. In seconds her mind had filled with images and questions of who he was and who loved and needed him and why he was here waiting to take in his own heart the first killing shot of the Queen of Críslicland though he himself would never know the dubious honor.
Though it felt to her as if she had frozen time, Josephine hesitated in reality for only moments. In no time a second arrow was out of her arrow sack and notched. In just a moment more it was itself flying and hitting its desired mark.
As the band rode solemnly but triumphantly back to their hiding place, Ruallauh glanced at his cousin. He had seen the shot and also her response, though it had lasted only the span of a breath. She did not look back at him. Her single mindedness had seen her through once again. He knew that whatever had crossed her mind, it was now as dead as the boy she had killed.
He nodded to himself, both regretful and proud.
Next: Elerde and Rory
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