The journey across Crístlicland was wearing but remarkably uneventful. The weather held bright and warm save for drizzle just east of Lincoln. If there had been any brigands lying in wait for unwary travelers along the rough roads, some little more than cowherds' paths, they had seen the mounted and unmounted guard and slipped back into the woods they hid in. The terrain was mostly so gently climbing and descending that one only realized one had reached the top of the Wolds by turning around and seeing how the land sloped behind for miles.
The journey took seven days, the Queen taking the hospitality of houses great and modest along the way. This she enjoyed, meeting people of all kinds was a favorite part of traveling. And besides being delighted to have the Queen bedding down in their homes, her hosts were treated to some rare entertainment from her grace's minstrels.
Josephine spent one melancholy and homesick night at Ratherwood, feeling lonely in the big bed where she and her young King had consummated their marriage so many years before, or so it felt. But in the morning she looked forward to crossing the River Trenta near the village of Cromwell via the bridge that her own and her husband's fathers had built about twenty years ago. Once across, she was home. Affynshire, dear, dear Affynshire.
The only tedious part of the journey was the de rigueur stay in the capital as the guest of the governor general, Cynewulf. The man was a Crísliclandian and not particularly familiar with the very country that he governed for Lawrence and herself. She found him unctuous and self-aggrandizing but bore the pomp he insisted was her due. She stayed only one night, much to the man's irritation, but she explained that her uncle was terribly ill and that she needed to make haste. She made a mental note to let Lawrence know that Cynewulf had not even known who her uncle was in spite of his being an earl and a member of a long respected family.. and her own kin.
Once past the capital, the Queen mixed anxiety for her uncle with nostalgic reminiscences of familiar scenes from her childhood. At long last the road angled uphill , wound into thick woods, and she knew she was nearly home. Her family's stout wooden house with its many outbuildings soon could be seen through the woods. With joy she saw that her aunt and all three of her cousins stood outside in the dooryard, anxiously awaiting her arrival.
Modron stood in front of her three sons. Looking at them all, Rory realized as he walked up to join Josephine, who had dismounted, that he was about a whole head taller than the tallest of the four. The Britons were smallish in stature, darker haired and round-faced. He knew that while the Queen was small and slight, her coloring was clearly the product of an Anglian father.
Modron's face was smiling but her cheeks ran with tears. Rory and Shannon could catch a thread of the words the woman uttered, being Celtic language speakers themselves, but Irish and Brythonic were different enough to make real conversation with Josephine's kinfolk impossible. Shannon noticed that the Queen whispered something in her aunt's ear when she leaned to kiss the salt stained cheeks, and the woman turned and smiled at the Irishmen. "Oh, dear, and I was not being hospitable," the older woman cried in thickly accented English.
In turn each of them took her hand and kissed it, making her blush a little. The Queen introduced her aunt, then turned to smile broadly at the young men who stood waiting.
"I cannot believe I am here standing among you again, and you all so tall and well grown. Let me introduce my friends, Rory McGuinness and Shannon O'Neill. They are minstrels who have been staying at my lord's court."
The young men and their mother all looked very pleased to have two minstrels among them.
Josephine went and took the hand of the fellow who looked to be the eldest, though probably no more than 22 or 23 summers. He had a bow slung over his right shoulder and a quiver of arrows behind his left. "This is my cousin Ruallauh."
Rory looked astounded. "Ruallauh ap Ceretic?"
The man smiled and took Rory's proffered hand. "The very one. You have heard of me?"
Shannon was looking at his tall friend, puzzled.
"Aye, and 'tis a great honor to make the acquaintance of the best archer in all the land!"
Josephine's pride was great. "Had I ne'er told you that Ruallauh the Archer is my cousin?"
She introduced the next young man. "This troublemaker is my cousin Cingen."
This fellow laughed and responded, "What, Sunshine, no plaits for me to pull?"
"And last but not least, this is my cousin Ioruert."
This young man was eying the Queen's sword curiously. "Cousin, he said in his lilting accent, "I did not know you were a warrior queen." He himself was armed with a sword and dagger.
Josephine laughed and promised, "I shall let Shannon tell you all about that at meat this evening."
Modron broke in, "Dearest niece, you must remember dear Clotuyali!" She indicated the old servant who stood discreetly off to one side.
Josephine's face lit up. "But e'en so! Dear Clotuyali! I am so glad to find you here as well this day! How well I recall how carefully you watched and guarded my sister and brother and me along with our wild cousins when we were children."
The old man bowed and his smile and eyes were merry. "Your grace, I too am happy to be here no matter the reason. How is your brother Lorin?"
He thrives as my lord's chancellor.. though he oft frets that by not taking this land's throne he has broken faith with its people."
Ruallauh shook his head. "Nay, cousin, all in this land know he made certain the land would be as safe as possible by turning the reins over to a strong and worthy man, your noble husband."
Then Rory spoke again. "My lady," he said to Modron, " me friend and me have no wish to burden ye with our hospitality. We can sleep the night in the barn and go on our way."
Modron did not need to see Josephine's brief look of distress to assure the two minstrels they were more than welcome. "Nay, nay, good man, do stay with us at least a while. My husband can only be happier if you should give him a song or a tale."
Josephine turned to smile at Rory and Shannon. "My friends, my aunt speaks the truth. My uncle relishes music and the bard's art in general. I know that you can help bring that to him and help him heal." Catching her cousins' expressions changing to sorrow, she quickly turned back to her aunt. "He will heal, will he not?"
Modron took her niece's arm. "'Tis not known, my girl. 'Twas his heart, we think. He is very weak. Clotuyali, please make these fellows comfortable at our hearth, the minstrels and these armed men as well. I shall take my niece to see her uncle now." She drew Josephine with her into the house.
Ceretic, being an earl, had an unusually large house for this part of the foothills. It was thatched with straw brought up from the valley, like any house, but it was tall enough to have a sleeping loft. As the two women went to a steep stair up to it, Josephine asked, "Aunt, do my cousins live here with you and my uncle?"
"Nay, dear, they are all three wed and live in their own homes. Ruallauh lives up near our hunting camp. The other boys live just a stone's throw from this house. You shall have seen the houses as you rode hither."
The Queen's eyes took a few moments to adjust to the dark of the loft. Then she could see him, her uncle, lying gaunt and pale, on the bed made of woven straw covered with blankets. Her heart sank seeing him. He did indeed look close to death. But a surprisingly strong voice came from the bed,. "Sunshine, my girl, what a joy it is to see you again. I am sorry I cannot rise.."
Josephine went quickly to his bedside and sat on the stool next to it. She found and held her uncle's hand. He had only a weak grip to return for her own stronger one. "My uncle," she breathed. "I am sore aggrieved to see you so ill."
Ceretic shook his head. "One look at you, my dear, and I shall be as a young man again." He was speaking to her in her family's language again. She found she remembered it as she listened to it, though she knew her accent and skill with it must have faded with the years. But no one here in this room was going to say anything about that. "Look at how beautiful you have grown. It fair takes my breath away. Methinks your marriage must be a love match, like Modron's and mine. Only that may make a woman stay lovely all the days of her life."
Josephine took the hand she was holding and put its palm to her cheek. "Aye, Uncle, a love match indeed. My lord husband is a good man, a strong man, and he adores me." She smiled as she said the last. "And we have beautiful children."
"You must tell us all about them. Are they as wild as you were, little girl?"
"Not as yet. Our oldest son, Peter, is like his father, so I am told. Cheerful and confident. The girls are but babes yet, and our adopted son, Tavish is quiet and serious."
Modron, who had sat on another stool, said "Like your brother then?"
The Queen looked over at her. "Much like, it seems."
"And none then like your sister, God keep her?" her aunt went on.
Josephine crossed herself. "Nay, thanks be to God. No melancholia in these four. Saint Viviana save us from that."
"I should see to our guests," her aunt said, rising. "Ceretic, my love, our niece has brought us something very special indeed!"
"And what is that, my dearest?" Ceretic croaked.
"Musicians! Two minstrels from Ireland!"
Ceretic's face lit up and he actually regained some color. "Oh m y dear, how wonderful!"
At that very moment the three could hear a lute being played. "That will be Shannon O'Neill, who is a brilliant musician, Uncle," Josephine explained. "A singer and a lute player and one of the funniest people you will e'er meet."
"Funnier than Cingen?" her uncle smiled.
Josephine laughed quietly. "I actually had occasion to make that comparison myself last fall. I will mayhap tell you that story too. We have so much to catch up with.. I shall stay and visit as long as I can."
Next: War Plans Take Shape
Before there was the novel, there were the stories...
Saturday, October 3, 2009
New Stories: The Long Road to Keito Uxello (Happened)