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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

New Stories: Malcolm Makes his Plans, Part 1 (Happened)

Late June 769

alcolm of Horsfort, now ruler in all but name of the Kingdom of Affynshire, looked up with irritation as the titular king stood staring at him, expecting him to stand. Maegwig was a necessary part of Malcolm's plans, but Malcolm wished the man would stop imagining he was in any way truly the liege lord of the nation. "Just sit down, Maegwig. I am busy."

Maegwig, an average looking Briton with thinning hair and a pot belly sniffed his hurt pride as he swept his cloak up into the crook of one arm and took a seat with much drama. "I suppose I should be grateful you at least make the pretense of respect in front of others."

Malcolm did not reply. He was reading dispatches and glancing back and forth from them to a map spread out before him on the table.

"News?" Maegwig entreated weakly.

Malcolm looked up without lifting his chin. "Críslicland is across the bridge at Cromwell."

The King of Affynshire nervously twisted his hands together on his knees. "So soon?"

Malcolm nodded. "I hoped to slow him there, and we did, but not for long. 'Tis no matter. The war is far from over yet."

Maegwig continued to squirm. "Any news of my kinswoman?"

Malcolm slapped his palm down on the dispatch he had been reading and scowled at the man. "Nay, not yet. And as I have said ere this, I shall inform you when I have news of the Queen." He glanced up as Ricbeorht of Flanders, one of his commanders, passed through into the chamber. "Leave us," Malcolm flicked at Maegwig. The King, affronted, made another dissatisfied noise before rising and passing out of the doorway, glaring at Ricbeorht as he did.

"That man will be the death of me," Malcolm growled.

Ricbeorht's eyebrows said what words might not.

"I know, I know," Malcolm acknowledged. "He was my choice. I have to live with that. Ceretic's sons were incorruptible. I had to approach the nithing."

Ricbeorht took the seat the referred to nithing had left vacant when Malcolm nodded to it. "So Críslicland has crossed the Trenta," he stated in the affirmative.

"He has," Malcolm replied, sitting back, pushing the dispatch towards his commander, then lacing his hands behind his head as he watched the man read. "More rapidly than I thought, but it changes nothing."

Ricbeorht looked up from the dispatch. "How long until he is here, at the fortress?"

His leader said calmly, "With some obstacles I am going to throw his way, mayhap five, six days - mayhap even more. Plenty of time for us to be ready"

The Fleming smiled, his once beautiful face heavily scarred from battle. "Obstacle? I like the sound of that. I hope I am involved?"

"Indeed you are." Malcolm sat up, then putting his hands on the arms of his heavy wooden chair, he pushed himself to a standing position. He pushed the chair away with the back of his legs and stepped from it. Stretching with a groan he walked over to the lighted brazier. "God, why is this thing lit.. it is an oven in here."

He turned to Ricbeorht. I want you to take your men now and intercept them on their way along the Roman road to Lincoln. Do not engage them in full force. Harry them and slow them down. I have sent for Elerde to answer for himself.. and I want him able to be here and gone before Críslicland sets his siege."

"So you are prepared to allow him to surround the fortress?"

"Not only allow, invite."

The Fleming smiled. "Obviously the stores are more than sufficient."

"Ours are," Malcolm replied. "But it remains to be seen how well supplied Críslicland will be.. once the supply lines are cut."

"After I throw the obstacles in his path.. where do you want me, my lord?" Ricbeorht had stood.

"I think back here, for the nonce. I need to see what Elerde has to say first." He nodded to the mercenary, who bowed and left to collect his men.

The combined armies of Críslicland had struck camp after the fall of the bridge at Cromwell. Casualties had been light, considering the stout defense the rebels had staged, and those wounded who could travel were taken back to Lincoln for the monks to look after.

The King of Críslicland mounted his horse to lead the progress on to Ratherwood Castle. His aide de camp, Edred, walked his own mount alongside him. "Is the guard on the bridge secure?" Lawrence asked.

His aide nodded. "Aye, sire, and your orders to form a cordon to protect the road and our supply lines have been followed as well."

Lawrence nodded sharply. "And no news yet.."

Edred knew the King meant news of his wife, trapped in the country by the overthrow. He shook his head respectfully. "Nay, my liege."

Lawrence nodded grimly and turned his face back to the west. He spurred his horse forward. His commanders, watching him, did likewise, each in his turn drawing his own army made up of house carls, soldiers and the fyrd with him into the procession. It was Lord Jehan of Grantham who took up the rear to station troops at intervals along the road to protect free passage to the bridge over the Trenta into Críslicland.

The Roman road, though stoutly built, had had approximately 300 years of use with little or no maintenance. Only its metal paving remained, much of that overgrown and buried under drifting dirt. Between Lincoln and Ratherwood the way was clearer but not easy. But it was one of the only roads that existed in all this part of England. Travel by river was safer and easier, but not for an entire army of men and horses, not to mention wagons. The procession of mounted men, foot soldiers and the followers with the carts of weapons, shields and supplies followed the King and his commanders along the ancient road. Lord Jehan stationed companies of men from his fyrd captained by seasoned soldiers from his own and his sworn lords' households.

The progress was slow with such a large company. What may have taken a single horseman a day to traverse represented several days' journey, stretched by broken wagon axles and the need to stop and camp along the way. Lawrence had ensured a goodly supply and a secure route for supplying, anxious to avoid despoiling the countryside and villages of Affynshire as the army moved. His commanders were ordered to impress on their men to leave the people they met along the way unmolested. It was his nature to protect the people, but moreover he knew he must not lend credence to Malcolm's cause of ridding Affynshire of Crísliclandian oppression.

It was therefore the more distressing when the scouts of the forward party road back to inform the King that several small villages ahead had been pillaged and burned. "Why would they do this?" he demanded of his commanders. "Why would Malcolm despoil his own villages?"

One of the scouts, shamefaced, explained. "Sire, begging your pardon, the people who had come back to try to save what they could of their villages cursed us and those who did not run from us even tried to kill us. They believe we were the cause of their torment."

Lawrence looked aghast. He bowed his head in thought, then turned to Edred and ordered, "He means by this dishonorable act to force us to help the people though we can ill afford to share our supplies. Nevertheless, dispatch what they need to the villages. That is the only way we can turn them away from their distrust and anger." He looked at his commanders. "'Tis too late to turn the news of our perfidy around.. save by doing what we can and trusting that the good shall be believed as readily as the bad." His face demonstrated his lack of conviction in his last statement.

The army continued on progress to rest by the first of the burned villages. There army chirurgeons and men at arms were sent to help the people who watched all with deep suspicion. One young girl saw Lawrence's face and told her angry mother, "I do not think they did this. Otherwise the King would not look so sad."

Her mother was not convinced. "Tell your dead father that."

The commanders began to suspect that more delays were in store for the army as they passed on to beyond the villages. Forward scouts caught sight of enemy scouts watching from atop rises in the terrain ahead. These parties quickly were exchanged for small swift mounted armed men who swept towards the Críslicland scouts, then the forward ranks of the army itself, harrying them and causing the commanders to send out larger groups of men to protect the army's flanks and stores.

Some time later they ceased to see the raiding parties or even the enemy scouts. Instead now delaying them even further, the King's soldiers were then put to work clearing obstacles that had been put across the road. While the army by necessity had to spread far beyond the shoulder of the cleared pathway, the carts had to stay on it, so the boulders and fallen trees had to be cleared before they could pass. In addition, what few crude bridges that stood across the rivers they must traverse had been weakened so that the first heavy cart across the first one caused it to collapse, sending men, cart horses, and stores into the water.

Horsa, the King's main commander in this war, rode over to where the King rode and leaned to him to speak, "My liege, they are slowing us for some reason. It may be just to give them more time to provision against a siege."

Lawrence looked back at him sourly. "Aye, that or a number of reasons. And this delay is enhanced with overtaxing of our men and our own supplies. And doing as much damage to the people as possible in our name. The assault on the bridge gave us false confidence. "

Horsa considered the King levelly. "Lord, it is ever thus when fighting a dishonorable foe. It may be necessary to place to one side our own insistence on courtesy."

Lawrence scowled. "That shall never be, sirrah. I shall not stoop to their level. And I ne'er want to hear such shameful words again, do you understand?"

Horsa nodded and bowed from his saddle, letting his horse fall back from the King's side. He exchanged a look with Lord Sagar who answered only with his eyes, letting them drop again as he set his jaw.

Continues tomorrow.

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About the author

Nan Hawthorne now writes under the name Christopher Hawthorne Moss. You can contact Christopher at .