Last days of April 769
There was a quick rap at the door, and Lorin entered the King's workroom. Lawrence looked up from a letter he had been writing to his Queen. He grinned at his brother in law. "I suppose any message I sent Josephine now would just meet her on her route home."
The chancellor lifted his eyebrows. Lawrence saw he carried a sealed message. "Is everything all right?" he asked in sudden concern.
"Aye, sire, she is just delayed."
Lawrence took the message and broke the seal. While he unrolled it he gave Lorin a rebuking glance. "The only way you can know that is if you also received a message but delayed bringing this one to read your own. You think to make me wait?" He was not jesting.
Lorin colored slightly. "I beg your pardon, sir. It shall not happen again."
Lawrence nodded, his glare unabated. Then he looked at his own message. "I suppose I need not bother read this, since you know everything in it." But he did not wait for the Duke to reply. He scanned the first several lines, his face shifting from effrontery to disappointment. "Ah. It is as you say. She is delayed. But 'tis for a happy reason. I must not be selfish when she sees your family so infrequently. She will be on the road just after Beltane. The children will be sad." He put down the message. "You may go."
Lorin started to say something sympathetic, but thought better of it, bowed, and left.
Lawrence unrolled the message again and read it more at his leisure.
The few weeks in Keito Uxello had done Earl Ceretic wonders. It was easy for the Queen to see the improvement not only by her uncle's better color and stamina but by the faces of her aunt and cousins and the servants. She knew she was part of why: she had always been close to him. But she also knew Shannon and Rory could boast most of the credit. Their humor and music may have been just what Ceretic had needed to come back from his heart seizure.
Tonight, just a few days before she planned to return to Lawrencium, Josephine sat in the hall of the fortress, a great fire burning in the central fire pit, the smoke gathering at the peak of the ceiling as it accumulated too quickly to make it through the too small smoke hole, and in the firelight thought she saw more warmth in her uncle's features than ever. Rory was telling a long, dramatic story about the great Irish hero Cuchullain.
"As the young men darted to stop him, the young boy used his hurling stick to keep the ball e'er between his knees, back and forth, neither up nor down. None could knock it loose. This way the boy moved to the goal and… simply stepped in." Rory had spread his hands wide to indicate the goal, then with a tiny step, entered the enclosure of his own arms. Ceretic joined in the laughter. Josephine smiled.
After the story was finished and Rory had taken his bow, Ruallauh asked him, "How do your people celebrate Bealtana?"
Shannon let Rory catch his breath. "We gather on hills and mountaintops, burn great bonfires, lead our cattle between them for fertility, and then.." Shannon pulled one of the older daughters of Cingen to him, jokingly as she was only four years old. "Then we drift off in pairs and kiss!" He sent the girl laughing hysterically as he mimed burying his face into her neck and making a funny noise.
Ioruert laughed. "That is pretty much what we do here too, but with the addition of a maypole. Have you ever had the pleasure of being one of the maypole dancers, Rory?"
Shannon laughed, "Och, nay, not he.. he is too shy of pretty lasses for that." Rory had in fact blushed, visibly in spite of the dim light.
"I should have been the Queen of the May again this year," Josephine added. "Even should I be able to leave this minute I could not be back in time to do it.. so I suppose some other May Queen shall preside in my place."
Modron sighed. "I should hate to see you miss a Bealtana, dearest. We do not hold one any more nearby."
Cingen's face lit up. "But Ruallauh does in Ingbirchworth!"
"Speaking of leaving this very minute," his older brother replied.
"Will ye not be celebratin' then this year?" Rory asked him.
Ruallauh shook his head. "I do not like to leave here with honored guests."
Ioruert put in. "Why not leave here with honored guests? I mean, leave and take them with you?"
Josephine asked, "You mean, we should all go up to the mountain for Bealtana?" She thought about it. "Twould delay my return by only a few days. I should like to see the old camp again. I do remember Bealtana's there with great fondness."
Ceretic's response was animated. "Aye, aye, you should all go. Your aunt and I can spend a quiet feast day here.. Take your wives and children," he said to his sons, "and give your mother and me some peace." His eye twinkled.
Shannon seemed to stir uneasily. "Me lady, 'twas our plan to take leave of ye and go upon our way…"
Rory hastily added, "With your leave, of course, me lady."
Cingen encouraged, "Nay, come with us. Then after the feast, you can start your wandering. I would certainly like to see a mountain Bealtana with the two of you minstrels there!"
So it was decided. Josephine and the Irishmen would accompany her three cousins and their families to Ingbirchworth in two days so that they could be settled at the old hunting camp in plenty of time for the feast day. The Queen wrote letters to her husband and to her brother to let them know her earlier plan to return just two or three days into the month of May was slightly delayed. She knew Lawrence would be disappointed, but she also knew this was an opportunity to relive some very beloved memories. He would understand, and he would explain to the children. She filled the letter to him with words of love and a longing to see him.
When she had the chance, Josephine sought out Rory and asked him, "You are planning to be on your way then, you and Shannon? I knew you mean to, but can you tell me, how long might you be wandering? We shall miss you both. You know that." Her manner was sincere but light. She wanted to know, but she did not want to unease him.
Rory looked more shamefaced than she had expected. He twisted his cap in his hands and looked down. "Aye, me lady, and I am that sorry Shan spoke up ere I had a chance to speak with ye…"
Josephine watched his face. "There is nothing to apologize for, Rory."
He looked up into her eyes briefly, then down again. "Me lady, I dinnae think Shannon plans to return."
"Oh," Josephine breathed. "And yourself?" She hid her trepidation.
"I.. I should like to return to Lawrencium, with your permission."
"Rory, you do not need my permission. Of course we want you to come back. My lord and I both care deeply for you and Shannon." She looked at him for a few moments, then said, "Please come back, Rory dear. Will you not?"
He smiled wistfully. "I shall. I promise. But, me lady, Shannon… "
Josephine put a hand on his arm for the barest moment. "I know. He depends on you to keep out of trouble. I know your love for him is great."
Rory looked up and away as if examining the tops of the trees around her uncle's keep. "'Tis just that now, with his break with Heather.."
Josephine nodded. "I know. Come back.. when you can. And if you can.." She looked at Shannon, who was walking towards them, "bring him back with you."
Shannon looked at the two solemn faces. "Och, now, tell me, who died?" Neither replied. He shook his head at his own foolishness and fell silent.
Josephine turned a brilliant smile on him. "Now it seems the place where I spent my girlhood shall have the benefit of adding your clear voice to the Bealtana festivities, my friend!"
Shannon and Rory both smiled their gratitude. "Och, aye, me lady. 'Twill be as rare a treat for us," Rory said.
After making certain that Modron and Ceretic were well provided for, with the slightly offended protestations of the servant Clotuyali as he assured them all he had everything well in hand, the large troupe set off on horseback, cart and foot. Along with Josephine and the two Irishmen and Josephine's three cousins, the cousins' wives and children and several servants, including the Queen's own, and men at arms came along, a total of two dozen people. The track was old but passable as it wound through the forest, ever rising in elevation, until after the long day's journey, the track became to narrow for the carts. At that point the carts were left in a clearing set up for them and all, including the small children continued either a-horse or afoot.
As the spring evening light began to fade, the party finally arrived at the camp. Its remoteness made it unknown and hard to run across, but it was neither small nor primitive. Ruallauh's own wife and children came out of a log house to greet him, pleased and surprised to see him home early. His wife, Mairead, apologized to Josephine for not coming down to Keito Uxello to meet her, but the Queen saw she had a tiny infant and assured her there was no need. They embraced and introductions were made of the children and the two minstrels.
Before settling in for the night, Josephine walked about in the night air, only the faintest light coming through the thick forest from the sun setting just over the mountaintop to the west. She went to the edge of the lake, long and narrow, and sat on a rock. Before she knew it, Ruallauh was crouching beside her.
"Is it as you remember, my lady?" he asked, smiling with his own memories of growing up with his towheaded and scabby kneed little cousin.
She breathed in the mountain air and nodded. "Much is the same and much brings lost memories to mind. I do miss Affynshire. I wish 'twas not such a journey so I could see you all more often than once every five years."
He did not reply but just stayed by her as they heard night birds join the frogs and wind singing to them in the peace of the mountain.
May Eve, Bealtana and the day after
Near the camp at Ingbirchworth the mountain rose to a rounded meadow with few trees. The night of May Eve found the company gathered, chill as it was, to be the first to see the sun rise to the east in the dawn. Josephine found herself wakeful , looking as she was in the direction of Lawrencium, where no doubt her love slept peacefully, dreaming of her. She sat on the fur that Ruallauh had placed on the ground for her, her knees drawn up to her chin, her arms wrapped around her legs for balance and for warmth. She felt more than heard Rory come up beside her. "Sit with me, my friend," the Queen invited. She felt his body's warmth as he lowered his long limbs to sit by her side. "Nay, share the fur," she said, moving over to make room. She could smell his body, always strangely like deep woodland. He placed himself next to her, leaving the barest gap, afraid for their bodies to touch.
"'Tis goin' on dawn, I am thinkin'," he said quietly. "Can ye see the faint hint of light just o'er the hills?"
She rested her chin on her knees, listening to the slow breathing and occasional snores of the children who had tried in vain to stay up for the morning light. "Aye, though that means 'tis already Bealtana in Lawrencium. If 'were flat between us, we should have seen the morn ere this." She continued to gaze.
"D'ye think the King wakes for this dawn?" Rory inquired.
"Nay," she sighed. "'Tis not his way. He does not set his mind upon such traditions. Much as my brother does not. He might seek to greet the dawn to please me. Or he might greet it on the morning of a battle. Otherwise, my lord sleeps now." She sighed again.
"Ye miss him," Rory said.
Josephine glanced at him. "Aye, of course, and our babies as well. But it shall be but a short while now."
He made no reply. He sat, his own legs pulled up now, just as hers were.
"I will be glad when the sun is well and truly up.. it is cold!" The Queen shivered.
Rory looked over at her concerned. "Lady, may I offer ye me cloak?"
Josephine accepted it, feeling the warmth he had infused it with now warming her own shoulders and back.
Many of the adults who had managed to greet the dawn slept in the warmth of the midmorning sun while servants set up the festivities and watched as the children played games on the mountain meadow. Shannon remained with them, as engaged in their play as they were. Rory dozed but mostly watched where the Queen slept some distance from him, lying on her fur and still covered with his cloak. It would smell like her now, he thought with a smile. She was lying on her side, her cheek cradled on her crooked arm. Her face was relaxed and peaceful. Her lips curved slightly in a dreaming smile. Her shoulder rose and fell as she breathed. Rory felt his love for her buzz inside him, and he could not help but let a quiet chuckle of pure joy escape his lips.
During the feast laid out by the servants the Queen sat at the trestle table surrounded by her cousins and their wives. She was bright and happy, enjoying the lighthearted conversation and teasing. She glanced about from time to time to recall other Bealtanas and Lammastide feasts she had passed in the company of these beloved people. She met Rory's eyes from time to time, returning his warm and affectionate smile.
Next to him Shannon sat with one of the servant women he had coaxed into sharing his trencher. The woman, with her big dark eyes and hair covered with a simple kerchief, looked bemused by his attention and cast nervous glances at Mairead, her mistress. It seemed that Mairead was choosing not to notice.
A maypole set in the middle of the mountain meadow cast its long thin shadow on the ground as the afternoon grew warmer still. Long ribbons tied to the top and crowned by spring flowers in a garland curled and drifted about in the breeze. Shannon obliged the company with a song and by playing his lute as the children and some adults danced around it, weaving the sheath the ribbons made. Rory had backed away, shaking his head, when he had been invited by Mairead to be a dancer. Josephine had joined the dance and he did not want to find himself facing her when the music stopped and the chaste kisses exchanged.
Shannon watched Rory carefully as the light started to dim. "That be more mead than ye usually partake of, boyo."
Rory had been drinking more than he habitually would, enjoying the simple peace and camaraderie of the servants to whose fire he had wandered. He reassured Shannon with a merry smile. "And I see ye may take that step ye spoke of early today, Shan."
Shannon colored, though it was dim enough now to hide this. "Aye, I have thought about it and I am through with her. She may want her bed cold and lonely, but do I not." He cast down his eyes. "D'ye condemn me, me friend?"
Rory put an arm around the shorter man's shoulders. "Nay, darlin'. I do not. Ye kept your pledge admirably, methinks. But now ye deserve happiness and pleasure."
Shannon gave his friend a grateful smile. "And ye, Rory? Do ye not deserve it as well?"
Rory now cast his eyes down. "I have me love.. that is all I want."
Shannon shrugged and drifted off to find the servant woman.
Rory's vision was swimming as the two bonfires were lit and the few cattle from the byre at the mountain camp were fetched for the blessing. He shook his head. He was starting to sober now in the chill night air. He looked around the two fires to see the Queen's cousins holding their wives to their sides, their arms around the women's waists. Servants had paired up too, from the stout cook and her husband to the younger unmarried lads and lasses. He noticed Shannon with his arms around the servant woman, his face almost touching hers, his lips moving in sweet words or perhaps a song.
He was deep in reverie looking at the growing flames. When a sound beside him caused him to look up, he saw the Queen standing by him, her arms wrapped around her again. She did not look cold.. just content and smiling. Her eyes twinkled as she glanced over at him. Or was that just the firelight reflecting in her blue eyes? He returned her smile.
The cattle were led between the fires for the blessing, the light and warmth making them seem otherworldly as it reflected off their flanks, the party joined their voices in song. The mood rose to a merry pitch, then with the more reverent and soulful songs of the season, mellowed again. Now Rory noted the Queen shivering. He reached to her without inhibition and put his arm around her shoulder. She smiled her thanks, accepting the innocent gesture of friendship.
Rory saw Shannon start to stroll off with the blushing servant. He saw Ruallauh take his wife in his arms and kiss her. The other cousins in turn embraced their own wives. Other less distinct figures either joined or went off arm in arm. On an impulse he could never later explain, Rory turned to Josephine. She faced him and smiled up at the tender face of this man who towered over her. Then he leaned down and put his lips on hers.
Her jerk of surprise broke Rory's sense of dreamy unreality. She pulled back, pressing herself away from him with her hands against his chest, not hard. He looked into her face dismayed. "Och, me lady, I am sorry. I forgot meself. I dinnae mean…"
Josephine had turned her face away. "Nay, Rory, I understand, it was the moment. But.. but.. we cannot.." She had been jarred from her habit of ignoring what she knew of his love for her. Life in his presence was so sweet, how could she but keep him by her, overlooking what his feelings meant, for him, for herself. "Oh Rory, I am so sorry.. I should realize.."
She looked back around and up into his face, seeing misery in his expression She was struck speechless by the depth of it. She put her fingertips to her mouth, her eyes round as she saw his pain.
"This is not right, me lady. I beg of ye, let me go now. I.. I.. " He couldn't finish.
A feeling of loss overwhelmed her. "Oh Rory, why can we not go back as if this ne'er happened? Can we not just go back to being dearest of friends?"
To her horror, instead of accepting this gratefully or at least with peace, Rory turned on her a look of agony. His face crumpled and a small cry came from his lips. He turned abruptly and strode away. Josephine knew it was too dark to follow him.
She stood staring in the direction he had gone until Mairead approached her with Ruallauh. "My lady? Are you well?"
Josephine looked at her cousin. "Of course I am. I am just tired. This has been such a wonderful Bealtana. But now I think I want to go to bed and sleep so I can get up and prepare for our return to Keito Uxello and thence my own return to my home."
As they led her away down the slope to the camp she thought she heard Rory's and Shannon's voices raised in an argument. Rory was urging, Shannon pleading.
In the morning feeling refreshed she found her cousins Ioruert and Cingen at their morning ale. She looked around. "Are Rory and Shannon not risen yet?"
Cingen glanced at his brother. He told her, "They left, sometime last night."
"Without saying goodbye?"
Ioruert said, "So it seems. I should have liked to thank them for all they have done for our father."
Josephine nodded absently. She walked away from the table. She looked at the group of playing children in the dooryard and thought to herself, "I should have liked to say goodbye.. "On to Part 3
The days after Beltane, 769
"Stop! We are not savages," Elerde commanded his lieutenant as the man leaned in close to the old man's face threateningly. "This man is an earl and deserves more respect."
Lagu stepped away from the old man, who sat before him in a chair, clearly in distress. "My lord, I beg pardon." The apology was meant for the Breton warrior, not Earl Ceretic.
Elerde pulled over a chair next to the old man. "My lord, forgive my men. They are much among Malcolm's wild warriors of late. They are losing their sense of courtesy." He eyed Lagu. "Leave us." Lagu put his fist to his chest, a gesture of respect and left the two men alone.
"You are ill, lord?" Elerde asked the man.
Ceretic would not reply but only glared into the younger man's eyes. In truth his breath was short, his chest felt tight. He knew what gain he had made due to the healing effects of the Irishmen's music and cheer were draining away. His heart would take little more of this.
Elerde considered the old man, his beloved Josephine's uncle. He shouted for a servant. "Fetch the man's wife.. and our chirurgeon."
To Ceretic he said, "You are ill. I can see it. That is why the Queen came to see you here."
Ceretic knew it was not a question.
"All I need to know is where she and the others are," he tried to calm the rapidly breathing man. He added, "They are in danger. Malcolm's men will not be spare in their treatment."
The old man finally spoke, his voice labored. "And you, sirrah. I suppose you will deal honorably with them. You will not take the Queen and hold her for ransom."
The Breton cast his eyes down, but he betrayed no emotion. "She has not said anything then.." he began quietly, almost to himself, , then stopped. He stood and went to the small narrow window and looked out, The land around the fortress was cleared for an arrow's flight's length and more. As he had ridden in at dawn on the second day after the feast of Beltane with his force of men, he had felt a certain nostalgia. The fortress, made entirely of wood and just a few field stones, both in its size and shape and in the signs of decline of a great house reminded him of his father's fortress in a Breton woods. Before his father's death and the loss of their family lands and prestige, that fortress had started to fall to pieces, repairs to the palisades going undone, stones pulled from the few rock walls to be used for cattle pens, the encroaching forest. Ceretic and his family may be related to the Queen of Christenlande, but they were no longer part of the ruling people of this land. The Saxons were all now. He suspected only the family's pride kept the earl from applying to the Saxon King for help. How like Josephine to respect that and not use her influence over her brute of a husband to help them.
The chirurgeon came in with the earl's wife. She rushed to her husband's side and although elderly herself, fell on her knees beside him. He tried to smile down into her eyes and mouth that he was well. A glance told Elerde that she knew better.
The chirurgeon went to Ceretic and examined him, feeling his pulse, observing his color, pulling down his lower eyelids to look at the whites of his eyes. He simply stated, "The man's heart is not well. I am an army chirurgeon. I do not deal with ailments of the old. I cannot help him."
Modron shot at Elerde, "The only thing that shall help him is your departure, sirrah!" Ceretic put a weak hand on his wife's arm.
Elerde leveled his heavy-lidded eyes on her. "Lady, I can assure you, I shall not be leaving. You are my guests now. But you and your family will come to no harm. It is not my intent to treat you ill. I have nothing but respect for you. I can promise all courtesy and generosity.. so long as you do not oppose me."
A groan issued from the earl, causing his wife to cry out softly in fear. She reached for his chest. The man's eyes were shut tight as a wave of pain crossed his face. It ebbed and he relaxed, but when he opened his eyes again they were haggard.
Elerde commanded, "Get this man into his bed and fetch whatever he needs. Let the woman go with him. " He was thinking, "I shall not wish the second thing my lady hears of me to be that I have caused the death of her uncle." He knew the first, his taking of her family's fortress and lands, would be hard enough for her to accept… or forgive.
As the old man was carried cautiously out of the room, Elerde put a hand on Modron's arm to restrain her. "My lady, your sons and your niece will fare better in my custody than if they remain prey to the others involved in this war. I will protect them."
Modron jerked her arm away from him and her defiant eyes burned into him. He looked away, seemingly unmoved. She left.
Elerde sighed and called for Lagu. "Start a search.. I would say up the mountain. Take any you find alive if you possibly can."
Rory and Shannon had left the mountain meadow and the presence of the Queen and her people near midnight on Beltane. Rory had found Shannon just a short way into the woods being led further within by the hand of the lovely serving woman he had been wooing. He laughed at Rory's interruption. "Your timin' leaves much to be desired, boyo."
"Shannon, leave off. We are going." Rory's voice was unusually tight and urgent.
Shannon stared at him open mouthed. "Leave off? Now? Ye are jestin'.. "
His voice raised, Rory snapped "Ye have waited this long, ye can wait longer.. we are going. Now."
Shannon dropped the woman's hand. She was staring wide eyed at the men. He glanced at her, and with a crooked smile and his voice regretful, Shannon said to her, "Go back to the others, Linia. I be that sorry." She was a serving woman and she followed commands. She dashed away. Shannon glared at Rory. "What has gotten into ye, man?"
"Nothin'. We are leavin'. Or I go without ye."
"In the middle of the night? In the middle of the forest? On a mountain? Are ye mad? I wanted to get away, but ye held me back. Now ye wish to tumble down the mountainside and get our necks broken. Why?" His own voice was rising in pitch and volume.
Rory snatched Shannon's cloak where it had dropped off the woman's shoulders as she left and thrust it at him. "Can ye shut your mouth and do as I ask for a change?"
Shannon was shocked at the anger in his pacific friend's voice and demeanor. It reminded him of a day long past when Rory had lashed out at Master Ishaq and had later come to Shannon in the inn and taken his things and left. He had not seen Rory for many years after that. He took the cloak and threw it around his shoulders. "All right… we will be after goin' then. What about the Queen?"
Rory turned away. They had hurried to the camp and retrieved their few belongings and gone swiftly away down the mountain.
Now they were at the edge of a great Roman road. Rory had allowed them to stop near the edge of the huge forest to rest. Then they had walked all day until they had come to a farmhouse where they were given happy hospitality in exchange for the songs and stories they could tell.
The two had spoken little on the journey, but after a slip and fall into a cold spring, Shannon's temper had flared. He had cursed Rory.
The taller man had shot back at him, "Och, is it not the same as ever.. get into the way of the O'Neill's pleasure, then look to yourself."
Shannon had been standing by the stream dripping and fuming. "Rory, I am wet and I am cold."
"Is that why your balls are blue? I thought 'twas for some other reason.." Rory responded nastily.
Shannon stared shocked. "I have ne'er heard ye speak like that, man. What ails ye?" He was shifting from angry to concerned.
"Nothin' be wrong with me. Ye are but angry with me for savin' the maidenhood of that girl."
Shannon, though shivering, crossed his arms across his chest and would not take his eyes from Rory's averted face. "Maidenhood? Some other won that prize, not I. Ye know I dinnae seduce the unwillin'.. wait a moment, what happened? Did somethin' happen with the Queen?"
"Och, that is it. What did ye do, darlin'?" Shannon came up to his friend and put a hand on his shoulder.
Rory said through clenched teeth, "I kissed her." His voice was full of self reproach and pain.
Shannon breathed out audibly. "Och, God help ye. Was the lady that angry with ye?"
Rory shot him a look. "She wanted to forget it e'er happened and go on as we were. Friends." His tone was bitter.
Shannon's eyes filled with love and sympathy for his friend. "Ruairín," he said, using the Irish form of his friend's name in its affectionate form. He put his arms around the tall man and held him.
That night as they prepared to sleep in the shed at the farmhouse Rory was looking worried. "I dinnae like what I was hearin', lad."
"About the soldiers that moved through here yesternight?"
Shannon reassured, "The farmer seemed not at all concerned. Soldiers must move along these roads betimes."
Rory looked at his friend. "But he said they were not following a banner he knew.
"'Tis a crossroads, this land, so will it oft be crossed by the house carls of many a lord." Shannon was stretched out now on the straw, his lute beside him, his cloak over his shoulders.
Rory said nothing.
In the morning, the second day on the road, the Irishman continued south to cross eventually into Mercia. Rory was uneasy, but he thought it was because they would be crossing the place where the road from Ratherwood went into the woods to Keito Uxello.
That same morning, coming down into the lower elevation, having fetched the carts where the path widened, the Keito Uxello party moved along subdued. Ruallauh had remained behind with his family down the mountain from where they had celebrated the feast day. The minstrels no longer accompanied them. Servants walked along or rode in the cart, speaking softly to one another. Their masters, the earl's two younger sons, rode with their cousin at the fore.
Cingen reached his hand to cover Josephine's. "Lady, are you not looking forward to your return home?"
The Queen had been thinking about the abrupt parting with Rory two nights before. It disturbed her that he had been so upset by the kiss and her reaction that he had simply walked away. It was so unlike him. She knew she must bear the blame. She knew it had been her selfish disregard for the depth of his feelings for her that had led to this. She had found it so easy, for he had made it easy, to keep him by her as a strong, quiet, poetic and spiritual presence. She knew she had taken advantage of his honor and devotion and ignored what she must know pained him so. What a sweet odd man, she was thinking. Then she thought, "God forgive me, and give Rory peace. Let him forget his love for me.. " But she knew she still wanted it. "God grant me strength."
She was grateful at her cousin's interruption of her troubled thoughts. "I am but thinking of how sad I shall be to leave you all, my dear cousin." She made an effort to smile sweetly. "But I go with the knowledge mine uncle is recovering and you are all well and happy."
"The King shall rejoice at your homecoming.. and will your little ones," he comforted. "And we shall see you again ere long, my lady." He looked up to say "Will we not?" to his brother, Ioruert. But his younger brother was lifting himself in his stirrups and looking hard along the road before him.
Josephine saw too and asked, "Ioruert, what is it?"
Ioruert turned and gestured for the party to leave the carts, and move into the trees to hide. "Some is coming along at a quick pace. Better to see who it is ere they come to us."
Cingen did not wish to leave the carts, but he trusted his brother's judgment. He took the Queen's horse's bridle and looking back to make sure the servants were making haste, led her into the woods. Ioruert had motioned the men at arms to come with him on the other side of the path.
The Queen's company waited as quietly as they could, out of sight of the path. Then they heard a shout and the sound of horses and men's voices. They heard Ioruert's voice calling, "Cingen, make haste!"
They came back to the road to find the servant Clotuyali sitting on the path, breathing and sweating heavily as Ioruert gave him to drink from his own wineskin.
"What has happened?" Josephine called in fear.
Clotuyali was drinking noisily, trying to catch his breath. They waited. Then he cast his eyes on the Queen. He stammered out, "S-soldiers.. many soldiers. They came early this morning and took the fortress. I got away. I have run all the way here." He clutched his chest and groaned.
"Are you wounded?" Ioruert asked urgently, starting to search the man's jerkin, damp with sweat.
"Nay, nay , sir, I am not.. they did not see me. I am but overwrought." He took another noisy gulp of the water. "Thank you, young sir, you are ever good to me."
Cingen asked, "Who was it? Did you see a standard?"
"Nay, sir, I did not. I did not want to leave your dear mother and father, but I knew they would want you warned. So I lost no time. I ran…"
Josephine had dismounted and was at the retainer's side, kneeling next to him and taking her veil from her hair. She dabbed at his temple, his cheeks. He tried to push the cloth away, "MY lady, your veil," but she would not stop.
Ioruert and Cingen looked at each other. The younger man said, "We must find a place to hide the horses and carts. Then I and my men shall go to see what we can find out."
Cingen asserted, "I shall come with you."
Josephine stood. "And I!" The seaxa Ioruert had given her was at her belt and she put her hand to its hilt.
"Nay, cousin," Ioruert replied. We know these woods. We know each other as well. 'Twould be safer if we go ahead. You will stay here with the servants. I shall leave a guard with you."
Josephine started to protest but she knew he was right.. she would just slow them down and put them more at risk. Resignedly she nodded. "But you must take all the armed men.. the blackguard who has taken mine uncle's fortress has soldiers. No one shall know we are here. We shall be all right."
Ioruert looked uneasy, but at last he nodded. "Let us secret the horses and wagons in the woods. Then we shall go and come back when we have discovered what passes."
Cingen suggested, "Should we not send them all back to Ingbirchworth?"
Ioruert shook his head. "Nay, it will be more risk to be upon the road. We shall not be long. They are safer here."
The servants started to look about, then followed Cingen, who knew the woods better than anyone, as he spotted a track and led them and their beasts and carts into the woods.
Josephine followed with Clotuyali in one of the carts. She found herself longing for Rory's comfort and reassurance. But she had made him go away.
Next: The Fall of Ratherwood
Before there was the novel, there were the stories...
Monday, October 5, 2009
New Stories: A Mountain Beltane (Happened)
Last days of April 769