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

Monday, October 19, 2009

New Stories: Preparing for a Siege (Happened)

Sieges were virtually unheard of in Anglo Saxon England. Warriors in this culture believed that battle should take place in the open, under the eyes of the gods. Why do you think malcolm chooses to hole up in Ratherwood and force the king to camp outside? What advantage does it give him, and what disadavantage does it create for the Crísliclandian forces?

Late July 769

King Lawrence led his armies, riding slowly up to the much altered setting of the fortress of Ratherwood. His eyes were filled with wonder as he beheld the vast changes in a scene he had known well enough from earlier visits, one little more than a year prior to arriving with his commanders, their captains and the hundreds of soldiers and hangers-on behind him. The scouts and advance parties had warned him, reporting the puzzling fortifications they saw, but nothing could have prepared him.

In the late 8th century in England there were basically two types of battles - field and hall assaults. Even after Christianization the battles the Pagan warriors fought in the field under the eyes and wagering of their gods most battles were engaged where two armies met, face to face, shield to shield. Less common were assaults on halls or other buildings, launched in the night to surprise warriors sleeping on the floor of the mead hall or fortress. What passed for a siege, if any such battle strategy existed, was a direct onslaught on gates and doors. Saxon fortresses were at best stockades with earthwork defenses supplementing the vertical timber walls. Only crumbling masonry walls around old Roman towns bore any resemblance to a real defense, and it would take Alfred of Wessex to adopt this form against the Danes.. almost one hundred years hence.

It was with fascination and perplexity then that Lawrence and his commanders reined in their mounts and sat and stared at the engineering before them. Whereas just months before Ratherwood had been only a marginally better fortified stockade than most with a single earthwork ringing it save where the river protected its palisades, now that ring had been added to and a second created to match it on the outside.

"What is Malcolm up to here?" Lawrence asked, more to himself than to any listening about him.

Horsa moved up beside him and shook his head. "It looks as if he plans to stay put in the fortress.

Lawrence nodded absently. "Aye, but why?"

Along the Roman road they traversed there were still a few cottages here and there, but they were either deserted or the residents were simply out of sight. As the Crísliclandian armies road forward into what had been the location of the cluster of cottages that formed a tiny village outside the fortress walls they discovered that most of it had been razed to put up one section of the second massive earthwork. Only a few small cottages remained outside this second ring. What materials had been part of those other cottages, byres, pens and other structures were now part and parcel of that ring. Even parts of the few standing buildings had been pulled off and added to make the ring strong and high enough for its purpose.

The King had motioned to his commanders to deploy their house warriors and fyrd to scout their own camps, and the many captains were slowly dispersing men to find appropriate land to set up tents and campfires. He and the commanders themselves rode to the center of what had been the village and dismounted, looking about at the eerie sight. Shannon O'Neill, who had been riding pinion with Percy, rubbed his buttocks from the unaccustomed time spent on a horse, his reward for informing the King of what he knew of the takeover and the disposition of the Queen. He looked at the commanders' faces rather than the scene they themselves surveyed for they told a tale he could understand better than his unschooled eyes would tell of the constructions around them. They were little more enlightened than he, he judged.

The few villagers who appeared moved so slowly and gingerly that they were almost undetectable, peering out from behind window frames and doors. One older woman came directly out of a small hut facing the outer earthwork ring and addressed the King. "Sire, King Lawrence, may I have a word with thee?"

Lawrence turned immediately to look down into pale gray eyes in a weathered face, the simplest homespun clothing, and a firm jaw. "Aye, Mother, you may.. What would you of me?"

The woman dipped a knee in respect. "Sire, I stood before this very cottage the morn thee rode into the fortress to be betrothed to the princess. Thee were a bonny boy then, more drawn by the ceremony and the fortress than any thought of the sweet one who would be thy bride."

Lawrence laughed and smiled warmly. "That truly was some years ago, more in spirit than time, Mother. And now here I am to fetch her again."

"God grant thee success, lord."

"What is your name Mother, and what do you here?" Lawrence continued.

"I am called Ethelberga. That is my cottage there. My men were in the fortress when Malcolm came and murdered them all. My man, my son. All I have left now is my daughter, and she and her man have fled with the rest." As sorrowful as the tale was Ethelberga's face was a picture of defiance rather than grief.

Lawrence gaze nevertheless with sympathy. "Mother, I am here to punish Malcolm for that deed and others."

"And may thee succeed there also. And sire, may I give thee my cottage for a command post? And mine own self as a servant?" She did not take her eyes from the King's.

Lawrence gestured to Edred, his aide, to come forward. "Edred, look at the cottage and see if it will serve. I should like to accept this goodwife's offer." To her he said, "You will be paid.."

"I want no pay but to see Malcolm and his villains fall, sire." Anger now flashed in the aged woman's eyes.

Lawrence nodded solemnly. "To that end I swear my all."

"It is most suitable, my liege," reported Edred as he returned. It is larger than it looks from outside."

Ethelberga smiled with pride. "We were able to make a screening wall to give our children their own place to sleep. With its own peat fire."

Looking around, Lawrence asked her, "I seem to recall that most of the cottages along the road were on that side.."

The old woman nodded. "My daughter's and her man's was just there." She pointed to a spot where there was only earthwork. "The soldiers came out and worked day and night, knocking down the buildings and building up the earth." She looked at him frankly. "What is it for?"

Shannon stepped closer, wanting to hear the answer himself.

Lawrence stood next to the old woman and gazed out over the changed landscape. "The earthworks make it so that when our men cross them they are easy targets for archers. That there are two rings now means the archers have two chances to pick us off. And the outer ring puts our own archers out of bowshot. We can't even fire flaming arrows at the timber stockade. We cannot get to them." His face showed grudging admiration. The timbers and stones mixed in the surface shall make any mass assault more difficult yet. And with or without them, we simply cannot get in."

Horsa had come up to join the quartet. "But that means he cannot get out either." He looked at the woman. "Did you see Malcolm's army bringing in supplies?"

The woman responded quickly. "Oh, aye, day after day. I wondered if there be room for it all. Carts and carts of corn. Whole herds of beasts."

Lawrence inserted, "Do you know the fortress well? Could you tell us how it is laid out? I was there many months ago, but I did not pay much attention, more's the pity."

The woman shook her head. "Nay, I am not that familiar. But there is a man here who was only spared the massacre because he had broken his leg in a fall and was not able to work. He would know the fortress inside and out."

Lawrence put a gloved hand on her shoulder and squeezed. "I thank you, goodwife. Can you take my commander here, Horsa, to this man? You have helped us immeasurably."

Ethelberga nodded sharply. "I shall do for thee whate'er is needed to free us of these evil men. God bless thee, King."

"And God bless you, Mother." To Horsa the King said, "Find out as much as you can from her and the others about all the movements from the day of the takeover.. nay, ere that as well."

Later in the larger room of the little hut that was now the King's billet and the command center, Lawrence and his commanders stood around what had been Ethelberga's family's table with a large piece of vellum stretched out and anchored with stones. Talking to the lame man, Athelweald , and other villagers, they had put together a drawing of the layout of the fortress and the general structure of its defenses. The old woman sat on the beaten earth floor in a corner, grinding grain in a mortar.

Lawrence stretched an arm out over the map and pointed. "There is a well, a good one so they say, so they have plenty of drinkable water besides the river. From what the goodwife and others say the garrison is supplied for many months. The fortress is, as it always was, protected on almost three sides by the River Don. The rest is double ringed with earthworks. Our scouts have confirmed that there is no spot anywhere around here where our archers can get cover to approach within bowshot of the walls. "

Botopher of Skirbeck voiced what all were thinking. "He means to sit here. He means to wait us out. But we are out here, inexhaustibly supplied. Though he may have made provision for a long siege, he must run out some time. What is his game?"

Sagar, the lord of Lincoln, shook his head. "Malcolm is no fool. He has fought in more battles than any one of us, and in many more situations than any of us have. There is some plan."

Horsa nodded. "He wants to keep us pinned out here. He knows we will watch him."

Edred asked, "Are we sure he will not come forth to fight?"

The King put his hands on his hips and sighed. "That's just it. We do not know that. And that is what pins us here. We cannot pull Jehan's men off the road. We need to keep the supply line from Lincoln and the Cromwell bridge clear. We cannot leave too few men here or if he sorties, he may escape, or worse, prevail. We have to get more troops here. That will take time."

Botopher looked up at his liege lord. "Do we know who is in there with Malcolm?"

Horsa answered. "Nay, not for certain. "

The small voice came from the floor. "I know who left, my lords."

They turned to the old woman. Lawrence prompted, "Who? Who, Mother?"

Ethelberga drew her knees up and put bony arms around them as she thought. "I do not know the names, but I can tell thee the devices." She ticked off on the fingers of one hand, "The big red haired man with the drooping moustache, with the red hand banner…"

Edred supplied the names. "O'Donnell. The Red Hand of O'Donnell."

"Then the claw of a bird of prey…"

"Ricbeorht of Flanders.."

"He came out many times and led his raiders towards the bridge at Cromwell, and it was he that engineered the earthworks."

Lawrence looked at his commanders, "He led the raids on the villages and threw all those obstacles in our way."

The woman went on. "I saw a triangle banner once, with snakes, but only coming."

Sagar's eyebrows were raised. "Ormyngel. It means 'worm offspring'. A Swede and a terrible fierce fighter. Still in the fortress?"

Lawrence shook his head. "Mayhap." To the woman he said, "And another symbol. 'Tis called a triskel. A cross of sorts, but three arms, not four."

"Ah, the dark and stormy one. Nay he came less often than the others. But he came and was sent out again next day, to the west."

Lawrence nodded firmly. "The Breton."

There was silence for some time. Then the King spoke. "It shall be hard to stay and watch the fortress, but what choice do we have? Until we can bring reinforcements we must stay and watch." He frowned. "I do not like holding still."

Edred prompted, "Of course we shall send out reconnaissance parties."

Horsa replied, "Of course. And spies to find what the other commanders are up to.. O'Donnell, Elerde, Ricbeorht and Ormyngel, if he is not couched with Malcolm."

Botopher looked carefully at the King. "And the Queen? Do we look for her?"

Lawrence glanced back with a distant look. He thought a while and then said, "Aye. But not in force. We must take great caution. It appears that they do not have her nor do they know where she is.. if our intelligence is to be believed. We must not give her away."

Horsa looked speculatively at the King. "The Irish bard?"

Lawrence nodded slowly. "Aye, if he will do it. And I think he would. His dearest friend is out there somewhere too. Edred, send for O'Neill. I will speak with him."

With a gesture he made certain his commanders knew the meeting was at an end. Each bowed and left.

Ethelberga said in a quiet voice, "Forgive me, sire, but thee will find her."

Lawrence nodded slowly, turned and pulled aside the leather covering for the narrow window. He gazed out at the earthworks and stockade. "God grant it."

Next: Sad News for the Queen's Family

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About the author

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