I think it was about the time of the writing of this story that I connected with a great resource, Jack Graham and his Medieval History Club at the school where he teaches geometry, E. B. King High School in Sasebo, Japan. Jack and his students were the first to throw names like King Lawrence and Horsa about, besides Laura, me and my husband Jim of course. They helped me strategize the battles, clearly started me thinking in terms of companions, not knights, and timber palisades, not castles. I owe Jack and his classes of 2006 and 2007 a debt of gratitude for their guidance and enthusiasm.
Late May 769
Outside the western walls of Lincoln a multitude of soldiers and the many followers a camp required gathered to prepare to enter the province of Affynshire. The boisterousness of the professional soldiers contrasted narrowly with the frenetic energy of the men called from farms and shops to fight, led by their lords. The crops were in and the festive nature of a large camp kept the fyrd's minds off the likelihood that a great many of the men would never see their families again.
In sharper contrast to them both was the face of the King. He seemed to have developed new lines in his forehead in just the past weeks. Much weighed on his mind. There was anger over the insult of the takeover of the province by men claiming to champion the Britons over the Saxons. There was fear over the whereabouts and safety of his beloved Queen, as far as he knew held captive by the usurpers. There was deep regret over the waste a war would be to lives and property, the more regrettable since the land and villages that must suffer were part of his wife's heritage. Lawrence felt trapped by circumstances and challenged by oftimes conflicting interests.
He wished the tales of heroes he had heard all his life were true. He wished he could simply ride into Affynshire, locate his wife and do single combat for her. Every night for a fortnight or so he had had that very dream, and in every dream he saw the face of the man he fought revealed when he removed his helm: Elerde. Was it true? Was Elerde part of this? Was he perhaps even at its heart? The King's jaw ached from grinding his teeth absently in his worry.
He remembered the morning after he had received the messenger and met with the war council to discuss what to do with the news that Affynshire had been taken by a band of conspirators. He had been unable to sleep, but finally had had his page help him wash and change into fresh clothes. He sent a servant to make his children ready. Then he went through the door to the privy staircase. He passed into his wife's chamber, just along a corridor from the nursery, and stood, waiting for the children to be brought to him.
Lawrence stood almost frozen in the room. He looked at Josephine's things, the dressing table with its burnished bronze mirror, the chests with the robes she had not taken with her to Keito Uxello, the chest with her jewelry. The bed.. the bed with its soft furs and counterpane, the curtains pulled back, the bed not slept in for weeks. While she was gone, Lawrence had fought a presentiment of doom, counseling himself that he was simply not giving her the credit she insisted she deserved for looking to her own welfare. Now he knew it had been more. He had thought he had seen a look in her backward glance that revealed she too had misgivings. Now he knew it was true.
The door opened and the nursemaids brought the four children. The three youngest were not likely to understand much of what he had to tell them, but he hoped Peter would understand some of it. Mostly he wanted them to be all together, for his own sake, to have these little faces he shared his wife's love of before him. He stood and opened his arms to the boys, while the nurses holding the girls brought them forward. Peter and Tavish ran to him. Lawrence caught Tavish's excited look around, and he instantly regretted choosing this chamber for the meeting. The children thought their mother was back. This made his news that much more poignant and painful.
"Mama?" Peter asked.
Lawrence took the boys' hands. He told the nurses, "Bring Caithness and Elaine over to the bed. We will sit there. Thank you.. now please leave us alone."
He sat on the bed, his legs drawn up with the girls in his lap and the boys on either side of him. He looked at them for a few moments. Peter was still looking around, but Tavish had sensed his adopted father's sorrow. Lawrence saw the face under the brown curls start to screw up in anticipation of tears. He put an arm around the boy and pressed him close.
"Mama is still away. She will not be coming home soon. She has to stay away for a while more."
Peter's face shot to his father's. "Mama?"
Lawrence looked down, then at his older son. "Some men have seized the castle at Ratherwood. Your mother was still at Keito Uxello when it happened. The men who took the castle will not let her come home. I know you don't know what I am saying. I just don't know how to make you understand. Maybe.. maybe I don't really want you to."
Peter stared at his father uncomprehending. Tavish now wept "Mama, Mama!. The girls looked from one brother to the other. Elaine started to cry as well.
Lawrence went on, knowing the children, even Peter would understand little of what he was telling him. "I will be leaving you too for a while. I do not know how long. I will go there and do everything I can to get Mama and bring her back to you." He looked into the little boy's eyes earnestly.
Peter looked around the room. He looked back worriedly at his father. "Papa?"
"Aye, far away. I have to go look for Mama. I will do everything I can to come home to you. But you know I cannot promise that."
Looking at the four children he knew his reassurances were for his own sake. Peter was looking at Tavish and Elaine now, his own lip quivering.
"Be brave for your brother and sisters, Peter."
Peter looked at his father and nodded vaguely. But courage was the last thing his face revealed as he put his arms around his father and buried his face in his chest. Lawrence's own lip quivered now. He reached his long arms around them and pulled them all to him tightly.
Now as he waited for the last grouping of the fyrd from Skirbeck to arrive, he wondered if he would ever see them again. He knew the Queen's brother, Lorin, would see to their welfare.. if he could stand up against the constant threat from Offa of Mercia. "Damn Malcolm," he cursed. He would simply have to see to it that either he or his wife survived.
His thoughts so distracted the King that he did not hear the commotion out in the camp outside his tent.
The tent flap was pushed aside and Edred, the King's aide de camp entered. "My liege, there is a man outside asking to be admitted to see you."
Lawrence looked up irritably. "Man? What Man?"
" He is a bard. He says his name is O'Neill."
The King was on his feet in an instant. "Shannon O'Neill?"
"Aye, my lord."
"Where is he? Bring him to me immediately!"
Surprised, Edred backed out hurrying and was back in moments with a man with an unruly mop of red curls. "My lord!" the gaudily dressed man said breathlessly.
"Shannon, how are you here? Where is Rory? Why are you not with the Queen?" Seeing how ragged and tired Shannon was, the King commanded ale be brought for his visitor, and he bade the man sit down on his own camp bed. The Irishman sat and put his head down between his knees trying to collect himself.
Sending his aide to summon the commanders to his tent, Lawrence pulled up a camp stool and sat, his hands clasped before him as he leaned close to Shannon. He waited impatiently for the man to breathe more easily and sit up to answer his questions.
"My lord," the man finally began. "Rory and I were with the Queen at Ingbirchworth on Bealtana."
"Ingbirchworth?" The King looked puzzled.
"The cousin's hunting camp, in the mountains." Shannon saw recognition now in the King's eyes. "We left that night, McGuinness and I. We left her there with her cousins."
Lawrence was taking it all in, including the oddity that Rory and Shannon would take their leave at night. But that puzzle was dwarfed by the many others in his mind. "Is she still there, do you know?"
Shannon shook his head. "Nay, I dinnae ken. I am thinki' they were returnin' to Keito Uxello in the next day or two. If that is right, she would be back in her uncle's fortress when the soldiers came."
"Came where? Which men? Out with it, man!" Lawrence's patience was dangerously thin.
Shannon looked up at the King and frowned. "I am after doin' the best I can, my lord. I dinnae ken what has happened to her. I can only tell ye what I saw for meself."
Lawrence glowered. "Then tell me that."
The tent flap opened again and Edred returned with the army's main commanders. "Bring them in, Edred. They should hear what the man has to tell. He was in Affynshire when it all began. Horsa?" Lawrence stood, turned his back on Shannon, and let the high commander, Horsa, take over the questioning.
"Tell us what you know, lad. Where were you when it all started." The older man took the King's camp stool in order to look into Shannon's face.
"Me friend, Rory, and I were seein' armed men about on the roads as we went south from the mountains on the Roman road. We dinnae think much of it. But two days since Bealtana we stayed at a farm where we learned of the takin' of Ratherwood Castle. We decided to part in the morn. I was to find me way to Lawrencium, and Rory to stay and see what he could learn of the Queen's whereabouts. It took me that long to find me way to the bridge. I had to stop on the far side of the river to sing for the soldiers ere they would let me come across the bridge. E'en then I had to act as much the fool as I might so they wouldnae suspect I brought news. "
Horsa nodded. "I am certain you did your best to get to us safely. Good lad. Now what can you tell us of the army over there?"
Shannon thought. "The armies we saw on the road or the ones on the bridge?"
Lawrence spun, snapping, "Both. Either. Are you trying to drive us mad?" He looked at Horsa's patient face, then turned away to stare at the ground again.
Horsa said calmly, "Tell us everything you saw. Start at the beginning."
Shannon went on with a nervous glance at Lawrence. He explained that they had not recognized the standards carried by the army on the road, though Rory had thought one of them had a British rather than a Saxon symbol. Shannon could not remember it. He glanced again at the King who had sighed and slumped his shoulders at this.
"Go on, lad. It will all come to you in good time," the older man encouraged. He tried to communicate with his eyes and face that Shannon should not worry about the King's reactions. Shannon returned the hints with a dubious look.
"It was then that Rory and I were headin' in different directions.." He saw Lawrence start to turn and anticipated the question. "Rory planned to head for Keito Uxello to see if that place was occupied. I tried to head east without goin' through Ratherwood. I saw plenty of soldiers in the towns and on the road. Sure and a real rag tag lot."
"What do you mean?" the general asked.
"Och, well, there were plenty of them speakin' the same Celtic tongue they speak in lawrencium. But there were that many others, some Scots, some Flemish, even a few Norsemen. And others I dinnae recognize."
Horsa turned to the others, as did Lawrence. "Mercenaries," the old man said.
Lawrence asked Shannon, calmer now, "Any English?"
Shannon nodded. "Aye, and I did recognize one of their devices, a wolf's head banner.. Mercians, an earl from the north, I am thinkin', named Godmund."
Lawrence groaned, "Mercians. I am not surprised." He looked back at Shannon and asked, trying to keep his face and voice neutral, "Any Bretons?"
"Nay, not as I saw, me lord."
"Go on with your story, lad. What of the soldiers in the town west of the bridge?"
"Cromwell," one of the other commanders supplied.
"I thought to cross the bridge at night, but 'tis well watched. Bein' a bard and actin' a drunken fool, I was able to gain the indulgence of the soldiers once challenged. But they wouldnae let me cross lest I gave them some entertainment. They held me for a day, then let me go on with me travels with no more than threats to deprive me of me balls if I came back."
"Tell us about the soldiers and the camp there."
"These were all Malcolm's men, or so they told me. They dinnae let me see much of the camp. Mostly I was in the tavern in the village. Sure and they are well aware ye are all encamped here.. and they know ye know the village is guarded. They were that anxious to keep me drunk and ill informed knowin' I should be a source of information for ye whether I wanted it or not."
Lawrence sighed and turned back to Horsa and Shannon. "We shall see soon enough what their forces are when they meet us at the bridge. It is almost a certainty that we outnumber them, at least the force in Cromwell. They shall defend the crossing. " He asked Shannon, "Did you see any other encampments or hear of any between the river and Ratherwood?"
Shannon replied, "I did see a camp near Retford. And of course I heard the greatest part of the army is in Ratherwood. But there may be forces in the south as well. Sure and both great houses in the north are taken."
Lawrence nodded. "Aye. We know of that." He looked at Shannon. "I thank you, friend. I am sorry to hear you and Rory were not with my lady when the attack occurred, but who was to know what would chance? How was she, when you saw her last?"
Shannon smiled. "She was happy and well, me lord. Her uncle is much the better for her sweet company. Her cousins are fine men... and she was lookin' forward to going home." With this last he gave Lawrence a look of sympathy. "And might I just, beggin' your leave, sire, ask.. how is Heather?" And me lad?"
Lawrence looked sad. "She left Lawrencium the same day as you, Shannon. For the north. I am sorry."
The two men exchanged looks of understanding.
The King said, "Go with Edred. He will find you a billet. I must ask you to stay with the army. And the rest of you, please stay so we might discuss strategy now that we know more. Jehan, I have a thought.."
Shannon heard no more as Horsa thanked him and Edred led him out to get food and a place to rest.
Next: The Battle Begins
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