"The scouts say there is a good-sized company of men coming along the road with at least two apparent commanders," Ruallauh told his resistance force as they prepared to lay in ambush. "Ioruert's men at arms will be ready for them, but we archers need to be where we can pick off as many as possible, make them skittish and if possible, kill the commanders. I think the trees will be our best posts. We do not have much time. Get into position."
Josephine was among that company of archers, and now she went to the pile and took a supply of arrows already in a sack. This might be her last chance to help her cousins before the upcoming dark of the moon when Shannon said to be ready and waiting for the King's rescue party. She would do her utmost to make this last battle a success. She pushed away the thought that she might not make it through to that midnight meeting just several days away.
The Queen was in position in the crook of a tree limb when she first heard the distant sound of mounted men and armed marching men approaching. She knew that if there were commanders, more than one the young Earl had said, Elerde of Brittany could be among them. She pressed her lips together. She wondered if she would be able to ignore the devices painted on shields and sewn onto banners. With helmets it was possible, just possible she would not know him when she saw him. Then she hoped she would see the devices. No, she would not kill him, not unless it meant the life of one of her band, but she knew that he might die this day at the hand of someone else.
The archers were well hidden among the autumnal foliage of the forest. There was plenty of green in the mix, making the green and brown clothing of the men and women somehow more useful as cover than in the apex of summer. Each man and woman was in position, bows strung, arrows cocked, ready to draw the strings taut when an enemy came into site. Each one of the archers could loose and have another arrow ready very quickly, creating a seemingly unending and overpowering shower of deadly missiles on the unlucky soldiers. Ruallauh could do this even faster and with deadly accuracy.
Josephine heard the soft whistle from the foremost archer that signaled the nearing of the party. She wondered how they would manage if it was a larger force. It would depend on the archers to reduce the ranks. She had her share of kills now, and she knew she would have many more today. She began to hear the sound of the horsemen coming into the forest path, the sound of the hooves changing from the clack on beaten earth shifting to soft thuds on the leave thick path, the swish of branches and bushes against the sides of the horses and the soft oaths of men who were hit by the branches that snapped back into their faces. In another part of the woods not far away Ioruert, sword in hand, knew the terror the men must be feeling coming into the thick woods where anything could be lurking whether with arrows or claws or unearthly teeth to spill their blood to soak the matted leaves underfoot.
Josephine caught sight of the first movement. A small band of armed men on foot led the rest of the troop. The archers had orders to let the advance party come fully into the area where they awaited them so that any commanders riding near the fore would be in range of their arrows. From her perch she watched as the men, some of whom may very well have been her own loyal subjects just months ago, came through looking nervously about and up at the trees. They carried shields and spears, the latter upright before them. Just behind the double row, for the path was narrow, came a standard bearer. Josephine sighed with relief, seeing the red cross held by a blue clothed hand. It was O'Donnell.
The double line of spearmen passed through, slowly, nervously, and the hoofbeats grew louder. Josephine knew she would be among the first to see the riders, perhaps even the commander. A scout had long ago described O'Donnell as a tall man with bright red hair and a long drooping mustache. Whether this hair and mustache would be visible under his helm she did not know, but she felt she would know the man from his bearing and how he was equipped. She anxiously waited to see the horsemen as they slowly came into sight.
Finally she saw them. The first two ahorse did not appear to be commanders. Then two men came riding in single file. The first fit her idea of how O'Donnell would sit in the saddle and hold himself, shoulders squared, chin up. Her fingers itched to loose an arrow into his heart, but that was for the master, Ruallauh, who would not miss.
The second man looked like a commander as well. As he cleared the leaves of trees between her and him her heart stopped for a moment. She recognized the armor and everything else about the man. Elerde. She saw that no doubt to improve his view as he rode that the Breton had pushed back the hinged cheek pieces of the helm, and as he drew near she could see the dark eyes, the short black beard. She relaxed her pull on the arrow for just the time it took him to pass. In her heart she called to him, "Farewell, dear Elerde." Someone further along would be the one to take that poetic soul out of this world.
She bit her lower lip as she took her gaze away from his retreating form. It took her a moment to focus on the third man. This one was not armed, not helmeted, and was clearly not accustomed to riding by the tight hold he had on the reins of his mount. She peered, unbelieving, at the tall figure, taller than O'Donnell had been, with the dark auburn hair, the finely molded cheekbones, the clear and honest blue eyes. She stared as she saw him advanced to the spot where she knew the leading marching and mounted men would be in prime position for the ambush.
"Stop!" she screamed without a chance to consider. "Stop, it's Rory!" Her blood went cold as she realized the bargain she had just made. But Rory! She could not let him be cut down. She couldn't.
The two commanders before the minstrel spun quickly towards the origin of the shout. Both Elerde's and Rory's hearts froze as they recognized the voice. She could not clearly see O'Donnell but she did hear him shout something in Irish and heard the horsemen who rode in the fore spur their animals towards her.
Josephine's archers did not know what to do at first. Ruallauh shouted, "Take the horsemen, don't wait!" Josephine heard the zip of arrows and without a second thought dropped her own bow and slipped quickly down the trunk of her tree. She did not see him, but Rory too slipped from his own uneasy mount on the horse. He headed for her just as she did for him, each wanting to shield the other. She heard her cousin shout an oath and then for his men and women to hold their arrows.
The pair met simultaneously with the arrival of three of O'Donnell's horsemen who leapt off their mounts and kept to their own side. One had held the bridle of his horse and maneuvered it as best he could a nervous horse to make a shield between the five and the hidden archers. Josephine and Rory grasped each others' arms, then turned their backs to each other as if on cue. The Queen quickly saw that he was sheltered from arrows by the horse and the three riders. Her shoulders sagged as she realized that though Rory was safe she was now a prisoner. No rescue, no longed for embrace from her beloved husband, no reunion with her children, and who knew what other disasters would follow from this moment. But she couldn't let Rory be killed. She couldn't.
A voice with the same brogue as Rory's and Shannon's came closer to where she and Rory stood with the three men who had drawn their swords and had them held towards herself. This time the man shouted in English. "We have the lady at sword point. If just one arrow flies or anyone interferes in any way, she will die."
She heard her oldest cousin shout back, "You won't kill her, O'Donnell. She is too valuable for that."
O'Donnell laughed derisively. "I care not for that. The longer this war goes on the richer I and my men will be. So if she should come to harm, I shall not weep for her."
Behind him Elerde had his sword in his hand, frantically trying to work out how he could go to Josephine, somehow give her a chance to flee. He knew that if he so much as came within sword's reach of any of O'Donnell's men, he would be cut down and she would still be a prisoner. And he had reason to know she would need his protection again soon, no matter whether she was captured now.
He caught Rory's eye. Rory pled for him to act. He conveyed to Rory the slightest shaking of his head to show that he could not do anything. Rory's face fell and he looked hopeless.
"If you value your own Queen's life," O'Donnell called to Ruallauh and the archers, "You will throw down your bows and knives and come down where we can see you. And tell your men at arms to stay back as well and throw down their weapons."
There was a pause, the Ruallauh's dispirited voice called "Do as he says." Josephine could hear the bows and belt daggers of the archers falling to the underbrush and as she also heard her band sliding down out of the trees, there was a shout and the sound of heavier weapons being dropped by Ioruert's men at arms. She tried to push away the icy feeling in her middle that told her all was lost and that she… had brought this about.
One of O'Donnell's lieutenants ordered his men to gather up the weapons. The remaining horsemen in the advance party rode around to cut off any man who tried to escape. In the meantime O'Donnell just sat astride his horse and stared at Josephine and Rory who still stood back to back in the midst of O'Donnell's men.
When all seemed to quiet slightly, he said in an even voice, "Take her." The men surrounding her and Rory pulled her away. Another man came with a rope to tie her. Rory whirled and tried to prevent the men from taking the Queen, but one of the men struck him hard in the face making him fly back onto his side in the brush. He groaned as he fell on something hard and sharp under the leaf mould. Josephine cried out to see him hurt.
O'Donnell growled, "I will deal with you later, McGuinness." Elerde had sheathed his sword and still hung back. "Shall we not, Breton?" O'Donnell shot at him. Elerde said nothing.
The Breton's thoughts were spinning in his head, the strong urge to act swirling around with the anger at the Queen for not getting away, out of Affynshire as he had told her, saying that he could not protect her if she stayed. His words had become prophecy now. He hoped he would still have a chance at least to keep her from further harm at the hands of O'Donnell and Malcolm and that villainous lot.
O'Donnell's face had taken on a thoughtful, thinly smiling look. "Unless…" he said, almost inaudibly. As all around them watched, the archers standing in a group guarded by O'Donnell's and Elerde's men and those guards themselves, O'Donnell walked his horse around where Rory stood with the bound Queen and her captors. Elerde looked puzzled as he saw O'Donnell's smile broaden.
"Unless," O'Donnell repeated more loudly, "we can exchange." He was now staring directly at Rory, who had clambered to his feet, holding his side, with blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. O'Donnell edged his horse closer to the minstrel. "Is she worth it, my friend?"
Rory stared back, unsure of what O'Donnell meant. They locked their gazes and slowly it came to Rory. He looked surprised, then resigned, and replied, "That and much, much more, Finnegan."
O'Donnell smiled more broadly. "You agree, then, in exchange for her life? You will.. come with me?" In spite of his smile, O'Donnell's eyes held a spark of fear.
"For her life, and her liberty, I will do anything. Anything," Rory echoed what he had said just weeks before to Elerde. "But she must go free."
O'Donnell stared at him for some time, then let out a laugh. "Then she goes free." He leaned towards Rory to offer an arm so Rory could climb up to ride pillion behind him.
Several of O'Donnell's men exchanged knowing glances, but not within sight o f their commander.
Josephine was mystified. What could this possibly mean? She was facing Rory and the Irish commander now, saw the latter's look of triumph and Rory's defiant acquiescence. Rory glanced at her, tried to smile reassurance. He said, "Go. Go now and leave the fighting to those who are less precious. Get out of here and go to your children." There was a tightness in his voice. The smile left his lips. His face filled with pain. "God be with you." He turned and let O'Donnell pull him up behind him. He put his arms around O'Donnell's waist. The look on O'Donnell's face was unfathomable.
Elerde stared in complete disbelief. Not at Rory's choice, but at O'Donnell's. His action was entirely unpredictable. Could his lust be so great? But then a thought struck him. Had he had Josephine in the same position., would he not make the same bargain with the Devil? Then did men like that, like O'Donnell, love that deeply, like any other man? He shook his head. "Not O'Donnell," he denied. "Mayhap others like him, but not O'Donnell. He is too savage." No man like that could love so deeply.
O'Donnell, fully aware that all about him were straining to understand, quickly barked commands at his men. "Take all their weapons. And take… " He looked about. "Take that one." He pointed to Earl Ruallauh.
"No!" shouted the Queen. She looked from Finnegan to Rory, whose head was turned away from her.
Elerde finally spoke. "Give him to me."
O'Donnell looked warily at the Breton but then nodded. "Do it." Ruallauh was pulled roughly from where he stood with the other archers and tied just as the Queen had been. "But not to Keito Uxello. To Horsfort."
Ruallauh was tied behind one of Elerde's lieutenants and would be forced to walk along behind his horse. He glanced at the Queen his face a mask of defiance. He glanced quizzically at Rory who averted his eyes.
O'Donnell was ordering his lieutenants to divide the men in their companies so that a larger force went north to Malcolm's fortress of Horsfort. It seemed that he would take the rest south, to Hucknall Manor, his own stronghold, given to him by Malcolm. To the Earl he said, glancing up as well at Elerde, "If you try to escape.. or have help escaping, the old woman, Modron, will die."
Then he called to his commanders, "Come," and turned his horse the way they had come into the forest and rode away with Rory, his head turned towards the Queen now, flashing her one last look before the forest swallowed her up.
O'Donnell's chief lieutenant gave Elerde a scowl and said, "Let's go. " To the three men who had been holding the Queen, he ordered, "Leave her." He watched as Elerde tried to salute her. Josephine looked away with some puzzlement still coloring her angry face. Elerde bowed his head and spurred his horse. The usurping forces advanced and quitted the path, leaving the rest of the Queen's allies to rush to her to free her from her bonds.
"I do not understand," she said to her cousin Ioruert. "What was the exchange? Why free me and take Rory?"
Ioruert shook his head, unable to explain. He pulled the rope off her and threw it on the ground. "Let's get back to camp. We need to decide what to do now that Ruallauh has been taken.
Josephine looked up at his face and slowly nodded.
Next: A Royal Reunion
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