Early September 769 AD
oruert hurried to the encampment, his mail and sword making loud metallic noises as he came. He found his brother, Earl Ruallauh and their cousin, Josephine, preparing white goose feathers to fletch new arrows with. "Shannon O'Neill," he cried breathlessly. I just saw Shannon O'Neill!"
Ruallauh looked up surprised, but Josephine dropped what she was working on and stood. "Shannon? I hoped he had gone back to Lawrencium. Where did you see him? Was he all right? Was Rory with him?"
Ruallauh called on another man to fetch Ioruert some ale. "Sit down and catch your breath, brother," he said.
When he had caught his breath, the younger man explained. "We were patrolling along the edge of the woods by the old Roman road. We were looking at the road so we almost missed seeing the man. He was on a ridge above the tops of the trees on our other side. He was alone, I think. I could not see him that clearly. But it was O'Neill. He is unmistakable."
The Queen pressed, "Did you not go to meet him?"
Ruallauh added, "You sent a party to scout whether he was followed, is that not right?
Ioruert nodded. "If nothing was amiss they should be here very soon."
They did not have to wait long. Josephine rushed forward when she heard the commotion of several of the resistance coming into the encampment. There among them blindfolded was indeed Shannon O'Neill, his parti-colored jerkin, kilt, bare legs and the vast amount of red curls sticking out under and above where the cloth was tied around his head.
"Shannon," Josephine cried and went to him.
The freckled face broke into a delighted grin even before the blindfold was pulled off. "Me lady, at last I have found ye!" As soon as he could see he bent his knee in obeisance. He looked at the Queen,. "Och, me lady, if the King could see ye now!" he was eying her jerkin and chausses. "Ye look like a lad."
Josephine lifted him to his feet. "The King.. is he well? Where is he?" She pulled him to the fire and sat him on a log covered with sheepskin. She sat next to him and took the proffered ale from Ioruert and held it out to the Irishman.
"The King is well, but misses ye sore." He gulped the ale, then went on. He is encamped with the armies at Ratherwood. Malcolm has sealed himself in the fortress and last I knew was refusing to speak to the emissaries. 'Tis a great puzzle what he is doing. He has increased the defenses of the fort. The King says he must be well supplied to rest so easy. "
Ioruert, the soldier, asked, "How does he plan to win the war if he stays within walls?"
"Why are you not with Rory?" Josephine pursued.
Shannon had a mouthful of bread someone had given him. Around it he replied, "Rory and I were still in Affynshire when we were after hearin' of the takeover. Rory sent me to find me way to Lawrencium while he stayed, sayin' he would be lookin' for ye and findin' what news he could. I thought to find him here, in fact."
Ruallauh answered the implicit question. "Cingen saw him.. at Keito Uxello."
Josephine looked hard at Shannon. "With Elerde, Shannon. What does it mean."
Shannon had stopped eating and just gazed back, his face fallen. "Elerde, me lady? He is here for certain then? And at Keito Uxello?" At her nod, he looked thoughtful. "And be Rory there as well.. mayhap he went to find ye and was captured."
Ruallauh and Ioruert exchanged glances. The older man said, "He seemed in alliance with Elerde."
Shannon looked up at him sharply, then back at the Queen. "Me lady, ye know Rory wouldnae.."
"Of course, there is some reasonable explanation." She thought a moment. "Shannon, I saw Elerde too.. and he let me go. He said something about not being able to protect me if I stayed in the country."
Shannon's smile returned. "Then methinks that Rory and he have found the one thing they have in common between them two."
Ruallauh inserted incredulously, "You mean they are allied to find a way to protect the Queen?"
Shannon shrugged. "That is the only thing that me darlin' Rory would ally with anyone to do. Truly, I was that surprised when we left Beltane."
Josephine glanced at him somewhat uncomfortably. Then she suppressed her question about why they had left and went on. "Did the King send you here? To find me, I mean."
Shannon accepted another cup of ale. "Aye, and some weeks past. I have tried to find you. The people are suspicious and what they knew they wouldnae tell me. And ye all kept movin'. In truth, I dinnae find ye.. ye found me. Wanderin' in the hills and woods, like a lost lamb."
Ruallauh asked, "What is the King's wish?"
Josephine looked again to Shannon for his answer.
"Och, when I found ye I was to arrange some time and place for a small force to meet ye and take ye to the King. He must think I have absconded or died."
Josephine sighed. "At last. I will go straight from my lord's camp to the border and home. My children.. are they well?"
Shannon gave her an understanding smile. "I dinnae see them meself, but the King your husband told me they were sad and frightened but well. They are under the care and protection of your noble brother."
Josephine put a hand on his. "And Heather and Seamus? What news of them?"
Shannon just shook his head, looking down at the ground. The Queen squeezed his hand. "I am so sorry, Shannon."
After a night of solid rest and a careful plotting of where and when Josephine and her cousin Ioruert could meet the rescue party from the King, Shannon took his leave of the Queen again. "I may have searched here and there for ye, me lady, but I ken just where Ratherwood is and shall make straight for it. Then at the appointed time and place, you shall be conveyed to the lovin' arms of the King."
She kissed him on the cheek. "Will you come with them?"
"They couldnae keep me away. I shall wish to personally hand ye o'er to your husband."
Once the blindfold was back on and he was ready to be led away, Shannon saluted the Queen jauntily. "Until we meet again, me lady!"
Shannon's journey back to the Crísliclandian encampment was not as straight a course as he had hoped. As he strode along the road to the junction with the road east to the fortress of Ratherwood, he found himself facing a company of soldiers. He hid in a thick stand of trees and waited for them to pass. As luck would have it, the party paused quite near his hiding place and he could not risk being seen as he fled. All he could do was wait and hope.
He heard the underbrush rustle and pulled back as far into the bushes as he could. To his great surprise he caught sight of the top of the head of the man who was coming into his thicket. The hair was a familiar shade of dark auburn and the humming that came from the man was a familiar melody. Shannon tried to discern if Rory was in company, but then risked a loud whisper, "Ruairi! Ruairi Maghunasa"
Rory whirled to see who had called his name, his Irish name given to him by his own mother and father. He feared for a moment that O'Donnell was seeking him again, but then he saw Shannon and smiled as wide as he ever had. "Siannone!" he called back.
The two had only time to reach hands to meet and for Rory to breathe, "Is she well? Is she safe?" when more voices and footsteps could be heard.
Shannon quickly responded, "She is well and soon will be with her bairns again."
Rory smiled, then whispered, "Go! Now!
Reluctantly Shannon dipped back down and backed away. He heard his friend exchange a few laughing words in Irish, then heard the voices drift away in another direction with the light baritone voice he knew and loved so well lifted in a spirited song of war.
Shannon waited until the company remounted and headed back north along their way. His hiding place was such that he did not see Rory again or with whom he was traveling. With a sigh, he picked up his bundle and his lute and went on his way to tell the King of Críslicland that his wife was well and would soon be back with him.
Next: Rory's Choice
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