fter overnighting in the guest house of a small abbey on the road to Lincoln, the party of empty supply wagons, the Queen and her bard, and their guard continued, anticipating arrival at the Cromwell Bridge by early afternoon. Josephine had decided to ride alongside the cart in which Shannon sat next to the driver, plucking at his lute and entertaining the company with raucous and often ribald songs so loved by soldiers.
In midmorning the leader of the guard began to slow his mount, then lifted his hand in a signal to halt. He turned and spoke to his second in command, and Josephine could see his look of worry from where she herself rode. She gave the bard Shannon a quizzical look, then spurred her horse forward to come up alongside the leader.
"Pray, why have we stopped? What is amiss?" she asked, as he noticed her and bowed his head to her in obeisance.
"Your grace," he answered in a worried voice, "have you not noted that we have not passed a guard shack in more than a league? They were posted evenly along this road, to protect the supply lines. There should have been one long ere this point."
The Queen nodded, then asked, "But the guards are also meant to ride to warn the next post if there is trouble or sign of the enemy, is that not so? The last post did not report any such thing."
The leader bowed his head again, this time in affirmation. "You are correct, my lady. Still it is strange." The man stared down the road in the direction of the bridge and Lincoln, considering. He turned to his second and ordered, "Take some men and ride ahead to the next post. There is likely some explanation." The man saluted him, then the Queen, gestured to several of his own men to follow, and the group road off at a brisk pace.
The leader turned back to the Queen. "We should rest here, your grace, until they return. With your leave," he completed.
"Of course," she replied. She crossed herself, then turned back to ride to Shannon. She told the driver and him that the wagons should be pulled to the side of the road and all should rest until a scouting party returned.
"What is the trouble, then?" Shannon inquired as he climbed stiffly off the wagon.
"Probably nothing amiss," Josephine replied, then walked with him to where a man at arms quickly spread his cloak for the Queen to sit in the shade of a tree. "The posted guards are simply not where they should be. The scouts will return with an explanation." She sat and Shannon, taking up his lute again, sat near her and began to strum a tune.
But the scouting party did not return. By the time the company should have been crossing the bridge into Christenlande, the leader of that company had grown alarmed about the fate of his lieutenant and his party. He walked over to where the Queen was waiting with her back propped against the bark of the tree and bowed.
"Your grace, I am much afraid of what this might mean. I would like to send you with some men back to the encampment and take the rest of my men forward to learn what is amiss."
Josephine shook her head. "I do not want to go back. I can stay here with men to guard the wagons. I do not wish to waste the time we have already taken getting this far. Go on, take your men and learn what has happened to the scouts."
The leader frowned but did not contradict her. "With your leave, then, lady, I will send some men back to tell the King what has impeded our progress."
Josephine had stood and now swept her chausses of bits of plant matter. She had chosen to journey to Lincoln in the clothing she had borrowed from her cousin, men's clothes, more suitable to a journey in a war setting. "Do that, then choose your men who will stay here. I shall await your news."
Reluctantly the man left the Queen and Shannon with the empty carts and a small force instructed to get her away back to the camp if there was any sign of trouble.
An hour or more passed. The day was hot, the men anxious, and Shannon suggested to the Queen that they walk down a gentle slope to where they could see and just hear a brook babbling. "No sense sittin' here in this sun."
The man left in charge of her reduced escort nodded his assent. "Stay in sight, and do not go into the brush. You should be safe enough down there, my lady."
So Josephine and Shannon made their way down to the brook side and sat where they could clearly see the guards and the guards could see them.
"Me lady, what d'ye think has happened?" the Irishman asked.
Josephine's face was grave. "I hope 'tis nothing more than a skirmish with a raiding party. There have certainly been many of those, my lord the king tells me. Then shall the force return and we can be on our way." She glanced through the wooded canopy to see the position of the sun. "I wish we could be on the road again, so that we might reach the bridge in daylight."
She had had to offer her hand as they came down the mild slope, as Shannon had had his lute held by the neck in one hand and did not have very good balance. She patted his shoulder now to reassure him. "What shall you do now, when we return to Lawrencium, I mean?"
Shannon started to pick pout a quiet melody as he replied. "Heather willnae have me, that I know. But I dinnae wish to leave to return to Ulster without Rory. I am that concerned about him."
The Queen nodded sadly. "I blame myself," she said, "for whate'er happens to him. He gave himself to spare me."
Shannon tried to smile. "Me lady, 'tis what he would wish to do. All he wants in life is to be your comfort and support. Naught ye could do would have changed anything. Whate'er he is enduring he does it for love of ye. I think ye knew that."
She and Shannon had never discussed Rory's great love for her. At times she had avoided time alone with Shannon so as to keep that mutual understanding from becoming open knowledge between them. Now he had brought it up. She sighed. "Aye, I know it. And how I wish it were not so…"
"Nonsense," Shannon retorted in his mildly insolent manner. "It gives ye pleasure."
Josephine glared at the man. "You are impertinent."
Shannon shrugged, "And that is no more a secret than Rory's love for you, me lady. I mean no disrespect. I have little patience with the customs of courtiers."
The Queen suddenly laughed. "Verily, that is indeed true. It makes my husband furious. I fear someday you two shall come to blows." She sobered, "Though I hope it never comes to pass, as I believe my lord would have an easy victory. But I shall never understand why you so little honor him."
Shannon laughed now. He made a sudden strike of a chord. "I honor him, me lady. I honor him greatly. But 'tis the honor and respect given of one man to another. The question, methinks, is does he honor me?"
She did not reply at first, then finally supplied, "He worries about you, Shannon. He worries that you are coming apart."
The man gazed at her surprised. "He does then?" He looked away for a moment. "Am I? I wonder."
Josephine reached to take the hand that was poised over the strings of the lute. "Oh Shannon, I wish there was aught I could do to help you."
There was a shout from the road above them. They turned quickly to see the commander of the small escort starting to run to warn them. With horror they saw him jerk forward and fall with an arrow in his back. "Oh my dear God!" Josephine cried. They heard more cries and shouts.
"Come away," Shannon rasped at the Queen, grabbing her elbow with his free hand as they both stood. She shot him a look, then nodded. The two took the stones that jutted out of the brook more sure-footedly than they might under calmer circumstances. In no time they were across it and heading deeper into the woods, praying that no one had seen them before they fled.
Josephine was astonished at how quickly and certainly Shannon led her into the underbrush. He was clearly panning ahead of them for the best hiding place or perhaps a path, she was unsure. At length, with the sounds of a mismatched battle behind them becoming fainter, he suddenly tugged her to the side and pulled her with him into the hollow of a very old oak. He started to pull brush to cover them, and the Queen followed his lead. When they had obscured their hiding place and calmed their breathing, she remarked, "Mayhap my lord and I have naught to concern us.. where did you learn to do that?"
Shannon grimaced. "When your Da is drunk and bent on killin' ye, ye get to know how to find a hidin' place he knows not of."
The Queen reached a scratched hand to his equally scratched cheek and gave him a look of deep sorrow.
They waited in the hollow, listening, and when footsteps seemed to come near, and a man's voice shouted in a language they did not understand, they thought their refuge had been discovered. Instead some other hapless person, no doubt one of their own guards, had been the quarry. From the noises that followed the man breathed no more. The footsteps retreated, the sound of a heavy burden being dragged with them, and Josephine and Shannon were again alone.
It was then that Shannon seemed to droop. He had been intent on sounds and sights until that point, but now he muttered miserably in Irish. Josephine put an arm around his shoulder and let him rave. When he calmed, she said, "It may be just us twain now. What shall we do, think you?"
He stared at her unbelieving. "Ye ask me, me lady?" When she nodded, he thought for a while. "Och, well, we should make certain that what we think happened did happen. Then if the worst is true, we must find some other way to get home." He hesitated. "Shall I go see?" His eyes showed his near panic.
Josephine pulled her arm to where she could rub his back with her hand. "Nay, I shall. I have seen the results of battle. I shall spare you that enduring image."
Feeling ashamed, the bard let the woman stand and creep back to the brook and the slope.
She went carefully and slowly, not wanting to stumble on an enemy, until she was secreted some way down the road and could look back without being seen. She saw the last of the enemy horsemen starting to ride along the road towards the bridge crossing the Trent. When they were out of sight around a bend forced by a huge boulder near the road, she crept closer to the scene she had left just hours ago to sit by the brook with Shannon. The draught animals had been unharnessed and the carts tumbled down the gentle slope where they lay overturned. The animals and horses were gone, and now all that was left were the bodies of the guards and the drivers.
The Queen shuddered. The only reason to kill the drivers would be if they resisted, which was unlikely. They would have been more likely to run. The men must have been killed out of anger that the carts were empty. Their positions lying at a short distance from the place the carts had been seemed to suggest that they had, in fact, been fleeing when struck down.
Looking about her and staying as much in shadow as she could, she moved up to the corpses of the guards. From the blood on some swords, she knew they had wounded enemies, but every one of the men who had stayed behind with her was dead. She crossed herself and knelt to say a prayer, then followed the path of the carts to where they now lay. The men's weapons had been gone, along with what armor they had had. And with her horse she knew her beloved sword and her bow and sack of arrows were gone too. She tried to drag the bodies of the men out of the sunlight to the edge of the shaded road, but she found she could not handle their deadweight and gave up the effort. She looked at them, tears in her eyes, then prayed once more.
"I am sorry," she whispered. "I am so sorry."
She glanced down the road in the direction of the King's encampment, but hearing the sound of hooves, ducked again into cover. She hoped to see Lawrence at the head of a quickly advancing party of armed men coming to their aid. But instead with horror she saw a man with long tangled pale hair and a plaited beard. In the beard were tangled small bones like.. no they were human finger bones. They clacked as he rode past her hiding place. She had never scene his banner before, a triangle with a serpent of some kind.
Thinking about how Lawrence would react when he did learn of the destruction of the plans to keep his camp supplied from Lincoln and to get her home to their children, she glanced once more down the road in each direction, then began the slow trudge back to tell Shannon what she had seen. And to decide what to do.
Next: Fleeing South
Before there was the novel, there were the stories...
Saturday, October 31, 2009
New Stories: Supply Lines Are Cut ()Happened