Late September 769
When Josephine woke her first thought was that she was having the wonderful dream she had had of late that she was waking in Lawrence's arms. She tried to push away the light coming through the one tiny window and the sounds of the camp so she could drift back into that dream. Then with a start and a smile she realized the warmth and solidity next to her was in fact her husband. She opened her eyes and looked up at his face. He was still asleep, his face slack and youthful in slumber. She pulled herself up so her face was on the level with his and pressing her body against his arm leaned over to kiss him.
Lawrence woke with an expression that swiftly shifted from surprise to pleasure, and he put his arms around her and kissed her back. They were both naked under the rough blankets and heavy furs. They had made love during the day before some time after the Queen had arrived from hiding to the camp, then again when they lay down to take their night's rest. Now in the early morning they continued to make up for lost time and heartache and made love again, more slowly and intently.
As they lay in each other's arms trying to wish away the need to stir themselves from this nest of sweet satisfaction, they heard a quiet rap at the door. "God damn," the King breathed. He kissed his wife on the forehead and said in a philosophical voice, "Well I suppose that was inevitable. Stay if you wish. I must see what I am needed for.. that is, by everyone but you, my love." He rose and pulled on his clothes. With a look back at her as she too rose to dress, he let himself out of their separate space to the main room of the cottage, then went to the latched door to step outside into the chill air.
It had been Edred, his aide de camp, at the door, and the King acknowledged his bow, then went to relieve himself. Edred waited patiently until Lawrence had come back to him.
"Sire, I am sorry if I was interrupting.."
The King put a hand on his shoulder. "'Tis all right, Edred. You need say nothing."
He let Edred help him arm, then turned to see Josephine coming out, dressed in the riding gown she had brought from her refuge in the mountains. He smiled and went to her, kissed her, then told her, "I will be riding about the fortress for a while. We need to look at any changes in the guard or the structure. I would like if you could join the strategy discussion when I am back. You know Ratherwood better than any of us here, having grown up there."
"Might I not come with you, lord? It might jar my memory some," she asked.
He seemed to start to shake his head, but then he thought about the sense of her words. "Edred, pull together a larger guard this morning."
As Edred bowed and turned to follow his orders, Josephine asked, "Is that for me?"
The King looked into her eyes seriously. "Aye, for you but also because of you. You are too dear a prize. If Malcolm sees you with us, he may send out a large party of his own. We must be ready."
"Has he sent out attack parties ere this?" she asked, looking over the remains of the huts across the road at the palisades of Ratherwood.
"Small ones, mostly intended it seems to harass us. There have been no serious wounds on our side. And I think not on theirs either. I am baffled by this strategy. Why sit inside the walls and stare at us camped here. Eventually they will want for provisions. Why not come out and fight?" Lawrence shook his head. He was looking in the same direction she was. "Ah, look, can you see there? That is Malcolm himself. Of course I cannot understand what he is trying to communicate…"
Malcolm was gesticulating wildly but to no purpose as far as either Lawrence or the Queen could detect. "Do you think they know I am here?"
Lawrence smiled at her question. "It would be hard to miss that you are. The camp was in an uproar yesterday with cheers and huzzahs. Why else would that be?"
The Queen rode, her sword and bow ready to hand, in the middle of the party that began its sun-wise circuit of the fortress walls. On occasion one of the men would point to a spot and comment on some slight change. To the garrisoning, the smoke of the fires in the courtyard, some other minute difference. Lawrence listened attentively, nodding and making his own observations.
Josephine spurred her horse to ride next to him. 'What will these observations tell you, my lord?"
"Sometimes.. most times.. nothing. But there is the chance that we will see signs that they are under greater stress." He sighed. "Though seeing us like this everyday they are no doubt prepared. I do wish I had access to any Roman military writings about sieges. They are so uncommon…"
Josephine nodded. "Then what you want is either for them to come out and face you in a shield wall, or for you to get inside… but could you fight them inside?"
He shook his head. "I would liefer not. But if we could get someone inside to open the gates, we might at least do some damage."
He noticed Josephine's thoughtful look. "What is it?"
"Wait, I am not certain. I will know more when we reach the point where the river is close against the walls."
Lawrence looked at her with interest. "I knew you would have something to add."
As the party made the round to the short side of the fortress that abutted the River Don, Josephine seemed to peer more closely at the foundations of the walls. Her husband and the other men who were part of the daily tour looked from her to where she was examining some stone piers that kept the vertical timbers out of the river water. At last she said," I shall not point as we do not want Malcolm there to see what we are looking at. But see the pennant on the right, the one that is torn? Now look down from it to the pier footing and then a finger's width to the left. Now down to the water. Do you see that dark hollow?"
One of the younger men saw it first. "Aye, my lady, I do. Is it a tunnel?"
Josephine turned her horse so that she faced at an oblique angle from the walls of the fort. The others took her cue and did the same, preventing anyone on the fort's palisades from seeing the focus of the ensuing discussion.
"Nay, not a tunnel, not exactly. This is the oldest part of the fortress, from after it was started upon the site of old earthworks. Ratherwood was built near tombs of the Old People, but the ground was much increased over them. My mother thought it was much bad luck to do this, but it had been done before she wed my father and nothing would or could be done. But as children, my sister and brother and I would explore around those foundations. We would be punished if found, for the river can take you ere you know you are wet."
She shook her head at the memories. "Lulla and Lorin found the passage. I did not find it but I did go into it once. It frightened me so I would not play there any more. Lorin could tell you where it is. He and our sister were exploring there one day, under part of the stone pier where the dirt had washed away. The ground collapsed and Lorin fell in. Being children, he and Lulla did not cry out or scream.. but held their breath so as not to give the secret away. Lorin had fallen into a tomb. We judged that the river must have not lain in the same bed when the tombs were built. For there was a passageway that led towards the river, but low, under its edge. It was stopped up but had we had a way to push through we could have gone outside the fortress by it.. when the river was at its lowest. At any other time the passage would fill with water. It is half underwater now as it is."
It was all Lawrence could do to keep from whipping his head around to look at the hollow place. "What is that dark hollow then?"
Josephine laughed. "We tried to dig from the outside in. That's as far as we got. Lorin can tell you more, and tell you where it opens inside. I did not go there after the first time."
Lawrence put his hand on hers. "I will send to Lorin. But tell me, why did you not go back?"
"It was a tomb, my lord! I was afraid of the dead! I was only ten years old!"
The party went on as close to the river as they might, then rode back upriver to where their horses could ford it. The hem of Josephine's riding gown was soaked. "Let's get you warm and dry. I will call together the commanders and discuss this information. Please join us when you can." He smiled at her as they crossed the bridge not far from the camp. "And thank you, my lady."
She did change into her trouse and jerkin that she had worn while in the mountains, then she did rejoin the king and talked over the inner structure of the fortress with the war council. She was able to point to the map they had constructed and refine many things that others could not. She also could describe the interior of the buildings at least from long memory.
Discussing the passage, she explained again that the only time one could enter would be when the river was low enough that the passage would not be deep in water itself. Edred suggested that they talk to some of the villagers to learn more about the river's habits.
At one point she looked up and asked her own question. "Why do you stay here, my lords? Why do you not find and fight the other commanders, like O'Donnell and Ricbeorht and Sven? And Elerde," she added.
Lawrence looked at Horsa to answer her question. "My lady, we do not have the forces. We are guessing that the others will draw into their fortresses just the same as Malcolm, and then we will be too thinly spread. But we do have a plan."
Lawrence nodded. "You will take a message to your brother asking him to go to Eoforwic to speak with Aethelwald Moll. We have reason to believe that Mercia is aiding the usurpers. Aethelwald will be very interested in that fact. He is no keener on Offa pushing into Northumbria than we are at what he's done here. He will give us spearmen and warriors."
Botopher added, "If I were to be asked, my lady, I would say the entire strategy employed by Malcolm and his cronies is to make us sit and wait for encounters. They are making us choose whether to spread out our forces too much. That we have chosen to stay put here leaves the rest of the country vulnerable, but it stymies that plan. Or so I hope."
"So do we all." The King put his arm around Josephine's shoulders. "So do we all."
Botopher continued, "What other tricks they have in store for us, that I cannot guess."
A man at arms came up to the group and whispered into Edred's ear after bowing to the King and Queen. Edred nodded and turn back to his liege lord. "My lord, we can have the escort for the Queen to Lincoln ready sometime tomorrow, with your leave."
Lawrence and Josephine each felt the other's body register the news. They could only have another night together, so little more. Lawrence looked down at her ruefully. "So soon."
She put fingers to his lips. "Hush, now, and remember that I will soon be with our children. And we will be waiting for you, my love, to come home to us as soon as you may."
Lawrence took her hand from his lips and kissed the fingertips. He nodded sadly. "It will be good to know you and they are safe. It will allow me to fight with my mind fully on the foe."
The others looked on with a variety of emotions, regret, sympathy, and relief.
Next: Rory's Next 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