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

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

New Stories: An Uncomfortable Reunion (Happened)

Finn O'Donnell

This story contains my second favorite line in the book, again said by Elerde. Billains, even semi-tragi-nasty villains like our Breton mercenary, get all the best lines. Can you guess which it is?

Late Summer 769

"Rory? Rory McGuinness?" Finn O'Donnell stared directly at Rory with a look of unmistakable pleasure and surprise.

"Aye, I am that man," the minstrel replied, grim and none too welcoming.

Elerde of Brittany looked from one man to the other. "You know each other, I understand," he stated matter of factly.

O'Donnell's expression had dimmed, even soured at the other Irishman's reaction. "Aye," he confirmed dourly. "We served together in Ulster."

"Is that so?" the Breton replied, mildly interested. "But I thought that was a clan war between the O'Neill and O'Donnell."

Rory said coldly, "It was. But some O'Donnell's can be bought."

Before O'Donnell could retort, Elerde responded sternly, "As may some Bretons. High mindedness is a quick way to the grave, my boy."

Rory averted his eyes, staring off away from the reunion. He had arrived with the Breton's company of soldiers when summoned by this new overlord. He had been torn between admiration and puzzlement at the equanimity with which Elerde had taken his fall from leadership. The man had not welcomed questions or discussion of the matter, however, and Rory had let his own mount slow and contact between him and his captor and co-conspirator break on the journey to the O'Donnell camp from Keito Uxello.

What little time they had had to discuss how best to safeguard the secret of the Queen's whereabouts had produced only the most skeletal framework of a plan. Elerde had stood firm that he would not allow Rory to "escape" and go to her. They knew that a likely assignment for Elerde and his company of Bretons would be to scour the woods and mountainside for both the Queen and the resistance parties who harried passing troops. They both knew that it was hopeless to assume they would not be accompanied on these reconnaissance missions by one of O'Donnell's officers, if not O'Donnell himself. How to act in the event of an encounter was a matter of contention between them. Elerde rejected Rory's stout insistence that they fight for her on the spot. He said that such a plan depended on a limited set of factors and that all they could do is act on their instincts when the occasion should it arise. The distrust and uneasiness of their alliance was palpable even to the least of Elerde's men.

Rory had taken a sad farewell from Modron, the newly widowed aunt of his Queen and love. Elerde absented himself from the goodbyes, regretfully aware that nothing he could do or say would ever make the proud woman see that he had wished for nothing more than that the old man her husband would have survived to fight again alongside his sons for the preservation of their homeland. She blamed him as much as she blamed the rest of the revels for the earl's death. Her bitterness was all the sharper when Rory had explained the history of the Breton and her niece. "A fine way to show your love, gallant fellow," she had spat at Elerde.

A force made up of some of Elerde's soldiers reinforced by a squadron from O'Donnell's own - to keep the Breton's under surveillance as no man dissembled - was left behind in the somber fortress, bereft of all its family residents but the old woman. Rory failed at a last effort to convince Elerde to leave him with her as a ruse to gain his liberty to seek the Queen. Resignedly he accompanied the Breton's men not only regretful at the lost chance but with dread at the reunion he would soon have with O'Donnell.

At O'Donnell's camp Elerde was fully aware that the Irishmen's history held more than just a clash of ideals, and knowing just a little about the older O'Donnell he wondered at a reason. O'Donnell was not what you might refer to as a man for the ladies.. Malcolm put it more crudely. And Elerde had found it easy enough to believe Rory's own fey act. Either O'Donnell saw that in the minstrel or there was history there that Rory would never own to. He resolved to keep his eyes open in case the spark, whether of danger or ardor, should result in a threat to his own plans.

Rory meanwhile did all he could to avoid his countryman. He stayed on the periphery as he could, telling stories and singing for the encamped men, able to entertain them in their native Irish. But this feat only drew the commander when he was able to draw away from other responsibilities. An encounter was inevitable. And it came finally on a darkening sky one evening In late August.

Rory found himself in a small clearing by the camp, having stayed as far from the command post as he might and not cause Elerde to have him guarded. As he stepped out of the light thicket of trees he saw O'Donnell standing in the clearing waiting for him to pass through. He slowed to a stop and faced the older man, his arms hanging limp at his sides, facing the confrontation with as much grace as he could.

"Rory McGuinness," came O'Donnell's soft greeting. When Rory stood unresponsive, the man with the long drooping red moustache smiled sardonically. "I would think you would at least be civil for old times' sake," he complained in Irish.

"You mean for Master Ishaq's sake," Rory replied.

O'Donnell had a willow switch in his hand and he now started to strike the bushes near him with it. "Aye, for his sake as part of it." He looked up again at the younger man. "Och, Rory, you were so young then. And so angry. What were you so angry about?" At Rory's shrug he went on, "I know you knew what Ishaq was. You and the other boy, the O'Neill lad, seemed to be entirely in his confidence. What happened to make you run away? You hurt him terribly."

Rory frowned. "What happened between me and the Master is not your concern, O'Donnell. It had nothing to do with you.. or with your relationship with him."

"Did it not?" questioned O'Donnell. "He thought it did."

"Mayhap, but O'Neill set him straight about that. Ere he left again for Andalusia, Shannon told me, he was content with my choice."

O'Donnell stood considering Rory for several moments. He finally asked in a low voice, "And were you content?"

Rory clenched his jaw and glared.

"When we met again during the clan war, I watched you. You had been such a beautiful boy, and you grew to be a beautiful man. You took my breath away." O'Donnell threw the willow switch on the ground and walked towards Rory. "You avoided me, no matter what I did. And now I see you give some self-righteous attitude toward my clan loyalties as the excuse. We both know why you really did it." He had come to stand behind Rory and to one side. He looked at his hair, his profile, his shoulders. His own eyes were tender.

"You think you know. You do not. "

"I never saw you with a woman.." O'Donnell began.

"Never saw me does not mean I never was with a woman," Rory shot back instantly regretting allowing himself to be drawn into this cat and mouse game.

"True, true. Then tell me, if you will, when is the last time you were with a woman?"

Rory darted a resentful glance over his shoulder a O'Donnell. "Finn, I am not a lover of men. Whether you believe it or not, it's true. I do not consort idly with women, but that does not mean I do not wish to. I have a higher ideal…"

O'Donnell laughed aloud and scornfully. "Ah, have I not heard that excuse before? If it is not a love for God it is love for some earthly goddess. Who is it, Rory? It isn't the Queen that your Breton friend idolizes.. oh, I see it is. How funny. The woman draws saps like shit draws flies." He stepped back with his hands up and warded off Rory's halfhearted swing of his fist. "Do not take offense. 'Tis just an expression." He waited for Rory to calm and turn away again. Then he stepped forward and ran the back of one hand down one side of Rory's deep auburn hair. "Women like that.. they are not real. They are like images of the Madonna. They attract men like you and me because they are unattainable. You never have to act on that love."

Rory jerked his head away and spun on O'Donnell. "You are wrong!" he insisted.

O'Donnell stood and considered the minstrel. "Mayhap. But we shall see."

Rory looked hard at the older man. "What is that supposed to mean?"

O'Donnell came toward him again and cupped his defiant chin in a palm. "Remember who holds the power now. Your comrade Elerde's star is not in the ascendancy any more. Mine is. And I know what's inside you and how to draw it out. You will see." He cradled Rory's cheek in his hand for a moment, chuckling at the hot reddened skin. He gave the tall man's groin a quick appraising and lascivious look, then laughed and strode away.

Next: Shannon Finds the Queen

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About the author

Nan Hawthorne now writes under the name Christopher Hawthorne Moss. You can contact Christopher at .