Early April 769
cross the Affynshire border in the farthest northeast corner of Mercia a considerable host of soldiers camped Just two dozen miles from Malcolm's stronghold, Horsfort, they waited only for the warlord's command to move in along the old Roman road that led into the heart of Affynshire. This was the northern contingent of the army that had been formed to wrest the reigns of the kingdom from the hands of the King of Crístlicland, and it was the larger. Its commander, Malcolm, now rode to meet with some of his chief conspirators, Elerde of Brittany and Sven Ormyngel to set thea day to move.
In the meantime, further south, at the southern tip of the wooded mountains that divided much of Affynshire from the large aggressive kingdom of Offa of Mercia, the smaller but no less considerable force was poised to pass across into Affynshire near Matlock Hall. Ricbeorht of Flanders' mercenaries prepared to take the Hall, while O'Donnell led his force of Mercian hired troops and his own loyal Ulstermen on to Hucknall Manor in the southeast of the province.
During the Saxon era there were two types of fighting men: professional warriors and the fyrd. The fyrd were made up of farmers and every other sort of man and sometimes women who were called by their lords to fight when needed. Woe be it to the lord who faced the times for planting and harvesting with a war well in progress. Not only would he lose fighters but if he did not let them go, his own lands would be profitless from lack of the grain and other crops he and his people depended on. Unskilled as soldiers and usually without armor and only farm implements for weapons, the fyrd's role was primarily to die and fall under the feet of the enemy soldiers to trip them up and make them easier prey for the professional fighters. They only came because not to come meant prison or death and confiscation of any holdings their families might have, however meager.
The men and a few fierce women who lent their swords, axes, pikes, and other weapons to lords did so out of loyalty for a good lord rewarded a successful soldier but loyalty was far from the prerequisite. Fighters from many lands could be found among the commanders and troops of any army. In a single line of skilled fighters you might find men from all parts of England, but from Ireland and Scotland and Wales too, and from as far away as Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. The only requirement for fighting was plunder. If a lord or a king could promise rich harvests of gold, slaves, women, weapons and armor and if he was prepared to hand out the gold arm rings so prized in the north, he could fill his ranks with little trouble.
The armies brought together by Malcolm and his conspirators would have one great advantage over any landed force they met. Their soldiers were all trained, most seasoned, and well armed. Any resistance in Affynshire or from the forces of the province's overlord, the King of Crístlicland, would be in the form of small standing troops of guards at best, but far more likely the untrained, poorly equipped fyrd. The only advantage, in fact, of the inexpert farmer army was that the fyrd was comprised of men fighting for their own lands, homes, families. That is, if the fyrd was fighting on its own soil. Malcolm counted on the fyrd' s disinterest in the fate of Affynshire to work to his own intent.
Elerde of Brittany strode along the edge of the camp glancing over at a familiar sight for him. Hard men sat in groups near campfires, drinking, laughing, tussling with each other and the female camp followers who plied their trade among the men. These men were hungry men whose pride was in their ability to conquer and take what they would. Elerde's own noble birth had left some finer sensibilities deep inside, but more and more he found himself understanding these men and their savagery. He could look over the seemingly disorganized collection of campfires and know with utter confidence that each and every man there would be worth three, nay, five of any man they met in a shield wall.
Elerde made his way to his own large tent, the command center of the cross-border encampment. He saw as he approached that his own commander, Malcolm of Horsfort, his longtime comrade in arms, stood outside holding his horse's bridle. "Plans must be finally afoot," Elerde thought. His feelings were mixed. He wanted action, but as second in command, he wanted more control.. and Malcolm had it all.
Malcolm did not stand on ceremony, nodding only cursorily to Elerde's respectful fist to the chest. "I have sent for the other commanders. There s a fly in the ointment. We must see if this queers our plans."
Elerde inclined his head, asking nothing knowing that Malcolm's words came in Malcolm's own time.
"Sven is here already, of course, and Ricbeorht and Finnegan should not be longer than a day or two." Malcolm had given over his mount's reins to a soldier, and was pushing his way into the flaps of Elerde's tent not waiting for the Breton to follow.
To Elerde's surprise, Sven was already inside, already helping himself to Elerde's ale. He was looking at some items on a small table, a small clay figure, a ring of no particular worth, a book of poetry. He kept poking his fingers, dirty and scarred, at the things. Elerde bridled but said nothing. It was Sven's way to provoke others to anger purely for the pleasure of it and any other advantage he could take by making the other react. Elerde cringed inwardly as the dirty fingers flipped open the book and soiled the edge of the fine bellum. He saw the Swede's eyes on him, waiting for a sign that he was angry. He did not give him that satisfaction.
Elerde gestured for his soldier servant to bring in more camp stools and more ale. Malcolm had taken over the only stool and Sven and he were left to wait until more were brought. Nevertheless, Malcolm did not wait to speak.
"The Queen of Crístlicland is in Affynshire."
Now Elerde lost his inscrutability for a moment and gave away his strong feelings with the relatively strong expression -- for him -- of raised eyebrows and widened eyes. "She is what?!"
Sven grinned but Malcolm looked annoyed. "When the others are here we need to discuss whether her presence changes the battle plan."
Sven sneered. "Why should the woman being here change anything. More booty the better. And she makes for some fine booty." He glanced at Elerde, waiting for him to rise to the bait.
Instead the Breton coolly asked Malcolm, "How should her presence provide any hindrance to the takeover?"
Malcolm examined him carefully and slowly. Waiting for the other two men to sit as the stools were set for them along with two more for absent comrades, he replied. "I did not know your reaction, my friend. I did not know whether you would be dismayed or pleased that the lady is here, a hen in the fox's den, so to speak."
Elerde's eyes were lowered and hooded. "It makes no difference to me, my lord."
Sven laughed out loud. "A likely answer."
Elerde leveled a direct but cool stare at the Northmen. With a studied humor to his voice, he said, "Either way it seems to present opportunities."
Malcolm looked at him considering. "How so?"
Elerde reached for a pot of ale. He took a draught and seemed to meditate on the question. "If she is here and we can take her, the King of Crístlicland will fight the harder to win her back, perhaps, which will increase risk to our own forces. But he may also be readier to offer terms to get her back.. and for us that is a great opportunity."
Malcolm asked, "If we can take her? Do you think there is any doubt of that?"
Elerde smiled faintly and nodded. "I assume she is here to visit her sick uncle. The man had a seizure of some kind, so my information tells me. That means she would be with her cousins as well, and they would protect her. More than that, she is a resilient and resourceful woman. She would not be easily taken."
Sven had stood and was pacing. From behind him, Elerde heard a scornful laugh. "A very paragon, or so I am told. And lovely beyond comparison."
Elerde's eyes narrowed. "Mayhap she shall escape, but think, Malcolm, what that would mean. Lawrence would split his forces to find her. What better opportunity might we have to take Affynshire and hold it.. and thereafter take.. Crístlicland."
Malcolm was eying Sven, appearing to communicate with the Swede over Elerde's head. Then he looked back down at Elerde and nodded shortly. We shall discuss these issues and more when the others are here. We may wish to wait until she is on the road for home or go on with our plans."
Sven came around and seated himself again. "And what date have we in mind, Malcolm?"
"Two days after Bealtana. The kingdom will be full of drunkards sleeping off their feasting and carousing.. or straggling home after gathering for the May festivities. In either case, not ready to resist an organized force. We will time the attacks to coincide."
Malcolm made it clear then that he would discuss it no further until the others arrived. Sven suggested a competition with bows at the butts set up for practiced, and Malcolm took up the suggestion. "I shall be along directly," the Breton called after them as they left the tent. He seethed at Sven's parting laugh.
So Josephine was in Affynshire. He had wondered, and now was irritably considering what punishment his spies near Keito Uxello should bear for not telling him something that put him at such a difficult place with the other conspirators. They all knew his regard for Josephine. They made merciless light of it whenever they could. All but Malcolm who distrusted his ability to separate his infatuation from the grim business at hand. He could not blame e the man. He wondered how this wrinkle in the plan would affect him when and if the time came that the lady would in fact be in his hands.
Elerde did not know whether to wish the Queen back safe in her husband's castle, far from his own arms but also far from harm. That is, until her husband's cousin's plans fell into place. On the other hand, it made his usually steely heart beat faster just knowing she was not only where he could take her, but in the very fortress no doubt that was to be his own prize for the insurrection. Keito Uxello, the woodland fortress that belonged to Earl Ceretic, her uncle. Her mother's brother. So near at hand. He felt his chest swell against his leather brigandine as he took in a deep breath and held it.
Next: A Mountain Beltane
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