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

Saturday, November 28, 2009

New Stories: Caithness Falls Ill

July 770

Josephine could not say for certain whether what she smelled was the usual odors of a nursery or her own rank body and clothing. The children and she and Larisa had been isolated in the room for almost a week. Though the door to the corridor opened a few times each day to let in silent, anxious servants it allowed little fresh air into the stuffy, enervating atmosphere of the room.

She looked at her four children, blessedly asleep on their small palettes. She tried to decide whether it was with her own emotions she painted their faces, but they seemed exhausted to her. This room had always been one where she felt life and laughter, but now it seemed smaller, dirtier, darker. There were no windows so as not to add to the draftiness of the wattle and daub building.

Josephine sighed. The closeting had been hard on all of them. Larisa’s temper had remained as calm as ever, but it must have been a struggle as she fretted over the fate of her betrothed, the Queen’s brother Lorin. Josephine had her own man to worry about, but at least he was not bound and in imminent danger of death. But the children’s own frustration and tempers wore on the two women. Peter had so much stored up energy that he had to expend it however he might, and rather than having the boy take his tension out on his sisters and Tavish, Josephine let him run around and around the rooms to use it up. Tavish was withdrawn, sitting solemnly and quietly, with occasional bouts of crying. The twins were fussy, short tempered, but the odd thing was that the usually ebullient Caithness was far less active than her sister. Elaine seemed stronger somehow, like she needed to take care of her twin. They all seemed exhausted, and Josephine was thankful for their naps.

Each little palette lay on a platform along one wall of the chamber, protected from its imperfect seal by heavy drapes of embroidered wool. The palettes were linen filled with straw in which fragrant herbs were mixed, though their power to refresh was long since smothered. The only other items in the room were a table with stools and the chests in which the children's clothes and toys were stored. She stood to walk over to one that was left open, clothing draped over its side, spilling out onto the rush-strewn floor. Larisa glanced up from her distracted thoughts and looked horrified to see the Queen cleaning up what was her duty. She rushed to take over the task.

"When will they bring the clean clothing and water to wash with, my lady?"

Josephine shook her head, "I do not know. Methinks the Duke is not that concerned with our comfort."

She looked back over the sleeping heads. The children lay now looking damp and wasted. She went over to one of the twins, noticing how red her cheeks were and felt the heat on her forehead. Oh no, her little girl was becoming ill. And if they could not isolate her from the chamber, the others might all become ill as well. Would there be any respite?

Josephine called Larisa over and Lorin’s betrothed put her own hand on the little brow. “Dear Lord,” she breathed.

The Queen stood and went to the main door of the chamber, flinging it open with all her might. The two guards posted on the door were startled, drawing themselves into ward stance. The more senior of the two relaxed when he saw who had suddenly burst from the nursery. “My lady?”

Josephine demanded, “I must see the Duke!”

The man’s face took on an insolent grin. “He’s not at your beck and call, my lady.”

“Nevertheless,” Josephine persisted, “tell him I would speak with him. If you do not I will start screaming and keep screaming until the whole fortress comes to see what is happening.”

The guard looked up at his partner. He looked speculative and then nodded to the younger man. “Get the captain,” he ordered.

As the younger man turned to go, the Queen protested, “I do not want to speak with your captain.”

The guard, who had shifted to a slouch considered her. “You don’t think we can go call on the Duke ourselves do you?” He reached out a hand to finger the decoration on her head dress. She slapped his hand away, glaring furiously at him. He laughed and said, “You will just have to wait. Or you can come out and see the Duke yourself. You are not locked in.”

The Queen made no reply. She had closeted herself in the nursery so that her body would be at least some defense against abuse or worse of the children. She had not stepped further than the threshold since she had entered the rooms many days before.

Josephine crossed her arms over her chest and refused to look at the guard. With her face averted she thought she caught the distinctive coppery color of her bard’s mop of unruly curls start to come into the passageway. Shannon had caught a glance of her in the doorway and stepped back out of sight to observe what transpired.

“Shannon!” the Queen called.

When the Irishman came forth into full view he was unsteady on h is feet. He came over to her and gave her a sweeping bow that nearly upset his balance. She could smell ale on him. She wasn’t surprised that he had continued to drink heavily. He had been since they had arrived back in Lawrencium. His wife leaving and taking his son and his lifelong friend, and her own dear friend, Rory’s hanging had destroyed him.

“Me lady?” he slurred.

“Oh, Shannon, I had hoped you would remember your promise,” she lamented. She put her arms around his neck, surprised at her own impulse to hold him, giving in to the loneliness for a moment. The guard smirked. She shot the man a fiery look.

Then she noticed something odd as Shannon pulled back his head to look into her eyes from inches away. A small man, he was almost of a height with her. As he spoke, she realized that though he smelled of ale, it was not his breath. She quickly covered her puzzled look.

“Promise, me lady? What promise?” He winked at her with the eye away from the guard.

Josephine looked into his eyes for several moments, then released him. “Insolent and familiar as always,” she snapped, but her eyes told him she had gotten the message. He was not drunk at all, but only feigning drunkenness. She had noticed his tunic was a little damp. He had poured ale on himself to smell drunk. “You promised me you would stay sober.”

Shannon repeated the elaborate bow and had to take a step to keep from falling down. “Nay, me lady. That cannae be. I would never be after promisin’ such a thing.”

“Shannon, Caithness is ill,” Josephine stated. She immediately saw his concern. “Why do you not think of someone else for a change and do something to get her help.”

Shannon, his back now entirely to the guard spoke in his inebriated voice but his face was clear and serious. “But me lady, what can I be doin’? I am as much a prisoner here as yourself.” He spoke to her with his eyes.

“Shannon, how did you fall so far? You are completely useless to anyone.” She responded as best she could with a squeeze of his arm, unable to risk giving away his ruse.

“Now then, now then, that is what me darlin’ Heather was ever sayin’. I suppose it must be true.” He tried and aborted another theatrical salute. “Might I come entertain ye?”

Josephine glared at the guard who was again smirking. “I know not, Shannon. I should like that, but methinks my keepers are loathe to leave me alone with anyone.” She looked thoughtful. “Except Elerde…” She ignored the knowing look she received from the guard.

“Elerde, me lady?” Shannon began, but the younger guard was returning, saluted his officer and bowed almost imperceptibly to the Queen, eying the bard who was amusedly eying him back.

“Captain says he will pass along the message when he can, sir,” the messenger reported.

“One of the royal brats is sick,” the other guard informed. He looked at the Queen. “Too bad it’s one of the girls.. I think the Duke would be pleased if it was the boy.. not the orphan, but the prince.”

Josephine thought of the implications of such a statement but it was nothing new. She knew that compared to the threat to Peter’s life, her own and the other children’s fate was not so perilous. Gaylorde would seek a way to kill Lawrence, but he would easily make Peter disappear should he choose to. Why he had not already she could not tell.

“If my daughter is seriously ill and dies, I should not like to see what the King does with your hides when he has rescued the rest of us.”

The guard’s smirk was replaced by a sour look. “What King?” He looked at Shannon. “Get out of here, you drunk. I don’t want you vomiting on my boots.”

Shannon lifted an imaginary cap in salute. “Now that is a fine idea, it is,” he slurred but reeled off with only a slight acknowledging glance at the Queen.

She had said Elerde was allowed to visit her without an escort. When he could move unobserved the Irishman moved more quickly, dropping the drunken charade. He found the Breton mercenary in the guardhouse where he was speaking with Lagu, his own lieutenant.

He looked up at Shannon, then nodded to Lagu. “Take care of that as quickly as you can, understand?” the tall man with the black hair and beard said in Breton. His lieutenant saluted and turned, heading for the stables.

Elerde eyed Shannon coolly. “What do you want, bard?” he asked in a disinterested tone.

Shannon stumbled against him deliberately. “Och, ‘tis just a wee matter, a song I heard in Breton. I dinnae ken the words.. would ye be after helpin’ me out with a translation?”

Elerde looked hard at him. He shook his head.

Shannon proceeded to sing a line of a song in Breton. Elerde concealed his surprise with difficulty. The man had sung “My lady seeks your help. Her daughter is ill.” Elerde realized Shannon could have understood everything he overheard between himself and his lieutenant.

“It means ‘I shall not fail her but make haste to ease her fear,’” the Breton commander “translated”.

Shannon brightened. “Och, that is it, I was sure of it. I thank ye, me lord. I thank ye.”

Elerde pushed Shannon away with a hand against his chest. He felt the same dampness the Queen had on Shannon’s tunic. He pulled his hand away and wiped it disgustedly in a rag he picked up from a side table. “Now get away from me and go sleep it off. You stink.”

Elerde considered the man as he staggered away. Gaylorde, he knew, kept the Irishman around for the chance to laugh at his antics and because he saw him as no more than a buffoon. Elerde realized that the man was in fact quite dangerous. Even dangerous to his own plans. He had to allow the man some grudging respect though, as it had taken some courage to risk revealing himself. If he interfered with Elerde’s careful strategy, that courage could well have been a mistake.

No one had come to check on the nursery since the Queen had fruitlessly demanded the Duke speak with her. She and Larisa had busied themselves rearranging the pallets as best they could so Caithness was somewhat isolated from the other children. Josephine had set Larisa to cleaning the chambers with the small amount of water they had been brought in the morning. The Queen herself swept up the rushes, opening the door and sweeping the dusty straw out into the hall and around the guards’ boots. She spun on her heels and slammed the door behind her. To Larisa she observed fretfully, “Those rushes were starting to molder. Why is it so damp?”

When the Breton appeared in the open doorway left that way by a servant who had brought in a welcome pile of clouts to replace the filthy ones of the three youngest children, for even Tavish had started to wet his bed, he looked around at the chamber. It was neat, as clean as the small amount of water available had been able to accomplish. Nevertheless there was a definite air of deprivation, literally and figuratively. He saw the tiny girl lying on the pallet separated from the others, her mother sitting beside her humming quietly and stroking her hair. His heart surged in his chest at the sight.

“Oh, my lady, I am so sorry. Is she quite ill?” he asked quietly, still standing in the doorway.

Josephine looked up sharply. “Aye, my lord, she has a high fever. I do not have enough clean water for her, to drink or for me to wash her with.” Her look was angry, frustrated. She returned her attention to Caithness whose pale hair was dark and matted with perspiration and lack of washing.

Elerde called out, “Guard!” When the man’s face appeared over his shoulder, he demanded, “Send for water, clean water and plenty of it.”

“But lord, the Duke..” the man whined.

“Damn the Duke, do as I say. And why are there no rushes on the floor? These rooms need air. Why are the doors always closed?” Elerde was looking around the room, making mental note of what Josephine needed.

She spoke up. “That is my doing, my lord. If you think the air is fetid in here, then you are somehow able to overlook the stink that comes in from the rest of the fortress.” She was frowning, but also looking around. “We need clean blankets, changes of clothing for myself and Larisa, herbs for the rushes, a tub for washing. And we need my confessor.”

The Breton looked back at the guard. “Do it. And fetch a healer.”

“Eormenthryth,” the Queen supplied the name of a woman from a nearby village.

Elerde repeated, “Eormenthryth. And quickly.”

Josephine looked at him as the guard hurried to his tasks. “Thank you,” she said quietly and simply.

He looked back at her. He nodded sharply. “If you need anything else, have your priest tell me.”

“I need all this to have never happened,” she answered, looking away.

Elerde nodded again, though she did not see it. “That, my lady, I cannot do.”

Josephine shot him a damning look but said nothing. She looked back at her child.

“Your leave, my lady,” the man who loved her with all his heart said simply, then turned and left the chamber.

Next: Crossing His Bridges

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About the author

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