lerde sat in the hall near the firepit and glared at the messenger. "She what?" he snapped.
"Lord, sir, I mean. She was reunited with the King at his camp. Then she left again." The messenger slapped a glove back and forth contemptuously, unimpressed with this minor mercenary captain."
"Who sent you to tell me this?" Elerde responded, with as much contempt as he could muster, which was considerable.
The messenger just looked irritated. "I had standing orders."
"All right then, you may go." The Breton's thoughts were already turning inward. He sat, slouched in the big chair, one elbow on the arm and his fingers scratching his ear absently.
The messenger cleared his throat. "No reply to the message?"
Elerde looked up at him again from under thick black eyebrows. "How can I send a message if there is no one to send it to? Unless you can identify who sent you…"
The messenger coughed, bowed stiffly, spun and left the chamber.
Elerde felt himself torn between relief that Josephine was on her way out of Affynshire and frustration with her no longer being where he could keep an eye on her. Since his entry into the plot Malcolm had hatched it seemed that nothing had been quite as Elerde had expected or indeed planned. His initial purpose was to use Malcolm's ambition to hurt King Lawrence. He wanted the man to have strife and conflict all his life, his short life if Elerde had his way. So he had thrown in his lot with the conspirators and even partnered with Malcolm as his chief lieutenant.
Then just as the take over was to have started, Elerde learned that while he had been in Mercia preparing the recruits for insurrection, the Queen, his beloved Josephine, had come to her native country to visit her dying uncle. He could not persuade Malcolm to delay until she was home. On the contrary, Malcolm was triumpahnt. He warned Elerde that any interference with capturing the Queen from him could be deadly for the Breton. Nevertheless when Elerde got to her family's stronghold at Keito Uxello, he let her escape, warning her that the only safe plan was to go home to Críslicland. Of course, she had instead joined her cousins to resist the puppet king Malcolm had put on the hitherto empty throne.
Malcolm was no fool. He figured out quickly that Elerde was dissembling about the whereabouts of the Queen. He deftly changed lieutenants so that Elerde was now under the savage Irishman, O'Donnell. He knew then that any chance he had of finding and persuading Josephine to flee was lost. Then came that astonishing encounter with her and her cousins in the woods where the Irishman had been about to take the Queen but inexplicably chosen to take the bard Rory instead. That could mean only one thing. The man wanted the bard more than he wanted all the riches Malcolm would have given him. But why had Rory agreed? Elerde knew well. Rory loved the Queen as much as he did. His act of self sacrifice, no matter what became of him, struck the Breton mercenary almost speechless. Could he have acted so selflessly for her? He did not know.
So she had got away. Good. In the meantime he was stuck at Horsfort in the north playing jailor to her eldest cousin Ruallauh, the most celebrated archer in this kingdom and beyond, and now Earl of Keito Uxello. Could things get any more complicated and dangerous?
"Aye," he thought. "It could.. if the Queen does not make it back to Lawrencium, and even then…"
He was remembering how King Lawrence's cousin Gaylorde had approached him, artfully proposing treason against the king. He had tried to be obscure, but Elerde had dealt with much more subtle minds than this one's. There was going to be a usurping. The war in Affynshire had fit into Gaylorde's own nefarious plans rather fortunately. He could wait for the king's army to be at its most critical point and then seize the throne of Críslicland.
Of course, the Breton mused, that meant Josephine was escaping Malcolm's clutches only to be thrown into Gaylorde's. Soothly, he trusted Malcolm not to harm her more than he did the king's cousin. He thought of her children, in particular the heir, tiny Prince Peter. A child not likely even to see four winters.
Elerde sat up. He knew what he had to do. He had had enough of humiliating Lawrence. There was a greater purpose for his actions now. He must desert Malcolm's cabal and find his way to Gaylorde. He would throw in his lot with the blackguard in order to gain access to Josephine and her children and persuade her to flee to Brittany with him for the children's sake.
He called for his chief lieutenant. When the man had come and struck his chest with his fist in respect, Elerde told him, "Lagu, we have outstayed our purpose here."
The man nodded slightly in reply, eying his commander speculatively. "Sir?"
"Make the men ready to leave for Keito Uxello. We will take it for the Queen's family, then we shall all leave Affynshire, hopefully never to set foot in it again. " Elerde stood and walked to a window opening. "We are going to Críslicland."
He did not see Lagu's sardonic smile. "Sobeit," the man was thinking. "We follow my lord's leman." Aloud he asked, "And sir, in Críslicland, we shall…?" he waited.
Elerde turned a baleful eye to Lagu. "That is all. Go do as you are commanded."
"But sir," Lagu pursued. "What of the Earl?"
Elerde turned his eyes back to the window. "Get a horse and weapons ready for him, then bring him to me. No questions, Lagu. I warn you." He thought a moment. "And have that messenger followed and killed. "
Lagu bowed to his back and left him alone in the chamber.
The Breton commander sighed as he looked out to the southeast and thought of Brittany, his home. He summoned his squire to get his own kit together and prepare to leave with the party. The fortress was home to Malcolm's own household guard. The Breton sent for Lagu again and gave him orders to round them up and place them in irons. Then Elerde waited for the Earl to be brought to him.
Ruallauh had tried to make conversation with Elerde on the ride to Horsfort. Elerde had spoken little, appeared vexed. He was not prepared for what the Breton told him as the guards brought him into his presence from the hut where he had been imprisoned. He had known something odd was afoot since he had passed a group of Malcolm's soldiers as they were led to take his place.
He entered the chamber to find the Breton being armed by his squire. He nodded a perceptible bow which was returned. "Sir?"
"There is a horse made ready for you in the courtyard. You will leave Horsfort with an armed force. They will take you to the crossroads to Ratherwood. You will be given your weapons and sent on your way. You will go only to Ratherwood, to the Saxon king's camp. Not to Keito Uxello. Do you understand?" Elerde's voice was even and firm.
Ruallauh stared back at him. "Nay, sir, I do not understand. What is this about?"
"You need not concern yourself with that. I meant, do you understand your orders?" Elerde's dark eyes glared at him.
Ruallauh paused but replied, "Aye, I understand. I am to go to my cousin's husband the king and nowhere else. Am I released?"
Elerde nodded sharply. As Ruallauh turned to go, he added in a more thoughtful manner, "She's safe. She's back in Críslicland."
Ruallauh stopped in mid-turn and looked at the man. "Thank you," he said with real gratitude.
"Now go," came Elerde's answer. It was not said warmly.
Next: The Retaking of Keito Uxello
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