Left: A drawing of Shannon O'Neill from the 1960s.
"We have to get something to eat," Shannon commented, rubbing his empty belly. "That bread and cheese that the old woman put in your saddle bags is all but gone."
The Queen, walking alongside her companion, nodded. "How do we get food?"
Shannon grinned. "That is the one thing I have ne'er had trouble getting'," he laughed. "Well, one of two things." He gave the Queen a wicked grin. She ignored it. "We just need a village or e'en just a cottage, and me lute."
Josephine replied, "Of course! Rory told me that's how you both lived when on a journey. You never lacked for food and a place to sleep."
"We need to be thinkin' about how to disguise ye the more, me lady." He surveyed her appearance. "Not bad, the clothing and the hair and dirt, but ye need to do something about your bearin'. 'Tis too confident."
Josephine stopped where she walked and stared at him. "How do I change that?"
She started walking again as the Irishman strode along, a finger to his stubbled chin thinking hard.
"Try this," he said at last. "Imagine you are tired and full of sadness…"
"That should not be difficult. I am tired and sad." The Queen took a deep breath and tried to let her posture droop.
"More tired and more full of sadness."
The Queen sighed and tried harder.
"That be some better," Shannon said.
"What about my speech? I cannot mimic your brogue. Remember I tried that day in your.. your room." Josephine colored slightly at the memory.
"I be thinkin' we should have ye able only to speak Irish. I can give ye a few words to say if called on. I shall tell anyone that ye are me woman and speak not English nor Brythonic. Ye will understand all that is said 'tween them and me, but ye shall pretend ye cannae." Shannon pulled a strip of branch off a sapling he was passing and started to wave it in the air as he walked. "I will speak with ye in Irish. Ye will know what the question was and can answer with the phrases I give ye or just nod or shake your head." He glanced over at her. "The hard part will be avoidin' lettin' it show that ye understood what anyone says but me."
Josephine nodded. "I think that I can manage that."
Not long after Shannon and the Queen started to smell wood smoke and the faint scent of people and animals living in close contact with each other. "That be a cotter, methinks." Shannon gestured for the Queen to stand where she was while he gingerly went forward.
When he turned back to her she had come forward with him and was right behind him. She smiled. "You did not think I was going to cower in the shadows while you took the chance, did you?"
"Now I ken that ye shallnae," he replied sardonically. He whispered. "Now try those things I taught ye."
Josephine repeated the few phrases he had offered, trying to say them with the lilt Shannon had.
"Well, ye can always just nod or shake your head. Remember 'tis most important to hide that ye can understand them, not as much that ye can understand me. Aye?" His voice had taken on an impatient tone. Though she rarely if ever heard that in words spoken to her, she said nothing about it but replied with the phrase that he said meant that she agreed.
He looked at her a moment. "I be wonderin' if we need to plan an escape? Or mayhap I should go alone."
Now her temper did flare. "Do not be impertinent."
He shrugged. "We may as well go. Why put it off?"
Josephine took another deep breath and tried to sink into her tired and sorrowful demeanor. "I am sorry, Shannon. I promise to do my best."
Shannon grinned at her, then turned and walked purposefully towards the farmhouse. The Queen stayed slightly behind him as he had instructed.
Just as Rory had told her the people they encountered traded suspicious looks for broad smiles when they saw how Shannon was dressed in many colors and that he carried a lute. They welcomed him and Josephine warmly and quickly ushered them into the house to have some mead. The woman who appeared to be the goodwife started to speak to Josephine, but Shannon cut in. "Och, ye cannae speak with her, lass. She dinnae speak a word of your language."
The woman looked at her and seemed uncertain what to do. Then she just put a hand on Josephine's arm and pulled her along, sharing with her the universal language of hospitality.
Shannon chattered so that the Queen wondered if she or anyone else would have much of a chance to speak. He introduced her as his woman, Fiona, and led her to a stool away from the family. The goodwife looked disapproving of this but said nothing. When she brought out bread and cheese, she asked "Fiona" if she was hungry. Josephine stayed mute. Shannon "translated" and only then did she nod vigorously. When the goodwife gave her a bowl of mead and some food, she murmured the words Shannon had told her meant "I thank you".
Shannon sang and played his lute, much to the family's joy. The Queen sat and listened as well, just happy to have a full belly and to be warm. The children of the house stared at her from a distance at first, then came to look at and talk to her. The mother scolded them, explaining that the lass could not speak to them. This fascinated them the more.
As dusk was gathering and the goodwife stood to take the bowls and other dishes out to wash, Shannon gave the Queen an almost imperceptible nod. She interpreted this as meaning she should follow and help. She trailed after the woman, the children dashing out at the same time and running off in all directions.
As they worked the mother tried to converse with the Queen. Josephine kept her wits about her and simply nodded and smiled at everything she said. "He's not a bad looking man you have there, Fiona. But it must be hard to be traveling all the time. Still that's better than having him go off and leave you. Who knows what he would be up to then? Do you have any children? No I do not suppose you can have with all the traveling. Poor mite. Children are such a blessing."
Josephine realized at one point that Shannon and the man had come out, and now they were sitting on stools outside. Both had clearly had enough of the strong sweet mead to make the man almost as garrulous as Shannon. She listened absently to their conversation as she helped the goodwife get her children ready to sleep.
Her attention was caught when she heard the husband speak the King's name. She stifled a start, but could not help but look over at the two men. She caught Shannon's cautioning look. She cast down her eyes and pretended to hear nothing.
"I have no love for the King," the man said. "The Saxon king that is. Now King Maegwig may not be the rightful heir, but that queen's brother turned the throne down. Whoever heard of such a craven choice? And her cousins are allied with the Saxon. Better that fool Maegwig than the Saxon any day, I will say."
Shannon's cheeks flushed. He tried to change the subject by asking questions about the towns up river. But the man would not be led. "As for the Queen, I cannot blame her. She is but a woman and must do as she is told. What matter if the man who rules her is one of us or a Saxon? I am sure the savage keeps her well in line, more's the better." He shot his wife a challenging look. She ignored him.
He interrupted Shannon's next attempt to distract him, and fortunately did not seem to notice the color growing in both his and "Fiona's" faces. "That Saxon has been sitting idle by the fortress all this time. No doubt wise to avoid encountering the forces there. And now I hear from a peddler that the supply lines have been cut and he has no means of getting food for his army. That The pillaging will start soon, if it has not already been going on. On his best behavior has the Saxon dog been, but his true nature will out soon enough."
Shannon, seeing the storm building in Josephine's face suddenly shot up and announced, "Well, then, we must be after goin' on our way!"
The goodwife, who had been watching the Queen's quickly mounting anger, protested. "Nay, nay, can you not stay the night with us? You cannot find shelter soon enough ere dark if you leave this soon!"
Josephine took her emotions in hand and subsided. She said something to Shannon in a pleading voice that the meaning of the words did not match but Shannon got the message. He looked long at her and then shrugged. "Well, then I suppose we can stay. Thank you, good people. I think 'tis time my woman and I made our bed in your cowshed." He said something in Irish and Josephine smiled and nodded.
In the morning, as she was pulling straws of hay from her clothing Josephine found she was not alone by the well. The goodwife had come up beside her.
"Never fear, my lady. And do not listen to that blowhard, my man. He is as afraid as anyone of this war and misses the peace your dear husband has brought us. And I shall not breathe a word to anyone that you were here. Now do not say a word. Just go with God." The woman pressed a parcel of bread and cheese into the Queen's hands. She smiled, put a finger to her lips, and made the slightest curtsy.
Later that day as the sun was directly overhead, Shannon leaned back against a tree and closed his eyes. "Ye did well, me lady. No one suspected a thing."
Josephine was glad his eyes were shut so he would not have seen her knowing smile. "Shannon, you are many men, are you not?"
He opened his eyes with surprise and asked, "Me lady, how d'ye mean?"
Josephine leaned back against her own tree and considered. "You seem so happy-go-lucky, as if you had not a serious bone in your whole body. Of course I have seen you sad and grieving for the loss of your family, but even then you did your best to make light of how you felt. But on this unwonted journey I have found you not only a serious man, but witty, intelligent, crafty, thoughtful and even sweet."
Shannon scratched his head. "Dinnae let that fool ye, me lady. Your first impression is the truth. I be as transparent as a dragonfly's wings. He grinned his crooked grin at her exasperated sigh.
"The man said we should get to Hucknall by the late after noon. Get some rest now so we can hurry after." He leaned back and closed his eyes again, starting to hum a tune that relaxed Josephine and caused her to drift to sleep.
Next: "They Hanged Him."
Before there was the novel, there were the stories...
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
New Stories: Continued Flight South (Happened)
Left: A drawing of Shannon O'Neill from the 1960s.