The ferryman, with just enough silver in his pouch to keep him silent, rowed slowly across the River Trent singing an off tune melody to himself. In the aft of the little boat, happy to have the cover of a moonless and starless night, Josephine sat with her arm around Shannon, holding him to her side. Shannon sat by her staring at the water as the oar slipped out of it on the way up and over and back into the river.
They could no longer see MacDhui on the bank on the Affynshire side. He had kept to his promise, leaving them with the priest and then returning to take them secretly cross country to the river and dock where the ferry waited to take over to Christenlande. Just before she stepped into the small craft the Queen turned the Scot and ask, "Why are you doing this?" The man had just smiled thinly and had not answered.
He stood now, listening to the fading sounds of the oars in the water. "If you could but know, my lady, all that I could tell you," he was thinking. "That your friend is indeed alive and escaped, that I saved him, and that my lord O'Donnell's peace and trust are more important to me than you, your king, your friend's grief, or these two warring kingdoms for that matter. Feel kindly or bitterly towards me. It matters not." He turned and mounted his horse, setting out again towards Hucknall, knowing he had kept any further impact from the appearance of Rory McGuinness at O'Donnell's side from coming between himself and his love evermore.
Josephine felt more numb than any other sensation. When she and Shannon had fled Ormyngel's raiders the flight had been an adventure, a challenge, exciting. With the news that Rory had hanged struck each of them it was like a ship where the wind has died and the vessel sitting adrift, as good as rooted to the spot, though for her it was a mental paralysis rather than a spot in the sea. The most she could manage was attendance to Shannon's needs. He was listless, absent, prone to silent tears. H seem deflated, smaller, even his red curls seemed lank and fading. In short, all the color and the joie de vivre he could conjure around him was gone.
Josephine heard the sound of wood scraping wood on the Christenlandian side of the river. The ferryman moored the boat to one of the supports for the dock, then reached to take her hand and help her disembark. She told him to help Shannon first, as that would need one of them on each side of the man. Shannon followed their urgings like a small child follows along holding his mother's hand in his.
Josephine's first sensation when her feet were firmly on land was relief that she was no longer in danger. She was home. It struck her that this was but her adopted home. The danger had been in the land that was her birthright. She thought of her husband, still in Affynshire, still in grave danger, still at war. To push away her fears and loneliness, she forced herself to think of her children and how she would be with them very soon. This side of the river the air smelled sweeter, it seemed warmer, and she knew when the sun was up, it would be brighter and even in November the land would be glorious with color and life.
Then with the relief of safety the floodgates of awareness flew open. The numb feeling slid away. It had been like something loosely put in a mill rave to slow but not stop the water flow. With nothing shoved up against it, understanding of what had happened to Rory flooded in. With Shannon standing downcast next to her, Josephine let out a deep sigh and sank to sit on a low railing built onto the dock.
Rory had taken her place as O'Donnell's prisoner. He had done so without a moment's hesitation, even gladly. She had wondered what would happen to him, but had had plenty of distractions, from her reunion with the King and then the desperate flight south, to keep her from delving too deeply into the possibilities. She had known intellectually that Rory would be forced to choose between accepting O'Donnell's sexual demands or refuse them. Shannon had been certain he would refuse them, and neither of them had thought it through any further. If Lawrence had, he had not spoken of it. Now she knew what came next. He had rejected the man. The man at the tavern had told Shannon Rory tried to kill him. She did not believe it. Rory could not kill in cold blood. She had never been able to reconcile gentle Rory with the warrior he had been in Ireland.
With a jolt the image of Rory dragged to the gallows, then dangling, kicking, choking, his eyes bulging as he struggled to breathe, hit her with a visceral wallop. She could not prevent a moan from issuing from her lips. The ferryman, rowing to the other side of the river again, looked up from his oars to see what had happened. But she was just sitting there, next to the mute Irishman, with her hands over her face.
Hearting her moan, which she now had clamped her teeth and lips over, Shannon came to himself. He looked at her with wide eyes. "'Tis true then? He's gone?"
Josephine took her hands from her damp eyes and looked at him. She nodded. "I can't get the image of him choking out of my mind," she breathed.
Shannon's face screwed up as he answered, "Nor can I." They put their arms around each other and wept quietly into each other's shoulders.
Soon Josephine could feel the damp coalescing on her arms where they were around Shannon and realized that the dew must be forming. It was just near dawn. She squeezed Shannon and lifted her head. "I suppose we should be on our way to Grantham. There we can get horses and an escort home."
Shannon looked at her and said, "The ferryman said there was a monastery nearby here. Should we not look in there to wash and get food, mounts?"
Josephine shook her head. "I want to get HOME, to Lawrencium, to Peter and Caithness and Elaine and Tavish and my brother Lorin and all." She saw Shannon's face and realized he no longer had anyone in Lawrencium. "Shannon, you have me and the children. You will have Lawrence when he returns. You know we love and could never do without you. Come home with me. I will care for you as long as you need it."
Shannon smiled through damp eyes. "Come on, Fiona," he jested. "The walk will do us good." The two stood and arm in arm set their feet on the road southeast to Grantham.
In the monastery, which they could see lit by a few torches beyond the trees in the early morning half light, the Brother Infirmarian tut-tutted over his patient. "My son, you were badly beaten and will take some time to heal. But you are alive. Thank God for that."
Rory winced with pain as he tried to move his leg. "I do, Brother, I do. With all me heart."
"I must be off to Matins. I will come back and pray with you after. Can I bring you anything?"
Rory shook his head and tried to smile. His jaw was broken and still ached horribly. "I think I'll just get some more sleep."
"You do that, my boy. You have a long recovery before you. You can stay her as long as you need to heal." The monk made a benediction over him and turned and went away.
Next: Skirmish on the Road to Lincoln
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