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
Saturday, November 7, 2009
New Stories: Help from an Unexpected Quarter (Happened)
Feeling a little bad at trouncing the reputation of poor unsuspecting Hucknall in Nottighamshire, I wrote to their newspaper and offered them a copy of my novel in recompense. The fellow who replied, Martin Hutton, was curious where I had even heard of the town -- I told him "a map" -- and he accepted my offer. Sadly the copy I sent never made it to him and he did not reply to my future offer. So let this be my official apology.. especially when you read the very last scene in the book besides the Epologue. Just remember, it wasn't Hucknall but the interlopers during the takeover who were responsible for Rory's fate. OK? The image above is Hucknall's marketplace in 1860.
All Saint's 769
The officer stood before the lieutenant commander, speaking in a soft but respectful voice. "He was Irish, sir. From Ulster. And a bard."
Roddy MacDhui stood slightly turned away from the man, but his eyes stared directly into his. "This man in the tavern, the Irishman. He reacted strongly to the news that McGuinness was dead?"
"Strongly indeed. After sitting relaxed and only a trifle drunk, he bolted up and out of the tavern with a look of a man who has taken a terrible blow to the belly." This was the officer who had the night before told Shannon O'Neill in the tavern of the hanging of the spy, Rory McGuinness. What he had guessed at the true reason for the tall man's death he had not intimated to O'Neill nor would he ever let on his suspicions to MacDhui.
"And you say the wench took him home to her hut?" MacDhui was handling his leather gloves as he looked down consideringly.
"That is what she said when she came back. Said the man had drunk too much or might be sick. She made a jest of it, sir, for she had hoped to have use of him the night."
MacDhui looked back at the man. "And you have not seen him this morning? He said his name was, what? MacSweeney?"
Assured that the man had not yet been seen abroad and that that indeed had been the name he gave, MacDhui thanked the man, commanded him to keep the information close to his chest if he expected to gain by his intelligence, and dismissed him.
The Scot called to his servant to get his horse saddled and ready for a ride. He had business in the town but would be back later if he needed to go outside the walls. As MacDhui glanced about to make sure his own commander.. and lover.. O'Donnell was not out in the yard, then called over his own trusted aide and gestured for him to accompany him into the warren of small, cramped buildings that was Hucknall.
"You might find this hard to believe, Douglas, but I am off to find a tavern wench." MacDhui threw a hint of a sardonic grin at his aide.
"Sir, if you need a wench, I have every confidence you know what for." The two had an easy camaraderie, MacDhui's candor with Douglas providing a release for the tensions of dealing with an often volatile and unpredictable commander and life partner. Douglas was an old warrior, knew perfectly well the sorts of relationships between men particularly among hired swords, and had turned his own discretion and acceptance to his own ambition. That he was a Scot like MacDhui had helped as well.
Not finding the wench Gulda at the tavern, Douglas directed his commander to her little hut not far at all from its door. He rapped, got a sleepy answer, and pushed through. He winced at the smell of urine, but held the door open so MacDhui could stand on the threshold. MacDhui's nose twitched but he made no comment.
Gulda dragged herself up sleepily from the blanket covered straw and pulled a cloak around her simple undershift. She reached to her hair but seemed to forsake the attempt to tidy it. "My lord, I have not seen you here before. It is early, but I am sure I can accommodate you…"
"All I want from you, dear girl, is the Irishman you slept here with last night. He's not here, I see. When did he leave?"
Gulda smiled ruefully. "All he left me was a wet bed… and too late at night to go fetch dry straw. He was gone ere I came back to my bed." She looked wistful. "I know not where. I had hoped.."
MacDhui gave the woman a slight bow. "Never mind that. I hear he was sick?"
"More than sick, sir. He was racked with sobs. I have ne'er seen a grown man cry like that. I could not get a word out of him as to why."
"And did he give you any idea of his name, where he was from?"
Gulda looked up at Douglas, then back at MacDhui. "MacSweeny methinks.. and he was Irish like.. like your commander. He asked about that other Irishman. The one that was hanged. He said he thought he had seen him elsewhere, in a tavern, and wondered if he'd been the spy who was done in. He was terrible unhappy when I described the man."
MacDhui nodded. He turned to Douglas and said, "Reward her for her help." Then as the man tossed a few copper s on the floor, he turned back to Gulda. "Speak not of this, it is not fit for gossip, We think the man was a confederate of the spy. If we catch him, we will no doubt set him to dance upon the same gibbet as his fellow."
Gulda watched appreciatively as the lieutenant and his aide walked away. She sighed, then shut her door.
MacDhui was able to learn little more in the town. A guard at the gate however had seen the bard stumbling towards the gate and thinking the garrison would be better off if this man, who was ill and could have been contagious, left,. So he had opened the gate for the man and given him a hearty shove to hurry him on his way. He had seen him take the north road. That was all he could impart. The lieutenant thanked him, then told him to speak to no one about what he knew if he knew what was good for him.
"We will mount and ride up the road a distance. If he was that ill, he could not have gotten far." MacDhui walked briskly towards the gate of the inner stockade.
"Why do you think he left at all, sir?" Douglas asked curiously.
MacDhui shrugged. "Mayhap he was afraid of detection after his reaction and knew his skin was at risk if he stayed. Mayhap he has another confederate waiting outside the town. I do not know."
Josephine and Shannon were in the priest's small cottage where the latter was happily waiting on them, comforting them, and just happy for the company, even if grief stricken.
He had come into the little church to say mass to find the Queen lying asleep on the floor before the altar with a red headed man lying with his head on her legs. His first fear had been that there had been some sort of violence done here. But his sharp intake of breath woke Josephine who said aloud, "Who is it?" She realized her muteness was now revealed as a lie, sat up and shook herself awake, dislodging Shannon who sighed and curled up again on the cold floor and went back to sleep.
The priest forgot all about saying mass, and since no one came to hear it very often this early in the morning these days, it was not missed. He came to Josephine and sat next to her on the altar step. "You can speak?"
Josephine sighed and nodded. "I am sorry I lied to you, Father. I need to stay disguised and my companion here and I thought it was best if I did not talk."
"You are of high birth and education, I should say," he observed as Josephine coaxed Shannon closer to her so he would at least get some of her body heat. "And he?"
Josephine smiled wistfully and fondly. "He is my friend."
"Is he drunk or ill?" The priest had noticed how much he smelled, but made no mention of it.
"He is broken with grief. He found out last night that his lifelong friend and comrade.. and my friend as well.. had been killed." Her face took on a haunted look. She put one palm up to her cheek and let her head loll against it.
"Killed? God rest his soul, the poor man. Was it in battle?" The priest laid a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"Nay, he was hanged. In Hucknall." Josephine lanced up at the paintings on the walls of St. Dismas. It was too dark to see them but they were clear in her mind. She appeared to come to some revelation, then laughed sorrowfully. "I had thought it a good omen when I saw the images of Saint Dismas… I thought, the patron of prisoners will help our dear friend. I had forgotten that he is the patron of condemned prisoners."
She looked into the priest's face. "May we go and take my friend here into your cottage? I am afraid he will catch a chill here."
The priest had responded with alacrity to the request for help and between them they managed to wake Shannon enough to get him to rise and come with them. He seemed confused, but as dawn light hit his eyes he remembered and moaned pitifully. He said nothing more.
Shannon said very little as Josephine and the priest cleaned him up as well as they could, got some warm ale and later broth into him. Josephine had brought his lute but Shannon did not even look at it. He sat at the small crude table nearest the fire and stared into the flames, occasionally bowing his head as if in pain or prayer.
Josephine told the priest everything. He listened patiently and attentively. His demeanor told her he could be trusted and that all he wanted to do was take care of them as long as they needed. She herself was frozen into a sort of limbo between grief and disbelief.
Hers and the priest's heads looked up as they heard hoofbeats. Shannon continued to gaze into the fire. The priest rose and went to the door. He opened it and stepped through quickly, shutting it again behind him. The Queen could hear him speaking with a man outside.
"Good morrow, my lord. Are you here to take mass?"
A Scots voice replied, "Nay, Father, but looking for another revelation. I am seeking an Irishman who is ill or drunk. I mean him no harm. In fact I want to help him if I can."
The priest lied, "I have seen no such man. Are you certain he came this way?"
"Aye, he was seen leaving the town gate late art might. The gatekeeper thought he might be afflicted with contagion. I could not let him wander in the cold without help." MacDhui smiled as warmly as he could manage.
"Are you both from the garrison then? O'Donnell's men?"
Shannon now sat up. He breathed O'Donnell!" and rose. Before Josephine could get to him he had gone to the door and while trying to pull it open, shook it violently. "O'Donnell, I'll kill ye!" he said through tears.
MacDhui and Douglas both stared at the quaking door. They each drew their swords and dismounted. "Who is in there, priest," the lieutenant asked sternly.
The priest crossed himself, said a quick prayer, and replied, "You can put away your weapons, if you truly mean him no harm. 'Tis the man you seek, and a woman who was with him and cannot speak."
MacDhui's eyebrows shot up. "A woman?" He pulled himself up to his full height, glanced at Douglas, and as he sheathed his sword said, "Stay out here, Douglas. I will be safe."
Douglas frowned but sheathed his sword as well and stood fixed.
MacDhui could now hear a woman whispering and cajoling the Irishman to step away from the door, He heard the man's cry of frustration. He pushed the door but stood as far back as he could as it opened. There before him was a mop haired man in motley, gazing at him with a face swollen with tears, drink, sickness, who knows. And there was a woman clinging to his arm, not for support but as if to restrain him. It did not look like the man needed restraining.. he was collapsing into himself.
"Better get him to a seat," MacDhui said and came forward to hold the man up while the woman fetched a stool. They got him onto it where he crumpled but did not fall.
The Scot turned to regard the woman. His eyes were bright and inquisitive. He examined her clothes. Unexpectedly he reached and gently pulled off her linen scarf. He looked at what must be golden hair when it was clean and tidy.
He bowed slightly and said, "Your majesty. I am Roddy MacDhui, the lieutenant commander of this garrison. That makes me your enemy, I know, but that is out of my loyalty to my commander, not a desire to harm you or your royal husband." He looked at Shannon, "Or your friends."
It had been her dignity that had given her away, and MacDhui's knowing that the Queen could well have been in company with an Irish bard. He had realized that she must have escaped Ormyngel's raids and found her way south to find a way to cross into Christenlande.
"Does that lack of desire to harm my friends extend to the man you hanged a fortnight ago?" Josephine had taken her habitual serene and strong posture and stared at his face with blazing eyes.
MacDhui neither wanted to nor felt he could reveal anything about spiriting McGuinness away and thereby delivering him from execution. He bowed his head. "Even had we known just who he was, we had no choice. He was a spy."
Shannon's head went up. "Spy? He was no spy! Your commander just could not take being jilted."
Josephine put her hand on Shannon's shoulder. MacDhui cast his eyes down and did not reply.
"What do you mean to do with us, sir?" Josephine said sharply. "Take us to O'Donnell?"
The Scot looked at her. "Nay, my lady. I am going to help you escape over the Trent into Christenlande."
Next: Deliverance from an Unexpected Quarter