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
Monday, November 2, 2009
New Stories: Lawrence learns of the Attack (Happened)
"My liege, that is one of the Queen's escort!"
The King's head whipped toward his aide, Edred, at the sound of the word "queen". Days prior he had watched her party leave heading east on the old Roman road to Lincoln and smiled, content that soon she would be across the Cromwell bridge and safe in Christenlande, as good as home with their children. He had congratulated himself on getting her to safety. Then he had focused all his energies and attention on breaking the stalemate with the usurpers in the fortress.
He strode briskly with Edred to meet the man as he approached the encampment. His eyes were wary of what news the man would have, though they also told him the man was hurrying but did not seem to be frantic. Perhaps it was just a relay from one of the guard posts along the way.
The mounted man saluted and bowed as he reined in his horse. "Sire, the captain of the escort sent me back here…"
"Aye, aye, is the Queen well?" Lawrence demanded impatiently.
"She was well when I left them, lord," he replied.
Lawrence's face muscles relaxed. "Dismount and come and tell me all."
A soldier had hold of the horse's bridle, and the newly arrived man gratefully slid off his mount. Another soldier handed him a cup of ale. He took it and held it to his lips, all the while trying to keep up with the tall King's long rapid stride.
At the central campfire the King gestured for the man to sit. He himself sat nearby and leaned forward, his forearms on his knees, and urged the man to tell his story. "When was this?"
"Lord, it was yesterday, midmorning or so. We were about seven leagues or so from the bridge on the Trent. Captain had marked that there had not been a post at the proper intervals for some short distance. He sent a scout to inquire ahead, and then sent me hear to inform you."
Lawrence chewed his lower lip. "Had there been any signs of fighting?"
"Nay, sire, not that we beheld." The man kept his eyes slightly averted from the King's direct gaze out of respect.
Lawrence reached a hand and grasped the man's shoulder. "Good man. I will send a force to help the escort if they need it. Did your captain have any sense of what may have happened to the posts?"
Much moved by the King's gesture, the man smiled. "Just that they may have strayed from duty, to hunt or just out of boredom." His smile vanished when the King frowned.
Lawrence stood and barked at Edred, "Get a force together and send them quickly to see what the escort learned. If those soldiers have deserted their posts, they will not like the consequences."
Edred nodded sharply, bowed and dashed to follow the command.
"Prepare an armed party to investigate. Then get my arms ready."
"You are leaving, sire?" Edred blurted out.
"Nay, I am going to go swimming in the Don," he retorted acidly. "Get to it without delay." He stayed to ask the men more questions about the location and time of the incident, his face grim.
The commanders gathered at the cottage that was the King's headquarters and billet. As Edred helped Lawrence into his thickly padded leather gambeson over which he would wear his waist length mail shirt, they argued with him about going himself to find out what had happened on the road.
"You do not need to go yourself, my lord, " urged Horsa, the supreme commander of the King's forces after the King himself. "Send one of us if you feel it needs a high ranking leader, but not yourself."
Lawrence ignored the older man, attending instead to what his aide was doing. "Tighter there," he told him as the man buckled on greaves to protect the King's legs.
Sagar was only slightly less blunt. "Lord, beg pardon, but 'tis likely nothing."
Lawrence looked up, his eyes ablaze. "Nothing? The Queen's well being is nothing? That is the mother of your next King, do you not realize?"
The four commanders exchanged guarded looks. Jehan of Grantham sighed, shrugged and stepped back to lean against the wall, signaling his surrender from the argument. Botopher of Skirbeck was not so willing to yield. "Your majesty, what do you think your absence will tell the fortress?"
"I do not give a damn what Malcolm thinks. I need to do what's right, mayhap for the first time in this God damned war!" Lawrence's face registered his own slip. He pursued, "I will not let her down again." He clenched his jaw, giving each man a look that said, "Say something and you will regret it."
Only Horsa reacted visibly at all, lowering his chin to his chest and frowning. "Sagar, Botopher and Jehan, go on and put together the force as my lord has commanded. I will be out to help in a little while."
The men, all strong and confident fighters, subsided and, bowing to the King, then to Horsa, they left the cottage. Horsa waited, then looked up at the King, whose face was challenging him to speak. Edred continued to armor him, tying leather cords where the mail sections came together.
"Do you have something to add?" Lawrence demanded.
Horsa sighed. "Your leave to speak candidly, my king?"
Lawrence paused, nodded sharply, then turned his attention back to Edred's ministrations.
Horsa spoke. "My lord, none of us missed your statement about doing something right. May I ask, what have you done wrong?"
"Nay, you may not ask. But I will say this, that my actions and inaction have combined to create this entire situation. It is my responsibility, and I shall make it right."
"My lord, we need you here…" the older Angle started.
"That is all. I shall not be dissuaded. I will meet with you and the others in one half hour. Leave me. You as well, Edred. Send the priest in." Lawrence's posture and face punctuated his words.
As they left, and as the King waited for the priest, he walked to the screen that separated the sleeping space from the rest of the cottage. He stood in his full armor, his helm under his arm, and gazed at where just days before his wife's head had lain on the pillow and where they had made love. His expression became angry and determined.
The priest came in quietly and bowed. Lawrence turned to face him. He nodded to the only stool in the cottage. "Sit, Father. I will make my confession." The priest, knowing that the King would soon be pacing and never sat during confession, accepted the seat. Lawrence got on his knees, crossed himself and put his hands together in prayer. The priest bowed his head and looked away, also making the sign of the cross.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," the King began. He rattled off some minor sins, primarily allowing himself to become too angry and blaspheming. Then as he paused, trying to articulate the stronger feelings he had, he did as expected, stood and started to pace.
"Father, I have so much that I am responsible for."
The priest replied, "Sire, you are the King. Like Christ, you are your people's shepherd.."
Lawrence broke in "Nay, I know that. That is the problem. I am a poor shepherd. Not only do I not protect my flock, I lead them into danger and catastrophe."
The priest nodded but said nothing, letting the king speak.
Lawrence went on. "This entire war is my fault. Had I not attacked and then sent the Breton away none of this would have happened. Then if I had at least taken action to replace him, stayed myself or sent Horsa or even Lorin… but I did not. I barely thought of it. I cannot say why. Lorin even urged me…" He struck one palm with the other fist. "Then what do I do when the usurpers are gathering their troops? Did I even know? Nay! They conspired under my very nose. And who should be trapped when they attacked? The dearest creature in my world. How can I ever forgive myself? I can go on.. I have stepped wrong every bit of the way."
The priest watched him, seeing how the King's face was twisted with self-doubt. When Lawrence came back to kneel near him, he put a paternal hand on his lord's shoulder. "Son, you cannot take all that onto yourself. You did not make these evil men act. You could not know they would while the Queen was here."
"I am the shepherd. Who else is to blame? Blame not the wolf, but the one who lets him come nigh." He glared at the priest, then dropped his eyes. "Now here I am sitting ineffectually outside the fortress where my own dear love was born, knowing not what to do. I have her safe in my arms, and I send her off poorly guarded. Just as a sneak attack is planned. 'Tis as if I planned to bring the kingdom down around my own ears. If she is hurt, if she is dead.. I will not be able to live for the regret and guilt." He shook his head as the priest started to speak. "I know I was never meant to be King. It was my brother's right and destiny. But he died and it was left to me to take our father's throne. I have been King now for five years. What have I to show for those years, Father? War? The rape of my wife by my own brother? My dearest friend killed by a man I failed to bring to justice for his sister's murder, which I could have myself prevented? Now this? Methinks my kingdom might be better off if wiser more moderate men were in my place."
This time as he paused, clasping his hands together so tight that the knuckles were white, the priest did not let him stifle his words. "My lord, you must stop this. You are letting doubt color everything, seeing only the bad which you were not in fact responsible for. You do not see the good you have done. You are King by God's grace. To doubt yourself is to doubt Him. Pray, my lord, to God for answers. Let him guide you and your sword. Your people love you, your soldiers look up to you."
Lawrence had lifted his eyes to the priest's, seeking reassurance. "But, Father.. what of Josephine? What if I have lost her? What if I have sent her to her death? Before she left she said something about believing I should outlive her. What if she was right? And it is my fault?"
"My son," said the cleric with compassion in his voice. "You cannot know that. You do not even know if she is well or ill. You are allowing your soul to sink into despondency, and that is a sin. A grievous sin. You must ask God to forgive you for doubting yourself. For doubting Him. You will certainly condemn your people to misery if you sink into it yourself."
The King gazed into the priest's face. His look was plaintive. He let his thoughts turn inward and began to nod ever so slightly. "I must go to her, I must be sure she gets safe home to our children," he said to the priest, raising his eyes again.
The priest nodded. "You must look into your heart for what you must do. I pray that God goes with you."
He made the sign of the cross over Lawrence and indicated that they should pray together. He intoned, "Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum…" and the King joined him.
As he stood outside the small cottage preparing to set out,, Lawrence heard hoofbeats coming towards the camp in a gallop. He threw down a small rock he had been obsessively rolling about in his palm and rushed towards the sound.
He saw that the rider was another one of the escort He was exhausted from his ride through the day and night, and his horse was covered in the yellow foam of sweat and was snorting rough breaths. "Sire, the scout the escort sent ahead never returned! The captain has left guards with the Queen and gone to discover what happened to him!"
Lawrence swore. "Is the Queen well attended?"
"Four men at arms, sire, and the Irishman."
Lawrence swore again. "Useless. Edred, fetch the commanders," he said to his aide, who had come up just behind him. "And let us make that a full company of men. Methinks our supply road is under attack and must be made safe. I will command."
Lawrence instructed his commanders in keeping the fortress of Ratherwood under scrutiny, keeping the men from growing slack or losing vigilance while he was away. "It may be nothing and I will return in a few days. Or it may be an outbreak of the real war. I will dispatch messengers to keep you informed."
Soon the King was astride his horse, in full armor, and was about to press his troops onto the road.
Horsa held his stirrup. "My liege, I know I said you should not risk yourself for just the escort, but I was wrong. You know best what is in the interest of your kingdom. And now that we see that more is in play than a simple raiding party, God give you good speed to find the bastards and kill them. And God grant you find our Queen well and unharmed."
The King held out his hand to clasp his general's. "I thank you. I rely on you to see to it Malcolm cannot emerge to decimate the countryside. I shall return soon, I hope." Crossing himself, he spurred and the party set off east.
Next: No Sign of Her