Left: Elmet is the closest historical region to what we have called Affynshshire in the stories.
King Lawrence circulated among his wounded men and stopped to talk with them one by one. Their short exchanges were that of two fighting men, though none could fully dismiss the reverence in which they held their liege lord. For his part, Lawrence was careful not to talk about his own disgust with how the mission had been foiled. There was no sense in letting the wounded and, in some cases, dying men know he blamed himself.
The dead had been laid out gently and with dignity and then their path to the afterlife addressed by their brothers who shared their creeds. The Christians were prayed over and buried in a long trench, there to wait for judgment day when they would rise body intact. The pagans were released by fire for a more immediate afterlife, their warrior's souls free to cross the bridge of swords or enter the gates of the gods' mead hall as their own ancestry dictated. Then Lawrence's men, on his command, learned how the enemy soldiers would want to be treated in death from some of the enemy wounded that remained alive. Those traditions were followed to the letter.
In the meantime riders had been sent back to the siege camp for help transporting the wounded. The captains urged the King to go with them to greater safety, but he refused indignantly to leave the wounded while he himself sought shelter. Lawrence secretly was glad he did not have to be present when the news of the rout was given to the commanders. He was struggling as it was to brook the tide of self doubt that had been plaguing him for days. He did not want their possible covert looks of disdain to weaken him.
Ever as he went among the wounded or joined groups of the men who were survivors of the skirmish to laugh at their ribald jests and songs, to slap them on the back and praise them, he glanced repeatedly at the downward slope to where the Queen must have fled when her escort came under attack. He had rushed here more to try to find her than to ascertain the threat to the supply lines and learn what forces harried them. He found her gone, no doubt headed south, and beyond his power to rescue.
When relief arrived Lawrence was glad to see his wife's cousin the soldier Ioruert in the lead. He saw that the company brought as many horses as they could.
"We have carts coming along as well, my lord," the Briton warrior assured as he approached and the two men clasped arms. His gaze remained on the King's own veiled look. He interpreted the distracted expression, "My liege, we can easily make up for this loss. I have made great inroads…"
Lawrence's eyes blazed. "Can we so easily replace the lives of these men?" he demanded. "Or our Queen?"
Ioruert, puffed up with his own accomplishments with rallying his countrymen to join the King's army, was taken aback. He cast down his eyes. "Your majesty, forgive me. I was not thinking…"
Lawrence glared at him. Then he softened,. "No, 'twas my doing. I am become too easily offended. You are right. 'Tis of no use to dwell on what's lost when what is important is to avenge the dead, not let one's grief cripple one." He glanced in the direction Josephine had no doubt gone, then turned back to her cousin. "Come, sit with me over here and tell me of the success of your task."
Ioruert followed the King to a fallen tree and sat with him. He explained how he had spent the past few days in the countryside rallying his fellow Britons to their Saxon overlord's side. He had found many of the tribal leaders had been skeptical of the pretender Maegwig's ascendancy. They had it seemed reluctantly agreed to Malcolm's emissaries' assertions of the preference for a Celt at the head of Affynshire's government, but had wondered at the Queen's family's silence. Assured that that silence had been coerced they regained faith. Some had known of the resistance mounted against the usurpers but had been reluctant to act more overtly against Maegwig.
"My lord," Ioruert continued, "the chieftains have promised to bring their warriors to Ratherwood. They will also call in their kin and those who owe them allegiance. I was about to travel south to speak to the lords and chieftains there and in the southwest when the call came for succor for this force." He glanced sorrowfully at the diminished company.
"South?" the King repeated. "I shall be heading south myself when the wounded here are taken to be cared for."
"Sire? You are going south with a force to do..?" Ioruert advanced cautiously.
"Nay, but a few companions. I must find Josephine."
The warrior looked at the King. His jaw worked as if words were struggling for purchase. The King's rages were famous and they had become more easily and more frequently ignited for some time. The younger man hesitated to question the King's judgment. He took a different route. "My lord, let me go instead. I am her cousin. I can travel alone. I can travel quickly, knowing this land from childhood. And I can speak the language. I can find her or news of her much easier and faster than … can.. you… forgive me."
The blaze in the King's eyes had been visible but had not touched off a conflagration this time. Instead Lawrence's face showed conflict and surrender. "You are right. 'Twould be unwise and selfish for me to think only I can find and rescue her. I am one of the least well equipped to do so."
Ioruert saw the failing confidence in his King's face. "MY lord, forgive me," he said with conviction. "You must stop this self reproach. 'Tis understandable that you should feel discouraged, but no one assigns responsibility.. for any of this." The man's arm sketched an arc to include the camp, its wounded and dispirited fighting men.
Lawrence was on his feet, dragging the younger man up with him by his force of will. "I do not need your reassurances, sir. Aye, you shall go to rally in the south and find news of your cousin. I shall mind my own demeanor, and I should thank you all to remember that I am the King."
Ioruert bowed. "Aye, my liege. I crave pardon."
Lawrence grunted and turned to walk away quickly to where the relief force with their chirurgeons were starting to move those wounded who could ride to the fresh horses. He turned suddenly back to Ioruert. "Take what and whom you need. Send word when you have news." He glared at the man. "And I mean any news. Good or ill."
Ioruert bowed sharply and rushed off to obey.
Looking after him, the King thought, "He is right. I must stop this. I must be the first one to remember that I am the King."
Lawrence was among those who escorted the mounted wounded back to the siege He refused to mount Gúthgel?ca himself but offered his own linked hands for a wounded man to climb up on the horse's back. The King led his horse along the road, the entire group, now joined by the carts, going slowly so as not to jar the wounded to roughly.
The King arrived at the siege camp to find his general and commanders standing together to greet him. He glanced at their faces but saw no condemnation there, nor any pity. They were angry. There was no doubt with whom. The sight of their liege lord leading Gúthgel?ca with a wounded man in the King's own ornate saddle only cemented their loyalty to him further.
Then Lawrence's eyes grew wide. There among the commanders was Earl Ruallauh, the Queen's eldest cousin and Ioruert's older brother. Now the head of their family due to his father's recent death, the famous archer held more claim to the throne of Affynshire than any other man but the King himself.
"Ruallauh! How came you here? I thought…" Lawrence said rushing to greet him while a man at arms took the bridle and led the wounded man to where he would get care.
Ruallauh's intelligent face broke into a grin. ''Tis a fantastic tale that I should wonder if you will give credence." He put his arm around the King's shoulder. "I shall start from the beginning.
“And he came to me and told me a horse was saddled and ready for me, handed me my bow and quiver, and gestured to two men at arms to see to it I left Horsfort straight away. I am certain my face bore the exact expression as does your own right now, my lord.”
Lawrence sat at the campfire with his head angled slightly back and his hands loosely on his knees. His face reflected surprise, confusion and some growing anxiety. “Elerde… just let you go?” he asked incredulously.
Ruallauh, gratefully munching on a bowl of stew, nodded. “No explanation. I just rode with the charming companions he provided for me to the crossroads of the two Roman roads. There we took our leave, though their eyes stayed with me as I rode east. They would not permit me to head for Keito Uxello.”
The King rested one elbow on his knee and his bearded chin on the fist of that hand. “Now I know O’Donnell sent you with the Breton after that strange encounter with your resistance force. As his hostage or captive or whatever you were meant to be…”
“Aye, that was a strange encounter, sire. To trade Josephine for the Irishman.. I asked Elerde about it but he just scowled at me.”
Lawrence saw that Ruallauh was genuinely puzzled. “Shannon O’Neill was here.. you know him? He says that it was his impression that O’Donnell has a… carnal interest in McGuinness.”
It was Ruallauh’s turn to look dumbfounded. “Deus juva me. But I thought that McGuinness…” He trailed off knowing where his thought was leading.
“Is in love with Josephine. Aye, ‘tis true. It seems not a carnal attachment, but I have no reason to believe he might have those feelings for men.” Lawrence squirmed realizing for not the first time that it seemed everyone knew of the legendary vow Rory had made to the Queen.. his Queen.
“Pity. I think it shall not go well for the poor Irishman. ‘Twould have been better if he was so inclined. ‘Tis not an uncommon characteristic of bards…”
“Nor of soldiers, truth be told, and McGuinness was both. But go on with your tale.” Lawrence urged.
“That is the whole tale, I fear, my lord. You would have to ask the Breton himself to say more.” Ruallauh held his bowl up to a servant who nodded and went to fill it again with more steaming meat and vegetables.
The King pursued the topic of Elerde. “Did he seem … how can I say this.. conflicted about anything?”
The archer laughed quietly. “My liege, for my short acquaintance with the man, what the Breton seemed I would call ‘sour’. He seemed disgusted from the moment I was put in his charge. At Horsfort he dismissed me without instructions to hold me or cage me or anything of the sort and quitted my presence until he came to tell me I was free.”
Lawrence’s face grew more troubled than before. “Ay me. With Josephine now missing and the attacks on the supply lines, and what you and my lady have said about the encounter with O’Donnell, I know not if he is disengaging from Malcolm or at some deviltry for him.” He looked up at his wife’s cousin. “And you do not know where he may have gone since?”
Ruallauh was already polishing off the second bowl of stew. Between hearty mouthfuls he shook his head. “Unless prohibiting my journey to Keito Uxello means he is going there.”
Lawrence sat up straight. “O’Donnell holds it now, nay?”
“Aye, but many of Elerde’s men are still there, or so my brother Cingen tells me. Told me.. ere we parted.”
“Where is Cingen now?” the King asked, rising to his feet and starting to look about for his aide.
Ruallauh set his now empty bowl on the ground and replied, “It should not be difficult to find him, sire. That is, if ‘tis not the enemy looking.”
Lawrence had caught Edred’s eye, and the man was hurrying to learn what was wanted of him. “Your majesty?” He nodded a short bow.
“I do not want you to risk recapture,” the King said to Earl Ruallauh. “Ioruert is searching for the Queen. Shannon is gone with the Queen. But I should like to know if the Breton has gone to Keito Uxello and what passed when he did.” To Edred he said, “Summon the commanders. We may have an opportunity to take my lady’s family’s stronghold back. ‘Tis not the most strategic save for symbolic. Methinks we need to follow what Ioruert has done and turn the Britons back to their rightful allegiance… to the Queen.”
Next: Change of Allegiance
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