Ethelberga straightened when she heard the door to her cottage open. A tall figure was silhouetted dimly by the campfires behind him. The rain had stopped and it was creeping to dusk. She folded the blanket automatically in her arms, leaning forward in a bow.
"Nay, Mother. Be as familiar as you ever are." The King stepped into the smoky light of the oil lamp. He looked haggard, dirty and exhausted. "Do you still have a bed for me?" He tried to smile, but his lips were too tired.
"But, sire, I thought you would be sleeping in the fortress tonight… oh, my lord, the fortress! At long last it is returned to us. Thank you, my lord. Thank you!" She hurried to dust off the one stool in the chamber. He nodded and sat stiffly.
"Ale?" he asked.
The old woman had already gone to the shelf where the pitcher stood, taken a cup and was on her way back to him when she noticed the blood on his mouth. "You are hurt, my lord!"
Lawrence reached up and touched his lip. "Nay, I just bit my own tongue. I am remarkably unscathed. In body at least." He stretched his shoulders and she heard the joints crack. "Ah, well, uninjured, at any rate."
He drank from the filled cup she put on the table close to his hand. She fussed over him. "Edred will be in straightaway to see to it you.." She caught the look of pain on his face. "Oh, nay, my lord, not.."
"Aye, good Edred was killed. Also Ioruert. So many others." He put a hand on her shoulder as she put her own to her face and moaned. "The fortress stinks of battle and death. I would rather sleep here." His eyes were heavy lidded. "Can you help me out of this gear?"
In the morning he was awakened early by a shout. After a night of celebration at their victory and the dawn’s new light a terrible discovery had been made. During the battles of the previous day many of the horses and the baggage carts had been secreted in a copse near the river. Lawrence and his commanders had wondered what had become of O’Donnell’s mounted soldiers, coming to the conclusion that seeing their leader in dire straits they had deserted to fight another day. It seemed that was indeed so, but that was not all. They had taken what horses they could, some of them pack horses. Even some of the King’s own gear had been lost. Lawrence had simply nodded to the messenger and turned grimly back to readying himself for the many responsibilities of the day. He wondered if the constant setbacks, even in the face of victory, would ever cease.
As he met with his commanders in the Great Hall of Ratherwood, the King looked none the better for a hard sleep. He cast his eyes about, seeing the bandaged wounds, the grim faces, and, on the Queen’s two remaining cousins, the grief.
"Maegwig has not been found yet?" he asked no one in particular.
Earl Sagar shook his head. "Nay, my liege. Unless he crawled inside the cesspit, he is long fled."
The King sat on the bench at the high table. "’Twould be a fitting hiding place." He looked at Earl Ruallauh and his brother Cingen. "What will you on this matter, my brothers?"
Ruallauh lifted a strained face to his King. "He shall be easy enough to track down. He will meet the justice he deserves."
"If he has not gone over the border," Cingen contradicted.
Lawrence winced. "Is Offa that stupid? Would he take up King Maegwig’s cause? Well, I suppose we shall have to face that eventuality should it come up. We have two pressing matters to take care of here." He looked up at the men standing before him. "I assume there is no debate on Malcolm and his commanders?"
Lawrence looked from face to face.
"Death," breathed Ruallauh bitterly, followed like an echo by his brother.
"Death," nodded Sagar.
"Death, sire" added Botopher of Skirbeck forcefully.
"Death, my lord," came the gruff and gravelly voice of Luco Treni.
Lawrence looked at his general. "Horsa?"
The man’s look said it all. "Death."
"We shall waste little time. But first we must honor our own dead." He looked at Ruallauh again. "Will you take your brother home?"
The master archer glanced at his younger brother, whose face remained impassive. He returned his eyes to Lawrence. "Nay, he shall have to be content to rest in the churchyard here. We cannot take the time to ride home. There are too many tasks for us here."
"He shall have a good and brave man to lie next to him." They all knew that Lawrence referred to his aide, Edred. They all made the sign of the cross.
Lawrence stood. "My lords, friends and companions, I should have rather done this with all pomp and ceremony, but we must move on rebuilding this kingdom." He extended his arm towards Ruallauh. "My lord?"
All eyes went to the dark haired Earl of Keito Uxello who stepped forward and knelt before his cousin’s husband.
Lawrence looked over his bowed head to the others. "This kingdom needs a king. Who more fit and fitting than the man who kneels here before me?"
Only Cingen showed no surprise. Horsa pursed his lips and nodded as he gathered what was at hand. The Celts in the hall exchanged speculative glances. A few of the Saxon lords of Affynshire looked concerned.
Lawrence pulled himself to his full height. "My lords, you will make the final decision, meet with our own Witan tradition, but I believe this kingdom needs a king, and not just a king in another land. I have nothing but the greatest respect for the man who kneels at my feet, and I believe you do as well. Though ‘tis true there are others who stand in direct succession from your late King, my lady’s father, succession must bow to selection. I make it known here and now that Earl Ruallauh of Keito Uxello is mine own choice to lead this land." He drew his sword and held it like a cross. "May God in Heaven give you strength, Ruallauh, and may you lead your people wisely and well." He held out his sword with the flat of the blade over the man. "Rise, King that shall be."
As King Ruallauh stood, several present burst forth with their approbation. But it was clear immediately that not all were content. Earl Sagar of Lincoln turned away. Lawrence knew that his wife’s cousin had yet a hard road before him.
In the village of Ratherwood two men lay in proper state in the small stone church. Both Ioruert and Edred had been laid out with their swords on their breasts and their hands made to hold the hilts. Edred’s throat was covered with the King’s own gorget to hide the gaping wound the spear had made, while Ioruert’s breast was covered with a clean tunic. They had been washed and readied for burial, along with the other dead of Affynshire and Críslicland.
Not so the mercenary dead. They lay thrown in a heap near the part of the wall that had been destroyed. They only awaited the others to join them before they would find their own ignominies resting places.
On the rampart near the main south gate of the fortress Lawrence, Ruallauh and the other leaders stood while soldiers escorted Malcolm, Aetheric, and three other of Malcolm’s surviving commanders up a ladder to them. A man stood with the King holding the ends of several lengths of rope. Malcolm glanced up at the man as he reached the higher rungs, and lowered his eyes, but only for a moment. They shot back up into Lawrence’s. Malcolm’s hands were tied behind his back, nevertheless he shrugged his captors off him, regaining his stance and dignity as he turned his back to the timbers of the wall.
Aetheric seemed unable to grasp what was happening to him. He looked, dazed, about him as he took his place by Malcolm. One of the other commanders was visibly shaking, while his fellows stood, heads bowed, their lips moving in prayer.. or cursing. It was not certain.
"Will you make confession?" a priest asked of the men. All but Malcolm nodded.
Malcolm only said, "I am no more anxious to see God than he is to see me."
As Aetheric and the others in turn kneeled along with the priest to confess and receive absolution and last rites, Lawrence eyed the Lord of Horsfort. "Sirrah, you have long done your own bidding. No surprise you should resist being ruled even after death."
Malcolm said nothing.
"We stood together after the hunt at Horsfort.. was that but two years ago?" Lawrence glared menacingly at his captive.
"Aye, though much has passed since you so unmanly tried to kill your lady’s lover. ‘Tis ironic that even now he may be reunited with her – and you nowhere near to preserve her virtue. Alas."
The color drained from Lawrence’s face while moments before it had been red with rage. It was a white heat now. The King trembled. All eyes turned to him. He grabbed Malcolm by the throat and pulled him close. "Soldier, rid the world of this sorry bastard." He let Malcolm go.
The soldier who had the ropes took the end of one that had already been formed into a noose. He put it over Malcolm’s head and tightened it around his neck. Only then did Malcolm’s grim composure crack, but only enough that those standing close could see the fear flicker in his eyes. He glanced at the other end of the rope. It was not a long one, and it was tethered to the timber near the top of the wall.
The soldier outfitted each of the other four condemned men. Aetheric now started to whimper, the front of his chause becoming dark with his urine.
Lawrence pronounced, "For the crime of treachery and rebellion, I condemn each of you to death." To the soldier he said, "Malcolm last."
The soldier and three others like him went to the first man, hefted him and tipped him over the top of the wall. It was not a true drop, so the man, crying out was silenced suddenly by his own weight tightening the noose around his neck. A horrible strangled retching sound was short-lived, and it was followed only by the sound of the man kicking and struggling against the outer wall. The sound sent the other two commanders into panic, but one by one they were shoved over the side to add the death throes to the first man’s. Aetheric had collapse and had to be dragged the few inches to the wall, his bowels letting loose just as the others’ had. He cried "Nay, nay!" until he was caught up short by the rope.
Malcolm took a deep breath. He sneered, "So much goes on under your royal nose, man, without your knowing. Even now your throne is forfeit to that oily cousin of yours and his new ally… the Breton."
Lawrence did not wait for the soldiers but with a sudden rush of strength threw his body against Malcolm, using his knee in Malcolm’s groin to boost him up and over the wall. The dying man’s coughing and choking were silenced. He struggled against the impediment to breathing but to no effect. Finally all five bodies were still, their faces swollen and blue, their eyes bulging, their tongues rigid and dark, and their stinking leg wrappings loose and flapping below them.
King Ruallauh breathed, "That all who see them remember that there is no reward but death for what they did."
Three days later their grotesque corpses were added to the ripening bodies of their allies. It had been decided that since the old burial mounds would have to be filled again to re-erect the wall there, that all the revel dead would be thrown into the pits and covered over. Malcolm and his commanders were tossed in with no ceremony along with the mercenaries who had fought alongside them.
O’Donnell and MacDhui were tossed in together. The inner wall of the pit caved in as they landed, side by side. The force of the moving earth shifted MacDhui’s body so that before he was covered by shovelfuls of the loose dirt, he had turned onto his side, his head resting on O’Donnell’s shoulder. No one noticed.
Lawrence dusted off his hands, though he had not helped in the burial. "Let the ancient dead disturb their rest with all the horror they can muster."
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