The shout came from the guard post on the gate, "Riders approach! Triskel banner!"
The captain of O'Donnell's garrison, McBride, came out of the hall at Keito Uxello without haste. Had the riders been hostile he would have been warned long ago by scouts who kept their eyes on the road through the woods. He would meet the riders if, as they came through the gate he saw they were led by someone of sufficient rank to warrant his greeting him.
It was. There were only a half dozen men, but the leader was the Breton commander Elerde's right-hand man, Lagu. As McBride strode forward he caught out of the corner of his eye the broad smile of Elerde's other captain, Heraral, as he too came forward.
Lagu swiftly dismounted and let one of the Irish soldiers lead his horse away, just as the men who had come with him did the same. He made a quick obeisance to McBride, then clasped hands with Heraral like the long companions in arms they were.
"And what are your orders?" McBride asked crisply.
The tall slender Breton turned back to him. "Lord Elerde needs Heraral's expert eye for horses, sir. He has had an offer from some Northumbrian lord, and Heraral's knowledge of horses is remarkable. I am to take his place here in the meantime."
McBride's attention was on Lagu but he marked no surprise in the shorter Breton's eyes. Like his own commander Finn O'Donnell, McBride trusted these Bretons as little as he absolutely must. "Aye, confer with your man then, and after I will be wanting to hear how goes it at Horsfort and on the road." The Irishman nodded curtly and went back into the hall.
Throwing a comradely arm around Heraral's shoulder, Lagu gave his old friend an almost imperceptible nod, signaling the need to talk privately.
"Come with me into the stable," Heraral said without dissembling. "Let me get my own horse ready to leave." He spotted a young Breton soldier and called to him. "Summon Louuen, Maeldoi, Britou and Rioch and tell them to prepare to ride for Horsfort. Better bring full arms. " Heraral looked at Lagu. "I assume the road is as perilous as ever."
"They are," the tall man confirmed.
There were two young Irish soldiers in the stables, the Irish being great lovers of horseflesh. They were currying the Irish commander's horse. Heraral whispered in Breton, "Not here." He took Lagu through a back door and to a small hut where the horse's tack was stored and started to pull together what he needed for his own ride north. With a sharp glance around he whispered again, "I assume Horsfort and horses are not the real mission."
Lagu looked around and fingered some of the leather bridles hanging on the wall. "Nay, my lord has other plans."
Heraral grinned. "Good. I am bored almost to death here."
Lagu found a place on the wall to lean his back and crossed his arms over his mailed chest. "Ah, but you will be coming back."
Heraral's smile started to fade until he caught the glimmer of mirth in his companion's eyes. He waited for Lagu to go on.
"I was going to say 'the worm has turned' but mayhap 'tis more accurate to say my lord has turned on the worms. We are retaking Keito Uxello."
Heraral raised his eyebrows, pursed his lips and nodded. "Just Lord Elerde?" He grinned again as Lagu nodded his head. "My lord.. and the Britons."
Heraral's face took on a look of astonishment.
The small party of Heraral and his men and their own men were headed out the gate as Lagu settled near the firepit in the hall with McBride. The two men discussed what they knew of the war. Malcolm was still under siege but holding Ratherwood securely. Ricbeorht and Sven Ormyngel had conducted with mixed success their raids on the Roman road to Lincoln. O'Donnell, McBride shared grudgingly, was holed up in Hucknall. Lagu for his part reported that Horsfort stood strong as well, that Earl Ruallauh was closely guarded, and that Elerde had renewed old friendships with Northumbrian frontier chieftains who patrolled to make certain Críslicland did not invade from the north, nor had it contracted with Northumbrians to aid in the struggle. McBride nodded, the news too likely to be the lies they really were.
At the crossroads Heraral turned his small force north. He sent two archers back to remove the two scouts they had seen hiding in the woods along the road. The men returned swiftly, their arrows retrieved from the men's bodies and cleaned of their blood.
Some distance north they turned off the road to the west again instead of continuing on the straight flat still hard packed road onto a forest track just wide enough for small carts. Quite near the spot where Elerde had encountered the Queen just days after he had taken her family's ancestral home of Keito Uxello the small force joined the Breton's entire company. Elerde himself road out to meet Heraral on the road.
"Lagu has told you then" he stated once the captain had struck his chest with his fist in respect to his lord.
At Horsfort, it had not been difficult to round up and kill or imprison Malcolm's household soldiers after the Breton commander had chosen to abandon his command there. His Breton's, including Lagu, had deftly placed themselves where they might take advantage of the men's own lassitude and ennui. Before he was taken away to be freed Earl Ruallauh had spoken with the native Celts of the fortress and offered each man clemency if he joined his family's quest to regain Affynshire from Malcolm and his cronies. A few declined, but the remainder, forgetting the earl's connection with the Saxon king of Críslicland altogether, and with the promise of the spoils of Horsfort, readily switched their allegiance to Ruallauh the Archer, their national hero. They were now in possession of Horsfort.
Whether they held it Elerde cared not a wit. He planned to be out of this mess and on his way to Lawrencium directly.
Late the evening of Lagu's arrival at Keito Uxello most of the two garrisons gathered in the hall or in the courtyard around fires to sup on a thick potage of cabbage and onions. The Breton captain had contrived to post one of his own countrymen with each of McBride's men, something conveniently done as the Irishman's own distrust of the Breton's made him do much the same. Talk was desultory at best, the two forces not caring much for each other's company, but ale was in abundance and as the jests began everyone relaxed somewhat. That is, the Irish soldiers relaxed.
Lagu leaned to McBride from his seat at the man's left and made some excuse to leave the hall for a moment. His appearance in the doorway where both the men inside and outside could see him was the signal. As his figure appeared as a dark form to the men outside and as the recognizable back to the men inside, each Breton turned and put his knife to the throat of the Irishman closest to him, including the guards on the palisade. Any man who struggled was slain. Lagu returned to the hall where two of his officers held McBride between them. At the same moment the sound of horses' hooves coming into the courtyard could be heard inside the hall.
"Secure him," Lagu commanded and went outside to greet his commander. He made the gesture of respect to him, then nodded to the man who rode at Elerde's side, the Queen's own cousin and Ruallauh's brother, Cingen.
The Briton asked "My mother?"
Lagu nodded. "She is well. She is inside. I apprised her of the situation." He looked behind the two mounted men to see the mix of Breton mercenaries and Affynshire resistance fighters that had followed the leaders through the gate.
"Please ask the lady if her son and I may visit her," Elerde said courteously.
In minutes Cingen was embracing his mother, and Elerde was standing at the door of her chamber silently waiting. The mother and son spoke in Brythonic, full of questions and reassurances and shared grief over the loss of the elder Earl, her husband the Cingen's father.
At length the noble lady turned an unfriendly and suspicious eye on the Breton commander. She sat but made no gesture that he should as well. Cingen, seeing this, also remained standing.
Elerde bowed low to her. "Lady Modron," he began.
Cingen interrupted, "Mother, Elerde is leaving Affynshire. He is leaving Keito Uxello in our hands."
The old woman was dubious. She glared at the Breton who stood with his eyes respectfully cast downward. Then she looked at her son. "You believe this?" she asked him.
"Aye, my lady. He is angry with how our cousin the Queen and our family has been dealt with…"
Modron saw the irritated look in Elerde's face as her son said more than the commander should have liked revealed in his presence. "Is that so? When he himself hath been the instrument of much trouble.. including Earl Ceretic's death."
Cingen started to reply, "Mother, he has freed our cousin twice. And now Ruallauh…"
Elerde stood to his full straight-backed height and cut in. "My lady, 'tis of no matter that you or your son trusts me or my men. We are leaving. There will be no Breton left in this stronghold by two days from now. You may dispense with the Irish captives as you see fit. I do not expect or indeed need your trust." He stared directly into the woman's eyes.
Modron returned the stare, then asked her son for news of the Queen, her niece. Cingen looked to Elerde.
"Lady Modron, your niece was rescued and taken to her husband the King at his encampment at Ratherwood. She has since returned to Críslicland… and her children."
Cingen put his hand on his mother's shoulder. "My lady, I shall share with you the news I have gotten.."
"From this man?!" the woman demanded.
Elerde's eyes did not waver. Cingen reassured, "Aye, from him, but also my own scouts and informants."
The Breton commander stirred from his rigid stance and gave both the woman and her son a quick bow. "I shall leave you to your reunion then. I am not interested in what your son's men have learned that I have not. All I shall ask is that I may provision my men for a journey out of your stores. I shall leave sufficient coin to repay you."
"I do not want your Judas gold," the old woman began.
Cingen hurried to add, "Take what you need, my lord."
Elerde turned to go. Modron called after him, "Where are you going after you quit my home, sir?"
Elerde did not pause for a single heartbeat but strode sure and silently out to make his preparations.
Next: Josephine's Homecoming
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