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

Friday, November 20, 2009

New Stories: The Second Fall of Ratherwood, Part 1

Part 1 - Sun Breaks and Downpours

alcolm of Horsfort, leader of the insurrection against the King of Críslicland, stood bemusedly atop the tower that gave him a complete view of the fortifications as well as that very King's camp not far away. He watched the men and horses and wagons arriving from all directions. Something had turned the tide. The Britons of this land were returning to their pledged sovereign. He knew that somehow he had lost. He knew the end would come soon, unless his allies, the four mercenary captains, came soon.

Aetheric came up the ladder steps to join his commander. The guards posted atop the tower stood ready to stop him, with mortal action if needed, for Malcolm was aware that in the face of defeat any man, even Aetheric, would not hesitate to kill him and deliver his head to the Saxon king down there in the village. He looked up at the man, then waved to the guards to let him come all the way up. "Report?" he said in a dull uninflected voice.

Aetheric smiled nervously. "No word of Ormyngel or the Fleming. O'Donnell seems to be still in Hucknall. And you have already guessed the Breton's actions."

Malcolm nodded. "So our messengers are able to get close enough to use the signals.. for now. Get back to them, and tell them to go to Hucknall and summon O'Donnell. Send them to Ormyngel and Ricbeorht as well. I will decide about the Breton later. " To himself the commander said, " He appears to have been a lost cause from the start. I overestimated the lengths he would go to avenge himself on the Saxon."

Aetheric hesitated.

"Go on, man," Malcolm snapped irritably.

"My lord, I want to know. Do you believe we have a chance at defeating this army that is forming?"

Malcolm chuckled and looked out again at the gathering forces. "Actually, aye, I do. If our allies can pull the same sort of dirty tricks they excel at we will overcome that ragtag army easily. It should be even easier without the Breton's presence.. ultimately Elerde was too in love with.."

"The Queen?" Aetheric interrupted.

Malcolm shot him a glare. "Nay, fool. Honour. A very dear commodity in the mercenary business. A commodity which I am happy to say you and I have no need of."

Aetheric snorted derisively. "I will go arrange the signals, my lord."

Malcolm did not reply, but put his chin in his palm as he leaned towards the top of the timbers of the tower. He was surprised even Aetheric was idiot enough to believe his bravado. His eye was attracted by a scuffle of some kind in the distance. For a moment he hoped it was a falling out between Britons and Saxons. Then he saw and sighed, "A game of some sort, if that may be believed…"

In Lawrence's camp a pig had broken away from a soldier who was planning to slaughter it and make a meal for himself and his camp mates. The little thing darted between legs, astonishing horses and collecting a troupe of impromptu boar hunters. Men with dark hair and shorter stature dashed about shouting and laughing along with men with fair hair who towered over them.

The chase was on.. and the King came out of his headquarters to see what the frivolity was all about.

"My liege," supplied his aide, Edred, "a pig has escaped its would be slaughterer and is making its way fast, as I see it, to the earthworks of the fortress."

Lawrence laughed, "Oh, aye? Then methinks that Malcolm may have the feast and not we. Why not send your men to make sure no fool forgets how far an arrow may fly from their walls."

Edred bowed to the amused but wary look on his lord's face and went to give the order.

The King went to the side of his headquarters and boosted himself up on a barrel set there to save rainwater. Just now the sky was a causeway for light clouds that raised across it creating sunbreaks and shadows to dapple the ground. Lawrence thought that such a cheerful sight did not belong on the heavily fortified palisades of the stronghold with its double earthworks nor on this rapidly overcrowding encampment of men in various styles of armor clustered about smoking campfires. He thought of the fields outside his own stronghold and his wife laughing as she urged her mount to outstrip his playfully.

Standing on the barrel he could see over the first earthwork. He held to a vertical timber and stretched to see what became of the pig and its pursuers. He smiled and chuckled as he saw the small animal dashing about in panic, followed by shouting and laughing men, and then darting up and over the rise. The men pursued it still, and Lawrence saw first the pig and then the leading chasers mount the inner earthwork. "Oh, please don't let the men forget where they are…" he breathed.

Alas, a few seemed to have done just that. As the pig topped the inner earthwork and disappeared from the King's sight, a small handful of men set out after it. He heard and then saw Edred's men run up behind them shouting. The chasers stopped abruptly on the crest. The King let out the breath he had been holding. Then he noticed that though they had stopped, the men, now joined by two of Edred's elite guard, remained standing on the earthwork. They held that position for a few moments, then abruptly turned and threw themselves back into the ditch between the two earthworks. The cause followed them instantly but thankfully flew, its fletching whistling overhead. Lawrence waited for more arrows, then for the squeal of a pig being shot.

Instead he heard nothing but shouts from the far walls of the fortress. He saw his own men clamber up to the edge of the rise to watch some activity on its other side. His own men were still as death, then suddenly he heard a sharp squeal of an animal in pain and the men's cries were added to the general commotion. They seemed to slip backwards into the ditch. They were coming back with some tale to tell, Lawrence knew. He hopped down from the barrel and waited.

Edred came running up with one of his carls. Breathlessly he said, "My liege, the pig.. it reached the walls, then it disappeared!"

"What are you saying, disappeared?" the King demanded.

The carl filled in the gap. "Sire, it just dropped. Into a hole. But there had been no hole there before as far as we could tell."

The other commanders had joined them by this point. Earl Botopher inserted, "Right by the wall? A pitfall?"

The man with Edred nodded. "We heard a squeal of pain just as it fell."

Edred added, "Sharp stakes then.. definitely a pitfall."

Lawrence nodded. "Aye, and we should reward that pig for alerting us.. though I suspect it is beyond gold trotter rings just now." He glanced at Edred's man. "Make sure our best archers are behind the second earthwork. We might chance on some of the enemy trying to retrieve the animal. Who knows how long it has been since they had fresh meat."

At the previously planned council of the war leaders that afternoon the King offered his plans.

"We have had good fortune in the misfortune of the escaped pig. We know now that there are pitfalls at least at that point of the walls. I think we can assume they encircle the entire fortress."

Earl Sagar voiced his concern, "How shall we get across them?"

The King nodded, "I have thought of this and the task is underway to fell enough trees that we may roll them into the pitfalls and step across."

The Briton Lord Luco Treni asked, "How long will that take? How long will it delay us?"

The King glanced at Jehan of Grantham. The older man supplied, "Not long, my lord. I sent enough men to cut logs for about a seven rod length of the wall."

Sagar interrupted, "Only seven?"

Lawrence cut in, "Aye, that is what I instructed." His voice and look made it clear that he was in charge again now that the battle was imminent. Sagar subsided, more relieved at the King's tone than wanting to debate the specifics. The incipient collective sigh of relief from the King's commanders was admirably suppressed. A few men covertly glanced at Ruallauh, whose ascendancy they had sensed, but he did not waver from his own attention to the King.

Luco ventured, "But where? At what point?"

Lawrence sighed. "If we knew the configuration of the inner and outer walls, we would know where they are most vulnerable. For now we must make an informed guess…" He shot Luco a warning look at the man's reaction to his word. "Aye, unless we get more information, we will guess.. but it will be based on the best estimation we can make."

From thereon the King laid out his plans for the attack. He stood on one side of a table on which a drawing of the fortress was visible. "We know only what those who have been in the fortress as recently as its fall recall and what we can see from outside," he admitted. "We have not been able to get anyone inside to look."

One of the newly realigned British chieftains asked, "Sire, I heard that the Queen recalled a passageway into old burial mounds under the wall on the riverside."

"That's true," Lawrence replied nodding. "Unfortunately we think the enemy found it when refortifying that part of the wall. We cannot be sure, but the hole is now boarded up and some scouts heard what sounded like a collapse and shouts shortly ere that." His lips turned up in a sardonic smile. "God rest the souls of the unfortunate ones who were lost." His words brought appreciative laughter.

Looking over the grouping of men who surrounded him, Lawrence became serious again. "Brothers, we have the opportunity now thanks to those who have come back to our side and will fight fiercely for the kingdom of their fathers to put that kingdom back into our hands." He lifted one eyebrow knowing the Britons would take note of the word "our". "We will not forget, none of us, that it was Críslicland and its armies, though, who rushed in to make war on the usurpers. And usurpation it is. I know that many chafed under my sovereignty, but they were wrong. Your Queen is as surely your Queen as she ever was your king's daughter.. and I am her chosen consort and therefore your sovereign. Many have broken their sworn oath to me and by so doing to her as well. That cannot be tolerated. There will be no words of sympathy or allegiance with the villains in the fortress. If any man here doubts that I am the King of this land by right and by the swearing of loyalty from each and every one of you, he m ay leave now. When we have taken Ratherwood again, we will come and deal with any traitors. But any man who stays and fights for their sworn King will be adjudged to have come to their senses. " He cast his piercing blue gaze over them all, challenging dissent. He saw none. "I have one more thing to say. Many of you lost faith and then forgot their own fidelity. You will be watched to see that your allegiance now is solid."

Earl Ruallauh, whom the King had secretly set to be the new ruler, under his own direction, of this l and, crossed his own arms over his chest and glared about the assemblage. Few of the men looked at him, however, for Lawrence had reestablished himself as their commander and King.

King Lawrence looked to his priest and nodded, then bowed his own head as the priest made his benediction over the men and their endeavour.

It was still dark and the dew starting to form on the ground when the King was awakened in his hut. Edred had leapt up from his bedroll to challenge those who had come shouting into the center of the camp. He returned quickly and told the King, "My lord, the watch has taken a man from the river.. they saw him slipping over the wall into the water."

"From inside the fortress?" Lawrence inquired, standing and pulling his cloak over his shoulders. "Bring him."

Four soldiers responded as Edred opened the door and gestured. They brought with them a small man who was soaked to the bone and shivering as much from fear as cold. He saw the King and quickly dropped to his knees and quaked, holding his bound hands in front of him prayerfully.

"My lord, have mercy! I just wanted to get away and back to my family."

Lawrence observed the man. Yes, he was dressed more or less as a soldier. "Did he have weapons?"

"Nay, sire," offered the captain of the watch.

"I could not bring weapons or I should drown!" the simpering man insisted. The captain struck him across the back of his head with his fist.

"Leave off that," the King ordered. Then he said to the now weeping man, "You were deserting?"

The man glanced up very briefly at the King's face. He looked down again and in a desultory voice admitted, "Aye, my lord. I was that."

"You know I cannot honor any man who deserts his post," Lawrence said in a firm but even voice.

The man nodded weakly.

"There is a way you can save your own hide." Lawrence glared fixedly at the man, who did not look up.

"Anything, sire, anything I can do," the man said beseechingly.

"There is a problem with that, however."

The man's momentary stillness at the tiny bit of hope fled and he crumpled to the floor.

The King went on. "Anything you tell me will be both suspect and do further dishonor." Lawrence started to pace as he continued. "You could be sent by Malcolm to give us false intelligence. Or you are a scoundrel willing to sell him out. How can I possibly trust you?"

The man did not move from where he lay in a tight heap on the ground. "You cannot, my liege."

Lawrence stopped his motion, and turned to stare at the man. The small hut was dead silent save for the man's badly stifled mewling.

"Edred, take this man and question him. You know how to get at truth. Spare no means. I will have the knowledge he has and not what may have been given to him to trick us. Then come to me." Lawrence glared at the man on the floor. "Get him out of here. I think he has soiled himself. Send the old woman in."

The soldiers grasped the man by his arms and dragged him backward out the door. The King turned to the table where he had the drawing of the fortress folded and invisible under other papers.

As Ethelberga came in, clearly having been roused from her own sleep by the commotion, Lawrence demanded, "Do something about the smell. And I need light." He paused. "Do I hear rain?"

"Aye, my lord," Ethelberga replied as she went to get a brand from the fire with which she could light the oil lamps. "IN fact, it's a right downpour."

The King smiled grimly and thought, "Excellent."

Next: Elerde Reemerges in Llawrencium

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About the author

Nan Hawthorne now writes under the name Christopher Hawthorne Moss. You can contact Christopher at .