t was apparent from the increasing number of cottages along the path and the number of people who traversed it that Shannon and the Queen were nearing a fortified town. No one took much notice of them, save for a few who glanced curiously at Shannon's lute. The dust of the road and the sheer weariness of the journey made Josephine look anything but queenly.
"Do you think we shall have any difficulty passing into the town?" she asked her companion.
Shannon raised his eyebrows and replied, "I dinnae ken. I dinnae think so. So long as ye speak not. I should rather skirt the town altogether and make our way to the river to find crossin'."
They continued toward the town, finally looking down a long slow incline where they could see it with its modest fortifications. "Och," Shannon said surprised. "There be no river here. Now then, I thought the man said the Trent came alongside it. Could this be after bein' a different town?"
"I suppose we should have to enter it and find out."
Shannon looked at the Queen and nodded. They walked slowly down the slope towards the gate. The vertical timber wall was no more than a man's height tall. The gate was open but guarded. From the hill they had seen the town's collection of wattle and mud buildings along with a more heavily built hall in a stockade of its own, all topped with thatch or turf roofs. Shannon seemed to be peering hard at the guards as they grew closer. He looked puzzled, then shook his head.
"What is it?" Josephine asked him.
He had slowed to a stop, now shaded his eyes and looked harder. "The… the guards. They be in kilts. They are neither Saxon nor Briton." He thought a few moments and continued, "I wonder… might they be Irishmen? Might this be O'Donnell's stronghold?"
"O'Donnell? Why that's the man who…" Josephine's eyes were wide.
"Aye, Finn O'Donnell, the man that ye said took Rory prisoner to let ye go instead. Might Rory be here then?"
"I wonder.. might there be a way to help him escape? The river may not be here, but it must be close. Mayhap we can all make it across to Christenlande. Do you think?" Her face had taken on a flush of excitement.
Shannon shook his head slowly. "I dinnae ken. But at least we can discover if he be here and well." He turned to her. "If these be Irishmen, the ruse of your speakin' no English but only Irish willnae work. Ye need to stay outside the walls while I go in to see what I can find out." His voice had the tone of a person waiting to be argued with.
Josephine did look frustrated, but she nodded and said she thought he was right. "There is a small church there, see? Just up the road. I can wait there." She added, "I will pretend I cannot speak at all if the priest talks to me. I could do that in the town but I fear that if O'Donnell and his men are there I will be recognized, even under all this dirt."
Shannon was relieved. "Aye, that be wise. And I shall be returned as quick as I can to tell ye what I learn. I promise."
"Make sure you see if there is any chance we can help him. Or at least where he might be held so we could send a raiding party over when we are across the river to rescue him."
Shannon agreed, walked with her to the small church. There he left her with all their baggage save his lute. He gave her a jaunty look and left her.
She sat for a time on the step of the small dilapidated stone church, then went inside to sit on a ledge around the outside of the rather bare chapel. When her eyes adjusted to the dimness inside she saw a modest altar with a dusty altar cloth, some simple altar pieces and a simple wooden cross above it. From the faded paintings on the walls she saw that this must be a church dedicated to St. Dismas. One surprisingly detailed painting showed the Holy Family being set upon by thieves as they fled to Egypt which evolved into a second image of one of the thieves, Dismas according to the legend, stopping his fellows and releasing the Family. Another one depicted the crucifixion, Dismas on one side of Christ receiving His blessing. The final image showed Dismas being welcomed into Heaven by Christ. She remembered the stories well, as her confessor had told her to pray to this saint when she was a prisoner of the King's brother, Roland. She thought, "'Tis a good omen, that St. Dismas should be here when we need to rescue Rory." She went to the altar and kneeled, praying silently.
At the town gate Shannon hailed the guards in Irish, having heard their shouts as he came up to them and confirmed that they were Irish. Their surprise at hearing their own tongue shifted rapidly to pleasure and recognition. The men were all Ulstermen. In no time the group was exchanging recollections of taverns in different towns in the north of Eire. And finally when one man asked Shannon his name he told them he was Sean of the MacSweeney clan. The guard who had asked clapped him hard on the back and joked, "Well I suppose this far from home we need not mind that you are allied with O'Neill. Our commander is Finn O'Donnell!"
Shannon feigned surprise and recognition. "Och, but did he not fight with the O'Neills for a time?"
"Friend, our commander fights where the spoils are to be found. That's why we be here in Affynshire. This town is O'Donnell's portion for his help for the liberation from Saxon hands."
Shannon smiled broadly. "And God and all the saints bless him for that - and make him and all of you rich! Now tell me, where may a thirsty man sit and have a decent bowl of ale? That be all the portion I be seekin'."
The men all laughed companionably and though they said no "decent" ale could be found, there was a small unnamed tavern near the stockade gate that could serve him and had a pretty wench to take care of his wants whatever they might be.
"But might you be around to give us a song of Eire, old son? We cannae rest now, on duty, but we should be in the tavern soon as our watchis over." Asked one of the guards, seemingly the captain.
"Now then, if ye cannae find me, look in that wench's bed, for I mean to spend the night there if she is as fair as ye say," Shannon replied to the humorous delight of the men. They ushered him through the gate and waved a good luck to his departing figure.
At the little church dedicated to St. Dismas, Josephine, still at prayer, heard the door creak open and sandaled feet on the flagstones. She did not look up. It took only seconds for the priest to cross the floor of the tiny chapel. "Good woman, God be with you," the priest said in Saxon.
Josephine crossed herself and then looked up at the priest. She smiled and nodded.
"Where have you come from, lass?" the priest asked. When she did not reply, he repeated his question in Brythonic.
Josephine shook her head and gestured to her mouth.
"You cannot speak? Poor child. God bless you and care for you in your affliction." The priest's smile of sympathy was warm and gentle. "I shall leave you to your prayers, sister. I shall be in the cottage behind the church if you need anything."
Josephine nodded and smiled, took the priest's extended hand and kissed it. He smiled broadly and nodded. He genuflected and crossed himself before the altar, turned then and left the church. Josephine watched him go, wishing she could have spoken and learned something of the town and possibly even the garrison and its prisoners. Sighing, she went back to her prayers.
Next: "They Hanged Him!" Part 2
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