Continued from "They Hanged Him!" Part 1
ack in the town that Shannon had learned from the guard was called Hucknall he ducked his head through the low door of the tiny, grubby tavern. When he was able to see in the firelight, he glanced around and found a motley collection of tables and stools. And there was the wench, none too clean but certainly comely. Shannon adjusted his lute strap on his shoulder, ran his fingers fruitlessly through his red curls, and went in smiling fetchingly.
"Now what be your name, pretty lass?" he asked in Saxon.
"Gulda, if it be any of your business," she answered, bringing a bowl of ale with her as she came over. She saw the lute and smiled. "Will you be giving us a song then for your supper?"
Shannon took a grateful draught of the ale. "If a song be the coin to fetch me victuals and drink, then well shall I sing for it."
"I will ask the tavernkeeper. You had liefer sip not another sip until he says, if you have no money nor silver to clip." She gave him a flirtatious smile, a once over, then went to talk to the tavern's owner. When she came back, Shannon had drained his ale. She told him, "He has to hear you first, lad. Shame on you," she added when she saw the bowl was empty.
Shannon lifted his lute to his arms and began to play a merry tune, then added his clear voice to the melody in a song of a lover and his lass. Heads around the tables turned to him. All conversations fell apart. By the second song men were coming in the door to listen. Gulda caught Shannon's eye, tipped her head towards the owner and nodded.
Josephine's knees were cold from kneeling on the stone floor. She stood stiffly and stretched out her legs to loosen her joints. It seemed as if a deal of time had passed. She made her reverence to the cross, then went to the door and opened it on growing dusk. Where was Shannon? Why was he taking so long?
The priest happened by the door with a bucket of water just as she was about to come out and sit again on the step. "Lass, you are still here? Do you have somewhere to go? I will happily share my simple supper, if you are hungry."
Josephine smiled and shook her head, saying nothing again as she had before. She touched her belly lightly and shook her head.
"I will take that to mean that either you are fasting or just not hungry." He shrugged. "Well if you change your mind, come to my hearth and sit with me in the warm. I shall not molest you." He smiled and took the bucket around to the back of the stone building.
The tavern was packed now, though Shannon no longer entertained the drinkers. He had well earned his supper, his drink, his bed and a happy slap on the back from the owner. He could tell as well from the looks she cast on him that if he could stay the night, he would have a belly warmer in Gulda as well. He sighed. Mayhap he would pass this way again someday.
The soldiers and townspeople were all anxious to talk with him, get news from outside the town, and to buy bowl after bowl of ale for him. He tried to stay sober, but was having trouble with the generous refills that kept coming. He was also struggling to find a way to spark discussion of the stronghold and its commander, to learn what he could of Rory. He finally ventured to a cluster of Irish and Briton soldiers, "So is himself at the stockade now? Or is he off fighting the fucklin' Sassenachs?"
A man named Colum answered, "Och, aye, he be still here.. has been since well after the start of fall."
"Aye? And where had he been ere that, for I have seen that the fortress in Ratherwood is under siege." Part of Shannon's story that he let them draw from him included a modified version of his time in the King's camp. He had shrugged, saying a man had to eat and Saxon bread was as good as any when it came to it, and that Saxon soldiers liked a song or two as much as any man, "Even sober, which dinnae happen very often," he had added to a chorus of approving laughs.
One of the officers, otherwise behaving somewhat aloof from the conversation, supplied, "Malcolm sent him to look for the Queen… up north somewhere."
"And did he find her? I have heard naught about that."
"Nay, but he brought back a prisoner with him. An Irishman like yourself and me."
Shannon kept his voice even. "An Irishman? Aye? And now, why should he be doin' that?"
The officer hesitated, then replied, "They say the man was a spy. He tried to kill O'Donnell."
Shannon did not have to struggle to act surprised. "He did that, did he? And what did himself choose to do about it?" His stomach was clenching and his throat was tight.
"He hanged the man. A fortnight ago." One of the soldiers mimed a hanging, holding one hand up to dangle a rope from and making a face like he was choking.
Shannon himself began to choke. Someone hit him hard on the back, thinking he had taken ale into his airway. Shannon stood abruptly, muttered "Too much drink. Goin' to be sick," and stumbled back and out of the tavern. Gulda looked dismayed, then followed him out the low door with his lute which he had left by his stool.
The man was not vomiting, but he was heaving with sobs. "Oh my, you have had too much to drink. You Irish, always on the verge of tears." She had gone to him and was holding his head as he stood bent over, one hand on the outer wall of the tavern, holding himself up. She stroked his hair as he convulsed with emotion. "Here, you are in no fit shape. Come with me. You can sleep it off in my hut."
Shannon let the woman guide him. He was blind with tears and pain. She brought him to her hut, took him inside, and bade him lie prone on her straw bed, covered with frayed blankets. "I cannot stay.. I have to go back to the tavern. Just sleep."
As she turned to go, Shannon reached for her and held her back. He worked to form words. "Did.. did ye see the man they hanged?" His eyes were swollen and red.
"Aye," she answered cautiously. "When they came into town. He was on the commander's horse behind him. He was holding onto the O'Donnell's waist. Why? Did you know him?"
Shannon shook his head. "I dinnae ken.. what did he look like? I.. I met a man in a tavern who asked too many questions… I wonder.."
"That he might have been a spy? Well, he was wondrous tall, with dark red hair, and though he looked miserable, I could tell he had a sweet face.."
Shannon had doubled over again, lying on the bed, clutching his belly.
"Oh poor man, you are really sick. I hope the cook has not poisoned you. Do not worry if you are sick. I have cleaned up worse at the tavern." She crouched by him wondering if she should fetch the garrisons' chirurgeon. She touched his hair again and then transferred a kiss from her fingertips to his damp cheek. "Sleep. I will come back later."
She slowly shut her door as she went back to her work. Shannon stayed, on his side, his body bent and tightly clenched. He was beyond sobbing, was choking again. "Hanged?" he chanted in his numbing mind. The image of his dearest friend on a horse or ladder, a rope around his neck, then the support drawn out from under him, then struggling and choking as the rope tightened around his neck… The sense of it each time the image played in his head he felt like someone had somehow managed to punch him everywhere on his body and in his mind at once. He could hear the percussion f the blow in his brain. He longed for oblivion and forgetfulness. But instead the pain grew sharper as he digested the news. He cramped up even more, his head twisted around and his feet coming up off the bed. He felt his urine, hot on his thighs, soaking the bed. He moaned, "Ahhh… nay, nay…"
Josephine had relented and joined the priest for a bowl of lentil potage and some bread and new cheese. She kept silent as always, though it grew more and more difficult as she became anxious about what had happened to Shannon. The priest noticed how she started at every noise and kept looking towards the door. She had not wanted to leave the church, fearing Shannon would return and not find her.
"Is someone fetching you?" the priest asked.
She nodded, looking away towards the door.
"Lass, is it a man? Are you in peril? Or are you eloping?" She shook her head vigorously. She tried to think how to mime some sort of relationship. How could she indicate husband? Brother? She did not know.
When she had eaten and insisted mutely she should clear up their table, she then kissed the priest's hand again by way of thanks and bobbed a curtsy. She gestured that she must leave. He nodded sadly. "I wish you could stay. You are not much of a conversationalist, but it was so nice to have someone to talk to if not with."
The Queen put a hand on his shoulder and gave him as warm a look as she could. She turned and left the cottage, returning to the stone step of the church, where she sat, shivering in the dark, waiting for Shannon. When he did not come she began to weep silently, afraid for him, afraid for Rory, afraid for herself. She drew up and went into the church to say a prayer.
She awoke some time later on her side in front of the altar. She had fallen asleep almost while she prayed. She sat up startled as she realized someone was kneeling over her. The man was sobbing incoherently. It was Shannon!
"Oh my God, oh my dear, Shannon, what is it? What has happened?"
She pulled herself up to sit on the step to the altar. The man crumpled at her feet. She drew his head to her lap and cradled it. Shannon's face was swollen, his breath foul and he smelled of urine. She listened to his weeping as she tried to see if he had been beaten or wounded.
"H-hanged.." he squeezed out of his throat.
"Hanged? What do you mean? Who will be hanged?"
"Rory!" he moaned and broke out anew with crying like a child.
"Rory is going to be hanged?" Josephine pursued.
Shannon lifted his head and gazed into her face, his mouth twisted in a grimace. "He was hanged… already. He's dead!"
He buried his head again in her lap and let his grief our out onto her.
She sat upright, her hands on his head and shoulder, but her face staring straight forward. With her eyes wide and staring and her mouth slack, she breathed, "Dead. Rory dead." Her head sunk on top of the man's as their world cracked apart.
Next: Help from an Unexpected Quarter
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