n a cloudy but dry day, Lawrence rode with his general, Horsa, and a party of both mounted men and men at arms on foot. They had begun to know the lay of the land, where the path was clear, where fields stretched dotted with sheep and easy to ride over, and where the copses of woods and low lying areas might mask a mire. It was beautiful country, with bucolic views from hills that made one think he could see all the way to Lawrencium. The king knew better than to dwell on this. He would be there when he was there. In the meantime he kept his ears tuned and his eyes sharp for subterfuge and ambush.
Horsa slowed his horse, stood in his stirrups and shaded his eyes, peering to the south towards a thicket. “Sire, I see what may be some men on foot.”
“Mercians.. or brigands?” Lawrence wondered.
“We shall find out, my lord,” Horsa replied with a twinkling eye. He adjusted the buckle on his helm, raised his hand to signal his men, and rode around the small stand of spindly trees. Lawrence directed his own men to make the circuit around the other side.
They approached stealthily, then as they circled deosil, there was a crack of broken branches further along. “Take that route!” Lawrence shouted, himself spurring straight into the trees. His men hesitated but a moment, then rode away having felt the lash of the king’s anger when they tried to protect him by accompanying him in these impulsive actions. “God’s teeth, I am a better fighter than three of you together.. I should be protecting you!” he had bellowed.
Despite the dense undergrowth of the wood, War-Brother nimbly stepped through it and between the unhealthy looking trees. He was trained to step firmly but lightly both for stealth and to allow his royal rider to hear noises that were alien to the surroundings.
They at length came to a small clearing with a pool that stretched to the surrounding trees and had reeds growing in all but the middle of it. He saw that the only route was to back out and go around or to cross the pool. Lawrence urged his horse forward, talking quietly in his ear to reassure him. War-Brother obeyed and stepped into the water gingerly, advancing step by step towards the middle. Lawrence guided him more to the right towards the reeds in hope of avoiding a sudden drop down in the center.
Lawrence started up at the sound of a branch being broken nearby as his horse first encountered some sucking muddy footholds and lost his nimbleness. Just then a large water bird squawked a protest at being disturbed in her reedy nest, flying straight up and startling the normally sanguine horse. War-Brother reared, sending the king backward off his saddle. Lawrence splashed down, hitting his helmeted head on a stump. Dazed he pulled off his helm so as not to be weighted down and drown. He dropped it and it, along with its kingly circlet of gold, fell into the water and sank into the mud.
Lawrence found himself in the same quagmire in which War-Brother struggled with the muck underfoot. The king tried to calm him and call him to himself. The horse laboriously dragged one foot out of the sucking fen bottom, then the other. His concentration was so intense he started when suddenly there was a shout just out of sight. War-Brother, his eyes wild and starting out of his head, bolted, crashing through the stunted growth on the edge of the quagmire.
Lawrence struggled to rise. It seemed as if every place where he put his hands or feet sucked him in. His cloak was caught in roots so he tore it off. He felt his sword in the sheath on his back as he pulled his cloak from under it and thought to use it to extricate himself. He drew it and looked about for the best route to escape his muddy trap.
“What have we here?” came an accented voice from beside the quagmire.
The king looked up, holding his sword in a defensive ward. He saw the man standing just feet away. It took him a moment to place him. Then he said, amazed, “Lagu?” It was Elerde’s lieutenant. “What are you doing here?” Lawrence cast his eyes about for others, one Leon commander in particular, without taking his eyes off Lagu entirely.
“Looking for you, my lord,” the dark-haired man said with a smile.
Lawrence heard the nicker of a horse not far away and knew it was not War-Brother. He watched the man warily. He wanted to shout , to alert his men, but he knew the shout might draw others to the spot. He knew he could take the fellow alone, that is, if he could get out of the muck.
Lagu came around to where Lawrence was sitting struggling to stand and turn to face him. The man’s sword was drawn and he glanced about from time to time to be sure no one was approaching.
“You are alone,” Lawrence observed hopefully. “What is this all about?”
Lagu did not answer. He cautiously leaned forward and pulled the waterlogged cloak from where it lay partly on the bank. “Your sword, my lord,” he commanded.
Lawrence grinned wryly to himself. “Ah.. I think not.” He was carefully loosening the muck’s grip on each leg under the surface of the water, while trying to twist so he could put his sword into play if Lagu attacked him from behind. The combination of actions canceled each other out as he had to balance almost all of his weight on his arse. As he lifted one leg he would tip sideways and was unable to keep twisted as far as he could. As he twisted the other leg became further trapped.
He heard Lagu thrashing about in the thicket behind him. His head turned as far as he could manage in his mail hood. He could only make out the man stooping and pushing aside brush and rooting about on the ground. He heard the man grunt and say something in the Brezhoneg language, then heard the sound of something being dragged.
Lagu came back to the edge of the pool dragging a length of rotten wood. He put his foot on the middle and snapped the branch almost in half. Lawrence struggled harder to loose himself from his trap, but Lagu raised the sturdy end of the branch and swung it towards the back of the king’s head. It connected with a thud and the world went from dim to dark.
Lagu examined his handiwork. The king‘s body had thrust forward but then recoiled to where he now lay prone and unconscious, his head in about two inches of mucky water, his sword across his legs. The Breton lieutenant smiled and pulled a short length of sturdy cord from his belt. He leaned to the king and grabbed him under the armpits. Bracing himself with bended knees, he dragged the man towards him.
Another shout made Lagu look up. He dropped the king who was now halfway out of the water. He snatched the sword that was precariously sliding along with him on his leg. The sounds came closer. Quickly wrapping the sword in the king’s cloak he looked about and then disappeared into the thicket heading away from the voices.
A small band of men in ragged clothing and much be-scarred heard the sound of Lagu’s horse breaking into as quick a pace as the undergrowth allowed. They crept forward to the clearing, cautious lest others had been in company with the rider. Their leader, a man with greasy dark hair and many missing teeth, stood up straight as he spied the figure half in and half out of the pool.
“Methinks this one was thrown by his horse. ‘Twas the beast we heard fleeing.” He grinned. “Good luck, lads.. the beast has left us a gift!”
The men, following the leader, came around both sides of the pool, careful to find solid ground under their feet. They met by the king’s head.
“A right noble one, by all that is holy,” said a bandit.
The leader laughed. “What would you know of holiness?” Then he nodded. “Aye, by the garb, methinks you are right.” he prodded the body with his foot. “But live or dead?”
One of his men stooped to feel the king’s throat under his mail collar. “Alive!” he rejoiced.
“Now we will take not only his valuables but himself. If he is a Mercian, they will ransom him. If he is not, they will buy him.” The leader was fairly salivating at the windfall.
One of his men was feeling around the tall man’s body. “But where is his sword? He propped the man up onto his side and saw the scabbard. “He had one. Where is it?”
The rest of the men searched about. “It must have fallen in the mire. It’s long gone now.”
In spite of the last statement, two of the men fished around in the water near the shore, pushing aside reeds and coming up with nothing more than handfuls of muck. They missed the helm altogether because the king had been pulled away from where he fell.
Other men found a rich brooch, a well made dagger, gold arm rings and sundry other small valuables on the man’s body. “Exceeding rich stuff. His boots alone are worth the taking. I wonder who he is.”
The leader looked at the speaker, a man whose hand had been severed for theft. “Whoever he is, someone will miss him. Now, look at that.. he really took a blow somehow.” He had seen the bloody hair where Lagu’s improvised club had hit the man. He glanced about for a rock or root that struck the man’s head as he fell. “Ah, well, no matter. Bundle him up, lads, and let’s bind the fellow and get him to our camp.”
Lawrence lay senseless as the men lifted him, secured his wrists and ankles, and threw him over the back of an underfed and elderly horse. The bandits made their way back along invisible paths well known to them.
Next: Lorin Is Rescued - "And I Helped."
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