aelwine indeed arrived in time to stop the exodus from the camp.
He was one of the survivors of the sacking of the small village of Toft. The usurper’s man in Grantham had not even waited until the usurping took place far to the northeast in Lawrencium but with his lord away at the war, he swept down with his own force and gathered all the border towns had. Those men not in the fields during the middle of the day had died trying to stop the sack, so the women hid and escaped to tell their returning menfolk that all their stores and livestock were gone. Why the women were spared was explained by what Aelthryth’s own wife overheard. “Leave them. Unless you plan to kill the girl, how are you going to explain her back in Grantham?”
Now Daelwine told an odd story. “Egbert and I hid in the clump of rocks near the road that leads to the gate of Grantham. I saw a man in ragged clothes come up the road, looking nervous. He seemed spooked by something, the more he approached, possibly sensing we were there. He too took cover and waited.”
“That sounds like the hostage we took.. who turned out to be the King, methinks,” Aelthryth observed.
Daelwine stared at him, his mouth hanging open, then shook his head as if to clear it and went on. “That makes what happened next stranger. Jehan and his patrol came back. To Egbert’s and my surprise the raggedy man stepped out of his hiding place right into the path of the riders. He held up his hand in a salute and then .. well.. smiled at them. I thought maybe he was a spy working for Lord Jehan or something.”
Aelthryth urged him on, “So what happened? What’s so strange about the King saluting one of his allies?”
“It was what Jehan did that was strange. He stopped, his face white as snow, and stared. Then he ordered his men to take the man. He said ‘He must be mad’ or something like that. I was surprised when the man shouted, ‘What is the meaning of this?’ in an imperious voice, but I guess I know why now…” He let his voice trail off.
Wulfstan interjected, “But what did they do? Why did the men not recognize the King?”
Daelwine shrugged as all eyes were riveted on him again. “If he was the King. It was getting dark and he sure didn’t look like a king. And one of the men clunked him a good one on the head. H was out like a candle in a squall. “
Cynwic muttered “Good, I hope it hurts as much as mine does,” and rubbed the bump on his own head.
“And they took him inside?” the leader queried.
Daelwine nodded. “Egbert and I thought you ought to hear about that. There was another man, just a few days before, who seemed like he gave Jehan some message and left again pretty soon. We did not think anything of it at the time. He had a large bundle of some kind, both coming in and going out. Egbert and I thought I should come since I run faster.”
“You did right.” Aelthryth put one elbow on his bent knee and his chin in his palm. “So if that was the King, and I think it was, he’s not going to be coming to take revenge on us any time soon. Assuming he’s still alive. And it means Jehan has turned against him. Which makes my lord Jehan that bastard Thrydulf’s accomplice.”
Mærheard spoke up. “What do we do?”
The leader pondered for a while. “We rescue him.”
Aelthryth led a party of bandits on foot to a copse near the fortress of Grantham. He shaded his eyes to the afternoon light and peered. “Have any of you ever been in there?” he asked the men clustered nearby.
“I have,” called Cynwic. “Remember when that fellow claimed I was damming up the brook that watered his land? I had to go to the Earl’s court to defend myself.”
“Did you get a good look around?” Aelthryth pursued. Cynwic shook his head. “Well then one of us will need to go in there and scout around for where they are holding their prisoner. Cynwic, you at least have been in there.. you go.” He ignored the man’s plaintive noise as he rubbed the bump on his head. “Just go.”
Cynwic gained access to the stronghold easily by lifting a load of wood from a cart nearby the gate and striding through. The men guarding the entrance were distracted by a game of draughts and did not challenge the unfamiliar face. The bandit strolled aimlessly about with the wood perched on his shoulder, not needing to feign the look of being lost that showed on his face. The stronghold was laid out with the Hall and the earl’s household’s quarters in the middle, with stables, a chapel, the servants quarters and workshops, the wells and the cooking fires more or less in a circle around it. He wandered about between and behind the buildings, dodging running children, being barked at and nipped by dogs. He stepped into some sort of a mess and moaned. Then he relaxed as he saw it was just some awful a dog had pulled out of the middens and not a dog turd. People asked him where he was going several times, but he just looked daft and turned in the direction they pointed, only to resume his search when he was out of sight.
After two or three circuits of the compound Cynwic noticed that the section of outer wall behind the guard house that had walls that stretched between them was larger than it at first appeared. He noticed that there was a barred door very close to the guardhouse’s western wall. That must be where the king was held. He hefted his wood more securely on his shoulder and made bold to approach the two guards that stood before it. He walked right up to them, looking like he expected them to open the door and let him through.
“Where do you think you are going?” said a grizzled man with a Northumbrian accent. he had stooped shoulders and a festering scar on one forearm, the arm he held out to stop Cynwic.
“Wood. I am to take wood in there.” Cynwic made his voice sound matter of fact.
“In there?! I don’t think so. That’s where the prisoner is kept. He doesn’t need wood.” This came from the other younger guard who was no less disreputable looking, just fairer of face.
“Prisoner? What prisoner? I thought this was the private garth?” Cynwic queried irritably.
“Never mind what prisoner. This is not a garth, no less a private one. Someone has you confused.” The grizzled guard looked out to the courtyard as if looking for someone, lifted his wounded arm to hail them.
“Don’t bother.. I’ll find the man who told me to bring the wood over here.” Cynwic took one last look at the gate to the prison and turned and walked away.
Next: Shannon Gets Suspipcious About Grantham's Madman
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