elthryth sat on his horse surveying the crowd of downcast people who greeted him upon his and his raiding party’s return. “He what?!” the leader demanded.
Cynwic, the guard whom the hostage had brained as he escaped pointed elaborately to the bump on his head and whined, “But Aelthryth, he hit me with a rock!”
The bandit leader cringed at the whiny tone of the man’s voice. “Jesu Christ, how did he get out of the prison hut?”
The men who had been left behind while this raiding party was gone looked at each other and scratched their heads. The bumpy-headed man shrugged. “We don’t know.”
Aelthryth sighed and glared at the man. Then he shifted his attention. “Wulfstan, weren’t you on duty too? Did you wait around for the man to give you a bump on the head after he finished with Cynwic?” He eyed the man who was squirming. “You weren’t even there, were you?”
Wulfstan shook his head and looked down, wringing his hands. “I.. I was…”
The leader growled. “I know where you were… in Mærheard’s bed.. and in his woman...”
Said Mærheard let out a roar that startled even the leader. He was already on foot and had a head start on the philanderer and caught him and struck him to the ground almost where he had been standing.
“Enough!” Aelthryth shouted. “You can settle your scores later. Did anyone at least try to find him?”
A very young fellow with an optimistic chinful of peach fuzz called out, “Aye, but without our hunter we didn’t stand a chance. He had hours on us.”
Aelthryth laboriously dismounted. He stood as the boy who had spoken hurried to take his horse to unsaddle and brush down. “Do we still have any of the oats?” the leader called after him.
“Some,” the fellow called back, then turned and took the horse out of sight between two of the ramshackle cottages to feed him what was left.
“Losing our hunter was the worst part of what that bastard Thryduulf did to us.” Aelthryth gave the band of men encircling him a sour grimace.
Mærheard barked out, “That and having everything we had in the world taken away.”
The leader nodded resignedly and walked slowly to the hut in which Lawrence had been imprisoned. He stopped in front of it, his hands on his hips, and shook his head. There it stood, the rough door standing open, the wattle walls still whole.
“Latch the door after I’m inside,” he commanded.
“Sir?” came a voice from the crowd that had followed him, but Mærheard stepped up as Aelthryth stepped inside the small, cramped hut. He threw the latch and waited as the leader appeared, from the sounds they heard, to be trying the door, hitting it, pushing it, trying to lift it, then punching places in the walls trying to find a weak spot.
“Let me out,” he finally called. Once outside he looked baffled. “Someone must have let him out, pulled the latch or something.”
“I did, sir.”
All eyes turned to the small figure standing apart. Godgifu’s mother gasped and rushed forward to grab her up.
“Stop! What do you mean, Godgifu?” Aelthryth asked.
“I undid the latch so the man could get out.” The face was ingenuous, not a hint of fear or laughter.
Through the sudden eruption of voices that questioned, reprimanded and sounded relieved to be off the hook themselves all at once, the leader asked. “Why did you do that, child?”
Godgifu shrugged. “Because if we kept him here he could not go back and fight the bad men who took everything from our village and then burned it down.”
Murmurs made their rounds but the leader just looked at the little girl. “What makes you think he would fight the bad men?”
The child put her hands clasped in front of her and twisted from the hips back and forth. “That’s his job.”
“You mean he is a warrior?”
Godgifu nodded. “He’s a warrior.. and the King.”
The murmurs abruptly silenced. Everyone looked at Aelthryth. “The king? What do you mean, he’s the King?”
The girl’s voice took on a petulant, impatient note. “He just is. He’s the King. That’s all.”
The leader went over to her and knelt on one knee, putting his hand gently on her shoulder. “Did the man tell you this?”
She shook her head. “I just know.” She twisted more quickly, making the leader take his hand from her shoulder. “I can prove it!” she suddenly said in a loud voice and turned and ran back to her family’s cottage. The leader followed, accompanied by everyone who had been within earshot. They heard the child scrabbling around, a wooden box shutting with a thunk. Just as Aelthryth stooped to go through the low door, the girl burst out, holding something between two fingers. “Here!”
The leader took the small thing. Everyone could see it was a silver piece. His face blanched. “By God, she’s right. It was the King.” He held up the coin. As each person came as close as his or her eyesight demanded, each saw the King’s image on the coin.
Mærheard swore, his anger at being cuckolded forgotten for the moment. “Holy shit! Well I am for Mercia. When the King comes back, we are all dead meat.”
“Nay, we are not. He’s a nice man.”
All faces turned back to Godgifu. She went on, “He said he would come back and give me whatever I wanted.”
Her mother scolded, “Godgifu, you know better than to take gifts from strange men who want you to do something. We talked about that, remember?”
“But I didn’t! I helped him so he could go fight. He said he would give me whatever I wanted to thank me... after.”
“You know,” said one man who had been left out of the raiding party, “he could have done a lot more than bumped Cynwic on the head. He took his weapons. He could have killed him and everyone else here if he had a mind to.”
“He wouldn’t do that, silly!” Godgifu retorted. “He’s the King!”
The leader looked at her speculatively. “Whether being a King makes someone good and just is one thing, but the facts speak for themselves. He just slipped away. Did he take anything else?”
Those who remained behind shook their heads.
“I’ve got to think about this. I have to decide what to do. In the meantime, get ready to move camp. How long has he been gone?”
Cynwic finally spoke up. “Three days.. and most of a night.”
“Better get ready tonight then. Mayhap Daelwine and Egbert saw him, or even captured him, when he got to Grantham. He’d be returning by tomorrow matins.”
He walked to his own cottage and greeted his wife. She shook her head with sympathy and understanding. “Idiots,” he said.
Next: Deciding to Rescue the King
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