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
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
New Stories: The Death of Gaylorde (Happened with Changes)
He told the rest of his men to follow him carefully as the remaining torch was still unlit. “This way. Take care of the bumps on the floor.” He continued to whisper cautions as they followed him blindly, feeling with their booted toes for sudden drops and for things that could trip them up, and with their hands to feel for the walls. Not a few wondered if they would suddenly hear the king ahead of them fall down into a deep pit, and prayers were silently uttered.
“Stop here,” the king’s voice called. “Light the torch.” In the dark and confusion the man with the tinder box and the man holding the torch found each other. A sigh escaped from every man there as they found themselves in the illuminated cave looking at a king who stood with his hands on his hips, sporting a wide smile as he looked up and around at the cave. “I had almost forgotten about this passage. This one was my idea.”
“Where does it lead, your grace?” came a voice.
“You’ll see. Come.”
The sound of water cascading down a wall came from ahead, the stench growing sharper. The king led the men through a variety of widths and heights of passages a short distance until they came to a place where the cave widened. A rivulet of water poured down the wall some feet before them, and the wall it ran down was caked with God knew what. The torches spluttered, growing and wavering in turns. The floor of the cave was thick with offal and other indeterminate things discarded there. The king pointed to a ladder on the wall to the left.
“That goes up to the middens pit behind the stables. The one that is next to the waste water well.”
The men looked with wonder. None had had any idea they had been throwing refuse down into a cave. They just knew that there was running water down further than one could see and assumed an underground brook carried the stinking trash away.”
“Take a good quick look and get your bearings. If we keep the torches lit there is a chance someone taking a piss will notice the bottom of the pit is glowing.” The king chuckled. “We are all climbing that ladder. Would that God has kept it whole all these years in the damp and worse.”
The torches were extinguished and all there was was dark and stink.
“Oh God, I am glad I cannot see what I just stepped in,” a man said as he and the rest squelched through the ordure on the floor.
“Just imagine you are walking along a Eorforwic lane at night,” another man jibed winning chuckles.
“I hope that fellow up there doesn’t piss on me as we’re climbing up.”
The king’s voice replied, “Not likely, and you will see why later. Now all, of you, shut the fuck up.”
Lawrence reached the ladder, putting his hands on a rung that was slimy but seemed fairly solid. He whispered, “All right, here I go.” He started to climb rung by rung, heard the others behind him taking the climb cautiously, repressing comments and probably even shudders and gags. The ladder was stoutly enough crafted that though it had been soaked for some years the damage had not yet weakened it. It held the weight of several men at a time.
The king reached the top of the ladder and climbed off it onto a ledge on the side of the pit. From there he could look into the well itself illuminated by the insufficient waning moon. He whispered to the man who came up behind him, “Pass along the line that we cannot all fit on this ledge. I will lead the way out of the pit but those still on the ladder should wait there.”
The king felt something under his boot as he moved aside. "What is this?" He picked it up. It was what felt like metal pieces tied up in a piece of linen. It was dry. "This hasn't been here long, but it feels like jewelry. Ouch!" He put the thumb that had found the pin of a brooch the hard way into his mouth. He spat as he tasted blood and much more. Shoving the packet into his brigantine carefully so as not to poke himself again, he looked up. Wiping his hands ineffectually on his mail shirt, he pulled his cheek guards into place across his face. He reached for an iron rod in the wall and found it with only a little scrabbling about. The men behind him could just see his form start to rise up and up out of sight. They could hear water dripping into water somewhere.
Lawrence emerged from the pit after popping his head up to make certain the coast was clear and climbed over the short barrier around it that kept small children and livestock from stumbling in and falling to their death. The men who climbed up after him followed his hiss to the wall in the back of the stables and crouched with him there until every man was accounted for.
“Sceftwine, take five men and see to the gates. Here, take the torch and tinder. Send one of your men up the palisade of the outer wall overlooking the plain and light and toss the torch over so Lord Botopher sees the signal. The rest of you come with me.”
He thought as he made his stealthy way from shadowed spot to shadowed spot how strange it was to be home, in shouting distance of Josephine, but having to sneak around like Shannon slipping out on Heather to partake of the pleasures of the Blue Lady, the alehouse in the town. He made for the hall, his men behind him. They could hear the alarm being called over and over from the bluffside walls and feet and voices rushing away from them and towards the sound. “Pede, come with me. You others stand guard.”
The king led the soldier Pede around the side of the Hall and into the tiny garden the queen had put in front of the privy chambers she and her husband used as their quarters and the children’s nursery. At a narrow door they slipped into the wing of the hall and Lawrence, peering around a corner, frowned. There were no guards posted at all. Why was not the queen’s door under guard? He gestured in its direction with a jerk of his head, led Pede down the short corridor to the door. He tried it, found it unlatched, and slid in. Pede closed the heavy door behind him. They crossed the small antechamber and went through an open door to the queen’s bedchamber.
Lawrence stood in the chamber in the dark, smelling dust and the familiar smells of Josephine, her candles, her perfume, long dead flowers. He went by memory to a table, found a candle and tinder and lit the candle. It showed him a room devoid of life, the bed he had shared with her. Everything was thick with many months of neglected dust. Cobwebs stretched in the corners, between the angles of the bedposts and the rails that held the heavy curtains. Those curtains were pulled and tied back. With a pang Lawrence remembered the last time he had lain with his wife in that bed, the night before she had left for Affynshire. More than a year and a half ago… a lifetime, or so it felt.
His eyes settled on one spot on the edge of the bed that was less dusty. Had someone sat there? Had she? Or, he thought to himself bitterly, had Elerde? Clearly Josephine had not slept in the room for some time, probably since the usurping.
He shook himself. “No matter, she would be in the nursery. Wait here a minute.” He blew out the candle, puzzling Pede, who then heard the king fumbling with the tapestry draping the wall across from the door. He heard the scrape of wood on the hard clay floor.
Lawrence walked as quietly as he could to the door of his own chamber, through the narrow hidden corridor that on a whim he had had built into the back wall of their two bedchambers. He had put it there so he had not had to go through his work chamber and the other room that insulated him from those without and into the corridor to visit the queen. He had called it their privy passage, their respite from having to conduct their private lives publicly.
When he reached the door he stood utterly still and silent, listening for any sound within his own chamber. He was about to turn and go back to where Pede waited when he heard an odd sound. it was a voice, but whether a man, a woman, or a child he was not sure at first. The voice was mumbling, raving. With a start he realized it was his cousin, the usurper, Gaylorde. His hand was at the knife on his belt, tightening on its hilt until the knuckles were white. His jaws clenched, the anger rising and in danger of spilling over. He reached for the door handle. Then he froze. This was useless. He could slip in and kill Gaylorde with the littlest bit of effort, but how would that help Josephine and the children? He had to get to them first, protect them from Gaylorde’s men, from the mercenary lord.
He went back quietly through the familiar dark passage and slipped back into the queen’s chamber. “He told Pede “Gaylorde is in my chamber, but I believe he is alone. We must make haste to the nursery. Can you make it out of here without light?”
He did not wait for assent but passed by the man and through the anteroom. He listened briefly at the heavy door, then slipped out into the dimly lit corridor. Turning towards his own chambers, he passed the door to them and went through the door on the far end without listening first. Pede nervously followed him, sword drawn and ready.
When the door shut behind them the two stood just inside in the same pitch dark as the other rooms. They waited, listened, then Lawrence called softly, “Jo? Are you there? Peter? Tavish? Girls?” With no response, Lawrence felt around for something to light, knocking over bottles and other unseen items. he had just crouched to see if one of the things that had fallen on the floor was a candle when the two men heard a sudden burst of noise from the direction of the fortress’s double gates. It rose up so loud that any of the clamor before it was like silence in comparison. “The gates have been opened. Our men are coming through. It is as good as over.” Pede could here the scrape of metal in leather as Lawrence stood, drew his own seaxa and said more to himself than to his companion, “They aren’t here. Where are they? God help me.” Pede felt him brush past. Lawrence flung the door open. He strode with broad steps to his own chamber door and tried the handle. “Locked, god damn the man,” he said aloud. He forgot the soldier with him altogether and went to the queen’s chamber and went in, not bothering to shut the door. He went straight for the tapestry he had pushed aside before, able to see it in the faint light from the corridor. He tore it off the wall with one mighty tug. He felt for the latch hidden in the wall that opened the door that looked part of the wall and nearly took it off its hinges tearing it open.
At the door into his own chamber, he pulled with all his might on the handle. He had not needed that much effort, and the latched snapped in half as the door swung open. He took a fistful of the tapestry that covered it and yanked it down, shoving it to the side onto the floor. He stood seething in the doorway, glaring with intense hatred at the man cowering on the floor.
Gaylorde had been kneeling in front of a chest packing it with gold and silver items. He had whipped around at the violence done to the door he had not known about behind the tapestry, then let out a whimper of fear when the tapestry bunched itself in the middle, then came down, revealing a familiar figure in male and helm. “Lawrence, God, nay, don’t kill me!” The crouching man’s eyes darted to for a weapon. Before he could stand and dash for the sword on the chest some distance from him, Lawrence was on him.
Lawrence had grabbed his cousin with a viselike grip on his arm. Holding his seaxa so it pointed straight at the man’s throat, he growled through clenched teeth, “Get on your knees, traitor!”
Gaylorde sunk rather than knelt, shaking with terror. Lawrence kept the seaxa on his throat. With his free hand, the king loosed his helm’s straps and pulled it off. Gaylorde shuddered at the face revealed. Lawrence was known for the violence of his rages, but the king he looked at now was as possessed, his face was so contorted. The eyes so distinctly almost eerily blue eyes were such narrow slits that Gayloorde could not discern the color, a deep, dark and foreboding cobalt.
“Where are they?” he hissed. “What have you done with them?”
“They are not here, cousin,” the man replied, crumpled into an unnatural position on the floor.
“I can see that, you miserable son of a bitch. Where are they? The difference between a quick death and a long slow terrible one depends on your answer.” Lawrence pushed the point of his blade into the skin of the terrorized man’s throat, causing a trickle of blood to run down into his tunic.
“Th-they left.. they escaped.. like her brother… “
“How? Where?” The blade went in and nicked the outside of his windpipe.
“With Elerde. I know not where. When we heard you had been killed. They fled. With the man’s whole force, damn him.”
“You expect me to believe that, you scoundrel?!”
“It’s true, it’s true. I swear it.”
Lawrence stepped back. Gaylorde watched him. Some surge of his own mad fury went through him and he dared to say in a strangled voice. “I hope he raped her. I hop she and the filthy brats are dead. You killed my father. I hope you…”
He never finished his curse for Lawrence reached for his sword in the scabbard on his back and in one swift and beautiful motion, drew it in an arc down and then sideways. It struck Gaylorde neatly on the side of his neck, sliced through and flung the head so that it lay several feet away from his body. Blood poured out of the severed neck and pooled on the floor.
Behind him Pede stood watching the king stand over his cousin’s body, breathing hard as if he had run fast and far. His sword was at his side, the tip almost touch the floor, likewise staining the rush strewn clay surface with rich, red blood.
Outside the packed earth of the courtyard was dyed the same color as Botopher’s and Horsa’s soldiers decimated the few remaining traitors.