The queen was sitting on the floor with her children telling them a story when the fortress erupted in cheers. “Mama, what happened? Why is everyone shouting?” Peter asked.
“I don’t know, my darling. We shall have to wait to hear I suppose. Now let’s get back to our story.”
About fifteen minutes later the five were startled when the door to the nursery swung open. Gaylorde stood with his eyes blazing and an evil grin on his face. He leered at her as the children threw themselves onto her, trying to hide themselves in her arms, under her arms, anywhere they could, settling for hiding their faces against her body.
“My revenge is finally complete. Lady, your husband and the father of your brats.. is dead. Dead, dead, dead!”
Peter’s face came up. “Papa is dead?” he cried and began to weep. His tears brought on the tears and wails of the other three. Josephine put her arms tightly around them all and hid her own face in Peter’s hair. She said through clenched teeth, “Children, he is lying. The evil man is lying. Your father is not dead.”
Gaylorde smirked. “Tell them what you wish, believe what you wish, but it is true. The bastard is dead and gone. At long last.” He looked over his shoulder. “Elerde, bring the things.”
The queen looked up sharply to see the mercenary commander coming in with a sword and a mantle. He was subdued, almost mournful. His eyes beseeched hers for forgiveness. Peter started to scream.
“How can you do this to them? I expect such savagery from you, Gaylorde, but Elerde, not you.” Her eyes blazed at him. She wished Larisa was here so she could take the children aside so they would not see what Elerde held.
Gaylorde snatched the mantle from the mercenary’s hands. He thrust it in her face, causing the children to burrow further into her. “Take a look at this, lady. Is that not your husband’s mantle? Is that not his device? Is that not his blood?”
The children were still wailing, though muffled by her body. She was grateful they did not look up. Her eyes were on the device she herself had embroidered on the king’s mantle. Only she could be sure it was truly his. She reached with a hand she extricated from a child’s grip and ran a finger over the device. There in the hilt of the sword was the secret she shared with Lawrence, that she had made a Celtic knot of their initials, L and J, as she embroidered it. It was his mantle. He would never be parted with it. He said it was almost like having her near him. She knew the sword was his, though it was possible that it could be copied. But the mantle could not. Anyone who tried would fail to include the knotwork.
“I don’t believe it. If he were gone I would have felt it when it happened,” she said with a firm jaw. “Peter, take your brother and sisters over to your pallet. I want you to huddle together and pray very hard for your father. Pray aloud. I want to hear you.” She pulled herself to stand, leaning as the children reluctantly dropped her hands and went to make enough noise that she knew they would not hear what she and the others had to say. She held the mantle in her arms, clasping it to her breast.
Gaylorde said, “Tell the ætheling to pray for himself too. He will be seeing his God quite soon.” He grabbed the mantle from her grasp and held it open. The sight of all the blood made her cry out. Elerde, who had winced at the sound, stepped forward to catch her as she started to crumple.
Gaylorde laughed with his hands on his hips and his head tilted back. “I should think you would be pleased. At least now you and your lord and children will be together again. There wasn’t much hope of that happening anytime soon with him still alive.” He shoved the mantle at Elerde. “It should make fine sport to see you all die. But why have all the fun at one time. Tomorrow will do for that exquisite sight." He spun on his heels and exited the chamber. "I think this calls for a feast today!” he called to his men, receiving a boisterous round of approval.
“I am so sorry,” Elerde said when they were alone save for the loudly praying children.
Josephine pushed him away. “Are you?” she snapped. “Isn’t this what you wanted? My husband dead?”
Elerde bit his lip at the riposte he wanted to make, that it was her husband who tried to kill him. “I won’t lie to you, Josephina, I am not sorry he’s dead. But I am terribly grieved at your own sorrow. Gaylorde is a cruel man. I wanted to break the news to you myself, more gently. Don’t you see now, that you need to leave immediately? Gaylorde is going to kill you all. Josephina, he will crow with delight to see you and the children die."
Her eyes flared anew at his affectionate name for her, but she knew he was being candid with his feelings. She dropped her eyes, looking like she would start to weep.
"My own darling, you have no more reason not to come with me. Lawrence is not coming back.”
She shot him a defiant look. “That is his grace the king to you, sir. You may not take such familiarity. With him or with me. he is not dead. I told you. I would know. I don’t know where he is, what has happened to him,, if he is well, but I do know he is alive.”
Elerde’s eyes were soft and pleading. “If that is true, then you are right. he will come home someday. But what matters is that Gaylorde thinks he is dead. He no longer has any reason to keep you alive and he must kill Peter so he does not become a rallying point for your people. “ He took her shoulders in a strong grip and made her look into his eyes. “What if the king is still alive? What if he comes back and takes the fortress? What will he feel if he only then learns that you have been executed, and your children slaughtered?”
She looked at him, stunned. She opened her lips to speak but could not. Her chin fell to her breast. He put his arms around her, and she let herself crumple against him. As he held her tight and kissed the top of her head, she let go and wept. The tension of maintaining her composure in the face of the privations, the fear, the loneliness could no longer be denied.
The children stopped their prayer and looked up alarmed. Elerde reached out one arm to them as an invitation. They came quickly, folding themselves into the embrace between their mother and the man who cherished her.
The mercenary felt as much as heard the queen’s single word. The girls and Tavish were crying and he had to bend his head down closer to her face. “What, my love? What did you say?”
She tried to pull herself together, lifting her face away from his chest and reaching to stroke her children’s hair. “I said aye.”
“Aye?” Elerde’s heart beat faster. “You mean.. you will..?”
Josephine turned reddened eyes to him. “Aye, but on one condition.”
He responded to the solemn look on her face which was formed on a structure of resolve. “Anything, my darling. Anything.”
She looked hard into his face. “That you take us to an abbey somewhere in England, not to Leon, and not to live with you. Swear it.”
He had known it was too good to hope for, that she would turn to him now with all her grief. He nodded. “I swear.”. He was patient. He could wait for her to come to him.
“Lady, you once told me you would not go with me even were it to the gates of Hell. Taking you to an abbey suits me greatly as a compromise.”
He wrapped her more tightly in his arms, put his cheek on her hair, closed his eyes, and sighed deeply. "Josephina, my love."
Josephine pulled back from Elerde’s arms with a start. “Forgive me. That was most unseemly.” She turned away from him as he reached to take her back into his arms. His eyes implored her.
“Lady, it is natural you should weep. You have had a serious shock.”
She had knelt to her children, taking them all into an embrace, reassuring, calming, comforting. “I think you should leave me, my lord. I want you to take what time we have to think about what you propose to do.”
He dropped his arms to his sides and his eyes grew empty of hope. “My lady,” the man of Leon ventured, “I have no doubts about what must be done. You and these children must go far beyond Gaylorde’s reach.”
Without looking at him, she went on. “Sir, one thing must be clear between us. If I let you help me escape, there will be no.. expectations.. on your part that I will be yours. I am now and forever the wife of King Lawrence, living or…” Her voice caught, not wanting to undo the comfort she had given the children. "Grateful I shall be indeed, but I will not willingly become your leman."
Elerde drew himself up to his full formal stance. In a chilly voice, he said, “My lady, you misjudge me greatly. I both would not and need not compel women to be with me. I will help you however I may for our friendship’s sake and to prevent an evil man from doing even further evil. With your leave, I will go make what preparations we need to depart. I advise you to get your children ready.” He made a short, sharp bow, spun on his heel and left.
The queen looked after him, regretting the necessity of her words. The man was unpredictable, impetuous. She had to be rock hard against that.
“Come, children, I need to talk with you.” She led them to their pallets and bade them sit. “I need you to be very, very brave. And quiet. You must be silent. Lord Elerde is going to help us leave and go somewhere where your father can find us.”
Peter asked in a hushed voice, “Is Papa alive?”
“Aye, my love, he is. When he can find a way to do this, he will come find us.”
Josephine was not sure how the Man of Leon would accomplish their escape. She knew it would be within the next hours, for to wait would mean Gaylorde would send his guards fetch them so he could kill them all.
Soon she heard a great deal of noise growing in the stronghold’s grounds around her. She washed the children’s faces and hands, changed them into clean clothes, then bade them each use their chamber pots. “Put on your cloaks too.” She sat quite still herself once they were ready and lying tensely but quietly on their pallets. She listened to the commotion, the sound of horses being brought into the courtyard, of men’s voices shouting, first simply to each other, then in demanding tones.
Elerde had found his two lieutenants and told them to gather all his men mounted in the courtyard. Lagu and Heraral already knew what their commander intended. They quickly and efficiently made the rounds of the officers who made their own rounds to their men. Elerde himself made his way to the hall where the usurper greeted him and welcomed him at last to the feast celebrating the king’s death. But Gaylorde stopped in mid-sentence when he saw that Elerde was in full mail and armor.
“Sire,” Elerde interrupted the man’s initial words of question. “There is a force advancing from the east. I have ordered my men to prepare to ride out to meet them.”
Gaylorde rose. “Indeed, and will you take a number of my guard with you?”
Elerde gave a casual shrug. “If you wish, my liege, but ‘tis not such a big force that my own men cannot take them. Better to keep a strong force here in case there is an attack from another quarter. If it pleases your majesty,” he added.
Gaylorde was thinking how much easier it would be to dispose of the royal prisoners if the mercenary was nowhere near them. He smiled. “I commend you, my lord, for your quick action. By all means, take your men and go.”
Elerde of Leon bowed low and took his leave.
In the courtyard he signaled to Lagu. “Come.”
The two men went into the building in which the nursery lay. They approached the two guards who stood in front of the door of the small chamber. Elerde and the two men exchanged nods, then as Elerde and Lagu stepped past them, they turned and thrust daggers deep into the men’s sides. Elerde pulled his own dagger out of the older guard and then cut his throat with a slashing motion. Lagu meantime had snatched the other guard’s sword out of its sheath and buried it in its owner’s belly and twisted it.
The door to the nursery opened. The queen stood alarmed, glancing down to see the guards. “It is now, then,” she stated matter of factly. This is to be a bold escape then.” She turned and went to the children who were sitting up on their pallets. “Peter and Tavish, take my hands. My lord, can you take the girls?”
Elerde came forward and he and Lagu each took a little girl in their arms.
“I want you all to close your eyes tight until I tell you that you can open them. Do you understand?” Her voice was commanding.
“Aye, Mother,” chorused four little voices.
“Close them now. Boys, I will not let you trip or fall, I promise.”
The children squeezed their eyes shut.
The queen looked at Elerde. “Ready.”
Elerde patted Caithness, whom he held in the crook of his arm. “We are going on a horseback ride. We will ride very fast. You won’t be scared, will you?”
Caithness, her eyes shut tight, shook her head.
Elaine had her little hands pressed hard over her eyes on Lagu’s chest. "Mama?" she said in a whisper.
“Hush! Remember you must be silent.” Josephine chided.
The next few minutes were a blur. With a deep breath Lagu led the odd grouping out of the nursery and then out of the quarters building. Josephine realized it was the first time she had been outdoors in months. The sun hit her eyes and made her almost blind. She could not let go of one of her sons’ hands to shade her eyes. She felt a strong hand take her elbow. “Have no fear, my lady. Just close your eyes and come with me.”
“Must I also be silent, my Lord Elerde?” she asked with wry humor.
“I should not presume to tell you, your grace,” he replied. The queen could not read his inflection.
Soon she was up on a horse, her two girls seated before her and her arms wrapped securely around them. She was able to look now. Peter was in front of Lagu and Tavish in front of Heraral. Elerde lifted his hand and called “Forward!”
Gaylorde came out of the hall, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and clutching a delighted Ricca to his side, to watch the soldiers head out to stop the attacking force. He took one look at the four lead horses and shouted, “Wait! Stop them!”
He was too late. The lead riders had ridden through the inner and then the outer gate before his own men could react. “After them!” Gaylorde shouted. His men mounted as quickly as the stable boys and grooms could bring out the horses and saddle them. behind the last rider the two heavy gates had swung shut. When the first of Gaylorde’s men shouted to the guards to open the inner gates, there was no reply. “Hell and damnation,” the usurper cried.
“The gate is blocked!” came the voice of the first man who managed to climb up to the gate house. “It’s tied shut!”
“What do you mean, tied shut, whoreson?” Gaylorde snapped. He climbed the wall himself and looked. Indeed at some time someone had affixed ropes to the outside of the inner gate. They were now tied in elaborate knots. There were many of them and they were thick. As he ordered men to jump down and hack at the ropes with their swords and axes, there came a sharp whistle. All eyes looked to the two gatehouses of the outer gate. Each had an archer ready to loose arrows into the first man who tried it. Gaylorde and his men ducked rapidly as two arrows came sailing just over their heads.
“Where are we going, my lord?” the queen asked the mercenary commander as she rode up beside him. They were heading north.
“The Humber, of course, and across it to Northumbria. We can get a ship there for the south. Or you can make other arrangements if that pleases you, my lady.” Elerde was looking straight ahead, not at her. his voice was formal.
“My lord, thank you. For my children’s sakes.”
Elerde glanced at her briefly,and nodded. Then he spurred his horse forward.
The monk watched the party ride away, then heard the shouts from the inner gate. He stood near the outer gate, and he looked up at the archers’ Looking about, he tucked up his habit and slowly climbed one of the gatehouses. He called to the archer to let him know he was coming and was unarmed.
“Go, lad,” he said. “You and the other one follow your commander. I will take your bow and loose some arrows for a while to keep them from popping up to look." He planned to leave the bow up here and slide back down. No one will suspect a monk.
The man thanked him, handed him his bow and sack of arrows. “Thank you, brother,” he said.
“One thing,” Rory asked. “Where are they going?”
“To the river and Northumbria, then mayhap on to Kent.”
“Me warmest thanks, lad,” Rory said, pulling off his habit and taking the bow in his hands. “Now better go.” He loosed an arrow just as a head started to bob up on the opposite tower.
The archers gone and Rory doing his best to seem like two sets of bows and arrows, he thought to himself. “I will follow and find her. “
Next: Shannon Reaches Grantham
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