Remember, "Lord Jehan" is "Earl Harold" in the novel.
ehan had taken a more circuitous route and now stood off from the gate watching “Kyre” and the guards. He frowned at the liberties the second guard had taken -- liberties he believed reserved for himself -- but he was more irritated that he would not be able to follow her in to the enclosure just yet. Better to wait until she had delivered the pail and left.
He turned to go to the hall for a bowl of ale. He spotted some players, dressed in bright colored rags and tags coming around a building, then stopping suddenly when they saw him. One of the players made a most blasphemous comment, causing another to clap a hand over his mouth. He saw the players start to turn. “Oh hail there, stop. Are you looking for someone or something?” Jehan loved players, singers, dancers, jugglers, whatever they were called and whatever they did.
Aelthryth, seeing in the light of a half moon that the earl had a bright smile of welcome on his face, stopped and turned back, hissing a command to do likewise to his band. They reluctantly turned and waited.
“Kind sir, my lord, I mean, aye, we are wondering just where we can bed down after we play for the earl.”
Jehan puffed out his chest. “I am the earl! Come along with me now. I am on my way to the hall as it happens – and very much in need of distraction. Afterwards you can choose to sleep in the hall or in the stables.. whichever company you prefer to keep.” He gave Aelthryth a devilish look. “If you ask me, methinks the horses are cleaner and smell better than the flea bitten warriors that sleep in the Hall!”
Aelthryth elbowed Mærhard n the ribs and laughed, with a reluctant Mærhard joining in, then the others. The earl’s face registered pleasure at the response to his witticism.
Jehan gestured for the band of players to come with him, then started to walk away.
Aelthryth thought fast. “Uh, my lord, your grace, noble sir.. we were also looking for the cesspit. Boo here isn’t feeling to well. And he’s touched, so we always go with him.”
Jehan stared at them a moment. “All of you?”
The bandits chorused an enthusiastic “aye!”
“Well, make haste. I am most anxious to see what you have to perform. The cesspit is over there.” Jehan gestured in the direction of one part of the stronghold wall, then he turned and strode away.
Shannon could not believe how easy it had been to get in. While congratulating himself on his wit, he went to the door of the little jail and put the covered pail down. He winced as the heavy bar on the only door creaked as he labored to lift it. He stopped breathing for a moment, then heard “Shddad?” whispered questioningly by the all too familiar voice within the hut.
“Sire, I’ll be getting’ ye out soon as I can lift this bar.” With a mighty pull he managed to lift it, drooped it again, caught it before it slammed noisily into its brackets, then took a deep breath and pulled the bar all the way out. Straining at the weight of it, he lowered it silently to the ground. He saw the door he had just cleared start to open slowly. A much soiled and ragged but nevertheless regal head came out to look.
The king was gagged, and as he emerged hopping from the hut, Shannon saw his hands and ankles were tied as well. Shannon dashed to cut the ropes on his wrists with a little eating knife he carried. Before he had cut all the way through, the King snapped the ropes and freed himself. He quickly reached to pull off the gag. Dropping to sit on the dirt to untie his ankles, he grinned up at his savior and said hoarsely, “Shannon, ‘tis indeed you! How came you here?”
Before the Irishman could answer he was up again and clasping him in a bear hug. In the growing dark Shannon smelled his condition more than saw it. He started to answer the king’s question, but found himself cut off.
“Never mind that, how do we get out of here?” The King was not asking him but was already looking about for an escape route. Though he had stooped as he came out, he stood straight now, looking for all the world as if he was growing to his particular height.
My lord, have ye been here all this time we thought ye were dead?”
“Nay, nay,” the King replied distractedly. “Bandits held me for ransom.”
“Ransom? But no ransom message came to lawrencium.”
Without registering any but the barest points of Shannon’s questions, he said, “They thought I was Aldwin of Sleaford..”
Shannon almost laughed aloud. “Aldwin of Sleaford? Rich that be..”
Lawrence hissed a warning to be quiet. It was then he stopped and looked harder at Shannon. “What in God’s name are you wearing?”
“’Tis but a lasses cloak and a linen towel,” Shannon answered as though it was the most commonplace thing in the world.
‘Ah,” Lawrence replied, sounding not at all certain, but his eyes left Shannon and started searching again. “The guards think you are a lass.. the one who brings my dinner. They will wonder if you don’t come back out.” He looked at the gate. “Wait until I get behind the gate,” he directed.
Shannon nodded and watched the King go to the inside of the stockade wall and flex his arms and take a solid stance. As he looked to Shannon, who stood with his arms drooping at his sides and started to lift his hand to signal, they heard voices coming from the other side of the gate.
“Just where do you think you are going, varlet?” came one of the guard’s voices, clearly not in the mood for this tomfoolery. “Wait, what are you doing? You can’t..” Then a struggle and the sound of groaning in two pitches, and of bodies hitting the ground. Other voices sniggered and hands could be heard clapping backs.
Lawrence gave Shannon a puzzled look, which he returned with a shrug, and then the bar was audibly lifted and the gate began to open.
The bandits came into the little enclosure as a group, stopping just inside to stare at Shannon. Aelthryth said, “What are you doing here, lass? You’d better get out of…” Then he saw the open door to the hut. “Now wait a minute..”
“You?!” Lawrence rasped, then reached for and palmed the nearest man’s dagger. He caught the bandit leader by the throat and spun him around. The dagger was now at the man’s throat, the king’s furious face at his ear and a string of oaths hissed through his clenched teeth. “Come to finish what I would not let you, blackguard?”
The other bandits had pulled their daggers.. save the one whose dagger was now at his leader’s throat, but stayed in the semicircle they formed facing the King.
“Sire, nay, you misunderstand…” Aelthryth choked out.
“I understand all right! Either Jehan is a bigger fool even than he seems or you are pretty confident about your chances at spiriting me away..”
“My lord, wait..”
Lawrence did not turn to face Shannon. “Not now, Shannon, this is one of the bandits that..”
Shannon persisted, “He said ‘sire’. I thought ye said they thought ye were…”
Lawrence looked sideways into the face of Aelthryth. “You did. You did say ‘sire’. So now you hope for a greater prize.”
In the deepening gloom the fellow called “Lark” had carefully set down the lute he was carrying and edged slowly to the King’s side. Shannon saw him just in time to shout, “Look out!” when Lark had jumped behind the King and leapt on his back, his long thin arms around the king’s throat. The other bandits surged forward and attacked the King from the front, never minding that their leader got many of the kicks and blows intended for the king of Críslicland. In the melee Aelthryth twisted free. He reached for his own dagger and stepped into the tangle. He managed to push off a few of his men, then get behind the King himself. He shouted his men to let go, and now the King stood with the blade at his throat.
Earl Jehan impatiently awaited the players, then decided to take another chance with the brig’s guards while he waited for them to come back from the cesspit. He slipped out of the hall making gestures that translated to his having to do his own business and made his way quickly to the guard house. He reached it and turned the corner only to find the two guards crumpled on the ground and the gate wide open. He took in a sharp gasp of air but was not sure if it was alarm or relief that caused it. Might the king have gotten away? Could it possibly be this easy?
Jehan entered the small enclosure and found himself a spectator of a most unusual dramatic tableau. Before him he saw king Lawrence, with whom he had gone on a few campaigns, had numerous council meetings with as well as state dinners, whom he had so recently had incarcerated in this very yard and whom he had just come to kill.. or free?. The flash of torchlight on a blade told him that the man behind the King held him with a knife at his throat. His own thoughts raced. Here was his perfect opportunity! Let the bandits.. hadn’t they been players just a few minutes ago? – kill the King and his problems would be solved and his wife finally happy. But he realized as quickly that the bandits having killed the King would have to kill him. He let out a strangled cry and started to turn to flee. Cynwic had gotten quickly between him a and the gateway, blocking his flight.
Aelthryth, who had just been taking the breath he would need to renew his case to the king that he and his men were there to save him, suddenly realized who had just come in among the growing press in the small yard.
“’Tis the earl, come to finish off the King!” He let Lawrence go and came at Jehan with a dagger. His men followed suit.
Lawrence had to shake his head to clear it. What was all this? Were the bandits really here to rescue and not kidnap him? Now that they knew who he was, had they changed their minds about what to do with him? He knew Jehan to be perfidious, but should he defend the earl or join his attackers?
Shannon had spied his lute on the ground where lark had set it down. He went to it casually, lifted it, turned it so he held the neck in both hands, leaned over the press of bandits and brained Jehan neatly. The bandits stopped struggling with the man and, unwittingly, each other as the earl’s body slumped to the ground.
The sight of the bandits pleasure and the smiles they turned on him now convinced the King. “Quick, pull him and the guards in here.” The bandits acted on his command immediately and each took an arm of one of the three men and dragged them into the hut. Lawrence himself hefted the heavy bar and slid it into its iron brackets. “Let’s get out of here.”
Shannon was standing apart with a glum look on his face. He had the neck of the lute in his hands still, but the body of the instrument was now hanging only from its strings. “Don’t worry,” Lawrence said, putting a strong hand on the bard’s shoulder. “I will get you another one.”
“But this one was… oh hell..” Shannon dropped it on the ground and followed the King and the bandits out into the courtyard.
“How do we get out of the gates?” Shannon asked in a stage whisper.
Aelthryth answered first. “The same way we got in.. or at least all of us but his majesty.”
Shannon understood immediately, threw the cloak he had stolen over the King’s shoulders and stripped off the linen towel from his head. “Now put this on your head like a Paynim and skip along with us out of the gate,” he told the King.
Lawrence wrapped the towel around his head like a turban, but said quizzically, “Skip? I don’t skip.”
Wulfstan piped up, “If you want to go on being King, you will.”
The band took up a merry song and gamboled out through the gate, the Paynim in their middle stiff and ungainly, but nonetheless skipping.
“Where should we go?” Shannon asked Aelthryth.
“Away! Just follow me.”
Next: The Queen Arrives in Northumbria
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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