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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Stories: Josephine Sends Elerde Away (happened)

Josephine felt his presence in the doorway of the little chapel. She felt her own back muscles stiffen and realized she was actually afraid of the confrontation she and Lord Elerde were about to have. She finished her prayers, made the sign of the cross over her breast, kissed the junction of the cross made from her own finger and thumb, and slowly rose and turned to him.

He was there, though in silhouette with the bright light of day behind him and the faint light of the few candles ,within between him and herself. His form was unmistakable. Tall, muscular, with the outline of his curly black hair and of the armor that made his shoulders look the more stalwart. She could finally admit it to herself without obfuscating. He took her breath away and made her tremble inside.

“My lord, I thank you for agreeing to meet with me.” Her voice was soft as she avoided stronger tones that might betray her feelings.

She saw the stiffening of his posture. “Josephina, of course I would come to… meet with you. Could you doubt it?”

He walked towards her, towards the figure draped in a simple mantle pulled up to cover her hair. She looked like a Madonna, standing there before the altar. A Madonna, and like a bride. Somehow he knew that joining was not to be, that blessing was the best he could hope for. The man who had fought in dozens of battles, often besting those with whom the odds lay, who had seen the worst of war, the misery and squalor of unchecked death, felt his knees weaken ever so slightly.

“Nay, I shall come outside. We can talk there.”

He stopped, made a polite bow, and offered her his arm as she came towards him. She swept past without touching him, without accepting his arm. He had seen the look in her eyes, though she looked down. She was struggling to hold her composure, conflicted about what she had to say, frightened.

He followed her outside, then came up beside her as she stopped just without the chapel. She still did not look up at him. He waited, watching her cast about for a meeting place. “Over there, in the garden?” Her voice had started strong, but the uplift in her voice on the last words turned them into a question. He nodded, though she could not have seen it, and followed her to where she sat on a bench near a plot of flowers that had long since seen the last of summer vitality. He waited to be invited, then sat next to her, close but not touching. She moved away on her end of the bench.

“My lord,” she began unsteadily. She cleared her throat and turned her pale blue eyes up into his striving to meet his eyes with candor. “My lord…”

She stopped as the mercenary lord reached to her face and lifted the mantle over her hair. He pushed it back and down the silken gold hair to rest on her shoulder. He let his fingers rest lightly there, feeling her stiffen under his touch. He did not take his hands away immediately, but seeing a plea blossom in her eyes, he drew back his hands and put one on his thigh and the other where the hilt of his sword would have been had he not had to surrender it upon passing the abbey gates.

Seeing Elerde’s eyes register a fleeting pain, Josephine hurried to reassure him. “My lord, I am sorry. This is very difficult for me. But I must tell you, my dearest friend… that this must be finished.”

“Finished? What finished?” His face was suddenly guarded.

Josephine looked at him with deep concern. “Us. You and me. We must part ways.. forever.” These five words were perhaps the hardest she had ever had to utter.

His head came back almost as if he had been slapped. “Part ways?! My lady.. Josephina.. I cannot.. you cannot…” He gazed into her face, his lips parted. Then he shut them, worked his jaw back and forth a few times to firm it, and said in a steadier voice, “Jo, I will never stop loving you, together, apart, alive, dead, hopeful or hopeless. You are part of my very soul. Without that part, I will die.”

He saw anguish in her eyes, then watched as she stood and walked several paces away from him. After several moments, she said without turning back to look at him, “My lord, I think back to the time when you and I became acquainted. I has always thought of that sweet time as the beginning of our… friendship.” The last word was spoken apart, given emphasis. “I have tried to deny this to myself, but I now realize how much I needed someone like you then, to take my mind off my troubles, to let me have one last summer as a girl. We read Roman poetry together, we took wild rides away from the fortress and all the people expecting so much of me. We talked and laughed. I was lonely. I wondered if I had lost the love of the king.” She thought but did not say aloud, “And I wanted you, no matter how much I denied it to myself. I wanted your arms around me, your kisses all over my face and neck, and I wanted you to love me.” Aloud she continued, “And though I tried to blind my heart to it, I saw that you were falling in love with me. Just then I needed to feel loved like that.”

She started as he rose and said passionately, “Josephina, I love you with all my heart, all my spirit, and all my body. I can give you all of that and more..”

She spun and put her hand out to stop his advance. “Nay, Elerde, I beg you. Let me have my say.”

He stopped, his eager, hopeful look subsiding. He composed himself, nodded, and said softly, “Go on, please.”

She gave him a grateful look, then redirected the look away and down. With her lips parted she walked to a bare rose bush and reached a hand to touch its topmost stem. “Here on the Holy Isle among the gentle servants of God I have had time to meditate and to pray. And to think. I have thought about the past years, how much you have come to mean to me, and how, in spite of all your seeming betrayals, I knew that in your way you were doing what you thought you had to do.. out of love for me.” She lifted a hand palm towards him sensing that he was about to affirm her conclusion. “There is more.”

Elerde shut his mouth on the words he had been about to say. He saw Josephine look down and bring her hands up to clasp them under her chin, as if in prayer.

“I have finally recognized how much I have contributed to this relationship growing beyond what is healthy, advisable, permissible.. desirable.” She glanced at him upon speaking the last word. She saw now that his eyes were down, brooding, as intensely compelling as ever they could be.

Pausing briefly, seeing that he did not meet her eyes, she went on. “All this time I thought I was making clear to you that your love was misplaced, moreover hopeless. But I know now that I not only failed to discourage you, I nurtured your love for me. I accepted it, welcomed it, took advantage of it, took it somehow as my due.” She turned fully towards where he stood dejected but did not look into his face. “And I have not hurt only you with that insensitive and selfish behavior. Now I think I understand that look I sometimes see in my dear love’s eyes, pain, doubt, fear of abandonment. Poor man. He deserves so much better.”

Josephine looked up just in time to see anger flash in the mercenary lord’s eyes. “Do not blame Lawrence. I am responsible. I am the one who led you, albeit unwittingly, to hope that someday, somehow you could… have me.”

Now he looked up. She was horrified by the despair she saw in his dark eyes. “I cannot?” he said “Never? Even if he is.. gone?”

Remorse broke over her features like an enormous wave on a promontory. “Oh, Elerde! Nay, nay, you cannot. Never. Even if it is true that he is dead, I will never love another. Not as I love Lawrence, with all my soul and spirit and body. That part of your soul you say is me.. I understand that. Lawrence is all of mine. I will be true to him in life, and in death. That will never change.”

She watched him look back at her with a suggestion of suspicion, doubt. Though struggling to control himself, he stood, his arms limp at his sides, his mouth twisted with pain.

Her desire to go to him, to put her arms around him and comfort him like an unhappy child was strong. Her hands unclasped and started forward to reach out to him of their own accord. But she made them stop. She flexed her fingers, and let her hands drop to hold each other before her body. She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and said, “Elerde, look at me.”

He did, and seeing her own resolute posture, pulled himself together as much as he could. “Aye… my lady?” His voice had broken on “aye” and he cleared his throat, finishing his response more steadily. His face had gone stiff, hard, unyielding. His grief was behind a fortress wall now.

Josephine said in a steady voice tinged with steel, “I am not going farther with you. I shall part with you now and perhaps we shall never meet again in this life. I feel that I owe it to you to share with you what I have felt about you, for surely it is true that you have not played a small part in my life.”

Elerde’s expression was unchanged as he continued to look straight into her eyes. She continued with the same candor, “I have thought back to the time that I met you and realized only now how strongly I was attracted to you. It is not only your physical appearance... It is that I have never met another mind that I regarded so highly or that I felt could understand me as well and as quickly.” Her face softened and she told him with a rueful smile, “The intensity with which you pursue that which you want; this also attracts me.” With a hint of wistfulness, she said more quietly, “If I had not already been deeply in love with my husband, I would surely have fallen in love with you.”

He took an unexpected step toward her, nearly crossing the entire distance between them with that one stride. He reached out to her on an impulse that surprised him as much as it startled her. “My dearest love..”

“Stop!” Josephine held out her hand to hold him back. Her palm braced against his chest, he had his arms almost around her. “Don’t do it!” she said forcefully.

He stood frozen, looking down into eyes gone blue gray. He held her glare for several moments, then returned her earlier rueful smile and stepped back, dropping his arms again.

“Methinks one of the things I love most about you, my.. “ He chided himself for the word, “Josephina is how you can go from a dove to a hawk with the speed of thought.”

“But I am deeply in love with my husband. It is a love that will endure beyond the grave. I will never love another. And I think in your heart you know that as well as do I.”

His eyes flashed. He asserted in a hard even condemning voice, “That you must repeat yourself, your grace, makes me wonder if you do. The way I see it I have albeit ineptly done everything I could do to make you hate me. If you love that man so much, then why do you keep forgiving everything I have done that betrays him, puts his life in jeopardy, would destroy him?. You say I understand you. Methinks I understand you better than you do yourself.”

The queen wanted to lash out, to sting him with angry words, with aggrieved denials. But she counseled herself to understanding of his pain, his regrets, his quite justified anger. “Nay, my lord, you are wrong. I know I have done wrong by you, grievous wrong, and I pray to God for forgiveness, his and your own.”

He glared at her until at last his own anger fell away. “Of course I forgive you. In fact, I thank you. Even the false hope of your ever loving me, of my possessing you, was a treasure I never hoped for in my life. No matter what, for all my remaining days, and I pray they are not many, I will hold precious those moments when I thought.. you would be mine.”

Josephine’s eyes had widened on his expressed wish not to have to live too long with his heartbreak. With more emotion than she wanted to convey, she begged, “Please don’t say such things. And please do not think of me as cold, unfeeling. I pray sincerely that everything wonderful in this life will be yours; that you will find happiness. I will think of you all of my life. And I will never, ever, forget what you have done for me. And for my children.”

Even as she said it, an intuition came to her that her hopes for the man before her would never be so, and she had to fight the tears that threatened all the more.

Elerde stood, looking in her direction but seeing nothing. He was overwhelmed with despair, a far more immobilizing feeling than any terror in battle. He could not speak, he could not stir.

The queen had to fight all the more to resist her strong desire to go to him. She shut her eyes and deliberately conjured a scene of Lawrence smiling at her with that look of wonder he often had as he held her in his arms after they had made love. She bit her lip and turned her back on him. “That is all I have to say, my lord.”

Elerde came to himself and stared at her. “May I at least see the children before I go?”

Josephine happened to look up and see Brother Willihad looking at her from the side of the cloisters. he had seen the impulse in her to turn and tell the mercenary lord, “Well, of course, I will take you to them.” His cautioning look made her realize that it was time to end it. “My lord, I do not think that would be a good idea.”

She heard his sharp intake of breath that was as much like the prelude to a sharp rebuke as it was to a sob. He seemed to hover, then she heard him turn and walk away. She wanted to cry, scream, call to him to come back, to catch up to him and stop him. She wanted at least to say, “God go with you,” but her paralyzed throat would not let her. Through blurring vision she saw gratefully that Willihad was coming towards her.

After collecting his weapons from the Brother Porter, Elerde stiffly and with dignity sheathed his sword, reclaimed his horse, and went out of the gate. As they closed behind him, he stroked his horse’s mane and put his cheek to the side of its face. It leaned its head against him and made a soft nickering sound. He shut his eyes tight and felt pain surge through his entire body. He fought as hard as he ever had in his life to keep from crying out with despair. His body trembled.

When he had finally got himself fully under control, he pulled his cheek from his horse’s own and spoke softly into its ear. “Well, my friend, I suppose it is time to find a battle so fierce and savage that at worst it will occupy my whole mind or at best put me out of my misery.” he patted the horse, then putting his foot in the stirrup, swung up and onto the saddle. Without a look back at the abbey he made a clicking sound with his tongue against his teeth and rode away.

Next: Anticlimax in Lawrencium

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About the author

Nan Hawthorne now writes under the name Christopher Hawthorne Moss. You can contact Christopher at .