n the hastily moved bandit camp Lawrence sat on a log with them around a central fire, laughing convivially with his new found friends. It was hard not to think about how differently he had been welcomed the first time he was brought to the camp.
He saw Shannon standing apart with a young girl clearly engaged in a seduction. Lawrence roused himself as if to stretch then went over to the Irishman and leaned to whisper in his ear. “My lad, I think you should recall that though they live as bandits they are but villagers, and this one is the daughter of one of those villagers.”
Shannon irritably glanced sideways at the King and nodded, looking resentful. “Och, and I be supposin’ ye are right. But the lass was willin’..”
Lawrence gestured with a jerk of his head in the direction of one man who was eying Shannon closely. “Her father is not.”
When he and Shannon had gone back to the fire, the King asked, “Will you tell me what happened to your village?”
All gathered around the fire looked to Aelthryth. He nodded, took a breath, and told the King the story of the sacking of Toft. He spoke of the surprise, the loss of dear ones, and the loss of all their goods and homes. Then he told of his own mission to demand redress of the lady of Grantham who had been left in charge of the fortress and lands in her husband’s absence at the war in Affynshire. She behaved as if she did not believe Aelthryth, shooed him away irritably, but he saw her glance at the man known as Thrydulf. When he left the hall this man followed him and grasped his arm roughly.
“If I or any of my men ever see you or anyone from your village again, here or anywhere, we will take you and hang you as thieves.” His eyes burned into Aelthryth’s.
As soon as the man of Toft returned to his neighbors and friends, he told them they may as well consider themselves bandits. “We have been accused, tried and convicted as bandits. We must either flee into Mercia or East Anglia or take up the brigand life. How else will we feed our children?”
Lawrence listened with solemn attention. “And all of you decided to stay?”
Daelwine replied, “Nay, not all. Some fled south. But we are those who have a love for this land and wished to stay whatever the cost.”
Little Godgifu had gotten away from her mother’s restraining hands and dashed into the firelight and into the King’s welcoming embrace. Lawrence smiled, hoisted her to his knee, and held her close.
Godgifu looked about with a huge smile. “You see, I said he was a good man and would come back and help us.”
Lawrence kissed her on the top of her head. “Thanks to you, my angel. Methinks I owe you a debt.”
She looked into his face and replied without dissembling, “Aye, you promised me anything I wanted. I would have helped you anyway, but since you said I could then I will ask it of you.”
“What is it you want? If it is in my power to give, ‘tis yours.” Lawrence confirmed. “A pony? A pretty gown? What will you have?”
The child shook her head. “Nay, not those. Will you make it so my mother and father are not outlaws and can go back and build our village again?”
Lawrence’s eyes were misty. “Of course, sweetness. I should have done that anyway.“ He looked up at the circle of faces, all of them rapt and touched. “You are all free and pardoned. As soon as I have retaken Lawrencium I will direct the lord of Grantham -- that is, the new lord of Grantham -- to rebuild your village better than it was before.” He looked down at Godgifu. “Nothin special for you, my angel?”
She thought a moment. “Can we have a church?”
The King squeezed her in his arms until she giggled. "Aye, precious one," he said, his voice breaking.
The monks of Lindisfarne made room for the woman and her four children in their guesthouse. She and her armed protectors had had to wait a few hours while the tide went out and the causeway to the Holy Island made passable.
The queen of Críslicland sensed tension in spite of their efforts at hospitality. There was no mistaking their fearful looks cast at Elerde. Though the Holy Island was yet 23 years from the Viking attack that would shock all of Europe it never had been without some threat or another. King Eadberht of Northumbria, , was a dedicated patron of the Church in his kingdom and beyond, but Bernicia, the area of Northumbria that had a proud and independent tradition, would look unfavorably on the monks offering refuge to armed soldiers from another land. Elerde saw this and offered to take his men back to Bamburgh.
“I will send word when there is a ship that will take us to Kent. God keep you, my lady,” Elerde assured as he kissed her hand under the wary eyes of the monks.
“And God keep you, my lord. I thank you for your protection and company. The children and I will be safe here.” Josephine allowed a glint of gratitude to shine in her eyes though her voice had been stiff and formal.
As she watched him and his men cross the causeway again she felt a tug on her sleeve. “My lady, Bishop Cynewulf would have you share his evening meal.”
She looked at him, nodded, then asked, “Can you see to my children, that they get settled in our quarters? Don’t worry, children, I will be nearby. Just be very good and eat what the good brothers give you and then go to bed. I will be back to say goodnight.”
She followed the monk who led her to the Bishop’s house. “Bishop Cynewulf writes those exquisite poems, does he not?”
The monk beamed. “Aye, and ‘tis good to know you know of them.”
Horsa, the commander of all of King Lawrence’s armies, looked down at the sound of his name. His eyes did not quickly adjust from his survey of the horizon. “What is it?” he asked.
“’Tis a messenger, my lord. He says he is from the King.” The voice was one of his own lieutenants.
“King? What King?” Horsa asked, not daring to hope.
The messenger, who appeared to be a very simple farmer or villager, answered his question. “King of Críslicland, my lord. Lawrence, if it pleases you.”
“If you are serious then it pleases me very much!” Horsa swung his leg over his horse and dismounted. He stood before the small man and waited with his hands on his hips. “Well?”
“’Tis true, my lord. I come from the village of Toft..” he began.
“Toft? Toft was burned to the ground.” Horsa eyed the man suspiciously.
The man bowed several times and went on. “That is true as well. Many of the villagers fled and live in the forest. We captured the King and…”
“Soldiers, here! Take this man a and hold him!” Horsa turned back and snapped at the messenger, “You mean to ask for a ransom then. Where is he, where have you got him?” Horsa, a very tall broad man, towered over Lark who was clutching his cap and trembling.
“My lord, please! We did have him. Then we lost him. Then we rescued him. He sent me to find you and tell you. he said to tell you to bring War-Brother…”
Horsa subsided, signaled the soldiers to loose the man. “You really do have him then? Where?”
Lark shook his arms when they were loose again, looked about at his detainers, trying to cover his resentment, then looked back at Horsa. “Our camp. A league due south. I can take you.”
“It could be a trap, an ambush, my lord” one of the soldiers advised.
“Possibly. But he knows War-Brother’s name and that he was found not with the king. “ Horsa looked closely at the messenger’s face. “You say it is in the forest. Would you be willing to bring the King out to us on the edge of the woods, more than a bowshot away?”
Lark nodded gratefully. “Oh, aye, sir, that we would.”
Horsa let his tense shoulders relax. “Man, if you are telling the truth, then you have brought the gladdest tidings I have heard in all my many days.” He looked up and called, “Botopher!”
The patrol remained just out of bowshot and peered into the woods. It seemed to take a long time, but at last they could see that a band of men was coming through the trees. Horsa turned to Botopher for the confirmation of younger eyes. “My God, it is he! It is the king!” Botopher leapt off his horse and went forward quickly, the cheering erupting from all around him.
Horsa was not far behind him when the Earl of Skirbeck stopped and kneeled at the feet of the king. He noticed that the King was dressed as they normally knew him to, save for the fact that the clothes were dirty, the jerkin too tight and the boots missing. The bandits had reluctantly given back their spoils, but the wife of the man who had gotten the jerkin had altered it to fit the man’s slightly smaller frame. The boots, of course, were either on their way to Sleaford or on their way back on Cynulf'c’s feet.
“My liege, you are alive! God be praised! Sweet Jesu be praised!” Botopher’s voice almost broke with the rapture.
“Stand up you two. And all of you as well!” Lawrence gestured to the kneeling men of the patrol to rise. He looked speculatively at Horsa. “You thought I was dead?”
“Aye, sire,” the older man answered. “That fellow from Leon showed us your cloak with all the blood and your sword.”
“Leon?” Lawrence started to color, but then he recalled Lagu and the quagmire. “Lagu. He walloped me on the head with a branch, but I only assumed he had taken those things. And my helm/ But whose blood was it on the cloak?”
Botopher finally spoke, “We thought it was yours, my liege!”
“Well it wasn’t. I had thrown it a ways from me ere Lagu came and gave me the blow.” He put a hand to the back of his head and winced. He seemed to be considering something, then he looked up, his tension showing clearly in his face. “You thought I was dead. Did everyone think I was dead? Where is Lagu now?”
“He left for Lawrencium, sire, to show his prizes to Gaylorde.”
Lawrence blanched. “Sweet loving Jesu!” he moaned. That means she thinks I am dead. “ No one needed to ask whom he meant. He covered his face with both hands. When he uncovered his face again, he looked defeated. “I can’t even send word. I am sure Gaylorde is having the time of his life gloating about my death.. and there is no way he would give a message to my lady.”
“My lord,” Horsa began, “might we use that to our advantage? Not that her grace believes you are dead but that Gaylorde and all others do?”
Lawrence nodded slowly. “Aye. We shall do that.” He looked up, rubbing the back of his neck, then squinted in the sun. “Did you bring War-Brother?”
“My lord, we could not. He is stabled at Grantham.”
The king growled “Grantham. Just days ago I was also stabled at Grantham.”
Botopher looked perplexed. “Stabled, sire? What do you mean?”
Lawrence grinned ruefully. “That’s a tale that I will leave to the bard. Shannon is back at the camp. We will rejoin him and you will hear the tale of the royal madman and we can talk about what to do next.” he put an arm around Horsa and Botopher and started to lead them back into the woods.
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