Godgifu brought Lawrence chunks of bread which she tore into bits to shove through the chinks the other children had used for less pleasant provender. Lawrence blessed her and ate each one slowly, savoring every mouthful. He heard the scapegoat Theo being reprimanded for stealing bread and the child’s ineffectual protestations of innocence. Godgifu had a self-satisfied smile when he asked her about it. She shrugged.
Once each day when the raiders were in camp the leader would open the door to the hut and stand with his hands on his hips and bark questions at his hostage. He seemed only mildly surprised at the prisoner’s silence. “You know you are wasting my time and your own. I’ve already sent my man to let your lady know you are available for a price. It will go hard for you if you don’t cooperate. Your lady might find one or two things missing when she has you back.”
Lawrence managed a derisive snort.
“And what, prithee, is that supposed to mean?” the dirty man demanded.
“My lady has little use for any of my parts… she prefers… God.” Lawrence knew nothing of the sort about Aldwin’s wife, but it was useful to make his value less.
The leader eyed him. “Well, maybe she has none, but you certainly do. So you may want to pray to her God that she feels more warmly than you realize.”
When he had gone this last time the King realized he needed to act quickly. It would be just days, if that, until the messenger returned with the tidings that Aldwin was safe at home in the usurper’s pay. He had to get away the first chance he got.
Lawrence had noticed that he was not specifically guarded but that two men had night duty prowling the edge of the camp. Their vigilance was not terribly sharp. They seemed more bored and sleepy than alert. He knew his best chance to get away would be when the other men had gone on a raiding party. He did not have to wait long.
The morning after his latest conversation with the leader he heard the horses’ hooves and the calls of the men as they departed. He waited for his regular visit from Godgifu. When she had come with the bread and a small portion of bacon, he thanked her profusely. Then he asked her, “Godgifu, dear child, I have one last thing I need you to help me with. I vouchsafe that the time will come, and not too far in the future when I shall reward you mightily. Do you believe me?”
The girl looked back at the blue eye she could see through the chink in the wattle and nodded. “Aye, I believe you. You are my friend, just as I am yours.” She smiled confidently.
“Bless you, my friend,” he replied. Then he told her what she needed to do. She seemed to think a while, then smiled and nodded shortly. All he could do now was trust her and wait.
In the first dark of the night he heard a noise at the strong door to the hut. It was the sound of the latch being unfastened. When no one followed it by opening the door and coming in he breathed a prayer for his benefactress and made the sign of the cross. He let the bonds on his wrist slip off. They were well loosened by now. He had only kept them on in case he was surprised without them. He waited until he could hear the snores from within the other huts. He peered out to where he could just make out the sentries as they turned, their faces reflecting the light of the one central fire. He smiled. The two on duty tonight were the most indolent. The one taller man did as he always did, whispered something into the other man’s ear and sneaked into the cottage of one of the raiders, no doubt to make a visit to the man’s young and buxom wife. The other man turned out to be the one with only one hand. He had learned this was Godgifu’s father. He frowned. .
Once he saw the tall man had gone to his amorous meeting, he watched the girl’s father take his usual position, his back against the wall of one of the huts. He slowly and as quietly as possible tried the door. It moved! It opened! He glanced up to see the one handed man glance around quickly at the creak in the hinges of the door. The man smiled to himself and shook his head. Apparently he chalked the sound up to his friend’s trysting.
Lawrence located the two good sized stones the child had placed behind his hut. He had to pass the sentry to get past a woven branch barrier. He took both stones in case another man proved to be about and made his stealthy way towards the girl’s father.
As he approached the man, he bent and picked up a pebble from the ground. He tossed it past the man so it clattered on the ground on the other side from himself. The man obligingly turned to look. The King lifted the rock in his right hand and brought it down onto the man’s head, trying hard just to knock him senseless. He certainly did not want to reward the child by killing her father. he had other plans for the man and his family. His luck held and the man made a guttural noise in his throat, then fell straight down.
Lawrence put the other rock down. He found the man’s dagger and seaxa and took them. He quickly chanced pulling the man’s old rusty mail tabard off him and hastened to slip into the woods. He was gone and away long before the hubbub began when the illicit lover returned to his post to find his friend unconscious.
Godgifu allowed herself a troubled glance in the direction of the wood trying to equate the violence done to her father to the kind man she had come to think of as her friend. Her mother exclaimed, “He could have been killed!” and the girl realized that the man, Aldwin, must have tried his best not to murder her father. Was that the reward he promised? She did not know. She tried to forget all about it.
Lawrence could not go far in the dark as he would risk at best becoming even more lost than he already was and at worst stumbling into another gang of bandits or worse. He got as far as he felt wise and climbed a tree to wait until light.
When dawn peered over the eastern edge of the world he found himself within site of a river. “The Welland?” he wondered. If so he was into Mercia where he sat perched in a tree. He looked down at himself. He was all but naked. All his fine clothes including underclothes had been taken. He had been given a poor blanket and a longish tunic. He was bare of feet and leg. He stank of his captivity and lack of a privy. His hair was almost as greasy as the bandit leader’s. He would pass for the worst of society. He knew if he kept his head down so no one could see the piercing blue of his eyes, even his height and strength would not likely betray him. Nevertheless, he checked the sun, ascertained north, and slipped down cautiously to dash from cover to cover to the edge of the river.
It took him several days to find a place where he could ford the river. He had to avoid the easier spots as they would be likely to be busy with travelers. Then he took a circuitous route and waded in streams whenever he could just in case the bandit raiding party was angry and avaricious enough to come after him with dogs. For all he knew as he wound both west and east and even occasionally back south he was going to find himself in Affynshire again. Still he could tell when the fens were getting thinner and the land began to be firm and the terrain rolling meadows. He saw herds of sheep. Soon from a slight hill he saw a town by a river. He was hungry and found a small church where received alms. He managed to convince the very old priest to tell him where he was. His heart sang at the answer. South Witham! He recalled Earl Jehan complaining of the recalcitrance of the thane who resided in this town in paying his part of the war costs. It was due south of Grantham and on the very river that ran through it!
“Be careful, young man,” the priest cautioned. “I don’t think they would bother with such as you, but the uke’s men are about. Stay out of sight.” He made the sign of the cross over the man he did not realize was the King.
His path now being clear and his stomach full, he made good time following the river to Earl Jehan’s domain. When he saw the stockade he just about to begin running when an odd feeling stole over him. He recognized at once the instincts of a trained fighting man. Something was wrong. Something was not in place. He could not identify it. The gate to the stockade was closed and he saw few people about. He made his way towards the fortress and found a place nearby in a stand of trees to observe who came in and out.
It was approaching dusk when he thought he saw dust in the distance that could only be made by a cadre of mounted men on a dirt path. He waited to see who it would be.
The dusk was growing but he could still make out the insignia of Earl Jehan and soon recognized the man himself. he stepped out into the path, smiling broadly, as the group came closer. He lifted his arm in greeting, then froze. Jehan had gone white as a sheet.
Next: Shannon and Rory on Separate Roads
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