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Back to Chapter 4
Leaving Lincoln in its earl’s jealously capable hands Lawrence headed to Grantham in the southwest of Críslicland as quickly as an army could. It was a reduced force. Almost as soon as Lincoln had opened its gates to the king, many of the local men drifted away. Securing Sagar’s promise to gather them up again and bring them south as soon as possible Lawrence addressed the army. He called for unity, for sacrifice, and he told the men that failure to safeguard the sovereignty of the kingdom would be a disaster for them as well as for him. Not a man did not respond to his appeal.
Now the man riding anxiously at his side was Grantham’s Earl Jehan. The message intercepted from Thryduulf, Gaylorde’s crony there, a dull fellow who nevertheless was a fine fighter as Lawrence recalled, made it clear that there was imminent threat of an attack by the kingdom of Mercia. Where the threat from the Affynshire conspirators had been dangerous, and the usurping of Lawrence’s throne was likewise, any threat from Offa, king of the Mercians, could mean the end of Críslicland incontrovertibly. Lawrence knew this as well as the older Earl riding by him did.
With Lincoln’s Sagar in attendance, the king had met with Jehan and the Earl of Skirbeck Botopher.
“I have sent Seaxwulf to tell the man holding Grantham, some fellow named Thryduulf, that his own messenger fell from his horse as he rode back to Grantham,” the king informed them. “Frightened by a snake or whatever Seaxwulf thinks most credible. AS Seaxwulf was by all accounts cooperating with Edric here, he will be believed.” Lawrence had noticed that Earl Jehan’s face had further clouded at the mention of Thryduulf’s name. “What is it, Jehan? Some information we can use?” he asked him.
“A man I know well, my liege, though mayhap more rightly deemed a snake himself. He is a thane within my holdings. A slippery fellow who drips honey one moment, then finds a way to avoid or disrupt much that I try to control. I am not surprised he is Gaylorde’s man, though it means he knows the area well and has local men commanding any traitorous fighters the Duke has sent him.” Jehan shook his head in disgust.
“My lord,” asked Sagar, markedly more respectful of the king now that he had his own fortress secure, “what message have you sent with Seaxwulf?”
Lawrence’s grim smile revealed some satisfaction with his answer. “That Edric of Lincoln is on his way to help and shall arrive and surprise the Mercians from behind in five days.” He paused, nodded seemingly to himself, then went on. “I had ‘Edric’ instruct him to spend whatever time he has ere the Mercians supplying his fortress for a siege... and to deny the Mercians forage.”
Jehan smiled, “That should keep him busy.”
“And distracted from questioning the plan and its source,” the king agreed.
Jehan’s smile broadened. “That will not be difficult. Thryduulf ere believes he is two steps ahead of the game. He will be too busy congratulating himself on his likely success to think of much else.”
Botopher put in, “What if the Mercians are a great force?”
Sagar answered for Lawrence, “We have sent our fastest messenger to Ratherwood to instruct the venerable Horsa, at the king’s command, to meet us on this side of the Trenta from Hucknall. He should be able to travel quickly and be there ere we arrive.”
“Horsa predicted Mercia would attack. He will already be waiting for orders,” the king added.
Earl Jehan's unctuous gratitude irritated the king. "My liege, to pass up the chance to save Lawrencium for Grantham's sake…"
The king’s somber look included a strong set jaw. “If Mercia gains a foothold, they may reach Lawrencium before we could have. Best to stop them before they can.”
Lawrence did not disclose his belief that should he come riding boldly and directly to Lawrencium Gaylorde, his cousin, would simply use Josephine and the children as shields and bargaining pieces. Ironically, knowing Elerde was somehow involved in Gaylorde’s perfidious plans reassured Lawrence. He knew that Elerde would do whatever it took to safeguard the queen and the royal children. The longer he could appear to be held by battle with Mercia the longer Elerde and he would have to separately find a way ro rescue the love of both men's lives .
The king’s army moved southwest from Lincoln towards the River Trenta crossing opposite the Affynshire town of Gunthorpe. There they found Horsa’s own soldiers camped and waiting not far from an abbey. When the king dismounted to clasp hands with the old warlord, he had a gratifying surpriose. There standing in a rough semicircle behind Horsa was a troop of archers dressed in the colors of King Ruallauh's own.
“What is this?” Lawrence asked the captain of the group, a dark skinnedl man with massive shoulders and arms.
The man made a deep bow. “We are sent from our lord king Ruallauh. I am Gethin, the leader of this party. We are commanded to help you scout and..” He paused to grin knowingly, ”To take care of bothersome scouts and small bands of foragers.”
With one eyebrow raised, the king nodded. “Indeed? Then Ruallauh has indeed brought me luck, as I suspected he should.”
It was the sixth visit the healer had made to the sick child in the royal nursery. The chamber was cleaner than it had been the first time she came, the floor still clear of rushes, and the bedding and clothes were clean as the bodies of the little children they kept warm. Peter, Tavish and Elaine were essentially in their own chamber, as Elerde had seen to it screens and draperies had been put in to allow them to be children without the constant reminder their playmate was senseless and ill nearby.
The healer Eormenthryth Looked up worriedly at the queen who sat across Caithness’s small pallet from her. “My lady, you look tired and worried.”
Josephine glanced up and tried to smile. “Of course I am worried about Caithness. She is not getting any better, is she? I fear that the Duke will stop allowing you to come to her, and that you are the only thing standing between her and death.”
The healer put her strong hand on the queen’s where it was folded in her lap. “Nay, nay, lady, ‘tis not me but the Goddess who will decide that. You must accept Her will, whatever it may be.”
“I have been discussing that with Father. Goddess or God, why would any deity want this sweet little girl to suffer?” Josephine bowed her head.
“Well, I know not what the good father would say, but I cannot tell you what the Goddess does or why she does it. That is why she is the Goddess and I her servant.”
Josephine smiled wanly. “That is about what my priest said about God.”
“Besides, the duke cannot prevent me from coming if I will it,” Eormenthryth said assuredly.
“What do you mean?” the queen asked, looking at the older woman skeptically.
Eormenthryth put her chin in the air and stated, “If Shannon O’Neill can get in and out of the fortress with no one seeing, so can I. That is, if it does not require a small, thin fellow like himself to do it.”
“Shannon does that? How?” Josephine asked.
“I am sure I do not know, but it is easy enough to learn how he does it. Just ask him. That is what I would do.” her attention was caught by the little girl’s cough. She took the liquor from the tiny flask from the bedside table and spooned just enough into the child’s mouth. While Caithness made her usual face at the bad taste, the healer pulled down the cover and up the child’s shift. Caithness’s little round tummy was raspberry colored with a rash. Eormenthryth clucked her tongue and shook her head. “Poor mite. All we can do is just pray and keep trying to soothe her ills.”
Father Llaenawc did not really approve of the queen’s friendship with the oft-drunken bard, but he agreed to find him and ask him to come to the queen’s chamber. It was a remarkably drunk Shannon who answered the call. Josephine could hear him outside the door loudly protesting when the guards refused to let him in.
When she pulled open the chamber door she found the Irishman with his arm crooked about the neck of one of the guards talking no more than an inch or two from the man’s face. The guard grimaced from the stench of Shannon’s breath.
“Old man, the queen wants to be talkin’ to me or wantin’ some other bit o’ me… Ye don't want to keep her waitin’.. och, there she be. I told you, now didn't I?” The guard was only too happy to let Shannon loose him and stagger away through the open doorway.
“Do you think we should…? the other guard queried.
“He is harmless. I do not know what she can possibly want with the bastard. He’s not going to be good for much the way he is,” the guard who was still fanning his nose replied.
Josephine shut the door and gestured for Shannon to go over and sit at the small table on the far side of the chamber. His stagger was gone the instant the door shut, but he waited to speak until they were seated. “Ye might be wantin’ to give me a drink of wine or ale. The cheese I ate was that loathsome… but it seems to have done the trick, by all the saints.”
Larisa hurried over to him and poured him a cup of a dark red wine. He drank some, swished it about in his mouth, then swallowed. “That should be better. Now then, what might this drunken sot be after doin’ for the lady queen?”
Josephine leaned forward over the table to whisper, “Where is the secret passage you use to go in and out of the fortress unnoticed?”
Shannon’s ruddy eyebrows shot up. “So, you know about that then, d’ye? Who told ye?”
“Never you mind. Just tell me.” Josephine gestured to Larisa to take the children, the three of them listening attentively, farther from her and her guest and to occupy them.
Shannon looked at Josephine, then shrugged and replied. “Well, out in back of the bake house there is a loose place in the dirt where part of a timber has rotted and the gap replaced with a chunk of wood. That’s just how ye get through the the first wall. Just on the t’other side of the inner wall ye can slide along until ye feel a depression underfoot. If ye quickly cross the way to the outer wall so that your nose is all but lodged in the kinks and turn your head just that sideways..” He demonstrated. “Then ye can tell that ‘tis a chimera that the outer wall is tight flush, for the timbers are set so that ye must be right on them to know that there is a gap.”
But wouldn’t men on the battlements see you?” Josephine interrupted.
“I was getting’ to that. That is on the Cliffside. They ne’er look down on the ground. They look out to sea. If ye are that careful ye can drop down to a ledge that will lead to a tunnel that leads to the beach. ‘Tis somethin’ more difficult to sneak in than out. But if ye are nimble and know where the tunnels come out, ye can do it.”
Josephine sat back and regarded him. “Why does the king not know of this? He did make the plan for the building of this fortress.”
Shannon winked. “Now what is after makin’ ye think he doesn't know about it?”
“Ah,” the queen breathed. “I see. Very clever. I suppose everyone knows about it save myself?”
“Och, nay, lady. Few know other than that there is a way. I stumbled on it one late night sneakin’ out to the tavern while me darlin’ Heather was here with me. I mean I stumbled on it.. almost fell down the side o’the cliff..”
Josephine nodded. “I thank you, good friend. That knowledge may be quite useful some time. Now I think you had better sing something to us so the guards do not get suspicious.”
Shannon nodded. He glanced over at the hangings that shielded the sick child’s pallet from the light of candles or the fire. “May I see Caitie?” he asked quietly? At Josephine’s nod he picked up his lute and walked over to the hanging, moved it aside and went in. In moments his sweet voice could be heard singing a pretty little lullaby that Caithness loved. Tears came to Josephine’s eyes as she listened. She closed them so they could not gather and fall.
Late that evening she had been dozing by Caithness’s pallet when she heard the chamber door swing open slowly. She did not look up. People were coming in and out at all times of the day. Then she heard his voice. “My lady, are you awake?” the melodic Celtic voice whispered.
She looked at her sleeping daughter and sighed. “Aye, my lord, I shall be out in a moment.”
She came through the curtains brushing down her gown. The man stood by the door gazing at her. “Aye, Lord Elerde. What is it you want?”
He stepped across the distance between them in a heartbeat, standing almost touching her foot to crown. She took a slight step backward and then relaxed. “Is the nurse awake?” he asked her.
Josephine glanced over at the curtained off area near the antechamber where Larisa slept on a pallet alongside the atheling and the other two children. “Nay, she went to bed some time ago. Why? Is there news of.. is there news?” She avoided speaking the name which may well have penetrated Larisa’s sleep, “Lorin”, the woman’s betrothed.
“He is still alive, though not well. He is kept in a storage shed, bound and unable to stand or lie prone. He has been told you and the nurse will be killed if he does not help the duke however the duke wishes.”
“What can Lorin possibly know that Gaylorde can use? There are others who deal with the day to day.” Her brow was furrowed with concern.
“I know not, my lady. The duke is a puzzle to me. He seems too think your brother must know something, the whereabouts of stores of gold, the location of ridden documents, or the plans of the king’s army. Truly, I think he is mad.” Elerde took her upper arms in his tight grip. “But that is not what I came to talk to you about, dearest lady.”
Josephine tried to pull away but he did not loosen his grip. “My lord, please! On your honor!”
Elerde looked hard into her eyes with his own coal black gaze. “My dearest, ‘tis oft the greatest challenge of my life to remain honorable. When I touch you…” The fiery look she gave him caused him to halt. “Never fear, I should never take you unwilling. I love you, Josephina.”
The queen glared at him. “Then why are you here, with Gaylorde, holding me and my children prisoner?”
Elerde looked away. “That is why I am here. To protect the woman I love and also her dear children.”
Josephine’s eyes were skeptical. “Is that what you came to tell me? That you are here because you love me? Sir, as long as my lord the king lives, I shall cleave only unto him, and e’en should he die… I can never love another man if I live to be 100. You waste your time, if you are saying truth.”
The look on the mercenary’s face was dour and defeated. “My lady,” he said flatly, “I am here to entreat you to let me take you away. Gaylorde is mad. He only lets you and the children live to use if the king should make it here and threaten to take back the fortress. That reason could fly away should.. should the king be killed.”
Josephine’s face went paler but her expression stayed firm. “But he is not dead..”
“As far as we know, no. And I will not tell you where he is or what the news, so do not ask me.” Elerde released her. “My love, please listen to me. I do not know what shall happen tomorrow or in the next hour for that matter. You must flee. I must help you.”
Josephine stood proud and calm before him. he could not meet her eyes. “Elerde, I will not leave this place while my lord king fights to regain his rightful place. I will be at his side when he does.”
Elerde nodded desultorily. “You are making a mistake, Josephine.” One of the children in the antechamber coughed and the man looked in its direction. “If not for yourself.. then for.. your children.”
Josephine paused, then shook her head. “Until there is no more hope this is where our children and I must be. I will do all I can to protect them here.” She tilted her head, considering. “Can you get me a weapon?”
Elerde looked into her eyes, resigned. “I shall try.” He looked down and took her hand and kissed it. His lips were warm on her skin and his mustache and beard felt like the king’s, making her heart ache.
“Thank you, my lord.” Dismissal was expressed in every part of her face and posture. The man turned with his head bowed, went to the door and left her standing in the guttering light of a nub of a candle.
When one day soon after the healer had left, followed by the observant guard, the queen turned to Larisa and sighed. “I do not understand Elerde. He was the one who gave me privacy with friends and confessor. Why would he turn around and take it away again?”
The merchant’s daughter shook her head. “Mayhap the guard was lying?”
Josephine frowned. “That may be. I intend to find out. But where did Shannon go?”
Larisa said, “My lady, I am not certain, but I think ‘twas to pursue the plan you and he discussed.”
“It is frustrating to be stuck here and just wait to see what others can accomplish. But we should not be able to move until the dark of the moon. That is not for several days. We have time to make everything foolproof.”
Shannon was in fact not far away, stumbling through the courtyard towards the storage building where he was sleeping these days. He dropped his charade of drunkenness as soon as he was out of sight around a corner of the hall. He resolutely went in search of the mercenary. He caught him as he emerged on horse from the stables. The man looked down on him coolly as Shannon put his hand on the bridle to prevent him from riding away.
“Sir, I would have words with ye,” Shannon said in an impatient voice.
Elerde’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh, you would, would you? I do not believe you are in a position to make such a demand.”
“Where the queen is concerned, I make it me position,” Shannon snapped back.
“The queen? What about the queen?” Elerde evinced mild interest.
“What do you mean by posting a guard whenever she is in company, even with her priest? I don't understand, ye just granted her the liberty.” Shannon let go of the bridle and stood squarely with his arms crossed on his chest and what on him was a comical look of defiance.
Elerde considered him a moment. “I have no idea what you are talking about, Ulsterman. I issued no such order.” He looked about, then turned back to the bard. “Meet me in the chapel after Sext. We can speak there.” Without another word he dug his heels into his horse’s flank and rode off through the gates.
Shannon stood flummoxed watching the man’s back as he rode away.
“O’Neill, lad, why are you standing out here like a scarecrow?” He turned to see Eormenthryth behind him. She had her basket and a friendly smile.
“Och, Mother, I had words with the mercenary then. How is the wee calím?”
The smile faded. “Not well, my friend. Not well.”
“Then I am thinkin’ she shall not be able to travel for some time?” Shannon asked, absorbed in some thoughts.
“Nay, and I hope you are not thinking you can take them out your secret way. A woman and four children, two of them but babes, cannot make it. They would be caught immediately, even if you could find a way to get them out without their guards knowing.” She put her hand on his arm comfortingly. “I know you want to rescue them. We all do. But you must trust the queen to know what to do. She is wiser than you think. And stronger, though she gives little sign of it.”
Shannon shot her a superior look. "Don't you think I know it, as travelin' I was with the lady to escape the war?"
She gazed at him a moment, then gave him a questioning look. “What words did you have with the Lord Elerde?”
Shannon answered, “He says he did not give the order for the guard to be present when the lady has visitors.”
“Do you believe him? He is a most duplicitous fellow. He seems single-minded. if he were to think the lady would try to escape with our help, he would prevent her so he could do the honours himself and win her grateful affection.” The healer lowered her tone as one of Elerde’s own men passed close to them. “We can still pursue our plan, but the queen and her children may not be part of it.”
Shannon looked down at the ground where he was etching spirals in the dust of the courtyard with the toe of one shoe. “Ye be right then, but still.. I wonder. The man may seem cool but I recognize somethin’ in him. Aye, he is single-minded but ‘tis not just to have the lady. It’s more.” He looked at Eormenthryth. “Will ye have it ready for the new moon?”
Eormenthryth squeezed his arm then let go. “I will. never you fear.”
Shannon waited until the office of Sext had been read and the chapel deserted. The mercenary commander had stayed on his knees before the altar after all others had left. When he heard Shannon’s lilting tones from behind him, he made the sign of the cross and got up, turning to face the Irishman. He spoke to him in his own native language which Shannon had revealed he understood.
“What is this about my ordering guards to be present whenever the queen has a visitor?” he demanded.
Shannon regarded the tall, dark haired man trying to divine whether he was dissembling. Slowly and tentatively he explained, “Well, and that be what the guard said to her in her very chamber today. I was already present, but when the healer arrived he would not leave, said you had given the order.”
He could not miss the look of irritation that passed over the soldier’s face.
Elerde however did not voice his thoughts. He turned and paced a few steps past the bard, then turned back to him, addressing him in a stern voice. “What are you up to? What plans have you and the lady hatched? “
Shannon was startled. He dropped his arms to his side and stared. “A-and what can you be meanin’, man?” he stammered.
Elerde crossed the space between them in a heartbeat, standing right up against the shorter man and putting a clenched fist under his chin. “I could crush you. Do not play with me.” His eyes burned furiously into Shannon’s .
Shannon managed to relax and stare back with an insolent and amused look in his own limpid blue eyes. “But ye wouldn't. The lady could not forgive that. And methinks ye would do nothin’ that would make her hate ye.”
The commander glared, but then subsided. “You believe that,” he said, not quite a question.
“Aye, if that be so, but methinks ye chose a risky path by allyin’ yourself with the usurper.” He held his composure under a sharp look from the commander. “But then ye mayhap don't choose your purchaser.”
Elerde struck the bard with enough force to send him sprawling backward. Under Elerde’s furious glare Shannon managed to pull himself to a sitting position. He touched his lip and examined the blood that came away on his fingers. He had an amused expression on his face.
“As often as I have been beaten up by husbands and fathers and me own da, it is after takin’ more than that to shake me,” Shannon said ruefully. “But now I know I was right.”
Elerde stood over him, his fists still clenched at his side. “Right about what?” he asked.
From the floor where he stayed sitting up, Shannon said, “That ye love her and will do whate’er ye can, no matter the damage to your fragile honor, to protect her. And now I know we can trust ye.” He struggled to his feet. He brushed off the back of his shirt, kilt and short cloak, then wiped his bloody mouth with the hem of his shirt. He looked at the bloodstain it left there and made a resigned noise, shrugged, and looked back up at the taller man. “That is why ye are here, is it not? To act as a shield for her and her children against the duke?”
Elerde dropped his gaze and nodded slowly. “How can I know I can trust you, Ulsterman?”
Shannon grinned, wincing at the pain this caused him. “Because she does.”
Elerde nodded again. “Then what is your plan? I know you have been plotting to rescue her brother. My man has watched you in your pantomime with the guards.”
Shannon raised a considering eyebrow. “Always a pleasure workin’ with another Celt. These Sassenachs have no subtlety.” Elerde was waiting for more. “Aye, we want to spring the good duke. But not just the duke.”
“You are not serious. You do not think you can take him out in the shape he is in and a woman with four children, one of them ill.. you would all be captured and killed. You know that, don’t you?”
Shannon shot back, “If they stay they will be killed! I don't know why they are still alive now, nor myself.”
The soldier looked down behind him and then went to take a seat on the rise of the sanctuary. He sighed, putting his chin in the hand whose elbow he leaned on one knee. “I should like to think ‘tis I who is keeping them alive, though the poor duke cannot thank me for anything. Methinks Gaylorde just hates him too much to give up torturing him.” He looked up at Shannon. “But I am right about trying to take them all out. It will not succeed, your plan.”
Shannon deflated, came over to the rise and sat down near Elerde. “’Twas the queen’s plan. And she will be furious that I told ye of it.”
“Permit me to worry about that. Now tell me how you planned to make the escape.”
Shannon explained about the trick of the eye and the drop to the bluff-side cave.
“And you thought you could take three adults and four children out that way? With one of them at least immobilized?” Elerde commented incredulously.
“Four adults. Larisa is coming too.”
Elerde laughed aloud. “I shall credit you with balls, my friend. But not sense.”
Shannon scowled and shrugged his thin shoulders. “’Tis all there is.”
Elerde put both elbows on his knees and his bearded chin in his cupped hands, looking off into the dark chapel. “I suppose you mean to drug the guards outside Lorin’s prison. But the guards on the nursery door. I think not.”
Shannon dropped one hand to the floor and swirled his fingers in the rushes. In a small voice he replied, “We had not quite gotten that far.”
“Clearly,” the mercenary retorted. “But you can take Lorin out. Methinks he will die soon if he stays.”
The Irishman considered him frankly. “Will you help?”
“If you promise to let me handle protecting the queen and her children, I will help you deliver Lorin from his awful state.” He looked back into Shannon’s face. “Do we have an understanding?”
Shannon slowly nodded his head. Then he asked, “Ye really do love the lady, d’ye not?”
Elerde smiled thinly. “I do indeed.”
“Shannon! Was that wise?!”
The queen looked at him alarmed. They stood in the close air of the children’s chambers, lit by day and by night only by smoky candles and the faint glow of the coals in the brazier. She could barely make out the figure of Elerde standing apart . They whispered as much to let the children sleep as to keep what they said from the man of Leon.
Josephine could see even in the poor light that Shannon sported a split lip and bruising on his mouth. For an instant she let herself fear that Elerde had forced Shannon to reveal their plan for escape and to tell her Elerde wanted to aid them. But all she knew of Shannon and all she knew of the mercenary told her this could not be. Might she hope?
“I am quite sure, me lady,” the red-haired bard said. His face and voice communicated his eagerness. “I be that convinced he wishes to aid us.. for ye and your wee ones’ sakes.”
Josephine looked in the direction of the dark figure, little more than a shape with a glint of candlelight on the buckles and rivets of his leather armor. Though his expression was obscured, she could feel the intensity of his focus on her. As always, it buzzed in her head the way the air around her buzzed on a hot summer day just before a storm. She never could make out what it meant. Her husband’s passion for her was warm and eager. This smoldering regard from the tall man of Leon uneased her.
“Is this true, my lord?” she asked in as even a voice as she could manage.
The figure moved towards her with the heavy step of a man in boots. The leather smell of him seemed to come before, enveloping her and overcoming even the fetid smell of the room. His face came into the feeble light. His eyes were on hers. “Aye, my lady. I wish nothing better than to help you and your children.. and your brother.” He stopped in front of her, not reaching out for her.
From the direction of the children’s pallets Larisa’s voice came as if from a phantasm. “Lorin? You would help Lorin?” The woman had tried hard to obscure her constant worry for her betrothed under the seriousness of the queen’s peril and Caithness’s illness. But it simmered near the surface, making her jumpy one moment and seeming drugged another. She came forward, as haggard as her royal mistress. She smelled of children still in diapers.
Elerde gave the merchant’s daughter the courtesy of a short bow, took her hand and kissed it. “Lady, I would.”
“Then I will go too, if the queen will permit me.” Larisa’s face took on a look of determination but the corner of her mouth twitched with waiting to be denied. Her eyes were averted from her mistress.
Josephine put a hand on her arm and squeezed affectionately. “My dear sister, we are all going.”
Both women caught the look exchanged between the two men. “Nay, me ladies,” the Irishman inserted. “Ibe takin' me Lord Lorin and his lady out with the good soldier’s help, but we cannot take the children.”
Josephine crossed her arms over her breasts and glared at him and then the soldier. “I will not leave my children here!” she said angrily.
Elerde shook his head impatiently. He frowned at her and said in a scolding tone, “No one would ask you to do that. But you must be sensible.” He rested his hands on her shoulders.
The queen shrugged his hands off her defiantly. “I think I know best what my children need.”
Shannon, who had been watching the exchange anxiously broke in. “Me lady, ‘tis as he says. We can take your brother out, and his lady as well, but ye and the wee ones must remain.”
Josephine stared at him dumbfounded. Her eyes were wide and her jaw slack with disbelief. “You would leave me here? I do not understand.”
Elerde bit his lower lip, reached to touch her chin and turn her face in his direction. He looked into her eyes earnestly and said in an even tone, “Josephina, listen, I beg you. There is no way we could slip out undetected with the children. It would be more dangerous to take them out now than for you to stay here together.” He took her hand. She started to pull her hand from his grasp, but relaxed and listened. “You will not be unprotected. I will be here.”
She searched his eyes for comfort. “You will? You will protect us? Can this be true?”
For answer Elerde’s eyes grew warm and he put her hand gently to his lips.
“Me lady, I believe him,” the Irishman said with conviction.
Five nights later the moon was dark. Shannon met Eormenthryth as she arrived at the fortress to see the little girl. They stood facing each other near the wide well while the bustle of the day’s tasks went on about them. They could hear a horse being shod, the sudden burst of laughter from the women outside the bake house by the ovens, the shriek of a child being chased by a puppy, and the boastful swaggering talk of the guards. The air was freshened by a breeze that thankfully came off the sea and not from the direction of the middens. Occasional swirling clouds of dust rose from the sun-baked courtyard making eerie wraithlike shadows.
“Well met, bard,” the older woman said, her face grave but with a twinkle in her eye. “How is Caithness?”
Shannon winked at her, “I should hope ye could tell me that.” He looked about them, then leaned in. “Do ye have the medicine for me own ailment?”
Eormenthryth nodded. “Take this,” she said, thrusting her large heavy basket at him.
He took it, needing both hands to hold it steady, and he smelled the mixture of sweet, savory and not so pleasant concoctions under the linen cloth. “Do you have a dead cat in here?” he asked, wrinkling his nose.
“Nay, that is just the valerian root. It stinks.” She sniffed him. “But you do too, of an ale house. And I should know. I just stopped at the alehouse to see my friend Leofwen on my way here. You can’t help the queen if you are drunk, you know, my lad/” She rooted about in the basket under the cloth as she berated him.
“Nay, Mother. I donn't know why but I have not wanted drink this fortnight and more. What ye smell is me disguise.” He winked again. At her dubious look, he went on. “I pour a cup of stale ale on meself ere I go among the guards. And I haven't washed in some days.”
The healer considered him for a few moments, then handed him a tiny bottle with a waxed stopper as she took the basket back. “Now that you need not have told me.” She made as to wave off a smell.
“Would this be me remedy?” Shannon said, inspecting the small clay bottle.
Eormenthryth nervously gestured for him to put the bottle away in his scrip. “Aye, aye, and take care not to spill it. Two drops in a cup of wine should do the trick. You should sleep well and deeply. But knocking off that drinking would do the same, truth be told.” She had raised her voice as one of Gaylorde’s guards passed them on his way to the middens. She said in the same volume, “I will be leaving Lawrencium now. My village has been without me long enough.” More quietly she told the Irishman, “I pray that the child will heal with her mother’s loving touch and care.”
Shannon smiled his sweet but crooked little boy smile and nodded. “God grant it.”
She watched Shannon secrete the bottle, then she reach and gave his shoulder a squeeze. “You are a good lad, Shannon. A very good lad. The Goddess guide and protect you, my friend,” she said earnestly.
Shannon smiled reassurance. “She has e’er been my especial friend and protector.” He nodded. “And we will have some other more earthly help.”
Next: The Rescue of Lrin
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