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
Saturday, December 5, 2009
New Stories: The Retaking of Grantham, Part 2 (Happened with Changes)
The fortress itself was not the stout defense that Ratherwood and Lincoln had been. It was more like the small fortifications in the area but larger, and the walls were stronger and higher. Lawrence remembered from his stay there that Jehan’s hall was of a respectable size, and the other buildings were modest but numerous.
Horsa’s force had come in on one side of the rear of the Mercians and Jehan on the other. The king readied his and Botopher’s men to surge onto the enemy’s harried but holding positions and called for the signal horn to be sounded.
A series of long clear blasts came from the center between the king’s and the Earl of Skirbeck’s lines, reverberating off the fortress walls and nearby hillsides.. Moments later to the king’s satisfaction he saw the gates of Grantham open and a force issue forth to attack the Mercians. The enemy was now surrounded. They could not form a shieldwall. They could not move nor could they flee. Even the servants and camp followers were trapped as the two reserve forces poured down on the camp.
Lawrence rode War-Brother right into the camp itself, with mounted companions flanking him and leaving a distinct path of ruin as the horses’ hooves broke apart tents and campsites and trampled them into the ground. The few soldiers not engaged in facing the surrounding forces in the field either dropped their weapons and waited for whatever attackers would do or were cut down in the effort to defend the camp. Lawrence saw the puzzlement in one officer’s face. He almost heard the man’s thought, “But the usurper had no army here! Where did they come from?”
Lawrence met the man’s raised sword with his own, shouting “Críslicland!” just as he ran him through.
Quitting the encampment, the king’s and Skirbeck’s commands fell on the Mercian forces who were now being decimated on five sides. Lawrence took a moment from swinging his sword and fending blows from swords, axes and spears to look up at the lines that had poured out of the fortress gates. He could not see faces to ascertain expressions so he could not tell if they had guessed the ruse. The mounted fighters he had commanded to secure the gate so they could not reenter the stronghold had taken position in front of it.
The Mercian soldiers, apparently either unaware of the identity of the attackers from behind or too pressed to care whom they fought off, valiantly fought on. It was a losing battle. There were few prisoners simply because the warriors fought on to the death. The ground outside Lord Jehan’s fort was littered with the dead and wounded, most of them Mercian, their torn bodies raising the stink of war.
On the north side of the remaining Mercian lines an officer on horseback rode at Lawrence, causing War-Brother to rear. The king fell against the saddle’s back and toppled, his helm coming loose and hanging askew as he hit the ground. The officer advanced to finish him off, but he was fended off by the king’s companions. He saw the man, struggling to his feet and being guarded while he remounted. “Lawrence!” the Mercian horseman breathed. Then he shouted the name and turned his horse to ride to his own commander only to be headed off by Crísliclandian soldiers and slain.
The commander Gaylorde had put in charge of Grantham heard the shout but doubted his own ears. He turned from engaging a Mercian soldier to see the “rescue” forces from Edric riding straight at him. He looked back only in time to finish off the Mercian swordsman. The king’s force bearing down on them, Thrydulf’s men and the Mercians alike stopped and stared. They were few in number, knew it, and threw down their swords, all but Thrydulf and a few officers from both camps.
The king rode forward with his companions and the running men at arms behind them and pulled up to a stop not far in front of Thrydulf. The usurper’s crony affected a defiant stance, spread his feet out on the bloody ground and held his sword at high ward and his shield in front of him. But instead of rushing forward to attack him, the lead horseman of the rescue party casually reached up and loosed the tie that held his helm and then took it off. He signaled one of his companions who reached in to his leather gabardine and pulled out a folded cloth. He shook it out, revealing the sword and sun device of Lawrence, king of Críslicland.
Thrydulf froze. He gaped unbelieving at the bearded man sitting astride the sturdy horse, the man who breathed hard and whose hair was soaked with sweat from the exertion of battle, smiling slightly. Thrydulf, a man of average height clad in good mail and a solid helm, smelled the sharp tang of horse sweat mix with the metallic odor of blood as he let his shoulders droop, his sword fall, and pulled his shield off his arm with the other hand. He reached up and removed his helm, keeping his face hidden until it was completely unarmored save for the quilted coif that covered his thinning hair. Then he went forward to the king and fell to his knees several feet before the front hooves of War-Brother. Beside and behind him his officers and men who had not already done so threw down their weapons and fell to their knees. The few Mercians left standing slumped, heads bowed, pulled off helms and waited or slowly tried to back up and away only to find horsemen of Críslicland behind them.
“Lord king!” Thrydulf called and fell on his face prostrate on the ground. “Thank God you are here! We thought you were still in Affynshire and we would be at the mercy of the usurper!” He lifted his head to peer up at the king so far above him. “You do know about the usurping, do you not, my liege?”
“Aye, I know,” responded the king sourly. “And of your part in it, Thrydulf. Nay, nay, do not protest, for it shall do you no good. But there is a greater cause now, the repulsion of the Mercians. Stand and take back your armor and weapons and finish off these bastards from Offa.” Lawrence looked at the man struggling to his feet sternly, then turned his horse, put back on his helm, and rode away to what was left of the fray.
Thrydulf watched him ride away, then turned, rearmed and shouted to his men, “Kill them. Kill all of them. It’s our only chance.” They hesitated, and he snapped, “The Mercians, you lack-wits!”
Unaided by the king’s soldiers, the traitor’s men with great loss of life yet managed to finish off the Mercians as they streamed towards them.
Lawrence had set Botopher to insure that the rapidly depleted Mercian force could not escape south and back across the border where they could regroup with the force that had been sent to quell the western forts and who would have learned of the attack on their own forces by now.
The battle was all but won when someone inside the fortress shouted down to his fellows, “The king! It’s the king!” After a stunned pause a great clamor of cheering arose. The people of the compound started to push the remaining traitorous soldiers out of the gate. Some of those surrendered immediately, others tried to get away and were killed. The lady of Grantham caught the cries and rushed about her chamber, searching for any sign of Thrydulf, throwing what she could into the fire and the rest out the narrow window.
An anxious Earl Jehan entered the gates of his own stronghold just behind the king when the halfhearted final resistance of the Mercians collapsed. Little had changed, at least to his eye, and he relaxed, anxious to get into his own Hall and to take the reins again. He strode to his hall, noting with some puzzlement the litter of this and that on the ground under his lady's chamber window.
The scouts reported that the force that had been sent to take the eastern forts had fled across the border. Horsa commented, “We will have to meet them again, sire, but at least they won’t swell the ranks of the prisoners for now.” He glanced up at the few dozen Mercian men who were corralled by ropes and armed guards in the courtyard.
The king pardoned all who had fought for Thrydulf on the condition they retake their oaths to him and fight along with his forces against the duke. Some key officers were required to give family members as hostages who would be well treated and returned to their fathers’, brothers’, and husbands’ bosoms when Gaylorde was removed.
“What shall we do with Thrydulf, my lord of Grantham?” the king asked Jehan.
Jehan's lady looked up suddenly.
“Kill him,” the older man replied.
The woman's lips turned up in a hopeful smile.
Lawrence thought a moment. “I need him now. He might be useful. But when I am done with him, he is yours.”
Jehan saw his wife go pale. She rushed out of the hall trying to look like she was on an errand.
The king turned to Horsa, standing near him in Jehan's hall with a horn of ale. “Now we turn our minds to re-strengthening the border against the Mercians.”
Lincoln was secure and back in Earl Sagar’s capable hands. Grantham was secure – for now – back in Earl Jehan’s indifferent control. The Mercians stayed along the border, ready to cross and harry. The king found himself in a place with strong and regretful memories of a young woman who died because of him. He pushed them away, focusing on the task at hand.
The rush to Lincoln had been as much to find out if what that traitor Malcolm had said was true, that the king’s cousin had seized the crown. He brought an image to mind of the man with his insolent smirk and white hair and heard the taunt again. “Elerde.. with Gaylorde.. in Lawrencium.. where Josephine is.” He felt his fury rise again just as it had before he boosted the sneering man over the wall to be brought up short with a broken neck by the rope attached to the palisade. The violent impulse had not satisfied him. He was still angry, feeling star-crossed, like the gods were throwing things in his path at every turn just to watch him fall and laugh at him. He had been afraid to hope that Malcolm had lied, wanting to make him suffer even after he himself was dead.
At the bridge at Lincoln he learned it was true. He had lost his crown. He wanted nothing more than to ride directly to Lawrencium and personally disembowel his cousin.. then Elerde.
Then as soon as Lincoln itself was regained, the news came, as Horsa had said it would, that Mercia was advancing on Grantham. That had been a good little bit of strategy, he thought to himself, glad to be able to lay claim on responsibility for such a complete success. They had routed the Mercians and taken Gaylorde’s henchmen completely by surprise. It had been sweet. Bittersweet that is. For now he was stuck with his ghosts at Grantham. His leadership was required to make sure the Mercians stayed beaten.
Lawrence had wanted to hold the traitor Thrydulf to use for some gambit or another. The very night of the retaking of the stronghold however after overhearing shouts and weeping from the earl's wife's chamber, Lawrence and the other commanders jumped up and ran to the sound of many voices raised in consternation. They found Jehan standing over Thrydulf's body in the hut the man had been held in. Jehan held a bloody dagger in his hand. The unarmed Thrydulf was dying of a belly wound.
The king looked at his earl. "What is this, my lord?"
Jehan's teeth were clenched. Through them he said "He raped my lady wife."
After the vody was carried away and the earl taken to his chamber where his wife fussed over him, Seaxwulf, Lincoln's steward, caught the king's eye. "My liege, may I have leave to speak to you?"
Lawrence assented and they walked some paces apart. "My liege, the traitor and the lady shared a bedchamber."
Lawrence's eyes revealed understanding. He thanked the man. and told him he could go home to Lincoln if he wished, with the king's unending gratitude for the part he had played in the victory.
Earl Botopher, like the king, strained at the lead. His own young wife waited in Skirbeck, or so he hoped. But with Sagar and Jehan tenaciously demanding they be allowed to focus on restoring order in their own earldoms, Lawrence, Horsa and Botopher were forced to spend their time planning how to keep the border firm.
One way to do this was to patrol it. It was not a very pleasant task, as the border with Mercia in these parts was dotted with fens. Centuries hence those fens would be greater but further east, the coastline filled out towards The Wash. Nevertheless over past ages the silt that filled the rivers and created the fens had taken their slow, tiny bites of Midlands ground and caused the land south to the border to become treacherous with undetected bogs.
Unwilling to allow his men to suffer discomforts that he did not as well, Lawrence joined these parties often. Nearly every foray over the rolling fields, into dense woods with skinny tangled trees and blocking undergrowth, and through fords that like as not could go from shallow to deep without warning, resulted in encounters with Mercian raiding parties And in every encounter the king and his companions were successful in driving the raiders back.
Still, they came again, relentlessly, keeping Lawrence in Grantham and testing his patience sorely.
Next: An Attempt on the King's Life