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

Sunday, December 27, 2009

New Stories: Sneaking In (happened)

The thin sliver of the Blot Month moon cast only the faintest light on the party of hand-picked men that slid along the bluff wall that looked out over the North Sea just south of the River Humber estuary. Reaching the small cave entrance cloaked by planted bushes the king made one of the pre-arranged hand signals so he could silently give his orders. Two of his men crouched and slid through the small opening, used steel and tinder to light their torches, then one stuck his head out and nodded to the king. He waved the rest of the men forward, preceding them into the cave. One of the torches was passed to the end of the line so that they had llight at the fore and the aft, available to change positions and either lead or follow if a retreat was called for.
The cave was no easy climb as it rose and twisted, made tight bends and sometimes required the men to go sideways and single file. This was not a place to be if you had to flee quickly. Lawrence had numbered his party accordingly, at twelve besides himself, and jokingly dubbed them “the Apostles”. Only he made as sure as he could there was no Judas in the company.

At the top of the passage just under the top of the bluff Lawrence signaled the torches to be put out. He listened, then signaled he and two of the men at the fore would go out to assess whether the secret escape route was still passable. As quietly as men in mail could do so, they left the cave, went out on the ledge, then looked up at the fortress wall of vertical timbers.

This part of the wall was lightly manned. There was no point in keeping lookouts posted to watch for ships in the dark of night. That duty was only needed in the light. The edge of the cliff was sheer and narrow there, Even narrower than when the fortress was built as the bluff slowly eroded down into the narrow strip of beach. Some effort was made to shore up the bluff there, but it was a losing battle.

Still Lawrence knew it was possible that the secret of the optical illusion in the wall that Shannon used to help Lorin escape with Larisa could have been discovered afterwards by Gaylorde. They would have sealed it up, but they also would have posted more men on that side of the fortress in case someone who knew about the cave made use of it to come up the bluff. He held still and listened more. he could hear the faint sound of booted feet and the odd exchange of voices. He waited until he discerned a pattern, then used one of the regular gaps to motion the two men to follow him.

Lawrence put his dagger in his teeth as he needed both hands to climb the five feet from the ledge to the bluff top. It was hard going as the vertical side of the hill was loose earth with hazardous roots a man could catch a toe in. He managed to put the roots to use like steps, only breaking a couple, and soon he and the men were crouching against the outer fortress wall.

Lawrence began to sidle to his right, his back against the timbers, until he at last reached the spot where the hidden gap had been. He turned to face it and feel around it in the near black of the night, and managed to stifle his sigh of disappointment when he felt that a door of some sort had been put in. He pushed, but the door clanked against its own latch.

From directly behind the door they heard a shout, a man calling to his mates that someone had tried to push open the door. Lawrence quickly signaled the other two men to make their way back to the ledge at the upper cave entrance. he himself stayed a moment to see if anyone acted on the man’s alarm.

He smiled as he heard the muffled conversation that took place. Another man, seemingly accompanied by more guards for he could hear the sound of clinking armor and weapons. This man was berating the door’s guard, saying it was nothing but the wind coming off the sea and rattling the door. “The shutters are making a racket as well. Calm down. The king’s army is all the way on the other side of the fortress on the plain.”

The door’s guard protested, but the other man just scoffed and he and his men started away.

Then Lawrence heard something that made his heart stop. From above him a man shouted, “Ho, I see something below, on the ledge. It looks like light on metal.” Feet ran to the man who had shouted, there was a hubbub and Lawrence knew he or one of the other men with him had been spotted. He took off his helm, taking a risk by exposing his head to a weapon but wanting to lessen the likelihood of being spotted as he moved quickly to the ledge and hopped down after the other men.

“God’s bollocks, they are coming after us!” Lawrence abandoned all effort to be stealthy. He waited agitated as the men struck flint to steel to get the tinder started to light the two torches. “Make haste!” he urged.

The torches finally lit, Lawrence ordered the men to pull the ceiling of the cave down behind them to block the progress of their pursuers, but a memory tugged at his brain. “Wait, leave it! Follow me!” He snatched one of the torches and headed down the underground passage. The men followed as quickly as possible, the sounds of men’s voices, clanking mail, and scrambling on the ledge behind them. The king paused at one turn, handed the torch to the man behind him and felt around on the wall. “Jesu! here it is. He squeezed around an outcropping of the rock wall and pushed through to another cave.

The men had barely noticed the smell as they had come up the passage, but when they stopped to take hurried turns squeezing in after the king, they wrinkled their noses. There was a quite awful smell, like human waste and horse dung, and even worse the offal from butchering pigs and sheep. When each man was fully into the new cave the odor was almost overpowering and the remaining torch, for Lawrence had had the first one extinguished, flared as if finding a new source of fuel. “Put out that torch!” Lawrence rasped, “and keep very still.”

The thirteen men, packed into the small chamber in the cave, hardly breathed as they heard shouts and the sound of boots in the passage they had just left.

“I smell their torch, they came this way!”

“Of course they did, witless. Where else would they go.. through the wall?”

“Good Christ, what is that other smell?”

“Never mind, we need to hurry to catch them on the beach!”

“Hold onto that torch, you idiot!”

The sounds became fainter and farther away. They could still hear Gaylorde’s men shouting but now the sound was orders barked to go one way or the other and consternation at not seeing any sign of the invaders. One shrill voice could clearly be heard, whining, “What, can they fly? Maybe they are elves.”

“Elves don’t fly,” shot another voice derisively.

The men in the noisome cave had to stifle the laughter that came from relief as much as amusement.

Next: A Story for Christmas

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About the author

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