Shannon stood where no one could see him and watched Heather and her son and husband walking the donkey cart with Deirdre inside on the north road back to Northumbria. He was empty inside. He could barely form coherent thought. His movements were stiff and uncoordinated. He was stone cold sober. He did not react when a soft voice spoke behind him. “Shan, me old son, I thought ye might be here.” Rory came around to stand at his friend’s side.
“She’s gone,” Shannon said without emotion.
Rory nodded, looking at his own feet as he scuffed them on the ground. He had thought Shannon might have been in the copse behind the monastery where he could watch the north road. “Aye, she is that,” he breathed sadly.
Heather had taken time before she left to speak to Rory, to try to explain what had happened. Rory could not this time look at her with his accustomed compassion and understanding. Whatever cause she may have had, he knew she had destroyed the dearest person in his life. (“Save one,” he sadly thought.) She had seen his condemnation and tried to say what she could of her own former fondness for the Irishman they both had loved.
“Rory, I will e’er have a caring for Shannon. He is the father of my little ones. And he was my first.”
“And ye were his first, last and only,” Rory said. He saw the mixture of confusion and contempt in her eyes. “Ye were the only woman he e’er bedded that he loved. First one, only one, and last, I’ll warrant.” He leveled a look of bitterness at her, and walked away.
Now he watched his friend carefully. He had never seen Shannon like this. The man had simply walked out of the castle after his last encounter with Heather and could not thereafter be found. Rory looked in the taverns, in the homes of Shannon’s favorite wenches, everywhere. He never did learn where Shannon had hidden himself. He ventured,. “Sure, and how about a tankard or twelve?”
Shannon’s eyes were still on the now empty road. “Nay.” He turned and started down the hill.
Rory ran after him. “Shan, where are ye goin’? What are ye goin’ to do?”
His friend just shrugged and kept walking.
Rory reached his side quickly and asked again, “Ye aren’t goin’ to hurt y’rself, are ye?” With no answer, he went on, “Come back to the castle, man. Everyone is that worried about ye. The Queen..”
Shannon whirled on him. “Get away,” he spat. “Leave me the hell alone.”
Rory froze, stunned, and watched as Shannon continued to stride toward Lawrencium.
A soft rap came on the door of Lawrence’s privy council chamber . “Come,” the King called, turning from some papers to see Clancy, his page, open the door and stick a pale face in.
“My lord, ‘tis my brother Shannon. He would like a word wi’ ye.” Lawrence noted that Clancy’s eyes were red, as if he had been weeping. “=With a look of deep concern, he replied, “Aye, let him enter.”
Clancy lowered his head and pushed the door open further. There stood Shannon O’Neill behind him, uncharacteristically stiff and formal with his cap crushed in his two hands. The King nodded to him, and the man entered, casting a brief glance at his younger brother as he passed. The Irishman came forward and gave the King a short bow, then simply stood and waited to be given leave to speak.
Lawrence just stared for a few moments. “Well, man, thou knowest thou needs not stand on ceremony. Or at least thou ne’er have and still have thy head attached.” Lawrence tried to smile at what he intended as a jest, but the man still stood, infuriatingly, without speaking. Lawrence gestured to a chair and asked, “Shall I call for ale or wine?”
Shannon spoke at last. “Nay, me lord, but I thank ye. I cannae stay long, beggin’ ye’r pardon.”
Lawrence nodded and sat, facing his old friend. “Very well. What message dost thou wish to impart?” The tension was beginning to make Lawrence irritable and he wanted to get the interview started and finished.
Shannon bowed his head. “Me lord, I beg ye’r permission to leave the court.”
Lawrence’s gaze sharpened on the man’s face. “Leave? To go where?”
Shannon fidgeted uncomfortably. “I be after wantin’ to go home again, to Ireland, me lord.”
Lawrence raised one eyebrow and considered the minstrel. “And Rory, will he go with thee?”
Shannon shook his head, “Nay, I have not asked him and shall not. He needs must stay here, with ye.. and with the Queen.”
An uncomfortable silence followed. Both men seemed at a loss as to what to say or do next. Finally the King was startled to see Shannon’s stiffness melt away. Tears sprang to the man’s eyes. He leaned towards the King, “Och, Lawrence, sure and I feel such shame for how I treated ye.. about the lady, the dubhín… I who am the true idiot… I have hurt me Heather sorely and have lost her utterly. How could I be after judgin’ and beratin’ ye?”
Lawrence leaned forward to put a strong hand on the Irishman’s shoulder, which shook under his grip. “Nay, nay, O’Neill, Shannon, thou wert right to berate me. I was an utter fool.”
Shannon’s teary eyes sought the King’s. “She came back to ye, Saints be praised. Me own Heather has.. divorced me.. made our marriage null.. and hath remarried. I shall ne’er see her or the wee ones again.”
Lawrence knew what had happened, had heard it from a stricken Rory and knew the woman had meant business when she finally pushed the O’Neill out of her life. He did not try to soothe or convince the Irishman that things were not as drear as they seemed. They were passing drear indeed. He just sat and let the man weep.
When Shannon recovered himself as best he could, he straightened and resumed his stiff formality. “That is why I am leavin’, me lord. I need to return to the lovin’ care of me family, me brother Ron and me sister Kathleen. “
Lawrence nodded. “Thou shalt be sorely missed in Lawrencium, Shannon. But come back when thou feels thou canst. When shall ye leave?”
Shannon replied, evenly, “I should like to be on me way in a day or two. I will sail down the coast to the Thames and shorten me journey by foot with a trip up that river.”
“That sounds like a wise plan, my friend. What canst I do to make thy journey more pleasant?” Lawrence inquired.
Just then the door to the chamber opened and the Queen entered quietly. She looked up and saw Shannon, who quickly rose and bowed to her, just as she was noticing both the stiffness of his posture and the swollen redness of his eyes. She glanced quickly at Lawrence’s face for an explanation for this and for Clancy’s own tear stained face.
Lawrence answered her anxious look, “My dearest, the O’Neill asks leave of us to return to Ireland.”
Josephine came to them both and took Shannon’s hand in both of her small ones. “Shannon, dear friend, I am so sorry for thy heartache. Of course thou must return to thy home, thy family. Shalt thou take Rory with thee?” Neither of the men missed the masked look of regret on her face. She would always carry Rory in the deepest part of her heart. She recovered quickly, allowing the King to return to the matter at hand.
“Nay, me lady. I travel alone,” Shannon replied. This time the Queen succeeded in hiding the look of relief.
“Of course, dear Shannon. What can my lord the King and I do to ease thy trials?”
Lawrence returned his gaze to the Irishman, who responded, “There is naught ye can do, me friends, but let me go with no fanfare or weeping. Let me go and tell no one until I am gone.”
The King and Queen exchanged looks. Lawrence assured, “We shall do as thou wishest. But Shannon, does Rory know?”
Shannon shook his head. “I shall leave him a message to say good bye. I will go back to me lodgings now, with ye’r leave. I must make some plans.”
He responded stiffly when Josephine stepped up to embrace him. She looked into his eyes worried. “Shannon, please come back to us,” she begged. The King looked at him with the same entreaty in his eyes. Shannon just nodded curtly and turned to stride away.
Two nights later Shannon stood on the deck of a small skiff, its only crew asleep with the craft at anchor in the North Sea. His eyes were wet with tears, his face slack with hopelessness and grief. He lifted his lute into his arms and played a quiet melody. He gazed into the dark icy waters.
A soft childish voice spoke at his elbow. “Do not do this, Shannon,” it said. He turned to look and saw the same little girl in the pale blue dress he and Rory had seen near Nottingham standing on the deck by him. He stared. “Where did ye come from, lass?” he asked when he could get his breath.
She slipped a small cold hand into his. “Rory sent me. He sent me to stop you from killing yourself. You mustn’t… it is not your time. You will find a better love soon. You must not break the hearts of those who love you. Lean down to me.”
Shannon did and the little girl stood on tiptoe to give him a kiss on his cheek. His tears stopped, his face relaxed, and his eyes cleared. She whispered to him, “Sleep now, and you will wake where you will be cared for and loved.”
Shannon carefully lay down his lute beside him. He crumpled into a cross-legged slump like a Buddha, but with his head down on his arms and slept. The little girl smiled. She took the shoulder strap of his lute and wrapped it so that it was tight against his body.
Minutes later a wave tossed the boat sharply to starboard, and Shannon slipped into the sea.
In Lawrencium a servant handed Rory a folded parchment. The tall man took it, giving the servant a quizzical look. Then as the man left he opened and read,
To me own darlin’ Rory,The King and Queen looked up from where they sat together before the fire in his bedchamber at the wail that rose from somewhere in the castle.
Weep not for me, old son. I am gone from the earth but know I shall live in ye’r heart and memory forever. I cannae live with what I have done to me dear Heather and our children. I have taken me new home in the sea. Care for the Queen, me friend, and for her husband. And find love, Rory, and do not squander it.
Next: Shannon's Suicide