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

Friday, February 5, 2010

Trial by Battle: A Murder Mystery, Part the First

few days out of Sheffield and the two minstrels were making steady progress north to where they would veer westerly towards Connery in Scotland. They were resting now in the shade of a broad leafy oak.

Shannon seemed better the past day. He was still silent but his face was softer and his temper not so short. "Are ye feelin' any better, Shan?" he asked.

Shannon smiled wryly. "Nay, I be just getting' used to feelin' like shit." He seemed to be considering something. "Sure and there is one advantage to feelin' as bad as I do."

Rory smiled and asked what that was.

"'Tis easy to stay true to me darlin' Heather."

Rory laughed.

Shannon looked at Rory seriously. "Old son, I ken not how ye manage to go with out a colleen once in a while. How do ye handle it?"

Rory blushed. "Now, Shannon, ye know how a man handles bein' without a woman," he said, embarrassed.

Shannon nodded. "Aye, and I dinnae even feel like doin' that."

Silence lay between them for a while, and then Rory spoke up. "Sure and I have been thinkin' of a song ye sang for me once.. it had a strange sound, with many changes in tempo and mode. Did it not go like this?" Rory intentionally sang a line of the song incorrectly.

Shannon stopped him, waving a hand in his direction. "Nay nay, 'tis like this." He sang the song the right way.

Rory shook his head, "Och, nay, 'tis like this." He sang again, making a tempo change that should not have been there.

Shannon shook his head wildly. "Stop the noise.. Ye have it all wrong. " He picked up the lute at his side and cradled it in his arms. "'Listen," he commanded. He began to play and sing the song, with a rich tone to his voice and a delicate accompaniment on the instrument.

"Shan, me lad," Rory began after he was finished.

Shannon took a moment to look up from where he was fingering a chord thoughtfully. "Aye?"

Rory grinned, "Ye'r voice is back."

Shannon stared at him a moment, then smiled. "Aye?"

Rory nodded. "Time to be on our way."

As they walked Rory engaged Shannon in discussion about the different types of music the man knew. He could soak up tunes and instrumentation like a sponge. He had a knack for catching onto the character of a particular region's musical style. He seemed fascinated by everything he heard, the different instruments, the way some cultures expressed emotion through song and the way others drove a beat into their melodies. As they walked Shannon would cradle his beloved lute and demonstrate a sound to Rory.

Late in the afternoon as they approached a village called Nosterfield where they might rest and have a meal, he turned to Rory. "Thank ye, me lad. I do love ye."

Rory smiled and mussed the shorter man's red wild hair. "I know ye do, Shan. I love ye too."

The villagers welcomed and fed them. They proffered ale but Shannon just ignored.. or appeared to ignore.. the cup set by him. He sang and told stories and jests. Rory joined in and when they left, they were both buoyed up by the gratitude the isolated villagers had shown.

They had talked earlier and Shannon had said that he would prefer to bunk down in the woods rather than in the village. "No sense battlin' temptation when I can remove meself from it." They found a sheltered spot and like most other nights, spread out their bedrolls and lay down.

Shannon was asleep and snoring lightly in no time. Rory lay and looked up into the canopy of leaves lit by their fire. He heard a sound, and at first assumed it was the cry of a small animal. He heard it again and recognized it as the giggle of a little girl. He went up on his elbows to find who it was. There just out of the firelight he saw a small figure. "Why, wee one, what do ye here?" he asked.

The figure just giggled again. He slowly got to his feet and moved towards her. The child moved slightly towards him.

To Rory's shock he recognized her. She either was or looked just like the little flaxen haired girl he had seen just north of Nottingham. She had the same light blue dress. She had one finger in her mouth and she smiled at him again and giggled. "Rory," she said in a soft voice. Then she turned and ran into the woods.

Rory followed but could not see where she could have gone. Nothing stirred. The bushes and grasses should be moving back into place after her passing.

He went back to Shannon and shook him. "Shannon, me boy, I have just seen the oddest thing."

Shannon reluctantly opened his eyes. "What? What did ye see?"

Rory told him about the girl. Shannon just waved him off. "'Twas a dream. Go back to sleep." He shut his eyes again.

Rory went back to his bedroll and lay down. He was probably right. It had probably been a dream. He mused for a while and then fell asleep.

Over the next two days he thought often of the little girl and how real she had seemed. The background of his reverie was Shannon's voice as he hummed and sang, spoke about melodies and lyrics with less animation perhaps than he once would, but with energy all the same. It was a sound that soothed Rory.

They saw at length that they were approaching a good sized town. Shannon said, "I think that is Darlington. Sure and I don't remember it very well from me earlier visit but we should be able to get a good meal here."

And a good meal they did find. In a little inn called the Rabbit and the Hound they were served a hearty mutton stew and good bread. Rory drank spring water along with Shannon. Shannon obliged with a song or two and their meals, as always, were on the house. The innkeeper had gone back to his other customers with a happy smile on his face when an old lame man came and sat by the minstrels. "Oh please, my good fellows, thou must help me!" he said in a hoarse whisper.

Shannon's mouth was full but Rory replied. "What ails ye, old Da?"

"It is my granddaughter, good sirs."

Shannon's eyebrow went up and he said icily, "Old father, dinnae truck for ye'r granddaughter. It is not fittin'"

The old man looked offended. "Nay, 'tis not that! She has been wrongly imprisoned. She is accused of a woman's murder, but my granddaughter did not kill her. I would stake my life on it." The man's eyes had filled with tears, and these ran over into the many creases of his old face.

Shannon apologized for the error and asked the old man, "What can we do for her? We are not lawyers."

The man grabbed onto Rory's upper arm and seemed to be feeling it. "She is to be tried by battle, fine fellows. But she has no family but me. How can she find a champion? The men of this town are cowards. " He continued to grasp Rory's arm. "Thou art a strong man. Methinks thou hast not always been a minstrel."

Rory and Shannon exchanged glances. "Aye, ye are right. Old Da. I was a soldier first. But I know ye and ye'r granddaughter not. How should I come to be her champion?"

The old man pleaded, "Please sir, come to meet her. I am sure that thou wilt want to save her life. My Sunshine is a good and sweet girl…"

Rory interrupted, "What did ye call her? Sunshine?" Shannon blew out a breath of air.

The man looked hopeful. "Sunshine. That is her name. Her mother took one look at her wee sweet face and said, 'This is my Sunshine.'"

Shannon grinned from ear to ear. "Me old fellow, I think ye have a champion."

The old man took the two Irishman to meet his granddaughter. The guards at the gaol were none too pleased to see someone coming forth to defend the woman, but they let the old man in with his companions. The key was put in the lock and the gaol cell door thrown open. A small figure in a hooded cloak kneeled at prayer in a corner, but at the sound of the door, she crossed herself and stood and turned. As she did the hood fell back.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph.. it be Sunshine all right," Shannon gasped. There in front of them all was a young woman who could easily have been the Queen of Christenlande's identical twin. In every regard save her clothing she was Josephine's double. She may have been a few years younger, but this was not noticeable since the Queen, whose childhood nickname was Sunshine, herself was young in appearance.

Shannon said, "I hope the King ne'er meets ye'r granddaughter sir, or his head will come clean off his shoulders."

The old man looked puzzled at him. "Which King?"

But Sunshine had come forward to meet her grandfather's companions. In a soft voice not much unlike the Queen's she greeted them, "Good sirs, thou knowest my name. Now I wish to know thine."

Rory instantly was tongue-tied. Shannon was barely more articulate. "Me lass, me name is Shannon O'Neill, and this big mute is Rory McGuinness. We are minstrel's in King Lawrence's.. and Queen Josephine's.. court in Christenlande." When he said the Queen's name his voice deepened with significance.


Sunshine smiled prettily. "Minstrels? Come to comfort me in my darkest hour?"

The old man interposed, "No, my Sunshine, the tall one is also a soldier. He will do battle for you in the trial by battle."

She looked at Rory with new respect and hope. Meanwhile Shannon was smarting from Rory's being called "the tall one", not just "the taller one". He muttered, "The wee one is just a minstrel." No one heard him.

Rory stammered, "Aye, my lady, I mean, um, aye, um, Sunshine, miss, I mean…"

"The tall one is not so smart, me thinks, " Shannon remarked with a satisfied grin.

Sunshine looked at him and smiled her dazzling, queenly smile. Rory gasped. She said, "Thou shall fight for me, Rory?"

Rory swallowed and without a second thought bowed and replied, "Aye, my lady, that I shall."

Next: Trial By Battle, Part the Second

Note: I promise the book doesn't have all the thee's and thou's and even Shannon and Rory are toned down.

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About the author

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