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

Monday, February 8, 2010

Trial by Battle: A Murder Mystery - Part the Fourth

The next morning the two Irishman approached the Field of Honor, which in this case was part of the town common, next to the newly erected scaffold with the gallows, and which was overlooked by the sheriff's palace. That worthy fellow was standing in a wide window not far above the field. Some seats had been built for the higher caste observers of the battle. Off to one side two guards were bringing Sunshine out. She was praying, her hands, fettered as they were, clasped in prayer, her head bowed, her lips moving silently. Rory glanced around the groundlings, the lower caste observers who did not rate seats. He saw the old man, Sunshine's grandfather, there. He also thought for a moment he saw a little flaxen haired girl in a light blue dress peek out from between two corpulent women who were arguing about something. But a split second later he could not see her.

When his opponent, Leofu, entered the field resplendent in his good if rather bumpkin-like armor, the crowd cheered wildly. A few of the groundlings, including the old man, booed, and one could hear boos coming from the direction of the gaol.

When Rory stepped out there was a moment of silence, then the crowd, both castes together, burst into torrents of derisive laughter. Only the old man and Shannon.. and the village idiot, who was hanging upside down from a rail for tying horses .. cheered.

Shannon put his hand on his friend's shoulder. His look was grave. "Rory, old son, come out o' this alive, d'ye hear? God grant ye strength and agility." Rory patted Shannon on his own shoulder and nodded.

Rory turned to face Sunshine where she was looking to him from between the two guards. He went to her and kneeled. "Good woman, I do swear before God to defend ye to the best o' me ability, for ye are innocent of these foul charges against ye."

Some snickers came from the crowd. Sunshine reached with her fettered hands into the fold of her prison gown and brought out a small piece a plain linen cloth. She leaned to Rory and reached to him with the cloth. He took it, her favor, and tied it to a fastening on his chest plate. The woman breathed, "Go with God and the love ye have for that other Sunshine, Rory McGuinness."

Rory nodded, crossed himself and stood. He turned to face Leofu who stood in the center of the Field of Honor. Rory closed his eyes for a moment and then swallowed. He looked to where Shannon was standing apart from the others and saluted him. Shannon's face was tight with anxiety, but he managed a smile and a wink.

Rory and Leofu each reached out and took the other's gauntleted hand. Then each backed away and drew their swords. Both men raised their arms with both fists tight on the hilts of their broadswords and advanced on one another. The first blows came down with a sharp painful clang as steel met steel. Leofu raised his arms to strike again and Rory lunged for his midsection. Leofu roared with surprise and evaded the blow. He swung and struck a glancing blow off Rory's shoulder armor which resounded with a tinny thud. The blow did not hurt Rory, who seized the opportunity to spin and swing his sword across Leofu's body, just missing connecting with the man's chest plate.

With each blow or near blow a sound came up from the crowd, a sort of burst of voiced sighs. A cheer rose when one of Leofu's blows broke the leather hinge that held Rory's right shoulder armor on. The piece now clanked against his back plate. Rory saw the big, red faced man before him was baring his teeth in a snarl. Rory snarled back. Most who knew him would never have believed he could make such a savage, guttural sound.

The battle pressed on, Rory amazed to be holding his own against the stouter, younger opponent. But he was tiring. His muscles were not as toned as the young oaf's were. One of the man's blows brought blood from a slice to Rory's side. It was not deep, but it smarted. Rory kept his concentration and landed more than one blow of his own, one a resounding jab to the man's solar plexus that must have at least left a nasty bruise.

As the blows rained from both sides, the crowd seemed to be less inclined to cheer Leofu and boo Rory. A few approving "ohs" came up when he had made that sharp jab at Leofu. Nevertheless, Rory soon knew that he was going to be bested. He knew if he had to, he could surrender and not be killed. But that would mean that Sunshine would be hanged. He knew he could not allow that to happen, even at the cost of his own life.

He glanced at her and saw that her eyes were full of fear. He shot her a smile from under his bucket helm.. She saw it and smiled back. He touched the favor she had given him, and she blew him a kiss. He spun to find Leofu bearing down on him. "I shall die with a kiss from my Sunshine on me lips, "he thought and took his best stance to parry or bear the blow.

"Hold!" The voice rang out from the edges of the crowd. Leofu faltered as he looked up, apparently recognizing the voice. Rory had a chance to lunge at him and catch him off balance. Then Rory just stood and held his sword pointing towards the big man.

"I said HOLD!" came the voice again. Rory looked and saw a man, a big man with powerful shoulders and arms coming through the parting crowd.

Shannon recognized him at once as the woodcutter he had tried to convince to come forward and finger Leofu as the murderer of the faithless Beatrice. Rory caught Shannon's look of recognition and made the connection quickly. He looked to Leofu for his reaction.

"Woodcutter!" Leofu bellowed.

Shannon glanced up at the sheriff in his comfy field-side window. He was scowling at Leofu and woodcutter in turn. Perhaps he did not know the truth, Shannon was thinking.

The newcomer to the scene walked up to Rory. He reached out his hand for the sword Rory still clutched in both his fists. He muttered low to Rory, "Give it me. This be not thy battle, sirrah."

Rory handed the weapon over. "Sure and gladly I shall." He scooted as fast as he could out of the Field of Honor to his friend's side. Shannon was smiling his delight and clapped Rory happily on the back. They turned to watch the drama unfold.

The woodcutter - Shannon wondered if the man even had a name - stood with the sword ready and called up to the sheriff without taking his eyes off Leofu. "My lord sheriff, thou hast accused and imprisoned the wrong person in the murder of the woman Beatrice!"

The sheriff's face was guarded. "Woodcutter, if not the prisoner, then who? And what is thy proof?"

The woodcutter shouted back, "This evil man before me, Leofu, who was Beatrice's intended, hath killed her, not the fair Sunshine. And for proof I have my own word for I saw him do the deed.. And no man will e'er question my word in this town." There was a general murmur of assent from both castes of the crowd. He went on, "The woman was returning home from a tryst with me, carrying my gift of love, a wooden talisman, when this scoundrel did confront her and kill her with a blow to her head. I had followed the girl much after she left and saw the cruel deed done."

The sheriff called out, "Then why did thee not come forward with thy tale, but let… this innocent… be accused?"

The woodcutter glanced over at Rory. "I was a coward. I waited first to see if the lass would find a champion and if he should prevail. I came forward now for I believed this minstrel would die and Sunshine with him."

Shannon gave Rory a shove, making him stumble a bit. Rory shot him a dirty look.

Leofu saw that his chances were slim. "Aye, I killed the strumpet. I knew she was lying with this.. woodcutter. And no doubt was with child by him. What else would any man here do?"

Although many masculine voices appeared to agree, the sheriff waved his hand and guards rushed forward to take Leofu's sword and then to bind him. Sunshine, newly released from her own bonds, ran to her grandfather and embraced him. The two then came to where Rory was standing in his ancient armor with Shannon.

The old man embraced Rory and kissed him on the cheek. Rory blushed. Then the woman who was the double of Queen Josephine was before him. He knelt before her and took the favor she had given him and held it out to her. "Nay, sir knight, take it with thee and think on the goodness that made thee fight for an unknown woman."

He took her hand and kissed it. She took both of his and urged him to stand. She leaned forward and on tiptoe to plant a sound kiss on his lips. This time everything in him knew that fair as she was, this was not his beloved lady. She said, "Find love, good sir. Do not let it pass thee by."

He nodded, and he and Shannon watched as the old man and the woman walked away, their arms about each other.

Shannon smirked, "Find love, but not with her, I see."

Rory shrugged.

Shannon remarked, "Sure and I am going to miss that armor."

Rory shoved him back and said, "Let's be after getting' the hell out of this town. I should not like to have to trust that sheriff."

Shannon doffed his cap and bowed elaborately, "After ye, sir knight."

Next: Shannon's and Rory's Journey Contiues

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About the author

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