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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Juliana Series: An Irishman in Calais, Part I(outtakes)

Shannon O'Neill hopped out of the little boat into the shallow water. He was wet through with the rain and the stormy sea, so being up to his knees in Calais harbor was no discomfort. He raised a hand in thanks to the mates on the boat and slung his knapsack over his shoulder. He stood for a moment looking to the town and then slogged through the incoming waves to the shore. When he got to the sand, he knelt and kissed it. "Saints be praised, terra firma again," he smiled.

With an appraising look up and down the waterfront, the minstrel, always at ease in strange lands, picked a likely person to approach. A young woman was leaning over a net full of Channel sole pulling them out by the gills and tossing them one at a time into a wheelbarrow. He knew plenty of French, most of it rather high toned and learned from tales of knights and ladies, but he knew that music was the universal language. He opened his sack and pulled out his lute. Sitting on a driftwood stump, he propped one foot on the knee of the other leg, put his arms around the lute and began to sing.

The woman's head instantly whipped around. She considered him as she listened to his sweet and melodious voice. The words were in French, a sad love song, and her eyes grew and began to soften. She left the stinking net and came over to stand not far away and listen. Shannon's voice always had that affect on women.

His song at an end, he put down his lute and winked at the woman. "Venez ici, ma belle. Qu'est-ce que vous appelez vous?" If she was entranced by his singing, she was enthralled by his accent. And in a turned up nose elfin way he was good looking too. She drifted closer. He beckoned and she came up to him. He put an easy arm around her waist. She started to resist, but gave way as she gazed into limpid blue eyes.

"Je m'appelle Marie-Jeanne, " she said under lowered eyelashes.

Shannon continued in French, "Marie-Jeanne, what a beautiful name for a beautiful damsel." He reached to her, took her hand and kissed it. "Shannon O'Neill at your service." He inclined his head to her in a gracious gesture.

She just stood, open mouthed and stared. He pulled her onto his lap and played with the hair that clung curled on the damp cheek. "I should like to ask you a question, beautiful Marie-Jeanne." He started to nuzzle her neck a little.

Marie-Jeanne sighed and shuddered a bit, but then looked around. "Oh, please sir" she pleaded in French of a somewhat lower caste than he had used. "My neighbors will be looking."

Shannon smiled and kissed her quickly and lightly on the lips. "Then tell me quickly, has a Breton knight and a great lady been here in Calais recently?"

"Mais oui," she answered, standing and smoothing down her skirts. "They are still here. The knight killed a man who was breaking into their rooms at the inn. The lady ran to the church for sanctuary. It was the very talk of the town."

Shannon was amazed at how quickly he had found the Queen and Elerde. He pursued his subject. "Wait, wait, fair one. What of a very tall and broad man who may have been wearing a monk's garb? He may have been working on a pirate ship."

"Oh, but sir, that was he who broke into their rooms! The knight did kill him before he could ravish the lady!" The young woman,, looking up at the windows of the upper stories of the rickety houses along the water rushed over to her net and diligently continued to toss fish into the wheelbarrow.

Shannon, who normally would have pursued the relationship as long as he could, sat stunned on the driftwood. Bo, dead? It could not be. The Duke's agent, a strange and wonderful man from a mysterious place, had befriended Shannon and then his friend Rory. He knew well that the man had saved the Queen from kidnapping or possibly worse at the hands of pirates and what's more, made Rory laugh and smile as he had not in a long, long time. The O'Neill bowed his head and the tears streamed down his cheeks. He picked up the lute again and strummed a few bars of a tune Bo had taught him. "Brave, good man, a darlin' man. Elerde will pay." He looked about and said aloud in English, "I need a drink. The Queen will be safe in the church for now."

By the time night fell Shannon was leading songs in an impromptu wake for his "dear dear brother Bo" with most of the customers in a small tavern. He toasted Bo over and over, and had almost everyone in the company bawling out sad songs and weeping. He played the song he had written with Bo for them, and also the original Gaelic and translated English versions of the Ballad of Rory McGuinness". He might not know it wherever he was, but Bo had a right good send off. Shannon made sure he offered the famous Irish prayer for Bo, "May ye be half an hour in heaven before the Devil knows ye'r dead!"

The minstrel finally stumbled out into the street. He staggered in no particular direction. Drunk as he was, he knew there was someone in the village who would recognize him and probably kill him if he ran into him, so he tried to stay along the side of the street in the shadow to avoid the Breton bastard until he could sober up enough to formulate a plan. He crawled into a cart of seaweed when he came upon it, pulling some of the noisome plants over him and fell asleep.

Just days before the Queen of Christenlande had seen the Breton with whom she had eloped thrust his sword into a man she knew was sent to help her, then with her screams in his ears, turn the blade cruelly, causing the big man to collapse, dead, on their chamber floor. She had stood in shock looking at Elerde as though she was looking at a creature of the most villainous purpose. The man himself, breathing hard from the exertion but also the exhilaration of the kill, looked around and up into his lady's face. One glance and he knew all his presentiments had been right. It was over. He had had her for not even one month. No matter what else Josephine chose to do in her life, it would not be with him.

"Elerde, how could you?!" she said when she could find her voice again. He just stood before her with his eyes on the floor, his shoulders slumped and his sword and dagger loose in his grip. He said nothing. "I know thee not, sir, " Josephine now spat. "I thought thee a man of honor, a brave and daring knight. "I see thee are a brigand, a murderer like thy friends the pirates."

Elerde desperately ventured, "My love," but Josephine stopped him.

"Thou art not my love, thou knave. And thou ne'er shalt be again." The words pierced his heart and twisted as surely as his sword had done in Lorin's agent's body lying crumpled on the floor at his feet. Josephine shouted, "Help! Guards!"

There were no men at arms, but several men rushed up from the tavern, including the innkeeper. Before Josephine could speak, Elerde barked orders that she should be taken away to some place of safety. She was hurried away so quickly all she could do was sputter and protest. Elerde wanted her out of the room so he could cover his deed without her contradicting what he said. But as she was propelled out of the room and down the hall, his eyes followed her form with a melancholy that laced his soul. He thought to himself, "Goodbye, my dearest love."

To the men who crowded around the body on the floor he explained that the big man had broken in to the room to kill the Queen. He was one of a number of assassins sent by the lady's husband, the King, to get her out of the way so he could take a new wife. He had wanted her taken to sanctuary to protect her from other assassins who might take advantage of his occasional absence from their rooms and carry through with their plan. The men, satisfied with this explanation from a man clearly as distinguished as the knight, gathered up and bore the body of the huge man down the stairs and out into the streets to a destination Elerde knew not where and did not care. He sent away the maidservant who was trying to clean the blood and fell into a chair. There he stayed with the metallic tang of blood in his nostrils.

Josephine had been quickly ushered to the little church where Elerde had taken his horse to be cared for while he searched for her in Britain. The old priest made much of the high born guest and gave her his chamber, a cell really, to use as her own. When he had brought simple cheese and bread and a robust wine to her, he left her alone. She sat on the small bed and wept, her face in her hands.

Just days ago she had been prepared to spend her life with Elerde in Brittany. Now she could not bear the thought of the man. Whatever he had stirred in her emotions all these years and in her body over these past weeks she could not think of him now without seeing the man he had murdered crumpled, dead on the floor. She tried in vain to equate the man who had sighed with such peace and joy as she felt him release himself in her with the one who could lie to her, manipulate her fear and longing, then batter gentle Rory and kill and unarmed protector. She searched but could not find any sympathy even for the loss she knew now that he was suffering. Only her hate for him now could obscure the guilt she felt for being the ultimate reason these good men had suffered.

Josephine knew only one other thing, and that was that she wanted to return to Lawrencium, to her children and, if he would have her, her lord husband the King. How she might do this she was unsure. The tiny port of Calais was not a safe place for someone such as she to find passage across the Channel. She did have one small piece of happy tidings, however. As she carefully washed herself from a small basin in the morning, she found the cloth she used came away stained with her blood. She was not with child.

Shannon woke smelling of seaweed and ale. He could not quite identify where he was at first and what the stinking mass was that wriggled and slapped him as he struggled to extricate himself. Once standing on the muddy street next to the cart, he did his best to wipe himself clean. He headed for an alley to piss, then to a tavern to put something in his churning but empty stomach. There he was able to persuade a drunken sailor to swap clothes, and Shannon set out for the church to find the Queen.

As the O'Neill skirted the more bustling streets, he kept a watchful eye for the Breton knight. He finally turned a sharp corner and could see the modest church that sat at the end of the road. He quickened his pace with his object clearly now in view. As he passed the churchyard gate, a figure stepped from its canopy of vining leaves and put its arm around his neck from behind. A familiar voice breathed menacingly, "O'Neill... of all I might have been surprised had spine enough to follow us, thou wert the last I shouldst have expected to see."

Loathing flooded through Shannon, an emotion usually quite foreign to him. He tried to struggle free but the arm simply tightened, choking off easy access to air. "Elerde, you fuckin' bastard. sure and I will kill ye."

The smooth accented voice had an acid smile in it, "And how shall thou accomplish this with thy windpipe crushed? What shall it be, minstrel.. thy calm or thy voice?"

Shannon struggled for some moments more but then subsided, seething. Elerde released him with a shove forward with his boot in the O'Neill's back. Shannon swung around to find himself facing a drawn sword. Elerde's face was haggard but his eyes were steely. He dared Shannon to come forward. "I no longer care if the lady's precious minstrels live or die. Nay, let me change that. I care.. I want thee both dead."

The Irishman was beside himself with a spitting, shaking rage, but he knew he was powerless. He stood and waited for the Breton to run his sword through his middle and have done with it. His only regrets were leaving Rory in greater grief than he would already be and not having been able to rescue Josephine. He snarled, "Elerde, the murderer. Add me to ye'r list of dishonorable deeds and be quick about it."

His fury was so great the man before him was bathed in a scarlet light. He did not see the combination of sorrow and cunning that touched the knight's thin lips. "Nay, man, O'Neill. I need thee for a task I myself cannot undertake." He sheathed his sword but kept his eyes on the minstrel. He interrupted Shannon's contemptuous riposte about never doing what such a scoundrel would ask of him. Instead he came close to Shannon, grasped the front of the shirt he was wearing, and pulled his face close too his own. He said in Shannon's face, "Take her home."

He released the O'Neill with a shove back. Then he reached in and took one of the last little pouches of gold he had brought from Brittany and handed it to him. "Take this, book passage. I had no way to do this without someone to care for her. Now thou art here. Take her home."

Shannon drew back from the proffered purse as if offered a live coal. Elerde laughed sickly. "I care not for thy conveniently delicate sensibilities." He threw the purse on the ground. "I care not how thou finds a way, but take her home." He spat on the ground near the purse, turned on his heels and strode away.

Shannon stood and stared at the knight's retreating back, then down to the purse. Reluctantly he bent and took it. It felt like something cursed in his hand, but the Queen would need passage. He had brought gold put into his hand by Duke Lorin, but just in case, he shoved the purse in his shirt and turned to the door of the church rectory.

"My lady," the voice of the priest came through the door of the cell where Josephine sat still trying to work out what she could do to return home. She had asked the old priest to make inquiries for her, but what offers she had had she was unable to judge. She was considering sending a messenger to her brother if she could not find any faster solution on her own.

"My lady, thou hast a visitor."

The Queen started. "Pray, who is it? I shall not see the knight."

"Nay, Madame, it is an Irishman. O'Neill."

She flew to her feet and to the door. As it opened towards her the familiar figure of Shannon stood and smiled his impish smile at her. A look of love and gratitude was in his eyes. "My lady, at last. Sure and I have come to take ye home, if ye will go."

She threw her arms around the man and laughed and cried. "Oh aye, I will go."

To Be Continued

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About the author

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