The Wolf and the DoveBy: Kathleen E. Woodiwis
His cousin, Vachel de Comte, stepped toward the girl, intent upon seizing her for his own. But instead he encountered Maida who threw herself into his path seeking to stay him from her daughter. He tried to push the older woman aside but her clawing fingers found his short knife and she would have snatched it from its sheath but he felt the grasp, and swinging his heavy-gauntleted fist, laid her flat. With a cry, Aislinn had fallen to her mother’s side and before Vachel could claim her, Ragnor moved between and yanked away her snood, spilling free a shining mass of coppery hair. The Norman knight twisted his hand in it and drew her struggling to her feet. He dragged her behind him to a chair and threw her into it, tying her wrists and ankles to the heavy wooden structure so that she could interfere no more. Maida was dragged, still stunned, and lashed securely at her daughter’s feet. Then the two knights joined their men in the sacking of the town.
Now the girl sat at his feet, defeated and near the gray hinterlands of death. Still, she mouthed no pleas or words for clemency. Ragnor knew a moment of uncertainity as he recognized that she possessed a strength of will few men had.
But Ragnor had no inkling of the battle that raged within Aislinn in her effort to quell her trembling and present a proud mien as she watched her mother. Maida served the invaders with feet hobbled together to prevent her from taking a full step. A length of rope trailed from the bindings and the men seemed wont to step upon the tail. Their guffaws rose loudly when Maida fell upon the floor, and with each fall Aislinn blanched, better able to take the punishment herself than watch her mother suffer. If Maida bore a tray of food and drink and fell crashing with her burden, the merriment was doubled and before she could scramble up, she fetched a kick or two for her clumsiness.
Then Aislinn’s fears pricked her anew and she was held breathless as Maida stumbled against a thick-faced soldier, wetting him with a pitcher of ale. The man seized Maida by the arm, his large, hamlike hand easily encircling its thinness, and forced the woman to her knees, where with a thrust of his foot he booted her away. A small bag tumbled from her sash as she fell, but Maida quickly rose beneath the Norman’s curses and snatched it up again. She would have returned it to its place, but with a shout the drunken soldier caught her hand and tore the bag from her grasp. When Maida reached out to grab it back, her insolence aroused the man’s ire. He clubbed his fist against her head, sending her spinning, and Aislinn started forward, a snarl upon her fair lips and feral gleam in her eye. But the blow only seemed to amuse the man. The treasure forgotten for the moment, he followed and swung again at the staggering woman, then catching her shoulder, began to beat her in earnest.
With a wrathful shriek, Aislinn came to her feet but Ragnor pulled hard on the rope, sending her sprawling into the reeds and dust. When she could draw a breath again from her bruised throat, her mother lay senseless and unmoving while her assailant stood above her, waving the small sack in triumph and howling his glee. Impatiently the man tore it open to see what prize it might hold, then finding it contained nothing more than a few dried leaves, scattered the contents with a vicious curse. He flung away the empty pouch and delivered a hearty kick to the limp form at his feet. With a dry agonizing sob, Aislinn threw her hands over her ears and closed her eyes tightly, unable to bear the sight of her mother so abused.
“Enough!” Ragnor roared, relenting at last as he saw Alslinn cringe. “If the hag lives, she will yet serve us.”
Aislinn braced her hands on the floor and glared at her captive through dark violet eyes smoldering with hatred. Her long coppery hair fell in wild disarray about her shoulders and heaving bosom, and the sight of her was like an untamed she-wolf meeting her foe. Yet she remembered the dripping red sword that Ragnor had held as he came into the hall and saw in her mind the fresh blood of her father spattered on his shining mail hauberk. She fought the panic that threatened to rob her of her last strength as well as the grief and self-pity that would have brought her to submission. She swallowed back a rush of tears at the emotions experienced for the first time in her life and for the deep, tormenting knowledge that her father lay dead upon the cold earth, unblessed and unshriven, and that she was helpless to remedy it. Was mercy so lacking in these men of Normandy that even now, when their battle was won, they could not fetch a priest and see to the proper burial of the defeated?
Ragnor gazed down at the girl where she sat, her eyes closed and her lips parted and trembling. He could not see the battle that shredded her resistance. Had he stood then, he might have won his desire to see her crushed in fear before him, but his mind wandered to the base-born knight who would claim all of this surrounding him.
Before dusk they had come, galloping boldly up to the hall in the manner befitting conquerors, to demand the surrender of the town. Darkenwald found itself unprepared for this foe. After William’s bloody victory over King Harold at Senlac a fortnight before, word spread that the Norman Duke marched toward Canterbury with his army, having lost patience with the English, as they, although defeated, refused him the crown. Relief had swelled the spirits of Darkenwald, for his direction was away from them. But they had not accounted for the small forces that had been thrown out to seize or harass the settlements along William’s flanks. Thus it was that the lookout’s shout of Normans approaching had deadened the hearts of many. Erland, even though greatly loyal to the late king, had known the vulnerability of his holdings and had meant to yield the day had not his wrath been provoked beyond endurance.