The Wolf and the DoveBy: Kathleen E. Woodiwis
Among the Normans it was only Ragnor de Marte who felt unease with his surroundings as they rode across the field, past the peasant’s huts, toward the gray stone manor where the lord dwelled. As they drew up before the hall he gazed about him. There were no stirrings in or about the outbuildings and to all appearances the place seemed forsaken. The main entrance, an iron-bound door of hard oak, was drawn closed against them. No light from within illuminated the oiled and thinly scraped skins that were stretched tight over the lower windows of the hall, and the torches mounted in iron sheathes on either side of the door had not been lit to ward off the darkness of the approaching night. All was still within, yet as the young herald called out, the heavy door was slowly drawn open. An old man, white of hair and beard, tall and robust of frame, emerged, holding an unsheathed battle sword in his hand. He closed the door behind him and Ragnor caught the sound of a bolt dropping into place behind it, then the Saxon turned to consider the intruders. He stood quietly, guardedly, as the herald approached unrolling a parchment. Confident in his mission, the young man halted before the elder and began to read.
“Hear ye, Erland, Lord of Darkenwald. William, Duke of Normandy, claims England his by sovereign right—”
The herald read in English the words Ragnor had prepared in French. The dark knight had thrown aside the parchment given him by Sir Wulfgar, a bastard of Norman blood, for to Ragnor’s mind it was more a demeaning plea than a rightful demand for surrender. What were these Saxons but ignominous heathens, whose arrogant resistance warranted crushing without mercy? Yet Wulfgar would deal with them as honorable men. They had been beaten, Ragnor thought, now let them be shown their masters.
But Ragnor grew uneasy as he watched the reddening face of the old man while the words continued to descend, calling for every man, woman and child to be brought out into the square and be branded with the mark of slave upon their brow and for the lord to give himself and his family over as hostages against the good behavior of the people.
Ragnor shifted in his saddle, glancing nervously around. There was the cackle of a hen which should have been roosting and the cooing of a dove in the cote. A slight movement drew his attention toward an upper wing of the manor where the outer shutter of a window had been pushed open the barest degree. He could not see into the darkness behind those rough wooden planks yet he sensed someone there, watching him. Growing cautious, he flung his red wool mantle back over his shoulder, freeing his sword arm and the hilt of his weapon.
He gazed again at the proud old man and somehow glimpsed his own father in his manner—tough, arrogant, not willing to give a rod unless a furlong had been won. A sense of hatred swelled anew within Ragnor’s breast and his dark eyes narrowed as he viewed the man with a loathing stirred by the comparison. The old Saxon’s face darkened even more as the herald read on with the outrageous demands.
Suddenly a chill breeze stirred against Ragnor’s cheek and set the gonfalon above their heads flapping as if it were sounding a death warning. His cousin Vachel muttered low behind him, now beginning to feel the tenseness that made Ragnor’s sweat start beneath the leather tunic he wore under his glistening mail. His palms were moist in his gauntlets as he moved his hand to rest upon the hilt of his sword.
Suddenly the old lord let out an enraged bellow and swung his sword with demonic fury. The herald’s head toppled to the ground before his body slowly crumpled across it. Confusion delayed reprisal for a split moment of time as serfs armed with haying forks, scythes, and crude weapons swarmed from hiding. Sir Ragnor shouted an order to his men and cursed himself for allowing them to be taken by surprise. He spurred his destry forward as the peasants leapt at him, their hands reaching upward to claw him from his saddle. He hacked right and left with his sword, splitting skulls, severing hands from outstretched arms. He saw Lord Erland fighting before him, taking three Norman soldiers at once, and the impression passed him that Harold might still be king if he had had this old man by his side. Ragnor urged his mount through the mass of men, his target the lord of Darkenwald, for he saw him now in a reddish haze that would only ebb when he felt that ancient body sinking beneath his sword. The peasants tried to drag him down, sensing his intent and only bloodied the turf with their efforts. They fought gallantly to save their lord, only to lose life themselves. They were no match for men trained to war. The mighty destry plodded over fallen bodies until at last he was urged on no more. Lord Erland looked at the uplifted sword and his death came swiftly as de Marte buried it deep within his skull. Seeing that their lord had fallen, the serfs broke and ran, and the din of battle yielded to the wails of women, the cries of children, and the heavy thudding of a tree trunk ramming against the door of Darkenwald in an effort to break the barrier behind.
From where she sat at Ragnor’s feet, Aislinn watched her mother’s form anxiously for any sign of stirring and felt some relief when Maida finally moved. A soft groan was heard, and the woman managed to raise herself to an elbow. She stared dumbly around her, still befuddled by her beating. The one who had levied the blows came to her again.