The Wolf and the DoveBy: Kathleen E. Woodiwis
Like a silent flowing wraith, Aislinn moved before her. With a heave of her slender form she swung wide the scarred door of Darkenwald, then staggered to a halt, half choking at the reeking stench of death. Her gorge rose in her throat and with an effort of sheer will she fought the retching down. She stumbled past the grotesque forms until she came to that of her father. He lay rigid now, his shoulders pressed to the faithful sod, his arms flung wide with his sword grasped in his knotted fist and a snarl of defiance still curling his lips.
A single tear slid over Aislinn’s cheek as she stood silently mourning him. He had died as he lived, with honor and with his own life’s blood quenching the thirst of the soil he loved. She would miss even his rages. What misery, despair! What loneliness, death!
The dame drew up beside her and leaned hard against her, panting heavily in the thickened air. Maida stared down at her slain husband and drew a long rasping breath. Her voice started in a low moan and ended in a raking screech.
“Ah, Erland, ‘tis not fair you should leave us thus with thieves ranging the hall and our own daughter a good night’s toss for yon shaven ass!”
The woman fell to her knees and grasped her dead lord’s hauberk as if to draw him up. Her strength failed and she knelt pleading in despair.
“What will I do? What will I do?”
Aislinn stepped across his frame and pried the sword from his hand. Grasping the once-loving arm, she sought to drag the corpse away to a softer place of rest. Her mother seized the other hand but only to work the great signet ring from the gnarled finger. At Aislinn’s gaze she looked up and whined:
“ ’Tis mine! Part of my dowry! See, my father’s crest.” She waggled the ring in Aislinn’s face. “It goes with me,” her mother pleaded.
A voice rang out, startling them. The old woman jumped, fear twisting her face. She dropped the hand and sped with amazing agility across the littered battlefield to disappear in the brush at the edge of the swamp. Aislinn let her father’s arm sag back to the ground and turned with calm deliberation that surprised even herself to face this unknown threat. Her eyes widened at the sight of the tall warrior astride a great stallion, the likes of which she had never seen before and which bore the man as easily as if he were but a lad. The mighty stallion seemed to pick his way almost daintily among the fallen toward her. Aislinn stood her ground yet felt the strings of terror tug at her as this giant apparition approached, making her markedly aware of her own woman’s frame and her vulnerability. The man’s brow was shadowed by his helm yet from behind the nose guard steel gray eyes seemed to pierce her through. Aislinn’s courage melted before his glare and she swallowed convulsively as the cold hand of fear gripped her.
His shield, portraying a black wolf rampant on red and gold with a bend sinister, hung from his saddle. Aislinn knew by it that he was a bastard. Had it not been for awe and fear inspired by his height and the sheer size of his huge mount, she would have hurled the taunt in his face. As it was she raised her chin in a gesture of helpless defiance and met his eyes, her violet eyes speaking her hatred. His lips curled in contempt. The French words rang clear and a rankling sneer could be heard in the tone.
“Saxon swine! Is nothing safe from your thievery?”
The notes of Aislinn’s voice rang higher but with the same sneer as she replied in kind. “What sayeth thou, sir knight? Cannot our brave Norman invaders see us bury our dead in peace?”
She gestured in mockery to the field of slain.
He snorted distainfully. “By the stench you have dallied too long.”
“I dare say, not long enough one of your companions will say when he wakes and finds me gone,” she spat in return. Despite her will to still them tears brightened her eyes as she returned his glare.
Without moving the man seemed to relax back into his saddle as he studied her more closely. She felt his gaze glide leisurely over her. A sudden breeze molded her woolen gunna to the curves of her body and presented great detail to the observing eye. As his glance traveled upward it paused brazenly upon the full rounded bosom heaving with her anger. Aislinn’s cheeks grew hot and flushed under his slow, careful appraisal. It maddened her that he could make her feel like some nervous milkmaid being considered by her lord.
“Be thankful you had more to offer Sir Ragnor than these,” he growled as he too gestured at the dead.
Aislinn stuttered in rage, but he swung down from his steed and came to stand before her. She fell silent as his hard gaze penetrated her. He removed his helm and held it casually in the crook of his arm while he released the upper catches of his coif and pushed it back from his head until it lay across his shoulders. He smiled leisurely, measuring her again, and his hand went out to lift a soft curl from her breast.
“Yea, be glad you had more to offer, damoiselle.”
“They gave the best they had. Would that I could have taken a blade and given as much.”
He snorted and half turned away, surveying the carnage in apparent disgust. In spite of her words, Aislinn studied him with detached interest. He stood tall, at least two hands higher than herself though she was not of short stature. His tawny hair was tousled and streaked by the sun, and though the long coat of mail was heavy, he moved with an easy strength and confidence. She surmised that in courtly garb he would draw many a sigh from a maiden’s breast. His eyes were wide set and the brows well arched above them though, when as now he was angered, they drew down and blunted his long, thin nose and lent to his face the intense look of a hunting beast. His mouth was wide, the lips thin yet finely curved. A long scar that ran from his cheekbone to the line of his jaw grew pale and the muscles beneath it worked as he ground his teeth in anger. In a quick movement he turned to face her and Aislinn’s breath fled from shock as she found herself staring into cold gray eyes. His lips drew back from strong, white teeth and a low growl rumbled in his throat. Aislinn was stunned by the wild look of him; it was as if he were a hound on a scent. Nay, more than that. A wolf set to wreak vengeance on an ageless enemy. He whirled from her and with long strides almost ran to the main portal of Darkenwald and disappeared within.