Authors: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
In times of yore when druids roamed the northern forests of England and held their sabbaths in the dark of the moon, a young man grew enamored with battle and violence and studied the arts of war until none could best him. The young man called himself “The Wolf” and preyed upon the people for his wants. In time his feats came to the ears of the gods on the high mountain between earth and Valhalla. Woden, King of the gods, sent a messenger to destroy the upstart who took tribute from the people and challenged the fates. The two met and drew blades and their battle raged for a fortnight of new moons from the white cliffs of the south to the bleak rocky shores of the north. The warrior was truly great, for even the messenger of Woden could not destroy him, and returned to the mountain to admit his failure. Woden pondered long and deep, for it was written that who could best a messenger of the gods would gain eternal life on earth. Woden laughed, and the heavens above The Wolf trembled. Then the air was
rent with bolts of lightning and peals of thunder, and the youth stood bold with blade drawn.
“So you’ve won eternal life,” Woden roared in mirth. “And you stand before me with your sword ready for battle, but foolishness was never part of valor and I cannot let you ravage here unchecked. You will have your immortality, but you shall wait on Woden’s will to ply your trade.”
And with a mighty gust of laughter he rose and lightning struck the insolent blade. A cloud of smoke rose slowly upward. Where the youth had stood, now glowing red and slowly cooling crouched a great iron wolf, a snarl frozen on his lips.
It is rumored that in a deep valley near the border with Scotland there is a dark glade wherein stands the statue of an iron wolf, brown with rust and twined with creeping vines, moss greening its legs. It is said that only when war rages in the land does the mighty wolf stir and become a warrior—bold, strong, invincible and savage.
And now William’s hordes crossed the channel and Harold rode from the north and war drew near—
October 28, 1066
The clash of battle rang no more. The screams and the moans of the wounded were silenced one by one. The night lay quiet and time seemed suspended. The autumn moon, bloody hued and weary, shone upon the indistinct horizon, and the distant howl of a hunting wolf shivered down the night, locking the eerie silence tighter upon the land. Shreds of fog drifted through the marsh over the split and hewn bodies of the dead. The low wall of earth, weakly buttressed by stones, was covered with the heroic shroud of the town’s butchered manhood. A young boy of no more than twelve summers lay beside his father. The great black bulk of Darkenwald’s hall rose beyond this, the shaft of its single watchtower piercing the sky.
Within the hall Aislinn sat upon the rush-covered floor before the chair from which her father, the late lord of Darkenwald, had ruled his fief. A rough rope was knotted about her slender neck. It bound her by its length to the left wrist of a tall, dark Norman who rested his mail-clad frame upon the rough-hewn symbol of Lord Erland’s status. Ragnor de Marte watched as his men tore the hall apart in a rampaging search for the smallest item of value, climbing the stairs to the bedchambers, slamming heavy doors open in their search, rummaging through coffers, then casting on a cloth spread before him the more worthy trophies. Aislinn recognized her jeweled dagger and gold filigree girdle, torn from her hips only a short time ago, thrown into the pile among the other treasures that had graced her home.
Arguments broke out among the men over some coveted piece, but were quickly silenced when her captor issued a sharp command. Usually the object of the squabble was grudgingly added to the growing heap before him. Ale flowed freely, liberally swilled by the invaders; and meats, breads and whatever else was at hand were devoured upon discovery. This iron-thewed knight of William’s horde who held her tipped his own hollowed bull’s horn and freely sampled the wine that filled it, unconcerned that her father’s blood still darkened the mail on his chest and arms. When nothing else occupied him, the Norman worked the rope, causing the rough strands to brutally test the soft white skin of Aislinn’s throat. Each time the harsh chafing brought a grimace of pain to her features, he chuckled cruelly at having wrung some reaction from her, and his victory seemed to ease his morose mood. Still, to see her cringe and beg for mercy would have far better suited him. Her manner remained alert and watchful
and when she faced him it was with a calm defiance that rankled him. Others would have grovelled at his feet and pleaded for his pity. But this maid—there was something about her which seemed to take a slight advantage from him each time he jerked the tether. He could not fathom the depths of her reserve but determined he would test it well before the night was out.
He had found her with her mother, the Lady Maida, poised in the hall when he and his men crashed through the heavy door, as if the two of them would stand against the whole invading Norman army. His bloody sword ready in his hand, he had paused just inside the door while his men hurried past him to search for others willing to fight for their own, but finding nothing more than these two and the barking, snarling hounds to greet them they lowered their weapons. With a few well placed kicks and blows they subdued the dogs and chained them in a corner then turned to the women who fared no better.
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.
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.