Mildþryð had forced herself to trust Wigmar and focus on her own tasks. But she still found herself staring off to the east – even when ‘east’ was just one of the walls of the keep.
Finally, a messenger arrived. Wigmar had won and would return with prisoners as soon as he could.
Sadly, the needs of tending prisoners had become… routine. Though based on Wigmar’s report, this time they would have more prisoners than ever before. As well as more dead.
She sent to the priest to tend to the dead and bereaved, then gave orders to clear the old barracks room to house the prisoners. There simply wasn’t room for all of them in the dungeon.
They were running low on both bandages and medicine. She thought they had enough to serve today. But what of the next time? And the time after that?
She needed a way to end this. Soon.
When they arrived, she was shocked to see that the prisoners walked and rode unbound. Had Wigmar accepted their parole? That was…
She shook off her surprise. There was work to do. She ordered the leader taken to her solar and the hale prisoners to the old barracks. Then set to organizing care of the wounded. Dark take it, she needed to be dealing with the leader, but the wounded couldn't wait. It wasn’t that she didn’t want a husband to take half this burden from her. But…
Pushing the familiar thoughts aside, she grabbed needle and thread and started stitching wounds.
It seemed hours later, though the sun was still high in the sky, when the last wounds had been tended and Milthreth could finally go to her solar. Exhaustion ate at her, but she wasn’t done for the day. Far from it.
Wigmar was waiting outside the door, a sign of trust she would never have expected to see him give a Norne after what some of their last… visitors had attempted. She raised her eyebrows and Wigmar shrugged and nodded. Mildþryð pursed her lips and nodded back.
So… Wigmar thought well of this one. That was… promising.
Wigmar opened the door and bowed her into the solar, unusually formal in from the stranger.
“Lady Mildþryð,” he said, “here is Ælfwine Swiđhun, son of William the Black.”
The stranger stood as the door opened and met her gaze boldly, bowing slightly as he was named. He was pale, in the Nornish way, even his long hair and beard were pale, the color of straw left to dry in the sun. A cut across his temple had been cleaned and scabbed over, giving him a rakish look.
“So, Ælfwine Swiđhun.” She did not return his bow – she thought she might fall over if she tried. Instead she swept across the room and took a seat in front of the western windows. She could see him clearly, but her face was in shadow. “I would ask what brings you here, but I suspect I already know.”
He nodded. “For a landless younger son, the Conqueror’s edict against you is the chance of a life time, Lady Mildþryð. I regret losing, but I can’t regret trying. And...” his eyes swept over her, then returned to her face. “...the man who does win you should count himself very lucky.” He shook his head. “I haven’t been that neatly trapped since I took my dubbing.”
Mildþryð chose to ignore the flattery.
“And who will pay your ransom?”
He looked away. “No one, Lady Mildþryð.” He looked at her again, grey eyes strangely dark. “My Lord Father will disown me when he learns I was captured by a woman and no one else of my family has money for a ransom.
“Whatever you choose to do with me, lady, you will get no more than what I carry on me.”
Ælfwine was, of a blessing, allowed to speak with his retainers briefly. Their wounds, for a wonder, had been tended to, and they were locked in a barracks-like room. He could offer them little hope, but told them not to give in despair. Then he was led, courteously, to a small cell. He was locked in, with nothing to do but wait. Food came, sometime later. Little more than a round of bread and some wine near to vinegar. He ate it slowly, not knowing when more would come.
Following his own advice was difficult. The sensible thing for the lady to do would be to kill him. With no ransom to be gotten, keeping him prisoner was a useless expense. But his body could be useful, as a warning to others.
So far, Lady Mildþryð had been sensible beyond any woman of his experience. He could only hope that in this she would prove to be woman-soft.
He was fed twice more before the door opened fully and a guard told him to come out.
The guard led him up a winding staircase to a walkway wrapped around a low tower. Lady Mildþryð waited for him there, looking out across the valley.
He bowed briefly. “Lady.”
She said nothing and after moment he stepped over to the low wall next to her. Leather creaked as the guard behind him shifted, but didn't stop him.
When she spoke, it was in a low voice he had to strain to hear over the winds.
“Tell me, Sir Ælfwine, If you came here and found the bodies of my prior 'suitors' hanging from the walls, would you have turned around and gone home?”
He kept his face blank and thought quickly. The truth would likely insult her and might be seen as self serving. But lying could be laying the path for his own death. With no way of knowing what she sought, he went with simple truth. “No, lady. I would have thought them fools to be bested by a woman and that the reward would be worth the risk.”
“Are you, then, a fool?”
He nodded, “Aye, lady. I underestimated you because of your gender.”
When she said nothing further he asked, “Would you, of your mercy, tell me the reward for my folly?” He tried to keep his tone relaxed, but could clearly hear the strain under it.
“I have not decided.”
Strange how hope and fear could grow so close together.
“You obviously know the conqueror’s edict against me. In my place, what would you do?”
He glanced at her, unable to help himself. She still looked out across the valley, with a serenity he could only envy. What a strange thought to have. What a strange thing to ask a prisoner who had sought to force himself on her.
She was a woman. But a woman who had managed her lands capably for several years, and who had bested several men in battle. Who was being required to wed one of her people's enemies. Why wouldn't she wish to refuse any marriage and retain her own power?
“You cannot stand against the king, lady,” he said, feeling his way as he spoke. “He contents himself with having landless younger sons harass you now, but sooner or later if you do not wed he will bring his full might against you. The other Anglish lords will stand aside, they are lucky to hold onto as much of their land and rights as they have.”
“In your place, lady, I would actively seek a husband. One weak willed enough I could bend him to my will and retain power in my own home, but of high enough rank among Nornish nobility to satisfy the king that his word was obeyed.”
Now she turned to look at him.
“Then you are a fool. A weak husband could not stand against the conquerer or rival lords. He would fritter away my land and destroy my home, leaving nothing of my heritage to pass on to my children.”
“If you were willing to bow to a lord and be rule by him, you would already have done so, lady. You risk your people and lands everyday you don’t. I allowed your serfs and peasants to escape my raids. Others will simply slaughter them so there are none to tend the fields that fill your storehouse, trusting the king’s reward for bringing you to heel to keep them fed over the winter.”
She signaled the guards and they came to escort him back to the darkness of his cell.
He knew nothing further of what to expect, but he had learned a great deal of Lady Mildþryð. He wished even more now that he had been able to conqueror her. What a fascinating woman.