Mildþryð remained on the tower walk for some time after the prisoner – Ælfwine – had been led away. He was, if she read him right, not afraid to die. Some part of him even expected it. It was the uncertainty that added strain to his voice. He, like most warriors, would not do well not knowing.
They had no concept of what it was like to live as a woman in their world, knowing every day that your life might change in an instant on the whim of the man who held power over you. Was it any wonder so many of her peers retreated into mindless obsession with fashion and social status? That they closed their eyes and ears to all but their bower and the management of their household? The uncertainty, the powerlessness, if you let yourself think about it, could grind you into nothing.
Mildþryð cursed her father. If he had only done his duty and arranged a marriage for her she would not be in this position. But he was proud and would not see her wed to any of their new, Nornish neighbors.
Yet how could she blame him, when she was just as unwilling now to wed those same neighbors? Nornish men who saw her as little more than a broodmare.
Until the day her father died, he had hoped for a son from one of his mistresses he could bring forward to hold the land after him.
Well, he had no sons. And Mildþryð had no husband, neither strong willed to hold the land nor weak willed to be ruled by her.
And the Nornish conqueror, damn him to the Great Darkness between the stars, would not allow a mere woman to rule lands in her own right.
The last of the smoke from yesterday's fires had finally dwindled to nothing. She could see in the dwindling light the serfs picking their way through the burnt fields, looking for any hidden remnants of fire.
They would till the field, plowing the ash and char under, and the field would yield even more next year thanks to this year’s destruction.
But if they were to see that growth, they would need to survive until next year.
Wigmar returned and came to stand beside her.
“Are you thinking what I think you are, my lady?”
“You could do worse, if you don't mind my saying so. Truth, given your options it might be hard to do better.”
“Aye.” She sighed. “Speak to the fighters for me, Wigmar. Especially Gwen and Helen.”
“No worries there, lady. Gwen and Helen know what's coming as well as you do. And a lord who can respect your defeating him will treat them a sight better than one who calls you a demon for daring to be better than him.”
“Aye that.” She sighed again. “Speak with them anyway, please. Make sure they know that whatever comes, I will see them taken care of.”
“Of course, my lady.”
“Tomorrow, I will speak with one of his knights. In the chapel.”
“I will see to it.”
Mildþryð knelt before the altar and recited the ancient litany of the Ancestors. Her mother had never grown used to Anglish worship in a closed room away from the sky, but in this Mildþryð was her father's daughter. The night sky always filled her with wonder and awe, seeing the stars from which the Ancestors had travelled and to which her people would one day return.
But prayer was for quiet spaces, unadorned rooms. A single candle for focus. Just as the sun had been a focus for the Ancestors on their great journey.
She didn't know how long she was there when the door to the chapel opened. “Lady Mildþryð,” Wigmar said, “Here is Sir John of Wiltshire, as you requested.”
Mildþryð did not turn, but gestured for the knight to join her.
After a moment, he came forward and knelt near by. She could hear his whispered prayer.
In the candlelight she could see only the vague outline of his face. Bearded but with hair cut unusually short.
“Sir Ælfwine has none to pay his ransom. Is there any who would ransom you or your fellows, Sir John?”
A hissed breath, then, “No, Lady Mildþryð. Had Sir Ælfwine escaped your trap he would have sought to ransom me, but there are no others. Sir Damien and Sir Hereweald likewise. The men-at-arms, I cannot say.”
“I dislike waste, Sir John, and I have need of defense, as you well know. Would you take service with me?”
Cloth on stone, as if he shifted in place. “No, Lady. While he is loyal to me, I will not betray Sir Ælfwine.”
“And if he were no longer alive?”
He roared and backhanded her, jumping to his feet. She rolled away from him and found her own feet. By the time she stood, Wigmar had the knight down again, with a blade at his throat.
“Anglish bitch,” he hissed.
She crouched down next to him, careful to stay out of Wigmar's way. “That's 'Lady Bitch,' Sir John. And you had best remember it if you want to live to see you leader again.” She nodded to Wigmar, “Take him away. I learned what I needed.”
Wigmar got the night on his feet and started towards the door. “And Wigmar, unless he tries to get away from you, all his blood best be in his body when you return him to the barracks.”
“Aye lady,” Wigmar growled, “Your lady mother would have let me string him up and use him for target practice, though.”
She let the impertenence pass. Mainly because her lips had swollen enough that talking was becoming painful. Her left cheek, also, was sore and tender to the touch. Lucky, he had missed her eye.
She was Anglish enough to understand that sometimes a diplomatic response was required. She was Dragma enough to take pleasure in the fact that Sir John would be sporting more and worse bruises before he reached the barracks.