Then a groaning utterance, as if these evildoers wearied of their labors.
I did not understand their coarse tongue, yet their meaning was clear. This horde of men – do I call them men? – advanced. I glimpsed massive bodies cloaked in furs and unkempt beards. Now so close, I saw only as high as their ankles and animal skin boots. These boots neared my face. My gaze traveled higher, past a blood-spattered shirt, to the hideous countenance, so scarred that one cheek seemed nearly split. A raised blade dripped above this leering visage. Our assailants lowered their bright torches an arm’s length from our faces, and I turned sharply from the searing heat.
Lord, though I must die, let me not suffer.
An authoritative voice boomed from the opening above us. “Stodva.”
The devil before me paused and looked up. His sword lowered, though not on my skull. Hands groped us, and I gasped from the liberties taken with my person. We were not the object, though, and the groping ceased. Meaty palms seized our pouches and spilled their contents onto the deck. Our meager turnips, the yellow bark and comfrey, the monks’ knives. John’s dice, Ansel’s beloved Augustinian text. A clattering of metal – our silver.
Mighty cheers greeted this metallic spillage.
Gloved fingers rummaged through one reluctant sack and scattered crumpled parchments across the deck. They had our letters! Unsatisfied grunts greeted that miserable spoil. But a string of guttural words from the deck opening split the air and silenced the wanton dissatisfaction. The owner of that voice, a red-haired warrior, swung easily down the ladder and landed among the raiders.
“Ansel, they –”
“Quiet, Adéle!” Irvin hissed.
Our attackers hoisted their torches higher, the ravenous flames licking at the crossbeams in anticipation. This brighter light revealed the invaders’ shaggy coarseness and the dull glint of mail over crimson-spattered tunics. One of the filth stooped to dodge an inconvenient torch. His damp glove retrieved our missives, leaving dark crimson stains on the virginal parchments.
This warrior said something that sounded like, “Rorik, heer” as he stuffed the letters back into the pouch. He tossed it to the interloper who had twice commanded them – and whom all obeyed.
This red-haired one likewise caught the pouch in an easy, one-handed motion. He flicked a glance in our direction, scrutinizing us with predatory eyes as he rummaged for the contents. He pulled out one letter and studied us as he broke the red seal without shame. His wolf-like gaze flicked downward to the parchment. What value were our letters to this plunderer? Surely he could not read Latin.
The hellish group fell into impatient silence, broken only by a cough and the occasional hacking of spittle across the deck. And still their apparent leader skimmed the parchment.
He was not the stocky, blond coarseness of the others. Instead he was leaner and not as tall. Red-brown hair blazed like hell’s own fire in the flickering torchlight; eerie shadows emphasized high cheekbones and a straight, Norman nose. He was one of the few who did not wear a beard. A pale cloak of heavy furs rested on his shoulders. These seemed to be wolf pelts, stitched together. His bearing was that of easy, lupine command. I wondered briefly if he only wore the wolf fur. Perhaps the hide was his own skin, and he walked on two legs only for our benefit. For certainly he led this pack.
He continued his apparent study of our letters, now leaning against a crate. Not that his manner was careless, but he was clearly unconcerned by any threat. Had the crew all perished? The monks and I knelt under the glittering eyes of his menacing band. Resistance was an impractical futility. And the invaders seemed content enough to await the perusal of the letters.
Or so I thought.
I gradually noticed a soft yet persistent tugging at my hair. I thought perhaps it was snagged upon a beam, and I flicked my hand absently at the offending strands. The tugging stopped. I thought I must have freed them.
But then the pulling resumed, though harder this time. It occurred to me that it might be some of the ship’s vermin, and I shuddered at the thought of razor teeth nibbling ever closer to my head. I swatted determinedly at the unseen offender. But the back of my hand struck no coarse fur, nor the points of scrabbling little toes. Instead it struck something solid – solid like a man’s arm.
And a heavy, gloved paw clapped atop my head.