The leather-covered fingers dug into my hair at the scalp. They massaged with a fierce urgency. So it was vermin. My head was locked in the man’s forceful grip. I could not turn, but I managed the barest sideways glance. It revealed the split-faced raider, the one who had wielded his blade at me. He leered from only an arm’s length away. His fingers massaged my hair with obscene strokes. Panicked, I shrank back. My stomach churned. The warrior’s lascivious grip closed on the hapless yellow strands; I could retreat no further.

“Adéle!” John reached for me.

The brute knocked John’s squat little form solidly into Irvin with one mighty, backhanded blow. Freed of further impediment, he grabbed my arms with both hands. I yelped and squirmed.

He tightened his indecent grasp. How could I fight him? Thick rags and impenetrable mail covered his body. I could bite nowhere except his face. God help me. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed agile Brother Irvin, who shifted in his monk’s habit, gathering his muscles to leap.

But Irvin never had the chance. A mighty blow to the ear propelled my assailant towards the ladder, and he crashed headfirst into the worn planks. Splinters snapped in unsympathetic harmony with his surprised gasp. Wooden slivers haphazardly pierced his temple. His own blood now spoiled his tunic.

My gaze turned to my rescuer, and I stared in disbelief. It was their red-haired leader. He gripped our letters and pouch in one hand and glared down at my erstwhile attacker.

Red Hair fired off a flurry of guttural words, which ended when he shoved the downed warrior disdainfully with his foot. This leader turned to regard me briefly, then glanced back at the offender, spat and strode back to his place.

Avoiding my eyes, the split-faced one heaved to his feet. He backed past the roughened ladder before turning in silence to rejoin the others. He shouldered through the mass of shaggy faces, before he blended into them and was gone.

The leader took up our letters once more. A hastily stifled cough escaped the group, though it seemed they now made no other noise. And still the barbarian read. With one letter apparently completed, he dug for another, breaking its seal and seemingly devouring its contents.

He raised his gaze from the pages. Then he uttered a sharp comment to the shaggy, oversized man nearest Ansel.

This craggy Baal grasped Ansel firmly by the cowl and yanked him from his knees. Ansel gasped. The devil shook the monk fiercely, spitting vulgarities into his face. Ansel began choking through the words of the Paternoster. The invaders roared with laughter. I did not understand this. The leader had seemed to intervene for me. I did not understand Ansel’s abuse.

These last days had brimmed with inconceivable terrors. I was now weary of fear. I had fled Fontevraud, my safety waning with the new abbess and her fevered persecution. Once outside the abbey’s gates, I feared a vast world I no longer knew. I had escaped the mob’s towering pyre in Le Mans; they would not suffer a witch to live, they said. And now I quaked with horror at these murdering devils. My God, that fiend’s foul touch. I shuddered. Yes, I was weary of fear, and this day’s terrors were the greatest of all.

So now I watched poor Ansel, shaken bodily by an attacker whom his failing eyes could scarcely see. And I was surprised that icy fear no longer gripped me. Fiery wrath consumed me instead – and I succumbed.

The warriors had not noticed my cherished distaff. The monks had tripped over it earlier  and, oddly wedged beneath the ladder, its metal staff-head bore into my knees. I seized it now and heaved to my feet. Bringing the polished mahogany around before me, I wielded it at Ansel’s coarse tormentor. I scarcely felt John’s insistent tugging at my robes.

“Release him! He’s a man of God. Release him, you pigs!” I spat in Latin, my voice shaking. Was this from fear? From rage? Probably both. The top of my head scarcely reached the man’s shoulder, yet I gripped my distaff like a mighty swordsman wields his blade. Unlike the sword, my distaff shook with the trembling of my hands.

It did not even have a pointed end – the bronze staff-head curled into a blunt tau-cross. Beneath this rested a matted bulk of soggy wool which waited to be spun into thread. My yellow hair, damp from sea air and my earlier sickness, spilled riotously to my hips. I stood in my rich blue robes, so different from my previous attire at Fontevraud.  My rage dissipated. Inwardly I cringed. I must appear absurd, not threatening.

But the barbarians’ eyes widened. Their half-slitted leers of satisfied greed faded. Their faces filled with – what? Disbelief? Wonder? I wondered myself, even as John yanked mercilessly at my hem, pleading, “Adéle! Adéle!” Only the leader – the one with our letters – remained impassive, though our precious pages no longer held his rapt attention. None spoke, and none coughed. So what now?

The Lord must have heard my thoughts. But I could only question His response.

A high-pitched wail, like the plaintive cry of the unforgiven, escaped my lips. Bursts of iridescent light flashed across my eyes. My limbs seized in the familiar but unnatural spasm of a convulsion.

The falling distaff preceded my own crash to the deck. Sharp pain stabbed as my cheek struck wood. My arms and legs jerked uncontrollably.

I fought for breath as bloody froth spewed from my lips. Spittle dribbled down my chin. Disregarding his own safety, John peered over me. He cradled my head and murmured soft prayers. Northmen no longer concerned him; he beseeched the Lord only for me.

I could see the bewildered horde looming beyond the haze of shimmering lights. These men gaped as if astonished by my flailing. Ansel was released, cast aside as an unimportant heap. His tormentor muttered and pointed at me in apparent disbelief. “Volva.”

Several looked to one another, nodding and incredulous.

Volva,” they murmured. Others among them made the Sign of the Cross. The Sign of the Cross, even here. Perhaps the invaders would also seek to burn me. Or maybe they would hack me to death instead.

 My disobedient limbs continued their writhing. I gasped, struggling to breathe through the bloody spittle. My sides heaved. The Northmen’s red-haired leader now peered over John. Their faces blurred.

Father, have mercy! My mind beseeched, for my lips could not.

He did, and the world darkened.

END OF CHAPTER ONE