The Wolf's Captive Ch. 01byanais_v©
Making her way back towards the keep, Rowena skirted the length of the field she had just been foraging in. To her mind, this was the best time to be up and about. The beauty of the vibrant forest beyond, the clean, crisp air and dew-wet grass that made up her father's lands somehow made the day ahead seem easier to get through. It was such a contrast to the grubby keep beyond. She sighed in pleasure -- and not a little forlornly -- there was time enough yet for her to linger before the serfs rose and their slumped, weary figures wandered about the place as they carried out their early morning duties. And then the day would truly begin. But she would not allow the misery awaiting her to impede on this moment.
A low mist hung over the earth, swirling over her bare feet as she wandered. There was something almost mythical about the grounds this morning, she mused on a smile -- but a soft, animal mewling sound behind her pushed all thoughts of whimsy away and she stiffened mid-stride.
Rowena turned slowly and glanced warily about the wide, open space and there, crouching low in the fields but a short distance from her was a grey wolf. She gasped and backed away, wondering how it had crept toward her so quietly but it did not appear to be on the brink of attack. Rather, it lowered its body fully to the ground as if to signal it presented no harm and watched her with what she could only describe as doleful eyes. She almost laughed at the thought -- as if wolves were capable of such feelings! The forest abutting the Haverton grounds had long since been a riddled with such beasts but never before had they ventured so close to the keep and never before had they been so breath-taking in their beauty. This one looked larger than any of the others she had spied -- but perhaps that was due in part to its proximity.
'What are you about?' she mused aloud, favouring the seemingly docile creature with a slightly nervous smile. She did not want to encourage its approach but neither did she wish to frighten it away. After a few moments passed in which the wolf lay still and almost contemplative of her, Rowena took as calm a step as she could manage towards it
'You had better be off -- or else father will have you tracked down and slain like the others,' she said sadly. 'It would be such a shame. You are a beautiful beast.'
The wolf's ears seemed to twitch in time with her words and she laughed as he extended one of its front paw's, sliding it along the wet ground towards her as if in appeal.
'You are a strange one,' she mused, awed by the ice-blue magnificence of the eyes assessing her - hopefully not in the guise of summing up his next meal. But did not wolves travel in packs? Perhaps this here was a lone wolf and had approached her for company? She could well understand its reasoning if so.
Rowena knew a strong urge to fondle the wolf and feel his pelt beneath her hands, to see if it was as silky as it looked since most of the wolves and other animals the men brought back to the keep bore filthy, tangled coats. The rising sun, however, stopped any thoughts she may have had of lingering - if she did not return soon her absence would be noted by Edwin and it was with some reluctance that she left but before she turned, she reached a hand into her woven basket and threw a handful of cereal grains in the wolf's direction, rewarding him for his obedience.
'I would rather you gorged yourself on that than on the poor rabbits your kind seem to favour,' she said ruefully and with a nod, dismissed the watchful creature from her mind as thoughts of the day ahead lowered her previously contended mood.
'Where have you been?'
Rowena winced at her brother's curt tone. Even though he no doubt knew the answer, she had learned it was prudent in such situations to remain silent.
'I do not like the thought of you wandering about alone. I shall have that damned rabbit hole you seem to fit through blocked up.'
Rowena smiled at the threat, knowing it to be idle.
'You frown too much, brother -- what will your bride say when she sees how aged the man she is to wed has become?'
Edwin's face softened somewhat at her words, a distant look coming into his pale green eyes. 'She is not a frivolous chit like you -- she loves me regardless of my face and form. The same could not be said about you, however.'
'Do not go on and on about him, please. I will not marry him and that is the end of it.'
Edwin frowned at her and Rowena favoured him with her back, making her way towards the kitchen conscious that he followed close behind, her sensitivity to people's moods picking up the usual gravity that emanated from him.
'When I wed Sylvia and leave this place, who will there to be to look out for you? You know father is...' his voice trailed off and Rowena stopped at the entrance to the kitchens and faced him in irritation. He frowned at her. 'You are being foolish. It is high time you were married,' he advised, reaching out a hand to stay her and she would move away once more.
Sighing, Rowena muttered, 'Perhaps it is - but I do not like Harold. Would you have me marry someone I do not like?'
'He is an upstanding man -- the son of a Baron! And he is most taken with you. It is the best offer you are ever likely to receive,' he pointed out in stiff tones, loath to hurt her feelings but deeming it necessary.
Rowena shook his hand away from her arm and lifted her chin, determined not to let him see the hurt in her eyes. 'He looks at me in a way that makes my skin crawl...and he is thin and scrawny and has teeth like a horse.'
Edwin scoffed in irritation but a bellow from the hall caught his attention and almost in involuntary reaction, his body stiffened as he stood to attention. 'That is father...we will speak about this later. Now go and break your fast and keep your head down today. Father is not in a good mood, by the sound of things.'
Rowena watched her brother's retreating back through blurred eyes. In a sennight he would marry and leave this place and she would be alone. Few of the serfs showed her any respect for they were loyal to her swine of a father and risked his wrath should they show her, his loathed by-blow, any ounce of kindness. She wondered if she would be able to bear such an existence without Edwin's presence and for the briefest of moments considered accepting Harold's proposal but dismissed the idea with a grimace of distaste -- she would rather fester away behind the walls of a convent and never know the touch of a man's hand than willingly become the wife of that lecher. I will never know the touch of a man's hand... as much as it shamed her, she thought this the cruellest of trades.
She supposed she was her mother's daughter through and through, as her father often delighted in screaming at her when he had imbibed in too much ale. If she went to a convent, she would never know if the wet heat that gathered between her thighs when she watched Adam, the blacksmiths son, helping his father in the hot summers, his linen shirt discarded, his taut chest gleaming with sweat, could be appeased by the skilful touch of a masterful man. And since Harold was not that man, she would never know if she accepted his suit. She shuddered as the memory of his hot, fettered breath in her face at their last meeting came to her. She would find another way, she determined. She would not allow her only options in life to be between a life spent in a crumbling abbey and life spent serving that perverted swine of a man. There had to be something more for her, she determined. There just had to.
Male voices, the tones happy and boisterous, approached close and Rowena peeked around the walls of the busy dairy as the serfs around her prepared the milk for the noon meal. Mounted men made their way toward the stables from their morning hunt. The limp body of a wolf was slung over the back of one of the horses. Rowena's heart thudded strongly in dismay.
For the past five mornings, her wolf friend had followed her, seemingly awaiting her presence for she found him in the same spot she had left him the first day. He had followed a good number of paces behind her as she foraged the grounds and checked on the wheat and it had amused her thoroughly. By the fifth morning -- mere hours ago now -- he had waited for her right by her rabbit hole and had finally closed the gap between them, enough to approach her outstretched hand and hungrily eat the grain she offered...before spitting it out. If her brother had seen her boldness, no doubt he would have had a fit - but she trusted the fierce looking creature and knew that if he meant harm, he would have attacked well before now. Now he was dead. Before she could consider the practicality of her actions, the blurred form of the keep and butter moved quickly before her eyes and Rowena was crossing the courtyard and moving in the direction of the male banter, her heart thudding strongly in her chest, her eyes hot.
'What are you doing here?'
Rowena stiffened as her father dismounted but despite herself and her years of suffering under his cruel tongue, her voice shook with anxiety.
'I -- wished to help Baldwin groom the horses.'
Her father snorted in annoyance. 'Stupid runt,' he muttered the preferred epithet for her under his breath, not quite meeting her eyes and strode away towards the hall, his gait slightly clumsy with the beer he had no doubt liberally started his day with. Nothing unusual there.
Moving through the shadowed, wooden structure, Rowena waited until the last of the men departed in the direction of the keep and gasped at the pitiful sight that met her eyes. Thrown carelessly on blood-splattered hay, the wolf's broken body looked somehow pitifully small, its ice-blue eyes wide and unseeing and Rowena knew a deep sense of grief. Why, she reasoned, dashing at her cheeks, should she feel so mournful? It was only a mangy animal after all and one that had defied the rules of its species by being so reckless so as to be hunted and found so easily. A loner, she thought, probably because he was the runt of the pack much like her. That he had been so bold to have approached the walls of the grounds today to meet her should have told her that. She had spoken to it like it was a friend, for goodness sake, when the only reason it had returned had no doubt been to greedily eat the grain and crops on offer after it had detected she represented no threat. How wrong the poor thing had been. How she would miss its strange companionship.
Falling to her knees beside the lifeless body, Rowena allowed her hand to tentatively settle in the grey fur and pulled back jerkily in surprise. The body was still warm. She blinked back tears, knowing she cried for more than just the life of this slain beast. I must act quickly, she thought then. It would not be long before the drunken men returned to gut the beast. She could not bear the thought of the lustrous grey pelt being used within the hall so casually.
Dashing the tears from her face, she searched out the stables for a sack, cloth - anything to wrap the body in - and settled on a discarded gown, no doubt from one of the many female serfs who used the stables as a shelter in which to carry out their lusty liaisons.
Not allowing herself to look at the beautiful eyes, she covered the wolf quickly and decided it best to drag the body than struggle with carrying it. It was a difficult task and time consuming but the lack of order and management in the keep was such that she could and would roam about as she pleased without being caught. She knew of all the best places to hide and did so now, pulling the wolf into a dark area here, a ditch there, when voices approached. When she reached the rabbit hole her brother spoke of -- her escape out of the keep and into to the wide fields beyond -- she stuffed her burden deep in the ditch, deciding it best to wait until the following morning to discard of it. With her fingers, she clawed at the earth around her and threw it over the rough coarse wool of the gown shielding the limp body and continued thus until the brown material was fully covered in dirt. Nobody would find it here. With a final, pitiful look at the covered body, she fled.
Rowena started hard and snuggled further into her pallet, closing her eyes tight in the guise of sleep, fear numbing her body.
'She would never have done such a thing!'
Edwin's voice. Rowena sat up in bemusement, wary of the many eyes of the serfs on her, even in the darkened hall. A callused hand closed over her neck and lifted her bodily from her pallet.
'You will kill her!' Edwin cried, throwing a hard punch at the man's restraining hand.
Rowena's father appeared stunned and looked at his son in bewilderment.
'I am your father!' he roared then. 'I demand respect!'
'You march into the hall as your serfs sleep -- you maul your daughter. You will get respect when you earn it,' Edwin said coldly, staggering as his father cuffed him about the head but though her father was older, broader, heavier, Edwin had the agility of youth on his side and fingered his cheek gingerly, his stare unyielding. He had endured his father's foul temper for years and it had hardened him. He was no longer the boy his father had beaten and it seemed, finally, that his sire recognised that fact.
On a muttered curse, the older man weaved his way through the cowed looking serfs and strode heavily towards the stairs, climbing them loudly as he made his way to his chamber above.
'Come with me,' Edwin whispered, reaching out a hand and guiding her from the avid audience before them.
'Did you do it, Rowena? Did you hide that wolf?'
'I don't know what you mean.'
Edwin cursed. Although the moon was bright above, he could discern nothing from her impassive expression. 'The wolf I killed today on the hunt. When it came to clean and gut it, it was nowhere to be found but the loss was not dwelt on much -- until now, clearly. Why father belatedly assumes it was you I do not know.'
'You killed it-' Rowena shook her head in frustration. She would not give herself away further. But of course, why would Edwin have paid mind to the wolf? The men hunted for both sport and necessity and now that winter approached, their furs would come in handy. Edwin could not have known he was her wolf. Her reasoning, however, did little to appease her anger at the man but the persistent ache at her neck calmed her somewhat. 'You saved me - I thought father would strangle me, kill me,' Rowena whispered, fingering her tender neck. 'He will kill me, Edwin, when you leave.'
'Nay, he will not -- tomorrow I set off for the abbey that is two days' ride from here. I will make plans for your arrival there -- father need not know. It will be too late when he discovers your absence and I will tell the holy women of the need for stealth. Though I doubt he will bother to track you down,' he sneered in disgust.
Rowena sniffed, irritated that she couldn't prevent her treacherous tears from giving her away and gasped in surprise as her elder brother pulled her awkwardly into his arms. 'Hush, now. You will be safe there. Do not ask again if you can come with me. There would be talk about father and I do not want Sylvia to know about this cesspit I hail from -- she met me at court and thinks our father a godly man,' he laughed bitterly. 'And besides - Sylvia would not like it, either.'
'How can you m-marry someone so cruel hearted?' Rowena sniffed into his chest.
'Stop,' Edwin squeezed her arms and held her away from him. 'Do not blame her. I try to do well by you. I will be giving the abbey a sum for you -- it will be good, Rowena, I swear it. You will learn to read and write there. You can grow to have a good, meaningful life if you work hard,' he sighed heavily and gave her a pat on the elbow. 'Now get back in the hall, you are shivering. Go on.'
Rowena favoured her brother with a final look of betrayal before stumbling out of his grasp toward the hall.
Crouched by her rabbit-hole, Rowena stared at the empty space, bewildered It could not have been her father -- no doubt he had forgotten the episode as soon as he'd fallen onto his pallet and it was still early yet for him to have woken. Her brother, then? Nay, Edwin had not believed she had done it, she had sensed so from his tone last night. Feeling deflated, Rowena hunkered down and shimmed under the walls of the keep as she did every morning, brushing the earth from her skirt as she reached the other side. But the sight before her sent her thudding to the ground once more, her suddenly weak legs giving way beneath her.
The tall, nude figure of a man crouched over the clumsily wrapped body of her wolf met her stunned eyes. His own, hostile, blazing orbs that pinned her to the spot, as if she could even find the courage to flee, were the last thing she saw before she felt her body slackening as she slipped into a deep swoon.
I must open them -- why won't they open. With an effort, Rowena finally succeeded in lifting one heavy eye-lid and blinked at her surroundings languidly, before sense had time to return.
'You are awake -- come with me.'
Staring dumbly at the young girl with the strange, light eyes that assessed her calmly, Rowena made to question but she dipped low and left, disappearing through the flaps of the tent Rowena now acknowledged she was housed in.
Rising from the thin pallet, Rowena cradled her aching head, her eyes struggling to adjust to the lack of light in the tent and in some desperation, crawled between the thin flaps and blinked up at the bright sky. What day was it, she thought in rising panic.
'Do you come or not?' an irritated voice called. Standing with a complete stillness by one of the many trees littering this unfamiliar woodland, the girl assessed her impatiently.
'Who are you? Where am I? That man! That nude...'
'I am Emma and you will follow me now.'
Rowena stared in puzzlement at the assertive girl, so much smaller and younger than herself but so arrogant in her demand.
'And if I do not?' she asked, her previous fright at her fate seeming abduction giving way to wariness for surely a band of ruffians and outlaws bent on murder and rapine would not have amid their midst a cherubic faced little girl?
'If you do not come with me then you will not see your brother,' a smirk played about the girl's lips as she watched Rowena's expression carefully.
The girl turned once more and started to move away and this time, Rowena followed.
A cluster of bearded men sat close to a low-fire and affixed to a wooden pole buried deep in the earth was Edwin, his lip swollen and split, his hands tightly bound together.
'Our guest is awake,' a grey haired man stated casually and at the booming tones, Rowena watched as Edwin roused, his eyes wandering dumbly about until they finally settled on her. His eyes widened and his voice muffled behind the gag stuffed between his lips as he strained piteously against the bonds that held him to no avail. Rowena shot a quick look at the observing men before sprinting towards Edwin, only to be brought up short before her hands could reach him. Strong arms lifted her bodily before letting her fall unceremoniously to the hard ground, mere inches from booted feet.
Following the boots up to long, strong legs and a wide shouldered torso, Rowena gasped at the face staring down at her.
'You -- it was you I saw but why? Why are you doing this?'
Cool eyes looked away from her though her captor did not move. Rather, he folded heavily muscled arms over his chest and widened his stance, his dominance over her seated figure plain to see by all. He stared ahead at her brother.