Lakeshire Castle, Wessex, 879 AD
“God’s bones, Ulric! Methinks this land of Wessex is making you soft!”
Vladamir of Kessen, the Duke of Lakeshire’s voice was hard due to his exasperation. He knew his tone had a gravelly quality, which reflected a Baltic culture far to the northeast of the Saxon manor of Lakeshire. The heritage gave his softened words a hard bite as the harsh press of his lips gave his features a merciless appearance. Vladamir did it on purpose.
“‘Tis irrational, foolish old man, for you to insist I stand downwind of that rotting pile of animal carcasses for nary an instant more. I don’t know why you thought I’d be interested!”
His accent frightened the people under his rule. In fact, everything about him scared these people. He wanted the Saxons afraid of him. If they were afraid, they would follow his orders and leave him alone. He’d been in Wessex for a year and the plan had worked so far. It wasn’t like he’d been sent to make friends.
Vladamir was the very first Duke of Lakeshire. It was a position he didn’t relish. If he had his say, he’d live out his miserable days alone in a castle far away from everyone and everything. Either that or he’d gladly ride into another war.
Frowning sternly, he narrowed his eyes in annoyance and made no move to leave for his training exercises, though his fingers itched to grip his sword. Instead, he swept the fur lining of his cloak off his shoulder. The breeze lifted the weight of his unfashionably long, straight black hair off his shoulders and he absently watched the strands trailing away from him. He purposely wore the heathenish attire of those who lived in the Danelaw rather than to adapt to the more civilized dress of the nation of Wessex. He did it to irritate the Christian sensibilities of his Saxon neighbors and to drive fear into those men who were made to unwillingly serve under his rule.
Yea, everything about me is different than this accursed land. I’m a man without a country. I hate Wessex and I hate the land of my father. And I hate the peace between them both.
Tense, Vladamir raised his arm, motioning to the guard who stood above him on the dark stone of the bailey wall. A black onyx ring glinted on his finger, shining like a beacon the guard would be able to see. With a deft flick of his wrist, the duke silently commanded the knight to raise the outer gate.
The young, fair-haired Saxon didn’t hesitate to follow his barbaric lord’s order. Like all his subjects, Vladamir knew the guard watched him intensely for any sign of movement, no matter how small. It wasn’t out of respect for him that the man instantly obeyed. It was out of fear. Fear was the reason all the Saxon warriors residing at Lakeshire Castle followed his command. They’d all heard the sinister rumors that followed him from his homeland, and he’d never tried to earn their respect or change their opinion of him.
Angrily, he jerked his arm, letting his irritation show. Vladamir knew what he was, knew what he looked like, and it was his intent to appear monstrous in both mannerisms and appearance. His linen undertunic was dyed to the pitchest of blacks. Although the material was of obviously rich quality, it lacked the perfected embellishments that frivolous nobles prided themselves on.
The sleeves of his tunic hung over his wrists and settled over the backs of his hands in long rolls. The undertunic fell loosely over his tightly fitted black braes, the long slit down the side showing a hint of his thighs. He fastened the material of the braes into place with laces that joined at the side and wore a plain, thick leather belt over them. From this belt hung an imposingly sharp knife and a modest leather pouch, which contained small pieces of flint for starting a fire and an iron key that fit a door the servants didn’t even know existed.
“Clear it away at once. Methinks you have interrupted my morning training for naught more than fetid garbage!” The duke ordered Ulric, only to growl in anger when the gate didn’t rise fast enough to suit his impatience. He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword in warning. The action wasn’t missed. Another knight disappeared off the wall, obviously going to hurry the man lifting the gate. Vladamir relished his ill humor, wallowing in it. “Argh!”
He sighed as the gate finally squeaked on its iron hinges, making the slow trip up. Gripping his sword, his scowl deepened. Instead of watching the gate, he stared at the hilt. The monstrous broadsword at his waist was in a leather scabbard, hanging from a leather shoulder baldric. The strap crossed over his chest so he could easily draw the weapon at the slightest provocation.
Still irritated, he glanced back to Ulric as the man tried to get a good view of the rotting animals through the gate’s crosshatching. The servant turned to the duke, eyeing the nobleman’s attire. Vladamir glanced down at his clothes, again thinking of how different he was from the Saxon men.
Over his tunic he wore a woven cloth belt of black and silver. It wrapped about his waist and knotted on the front right. He left the unadorned ends to drape freely about his thighs. The undertunic’s oval neckline was laced high and tight against his thick neck, hiding the entirety of his chest from view. It was only on the rarest of political occasions that Vladamir was obligated to don an overtunic. He didn’t feel the need of such formalities in his life when it came to dress. But, on those rare occasions, the overtunic was also black with very little silver embroidery.
The only relief to the investigating eye that Vladamir allowed was the lighter colored rocc, his fur cloak that was constructed of the skinned hide of several gray wolves. He would’ve dyed the fur black as well, if not for the ample waste of time and resources the project would consume. He wore the fur side inward for warmth as was customary among his fellow pagans.
“By all that is hallowed!” Vladamir growled, not caring who heard his cry. Many of the servants milling about the yard skidded to a stop at the sound. A small smile of devious pleasure automatically curled the sides of his mouth. It took a few seconds, but soon the servants were hurrying away in relief when they realized they weren’t the cause of his present anger.
It was a well-known and accepted fact to the people of Lakeshire Castle that Vladamir had converted to Christianity solely to please King Alfred of Wessex in accordance with the Treaty of Wedmore. The duke did nothing to dissuade their beliefs or make them think that he was sincere in his conversion. Let them believe he was a devilish monster sent by King Guthrum to torment them.
In truth, Vladamir didn’t much care for the Christian God, nor had he cared for the many gods of his ancestors. He lost faith when his wife died six years before. As he thought of it, it was quite possible he’d lost his faith before then.
Lowering his chin to glower down from his towering height, he curled his nose in disgust as another gust of wind assaulted him. The air carried a stench so severe that, even with his war-hardened training, Vladamir couldn’t ignore the putrid smell. His expression turned quickly into a snarl. For all his rough appearance, Vladamir was a clean person, having been influenced by the peculiar bathing rituals of his father’s people, the Vikings. He even insisted his household followed suit and bathed at least twice a sennight. It was a completely pagan routine little heard of in the dwellings of the Saxons. He’d received some protest over the decree, but it was necessary to keep such smells as these rotted animals out of his home.
His forehead wrinkled in irritation and tried unsuccessfully to determine what exactly emitted the foul odor. “What is it, Ulric? It smells of decaying flesh. Who would dare to lay carcasses afore my gate to rot?”
“Mayhap, ‘tis a sacrifice in honor of the castle,” Ulric offered with a grave shake of his head. The manservant’s expression said he highly doubted it.
Ulric had traveled with the duke to Wessex the year before. A short man with a balding head, he had a pleasing face hidden under his trim beard. His jaunty nature was a direct contrast to that of his dark, forbidding lord—just as his rounded frame was opposite Vladamir’s sinewy one. He wasn’t only the duke’s seneschal but was also the closest thing Vladamir could call friend.
“Nay, ‘tis not the season for sacrifice,” Vladamir answered as he looked up to the changing sky. It was early morning, yet the sky darkened to purple. He pulled the broadsword from his waist in one smooth motion and flexed the muscles of his sword arm in distraction, scuffing the tip across the dirt in a lazy stroke. Smirking, he said, “Besides, the prelate has forbidden such practices. ‘Tis too barbaric a custom according to the church.”
He sighed, fisting his hands as he pressed his lips tightly together. Upon closer examination, he discovered that the rotting bundle was actually an oddly shaped mound of pelts. Resting his fingers firmly upon his hips, he was mindful of the tip of the broadsword that still rested on the ground.
The stronghold’s gate stopped above him, but he didn’t bother to move. The gate was constructed of thick English oak and bound together with iron strips. The pointed ends at the bottom of the gate were wood reinforced with iron, causing them to act like metal teeth if lowered too quickly. Eyeing the spikes, he morbidly thought of how effectively they could sever a man in two.
Ulric rushed forward to the pile as soon as the spikes were out of his way. The seneschal’s wider frame lumbered with the effort it took him to kneel and he grunted under the strain. Swiping the sleeve of his brown tunic across his forehead, Ulric placed his arm before his nose as he leaned closer to the pelts.
Impatient, Vladamir watched Ulric pick through the skins. He followed silently behind, refusing to sheath his sword. The seneschal sat straight up in surprise.
“M’lord, it would appear to be a maiden amongst these pelts. Methinks I see the entrails of a rabbit in her hair,” Ulric yelled through the sleeve of his tunic.
The servant again wiped his sleeve across his brow before returning it to his nose. His small brown eyes shone with concern. With a grumble of disdain, Ulric lifted entrails from the maiden’s hair and flung them aside, only to gingerly remove a rabbit carcass the same way to reveal the bloodied lines of her swollen face. It was impossible to see whether she breathed.
In the distance, the sounds of fighting men and clashing swords filled the air as the knights competed in mock battle. A flock of wild birds flew high above to seek shelter from the changing sky. Their song softly drifted downward. None of the sounds pleased the duke as his eyes stayed trained on Ulric.
“A maiden? Out here? And scented with festering carcasses?” Vladamir searched the forest that surrounded his castle. The hum of insects was quite clear on the morning air, and he noticed that the red bristled pigs grazing just beyond his walls were undisturbed. Nor could he detect movement within the barren limbs of the trees. Finally satisfied that the girl was alone, he turned his attention back to Ulric. He refused to show any interest in the maiden.
“Wake her and send her on her way.” He kept his voice passionless and made no effort to help the woman. “If she is dead, burn her, for I won’t tolerate that wretched smell in my bailey.”
“Should we not try to find out who she is first? Mayhap there are those who search fer her even now. Would you deny her kinsmen a proper burial?” Ulric protested quietly.
“Do as I command!” Vladamir insisted in a low growl. Even as he did so, he saw the knights that manned the wall look over the girl with curious stares. He heard their whispering as it drifted down, though he couldn’t make out their hasty words. He didn’t need to. The woman was more than likely a Saxon wench and they would wish to know whom, for none in the manor were missing. If she was dead, there was nothing he could do for her. He didn’t need this headache. His life was stressed enough.
Through his irritation, Vladamir saw hesitation on the older man’s face and quieted his tone to a logical murmur. “Is she dead?”
“I know not, m’lord.” Ulric leaned to touch the girl and then turned back to his lordship. “She is not responding.”
Vladamir tried to control his exasperation and repeated his original command, intentionally raising his voice to quiet the knights on the wall. His harsh accent made his words all the more lethal as he ground out, “Then she is dead. Burn her. I won’t have her corpse carrying disease to the manor.”
Ulric looked to him, searching the duke’s face for a sign of compassion. Vladamir didn’t give him one, refusing to be stirred to pity. It was easier to be feared than loved. It was easier to be dead inside than to feel.
Sighing heavily, the servant crouched over the girl. The duke stepped to the side, getting a better look at her. She was young and it was clear she’d been beaten. Her clothes were torn and her hair was matted with dirt and possibly blood.
Ulric yelled over his shoulder, loud enough to make sure the watching knights also heard his reply, “Nay, methinks she takes breath. She is not dead, merely insensible.”
The duke frowned, knowing the servant hoped he wouldn’t dare to leave a Saxon girl for dead, especially with so many soldiers to bear witness. If it had been a decade earlier, Vladamir would’ve carried the injured maiden into the castle to care for her. He’d have tended to her wounds, oversaw the physicians, stayed by her side until she was better. But the time was now and the duke would never allow himself to care like that again. Life had taught him some hard lessons.
Rubbing his brow, he then ran his fingers through the long locks of his tangled hair to brush it from his eyes. He shifted his weight from one leg to the other and didn’t answer the servant. Scowling, he willed the maiden to disappear. He didn’t want her in his home.
“Would you like me to leave her afore yer gate to rot? Or would you like to bring her in?” Ulric stood up and boldly matched his lord’s stare, his thick jowls quivering in irritation.
Vladamir didn’t like his servant’s impudent tone and the man’s sarcasm didn’t go unobserved. He gritted his teeth as he asked with a sullen glimmer of hope, “Is she near death?”
“I know not.” The servant once again turned from his overlord back to the pitiful girl. Thunder stuck in the horizon, beating its violent rhythm across the purple sky. The man pulled another carcass from her and tossed it aside.
“Check her.” Vladamir purposefully sounded bored as he sheathed his sword. Anger was the easiest of all emotions and he clung to it. His gut tightened and he raised his eyes briefly to the heavens as a droplet of rain fell across his nose. “Be quick, Ulric.”
Ulric felt the girl’s pulse. “She has a good chance to recover if we move her indoors now.”
Suspecting that the man might be lying, the duke paced in a frustrated circle, his hands fitted firmly at his waist. He rolled his neck until it cracked, debating the fate of the girl.
Those who moved about the bailey made their way toward shelter. A small page ran close to Vladamir, a pack of mongrel dogs quick on his heels. The boy laughed as a particularly ugly gray dog tripped him about the legs and sent him sprawling to the ground at the duke’s feet. The page’s face became wrought with fear as he looked up from the ground. The duke growled at him and the boy scurried away from him as the rain fell harder, hammering the ground with its loud music.
“It would appear she has been badly beaten,” Ulric said. “Methinks it would be wise to move her inside, out of the rain, lest she is not like to live through the night. I can have a chamber readied for her abovestairs if you wish.”
No matter how badly he wanted to give the order to leave her outside, Vladamir couldn’t do it. He silently cursed himself for a fool and gave a self-depreciating laugh.
So much for being a complete monster.
“Yea,” Vladamir conceded reluctantly. He stopped his pacing and turned to go, intent on leaving Ulric to tend to the woman.
“M’lord, wait.” Ulric’s urgent voice stopped him.
“Yea?” Vladamir gripped the hilt of his sword.
“M’lord, it would seem the maiden is a lady.”