Off the Coast of Northumbria
Elaine of Rockland stood at the bow of her ship, squinting bleary eyes against the icy winter wind. She and her crew had spent a frightening night fighting to keep their course through an ice storm. Had Rockland not been so desperate for money and goods, they never would have ventured out until spring. Their people were hungry, many were sick, and the raids earlier that year had left them with little resources and in dire need of repairs. Elaine and her crew were forced to sail up the coast of Essex all the way to Northumbria and possibly to Scotland, if necessary, to gather supplies for their survival.
Thus far most villages had been unwilling or unable to trade in the midst of winter. They needed their supplies for themselves, since Rockland was not the only village which had been sacked from summer to autumn. Though Viking raids were far less common than in earlier years, bands of outlaws throughout the land destroyed many of the smaller villages. William Blackridge, a man who had once been one of the finest knights in the land but had turned to looting, led a particularly fierce band of raiders. Only through a recent failed attack on a village called Ravenhill, under the protection of a Viking who had converted to serve the king, had Blackridge's dishonorable actions been revealed to the king and his raiders disbanded. The knight was now an outlaw with an enormous price on his head.
And I hope someone finds him and cuts his head off, Elaine thought. Actually, beheading is too good for him. He deserves to suffer as he made others suffer, as he's made every man, woman, and child in Rockland suffer.
"It's cold, but if the weather stays clear, we should reach Ravenhill soon," Ezekiel, Elaine's brother, said as he came to stand beside her.
Elaine nodded. Since hearing of Ravenhill's success against Sir William Blackridge's raiders, they had decided to approach them for trade. If Ravenhill possessed such a fine army, perhaps they retained the resources to assist Rockland.
"I hope this won't be another futile attempt," Elaine said, folding her arms across her chest to keep some warmth beneath her worn, frost-covered cloak. She lifted her chin and shook a tendril of thick black hair from her face. Always rebellious, Elaine defied fashion and refused to bind her hair; however, loose hair was the least of her feminine sins. Most of the time she dressed as a man with breeches, boots, and loose shirts. She even owned chain mail and a fine sword, which she treasured above all else. The weapon had saved her life many times in the past and she was sure it would continue to do so in the future.
Though a woman living in an age ruled by men, Elaine had endured physical and emotional hardships to earn her people's respect. They considered both her and Ezekiel the leaders of Rockland.
"We haven't got the best supplies to barter with," Ezekiel said. "People don't want embroidery in the middle of winter."
"We also have the dried herbs," Elaine added. Such herbs were extremely valuable for healing. The people of Rockland had gathered an overabundance that summer. "Someone is bound to want... What is that?"
Elaine placed her hands on the ship's wooden rail and stared closer at the water.
"What?" Ezekiel joined her. "I don't see any-- God, it looks like a man!"
Elaine narrowed her eyes at the dark shape in the waves and saw it was indeed a man, hanging onto a piece of drifting wood. Freezing waves crashed over him, threatening to drag him beneath the churning sea.
"Somebody get a rope," Elaine shouted over her shoulder, then called to the man. "Hello! Can you hear us?"
"I don't think he's conscious," Ezekiel said, shrugging off his cloak and reaching for the rope supplied by a crew member. "I'll have to get him."
"Are you mad, sir?" said the crewman. "You'll catch your death in that water."
"Aye,"--James, one of Ezekiel's closest friends, glanced into the sea--"and by the look of him, he's already dead. Frozen for certain."
"But we don't know that," Elaine said. "We can't just leave him there."
Ezekiel secured himself with the rope. "Once I've got him, pull us up."
The men nodded, and Elaine grasped the end of the rope, assisting the others as they lowered Ezekiel into the water.
Within moments, both he and the stranger were on deck. Ezekiel trembled from head to foot. Elaine threw a cloak over his shoulders and ordered him below deck and out of the icy wind.
When she turned back, several crewman had gathered around the stranger.
"I'll be damned." James looked up at Elaine. "He's still alive. Scarcely. He has a hell of a gash on the head and a worse one on his arm."
Elaine pushed her way through the hulking sailors to look at their unexpected guest. Other than a mass of curly, black hair and a neatly trimmed beard, she could discern little of his face. Blood gushed from a cut on his forehead, streaking his face red. He wore black boots, breeches, and shirt beneath finely made leather and mail armor, the breast and arm of which had been slashed open. Blood leaked from both wounds. The chest injury appeared minor, the mail having absorbed most of what could have been a fatal blow. Still, Elaine would have to inspect it more carefully to be sure.
She stood. "Bring him to my cabin and put him on the cot."
"My lady?" James's eyes widened.
"What else are we to do with him? If we're going to save his life, it's the only decent place on the ship."
James and the others knew better than to question Elaine once her mind was made up, so they dragged the stranger down to her cabin. She followed, ordering water to be boiled so that she could cleanse the man's wounds and see how much damage had been done. She ordered everyone but James from the room while she gathered dry clothes, a needle and thread. James removed the stranger's drenched clothes, covered him, and went to find another blanket.
Elaine approached the wounded man, unconcerned for his naked state, as she'd spent years training and fighting alongside men and had dressed wounds many times before.