The first roar of fury barely penetrated Elspeth's semi-conscious haze, although it generated a spark of fear and the vague thought that the Normans, who'd taken over Rasgarth, her family's holdings, were embroiled once more in a drunken brawl among themselves. The second was punctuated by a kick that lifted the man she was trapped under. Elspeth peered up at the man who stood above her through one eye. Her other eye was swollen nearly shut.
Her heart nearly stopped when the blurry visage looming above her swam into focus.
She knew it must be, for it could be no man--this dark giant, his perfectly chiseled face twisted in fury, his eyes as black as sin.
Renard belched a gaseous cloud of soured wine in her face at the blow, but gathered himself and rolled off of her.
Elspeth made a feeble attempt to cover herself, but Renard had lain upon her so long that she could not seem to command her limbs to move. It was some relief that the dark lord's rage seemed to be focused upon Renard. A flicker of hope went through her. Perhaps he'd come to take the vile Normans instead of the women they had despoiled?
Renard lifted his head groggily, focusing with obvious difficulty. When he finally did manage the feat, his eyes all but bulged from their sockets, which seemed to lend a good deal of credence to Elspeth's fears.
Renard had led the band of ruffians that had descended upon them like demons from hell after William the bastard's army had defeated the forces gathered to repel him from Saxony, and had lain waste to the lands her father had spent a lifetime building to fruitfulness. They had slain all who opposed them and many who had only tried to flee--and those had been the fortunate ones. Those who'd survived had endured a reign of terror such as they could never have imagined.
Her own life had become such a nightmare since Renard had first fastened his lascivious gaze upon her that she had longed for death to end her suffering and would have sought it if he had not watched her so assiduously as to remove all opportunity of a quick and painless end.
"Guillume--my Lord Arnaud! We did not expect you for at least another fortnight!"
"That much is obvious!" Arnaud of Valognes said in a voice that was deadly cold. "Else you and your guard might have been on watch instead of rolling about on the floor with your laymen." He glanced toward the doorway and Elspeth saw two men at arms stood at attention there. "Take him."
"But ... Guill--my Lord!"
The two soldiers strode forward at the command. Each grasped an arm. Hauling Renard to his feet, they marched him from the room between them. The man he had called Lord Arnaud watched their departure through narrowed eyes. When he turned at last, his gaze focused upon her and Elspeth's blood ran cold.
Elspeth stared at him blankly. She had made it a point to pretend she didn't understand a word of their language. She wasn't certain if it would transpire that there was any sort of advantage to it, but she had thought it possible it would. At the very least, she knew they would speak more freely around her and she might be warned of any evil intent toward herself or their people in time to prevent more bloodshed.
She was in no condition at the moment, however, to recall the dangerous charade she had been playing. She looked at him blankly because she simply could not fathom what he wanted.
After studying her a moment, he strode toward her impatiently. Reaching down, he grasped her by one arm and hauled her to her feet. Renard had shredded her gown when he'd fallen upon her. Trying vainly to cover herself, Elspeth grasped the tatters of her clothing as he pulled her to her feet.
The abruptness of being dragged up so quickly sent a wave of dizziness through her and worse, her body was still numb and uncooperative from being pinned to the cold floor beneath Renard so long. Her knees refused to hold her. The moment his hand loosened, she began to sink toward the floor despite her best efforts to brace herself upright. With a sound of impatience, he hauled her up once more. This time, he caught her face in one hand, jerking it up for his inspection. "Are you too drunk to walk?"
Elspeth stared back at him fearfully, but she'd had time to consider her situation. It seemed unlikely, despite his irritation, that he had it in mind to kill her on the spot. As tempting as it was to respond immediately and try to spare herself yet another beating, her knowledge of their language, pitiful as it was, was her only weapon. Instead of answering, therefore, she merely met his gaze as steadily as she could manage, swallowing her terror.
His frown turned thoughtful as he scanned her face and then looked her over more carefully. She would've given much to know what was going through his mind, but the dark eyes typical of the Norman devils made them nigh impossible to fathom. Finally, apparently satisfied that he had discovered what he sought, he released the bruising grip on her cheeks and turned, dragging her from the room.
She did her best to keep up, unwilling to test his temper further by deliberately provoking him, but her legs still felt strange and uncooperative and it was difficult to hold her gown together with one hand. His long stride was impossible to match in any case.
She stumbled. He glanced down at her frowningly several times and finally slowed his angry stride.
She saw when they reached the great hall that it was overflowing with Normans. The servants were gathered in frightened knots, watching while those, apparently, who'd arrived with Lord Arnaud, lay about them with the flat of their swords, and fists, and booted feet, rousing Renard's drunken men from the floor.
Even as she reached the hall with Lord Arnaud, they began to push the revelers toward the door.
From the knot of frightened servants, an elderly woman detached herself and Elspeth recognized her old nurse, Griselda. "Lady! Lady! What has that monster done to you?" she wailed, falling to her knees beside Elspeth.
Elspeth stared down at her in horror as Lord Arnaud came to an abrupt halt. "Shh! Are you mad, woman! Do you want me to join my ancestors? I've survived nigh two weeks of that pig of a Norman. I've taken no serious hurt, not near so much as I'm likely to take if they learn who I am."
Griselda scrambled to her feet abruptly, wringing her hands and casting fearful glances toward Lord Arnaud.
Elspeth didn't dare look at him. She knew few of the Normans had any grasp of the Saxon tongue, but it would take no great intellect to figure out who she was if Griselda was determined to treat her as her lady in front of them. With the exception of her mother, who had passed on many years ago, the Normans had slain the rest of her family--her father and brothers had all fallen beneath Norman blades when they'd gone to protect the realm from the invaders from across the sea. She had no protector and no way of knowing whether the Normans would be satisfied with the blood already spilled or if they were bent upon wiping out the last of her father's seed. It seemed to her, though, that the possibility was great that they would prefer not to harbor the daughter of the old lord.