Something was amiss.
Aelswyn could feel it even before reaching her chambers. Her door was ajar and she could hear muffled cries coming from inside. Edith! She rushed forward and froze on the doorstep, in shock.
Her room had been ransacked. Her clothes lay on the floor in a heap, the chest that contained them wide open. Jewels were spread on her desk, the lock on their wooden box broken. Her precious scrolls and books were scattered, her needlework basket upside down. Her bed hadn’t been spared; the mattress hung over the frame, sheets and covers falling off it. She walked around it to find Edith curled in a ball, sobbing softly. She knelt at her side, hugging her.
“Edith, listen to me. You are safe now. Pray, tell me what happened. Are you harmed?”
The servant struggled to control her voice. “They burst in, two Vikings. They went through everything in the room, and then, then, ” she paused, too shaken to continue. She licked her dry lips before whispering: “They decided to search me. One was holding me and the other, he put his dirty hands on me, and then he lifted my dress…” She was shaking, tears flowing again.
“Edith, did they… rape you?”
“Nay, my Lady, it was just his hands,” she said, shuddering at the memory. “They were laughing, I was so scared!” Her arms were tightly crossed on her chest, her hands clenching on her elbows nervously.
Aelswyn paled. Ever since self-control was beaten into her during her rebellious childhood, she seldom lost her temper. But this was one step too far. She had been on an emotional rush all night, she lacked sleep, and now her servant had been assaulted in her private chambers.
She turned to Edwina, her eyes throwing daggers. “Is this how your master intends to keep me safe? By having his men destroy what is mine and attack my servants? Edith is a free woman, her honor has a price. Tell him I want it paid to her, or he can call off the wedding. And I will die before he beds me.”
Edwina translated for Olaf, waiting for his answer. Judging by his annoyed face, he didn’t seem to know anything more than she.
Edwina confirmed it. “I am sorry my Lady, there must be some kind of misunderstanding. Surely my Lord never ordered for this to happen.”
They were interrupted by a knock at the door. Edwina let in a woman in her forties, who bowed to Aelswyn. Her long gray hair was falling to her waist in two braids, over her yellow woolen dress. Covering it was a green apron dress, held by two turtle-shell brooches. She looked clean enough for a Norse woman.
“This is Groa, our wit…Healer, my Lady, she was sent to examine you.”
“Tell her to go away, I’m perfectly well.”
Edwina blushed, embarrassed. “Nay, my Lady, she is to examine you… intimately, before the contract is signed.”
Aelswyn was outraged. They treated her as a broodmare! “I never agreed to it. Now go to your master, before I say something that I might not regret. Repeat my words exactly. I will be waiting here," she added ironically.
Edwina spoke in Norse, then bowed and left.
Aelswyn stiffly began to sort out her belongings, her mind seething with resentment. She squeezed the fabric of her dresses in her hands to refrain from screaming in frustration. Her pride wouldn’t allow it. These barbarians would see the courage of a true Saxon lady.
She was arranging the bed when Edwina returned. Aelswyn gazed at her questioningly.
“My Lord agreed to pay your servant’s price[i] on behalf of his men, if you let Groa do her work. Otherwise, he will come and hold you down. He sent these guards to retrieve any object you could have used to harm yourself. He wasn’t aware that your servant would be there, and will punish them for destroying your belongings.” She hesitated. “I’d rather not repeat what he said about the bed part, if you don’t mind, my Lady.”
Aelswyn flushed bright red and ground her teeth. It was the third time she was tricked and humiliated that night; at least she could ensure that Edith got some benefit from this one. “Great! What shall I do then?”
“Just lie down on the bed, Groa will take care of it.”
Aelswyn jerked her chin towards Olaf: “Does he get to watch?”
“Of course not, my Lady, he will wait outside. My Lord is sending another guard to replace him, but he won’t be allowed in. Edith will remain with you.”
She talked to Olaf, who left the room.
Aelswyn walked slowly to the bed and lay down. She clenched her hands into fists. She was not looking forward to this.
[i]Price that had to be paid in compensation for a crime. It was defined by law based on the victim’s status and the type of crime/injury. Compensation for a slave was paid to their owner.