|A Saxon's Tale (standard:adventure, 3499 words)|
|Author: Ian Hobson||Added: Aug 08 2007||Views/Reads: 2242/1276||Story vote: 0.00 (0 votes)|
|It was more than sixty days since Eadwynne had wept as we left, begging us not to go. But as I kissed her, and our daughter, Leofwynne, I promised her we would return.|
Click here to read the first 75 lines of the story naked bodies beside the bridge that I had built over the stream; we knew each of them well, especially the midwife, Silfled, and her second husband, Alfere, my cousin. He had lost an arm fighting the Danes five years before, yet by the look of his wounds and the bloody ground, he had put up a good fight. Downstream I could see the remains of a butchered cow and two sheep; all three had had hind or fore quarters hacked off and carried away. I slipped my grandfather's sword into my belt and took the axe back from Edglaf, and then we hurried on, we had no time for the dead; we thought only of those we hoped would still be alive. Our dwelling was on slightly higher ground and we were both panting like dogs as we reached it. At one end thatch was still burning, as was the oak beam above the entrance. Ignoring the heat, I staggered inside but immediately turned back. Just a few blackened timbers remained standing, the rest had fallen in and still smouldered and glowed with each breath of wind. No one could have survived such an inferno. 'Father!' Edglaf was running towards the tall trees, his sheathed sword flapping against his leg as he ran. I stood for a moment and then, as I saw what he had seen, I raced after him. It was my mother, Elgiue. She lay beside the nearest tree with her head in a pool of blood. Edglaf had stopped a few paces short of her but I dropped my axe and ran past him. 'Mother!' I knelt and cradled her head in my lap. There was so much blood, she was surly dead, yet her eyes flickered and then opened. 'Godwin?' As she whispered my name, blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. 'Mother,' I gasped, 'where are Eadwynne and Leofwynne?' She looked up into my eyes and said just one word, ‘Danes,' and then the life went out of her, and she was gone. 'Mother!' In my grief I began to rock back and forth, still cradling her head. Edglaf knelt beside us with tears in his eyes. 'Men come.' At the sound of another voice, Edglaf was on his feet and drawing his sword, but he slipped it back into its sheath as he recognised Maccus, the halfwit. I was a tall man, as was my son, but Maccus was at least a head taller than us and broad in the shoulder too. He had lived with Silfled, the midwife, for all of his nineteen years and called her Mother, though he was not truly her son. She had taken him in when his real mother had died giving birth to him and his father had rejected him because of his disfigured face. 'Wait!' At the sight of Edglaf's sword Maccus had started to back away. I laid my mother's head gently back down on the bloodstained earth and then stepped in front of Edglaf, showing Maccus my empty hands. 'We are your friends, Maccus. You have nothing to fear.' 'Men come.' Maccus repeated what he had said before. 'How many?' I asked. 'How many men?' Maccus looked uncertain and I thought perhaps the question was too difficult for him, but then he held up both of his hands, spreading the fingers of his left hand and studying those on his right until he settled on just three. 'Eight?' I said. Maccus grinned and repeated the word, 'Eight, eight men come. I climb tree and watch. Then come down.' His face changed, showing grief, as he looked towards my dead mother. 'All dead.' 'What about my sister, Leofwynne?' my son asked patiently. 'And my mother, Eadwynne?' In the past Edglaf had spent time with Maccus, playing games, fishing in the stream and helping with the harvest, so he knew better than I how to speak to him. 'Are they hiding, Maccus?' 'I hide when men come,' Maccus replied, pointing towards the eastern woods. 'Mother always say hide in woods if bad men come.' He looked uncertain again but answered Edglaf's question. 'Not all dead. Some go with men: Eadwynne and Leofwynne... and Alfere and Wiglem.' I breathed a sigh of relief; my wife and five year old daughter were still alive. The other two, Alfere and Wiglem, were both young boys, sons of Beornwynne, one of the women who lay dead beside the stream. Her husband, Offa, had been fatally wounded towards the end of the battle with the Danes. Edglaf continued to question Maccus until it was clear that the eight raiders had arrived at dusk the day before, just as Maccus was returning home with some firewood. He was uncertain about what had happened during the hours of darkness, but he had heard screams and said that the men had left at first light with their captives, after torching the thatch of every dwelling. 'Which way did they go?' Edglaf asked. Without hesitation Maccus pointed towards the tall trees and then raised his hand indicating that the men and their captives must have climbed the hill to the north. Edglaf and I exchanged troubled looks. We knew that three or four day's journey to the north there was a tidal river, and had heard that Danish ships had been seen there in the past. It was said that some came to trade, but others, often called Vikings, came to steal and to burn, and worse. I prayed to God that my family had been taken to sell as slaves, and that we could somehow reach them in time. We had some silver that we had taken from the three Danes that we had killed, though it was probably not enough to buy more that one person's freedom. I considered sending Edglaf to the main settlement to fetch help, but decided we could not afford the delay. God forgive me, but I was angry, so very angry, and I wanted to hunt down every last Dane and kill them all. *** I also wanted to bury my mother, but there was no time. We replenished our water from the stream and cut strips of meat from the butchered cow and looked quickly about for more food. It seemed there was none until Maccus emerged from one of the burned out buildings with some bread that had somehow escaped the flames. He also found a sack to put the food in and then insisted on coming with us. He was a child in a man's body but I was glad to have him along; with his height and disfigured face, he looked fierce enough, especially after I gave him my grandfather's sword. Edglaf led the way, his keen young eyes picking out signs of those we followed, but the sun had had begun to set by the time we neared the top of the northern hill. There was little cover here so we crawled on our bellies until we could see down into the next valley. It was heavily wooded and if there was anyone down there, we could not see them. We hurried on, unsure if we were taking the right path until, in a wide clearing, we found some well-trampled grass where the raiders must have stopped to rest or eat. I estimated that we were only a half-day behind them. Maccus asked if he should collect firewood and light a fire. I wanted to continue on, but in the growing darkness we could easily have lost our way, so I agreed to the lighting of a small fire close to the base of a fallen tree where it would be screened by its trunk and circular mass of roots. Maccus was proving to be quite resourceful; using a flint he carried, he had a fire lit in no time and rigged a spit on which to cook some of the strips of meat we had brought with us. We ate, and drank a little of the water, and soon fell into an exhausted sleep. When dreams of my mother rising from a lake of blood woke me it was no longer dark, and I though that it was dawn and that too much time had been lost. But then I saw that an almost full moon had risen into a clear sky, and so I woke Edglaf and Maccus and we continued on, as best we could, through the shadowy forest. *** When dawn came, the signs were much clearer and before midday we came to a deserted and ruined settlement where clearly the raiders had spent the night. I had walked this far once before and at the time wondered who had lived there and why they had left. Perhaps they too had been slaughtered by marauding Danes. It was here that we found the body of a Saxon man. His throat had been cut and his clothes ripped open as his assailants relived him of anything of value. I recognised him as Sibirht, a man I had never liked or trusted. He was from the north-east and had lived in our community for a time, until he was expelled for stealing. We should have killed him, for now it was clear how the raiders had found their way to our small community; they had been led there. At least Sibirht had got his just deserts from the Danes who must have decided that they had no further use of his services. We kept going. There was another hill to climb, but that would help us to gain time I thought, as a party that included a woman and three children would not travel as quickly. I was right: for late in the afternoon, as we crested another low hill, we at last caught site of those we followed. I could not distinguish which of them was Eadwynne, but there were at least two small children amongst them. ‘Men,' said Maccus. ‘Bad men.' I exchanged a worried glance with Edglaf; we were both thinking the same thing: we could easily catch up with them now but what then? We were three against seven. On the hillside we would have been at risk of being seen, so we backtracked a little and made our way down a shallow ravine until we were able to rejoin the route the raiders had taken. The trees here stood tall and close together, but there was a definite track and, where the ground was soft, we could easily make out footprints, including those of children. We moved quickly, making best use of the last rays of sunlight that penetrated the canopy. I let Maccus take the lead while I, having abandoned the idea of buying back the captives, walked beside Edglaf and discussed tactics. We knew that the Danes would probably stop as soon as darkness fell, and bed down for the night, and that that would be our best chance of surprising them. The birdsong was loud in this stretch of woodland, and a magpie chattered a warning that perhaps we should have heeded because, to our dismay, we had walked straight into a trap. Six men had stepped out from behind the trees and surrounded us, each holding a drawn sword or a war axe, and I could tell by their clothing, that they were Danes. ‘Saxon, why do you follow us?' one of them asked as he came closer. He was a big man, with a strong Danish accent, but he spoke our language well. He and two others blocked the pathway ahead while the other three crowded behind us, blocking our retreat. ‘What is your name?' I asked him, trying not to show the fear that I felt, and desperately trying to think of a way out. ‘What is yours?' The Dane seemed a little confused. He had addressed his first question to Maccus, mistaking him for our leader, and he had to peer around him to see may face. But taking his eyes off Maccus was the last mistake he ever made on this earth, because it was then that Maccus drew my grandfather's sword from his belt and, shouting his mother's name, he swung it from left to right with such force that it scythed into the Danes neck, taking his head off in a shower of bright red blood; and as a war axe slipped from his right hand, the Dane's headless body crumpled and fell. To our credit, and perhaps as a result of our recent experiences in battle, both Edglaf and I reacted instantly. I turned and, striding closer to the nearest Dane, I smashed the handle of my axe into his face and then dropped it onto his sword arm, while Edglaf drew his Danish sword and ran at the two men behind him. Clearly they were more accustomed to taking the lives of women and old men because the youngest turned and ran while the other was too slow in parrying Edglaf's sword as it slashed into his face. I knocked my Dane senseless with another blow to his jaw and then turned to help Maccus who was trying to keep the remaining two Danes at bay with huge swings of my grandfather's sword, all the time shouting his mother's name as though it was a war cry. But one of the Danes was an accomplished swordsman and was thrusting at Maccus, drawing blood, and forcing him backwards until he fell over the body of his headless victim. In a rage, I swung my axe at the swordsman, deliberately letting it slip through my fingers; which was something he hadn't expected because the head of the axe hit him hard in the face, and in the time it had taken him to recover I had snatched up the dropped war axe and swung it at his raised sword arm, cutting off his hand and leaving him screaming as I moved past him to take on the last of them. It was now war axe against war axe, and as our blades clashed together I saw that my adversary had only one eye. He fought well, and might have beaten me, but I was so enraged that I seemed to have the strength of two men and needed no help from Edglaf or Maccus as I hacked the man to pieces. 'We have to go!' Edglaf said. 'There's at least one more ahead.' Not wanting to be outdone by Maccus, he had finished off the other three Danes by hacking off their heads with his sword, and he was covered in their blood. But he was right; there was no more time to loose. I stopped my butcher's work and, weapons in hand, we hurried on in the growing darkness. We wanted to call out the names of our loved ones but thought it better to remain silent, rather than give a warning to whoever was guarding them. It was the right decision because, in the darkness, the one remaining Dane mistook us for his shipmates and by the time he had realised his mistake, Edglaf and Maccus were chasing after him, and his dying screams echoed through the forest as I found Eadwynne and the three children safe and relatively unscathed. *** It took us almost three days to return to our valley and the gruesome task of burying the dead. We carried home the few goods of value stolen from our small community as well as most of the Danish weapons. We never found the young Dane that had run away from us, and don't know if he made his way back to his ship or not. Eadwynne and I exchanged stories and she wept as she told of the slaughter of our friends and neighbours, but if she was raped by the Danes, she chose not to speak of it, and I chose not to ask. We have two daughters now: Leofwynne and little Silfled. And we have four sons: Edglaf, of course, though he has left us to join Lord Athelred's men at arms; and Alfere and Wiglem, our two adopted sons who seem to be getting over the deaths of their mother and father. And then there is Maccus: I will never call him halfwit again. It is to my shame that more than twenty years ago I abandoned him, but I was young then and blamed him for the death of his mother, my first wife. Perhaps in time God will forgive me. Tweet
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