A story from the forgotten history of the Alter-earth.
Interpreting a vision
The shaman sat naked before the fire inhaling the smoke and grinning widely. “I can see it now.”
“What do you see, Saewine?” asked Leofric, taking care not to breathe in too much of the pungent smoke. He was already feeling slightly lightheaded from the narcotic fumes.
“I see Boneshaker sitting on a hillside, he is looking out over a field of victory and the king’s daughter is raising her skirts before him,” replied the man, emphasising his words by jabbing his wrist stump at the warrior.
“This is not a good omen, shaman, it is not what I wished to hear,” said Leofric.
“It cannot be changed Lord, this is what Tiw chooses to show me,” he replied.
“Son of Scartho, Saewine’s vision shows only the vision but not the truth behind it,” said Mim who had been silent until now. “It must be interpreted correctly.”
Leofric regarded Mim, she was also nude but for painted swirls on her body, and was a lot easier on the eye than the grizzled shaman. Saewine had gone to Brythony many months ago to study druidic lore and returned with the girl in tow. “And how am to I interpret this?”
“You will know when the time comes,” was her evasive answer.
Leofric Da N’tan, heir to the Thegnweald of Scartho, looked from Mim, whose green eyes were starting to glaze over, to Saewine, now with the gods and cackling insanely. There was little point in further questions as they would both be in a trancelike state till morning. Leaving the shaman’s tent, set well away from the main camp, he recounted what he had been told to Wassa, who was waiting outside.
“So will it go against us then?” Wassa, a mighty cempestre, was Leofric’s second in command. She had a striking appearance, the left side of her face could be called pretty but the right was marred by a long scar running along her cheek from ear to mouth with most of the upper teeth on that side missing, the warrior woman was as tall as the thegn’s son with a powerful sword arm and she both killed and loved with passion, as Leofric could himself attest to.
“According to Mim, it is open to interpretation.”
“I’ll never understand why Saewine brought her back, how does her druidery help him speak with our gods?”
“Saewine is but a man, Wassa, and Mim very comely. I don’t blame him for fetching her back from Brythony,” replied Leofric with a wry smile.
“How do you think it will go tomorrow, Leif?” it was starting to rain as they walked the short distance back to their tent.
“If Owen of Llantys keeps his word I will be more confident in our victory.”
“More Brythons?” asked the warrior woman.
“Cyning Ailef is trying to unite both Celt and Saxon. This undertaking may heal wounds that have festered for years.” Da N’tan liked the new Nordlander king. He had married Hrald’s daughter upon taking the crown, effectively joining Aengland to Midgard and now sought to honour Brythony by asking for their help.
“If we lose tomorrow this country may fall to bloody strife once more,” warned Wassa.
Cynewulf the Boneshaker listened carefully to his spy, chewed down a mouthful of venison, swallowed, belched then stood and announced to his seated warriors in the feasting hall. “Ferdrinc from Scartho, led by none other than the Thegn’s son himself have been sent against us. They seek to catch us unawares, believing I will be looking south towards Ailef but they will be surprised tomorrow when we bathe in their blood!” and the warriors all cheered. He had correctly guessed that an attack would be launched on his rear while he was supposed to be facing off the king. “Well, I certainly outsmarted them didn’t I, Dudda?
“They have roughly a thousand men,” his giant of a champion put down his mead goblet. “I would have expected more, my chieftain.”
“Scartho is having trouble with its neighbour, Jorvik. They can’t spare many more,” said a dry rasping female voice. It was Nesta, the Boneshakers witch.
“Ah, dryicge, and nothing has changed?” he asked the wise woman.
“No, my chieftain, the dream I stole from their seer has not changed this night. Tomorrow will end as I saw it, with you sat looking over a field of victory.”
“Ah yes, their seer, a madman, a former warrior who had his right hand cut off to better commune with one-handed Tiw,” sneered Cynewulf.
“Be careful not to mock the gods, lord, such a thing can create powerful magic and it takes a person of strong belief and will to do it.” She warned.
“Or a bloody idiot!” stated Dudda, the crone merely shook her head and withdrew to the end of the table scowling.
Cynewulf cast his gaze to the miserable young woman sat next to him. “And you will raise your skirts to me? You have nothing I have not already seen or tasted, this is a very strange prophecy indeed.” She lowered her head, afraid to meet his eyes and he turned to Dudda. “Well my faithful champion, come the dawn we shall go out and greet the son of Scartho.”
When daybreak came, the Easterlings struck camp and moved deeper into Mercia, Da N’tan had a thousand Scartho spears at his command reinforced by full five hundred horsemen from North Mercia, led the legendary, Osric Ironhelm, himself. After a further five miles march through heavy woodland a column of could be seen approaching, Leofric’s scouts riding ahead found to it be, Owen of Llantys, at the head of no less than two hundred and fifty bowmen. Now united, the three leaders sat on their horses looking over the valley to Wrocenset, on the far knoll.
“See now, his forces are setting out,” observed Wassa.
“He must have well over two thousand with him, so much for Cyning Ailef’s bluff,” Osric said bitterly. “The Boneshaker knows the Cyning daren’t attack while he holds his daughter captive, is it wise to proceed?”
Da N’tan thought on Saewine’s dream, he had shared it only with Wassa and Owen, the Brython, well used to the vagaries of shamanistic visions, had agreed that it amounted to little but he had not told the Mercian, who despite his reputation was vacillating somewhat. “We’ll stick to our plan, can I still rely on you as my allies?” he asked.
“You can depend on the men of the valleys, Leofric, you’ll find us steadfast enough” affirmed the Brython. “But what about the Mercian here?” he asked, enmity between Mercia and Brythony had festered since the time of Offa, hundreds of years previous.
“I pledge my support, Leofric, for are we not fellow Aenglishmen?” he was not about to let a mere Brython appear braver than him.
“Well said Osric! I am proud to go into battle with you at my side.” Da N’tan wasn’t that much of a fellow countryman, for Scartho had been settled by folk from Midgard long ago. “And equally am I proud to have the arrows of Owen of Llantys supporting us this day.” The three cempae shook hands and took up their assigned positions.
“Well, Wassa, you have your command,” said Leofric to his second. “By the end of this day the Princess Edythe will be safe in our hands, or we’ll all be dead.”
“The poor girl will have been humped senseless by now!” answered the cempestre. “Let’s hope he hasn’t slit her throat out of spite.”
“He darest not, her continued existence is the only thing holding back Ailef’s hand,” stated Da N’tan.
Cynewulf of Wrocenset, a minor chieftain, had kidnapped the king’s daughter Edythe, demanding he consent to their marriage thus making him heir to the Aenglish throne. Envoys had been sent to Scartho, one of the old king’s greatest supporters to ask if the Thegnweald would help the new king recover his daughter, alive at the very least.
Cynewulf’s army had advanced steadily down to the valley floor, confident that their greater number would guarantee triumph in the coming conflict.
“He could have stayed within his walls and stood us off easily, we could never hope to take Wrocenset with so few,” observed Wassa.
“Boneshaker’s arrogance will be his undoing, I gambled he would do such a thing after hearing Saewine’s witan counsel,” affirmed Da N’tan.
“I am merely a vessel for Tiw, my lord!” asserted the shaman, who was riding out from the Scartho line with, Wassa and Mim, to accompany their leader for parley with the enemy.
The Boneshaker rode to meet Da N’tan’s party, bringing with him, Dudda, who was taking note of the enemy troops. All wore black painted mail with the Cormorant emblem of Scartho upon their large square shields, each man carried two spears apiece and a plethora of axes and longswords could be seen. “They are indeed a formidable looking force, if unequal to us in number.” He remarked to his champion.
“Lord, it is said they are the most disciplined troops in Aengland.” The warrior replied.
Cynewulf grinned. “It is also said that in their legions, women fight as equals alongside men so as an incentive I have promised our soldiers the pick of any taken alive, and do not forget we have an advantage that they do not know of.” When they reached Da N’tan’s group, he asked mockingly. “Son of Scartho, have you come to wrest Edythe Hardrada from me?”
“Lord Cynewulf, I offer you a chance to surrender her to us without argument, this would be most agreeable to the Cyning and save a great many lives that will otherwise be lost this day,” Leofric answered, taking in the long Wrocenset shield wall stretching away in each direction.
“Scarthling, you expect me to give up my prize just like that, do you think I am that stupid?” replied the Boneshaker. “And such a lissom prize too, I have already enjoyed her company as have several of my most loyal companions including the handsome Dudda here, and should I return her, there is nothing to stay the Cyning’s hand against me.”
Da N’tan’s blue eyes glittered. “Nevertheless I have been instructed to offer you mercy if you comply, no matter what you have done.” his voice had ice in it.
Cynewulf, riding high on his ego, regarded Mim, with her red hair and green eyes, saying. “I will spare you, my beauty, for you will make a good bed warmer.”
“Ewch i ffwrdd eich hun!” shouted Mim in response.
“What did the bicce say?” he asked.
“She said go fuck yourself!” the masked warrior at Da N’tan’s side had spoken.
“You are a woman also? So the rumours of shield maidens are true, is she your trusted companion, Scartho, if so she can be Dudda’s slave.”
“I would first cut off his balls, then his ugly head!” growled Wassa.
Cynewulf laughed and leaned toward Da N’tan. “My dryicge saw your shaman’s vision as he dreamt it, the day is ours and you already know it.”
At that, Saewine, who had an iron claw strapped to his stump, laughed loudly.
“You will not accept my demands?” asked Da N’tan.
“In the words of your red-haired vixen, go fuck yourself.”
“Then battle it is, I promise you, Boneshaker, that my face will be the last thing you see!” and with that the Scartho party turned as one and rode back to their lines. As they passed through, Leofric raised his war axe high and a volley of arrows from the Brython archers fell among Boneshaker’s men causing many casualties.
“Shield wall!” yelled Wassa and the front row of black-mailed warriors locked shields, Mim rode to join her fellow countrymen, unlimbering her fine bow as she did. Wassa, riding to the right dismounted to fight on foot alongside her five hundred ferdrinc. Da N’tan took the left with Saewine at his side and getting off his horse, raised his war axe again. Tall horns with the mouths of dragons sounded with a wailing tone, and the whole contingent moved forward as one, synchronising their step to shake the ground as they marched.
The forces of Wrocenset somewhat disconcerted by this orderly display closed with them forming a shield wall as they advanced, when they were within a few yards every warrior on the Scartho front line threw one of their spears as Owen’s bowmen fired another volley to down yet more of the opposing side, who had still to reach striking distance. When they had closed to within a spear’s length the second row thrust their weapons through gaps in the shield wall to the further detriment of Cynewulf’s troops and both shield walls collided with a crash, each striving to gain advantage against the other. The Wrocenset line fell quickly back in an attempt to overbalance Scartho’s but they were experienced fighters and only a few fell forward to be hacked down by the enemy. The Scartho force, surging forward, toppled many of the enemy and the Wrocenset shield wall broke in places, allowing Da N’tan’s men to push through.
“We have them!” shouted Leofric above the clamour, chopping down an assailant with his axe.
“Do not be too hasty my lord.” returned Saewine, knocking away a man’s shield with his own before raking his iron claw across the unfortunate’s exposed throat. “There was something gloating in the bahstards voice.”
Cynewulf, on seeing the shield wall broken, issued an order. A red flag was waved on high and a thousand lightly armoured skirmishers ran out from depressions in the ground, to harass the Scartho troops on each side while reinforcing Cynewulf’s beleaguered soldiers. Owen, stood back from the fray with, Mim, ordered his bowmen to concentrate on the left side while Osric, who had been biding his time, moved his forces quickly from the nearby wood to the sound of brass horns. The Ironhelm’s horsemen were all armed with long spears, which they put to good effect.
“They have horse-warriors!” shouted one of Cynewulf’s bodyguards.
“So did, The Bahstard, at Hastings yet he was defeated by brave warriors on foot. Get your men in order and present your spear-points to them, horses do not like that!” he ordered. Things were not going as expected, and the skirmishers on Da N’tans flank were now in full retreat from Osric’s horsemen, allowing the Thegn’s son to advance towards the red flag, where he knew he would find his adversary.
Dudda, swinging his double-handed axe around his head, was hewing through the enemy like wheat when he saw the tall figure striding towards him. He struck at Wassa but she caught the long axe on her shield which split in twain as it deflected the blow, while his weapon buried its head deep in the ground. As he pulled his sword from its scabbard, Wassa caught him on the side of his helmet making his head ring like a bell. Dudda recovered sufficiently to swing his long sword catching her war axe and throwing it sideways but the cempestre butted her helmeted head against his, to knock Cynewulf’s champion to the ground before he had chance to swing back. Crushing his hand under her studded boot Wassa pulled off her helmet to give him a scarred grin before driving her seax through the eye slit of his helm.
Cynewulf spotted Da N’tan fighting his way towards him with his ferdrinc and rallied his body-guard, charging at the Thegn’s son in an attempt to turn the battle. Cynewulf was no mean fighter but Da N’tan was quicker and hacked off the Boneshaker’s sword hand with his battle-axe, as Cynewulf recoiled, Da N’tan smashed his left arm with the back of the head then swung it down across his legs…
Cynewulf was sat where he could see across the valley floor, which was the field of victory, for Scartho not Wrocenset. He was bound to a spear pole driven into the ground while on the opposite hill, his burh burned in the falling twilight. Princess Edythe rode into sight accompanied by Wassa, who helped her dismount then she walked somewhat painfully to the Boneshaker and without a word raised her skirts to urinate on him.
“You see it’s all down to interpretation my Lord,” remarked Saewine to Leofric, as the cempestre led the young woman back to her horse. “Why else did you think I let the Wicca read my mind?” he nodded towards Nessa’s body where Mim was wiping her curved black dagger clean on the witch’s ragged dress. “I knew she would recount it to him and he would see it as a good omen, making him foolishly rash.”
Da N’tan looked at the Boneshaker, trussed to the spear haft and barely alive. “Well, I have a promise to keep!” and drawing his seax, walked slowly uphill.