"King Waermund Wihtlaeging, Ruler of Angelyn and Protector of Jutland, after a long and prosperous reign begat in his old age his only son Offa, who grew up tall beyond the measure of his age, but dull, stupid, and speechless, so that all men despised him," Eldred said, beginning the Lay word for word.
"Dull, stupid, speechless," King Offa thought. "I wish that Eldred and his father could have put it a little more tactfully." While he would be the first to admit that he was never one for wasting words on foolishness, Offa felt that dull and stupid were poor adjectives for describing someone such as himself. A modest man, he would allow Eldred poetic license, especially since he had heard this story every year for the past twenty-some years and he knew that the story made him look good. Since he knew word for word what Eldred would say, Offa decided to let his mind review what really had happened so many years ago.
"After all, only the gods know how long that I will live, but I do know that today is the last time that I will get to sit on this throne, surveying a strong and independent people that Woden has privileged me to lead while I hear a story that does me proud told to those same people. It is a good story, but only I know what really happened and what the people involved were truly like. Eldred's story is but a mere skeleton of what really happened. So while I'm basking in the love and acceptance of my people, I'll remember what really happened."
Offa had been told since he could remember that he had come as a considerable disappointment to his father, King Waermund. King Waermund had easily sired five daughters from the woman that he had grown to love since his arranged marriage, his queen, Elfreda. Queen Elfreda easily bore daughters, but male children seemed to perish from some cause or another soon after birth.
This was a source of displeasure for King Waermund. It seemed to him that either the gods or his wife were out to humble him by denying his male essence fertile ground someplace, but being a fair-minded man he wouldn't punish anyone for crimes that he wasn't able to prove. After the third daughter was born and the second male infant died, he had a tendency to be tight-lipped and surly for a few months after a disappointing childbirth, but his passionate nature, genuine love for his queen, and determination to have a son led him to "forgive" his wife and try again and again to sire the desired offspring. Queen Elfreda gave birth to another two daughters.
Just as King Waermund, approaching forty-five, was considering trying out another queen for suitability in granting him what he most desired, Queen Elfreda came to term again. She labored mightily, giving birth to a boy with a huge head. Her task done, she died a few days later. The child was named "Offa," and a slave wetnurse who had lost her child was purchased to provide nourishment for the young prince.
King Waermund didn't remarry. Now that he had a heir and no wife, he could discreetly enjoy compliant feminine bounty found on his numerous travels around his kingdom. He was no longer under any pressure to produce another heir, which suited him fine, since he had begun to wonder if he would be able to produce another. Barren women and the few whores allowed to ply their trade suited King Waermund just fine.
Young Prince Offa was left behind in Leire with his foster mother, the wet nurse. Before he was two years old, his foster mother was sold by the steward on the grounds that she was no longer needed. Offa's care and feeding was left to elderly, disinterested servants who made sure that the princeling was adequately fed, but they neglected the education of their future king. None of the servants wished to take upon themselves the task of rearing King Waermund's child. Offa, son and grandson of men who had acted as if words were pieces of silver, not to be rashly spent, acquired the reputation of being unwilling to speak. As Offa reached his third year, many considered the child to be either dumb of speech or obstinate and stupid. No one seemed to consider that Offa had no friends or concerned adults that he wished to communicate with. Offa would wander about the house. Whenever he needed to be fed, he would simply walk into the kitchen and help himself to food. If anyone tried to prevent the young prince from doing as he pleased, the child would glare at that servant and screech until he got whatever he wanted. Before she had been sold, the wetnurse had taken it upon herself to teach Offa to speak a few words and to control his bowels. These actions made her job easier. After she left, Offa was never heard to utter a single word.
This state of affairs continued until Prince Offa was four years old. King Waermund stopped in Leire for the winter and found that his only son's education had been sorely neglected. He was about to order the housekeeping staff of his hall beaten. Then his sense of fair play overrode that order. He summoned the wetnurse that had been dismissed by an overly officious steward. King Waermund found that she had been sold, and that her whereabouts were presently unknown. Consoling himself with the observation that a future king shouldn't be taught by a slave anyway, he engaged an old warrior, one of King Wihtlaeg's retainers named Esgar, to teach his son the manly arts. Then King Waermund busied himself with the affairs of government that had piled up around Leire. When spring arrived, King Waermund's court started the circular cycle again, this time to Hedeby. Prince Offa and his new tutor were left behind at Leire.
Esgar, an inveterate bachelor of the old school, set upon gaining Prince Offa's respect and trust by using a sturdy stick upon the royal bottom whenever Offa failed to obey his orders. Esgar made no allowances for Prince Offa's supposed stupidity, treating his charge as he would treat a younger warrior under his command or an especially smart hound he had to train. Offa at first resented his new guardian, but since Esgar took the young boy everywhere with him, Offa found his world expanding. While Esgar wouldn't spend a copper on his new charge, he did provide something far more valuable -- his undivided attention.
Offa was allowed to roam the fields and woods, swim in the ocean, stay up late at taverns where Esgar would drink with his contemporaries. Sometimes, if Esgar was in a good mood, he would let Offa lick the foam from his drinking horn after he had emptied it. But after the first time, he would allow young Offa such allowances only if the young prince asked it of him. By using such tricks, Esgar persuaded Offa to use three or four word sentences, always limited to Offa stating his wants. An understanding grew between the old warrior in his fifties and the young prince. Offa would do as he was commanded by Esgar. If Offa failed to do as Esgar commanded, Offa would take his spanking without comment or outcry. If Offa wanted something he would ask Esgar for it. Esgar would see to it that the young prince's requests were fulfilled, or Esgar would deny these requests. In any case, Offa would never speak in the presence of others, even if he knew them. His trust resided in Esgar alone.
The next winter, King Waermund was in Leire. While the worship of Nerthus had been curtailed a long time ago, Leire, by long tradition, was the winter residence of the Angle kings.
King Waermund felt good after a jolly hunt that netted three boars and a large stag that afternoon. Seated on his throne atop a high platform in the center of his hall and after having drank more than a few horns of ale in front of a hot fire, he became bored. Remembering his son whom he hadn't seen for over seven months, the king summoned for Esgar and his charge. Esgar, at the edge of the crowd of courtiers, took Offa by the hand and they walked up to the throne.
Esgar knelt on one knee and said, "Welcome back, Lord King," as he looked at King Waermund's feet. He let go of Offa's hand, motioning for the young prince to emulate his example. Offa made no attempt to obey. Instead he looked his father in the eye, then glanced around in curiosity. Only when King Waermund began to glower at him did the young prince look down at his feet.
"Doesn't the child know how to obey, Esgar?" Waermund asked.
"Lord, he does obey upon occasion, when he chooses to do so. On those other occasions he takes his punishment without complaint," Esgar said.
"What do you have to say for yourself, boy," Waermund said, ignoring Esgar's response.
Offa said nothing. He gave his father another inspection, then glanced around the room.
"Can't the child speak yet?" asked the King.
"Only a few words, and then only to those he knows," Esgar said.
"It would seem that you haven't done any better in training my son than those stupid thralls did," King Waermund said. "You have done better with less promising recruits. You have failed me, Esgar."
"Lord King, I did as best as I could. Perhaps the Prince would have learned more at the feet of his father."
King Waermund turned red. A hush fell over the room. Only Prince Offa seemed unconcerned. Although King Waermund was renowned for his fairness, it was considered extremely bad form to imply that the King was at fault for anything.
"You both are dismissed for now," King Waermund said, tight-lipped. "We will talk later, Esgar."
Esgar stood up. Taking Offa's hand, Esgar bowed, then walked backwards from the King's presence.
That night the King summoned Esgar to talk with him privately.
"What is wrong with the child? Why doesn't he speak? Is he an imbecile?" King Waermund asked.
"The boy is not an idiot, Sir. It's just that Prince Offa is a very shy child. It takes time to build up a position of trust with your son. Even then, he will go for days without saying a word," Esgar said. "I am impressed by the manly way your son takes his punishment for infractions caused by his stubbornness. If you wish to get closer to your son, have a heir that you will be proud of, you will have to spend more time with him. Failing that, I advise you to remarry and produce another heir more to your liking."
"Impossible!" King Waermund said, slicing the air with the edge of his right hand. "I am far too busy. Perhaps he can go with me in my seasonal circuit of the kingdom."
"Sir, if you have no time to spend with your son, I think that it is better that he stay here. Your retainers are mostly warriors. Some are stupid, some are shallow, and some are intensely ambitious. Your son has no business in the company of soldiers and whores. If you won't remarry, then leave him here. I will teach him to be a warrior. How much he wishes to speak will be up to him."
The King sighed. "Very well, Esgar. The child stays here. I will leave his unmarried sisters here to help you along. See to it that the child learns some manners."
"I will do what I can. Please remember, Lord King, that the child is the descendant of Woden and thus not likely by nature to be subservient to a mere commoner."
King Waermund grunted, then let Esgar go.
During the three months that followed, King Waermund avoided trying to get his son to put on an act before his court.
Prince Offa wouldn't pretend to find his father's court interesting. If anyone tried to engage the young prince's attention, Offa ignored them. Offended, some people whispered that the young prince was an idiot.
When spring came, King Waermund detached his middle-born daughter to help keep an eye on her brother while the rest of the court packed for the trip to the summer palace of Hedeby. King Waermund would collect his taxes in kind and hold court along the way. His chiefs had the duty to provide hospitality for as long as the king stayed. King Waermund would leisurely meander toward his estates in Hedeby in the spring, spend the summer in and around Hedeby, spend a few short weeks with his brother King Wehta of the Jutes in the fall, then move back north to Leire for the winter. Esgar, Offa, and the unfortunate sister were left behind with the old servants and field slaves.
As Offa grew older, sometimes King Waermund would summon his son to attend him on his numerous travels around his realm. Offa would obey orders if sufficiently pressed, but never would he speak. After a period of time, be it days or even weeks, spent in his silent son's company, King Waermund would eventually grow impatient and order his son back to Leire, regardless of the season. Offa learned to hide any signs of intelligence, sometimes even letting his mouth hang open like a village idiot's, so that he could go back to Leire that much sooner. King Waermund would sometimes summon back his son several times during the year, and as often lose patience with his heir.
The years passed. Esgar taught Offa the use of the spear, the shield, and the sword. Providing Offa with a suit of armor proved difficult, then impossible, since Offa continually grew, becoming a huge young man. His chest was as wide around as a small beer keg. His height was well above normal. As the son of a king, he never had to worry about getting enough to eat, and his genetic heritage allowed him to grow to a stature to where he was the tallest man in the land. People said that Woden had compensated his descendent with a great body to make up for his lack of speech and intellect.
Esgar was deemed an excellent teacher of the warlike arts, having survived to reach the ripe old age of fifty. Having greater experience, he routinely defeated Prince Offa. A competitive man, Esgar always played to win, telling Offa that trainees learned more from lumps received due to their mistakes than a hundred words of praise for mediocrity or even excellence. The two would practice using wooden swords, spear shafts, regular shields, and leather armor.
As Offa got older and stronger and Esgar got older, Esgar found that it was harder and harder to defeat the young prince. Offa had learned most of his tricks and had devised a few of his own. When Offa was thirteen and as tall as Esgar, Offa fought Esgar to a standstill. Several days later, Esgar suffered his first defeat. Esgar toyed with the notion of cheating, but upon reflection decided to imbue the young prince with the ideals of courtesy and mercy instead.
"You are getting too strong for an old man like myself," Esgar said, panting after an especially strenuous session at swords' point with his pupil. "If I was still in my prime, I'd show you another lump or two. I have seen fifty-nine summers, more than I thought I'd ever see when I was your age. You're good, but you'd never last against me or the great warriors of old. Chief Octa Lopheads would whack your head off in a minute. And if he didn't get you, that great spearman, King Wihtlaeg's lieutenant Ebissa Bersing would. They don't make men like they used to anymore. Such men taught me what I know. But," he said, after swallowing to wetten his throat, dry after all his huffing and puffing, "you'll do, if you keep your head.
"Never let men see how good you are, unless you are ready to send them on to Valhalla or Hel. Then it's too late for them. They don't need to know that sort of thing; only a fool tries to impress other foolish men. If your father, the King, wants to see how well I've trained you, show him that you know what end of the sword to hold, but that's all. Follow my advice and you might live as long as your ancestor, King Geat, or be as famous as Geat's father, King Beaw Roman-killer Dragon-slayer."
Offa nodded to show Esgar that he understood what he had heard. After Esgar regained his wind, they fought again.
Esgar lived another two years. One winter night he drank too much, fell into a puddle outside the tavern while walking back to his sleeping place in the Great Hall, broke his hipbone, and spent several hours outdoors. Prince Offa had been commanded to attend his father's court that night. When he was able to leave, he searched for Esgar, finding him on the deserted path between the tavern and the Great Hall. Offa took Esgar inside, but it was too late. Esgar came down with a fever and the coughing sickness. Esgar died two days later.
Esgar's body was allowed to freeze for the winter. When spring arrived and the land thawed, Esgar would be buried with his shield, spear, and knife. Esgar's sword went to a nephew. Esgar's mail byrnie reverted to the king, who gave it to one of his retainers, a man of much the same size as the deceased.
Esgar's death raised a number of questions. What had Esgar taught the stripling entrusted to his care? Everyone agreed that Offa wasn't very intelligent; he still no longer spoke at all; but had Esgar taught his pupil the minimum necessary for survival among a warlike people? Everyone at King Waermund's court asked that question, keeping silent only within earshot of the royal family.
King Waermund heard those questions. He ordered Offa to show him what he had learned after eleven years of study under Esgar. An old shield was placed against a tree in a clearing outside Leire. Thirty paces were measured, and Offa was allowed ten throws at the target. Offa, remembering Esgar's words of advice but still not wanting his teacher's name reviled, managed to hit the shield twice and scored a near miss three times. When it came time to measure Offa's swordplay, there was a delay while a coat of mail large enough to fit the growing prince was searched for. One of King Waermund's surplus byrnies, one used eighteen years before, when King Waermund had suffered the most from middle-aged spread, was eventually offered to Prince Offa. Offa and his fellow combatant, a young man of eighteen years who was the greenest retainer of King Waermund, fought a mock duel equipped in full armor with helmets, shields, and wooden swords. The young retainer left himself open a number of times. A skilled warrior would have been able to kill him, but Offa didn't seem to see those chances. Instead, after about two minutes, the young retainer managed to score what would have been a mortal wound if it had been a real fight. Offa outweighed his opponent by one stone and had a hand's-breadth reach on his opponent. After the mock duel was fought, the equipment was put away along with King Waermund's old suit of armor.
The primary impression that people had received from Prince Offa's performance was surprise. True, Prince Offa was several years behind most of his contemporaries, but it was still surprising that a young man of such stupidity was able to do so well. Yes, Esgar had done surprisingly well with what he had been given, even though he was bigger than most. No, a king's primary duty wasn't necessarily to lead a charge at the head of his warriors, although a number of Prince Offa's ancestors had done precisely that. A king's primary duty was to appear on the field of battle, then be protected by his band of retainers. With luck, someone smart could be found to advise Prince Offa after King Waermund died. Offa overheard those conversations.
That evening King Waermund sat on his throne, brooding. He ate and drank sparingly. He stared at his son, who was standing silently alone behind his retainers and some of their wives.
The next morning, two messengers departed by boat. One message went to King Wehta Wihtlaeging in Jutland, reminding that king that Prince Offa was his nephew. The other message went to Chief Freawine, Head Ealdorman of Hedeby and Governor of Schleswig Province. This message proposed a double betrothal. King Waermund's youngest daughter would marry Freawine's oldest son, Keto. Freawine's eldest daughter Cynethryth would marry Prince Offa. Was this proposal acceptable to Chief Freawine?
Two weeks passed. King Waermund was assured by his brother that Jutland would always support the Anglican throne. Five days later, King Waermund received a message from Chief Freawine assuring him that Freawine would be honored sharing bloodlines with the house of Woden. Would it be acceptable to have the betrothals officially announced midsummer eve? King Waermund sent a message back to Freawine. The answer was yes.
Spring arrived in the Northland. Burials, including Esgar's, that had been put off due to frozen ground were carried out before the corpses thawed. On the day of the spring equinox, King Waermund yoked up a pair of oxen and symbolically plowed a furrow or two. His religious duties done, King Waermund left his hall in Leire and commenced his yearly circle around his kingdom. First he visited Odense on the island of Fyn for three weeks and inspected his property on that island. Then he spent a short fortnight in Nykobing on the island of Falster, with a short day or two spent across the small strait on the island of Lolland, inspecting his lands and dispensing any justice that might need to be done there. After having inspected the defenses, collected tribute and taxes from his chieftains, and administered whatever justice was necessary on the major islands under his control, King Waermund went directly to Hedeby on the mainland. There he would spend the late spring and summertime. Of all his towns and land holdings, King Waermund preferred to spend as much of his time as possible in Hedeby. Not because Hedeby had the best climate or because of the amusements available, but because most of his enemies were situated on his southern border and Hedeby guarded his southern marches.
The Saxons were on the border and Waermund trusted not a single one of
their warlike kinglets and chiefs. The Saxon Overking, King Friogar, was a good twenty years Waermund's junior. King Friogar, a cautious man, was unlikely to start a war with the Angles, but he would let his more aggressive kinglets probe and pick at King Waermund's defenses. If his wolf cubs found weakness, King Friogar would be more than willing to finish off the Angles, then shoulder his kinglets aside and get the main share of the feast. All of which was to be expected.
Over the centuries, the cousinly tribes of Angle and Saxon had fought against each other for gain and glory and by long custom fixed their boundary along the Eider River. The Eider started in a small lake several hours walk from a fjord in the Baltic. From there it flowed in a southwesternly direction twenty miles across the peninsula until it made an abrupt change to the north. After flowing north for ten miles, the Eider turned west and then flowed for twenty miles until it emptied into a small fjord in the Baltic. In these wars, the Saxons had the greater numbers, the Angles the better leadership. The Angles usually got the better of these wars. Time and again, under a great leader like Sceaf or Woden, the Angles would dominate the rivers and plains of Northern Germany, then when the great man died find out that they were no longer able keep control over their Saxon cousins. Indeed, it was a tradition that once the Angles and Saxons were one people, but then the younger Saxon clans were driven south out of the heart of the peninsula and into the riverine plains.
The most ferocious and able of King Friogar's wolf cubs was King Eadgils, leader of the Myringas, a small Saxon tribe nestled hard against the eastern portion of the Eider. King Eadgils, a dark-haired, green-eyed, twenty-nine-year-old, was renowned the best duelist in the Northland. He had fought over fifteen personal combats, and hadn't lost one yet. If by using some trick or craft he could gain an advantage, he would use it. If an opportunity didn't arise, Eadgils used superior strength and skill to wear down his opponent, eventually forcing him into a corner and dispatching him.
King Eadgils had another claim to fame. His youngest sister Ealhhild was married to none other than King Eomenric the Ostrogoth, ruler of a vast realm from the eastern Baltic to where the Eastern Roman Empire ended. Eadgils boasted that he was on the best of terms with his mighty brother-in-law. Most of Eadgils's fellow kings listened to his boasts, although they privately discounted Eomenric's interest in moving North. Eadgils seemed to be nothing more than a poor relation to a heroic king like Eomenric.
Until three years ago, Eadgils hadn't been able to sustain more than 150 full-time armed retainers. Some petty cattle stealing had been all that was attributed to Eadgils. Then a small hamlet of ten families had been raided and burned around the small lake that was the source of the Eider. The headman of the village, a doughty warrior named Mikla Epping, had been killed, along with the able-bodied men and the aged of the village. Mikla's armor had been stripped from his body. There were no weapons in sight, although the condition of the bodies testified to a violent end. The women, children, and livestock were gone. The town had been burned, and treasure hoards were broken into. The trail led south, into Myringas' territory. In an insulting response to Governor Freawine's inquiry, Eadgils disclaimed all knowledge and responsibility for the raid, but soon afterwards he had enough money to hire another 100 retainers. King Waermund and Governor Freawine suspected Eadgils, but were unable to prove anything. Eadgils would be watched carefully in the future.
King Waermund, after a week spent sailing from Nykobing to the western island of Lolland, then the southern tip of Langeland island, then up the fjord to Hedeby, was in short temper when his best longship was tied to the pier of his summer capital. No one was there to greet him, so he sent a warrior to fetch Ealdorman Freawine. After five minutes, Freawine's youngest son, Wego, greeted King Waermund.
"I am sorry, Lord King, that you haven't been greeted according to your station by my father or oldest brother," Wego said. "They are inspecting the defenses on the Eider today. We have heard a rumor that Eadgils is thinking of raiding another town. They left me behind to greet you, King Waermund, if you arrived today. Your hall has been cleaned for your arrival."
"Very good, young man. You have seemed to grow an inch or two since I left here last spring," King Waermund said. He looked at Wego with evident approval.
Wego was a tall, well-built young man of about seventeen years. His byrnie hung tight about the upper chest and arms, loosely around the belly. Wego was clean-shaven, except for the slight mustache that adorned his upper lip. His long, blond hair was clean, as was his gear and weapons. Wego put on a smart appearance. His eyes radiated intelligence, his manners seemed impeccable, and he was well spoken.
Waermund looked back at his son. Offa looked stolidly at the buildings in Hedeby. King Waermund sighed, then he looked back at Wego.
"Lead on, young Wego. We will unpack today. Then I will place my retainers at your father's disposal. They will make short work of the likes of Eadgils," King Waermund said.
The royal procession moved through town, until it got to the long hall reserved for the royal household. The slaves and courtiers started unpacking.
The next day, Chief Freawine and his family called upon King Waermund, now comfortably ensconced in his great hall. Freawine brought along his wife, two sons, and his oldest daughter, Cynethryth. His children would marry into the royal family, and he was justifiably proud of the honor that he had been granted.
"This is my oldest son, Keto," Freawine said.
Keto was a younger version of his father. Keto bowed to King Waermund, but his eyes strayed to his future bride, King Waermund's youngest daughter. She had been kept in Leire, keeping an eye on her brother Offa, so Keto had not seen his future bride since they were children. Keto was dressed in his martial finery, as his brother had been the day before. Keto, a twenty year old with brown hair and blue eyes, seemed to have an air of competent assurance. King Waermund didn't look at Offa in comparison this time.
"You met Wego yesterday," Freawine said. "And this is my daughter, Cynethryth. She will make a good wife for Prince Offa."
Cynethryth, a stunning girl of fourteen, bowed before King Waermund. Her flame-red hair seemed a bright spot in the dark hall. Her figure was starting to fill in, but she looked like she would never be plump enough to have a matronly figure. Her blue eyes, the windows to her soul, shined with determination. as she straightened up.
"I would rather marry you, King Waermund," Cynethryth said. She had met her future husband a number of times before when she had been a child and she had informed her parents that she thought he was a dolt.
The court gasped when they heard what Cynethryth said. Her stepmother, who had married Freawine two years before, looked as if she wanted to tear out Cynethryth's magnificent red hair out by the roots, every strand. Freawine flushed. Keto and Wego looked embarrassed. Offa said nothing. King Waermund grinned the indulgent smile that men give an exceptionally beautiful girl who speaks her mind.
"I am honored, Cynethryth. But I am also too old for you. A woman such as yourself would send me to an early grave, but with a smile no doubt. So I will leave the learning of love to the young. And I happen to agree with your father. You will make a fine wife for my son, once you learn to curb your tongue." King Waermund looked at Freawine. "You have a fine family, but now I want to talk about Eadgils and the state of my defenses. The women are excused from these matters."
All of the few women present at King Waermund's court took this as their signal to withdraw to the cooking shed and leave their husbands and the warlike bachelors alone to discuss military matters. Freawine began to make a report concerning military matters on the southern marches of King Waermund's realm.
"Do you think that Eadgils will attack soon, Chief Freawine?" King Waermund asked.
"No, King Waermund. Eadgils, that slippery snake, is quite aware that you have brought with you one hundred retainers, and that you have another couple of hundred coming soon after. He won't do anything that will bring down the wrath of your combined kingdom. Rather, he will try isolated raids in the wintertime, whenever he can get away with it," Freawine said, rubbing his beard. "It would help keep him honest if you could hold your court here year round."
"Out of the question. I must keep making my rounds of the kingdom, reminding my chieftains and the Jutes as to where ultimate power comes from if I want to maintain a steady tribute of men and money. The cows grow fattest under the eye of the master. What if I called forth the militia, the fyrd, to help you eliminate Eadgils? Would the rest of the Saxons avenge Eadgils?"
"Lord, I believe that they would. Nobody likes Eadgils overmuch, but the Saxons will band together if one of their kinglets is attacked without good reason. Are you ready for a major war against the Saxons, Lord?"
"So we have to catch Eadgils red-handed, with the blood fresh and hot on his fingers, before we can act decisively?"
"That is how I see it, Sir."
"Eadgils had around one hundred fifty men, fully armed and armored. Are his latest hundred retainers similarly equipped?"
"No, Sir. They are armed with spear, shield, and leather armor, although the officers have swords and better armor. If you leave me one hundred men from your bodyguard this winter, I am sure that we can prevent Eadgils from crossing the Eider in force."
"Hmm," King Waermund said as he scratched his beard. "Very well. That will give me fully one hundred to travel with and another hundred stationed about. This summer I want you to call up the militia in your district and get them prepared to defend their property if the need ever arises. After all, they are helping defend their own lives and property." Waermund paused and thought for a moment. "Lastly, I want to make sure that if Eadgils causes trouble, that he is caught in the act. Mere suspicion isn't good enough to start a war. Post scouts at every ford and open area on the Eider. Let Eadgils know he is being watched."
"Yes, sir." Freawine awaited the next order.
Waermund noticed Freawine's stiffness and he grinned. "Relax, Chief Freawine. After all, soon you will be my kinsman. I am impressed with your sons Keto and Wego. They have grown into fine young warriors. Since my youngest daughter, Adda, is seventeen and Keto is twenty, I propose that they have a short betrothal and that they be married midsummer's day. What do you think of this, Chief Freawine?"
"I am honored, Lord King." Freawine replied.
"Since Adda is the daughter of a king, and descended from Woden and Sceaf, she must have a suitable dowry. What say you to five hundred hides of land next to the Eider, next to Fifelder, with another thousand available on the other side if we defeat the Myringas? My generosity is exceeded only by my practicality, Freawine."
"A generous dowry, King Waermund. But I won't be able to match this for Cynethryth."
"Your daughter should be able to bear strong sons from Offa." King Waermund looked at his son on the edges of the crowd. He motioned for Freawine to move a step closer. When Freawine did so, Waermund said in a much lower tone, "But what I especially want are intelligent grandchildren. I rely on you and your sons to help Offa govern when I am gone." Waermund raised his voice. "But if you want to give me an especially generous dowry for Cynethryth, Eadgils's head, armor, and weaponry, along with security on my southern border will do nicely."
The midsummer wedding of Keto and Princess Adda and the betrothal ceremony of Prince Offa and Cynethryth was celebrated by all, with the possible exception of Offa and Cynethryth. Offa said not a word, only nodding his head at the appropriate times. Cynethryth performed her part of the ceremony with the minimum permissible responses. Her father had enforced his will with a number of threats, then a series of beatings on his daughter's buttocks, and finally with the observation that the marriage was at least three years away, maybe four. Under this pressure, Cynethryth finally relented, doubtless hoping that something would happen to her prospective bridegroom before then.
All of the neighboring kings, chiefs, and notable warriors were invited, including Eadgils. Not a single Saxon came to the ceremonies performed at Hedeby. King Wehta, the Jutish king, attended, as did the great men of the Anglican Confederation. A few Danes and Geats visited, as did a Swedish warrior. The usual care was taken to keep the Swede and Geats separated. Not a single Saxon attended.
The summer passed without incident. Eadgils stayed on his side of the Eider. When September came and the leaves on the trees began to change colors, King Waermund left Hedeby. As previously agreed, King Waermund left behind roughly one hundred of his personal bodyguard.
"If Eadgils causes any trouble, Freawine, call out the garrison and your Select Fyrd, and hope that they and these men I have left you can hold him off. If Eadgils starts something, Woden help me, I'll call out the Great Fyrd and devastate all of Saxony next spring. But we have covered this before. Send a messenger by horse or boat to me every week. You know where I'll be."
"Yes, Lord King. And Sir, I have been honored by the faith that you have shown in me," Chief Freawine said.
"Not honored, Chief Freawine, as much as trusted. I'll see you next April." King Waermund turned and got aboard his longship for the journey up the eastern peninsula of Jutland. Waermund would visit some Jutish chieftains subordinate to his brother, King Wehta, in Arhus. Then he would sail further up the coast, leaving his ships at Randers on the Gudenamouth, for the journey to his brother's capital city of Viborg. After a month of visiting Jutland, King Waermund hoped to be able to visit the northerly Vendsyssel Islanders living at the top of the peninsula before making winter quarters at Leire. King Waermund hadn't been able to visit Vendsyssel last year.
King Waermund and his court spent an enjoyable fall in Jutland, and most of a hearty and snug winter in Leire, when news reached him that Eadgils had crossed the frozen marshes and streams to attack Schleswig Province. The messenger, a grizzled, middle-aged warrior named Folco gave his report. King Waermund knew Folco fairly well. He was Freawine's chief lieutenant.
"A number of the outlying villages were raided and burned until Eadgils decided to head straight for Hedeby," Folco reported. "Eadgils's army consisted mainly of his bodyguard; they didn't have much over two hundred men when they met us at a meadow outside of Hedeby. We had our militia ready, over two hundred of them, along with most of the hundred men that you left us and forty of our own men at arms. I told Chief Freawine that since we had Eadgils dead to rights we should attack and finish him now. Our militia might get the worst of it, but we outnumbered Eadgils. "Go for the kill now," I urged.
"But that crafty reptile, Eadgils, challenged Freawine to a duel on the field of honor. "If you kill me," Eadgils said, "then your troubles will be over and my leaderless men will go home. What say you to this, Freawine?"
Folco shook his head. His shaggy black eyebrows made an undiminished line across his forehead. "And my master assented to this duel, King Waermund! We had Eadgils outnumbered, he couldn't have gotten away since we had fifteen men on horses to pursue the losers, and Freawine agreed to the duel! When I pointed out that Eadgils had an outstanding reputation on the field of honor, Freawine insisted that he was quite able to take care of himself. If he killed Eadgils, it would be the end of the war after Eadgils's men were killed or enslaved. A chief leads his men from the front, not safely in the rear. "And if I fall," Freawine told me and his sons, "don't be surprised if Eadgils attacks. Avenge me if need be." Freawine then agreed to fight Eadgils in the meadow between the two armies."
Folco's eyes got a distant look as he went on. "The fight lasted for ten minutes. Since the fight was between a king and a nobleman, not a tavern brawl, there was silence as each army awaited the outcome. Soon it was quite clear as to what the outcome would be. Eadgils was by far the most experienced and also the younger and quicker. Chief Freawine held him off for a while, trying to use his greater reach, but eventually Eadgils slashed Freawine's sword arm, then went in for the kill. Freawine didn't suffer long." A tear leaked out of Folco's eye and made a light trail on Folco's dirty right cheek.
Folco's tone hardened and he met King Waermund's eye. "Eadgils ordered his men to attack, but we were ready, and we drove them back. It was a draw at first, but then it seemed that we were about to lose when Wego had the inspiration of calling out for us to hold on until the rest of the militia arrived to take the enemy from the rear. Eadgils heard this and he ordered a withdrawal. We let them leave. There were no reserves and we were about to lose.
"We lost over eighty men, mainly militia. We killed close to fifty of Eadgils's men. They left with their booty, but we held the field. We stripped the enemy dead of their armor and loaned it out to the better militiamen. What are we to do, King Waermund?" Folco asked.
King Waermund thought quickly. "My son-in-law Keto is raised to his father's former post. I will send a hundred men from my personal bodyguard to Hedeby to stabilize the situation. One hundred trained men should deter Eadgils unless all of Saxony is involved.
"Messengers are to be sent to the Jutes and the independent chiefs to gather up their half their men-at-arms and militiamen and prepare for a great campaign in the spring.
King Waermund glanced back at Folco. "You have been a faithful servant to my best governor. Freawine would be alive today if he had followed your advice. So as a mark of my good favor, I will give you one of my gold cups, a family heirloom."
King Waermund clapped his hands. A servant brought forward a gold cup, decorated with warriors locked in battle on the side in the Greek fashion.
"You are known as a great warrior and an even greater drinker." King Waermund said. "Enjoy my hospitality tonight. In the morning, you will depart with fifty men in my best longship."
The servant prepared to pour some beer into the cup. Folco placed his right hand over the mouth of the cup.
"I accept your gift, King Waermund. But I will not drink until my master's blood is avenged by Eadgils's death. No, the only drink that I shall enjoy will be blood, my own if I let Eadgils escape again. I so swear, before my king and the gods!"
King Waermund listened to Folco's oath. "As you wish, Folco. Inform the islands on the way back of my orders for the spring. I shall depart for Hedeby a month, maybe less, from now. We are not used to fighting in the winter but neither are the Saxons. And I want to settle this issue before it's time for plowing."
King Waermund's eye alighted upon his son, standing off to the side of his courtiers and in the corner of his hall. He decided to issue another order.
"My son Offa will go to Hedeby in the other ship. I want my chieftains in Fyn and South Jutland to know how important the relief of Hedeby is to me."
"Herjan," Waermund said to one of his retainers, "you are in charge of this matter. I want a full compliment of men awaiting me when I reach Hedeby. See to it that Prince Offa learns something and is safe at the same time."
Herjan Hebbing, a stout, middle-aged man with a reputation for getting any job done with a minimum of fuss, nodded and said, "I shall do my best, King Waermund."
"Very well then. Now let the festivities recommence," ordered King Waermund.
The next day, two longships filled with warriors departed for Hedeby. The ship that carried Folco would go by Falster and Lolland islands. The other ship would put in at Odense on Fyn, then to a number of small villages on the eastern coast of Jutland. Waermund intended to get troops currently enjoying winter quarters involved in the defense of Hedeby without delay. Under normal circumstances there was only one day's difference in sailing time between the two routes.
Offa enjoyed sailing in the longship even though Herjan Hebbing wasn't one for idle hands aboard ship, and he put Prince Offa to rowing with the rest. They reached Odense at the end of the second day.
Odense was a small town of around three thousand souls situated at the end of a small fjord. Odense got its drinking water from a small river that flowed through the town. The head chieftain of the island lived here, as did a number of his richest subjects. Wasting no time after the longship was drawn up on the beach, Herjan motioned Offa to follow him along with ten of the largest retainers. Herjan immediately led his men to the largest house in Odense.
The headman of the village released half his retinue to fight King Waermund's latest war. He offered to go himself, but Herjan refused, telling him to prepare his militia for springtime and to get the message out. The headman also offered to call upon the households and see if anyone wanted to fight for glory and any booty to be acquired in the war. Herjan accepted the offer. The next morning, when it became time to leave, fifteen well-armed men from the headman's bodyguard and the first families of Odense along with forty militiamen armed with spears and shield crowded aboard the newly packed longship. The men raised the main sail after leaving the fjord and headed west towards Jutland. After three days of sailing and rowing and sleeping in small villages by night, they arrived in Hedeby.
Wego was there to greet the ship. Herjan was about to bring the men to their quarters in King Waermund's great hall, when Wego invited Prince Offa to stay at in his family's household.
"After all, Prince Offa, we are practically brothers," Wego said. Turning to Herjan, he asked permission to show the young prince his personal hospitality. Herjan quickly agreed to Wego's request, then went in search of Keto for orders concerning the disposition of his men. Offa followed his future brother-in-law home.
Freawine's widow, Hebeke, greeted Prince Offa effusively. She saw her future son-in-law as the key to renewing the family fortunes now that Freawine had been killed.
Cynethryth gave Offa no such greeting. "It is not the custom for a prospective bridegroom to intrude into his bride's home before the marriage. What are you doing here?" she asked in a disdainful tone.
Wego laughed. "Come off it, Cyn. Your virtue is well guarded. If not by mother," he said, pointing to Hebeke, "then by your personality. And if you do give in, then the marriage that you are so looking forward to will have to be moved up, that's all." Wego laughed again.
Cynethryth felt put upon. Her favorite brother had first invoked her stepmother as a chaperone. She respected Hebeke; they had clashed numerous times and Hebeke always won, but respect and liking are often two different things. Then Wego had made fun of her personality, implying that she was grumpy. Finally he had made a slur against her modesty, hinting that she wanted to bed doltish Offa so as to marry him that much sooner. It was too much. With a disdainful sniff from a proudly raised, pert little nose, she turned, walked to her bed, picked up her knitting, and glowered at her brother, step-mother, and future husband.
Wego favored Cynethryth's departure with the wry comment, "Come a rainstorm she'll drown." Then he led Offa to the fire where the morning's porridge had hardened, and they ate their midday meal.
King Offa shifted upon his throne. His bones ached where he has sat for such a long time without moving. He shifted his seat and swatted away a fly that had rested upon the royal cheek for the longest time. Coming out of his reverie, he noticed that Eldred had finished the part where Folco swore his great oath. Angle and Saxon alike were engaged in the story that Eldred sang.
"As well they should be," Offa thought. "It is our shared legacy of conflict and sometime brotherhood. We so love to fight in our search for glory, gain, power, and altogether too seldom, justice. Yes, they should enjoy the show."
King Offa scanned the crowd. First to catch his attention was Eldred. "Our past, and a noble one it has been." Then Offa glanced toward the left, where King Wihtgils sat, along with his twin sons. "With the support of men like Wihtgils, my loyal cousin, the present moment has been our high point. I wonder what the future will bring when young Hengist is a man."
Offa's glance shifted to the left, where Angeltheow's wife was trying her best to contain her eighteen-month-old son, Eomaer's, struggles to leave her arms. The child was fretting to be turned loose. " I wonder what will happen when he is king. Eomaer means "famous horse." It would be interesting to know whether he gets along with his cousin ' Stallion' as well as I have gotten along with Wihtgils and his father, Witta."
King Offa looked at the armed men seated on the benches across the square. They seemed to be listening to the story, although more than a few were frowning at Eldred's partisan slant on the story. "Our enemies, our cousins. They have had the same effect upon us that a whetstone has on a knife. Sharpening us so that we can be the best. A man is judged by the quality of his enemies. We would grow soft without foes such as these. My son had best stay a step ahead of you, Cousin Saxons."
"All seems to be going as it should. Saxons attentively surly; Angles enjoying the story. Where was I? Oh yes. Thinking of Wego, the most gifted of the Angles, and what happened to him."
In the days following Prince Offa's arrival in his home, Wego exerted conscious effort to charm his future brother-in-law. Wego made it quite clear that Prince Offa's silence didn't bother him in the least.
"It is the natural order of things. I talk and you listen. I prefer your company to that of fools, who try to get a witless word in my stream of conversation like foolish women wanting to row a longship. It's hard work and they can't keep up. So if you want to say something, arrange it with me and I might let you proceed." Wego grinned a large, sly grin that Offa responded to with a shy smile.
Offa was not immune to Wego's charm. After a week spent in Wego's constant company, Offa debated as to whether he trusted Wego enough to speak freely in his company. Not since Esgar died had Offa spoken to another person, and Offa, the epitome of silent self-reliance, was lonely. Wego, the most popular young man in Hedeby, went out of his way to assure Offa that he found Offa's company congenial, showing up at King Waermund's hall with Offa in tow whenever Keto and Herjan discussed strategy. Wego treated the two year younger prince like a perfect equal, and never demanded speech from Offa.
Nine days after Offa's arrival in Hedeby, King Eadgils crossed the Eider. He had learned that Keto was in charge of his father's command. Eadgils wanted to settle the issue before King Waermund could arrive and outnumber him. He had already sent a message off to his nominal overlord, King Friogar. King Friogar's return message intimated that the Saxons wouldn't help him unless Eadgils proved able to eliminate his Angle counterpart. So Eadgils enlisted militiamen to replace the armed retainers that he had lost earlier.
After crossing the Eider across from Keto's farm, Eadgils set fire to the Keto's house, the one that King Waermund had provided as a dowry for Princess Adda, then sent a messenger into Hedeby to challenge the Angles to battle. If the Angles refused, Eadgils would burn a number of farms and villages until the Angles did fight. Eadgils awaited Keto's response while camped in the ashes of Keto's newly ruined farmstead.
"King Eadgils awaits your response," the Myringas messenger prompted. "If he doesn't get it soon, he will be justified in coming to see you."
"How many men does King Eadgils have at my country home?" Keto asked the messenger.
The messenger, a middle-aged man wearing serviceable armor and carrying a spear with King Eadgils's black eagle standard on it, looked uncomfortable. He acted as if he was about to speak, but had thought the better of it. Keto guessed the reason for the messenger's silence.
"I am not asking you to betray your king's military arrangements. But I want to meet King Eadgils in the ashes of my home and water down the dust properly with his life's-blood. So in the interests of making it fair, how many men does he want me to bring? King Waermund's Companions, numbering two hundred? Them, plus some of the Select Fyrd for a total of six hundred? Or is King Eadgils willing to make this a tribal matter, so that I can muster the Great Fyrd of thousands? What will it be?"
"King Eadgils wants his latest conquest to be well populated. No need to kill the yeomen. So only bring your best men; two hundred should do."
Keto smilingly demurred. "So that your three hundred can kill the flower of my available forces? I think not. I will meet him at my farm near the southernmost bend of the Eider with not quite four hundred men.
"We both know that Eadgils is too smart to be caught on our side of the river by superior forces. So he will want to stand across the river and wait for us to ford the Eider. It's cold this time of year. That will give him too much of an advantage." Keto shook his head. "No, four hundred of my men against his two hundred some is quite fair. Agreed?"
The messenger touched his upper lip with the tip of his tongue, then came to a decision. "Agreed. We will wait for you to arrive on the third morning after today. We have your beef to eat and your beer to drink without having to get some more in the surrounding countryside," he said with a sneer. "Don't make us have to come visit you."
"Would you like to have your head placed upon that standard that you hold? When tossed across the Eider, it would give suitable notice of my intent. If not, then you had best hold your tongue. Suffice it to say that we will meet you at Fifelder with four hundred men three days from now. Dismissed!"
The white-faced messenger saluted Keto with his lance, turned around, and left the hall. Within a minute Keto, Wego, Offa, and the rest of the Angle warriors heard the diminishing drumbeat of hooves from the messenger's horse.
Keto, Wego, Folco, and Herjan began to plan their strategy for the upcoming battle.
Offa wanted to go to the upcoming battle, but when he tried to find a place in the ranks the next morning, Wego took his arm and drew him aside.
"You can't go. You are the King's only son. You have been entrusted to my care. And besides, you are only sixteen years old."
Wego looked at Offa's disappointed face. "Keto wouldn't dare let you go in any event. It does you credit that you want to go. But if you did go and it was found out by the enemy that you were King Waermund's son, then your father's retainers would be duty-bound to protect you. And that is not what those men need to worry about now. We must kill Eadgils, avenge my Father, and bring peace to this province."
Offa looked at Wego. How he wanted to speak, if only to register his disappointment! But that would seem to be too much like whining. Instead he nodded, twice.
"You are welcome to stay at my house while I am gone, Prince Offa. Mother will see to your comfort. Don't let Cynethryth annoy you. She is still a shallow little bitch who doesn't know what is good for her. She'll come around someday."
Wego put his hand on the shoulder of the youth that towered above him by a good half-foot, then squeezed. "Come, see me off to the war."
Offa stood in the crowd of women, children, slaves, and ordinary yeomen detailed to hold Hedeby in case something went wrong, watching the warriors leave for battle. Keto and Wego rode at the head of the column, with Folco and Herjan Hebbing slightly behind, leading King Waermund's picked champions.
Every man of that contingent was armed with metal armor of some kind, although a few had to suffice with iron rings sewn to a leather undercoat instead of the better chainmail byrnie. Every man had a sword or, less commonly, an ax as his primary weapon. Although half of them had relatively new weapons, forged during their lifetimes, many of the rest sported family heirlooms, blood-tested swords that had proved their worth for generations.
Each of King Waermund's warriors had a circular limewood shield covered with a tightly stretched bullhide covering the wood. Around the rim of each shield, a black iron band protected it from splintering under the impact of edged weapons. In the center of the shield, an iron or oak boss protected the wearer's hand. Indeed, more than a few of the circular bosses had a protruding spike to impale an unwary foeman!
An iron-tipped, ashwood spear completed these warrior's ensembles. Equally suited for throwing or thrusting, it was the first weapon that a fighting man learned to use. When battle was joined, these men would first throw their spears at the massed enemy, then draw their swords and charge the enemy shield wall. The crash of shields against a resolute enemy would sound like the thunder of surf striking a cliffside.
Many of the men had conical iron helmets, some with iron noseguards. Most of the men had to use leather caps to protect their heads, though.
Every man of that contingent was a seasoned warrior over twenty-five years old and under forty-five. Most of them were the second or third son of a middle to large landowner, their wargear cost so much, although a few of them were the firstborn sons, out for a lark before settling down to responsibility. Every man could fight alone, if necessary, but they had been trained to protect their king, to be his bodyguard on the battlefield. Each man had enough training to form an overlapping shield wall and to keep it while charging upon the enemy in a saw-toothed wedge formation. Bigger, stronger, braver than ordinary men, no infantry force of equal numbers in the known world could best them in a fight, except a crack Roman cohort or maybe King Eomenric's bodyguard. And they knew it. Regrettably, there were only one hundred sixty-two of them available this day.
While horses were available for these men, most of them were seamen, not fully comfortable with fighting from a horse's back. This upcoming battle with Eadgils's men would be an infantry affair. Besides, it looked best to be seen marching out of Hedeby in column. Herjan Hebbing would command them in battle.
Immediately following King Waermund's retainers, fifty-six of Chief Freawine's troops marched. While the leaders of ten were splendidly equipped with chainmail byrnies, most of the men had to settle for ring-sewn leather armor. One man had a Roman legionary's gilded helmet with a moth-eaten red horsehair crest. Another man sported a set of Roman banded armor. Twenty-seven men wore the best armor stripped from the dead after the previous fight outside Hedeby three weeks ago. This armor was patched with iron or bronze wire covering the cuts and slashes that had killed the previous occupant. These men all had shields. Most were armed with several ashwood spears and a foot-long or greater single-edged sax-knife.
While some of the better-armed section leaders had previously served in the royal bodyguard and had a knowledge of battlefield tactics approaching that of King Waermund's finest, as a group they wouldn't be able to clash with a king's retinue for very long. Some of the men were in their early twenties and inexperienced. Many were over forty and had retired to their farms after having served a stint at court. They could be trusted to hold the line against King Eadgils's bodyguard and even to attack for a short time his hired men-at-arms. Folco would lead them in battle.
While marching down the main street that led to the stockade gate, these previous two formations made a grand sight while marching in a rectangular column of five abreast. The leaders in front, mounted. Then the large group of King Waermund's retainers, sunlight sparkling off their polished spears and wargear, followed by Chief Freawine's garrison of trained men. The groups following didn't make as smart of an impression. They were amateurs following professionals.
Next in line were the individual chiefs with their retainers and men-at-arms. While most of the chieftains were equipped with sword, chain byrnie, and a few had helmets of some kind, their followers were usually not as well equipped. Oil-boiled leather armor, shield, spear, and sax-knife equipped most of these troops. Still, most of these men were in prime physical condition. These men tended to not march in any formation except bunched around their chiefs, from whom they would take their orders. Slightly over seventy men formed a shabby column that tended to stretch and contract, depending upon the alertness paid to the task at hand.
Bringing up the rear, over a hundred members of the Select Fyrd led their ponies and horses. When battle was joined at the ford, these militiamen would charge across the river, dismount, and attack King Eadgils's army from the sides and rear. These men were prosperous farmers from Schleswig province. They had been selected for their physical condition, alertness, and desire to rid themselves of a dangerous neighbor. Most were armed exclusively with ashwood spear and sax-knife. Most only had a shield for protection, but some had been loaned the remaining armor stripped from the enemy dead killed three weeks ago. A few even brought heirloom swords or wore the occasional mail shirt. When the fighting started, Wego would command them.
The people of Hedeby stood on both sides of the muddy street and cheered husbands, fathers, and sons marching off to fight for king and country. Men too old or too young to fight enviously watched the procession, but consoled themselves with the thought that they might be necessary in case the unthinkable happened, if King Eadgils won and attacked Hedeby. The women put a glad face over fears that the men in their lives could be killed or maimed. They would never speak their fears concerning something that their men had such an unspeakable love for, but in which they were so proficient.
The battle and the events that followed were always a source of both pride and shame to King Offa.
Wego convinced Keto and Herjan Hebbing to let him hide the militia in the woods a mile away from Keto's ruined farmstead. When the Eadgils and his Myringas tribesmen saw that they outnumbered the Angle forces, they charged across the river to do battle. Keto, Herjan, and Folco withdrew their forces several hundred yards, apparently in confusion, tempting Eadgils to charge, further tiring his well-armed bodyguard. At the very last moment before contact, King Waermund's Companions formed a shield wall and counterattacked. It came as quite a surprise to King Eadgils to see apparently broken men turn, then attack in such good order. At that moment, Eadgils lost control of most of his army.
Eadgils was in the center of his bodyguard, using the old tried-and-true method of hacking his way toward an enemy commander protected by his bodyguard. Keto was coming closer to where Eadgils fought, but that was because Eadgils's guards were falling faster than King Waermund's sworn men. Eadgils's militia attempted to come around and take Waermund's Companions from the sides and rear, but Folco and the Angle chieftains forestalled that move by forming another shield wall to the sides and rear. The wedge had become a diamond. All three hundred of Eadgils's troops, both guardsmen and militia, were engaged in fighting slightly over two hundred better trained and armed Angles.
At that moment, Wego blew a ram's horn. One hundred mounted militia charged down the hillside and cut off Eadgils's retreat. Twenty or so of Eadgils's militia broke and ran for the river, and most of them made it back across. Clever Wego let them go. He only wanted to kill the more dedicated of his enemies. Allowing those who wanted to run to do so was good leadership. It would stick in brave men's throats, watching cowards who were supposed to fight by their side escape and leave them to die. Half of Wego's militia dismounted, then went over to help Folco's command kill the Myringas militia. Wego kept the other half mounted. He didn't intend to let Eadgils escape if he could help it.
Eadgils watched his remaining militia get butchered in their precarious position between Folco's troops and the Angle militia. Thinking quickly, he ordered his retainers and hired mercenaries in the back to turn and form a diamond, just as they had watched the Angles do a few minutes, a lifetime, ago. They complied, but it cost them dearly. They were not as well trained as King Waermund's Companions and in the confusion several of the Myringas warriors were killed by spears that had flown past the disrupted shield walls. Soon less than a hundred-fifty Myringas fighting men remained.
Eadgils stopped pressing against the wedge formation facing Keto's position. He started talking in low, urgent tones to a few of his officers, most of whom were relatives. They reached some sort of consensus. The officers started talking to the men not already engaged in fighting, those men whose duty it was to step into the front line whenever the man in front of them died.
Suddenly the Myringas' back rank opened and Eadgils and eleven men made a dash towards an Angle militiaman holding the bridles of five horses. The militiaman threw his spear, killing one of the men, before he in turn was killed. Grabbing the reins from the dead man's fingers, Eadgils and four of his officers mounted. The other seven Myringas fighting men engaged any Angle militiamen that tried to cut off their king's retreat.
Seventy yards away, Folco saw this course of events. Bellowing a battle cry of outrage, Folco grabbed a spear that had fallen to the ground, took quick aim, and hurled it with all his strength in Eadgils's direction. It caught Eadgils's favorite uncle in the back and knocked him off his captured horse. By then Eadgils was out of range and coming up to where Wego had cut off his retreat across the Eider.
Wego drew his sword and rode towards Eadgils. As Eadgils came up to him, Wego slashed downward. The blade cut through the iron band of Eadgils's shield and stuck in the wood. Eadgils swung his shield away, snapping the badly tempered sword blade, and bashed Wego out of the saddle in passing. One of Eadgils's mounted officers tried to run the prone man down, but Wego rolled away, drew his foot-long sax-knife, and lunged at the man's horse. He drove the knife into the horse's left flank. The horse stumbled and fell, throwing the officer off. Without a second's delay, Wego stabbed his knife into the stunned man's back, piercing his armor and killing him. Eadgils and his remaining two officers kicked their horses' flanks, floundered across the river, and once past the meadow on the south side of the river disappeared into some scrub woods. Wego's militia killed the remaining Myringas who had left the relative security of the shield wall to save their king.
Eadgils's native-born Myringas retainers refused to surrender and were slaughtered to a man by the victorious Angles. They refused to live life as slaves, and they couldn't be sure of ransom. Their king had lost, and most of their wealth was already on their backs and in their hands. If any of them thought that Eadgils had betrayed them, they kept that thought unspoken as they died. They had done their duty and no more could be asked of them. They would die as they had lived -- with honor.
Eadgils's hired men-at-arms acted differently. Once Eadgils had made good his escape, they walked away from their former Myringas comrades and quickly made a deal for peace. Keto and Wego, eager to follow Eadgils's trail, agreed that the former mercenaries could work for King Waermund for a full year in return for their lives. No treachery was imputed against the mercenaries and none was expected. These men had fought bravely for Eadgils until he had deserted them. Some had paid for choosing the wrong side with their lives. The rest would pay by losing a year's wages.
Folco was disconsolate. He hadn't killed Eadgils. He had allowed Eadgils to escape, thus not having fulfilled his great oath. Before Keto could order him to desist, Folco slit his left wrist and let the blood drain into his helmet. When the helmet was half full, Folco gulped down the contents. Some of the younger militiamen stared, but no one made an effort to stop Folco. His great oath in King Waermund's court had already made the rounds.
Seventy-five of King Waermund's Companions were mounted on the better of the militiamen's horses. Since Folco flatly refused to stay behind, Herjan Hebbing was entrusted with the rest of Keto's small army. Herjan would see to it that the dead were buried, the wounded tended, and King Waermund's share of the spoils collected. Herjan was also entrusted to make a raid across the river into Myringas territory, where he would collect cattle and slaves enough to pay for this war that Eadgils had started. These matters quickly settled, Keto and Wego led their mounted column towards Eadgils's capitol town, twenty-five miles away, and like Hedeby, situated at the end of a fjord that led to the open sea.
Soon the trail that Eadgils had fled upon converged to a rutted track that led to a number of scattered hamlets situated on the road like amber beads in a dirty necklace. Hostile faces peered over the village stockades. The Angle column would bypass these places. They had neither the time nor the inclination for assaulting wooden walls. Toward the end of the afternoon, they saw Myringas herdsmen driving their Holstein cattle into one of those settlements which they took as a sign that Eadgils wasn't too far ahead of them. They came upon Eadgils's capitol, Kiel Town, just before nightfall. Keto halted his column slightly beyond arrow range.
"What do you Angles want?" a town guard asked from the catwalk behind the stockade walls.
"You know full well what we want! We demand to speak to King Eadgils regarding his actions over the past few years," Keto yelled back. "Then we would like to kill him. So where is he?"
"Here I am," Eadgils said, suddenly appearing next to his guard. "You are a little bit too late to be talking so freely about killing me. I could call out the townsmen and have you all killed, you know."
"You could, but it would cost you too much," Wego interrupted. "Each of these men that we have with us are worth ten of what you have left. No need for such butchery. But you are right, we are too late. You ran so fast! So what say you to this proposal: We ask for your hospitality tonight and agree to abide by the customary rules?"
King Eadgils seemed taken aback by Wego's proposal. Then his saturnine face allowed a small smile and he said, "I think I see your hand behind my recent loss this morning. Very well. You will enjoy my hospitality for the night. Tomorrow morning you will leave. Alive, if you continue to be so well-spoken. Guards!" he said, "Open the gate."
Keto glanced over at his younger brother. "Good going, little brother. I wondered myself how we would get ourselves out of this mess. I thought that we faced a cold night's march ahead. So go ahead and speak your mind whenever you must. But remember that it is for me to command."
Keto kicked his horse on the flank and he moved forward towards the open gate. Wego shrugged, then followed his brother into Kiel Town as did the rest of their command.
That night, King Eadgils entertained his guests in a rather austere manner. His enemies and what were left of his fighting men stared at each other in his hall. Since many of his subjects had lost relatives in his ill-fated venture against the Angles, there was little rejoicing. Keto and Wego sat on a bench along the south wall with their men scattered to their left and right across from King Eadgils and his men. Cold meat jerky was their victual, cold water the common drink. Host and guest ate the same rations, as the law of hospitality required. Only the fire in the center provided light. Few words were spoken, none between enemies.
One of King Eadgils's pages walked across to where Keto and Wego sat. The brothers stopped slicing the jerky that they had in their mouths with their sax-knives and listened.
"King Eadgils would like to speak privately with both of you before you turn in. Is that acceptable?" the page asked.
Keto agreed. Half an hour later the three men were walking the moonlit streets.
"Gentlemen, I seem to have bitten off far more than I can chew. So I would like to make peace. What say you to this: I will pay weregild for killing your father in a fair fight. A kingly sum, three thousand pieces of silver or three thousand cows." Eadgils paused for a second. "It will beggar my kingdom; I won't be able to pay it all at once. But it will be paid. And I will not ever go to war against King Waermund, his idiot son, and his realm while I live or the blood-debt is unpaid. Now the war that I started, I freely admit this, can end with honor on your part. What say you to this?"
"I don't think that we can do that," Keto said. "Only King Waermund can end the war and he has no reason to do so. He sails across the inner sea now, ready to render bloody red justice when he arrives. There is nothing that you or I can do to stop it."
"You do know King Friogar won't allow him much vengeance against a related people," Eadgils observed. "King Friogar don't care much for me, he'll let me be killed if you Angles are sufficiently selective in your wrath. But wouldn't it be better to eliminate your enemy by making him your friend and having peace on your border?" Eadgils asked.
"No," Keto said. "It has gone too far. Three thousand of the finest Holstein heifers won't let my Father's blood be unavenged. It is far better to avenge than to grieve. I grant you that my father was taken in a fair fight, but now it is our turn."
Eadgils sensed an advantage. "Your turn? If it is your turn, what say you to an affair of honor in the morning? You could end the war and avenge your father, all at once. I will fight both of you, each in your own turn."
"That is unacceptable," Wego said. "There is no reason for us doing any such thing! We will get to kill you sooner or later, unless you run like you did this morning. You are also very good at dueling. Keto and I would be at a disadvantage."
"I am willing to go against one of your champions first, before I fight you two. That way you can catch me tired. What do I have to do first? Fight all of King Waermund's army single-handed?"
"If necessary," Wego said.
"What about your man Folco? There's a man who wants to kill me. If I asked him to fight me, would you stop him? Isn't it a shame when a servant wants to avenge his lord more than the man's sons do?"
"My brother won't fight you," Keto said, coming to a decision, "but I will. One of my champions first, then myself if he fails. Wego will act as our second. You will be armed with only shield, sword, and knife. If you lose your weapons, they are not to be replaced. And you will not be allowed to rest between bouts. Those are my conditions. Do you accept?"
Eadgils blinked for a second and pursed his lips. Then he nodded and said, "I accept. I will have my own second. The fight will be held in my hall, with none other than the combatants and their seconds allowed in. I will tell my men about what the morning holds tonight. That way neither side need worry about treachery overcoming the law of hospitality."
"You had better think this over, brother!" Wego said.
"I have, and you will accept it." Keto said, evenly. "Let us turn in, so we will be rested for our endeavors tomorrow."
The three men walked back to the hall. King Eadgils announced what would happen in the morning, what the rules were, and who his second would be, a second cousin named Reiner. When Keto asked for a volunteer, all of King Waermund's Companions stepped forward. Keto wanted to select a thirty-four-year-old bachelor with a reputation for his swordsmanship named Tjarko, but Folco demanded the right to face Eadgils.
Keto took Folco aside and quietly spoke to him. "I hate to say this, old friend, but you are not able to kill Eadgils. And I need someone that will either finish off this menace to our borders or someone who will leave him so weakened as to give me a chance to kill him myself. If I let you fight Eadgils, then I condemn both you and myself to death. Not to mention others who will die if this war continues. Your request is refused."
"I should have killed the son-of-a-bitch myself when I had the chance," Folco said. "Finish him in the morning, sir."
Each side selected a watch for the night, and they turned in, Myringas on the north side, Angles against the south wall.
The next morning the sleeping warriors arose and were fed porridge cooked by King Eadgils's serving women. Then the benches and tables were cleared away by servants. The men of both sides watched their champions check their armor and equipment.
Eadgils chose his weapons with care, selecting a well-balanced iron sword with a leather grip instead of his shiny court sword. Eadgils wore his customary mail byrnie and strapped on his long sax-knife, a wicked-looking weapon with a blade over a foot long. It was single edged along most of its length except for where the point curved down from the top of the blade. For not quite a hand's-breadth the top of the blade was sharpened from the point so as to give the wielder an advantage on the upper cut. Eadgils carried a new shield with a black eagle painted on the bullhide cover.
Tjarko wore his normal gear, as did Keto. Wego wore a sword that he had picked up from one of the Myringas dead on the battlefield the day before, but he had no knowledge of the blade so he carried his spear, a stout weapon with a long iron band around the wood so as to prevent an enemy from cutting the spearhead away.
The time came for dueling. The warriors of both sides marched out, leaving the hall deserted except for the two Myringas and three Angles with business inside. Then the doors on both ends of the hall were barred. Outside the hall warriors awaited the conclusion, divided by tribal status into two distinct groups that kept up an agitated buzz of conversation.
Eadgils stepped away from the north wall toward the center of the hall. He paused when he got there. Tjarko warily walked out to face his enemy.
Both Eadgils and Tjarko were right handed, so each man faced a similar problem overcoming the shield protecting his opponent's left side while at the same time guarding his own side. Any attempted death thrust would have to be successful lest the defender counterattack with a telling blow.
Soon Eadgils discovered that Tjarko would be a difficult man to kill. He had pushed his shield against Tjarko's shield and found that his opponent was equally strong. So Eadgils tried to quickly feint and sidle around to find a weak spot in Tjarko's defense. Tjarko stood solidly in the center of the hall, letting Eadgils tire himself, now and then cautiously trying to whittle Eadgils's shield to splinters.
This state of affairs lasted for another fifteen minutes. Eventually a tiring Eadgils took advantage of Tjarko's sword being caught in his shield to drop it and grab Tjarko's shield with his left hand while stabbing Tjarko's now unprotected left side with the sword held in his right hand. Tjarko dropped to his knees, fell to his entire height on the floor, and died.
Keto immediately charged Eadgils. Eadgils was trying to pick up Tjarko's shield instead of his nearly useless one when Keto came upon him. Turning quickly to meet his new adversary, he had no time to parry with his sword a slash that Keto dealt him. But Keto didn't thrust with the point of the sword, he slashed at his adversary's side. The sword cut through only a few links in Eadgils's mail shirt, leaving him with a bleeding superficial wound. Eadgils jumped across Tjarko's corpse and faced Keto across the body.
Eadgils breathed heavily, trying to get his wind back, hoping that a reckless Keto would step across the body of his former champion and get tripped if Eadgils launched a shield bash. A momentary silence fell over the room, a silence that Keto broke.
Keto lowered the point of his sword. "Are you going to use this brave man's body as a barricade until you get your breath back?" he asked, pointing with his sword at Tjarko. "If so, it won't work. I'll chase you around his body."
"What I said last night still applies. I will pay weregild for the war that I started," Eadgils said, panting.
"This war will end when you are dead. It will continue and more people will be dragged into it if you kill me. No! We resolve this matter, here and now!" Keto said, forgetting the situation as he raised his sword and deliberately stepped over Tjarko's corpse.
"No! Don't!" Wego cried from the sideline as he hefted his spear.
But it was too late. With a triumphant cry, Eadgils charged forward with his shield in front, bowling Keto over onto the floor across Tjarko's body. Eadgils lowered his shield to prevent any last swordstroke from his defenseless opponent and readied his sword to kill Keto.
Wego wasted no time. He threw his spear the short distance necessary, catching Eadgils at the base of the throat, killing him instantly. Eadgils's body fell across Tjarko's body and partially across Keto, spraying both with blood from the punctured artery. Eadgils's feet tapped a drumbeat on the floor and his body heaved a couple of times before falling still. Keto tried to wipe the blood from his face as he got up, but succeeded only in smearing it all the more.
"You broke the rules of engagement! You cheated!" Reiner yelled as he threw his spear at Wego.
Wego caught the flying spearpoint on his shield's metal boss and flicked it expertly away, toward the wall. Keeping an eye on Reiner, he marched over to Eadgils's body and pulled out his spear, saying, "If I were you, I'd calm down. There is nothing that you can do for your kinsman except live to tell of what I have done."
Reiner had drawn his sword. At Wego's words he stood irresolute, waiting to hear what Wego had to say. Keto picked up his shield. He also waited for his brother to speak.
"I realize what I have done," Wego said. "And I did it because it was necessary. I never agreed to this duel, but it was not for me to command, only for me to make the best of. Now my name will be held up to shame because of this. And I will have to live with this matter being a reproach until my death day.
"Reiner, I know that you have a duty to your dead kinsman and king, the duty to avenge him. And I am tempted to kill you right now, so as to keep this matter from the hearts of honest men. But I have some sense of honor left, not enough to allow you to tamely kill me in retaliation, but enough to say that too many of Woden's favored have been killed for nothing other than to satisfy this mad dog's greed," Wego said, pointing with his spear at Eadgils's corpse.
"So you have a choice. Cry aloud 'murder,' and die, along with your town, for your living countrymen cannot withstand King Waermund's Champions set free within your walls. Or keep your mouth shut, save your life and your town, and wait for the truth to fly freely once we leave your walls." Wego nodded toward the west door where both Myringas and Angles awaited word of what had happened. "You had better choose quickly. The men outside wonder why they don't hear the war thunder of clashing weapons."
"What keeps you from leaving in peace as agreed, then not saying a word about your treachery?" Reiner asked. "Then it would eat at my heart, and I would live a life of shame if I did as you suggest. You have transgressed against our code. I would be a fool to trust your honor, wouldn't I?"
"Perhaps. I can only swear, by Woden's name, or even better, by the honor of my Father's name, to tell what I have done once we leave your walls. I also swear to tell King Waermund about this matter once he arrives. Perhaps his lust for vengeance against your countrymen will be assuaged, then. But make a decision quickly," Wego said. The sound of fists pounding on the west door could be heard. "Otherwise it will be made for you."
Reiner sheathed his sword. "Agreed. I accept your oath. But I warn you that while Woden can be tolerant of tricksters, he will not look favorably upon oathbreakers forswearing his name. You have enough to fear from him already." Reiner looked at Eadgils's body. "Another thing. Since Eadgils wasn't properly taken, his armor and weapons remain here. Neither one of you can claim them, for obvious reasons. That will help explain our deal, at least from my side."
Wego looked at his brother. Keto nodded. Then Wego went to the west door and raised the wooden beam from the door.
"Eadgils killed Tjarko. Keto killed Eadgils. So we will take our dead and ride away. This war now awaits King Waermund's final resolution," Wego announced. "You," pointing to one of the bystanding Angle warriors, "pick up Tjarko's body and tie him to his horse. We leave now as agreed."
"Are we not going to take that pig's armor?" Folco asked, pointing to Eadgils's corpse.
"No," Keto said. "You heard what he said. We leave now."
Tjarko's body was tied across his saddle after his sword was stuck back in its sheath. One of his friends strung a string through the hand grip and slung the dead man's shield across his back. The Angles mounted and left town without incident other than hostile glances from the townsmen and curious, fearful glances from women and children peering from the doors of their huts and houses. After quickly passing through the stockade gate, the Angles rode down the rutted trail of what passed for a road heading north to Hedeby.
After a mile of riding, Wego called a halt, which Keto confirmed.
"Listen up. I have something to tell, and it doesn't come easy," Wego said in a loud voice to the men assembled in a semicircle around him and his brother. "Keto didn't kill Eadgils. I did."
Some of the men mumbled in the background. It was beginning to die down when Wego resumed speaking.
"I killed Eadgils when he was about to kill my brother, here." Wego pointed at Keto. "I let my affection conquer shame. I did what I had to do and my only regret is that I found myself in that unenviable position. Rather than let events follow the easy course of killing Eadgils's second, I worked out a deal with him so as to avoid breaking the law of hospitality so that the wrath of the gods won't fall upon all of you. Let it be known that I take full and complete responsibility for the events that have happened this morning. Is that understood?"
No one said a word. Only the sound of horses swishing their tails and stamping their feet was heard. Keto broke the silence by saying, "Time to ride for Hedeby. Folco, lead the way."
Folco put himself at the head of the column. The men formed up two abreast behind him. Folco led them, riding in a horse-conserving canter. The two brothers remained behind.
"Thank-you, little brother," Keto said. "I don't know what else to say."
"There is nothing else to say," Wego said.
There was a moment of embarrassed silence between the two brothers. Then Wego turned his horse north and followed the column.
Ten days later, King Waermund arrived at Hedeby to find that the war was essentially over. Keto, Wego, and Folco were there to greet their king, who had arrived with over 500 splendidly equipped men and over 1500 militia from the Islands and the lower peninsula. More men were coming under the command of King Wehta of Jutland. Keto and Wego seemed particularly ill at ease. Folco hung back among his garrison troops, instead of being front and center.
"What is the matter? You look as if you have lost the war, and that can't be the case, else you wouldn't be here to greet me," King Waermund said, perplexed at the somber mood among the Hedeby defenders.
"The war has been won, Lord King," Keto said. "But it was won at a high cost. Let my brother Wego explain it to you."
Wego started talking. A light breeze, the harbinger of the upcoming spring season, blew from the south and rustled the small pennants used as battle standards but it was ignored as Wego told what had happened that month in Schleswig province.
King Waermund smiled grimly when he heard how Eadgils had crossed the Eider to bring war upon his domain. As Wego continued to tell how Eadgils had lost his army, and how he had been talked into letting the Angles stay for the night at Kiel town, Waermund's smile turned into one of pleasure mixed with puzzlement as to what could be possibly be wrong. He beamed at Wego in approval, understanding that those events had occurred as a result of Wego's cunning, even though Wego didn't dwell upon who had made these matters happen. His smile began to fade when Wego recounted how Eadgils manipulated Keto into a duel the next morning. King Waermund listened with interest as Wego recounted the duel. When Wego told him how it had ended, King Waermund sighed, rubbed his mouth and beard with his right arm, and waited for Wego to finish.
"Young man," King Waermund said, "you have done me a favor. You have killed a dangerous man, one who caused me nothing but trouble. But because of the way that you killed him, I cannot reward you for this service. If I did reward you, the stain of what you have done would taint me as well.
"Since your brother is not at fault, he will continue to serve as my governor, a job that by rights you should have had. You may continue to advise him as best you can. My son will marry your sister, as I swore to your father. This is the sum of my displeasure and of your reward." King Waermund lifted his glance from Wego's face and onto another familiar face. "Herjan! Report!"
Herjan Hebbing reported to his king what the war had cost so far in blood and treasure and the offset to that in cattle and booty seized from the Myringas.
"Three thousand cows. Is that what Eadgils offered in weregild for Freawine? That is what I'm going to get to paid for this war, all right. Since Eadgils isn't around to take it out of, his people will have to pay if it costs them every cow. That is the nature of things. People pay for a bad king sooner or later. So divide my army into five groups of four hundred men each and go to every Myringas town and collect some cows. I don't care how many you collect, just as long as I get my three thousand. Kill as few yeomen and townsmen as possible though, I don't want a scorched-earth war with King Friogar of Saxony, but I do want the Myringas to hurt. See to it, Herjan."
Herjan did as he was told. A few days later a messenger from King Friogar demanded that King Waermund's army return the cattle and booty taken from the Myringas.
King Waermund candidly replied that he was only getting suitable reparations for the war that Eadgils had started. No major atrocities were being committed against the Myringas, they only had lost a bit of property. But if King Friogar was stupid enough to want to fight a war with his forces scattered in winter quarters and King Waermund's forces concentrated, so be it.
The messenger left. Five days later, King Waermund recalled his punitive expeditions in Myringas territory. King Friogar stayed in his winter quarters in Merseburg, where the Saxons worshipped their foremost god, Irmisul.
After King Waermund arrived, Wego found himself ostracized from society. One of King Waermund's aids privately made it clear that Wego's presence in the Royal Hall was an embarrassment to the King. Even his brother Keto found his brother's presence embarrassing, because of the way Wego had saved his life. Both brothers knew that people were talking about that event behind their backs. Warriors without a stain on their honor would leave the place next to Wego vacant or quietly get up and leave if Wego sat next to them. Wego found that outside his immediate family polite society shunned him.
Offa apparently didn't consider himself polite society. That summer, and the following summer, he spent time with Wego whenever he was in Hedeby. His relationship to Wego was like that of a younger brother. A mute brother. Unless King Waermund specifically demanded his presence for the day, Offa would slip away to go hunting or fishing with Wego. When King Waermund demanded of Prince Offa that he not visit Keto's household so often, Offa wouldn't obey unless the King has a specific duty for him to perform. As usual, he took any punishments that the King ordered without complaint until King Waermund gave up trying to enforce his suggestion. After all, King Waermund had to act as if Keto and Wego socially acceptable, even if they weren't.
Cynethryth found that her world had changed. From being the favored, pampered, daughter of the foremost man in the city, she had become an orphan living under the hand of a stepmother that she didn't like. Her favorite brother had brought shame upon her family by doing something that had to be done. Many of her high-born friends had deserted her, to be replaced by girls who shamelessly expected to be rewarded someday for their overtures. Her only hope to lift the family fortunes lay in marrying someone that she despised, and still did, as the biggest dolt in Angelyn. She blamed Offa as the personification of the stresses placed upon her family, the stresses that her brothers and father had tried to shoulder unsuccessfully. Now the marriage to Offa was the only way to recoup her family's fortune.
But Cynethryth did notice that her would-be husband was the only apparent friend that Wego had left and not because he seemed to think that was the way to her heart. Indeed, he seemed indifferent to her, usually staring away when she harangued him concerning his silence and stupidity, leaving the house if bothered enough by Cynethryth. He was unfailingly polite in his silent way to her stepmother and younger sisters, one of whom expressed a wish after being given a small present by Offa that she could marry Prince Offa when she grew up. Cynethryth, angered, slapped her sister's face and ran out of the house to think. After a few hours spent walking the woods outside Hedeby, Cynethryth came back resigned to her future duty to wed Prince Offa. A resolution that
would usually evaporate whenever she saw him again.
Two years passed. King Waermund was reluctant to let his son marry into a family that had been dishonored, but he had given his word to the bride's father and brothers. He was honor bound to carry out his word, without unsightly quibble or reservation. King Waermund realized that Keto and Wego, while dishonored, would be formidable adversaries against anyone who would try to gainsay his dynasty when he was dead. In addition, King Waermund's eyesight began to dim. King Waermund wanted to see a grandson before darkness and the grave overcame him. So on the midsummer day of the year that Offa turned eighteen, Offa was duly married to Cynethryth.
At his wedding, Offa nodded at the designated times that he was called upon to swear to protect and provide for his wife and the children she would bear. In a resigned tone of voice Cynethryth promised to obey her new lord and to bear and care for his children. After the ceremony was finished, there was much merrymaking on the part of the court members and commons who had witnessed the ceremony. Merrymaking that began to fade because of Offa's silence, the bride not looking anywhere except into her plate, the anxious looks of her brothers and stepmother, the somber look on King Waermund's face as he looked at the bridal couple. Within an hour, the festive mood seemed to be a bubble that had formed around the bridal couple and their families. Nothing could pierce the dark cloud forming over those most concerned with this wedding.
Well before sundown, the festive tone had given way to a forced note of celebration. The laughter was a bit too loud, the conversation a bit too quiet. It was with a collective sigh of relief when sundown arrived and a procession followed the bride and groom to the groom's new residence, a small hall close to King Waermund's great hall. Absent were the smutty sayings and double-entendres common to most wedding nights. No one, except maybe Wego, felt close enough to the groom to organize any practical jokes on his wedding night. The feeling, left unsaid, was that this marriage must work out for the good of all concerned. Why didn't this festive occasion seem happy?
Offa led his new bride away from the table and through the streets of Hedeby until he reached the open door of his new home. At the threshold to the house, he opened the door, easily picked up his wife, and carried Cynethryth over the threshold, closing the door with his heel.
King Waermund, at his place at the head of the procession, looked at the closing door. He sighed, then turned around to Keto, his governor, son-in-law, and son's brother-in-law and said under his breath so that only Keto could hear, "I hope something good comes of this." Then in a lone tone of voice, he spoke aloud, "I think they want to be alone. Let all who call me Lord and Master drink with me to healthy grandchildren. Come! Follow me!" and he led the procession back to the common where the wedding had been held.
Offa laid Cynethryth down gently upon the bed that had been made earlier by her stepmother. Hebeke had placed a feather mattress over the interwoven ropes that crisscrossed the smooth wooden beams. Clean linen sheets spread invitingly over the mattress and under the quilt of linen and wool with a batting of goose down. Fine pillows graced the head of the bed, on both bride and groom's side. Bed and fittings were part of Cynethryth's dowry and she had worked on them, as was the custom, since her betrothal. In this bed she would leave proof of her virginity, and conceive, then bear strong sons and fair daughters.
Offa looked down at his bride in the flickering light given off by the tallow-oil lamp. "How beautiful she is!" Offa thought. "She has the makings of a good wife." With an awaking sense of love, reverence, and anticipation, Offa gazed at the girl who had often tried to humiliate him, but who had sworn to honor and love him for the rest of her life.
"Bar the door, Lord Husband, and I will prepare for bed," Cynethryth said. "When you come back, I have something to say first."
Entranced, Offa nodded, and turned away to do as his wife bade him. Before he had taken a step, having lost view of the intoxicating sight and entrancing smell of fresh, young womanhood, Offa felt a small pang of irritation. "Isn't it a bit early for her to be bossing me about?"
By the time Offa had returned, Cynethryth had kicked off her sandals, taken off her skirt and blouse and had placed them on the stone shelf next to the wall near their bed. She had the top sheet and blanket pulled up under her chin. Offa looked at her, then sat down on a stool that he placed next to the bed. "Poor thing," Offa thought, all trace of irritation gone, "she is worried and as anxious as I have been concerning our new life together."
"Lord Husband, this marriage wasn't my idea. I had to marry you, my family needs to hold its head high now that bad things have befallen us because of the pressures that came about as a result of our betrothal," Cynethryth said earnestly. "I didn't have any choice. But now that I have done what was expected, I will do my best to make you a good wife, put on a good face over this, and try to learn to respect you."
"What!" Offa thought as he listened to his bride's first words. His mouth opened in amazement. By the time Cynethryth had gotten around to how she would try to be a good wife, Offa's mouth was in a straight line, his eyebrows were down, and his deep blue eyes looked as chilly as the sea water flowing around a glacier. "How mighty good of you, to learn to respect me," he thought as he stood up and looked down at the girl he had married. "Your first lesson is now." Offa reached down and yanked away the sheet and blanket out from under her chin and to the foot of the bed. Cynethryth's beautiful naked body lay before him.
"Ooooh!" Cynethryth squealed in alarm. She tried to squirm into a ball, away from her husband, but Offa had gripped her arm under the right shoulder with his left hand, pinning her down as if she had been nailed to the bed. All she could do was to bring her knees up, trying her best to hide her private parts. "No, no," she said as she tried to meet her husband's eyes.
Offa met Cynethryth's gaze, then broke off eye contact as he glanced down to where darkish-pink nipples crowned small, firm breasts. Then down past the flat stomach to where a cunning little cleft folded primly upon itself, wreathed in glorious curls of auburn hair. Offa breathed in a small breath and held it in.
"I could rape her, take her now, humble her, and no one would gainsay me my right." Offa thought as he continued to look further down to curvaceous thighs and delicately muscled calves. He had an ache in his loins and he felt that he couldn't breathe. His fascinated gaze went down to where small, pink toenails ended a shapely foot, well cared for, like that of a child, and stopped there. Offa resumed breathing, although the ache he felt remained. "But I won't," he decided, as he waited to catch another breath before looking back at her face. "I will not be trapped in a loveless marriage devoid of any true respect." Offa let go of her arm and straightened up.
Husband and wife made eye contact. Cynethryth was breathing heavily, she fleetingly touched the inside of her lips with the tip of her tongue. She seemed to realize that her husband had come to a decision and whatever it was, society would find him in the right.
Offa nodded in affirmation, then stepped back. He took off his shirt, laid it atop the stool, and kicked off his sandals. All he was wearing was his trousers, his belt, and a scabbard with his long sax-knife in it. He stepped over to the foot of the bed, wherein the top sheet and quilt lay in a pile. Offa's young face betrayed not a clue to his intent.
Offa snaked out his right hand, grabbed Cynethryth by the left ankle and yanked her out of the bed. The back of her head bumped against the oak beam as Offa smoothly backed up, stretching his bride out onto the dirt floor at the foot of the bed. Stunned, Cynethryth watched her husband step past her and draw his knife.
Offa stretched out his left arm and nicked a vein with the point. He let it bleed for a second or two, then he spread the blood on the bottom sheet, close to the middle of the bed, much like a man spreads butter onto bread. Then he sorted out the top sheet and let the middle part of it rub against the blood spread on the bottom sheet. With a cold smile, he threw the top sheet at Cynethryth. She lay there, as the wadded up sheet hit her in the midsection. Offa blew out the tallow lamp, settled down upon the marriage bed, and pulled up the blanket around him. In the darkness, he stared up at the ceiling.
Soon Cynethryth made sounds like that of a puppy who has been kept indoors makes when his master whips him and throws him outdoors into the cold.
Offa heard Cynethryth's weeping and steeled his heart. "Pride makes for a cold bed companion. But a man of honor can have it no other way." Offa hoped that Cynethryth would decide to come back to the marriage bed, even though he hadn't sorted out in his mind as to what he would do if she did. Eventually Cynethryth stopped weeping and pulled the sheet over herself. Young man and young woman spent the rest of the night awake and unhappy.
The next morning, the proof of Cynethryth's virginity was collected by her stepmother for the bride's family and by King Wehta of the Jutes's wife for the groom's family. All was as it should be. The marriage was consummated and there should be children coming along after a while.
But after the marriage had lasted for a few months without any sign of pregnancy, people began to wonder if the bride was barren.
The next winter, King Waermund found that his vision, which began constricting before Offa's marriage, had left him to the point that he could only tell light from dark. He tried to keep his blindness concealed from everyone, but it was soon known throughout the Northland.
King Waermund's friends and allies were dismayed. Offa had not produced a heir yet, and even if he did, how long would it be until the Angles had a leader who could hold back their tribal enemies? Wouldn't the strong and powerful overwhelm the poor and weak if there was no strong king? Of course they would. King Waermund's blindness was the cause for much worried discussion in homes and taverns throughout Angelyn.
It was also the topic of gleeful planning by King Friogar and his subsidiary lords and carls at his winter capital of Merseburg. King Friogar glanced over his five grown sons. Which one would be most suitable for installation as King of the Angles? After a bit of thought he chose Hildebrandt, his second son, because it was customary, but also because he was the best fighter of the lot. Hildebrandt should be able to make short work of the witless Offa in a duel, everyone agreed. Envoys to the Angle court were selected and their message carefully rehearsed.
Soon after King Waermund was settled into his summer palace at Hedeby, the Saxons sent their delegation to see King Waermund.
"We have heard that you are ailing, King Waermund," the Saxon ambassador said unctuously. "We are afraid that you won't be able to rule effectively and maintain the peace between our two peoples. King Friogar is concerned that another episode like that which occurred two years ago will happen, to the detriment of both our peoples. No, we cannot have that. Therefore King Friogar proposes that you should abdicate the throne to your son, and if he is not able to rule, King Friogar, your distant cousin will gladly appoint someone of noble blood to rule over the country that you have formerly led."
The crowd of Angle courtiers and warriors around King Waermund's throne murmured in dismay and hostility. King Waermund raised his hand as if to counsel silence; let the Saxon speak.
"We know about your infirmities, King Waermund. And us Saxons are still not quits over the matter regarding King Eadgils. So submit to the logic of the situation. Your dynasty is over, but we will let the Angle and Jutish people live in peace. Your time is done, King Waermund. Abdicate. Or let your son and the son of King Friogar fight for the throne. Woden will let the stronger of his descendants prevail."
"You Saxons have chosen your time well," King Waermund said with a trace of bitterness. He paused for a moment, then sighed deeply. "It is not just to reproach me for my age. The time was when I was young that none of you Saxons wished to face me with sword in hand. I never shirked battle, as well you knew. As for my blindness, for that I deserve pity, not insult. So I accept the challenge myself."
The Saxon ambassador snorted and grinned in disbelief as if to say that he had never heard anything so foolish before. "You, fight King Friogar! My master wouldn't agree to anything so dishonorable as fighting a blind man. What do you take him for? A dishonorable rogue such as your servants Keto and Wego?" The Saxon looked pointedly to where the Schleswig governor stood by King Waermund before glancing back to the old king. "Abdicate, King Waermund. Spare yourself, your idiot son, and your country a war you cannot win."
Some of the leading Angle warriors in the crowd placed their hands on their sword hilts, waiting for King Waermund's order to slay the offending Saxon. Some looked a bit perplexed when the order wasn't given, but all held their tongue.
Offa was standing in his customary place off to the side and behind most of the crowd. He heard every word of the conversation. A decision was about to be made that would affect his future and that of his country. To his surprise, as if a heavenly warrior from Valhalla sent by Woden had entered the room and seized his tongue compelling it to his will, Offa heard himself say, "I request permission to speak, King Waermund."
The crowd of Angles murmured in amazement. King Waermund frowned in puzzlement. He turned his face toward his son.
"Who does crave permission to speak? I know not his voice."
Keto stepped forward from his place of honor beside King Waermund's right hand and spoke into King Waermund's ear. "It is your son, Prince Offa, who wishes to speak."
King Waermund frowned. "It is enough to be insulted and threatened by foreigners. I don't need to be taunted by my own household."
"But it is your son speaking, King Waermund! He has found his voice." Keto insisted.
"Enough of such foolishness. Let the man speak, whoever he be," King Waermund said.
Offa had listened to the interchange between his father and brother-in-law. Some unknown force had taken over his tongue and had made him request permission to speak. Now he had to make good on his request.
Offa moved through the crowd, toward the front. The crowd parted readily, and Offa found himself facing the Saxon delegates in front of King Waermund's throne.
"In vain does the King of Saxony covet the land of Angelyn, which trusts its brave king and nobles to defend her. Neither is there a son wanting to the King nor a successor to the kingdom. What you Saxons want, you will not get. I will gladly fight the son of the King of Saxony."
"You are not Prince Offa," the Saxon ambassador said. "Prince Offa is an idiot, unable to speak. The Prince of Saxony will not fight a commoner."
"I am Prince Offa and I speak in my people's hour of need," Offa countered. "As far as the Prince of Saxony is concerned, he will fight King Waermund's Champion or stay at home where he belongs, not seeking a kingdom to steal."
"You Angles are fine ones to sit on a high horse looking down on your betters, especially when you don't deserve to do so," the Saxon ambassador sneered. "Perhaps you intend to hold a duel, then interfere with it like you Angles did when fighting King Eadgils. An Angle feels best when he outnumbers his foe and has the opportunity for treachery."
"Wego did wrong to interfere with the duel. I realize that. That affair has put a stain upon our honor." Offa looked the Saxon Ambassador in the eye. "Therefore, I offer to fight not only the Saxon Prince, but one of your champions as well so as to wipe away the stain upon our tribal honor. If I am killed, then the path toward Saxon political domination of us Angles will be clear."
"We agree to your terms, Angle. Our Prince and his champion will tear out your heart and give it to your father, whoever he be." The Saxon ambassador turned to King Waermund. "We meet at Fifelder Island with our respective armies and peoples. I expect that swords are acceptable weapons, although axes would be better for us to hew down such a huge one," he said, pointing toward Prince Offa. "Midsummer day is the best time, since it will be known as a day of celebration for us Saxons. Until then, good day."
The Saxon turned and walked by Prince Offa and toward the hall's exit. At his gesture, his retinue formed up behind the Ambassador and withdrew.
The Angles were astonished at the morning's turn of events. First their tribe's sovereignty had been challenged. Then the dumb had spoken, and very well indeed. Prince Offa had offered to give his life to cleanse his household's and the tribe's disgrace. But few doubted how the upcoming fight would end. Offa would be killed, then foreigners would rule over them.
King Waermund broke the silence.
"Very well spoken, young man. If you survive the upcoming battle, you will rule as regent while my son Offa lives. I would rather yield up the kingdom to you, whoever you are, than to the overly proud Saxons."
"But he is your son, King Waermund!" Keto insisted.
"Let him come forward then, so I may run my hands over his features. I need not put up with this foolishness."
Offa climbed up the steps to where his father sat on his throne and leaned forward. The blind king's hands explored his son's face, then his right hand felt Offa's massive shoulder and left arm. A look of tentative joy appeared upon the King's face.
"It is my son! Such I remember was myself when I was in my prime." A thought entered King Waermund's head and made him frown in puzzlement. "But why, my son, did you take care to cover your sweet eloquence by years of studied dissimulation? Why did you go for so long, for all your life without speech?"
Offa said nothing for a long moment, so long that his father feared that he would not speak again. Offa couldn't tell his father that a portion of it was due to a residue of mistrust and disappointment that King Waermund had neglected him when he was young. Offa recognized that a good deal of his silence had been due to his stubborn refusal to trust those who should have been close to him, but due to their own fault weren't.
"I was always content to live under your defense, Father," Offa said in a soft voice. "It was not until I had seen our homeland hard pressed by the quick speech of foreigners that I found the wisdom of speech."
Waermund, while happy about Offa's not relapsing into silence, perhaps had thought about how he might have contributed to Offa's long years of silence. "You have made a just judgment in all matters," he said gravely.
"But let us bestir ourselves! Midsummer is only a month away. My son must be ready to fight. A suitable coat of armor must be found! The best of swords must be forged! My son, our future King, will be fighting not only for his life, but for our nation as well. Let us do everything to prepare him well."
But when arms were brought, there was not a single coat of mail large enough to fit upon Prince Offa. No amount of wiggling would allow the armor to slide past the giant prince's shoulders, not even King Waermund's largest suit. It was decided that King Waermund's best byrnie would be cut under the left arm and that the suit be fitted with iron expansion rings until sufficient time could be allotted to properly alter the armor. Angelyn's best smith was summoned to the task.
Providing Offa with a suitable sword proved even more difficult. It had been decided that Offa's best strategy in the upcoming duel against two men lay in Offa's standing in a friendly corner of the dueling square and waiting for his enemies to approach him one by one. If Offa allowed himself to get out into the middle, one of his adversaries could maneuver behind his back and kill him while the other engaged Offa's front. No, it would be better for Offa to use his superior strength and reach to take care of his enemies one by one. With his left arm he could push an enemy back with his shield. With his right arm he could strike a blow that would cut through a foe's shield, armor, and sword if a sufficiently sharp and tough sword could be provided.
A pig's carcass was placed inside a suit of armor and an old shield was put to the forefront for use as a target. Then Offa was offered several swords forged during his father's and grandfather's generation to put to the test. The first sword cut through the shield and armor and cut deeply into the pig's body, but the blade snapped in the middle due to the force of Offa's swing. The second sword cut through the shield, then bent when it couldn't cut through the armor. This sword was clearly unfit for a duel that would decide the fate of a kingdom. The third sword was so badly forged that it shattered on the iron band on the shield's rim.
King Waermund was asked if he had a sword worthy of his son's strength.
"Yes. I had my sword of exceeding sharpness called Skrep. I buried it deep, several years ago, when I despaired of my son's improvement and I wished to deny the use of it to others. Take me to the formerly sacred clearing of Nerthus and I will see if I can find it."
Waermund was taken out into the countryside. After orienting himself from descriptions of the landmarks from his servants, Waermund commanded that they dig in a certain place. The sword was found and taken from the earth. The wooden scabbard had rotted, but the sheep fat rubbed along the blade had protected Skrep from rust.
Waermund took the sword from a servant and handed it to his son.
"Take this ancient sword, this trusted heirloom, and use it to protect your life and our land. But do not test it, for if this sword breaks there is none other left strong enough for you."
Midsummer day arrived. Slightly before noon, King Friogar arranged his army to the south of the Eider, then waded with his son, Prince Hildebrandt, and twenty of his champions across the Eider to Fifelder Island. King Waermund was led by his servants across a makeshift bridge made from planks nailed to two trees that had been felled across the north side of the island. The Angle army, along with a considerable Jutish contingent, was arrayed on the north bank, staring balefully at their Saxon enemies across the river. Prince Offa followed his father, leading his twenty champions.
"It is noon," King Friogar, a sturdy man of forty-five years with grizzled brown hair and steady blue eyes, observed. "The champions of either side should not have to contend with sun in their eyes. My servants will pace out the field. Spears from the champions of both sides will delineate the boundaries. Is that acceptable to you, King Waermund?"
"It is," King Waermund said. "If my son loses, Saxon, I do not intend to live myself beyond this day. You will have my kingdom if you are strong enough to take it. If my son wins, we will make you pay for forcing this situation upon us."
King Waermund turned and fumbled until he clutched his son's shoulder. "I present my champion, Prince Offa of Angelyn."
King Friogar turned and motioned forward a twenty years younger version of himself. "This is Prince Hildebrandt of Saxony. And," here King Friogar motioned another well-armed warrior to King Friogar's left to the forefront, "in accordance with the agreement made in your court a month ago, King Waermund, here is my other champion, Suarno the Eightkiller, soon to be Nine. Between both of them, they will give your champion," pointing to Prince Offa, "six feet under my new domain. No, make that seven since he is bigger than most."
Prince Offa spoke. "Enough bluster, Saxon. Have your servants measure out the square while we discuss the consequences of defeat for either side."
"What do you mean, young man, by the consequences of defeat?" King Friogar asked. "If you are killed, and I assure you that you will be, then my son will rule over Angelyn. That is the full and complete consequence of our agreement. Or are you breaking your oath due to cowardice?"
"My presence here gives the lie to that statement and to the statement of your ambassador concerning my ability to rule after King Waermund. I look forward to settling this affair of honor," Prince Offa said. Offa pointed to the Jutish contingent led by King Wehta Wihtlaeging standing under their own standard beside their Angle cousins. "But whether I live to see tonight or not, do you think those men will accept Saxon rule easily?"
"They must," King Friogar said. "It was part of our agreement. Besides, after we have gotten the royal house of Angelyn out of the way, we can do as we want."
"That is what you say," Offa countered. "All we agreed to do was meet here and settle by combat an affair of honor. As far as your power to do what you want in Angelyn and Jutland by using military force, that remains to be seen, Saxon. But perhaps this upcoming combat can be used to settle peaceably the boundaries of our tribes."
"Does this young cockerel speak for you, King Waermund?" asked King Friogar. "I think that he exceeds his authority, not to mention competence."
"He raises a number of interesting questions. And he is correct in stating the terms of our agreement," King Waermund said. "Your ambassador came to my court saying that I and my son were unfit to rule and making threats against my dominion. At the time I saw sense in what was said, but then my son came into his own.
"At no time did I offer to submit a free people to foreign domination. I have no right to do that, especially from the mouth of my grave. Your ambassador was right only in one sense: I am no longer fit to rule. So I will listen to what my son has to say, for he now is the maker of our people's destiny." King Waermund stepped back. After a moment of silence, grunts of affirmation came from the listening Angle champions.
Offa spoke again. "We admit that it will be easier for you Saxons to conquer and rule Angelyn if us Wihtlaegings are in the ground. So in the interests of peace and the abatement of bloodshed between kindred peoples, I have a number of proposals to make before the royal duel begins."
"And they are?" King Friogar asked testily.
"If I am killed in this duel and your son Hildebrandt survives to rule, that the Jutes will continue to keep their current rulers, namely Wehta Wihtlaeging and his family. They will have to acknowledge you as their lord, but their station in life will not diminish. They will also help your son rule peacefully over his new Anglican subjects. This proposal safeguards their current position, and assures that Angelyn will be securely ruled by an adoptive Angle. Is this proposal acceptable to all?"
"It would seem that you Angles are not going to wiggle out of what we came up here for except a niggling caveat." King Friogar said with a measure of rueful satisfaction. "I agree to that proposal. Do you, King Waermund?"
"I cannot ratify what my brother might do. But I will advise him that this is as good a proposal as ever he will get. Peace and the forswearing of greater power in return for security." King Waermund stroked his long gray beard. "My brother is a true son of our father. He will agree, as do I to these terms."
"Herjan!" King Waermund said, motioning up his trusted Companion. "Bring my brother here so that he might answer for himself." Herjan bowed and crossed the bridge to the Angle side.
"I have another proposal to make," Offa said. "And this one addresses what will happen if I win and your son dies."
"That is not going to happen. Not unless you are going to sneak away from your agreement to fight two men," King Friogar said.
"As I have said before, I have no such intention. But if you are so confident that your side will win then you should have no objections to raising the stakes. In the interests of fairness you will have to give up something if you lose."
"It is no secret that the current war was started by King Eadgils of the Myringas. We don't know to what extent, if any, that you aided and abetted him. But he would never have started a war if you had been sitting on his neck. Now Eadgils is dead,"
"Thanks to Angle treachery," Friogar interrupted.
"and his young son rules under the stewardship of his mother," Offa said, ignoring the interruption. "My demand is the mirror image of the one concerning what happens if I am killed and your son wins. Young Eomenric will gain his throne upon his majority, but I will be the overlord of the Myringas, not you, King Friogar. There will be a buffer zone of peace between our peoples, one that you have been neglectful in maintaining."
King Friogar flushed. "And if I don't agree?"
"Then there is no point in further talk. There is no agreement between us and we might as well proceed with measuring the field and fighting the duel," Offa said.
King Friogar for the first time turned around and glanced at his son.
Prince Hildebrandt, interpreting the glance as a doubt as to his capabilities, said, "Go ahead, Father. We will take him."
King Friogar glanced at his champion.
Suarno, a dark-haired, gray-eyed man in his middle thirties had been gazing calculatingly at Prince Offa ever since the Angle Prince started speaking, if not before. Sensing his king's silent glance and what it meant, Suarno squinted his right eye and slowly nodded.
"I have no more right than King Waermund to speak for those not my own. The Myringas princeling is not here," King Friogar said.
"If I win, I don't need your permission, King Friogar," Offa said. "All I need is your pledge to not interfere in the enforcement of this condition."
"Very well. Agreed. What happens if both you and my son are killed? What if my champion is still alive or if all are dead? If someone on my side is alive, then I win," said King Friogar, trying to stake out a position.
"The only reason that I am fighting two men at once is to wipe away the stain on my family's and people's honor," Offa said. "But only the shedding of royal blood can decide the fate of kingdoms. If both of us claimants to the throne perish, then the question of which tribe rules over the other shall be decided in favor of the stronger. Such is the iron rule of Nature and of Woden."
Wehta Wihtlaeging, King of the Jutes, crossed the bridge, followed by Herjan Hebbing.
King Wehta walked over to his brother, King Waermund and announced, "I have heard and I agree to Prince Offa's proposal. If Prince Offa is killed and Prince Hildebrandt survives, I will bear true faith and allegiance to our adoptive Anglican King. I will forswear my claim to the throne of Angelyn and rest content as King of the Jutes."
"Then the time has come to measure the dueling field." said Prince Offa. "Measure out the square, Saxon."
King Friogar frowned, but he stepped backward and gave his champions the necessary orders. They paced out a square twenty paces by twenty paces. Some of the Angle champions put their spears point down into the ground every five paces to mark the north and east sides. Some Saxon champions did the same on the south and west sides. Then the Angles crossed the bridge and aligned themselves on the north bank of the river. King Waermund stationed himself a few feet from the bridge. The Saxons waded across to the south bank. Prince Offa stepped into the northeast corner of the dueling square. Prince Hildebrandt and Suarno entered the square out of sword range on the south side.
Offa drew his family's trusted heirloom, Skrep the Sharp. The sword had never failed before; it had been the regal arm of the Kings of Angelyn since Wihtlaeg Wodolgeating had taken it as a prize from Prince Hamlet so many years before. But there was always a first time. Offa realized that if he struck the first blow that he could kill his adversary. But that stroke might shatter Skrep and leave him vulnerable to the remaining enemy. So who was the most dangerous foe? Probably Suarno Eightkiller, but Prince Hildebrandt had no mean reputation either. Suarno was probably the most experienced in the ways of a warrior. But if Offa managed to kill Hildebrandt, then his tribe's future was assured, even if he was killed later by Suarno. In either case, it was time to find out.
Both Prince Hildebrandt and Suarno had drawn their swords. They hesitated when they saw Prince Offa stay in the corner. The young, confident giant they had seen negotiate strictly with King Friogar was not the idiotic dolt they had come to execute after a short struggle. Prince Offa was awaiting them in the corner, where one would have to face his shield, and the other his sword and it was apparent that Prince Offa had the reach on both of them. Suarno and Hildebrandt exchanged glances, as if to say "What do we do now?"
"What is keeping you, Prince Hildebrandt?" Offa asked. "Are you waiting for Suarno to do your fighting for you, then hoping a chance to strike will present itself while I kill Suarno? If so, then you had best not make it too apparent. Your future subjects are watching and they despise cowards."
Offa had spoken in a loud voice. Some of the Angles on the north side of the river heard and they laughed derisively. One yelled loudly, "That we do!" before he let his friends in on the joke.
Prince Hildebrandt glowered a bit, but still he hung back, waiting.
"And you, Suarno," Offa continued, "some champion you are. You have a duty to protect your prince and future king. If you live and he dies, you will be forever dishonored. But none of us will reach Valhalla if you continue to dither."
Suarno spoke for the first time. "We will press in on the fool, as we planned, Lord," he said to Prince Hildebrandt. "I will open up a chance to kill him, and if I die in the attempt, press on and finish him. It is time to win a kingdom for you and everlasting glory for myself."
Both the Saxons advanced upon Prince Offa and engaged him, Suarno taking the place of danger opposite Offa's sword arm. Suarno darted inside, then back outside Offa's reach depending on whether he found an opening or not. Suarno, the most experienced fighter of the three men, could have wounded Prince Offa if he carried through with his thrusts, but he hesitated to follow through, probably because he feared Offa's counterstroke. Since the brunt of Offa's attention was taken by Suarno, Prince Hildebrandt stood off a bit and hacked at Offa's shield, trying to splinter it so that he could attack from Offa's left.
Offa was standing in the corner. Prince Hildebrandt was hacking his shield into splinters. Meanwhile Offa was keeping Suarno from closing in on his right by keeping his sword up and outstretched, daring Suarno to come on in and end the fight, one way or another. Offa parried away Suarno's darting sword thrusts with the flat of his blade, not wanting to put a big nick in Skrep's edge.
To the waiting crowds on both banks of the river, it seemed that the Angle prince was on the defensive. The Saxons cheered, a low moan came from the Angle side of the river.
"What happens?" asked King Waermund.
"Prince Offa is on the defensive, Lord." Herjan Hebbing said. "He has made no attempt to kill one, then the other of his enemies. He is staying on the defensive, standing pat. This state of affairs cannot last for long. If he doesn't risk all for victory, then he will be killed after the Saxon prince has sliced away his shield."
"That is the way you see it, Herjan?" King Waermund asked.
"It is, Lord King."
"Then so be it," King Waermund said. "You are not to interfere with anything that might happen." King Waermund took two hesitating steps to the steep bank on the north bank of the Eider. The river flowed deeply a step ahead and ten feet below where King Waermund stood.
Herjan made as if to stop his king, but then, thinking better of it, stood in place.
Prince Hildebrandt had settled into a safe routine of using the last six inches of his sword to slash at Prince Offa's shield. He had already sliced away at the band of iron circling the top and left quadrant of Offa's shield, now he was proceeding to start splitting away the left boards of his adversary's shield while Suarno continued to probe for weakness.
When the top left of his shield was cut away, Offa decided that the time had come to risk death and kill Suarno. The corner, which had seemed safe, was becoming a death trap. He couldn't just stand there and let Hildebrandt slice away at his shield while the experienced Suarno waited for an opportunity to strike. Offa figured that he would have to use his superior strength to strike a blow that no sword could parry and no armor withstand.
Silently praying to Woden for luck, Prince Offa took a great step, a half leap to the right, away from Prince Hildebrandt, along the side of the spear-lined square and right into the tip of the surprised Suarno's down-slashing sword. Offa felt a pain under his right nipple as Suarno's sword's point cut through the mail byrnie and raked itself through his flesh and across his ribs until it tangled in a hard ring on his father's steel shirt. No time to think of that now! Offa launched Skrep at Suarno, driving down the blade with all his strength while he flicked his shield to the left, where it could forestall Prince Hildebrandt from following.
With a metal-rending screech seemingly of triumph, Skrep cut through Suarno's shield, armor, and body in a diagonal to the other side of Suarno's body. Never before had the ancient sword been driven with such strength to its intended target. And never again.
Offa felt his sword's triumph; Skrep was like a living thing, but he felt Skrep's despair as something gave, then snapped inside the old pattern-welded blade as it cut through Suarno's spine. With a feeling of sorrow, both for the sword and for the brave man he had slain, Offa stepped to the right, taking Skrep with him.
The top half of Suarno's severed body slid across the division, then onto the ground, where Suarno's sightless gray eyes glared up at the skies. The bottom part of Suarno's body stood on its lifeless legs for a second while the still beating heart drenched Offa with spurting blood, some of which squirted into Offa's left eye. Suarno's trunk and legs fell forward, atop Offa's left foot. With a feeling of revulsion, Offa stepped another step to the right. Prince Hildebrandt stared with horror at his dead champion.
There was a moment of silence, then a great cheer arose from the Angles thronging the north bank of the Eider.
"I think I heard the sound of Skrep," the blind old king of the Angles said. "Herjan! What has happened?"
Herjan stepped forward. "Prince Offa has slain the Saxon champion. Some good will come from this day after all, Lord King."
"And my son, how does he fare?"
Herjan looked over to where Prince Offa faced Prince Hildebrandt across Suarno's body. The cut that Suarno had made on Prince Offa's side was evident under the flapping loose links of Offa's byrnie, but Herjan decided to spare his aged king the news.
"Prince Offa fares well, Lord King. One enemy is down, with only the least dangerous one remaining."
King Waermund clutched his retainer's arm.
"Lead me back from the brink, Herjan. It seems that I have something to live for."
"Yes, Lord King," Herjan said, as he did what his king bade him.
Offa glanced down the length of his blade. Skrep seemed uncracked, but then again, the sword blade was covered with gore from its previous victim. Offa knew, he just knew, that Skrep couldn't deliver another blow like the one that had destroyed the heart of the sword. Offa would have to nurse the blade like an aged retainer, one who had grown old and bent while in the king's service but filled with pride for those years of faithful service. For the good of both the sword and himself, Offa would have to lure Prince Hildebrandt within reach of that part of the blade closest to the hilt. Prince Offa looked with a trace of longing at Suarno's undamaged sword, still clenched in the dead champion's fist. So close, so close, and yet so far!
Offa stepped away from the body of the man that he had killed and toward the center of the square. Offa quickly glanced down at the wound that Suarno's blade had dealt him.
The wound was still bleeding, but it looked as if it would clot except where the torn edges of his mail shirt flapped against his cut. His vitals weren't cut; he wouldn't be disemboweled. Offa figured that if he waited, the wound would clot over, he wouldn't bleed much more, but if he waited his wound would stiffen and his body would be reluctant to reopen the wound even if his life depended upon quick action. Time to end the duel.
Prince Hildebrandt was still looking at the body of his champion as if Suarno had been his only hope of salvation, and now Suarno was gone. Perhaps he was looking at the cloven corpse, thinking despondently about the power inherent in a man who could deal such a blow, and wondering how he could withstand another of the like.
Offa considered charging the Saxon prince while he was preoccupied, but changed his mind. It was not honorable to so deal with an unprepared man.
The mood that had hung in the air abruptly changed. The crowds on both sides of the Eider River hushed and expectantly waited for the next act of the drama to unfold.
"Prince Hildebrandt," Offa said, "It is time for you to avenge or join your friend and champion and for one of us to win a kingdom."
Hildebrandt looked up and met Offa's gaze. Hildebrandt's blue eyes at first reflected despair and sorrow, but then reflected determination.
Until his dying day, King Offa remembered that moment and what followed afterwards.
Prince Hildebrandt's eyes seemed cloudy with despair and grief as he pondered his friend's death and the impending doom that was coming. Prince Offa was tempted to call off the fight, to offer a return to the way things were now that the disgrace of Keto and Wego had been overcome in blood. "No need for further bloodshed in order to change an ephemeral thing such as by whom the peoples would be ruled. We can destroy our enemies by making them our friends. Under different circumstances, I could have called you "Friend," Prince Offa thought. But then the gray-green flecks in Prince Hildebrandt's eyes precipitated out into the blue of his new-found determination and Offa realized, "Not at this time, not at this place."
Offa watched the change in his opponent's eyes so intently that he didn't notice that Hildebrandt was moving toward him with an out-thrust sword, intending to impale the Angle prince in the gut.
It wasn't until Hildebrandt jumped over his dead champion's sword arm that Offa lost eye contact with his enemy. Offa jumped aside at the last second as Hildebrandt's sword screeched across the chain links of the mail byrnie until the point of the sword came across the loose flap created by Suarno's death-stroke and went under the links. Offa had another cut that intersected the previous one on his abdomen.
Offa brought down Skrep's pommel upon the Saxon prince's head as he collided with Prince Offa. Offa caught a last quick glance of despair from the doomed Saxon, saw his pupils widen, as Prince Hildebrandt looked up at the big iron ball on the end of pommel, at the instrument of destruction that would end his life. Down came the big iron ball, crushing Hildebrandt's head like a careless or maliciously wielded hammer destroys a nut. Brains flew as backwards fell the two champions, Angle and Saxon, Offa on the bottom as Hildebrandt's twitching corpse on top made grotesque pumping flops like a travesty of married love.
The crash as the two champions met, the hollow plunk of metal destroying a skull, the thud of two big men hitting the ground stilled by comparison the normal background noise from the crowds on both sides of the river. Then, when Prince Offa rolled the corpse off to the side and stood up, still clenching Skrep in his fist, there was a big cheer from the Angle side that dwarfed the one that had resounded when Suarno had been cleaved in two. It lasted a minute or so before diminishing in intensity.
Offa thought of wiping the gore from his sword when his glance went over to King Friogar, standing with his Saxon Companions, seemingly alone and with his head bowed, weeping. So instead of wiping the sword off on the leggings of his dead enemies as was sometimes the custom, Offa reached down and pulled up some blades of grass and wiped off the worst of the gore before he cleaned off the rest on his own leggings and sheathed the sword. Then Offa nodded to the south bank as he motioned for his countrymen to the north to cross the bridge.
Quietly the Angles filed across the bridge, with King Waermund being led by Herjan Hebbing in front. They lined up behind their new leader as the Saxons led by King Friogar waded across the stream. The two cousinly peoples looked at each other across their respective sides of the dueling field as King Friogar stepped into the dueling square with the victor. For a minute or so, neither ruler spoke.
"King Friogar," Offa said, breaking the impasse. "Take your son's and champion's arms and armor. You might need them to help defend against our common enemies someday."
The dusty trail of tears on the Saxon king's face renewed itself with new moisture. King Friogar sniffed from an already clogged nose.
"You are generous, King Offa," King Friogar said, hoarsely. "I thank you and accept your gift of honor."
King Friogar undid the huge gold brooch on his right shoulder that fastened his royal red linen and woolen cloak trimmed with a collar of ermine. Without a backward glance to see whether the costly garment hit the ground or not, King Friogar cleared his throat as one of his Companions stepped forward and caught the cloak and started making a stretcher of it using two Saxon spears that were pulled out of the ground of the dueling square. Another two of the Saxon king's Companions placed Hildebrandt's corpse onto the stretcher.
"In return I will keep the agreement that was made earlier, King Offa. You are overlord of the Myringas now." King Friogar looked up into the face of the giant Angle king. "We cannot be friends, but we need not be enemies. We Saxons will stay on our side of this river for as long as I live."
King Friogar looked down away from Prince Offa and motioned his men into the dueling square. The rest of the Saxon champions recovered their spears from the dueling place. Another stretcher, this one less costly, was made from a cloak and two spears. The divided halves of Suarno Eightkiller's body were placed upon it. Then the Saxon army, with their grieving king at the back, recrossed the Eider and continued on south to their summer capital of Hamburg.
"This is a great day for Angelyn, my son," King Waermund said when the Saxons were out of earshot. "Never before has there been such a day of honor given to the House of Woden."
Offa looked at the departing Saxons. His left hand was on Skrep's pommel, caressing the round ball at the end of the handle greasy from the feel of human brains while his right hand explored for broken or cut ribs where Suarno's sword had cut him. He turned around at his father's voice.
"Not a great day, father," Offa said. "But a necessary one." Offa's hand explored another rib. "We got off lucky and cheaply on the field of honor today. The Saxons paid the higher price."
"Are you all right, my son?" King Waermund asked.
"A few cuts is all, Father. I will mend. Let us go home to Hedeby."
A loud cheer broke into King Offa's train of thought, and he frowned at the intrusion. Then one of his hip bones ached and he was brought back into the present, a present in which he was a tired old man of sixty-three years. Evidently Eldred was done reciting the Lay of King Offa.
He glanced over to where his beloved Queen Cynethryth sat and saw instead his son, Angeltheow, the man who soon would be sole King. Offa looked around and saw his people and allies cheering and clapping for him. Then Prince Brond, the visiting Saxon prince who looked uncommonly like the grand-uncle that he had killed forty-five years before, got up at the urging of Chief Gida and nodded at the Angle throne dais. The rest of the visiting Saxons emulated their prince and stood up, somewhat sheepishly. The Saxons didn't cheer or clap, however. It was enough that they stood up in honor of their great enemy.
King Offa glanced about the field at his subjects and his enemies. In the manner of a man who remembers a pleasant night's dream and tries to go back to sleep in order to discover the ending, his mind quickly went back to the memories of forty-five years ago.
Cynethryth was waiting for him when he stumbled home, after the drunken celebration of his victory ended. Offa returned to his marriage quarters, the small hall suitable for a prince of no great standing, for the last time now that he was King. Offa closed the door, and turned to see a lamp on the stone shelf next to the marriage bed that he and Cynethryth had chastely shared since their wedding night.
As he walked toward the bed, Offa was surprised to see Cynethryth pull aside the covers, put her feet on the ground, and sit up, naked.
She had always gone fully dressed to bed before this. Since their wedding night Cynethryth would go to bed before him if possible, lying against the wall with her back turned toward him, tense as a frightened cat, awaiting her husband's word, be it condemning or commanding, a word that had never been spoken, even after Offa had revealed that he possessed the power of speech. For long, eternal nights husband and wife had lain in their marriage bed, backs turned to one another, locked by their pride like flies in amber, each waiting for the other to make the first move showing affection or hatred, anything.
Warily awaiting the consequences, Offa unbuckled his swordbelt and carefully slung it about the back of a chair. He tried not to stare at his wife's nude body, even though he had not glimpsed parts of it since their wedding night, two years ago. Cynethryth had surprised him, but since she had not learned the proper way of a wife, he would not speak to her first. Sitting down on the chair, facing her but looking down, Offa undid his sandals and was about to unwind his leggings when Cynethryth's hand came out and touched his hand atop his thigh. Offa looked up and met his wife's glance.
"Lord Husband, I wish to talk about the future of our marriage," Cynethryth said earnestly. "I do not believe that our marriage can continue like it has for the past two years."
She glanced at Offa's face. His eyes were clear. His face seemed open, waiting for her to continue. Absent was the glance of chilly impatience or the look of wolfish waiting that had cut her short many times when she had wanted to end the impasse on her own terms.
"I was wrong to show you lack of respect, both before and after our marriage. I have not been a good wife; I have not been a wife at all, other than in name. This must change.
"You are reckoned the bravest and most honorable man of our time. Through your efforts today you have shown that to be true. Every woman and girl in this land and abroad envies me. You could put me aside, rightly so, and no man would gainsay you. Every virgin in the land would willingly replace me. But that is not how I would have it be."
Cynethryth's grip on her husband's hand tightened. "I will change, and make you a good wife, if you so desire, Lord Husband. Please do not put me away as an unfit wife, although I deserve no less. Give me a second chance and I will do my best to make you happy." She drew in a breath. "Shall I have this chance, Lord Husband?"
Offa brought up his other hand and covered his wife's hand inside his own. This magnificent, beautiful creature had said the words that he had never dreamt that he would hear. He heard himself say, as in a dream long envisioned but finally arrived, "Yes, Cynethryth. You shall have your chance."
Offa took off his clothes with as much haste as his poulticed wounds and the conventions of good taste would allow. He blew out the lamp as he snuggled against his new-found wife. That night young husband and wife taught one another the first lessons of love.