Travelling with a Warband was easier than travelling alone and after four days they all safely arrived at Mershford. They greeted Offa and told him their news. Offa was annoyed with his orders from Wiglaf and while he did not intend to disobey the Ealdorman, he delayed setting off by spending time with the Brothers, who he found to be agreeable company.
Wulfhere was keen to know if Offa remembered Hrothgar and pressed him about what had happened in Mershford two years ago. Offa recalled that Hrothgar and Wiglaf spent a lot of time discussing matters. He also remembered both were over fond of his ale. Uthric remarked that as Offa was probably the best brewer of ale in the district and it was perfectly understandable why someone could get over fond of his ale. Indeed, both he and Dunstan thought that they might require a few more horns to come to the same judgment as their father. Offa took the hint and called for more ale. Thus several days went by while Dunstan and Uthric tried to decide if this was indeed the best ale they had tasted.
Offa was content to host his guests, even if his ale hoard was dwindling fast. In truth, the Brothers were at a loss about what to do. They knew Hrothgar had left and gone south. They discussed the likelihood of Hrothgar taking another route home and found it unlikely. The only crossing of the Tamyse River was at Lundenwic so he must have crossed at the bridge. Wulfhere questioned Offa for many hours about other possible routes, but the Thane did not know if there were other fords or bridges upriver, that part of Mierce still being partly controlled by the Wealsc.
Wulfhere had the impression that his head might fall off if he thought anymore and asked his younger brothers to refrain from their deliberations about Offa’s ale and help him plan what to do next. This was the first of many arguments. Offa did not help by providing more ale until Wulfhere reminded him of his duty to his Ealdorman which only made Offa grumble more than usual.
The Brothers decided that they might find some inspiration if they travelled to Dunasted and asked further questions of the Thane, Duna. Equally, Offa had decided that it was now safe to go in search of the escaped slaves, knowing they would by now be beyond his reach. He, like all of Wiglaf’s Thanes, disliked the power Ydwina had over Wiglaf which, they felt, sapped his energy.
The Brothers travelled warily, having been warned about possible Wealsc raiders. Approaching Dunasted at dusk, they found a body on the road with cuts to his head and a death wound in his chest. Uthric examined the body to try and determine what kind of weapon was used to kill the dead Angle warrior. He was unsure what had caused the head wounds, other than supposing it might have been a cutting weapon but felt confident that a broad bladed spear had caused the death wound. Wulfhere remarked that this did not help their plight, but the wounds were similar to ones suffered by Hrothgar in their vision. This discussion set their nerves on edge and they argued about what to do next.
Initially, they agreed Dunstan would proceed alone to the open gate, while the others waited to see if anything of importance would occur. But Uthric pointed out that this was maybe not such a clever plan, for how would they face their mother if Dunstan were to suffer a death wound. So Uthric then agreed to go, but as he prepared himself, Wulfhere felt that if his younger brother, Uthric, was going to face uncertain danger and possible dismemberment, then it was also his duty to be there to offer him some guidance and direction. Dunstan objected to the plan. Whatever had killed the Angle was likely to be waiting for them to separate and he felt it was unfair to leave him alone on the road with a dead warrior in case he was needed to help his brothers. Despite being the youngest, he said that he was generally much more agile in a fight, if it actually came to that. After a further heated discussion, they agreed all three would go to the Sted and that out of respect for the dead warrior, he should come along too, so as not to feel left out. They rigged his cloak between two spears and dragged the body with them. Uthric went ahead moving silently through the gloom. For the first time they noticed there were no smoke from cooking fires and the gate was slightly ajar which they found unusual.
Leaving the body at the bottom of the raised earthwork they moved up to the palisade and tried to see through a chink in the wood but to no avail. Moving quietly around the palisade to the Northgate, they attempted to see if there was anyone moving inside. It was then they noticed the smell of blood and death. Entering the gate all they found were bodies that were cut and dismembered. Some even looked as if they might have been tortured. There was no movement either of friend or enemy.
They went carefully through the Sted to the Southgate which had been forced open and the wooden locking bar had been broken by an excessive force. The bodies of the two Gate Guards lay sprawled on the ground. Uthric examined their weapons and neither seemed to have any blood on them. It may have been possible they were surprised but that would not explain the broken gate as it would create a certain level of noise that even a sleeping guard might notice.
They closed the gate and wedged it shut in the hope it would stop someone coming through. It was dark and they debated if they should light torches to search the compound thoroughly. A compromise was reached and they lit and used torches to complete a quick search but found nothing of merit and no living person. Even the dogs had been killed. They moved all the bodies they could find into one of the outbuildings until they could decide what to do with them in the morning. Next, they went to the Thane’s hall and agreed that if they lit the fire pit then they could heat food and have light to fight if they were attacked.
They searched the Thane's sleeping quarters discovering that he was either very poor or someone had taken his strongbox. This caused further perplexment. They discussed what could possibly have happened. Uthric, who had some knowledge of British habits, did not believe that this was the kind of behaviour the Britons indulged themselves in. He did concede that he was basing his opinion on the British of Dumnonia, and after all, here in the north, they were called Wealsc and may be of different habits regarding killing people. But from what he had seen of them, he thought there was a similarity in looks with their more southern cousins. He could not however speak for their temperament without closer observation. Wulfhere wondered more realistically if Duna had enemies among the other Angle thanes and the deaths could be part of some blood feud but they had heard nothing of this kind of news in their travels.
There were no solutions to their questions and they agreed that it would be futile to speculate more so they should turn to more practical issues and set watches. They would see what the morning brought. The night was quiet but the morning and light produced no immediate answers, just more questions.
With the aid of the morning sun, they noticed strange, angular footprints both at the Southgate and throughout the Sted. They could not think what manner of shoe would make such tracks but Dunstan thought that it might be a giant. Wulfhere, although he admitted that he was not familiar with giants, thought it more likely a giant would step over the palisade instead of kicking the gate down.
They did make a new discovery. Hiding underneath a threshing mat they found a young boy, Egfryd, who was frightened and scared and initially would not talk. He was eventually able to tell them that his father had hid him and told him to stay there until he came back to get him. Egfryd wanted to know where his father was. Wulfhere felt it was only right to show him and took him to the outhouse. The boy tried not to cry when he looked at his father’s mangled body. He was silent again and sat in the corner of the Thane's hut where everyone had repaired to try and think this through.
Uthric asked him about his family but the boy just shook his head. With a bit of encouragement and gentleness, Uthric got him talking again. The boy's mother had died some years ago and he had come with his father to Dunasted in the hope they could get a farm, after they had defeated the Wealsc. Now his father was dead, he was alone in the world. Uthric was not known for being a particularly practical person but sometimes, by chance, he said the right things. He suggested that the boy should come home with the Brothers and Hildegard would be his new mother. The boy cheered up immensely. He did not remember his own mother and he felt this was a lucky day. He would have a new mother and asked Uthric questions about Hildegard. He also asked if this meant Uthric, Dunstan and Wulfhere would be his brothers. When Uthric confirmed that it would, Egfryd danced with joy. He had never had brothers before and it felt good to have a mother again. He also gave more information about the man who came to the Sted and killed everyone. Far from being a giant, in Egfryd’s opinion, the man was rather small, but had large feet and wore iron boots. He had laughed as he killed people with a big flashing spear.
Uthric's face paled when he heard this and he knew that in some way this was connected to his father's death. He took Egfryd to meet his new brothers and tell them the news. Wulfhere and Dunstan were arguing about what they should do next, but quietened while Uthric introduced their new brother. Wulfhere was not best pleased. This new situation complicated matters. Wulfhere now had three younger brothers to look after. He was beginning to feel the weight of responsibility.
Dunstan wanted to look at the gates again that the man had broken down to see if he could understand what had happened. Uthric noted the tracks left by the man with iron boots had come from and returned to the forest to the west. This started another argument that was to continue for some time. Uthric and Dunstan both felt that the iron-booted man was somehow responsible for their father's death and their priority was to their father and putting his ghost to rest. If this was true, the Brothers should definitely seek revenge against the iron-booted man. Wulfhere did not deny this. However, he felt the more urgent need was get help, deal with the bodies in the outhouse and explain to a Thane what had happened at Dunasted. He was not overly convinced that the Angles would believe that the Brothers were not somehow responsible for the deaths. They were, after all, strangers in this land. He believed the options were to either retrace their steps to Offa at Mershford or to go on to Grim's Dyke Burgh.
They of course could not be sure that the iron-booted man had not attacked and destroyed either Burgh. Wulfhere's preference was to go back north to Offa as they knew him better and he had more warriors. He suggested that they could also send Egfryd at a run to Grim's Dyke to warn them. Uthric was angry at the suggestion and felt that Wulfhere was not looking after the best interests of their new brother. Dunstan, who was becoming confused about all the different proposals retorted that he was not the one who had adopted Egfryd and would not be responsible for him or his death. The boy looked crestfallen and began to cry. All three Brothers felt guilty and spent time reassuring the boy that he was now their brother and Hildegard would be delighted to have a new son who she could fuss over and make sweet cakes for him. They also told him that he would be a useful witness when it came to telling a Thane about events in Dunasted.
Reassuring Egfryd had not resolved the matter at hand and when he was pacified and smiling again at the thought of honey coated cake, the central argument then continued. Wulfhere stated that their father had been dead for 2 years and a few more days would not matter. The priority was to their hosts, the Angles, who had shown them kindness and hospitality and this should be repaid with respect and honour, particularly in the funeral rites of the dead men in the outhouse. Dunstan and Uthric countered by reiterating that their goal was to put their father to rest, give their mother peace from her illness which, if it were to continue for much longer, was likely to bring her death and importantly, they should revenge their father if possible. Wulfhere thought Dunstan and Uthric were unfair in bringing their mother into the argument. She was only suffering nightmares and the worst that could happen was being grumpy from lack of sleep.
The argument went on for several hours and was only ended by Egfryd who made the point that if his second mother died of her nightmares, he would never have the opportunity to taste her excellent honey cakes. As he had now set his heart on tasting these wonderful cakes, he felt that all the brothers should now take a vote on their future actions. Wulfhere lost the vote three to one and did a passable impression of Offa at his most grumpy.
Uthric decided that he would follow the track of the iron-booted man into the forest and attempt to find out more about events. He was by far the best at tracking and moving stealthily through forests as he was quick to point out. Besides he said that they had now been arguing for hours with no-one giving any ground. At least if they had more information they might be able to make a better decision. Wulfhere pointed out that if he did not come back then at least he had found a new son for their mother to replace him and she wouldn't feel so bad about her loss. Dunstan thought Wulfhere had now surpassed Offa in grumpiness.
Uthric followed the iron-boot tracks along a game trail until it led out into a clearing with a pool beside which sat a beautiful woman. Uthric, possibly for the first time in his life, felt unable to speak or move. It was the woman who broke the silence and asked him if he would not sit down and share his news with her. She told him that she did not get many visitors, or at least visitors that she liked and he was of pleasant appearance. Uthric was wary. He had been in many forests in his life but was yet to meet a beautiful woman alone and had not yet come to some kind of harm. He noted the faint greenish tinge in her blonde hair and overly long nails. He thought she might be a spirit of the forest or perhaps of the pool. He thought if she was going to kill him it was better to approach death fearlessly. Besides, it was unlikely that he would be able to escape now that he was so close to her. He wished that he had asked Wulfhere for Osberht’s gift before he had left. But it was too late now, this must be his Wyrd and if he were to die at her hand, it really was a beautiful hand. He might as well tell her why he was here and hope that she could help. When he told her that his name was Uthric Hrothgarson, she squealed in delight. She informed him that she had been friends with Hrothgar and he had been her friend, he had been kind and had offered to help her with her Tormentor. Uthric was lost for words for the second time in as many minutes. He had obviously not really known his father well if he had counted among his friends a Spirit of the Forest. This was news that perhaps his mother best not hear. The Forest Spirt told him she was known by many names but the one she liked best was the one his father used for her and that was Meire.
Uthric told the Meire all about his vision and how he had travelled from the far south to find out what happened to his father and if possible to put him to rest. Meire said that she was more than willing to help and she could reveal where his father was and if he wanted he was welcome to talk to him. She motioned to two stone pillars at the far end of the pool which had a third pillar as a capstone. In the upright pillars there were niches in which were placed polished skulls. Uthric looked at the skulls, and in the topmost one something moved behind one of the eye sockets. A small snake crawled slowly around the inside of the skull. Meire informed Uthric that the snake was his father’s spirit and it was even possible to talk to him. She had valued his friendship and had done him a great honour by making him an Oracular Hero. Uthric asked a question and the snake moved in a rhythmic motion, gliding in and out of the eye sockets and mouth. He asked another question and the snake moved in another pattern. Meire told him that snakes were unable to speak lacking physical means to do so but that his father was answering Uthric’s questions. Uthric said he was unaware how to interpret the speech of moving snakes having had little opportunity to practice the skill. Meire conceded that she too had difficulty but was an expert in feeding the snake honey which it licked from her fingers. They sat in silence for a while.
Uthric felt it best to explain the burial rites of the south Saxons which as far as he could remember did not include being an Oracular Hero and this was possibly the reason his father’s ghost was unhappy. Meire began to cry and said that she only thought she was being helpful to his father and wished now only to remedy the situation if that was within her power. Uthric found himself comforting Meire in her distress, putting her arm around her shoulder and stroking her hair. She asked that if she was able to help him, might it be possible that he could stay with her and keep her company. She conceded that she got very lonely on her own. Uthric felt that he might be able to live with that deal. Meire cheered up, she said hair stroking always had this effect on her and that he had been clever to know what she liked so early in their acquaintance. She also told him that she had his father’s war gear and the rest of his bones that she had polished when she had missed him over much.
Uthric wondered if Meire was aware what had happened to his father and how he had come by his death and ended up as an Oracular Hero. Meire said that she would be delighted to tell him for though it still filled her with sadness that he had not succeeded it was also a source of pride that he had attempted it for her sake.
Meire explained that she had a Tormentor, who, when he is bored comes to this place and washes his feet, sullying the purity of her pool. He also calls her names and tells her of all the people he killed, making her stop her ears and cry. He just laughs at her distress. Hrothgar was outraged by the Tormentor and offered to end his cruelty. He and his men hunted the Tormentor but the Tormentor is clever and also hunted his men. He struck unseen, killing five of them before they could strike back and escaping into the trees. He laughed and sang as he killed the men, stomping about in his heavy boots. Hrothgar was undeterred and eventually caught up with the Tormentor in a place where he could not turn and run. Hrothgar’s men formed a shield wall and advanced on the Tormentor. Two more men were killed and they found that their weapons were not hurting the Tormentor much. Hrothgar was undeterred and leapt on the Tormentor, pinning him down. He called on his two remaining men to help him give the Tormentor his death but instead of coming forward to help they ran off. I could not watch as Hrothgar was gradually overwhelmed by the Tormentor’s strength. No living man could have continued as long as Hrothgar did but at last he was overcome. I came back later and took Hrothgar’s body and brought it here.
Uthric felt proud of his father. He said that he had one more question for Meire and asked what manner of creature she was. Meire looked surprised before saying that she was obviously a woman. Uthric found himself stroking her hair again.
Some hours later he told Meire that he must go to his brothers and tell them the news but he would be back shortly.
Uthric found all three of his brothers sitting discussing how long they should wait before assuming Uthric had met his death in the forest. Uthric said that obviously the Norns were having a day off and therefore contrary to his brothers’ pessimistic expectations he had returned and to improve on that news, he had also found his father. The three Brothers were impressed by Uthric’s news but still could not agree on what to do. Dunstan was worried about Uthric’s promise to stay with this woman, Meire, and suggested that maybe their newest brother, Egfryd, might improve his chances of living for a while longer if he were to stay with Meire, rather than Uthric. It was his opinion that they had yet to face more dangers and he felt it was important to protect their youngest brother from harm. The others were less convinced by his argument and said they were content to see what happened. Wulfhere reminded them that no one can escape their Wyrd.
Eventually they persuaded Wulfhere that they should put their father to rest before, seeking help from Offa or at Grim’s Dyke Burgh. They gathered items from the Sted that they could put on their father’s pyre for his use in the afterlife. Uthric had told them that Meire had his war gear still so they only gathered food, clothes and some personal items they thought their father would like and would have good use for.
Uthric retraced his steps to Meire’s pool without mishap and were greeted by the Forest Spirit warmly as all sons of the hero Hrothgar. Meire was particularly affectionate with Uthric and commented that she was glad to see him again, even if had only been a short space of time. Wulfhere thought Meire was very beautiful, even if she did have overly long nails and a faint greenish tinge to her skin. He felt that most men could overlook such faults.
The Brothers constructed a pyre for their father’s bones and put the grave goods on it arranging them so that when he went to the afterlife he could reach them easily. Finally, Meire placed a golden torc and several armrings on Hrothgar so that he would not be embarrassed by his poverty in the Afterlife. The Brothers were impressed at her generosity of such a fine gift and commented that they were sure no warrior had gone to the afterlife with such riches. They watched solemnly long into the night as their father was consumed by the flames and finally went to Neorxanwang.
In the morning they all scattered the ashes of the pyre and sat down to discuss what should happen next. Wulfhere explained to Meire that they had not yet decided on how to deal with Beorthric and Wilfrith and for that they needed to have their brother, Uthric present. He therefore would be unable to stay with her as he had a duty to perform. There was also, he continued, the Tormentor and the Brothers had yet to decide if they needed to seek revenge on him for their father’s death. Meire said that she was not surprised by Wulfhere’s comments. Men often made promises to woman for momentary gain and then broke them when it was convenient to do so. However, she said, she could forgive them in this instance for the matter of their father had, for the Brothers, outweighed other considerations. She had a compromise, however, which she felt could accommodate all views in this discussion. She would travel with the Brothers and leave her forest and pool behind. She may not be able to use a spear and might not be able to stand in a shield wall, but she had other skills that they may find useful from time to time.
And so, it was agreed, by Uthric joyfully and Wulfhere reluctantly, that Meire would accompany them. Wulfhere was in a hurry to return to Dunasted for they had many other tasks to complete and time was passing. On reaching the edge of the forest, they noticed a number of things that were disconcerting. Firstly, there was snow on the ground which they thought was odd as it was just past Midsummer. Secondly, their hair and beards had grown longer and finally Egfryd’s clothes seemed to have shrunk. They could not make sense of this and suspected wiććecræft. They looked at Meire for answers but she merely said that she had often found that time passes and rather than suspecting wiććecræft, it was a normal thing for time to do. Wulfhere was not best pleased by her views.
As they approached Dunasted they saw that the Sted was occupied and there were clearly cooking fires burning and armed men at the gates. They suspected that they were heading for trouble.