Offa was both grumpy and pleased. His Carls were used to the grumpiness and in fact his being grumpy was expected. They were unsure how to cope when he was pleased. But Offa was genuinely pleased to see the Brothers again. He told himself it was just because they praised his ale but he enjoyed their company and they had got on well in Mershford. He was even spotted by his more observant men to be smiling. To be sure, Offa hadn't put it like that. He had thought the brothers dead and now they had returned with another brother and a woman and this had caused him to smile. He did admit that the woman was somewhat unsettling in appearance, but she was trusted by them and that sufficed for now.
Offa had known the brothers had left Mershford after Midsummer. He did not know what had happened in Danasted, other than death had stalked the Sted and had then placed all the dead in one building. He was unsure if the brothers had been among the dead, the bodies having decayed virtually beyond recognition by the time it was discovered. He had made enquiries at Grim's Dyke Burgh and they had not made it there. So, after thinking them dead, he found it surprisingly pleasant that they were standing before him.
When they had first arrived, the Gate Guards had poked them with spears in case they were ghosts, a fact that the Brothers found to be initially unnecessary but conceded after a discussion that it was a practical measure to ensure the safety of all involved. The compromise with the Guards was that they would use their spear butts rather than spear points to poke the visitors. After a further but brief conference, the guards had decided that it was unusual for ghosts to be solid and try as they might, the spear butts would not go through the Brothers. One of the Guards took the visitors to the Thane’s Hall where they were presented to Offa. To amuse themselves further, the debate continued between the remaining guards long into the night when one of them recounted tales of unquiet and of very solid dead that had recently made a nuisance of themselves in the Fenlands.
As had been noted previously, Offa was also grumpy. He now had five extra mouths to feed over the winter season. In particular, he had begun to worry if there would be enough Yule sausage for everyone. When he expressed his thoughts to the brothers, they replied that while they were used to having a whole Yule sausage each, they could make exceptions if Offa was short of sausages and would be willing to share a sausage with others. This seemed to put Offa's mind at rest and he then offered them some ale which they were only too glad to accept.
The Brothers said that although without doubt sausages would be important in the coming days, they did presently have more important things on their minds. Offa realised that he was not being a good host and when they got washed and fed he asked them for their news. Equally, the brothers were keen to learn Offa's news. They were concerned they went into the forest in Midsummer to come out after a day and found themselves at Midwinter. Offa suggested that there might be wiććecræft involved and the Carls who had come into the Thane's hall to hear the account of the brothers, all looked meaningfully at Meire. They agreed that she was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen, but she surely was not of Miðgarðr and likely to be one of the Ælfar.
Offa merely paid Meire courtesy and ignored both his men's discussions and the obvious greenish tinge of her hair and skin. He was concerned by Egfryd’s description of the small red-hatted, iron booted man with the large spear, who had successfully killed at least 30 warriors in a fortified Sted. He questioned Egfryd for as many details as he could remember. He made Egfryd repeat the story three times, each time seeking more information. He also asked Meire for her views on her Tormentor and Hrothgar's final battle with the small man. His men grew quiet during the tales and murmured together afterwards, frequently looking at Meire and making a sign against evil.
The Brothers were keen to hear Offa's views about Hrothgar's death. It was their opinion that although the actual cause of Hrothgar's death was the small man, the fact that Beorthric and Wilfrith had left Hrothgar to fight alone, had caused Hrothgar's death. Offa agreed. He felt the two Carls were guilty of cowardice and that they should have to pay a blood price. He did acknowledge that he was not a Lawspeaker and also not the Brother’s Thane and it might be best to check with one rather than take matters into their own hands. The brothers thanked him for his advice and his fine ale and told him that they could think of no better way to spend Yule than with him, even if there was likely to be a shortage of Yule sausage. This reminded Offa that it was time to stop smiling and be grumpy again.
Over the coming days, the Brothers sat with Offa and recounted their visions to try and understand them more. Some they felt they could interpret, other bits remained obscure. Offa could offer no real advice. He grumbled that he had never been good at interpreting dreams, even when he was a boy and had a more agile mind for new things. He thought that they would probably need a leæce.
Dunstan and Uthric took turns in teaching their new brother, Egfryd, how to use a spear, axe and shield. Since he was now their brother, they felt that he shouldn't embarrass them should he need to be involved in a fight. Besides, if Wulfhere insisted that they seek the iron- booted man, it might be up to Egfryd to avenge them, if they were unable to overcome and received their death by the small man. All four brothers could however agree that both Beorthric and Wilfrith needed to die.
So, this was how things stood with several days to go before Yule. Offa had doubled the gate guards and had made sure there were patrols on the fighting platform of the palisade.
Early in the morning two days before Yule, the Sted was awoken but a loud thumping noise. The tremors could be felt through the ground and buildings. Running towards the sound of the noise, Dunstan wondered if the world wasn't ending. Wulfhere remarked that it was unlikely to be so. He had been told by some wise people that it was necessary for there to be a Fimbulvetr prior to the end of the world, and while it was cold and there was snow on the ground, it really wasn’t that Fimbulvetr cold as he had still his autumn cloak on and felt warm enough. Dunstan said that there might be other options for the world to end as Wulfhere had certainly not met many wise men, as far as he was aware, and there were bound to be others that held different views. They decided this was not the best time to discuss such events and a more pressing matter was why the palisade wall was making such a noise.
Approaching the west side of the Sted, they could see Meire perched high on a large corner post of the palisade. She seemed to be directing whatever was happening just out of sight. As the brothers approached the palisade they saw two warriors jabbing their spears at something as yet unseen on the outside of the Sted. Something hit the palisade which the Brothers thought likely to be the cause of the end-of-the-world noise and cracked some of the stakes. Almost simultaneously one of the warriors fell over the palisade, screaming loudly. Climbing up the Brothers could see a small man bending over the stricken warrior. They watched him dip something in the gore of what used to be the man's neck and cackle with obvious mirth. All three brothers shifted their spears to throw hoping to make an end of the small man quickly. They paused momentarily to watch horrified as the man replaced a blood-soaked hat on his head, blood dripping down his face. The man looked up at Meire and shouted that he was Coming. Dunstan and Wulfhere threw the spears but they appeared to have little impact despite hitting the small man in the chest and arm. Uthric paused, waiting until the small man climbed the mound to the palisade, in the hope he could try and knock the hat off the man. The spear grazed the man's head and taking the hat off and transfixing it on the javelin as it continued on its flight.
This was the first time that the Brothers had seen the small iron-booted man without his hat and it was a surprise that he was bald. Dunstan remarked loudly on his baldness and the small man growled in disapproval. The brothers felt that maybe they had overly annoyed him by showing up his previously hidden baldness and perhaps knocking off his hat was maybe not the best idea that Uthric had had recently. The small man however paused to retrieve his hat and to put it on again but just as he did, Uthric knocked it off again with another well-thrown Javelin. He was, Uthric remarked, after all known as Eagle-eye but perhaps in spear throwing contests he would also be henceforth known as Sure-shot. Wulfhere’s throw with his own javelin failed to hit the mark. He suggested Uthric was maybe being a little premature in his choice of occasion to boast about of his deeds. The proper and appropriate time for modestly retelling exploits was after the battle and after one had a surfeit of Yule sausage and Offa's special Yule-ale. It was important he felt that even in the moments of the heat of battle to always offer advice and guidance to younger brothers.
Dunstan did not feel the need for any advice or guidance from either brother. He had thought he might jump off the palisade to fight the small man hand-to-hand but decided against it, instead joining the band of warriors that was running to the South gate. Safety in numbers, his mother had always said but he was unsure if she’d actually been referring to a Shield Wall rather than a flock of sheep she’d been observing at the time.
Uthric and Wulfhere threw their last spears at the small man but their altercation about boasting seemed to have spoiled their aim as neither hit the mark. Both went in search of more weapons. Meire remained motionless, hands covering her eyes from the horror of the apparent slaughter. By the time Wulfhere and Uthric returned, the warriors who had gone outside had formed a shield wall, with Dunstan in their midst, and were advancing hoping to hem the small man against the palisade where they could kill him.
The small man watched the advancing Shield wall with a large degree of indifference, jumping from one foot to another in a strange dance or jig. Before anyone could move, he stopped dancing, lunged forward and hit a man squarely on the shield with his broad bladed spear. The spear split the shield and slit open the man’s belly. The little man cackled in response and didn't seem to heed the spears that were thrust at him, scoring his skin. A further moment of capering and he kicked one of the shields, breaking it in two and shattering a man’s leg.
The Shield wall closed up and again advanced. Dunstan remembered his father’s strategy and dropped his spear but kept the shield to protect his from the vicious spear or iron-boots. Again, the small man danced a jig and then lunged forward suddenly with the spear, catching Dustan's shield partner in the throat. He again ignored numerous hits on his body from spears and kicked another man and shield to the ground. Dunstan took the opportunity to try and grapple the small man but the small man elbowed him in the face and Dunstan failed to keep hold of him, falling back into the line of friendly shields. Again, the small man thrust and kicked and two more warriors fell and again Dunstan tried and failed to grab him, while spears failed to make any marks on him.
Meanwhile, Uthric had returned to the fighting platform with an axe and two more spears. He launched one at the small man and although it hit him squarely in the middle of the shoulders, it did little damage. Wulfhere had also returned with a spear and some rope. The rope he threw at the small man, hoping it might entangle him. Wulfhere just did not have any luck today, and the rope landed harmlessly on the snow-covered ground.
It was perhaps unfortunate that the small man did not have the foresight to think that any of these puny men could lift an anvil. Nor indeed, did he foresee that having lifted an anvil, that the man would have the strength to throw it. When people hear the story they have often discussed the question that if the small man had been aware of the anvil and known it’s potential, then could he have done anything to prevent his wyrd? For most the question is moot and most will come to the view that the Norns follow the path laid out at the birth of the world.
At this moment, the small man was dancing a jig and cackling with laughter as the reduced and demoralised shield wall backed away, worried about more carnage. Offa also chose this moment to appear on the fighting platform with one of the Blacksmith's anvils. Uthric, seeing him struggle with the weight, helped him lift it above his head, supported him while he balanced it and then watched in awe as with an almighty heave, Offa threw it at the small man.
The flying anvil caught the small man in the leg with a sickening crack. He howled in pain which was just as well for Offa, who unable to keep his balance after the throw, followed the anvil over the parapet and landed relatively unhurt close to the small man. Uthric later gave advice to Offa that he would recommend Offa gain further experience in balancing, if he was ever to try throwing anvils again. Wulfhere said afterwards that it would be totally unexpected for someone to be hit by a flying anvil for there not to be negative consequences. The small man's consequences were immediately apparent in that to move he had to hop and although all the warriors agreed that he had shown great skill at hopping, they knew that this was not likely to enhance survival in a fight. The small man, possibly recognising this too, was retreating slowly, hopping backwards towards the forest.
Wulfhere and Uthric scrambled down the outside of the palisade, having thought it safer to lower themselves over the edge rather than use Offa’s method. Wulfhere was first to react, called Uthric and Dunstan to lock shields and advance on the small man. The small man had regained his feet after the surprise of a flying anvil, but he was obviously hurt. Being hurt, however, did not reduce his dangerousness but it did mean that he found it difficult to kick the Brothers with his iron boots with only one functioning leg. The brothers traded unequal blows with the small man, doing little damage. Wulfhere received a bang on the head in trying to parry a spear thrust, his shield was knocked back with such force, it made him momentarily dizzy. Uthric and Dunstan moved forward to cover for their brother while he regained his senses.
Instead of re-joining the fight, Wulfhere calling to one of the Angle warriors, Paega, to take the other end of his previously thrown rope. They outpaced the Man small man. Wulfhere acknowledged later that it had been an unfair race and thought if the small man had had the use of two legs, Wulfhere and his companion might not have won. They held the rope taught and used it to trip the small man from behind as he continued backing up.
While Wulfhere was collecting his wits, the rope and a companion, Uthric and Dunstan were bearing the brunt of the small man’s savagery. They had failed to significantly hurt the small man again but the small man had stabbed Uthric in the leg and chest and Dunstan had a wound in his abdomen. Both were suffering greatly from the small man’s skill with a spear. However, when Wulfhere tripped him, Uthric took advantage to throw away his shield and strike with his axe two handed, severing the small man’s leg below the knee. Uthric said that he had been worried for his brother's safety as he had witnessed the small man use his iron boots to good effect. By cutting off his leg, he prevented the small man from kicking out and hurting his brothers.
Offa, who had carelessly left his weapons on the fighting parapet, had been collecting discarded ones, shouted for the Brothers to take advantage of their prone adversary. He pinned one shoulder while Uthric pinned the other and Dunstan tried unsuccessfully to hold a leg. Other warriors came forward and stabbed at the small prone man. A warrior named Garheard thrust his spear into the little man's throat and he ceased struggling.
The warriors stood around the hacked and bloody body unsure if the small man was indeed dead. They were hardened veterans of many skirmishes and small fights but they were all shocked by the death, blood and most of all by the small man. Offa said later that it was no shame that some had voided their stomachs afterwards. He himself had been close but the fact that he was the Thane had stopped him.
They discussed what they needed to do next. Offa sent some of the man to tend the wounded but such were the small man's blows no-one usually survived, and only one man, had lived after experiencing the small man’s iron boots. The man had a shattered leg however and even if he survived the inevitable resetting and fever, he would never walk again properly.
Dunstan considered himself lucky, he had faced the small man in the Shield Wall when he was at the height of his powers and he had taken a blow to his abdomen that had only slightly bled. Wulfhere too had taken a blow and would have a scar on his left cheek to remind him in his old age. Uthric ignored his wounds, though in truth they caused him pain and he had been close to his death. He contented himself with telling anyone who would listen how his javelin shots had removed the small man’s hat which he believed to be the source of his power. He reminded everyone how the small man had dipped his hat in his victims’ blood and did not Meire say that his power increased when he killed. Meire hugged Uthric and told him he had acted like his father in wrestling her Tormentor to the ground and holding him there until other less brave men had come up and stabbed him to death.
But everyone praised Offa. No one had ever thought before that a blacksmith’s anvil might make such a good weapon to kill small men. It could always be said of Offa that he was excellent at grumbling but what was less frequently said but equally evident was that he was a strong leader.
But for now, Offa wanted to make sure the small man stayed dead. They were unsure if he was left alone he might not gather his parts and leave to come back another day. Offa called for a two-handed axe to cut off the small man’s head and they brought some of their precious dry wood to burn the body. Their companions they buried as they had no further wood to spare until the snows stopped.
That night they had a feast. Offa’s men called for him to throw the anvil again, but he declined saying that his back was sore, his nose had been broken and he had too much ale to be able to stand. It was likely he thought that balancing after throwing the anvil would he even harder on level ground at present. He felt that it was better at present just to grumble a bit.
Dunstan, who was ever practical, remarked that now the company had been significantly reduced, everyone left would have enough Yule sausages.
Edited by Nozbat