In Caedering, there was a strange quietness the morning after the Feast and Assembly. The quietness was not replicated in the Brothers’ heads. Each felt that Thunor was banging the inside of their skulls with his hammer. They were due to meet Osberht at midday to discuss their mission and to agree what was to be done. Dunstan, in particular, wanted to remain under his cloak complaining that the light hurt his eyes.
When they reached the Thane's Hall there was a very tense atmosphere between Osberht and Taethle who seemed to having an argument. Both stopped as the Brothers approached the High Table, but all could feel that the situation had been very heated. Osberht welcomed them and offered them cold remnants of last night’s feast with newly baked bread. Dunstan was never one to forgo food was happy to ask for more, having quickly finished his first helping.
Wulfhere wondered about the cause of the disagreement between Osbert and Taethle. He suspected that they were still arguing over Osbert's killing of the Carl who had been given guest rights. Wulfhere was of the opinion that it had been Garm's fault because of his goading and insults which had been designed to provoke Osberht. He would support his Thane if it came to violence. The Brothers had discussed the situation earlier and all had the same opinion. They conceded that they were not experts in the Law and it might not go well with Osberht because Garm was clever and likely to deny that any insult had been intended.
When they had finished their food, Osbert told them that he and Taethle agreed that they needed good information to carry out Cerdic's request. They had discussed the position of Glawmaed and its Thane, Connal. Both he and Taethle wanted to know what Connal's position was on the ongoing conflicts and his likely future actions. If he was hostile, then Glawmaed would need to be attacked and likely destroyed. The Brothers would need to show guile, intelligence and diplomacy in dealing with Connal and Osberht felt the Brothers had the right skills to complete the task. Uthric noticed that Taethle’s face looked neutral on this point and she was perhaps trying not to say anything. The second part of their mission would be to scout out where the Briton's base lay. They had discussed this at length and were of the opinion that the Britons were operating from east of the Itchen but had no knowledge of the exact location. Taethle wanted to know how many warriors there were, if there were defences and how they could be overcome. She was impatient to get the task completed and Dunstan wondered if she was not overly keen to prove to Cerdic that she merited her recent elevation to Thane.
The Brothers left the two Thanes and discussed if they should disguise themselves as Britons but decided against it as none of them could speak Brythonic to any degree. They agreed that they should first see how things lay in Glawmaed and then to go to the small Steading at Seaxnahine near Win Caester Hill, the ruined Burgh on the hill.
They thought that it would be useful to observe Glawmaed for a while, for if it was the source of the raids, then they did not want to walk unprepared into danger. Uthric said that now he was a father he would be quite keen to see his son learn to walk and wouldn’t be pleased if they got into trouble without knowing about it first. They approached Glawmaed from the South by walking through the forest and finding a comfortable place to watch the village. After several hours of watching they made up their minds that everything was as it should be in Glawmaed. The farmers and thralls worked in the fields tending crops and animals. The Brothers then convinced themselves that this was rather odd. They felt there should have been more scouts or guards in the area. They could only see two spearmen at the gate to the Village and they weren't being particularly observant. Dunstan thought that perhaps trouble had not come to Glawmaed yet. Uthric thought that maybe they didn't need to be on guard became this was the source of the raids. So, they waited another hour before they decided that nothing was out of place and retraced their steps through the forest, to join the road several leagues below Glawmaed. Wulfhere said that it would be best to approach the village along the road rather than arouse suspicion by appearing out of the forest.
Uthric, who spoke some Brythonic, asked the gate guards if they could speak to the Thane. Either Uthric misspoke or the guards were hard of hearing for they remained unmoving and shrugged their shoulders. Uthric tried again and this time they were taken to the large dwelling in the centre of the village. Wulfhere said that perhaps Uthric needed more practice in speaking Brythonic but Uthric said he thought both guards came from another part of Briton and probably just did not understand his accent.
As they approached the central building, they saw a short dark-haired man arguing with a tall red-haired man. The taller man was obviously a warrior and the shorter man looked like a farmer. The tall man spat at the short man’s feet and began to walk off but paused momentarily when he saw the Brothers approach. He walked on again after pausing, staring hard at them and then pointedly ignoring them. Much to their surprise, the smaller man, who they had taken for the farmer, introduced himself as Connal, the Chieftain of the Village. He invited them in and gave them some beer before asking for their news. His Saxon was not great but between Uthric and Connal they managed to have a conversation. Wulfhere told him of the British raids on Caedering and the death of Osberht’s wife Mildgyth. Connal asked the brothers to convey condolences to Osberht. He said that they only met infrequently to discuss trade and make sure the peace was kept. They were not that close but Connal knew Osberht to be a decent, fair man.
Wulfhere asked if Connal had any knowledge of where the raiders came from. Connal said he was reluctant to say as it might cost him and his village dearly, particularly if it became known that he had given information to Saxons. Connal said that his only motivation at present was to protect his people from harm and that he did not want to be caught between two quarrelling Warlords. In his experience, the people that suffered most in such conflicts were the farmers and the people of villages. Warriors always seemed to benefit from war.
Connal asked them more about Osberht’s intentions and about the Ealdorman Cerdic and Coelfrith, who he had appeared to have some knowledge of. Wulfhere let Dunstan and Uthric discuss these matters with Connal as he was more than a little distracted by Connal's daughter, Bronwyn. He had difficultly in trying to attract her attention as neither could communicate in the others language. Despite this Wulfhere thought she was a fine woman and she in turn showed every courtesy to the Wulfhere as a guest.
It was perhaps fortunate for Dunstan and Uthric that the proceedings were interrupted by shouting form outside. They had been at a loss about what to say about the intentions of Coelfrith or Cerdic and Connal's shrewd questioning had them telling him more information than they wished. Connal excused himself as the shouting grew louder and the Brothers thought it a good idea to see what was happening too and followed Connal outside. They could see the tall red-haired man arguing with several villagers. Uthric could not catch all that they said but he caught phrases that many Britons have used on battlefields before attacking Saxon Shield walls. There was shoving and pushing between some villagers and supporters of the red-haired man.
Connal interupted the man and from his gestures the Brothers understood that Connal was asking him to leave. There was a further sharp exchange of words and the man turned to leave but paused and turned to the Brothers. He said something loudly in Brythonic that Uthric later translated for his brothers to be that the foreigners had come to steal the land of their ancestors but would only get to keep whatever it took to bury them.
Wulfhere said afterwards that it was well that the Brothers had a good opinion of themselves because it seemed that every Thane in the area was intent on insulting them. If they were to accept what Thanes said, then they would end up believing they were people of little worth. Dunstan and Uthric agreed and wondered if maybe Connal was right. All the local Thanes seemed to be more interested in causing trouble rather than keeping the peace and looking after their people’s welfare.
They asked Connal who the ill-tempered red-haired man was and why he was so angry. Connal told them he was named Anyon of the Regneses. The Regneses were a sub-tribe of the Cantii and had been displaced some years ago by their King Aelle. Anyon is particularly unpleasant and angry said Connal being descended from the last kings of the Regneses. He considers himself to be better than most. Connal admitted to not having any proof that he was involved in raids but he was good at stirring up hatred and inciting hotheads to leave the village. Uthric agreed that this is what most kings seem to do and lamented about the quality of kings in these times. He said that in the stories the skalds the Kings always acted in more noble ways. The others nodded thoughtfully in agreement.
Connal was quiet after the altercation as he watched Anyon and his followers leave the village and head west into the forest. The Brothers asked if they could help him in some way. Connal said that he knew his position was precarious and his only interest was to protect his people as his fathers and grandfathers had done. He asked the Brothers to convey to Osberht what terms would there be for Glawmaed if he submitted to Saxon rule. Wulfhere did not think they had the authority to make any agreement but he said that they would be happy to deliver such sentiments to Osberht and no doubt Connal would have a favourable answer. The Brothers made their farewells to Connal and Wulfhere paid special attention to Bronwyn, which made her friends who were watching the proceedings, giggle. However, he said nothing of his thoughts to Uthric or Dunstan which could have had serious consequences later had he not been quick with his kicking foot.
Uthric had a childhood friend from Glawmaed called Lucnot, a son of Connal, who he had not seen for many years. They had met by accident when they were boys and had played in the forest building shelters, fishing and hunting together. Uthric sought out Lucnot and asked to meet with him, thinking perhaps Lucnot would be more open with information. Lucnot was pleased to see Uthric but thought it better to meet in the forest rather than to be seen talking openly to Saxons. It was a different matter for Connal as Chieftain to meet Saxon envoys but Lucnot thought some might think ill of him if he was too friendly.
Lucnot met Uthric at the agreed time and the two renewed their acquaintance. They talked about olden times and of adventures they had had. Uthric wanted to know if Anyon was the leader of the Warbands that were attacking Caedering but Lucnot could not say. He knew that they lived somewhere to the West in the Forest of Moen but had never seen the place. Anyon was of a different tribe of Britons and he did not have a good opinion of anyone but himself. Lucnot advised against inciting Anyon as he was known for his vicious temper. The two parted in friendship and thought that they might renew their acquaintance if the tension in the land eased.
The Forest of Moen had an evil repetition in Saxon lore. It was known to be full of hostile British landvættir and they did think well of Saxons, who they saw as invaders. There were stories about people going into the forest and never returning. The Brothers discussed what to do next. They were of the opinion that their next steps were dangerous and that going into the forest might lead to their deaths. They were concerned that Osberht needed to know the information about Connal’s offer for Glawmaed. They thought that Taethle might want an easy victory and attack Glawmaed and that Osberht might agree because he was compromised by the breaking of the guest rights. They agreed that Glawmaed should be protected first and then they would risk their lives by trying to complete the rest of their mission.
And so, they went back to Caedering. Osberht was surprised at their appearance. He thought his speech about them taking time to travel to places had stung them to complete their mission quickly. His initial disappointment was tempered by their news that Connal was considering swearing loyalty to the Saxon Lords. Dunstan began to say that the agreement could be sealed if Osberht considered marrying Connal's daughter, Bronwyn, but was interupted by Wulfhere who kicked him on the shins halfway through the sentence. Fortunately, Osberht was too distracted to notice but Taethle gave them both a strange look.
The Brothers left and went to see their mother intending to stay the night before going north and then west through the Forest of Moen. Their mother was still angry with them about Beorthric and had not much to say to them other than to place their evening meals on the table a little too forcibly. Dunstan wanted to know why Wulfhere had kicked him when they had been talking with Osberht. He believed that his idea of Bronwyn’s marriage to Osberht to be one of his better ideas. Osberht needed a new wife to calm him down and make him happy and Connal would he reassured that the agreement would stand having Osberht as a son-in-law. Wulfhere acknowledged that Dunstan's thinking had a sound base but he told them he had been thinking about Bronwyn himself. Uthric and Dunstan laughed at the news for Wulfhere had not shown interest in women for some time. Fortunately for Wulfhere it was dark and they did not see him blush.
Connal's information suggested the British base lay in the west and probably within the Forest of Moen, however the Brothers thought it prudent to make sure that there was no activity in the north. There was a small Saxon hamlet, Seaxnahine, on the lower slopes of the ruined fortification at Win Caester Hill. The Thane was called Osbeorn, known for his ill-temper and being not easy to get on with. Aelle had made him a Thane but he refused to co-operate with anyone, made a nuisance of himself and took his family north founding Seaxnahine in an out of the way place. Most were glad to see him go. The Brothers reckoned that if Osbeorn had been left in peace, it was likely that no British raiders had been in the area.
On the journey north, much to Wulfhere's discomfort, they discussed his sudden interest in Bronwyn. Dunstan wondered how they would communicate if they couldn't speak each other’s language and what Uthric and he could do to possibly aid communication. Uthric offered to translate for Wulfhere and thought perhaps he could lie in bed between them to ensure clear lines of communication. Dunstan thought that Uthric would be better clearing this with Meire first. She might not agree to such an arrangement. She might even insist on joining Uthric in the bed too and he worried that it could collapse under the combined weight of four people. He thought that the constant cost of replacing beds might outweigh the benefits of marriage altogether. He continued to reflect that not being able to communicate might however be an advantage in marriage. He conceded that he had never been married so he might not know just how important it was in a relationship. But he wondered if talking was not over-rated. He had heard that British women were much more independent that Saxon women and they had sharper tongues. He brought up the example of the farmer, Snell, who had a British wife and it was definitely her that made the decisions. Uthric thought this maybe would not be a bad thing. It was well known that while Wulfhere was excellent at telling people bad news, his decision making had not really been tested yet. Wulfhere said he thought Dunstan should take his own advice and stop talking.
Their discussion was interrupted when they saw Win Caester Hill and they tried to approach Seaxnahine by staying out of sight. They could see smoke from cooking fires rising and, as they lay in a hollow and watched, an old man with a double-handed axe over his shoulder advanced towards them. He stopped twenty paces away and stared silently. Wulfhere rose and gave him a greeting and explained why they were hiding in the grass. The older man named himself as Osbeorn, the Thane, and impolitely asked them to leave. He was suspicious of foreigners he said whether they were Saxon or British and he took the opinion that if they disregarded his requests that they were signalling hostility and they ultimately would then end up as food for the ravens. Wulfhere thanked him for his honesty in stating his intentions plainly and without ambiguity and wished him luck. The Brother’s thought that Osbeorn’s reputation had been deserved. He was a thoroughly unpleasant man with no sense of hospitality.
The Brothers agreed that they would go back down the Old People's Road and enter the Forest of Moen from the north and travel in a south-west direction until they met the ltichen River. The forest is old, dense and mostly of large oak trees, criss-crossed with streams and pools. Despite all being accomplished at woodcraft, the Brothers soon became hopelessly lost. They decided to follow a game trail which judging by the sun led south and after five hours found themselves in a glade with a forest pool. The pool was surrounded by forest woodland flowers and butterflies floated lazily in the still air. The bottom of the pool was littered with coins and other treasure and Dunstan thought that this was some kind of shrine and wondered if they should also make an offering. They debated what might be appropriate but could gain no agreement. Wulfhere thought that perhaps they should have brought Meire with them to be able to communicate with the pool and then they would be sure to know what was right. Uthric admitted that Meire had many talents but he was not sure that communicating with pools was one of them. Leastways he said she had never yet shown any desire or interest in talking with pools when he was with her but he accepted that she did used to live beside one and might have done so in the past and without his knowledge.
There was a hazy, dreamy quality about the pool and they began to worry that time would pass more slowly here than in the world outside. Wulfhere said as far as he knew most people never met one such pool in a whole lifetime and they would have to be very unlucky to meet two such pools. The thought of delayed time made them make a quick decision and Dunstan threw three pieces of hacksilver into the pool. The butterflies rose up and fluttered around them which made them even more uneasy and they hurried along a path that as far as they could tell went straight west. Dunstan thought that if they were with a Warband coming through the forest then it would probably be safe to loot the pool. He was sure there must be a great treasure there. His new cloak snagged on a thorn bush and he took that as a sign that maybe looting wasn't a good idea no matter how big a Warband was with him.
By late afternoon they had made their way along the westerly path and they had begun to smell wood smoke. They crawled cautiously through the undergrowth until they came to the edge of the forest. Set in the eaves lay a large settlement with the land behind it sloping gently down to the river. The settlement was one of the old people's dwellings. It was surrounded by a wall made out of the strange square clay stones of the old people and was over the height of a tall man. They could not see the gate from where they lay but there were guards walking on a fighting platform inside the wall. They could see a taller building made of stone on the inside and a lot of thatched round houses. From their position they could not see how many people lived there but it looked like a lot. They were definitely not keen for a closer look.
Uthric was of the opinion that they had completed their mission and thought they should leave in case they were discovered. Wulfhere reminded them of the questions Taethle had asked at the feast and he had a feeling she might want much more information than they had been able to get from lying on their bellies in the undergrowth. Uthric said that to be truthful he had not much memory of that night and Dunstan agreed. He said, that as they might recall, he had had difficulty standing upright, so they should realise that listening had been completely out of the question.
However, the Brothers agreed that having come so far that it was probably better to try and find out more about the place and how many warriors there were but to do it in such a way so as not to increase the risk of being discovered. They crawled through the undergrowth to where they could see both the angle of the wall and also the side facing the River. There was much coming and going in and out of a guarded gate. They watched as three warriors got out of a small boat and made their way up from the river carrying their belongings. It looked as though the Burgh had got three new warriors.
Wulfhere suggested that one of them climb a tree to see over the walls and into the Burgh. That way he thought they could count warriors. There was a silence in which no-one volunteered and each looked at the other. Uthric was the first to give in and offered to climb one of the trees as long as the others caught him if he fell. He did not think he would have much luck in surviving in this forest if he broke his leg. Wulfhere reassured him that today was a lucky day and he was certain Uthric would not suffer any injury.
As it turned out, Uthric did not have to climb that high as he could see over the walls from some of the lower, larger branches. He estimated that there were dwellings for about 500 people. He could see woman and children inside the Burgh so he reckoned there might be 100 or so warriors. As he was coming down one of the guards on the wall seemed to take an interest in the tree he was in, pointing with his spear in his direction. He jumped the last bit and told his brothers that perhaps it would now be good to see if they could outrun some Britons who had possibly seen them.
They set off through the trees heading in an easterly direction. They could now hear sounds of pursuit from behind and the barking of dogs. They ran as fast as they could, sometimes running along streams to try and put the pursuit, and particularly the dogs, off the scent. They had quickly become lost but at least they did not hear anyone following. They thought they might be travelling south but after a few hours they ended up back at the treasure pool. They approached cautiously but did not see anyone around the pool. Dunstan was relieved for he had been beginning to worry that maybe every pool in the centre of forests had a red-hatted and iron-booted Bannucmann.
They were tired and thought perhaps they should rest as it would soon be too dark to travel safely and this seemed a better place to stay rather than face hostile landvættir at night. The sound of barking dogs and men shouting in British changed their minds and they took a path from the pool that looked like it went east. The sound of pursuit came closer but they were able to outdistance it and eventually they came to the eaves of the forest near Glawmaed. They found a place that they could easily defend and spent the night crouched down and on high alert as they waited for the first light of the false dawn. They passed by Glawmaed which was coming to life for the new day. Wulfhere thought he saw Bronwyn and waved. He was sure she waved back which cheered him up after a miserable night in the forest.
Caedering is built on a ridge in the forest. It can be approached from two ways. First, there is a steep path that cuts through rocks of a cliff face and is the quickest way to get to the old people's road running north to Glawmaed or south to Portus Cæster or Hamafunta. The second way is a circuitous route that joins the old people's road north of Hamafunta before approaching Caedering from the east through the forest and latterly through the cleared land where the villagers grow crops.
The Brothers were walking towards the steep path when Dunstan noticed the glint of spears amongst the rocks. He pointed this out to his brothers and they stopped to decide that it might be better to take the longer route home to avoid trouble. They were unsure what the hidden spears meant but none of them were that keen to find out. They began to move south but stopped again when Uthric saw horse-soldiers attempting to hide in the eaves of the wood. He pointed out that they would have walked straight into them if he wasn't so eagle-eyed. They felt their safer option was to take their chance with the hidden spearmen at the cliff face. While they stood for a moment in indecision, the spearmen came towards them. They were relieved that they were Saxon warriors and although they didn't recognise them they were likely to be Taethle's men. Six warriors could defend themselves against horse soldiers.
But the three warriors took up aggressive positions and advanced towards them. When it became obvious that they were going to be attacked they felt they had no option but to carry the fight to these men. The fight was brief and bloody.
Uthric was first to attack. He feinted low with his spear and when his opponent moved his shield to parry the thrust, Uthric moved the point high and lodged the spear in his throat. The man looked surprised and fell to the ground. Dunstan also thrust at his opponent’s head. The man was too slow to respond and the spear caught him in the cheek and on into the brain. It was likely he was dead before he hit the ground. Two were down almost immediately. The third man was hesitant having seen his comrades killed swiftly and efficiently. Wulfhere thrust his spear round the shield and into the man's side. He grunted but did not fall. Instead of trying to hit back he threw his spear down and asked for mercy. The fight was quick and violent and over almost before it had begun.
Wulfhere bundled the man forward to the rocky path while Dunstan checked the other two warriors. Uthric guarded against attack from horsemen to the rear. Both men were dying or dead and Dunstan left them, keen to get to the safety of the steep path and trees in case they were attacked by horse soldiers
This mystery of this attack could be solved. They had a prisoner and Wulfhere thought that with some gentle, or perhaps not so gentle, persuasion, the man would provide some answers.