Taethle bade farewell to the seven men who were travelling to Hamafunta in the early dawn. The Hrothgarson Brothers, the carls Aedweard and Eadmund and
finally the two witnesses, Dreng and Eorlstan all stood and listened to her final bits of advice. Eorlstan had asked if Osberht had recovered or if he was likely to die. He said he had been thinking about the jewelled arm ring and that if Osberht was going to die then someone should at least benefit from it. He was sure that everyone would see it this way and he felt that since he was down on his luck at present it might as well be him. Taethle said that Osberht remained ill but she promised, rather ominously, that if he did die, Eorlstan would be one of the first to know and feel the consequences. Eorlstan thanked her for her thoughtfulness.
Wulfhere wondered what it would be like to live in the Eorlstan's world and be blithely unaware of how actions and consequences were interlinked. He considered putting a gag on Eorlstan for the journey to Hamafunta for two reasons. Firstly, to protect Eorlstan’s life. He was not sure that Eorlstan might not say or do something that would encourage one of his travelling companions to put a knife in his kidneys and he needed him alive as a witness. Secondly, he did not want to have to listen for a whole day to Eorlstan’s constant inane opinions on everything that happened. The man was an idiot and he was not even aware that his idiocy could be detrimental to his well-being. In fact, as Wulfhere later told his brothers when they complained about Eorlstan, it was a great surprise to him that Eorlstan had actually made it so far in life without someone doing him serious harm. Maybe that Helrýnegu in Cissa Caester had been right.
The Brothers were concerned what sort of reception they might receive Hamafunta. They agreed that they would not disclose their business until the day of the Assembly nor would they discuss that they had two witnesses as their lives may be in danger if their existence became known. The case would be considerably weakened if either witness were dead or incapacitated. They could trust all their party except Eorlstan. It would be likely that he would tell someone accidently. Neither Uthric nor Dunstan expressed any concern for what might happen to Eorlstan following the Assembly and only regretted that they would not be the ones to send him to Hellewíte. However, they had given their word that they would release him unharmed and that was an agreement they would keep.
When they arrived at Hamafunta late in the afternoon they found the town crowded with people who had come to attend Coelfrith's Assembly and to celebrate the Midsummer festival. It proved impossible to find somewhere to stay within the walls. They felt this suited their purpose and it would not therefore seem so strange to set up a camp outside the walls.
Dunstan was charged with the task to make bothies but had to compete with crowds of children and other travellers for wood to make them. The children were collecting wood and bones for the traditional Midsummer Eve bone fires and the young warriors were weaving withies into hollow wheel shapes to roll the embers through the fields to chase off the evil spirits. Dunstan now considered himself an expert in withies and could not help giving his advice on how to improve the old design and by doing so, irritated the locals who preferred the traditional method of making the hollow-wheels.
Uthric and Wulfhere had gone into Hamafunta to gather news. They discovered that Coelfrith was to hold a grand feast that night to celebrate Midsummer and to mark the opening of the Assembly. They had been told that the two main items of business were Garm's request for warriors and his proposal for permission for a Blood feud with Osberht. Wulfhere thought it might be useful to attend the feast that night to check out how things stood but did not think it would be a good idea to bring either Dreng or Eorlstan. He also warned Uthric and Dunstan that they should not drink much and be on their guard. They should be especially careful not to react to provocation.
The feast was a very lavish affair. Coelfrith liked to boast of his wealth to his Thanes and Carls and there was plenty of food and drink. Uthric however found it was a drab affair. None of the Brothers had ever met Coelfrith before and they watched him closely throughout the feast. At his left, in the place of honour, sat Garm. Wulfhere was sure that Garm had noticed them but gave no sign of acknowledgement. He did whisper something to a tall man, dressed as a skald, who later approached them.
The man introduced himself as Swithgar, Garm's War leader, and he told them he had heard that Osberht had died whimpering in his bed after being skewered like a pig. He was keen to find out the Brother's views of their late Thane and thought perhaps they had taken the opportunity to join a real Thane like Garm. Uthric said they were here on other business and had not thought of calling to see Garm. However, he acknowledged that Garm might be in need of good warriors as he was aware that quite a lot had died recently. He also said he had noted that Garm never appeared in battle himself and had wondered if he overly worried about getting scars on his pretty face. The situation might have got dangerous but Wulfhere calmed everyone down. Swithgar spat at them but eventually left when he thought he could not get them to react.
The men they shared the bench with were curious why Garm's War leader was trying to provoke them and Wulfhere insinuated that Swithgar was jealous of a woman. That seemed to satisfy the men and they made ribald comments about the size of Swithgar's manhood. The Brothers took this as an omen that they should leave. Garm might not be paying them personal attention but he had plenty of men that might pick a fight with them and they were unwilling to give him further opportunities.
When they returned to their bothies, they sat and watched the bone fires and the wheels of fire being dragged through the fields. Uthric thought that they might be better dragging the wheels through Coelfrith’s Feast Hall as it was obvious that all the evil spirits had gathered there.
Dunstan said that he had been reflecting on something Dreng had said. It had bothered him at the time and he now thought he might have come to a different conclusion. Dreng had told them that Garm had wanted to make sure that they did not return to the village. They had assumed that Garm had a personal vendetta against them but Dunstan wondered that perhaps they had not thought this through properly. He wondered if it was possible that Garm and Anyon were working together. Garm’s plan to kill the Brothers was therefore not a personal vendetta but to stop information about the British base getting back to Osberht. The others admitted that they had not thought of this but maybe they should check Dreng's opinion. Both Dreng and Eorlstan were asleep. Dunstan woke Dreng and he was not pleased. He reckoned that he had not many days left alive and was keen to experience as much of life between now and his imminent and untimely death. This was now his time to experience as much sleep as possible and the Brothers were now depriving him of it. However, he listened carefully to Dunstan's words but said that he was unsure if he could confirm his theory. He said Garm had merely asked them to kill the Brothers on their return to Caedering. He could not say what Garm's motivation was because he was not the sort of Thane that took Carls into his confidence.
Wulfhere thought that it might just be good enough to insinuate that Garm was in an alliance with the Britons and sow enough doubt in the minds of the Assembly. In his opinion, it did not really matter what the Brothers thought, it mattered how the Assembly voted and it was useful to show Garm in a bad light. He asked Dreng if he would be willing to help him insinuate Garm had an alliance with the hostile Britons. Dreng said that he didn't care one way or the other, but if it assisted the Brothers case he had no objection to helping out.
The Brothers were pleased and thought now they had three bits of evidence against Garm, all of which would be harmful to his case and reputation. They clapped Dreng on the back and prepared to go to sleep. However, Dreng said they had not allowed him to finish and he would like to continue this discussion. In his opinion it was clear that the new witness statement was not part of the original agreement and that they might want to negotiate an extra cost with him. He said that they might recall, the agreement was that he would bear witness that Garm had planned to incite Osberht to violence at the Feast. He was also to witness that Garm had wanted the Brothers dead out of spite. He was to be granted his freedom for that.
Dreng said that he expected that Garm would order his death afterwards so his prospects were really not good for the future. Dreng thought that insinuating Garm was allied to hostile Britons might be worth an extra reward. He said he had thought about this at length and that maybe Wulfhere's silver arm ring would be a suitable payment to ease the pain of his subsequent shortened life. He felt that the arm ring would be sufficient to have more experience in food, ale and woman, which at this moment he was lacking. After re-experiencing such pleasures, he might feel more content to die. Dunstan tried to bargain with him but Dreng was adamant and they eventually agreed the price of the new agreement was to be the arm ring.
The Brothers, Dreng and Eorlstan arrived early at the Assembly. The Hall was full of people who wanted the Ealdorman to hear their cases having either been referred by the Thane's Assemblies or wanting to appeal directly to the Ealdorman due to the difficulty of the case.
The leæce, Dunric opened the Assembly, chasing away evil spirits and invoking the gods for the proceedings. Various cases were dealt with by the Ealdorman. Wulfhere thought that Coelfrith already looked bored and disinterested. Some cases he barely listened to, talking and laughing with the warriors around him, while people presented their case. He thought there was such a contrast with Osberht who tried to be fair to his people and make a good judgement.
Around midday, Garm rose and stated his intention to ask for a Blood feud against Thane Osbert of Caedering. He depicted Osberht as a dangerous and deranged criminal who killed visitors to his hall after giving them guest rights.
The Brothers had agreed that Wulfhere would present the evidence of their counter case against Garm and that Dunstan would give the final speech to sum up their case. Wulfhere stood and interrupted Garm and laid out his own claim. For the first time at the Assembly, Coelfrith looked interested and he was seen to smile. The attending Carls also seemed pleased that they could hear some interesting cases. Land boundary issues and stolen cows did not fire their imagination.
Wulfhere spoke well. He told of Garm's treachery in coming as a guest to a feast with the purpose of provoking Osberht into an act of violence. He bought forward Dreng who confirmed that Garm had told him of his intentions beforehand and his pleasure in succeeding in making Osberht to attack Garm and kill his Carl. Dreng told that afterwards Garm returned to Caelctun but he left the three remaining Carls to kill the brothers. Wulfhere said that Garm's purpose was to prevent the Brothers reporting to Osberht about their mission. Wulfhere suggested that Garm was allied to the Britons and his motivation in killing the Brothers was to prevent his friends, the Britons, from being discovered and killed.
Wulfhere told the Assembly that Garm had illegally invoked a Blood feud by declaring it at his own feast and offered a jewelled arm ring as reward for the person who killed Osberht. The consequence of this illegal action was that Osberht was ambushed by Eorlstan and his men and he brought forward Eorlstan to confirm his statement. Eorlstan for once was tongue-tied and Wulfhere had to lead him through the evidence. Wulfhere closed his submission by telling the Assembly that Garm had attacked Osberht with no legal mandate and his case should therefore be dismissed.
Dunstan then summed up their case by saying that Garm had acted without due process and had prosecuted an illegal act by sneaking around, ambushing and attempted murder. He suggested that Garm was not supporting his Ealdorman but was allied for some unknown reason to the Britons. Dunstan thought that in all his actions, Garm had acted outside the law and had caused injury to Osberht and had sent his own warriors to their deaths needlessly. The Carls murmured and Dunstan thought he might have got them on his side.
Garm rose to respond and repeated that Osberht was a criminal. He denied provoking Osberht and said that it was hardly his fault that Osberht was drunk at his own feast and chose to misinterpret some innocent riddles. Osberht could not be trusted with drink and maybe could not be trusted sober. He killed Broge, a Carl who had been trying to calm things down. As for Eorlstan, everyone knew that there were cleverer sheep on the hills. Garm said he had idly mentioned that he was going to declare a blood feud at the Ealdorman’s Assembly. It was not his fault that Eorlstan chose to interpret it as legally operative. Garm said that a Thane could not be responsible for impetuous acts of his Carls. He was following legal procedure by asking for Blood feud now. As for making an alliance with the Britons, he had been involved in more fights in recent years with Britons than anyone else in the Hall. The Brothers assertion was therefore false and vindictive. He would therefore also ask for permission for a Blood feud against them too because by their own admission they had killed his Carls and had spread malicious rumours about him.
Coelfrith rose and told the Carls that they had heard the evidence from the Thane and from the Hrothgarsons, including some dubious witnesses. He asked the assembled Carls to make a decision on whether Garm could prosecute a Blood feud against Osberht. Eorlstan’s actions were reprehensible but could be seen as actions of a man who has little ability other than with weapons and even then, that was questionable, given the Hrothgarsons had managed to defeat him when he was in full war gear and they were only armed with long knives. The claim that Garm is allied with the Britons is unfounded and evidence would suggest that Garm spends a lot of time fighting Britons. Osberht on the other hand has an understanding with the British village, Glawmaed. And, he continued, an understanding may be viewed as another word for an alliance.
He asked for a vote by a clashing of spears on shields and there was a clear majority for Garm to be allowed to prosecute a Blood feud against Thane Osberht. Coelfrith then asked for a vote on Garm’s request for a blood feud against the Hrothgarsons. Most of the warriors in the room refused the request and the vote was not passed. The warriors around the Brothers slapped their backs and congratulated them.
Garm rose and thanked Coelfrith. It was clear that Garm was annoyed but did his best to control his anger. Coelfrith also looked irritated but it was hard for those in the room to discern his views as he was always looking annoyed.
Garm then asked if he could make a further request. He said he was facing unprecedented hostility from the West and asked if he could be sent further warriors to protect his and the Ealdorman Coelfrith's lands. Coelfrith agreed that he would give another 20 or 30 warriors to protect Caelctun from the hostile forces. Dunstan did not like the phrase hostile forces to the West as it was clear both the Thane and the Ealdorman were referring to Caedering. He whispered to his brothers that Garm was likely to always need men as he was very careless of them and lost at least six recently. This caused some mirth from men around him who overheard him. Dunstan was not as quiet at speaking as he liked to believe he was.
The Brothers decided that it was in there best interests to leave because they were in a hostile hall and were heavily outnumbered. They took Dreng and Eorlstan with them. Eorlstan remarked that he thought that things had gone very well at the Assembly. For once the Brothers were lost for words and thought that Coelfrith’s assessment of Eorlstan was maybe been an underestimate and there were likely to be many sheep on the hills that could outwit Eorlstan. They said farewell to both men. Dreng said he was going to try and head east and maybe north in search of new places. Eorlstan was not sure what he would do. They were glad to leave Eorlstan because his inability to think before he spoke or acted was likely to bring bad luck on those around him. They had grown fond of Dreng who was a decent man although he was a bit pessimistic about his prospects.
They went back to the bothie to meet with Aedweard and Eadmund and gather their belongings. They thought that they should leave as soon as possible as they could not be sure that Garm would not attack them. They also felt it was important to tell Osberht that there had been a Blood feud declared against him as soon as possible. That was of course if Osberht still lived.
They had not gone too far along the old people’s road when they saw six warriors ahead of them. As they got closer they recognised Swithgar, Garm's War leader, and five carls. They had a quick discussion and felt that it was likely that some of them would die in this exchange. Uthric and Dunstan said that they thought that as long as they made a good account of themselves that they could be satisfied with their deaths.
The enemy threw four spears at Aelfweard but he easily parried the one that would have hit him. The others missed. Uthric came up against Swithgar. He was faster than Uthric but his swing with the battle-axe was clumsy and Uthric deflected it and Swithgar hit his own leg with considerable force. He fell over having caused a serious wound to his leg. Uthric was laughing so much that his spear thrust was parried easily. Despite his injury and lying on the ground, Swithgar swung his battle-axe two handed which Uthric easily side-stepped. As the swinging axe went by Uthric kicked Swithgar’s arms and the spike on the butt end of the bearded axe went into his eye. Swithgar was silent after this.
Dunstan exchanged blows with his opponent before ripping open the man’s thigh with his spear point. Wulfhere's opponent was nervous and barely parried his thrusts without doing any harm in return, Wulfhere’s third attack went through the man's arm and he dropped his axe. Aelfweard was fighting two opponents and he had only time to parry without getting a chance to hit back. Eadmund parried a blow of the axe and put his spear through the man's chest. He could not get it out as it stuck in the man's ribs.
Uthric and Dunstan moved to help Aelfweard who had been wounded in the leg but was still able to stand. Dunstan killed one of Aelfweard’s opponents and both Uthric and Aelfweard hit the other man in the arm and back and he collapsed. Wulfhere was the only one left fighting and they stood and watched him dispatch his foe wounding him badly in an arm and in the thigh.
Not for the first time the fighting was swift and deadly. Only Aelfweard had a wound and it was not serious. Five out of their opponents were dead or would die shortly. One was wounded in the leg and he would live if they let him.
Uthric said that once again Garm's men were over-rated and he would also be needing a new War leader now. Swithgar was obviously lacking in skills to meet that challenge and had paid the cost with his life. While they were discussing what to do and Aelfweard tied a bandage around his leg, they saw a man running away. He had not taken part in the fight but had stayed in the forest watching. They recognised the man as Garm and although he was already far ahead they gave chase. Wulfhere said that Garm was obviously very accomplished at running as he outdistanced both him and Dunstan and had escaped.
When they returned Uthric had stripped the dead bodies and was discussing with Aelfweard and Eadmund the best way to humiliate Garm. They had agreed to hang the bodies at the side of the road. Their prisoner they agreed to let go but stripped him of his armour and weapons. Wulfhere said that he would like two different messages relayed. The first one was for Garm. He was to tell his Thane that he had been acting illegally and they would soon be seeking redress for that. They were also to tell him that he would not be able to run forever. The second message was to tell the other warriors about what had happened here. Wulfhere wanted the man to say that Garm did not even join the fight and he was prepared to let his men die while he ran away. He was to say that they were badly led by a cowardly Thane and the only reward for that would be death and dishonour. The man agreed to convey the messages and they watched him hobble off. The rest of the bodies they hung from the trees as a warning for others.
They returned to Caedering towards evening and ate a meal with Taethle to tell her the news. Osberht still had a fever and did not often wake and when he did he said nothing that was sensible. In the main he spoke to his dead wife and Eadgyd said that it was an omen for his death. If he was seeing spirits of the dead then he was nearly in the land of dead. Taethle had sent for a leæce to help with Osberht as she felt it was beyond Eadgyd's skills
Taethle discussed the need for support for the Blood feud from Cerdic . If Caelctun was being reinforced then there would likely be an attack on Caedering. It was her duty as a Thane to stay here and help in the defence. The Brothers would have to be her messengers to Cerdic. Wulfhere felt happy about that as he wanted to secure support for Connal and Glawmaed from Cerdic also.
Dunstan said that he wasn't too worried about reinforcements in Caelctun. He had been counting and they had already killed or wounded 12 warriors. Wulfhere thought that Garm’s phrase' threat from the west' was ambiguous and sinister. It could be seen as a threat from either the Britons or Caedering. If Garm is allied to the Britons then they might have a combined force of 120-150 Warriors which it was unlikely that anyone except Aelle could match. Cerdic had easily that number of men but they were spread out and couldn't be withdrawn from their fortifications without endangering the conquered lands.
They all agreed that Garm would need to be dealt with. Uthric thought that if the rumours were true that he had killed his own brother to become Thane, he was capable of anything. He acknowledged that he too thought of killing his brothers occasionally but they should be happy to know that the mood usually passed quickly and he did not expect that he would ever have to act on his thoughts.
Taethle was keen to find out Cerdic's views and to get his counsel. After they had all talked themselves out, Wulfhere and Dunstan decided to sleep in the Thane's Hall to avoid Hildegard. Uthric thought it best to go home and brave his mother’s wrath to spend the night with Meire.
In the morning after further words with Taethle they went to Portus Caester where Cerdic was spending time planning his upcoming campaigns. After several hours wait they were admitted to Cerdic's presence. Cerdic was a big man with short grey hair which his unusual for a Saxon. His eyes were very bright blue and they made the Brothers nervous. He did not speak at first, letting his nephew, Stuf speak. Stuf was a taller man than Cerdic and had trouble sitting still. He had been recently given more responsibility by his uncle and was the ruler of Portus Caester. He was obviously still adjusting to this role and they had the distinct impression he looked like he would prefer to be killing someone rather than sitting in counsel.
The Brothers told Stuf and Cerdic the events as they knew them and that they had come to seek advice, help and wisdom from Cerdic at Taethle’s request. Cerdic smiled when he heard the story. He said that he had not many men to spare at present but could probably release 20 warriors for Taethle. He confirmed her as Thane until Osberht recovered or died. If Osberht died then she would remain Thane.
He asked questions about Garm and said that in his opinion his men would not be overly fond of him. He had shown himself to be weak and cowardly and did not fight with them. It may be possible to overawe them and gain a submission or at the very least they might then not fight for Garm.
He accepted Connal‘s offer and asked that they convey a message to him to come to Portus Caester to swear loyalty. Cerdic could only give 20 extra warriors at the moment so Taethle would have to decide if they were to protect Glawmaed or Caedering.
Cerdic asked about Coelfrith and what his part was in this tale. The Brothers said they were not sure. He had supported Garm and had promised him more warriors but they were sure that this was no more than a good Ealdorman would do. Cerdic said that they should beware of Coelfrith. He is likely to be their true enemy even if the enemy they see is Garm.
They asked about what they thought they should do about Garm. Cerdic agreed that this issue needed to be settled. Caedering was in danger and would not be able to deal with the hostile Britons until there was a resolution with Garm and Caelctun. Cerdic said that he knew that Aelle would not be pleased if Coelfrith's Thane was killed as that would lessen Aelle’s direct power in the west. But Cerdic said that with Aelle it was always easier to ask forgiveness afterwards rather than to seek permission first. He said that they must tell Taethle that he would support her and Osberht, if he survives, but he could not go openly against another Ealdorman so she must not put him in that situation.
Cerdic thanked them for their help and gave each a heavy silver arm ring before they left.