The sun was hovering right at its highest point when Cenwulf was looking over his group of ‘recruits’. He didn’t have high expectations, hell, he didn’t have almost any expectations, but still was disappointed. He was hoping for maybe a few experienced poachers or smugglers, but he got three boys even younger than Osmund and a bunch of criminals that looked ready to murder anyone for a loaf of bread. One or two of them might be useful to the cause, but how was he supposed to convince them to cooperate and not disappear into the wood at the first possible moment?
He studied their faces and saw all kinds of things that he didn’t like – mockery, disdain, even open hatred. Cenwulf was used to having trained, disciplined men, this was like a nightmare, this was like a nightmare to him. “All right, guys, you know why you are here. There is a group of heathens who are walking around this country like it belonged to them, taking whatever they want and burning the rest. I was hoping you will help us protect our lands from these demonic invaders.”
Cenwulf noticed with relief that most of the men were nodding in agreement. Most.
The grin on one face got even wider during Cenwulf’s speech. “So you mighty soldiers got yer asses kicked and now you are so desperate you want help from us?” One of the men laughed.
One of Cenwulf’s men started to draw his sword. Cenwulf stopped him and walked closer to the men who spoke. “What’s your name?”“Wilfred, my lord,”
the man replied, with irony dripping from his voice.
Cenwulf ignored his tone and nodded. “Well Wilfred, you are right. We did get our asses kicked and you lot are everything I could get to at least try to even the numbers. I know you aren’t happy that you should be helping us, but there is something for each of you as a reward if you decide to join us.”
They were already told what they would get – mostly getting their prison records erased, charges dropped or a chance to start over somewhere else.
Wilfred snorted, but he didn’t say anything and the rest seemed to be on board. I’m gonna have to speak with that one before we go out,
Cenwulf thought. He sent the newcomers to go get some gear and food and assigned a soldier to keep an eye on each of them. Walking around the camp and checking everything was in order, he met Osmund, who was heading towards the kitchen tent, yawning and rubbing his eyes. “Finally got some sleep?”
Osmund turned around after the voice. “As you ordered, sir,”
he said with a smile.
Cenwulf could see that the boy was exhausted, he spent most of the night stalking the Norsemen and only came back to camp after they had moved forward. The general had to order him to go rest for a while, Osmund insisted that he was going to go after the enemy, so the group wouldn’t lose their track. That was far from necessary, as the heathens moved in large group and even a half-blind man could follow them. “What do you think about the new recruits?”“Well…”
Osmund started, but realized he had no idea what to say without cursing and swearing.“Yes, my thoughts exactly.”
Cenwulf had to laugh.“They will be useful for what you have planned, just not as disciplined as you are used to. Oh and one of those boys is a girl but unless no one else notices, we should be fine.”
Cenwulf closed his eyes and mumbled a short prayer. My own personal hell… “Send them to get some fresh meat and water, I don’t want them anywhere near the enemy.” Last thing I want is children’s blood on my hands. “The rest…”“Everyone will be ready at dusk. Two of my men are following the Norsemen, they will let us know when and where they set camp.”
Cenwulf nodded, it was all part of the plan. “Thank you, Osmund. Go get some more rest, we will all need the strength tonight.”
A while later Cenwulf found Wilfred sitting on the ground, aside from the others. He felt like he needed to talk to this man before going to a fight together, if only to make sure Wilfred wouldn’t turn against them. Cenwulf sat on the ground next to him and handed him a skin with water.
Wilfred drank and snorted. “Shouldn’t the mighty generals have something better to drink than the rest of us dirt-eaters?”“Sadly, no. At least not in this army,”
Cenwulf grinned.“Quite a company you have gathered here. Aren’t you worried that one of them will just slit your throat and disappear into the woods?”
Cenwulf gave the man a sidelong glance, trying to guess whether he was just teasing him or actually planning to bail. “I was hoping that what we had promised to them was more than enough to keep them around, at least for a while. What about you?”“Oh, I am not interested on starting a new life as a peasant. It’s nice not to be hanged, but the rest…”
As someone who had been a soldier most of his life, Cenwulf could understand. He himself could hardly imagine going back to a simple life in a village, to have a wife and a few children. He tried to stop the what-if thoughts, but they just kept coming. Maybe he really was missing on something. How old would Anna be now? God, I bet she already has at least two kids.
Wilfred smiled at him, knowing exactly what the general is thinking. “I spent most of my life fighting, my mother was sutler, a camp wench, who gave birth to me in a mud of some battlefield while scavenging the dead bodies for anything valuable.”“Are you trying to shock me? Or make me feel sorry for you? Life is what you make of it. Now tell me, what will it take? What do you want?”“Straight to the business I see. Food, some decent weapon, some coin would be nice, but most of all, I want to do the one thing I am good at, the one thing I like.” “Which is?”
Cenwulf felt like he already knew the answer.“Killing people, of course.”
A cold light appeared in his eyes and Cenwulf mumbled another prayer, feeling like the God must have condemned him for even coming up with such idea. How are these people better than the ones we are fighting?
It was after midnight and several dark figures were sneaking towards the Norsemen campsite. Cenwulf was slightly behind his group, because he could never hope to move through the woods as quietly as Osmund and the men he picked. He heard a muffled groan, followed by something heavy falling down. Everyone froze in place for a few moments, carefully listening, but everything remained quiet. Cenwulf snuck past some bushes to see Osmund and Wilfred standing over a dead body.“A patrol,”
Wilfred whispered. He was wiping blood off his knife, a wide grin on his face. Cenwulf looked down on the body. It was a typical Norseman, long hair and beard with a large axe still in his hands. His throat was opened so wide that the head was almost completely severed from the body.
Cenwulf nodded at Osmund and he disappeared into the vegetation towards the campfires. Cenwulf hoped that other group, which was supposed to come from the other side, notices the patrol before they ring the alarm.
Despite the very late or almost very early hour there were still some men and even women wandering around the camp or sitting by the fire. Crawling as close as he dared, Cenwulf stopped and waited nervously, maybe praying, maybe just gritting his teeth. If Leof doesn’t get into the right spot, or gets noticed by the patrols, or one of the new men stumbles and wakes up entire camp… But there it was, tiny flame in the woods, almost invisible if you weren’t looking for it. One bright dot quickly turned into twelve and soon all of them flew towards the tents, hissing quietly in the air.
As expected, chaos ensued. Cenwulf was worried that the Norsemen will soon find out how greatly they outnumber the attackers, but when you are awoken by flaming arrows plucking into your tent, you don’t quickly recognize whether there are ten archers or thirty. The Vikings grabbed shields and weapons and with a surprising discipline formed a loose shield wall, moving towards the archers. But the group knew what to do – each of them fired an arrow or two and immediately turned to run, luring the enemy into the woods.
This was the moment for Cenwulf’s group. There were still several people in camp, most of them looking the other way, to the archers. Like ghosts, the six men emerged from the vegetation and struck two surprised Norsemen down before the others could react. The enemy quickly realized what was happening and soon the ringing of swords and axes sounded through the camp. Pushing one enemy aside and rushing towards another, Cenwulf had to remember his own order – try to injure, not kill them. Some men grumbled about such order, but soon came to see the benefits of such plan. The dead bodies could just be burned or buried, but seriously injured people needed someone to take care of them, to carry them, plus they weren’t the best thing for the morale.
Cenwulf ducked the axe and jumped to the side. The time was almost up, the main group will soon be back from the woods from their hopefully unsuccessful hunt. He whistled sharply, signaling the others to go back, trying to stick his sword into the Norseman’s body, but that son of a bitch just refused to lose. Cenwulf had to lean back to avoid a hit that would decapitate him, the blade flying just inches from his throat. Just as he thought that he will have to run away with this man chasing him, another axe came out of nowhere and made a large cut on the man’s thigh. Cenwulf looked to the side to see Wilfred covered in blood and with a smile of the Grim Reaper.“We have to go,”
he yelled and Wilfred nodded, spitting on the Norseman who was crawling on the ground, trying to stop the blood pouring from his leg.
The men ran for their lives. Cenwulf tried to remember the directions Osmund gave him before the fight. Head southeast until second stream, then turn north until they reach a small waterfall. He stopped to catch his breath near the first stream, carefully listening. “I think we lost them,”
he mumbled, panting.“Or they aren’t stupid enough to follow us.”
Wilfred looked almost sad, weighing the large axe he stole from the patrol in his hand.
They continued to the second stream and then up north, tripping and falling over dead branches and roots. Without the dim light of the campfire, the night was almost completely dark. Upon finally seeing the waterfall, Cenwulf let out a sigh of relief.“I was beginning to get worried,”
a large bush next to him said and Cenwulf jumped up.“Seriously, stop doing that.”“I was just checking if we weren’t followed. You are the last ones.”
Osmund checked the forest behind them for the last time and then put the bow over his shoulder.“So, how did we do?”“We lost one man and one other has light injuries. I counted at least six enemies dead or injured.”
Cenwulf nodded, he also counted to that number. “Lets head back to the camp and see if Leof got all of our archers out. I have a feeling we will still need them.”@raylah