Laid between the protruding roots of the large tree sat a figure in pale linens. Face obscured by long, golden hair woven into tangles by sweat and dew, knees bent, the creature appeared almost to have grown out of the ground on which she sat so ungainly. Ostri allowed Death Giver to slide down the tree, scraping a line in the moss as the blade descended. Ordinarily he would have sheathed his sword by now, realising he had no further need of it, but he was hypnotised by the crumpled intruder to their camp.
Urtha tried to gather her senses. She had been running for her life, so fearful of what might lay behind her. Coming through a clearing in the wood, a swinging blade had been the last thing she had expected to see glancing out from a tree trunk! She had returned her attention forward just in time so to have seen the sword, throwing herself onto the floor in the hope of avoiding it. She had done so by a hair’s breadth. The earth was damp and cold beneath her palms and the soles of her naked feet. Long, curling fern leaves caressed her calves where her gown had ridden up her muddy legs. Her heart, thumping like a war drum, was drowning out the voice that spoke to her.
Ostri had forced himself to break free of the woman’s spell and sheathed Death Giver, adjusting his baldric as he leant over the young woman. He had thought to crouch beside her but he feared she was a Norn and would drag him to the Otherworld through the roots of the tree. Was this a dream? Was he already dead? He wondered why an angel would appear to him in the guise of a creature from the old faith. Why not a winged beauty from heaven? Why this wood nymph moist from her dip in the well of Yggdrasil?
“Give your name, creature,” he demanded firmly under his breath, for he had no wish to rouse the camp for what may turn out to be a vision brought on by the madness of a sleepless night.
The nymph did not answer. She raised a hand and Ostri pulled himself upright smartly. Who knew if she were about to perform some hex on him! The back of a limp wrist pushed at the matted hair and began to reveal a face beneath the golden lattice. Ostri strained his eyes to look for signs of a Demon in her features. It was, after all, not yet fully morning and the Devil sent his ghouls out to play during the night. He did not want to be fooled.
“Speak, creature!” he hissed more vehemently and a pair of blue eyes flashed open.
An invisible shroud lifted and Urtha suddenly found she was completely conscious of her surroundings. She was intensely aware also that a large warrior was looming over her, his voice sour like gooseberries. A steel helmet sat firmly on shoulder-length brown hair, more of which was neatly trimmed into a modest beard on his chin and upper lip. He wore the tunic, trousers and byrnie of a Saxon and his sword pommel had but one lobe in its design, not the several preferred by the men of the north. She realised too late that she may have escaped one fire only to toss herself into another.
Ostri became impatient and, although he would not admit it to anyone else, a little afraid of the object at his feet. He took hold of his scabbard in one hand and grasped the hilt of Death Giver, drawing the sword up slightly so as to make her certain of his intentions.
In a feverish whisper, “Name thyself, or I shall kill you where you lay!”
Urtha understood ‘name’ and ‘kill’ and was immediately set in a quandary; would death be her fate for speech or silence? Her mouth opened slightly as she struggled to decide whether to emit sound, her tiny head moving from side to side. Her inquisitor clenched his teeth and started to draw the full length of his blade.
“Urtha!” she breathed, flinging her arms in front of her face for protection.