Mist curled through the ferns at Ostri’s feet as he watched a doe nuzzling the gnarled roots of a nearby tree for its bark. She hadn’t seen him, for he stood so still. Ostri wondered, himself, whether he would be able to move when the time arose for action. It had been a long night on constant watch and all he could feel was the weight of his mail shirt, wooden shield and baldric. ‘Death giver’ sheathed cosily in fleece and hanging on the latter, had not been drawn once. He ached for its use, his gut wrenching at the thought the enemy would pass him by without so much as a glance, or the tip of a spear. He wanted combat, burned inside unbearably to pierce the flesh of the accursed Danes.
The King had called on his Thegns, who had called on their Ceorls and so, as the son of a Ceorl, Ostri had answered. He would miss the start of harvest, but that was no great disappointment to him. There were plenty thralls; his father would survive without him this once. Milweard the Elder had beamed with pride at his son’s exuberance to serve his King. In truth, the draw to battle had been too strong for Ostri to resist compared to life on the estate. Not one moment longer could he stand the jests and frequent whispers of Milweard the Elder and their neighbour, Hergist. The old prune-faced boars had been plotting Ostri’s marriage to Hergist’s eldest daughter Agnaeth, a wasp of a female with a face as foul as her temper. The dust had barely settled from the hooves of the messenger’s mount before Ostri had strapped Death Giver over his shoulder and departed on the best horse they possessed. Milweard the Elder and, strangely enough, Agnaeth had wept as he rode into a blazing orange sunset.
The doe had moved away, remaining oblivious to the Saxon warrior’s presence and was enjoying dew sodden foliage. Ostri passed time watching his own breath billowing into the chilled air between the trees. He was unable to see if the sun was rising beyond the pine canopy and had lost count of the time hours ago. The doe raised her head, ears folding in all directions and Ostri held his breath. He sent a hand to Death Giver and cast his eyes around him in the half light. Through the silence of dawn came the feint rustle of ferns as a single person ran, barefoot Ostri judged by the sound; breathing fast, they were approaching from the east. Facing almost west, Ostri hoped the ample trunk that had been supporting his back since last night would hide his tall, broad frame. He gripped the hilt of Death Giver excitedly. At last he would see blood! Waiting, an excruciating few seconds at most, Ostri readied himself to draw his sword and strike his opponent in the chest as they rounded his tree.
As the floundering footsteps reached within a yard of him, Ostri drew his blade, silent as it left the fleece lining of the sheath. His right arm arcing backwards at chest height, he sent Death Giver to do as it was named. Trusting in God he would catch his victim in a blow across the breast, or better a fatal gash in the neck, Ostri was forced to bend round the tree trunk as his blade continued, unhindered by flesh and bone. As he rolled over the uneven trunk, his mail rivets crunching and catching on shards of bark, Ostri was unprepared for what faced him on the forest floor.