Cuthred, King of Wessex, gazed down at the small wooden cross that lay in the palm of his hand, etched with the curves and swirls of Celtic decoration. It must be ancient, he thought, part of this mystic world of Briton far older than any of his kin. And now it sat within his grasp.
The words brought Cuthred out of the clouds of contemplation and he looked down at the young Saxon standing before his horse. Dressed ready for battle, his features were partially concealed by the cheek flaps and nose protector of his spangenhelm helmet. Even so, the eagerness in his face could not be hidden away.
“Aye boy?” Cuthred surveyed the fields of Burford. The autumn had caused the trees that lined them to die back, skeletal and swaying in the wind. Chill air blew from the north and he knew that snow would be upon them this winter. Instead of wrapping his cloak about him and showing weakness, he clenched his jaw and looked forward to the warmth of battle.
The young soldier coughed, clearly nervous about speaking to someone of such high stature. “Ethelbard approaches bringing at least a thousand.”
Cuthred contemplated the number thoughtfully, noticing the youngster chew his lip. Nerves of his presence or anxiety of battle? Not the time to think of such trivial matters.
“Go tell Searwine and Aescwulf to gather their men.” The boy nodded readily, “Tell Aescwulf to position himself on that hill,” He pointed to a raised mound in the distance and await Ethelbard’s advance. He is not to move.”
“We do not attack?” The question came blurted out before the boy could stop himself and Cuthred gave him a stony glare, “We attack when I say we do.” He growled, curbing his subordinate’s tongue.
The boy nodded, “And Searwine?”
Looking out across the field, a picture that would soon be churned mud and blood soaked soil, Cuthred could picture Ethelbard’s enthusiasm for battle. His Mercian enemy was almost as bad as the inexperienced charl before him when it came to eagerness. Dangerous but foolhardy, “See where the river has etched a groove in the landscape? Have him place his men there. I shall join him shortly.”
He watched as the messenger ran off, stumbling in his eagerness before recollecting himself and continuing his flight. Placing the cross around his neck, Cuthred skilfully climbed down from his horse and handed the reign to his servant. This battle was to be won on foot and he would fight for Wessex with his men.