Green fields had flowed in all directions, a rich carpet that covered the curves of the land and brought pleasure to the eye. Here and there wild twisted oaks stood their ground against the ravages of time, denying the Saxons the right to tame all of Wessex’s land. Cattle grazed, thoughtfully chewing on the pastures and inquisitively looking up as twelve horsemen rode past, dressed in mail and stained from battle.
The first chill was etching its way into the air, and a touch of autumn was beginning to paint its mark upon the woods that could be seen in the distance. They were the masks of the land; colossal forests that hid wild beasts from human harm: a protective fortification that formed a wall to keep the Saxons out.
Here a road ran past the common ground, deeply sunk into the land so that and traveller would be half hidden except for those on horseback. Trees arched above them, roots clinging to the banks on either side, and their shade added to the chill that was descending.
Seated at the side of their camp, on the splintered remains of a fallen tree, Woden watched the men eagerly eating the salted meat that he had requested from a local farmer. The Saxon had understood what Woden had meant and had eagerly handed the pork over to prevent trouble.
The faces of his new men glowed by the light of the fire, neither happy nor sad. They sometimes glimpsed across at him with a look of curiosity or thought, and once or twice he felt a feeling of mistrust creep through him. And why should they trust him? Aside from the king’s word, and the possibility that they might have seen him save Cuthred’s life, what little did they know about him? Had he proved his worth to them? No. He had even stolen their honour as it had been their job to protect their leader.
Taking a bite from his meat he looked across at Bowdweyn with a touch of jealousy creeping through him. His friend was readily chatting to them, ever charismatic and able to make new brothers in arms.
The forest was dark here: towering trunks stretched upwards, bare and unbranched like tall Roman columns. Anyone could see deep into the forest, it was so unobstructive to the view, but all that could be made out were endless pillars rising up. And in the morning there would be an eerie mist that clung to clung to the trees, enveloping and cloaking the way ahead.
A screech owl screamed its call.
Chewing the tough meat, Woden scanned the woods once more and stopped, his jaw coming to a halt.
There, at the edge of the clearing, half hidden amongst the trees, was Arw.