The Challenge

Reaching over he patted his hand against the warm, muscular neck of his steed, the animal obediently waiting for his master’s command. The black hair gleamed in the morning light and, despite the dried mud and dirt that spattered the animal’s legs, it still looked proud and majestic. Others shifted nervously, instinct picking up on the buzz in the air, whilst some tossed their heads rebelliously, eager to start out.

Woden’s men watched their leader; the man last night, whose hands had played over his sword, now sat attentively, his hand on his hilt; another was leaning back in his saddle, a giant of a man holding a hulking great axe in one hand. Faces different and alike: angular jaw bones, high cheeks; red and rounded, pale and thin. They were ready, anxious, tense, hard-faced.

Each still wore their mail shirt that would protect from the sword’s edge. The grey adornments were a sea of rings, interlinked to provided the strongest barrier. To one arm was strapped a shield, formed from the wood of the linden, Alder and Popular. These were hardy armaments whose padded body could be used to take the strongest of blows, but a thrust with the reinforced edge could split the strongest of jaws. Some wore helms, eyes almost hidden in the shadows created, others wore coifs; extensions of their mail. Spears, swords and axes were ready.

Nodding in satisfaction, Woden pulled the reign and his mount turned, walking forward out of the grove and emerging from the trees’ shelter. His men followed, Bowdewyn directly behind and the other ten forming a column two abreast. It was a procession, a parade, and it was to show Odell they did not fear the open, nor did they fear battle. A challenge was being offered and Woden hoped his enemy would accept.

But as they made their way towards the village no attack came. Dust drifted up from the roads, the only movement that stirred in the light of the rising sun. Even nature was quiet, as if the animals knew what was to come.

And then the village was in view. The houses, thatched roofs threadbare from poor maintenance; the paths, dirt tracks caused by animal and human alike; pig pens that were absent of the animal’s presence save the black dung that lay scattered around. It was quiet and desolate; no smoke from fires stained the sky, no villagers making their way about their business. A carpenter’s bench sat outside one of the buildings but its artisan was nowhere to be seen. Even the sentry he had seen the night before was no longer present.

Leaving the last of the fields behind, they passed thatched roundhouses on either side; walls roughly sculptured from wattle and daub, the animal manure used as a shelter from the elements. On the floor was a trail of straw; small pieces scattered everywhere as if they had been thrown into the wind. A harvest had obviously been gathered. The smells of the village hung about them; rich roasted meat that caused the belly to rumble in hunger; faeces and waste causing the nose to cringe. Sheep’s wool and animal’s sweat tainted the air.

As they weaved their way between the scattered buildings, Woden noticed all the doors were closed and probably locked. Odell was not brining his thanes out to face him but the churls we keeping themselves hidden away too.

Finally, passing a stone ring that surrounded the charred remains of a large fire, they arrived at the largest building of all, the main hall. The walls were made of solid timber, locked together by strong wooden pegs, and the large roof swept upwards, arching high.

His horse stamped a hoof, seemingly frustrated. Woden could understand why. Odell was evidently a coward. Drawing his sword the blade sung as it slid from it’s sheath.

“Face me Odell!” His loud voice boomed out, breaking through the silence, “Face me!”

And for a second it seemed only silence would answer.

But only for a second.

The End

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