The hand was shrunken and black, scabs of skin rough and roasted, fingers hooked in an ever-lasting claw. The stench of burnt flesh drifted through the air.
Afterwards Woden had nudged the limb with his boot, staring at it lost in thought. Some of the bodies had been little more than black twisted effigies of their former selves; elbows and knees bent in some sort of macabre dance. Others were barely burnt, killed by the fumes that had invaded their lungs. Either way they were all dead as was the building. The former hall, grander then all others in the village, was now an ash daubed ruin, some beams still having defied the arson but most having collapsed as the heat of the consumed thatch had overwhelmed them.
It had smouldered well into the next day and the villagers had watched the bonfire leaping into the sky, held back by the scolding aura that threatened to consume them should they step too close. The nervous farmers and carpenters had watched the flames gradually die down, wondering what was to become of them, watching as the great hall became a pile of smouldering white ash.
And they wondered because Woden had taken one of the dead thane’s buildings at the end of the night and there he had gathered his men about him. It was now his hall, not as large as Odell’s but a good building none-the-less, and here he made his new home. Tapestries adorned the walls, ornaments that decorated his building now, and there were cattle and servants too; spoils of war that would only be taken from the richest of thanes. Evidently Odell’s men had been greedy.
His men waited. Bowdewyn sat at a window, staring out to gaze at the surrounding landscape. Woden’s giant axe wielder, now known to him as Oxa, sat at the back sharpening his axe, whilst his brother List, a much smaller man who had a shrewd, cunning look to him, grinned at a maid who tried to avoid his gaze. Either way they all wanted to know where to go from here.
They had found a large chair in one of the thane’s rooms, carved with Celtic symbols that adorned its solid oak structure. Sitting on it at the front of the room, Woden seemed like a king before his followers. He tapped the rest with one hand, before finally looking up to the relief of the men.
So he finally had Wulfden. But what now? “I thank you for your service,” his eyes scanned the grim faces, all eager to see what he had to say, all listening to his every word, “you have allowed me to take my rightful place and for that you shall be rewarded.”
Those words brought a sparkle to a lot of eyes and a show of contentment, “We shall have the servants collect the riches from the other thane’s houses and it shall be divided between you.” mummers of agreement and nods of the head. They were satisfied with his decision. yet Woden continued, “King Cuthred rewarded me with your bravery but now you have a choice to make. Return to a land now conquered with little to plunder or no honour in battle, or stay here to fight the Wealas and carve our name into these very hills and valleys!” Already he could see the sparks in some of their eyes, the same gleam of ambition and desire that any Saxon would seek. Yet he knew some would refuse to leave the services of Cuthred through a rightly held loyalty and it would be useless to push them for it.
Before Woden could continue, the door opened, thrown back as a tall peasant staggered in with two men trying to hold him back. The man seemed frantic, an almost crazed look in his eyes as he pulled himself loose from his fellow villagers and ran forward to fall to his knees.
“My Lord, my daughter is gone!”