A.D. 1016, Sussax, Engla-lond
With the sun near setting, eventide mists rose and thickened, obscuring the way through the lowland. Bracken caressed their leggings and bramble thorns snagged their sleeves, as the five warriors sought to retrace their steps. No footprint appeared in the soft earth, no broken branch hung as marker.
“If we could find a stream,” one of Jarl Ulf’s men said, “‘twould lead us back to the shore.”
“If we were ravens we could fly there. Have you seen a cursed stream?” The jarl barely kept his anger in check. It had been his decision to lead the scouting mission––there was no other to blame. The big Dane took a deep breath. He raised an arm. “Hold up.”
His four companions stopped. Each man supported a round wooden shield on his left arm and carried an iron-tipped spear. Thick beards masked resolute faces. Unwashed tresses spilled from unadorned dome helmets crafted with eye and nose protection. Only Jarl Ulf bore a battle-æx at his waist.
“Darkness falls and the mists deepen,” the chieftain said. “We’ll do as when a fog enwraps us at sea––we’ll wait. In the morning light we’ll find our way back to the ships.”
From somewhere in the wood, the bark of a dog broke the stillness.
The Danes stood motionless, all knowing a yelping dog meant men not far off. The barking sounded again, closer.
“Spread yourselves and move with me,” Ulf commanded in a low voice, and immediately his men spaced themselves and moved into position. They advanced through the dark weald toward the cur-dog, the cool mist dampening their faces. Practiced in stealth, the Danes made little noise in their passing. The dog continued to proclaim his location and the Danish line curved and closed.
The cur’s bark changed to a low growl.
Spears lifted, and the warriors stood ready.
A piercing whistle penetrated the cold night air and the dog’s growls ceased. There was a scuffling of paws on leafmold and the attackers knew their prey had withdrawn.
On high alert, Ulf’s men waited for his command.
“Press on,” Ulf said, his voice no more than a grunt.
They passed farther into the dense woodland, keeping a steady and silent pace.
Appearing at first like a flickering eye haloed in the white vapors, the campfire blinked through the trees and vines. Drawing nearer, Ulf and his men perceived a lone figure sitting before the fire, stroking a large black-brindle dog that took to growling as they approached.
“Steady, Æadwulf,” said the dog’s master. The cur ceased its low, rumbling growl, and dropped to an at rest position. It watched the newcomers arrive, still ready to attack if so commanded.
“The night is cold,” the youth called out in poor Danish. “Come to my fire. My hand is empty.” And to signify, he lifted his arm, showing the palm of his hand.
Ulf stepped first from the dark of the night into the fire’s light. The swain rose to his feet, hand still raised. Ulf assessed the younger man: short-bearded, tall and solidly built, dressed for hunting rather than fashion, in tunic and braies. Though outnumbered, he stood his ground and met Ulf’s gaze without faltering. The arm came down, but the hand remained open.
“You are alone?” Ulf asked.
A nod in response.
Ulf motioned for his men to search the surrounding wood. He returned the battle-æx to his waistband and raised his hands to the heat of the fire.
“You could have taken your wolf-dog and run from us,” he said. “Why didn’t you?”
His host pondered the Danish words; then said in a mix of Saxon German and Danish, “I was curious as to who besides me would be in this wood at night. And I am not partial to running and hiding.”
Jarl Ulf gave a short laugh. “Perhaps not a wise decision, but one I can agree with. What are you called?”
“Godwin I am named. My father is thegn here.” The young man bent to stroke the dog, who began to settle.
“Why do you tend a fire here on this night?”
“For the pleasure of Æadwulf’s company and the taste of the mist. The dog likes to hunt at night. I listen to him and the night sounds. Is that strange to you?”
“Uncommon, perhaps,” Ulf replied, “not strange. Tell me, do you not take us for your enemy, invaders of your homeland?”
“There are many who wish to rule Sussax, and many high-born who switch allegiances. Since King Æthelred the Ill-advised died, it is unknown who will rule, be it Edmund Ironsides or your Cnute. Or perhaps they will divide up the rule. I wish to live and thrive––with the victor.”
Behind his beard, Ulf smiled. “And if you choose wrongly?”
“That would be unfortunate. Therefore, I put off choosing ‘til I must.”
“And your father, which way does he lean?”
“Toward Edmund Ironsides. But I am not my father.”
Ulf bellowed out a laugh. “You please me, young Godwin. You have spirit, and I can’t fault your wits.”
Ulf watched his men return to the fire, having found no one in the wood.
“Perhaps,” Ulf said, “we can be of service to each other this dark night.” Godwin watched the Viking chieftain but said nothing. “My men and I have been floundering in your forest like fish on a shoal. You could guide us back to our ships, no doubt.”
Godwin eyed Ulf as if he were bargaining for a favored weapon. “And how would you do me service?”
“Why, by not attacking this part of Sussax. And by leaving your head upon your shoulders!”
The Vikings all joined Ulf in the laughing. When the din died down, Godwin looked round at the armed warriors and said, “Then it would please me greatly to guide you to your ships.”
“Good lad. I am Ulf, jarl to Cnute, King of Danmark.” The Dane offered his open hand to Godwin.
The young Saxon took the extended hand and clasped it.
“When Cnute is King of Engla-lond, come find me at court.”
The fire’s light shone on the young Saxon’s slight smile and danced in the glister of his eyes.
Godwin looked up at Jarl Ulf. And nodded.