Odin's balls, but that lass has keen ears. We're flat on our faces on the edge of a wood near one of the Britons' forts, me, Aelfric, Edgwine, Lavinia, and half a dozen of the hearthguard, and behind us further back in the woods are Beornwulf and the rest of the lads. I'm damned if I can hear anything, and equally I'll be damned if I let her know that. "Aye. Can't make out what it is, though," I lie.
She frowns, a crease between dark brows. "Sounds like a wagon. More than one."
Ecgwine tilts his head, listening, nods. "Aye."
Blasted kids. Aelfric works his way back a little deeper into the woods. "We'll take them, if they're light enough guarded. And remember, we're here for the gold, not the killing."
I grin at him, "This time."
We come running out of the woods towards the Britons, yelling and screaming at the top of our lungs. There's a moment when I glance over my shoulder and realise that the rest of the lads are a bit further behind than I'd really like, but Aelfric grabs my arm, points to the gap between the nearest group of Britons and a patch of bare rocky ground: "Go for the wagons!" And he's off, the rest of us hard on his heels, cries of "Odin! Odin and the Young Wolf!" as we barrel past the startled bunch of British warriors, who I notice are headed up by that Geraint we had as hearthguest a while back.
The drover of the middle wagon stares, wide-eyed at me and the spear I have levelled at him. "That way..." I jerk my thumb over my shoulder, back where we just came from. He swallows, nods repeatedly and rapidly, and tugs on the lead rope. The oxen hauling the cart don't know or care about allegiance: they just go where he leads, and self-preservation wins out over loyalty.
"On me. Charge!" Aelfric again, turning to our right, where, joy of joys, Geraint has formed up his men to face Beornwulf and most of the rest of the lads. Caught between Fenris and and the Midgard serpent, he is: we're behind his flank, and their wall of shields is a cumbersome and slow thing to turn. It's swift and bloody, half his men gone in next to no time. About then, though, their big Lord orders his personal guard up and into us. They fight hard, no doubt about that: I manage to lay a blade on him, but it's clear after a moment or two they have the beating of us, and we fall back.
I have to say, Aelfric looks remarkably little bothered by that, or by the couple of arrows from Lavinia and her little band that whistle past a shade closer than I'm comfortable with. He grins at me, savage like the wolf they've named him for, nods at the scattered few lads from our group running for the safety of the woods. "Never mind them. We've got this." Voice raised. "Beornwulf! NOW!"
Beyond Beornwulf I can see Ecgwine urging a group of warriors into the woods after some of the Britons, and beyond that their fort, and their little man leading a bunch of their levy towards us. Too little. too late. The thought amuses me, and Aelfric's laughter is infectious: we've done our bit, and watch as Beornwulf at the head of a dozen screaming warriors and the rest of our hearthguard charge in. Their Lord's guard back away, and our lads crash into what's left of Geraint's force. It's a messy, protracted scrap: Aelfric, damn him, just leans on his spear and watches, apparently unconcerned, just nods once as the Britons finally waver and withdraw. Another glance at me, and an almost boyish grin. "Got them now."
He's still grinning back at Wulfhere's steading, and when we're done unloading the loot, he raps his spear on the dais, thrice, hard.
"This..." A handful of gold and silver, held up for them all to see. "This was what we came for. British gold. Caesar's gold." That savage smile. "Our gold." He tosses that handful to Theobald. reaches for another. "They'll be sorely hurt. We raid again, while they lick their wounds. But then...." Another handful of gold to another of the hearthguard, "Then we bring them to battle. Then, we take their lands!"
The shout goes up, as he scatters gold, even-handed, amid the rest of the hearthguard, and, I notice, tosses a purse to the scop Oswulf. "Aelfric! Aelfric! Young Wolf!" And then, first one, then another, till every throat raises the same chant. "Drohtin! Drohtin!" Warlord, they name him.
I look across at Wulfhere the Red, sat on his great chair, impassive, that huge axe he favours across his knees. And the old fox just nods at me, approving, perhaps, as the chant rings in the beams and rafters of his hall. "Drohtin! Drohtin!"
He's seen this day coming.
He's seen this day coming.