Late Summer 1054
Wulfhere rode wearily through the great lush forest, once known to the ancient Britons and their Roman conquerors as Anderida. It was now called Andredeswald by the Englisc, descendants of the Southern Saxons who had come to these lands to settle in the dark days that followed the death of Rome. His companion Esegar, his shield bearer and right hand man rode beside him, half asleep in the saddle, eyes all but closed and his head nodding as he fought to stay awake. The horses too were tired, heads low, pace no more than a lumbering amble. Their destination was home, Horstede, in the heart of Sussex on the marshy slopes of a shallow valley. They’d been travelling many days along the ancient trackways, which for centuries had witnessed the various comings and goings of the many different peoples of these lands. Wearing their armour so as not to unnecessarily encumber the pack horses, the feel of it against their skin was perhaps somewhat uncomfortable, but nonetheless familiar. It was a feeling they had got used to over the last few months, campaigning in the north.
Displaying the stern expression of a warrior, Wulfhere looked formidable to all who would have encountered him on the journey home. Beneath his gleaming helm, strands of sun-bleached hair blew in the cool breeze. The mail shirt that hugged his torso emphasised strong broad shoulders upon which was strapped his battle-scarred shield. The chips, dents and holes in its facing had been made by Scottish spear tips, a testimony to the recent bloody encounter with Macbeth’s army. Even the shield’s deadly metal boss had not escaped damage and was now crushed beyond repair. His sword, the most precious weapon he possessed, hung in a decorative scabbard secured to a leather belt worn around his waist. The pommel, inlaid with gold banding, rested against his upper thigh, the silver lobe at the end of the grip was impressively decorated with the figure of two intertwined wolves; it had been in his family for many years, handed down to first sons through the march of generations. Its name, Hildbana, meaning battle slayer, was etched along the broad blade, for warriors were inclined to give their weapons such fierce names to enhance the reputations of their owners. For a fighting man, a sword or an axe was more than a battlefield tool; a sword was a companion, a lover, a life-giver and a death bringer. For Wulfhere, Hildbana was like an extension of himself, another limb into which his heart pumped his life’s blood.
The men were returning home after more than two months of brutal campaigning with the Earl of Northumbria against the Scottish king, MacBeth. Although he had not been eager to travel so far north away from his family, Wulfhere accepted his duty with the unquestioning loyalty of a king’s faithful servant. It had been a hard won battle with many lives lost on both sides. It was natural for a man such as Wulfhere to take up the mantle of warrior, for he came from a long line of such men. However nothing could have prepared him for the carnage that he had witnessed that day on Dunsinane Hill. Death in battle had not been a stranger to him, but never had he seen it on such a scale as this.
Wulfhere was proud of his ancestry, able to recite an abundance of tales about the prowess of his forefathers in battle, but despite his magnificent weapons and polished war attire, he was more a man of reasonable means than a man of great wealth and land holdings. He held roughly five hides of village and pastoral lands, the minimum amount a thegn might possess. It had been endowed to his ancestors by subsequent royal lines in return for both official and military services