“Lord in heaven, please protect me,” Osferth whispered into the dirt.
His fingers shook as they clasped the cross in his hand. He could feel warm blood seeping from his body and pooling into the dirt beneath, although exactly where he bled from he did not know. His chest felt as if it were on fire with pain while bitter cold crept through his limbs. He was dying - he was sure of it. So, there in the dirt of Beamfleot, surrounded by the screams of warriors and horses, Osferth prayed to his god through chattering teeth.
“Forgive me for my sins, Lord. Protect us. Protect them,” he thought as his vision faded to black.
Osferth opened his eyes and was met with darkness. Slowly, a warm glow entered the edges and he was able to make out stone walls. A tapestry, its scene too hard to make out in the shadows, hung from the wall directly opposite. He heard the sound of a fire crackling somewhere behind him. As he made to shift to look towards it, his side screamed in pain, as did his lips.
“Stay still,” a quiet voice said as a firm hand placed itself on Osferth’s shoulder. Turning just his head, his eyes met Sihtric’s. “You have broken most of the ribs on the left side of your body and you took an axe to your belly. But it seems that your god does not want your company yet,” he added with a small smile.
Slowly, it came back to him. The battle at Beamfleot. Finan trying to tend to his wound. The feeling of blood leaving his body. The concern in the Irishman’s eyes, even as he joked about killing him. Gripping his cross. His own fear that he had killed someone and that that would bar his entrance to heaven.
“Where are we?” Osferth asked as he gently placed a hand to his bandaged side.
“Still in Beamflot, but we will leave for Lady Aethelflaed’s estate in Saltwic at first light”
Sihtric scraped his chair away from the fire and into Osferth’s line of vision. He looked tired, much of his hair and gear still caked with blood and mud.
“You should be resting properly. You need not attend to me,” Osferth said weakly.
“I want to,” Sihtric said plainly. “Finan was here before, but it is his turn to eat. We both know what a bear he is when he is hungry,” he said, smirking. Osferth grinned, glad for the company despite his guilt over it.
Sihtric sighed and held his hands out to the flames, his face lit orange in the glow of the hearth.
“Thank you for today,” he said quietly.
“I don’t know what you...I don’t remember…” Osferthmuttered. He was confused as to what Sihtric was referring to, but the sincerity in the Dane’s eye told him that this was not sarcasm or his usual teasing.
“Today in battle,” Sihtric answered his unfinished questions. “I fell. You stood over me and protected me. I will not forget it,” he said with a nod that was both a sign of gratitude and a promise.
“I could offer you no protection but my staff,” Osferth answered sheepishly. “Let us both be grateful that you were able to get back up again quickly.”
“That does not make your actions less brave,” Sihtric said, returning his gaze to the flames.
Osferth knew that Sihtric had said his piece and that the Dane wanted nothing more from him, yet he still felt awkward and unease settle in his belly. He was no fighter, and to be complimented by one of the greatest warriors he had ever known did not sit well with him.
“Where is Uhtred?” he said finally, hoping to shift the focus away from himself - even if only in his own mind.
Osferth scoffed, “I hope that Uhtred flogs him for leaving us to nearly be slaughtered today.”
Sihtric spat into the flames. “His men say it was Edward who gave the command to enter the fight. Alfred refused. Some fatherly lesson that he insisted on giving while we were surrounded.” Sihtric’s distaste for the King and his actions were clear in his voice.
“Ah, a fatherly lesson,” Osferth huffed. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
Sihtric smirked at this, his eyes sparkling in the firelight. “Neither would I.”
“I wonder if he would mourn me?” Osferth asked himself quietly, after a moment. “I wonder if I would be enough for him then?”
Sihtric was the only one that Osferth felt comfortable speaking about his father, Alfred, with. Both bastards, they alone truly understood the intricacies of what it was to be discarded by your own flesh and blood. To have a void which could never truly be filled.
“Do not waste your thoughts on him,” Sihtric sighed, before firmly adding, “It is he who has not been enough for you.”
A companionable silence filled the room, with only the occasional crackle of the fire to disturb it. Sihtric and Osferth shared a love of quiet, neither one feeling the need to fill it, as Finan so often did. So, Osferth was surprised when Sihtric said, “It fuels me.”
“The anger. Every cruel thing that my father did to me or my mother - even when the cruelest thing he did was act as if I did not exist. I take it onto the battlefield with me.” Sihtric did not look at Osferth as he said this, but his eyes darkened, even as they looked directly into the flames. Osferth knew exactly what he spoke of - the simmering rage laced with pain that threatened to boil over so often throughout his life.
“What of forgiveness?” he asked, even as the word sounded feeble to his own ears.
Sihtric scoffed, “That is for your god, not mine. And judging by the number of lords and kings at each other’s throats in the name of your god, I don’t think that He truly believes in forgiveness either.”
Before Osferth could respond, the door to his room opened and a pretty girl stepped into the light, a wash basin filled with bandages tucked under her arm.
“Forgive me, my lords,” she said, eyes darting between them. “I have been sent to change your bandages and check your bleeding,” she said, looking at Osferth. “Lord Uhtred has also asked for you,” she added, eyes moving to meet Sihtric’s. The Dane clearly made her nervous.
Sihtric got up and, with a nod at Osferth, moved to the door. He gave the healer a gentle smile and a wide berth as he left, yet she still scuttled against the wall.
“He will not harm you,” Osferth said gently as she moved to his bedside.
“I prefer the Irishman,” she responded quietly, as she unwrapped some of his bandages. Osferth chuckled, even as it caused pain to reverberate through his core.
He was awoken later by the creak of the door opening and Finan entering.
“If you’re looking for the pretty healer, you’ve missed her,” Osferth said into the dark, causing Finan to jump.
“Christ, lad! I didn’t know you were awake,” he whispered, coming to Osferth’s bedside and placing a hand on his shoulder. “You scared me,” he said with a small laugh.
Finan’s eyes scanned his friend’s body, concern written across his face, and Osferth knew that it was not the first time he had scared the warrior that day.
“Not as much as Sihtric scares the healer girl. She much prefers you,” Osferth teased, trying to lighten his friend’s mood.
He was rewarded with a chuckle, “Of course, Baby Monk. They all do.” But then the Irishman sighed and scrubbed his beard with his hand and added, “But I am too tired, even for that.”
His exhaustion was clear in his every movement. With shuffled steps, Finan walked to the closest wall and leaned his sword against it. Groaning, he took off part of his armor and leaned it too against the cold stone. His shoulders were slumped and Osferth knew that the trauma of the day wore heavy on him.
“How are you feeling?” Finan asked, settling himself down into the chair Sihtric had left behind.
“Like I was attacked by a Dane,” Osferth said lightly, too tired himself to come up with a wittier response. Nonetheless, Finan gave a low chuckle.
“We’ll have you back up and fighting in no time, Baby Monk,” he said, giving Osferth’s arm a playful swat.
Osferth debated whether or not he should say aloud what he had been mulling over during his fitful sleep. Finally, he said, “I do not think I am meant to fight, Finan. I was of no use to you all today. Perhaps I am meant to be a monk after all.”
Osferth watched a range of emotions pass across Finan’s face - surprise, anger, fear, sadness, perhaps even pity. Osferth had expected an outburst, but was unsettled when Finan said nothing for several long moments. He was choosing his next words carefully. Eventually he stood, coming to Osferth’s bedside and looking straight down into the young man’s eyes.
“You are one of us, lad. You are not weak because you fell in a battle that nearly took every last one of us.” His voice was low and firm, but filled with compassion, leaving Osferth unable to doubt its sincerity.
Finan continued, “Now, if you want to trade that staff for a proper sword, I will teach ya. That is easy enough. But this, I cannot teach.” Finan gently placed a hand on Osferth’s chest, right above his heart. “You have a warrior’s heart, lad. But until you acknowledge it and let it become part of you, you will always be a boy standing in the mud with nothin’ but a stick. You cannot be more until you allow yourself to be.”
Coming from anyone else, the words would have been a harsh rebuke. Yet, the warmth in Finan’s eyes assured Osferth that they came from a place of deep caring - from one brother to another. With tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat, Osferth could only give a nod of acknowledgement.
Finan gently clasped his shoulder before settling himself back into the chair. Osferth watched as Finan took up the same position that he did many nights around the fire when he would get lost in thought - his arms across his chest, legs stuck out towards the flames to warm his feet, with the cross that hung from his neck clasped tightly between his lips. After several long minutes, Osferth felt compelled to ask the one question that he knew only Finan could answer.
“How do you reconcile it, Finan?”
Cross falling from his mouth, Finan looked at his friend, confused.
“Taking the life of men while also being a Christian?” Osferth explained.
Finan sighed but a small smirk formed on his lips. “I think we both know that I am not a model Christian. Father Beocca and Hild would probably be able to guide ya better.” However, the way that he pressed his lips together and rubbed his hand against his leg told Osferth that he had more to say, so Osferth waited.
“Do you know what my favourite story in the Good Book is?” Finan said, finally. Osferth gently shook his head, but his friend was staring into the flames and not at him. “It is when Christ goes to the temple in Jerusalem and sees the merchants taking advantage of the people in his Father’s house. He goes into a rage and flips their tables over. He took a stand against the corruption.”
Now, Finan shifted to look at Osferth thoughtfully, “I always understood that part best. He was fighting for his people and took action to protect them. True - Christ didn’t kill anyone, but I expect he would have felt differently if all the merchants had run at him with swords,” Finan gave a small chuckle and Osferth huffed a laugh. However, Finan turned more serious when he asked, “Do you not feel that Uhtred does that also? He fights for what is right, even when it means turning against a lord, his oath, or those who claim to love him. I can lend my sword to that.”
Osferth nodded his agreement, but couldn’t help teasing, “Uhtred would have your balls knowing that you just compared him to Christ!”
Finan laughed at this. “True! Let us keep that between ourselves then,” he said, reaching up to fiddle with the cross at his neck and likely offering up a small prayer of apology to Christ himself.
Reaching up to grasp his own wooden cross, Osferth could not deny that what Finan said was true. Uhtred followed his own moral code, one which superseded the normal obligations and fears that got in most mens’ way.
For his part, Finan knew that there was nothing else he could say, and that the young monk would need time to think about his options when the trauma of battle was not so fresh. With a groan, he got up and stretched before walking to a pile of furs in the corner. Osferth was horrified when he began to spread them out on the stone floor closer to the fire.
“Go find a proper bed, Finan. I will be fine here tonight,” Osferth protested.
“Ah, but then I might miss the pretty healer again,” Finan said, throwing his bed-ridden friend a grin and a wink. “Besides, we’ll leave for Saltwic in a few hours. We both know I’ve slept in worse places.” With that, the warrior practically collapsed into the furs. With a yawn, he added, “You, however, will be rocking along in a cart behind my horse’s arse - so I recommend you enjoy the rest while ya can.”
Osferth smiled into the dark, grateful that the serious conversation of the evening had reverted back to the witty banter and teasing that he had come to know so well. Still, Finan had given him much to think about and he likely would have spent more of the late evening hours contemplating it had the Irishman’s familiar and gentle snoring not lulled him into his own deep slumber.
Osferth was not sure if he was more sore from the second day bruises that had bloomed all over his body, including the wounds that were already there, or from the jostling cart ride. As Finan had predicted, it had not been a pleasant trip. Although, Finan had kept himself and his horse’s arse beside the cart for most of the journey, not in front of it.
As soon as they arrived in Saltwich, his half-sister had kindly provided Osferth with a comfortable room, and a healer had immediately checked his wounds. Now, the only thing that pained Osferth more than his wounds was his stomach. Osferth clutched at it as it growled loudly in hunger.
As if hearing his gut’s plea, Uhtred entered the room carrying a tray of warm broth and fresh bread. Osferth had never seen a more welcome sight.
“Bless you, Lord,” he said earnestly.
“I thought you would be hungry,” Uhtred said, as he helped gently move Osferth into enough of a sitting position that he could eat. He placed the warm bowl in Osferth’s hand and laughed as he gulped it down as if it were the sweetest ale.
“Thank you,” Osferth said as he lowered the empty bowl and allowed himself to take a few shallow breaths.
Uhtred laughed quietly and replaced the empty bowl in Osferth’s hand with the bread. It was still warm and Osferth gave an appreciative grunt as he took a bite.
“I’m told that you should heal well, given a little time,” Uhtred said, his voice echoing against the stone walls.
Osferth swallowed before replying, “The healers have performed miracles, Lord. I am grateful.”
“I am also told that you are considering leaving us once you have healed - that you no longer wish to fight.”
Osferth froze, another bite of bread half chewed in his mouth. He had not expected to have this conversation so soon. However, he should have known that Finan would not hold his tongue, and that Uhtred was not one to put off such discussions.
Reading his thoughts, Uhtred chuckled, “Do not be angry with Finan.” He rose to fetch a glass of water from a nearby table. Handing it to Osferth he added, “He does not want to lose you.”
Osferth sighed and took a sip of water, debating what to say next as Uhtred settled himself into a chair.
“I do not want to leave, Lord,” he said. Uhtred simply looked at him, knowing that the thoughts in Osferth’s head were more complicated than that.
“I am not worthy of fighting alongside you, Lord” Osferth said quietly.
“And you would rather live in a monastery?” Uhtred scoffed.
“What choice do I have?” Osferth snapped, surprising himself. Yet, the words continued to pour out, unbidden. “I am not a warrior. Not a son. I am not even enough of a monk. It is as if the world is made of circles and I must remain outside of them! I am not enough of anything. ”
Osferth choked out those last words, his chest contracting, despite the pain it caused him. He had never spoken those thoughts aloud. Like a snake they had slithered through his thoughts daily throughout his entire life, and now they were out in the world and he was not sure that he wanted them back, even as the shame overwhelmed him.
“Forgive me, Lord,” Osferth whispered, unable to meet Uhtred’s eye.
“There is nothing to forgive,” Uhtred said, a small laugh barely detectable in his voice. “You have said nothing which I have not felt myself most of my life.”
“Lord?” Osferth questioned, unable to stop himself from looking at Uhtred and finding a small smile sitting on the warrior’s lips.
“Osferth, I have spent my days being told I am wanting. Never enough of a son. Never enough of a Dane, nor Saxon. I was sold into slavery and treated as though I were not a man. I am valued as a warrior but not enough to be given what I am owed. My children were taken and I am not enough of a father either.” Osferth watched his lord’s blue eyes darken as he said those last words, the pain causing his voice to catch a little.
Sitting forward, Uhtred placed a gentle but firm hand on Osferth’s arm. “If feeling like you are not enough has led to this doubt, then it is with us that you belong, Osferth.”
Uhtred’s gaze was steady and warm, and in that moment Osferth felt completely seen, for perhaps the first time in his life.
He could no longer seek validation from those who would not give it to him. He would always be a man of faith, but he also had to take his life into his own hands. These men were his brothers, for they understood his struggles as no one else could.
He would learn to fight alongside them. He would fight for them.
“Thank you, Lord,” Osferth said, reaching up to clasp his hand over Uhtred’s. Sensing the change in his resolve, Uhtred nodded and smiled.
“Now rest,” he said as he rose from his chair. “When you are healed we will resume your training. You will be knocking Finan on his arse in no time.”
Osferth chuckled lightly, doubtful that that would ever happen, even with years of training, but replied, “Yes, Lord.”
“Good,” Uhtred shouted over his shoulder as he headed out the door.
And, train he did. Over the years Osferth spent countless hours training and sparring with both Finan and Sihtric. He did knock Finan over, eventually, and disarmed him in the process. Once again, Osferth had watched a range of emotions pass across the Irishman’s face as he stared up at him from the dirt - shock, rage, embarrassment, but most of all, pride. Every battle that Osferth found himself in after that would be measured against that moment of triumph and found wanting.
It still pained him - the killing. He would spend hours in prayer after every battle, praying for the lives that he took. His own soul, however, found comfort knowing that every man he sent into the afterlife could no longer put a blade through the belly of one of his friends. It was for them that he fought. His family - the only ones that would ever know or understand him.
A decade later, another “Baby Monk” joined them - Uhtred’s son.
Osferth watched from afar as Uhtred’s guilt and grief boiled over onto his son. Osferth felt a familiar pain in his gut when he heard young Uhtred say, “It is not my God that you hate, but the fact that I am not you.” There was pain in those words that Osferth knew too well, even if he had parted ways with that guilt and self-loathing long ago.
Out of the corner of his eye Osferth saw Finan rise to check on the boy first. He could not hear what the man said to him but his words hit their mark because young Uhtred gave one long look towards the tent where his father had disappeared before stalking off into the woods.
“I will get more water,” Osferth mumbled in Sihtric’s direction as he retrieved the water skins and followed after the boy.
He found young Uhtred sitting on a log by the creek, head in his hands.
Despite his purposeful attempt to make noise as he approached, Osferth still made the young man jump when he asked, “Are you alright?”
“If you are here to lecture me or sing my father’s praises, I have heard enough for today,” Osferth said, wiping away tears from his cheek.
Holding up the water skins, Osferth replied, “I came for water.” Young Uhtred looked at him warily, seeing through the lie, but didn’t see the use in fighting it.
Osferth silently collected water from the stream, letting the boy take a few deep breaths before he said, “I was not unlike you when I first met your father.”
“What?” the young man asked, confused.
“I left my church willingly, mind you, but I also struggled with the sin of taking another man’s life in battle,” Osferth sighed a little as he got up and sat on the log beside Uhtred’s son. The boy was still guarded, but his expression betrayed his curiosity.
“When I asked your father to take me into his service, I sought to defy the father who had disowned me and who I would never be enough for. I couldn’t handle the killing, though. I wept the first time that I forced my sword into a man who was already dying. Your father nearly abandoned me on the spot for acting so dishonourably,” Osferth blushed in shame at the memory. Young Uhtred said nothing, but he never looked away from the warrior monk.
“I was not Christian enough to be a true monk, for I could not forgive my father or resign myself to a life in the monastery. But, I wasn’t a warrior either. I did not know what I was.”
“Why are you telling me this?” the boy asked.
“Because, I think that in many ways, you feel the same. And I am here to tell you that, in the end, your anger, guilt, and shame will not serve you.”
Young Uhtred took a deep, steadying breath and considered this, his thumb stroking the wooden cross that hung from his neck.
“How did you get past it?” he asked finally.
“By realizing that the men there,” Osferth said, pointing back at the camp, “and what they believe in, were worth more than the resentment that I held onto.”
Osferth paused before gently adding, “Your father convinced me that I belonged. That is all I have ever wanted, and it is worth fighting for.”
Young Uhtred gave a ragged breath and bit back tears.
“Your father struggles in his grief,” Osferth said quietly, “but, unlike the fathers of everyone else here, he will never stop fighting for you. Do not give up on him so easily.”
With that, he clapped his hand on young Uhtred’s knee and rose, throwing the water skins over his shoulder and leaving the boy to his thoughts.
Several days later, Osferth found himself standing in a field at Tettenhall. They were outnumbered and Osferth’s arm was in a sling. Nevertheless, he stood shoulder to shoulder with his brothers, sword in hand.
As Brida and Cnut’s armies drew closer he heard the men beside him praying. He breathed in their words as he stared at the approaching Danes, but he did not pray himself.
“If I should die today, at least I am where I am meant to be,” he thought, as he and his brothers raised their swords in unison and faced down the enemy before them.