It had started with the little things.
A sheath here, a knife there. Sometimes Finan would be in the process of putting something away, but then see a fresh mug of ale and abandon the thought quicker than a hound after a cat.
In a way, it was a small help. Sihtric never had any trouble finding Finan. All he had to do was follow the trail of forgotten things and slide them into his bag or back into his house before he noticed they were gone. It drove Finan completely mad that he could be in the farthest field from Coccham and Sihtric would still find him.
Sihtric vowed he would never tell him.
But, he was still getting tired of it.
He didn’t know what he had been thinking, hoping that it was simply the comfort of being home in Coccham that made him so forgetful. But alas, there he was in the middle of the battlefield, picking up Finan’s fallen shield to hand to him. One would think that a shield would be at the front of one’s thoughts, especially as they head into battle.
Sihtric remembered that day quite clearly. They were waiting for Haesten to come and meet them on the field, with Edward’s promise that the men of Wessex would be there. They had waited so long, and Uhtred had just made the call to march back home. Finan had been sitting on his shield, and he had stood so quickly that it had fallen backwards.
Sihtric was sure that Finan assumed that it would somehow come back to him again. Finan had gone chasing after Uhtred to talk to him, and so Sihtric had picked it up and handed it to him again.
Finan would surely be dead if not for him.
But now, as he came to ready his horse for his scouting route, he was nearly late in leaving because he could not find the pick they used to clean the horses’s hooves.
It took him much too long to finally spot it on an upturned bucket, on the opposite side of the stable it was meant to be.
He called the stable boy over to him, irritated. “Why was this not put back?” He barked.
The boy swallowed in fear. He was only nine or ten, a Saxon, and Sihtric softened his tone slightly. “Who used it last?” He asked again.
“I believe it was Finan.” The boy said under his breath.
Sihtric should have known sooner. “He went riding today?” He said. The boy nodded. “Good. I can blame my untimeliness on him.” He patted the boy on his shoulder and went to tend to his horse. His mare was desperate to leave, having had to stand and wait while saddled and bridled as he searched for the tool.
Finally, he could get out of Coccham. He loved his home, his family loved it, but he cherished the few times during the week when Uhtred would send him out to scout. It was just him and his horse, and wherever Uhtred told him to go.
Sihtric nearly let out a frustrated cry when he caught sight of Finan’s brooch on the path. It was usually on his cloak. Dismounting rather disgracefully, he stooped to pick it up, but his hand stopped when he saw that the clasp was broken.
He picked it up to examine it closely. It looked like it had been ripped from his cloak forcefully. Frowning, he scanned along the road.
Among the tall grasses was a muddy green that didn’t belong.
By now, Sihtric’s heart was pounding. He sprinted towards it, grabbing at the fabric desperately. His heart sank as he knew that it was Finan’s cloak.
He looked around in the grasses next to him. It was hard to tell, but now that he knew that he was looking for something, the trampled grass leading deeper into the forest was clear.
There was no time to get help. Something had happened to Finan. He whistled for his mare and mounted her swiftly before moving between the trees.
He had been riding for a while before he heard voices. Dismounting quickly, he let her graze in the trees before moving closer.
They were obviously Danes. And they were obviously drunk.
There were only five or six of them, all sitting around the fire except for one who was guarding Finan. Finan was sitting against a skinny tree, his feet bound and his arms tied around the tree. There was a strip of cloth binding his mouth, and by the smug look on Finan’s face, he had probably deserved being silenced.
Their leader was speaking to Finan, and Sihtric watched as Finan narrowed his eyebrows in anger. The leader turned, and Sihtric let out a frustrated sigh.
Of course Haesten was involved in this in some way or another. The meddling Dane hardly knew how to keep his hands to himself and always had to poke at the bear that was Uhtred.
Dagfinn was also smug, his head held high as he sauntered back towards the fire. Sihtric recalled how he had to suffer through Dagfinn’s stupidity as they had made their way back to the Danish camp when he was spying. Many times did Sihtric nearly turn and head back.
Sihtric could not fight them all, not by himself. And Finan was too close to the large group to successfully rescue him without anybody noticing. He grimaced, frustrated. What was he to do? Go back to Coccham? By the time he returned with other men they could have left. No. We was going to have to figure this out by himself.
Sihtric watched as Dagfinn took a long drink of ale. He was sure that they were proud of themselves, capturing the Dane-Slayer’s right hand man. He bit his lip, thinking, thinking.
Two of the Danes bumped into each other as one went to reach for more ale. The ale in their mugs sloshed all over their chests, and to nobody’s surprise, immediately began fighting and pulling out their weapons. “Let us make the square!” One slurred.
“No squares!” Dagfinn yelled, breaking them up. “You turds,” he muttered under his breath. “That’s enough ale for you. Go and clear your heads.”
That was it.
Sihtric stood from his hiding spot and strode into the camp.
It took a moment before anyone noticed him, but he chose not to draw his weapons. Not now. Even Finan made a noise of surprise.
“You,” Dagfinn muttered, recognizing him. “Come to double-cross us again?”
“I’ve come to make the square.”
Dagfinn squinted at him.
Sihtric sighed. “You and I will fight-” he spoke slowly. “And if I win, I take Finan back.”
Dagfinn squinted more. His eyes nearly disappeared. “And if I win?”
He shrugged. “Then Uhtred loses both his first and his second in one go.”
Dagfinn barked with laughter and grinned wickedly. “Get the branches!” He called to his men. “We make the square.”
Finan was struggling against his bonds, but Sihtric ignored him. He flexed his hands and grabbed hold of his axe and his sword, rolling his shoulders to try and warm them up. It had been a few weeks since he had fought, but he tried not to think about that.
The square was made, and both Sihtric and Dagfinn stepped inside. “Before we begin, do I have your word that your men will let us go if I win?”
Dagfinn glanced around at each of his men. He was by far the biggest and burliest, but Sihtric preferred the option of walking out instead of continuing to fight. Dagfinn looked back at him. “I swear on Thor’s hammer.” He clutched the pendant about his neck.
Sihtric tapped his weapons together. “Then we begin.”
Dagfinn was slow, but terribly strong. Sihtric knew that he would strike first to try and draw first blood.
He swung at him, and Sihtric darted to the left as his sword came whistling past his ear. Dagfinn swung again, using the energy to try and cut at Sihtric’s legs but Sihtric jumped up and over the sword.
Dagfinn growled in frustration as he hadn’t gotten a hit in yet. He barrelled into Sihtric and the hilt of his sword caught Sihtric across the temple.
Stars blinked across his vision as he fell to the ground. Dimly, he could hear Dagfinn’s men cheering and Finan’s muffled yelling.
He blinked heavily, trying to clear his head, and noticed Dagfinn basking in the praise instead of running Sihtric through with his sword. Sihtric could be thankful for that, at least.
He tucked his feet under him and stood, vaguely aware that he had lost his sword somewhere between getting hit and standing up. Something dripped by the corner of his eye. Dagfinn had drawn first blood.
For some reason, that pissed him off more than the entire situation. He swung his axe around, but it was sloppy and slow, and Dagfinn knocked it away. Again, he aimed for the head, but Dagfinn almost pushed it away and knocked him in the gut with his fist.
Doubled over and out of breath, Sihtric tried to steady his breathing. So Dagfinn was drawing this out. Clearly, he was feeling confident.
He bolted upright, slashing his axe across Dagfinn’s chest. The man stepped backwards with a yell, surprised and shocked, and much angrier. His armour had stopped a lot of the blade, but Sihtric could see a line of red starting to ooze.
Faster and faster Dagfinn was swinging at him. Sihtric darted this way and that, Dagfinn’s blade nearly cutting off his ear at one point. Dagfinn was becoming crazy, growling and screaming curses at him. Dagfinn swung his fist, and he darted to avoid it, only he stepped the wrong way. Pain exploded in Sihtric’s jaw, and he felt a tooth get knocked loose and his mouth fill with blood. He spat it to the ground, and blood dripped from his lips in a steady stream.
Dagfinn lunged and Sihtric dropped to his knees. Just as Sihtric was trying to slice at Dagfinn’s thighs, the Dane brought his sword down and Sihtric thrust his axe up to block it. The blow shook his bones and the axe was knocked from his grasp.
Dagfinn grinned at Sihtric’s empty hands and brought the sword up again. Sihtric launched himself upwards and knocked Dagfinn’s sword hand to the side as he wrapped his other arm around the back of the Dane’s neck and across his shoulder. Faster than even he thought possible, he planted his left foot between Dagfinn’s legs, grabbed hold of the front clasps of his armour and twisted, pulling Dagfinn up and over and into the ground.
Sihtric landed heavily on top of Dagfinn, who gasped for breath and looked around wildly. Sihtric grabbed at Dagfinn’s hair, pulling his head up and grabbing at the seax on his back before placing it under his chin. “I will spare you,” he panted. “If your men untie Finan and let us leave unharmed, we will go our separate ways and meet elsewhere.”
Dagfinn was silently fuming as he thought. But then his muscles tightened and his hand gripped his sword tighter and Sihtric drew his blade across Dagfinn’s throat.
Blood spilled from the cut, and Dagfinn gurgled as he choked. Dropping the head, Sihtric clambered up and stepped away from the red puddle that was growing larger.
Dagfinn’s men were silent, shock plastered on their faces. “Leave,” Sihtric spat, blood still dripping onto the ground. “Leave!”
Dagfinn’s men gathered a few supplies and food, but true to their word and Dagfinn’s word, stalked away.
Sihtric was still breathing heavily, but stood over Finan as they disappeared into the forest. He ached, his jaw hurt and his temple was throbbing. But he was alive.
Only when they were long gone and Finan was growling in frustration did Sihtric relax and almost fall to the ground.
Finan was squirming as Sihtric tried to work his seax under the tight ropes. “Stop, Finan,” he said. More than once did Sihtric nearly take a finger. “By the gods, man-”
Finally he stopped fidgeting, and the ties were undone. In no time at all Finan had ripped the cloth from his mouth. “What in the name of God was that?” He snapped, trying to stand up but forgetting that his feet were bound as well. He stumbled, and Sihtric handed him the knife wordlessly. “Are you a bleeding idiot?” He cried, lumbering around as feeling went back into his legs. “You could have died!”
Sihtric dropped to the ground, resting his head against the tree. “But I didn’t,” he grinned, and he felt more blood spill from his mouth. Finan swore, and disappeared for a moment before reappearing with a cup of water. He dipped a cloth into the cup before handing it to Sihtric. Muttering a word of thanks, he took a sip and washed the blood from his mouth, spitting it off to the side. He winced as Finan dabbed at his temple with the cloth.
Finan was muttering in English and Irish underneath his breath, Sihtric only catching a few of the words. “I cannot believe you,” he finally said, putting the cloth away. “What were you thinking?”
Sihtric frowned. “What do you mean, ‘What was I thinking?’” He scoffed. “You were captured and bound, Finan. I wasn’t going to leave you.”
Finan’s features softened a bit. “Please don’t do that again,” he muttered, eyes searching Sihtric’s face.
Sihtric met Finan’s gaze. “You would do the same for me.”
Finan slowly helped Sihtric stand and they made their way back to the horses. Finan had grabbed Sihtric’s sword and axe, and after giving them back helped him mount his mare. “How did you find me?” He asked once he had found his own mount. “Their camp was quite off of the beaten path.”
Sihtric had nearly forgotten about the clasp. Reaching into his saddlebag, he pulled it out and tossed it to Finan. “I wouldn’t have thought to look for you if I hadn’t spotted it.”
“Christ,” Finan muttered. “How would you even see it?”
Sihtric opened his mouth, but then closed it abruptly. Perhaps he shouldn’t tell Finan that the only way he noticed it was the fact that he had been expecting something to be misplaced. “The gods were feeling generous,” he eventually said. Finan frowned, but eventually just shrugged it off.
Yes, Finan leaving things around and creating a mess for everyone was a pain. But without that mess, his best friend would probably be dead by now.
“Wait!” Finan cried, and Sihtric pulled up on the reins. Finan was patting his pockets and checking his saddlebags. “I think I left my short-sword at the camp.”
Without a word, Sihtric pulled the blade out from his belt and handed it to him. Finan blinked in surprise, but took it back with a soft “thank you.”
Maybe Finan would be finding out in the end.