Oswald had tilled the fields around his home for almost five decades. Over those long years of honest toil he saw his home grow from a pitiful hamlet to a prosperous village. There was always a flock of newborns each year, their squalling cries disturbing his sleep.
But Oswald did not mind. His family was old Saxon stock, they had been warriors in their time. As far as he was concerned, his ancestors tilled the fields for their descendants to enjoy the bounty they produced. He was an honest man and a strong man.
Even so, his blood chilled in fear when he heard the garbled cries of the lad running through the village. It was the depth of night when even the wolves retreated to their dens. The cries rose again, carrying swift and far on the silent, still air.
‘Murderers! Villains! Help!’
He raced out of the cottage, leaving his ageing wife with a swift kiss on her pale cheek. The village had emptied onto the small common of green pasture, grey in the midnight darkness. Every man among them was armed with hoe, scythe, hammer and axe. They were many, but each showed terror on his face.
There had been foul rumours touching the fringes of their small village these past days. Rumours of wickedness, the Devil’s minions at large in the country.
‘What is it, boy?’ Oswald asked, cornering the babbling youth who they had set to watch the fields by night. ‘Is it thieves, bandits, Frenchmen?’
The lad gasped for breath and snuffled, wiping away loose tears with the grimy sleeve of his tunic. ‘Yes, mister Oswald.’
‘Yes to which?’ He slapped the boy and the youth wailed in shocked pain.
‘All of those, mister, and worse. It’s them!’
‘Who, you damned fool?’
But he knew before the boy even spoke the name. Oswald felt it in the chill which sapped the strength from his broad shoulders, saw it in the slithering arms of grey mist creeping through the village. Terror wrapped their homes in its bitterly cold embrace. The Devil’s work.
‘It’s the Black Two,’ the boy said, his voice falling to a hushed whimper.
Mutters of fear, shouts of anger. The crowd erupted around him and voiced their terrified rage. Oswald held up his muscular arm for calm and the villagers fell silent. Not one of them met his eye, every glistening orb fixed on the far end of the common.
Oswald turned and saw them. The Black Two. A pair of indistinct shapes stalking out of the mist and darkness. Their bodies wrapped in black leather, chainmail shining on the breast of a tall warrior. Cruel weapons held firm in their hands.
‘They’re coming,’ Oswald whispered as the last trace of trembling courage fled from his body. ‘God help us.’