The young boy stood in the doorway and stared at the man. His mother always told him it was rude to stare, but he was far too busy exploring the world around him to heed her advice. The man sat on a three-legged stool and stared into the fire. From time to time he sighed, and shook his head.
'Hello,' said the boy.
The man looked up, a stern expression flickering across his face briefly before he smiled. He had a tired smile.
'Hello there, young fellow,' he said.
'I'm Osbert. Are you a friend of my father?'
The man found that amusing. 'You could say that,' he replied.
Osbert sniffed. What kind of an answer was that? 'What have you got there?'
Osbert held out a four-foot length of ash.
'It's my spear,' he said, ignoring the fact that it curved gently to one side, had a prominent split running along a third of its length, and was blunt. 'I'm going to kill Danes with it.'
'Are you now? Fancy yourself as a warrior, then, do you?'
'When I'm big. My brother's a warrior. He fought for the king.' The boy sidled into the room and stood only a few feet away from the man. 'I'm going to fight for the king when I'm big, and I'm going to kill lots of Danes.'
He looked at the man's mail shirt. It was rusty and had links missing, not like a proper warrior's mail shirt. He didn't have a helmet, either, or a proper shield - Ulf, the village smith, had knocked up a few of his 'specials' for the man.
'Could I see your sword?' Osbert asked in a small voice.
The man paused a moment, weighing up the request in his mind, then reached down and picked up his scabbard from the floor between his feet and the stool. He drew the sword slowly, and let the firelight dance across the patterns in its surface. Gold and silver glinted on the hilt and crossguards. Osbert's mouth opened in sheer admiration.
'It's beautiful,' he murmured.
'Isn't it just. Have you got a sword like this?' Osbert shook his head. He had a length of firewood stuck into his belt, that was all.
'It's better than my dad's,' he said. 'Did it cost a lot?'
'I don't know. It belonged to my brother and, before him, to my father and grand-father.'
'Can I touch it?'
'Yes, but be very careful. The edge is very sharp now. We don't want you losing a finger before you've met your first Dane, do we?' The boy wiped a finger in his shirt and reached out. He seemed to get slower as he got closer, like a pilgrim with fragile, holy relics before him. The steel was cold, despite being close to the fire, and his exploring finger left a little cloudy ring of condensation against the polished surface. His eyes seemed to draw power from the sword: they grew wider and glinted in turn with the flickering flames.
The man watched the boy, as he had watched many other boys. It was always the sword that did it. He had seen the same light in their eyes, and he had seen that light flicker and fade away, fading like the condensation on the blade. He tried to reproach himself for encouraging the boy. He wanted to tell him to throw the 'spear' and the 'sword' he carried onto the fire where they belonged, and go and do some useful chores around the farm. He tried to, he wanted to, but he could not. His survival depended on the sacrifice of the young men that boys like Osbert would become.
Osbert drew his hand away.
'Thank you,' he said, before turning and running off.
The man watched him go and sighed again. Soon the boy's father, and other men, would follow him into battle. Would the boy be an orphan in a few weeks? Would he remember the man with the beautiful sword, and curse him aloud for the hard times he and his mother would face in the years ahead? Or would he forget, and thrill his grand-children with the tale.
It was no time to be a king.