Sunday, 21 June 2009

Bernard Cornwell: Burning Land- Book 5

This novel, the fifth in the magnificent series of England's history tells of the final assaults on Alfred's Wessex

Excerpt Burning Land
I had left Finan and a handful of men as our only sentries. They were posted at the edge of the fields, halfway between the village and the old hall and Finan had sent one man to warn me that the Danes were moving. "They're in the woods, lord," the man told me, "by our camp.""How many?""We can"t tell, lord, but it sounds like a horde."Which could mean two hundred or two thousand, and prudence suggested I should wait till Finan could estimate the enemy more accurately, but I was in that bleak mood, feeling doomed and desperate for a sign from the gods, and so I turned to Æthelflæd. "You wait here with your bodyguard," I said, and did not wait for an answer, but just drew Serpent-Breath, taking comfort from the sound of the long steel scraping through the scabbard's throat. "The Danes are at our camp!" I shouted, "and we're going to kill them!" I spurred my horse, the same stallion I had taken from Aldhelm. It was a good horse, properly schooled, but I was still unfamiliar with him.Ælfwold spurred to catch me. "How many are there?" he asked."Enough!" I called to him. I was feeling reckless, careless and I knew it was foolish. But I reckoned the Danes would attack the encampment and almost immediately realise we had anticipated them, and then they would be wary. I wanted them unaware and so I kicked the stallion into a trot. My whole force, nearly four hundred men, was streaming along the track behind me. The day's first shadows were being cast into the furrows and birds were flying up from the woods ahead.I turned in my saddle to see spears and swords, axes and shields. Saxon warriors, grey-mailed in a grey dawn, grim-faced beneath helmets, and I felt the battle anger rising. I wanted to kill. I was in that bleak mood, assailed by the certainty that I had to throw myself on the mercy of the gods. If they wanted me to live, if the spinners were willing to weave my thread back into the golden weft, then I would live through this morning. Omens and signs, we live by them, and so I rode to discover the will of the gods. It was foolish.Horsemen appeared on our left, startling me, but it was only Finan and his seven remaining men who galloped to join us. "There might be three hundred of them," he shouted, "or maybe four hundred!" I just nodded and kicked the horse again. The track to the old hall was wide enough for four or five men to ride abreast. Finan probably expected me to halt our horsemen short of the space we had cleared about the old hall and line the men in the trees, but the carelessness was on me.Light flared ahead. The daylight was still grey, night shrouding the western horizon, but the sudden new light was red and bright. Fire. The Danes, I guessed, had lit the hall's thatch, so now let it light their deaths. I could see the edge of the trees, see the fallen trunks we had felled the day before, see the dull glow of dying campfires and the dark shapes of men and horses and the glimmer of reflected fire from helmets, mail and weapons, and I kicked the stallion again and roared a challenge. "Kill them!”We came in a ragged order, bursting from the trees with swords and spears, with hatred and fury, and almost as soon as I entered the clearing I realised we were outnumbered. The Danes had come in force, at least four hundred, and most were still mounted, but they were scattered throughout the encampment and few realised we were approaching until our horses and blades appeared in the dawn. The largest body of the enemy was at the clearing's western edge, staring across the dark land towards the faint glow of light betraying the fires of Lundene. Maybe they suspected we had given up any hope of capturing the forts and, under the cover of night, had slunk back towards the distant city. Instead we were coming from the east with the growing light behind us, and they turned as they heard the first screams and shouts. We were lit red by the growing fire of the old hall's burning thatch. Red fire was flashing from the horses" bared teeth, from our mail, from our blades, and I was still shouting as I swung my sword at the first man. He was on foot and holding a broad-bladed spear that he tried to level at my horse, but Serpent-Breath caught him on the side of the head and I lifted the sword and lunged it at another man, not bothering to see what damage I did, just spurring on to provoke more fear. We had surprised them, and for a moment we were the lords of slaughter as we spread from the track and cut down dismounted men who searched for plunder around the dying camp fires. I saw Osferth hammer a man's head with the flat of an axe blade, knocking off the man's helmet and hurling him back into one of the fires. The man must have been in the habit of cleaning his hands after eating by running them through his hair because the grease caught the flames and flared sudden and bright. He screamed and writhed, head like a beacon as he staggered to his feet, then a rush of horsemen overrode him. A hoof threw up a spew of sparks and riderless horses fled in panic. Finan was with me. Finan and Cerdic and Sihtric, and together we rode for the large group of mounted warriors who had been staring west across the night-shadowed land. I was still shouting as I charged into them, sword swinging at a yellow-bearded man who deflected the blow with his raised shield, then he was struck by a spear below the shield, the blade ripping through mail and into his belly. I felt something strike my shield, but could not look to my left because a gap-toothed man was trying to lunge his sword through my stallion's neck. I knocked his blade down with Serpent-Breath and cut at his arm, but his mail stopped the blow. We were deep among the enemy now, unable to ride farther, but more of my men were coming to help. I lunged at the gap-toothed man, but he was quick and his shield intercepted the sword, then his horse stumbled. Sihtric slashed with an axe and I had a glimpse of splitting metal and sudden blood.
I was trying to keep my horse moving. There were dismounted Danes among the riders, and a slash across my stallion's legs could bring me down and a man was never so vulnerable as when he topples from a saddle. A spear slid from my right, sliding across my belly to lodge in the underside of my shield and I just back-swung Serpent-Breath into a bearded face. I felt her shatter teeth and ripped her back to saw her edge deeper. A horse screamed. Ælfwold's men were deep in the fight now and our charge had split the Danes. Some had retreated down the hill, but most had gone either north or south along the crest and now they reformed and came at us from both directions, bellowing their own war cries. The sun had risen, dazzling and blinding, the hall was an inferno and the air a whirl of sparks in the new brightness.Chaos. For a moment we had held the advantage of surprise, but the Danes recovered quickly and closed on us. The hill's edge was a melee of trampling horses, shouting men, and the raw sound of steel on steel. I had turned northwards and was trying to drive those Danes off the hill, but they were just as determined. I parried a sword blow, watching the man's gritted teeth as he tried to cut my head off. The clash of swords jarred up my arm, but I had stopped his swing and I punched him in the face with Serpent-Breath's hilt. He swung again, striking my helmet, filling my head with noise as I punched a second time. I was too close to him to use the sword's edge, and he hit my sword arm with the rim of his shield. "Turd," he grunted at me. His helmet was decorated with twists of wool dyed yellow. He wore arm-rings over his mail, denoting a man who had won treasure in battle. There was fury in his fire-reflecting eyes. He wanted my death so badly. I wore the silver-decorated helmet, had more arm rings than he did and he knew I was a warrior of renown. Perhaps he knew who I was, and he wanted to boast that he had killed Uhtred of Bebbanburg and I saw him grit his teeth again as he tried to slice the sword at my face and then the grimace turned into surprise, and his eyes widened and the red went from them as he made a gurgling sound. He shook his head, desperate to keep hold of his faltering sword as the axe blade cut his spine. Sihtric had swung the axe and the man made a mewing noise and fell from the saddle, and just then my horse screamed and staggered sideways and I saw a dismounted Dane thrusting a spear up into the stallion's belly. Finan drove the man over with his horse as I kicked my feet out of the stirrups. The stallion collapsed, twisting and kicking, still screaming, and my right leg was trapped beneath him. Another horse stepped a hair's breadth from my face. I covered my body with the shield and tried to drag myself free. A blade crashed into the shield. A horse stepped on Serpent-Breath and I almost lost the blade. My world was a thunder of hooves, screams and confusion. I tried to pull free again then something, blade or hoof, struck the back of my helmet and the confused world turned black. I was dazed, and in the darkness I heard someone making pathetic moaning noises. It was me. A man was trying to drag my helmet off and, when he realised I was alive he put a knife at my mouth and I remember thinking of Gisela and desperately checking that Serpent-Breath's hilt was in my hand, and it was not, and I screamed, knowing I was denied the joys of Valhalla and then my vision turned red. There was warmth on my face and red before my eyes, and I recovered my senses to realise that the man who would have killed me was dying himself and his blood was pouring onto my face, then Cerdic heaved the dying man away and pulled me from beneath the dead horse. "Here!" Sihtric thrust Serpent-Breath into my hand. Both he and Cerdic were dismounted. A Dane shouted victory and lunged with a thick-hafted spear from his saddle and Cerdic deflected the thrust with a blade-scored shield. I stabbed the horseman's thigh with Serpent-Breath, but the blow had no force and his spear sliced at me, thumping hard into my shield. The Danes were scenting triumph and they pressed forward and we felt their blows chopping on the lindenwood. "Kill their horses," I shouted, though it came out as a croak, and some of Weohstan's men arrived on our right and drove their horses at the Danes and I saw a Saxon twist in his saddle, his spear hand hanging from his bloody arm by a scrap of bone or tendon. "Jesus! Jesus!" a man shouted and it was Father Pyrlig who joined us. The Welsh priest was on foot, belly stretching his mail, a spear like a small tree-trunk in his hands. He carried no shield and so used the spear-two handed, driving the blade at the enemy's horses to keep them at a distance. "Thankyou," I said to Cerdic and Sihtric. "We should go back, lord," Cerdic said. "Where's Finan?" "Back!" Cerdic shouted, and he unceremoniously grabbed my left shoulder and pulled me away from the Danes. Finan was fighting behind us, hammering an axe at the Danes on the southern part of the crest where he was supported by most of my men and by Ælfwold's Mercians. "I need a horse," I snarled. "This is a muddle," Pyrlig said, and I almost laughed because his tone and his words were so mild. It was more than a muddle, it was a disaster. I had led my men onto the hill's edge and the Danes had recovered from the attack and now they surrounded us. There were Danes to the east, to the north and to the south, and they were trying to drive us over the crest and pursue us down the steep slope where our bodies would be a smear of blood beneath the rising sun. At least a hundred of my Saxons were dismounted now and we formed a circle inside a desperate shield wall. Too many were dead, some killed by their own side for, in the maelstrom, it was hard to know friend from foe. Many Saxons had a cross on their shield, but not all. There were plenty of Danish corpses too, but their living outnumbered us. They had my small shield wall surrounded, while their horsemen were harrying the still mounted Saxons back into the woods. Ælfwold had lost his stallion and the Mercian forced his way to my side. "You bastard," he said, "you treacherous bastard." He must have thought I had deliberately led his men into a trap, but it was only my stupid carelessness, not treachery, that had led to this disaster. Ælfwold raised his shield as the Danes came and the blows hammered down. I thrust Serpent-Breath into a horse's chest, twisted and thrust again, and Pyrlig half hoisted a man from the saddle with a tremendous lunge of his heavy spear. But Ælfwold was down, his helmet ripped open, his blood and brains spilling onto his face, but he retained enough consciousness to look at me reproachfully before he started to quiver and spasm and I had to look away to ram the sword at another Dane whose horse tripped on a corpse, and then the enemy pulled back from our shield wall to ready themselves for another attack. "Jesus, Jesus," Ælfwold said, and then the breath stuttered in his throat and he said no more. Our shield wall was shrunken, our shields splintered and bloodied. The Danes mocked us, snarled at us and promised us agonising deaths. Men moved closer together and I should have encouraged them, but I did not know what to say because this was my fault, my recklessness. I had attacked without first discovering the enemy's strength. My death, I thought, would be just, but I would go to the afterlife knowing I had taken too many good men with me. So the only course was to die well, and I pushed past Sihtric's shield and went towards the enemy. A man accepted the challenge and rode at me. I could not see his face because the rising sun was behind him, blinding me, but I slashed Serpent-Breath across his stallion's mouth and thrust my shield up to take his sword's blow. The horse reared, I thrust at its belly and missed as another man swung an axe from my left, and I stepped away and my foot slid in a slippery tangle of guts spilt from a corpse eviscerated by an axe. I went onto one knee, but again my men came to rescue me. The stallion thumped down and I stood, lunging at the rider, sword striking him somewhere, but I was sun dazzled and could not see where. To my right a stallion, a spear impaled in its chest, was coughing blood. I was shouting, though I do not remember what I shouted, and from my left came a new charge of horsemen. The newcomers were screaming war-cries. Die well. Die well. What else can a man do? His enemies must say of him that he died like a man. I lunged again, driving the horse away and a sword smacked into the top of my shield, splitting the iron rim and driving a splinter of wood into my eye. I rammed the blade again and felt Serpent-Breath scrape on bone as she tore the rider's thigh. He hacked down. I blinked the splinter away as his sword cracked on my helmet, glanced off and thumped my shoulder. The mail stopped the blow that had been suddenly weakened because Father Pyrlig had speared the rider in his side. The Welshman dragged me back towards the shield wall. "God be thanked!" he was saying over and over. The newcomers were Saxons. They rode under the banner of Wessex's dragon, and at their head was Steapa, and he was worth ten other men, and they had come from the north and were slicing into the Danes. "A horse!" I shouted, and someone brought me a stallion. Pyrlig held the nervous beast as I mounted. I pushed my boots into the unfamiliar stirrups and shouted at my dismounted men to find themselves horses. There were too many dead beasts, but enough riderless stallions still lived white-eyed amidst the slaughter. A huge crash announced the collapse of the burning hall's roof. The flaming beams fell one by one, each spewing a new thrust of sparks into the smoke-darkened sky. I spurred to the ancient votive stone, leaned from the saddle and touched the stone's top as I said a prayer to Thor. A spear had lodged itself through the hole in the pillar and I sheathed Serpent-Breath and took the long-hafted weapon. The blade was bloodied. The spearman, a Dane, lay dead beside the stone. A horse had stepped on his face, mangling it and leaving an eyeball dangling over his helmet's edge. I gripped the ash shaft and spurred the horse towards the remnants of the fight. Steapa and his men had utterly surprised the Danes who were turning to flee back to the safety of the fort, and Steapa was following. I tried to catch him, but he vanished among the trees. All the Saxons were in pursuit now, the thick woods filled with horses and fugitives. Finan somehow discovered me and rode alongside, ducking beneath branches. A wounded and dismounted Dane flinched from us, then fell to his knees, but we ignored him. "Sweet Jesus," Finan shouted to me, "but I thought we were doomed!" "Me too!""How did you know Steapa's men were coming?" He asked, then spurred after a fleeing Dane who kicked his horse frantically. "I didn"t!" I shouted, though Finan was too intent on his prey to hear me. I caught up and aimed the spear at the small of the Dane's back. Leaf mould flew up into my face from the hooves of the enemy's horse, then I lunged and Finan sliced back with his sword and the Dane dropped from the saddle as we galloped past. "Ælfwold's dead!" Finan called. "I saw it! He thought I betrayed him!" "He kept his brains in his arse then. Where have the bastards gone?" The Danes were riding for the fort and our pursuit had taken us slightly eastwards. I remember the green sunlight bright in the leaves, remember thumping past a badger's earth, remember the sound of all those hooves in the greenwood, the relief of living after what seemed certain death, and then we were at the edge of the trees. And still there was chaos. In front of us was a great stretch of grass where sheep and goats normally grazed. The land sloped down to a saddle, then rose more steeply to the gate of the old fort high on its domed hill. The Danes were galloping for the fort, eager to gain the protection of its ditch and ramparts, but Steapa's men were among the fugitives, slashing and hacking from their saddles. "Come on!" Finan shouted at me, and kicked back with his spurs. He saw the opportunity before I did. My immediate thought was to stop him and to stop Steapa's undisciplined charge, but then the recklessness took hold again. I shouted some wordless challenge and spurred after Finan. I had lost all sense of time. I could not tell how long that fight on the hill's edge had taken, but the sun was risen now and its light shimmered off the Temes and lit the high grass saddle a glowing green. The stream of horsemen stretched from the woods to the fort. My labouring horse was breathing hard, sweat white on its flanks, but I kicked it on as we converged on that turf-churning cavalcade of pursuers and pursued. And what Finan had understood before me was that the Danes might close the gate too late. He understood that they might be in such panic that they did not even think to close the gate. So long as their own men pounded across the ditch's causeway and beneath the wooden arch they would leave the gate open, but Steapa's men were so mixed with the Danes that some might get through, and if enough of us could get inside that wall then we could take the fort. Later, much later, when the poets told of that day's fight, they said Steapa and I attacked Thunresleam's old hall together, and that we drove the Danes in panic and that we assaulted the fort while the enemy was still reeling from that defeat. They got the story wrong, of course, but then, they were poets, not warriors. The truth was that Steapa rescued me from certain defeat, and neither of us assaulted the fort because we did not need to. The first of Steapa's men were allowed through the gate and it was only when they were inside that the Danes realised the enemy had entered with their own men. Another desperate fight started. Steapa ordered his men to dismount and they made a shield wall at the gate, a wall that faced both into the fort and out towards the sunlit slope, and the Danes trapped outside could not break that shield wall and fled instead. They spurred down the steep westwards facing slope, riding desperately towards the new fort. And we simply dismounted and walked through the gate to join Steapa's spreading shield wall inside the old fort. I saw Skade then. I never discovered whether she had led the horsemen to Thunresleam's burning hall, but she commanded the men in the old fort and she was screaming at them to attack us. But we were now in overwhelming numbers. There were at least four hundred Saxons in Steapa's wall, and more kept arriving on horseback. The proud banner of Wessex flew above us, the embroidered dragon spattered with blood, and Skade screamed at us. She was on horseback, in mail, bare-headed, her long black hair lifting in the wind as she brandished a sword. She kicked her horse towards the shield wall, but had enough sense to check as the round shields lifted in unison and the long spears reached towards her. Weohstan came with more horsemen, and he led them about the right flank of Steapa's wall and ordered a charge. Steapa shouted at the wall to advance and we marched up the slight slope towards the great halls that crowned the hill. Weohstan's men swept ahead of us and the Danes, understanding their fate, fled. And so we took the old fort. The enemy fled downhill, a man dragging Skade's horse by its bridle. She sat twisted in her saddle, staring at us. We did not follow. We were weary, bloodied, bruised, wounded and amazed. Besides, there was a shield wall of Danes guarding the bridge which led to the new fort. Not all the fugitives were going to that bridge, some were swimming their horses across the deep narrow creek to reach Caninga. The dragon was flown from the old fort's walls and, next to it, Ælfwold's cross. The flags announced a victory, but that victory would mean nothing unless we could capture the new fort which, for the first time, I saw clearly. And cursed.

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