Sunday, 21 June 2009

Bernard Cornwell: Saxon Series- The Lords of the North- Book 3

The Lords of the North begins soon after the events described in The Pale Horseman. Uhtred, having helped Alfred secure Wessex as an independent Saxon kingdom, returns north in an attempt to find his stepsister. Instead he discovers chaos, civil war and treachery in Northumbria. He takes the side of Guthred, once a slave and now a man who would be king, and in return expects Guthred's help in capturing Dunholm, the lair of the dark Viking lord, Kjartan. There is betrayal, romance and war, and all of it, as usual, based on real events.

Excerpt The Lords of the North

We were seventy six warriors, including Steapa and myself. All of us were on horseback and all had weapons, mail or good leather, and helmets. Two score of servants on smaller horses carried the shields and led our spare stallions, but those servants were not fighting men and were not counted among the seventy six. There had been a time when Ragnar could raise over two hundred warriors, but many had died at Ethandun and others had found new lords in the long months while Ragnar was a hostage, but seventy six was still a good number. "And they're formidable men," he told me proudly.
He rode under his banner of an eagle's wing. It was a real eagle's wing nailed to the top of a high pole, and his helmet was decorated with two more such wings. "I dreamed of this," he told me as we rode eastwards, "I dreamed of riding to war. All that time I was a hostage I wanted to be riding to war. There's nothing in life like it, Uhtred, nothing!"
"Women?" I asked.
"Women and war!"he said, "women and war!" He whooped for joy and his stallion pricked back its ears and took a few short, high steps as if it shared its master's happiness. We rode at the front of the column, though Ragnar had a dozen men mounted on light ponies ranging far ahead of us. The dozen men signalled to each other and back to Ragnar, and they spoke to shepherds and listened to rumour and smelt the wind. They were like hounds seeking scent, and they looked for Guthred's trail, which we expected to find leading west towards Cumbraland, but as the morning wore on the scouts kept tending eastwards. Our progress was slow, which frustrated Father Beocca, but before we could ride fast we had to know where we were going. Then, at last, the scouts seemed confident that the trail led east and spurred their ponies across the hills and we followed. "Guthred's trying to go back to Eoferwic," Ragnar guessed.
"He's too late for that," I said.
"Or else he's panicking," Ragnar suggested cheerfully, "and doesn't know what he's doing."
"That sounds more likely," I said.
Brida and some twenty other women rode with us. Brida was in leather armour and had a black cloak held at her neck with a fine brooch of silver and jet. Her hair was twisted high and held in place with a black ribbon, and at her side was a long sword. She had grown into an elegant woman who possessed an air of authority and that, I think, offended Father Beocca who had known her since she was a child. She had been raised a Christian, but had escaped the faith and Beocca was upset by that, though I think he found her beauty more disturbing. "She's a sorceress," Beocca hissed at me.
"If she's a sorceress," I said, "then she's a good person to have on your side." "God will punish us," he warned.
"This isn't your god's country," I told him. "This is Thor's land." He made the sign of the cross to protect himself from the evil of my words. "And what were you doing last night?" he asked indignantly. "How could you even think of being king here?'
"Easily," I said. "I am descended from kings. Unlike you, father. You're descended from swineherds, aren't you?"
He ignored that. "The king is the Lord's anointed," he insisted. "The king is chosen by God and by all the throng of holy saints. Saint Cuthbert led Northumbria to Guthred, so how could you even think of replacing him? How could you?"
"We can turn round and go home then," I said.
"Turn round and go home?" Beocca was appalled. "Why?"
"Because if Cuthbert chose him," I said, "then Cuthbert can defend him. Guthred doesn't need us. He can go into battle with his dead saint. Or maybe he already has," I said, "have you thought of that?"
"Thought of what?"
"That Guthred might already be defeated. He could be dead. Or he could be wearing Kjartan's chains."
"God preserve us," Beocca said, making the sign of the cross.
"It hasn't happened," I assured him.
"How do you know?"
"Because we'd have met his fugitives by now," I said, though I could not be certain of that. Perhaps Guthred was fighting even as we spoke, but I had a feeling he was alive and not too far away. It is hard to describe that feeling. It is an instinct, as hard to read as a god's message in the fall of a wren's feather, but I had learned to trust the feeling.
And my instinct was right, for late in the morning one of the scouts came racing back across the moorland with his pony's mane tossing in the wind. He slewed round in a burst of turf and bracken to tell Ragnar that there was a large band of men and horses in the valley of the River Swale. "They're at Cetreht, lord," he said.
"On our side of the river?" Ragnar asked.
"On our side, lord," the scout said, "in the old fort. Trapped there."
"There's another warband outside the fort, lord," the scout said. He had not ridden close enough to see any banners, but two other scouts had ridden down into the valley while this first galloped back to bring us the news that Guthred was probably very near.
We quickened our pace. Clouds raced in the wind and at midday a sharp rain fell briefly, and just after it ended we met the two scouts who had ridden down to the fields outside the fort and spoken to the warband. "Guthred's in the fort," one of them reported.
"So who's outside?"
"Kjartan's men, lord," the man said. He grinned, knowing that if any of Kjartan's men were close then there would be a fight. "There are sixty of them, lord. Only sixty."
"Is Kjartan there? Or Sven?"
"No, lord. They're led by a man called Rolf
"You spoke to him?"
"Spoke to him and drank his ale, lord. They're watching Guthred. Making sure he doesn't run away. They're keeping him there until Ivarr comes north."
"Till Ivarr comes?" Ragnar asked, "not Kjartan?"
"Kjartan stays at Dunholm, lord," the man said, "that's what they said, and that Ivarr will come north once he's garrisoned Eoferwic."
"There are sixty of Kjartan's men in the valley," Ragnar shouted back to his warriors, and his hand instinctively went to the hilt of Heart-Breaker. That was his sword, given the same name as his father's blade as a reminder of his duty to revenge Ragnar the Elder's death. "There are sixty men to kill!" He added, then called for a servant to bring his shield. He looked back to the scouts. "Who did they think you were?"
"We claimed to serve Hakon, lord. We said we were looking for him."
Ragnar gave the men silver coins. "You did well," he said. "So how many men does Guthred have in the fort?"
"Rolf says he's got at least a hundred, lord."
"A hundred? And he hasn't tried to drive off sixty men?"
"No, lord."
"Some king," Ragnar said scornfully.
"If he fights them," I said, "then at the end of the day he'll have fewer than fifty men."
"So what's he doing instead?" Ragnar wanted to know.
"Praying, probably."
Guthred, as we later learned, had panicked. Thwarted in his efforts to reach Bebbanburg he had turned west towards Cumbraland, thinking that in that familiar country he would find friends, but the weather had slowed him, and there were enemy horsemen always in sight and he feared ambush in the steep hills ahead. So he had changed his mind and decided to return to Eoferwic, but had got no farther than the Roman fort that had once guarded the crossings of the Swale at Cetreht. He was desperate by then. Some of his spearmen had deserted, reckoning that only death waited for them if they stayed with the king, so Guthred had sent messengers to summon help from Northumbria's Christian thegns, but we had already seen the corpses and knew no help would come. Now he was trapped. The sixty men would hold him in Cetreht until Ivarr came to kill him.
"If Guthred is praying," Beocca said sternly, "then those prayers are being answered." "You mean the Christian god sent us?" I asked.
"Who else?" He responded indignantly as he brushed down his black robe. "When we meet Guthred," he told me, "you will let me speak first."
"You think this is a time for ceremony?".
"I'm an ambassador!" he protested, "you forget that." His indignation suddenly burst like a rain sodden stream overflowing its banks. "You have no conception of dignity! I am an ambassador! Last night, Uhtred, when you told that Irish savage to cut my throat, what were you thinking of?"
"I was thinking of keeping you quiet, father."
"I shall tell Alfred of your insolence. You can be sure of that. I shall tell him!" He went on complaining, but I was not listening for we had ridden across the skyline and there was Cetreht and the curving River Swale beneath us. The Roman fort was a short distance from the Swale's southern bank and the old earth walls made a wide square which enclosed a village which had a church at its centre. Beyond the fort was the stone bridge the Romans had made to carry their great road which led from Eoferwic to the wild north, and half of the old arch still stood.
As we rode closer I could see that the fort was full of horses and people. A standard flew from the church's gable and I assumed that must be Guthred's flag showing Saint Cuthbert. A few horsemen were north of the river, blocking Guthred's escape across the ford, while Rolf's sixty riders were in the fields south of the fort. They were like hounds stopping up a fox's earth.
Ragnar had checked his horse. His men were readying for a fight. They were pushing their arms into shield loops, loosening swords in scabbards and waiting for Ragnar's orders. I gazed into the valley. The fort was a hopeless refuge. Its walls had long eroded into the ditch and there was no palisade so that a man could stroll over the ramparts without even breaking stride. The sixty horsemen, if they had wished, could have ridden into the village, but they preferred to ride close to the old wall and shout insults. Guthred's men watched from the fort's edge. More men were clustered about the church. They had seen us on the hill and must have thought we were new enemies for they were hurrying towards the remnants of the southern rampart. I stared at the village. Was Gisela there? I remembered the flick of her head and how her eyes had been shadowed by her black hair, and I unconsciously spurred my horse a few paces forward. I had spent over two years of hell at Sverri's oar, but this was the moment I had dreamed of through all that time, and so I did not wait for Ragnar. I touched spurs to my horse again and rode alone into the valley of the Swale.
* * *
Beocca, of course, followed me, squawking that as Alfred's ambassador he must lead the way into Guthred's presence, but I ignored him and, halfway down the hill he tumbled from his horse. He gave a despairing cry and I left him limping in the grass as he tried to retrieve his mare.
The late autumn sun was bright on the land that was still wet from rain. I carried a shield with a polished boss, I was in mail and helmet, my arm rings shone, I glittered like a lord of war. I twisted in my saddle to see that Ragnar had started down the hill, but he was slanting eastwards, plainly intent on cutting off the retreat of Kjartan's men whose best escape would lie in the eastern river meadows.
I reached the hill's foot and spurred across the flat river plain to join the Roman road. I passed a Christian cemetery, the ground lumpy and scattered with small wooden crosses looking towards the one larger cross which would show the resurrected dead the direction of Jerusalem on the day the Christians believed their corpses would rise from the earth. The road led straight past the graves to the fort's southern entrance where a crowd of Guthred's men watched me. Kjartan's men spurred to intercept me, barring the road, but they showed no apprehension. Why should they? I appeared to be a Dane, I was one man and they were many, and my sword was still in its scabbard. "Which of you is Rolf?" I shouted as I drew near them.
"I am," a black-bearded man urged his horse towards me. "Who are you?"
"Your death, Rolf," I said, and I drew Serpent-Breath and touched my heels to the stallion's flanks and he went into the full gallop and Rolf was still drawing his sword when I pounded past him and swung Serpent-Breath and the blade sliced through his neck so that his head and helmet flew back, bounced on the road and rolled under my horse's hooves. I was laughing because the battle-joy had come. Three men were ahead of me and none had yet drawn a sword. They just stared at me, aghast, and at Rolf's headless trunk that swayed in the saddle. I charged the centre man, letting my horse barge into his and striking him hard with Serpent-Breath and then I was through Kjartan's horsemen and the fort was in front of me.
Fifty or sixty men were standing at the fort's entrance. Only a handful were mounted, but nearly all had swords or spears. And I could see Guthred there, his fair curly hair bright in the sun, and next to him was Gisela. I had tried so often to summon her face in those long months at Sverri's oar, and I had always failed, yet suddenly the wide mouth and the defiant eyes seemed so familiar. She was dressed in a white linen robe, belted at her waist with a silver chain, and she had a linen bonnet on her hair which, because she was married, was bound into a knot. She was holding her brother's arm and Guthred was just staring at the strange events unfolding outside his refuge.
Two of Kjartan's men had followed me while the rest were milling around, torn between the shock of Rolf's death and the sudden appearance of Ragnar's warband. I turned on the two men following me, wrenching the stallion about so sharply that his hooves scrabbled in the wet mud, but my sudden turn drove my pursuers back. I spurred after them. One was too fast, the second was on a lumbering horse and he heard my hoofbeats and swung his sword back in a desperate attempt to drive me off. I took the blade on my shield, then lunged Serpent-Breath into the man's spine so that his back arched and he screamed. I tugged Serpent-Breath free and back swung her into the man's face. He fell from the saddle and I rode around him, sword red, and took off my helmet as I spurred again towards the fort.
I was showing off. Of course I was showing off. One man against sixty? But Gisela was watching. In truth I was in no real danger. The sixty men had not been ready for a fight, and if they pursued me now I could take refuge with Guthred's men. But Kjartan's men were not pursuing. They were too nervous of Ragnar's approach and so I ignored them, riding close to Guthred and his men instead.
"Have you forgotten how to fight?" I shouted at them. I ignored Guthred. I even ignored Gisela, though I had taken off my helmet so she would recognise me. I knew she was watching me. I could sense those dark eyes and sense her astonishment and I hoped it was a joyful astonishment. "They've all got to die!" I shouted, pointing my sword at Kjartan's men. "Every last one of the bastards has to die, so go out and kill them!"
Ragnar struck then and there was the hammer of shield on shield, the clangour of swords and the scream of men and horses. Kjartan's men were scattering and some, despairing of making an escape eastwards, were galloping to the west. I looked at the men in the gateway, "Rypere! Clapa! I want those men stopped!"
Clapa and Rypere were staring at me as though I were a ghost, which I suppose I was in a way. I was glad Clapa was still with Guthred, for Clapa was a Dane and that suggested Guthred could still command some Danish allegiance. "Clapa! You earsling!" I yelled. "Stop dawdling like a boiled egg. Get on a horse and fight!"
"Yes, lord!"
I rode closer still until I was staring down at Guthred. There was a fight going on behind me and Guthred's men, stirred from their torpor, were hurrying to join the slaughter, but Guthred had no eyes for the battle. He just stared up at me. There were priests behind him and Gisela was beside him, but I looked only into Guthred's eyes and saw the fear there. "Remember me?" I asked coldly.
He had no words.
"You would do well," I said, "to set a kingly example and kill a few men right now. You have a horse?"
He nodded and still could not speak.
"Then get on your horse," I said curtly, "and fight."
Guthred nodded and took one backwards pace, but though his servant led a horse forward Guthred did not mount. I looked at Gisela then and she looked back and I thought her eyes could light a fire. I wanted to speak, but it was my turn to have no words. A priest plucked at her shoulder as if summoning her away from the fighting, but I twitched Serpent-Breath's bloody blade towards the man and he went very still. I looked back at Gisela and it seemed as if I had no breath, as if the world stood still. A gust of wind lifted a wisp of black hair showing beneath her bonnet. She brushed it away, then smiled. "Uhtred," she said, as though saying the name for the very first time.
"Gisela," I managed to speak.
"I knew you'd come back," she said.
"I thought you were going to fight," I snarled at Guthred and he ran off like a whipped dog.
"Do you have a horse?" I asked Gisela.
"You!" I shouted at a boy gawping at me. "Fetch me that horse!" I pointed to the stallion of the man I had injured in the face. That man was now dead, killed by Guthred's men as they joined the fight.
The boy brought me the stallion and Gisela scrambled into its saddle, hoisting her skirts inelegantly around her thighs. She pushed her muddy shoes into the stirrups then held out a hand to touch my cheek. "You're thinner," she said.
"So are you."
"I have not been happy," she said, "since the moment you left." She kept her hand on my cheek for a heartbeat, then impulsively took it away and tore off the linen bonnet and unpinned her black hair so that it fell around her shoulders like the hair of an unwed girl. "I'm not married," she said, "not properly married."
"Not yet," I said, and my heart was so full of joy. I could not take my eyes from her. I was with her again and the months of slavery dropped away as though they had never happened. "Have you killed enough men yet?" She asked mischievously.
So we rode towards the slaughter.
* * *
You cannot kill everyone in an enemy army. Or rarely. Whenever the poets sing a tale of battle they always insist that no enemy escapes unless the poet himself happens to be part of the fight when he alone escapes. It is strange that. Poets always live while everyone else dies, but what do poets know? I have never seen a poet in a shield wall. Yet, outside Cetreht, we must have killed over fifty of Kjartan's men, and then everything became chaotic because Guthred's men could not tell the difference between Kjartan's followers and Ragnar's Danes, and so some of the enemy escaped as we pulled warriors apart. Finan, attacked by two of Guthred's household troops, had killed both of them and, when I found him, he was about to attack a third. "He's on our side," I shouted to Finan.
"He looks like a rat," Finan snarled.
"His name," I said, "is Sihtric, and he once swore me an oath of loyalty."
"Still looks like a rat, he does."
"Are you on our side?" I called to Sihtric, "or did you rejoin your father's troops?"
"Lord, lord!" Sihtric came running to me and fell to his knees in the trampled mud beside my horse. "I'm still your man, lord."
"You didn't take an oath to Guthred?"
"He never asked me, lord."
"But you served him? You didn't run back to Dunholm?"
"No, lord! I stayed with the king."
"He did," Gisela confirmed.
I gave Serpent-Breath to Gisela, then reached down and took Sihtric's hand. "So you're still my man?"
"Of course, lord." He was clutching my hand, gazing at me with disbelief.
"You're not much use, are you?" I said, "if you can't beat a skinny Irishman like him." "He's quick, lord," Sihtric said.
"So teach him your tricks," I told Finan, then I patted Sihtric's cheek. "It's good to see you, Sihtric."
Ragnar had two prisoners and Sihtric recognised the taller of the two. "His name is Hogga," he told me.
"He's a dead Hogga now," I said. I knew Ragnar would not let any of Kjartan's men survive while Kjartan himself lived. This was the bloodfeud. This was hatred. This was the start of Ragnar's revenge for his father's death, but for the moment Hogga and his shorter companion evidently believed they would live. They were talking avidly, describing how Kjartan had close to two hundred men in Dunholm. They said Kjartan had sent a large warband to support Ivarr, while the rest of his men had followed Rolf to this bloody field by Cetreht.
"Why didn't Kjartan bring all his men here?" Ragnar wanted to know.
"He won't leave Dunholm, lord, in case 'lfric of Bebbanburg attacks when he's gone."
"Has 'lfric threatened to do that?" I asked.
"I don't know, lord," Hogga said.
It would be unlike my uncle to risk an attack on Dunholm, though perhaps he would lead men to rescue Guthred if he knew where Guthred was. My uncle wanted the saint's corpse and he wanted Gisela, but my guess was that he would risk little to get those two things. He would certainly not risk Bebbanburg itself, any more than Kjartan would risk Dunholm.
"And Thyra Ragnarsdottir?" Ragnar resumed his questioning. "Does she live?"
"Yes, lord."
"Does she live happily?" Ragnar asked harshly.
They hesitated, then Hogga grimaced. "She is mad, lord." He spoke in a low voice. "She is quite mad."
Ragnar stared at the two men. They became uncomfortable under his gaze, but then Ragnar looked up at the sky where a buzzard floated down from the western hills. "Tell me," he said, and his voice was suddenly low, almost easy, "how long you have served Kjartan."
"Eight years, lord," Hogga said.
"Six years, lord," the other man said.
"So you both served him," Ragnar said, still speaking softly, "before he fortified Dunholm?"
"Yes, lord."
"And you both served him," Ragnar went on, his voice harsh now, "when he took men to Synningthwait and burned my father's hall. When he took my sister as his son's whore. When he killed my mother and my father."
Neither man answered. The shorter of the two was shaking. Hogga looked round as if to find a way to escape, but he was surrounded by mounted sword Danes, then he flinched as Ragnar drew Heart-Breaker.
"No, lord," Hogga said.
"Yes," Ragnar said and his face twisted with anger as he chopped down. He had to dismount to finish the job. He killed both men, and he hacked at their fallen bodies in fury. I watched, then turned to see Gisela's face. It showed nothing, then she became conscious of my gaze and turned towards me with a small look of triumph as if she knew I had half expected her to be horrified by the sight of men being disembowelled. "They deserved it?" she asked.
"They deserved it," I said.
Her brother, I noted, had not watched. He was nervous of me, for which I did not blame him, and doubtless terrified of Ragnar who was bloodied like a butcher and so Guthred had gone back to the village, leaving us with the dead. Father Beocca had managed to find some of Guthred's priests and, after talking with them, he limped to us. "It is agreed," he said, "that we shall present ourselves to the king in the church." He suddenly became aware of the two severed heads and the sword-slashed bodies. "Dear God, who did that?"
Beocca made the sign of the cross. "The church," he said, "we're to meet in the church. Do try to wipe that blood off your mail, Uhtred. We're an embassy!"
I turned to see a handful of fugitives crossing the hilltops to the west. They would doubtless cross the river higher up and join the horsemen on the far bank, and those horsemen would be wary now. They would send word to Dunholm that enemies had come, and Kjartan would hear of the eagle wing banner and know that Ragnar was returned from Wessex.
And perhaps, on his high crag, behind his high walls, he would be frightened.

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