Sunday, 21 June 2009

Bernard Cornwell: Saxon Series- The Pale Horseman- Book 2

The Pale Horseman (the title is a reference to Revelation 6. 8) is the second book in the tale of Uhtred, Lord of Bebbanburg, and his tangled relationship with Alfred the Great, King of Wessex in the 9th Century. The story begins on the day after the events described in The Last Kingdom end, and goes on to describe the fateful year in which the Danes capture Alfred's kingdom and drive him as a fugitive into the marshes of Athelney. It seems that Wessex, and England, are destroyed, but Alfred is determined to make one desperate gamble that might save his kingdom

Excerpt: The Pale Horseman
I love the sea. I grew up beside it, though in my memories the seas off Bebbanburg are grey, usually sullen, and rarely sunlit. They are nothing like the great waters that roll from beyond the Isles of the Dead to thunder and shatter against the rocks at the west of Britain. The sea heaves there, as if the ocean gods flexed their muscles, and the white birds cry endlessly, and the wind rattles the spray against the cliffs and Fyrdraca, running before that bright wind, left a path in the sea and the steering oar fought me, pulsing with the life of the water and the flexing of the ship and the joy of the passage. Iseult stared at me, astonished by my happiness, but then I gave her the oar and watched her thin body heave against the sea’s strength until she understood the power of the oar and could move the ship, and then she laughed. “I would live on the sea,” I told her, though she did not understand me. I had given her an arm ring from Peredur’s hoard and a silver toe ring and a necklace of monster’s teeth, all sharp and long and white, strung on a silver wire.
I turned and watched Svein’s White Horse cut through the water. Her bows would sometimes break from a wave so that the forepart of her hull, all green and dark with growth, would rear skywards with her horse’s head snarling at the sun, and then she would crash down and the seas would explode white about her timbers. Her oars, like ours, were inboard and the oar-holes plugged, and we both ran under sail and Fyrdraca was the faster ship, which was not because she was more cunningly built, but because her hull was longer.
There is such joy in a good ship, and a greater joy to have the ship’s belly fat with other mens’ silver. It is the Viking joy, driving a dragon-headed hull through a wind-driven sea towards a future full of feasts and laughter. The Danes taught me that and I love them for it, pagan swine though they might be. At that moment, running before Svein’s White Horse, I was as happy as a man could be, free of all the churchmen and laws and duties of Alfred’s Wessex, but then I gave orders that the sail was to be lowered and a dozen men uncleated the lines and the big yard scraped down the mast. We had come to Britain’s ending and I would turn about, and I waved to Svein as the White Horse swept past us. He waved back, watching the Fyrdraca wallow in the long ocean swells.
“Seen enough?” Leofric asked me.
I was staring at the end of Britain where the rocks endured the sea’s assault. “Penwith,” Iseult said, giving me the British name for the headland.
“You want to go home?” I asked Leofric.
He shrugged. The crew was turning the yard, lining it fore and aft so it could be stowed on its crutches while other men were binding the sail so it did not flap. The oars were being readied to take us eastwards and the White Horse was getting smaller as it swept up into the Sæfern Sea.
I stared after Svein, envying him. “I need to be rich,” I said to Leofric.
He laughed at that.
“I have a path to follow,” I said, “and it goes north. North back to Bebbanburg. And Bebbanburg has never been captured, so I need many men to take it. Many good men and many sharp swords.”
“We have silver,” he said, gesturing into the boat’s bilge.
“Not enough,” I answered sourly. My enemies had money and Alfred claimed that I owed the church money, and the courts of Defnascir would be chasing me for wergild. I could only go home if I had enough silver to pay off the church, to bribe the courts and to attract men to my banner. I stared at the White Horse that was now little more than a sail above the wind-fretted sea and I felt the old temptation to go with the Danes. Wait till Ragnar was free and give him my sword arm, but then I would be fighting against Leofric and I would still need to make money, raise men, go north and fight for my birthright. I touched Thor’s hammer and prayed for a sign.
Iseult spat. That was not quite true. She said a word which sounded like someone clearing their throat, spitting and choking all at the same time, and she was pointing over the ship’s side and I saw a strange fish arching out of the water. The fish was as big as a deerhound and had a triangular fin. “Porpoise,” Leofric said.
“Llamhydydd,” Iseult said again, giving the fish its British name.
“They bring sailors luck,” Leofric said.
I had never seen a porpoise before, but suddenly there were a dozen of the creatures. They were grey and their backs glistened in the sun and they were all going north.
“Put the sail back up,” I told Leofric.
He stared at me. The crew was unlashing the oars and taking the plugs from the oarholes. “You want the sail up?” Leofric asked.
“We’re going north.” I had prayed for a sign and Thor had sent me the porpoise.
“There’s nothing in the Sæfern Sea,” Leofric said. “Svein told you that.”
“Svein told me there was no plunder in the Sæfern Sea,” I said, “because the Danes have taken it all, so that means the Danes have the plunder.” I felt a surge of happiness so intense that I punched Leofric’s shoulder and gave Iseult a hug. “And he told me that their ships are coming from Ireland.”
“So?” Leofric rubbed his shoulder.
“Men from Ireland!” I told Leofric. “Danes coming from Ireland to attack Wessex. And if you brought a ship’s crew from Ireland, what would you bring with you?”
“Everything you possess,” Leofric said flatly.
“And they don’t know we’re here! They’re sheep, and we are a fire-dragon.”
He grinned. “You’re right,” he said.
“Of course I’m right! I’m a lord! I’m right and I’m going to be rich! We’re all going to be rich! We shall eat off gold plates, piss down our enemies’ throats and make their wives into our whores.” I was shouting this nonsense as I walked down the boat’s centre, casting off the sail’s lashings. “We’ll all be rich with silver shoes and golden bonnets. We’ll be richer than kings! We’ll wallow in silver, shower our whores with gold and shit lumps of amber! Tie those oars up! Plug the holes, we’re going north, we’re going to be rich as bishops, every man of us!” The men were grinning, pleased because I was roaring my enthusiasm, and men like to be led.
They did have qualms about going north, for that would take us out of sight of land, and I had never been that far from the shore, and I was frightened too, for Ragnar the Older had often told me tales of Norsemen who had been tempted out into the sea-wastes, to sail ever farther westwards, and he said there were lands out there, lands beyond the Isles of the Dead, lands where ghosts walked, but I am not sure if he told the truth. I am sure, though, that he told me that many of those ships never returned. They voyage into the dying sun and they go onwards because they cannot bear to turn back and so they sail to where the lost ships die at the world’s dark ending.
Yet the world did not end to the north. I knew that, though I was not certain what did lie northwards. Dyfed was there, somewhere, and Ireland, and there were other places with barbarous names and savage people who lived like hungry dogs on the wild edges of the land, but there was also a waste of sea, a wilderness of empty waves and so, once the sail was hoisted and the wind was thrusting the Fyrdraca northwards, I leaned on the oar to take her somewhat to the east for fear we would otherwise be lost in the ocean’s vastness.
“You know where you’re going?” Leofric asked me.
“Do you care?”
I grinned at him for answer. The wind, which had been southerly, came more from the west, and the tide took us eastwards, so that by the afternoon I could see land, and I thought it must be the land of the Britons on the north side of the Sæfern, but as we came closer I saw it was an island. I later discovered it was the place the Northmen call Lundi, because that is their word for the puffin, and the island’s high cliffs were thick with the birds that shrieked at us when we came into a cove on the western side of the island that was an uncomfortable place to anchor for the night because the big seas rolled in and so we dropped the sail, took out the oars, and rowed around the cliffs until we found shelter on the eastern side.
I went ashore with Iseult and we dug some puffin burrows to find eggs, though all were hatched so we contented ourselves with killing a pair of goats for the evening meal. There was no one living on the island, though there had been because there were the remains of a small church and a field of graves. The Danes had burned everything, pulled down the church and dug up the graves in search of gold. We climbed to a high place and I searched the evening sea for ships, but saw none, though I wondered if I could see land to the south. It was hard to be sure for the southern horizon was thick with dark cloud, but a darker strip within the cloud could have been hills and I assumed I was looking at Cornwalum or the western part of Wessex. Iseult sang to herself.
I watched her. She was gutting one of the dead goats, doing it clumsily for she was not accustomed to such work. She was thin, so thin that she looked like the ælfcynn, the elf-kind, but she was happy. In time I would learn just how much she had hated Peredur. He had valued her and made her a queen, but he had also kept her a prisoner in his hall so that he alone could profit from her powers. Folk would pay Peredur to hear Iseult’s prophecies and one of the reasons Callyn had fought his neighbour was to take Iseult for himself. Shadow queens were valued among the Britons for they were part of the old mysteries, the powers that had brooded over the land before the monks arrived, and Iseult was one of the last shadow queens. She had been born in the sun’s darkness, but now she was free and I was to find she had a soul as wild as a falcon.
Mildrith, poor Mildrith, wanted order and routine. She wanted the hall swept, the clothes clean, the cows milked, the sun to rise, the sun to set and for nothing to change, but Iseult was different. She was strange, shadow-born, and full of mystery. Nothing she said to me those first days made any sense, for we had no language in common, but on the island, as the sun set and I took the knife to finish cutting the entrails from the goat, she plucked twigs and wove a small cage. She showed me the cage, broke it and then, with her long white fingers, mimed a bird flying free. She pointed to herself, tossed the twig scraps away and laughed.
Next morning, still ashore, I saw boats. There were two of them and they were sailing to the west of the island, going northwards. They were small craft, probably traders from Cornwalum, and they were running before the south west wind towards the hidden shore where I assumed Svein had taken the White Horse.
We followed the two small ships. By the time we had waded out to Fyrdraca, raised her anchor and rowed her from the lee of the island both boats were almost out of sight, but once our sail was hoisted we began to overhaul them. They must have been terrified to see a dragon ship shoot out from behind the island, but I lowered the sail a little to slow us down and so followed them for much of the day until, at last, a blue-grey line showed at the sea’s edge. Land. We hoisted the sail fully and seethed past the two small, tubby boats and so, for the first time, I came to the shore of Wales. The Britons had another name for it, but we simply called it Wales which means ‘foreigners’, and much later I worked out that we must have made that landfall in Dyfed, which is the name of the churchman who converted the Britons of Wales to Christianity and had the westernmost kingdom of the Welsh named for him.
We found a deep inlet for shelter. Rocks guarded the entrance, but once inside we were safe from wind and sea. We turned the ship so that her bows faced the open sea, and the cove was so narrow that our stern scraped stone as we slewed Fyrdraca about, and then we slept on board, men and their women sprawled under the rowers’ benches. There were a dozen women aboard, all captured from Peredur’s tribe, and one of them managed to escape that night, presumably sliding over the side and swimming to shore. It was not Iseult. She and I slept in the small black space beneath the steering platform, a hole screened by a cloak, and Leofric woke me there in the dawn, worried that the missing woman would raise the country against us. I shrugged. “We won’t be here long.”
But we stayed in the cove all day. I wanted to ambush ships coming around the coast and we saw two, but they travelled together and I could not attack more than one ship at a time. Both ships were under sail, riding the south west wind, and both were Danish, or perhaps Norse, and both were laden with warriors. They must have come from Ireland, or perhaps from the east coast of Northumbria, and doubtless they travelled to join Svein, lured by the prospect of capturing good West Saxon land. “Burgweard should have the whole fleet up here,” I said. “He could tear through these bastards.”
Two horsemen came to look at us in the afternoon. One had a glinting chain about his neck, suggesting he was of high rank, but neither man came down to the shingle beach. They watched from the head of the small valley that fell to the cove and after a while they went away. The sun was low now, but it was summer so the days were long. “If they bring men,” Leofric said as the two horsemen rode away, but he did not finish the thought.
I looked up at the high bluffs either side of the cove. Men could rain rocks down from those heights and the Fyrdraca would be crushed like an egg. “We could put sentries up there,” I suggested, but just then Eadric, who led the men who occupied the forward steorbord benches, shouted that there was a ship in sight. I ran forward and there she was.
The perfect prey.
She was a large ship, not so big as Fyrdraca, but large all the same, and she was riding low in the water for she was so heavily laden. Indeed, she carried so many people that her crew had not dared raise the sail for, though the wind was not heavy, it would have bent her leeward side dangerously close to the water. So she was being rowed and now she was close inshore, evidently looking for a place where she could spend the night and her crew had plainly been tempted by our cove and only now realised that we already filled it. I could see a man in her bows pointing further up the coast and meanwhile my men were arming themselves, and I shouted at Haesten to take the steering oar. He knew what to do and I was confident he would do it well, even though it might mean the death of fellow Danes. We cut the lines that had tethered us to the shore as Leofric brought me my mail coat, helmet and shield. I dressed for battle as the oars were shipped, then pulled on my helmet so that suddenly the edges of my vision were darkened by its face plate.
“Go!” I shouted, and the oars bit and the Fyrdraca surged out. Some of the oar blades struck rock as we pulled, but none broke, and I was staring at the ship ahead, so close now, and her prow was a snarling wolf, and I could see men and women staring at us, not believing what they saw. They thought they saw a Danish ship, one of their own, yet we were armed and we were coming for them. A man shouted a warning and they scrambled for their weapons, and Leofric yelled at our men to put their hearts into the oars, and the long shafts bent under the strain as Fyrdraca leaped across the small waves and I yelled at the men to leave the oars, to come to the bows, and Cenwulf and the twelve men he commanded were already there as our big bows slammed through the enemy oars, snapping them.
Haesten had done well. I had told him to steer for the forward part of the ship, where her freeboard was low, and our bows rode up across her strakes, plunging her low in the water, and we staggered with the impact, but then I jumped down into the wolf-headed ship’s belly. Cenwulf and his men were behind me, and there we began the killing. The enemy ship was so loaded with men that they probably outnumbered us, but they were bone weary from a long day’s rowing, they had not expected an attack, and we were hungry for wealth. We had done this before and the crew was well trained, and they chopped their way down the boat, swords and axes swinging, and the sea was slopping over the side so that we waded through water as we clambered over the rowers’ benches. The water about our feet grew red. Some of our victims jumped overboard and clung to shattered oars in an attempt to escape us. One man, big bearded and wild eyed, came at us with a great sword and Eadric drove a spear into his chest and Leofric struck the man’s head with his axe, struck again, and blood sprayed up to the sail that was furled fore and aft on its long yard. The man sank to his knees and Eadric ground the spear deeper so that blood spilled down to the water. I half fell as a wave tilted the half-swamped ship. A man screamed and lunged a spear at me, I took it on my shield, knocked it aside and rammed Serpent-Breath at his face. He half fell, trying to escape the lunge, and I knocked him over the side with my shield’s heavy boss. I sensed movement to my right and swung Serpent-Breath like a reaping scythe and struck a woman in the head. She went down like a felled calf, a sword on her hand. I kicked the sword away and stamped on the woman’s belly. A child screamed and I shoved her aside, lunged at a man in a leather jerkin, raised my shield to block his axe blow and then spitted him on Serpent-Breath. The sword went deep into his belly, so deep that the blade stuck and I had to stand on him to tug it free. Cenwulf went past me, his snarling face covered in blood, sword swinging. The water was up to my knees, and then I staggered and almost fell as the whole ship lurched and I realised we had drifted ashore and struck rocks. Two horses were tethered in the ship’s belly and the beasts screamed at the smell of blood. One broke its tether and jumped overboard, swimming white-eyed towards the open sea.
“Kill them! Kill them!” I heard myself shouting. It was the only way to take a ship, to empty her of fighting men, but she was now emptying herself as the survivors jumped onto the rocks and clambered away through the sucking backwash of blood-touched water. A half dozen men had been left aboard Fyrdraca and they were fending her off the rocks with oars. A blade stabbed the back of my right ankle and I turned to see a wounded man trying to hamstring me with a short knife and I stabbed down again and again, butchering him in the weltering water, and I think he was the last man to die on board, though a few Danes were still clinging to the ship’s side and those we cut away. The Fyrdraca was seaward of the doomed ship now, and I shouted at the men aboard to bring her close. She heaved up and down, much higher than the half sunk ship, and we threw our plunder up and over the side. There were sacks, boxes and barrels. Many were heavy, and some clinked with coin. We stripped the enemy dead of their valuables, taking six coats of mail and a dozen helmets and we found another three coats of mail in the flooded bilge. I took eight arm rings off dead men. We tossed weapons aboard Fyrdraca, then cut away the captured ship’s rigging. I loosed the remaining horse that stood shivering as the water rose. We took the ship’s yard and sail, and all the time her survivors watched from the shore where some had found a precarious refuge above the sea-washed rocks. I went to the space beneath her sleeping platform and found a great war-helm there, a beautiful thing with a decorated face plate and a wolf’s head moulded in silver on the crown, and I tossed my old helmet onto Fyrdraca and donned the new one, and then passed out sacks of coin. Beneath the sacks was what I thought must be a small shield wrapped in black cloth and I half thought of leaving it where it was, then threw it into Fyrdraca anyway. We were rich.
“Who are you?” a man shouted from on shore.
“Uhtred,” I called back.
He spat at me and I laughed. Our men were climbing back on board Fyrdraca now. Some were retrieving oars from the water, and Leofric was pushing Fyrdraca away, fearful that she would be caught on the rocks. “Get on board!” he shouted at me, and I saw I was the last man, and so I took hold of Fyrdraca’s stern, put a foot on an oar, and heaved myself over her side. “Row!” Leofric shouted, and so we pulled away from the wreck.
Two young women had been thrown up with the plunder and I found them weeping by Fyrdraca’s mast. One spoke no language that I recognised and later we discovered she was from Ireland, but the other was Danish and, as soon as I squatted beside her, she lashed out at me and spat in my face. I slapped her back, and that made her lash out again. She was a tall girl, strong, with a tangled mass of fair hair and bright blue eyes. She tried to claw her fingers through the eye-holes of my new helmet and I had to slap her again, which made my men laugh. Some were shouting at her to keep fighting me, but instead she suddenly burst into tears and leaned back against the mast root. I took off the helmet and asked her name, and her only answer was to wail that she wanted to die, but when I said she was free to throw herself off the ship she did not move. Her name was Freyja, she was fifteen years old, and her father had been the owner of the ship we had sunk. He had been the big man with the sword, and his name had been Ivar and he had held land at Dyflin, wherever that was, and Freyja began to weep again when she looked at my new helmet which had belonged to her father. “He died without cutting his nails,” she said accusingly, as if I was responsible for that ill luck, and it was bad fortune indeed because now the grim things of the underworld would use Ivar’s nails to build the ship that would bring chaos at the world’s end.
“Where were you going?” I asked her.
To Svein, of course. Ivar had been unhappy in Dyflin, which was in Ireland and had more Norsemen than Danes and also possessed savagely unfriendly native tribes, and he had been lured by the prospect of land in Wessex and so he had abandoned his Irish steading, put all his goods and wealth aboard his ships, and sailed eastwards.
“Ships?” I asked her.
“There were three when we left,” Freyja said, “but we lost the others in the night.”
I guessed they were the two ships we had seen earlier, but the gods had been good to me for Freyja confirmed that her father had put his most valuable possessions into his own ship, and that was the one we had captured, and we had struck lucky for there were barrels of coin and boxes of silver. There was amber, jet and ivory. There were weapons and armour. We made a rough count as the Fyrdraca wallowed offshore and we could scarce believe our fortune. One box contained small lumps of gold, roughly shaped as bricks, but best of all was the wrapped bundle which I had thought was a small shield, but which, when we unwrapped the cloth, proved to be a great silver plate on which was modelled a crucifixion. All about the death scene, ringing the plate’s heavy rim, were saints. Twelve of them. I assumed they were the apostles and that the plate had been the treasure of some Irish church or monastery before Ivar had captured it. I showed the plate to my men. “This,” I said reverently, “is not part of the plunder. This must go back to the church.”
Leofric caught my eye, but did not laugh.
“It goes back to the church,” I said again, and some of my men, the more pious ones, muttered that I was doing the right thing. I wrapped the plate and put it under the steering platform.
“How much is your debt to the church?” Leofric asked me.
“You have a mind like a goat’s arsehole,” I told him.
He laughed, then looked past me. “Now what do we do?” he asked.
I thought he was asking what we should do with the rest of our charmed lives, but instead he was gazing at the shore where, in the evening light, I could see armed men lining the cliff top. The Britons of Dyfed had come for us, but too late. Yet their presence meant we could not go back into our cove, and so I ordered the oars to be manned and for the ship to row eastwards. The Britons followed us along the shore. The woman who had escaped in the night must have told them we were Saxons and they must have been praying we would seek refuge on land so they could kill us. Few ships stayed at sea overnight, not unless they were forced to, but I dared not seek shelter and so I turned south and rowed away from the shore, while in the west the sun leaked red fire through rifts in the cloud so that the whole sky glowed as if a god had bled across the heavens.
“What will you do with the girl?” Leofric asked me.
“Is that her name? You want her?”
“No,” I said.
“I do.”
“She’ll eat you alive,” I warned him. She was probably a head taller than Leofric.
“I like them like that,” he said.
“All yours,” I said, and such is life. One day Freyja was the pampered daughter of an earl and the next she was a slave.
I gave the coats of mail to those who deserved them. We had lost two men, and another three were badly injured, but that was a light cost. We had, after all, killed twenty or thirty Danes and the survivors were ashore where the Britons might or might not treat them well. Best of all we had become rich and that knowledge was a consolation as night fell.
Hoder is the god of the night and I prayed to him. I threw my old helmet overboard as a gift to him, because all of us were scared of the dark that swallowed us, and it was a complete dark because clouds had come from the west to smother the sky. No moon, no stars. For a time there was the gleam of firelight on the northern shore, but that vanished and we were blind. The wind rose, the seas heaved us, and we brought the oars inboard and let the air and water carry us for we could neither see nor steer. I stayed on deck, peering into the dark, and Iseult stayed with me, under my cloak, and I remembered the look of delight on her face when we had gone into battle.
Dawn was grey and the sea was white-streaked grey and the wind was cold, and there was no land in sight, but two white birds flew over us and I took them for a sign and rowed in the direction they had gone, and late that day, in a bitter sea and cold rain, we saw land and it was the Isle of Puffins again where we found shelter in the cove and made fires ashore.
“When the Danes know what we’ve done,” Leofric said.
“They’ll look for us,” I finished the sentence for him.
“Lots of them will look for us.”
“Then it’s time to go home,” I said.
The gods had been good to us and, next dawn, in a calming sea,

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