Sunday, 21 June 2009

Bernard Cornwell: Saxon Series- The Last Kingdom- Book 1


The Saxon Stories is a continuing historical novel series written by the historical novelist Bernard Cornwell about 9th century Britain. The protagonist of the series is Uhtred Ragnarson, sometimes known as Uhtred Uhtredson. Uhtred is born in Northumbria, but captured and adopted by the Danes. The story takes place during the Danish invasion of Britain, where all but one of the English kingdoms is conquered. The story centers on the ruler of Wessex, Alfred, later historically dubbed 'the Great'. Cornwell mentions that he is in fact distantly descended from a historical Uhtred of Bebbanburg, on whom the protagonist is based.[1]

The following novels are available so far:
The Last Kingdom (2004)
The Pale Horseman (2005)
The Lords of the North (2006)
Sword Song (2007)
The Burning Land (October 2009)[2]


Style
The series is frequently compared to The Warlord Chronicles, not only because of the orphaned and other similarities between the two protagonists, but also in the similarities between the foreign menace in the form of the Danes in The Saxon Stories and the Saxons in The Warlord Chronicles. Alfred also resembles Arthur in his mission as the only man to save his Kingdom (England for Alfred, Southern Celtic Britain for Arthur) from an unstoppable threat.
Originally thought to be a trilogy, Bernard Cornwell mentions in the historical notes at the end of The Lords of the North that he intends to continue writing The Saxon Stories. On his website, Cornwell states he may write seven or eight novels under The Saxon Stories banner, However what is certain is that there will be a fifth book due to confirmation of the continuation of the series in the historical notes of Sword Song.

References
1. Author's note to The Last Kingdom.

2."The Saxon Stories". bernardcornwell.net. http://www.bernardcornwell.net/index2.cfm?page=1&seriesid=10. Retrieved on 2009-04-30.

Book List - The Saxon Stories
The Saxon Stories tell the tale of Alfred the Great and his descendants through the eyes of Uhtred, an English boy born into the aristocracy of ninth-century Northumbria, captured by the Danes and taught the Viking ways

Title: The Last Kingdom Book 1
'I had been given a perfect childhood, perfect, at least, to the ideas of a boy. I was raised among men, I was free, I ran wild, was encumbered by no laws, was troubled by no priests and was encouraged to violence.' Uhtred is an English boy, born into the aristocracy of 9th Century Northumbria, but orphaned at ten, adopted by a Dane and taught the Viking ways. Yet Uhtred's fate is indissolubly bound up with Alfred, King of Wessex, who rules over the last English kingdom when the Danes have overrun Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia.
That war, with its massacres, defeats and betrayals, is the background to Uhtred's childhood, a childhood which leaves him uncertain of his loyalties, but a slaughter in a winter dawn propels him to the English side and he will become a man just as the Danes launch their fiercest attack yet on Alfred's kingdom. Marriage ties him further to the West Saxon cause, but when his wife and child vanish in the chaos of a Danish invasion, Uhtred is driven to face the greatest of the Viking chieftains in a battle beside the sea, and there, in the horror of a shield-wall, he discovers his true allegiance

Excerpt: The Last Kingdom
Chapter 1
My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred and his father was also called Uhtred. My father's clerk, a priest called Beocca, spelt it Utred. I do not know if that was how my father would have written it, for he could neither read nor write, but I can do both and sometimes I take the old parchments from their wooden chest and I see the name spelled Uhtred or Utred or Ughtred or Ootred, and I look at the deeds which say that Uhtred, son of Uhtred is the lawful and sole owner of the lands that are carefully marked by stones and by dykes, by oaks and by ash, by marsh and by sea, and I dream of those lands, wave-beaten and wild beneath the wind driven sky. I dream, and know that one day I will take back the land from those who stole it from me.
I am an Ealdorman, though I call myself Earl Uhtred, which is the same thing, and the fading parchments are proof of what I own. The law says I own that land, and the law, we are told, is what makes us men under God instead of beasts in the ditch. But the law does not help me take back my land. The law wants compromise. The law thinks money will compensate for loss. The law, above all, fears the bloodfeud. But I am Uhtred, son of Uhtred, and this is the tale of a bloodfeud. It is a tale of how I will take from my enemy what the law says is mine. And it is the tale of a woman and of her father, a king.
He was my king and all that I have I owe to him. The food that I eat, the hall where I live and the swords of my men, all came from Alfred, my king, who hated me.
This story begins long before I met Alfred. It begins when I was ten years old and first saw the Danes. It was the year 866 and I was not called Uhtred then, but Osbert, for I was my father's second son and it was the eldest who took the name Uhtred. My brother was seventeen then, tall and well built, with our family's fair hair and my father's morose face.
The day I first saw the Danes we were riding along the sea shore with hawks on our wrists. There was my father, my father's brother, my brother, myself and a dozen retainers. It was autumn. The sea-cliffs were thick with the last growth of summer, there were seals on the rocks, and a host of sea-birds wheeling and shrieking above us, too many to let the hawks off their leashes. We rode till we came to the criss-crossing shallows that rippled between our land and Lindisfarena, the Holy Island, and I remember staring across the water at the broken walls of the abbey . The Danes had plundered it, but that had been many years before I was born, and though there were monks living there again the monastery had never regained its former glory.
I also remember that day as beautiful and perhaps it was. Perhaps it rained, but I do not think so. The sun shone, the seas were low, the breakers gentle and the world happy. The hawk's claws gripped my wrist through the leather sleeve, her hooded head twitching because she could hear the cries of the white birds. We had left the fortress in the forenoon, riding north, and though we carried hawks we did not ride to hunt, but rather so my father could make up his mind.
We ruled this land. My father, Ealdorman Uhtred, was lord of everything south of the Tuede and north of the Tine, but we did have a king in Northumbria and his name, like mine, was Osbert. He ruled to the south of us, rarely came north, and did not bother us, but now a man called Ella wanted the throne and Ella, who was an Ealdorman from the hills west of Eoferwic, had raised an army to challenge Osbert and had sent gifts to my father to encourage his support. My father, I realise now, held the fate of the rebellion in his grip. I wanted him to support Osbert, for no other reason than the rightful king shared my name and foolishly, at ten years old, I believed any man called Osbert must be noble, good and brave. In truth Osbert was a dribbling fool, but he was the king, and my father was reluctant to abandon him. But Osbert had sent no gifts and had shown no respect, while Ella had, and so my father worried. At a moment's notice we could lead a hundred and fifty men to war, all well armed, and given a month we could swell that force to over four hundred foemen, so whichever man we supported would be the king and grateful to us.
Or so we thought.
And then I saw them.
Three ships.
In my memory they slid from a bank of sea-mist, and perhaps they did, but memory is a faulty thing and my other images of that day are of a clear, cloudless sky, so perhaps there was no mist, but it seems to me that one moment the sea was empty and the next there were three ships coming from the south.
Beautiful things. They appeared to rest weightless on the ocean, and when their oars dug into the waves they skimmed the water. Their prows and sterns curled high and were tipped with gilded beasts, serpents and dragons, and it seemed to me that on that far off summer's day the three boats danced on the water, propelled by the rise and fall of the silver wings of their oar banks. The sun flashed off the wet blades, splinters of light, then the oars dipped, were tugged and the beast-headed boats surged and I stared entranced.
"The devil's turds," my father growled. He was not a very good Christian, but he was frightened enough at that moment to make the sign of the cross.
"And may the devil swallow them," my uncle said. His name was Elfric and he was a slender man; sly, dark and secretive.
The three boats had been rowing northwards, their square sails furled on their long yards, but when we turned back south to canter homewards on the sand so that our horses' manes tossed like wind-blown spray and the hooded hawks mewed in alarm, the ships turned with us. Where the cliff had collapsed to leave a ramp of broken turf we rode inland, the horses heaving up the slope, and from there we galloped along the coastal path to our fortress.
To Bebbanburg. Bebba had been a queen in our land many years before, and she had given her name to my home which is the dearest place in all the world. The fort stands on a high rock that curls out to sea. The waves beat on its eastern shore and break white on the rock's northern point, and a shallow sea lake ripples along the western side between the fortress and the land. To reach Bebbanburg you must take the causeway to the south, a low strip of rock and sand that is guarded by a great wooden tower, the Low Gate, that is built on top of an earthen wall and we thundered through the tower's arch, our horses white with sweat, and rode past the granaries, the smithy, the mews and the stables, all wooden buildings well thatched with rye straw, and so up the inner path to the High Gate which protected the peak of the rock that was surrounded by a wooden rampart encircling my father's hall. There we dismounted, letting slaves take our horses and hawks, and ran to the eastern rampart from where we gazed out to sea.
The three ships were now close to the islands where the puffins live and the seal-folk dance in winter. We watched them, and my stepmother, alarmed by the sound of hooves, came from the hall to join us on the rampart. "The devil has opened his bowels," my father greeted her.
"God and his saints preserve us," Gytha said, crossing herself. I had never known my real mother who had been my father's second wife and, like his first, had died in childbirth, so both my brother and I, who were really half brothers, had no mother, but I thought of Gytha as my mother and, on the whole, she was kind to me, kinder indeed than my father who did not much like children. Gytha wanted me to be a priest, saying that my elder brother would inherit the land and become a warrior to protect it so I must find another life path. She had given my father two sons and a daughter, but none had lived beyond a year.
The three ships were coming closer now, evidently to taunt us. The nearest had twin banks of twelve oars each and, as the ship coasted a hundred paces offshore, a man leaped from the ship's side and ran down the nearer bank of oars, stepping from one shaft to the next like a dancer, and he did it wearing a mail shirt and holding a sword. We all prayed he would fall, but of course he did not. He had long fair hair, very long, and when he had pranced the full length of the oar bank he turned and ran the shafts again.
"She was trading at the mouth of the Tine a week ago," Elfric, my father's brother, said.
"You know that?"
"I saw her," Elfric said, "I recognise that prow. See how there's a light coloured strake on the bend?" He spat. "She didn't have a dragon's head then."
"They take the beast heads off when they trade," my father said. "What were they buying?"
"Exchanging pelts for salt and dried fish. Said they were merchants from Haithabu."
"They're merchants looking for a fight now," my father said, and the Danes on the three ships were indeed challenging us by clashing their spears and swords against their painted shields, but there was little they could do against Bebbanburg and nothing we could do to hurt them, though my father ordered his wolf banner raised. The flag showed a snarling wolf's head and it was his standard in battle, but there was no wind and so the banner hung limp and its defiance was lost on the pagans who, after a while, became bored with taunting us, settled to their thwarts and went on rowing southwards.
"We must pray," my stepmother said. Gytha was much younger than my father. She was a small, plump woman with a mass of fair hair and a great reverence for Saint Cuthbert whom she worshipped because he had worked miracles. In the church beside the hall she kept an ivory comb that was said to have been Cuthbert's beard-comb, and perhaps it was.
"We must act," my father snarled. He turned away from the battlements. "You," he spoke to my elder brother, Uhtred. "Take a dozen men, ride south. Watch the pagans, but nothing more, you understand? If they land their ships on my ground I want to know where."
"Yes, father."
"But don't fight them," my father ordered, "just watch the bastards and be back here by nightfall."
Six other men were sent to rouse the country. Every free man owed military duty and so my father was assembling his army, and by the morrow's dusk he expected to have close to two hundred men, some armed with axes, spears or reaping hooks, while his retainers, those men who lived with us in Bebbanburg, would be equipped with well made swords and hefty shields. "If the Danes are outnumbered," my father told me that night, "they won't fight. They're like dogs, the Danes. Cowards at heart, but they're given courage by being in a pack." It was dark and my brother had not returned, but no one was unduly anxious about that. Uhtred was capable, if sometimes reckless, and doubtless he would arrive in the small hours and so my father had ordered a beacon lit in the iron becket on top of the High Gate to guide him home.
We knew we were safe in Bebbanburg for it had never fallen to an enemy's assault, yet my father and uncle were still worried that the Danes had returned to Northumbria. "They're looking for food," my father reckoned. "The hungry bastards want to land, steal some cattle, then sail away."
I remembered my uncle's words, how the ships had been at the mouth of the Tine trading furs for dried fish, so how could they be hungry? But I said nothing. I was ten years old and what did I know of Danes?
I did know that they were savages, pagans and terrible. I knew that for two generations before I was born their ships had raided our coasts. I knew that Father Beocca, my father's clerk and our mass priest, prayed every Sunday to spare us from the fury of the Northmen, but that fury had passed me by. No Danes had come to our land since I had been born, but my father had fought them often enough and that night, as we waited for my brother to return, he spoke of his old enemy. They came, he said, from northern lands where ice and mist prevailed, they worshipped the old gods, the same ones we had worshipped before the light of Christ came to bless us, and when they had first come to Northumbria, he told me, fiery dragons had whipped across the northern sky, great bolts of lightning had scarred the hills and the sea had been churned by whirlwinds.
"They are sent by God," Gytha said timidly, "to punish us."
"Punish us for what?" my father demanded.
"For our sins," Gytha said, making the sign of the cross.
"Our sins be damned," my father snarled. "They come here because they're hungry." He was irritated by my stepmother's piety, and he refused to give up his wolf head's banner that proclaimed our family's descent from Woden, the ancient Saxon god of battles. The wolf, Ealdwulf the smith had told me, was one of Woden's three favoured beasts, the others being the eagle and the raven. My mother wanted our banner to show the cross, but my father was proud of his ancestors, though he rarely talked about Woden. Even at ten years old I understood that a good Christian should not boast of being spawned by a pagan god, but I also liked the idea of being a god's descendant and Ealdwulf often told me tales of Woden, how he had rewarded our people by giving us the land we called Englaland, and how he had once thrown a war spear clear around the moon, and how his shield could darken the midsummer sky and how he could reap all the corn in the world with one stroke of his great sword. I liked those tales. They were better than my stepmother's stories of Cuthbert's miracles. Christians, it seemed to me, were forever weeping and I did not think Woden's worshippers cried much.
We waited in the hall. It was, indeed it still is, a great wooden hall, strongly thatched and stout beamed, with a stone hearth in the centre of the floor. It took a dozen slaves a day to keep that great fire going, dragging the wood across the causeway and up through the gates, and at summer's end we would make a log pile bigger than the church just as a winter store. At the edges of the hall were timber platforms, filled with rammed earth and layered with woollen rugs, and it was on those platforms that we lived, up above the draughts. The hounds stayed on the floor below, where lesser men could eat at the year's four great feasts.
There was no feast that night, just bread and cheese and ale, and my father waited for my brother and wondered aloud if the Danes were restless again. "They usually come for food and plunder," he told me, "but in some places they've stayed and taken land."
"You think they want our land?" I asked.
"They'll take any land," he said irritably. He was always irritated by my questions, but that night he was worried and so he talked on. "Their own land is stone and ice, and they have giants threatening them."
I wanted him to tell me more about the giants, but he brooded instead. "Our ancestors," he went on after a while, "took this land. They took it and made it and held it. We do not give up what our ancestors gave us. They came across the sea and they fought here, and they built here and they're buried here. This is our land, mixed with our blood, strengthened with our bone. Ours." He was angry, but he was often angry. He glowered at me, as if wondering whether I was strong enough to hold this land of Northumbria that our ancestors had won with sword and spear and blood and slaughter.
We slept after a while, or at least I slept. I think my father paced the ramparts, but by dawn he was back in the hall and it was then I was woken by the horn at the High Gate and I stumbled off the platform and out into the morning's first light. There was dew on the grass, a sea-eagle circling overhead, and my father's hounds streaming from the hall door in answer to the horn's call. I saw my father running down to the Low Gate and I followed him until I could wriggle my way through the men who were crowding onto the earthen rampart to stare along the causeway.
Horsemen were coming from the south. There were a dozen of them, their horses' hooves sparkling with the dew. My brother's horse was in the lead. It was a brindled stallion, wild-eyed and with a curious gait. It threw its legs out as it cantered and no one could mistake that horse, but it was not Uhtred who rode it. The man bestride the saddle had long, long hair the colour of pale gold, hair that tossed like the horses' tails as he rode. He wore mail, had a flapping scabbard at his side and an axe slung across one shoulder and I was certain he was the same man who had danced the oar shafts the previous day. His companions were in leather or wool and as they neared the fortress the long haired man motioned that they should curb their horses as he rode ahead alone. He came within bowshot, though none of us on the rampart put an arrow on the string, then he pulled the horse to a stop and looked up at the gate. He stared all along the line of men, a mocking expression on his face, then he bowed, threw something on the path and wheeled the horse away. He kicked with his heels and the horse sped back and his ragged men joined him to gallop south.
What he had thrown onto the path was my brother's severed head. It was brought to my father who stared at it a long time, but betrayed no feelings. He did not cry, he did not grimace, he did not scowl, he just looked at his eldest son's head and then he looked at me. "From this day on," he said, "your name is Uhtred."
Which is how I was named.

* * *

Father Beocca insisted that I should be baptised again, or else heaven would not know who I was when I arrived with the name Uhtred. I protested, but Gytha wanted it and my father cared more for her contentment than for mine, and so a barrel was carried into the church and half filled with sea water and Father Beocca stood me in the barrel and ladled water over my hair. "Receive your servant Uhtred," he intoned, "into the holy company of the saints and into the ranks of the most bright angels." I hope the saints and angels are warmer than I was that day, and after the baptism was done Gytha wept for me, though why I did not know. She might have done better to weep for my brother.
We found out what had happened to him. The three Danish ships had put into the mouth of the river Alne where there was a small settlement of fishermen and their families. Those folk had prudently fled inland, though a handful stayed and watched the river mouth from woods on higher ground and they said my brother had come at nightfall and seen the Vikings torching the houses. They were called Vikings when they were raiders, but Danes or pagans when they were traders, and these men had been burning and plundering so were reckoned to be Vikings. There had seemed very few of them in the settlement, most were on their ships, and my brother decided to ride down to the cottages and kill those few, but of course it was a trap. The Danes had seen his horsemen coming and had hidden a ship's crew north of the village, and those men closed behind my brother's party and killed them all. My father claimed his eldest son's death must have been quick, which was a consolation to him, but of course it was not a quick death for he lived long enough for the Danes to discover who he was, or else why would they have brought his head back to Bebbanburg? The fishermen said they tried to warn my brother, but I doubt they did. Men say such things so that they are not blamed for disaster, but whether my brother was warned or not, he still died and the Danes took thirteen fine swords, thirteen good horses, a coat of mail, a helmet and my old name.
But that was not the end of it. A fleeting visit by three ships was no great event, but a week after my brother's death we heard that a great Danish fleet had rowed up the rivers to capture Eoferwic. They had won that victory on All Saints Day, which made Gytha weep for it suggested God had abandoned us, but there was also good news for it seemed that my old namesake, King Osbert, had made an alliance with his rival, the would-be King Ella, and they had agreed to put aside their rivalry, join forces and take Eoferwic back. That sounds simple, but of course it took time. Messengers rode, advisers confused, priests prayed, and it was not till Christmas that Osbert and Ella sealed their peace with oaths, and then they summoned my father's men, but of course we could not march in winter. The Danes were in Eoferwic and we left them there until the early spring when news came that the Northumbrian army would gather outside the city and, to my joy, my father decreed that I would ride south with him.
"He's too young," Gytha protested.
"He is almost eleven," my father said, "and he must learn to fight."
"He would be better served by continuing his lessons," she said.
"A dead reader is no use to Bebbanburg," my father said, "and Uhtred is now the heir so he must learn to fight."
That night he made Beocca show me the parchments kept in the church, the parchments that said we owned the land. Beocca had been teaching me to read for two years, but I was a bad pupil and, to Beocca's despair, I could make neither head nor tail of the writings. Beocca sighed, then told me what was in them. "They describe the land," he said, "the land your father owns, and they say the land is his by God's law and by our own law." And one day, it seemed, the lands would be mine for that night my father dictated a new will in which he said that if he died then Bebbanburg would belong to his son Uhtred, and I would be Ealdorman, and all the folk between the Rivers Tuede and the Tine would swear allegiance to me. "We were kings here once," he told me, "and our land was called Bernicia." He pressed his seal into the red wax, leaving the impression of a wolf's head.
"We should be kings again," Elfric, my uncle said.
"It doesn't matter what they call us," my father said curtly, "so long as they obey us," and then he made Elfric swear on the comb of Saint Cuthbert that he would respect the new will and acknowledge me as Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Elfric did so swear. "But it won't happen," my father said. "We shall slaughter these Danes like sheep in a fold, and we shall ride back here with plunder and honour."
"Pray God," Elfric said.
Elfric and thirty men would stay at Bebbanburg to guard the fortress and protect the women. He gave me gifts that night; a leather coat that would protect against a sword cut and, best of all, a helmet around which Ealdwulf the smith had fashioned a band of gilt bronze. "So they will know you are a prince," Elfric said.
"He's not a prince," my father said, "but an Ealdorman's heir." Yet he was pleased with his brother's gifts to me and added two of his own, a short sword and a horse. The sword was an old blade, cut down, with a leather scabbard lined with fleece. It had a chunky hilt, was clumsy, yet that night I slept with the blade under my blanket.
And next morning, as my stepmother wept on the ramparts of the High Gate, and under a blue, clean sky, we rode to war. Two hundred and fifty men went south, following our banner of the wolf's head.
That was in the year 867, and it was the first time I ever went to war.
And I have never ceased.

* * *

"You will not fight in the shield wall," my father said.
"No, father."
"Only men can stand in the shield wall," he said, "but you will watch, you will learn, and you will discover that the most dangerous stroke is not the sword or axe that you can see, but the one you cannot see, the blade that comes beneath the shields to bite your ankles."
He grudgingly gave me much other advice as we followed the long road south. Of the two hundred and fifty men who went to Eoferwic from Bebbanburg, one hundred and twenty were on horseback. Those were my father's household men or else the wealthier farmers, the ones who could afford some kind of armour and had shields and swords. Most of the men were not wealthy, but they were sworn to my father's cause, and they marched with sickles, spears, reaping hooks, fish gaffs and axes. Some carried hunting bows, and all had been ordered to bring a week's food which was mostly hard bread, harder cheese and smoked fish. Many were accompanied by women. My father had ordered that no women were to march south, but he did not send them back, reckoning that the women would follow anyway, and that men fought better when their wives or lovers were watching, and he was confident that those women would see the levy of Northumbria give the Danes a terrible slaughter. He reckoned we were the hardest men of Englaland, much harder than the soft Mercians. "Your mother was a Mercian," he added, but said nothing more. He never talked of her. I knew they had been married less than a year, that she had died giving birth to me, and that she was an Ealdorman's daughter, but as far as my father was concerned she might never have existed. He claimed to despise the Mercians, but not as much as he scorned the coddled West Saxons. "They don't know hardship in Wessex," he maintained, but he reserved his severest judgment for the East Anglians. "They live in marshes," he once told me, "and live like frogs." We Northumbrians had always hated the East Anglians for long ago they had defeated us in battle, killing Ethelfrith, our king and husband to the Bebba after whom our fortress was named. I was to discover later that the East Anglians had given horses and winter shelter to the Danes who had captured Eoferwic so my father was right to despise them. They were treacherous frogs.
Father Beocca rode south with us. My father did not much like the priest, but did not want to go to war without a man of God to say prayers. Beocca, in turn, was devoted to my father who had freed him from slavery and provided him with his education. My father could have worshipped the devil and Beocca, I think, would have turned a blind eye. He was young, clean-shaven and extraordinarily ugly, with a fearful squint, a flattened nose, unruly red hair and a palsied left hand. He was also very clever, though I did not appreciate it then, resenting that he gave me lessons. The poor man had tried so hard to teach me letters, but I mocked his efforts, preferring to get a beating from my father to concentrating on the alphabet.
We followed the Roman road, crossing their great wall at the Tine, and still going south. The Romans, my father said, had been giants who built wondrous things, but they had gone back to Rome and the giants had died and now the only Romans left were priests, but the giants' roads were still hard and, as we went south, more men joined us until a horde marched on the moors either side of the road's stony surface. The men slept in the open, though my father and his chief retainers would bed for the night in abbeys or barns.
We also straggled. Even at ten years old I noticed how we straggled. Men had brought liquor with them, or else they stole mead or ale from the villages we passed, and they frequently got drunk and simply collapsed at the roadside and no one seemed to care. "They'll catch up," my father said carelessly.
"It's not good," Father Beocca told me.
"What's not good?'
"There should be more discipline. I have read the Roman wars and know there must be discipline."
"They'll catch up," I said, echoing my father.
That night we were joined by men from the place called Cetreht where, long ago, we had defeated the Welsh in a great battle. The newcomers sang of the battle, chanting how we had fed the ravens with the foreigners' blood, and the words cheered my father who told me we were near Eoferwic and that next day we might expect to join Osbert and Ella, and how the day after that we would feed the ravens again. We were sitting by a fire, one of hundreds of fires that stretched across the fields. South of us, far off across a flat land, I could see the sky glowing from the light of still more fires and knew they showed where the rest of Northumbria's army gathered.
"The raven is Woden's creature, isn't it?" I asked nervously.
My father looked at me sourly. "Who told you that?"
I shrugged, said nothing.
"Ealdwulf?" He guessed, knowing that Bebbanburg's blacksmith, who had stayed at the fortress with Elfric, was a secret pagan.
"I just heard it," I said, hoping I would get away with the evasion without being hit, "and I know we are descended from Woden."
"We are," my father acknowledged, "but we have a new God now." He stared balefully across the encampment where men were drinking. "Do you know who wins battles, boy?"
"We do, father."
"The side that is least drunk," he said and then, after a pause, "but it helps to be drunk."
"Why?"
"Because a shield wall is an awful place." He gazed into the fire. "I have been in six shield walls," he went on, "and prayed every time it would be the last. Your brother, now, he was a man who might have loved the shield wall. He had courage." He fell silent, thinking, then scowled. "The man who brought his head. I want his head. I want to spit into his dead eyes then put his skull on a pole above the Low Gate."
"You will have it," I said.
He sneered at that. "What do you know?" he asked. "I brought you, boy, because you must see battle. Because our men must see that you are here. But you will not fight. You're like the young dogs who watch the old dogs kill the boar, but don't bite. Watch and learn, watch and learn and maybe one day you'll be useful. But for now you're nothing but a pup." He dismissed me with a wave.
Next day the Roman road ran across a flat land, crossing dykes and ditches, until at last we came to where the combined armies of Osbert and Ella had made their shelters. Beyond them, and just visible through the scattered trees, was Eoferwic, and that was where the Danes were.
Eoferwic was, and still is, the chief city of northern Englaland. It possesses a great abbey, an archbishop, a fortress, high walls, and a vast market. It stands beside the River Ouse, and boasts a bridge, but ships can reach Eoferwic from the distant sea, and that was how the Danes had come. They must have known that Northumbria was weakened by civil war, that Osbert, the rightful king, had marched westwards to meet the forces of the pretender Ella, and in the absence of the king they had taken the city. It would not have been difficult for them to have discovered Osbert's absence. The trouble between Osbert and Ella had been brewing for weeks, and Eoferwic was filled with traders, many from across the sea, who would have known of the two mens' bitter rivalry. One thing I learned about the Danes was that they knew how to spy. The monks who write the chronicles tell us that they came from nowhere, their dragon-prowed ships suddenly appearing from a blue vacancy, but it was rarely like that. The Viking crews might attack unexpectedly, but the big fleets, the war fleets, went where they knew there was already trouble. They found an existing wound and filled it like maggots.
My father took me close to the city, he and a score of his men, all of us mounted and all wearing mail or leather. We could see the enemy on the walls. Some of the wall was built of stone, that was the Roman work, but much of the city was protected by an earth wall, topped by a high wooden palisade, and to the east of the city part of that palisade was missing. It seemed to have been burned for we could see charred wood on top of the earthen wall where fresh stakes had been driven to hold the new palisade that would replace the burned fence.
Beyond the new stakes was a jumble of thatched roofs, the stone towers of three churches and, on the river, the masts of the Danish fleet. Our scouts claimed there were thirty four ships, which was said to mean the Danes had an army of around a thousand men. Our own army was larger, nearer to fifteen hundred, though it was difficult to count. No one seemed to be in charge. The two leaders, Osbert and Ella, camped apart and, though they had officially made peace, they refused to speak to each other, communicating instead through messengers. My father, the third most important man in the army, could talk to both, but he was not able to persuade Osbert and Ella to meet, let alone agree on a plan of campaign. Osbert wished to besiege the city and starve the Danes out, while Ella was all for an immediate attack. The rampart was broken, he said, and an assault would drive deep into the tangle of streets where the Danes could be hunted down and killed. I do not know which course my father preferred, for he never said, but in the end the decision was taken away from us.
Our army could not wait. We had brought some food, but that was soon exhausted, and men were going ever farther afield to find more, and some of those men did not return. They just slipped home. Other men grumbled that their farms needed work and if they did not return home soon they would face a hungry year. A meeting was called of every important man and they spent all day arguing. Osbert attended the meeting, which meant Ella did not, though one of his chief supporters was there and hinted that Osbert's reluctance to assault the city was caused by cowardice. Perhaps it was, for Osbert did not respond to the jibe, proposing instead that we dug our own forts outside the city. Three or four such forts, he said, would trap the Danes. Our best fighters could man the forts, and our other men could go home to look after their fields. Another man proposed building a bridge across the river, a bridge that would trap the Danish fleet, and he argued the point tediously, though I think everyone knew that we did not have the time to make a bridge across such a wide river. "Besides," King Osbert said, "we want the Danes to take to their ships away. Let them go back to the sea. Let them go and trouble someone else." A bishop pleaded for more time, saying that Ealdorman Egbert, who held land south of Eoferwic, had yet to arrive with his men.
"Nor is Ricsig here," a priest said, speaking of another great lord.
"He's sick," Osbert said.
"Sickness of courage," Ella's spokesman sneered.
"Give them time," the bishop suggested. "With Egbert's and Ricsig's men we shall have enough troops to frighten the Danes with sheer numbers."
My father said nothing at the meeting, though it was plain many men wanted him to speak, and I was perplexed that he stayed silent, but that night Beocca explained why. "If he said we should attack," the priest said, "then men would assume he had sided with Ella, while if he encouraged a siege, he would be seen to be on Osbert's side."
"Does it matter?"
Beocca looked at me across the campfire, or one of his eyes looked at me while the other wandered somewhere in the night. "When the Danes are beaten," he said, "then Osbert and Ella's feud will start again. Your father wants none of it."
"But whichever side he supports," I said, "will win."
"But suppose they kill each other?" Beocca asked, "who will be king then?"
I looked at him, understood, said nothing.
"And who will be king thereafter?" Beocca asked, and he pointed at me. "You. And a king should be able to read and write."
"A king," I answered scornfully, "can always hire men who can read and write."
Then, next morning, the decision to attack or besiege was made for us, because news came that more Danish ships had appeared at the mouth of the River Humber, and that could only mean the enemy would be reinforced within a few days, and so my father, who had stayed silent for so long, finally spoke. "We must attack," he told both Osbert and Ella, "before the new boats come."
Ella, of course, agreed enthusiastically, and even Osbert understood that the new ships meant that everything was changed. Besides, the Danes inside the city had been having problems with their new wall. We woke one morning to see a whole new stretch of palisade, the wood raw and bright, but a great wind blew that day and the new work collapsed, and that caused much merriment in our encampments. The Danes, men said, could not even build a wall. "But they can build ships," Father Beocca told me.
"So?"
"A man who can build a ship," the young priest said, "can usually build a wall. It is not so hard as ship-building."
"It fell down!"
"Perhaps it was meant to fall down," Beocca said, and, when I just stared at him, he explained. "Perhaps they want us to attack there?"
I do not know if he told my father of his suspicions, but if he did then I have no doubt my father dismissed them. He did not trust Beocca's opinions on war. The priest's usefulness was in encouraging God to smite the Danes and that was all and, to be fair, Beocca did pray mightily and long that God would give us the victory.
And the day after the wall collapsed we gave God his chance to fulfil Beocca's prayers.
We attacked.

* * *

I do not know if every man who assaulted Eoferwic was drunk, but they would have been had there been enough mead, ale and birch wine to go round. The drinking had gone on much of the night and I woke to find men vomiting in the dawn. Those few who, like my father, possessed mail shirts pulled them on. Most were armoured in leather, while some men had no protection other than their coats. Weapons were sharpened on whetstones. The priests walked round the camp scattering blessings, while men swore oaths of brotherhood and loyalty. Some banded together and promised to share their plunder equally, a few looked pale and more than a handful sneaked away through the dykes that crossed the flat, damp landscape.
A score of men were ordered to stay at the camp and guard the women and horses, though Father Beocca and I were both ordered to mount. "You'll stay on horseback," my father told me, "and you'll stay with him," he added to the priest.
"Of course, my lord," Beocca said.
"If anything happens," my father was deliberately vague, "then ride to Bebbanburg, shut the gate and wait there."
"God is on our side," Beocca said.
My father looked a great warrior, which indeed he was, though he claimed to be getting too old for fighting. His greying beard jutted over his mail coat, above which he had hung a crucifix carved from ox bone that had been a gift from Gytha. His sword belt was leather studded with silver, while his great sword, Bone-Breaker, was sheathed in leather banded with gilt-bronze strappings. His boots had iron plates on either side of the ankles, reminding me of his advice about the shield wall, while his helmet was polished so that it shone, and its face piece, with its eyeholes and snarling mouth, was inlaid with silver. His round shield was made of limewood, had a heavy iron boss, was covered in leather and painted with the wolf's head. Ealdorman Uhtred was going to war.
The horns summoned the army. There was little order in the array. There had been arguments about who should be on the right or left, but Beocca told me the argument had been settled when the bishop cast dice, and King Osbert was now on the right, Ella on the left and my father in the centre, and those three chieftains' banners were advanced as the horns called. The men assembled under the banners. My father's household troops, his best warriors, were at the front, and behind them were the bands of the thegns. Thegns were important men, holders of great lands, some of them with their own fortresses, and they were the men who shared my father's platform in the feasting hall, and men who had to be watched in case their ambitions made them try to take his place, but now they loyally gathered behind him, and the ceorls, free men of the lowest rank, assembled with them. Men fought in family groups, or with friends. There were plenty of boys with the army, though I was the only one on horseback and the only one with a sword and helmet.
I could see a scatter of Danes behind the unbroken palisades either side of the gap where their wall had fallen down, but most of their army filled that gap, making a shield barrier on top of the earthen wall, and it was a high earthen wall, at least ten or twelve feet high, and steep, so it would be a hard climb into the face of the waiting killers, but I was confident we would win. I was ten years old, almost eleven.
The Danes were shouting at us, but we were too far away to hear their insults. Their shields, round like ours, were painted yellow, black, brown and blue. Our men began beating weapons on their shields and that was a fearsome sound, the first time I ever heard an army making that war music; the clashing of ash spear shafts and iron sword blades on shield-wood.
"It is a terrible thing," Beocca said to me. "War, it is an awful thing."
I said nothing. I thought it was glorious and wonderful.
"The shield-wall is where men die," Beocca said, and he kissed the wooden cross that hung about his neck. "The gates of heaven and hell will be jostling with souls before this day is done," he went on gloomily.
"Aren't the dead carried to a feasting hall?" I asked.
He looked at me very strangely, then appeared shocked. "Where did you hear that?"
"At Bebbanburg," I said, sensible enough not to admit that it was Ealdwulf the smith who told me those tales as I watched him beating rods of iron into sword blades.
"That is what heathens believe," Beocca said sternly. "They believe dead warriors are carried to Woden's corpse-hall to feast until the world's ending, but it is a grievously wrong belief. It is an error! But the Danes are always in error. They bow down to idols, they deny the true god, they are wrong."
"But a man must die with a sword in his hand?" I insisted.
"I can see we must teach you a proper catechism when this is done," the priest said sternly.
I said nothing else. I was watching, trying to fix every detail of that day in my memory. The sky was summer blue, with just a few clouds off in the west, and the sunlight reflected from our army's spear-points like glints of light flickering on the summer sea. Cowslips dotted the meadow where the army assembled, and a cuckoo called from the woods behind us where a crowd of our women were watching the army. There were swans on the river that was placid for there was little wind. The smoke from the cooking fires inside Eoferwic rose almost straight into the air, and that sight reminded me that there would be a feast in the city that night, a feast of roasted pork or whatever else we found in the enemy's stores. Some of our men, those in the foremost ranks, were darting forward to shout at the enemy, or else dare him to come and do private battle between the lines, one man on one man, but none of the Danes broke rank. They just stared, waited, their spears a hedge, their shields a wall, and then our horns blew again and the shouting and the shield-banging faded as our army lurched forward.
It went raggedly. Later, much later, I was to understand the reluctance of men to launch themselves against a shield wall, let alone a shield wall held at the top of a steep earthen bank, but on that day I was just impatient for our army to hurry forward and break the impudent Danes and Beocca had to restrain me, catching hold of my bridle to stop me riding into the rearmost ranks. "We shall wait until they break through," he said.
"I want to kill a Dane," I protested.
"Don't be stupid, Uhtred," Beocca said waspishly. "You try and kill a Dane," he went on, "and your father will have no sons. You are his only child now, and it is your duty to live."
So I did my duty and I hung back, and I watched as, so slowly, our army found its courage and advanced towards the city. The river was on our left, the empty encampment behind our right, and the inviting gap in the city wall was to our front and there the Danes were waiting silently, their shields overlapping.
"The bravest will go first," Beocca said to me, "and your father will be one of them. They will make a wedge, what the Latin authors call a porcinum capet. You know what that means?"
"No." Nor did I care.
"A swine's head. Like the tusk of a boar. The bravest will go first and, if they break through, the others will follow."
Beocca was right. Three wedges formed in front of our lines, one each from the household troops of Osbert, Ella and my father. The men stood close together, their shields overlapping like the Danish shields, while the rearward ranks of each wedge held their shields high like a roof, and then, when they were ready, the men in the three wedges gave a great cheer and started forward. They did not run. I had expected them to run, but men cannot keep the wedge tight if they run. The wedge is war in slow time, slow enough for the men inside the wedge to wonder how strong the enemy is and to fear that the rest of the army will not follow, but they did. The three wedges had not gone more than twenty paces before the remaining mass of men moved forward.
"I want to be closer," I said.
"You will wait," Beocca said.
I could hear the shouts now, shouts of defiance and shouts to give a man courage, and then the archers on the city walls loosed their bows and I saw the glitter of the feathers as the arrows slashed down towards the wedges, and a moment later the throwing spears came, arching over the Danish line to fall on the upheld shields. Amazingly, at least to me, it seemed that none of our men was struck, though I could see their shields were stuck with arrows and spears like hedgehog spines, and still the three wedges advanced, and now our own bowmen were shooting at the Danes, and a handful of our men broke from the ranks behind the wedges to hurl their own spears at the enemy shield wall.
"Not long now," Beocca said nervously. He made the sign of the cross. He was praying silently and his crippled left hand was twitching.
I was watching my father's wedge, the central wedge, the one just in front of the wolf's head banner, and I saw the closely touching shields vanish into the ditch that lay in front of the earthen wall and I knew my father was perilously close to death and I urged him to win, to kill, to give the name Uhtred of Bebbanburg even more renown, and then I saw the shield-wedge emerge from the ditch and, like a monstrous beast, crawl up the face of the wall.
"The advantage they have," Beocca said in the patient voice he used for teaching, "is that the enemy's feet are easy targets when you come from below." I think he was trying to reassure himself, but I believed him anyway, and it must have been true for my father's formation, first up the wall, did not seem to be checked when they met the enemy's shield wall. I could see nothing now except the flash of blades rising and falling, and I could hear that sound, the real music of battle, the chop of iron on wood, iron on iron, yet the wedge was still moving. Like a boar's razor-sharp tusk it had pierced the Danish shield wall and was moving forward, and though the Danes wrapped around the wedge, it seemed our men were winning for they pressed forward across the earthen bank, and the soldiers behind must have sensed that Ealdorman Uhtred had brought them victory for they suddenly cheered and surged to help the beleaguered wedge.
"God be praised," Beocca said, for the Danes were fleeing. One moment they had formed a thick shield wall, bristling with weapons, and now they were vanishing into the city and our army, with the relief of men whose lives have been spared, charged after them.
"Slowly, now," Beocca said, walking his horse forward and leading mine by the bridle.
The Danes had gone. Instead the earthen wall was black with our men who were scrambling through the gap in the city's ramparts, then down the bank's farther side into the streets and alleyways beyond. The three flags, my father's wolf head, Ella's war axe and Osbert's cross, were inside Eoferwic. I could hear men cheering and I kicked my horse, forcing her out of Beocca's grasp. "Come back!" he shouted, but though he followed me he did not try to drag me away. We had won, God had given us victory and I wanted to be close enough to smell the slaughter.
Neither of us could get into the city because the gap in the palisade was choked with our men, but I kicked the horse again and she bulled her way into the press. Some men protested at what I was doing, then they saw the gilt-bronze circle on my helmet and knew I was nobly born and so they tried to help me through, while Beocca, stranded at the back of the crowd, shouted that I should not get too far ahead of him. "Catch up!" I called back to him.
Then he shouted again, but this time his voice was frantic, terrified, and I turned to see Danes streaming across the field where our army had advanced. It was a horde of Danes who must have sallied from one of the city's gates to cut off our retreat, and they must have known we would retreat, because it seemed they could build walls after all, and had built them across the streets inside the city, then feigned flight from the ramparts to draw us in and now they sprang the trap. Some of the Danes were mounted, most were on foot, and Beocca panicked. I do not blame him. The Danes like killing Christian priests and Beocca must have seen death, did not desire martyrdom, and so he turned his horse and kicked it hard and it galloped away beside the river and the Danes, not caring about the fate of one man where so many were trapped, let him go.
It is a truth that in most armies the timid men and those with the feeblest weapons are at the back. The brave go to the front, the weak seek the rear, so if you can get to the back of an enemy army you will have a massacre.
I am an old man now and it has been my fate to see panic flicker through many armies. That panic is worse than the terror of sheep penned in a cleft and being assaulted by wolves, more frantic than the writhing of salmon caught in a net and dragged to the air. The sound of it must tear the heavens apart, but to the Danes, that day, it was the sweet sound of victory and to us it was death.
I tried to escape. God knows I panicked too. I had seen Beocca racing away beside the riverside willows and I managed to turn the mare, but then one of our own men snatched at me, presumably wanting my horse, and I had the wit to draw my short sword and hack blindly at him as I kicked back my heels, but all I achieved was to ride out of the panicked mass into the path of the Danes, and all around me men were screaming and the Danish axes and swords were chopping and swinging. The grim work, the blood feast, the song of the blade, they call it, and perhaps I was saved for a moment because I was the only one in our army who was on horseback and a score of the Danes were also mounted and perhaps they mistook me for one of their own, but then one of those Danes called to me in a language I did not speak and I looked at him and saw his long hair, unhelmeted, his long fair hair and his silver-coloured mail and the wide grin on his wild face and I recognised him as the man who had killed my brother and, like the fool I was, I screamed at him. A standard bearer was just behind the long-haired Dane, flaunting an eagle's wing on a long pole. Tears were blurring my sight, and perhaps the battle madness came onto me because, despite my panic, I rode at the long-haired Dane and struck at him with my small sword, and his sword parried mine, and my feeble blade bent like a herring's spine. It just bent and he drew back his own sword for the killing stroke, saw my pathetic bent blade and began to laugh. I was pissing myself, he was laughing, and I beat at him again with the useless sword and still he laughed, and then he leaned over, plucked the weapon from my hand and threw it away. He picked me up then. I was screaming and hitting at him, but he thought it all so very funny, and he draped me belly down on the saddle in front of him and then he spurred into the chaos to continue the killing.
And that was how I met Ragnar, Ragnar the Fearless, my brother's killer and the man whose head was supposed to grace a pole on Bebbanburg's ramparts, Earl Ragnar.
we rowed south to the land and followed the coast towards the west. We would go round the wild headlands where the porpoises swam, turn east and so find home.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this novel. At the moment, I'm still working my way through the Saxon Stories. On to Lords of the North next.

    The Grail Quest was the first series that got me hooked on Cornwell. His ability to describe a battle scene is incredible.

    Steven Till
    http://steventill.com

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