As the ninth century wanes, Alfred the Great lies dying, his lifelong goal of a unified England in peril, his kingdom on the brink of chaos. Though his son, Edward, has been named his successor, there are other Saxon claimants to the throne—as well as ambitious pagan Vikings to the north.
Torn between his vows to Alfred and the desire to reclaim his long-lost ancestral lands in the north, Uhtred, Saxon-born and Viking-raised, remains the king’s warrior but has sworn no oath to the crown prince. Now he must make a momentous decision that will forever transform his life and the course of history: to take up arms—and Alfred’s mantle—or lay down his sword and let his liege’s dream of a unified kingdom die along with him.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Death of KingsA Novel (Saxon Tales)
By Bernard Cornwall
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2012 Bernard Cornwall
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChapter 1
"Every day is ordinary," Father Willibald said, "until it isn't." He
smiled happily, as though he had just said something he thought
I would find significant, then looked disappointed when I said
nothing. "Every day," he started again.
"I heard your driveling," I snarled.
"Until it isn't," he finished weakly. I liked Willibald, even if he
was a priest. He had been one of my childhood tutors and now I
counted him as a friend. He was gentle, earnest, and if the meek
ever do inherit the earth then Willibald will be rich beyond measure.
And every day is ordinary until something changes, and that
cold Sunday morning had seemed as ordinary as any until the fools
tried to kill me. It was so cold. There had been rain during the
week, but on that morning the puddles froze and a hard frost
whitened the grass. Father Willibald had arrived soon after sunrise
and discovered me in the meadow. "We couldn't find your estate
last night," he explained his early appearance, shivering, "so we
stayed at Saint Rumwold's monastery." He gestured vaguely
southward. "It was cold there," he added.
"They're mean bastards, those monks," I said. I was supposed
to deliver a weekly cartload of firewood to Saint Rumwold's, but
that was a duty I ignored. The monks could cut their own timber.
"Who was Rumwold?" I asked Willibald. I knew the answer, but
wanted to drag Willibald through the thorns.
"He was a very pious child, lord," he said.
"A baby," he said, sighing as he saw where the conversation was
leading, "a mere three days old when he died."
"A three-day-old baby is a saint?"
Willibald flapped his hands. "Miracles happen, lord," he said,
"they really do. They say little Rumwold sang God's praises
whenever he suckled."
"I feel much the same when I get hold of a tit," I said, "so does
that make me a saint?"
Willibald shuddered, then sensibly changed the subject. "I've
brought you a message from the ætheling," he said, meaning King
Alfred's eldest son, Edward.
"So tell me."
"He's the King of Cent now," Willibald said happily.
"He sent you all this way to tell me that?"
"No, no. I thought perhaps you hadn't heard."
"Of course I heard," I said. Alfred, King of Wessex, had made
his eldest son King of Cent, which meant Edward could practice
being a king without doing too much damage because Cent, after
all, was a part of Wessex. "Has he ruined Cent yet?"
"Of course not," Willibald said, "though . . ." he stopped
"Oh, it's nothing," he said airily and pretended to take an interest
in the sheep. "How many black sheep do you have?" he asked.
"I could hold you by the ankles and shake you till the news
drops out," I suggested.
"It's just that Edward, well," he hesitated, then decided he had
better tell me in case I did shake him by the ankles, "it's just that
he wanted to marry a girl in Cent and his father wouldn't agree.
But really that isn't important!"
I laughed. So young Edward was not quite the perfect heir after
all. "Edward's on the rampage, is he?"
"No, no! Merely a youthful fancy and it's all history now. His
father's forgiven him."
I asked nothing more, though I should have paid much more
attention to that sliver of gossip. "So what is young Edward's
message?" I asked. We were standing in the lower meadow of my estate
in Buccingahamm, which lay in eastern Mercia. It was really
Æthelflaed's land, but she had granted me the food-rents, and the
estate was large enough to support thirty household warriors, most
of whom were in church that morning. "And why aren't you at
church?" I asked Willibald before he could answer my first question.
"It's a feast day, isn't it?"
"Saint Alnoth's Day," he said as though that was a special treat,
"but I wanted to find you!" He sounded excited. "I have King
Edward's news for you. Every day is ordinary . . ."
"Until it isn't," I said brusquely.
"Yes, lord," he said lamely, then frowned in puzzlement, "but
what are you doing?"
"I'm looking at sheep," I said, and that was true. I was looking
at two hundred or more sheep that looked back at me and bleated
Willibald turned to stare at the flock again. "Fine animals," he
said as if he knew what he was talking about.
"Just mutton and wool," I said, "and I'm choosing which ones
live and which ones die." It was the killing time of the year, the
gray days when our animals are slaughtered. We keep a few alive
to breed in the spring, but most have to die because there is not
enough fodder to keep whole flocks and herds alive through the
winter. "Watch their backs," I told Willibald, "because the frost melts
fastest off the fleece of the healthiest beasts. So those are the ones
you keep alive." I lifted his woolen hat and ruffled his hair, which
was going gray. "No frost on you," I said cheerfully, "otherwise I'd
have to slit your throat." I pointed to a ewe with a broken horn.
"Keep that one!"
"Got her, lord," the shepherd answered. He was a gnarled little
man with a beard that hid half his face. He growled at his two
hounds to stay where they were, then plowed into the flock and
used his crook to haul out the ewe, then dragged her to the edge
of the field and drove her to join the smaller flock at the meadow's
farther end. One of his hounds, a ragged and pelt-scarred beast,
snapped at the ewe's heels until the shepherd called the dog off.
The shepherd did not need my help in selecting which animals
should live and which must die. He had culled his flocks since he
was a child, but a lord who orders his animals slaughtered owes
them the small respect of taking some time with them.
"The day of judgment," Willibald said, pulling his hat over his
"How many's that?" I asked the shepherd.
"Jiggit and mumph, lord," he said.
"Is that enough?"
"It's enough, lord."
"Kill the rest then," I said.
"Jiggit and mumph?" Willibald asked, still shivering.
"Twenty and five," I said. "Yain, tain, tether, mether, mumph. It's
how shepherds count. I don't know why. The world is full of mystery.
I'm told some folk even believe that a three-day-old baby is a saint."
"God is not mocked, lord," Father Willibald said, attempting to
"He is by me," I said. "So what does young Edward want?"
"Oh, it's most exciting," Willibald began enthusiastically, then
checked because I had raised a hand.
The shepherd's two dogs were growling. Both had flattened
themselves and were facing south toward a wood. Sleet had begun
to fall. I stared at the trees, but could see nothing threatening
among the black winter branches or among the holly bushes.
"Wolves?" I asked the shepherd.
"Haven't seen a wolf since the year the old bridge fell, lord," he
The hair on the dogs' necks bristled. The shepherd quietened
them by clicking his tongue, then gave a short sharp whistle and
one of the dogs raced away toward the wood. The other whined,
wanting to be let loose, but the shepherd made a low noise and
the dog went quiet again.
The running dog curved toward the trees. She was a bitch and
knew her business. She leaped an ice-skimmed ditch and vanished
among the holly, barked suddenly, then reappeared to jump the
ditch again. For a moment she stopped, facing the trees, then began
running again just as an arrow flitted from the wood's shadows.
The shepherd gave a shrill whistle and the bitch raced back toward
us, the arrow falling harmlessly behind her.
"Outlaws," I said.
"Or men looking for deer," the shepherd said.
"My deer," I said. I still gazed at the trees. Why would poachers
shoot an arrow at a shepherd's dog? They would have done better
to run away. So maybe they were really stupid poachers?
The sleet was coming harder now, blown by a cold east wind.
I wore a thick fur cloak, high boots and a fox-fur hat, so did not
notice the cold, but Willibald, in priestly black, was shivering
despite his woolen cape and hat. "I must get you back to the hall,"
I said. "At your age you shouldn't be outdoors in winter."
"I wasn't expecting rain," Willibald said. He sounded miserable.
"It'll be snow by midday," the shepherd said.
"You have a hut near here?" I asked him.
He pointed north. "Just beyond the copse," he said. He was
pointing at a thick stand of trees through which a path led.
"Does it have a fire?"
"Take us there," I said. I would leave Willibald beside the fire
and fetch him a proper cloak and a docile horse to get him back
to the hall.
We walked north and the dogs growled again. I turned to look south
and suddenly there were men at the wood's edge. A ragged line of men
who were staring at us. "You know them?" I asked the shepherd.
"They're not from around here, lord, and eddera-a-dix," he said,
meaning there were thirteen of them. "That's unlucky, lord." He
made the sign of the cross.
"What . . ." Father Willibald began.
"Quiet," I said. The shepherd's two dogs were snarling now.
"Outlaws," I guessed, still looking at the men.
"Saint Alnoth was murdered by outlaws," Willibald said
"So not everything outlaws do is bad," I said, "but these ones
"To attack us," I said. "They'll be hunted down and ripped
"If we are not killed first," Willibald said.
"Just go!" I pushed him toward the northern trees and touched
a hand to my sword hilt before following him. I was not wearing
Serpent-Breath, my great war sword, but a lesser, lighter blade that
I had taken from a Dane I had killed earlier that year in Beamfleot.
It was a good sword, but at that moment I wished I had Serpent-
Breath strapped around my waist. I glanced back. The thirteen men
were crossing the ditch to follow us. Two had bows. The rest seemed
to be armed with axes, knives, or spears. Willibald was slow,
already panting. "What is it?" he gasped.
"Bandits?" I suggested. "Vagrants? I don't know. Run!" I pushed
him into the trees, then slid the sword from its scabbard and turned
to face my pursuers, one of whom took an arrow from the bag
strapped at his waist. That persuaded me to follow Willibald into
the copse. The arrow slid past me and ripped through the
undergrowth. I wore no mail, only the thick fur cloak that offered no
protection from a hunter's arrow. "Keep going," I shouted at
Willibald, then limped up the path. I had been wounded in the
right thigh at the battle of Ethandun and though I could walk and
could even run slowly, I knew I would not be able to outpace the
men who were now within easy bow shot behind me. I hurried up
the path as a second arrow was deflected by a branch and tumbled
noisily through the trees. Every day is ordinary, I thought, until it
gets interesting. My pursuers could not see me among the dark
trunks and thick holly bushes, but they assumed I had followed
Willibald and so kept to the path while I crouched in the thick
undergrowth, concealed by the glossy leaves of a holly bush and
by my cloak that I had pulled over my fair hair and face. The
pursuers went past my hiding place without a glance. The two
archers were in front.
I let them get well ahead, then followed. I had heard them speak
as they passed and knew they were Saxons and, by their accents,
probably from Mercia. Robbers, I assumed. A Roman road passed
through deep woods nearby and master-less men haunted the woods
to ambush travelers who, to protect themselves, went in large
groups. I had twice led my warriors on hunts for such bandits and
thought I had persuaded them to make their living far from my
estate, but I could not think who else these men could be. Yet it
was not like such vagrants to invade an estate. The hair at the back
of my neck still prickled.
I moved cautiously as I approached the edge of the trees, then
saw the men beside the shepherd's hut that resembled a heap of
grass. He had made the hovel with branches covered by turf,
leaving a hole in the center for the smoke of his fire to escape. There
was no sign of the shepherd himself, but Willibald had been
captured, though so far he was unhurt, protected, perhaps, by his
status as a priest. One man held him. The others must have realized
I was still in the trees, because they were staring toward the
copse that hid me.
Excerpted from Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwall Copyright © 2012 by Bernard Cornwall. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“Likely to appeal to anyone who has enjoyed George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series....Cornwell is a master of historical fiction.”
“Robustly drawn characters and a keen appetite for bloodshed whip the reader along in a froth of excitement.”
“Bernard Cornwell ranks as the current alpha male of testosterone-enriched historical fiction.”
“Cornwell is adept at enveloping his fictional characters in British history. His use of geography, instruments of battle, strategy and ancient vocabulary is faultless….No knowledge of early British history or of his earlier Saxon volumes is necessary for a reader to enjoy his dexterous approach to historical fiction.”
“Gripping. . . . Mr. Cornwell’s ‘Saxon Stories’ subvert myths of national origin as few would dare. They are ‘unofficial histories’—and all the more realistic for that.”
“[Cornwell] writes morally complicated and intricate stories, and he’s won a following not just among readers but also among fellow writers.”
“Bernard Cornwell does the best battle scenes of any writer I’ve ever read, past or present.”
“[Cornwell] has been described as a master of historical fiction, but that may be an understatement. Cornwell makes his subject material come alive. Better, his major protagonist is totally believable and human.”
George R.R. Martin Interviews Bernard Cornwell
George R.R. Martin: It has long been my contention that the historical novel and the epic fantasy are sisters under the skin, that the two genres have much in common. My series owes a lot to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and the other great fantasists who came before me, but I've also read and enjoyed the work of historical novelists. Who were your own influences? Was historical fiction always your great passion? Did you ever read fantasy?
Bernard Cornwell: You're right - fantasy and historical novels are twins - and I've never been fond of the label 'fantasy' which is too broad a brush and has a fey quality. It seems to me you write historical novels in an invented world which is grounded in historical reality (if the books are set in the future then 'fantasy' magically becomes sci-fi). So I've been influenced by all three: fantasy, sci-fi and historical novels, though the largest influence has to be C.S. Forester's Hornblower books.
George R.R. Martin: A familiar theme in a lot of epic fantasy is the conflict between good and evil. The villains are often Dark Lords of various ilks, with demonic henchmen and hordes of twisted, malformed underlings clad in black. The heroes are noble, brave, chaste, and very fair to look upon. Yes, Tolkien made something grand and glorious from that, but in the hands of lesser writers, well ... let's just say that sort of fantasy has lost its interest for me. It is the grey characters who interest me the most. Those are the sort I prefer to write about... and read about. It seems to me that you share that affinity. What is it about flawed characters that makes them more interesting than conventional heroes?
Bernard Cornwell: Maybe all our heroes are reflections of ourselves? I'm not claiming to be Richard Sharpe (God forbid), but I'm sure parts of my personality leaked into him (he's very grumpy in the morning). And perhaps flawed characters are more interesting because they are forced to make a choice . . . a conventionally good character will always do the moral, right thing. Boring. Sharpe often does the right thing, but usually for the wrong reasons, and that's much more interesting!
George R.R. Martin: When Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings, it was intended as a sequel to The Hobbit. "The tale grew in the telling," he said later, when LOTR had grown into the trilogy we know today. That's a line I have often had occasion to quote over the years, as my own Song of Ice and Fire swelled from the three books I had originally sold to the seven books (five published, two more to write) I'm now producing. Much of your own work has taken the form of multi-part series. Are your tales too 'growing in the telling,' or do you know how long your journeys will take before you set out? Did you know how many books Uhtred's story would require, when you first sat down to write about him?
Bernard Cornwell: No idea! I don't even know what will happen in the next chapter, let alone the next book, and have no idea how many books there might be in a series. E.L. Doctorow said something I like which is that writing a novel is a bit like driving down an unfamiliar country road at night and you can only see as far ahead as your somewhat feeble headlamps show. I write into the darkness. I guess the joy of reading a book is to find out what happens, and for me that's the joy of writing one too!
Note: An extended version of this interview is available on the Omnivoracious blog, and at TK.