As the last unvanquished piece of England, Wessex is eyed hungrily by the fearsome Viking conquerors. Uhtred, a dispossessed young nobleman, is tied to the imperiled land by birth and marriage but was raised by the Danish invaders—and he questions where his allegiance must lie. But blood is his destiny, and when the overwhelming Viking horde attacks out of a wintry darkness, Uhtred must put aside all hatred and distrust and stand beside his embattled country’s staunch defender—the fugitive King Alfred.
The Pale Horseman is a gripping, monumental adventure that gives breathtaking life to one of the most important epochs in English history—yet another masterwork from New York Times bestselling author Bernard Cornwell.
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The Pale Horseman LP
By Bernard Cornwell
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Bernard Cornwell
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These days I look at twenty-year-olds and think they are pathetically young, scarcely weaned from their mothers' tits, but when I was twenty I considered myself a full-grown man. I had fathered a child, fought in the shield wall, and was loath to take advice from anyone. In short I was arrogant, stupid, and headstrong. Which is why, after our victory at Cynuit, I did the wrong thing.
We had fought the Danes beside the ocean, where the river runs from the great swamp and the Saefern Sea slaps on a muddy shore, and there we had beaten them. We had made a great slaughter and I, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, had done my part. More than my part, for at the battle's end, when the great Ubba Lothbrokson, most feared of all the Danish leaders, had carved into our shield wall with his great war ax, I had faced him, beaten him, and sent him to join the einherjar, that army of the dead who feast and swive in Odin's corpse hall.
What I should have done then, what Leofric told me to do, was ride hard to Exanceaster where Alfred, King of the West Saxons, was besieging Guthrum. I should have arrived deep in the night, woken the king from his sleep, and laid Ubba's battle banner of the black raven and Ubba's great war ax, its blade still crusted with blood, at Alfred's feet. I should have given the king the good news that the Danish army was beaten, that the few survivors had taken to their dragon-headed ships, that Wessex was safe, and that I, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, had achieved all of those things.
Instead I rode to find my wife and child.
At twenty years old I would rather have been plowing Mildrith than reaping the rewards of my good fortune, and that is what I did wrong, but, looking back, I have few regrets. Fate is inexorable, and Mildrith, though I had not wanted to marry her and though I came to detest her, was a lovely field to plow.
So, in that late spring of the year 877, I spent the Saturday riding to Cridianton instead of going to Alfred. I took twenty men with me and I promised Leofric that we would be at Exanceaster by midday on Sunday and I would make certain Alfred knew we had won his battle and saved his kingdom.
"Odda the Younger will be there by now," Leofric warned me. Leofric was almost twice my age, a warrior hardened by years of fighting the Danes. "Did you hear me?" he asked when I said nothing. "Odda the Younger will be there by now," he said again, "and he's a piece of goose shit who'll take all the credit."
"The truth cannot be hidden," I said loftily.
Leofric mocked that. He was a bearded squat brute of a man who should have been the commander of Alfred's fleet, but he was not well born and Alfred had reluctantly given me charge of the twelve ships because I was an ealdorman, a noble, and it was only fitting that a high-born man should command the West Saxon fleet even though it had been much too puny to confront the massive array of Danish ships that had come to Wessex's south coast. "There are times," Leofric grumbled, "when you are an earsling." An earsling was something that had dropped out of a creature's backside and was one of Leofric's favorite insults. We were friends.
"We'll see Alfred tomorrow," I said.
"And Odda the Younger," Leofric said patiently, "has seen him today."
Odda the Younger was the son of Odda the Elder who had given my wife shelter, and the son did not like me. He did not like me because he wanted to plow Mildrith, which was reason enough for him to dislike me. He was also, as Leofric said, a piece of goose shit, slippery and slick, which was reason enough for me to dislike him.
"We shall see Alfred tomorrow," I said again, and next morning we all rode to Exanceaster, my men escorting Mildrith, our son, and his nurse, and we found Alfred on the northern side of Exanceaster where his green-and-white dragon banner flew above his tents. Other banners snapped in the damp wind, a colorful array of beasts, crosses, saints, and weapons announcing that the great men of Wessex were with their king. One of those banners showed a black stag, which confirmed that Leofric had been right and that Odda the Younger was here in south Defnascir. Outside the camp, between its southern margin and the city walls, was a great pavilion made of sailcloth stretched across guyed poles, and that told me that Alfred, instead of fighting Guthrum, was talking to him. They were negotiating a truce, though not on that day, for it was a Sunday and Alfred would do no work on a Sunday if he could help it. I found him on his knees in a makeshift church made from another poled sailcloth, and all his nobles and thegns were arrayed behind him, and some of those men turned as they heard our horses' hooves. Odda the Younger was one of those who turned and I saw the apprehension show on his narrow face.
The bishop who was conducting the service paused to let the congregation make a response, and that gave Odda an excuse to look away from me. He was kneeling close to Alfred, very close, suggesting that he was high in the king's favor, and I did not doubt that he had brought the dead Ubba's raven banner and war ax to Exanceaster and claimed the credit for the fight beside the sea. "One day," I said to Leofric, "I shall slit that bastard from the crotch to the gullet and dance on his offal."
"You should have done it yesterday."
Excerpted from The Pale Horseman LP by Bernard Cornwell Copyright © 2006 by Bernard Cornwell. Excerpted by permission.
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