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The ShortRead: Bernard Cornwell

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ShortRead of 22nd October

Empty Throne

Author: Bernard Cornwell

What's the story: Bernard Cornwell - perhaps best known for his epic, swashbuckling series Sharpe - knows his way around a gripping historical narrative. If the Game of Thrones series has a shade too much fantasy for you, then The Warrior Chronicles should be more your thing.

The Empty Throne is the latest instalment. The forces of Wessex and Mercia have united against the Danes, but the threat of Viking raids still hangs heavy over Britain’s kingdoms. Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians, is dying, leaving no heir - and so the stage is set for rivals to fight for the throne.

Release date: 23 October


Empty Throne

Extract

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 wrote his name thus, Uhtred, but I have seen the name written as Utred, Ughtred or even Ootred. Some of those names are on ancient parchments which declare that Uhtred, son of Uhtred and grandson of Uhtred, is the lawful, sole and eternal owner of the lands that are carefully marked by stones and by dykes, by oaks and by ash, by marsh and by sea. That land is in the north of the country we have learned to call Englaland. They are wavebeaten lands beneath a wind-driven sky. It is the land we call Bebbanburg.

I did not see Bebbanburg till I was grown, and the first time we attacked its high walls we failed. My father’s cousin ruled the great fortress then. His father had stolen it from my father. It was a bloodfeud. The church tried to stop the feud, saying the enemy of all Saxon Christians was the pagan Northmen, whether Danish or Norse, but my father swore me to the feud. If I had refused the oath he would have disinherited me, just as he disinherited and disowned my older brother, not because my brother would not pursue the feud, but because he became a Christian priest. I was once named Osbert, but when my elder brother became a priest I was given his name. My name is Uhtred of Bebbanburg.

My father was a pagan, a warlord, and frightening. He often told me he was frightened of his own father, but I cannot believe it because nothing seemed to frighten him. Many folk claim that our country would be called Daneland and we would all be worshipping Thor and Woden if it had not been for my father, and that is true. True and strange because he hated the Christian god, calling him ‘the nailed god’, yet despite his hatred he spent the greatest part of his life fighting against the pagans. The church will not admit that Englaland exists because of my father, claiming that it was made and won by Christian warriors, but the folk of Englaland know the truth. My father should have been called Uhtred of Englaland.

Yet in the year of our Lord 911 there was no Englaland. There was Wessex and Mercia and East Anglia and Northumbria, and as the winter turned to a sullen spring in that year I was on the border of Mercia and Northumbria in thickly wooded country north of the River Mærse. There were thirty-eight of us, all well mounted and all waiting among the winter-bare branches of a high wood. Beneath us was a valley in which a small fast stream flowed south, and where frost lingered in deep-shadowed gullies. The valley was empty, though just moments before some sixty-five riders had followed the stream southwards and then vanished where the valley and its stream turned sharply west. ‘Not long now,’ Rædwald said.

That was just nervousness and I made no answer. I was nervous too, but tried not to show it. Instead I imagined what my father would have done. He would have been hunched in the saddle, glowering and motionless, and so I hunched in my saddle and stared fixedly into the valley. I touched the hilt of my sword.

She was called Raven-Beak. I suppose she had another name before that because she had belonged to Sigurd Thorrson, and he must have given her a name though I never did find out what it was. At first I thought the sword was called Vlfberht because that strange name was inscribed on the blade in big letters. It looked like this:

−VLFBERH | − T

But Finan, my father’s friend, told me that Vlfberht is the name of the Frankish smith who made her, and that he makes the finest and most expensive blades in all Christendom, and it must be Christendom because Vlfberht puts the crosses in front of and inside his name. I asked Finan how we could find Vlfberht to buy more swords, but Finan says he is a magic smith who works in secret. A blacksmith will leave his furnace for the night and return in the morning to find that Vlfberht has been in the smithy and left a sword forged in the fires of hell and quenched with dragon’s blood. I called her Raven-Beak because Sigurd’s banner had shown a raven. She had been the sword Sigurd carried when he fought me and when my seax had ripped his belly open. I remember that sword-stroke so well, remember the resistance of his fine mail suddenly giving way and the look in his eyes as he realised he was dying and the elation I felt as I dragged the seax sideways to empty his lifeblood. That had happened in the previous year at the battle at Teotanheale which had driven the Danes out of central Mercia, the same battle in which my father had killed Cnut Ranulfson, but in killing Cnut he had been wounded by Cnut’s sword, Ice-Spite.

Raven-Beak was a good sword, I thought her even better than Serpent-Breath, my father’s blade. She was long-bladed, but surprisingly light, and other swords broke against her edge. She was a warrior’s sword, and I carried her that day in the high wood above the frosted valley where the stream ran so fast. I carried Raven-Beak and my seax, Attor. Attor means venom and she was a short-sword, good for the crowded work of a shield wall. She stung, and it was her venom that had killed Sigurd. And I carried my
round shield on which was painted the wolf’s head, the emblem of our family. I wore a helmet crested with a wolf’s head, and a coat of Frankish mail above a leather jerkin, and above it all a cloak of bear fur. I am Uhtred Uhtredson, the true lord of Bebbanburg, and I was nervous that day.

I led the war-band. I was just twenty-one years old and some of the men behind me were almost twice my age with many times my experience, but I was the son of Uhtred, a lord, and so I commanded. Most of the men were well back among the trees, only Rædwald and Sihtric were with me. Both were older, and both had been sent to offer me advice or, rather, to keep me fromheadstrong stupidity. I had known Sihtric for ever, he was one of my father’s trusted men, while Rædwald was a warrior in the service of the Lady Æthelflaed. ‘Maybe they’re not coming,’ he said. He was a steady man, cautious and careful, and I half suspected he hoped the enemy would not appear.

‘They’re coming,’ Sihtric grunted. And they did come. They came hurrying from the north, a band of horsemen with shields, spears, axes and swords. Norsemen. I leaned forward in the saddle, trying to count the riders who spurred beside the stream. Three crews? At least one hundred men, and Haki Grimmson was among them, or at least his banner of a ship was there.

‘One hundred and twenty,’ Sihtric said.

‘More,’ Rædwald said.

‘One hundred and twenty,’ Sihtric insisted flatly.


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