Not long ago I was in some monastery. I forget where except that it was in the lands that were once Mercia. I was traveling home with a dozen men, it was a wet winter's day, and all we needed was shelter, food, and warmth, but the monks behaved as though a band of Norsemen had arrived at their gate. Uhtred of Bebbanburg was within their walls and such is my reputation that they expected me to start slaughtering them. "I just want bread," I finally made them understand, "cheese if you have it, and some ale." I threw money on the hall floor. "Bread, cheese, ale, and a warm bed. Nothing more!"
Next morning it was raining like the world was ending and so I waited until the wind and weather had done their worst. I roamed the monastery and eventually found myself in a dank corridor where three miserable-looking monks were copying manuscripts. An older monk, white-haired, sour-faced and resentful, supervised them. He wore a fur stole over his habit, and had a leather quirt with which he doubtless encouraged the industry of the three copyists. "They should not be disturbed, lord," he dared to chide me. He sat on a stool beside a brazier, the warmth of which did not reach the three scribblers.
The Burning Land
By Bernard Cornwell
Hardcover, 352 pages
List price: $27
"The latrines haven't been licked clean," I told him, "and you look idle."
So the older monk went quiet and I looked over the shoulders of the ink-stained copyists. One, a slack-faced youth with fat lips and a fatter goiter on his neck, was transcribing a life of Saint Ciaran, which told how a wolf, a badger, and a fox had helped build a church in Ireland, and if the young monk believed that nonsense then he was as big a fool as he looked. The second was doing something useful by copying a land grant, though in all probability it was a forgery. Monasteries are adept at inventing old land grants, proving that some ancient half-forgotten king has granted the church a rich estate, thus forcing the rightful owner to either yield the ground or pay a vast sum in compensation. They tried it on me once. A priest brought the documents and I pissed on them, and then I posted twenty sword-warriors on the disputed land and sent word to the bishop that he could come and take it whenever he wished. He never did. Folk tell their children that success lies in working hard and being thrifty, but that is as much nonsense as supposing that a badger, a fox, and a wolf could build a church. The way to wealth is to become a Christian bishop or a monastery's abbot and thus be imbued with heaven's permission to lie, cheat, and steal your way to luxury.
The third young man was copying a chronicle. I moved his quill aside so I could see what he had just written. "You can read, lord?" the old monk asked. He made it sound like an innocent inquiry, but the sarcasm was unmistakable.
" 'In this year,' " I read aloud, " 'the pagans again came to Wessex, in great force, a horde as had never been seen before, and they ravaged all the lands, causing mighty distress to God's people, who, by the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, were rescued by the Lord Æthelred of Mercia who came with his army to Fearnhamme, in which place he did utterly destroy the heathen.' " I prodded the text with a finger. "What year did this happen?" I asked the copyist.
"In the year of our Lord 892, lord," he said nervously.
"So what is this?" I asked, flicking the pages of the parchment from which he copied.
"They are annals," the elderly monk answered for the younger man, "the Annals of Mercia. That is the only copy, lord, and we are making another."
I looked back at the freshly written page. "Æthelred rescued Wessex?" I asked indignantly.
"It was so," the old monk said, "with God's help"
"God?" I snarled. "It was with my help! I fought that battle, not Æthelred!" None of the monks spoke. They just stared at me. One of my men came to the cloister end of the passageway and leaned there, a grin on his half-toothless face. "I was at Fearnhamme!" I added, then snatched up the only copy of the Annals of Mercia and turned its stiff pages. Æthelred, Æthelred, Æthelred, and not a mention of Uhtred, hardly a mention of Alfred, no Æthelflæd, just Æthelred. I turned to the page which told of the events after Fearnhamme. " 'And in this year,' " I read aloud, " 'by God's good grace, the lord Æthelred and the Ætheling Edward led the men of Mercia to Beamfleot where Æthelred took great plunder and made mighty slaughter of the pagans.' " I looked at the older monk. "Æthelred and Edward led that army?"
"So it is said, lord." He spoke nervously, his earlier defiance completely gone.
"I led them, you bastard," I said. I snatched up the copied pages and took both them and the original annals to the brazier.
"No!" the older man protested.
"They're lies," I said.
He held up a placatory hand. "For forty years, lord," he said humbly, "those records have been compiled and preserved. They are the tale of our people! That is the only copy!"
"They're lies," I said again. "I was there. I was on the hill at Fearnhamme and in the ditch at Beamfleot. Were you there?"
"I was just a child, lord," he said.
He gave an appalled shriek when I tossed the manuscripts onto the brazier. He tried to rescue the parchments, but I knocked his hand away. "I was there," I said again, staring at the blackening sheets that curled and crackled before the fire flared bright at their edges. "I was there."
"Forty years' work!" the old monk said in disbelief.
"If you want to know what happened," I said, "then come to me in Bebbanburg and I'll tell you the truth."
They never came. Of course they did not come.
But I was at Fearnhamme, and that was just the beginning of the tale.
From The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell. Copyright 2010 Bernard Cornwell. Reprinted by permission, HarperCollins. All rights reserved.