The Last Kingdom
HarperCollins PublishersISBN: 0060530510
The Danes were clever that day. They had made new walls insidethe city, invited our men into the streets, trapped them betweenthe new walls, surrounded them, and killed them. They did not kill allthe Northumbrian army, for even the fiercest warriors tire of slaughterand, besides, the Danes made much money from slavery. Most of theslaves taken in England were sold to farmers in the wild northernisles, or to Ireland, or sent back across the sea to the Danish lands, butsome, I learned, were taken to the big slave markets in Frankia and afew were shipped south to a place where there was no winter andwhere men with faces the color of scorched wood would pay goodmoney for men and even better money for young women.
But they killed enough of us. They killed Ælla and they killedOsbert and they killed my father. Ælla and my father were fortunate,for they died in battle, swords in their hands, but Osbert was capturedand he was tortured that night as the Danes feasted in a citystinking of blood. Some of the victors guarded the walls, others celebratedin the captured houses, but most gathered in the hall ofNorthumbria's defeated king where Ragnar took me. I did not knowwhy he took me there, I half expected to be killed or, at best, soldinto slavery, but Ragnar made me sit with his men and put a roastedgoose leg, half a loaf of bread, and a pot of ale in front of me, thencuffed me cheerfully round the head.
The other Danes ignored me at first. They were too busy gettingdrunk and cheering the fights that broke out once they were drunk,but the loudest cheers came when the captured Osbert was forced tofight against a young warrior who had extraordinary skill with asword. He danced around the king, then chopped off his left handbefore slitting his belly with a sweeping cut and, because Osbert wasa heavy man, his guts spilled out like eels slithering from a rupturedsack. Some of the Danes were weak with laughter after that. The kingtook a long time to die, and while he cried for relief, the Danes crucifieda captured priest who had fought against them in the battle.They were intrigued and repelled by our religion, and they wereangry when the priest's hands pulled free of the nails and someclaimed it was impossible to kill a man that way, and they arguedthat point drunkenly, then tried to nail the priest to the hall's timberwalls a second time until, bored with it, one of their warriorsslammed a spear into the priest's chest, crushing his ribs and manglinghis heart.
A handful of them turned on me once the priest was dead and,because I had worn a helmet with a gilt-bronze circlet, they thought Imust be a king's son and they put me in a robe and a man climbedonto the table to piss on me, and just then a huge voice bellowed atthem to stop and Ragnar bullied his way through the crowd. Hesnatched the robe from me and harangued the men, telling them Iknew not what, but whatever he said made them stop and Ragnarthen put an arm around my shoulders and took me to a dais at theside of the hall and gestured I should climb up to it. An old man waseating alone there. He was blind, both eyes milky white, and had adeep-lined face framed by gray hair as long as Ragnar's. He heard meclamber up and asked a question, and Ragnar answered and thenwalked away.
"You must be hungry, boy," the old man said in English.
I did not answer. I was terrified of his blind eyes.
"Have you vanished?" he asked. "Did the dwarves pluck youdown to the underearth?"
"I'm hungry," I admitted.
"So you are there after all," he said, "and there's pork here, andbread, and cheese, and ale. Tell me your name."
I almost said Osbert, then remembered I was Uhtred. "Uhtred," Isaid.
"An ugly name," the old man said, "but my son said I was to lookafter you, so I will, but you must look after me too. You could cut mesome pork?"
"Your son?" I asked.
"Earl Ragnar," he said, "sometimes called Ragnar the Fearless.Who were they killing in here?"
"The king," I said, "and a priest."
"Did he die well?"
"Then he shouldn't have been king."
"Are you a king?" I asked.
He laughed. "I am Ravn," he said, "and once I was an earl and awarrior, but now I am blind so I am no use to anyone. They should beatme over the head with a cudgel and send me on my way to the netherworld."I said nothing to that because I did not know what to say. "ButI try to be useful," Ravn went on, his hands groping for bread. "I speakyour language and the language of the Britons and the tongue of theWends and the speech of the Frisians and that of the Franks. Languageis now my trade, boy, because I have become a skald."
"A scop, you would call me. A poet, a weaver of dreams, a manwho makes glory from nothing and dazzles you with its making. Andmy job now is to tell this day's tale in such a way that men will neverforget our great deeds."
"But if you cannot see," I asked, "how can you tell what happened?"
Ravn laughed at that. "Have you heard of Odin? Then youshould know that Odin sacrificed one of his own eyes so that hecould obtain the gift of poetry. So perhaps I am twice as good a skaldas Odin, eh?"Continues...