The Pale Horseman, sequel to The Last Kingdom, sees Uhtred, who we are constantly reminded was born as a Saxon in Northumbria but was raised as a Dane, defying the peace that was negotiated between pious King Alfred and the Danish chieftain Guthrum. Uhtred takes a ship from Alfred’s fleet and goes viking (raiding) with his buddy Leofric and crew around Cornwall. There he encounters a Briton king, Peredur, who has plenty of silver to pay Uhtred and his crew to attack the titular Dane warlord, Svein, who rides a white horse with pale accessories. Svein is a threat to Peredur’s settlement, but Uhtred, a hot-blooded twenty-year old takes a fancy to the king’s wife Iseult, a mysterious shadow queen, despite the fact he’s married to a Saxon. Uhtred betrays Peredur siding with Svein to overrun the settlement, steal its riches and liberate Iseult who has foreseen his coming and is happy to go with him.
Unfortunately for Uhtred, Asser a Christian monk, witnesses the violence and escapes to later tell his tale in Alfred’s court. After sharing the spoils of the attack with Uthred, Svein sails to Cynuit to investigate tales of a golden altar at the church being erected over the grave of fallen Viking hero Ubba (who Uhtred managed to kill in the previous book). Uhtred sails up the Severn into Welsh territory and attacks a rich trade vessel before returning home with his treasure. There he uses the treasure to pay off his wife’s debts to the church once and for all, and builds himself a hall worth of his ever inflating ego.
Uhtred is later summoned to Alfred’s court and with Leofric is accused of raiding Britons and attacking Cynuit abbey with Svein. While Uhtred is guilty of one but not the other charge it doesn’t really matter when both Asser and Steapa (dangerous henchman of Odda the Younger who hates Uhtred) swear oaths of his guilt. To prove his innocence Uhtred agrees to a trial by combat against Steapa. He’s making some headway in the fight which he’s chosen to take part in without armour or a shield dancing in and out of Steapa’s attacks who is fully armoured and encumbered with a shield and huge sword, when suddenly the Danes break the truce and attack Cippanhamm.
Uhtred, Iseult, Leofric, Eanflæd (a whore from a tavern they frequent) and a tall nun called Hild escape Chippenham together and wander aimlessly for weeks through the countryside trying avoid the rampaging Danes who now occupy most of England. Eventually they witness a band of Danes bearing down on a group of priests at the edge of swamps near Athelney, Somerset. The Danes are led by none other than Guthrum (what are the chances). Uthred helps save the priests and as they are carried to safety in a boat through the seemingly unnavigable marshes it turns out that Alfred is with the priests.
It is a depressing time for the Saxons. Defeated by the Danes, Alfred’s kingdom is reduced to a tidal swamp. They are befriended by the locals who know their way about the small islands in the mists and how to live off the fish and birds of the swamp, and like Alfred’s silver. Alfred is intent on regrouping and amassing an army of Saxons to strike back at the Danes in one glorious battle to end all battles before the seasons turn and Guthrum can get reinforcements from across the sea. Uhtred finds he has a growing respect for the exiled king, even when he’s burning oatcakes and lecturing him about this saint and that saint. Iseult helps cure Alfred’s son of a chronic illness with her pagan crafts, but is later pretty much forced to become a Christian – the war we are constantly reminded is not just Saxon versus Dane, but Christian versus pagan.
Talking of pagans, Svein anchors his fleet at the mouth of a river close to Alfred’s marshland hideout. The Danes know that Alfred is hiding in the swamp but are unable to get to him. Meanwhile more and more Saxons join Alfred at Athelney and there is news that fyrds (small armies of warriors from the Wessex shires) are being raised and will be ready to fight for Alfred when the time comes. Uthred attacks Svein’s fleet while it is anchored, burning many of the ships and drowning his men when they are trapped in the dangerous flood tides. Svein has no choice but to march off to join Guthrum. This is what Alfred wants – he wants all the Danes in one place so with God’s will they can be defeated.
With Svein out of the way, the gathered Saxons finally march and fight the historic battle of Ethandun on the site of an ancient iron-age hillfort. Uhtred, who by this time has made friends with Steapa, is of course central to the Saxon’s victory over Svein. With his armies depleted, the ever risk averse, Guthrum, who has been biding his time while Svein’s men are cut down, does a runner. Victory goes to the Saxons, but Leofric and Iseult are killed during the battle. Hild helps fight throughout the book but it’s obvious she will eventually return to being a nun. The prostitute Eanflæd ends up in Alfred’s court being his wife’s main servant.
Having guarded Alfred in the swamp and helped him take back Wessex, Uhtred expects a great reward for his loyalty – especially since at one point in the story Uhtred meets up with his best buddy Ragnar the Younger and old girlfriend Brida right under the nose of Guthrum and with a disguised Alfred in tow. Things would’ve turned out a lot different if he had handed Alfred over, but as he keeps saying you can’t beat destiny. Uhtred gets his reward in the third book in the series Lords of the North, which I am currently reading, but he’s not particularly impressed by it and once again he goes from admiring and supporting the pious Alfred to hating his guts. But that’s another story…
I’m pretty sure I haven’t read this book before (unlike some in the series). Some of what happened in this book was familiar to me from watching the TV show, but of course it’s much better to read about than watch events – especially when the show didn’t have much budget for the big battle sequences. My imagination has an unlimited budget and the special effects were great in my head!