Bernard Cornwell – Sword Song

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Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell catches up with Uhtred a few years after the events of The Lords of the North. The book is mostly based in the London area and by Cornwell’s own admission is the least historically accurate of The Last Kingdom series so far.

I know I said it was the Warrior Chronicles series in my previous post, but I noticed some rebranding of the whole series happened in later books – I can only assume it was because of the launch of the TV show. I have read this book, but with the exception of the love affair between captor and captive toward the end of the book, I have absolutely no recollection of the story. Which was great as it meant I could enjoy it afresh.

in Sword Song it is the year 885 and Uhtred now has two children by his wife Gisela and another one on the way. There is peace of sorts with the north put to rest under Gisela’s brother Guthrum and Uhtred’s mate Ragnar, and East Anglia under the rule of Christian convert and ally of King Alfred, Guthred. However, Uhtred, who is still oathsworn to Alfred, soon learns that a new threat is looming – Norse brothers Sigefrid and Erik are massing forces in London and so threatening the fragile status quo in Mercia and in turn King Alfred’s Wessex.

Uhtred is contacted by the Danish warrior Haesten to meet him in a Mercian village to talk to a prophesizing dead man. Uhtred despises Haesten because he broke an oath of allegiance to him, but is intrigued to hear what the dead man has to say about his future. On a dark night a few weeks later the dead man speaks to Uhtred after rising dramatically from his grave. He tells Uhtred that he will become King of Mercia.

Uhtred, usually a very canny chap, falls for the obvious manipulative ruse and despite being oathsworn to Alfred goes along with Haesten to meet Sigefrid and Erik the vikings in London. Uhtred immediately likes Erik but doesn’t trust Sigefrid any more than he does Haesten. They tell Uhtred that if he can get Ragnar to bring his men from Northumbria to join them in attacking East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex, then Uhtred will be given the throne of Mercia when the dust settles. While he’s visiting, Sigefrid invites Uhtred to watch the crucifixion of a prisoner.

Uhtred recognises the Welsh warrior-priest Pyrlig among the prisoners and I guess it reminds him of where his allegiances lie because he manages to convince Sigefrid, who thinks Pyrlig is just another pious priest, to fight with Pyrlig for the prisoners’ freedom. Sigefrid is obviously surprised and angry when Pyrlig bests him in a sword fight. However, the less hot-headed brother, Erik, says fair’s fair and tells Uhtred he can take the prisoners away. Uhtred takes Pyrlig back to Wessex and is forced to renew his oath toward Alfred as he might otherwise be executed as a traitor.

Back in Wessex, Aethelflaed, Alfred’s eldest daughter, gets married to Aethelred, Uhtred’s cousin and Mercia’s Earldorman. In this way Alfred can bind Mercia to Wessex and is one step closer to building a united Christian kingdom which at one point in the book he refers to as England.

Unfortunately Aethelred is a dick and beats his new wife despite her being royalty. Alfred learns of this and, quoting scripture, just chooses to turn a blind eye. Gisela who is friends with Aethelflaed is fuming and Uhtred discovers that Aethelred is a jealous husband and thinks that Aethelflaed is in love with Uhtred. It’s silly because Uhtred is just an old friend and has been nothing beyond avuncular with Aethelflaed.

Alfred orders Uthred to work with Aethelred in dislodging the Norse brothers from London and winning the city back for Mercia. In a typically stealthy mission Uhtred manages to infiltrate the city with his men and attacks one of the old Roman gates to get behind the Viking defenders as they march to meet Aethelred’s larger army. The Northmen are caught in a Saxon sandwich and Sigefrid is very badly wounded in the battle by Osferth (Alfred’s bastard son). Uhtred allows Erik to take his ship out of London with his crippled brother and the battered remains of his crew. it’s a decision which doesn’t go down well with Aethelred.

Time passes. Uhtred helps to rebuild the Roman walls of London and moves his family into the old city. He also interrupts a dodgy Christian ceremony of ‘dirty water’ in which Aethelred’s priests are intent on proving whether his wife, who is now pregnant, is faithful by making her drink water with floor scraping mixed into it and getting an eyeful of her nether regions. Uhtred comes close to murdering the priests in his rage to protect the king’s daughters privacy and the ceremony is hastily completed in private. Uhtred does this because he’s a nice bloke underneath all the gruff attitude and because he has sworn an oath to Aethelflaed to protect her. Meanwhile Sigefrid, Erik, and Haesten settle for harrying East Anglia.

Aethelred leads a mission to teach the vikings a lesson since the ever risk-averse East Anglian king Guthred seems unwilling to get involved. Uhtred is not invited to the party and this is perhaps why it ends in disaster. Aethelred loses a lot of his ships but also, more importantly, his wife Aethelflaed is taken hostage by the Northmen. Alfred expects that the ransom is going to be enormous and if paid will fuel army-building by the invaders which will threaten his kingdom. However he has no other choice but to pay. But before he does he sends a negotiator to try and get a decent price.

It’s no great surprise to read that Uhtred is sent to negotiate with Sigefrid. While he is in the viking camp he talks to Erik and discovers that the viking has fallen for Aethelflaed. Uhtred manages to speak to Aethelflaed and finds that the feeling is mutual – she doesn’t want to go back to Aethelred and would rather run off up north with lover-boy Erik. A plot is hatched and a few weeks later Uhtred takes a ship to the viking camp to open up a ‘gate’ in the form of a moored boat across a channel to allow Erik to slip away with Aethelflaed.

However when he arrives with his men, Uhtred sees that Sigefrid’s hall has been torched and he soon realises that the conniving piece of shit Haesten has kidnapped Aethelflaed and intends to open the ‘gate’ himself and sail away with her. There is a desperate and bloody battle between Haesten’s men, the guards of the ‘gate’, Uhtred’s men and latterly those of Sigefrid and Erik.

It’s a messy business but despite some of his best men being killed Uhtred comes out tops. In the battle Erik strikes Sigefrid down and Uhtred’s men eventually defeat Sigefrid’s warriors. Aethelflaed is rescued and Sigefrid is subsequently finished off by Osferth. Aethelflaed, like it or not, is returned to Alfred. Haesten escapes and I’m sure will be back as a thorn in Uhtred’s side in other titles in the series.  

I have another seven books in this series to read (two of which I think I’ve read before) and expect another one will be out in paperback soon, but I’m taking a break for a while. It’s not that I don’t enjoy these books immensely. I just don’t want to have too much of a good thing all at once.  

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