The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell catches up with Uhtred five years after the events of Sword Song and he is now Alfred’s main man when it comes to commanding men against the Danes for the kingdom of Wessex. The first half of Season 3 of the TV series The Last Kingdom is based on this novel, but I stopped watching the show at the end of Season 2 and so can’t comment on how well it was adapted for screen. Now I know Uhtred is supposed to be blonde, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the TV show.
The novel opens with Uhtred, military governor of Lundene, refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to Alfred’s son, Edward the Aethling. Alfred wants him to do so because he knows that he will soon die and Uhtred will be released from the oath he swore to Alfred. Uhtred is unwilling because he wants to go North and win back Bebbanburg from his uncle Aelfric.
Uhtred delivers a message from the king to his old enemy Danish Jarl Haesten telling him that they Alfred will pay him a hefty amount of silver if he takes his men and boats away from Wessex. Haesten agrees to the deal. He gives over hostages, accepts Christian missionaries into his camp, and later allows his wife and family to be baptised. It is of course all a ruse. Haesten is holding out to see how things develop in Cent, where another Dane, Jarl Harald Bloodhair is causing trouble.
Uhtred later runs into a band of Harald’s men laying waste to a village in Wessex. They are led by Harald’s woman, a vicious but beautiful creature (oh so typical of Cornwell’s writing) called Skade. Uhtred captures her, puts a rope around her neck and strips her in front of Harald and his men. However, Uhtred is forced to return Skade to Harald because otherwise he is going to butcher all the innocents he has captured during his viking. Skade lays a curse upon Uhtred which the reader knows will probably come to pass in the form of something more than just being stung by a bee.
Back at base, Uhtred advises Alfred to lure Harald to the fortified town of Fearnhamme. He splits the Wessex army into two parts – one to lure the Danes into the town and the other to remain hidden until most of the Danes are at Fearnhamme and then attack from behind. Despite the risk, the gods are smiling upon Uhtred that day and Wessex wins an historic battle. Harald is badly wounded and retreats with a seriously diminished force to the thorny island of Torneie (now under part of Heathrow Airport) and Uhtred once more takes Skade prisoner.
Skade’s curse seems to be fulfilled just when Uhtred is at is most ebullient, full of the glory of a famous battle won (although the bards in later years ascribe the victory to his Mercian cousin Aethelred). Uhtred learns that his wife Gisela has died in childbirth along with the child. Grieving, he returns to Lundene. Skade is employed as a slave in his household. I guess Uhtred finds her too lovely to kill.
At a feast, things turn from bad to worse for Uhtred. A priest slags off his dead wife and Uhtred punches him so hard he accidentally kills him. Uhtred hurries back to his house where his old friend Father Beocca catches up with him and delivers a message from Alfred. The king wants Uhtred to swear an oath to Edward and pay a massive fine which will wipe out all his savings. Alfred will hold Uhtred’s children hostage to ensure he behaves himself. They are (conveniently) put in the care of Alfred’s daughter and Uhtred’s friend Aethelflaed, wife of Aethelred.
There’s no way Uhtred is going to agree to Alfred’s terms. He takes a band of faithful men and Skade in a ship and travels to see his Danish pal Ragnar in Dunholm, Northumbria. Both Skade and his old friend Brida, Ragnar’s wife, do a bit of a head-job on him. First Skade convinces him to sail to Frisia in search of treasure to fund his desire to take back Bebbanburg, and then Brida talks him into joining lords of the North Ragnar, Cnut and Sigrid in attacking Wessex – because they mistakenly think that Alfred has died.
The treasure Uhtred finds in Frisia isn’t what Skade promised and he falls out with her. Skade, who had managed to win Uhtred’s favour (to the point where they had become lovers), turns against him. Back in Dunholm, Haesten turns up and tells the other Jarls that he’ll attack Mercia if they attack Wessex. When he leaves, he takes Skade with him. Uhtred is glad to see the back of her. He has other things on his mind. Should he betray Alfred entirely or leave the Danes and go warn the king of their plotting?
The decision is made for him when Father Pyrlig turns up and tells him that Aethelflaed is in trouble. Uhtred is oath-sworn to her and since she is also looking after his kids, he goes to her rescue. He finds her imprisoned at a nunnery and gets her out and takes her back to Mercia. Aethelred, who had been plotting against her, is not entirely happy to see either of them but must keep up appearances.
Given that she is Alfred’s daughter and stands with the famous warlord Uhtred, Aethelflaed attempts to garner the support of the Mercian lords in the fight against the Danes. But she has no money and Uhtred doesn’t either. The lords stay allegiant to Aethelred and his plans. Back in Lundene, Uhtred and Aethelflaed become lovers and wait for men to come to their banners.
It looks like no-one is going to turn up and then who should arrive but Edward Aethling and the warrior Steapa, oh and over a thousand troops. Uhtred realises that he’s once more been manipulated by Alfred into helping Wessex. If Uhtred can help Edward win a famous battle then it will ease him onto the throne when his father dies. However, Uhtred still refuses to swear an oath to Edward, while maintaining his love-based oath to protect the lady Aethelflaed.
In the finale of the book, Uhtred plans to capture Haesten’s two forts at Beamfleot. The Jarl is not there, but Skade is and so too are hundreds of beached ships and the wives and families of the Danes who are viking across the burning land. In a rash move Uhtred attacks a band of Danes without first assessing their number and it is only when Steapa arrives with some men that defeat is averted. In fact, defeat is turned to victory when their combined forces capture the first fort with relative ease.
The second new fort is a different prospect with its complex layers of defences. Uhtred uses beehives, ladders and ship sails in imaginative ways to capture the new fort. He discovers a huge pile of gold in the main hall and confronts Skade.
Before Uhtred can do anything, Harald appears, he is crippled and full of hate for Skade who is now Haesten’s lover. He kills her and then Uhtred kills him, denying him a sword to take to Valhalla due to his earlier treatment of women and children. After a bit of divvying up of the hoarde, Uhtred and Aethelflaed sail away together.
As mentioned in previous posts, I’m not sure which of these books I have read, and which are new to me. I thought I had read this one before, but I couldn’t remember anything about it. I guess that helped to enjoy it. It felt a little samey after the first four books with the usual amount of blood and guts and sexy times, but I am still impressed by Cornwell’s attention to detail not just about the battles, but also about everyday life at the end of the ninth century, the flora and the fauna. It really helps to create an authentic feeling atmosphere amid the violence and plot twists.
Also the coincidence about Uhtred being stung by a bee at one point in the story and Generation A revolving around bee stings is not lost on me.