Ten years have passed peacefully since Death of Kings in which King Alfred died and his son Edward took up the throne of Wessex. Uhtred’s son Osbert who has been training as a warrior is now nineteen. Uhtred’s eldest son, also named Uhtred, has become a pious priest of the ‘nailed god’ and so Uhtred disowns him. Showing some knowledge of the religion he so despises, Uhtred renames him Judas and gives the family name Uhtred to Osbert in much the same way as his father transferred the moniker to him when his brother died.
In the process of arguing with his eldest son, Uhtred accidentally kills an abbot. It’s not the first time Uhtred has killed a clergyman and it’s the final nail in the coffin of an already strained relationship between the Church and the pagan lord Uhtred. He is labelled as an outcast and told to leave the kingdom. Those men of Uhtred’s small army who are Christians are transferred into the service of Aethelflaed (wife of Aethelred and Uhtred’s lover).
Uhtred finds his hall burnt to the ground by the Danish warlord Cnut who thinks Uhtred has kidnapped his family. Uhtred meets with Cnut to explain that he’s barking up the wrong tree and is annoyed to see the reoccurring bad penny Haesten is with him. After a slap up meal with the Danes, Uhtred gets home in time to find that Bishop Wulfheard has laid waste to the rest of his buildings. It’s a pretty clear signal that he’s no longer wanted around those there parts.
So, finally, with nowhere else to go, Uhtred decides to reclaim his ancestral home – Bebbanburg in Northumbria – which was robbed by his uncle in The Last Kingdom, the first book of the ever-expanding series. He has been banging on about taking back Bebbanburg in every book since.
He hatches a pretty desperate diversionary plan to help his depleted band of warriors get inside the outer wall of the fortress, but fails to get through the main gate to the heart of the fortress. Uhtred has a stand-off with his cousin, who oversees the fortress with his ailing uncle, and the guards in the fortress. His cousin is also called Uhtred which pisses Uhtred off as it implies that his cousin has legitimate claim to his birth right.
All seems lost until Uhtred’s Irish pal Finan (who is increasingly being used by Cornwell like Sharpe’s sidekick Harper) appears to save the day. Finan has captured the cousin’s wife, their young son and the uncle. Uhtred kills the old man and takes the wife and son away with him to Frisia where he can do some soul searching. Killing his hated uncle seems like an anti-climax to him and he feels like a rudderless ship having been cut loose by Wessex and having failed to win back Bebbanburg.
After some deep thought and a little counsel from his cousin’s wife, Uhtred figures out that Cnut is pretending that his wife and children have been taken as part of a masterplan to attack Wessex. Uhtred sails back to Britain and travels with his friend Osferth, King Edward’s half brother, who like Finan will stay by Uhtred’s side through thick and thin, to the site of an old monastery near Lincoln. A band of Christian priests are doing a spot of archaeology, trying to find the bones of Saint Oswald which they believe will help Wessex and Mercia defeat the Danes once and for all.
Uhtred believes it is a forlorn hope, the bones long since having been destroyed by marauding Danes, although he remembers that Saint Oswald’s left arm is held as a relic in Bebbanburg. However, seeing the important of what the priests believe – the power of the Saint in Saxon minds – Uhtred secretly mocks up a passable one-armed skeleton and leaves it to be found by the priests. The fact that he mistakenly cuts off the skeleton’s right arm instead of the left is something the priests are happy to gloss over in their religious fervour when they discover the bones.
Uhtred asks Osferth to sail to Lundene (London) to ask Edward to join him in a battle with the Danes in the vicinity Gleawecestre (Gloucester). One of Uhtred’s rules is that it’s always best to chose your place of battle rather than let your enemy chose it for you, and so he is planning to lure the Danes there. His plan relies on Edward coming to reinforce his small army of men (bolstered by the addition of Aethelflaed’s men) and Aethelred also being commanded to meet them.
Uhtred captures Cnut’s wife Frigg and two children in Haesten’s hall in Ceaster (Chester) after some daring-do by Uhtred’s son against the depleted Danish force left to guard the town while the rest have sailed around Wales to disembark at Gleawecestre and start marauding through the borderlands between Mercia and Wessex.
Uhtred then travels to Gleawecestre (part of the fun of the series is reading the old place names) and finding a band of Danes threatening the town, he pretends to kill Cnut’s daughter (using an already dead girl and a piglet for blood) and tells them that if they don’t piss off he’ll do the same to Cnut’s son and wife.
Uhtred sets fire to the Danish boats moored at Gleawecestre and then goes up the road to Teotanheale (Tettenhall) to fight the Danish warlords Cnut and Sigurd, and he sees Haesten’s banner among the many on display. Having served their purpose in turning Cnut around from clashing with Aethelred’s Mercian army, Cnut’s wife and daughter are returned to him. Uhtred however, keeps hold of Cnut’s son.
The young Uhtred gets his first real taste of being in a shield wall fighting across a ford in a river at Teotanheale. His father has had his men plant rocks in the water which the Danes stumble over and this helps the small Saxon army keep their ground. However they are vastly outnumbered (there’s about four thousand Danes and a few hundred Saxons) and even when Judas turns up with Father Pyrlig and a few hundred Welshmen, it is looking like they are doomed.
During the fight for their lives, Uhtred manages to get a good poke at Cnut and thinks he might have dealt him a fatal blow since he disappears in the mayhem. Sigurd then comes to have a go (he thinks he’s hard enough) and the young Uhtred impressively cuts him open. Finally ‘the cavalry’ arrives in the form of Edward with his men and Aethelred with his Mercian army. The Danes are forced to retreat but not before Aethelred is grievously hurt by a spear to the back of his head and Uhtred has some one-on-one time with Cnut which leaves the both of them seemingly dead.
It’s all rip-roaring stuff and much better paced than the previous book. I got through it in a matter of a few days and as has happened before I quickly moved on to the next book which is entitled The Empty Throne – no doubt a reference to the fact that Aethelred is pretty much toast and the ‘throne’ of Mercia is up for grabs. I put it in quotes because Mercia is really at the beck and call of the real power – Edward in Wessex.
Picture credit: The British Library Flickr collection.