Cutting : The hard made the best cutting edge but it was….

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Bridle Bijoux - Silver & Tanzanite (purple) Horses-store.comCutting : The hard made the best cutting edge but it was….

Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html “Lucky?” “That my father didn’t kill you at Eoferwic.” “I was lucky,” I agreed. “But he was always a good judge of men,” he said, passing me a pot of ale.

He perched on the roof ridge and gazed across the valley. “He likes it here.” “It’s a good place.

What about Ireland?” He grinned. “Bog and rock, Uhtred, and the skraelings are vicious.” The skraelings were the natives. “But they fight well! And there’s silver there, and the more they fight the more silver we get.

Are you going to drink all that ale, or do I get some?” I handed him back the pot and watched as the ale ran down his beard as he drained it. “I like Ireland well enough,” he said when he had finished, “but I won’t stay there.

I’ll come back here.

Find land in Wessex.

Raise a family.

Get fat.” “Why don’t you come back now?” “Because Ivar wants me there, and Ivar’s a good lord.” “He frightens me.” “A good lord should be frightening.” “Your father isn’t.” “Not to you, but what about the men he kills? Would you want to face Earl Ragnar the Fearless in a shield wall?” “No.” “So he is frightening,” he said, grinning. “Go and take Wessex,” he said, “and find the land that will make me fat.” We finished the thatch, and then I had to go up into the woods because Ealdwulf had an insatiable appetite for charcoal, which is the only substance that burns hot enough to melt iron.

He had shown a dozen of Ragnar’s men how to produce it, but Brida and I were his best workers and we spent much time among the trees.

The charcoal heaps needed constant attention and, as each would burn for at least three days, Brida and I would often spend all night beside such a pile, watching for a telltale wisp of smoke coming from the bracken and turf covering the burn.

Such smoke betrayed that the fire inside was too hot and we would have to scramble over the warm heap to stuff the crack with earth and so cool the fire deep inside the pile.

We burned alder when we could get it, for that was the wood Ealdwulf preferred, and the art of it was to char the alder logs, but not let them burst into flame.

For every four logs we put into a pile we would get one back, while the rest vanished to leave the lightweight, deep black, dirty charcoal.

It could take a week to make the pile.

The alder was carefully stacked in a shallow pit, and a hole was left in the stack’s Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html center which we filled with charcoal from the previous burn.

Then we would put a layer of bracken over the whole thing, cover that with thick turves, and, when all was done, put fire down the central hole and, when we were sure the charcoal was alight, stuff the hole tight.

Now the silent, dark fire had to be controlled.

We would open gaps at the base of the pit to let a little air in, but if the wind changed then the air holes had to be stuffed and others made.

It was tedious work, and Ealdwulf’s appetite for charcoal seemed unlimited, but I enjoyed it.

To be all night in the dark, beside the warm burn, was to be a sceadugengan, and besides, I was with Brida and we had become more than friends.

She lost her first baby up beside the charcoal burn.

She had not even known she was pregnant, but one night she was assailed with cramps and spearlike pains, and I wanted to go and fetch Sigrid, but Brida would not let me.

She told me she knew what was happening, but I was scared helpless by her agony and I shuddered in fear throughout the dark until, just before dawn, she gave birth to a tiny dead baby boy.

We buried it with its afterbirth, and Brida stumbled back to the homestead where Sigrid was alarmed by her appearance and gave her a broth of leeks and sheep brains and made her stay home.

Sigrid must have suspected what had happened for she was sharp with me for a few days and she told Ragnar it was time Brida was married.

Brida was certainly of age, being thirteen, and there were a dozen young Danish warriors in Synningthwait who were in need of wives, but Ragnar declared that Brida brought his men luck and he wanted her to ride with us when we attacked Wessex. “And when will that be?” Sigrid asked. “Next year,” Ragnar suggested, “or the year after.

No longer.” “And then?” “Then England is no more,” Ragnar said. “It will all be ours.” The last of the four kingdoms would have fallen and England would be Daneland and we would all be Danes or slaves or dead.

We celebrated the Yule feast and Ragnar the Younger won every competition in Synningthwait: he hurled rocks farther than anyone, wrestled men to the ground, and even drank his father into insensibility.

Then followed the dark months, the long winter, and in spring, when the gales had subsided, Ragnar the Younger had to leave and we had a melancholy feast on the eve of his going.

The next morning he led his men away from the hall, going down the track in a gray drizzle.

Ragnar watched his son all the way down into the valley and when he turned back to his newly built hall he had tears in his eyes. “He’s a good man,” he told me. “I liked him,” I said truthfully, and I did, and many years later, when I met him again, I still liked him.

There was an empty feeling after Ragnar the Younger had left, but I remember that spring and summer fondly for it was in those long days that Ealdwulf made me a sword. “I hope it’s better than my last one,” I said ungraciously. “Your last one?” “The one I carried when we attacked Eoferwic,” I said. “That thing! That wasn’t mine.

Your father bought it in Berewic, and I told him it was crap, but it was only a short sword.

Good for killing ducks, maybe, but not for fighting.

What happened to it?” “It bent,” I said, remembering Ragnar laughing at the feeble weapon. Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html “Soft iron, boy, soft iron.” There were two sorts of iron, he told me, the soft and the hard.

The hard made the best cutting edge, but it was brittle and a sword made of such iron would snap at the first brutal stroke, while a sword made of the softer metal would bend as my short sword had done. “So what we do is use both,” he told me, and I watched as he made seven iron rods.

Three were of the hard iron, and he was not really sure how he made the iron hard, only that the glowing metal had to be laid in the burning charcoal, and if he got it just right then the cooled metal would be hard and unbending.

The other four rods were longer, much longer, and they were not exposed to the charcoal for the same time, and those four he twisted until each had been turned into a spiral.

They were still straight rods, but tightly twisted until they were the same length as the hard iron rods. “Why do you do that?” I asked. “You’ll see,” he said mysteriously, “you’ll see.” He finished with seven rods, each as thick as my thumb.

Three were of the hard metal, which Ragnar called steel, while the four softer rods were prettily twisted into their tight spirals.

One of the hard rods was longer and slightly thicker than the others, and that one was the sword’s spine and the extra length was the tang onto which the hilt would eventually be riveted.

Ealdwulf began by hammering that rod flat so that it looked like a very thin and feeble sword, then he placed the four twisted rods either side of it, two to each side so that they sheathed it, and he welded the last two steel rods on the outside to become the sword’s edges, and it looked grotesque then, a bundle of mismatched rods, but this was when the real work began, the work of heating and hammering, metal glowing red, the black dross twisting as it burned away from the iron, the hammer swinging, sparks flying in the dark forge, the hiss of burning metal plunged into water, the patience as the emerging blade was cooled in a trough of ash shavings.

It took days, yet as the hammering and cooling and heating went on I saw how the four twisted rods of soft iron, which were now all melded into the harder steel, had been smoothed into wondrous patterns, repetitive curling patterns that made flat, smoky wisps in the blade.

In some light you could not see the patterns, but in the dusk, or when, in winter, you breathed on the blade, they showed.

Serpent breath, Brida called the patterns, and I decided to give the sword that name: Serpent-Breath.

Ealdwulf finished the blade by hammering grooves that ran down the center of each side.

He said they helped stop the sword being trapped in an enemy’s flesh. “Blood channels,” he grunted.

The boss of the hilt was of iron, as was the heavy crosspiece, and both were simple, undecorated, and big, and when all was done, I shaped two pieces of ash to make the handle.

I wanted the sword decorated with silver or gilt bronze, but Ealdwulf refused. “It’s a tool, lord,” he said, “just a tool.

Something to make your work easier, and no better than my hammer.” He held the blade up so that it caught the sunlight. “And one day,” he went on, leaning toward me, “you will kill Danes with her.” She was heavy, Serpent-Breath, too heavy for a thirteen-year-old, but I would grow into her.

Her point tapered more than Ragnar liked, but that made her well balanced for it meant there was not much weight at the blade’s outer end.

Ragnar liked weight there, for it helped break down enemy shields, but I preferred Serpent-Breath’s agility, given her by Ealdwulf’s skill, and that skill meant she never bent nor cracked, not ever, for I still have her.

The ash handles have been replaced, the edges have been nicked by enemy blades, and she is slimmer now because she has been sharpened so often, but she is still beautiful, and sometimes I breathe on her flanks and see the patterns emerge in the blade, the curls and wisps, the blue and silver appearing in the metal like magic, and I remember that spring and summer in the woods of Northumbria and I think of Brida staring at her reflection in the newly made blade.

And there is magic in Serpent-Breath.

Ealdwulf had his own spells that he would not tell me, the spells of the smith, and Brida took the blade into the woods for a whole night and never told me what she did with it, and those were the spells of a woman, and when we made the sacrifice of the pit slaughter, and killed Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html a man, a horse, a ram, a bull, and a drake, I asked Ragnar to use Serpent-Breath on the doomed man so that Odin would know she existed and would look well on her.

Those are the spells of a pagan and a warrior.

And I think Odin did see her, for she has killed more men than I can ever remember.

It was late summer before Serpent-Breath was finished and then, before autumn brought its sea-churning storms, we went south.

It was time to obliterate England, so we sailed toward Wessex.

FIVE We gathered at Eoferwic where the pathetic King Egbert was forced to inspect the Danes and wish them well.

He rode down the riverbank where the boats waited and where the ragged crews lined on the shore and gazed at him scornfully, knowing he was not a real king, and behind him rode Kjartan and Sven, now part of his Danish bodyguard, though I assumed their job was as much to keep Egbert a prisoner as to keep him alive.

Sven, a man now, wore a scarf over his missing eye, and he and his father looked far more prosperous.

Kjartan wore mail and had a huge war ax slung on his shoulder, while Sven had a long sword, a coat of fox pelts, and two arm rings. “They took part in the massacre at Streonshall,” Ragnar told me.

That was the large nunnery near Eoferwic, and it was evident that the men who had taken their revenge on the nuns had made good plunder.

Kjartan, a dozen rings on his arms, looked Ragnar in the eye. “I would still serve you,” he said, though without the humility of the last time he had asked. “I have a new shipmaster,” Ragnar said, and said no more, and Kjartan and Sven rode on, though Sven gave me the evil sign with his left hand.

The new shipmaster was called Toki, a nickname for Thorbjorn, and he was a splendid sailor and a better warrior who told tales of rowing with the Svear into strange lands where no trees grew except birch and where winter covered the land for months.

He claimed the folk there ate their own young, worshipped giants, and had a third eye at the back of their heads, and some of us believed his tales.

We rowed south on the last of the summer tides, hugging the coast as we always did and spending the nights ashore on East Anglia’s barren coast.

We were going toward the river Temes, which Ragnar said would take us deep inland to the northern boundary of Wessex.

Ragnar now commanded the fleet.

Ivar the Boneless had returned to the lands he had conquered in Ireland, taking a gift of gold from Ragnar to his eldest son, while Ubba was ravaging Dalriada, the land north of Northumbria. “Small pickings up there,” Ragnar said scornfully, but Ubba, like Ivar, had amassed so much treasure in his invasions of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia that he was not minded to gather more from Wessex, though, as I shall tell you in its proper place, Ubba was to change his mind later and come south.

But for the moment Ivar and Ubba were absent and so the main assault on Wessex would be led by Halfdan, the third brother, who was marching his land army out of East Anglia and would meet us somewhere on the Temes, and Ragnar was not happy about the change of command.

Halfdan, he muttered, was an impetuous fool, too hotheaded, but he cheered up when he remembered my tales of Alfred that confirmed that Wessex was led by men who put their hopes in the Christian god who had been shown to possess no power at all.

We had Odin, we had Thor, we had our ships, we were warriors. Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html After four days we came to the Temes and rowed against its great current as the river slowly narrowed on us.

On the first morning that we came to the river only the northern shore, which was East Anglian territory, was visible, but by midday the southern bank, which used to be the Kingdom of Kent and was now a part of Wessex, was a dim line on the horizon.

By evening the banks were a half mile apart, but there was little to see for the river flowed through flat, dull marshland.

We used the tide when we could, blistered our hands on the oars when we could not, and so pulled upstream until, for the very first time, I came to Lundene.

I thought Eoferwic was a city, but Eoferwic was a village compared to Lundene.

It was a vast place, thick with smoke from cooking fires, and built where Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex met.

Burghred of Mercia was Lundene’s lord, so it was Danish land now, and no one opposed us as we came to the astonishing bridge that stretched so far across the wide Temes.

Lundene.

I came to love that place.

Not as I love Bebbanburg, but there was a life to Lundene that I found nowhere else, because the city was like nowhere else.

Alfred once told me that every wickedness under the sun was practiced there, and I am glad to say he was right.

He prayed for the place, I reveled in it, and I can still remember gawking at the city’s two hills as Ragnar’s ship ghosted against the current to come close to the bridge.

It was a gray day and a spiteful rain was pitting the river, yet to me the city seemed to glow with sorcerous light.

It was really two cities built on two hills.

The first, to the east, was the old city that the Romans had made, and it was there that the bridge began its span across the wide river and over the marshes on the southern bank.

That first city was a place of stone buildings and had a stone wall, a real wall, not earth and wood, but masonry, high and wide, skirted by a ditch.

The ditch had filled with rubbish and the wall was broken in places and it had been patched with timber, but so had the city itself where huge Roman buildings were buttressed by thatched wooden shacks in which a few Mercians lived, though most were reluctant to make their homes in the old city.

One of their kings had built himself a palace within the stone wall and a great church, its lower half of masonry and upper parts of wood, had been made atop the hill, but most of the folk, as if fearing the Roman ghosts, lived outside the walls, in a new city of wood and thatch that stretched out to the west.

The old city once had wharves and quays, but they had long rotted so that the waterfront east of the bridge was a treacherous place of rotted pilings and broken piers that stabbed the river like shattered teeth.

The new city, like the old, was on the river’s northern bank, but was built on a low hill to the west, a half mile upstream from the old, and had a shingle beach sloping up to the houses that ran along the riverside road.

I have never seen a beach so foul, so stinking of carcasses and shit, so covered in rubbish, so stark with the slimy ribs of abandoned ships, and loud with squalling gulls, but that was where our boats had to go and that meant we first had to negotiate the bridge.

The gods alone know how the Romans had built such a thing.

A man could walk from one side of Eoferwic to the other and he would still not have walked the length of Lundene’s bridge, though in that year of 871 the bridge was broken and it was no longer possible to walk its full length.

Two arches in the center had long fallen in, though the old Roman piers that had supported the missing roadway were still there and the river foamed treacherously as its water seethed past the broken piers.

To make the bridge the Romans had sunk pilings into the Temes’s bed, then into the tangle of fetid marshes on the southern bank, and the pilings were so close together that the water heaped up on their farther side, then fell through the gaps in a glistening rush.

To reach the dirty beach by the new city we would have to shoot one of the two gaps, but neither was wide enough to let a ship through with its oars extended. “It will be interesting,” Ragnar said drily. “Can we do it?” I asked. Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html “They did it,” he said, pointing at ships beached upstream of the bridge, “so we can.” We had anchored, waiting for the rest of the fleet to catch up. “The Franks,” Ragnar went on, “have been making bridges like this on all their rivers.

You know why they do it?” “To get across?” I guessed.

It seemed an obvious answer. “To stop us getting upriver,” Ragnar said. “If I ruled Lundene I’d repair that bridge, so let’s be grateful the English couldn’t be bothered.” We shot the gap in the bridge by waiting for the heart of the rising tide.

The tide flows strongest midway between high and low water, and halfway through the flood tide there was a surge of water coming upstream that diminished the flow of the current cascading between the piers.

In that short time we might get seven or eight ships through the gap and it was done by rowing at full speed toward the gap and, at the very last minute, raising the oar blades so they would clear the rotted piers, and the momentum of the ship should then carry her through.

Not every ship made it on the first try.

I watched two slew back, thump against a pier with the crash of breaking blades, then drift back downstream with crews of cursing men, butWind-Viper made it, almost coming to a stop just beyond the bridge, but we managed to get the frontmost oars in the water, hauled, and inch by inch we crept away from the sucking gap, then men from two ships anchored upstream managed to cast us lines and they hauled us away from the bridge until suddenly we were in slack water and could row her to the beach.

On the southern bank, beyond the dark marshes, where trees grew on low hills, horsemen watched us.

They were West Saxons, and they would be counting ships to estimate the size of the Great Army.

That was what Halfdan called it, the Great Army of the Danes come to take all of England, but so far we were anything but great.

We would wait in Lundene to let more ships come and for more men to march down the long Roman roads from the north.

Wessex could wait awhile as the Danes assembled.

And, as we waited, Brida, Rorik, and I explored Lundene.

Rorik had been sick again, and Sigrid had been reluctant to let him travel with his father, but Rorik pleaded with his mother to let him go, Ragnar assured her that the sea voyage would mend all the boy’s ills, and so he was here.

He was pale, but not sickly, and he was as excited as I was to see the city.

Ragnar made me leave my arm rings and Serpent-Breath behind for, he said, the city was full of thieves.

We wandered the newer part first, going through malodorous alleys where the houses were full of men working leather, beating at bronze, or forging iron.

Women sat at looms, a flock of sheep was being slaughtered in a yard, and there were shops selling pottery, salt, live eels, bread, cloth, weapons, any imaginable thing.

Church bells set up a hideous clamor at every prayer time or whenever a corpse was carried for burial in the city’s graveyards.

Packs of dogs roamed the streets, red kites roosted everywhere, and smoke lay like a fog over the thatch that had all turned a dull black.

I saw a wagon so loaded with thatching reed that the wagon itself was hidden by its heap of sagging reeds that scraped on the road and ripped and tore against the buildings either side of the street as two slaves goaded and whipped the bleeding oxen.

Men shouted at the slaves that the load was too big, but they went on whipping, and then a fight broke out when the wagon tore down a great piece of rotted roof.

There were beggars everywhere: blind children, women without legs, a man with a weeping ulcer on his cheek.

There were folk speaking languages I had never heard, folk in strange costumes who had come across the sea, and in the old city, which we explored the next day, I saw two men with skin the color of chestnuts and Ravn told me later they came from Blaland, though he was not certain where that was.

They wore thick robes, had curved swords, and were talking to a slave dealer whose premises were full of captured English folk who would be shipped to the mysterious Blaland.

The dealer called to us. “You three belong to anyone?” He was only half joking. “To Earl Ragnar,” Brida said, “who would love to pay you a visit.” Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html — Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html “I’m nearly thirteen!” she said defiantly. “So you are.

Who’ll marry you?” She shrugged. “Mother likes Anwend.” Anwend was one of Ragnar’s warriors, a young man not much older than me, strong and cheerful, but Ragnar had an idea she should marry one of Ubba’s sons, but that would mean she would go away and Sigrid hated that thought and Ragnar slowly came around to Sigrid’s way of thinking.

I liked Anwend and thought he would make a good husband for Thyra who was growing ever more beautiful.

She had long golden hair, wide set eyes, a straight nose, unscarred skin, and a laugh that was like a ripple of sunshine. “Mother says I must have many sons,” she said. “I hope you do.” “I’d like a daughter, too,” she said, straining with the churn because the butter was solidifying and the work getting harder. “Mother says Brida should marry as well.” “Brida might have different ideas,” I said. “She wants to marry you,” Thyra said.

I laughed at that.

I thought of Brida as a friend, my closest friend, and just because we slept with each other, or we did when Sigrid was not watching, did not make me want to marry her.

I did not want to marry at all.

I thought only of swords and shields and battles, and Brida thought of herbs.

She was like a cat.

She came and went secretly, and she learned all that Sigrid could teach her about herbs and their uses.

Bindweed as a purgative, toadflax for ulcers, marsh marigold to keep elves away from the milk pails, chickweed for coughs, cornflower for fevers, and she learned other spells she would not tell me, women’s spells, and said that if you stayed silent in the night, unmoving, scarce breathing, the spirits would come, and Ravn taught her how to dream with the gods, which meant drinking ale in which pounded red-cap mushrooms had been steeped, and she was often ill for she drank it too strong, but she would not stop, and she made her first songs then, songs about birds and about beasts, and Ravn said she was a true skald.

Some nights, when we watched the charcoal burn, she would recite to me, her voice soft and rhythmic.

She had a dog now that followed her everywhere.

She had found him in Lundene on our homeward journey and he was black and white, as clever as Brida herself, and she called him Nihtgenga, which means night-walker, or goblin.

He would sit with us by the charcoal pyre and I swear he listened to her songs.

Brida made pipes from straw and played melancholy tunes and Nihtgenga would watch her with big sad eyes until the music overcame him and then he would raise his muzzle and howl, and we would both laugh and Nihtgenga would be offended and Brida would have to pet him back to happiness.

We forgot the war until, when the summer was at its height and a pall of heat lay over the hills, we had an unexpected visitor.

Earl Guthrum the Unlucky came to our remote valley.

He came with twenty horsemen, all dressed in black, and he bowed respectfully to Sigrid who chided him for not sending warning. “I would have made a feast,” she said. “I brought food,” Guthrum said, pointing to some pack horses. “I did not want to empty your stores.” He had come from distant Lundene, wanting to talk with Ragnar and Ravn, and Ragnar invited me to sit with them because, he said, I knew more than most men about Wessex, and Wessex was what Guthrum wished to talk about, though my contribution was small.

I described Alfred, described his piety, and Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html warned Guthrum that though the West Saxon king was not an impressive man to look at, he was undeniably clever.

Guthrum shrugged at that. “Cleverness is overrated,” he said gloomily. “Clever doesn’t win battles.” “Stupidity loses them,” Ravn put in, “like dividing the army when we fought outside Æbbanduna.” Guthrum scowled, but decided not to pick a fight with Ravn, and instead asked Ragnar’s advice on how to defeat the West Saxons, and demanded Ragnar’s assurance that, come the new year, Ragnar would bring his men to Lundene and join the next assault. “If it is next year,” Guthrum said gloomily.

He scratched at the back of his neck, jiggling his mother’s gold-tipped bone that still hung from his hair. “We may not have sufficient men.” “Then we will attack the year after,” Ragnar said. “Or the one after that,” Guthrum said, then frowned. “But how do we finish the pious bastard?” “Split his forces,” Ragnar said, “because otherwise we’ll always be outnumbered.” “Always? Outnumbered?” Guthrum looked dubious at that assertion. “When we fought here,” Ragnar said, “some Northumbrians decided not to fight us and they took refuge in Mercia.

When we fought in Mercia and East Anglia the same thing happened, and men fled from us to find sanctuary in Wessex.

But when we fight in Wessex they have nowhere to go.

No place is safe for them.

So they must fight, all of them.

Fight in Wessex and the enemy is cornered.” “And a cornered enemy,” Ravn put in, “is dangerous.” “Split them,” Guthrum said pensively, ignoring Ravn again. “Ships on the south coast,” Ragnar suggested, “an army on the Temes, and British warriors coming from Brycheiniog, Glywysing, and Gwent.” Those were the southern Welsh kingdoms where the Britons lurked beyond Mercia’s western border. “Three attacks,” Ragnar went on, “and Alfred will have to deal with them all and he won’t be able to do it.” “And you will be there?” Guthrum asked. “You have my word,” Ragnar said, and then the conversation turned to what Guthrum had seen on his journey, and admittedly he was a pessimistic man and prone to see the worst in everything, but he despaired of England.

There was trouble in Mercia, he said, and the East Anglians were restless, and now there was talk that King Egbert in Eoferwic was encouraging revolt. “Egbert!” Ragnar was surprised at the news. “He couldn’t encourage a piss out of a drunk man!” “It’s what I’m told,” Guthrum said. “May not be true.

Fellow called Kjartan told me.” “Then it’s almost certainly not true.” “Not true at all,” Ravn agreed. “He seemed a good man to me,” Guthrum said, obviously unaware of Ragnar’s history with Kjartan, and Ragnar did not enlighten him, and probably forgot the conversation once Guthrum had traveled on. Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html Yet Guthrum had been right.

Plotting was going on in Eoferwic, though I doubt it was Egbert who did it.

Kjartan did it, and he started by spreading rumors that King Egbert was secretly organizing a rebellion, and the rumors became so loud and the king’s reputation so poisoned that one night Egbert, fearing for his life, managed to evade his Danish guards and flee south with a dozen companions.

He took shelter with King Burghred of Mercia who, though his country was occupied by Danes, had been allowed to keep his own household guard that was sufficient to protect his new guest.

Ricsig of Dun-holm, the man who had handed the captured monks to Ragnar, was declared the new king of Northumbria, and he rewarded Kjartan by allowing him to ravage any place that might have harbored rebels in league with Egbert.

There had been no rebellion, of course, but Kjartan had invented one, and he savaged the few remaining monasteries and nunneries in Northumbria, thus becoming even wealthier, and he stayed as Ricsig’s chief warrior and tax collector.

All this passed us by.

We brought in the harvest, feasted, and it was announced that at Yule there would be a wedding between Thyra and Anwend.

Ragnar asked Ealdwulf the smith to make Anwend a sword as fine as Serpent-Breath, and Ealdwulf said he would and, at the same time, make me a short sword of the kind Toki had recommended for fighting in the shield wall, and he made me help him beat out the twisted rods.

All that autumn we worked until Ealdwulf had made Anwend’s sword and I had helped make my own saxe.

I called her Wasp-Sting because she was short and I could not wait to try her out on an enemy, which Ealdwulf said was foolishness. “Enemies come soon enough in a man’s life,” he told me. “You don’t need to seek them out.” I made my first shield in the early winter, cutting the limewood, forging the great boss with its handle that was held through a hole in the wood, painting it black, and rimming it with an iron strip.

It was much too heavy, that shield, and later I learned how to make them lighter, but as the autumn came I carried shield, sword, and saxe everywhere, accustoming myself to their weight, practicing the strokes and parries, dreaming.

I half feared and half longed for my first shield wall, for no man was a warrior until he had fought in the shield wall, and no man was a real warrior until he had fought in the front rank of the shield wall, and that was death’s kingdom, the place of horror, but like a fool I aspired to it.

And we readied ourselves for war.

Ragnar had promised his support to Guthrum and so Brida and I made more charcoal and Ealdwulf hammered out spear points and ax heads and spades, while Sigrid found joy in the preparations for Thyra’s wedding.

There was a betrothal ceremony at the beginning of winter when Anwend, dressed in his best clothes that were neatly darned, came to our hall with six of his friends and he shyly proposed himself to Ragnar as Thyra’s husband.

Everyone knew he was going to be her husband, but the formalities were important, and Thyra sat between her mother and father as Anwend promised Ragnar that he would love, cherish, and protect Thyra, and then proposed a bride-price of twenty pieces of silver, which was much too high, but which, I suppose, meant he really loved Thyra. “Make it ten, Anwend,” Ragnar said, generous as ever, “and spend the rest on a new coat.” “Twenty is good,” Sigrid said firmly, for the bride-price, though given to Ragnar, would become Thyra’s property once she was married. “Then have Thyra give you a new coat,” Ragnar said, taking the money, and then he embraced Anwend and there was a feast and Ragnar was happier that night than he had been since Rorik’s death.

Thyra watched the dancing, sometimes blushing as she met Anwend’s eyes.

Anwend’s six friends, all warriors of Ragnar, would come back with him for the wedding and they would be the men who would watch Anwend take Thyra to his bed and only when they reported that she was a proper woman would the marriage be deemed to have taken place. Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html But those ceremonies would have to wait until Yule.

Thyra would be wedded then, we would have our feast, the winter would be endured, we would go to war.

In other words, we thought the world would go on as it ever did.

And at the foot of Yggdrasil, the tree of life, the three spinners mocked us. I spent many Christmasses at the West Saxon court.

Christmas is Yule with religion, and the West Saxons managed to spoil the midwinter feast with chanting monks, droning priests, and savagely long sermons.

Yule is supposed to be a celebration and a consolation, a moment of warm brightness in the heart of winter, a time to eat because you know that the lean times are coming when food will be scarce and ice locks the land, and a time to be happy and get drunk and behave irresponsibly and wake up the next morning wondering if you will ever feel well again, but the West Saxons handed the feast to the priests who made it as joyous as a funeral.

I have never really understood why people think religion has a place in the midwinter feast, though of course the Danes remembered their gods at that time, and sacrificed to them, but they also believed Odin, Thor, and the other gods were all feasting in Asgard and had no wish to spoil the feasts in Midgard, our world.

That seems sensible, but I have learned that most Christians are fearfully suspicious of enjoyment and Yule offered far too much of that for their taste.

Some folk in Wessex knew how to celebrate it, and I always did my best, but if Alfred was anywhere close then you could be sure that we were required to fast, pray, and repent through the whole twelve days of Christmas.

Which is all by way of saying that the Yule feast where Thyra would be married was to be the greatest in Danish memory.

We worked hard as it approached.

We kept more animals alive than usual, and slaughtered them just before the feast so that their meat would not need to be salted, and we dug great pits where the pigs and cows would be cooked on huge gridirons that Ealdwulf made.

He grumbled about it, saying that forging cooking implements took him away from his real work, but he secretly enjoyed it because he loved his food.

As well as pork and beef we planned to have herring, salmon, mutton, pike, freshly baked bread, cheese, ale, mead, and, best of all, the puddings that were made by stuffing sheep intestines with blood, offal, oats, horseradish, wild garlic, and juniper berries.

I loved those puddings, and still do, all crisp on the outside, but bursting with warm blood when you bite into them.

I remember Alfred grimacing with distaste as I ate one and as the bloody juices ran into my beard, but then he was sucking on a boiled leek at the time.

We planned sports and games.

The lake in the heart of the valley had frozen and I was fascinated by the way the Danes strapped bones to their feet and glided on the ice, a pastime that lasted until the ice broke and a young man drowned, but Ragnar reckoned the lake would be hard frozen again after Yule and I was determined to learn the skill of ice-gliding.

For the moment, though, Brida and I were still making charcoal for Ealdwulf who had decided to make Ragnar a sword, the finest he had ever made, and we were charged with turning two wagonloads of alderwood into the best possible fuel.

We planned to break the pile the day before the feast, but it was bigger than any we had made before and it was still not cool enough, and if you break a pile before it is ready then the fire will flare up with terrible force and burn all the half-made charcoal into ash, and so we made certain every vent was properly sealed and reckoned we would have time to break it on Yule morning before the celebrations began.

Most of Ragnar’s men and their families were already at the hall, sleeping wherever they could find shelter and ready for the first meal of the day and for the games that would take place in the meadow before the marriage ceremony, but Brida and I spent that last night up at the pile for fear that some animal would scratch through the turf and so start a draft that would revive the burn.

I had Serpent-Breath and Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html Wasp-Sting, for I would go nowhere without them, and Brida had Nihtgenga, for she would go nowhere without him, and we were both swathed in furs because the night was cold.

When a pile was burning you could rest on the turf and feel the heat, but not that night because the fire was almost gone. “If you go very still,” Brida said after dark, “you can feel the spirits.” I think I fell asleep instead, but sometime toward dawn I awoke and found Brida was also asleep.

I sat up carefully, so as not to wake her, and I stared into the dark and I went very still and listened for the sceadugengan.

Goblins and elves and sprites and specters and dwarves, all those things come to Midgard at night and prowl among the trees, and when we guarded the charcoal piles both Brida and I put out food for them so they would leave us in peace.

So I woke, I listened, and I heard the small sounds of a wood at night, the things moving, the claws in the dead leaves, the wind’s soft sighs.

And then I heard the voices.

I woke Brida and we were both still.

Nihtgenga growled softly until Brida whispered that he should be quiet.

Men were moving in the dark, and some were coming to the charcoal pile and we slipped away into the blackness under the trees.

We could both move like shadows and Nihtgenga would make no sound without Brida’s permission.

We had gone uphill because the voices were downhill, and we crouched in utter darkness and heard men moving around the charcoal pile, and then there was the crack of flint and iron and a small flame sprung up.

Whoever it was searched for the folk they reckoned would be watching the charcoal, but they did not find us, and after a while they moved downhill and we followed.

Dawn was just leeching the eastern sky with a wolf-gray edge.

There was frost on the leaves and a small wind. “We should get to Ragnar,” I whispered. “We can’t,” Brida said, and she was right, for there were scores of men in the trees and they were between us and the hall, and we were much too far away to shout a warning to Ragnar, and so we tried to go around the strangers, hurrying along the hill’s ridge so we could drop down to the forge where Ealdwulf slept, but before we had gone halfway the fires burst into life.

That dawn is seared on my memory, burnt there by the flames of a hall-burning.

There was nothing we could do except watch.

Kjartan and Sven had come to our valley with over a hundred men and now they attacked Ragnar by setting fire to the thatch of his hall.

I could see Kjartan and his son, standing amid the flaming torches that lit the space in front of the door, and as folk came from the hall they were struck by spears or arrows so that a pile of bodies grew in the firelight, which became ever brighter as the thatch flared and finally burst into a tumultuous blaze that outshone the light of the gray dawn.

We could hear people and animals screaming inside.

Some men burst from the hall with weapons in hand, but they were cut down by the soldiers who surrounded the hall, men at every door or window, men who killed the fugitives, though not all of them.

The younger women were pushed aside under guard, and Thyra was given to Sven who struck her hard on the head and left her huddled at his feet as he helped kill her family.

I did not see Ravn, Ragnar, or Sigrid die, though die they did, and I suspect they were burned in the hall when the roof collapsed in a roaring gout of flame, smoke, and wild sparks.

Ealdwulf also died and I was in tears.

I wanted to draw Serpent-Breath and rush into those men around the flames, but Brida held me down, and then she whispered to me that Kjartan and Sven would surely search the nearby woods for any survivors, and she persuaded me to pull back into the lightening trees.

Dawn was a sullen iron band across the sky and the sun cloud-hidden in shame as we stumbled uphill to find shelter among some fallen rocks deep in the high wood. Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html All that day the smoke rose from Ragnar’s hall, and the next night there was a glow above the tangled black branches of the trees, and the next morning there were still wisps of smoke coming from the valley where we had been happy.

We crept closer, both of us hungry, to see Kjartan and his men raking through the embers.

They pulled out lumps and twists of melted iron, a mail coat fused into a crumpled horror, silver welded into chunks, and they took whatever they found that could be sold or used again.

At times they appeared frustrated, as if they had not found enough treasure, though they took enough.

A wagon carried Ealdwulf’s tools and anvil down the valley.

Thyra had a rope put around her neck, was placed on a horse and led away by one-eyed Sven.

Kjartan pissed on a heap of glowing cinders, then laughed as one of his men said something.

By afternoon they were gone.

I was sixteen and no longer a child.

And Ragnar, my lord, who had made me his son, was dead. — Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html done on the farm.

At Æsc’s Hill, the one battle the West Saxons had won against the Danes, it had been the household troops who had gained the victory.

Divided between Alfred and his brother, they had spearheaded the fighting while the fyrd, as it usually did, looked menacing, but only became engaged when the real soldiers had already won the fight.

The fyrd, in brief, was about as much use as a hole in a boat’s bottom, but that was where Leofric could expect to find men.

Except there were those ships’ crews getting drunk in Hamtun’s winter taverns and those were the men Leofric wanted, and to get them he had to persuade Alfred to relieve Hacca of their command, and luckily for us Hacca himself came to Cippanhamm and pleaded to be released from the fleet.

He prayed daily, he told Alfred, never to see the ocean again. “I get seasick, lord.” Alfred was always sympathetic to men who suffered sickness because he was so often ill himself, and he must have known that Hacca was an inadequate commander of ships, but Alfred’s problem was how to replace him.

To which end he summoned four bishops, two abbots, and a priest to advise him, and I learned from Beocca that they were all praying about the new appointment. “Do something!” Leofric snarled at me. “What the devil am I supposed to do?” “You have friends who are priests! Talk to them.

Talk to Alfred, earsling.” He rarely called me that anymore, only when he was angry. “He doesn’t like me,” I said. “If I ask him to put us in charge of the fleet, he’ll give it to anyone but us.

He’ll give it to a bishop, probably.” “Hell!” Leofric said.

In the end it was Eanflæd who saved us.

The redhead was a merry soul and had a particular fondness for Leofric, and she heard us arguing and sat down, slapped her hands on the table to silence us, and then asked what we were fighting about.

Then she sneezed because she had a cold. “I want this useless earsling,” Leofric jerked his thumb at me, “to be named commander of the fleet, only he’s too young, too ugly, too horrible, and too pagan, and Alfred’s listening to a pack of bishops who’ll end up naming some wizened old fart who doesn’t know his prow from his prick.” “Which bishops?” Eanflæd wanted to know. “Scireburnan, Wintanceaster, Winburnan, and Exanceaster,” I said.

She smiled, sneezed again, and two days later I was summoned to Alfred’s presence.

It turned out that the Bishop of Exanceaster was partial to redheads.

Alfred greeted me in his hall, a fine building with beams, rafters, and a central stone hearth.

His guards watched us from the doorway where a group of petitioners waited to see the king, and a huddle of priests prayed at the hall’s other end, but the two of us were alone by the hearth where Alfred paced up and down as he talked.

He said he was thinking of appointing me to command the fleet.

Just thinking, he stressed.

God, he went on, was guiding his choice, but now he must talk with me to see whether God’s advice chimed with his own intuition.

He put great store by intuition.

He once lectured me about a man’s inner eye and how it could lead us to a higher wisdom, and I dare say he was right, but appointing a fleet commander did not need mystical wisdom, it needed finding a raw fighter willing to kill some Danes. “Tell me,” he went on, “has learning to read bolstered your faith?” Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html “Yes, lord,” I said with feigned eagerness. “It has?” He sounded dubious. “The life of Saint Swithun,” I said, waving a hand as if to suggest it had overwhelmed me, “and the stories of Chad!” I fell silent as if I could not think of praise sufficient for that tedious man. “The blessed Chad!” Alfred said happily. “You know men and cattle were cured by the dust of his corpse?” “A miracle, lord,” I said. “It is good to hear you say as much, Uhtred,” Alfred said, “and I rejoice in your faith.” ”It gives me great happiness, lord,” I replied with a straight face. “Because it is only with faith in God that we shall prevail against the Danes.” “Indeed, lord,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, wondering why he did not just name me commander of the fleet and be done with it.

But he was in a discursive mood. “I remember when I first met you,” he said, “and I was struck by your childlike faith.

It was an inspiration to me, Uhtred.” “I am glad of it, lord.” “And then”—he turned and frowned at me—“I detected a lessening of faith in you.” “God tries us, lord,” I said. “He does! He does!” He winced suddenly.

He was always a sick man.

He had collapsed in pain at his wedding, though that might have been the horror of realizing what he was marrying, but in truth he was prone to bouts of sudden griping agony.

That, he had told me, was better than his first illness, which had been an affliction of ficus, which is a real endwerc, so painful and bloody that at times he had been unable to sit, and sometimes that ficus came back, but most of the time he suffered from the pains in his belly. “God does try us,” he went on, “and I think God was testing you.

I would like to think you have survived the trial.” “I believe I have, lord,” I said gravely, wishing he would just end this ridiculous conversation. “But I still hesitate to name you,” he admitted. “You are young! It is true you have proved your diligence by learning to read and that you are nobly born, but you are more likely to be found in a tavern than in a church.

Is that not true?” That silenced me, at least for a heartbeat or two, but then I remembered something Beocca had said to me during his interminable lessons and, without thinking, without even really knowing what they meant, I said the words aloud. “The son of man is come eating and drinking,” I said, “and…” “‘You say, look, a greedy man and a drinker!’” Alfred finished the words for me. “You are right, Uhtred, right to chide me.

Glory to God! Christ was accused of spending his time in taverns, and I forgot Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html it.

It is in the Scriptures!” The gods help me, I thought.

The man was drunk on God, but he was no fool, for now he turned on me like a snake. “And I hear you spend time with my nephew.

They say you distract him from his lessons.” I put my hand on my heart. “I will swear an oath, lord,” I said, “that I have done nothing except dissuade him from rashness.” And that was true, or true enough.

I had never encouraged Æthelwold in his wilder flights of fancy that involved cutting Alfred’s throat or running away to join the Danes.

I did encourage him to ale, whores, and blasphemy, but I did not count those things as rash. “My oath on it, lord,” I said.

The wordoath was powerful.

All our laws depend on oaths.

Life, loyalty, and allegiance depend on oaths, and my use of the word persuaded him. “I thank you,” he said earnestly, “and I should tell you, Uhtred, that to my surprise the Bishop of Exanceaster had a dream in which a messenger of God appeared to him and said that you should be made commander of the fleet.” “A messenger of God?” I asked. “An angel, Uhtred.” “Praise God,” I said gravely, thinking how Eanflæd would enjoy discovering that she was now an angel. “Yet,” Alfred said, and winced again as pain flared in his arse or belly. “Yet,” he said again, and I knew something unexpected was coming. “I worry,” he went on, “that you are of Northumbria, and that your commitment to Wessex is not of the heart.” “I am here, lord,” I said. “But for how long?” “Till the Danes are gone, lord.” He ignored that. “I need men bound to me by God,” he said, “by God, by love, by duty, by passion, and by land.” He paused, looking at me, and I knew the sting was in that last word. “I have land in Northumbria,” I said, thinking of Bebbanburg. “West Saxon land,” he said, “land that you will own, land that you will defend, land that you will fight for.” “A blessed thought,” I said, my heart sinking at what I suspected was coming.

Only it did not come immediately.

Instead he abruptly changed the subject and talked, very sensibly, about the Danish threat.

The fleet, he said, had succeeded in reducing the Viking raids, but he expected the new year to bring a Danish fleet, and one much too large for our twelve ships to oppose. “I dare not lose the fleet,” he said, “so I doubt we should fight their ships.

I’m expecting a land army of pagans to come down the Temes and for their fleet to assault our south coast.

I can hold one, but not the other, so the fleet commander’s job will be to follow their ships and harry them.

Distract them.

Keep them looking one way while I destroy their land army.” I said I thought that was a good idea, which it probably was, though I wondered how twelve ships were supposed to distract a whole fleet, but that was a problem that would have to wait until the enemy fleet Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html arrived.

Alfred then returned to the matter of the land and that, of course, was the deciding factor that would give me or deny me the fleet. “I would tie you to me, Uhtred,” he said earnestly. “I shall give you an oath, lord,” I said. “You will indeed,” he responded tartly, “but I still want you to be of Wessex.” “A high honor, lord,” I said.

What else could I say? “You must belong to Wessex,” he said, then smiled as though he did me a favor. “There is an orphan in Defnascir,” he went on, and here it came, “a girl, who I would see married.” I said nothing.

What is the point of protesting when the executioner’s sword is in midswing? “Her name is Mildrith,” he went on, “and she is dear to me.

A pious girl, modest, and faithful.

Her father was reeve to Ealdorman Odda, and she will bring land to her husband, good land, and I would have a good man hold that good land.” I offered a smile that I hoped was not too sickly. “He would be a fortunate man, lord,” I said, “to marry a girl who is dear to you.” “So go to her,” he commanded me, “and marry her”—the sword struck—“and then I shall name you commander of the fleet.” “Yes, lord,” I said.

Leofric, of course, laughed like a demented jackdaw. “He’s no fool, is he?” he said when he had recovered. “He’s making you into a West Saxon.

So what do you know about this miltewærc?” Miltewærc was a pain in the spleen. “Mildrith,” I said, “and she’s pious.” “Of course she’s pious.

He wouldn’t want you to marry her if she was a leg-spreader.” “She’s an orphan,” I said, “and aged about sixteen or seventeen.” “Christ! That old? She must be an ugly sow! But poor thing, she must be wearing out her knees praying to be spared a rutting from an earsling like you.

But that’s her fate! So let’s get you married.

Then we can kill some Danes.” It was winter.

We had spent the Christmas feast at Cippanhamm, and that was no Yule, and now we rode south through frost and rain and wind.

Father Willibald accompanied us, for he was still priest to the fleet, and my plan was to reach Defnascir, do what was grimly necessary, and then ride straight to Hamtun to make certain the winter work on the twelve boats was being done properly.

It is in winter that ships are caulked, scraped, cleaned, and made tight for the spring, and the thought of ships made me dream of the Danes, and of Brida, and I wondered where she was, what she did, and whether we would meet again.

And I thought of Ragnar.

Had he found Thyra? Did Kjartan live? Theirs was another world now, and I knew I drifted away from it and was being entangled in the threads of Alfred’s tidy life.

He was trying to make me into a West Saxon, and he was half succeeding.

I was sworn now to fight for Wessex and it seemed I must marry into it, but I still clung to that ancient dream of retaking Bebbanburg. Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html I loved Bebbanburg and I almost loved Defnascir as much.

When the world was made by Thor from the carcass of Ymir he did well when he fashioned Defnascir and its shire next door, Thornsæta.

Both were beautiful lands of soft hills and quick streams, of rich fields and thick soil, of high heaths and good harbors.

A man could live well in either shire, and I could have been happy in Defnascir had I not loved Bebbanburg more.

We rode down the valley of the river Uisc, through well-tended fields of red earth, past plump villages and high halls until we came to Exanceaster, which was the shire’s chief town.

It had been made by the Romans who had built a fortress on a hill above the Uisc and surrounded it with a wall of flint, stone, and brick, and the wall was still there and guards challenged us as we reached the northern gate. “We come to see Ealdorman Odda,” Willibald said. “On whose business?” “The king’s,” Willibald said proudly, flourishing a letter that bore Alfred’s seal, though I doubt the guards would have recognized it, but they seemed properly impressed and let us through into a town of decaying Roman buildings amid which a timber church reared tall next to Ealdorman Odda’s hall.

The ealdorman made us wait, but at last he came with his son and a dozen retainers, and one of his priests read the king’s letter aloud.

It was Alfred’s pleasure that Mildrith should be married to his loyal servant, the ealdorman Uhtred, and Odda was commanded to arrange the ceremony with as little delay as possible.

Odda was not pleased at the news.

He was an elderly man, at least forty years old, with gray hair and a face made grotesque by bulbous wens.

His son, Odda the Younger, was even less pleased, for he scowled at the news. “It isn’t seemly, Father,” he complained. “It is the king’s wish.” “But…” “It is the king’s wish!” Odda the Younger fell silent.

He was about my age, nineteen, good-looking, black haired, and elegant in a black tunic that was as clean as a woman’s dress and edged with gold thread.

A golden crucifix hung at his neck.

He gave me a grim look, and I must have appeared travel stained and ragged to him, and after inspecting me and finding me about as appealing as a wet mongrel, he turned on his heel and stalked from the hall. “Tomorrow morning,” Odda announced unhappily, “the bishop can marry you.

But you must pay the bride-price first.” “The bride-price?” I asked.

Alfred had mentioned no such thing, though of course it was customary. “Thirty-three shillings,” Odda said flatly, and with the hint of a smirk.

Thirty-three shillings was a fortune.

A hoard.

The price of a good war horse or a ship.

It took me aback and I heard Leofric give a gasp behind me. “Is that what Alfred says?” I demanded. “It is what I say,” Odda said, “for Mildrith is my goddaughter.” No wonder he smirked.

The price was huge and he doubted I could pay it, and if I could not pay it then the girl was not mine and, though Odda did not know it, the fleet would not be mine either.

Nor, of Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html course, was the price merely thirty-three shillings, or three hundred and ninety-six silver pence, it was double that, for it was also customary for a husband to give his new wife an equivalent sum after the marriage was consummated.

That second gift was none of Odda’s business and I doubted very much whether I would want to pay it, just as Ealdorman Odda was now certain, from my hesitation, that I would not be paying him the bride-price without which there could be no marriage contract. “I can meet the lady?” I asked. “You may meet her at the ceremony tomorrow morning,” Odda said firmly, “but only if you pay the bride-price.

Otherwise, no.” He looked disappointed as I opened my pouch and gave him one gold coin and thirty-six silver pennies.

He looked even more disappointed when he saw that was not all the coin I possessed, but he was trapped now. “You may meet her,” he told me, “in the cathedral tomorrow.” “Why not now?” I asked. “Because she is at her prayers,” the ealdorman said, and with that he dismissed us.

Leofric and I found a place to sleep in a tavern close to the cathedral, which was the bishop’s church, and that night I got drunk as a spring hare.

I picked a fight with someone, I have no idea who, and only remember that Leofric, who was not quite as drunk as me, pulled us apart and flattened my opponent, and after that I went into the stable yard and threw up all the ale I had just drunk.

I drank some more, slept badly, woke to hear rain seething on the stable roof, and then vomited again. “Why don’t we just ride to Mercia?” I suggested to Leofric.

The king had lent us horses and I did not mind stealing them. “What do we do there?” “Find men?” I suggested. “Fight?” “Don’t be daft, earsling,” Leofric said. “We want the fleet.

And if you don’t marry the ugly sow, I don’t get to command it.” “I command it,” I said. “But only if you marry,” Leofric said, “and then you’ll command the fleet and I’ll command you.” Father Willibald arrived then.

He had slept in the monastery next door to the tavern and had come to make sure I was ready, and looked alarmed at my ragged condition. “What’s that mark on your face?” he asked. “Bastard hit me last night,” I said, “I was drunk.

So was he, but I was more drunk.

Take my advice, father.

Never get into a fight when you’re badly drunk.” I drank more ale for breakfast.

Willibald insisted I wear my best tunic, which was not saying much for it was stained, crumpled, and torn.

I would have preferred to wear my coat of mail, but Willibald said that was inappropriate for a church, and I suppose he was right, and I let him brush me down and try to dab the worst stains out of the wool.

I tied my hair with a leather lace, strapped on Serpent-Breath and Wasp-Sting, which again Willibald said I should not wear in a holy place, but I insisted on keeping the Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html

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