This is the third in the Saxon Warriors series, and a doozie it is, too. The first is The Last Kingdom, then comes The Pale Horseman. This series is about Britain in the late 9th century, and the rise of King Alfred the Great.
Here’s Wiki’s plot summary, with some additions of my own:
878 – 881: Uhtred of Bebbanburg makes his way back to his native Northumbria seeking revenge against his uncle Ælfric and childhood enemies Sven the One-Eyed and Kjartan the Cruel. He travels by ship with his friend and lover, Hild. (You remember her — she was the nun being raped in Cippanhamm who was rescued by Uhtred. Well, Uhtred has a honking big hoard of gold and silver, and he goes to the land that King Alfred has given him, and digs a hole to bury the cache. He makes sure Hild knows where it is — just in case.)
They make landfall near Eoferwic (York) to find the region in disarray. Lord Ivarr Ivarsson and his army are engaged with the Scots in the north. The formerly Danish-held Eoferwic has been conquered by Saxons. The central lands of Dunholm are ravaged by Kjartan and Sven, and Bebbanburg remains under the control of Ælfric. Uhtred is hired to escort a Danish merchant’s family north, through Dunholm, to safety.
As they travel and attempt to avoid the Dunholm fortress and Kjartan’s troops, they are unsuccessful and are led into a slave trading camp led by Sven. Uhtred disguises himself as Thorguild the Leper, Dark Swordsman of Niffelheim, and convinces Sven he is sent from the dead to haunt him. He frees Danish King Guthred of Cumbraland from the slave pens.
[Ok, a little side foray into history as opposed to historical fiction. During this time, Saint Cuthbert was pretty active. And that’s saying something, since he had been dead for a couple hundred years by this point. So history doesn’t really tell us how Guthred was released from slavery. Probably not by some Saxon who was raised by Danes. In his History of the Church of Durham, written in 883, Symeon of Durham wrote that the ever-busy Saint Cuthbert appeared in a vision to Abbot Eadred and said, “Go to the army of the Danes, and announce to them that you are come as my messenger; and ask where you can find a lad named Guthred, the son of Hardacnut, whom they sold to a widow. Having found him, and paid the widow the price of his liberty, let him be brought forward before the whole aforesaid army; and my will and pleasure is, that he be elected and appointed king at Oswiesdune.
Well, you clearly don’t mess with the desires of Saint Cuthbert, dead or alive, and so in some fashion, Guthred was released from slavery and made king. that worked out nicely.]
In Cumbraland, Uhtred becomes the commander of Guthred’s household troops and adviser. He trains a band of thirty new warriors and stops an attempt by Kjartan to capture him and Guthred, and he falls in love with Gisela, Guthred’s sister. But wouldn’t you know it, Guthred, for political reasons and because he really really wants to be a king of the northern area, , betrays Uhtred and has him cast into slavery.
During two years spent chained to the oar of a Danish trading ship, Uhtred befriends Finan the Agile, a former warrior. Uhtred is rescued by Steapa and Ragnar who pursued the trading ship in their Red Ship on the orders of King Alfred. Uhtred returns to Wessex to learn that it was Hild who convinced Alfred to send Steapa and Ragnar to his rescue. Hild had promised to Alfred that she would use Uhtred’s hoard of silver to build an abbey and recommit herself to Christ, and in return Alfred agreed to rescue Uhtred.
Uhtred, Father Beocca, Steappa and Ragnar are sent on embassy to Guthred with a message to make peace in Northumbria. They arrive in Guthred’s court to find that Gisela was married to Ælfric via proxy in return for support against Kjartan. Uhtred is certain his uncle will send no men to support Guthred. He chases off Ælfric’s men without allowing them to take Gisela, kills Ælfric’s monk Jænberht and leads Guthred’s men against Dunholm himself.
Uhtred has a plan to take Dunholm, and in the darkness, he along with eleven of his best men climb the hill upon which Dunholm sits and sneak into the fort through a gate used to fetch well water. Although they are discovered, they are assisted by Ragnar’s sister Thyra, who has been held by Sven and Kjartan since the events of The Last Kingdom. Her assistance allows Uhtred to open the gate for Ragnar with the main forces of Guthred’s army to enter the stronghold. Kjartan and Sven are killed and Guthred transfers control of Dunholm to Ragnar.
Guthred’s claim to the throne of Northumbria is not complete yet. Guthred’s army meets Ivarr’s stronger force in the field. Uhtred provokes Ivarr into single combat and the novel ends with Uhtred winning the duel against Ivarr.
OK, so what we have going on here is more fighting, more battles, more gory details of bloodshed, and for some reason, I am finding it quite exciting. Definitely not a peaceful time in history.