This is the fifth in the Saxon Warriors series, and in this book we are reunited with Uhtred of Bebbanberg, now 35 or 36 years old, living with his wife and three kids in what today is London, but back in the 800s when it was called Lundene, it was a town composed of the old Roman section, sturdily stone-built but abandoned, and the new section, built of wood and rushes, because the people believed the better section was haunted by ghosts. The city was foul with wastes running in the streets, and the river was horribly polluted.
The year is 892, when the second major campaign of King Alfred against the invading Danes began in earnest. Uhtred is now the preeminent warlord of Wessex, Alfred’s kingdom. Alfred refers to him as “my dux bellorum, my lord of battles.” He shares power with Bishop Erkenwald, whom he dislikes but respects. Ehtred was in charge of the security of the city,
…while Bishop Erkenwald ruled everything else. These days [much later when as an old man Uhtred was writing his memoirs] of course, he is known as Saint Erkenwald, but I remember him as a sour weasel of a man.
There is a great deal of political intrigue in this volume, as Alfred fends off some pretty violent Danes who want London, all of Mercia, and Wessex. Uhtred, of course, wins the day in some rather gruesome battles, and we are introduced to one of the Danes’ main squeeze, Skade, a particularly nasty and violent woman, who will play a part later in the story and will die as she lived.
After Wessex and London is secured, during the celebration, Uhtred is brought news that his wife has died giving birth to their fourth child, who has also died. He is devastated. Then King Alfred, who knows he is nearing death from his lifelong illness, wants Uhtred to swear allegiance to his son, Edward and see to it that Edwards will be king, but Uhtred refuses. He doesn’t want to be bound forever to the southern kingdoms; he want to go back to Northumbria and seize back his castle/fortress from his uncle. So off he goes.
While in the north with his dear friend, the Dane Ragnar, he is brought news that King Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, to whom he has sworn an oath, desperately needs him. He rushes back south to deal with the problem, the Danes of the north prepare a full assalt on the south in order to claim all of that land, and we end with more bloody fighting and the death of some of the head Danes.
Man, life in those days was just one battle after another.
There are three more in this series, but I only have the next one, Death of Kings. That’s ok — I am starting to suffer ‘series sag’. That’s what happens when you read all of a series right in a row.