I’m in the last stages of editing my new book which is a sequel to Land of Blood and Water. This is set four years after King Alfred’s victory at Ethandun and follows the adventures of Ulf and Inga who are now making their way in the world.
LONGSHIPS Mideltun, Kent, Easter 883
Ulf bent and examined his horse’s hoof.
‘It’s looking better,’ he said.
‘Be as good as new in a day or two,’ the blacksmith said. ‘But you’ll need to go gently with her.’
Ulf straightened and smiled. ‘I will. You’re the best smith and the best horse-healer I know, Cuthred.’
The smith smiled. He guessed that despite Ulf’s youth he already knew a great many smiths. One of the King’s own thegns would.
A sound of quarrelling reached their ears. ‘Hunsige and Siflaed again,’ Cuthred said. ‘And on Easter Day at that.’
Ulf groaned and stepped out into the sunlight.
Hunsige and Siflaed stood in front of their cottage, screaming at each other. Their neighbours paused in their work to watch and listen. It was one of the best entertainments in the village.
Lilla the priest, an earnest young man, came rushing towards the couple, his hands held out in a placating, calming gesture. Hunsige and Siflaed ignored him, trading insults like the doughtiest of warriors.
The priest stepped between them, Hunsige gave him an angry look and punched him in the eye. Then he slapped Siflaed across the face, sending her sprawling in the dirt. She struggled to her knees, eyes blazing, her own fists raised, then fell back again in a daze.
‘That’s enough,’ yelled Ulf. He strode towards them, uncertain that he had enough authority for his command to be heeded in such a heated situation.
He never found out.
‘Northmen,’ came a cry from the fields. ‘The Northmen are coming.’
Ulf stopped mid-stride and turned towards the river.
Five longships were speeding up the river.
Ulf stood open-mouthed in astonishment. Since the defeat of Guthrum’s army no Danish ships had sailed a river south of the Thames. His mind whirled. Perhaps they’d been sailing from East Anglia and got lost. No sooner had he wondered this than he doubted it. Northmen never got lost, their paths were always intentional. It meant they were spying out the land. Or even worse.
He observed the ships as they got closer. They were certainly not knarrs, the Viking trading craft. These were longer and leaner; dragon-ships, stallions of the sea, with space for only warriors and weapons. He calculated that each ship would carry forty warriors.
‘Get my sword,’ he cried to Cuthred.
The longships crashed against the river bank and two hundred armed warriors leapt to shore.
‘Find some weapons, men,’ Ulf cried. ‘Axes, knives, hammers, scythes.’
He raced across to the priest who was staring at the ships in horror.
‘Gather the women, children and old men,’ Ulf said. ‘Lead them into the forest. We’ll try to hold them off.’
‘There’s too many of them,’ Lilla said. ‘You won’t be able to.’
Ulf swallowed hard. ‘So hurry.’
Men raced into the village from their work in the fields and joined those who had darted into their homes for anything they could use as a weapon.
Ulf glanced at the little band, a score of terrified peasants without a sword or spear between them, preparing to fight two hundred savage warriors well armed and ruthless. Every man knew they would be cut down in moments. But those moments might just give their loved ones time to flee and hide.
Ulf smelled the familiar stench of piss and shit as the men’s bowels and bladders opened where they stood.
Cuthred thrust Ulf’s sword into his hand and shouldered his heavy hammer. ‘We’re dead men,’ he said.
‘So are some of the Danes,’ Ulf said.
And with that he leapt to the attack.
The Danes had been so eager to attack they did not come in one compact body. They came in a long line with the fastest leading the way, yelling and whooping with excitement.
It gave the villagers a brief opportunity to fight.
Ulf struck the foremost Dane, his sword piercing the man’s throat, killing him instantly. He withdrew the blade and slashed at the second warrior, hacking his arm to the bone, felling him to the ground. Cuthred appeared at his side, his hammer struck and a third Dane fell, his skull crushed into a hideous shape. Ulf feinted to the left and plunged his sword into a fourth warrior’s guts.
He heard a roar of fury as the villagers charged. The nearest Danes slowed, a handful of men, realising that they were outnumbered. In an instant the villagers fell upon them.
It was a brief and frenzied attack.
‘We’ve killed ten of them,’ Cuthred said with joy.
‘Only one hundred and ninety left then,’ Ulf said.
He looked towards the river. The Danish captain had halted the headlong charge and now gathered his men into a long shield-wall stretching to either side of the village and beyond.
They began to beat their spears upon their shields, a thunder of noise which rose across the village like a taunt and a threat of destruction.
Ulf glanced towards the forest. The priest, Lilla was on the fringes of it, shepherding the last of the women into the trees. Or not quite the last. Siflaed, still groggy from her husband’s punch, remained on her knees in front of her hut, unnoticed and forgotten.
There was nothing he could do about her, no means of protecting her. But he could try to save the rest of the village.
‘Run, men, run,’ Ulf cried.
The villagers turned and fled towards the forest. Ulf hoped against hope that the women and children had gone far enough to be safe. He pushed Cuthred away and turned towards the Danes. He was lord of the village. He would remain and hold off the Danes alone.
The Danish shield wall had all but engulfed him when a loud, gruff voice ordered them to stop. The Danes halted within a few steps of hearing the command, a sure sign they were well disciplined.
But not all of them. One man leapt from the shield wall, screaming a taunt. He turned towards his own line, eager to see how they would admire his challenge.
Ulf seized the chance, hurtled towards him and sliced open his neck while his gaze was still turned.
A rumble of anger came over the Danish wall and three warriors, friends of the fallen man, strode out to put an end to the fight.