War of the Wolf (excerpt)
Uhtred has been summoned to attend a Witan at Tamweorthin (Tamworth). He obeys the summons even though he knows one of his bitterest enemies, Ealdorman Aethelhelm, will try to have him killed . . . . .
Harald, the guard commander who had fought beside me at Eads
Byrig, handed me my swords. ‘Have you seen Lord Æthelhelm?’ I asked.
‘He took his men into the royal chapel, lord,’ Harald nodded across the
courtyard where an open door led into a chamber lit by candles. I could just
hear the low chanting of monks beneath the insistent seethe of hard rain. So
Æthelhelm would claim he was at his prayers while his men hunted me
through Tamweorthin’s dark streets.
I gave Harald another shilling, then the three of us left the palace. For a
moment we sheltered from the rain by lingering under the big arch where
burning torches guttered in the wind. The town lay dark beneath us, stinking
of sewage and smoke. ‘You think Æthelhelm’s men have had time . . .’ Berg
began, then was interrupted by Finan.
‘We were summoned over an hour ago,’ the Irishman said. ‘So the
bastard has had plenty time enough to send his dogs into the town.’
‘But where?’ I asked. The rain still pelted down. We were still beneath
the palace arch and must have been visible to anyone in the lower town so I
moved into the rain and a deeper darkness where the old fort’s turf ridge stood
at the top of the steep slope. ‘He won’t attack us close to the palace.’
‘He won’t?’ Berg asked.
‘Too many royal guards within earshot.’
‘So his men are waiting in the town?’
‘Sigtryggr’s out there too,’ Finan said, crouching beside me.
‘He can’t see us and we can’t see him.’
I was in a bitter mood. Brother Beadwulf had led me a dance across
Britain, my daughter had died, Sköll had escaped my vengeance and Eadgifu
had toyed with me for her own ambitions. Now Æthelhelm was taking me for
a fool, and I suspected his men were waiting for us. Or were they? The night
was so foul and dark perhaps he had decided to wait.
There had been a time when I was proud of my ability to stalk the
night as a sceadugenga, a shadow-walker, but in this relentless downpour I
would not stalk anyone, merely blunder. I cursed, then Finan touched my
elbow. ‘Listen!’ I listened and heard nothing but the beat of rain on the thatch
below us. Finan must have had better hearing. ‘Who is it?’ he called.
‘Me, lord!’ a voice called and I dimly saw a shadowy figure
scrambling up the slope. It was Roric, my servant. He almost slipped back
down the slick turf, but I grabbed his wrist and hauled him to the top. ‘King
Sigtryggr sent me, lord.’
‘Where is he?’
‘Down there, lord,’ Roric said, and I suppose he pointed at the lower
town, though much good that did us in the darkness. ‘He says there are seven
men waiting in Saint Ælfthryth’s church, lord.’
‘Do they have red cloaks?’
‘I didn’t see them, lord.’
‘And where’s this church?’
‘Right there, lord! The closest church.’
‘In the metalworker’s street?’ Finan asked.
‘And Sigtryggr’s where?’ I asked.
‘He just said to tell you that he’s close by and waiting, lord.’
I remembered passing the church. It had an open door and was lit by
rushlights and candles, and it made sense for my enemies to wait there. In this
darkness they would never see me, let alone recognise me, but the small light
cast through the church door would be enough for them, and once in the street
seven men would make short work of us.
‘Back to the road,’ I said, ‘and we’re drunk. Roric? Stay out of
We went back to the fort’s approach road and started singing. If
Eadgifu could provide Tamweorthin with a dumb show, I could provide
another kind of pretence. I bellowed the song of the butcher’s wife, a favourite
with drunken men, and staggered to hold Finan’s arm. We came to the
crossroads at the foot of the hill and now the metalworker’s street with its
smithies was to our left. I could see the wash of light from the small church
through which the rain made silver streaks. We stopped for a moment and I
sang louder, then dashed into a shadow and made the noise of a man vomiting.
A dog howled and I howled back as Finan lurched towards me, keening a song
in his native Irish. ‘I want a prisoner,’ I told him, then howled again,
provoking a half dozen dogs to bark frantically.
I pushed Roric into the shadows on the uphill side of the street, told
him to stay there, then Finan, Berg and I staggered along the street’s centre.
The dogs still barked, but men were shouting at them to be silent. The people
who lived here must have been aware of men moving in the night and sensible
folk made sure their doors were barred as they prayed for the noises to move
away. We three just sang louder and I saw a man appear in the church
doorway. He drew back, waiting for us to come into the dim wash of light. ‘I
want to be sick,’ I said loudly.
‘Not on my boots again,’ Finan answered just as loudly.
I put my hand on Serpent-Breath’s hilt as Finan loosened Soul-Stealer.
‘Sing, you Irish bastard,’ I slurred at him as we staggered past the church,
And they came. The church door darkened as they pushed through,
seven men with seven swords, and we turned and I was aware of other men
coming from the shadows behind me. Sigtryggr led them. He was shouting a
challenge in his native Norse, but the first of the attackers was closer. He leapt
for me, still convinced he faced a drunkard. He lunged, trying to run me
through with his blade, but I had drawn Serpent-Breath and she slid his blade
aside, I stepped closer and punched my sword’s hilt into his face and felt the
crunch of breaking bone or teeth. A Norseman’s spear came past me and
buried its blade in the man’s belly. I turned to avoid a second lunge and back
swung Serpent-Breath into a bearded face, dragging her edge back to cut into
the man’s eyes. He dropped his sword and screamed. Finan had driven Soul-
Stealer into a man’s throat while Berg, with Bone-Ripper, was standing over a
fallen man. I saw Bone-Ripper’s bright blade go down and the dark blood
spurt, then Sigtryggr’s Norsemen were past us, driving the survivors back
towards the crossroads, but still more men appeared from the alley by the big
tavern. They were the last of Sigtryggr’s men, led by Svart, and the three
surviving attackers were now trapped between their enemies. One hesitated
and Svart bellowed in battle fury as he drove his heavy sword down through
the man’s neck and into his rib-cage. The remaining pair fled into the church.
‘They didn’t put up much of a fight,’ Sigtryggr grumbled.
The man I had blinded was moaning, crawling on his hands and knees,
fumbling for his sword. Berg stepped to him, there was the sound of a blade in
meat, and the man went still. ‘I need prisoners,’ I said, and went into the
Saint Ælfthryth’s was a poor church, little more than a thatched barn
with a rush-covered floor. The altar was a plain table on which hung a white
cloth. Four candles, thick with wax, burned on the altar which had a crucifix
made of dull iron. The two sidewalls were decorated with leather hangings
crudely painted with saints, beneath which rushlights burned in iron stands,
while the edges of the small nave were heaped with sacks of charcoal,
presumably because the church was the safest and driest place for the smiths
to store their fuel. Loose charcoal crunched beneath my feet as I walked
towards the simple altar where the priest, a thin pale man, stood facing us.
‘They have sanctuary!’ he called.
‘We claim sanctuary!’ One of the men shouted desperately.
‘What’s sanctuary?’ Berg asked. He still held Bone-Ripper, her blood
diluted by the rain.
Sigtryggr came up beside me, his men crowding in behind. ‘Why are
we just watching them?’ he asked, ‘why not kill them?’
‘They have sanctuary.’
Svart was holding a severed hand. I assumed he meant to boil the flesh
off the bones and add them to his beard. ‘I’ll kill them,’ he growled.
‘I need prisoners,’ I said, then looked at the two men. ‘Put your swords
down,’ I told them and, when they hesitated, shouted the order. They dropped
The priest, a brave man considering he faced almost a score of armed
men in his night-
time church, held up a hand. ‘They have sanctuary,’ he said again.
‘They have sanctuary, lord,’ I corrected him, then walked to the altar
and used the edge of the white cloth to clean the blood and rain from Serpent-
Breath’s blade. ‘Sanctuary,’ I explained for the benefit of any Norseman
unfamiliar with the idea, ‘is offered by the church to criminals. So long as they
remain here we can’t touch them without being criminals ourselves.’ I kicked
the two mens’ swords towards Berg. ‘If we assault them here we’ll be
‘They won’t dare punish me,’ Sigtryggr said.
‘You haven’t experienced the fury of the priests,’ I said. ‘They preach
peace and demand the death of their enemies. Besides, I want to release them.’
‘Release them!’ Sigtryggr exclaimed.
‘Someone has to give Lord Æthelhelm the good news,’ I explained,
then I pushed Serpent-Breath into her scabbard and turned back to the two
men. Both were young. One had a bruise on his cheek and was shaking with
fear, the other was surly and had the courage to face me boldly. I had been
using Danish to talk to Sigtryggr, but now used the Saxon tongue. ‘Who are
you?’ I asked the surly man.
He hesitated, tempted to defiance, then decided sense was the better
choice. ‘Helmstan,’ he muttered. I waited and saw the resentment in his eyes.
‘Lord,’ he added.
‘Who do you serve?’
Again the hesitation, and it was the second man, younger and more
frightened, who stammered the answer. ‘Grimbald, lord.’
‘Grimbald,’ I repeated the name, which was unfamiliar to me. ‘And
who does Grimbald serve?’ I asked. Helmstan was scowling at his companion
and said nothing so I drew Wasp-
Sting, the short sword, and smiled at him. ‘This one hasn’t drawn blood
tonight and she’s thirsty.’
The priest started a protest, but went silent when I turned Wasp-Sting’s
blade towards him. ‘Who does Grimbald serve?’ I asked again.
‘Grimbald serves Lord Æthelhelm, lord.’ Helmstan said reluctantly.
‘Did Grimbald lead you tonight?’
It was not a name I knew and I assumed whoever Torthred was he was
now dead in the street. ‘Did Torthred serve Grimbald?’ I asked.
‘And what were your orders tonight?’ I asked. Neither man answered,
so I took a pace towards them and lifted Wasp-Sting. ‘They call me the priest-
killer,’ I said, ‘do you think I care a rat’s arse about sanctuary?’
‘We were ordered to kill you, lord,’ the more frightened man
whispered the words. He moaned when I placed Wasp-Sting’s blade on his
I left the blade there for a few heartbeats, then stepped back and
sheathed the seax. ‘Tell Grimbald,’ I told both men, ‘that he has two new
enemies. Uhtred of Bebbanburg and Sigtryggr of Northumbria. Now go.’