Death of Kings (extract)

I took thirty men to Lundene, not because I needed them, but because a lord should travel in style. We found quarters for men and horses in the Roman fort which guarded the old city’s north-western corner, then I walked with Finan and Weohstan along the remnants of the Roman wall. ‘When you commanded here,’ Weohstan asked, ‘did they starve you of money?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘I have to beg for every coin,’ he grumbled. ‘They’re building churches, but I can’t persuade them to repair the wall.’

And the wall needed repair more than ever. A great stretch of the Roman battlements between the Bishop’s Gate and the Old Gate had fallen into the stinking ditch beyond. It was not a new problem. Back when I had been commander of the garrison, I had filled the gap with a massive oak palisade, but those trunks were dark now and some of them were rotting. King Eohric had seen this decayed stretch and I did not doubt he had noted it, and after his visit to Lundene I had suggested that repairs be made urgently, but nothing had been done. ‘Just look,’ Weohstan said and scrambled awkwardly down the slope of rubble that marked the ruined wall’s end. He pushed on an oak trunk and I saw it move like a dead tooth. ‘They won’t pay to replace them,’ Weohstan said gloomily. He kicked the base of the trunk and soft dark lumps of fungus-ridden wood exploded from his boot.

‘We’re at peace,’ I said sarcastically, ‘hadn’t you heard?’

‘Tell that to Eohric,’ Weohstan said, climbing back to join me. All the land to the north east was Eohric’s land, and Weohstan told of Danish patrols coming close to the city. ‘They’re watching us,’ he said, ‘and all I’m allowed to do is wave at them.’

‘They don’t need to come close,’ I said, ‘their traders will have told them everything they want to know.’ Lundene was always busy with traders, Danish, Saxon, Frankish and Frisian, and such merchants carried news back to their homelands. Eohric, I was certain, knew just how vulnerable Lundene’s defences were, indeed he had seen them for himself. ‘But Eohric’s a cautious bastard,’ I said.

‘Sigurd isn’t.’

‘He’s still sick.’

‘Pray God he dies,’ Weohstan said savagely.

I learned more news in the city’s taverns. There were shipmasters from the whole coast of Britain who, for the price of an ale, offered rumours, some of them true. And not one rumour spoke of war. Æthelwold was still sheltered in Eoferwic, and still claimed to be King of Wessex, but he had no power until the Danes gave him an army. Why were they so quiet? It puzzled me. I had been so confident they would attack at the news of Alfred’s death, but instead they did nothing. Bishop Erkenwald knew the answer. ‘It’s God’s will,’ he told me. We had met by chance in a street. ‘God commanded us to love our enemies,’ he explained, ‘and by love we shall make them Christian and peaceable.’

I remember staring at him. ‘Do you really believe that?’ I asked.

‘We must have faith,’ he said fiercely. He made the sign of the cross towards a woman who had curtseyed to him. ‘So,’ he asked me, ‘what brings you to Lundene?’

‘We’re looking for whores,’ I said. He blinked. ‘Do you know any good ones, Bishop?’ I asked.

‘Oh, dear God,’ he hissed, and went on his way.

In truth I had decided against finding whores in Lundene’s taverns because there was always a chance that the girls might be recognized and so I led Finan, Ludda and Father Cuthbert down to the slave dock which lay upriver of the old Roman bridge. Lundene had never possessed a thriving slave market, but there was always some small trade in young folk captured from Ireland or Wales or Scotland. The Danes kept more slaves than the Saxons, and those that we did possess were usually farm labourers. A man who cannot afford an ox could harness a pair of slaves to a plough, though the furrow would never be as deep as that made by an ox-drawn blade. Oxen were less trouble too, though in the old days a man could kill a slave who proved a nuisance and face no penalty. Alfred’s laws changed that. And many men liked to release their slaves, believing it earned them God’s approval, and so there was no great demand in Lundene, though there were usually a few slaves for sale at the dock beside the Temes. The traders came from Ratumacos, a town in Frankia, and almost all those traders were Northmen because the Viking crews had conquered all the region about that town. They came to buy the young folk captured in our border skirmishes, and some also brought slaves to sell, knowing that the wealthy men of Wessex and Mercia appreciated an exotic girl. The church frowned on that trade, but it thrived anyway.

The wharf lay just beyond the river wall and the slaves were kept in dank wooden huts inside the wall. There were four traders in Lundene that day and their guards saw us coming and warned their masters that rich men were approaching. The traders came into the street and bowed low. ‘Wine, my Lords?’ one asked, ‘ale, perhaps? Or whatever your Lordships desire.’

‘Women,’ Father Cuthbert said.

‘Be quiet,’ I growled at him.

‘Jesus and Joseph,’ Finan said under his breath and I knew he was remembering the long months he and I had spent as slaves, chained to Sverri’s oars, our arms branded with the S of slavery. Sverri had died, as had his henchman, Hakka, both slaughtered by Finan, but the Irishman had never lost his hatred of slavers.

‘You’re looking for women?’ One of the traders asked, ‘or for girls? Something young and tender? I have just what you need. Unspoilt goods! Juicy and precious! Gentlemen?’ He bowed, gesturing us towards a crude door inserted into a Roman arch.

I looked at Father Cuthbert. ‘Take the grin off your face,’ I snarled at him, then lowered my voice, ‘and go and find Weohstan. Tell him to bring ten or a dozen men. Quickly.’

‘But, Lord . . .’ he began, wanting to stay.

‘Go!’ I shouted.

He fled. ‘Always wise to lose the priests, Lord,’ the trader said, assuming I had sent Cuthbert away because the church frowned on his business. I tried to make a friendly response, but the same anger that was seething in Finan was now curdling my belly. I remembered the humiliation of slavery, the misery. Finan and I had once been chained in a dank building just like this. The scar on my upper arm seemed to smart as I followed the trader through the low door. ‘I brought a half dozen girls across the water,’ he said, ‘and I assume you’re not wanting dairy-maids or kitchen drabs?’

‘We want angels,’ Finan said tightly.

‘That’s what I supply!’ the man said cheerfully.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked.

‘Halfdan,’ he said. He was in his thirties, I guessed, burly and tall with a head as bald as an egg and a beard which reached to his waist where a silver-hilted sword was strapped. The room we entered had four guards, two armed with cudgels and two with swords. They watched a score of slaves who sat chained in the floor’s sewage-stinking sludge. The back wall of the hut was the city-side of the river rampart, its stones green and black in the small light that came through chinks in the rotting thatch roof. The slaves watched us sullenly. ‘They’re mostly Welsh,’ Halfdan said carelessly, ‘but there’s a couple from Ireland.’

‘You’ll take them to Frankia?’ Finan asked.

‘Unless you want them,’ Halfdan said. He unbolted another door, then rapped on its dark wood and I heard a second bolt being drawn on the further side. The door was pulled open to reveal another man waiting there, this one with a sword. He guarded Halfdan’s most valuable merchandise, the girls. The man grinned a welcome as we stooped through the doorway.

It was difficult to see what the girls looked like in the gloom. They huddled in a corner, and one appeared to be sick. I could see that one girl was very dark-skinned while the others were fair. ‘Six of them,’ I said. ‘You can count, Lord,’ Halfdan said in jest. He bolted the door which led back into the larger room where the men slaves were kept.

Finan knew what I meant. Two of us and six slavers, and we were angry, and we had not been given a chance to fight anyone for too long, and we were restless. ‘Six is nothing,’ Finan said. Ludda sensed an undertone and looked nervous.

‘You want more than six?’ Halfdan asked. He banged open a recalcitrant shutter to let in some light from the street and the girls blinked, half dazzled. ‘Six beauties,’ Halfdan said proudly.

The six beauties were thin, bedraggled and terrified. The dark-skinned girl turned her face away, but not before I saw that she was indeed beautiful. Two of the others were very fair-haired. ‘Where are they from?’

‘Mostly from north of Frankia,’ Halfdan said, ‘but that one?’ He pointed to the cringing girl, ‘she’s from the ends of the earth. The gods alone know where she sprang from. Could have dropped from the moon for all I know. I bought her off a trader from the south. She speaks some weird tongue, but she’s a pretty enough thing if you like your meat dark.’

‘Who doesn’t?’ Finan asked.

‘I was going to keep her,’ Halfdan said, ‘but the bitch won’t stop crying and I can’t abide a weepy bitch.’

‘They were whores?’ I asked.

‘They’re not virgins,’ Halfdan said, amused. ‘I won’t lie to you, Lord, if that’s what you want then I can find some for you, but it might take a month or two? But not these girls. The dark one and the Frisian were put to work in a tavern for a time, but they weren’t overused, just broken-in. They’re still pretty. Let me show you.’ He reached down with a massive hand and pulled the dark girl out of the huddle. She screamed as he pulled, and he slapped her hard round the head. ‘Stop crying, you silly bitch,’ he snarled. He turned her face towards me. ‘What do you think, Lord? She’s a weird colour, but a lovely girl.’

‘She is,’ I agreed.

‘Same colour all over,’ he said, grinning, and to prove it he yanked her dress down to reveal her breasts. ‘Stop whimpering, bitch,’ he said, slapping her again. He lifted one of her breasts. ‘See, Lord? Brown tits.’
‘Let me,’ I said. I had drawn my knife and Halfdan assumed I was going to cut off the remains of the girl’s dress and so he stepped away.

‘Have a good look, Lord,’ he said.

‘I will,’ I promised, and the girl was still whimpering as I turned and drove the blade up into Halfdan’s belly, but there was metal beneath his tunic and the blade was stopped dead. I could hear the whisper of Ludda’s sword sliding from the scabbard as Halfdan tried to head bang me, but I already had hold of his beard with my left hand and I pulled it down hard. I had turned the knife upright and I pulled Halfdan’s head down onto the point. The girls were screaming and one of the guards in the other room was hammering the bolted door. Halfdan was bellowing and then the bellow turned to a gurgle as the blade tore into his lower jaw and throat. There was blood brightening the room.

Finan’s man was already dead, killed by the Irishman’s lightning speed, and then Finan slashed the blade across the back of Halfdan’s legs, hamstringing him and the big man went to his knees and I finished the job properly by slitting his throat. His big beard soaked up most of the blood.

‘You took your time,’ Finan said, amused.

‘I’m out of practice,’ I said. ‘Ludda, tell the girls to be quiet.’

‘Four more,’ Finan said.

I sheathed the knife, wiped the blood from my hand on Halfdan’s tunic, and drew Serpent-Breath. Finan unbolted the door and it burst open. A guard ducked inside, saw the blade waiting for him and tried to back away, but Finan pulled him inside and I drove the sword deep into his belly, then brought a knee into his face as he buckled. He went down on the blood-soaked floor. ‘Finish him off, Ludda,’ I ordered.

‘Jesus,’ he murmured.

The other three guards were more cautious. They waited at the long room’s farther end and they had already called for help from the other slavers. It was in the trader’s interest to help each other, and their appeal brought still more men into the room. Four more, then five, all armed, and all eager for a fight. ‘Osferth always says we don’t think enough before we start a fight,’ Finan said.

‘He’s right, isn’t he?’ I said, but then there was a huge shout from the street. Weohstan had arrived with some of his garrison troops. Those troops forced their way into the shack and herded the slavers out into the street where two traders were complaining to Weohstan that we were murderers. Weohstan bellowed for quiet, then explored the shack. He wrinkled his nose at the stench in the large room, then ducked into the smaller room and looked at the two corpses. ‘What happened?’

‘These two had an argument,’ I said, pointing to Halfdan and the guard Finan had slaughtered so quickly, ‘and they killed each other.’

‘And that one?’ Weohstan nodded at the third man who was curled on the floor and whimpering.

‘I told you to finish him,’ I said to Ludda, then did the job myself. ‘He was overcome with grief at their deaths,’ I explained to Weohstan, ‘so tried to kill himself.’

Two of the other slave traders had followed us into the shed and they protested fiercely that we were liars and murderers. They pointed out that their trade was legal and that they had been promised the protection of the laws. They demanded that I stand trial for manslaughter and that I pay a huge price in silver for the lives I had taken. Weohstan listened to them patiently. ‘You’d swear an oath at his trial?’ he asked the two men.

‘We will!’ One of the traders said.

‘You’ll tell what happened and swear to it on oath?’

‘He must compensate us!’

‘Lord Uhtred,’ Weohstan turned to me, ‘you’ll bring oath-givers to contest the evidence?’

‘I will,’ I said, but the mention of my name had been enough to drain the belligerence from the two men. They stared at me for an eyeblink, then one of them muttered that Halfdan had always been an argumentative fool.

‘So you won’t swear in court?’ Weohstan asked, but the two men were already backing away. They fled.

Weohstan grinned. ‘What I’m supposed to do,’ he said, ‘is arrest you for manslaughter.’

‘I didn’t do anything,’ I said.

He looked at Serpent-Breath’s reddened blade. ‘I can see that, Lord,’ he said.

I stooped to Halfdan’s body and slit his tunic open to find a mail coat, but also, as I expected, a pouch at his waist. It was the pouch that had stopped my first knife thrust and it was crammed with coins, many of them gold.

‘What do we do with the slaves?’ Weohstan wondered aloud.

‘They’re mine,’ I said, ‘I just bought them.’ I handed him the pouch after taking a few coins for myself. ‘That should buy oak trunks for a palisade?’

He counted the coins and looked delighted. ‘You’re an answer to prayer, Lord,’ he said.

We took the slaves to a tavern in the new city, the Saxon settlement that lay to the west of Roman Lundene. The coins I had taken from Halfdan’s purse paid for food, ale and clothing. Finan talked to the men and reckoned a half dozen would make good warriors. ‘If we ever need warriors again,’ he grumbled.

‘I hate peace,’ I said, and Finan laughed.

‘What do we do with the others?’ he asked.

‘Let the men go,’ I said, ‘they’re young, they’ll survive.’

Ludda and I spoke with the girls while Father Cuthbert just stared at them wide-eyed. He was entranced by the dark-skinned girl whose name appeared to be Mehrasa. She looked the oldest of the six, she was perhaps sixteen or seventeen while the others were all three or four years younger. Once they realised they were safe, or at least not in any immediate danger, they began to smile. Two were Saxon girls, taken from the coast of Cent by Frankish raiders, and two were Franks. Then there was the mysterious Mehrasa and the sick girl who was a Frisian. ‘The Centish girls can go home,’ I said, ‘but you take the others to Fagranforda.’ I was speaking to Ludda and Father Cuthbert. ‘Choose a pair of them. Teach them what they need to know. The other two can work in the dairy or kitchens.’

‘A pleasure, Lord,’ Father Cuthbert said.

I looked at him. ‘If you mistreat them,’ I said, ‘I’ll hurt you.’

‘Yes, Lord,’ he said humbly.

‘Now go.’