The Flame Bearer extract
I had moments, only moments. Maybe I did not have enough time, but I had no choice now but to escape and so I led my three men along the wharf and up the westernmost pier. The few men already on the wharf ignored us, staring instead at the approaching fleet, while the sentry on the gaunt look-out tower must have been asleep, but he was awake now and he had seen the five ships and began clanging a bell. It was too late. The whole purpose of the look-out was to see ships when they were still at sea, not when they were just yards away from delivering fire, havoc and death to Dumnoc.
I jumped onto the empty ship, crossed its deck and leaped onto Rensnægl. ‘Wake up!’ I bellowed at Renwald who was already awake, but confused. He and his crew had been sleeping at the Rensnægl’s stern, under a sailcloth awning. He just stared at the four of us. ‘You have to get under way!’ I snarled at him.
‘Sweet Christ!’ Renwald said, staring past me to the pier’s far end where one of the five ships had rammed a moored vessel, splintering her planks. The first flaming torches were thrown. Two of the attacking ships were rowing into the centre of the harbour, into the wide space between the two piers and each slammed into the moored boats at the landward end where the piers joined the wharf and I saw mailed men armed with spears and shields clambering ashore to make two shield walls, each barring access to a pier. Dogs were howling in the town, the church bell began to toll and still the sentry on the look-out tower rang his alarm. ‘What in God’s name?’ Renwald asked.
‘Give me your sword!’ I called to him.
‘We can’t fight them!’ he said, appalled.
I wanted the sword to cut his mooring lines. The raiders were already doing that for us. A group was running along the pier, severing or casting off the mooring lines of smaller boats. They wanted to cause chaos. They would burn or break the larger ships destined to relieve Bebbanburg, but they would also scatter Dumnoc’s trading and fishing fleets. When they saw men aboard a moored boat or saw cargo heaped in a belly they were boarding to look for plunder, and I wanted to cut Rensnægl free before they saw us. ‘I don’t want to fight them,’ I snarled and ran back to the stern where I knew Renwald kept his weapons. I ducked under the awning, pushed two of his crewmen aside and snatched up the long sword. I ripped it out of its leather scabbard.
‘Lord!’ Swithun shouted.
I turned to see that two Norsemen had already spied that the Rensnægl was crewed, and they could see too that she had cargo in her belly. They must have smelt plunder because they jumped onto the next ship and were about to leap onto ours.
‘No!’ Renwald tried to bar my way. I pushed him hard so that he tripped and fell into the cargo, then I turned as a mailed warrior jumped onto our deck. He carried no shield, just a naked sword, and his bearded face was framed by a helmet with cheek-pieces so that all I could see of him were his eyes, eager and wide. He thought us easy prey. He saw the sword in my hand, but reckoned I was some elderly Saxon sailor, no match for a Norse warrior and he simply lunged his blade at me, thinking to pierce my belly and then rip the sword aside to spill my guts on the Rensnægl’s deck.
It was simple to parry the lunge. Renwald’s sword was old, rusty and probably blunt, but she was heavy too and my parry threw his lunge wide to my left, and before he could recover the blade I punched him in the face with my sword’s pommel. It struck the edge of his helmet, but with enough force to stagger him backwards. He was still trying to bring his sword back to face me when I plunged Renwald’s blade deep into his guts. The sword was blunt, but still the point pierced his mail, ripped through the leather jerkin beneath and gouged into his bladder. He gave a strangled cry and threw himself at me, his free hand flailing to claw my face and pry out my eyes, but I snatched his beard with my free hand and pulled him hard towards me, using his lunge against him, and I stepped aside, kept pulling and he stumbled past me, his momentum pulling my sword from his belly and then his legs struck the Rensnægl’s upper strake and he went overboard. There was a splash, a yelp, then he was gone, dragged down by his mail.
The second man had been content to watch his companion slaughter a crew of miserable Saxons, but the death of his companion had been so swift that he had been given no chance to help. Now he wanted revenge, but he did not think to attack Swithun, Oswi or Cerdic who stood unarmed at the bows of Rensnægl, instead he leaped, snarling, onto the pile of cargo and faced me. He saw a shabby, grey-haired man with an ancient rusty sword and he must have thought I had merely been lucky to survive the first attack and he leaped again, this time aiming to sever my head with a sweeping cut of his sword. He was young, angry, fair-haired and had ravens inked onto his cheeks. He was also a fool, a hot-headed young fool. There were ten of us aboard the Rensnægl and he had watched me kill his companion with the skill of a trained warrior, but he only saw a crew of Saxons while he was a Norse warrior, a wolf from the north, and he would teach us how Norsemen treated impudent Saxons. He swung his sword as he leaped at me. The sword cut was massive, wild, a killing blow that should have sliced through my neck, but it was also as obvious as the first man’s opening lunge. I saw it coming from the corner of my eye as I turned towards him and I felt the battle-joy surge, the knowledge that the enemy has made a mistake, and the certainty that another brave man was about to join the benches I had crowded in Valhalla’s mead hall. Time seemed to slow as the sword flashed towards me. I saw the youngster grimace with the effort of putting all his strength into that blade and then I just ducked.
I ducked straight down, the sword whipped above my head and I stood again with my rusty blade pointing skywards and the Norseman, still coming forward, impaled himself on Renwald’s old sword. The point slid into his chin, through his mouth, up behind his nose, into his brain and then jarred against the top of his skull. He seemed frozen suddenly, head-pierced, and his hand suddenly lost its force and his sword clattered onto the Rensnægl’s deck. I let go of my blade, pushed him away from me and snatched up his good weapon. I slashed at the stern mooring line, cutting it with three blows, then tossed the sharp blade to Cerdic. ‘Cut the bow line!’ I shouted, ‘then the spring! Quick!’
Cerdic picked up the sword and used his huge strength to cut the two lines with two strokes, thus freeing Rensnægl, and the tide immediately drifted us away from the pier. A third Norseman had seen what had happened, he could see one of his comrades lying on our cargo, his body in spasms and the sword still jammed in his skull. The man jumped onto the boat we had been lashed against and he shouted angrily at us, but the flooding tide was running strong and we were already out of his reach.
We were also in danger of running aground. Swithun had seen that the dying Norseman was wearing a fine scabbard plated with silver and was now trying to unbuckle the belt. ‘Leave it!’ I snarled, ‘get an oar! Cerdic, an oar! Hurry!’
Cerdic, usually so slow, was quick to seize an oar and used it to thrust the Rensnægl off the glistening mudbank that loomed to our left. I dragged the rusty sword free of the dying man’s head and used it to cut at the lines holding the awning that was suspended above the ship’s stern and which obstructed the helmsman’s platform. ‘Get a steering oar!’ I called to Renwald, ‘and put your men at the oars! And get the sail up!’
I put the rusty sword onto the dying man’s hand. He was making choking noises, his eyes flicking left and right, but he seemed incapable of moving his arms or legs. I retrieved the good sword from the Rensnægl’s bows, checked that the poor youngster still had the old sword lying on his palm, then put him out of his misery. Blood welled and spilled across the cargo of hides, and just then a flare of light erupted to my right. One of Æthelhelm’s ships had caught fire and the flames leaped up the tarred shrouds and spread along the yard. Renwald’s crew, who had seemed too stunned to move when the Norsemen attacked us, now scrambled to push oars through the holes in the Rensnægl’s side-strakes. ‘Row!’ Renwald shouted. He may have been confused by the dawn’s panic and slaughter, but he was seaman enough to grasp the danger of running aground. I dropped the sword and unhanked the halliard that was secured to the mast base, then dropped the yard until it was just above the deck where Oswi, standing on the dead man’s belly, used a knife to cut the lashings that were holding the furled sail tight. The dark brown canvas dropped and I hauled the yard back up as one of Renwald’s crewmen seized the steerboard sheet and pulled it taut. Another man tightened the bæcbord sheet and I felt the boat steady herself. The wind was behind us, coming from the south west, but the tide was running strongly against us and we needed both oars and sail to make headway. Renwald had managed to slide the steering oar into place and pulled its loom so that the Rensnægl slowly turned and slowly gathered way and slowly drew away from the gleaming mud towards the river’s centre.
‘We’d do better by sailing upstream,’ Renwald called to me,‘we’d be well away from those bastards then.’
He meant that by riding the tide inland to the shallower river reach we would be safe from any pursuit by the raiding vessels, all of which had to draw twice as much water as the Rensnægl. He was right, of course, but I shook my head. ‘We’re going to sea,’ I told him, ‘and then you’re taking us north to Grimesbi.’
‘We’re sailing to Lundene,’ Renwald said obstinately.
I picked up the young Norseman’s good sword and pointed the blade’s reddened tip towards Renwald. ‘You will take us,’ I said slowly and clearly, ‘to Grimesbi.’
He stared at me. Till now he had thought me a decrepit old man who had sailed to East Anglia to find a family grave, but I was stooped no longer. I stood straight, I spoke harshly instead of mumbling, and he had just watched me kill two men in the time it would have taken him to gut a herring. ‘Who are you?’ he asked.
‘My name,’ I told him, ‘is Uhtred of Bebbanburg.’
For a moment he seemed unable to speak, then he looked at his crewmen who had checked their rowing and were gazing open-mouthed at me. ‘Lads,’ Renwald said, then needed to clear his throat before he could speak again, ‘we’re going to Grimesbi. Now row!’
And in Dumnoc’s harbour there was slaughter.