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Thorkild let the boat drift downstream a hundred paces, then rammed her bows into the bank close to a willow. He jumped ashore, tied a sealhide line to tether the boat to the willow's trunk, and then, with a fearful glance at the armed men watching from higher up the bank, scrambled hurriedly back on board. "You," he pointed at me, "find out what's happening."
"Trouble's happening," I said. "You need to know more?"
"I need to know what's happened to my storehouse," he said, then nodded toward the armed men, "and I don't want to ask them. So you can instead."
He chose me because I was a warrior and because, if I died, he would not grieve. Most of his oarsmen were capable of fighting, but he avoided combat whenever he could because bloodshed and trading were bad partners. The armed men were advancing down the bank now. There were six of them, but they approached very hesitantly, for Thorkild had twice their number in his ship's bows and all those seamen were armed with axes and spears.
I pulled my mail over my head, unwrapped the glorious wolf-crested helmet I had captured from a Danish boat off the Welsh coast, buckled on Serpent-Breath and Wasp-Sting and, thus dressed for war, jumped clumsily ashore. I slipped on the steep bank, clutched at nettles for support and then, cursing because of the stings, clambered up to the path. I had been here before, for this was the wide riverside pasture where my father had led the attack on Eoferwic. I pulled on the helmet and shouted at Thorkild to throw me my shield. He did and, just as I was about to start walking toward the six men who were now standing and watching me with swords in their hands, Hild jumped after me. "You should have stayed on the boat," I told her.
"Not without you," she said. She was carrying our one leather bag in which was little more than a change of clothes, a knife and a whetstone. "Who are they?" she asked, meaning the six men who were still fifty paces away and in no hurry to close the distance.
"Let's find out," I said, and drew Serpent-Breath.
The shadows were long and the smoke of the city's cooking fires was purple and gold in the twilight. Rooks flew toward their nests and in the distance I could see cows going to their evening milking. I walked toward the six men. I was in mail, I had a shield and two swords, I wore arm rings and a helmet that was worth the value of three fine mail coats and my appearance checked the six men, who huddled together and waited for me. They all had drawn swords, but I saw that two of them had crucifixes about their necks and that made me suppose they were Saxons. "When a man comes home," I called to them in English, "he does not expect to be met by swords."
Two of them were older men, perhaps in their thirties, both of them thick-bearded and wearing mail. The other four were in leather coats and were younger, just seventeen or eighteen, and the blades in their hands looked as unfamiliar to them as a plow handle would to me. They must have assumed I was a Dane because I had come from a Danish ship and they must have known that six of them could kill one Dane, but they also knew that one war-Dane, dressed in battle-splendor, was likely to kill at least two of them before he died and so they were relieved when I spoke to them in English. They were also puzzled. "Who are you?" one of the older men called.
I did not answer, but just kept walking toward them. If they had decided to attack me then I would have been forced to flee ignominiously or else die, but I walked confidently, my shield held low and with Serpent-Breath's tip brushing the long grass. They took my reluctance to answer for arrogance, when in truth it was confusion. I had thought to call myself by any name other than my own, for I did not want Kjartan or my traitorous uncle to know I had returned to Northumbria, but my name was also one to be reckoned with and I was foolishly tempted to use it to awe them, but inspiration came just in time. "I am Steapa of Defnascir," I announced, and just in case Steapa's name was unknown in Northumbria, I added a boast. "I am the man who put Svein of the White Horse into his long home in the earth."
The man who had demanded my name stepped a pace backward. "You are Steapa? The one who serves Alfred?"
"Lord," he said, and lowered his blade. One of the younger men touched his crucifix and dropped to a knee. A third man sheathed his sword and the others, deciding that was prudent, did the same.
"Who are you?" I demanded.
"We serve King Egbert," one of the older men said.
"And the dead?" I asked, gesturing toward the river where another naked corpse circled slow in the current, "who are they?"
"You're killing Danes?"
"It's God's will, lord," he said.
I gestured toward Thorkild's ship. "That man is a Dane and he is also a friend. Will you kill him?"
"We know Thorkild, lord," the man said, "and if he comes in peace he will live."
"And me?" I demanded, "what would you do with me?"
"The king would see you, lord. He would honor you for the great slaughter of the Danes."
"This slaughter?" I asked scornfully, pointing Serpent-Breath toward a corpse floating downriver.
"He would honor the victory over Guthrum, lord. Is it true?"
"It is true," I said, "I was there." I turned then, sheathed Serpent-Breath, and beckoned to Thorkild who untied his ship and rowed it upstream. I shouted to him across the water, telling him that Egbert's Saxons had risen against the Danes, but that these men promised they would leave him in peace if he came in friendship.Lords of the North
Excerpted from The Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell
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