Bernard Cornwell, The Pagan Lord: exclusive extract

Bernard Cornwell

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None of us knew the country, or which way we should go, so I simply followed the Roman road until it joined another that ran north and south. ‘We keep going west,’ I told Finan.
‘Just west?’
‘We’ll find somewhere we know.’
‘Or ride to the world’s end,’ he said happily.
The fog was lifting and the land rose slowly until we reached a rolling upland where there were fat farms and big halls half hidden by groves of good trees, and though I was sure folk saw us, no one came to enquire what brought us to their land. We were armed men, best left alone. I sent scouts ahead as I always did in hostile country, and this land was certainly hostile. We were either in Cnut’s land or Sigurd’s territory and all the halls would be Danish. The scouts rode either side of the road, using woods or hedgerows for cover and always looking for any sign of an enemy, but we met none. Once, on the second day, five horsemen came towards us from the north, but they saw our numbers and veered away.
We were among higher hills by then. The villages were smaller and more scattered, the halls less wealthy. I sent my Danes to purchase ale and food from the halls and the Saxons to buy provi- sions from the villages, but there was scarce any spare food because so many armed bands had been this way before us. I went to one hall where an old man greeted me. ‘I am Orlyg Orlygson,’ he said proudly.
‘Wulf Ranulfson,’ I responded.
‘I have not heard of you,’ he said, ‘but you’re welcome.’ He limped because of an old wound in his left leg. ‘And where does Wulf Ranulfson ride?’
‘To join Jarl Cnut.’
‘You’re late,’ he said, ‘the summons was for the moon’s death. She’s growing again.’
‘We’ll find him.’
‘I wish I could go,’ Orlyg patted his injured leg, ‘but what use is an old man?’ He looked at my companions. ‘Just seven of you?’
I gestured vaguely northwards. ‘I’ve got three crews on the road.’
‘Three! I can’t feed that many. But I’ll have my steward find you something. Come inside, come inside!’ He wanted to talk. Like all of us, he welcomed travellers if they brought news, and so I sat in his hall and petted his hounds and invented tales about Frisia. I said the harvest there would be poor.
‘Here too!’ Orlyg said gloomily.
‘But there is good news,’ I went on, ‘I heard that Uhtred Uhtredson attacked Bebbanburg and failed.’
‘Not just failed,’ Orlyg said, ‘he was killed there!’ I just stared at him and he grinned at the surprise on my face. ‘You hadn’t heard?’ he asked.
‘Uhtred Uhtredson was killed?’ I could not keep the astonish- ment from my voice. ‘I heard that he failed,’ I went on, ‘but he survived.’
‘Oh no,’ Orlyg said confidently, ‘he died. The man who told me was a witness to the fight.’ He pushed his fingers into his tangled white beard to touch the hammer at his neck. ‘He was cut down by the Lord Ælfric. Or maybe it was Ælfric’s son. The man wasn’t sure, but it was one of them.’
‘I heard Ælfric died,’ I said.
‘Then it must have been the son who dealt the blow,’ Orlyg said, ‘but it’s true! Uhtred Uhtredson is dead.’
‘That will make Jarl Cnut’s life easier,’ I said.
‘They all feared Uhtred,’ Orlyg said, ‘and no wonder. He was a warrior!’ He looked wistful for a moment. ‘I saw him once.’
‘You did?’
‘A big man, tall. He carried an iron shield.’
‘I heard that,’ I said. I had never carried an iron shield in my life.
‘He was fearsome, right enough,’ Orlyg said, ‘but a warrior.’
‘He belongs to the Corpse-Ripper now.’
‘Someone should go to the Lord Ælfric,’ Orlyg suggested, ‘and buy the fiend’s corpse.’
‘Why?’
‘To make the skull into a drinking cup, of course! It would make a fine gift for Jarl Cnut.’
‘The jarl will have drinking cups enough,’ I said, ‘when he’s beaten Æthelred and Edward.’
‘And he will,’ Orlyg said enthusiastically. He smiled. ‘At Yule, my friend, we shall all drink from Edward’s skull and dine in Edward’s hall and use Edward’s wife for pleasure!’
‘I heard Jarl Cnut’s wife was captured by Uhtred,’ I said.
‘A rumour, my friend, a rumour. You can’t believe everything you hear. I’ve learned that much over the years. Men come here and give me news and we celebrate it and then discover it isn’t true at all!’ He chuckled.
‘So perhaps Uhtred lives,’ I suggested mischievously.
‘Oh no! That is true, my friend. He was chopped down in battle, and he still lived, so they tied him to a post and loosed the dogs on him. They tore him to bits!’ He shook his head. ‘I’m glad he’s dead, but that’s no way for a warrior to die.’
I watched as servants carried ale, bread and smoked meat to my men waiting in the orchard. ‘To find the jarl,’ I asked Orlyg, ‘we keep going west?’
‘Cross the hills,’ he said, ‘and just follow the road. The jarl won’t be in any of his halls, he’ll have sailed south by now.’
‘To Wessex?’
‘To wherever he wants!’ Orlyg said. ‘But if you follow the road west you’ll come to Cesterfelda and you can ask there.’ He frowned.
‘I think you go from there to Buchestanes and the jarl has a hall there, a fine hall! One of his favourite halls, and there’ll be men in the hall who’ll tell you where to find him.’

 

from Bernard Cornwell, The Pagan Lord – published in the UK on 26th September 2013.

Read our interview with Bernard here.

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Posted by Richard Lee

Responses

  1. Vann Turner
    September 24, 2013

    Cornwell’s storytelling is undiminished. He has been and continues to be one of the finest. In this brief passage nothing really happens except the complications are laid out, though the reader at this point does not know if the information being given comes from a reliable witness. Could it all be a trap? Skillfully, Cornwell layers question upon question in the reader. Those question need answers. The reader is hooked. The storyteller has cast his magic.