From Bernard Cornwell, the New York Times bestselling author whom the Washington Post calls ' perhaps the greatest writer of historical adventure novels today, ' comes a saga of blood, rage, fidelity, and betrayal that brings to center stage King Alfred the Great, one of the most crucial (but oft-forgotten) figures in English history. It is King Alfred and his heirs who, in the ninth and tenth centuries, with their backs against the wall, fought to secure the survival of the last outpost of Anglo-Saxon culture by battling the ferocious Vikings, whose invading warriors had already captured and occupied three of England ' s four kingdoms.
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January 03, 2006
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Excerpt from The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
The Danes were clever that day. They had made new walls inside the city, invited our men into the streets, trapped them between the new walls, surrounded them, and killed them. They did not kill all the Northumbrian army, for even the fiercest warriors tire of slaughter and, besides, the Danes made much money from slavery. Most of the slaves taken in England were sold to farmers in the wild northern isles, or to Ireland, or sent back across the sea to the Danish lands, but some, I learned, were taken to the big slave markets in Frankia and a few were shipped south to a place where there was no winter and where men with faces the color of scorched wood would pay good money for men and even better money for young women.
But they killed enough of us. They killed ' lla and they killed Osbert and they killed my father. ' lla and my father were fortunate, for they died in battle, swords in their hands, but Osbert was captured and he was tortured that night as the Danes feasted in a city stinking of blood. Some of the victors guarded the walls, others celebrated in the captured houses, but most gathered in the hall of Northumbria's defeated king where Ragnar took me. I did not know why he took me there, I half expected to be killed or, at best, sold into slavery, but Ragnar made me sit with his men and put a roasted goose leg, half a loaf of bread, and a pot of ale in front of me, then cuffed me cheerfully round the head.
The other Danes ignored me at first. They were too busy getting drunk and cheering the fights that broke out once they were drunk, but the loudest cheers came when the captured Osbert was forced to fight against a young warrior who had extraordinary skill with a sword. He danced around the king, then chopped off his left hand before slitting his belly with a sweeping cut and, because Osbert was a heavy man, his guts spilled out like eels slithering from a ruptured sack. Some of the Danes were weak with laughter after that. The king took a long time to die, and while he cried for relief, the Danes crucified a captured priest who had fought against them in the battle. They were intrigued and repelled by our religion, and they were angry when the priest's hands pulled free of the nails and some claimed it was impossible to kill a man that way, and they argued that point drunkenly, then tried to nail the priest to the hall's timber walls a second time until, bored with it, one of their warriors slammed a spear into the priest's chest, crushing his ribs and mangling his heart.