Home > The Flame Bearer (The Saxon Stories #10)

The Flame Bearer (The Saxon Stories #10)
Author: Bernard Cornwell



The King




It began with three ships.

Now there were four.

The three ships had come to the Northumbrian coast when I was a child, and within days my elder brother was dead and within weeks my father had followed him to the grave, my uncle had stolen my land and I had become an exile. Now, so many years later, I was on the same beach watching four ships come to the coast.

They came from the north, and anything that comes from the north is bad news. The north brings frost and ice, Norsemen and Scots. It brings enemies, and I had enemies enough already because I had come to Northumbria to recapture Bebbanburg. I had come to kill my cousin who had usurped my place. I had come to take my home back.

Bebbanburg lay to the south. I could not see the ramparts from where our horses stood because the dunes were too high, but I could see smoke from the fortress’s hearths being snatched westward by the wild wind. The smoke was being blown inland, melding with the low grey clouds that scudded towards Northumbria’s dark hills.

It was a sharp wind. The sand flats that stretched towards Lindisfarena were riotous with breaking waves that seethed white and fast towards the shore. Further out the waves were foam-capped, their spume flying, turbulent. It was also bitterly cold. Summer might have just come to Britain, but winter still wielded a keen-edged knife on the Northumbrian coast and I was glad of my bearskin cloak.

‘A bad day for sailors,’ Berg called to me. He was one of my younger men, a Norse who revelled in his skill as a swordsman. He had grown his long hair even longer in the last year until it flared out like a great horsetail beneath the rim of his helmet. I had once seen a Saxon seize a man’s long hair and drag him backwards from his saddle, then spear him while he was still flailing on the turf.

‘You should cut your hair,’ I told him.

‘In battle I tie it up!’ he called back, then nodded seawards. ‘They will be wrecked! They’re too close to shore!’

The four ships were following the shore but struggling to stay at sea. The wind wanted to drive them ashore, to strand them on the flats, to tip them there and break them apart, but the oarsmen were hauling on their looms as the steersmen tried to force the bows away from the breakers. Seas shattered on their bows and spewed white along their decks. The beam wind was too strong to carry yards or sailcloth aloft and so their heavy sails were stowed on deck.

‘Who are they?’ my son asked, spurring his horse alongside mine. The wind lifted his cloak and whipped his horse’s mane and tail.

‘How would I know?’ I asked.

‘You’ve not seen them before?’

‘Never,’ I said. I knew most of the ships that prowled the Northumbrian coast, but these four were strangers to me. They were not trading vessels, but had the high prows and low freeboard of fighting ships. There were beast-heads on their prows, marking them as pagans. The ships were large. Each, I reckoned, held forty or fifty men who now rowed for their lives in spiteful seas and bitter wind. The tide was rising, which meant the current was running strongly northwards and the ships were battling their way south, their dragon-crested prows bursting into spray as the cross-seas smashed into their hulls. I watched the nearest ship rear to a wave and half vanish behind the cold seas that shattered about her cutwater. Did they know there was a shallow channel that curled behind Lindisfarena and offered shelter? That channel was easily visible at low tide, but now, in a flooding sea that was being wind-churned to frenzy, the passage was hidden by scudding foam and seething waves, and the four ships, oblivious of the safety the channel offered, rowed past its entrance to struggle on towards the next anchorage that would give them safety.

They were heading for Bebbanburg.

I turned my horse southwards and led my sixty men along the beach. The wind was stinging sand against my face.

I did not know who they were, but I knew where the four ships were going. They were heading for Bebbanburg, and life, I thought, had suddenly become more difficult.

It took us only moments to reach the Bebbanburg channel. The breaking waves pounded the beach and seethed into the harbour mouth, filling the narrow entrance with a swirling grey foam. That entrance was not wide, as a child I had often swum across it, though never when an ebbing tide ran strong. One of my earliest memories was of watching a boy drown as the tide swept him from the harbour channel. His name had been Eglaf, and he must have been six or seven years old when he died. He was the son of a priest, the only son. Strange how names and faces from the distant past come to mind. He had been a small, slight boy, dark-haired and funny, and I had liked him. My elder brother had dared him to swim the channel, and I remember my brother laughing as Eglaf vanished in the welter of dark sea and whipping white caps. I had been crying, and my brother had slapped me around the head. ‘He was weak,’ my brother said.

How we despise weakness! Only women and priests are allowed to be weak. Poets too, perhaps. Poor Eglaf had died because he wanted to appear as fearless as the rest of us, and in the end he had merely proved he was just as stupid. ‘Eglaf,’ I said his name aloud as we cantered down the sand-blown beach.

‘What?’ my son shouted.

‘Eglaf,’ I said again, not bothering to explain, but I think that so long as we remember names, so long those people live. I am not sure how they live; whether they are spirits drifting like clouds or whether they live in an afterworld. Eglaf could not have gone to Valhalla because he did not die in battle, but of course he was a Christian too, so he must have gone to their heaven, which made me feel even more sorry for him. Christians tell me they spend the rest of time singing praises to their nailed god. The rest of time! Eternity! What kind of swollen-headed god wants to hear himself being praised for ever? Which thought put me in mind of Barwulf, a West Saxon thegn who had paid four harpists to chant songs of his battle-deeds, which were next to none. Barwulf had been a fat, selfish, greedy pig of a man; just the sort who would want to hear himself being praised for ever. I imagined the Christian god as a fat, scowling thegn brooding in his mead hall and listening to lackeys telling him how great he was.

‘They’re turning!’ my son called, breaking my thoughts, and I looked to my left and saw the first ship turning towards the channel. It was a straightforward entrance, though an inexperienced shipmaster could be fooled by the strong tidal currents close inshore, but this man was experienced enough to anticipate the danger and he drove his long hull straight and true. ‘Count the men on board,’ I ordered Berg.

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