Saxon: The Book of Dreams (Saxon 1)

BOOK: Saxon: The Book of Dreams (Saxon 1)
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Contents

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Prologue

A
ACHEN
, F
RANKIA
, 780
AD

Sorely wounded, Roland felt his death coming upon him.

He made his way to where a great block of marble stood.

Raising Durendal, he struck the stone with all his strength.

The sparks flew and the rock was scored, but Durendal did not break.

Three times he struck the rock.

Still the blade did not shatter.

Lamenting, Roland laid himself face down on the grass,

his sword and the oliphant beneath him,

and prepared to give up his soul to God.

I put down my pen and wait for the ink to dry. I am pleased to see that my letters are neat and evenly spaced. I learned the new script under the critical eyes of the men who
persuaded the king that it should be made standard throughout his realm. I sit straighter on my stool to ease the nagging cramp in my spine and try to ignore the low incoherent muttering to my
right. An Irish priest, ruddy cheeked and bald, has an irritating habit of talking to himself at his desk. It is mid-January in Aachen and the royal chancellery is full of draughts; every few
minutes the priest wipes his streaming nose on the sleeve of his gown. He is making notes of what he has seen and heard at court, and has already confided to me that he is writing a biography of
our lord and master.

‘I shall call it
The Life of Carolus Rex
,’ he said, his Latin tinged with the musical accent typical of his island.

A dull title for a colourful topic, I thought. But I restricted myself to enquiring why he embarked on this labour when the notaries of the imperial secretariat were being paid to compile the
official record.

‘My dear Sigwulf,’ he replied, ‘the wisdom of the ancients tells us that when great men die, the story of their deeds deserves more than burial in mouldering archives. Their
lives must be celebrated in classical prose, enduring and invigorating.’

I wonder just how lively his prose will be when, between sniffles, he adds, ‘With God’s help, my book will be read and re-read for generations to come. It will not be some fanciful
yarn recited by the fireside or sung to a simple tune that soon fades from memory.’

He is wrong, of course. Tales of the tongue can be more vivid than tales of the pen; they endure just as long, as I know from personal experience, and they are more widely remembered.

However, the priest’s disdainful remark plants an idea in my mind: I will write a story about the brave, chivalrous and noble man who was my patron and my friend. He also saved my life. My
tale will be my way of keeping his memory bright. At times he could be arrogant, vindictive, headstrong and greedy for wealth, yet all agree that his death is a tragic loss. Few, if any, know that
I abandoned him in his final hour. That is why I begin this homage with the moment of his dying.

I still grieve for him.

Chapter One

‘R
UN
! R
UN
FOR
YOUR
LIFE
, you fool!’ the man
yelled. He was meant to be my bodyguard and had sworn to my father that he would protect me. He grabbed me by the arm and spun me round so I faced away from the disaster. Then he gave me a hefty
shove between the shoulder blades so that I had to take a few steps just to keep my balance. A moment later, he took his own advice and barged past me, racing off with great leaps across the turf,
tossing aside his shield and sword. I stood there stupidly, my head still ringing from the blow of some missile, probably a slingstone, which had struck my helmet. Behind me I heard the whoops and
shouts of the Mercians. They had smashed our feeble line with their first charge. The majority of our men had come to the fight carrying their seaxes, though the way they gripped their weapons made
it look as if they were about to trim and lay a hedge rather than use them as the lethal fighting blade that had given our Saxon people their name. The rest arrived equipped with clubs, staves and
the hatchets they used for chopping firewood. A few brought bows and a handful of arrows more suitable for hunting small game. None of them thought to bring along spare bow strings. I had noticed
one man armed only with a thresher’s flail. My father should never have ordered them into battle.

Our plan had been to stop the Mercians at the hill crest. Two deep and shoulder to shoulder, we shouted our war cries and waved our pathetic weapons, more to keep up our spirits than in real
defiance. It was a late spring day full of sunlight with the cloud shadows chasing across the downland. The breeze had the faint salty tang of the distant sea and fluttered our family banner
– two black stags on a yellow field. My father managed to extract a few extra cheers from our men as he rode up and down in front of our battle line. But you had only to compare his scrawny
horse with the sturdy charger of the Mercian commander waiting at the foot of the slope to know the difference in our resources. My Uncle Cyneric and my two brothers took their places in the front
line. I, as the king’s youngest son, was stationed a little distance to the rear. My duty was to direct our pitiful reserve, a score of elderly churls and the same number of household
serfs.

Only the slope was in our favour. We reasoned that the Mercians would not attack up such a steep hillside. But they came on regardless – a terrifying mass of warriors stamping and
hallooing, beating their leather-covered shields with their heavy iron swords. They were confident in the knowledge of a dozen victories over petty kingdoms like my father’s. They
out-numbered us, two to one.

Still dazed, I twisted round and looked over my shoulder. The Mercians were wading among our men, crushing any hint of resistance. A man toppled backward as the bronze boss of a Mercian shield
smashed into his face. I saw swords and spear butts rising and falling as they cut down or spiked anyone who showed a glimmer of fight. I recognized a farmer who had visited our great hall only
last week to pay his tithe. He was a slow-spoken gangling man who was half a head taller than those around him and wore a metal helmet like my own. God knows where he had found it, but it did him
little good. A Mercian swordsman feinted at his face, then smoothly dropped his blade and hacked him across the legs. The farmer tumbled to the ground like a slashed nettle. Desperately I looked
for any sign of my father. He was nowhere to be seen. Our flag was tangled around its staff and swaying back and forth. Seconds later it was dragged down and disappeared. A riderless horse,
wild-eyed with terror, bolted past me. I recognized the beast as the one that my oldest brother had ridden. He too must have fallen. The triumphant howls of the Mercians were beginning to fade.
They were running out of breath. Here and there our men were falling to their knees, hands clasped, pleading to be spared. That would limit the massacre; it made no sense to injure a prisoner who
would soon be a slave.

One of the Mercians, a thick-set warrior in a leather jerkin sewn with metal plates, caught sight of me. I was standing by myself, numb with awful knowledge. His bearded face split into a
covetous grin. He must have glimpsed at my neck the glint of the thin gold torc I had received the previous winter when I began my sixteenth year. He had no intention of sharing such loot with his
comrades. Without a word, he began to run purposefully towards me. He had taken several strides before I gathered my wits and began to flee. I ran without hope. As a child I had never been able to
run fast. My brothers had mocked me for being so sluggish, and they scarcely bothered to pursue me, knowing the chase would soon be over. Now it was the same. I heard the feet thudding on the turf
behind me, the reverberation growing louder as the gap closed. Soon my breath was rasping in my throat, and my knees hurt. My loosely fastened helmet bounced on my head and slipped forward until
all I could see was a yard or so ahead of me. I had dropped my sword but realized too late that my buckler was still strapped to my left forearm. I tried in vain to shake it free, but only
succeeded in throwing myself off balance. I had gone no more than fifty yards when I became aware of the looming presence of the Mercian closing in. I heard his panting and sensed his air of easy
triumph.

Then something solid crashed into me from behind, and I fell forward, face down into the sun-baked ground. I caught a whiff of sweat and greased leather mixed with the sweet smell of bruised
grass as a heavy weight dropped on my shoulders. Someone was kneeling on my back. My helmet flew off and rolled clear. A hand was grasping my hair, pulling my head upward; for a ghastly moment I
thought the Mercian was stretching my throat ready to cut it. Then his hand pushed forward sharply and my forehead slammed down on to the earth. Pain jolted through me. I tried to feebly squirm
away, but the grip on my hair held fast, and the Mercian raised my head and battered it against the ground a second time. This time I did not resist. I welcomed the wave of blackness that engulfed
me.

BOOK: Saxon: The Book of Dreams (Saxon 1)
11.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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