THE LAST KING
England: The First Viking Age (The Ninth Century Book 1)
By M J Porter
They sent three hundred warriors to kill one man. It wasn’t enough.
Mercia lies broken but not beaten, her alliance with Wessex in tatters.
Coelwulf, a fierce and bloody warrior, hears whispers that Mercia has been betrayed from his home in the west. He fears no man, especially not the Vikings sent to hunt him down.
To discover the truth of the rumours he hears, Coelwulf must travel to the heart of Mercia, and what he finds there will determine the fate of Mercia, as well as his own.
I taste it on my lips, and over the salt of my sweat.
And I scowl. It’s not a flavour I wish to get used to. All the same, I know what it is without a second thought.
My seax glistens slickly in the dull light, the gleaming claret reminding me more of an exotic wine from the south than the lifeblood it truly is. The double headed-eagle impeccably depicted on the handle seems to wink at me, as the eyes fill with the ruby mixture.
Not that I focus on it for more than the time it takes me to blink.
This horde feels as though it’ll never stop, and I’m determined to end the lives of as many of them as possible. Such slaughter doesn’t bring me joy, but this is my skill. I wield it because I must.
My weapon, so sharp it cuts through byrnies as though they’re no more than spider webs, is busy today.
They come against my force, as small as it is, and they mean to annihilate us. But we will not go without making our sacrifices to their god of war.
My seax sweeps effortlessly along the abruptly exposed throat of my enemy, the realisation of what’s befallen him only reaching his eyes as he falls to the ground. I step over him, already sighting my next enemy.
This one swirls an axe in his left hand, as I reveal my bloodied teeth. His entire body recoils, almost a backward step. Before he can consider his move, I’ve sliced through his belly, the gut threatening to spill at my feet. I dismiss him and move onto the next man.
The ground beneath my feet squelches with each step, slick, more like a flooded river than the solid ground it should be.
It’s awash with the dead and wounded, the long shield wall that tried to defeat us long since disintegrated to small spots of desperate one to one fighting. This is my favourite part of any battle.
I turn, noting the angle of the sun, the brush of the breeze against my slick body, breathing deeply through my nose. This is not my first battle. Far from it.
I hear the cries of those boys who thought themselves men, and equally of those men who’ve found they are but boys when their lives are threatened.
I scorn them. They’re not worthy of my attention.
Quickly, I reach for my weapons belt, keen to know that all is where it should be. My hand brushes over the sharpened edges and deadly blades that make a home there. For now.
Satisfied, I pick my next target, a tight knot of men fighting not five steps away, and move forward.
I don’t hurry. Not this time. Neither, as I’ve seen others do, do I check the weight of my weapon, or test the strength of my arm as I consider my next move. Instinctively I know that all is well.
They’ll not fail me. They haven’t before.
The sun is high above my head, few clouds to be seen, other than high up, more wisps than anything substantial.
This battle has been long. It began with the streak of fire across the eastern sky, and I don’t foresee it ending other than when that same stripe sinks below the western horizon.
Those who met their death in the first wave of the assault will be cold and stiff by then, the heat of the sun of no help to them.
Those yet shivering with their mortal injuries will watch for the flashes of disappearing gold with fear. They’ll not see it rise again.
I simply mark it with detachment. There are more warriors to kill.
There are always more enemies to kill.
My seax arm sweeps to the right. I would sooner not kill a man who doesn’t know I’m there, but he should be paying more attention.
The wound along the back of his neck opens up with unsurprising ease, and I notice how my sworn-man takes advantage of the action to slice across the throat.
The enemy wobbles, his head bobbing. I fear it will topple to the floor before he does, and so I step around him.
Icel grins at me, his black beard dripping with the blood of his foe, as I grunt an acknowledgement, and nothing more.
Icel pivots to face the next enemy, as I stride beyond him. Coldly I count how many face us, how many are my warriors, almost pleased to see that the numbers, with my presence, are now equal.
That’s not how we started this battle.
And it’s not how I plan on ending it either.
I’ll ensure we roundly defeat our enemy, and when they’re dead, I’ll plan my next move.
I focus my thoughts, sight my target, and rush quickly toward them. He barely has time to raise his seax before I slice across his body. Blood spurts, as the links of his metal coat burst open under the blow from my weapon.
Another step, a slash of the seax from left to right, and blood is falling like rain.
Sometimes, I think the enemy make it too easy for me. I’m fast and relentless, and always have been. But, I’m cautious against my arrogance. My men tell me that my strength is prodigious. For one always used to being so strong, it’s impossible to know what it must feel like not to be.
My enemy staggers, perhaps not appreciating the extent of the injury. I take a cold moment of pity and allow him to fall onto the edge of my seax.
His final gasp of air is filled with fluid, as I reverse my hold, letting him slide to the floor.
I step gingerly over the rapidly growing pool of blood, grimacing at the stench of opened bowels and salty iron, at the result of my particular talents. Each kill is more than a number. But only just.
I feel as though I sweep through the enemy. They are warriors of all shapes and sizes, ages and skill levels. They all fall beneath my weapons, as though I fell defenceless saplings. This butchery gives me pleasure, and a burst of adrenaline only found in battle.
Only when I glance up, finding no enemy before me, do I stand upright, bring my legs together, menace with my seax, and glance at the field of slaughter.
I lead twenty men. The enemy must have numbered at least double that. Of those who remain, three are stood, angled to protect the back of each other, while three of my warriors threaten them. Another five wait to take the place of any who might fall. I think they’ll wait forever. My sworn warriors know how to make a kill, but some of them will insist on enjoying it first.
To the far right, I see where one lone figure attempts to escape into the muddy field ditch, alive for now, but not for much longer.
Other than those four opponents, all others are dead, or fled, or pretending to be dead.
I sigh heavily, abruptly aware of the ache in my shoulders, and the dryness of my mouth.
I could drink a barrel of cold water. But it’s not yet time to declare this battle won.
“How many?” I call, as though to no one, but Edmund answers, as quickly as always, his voice rich with the joy of battle.
“Two who will die, three with injuries that should recover, and Pybba, who lost his hand. The damn fool.”
I turn to meet the eyes of Edmund. He grins at me, as cocky as ever when the battle seems to be won. It’s not the same when a battle starts. In fact, when a battle commences, I almost expect him to run from the attack, or, if he stays, to soil himself, there and then.
His courage is slow to arrive and takes days to dissipate. But he fights with a tenacity I admire, and I’d never wish to go into battle without him.
“Leave one alive,” I turn and bellow, reminding my warriors that we must employ the tactics of the Raiders, even if I don’t want to. One must always live to tell of what befell their friends and comrades on the field of slaughter.
“Too late,” Edmund’s voice is soaring with laughter, as he too watches the remnants of the three Raiders losing their fight to live. “They always get bloody carried away,” he complains, but amusement thrums through the words rather than anger.
“Then bring me the one over there, heading toward the field ditch. We’ll stitch him up and send him on his way.” Once the killing begins, it’s almost impossible to stop until everyone on the battlefield lies unmoving.
M J Porter
I'm an author of fantasy (viking age/dragon themed) and historical fiction (Early English, Vikings and the British Isles as a whole before the Norman Conquest), born in the old Mercian kingdom at some point since AD1066. I write A LOT. You've been warned!