The Danes have been defeated at Cynuit, but the triumph of the English is not fated to last long. The Danish Vikings quickly invade and occupy three of England’s four kingdoms—and all that remains of the once proud country is a small piece of marshland, where Alfred and his family live with a few soldiers and retainers, including Uhtred, the dispossessed English nobleman who was raised by the Danes.
Uhtred has always been a Dane at heart, and has always believed that given the chance, he would fight for the men who raised him and taught him the Viking ways. But when Iseult, a powerful sorceress, enters Uhtred’s life, he is forced to consider feelings he’s never confronted before—and Uhtred discovers, in his moment of greatest peril, a new-found loyalty and love for his native country and ruler.
The Pale Horseman is the second volume of The Saxon Stories which continues the story of Uhtred, a young Saxon who was captured by the Danes as a child and raised in the household of Earl Ragnar. With Ragnar and his family dead, Uhtred has returned to the Saxons but he is struggling to find his place amongst them. Uhtred is furious when he discovers Odda the Younger has claimed the victory at Cynuit for his own, and he is determined to leave Wessex to claim his rightful inheritance in Northumbria. However, Uhtred isn’t wealthy enough to attract men to fight with him, and a series of raids on the Britons seems the perfect answer but will have severe consequences as Uhtred makes dangerous new enemies.
At the start of the book, Uhtred is still a little immature and is more concerned with his own needs to worry about anyone else’s problems but there is a subtle change as the plot develops as Uhtred is forced into situations he would rather avoid. Uhtred is completely humiliated by Alfred as he is made to do penance on his knees for daring to disturb the king’s prayers, so Uhtred becomes even more belligerent and often acts like a spoiled child. Although not very heroic, this attitude is important as it will contrast greatly with the Uhtred who becomes the ultimate warrior at the Battle of Ethandun. Uhtred is able to do something Alfred fails to do and that is to light a fire within the men, stirring them ultimately to victory. Curiously enough, it is Alfred who begins to act rashly in the closing chapters of the book as he becomes obsessed with the notion of behaving in a kingly manner.
There are a lot of battles in this book as you would expect, some at sea and others on land, culminating with the Battle of Ethandun which really did take place in May 878, somewhere near Edington, Wiltshire, a battle which ultimately saved England from falling completely under Danish rule. Although England did not really exist back then, it was Alfred who began the process of uniting the kingdoms which his descendants went on to consolidate. If events had turned out a little differently at Ethandun, the England we know today may never have existed. While battle scenes are not normally my favourite things to read, I don’t mind Cornwell’s so much as they don’t drag on for pages at a time and he never forgets the human side of things as our emotions are all fully engaged. The battle scenes are graphic but never gratuitous as Cornwell never loses sight of what these men are fighting for and he never shies away from the loss of loved ones. As Uhtred begins to gather followers, some will inevitably die, and Uhtred loses people who are dear to him in this battle, including one of my favourite characters.