"Your son?" I asked.
"Earl Ragnar," he said, "sometimes called Ragnar the Fearless. Who were they killing in here?"
"The king," I said, "and a priest."
"Did he die well?"
"Then he shouldn't have been king."
"Are you a king?" I asked.
He laughed. "I am Ravn," he said, "and once I was an earl and a warrior, but now I am blind so I am no use to anyone. They should beat me over the head with a cudgel and send me on my way to the netherworld." I said nothing to that because I did not know what to say. "But I try to be useful," Ravn went on, his hands groping for bread. "I speak your language and the language of the Britons and the tongue of the Wends and the speech of the Frisians and that of the Franks. Language is now my trade, boy, because I have become a skald."
"A scop, you would call me. A poet, a weaver of dreams, a man who makes glory from nothing and dazzles you with its making. And my job now is to tell this day's tale in such a way that men will never forget our great deeds."
"But if you cannot see," I asked, "how can you tell what happened?"
Ravn laughed at that. "Have you heard of Odin? Then you should know that Odin sacrificed one of his own eyes so that he could obtain the gift of poetry. So perhaps I am twice as good a skald as Odin, eh?"
"I am descended from Woden," I said.
"Are you?" He seemed impressed, or perhaps he just wanted to be kind. "So who are you, Uhtred, descendant of the great Odin?"
"I am the Ealdorman of Bebbanburg," I said, and that reminded me I was fatherless and my defiance crumpled and, to my shame, I began to cry. Ravn ignored me as he listened to the drunken shouts and the songs and the shrieks of the girls who had been captured in our camp and who now provided the warriors with the reward for their victory, and watching their antics took my mind off my sorrow because, in truth, I had never seen such things before, though, God be thanked, I took plenty of such rewards myself in times to come.
"Bebbanburg?" Ravn said. "I was there before you were born. It was twenty years ago."
"Not in the fortress," he admitted, "it was far too strong. But I was to the north of it, on the island where the monks pray. I killed six men there. Not monks, men. Warriors." He smiled to himself, remembering. "Now tell me, Ealdorman Uhtred of Bebbanburg," he went on, "what is happening."
So I became his eyes and I told him of the men dancing, and the men stripping the women of their clothes, and what they then did to the women, but Ravn had no interest in that. "What," he wanted to know, "are Ivar and Ubba doing?"
"Ivar and Ubba?"
"They will be on the high platform. Ubba is the shorter and looks like a barrel with a beard, and Ivar is so skinny that he is called Ivar the Boneless. He is so thin that you could press his feet together and shoot him from a bowstring."
I learned later that Ivar and Ubba were the two oldest of three brothers and the joint leaders of this Danish army. Ubba was asleep, his black-haired head cushioned by his arms that, in turn, were resting on the remnants of his meal, but Ivar the Boneless was awake. He had sunken eyes, a face like a skull, yellow hair drawn back to the nape of his neck, and an expression of sullen malevolence. His arms were thick with the golden rings Danes like to wear to prove their prowess in battle, while a gold chain was coiled around his neck. Two men were talking to him. One, standing just behind Ivar, seemed to whisper into his ear, while the other, a worried-looking man, sat between the two brothers. I described all this to Ravn, who wanted to know what the worried man sitting between Ivar and Ubba looked like.
"No arm rings," I said, "a gold circlet round his neck. Brown hair, long beard, quite old."
From The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell. Copyright Bernard Cornwell 2005. Used by permission of the publisher, Harper Collins.
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