"Everyone looks old to the young," Ravn said. "That must be King Egbert."
"King Egbert?" I had never heard of such a person.
"He was Ealdorman Egbert," Ravn explained, "but he made his peace with us in the winter and we have rewarded him by making him king here in Northumbria. He is king, but we are the lords of the land." He chuckled, and young as I was I understood the treachery involved. Ealdorman Egbert held estates to the south of our kingdom and was what my father had been in the north, a great power, and the Danes had suborned him, kept him from the fight, and now he would be called king, yet it was plain that he would be a king on a short leash. "If you are to live," Ravn said to me, "then it would be wise to pay your respects to Egbert."
"Live?" I blurted out the word. I had somehow thought that having survived the battle then of course I would live. I was a child, someone else's responsibility, but Ravn's words hammered home my reality. I should never have confessed my rank, I thought. Better to be a living slave than a dead ealdorman.
"I think you'll live," Ravn said. "Ragnar likes you and Ragnar gets what he wants. He says you attacked him?"
"I did, yes."
"He would have enjoyed that. A boy who attacks Earl Ragnar? That must be some boy, eh? Too good a boy to waste on death he says, but then my son always had a regrettably sentimental side. I would have chopped your head off, but here you are, alive, and I think it would be wise if you were to bow to Egbert."
Now, I think, looking back so far into my past, I have probably changed that night's events. There was a feast, Ivar and Ubba were there, Egbert was trying to look like a king, Ravn was kind to me, but I am sure I was more confused and far more frightened than I have made it sound. Yet in other ways my memories of the feast are very precise. Watch and learn, my father had told me, and Ravn made me watch, and I did learn. I learned about treachery, especially when Ragnar, summoned by Ravn, took me by the collar and led me to the high dais where, after a surly gesture of permission from Ivar, I was allowed to approach the table. "Lord King," I squeaked, then knelt so that a surprised Egbert had to lean forward to see me. "I am Uhtred of Bebbanburg," I had been coached by Ravn in what I should say, "and I seek your lordly protection."
That produced silence, except for the mutter of the interpreter talking to Ivar. Then Ubba awoke, looked startled for a few heartbeats as if he was not sure where he was, then he stared at me and I felt my flesh shrivel for I had never seen a face so malevolent. He had dark eyes and they were full of hate and I wanted the earth to swallow me.
From The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell. Copyright Bernard Cornwell 2005. Used by permission of the publisher, Harper Collins.
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