Alfred, now King of Wessex, has brokered a truce with the Danes, however knowing the Danes aren’t really interested in peace, Uhtred remains wary of their motives. Growing bored, Uhtred commandeers one of the king’s ships and sets sail for Cornwall where he intends to make himself rich by raiding the Britons but he is hired by King Peredur to defeat the men who are taking his lands. Uhtred accepts the challenge but is soon dismayed when he learns the marauders are Danes led by the brutal Svein of White Horse.
Realising a battle will result in the loss of too many men, Uhtred and Svein form an uneasy alliance to defeat Peredur, and Uhtred escapes with the pagan queen Iseult, one of Peredur’s wives. However, Uhtred’s actions come back to haunt him as Alfred learns of his activities from Brother Asser, complete with a few fabrications, and Alfred has no choice but to order Uhtred into combat with the fearsome Steapa Snotor. Just as Uhtred and Steapa are beginning their fight to the death, the Danes make a surprise attack on Wessex, forcing the king and his family into the swampy marshes. Alone, Alfred must rely on Uhtred to keep him safe and the two men begin to find some common ground at last, but the price will be high for Uhtred.
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.