"The dead speak," Æthelwold told me. He was sober for once. Sober and awed and serious. The night wind snatched at the house and the rushlights flickered red in the wintry drafts that whipped from the roof's smoke-hole and through the doors and shutters.
"The dead speak?" I asked.
"A corpse," Æthelwold said, "he rises from the grave and he speaks." He stared at me wide-eyed, then nodded as if to stress that he spoke the truth. He was leaning toward me, his clasped hands fidgeting between his knees. "I have seen it," he added.
"A corpse talks?" I asked.
"He rises!" He wafted a hand to show what he meant.
"The dead man. He rises and he speaks." He still stared at me, his expression indignant. "It's true," he added in a voice that suggested he knew I did not believe him.
I edged my bench closer to the hearth. It was ten days after I had killed the raiders and hanged their bodies by the river, and now a freezing rain rattled on the thatch and beat on the barred shutters. Two of my hounds lay in front of the fire and one gave me a resentful glance when I scraped the bench, then rested his head again. The house had been built by the Romans, which meant the floor was tiled and the walls were of stone, though I had thatched the roof myself. Rain spat through the smoke-hole. "What does the dead man say?" Gisela asked. She was my wife and the mother of my two children.
Æthelwold did not answer at once, perhaps because he believed a woman should not take part in a serious discussion, but my silence told him that Gisela was welcome to speak in her own house and he was too nervous to insist that I dismiss her. "He says I should be king," he admitted softly, then gazed at me, fearing my reaction.
"King of what?" I asked flatly.
"Wessex," he said, "of course."
"Oh, Wessex," I said, as though I had never heard of the place.
"And I should be king!" Æthelwold protested. "My father was king!"
"And now your father's brother is king," I said, "and men say he is a good king."
"Do you say that?" he challenged me.
I did not answer. It was well enough known that I did not like Alfred and that Alfred did not like me, but that did not mean Alfred's nephew, Æthelwold, would make a better king. Æthelwold, like me, was in his late twenties, and he had made a reputation as a drunk and a lecherous fool. Yet he did have a claim to the throne of Wessex. His father had indeed been king, and if Alfred had possessed a thimbleful of sense he would have had his nephew's throat sliced to the bone. Instead Alfred relied on Æthelwold's thirst for ale to keep him from making trouble. "Where did you see this living corpse?" I asked, instead of answering his question.
He waved a hand toward the north side of the house. "On the other side of the street," he said. "Just the other side."
"Wæclingastræt?" I asked him, and he nodded.
So he was talking to the Danes as well as to the dead. Wæclingastræt is a road that goes northwest from Lundene. It slants across Britain, ending at the Irish Sea just north of Wales, and everything to the south of the street was supposedly Saxon land, and everything to the north was yielded to the Danes. That was the peace we had in that year of 885, though it was a peace scummed with skirmish and hate. "Is it a Danish corpse?" I asked.
Æthelwold nodded. "His name is Bjorn," he said, "and he was a skald in Guthrum's court, and he refused to become a Christian so Guthrum killed him. He can be summoned from his grave. I've seen it."
I looked at Gisela. She was a Dane, and the sorcery that Æthelwold described was nothing I had ever known among my fellow Saxons. Gisela shrugged, suggesting that the magic was equally strange to her. "Who summons the dead man?" she asked.
"A fresh corpse," Æthelwold said.
"A fresh corpse?" I asked.
"Someone must be sent to the world of the dead," he explained, as though it were obvious, "to find Bjorn and bring him back."
"So they kill someone?" Gisela asked.
"How else can they send a messenger to the dead?" Æthelwold asked pugnaciously.
"And this Bjorn," I asked, "does he speak English?" I put the question for I knew that Æthelwold spoke little or no Danish.
"He speaks English," Æthelwold said sullenly. He did not like being questioned.
"Who took you to him?" I asked.
"Some Danes," he said vaguely.
I sneered at that. "So some Danes came," I said, "and told you a dead poet wanted to speak to you, and you meekly traveled into Guthrum's land?"
"They paid me gold," he said defensively. Æthelwold was ever in debt.
"And why come to us?" I asked. Æthelwold did not answer. He fidgeted and watched Gisela, who was teasing a thread of wool onto her distaff. "You go to Guthrum's land," I persisted, "you speak to a dead man, and then you come to me. Why?"
"Because Bjorn said you will be a king too," Æthelwold said. He had not spoken loudly, but even so I held up a hand to hush him and I looked anxiously at the doorway as if expecting to see a spy listening from the darkness of the next room. I had no doubt Alfred had spies in my household and I thought I knew who they were, but I was not entirely certain that I had identified all of them, which was why I had made sure all the servants were well away from the room where Æthelwold and I talked. Even so it was not wise to say such things too loudly.
Excerpted from SWORD SONG: The Battle for London © Copyright 2011 by Bernard Cornwell. Reprinted with permission by Harper Paperbacks. All rights reserved.