Episode 9 opens in Aylesbury where Edward is lingering (too long) to witness Aethelflaed become Lady of Mercia in what looks like a wedding ceremony.
Eventually we learn that the king is going to return to Wessex (finally) and Aethelflaed will lead an army in the opposite direction to secure Mercia’s northern border.
Meanwhile, Brida and Sigtryggr are attacking Winchester. In his novels Bernard Cornwell doesn’t make much use of archers (that I can recall), but they were an essential part of viking warfare, and Sigtryggr has used them against the Welsh and now against Winchester. Also, the vikings’ favorite strategy was to pop up unexpectedly and strike swiftly before an alarm could be raised, and we see that here, too. In King Edward’s absence, Aethelhelm is in charge of the royal city’s defenses, and he finds himself surrounded and forced to yield. What surprised me in this scene was the slaughter of the kneeling Saxon warriors even though Aethelhelm has yielded. Normally, vikings were out for loot, and once a town surrendered they took everything of value, including slaves, and went on to hit the next target. But Brida isn’t out for plunder. What she wants is vengeance against everything Saxon. She wants to rip out the Saxon heart, and she pursues that goal with gleeful malice. Sigtryggr seems content to let her have her way for now, but we wonder how long it will be before he sours on her. We sure have!
Uhtred and company are camping in a forest in Wessex on their way to Lady Aelswith’s estate at Bedwyn. Aelswith is trying to bond with Uhtred, but she’s going about it all wrong and irritating him and everyone else because, well, she’s Aelswith. Then we have another viking coup de main, with Haesten’s men popping up almost out of nowhere to surround Uhtred’s band. Actor Jeppe Beck Laursen makes such a great Haesten because he’s so deliciously nasty and stupid and we hate him so much. He reveals with fiendish relish that Sigtryygr has captured Winchester; he strings Uhtred and his men upside down from tree limbs; and he hauls Aelswith, Athelstan and Stiorra with him to Winchester, leaving 2 men behind to watch the warriors dangle slowly to their deaths.
And they would have died, (the lungs start to fail if the body is hung upside down for too long) except that Eadith, who is really good at lurking in the shadows, comes to their aid. It’s not easy for her, but she manages to free them, and then they’re off at a run because Uhtred is frantic about what might happen to Stiorra if she’s discovered to be his daughter. Poor Pyrlig is sent to find Edward and, once again we see him climbing up a dang hill.
Aelswith shows that her good angel can be somewhat cunning because before entering Winchester she removes the cross that marks Athelstan a Christian from around the boy’s neck. And there’s a sweet verbal knife thrust when she’s led to Brida and Sigtryggr:
Aelswith: “I want to speak with whoever leads you.”
Brida: “I lead here.”
Aelswith: “No. I mean the MAN in charge of this.”
Aelswith holds her own in this little byplay, and she gets high marks for lying to protect Stiorra and Athelstan. But sparrow-brained Eardwulf is there and he reveals who Stiorra is. It’s a wonderful scene, with Sigtryggr alert to every word, every dire threat that spills ever so calmly from Aelswith’s mouth. It made me remember what Leofric used to say about King Alfred: “The bastard thinks.” Sigtryggr is thinking, and he intervenes when Brida orders Stiorra’s head sent to Uhtred. It’s the first crack in his alliance with Brida.
‘Know your enemy’ is an ancient military strategy, and Sygtryggr must realize that he’s going to have to fight Uhtred. So far, all he knows of Uhtred is what he’s heard, presumably, from Brida. So when he questions Stiorra about the Saxons, the Danes, and her father, he sees a different picture.
Stiorra tells him that the enmity between Saxons and Danes is foolish. It’s a game for old men. And Sigtryggr, who we are reminded over and over is a young, new breed of Dane and is not out for revenge like Brida but wants to settle in Britain, listens.
Outside the walls of Winchester, hidden among the trees, Uhtred recognizes that the Danes are preparing for a siege and he is searching for some strategy that will help him defeat Sigtryggr and rescue his daughter.
Eadith shows her mettle again by offering to enter the city because she’s the only one who won’t be recognized. They send her in, and then they have an agonizing wait. Uhtred blames himself for Beocca’s death, and it’s taught him to be cautious, especially with this young, cunning Dane.
Pyrlig finds Edward and alerts him to what’s happened at Winchester, and Edward reverts to his 2-year-old self. It’s all about him. MY heirs are captives! Someone must have betrayed ME! And the worst of it is, he’s realizing that he’s done exactly the same thing that Aethelred did: he left his stronghold in Wessex for too long and didn’t leave enough troops behind to defend his people. He’s furious and hot headed and doesn’t give himself the time that he needs to think about what he should do next.
Edward shouts that to re-take Winchester he’ll even raise the dead and, Oh Look! That’s exactly what Brida is doing as she digs up a graveyard to spite the Saxons and their religion. Eardwulf protests, and Brida takes this opportunity to tell him that he’s despised by everyone.
That sends him to the ale house, and once he’s drunk he decides it might be fun to abuse Stiorra. Sigtryggr catches him at it, and when he learns from Stiorra that Eardwulf murdered his oath lord, Athelred, and thus can’t be trusted, it’s all over for Eardwulf. Sigtryggr has him dragged out to the courtyard to listen as the brash young warlord harangues against the dangers of anger and ambition, and against men of the old generation who pursued their own glory and went down to defeat. Brida doesn’t like what she’s hearing, and another crack appears in the Sigtryggr/Brida alliance.
Eadith, who has been doing a good job of lurking in secret so far, sees her brother about to be executed and gives herself away. She can’t help it; she pleads for mercy. Eardwulf earns some redemption by telling Sigtryggr scornfully that she’s just a whore he once knew, possibly saving her life.
Haesten, though, stupid as he is, intuits that she’s Eardwulf’s sister, and just when she’s found Aelswith, Haesten nabs her, for purposes of his own no doubt.
In the final scenes, Edward arrives with his army and despite Uhtred’s protests he throws his men recklessly and pointlessly against the walls of Winchester. Somewhere in heaven, Alfred is weeping.