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The Last Kingdom 5.9: The Best Laid Plans…

TLK Episode 9 begins with Uhtred’s men and the Mercian Guard preparing to ride out from the burh at York to make for Bebbanburg under Uhtred’s command. Uhtred has plenty of reasons for leading a force against Bebbanburg: the fortress is his birthright, stolen by his cousin Wihtgar and he wants it back; he wants to avenge Wihtgar’s murder of Fr. Beocca; he wants to rescue Lady Aelfwynn; and he wants to seize and punish Ealdorman Aelfhelm for his repeated treacheries.

That King Edward has threatened to violently prevent anyone from leaving the burh is a concern, and the queen’s mother takes it upon herself to address it. She teams up with her new daughter-in-law Eadgifu who I’m liking more and more, and they gang up on Edward with a complex mix of sober arguments and, from Aelswith, motherly encouragement. When the fortress gate opens the next morning and Uhtred leads his men out to find Edward and his army arrayed in front of them, Uhtred looks worried; but we’re not. We know that this season has to end at Bebbanburg. We’re just not sure how we’re going to get there.

Turns out Edward has relented, so he, Uhtred and Aldhelm lead their army to within 5 miles of Bebbanburg, intending to skirt the fortress and meet the Scots king on the road before he and his army can get inside. Of course, nothing goes as planned. To the consternation of everyone both inside and outside Bebbanburg, the Scots king lands at the fortress in a small boat practically alone. When the Saxon leaders learn this they argue about what to do next and Uhtred has to fall back on Plan B. He doesn’t really explain what his part of Plan B will be, probably because, as Finan pointed out last season, Uhtred flies by the seat of his pants. (I’m not sure he used those exact words.) Uhtred merely tells Edward, “Do not attack until I give the word.”

Well. We can already guess how THAT is likely to play out.

And then something totally unexpected happens. At least, I wasn’t expecting it. Uhtred, Pyrlig, Finan and Sihtric enter a convent. No, they don’t take the veil, they just go inside. This move was foreshadowed in an earlier episode when Uhtred said he had a friend near Lindisfarne and sent Haesten there with Aalys. Now we know who that friend is. Abbess Hild (Eva Birthistle–I love her!) greets them, willingly aids them, and drops a few brief words that solve an earlier mystery that has been gnawing at me. Did you hear the penny drop?

That villain Haesten—the guy we love to hate—must have had a Come To Jesus moment because he’s hanging out in the abbey and getting rich as a trader. Trading at an abbey is only a little far-fetched, because anyone trying to reach Lindisfarne would have had to wait for the tide to recede in order to cross to the Holy Isle (they still do), and the abbey would be a good spot to spend time and money. After some persistent urging from Uhtred, Haesten reluctantly agrees to help retrieve Aelfwynn from Bebbanburg. Hild isn’t too sure about Haesten, given his history of betrayals and, knowing that a leopard doesn’t easily change its spots she goes along for the ride.

So we have King Edward and his army waiting for word from Uhtred: we have Fr. Pyrlig sitting in a boat somewhere offshore waiting to convey Aelfwynn and company to her uncle; we have Haesten and Hild unloading goods on the beach; and we have Uhtred leading Finan and Sihtric on a secret, treacherous cliff path toward the fortress. What could go possibly wrong?

When our cliff-crawlers reach a spot where a slide has wiped out the trail, leaving a perilous drop just beyond their toes, I can hear Samwise Gamgee in my head muttering, “Rope. I knew I’d need a rope.” But looking at that cliff face I’m not sure that even a rope would have helped.

And while Uhtred and his companions are making like flies on a wall, Edward is getting nervous. The Scots army is getting close, and when he starts making noises about attacking before Uhtred gives the word, Aelswith decides again that she has to act to prevent a slaughter. She and Eadith ride south and I have no idea what she is planning to do. Neither does poor Eadith.

Down on the beach Haesten and Hild are confronted by guards who offer them shelter inside the fortress and won’t take no for an answer. So now Team Hild is inside Bebbanburg while Team Uhtred isn’t. Yeah. We knew this wasn’t going to go to plan; and it gets worse.

The following series of events that take place inside the fortress are beautifully orchestrated to raise tension. Uhtred’s team gets in, but Finan and Sihtric are captured and sent to be tortured until they reveal what they’re up to. Hild spots Aelfwynn, but loses her. Haesten, who Cornwell describes as having a tongue that could turn turds to gold, gets to Aelfwynn but can’t convince her that he’s with the good guys, and that’s hardly a surprise. His eloquence fails him again when he faces a suspicious and menacing King Constantin. In this, his final scene, Uhtred’s old enemy is given a moment of grace. He could have turned on Uhtred (again), but he didn’t and he pays the ultimate price. In the novel Warriors of the Storm Haesten dies in the same way, a sword thrust through his belly. But it’s not King Constantin who holds the sword; it’s young Athelstan as he faces Haesten in a single battle to the death. There’s no redemption for Haesten in the novel.

Somewhere in the woods nearby, Aelswith is searching for someone who is rumored to be living rough among the trees. When she finds her quarry she gazes pleadingly at a very unwelcoming Stiorra and says, “We need your help.”

They’ll need help fast because Edward’s army is already approaching Bebbanburg. Uhtred, watching from his hiding place, agonizes that they’ve come too soon, but the Saxons’ appearance at least distracts Constantin’s men from torturing Finan and Sihtric. Athelstan rides forward with a message from Edward: Give us Aethelhelm and Aelfwynn and we will not attack. Refuse, and we will besiege and kill you all.

But we know that Bebbanburg is impregnable, and I’m worried that there’s a Scots army approaching from the north that might trap Edward’s force  up against the walls of the fortress. I’m also worried about poor Pyrlig sitting alone in a boat on the North Sea; I hope they’ve at least given him a hat.

Athelstan’s chilling and possibly empty ultimatum is still unanswered when the credits roll and, darn it, there’s only one more episode left.

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