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The Last Kingdom 5.6: The Herepath

Most of this episode takes place in Mercia, somewhere between York and Aylesbury. Mind you, there are 200 miles between York and Aylesbury if one follows the ancient Roman roads that the Anglo-Saxons called herepaths. These were the roads that the armies used as they made their way around England to wage war. Our first several sightings of Uhtred in this episode show him riding with Sihtric and Finan south through Mercia. Their goals are to find the king at Aylesbury, to avert war, and to seize Aethelhelm and make him pay for the havoc and death that he has caused. And because of the distance they have to cover, this episode takes place over many days, possibly weeks. It doesn’t feel like it to us because we’re watching comfortably from our sofas, not traipsing up or down the length of England.

The Danish army led by Sigtryggr and Stiorra is somewhere behind Uhtred. An army on foot traveled only about 10 miles a day; a man on a swift horse might do 25. This army has a destination that I think is near Leicester. The plan is to meet the Saxon army there, and despite his brother’s objections, Sigtryggr is convinced that if they take the high ground it will give them enough advantage to win, even if the Saxons outnumber them. He calls Edward arrogant, yet it is Sigtryggr who is thinking and acting with viking arrogance.

Far to the south, in Aylesbury, Edward is making his own battle plan. And Sigtryggr is right about him. He, too, is arrogant. We will have to lose many men, he says, but they will die in a noble cause. His cause. And he is counting on help coming from the worst possible quarter—from Aethelhelm.

But Aethehelm, his army camped somewhere in Mercia, intends to delay until the last minute to ride to Edward’s assistance; that way he will be a hero and Edward will be in his debt. He suggests to his man Bresal that the king’s bastard son Athelstan, in this very camp, should fall victim to a mortal accident. And he also wants Edward’s niece Aelfwynn found and “rescued”, now that they know where she is.  

Aelfwynn is – oh, maybe 70 miles to the west in a village called Buxton, across the hills in Derbyshire, where she and her  grandmother are waiting nervously for her bridegroom to show up. Instead they learn of the massacre at Runcorn and immediately start arguing about where they should go next. Aelswith insists on a convent. Aelfwynn reacts to that like a stubborn, mouthy 16-year old, and when Eadith arrives to warn that they are being followed, we’re not surprised that Aelfwynn has escaped. Eventually we see her riding off alone through the forest, grinning, utterly pleased with herself and her freedom. We suspect that won’t last long.

Poor Fr. Pyrlig, still without a horse, is hiking vaguely southward with Brida in hopes of finding Uhtred. They run into refugees from Runcorn making for Aylesbury who warn Pyrlig that the peace between Saxons and Danes is ended. He keeps this bitter news from Brida presumably because it would mean that the two of them—he a Saxon and she a Dane—are now at war. And she’s the one with the weapon.

Uhtred finally reaches Edward’s camp with proof of Aethelhelm’s treachery. That he was responsible for the death of the queen and for the death of Edward’s half-brother, Osferth. Once he’s convinced, Edward prepares to go north to forge a new union with Sigtryggr because his quarrel now is with Aethehelm.

Only, Sigtryggr doesn’t know any of that. He only knows that he has spotted Aethehelm’s Saxon war camp on the other side of a frozen lake. Rognvaldr urges his brother to cross the ice and attack. So what if it’s not Edward? They’re Saxons! But Stiorra argues that the Danes can’t afford to lose men. And what if the ice doesn’t hold? This is Mercia, not Iceland. Rognvald tests the ice to proves it will hold, and the army starts across the ice at night, led by Sigtryggr. Although we can hear the sound of ice cracking they make it across.

None of this was in the novels, none of it! So I have no idea what is going to happen next. I’m worried that Stiorra won’t make it across the ice to the hill where she’s supposed to wait out the battle, and I’m hoping that Aethelhelm will end up head first in icy water.

None of that happens.

Instead, the Danes surprise the sleeping Saxon camp and Stiorra watches the ensuing battle from a distance, wide-eyed with horror. She’s not like Brida. She does not revel in bloodshed. Uhtred gets there, finds his daughter, then heads into the fray with Finan and Sihtric, searching for Athelstan. That Swine Aethelhelm gets away just before Edward and his cavalry arrive to overwhelm the Danes.

At battle’s end Uhtred plays the diplomat, trying to broker peace between Sigtryggr and Edward. He’s done this before and succeeded. Not this time. The king takes a page from his father’s playbook and offers to restore the peace between them if the Danes will be baptized, but Sigtryggr refuses. And in ordering Sigtryggr’s execution, Edward extends his rule beyond Mercia and into Northumbria. (Historical note: it was actually Aethelflaed who, in 918, received pledges from the people of York that they would be under her rule. She died, though, that same year and York fell under Danish control again.)

Stiorra’s promise to her husband to take back York may be the plot of a future episode, but for now she is defeated and widowed on the order of the king and, at Sigtryggr’s request, by the hand of Uhtred. Remember how, a couple of seasons back, Brida begged for Uhtred to kill her but he couldn’t bring himself to do it? This time the poor man can’t refuse. The show runners really put him through the wringer, and actor Alexander Dreymon is brilliant at conveying the emotional trauma of a man forced to murder a friend.

Speaking of Brida, when she stumbles across a wounded Dane who’s escaped the carnage of that battle and she’s told that Uhtred fought with the Saxons against the Danes, she turns on Fr. Pyrlig. She leaves him, gut-wounded, on the side of the road, but we’re certain to see her again. She’s not done with Uhtred yet. As for Pyrlig, I’m hoping he lives, but it’s not looking good.

It’s a somber group that leaves that battlefield in an endless line along the herepath.  Uhtred, Athelstan, Stiorra, even the king have bitter regrets. Only Aethelhelm, swilling ale in some far off tavern, is sanguine. He’s heading for Scotland to canoodle with King Constantine about putting an end to Edward’s tyranny. And at the Scottish king’s table in Sterling, sitting among the lords of Northumbria who’ve come to consult with that king, is Uhtred’s cousin, Wihtgar of Bebbanburg. Uh-oh.

With Constantine, Wihtgar, Aethelhelm, and Brida ranged against him, there’s a whole load of trouble ahead for Uhtred.

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