AMBROSE, PRINCE OF WESSEX;

WARRIOR OF THE KING

By Bruce Corbett


 

Copyright © 2007, by Bruce Corbett.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic or mechanical, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Table of Contents

Author's Note

Cast of Characters

Chapter 1 The Friends Arrive in Angleland.

Chapter 2 Ambrose Is Welcomed Back.

Chapter 3 Ambrose, Phillip And Polonius Talk With Alfred.

Chapter 4 Ambrose Meets Gretchen, And The Traders Arrive.

Chapter 5 Mercia Needs Help.

Chapter 6 "If you lay siege to a town....."

Chapter 7  They find the Mercians.

Chapter 8  Ambrose, Phillip And Polonius Go North To Spy.

Chapter 9  The West Saxons Visit Saxon Pride.

Chapter 10 The Spies Visit Storm Haven.

Chapter 11 Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius Join the Danes.

Chapter 12  The Spies Arrive At The Danish Camp.

Chapter 13  The Spies Are Accepted by The Danes.

Chapter 14  The Danes Move Against an Angle Force.

Chapter 15 The Spies Fight Side-by-side With The Danes.

Chapter 16  Polonius Is Recognized.

Chapter 17 The Spies Escape From The Danish Camp.

Chapter 18  The Danes Pursue The Spies, and Ambrose is Wounded.

Chapter 19  The Saxons Fight, And The Angles Rise.

Chapter 20  Ambrose Reaches Safety, and Gretchen Nurses Him.

Chapter 21  Ambrose Recovers, and The Danes Arrive in Force.

Appendix I  History of Alfred's era.

Appendix II  Glossary of terms

Appendix III About the Author. Upcoming books.

Appendix IV Map of Alfred's England


Author’s Note.

The year is now 867 AD. and while Ambrose and his companions return from Byzantium, dramatic events overtake Britain. Just two years before, a Viking army arrived in England. It is called the Great Army.

Unlike the previous Viking raiders, the Great Army does not leave after the summer campaign. Instead, the Danes establish strong bases.

Over the next fifteen years, this army, under the expert leadership of three brothers called, Ubbi, Halfdan, and Ivar (the Boneless), it crushes every Angle, Saxon and Jute kingdom on the island, with the sole exception of Wessex. King Ethelred and his brother Alfred ride north to fight after Northumbria has fallen and Mercia is in great peril. Finally, only Wessex is left unbeaten. The conquest of Anglo-Saxon England is almost complete.

First and foremost, this story is a work of fiction. It is a story of adventure, and of love. I have manipulated some historical events for dramatic purposes. Nevertheless, the historical background to the story is quite accurate, as is the rest of the time line. For more information, see Appendix 1.

The young Alfred you will meet is eventually going to become the king who saves Britain from total Danish domination; Alfred the Great. Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip are figments of my imagination, but they have lived so long in my head that I consider them to be old friends. I hope, after you finish reading of their adventures, that you do, too.

I hope you enjoy the story,

The author,

Bruce Corbett

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Cast of Characters.

Aella: The upstart king of Northumbria when the Great Army was secretly planning to move north into Northumbria. 

Alfred: The younger brother of Ambrose, Ethelred, and Ethelred. He was an intensely curious man who unexpectedly became king at the death of his brother, in 871. In this story, he is a young man who learns from Ambrose and Polonius.

Aylward: (Fictitious) He was the Mercian ambassador to King Ethelred's court when Ambrose first arrived.

Ambrose: (Fictitious) He was an Anglo-Saxon bastard prince of Wessex. Kidnapped as a boy, he was taken to Denmark, and then fled to Norway and Sweden. Chased by the Danes, he joined Gunnar of the Rus, who sent him and his two companions, Phillip and Polonius, to trade on his behalf down the Russian rivers. Ambrose set up trading posts in Novgorod, and then Kiev. Finally he travelled to Constantinople as an emissary for the Kiev leaders. From there he eventually returned to England to help his king fight against the Viking raiders.

Subsequently, he joined the Great Army, calling himself Canuteson of the Rus. Barely escaping with his life, he is finally able to return south with the information Wessex so desperately needs.

Anna: (Fictitious) She was a young Angle-Saxon slave who, along with Ambrose, was owned by Canute. She introduced Ambrose to the mysteries of love. Ambrose had to leave her great-with-child when he fled in order to save Phillip's life. (See Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Trader of Kiev.)

Askold: He, with Dir, are the Rus leaders that left Novgorod to settle at Kiev, a city they felt would be best able to control the Russian-Byzantine river trade. Under their leadership (and a little help from Polonius) the Dnieper River region soon came under Varangian control.

Barca: He is one of the officers aboard the ship that brings Ambrose and his companions from Frankland to Dover.

Burgred: King of Mercia and brother-in-law to Alfred the Great, he requests help from Wessex when the Great Army invades his country. Although he and Ethelred trap the Danes at Nottingham, the Mercian king decides to avoid a fight and agrees to pay Danegeld.

Bran: One of Ambrose’s scouts on the first Mercian expedition. He also acted as commander of the rope detail when Ambrose and his men tried to stop a ship sailing upriver to attack King Burgred.

Ceolwulf: (Fictitious) The leader of fifty Wessex thanes left at Storm Haven by Ambrose.

Canute: (Fictitious) Ambrose's Danish master right after Ambrose had been kidnapped, he treated Ambrose as an adopted son, and arranged that Ambrose and his party be given refuge in Sweden (The land of the Rus).

Dir: See Askold.

Ealhswith: The Mercian bride of Alfred.

Edgar: See Phillip.

Egbert: (Fictitious) He was the thane who insulted Polonius when the friends first arrived at the royal court.

Eric The Bald: (Fictitious) Eric was Ambrose's Section Leader when the prince was part of the Danish Great Army. It was from him that Ambrose discovered the direction the Great Army would take.

Egil (Little): (Fictitious) A Danish warrior, who was sent, along with Olaf the Red, by Halfdan to watch Polonius after his fight against the Viking who recognized him as an escaped slave. He is later wounded in the chase after Ambrose.

Ethelbald: Eldest son of Ethelwulf. He seized the throne in his father's absence, but agreed to let Ethelwulf rule the kingdoms of Kent, Essex, Surrey, and Sussex. He ruled from 858 to 860, when he suddenly died.

Ethelbert: He was crowned king of Wessex upon the death of his brother Ethelbald (860). He re-united the subject kingdoms with Wessex. He died in 865, and was succeeded on the throne by Ethelred.

Ethelred: The fourth son of Ethelwulf, he became king upon the death of his brother Ethelred in 865. He was the king on the throne when Ambrose and his party originally returned to England from their adventures in Russia, Byzantium, North Africa and Italy. Ethelred, in turn died in 871, and the Witan chose Alfred over Ethelred's young children.

Ethelswith: Daughter of Ethelwulf, sister of Alfred and half-sister to Ambrose, she married Burgred, king of Mercia.

Ethelwulf: King of Wessex, he reigned from 839 to 858. He was the father of Ethelbald, Ethelbert, Ethelred, Ethelswith, Alfred, and Ambrose.

Gorm: He is one of the under-officers aboard the ship that brings Ambrose and his companions from Frankland to Dover.

Gretchen: (Fictitious) Is the daughter of Osmond, Ealdorman of East Anglia, and distant relative to the royal family of Wessex. She first met Ambrose at the Wessex court, and then nursed him back to health when he was wounded during his escape from the Danes. She was devoted to him, and Ambrose falls in love with the beautiful Gretchen.

Gunnar: (Fictitious) Head of a great Swedish trading House, he owed a debt to Canute, and paid it by allowing Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius to act as traders for him, on an impending expedition into the heart of Russia.

Halfdan: He was elder brother of Ubbi and Ivar the Boneless. He was one of the three leaders of the Great Army in England. His father was Ragnar Lodbrok.

Halsig: One of the catapult captains on the first Mercian expedition.

Harold the Frisian: See Ivar the Boneless.

Hengst: (Fictitious) Ealdorman of the subject kingdom of Essex, he bravely held Saxon Pride for the throne of Mercia.

Ivar The Boneless: The brother of Halfdan and Ubbi and joint leader of the Great Army. His father was Ragnar Lodbrok. His son was Sitric, who entered this story as a Frisian peddler by the name of Harold. Phillip rescued him later, and he in turn called off a Danish assault on Storm Haven.

Kuralla: (Fictitious) She was a Slav chieftain's daughter whose village defied Bothi, a Rus chieftain. Her father was tortured and killed, and she was about to be given to the warriors when Ambrose purchased her to save her life. Polonius married her before they returned with Ambrose to England.

Lindun: One of the catapult captains on the first Mercian expedition.

Lunt: (Fictitious) He was witness to Polonius killing Svein, the man from Polonius' Danish captivity who recognized the thin Byzantine as an escaped slave.

Matilda: (Fictitious) She was the blond and sharp-tongued wife of Phillip, and mother of one son and two daughters.

Nicholas: See Polonius.

Olaf The Red: (Fictitious) The other Danish warrior of the Great Army assigned to watch Polonius, to ensure that he didn't flee before hearing Halfdan's judgement over the killing of Svein. He later led the pursuing Danish hunters against Ambrose's Saxons.

Osbert: Once king of Northumbria, in 865 he had recently been driven from his throne by the upstart Aella. The kingdom of Northumbria was thus in a state of civil war.

Osmond: (Fictitious) Ealdorman of Storm Haven in the kingdom of East Anglia, he visited the Wessex Court in an attempt to raise money in order to pay Danegeld to the Great Army. He reluctantly agreed to Ambrose leaving fifty Wessex thanes at Storm Haven while Ambrose and his two comrades attempt to infiltrate the Great Army. Osmond refused to allow his own thanes to ride against the pursuing Danish war party. Here Ambrose again met the beautiful Gretchen.

Oswald, Bishop: (Fictitious) A bishop of Wessex who serves on the King’s Council under Ethelred.

Phillip: (Fictitious) A giant of a man, he was called Weapons-master for his fighting prowess, and was the tutor and guardian of Ambrose when the two were kidnapped and enslaved. Where-ever Ambrose goes, there was Phillip. His great goal in life was to protect his prince. When he visited the Great Army's camp, he called himself Edgar.

Polonius: (Fictitious) He was born to noble Byzantine parents, and given an excellent education. When his family had financial reverses, he and his sisters were sold into slavery. He was taken to Lombardy, France, and eventually Frisia. There, he chanced to meet Ambrose and Phillip. Together they embarked on a series of adventures that took him to Norway, Sweden, Novgorod, Kiev, Constantinople, North Africa, Italy and Frankland. An expert linguist and knife-thrower, he returned to England with Ambrose, and, as Nicholas, helped him spy on the Danish Great Army.

Ragnar Lodbrok: A powerful Danish chieftain who invaded England and France. Legend had it that he was killed in Northumbria by being thrown in a pit of snakes. His three sons were Halfdan, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubbi.

Rolf Rolfsson: (Fictitious) He was the captain of the Viking dragon ship that attacked near Dover.

Sedgewick: (Fictitious) He was the grizzled ealdorman who spoke out so openly when Ethelred was planning the support of Burgred of Mercia.

Sitric Ivarsson: The son of Ivar the Boneless. He met Ambrose at the Wessex court, where he was a spy with the identity of a Frisian peddler by the name of Harold. Phillip rescued him later, and he, in turn, convinced his uncles to call off the attack on Storm Haven.

Svein, Son of Onund: (Fictitious) He was a sailor with the Great Army who recognized Polonius. Polonius goaded and then killed him in order to protect their secret.

Theodota: (Fictitious) She was a Byzantine noble-woman who seduced Ambrose and attempted to persuade him to kill her husband. (See Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Trader of Kiev.)

Torr: He was the Mercian ealdorman who met Ambrose and Alfred when they rode north to join King Burgred.

Ubbi: He was the younger brother of Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless. His foraging party 'rescued' Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius from their own riders, and, after testing them, accepted them into the Great Army. Furious once he found that they were spies, he sent out hundreds of warriors to track the fugitives down. His father was Ragnar Lodbrok.

Wolf: (Fictitious) He is one of the under-officers aboard the ship that brings Ambrose and his companions from Frankland to Dover.

Nb. Italicized words are in the glossary at the end of the story.

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Prologue

(Ambrose, Prince of Wessex, Trader of Kiev.)

Some seven years before this story opens, Prince Ambrose and Phillip, his faithful tutor and guardian, are captured in a Viking raid on a village along the Wessex coast. While on the way to Europe as captives, a terrible storm almost sinks the ship. Ambrose, and then Phillip, help to save it.

The battered vessel makes a Frisian port, and there many of the Saxon captives are sold. One stranger, however, is brought aboard. Thus Ambrose and Phillip meet Polonius, at the time just another slave, but once a linguist and scholar of Imperial Byzantium.

The ship reaches the Danish home port, and the three friends are put to work. Ambrose has a generous master, and he falls in love with a slave girl. Phillip is brutally treated, however, and Ambrose and Polonius are forced to flee in order to prevent Phillip from becoming a sacrifice to a savage Viking god.

The three companions flee by small ship north and then east, until they hit the coast of Norway. They land in an isolated Norwegian village, and after being treated hospitably, leave to begin their overland trek to Sweden to find a friend of Ambrose's old master. Once in Sweden, they meet Gunnar of the Rus and happily settle down as apprentice traders.

The arrival of pursuing Danish ships ends these plans abruptly, however. They are forced to flee once again. They join an expedition sailing for Novgorod; a Slavic river town where Rus tribesmen have been invited to settle.

Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius set up a trading post there for Gunnar. Within months, however, they get an opportunity to join another expedition that will take them deep into the heartland of the continent.

After a bitter fight against nomad raiders on the way south, they reach the town of Kiev. There they work with the new Rus rulers to train men and develop a string of fortifications along the river. The steppes are close and nomad raids were frequent.

A fierce attack on the Kiev area by the Pechenegs is fought off only with great difficulty, but soon thereafter the war arrow is sent up and down the river. A punitive attack on Constantinople, the greatest city in the world at the time, is being planned by the audacious Varangians.

(Ambrose, Prince of Wessex, Emissary to Byzantium.)

The three friends join the attack on Constantinople, and after considerable adventures return to Kiev in the fall. In the spring, the three friends are sent south again, but this time as official emissaries for Kiev's Varangian leaders.

With perseverance, luck and skill, the three emissaries manage to reach an agreement with the Emperor of Byzantium. They head north again with the good news, only to discover that Kuralla, now Polonius' wife, has mysteriously disappeared.

A Slav outlaw risks his life to bring them news of her whereabouts from the north, and the three friends quickly take an expedition north to rescue the beautiful Kuralla. After hard travel and battle, they succeed. They no sooner than reach Kiev, however, than they must sail south again. The emperor of Byzantium impatiently awaits their return.

Welcomed by the Emperor in Constantinople, the three find that the magnificent and decadent city is open to them. Ambrose becomes infatuated with a married noblewoman, and only the timely arrival one night of Phillip and Polonius save his life. Soon thereafter, Polonius and Ambrose realize that they have been made pawns in the imperial power struggle, and the friends flee for their very lives.

(Ambrose, Prince of Wessex, Southern Journey.)

Their ship is captured by Cretan pirates, and the friends feel the heavy chains of slavery. After a daring escape, they make it to the port of Alexandria. Byzantine gold and possible treachery forces them to ride eastward, along the coast of Africa. A Greek Admiral pursues them doggedly. After many adventures, they reach Tripoli, where a Moslem slaver is blackmailed into delivering them to Byzantine Italy. They are attacked again on the lonely roads of southern Italy, and only their fighting prowess and clever planning allows them to reach the independent state of Benevento safely.

(Ambrose, Prince of Wessex, Journey Home.)

There, Ambrose renews an acquaintanceship with a priest from when he was a child, and they travel northward with a strong military escort.

After further adventures, the group of friends finally arrive in England. Ambrose has arrived home, only to find that the Viking Great Army has invaded the island.

This story, Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Warrior of the King, begins when the four friends reach Angleland.

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CHAPTER 1.

The Friends Arrive in Angleland.

Prince Ambrose awoke to a gentle rocking motion and the creaking of taut rope and sails. Sea gulls screamed in the distance. He opened his eyes to see a bright eastern sky. At last, after some seven years of travel, he was returning to his native Angleland.

The prince crawled out from his sleeping pallet under the deck awning and padded barefoot to the ship's rail. The sun was suddenly a fiery compressed ball slipping silently out of the German Sea. Ambrose only looked east for a moment however, back towards the shores of now invisible Frankland. He turned and focussed firmly west.

In hours, he thought, God willing, I will again stride the land of my birth! In his rising excitement, he crawled back under the awning stretched across part of the midship of the sailing vessel, and woke Polonius, Phillip and Kuralla. Huddled in hides from the early-morning chill, they groaned and then looked up at the excited prince.

Ambrose grinned down at them. "Wake up, you sluggards! The sun is almost above the horizon, and I think I can already see a hint of land. Come, I want you to see the famous chalk cliffs of my homeland!"

Aware of his great excitement, they didn't protest too bitterly, though it was both early and cold. Polonius, however, once he joined his friend at the rail, watched to the north and east.

The crossing they were making was a short one that had been old in the days of the Roman legions. Even the Saxon, Jute and Angle invasions of several hundred years before had not stopped the regular passage of ships at this most narrow stretch of the sea between the island of Britain and Frankland. Viking sea-wolves, however, were succeeding in what even the fall of the Western Roman Empire had been unable to do.

Once the sea had been full of Frankish and Saxon trade vessels. Now, marauding fleets of long-ships and dragon ships regularly plied the choppy waters, manned by ruthless pagan pirates from the north. The Saxon and Frankish ship crews that dared the crossings lived in fear of being spotted and captured by these human predators.

Even Ambrose wasn't sure that his adroit Norse tongue and runes from the great trading house of the Swedish Rus would save their lives in the event of attack. Phillip, Polonius and he could probably pass themselves off as Viking Rus, but even if they did, it was possible that some Dane might have a grudge against their cousins from the east, or, even worse, recognizes the men for what they once were; fugitive slaves escaped from Danish captivity.

If recognized by roving Danes, their fate was sealed, for Polonius and Ambrose had stolen Odin's own sacrifice from the priests. Ambrose thus saw the thin Byzantine scholar scanning for potential enemy sails, rather than admiring the towering white chalk cliffs that the Saxon prince was so eager to show him.

"Relax, Polonius. Look to the bow. We are almost across. See, the cliffs are lit by the rising sun and shine like pure gold! Surely it is an omen to us. I cannot believe that we have really made it!"

"Master, if we are spotted by Viking marauders, we may yet not reach your golden shores!"

"Polonius, I tell you, it is an omen. If you would but look towards the bow, you would see Angleland! After coming this far, how can we not make shore? Today I will walk my brother's land! Look, my friend. This water, which can be choppy and vicious, today is topped with only the gentlest of ripples. We have a mild breeze to keep this vessel moving, and it holds steady.

"Prince, this tub depends on the kiss of the wind, and the wind is not blowing towards Dover. Though your beloved Angleland is not far away, until the land is sufficiently heated by the sun, the breeze will continue to push us away. The captain will have to tack labouriously to get us into port, or wait until the land warms."

Ambrose shrugged. "Then we will land a little later, when the wind blows again from our stern. What is the problem, Scholar?"

"The captain said we had to reach shore before dawn to be safe.’ He shrugged. ‘The sun is now up, and we are not yet in port."

"Polonius, my friend, I do not intend to ever be enslaved again. We have escaped slaver’s chains three times. Next time, we may not be so lucky. But look around you! The only sails visible are those of some local fishing vessels. They are hardly a threat to us."

Even as he spoke, the crewman precariously perched in the basket attached to the top of the single mast called out in alarm to his captain. "Sail ho! Off the stern!"

The crew reacted with panic. The tubby merchantman was propelled only by a single large sail. It was a fat sow, with large storage holds, rather than a lean greyhound built for speed. It could not hope to outrun a Viking war vessel, if that was what was chasing them.

The captain carefully checked the wind and the set of his sail. There was little he could do, but it was not in his nature to stand helplessly by while they were run down by Viking pirates.

"Steersman! Bring 'er two points closer to the wind. You men, tighten those lines! The rest of you lazy bastards, break out the oars!"

Ambrose moved closer to the Captain. "Captain, can we really row this ship?"

"We have four long oars, and we sure as hell can try! Do ye want to just stand here and wait for the God-damned heathens to come and get us?"

"How do you know it is Vikings?"

"Young sir, there be few enough other major ships in these waters. For all our sakes, ye better pray to the Almighty that it is one of Ethelred's patrol ships that approach. The West Saxons still have a ship or two that occasionally makes the run to the Continent.' The man raised his right fist to his eye, and squinted through the small aperture made by clenching his fist. 'By Mary's virgin tits! It looks like we may find out soon enough."

The lookout called out again. "Cap'n! They've turned bow-on. They're coming about on an intercept course."

The Captain looked at the approaching cliffs, and again at the mast of the pursuing vessel. "Steer one more point into the wind, if ye please, Steersman!"

Ambrose stared towards Frankland. The squarish shape of the sail could now be seen clearly, and the hull seemed to gradually emerge from the sea as the ship closed the distance. The lookout sang out a third time.

"Ahoy Cap'n! I can make out a great black raven on the sail!"

In spite of the gentle breeze, sweat broke out on the captain's brow. "By the Christ's balls! That's a ship of the Viking Great Army. Even the puking little wind we have is fighting us! There's no way we can make port before they catch up!"

Ambrose spoke to the captain. "What weapons do you have on board?"

"Laddy, we'll run, but there is little hope if they decide we're worth chasing. An' they'll show us no mercy if we fight!"

"Captain, I have been both a Viking warrior and slave. They will show even less mercy if you surrender like a coward!"

"Laddy, we cannot fight a warship! Look! It's a bloody dragon ship!"

Ambrose's voice cut with sudden authority. "Captain! What weapons do you have on board?"

"Knives, a couple of boat hooks, some axes, and perhaps a few spears. That's it. We are not a war vessel!"

"Do you have arrows?"

"No, laddy. And they would do little good against a dragon ship if we did."

Ambrose turned back to his own little party. "Phillip, break out the bows. Polonius, do you have any of the chemicals left over from your Greek Fire experiments?"

"Aye, Ambrose. I brought some of each of the elements, stored separately so we won't have any more unfortunate accidents. But I just brought small quantities of each. I had hoped that your Saxon chemists would have been able to replenish my stocks."

"Scholar, I will see what I can arrange when we reach my brother’s court, but for now, do you have enough to fill a pot or two?"

"Aye. Just about, but not much more."

"Then break out what you have and start mixing! Captain, we need some clay or glass containers that can be easily sealed and thrown by hand. What flammable liquids do you have on board?"

"Why, none, laddy. Just a little oil for cooking, and for the ship lanterns."

"Do you have anything else amongst your cargo?"

"There are a few casks of whale oil, but that be part of a consignment to the Saxon king of Wessex. We can't use that!"

"Why not?"

"Do ye have any idea of the cost of whale oil, and, anyway, the king would skin me alive!"

"Captain, I am well-known at the Wessex court and think I can arrange for the king to forgive you the use of his oil. Do you have any idea of what it is like to be a slave and feel a whip on your naked back?"

"And you think you can truly arrange for the king to forgive me? Laddy, it has been my experience that the less you have to do with a king the better off ye are, but I do see yer point.’ The captain sighed. ‘Barca! Bring up a keg of whale oil from the cargo hold."

"And I need fire. Here, on deck!"

"Laddy, what ye ask is incredibly dangerous! Fire is the greatest potential danger a ship at sea faces. One little accident and we all burn or drown."

"Captain, after the Danes steal your cargo and enslave us all, they will burn your ship. They won’t sail it all the way back to Denmark."

The captain sighed again. "Laddy, ye be a persuasive young man. I suppose ye be right. Wolf! Bring some kind of large metal plate or panel to protect the deck, and then get a ship's lantern. Take it to Cook in the galley, and ask him to light it. Then set it up right here, on the metal plate."

"In the stern, Captain."

The Captain amended his order. "Set it up in the stern, Wolf, but on a protective plate."

"Captain, we need those containers right now."

"Gorm! Get some glass amphora from the cargo hold! And bring whatever clay pots or glass bottles ye can find. Bring 'em up right quick!"

While Ambrose arranged for the necessary equipment, Polonius dragged out one of the trunks from their stash of supplies lashed down on the main deck. He flipped it open and feverishly searched through the chemicals he had so carefully wrapped in moss and transported all the way from Italy.

Ambrose looked to the stern. There was now no doubt as to the identity of the pursuers. Individual Vikings could be seen waving their weapons and jeering at the merchantman crew.

Phillip, the Saxon Weapons-master, arrived with his arms wrapped around a second long trunk. He carried it to the stern, threw it on the deck, flipped open the lid, and proceeded to busily unload quivers of arrows and an assortment of bows.

The captain and his officers followed Ambrose's party to the stern. They watched the thin foreigner mixing various liquids and Phillip unpacking the weapons.

"Laddy, do ye expect to beat off a bloody dragon ship with those?"

Ambrose turned to the captain. "We intend to try!"

Ambrose and Kuralla each grabbed a bow and slung several quivers over their shoulders, while Phillip carefully unwrapped and strung a massive bow that was as tall, unstrung, as him.

While they made their preparations, the Danish fighting vessel came into hailing distance. Ambrose cupped his hands and yelled in colloquial Danish to the crewmen in the bow of the dragon ship.

"Tell your captain that Canuteson of the Rus has chartered this vessel, and is in too great a hurry today to stop and chat with his cousins from Denmark."

One of the men, a senior officer by the amount of gold that adorned him, yelled back. "I command here, and if you want to see tomorrow, Canuteson, tell the fat pig who commands that scow to heave to!"

"He seems to be a little nervous about your intentions. I don't think he wants to stop!"

The Viking officer laughed. "Tell him that Rolf, son of Rolf, doesn’t give a damn what he likes, and I don't much like the Rus anyway. Prepare for Valhalla, Canuteson."

Ambrose suddenly recognized the man. It was the commander of the little Viking force that had driven them into the net on the coastal road near Montreuil in Frankland just a week before!

"Rolf, I know you! I am the adopted son of a Dane and trader for the House of Gunnar of the Rus. Your chief read my runes and greeted me as a friend. We shared both food and drink. Veer off, before it is too late and unnecessary blood is spilled."

"Boy, tell the captain to heave to, NOW!"

"There is little of value aboard, Rolf. You are about to start a blood feud with one of the most powerful trading houses in the Viking world. Why will you not back off?"

The Viking grinned. "You may be surprised to know how much gold you are worth to me, Canuteson, and it is only a blood feud if someone reports my little deed to your friend, Gunnar of the Rus. And, son of Canute, dead men tell no tales. I am almost sorry that I cannot sell you and your friends to slavers. Fight bravely today and you could be walking the halls of Valhalla this very night."

"I am worth nothing to you, Rolf."

"That is not what some fat Greek thinks, boy. He offered a lot of gold for your dead body - and that of your companions."

Ambrose looked at Polonius. "It appears that bastard, Demetrious, has not given up yet, Scholar."

"We fight or we die, my prince."

Ambrose turned back to face the Viking. "This is your last warning, Rolf! Break off the chase or face the consequences!"

The Vikings in the bow of the dragon ship howled in laughter. Kuralla launched her first arrow at Rolf. Her shot was accurate, but the Viking playfully swung up his shield at the last moment and the arrow thudded harmlessly into the thick wood.

He grinned at Kuralla, and shouted at her. "You will have to do better than that, pretty one! But I like your spunk. I think I may tame you myself before I let the crew have you. It will be a shame when I have to finally slit your pretty throat, but the fat Greek was adamant. He doesn’t want you to see any more sunrises."

She shouted back in her Rus accented Viking tongue. "You are never going to have me except in your dreams, Danish pig!"

Ambrose stood beside her, arrow notched, and the Weapons-master came up on her other side. Ambrose smiled and spoke quietly.

"Kuralla, perhaps you should distract him before we shoot."

The woman blushed at the memory. Just months before, she had fought two warriors, while naked, and won.

"I fear that your cold northern climate will not allow me to disrobe today, Prince."

"Then let’s just shoot the braggart! Phillip, are you ready?"

"Aye, Prince."

"On your word, Kuralla."

"Now!"

At the one word, all three loosed their arrows. Rolf shifted right to avoid Ambrose's shaft, and threw his shield high to protect his face from Phillip's shot. The power of the Weapons-master's bow was such that the arrow punched right through the thick shield. Before the Viking leader could recover his balance, Kuralla's bodkin arrow, with its long thin armour-piercing tip, penetrated deep into his abdomen. Rolf grabbed the feathered shaft with both hands and fell to the deck, screaming.

The deck of the tubby merchantman was as high as the lean warship, and from its height, Phillip, Ambrose and Kuralla were able to fire a steady stream of arrows at the fast-approaching ship. A few enemies fell, but arrows alone were not going to stop the powerful fighting vessel.

A line of Vikings along the bow held their shields high, ducked low, and patiently waited. Each held a bundle of spears. Once they could get close enough that they could cut down the three archers and the men manning the steering oar with a fusillade of spears, then the chase was as good as over.

Ambrose called out to Polonius, now busy with a clutter of amphora, pots and sundry liquids piled around him on the open deck.

"Whenever you're ready, Polonius! The Danes will be boarding us soon."

"Yes, yes! First I have to cap these . . . Phillip, would you stop playing with your overgrown bow and get over here and do something useful?"

Polonius carefully handed Phillip several amphora containing the whale oil. "Listen carefully, my friend. I've tied ropes around the necks to give you added range. I want them to hit the deck by the bow; as close as possible to each other. Well, go man! I think Ambrose is getting nervous."

The dragon ship was just in spear-casting range when Phillip started lobbing the six containers. The first fell short, and the second struck the gilded dragon's head mounted on the bow. The last four, however, struck their target truly. The rancid oil sloshed across the bow decking.

Realizing that the Saxon vessel was just in range, the strongest amongst the Vikings put down his shield and cast his first spear. Both Ambrose and Kuralla shot simultaneously, and the man screamed in sudden pain. His spear was well thrown, however, and missed Phillip only because he moved right.

Polonius ran to the Weapons-master and handed him the last two containers. "Don't miss, Weapons-master! These are the important ones, and they're all we have! Before you throw, let me light the wicks I made for them."

Once Polonius had lit the attached rags, Phillip hurled both pots in a high arc. They came down on the now much closer bow of the Viking vessel. The two pots burst on impact, but in both cases the flames had flickered and gone out before the pots broke.

The Captain crossed himself. "Holy mother of God! Ye have roused their ire. There is no fire on their deck, and they are about to board us."

Ambrose tore two strips of cloth off his cloak and dipped them in whale oil. "Phillip and Polonius, get shields and cover us as best you can! Kuralla, here! Tie it tight around the head of your arrow, light it, and shoot for where the last pots burst. Aim for the jelly on the deck!"

Several spears now thudded into the deck beside the group in the stern of the sailing vessel. Phillip and Polonius swung up shields and tried to intercept them as best they could. Kuralla and Ambrose fired the flaming arrows simultaneously.

Both arrows struck truly and flames ran eagerly across the deck. The Vikings laughed, but they threw down their spears and ran to get sand and water buckets. While they quickly sloshed most of the oil off the deck, there were two areas where the fire burned tenaciously. The Vikings desperately beat at the spots with blankets and hides, but the viscous jelly just lit these on fire.

The Captain watched in wonder as the dragon ship slowed while more and more crewmen abandoned their oars to fight the spreading fire. Covered by Ambrose's and Kuralla's accurate shooting, Phillip tied ropes to several clay pots of whale oil, swung them in circles over his head, and then launched them at the dragon ship. Two more landed, and the flames leapt suddenly higher. The dragon ship veered off. Its crew found themselves too busy fighting the pernicious fire to worry about a poor merchantman.

The Captain just stared in awe at the burning Viking vessel. He looked at Ambrose and Polonius in wonder.

"Lads, how did ye do that? It's like ye used devil-magic. They beat and beat the fire, but it just wouldn't go out!"

Polonius replied with a smile. "Have you ever heard of Greek Fire, Captain?"

"I once met an Arab captain who told me that Byzantine magicians invoke evil spirits that cast fire and brimstone from the bowels of hell itself at enemy ships. He described how entire fleets of Arab ships had been burned to the waterline by this sorcery. He said that not only was the Greek Fire an evil fire that nothing could extinguish, but also that the secret incantations were the most closely guarded secrets in the whole Byzantine Empire. The captain looked at Polonius with sudden fear in his eyes. "Master Polonius, is that what ye did? Did ye use the incantations?"

"Nay, friend! The Byzantines who use Greek Fire are good Christians. It's just a secret and clever blend of chemicals. You saw me mix the chemicals, and you did not hear any incantations, did you?"

"Well, no, I can't rightly say that I did."

"Relax, captain, there was no magic. You could mix the ingredients as easily as me. The secret formula for Greek Fire is still safe in Byzantium, but I have experimented, during my travels, trying to figure out what ingredients they do use. Their's burns more fiercely if you put water on it. Mine is just hard to put out. What we used was only a poor experimental version. Still, I do think it has some promise."

***

The ship coasted the chalk cliffs of Kent, waiting for the slowly increasing warmth of the land to suck the winds shoreward and push the tubby vessel into the nearby port of Dover. Ambrose approached the Captain again as they neared land.

"Captain, I urgently need to reach Southampton. If I triple what I paid you to bring us from Frankland, would you deliver us to that Wessex port?"

"I canna deny that I owe ye much, and I do love the sight of yer silver, but I'm sorry, laddy! It's worth me hide to take ye along the southern coast. Ye saw what human wolves are out there. Dover be my port, and Dover be where I be going to have to put ye ashore. Besides, it's God's own truth that ye be safer on a horse than sailing this coast! There be many more God-cursed Vikings out there looking for such easy prey as me. I'm damn sorry, lad, but there it be!"

***

Accepting the inevitable gracefully, Ambrose and his little party disembarked at the jetty of the Kentish seaport. As Polonius stepped on to the old Roman quay, a stray wave wet his sandal.

"By all that’s holy, Prince! The ruler of this land should do something about this dock! It is in imminent danger of slipping beneath the sea."

Ambrose smiled. "You should recognize the fine workmanship, Polonius. This is not Saxon work - it was built by the ancient Romans."

"The workmanship is not in question, Prince. It is the height above the high tide mark that I question."

Ambrose smiled. "I am teasing you, my friend, but what you say is actually true. Either the dock has been sinking for centuries, or the ocean is rising. My father’s most learned scientists were quite unable to explain the phenomenon to his satisfaction, and his priests just said it was the will of Almighty God.’

As they walked the narrow street, they stared at the inhabitants of the ancient port. ‘Speaking of Romans - Polonius, did you know that the ancestors of these inhabitants once fought the great Julius Caesar himself to a standstill?"

"I think, young Prince, that you are referring to his first visit to your island, when he landed out of idle curiosity."

"And had his legionnaires massacred for his troubles, by my Celtic ancestors."

"I am pleased, Prince, that you remember your Roman history so accurately. And I assume you can also remember what happened when the Romans landed a second time, in strength?"

"Perhaps, my scholarly friend, we should start looking for some food and then a stable where we can buy some horses."

Polonius grinned. "I think, my prince, that you are trying to change the subject, but, for once, I am forced to agree with you. I am famished."

As Ambrose led his little group along Dover’s main street, he clapped Polonius on the back. "You see, Scholar? I told you that the golden cliffs were a good omen for us. I could feel it as I got up this morning. And here we are, safe and sound, walking on Angelisc soil!"

Polonius looked reproachfully at the young prince. "It is right strange, Ambrose, that this sixth sense of yours did not happen to mention the impending attack of an entire shipload of Viking pirates."

"That would only matter if they were going to succeed, Scholar. All the rest are just details, my friend, just minor details. We are, after all, now safe on shore, just as I promised. By the way, did you not notice that the captain was strangely eager for us to disembark? I wonder just what cargo the ship carries that they wouldn't unload it until we were out of sight."

Polonius smiled. "I wondered, but decided it wouldn't have been prudent to press the point with the captain. If he thought we were spies, well, there are deep waters out there, where nosy strangers could just disappear forever. And sorcerers . . . May I humbly remind you of my recently discovered ability to cast incantations and spells? I didn't want our good captain to get the idea that it might be a good deed to rid the world of a powerful sorcerer. After all, I may be one of the most feared magicians who ever sailed on that ship."

Ambrose put his arm over the thin man's shoulder. "You may be the biggest windbag who ever sailed on that ship. But, Scholar, I will concede that you seem to have managed to cast some kind of spell on Kuralla here, and myself as well.

You were right not to press the captain. Dover seemed to be home for most of the crew. It took us a usurious sum of silver just to get us on the ship in the first place, and, although the crew were grateful that we were able to save them from capture, I think it would have been unwise to count on Angle loyalty past a certain point."

"I did notice that, except for a passing reference in the matter of the king’s whale oil, you carefully did not mention your exact relationship with the royal Wessex family."

"Polonius, no one from my family knows that we have landed, and although the kingdom of Kent is now subservient to my brother the king, it is only because my grandfather quite ruthlessly crushed it. I would be surprised if the royal family of Wessex is greatly loved hereabouts, and I really did not want some churl with a long memory decide to get revenge on the nearest royal family member - not to mention his nefarious wizard and his minions. Let's get some horses, retrieve our luggage, and go find my brother.

The normally taciturn Phillip spoke. "And, Prince? There is the other matter you said that Polonius and Kuralla should be aware of."

Ambrose sighed. "You are right to remind me, Phillip. My friends - it is possible that the attack on the village when Phillip and I were captured by the Danes seven years ago was orchestrated by a Saxon."

Polonius stared at Ambrose. "You mean you might have a powerful enemy amongst the Saxon noblemen or possibly even in the royal family?"

"Ethelbald, my brother, who ruled when Phillip and I were captured, felt little love for me, or I for him. He is the ungrateful wretch who, left as regent while my father travelled to Rome, usurped the throne. When the threat of civil war loomed over his head, he reluctantly agreed to let my father rule the former kingdom of Kent."

"I can see why he would not be much loved by you or your family. Do you think he was responsible for your kidnapping?"

"Honestly, Polonius, I do not know. He died just a month or two after we were taken, so it may be hard to find out."

"I can see why there might have been little filial love between you two, but isn’t arranging for you to be killed or sold as a slave a little harsh?"

"My father had promised my mother on her deathbed that I would rule a shire someday, so it is possible that Ethelbald wanted me conveniently out of the way - or perhaps someone thought they would rule in my place if I was a Viking slave or dead. I don’t know for sure, Polonius, but one of the Dane captors taunted me with a story that a noble Saxon bribed the crew to attack the village, and even called off the Saxon sentries watching the beaches - and this time it wasn’t bloody Admiral Demetrious. If I can, I intend to try and find out just who was behind that treacherous Viking attack on the innocent village where Phillip and I were staying."

Phillip held his belly. "But right now, my prince, we need to find that food. My belly is not filled by words."

Ambrose smiled. "Aye, let us find some food, Weapons-master!"

***

Ambrose and his little group were in luck. The sparse information provided at the first West Saxon tun the little party stopped at was at least enough to let them know roughly where King Ethelred was holding court.

Ambrose mounted his horse and smiled at the little group. "We’re off! Let’s go find my brother the king."

Kuralla looked puzzled. "Prince, that last royal steward did not know where he was. How are we going to ride to him?"

"He said ‘go west’. You see, the kings of Wessex have long had three major centres they traditionally prefer to stay at, though most of the year the court loads its baggage and people in massive wagons and journeys the length and breadth of the land."

Kuralla spoke. "But why, Ambrose, does your king travel so much? Would it not be easier for him to choose just one of the towns, and make it his capital?"

"Hmm. I never much thought about it. I suppose Winchester would have been considered my father’s capital, but the royal court would never stay there for more than a few months a year. I was born in a wagon, as were most of my royal brothers. I suppose it would be simple enough to stay in one place year-round, but how then would the king know what is going on in other parts of his kingdom? A Saxon king makes an annual journey to all corners of the kingdom. Not only does the king see the condition of his subjects personally, it serves to remind his sworn men of their sacred oaths to their king.

Also, in all honesty, I guess the travelling also means that the royal court doesn’t strip the larder bare in any one corner of the kingdom. The needs of the court are enormous, and no single town or community could afford to indefinitely have so many extra mouths to feed. Each royal tun or burh is obligated to feed the court when it arrives, but except in the case of the major centres, the period is for a matter of nights only."

Ethelred's royal caravan had not yet reached Winchester, so the little band rode north in pursuit. At last they neared the court. A steward of a royal estate reported that the king and his court was located at a small vill some several days wagon-ride to the north and east. Word was that the king had set up court in the vill's Great Hall for several days. Ambrose groaned, re-mounted his tired horse, and set out in dogged pursuit. As he rode, Polonius asked him about the complexities of a West Saxon court.

"I feel like a right fool lecturing you, Polonius!"

"Nay, Master. I would be the fool if I did not know what to expect at your royal brother's court. I am all ears."

"That's true, Polonius. The better for you to hear!"

Ducking the apple core that came his way, Ambrose grinned and continued. "Polonius, the very first thing you must learn is that, in Britain, it is very bad manners to throw things at a royal atheling! But I digress. The king is the head of the pyramid. The King of the West Saxons traces his ancestry back to a great hero called Cerdic. Well, truth to tell, he was, in fact, a thief and an adventurer, but he did found the kingdom of Wessex.

Next to the king are the princes of the blood, such as myself. We are called athelings. It is from this group that the Witan, composed of the great men of the kingdom, chooses the next king. This council generally chooses the eldest son of the former king, but they are in no way obliged to do so. The athelings are the pride of each Saxon kingdom, and oftentimes the kingdom's nemesis. Too often, they fight each other for the throne.

Our greatest noblemen are called ealdormen, and each controls an entire shire. You will not meet all of them today, as they divide their time between the royal court and their home territories.

The other men you will meet at the court, aside from the church leaders, are the thanes. They are landholders who hold the land in the king's name. For every five hides of land held, they are expected to provide one mounted and armed warrior for the king's fyrd. The richer thanes often bring their own band of armed retainers when they gather for battle. Churls may also be sent to fight, but they are not likely to be found at court.

That's it in a nutshell. Phillip and I will introduce you to the ones we know. Remember that I have been gone for some years, and much may have changed."

***

The party followed the meandering wagon track that climbed the chalk downs and then descended into a sheltered valley that led towards a vill that could be seen faintly in the distance. They were at no point stopped, although they passed several groups of fyrdmen sitting idly by the wagon track.

Ambrose and Phillip nodded greetings, answered shouted questions in colloquial Saxon, and the soldiers seemed satisfied. The vill did have at least the remains of an outer wall.

Polonius spoke over his shoulder to Ambrose. "Prince, I am glad to see that some of your brother’s vills are fortified, but, if I may be blunt, the walls are not in the best of shape."

Ambrose looked sheepish. "Now that I have seen the walls of Constantinople, I do see your point. The truth is, my friend, that most of the walls on this island were probably built when Old Rome was mistress of the world."

The vill did have a functional gate, however, and here the entrance was barred to them by a small contingent of brawny soldiers. A sturdy churl blocked the roadway almost single-handedly. The man was a match for Phillip, at least in size. He looked boldly at the four travel-stained riders, and spoke curtly.

"And what be yer business here, strangers? The king's court be in session, and the vill is closed to travellers. So be off with you, unless you 'ave official business 'ere . . . though, miss, if you wish to ‘ang around until I am off-duty, I might 'ave a little business for you later tonight!"

Phillip, stolid and taciturn, rarely took the lead verbally, but tonight he surprised his three friends.

"Watch your mouth, clod . . . before I hand you your balls to play with! You are speaking to the royal atheling Ambrose, son of Ethelwulf, and his companion is an ambassador direct from the court of Byzantium! You have just insulted the ambassador's wife! Get out of my bloody way before I really lose my temper, you poor excuse for pig slop!"

The churl looked again at the travel-stained strangers. He was on his third tour-of-duty at the royal court, had often seen the various athelings, and he had never heard of one called Ambrose. He did not understand the relationship of the thin ambassador to the court of Byzantium, but then he had no idea where or what Byzantium was. He did feel that discretion was the better part of valour, however. He had had enough dealings with haughty noblemen that he knew he might have made a very serious error in judgement.

"If I 'ave, then I'm right sorry, me luds! You there! Turn out an escort of men for these fine gennelmen and the lady! Take ‘em direct-like to the king. Sirs. Madam. Please to follow me men!"

Having made his speech, the junior officer wiped his brow of the sweat that was threatening to cascade past his eyebrows and run into his eyes. It wasn't hot, but he suddenly looked very warm.

***

The mounted escort rode directly towards a high barn-like structure that towered over the thatched cottages of the vill. The warriors stopped just outside of the large timbered building and dismounted. The leader of the troop turned to Ambrose and his little group.

"Please to leave yer horses, 'ere, lords and me lady. If you'd just wait a moment, I will try to find someone who can ‘elp you."

With that, he dismounted and trotted off towards the Great Hall, leaving the rest of the mounted troop to watch over the strangers. Moments later he re-appeared, leading a fat and richly dressed man wearing a cape and cross-gartered hose. The new man spoke haughtily to the four travel-stained newcomers.

"I am the King's Reeve for Winchester. What are you wanting here? The king rides there tomorrow, and all must be ready! By all the saints, I am a very busy man and some dirty warrior calls me away from my duties!"

Neither Phillip nor Ambrose recognized the portly fellow. Ambrose replied in his most haughty tone.

"Excellent! Then you need not waste any more of my time. Go directly to the King and tell him that his brother Ambrose has returned and wishes to see him immediately! . . . What are you staring at, fellow? Go!"

The Reeve only hesitated for a split second. He didn't recognize the slim young man who stood so boldly in front of him, though the name did have a familiar ring to it. He decided to do as he was bid. If the stranger was crazy, well, the king could deal with it.

"Aye, me lord, as you wish. I will have the soldiers stay here to see you’re not disturbed."

With that, he hurried off.

***

Ambrose stood impatiently by the door of the Great Hall. To have come so far, to be stopped by fools! Still, he thoroughly understood the need for the security. He himself had been kidnapped right out of one of his father's coastal tuns and sold as a slave. Ambrose still hoped to get to the bottom of that, but, with the death of his chief suspect, his brother Ethelbald, soon after he was captured, he knew it might be hard to prove anything. On the other hand, he was not returning to find his least favourite brother still king.

He could hear little distinct from the hubbub within the Great Hall, yet he soon heard a well-remembered voice yelling loudly.

"Ambrose here? He says his name is Atheling Ambrose?! Bring him to me at once, you dolt!"

The reeve, looking rather flustered, appeared seconds later. He attempted to regain his equilibrium, but spoke rather breathlessly. "Come this way, Atheling, you and your noble friends!"

Ambrose, Phillip, Polonius, and Kuralla were all led by the sweating reeve into the Great Hall. The fyrdmen, sensing some excitement, took the opportunity to tag along.

The little group, with its Saxon escort, followed the reeve down the length of the huge timbered building. Though it was daytime, the interior was dim and lit with flaring torches stuck in embrasures along the wall. Polonius looked upwards at the huge beams above, and saw that part of the roof was open so that the smoke could escape.

At the far end of the Great Hall, a man sat on a raised and carved chair. For a moment, Ambrose remembered the grim visage of his eldest brother, Ethelbald, the usurper, staring down from that same chair.

Although he felt guilty thinking it, he was not sorry that Ethelbald had died. Ambrose's father, Ethelwulf, had decided to make a holy pilgrimage to Rome, and he had taken Alfred and Ambrose with him.

Ethelbald, ruling as regent, and in collusion with a bishop and an ealdorman, decided to usurp his father's throne. When Ethelwulf returned, Ethelbald had refused to return the throne. It was only after a good portion of the empire’s ealdormen rallied to his father’s cause and the spectre of civil war rose its ugly head that Ethelbald compromised by agreeing to allow his father to rule the recently conquered eastern provinces as underking.

Ambrose remembered that Ethelbald had risked his immortal soul even further. Once his father died, he forced Judith, his own step-mother and the daughter of the king of the West Franks, to marry him.

The man Ambrose now stared at, however, was Ethelred. He had had his differences with Ambrose when both were younger, but Ambrose and he had supported each other when Ethelbald had usurped his father's throne. Further, they both had hated Ethelbert, whom Ambrose thought was the other likely Saxon who might have bribed the river-side sentries so that the vill he was staying in was over-run without warning by the heathen Vikings.

Ambrose respected Ethelred greatly, and they had been becoming good friends when he himself had been torn from his bed and enslaved by the Danes.

Out of the corner of his eyes, Ambrose could see Polonius and Kuralla staring at all that was new and different around them. Phillip's eyes scanned the crowd, and Ambrose was sure that he scanned for familiar faces, and one in particular.

Ambrose eyes shifted back to the king at the far end of the hall, and his immediate entourage. There, amidst the princes of the blood, would be found his surviving cousins and, he hoped, his favourite brother, young Alfred. Ambrose scanned anxiously, for in the violent times he lived in, disease or war all-too-often struck down a loved one. Already, in the seven years he had been away, two of his older brothers had died.

The faces of the group of athelings were familiar, yet different. Ambrose tried to add seven years to each of them. He found it hard to believe that he had been away that long. Ambrose knelt on the rush-covered floor, an obeisance that he had refused to make before the Emperor of Byzantium.

Ethelred, King of the West Saxons, and overking of Kent, Essex, Surrey, and Sussex, rose from his royal throne and stepped forward. "Ambrose, is it really you?! Stand up, man, that I may see you properly! Give me your hand! God is merciful. A boy was stolen away from us, but a man returns.

I welcome you home from your long and obviously arduous journey, and rejoice that you have escaped the pagan Vikings and been able to return to our side. I will want to hear all about your journeys.

And is that truly mighty Phillip I see before me? Get off your knees and come hug a former pupil of yours, Weapons-master! It was your wooden training sword that knocked some sense into my hard head.

Tonight you both can entertain the court with the story of your prodigal return! I hereby declare that there will be a feast this evening in Ambrose's and Phillip's honour!"

Ethelred, clearly sincerely pleased to see his younger half-brother and former weapons tutor again, yet changed his mood for a moment. He spoke more seriously.

"But I want you to know that we all grieved at your disappearance, and our brother severely punished the local thanes who had not the courage to ride directly to your rescue on that fateful night. Yet, brother-of-mine, I do not know how to properly honour your return today. Alfred renounced his claims to client kingdoms when I ascended the throne, in order that we may have a single and powerful kingdom with which to face the Viking threat. Just two years ago, the greatest threat to hit these shores in a hundred years arrived from Frankland.

"You mean the Danish Great Army, Brother?"

"I do, Ambrose. I also, however, remember a promise father made to your mother when she was on her deathbed. Hmm. It is possible that I could settle upon your shoulders the lands of . . ."

"Hold, brother!' Ambrose's voice rang sonorously throughout the Great Hall. All eyes focussed on the prodigal prince. 'I have returned to your side not to claim booty from my father's and brother's death, but to offer you my sword and my heart! I have no wish to rule as ealdorman. I am your man, now and always. I ask the right only to be allowed to stand at your side, and to fight your enemies as if they were mine own! If I have any right to land, then I hereby renounce it now.

And if it pleases you, I would also offer you the services of my two companions, who have laboured mightily at war for the last several years, and are expert in its intricacies. Phillip is yours to command in any case, as a loyal thane of the kingdom of Wessex. Yet Polonius has come with his dear wife Kuralla, almost a year's journey, to add his expertise to your other advisors. We heard of Angleland's troubles even in far-away Constantinople, and have travelled all this way in order to see what we can do to help."

Ethelred seemed much touched and pleased with Ambrose's speech and gesture. As he stood in front of his brother, Ambrose suddenly remembered when Polonius had explained to Ambrose that many of the rulers of the east ruthlessly ensured that only a single male heir came to adulthood.

 The Byzantine scholar had said that strong brothers feuding was often the death knell of a strong empire. In return, Ambrose had told Polonius how perilously close Wessex had come to civil war when Ambrose's father had returned from Rome to find his own son unwilling to step down as regent.

Whatever his previous thoughts, Ethelred clearly was happy with Ambrose's words, for he spontaneously approached Ambrose again. This time he hugged him tight, brother to brother.

"Ambrose, and friends! You are welcome at my table, now and always. Men of Wessex! Let it be written here and now that I duly recognize Ambrose to be my legitimate royal brother!"

Thus Ambrose was formally accepted back into the royal fold. He spoke quietly to his Byzantine friend.

"So what do you think of these big sandy-haired men of Angleland?"

"Well, Prince, they are huge in comparison to my fellow countrymen; as large and tough looking as the Vikings we trained on the Russian rivers. I have already seen enough of the peasants to know that the average Saxon churl is a match for his Viking counterpart. Properly led and organized, these Anglish should not be cowed by the cry of the Vikings."

"Amen to that, Scholar."

"Your brother does seem truly pleased to have his prodigal brother back. His only worry seemed to be for the realm."

"On that he does not have to worry, old friend. I did not return all this way to cause trouble - unless my brother Ethelbald or Ethelbert still sat on the throne. For what one of them did, I cannot forgive."

"But, Ambrose, you have no proof that one of them sold you out."



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