Alfred was tired. It had been a long, hard war, and though he had won it, he had barely rested since, knowing that the peace would not last long. For an English king, he had learned, it never did. There was always another war.
He had spent his entire reign defending his homeland and his faith against the hordes of Norse barbarians from across the sea. For nearly a century, they had been arriving in fleets of longships, raiding England’s coastline and laying siege to its villages and towns, their incursions growing more daring—and more bloody—with each passing year. When Alfred was just a boy of eighteen years, Danish invaders established permanent footholds across England, seizing the city of York and all of East Anglia and Mercia, two of the largest kingdoms in the land. Danish power spread so far and wide after that, and so quickly, that within three short years only Wessex remained unbroken. The last free, sovereign kingdom in all England. Alfred’s kingdom.
He was not king then, nor did he have any wish to be, but he would soon have the crown thrust upon him. The Danes wasted no time in attacking Wessex. Alfred’s elder brother, the King, led its defense with Alfred fighting at his side, and for a short time they were successful in repelling the Norse invaders. But after that, defeat followed defeat, and when the King met his death shortly after his army was routed at Reading, his crown passed to Alfred, his sole heir. And so it was that by his twenty-first year, Alfred had become England’s only remaining Anglo-Saxon king, and in all likelihood, it seemed, its last.
For a short while, Alfred had considered surrender, and with good reason: the Norsemen were notorious for their brutality and their mercilessness. The other English kings who had not fled before them, or had refused to yield, had been tortured to death when their walls inevitably fell. The Danish king at the head of the invading force, a godless thug named Guthrum, was driving deeper into the heart of Alfred’s beloved Wessex, sacking every town and village before him. Alfred himself was forced to retreat as far west as Somerset, where the seclusion of its tidal marshes afforded him enough time to regroup his meager force of men and reassess his strategy. Summoning men from the neighboring counties, he set them to building a fortress from which they could rally and stage attacks. Tired of running and hiding, Alfred finally began to take the fight to the enemy.
He defeated the Norse in battle at Ethandun, driving them all the way back to their stronghold and laying siege to it until he starved the heathens into surrender. It was a decisive victory, but the Norse were still too many and too widespread to be driven utterly from the land. Tired of more bloody battles and dead men than he could count, Alfred made an offer of armistice to his hated enemy, Guthrum: if he and the rest of the Danish agreed to lay down their arms, they would be granted their own lands in the east. What had been Anglia would become the Danelaw, a generously sized kingdom where they could—and would be expected to—live in peace. And so it was agreed. And Wessex was saved.
Throughout the kingdom, Alfred’s subjects, grateful to have been spared the horrors of a Norse occupation, began to call him “Alfred The Great.” But the title did not sit well with him, and even his own advisers and thegns knew better than to make reference to it in his company, for he did not see greatness within himself. Ah, but then the truly great ones never do, his beloved sister had once told him reassuringly. But Alfred knew better. He had studied the life and campaigns of that other “Great,” Alexander the Third, the Macedonian king who had been driven by a firm conviction in his own greatness, one so deeply held he believed it was his destiny to conquer the entire world. And so he had; by Alfred’s age Alexander had vanquished the vast Persian army, thought invincible, and went on to preside over one of the greatest empires the world had ever seen, ruling all of Asia Minor from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas. Alfred, by contrast, had barely managed to hang onto his own little kingdom. Alexander had famously never lost a battle, while Alfred had lost many. Far too many.
He would not lose another, he told himself. In the years following the establishment of the Danish accord, Alfred refused to allow himself to grow complacent. Small seaborne forces of Norse raiders continued to harry English ships along its coast and Alfred knew that could be a prelude to another full-blown invasion, testing English resilience. He went to London, sacked and ruined during the Norse invasions, and restored it to life, buttressing it against future attack. Alfred’s own royal palace at Winchester was similarly fortified, as were villages and towns throughout Wessex, until every man and woman within its borders could feel secure that the horrors of recent years would never visit them again.
Everyone except Alfred. Wessex was as safe as he could make it, but still he did not sleep easily. Every messenger and scout brought fresh reports of Danish naval activity, fresh rumors of a coming invasion. The latest news, delivered just today, troubled him most of all. It was said that Guthrum, long rumored ill, was now on his deathbed. The Danish king may have been a barbarian, but Alfred had come to respect him—and more importantly, to trust him. To seal the treaty that ended the war between them, Guthrum had even consented to be baptized into Alfred’s Christian faith. And in the years hence, he had held his word to keep the peace. None of the men under his rule had encroached beyond the borders set out for them. But it was known that there were many others, ambitious and hot-tempered men of war among the Danelaw Norse who were waiting to take power after Guthrum’s death, and they would have none of the respect for the treaty that Guthrum had. The only thing Alfred feared more than another Danish invasion was a Danish uprising from within England’s own borders.
And so now here he sat, on his throne at Winchester, as uneasily as he ever had. He had already sent word to his military commanders throughout the kingdom and to the captains of his navy to be on close watch. After all, it took days for word to travel here from the Danelaw; for all Alfred knew, Guthrum might already be dead. Even now, as he sat here, Danish forces could be massing under some new king in preparation for an attack. But he had done all he could. Now all that was left to do was wait, and worry.
Alfred looked up to find a page standing before him; he had been so lost in thought he had not heard him approach. “What is it?”
“The Archbishop requests your presence in the courtyard,” said the page. “He says he has something you must see.”
Alfred groaned. Aethelred, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was the last man he wanted to see today, or any other day. Though he cherished his own Christian beliefs, he did not feel likewise toward the man who was the leader of his church. He had inherited the Archbishop along with the rest of his kingdom, and there was something about the man that had troubled him from the beginning. If Alfred’s reign had been one of peace, he likely would have moved to replace him, but he had been too busy fighting a war against the Norse to also become embroiled in a battle with the church. His kingdom was fragile enough already. In recent months, however, he had come to sorely regret that he had not done it anyway, and never more so than at this moment. He knew that what Aethelred had to show him was certain to sour his appetite and send him to bed with nightmares, as if sleep was not already hard enough to come by these days. He gave the page a reluctant nod. “Tell him I will be there presently.”
The page bowed low, then turned and hurried away. Alfred sat for a while longer before standing and walking slowly across the throne hall on his way to the courtyard. Whatever fresh horror Aethelred had in store for him, he was in no hurry to see it.
Five months ago, Aethelred had come to Alfred in feverish excitement. During the rebuilding of London, a common laborer had by chance discovered a cache of ancient Latin scrolls buried beneath the earth. The laborer brought them to his parish priest, who was so startled by what he saw within them that he rode them to Canterbury himself that same day. Aethelred, too, recognized that the scrolls were something remarkable the moment he saw them. They were old, so old that the Latin text they contained was barely understandable, some earlier, arcane form of the language that even his most learned priests could discern only partially. But what they were able to translate both chilled Aethelred’s blood and excited him so much he could scarcely keep his hands from shaking. The words spoke of powers even more ancient than they. Incantations and rites that could change the shape of flesh, to create new life from old. The power to make any man who wielded it into a God.
It took Aethelred and his most senior scholars months to decipher the text of all nine scrolls. When at last their work was finished, Aethelred knew what must be done with the knowledge he had unlocked: he brought it to Winchester, before the King, presenting it to him as a way to finally secure peace for all the English kingdoms—to annihilate the Danish threat, once and for all. When Alfred heard the Archbishop’s promise that he could accomplish all this without a single drop of English blood spilled, he was intrigued; when he heard how Aethelred intended to do it, he did not know whether to be appalled or simply think the man mad.
It would take a demonstration for Aethelred to prove to his King that his mind had not taken leave. He had one of his curates bring forth a hog that he had taken the liberty to appropriate from the castle’s livestock. Alfred, and everyone at court that day, was at first amused as the leashed pig pulled the hapless curate along by its leash, sniffing at the stone floor. Was this some kind of jest? At best, Alfred thought, Aethelred might embarrass himself in front of the entire royal court, giving him just the excuse he needed to ease the man quietly from his seat at Canterbury and replace him with someone less irksome. The poor man had obviously been working too hard. It was time.
The curate threw a half-eaten apple before the pig, who moved quickly to scarf it down almost as quickly as the curate backed away from the animal. Few noticed the look of pale dread on the young priest’s face as he hurriedly retreated, as all eyes were on the pig, amused at the sight of this common beast running loose in this highest of halls. As the pig chewed greedily at the apple, Aethelred took a step backward and cautioned the royal guardsmen standing nearby to be at the ready, then threw back his arms with a flourish. Courtiers exchanged awkward glances; some of them giggled, not knowing what else to do. This is already enough to finish him, Alfred thought to himself from his throne. He honestly does not see what a fool he is making of himself. The Primate of All England, waving his arms about like a court jester performing a conjuring trick.
And then Aethelred began the incantation. The giggling stopped. So did the amused glances. Now all eyes were on Aethelred as he mouthed the ancient words he had decrypted in Canterbury. No one quite understood what they were hearing. It was familiar, and yet not. What is that, some kind of Latin? Only one thing was certain; as Aethelred continued with the incantation, his voice slowly rising, a sense of unease began to spread throughout the court. It was as though a chill had descended upon the room. Nobody understood what those words were, but every man and woman somehow knew that there was something wrong about them. As though they had come from a place not human. Several of those watching felt a strong urge to leave the room, and yet their feet would not carry them. They were rooted to the spot, paralyzed, unable to look away from whatever terrible spectacle was playing out before them.
The pig, who had been happily devouring the apple, suddenly dropped it as its jaw went slack, drool seeping onto the floor. Its neck twisted and turned, head rotating in an unnatural circular motion, as though being tortured by some infernal sound only it could hear. Several onlookers shrieked in dismay as the pig let out the most horrendous, piercing squeal before simply falling sideways onto the floor, motionless, seemingly dead. For a moment the room was eerily silent, everyone rendered speechless by the bizarrely morbid display they had just witnessed. Aethelred had apparently killed this beast without laying a hand on it, with the power of words alone.
It took Alfred to break the silence.
“I demand to know the meaning of this—”
The pig squealed again, louder than before, cutting Alfred’s words short as its body suddenly jolted back into life, writhing and contorting on the floor in a series of violent spasms. What was this, some post-mortem reflex? Alfred glanced up from the stricken beast to Aethelred for an answer and saw the broad grin spread across the Archbishop’s face. He spoke no more; the incantation was done, all he need do now was wait for it to finish its work.
A woman standing nearby fainted as something burst from the belly of the pig, spraying blood across the floor. Then another burst forth, and another, so slick with the beast’s dark, viscous blood that it took the onlookers who still remained conscious a moment to realize what they were: bony, jointed, stalk-like appendages, resembling the legs of some monstrous insect, that slipped and slid across the smooth stone floor like a newborn calf trying to stand.
And then the thing—it could no longer reasonably be called a pig—rose up on the six newly formed legs that now protruded from its sides. Bristling with thick, fibrous hairs that glistened with blood.
The creature’s jaw unhinged and dropped wide as a mouthful of sharply pointed fangs emerged from within. The royal guardsmen drew their weapons and advanced but Aethelred stayed them with a wave of his hand. Not yet. He watched with grim fascination as the creature confusedly ambled forward. The crowd recoiled in terror, some turning and fleeing in panic as it briefly moved toward them, only to turn back toward the center of the hall. Its eyes were wild and bloodshot as they searched the room, seemingly half-blind and in the grip of some rabid fever.
The beast lifted its head, opened its jaw wide, and let out an appalling sound that defied nature and raised gooseflesh on the arms of every person still present. Perceiving a threat, the callow young guardsman who stood closest to the beast moved in to strike it down with his sword. Before Aethelred could warn him off, the guardsman’s blade came down hard on one of the beast’s spider-like legs and released a spray of black blood that splattered his tunic. As the beast screamed, the guard tried to draw back his blade for another blow, but it was stuck fast in the bone and gristle of the beast’s leg. Wounded and enraged, the pig-thing wheeled around, taking the sword with it and wresting the sword from the guard’s hand. Before he could withdraw, the beast lurched forward, its two front legs closing around the man’s waist like pincers.
As he struggled and flailed helplessly, his comrades came to his aid, some trying to pull him free of the creature’s grip, others hacking at it with their swords, the screams of the beast and the guardsman in its grip mingling in a hellish cacophony. Then the creature’s pincers closed tight and the young guard vomited blood as his body was sliced in half, the beast holding one lifeless half of the man in each pincer. It tossed them both aside to free itself in order to defend against the other men who were stabbing and slashing at it furiously. But it was too late; it had already sustained several grievous wounds from the assault and was bleeding out quickly. Weakened and dying, the beast finally toppled over, blood bubbling up in its throat as it gasped its final breaths. The guard captain moved in, sword drawn back high, and with all his strength brought it down, taking the monster’s head clean off. As the beast’s head bobbled along the floor and came to rest, its chest heaved with its final breaths, its arachnid legs contorting into a rictus of death. And then, finally, it was still.
His face spattered with the blood of the beast, the guard captain glared at Aethelred as Alfred came down from his throne and marched across the room to confront the priest, who had not stopped smiling during the whole bloody episode, and who smiled still.
“Did you enjoy the demonstration, Sire?” asked the Archbishop.
“I did not,” hissed the King through gritted teeth, struggling to hold back his anger.
Aethelred’s smile arched wider. “The Danes will enjoy it even less, I suspect.”