The Flame Bearer is the tenth book in The Saxon Stories.
Britain is at an uneasy peace. After their bloody defeat of Danish-held East Anglia, the West Saxons stand victorious while the Mercians have taken back their land on the border of Northumbria, the last kingdom of Britain still ruled by the pagan northmen. A precarious truce exists between Æthelflæd's Mercia and Northumbria, now ruled by Uhtred of Bebbanburg's son-in-law, Sigtryggr.
Under the cover of this fragile calm, Uhtred must begin his campaign that will end with the assault on Bebbanburg, the great fortress that is rightly his and was stolen from him in childhood. But his plans are shattered when the Scots surge down and lay claim to the north of England, as the West Saxons, under Uhtred’s old enemy, Æthelhelm, invade Northumbria from the south. If Uhtred is to succeed in recapturing Bebbanburg he must both defeat Æthelhelm’s forces and drive the Scots away before he can attack the formidable fortress by the sea. He has a small army and many enemies, but Uhtred is not the supreme warlord of Britain for nothing...
The book begins with another failed attempt by Uhtred to lay siege to Bebbanburg. His son-in-law, the pagan warlord Sigtryggr, ruler of Jorvik and in turn Northumbria, asks for help against invading West Saxons who seem intent on breaking the truce recently drawn up with the ruler of Mercia; Æthelflæd – King Edward of Wessex’s sister. Uhtred’s men are outnumbered by invading Scots led by Constantin intent on making Bebbanburg for their own. However, Uhtred’s cousin ensconced inside the fortress is willing to play a long game and wait out the siege. He won’t be enticed out from inside Bebbanburg’s strong walls.
Uhtred figures out that Æthelhelm – a wealthy and powerful Saxon warlord and King Edward’s father in-law – is planning to attack Edward’s men and make it look like Sigtryggr did it and so start the war that has been at least delayed a few years by the truce, if not fully averted. It seems inevitable that Edward will want to drive all Danes from the North of the country and bring about the Christian Saxon kingdom his father, Alfred, dreamed of.
Æthelhelm wants to push the agenda forward and ensure that his grandson Ælfweard – Edward’s second son – eventually becomes ruler of a united England. So he had planned for Æthelstan (Edward’s disputed first son by his first wife) to be leading Edward’s men and to be killed in the ambush. However, Edward sends his trusted warrior Brunulf to lead his men instead of Æthelstan.
With amazing insight, Uhtred sees through Æthelhelm's machinations and rescues Brunulf and his men from the fake Danish attack. He interrupts a meeting between Edward, Æthelflæd and Sigtryggr where Æthelhelm's clergy are war-mongering and reveals the truth of Æthelhelm's plot.
Edward is deplored and executes the prisoners Uhtred brings to show him. Queen Æthelflæd reveals that she is dying and can no longer protect Æthelstan against any further assassination attempts. So Uhtred claims Æthelstan as his hostage in order to protect him and reconfirms the details of the treaty. Sigtryggr, his commitment to the truce proven, returns to Jorvik.
Uhtred then turns his attention back to Bebbanburg which is currently besieged by the Scots. He pretends he has given up and moves all his men, women, children, goods, horses and cattle out of Dunholm and spreads rumours that he is going across the sea to Frisia (part of modern-day The Netherlands). Instead, he intends to masquerade as a supply run to the besieged fortress at Bebbanburg. While he is making preparations in Grimesbi he realises that the ships coming in to the port and stocking up with goods are a supply fleet commanded by Æthelhelm. He despairs of ever winning back Bebbanburg because Æthelhelm's ships and men will get to the fortress before he does and resupply it with both food and hundreds of Saxon soldiers to fight the Scots. He prays for a miracle and thankfully one arrives in the form of an attack by Northmen allied to the Scots and intent on taking Bebbanburg. They burn most of Æthelhelm's ships and in the chaos Uhtred escapes Grimesbi undetected.
He disguises his ships as Æthelhelm's supply ships and chased by Æthelhelm's remaining warships gets to Bebbanburg and fools the guards into opening one of the fortress gates for them. Unbeknown to Uhtred, his son has helped Æthelstan sneak aboard one of the boats and the prince quickly kills Æthelhelm's champion. There’s some street to street fighting, some shield wall action and cunning tactics from Uhtred which finally leads him to defeat both Æthelhelm's and his cousin, and take back his beloved Bebbanburg.
Æthelstan persuades Uhtred not to kill Æthelhelm but to ransom him so he can replenish his coffers and diminish Æthelhelm's ability to buy more men into his service. Æthelstan also suggests Uhtred keep Æthelhelm's daughter – Ælswyth, who was supposed to be wed to Uhtred’s cousin as part of the resupply deal – as a hostage and this is much to Uhtred’s son’s liking as he has taken a shine to her. Uhtred then goes and tells the Scots to leave his land, which they do, for now.
- Siege of Bebbanburg (918)
- Battle of Hornecastre
- Battle of Dunwich (918)