The Last King
by M.J. Porter
Publication Date: April 23, 2020
Paperback & eBook; 314 pages
Series: The Ninth Century, Book One
Genre: Historical Thriller
They sent three hundred warriors to kill one man. It wasn’t enough.
Mercia lies broken but not beaten, her alliance with Wessex in tatters.
Coelwulf, a fierce and bloody warrior, hears whispers that Mercia has been betrayed from his home in the west. He fears no man, especially not the Vikings sent to hunt him down.
To discover the truth of the rumours he hears, Coelwulf must travel to the heart of Mercia, and what he finds there will determine the fate of Mercia, as well as his own.
The Last King – Excerpt
Within sight of Gloucester, I rein Haden in, my warriors following my actions. I turn to Edmund, my confusion reflected in the wrinkles on his forehead, his mouth hanging open.
“What the hell?” His words speak for us all.
“Am I really seeing that?” I demand to know. “Tell me I’m not really seeing that.”
“You’re really seeing that,” Edmund replies, Icel beside him. His face mirrors Edmund’s shocked one as well.
“Bloody hell,” I shake my head, aghast.
Of all the things. Well, this was not what I was expecting to see. Not in Gloucester.
And not right now.
“Stupid fools,” Icel’s voice rumbles with his distaste, and I agree with him.
“Why would they do that?”
“Because they’re idiots.” Edmund’s voice is filled with part admiration and part outrage. I share his feelings.
“Just what we need. Stupid Gwent Welsh Raiders on top of everything else.”
“What shall we do?”
“Kill them,” I state flatly. I’ve fought the Welsh men of Gwent almost as many times as I have the Raiders. Admittedly, I’ve never had to fight the Welsh and the Raiders in the same week, or even month.
The smoke that fills the air doesn’t come from the settlement of Gloucester itself, still seemingly protected behind its three ancient Roman walls. But on the quayside, the settlement is threatened.
“Why would they burn the bloody bridge?”
It makes no sense, but then, the Welsh of Gwent make no sense to me most of the time.
“It seems they mean to cut off their own noses to spite themselves.”
Without the wooden bridge, that links Gloucester with the Mercian lands on the eastern side, the Welsh will have to use ships to cross the Severn if they wish to trade with the inhabitants.
“Right, stupidity or not, let’s go and see if anyone needs killing on our side of the river.”
Kneeing Haden, I steer him quickly inside Gloucester. It seems our return has been expected, and the wooden gates are quickly flung open, the street just about deserted as we ride through it.
The town, like so many others in Mercia, is far from overpopulated other than by churches. In no time at all, my men and I are milling around close to the burning bridge.
The heat is surprisingly intense as yellow flames lick their way along the wooden struts.
I’ve nodded to those people I know as I lead my men on, the looks of relief on those faces, assuring me that Gloucester fears this new attack.
Edmund joins me, his hand already on his seax, death in his eyes, as we reach the quayside. He hates the Welsh. All of them. No matter their king or place of birth. If I allow him to, he’ll kill all of the men marooned on this side of the bridge and not think twice about it.
I watch with mild interest as the twenty or so Welsh warriors realise they’re not alone.
The tongue they speak is a gabble of too many syllables. But I’ve not lived all my life so close to the Welsh borderlands without learning some of the language.
A tight smile touches my cheeks.
It seems that facing me today was not their desire.
“Why?” I shout across the void, aware Icel has taken over the role of organising the men in light of Edmund’s seething hissing beside me. The man is quite unmanageable where the Welsh are concerned.
One man steps forward. His long hair is tied back behind his neck, his beard and moustache trimmed close to his face. He wears excellent battle wear, but it’s not going to help him if he needs to swim the Severn, for all it’s much narrower here than downstream.
The man’s Adam apple bobs, as he swallows heavily, his eyes widening with fear. I don’t know what Icel’s doing behind me, but I decide it’s probably Edmund’s wild features that cause so much concern.
“My Lord, My Lord Coelwulf.”
“Yes, and who are you?”
“I am Cadell ap Merfyn.”
“Well then, welcome to Gloucester, Cadell ap Merfyn.”
His grimace almost makes me smile.
“I.” He stops, and I wait, my hands still on the harness of my horse. The smell of the choking fumes of the treated, burning wood, is threatening to bring tears to my eyes. Any moment now, I think the flames will cover the twenty Welsh warriors, perhaps using it as a cover to slip back across the Severn.
Maybe, I consider, there’s a ship waiting for them.
But, Cadell’s nervousness speaks to me of an enormous mistake.
“I. Well we. Well, it was our intention to trade in Gloucester. It seems that our enemies thought differently.”
Ah, now this I can understand.
“Did they, by any chance, wait for you to cross into Gloucester and then set the bridge aflame?”
Relief washes over Cadell’s face, making him almost handsome if I avoid looking at his too sharp chin and elongated nose.
“How did you know? Did they tell you?” A touch of fury slips from Cadell’s tongue.
“No, we didn’t know. But you know, we have enemies too.”
From across the bridge, as the smoke blows clear for a heartbeat, I can actually make out a warband jeering at the enemy. Edmund growls, but I reach out and touch his hand, asking for a calmness that is never easily found where the Welsh are concerned.
“Is that all of you?” I demand to know, jerking my head to indicate the warriors surrounding their spokesperson.
“Yes, yes,” the head bobs too quickly.
“No fools are hiding along the quayside, in the boats or storehouses.”
The quayside could play host to five hundred enemy warriors, and I’d be none the wiser.
“No. We are all here.” But he turns, hesitant to show me his back, and picks out the faces of the men who serve him.
I shake my head, meeting Icel’s amused eyes to the side of me.
“Edmund, do you want to take yourself off somewhere else. I think I need to speak to this Cadell.”
“Speak, to the Welsh scum?” The outrage in his voice is evident.
“Yes, the Welsh scum. I have half an idea, and you won’t approve of it.”
Edmund’s eyes are wild with fury, but I can see some understanding as his eyes flicker from Cadell and his men to mine.
“Well, yes, then. I think I’ll just make myself scarce.”
“Find the portreeve. Make sure no one has been harmed. Take Hereman with you.”
Edmund opens his mouth to argue but snaps it shut. I’ve done him a favour, and it would be churlish to press the point.
With a jangle of harness, Edmund moves away from me, as Cadell abruptly turns his head, as though anticipating an attack while he’s distracted.
I lift my hands clear from Haden’s reins to show I mean no harm, while Edmund and Hereman peel away from the group.
Cadell watches Edmund keenly. I consider that they know each other. I consider that whatever is boiling Edmund might not just be because the Welsh are in Gloucester. I dismiss the notion quickly.
Goda replaces Edmund. We’re still mounted. I see no reason to dismount.
“It seems you might owe the people of Gloucester a new bridge?”
“Well, you either do, or you don’t,” I press. Cadell’s eyes boggle from his head.
“Perhaps an agreement could be reached,” Cadell eventually admits. He speaks my tongue as well as I do his. I approve.
“And what would that agreement consist of?”
“We could provide the labour force if Gloucester can provide the wood?”
It’s a fair offer, after all, no one from Mercia would want Welsh wood on the bridge. Mercian oak is the best. And everyone knows that Welsh trees are a rarity. Not for them, the lush woodlands carefully managed and tended by the woods people.
“And you would feed the workforce, and ensure they slept on the other side of the river each night?”
“Of course,” Cadell is almost too keen to agree. I believe he thinks I’ll let him live.
“And what will you do for me, if I allow this strange accord to happen?”
“For you, My Lord?” This has surprised Cadell, and I can hear, in his squeaked response, that he thinks he’s already paid a high enough price for the deception foisted onto him.
“Yes, for me. I’ve been dragged back to Gloucester to fight the enemy, and all I face is a rabble of lost Gwent Welshmen. It hardly makes for battle glory.”
“No, no, of course not, My Lord.” I think Cadell takes offence, as do some of the other men, at being summed up as a rabble, and not the warriors they clearly are. Certainly, they’re all well-armed, especially for the Gwent men.
“What can we offer, Lord Coelwulf?” Cadell makes it almost too easy.
“I need extra men to assist me, against the Raiders.”
Swift comprehension leaves a pensive look on Cadell’s face.
“So, the rumours are correct?”
“That King Burgred has gifted Mercia to some of the Raiders?”
How Cadell knows this I don’t know, and neither do I press.
“Perhaps,” I confirm non-committedly. “But for you to leave here, alive, with all of your men, and no more ill-will once the bridge has been repaired, I want to know that you’ll provide me with fifty warriors, and yourself, if I need to fight the Raiders.”
The Gwent Welshmen have no love for the Raiders. Their king recently won a great victory over a Viking horde. Cadell’s flitting tongue slides over his lips as he considers. I’m surprised he doesn’t turn, to ask the men who serve him their opinion. But he doesn’t.
“It’s agreed,” Cadell states, almost too eagerly. “We’ll provide the labour for the bridge to be rebuilt, and while that work continues, fifty warriors will be available to you. Once the repair work is done, our brief accord will be at an end.”
About the Author
I’m an author of fantasy (Viking age/dragon-themed) and historical fiction (Early English, Vikings and the British Isles as a whole before the Norman Conquest). I was born in the old Mercian kingdom at some point since 1066. Raised in the shadow of a strange little building, told from a very young age that it housed the bones of long-dead Kings of Mercia and that our garden was littered with old pieces of pottery from a long-ago battle, it’s little wonder that my curiosity in Early England ran riot. I can only blame my parents!
I write A LOT. You’ve been warned!
Not sure where to start your journey through Early England? Here are some pointers.
If you like action-adventure, with a heavy dose of violence, foul language and good old camaraderie – The Ninth Century series is for you, starting with The Last King, or The Seventh Century, starting with Pagan Warrior, has a little more politics to go with the set-piece battles.
If you like stories about the forgotten women of history, then the Tenth Century series, starting with The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter, is a good place to begin. Or, The First Queen of England, with a little more romance.
If you’re interested in the last century of Early England (before 1066) then The Earls of Mercia series is for you.
If you want to read it all, then you can read in chronological order, or mix it up. The series weren’t written in chronological order.
Blog Tour Schedule
Monday, January 11
Review at Hoover Book Reviews
Tuesday, January 12
Review at Bibliostatic
Guest Post at Novels Alive
Wednesday, January 13
Review at Rajiv’s Reviews
Excerpt at Historical Fiction with Spirit
Thursday, January 14
Feature at Bookworlder
Review at Books, Cooks, Looks
Friday, January 15
Review at Pursuing Stacie
Saturday, January 16
Excerpt at Passages to the Past
Monday, January 18
Interview at Books & Benches
Tuesday, January 19
Review at Impressions In Ink
Excerpt at Madwoman in the Attic
Wednesday, January 20
Review at Gwendalyn’s Books
Thursday, January 21
Review at Books and Zebras
Excerpt at Chicks, Rogues and Scandals
Friday, January 22
Excerpt at Coffee and Ink
Excerpt at A Darn Good Read
Interview at Jathan & Heather
Enter to win a copy of The Last King by M.J. Porter! Two paperbacks are up for grabs!
The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on January 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.
The Last King