Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg is charged with fortifying the city of London that sits on the strategic Temes Estuary between Saxon Wessex and Danish Mercia. During the last decade of the ninth century in England, Alfred the Great commands his heathen warlord Uhtred of Bebbanburg to conquer and fortify the strategically important City of London against further Danish invasion. Uhtred, the protagonist, is firmly if grudgingly entrenched in Alfred's service. He and his wife Gisela raise their children outside London, on the West Saxon side of the border with Mercia.
At the outset of the story, a Danish emissary invites Lord Uhtred to treat with three Danish lords in Mercian London. Jarl Haesten, along with the Norse Vikings Erik and Sigefrid propose an alliance between the Viking army and Uhtred. Knowing full well Uhtred's pagan affinities and his distaste for Alfred's solemn leadership, they ask Uhtred to betray his oath to Wessex and cede London to the Danes. In exchange they promise to make Uhtred King of Mercia after the Danish conquest of England is complete.
The plan has obvious appeal for Uhtred, who secretly longs to return to the Viking ways of his youth. Alfred's spies warn him of Uhtred's imminent betrayal, so the King of Wessex invites Uhtred to treat with him at Wintanceaster and discuss the Viking threat. Alfred commands Uhtred to take London back from Sigefrid and Erik and thus protect the Wessex border with Mercia. As a matter of honor, Uhtred decides to keep his oath to Alfred and returns to London intending to conquer the Temes Estuary for Wessex.
To keep an eye on Uhtred, Alfred sends Lord Aethelred of Mercia to join in the assault. Aethelred is betrothed to Alfred's daughter, Aethelflaed, and if Uhtred's assault is successful he has been promised the title Ealdorman of Mercia. This is significant, because Alfred wants no king in Mercia. The dream of a unified Saxon England has begun to materialize, and Alfred has started styling himself King of the Anglicans--not simply King of Wessex. In order for this dream to become a reality, however, the Saxons need London.
Without much help from Aethelred, Uhtred recaptures London, grievously injuring Sigefrid in the process. With the city under Saxon control, Aethelred is named Lord Protector.
Aethelred and Aethelflaed are married, joining Aethelred's family directly with Alfred's. Aethelred is a jealous man and he takes his wife with him wherever he goes. Unfortunately, that includes on an ill-advised raid into East Anglia where Jarl Haesten, Sigefrid and Erik have refortified. Aethelred's navy is destroyed and his young wife is taken captive by the Vikings.
Uhtred, who cares deeply for Aethelflaed, goes to her rescue. Uhtred goes to parlay with Sigefrid, who is the acting leader of the Vikings, and he learns that Aethelflaed and Erik have fallen in love. There is no love lost between Uhtred and Aethelflaed's lawful husband, Aethelred, so Uhtred agrees to help Erik and Aethelflaed escape together. Their attempt goes awry when Jarl Haesten double-crosses Sigefrid and steals Aethelflaed, hoping to keep her kingly ransom for himself.
Uhtred and Erik save Aethelflaed from Haesten, but Sigefrid's brother doesn't let them live happily ever after. Infuriated by his brother's infatuation with the West Saxon princess, Sigefrid murders Erik. Uhtred, in turn, kills Sigefrid in retaliation and returns to London to grudgingly reunite Aethelflaed with Aethelred.
Best part of story, including ending:
There is more fiction in Sword Song than the previous three Saxon Stories, but the novel is stronger for it. Cornwell does an excellent job plausibly filling in the gaps of this little understood period in English history.
Best scene in story:
Uhtred meets with Aethelflaed while she is a captive of the Vikings and he realizes by the look in her eye that she has fallen in love with Erik.
Opinion about the main character:
Uhtred is an easy warlord to root for. Despite his occasionally brutal behavior, you get the sense that this man has a code and he's going to follow it at all costs.