Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg is a man caught between two worlds. By the year 892 A.D., he is firmly entrenched as the prime warlord of Alfred the Great even though his heart still resides with Danish Vikings who raised him. At the onset of Cornwell's fifth Saxon Story, Uhtred is living with his wife Gisela and two children in Wessex. He serves there as the protector of London.
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At this time, Alfred is beset by a second great Danish invasion, led by Jarl Harald of Mercia. Sensing his own mortality creeping up on him and ever questioning the loyalty of Uhtred, Alfred journeys to London to ask Lord Uhtred to give his oath to his son Edward, known as the Aetheling. Uhtred is tired of being bound to the kings of Wessex, and he already has oaths to both Alfred and Alfred's daughter Aethelflaed to honor, so he denies King Alfred's request.
Despite that denial, Uhtred agrees to help his hated cousin Aethelred expel Harald's Viking army from Wessex. Aethelred is the historical Ealdorman of Mercia and husband to Alfred's daughter Aethelflaed, whom Uhtred deeply cares for. In The Burning Land, Aethelred is portrayed as a foolish and cowardly man. Alfred supports his claim in Mercia because he is joined to Alfred by marriage and because he is a Christian, but he knows that Aethelred will need Uhtred's help to hold Mercia against Harald's Danes.
Uhtred devises an ingenious assault at Farnham and shatters the Great Heathen Army, wounding Harald in the process. After Farnham, Uhtred takes Harald's sorceress wife Skade as a prisoner.
While celebrating the great victory at Farnham, Uhtred learns that his wife Gisela died giving birth to their third child. Neither mother nor child survived. Uhtred is stricken with grief at the news. He blames Skade and her curse for causing the death of his wife and child.
When a Christian priest in Alfred's service insults the memory of Gisela, calling her a heathen and a whore, Uhtred lashes out and kills the priest in front of Alfred and his court. Alfred demands that Uhtred answer for his crimes, but Uhtred is finished listening to Alfred. He escapes London on a stolen ship with forty of his sworn men, thus breaking his oath to Alfred and Wessex.
The outlaw Uhtred sails north where he joins his adopted brother Ragnar at Dunholm. During the time at sea, Uhtred and Skade become lovers and Skade tells Uhtred about her ex-husband Skirnir's pirate hoard off the coast of Northumbria. Uhtred, who still dreams of conquering his ancestral home of Bebbanburg, knows he will need men to assault the fortress, and men can be bought with gold. He hatches a plan to destroy Skirnir and steal his pirate hoard.
The plan is successful, but Skirnir's hoard is not nearly as lavish as Skade described. Uhtred is disappointed and refuses to give Skade any share in the spoils. Skade begins to hate Uhtred once again. They return to Dunholm, where Ragnar has begun hatching a plan to assault Wessex and rid England of the Saxons once and for all. Jarl Haesten, with the help of Harald's remaining men will assault Mercia from East Anglia. While they distract the Saxon forces in the east, Ragnar plans to sail around the southern coast with his Northumbrian Danes to attack Wessex and capture Wintanceaster (Winchester Castle).
Uhtred originally agrees to help Ragnar conquer Wessex, but he is drawn back to the Saxon army when a priest from Mercia arrives at Dunholm asking him to honor his oath to Aethelflaed. Uhtred was prepared to break his oath to Alfred, because he felt Alfred had wronged him, but his oath to Aethelflaed was made out of love and so he rides off to Mercia to answer her call.
In Mercia, Uhtred finds no support from his cousin Aethelred. Haesten's army is well fortified at Beamfleot (Benfleet), and his raiders are setting the Mercian country side aflame. While agonizing over his untenable strategic position, the Aetheling Edward arrives from Wessex with 1,000 additional men. All of a sudden Uhtred has his army.
The Saxons build ladders and assault Haesten's fort head-on, launching beehives over the ramparts to distract the Danish garrison. Uhtred and Edward's assault is ultimately victorious, and inside Beamfleot they find a great horde of Haesten's gold. Jarl Haesten himself is nowhere to be found, but Skade and her old lover Harald the cripple are standing over the gold. Harald turns on Skade and stabs her to death, then Uhtred returns the favor, killing Harald.
At the end of the story Mercia is once again safe and Uhtred has earned the respect of Alfred's son Edward.
Best part of story, including ending:
Burning Land is a return to form for the Saxon Stories. It's filled with nonstop medieval combat and takes the reader across ninth-century England, from the banks of the Temes to the frigid plains of Northumbria.
Best scene in story:
Harald finally gets his revenge on his sorceress wife Skade, before receiving his own comeuppance at the hands of Uhtred. All the loose villains are tidily rounded up in one climactic bloodbath at Beamfleot.
Opinion about the main character:
Uhtred continues to follow his own code. He is a man of his word. He only breaks his oath to Alfred, because in many ways Alfred was a capricious lord. Even though it's inconvenient, he keeps his oath to Aethelflaed because it's the right thing to do.