Literature: The Dolphin Ring
Books 1, 2, and 4, alias "The Roman Britain Trilogy", alias Three Legions.
The Dolphin Ring sequence is a Generational Saga
of eight Historical Fiction
novels by Rosemary Sutcliff
set in Britain from the Roman period to the Norman conquest.
The eight books of the sequence were published out of chronological order from 1954 to 1997 and have never been marketed as a series. note
"Dolphin Ring" is a Fan Nickname
derived from the linking device of a signet ring passed down through the Aquila family to their Roman-British, Welsh, and Norse descendants.
Though this page presents the series in chronological order, connections between books are distant (pretty much just the ring), and none require any knowledge of the others. Only The Lantern Bearers
and Sword at Sunset
share a setting and characters. The series also contains slight connections to the rest of The Verse
of Sutcliff's historical fiction (e.g.
, the woes of the Ninth Legion feature in Song for a Dark Queen
, Eagle's Egg
, The Eagle of the Ninth
, and Swallows in the Spring
). Three novels of the sequence currently have their own pages, and the remaining five are divided into folders on this page, as their contents are essentially independent.
The Dolphin Ring provides examples of:
open/close all folders
The Silver Branch
290s CE. Justin and Flavian stumble upon a conspiracy to assassinate
the emperor Carausius and join La Résistance
against the Saxon-allied usurper of Britain.
- All Hallows' Eve: Justin and Flavian receive word of Carausius's assassination on Samhain, the Celtic day of the dead.
- Battle Amongst the Flames: The Saxons set Calleva on fire while they loot it after fleeing Asklepiodotus's army. The flames eventually reach the basilica where the civilians have taken refuge and the Lost Legion has rushed in the defend them.
- Cadre of Foreign Bodyguards: Allectus's Saxon Guard, who also operate as a secret police.
- Celtic Mythology: The metal percussion instrument Cullen plays, a set of spherical bells dangling from a hollow rod, is inspired by the bards’ “branches” of Celtic legend. The silver branch was also a passport to the other world, which perhaps symbolizes Cullen’s disappearance and reappearance with a message from the dead Carausius.
- Cool Old Lady: Flavius and Justin's straight-talking cosmetic disaster Great Aunt, Honoria.
- Day of the Jackboot: Allectus poses as a liberator from a corrupt Carausius, but his Saxon backing makes his reign effectively a foreign occupation.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: Huge blond Teutonic barbarians marching through the streets of Britain were a fairly recent concern when the book was written, and Carausius's plan for Britain as a last bastion of civilisation after the fall of Rome evokes Britain's position during the Nazi occupation of Europe. Paulinus's organisation is an inversion of French Resistance drama.
- Face Your Fears: Paulinus hides Justin and Flavian in a tiny secret room in the old theatre. Justin, we discover, suffers from Claustrophobia.
- Happiness in Slavery: The curious case of Cullen the Fool, who likes to think of himself as a hound, to the point of sleeping on the floor, wearing a dog's tail and wagging it, and Undying Loyalty to his master. He eventually explains to Justin and Flavius that he was Born Into Slavery and to him, being ownerless is like being unemployed.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Paulinus lets himself be cut down by the Saxon Guard to allow the others time to escape. Evicatos dies defending Cullen in the basilica.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: As colleagues, friends, and long-lost cousins, Justin and Flavian seem to have hitched their wagons to each other, though unlike some of Sutcliff's other partnerships they aren't balls-deep in Ho Yay.
- La Résistance: A somewhat ironic version, given that they're Carausius's followers supporting Constantius as a liberator from Allectus, who overthrew Carausius, who rebelled against Constantius in the first place.
- Five-Man Band: Flavius is The Hero, Justin is The Lancer, Anthonius is The Smart Guy, Pandarus is The Big Guy, Cullen is The Chick and Team Pet, and Evicatos is The Sixth Ranger. Honoria is The Team Benefactor, and Myron is the Tagalong Kid.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Flavius's "Lost Legion", including two deserted centurions and a surgeon, a freed gladiator, a teenage cutpurse, and a jester, who use a battered and wingless legionary eagle as their standard.
- The Spymaster: Paulinus, the George Smiley of Portus Adurni. A small – ahem – plump, timid tax collector with an – ahem – Verbal Tic, who enjoys Euripides.
- Legend Fades to Myth: Flavius knows there's a vague family story about their ancestor Marcus having some adventure in the North; he suspects it may have had something to do with the Ninth Legion. Justin thinks this is far-fetched.
- The Medic: Justin is an Army Surgeon. His willingness to treat the local tribesmen around Magnis-on-the-Wall is what earns him and Flavius the benefit of Evicatos of the Spear's information network.
- Reassigned to Antarctica: Justin and Flavius are Kicked Upstairs to Hadrian's Wall after accusing Allectus of conspiracy. They realise later that Carausius put them out of Allectus's reach.
- Shout-Out: The "lights will go out everywhere" quote below is probably inspired by the famous remark on the eve of World War One, "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we will not see them lit again in our lifetime."
- A Storm Is Coming: Saxon invasions and the breakup of of the Roman empire, which overshadow all the later Roman novels, are first invoked here.
Carausius: Always, everywhere, the Wolves gather on the frontiers, waiting. It needs only that a man should lower his eyes for a moment, and they will be in to strip the bones. Rome is failing, my children...If I can make this one province strong–strong enough to stand alone when Rome goes down, then something may be saved from the darkness. If not, then Dubris light and Limanis light and Rutupiae light will all go out. The lights will go out everywhere.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Carausius did make himself the emperor of Britain and was betrayed by Allectus. History is silent on whether he was warned by a couple of junior officers who later led a resistance with the help of a Proud Warrior Race Guy and a guy who thought he was a dog.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Justin believes he's a disappointment to his father, who wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a soldier. He eventually receives a letter assuring him that no, his father is just terrible at showing affection.
The Lantern Bearers
450s-70s CE. Aquila deserts from the departing legions and devotes his life to holding off the Saxons from Roman Britain.
- Anglo-Saxons: More precisely, Jutes. King Vortigern has granted the mercenary brothers Hengest and Horsa a foothold on the island of Tanatus in exchange for defending the coast from all other Saxons, which Aquila's father views as setting the fox to guard the chickens. Vortigern cedes Kent on his marriage to Hengest's daughter Rowena and then is held hostage by his in-laws for all of southeast Britain on the Night of the Long Knives.
- Animal Motifs: Vortigern is "the Red Fox", and his three sons are the Young Foxes. Aquila is "Dolphin" – his familiy signet, tattoo, thrall-name, and banner – and "a lone wolf". His son Flavian is accordingly "the Minnow".
- Anti-Hero: Aquila is a bitter, angry Jerkass Woobie with no friends, an Arranged Marriage, and a distant son, who enjoys nothing but killing as many Saxons as he can reach.
- Awkward Father-Son Bonding Activity: Aquila lets his son the Minnow ride his warhorse for the first time to make up for reprimanding him too sternly (yet again.) He realises he's tainted the experience for Minnow by making it a compensation instead of a triumph. Then the horse throws and nearly kills him, and they have a brief moment of closeness when Minnow wakes up days later, until Aquila is called away to battle (yet again.)
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Aquila and Ness eventually achieve a Perfectly Arranged Marriage, but they conceive their only child the Minnow in the first year of their marriage when they still resent each other.
- Big Brother Instinct: Aquila is so close to his sister Flavia that their tutor jokes they were twins born apart through cosmic error. Unfortunately the only thing he can do for her when they're separately abducted by Saxons is pray that she's dead instead of Defiled Forever. Twenty years later he saves the life of her Saxon son for her sake.
- Aquila offends Ness on their first meeting because he mocks her sister.
- Carnegie Medal: The Lantern Bearers was the Carnegie winner for 1959.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Hengest, the warlord of the invading Jutes, makes a deal with Vortigern to fend off other Saxons in return for in southeast Britain. After marrying his daughter Rowena to Vortigern, he murders all his escort and holds him hostage for more land on "the Night of the Long Knives". After Ambrosius and Hengest fight to a standstill and reluctantly make terms, he spends the period of peace building up for a surprise attack just before the armistice is due to expire.
- Cynicism Catalyst: Aquila is a friendly, generous, optimistic soul until Saxon raiders murder his entire household, abduct his beloved little sister, and enslave him. And then he finds out that the king of Britain sent the raiders, because his father's co-conspirator betrayed him. And then his sister decides to stay with the guy who kidnapped her rather than get rescued by Aquila.
- Daddy's Little Villain: Aquila happens to be in Hengest's burg just in time to see Hengest's beautiful daughter Rowena seduce Vortigern, whom she will shortly marry to tie him closer to her family's interests.
- Darker and Edgier: The Lantern Bearers is markedly grimmer and more adult than its predecessors in the Dolphin Ring series.
- Distinguishing Mark: Invoked by Aquila and Flavia when he shows her his new dolphin tattoo and says that she could recognise him by it after twenty years apart: "Look, I'm your long-lost brother." She replies that anyone could get a bad tattoo and she'd know him by his beaky nose. The Saxons later name him Dolphin after the tattoo, and his wife points out that he can be sure his son is his because he's inherited the nose. When Aquila sends Flavia's son back to her, he makes him tell her about the tattoo and everything they did on the night they first talked about it.
- Doomed Hometown: Aquila's family villa, where the household makes a Last Stand against a Saxon raiding party, and his fort at Rutupiae, which the Auxiliaries abandon and the Saxons later occupy.
- End of an Age: The book begins with the final withdrawal of Roman soldiers from Britain around 450 CE. The usual cutoff date for Roman Britain is 410, but Sutcliff fudges it by making them Auxiliaries in order to fit her theme of civilization vs. barbarian into a timeframe that fits with traditional dates for King Arthur.
- Enemy Mine: After Vortigern puts aside their mother in favour of Rowena, his sons Vortimer, Catigern, and Pascent offer their cousin Ambrosius (whose father Constantine their father assassinated) an alliance with those of the Welsh who don't favour closer ties with the Saxons.
- Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Ambrosius declines to take a hostage during his truce with Hengest to make the point that their sacred oath should be binding enough. Hengest is visibly unimpressed by Honour Before Reason.
- Fate Worse Than Death: Flavia is abducted by the Saxon raiders who kill the rest of their household and leave him for dead, and he spends the next three years hoping that she's dead. Not only is she not dead, she married her captor and declines to run away from him, and Aquila's character arc for the rest of the book is about coming to terms with this perceived betrayal.
- Identical Grandson: Aquila saves the life of Flavia's son because he looks unmistakably like her.
- Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!: While Ambrosius and the Romano-Britons believe that Divided We Fall, the Welsh faction led by Guitolinus sees a Romanised High King as a greater threat to their freedom than Saxons invading the lowlands. They acknowledged Vortigern's line as Cymric kings, but after Vortimer's assassination they seize the opportunity to leave his alliance with Ambrosius.
- Made a Slave: The raiders who attack Aquila's villa leave him unconscious for the Savage Wolves, but a second group happens along and someone takes him home as a present for his grandpa. Rechristened "Dolphin", Aquila spends the next three years as a Homer-reading thrall in Jutland until the entire village decides to up sticks for greener pastures in Hengest's Britain. Meanwhile Flavia has been not-enslaved with the original raiders in Hengest's burg.
- Married to the Job: Ambrosius's excuse for ordering his officers into marriage alliances with the Welsh while remaining a permanent bachelor.
- Master Poisoner: Rowena gets rid of Vortimer and precipitates an Enemy Civil War amongst the British by anonymously sending him a hawking glove with a poisoned pin stuck in one of the fingers.
- A Match Made in Stockholm: Flavia herself can't say exactly how she feels about the Saxon chieftain's son who abducted her from the raid on their villa, then married her and gave her back their father's ring, but she isn't afraid of him and doesn't run away from him at the first opportunity. Aquila never learns any more about him or their relationship.
- Rightful King Returns: Ambrosius is the son of the High King Constantine, assassinated by his brother-in-law, the usurper High King Vortigern. Ambrosius is prince of Arfon, but doesn't take the crown of High King until after the Battle of Guoloph.
- Rule of Three: Invoked by Aquila and Brother Ninnias, who share an uncannily accurate feeling that they will meet three times, though their middle meeting has no particular plot significance except to establish the possibility of a third.
- Sibling Yin-Yang: Ambrosius orders Aquila to marry one of the two daughters of a Welsh ally: pretty, blond, sweet-natured Rhyannidd or dark, sharp-tongued Ness. He chooses Ness, because he prefers people he doesn't have to be nice to.
- Survivors Guilt: Ambrosius's old, alcoholic retainer Valarius was the bodyguard who saved him after failing to stop his father's assassination. He loses all self-respect until he achieves Redemption Equals Death by giving Ambrosius advance warning of Hengest's surprise attack.
- Tangled Family Tree: The main political players in the novel are all linked in kinship by Vortigern's marriage to Rowena. Ambrosius's father and Artos's grandfather Constantine is the brother of Severa, the first wife of Vortigern and the mother of his rebellious sons, Ambrosius's allies Vortimer, Catigern and Pascent. Rowena is, of course, the daughter of Hengest. Aquila's family, meanwhile, also links the Roman, Welsh, and Saxon factions: his wife Ness is the daughter of a Welsh chieftain while Flavia's husband's family are Saxon chiefs under Hengest.
- There Are No Therapists: It's the fifth century. There are priests, but Aquila loses his faith along with his family.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The political events of the novel – Vortigern's alliance with Hengest and Rowena and war against Vortimer and Ambrosius – are based on the Historia Brittonum and Historia Regum Britanniae, the earliest pseudo-historical accounts of King Arthur and the fifth century in Britain.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Flavian, but Aquila is so bad at dadding that Flavian's given up on him in favour of Artos by the time he's old enough to fight alongside them. Aquila is surprised and touched by Flavian's public declaration of Well Done, Father in support of Aquila's rescue of Mull.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Aquila never goes to see what became of his family's land, despite the fact that's it's quite close to the British headquarters and he's short of income.
- Young Future Famous People: Ambrosius's nephew and eventual cavalry commander, Artos the Bear.
585-597 CE. Owain, a Briton, becomes a Saxon thrall
and is drawn into the affairs of a Saxon family.
- After the End: The novel takes place in the gap between the Saxon defeat of the British and the conversion of the Saxons by Saint Augustine of Canterbury. The British resistance to the Saxon invasion having finally broken, Britons turn on each other and Owain and Regina scavenge to survive in the abandoned city of Viroconium.
- Animal Motifs: Regina is strongly associated with birds – as a scavenger in Viroconium with no idea how to find food, she still uses some of her hoard of grain to feed the birds in Kyndylan's garden. A mosaic of Spring, a girl with a bird, in Pan Sylvanus's shrine reminds Owain of her so strongly that he no longer doubts that she's alive and waiting for his return.
- Arc Words: "What else could I do?" Owain explains his Sadistic Choice to Einon Hen – first, how he became a Saxon thrall, surrendering to save Regina; then, years later, how he postponed his freedom to protect his ex-owner's children. Little though he wishes to live in the Saxon world, common humanity outstrips Honor Before Reason.
- Changeling Fantasy: Uncle Widreth, Beornwulf’s illegitimate great-uncle, prefers to claim that his mother was a selkie instead of a British woman. He’s both Owain’s favourite member of the family and the spectre of lifelong thraldom.
- Cool Old Lady: Priscilla the no-nonsense hill farmer, who offers to adopt Owain.
- Dawn of an Era: Most literally the arrival of St. Augustine "the Dawn Wind" of Canterbury and the revival of Christianity in Britain, but Christianity was never really gone, and the real progress is cooperation between Britons and Saxons.
- Death of the Old Gods: Three-fold. British Christianity is thought by Rome to have been wiped out by the pagan Saxon conquest, so St. Augustine "the Dawn Wind" is going to show up any day now to convert the Saxons. But the Saxon religion, though civilizing (no more Human Sacrifice unless it's really, really important) and eventually to disappear, is still going strong, and everyone knows that King Aethelbert of Kent tolerates Augustine with an eye to political expediency. Meanwhile, the Roman pagan gods like Pan Sylvanus are genuinely mostly forgotten.
- End of an Age: The defeat of Kyndylan and Co. at the Battle of Dyrham/Deorham is the end of British resistance to the Saxon conquest and the end of Roman-Celtic British rule in the territory that is now England.
- Enemy Civil War: A few years after Ceawlin of Wessex defeats Kyndylan, his disgruntled nephews Coel and Coelwulf turn against him. They ally with both Aethelbert of Kent, who hates him, and his liegeman the king of Sussex, and the still-independent British princes of Wales to crush Ceawlin between them.
- Everybody's Dead, Dave: The aftermath of the Battle of Dyrham, in which the book opens. Owain wakes up on the battlefield to find himself the Sole Survivor and walks to Glevum in a fugue hoping to find the retreated war host, but there isn’t one. He continues on to Viroconium because he’s too much of a Shell-Shocked Veteran (at 14) to settle down with Priscilla and Priscus.
- Full Boar Action: Owain's hotheaded charge Bryni Beornwulfson throws himself into a boar hunt to get the attention of the king, his father's foster-brother.
- Ghost Town: Viroconium, Glevum, and the other Roman cities that the British abandon after their princes are killed with Kyndylan become ruins that only people like Regina with nowhere else to go remain in.
- Good Shepherd: The fiery little hill preacher Priscilla drags Owain to listen to is the book's main representative of the survival of native Christianity in Britain before the coming of Augustine.
- Human Sacrifice: On the night Teitri the foal is born, Vadir Cedricson explains to Owain that Saxon kings used to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their people, and though the Saxons no longer sacrifice men, they do sacrifice the "king" of their horse herds, a White Stallion like Teitri. When Teitri later kills a man who tried to ride him, the Saxons interpret it as their still-powerful gods claiming a sacrifice in spite of the Christians' arrival.
- Ironic Name: Regina the thieving, whining, louse-ridden beggar girl, whose name is Latin for 'queen'.
- Kick the Dog: Vadir lets his hounds savage Dog for no particular reason than because he belongs to a thrall, which is when Dog-loving Bryni conceives his everlasting hatred for him.
- Know When to Fold 'Em: Owain and Regina would rather cross the sea than stay in Saxon England, but Regina develops a lung infection on their trek to the coast. Owain has to decide that giving themselves up to a Saxon household is better than letting her die in the woods (decisions, decisions.)
- Made a Slave: Owain is never actually captured and forced into slavery. When Regina falls gravely ill, he surrenders them both to a Saxon farmwife in exchange for nursing, understanding that he and Regina will become thralls. The farm has no use for Owain, but Beornwulf, who happens to be staying there, takes Owain home with hime, separating him from Regina for more than a decade.
- My Sister Is Off-Limits!: Bryni loathes Vadir so much that the rest of the family keeps it a secret from him when Vadir asks to marry Lilla, lest Bryni try to kill him. Eventually, of course, Vadir can't resist throwing the tacit betrothal in his face.
- Post-Apocalyptic Dog: His name is Dog.
- The Rustler: Owain and Regina are finally convinced to leave Viroconium by an ugly encounter with a band of British cattle thieves. The horror of seeing their fellow Britons preying on their own people drives them to abandon Britain altogether for Brittany.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: Owain is freed after eight years, then almost immediately promises the wounded Beornwulf that he’ll stick around for another four years until his reckless son Bryni comes of age. Then, as the end of the four years nears, he promises Beornwulf’s wife Athelis another year to help fend Vadir Cedricson off her daughter Lilla. It’s his free but Sadistic Choice.
890s CE. Bjarni Sigurdson, a Norwegian Viking, is exiled from his British settlement for killing the man who kicked his dog and sells his sword as a mercenary, embroiling himself in the feuds of Viking earls from Dublin to the Orkneys.
- Arranged Marriage: The aristocrats in the story all have political marriages: Onund marries the daughter of one of his fellow sea lords, and Groa marries a Pict chief to ensure the safety of Thorstein's Caithness settlements. None of the women are overjoyed at the prospect, but they expect to be reasonably happy when they've settled in their new lives.
- Author Existence Failure: Sword Song was Sutcliff's last book, first published five years after her death, based on the second of three intended drafts.
- The Berserker: Everything tends to disappear behind a red mist for Bjarni whenever someone threatens either his dog or his employer. Strategically not killing someone is the apex of his character arc.
- Break His Heart to Save Him: Bjarni's beloved captain Onund chops off two of Hugin's toes to disqualify him as a sacrifice and throws Bjarni off his island to save him from a knife in the back. Bjarni does not immediately put this together.
- Burn the Witch!: Angharad's neighbours suspect she's a witch, because she uses Latin prayers in her doctoring, and because her hired sword Bjarni is clearly a white-haired, left-handed sea demon. They burn down her farm at the behest of her cousin who wants to steal her land.
- Call to Agriculture: Bjarni leaves a blue glass dolphin in a likely-looking glen before he leaves Rafnglas. When his five years are up and he brings the homeless Angharad back, he plans to make a land-take there.
- Canine Companion: Bjarni's troubles begin because he drowned the man who kicked Astrid, the dog he brought to England from Norway. He washes up in Wales because he jumped overboard in a gale to rescue his second dog, Hugin.
- Coming-of-Age Story: Bjarni is exiled at sixteen and has the next five years to debate whether he ever wants to go back. There is running commentary on the progress of his beard.
- Cool Boat: Several, as you expect from island-dwelling Vikings: Onund's vixen-headed longship Sea Witch and the rest of the Barra fleet; Lady Aud's galleys, swan-headed Fionoula and Seal Maiden built in the Caithness woods; and the merchantman Sea Cow, while not precisely cool, is effectively Bjarni's taxi from plot point to plot point.
- Cool Old Lady: Aud the Deep-Minded, who ends a feud after her son's murder, builds a secret boat in the forest of Caithness, and sails off to colonise Iceland, and out of respect for whom Bjarni accepts Christian prime-signing.
- Cycle of Revenge: Three separate blood feuds in the course of the novel, all based on historical accounts: Onund Treefoot ambushes Vestnor and Vigibjord for killing his younger brother; Onund kills the man who was given his land, then kills the man who killed his grandfather in retaliation, then defeats the man sent to avenge that man; Melbrigda's son tries to kill Guthorm for his father's improper burial, gets killed by Thorstein, and then his brother kills Thorstein and Bjarni kills him.
- Guile Hero: Onund Treefoot is a Handicapped Badass who commands a Viking fleet. He lures his old enemies into battle where their numerical superiority is nullified and kills their commander while wearing a milking stool as a wooden leg. He later forces Jarl Sigurd to water his ships by foisting his infant only son on him as a foster-child.
- Know When to Fold 'Em: Though it goes against the grain with Bjarni not to simply Kill 'em All when the villagers burn Angharad's farm, he realises that he'd leave Angharad defenseless. He tells her later that she's the only person for whose sake he has ever run away from a fight.
- Pinball Protagonist: Bjarni is merely the employee of the characters who actually drive the story, like Onund, Thorstein, Groa, and Aud. It's justified in that the plot is based on incidents of their real lives. And when he takes up with the fictional Angharad, the crux of his character growth requires him to be restrained and passive.
- Plot-Triggering Death: Bjarni's accidentally drowning the missionary gets him exiled from his settlement to walk the earth, because his chief guaranteed safety to Christians in his lands. Bjarni eventually runs into the chief's Christian foster-brother and conveys his forgiveness back to the chief.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Bjarni is a fictional character, but his bosses Onund Treefoot, Thorstein the Red and Aud the Deep-Minded were real people, as were Erp MacMeldin and Muirgoed; early settlers of Iceland whose life-stories were recorded in The Icelandic Sagas.
- Welcome to the Big City: In one day in Dublin Bjarni gets laughed out of a job, robbed of his purse, and loses the rest of his possessions. He claims to have traded them for a stray dog.
The Shield Ring
1090-1100s CE. Tomboy
Frytha and Warrior Poet
Bjorn defend the last hidden Norse stronghold against the Normans.
- The Ace: Bjarni is not only a Proud Warrior Race Guy, he's a better harper than the Norman who does it for a living. As a kid he can beat up a rival two years older than him. He has one great fear (because he's more imaginative than other people), which he volunteers to face for the sake of his country and overcomes with flying colours, then no-big-deals it back to fight the climactic battle while injured, side-by-side with his won-over childhood enemy. And he does all this with a "faintly mocking gaze."
- Action Girl: The Norse women are archers and fight in the last battle in direct defence of the Dale.
- An Axe to Grind: Gille Butharson's weapon of choice, which is why Wave-flame is buried with Aikin the Beloved.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Bjorn and Frytha learn their highest duty – never to give away the Dale's location – from the story of Ari Knudsen's friend who was tortured to death by the Normans. Ari Knudsen is then tortured to death shortly thereafter, and Bjorn gets a complex. Then, of course, Bjorn gets tortured.
- Dead Guy on Display: Red William's army use the Norse envoys' bodies as standards in their first battle. The ordinary Norman soldiers are more unnerved by it than the Norse.
- Doomed Hometown: Frytha's family farm in Lancashire gets burned in reprisal for a Norman knight's death, leaving her Conveniently an Orphan and refugee to the Dale.
- Face Your Fears: Bjorn develops a fear of torture, but volunteers to spy on the Normans. Sure enough...
- Forced to Watch: Frytha, whose turn is next, and then Bjorn gets to watch her! Heroically, however, Bjorn has no intention of talking no matter what they do to her. The possibility of Frytha talking to protect Bjorn never comes up, heroically or otherwise, because plotwise it's Bjorn's big moment, and watching without affecting the plot is Frytha's function in the novel.
- Just Before the End: Invoked. The people of the Dale will either get slaughtered or defeat the Normans and go home to their old lands, but either way it's the end of the secret settlement.
- Lady Looks Like a Dude: Frytha looks like a boy when she wears trousers and cuts her hair during the fighting season, and has a husky voice. She goes to the Norman camp as a Sweet Polly Oliver named Erik.
- Last Bastion: Butharsdale in the Lake Land is the last corner of England remaining outside Norman control.
- Lured Into a Trap: The Norse know that the Normans will eventually attack the Dale from the North, so they reroute their northern road into a narrow dead-end side-glen killing zone, which they call the Road to Nowhere.
- Master-Apprentice Chain: Ari "Grey Wolf" Knudsen and his foster-son Aikin the Beloved, then Aikin and his nephew Gille Butharson.
- Named Weapons: Wave-flame, the famous sword Ari Knudsen leaves to Aikin the Beloved.
- Oop North: The Dale is in "Lake Land", or the Lake District, in the Cumberland Fells.
- Platonic Life Partners: Bjorn and Frytha, who meet when they're five and six and stick together ever afterwards. They eventually get a Relationship Upgrade via Last Minute Hookup, or at least, they answer a Call to Agriculture together, so we assume they do.
- Post-Victory Collapse: Bjorn, who fights the last battle with a burnt hand and then spends the rest of the summer recovering from infection.
- Signature Item Clue: Bjorn is rustled in the Norman camp because a young knight whom he had failed to kill recognises the emerald signet ring that flashed in his eyes when they fought six years before.
- Supporting Protagonist: Frytha is the default point-of-view character, but most of the time she's just observing Bjorn, who is pretty clearly the actual protagonist. Frytha doesn't influence the plot except by discovering the mazelin.
- Tomboy and Girly Girl: Frytha, who sometimes wishes she were a boy so she could join the Sword-band, and her "soft" friend Gerd, who nevertheless works alongside her in the war camps.
- Tranquil Fury: Aikin the Beloved, Ari Knudsen's foster-son and the leader of the Sword-band, spends the rest of the book very quietly hating the Normans.
- Wistful Amnesia: The Norman Shell-Shocked Veteran whom Frytha and Bjorn rescue can only recall that he once had a very nice orchard in Picardy.