I wrote this for the game I'm playing; but I think it stands alone. Please read it and tell me what you think.
March 29th, 1194 Within Novgorod's walls
The city was a shell, although Sigurd's army had been building over the winter: Long houses in the Norwegian style, made of green wood already rotting, built without foundations on the frozen ground. But they had kept the cold off through the winter.
Karl frowned as he rode through the slushy snow/mud; Novgorod was an important trading center, even if it would have to be rebuilt, the jewel and capstone of their conquests. It galled him to have to give it up. Worse, to look the men who had taken it in the eye, and tell them that their struggles had been in vain, and that they must go home - it rankled. And then there was Sigurd; the man had the true Yngling fire, rare here in the downtime, and now Karl would have to douse it. For perhaps the twentieth time since entering Novgorod he reached for the little flask on his belt; and yet again he stopped the motion. His mind was made up. It would be much easier to down the yellow liquid and begin exuding dominance pheromones; with the dose in that flask, every male within a hundred meters would know, deep in their hindbrains, that he was the Pack Alpha, and to be obeyed. With the flask, he could sell sand to Bedouin, or snow to Eskimos, or for that matter peace and love for all men to Ynglings. But no. Sigurd was an Yngling and a true one; Karl would do him the respect of arguing only with words, not with uptime tricks. It was all he could do, and not enough.
The war could not be saved; the question now was, could he save Sigurd? Karl had no confidence in his ability to argue anyone out of a lifelong obsession; give him a raid, a skirmish, even a corps-level engagement with NBC weapons free, and he was your man. But to save a comrade's soul from being eaten away with vengeance - brain surgery, fumbling in the dark, with only a killing knife for tool - it was an impossible task. But it had to be tried.
Are we not Ynglings together?
March 29th, 1194 Sigurd's quarters, within the citadel
As soon as he saw Karl's face, Sigurd knew the news was bad.
They wasted no time on greetings; Karl dismounted, and said without preamble, "The Italians have made peace. King Adarnase marches north with forty thousand men; but he offers us peace for sake of the old friendship between our courts. We cannot fight so many; we must take his offer."
Sigurd rocked back on his heels, as though struck. All he had worked for these twenty years; all his travels about Europe, manipulating and bribing and killing, all his painful diplomacy - all that to be casually cast away? His conquest of Novgorod, bought with his left eye and the word that he was a necromancer?
"Why" - he stopped, cleared his throat, started again. "Why have the Italians made peace?"
Karl's mouth twitched in contempt. "Winter. The winter has done for the Russians what their soldiers couldn't. The Italians brought soldiers from Egypt and Sicily, who had never seen a snowflake in their life; they melted away at the first touch of snow. Then Adarnase swept them from the field, what was left of them. Ragged scarecrows, for the most part. Supperåd til generalstab." The last was in a language Sigurd couldn't quite catch, though it seemed similar to Norse; but it didn't matter. He was numb inside.
"So... peace, then? On what terms?" A ragged hope, that they might keep Novgorod at least, for which he had paid so much; but Karl shook his head, compassion in his eyes.
"Terms of life and limb, and no more. We sail home with what we can carry." They stood silent for a long moment. Then Karl reached out a hand, tentatively.
"Sigurd... I'm sorry. I know what it meant to you. But listen." He hesitated, then spoke slowly, feeling his way between words.
"You've given your life to this vengeance for your brother. It was good and right that you should do so; we are all Ynglings together, and the price of our lives is high. But now - now it is good and right that you should let go of vengeance, and turn to other tasks. You have killed, perhaps, thirty thousand Russians in this war; thousands more will die from famine and plague. Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands; you have matched those warrior kings of legend. Is it not - can it not be enough? Even for the life of an Yngling and a brother?"
"Thirty thousand..." The number wasn't quite real to Sigurd. He gazed into the distance, not really seeing the enclosing walls of Novgorod, or the clouded sky; his mind's eye was in the Georgian mountains, in a secluded grove where he made sacrifice to the old gods, and made love to his first woman. He sought within him for the presence he had first felt that night. "Is it enough?" But no answer came back, only the glistening of a fire on sweat-slick skin. "Is it enough? For my brother, whom I loved?"
He wasn't aware that he had spoken aloud, but Karl responded, thinking he had been addressed. "That is your question to answer; it is a matter of life and death, and in the narrow passage is no brother, and no friend. But I will tell you this. If you continue in your course, Russia will have killed two brothers. Come with me, Sigurd, back to Norway. There is healing in the mountains. Find a good woman, have children. Name one of them for your brother. Teach them to fight, and to live. Tell them how once you shook thrones and made crowns tremble, for sake of your brother's name; and make the race stronger by his blood."
Sigurd looked at him, and away; knowing that he was right, but not knowing whether he could turn away from twenty years of purpose. No surrender for me; the words trembled on his lips, and he could see what would follow; a wide hat, and a staff, and the long killing walk into Russia, fighting and burning until the boyars caught up with him. It would be so easy, to let the old god take over, to complete the sacrifice of his life; to become the third in the triad of horse, hound, and man, that he had left incomplete all those years ago. Within him he could feel it coming forward, eagerly; could feel its desire to have a body once again, and walk up and down in the world, and back and forth in it. He knew with sudden conviction that the Christians had been right; that the old gods gave nothing freely, not even vengeance, and that men bargained with them at their peril.
He strove to summon the will to resist; am I not an Yngling? He was no man's puppet, and no god's either. But the effort required seemed unbearable. Twenty years of his life; the weight of them was like a vast rock, chaining him to his fate. Desperately he summoned the images Karl held before him, of a woman, a farm, children, the peace of the high mountains. All seemed insubstantial, remote. Laughter, soft skin, warmth on the plough... ghostlike, weightless. He sought within himself for memories of women; surely there had been many, through the years? But they had been paid for, no more than a moment's relief; or peasant girls on the Russian borders he had raided, who wept and struggled. There was no strength to be found there. The one memory he could muster of true, sweet love-making to a willing equal was Cecilia, in the grove. And that brought him back full circle to the sacrifice, the firelight gleaming on skin, horse, hound, and man.
A face intruded into his memory: Ragnvald, who had lived, but would never walk again. Behind him came Vegard, and his brother Ketil, screaming as he fell off the wall; Lodin bleeding from the mouth, and Yngve's staring eyes with the flies coming in to feast. Knut, and Johan, and Norvald, all the young men who had thought they were immortal. How would they fight, if they were given the choice of life and death? What would they have said, if told that the weight of twenty years was unendurable? There was no strength in Sigurd for women and children; but for his dead comrades, who would never have the choice - for them he could fight.
He straightened, settling his shoulders to the weight of years. Within him the old god faded, slinking away to the dark corners of the soul. Perhaps it had never been quite real; perhaps he had merely been these twenty years mad, driven beyond sanity by grief.
"Take me home, then. There will be peace."
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Horrible, you're an idiot. Wait a minute, let me read it...
For consistency, let me start with a criticism: There are a couple of run-ons at the beginning that will cause many readers unfamiliar with you (who will be looking for a reason to move on to something else) to dismiss your work as amateurish.
Now this sentence intrigues me: "even a corps-level engagement with NBC weapons free, and he was your man. But to save a comrade's soul from being eaten away with vengeance - brain surgery, fumbling in the dark..." When was this? 12th century? It makes me want to continue on, find out what's going on here. I assume it is explained in the center portion. But the prose is... quite good. I'm impressed, and I hope you post the rest.
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Damn, that's a good story. Made for game or not. Feels like a chapter though; is there more? If not, I say you should consider writing more even if you don't include the rest in the game.
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Run-on sentences, it is true, are my besetting sin. To answer your other questions, it is set in the 12th century, but there are time travelers going back to change history (Karl is one of them), and so there are some anachronisms. The time travellers are not from our history; in the timeline they come from, Norway is a fairly nasty dictatorship with intensive military training for all the ruling caste, the Ynglings. (Who are all descended from the royal dynasty of that name, at least in theory.) So Karl hasn't actually commanded any corps-level engagements with NBC weapons free, but he's well trained for doing so. Sigurd, on the other hand, is not a time traveler, but an Yngling born in the downtime.
Since the game stretches from 1066 to 1453, at roughly 8 game years to the real-life week, there are many chapters; this one is the conclusion of a story arc, dealing with how and why Sigurd organises a war against Russia, fights it, and loses it. If you like I'll post the other parts as well.
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All right; I'll post the chapters of the Sigurd story arc, in chronological order. Hmm. I see I have a minor continuity bobble; the arc actually stretches over thirty years of game time, not twenty. Oh well, Sigurd's probably not too numerate, if it comes to that.
September 25th, 1165 Tikrit, Abghazia Early morning
Autumn, and in the clear air the mountains blazed with reds and yellows. Sigurd gazed at them numbly. There were no more tears in him, but there didn't seem to be much else, either; he felt empty, wrung out. At least the other children were giving him a wide berth; usually the crowd that hung around with Nikolai might be counted on for a cruel taunt in passing, but even they had enough decency to leave him alone now. And so, even in dying, his brother was doing more for Sigurd than he'd been able to do with his fists in a year of fights. The thought almost brought fresh tears, but he blinked them back fiercely and managed to get his grief under control; he would not, not, cry in public. Bjarte would have approved. How many times had he asked, "Are we not Ynglings?", when Sigurd came to him with some problem? And only when Sigurd had got his emotions under control would he turn around and fix it, with his fists or his hands or his ready smile and quick mouth.
Footsteps on the flagstones behind him, and Sigurd turned, almost hoping it would be Nikolai so he could get in a good fight. But it was Cecilia, King Olaf's daughter out of wedlock, and he had no quarrel with her. "Sigurd", she began. "I'm sorry. I came looking for you as soon as I heard."
"What's it to do with you?" he snarled, wanting someone else to hurt as he was hurting, knowing that it was stupid. But she took it in stride.
"Are we not Ynglings together?"
The question abruptly reminded him more of Bjarte than he could bear, and he had to turn away and face the mountains for a long minute before he had his face under control again. Cecilia said nothing, waiting patiently until he was ready. Then she continued.
"We are not so very many, we Ynglings. We'd best stick together. So when one of us dies, we all grieve. Brothers, sisters, comrades... lovers." Sigurd looked at her sharply; he'd known she was close to Bjarte, but not that they had slept together. She nodded, confirming it. "He asked me to marry him, before he went back to Norway. I would have, too, next year when I go back, if not for the Russians." Sigurd blinked stupidly, grief overtaken for a moment by shock at how much of his brother's life he'd been oblivious to. But Cecilia was going on. "So, it has much to do with me, you see. I came to ask... There is an old ritual, that my mother told me about. It's an oath, to the old gods, to ask their help in getting revenge. But it needs two people. Will you help me?"
Revenge on the Russians... Sigurd was startled by the sudden depth of his fury, and by how good it felt after the emptiness of grief. "Yes," he breathed. "Oh, yes."
September 27th, 1165 Tikrit, Abghazia Around midnight
A hound had been easy enough to find; if one of the mongrels that ran about the estate went missing, who would ever notice? A horse was another matter; horses were valuable and much cared for. But Sigurd knew the stables well, and one of the hunters was sick and would have to be put down. The stableman had been glad enough to give that job to Sigurd; nobody enjoyed killing animals they tended to every day of the year. As for the man, that was the purpose of the rite: By leaving the full sacrifice unfinished, they invoked the aid of the gods in hunting down their victim. It was dangerous magic; the old gods were notoriously fickle, and who knew when they might decide they'd waited long enough, and take their invoker in fulfilment of the rite? But neither Sigurd nor Cecilia cared.
King Adarnase enjoyed his hunting; there were plenty of secluded groves on his estate, away from the manor and the village, for deer and boar to take refuge in. So they could build their fire high, and Cecilia banged a drum and chanted old words - nonsense words largely, half-remembered from her mother's tales, half made up. But the old gods were not picky, and they got few enough sacrifices these days; Sigurd felt sure they would take what they could get. The hound whined and tried to lick his face as he tied the rope around its neck; he felt a moment's remorse, but hardened his heart and hauled the beast up at Cecilia's chanted command. It writhed, choking. He grabbed his spear, waiting for the chant to reach a new climax, then thrust, pushing from the right leg as he had been taught. It was wasted here; no armour protected the dog. But blood flowed copiously from its side as the rite required. He dipped his left hand in it, then smeared it on his left cheek and on Cecilia's. Her skin was hot to the touch, flushed by chanting and the fire. Next the horse; actually hanging it was out of the question, it would take four strong men to haul even a small mare into the air, but he put enough strain on the rope that its breathing came hard and laboured and it whinnied desperately, struggling. The spear went true nonetheless, and he smeared their right cheeks with his right hand while the horse bled to death. Then they recited the oath together, loudly: "One-Eyed, Father of Battles, Giver of Victory, hear us! We swear, that we shall have no rest in this world until we have found the slayer of my brother" - their voices blurred for a moment as Cecilia said "husband" - "and given him to you. We ask your aid in this, and pledge our blood to you." With the last words, they each took out their knives and dug deep into their left hands, sprinkling the blood into the fire.
There was a long, long moment of stillness. Sigurd felt something well up inside him, deep and icy and ancient; it ran down his spine and left him gasping for breath. It seemed that he heard cold laughter, and a voice saying "I accept." The weight of the moment drove him to his knees. A chill clarity possessed him; he saw Cecilia's eyes widening, felt his breath rasp in his lungs, felt the hair rise on his arms and back. He knew that Nikolai would never bother him again; this new feeling made him a man, and a dangerous one, and Nikolai would either observe the change or, treating him as before, be destroyed.
When he got up, the grief in him was - not gone, not diminished, but put on hold; he could still feel it, waiting for the proper time, but he had a weapon and a task now. Vengeance on the Russians. He looked again at Cecilia, who was getting to her feet, looking shaken but determined; he could see the change in her, too, the same steely clearness that possessed him, that made every detail razor-edged, even to the shadows blinking at the edge of sight. Her eyes were wide; droplets of sweat ran down her cheeks, mingling with the blood. One dropped onto her tunic, and he became aware that it was sweat-drenched and clinging to her. The blood and released tension of the rite combined suddenly with the diminution of grieving, and he wanted her desperately. He reached out, and saw the same awareness come into her eyes; a slight hesitation - a last vestige of cool forethought - and then a complete surrender that was no surrender at all, but a paean of victory.
The smell of smoke was in the air. Sigurd looked north, Cecilia standing beside him. That way lay the vast extent of Russia, and a hundred thousand warriors. But they were two Ynglings together. And that would be enough.
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"He was, surely. But he died in a fair fight. If we avenged every one of our blood who died in battle, we would get nothing else done; and besides, in each new battle more of us would die and need to be avenged, and in the end the line would die out. No, Sigurd, revenge is a fine thing, but it is not enough to commit the Family to war with Russia. You must find some other cause."
There was a long pause. At last Sigurd grated, thick-voiced, "All right then. I will."
Alexandria was stifling; not merely the dusty heat, unbelievable as that was to one brought up in Norway and the mountains of Georgia, but the endless bureaucracy, fruit of a tradition that had endured four thousand years. Egypt had had many masters, but none of them had succeeded in breaking the stranglehold of the clerks. Still, money talked, and the furs and amber Sigurd had brought were expensive here; usually they were traded hand-to-hand across Poland and down the Danube. Few ships dared the long journey through the storm-filled Bay of Biscay and North Sea - not to mention pirates official and otherwise on every coast - even for great profit. But Sigurd had other business here, and most pirates did not bother long ships whose bow carried the Golden Lion. So furs and amber had become silver, and silver had discreetly changed hands until at last Sigurd stood before a man whose word carried weight in Italian counsels.
"The Rus, yes. An obstreperous people; we have had blows with them before, in the King's father's day. But they are distant and backwards; the King could perhaps be persuaded to look favourably on a Norwegian war with them, but to take the field himself? I should need weighty arguments for that."
"Tell him this, then." The advice was Aslak's; Sigurd would never have thought of waking a quarrel more than thirty years old. The men from Dovre thought strangely. "The Czar is on the move again. Torzhok is in his hands again, and he pays Norway a pittance in compensation, mouthing about peace in the same breath he mentions the vastness of his armies. Minsk and Pinsk are again under his dominion. Did not Italy shed blood for those cities not a lifetime past?"
The courtier nodded. "The King cannot be pleased to hear that the Black Letter is - ah - a dead letter. And, hmm, it is perhaps possible that the mouth of the Don might interest him; furs, amber, horses, gold - trade has grown, these past ten years. Taxing it might be profitable, now. But still, you must understand, if I suggest such a course and the King dislikes it, I lose favour; and if he likes it and it fails, I lose my head."
Sigurd nodded. "Well, it is not good that a man should die and leave nothing for his children. But such risks can be compensated, no?" He pulled a large pouch out of his belt and jingled it; the silver in it rang sweetly. The courtier smiled.
"Oh, well, you know how rumours fly. Still, it was all the talk in Alexandria, how their King intends to sail up the Bosporus and seize the Don outlets for himself, to tax the trade there. Makes sense to me. Why trade for what you can take? He was building some nice big ships, too, I saw. Hundred feet if they were an inch." Sigurd burped, playing the drunken rumour-monger; but it wouldn't do to grind the point in too thoroughly. "But enough of Italy! What's the news from the north, eh?"
The sky was clear; it couldn't be long until the local strongman responded to the smoke rising from his village. Sigurd was fairly confident they could deal with that, but they would take casualties, and the ruse of being Russian raiders wouldn't stand up to close inspection by warriors who had actually met their counterparts across the border. So they couldn't linger, and some of the peasants would have to be left alive and in a condition to report what they had seen. He stopped a man who was about to be a teenaged woman's second rapist; "No time, Lars. Better luck on the next village." Lars grimaced, but let it go; there would be other days and other raids. It was autumn, and the harvest was in; a fine time for raiding, and Bohemian blood was hot, out here on the border marches. It wouldn't be long until the border was aflame on both sides.
Nobody but Ynglings ever entered the inner chamber of Geirvrike farm's main building. Speculation about what went on there was a favourite topic of conversation in Viken; Sigurd had heard suggestions of orgies, human sacrifices to the Old Gods, prayer to the White Christ, and secret alchemical rituals to produce the gold that made the Ynglings wealthy - and those were just the usual gambits that people would start off with to get the talk going. In fact it was a council-room, where decisions for war and peace were made. But it was strange enough for all that. Maps hung on the walls, such maps as Sigurd had never seen anywhere else, even among the navigators of Italy and Spain; not mere lists of sailing times and landmarks, but pictures of the land as a bird might see it, with the distances faithfully recorded. An even finer map dominated the middle of the room, a model of all Christendom built in stone and glue and wood, fortresses and flags and models of men-at-arms showing the strength of the kingdoms as best the Ynglings knew them. It was disheartening in some ways, to see how few hirdsmenn there were, compared to the hosts of Russia; but Sigurd felt confident. Certainly the Russians had nothing so fine as this for planning, and almost no ships, where the model showed hundreds of dragon-headed vessels in Norway.
Both the living men of Dovre were present; Aslak, white-bearded now, and Karl, with his odd gold-flecked eyes, biomod as he called it. Both were nodding as Sigurd outlined his plan to make the southern kings attack the Rus; but other Ynglings in the room were frowning in disagreement. Jorunn spoke for them: "Yes, yes. This is all very well, Sigurd. But you have yet to answer the fundamental question: Why? What can we gain in Russia? The climate is worse than here! And" - she held up a hand, seeing Sigurd about to speak - "don't bring up your brother. I know, and I feel for you. But you're asking us to send our own brothers, husbands, and sons into battle. Shall we create another hundred griefs to satisfy one revenge? I think not. So why attack Russia, where there's nothing but snow and surly peasants? England, now - England has rich fields and good harbours. Why not find wealth there, instead of blood in Russia?"
Several people added hot agreement to the discussion; but all stilled when Aslak held up a hand. The men of Dovre were respected, and the respect was not untinged with fear. "All that Jorunn has said is true. Nonetheless, Sigurd has created for us an opportunity, not to strengthen ourselves, but to weaken a dangerous enemy. We should not waste that opportunity. But one thing must be clear: This is not a war for revenge, or to retake Torzhok, or any such small goal. We must not do the Bear a small injury. No, if we attack Russia, we must take all we can, and we must be sure that we can take a great deal. For there are those in Russia who have long memories, and an implacable hatred of us."
Jorunn had held her peace so far, but now she exploded. "No! This is nonsense! Why should we weaken Russia? What harm have they done us? Talk all you like of implacable hatreds; it makes no sense. Why should they hate us? They have their land, and we have ours, and neither has any reason to want the other's wealth. Speak of the Scots or the Prussians, and I understand; we are their rivals for the rule of England, which is large and wealthy. But the Rus? What should they want of us - Finnish snow? Pff! Tell me plain why we and they should fight, or be still."
Aslak looked at Karl, who shook his head slightly, and spoke. "There is a reason, which we cannot reveal. It comes to us from Dovre mountain. You are right: The Russians have no sensible quarrel with us; nonetheless, if we do not fight them now, they will attack us - not this year, perhaps not this decade, but sooner or later we shall have to deal with them. If we let them choose their time, it will be the worse for us. Sigurd has done good work here, though for the wrong reasons."
Jorunn looked rebellious, but her support had faded; the magic words 'from Dovre' had convinced many of her erstwhile faction. She chose another angle of attack: "Well... if you say it, I will not dispute the matter. But there is another point. They are many more than we; if we attack them alone, we cannot win. Are we to trust these southerners to do our fighting for us? What if they go home after they've won a few battles? We cannot alone weaken the Bear so much that he won't rend us in revenge, unless he loses cities on his other flanks as well."
"That is well said." Aslak looked at Sigurd. "You have convinced us this far, Sigurd: If two other kingdoms attack the Rus, we will join. But you must see to it that they do not intend to make some raids and go home. No small injuries; no insults; the Bear must be crippled, or his revenge will fall on us and we will die."
October 18th, 1188 Somewhere in the forests of Poland
A clip-clop of hooves sounded, and Sigurd grinned with relief; he had guessed right, and the courier would go right into his ambush. There weren't many routes for a messenger from Muscovy to take, going to the Bohemian court at Cracow, and Sigurd had all the main roads covered; but you never knew when someone might have a sweetheart or family nearby, or just a hankering to see something new, or even a useful premonition of danger, and take to the back trails for a while. But no, there he was, an Imperial courier in his green and blue. He rode without escort; the bandits left couriers alone, for there was no surer way to bring down thousands of soldiers than to kill one. But Sigurd didn't have to live here, and anyway he didn't intend the death to be discovered for a while. He gave the signal, and within three heartbeats the courier had been pierced by five arrows. He fell with a gurgling cry.
Sigurd fell eagerly on his message pouch; yes, there it was, the Great Seal of All the Russias, and a long letter. He read it carefully, chortling. It was just as his spies had informed him: An offer of alliance, with suggestions of subsidies, Italian territories to be annexed to Bohemia, and protestations of peaceful intent. Getting out the parchment he had prepared, Sigurd began to write his own version. The Czar's titles were expanded to include even his smallest boyardoms, and the disputed areas around Galich, which the original had diplomatically left out, were given a prominent place. The salutation became an insultingly short "King of Bohemia". The polite request for an alliance was changed to a demand, and the offer of subsidies was shortened, being replaced with threatening mentions of the large armies of Georgia and Russia, and the harm they could do if roused. As an example of arrogantly clumsy diplomacy, it was - if Sigurd said so himself - a masterpiece; the capstone, perhaps, of his career.
He became aware that he was very tired; he had been working towards this for twenty years, and it had been an exhausting struggle. But it was all right, he consoled himself; his work was surely done, and he could rest in fighting, and reap the rewards of his long sowing. The Bohemians could not ignore this insult; there would be war, now, and at last he could lead a war band north and reap Russian lives until his arms ached from bloodshed. Deep within him the presence stirred, and he felt it smile at the thought. They had been patient together for a long time, he and the old god; but soon the need for patience would be at an end.
July 18th, 1193 Outside the walls of Great Novgorod Afternoon
Pillars of smoke dotted the plains, rising straight for kilometres in the summer-still air. The old god within Sigurd chuckled with glee at the sight; it had come forth more clearly, of late, since the long ships landed. Sigurd smiled too; every pillar was a hundred or more Russians dead, taken as slaves, or made homeless and forced to run for the south. But there was a greater burning still to come, and his smile faded as he looked again at the walls of Novgorod. Great Novgorod, the citizens called it, and the huge walls that sneered at the Norwegian army deserved the name. Nobody had even suggested storming the place; the walls were seven metres high, and the citizen militia manning them knew full well that they were all that stood between their wives and children, and Sigurd's revenge.
The problem gnawed at him all the day, while he dealt with the endless trivia of an army settling in to siege; ensuring that latrines were dug deep, settling disputes over position within the camp, checking on the walls surrounding it, and establishing patrols to make sure that no relieving army could surprise him. Siege was a chancy business, as likely to rip apart the besiegers' army from disease and hunger as to succeed. Novgorod was reputed to be well supplied, a full year's worth of grain in the silos, it was said, and enormous cisterns of water. And winter came early here, colder even than in Norway.
He was bone tired by the time he found his own tent and collapsed onto the rushes; so he was surprised to find himself standing on a large plain underneath an enormous tree, miles tall, and realise that he was dreaming. He felt a presence behind him, and turned to meet it. Dream-like, he was unsurprised at the tall, grey-clad figure, leaning on a staff, one-eyed under a large hat. He had never seen the old god within him before, but he had known.
"Hail, Sigurd, Oathbearer."
"Hail, Father of Victory."
"Indeed so. And you've had victories this year. But Novgorod's walls are strong."
"Yes. Have you come to give me advice, then?"
"Advice you can have, yes. But I give nothing freely."
"What is your price?"
"Here is Yggdrasil the World Tree. In this place you may buy wisdom. But the going rate is somewhat steep."
Sigurd shuddered, and woke, drenched in sweat. He rose, knowing he would be unable to sleep again for an hour at least, and walked about the camp. Talk with the watchmen calmed him, and in the twilight of this high-summer night his dream began to seem insubstantial. When he returned to his tent, his sleep was dreamless.
July 24th, 1193 Outside the walls of Great Novgorod Morning
Five nights, and five dreams, and still Novgorod stood defiant, daring the invaders to do their worst. The knowledge that there was a solution was almost as bad as contemplating the price the old god was demanding; but try as he might Sigurd could find no weakness in the city's defenses. Today would be different, though. 'Wisdom', the old one had said; well, let him keep it. There was a time for tricks, and a time for force. He looked out at the assembled hirdsmenn, and concluded his short speech:
"I will lead the attack myself; and I will carry the Raven Banner. Now, who will follow me to the wall, and glory?"
There was a long moment of silence; the walls of Novgorod were daunting to the bravest. But then his cousin Vegard stepped forward; and his brother, Ketil. And then they followed: Ragnvald, Lodin, Knut, Yngve, all the young men who thought they were immortal. They were a hundred all told when Sigurd called a halt; any more would just get in each others' way. An escalade worked swiftly or not at all. The rest of the army would stand to arms, to follow them in if they won the walls and drive victory home.
The ladders were ready; he had ordered them made yesterday. Nothing remained but to pick them up and make ready to charge. Sigurd was not carrying one; he had the Raven Banner instead on its short pole, wings hanging lifeless in the still air. Nonetheless he was at the front when they began to run; cousin Vegard was right behind him with a ladder. Horns blew on the wall ahead of them, and militiamen rushed towards the threatened spot. Arrows fell, and the attackers spread out as they dodged; the bows the townsmen were using weren't very powerful. Only three men had broken off, clutching at arrows in unarmoured legs, by the time they got to the walls. That was where the real danger began; baskets of rocks and bricks were tipped over on top of them, or thrown down to shatter helmets and heads. Most banged off shields hastily raised, though, and the ladders slammed into place; Sigurd pushed Vegard aside to be first up, holding the banner in one hand like a lance, balancing with the other. It was an awkward way to fight, but you could only fit so many militia onto a short piece of wall, and they had exhausted most of their rocks. A well-aimed piece of masonry caught Sigurd in the arm nonetheless, and he cried out at the bruising pain; but his byrnie saved the arm from breaking, and he climbed on. A spear thrust at his face; he grabbed at it and hauled. The young man - a boy, almost - holding it let go, as his only alternative to falling off the wall; that gave Sigurd a moment of relatively free action, which he used to climb another two rungs and slam the Raven Banner into a militiaman's face. The crunching of broken teeth was inaudible over the screams of both sides, but he felt it as a shiver down the flagpole; the man fell backwards, making a momentary opening in the militia ranks.
Another rung, and a sword blazed towards his helmet; he got his arm into its path, and again his byrnie saved him anything worse than a bruise. In return he thrust the banner upwards again, not hitting anyone but forcing his immediate opponent to duck, winning yet another rung; and now he was on a level with the militiamen, and could grasp the banner with both hands and wield it as a quarterstaff, clearing space. Then he was over the wall and onto the parapet. The townsmen were unarmoured except for light leather jackets, no match for a hirdsmann on level ground; in quick succession Sigurd slammed his quarterstaff sideways into one's head, then thrust behind him at groin level, hitting something yielding, then forward to complete his clearing of the space around him. Now Vegard was up, and they fought back-to-back; but the other laddermen had not had his luck of facing an inexperienced boy at first. He and Vegard were the only Norse on the wall, and men were running towards the trouble spot from every direction. Now Ketil was up and helping his brother, and townsmen were falling quickly; without the advantage of their wall, the militia were no match for armoured men trained in the Yngling way of battle. They fell back, making room for more Norse; but the single ladder could not feed men in rapidly. Five, six, and with the pause in close combat arrows began falling on the wall, fired from rooftops inside the city; one hit Lodin in his unarmoured knee, crippling him. Speed was the key. He pulled Vegard and Ketil aside, forming them up for a charge to clear the way for the next ladder in line; two townsmen had formed a line of sorts there, holding their spears ready to defend their comrades, who were still throwing rocks at the Norse at the base of the wall, and thrusting spears at the luckless ladderman.
Two men abreast were all the parapet had room for; since Vegard and Ketil had shields, Sigurd let them take the lead. They leapt forward, shields first; Ketil caught his opponent's spearhead and swung it aside in the finest training style, coming up close and thrusting his sword into the man's throat - but in the close press of the wall, he hadn't considered where he was sending that spearhead; it hit Vegard in the flank, and by malign luck the other end stuck between two bricks of the parapet, driving the spearhead through chainmail and flesh. The other militiaman was able to avoid Vegard's dying sword thrust, recover his spear, and slam it sideways at Ketil, quarterstaff style; he hit the round shield Ketil was wielding, but that was enough to overbalance him and send him seven meters into the unyielding cobblestones. Sigurd arrived a moment later, wielding his banner pole like a lance; it hit the townsman in the stomach and lifted him off his feet, rupturing the stomach sac.
But now Sigurd faced two men on his own, and these were no militia. The reserves had arrived: Armoured men of some boyar's personal warband. They advanced shields first, swords flicking out to threaten Sigurd's face and unarmoured legs; professionals, indeed. Two on one, there was nothing for Sigurd to do but retreat until one of his friends could come up and help him. He risked a quick glance behind, and a chill went through him. There were more of the boyar guardsmen on that side, and archers were firing between them; the bows were not very strong, but at such short range and against men busy fighting warrior equals, they were deadly. Norse were falling there faster than they could be replenished from the ladder; and the other ladders were faring no better, the defenders had got the hang of it now and bodies were piling up at the bottom of the wall.
The hope that had flared in Sigurd when he gained the wall shriveled to ashes; there was no point in throwing away more brave men, the defenders had been too fast, and the escalade had failed. There was nothing for it but to shout "Retreat" and consider the problem of getting back down. It didn't seem very likely that his opponents would consider standing back and letting him get back onto the ladder. On the other hand he wasn't going to have a lot of time to consider the matter. An arrow whizzing past decided him; the parapet was getting extremely unhealthy. Without stopping for thought, he leapt back over the wall.
July 24th, 1193 Falling off the walls of Great Novgorod Morning
It takes a man slightly more than a second to fall seven meters: Enough to be afraid, a chilling spike of terror from the ancestral ape, not enough for warrior training to cut in and master the fear. But it is swiftly over. Sigurd hit the ground with a jangle of mail and a yielding crackle - no, he saw, that wasn't the ground he had hit; a double layer of Norwegians had broken his fall. He had little time. The wall was clear, and stones, thrown hard with the fury and triumph of men who have narrowly escaped death, were thudding into the pile of corpses and wounded. But he had time to register that not all the men he had landed on were dead; there was Ragnvald, stretching an arm towards Sigurd for help; the other was twisted in strange places, and his legs lay unnaturally limp. There was Lodin, clutching his stomach; Sigurd could not see the wound, but blood was coming out of his mouth. Over there was Yngve, staring at the sky with eyes already glazing and the flies coming out; and Knut, Johan, Norvald, all the young men who had thought they were immortal.
Inside him the old god was chuckling with glee at the thought of so many splendid warriors for Ragnarok; and for the first time in years, Sigurd's thoughts veered away from those of the god, and he rebelled. It was insanity to stay for even a second more than necessary; the stones were flying thick and fast. But, with a month to think it over, Sigurd would still have found it impossible to do otherwise: He bent over, took Ragnvald's outstretched arm, and heaved the younger man onto his back, ignoring the scream of outraged pain.
Nobody moves quickly with a hundred kilograms of muscle and armour slung over their back; staggering towards the Norwegian lines, Sigurd made an easy target. But no stone or arrow struck him; dimly, through the rush of exertion, he could hear some Russian giving orders to cease fire. Perhaps the boyars were saluting courage; perhaps they were merely conserving ammunition. Either way, Sigurd managed to stagger out of range, carrying his comrade. Behind him, the Raven Banner, which he had dropped in his fall, lay disregarded in the bloody dust. The raven's wings were obstinately still. (*)
July 25th, 1193 A dreamscape: Below Yggdrasil, the World Tree Early morning
Sigurd glared hotly at the old god. "Was that your plan? Warriors for Ragnarok?"
"No, Sigurd. That was your own doing. I have offered you knowledge of how to defeat the walls. I have told you the price. If you choose not to pay" - a shrug - "that is your own affair. I force no man."
"Fine!" Anger and grief warred in Sigurd, making him reckless. "I'll pay your price, and be damned to you!"
"Yes, that's very likely. The Cross-God leaves little room for others. But I am not dead yet. Here; chew this, it will help."
Sigurd took the dried root; it tasted bitter, but brought a strange calm. Then he took from the old god's hand a knife, and stuck it into his left eye, and twisted, so the eyeball hung down onto the cheek; and chopped, to break the thread it dangled by. The pain was less than he had thought, but the world went curiously flat. He picked up the eyeball and offered it contemptuously to the god. "There! Now, what's your wisdom?"
Before answering, it took the eyeball from his hand and popped it into its mouth, chewing with relish. "It is very simple. Among your prisoners are three brothers; their names are Vasili, Aleksandr, and Vladimir. Let these three men go within the walls, carrying an offer to Novgorod: That you will give them free passage south, with all the goods they can carry, if they give you the city."
Sigurd stared incredulously. "For this I gave you an eye? You cannot believe they will take such an offer!"
"Of course not. Nonetheless, if you do as I have said, within a month the city will be in your hands."
The long straggling column of refugees stretched a mile from the city gates, and were still coming. Some of them bore red cloth strips on improvised flagpoles; the other refugees gave them wide berth. Even as Sigurd watched, one such fell over in the dirt, and did not rise again, although one of his group - a father, perhaps, or a brother - bent down to plead with him, then kick him, and finally, hopelessly, to drag him out of the way, so nobody would step on the body. Dead in a week, Sigurd thought dispassionately; from the reports of deserters, the Norwegian army knew well how the plague worked, and that it was particularly virulent on the breath of those in the final stages. Only deep love would make a man go close to such a one. Idly, he wondered which of the three brothers had been the carrier; or perhaps they had all had it, healthy-seeming though they'd been. Not that it mattered; the result was plain, even to a one-eyed man.
There was a ragged, hopeless fear in the eyes of the refugees; they'd had courage enough on the walls, but this was something else, something no man could fight. Whenever one of them coughed, as they often did from the dust they were stirring up, everybody around him would start, and scatter away, until they jostled into each other and recoiled; none of them got very close to another if it could be avoided, except in the tight family groups.
It would be necessary to burn Novgorod to the ground, of course; the plague knew no flag, and would burn through his army as rapidly as it had the defenders, if he gave it half a chance. But the stone walls would stand, and the cisterns; and there would be no strongpoint in his rear, to harry him as he went deeper into the plains. They could even winter inside the walls, where there would be some shelter from the winds and the snow. It was a victory. Sigurd held tight to that thought. This was victory.
(*) The Raven banner was supposed to be prophetic: If the army carrying it was bound for victory, the raven would appear to be flying, wings flapping. If the raven was stiff and still, that prophesied defeat. Or so the Annals of Saint Neot claim.Posts: 10645 | Registered: Jul 2004
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I'm the Russians by the way, although come 1453 (or 1399 depending) I'll be switching to China (not a playable country in Crusader King's the 1066 to 1453 period)
Me and King of Men have played through and finished a RP campaign playing from 1066 to 1954 and have fought a number of world wars, ending with the Middle Kingdom triumphant. (One cannot argue when political power is held at the end of a gun... or thermonuclear warheads).
So now we starting anew and our story is that in a plot point very similar to First Contact Yngling scientist-historian-soldiers go back in time in order to change history to allow the Norweigian Hird a chance to claim its position as the Sole Superpower rather then a Great Power always focusing its efforts into detering the Chinese led Comintern from finishing the job and slowly and steadily falling behind.
My contribution to the story is that a team of multi ethnic scientists protected from the changes to the timeline due to their own experiments with time travel notice the changes in history and go back intime to stop the Ynglings from succeeding in their dasterdly plot to conquer the universe.
I can post my opening story if you like but beware of Dr. Who fanfiction.
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I am of the opinion that when the outcome is a Cold War standoff lasting roughly 200 years and ending in one side using a Quantum Device, claims of 'victory' are nothing but Communist propaganda.
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As it turns out, there is a coda to Sigurd's story, or perhaps the beginning of a new story arc; I'm not sure. In the most recent session I lost a big war, very badly, and roughly a third of my lands. This happened because I tried some tricky diplomatic maneuvering which sort of backfired on me. So this tells how the Ynglings react to that.
November 15th, 1206 Oppland, Norway
As soon as he saw Karl's face, Sigurd knew the news was bad.
"Not terms of life and limb, then?"
Karl sighed. "No. The terms are very bad."
"We keep a third of it. But we lose Denmark."
Sigurd blinked; that was very bad, indeed. Far worse than he had thought.
"And in the west?"
"We hold York."
"And nothing. The Scots have it all, the whole Norselaw."
"So - it is, as you say, very bad. Still, the Bretons never came here; so what, after all, is this to me? I am a farmer, now, and old. Cities and thrones and powers, what do I care? I have had my war, and I am done."
"We held a council, at Geirvirke. It was decided that a new direction is needed. Your name was mentioned, and proved popular."
Sigurd cocked his head, considering. He had not built the alliance that shook the thrones of Europe without learning something about how to read men, and the skills were still there. Karl, it was clear, did not really believe what he was saying. And the phrasing -
"'It was decided', you say? And who did this deciding?"
Karl looked away.
"Decisions at Geirvirke are made by consensus, as you well know. But Jorunn spoke very strongly in favour of change; as did Haldor."
Sigurd nodded. The leaders of the main splinter factions of the Ynglings, the ones who did not take their direction from the men of Dovre; but neither Karl nor Varg, who had come from Dovre and whose word would usually decide matters.
"And so you have agreed to change. But why choose an old man? Why not Jorunn, or young Haldor, who have fire in their bellies and strength in their arms?"
Karl looked up, and conviction came into his eyes; this part he did believe.
"There are younger men among the Ynglings, yes. But there are no better ones. We need you, Sigurd. We need the skill to gather all of the West under one man's driving will. We need the singlemindedness to devote thirty years to a single cause. And we need the wisdom to recognise when enough is enough, and to give over revenge and turn to other things. That is why I spoke for you as the choice."
"I see," Sigurd said, and he did. The Dovremen had been forced to accept that they were no longer in charge, but they still had enough influence to nominate their successor. And perhaps they had a point, at that. Neither Jorunn nor Haldor had much of a policy beyond choosing targets for aggression that the Dovremen wanted to use as allies, and vice versa. If the latest war had been so disastrous as all that, either of them would be a recipe for more disaster, just from a different direction.
But still, as Sigurd had said, what did he care? There was peace in the high mountains, and he had built a life here. Johanna would murder him if he - well, no. She would murder him if he went out to fight again, but Karl wasn't talking about that. To go down to the court at Viken and have power and wealth, why, Johanna might not mind that very much. And - he looked about the farm. It was, when you got right to it, fairly small beans. Peaceful, yes. He had needed that, after Novgorod. But this past year - two, perhaps - he had felt a vague discontent with the rhythm of the seasons. Deep inside he could feel the old god stir again, and suppressed it sternly. He would make his own choices. But still, this choice was not so clear as he had thought at first. He looked thoughtfully at Karl.
"Why don't you come in, and discuss this over a meal?"
They sat down to soup and bread, and did not speak for a while; the bread was tough enough that chewing it required attention and care from men with teeth starting to loosen. That gave Sigurd time to think. By the time they were done eating, he had his question ready.
"Nu, Karl, I can see you need me. The question is, do I need you? So - I have a price."
"Most men do."
"Quite so. And this is mine: You will tell me the truth about Dovre. Everything, holding nothing back. Or you can go back to Viken, and Jorunn will take over, and send the long ships to France, no doubt, or something equally foolish."
Karl looked stricken, and said nothing for a minute. At last he sighed, resigned. "Very well; if you're going to be in charge, you need to know. But it is a long story." He thought for a moment, settling back in his chair with the air of a man preparing to talk for a while. "I shall tell you of the Ynglinga Saga." His voice became formal, and he sat up straight, as uptime Ynglings do when telling the central epic of their nation.
"Olaf was king in Norway after the death of Harald Hardråde..."
It takes a while to recount the history of a thousand years, especially when one has to interrupt the smooth flow of saga to explain technological advances, alternative histories, geography, basic physics, and uptime ideologies. Karl spoke through the night and well into the morning of the next day. By the end his voice was hoarse and his eyes drooping, and Sigurd was not sure how well he was understanding what was being told. War and revenge and raid, this he understood, even with strange weapons and unimaginable ships that flew through the air. But the things Karl spoke of as the causes of wars, the thoughts that could move an uptimer to kill - incomprehensible, alien. Communism, fascism, the doctrine of absolute personal freedom for Ynglings. Capitalism, industry, free markets - words, just words, whirling past in a kaleidoscope of ideas. At last Karl came to the point where he explained the Secret Hird and the Quantum Device, and the appearance at Dovre of uptime agents, with their mission of making Norway strong: "So we came here, to change all that history, all that sacrifice. We have so little, between these mountains; only pride, and the strength of our warriors. We need an advantage, an edge. And so I came here, destroying all my nation and all our works; and so Geir Jonsson came in his time, and Anja Sigridsdottir, and Aslak before me, and now Varg to take the burden from my shoulders."
Sigurd nodded. "And so you have failed, and made Norway weak instead of strong; and so you turn to us at last, who live here."
Karl nodded, and it seemed to Sigurd that there might be a glimmer of moisture in his red-rimmed eyes. "And so we have failed. And so I turn to you. Help us, Sigurd. For sake of the Great Norway that was, that we have thrown away in our pride."
"No, Karl. I won't help you for that Norway." Sigurd rose, his bones stiff from hours of listening, alternately enthralled and sickened. "Not for a nation of slaves. Oh yes, half of you called yourselves masters, perhaps, and were proud of your strength to subjugate the other half. You call that freedom? To live in terror of the day when your subjects rise against you? To spend all your time at weapons practice, against the Final War that will kill all men? As though all the future were a dream of the old gods, and Norway no more than a training ground for expendable einherjar, to fight and die at Vigrid field? I think not."
"No. For that Norway, I will not lift a finger, except to consign it to the grave. Better you should have fought it out with the Chinese, and perished honourably in nuclear flames, than to bring that living death here. Who are you to bring your ancient cadaverous quarrels to this land, where my sons live?"
Karl rocked back in his chair, surprised and for a moment overawed by the older man's fury. "The course of history," he whispered, then cleared his throat and spoke more strongly, "has been changed. If not for us, your sons would not even exist."
Sigurd sat back down again. "As may be. Done is done, and eaten is eaten. Not for the Norway you want, but for the Norway my sons will live in, I will help you. And by all the gods, old and new, it will be a better land than yours."
Karl looked down, beaten. "Aye. Perhaps so. It is sure that we have not done well, we uptimers. From the civil war in Geir Jonsson's time, to this. At every step we travel in the footsteps of our ancestors, and we are less than they. Let it be as you say, then. Perhaps there is a better way. Shape Norway as you wish. I will stand behind you."
"Good. Then let us sleep; tomorrow we have much to discuss."
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