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THE HIGH KING OF MONTIVAL

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER EIGHT:

 

Norrheim, Land of the Wulfings
Six-Hill Field
(Formerly Aroostook County, Maine)
March 25, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

Bjarni Erikson saw his death rising with the heavy curved sword. Thunder pounded in his ears; it echoed in the ground beneath his back like hooves. He struggled to raise his sword and meet the blow still fighting. A man lived until he died, and not an hour more.

“Fare You well, Thor, until the weird of the world!” he choked out. “Harberga—Swanhild—I come, father—“

The thunder was hooves. A great black horse whose head and neck and shoulders gleamed silvery came along the slope, and Bekwa scattered aside like sandy soil before the coulter of a plow, like birch-leaves in an autumn wind. In the saddle was a man with the head of a raven, and in his hand was a lance. The trollkjerring turned, raising his shield. The lance struck it and shattered, with a sharp stuttering crackling impact that seemed to strike his own head between the eyes. The red-robe staggered back, but the great war-horse staggered as well, almost falling.

Bjarni blinked, even then. It was like seeing a hammer hit an egg, and the hammer bounced. The man in the high war-saddle kicked his feet out of the stirrups and threw himself to the ground, landing even as he drew his sword.

Shock ran through the world.

The flash that came with the long blade shone through his flesh to his bones, making him transparent as fine glass of the ancient world, without being anything his eyes could see at all. It lit the mind, as if his inner being had stared into the sun. Bjarni saw the way the smooth curve of the man’s visor drew down into a point that almost hid his barred teeth. Eyes cold blue-gray glinted through the narrow space of the vision-slit.

The sorcerer crouched, snarling. “You... can... slay... the vessel... but... not... Us,” he said, in voice like the world ripping. “For... we... are... legion.

“I don’t have to,” the man said, his voice like a trumpet. “I have only to put you back where you belong, in my time and in my land; for even you are a part of things. The which I will do, now, so.”

The red-robe screamed and struck.

Shock.

The world shook again, as if it were a painted drawing whose fabric trembled in a high wind. Steel met the Sword and shattered, and the blade looped back. A hand spun away in a rising arc, and blood trailed behind it and spouted from the wrist and in a circle from the follow-through of the Sword. Bjarni stumbled upright again, as if released from bonds; his leg hurt badly, but he could make himself move. Everyone about him was moving too. The red-robe clutched at his severed wrist; the cold malevolence was gone from his face, leaving nothing but a vast bewilderment as he sat down to die.

 

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Artos let the momentum of the strike carry him around. The Seeker of the Church Universal and Triumphant was no threat any more—just a man, and a dying man with no heart to fight, at that. A spear thrust at him, a length of rusty steel pipe with the end hammered and filed down to a point. The thing was too massive to be agile, but the thick-shouldered savage had already begun a two-handed smash that would have driven the mass of metal through anything a man could wear. It scored across Artos’ shield and left a peeling thread of the facing sheet behind it; the Sword struck upward and the front three feet of the crude weapon went pinwheeling away. There was a tug on his sword-wrist as the Sword of the Lady cut through the tough alloy, like the hesitation he’d feel if he lopped off a dried reed. The thrust that followed snapped out faster than a frog’s tongue, crunching through the thin bones of the man’s face between the eyes and back before he even began to crumple.

Wheel, slash a man’s legs out from under him, turn another spear-thrust with the shield and smash its facing into the wielder hard enough to crack bone, kick backward against a knee, thrust and ribs parted and the man jerked forward into another Bekwa’s path as Artos wrenched the Sword free—

Most of his consciousness was in a peculiar and very specialized place, one that saw only threats—spearpoints, blades, the glimmering edge of an ax—and targets, joints, throats, unarmored bellies. Everything else blurred into a mist of irrelevancy. That part of him danced light-footed across the field of war, shield and blade moving in a continuous blurring whirl from which blood splashed in arcs and circles leaving horror in his wake. Very far away some other part winced when the Sword hammered through metal, a reflex of training that told him he was destroying it.

It was the first time he’d fought with the weapon the Ladies had given him, and the supernal rightness of it filled a warrior’s soul with wondering joy. As if all other blades were mere children’s copies of lath and rattan, and this was the original pattern as it had been in the mind of the Maker. The Sword was many things, but it was a sword beyond all swords at the very least.

Yet he could see the whole battle now, as well as his part in it, without breaking the diamond point of concentration that a man required when he fought hand-to-hand for his life. As if he was more men than one.

He could see the others following in his wake, the three lances dipping in a synchronized wave, light breaking from the honed steel of the heads, the heads of the horses pumping like pistons in a watermill as their hooves threw divots shoulder-high. See/feel/hear them strike, massive thudding blows, turning in the riders’ hands to pivot free, coming down again. Mathilda releasing her lance when it jammed in a pelvis and sweeping out her sword, her destrier soaring in a capriole that ended with lashing hooves knocking back a whole clot of the enemy as she seemed to hang suspended for a moment. Epona rearing, smashing her shod feet down on faces and shoulders. Abdou al-Nari throwing his spear into the breast of a Bekwa chief with an antlered headdress and drawing and slashing with his scimitar in almost the same motion...

Arrows feathering past as Edain and the others slid free of their saddles and shot in a deadly ripple as fast as they could draw and loose, a bodkin point cracking out through the breastbone of a man about to hit Artos on the back with a sledgehammer filed down to a blunt cone. The Kalksthorpe men scrambling up the hill and slotting themselves breathless into the crumpled face of the Norrheimer shield-wall, pushing it out to stop the breakthrough.

Suddenly he was in the waking world again, panting beside Bjarni and a brown-bearded man with a dripping ax.

“And the top of a fine morning to you, blood-brother,” he said to Bjarni.

The Norrheimer grinned at him, through a face spattered with blood that thinned and ran with the sweat.

“Where’s my signaler!” he cried. “Now, now, without the trollkjerring they’re ours—“

“Not yet,” Artos said. “Wait, wait. I can feel it, I can feel the balance shifting.”

Bjarni halted with his hand half-raised. The youth with the banner a few steps behind him suddenly shouted:

“There, godhi. Behind them! Is it more of them?”

He sounded frightened and trying not to show it. Bjarni’s face was grim as he stuck his sword point-down in the frozen ground and opened the steel-lined case at his belt that held his binoculars. Then the grin came back.

“The flag of the porcupine! Madawaska!” A slight frown. “And there’s another with it... a tree, and seven stars, and a crown.”

Ingolf let loose with a yelling whoop: “That’s my Mary! Egleria gwenn and all the Elvish bullshit you want for the rest of your life! She found your Madawaska and brought them here right on time.”

“By Thor’s almighty prick, they’re charging!” Bjarni said. “Right into the rear of the foe... stopping for a volley with those crossbows of theirs...”

Artos blew out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “Then yes, Bjarni Eriksson, this is the time. And it’s your battle to win, you and your folk’s, and we but helpers.”

“The spirit’s gone out of them, the main,” Bjarni said thoughtfully, scanning the battlefield. “Signalers! Call number five, the Boar’s Tusk call!”

He’s right, Artos knew, following his gaze.

The fight still went on; right here the enemy were giving ground, but he could see the blurred heaving violence of shield against shield to either side, double long bowshot east and west; see it well, since this was the highest spot and at the base of the V of the Norrheimer formation. The noise was stunning, like an avalanche of scrap metal on a concrete floor even through the padded coif and the helm—there was a reason warriors shouted most of the time—but you could sense the realization that...

That they are well and truly fucked, as my blood-father would have said, Artos thought.

... as it soaked through the enemy ranks. Then a brabble, and Bekwa even in the front ranks were skipping back a little and looking over their shoulders.

Several men raised the long horn trumpets to their lips. The call was a blatting bellow that thundered deep, carrying well through the rattle-stamp-crash-shriek sound of war. Other horns took it up, from one end of the line to the other, on all the six hills, until the triumphant braying haaaaah-haaaaah-huuuu-huuuu-huuuu rhythm sounded over and over again. No silence fell when they stopped, but there was a trembling pause where Bjarni’s shout could be heard:

“Form the boar’s-head and forward, Norrheimer men! Kill! Spare none; make safe our land, our homes! Thor with me! Ho La, Odhinn!

Epona butted Artos between the shoulder-blades. He swung into the saddle; it was harder this time. Mathilda fell in at his left, and Ignatius beyond her, with Ingolf on his right. From the tall horse’s back he could see how each hill’s shield-wall shook and reshaped itself as this one did, the standards of the chiefs coming forward with their armored guardsmen behind them to make the tip of a blunt wedge with the farmers of the levy as the shoulders and base. The light-armed bowmen and slingers fanned out, and now the Norrheimer line had turned from a chain of shield-wall forts into the blade of an inward-curving saw. The men of this land evidently didn’t know many tricks of war, but this was a good one. The Madawaska newcomers were running forward, blocking the only exit from the sickle-shape.

Forward, Norrheim!”

A roar: “HO LA, ODHINN!

And the saw began to cut.

 

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Six hours later, Artos reined in below the slope where Bjarni Eriksson stood silhouetted against the quick early sunset of early spring; the others were with him, save for where Abdou al-Naari grieved over the body of his blood-brother Jawara. Mary and Ritva had the stars-and-tree flag, and a wizened-looking little man came with Madawaska’s porcupine.

The godhi still had his sword in his right hand, but he’d dropped his tattered shield and found a spear to grip in his left as a walking-stick; evidently the bone-bruise was starting to really hurt. His face was drawn, but that was probably just the aftermath of battle, and realizing what it had cost.

Less than it might, Artos thought, looking around.

This fight had been typical in one way; the real killing had started after one side broke and ran. You could chase and strike, but running left your back bare to every point and edge. It was worse this time than most, because the Bekwa had been trapped until they were a mass too crowded to use their weapons; an acre or more was bodies piled two deep. If Bjarni’s people wanted more land, there wasn’t going to be anyone to stop them to the northward for a generation at least. The stink was overpowering, even to someone used to the aftermath of human bodies cut open by desperate strength and edged metal, but at least it was cold—getting very chilly indeed, in fact. Men and the wisewomen were attending to the most urgent chores, getting the wounded gathered in and kept warm by small efficient fires while they bandaged and stitched and splinted; everyone else could roll themselves in their sleeping bags and eat trail food tonight.

Mathilda muttered: “What are you up to, Rudi?”

“What needs doing,” he said quietly.

What Artos knows is necessary. For once, that’s something Rudi agrees with all his heart does need to be done.

The majority stood or sat or wandered aimless, eyes empty for the moment, or tracking back and forth as if in disbelief over the field of war they’d survived. Some searched for kin or friends; he saw an older man sitting with a youth’s head in his lap, thick blunt fingers inexpertly brushing a lock of hair back from the dead face. More and more gathered as Artos and his party came cantering by. Almost all looked up when he reined in and Epona caracoled; he stood in the stirrups and thrust the Sword skyward.

Nobody ignored that. It didn’t seem possible. Even the grave chiefs of the tribes—Hrossings, Wulfings, Kalkings, Verdfolings, Hundings—fell silent.

Artos met Bjarni’s eyes, saw a question there, and smiled, then filled his lungs:

“Hail, victory!” he shouted.

Silence echoed. He could feel the pressure of eyes on him, thousands of them; somehow the Sword seemed to reflect them all, glittering itself—with the evening light, and with the fires of their hearts.

“Hail to the victor! Hail, Bjarni—hail Bjarni, King in Norrheim! Hail Bjarni King!

Silence crashed, until another voice took it up. Then another, and another, hoarse from throats raw with the day’s shouting. A spear boomed against a shield, and the flat of a sword, then more and more. The leaden exhaustion left Bjarni’s face, first giving way to alarm, then stiffening as the wave of sound roared across the battlefield:

Hail Bjarni King! Hail Bjarni King!

After a moment the chiefs took it up as well; last the one under the white horse of the Hrossings, his mouth quirking.

Hail Bjarni King!

 

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Norrheim, Land of the Bjornings
Eriksgarth
(Formerly Aroostook County, Maine)
March 27, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.

 

Artos looked at Fred Thurston. “You think it’ll work?” he said.

“Sir, I know so. Dad... the President... came up with the tactic and we did test runs. One of them was my Junior ROTC class, and we were just kids, not one of us over fifteen, and we managed it fine in the field. Yeah, the rail lines will be more screwed here than even in the Idaho back-country, but not that much more screwed. It really is a way to move a medium-sized... up to battalion-sized... unit cross-country fast without being able to forage locally. I can’t guarantee that it’ll work, but it’s a very high probability.”

“And we’ve scarcely a battalion’s worth of warriors to move,” Artos said thoughtfully. “Less than two-score.”

“Well, that may be a problem. You need a certain number to do the work.”

Artos stripped the flesh off the roast duck drumstick with his teeth and chewed the rich dark meat with relish. The long cavern of Bjarni’s mead-hall was bright tonight, with the circles of lanterns drawn up on the tall white-pine pillars carved with gods and heroes that ran in a double row down the center. Light glinted off curled gripping beasts wrought into the wainscoting, off the painted shields and honed weapons racked against the walls, on tapestries that hung from the railings of the second-story gallery and stirred in the draughts. Blazing logs boomed on the fire-dogs of the great twin hearths, casting warmth and a scent of pine beneath the smells of roast pork, steaks, blood-sausage, mounded heaps of loaves, French-fried potatoes, ripe cheese, dried-fruit pies and ice-cream. Barrels stood on X-frames, ready to refill mugs and horns as the appointed valkyries went about.

Part of it was the ongoing victory-feast, part grave-ale for the fallen... and to be sure, part was the politicking that Artos himself had started, though he’d kept strictly in the background since. These Norrheimers had a straightforward approach to such things; the battlefield had been a lawful moot like their annual Althing because it held a quorum of their adults... and because it would be silly to pretend that a king’s throne didn't rest on the spearpoints of his people. He’d come to know these folk a little, and they prided themselves on common sense as much as they did on courage or stubbornness.

So Bjarni Eriksson would be king in Norrheim; Bjarni Ironrede, they were calling him now, Bjarni of the Iron Counsel. Then they’d started the real haggling. He recalled what one of the chiefs had said to Bjarni. It had been Inglief of the Hundings, he thought:

You’re a man of honor and you’ll be a good King. We have to settle what the King can and cannot do now because someday there may be a King who doesn’t respect our rights of his own will. Then we’ll need a chain of laws to hold him back, as Fenris was chained.

Right now small groups were huddled together on the benches, chiefs and prominent men and women talking quietly as they ate, a serious thread beneath the boisterous celebration around them. Bjarni had made it plain that after the third day the cost of the roast meat and bread and pastries would come out of their storehouses, not his, which gave an added incentive for haste.

Whoever had built this hall had understood acoustics; the folk on the dais could hear each other. Bjarni turned towards Artos after Fred spoke, his gold-bound horn in his hand. The fair skin of his face was flushed, but the hard cider had only put a bit of a glitter in his eye.

They may be solemn in their every-day, these Norrheimers, but by Brigid who makes the grain to grow and by Gobniu who first brewed it into beer, they can drink, and no mistake!

“Not a battalion? I have something to say to that,” the new-made king said. “Yes, and a few other things.”

He rose from the High Seat with its curly maple pillars carved in the images of hammer-wielding Thor and Sif of the golden locks, and silence gradually fell through the hall; in one or two cases when heads were rapped sharply against the tables by neighbors more sober. Harberga sat at his side, her long headdress bound with gold as yellow as her hair, love and pride and fear in her gaze on him behind an impassive public face.

“Abdou al-Naari!” Bjarni called. “Come before me, you and your son.”

The wiry corsair captain came and bowed slightly before the high seat, his hawk-featured brown face impassive, slimly elegant in the best outfit he’d had aboard his ship, sweeping over-robes of pale blue trimmed with pearls, cut at the neck and chest to show a snowy white beneath, and a turban colored indigo wound around a spiked steel helm. There was no sword at his waist, but a curved dagger in a sheath of chased silver was thrust through the silken sash. He shook back the broad sleeves of his garment and bowed again, touching brow and lips and heart with the fingers of his right hand. It was extravagantly polite and proud as an osprey’s flight, as if he were the one who sat in power dispensing favor, rather than a prisoner on probation.

Za’ima-t,” he said in his own tongue, and translated: “Lord.”

“Abdou al-Naari, you made war on my people. But after war a peace may be made. You and yours have paid were-gild duly accepted by the families of the slain. By our law, blood-price freely taken ends a feud, and you have shed your own blood by our side against a common foe.”

He laid a hand on Rudi’s shoulder for a moment. “My blood-brother made oath that you should go free with your ship if you fought with us. His honor is mine, and his pledged oath; free you shall be, and with provisions for your voyage.”

A slight pawkiness crept in, and his blue eyes held a hint of cool menace: “Your voyage home.”

Abdou smiled slightly, the inclination of his head acknowledgment of things that need not be spoken.

“My great lord is gracious beyond my due.”

“I will be the judge of what is due; so take this gift of me,” Bjarni said.

He reached up one thick arm and took a gold arm-ring, graven in sinuous abstract patterns, leaning forward and holding it out.

“As a mark that you may come in peace to Norrheim to trade, if you will. Let no more blood come between us, but guest-friendship instead.”

The Moor came forward and took the heavy ring with a graceful gesture; Artos reflected that he knew how to accept like a gentleman. He’d also obviously practiced a store of more formal English for this.

“My lord is generous as well as gracious!” he said. “May Allah, the Merciful, the Lovingkind, reward him according to his deeds.”

“And this for your son, who fought bravely in his first pitched battle, so far from his home and kin; he has shed his blood on the soil of Norrheim, and that of my enemies.”

He held out another, and the young man stepped forward, repeating his father’s gesture with a dignity more self-conscious.

Still, he carries it off well for a youngster, Artos thought. He’ll be formidable when he has his father’s years.

The elder Moor spoke: “If I come these waters again, only in peace I shall be. And my son Ahmed ibn Abdou after me. Also I shall speak of peace between his land and mine with the Emir, though I am not ruler in Dakar. This I swear by God and His Prophet, on my hope of Paradise and on my honor before my shipmates and my kin.”

His son bowed beside him, his face still a little stiff with the stitched scar that ran from ear to chin, a mark he bore with more pride than pain. Artos hid his smile; you could see the lad taking in the alien wonders of the hall and the bare-faced beauties, storing up tales he’d be telling his grandchildren about hairy barbarians he’d fought in a far land, and shameless golden-haired viragos of the frozen northlands. The Moors backed, bowed again, and then trooped out as courteous and graceful as cats. He nodded; they couldn’t really join the feast, being theoretically forbidden strong drink, and unwilling to eat many of the local foods in theory and practice both. There would be more goodwill this way. Perhaps there would be peace between their breed and the Norrheimers, perhaps not, but in either case it would be the normal friendship or enmity of men and men’s concerns, the things of common day.

And not that thing which speaks through the CUT and its like. I did a better deed than I knew when I rescued Kalksthorpe from the corsairs, and them from the man who misled them.

A buzz went down the long benches; comment, and approval in the main. Bjarni waited until it ran down; he’d been handing out golden rings for the past three days, reward and gifts of honor both.

What the ancient world called medals, eh?

Artos leaned over to speak softly to Harberga. “He’s a stout warrior, your man, and a cunning war-chief, and careful of his honor. But he’s careful of the honor of others as well, no hothead who reaches for his sword as his first resort, no lover of blood. And he knows the strength of his folk is best built by their labors in peace, not by glory or plunder, so a wise King serves them by standing as the shield that lets each reap what he sows. What a praise-song my mother could have made for him!”

Harberga turned her head slightly to answer him. “From what I hear, you could have had the throne as easily as him, if you’d stretched out your hand for it.”

Artos shrugged. “This is your land, and I have my own,” he said.

Which is the truth, and more polite than saying I wouldn't have Norrheim on a bet!

There was a stark beauty here, but he wanted to be home. For a moment he was standing looking through mountain mists at the glowing checkerboard of the Willamette country gold to the harvest, and the pain of it was like cold steel in is chest. He wanted to be home, to hear the speech and see the ways of his own folk in his own land.

I wouldn’t have great Iowa itself in exchange, much less this frigid remoteness.

Then he forced lightness into his voice:

“In Montival I must be High King, for the land’s sake and to do the will of the Powers. Given my own way I’d stay at home and farm and hunt with no thought for anything but the harvest and the Wheel of the Year.”

She snorted slightly. “Wyrd may weave many things for you, atheling, but to sit peacefully in your hall is not the Orløg which will rule your days, I think. And I think you praise my Bjarni—praise him truthfully, mind you—by giving him the virtues you hope for in yourself.”

Mathilda hugged his other arm with hers for a moment; he turned his fingers to interleave with hers as she spoke:

“And he has what he hopes for. He will be a great king, and make Montival great in turn!”

Harberga looked across him at her and smiled at the passionate belief in the younger woman’s voice, but with a little sadness in the expression.

“He will,” she said. “And you will have to share your man with a throne all the days of your lives together, sister. As will I, now. Power will be a cold and thankless third head on your pillow.”

Mathilda smiled a little and shook her head. “He was born to be a King; it will complete him. And my father and mother were rulers before me, and his before him as well. It’s... it’s the family trade on both sides.”

By then the hall was quiet again, and Bjarni’s voice rang through it:

“The true folk have hailed me. I am King! Does any man here dispute it?”

His eyes scanned the benches, cold and considering, lingering on each godhi who headed one of the Norrheimer tribes. Silence enough this time that the crackle of burning wood was the loudest sound.

“We have yet to hammer out all the metes and bounds of what it means to be King in Norrheim. But one thing is not in dispute; it is for the King to call the folk to war, and to lead them against foreign enemies.”

Further down the hall someone cried him hail as victor. He flung up a hand.

“No! What’s the saying of the High One: Call no man lucky ‘till he’s dead? So we shouldn’t call any King victorious until the war is over. And this war is not. We have won a victory, in a battle greater than any my father fought in the land-taking. But the Bekwa were only the point of a spear in another’s hands.”

“The trollkjerring,” someone said.

“Yes. And he was one of many, in the service of their ruler far to the west, in what the old world called Montana.”

“The wolf gapes ever at the gates of the Gods...” murmured Heidhveig.

Bjarni nodded respectfully. “True, holy Seidhkona. So we have won a victory, but not a war. If we sit here eating roast pork and guzzling beer and telling each other how brave we were, other armies will come against us in the end, ones we will have no hope of defeating. Led by sorcerers. I will not leave to my children work I feared to do myself! My blood-brother Artos Mikesson, High King in Montival, goes west to fight that war. Are we of Norrheim such cowards, such nithings, that we will let him go fight it alone and without any help of ours, after he and his sworn band aided us? I tell you now, that if the kingdom will not help him, then I will—my word binds me, sworn in this hall on the Oath-Swine of the Bjornings. And a King’s public oath is laid in the well of Wyrd and binds the fate of all his people.”

A murmur, and then Ingleif of the Hundings rose. “Lord, you are King. Your honor no man doubts and your words do you credit. Much of what you say is true, though these are strange matters; but I will not dispute what the holy Seidhkona says of the Gods’ wishes for true folk. Yet we cannot march the levy of Norrheim across the whole wide world! It’s not to be thought of. There are our homes to guard, and we can’t take that many men out of the fields for long or everyone will go hungry. We haven’t settled the term of a war-levy, but it won’t be years at one time.”

What exactly does Bjarni have in mind? Artos thought, slightly alarmed. Fred’s thought gives us a way... but I can’t haul an army all the way through the dead lands to the Mississippi! Getting a substantial force from Iowa to the theatre of war will be hard enough.

Bjarni stood with the thumb of his right hand hooked through the broad belt that cinched his waist; the buckle was a gold-and-jet dragon’s head, and the sinuous designs tooled into the black leather made it a serpent like Jörmungandr, the World Snake that Thor lifted. Harberga’s hands had woven the crimson wool of his coat, and embroidered it with curving gripping beasts in gold and sliver thread along collar and cuffs and hems. His shoulder-length hair was held back by a golden band. He looked every inch the King now.

Syfrid of the Hrossings rose as Ingleif sat. “As godhi Ingleif says, our King is a man of honor. And as our King says, his oath to the... valiant stranger... Artos Mikesson... binds the fate of the Kingdom and the folk. Even in a matter so distant as wars a world away.”

“It does,” Bjarni said, his voice hard. “For the lord and the land and the folk are one.”

“But Ingleif is also right. We cannot march a war-levy that far. What is needed is a picked band of strong fighters. And who better to lead it than our victorious young King? The more so as we already have an heir.”

Harberga’s face might have been carved from fine-grained birchwood, but her breath hissed out. Bjarni smiled slightly as he nodded.

“You were always a right-hand man to my father, godhi of the Hrossings, and for your wisdom as well as the blows of your ax. What better way for Norrheim to show its united strength than to send its best to fight the common foe of men and Gods?”

Carrying off the King you hailed against your will, and his strongest supporters, Artos thought, glancing at Syfrid casually. And leaving you as much time as you need to do whatever you wish here at home; or if Bjarni were not to return... well, much may happen before a babe grows to a man’s strength.

Bjarni’s grin made Syfrid blink. “And that band must include men of every tribe. And their chiefs, when those are noted men of war... such as yourself, Syfrid Jerrysson.”

There was another pause. This time the buzz held an ever-so-slight undertone of amusement, though nobody dared smile to Syfrid’s thunderous face. He couldn’t possibly refuse, not without branding himself a coward among this warrior folk, or treacherous and so hated of their Gods—Gods who valued a man’s sworn oath above all else.

Is the Hrossing so simple? Rudi thought. I’d thought him a cunning man, and a bad foe.

Evidently he thought loudly. Mathilda still had his hand; she leaned close to whisper in his ear.

“No, Rudi, he’s not stupid. But he’s no genius either, and he was a man in his prime when Bjarni was still a little boy of six, in the year of the Change.”

“Ah,” Artos said.

That explains it. Bjarni is a lad to him still, not a man of thirty with children of his own. Not in his inner heart. And so he underestimated him, expecting rashness and vainglory. There is a lesson I will remember well. And another that I learned long ago; my Matti has wits enough for both of us.

 

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Copyright © 2009-2010 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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