There Will Be War: King Olaf’s Court

Yet more prologue, now also with Yngling fighting techniques!

Bergen fjord, off Kvarven
January, 1067

It was customary for Ynglings coming to the capital of the Realm to break into song when they rounded Kvarven and the city proper came into sight for the first time; but Geir was in no mood for taking his cithar, new-tuned or not, in hand. He had expected it, of course, had consciously prepared himself not to see the vast, brooding industrial city he had grown up in, where the factories climbed far up mountainsides denuded of trees, and a population of three millions burrowed deep into the granite for space and protection against nuclear attack. But even so… it was so small! A few hundred houses, if you wanted to call them that – shacks, by any civilised standard. The west side of the bay showed occasional farms cutting into virgin forest. Even the contours of the sea were different, where a millennium of landfill had not taken place. By the time his hired fishing boat dumped him on the pitiful little wooden quay two hundred meters inland of where Bryggen should have been, Geir was deep in culture shock.

HÃ¥kon’s Hall was two hundred years in the future, but a bigger-and-better log house stood in roughly the right location; Geir recognised a chief’s dwelling from the briefings. There was even security, of sorts: Several heavily armed, bored-looking men stood about at the entrance to the hall. One of them challenged Geir politely: “Hail, stranger. What brings you here?” He spoke the harsh Norse with a different intonation from the fishermen, an upper-class dialect perhaps. Geir suppressed the urge to give the heart-to-fist salute and crisp “Geir Jonsson, Ynglinga Hird, reporting to Olaf Haraldson as ordered” that would have been his response to internal security in the uptime world. Instead he replied “I am Geir Jonsson. I’ve come to seek service with King Olaf.”

The other man nodded in a not-unfriendly way. There were few other reasons for a man of the warrior class to come alone to a king’s hall. “You’re in luck then, the king is wintering here. You’ll find him at the high table; I think he’ll make a space for you.” Geir blinked a little at this unexpected respect and helpfulness, then realised that he was at least half a foot taller than any of the other men, and more fit to boot. He consciously reined in his dominance projection a bit; these would be comrades-in-arms, of a sort, and it wouldn’t do to offend them. Besides, he couldn’t very well treat the king like a stril, to be overawed or killed. “Thank you,” he nodded to the man as he passed.

The hall was dark, but with a heat that was welcome after the raw chill outside. Perhaps a hundred people, mostly men, sat on benches on either side of the long fire, drinking and talking; the thin beer wouldn’t make anyone drunk at the pace they were going, but there was little else to do in winter. Or so they thought, at any rate; if Geir had anything to say about it, these lazy slugs would find themselves drilling morning and evening. But it would be some time yet before that was possible.

The king was easy enough to spot, that was the purpose of the high seat. “A stout man, well grown in limbs; and every one said a handsomer man could not be seen, nor of a nobler appearance. ” Geir was not so impressed – or well-paid – as the saga writer had been, his standards being perhaps higher, and not running to scraggly, greasy beards. It didn’t help that the king had clearly been hitting the beer more heavily than most of those around him, and was sitting a bit askew in his seat. He wasn’t too drunk to sit up straight when Geir approached, though. A stranger was a novelty here, and any novelty welcome in the middle of winter.

“Ho. The gods send us tall men for guesting today,” the king cried, clearly in a good mood. “Or are you a giant come down from the hills for our sheep?” This to Geir himself. “Whichever, be welcome at our hearth. What is your name?”

“I am Geir Jonsson; and I am no giant, but a man come to seek service of King Olaf.”

“Hmm. These are peaceful times for Norway; but I can always use a strong man in my service. Still, you look as though you can eat for two; can you fight for as many?”

“Well, Sire King; name three men of your guards, and we shall wrestle, and see who is still standing at the end.” Geir felt himself falling into the formal speech of saga in response to the King’s jest, and damned the dizziness at the back of his mind. This was no time for culture shock, curse it. But this was altogether too much like being a player in a historical drama: He couldn’t help but feel that nothing was quite real, that at any moment the director would scream “Cut!” and berate him for delivering such a stilted line. That was a dangerous frame of mind to get into when he was about to fight.

“That is bravely spoken,” the king replied, “but come, no man shall say I am unfair. If you can fight for two, that is enough no matter how much you eat! Here : Ketil, Torvald, see if he can wrestle as well as he boasts.” The two men named wasted no time, rising to their feet and charging at Geir without further ado. The rest of the hall began shouting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” Geir could see he was going to be popular here, this was clearly the best entertainment anyone had had all day.

Ordinarily Geir would have met such clumsy attacks with crippling kicks to the kneecaps, but he had specified wrestling, and wasn’t sure if such a move was allowed. Besides, these men no doubt had friends and relatives; best not to do anything too permanent, then. Anyway, the crowd clearly wanted a show, not a massacre. Instead he sprinted at the one on his left – Ketil, he decided – meeting his charge head-on – or almost. At the last moment he shifted right, grabbing the other man by the arms and using their combined angular momentum to fling them both around. Geir was the heavier, and had been expecting the move; thus he was able to keep his feet while redirecting Ketil’s charge ninety degrees – straight into Torvald. They collided noisily. While they were still disoriented, Geir followed, grabbing Ketil’s arm from behind, then turning and using the arm as a lever to throw the man over his back, to hit the rush-strewn floor with a resounding thud. Geir whirled to meet Torvald, but he needn’t have worried – there were no Ynglings here, or such showy tactics would have seen him dead already. Torvald was still recovering from the collision with Ketil, and offered no resistance when Geir barged into him and inserted a foot behind his ankle for a trip.

Now there was silence in the room. If Geir had been fighting full force it would have taken three seconds rather than the ten it had actually lasted; but to the crowd, it was still a magically swift and deadly match. Geir turned to the king: “Nu, Sire, I did not say three for an empty boast. But you have said two will be enough. Is it well?”

The king took a moment to recover, but then he broke into a smile. “Enough, and well enough! Come forward then, Geir Jonson; you shall have service of me, and a gold ring besides. Such a fight I think I’ve rarely seen!”

Geir resumed his walk towards the high seat, feeling a little less disoriented with the familiar sensation of adrenaline pumping through his blood. Even so, he was rather disappointed in this man, the mythic King Olaf. Drunk already, with the sun still in the winter sky! As he came closer, he realised/remembered with a shock that the king was younger than himself. He’ll be seventeen later this year, he thought, and almost fell over as the dizziness worsened. He, Geir Jonsson, was actually ten years older than King Olaf! And worse, he was about to swear fealty to the drunken little brat!

He knelt down before the king with some relief; his knees hadn’t been entirely steady for the last few steps. King Olaf took Geir’s hands in his own, and recited the oath of fealty in a loud clear voice, not slurred at all. Holds his beer well, at least, Geir thought, slightly contemptuous. Then he looked into the king’s eyes, and froze. Nothing else about the boy was really king-like, or even Yngling-like. But the eyes… Somewhere in them, far in the back perhaps, a fire burned. Geir looked into that fire, and saw the nature of his race: The greed, the will to power, the unbridled violence. The arrogance that can brook no rival or equal. They were hidden, in Olaf; but they were there, perhaps more so than in any Yngling Geir had ever met. In most, the fire was banked, satisfied and dimmed by civilisation and the day-to-day dominance over strils that was any Yngling’s birthright. But in the king, it burned furiously, raw with the untamed strength of an illiterate. It would need only a little encouragement to burst forth like a volcano, making cinders of all in its path. Geir smiled as he said the words of the oath, knowing what motto he would teach the king.

It is intolerable. It shall not stand.

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One response to “There Will Be War: King Olaf’s Court

  1. Pingback: Children of the Fatherland: Introduction | Ynglinga Saga

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