In the Great Game, it became something of a standing joke that you shouldn’t invade Norway, because of the harsh logistics. EU2 has really bad attrition for mountain provinces in winter. Geir is about to find out why.
December 15th, 1075
It is no joke to fight in Norway in the winter. Geir had heard the aphorism many times, had even pronounced it himself, approvingly, in late-night discussions of strategy and old wars. He had thought he understood it, too; after all he had been out on exercise in the mountains many times; when he was 14, he’d crossed the Jotunheim on skis, alone. Two of his classmates had died in that initiation. But they had been glass-fiber skis, and he’d had uptime thermal gear, and a lightweight backpack containing all sorts of useful items like a good map! Now he was going out to hunt men on wooden skis smeared with pigfat, dressed in heavy furs dampened by sweat, with no better map than the memories of local guides. But another saying was relevant: Needs must when the devil drives.
You couldn’t really blame the rebels. There was only so much grain grown in Norway; it would feed only just so many people; and when men went to war over who should be King, fields would be trampled, or untended, or burned, and ships that should be out fishing or trading would carry warriors to battle, and bring in no calories. Then there would not be enough food for all; and it is a rare man, especially in a warrior culture, who will not steal and kill to feed his children. So you got these little bands of rebel bandits, driven off their seized or burnt-out lands, hiding out in the hills, living by hunting when they could and stealing when they had to. You couldn’t blame them, no. But you had to exterminate them; there was only so much grain grown in a year, and it was needed to feed the Hird, and the women who would produce the next generation of warriors. And so Geir found himself out in the cold, hunting a band who had driven off twenty head of cattle. It was irony, if you looked at it right: Here was Norway, the destined thousand-year Realm; and here was Geir, its guiding spirit, the best-trained soldier in the world, with utterly priceless skills. And the best use that the one could make of the other was to send him out in the snow to hunt a score of scraggly cows! But there it was: The rebellion had been costly, the treasury and the granaries were empty, and those cows were the difference between malnutrition and actual starvation for the children who would be warriors in twenty years. And so: Needs must when the devil drives.
There was no way for the rebels to cover the tracks of twenty cows through the snow, and they had to know they’d be pursued; that meant they thought they could deal with the pursuit, which meant they’d be lying in ambush somewhere. That crag there, for example, would be a splendid place to hide some archers, to surprise the pursuers and pin their attention while a main force charged from the copse on the other side. But they’d passed a dozen ambush sites as good or better already. That was the thing about Norwegian terrain, for the defender it just kept on giving. You couldn’t scout out every possible attack site, there were just too many of them and you would be lucky to advance a mile in a day. All you could do was – Geir smiled grimly as the first arrows arched out – train to recognise what the most probable enemy action was, and have an order ready to deal with it. That was what Yngling schooling did, and he was the only man in the world who had gone through a formal course in it – although learning by doing was not a bad plan, to be sure. But not good enough. Harald’s and Jon’s squads peeled off towards the crag to deal with the archers, while the rest turned in response to Geir’s snapped order to deal with – yep, there they were – the bandits sweeping down the slope from the forest.
It was a strange sort of fight; you couldn’t really maneuver on skis, but you couldn’t very well fight thigh-deep in snow, either. The bandits had an initial advantage of momentum since they were coming downhill, but it wasn’t like a cavalry charge that could bowl men over or make them run; when bandit crashed into hirdmann, both fell over. Then they’d both struggle to get up, or one would chop at the other awkwardly, without the strength that comes from proper leverage. In other cases the bandit would pull up, and combat became a series of duels without footwork, just slashing and thrusting until a man’s shield arm grew too tired, or he was battered out of balance and fell; then he was easy prey. The hirdsmenn had all the advantage there; they had not camped out in snow and cold for months on end, and had eaten recently and well. And when one man downed his opponent, he would shuffle over to aid his friend next in line, and rapidly win that uneven match; so victory spread swiftly along the line. The bandits’ only real chance had been for the hirdmenn to be distracted by the archers, so their first swift onrush would have fallen on men looking the other way; but Geir had prevented that, and the outcome was sudden and deadly.
Fighting wasn’t the end of it, though. There were wounded to be bandaged and sent back, one with an arrow through his thigh, who would have to be carried. They might survive; one advantage of the cold and snow was that there were relatively few bacteria about, and no dirt had gotten in the wounds. Then there were bandits to be put out of their misery with a quick slash across the throat; there was no food for them, and that was an end to the matter. And then there were still the cows to track down.
The bandits’ camp turned out to be another three hours away, where a small stream ran down from the mountains and formed a plain. There was no resistance; the bandits had put every fighting man – and not a few fighting boys – into their ambush, and it had failed. Geir watched impassively as the women were raped. Most of them didn’t really resist, perhaps thinking that their captors might show mercy. Some of them did, too, coming before Geir and arguing that this or that woman was a hard worker and could be taken back; then it was his job to look them – recent widows, desperate enough to spread their legs for their husbands’ killers – in the huge eyes that stared out of thin faces, and kill, instantly and without mercy. There wasn’t food for them; taking them home was merely to condemn someone else to a slower, nastier death. By the time they were done, the snow ran red and brown, and Geir was sick to his stomach; but he took care to show no sign of that. Some of the men were pale and drawn around the eyes; it is not easy for a man to kill a woman he has just lain with, even though she was unwilling. But they had to be hard, and it would be easier for them if their commander showed no weakness. Perhaps next time they would not be so eager for their privileges. No way around that, either; an enemy’s women were fair game, and had been even in the great wars of the uptime. Who would be an Yngling if there was no gain in war? You could place limits on what soldiers could do, but not without limiting their independence; and then you had to recruit them by other means. And the Yngling form of society absolutely required that every free man be a warrior and soldier. You could have Ynglings, truly free men; or soldiers with limits imposed from above on what loot they could take; but not both. Usually Geir thought it a reasonable trade; an Yngling is free, as a wolf or a forest fire is free, and it was worth while to have such men and women in the universe. But sometimes, as now, when he had to drive a sword through the throat of a pregnant woman pleading for mercy – sometimes he wasn’t so sure.