There Will Be War: Gulating

I still had the Kinslayer trait, which meant I couldn’t assign any vassals, which meant my economy was in the toilet from the efficiency penalty. No vassals, that is, unless they had a strong loyalty bonus from being related to the King; and by this time I had quite a few otherwise-useless daughters sitting about. Of course, you have to sell this to the Westmen in some way.

April, 1076
Gulating plain, north of Bergen

After winter, spring. After civil war, rebuilding. There were thin faces and haunted eyes among the west-men who had come to hold Ting with Olaf; but they did their business briskly enough, without the hints of threat and ostentatious wearing of weapons that had been commonplace in previous years. The civil war had killed hundreds – Geir was briefly amused at how his thinking had rescaled; uptime, that would have been considered a particularly low death rate just from duels, never mind border skirmishes and factory risings – and left farms and fisheries untended. There was hardly a family in the west that didn’t have someone to mourn. But it had also settled matters, and the Norse were nothing if not pragmatic about such things. They had given rebellion their best shot and failed, and now Olaf was undoubted King in Norway, bad temper and insulting ways or none.

Still, there were kings and Kings. Olaf’s writ ran during spring because he was present in person, and had taken his hirdsmenn along; who knew what might happen in summer and autumn? It was one thing to hammer peace and submission out of an exhausted province, another to build a consensus that would serve as a fundament for an empire of a thousand years. Even Ynglings ruled, ultimately, by consent – largely the consent of their own children to be used as elite soldiers and secret police in the never-ending struggle against rebellion, but consent nonetheless. That was why Geir was meeting these farmers – you couldn’t call them rich, not anymore, but they were what was left of the elite of the area. Their word would carry weight.

Gulating plain didn’t actually have any back rooms, and there wouldn’t be tobacco here for another four hundred years (or ever, if the uptime Ynglings had anything to say about it). But the sense of it was the same; decisions affecting all the land would be made here, in secret, not in the open channels available to anyone. Geir was a little saddened by that; the fledgling democracy here had its good points. Making the right decisions for a thousand-year realm wasn’t among them, though; and needs must when the devil drives. The small folk would be ground into the stril class anyway over the next few hundred years, and the elite absorbed by marriage; he was only anticipating the eventual form of government.

He nodded briefly to the men he’d sounded out in the previous days; these Norse appreciated brevity, so there was no use starting gently. “We are all here. How shall we avoid another rising?”

The farmers stood silently, some leaning on the axes that were weapons and all-purpose tools here, some with arms crossed and hostile stares. Geir had to restrain his instinct to meet such a challenge with a shout and a killing leap, reminding himself firmly that these were not strils and had the right to look him in the eye if they wanted to. Some of his reaction must have made it through anyway, for two of the hostile ones looked away, flustered. Fortunately the moment didn’t stretch; the farmers had elected a spokesman.

“First, why does the King not speak for himself, in open Ting?”

The real answer was the Olaf would get into a temper over any resistance, and leave these men plotting rebellion, assassination, or emigration; clearly honesty was not the way to build consensus here. Fortunately he had a good half-truth prepared. “The King prefers not to have to shout over every half-bright crofter in the land. He’d rather deal with a few men of breeding and good sense.” Flattering them, and skirting the issue of why Geir and not Olaf was doing the talking; but it seemed to work. The spokesman nodded brusquely.

“Fine. What does Olaf want?”

“Peace in the land, so he can turn east and south.”

“And if we give it to him, and he takes land-tax of the Swedes, what’s to prevent him from repudiating his word with new wealth?”

That was the trouble, right enough. The Norse weren’t what you would call sophisticated politicians, but they understood checks and balances. And grudges. And they took thought for their heirs; peace in Olaf’s time was one thing, but what of his sons?

“In time, the West-land will recover its strength. The Father of Battle gives no man victory forever.” Which was true, and a real problem; but also misleading. The hardscrabble west of Norway just couldn’t support a population large enough to hold its own against the agricultural east, not in the long run. But downtimers didn’t think like that; most of them really believed Odin gave victory to the side with the bravest men. The spokesman grunted, half-doubtful.

“Mmm. Maybe. Still, it’s better to have peace within the land. If there are strong grievances in the west, then the King will have to turn his ships here, and who knows what might happen? The Swedes don’t enjoy paying land-tax any more than we do. Better if the west is content.”

A very cogent point, that. And even in uptime, the regions of Norway had retained some of their ancient privileges and separate laws. Centralising had to be done slowly. But Geir wasn’t negotiating for himself, either; Olaf wouldn’t take kindly to giving away too much of what he’d won at such cost.

“That’s true. What are your grievances?”

“Olaf has taken the best farms for himself, and not given them out. How can we follow a man who is not generous even with his own?”

Geir’s first impulse was to shrug; vae victis. Nobody had forced them to rebel. But fair was fair. Olaf ought to be handing out those farms to men of his, who would eventually develop local ties and become west-men themselves; that was the way of things here. Instead he had announced that he would run the farms with stewards, who would not own the land and whose incomes would therefore be in Olaf’s gift. That would give him reliable support in the west, as well as extra income, while reducing the number of warriors the west could support, since those farms would send their profit east. It was a slow, subtle way to centralise things. Or so Geir had thought. Perhaps his idea hadn’t been so brilliant after all; but he’d convinced Olaf, and trying to unconvince him once he had the bit between his teeth was a fine way to be presented with a small farm in the uplands and a strong hint about plowing needing supervision.

“The King does not, I fear, take kindly to advice on how to run his own affairs.”

The spokesman – Bjarne, his name was – shrugged. “Well then, what’s to speak of? There will be war, that’s all. Not for ten years, perhaps, but some time. Such is fate; no man can evade his weird.”

As a veteran bluffer and bullshitter himself, Geir would have liked to applaud, except that it was clear Bjarne was not bluffing. He was right, too. Geir had been moving too fast even while he tried to be subtle, and had underestimated the downtimers. The problem was, this was a point he really couldn’t concede on; it wasn’t in his power to convince Olaf to give out lands here. Except, perhaps…

“That is true; but perhaps there is another way. Suppose the King were to give lands here to his daughter Ragnhild, to hold for the Yngling family by udal (1) right?”

There was a long pause while the farmers thought it over. He was giving them what they wanted, sort of, but they had expected a man of the warrior class, one of their own, whom they could co-opt by marriage, by the mutual aid that was necessary for survival, and by simply being social and friendly. On the other hand, a daughter of the King made a splendid hostage, though that was a weapon to be used only in the most desperate of circumstances. For his part, Geir was conceding the maximum he could convince the king of, and advancing his agenda at the same time: Establishing that the Ynglings had special rights, including udal right to the estates of defeated rebels, but giving the local magnates some say in matters. Especially since the daughter would marry eventually, and the land would then pass to her husband, who would be co-opted into the Yngling power-structure. Slow nods went around the circle.

“Very well, that is enough. Let the King proclaim it tomorrow, and we will be satisfied.”

The meeting broke up as quickly as it had formed, each going to his own. Spring was in the air, and there was much to be done.

[1] Don’t blame me, this is apparently the correct English spelling of ‘odel’. It’s presumably cognate with ‘feudal’, its opposite.

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