There Will Be War: The Right to Duel

It’s worth pointing out that duels were legal over most of Europe until well after the Napoleonic wars, and that as late as the 1960s police chiefs in small rural towns in America might deal with particularly obstreperous pairs of teenage boys by giving them some boxing gloves and taking them out to somewhere isolated.

December 14th, 1100
Viken, Norway

By downtime standards, Geir was old; and his bones agreed with the local verdict. Log houses lit by open fires did not make for graceful aging, nor did campaigning in open ships and winter weather. So December found him in front of the fireplace in his manor – a much-copied innovation; he could only hope stone chimneys weren’t on the list of things that would benefit Europe and not Norway – writing, slowly, a letter to his sons. As he grew older, he longed more and more for the machines of his youth, things he hadn’t thought of in more than thirty years; sometimes he wondered if he were merely dreaming, retreating into a senile old age by inventing wondrous devices to do the things he could not. At such times he was glad to see Anja, to speak with her of the things only they, in all the world, knew of, and restore his faith in his own mind. But most days he found it best to avoid her; to cement her anomalous stature as a fighting woman, she had attracted a band of rough near-outlaws, younger sons and rebellious daughters, men escaping the law in their upland villages, people whom even loose Norwegian society only just tolerated, and who thus had little to lose from attaching themselves to a woman with wild ideas. Geir had done his recruiting among respectable elder sons and the upper classes, and there was often friction between their bands – especially now that his sons did the active fighting; they did not understand why he still valued Anja’s friendship.

So Geir was surprised when Ragnar, his youngest son, brought Sigurd to see him; Olaf’s son, reacting against his father, was firmly under Anja’s thumb and in her faction. They exchanged the polite greetings of warrior-class men, which Geir got these days mainly by courtesy; there was only so much training and will could do with sixty-year old bones, but men still remembered Man-biter, and feared his sons. Then Sigurd got down to business: “I have come to ask you to stand at my side when I go to an island with Narve Ketilson.”

Geir raised his brows. “Holmgang has been forbidden out of living memory. Why do you want to break your father’s law?”

“As to that I will keep my own counsel; it is only on Anja’s advice that I came here to ask you. Will you stand by me? She seemed to think you would, but perhaps she was mistaken.”

Geir thought about it. He understood now: Anja was seeking to re-establish the duel as a legitimate means of settling disputes for the warrior caste, which was one of their objectives in the downtime. She was early; duels were dangerous, and they weren’t supposed to introduce them before there was a large Yngling population that could take the occasional loss. But Anja had never been one to take kindly to being thwarted, and Olaf’s judgement against her still rankled. No doubt she had egged Sigurd on in whatever teenaged quarrel he was having with Narve; in fact, knowing her, she’d probably been encouraging both sides. It was clever, too: If the King’s own son fought in a holmgang, surely Olaf would not enforce the law; and if he didn’t do so, that would be a chink through which other duels could slip. And likewise, if Geir Jonsson, who was well respected – a name-strong man, as they said – supported the duel by standing at Sigurd’s side, and spoke against enforcing the law in the Ting afterwards, then the breach of custom would become all the more acceptable. Geir nodded mentally in respect for Anja’s machinations; she wasn’t a nice woman by any means, but she did have brains. And not much respect for plans and schedules laid out in vanished uptime documents, apparently. What next, steam engines? Still, duels were necessary to a free people…

“It is not fitting to support a man without knowing the rights of the matter. Speak your grievance, or go home without my promise.”

Sigurd flushed. “Very well, then! Narve has given me insult to my face; he has spoken ill of Gunnhild because she would not sleep with him; and he taunts that I dare not face him, but hide behind my father’s skirts.”

Geir nodded again to himself; as he had thought, a typical winter quarrel brought on by boredom and darkness. Without Anja to blow on the embers, it would have come to a fistfight, or at most drunken knife-fighting and some blood drawn. It was no good reason for a duel, even by the prickly standards of uptime Ynglings – though in fairness, few uptimers would have tested the matter by giving insult in such a fashion; they were usually a polite lot, of necessity if not by choice. But for establishing the principle that duels might be fought, well, that was another question entirely. It was a good cause. Free men needed duels, needed the ultimate sanction of violence against another’s actions, or they were not free at all, but puppets of wealth and politics.

Anja had the right of it; but something in Geir rebelled. He looked more closely at Sigurd. The boy was clearly angry; in his eyes Geir saw the old, wild fire that he had glimpsed thirty years before in Olaf, the Yngling greed that would look at the Sun and say “Mine!”, and kill any who got in the way. Anja had perhaps not needed to encourage him very much. But underneath that… underneath, Geir saw a deep unhappiness, a desperate hope that Geir would somehow get him out of this. Sigurd and Narve had been friends once, Geir recalled; and might be again if this quarrel could be healed. Probably they were both unsure how things had come to be so bad between them, and looking for some way to back down without losing face. Abruptly Geir made up his mind; duels were important, but they were not worth making a decent young man kill his friend over some harsh words spoken in winter.

“That is no good reason for a holmgang; a killing is a serious matter. They say in Ting sometimes, “He fell on his own deeds”; but I have yet to hear it said “He fell on his own words”. But this I will do: If you and Narve come here tomorrow, I will hear your quarrel, if you both are willing, and try to heal it.”

Sigurd blinked; arbitration by powerful third parties was a common way to settle disputes, and he would no doubt have thought of it himself if not for his hormones confusing him; Geir could practically see him thinking “Now why didn’t Anja suggest that?” He wasn’t stupid, for all he was confused by pride and youth; in a day or two it would no doubt occur to him that the advice of women who wanted him to fight might not be completely disinterested – though Anja’s motives would probably remain a closed book. With a bit of luck, he might even be disentangled from Anja’s faction and come over to Geir’s… Liberals? With a start Geir realised that he and Anja had indeed recreated the old Liberal/Radical split from their uptime politics, both agreeing on the ends they wanted, but with the Liberals unwilling to use certain means. Geir wanted a nation of free people of his own blood, well and good; but – his resolve firmed – he was not willing to use young Sigurd as a pawn to achieve that end. It is intolerable, he thought with dark humour. It shall not stand.

Sigurd had been thinking it over; the anger in his face was mingled with hope now. “I think it is perhaps too late for that; but it is well spoken. I will try it.”

December 15th, 1100
Viken, Norway

They had been arguing for an hour when Anja arrived. Geir could feel them making progress; hearing their grievances spoken out loud, in the presence of others not inclined to egging them on, both boys were realising how petty their feud actually was, and wondering how they could have thought it worth killing for. He hadn’t really had to do anything other than give them a pretext for settling things sensibly; another hour or so, and he’d be able to make a judgement of an “Some fault on both sides; shake hands and make up” nature, and both would accept it. That was when Anja joined the proceedings.

She was not being subtle; as she passed down the benches towards Geir, every male in the room reacted to her presence. Only Geir realised that she was fighting unfair; the pheromones she was exuding couldn’t be smelled at the conscious level, but she must have practically bathed in the stuff. Even Geir felt the effect, a rushing fight-flight-sex fizz through his old veins. The downtimers, younger, and unaware of what was causing their reaction, stirred restlessly on their benches, excited; Geir could feel the mood shift from reconciliation and politics to mating struggle. Here and there hands shifted to daggers, and wetted lips unconsciously drew back from teeth. Just walking down the room, drenched in her uptime technology, Anja had shifted the battlefield from the rational forebrain, back to regions where the old ape ruled, where tooth and claw determined who should keep all the females to himself, and who be thrown out of the pack to eke out an existence among the lions. It was a very Yngling thing to do, an appeal to older rules of power and status, and Geir could only applaud the maneuver while watching helplessly as the two factions again congealed into hostility.

Even so, it was a gamble. If Geir were to cry ‘witch’ at this moment, every male in the room would believe him utterly, and leap to the attack. In doing so he’d break the continuity of Yngling manipulation of the timeline; whoever arrived in 1116 would be making his own way. But Anja couldn’t know whether he’d consider that more important than winning the issue at hand. And even without that, the fighting instinct was a dangerous weapon; she might turn Sigurd against Narve again, yes – she was already doing that – but humans are not machines controlled by their hormones. A bright lad, able to see past his reaction to her presence even for a moment, to realise what she was doing and warn the other, could undo the entire scheme. But Anja seized her initiative perfectly; before anyone could react at an intellectual level, she went on the attack.

“Is this how a man of the west fights?” The question was addressed to Narve, who flushed. Officially he was a fosterling at the King’s court, here to learn how a real ruler did things. Unofficially, he was a hostage for his father’s good behaviour; after the western rising early in his reign, Olaf was not inclined to take things on trust. Narve disliked being a pawn in that struggle, and he disliked even more that his side had lost the war. Disparaging western fighting strength was going straight for the jugular; Anja was pulling no punches today.

Before he could respond, she turned to Sigurd: “I’m not surprised to see a king’s son fight thus. But I thought better of you.” That was again going for the throat; if there was anything Sigurd hated, it was being thought to take advantage of being the King’s son, or hiding behind his father.

Even so, there are few men who will go swiftly from talking to fighting. Much uptime training was devoted to removing the hesitation to kill, to make young Ynglings able to switch instantly to fighting mode and land a deadly blow in the few tenths of a second while an opponent was still making up his mind. But neither Sigurd or Narve had had that training, and they both hesitated, hands on swords, breathing heavily but eyeing each other warily. Nobody likes taking on another strong warrior in a fair fight. Anja needed something more, a final provocation to cut out rational hesitation and make the hindbrain take over. She provided it swiftly, building on her momentum: “Outside is a circle of ox-hide. I will go out of this old man’s house; and if there is any man here who is not a coward, he will follow me, and fight for his rights.” She turned and began walking to the door, swaying slightly. It hung in the balance for a moment. Geir rose to his feet, shouting “Hold!” – Anja’s effect was diminishing as the distance increased, her gamble might still fail – and then some idiot in the rear tipped it over by rising and beginning to chant, “Narve! Narve!” That settled it; the room erupted in the shouts of the factions, and both boys began walking down the aisle after Anja, towards their weird.


The fight was brief. The boys had taken their positions in the ox-hide circle, and drawn swords at Anja’s command. Neither tried any clever feints; they both sprang forward, shields first, just as they had been trained – shield-wall tactics, not meant for a duel, but effective enough for all that. The shields met with a boom, and both boys staggered, off balance; Sigurd recovered first, and thrust his sword into Narve’s lung, fatally uncovered for a moment as his shield arm drooped. Narve fell, despair and shock and a complete loneliness on his face; but with his last breath he managed to swing at Sigurd, who was too elated to keep his guard up properly. The sword bit deeply into his thigh, cutting across the grain of the muscle. Sigurd fell too, an equal surprise on his face, and their respective followers rushed forward to tend them. Narve spoke no last words, as in saga; only an undignified struggle to breathe through a punctured lung, and a rattle of blood on the lips.

December 16th, 1100
Viken, Norway

The King’s hall was grim; usually the fires and lamps made it fairly well-lit and cheerful by downtime standards, even in winter, but now Olaf’s dark mood was infecting everyone. The King was not a safe man to get on the wrong side of. Besides, nobody liked to see young men of good family killed in senseless quarrels.

“I have heard”, Olaf said heavily, “how Anja Sigridsdatter has egged both Sigurd and Narve to fight, and taunted them with cowardice when they refused. And I see that she has not come before me today to hear my judgement, but fled in the dark of night. Let her self-judgement stand, then: She is henceforth outside the law of Norway, forbidden to stand on its soil, to be dealt with as wolves are.”

He drew a deep breath, and continued, pain in his voice; this was his own son he was pronouncing judgement on, and it did not come easy. “But not all blame in this matter lies with Anja. Holmgang is forbidden in Norway; that is the law of the land, and it applies to every man. I judge that Sigurd Olafsson shall pay triple were-gild in this matter to the family of Narve Ketilsson. And further, he is banished from Norway. I will have no man-killers in my realm. That is” – he frowned, took another deep breath – “my judgement.” Another deep breath, and another, and lines of pain were scoring his face; he clamped both hands to his left breast, and looked at Geir, appealing. “Geir – help me.” He collapsed forward out of the throne.


Olaf was a hard man, and in splendid shape; an uptime hospital could have saved him easily, and given him many more years of life. But Geir had none of the equipment for that; all he could do was ease the pain, as the King’s heart slowly died. There was time to dictate a testament, leaving the kingdom to Sigurd’s son Einar, with Geir as Chancellor to rule until Einar’s majority. There was time to speak to Sigurd, to reconcile father and son. There was time to say farewell to his wife, and to his grandchildren. Time enough for many important things. But in the end, as for all men, there was no time at all.


OOC: You may recall that my roleplay requires me to take all the ‘get-a-rival’ choices in events, and allow all the resulting duels. I paid the price when my heir got himself into one of these things, and ended up with a Serious Wound that killed him after a few years of rule. Now his young son Einar Sigurdsson is on the throne of Norway; and he is most unlikely to allow any duels, for he knows well how his father died.

Anja is banished from the Realm, and Geir is feeling the Grim Reaper’s hand on his shoulder. The next Yngling to arrive at Dovre may find himself without anyone to greet him.

If anyone would like to chronicle Anja’s arrival at their own court, and tell what happens to her there, that might be interesting. PM me with your plan for her if you think she might add anything to whatever intrigues you are running. If not I’ll keep her in reserve for later; a banishment isn’t necessarily for life, and anyway it’s not as though Norway has good border controls at this point.


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One response to “There Will Be War: The Right to Duel

  1. Pingback: The End Is Not Yet: Norway 1836 | Ynglinga Saga

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