The beginning of the War of the Tapestry, from the Norwegian viewpoint. A historian, perhaps, would trace the war to traditional rivalries, to the clash of expanding spheres of interest with no more buffer space, to all the large causes that such men look at. The historian would be wrong. It is also the beginning of the Sigurd arc, the first time the main action is driven by a downtimer.
September 25th, 1165
Autumn, and in the clear air the mountains blazed with reds and yellows. Sigurd gazed at them numbly. There were no more tears in him, but there didn’t seem to be much else, either; he felt empty, wrung out. At least the other children were giving him a wide berth; usually the crowd that hung around with Nikolai might be counted on for a cruel taunt in passing, but even they had enough decency to leave him alone now. And so, even in dying, his brother was doing more for Sigurd than he’d been able to do with his fists in a year of fights. The thought almost brought fresh tears, but he blinked them back fiercely and managed to get his grief under control; he would not, not, cry in public. Bjarte would have approved. How many times had he asked, “Are we not Ynglings?“, when Sigurd came to him with some problem? And only when Sigurd had got his emotions under control would he turn around and fix it, with his fists or his hands or his ready smile and quick mouth.
Footsteps on the flagstones behind him, and Sigurd turned, almost hoping it would be Nikolai so he could get in a good fight. But it was Cecilia, King Olaf’s daughter out of wedlock, and he had no quarrel with her. “Sigurd”, she began. “I’m sorry. I came looking for you as soon as I heard.”
“What’s it to do with you?” he snarled, wanting someone else to hurt as he was hurting, knowing that it was stupid. But she took it in stride.
“Are we not Ynglings together?”
The question abruptly reminded him more of Bjarte than he could bear, and he had to turn away and face the mountains for a long minute before he had his face under control again. Cecilia said nothing, waiting patiently until he was ready. Then she continued.
“We are not so very many, we Ynglings. We’d best stick together. So when one of us dies, we all grieve. Brothers, sisters, comrades… lovers.” Sigurd looked at her sharply; he’d known she was close to Bjarte, but not that they had slept together. She nodded, confirming it. “He asked me to marry him, before he went back to Norway. I would have, too, next year when I go back, if not for the Russians.” Sigurd blinked stupidly, grief overtaken for a moment by shock at how much of his brother’s life he’d been oblivious to. But Cecilia was going on. “So, it has much to do with me, you see. I came to ask… There is an old ritual, that my mother told me about. It’s an oath, to the old gods, to ask their help in getting revenge. But it needs two people. Will you help me?”
Revenge on the Russians… Sigurd was startled by the sudden depth of his fury, and by how good it felt after the emptiness of grief. “Yes,” he breathed. “Oh, yes.”
September 27th, 1165
A hound had been easy enough to find; if one of the mongrels that ran about the estate went missing, who would ever notice? A horse was another matter; horses were valuable and much cared for. But Sigurd knew the stables well, and one of the hunters was sick and would have to be put down. The stableman had been glad enough to give that job to Sigurd; nobody enjoyed killing animals they tended to every day of the year. As for the man, that was the purpose of the rite: By leaving the full sacrifice unfinished, they invoked the aid of the gods in hunting down their victim. It was dangerous magic; the old gods were notoriously fickle, and who knew when they might decide they’d waited long enough, and take their invoker in fulfilment of the rite? But neither Sigurd nor Cecilia cared.
King Adarnase enjoyed his hunting; there were plenty of secluded groves on his estate, away from the manor and the village, for deer and boar to take refuge in. So they could build their fire high, and Cecilia banged a drum and chanted old words – nonsense words largely, half-remembered from her mother’s tales, half made up. But the old gods were not picky, and they got few enough sacrifices these days; Sigurd felt sure they would take what they could get. The hound whined and tried to lick his face as he tied the rope around its neck; he felt a moment’s remorse, but hardened his heart and hauled the beast up at Cecilia’s chanted command. It writhed, choking. He grabbed his spear, waiting for the chant to reach a new climax, then thrust, pushing from the right leg as he had been taught. It was wasted here; no armour protected the dog. But blood flowed copiously from its side as the rite required. He dipped his left hand in it, then smeared it on his left cheek and on Cecilia’s. Her skin was hot to the touch, flushed by chanting and the fire. Next the horse; actually hanging it was out of the question, it would take four strong men to haul even a small mare into the air, but he put enough strain on the rope that its breathing came hard and laboured and it whinnied desperately, struggling. The spear went true nonetheless, and he smeared their right cheeks with his right hand while the horse bled to death. Then they recited the oath together, loudly: “One-Eyed, Father of Battles, Giver of Victory, hear us! We swear, that we shall have no rest in this world until we have found the slayer of my brother” – their voices blurred for a moment as Cecilia said “husband” – “and given him to you. We ask your aid in this, and pledge our blood to you.” With the last words, they each took out their knives and dug deep into their left hands, sprinkling the blood into the fire.
There was a long, long moment of stillness. Sigurd felt something well up inside him, deep and icy and ancient; it ran down his spine and left him gasping for breath. It seemed that he heard cold laughter, and a voice saying “I accept.” The weight of the moment drove him to his knees. A chill clarity possessed him; he saw Cecilia’s eyes widening, felt his breath rasp in his lungs, felt the hair rise on his arms and back. He knew that Nikolai would never bother him again; this new feeling made him a man, and a dangerous one, and Nikolai would either observe the change or, treating him as before, be destroyed.
When he got up, the grief in him was – not gone, not diminished, but put on hold; he could still feel it, waiting for the proper time, but he had a weapon and a task now. Vengeance on the Russians. He looked again at Cecilia, who was getting to her feet, looking shaken but determined; he could see the change in her, too, the same steely clearness that possessed him, that made every detail razor-edged, even to the shadows blinking at the edge of sight. Her eyes were wide; droplets of sweat ran down her cheeks, mingling with the blood. One dropped onto her tunic, and he became aware that it was sweat-drenched and clinging to her. The blood and released tension of the rite combined suddenly with the diminution of grieving, and he wanted her desperately. He reached out, and saw the same awareness come into her eyes; a slight hesitation – a last vestige of cool forethought – and then a complete surrender that was no surrender at all, but a paean of victory.
September 28th, 1165
The smell of smoke was in the air. Sigurd looked north, Cecilia standing beside him. That way lay the vast extent of Russia, and a hundred thousand warriors. But they were two Ynglings together. And that would be enough.