The Tapestry from Sigurd’s point of view.
December 2nd, 1172
Geirvirke Farm, Norway
“What have the Russians done to us?”
“They killed my brother. Was he not an Yngling?”
“He was, surely. But he died in a fair fight. If we avenged every one of our blood who died in battle, we would get nothing else done; and besides, in each new battle more of us would die and need to be avenged, and in the end the line would die out. No, Sigurd, revenge is a fine thing, but it is not enough to commit the Family to war with Russia. You must find some other cause.”
There was a long pause. At last Sigurd grated, thick-voiced, “All right then. I will.”
May 26th, 1174
Alexandria, Kingdom of Italy
Alexandria was stifling; not merely the dusty heat, unbelievable as that was to one brought up in Norway and the mountains of Georgia, but the endless bureaucracy, fruit of a tradition that had endured four thousand years. Egypt had had many masters, but none of them had succeeded in breaking the stranglehold of the clerks. Still, money talked, and the furs and amber Sigurd had brought were expensive here; usually they were traded hand-to-hand across Poland and down the Danube. Few ships dared the long journey through the storm-filled Bay of Biscay and North Sea – not to mention pirates official and otherwise on every coast – even for great profit. But Sigurd had other business here, and most pirates did not bother long ships whose bow carried the Golden Lion. So furs and amber had become silver, and silver had discreetly changed hands until at last Sigurd stood before a man whose word carried weight in Italian counsels.
“The Rus, yes. An obstreperous people; we have had blows with them before, in the King’s father’s day. But they are distant and backwards; the King could perhaps be persuaded to look favourably on a Norwegian war with them, but to take the field himself? I should need weighty arguments for that.”
“Tell him this, then.” The advice was Aslak’s; Sigurd would never have thought of waking a quarrel more than thirty years old. The men from Dovre thought strangely. “The Czar is on the move again. Torzhok is in his hands again, and he pays Norway a pittance in compensation, mouthing about peace in the same breath he mentions the vastness of his armies. Minsk and Pinsk are again under his dominion. Did not Italy shed blood for those cities not a lifetime past?”
The courtier nodded. “The King cannot be pleased to hear that the Black Letter is – ah – a dead letter. And, hmm, it is perhaps possible that the mouth of the Don might interest him; furs, amber, horses, gold – trade has grown, these past ten years. Taxing it might be profitable, now. But still, you must understand, if I suggest such a course and the King dislikes it, I lose favour; and if he likes it and it fails, I lose my head.”
Sigurd nodded. “Well, it is not good that a man should die and leave nothing for his children. But such risks can be compensated, no?” He pulled a large pouch out of his belt and jingled it; the silver in it rang sweetly. The courtier smiled.
April 2nd, 1177
“Oh, well, you know how rumours fly. Still, it was all the talk in Alexandria, how their King intends to sail up the Bosporus and seize the Don outlets for himself, to tax the trade there. Makes sense to me. Why trade for what you can take? He was building some nice big ships, too, I saw. Hundred feet if they were an inch.” Sigurd burped, playing the drunken rumour-monger; but it wouldn’t do to grind the point in too thoroughly. “But enough of Italy! What’s the news from the north, eh?”
August 2nd, 1181
The sky was clear; it couldn’t be long until the local strongman responded to the smoke rising from his village. Sigurd was fairly confident they could deal with that, but they would take casualties, and the ruse of being Russian raiders wouldn’t stand up to close inspection by warriors who had actually met their counterparts across the border. So they couldn’t linger, and some of the peasants would have to be left alive and in a condition to report what they had seen. He stopped a man who was about to be a teenaged woman’s second rapist; “No time, Lars. Better luck on the next village.” Lars grimaced, but let it go; there would be other days and other raids. It was autumn, and the harvest was in; a fine time for raiding, and Bohemian blood was hot, out here on the border marches. It wouldn’t be long until the border was aflame on both sides.
April 9th, 1184
Geirvirke Farm, Norway
Nobody but Ynglings ever entered the inner chamber of Geirvirke farm’s main building. Speculation about what went on there was a favourite topic of conversation in Viken; Sigurd had heard suggestions of orgies, human sacrifices to the Old Gods, prayer to the White Christ, and secret alchemical rituals to produce the gold that made the Ynglings wealthy – and those were just the usual gambits that people would start off with to get the talk going. In fact it was a council-room, where decisions for war and peace were made. But it was strange enough for all that. Maps hung on the walls, such maps as Sigurd had never seen anywhere else, even among the navigators of Italy and Spain; not mere lists of sailing times and landmarks, but pictures of the land as a bird might see it, with the distances faithfully recorded. An even finer map dominated the middle of the room, a model of all Christendom built in stone and glue and wood, fortresses and flags and models of men-at-arms showing the strength of the kingdoms as best the Ynglings knew them. It was disheartening in some ways, to see how few hirdsmenn there were, compared to the hosts of Russia; but Sigurd felt confident. Certainly the Russians had nothing so fine as this for planning, and almost no ships, where the model showed hundreds of dragon-headed vessels in Norway.
Both the living men of Dovre were present; Aslak, white-bearded now, and Karl, with his odd gold-flecked eyes, biomod as he called it. Both were nodding as Sigurd outlined his plan to make the southern kings attack the Rus; but other Ynglings in the room were frowning in disagreement. Jorunn spoke for them: “Yes, yes. This is all very well, Sigurd. But you have yet to answer the fundamental question: Why? What can we gain in Russia? The climate is worse than here! And” – she held up a hand, seeing Sigurd about to speak – “don’t bring up your brother. I know, and I feel for you. But you’re asking us to send our own brothers, husbands, and sons into battle. Shall we create another hundred griefs to satisfy one revenge? I think not. So why attack Russia, where there’s nothing but snow and surly peasants? England, now – England has rich fields and good harbours. Why not find wealth there, instead of blood in Russia?”
Several people added hot agreement to the discussion; but all stilled when Aslak held up a hand. The men of Dovre were respected, and the respect was not untinged with fear. “All that Jorunn has said is true. Nonetheless, Sigurd has created for us an opportunity, not to strengthen ourselves, but to weaken a dangerous enemy. We should not waste that opportunity. But one thing must be clear: This is not a war for revenge, or to retake Torzhok, or any such small goal. We must not do the Bear a small injury. No, if we attack Russia, we must take all we can, and we must be sure that we can take a great deal. For there are those in Russia who have long memories, and an implacable hatred of us.”
Jorunn had held her peace so far, but now she exploded. “No! This is nonsense! Why should we weaken Russia? What harm have they done us? Talk all you like of implacable hatreds; it makes no sense. Why should they hate us? They have their land, and we have ours, and neither has any reason to want the other’s wealth. Speak of the Scots or the Prussians, and I understand; we are their rivals for the rule of England, which is large and wealthy. But the Rus? What should they want of us – Finnish snow? Pff! Tell me plain why we and they should fight, or be still.”
Aslak looked at Karl, who shook his head slightly, and spoke. “There is a reason, which we cannot reveal. It comes to us from Dovre mountain. You are right: The Russians have no sensible quarrel with us; nonetheless, if we do not fight them now, they will attack us – not this year, perhaps not this decade, but sooner or later we shall have to deal with them. If we let them choose their time, it will be the worse for us. Sigurd has done good work here, though for the wrong reasons.”
Jorunn looked rebellious, but her support had faded; the magic words ‘from Dovre’ had convinced many of her erstwhile faction. She chose another angle of attack: “Well… if you say it, I will not dispute the matter. But there is another point. They are many more than we; if we attack them alone, we cannot win. Are we to trust these southerners to do our fighting for us? What if they go home after they’ve won a few battles? We cannot alone weaken the Bear so much that he won’t rend us in revenge, unless he loses cities on his other flanks as well.”
“That is well said.” Aslak looked at Sigurd. “You have convinced us this far, Sigurd: If two other kingdoms attack the Rus, we will join. But you must see to it that they do not intend to make some raids and go home. No small injuries; no insults; the Bear must be crippled, or his revenge will fall on us and we will die.”
October 18th, 1188
Somewhere in the forests of Poland
A clip-clop of hooves sounded, and Sigurd grinned with relief; he had guessed right, and the courier would go right into his ambush. There weren’t many routes for a messenger from Muscovy to take, going to the Bohemian court at Cracow, and Sigurd had all the main roads covered; but you never knew when someone might have a sweetheart or family nearby, or just a hankering to see something new, or even a useful premonition of danger, and take to the back trails for a while. But no, there he was, an Imperial courier in his green and blue. He rode without escort; the bandits left couriers alone, for there was no surer way to bring down thousands of soldiers than to kill one. But Sigurd didn’t have to live here, and anyway he didn’t intend the death to be discovered for a while. He gave the signal, and within three heartbeats the courier had been pierced by five arrows. He fell with a gurgling cry.
Sigurd fell eagerly on his message pouch; yes, there it was, the Great Seal of All the Russias, and a long letter. He read it carefully, chortling. It was just as his spies had informed him: An offer of alliance, with suggestions of subsidies, Italian territories to be annexed to Bohemia, and protestations of peaceful intent. Getting out the parchment he had prepared, Sigurd began to write his own version. The Czar’s titles were expanded to include even his smallest boyardoms, and the disputed areas around Galich, which the original had diplomatically left out, were given a prominent place. The salutation became an insultingly short “King of Bohemia”. The polite request for an alliance was changed to a demand, and the offer of subsidies was shortened, being replaced with threatening mentions of the large armies of Georgia and Russia, and the harm they could do if roused. As an example of arrogantly clumsy diplomacy, it was – if Sigurd said so himself – a masterpiece; the capstone, perhaps, of his career.
He became aware that he was very tired; he had been working towards this for twenty years, and it had been an exhausting struggle. But it was all right, he consoled himself; his work was surely done, and he could rest in fighting, and reap the rewards of his long sowing. The Bohemians could not ignore this insult; there would be war, now, and at last he could lead a war band north and reap Russian lives until his arms ached from bloodshed. Deep within him the presence stirred, and he felt it smile at the thought. They had been patient together for a long time, he and the old god; but soon the need for patience would be at an end.