Bioweapons for the win! But Novgorod, alas, is only one city. Russia is vast.
July 24th, 1193
Falling off the walls of Great Novgorod
It takes a man slightly more than a second to fall seven meters: Enough to be afraid, a chilling spike of terror from the ancestral ape, not enough for warrior training to cut in and master the fear. But it is swiftly over. Sigurd hit the ground with a jangle of mail and a yielding crackle – no, he saw, that wasn’t the ground he had hit; a double layer of Norwegians had broken his fall. He had little time. The wall was clear, and stones, thrown hard with the fury and triumph of men who have narrowly escaped death, were thudding into the pile of corpses and wounded. But he had time to register that not all the men he had landed on were dead; there was Ragnvald, stretching an arm towards Sigurd for help; the other was twisted in strange places, and his legs lay unnaturally limp. There was Lodin, clutching his stomach; Sigurd could not see the wound, but blood was coming out of his mouth. Over there was Yngve, staring at the sky with eyes already glazing and the flies coming out; and Knut, Johan, Norvald, all the young men who had thought they were immortal.
Inside him the old god was chuckling with glee at the thought of so many splendid warriors for Ragnarok; and for the first time in years, Sigurd’s thoughts veered away from those of the god, and he rebelled. It was insanity to stay for even a second more than necessary; the stones were flying thick and fast. But, with a month to think it over, Sigurd would still have found it impossible to do otherwise: He bent over, took Ragnvald’s outstretched arm, and heaved the younger man onto his back, ignoring the scream of outraged pain.
Nobody moves quickly with a hundred kilograms of muscle and armour slung over their back; staggering towards the Norwegian lines, Sigurd made an easy target. But no stone or arrow struck him; dimly, through the rush of exertion, he could hear some Russian giving orders to cease fire. Perhaps the boyars were saluting courage; perhaps they were merely conserving ammunition. Either way, Sigurd managed to stagger out of range, carrying his comrade. Behind him, the Raven Banner, which he had dropped in his fall, lay disregarded in the bloody dust. The raven’s wings were obstinately still. (*)
July 25th, 1193
A dreamscape: Below Yggdrasil, the World Tree
Sigurd glared hotly at the old god. “Was that your plan? Warriors for Ragnarok?”
“No, Sigurd. That was your own doing. I have offered you knowledge of how to defeat the walls. I have told you the price. If you choose not to pay” – a shrug – “that is your own affair. I force no man.”
“Fine!” Anger and grief warred in Sigurd, making him reckless. “I’ll pay your price, and be damned to you!”
“Yes, that’s very likely. The Cross-God leaves little room for others. But I am not dead yet. Here; chew this, it will help.”
Sigurd took the dried root; it tasted bitter, but brought a strange calm. Then he took from the old god’s hand a knife, and stuck it into his left eye, and twisted, so the eyeball hung down onto the cheek; and chopped, to break the thread it dangled by. The pain was less than he had thought, but the world went curiously flat. He picked up the eyeball and offered it contemptuously to the god. “There! Now, what’s your wisdom?”
Before answering, it took the eyeball from his hand and popped it into its mouth, chewing with relish. “It is very simple. Among your prisoners are three brothers; their names are Vasili, Aleksandr, and Vladimir. Let these three men go within the walls, carrying an offer to Novgorod: That you will give them free passage south, with all the goods they can carry, if they give you the city.”
Sigurd stared incredulously. “For this I gave you an eye? You cannot believe they will take such an offer!”
“Of course not. Nonetheless, if you do as I have said, within a month the city will be in your hands.”
August 20th, 1193
South of Great Novgorod
The long straggling column of refugees stretched a mile from the city gates, and were still coming. Some of them bore red cloth strips on improvised flagpoles; the other refugees gave them wide berth. Even as Sigurd watched, one such fell over in the dirt, and did not rise again, although one of his group – a father, perhaps, or a brother – bent down to plead with him, then kick him, and finally, hopelessly, to drag him out of the way, so nobody would step on the body. Dead in a week, Sigurd thought dispassionately; from the reports of deserters, the Norwegian army knew well how the plague worked, and that it was particularly virulent on the breath of those in the final stages. Only deep love would make a man go close to such a one. Idly, he wondered which of the three brothers had been the carrier; or perhaps they had all had it, healthy-seeming though they’d been. Not that it mattered; the result was plain, even to a one-eyed man.
There was a ragged, hopeless fear in the eyes of the refugees; they’d had courage enough on the walls, but this was something else, something no man could fight. Whenever one of them coughed, as they often did from the dust they were stirring up, everybody around him would start, and scatter away, until they jostled into each other and recoiled; none of them got very close to another if it could be avoided, except in the tight family groups.
It would be necessary to burn Novgorod to the ground, of course; the plague knew no flag, and would burn through his army as rapidly as it had the defenders, if he gave it half a chance. But the stone walls would stand, and the cisterns; and there would be no strongpoint in his rear, to harry him as he went deeper into the plains. They could even winter inside the walls, where there would be some shelter from the winds and the snow. It was a victory. Sigurd held tight to that thought. This was victory.
(*) The Raven banner was supposed to be prophetic: If the army carrying it was bound for victory, the raven would appear to be flying, wings flapping. If the raven was stiff and still, that prophesied defeat. Or so the Annals of Saint Neot claim.