The end of the siege, the campaign, and the war. In the end, Russia’s steppes proved too much for my Italian and Bohemian allies. The Bretons, who had landed in the Middle East to distract Russia’s ally Georgia, had actually betrayed us: They were fighting only pro forma, with no intention of actually killing any Georgians. Thus the full weight of that kingdom – by this time controlling most of modern Iran and Iraq – was free to march north. In the end the war was a draw. Our Russian player was jubilant.
March 29th, 1194
Within Novgorod’s walls
The city was a shell, although Sigurd’s army had been building over the winter: Long houses in the Norwegian style, made of green wood already rotting, built without foundations on the frozen ground. But they had kept the cold off through the winter.
Karl frowned as he rode through the slushy snow/mud; Novgorod was an important trading center, even if it would have to be rebuilt, the jewel and capstone of their conquests. It galled him to have to give it up. Worse, to look the men who had taken it in the eye, and tell them that their struggles had been in vain, and that they must go home – it rankled. And then there was Sigurd; the man had the true Yngling fire, rare here in the downtime, and now Karl would have to douse it. For perhaps the twentieth time since entering Novgorod he reached for the little flask on his belt; and yet again he stopped the motion. His mind was made up. It would be much easier to down the yellow liquid and begin exuding dominance pheromones; with the dose in that flask, every male within a hundred meters would know, deep in their hindbrains, that he was the Pack Alpha, and to be obeyed. With the flask, he could sell sand to Bedouin, or snow to Eskimos, or for that matter peace and love for all men to Ynglings. But no. Sigurd was an Yngling and a true one; Karl would do him the respect of arguing only with words, not with uptime tricks. It was all he could do, and not enough.
The war could not be saved; the question now was, could he save Sigurd? Karl had no confidence in his ability to argue anyone out of a lifelong obsession; give him a raid, a skirmish, even a corps-level engagement with NBC weapons free, and he was your man. But to save a comrade’s soul from being eaten away with vengeance – brain surgery, fumbling in the dark, with only a killing knife for tool – it was an impossible task. But it had to be tried.
Are we not Ynglings together?
March 29th, 1194
Sigurd’s quarters, within the citadel
As soon as he saw Karl’s face, Sigurd knew the news was bad.
They wasted no time on greetings; Karl dismounted, and said without preamble, “The Italians have made peace. King Adarnase marches north with forty thousand men; but he offers us peace for sake of the old friendship between our courts. We cannot fight so many. We must take his offer.”
Sigurd rocked back on his heels, as though struck. All he had worked for these twenty years; all his travels about Europe, manipulating and bribing and killing, all his painful diplomacy – all that to be casually cast away? His conquest of Novgorod, bought with his left eye and the word that he was a necromancer?
“Why” – he stopped, cleared his throat, started again. “Why have the Italians made peace?”
Karl’s mouth twitched in contempt. “Winter. The winter has done for the Russians what their soldiers couldn’t. The Italians brought soldiers from Egypt and Sicily, who had never seen a snowflake in their life; they melted away at the first touch of snow. Then Adarnase swept them from the field, what was left of them. Ragged scarecrows, for the most part. Supperåd til generalstab.” The last was in a language Sigurd couldn’t quite catch, though it seemed similar to Norse; but it didn’t matter. He was numb inside.
“So… peace, then? On what terms?” A ragged hope, that they might keep Novgorod at least, for which he had paid so much; but Karl shook his head, compassion in his eyes.
“Terms of life and limb, and no more. We sail home with what we can carry.” They stood silent for a long moment. Then Karl reached out a hand, tentatively.
“Sigurd… I’m sorry. I know what it meant to you. But listen.” He hesitated, then spoke slowly, feeling his way between words.
“You’ve given your life to this vengeance for your brother. It was good and right that you should do so; we are all Ynglings together, and the price of our lives is high. But now – now it is good and right that you should let go of vengeance, and turn to other tasks. You have killed, perhaps, thirty thousand Russians in this war; thousands more will die from famine and plague. Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands; you have matched those warrior kings of legend. Is it not – can it not be enough? Even for the life of an Yngling and a brother?”
“Thirty thousand…” The number wasn’t quite real to Sigurd. He gazed into the distance, not really seeing the enclosing walls of Novgorod, or the clouded sky; his mind’s eye was in the Georgian mountains, in a secluded grove where he made sacrifice to the old gods, and made love to his first woman. He sought within him for the presence he had first felt that night. “Is it enough?” But no answer came back, only the glistening of a fire on sweat-slick skin. “Is it enough? For my brother, whom I loved?”
He wasn’t aware that he had spoken aloud, but Karl responded, thinking he had been addressed. “That is your question to answer; it is a matter of life and death, and in the narrow passage is no brother, and no friend. But I will tell you this. If you continue in your course, Russia will have killed two brothers. Come with me, Sigurd, back to Norway. There is healing in the mountains. Find a good woman, have children. Name one of them for your brother. Teach them to fight, and to live. Tell them how once you shook thrones and made crowns tremble, for sake of your brother’s name; and make the race stronger by his blood.”
Sigurd looked at him, and away; knowing that he was right, but not knowing whether he could turn away from twenty years of purpose. No surrender for me; the words trembled on his lips, and he could see what would follow; a wide hat, and a staff, and the long killing walk into Russia, fighting and burning until the boyars caught up with him. It would be so easy, to let the old god take over, to complete the sacrifice of his life; to become the third in the triad of horse, hound, and man, that he had left incomplete all those years ago. Within him he could feel it coming forward, eagerly; could feel its desire to have a body once again, and walk up and down in the world, and back and forth in it. He knew with sudden conviction that the Christians had been right; that the old gods gave nothing freely, not even vengeance, and that men bargained with them at their peril.
He strove to summon the will to resist; am I not an Yngling? He was no man’s puppet, and no god’s either. But the effort required seemed unbearable. Twenty years of his life; the weight of them was like a vast rock, chaining him to his fate. Desperately he summoned the images Karl held before him, of a woman, a farm, children, the peace of the high mountains. All seemed insubstantial, remote. Laughter, soft skin, warmth on the plough… ghostlike, weightless. He sought within himself for memories of women; surely there had been many, through the years? But they had been paid for, no more than a moment’s relief; or peasant girls on the Russian borders he had raided, who wept and struggled. There was no strength to be found there. The one memory he could muster of true, sweet love-making to a willing equal was Cecilia, in the grove. And that brought him back full circle to the sacrifice, the firelight gleaming on skin, horse, hound, and man.
A face intruded into his memory: Ragnvald, who had lived, but would never walk again. Behind him came Vegard, and his brother Ketil, screaming as he fell off the wall; Lodin bleeding from the mouth, and Yngve’s staring eyes with the flies coming in to feast. Knut, and Johan, and Norvald, all the young men who had thought they were immortal. How would they fight, if they were given the choice of life and death? What would they have said, if told that the weight of twenty years was unendurable? There was no strength in Sigurd for women and children; but for his dead comrades, who would never have the choice – for them he could fight.
He straightened, settling his shoulders to the weight of years. Within him the old god faded, slinking away to the dark corners of the soul. Perhaps it had never been quite real; perhaps he had merely been these twenty years mad, driven beyond sanity by grief.
“Take me home, then. There will be peace.”