At last the time was ripe for attacking England again. The Breton player had given it to his human vassal in Scotland, apparently in the hope of being rid of entanglements in the North Sea, looking less threatening to the rest of Europe, and of creating a buffer against France, Prussia and Norway that he didn’t personally have to defend. I and Prussia, having agreed that our war had only benefited Brittany, leaped into that breach like starving wolves, France joining us for a share of the spoils.
April 9th, 1225
Kvarven mountain, outside Bergen, overlooking the fjord
(The picture in this article shows the view from this spot, although you should mentally remove the gun turret; the red square in this map[/URL] shows the approximate location. The dotted line indicates the route the ships will be taking.)
The fjord was full of sails, a flutter of white and brown with the occasional glint of steel. The wind blew from the northeast at last, and the fleet was setting out after its long month of waiting. They were knarrs mostly, wide-built and strong. This was no raid, so there was no need for the swift long ships. An army that would conquer or die could afford to have no rapid means of retreat. Even so, the fleet was led by thirty sleek dragons, the scarlet Lion Rampant banner waving from their masts, pointing the way towards England: The ships of the Hird.
The pride of warriors was an odd thing, but it had to be catered to. Men who would rather die than retreat won battles, and were not easily come by. So if they refused to set foot in a knarr when bound for war – well, there were dragon-ships enough, and horses and grain to be shipped. And if the occasional hirdsmann puked his guts out because the slender longship heaved and rolled where a knarr would bull its way through, why, that was his problem.
The wind cut through the thin April sunshine; Sigurd drew his cloak more tightly around his old bones. He planned to watch until the fleet was out of sight. Bjarte was on one of those ships, and Einar on another. His sons, going to war. Let the wind blow from a glacier; Sigurd would have watched naked, if he’d had to.
The Prussian ambassador stood beside him, along with those members of the court too old or too young to be fighting. They watched in silence as the ships drew around Kvarven and south, towards Sotra and the open sea. At last they were out of sight, all the brave banners and brave men, and the gathering broke up, still in silence. The ambassador – Heinrich, his name was – was the first to break it.
“You don’t approve, do you?”
Sigurd glanced at him. “No. I don’t.”
“Yet in the end, you supported the war. Why, then?”
“Because” – Sigurd spoke with the precision of anger – “leading the Ynglings is like dancing with a bear. There is a time to show the way, and a time to get out of the way and let them go, or be mauled. There is a new generation now, and they don’t remember Novgorod. They’ll learn, though.”
“You think we cannot win, then?”
“Not at all. We can wrest Northumberland and Lancashire away from the Scots, restore the Norse-Law, win back our old glory. And you, of course, can take the rich southern kingdoms, Kent, Sussex, Wessex. But the price! They think they understand it, these young idiots. They’ve never fought men defending their women and their homes.”
The ambassador cocked his head. “I have, though, as have you. And now Prussia rules Denmark, in spite of precisely such men.”
“Yes. And much joy the fathers have of it, whose sons lie in Danish bogs. But” – Sigurd sighed – “that is the way of it. The nation, the banner, the power and the pride. Men should not live past their three score and ten; we become children again, in our dotage, and care only for our family, nothing for the people. I would have forbade my sons to go, if I thought they would obey. But they are wild for glory and conquest and Saxon women.”
“As were we all, once.”
“Yes. Yes. We all were soldiers once, and young. It is the way of it. We have too much pride, here, in the North. It is the only crop that grows well in these stony fields. Pride, and young men. So we fill the one with the other, and we send them out to fight. Sometimes they come back.”
“You paint a bleak picture.”
“I live in a bleak land. Look around you; what do we have? Mountains, seas, a few barren scratches of fields. Even Denmark… I have traveled the south, you know. In Egypt they get forty bushels of seed for every one planted. Forty! And here we count it a good year if we get three! But pride, ah, there’s a crop the land is suited to. I’ve seen men eat nothing else, for years, and thrive on the diet. Though it tends to choke them, in the end. That’s how Finland was lost, men choking on their pride rather than swallow it and bend with the storm.”
Tactfully, the ambassador said nothing. The Baltic War was still a sore point between the nations, even though they had agreed to ally against the Scots. Sigurd continued, speaking to himself now, as old men will. “Twenty years I’ve built up the wealth of this kingdom, all in peace. There are farms now where in living memory only trees grew. That fleet: Most of it was built on money lent by the King’s treasury, from wood taken from the King’s forest. And now it will all be thrown away, all for the sake of pride. Perhaps I have built too well. My new farms give a poisonous crop. The English will fight, and fight well, as men do. The houses will burn, the ships will bring in no goods from foreign lands, the young men will lie silent in untended fields. In twenty years there will be forest again, where corn grows now.”
He was silent for a while, as they picked their slow way down Kvarven’s flank. Then he turned again to the ambassador, and his eyes burned. “I’m an old man. I ramble. But at seventh and last, I am an Yngling, and I have my pride. And Bergen will burn to the last house, before I give up the conquest of England.”
The twilight was getting cold, but the ambassador’s shudder had nothing to do with temperature.