As it turned out, conquering England was not entirely trivial. Its player – known to us as Emperor Ike, just as I am King of Men – had the advantages of internal, short lines of communication, and at one point Russia attacked Prussia, causing us severe difficulty. But we prevailed in the end.
In the second year of war the ships began to return.
They had set out in a single vast fleet, fully manned by men in their proud prime, with banners flying. They returned one by one, bearing news and cripples. There had been a great battle at Stamford bridge, the first to return said, just as in King Harald’s day. In the end the English had broken and fled the field. The corpses had lain in a line a mile long where their shield wall had stood. The ships that came back from that battle were thinly manned, by men one-handed, one-eyed, or one-legged; but they lay deep in the water, weighed down by armour and weapons taken from the dead at Stamford. The weapons were passed on, taken by younger siblings and second sons, and a few daughters. Then the ships passed back across the sea.
In the third year of war York fell, after a siege lasting many months. The hird, enraged at its long resistance, were not gentle; the sack lasted three days, and ended with only the stone-built buildings in the wealthy quarters standing. The ships brought back hundreds of prisoners to till the fields. One of the captives had a whooping cough, and when the disease had run its course, there were three hundred new-dug graves in Bergen. One of them held King Håkon. The election that followed was much contested; blood ran in the streets before its end.
In the fourth year of war King Alexander brought a fresh army down from the highlands. Thousands of savage clansmen ran wild through the rich fields of England, and where they passed, famine followed in their wake. The hird brought them to battle ten miles north of York. Three times they charged the shield wall, and each time they were beaten back. By day’s end they were running north for the safety of the hills, burning as they went. Half the sheep of Yorkshire went with them, and the Northumbrian lords raised the banner of rebellion against Alexander.
In the fifth year of war Bjarte came back to Norway on a ship with black sails. His left hand was gone where a minor wound had festered, and he was shrunken from fever. Sigurd wept to see him, but inwardly he rejoiced; a man with one hand could still beget children, and there was no lack of widows in Norway. The custom had grown that when a black sail was sighted off Kvarven, the women would gather at the shore and await the news. Each would bring a black shawl with her, and if her husband were among those reported dead, she would cover her head with it and go to her home to weep in private; but if he were among the cripples who returned, she would instead wear a white shawl to celebrate his life. The makers of black dye had much business.
In the sixth year of war the Finns rose in rebellion. Ten ships went to put them down. Six were crewed by women. That year King Eirik died, who had taken the throne after Håkon. No Yngling of fighting age was left in Norway, and at the Ting a man of the Orkneys carried the day with his promise of peace. At Geirvirke there were dark mutters of poison, but in the end Sigurd’s rede of patience held. Men die soon enough, even Kings. The family would remain, and see better days. And besides, with just a drop of yellow liquid in his drink every full moon, the King – Yngling or none – was as easily guided as any member of the family. The war continued.
In the seventh year of war the Swedes refused the yearly levy, saying that they would give no more men to a war without end. Instead they raided along the coast as far north as Viken, burning the fields and carrying off the livestock. No men sailed for England that summer. New levies were found among the one-eyed and the one-armed; a man can fight with a shield strapped to one arm and an axe in the other, or with a patch over one eye. When fall came, of five hundred farms in Småland, one in ten had been burnt. From those that remained, the levy that should have been mustered in the spring was instead taken to Norway unarmed, to work the fields in chains.
In the eighth year of war the Czar marched into Estonia, and the Prussian troops were withdrawn from England to fight him. The Scots raised new armies from Ireland, and the hird could not offer them battle. Instead they held the castles and the towns, as the English had done to them, and fought a bitter defensive war of ambush and raid. All the land south of the Scottish border was a lawless chaos, where no man’s writ ran beyond the tip of his spear.
In the ninth year of war the Czar made peace with Prussia, and Flandern troops landed in Kent. The north of Norway rebelled against Sigfred of Orkney, the nobles saying that he had promised to bring peace and either failed, or broken his word. An army of bonder marched down the Gudbrandsdal, demanding submission and ransom of the households. Those who could not pay had their houses burnt; hence the ransom became known as [i]brannskatt[/i] (*). They were met at Mjøsa by the Broken Hird, as the crippled men were known. There were few weapons left in Trøndelag by this time, and no armour. It had all gone west over the sea. The lightly armed bonder were no match for hirdsmenn with good weapons and heavy byrnies, even if their shields had to be strapped to their forearms. The rebellion ended in a day, and the livestock and wheat given for brannskatt came to Bergen, to replace the harvest that had failed.
In the tenth year of war the Prussians broke the last army of England. The hird came out of its castles and towns to meet the yearly levy from Norway. There were many boys of fourteen holding spears larger than themselves, and few of the proud trained men who had sailed west ten years before. But there was no formed army to resist them, and they marched north unopposed, harrying deep into the lowlands; ships carried the Lion Rampant as far north as the Orkneys, which swiftly rejoined the Norwegian realm. The English were drained by ten years of war, and no longer saw any hope of relief from their King; many had already rebelled against his rule. Now, at last, the conquest went swiftly. Towns that had been held for a year or more surrendered at the sight of the hird’s banners. Bandit gangs hundreds strong laid down their weapons in exchange for amnesty and the promise of land. There was no shortage of fields to give out, either in England or Norway. Farms built fifty years before lay fallow, and the old wood crept down the mountainsides, retaking what it had lost to the axe.
In the eleventh year, there was peace. And in Norway, where ten years before every voice had shouted for conquest and glory, there was not a soul who did not attend the services of thanksgiving, although many were held outdoors where the churches had burned; nor was there any man who did not whole-heartedly join the prayer that the peace would last his lifetime, and his sons’.
(*) Roughly, “fire-tax”. Similar to “protection money”.