June 12th, 1315
The Norse Law, south of York
“Hassan, a word with you.”
The Assassin straightened from where he was showing his son how to string a bow. His name was actually Massoud, and if Ask had wanted to discuss some detail of the running of the village, he would have used that name. “Hassan” indicated that he wanted to speak with the leader of the Assassins, and that meant serious business. Hassan’s face was instantly unreadable, where a moment before he had been smiling at his eldest child.
“I am at m’lord’s service.”
“Are you familiar with the term, ‘plausible deniability’?”
Hassan’s mouth twitched. “No, m’lord. But I see that it is a useful one.”
“Indeed so. Now, the Ynglings are at vendetta with the Billungs. As a matter of tactics, we prefer that this not come to open warfare. But a death in the night through a random act of God, or at worst perhaps due to an overzealous servant… you see?”
“I do indeed, m’lord. I see how the cause of the Ynglings is advanced thereby. What of the cause of the Assassins? I remind you of the terms of our alliance: We are given a base here in the Norse Law for our children, and for striking against the Worm Kings. In exchange we have given you what we knew about the Angel – ”
“Which was little enough.”
“What we knew, I say; and also we work the farms and fields, and give you such information as we come by on our travels through Europe, which you have several times found useful already.”
“It was not my intention that you should work without pay.”
“That is a different matter; it is then a question of business. What pay are you offering?”
“A weapon against the Worm Kings.” Ask held up the little violet flask. “Add three drops of this to a man’s drink or food. It is tasteless and scentless. In three days that man will die.”
Hassan raised his eyebrows, impressed. The poisons available to the downtimers were crude things: Either uselessly weak or splashily fast and obvious, and easily detectable by taste in either case. It was rare for anyone to be killed by poison, and even rarer for the assassin to escape.
“That is a fair offer. If a servant’s curiosity be not out of bounds, where comes m’lord by such treasure?”
Ask smiled, enjoying the bragging rights. “The Ynglings have their ways, and I am not without influence in their councils. Have we a bargain?”
September 3rd, 1323
King Haldor’s face was lined with grief and grey with age, but he glared at Ask with the vigour of a man of twenty. “Plausible deniability, you said. Your denials have cost me two sons!”
Ask bowed his head and thought for a moment. There was a law in Norway, and the King was not above the law. But that was not a perfect shield; the Kings had power, which was vastly magnified if the consensus of the Ynglings was with them. And besides, if an accusation was laid against him of killing by poison, he could be convicted and hanged within the absolute letter of the law, and half the kingdom would stand up and cheer his death. If he could not carry this meeting, his life would be short.
“At least twenty Billungs are dead, and – ”
“What do I care for dead Billungs? What harm had they done me? Give me back my children!” Haldor turned to spit, tears of rage and grief glittering on his cheeks. “A poisoner stands in my hall and brags of his kills. Is this what the Ynglings have come to? Killing children, because we cannot stand against their fathers?”
Ask blanched. That was… a very uncharitable way of looking at his actions. He sought frantically for an argument, any argument, that would cast it in a better light; he found none. Perforce he fell back on his prepared speech, to save his life. He would consider the ethics of it later. What counted now was to keep his neck out of the noose.
“Germany is in disarray! The nobles grumble that the Ynglings are only scapegoats, that Markward seeks to distract attention from God’s punishment on his dynasty. They say that killing Tormod was a nithing’s deed, and speak openly of holding elections for a new king.”
“Killing Tormod a nithing’s deed… indeed it was. But even so, he was killed in an ambush, fighting; and his wounds were to the fore. Not by poison! God’s punishment, hah. Plausible deniability, hah. The German nobles are gullible fools; but we here know better, and Markward knows better. You, Ask, you have wrought these deaths. If not for you, my sons would live. Do you deny it?”
“I… Your sons fell in a war! The Poison War, I’ve heard it called, and it is a good name. Would you cast blame and seek punishment if I had led your sons into battle, and they fell?”
“No. But neither Gudmund or Tormod would have shirked that; they would have followed you willingly into a fair fight, however desperate, and had my blessing. Did you tell them they were on the front line of your Poison War? Not a word of it! You wrote them out, conscripted them to your armies will they or nil, and did not even tell them they were in a battle! And what’s worse, you have done the same to every Yngling child!”
There was a deep, rumbling snarl in the hall, and Ask knew his cause was lost. There was nothing for it now but to cut his way to his ship and try to escape; if he could make it to the ship, he could flee into exile. The thought lagged the deed; his knife was in his hand and he was sprinting towards the door before his plan had reached the word ‘ship’. But he was not the only Yngling in the room; not even the only one with uptime training. Ask moved like a blur; but Gunnar, twenty-five years younger and with the prestige of Dovre to protect, was faster still. Ask avoided a crippling kick to the kneecap by reflex, but he couldn’t maintain his sprint; Gunnar blocked his dagger strike for the throat, caught his wrist, and twisted. Ask punched left-handed towards the younger man’s stomach, but again found the blow blocked – then Gunnar’s fist thundered into the space between his ribs, where even a fit man has no muscle, and he collapsed nervelessly, choking for breath.
“Hang him for a poisoner”, Haldor ordered, and not a man demurred; someone brought a rope and threw it over a roof-beam, and tied a noose. They weren’t even going to drop him, Ask realised; it would be a slow death. There was nothing to be done now to avoid it, though. Then the door opened and a courier came in, and his heart raced again in hope. Only the most important news could be allowed to interrupt this meeting.
“Markward is dead! He has fallen in battle, impiously leading the siege of the Pope’s fortress at Julich. His wife rules in his son’s stead, but the nobles of Germany dispute the inheritance. Bavaria and Holland have risen in rebellion!”
Ask found his voice. “Now is our chance! Strike now, while our foes are in disarray – this is the opportunity I’ve been working these five years to create! Muster the Hird and march south!”
Haldor hesitated. Success, as always, was a powerful argument. Killing a poisoner was one thing; killing the man who had single-handed created a civil war in Germany, quite another. Then his face firmed and his eyes narrowed.
“Right. Call out the Hird; we are retaking Denmark. And as for him…” the hall held its breath, teetering between anger and admiration. “As he has been successful, we shall be merciful. Don’t hang him.” Ask let out the breath he hadn’t realised he was holding, and felt the Ynglings exhale with him. Then Haldor continued. “Just kill him.”
Gunnar’s sword was a burning streak through the hall.