The beginning of the Great Plague arc which ends uptimer dominance in Norway.
December 5th, 1323
Norse Law, south of York
“This is their village, sir.”
Gunnar squinted through the rain, silently cursing Ask for having the bad taste to run foul of the King so late in the year. Running people off was bad enough at the best of times, without having to send children into an English winter. It was a typical enough village for the Norse Law, houses of rough timber holding men and cows, thatched roofs, fields in long strips suitable for heavy wooden ploughs. This close to York and the center of Norse power, it wasn’t walled, which was just as well. His party drew up in the middle with much stamping of hooves and snuffling, and he took out shield and sword, beating the one against the other to summon the people. They came out of their houses cautiously, tall swarthy men mostly, hook-nosed and black of eye.
“Who is in charge here?”
One of the men bowed.
“I have that honour; m’lord, should it be his wish, may find it convenient to address me as Hassan.”
“Very well, Hassan. I am Gunnar, son of Gunnar; I am now lord of this estate and all its land. Ask Norvaldsson is dead, and out of favour; and your deal with him is broken.”
Hassan looked grim, but unsurprised; these men were used to the world being against them. Gunnar noted, from the corner of his eye, that daggers and spears were making an appearance, and let his hand drift down to his sword hilt. He hoped it wouldn’t come to a fight; these were no peasants, they were fighting men as well trained as his own, and familiar with the ground.
“That is unfortunate. Still, it may be that our deal can be extended.”
Gunnar shook his head. “I fear not. Ask’s influence with the Yngling counsels are at an end, and Assassins are no longer welcome on Norwegian soil.”
Hassan looked around for a moment, perhaps considering resistance, perhaps just looking over the lands he had spent ten years improving.
“It is as the God wills it; all things are accomplished according to the will of the God. Will m’lord permit us some time to prepare for our journey?”
Gunnar considered. After all, these men weren’t at fault; Ask had used them for his own purposes, and they could not have known that the Billungs would lash out madly and kill the King’s sons. He nodded.
“I take no joy in these orders. You have three days.”
Hassan bowed. “M’lord is generous.”
December 9th, 1323
Norse Law, south of York
“Now,” Gunnar continued, “we come to the matter of Ask’s personal effects.”
The steward nodded; he was a Saxon, a taciturn sort, but competent enough with his lists and parchments. “Indeed. The armour and weapons you have already seen; as instructed, I packed them for return to Geirvirke. The clothing and such are in this chest; by old custom, they come to his wife, but if there are other instructions?”
Gunnar shook his head. “No, no, Elfrida shall have her rights. But he would have had a small chest, with a key he carried on his own person.”
“Ah yes. It is in his bedroom. May I inquire, what were the contents of that chest?”
“Coloured bottles.” Gunnar closed off that subject with finality, and followed the steward. The man – Edgar was his name – led him to a small bedroom, and indicated a wooden chest, with heavy steel bands. Gunnar nodded, and bent down to unlock it, getting out his list.
“Right then. Yellow, five ounces, check. Pink, five ounces – no, four. I wonder what he used it for?”
The steward coughed discreetly. “I believe, sir, that you may be referring to what the master gave his son when he had the bad cough.”
“Ah so. Fair enough, nobody will begrudge him that. White, five ounces, check. Purple, handed out to Assassins for the Poison War, damn him for a fool, check. Black.” A long pause. “No black.”
“None. See for yourself.”
Edgar scratched his head. “Indeed, sir, no black. But I’ve never seen the insides of that chest before, so I can’t speak to what there should be.”
There was ice in Gunnar’s stomach, and his tongue was dry. Surely Ask couldn’t have been such a fool as to give out that bottle. Or even brag about it. Surely. He bent down to examine the lock. Wrought iron, the best that could be had in this benighted downtime, huge and clumsy, but strong. And – he picked up the chest and held it to the light from the small window – yes. Scratches along the keyhole, fresh, such as might be made by a good lockpick. He turned to Edgar, and his voice was dead calm.
“Who knew of this chest?”
“Well. There’s the master; his wife… but no, wait. We all knew of the chest. But the bottles, no, I think only the master. He was a close-mouthed man.”
“Not close-mouthed enough.”
“What was in that bottle, then, that’s so important?”
“Death. More death than you’ve ever seen. Thousands, and tens of thousands.”
It was clear that Edgar didn’t believe, though he nodded. Gunnar did, and felt sick. He looked down at the list again; just what had Ask been carrying? He wished he believed in the downtimers’ God, so he could pray it was just weaponised Ebola, or accelerated lungfever, or something else with a short incubation time. A few hours would be ideal. Please let it be one of those quick-acting diseases intended to wipe out a village or two for punishment, and not spread further. Not one of those meant to destroy China. Please.
Pentathol 7, interrogation use, five ounces.
Fortified antibiotics, oral administration, five ounces.
Muscle stimulant cocktail, injection, five ounces.
Stroke inducer, liquidations, five ounces.
Y. pestis, weaponised. Five ounces.
Little black spots swam before Gunnar’s eyes, making the letters meaningless. It didn’t matter. The words tolled in his mind. Y. pestis. Weaponised. Thousands, and tens of thousands… Bring out your dead.
He drew a deep breath, closed his eyes, drew old lessons to his mind. “What is, is. No loss is made better by dwelling on it; no pain is cured by the mind’s eye regarding it. Accept the casualties. Assess your capabilities. Continue the mission.” The recitation made him feel a little better; a cold clarity came to him.
“Message. Recipient, garrison commander, York. Copies, Bergenhus fortress, Geirvirke. Message begins. Information. Black bottle missing from Ask Norvaldsson’s personal effects. Suspect indiscretion on the part of Ask revealing black capabilities, probably to Assassin leader ‘Hassan’. I am declaring a biowarfare emergency.”
He looked at Edgar, who was frantically scribbling. Good. Perhaps some of the urgency had got through. “Action. All available forces to converge on Norvaldsson estate for search of villages. Use destructive interrogation techniques where necessary. No traffic in or out of the estate can be permitted. Intentions. I will lead a party in pursuit of Assassin group to complete isolation of estate. I expect to be resisted by trained soldiers outnumbering my own force. Send reinforcements as soon as possible. Message ends.”
His voice was metronome steady as he stalked out of Ask’s bedroom, calling for his men. Edgar followed, looking worried. “Sir – what is ‘biowarfare’?”
Gunnar paused. “Pray that you have no need to know.”