27th December, 1341
Dovre mountain, Norway
The hum of machinery ceased, and Ingvar stood in the darkness and cold of Norwegian midwinter. He shook his head to clear the sparks from his eyes – but no, he was really seeing the lights. Campfires? If so, a large army was camped out on Dovre mountain in this winter of 1341; surely no easy feat, logistically, even if his comrades had been showing the downtimers how to do it. And what enemy could possibly be nearby, anyway?
He thought for a moment. It didn’t absolutely have to be a Norwegian army he was seeing. Caution, then, until he knew what was going on. And also – he rummaged in his pack. The red was strictly for emergencies, but then again, he didn’t know that this wasn’t one. Always prepared, as the Yngling motto went. He stuck the little bottle in his belt, next to the sword, for quick access.
Now – was there any chance of sneaking out of this unobserved? The initial experiments uptime had shown that the emergence was accompanied by a spectacular light-show, so no doubt soldiers would be converging on this position right away. Nor could he hide his tracks in this snow. Still, his skis were certainly better than any piece of wood smeared with goat-fat; if he could avoid head-on encounters, he’d be faster in the long haul. He bent down to strap them on, but was interrupted by a shout.
“You there, Yngling! Stand still, hands where I can see them!”
Norwegian, or at any rate Old Norse. Not a foreign army, then, but they didn’t sound very friendly. Ingvar kept his hands at waist level, obeying the letter of the command without giving up the option of his sword. Ten men, chainmail under furs. Three with crossbows moving to the flanks so the seven advancing towards him wouldn’t block their line of fire. Professionals, cautious even at ten-to-one odds, and apparently expecting trouble. Bad, very bad.
“I am Ingvar Torkelson,” he began, but the man who’d spoken before interrupted him.
“Fine. You’re under arrest. Take your sword out slowly and drop it.”
“Arrest? On what charge?”
“We should need a charge? Is there a law in the land, then, where you come from?”
There wasn’t, as such, but what was this damn downtime stril doing taunting him with the fact? And anyway, even uptime he would have the right to know what charge his accuser had brought to the Ting.
“Is there a law here?”
That brought the man up short, but not for long.
“Yes. There is. And under King Bjørn’s law, confirmed by Eidsivating, Gulating, Frostating, Allting, Norselaw Assembly, Götating, and Uppsalating, all uptime Ynglings are to become wards of the state, surrendering their Satan-wrought weapons and teachings, and serving at the pleasure of the King. That is the charge. Now drop the fucking sword!”
Ingvar had no need to hear more; from the sound of it, one of his predecessors had screwed the pooch in a truly massive fashion, not to mention letting slip the secret of Dovre. Perhaps there was some difference between “ward of the State” and “stril“, but he wasn’t about to explore it if he could avoid it. He gave a placating smile, playing for time.
“Why, certainly.” He moved his hands slowly down to his sword’s hilt, watching for the minute relaxation in the soldiers’ eyes as they saw him apparently surrendering. “I will take my sword out slowly and drop it.” He was halfway through the sentence when he stopped moving slowly; for a crucial half-second, the soldiers were still paying attention to his pacific words and not the blur of his hands. His left whipped out a knife towards one of the crossbowmen while his right made the sword describe an arc through the spokesman’s throat; the knife went slightly astray, hitting the cheek instead of the eye he’d aimed for, but he took no moment to curse. Instead he grabbed the red bottle with the left hand while recovering the sword. His first victim had just begun to fall as the liquid fire burned down his throat – only a sip, a large dose would kill, even a small one was deadly dangerous. Meanwhile he had been stepping forward, bringing the sword around again in a precise thrust at a kneecap. Swift crippling blows, that was always the way, fighting as a wolf does. Two down, and the enemy were beginning to react, excellent speed for those not trained to the duel from five years of age. A crossbow bolt shirred by, unpleasantly close, but he was in among their friends now. Whip the sword out to the right – a shield blocked it – spin to maintain momentum, come at it from another direction – his foot slipped in the snow, and the sword that had been perfectly placed to parry was suddenly two inches low – a surprised grunt as he hit a stomach, armour had saved another life but he would be a minute catching his breath. They were circling out to surround him, fast and smooth, used to working together; but the red combat drug was beginning to cut in. He thrust forward, hard; a shield was raised to block, but slow, slow, as though moving through molasses. The sword went over and between the eyes with a crunch of bone breaking. A glimpse of movement to his left, an axe coming at his knee – oh, they were well trained, he could almost see Gunnar instructing them, but the red drug gave him speed beyond human belief. He danced out of the way, turning counterclockwise to bring his sword over to that side so he could slam it down on the axeman’s wrist.
Seven men had come forward to take the Yngling into custody. Ten seconds later two were dead, two crippled, and one out of the fight. The remaining two had had enough; they retreated carefully, shoulder to shoulder, shields front and swords high. Ingvar let them go, they would do him no harm now. He bent down to collect his skis – he’d have to run and put them on later – and then a crossbow bolt slammed into his knee.
The red drug blocked most of the pain – part of its danger was that the user’s overstraining muscles could rip his tendons out without him noticing – but no amount of berserkergang would make a joint work with two inches of steel jammed between the bones. Ingvar dropped his sword, grasping the protruding part of the bolt and tugging; even through the red haze of the combat drug he felt the agony, distant but strong. The leverage was awkward; he had plenty of strength for the task, but his grip kept slipping. The soldier whose breath he had knocked out was on his feet again, shouting at his retreating comrades, who were running back towards the fight, grinning. Ingvar might be able to take them down, he didn’t need his leg to throw knives, but there was no point – he could fight but not run. He held his hands up high.
They hesitated a long moment, disinclined perhaps to let the man who had slaughtered two of their own surrender so easily, but then slowed down and approached cautiously. One of them held his sword to Ingvar’s throat, apparently unaware that even then Ingvar could have ripped it from his grasp before he could react. “All right. Hands front, Geir will bind them.”
Ingvar did as he was bid, grimly. His knee was beginning to throb as he came down from the combat high. “Ward of the state, you say? What does that mean?”
“Damned if I know. But if I have my way you’ll be digging ditches for plague victims. Little enough compensation for the damage you’ve done.”