And Rumours of War: Holy Water and Odin’s Mead

June 2nd, 1681
North of Bergen, Norway

The prisoner stirred, and Bjarte rose to loom over him, leaning on his staff; Bjarte’s bearded face, glowering under the floppy broad-brimmed hat, was the first thing the prisoner saw when he opened his eyes. He had self-control and brains, though; he looked about, instantly assimilated that he had been kidnapped from a well-guarded house in the middle of a large city, and did not ask “Where am I” or “Who are you” but “What do you want?”

“I want… information,” Bjarte replied, knowing that nobody else would get the joke. “Also warriors for Ragnarok, sacrifices of horse, hound, and man at midwinter tide, and the occasional roll in the hay with pretty mortal women. But for today I will settle for information. What is your name?”

Bjarte knew the man’s name perfectly well, of course; he was Duncan McGrymmen, of the clan McLeod. But it was important to start with an innocuous question. Duncan closed his mouth and looked aside, silent, and Bjarte nodded. “Courage. I approve of that in mortals. But it will only take you so far. Have you heard of Suttung’s mead, that I stole? It gives men the poet’s gift. Useful stuff, to be sure. But today I’ll show you a trick worth two of that. This” – he brought out the yellow bottle – “is Suttung’s akevitt. Have a drop.”

Duncan glared, tight-lipped, but Bjarte gestured to Tor – currently dressed as Thor the Thunder God, red-bearded and heavily muscled – who came forward to hold the prisoner’s nose. Eventually he had to gasp for air, and Bjarte dropped in some of the drug. He waited five minutes for it to take effect, then tried again. “Now then. What is your name?”

“Duncan.”

“Your clan?”

He went down his list of questions for which he knew the answer, getting into the rhythm of demand and response. When he felt Duncan was well into the effects of the drug, he began the interesting part.

“What is your task in Norway?”

“To combat the pagan influence in Bergen, and spread the true faith.”

“Who funded you?”

“Karl Viktorsson.”

“Why did he fund you?”

“I cured his son of the wasting cough.”

“How?”

“Water from the healing spring.”

“Where is the healing spring?”

“I don’t remember.”

Bjarte paused for a second, considering. It was probably true; whoever was sending these damn missionaries couldn’t expect to protect them within Norway, and would do his best to have them carry no crucial information. But there were limits to targeting amnesia.

“When did you visit the healing spring?”

“Last year, in May.”

“What were you doing in April?”

Effort-sweat sprang out on Duncan’s face as he realised where Bjarte’s questions were heading, and tried to prevent himself answering. His tongue was well disconnected from his frontal lobe by this point; but he was not without resource. The answer came out, but not in Norse; a purling, liquid language – Gaelic. Bjarte sighed. “Ah well. Courage has its limits. Thor, bring your hammer, please; start with the little finger.”

The big man took the prisoner’s arm, holding it effortlessly in spite of his struggles – the knockout drug still in his veins was weakening him, but it would feel to Duncan as though he were in the hands of inhuman strength. The hammer rose, then fell onto Duncan’s hand with a sickening crunch. Bjarte kept his face still, although he winced inwardly. When Duncan had got his screaming under control, he began again. “In Norse, if you please. Where were you in April?”

———————————————————————

“So, what did you learn?”

Bjarte looked at his notes, organising his thoughts. “First, as we strongly suspected, the new missionaries are an attack of our unknown enemy. Second, there is a source of, probably uptime, certainly very powerful, medicines somewhere in the Hebrides. Duncan thinks it is a healing spring, blessed by a Christian saint; but he has no memory of the two weeks or so surrounding his visit there. It’s clear, though, that he was fairly strongly imprinted during that time, and now considers himself a martyr for the White Christ, sent to preach the Word in pagan lands, and able to call upon miracles for convincing the heathen. Our enemy has taken a leaf from our own book, in other words.”

“And our countermeasures?”

“Bah. It comes down to playing defense; our enemy has the initiative, and we can’t strike at what we can’t find. Anyway. First priority is to find the healing spring; there are only so many places Duncan could have got to within that two weeks, unless we’re postulating that the enemy has uptime aircraft. It’s not impossible to search that area fairly thoroughly, without using a lot of outside manpower. If the spring is in a fixed location, we’ll find it, and perhaps be able to capture large supplies of medicine; we might even be able to resume healing miracles, on a limited basis. Of course if it’s in a fixed location, our enemy will have people there, and likely a self-destruct mechanism. More likely it’s mobile; in that case we’ll want to repeat this with other missionaries, see if there’s a pattern to their operations. They’re on territory friendly to us, we can probably hunt them down eventually. Of course that’ll take time and resources, which is exactly what they want.”

“As for the missionaries, two can play at brainwashing. We’ll feed Duncan some nice doses of the mauve, with a bit of the yellow; eventually he’ll go into a religious-ecstasy trance at the mere sight of ‘Odin’. There’ll be a bit of brain damage, of course. He won’t be quite as effective a speaker as before, but on the other hand he’ll be able to relate how the Old Gods took him to Valhalla, transporting him from out of a guarded house in the middle of Bergen, and showed him the true shape of the world, the White Christ is a weak spirit who will weaken Norway, yadda-yadda. We’ll repeat the process with some of the other missionaries, the most effective ones. The less effective, we’ll just discredit in more traditional ways; found in bed dead drunk, with a local girl, or better still a local boy, that sort of thing. No martyrs, obviously. Although I suppose a couple of them might disappear quietly on lonely roads.”

“It’s a good move, though. It won’t cause us any damage so long as we move against it; but there’s only so many of us. And we have to fight this, we can’t be having with Christian missionaries, especially ones with effective miracles, just when the Old Gods lose the prestige of their healing. So our attention will be fixed on this attack for the next – who knows how long? A decade, certainly. And meanwhile our enemy is free to go where he wills, up and down in the earth, and back and forth therein, and do whatever he pleases.”

“We have got to get back onto the offensive.”

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