January 20th, 1939
In peacetime the factory made boots. That put it far down the occupiers’ priority list for repairs; a shell had blown a large hole in the roof and killed most of the workforce, and in this grey January day it was only barely lit, damp, and cold. That was why Jan had chosen it for his rendezvous; that, and the stash of rifles in its vault-like basement. All over Norway there were such private caches of weapons, held ready for stril revolts, but equally suited to fighting a foreign occupier.
The last of his co-conspirators drifted in, and he brought the low murmur of conversation to an end with a peremptory clap of his hands. “All right, we’re all here. Time to get to the point. Which of you strils will fight the Burgundians?”
Nobody spoke for a few seconds; then a stril on his left rose, a powerful ironworker brought in by Jan’s friend Vidar. Like Jan, he got straight to the point. “What’s in it for us?” There was a general murmur of agreement and nodding of heads. Jan shrugged. “The old Army Law has never been repealed.”
This brought a mixture of low, indrawn breaths, and scornful snorts. The self-elected spokesman was among the snorters. “Much good it does us! How many veterans are given a marriage license?”
“Ah, but that’s in peace-time. Now we’re at war, and it’s not going so well. The Bureau will be cooperative, or the Hird will know the reason why.” This brought thoughtful nods, but the ironworker was not so easily convinced. “So in fact, you are offering us a chance to die for the greater glory of the Ynglings, and if anyone should happen to survive, why, he may very graciously marry into the family. Well being an Yngling is nice and all, but what about those years of fighting?”
Jan checked himself; granted that the man’s tone was now verging on the insolent, this was not the time to break any bones, even to enforce the courtesy customs. Besides, the stril had a point, especially in regards to himself; as far as Jan was concerned, he’d just volunteered for several bouts of point duty. For public consumption, though… Jan shrugged again. “I offer you a gamble, yes. What will the Burgundians offer you? They are enemies of the Ynglings, but they’re not particularly kinder of heart. What can you Estonians, you Balts, you Russians expect from them? A vote? I think not. Self-government? Hah. Freedom of organisation? They don’t give that to their own people. Oh, you’d be a little freer than under us, perhaps. But real freedom, like we have, like the Germans have? No. You’d still be second class, unwanted. I asked my friends to choose strils who might take a chance on fighting for something better than that. That’s why you’re here. If you won’t fight for Yngling rights… well, then you don’t deserve them anyway, and nothing I can say would make you worthy. You can go back to your tired barracks and go on living tired little second-class lives, and the Burgundians will very kindly give you a few extra privileges if they win. I wish you much joy of that.”
He was lying, of course; if he couldn’t convince these strils to fight, they couldn’t very well be let go to warn the occupiers of his plans; that was why he’d had each of his friends bring only three. Three to one would be good odds for Ynglings against strils, with the latter unarmed and not expecting to fight. But it would do no good to let them know that; threats would only cow them into sham obedience, and he couldn’t watch all of them every moment. Better to let them think they had a genuine choice; if they were going to fight, they’d have to do so from conviction.
His thoughts were interrupted by another question, not from the ironworker this time, but from near the back of his audience. “You speak of Balts, Estonians, Russians. Does your offer apply to me?” The speaker came forward, and Jan blinked to see that he was a tall black man. He hesitated for a moment – what the devil had Geir been thinking to bring a black? – but he could hardly be seen to go back on his offer; anyway, the man could always disappear if that was convenient, accidents happened in warzones. “Can you fight?” he demanded; the African drew himself up and answered proudly “I am of the Aja.”
“How did you stay out of the destructive-labour camps?” Jan asked before he could stop himself; this was not the time to remind the strils of the harsher facts of life in the Norwegian Realm. The Aja tribe had been the most consistent thorn in the side of the African colonial administration until they’d finally been rounded up in a fit of bureaucratic exasperation; even then, they’d fought to the point where very few even of their women and children had reached the salt mines. The man before him might well be the last adult Aja male alive; almost certainly he was the last one free – even in so relative a freedom as a stril in Sweden had. Still, he should not have let his curiosity overcome the need for propagandising these strils into fighting.
The African shrugged in his turn. “I am a war trophy. You would have to ask my captor why he wanted me. But I can fight.”
“He speaks truth,” came Geir’s voice, and the scarred Yngling came forward to stand beside his stril. “I found him with a bayonet through the leg, and two of our boys dead next to him. Him armed with a spear, mind you, and them with guns, and both of them Ynglings. Well, I reckon he’d done us a favour by chopping out such deadwood as that, so I did him one in turn, as best I could. Anyway, seemed a pity for a fighter like that to go to the mines. He can fight, right enough, that’s why I brought him.”
“All right; in that case, yes. The Ynglings are not proud” – Jan perforce ignored the surreptitious snorts – “we’ll make do with what we have.” He turned to the rest. “Well now, Sambo here is going to fight. What about the rest of you?”
There was a skeptical rustle; the iron worker who had become the spokesman for the opposition expressed their thought. “You’ll make a nigger into an Yngling? What about the purity of the Yngling blood?”
Jan sighed. “I’m not going to say I like it, but the Burgundians are in the Jotunheim. If he fights, and survives, then yes. As for the blood… It’s a long-term problem. Right here and now, Norway has a bit of a short-term problem.” It wasn’t quite enough; they needed one more push, something to galvanise them into action. He thought for a moment, then got his pistol out of its underarm holster – the Burgundians had very sensibly forbidden the Ynglings firearms, with as much effect as forbidding them to breathe; no Yngling was going to walk about unarmed in a city where strils outnumbered them – and threw it to the African with a “Here, catch.”
Even the Ynglings in the room drew a sharp breath at that; to arm a stril was deep tabu, forbidden by generations of fear of The Rising that would destroy the Yngling people. Several of them went for their own guns with the blurring speed of an Yngling intending to kill, though all managed to stop themselves before the bullets flew. The only man seemingly unaffected was the African; he merely grinned, teeth shocking-white against his skin, and grew another inch or two taller. Jan held his breath a moment – if Geir said the man could fight, he could, and would be extremely dangerous if he decided to take offense at ‘Sambo’. But the gamble had worked; the strils all looked deeply impressed at this breach of both law and custom stronger than any law. To bear arms was the privilege of the ruling caste, nobody else; that was what the Yngling people were for, a tradition going back hundreds of years to the raiders in their dragon-headed ships. All words aside, the strils had not really believed until now that they might actually be given weapons. Now they believed, and crowded forward, eager for the prestige of bearing guns.
The Malmø Rising was underway.