June 8th, 1357
Off the coast of Fyn
The boy stood on the stricken deck, whence all but he – hadn’t fled. They had stood their ground, and died brave, protecting their King. But brave men died all the same, and now a boy of eighteen faced a dozen armoured hirdsmenn alone.
“Well? What are you waiting for?” Johan – King Johan I of Norway – snarled. He swung his axe menacingly back and forth, just as his instructors had taught; if he dragged it out, perhaps another of his ships would come to his rescue… although his hope of that was slim; the battle had not been going well when the Swedes boarded.
“They’re waiting for me.” The ranks parted, and the speaker came through: An old man, fifty at least, with a gold circlet around his otherwise-utilitarian helmet. Another man followed him, younger, but with the same reddish-gold beard – the same colour that was just beginning to fuzz Johan’s cheeks. An outsider might have noted the faint family resemblance between the three, a certain cast to the nose, a set to the shoulders – but Johan had other concerns, just then.
“Uncle Gregoras,” he snarled, hesitating. A swift rush, a single blow of the axe, and perhaps he could still turn the battle – the war, even – in his own favour. But although his uncle was old, he was also a veteran; his axe had seen use, had split skulls and severed limbs, unlike Johan’s. And his hirdsmenn would step up to protect him; he could not fight so many… and, truth to tell, it was hard to decide to kill the man who had, in better days, let you ride his horse and given you your first bow.
“I think we’ll have King Gregoras today,” his uncle said.
“And you’ll call me King Johan!”
“If you like.” Gregoras’s voice was even. “They say purple makes a good burial-shroud. Do you really, truly, believe that?”
Johan began a hot, defiant answer – and then stopped. His uncle was not asking to make sport of him. He licked his lips, feeling a faint thread of hope; perhaps there was a way out of this.
“Why do you ask?” he said cautiously.
“Because we are kin. Because the crowns must be reunited, but I’d spill no more MacRaghnall blood if it can be avoided. Because it is unfair that you should be entangled in the quarrels of your grandfather’s generation.”
“You’re offering me my life? In exchange for what?” Johan’s eyes narrowed in suspicion; but he believed. His uncle’s words had the ring of conviction. Moreover, he was right: It was unfair that Johan should have to fight for quarrels he’d had no part in making. Like any teenager, Johan felt an instant sympathy for an adult who understood how fundamentally unfairly life was treating him. Besides, Gregoras didn’t actually have to offer him anything at all; he could have just ordered his men to kill Johan.
“For the crown of Norway, and your promise not to contest it in the future. You can keep the estates and the other titles.” Gregoras made a dismissive gesture. “I don’t care which of the family holds Sjælland, so it is one of us. But I’ll have the crowns reunited.”
“You’d trust my word? You’d not fear my rallying your vassals to my cause, raising my banner in your despite, and taking again what is mine?” Johan flung the words as a challenge, knowing as he did so that he was being stupid; the other man – the other King – could kill him with a word. But the famous MacRaghnall temper had him in its grip, and he could not resist the taunt.
“I would,” his uncle agreed. “But I’m an old man; it would be Håvard’s problem.” He gestured to the man at his side – a cousin of some sort, no doubt, but nobody Johan knew. Håvard smiled grimly.
“And if you couldn’t defeat us with all of Norway at your back, how would you do so with a few disgruntled nobles? Make no mistake, boy: Your uncle is being more merciful than I would be, in his place. For now, he is King. But cross me, and you die.”
There was utter sincerity in Håvard’s grey eyes, and Johan looked aside. In the end… life was sweet. The estates and titles would still attract women in droves; he could ride, hunt, drink – he might win glory in foreign wars – he might go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was impossible for a King – and who knew what might happen in ten years? Johan was young; he could bide his time. He nodded.
“I agree,” he said, low. “I don’t actually have any purple robes, anyway. And if I did, I don’t think it would flatter my complexion.”
His uncle’s lips twitched, but he suppressed the laugh. “Few people look their best in their burial shroud, purple or white,” he agreed. “And you’re right, we MacRaghnalls look best in sky-blue or sea-green; purple tends to clash with our hair. Well done, lad – Johan – Duke Johan, I should say. It’s not every man can cast aside a kingdom with a jest.”
There was a general relaxation of the killing tension on the deck of Johan’s ship, and the noise of combat from the surrounding fleet began to subside as the word went out that the battle was over. Men would still die, uselessly, to keep for Johan the kingdom he had just laid down – with a jest, no less – and he felt a stab of guilt; but there was nothing to do about it. The word would go out as fast as could be done, and men would die or not, as they were fated to. For the time being they stood in a spreading circle of quiet – relative quiet, at least; the moans of wounded men could be heard now, not as loud as battle shouts and the clang of metal, but far more disturbing.
“Why him?” Johan asked his uncle, wanting to think of something other than wounds and death suffered for the sake of the crown he hadn’t been willing to die for; he indicated Håvard with a nod of his head. His uncle pressed his lips together, indicating – what? Was he not quite pleased with his choice?
“He is eligible for election to the throne of Sweden, as you are not; and has a good claim by blood to the throne of Norway, as I don’t. If your father had lived… well, that’s water under the bridge. And he’s not of the Greek faction; the northern jarls will accept him. And most of all, he’s not entangled, embroiled, cursed with the quarrels of me and my brothers. A clean slate, perhaps. At least a chance of one. We haven’t done well, we sons of Ragnvald. Better that another branch take over, and end this endless spilling of blood.”
“Norway, Sweden,” Johan said thoughtfully. “What about Scotland? Does he have a claim to that as well?”
“No. But no matter. Cousin Ragnvald’s kingdom is about the size of your jarldom, and poorer. He’ll see reason, as you did; or die, I care not. He’s not like you, suffering for the sins of the fathers to the third generation. He’s played the same games I did, and my brothers, and deserves the same fate.”
“And when the thrones are reunited, what then?” Now Johan turned his question to Håvard. “Sire King,” he added belatedly. Håvard smiled.
“When Scotland is whole again, yes, what then?” He looked south. “We shall have to see.”