March 3rd, 1407
A suite in Kronborg Castle, Sjælland
“Iceland! Iceland is the death of Norse armies, these hundred years and more.”
“It’s an ill-omened place, true; but luck is luck, it changes like the east wind.”
Sonja shook her head. “No. Tore, you must refuse the commission – ”
“Refuse!” he exclaimed. “And never get another! You can’t refuse when you get the card, Sonja. It’s, it’s, not done. I’d be laughed at for a coward from here to Russia!”
“Nobody called Uriah a coward,” she said dryly. “Don’t you see, this is where the MacRaghnall jarls will send those they think could threaten them? If you succeed, splendid, they have Iceland. If not, good riddance.”
He frowned in thought. “You know I’m not idealistic about the court,” he said slowly. “But I think that may be a bit too cynical. It’s not that easy to take credit for someone else’s victory – especially if he’s ready for it, and takes steps to prevent it. And eight thousand men is a large army, Sonja. I’m not saying Geirr or Skule wouldn’t drown me in a lake of blood if they saw their chance, but I’m hardly their only concern. They have to have an eye to their future, too. Blaming me for losing half the fighting men in Norway is one thing, but they still need the fighting men! If nothing else, to keep the damn Swedes under control. It’s not so long ago that the crowns were split, and the forest lords remember.”
Sonja hesitated. “That’s true… well, but that’s not the only threat. Why drown you in a lake of blood, if a single dagger will do as well? If you die heroically in the conquest of Iceland, then what steps will you take to avoid their claiming the credit?”
“Ah.” Tore nodded, convinced. “Yes – that’s how the MacRaghnalls work, right enough. Wheels within wheels. They want the damn Greeks out of the Iceland ports that threaten all our coastline, they want a big military victory but none of them are willing to give anyone else in the family the credit of it. And, of course, they want to keep those not of the family from getting any influence or power. So, they’ll give the post to someone they all hate, then they won’t have to worry that one of them will renege on the inevitable dagger in the back after the victory’s won. Military glory, Iceland, no shift in their internal balance of power, and an outsider rival dispensed with, all in one move. Very neat!”
“And no need to lose an enormous army, yes – I don’t know why a lake of blood was my first thought when thinking of MacRaghnall plots,” Sonja said dryly. “Still, the point stands: You’d better refuse. Let them find one of their own if they want glory.”
“How can I? This is our chance, Sonja! All I have to do is defeat the Greek garrison, avoid the MacRaghnall assassins, and come home covered in glory! Let’s see them shut us out of court then.”
“They might give you the governorship of Iceland.”
“Then I’ll farm it out, same as every other governor does, and stay right here and use the patronage and income to promote my friends.”
“MacRaghnalls can get away with that. You may be sure that if a mere Yngling does it, there’ll be a great outcry about corruption – well, never mind. This is pricing the bear-skin while the beast still walks. You’re determined to go, then?”
“I will lead the army to Iceland, and return victorious.”
Sonja bowed her head. “So be it that you come back at all,” she said, low.
May 10th, 1408
Fitjar farm, north of Reykjavik, overlooking Kollafjordur
“They’re coming again!”
The cry ran up and down the shield wall. It was hardly needed; the cornicens had made the Greeks’ intention perfectly obvious, and anyway the wind-blown Icelandic plain was clear of any vegetation higher than a man. You couldn’t miss the tight-clumped bodies of armoured men, cohorts as they called them, shaking themselves into their wedge-shaped formation for another assault. But worried men like to make noise, and who knew, perhaps there was someone half-asleep behind his shield, or dazed from a blow, who might benefit from being told; the confusion and sheer distraction of a battle, even one fought on a tabletop like this, never ceased to amaze Tore.
He squinted at the oncoming Greeks, trying to make out their banners; red-blue-red on the left, red-blue-white on the right – he had seen those colours before, so they had at least run out of fresh cohorts to throw at his line. Better still, the Spanish pikemen on the enemy left flank weren’t moving; so they still hadn’t sorted out their coordination problems. He could see couriers heading out at a gallop from where the Eagle banner flew, and chuckled to himself, imagining the sort of message he would send to a subordinate who didn’t attack on time. It was too late now; even if the pikemen started moving right away, the Greek attack would have either succeeded or failed by the time they reached the Norse line. As for stopping the Greeks to wait for their allies, there was no surer route to demoralisation than calling off an attack that was well begun. That problem of keeping allies coordinated was what had kept the Norse army alive through the three weeks of retreat since the Spanish reinforcements landed.
For a moment Tore cursed the Spaniards uselessly, perhaps for the thousandth time; dammit, he’d had the Greeks! He’d beaten them in battle on Tingvellir itself; driven them into the mountains, where there was little water and less food; pursued and harried them and made ready to accept their surrender… and then the damn Spaniards had landed, and even numbers with the tide of victory on his side had turned into being outnumbered two-to-one. But that was water under the bridge; now what counted was to hold them off for the day, and get the army onto the ships and sail for Norway.
“Johan,” he ordered. “Same drill as before. Get every third man from the left flank over here, those Spaniards won’t bother us for a while. Of those, even numbers form on me ready to intervene, odd numbers get into the shield wall.” Johan took off, and Tore swallowed nervousness; he’d done what he could, and the Spanish sluggishness would help, but you couldn’t call it a real reserve, shifting men around like this. But – he looked critically at the oncoming Greeks – it would do; he could sense it. This attack wasn’t coming on with the crisp aggression of the earlier ones. The kataphrakts were tired; they’d carried their fifty pounds of mail through one attack and bloody retreat already – and they were cavalrymen, not used to walking to the fight. Tore’s lips peeled back in grim amusement; there were advantages to having an army that habitually fought on foot. Not least, having no need to feed picky cavalry horses on grain imported at vast expense from Spain; the kataphrakts weren’t dismounted because they liked it.
He glanced by habit at the sun – but no, in these northern latitudes there would be no saving darkness; they could fight the summer through, so far as the light went. Still, he thought this would be the last attack; there was only so much soldiers could usefully do in a day. If they’d give him the long Arctic twilight, he could load the men on board the ships that waited in Kollafjordur, and wave Iceland goodbye. It wouldn’t be as good as coming home a victorious hero, but he could spin it his way – saving the men from disaster caused by MacRaghnall mismanagement of the navy – heroic retreat from twice his numbers could be almost as useful as plain victory.
Arrows arced out from behind the shield wall; not many, they were low on that as on everything else, but a few kataphrakts fell, and that would make his men feel better. It made him feel better, for that matter; tired or not, the kataphrakts were deadly with a blade and heavily armoured, and every one of them that fell before they reached his line was one that certainly wouldn’t be coming after Tore with a five-pound mace.
The cohorts drove forward, crossing the caltroped region that was the other reason they were fighting dismounted, and – stopped just short of the shield wall. Tore let out his breath. It took immense courage to actually hurl yourself into weapons’ reach of a bearded Norseman, or any man, carrying a three-foot sword and wanting nothing more than to sheathe it in your guts; and just at that moment, the Greeks lacked the two or three suicidally brave men who would lead the way and carry the rest forwards with their bodies. To be sure, there weren’t any Norsemen biting the edges of their shields and plunging froth-mouthed into the Greek ranks, either, but that was fine; the Norse were already on the ridge, they had no need to advance. There was a clatter of weapons as men with spears poked at the other side, trying to find a way past the shields and mail coats that didn’t involve, actually, getting up close and personal with nasty edged weapons; as many as half a dozen men on either side might even have suffered wounds from it. Cornicens blew, a long stern swell, but these Romans weren’t closing; they’d had enough. Shamefaced as they might be later, none of them leapt into the Norse line to make a hole; even the officers contented themselves with shouting encouragement.
At length they sullenly withdrew, seemingly from sheer embarrassment; Norse jeers and arrows followed them. Tore cordially hoped that his opposite number might take up again the good old custom of decimation for cowardice in the face of the enemy. “Decadence,” he muttered experimentally under his breath. “What would Isidoros have said? I blame the parents.”
He shook aside whimsy; the gods of battle had given him a respite, and he should make use of it. “Right,” he said. “They’ll be a while getting into order after that. We’ll try for the ships. Start with the left-flank men we’ve mustered here, they’re already out of the line – Karl, lead them down to the beach, go. Johan – ” he turned to point, and stopped to stare. There were ships in Kollafjordur; not the friendly low-slung dragon ships of the home districts, but vast clumsy carracks, flying the crescent-moon flag of Islam.
Tore’s mind spun rapidly through his suddenly limited options. The carracks were slow and not very maneuverable. They’d have archers aboard, but it wasn’t as though they could sink ships with arrows; if he loaded down the dragons with men and just rowed for dear life, he might still save most of the army – no, his ships didn’t have the supplies on board to make Norway – he could land further south on Iceland, though, and take on water at least. They’d go hungry but most would survive to reach England, if the wind held. Then he saw the chains stretched between the carracks, and snarled; no doubt the dragons could be maneuvered through the obstacle somehow if that were all the problem, but under a killing flail of Spanish arrows – and it would slow them down, give the carracks time to get into boarding range. They might be carrying three hundred men apiece, and their enormous fore-and-aft castles gave them all the advantage in a boarding action, if they did make them unwieldy; from the deck of a dragon ship it was like trying to fight a literal castle, a mobile one that spat arrows.
He felt a churning sensation in his stomach, and held back nausea by an effort of will; dammit, that wasn’t fair! This was defeat, disaster – Iceland the death of a Norse army, just as Sonja had said, and he, Tore, the man in charge. But there was no use dwelling on it; he took a deep breath. What could he save? Not his glorious victory, not his heroic retreat in the face of superior numbers, not even his army – but perhaps his own life at least, and those of his personal guards. Yes, and some of the army too; never mind the politics, Norway would need every fighting man after this disaster.
“It’ll be every man for himself – well, no, every ship-team for itself. Johan, go down to the beach, get our own ship ready – the first ones out can try to get between the carracks and the coast, where it’s too shallow for the Saracens. That won’t work for very many but it’ll work for us. Harald, pass the word: Everyone to the ships, and those who get out will meet up at Eyarbakki to take water; then we’ll make for England. And save himself who can.” Orders given, he began walking towards the beach – not running, there would be panic and rout at some point but he didn’t need to be the one to start it. His liegemen closed ranks around him.
“But, my lord, where will we go?” Eirik wanted to know. “They’ll hang you in Norway after this – we can’t go home.”
Tore pressed his lips together; Eirik had a point. However: “Well, Eirik, at the moment we’re standing on a lost battlefield, between the Greek devil and a Spanish sea. I don’t know where we’ll end up; but I think the question, ‘where shall we go’, may fairly be answered: Anywhere but here.”
There were no more questions.