January 6th, 1414
A battlefield in Russia
“A pardon? Given in absentia, just as the court martial was?”
“Yes, General. And your estates restored, and the income for the time of your, ah, absence.”
Tore gave the man his best General Of The Infantry glare, of the sort that reduced experienced sergeant-majors to stutters; but he was made of stern stuff, or perhaps just aware that officers in the service of the Grand Princes did not have powers of summary execution over those in the Norwegian army. “And just why,” he asked bitingly, “will they give me this now, when I’ve made a new life for me and mine, here in Russia? Where was the pardon five years ago, when I needed it?”
The courier – he was an officer, which meant he had connection of some sort, and might well be noble himself, perhaps even a MacRaghnall cousin – smiled blandly. “Well, General. Officially, it has been realised that an injustice has been done; if the wheels sometimes grind slow, still, at least they turn eventually, yes?”
“Yes, yes. And unofficially?”
“Unofficially – there are new faces at court, seeking to make names for themselves. A general who wins battles – well, such a man could be a useful ally.”
“Or a useful pawn,” Tore sneered; the courier inclined his head, acknowledging without agreeing.
“And, candidly, nobody dares give a major command to anyone of the family. What if he were to win?”
“So they turn to the lesser noble families, and seek to maneuver them to advantage. Men who cannot inherit the Three Thrones, nor be elected Kings of Sweden, and who can be discarded at need.”
The courier shrugged. “As you say. Still, that’s equally true of foreign generals in the service of the Grand Princes, no? You have rank, here; but rank can be taken as well as given. A noble title, land – nothing is truly secure, when you play the game of intrigue, but are not these better than a yearly salary and the promise of a pension?”
“That’s true,” Tore sighed. It was tempting, he had to admit. Oh, he’d made a name for himself in Russia, yes; but the Princes’ court offered no advantage over that of the MacRaghnalls – they were equally snakepits. And here he was a foreigner with no local power base – an easy target, if a scapegoat was ever needed. It would be good to see Kjukkelmarken again, the estate where he had grown up; some proper mountains, and not these endless windblown plains…
“A pardon,” he said thoughtfully, “is not an acquittal.”
The courier shrugged easily. “A form of words,” he said. “Well within my powers.”
Tore had not actually cared much for the form, himself; but it was a simple way to establish whether the courier had power to negotiate, or was merely the bearer of a take-it-or-leave-it offer. He smiled.
“Ah, well then. Let us see what else is within your power.”
A man who wins victories – such a man can be forgiven much.
October 14th, 1423
A room in Kronborg castle, Sjælland
“While we hold the Baltic, we have not lost the war.”
“Easy for you to say! You have no estates in Jylland, no trading interests in Stettin.”
“Indeed.” Tore smiled nastily, and Geirr visibly blanched as he remembered that Tore wasn’t a MacRaghnall, but an outsider brought in precisely because he wasn’t a factor in the family’s balance of power – in other words, because he didn’t have the clout to acquire the choicest pieces of land or the best contracts. “And for that reason, I can put the needs of the state ahead of my own. I say again, we have not lost the war. That some of us here have lost some revenue is not a matter of State concern.” Let them chew on that; the MacRaghnalls liked to project a great concern for all Norse subjects, as a cover for lining their pockets. Not that this was any different from any other ruling clique, but it was occasionally sweet to be able to throw their hypocrisy back in their faces.
“Be that as it may,” Geirr recovered, “the Baltic is not, actually, the only path open to the horse lords. Finland -”
“Finland! Oh yes, may it please the Lord of Hosts, let them come through Finland! The mosquitoes alone will bleed them white. As for the Finn tribes – a knife behind every blade of grass – the utter lack of military roads – the certainty that such a campaign would run into a winter worse than Russia’s – no, no. They are not madmen; they will order their horses to swim the Sound before they try to attack us through those forests.”
Geirr sat down, pressing his lips together; he wasn’t about to argue with the only man in the room who had met Hungarian armies in battle and defeated them. Tore smiled inwardly; it was one thing to plan to make a useful pawn of a man from a lesser noble house, an Yngling outsider who could not take a throne – and quite another to realise that you were trying to impose your military judgement on the man who had won the only victories in the war. It was a delicate balance of power, for Tore could not have made his judgement stick against the united opposition of the MacRaghnalls. But there were many of the Family who had their estates in Sweden or in mountainous Norway, and no love for their wealthy cousins with Danish lands; as long as there was a faction supporting continued war, Tore had the casting vote. And as long as there was war, a victorious general was a powerful man; when peace came – well, he would worry about that when it happened. The war had lasted most of his life so far, and he was no longer a young man.
“While we control the Baltic,” came softly from his left, and he turned to see Harald, who rejoiced in the title High Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Like Tore, he was of the lesser nobility, a Guldvædder, given his high rank because he could not use it as a springboard to the kingdom. That, and their common interests as military men, had often made them allies in the past. And, although the navy had not fought any great battles as the army had, everyone knew that it wasn’t Tore who kept the horse lords out of København; the Admiral spoke rarely but was heard when he did.
“I have certain contacts, friends you might say, in almost every port in Europe. I’m told, and I believe, that there is a gathering of ships in Venice, and another in Athens. My lords, against Hungary, against Rome, I will undertake to hold the Baltic until it should freeze over; and then we may take as much or as little of the war as we please. But against the combined fleets of the south, no. We would have to seek harbour, or give hopeless battle; and then we should see rather more of the war than we desire.”
There was silence; it was one thing to argue about whether to seek peace on reasonable terms, and quite another to be told that you might have no choice.
“Perhaps we are not their target?” Tore suggested. “There are other nations in the world.”
“Possible, but… the horselords have been threatening us with the wrath of their allies for three years now. I suppose it may happen that the infidel arse-lickers have chosen this moment to finally rise against the Caliph, but, my lords, I would not like to gamble my estates and the chastity of my daughters on the possibility.”
“I fear he is right,” Gaute said heavily; and Gaute was a MacRaghnall, and one whose word carried weight as the King’s cupbearer – the more so for peace, as his estates were in Skåne; he could not be accused of personal motives. “Tore,” he said. “We know the horse lords, damn them, are near the end of their tether. Naval expeditions take time to prepare. Their army stands near Narva. If we launch you across the Baltic one more time, no raid but a full expedition meant to destroy their army and force them to the table – can you do it?”
Tore looked down. “I can destroy the last army of the horse lords,” he said softly, not entirely sure he was speaking truth. “But that will not force a peace, not while the kataphrakts graze their horses in Jylland. If it were only the Hungarians we should have won already. But the damn Romans… and I do not have the men to defeat them. Not if we called up every boy in Norway above fourteen years of age.”
“Then we must have peace, while we yet hold the Baltic.”
There were bowed heads, but no dissenters.