April 10th, 1463
Somewhere in North America, near the Great Lakes
The deep forest lowered all around the column, silently oppressive. This sort of climax forest had not been seen in Europe for hundreds of years; not, at any rate, in the civilised western parts, where ax and plow had been at work since before the Romans. Perhaps the depths of Russia concealed such trees; but no civilised men lived there – or here. There as here, the deep woods were the haunt of savages, fur-clad men who hunted for a living, or scratched a few fields of scraggly vegetables between the trees. Here, at least, they built palisades around their villages, wooden things perhaps twice man-height, made from raw tree-trunks as thick around as a man could reach. Vegard had seen it move men to cold rage or helpless laughter, that such timber should be wasted on a fortification that would have been laughed to scorn in Europe. But in truth they served well enough in this trackless waste, where it was impossible to move a siege train, or to feed an army large enough to invest such a village. The natives would light their beacons, and the smoke pillar would rise to the heavens, a mute signal of foes. Within a week the woods would be alive with their friends and relatives, and any army of practical size would be swamped.
But now they had the solution for that, and Vegard grinned savagely at his invention. The little leather cannon – a copper tube wrapped in leather and rope – would be useless in civilised lands. A stone wall would hardly notice the impact of the three-pound ball it fired. But three men could portage it through trackless waste; and against a mere wooden palisade, it was heavy enough. Two villages had submitted already, each after less than a day of bombardment, with only five men of Vegard’s column killed. It was a far cry from the campaign of last year, when every village had to be taken by escalade, or else left alone. The savages did not have a field army as such – a forest army? – but their League could call in fighting men from hundreds of miles around, and would if you gave it the target of sitting down to siege. Keep moving, hit hard and fast, that was the only way.
A wild screech interrupted his thoughts. It rose from all around, a terrifying, primal sound; Vegard’s heart was suddenly in his mouth, and he drew a sharp breath as his testicles tried to crawl up into his stomach. If they were all around, then – but the screams had done their job, had paralysed his thoughts just long enough that the natives had the initiative. Now they came crashing out of the underbrush where they had hidden, invisible, on every side; and Vegard’s men were strung out in a column. Seconds mattered, and they were already lost: If the Norwegians had been in motion, they might have formed a square, stood back-to-back and thrown back the assault. But they had startled and stopped, and there was no momentum to move them together; each man, each little group, would have to stand and fight on their own – and there could be only one outcome of that.
Still, you had to try. Vegard drew his sword and skewered the lithe warrior who had leapt to brain him with a war club; the man was all sinew and muscle, and fast as a viper, but the natives still weren’t used to thrusting weapons. “Form on me!” he shouted, trained voice cutting through the brabble of screams and war cries as it would cut through a storm. “Get together or we’re all dead! Rally on me, for your lives!” His men heard, believed, acted; but it was too late, the ambush had been too savagely successful. They stumbled towards him, the closest men forming a little clot, a seed around which a square could have been built – but most of the column would never reach him; the natives were in among them, and each man had to defend himself. There was no time to form the square as well as fighting for their lives; so they died.
Vegard’s breath rasped in his throat with despair and anger; dammit, this wasn’t fair! He screamed out his frustration as his sword flashed past another war club and into a throat. It stuck in the vertebra. He pulled at it, then gave it up as a bad job and went for his dagger. The club that hit him was a dark blur at the edge of his vision.
April 11th, 1463
Somewhere in North America, near the Great Lakes
The first thing he was aware of was an immense nausea; he rolled over and vomited, bile pouring through his nose. When his retches – though not his wretchedness – finally subsided, he looked up, subliminally aware that he was not alone; a man sat cross-legged by the blanket he lay on, with the air of someone who has waited a long time. His head pounded from the motion.
“Good morning,” his – captor? – said, speaking accented Norse. That wasn’t unusual; many of the tribes learned a bit for trade. What was unusual was the man’s colouring; he was blonde, fair-skinned, blue-eyed – in fact his beard had the classic red-gold tint usually associated with MacRaghnalls, though he didn’t have the famous nose. But he was dressed like a native warrior, skins and beads, a metal trade axe – a sign of high status and wealth – hanging from his belt.
Vegard licked his lips, unsure what was going on. “Good morning,” he tried tentatively.
“I am Mukki,” the man said. “I am a citizen of the League. You, on the other hand, are a prisoner. Now there are two things that can happen to prisoners who have killed League citizens. You can be adopted to replace the man you slew.” Mukki paused, raising an eyebrow, but Vegard was too sick and confused to react visibly. What kind of people would adopt a prisoner? Did they expect him to become loyal to their savagery, a man who had noble blood? But perhaps it was a euphemism, or a bad translation; it might mean slavery. Mukki continued: “The other option is for the tribe to assuage the widow’s grief by burning your skin with flaming torches until you die.”
“I see,” Vegard said. ‘Adoption’ might be slavery, but it would still be preferable to death by torture; he tended to doubt that “flaming torches” was a euphemism. “And are you to judge in my case?”
“No; that will be done tonight, when you run the gauntlet. I’m here to give you fair warning. Don’t cry out, don’t scream, don’t even grimace in pain if you can help it. A coward is not a suitable replacement. If you would live, show no reaction to anything that’s done to you.”
“And after this treatment, you expect loyalty?”
Mukki smiled grimly. “Where are you going to run? And besides,” he shrugged, “some men do come to prefer the League over civilisation. The women do all the farming; men are expected to hunt, fight, and fuck. It’s a good life in many ways. Once you have a woman, especially if she bears children… well. Blood is a heavy bond. But it’s a moot point if you scream during the gauntlet.”
Vegard nodded. “Thank you for the warning.” He felt dizzy and strange, and quite unsure whether he could keep a stoic face if anyone so much as shouted at him. Perhaps if he had some water and food he would feel better. “Why are you telling me this?” he asked, looking sharply at Mukki. What was in it for him?
“I am a citizen of the League,” Mukki said. “But your question of loyalty was a good one. I am not fully trusted. Perhaps that can’t be helped; it’s not a bad life here, all told. But – perhaps if we were many Norse together, something might happen. There’s power in numbers, and power in allies. So – ” he shrugged. “Perhaps it will come to nothing. Not many people have the ability not to flinch from hard blows. But I’m a patient man. In ten years, in twenty, if this off-and-on war continues – there might be quite a few of us adopted into the tribes. And then – who knows? Not me. But this is a rich land. It would be good to become a power in it.” Mukki rose abruptly, signifying the end of the talk. “There’s water and food in that basket. I suggest you eat sparingly, to prepare for your ordeal. Onatah is particularly angry; this is the second husband she’s lost. You will have a job to convince her.”