February 16th, 1509
Lodge of the Great Council, Federation Island (Georgina Island, Lake Simcoe)
The public business of the Great Council, of course, took place in the day, when the mats covering the openings in the walls were drawn aside to let in air and sunlight; that was when speeches were given and shows of hands made. It was in daylight that the Federation resolved on war and peace, treaty and alliance; it was in daylight that the war-arrow could be sent to all the Lakes, peace pipes to Sankt Anton, and treaty belts as far afield as fabled Edinburgh over the Eastern Ocean. It was, therefore, fitting that the actual decisions, as well as the public ones, should be made in the Lodge; and being both central to all the delegations and insulated against the wet February wind, it made a convenient meeting place. The Unceasing Flame burned low, giving enough light to make out each others’ faces, and filling the Lodge with sweet-scented smoke; it was a suitable setting for deciding the fate of nations.
“So,” Vegard said at length – more than forty years after his adoption, he still thought of himself by his birth name, although he had not been addressed by it for decades. “It seems Deganawidah will not come.”
“He still thinks we can fight and win,” Genessee said.
“Well. The view is not utterly without merit,” Vegard said judiciously. The others looked at him in surprise.
“You say this?” Otetiani asked. “Have you not been the chief of the peace faction these twenty years?”
“Yes,” Vegard agreed. “I did not say I agreed with Deganawidah. He thinks he is his namesake come again, and overestimates our fighting weight accordingly. I said that his view is not without merit. I believe we can force this war to a standstill, and make the conquest too expensive for the lords governor at St Anton. But the effort would bleed us white. In ten years, in twenty, they would come back with more men, more guns, more horses. And then, when we made treaty, it would be a victor’s peace. If we make concessions now, when we can still fight, we will preserve more of our freedom in the long run.”
Genessee cocked her head. “And isn’t it true,” she asked softly, “that in ten years, or twenty, you will no longer be among the chiefs who decide? Is Deganawidah the only one who wishes to make his mark in time?”
“Perhaps not,” Vegard returned, equally quiet. If Megedagik had lived, he might safely have entrusted his strategy to his son… but the fever had gotten him, the strong fighter who had survived a dozen campaigns and untold skirmishes. His daughters had not chosen to pursue power in the Council; his grandsons were too young. If he was to save his posterity from being ground to powder by the Great Powers of Europe, he would have to do it himself – and Genessee was right. He was an old man. He could not afford to wait for the next war.
“I could be mistaken,” he went on. “But do you really believe that we can come out of this war stronger than we are, or even with the same strength? We’ve already lost a thousand men. Yes, we’ve killed twice and three times that. But the Norse, and even worse, the Romans – they have the men to lose. We don’t. I was born across the Ocean, remember. I’ve seen. You haven’t. You cannot imagine it, the number of men in Europe. It is only the Ocean that keeps them all from coming here, that keeps their number to a trickle that we can, barely, fight on equal terms. And every year they build more ships. Every year more arrive at the docks than the year before.”
Genessee looked down; she had lost two sons in the failed ambush at Niagara. “No,” she said, low. “Even now we are weaker than we were. It is not right that parents should sing the rites for their children; but there are many who have done so. But… they will take our land!”
“She’s right,” Otetiani said. “The Norse turn forests into farms, wherever they go; that’s why they come here. If our children are just going to grub in fields all day, well, what’s the point of preserving their lives, for that? It’s like, like…” the simile eluded him; but Vegard understood.
“It’s as if a Norseman were to be offered citizenship in the League,” he said, with an ironic smile. “He need only abandon all that was important to him, everything he had envisioned for his life. As though a farmer, who had spent all his life tending his fields – his father’s and grandfather’s fields – and increasing their yield, were told that he could live, but he must become a hunter; and here is your bow and arrows, now go and put food on the table. I understand.”
The other two looked at him; they were much younger than he, of an age with his son Megedagik, and like many of their generation tended to forget that he had not been born to the League.
“Easy for you to speak of peace, then,” Genessee said, bitterly. “You were born that way.”
He shrugged. “I was; but I was adopted at twenty-two. All my adult life has been spent in the League. In any case, it’s precisely to preserve some semblance of our rule of these lands that I propose to make peace now, while we still have the strength to make it worthwhile for the Norse.”
Otetiani cocked his head. “What terms would you make, then, if not land for their settlers? What else do we have, that they want?”
“For the settlers, nothing. They want land, and only land. But theirs is not the final word. The nobles in Norway, the King in Edinburgh – they care nothing for land that has to be laboriously cleared before it becomes productive.”
“What do they want, then?” Otetiani leaned forward, interested; he understood factions and parties and conflicting interests among enemies. His parents had named him well; it wasn’t for his bloodline that he had become the youngest sachem in the League.
“Nothing tangible,” Vegard said. “There is nothing here that can justify the expense they’re going to. They want glory, prestige, the sheer status of having subjects in distant lands. If we offer them a yearly tithe of our fighting men, and formal submission – I believe they will be satisfied. Especially if we hint that we might offer the same to Rome.”
“Ahhh.” Otetiani sat back. His teeth glinted white in the dim firelight. “And thus we avoid dealing with the settlers entirely, and keep the thing both we and they want. But has he the power to enforce his bargains, this king?”
“A problem,” Vegard admitted. “Still, if the king’s troops stopped defending the settler forts, we could massacre enough of them to make the next batch think twice about encroaching on our lands. The Algonquin, well, they’d have to look out for themselves. But we’d keep our lands, without this constant draining war. Just some raids; we can live with that.”
“Yes.” Genessee looked doubtful. “But if we keep our lands, and the settlers surround them – won’t their sons or grandsons begin to look again at these forests? And then they’ll be so numerous that they can do without the king’s men. What will we do then?”
“I don’t know,” Vegard sighed. “Perhaps we can play Roman against Norse, Norse against Englander. Perhaps we can increase our numbers. Perhaps we can adopt or suborn some of the settlers.” And perhaps the horse will learn to sing, he added silently to himself. “But if we fight, we will be broken in this generation. If we buy time so that our grandchildren are the ones faced with the problem, well, that is worth doing and all we can do.”
“It will be as it must,” Genessee said; clearly she found the ritual phrase distasteful, but just as clearly she had no better option to propose. “We will make peace, then, and offer our fighting men to the Norse King, but no land to the settlers.”
Vegard relaxed; he had convinced them. His grandsons would not have to fight hopelessly – at least, not the king’s men; the settlers they could deal with, well enough. His posterity would be safe. And there would be time to ensure some of his family married into the Norse settlements, which were always short on women. In a hundred years he might have four dozen descendants, and some of them would be landowners.
“And who knows?” he said, mostly to himself. “Perhaps there will be justice in Norway, and subject peoples treated fairly.” He shook his head, negating the thought. Justice, yet! He was indeed getting old.