February 19th, 1935
A street in the wealthy district of Copenhagen
The mob was singing, raising their spirits for another charge. The sound was a bit ragged, but even at a hundred meters the massed male voices pushed their message clearly enough across the barricades. The song was the homegrown anthem of the Norwegian communists: Say what you will, and think what you can, and call him a thief and a highway man; this praise he shall have, for it’s rightly his due: He steals from the rich and he gives to the poor. Olav had to smile a little; Internasjonalen would surely have been better as a rallying cry – it even had “victory we know is ours” right there in the chorus. But no, even these communists who wanted to break down the barriers of borders and races – when the chips were down, they chose to honour one of their own. And to state their goals plainly, he reminded himself, and returned his attention to the ditch that defended his possessions.
In his increasingly-distant youth, Olav had been an officer in the Indian War, and had seen his share of trenches; and the one currently standing between him and the mob of Copenhagen was not impressive. It had been hastily scratched out of the street using shovels meant for gardening, not war; he had to stoop to get his head below the level of the cobblestones. Pipes for sewer and gas split it into two parts, a deadly explosion hazard if the enemy had any mortars – but then, if either side had had any heavy weapons, the street fighting would not have lasted a week. In any case, it didn’t take much of a trench to form an effective protection against rifle fire; almost anything could be held, if the men defending it were brave. On that score, at least, Olav was comforted. His guards were, by ancient treaty and compact, recruited from the ancestral MacRaghnall lands in Scotland, thus placing them outside Norwegian politics while still giving them a tie of blood and loyalty to the dynasty. The same treaty that gave him the right to recruit in lands ruled by the Britism Empire forbade him to use the men in foreign wars – and so the MacRaghnall Guards were the last formation of regular soldiers in Scandinavia. The demands of the War had stripped every peacetime garrison, conscription and railroads had moved three million young men to fight in the Sahel – and the Communists had seen their chance.
“We’ll not hold if they come again, sir.” The captain of his Guards had been hit a few days earlier, and bits of his brain were still stuck to Olav’s uniform, which he hadn’t had a chance to change. The speaker was named Tam, and had been third in command before the rising. Like his men, he was stocky and broad, built for compact strength rather than athleticism; his beard was the famous red-gold, the same as Olav’s had been before he went grey – or would have been, had it not been liberally splattered with the mud of Copenhagen’s streets.
Olav pressed his lips together, but did not openly disagree with the man in charge of his troops; if his Empire had shrunk down to this bit of street, still there was a right and a wrong way to run it, and undermining your subordinates was never a good idea. “If they come,” he said instead. “They’re not showing much eagerness to run into the rifles again – songs or no songs.”
“They’ll come,” Tam said. “They don’t lack for brave men, at any rate. And they must know we’re running short on bullets.”
The Communists were indeed brave, that was beyond dispute; many of them were veterans of the bloody Nile Campaign – Olav had seen peg legs and hook hands in the last charge, along with grey hairs and not a few women. There were not many unwounded men of fighting age left in Norway, this February of 1935. He addressed the second half of Tam’s argument: “Must they? It’s hard to see the other side of the hill; and they’re not ten feet tall any more than we are.”
“True.” Tam paused, thinking. “Still, no, they’ll come. They won’t give up now, when they’ve almost won. Have you noticed how quiet it’s been lately? No rifle fire. I think we may be the last loyalists still fighting.”
“And the Armee d’Elbe still three days away.” It had galled Olav, to have to support his rule on foreign bayonets – but the French had had the closest available troops, and needs must when Communism drove. Now it seemed that the foreign bayonets wouldn’t even be in time. And what else can you expect from the French? he thought but did not say.
“Yes, sir.” Tam didn’t say the obvious, that three days might as well have been three years; they might hold until nightfall, if they’d cowed the mob sufficiently – but if indeed they were the last holdouts, there was no question of making it through the night. The rebels would send men to infiltrate the houses and gardens around them, and work their way around and in close; then it would all be over except for the bayonetings.
“Very well.” Olav straightened his shoulders and back, then remembered to keep his head below the level of the trench. If there was no rescue coming, then nothing was left except dignity – style, if you liked. He was an old man, and would not have many years left in any case; his sons were leading corps and armies in the Sahel, his wife had died the years before. His decisions would affect only himself, and these last few loyal men that had fought for him literally to the last ditch. He summoned twenty generations of warrior ancestors to his side.
“We’ll attack, then,” he said.
Tam blinked, then looked at the rebels’ barricade. It was a flimsy thing, improvised from furniture and a few trees; laughable on a serious battlefield against modern weaponry – but formidable enough, if stoutly defended, against men armed only with rifles and running out of bullets.
“You plan to break out?” Tam asked, looking back from the barricade to his men – the forty men, many of them wounded, that were left of the whole company that the MacRaghnall Guards assigned to the security of the King. “Get past them, out into the streets, maybe make it to the harbour and take a ship for Sweden?”
“Or England,” Olav half agreed. He hadn’t, in fact, had any such plan in mind; what he wanted was to avoid being captured by the rebels. There was no better guarantee of a dynasty’s end than to have a king executed, even if his heir might later return at the head of an army; once the sanctity of kings was broken it was all over bar the election of a Hereditary President-for-Life. To die in battle was something else entirely; that way, he might even give a new impetus to the MacRaghnall mystique. Blood sacrifices had power, even in these times of aircraft and tanks; there weren’t many people who were really so modern as they thought they were. It was a pity to take the Guards down with him, but after all they had eaten his salt and taken oath to fight for him to the last – and anyway, who knew? Maybe Tam’s idea of the breakout would actually work.
“Bread and salt,” Tam sighed, perhaps reminding himself of that oath. “Aye, well, it may work. Better than trying to defend this last ditch, anyway. That rarely ends well.”
“Bayonets, then?” Olav suggested, and Tam nodded decisively. “Bayonets it is,” he agreed, going down the line to give the order himself; his leather-lunged sergeant-major had bled out the day before, and anyway, why give the rebels fair warning? Olav busied himself with his pistol; a symbolic weapon, he’d always thought, there to remind people that in the final analysis MacRaghnall rule rested on force. He’d never fired a weapon in anger, he realised; even as a young Kaptein in India, he’d given orders to the artillerymen who served the huge guns, but never personally killed anyone. A first time for everything, he thought, mordantly amused; so there could be new experiences even for men past their three-score and ten.
By the time he’d checked that the bullets rested correctly in the chamber and flicked a piece of mud out of the action, the Guards were ready; Tam nodded. “Give the word, sire, and we’ll follow.”
“Yes.” Olav took a deep breath, then vaulted out of the last ditch, fear and exaltation giving his old limbs a burst of near-youthful strength. “MacRaghnall!” he shouted; and behind him, his Guards followed the last king of that dynasty into the attack.