Took longer to do this than I thought, got a little bit of writer's block at the beginning. Finally broke through it though.
democratickid: Well, I exaggerate with old, it's not THAT bad. xD It can actually run full spec MTW:II pretty well, it just can't run Bioshock, Fallout 3 or anything like that... Also, thanks. :P
Spothisto: Well, if all you had seen in that update was her in-game portrait, wouldn't you want to be finding a way out?! In all fairness though, he's trying to be a good man for now...that is his brother's wife, after all. ;)
Fiftypence: You don't even know the half of it.
Alfred Packer: It is my first indeed, but it is far from my first piece of writing. I've been writing stories since I was five or so, though only in more recent years did they get anywhere near decent. ;) I did a fair amount of research from other AARs too.
Enewald: Useless? Maybe, but it gives me plenty of writing material to work with. ;) And yes, he does look a bit strange...I tried to explain it by calling him a fatty. xD
Rabid Bogling: *Ponders which Alf this is...*
Christian V: Uh oh, one of them natives! *Gets out the stick.* ;D I'll try my best to continue pleasing you, and do forgive any mistakes towards your culture and history I may end up making!
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Chapter 03 - Punishment and Crime
October 22nd, 1067
Søborg Chapel was in a rather somber state - its stone walls echoed from songs of choirs past. Though small and humble, it was a House of God nonetheless, and Skjalm offered it his deepest respect, bowing his head as he entered. Quickly making his way to the altar, he offered a hurried prayer and sign of the cross, before looking up to see the equally somber face of Father Anders, the local priest. Skjalm rose to meet the priest's gaze.
"Anders, I've no time for formalities," he said, interrupting the priest as he began to bow slightly, ready to spit out his pre-memorized greeting. "I'm here to see my brother Auden, please take me to him immediately."
Anders took in the words slowly then nodded and led him through a door into the back room. The Bishop Hvide came into view, crouched over an oaken table, perched upon his stool, poring over some old book. Anders cleared his throat awkwardly, glancing back at Skjalm, then to Auden, before beginning. "Your Grace, the Duke of Sjælland wishes to speak with you."
Skjalm brushed past the holy man and waved dismissively, familiar enough with his own brother to ignore such technicalities. "Auden...my brother! I must speak to you in private at once."
Auden blinked and slipped a piece of cloth betwixt the crease where two pages met, and closed his book. "Very well...what is it you wanted to speak of, Skjalm? You do not look at all well, my brother. Have you been sleeping?"
"Sleeping, yes...yes, I've been sleeping, that's part of the problem." Skjalm grumbled and glanced back at the door, seeing the retreating back of the priest. "Auden, we must talk in private, away from any prying ears."
His brother's eyebrow arched curiously, but he did not question, and merely stood. "Very well, let us take a walk. There is a trail through the nearby orchards, I'm sure we can find some quiet there." The bishop rose from his stool and led the way towards the chapel's side door and out into the autumn morning, warm sun beaming down one last time, a reminder of the summer before the bitter cold grip of winter came to steal it away from the year once and for all.
"Søborg Chapel, where Auden Tokesen Hvide stayed during his trips to Sjælland's new capital."
Skjalm, once confident they were reasonably safe, turned to his brother as they walked. "Auden...I am having dreams. Nightmares, more like...of hell. Of Satan's touch, corrupting all I know to evil, and turning everyone I trust against me. I fear God is questioning my faith, and the Devil may be tempting my soul. This comes in the wake of...impious thoughts concerning my wife's inability to bear children. I need help, brother. I need help returning to the righteous path."
Auden stopped, and seemed thoughtful. "You have quite a predicament brother, but that you accept this and come to the cloth with such passion to restore your faith...Skjalm, I do not think hell will ever see your soul touch it. You are a noble man, of pure blood and intent. God has a plan for you, and I am sure these dreams are nothing more than messages for you, messages through which you may divine a greater purpose. If you but put your faith in God and his Wisdom, and follow the path he has laid out for you, I am sure all of your problems will be solved."
The Hertug of Sjælland frowned, his chubby cheeks wrinkling noticably, then gestured to the 'path' before them, nothing more than a slight indentation in the sea of red, orange and yellow which consumed the orchard floor. "How, brother, can one see the right path through all these leaves? Could one not be walking a dangerous path without ever knowing, because one presumed?"
That elicited a frown in return. Frowns from his brother were a rare thing. "Skjalm...faith is the only answer. I cannot tell you what God's plan is, only God may do that, and if your dreams truly are God speaking to you, then in time you will learn what he wants you to do. Just pay attention to the signs, and have faith. Faith is the most important thing you can do for him."
Skjalm cast his eyes downward, then turned back towards the Chapel. "I must pray for awhile, brother...thank you. I think I understand what you mean."
As the portly Duke retreated, Auden slowly shook his head. "My brother...I fear his lack of trust will be the death of him."
----- -=-=- ----- -=-=- -----
Skjalm spent most of the day in prayer, refusing any offers of food, and accepting only water as drink. He prayed for many things. He prayed for his family, for himself, for Denmark, and most importantly, for a child. Of all things in this world, the thing Skjalm desired most of all was a son and heir to his legacy. Scholars of the time claimed that upon that day, Skjalm was blessed, and received a vision of what was to come, for he emerged from the chapel with a new sense of strength and purpose. Father Anders Ulfsen Møller wrote later that 'The Duke of Sjælland emerged from our humble chapel...a changed man, bathed in the light of heaven, the wings of an angel behind him, and a halo of gold about his head, proclaiming his sainthood to all living beings.'
This account was written some fifteen years after the fact, and is widely considered to be a gross exaggeration. What is known is that Skjalm undertook a visible change in determination and strength after his prayers, and his apparent change in demeanour may have been blessed, for it was known upon his return to Søborg Castle that evening that his wife Signe was pregnant, and Skjalm's faith was completely and utterly restored. Unbeknownst to the celebrating Hvide family, though, their happiness was not to be.
"Within hours of Skjalm's newfound change of heart, he learned of Signe's pregnancy."
The autumn skies turn to grey winter, and winter snows blanketed the land for many months. Asbjørn and Ingrid had a daughter during this time, named Anna, a frail runt who was the concern of her mother and father, for even young in her life, she seemed prone to illness. Despite this time spent with the child, Ingrid was with child within a month, and the winter eventually turned to spring, and spring to the hot July summer, when it happened.
Signe's pregnancy was finished, but no joys were to meet them upon the fateful day. Skjalm's world was shattered, as the child he had so looked forward to was stillborn, a lifeless husk, worth nothing to anyone. In Skjalm's eyes, in this moment, God had forsaken and betrayed him, and one of the most pious of nobles in Denmark was stilled by troubled thought. With his wife in their estate near Køpmannæhafn and the rest of his court away on various business trips, Skjalm lurked alone, with none to bother him. He remained this way for weeks, only allowing servants to deliver him food and wine, and drowning his sorrows in it. Despair had overtaken the King, and for a moment, it seemed there was little he could do.
----- -=-=- ----- -=-=- -----
August 12th, 1068
There was silence in the chambers, and Skjalm sat at his table, staring blankly at the wood below him. It had not been long since his child was born dead, and he had given up hope in God's plan. What God, he reasoned, would spite him in such a manner. His wife had fallen into such a depression she would not speak to anyone, not even him, and he feared Sjælland would fall into disrepair without strong hands at the reins. His Marshal had done an excellent job, for in a year and a half, his Duchy had become one of the most powerful of the Kingdom, capable of fielding some 1,200 men, including almost 400 huskarls. All were well-equipped and had received good training. When Skjalm gave the word, they would be ready to move, and even now, the training grounds near Roskilde would be training new men, issuing new arms and ensuring Denmark would be strong enough to fight a war.
He had been so lost in thought that he hadn't even noticed the soft footsteps behind him, or the quiet rustle as the secret door opened, and Gro, his Spymistress, emerged from the shadows.
"You look so hopeless, my liege..." Gro said, her face plastered with a frown.
Skjalm jumped and looked up, almost reaching for his dagger. "Gro...you scared me half to death. I didn't realize you had returned from Jylland. Good news?"
Gro nodded. "I spoke to my informants, and it seems the Germans truly have reunited their Empire. Thanks to their Treaty with France, no vassal dares turn against them, and the calls for a western mercenaries by the Byzantines has gone unnoticed. News suggests their war against the Saracens is going poorly, and that if Christendom does not unite to fight the infidel as one, all of the west may be at their mercy. This has gone completely unnoticed to the King of Germany, whose Teutonic Empire has turned its gaze north to our Pagan neighbours. News has reached my ears of a military buildup along the borders of the Tribe of Mecklenburg. Clearly the Germans are planning an invasion."
"And of our plans?" Skjalm said half-heartedly, as if uninterested.
"...Well, the King seems unaware still. I think we will catch him by surprise, but he will act fast once he realizes what's going on. We will be stealing his glory, after all. I have the latest reports on the Mecklenburg Tribe's army...I don't think you'll like it. They have over 3,000 warriors, some 200 of which are elite heavy cavalry, armed in the manner of Frankish knights. I am no military expert, but I do believe that means we will have troubles overcoming them even with German aid."
The Duke nodded disdainfully. "Even their inferior troops will pose some threat to us in those numbers. I'll try and have Asbjørn step up the speed of training if we can. Anything else of note you wish to tell me?"
"Gro Svensdatter Knýtling, Princess of Denmark and Wife of Bishop Auden Tokesen Hvide."
"Just...one more thing, my liege." She leaned in close. "Your melancholy, my lord...it strikes us all. Sjælland needs a strong leader, something to unite it against Denmark's foes, and to make our heritage great once more. It needs a man who won't hesitate, who will act against all of God's enemies, and who will reunite the viking people under the cross and one crown. To show the world that we are more than pagan savages, but a force to be reckoned with!"
Skjalm blinked, taken aback by the passion he saw in her eyes. "Gro...I..."
She shook her head. "My liege, you must, simply must, do this. My father will never be able to bring Denmark to greatness. You can. I know you are in pain, but you have proven your wife can get pregnant once...maybe she can again. And maybe you will have another child regardless, maybe everything will go well. Maybe when you need it most, you will reach out and take the comforting hand offered to you."
Skjalm hesitated, feeling something he had not felt for nearly a month, as Gro's breath fell upon his face. He reached up, pulled her close and kissed her, unable to resist the temptation.
His brother's wife offered him more than just a comforting hand that night.
----- -=-=- ----- -=-=- -----
May 3rd, 1069
"-nd clearly the forestry operations will expedite the process of creating new homes and farming implements in the south. It will cost in the area of 24,000 pfennings to set up the operations, but if we start saving now, we could afford it by the end of the month."
The doors of the castle's great hall burst open, interrupting a rather pale Signe's words. A rather pale, disheveled looking Gro burst in. Skjalm was surprised and immediately uncomfortable - he had not seen her since the "incident", for she had left to investigate matters on the mainland, with his approval. "My lord! News, my lord! From Saxony! Heinrich has declared war on the Tribe of Mecklenburg!"
Skjalm hesitated for a moment, then picked himself up out of his chair, taking a deep breath. "Signe, fetch the servants, I need my armour. Asbjørn, you already know what you need to do. I want everyone rallied at Helsingør before the week is out. We go south to war, for God and Denmark!"
"The Danish fleet gathers near the port of Køpmannæhafn. The Danish army lit great bonfires and partied long in the night before departing, working up their morale. It was the first great assemblage of Viking strength in years."
----- -=-=- ----- -=-=- -----
After no less than three events to woo the spymistress, I eventually gave in and decided to let Skjalm go through with it. Now the ball starts to roll, with war on the horizon and strength in his arms, Skjalm's about to declare war on a rival with over twice the military of his little Duchy. Will his plan work, or will he be crushed beneath their superior numbers? Or worse, will King Svend rush in at the last minute to save the day with a surprise peace treaty, taking the lands for himself? Only time will tell!