Prologue – Part I
27th of January, 1088 Anno Domini
Søborg Castle, Hertugdømme of Sjælland
First it came from the north. It was still and silent but as time passed it grew in intensity. A cold wind was the first sign of its coming, so bitter that it chilled men through fur and skin and caressed their very bones. With it came the frost, and then the first snowfall of the winter. White powder danced its way down from clouds of dark grey, slowly entombing the land in its icy embrace. Green life became extinguished and replaced by a blanket of white serenity.
From Søborg's walls, Harald Audensen watched the coming of winter in awe. The winter had been quite warm and dry up until this point and most of the people were surprised at the sudden chill that overtook Sjælland. The young man had always enjoyed the rain and the snow, despite the difficulties and dangers it presented. There was something about the serenity of it that soothed him. It distracted him from the world, from-
“Brother!” a voice called from further down the wall. Harald turned to the source, his younger brother Erik. The youth was waving to him somewhat urgently from the west wall, and shouted again. “Come quickly, you must see this!”
Harald sighed, disappointed to be interrupted from his peaceful thoughts. Since he first left Søborg for the Livonian campaign two years ago, Harald had found little in the way of peace and relaxation. Even as a youth, his life had been more about work and discipline than freedom and enjoyment and once again duties called to him. Turning, he carefully walked down the stone parapets, wrapping the heavy fur cloak around his figure to protect from the snow. He had grown through his experiences into a tall, strong man of good reputation. His father and Uncle Skjalm had placed their faith in him, expected him to lead the Hvide Clan into future glories. Now he just needed to convince the Ting that faith in him was well-founded.
Harald Audensen was regarded by most as the natural successor to his father Auden, despite his many brothers as competitors. His talent and ability were thus far unmatched in the North, in spite of his youth.
“Erik?” Harald leaned into one of the crenelations as he reached his brother. “What's going on?”
His brother merely pointed into the distance. Harald squinted and peered across the landscape, trying to see what it was through the snow and mist. At first, nothing jumped out as unusual, but then he caught sight of movement – lots of movement.
“Are those soldiers?” Harald frowned. “Red...they're garbed in red.”
“Who would be marching on Søborg at this time of year? And more importantly why haven't we heard of it?”
“It must be the King.” Harald's lip quivered slightly in repressed anger. “He's likely coming to try and influence the Hvidesting. Damn, we should have held it yesterday when everyone was present but him.”
“Is he coming as a friend or an enemy, do you think?” Erik looked to the older brother, concerned. “The Hvidesting is certain to make you our Chief without his interference.”
“Jens wouldn't come here just to put his faith in me, that's too simple for marching all this way with a host like that.” The young heir to the Hvide clan moved to the steps and began to carefully descend. “We need to make preparations, come quickly brother. Jens will likely try to place someone friendlier to him in power.”
Jens was King of Denmark thanks to the support of the Hvide founder Skjalm Tokesen, and had been raised in the court alongside Harald.
“But how can he?” Erik followed. “Your father is dead, and the Hvide leadership is chosen by us, not by the King.”
“Haven't you been paying attention in those fancy lessons of yours?” Harald looked up at Erik, somewhat befuddled. “He can't prevent me from becoming leader of the Hvide, not if the Hvide all agree to it. By the laws we have established, however, he could convince the Tings of the various lands in our demesne that I am not a suitable ruler. Watch your step.”
Erik had nearly slipped on a patch of ice, but had caught himself on a notch in the stone wall. “Meaning that the lands we have worked hard to earn...” The youth's eyes widened as he realized what Harald meant.
Harald shook his head. “I won't let the King dictate the future of our lands, or steal our hard work.” He gestured to one of the guards. “Send word into the village, the King is coming with his men. The villagers and my army are to immediately retreat into the walls as a precaution. Hurry! He is not far. Erik, go and inform the Ting what is happening, but keep the calm, the last thing we need is a panic.”
His brother nodded and left immediately, while Harald set himself to prepare a potential defence. He had never let an enemy catch him unawares, and he knew that if Jens had brought enough men to attack this place, the entire leadership of the Hvide Clan and its demesne could be wiped out by a surprise assault. Even if he survived such an attack, he would never again be seen as a safe liege. He sincerely hoped that the boy he grew up with had not become so power-hungry or foolish.
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The column of heavily armoured riders came to a halt before the village, gazing up at Søborg's walls. The cluster of huts that formed the peasants' homes were clearly deserted and it was obvious that there were many men on the walls watching them.
“Why have we stopped?” An irritable voice shouted, nudging his horse forward through the ranks until at last he emerged from the crowd. The mounted Hirdmen at the head of King Jens' host were blocked by a line of heavily armoured Sjællanders, garbed in the white and red colours of the Hvide Clan's huskarls.
“Why do you block our way, men? Do you not know this is the King's host, come to visit Søborg in this cold winter?”
“It is by my order, Jens!” Said a tall one at the back. Jens squinted, and it took him a few seconds to recognize the large figure.
“By God, Harald, is that you?” The young king seemed genuinely surprised. “You're not the boy you used to be, for sure. Why do your men block my path, why is this village so ill to welcome my presence? Are you displeased to see me, cousin?”
“You? Not at all.” Harald frowned. “Your friends, on the other hand, seem to be rather well-armed for a simple visit. I had to take precautions.”
“As did I, Harald.” Jens put on a toothy smile. “Caution is advisable these days, surely you heard how the Dal tried to kill King Stenkilsen last year. Even a King may not always be safe in their own lands, and I will not fall prey to some crazed pagan or power-hungry jarl who thinks it's in his best interest to end his master's life.”
Harald's expression did not change. “Precautions are understandable, cousin, but you can trust the Hvide. Regardless, I cannot give your men berth, for our own walls are full of my forces, who are too many even to all sleep in proper beds. There is plenty of room at the riverside for your men to camp, if you wish it. May I ask what brings you to Søborg, of all places?”
“The Hvidesting, of course, Harald. This is not just a matter of importance to you and your vassals, Harald; it is a matter of importance for all Danes.” He looked to his army, then up to the castle. “You can't expect me to go into Søborg without any defences, can you? Allow me to bring some loyal men, at least.”
“Ten.” Harald said coldly.
“Two-score.” Jens replied, his smile fading slightly.
“Make it twenty and five. The Hvide welcome you to Søborg, cousin.” Harald grunted and waved to his men, walking away without a further word.
Jens watched the lordling walk away and his smile faded. One of the King's gloved fists clenched the hilt of his sword tightly and a curse was whispered under his breath. The Hvide had grown far too strong over the previous two decades; their great success in the Baltic had made them figures of public adoration while his own clan slipped in prestige. His own clan, the Kings of Norway and Sweden, all had become secondary to the walking folk tale that was the Hvide. Their success in the Crusades were objects of song and legend and their vast holdings on the Baltic Shores were too dangerous. The capture of his uncle in a battle not long ago had been the last straw – the Hvide needed to be contained.
Harald had successfully captured Jens' uncle Olaf and forced him to surrender his Jylland demesne to Hertug-Biskop Auden. Hvide power in Denmark was greater than ever before and the Knýtlings were nervous.
“What's the plan, cousin?” A thin, hissing voice spoke to him.
Jens looked to his companion. “Your brother has underestimated us, Ernst. It's time to make you a Chief and put an end to his manipulations and lies.”
Ernst was Harald Audensen's bastard half-brother, although most of the courts were unaware of this. He now came to claim leadership of Hvide for himself.
“And once I am in power...” Ernst grinned, a mad glint in his eyes. “Harald and everyone else who crossed me will pay...”