Reign of Are II, Jarl of Vestlandet
May 25th, 1125
This wasn't the first time Tor had lit a funeral pyre to hasten the ascendancy of a loved one, but this would be the hardest one, he thought as he jammed another torch into the loose woodwork.
Harald had died, finally, two days earlier. He had been chained to his bed for the past six months, and barely awake for some time now – until he simply stopped breathing one night. The cancer in Harald's gut had been grisly business. The seeping blood and foul smells had been constants for the past year – no way for a man to die, Harald had once remarked grimly. Climbing down, Tor realized that in a way, he was relieved that it was over – and not just for the sake of his brother. This brush with mortality and the death of his youngest brother had reminded him that he, too, was ageing. Maybe he had already grown old? The entire court seemed to regard him as some kind of ancient, immovable constant – and could he blame them? He had survived most of their grandparents and a good few of their parents.
Two years from now, he would celebrate his 70th name day, and he could still swing a sword harder than most of them. His oldest nephew – well, counting out the bastard – stood close to the pyre, flanked by his step-mother and her flock of children. Are looked eerily like a young Harald – tall, lanky, and straw-haired – except the young Jarl kept his hair cropped short. He barely had time to come of age before his father died, and now he was set to manage a fourth of the Kingdom. And with that quick head of his, everyone expected him to be granted his father's old position on the Queen's council. The boy had his work cut out for him.
Tor could only hope his own sons would be staunch supporters and good advisors.
Are sat in his father's study. His study, he corrected himself. He was Jarl now – and felt completely lost. He knew, technically, what to do, but he had expected to be filled by some profound sense of purpose now that he ruled Vestlandet. Well, on behalf of the Queen, but still. The Jarldom was rich and powerful. But what should he … Do?
He turned to look at a strategic map, detailing their holdings in Karelia and greater Finland. The Swedes had taken the southern parts of it – but the were still large territories loosely held by scattered tribes. Further east, bordering the Siberian waste, some kind of steppe people herded their flocks. Bulgars, his father had called them, and advised strongly against making war on them. They didn't settle down and build farms, but lived their lives on horseback – which meant, essentially, that the entire population were dangerous and capable warriors. Besides, stretching their dominion that far east seemed risky without a stronger base of power in central Finland. What about the northernmost peninsula that stretched eastwards? Control of that would allow easy access to all of central Finland via the sea – and could serve as a forward base if the Bulgars ever threatened to move west. Kola, it was annotated on the map.
He needed some way to exert the force of Vestlandet, to show that the Jarldom would not be content to sit and wait. If he lead the campaign himself...
Are's musings were interrupted by heavy knocking on the study doors. Hand on the dagger whose scabbard he always carried at the back of his belt, Are got up and approached the door. “Yes?”
Muffled voices responded from the outside. “Visitors, Jarl!”
Are opened the door, and found two guardsmen outside. “Who?”
“Well, ah... “
Are raised an eyebrow.
The guardsman found his tongue. “One of them's expected – the lady from Gardarike and her retinue.”
Are nodded. He didn't know what to expect from his betrothed. He had never met her before, the marriage had been arranged – unbeknownst to him – some years ago by his father. The lady, bearing the relatively unflattering name Boleslava, had some connection to the House Rurikovich. The Rurikovich men had, by now, united all the petty kings and chiefs in Garaland to an enormous Kingdom – just like his father had predicted. Nikita Rurikovich called himself King of All Rus. Even though the Rus lands were collectively known as Gardariket in Norway, it hadn't really ever been a coherent Kingdom before – the Rurikovich rulers tended to breed profusely and then split their domain between a vast brood of sons. King Nikita seemed to have no such plans.
Harald had also insisted that Boleslava was a bright young woman with diverse talents, and that Are would enjoy her company very much. He could only hope so – breaking the betrothal would be a slight the Gardamenn couldn't accept.
Are nodded. “And the other one?”
“A priest, Jarl. Says he has 'very important information' – but he won't tell anyone but you.”
“Really. Did he have a name?”
“Uh – I suppose his mother must have given him one, but I'll be damned if I can remember it, Jarl. Uh – Vidkun? Gudleik – something?” A more high-strung Jarl might have been offended. Are was not. The guardsman still apologized when he realized that his words might be taken as insolence.
Are waved it away. “Nevermind. I'll deal with the Priest first. Send him in, under guard.”
The Priest turned out to be a toady-looking man in ragged robes. He looked like he had travelled across the country to get here. As it turned out, he had.
“My name is Vigleik Gudbrandsson,” he introduced himself. “And I have some very important news for you, Jarl.”
“Your name sounds familiar, but I don't know if I've ever met you before.”
“Ah – I believe your father and uncle were once acquainted with me. I …”
The priest struggled to move on. Are said nothing. “I serve Queen Gyda as her Court Chaplain, advisor, and occasional confidante.”
Are remembered, then. The priest was often thought to be Queen Gyda's right hand. Are had never met Vigleik – or the Queen, for that matter – but he knew of him.
“What is this important information you have?”
“Yes, straight to the matter at hand.” Vigleik folded his hands. “The Queen wants to take advantage of your father's untimely death – she has been fantasizing about revenge ever since she was humiliated in the civil war.”
Are thought that was faintly amusing – The Queen was still smarting from her defeat, nearly a decade later? The rest of the news, however, had him focused. “What is she planning?”
“She wants to take back Akershus.”
Are's mind was working in overdrive. Akershus wasn't terribly important, Are thought – it was more or less empty now, but functioned as a home away from home for the Jarl of anyone from his court who were doing business in the eastern part of the country. Harald had stayed there during the busy parts of his tenure as royal steward. The Queen probably knew this, and only wanted to demonstrate her power, as well as make the Åsanemenn lose face. If she wanted to destroy them, she would have to come at them in Bergenhus.
“I see,” replied Are. “She must have some kind of pretext?”
“Yes,” the priest sighed. “She has – try not to laugh – a flamboyantly false document stating that Akershus must always be a part of the royal demesne.”
Are leaned back. If the Queen stayed on this course, he could very well end up leading the Jarldom through another civil war. “If you've had time to learn this and then travel here, why hasn't the Queen done anything?”
The Priest shook his head. “I've known since knowledge of your father's condition first became common enough that the Queen knew. I haven't been able to get away – she was waiting for your father to die. Of course, you and your uncle have muddled her plans by being so amicable and well-organized through it all...”
“How noble, wanting to capitalize on our family's troubles.”
“The Queen is … The Queen,” Vigleik opined wearily. There was always a rational core in what she did, he had come to realize, but that core was always obscured by layer upon layer with incoherent, half-mad schemes.
Are didn't really suspect that the Queen would be clever enough to have sent Vigleik here with misinformation in order to make Vestlandet play into some grander scheme on her part – but he had to be certain.
“Tell me, Vigleik,” Are began calmly. The priest abruptly sat at attention. “By being here, I suppose you're betraying your master?”
“Well, she has never explicitly forbid visiting – frankly, I don't think the possibility ever crossed her mind –“
Are cut him off. “If you would betray your master, why should I trust you?”
“No, I – what?” Vigleik rubbed his forehead frantically.
“Maybe I should simply have you killed – you did come here bearing threats from the Queen, after all...”
“I did no such thing!” Vigleiked shrieked. “I came in good faith, to warn you – I'm doing you a favour!” He was out of his chair, sweating, and backing slowly away from Are.
“Sit down, Priest.”
“I have risked everything – everything! – to warn you!”
Vigleik was waving his finger furiously at Are.
“Why – what … What do you mean, why?”
Are stepped forward and nudged Vigleik's chest, forcing him back into the chair.
“Think, Vigleik. You have a history of ill will towards our house – and now you come bearing news that the Queen is plotting against us.” Are sat back down. “Why? What do you stand to gain from this?”
Vigleik exhaled slowly. “Right now, I suspect I shall receive nothing.” He leaned forward, talking in a high-pitched, fevered voice. “But you must understand – I want to avoid a civil war, Jarl. For all my faults, and, I know you of all, must consider them many – even I can see that the Kingdom would suffer.” Are nodded, and Vigleik continued: “The Swedes, the Danes, even the Finns – we are surrounded by potential enemies. Surely you already know this –“
“If you too know all this, why haven't you convinced the Queen to pursue something more productive than endless plotting against her own Jarls?”
Vigleik remembered with dread his attempts to do so. His many, many attempts. “How I have tried, Jarl – but she is blind. Or perhaps blinded. She could have been a good Queen – that's what I thought when I first arrived at her court – but her ill-fated civil war and the humiliation inflicted on her by your father must have pushed her over some kind of edge.”
“Is she mad?”
“Not quite. Maybe. Whatever she is, she becomes less suited to run a Kingdom with each passing day.”
“You do realize, Vigleik, that even with your warning, actually preventing the Queen from instigating a civil war is going to hard, if not impossible?”
Vigleik swallowed. This was what he had feared, but he knew what he must do. “Yes – and that is part of why I have come. You must make sure that you have the support of your father's old allies – at the very least one of them – if a civil war should again divide the Kingdom.”
Are would have tried to secure their alliance either way, but Vigleik had clearly throught this through to some degree. “Go on.”
“It's very simple, Jarl – the Queen wants a war, and probably will get one – and you must be victorious!”
Are raised an eyebrow. “That would likely mean the end of your tenure as Court Chaplain.”
“I am aware of what I stand to gain and lose, thank you.”
“If the Queen provokes another war and then loses, she'll lose the throne – you realize this?”
“Yes. That's why you must win. The Jarls must elect a new King. Someone capable.”
Are thought of the various Jarls. One of them would be elected if a majority of the Jarls supported his candidacy – and they could all vote for themselves if they wanted, though in the end, whoever doled out the most favours and otherwise seemed the most able candidate would be King. Tryggve, his father's old friend and ally would be the logical candidate. He was experienced, ruled a large Jarldom, and of Yngling blood. No one – perhaps the Queen's Orkneyan lapdogs – would support the Queen's daughter by her Dane husband.
“You have my thanks for bringing me this information, Vigleik. Now I need you to return to Vestfold.”
Vigleik looked aghast. “Why?”
“If you remain here, the Queen will know you betrayed her. Go back to Vestfold and … Do what you normally do.” Whatever that is, Are thought. “I personally guarantee your safety if there's a war, and also if Queen Gyda loses it – as long as you don't do anything to deliberately jeopardize it.”
Vigleik nodded, resignatedly. “I hadn't thought of this, but – of course.” He stood, and made to leave.
“Priest!” Are called. “My men will take you by ship as far as Akershus. And – I suggest you get a change of clothes before you ride back to Skiningssal.”
The Priest bowed his way out.
Are went back to the desk, looking at the map. He could take Kola before the Queen did anything.
Time to meet my wife-to-be, he thought, and braced himself as he called for the guardsman outside his door.
Boleslava Nikiteva didn't think this northern Kingdom was quite as cold as everyone had claimed, but there were other things to marvel at. Her homeland was crisscrossed with rivers and streams, most large enough for small boats to travel down them. Here, no one seemed to have – or even know of – river boats. And why should they? It seemed that whereever she was, she needed only turn to either side and the open sea would be there.
Their long, flat boats were also strange – oddly elegant, in a way, but decidedly alien. The trip north had been long, and there had been much time to sit and let her thoughts idly drift. She knew she was important, but not in any official capacity. Her name indicated that she was the daughter of one Nikitia – but not many knew that her father was King Nikita I of all the Rus from Kiev to Novgorod. She had been born out of wedlock, and so was no Princess – just a seamstress' daughter. A conspicuously well-fed and comfortable seamstress, perhaps, but nonetheless a commoner. Boleslava also knew that her father cared a great deal for her, supposedly because she was his first child, illegitimate or not.
She had always thought she was destined for greater things than sewing dresses for other, better women – and suddenly an envoy in expensive clothing had arrived in her mother's house, and informed them that Boleslava would be betrothed to a young man in the Kingdom of Norway. The young man would be a Jarl – what they called Dukes, she thought – one day. A rather powerful one, too. The Rus traded more with the Swedes than the Norwegians, she had heard some riverboat traders mention once, but the precise geography of the northern Kingdoms had been unclear to her before. Truth be told, it still was, but she knew now that Norway stretched along the west coast, west of Sweden, north of Denmark.
She relished the prospect of marrying into power, although not knowing anything about her husband in advance unsettled her. What if he was a brute? She had plenty of practice swatting away hands that wandered too far underneath her skirt, but that wouldn't work indefinitely if they were actually married. She said a prayer.
When she arrived, a large pyre in the courtyard was still aglow with embers. “The old Jarl – I mean, the new Jarl's father, he just died,” one of her guides said helpfully. The Jarl, she thought. Wait, did that mean …
“Excuse me, guardsman –“ she started.
“The Jarl – is he young?”
“I dare say – youngest Jarl I ever saw, that's for sure. Barely a man grown, come of age just this past winter, he did.”
So her husband-to-be was already Jarl. That was a pleasant surprise. Of course, she reminded herself, that also meant that her husband had just lost her father. The concept of even having a father was a little arcane to her – Boleslava's own mother had sworn herself to celibacy after giving birth only once – but she knew that most boys worshipped their fathers.
She tried to think of how to greet her betrothed. Something was occupying him, she was told. Some important guest had arrived unexpectedly just before her. She was getting fidgety and impatient, when the door into the hall opened, and a tall figure was illuminated by the hallway torchlight.
The man who approached her was clearly no older than she was, but a head or two taller, and short, straw-coloured hair. He certainly looked the part of a nobleman.
As he approached, she curtsied uncertainly.
“Welcome to Bergenhus, Boleslava Nikiteva,” he said. “You – look very pretty.” He bowed back, more than a little flustered.