Part 55: A Scotsman In Egypt - Chapter 54King Bjorn of Denmark was an optimist.
He'd been struck through the belly with a sword during a skirmish with the Holy Roman Empire in his youth.... he'd lived.
He'd been ex-communicated by the Catholic Church.... Popes came and went, and this current Pope was old. Denmark would be reconciled.
Denmark's Treasury was stretched to the limit.... there were assets that could be sold to pay their debts.
The Viking Warriors had challenged his authority.... he organized for their extermination. Their ferocity on the battlefield had not been enough of an asset to accept their mutinous nature.
Scotland - the mightiest Empire in the world - had for some reason turned their wrath on Denmark.... but even the mightiest Empire had a weak point.
Bjorn sat in Council with his leading advisers, most trusted friends and influential Nobles, planning their response to Scotland's aggression. Many suggestions had been made, ranging from capitulation to bribery to defiance even unto the point of utter destruction. Bjorn had listened to them all, but from the outset his course of action had been set on.
"The mistake every Nation that had stood against Scotland has made," Bjorn spoke up smoothly as a burst of angry debate came to an end,"Was in trying to stack up to them and force them back man for man. Spain's King Mallobo almost got it right when he tried to use naval supremacy and reduced his military control to a single city, but Scotland overcame both obstacles. No, the key to defeating Scotland is not in matching their strength, but finding their weakness."
"And what is Scotland's weakness then?" asked one of the Noble Lords on the War Council,"Do you know some secret we do not?"
"Scotland's weakness is not in its armies, it is in its cities," smiled Bjorn,"And in this territory, they control Riga and Novgorod, two Russian Cities requiring constant Governance. King Domnall has called Angus the Mauler to join him in the field, believing that Roy Macgoulchane can govern Riga from a distance as well as Novgorod in person."
"And he cannot?" asked the Noble.
"Of course he can," sighed Bjorn,"There is a reason they chose him, he's a capable and well liked Governor as well as a competent General."
"Then how do w-"
"We kill him," grunted Bjorn, rolling his eyes,"We send an assassin and kill their Governor, and Riga and Novgorod will fall into anarchy, and Domnall Canmore will have no choice but to ride to the Cities to place them back under control. While things are at their most chaotic, we send Diplomats to sue for peace with Scotland, and diplomats to make peace with The Pope. Even if Scotland refuses our overtures of peace, with Denmark reconciled they will not be able to attack us without angering the Pope. And if the opposite should occur, then the Church will be forced to recognize that their great ally Scotland has accepted us as friends, and thus we shall be reconciled."
"But.... my King," muttered one old Advisor,"What if both the King of Scotland and The Pope refuse offers of peace and reconciliation?"
"Then we assassinate one or both," replied Bjorn simply, sounding almost bored,"It really couldn't be simpler."
In Novgorod, an alien presence moved through the halls of the Palace silently, gracefully, deadly. His name was Jesper of Hadsund, a cruel and humorless man who took no pleasure in his work, not even a grim satisfaction when the job was done. He did what he did because that was what he'd been trained all his life to do, and despite his natural abilities and chameleon like nature, he had no desire to do anything else.
He did not drink, gamble or bed woman, man, child or animal. When he was not following his orders, he lived a monastic existence in which he ate, trained, slept and did little else. His imagination stretched only so far as how best to execute his orders, and he felt neither regret nor resentment for his life. It was all he had ever known, and all he would ever know until the day he died.
A drunken man's singing echoed down the turns of the many hallways of the Palace, though Jesper had been aware of his presence long before the noise became audible. Jesper sunk into the shadows and reduced his breathing to barely nothing as the drunken man - a servant - staggered by. Jesper could smell sweat and vodka on the man in almost equal amounts, which did not surprise him. Macgoulchane had retained most of the servants who had served in the Palace throughout their lives, and now that the Russian Winter had returned, they were finding heat where they could after their daily duties ended.
Jesper remained in place long after the servant was gone, then crept out of the shadows and moved silently through the dark halls again until he reached the sleeping quarters of Roy Macgoulchane. He entered quietly, his eyes all ready attuned to the darkness and picking out the slumbering form of the Governor. His hand slid into a hidden pocket in his tunic and removed a small blade, just enough to slit the man's throat quickly and quietly. Moving with preternatural silence, he moved to the side of the bed an-
Jesper of Hadsund collapsed to the ground bonelessly, dying as he lived - silently.
Roy sat up in the bed gasping in surprise, eyes wide and mouth opening to call for a guard, only to be stifled when the hand of his savior clamped down over his lips.
"Shhh," hushed Farquar Makfulchiane,"There is a dead assassin on the floor, do nae make me hurt a guard who thinks he is defending ye."
Roy heard the Scottish accent and visibly relaxed, and the hand over his mouth was pulled away. Macgoulchane heard rustling in the dark, and then a lantern was lit and Roy found himself facing Scotland's deadliest assassin, Farquar The Killer. He looked down at the slumped corpse of Jesper and back up at Farquar, and the question was evident in his face - why?
"I received orders to be here in case Denmark's King Bjorn was smart enough to try and throw Scotland's new Russian Territories into chaos," spoke Farquar calmly,"Apparently he is smart, and has very good assassins at his disposal, I almost didn't see him when I passed by him in the halls disguised as a drunken servant."
"The... the Danish King tried to have me killed?" gasped Roy, who despite being a member of the Nobility had never expected to be noticed by the "greats" of the world,"He... he tried to have me killed!"
"Aye lad," nodded Farquar,"While King Domnall and Angus the Mauler travel through the winter fields to war, ye sit here in Novgorod with a target on ye back.... what do ye intend to do about that?"
Roy stared wide-eyed at Farquar, and then finally his racing mind slowed, and Farquar smiled as he saw the Governor start to think.
"What am I going to do?" Roy said, and smiled,"What they'd nae expect me to."
As far North as civilized man had settled, close to the Northern Edge of the world, lay Helsinki. The Fortress City was one of Denmark's forgotten holdings, or so the Garrison Commander - Captain Knud - sometimes believed. Years would pass between visits by Danish Nobility, and decades since the last Danish King had come their way. Helsinki held no strategic value other than that it was a place in the frozen North where man could live in relative comfort.
Knud has served as Garrison Commander for close to a decade now, and in all that time had only seen combat once, crushing a half-starved tiny bandit camp. That had happened at the start of Spring five years earlier, and Helsinki had been at peace since then. He certainly did not expect any troubles, especially in the midst of the cold, bitter Winters Helsinki suffered through.
So the sight that greeted him from the walls this cold morning was the last thing he'd expected.
"Are they wearing.... kilts?" asked Knud in disbelief,"The Scottish are here?"
"The Scottish are here," nodded the man beside him,"You know what this means, Captain?"
"Oh yes," nodded Knud grimly,"We're fucked, aren't we?"
"If ye're cold, lads, warm up ye blood and get through that gate!" cried Roy, and his men charged forward towards the shattered gate. As they rushed ahead, Macgoulchane held back a shiver that wanted to run through his body and for the 1000th time questioned the wisdom of taking a force of men North to Helsinki in the midst of Winter. It was something Angus the Mauler would do, or King Domnall... not him.... and that was why he was here, because if he acted in a way that Denmark's King Bjorn's did not expect, then King Bjorn wouldn't think of him as an easy target to use to get an advantage over Scotland.
Just inside the smashed gates of Helsinki, Norse Swordsmen - the bastard offspring of the Vikings - stood waiting for the Scots to come. None of them were under any illusion that they could win this battle, everyone knew the reputation of the Demon Scots, and if they'd come in the midst of Winter then only one man could be leading them.
The mad Scotsman, Angus the Mauler.
But they were proud of their lineage, even if they were not proud of their King. Many had questioned the wisdom of Bjorn wiping out the Vikings, oddly enough citing the example of the way the Scottish had made the Highlanders their elite fighters. Now that decision was going to be the end of them, but if the Norse were going to die, they meant to die in a way that would have made the Vikings proud.
The Norse drove against the mercenary spearmen who took the vanguard aggressively, slashing and cutting with their swords, breaking through spears and shields, cutting down men by the dozen. The Spearmen fought back ferociously, plunging first spears and then swords into the Norsemen, but struggling to make forward progress through the gate.
The grim resolution of the Swordsmen began to shift towards shock and delight as they realized they could hold back the Spearmen, and pressed forward with renewed vigor.
"Is this it!?!" laughed one Norseman,"Is THIS the mighty Scotland!?!"
"Nae, lad!" laughed a fresh voice,"THIS is!"
And the Norse looked past the Spearmen they were fighting, and saw the Scottish Noble Pikemen come marching through the gate.
To say that the Norse broke would have been a lie. There really weren't any Norse TO break, once the Pikemen got within reach of the Swordsmen, they slaughtered them, till only twenty were left from over 100, staggering in horror back from the pile of their dead brethren.
The Dismounted Huscarls that had rushed down from the walls to aid the Norse Swordsmen saw them running and quickly joined them, charging through the snow laden streets to the interior Fortress Courtyard, where Captain Knud had gathered together as many of the trained Town Militia he could.
"Come with me, men," Knud ordered as he watched the Huscarls and surviving Swordsmen rush back through the gate,"They'll be bringing their catapult forward first to blast through the gate.... if we can destroy their catapults or at least the men controlling them, we can hold them off within the inner fortress until reinforcements arrive."
"Captain, surely they'll have men riding in support?" asked one of the militia men, obviously not enthralled with the idea.
"Probably," acknowledged Knud, who knew his men too well to lie to them,"But we have little other choice.... and the Scottish are arrogant, maybe we'll get lucky."
They moved through the gates, Knud marching them over the snowy hill and towards the exterior city gate.... and Knud discovered that today really wasn't his lucky day.
"PUSH ON! PUSH ON TO THE CATAPULT!" roared Knud as the Scottish surrounded them. He stormed ahead, lifting tired legs through the deep snow, slashing with his sword at any Scotsman who got too close, trying to keep them clear so he and the men following him could reach the catapults and destroy them. And then he saw them, far in the distance, pushed forward slowly along the ice-slick paved roads, but coming closer.
"There is it, men!" he cried out in delight, and looked behind him for the first time and saw how many of his men had followed him,"Men?"
"SHIT!" he screamed, forgetting all about the catapults and his earlier words that this was their only chance, and turned back towards the Inner Fortress.
He heard the thunder of hooves as the Scottish Cavalry rode down on his men and heard their screams of terror, and felt it as well. He knew as well as they that it must be Angus the Mauler leading that charge, and that turned his blood to ice. He staggered directly through the Scottish, ducking and weaving more out of instinct than anything else, still taking cuts and blows but somehow, miraculously coming through the other side still alive. Of the 150 men who he had taken with him out of the relative safety of the inner courtyard, only himself and one other survived. They stared at each other with the same panic in their eyes, and then turn and ran side by side for the seemingly impossible goal of the gate.
Somehow, impossibly, they made it to the gate. Knud gasped with relief even as he heard the thunder of hooves growing louder and louder in his ears. He looked through the gate and up the walls, where the Huscarls stood staring with wide eyes at him, and he realized that his run had been for nothing.
They weren't going to open the gates for him.
The hooves stopped and behind him, Knud heard the movement of the horses, their breath, the clink of armor and the grunts of the men controlling them.... and then the sound of a single horse approaching him.
"Order them to open the gates, lad," said the voice of the Scotsman, friendly and almost conversational.
"They won't open the gates," he replied, panting harshly, trying to keep his terror from overwhelming him,"And even if they would, I won't give that order."
"Then ye're nae any use to us, are ye lad?" asked the Scotsman in the same conversational tone, and Knud closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable.
"General!" reported one of Roy's men as he pulled his Cavalry back from the gate,"The Danes managed to open fire from the walls and set fire to one of the catapults!"
"Damn it," cursed Roy angrily,"Make sure they protect the one we've got left, that Trebuchet is nae going to fit under the gate, the catapult is all we have left to break through."
"The gate is down, get in there men, and finish these troublesome bastards off!" Roy snapped, and his men moved instantly to respond. He was not Angus the Mauler, but they'd all learnt to respect his command over the years. They charged up the hill and through the shattered remnants of the gate, and captured Roy Macgoulchane the Fortress of Helsinki.
"I bet ye did nae see that one coming, did ye, Bjorn," grinned Macgoulchane,"Or ye either, Angus, ye crazy old bastard."
Roy looked about him at the corpse littered courtyard, sitting high on his horse within a city that HE had just conquered.
He was beginning to see why Angus loved this type of thing.
Angus loved this type of thing.
A Danish Captain named Inge had been leading roughly 850 men to rendezvous with another 500 riding down from the North. Together they had intended to ride Southwest to Thorn, to reinforce the garrison of 200 stationed there. They had believed that moving through the Winter snows would protect them, that Scotland would not move out of their newly conquered cities in Winter.
They'd thought wrong.
King Domnall has crushed the garrison at Thorn, and Angus had wiped out the reserve army that Inge was marching to meet. He'd hoped to lay an ambush for Inge as well, but word had gotten to the man through his scouts of the fate waiting for him, and he'd instantly turned South to march to the capital Vilnius, where a large garrison would be happy to have their numbers reinforced.
Now Angus was giving chase, delighting in making a larger army run from him. He had only 600 under his command, but his reputation had spread throughout Denmark, and now the name Angus the Mauler was enough to make men tremble. He meant to hound and chase Captain Inge all the way to Vilnius if need be, and kill as many of his men as he could. Then he would turn West and join up with King Domnall, and explain to his King a few things about how to fight this war. The King was a tough old bastard, he had to be to rule Scotland, but he was getting on in years now, and Angus meant to show him that it was time to hand over control of the armies and all warfare to him.
It was his destiny.
Captain Inge pushed his men on, moving through forest and field through HIS land, and that rankled him most of all. He was retreating from his homeland from an invading force smaller than the one at his command. For a proud Dane, it was almost too much to bear.
They crested the hill and found themselves within the large hollow where an old abandoned ring of standing stones was all that remained of the heresy that had once reigned supreme in the now Catholic Nation. Despite the faith of the Danes (despite King Bjorn's ex-communication) they still held a pagan fear of such places, but their fear of Angus the Mauler kept them moving forward despite it.
"This bastard trebuchet is slowing us up," grunted Inge as they paused at the top of the hill to organize their men to move the large siege weapon down the hill,"I'd say we should abandon it if I didn't think they could use it at Vilnius."
"We have maybe a day's lead on the Mauler, Captain," noted his Huscarl Commander,"Maybe we should take the time to go around this site, some of the men...."
"Some of the men would rather live, I'm sure," grunted Inge,"Besides, we.... what the hell is that?"
His Commander frowned, and followed Inge's gaze. He looked over the hollow, the standing stones, the upward slope and the forest and.... he saw it, a glint of light on metal, and he felt his heart sink.
"We've walked into a trap, Captain," he moaned.
Waiting for them on the other side of the hollow, with 1300 men, was King Domnall Canmore.