Jarius of Squeakistan scanned his eyes across the unfamiliar Tundra spread before him. Pine trees and sparse tundra grass waved as the cool mountain breezes swirled across the untamed wilderness. His breath rose like curls of smoke, and twirled the snowflakes falling from the dull grey sky. Some ways south in the distance, past the hills and forests, was the boundary between the Squeakish Empire and Scandinavia.
Jarius squared his shoulders and drew his fur cloak around his neck a little tighter. Squeakistan was a warm county- he wasn't used to the cold southern climate. It would only get colder as the campaign continued, he reminded himself. Winter was coming, and Scandinavia wasn't famous for mild winters.
He turned around and surveyed his troops. He was commanding a group of about five hundred, men at arms and light cavalry, leading to meet the group of Squeakish troops preparing for the invasion. They were frightened, and morale was low. Many were green troops, who had brothers who had fought and died against the Greeks. A few were taking the weather much worse than Jarius was- coughing and sniffling while doing their best to struggle through their duties. This was Jarius's first major command, and he was as sure as anyone that the factors weren't completely in his favor.
The soft rhythm of hooves on the soggy permafrost brought Jarius away from his musings. He turned around to see a messenger galloping towards him. The rider dismounted quickly. "Message from Squeakopolis, milord!" he said, handing him a scroll bound in leather. Jarius read the message quickly, and motioned for his officers.
"We are to meet an envoy two tiles from here, on the border of Scandinavia. Prepare to leave, we must arrive before the turn ends. Organize your men quickly- we leave before the next watch." Tossing the scroll to a nearby aide, he walked into his tent. Addressing the messenger, he asked "Who is the envoy?"
"I know not milord. Only that he brings important news from the capitol."
Jarius sighed. "Very well. We must be going soon. I can only hope he brings good news. The men need…"
He didn't finish.
Instead he stared off over the vast borderlands, his mind lost in visions of the future.
Meanwhile, as Jarius was preparing his troops to leave, the Councils of Elders was meeting in the Scandinavian capital. Ragnar Lodbrok, Despot of the Vikings, was sitting at the head of the table, his gauntleted hand grasped around a mug of the finest Scandinavian wine. His clothes were of fine silk; his jewelry a mixture of jade and silver. Scandinavia, despite its lack of infrastructure, had a wealth of resources. Its frequent raids had also brought in a bunch of loot, and the Viking warlord was doing pretty well. So what if they were a little "behind the times?" So what if their wise men had not discovered the art of bridge-building yet? It was not in Scandinavia's interest. Nor would it be, Scandinavia's interest was Ragnar's interest.
The Scandinavian council had met to decide on the fate of the Squeakies. Recent forays by their scouts had indicated that Squeakish forces were beginning to assemble around the border of their cities, and it was time to take pre-emptive measures. Deliberations had been going on for hours, and it was beginning to bore Ragnar exceedingly. Only three fights had broken out, and only one of them resulted in someone breaking something other than teeth. Truly, the Vikings were growing soft.
At the moment, a burly red-bearded fellow, Gorfang the Bloody, was making a persuasive argument by banging his goblet on the table and sending splinters flying into the air about the council room. His supporters were concurring with oaths, chants, and banging chairs against the stone floor in a rhythmic fashion. His opponents were warming up for their rebuttal by drinking heavily and shouting loudly in true Viking fashion. Politics, thought Ragnar, truly was sophisticated business.
"Why do we care if they come?" yelled Gorfang. "So they come? We hit them with our axes, they die, and then we take their stuff! Like this!" He demonstrated by wildly swinging his axe and chopping off a decorative wooden carving off the fireplace, then pocketing it. Many heads nodded sagaciously at his pragmatism.
"Squeakies don't work like that! They have big bows!" bellowed a yellow-haired Viking named Slaven the Big Boot. He spread his arms wide to demonstrate bigness. "They'll shoot you like rabbits! Like this!" he grabbed a knife from the table and, aiming at Gorfang, threw it with deadly speed across the table.
It hit the man at Gorfang's left in the shoulder, who bellowed in shock and pulled it out slowly, grimacing in pain and rage.
"You hit my brother!!" growled Gorfang in anger. Then, after glancing at his brother to the left, who was trying to lick the wound clean, laughed. "You missed!"
His side of the table erupted in laughter, while Slaven slumped in his chair, sulking. Gorfang's brother, still clutching his shoulder, guffawed heartily.
Ragnar stood up and pounded the table with his goblet to get their attention, ale and foam flying everywhere. "Listen, Vikings! Squeakies are gonna come. There's no question about that. We gonna be ready. We gonna split their skulls and smash their faces! There no question of that neither. But I don't wanna fight Squeakies here. Kinda cold here, and winter's coming. Not fun. Let's go there. It's warmer where Squeakies live. Let's kill them there! Then we can have more loot! And, uh, hos-pee-tal-ee-tee!" He made a curving motion in the air, vaguely outlining an hourglass, with emphasis on a very round middle.
The men erupted in laughter and cheers. Banging their mugs and chairs, they began chanting and waving their axes in the air. Tradition demanded that once policy had been determined in the Viking government, support was to be shown by getting appropriately drunk and singing the Agreeing Song. Ragnar leant back in his throne with his hands behind his head, again mentally commenting that the Scandinavians had truly reached the peak of culture and civilization.
A few days later, at the appointed place, Jarius arrived at the appointed place given by Squeakopolis. The men had traveled at a breakneck pace, and they and their animals were very tired. Jarius had barely finished setting up his tent and ordering preparations for camp when a scout arrived with news of the envoy's arrival.
"Send him in." He motioned.
The envoy stepped him. He, on the other hand, did not seem tired at all. In fact, he looked as though he had not been riding at all. Jarius was puzzled, but the lengthy march had made him too tired to care. The envoy bowed, one fist over his heart. Jarius did the same, and the envoy began to speak.
"Captain Jarius. I bring important news from Emperor Nerdo himself. I am pleased to be the bearer of this assignment. It seems the Emperor has noticed your great efforts in serving the Squeakish Empire."
Jarius feigned disinterest, but was intrigued. Straight from the Emperor himself, he thought. That is big news indeed! However, his thoughts were with his men. However, Jarius was tired and in no mood for vain flatteries. Isolated from the rest of the army, he knew that his tired men were down in spirit. He feared desertion, maybe even rebellion.
The envoy, meanwhile had produced several scrolls similar to the ones Jarius had received earlier, as well as a small flat package, wrapped carefully in soft deerskin. He pulled out a large map which he spread on the table.
"These are orders for the invasion of Scandinavia," he said, motioned to the pile of scrolls. "Our main force is to stay around the border and press our way inward towards the heart of the Viking homeland. However, a few captains and their forces, including you, however, are to be sent on a secret mission, deep in the Viking homeland. You are to meet with a contingent of longbowmen and catapults here, and continue on towards your destination. Your mission is to find and take these two Viking cities."
"A contingent of longbowmen and siege weapons would surely aid in taking the cities, but how are we going to get past the Viking berserks? They will surely notice if we bring our forces in. I'm afraid my men are not experienced enough to be able to engage and defeat their forces alone."
"You aren't going to engage them, Captain. Your mission is secret! Stealth and speed are going to be key here, and surprise! We will sneak around this way, taking care not to be in sight of the Viking outposts. We will move quickly enough that they won't be able to stop us until it is too late! You must leave soon, Captain. I would begin to prepare your men for the march and meet the forces waiting for escort. Here are your orders." The envoy handed out the top two scrolls from the piles and began to head out of the tent. Jarius's patience had finally snapped, and he grabbed him by the shoulder to stop him.
"Wait a second, your Squeakiness. We have been traveling for days, my men are tired and are in need of rest. You are sending us to take two cities with no way to fight against the Viking berserks. We have no knights, no pikemen. We will be caught up and slaughtered by the Vikings before we are within four tiles of these cities! Just what is going on with Emperor Nerdo to send his troops to their certain deaths!"
The envoy raised a single eyebrow questioningly. "Such disloyalty, Jarius? Our Grand Squeakiness Nerdo has explained everything in his orders. Go ahead and open them before you make such judgments."
Jarius quickly ripped open the order, scanning it quickly. His eyes opened wide in surprise. His rage instantly abated, and he stared at the envoy with incomprehension.
"This letter was written only two days ago! The seal is even still fresh! How is possible? That means you would couldn't have left Squeakopolis but yesterday!"
"This morning, in fact," smiled the envoy. "And I will deliver three more before the day is over! The package on the table is yours- use it well, with the Emperor's blessing. And be sure to use it with your longbowmen and catapults. Good luck, Captain." The envoy stepped out, and Jarius stood dumbfounded listening to the fading sound of his horse galloping away.
He ran to the table and quickly unbound the deerskin package. Inside was a thin, rectangular metal object. He slowly moved his hand across the cool, grey item, feeling its perfect smoothness. He suddenly stood up and called for his guard.
"Milord?" asked the guard, stepping in a saluting.
"Tell the men to pack up camp and be ready for assembly. I mean to address them and tell them our new orders. We have much to do, and very little time to do it in." He smiled at the guard. "And don't worry about to much about the firewood and fur coats. The Vikings keep their castles warm all winter. Besides," he added, a glint in his eye, "I mean to be well settled in before the winter even starts!"