Thursday, September 30, 2010


Harald III of Norway, aka Harald Sigurdsson, aka Harald Hardrada died at Stamford Bridge near York on 25 September 1066, or 944 years ago last Saturday[1]. He failed in his bid to become the 3rd King of England that year. He's sadly neglected by most popular histories[2] in favour of William I of England[3], Harold Godwinson, and Edward the Confessor, who were all kings of England[4]. So today's questions are: Who was he? and What was he doing in Yorkshire?

Who was he?

Harald was the half-brother of Olaf II of Norway[5]. Olaf was king of Norway until 1030, when he was defeated and killed by a man named Canute[6]. Canute, already king of England and Denmark, was now king of Norway as well, with an empire stretching from the North Cape to the Isles of Scilly[7]. Olaf's most hardcore supporters went into exile in Kievan Rus, where Harald emerged as their leader.

Harald seems to have wanted to marry the daughter of the Yaroslav the Wise, but Yaroslav was reluctant to let a penniless exile do so. As the leader of 500 or so warriors, Harald had the traditional viking options available to him to improve his situation; stealing loot, stealing and ransoming (or enslaving) people, and stealing entire countries. He went for another tradition neglected by history: mercenary.

Harald became a general in command of the Varangian Guard, the foreign bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors in Constantinople. The theory was that foreigners were unable to become emperor, so the Emperors were safer with foreign bodyguards. In the seven years Harald was Bodyguard in Chief three emperors died[8] and each time he either looted the treasury or was paid off by the new Emperor, or maybe a bit of both. He became fabulously wealthy and returned to Kiev where he married Yarolslav's daughter Elisabeth.

Meanwhile Canute had died. Norway was ruled by Magnus II (known as the Good), the illegitimate son of Saint Olaf[9]. Harald thought his claim was better. War was avoided as they negotiated. Then after two years of compacts, treaties and agreements being made and broken Magnus suddenly died and Harald sole king.

Why was he in Yorkshire?

Harald's first order of business was Magnus' inheritance. After the death of Canute, Magnus had made a deal with Canute's son Harthacanute[10], who was facing a challenge from his half brother Harold Harefoot. According to the treaty, if either died without an heir, the other would inherit his kingdom. As Magnus' heir, Harald claimed the crown of Denmark and (possibly as an afterthought) England. He then spent most of the next 20 years, and all his incredible wealth, trying to keep Denmark conquered.

Eventually he gave up. At this moment Tostig Godwinson, brother of Harold of England, arrived at his court. Tostig had been removed as Earl of Northumbria, as his policies the previous year had nearly plunged the country into civil war. Furious with his brother for removing him, and then taking the throne of England, Tostig encouraged Harald to take up his claim, offering his supporters and declaring that the English of Danish and Norse ancestry would prefer the heir of Canute over that of Harald. Out of money, Harald gathered 300 longships and an army of 15 000 and invaded. Defeating the local forces, Harald then fatally split his army.

Rather than surrender, Harold headed north in a forced march. According to legend he offered Tostig back his Earldom if he would turn on his ally. When asked what they'd offer Harald, he replied six feet of English soil - or as much more as was needed as he was taller than most men. As I gave away at the start, Harald was killed in the battle. Of the 300 ships, only 24 made it home. Traditionally this is considered the end of the viking age.


Hardrada is usually translated as Hard Rule or Hard Ruler. Stern Counsel is another translation, which perhaps gives us a little more insight into Harald's mind.

How hard was he?

He fought across the Mediterranean, Russia and Poland as well as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and England. Only two men seem to have got the better of him - Harold Godwinson, Warlord of England for 10 years for Edward the Confessor and Canute, known as the Great.

[1] Ignoring, as I traditionally do, the transition between Julian and Gregorian calenders.
[2] Although that's changing
[3] Aka William the Conqueror, and formerly known as William the Bastard. You know if everyone called me Guillaume le Bâtard I might invade a country to try and get them to stop.
[4] Today I, like history, will ignore Edgar the Ætheling
[5] Aka Olaf the Big, later known as Saint Olaf.
[6] Or, as we're in Norway at this point, Knut.
[7] This is the traditional description of Canute's realm.
[8] I count about 70 Emperors in the 809 years between 395 and 1204, giving an average of 11 years per Emperor. How's that foreign bodyguard working out for you guys?
[9] Sainting was a lot more fun in those days
[10] "Hardy Canute" - In Denmark his official name seems to have been Knut III Hardaknut. The whole nicknaming thing in Medieval Scandinavia probably needs it's own post.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lone Wolf: Chasm of Doom

A long way to the South in Sommerland is the mining province of Ruanon. Every month a convoy of metal wealth comes north like clockwork. Until now. When it failed to turn up, a troop of cavalry under Captain D'Val went to investigate, but they have failed to report. This is clearly the fault of Vonotar the Traitor[1] and we will not rest until... what's that? He was caught and thrown into the plane of Daziarn from which there is no escape (honest!) in the last book? Hmm. Anyway this needs investigating so the King sends his best agent Banedon the wiz... what? He's off on some quest to do with Elder Magi, Dwarves and a flying ship? Sounds very unlikely. In that case you - Lone Wolf, now a Warmarn or Journeyman Kai[2] - will have to take a look, along with 50 elite Border Rangers.

Lone Wolf rides south, encounters travelling entertainers, an ominous prophecy and clues. Bandits steal most of the horses, leading to the unusual decision to send most of the rangers north[3]. Attacked again, Lone Wolf is forced into the mines, where he discovers that the miners have been enslaved by Vassagonian bandits. Sneaking through the mines Lone Wolf gets to Ruanon, to find it in ruins, but with D'Val's company barricaded and under siege. They chase Lone Wolf with dogs, which backfires when an archer shooting at me gets attacked by one. Heh heh. A serious battle ensues.

Ruanon is on the near the Maakengorge, on which are the ruins of Maaken[4] where the legendary King Ulnar slew the Darklord Vashna. But is seems Vashna is only Mostly Dead and the ambiguous prophecy suggests that if the Baron's daughter is sacrificed with Vashna's dagger at the next significant phase of the moon - three days time - Vashna will rise again. A Vassagonian Warlord named Barraka now has daughter, dagger and intends to raise the most powerful of the Darklords.

This would be a non-optimal end to the mission.

Battle over, Lone Wolf heads off alone[5] to try and sneak through the bandit force. To cut a long story short, he does so, kills Barraka, then makes a desperate last stand against his vengeful forces. At the moment when the only option seems to be to throw the Dagger of Vashna into the Chasm (followed, one presumes, by the daughter and Lone Wolf's self) the cavalry arrive.

Anyway it's well paced - three acts, the first one heading south figuring out what the hell[6] is going on and clashing with bandits, the second one the battle followed by the big reveal, then the third act a tense race against time to stop Vashna's resurrection. What's most important of course is that we've shown the Vassagonians we can't be messed around with. That'll be the last we hear from them I'll wager.

[1] If Sommerland weren't such a noble land I'd be tempted to suggest that the government and in particular the intelligence community were trying to distract attention from their manifest failures during the war with the Darklords by blaming everything on a scapegoat - Vonotar the Traitor. But they are noble and just (it probably says so somewhere) so I won't.
[2] I think this is a gender differentiation. In the fiction Lone Wolf is canonically male, but as far as I can tell his/her gender is not unambiguously spelt out in the gamebooks (so far). Partly this is due to my introduction via the front cover of Flight of a hooded, thin, lank-haired androgynous figure (see here).
[3] I was being thorough and obvious, which makes sense if you're a cavalry troop. The other strategy would be to try and be inconspicuous, in which case half a dozen rangers would make more sense. Also, where were the Rangers when the Darklords attacked the Kai monastery? There needs to be an investigation into their failures... oh it turns out it was all the fault of Vonatar the traitor.
[4] In the Maaken range, which holds the Maaken mines and borders the Maakenmire swamp.
[5] It's in the name!
[6] I assume that if Lone Wolf swears it will be things like "By the Sun!" and "Into the Dark with it!" - language that to us is comically non-sweary, but to Sommerlanders a bit fruity, but without edging over into being salty.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lone Wolf: The Caverns of Kalte

Who betrayed us to the Darklords? Vonotar the Traitor!

Who told them the Kai Lords would all be celebrating at their monastery (as they have on that day for hundreds of years)? Vonotar the Traitor!

Who told the Darklords that their unprecedented airmobile attack would take Sommerland by surprise? Vonotar the Traitor!

Who told the Darklords of the ancient and famous alliance between Sommerland and Durenor and that an envoy would be sent to summon the Durenese? Vonotar the Traitor!

Who tried, but failed, to stop the Durenese fleet? Vonotar the Traitor!

Who annoyed Banedon the Wizard who is apparently making a name for himself amongst the Brotherhood of the Crystal Star, but has only had cameo appearances so far? Vonotar the Traitor!

Vonotar has overthrown Brumalmarc, the leader of the Ice Barbarians. Obviously this cannot be allowed to stan, so you - Lone Wolf - head to Kalte to interfere with the government of a sovereign country bring him to justice.

Lone Wolf sails north and has to cross the frozen wastes to the Ice Fortress of Ikaya. The usual hazards of arctic travel - bad weather, dangerous ice, equipment failing - occur, along with the more exotic threat of the Ice Barbarians who turn up on skis with child-archers on their backs. Getting away from them, you inevitably end up in the eponymous caverns, and wander through the various paths there. The Sommersword comes in hand facing an undead being called Akraa'Neonar, and after you rescue a wizard called Loi-Kynar, Vonotar is beaten and you're teleported back to your ship. Vonotar is thrown through the Shadow Gate to the plane of Daziarn from where no one ever returns. No one. Ever. (See Book 11 The Prisoners of Time and World of Lone Wolf Book 3 Beyond the Nightmare Gate)

Kalte is quite well written - the weirdness of the fortress, which was created by the ancients to imprison the Ice Demons was good, and the obligatory furry serpents had a twist. Overall a good first journey out of the Lastlands.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lone Wolf: Fire on the Water

Fire on the Water begins shortly after the end of Flight from the Dark. The Darklords' armies have laid siege to Holmgard so the king decides to send you - Lone Wolf - to Durenor to remind them of the treaty and get some help.

Almost immediately you're waylaid by traitors, and the ship you're on is damaged and then sunk by saboteurs halfway to your destination. Catching a coach, it's attacked by a Kraan[1]. And one of your fellow passengers attempts to assassinate you[3]. If you get through that and manage to navigate the bureaucracy at Port Bax, undead Helghasts, immune to normal weapons, dropped off by Kraan[4] try to stop you in the mountains.

Assuming you get through, and haven't lost the Seal of Hammerdal, the Durenese mobilise for war and set sail for Holmgard. They also give you the Sommersword, a +8 sword of Undead-slaying. Which is fortunate as the Durenese fleet is attacked by a fleet of zombie-crewed Death-hulks, lead by the traitor wizard Vonatar[5]. Getting through that, the Sommersword uses the power of the sun to destroy the Darklord Zagarna, after which the Draklord army flees in panic. Sommerland is saved!

This book has differences in style to Flight. There are more "pick a random number to find out what happens" and less "You can go this way through the woods, or you can go that way through the woods, but you may as well pick at random". Lone Wolf seems better equipped to deal with the countryside in Flight than the towns he finds himself in in Fire. Rather than the "regular" Giak forces[6] of Flight, we meet a lot of saboteurs and agents and "special" undead forces. If I have a problem with it, it's that the undead Helgahst are introduced as unstoppable without a magic weapon, but then you very swiftly end up with the ultimate undead killing tool. And get to keep it for the rest of the series.

Anyway so much for Fire on the Water. My only problem is that Vonatar the traitor[5] got away. Grr. If only there was an adventure to hunt him down.

[1] A black, leathery winged flying creature used by the Darklords for their airmobile attack, but also used in a close air support role. "Kraan!" goes up the cry when they fly past. "Kraan!" "Kraan!" "Nazgûl[2]! Sorry, Kraan!"
[2] Technically one should call "Winged Nazgûl!" but presumably if they were riding horses one would be more likely to have time to add detail.
[3] Hint: It's the one who looks evil in the portraits.
[4] Kraan!
[5] Vonatar! [Shakes fist]
[6] Regular in this case including the cold-blooded reptilian Gourgaz

Monday, September 20, 2010

Lone Wolf: Flight from the Dark

I discovered the Joe Dever Lone Wolf gamebooks are online here. Clearly, there's only one thing to do: play through and review them here, hopefully at the rate of one a day[1].

So Flight from the Dark. You are Lone Wolf (formerly Silent Wolf), training to be a Kai Lord at their monastery[2]. Unfortunately all of the Kai are wiped out in a sneak attack at the start of the book leaving you the only survivor. Obviously you make a run for it across Sommerland, which is being invaded by the Darklord's armies, to the capital to tell them that their most powerful force has been wiped out. If you make it, you're greeted surprisingly positively by the King, especially as his only son gets killed on the way. It seems that they have a job for you and only a Kai will do[3].

One of the interesting things about the books is that you're often given the choice to run away or hide, or generally act like a coward cautiously as well as being able to be all gung ho and fight-crazy, even when the plot doesn't require sneaking. These types of books (and games) usually make you a sneaker or a fighter, while in Lone Wolf you can decide how you want to act. My first try I was all up for a fight and died, which sucked, but my second go I ran away a lot, although I rescued a few people along the way, including a young journeyman mage, who I suspect has a great future ahead of him.

Score so far: 6 Giaks, 1 Burrowcrawler, 1 Gourgaz, 1 Cryptspawn

[1] Embarrassingly I was killed by a Burrow Crawler and had to start again, which begs the question of what I'm going to do if that happens by the time I get to book 16; do I have to go back to book 1 or just from the last savepoint (start the book again). Any thoughts?

[2] I think of the Kai as some sort of hideous cross between Knight's Templar, the Cult of the Assassins and Shaolin monks, as presented in popular media, but that's me.

[3] The Story So Far section makes the later "last of the Kai" theme I recall a bit problematic:

In the northern land of Sommerlund, it has been the custom for many centuries to send the children of the Warrior Lords to the monastery of Kai. There they are taught the skills and disciplines of their noble fathers.

The Kai monks are masters of their art, and the children in their charge love and respect them in spite of the hardships of their training. For one day when they have finally learnt the secret skills of the Kai, they will return to their homes equipped in mind and body to defend themselves against the constant threat of war from the Darklords of the west.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I Cook Food: Nan's Cherry Cake

8 oz plain flour
1.5 level teaspoons baking powder
1 oz ground almonds
6 oz soft marge
6 oz caster sugar
2 standard eggs
6 oz glace cherries
1 level tablespoon plain flour

Grease and line a 2 lb loaf tin with greased greaseproof paper. Sift flour and baking powder. Add almonds, marge, sugar and eggs into a bowl, beat well with wooden spoon for 2-3 minutes until ingredients are thoroughly blended. Wash glace cherries and pat dry on kitchen paper then cut in halves. Wash again, dry and coat with the tablespoon of flour. Reserve about 2 oz of the cherries. Add remaining cherries to mixture and stir through.

Turn mixture into prepared loaf tin and smooth over surface. Scatter reserved cherries over top. Cook in centre of a moderately slow oven (mark 3 - 160 C - 325 F) for 1.5 - 1.75 hours till well risen and cooked through. Remove from tin by holding the paper lining the tin. Strip off paper carefully and leave cake to cool on wire rack.

This may have been the first thing I ever "cooked" at the age of 6, when my Nan was looking after me for the day. I was, of course, too young to know that cooking is for girls, and ever since have declared baking the manliest of arts.

As I baked this for Mum's birthday yesterday, I did slightly sex up the recipe.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

I Cook Food: Cold Turkey Salad

Some lettuce, shredded
Some tomatoes, cut up
Some cucumber, cut up
Some preserved vegetables, cut into pieces

Piece of ginger, grated
Garlic clove, crushed
Chilli, finely diced
A couple of drops of fish sauce
A good glug of soy sauce
A large splash of white wine vinegar
Quite a bit of olive oil

Layer the salad pieces on top of the lettuce in a bowl. In a different bowl thoroughly mix up the dressing (amounts to taste). Shortly before serving, stir the dressing again, and pour over the salad.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Overanalysis of the Day

Mystery Jets, Two Doors Down.

Whilst listening to this when I was struck by this lyric (0:22 - 0:30):
Maybe I should call her up, invite her around
Or maybe I should move to another town

And he spins the globe and his finger ends up in South East Asia.

Now that's a feeling I've had that doesn't get much attention in pop music: the panic you feel when you suddenly realise that you really really like someone, and it could be really, really serious. On the other hand fleeing to the other side of the world seems a bit extreme.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Despair Revisited

Back when I was making a futile attempt to hide my despair I actually came up with all the boxes and keys, and a couple of the riddles. The riddles are all rubbish, but I quite liked my idea of the plutonium chest with a uranium key. That's the kind of puzzle I want my legendary heroes tackling.

(If you know what's going on, then it's simple[1]; make a copy of the key from a non-radioactive material. Preferably from about a mile away. The tricky part is if you don't recognise a plutonium key when you see one)

[1] In full supervillain mode I am now plotting a lock that is sub-critical when locked, but critical when open.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Conversation of the Wedding

[The Scene: Jim, the groom, has had 4 different people talk to him while wearing my lucky[1] wedding tie]

Jim: I thought I told you not to bring that hideous tie to... wait. I told you not to wear it, didn't I.
Me: Yes you did!
Jim: Shit.

[1] It is, of course, lucky for the people getting married, not for me.