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Harald: Prologue

       Last updated: Friday, September 16, 2005 19:50 EDT



Wolf, Cat and Lady

    Aliana could see tents going down, pack mules being rounded up and loaded. In the yard before the hostel two men were saddling horses. Uphill, wardens with staves were gathering by the entry posts to the road that led up to the Northgate. The high pass was open.

    She wriggled backwards, untied hammock and cover, kicked apart the circle of stones that had guarded her tiny fire. A few more minutes to unroll the mail hauberk, pull it on, repack, carry everything farther into the woods where her mare was tethered. Habit won out over hurry and sense; she led the horse a few hundred yards parallel to the forest edge before coming out of cover and mounting. By the time she reached the gateposts the other riders were waiting, behind them the pack trains beginning to form up.

    One of the two men was wearing a black cloak with the royal wolf’s head scarlet on the breast. Aliana noted graying hair and beard, the quality of the black horse, but still kept her distance, moving to keep the other man between her and the Wolf.

    Lamellar coat, worn and dusty, bow one side the saddle, quiver the other. A Northvales cataphract, headed home. Slumped in the saddle, eyes wide and alert in a young face under dark hair; helmet off. The cat glanced at Aliana, gave a friendly nod, said nothing. Her tension—she had no doubt that if she had been carrying her lance the blade would have been shaking like a leaf—eased a little.

    The senior warden lifted the crossbar, motioned the Wolf ahead. The other man looked at Aliana, hesitated a moment, then followed; his pack horse followed him. Aliana waited until the warden gave her an impatient glance then urged her horse forward through the gateposts and onto the upward leading path towards the forest fringe.

    Once out of sight of watchers below she stopped, sat listening a moment, slid off her horse, uncased and strung her bow, took cover behind a tree and waited, unmoving, watching the path uphill of her. Only when the sound of voices warned that the first of the pack trains was near did she remount and follow the other riders. The path wound steadily upwards. As the day passed the trees became smaller, faded to brush. The ground dipped, then rose steadily. Beyond, perhaps a mile ahead, dark horse and rider, some distance behind him the other. Neither looked back.

    By the time the light began to go she had let the gap open wider. She tethered her horse in a patch of grass well to the left of the path, spread bedding on the ground behind a low boulder on the other side, made a meal of biscuit, dried meat and dried fruit, and fell asleep to the noise of insects.

    The second day, trail descending, forested vales between foothills and the main range. The sun set early behind peaks to the west, the sky still bright. She reined the mare to a stop, one hand on her neck.

    Woodsmoke. Ahead, in forest shadows, a red spark.

    "Welcome to my fire, Lady."

    Unlikely enemy. And if he was, she thought with a sudden shiver, she was dead already, sitting a horse in plain sight, bow unstrung and cased. She slid from the mare's back, led towards voice and fire. The cat was alone, sitting with his back to a tree. The strung bow in its saddle sheath rested against the tree to his left; his hands were empty.

    Mixed with the smoke was the smell of cooking meat; as she came nearer she could see two sticks over the fire and a round pan balanced on rocks just above the coals. Moving slowly he picked up a flat stick, leaned over the fire, used the stick to transfer something from the pan to a wide leaf in his other hand and held it out to her--an oat cake, only slightly scorched. He passed her a small dish of salt. As she took it he reached in, took a little, sprinkled it over the cake, leaned back against the tree. She took a small bite--sweetness of oats, salt tang, safety.

    The mare stopped searching out patches of grass, lifted her head, sniffed.

    "She smells the creek, maybe my horses." He nodded in the direction the mare was looking. "Time you get back the rabbits will be done."

    They were. The two sat by the fire sharing the meat, more oatcakes, dried apple slices from Aliana's supplies.

    "Your first trip through Northgate?"

    She nodded.

    "Mine too, this direction. Father says to fill up with water tomorrow just after we leave the tree line--spring is off to the right and marked. After that a long day dry. Fill up again at Cloud's Eye, then most of a day up and over the high pass. Half a day down and we pick up Silverthread, follow it into Mainvale. I'm home; you've another two hours to your hold. Big oak tree where the path turns off; you can't miss it. They'll be glad of news from east of the mountains."

    "Not mine."

    "Better than none."

    They fell into a comfortable silence. At length she roused herself, carried hammock and bedding into the forest, fell asleep almost at once.

    Next morning, horses saddled and waterbags filled, firewood gathered and bundled on the packhorse, they set off together.

    "Stay a little back; I may get us dinner."

    She looked curiously at him--the path was more than wide enough for two--but let her mare fall back. As soon as she was well behind he had bow out, arrow to the string. A few minutes later he drew and loosed; there was a wild fluttering in the woods ahead, then silence. He angled off into the woods, leaning down from the saddle. A moment later back on the path, freeing the arrow, lifting up the bird's body for her to see. By the time they stopped for lunch he had added a second bird and a rabbit.

    "One good thing about being first through the gate--game isn't shy yet."

    "Your father told you that too?"

    He thought a moment.

    "My sister, last spring. The bad thing is the snow at the top of the pass. She said it took two hours in the hot spring before she finished thawing out."

    Above the tree line he put away the bow; she let her horse draw even with his. He pointed upslope to the moving dot of the third rider.

    "Faster horse, no armor, pushing hard. Most of a day ahead by Mainvale."

    "The farther the better. I don't like Wolves."

    "Klari's from the old king's day--messenger, not hired sword. Besides, he's out of King's territory now."

    He saw that she looked puzzled.

    "Someone attacks you here it's the King's concern, not ours; the law doesn't run outside our borders. Where he is now, your sisters could call him to law, demand blood money."

    "How can you tell where the border is?"

    "This side of the ridge, see where the path climbs up through a knife cut, steep slopes both sides?"

    She looked and nodded.

    "That's Raven Stream--last choke point east."

    "I thought there weren't any streams here."

    "A hundred years ago, back when the Kingdom still thought we belonged to them, an army three thousand strong tried to force the pass. A thousand cats, two hundred Westkin, held them. After three days they gave up and went home. It wasn't water the ravens drank. Above Raven Stream is ours."

    Camped that night by the shore of Cloud Eye, they let the horses drink full. Sunset rimmed the twin horns, outlined the narrow cut between; the path wound back and forth, always up, to vanish into the cleft. The fire was welcome. She looked up from it.

    "What will the Vales do?"

    Niall looked at her in silence, waited. After a moment she spoke again.

    "The royal pets are good enough at murder, but that's over now. Southplains, a big wolfpack, six decades, sixty men, ran into a tatave under Lady Caralla. Even odds. She sent the last two back to tell their friends it wasn't a game. There aren't enough bullies and cutpurses in Eston town--in the kingdom--to face our host in the open. The King has to know that by now. Either he calls out the provincial levies--whichever ones he trusts to fight us--or he gets help somewhere else. Vales and Kingdom, allies thirty years and more. That has to be why there's a king's messenger ahead of us. If he claims the alliance, asks the Vales to send their host against us, the way they did against the Empire?"

    "The Vales aren't a person; you can't ask them things. The King can hire just like anyone else. Will he get cats to fight the Order? Not many."

    "If he asks the Senior Paramount to bring his army east? He was the old king's general."

    "The Senior Paramount doesn't have an army. West of the mountains nobody owes allegiance to anyone. The host fought because we didn't want the Empire on two sides of us, followed Harald because he was the best general we had. Besides, if he could he wouldn't. You'll see the sun rising out of the western plains before Harald makes war on the Order."

    "You're sure?"

    "Ask your sisters in Valholt, day after tomorrow. They know their neighbors."

    The next morning was the climb to the pass, on foot to spare the horses. As they rounded the shoulder of the mountain the slopes on the left drew close; they were climbing with cliffs on either hand.

    Niall halted a moment, looking up the slope, then raised his hand. Aliana, leaning against her horse for warmth while she tried to catch her breath in the thin air, thought something moved on a ledge ahead to the right. A few minutes later she saw a figure scrambling down the rocks--a young man, unarmed save for a dagger. He reached the path, glanced at Aliana, looked up at Niall, spoke:

    "The King's messenger came by yesterday afternoon in an awful hurry; he'll be through the pass by now. What's the news?"

    "The King has announced that his cousin is Lady Commander of the Order, Leonora having appointed her and resigned without telling anyone but him. Leonora hasn't been seen since and the Council isn't inclined to take it on his word. It's a bloody mess, the Emperor is doubtless celebrating, and Father will not be pleased. If you want the rest of the story, come home. Your friends can guard the pass without you; nothing's coming through but trade."

    The youth was looking curiously at Aliana.

    "'Liana, my nephew Asbjorn. Having hunted everything else in the vales, he's decided to come up here and hunt rocks. 'Bjorn, this is the Lady Aliana, bound for Valholt."

    Asbjorn gave Aliana a long look.

    "Speaking of hunting, uncle mine …"

    Niall glared at him. Asbjorn stepped backwards, tripped over a rock, did a tidy backwards roll and scurried off up the slope.

    At the top of the pass the snow had been trampled down by wardens and Wolf, but blowing wind had spread it again. They went through mounted, save one drift that had to be cleared by main force. By the time they were through and going down, the green breadth of the valley below them and the brown plains beyond, both were wet, Aliana shivering despite wool tunic and cloak. Niall spoke over the noise of the wind.

    "Another half hour to shelter."

    The shelter when they came to it was a corner in the rock just off the path, two walls, a roof of wood and turf. Niall helped Aliana off the mare, led her into the angle, crowded in all three horses to make a living wall against wind and cold. He held her against him until body heat from men and beasts had warmed the space a little, then freed a blanket from the roll behind his saddle, wrapped it around her body, secured it with leather thongs. They ate a cold dinner, spent the night huddled together for warmth wrapped in all the bedding they had.

    The next morning, clear and cold, they started down, leading the horses. By noon there was a stream running beside the path; they stopped, let the horses drink a little, went on. The air grew warmer. Bushes and short grass covered the slope; they stopped again to let the horses graze while Niall kindled a fire of brushwood, heated water in his one pan, added a thick syrup of honey and herbs from a leather bottle, poured the hot sweet drink into a cup, tasted it and passed it to Aliana. The pan rinsed in the stream, he put it back over the fire; while it dried he mixed water and meal on a flat stone. They ate the oat cakes hot from the pan.

    The sun was most of the way down the sky when they reached the tree line, passing a flock of sheep tended by a child who waved at them. Niall waved back and called out something. A little way into the forest a side path led off to the right. Niall stopped.

    "This is home. You can stay the night if you like; Mother's always glad of guests."

    She hesitated a moment.

    "How far to Valholt?"

    "Two hours, easy going. Safe enough; we don't have bandits this side of the mountains. Watch for the oak tree by the turn off--big branch missing on one side. You'll be there before dark."

    "I'd best go then."

    "Come visit when the sisters are done talking you dry."

    Niall watched her out of sight then turned down the path. As he came into the clearing he saw a black horse cropping the grass in the home field. A child weeding the lower garden saw him, dropped what she was doing, started to yell.

    "Niall's home. Niall's home."

    He slid off his horse. Someone took the reins from his fingers. He climbed the stairs to the wide porch that ran around the hall. The door opened; Gerda was there, her face calm as always. He caught his mother in his arms. Over her shoulder he saw his father, plainly dressed, rising from the table where the King's messenger sat.

    Niall Haraldsson was home.

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