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Harald: Chapter One

       Last updated: Friday, September 16, 2005 18:23 EDT



Book I: How Harald Haraldsson Visited the King and Returned Home


Who travels widely needs his wits about him

    Haraldholt had been buzzing for days. The King's messenger had brought, along with the royal version of the winter's events, an invitation. His Majesty was holding council in his great castle south of Eston and the presence of the Senior Paramount of the Northvales, his father's ally and general, was greatly desired.

    Gerda's first response, once the messenger was out of sight and her youngest son had finished his account of the King's quarrel with the Order, was that her husband should send back a courteous no. The Lady Commander was probably dead. A king mad enough to attack one of his father's allies should not be trusted with the other. It took Harald a day and a half to talk her around; the rest of the household had only guesses as to how.

    That settled, there were a thousand things to do--armor to relace, clothes to mend or make, messages to send. Most of them got done. Five days after the King's message arrived, two cats rode east from Haraldholt.

    Hrolf and Harald spent the first night in the shelter below the high pass, by good luck empty, the next between Cloud's Eye and the forest. The end of the third put them on the western slope of the foothills. Before dark of the fourth day they had made camp off the trail, a mile above the warden's hostel and the entry posts.

    An hour after full dark they broke camp, led the horses down the path and along the forest edge. A mile south of the hostel and its campgrounds they came out of the woods, mounted, rode east. By midnight they reached the west bank of the Tamaron, a sleepy stream swollen with spring melt, forded it. Dawn found them well out in the central plain, hidden in a dip of the land. Most of the day was spent resting, one sleeping while the other stood guard. In late afternoon they mounted again, heading south and east.

    For the next three days they rode across the plains. Several times they passed flocks of sheep; the shepherds seemed inclined to keep their distance. Once they passed a burnt out farmstead. Twice too they saw groups of riders. One followed for a while at a trot, but having closed half the distance sheared off.

    Harald turned to Hrolf.


    Late in the third day Hrolf stopped his horse, pointed.

    "What's that?"

    "Village here three years back. Someone put a wall around it."

    They rode forward, stopped just outside arrowshot. The high timber wall was pierced by a gate, over the gate a walled walkway. Heads moving on it.

    The gate opened. One man came through, on foot, unarmored. Halfway to the two cats he stopped. Harald glanced at Hrolf, slid from his horse. Hrolf leaned down, caught the bridle, held it while Harald walked forward, empty hand raised.

    "We come in peace."

    "In peace welcome then." Middle aged, graying hair, wide shoulders--by dress and speech a farmer. Harald hesitated a moment, signed to Hrolf, whistled. The mare trotted over, followed by the packhorse; he led them through the gate. Hrolf rode. Inside the wall the usual scatter of houses and huts, eight or ten new cottages and a surprising number of people. The wall had a walkway along the inside, almost a man's height below the top. A sentry over the gate, another near the middle of each wall. At one side of the gate, next to the stairs leading up, an orderly stack of spears.

    "Will you join us for dinner? The boys will take your horses."

    Hrolf looked at Harald, Harald nodded. Their host led them into one of the largest of the houses.

    "Rest a minute; I'll get you something to drink."

    He went through the door at the back; there was a sound of voices. In a few minutes he was back with a clay pitcher of beer.

    "You'll be dry from the ride. Dinner soon."

    He ate with his guests at the small table--wheat bread, a thick stew of lentils and root vegetables. They shifted to benches by the fire while the rest of the family replaced them at table.

    "Long ride?" Harald nodded.

    "Four days over Northgate, three after."

    "Welcome to rest here a few days."

    "Kind of you. Stay the night, with your leave. On our way in the morning."

    "We could use a couple of trained men."

    "Done all right for yourselves. Wall looks solid. People hereabouts can use bows. Unless you're expecting a legion at your front door."

    "Bandits. Some say they're king's men, some don't. Not much difference that we've seen. Lord's hold is way up in the mountains. We lost a few folk, more cattle, decided to take care of ourselves. We've got spears, bows."

    "Good luck to you. Should be home by summer--could pass the word. If two or three of our lads come across, help guard and train, can you feed them through the winter?"

    "No problem. A couple of men, with armor, who knew what they were doing would help a lot."

    "You could make armor for your men."

    "From what?"

    "Westkin mostly use boiled leather--not as hard as iron, but light. We use it too, mostly for the horses."

    They spent the evening discussing leather hardening and showing their host how to lay out and lace a lamellar coat, the night in their host's bed, at his insistence. After a breakfast of bread and porridge the horses were fetched. Harald and Hrolf mounted; their host's wife passed up a sack--bread, hard baked to keep, and sausage.

    "Food for your ride."

    "And many thanks. You or yours have cause to come west, we're the first holding over the pass."

    Their host gave him a long look. Harald nodded; they rode out of the village.

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