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Harald: Chapter Two

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



Cat's Claws

Early shall he rise who has designs
On another's land or life

    Two more days brought them to where plains turned to forest, running up in hills and valleys into the eastern range. They forded the Caldbeck, turned south on the road that paralleled the forest edge. Before sunset they were rubbing down their horses in the stable of a small inn where the main road met the road running up the valley to Eston and the King's castle. A clatter of hoofs in the courtyard and a loud voice:

    "Beer and food. Tell them to take care of the horses. We'll see you inside."

    Footsteps went off. Another voice yelled for the stableboy. After a long wait he appeared, was cursed for a lazy fool, started to bring the horses in one by one, muttering under his breath. He saw the two cats, stopped with a start. Harald spoke first.

    "Not friendly folk."

    The boy looked at them.

    "Do you need your horses taken care of too?"

    "Grateful for some hay in the manger, grain if you've got it. We can pay. Other than that they should be all right. No hurry."

    The boy nodded, led the horse into a stall, went out for another.

    Harald reached up to where he had hung his saddle, pulled the saddle mace free, stuck it in his belt, untied the rain cloak, wrapped it about him. His companion spoke in a low voice.

    "The horses?"

    "Not all night, but they should do for an hour; two safer than one."

    Hrolf nodded, armed and cloaked himself and followed Harald into the courtyard.

    The inn was a big dining room, kitchen built on at the end, stairs to sleeping rooms above. Most of the party of riders were at the one big table; their leader was arguing with the owner.

    "King's men, king's road. You want to be paid for two lousy rooms, send the bill up to the castle."

    He turned on his heel, went to join the rest. One of them was yelling for beer. They got it.

    The owner saw Hrolf and Harald in the door, motioned them in.

    "You see how it is. You're welcome to benches in the hall, but gods know when you'll get to sleep."

    "By your leave, we'll eat here, sleep over our horses. Hay's softer than wood."

    "Suit yourself--how many horses?"


    "A silver penny'll feed you and them, buy space for both."

    Harald gave him a long look.

    "High, but times are hard. I'll throw in breakfast in the morning, bread and sausage to take with you for lunch. Bound up Eston way?"

    Harald nodded, paid, found a bench in one corner of the room. After some time the one serving maid got free of the big table long enough to bring mugs of ale, bowls of thick soup, a flat loaf of dark bread. They ate in silence. Aside from the riders, there were only a handful of men and no women.

    The big man was talking, his voice only a little slurred.

    "I say tomorrow. Bitches aren't expecting us."

    "Peaceful, like the lordling said?"

    "By the time we're done, peacefullest hold in the damn kingdom. Leave at dawn, lunch in their hall."

    He fell silent, glanced around the room. Harald was slumped on the bench, head down on the table, Hrolf draining the last few drops from his mug. Two others were stretched out on benches by the big fireplace, wrapped in cloaks.



    Bedded down in the hayloft over the horses, they took quiet council.

    "Dawn to noon, say a six hour ride. What holds that close?"

    Hrolf thought a moment.

    "Big one up the valley?"

    "Too close to the castle. If it's still there the King has it--or his cousin's friends in the Order. Besides, I only counted twelve; they wouldn't try that one without more. It'll be some little place, four or six Ladies, a few helpers. No guessing where. Have to follow."

    The next morning they heard voices and the noise of horses below, lay still until the stable was empty. Twenty minutes later, packed and saddled, they followed, fresh hoof prints clear on the road south. At the top of the rise they slowed. The road ahead, visible for a mile or more to the next rise, was empty. Harald crossed the flat, took the long downslope at a gallop; Hrolf followed.

    Two hours south the road forked--the main south, the tracks east. The eastern road ran up a small valley into the mountains, thinning to little more than a path. Ahead shouts and a heavy thudding noise. Coming over the next low rise in the path they could see the whole tiny battle spread out before them.

    To the left of the road the hold, little more than a fortified house. In the stone courtyard a body, mail over the gold-brown robe of the Order. The door shut, three men with a tree trunk trying to open it. Up on the roof two archers shooting down into the courtyard where one attacker lay while another, weapon arm limp at his side, crouched behind his shield. Four more crowded the courtyard, shields up to protect the men with the ram. On the other side of the road two more men, with bows, shooting from behind trees. One of the archers on the roof fell back.

    Harald's bow was out, arrow on the string, two more held by the fingers of his bow hand. He nodded right, drew and loosed. The first missed, the second caught the archer high in the back. The man turned, looked uphill with an astonished expression. The third arrow took him in the throat. Harald gave a glance to Hrolf's man, down as well, and rode for the courtyard.

    The wounded man at the rear of the attack heard the hooves, turned, died. The ram swung again, the noise echoing through the courtyard; the door split, revealing a slight figure with shield and sword behind it. The ram swung back, fell to the ground; the last of the three carrying it looked with astonishment at the arrow point emerging from his chest, went to his knees, collapsed. There was sudden silence.

    The Lady in the doorway stepped forward, shield up. Harald sheathed his bow with his left hand, raised his right palm out and empty, slid down.

    "Where are the horses?"

    She looked at him, confused.

    "They came on horses. Left somewhere, probably with a man to watch them."

    "I don't know. Pounding on the door. Mara went. I have to see if she's … "

    Harald looked up at Hrolf. "The horseholder. Then our horses."

    Hrolf rode out of the courtyard; Harald helped the Lady lift the body. The sword the fallen Lady had been holding clattered on the stones. Although he had no doubt, he still felt for a pulse.

    "I'm sorry."

    "She can't be. So quick. Took the second one's sword arm before he had the shield up. But there were so many. She told me to close the door. I did."

    "She was right. She won. They lost."

    He caught the Lady with an arm around her shoulder, held her against him until she stopped shaking. Together they carried the body into the hall, laid it on the table.

    "Back in a minute."

    He spent it walking around the courtyard making sure there were no mistakes.

    When he came back, the Lady had been joined by two more. She was young, they younger--by age and dress not yet full members of the Order. One, with a pale face, was holding a cloth tightly to her shoulder, blood oozing between her fingers and around the arrow shaft. He turned to the oldest:

    "Heat water to clean her wound; I'll get my kit."

    He went to the door, whistled; when his horse came he reached into the right hand saddle bag, pulled out a wrapped bundle. Back inside he found the wounded girl seated, the other holding her hand with one hand, the bandage over the wound with the other.

    "Arrow out, clean the wound, sew it up. Not fun but you should live--I did. Can you hold still?"

    She nodded.

    By the time the arrow had been broken off and the barbed head carefully drawn, the Lady was back with a basin of hot water. Harald cleaned the wound. From his bundle he got a small flask, pried free the wax seal.

    "This will hurt. Sorry."

    He carefully poured some of the contents onto the wound. The girl draw a hard breath. He reached into the bundle again, drew out a long strand of sinew, needle already threaded. In a few minutes it was over. He looked at her face; the eyes were still open.

    "If you can put up with my surgery you can survive anything. Live."

    She closed her eyes, drew a deep breath. He looked around, spoke to the Lady.

    "She should be lying down. Do you have a pallet you can bring in?"

    She nodded, left. There was a noise of hooves on stone. The unwounded girl looked up, startled.

    "It's all right."

    Hrolf came in.

    "There was only one. I left their horses--too many to deal with by myself. Ours are all in the courtyard."

    The Lady came back with a pallet. Harald helped her arrange it by the fireplace, picked up the wounded girl, laid her gently on it, kneeled there a moment. Stood up.

    The Lady looked at him, suddenly shy. "I'm sorry. I should have thanked you. We, the sisters, … We're in your debt."

    "An old account, both ways; figuring the balance is past my powers."

    She looked curiously at him; he fell silent a moment, then spoke. "The question is what you do next."

    "What can we do?"

    "You could complain to court of murder by his Majesty's Wolves, but from what I've heard of matters I don't recommend it."


    "You can abandon the hold, flee to your sisters somewhere safer. You'll know more than I where that would be, but you could go north; Stephen's a fine man for failing when it suits him and I can't see him hunting you with any enthusiasm. I'm told Caralla is somewhere in the south plains with an adequate number of sisters, but finding her may not be easy; she isn't one to sit."


    "We clean up this mess, get rid of the bodies, get someone to fix your door, sell the horses somewhere they won't tie to you, supposing anyone recognizes one, which isn't likely. Wolves--you never saw any Wolves. Sit tight, be very careful, ready to run if they try again. Far as their commander knows they've vanished off the map--maybe run, maybe dead. One more thing for their friends to worry about."

    "Which would you do?"

    "The last, at least for a while. You have one sister who shouldn't be moved just now if you can help it. Besides, it leaves your enemies with a puzzle. That's worth doing."

    "And you?"

    "Find someone can guide us north over the hills and keep quiet about it. We drop down into the valley, east road for Eston--what we would have been doing if none of this had happened. Who'll know we got there the long way?"

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