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Harald: Chapter Three

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



A Cautious Guest

A guest should be courteous when he comes to the table, And sit in wary silence

    Two days later they reached the fork in the east road--left to Eston, right to the king's castle. Harald took the right fork alone, a shallow ford then three miles through the woods to where the land lifted in a bare hill crowned with stone walls. Beyond the moat the gate was open but guarded.

    "What's your errand to the King's castle?"

    "To the King."

    "He isn't hiring foreigners, last I heard. You think different, wait off the road; guard captain will be by in an hour or two."

    Harald took the opportunity to look over the castle and its surroundings. Brush had grown back even farther since his last visit, cover for archers in easy bowshot of the walls. Position them at night, seize the gate with any of two or three tricks … it would take a fair force if the castle was properly garrisoned, and it probably was, but not impossible.

    His thoughts were interrupted by a clatter of hoofs behind him. Turning, he saw a cluster of horsemen; one in the front carried a staff with the banner of North Province, beside him Lord Stephen deep in conversation with his captain. Harald looked down. After the first ranks passed he looked up again, raised his hand to one of the rearmost riders as the company came to a halt.

    "By the gods. What are you doing cooling your heels outside the gate?"

    "Gate guard thinks nobody matters less he arrives with a young army. Didn't feel like arguing; it's been a long ride. Besides, looks as though Stephen thinks the same. Isn't it safe to ride around the kingdom nowadays?"

    "Maybe. Maybe not. Hard times."

    Harald joined the rear rank of Stephen's guard, with them rode through the gate to the stable where grooms were finding stalls for the new arrivals. He stayed to unsaddle one horse, unload the other, rub both down, see them supplied with water and hay. His armor, rolled up, went with pack bags, saddle and gear on a high shelf at the far end of the stall, bedding in a separate bundle, saddle blanket and armor padding spread out over the rest and hanging down. His war horse butted her head against it a few times curiously, then settled down to the serious business of eating.

    In the stable yard a small crowd by the tank where men, stripped to drawers, were splashing water on themselves, washing off the dust of travel. Harald joined them, stood dripping and shivering a few minutes more, dried himself with what he had been wearing, pulled on a clean tunic, went back in to fetch his bedding, then crossed the castle yard and plunged into the chaos of the great hall. He drifted over to a convenient corner, half behind a pillar, slid his bedding under a bench, sat down, back against the stone wall.

    Talk among the men, castle garrison and guards of half a dozen provincial lords, was as always mostly food and women, save one cluster in a corner leaning over their dice with grim concentration. The handful of Wolves for the most part kept together. One tried to join a group of guards; they ignored him and after a few minutes he backed away. Four women in the dress of the Order, all strangers to him, stood at the far end of the hall, talking to nobody; one was wearing a plain circlet of gold set with a green stone. If there was talk in the hall about current troubles it was not in a voice meant for strangers.

    Word came to clear the hall; men drifted out into the yard while servants set up the long tables. A tall stranger eyed Harald curiously.

    "Come a long way?"

    "Too long; getting old."



    "I thought I recognized the accent. Had a friend from one of the smaller vales south of you. Half the time I couldn't tell what he was saying. You're easier."

    "Too much time this side the mountains."

    "Who are you with?"

    "Nobody yet--just me."

    The man gave him a longer look.

    "I know someone who might be hiring."

    The doors of the great hall opened again, this time to a blast of trumpets, somewhat out of tune. Harald found a seat at one end of the length of table claimed by Stephen's guard, a friend one side, stranger the other. Stephen himself was at the south end of the hall, with the King and the other provincial lords at a raised table. A lady came in, sat by the King, dress particolored green and silver, red hair, graceful form, too far away to make out the face. On the King's other side a noble Harald did not recognize, a big man. Beside him a man in black, scarlet wolf's head plain on his chest.

    Stephen was looking about the hall curiously; his gaze passed over the group of his own men, returned, shifted to the goblet in front of him. The doors to the kitchen opened. There was another fanfare, this time in tune. Servants in the royal colors brought platters to high table, a larger number, more plainly dressed, to the hall. Harald turned to his companion.

    "His Majesty seems pleasantly occupied."

    "Lady Anne, daughter to Estfen province. Above my station. You might try your luck, but not this month."

    "I'll leave that to youngsters like His Majesty. The other side?"

    "That's Andrew, king's cousin--his mother's kin. Big man in the southern provinces."

    "And his friend?"

    "Wide fellow, gray streak? That, gods preserve us, is old Mark's successor. Mord. Turned the Wolves from what they were under the old king to … " He fell silent.

    As platters and pitchers emptied more were brought. At the end of the third course servants set out bowls of nuts and dried fruit, basins of water. Looking up the hall, Harald saw the King rising, saying something to his table companions. The provincial lords and the King's cousin rose, the rest remained. Stephen looked down the hall straight at Harald, turned, followed the King out the door at the back of the hall.

    Harald took the outside stair; as he expected they were meeting in the room above the south end of the hall. There were two guards at the door; one stepped in front of him, spear held crosswise.

    "Sorry friend. Royal business, visitors not welcome. The King's holding council."

    "Why I've come."

    Harald reached into his pouch, drew out the scroll, unrolled it, handed it to the guard. He looked at it, handed it to the other. As he read it his eyes widened. He gave Harald a long look.

    "Let him in."

    "Orders are to let in their Excellencies. If he's a provincial lord I'm Lady Commander of the Order. "

    The other one looked down at the scroll, read aloud:

    "To Harald Haraldsson, Senior Paramount of the North Vales, His Majesty James, King of Kaerlia, Protector of Eston, Lord Warden of the Northern Marches, sends cordial greetings."

    The guard with the spear stepped back. The other opened the door. Harald went through it.

    A long table, the King at one end. At his side his cousin, his chair a little back. Along the table lords of ten of the twelve provinces, Stephen near the far end.

    The King looked up. Stephen spoke:

    "Your Majesty will remember the Senior Paramount."

    The King's expression remained puzzled.

    "How did you get here?"

    "I rode, Your Majesty."

    "Alone? There was supposed to be an escort."

    "Was there, Your Majesty? I do not commonly require an armed guard to ride in your kingdom. Has the Empire invaded?"

    "I am sorry. For some reason I was not informed that you were here. I hope my servants have taken care of your needs."

    "Your majesty's servants have provided space for horses and gear in your stable, dinner for me in your feast hall. I have no complaints as to your hospitality."

    "We will try to do better than that." The King motioned to a servant standing silent by the wall, spoke to him briefly. The man went out. Harald seated himself. The King rose:

    "My lords. I have invited you here for advice concerning affairs of the kingdom, assistance in dealing with them. Before we are done each will be free to raise such concerns as trouble his province. For tonight, the most pressing matter is the rebellion of parts of the Order against their Lady Commander. We offered her assistance in enforcing her authority. Our efforts have been defied with force, loyal men killed. In three provinces, it may be more, the rebels are up in arms. What is your counsel?"

    There was a long silence. Finally Harald spoke:

    "If I understand the account your messenger brought me, Your Majesty, the trouble arose in a transfer of the office of Lady Commander from the Lady Leonora to your cousin the Lady Alicia, a transfer that the Council of the Order has not as yet accepted."

    The King nodded, waited for Harald to continue.

    "By the Order's custom, the Lady Commander can propose a successor but not appoint one; the candidate must be approved by the Council. If the Lady Leonora has resigned the office and the Lady Alicia not yet been approved, then there is no Lady Commander whose orders Your Majesty's servants might enforce."

    "The Order cannot be allowed to fall into chaos. These matters occurred in my kingdom, it is for me to resolve the dispute. I have ruled in favor of the claim of the Lady Alicia."

    Andrew leaned forward, spoke: "Your Excellency will remember the dispute concerning control over Order lands in Estvale. The matter was put to His Majesty's father and his decision accepted."

    Harald shook his head:

    "That matter was submitted to His Majesty by the parties. In this case, as I understand it, the Council has neither requested his present Majesty's judgment nor accepted it. But in any case, surely there is an easier answer, one that costs blood of neither His Majesty's servants nor the Ladies."

    The King looked down the table at him.

    "Name it."

    "As I understand Your Majesty's account, the Lady Leonora chose the Lady Alicia for her successor. She does not appear to have told her sisters in Council of that choice."

    "I told them."

    "Your Majesty's voice in Your Majesty's council; her voice in hers. Let the Lady Leonora speak to her sisters. She persuades them to her choice or they persuade her to change it. In either case no more killing."

    "That would indeed be an excellent solution, were it possible. The Lady Leonora has chosen seclusion. We cannot ask her to abandon her cell."

    "To save the blood of her sisters? Her cell. For that she would leave her grave, gods permitting."

    "Enough. Are there other matters you would bring before us?"

    Harald paused a moment, then spoke again:

    "Another that grows from this: the Empire."

    "What has it to do with a quarrel in my kingdom?"

    "Your Majesty knows that four times in the past twenty years the Empire has invaded the kingdom's land, seeking to bring it under their rule."

    "And four times we sent them home with their tails between their legs."

    Harald remained silent, looking at the King, for a long moment. The King started to speak, stopped, looked round the table. Harald broke the silence.

    "'We' included the host of the Order--two thousand of the best light cavalry this side the western plains. If the Empire invades tomorrow, how many?"

    "The Empire is not going to invade tomorrow. Not this year. Not next year."

    Andrew spoke: "The Empire is tied down in Belkhan, a hundred miles and more north and east of the Borderflood, besieging a castle that has not fallen in a hundred years. One war is enough for them. They may settle the revolt in two years, in three. By then our troubles are dealt with, the Order more safely ours than before."

    "I fear, my lord, that your information is out of date. A month ago, Cliff Keep fell to the second and twenty-third legions under Commander Artos. With the Inner Lands open, the rest of the rebels made terms or fled. If His Imperial Majesty wishes to turn his attention south the legions--more important, the commander--are free."

    Harald stopped. The room was silent. The King looked at his cousin. Andrew shook his head.

    "I have heard no such news. Rumor. Perhaps a story spread by the Imperials to discourage other provinces from rebellion."

    The King turned to Harald. "Your Excellency?"

    "My neighbor's son was with the rebels."

    "One mercenary. Even if he is honest, he might have been fooled by rumor--especially if he was looking for an excuse to come home." Andrew fell silent.

    Harald looked straight back at him: "He brought Gryfydd an Gwyllian with him; we had the Count to dinner two nights before I left Haraldholt. The revolt's done."

    Andrew said something quietly to the King, rose, left the room. Nobody spoke. At last the King broke the silence.

    "My thanks for your news. This indeed means that we must settle the rebels quickly."

    "Peacefully, Your Majesty. Corpses cannot fight. Every Lady your Wolves kill is one less bow beside us when next we face the legions."

    "I will remember that, Excellency. But we have talked too long; my throat at least is dry."

    The King clapped his hands. A moment later the door opened, admitting servants with wine, beer, trays of sweetmeats. As they put them out the King rose, walked to the door, turned.

    "Refresh yourselves, Excellencies. I will be back shortly."

    Stephen turned to Harald:

    "Things were very peaceful."

    "In this room perhaps. What do your watchers on the Borderflood see?"

    "Nothing coming across the fords but a few pack trains."

    Harald turned to the lord across the table, younger than Stephen, broken nose, a long scar from cheek to chin.

    "And the western fords?"

    "More than a few--most of them heading over Northgate to your doorstep. The usual guards, some of them your people. No armies."

    "I passed some of them coming east. My womenfolk are doubtless overjoyed."

    The King came back into the room, took his place at the head of the table. Two of the lords refilled their goblets; the room grew silent.

    "His Excellency has pointed out that we must settle the rebellion quickly with as little bloodshed as can be, lest the Empire find opportunity in our troubles. I had hoped to succeed without calling on your levies by expanding the royal messengers into a force sufficient for the purpose. Their chief asks more money to recruit more men. Your judgment."

    Gray hair, gray beard, the lord of Estmark rose to his feet:

    "Your Majesty, I'll speak plain. I don't know how many of the bandits in the plains are Wolves and how many only say they are, but my people, farmers, are arming, building walls, asking troops from my guard to protect them. We need fewer, not more."

    A southern lord stood:

    "I've had no trouble with Wolves, Majesty. But anyone can see what they are--men with swords, not soldiers. Hire two thousand, open field against the Host, you'd have a lot of graves to dig. Make peace or make war."

    He sat down; the King waited a moment, but no one else spoke.

    "So we are agreed. To deal with the Order we call out the provincial levies--enough of them to outmatch the rebels."

    The room was silent. The southern lord spoke first.

    "Spring planting's mostly done. I can raise a half levy without hardship. Two hundred men."

    The man next to him, younger, stood.

    "Three hundred."

    The King looked around the room.

    "Lord Stephen?"

    "We plant later. And Harald's news means men on watch the length of Borderflood, more behind. I could send a hundred perhaps--but not soon or far."


    The scarred man spoke. "Like Stephen. I can send men if Your Majesty commands it, but that strips the border."

    The count went on, southern lords more willing than northern. The King turned at last to Harald.

    "Two thousand men--more with two lords not yet to council. A half levy of my own lands makes another thousand. The levy of the Vales is, I think, two thousand. Bring half. Facing four thousand the rebels must yield; our troubles are done with no more killing."

    Harald looked up.

    "I fear your Majesty has been misinformed."

    "You did not bring twenty cacades of cataphracts to my father's last war with the Empire?"

    "Indeed I did, Your Majesty. But the Northvales, as your father in his wisdom recognized, are no more a province of the Kingdom than the Kingdom is a province of the Empire. I brought an army across the Northgate to the support of my allies, not a levy in service to my king."

    "I care little what you call it, so long as you bring it."

    "Your Majesty is less than prudent. Thirty years the Empire has been held off by an alliance of three parts--Kingdom, Vales, Order. You tell me now that one of my allies makes war on the other, and ask me to join the fray. If I bring the host of the Northvales across the mountains, how sure are you which side it chooses? Better we stay home. Better yet you make peace with the Order."

    Harald sat down. The room fell silent until at last the King spoke.

    "The hour is late; tired men quarrel. We discuss these matters, the two of us, tomorrow day, call council tomorrow even. With fortune Estfen and Estmount will be here by then."

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