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Harald: Chapter Four

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




Courteous greeting
Then courteous silence
That the stranger's tale be told

    He woke in a bed, sheets, a rough blanket. It took most of a minute to work out why it wasn't a bedroll under a tree. He pulled the shutters open. His own bedroll was in the corner; he remembered retrieving it from under a bench in the great hall. There was a basin and a ewer of water on the table--luxury indeed. Harald washed hands and face, unbarred the door, crossed the castle yard to the stable.

    Both horses had fresh water, clean feed. He pulled down saddle blankets and armor padding, checked that they were dry, folded them, put them back on the shelf, apologized for having neglected to bring apples. One set of saddlebags went over his shoulders back to his room, where he changed into fresh clothes and set off for the great hall in search of breakfast.

    Sitting by himself, Harald broke a chunk off a convenient loaf, ate it with sausage, cheese, bites from a withered apple out of the winter's store. When he finished he looked around. At one table Stephen, Brand, and a random collection of both men's guard were finishing breakfast. Stephen caught his eye, got up, headed for the door. Harald waited until he was through it before rising to follow.

    The two ended on an empty stretch of the west ramparts, looking out over slope and forest to the central plains and the west range beyond, peaks blurring white against a clear sky. Stephen spoke first:

    "With eyes twenty years younger you could almost see home."

    "Through rock? Never that good."

    They fell silent, Harald waiting. Finally Stephen spoke:

    "I said we hadn't seen anything but trade crossing the fords. Truth, as far as it goes. Hoofprints. Groups of five or ten riders, not an army. Odd prints."

    The stone they were leaning on, hollowed by the wind, had collected a thin layer of dust. Harald drew a shape in it with his finger, a rough U barbed at both ends. Stephen nodded.

    "Not raiding, not guesting. Plains not woods. Ride at night, rest at day, through as quick as they can and south, that's my guess."

    Harald's turn.

    "Last night before feast, talking with a stranger, tall fellow, blond. Asked who I was with, said someone was hiring. Maybe not just cats."

    Stephen gave him a worried look.

    On his way to the stable, wallet full of apples lifted from store while their guardian carefully looked the other way, a royal servant found him.

    "His Majesty would be glad of your company for the noon meal."

    Harald nodded his assent.

    "The terrace above great hall, a half hour past the noon bell. Shall I fetch you then?"

    "I can find it."

    His errand to the stable done, Harald found his way to the old orchard at the south end of the castle. Most of the stones were overgrown with moss. He sat looking at the one that was not until the noon bell roused him.

    When he got to the terrace the King was waiting, the lady Anne seated at his side. Harald saw no reason to question the King's taste then, less by the end of the meal.

    "They say your valleys are cold; is that why the wool is so good?"

    "Upper end of the valleys for wool, lower end, out on the plains for mutton."

    "The people on the plains. Nobody could tell me. How do they live? Who are they?"

    "Westkin. Our word, not theirs; half the vales have relatives west. Wife's brother married a girl out of Fox clan. They call themselves Illash--People. Nomads mostly, herd sheep, horses, cattle. A little farming, places there's enough water--most of the plains pretty dry. Herd cattle for food, steal 'em from each other for fun. Pleasant life."

    "There are a lot of them, aren't there?"

    "Big plains. Kingdom, Vales--fit all of us in with room to spare."

    "And fierce. What keeps them from coming over the pass, attacking, conquering us? Are they afraid of you?"

    Harald laughed.

    "We came over the pass, two hundred years odd back. The vales were empty. Westkin like flat land. Wouldn't mind your plains, but a lot of mountain between them and everywhere else they want to be. Clans raid each other. A few wild ones up into the lower vales, sometimes. With us over Northgate to raid the kingdom, fifty years back. Ended when Henry, king that was, settled matters, thanks be."

    He stopped. Looked down. When he looked up her eyes were on him, the King's on her. She watched Harald's face a moment, then went on.

    "Is that why it's the Empire, not the plains, you've had to fight all these years?"

    Harald waited for her to continue.

    "I mean, they're farmers, like us. They want the same land. Your Westkin don't."

    He looked her full in the face.

    "His Majesty wants wisdom, hasn't far to look."

    "But since the lady Anne is fair as well as wise and we have matters of moment to discuss, best we continue without the distraction of her beauty. Lady mine?"

    Anne rose, nodded to both men, departed. They sat silent a while. At last the King spoke.

    "Your Excellency took me to task last even for speaking of the Vales as though part of the Kingdom. Yet in law and justice they are; the first settlers were in allegiance to my ancestor. My father let the claim lapse. That does not mean I must."

    "Law and Justice. Your majesty's lands owe armed men, a month's service, so many from this province, so many from that. What get they in return?"

    "Protection from their enemies. Justice to settle their quarrels."

    "Your Majesty's grandfather, his father, his, back two hundred years. Half the year, the high pass closed, could not protect us if they would. Other half they didn't. Defended ourselves, settled our own quarrels. Still do. Your word runs this side the mountains. Our side, the law."

    "That was then. If we can reach a settlement, we two, that's now. You want your law, you keep it--with my strength to settle matters if needed. My strength to protect you from your enemies."

    "You purpose to send a few thousand heavy horse over Northgate, case one of the clans gets unfriendly, Empire pushes south our side the mountains?"

    "Of course not--that's your part. We protect this side of the mountains."

    "Your land, not ours. With our help. We protect our borders, help protect yours, counts as you protecting us. Sure you don't think you should be a province of ours?"

    "That's the Empire's idea--both of us their province. You're juggling words. Fighting them on our land protects you too; that's why you send cats to help. Why you came yourself to fight for my father."

    "One reason. Rather you other side Northgate than Empire, true enough. Still your war not ours. Empire crosses Borderflood, beats you, no kingdom. We can hold Northgate till the mountains fall down. Doubt the Empire lasts that long."

    He stopped. The King was silent, searching for words. Finally he spoke.

    "I've heard of the legions; you've faced them. Maybe you're right, maybe you can hold the high pass without us. Maybe the Empire would trade with you, instead of closing the pass and the roads north until you made terms.

    "But you're better off, we're better off, together. You were my father's ally. He didn't live forever; you won't. What comes next, who knows? You swear yourself my man. I swear to maintain you as lord of the Northvales. The Empire knows we stand together, not just you and me but our sons and theirs. They go look for land somewhere else."

    "Your Majesty can't maintain me as lord of the Northvales. I'm not. Isn't a lord of the Vales, never was."

    "It's not what you call yourself, but you're the one the cats fight for. You spoke of sending troops over the pass. I can't afford an army. But a hundred, two hundred, good men, take orders, deal with problems without asking your people to fight their own kin. Maybe there isn't a lord of the Northvales. There could be."

    The King fell silent, watching Harald.

    "Your Majesty has interesting ideas. Two problems. First, I don't want to be lord of the Northvales; paramount suits fine. Second, I couldn't get it. I go where cats want, they follow. Try to make myself Lord of the Northvales, be at the wrong end of a lot of arrows."

    "You understate your own power. Take time to consider my proposal. You gave two problems. Let me give two answers, and then let the matter be for now.

    "You say the cats follow because you are going where they want. My men follow me from loyalty--they know they are mine to command. It could be that way for you. I could help make it that way.

    "Second consider the consequences--not now, but in time. I need troops I can trust, not a host that fights for me if it's in a good mood, goes home if it isn't. In a year, two years, when my present troubles are solved and the Empire, gods willing, off fighting someone else. Your host is two thousand. Mine is ten. My father was content with your terms. I may not be."

    "Your Majesty speaks frankly. Some day the road to the high pass, show you something along the way."

    The King looked at him curiously.

    "Valley. Downhill from where your grandfather tried to force the pass, year I was born. Full of bones. Two thousand I brought east to help Henry. Didn't empty the vales. Second time, while 'Nora and I played hide and seek with the Emperor's generals up and down the plains, wife's brother and his friends were busy west of the mountains. A legion and ten cacades of cavalry the Empire sent south. Not many came home again across the low pass. Hold the Gate with two thousand cats--need more, they're there."

    Harald rose, stretched legs stiff with sitting, nodded to the silent king, left.

    Later that afternoon, returning to the orchard, he found it no longer empty. The lady looked up at him startled, rubbing her eyes--a little older than Anne, a little less well dressed, a great deal less happy. He looked away, sat down on the tombstone of some king whose name could no longer be read in the worn letters, looked back at her. She was rising.

    "Would have a tale, damsel, to while the time?"

    "No. Yes." Voice as uncertain as the words.

    "Time yet to dinner. A sad place to sit alone." He looked around at the trees, the stone paving, the stone he was sitting on.

    When he looked up again she was sitting on the paving, looking down at the hands in her lap, still.


    "The Vales, my grandfather's father's time. The full tale of Saemund Heavyhand is long; I tell only of the vengeance for his oathbrother Cuhal's slaying, and that one killing in which Saemund had no hand at all.

    "Now Cuhal was out of the west, a man of Otter clan, but long living among our people for love of Saemund's sister, and she the fairest of all that kindred."

    The tale wound on, two killers, one kin to Saemund and so untouched by the vengeance he took for his friend's death, the trick by which Cuhal's sons, though not yet of age, paid out their father's killer. Harald paused, then gave the ending.

    "The younger stopped a moment, and answered:

    'I do not know the cause of that yelling downhill, but it may be they are asking if Cuhal had only daughters, or sons too,' then turned and ran up the mountainside after his brother."

    "A good story indeed and brave boys. Are there many such tales in your land?"

    "Many and many, damsel. Winters are long in Northvales."

    "You sit here often?"

    "From time to time. A quiet place to think, the company peaceful."

    She gave him a shy smile, gestured to the King's stone.

    "I knew him, a little, when I was younger; we all did. When I am sad I sit here. It doesn't change things, but somehow … "

    "A good and gentle man, our world dark by his loss. I too visit with him."

    Their eyes met. Above them a deep note.

    "Dinner. I must to my lady." She dropped him a quick curtsey, was off.

    During the dinner one of the royal servants brought Harald, eating with friends at the far end of the hall, word that the council had been postponed to the next day, two lords being still absent.

    The next morning he again met Elen in the orchard, this time accompanied by two younger ladies, and entertained them with Fox clan tales, clever tricks of their name beast.

    "The story yesterday was from your own vales. How is it you know so many of these?"

    "Foxclan? Parts of two years with them, learning horse, bow and lance. There are no riders like the Westkin."

    "They welcome foreigners who come to learn the arts of war of them? It seems hardly prudent." That was the youngest and best dressed of the three.

    "I helped them steal cattle, horses once, from their neighbors. Saved my oathbrother from a most shameful capture too. Vales, plains, we're all cousins west of the mountains."

    "And between stealing horses and saving brothers, had you time for sisters too? What are the ladies of the plains folk like?"

    Silence fell. At last Harald spoke slowly.

    "Very fair, some of them. I was otherwise engaged at the time."

    The youngest looked ready to ask another question. He spoke first:

    "Have I told you what council the fox gave the raven, and how the snake died?"

    Afterwards he excused himself to see how his horses were being cared for. The ladies remained behind. Looking back he saw the three of them, their heads together. One looked up at him, then away.

    The lord of Estmount had come in during the afternoon, with apologies for his tardiness and his neighbor's absence. If the lady Anne felt neglected for lack of a father she showed no sign of it. Council was held, but dealt mostly with a tangled dispute over water and grazing rights in the southern provinces. At last it was agreed that the King's cousin would look into the matter and advise the King.

    The next afternoon the three ladies came again, accompanied by Anne.

    "Here my lady."

    For a moment her mouth was half open, then she caught up her usual composure.

    "It is good of your Excellency to entertain my ladies. My sister too."

    The three were frozen, staring at Harald.

    "Rather they me, lady. I seldom see flowers here so early in the year. Will it then please you to sit and hear a tale?"

    "It would." She gathered up her skirt, sat down on one of the flagstones. "Your own deeds. Surely the hero of half the battles of the past thirty years has one or two suited to our ears."

    "As you will, lady. Will you have my first battle? It is a good tale, though I am not the hero of it."

    She nodded, settled back against a tree trunk.

    "You know that King Henry in his wisdom made peace with the Vales, abandoning his fathers' claim to lordship. It made him friends among the wiser of our people. Young men are not always wise, nor fond of peace; some had been dreaming of brave deeds, rich plunder, east of the mountains. But the next year was drought on the western slopes and beyond. The Westkin declared water peace on the clans, moved the herds west for grass. We had fields, houses.

    "His Majesty, peace on him, sent herds of sheep, mules loaded with grain, all he could spare over the pass. Young men are no happier to starve to death than old.

    "A gift for a gift, we say. We had our chance the next spring. Trouble on the Borderflood for years, getting worse. His Majesty had settled his western border. He called out the levies, every lance he could raise, marched north against the Empire. Five hundred of us came over the high pass to help him.

    "Imperial cavalry from all over, some good--they hire Westkin off the plains when they can--some not. That year mostly mediums from the northwest provinces, heavies out of the client kingdoms east of here. Brave, but they'd never fought cats before. While His Majesty was keeping an eye on the main army, we had our own battle. Westkin tactics. They ran out of men before we ran out of arrows. First blood, light losses. We thought we were winning.

    "So did His Majesty. He brought the Imperial army to battle. Four legions, as many more lights. He tried to break them with a cavalry charge."

    Harald stopped a moment, his eyes blind to the orchard around him.

    "Imperial heavies, the legions, best infantry in the world. We were out of it, watching, waiting to be sent in after the lines broke. The Order too; even then Henry had enough sense not to throw light lancers at legions. It was all his own people, heavies--six thousand men.

    "The javelins brought down half the front rank, then the long spears came down. Horses don't like running into a hedge of steel. I wouldn't either. It was a bloody mess.

    "We did our best to cover the retreat, we and the Order. The Third Prince--he's Emperor now--sent his lights to finish the business, while the legions dealt with what hadn't gotten away.

    "Aiming one way while riding another looks very fine. Broken ground, low hills, big boulders, bad for cavalry, even ours--but it was my first war. I rolled when I hit, was lucky not to break anything.

    "And there I was, light archer's shield, sword at my belt, five or six wild men with swords and shields coming my way, one with a two hander taller than he was, and he a big man. Not a friendly face in sight. Backed up between bank and a big boulder, where they couldn't all come at me at once, hoped to have one or two for company.

    "The first was careless. I was fighting the second, wondering how long my shield would last, when he suddenly got the most surprised look I've ever seen on a man's face and dropped. Hand to hand is a muddle--given the choice I do my killing at range--but I was sure I hadn't touched him, too busy staying alive."

    The orchard was still, the four ladies hardly breathing.

    "Looked behind for the next one. He was lying on his face. Head of a line of corpses. Then I saw her.

    "Rock on her left, bush on her right, picked them off, starting at the back, till she ran out. If anyone had seen her--you don't fight sword and shield with a longbow, not at close quarters. Order aren't trained to shoot from the saddle. Longbows not much use on horseback anyway.

    "She called her horse; it came. Carried both of us till we got to camp, my remount."

    He fell silent. At last Anne spoke.

    "And afterwards? What happened to the brave Lady? Did you see her again?"

    "As to the fate of the Lady Leonora, you must put that question to His Majesty. He has seen the Lady Commander more recently than I."

    Anne's face went white. Harald stood up, stumbled a little on stiff legs, and in the silence walked out of the orchard.

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