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Harald: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Tuesday, September 20, 2005 23:31 EDT




With half a loaf and an empty cup_ _I found myself a friend.

    Over the next few days, working with long breaks, Harald succeeded in thatching his shelter, locating a small swamp well supplied with cattails, and snaring one rabbit. He also spent several frustrating hours discovering his inability to tickle trout left handed--the fish kept escaping at the last moment just as he was about to flip it onto the bank--and fell back, with better success, on hook and line.

    That morning he was fishing, back to a rock, trying not to think about cattail roots. A bundle of string in wet starch. But letting his arm heal and the hunt die down would take longer than his supplies were going to last; best save the remaining travel food for travel. He resolutely turned his mind to the more entertaining topic of his recent host, with aching head, trying to explain what had become of his guest and why.


    Harald looked up. The boy was standing on the other side of the creek, barefoot. He called across.

    "Any luck? The big pool downstream is better."

    Harald reached down, held up the largest of his catch. The stranger appearing unlikely to act on his advice at once, the boy walked a little downstream, waded across, came back up the bank. Harald looked up at him.

    "Hungry? Should be enough for two."

    The boy was staring down at Harald's splinted right arm, eyes wide. He stepped back.

    "You're the one they're hunting for."

    Harald gave him an enquiring look.

    "Two men. Staying at our farm, eating our food. Scaring mother. There's enough for the two of us, but they eat more. Now they want us to slaughter something for them. This time of year!"

    Harald, a farmer himself most of the time, gave a sympathetic nod.

    "They said a rider with one arm broken. Where's your horse?"

    Harald gestured towards the line of brush.

    "The little meadow? We sometimes use it for fall pasture. Can I see?"

    "After lunch. I like my fish fresh."

    Fire from the buried coals took a few minutes blowing; dry branches gave only a little smoke, dispersed in the thick leaves above. Jon helped Harald clean the trout, a messy job with only one hand. By the time they were done the flames were mostly burned down. The boy helped him arrange a rough grill of peeled green sticks over the coals, spread out the fish.

    "Tell me about the men looking for me."

    "Say they're from the King, say they need to find you, money to pay for news. Went looking yesterday. Mail shirts. Swords. Both together. Up and down the path, brush around it. Not likely to come this far--we're most of a mile from home. Hear them coming."

    "How close are your neighbors? If there's trouble with the men, will they help?"

    "Downstream there's nobody till you get to the main road, valley people, strangers. Upstream old Olaf and his boy a good hour's walk. More people further up. Ragnar went for a soldier, fought in the big war six years ago. Has a sword. But there are two of them."

    Harald thought a moment. Got up.

    "Come see my horse."

    The mare trotted across the meadow to them. Jon stood frozen, his mouth open.

    "She's beautiful."

    "Smart too." Harald pulled a wrinkled apple from somewhere, fed it to the horse. She lowered her head, sniffed for more. Gave up in disgust, walked over to Jon.

    "I'm sorry. I could find some white roots, bring them tomorrow?" He shyly stroked the big head.

    They sat for a while on the bank, feeding her handfuls of green grass.

    "Will they notice you're gone?"

    "Not till they want something. They'll expect the horses rubbed down this evening in the stable. Turned out the cow to make room. Took our bed, too."

    "Do you want me to kill them?"

    Jon looked up at him, startled. Hesitated a moment.

    "Can you?" He glanced down at the broken arm.

    "Probably. With your help. Not today."

    "Yes. I'll come tomorrow."

    "Better not to tell your mother. Easier to hide things you don't know."

    Jon nodded. After he had gone Harald got out his bow, a handful of arrows, a length of leather thong. Stringing the recurve was tricky, but he had one hand, two legs and forty years of practice. That done he went looking for a convenient bank of earth. It had been a long time.



    Late the next day Erik, the older of the two Wolves, saw the widow's boy coming out of the stable.

    "Got 'em rubbed down proper, fed, watered?"

    "Yes sir."

    "Grain, not just hay?"

    The boy hesitated, looked away.

    "Yes sir."

    "I'll come see. Don't go off."

    The stable was dark. Erik was still blinking when the first arrow hit him. He looked down in astonishment at the feathered shaft sprouting from his belly, a hand's breadth above the belt, looked up, started to yell. Harald, sitting in the half loft above the stall, back to a post, bare feet against the bow, loosed the second arrow.

    The door opened. Jon peered in, saw the crumpled body, stepped back, yelled.

    "Come quick. Your friend's hurt."

    Harald nocked a third arrow, drew it back.

    By the time Harald had freed the bow from his feet, made his way to the ground, made sure both men were dead, Jon had joined his mother on the porch. She listened to him a moment, looked up. Harald faced her.

    "My counsel, they left yesterday. The boy and I can deal with the bodies."

    "The horses?"

    "See if they're marked. Some way to sell them, no questions? Need be, I could take one when I go."

    She thought a moment.

    "I think I know someone who could sell them for me."

    Harald whistled, waited. The mare came out of the woods, walked past Harald to Jon. He bent down, pulled something from the ground, gave it to her. His mother looked at the horse, smiled. Harald put on his best frown.

    It took the rest of the evening to strip the bodies of the Wolves, load one onto the mare, the other on one of the geldings, and dump them a considerable distance off in the woods for their namesakes to deal with. The gelding was unhappy at the smell of blood, but Jon gentled him. By the time they got back, Jon himself was looking white. His mother hugged him, led him inside, came out again.

    "I'll be back in the morning."

    "Sleep here. I'll find blankets, make up a bed in the hay. You'll want dinner too."

    He hesitated a moment, nodded, took the mare into the stable, himself to the well to wash off the worst of it.



    Harald spent almost two months with them while the broken arm healed, paying for his board with fish, snared rabbits and, towards the end when he could again use a bow, two deer. Most of his time was spent in the woods out of sight, much of it with Jon. The boy, used to animals, took to riding like a Westkin child. The bow was too stiff for him to draw; Harald shaped one from a branch of ash, taught him to shoot from horseback.

    "Come over the mountains some day, we'll get you a proper bow."

    "What's wrong with this one? I like it."

    "Longbow's fine on foot. Too clumsy on horseback. Aiming left, see an enemy right, what do you do?"

    The boy tried to swing the bow across. The lower limb caught on the mare's neck; he dropped the bow. The mare looked up at him curiously.

    "Horn bow that wouldn't happen."

    "Is it really made of horn?"

    "Belly horn, back sinew, a little wood to hold them together. Takes a year to make, lasts a lifetime. More if you're careful. Or careless. We learned them from the Westkin."

    When Harald finally set off again on the mare, Jon walked him the first few miles up the trail into the mountains.

    "Will I see you again?"

    "Likely. Heading home over the pass, but I'll be back. Things to deal with near here. May take a while."

    The boy stroked the horse's neck, his face buried in her mane.

    "Expect she'll be back too."


    "Can't bind the world. Try."

    He dismounted, gave Jon a long hug.

    "Take care of your mother. When it's all over, come visit, meet my boys."

    Jon nodded, said nothing.

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