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Harald: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Tuesday, September 27, 2005 19:21 EDT



Enemies and Friends

A wayfarer should not walk unarmed

    It took Harald two days to make it up the valley and over, much of the time leading the mare, and work his way down the far side of the ridge to the head of the next valley north. Then west, following the stream that flowed down to the plains. Beyond plains the high pass, home.

    That evening he heard voices, smelt a breath of smoke, turned the mare off the path and into the woods. A wide circle was cleared of trees, its center a mound, two men watching. A wisp of smoke came out; one of them put a clod over it. Harald quietly unstrung his bow, wrapped bow and quiver into the bundled bedding behind his saddle, rode out of the trees.

    He spent the night with the charcoal burners, traded smoked meat for bread only two days from the oven. In the morning they sat watching the mound, sharing their cheese and bread, his sausage and dried apples.

    "Come a long ways?"

    "Fair. In the hills trapping, guesting, widow woman." Harald gave them a sidelong glance. The younger of the two grinned at him. Harald spoke again:

    "I've got furs. Traders down valley, on the road?"

    "Maybe at the Inn. The path comes out of the hills, goes on a bit, crosses the road north. Big building, stable, picture of the sun on the sign. Pack trains come by with salt, pretty things from the city. Going back to your widow lady, maybe?"


    Stopping for lunch, a walnut tree caught his eye. A brief search unearthed half a dozen of last year's nuts, still in their dry hulls. A few stones, a coal from its bed of moss in his clay firebox, threads of bark, twigs, branches. His pan, filled with water from the stream, went over the small fire; he patiently shredded the walnut hulls into it.

    Hair, beard and face. The creek provided a pool to rinse in, a still shallow for a mirror. More dye for patches of gray. He dumped out what was left, rinsed the pan, scrubbed it with sand. Fresh coals into the fire box, more moss. Water on the fire.

    It was almost dark before he reached the inn, its yard crowded with pack mules being unloaded. A small coin persuaded the stableboy--a stall, hay, a little grain. When he had finished rubbing down the mare, Harald shoved saddle, saddle bags, rolled war coat onto the shelf at the end of the stall, the horse blanket over all, gave the mare a final pat and strict instructions, went off to the inn.

    The big room was crowded, a fire at one end. Near the door a knot of Imperials, the chief trader, his assistants, two or three smaller traders traveling with him. One table was packed with the group's guards, still in armor, another had half a dozen of what looked like local farmers, one of the faces vaguely familiar. Harald slid through the crowd to the fire, put out his hands to warm them, stood looking at the flames, listening.

    The Imperials were speaking Tengu, the Emperor's tongue if not quite to the Emperor's standards. The roads were muddy, bandits a nuisance, but the kingdom's little court was buying, the weavers in the city were selling, and matters could, on the whole, be worse. The guards were talking what he suspected was Bashkazi, which might have been useful if he had grown up a few hundred miles farther east. The farmers were mostly complaining about the weather.

    Harald spotted the innkeeper coming down the stairs from the upper rooms, drifted over to him, spoke in the nearest he could manage to the traders' dialect.

    "The small room at the end--it is free?"

    The innkeeper looked him over curiously.

    "My master wishes me to arrange."

    "Two silver pennies." The man held up two fingers.

    Harald didn't blink.


    He went past the crowd of traders, nodding familiarly at one, out the door. Back with a bundle on his shoulder.

    "Arrange." He handed the innkeeper the coins, climbed the stairs. The room had a bed, a bar for the door, a window looking over the porch roof to the stable. Dinner a risk he could do without. With luck he could buy bread and sausage in the morning. With such a crowd, the innkeeper was unlikely to keep track of who slept where.

    He woke before dawn, chasing a memory through dreams. A face. Blond hair. A farmer's tunic--no. He came suddenly awake. One of the farmers. The man who knew someone who was hiring mercenaries.

    Nobody was up in the yard yet, but he thought he saw movement in the stable door. He pulled on the mail shirt, over that his cloak, gave one regretful glance at his blankets, swung the shutters wide, stepped out onto the porch roof, a short drop to the yard, two steps to the stable.

    The boy looked up at him, startled.

    "Help me with my horse; I have to get on the road early today, ahead of the others."

    "I. I need to … "

    Harald blocked the doorway.

    "Help me with the horse. An extra coin for you."

    The boy, nervous, saddled the horse, strapped saddlebags behind, Harald watching. He reached up for the bundle on the high shelf, tossed it to Harald, bolted for the door.

    Seconds were a price that had to be paid. The hardened leather chest piece--all he had of the mare's barding. He pulled out bowcase and quiver, hooked them to the saddle, shrugged into the lamellar coat. Over that the cloak, for whatever good it did. Into the saddle. Harald burst out of the stable, headed for the north road, brought the mare to a full gallop.

    Nobody in sight yet. He lashed down bow case and quiver, pulled out the bow, strung it. Hoofbeats, a horn. Three men at least coming out of the trees behind the inn, perhaps more. The light archer's shield to the outside of his bow arm; he checked the saddle mace, butt up in its pocket at the side of the bowcase.

    Trees, more trees. The forest spread down the hills, out onto the plain; the North Road ran through it for miles. In the open, with a full quiver, he could deal with riders behind him, but …

    The first arrow glanced off the flap guarding his thigh; he never saw the archer. Two more glancing, then a sharp pain in his calf; the mare broke stride a moment, was back in her gallop.

    "Brave lady." He pulled the leg up, snapped off the projecting point; there was no time for more.

    An archer rose from beside a tree, almost in front of him. In one smooth motion Harald drew and loosed. Yells behind. He saw an arrow coming from in front, knocked it aside with the shield, missed another--it caught in the cloak, stopped by the armor. He thought he heard the higher twang of a crossbow, felt something in his back.

    The road broke out into a long clearing. Turning in the saddle, Harald put two arrows into the nearest pursuer. The man fell back, his hands still clutching the reins; the horse swung to one side, went crashing through the trees. His third caught the next rider in the throat, tumbled him out of his saddle. More behind, and men with bows coming out of the woods. Harald glanced ahead.

    The clearing ended against a steep bank; the road swung left across its face. The archers were too close. He brought the mare to a sliding stop where the road turned, wheeled, back to the bank, face to the enemy.

    Two riders died, the third reached him. He caught the sword on his shield's rawhide edge, felt it cut and catch, struck back with the saddle mace, felt the blow go home. The bow into its scabbard. The mare reared under him, turned, struck out with forehooves; the attacker on that side clutched his reins as his horse shied aside, tried to bolt. Harald jammed his shield into the man's face, struck once to cripple the shoulder, a second time to kill, felt a heavy blow on his helm.

    For a moment the world turned black. Somehow he stayed in the saddle as the mare backed him free of the tangle. Then block and blow as the mounted Wolves swarmed around him. At least no arrows. A line of fire across his right shoulder, another over his ribs. He struck back, felt the strength draining from his arm. The world swung around him, the mace loose in his fingers.

    "Back or die, dogs."

    The voice was above and behind him. The mare was still backing, he was again for a moment clear. The remaining Wolves, still between him and their own archers, were looking not at him but up.

    "We are here on the King's business, Lady." The face of the leading rider blurred, but he knew the voice.

    "Too much of the King's business here. Back. Your archers down their bows or die. We're in cover; they aren't."

    One of the archers must have tried to draw or run. He heard the bowstrings behind him, thought he heard the arrows thud home, the man grunt.


    The familiar voice spoke.

    "Bows down, men back into the woods, meet at the inn. We'll settle this later."

    The riders were backing away, turning. Harald watched, what remained of his shield raised. He heard voices, noise behind him, held steady. It was dark early. He would have to …

    The ground came up, struck him.

    He woke first to a stab of pain, held himself still. He was flat on his face; someone was examining his back with a sharp knife.

    "Not deep, but the bastards' bolts are barbed." He considered telling her about the little flask in his kit. Considered it again.

    The next time he was on his back, lying on something soft, what felt like a rolled up cloak under his head. He was light headed and most of him hurt, but so far as he could tell by cautious twitches there were no arrows actually sticking in him. Progress. Voices.

    "I don't know who but I know what, and I saw him kill four Wolves while you were stringing your bow. That's more than we've done all month."

    "I'm sorry. I was nervous. Everything was so fast."

    "Fighting's like that. You'll learn. Or not."

    "It was… "

    "I've never seen better. The horse as good as the man. But now they're our problem. We can't leave him. We can't take him with us; he'd be dead in a day. We can't stay here--eventually that Wolf captain will decide he has a big enough pack and come looking."

    Harald spoke:

    "My horse."

    "She's in better shape than you are. Nothing broken, nothing that won't heal."

    He closed his eyes, breathed slowly, let the world fade back.

    Hoofbeats in front, behind. He felt his body swaying. A horse litter. Gods grant neither beast bolted.

    "No you can't. 'Leanor, stop the beast."

    "You stop her."

    The hoofbeats stopped, the litter stopped swaying. Something cold and wet against his shoulder. He reached up, stroked the mare's muzzle.

    He was lying in a bed. Too hot. Dull aches, none of which seemed to matter. Someone was trying to talk to him.

    "Old Gudmund and Anna will take care of you. We have to go. They'll send word when they can. You're their nephew Karl. A falling tree hurt you."

    It was a struggle to open his eyes, to force his mind to think, his mouth to speak.

    "Can you get a message to your hold, up the top of Mainvale?"

    There was a long silence, voices whispering together.

    "Yes. It will take time."

    "No hurry. When someone goes. Lady Aliana. Nobody else. Niall. His father. Home next spring."

    "We are to tell the Lady Aliana in Valholt at the top of Mainvale that Niall's father will be home next spring?"

    Harald nodded, closed his eyes, was again asleep.

    He slept for a long time, brief intervals for water, a little soup. The legions advanced, a wall of shields, unbreakable. He signaled; the trumpet sounded. The boulders rolled down. He saw the faces, horror, courage, surprise. Crushed bodies. Men moaning. The wind blew, the field faded like mist. Leonora pulling off corpses with a cold face, looking, finding. He forced his eyes to open. His leg hurt.

    A wrinkled face leaned over him. Behind her a lifted curtain, beyond a small room, a fireplace. She was saying something. He strained to understand. His mouth was dry; he nodded. She held the cup to his lips.

    After the fever broke the dreams changed for the better. Sometimes he was awake for hours, strong enough to lift a cup, spoon soup. Sliding away into sleep, he saw the Imperial left come down on the Order--heavy cavalry, Belkhani, twenty cacades, a forest of lances. The Ladies stood their ground, pouring arrows into the charging ranks. Watching from the hilltop, waiting for the center and right to move against him, he stopped breathing. At the last moment, impossibly late, the front ranks almost on them, up and away, fleeing for their lives. The Order's lights gradually drew away from the slower heavies; the charge ground to a halt. Two hundred yards beyond the milling lines the Ladies were again dismounted, too far for his eyes but he knew arrows were flying down the wind, Belkhani falling. A second time, a third, impossibly precise, perilously close, the line of Ladies shooting as the cavalry bore down on them, up and away before the lances closed.

    He had seen the drill over and over. This was real. The fourth charge ground to a halt, the Belkhani ranks thinned, tired horses, tired men. Their lances swung up. At the left end of the Order's line a figure raised her hand. The line of riders, mail silver in the morning sun, wheeled, shifted weapons in an instant, lances down, heartbreaking grace, the silver wave swept down on the astonished cavalry, over it, on. Three legions in front of him still untouched, four thousand light infantry on their right, but she had won him his battle. Darkness. Light. Darkness again.

    Again light. He rode the wind, the floor of the world in all directions to the sky. The stolen horses ahead. Hoofbeats behind would never catch them. He heard Conor yell.

    The bay had stumbled over something, gone head over heels, her rider flying, rolling. Harl spun the black, charged their pursuers, faces over shields, both spears leveled at him. At the last moment he leaned down the side of his horse, ducking the points, back up, spear crosswise, leaning into it, knees locked to the horse's side.

    It almost drove him from the saddle, but braced for the shock he rode it through, heard his spear snap, felt his horse driven back on its haunches. He spun the horse again, joy bubbling in his throat. Both ravens were out of the saddle, one running after his horse, the other doubled up--the spear butt must have knocked the breath out of him. Harl brought the black into a canter after the riderless horse, heading it to the left. Conor ran alongside, caught the mane, up. The herd still ahead, still moving, six horses. As he drew even, Conor turned, waved, finger sign for seven. They rode on, both laughing.

    Harald opened his eyes. The arm on the blanket was skeletal, muscles withered, skin wrinkled. A moment before he had been young, the wind in his hair, his oathbrother laughing beside him. He clenched his hand. The claw fingers moved.

    His hand. His arm. The end of the bed. He tried to move his foot; the blanket stirred. A wood wall, mud chinked. Carefully, feeling down the years, Harald put the world back together. Conor was dead of the fever ten years ago, more. Harald had fostered one of his sons.

    It was a week before he could walk, steadied by a stick. Once he could go more than a few steps he asked after the mare, stumbled out to the little stable. Gudmund showed him where his gear was hidden. A child's bow would have been more useful, but that would change. A week later, naked in the stream, he scrubbed himself clean for the first time in months. Wounds all healed, even the twisted dimple in his left calf. Thinner than he could remember, weak as a child, moving like an old man. Alive. An old man's face looked back at him out of the water, gaunt, hair and beard white. He shivered; the wind was cold. A dead leaf floated by. He looked west. Through trees, over the plain, through rock. Snow falling, snow banks head high in the pass. He dried himself off, pulled on a patched tunic, walked back to the cottage.

    Harald lay in bed, eyes closed. Ana and Gudmund were by the fire on the other side of the room. He was a little deaf, so her side of the conversation could for the most part be understood.

    "I left sign for the sisters, but it could be weeks. Here tomorrow, next day at best."

    "They'll search the stable. The horse. You heard what happened to Katrine. We have to get him away. Maybe the woods?"

    "…cold …"

    "I know. But if they find him. Not just him."

    "We could sit tight. Nephew. Neighbors won't tell. … But …"

    The conversation went on, voices rising and falling; from time to time he could catch one or two of Gudmund's words.

    When he was sure they were asleep he rolled out of bed, lowering himself quietly to the floor, feeling under the bed for clothing. It was his own, plain enough to suit. He dressed hastily, the warmest he could find. Not warm enough. One blanket from the bed went around him, a belt to hold it. He untied the purse, reached into it. The loose stone by the fireplace. He dropped a handful of gold coins on top of whatever it held, put the stone back. Two more blankets, the rest of his clothes. Boots. Cloak. A sausage from dinner, a hard roll. The clay fire box, coals.

    The two oxen dreamed of green fields; the mare heard him, stamped, moved to her stall's door.

    "Not long now, lady love. Cold for you, me too, but at least moving."

    He lifted a square of floor, pulled out the saddle blanket, draped it over her. Saddle. Saddlebags. Handfuls of apples from the bin at the back of the stable. He leaned against the mare's side, breathing hard. She butted her head against his shoulder.

    From the little farm in the eastern fringe of North Province where foothills ran up to the mountains his nearest friend was three days travel north and west. The sky was clear, the wind at his back. At first he walked, but the mare was in better shape than he was. From time to time he woke enough to be sure they were still going in the right direction. A little before dawn he found a windfall and a heap of leaves, mostly dry, near a clearing of brown grass. He left the mare to graze, curled up in the leaves, blankets wrapped around him.

    The next day it started to snow. He went on for several hours, using wind and the lie of the land, felt himself slipping, caught himself, opened his eyes. The ground was covered with a thin white layer. He found shelter for both of them under an overhanging bank.

    By morning the snow was deeper. He scraped clear as much grass as he could, fed the mare apples, himself from what was left of his traveling food. One more day's rest, then …

    The next morning cold but clear. They set out, using the sun and the shape of the land. Downhill was mostly west. Downhill was good. By noon he was stumbling, holding on to the saddle, afraid to risk riding and falling. Shelter this time was a tall pine, branches weighed down by snow, space under almost clear. Dead branches made a fire; he melted snow, warm for the mare, hot for him, ate the last of his food.

    They were in flat land now; he mounted. It began to snow. As it grew darker he searched for shelter. Nothing. He pulled the blanket tighter around him under his cloak.

    The mare had stopped, was sniffing something. With an effort he dismounted. Hoofprints. Recent; the snow was still falling. Someone was going somewhere.

    The mare stopped again, Harald holding on by one hand. He leaned against her for a moment, shivering, put out his hand. Stone. Wood. A gate. Looking up, he saw walls, a tower, faint against falling snow.



    Cold fingers found the mace where he had tucked it under the saddle flap. He pounded the butt against the wood with what strength he had left. Again.

    Above him a voice.

    "Who's there?"

    "A traveler, lost. Followed hoofprints."

    "Just a minute."

    A small shutter opened in the door; he thought he saw something pale behind it. More noises. The gate swung open. He followed the mare into a small courtyard.

    After that everything seemed to be happening at once. A boy spoke to the mare, stroked her head, led her off telling her what a brave horse she was. Someone closed the gate. A man with one arm around Harald's shoulders helped him up the stone stairway, a small hall, a chair by the fire. Someone was yelling at several other people, but he wasn't sure what about. The clay mug in his hand was warm, the wine hot and sweet.

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