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Harald: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Friday, October 14, 2005 10:13 EDT




Safe to tell a secret to one,
Risky to two,
To tell it to three is folly.

    "The trumpet blew, the king's men in the middle started rolling boulders over and down. Imperials weren't happy when they saw them coming."

    "The rocks wiped out the legions?"

    "No such luck. The rocks tore holes in the shield wall. The rest was up to us."

    "You charged them? Didn't you tell me that was stupid?"

    "Would have been. We poured in arrows from just outside javelin range. Cats on the left, Order on the right. They tried to reform, but it was too late, and the rocks kept coming. Legionaries are good, but they die just like other people."

    "What about –"

    They heard voices in the courtyard below. Hen was on his feet first. Harald paused to pull his cloak around him.

    Yosef was there already, Rorik beside him. One of the guards was opening the gate. Two riders came into the courtyard through the falling snow. The smaller spoke:

    "Elaina ni Leonor, my sister Kara ni Lain. We come in peace."

    Yosef stepped forward:

    "I am Yosef, castellan of Forest Keep for Stephen of North Province. In peace be welcome."

    Harald saw her swaying in the saddle, stepped forward. The Lady swung one foot over, slid down; he caught her as she fell.

    Yosef spoke:

    "The hall is warmest; can you manage her?"

    Harald nodded.

    "Hardly weighs anything." It was true. Despite the mail hauberk, he had carried boys who weighed more.

    The other Lady was off her horse but on her feet. At a glance from his father, Hen took both horses. Harald carried Elaina up the stairs, through the door Yosef opened. Kara followed.

    Yosef pulled one of the straw pallets in front of the fire; Harald kneeled, put her down gently. In the fire light, the stump of an arrow stood out from her side. He heard a gasp behind him.

    "She didn't tell me."

    Footsteps. Hen answered his father's unspoken question.

    "Old Jon has them, is rubbing them down."

    Harald spoke.

    "In my room, the open saddlebag. A bundle, so long, tied with a red cord."

    While he waited for the boy to come back with his kit, Harald looked over the wounded Lady, peeling back the wet cloak, careful not to disturb the arrow. Besides the rent in the hauberk where the arrow had gone through, there were three more, sword slashes by the look of them, two oozing blood. He looked at her pale face in the firelight. His breath caught in his throat.

    When it was all over, Elaina was unconscious but bandaged and alive, wrapped in blankets in front of the fire, Kara sitting beside her. Harald washed the needle, the small knife, dried them, threaded another strand of sinew, assembled the kit, tied it, his mind elsewhere. Someone put a warm mug in his hand.

    He looked up at Yosef.

    "You'll want to leave them here tonight; it's too soon to move her. I'll get my things down from the guest room tomorrow morning; with luck it'll be safe to carry her up by then."

    "I'm not leaving my sister."

    "Of course. You'll want a pallet on the floor next to her; she might wake in the night."

    Someone came in with a tray of food up from the kitchen. Harald's eyes met Yosef's. Yosef broke a piece of bread, sprinkled it with salt from the bowl, handed it to Kara. She took it, eyes still on the huddled body by the fire, tasted it, looked up startled.

    "Thank you."

    Yosef looked at her a moment, spoke.

    "Are you wounded too?"

    "I don't think so. Something here?"

    She felt by her neck; her hand came away sticky with blood. The wound was shallow, a glancing arrow between cap and mail. While Harald was washing and bandaging it, Kara started to talk in a low voice.

    "After the ambush, when they were chasing us. She said to let her do it, hold back with the bow. I usually do what she says. She didn't tell me she was wounded. Besides, she's better than I am at hand to hand. Better than anyone. Was."

    "Will be." Harald spoke softly. "She's young, strong."

    The Lady's face softened a little. She put her head down in her hands.

    The next morning Harald separated his bedding and the saddlebag with his clothes, shoved everything else in a corner of the guest room, went downstairs to claim a space by the wall. Elaina was still sleeping, Kara watching her. Hen, silent for once, watched both while two of the guards ate quietly.

    "You'll be going up to the guestroom on the next floor, soon as it's safe to move your sister. Want us to fetch your things up?"

    Kara thought a moment, nodded.

    Hen jumped up:

    "I'll go."

    Harald took an absent minded bite from a chunk of bread, leaned over the sleeping girl, put the back of his hand to her forehead. It was hot.

    "Has she eaten, drunk anything?"

    Kara shook her head. He put a little wine in a goblet, laid it near Elaina's head.

    "Wakes while I'm gone, see if she'll take that. I'll try for broth up from the kitchen." He went out.

    Elaina woke, slept, woke again; her sister spooned warm broth into her when she could. While she slept Harald checked over Kara's wound. He made her take some of the broth too, bread dipped in it. Before dinner he carried the sleeping girl carefully up the stairs in his arms, laid her on the bed. Hen brought the bowl of broth; Harald put it on the hearth, almost into the fireplace, spoke to Kara:

    "She needs to stay warm too; that's why I moved the bed so close to the fire."

    "I'll lie with her."

    "Of course. Lie still if you can; she needs the sleep."

    Kara got up to put another log on the fire, wincing a little, noticed Hen staring at the two longbows leaning up against the wall. She kneeled, warming her hands.

    "Have you killed people?"

    "Tried. Didn't stay around to see."

    "I'll be in the next room, with father. Anything you need, just call; I sleep light."

    Kara nodded her thanks; they went out. Harald closed the door.



    Two days later, Harald brought in a platter of food, Hen a pitcher of beer, both to the small table that someone had found and placed by the bed. Elaina spoke. "Harl, stay a minute please."

    Hen hesitated, went out. Harald sat down on the hearth near the head of the bed, warming his hands at the coals.

    "You've been very kind. Everyone has. I, we, hoped you could tell us things."

    He waited.

    "Yosef, your lord, he welcomed us, gave Kara bread and salt, that's three days. But he's the man of the North Province lord. North Province lord is the King's man."

    Kara spoke: "King isn't exactly our friend, lately."

    Harald let himself look up at the face above him for a moment. Not easily frightened or turned. The cheeks were unscarred, eyes clear, hair, washed clean by her sister the night before, dark. He forced his gaze away, turned to Kara, sitting at the other end of the hearth.

    "Yosef is not my lord; I'm a guest here as well. A good and generous man, else I might have died in the snow three months back. He will not turn you over to your enemies, or send you out for them to hunt down, saving a direct order from his lord. Maybe not then; Stephen chooses his people well. And his hall is a long day's ride from here; Yosef has no reason to send there, or Stephen here. Not much safety in the world, this side the grave. More here than most places."

    The two girls said nothing. He got to his feet slowly, went out.

    The weather warmed towards spring, the snow melted. Harald took the opportunity to exercise the mare, riding in the woods near the castle. Once Elaina was on her feet again, she let Hen show her and Kara around Forest Keep, looked curiously at his archery range in the stable, fingered the target, gave Kara an inquiring glance. Kara looked at the target, shook her head. Hen looked at her, protested.

    "It works fine."

    "For you. At this range, our bows would shoot right through it. Stone walls aren't good for arrows."

    "We have lots of hay."

    Hen and Kara spent the afternoon rearranging some of the stored hay to make a head-high stack of tightly bound bundles at the far end of the stable, where Hen had his target. They were almost done when Harald came in, looked around, then at Hen.

    "Haven't been practicing much lately, but you won't miss by that much."

    "It's for the Ladies. Their bows would shoot right through my target."

    "Ladies tried it yet?"

    "I'll get our bows." That was Elaina.

    "I'll get them; mine too." Hen went, Kara with him. While they were gone, Harald braided some of the loose straw into a palm sized circle, pinned it to the hay with a long splinter of wood, then rummaged around the corners of the stable looking for something; Elaina watched curiously. At last he came up with a chunk of broken spear shaft, a scrap of old leather.

    When Kara and Hen came back with the bows and quivers, Elaina glanced at the haystack, the circle, her sister. Kara strung her bow; the others stood back. The first arrow went into the circle. The second. The third an inch outside. Hen watched in awe. Harald spoke.

    "Good enough, if you find an enemy who stands still while you shoot at him. Hold up and we'll try something more interesting."

    He stuck the wooden piece into the middle of the pile, well to the right, pinned the leather a foot lower on the left. Kara looked at him.

    "You sound like my mother."

    Harald looked straight at Elaina, did his best to look puzzled.

    "Don't look much like her."

    Hen looked from one to the other, a blank expression on his face. Elaina laughed.

    "She's Kara ni Lain--Harl heard it when we came. That's Kara daughter of Elaina. I'm named after her mother--she and my mother were friends. Like us. She died when Kara was twelve."

    "You mean she isn't your daughter? I thought you looked a little young." Harald kept a straight face as long as he could. Hen figured it out, laughed.

    "But you do sound like my mother--Elaina ni Liana not Elaina ni Leonor." Her sister gave her a worried glance, looked away.

    "Yes. So I'll say what your mother would: stop talking, start shooting." Kara looked startled, nocked an arrow, stared at the piled hay.

    "Wood. Straw. Leather. Leather. Straw."

    At each word Kara drew, released. The worst was a hand's breadth from its target.

    Kara waited a moment, lowered her bow.


    Arrow to the string, bow up, arrow into the circle.

    "You'll do. 'Laina?"

    Shooting at the straw circle, Elaina did almost as well as her sister. But one of the shafts called for leather went to wood instead, another wild. She put the bow down, pale faced, breathing hard.

    "She's still recovering; it isn't fair. She needs to rest."

    Harald looked at Hen.

    "Won't be fair if an enemy arrives tomorrow, either."

    Elaina nodded.

    "I'll rest now, after we eat shoot again, again tomorrow. Harl's right."

    They had two more weeks. She used them.

    A different story this time, a larger audience--Hen sitting with the two Ladies on their bed while Harald, on a cushion by the hearth, told how the quick wit of a Lady saved herself and a treasure. Her lover had just found the hidden bowstring, restrung his bow, when Elaina held up her hand. Harald stopped. In the silence he could hear voices in the courtyard.

    A mounted man just inside the gate; looking down from the door at the top of the stairs Harald could see the patch of red on the breast of his cloak. He stopped, Kara and Elaina behind him; Hen squeezed by to see better. Yosef and Rurik were in the middle of the courtyard. One of the guards was swinging the gate closed, two more hurrying up the stairs to the top of the wall. The stranger was speaking.

    "They came here. They are here."

    Yosef was calm.

    "Who guests with me is my affair."

    "I speak in the King's name. They are rebels against their order, to be handed over to us and delivered by us to their superiors."

    "I am North Province's man. When Stephen of North Province commands me to deliver up guests to their enemies, I will consider the matter. For a voice out of the night, no."

    The Wolf gave a long look around the little castle.

    "Open the gate again, then. I must to my companions. I return in the morning; think on it before you set yourself against His Majesty's commands."

    Yosef looked at Rorik, Rorik called up to one of the guards on the wall above the gate. The man looked out, turned back.


    The gate open, the Wolf out, the gate closed again, barred. Yosef spoke with Rorik then came up the steps into the hall, leaving the guard captain behind in the courtyard. Harald stepped forward.

    "They may send to Stephen's Hall, but I think not. By my counsel we sleep armed."

    "Rorik's as well. He does not think it will be at night, I have doubts they try us at all; Stephen is a bad enemy. But better safe. The guards watch while we arm, eat, then we watch while they take their turn."

    Yosef’s glance included the two Ladies. He turned back to Harald:

    "You have been a soldier and know yourself best. Sentry duty at least--I can arm you from castle gear if you wish it."

    "No need. I did not arrive at your gate stark naked."

    He turned and went up the stairs to the guestroom. While the two Ladies got out mail hauberks, padding, helped each other into them, Harald pulled two bundles out of the stack in the far corner, unrolled them. The bow he laid carefully a little distance from the fire to warm, then drew on padding, mail, heavy warcoat. Sword belt over all, quiver hooked on one side, bow scabbard the other. Kara turned, saw him, froze.


    She turned as well. He nodded to both, picked up the bow, felt along its length a moment, sat down, strung it slowly, bending the recurve back across his thighs, working his way down the bow adjusting its curve, face intent. Satisfied he stood up, slid the bow into its scabbard, went out and down the stairs, leaving the two Ladies staring at each other.

    Through the night they kept two men on guard, changing every few hours; the rest slept in armor in the hall. At dawn they were all up, breaking their fast on bread and soup. Then down into the courtyard. Harald turned to Yosef:

    "Tree trunk at your door, ladder to the wall, likely the limit of their siege craft, archers in the woods. I'll take the slit covering the front gate from the old keep--it gives the best angle. Another archer in the new keep, the other side of the gate--your best man. Or Lady Kara."

    Yosef looked at him doubtfully, hesitated, spoke. "I don't doubt your experience, but it's been a long time since you've used that bow."

    Harald smiled, Hen spoke.

    "Show them. My range in the stable. It'll give you a chance to practice, too."

    Harald looked down at the bow in his hand, up at the boy. "Stone walls are hard on arrows." Hen's gaze fell. In one smooth flow Harald nocked, drew, released. Beating wings at the far side of the courtyard. He walked over, freed the arrow from the shed wall, the pigeon still moving weakly.

    "I've been practicing."

    Bow in one hand, bird in the other, he walked over to the kitchen door.

    Two hours after dawn, a trumpet at the gate, a loud voice. Yosef answered from the wall above. The rider turned, rode back into the trees; as he reached them arrows flew. Yosef was already ducking for shelter; they missed.

    The arrow slit gave Harald a view of the space in front of the door. Something moved into it, a crowd of men, some carrying a tree trunk, some a crude roof to shelter them from above, more at either side with big shields. The shields left their lower legs uncovered; he drew, shot, again, again. One of the shieldmen stumbled to his knees; Harald put two arrows through the gap before it closed.

    There was a yell from above the gate, the sound of stone hitting wood, wood breaking. The cook and the castle women were pushing over the big rocks that someone, at some time in the past, had piled on the wall above the gate. The roof swayed, exposing men under it. Harald shot, again and again, as he found targets. A shield man had raised his shield to help hold up the wooden roof; before Harald could shift his aim the man was down. Someone else--probably from the slit below him. The ram down, the attack finished, men running for the woods; Harald dropped one of them. Yelling above, on the castle wall. He ran up the stairs to the roof.

    While one group attacked the front gate, another had gotten a ladder up to the back wall of the castle, four men up it. One was fighting with a castle guard on the wall, two more behind him, one of them trying to get a spear past. The fourth, shield side to Harald, was part way down the wall, at the top of the stair Rorik was running up.

    A tiny castle; everything close to everything. Harald's first shot dropped the fighting man. The spearman, suddenly unprotected, stepped back from the guard's advance, was blocked by his own man behind. A flurry of blows, Harald shot again, again. All three were down, the guard running for the ladder while Rorik, shield held high, traded blows with the fourth Wolf.

    Harald took precious seconds to transfer two arrows from quiver to bow hand, nocked a third, waited. A face above the ladder, chest clear of the wall. Harald put three arrows into it in as many seconds, some part of his mind on Conor's father who taught him the trick. The man fell, the guard reached the ladder top, pushed it over. The Wolf fighting Rorik lowered his shield to block a chop at his leg; Harald shot him through the throat.

    He took a long look around. The castle wall was clear of enemies. Rorik and the guardsman were on the back wall, bending over the body of another of the guards. On the front wall, sheltered by the rampart, Yosef and one of the guards were helping another, obviously hurt. Harald did a quick count, turned, went back down the keep stairs.

    The archer at the lower slit was not Elaina but Hen; he looked up as Harald came down the stairs.

    "I got one of them."

    "One of them got you." Harald pointed at the spreading stain on the front of the boy's tunic. "Let me see."

    Hen looked surprised. The arrow had sliced across the boy's chest; the wound was bleeding but not deep. Harald pulled a strip of cloth from under the skirt of his warcoat, wrapped it around the boy's body over the wound.

    "Good thing people are born with armor." Hen looked puzzled. "Breastbone. Want to kill someone, don't aim there. Next time, wear something."

    In the courtyard, Yosef ran over to his son.

    "I'm all right father, just a scratch, I killed one of them."

    Over his head the two men's eyes met. Harald nodded.

    "Yes and yes."

    By noon the wounded had been dealt with, the enemy dead stripped, bodies over the wall. Hen delighted in a mail shirt, only slightly damaged; it reached well below his knees. Three of the defenders, Hen included, were injured, one badly. Neither Harald nor Rorik thought the Wolves would try again that day, but Yosef posted two of the remaining guards on sentry and the rest ate in armor.

    The day dragged on. Harald sat by the wounded guard in the hall while one of the women fed him. He saw Elaina in the doorway, beckoning, followed her up to the guest room. Kara was folding tunics, packing saddle bags.

    "We have to leave. Tonight, out the postern. Before we get Yosef and everyone killed. Help us persuade him."

    "You aren't asking the right question."

    Elaina looked at him, puzzled.

    "Big wolfpack outside, three decades, four, maybe more. Some of them hunting you a month or more. Two Ladies, no special rank or station. Storming a castle, risking war with a provincial lord. Why?"

    There was a long silence. It was Kara who broke it.

    "Your mother."

    Elaina looked up. "We agreed."

    "If we can't trust our friends, slit our throats now and save the folk outside the trouble."

    "I should have changed the name."

    Harald looked straight at her.

    "Want to keep that secret, child, need a new face too."

    She looked blankly at him, startled by the excitement in his voice.

    "What is it?"

    "Think; it's a useful habit. Why do they want to take your mother's daughter?"

    Comprehension. Harald spoke.

    "Can't put pressure on a corpse, child. She's alive. Best news I've had the past year."

    Kara spoke, slowly. "If we can't leave, what do we do?"

    "Send for help. Stephen's a day's ride away. Times like this he'll be feeding fifty swords in his hall, maybe more."

    "Lord Stephen, the King's man. Can we trust him?"

    Harald looked amused. "If the King trusts him to show up with an army when and where he's told, His Majesty's more of a fool than I think. Yosef trusts him. I trust him. His people trust him not to get them killed if he can help it. You'll be all right."

    "I'll go."

    It was Hen in the doorway, his father behind him.

    "I know the paths, can get past them."

    Harald shook his head.

    "You don't know the way to Stephen's hold; you've been there twice in your life."

    "Father can tell me."

    "You're wounded, you can hide but you can't fight, and the guards at the gate might not believe you. I'll go."

    Yosef, both hands on his son's shoulders, spoke over him. "Can you find your way?"

    "Once I get to the north road. You'll have to tell me the first part."

    "What if they chase you?" That was Hen again.

    "Expect I have more arrows than they have men."

    Harald gave Hen and his father a friendly nod, went past them, down the stairs, out to the stable.

    Dark. The mare saddled, loaded, waiting by the postern gate. Harald in full armor. Hen, Yosef, the two Ladies. Elaina still arguing:

    "A lot of them, it's a long way. I should …"

    Harald tapped his quiver, gentled the mare. "I was breaking legions when you were at your mother's breast, child. Damn nuisance you were too." He led the mare out the postern into the night, Elaina staring after him.

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