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Harald: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Tuesday, October 18, 2005 19:56 EDT




If you know a friend you can fully trust,
Go often to his house

    Getting through the siege lines was easier than he had expected, since there weren't any. He saw several fires through the trees, heard voices of men around them. Only at the last minute, after he had mounted, was there a shout, footsteps running through the woods towards one of the fires. Harald moved off as quietly as he could. Several times he heard hoofs, once someone yelling. Into the dark, through the forest, west and a little south by the stars. An hour later he heard the sound of hard packed dirt under the mare's hooves, stopped, looked right, left, the cleared road silent under the stars. He turned, rode north.

    He rode all night and most of the morning, the last few hours through the plains as the tall hill grew closer, the timber walls at its top catching the sunlight. The gate was open, guarded. The gate guards looked up in surprise at a Northvales cat some considerable way from home, swaying in the saddle, the horse almost as tired as the man.

    "Forest keep is under siege; message for Lord Stephen."

    The younger man stood frozen, his mouth open. The older gestured the rider forward.

    "I'll take you. Arthur, Ragnar."

    Two boys came running from the stable.

    "Take the man's horse, rub her down, feed her."

    Harald nodded his thanks, followed the guard between buildings towards the mass of the great hall.

    It was a single enormous room, wood pillars along the sides, a long fire down the center, smoke rising, or not, through a hole in the roof. Near the far end its lord was sitting, talking with several of his men. He looked up, eyes widening. Harald spoke first.

    "I bring a message from Yosef, castellan of Forest Keep. He is under siege and prays your aid."

    Stephen looked at him, silent for a moment, then spoke to one of the men.

    "Take Yosef's messenger to the south guest house. Food and drink." Then, to Harald, "I will join you there, hear more."

    As Harald left, Stephen's voice faded behind him, other voices, hurrying footsteps. A man ran past, down the hall, out the other side door.

    The guesthouse was a single room, newer than most of the hold, a fireplace at one end, a bed at the other, a table between. Harald pulled off his armor, did his best with the ewer and basin on the table. A servant came in, dumped a pail of burning coals onto the hearth, stacked wood above it. Another brought bread, cheese, sausage, a pitcher of beer. Harald was seated, eating slowly, when Stephen came in, closed the door, took the other chair, gave him a questioning look.

    "Two Ladies, wounded, took refuge with Yosef a month back. I was guesting too, after some problems on the way home. One was Elaina, 'Nora's youngest.

    "Day before yesterday, man at the gate, said he was a king's messenger. Demanded 'Laina, Kara. Yosef told him they were his guests, he was your man, not the King's. Yesterday they attacked, tried to storm the keep. Yosef, six guards, the Ladies, his boy Hen—not a bad shot, too brave for his own good." Harald fell silent a moment.

    "And you."

    "And me. Held them."

    "How many?"

    "I saw maybe fifteen, twenty, but there were more shooting from the woods. Three decades, four?"

    Stephen sat thinking a while, then shoved his chair back, stood up.

    "I'll have to send to the King. Thorvald to Forest Keep, three decades to keep him company, he's a careful man. I'll follow with more tomorrow. You'll want some rest. I'll have them send more food later. See you in the morning before I leave."

    He looked straight at Harald for a moment. Harald looked back, nodded. Stephen went out.

    By the time Harald woke it was almost dark. The table was spread with a cloth, on that a platter, on that an assortment of sausage, dried meat, dried fruit, cheese, bread--much of it hard baked biscuit. Dinner enough for three men. Harald ate some of the bread and cheese while he was putting on his armor, dumped the rest of the platter's contents onto the cloth. A minute later he was out of the room, the bundle of food concealed by his cloak.

    In the stable he found the mare, rubbed down, fed and rested. He saddled her with the help of a curious stable boy.

    "A little exercise before night time, good for both of us. Can you take a message to your lord?"

    The boy looked up curiously.

    "Lord Stephen is sending a messenger. I would like him to carry a brief message from me as well."

    The boy waited expectantly.

    "The message is that Harald regrets having had to depart in haste, and hopes to visit again shortly. Do you have that?"

    "Harald regrets having had to depart in haste, hopes to visit again shortly."

    "That's right. Tell Stephen you have to tell that to the messenger."

    The boy ran off. Harald strapped on bedding and saddle bags, stuffing the bundle of food into one of them, hooked on bowcase and quiver, led the horse out of the stable. Five minutes more took him through the gate, into the night.

    Ten miles west, half the night gone, he made camp on the far slope of a ridge half a mile from the road. No doubt Stephen had several men who could succeed in not following him, but there was no reason to make things harder for them than necessary. He slept till dawn, climbed to the top of the ridge; the road was empty. He went back to sleep. Near noon he lunched on Stephen's bounty, removed the faint signs of his camp, mounted.

    Stephen's Hill to the base of Northgate he counted four days travel, more or less--a little more without a remount, a little less without an army. Late afternoon of the fourth found him ten miles north of the hostel, a little west of the road. He made camp in a wood running down from the foothills. Beyond loomed the mountains, their far side home. He wondered what his oldest grandson was up to. A year. No doubt Gerda had coped.

    The road north was empty; Harald spent most of the remaining daylight searching the woods for food. It was still empty when he got back. When dark fell he built his fire in a hollow out of sight of the road, dined on fresh meat and wild greens with a little of his dwindling supply of biscuit.

    The next day the road carried a few riders and a mule train south from the Empire--Belkhani guards. He remained hidden, foraged for food, let the mare graze her fill. Late the next day his luck changed. Mules, horses, even a few wagons. Traders, mule drivers, from the imperial provinces in the far northwest by their dress. Guards in lamellar armor. Cats. They made camp less than half a mile from where he watched.

    The guard commander was a cautious man; sentries ahead, behind, to both sides of his camp. The one on the hill side was a big man with a slight limp. Luck. Harald waited until dark, spent most of an hour moving quietly through the woods. 'Bjorn would have been there and back, probably with Gunnar's helmet under his arm; some advantages to being young.


    The guard froze, turned, walked away from the voice. Stood a minute. Walked back. Relieved himself against a tree, spoke softly.


    "Harald Haraldsson." A long pause before Gunnar spoke again.

    "Nice night for a walk; bit far from home."

    "Guard captain?"

    "Kari Egilsson, bottom of Greenvale."

    "Tall, left eye missing. Hiring?"

    "Left two with fever, Kolskegg saw a pretty face three days back, probably still there. Could be."

    "I'll be by in the morning. I'm Connol Hrolfson, bottom of Mainvale. Pass the word."

    Harald faded back into the night.

    The mare was less than enthusiastic about walking when she should have been sleeping; it took ten minutes of talk and two apples to change her mind. Harald crossed the road, east then north, a wide loop around the traders' camp. By an hour past midnight he was half a mile north of them.

    Dawn came too early. He packed, trimmed his beard, rode south. A sentry stopped him well short of the tents; Kari was earning his pay.

    Kari himself rode up while the traders were breaking camp. The two men talked; the guard captain rode back to talk to the traders. In a little while he returned. Gunnar had assured the traders that his friend Connor, if inclined to be solitary, was a good man in a fight. Food and shelter over the pass, a chance of pay if all went well, but no promises.

    Late that afternoon they made camp where there was still grass for the animals, well downhill from the hostel. Another pack train was there already; a third came in before dark. Camp rumor said one from the south provinces, the other out of Eston. It also said the camp just below the gateposts, horses and men, wasn't traders. Harald considered a nighttime ride through the woods and up, decided against; not all Wolves were fools.

    The chief trader spent most of the morning cursing the Wolves and their king in an interesting variety of languages. They appeared to be checking every man, beast and cart coming west from Eston and taking their time about it. It had never happened before; the air was full of rumors. Harald's favorite involved the King's cousin, his lady love, and a treasure in royal jewels. One of the traders, old in the ways of the world, offered a simpler explanation: the Wolves were holding things up until offered a suitable reward not to. The chief trader stopped cursing, thought a minute, and rode off to the hostel.

    Whether due to his efforts or not, by the time they finally got to the gateposts things were moving faster. One of the Wolves questioned the chief trader and the guard captain. The members of the train, men and beasts, were sent through in single file, a Wolf watching from each side. Harald looked curiously from side to side as they went through; neither Wolf looked familiar. One of the other guards said something rude in a strong south vale accent; the guard captain turned in his saddle to glare at him. Then up the road and into the woods.

    Late afternoon, a brush covered hillside. Ahead on the right a small camp, a dozen Wolves. Harald spotted three more spread across the slope. Gunnar edged his horse right.

    "Lost? The gateposts are that way."

    The nearest Wolf glared at him, made no answer. Two hours farther on they stopped to camp.

    One of the wagons was for food--convenient, at least until they reached the steep part of the pass. Harald filled a bowl with stew, a plate with bread, dried apples. He ate the stew standing by the mare, watching the fire where a sheep turned, tilted the plate to let its contents slide into the open saddlebag. Untidy, but he was tired of being hungry. He refilled the plate, collected a sizable chunk of mutton, noticed the chief trader's eyes on him.

    After dinner, Harald walked over to the feed wagon, got a sack of oats, fed some of it to the mare, absent mindedly dumped the sack with the pile of his gear outside the tent pitched for him and three of the other guards. He moved the mare to the side of his tent away from the camp, told her not to wander, carried his gear into the empty tent. As night darkened, most of the cats gathered around a fire to trade lies. The mule drivers and camp servants had their own fire, the traders the biggest tent; Harald could see lantern light through the walls, hear voices. He spent a few minutes considering the pleasures of a good night's sleep, then went to the back of the tent, tested the stakes.

    Kari's voice at the tent door:

    "Connor, you there?"

    Harald grunted assent; the guard captain came into the tent where he was spreading out his bedding.

    "Making an early night of it?"

    "Early up yesterday, not so young as I was."

    "Trader Boss wants to see you before you go to sleep. Not all traders are fools."

    "Wagons over the high pass?"

    "They come apart, go on the mules for the last bit."

    Harald revised his opinion of the trader, his hopes for a night's rest. The guard captain went out. Harald rolled the bedding back up, pulled out a loose tent stake, slid his gear under the edge of the tent, followed it, replaced the stake. Twenty minutes later he was moving through the dark.

    "Who's there?"

    "Connor. Boss wants me to check ahead a bit. Crazy, but it's too early to sleep and the beer barrel went dry." He moved off into the dark, uphill, towards the pass.

    By dawn he was on the downslope of the foothills, green forest in the distance, the main range beyond. He stopped briefly to let the tired mare graze, feed her oats, himself cold mutton. The road behind was empty. Traders might not like being tricked but they had little reason to do the King's work for him. Besides, anyone who had somehow worked out Harald's identity would surely have sense enough not to send cats after him.

    There remained the problem of keeping man and horse alive over the pass; half a sack of oats would not do it. He reluctantly stood up, called the mare.

    "Green grass down there, brave heart."

    Harald set off down the road; the mare followed.

    By nightfall things were looking a little better. Four hours in the shadow of the trees made up for at least part of the previous night. A supper of cold mutton and bread, then back to sleep.

    He spent the early morning dealing with his half of the food problem while the mare dealt with hers. Two rabbits, a fat bird, only one broken arrow. He had hoped for a deer, but not enough to spend the rest of the day looking; the pack train would arrive eventually and he preferred to avoid complications.

    He stopped early that day, spent the night at the west end of the wooded lowlands--the last good grazing east of the pass. In the morning, two hours in a field at the wood's edge, far enough from the trail to have been missed by the early caravans, provided a considerable bundle of grass. As he sat cleaning his sword, it occurred to him that it was the first use he had made of it on the trip. It was an old issue--on campaign, every pound mattered--but at least he had a new argument next time it came up.

    Another easy day's ride brought him to Cloud's Eye. Of the grass that rimmed the high lake little was left.

    Approaching the final narrow before the pass he stopped, fed the mare the last of the oats, brought out from a pocket of the saddle bags a folded piece of painted cloth. His lance was, presumably, still in the king's castle with the packhorse and most of the mare's barding. He tied the cloth to the end of a sapling, cut in the woods two days before, held it up. The wind took his pennon, spread it. He walked forward; the mare followed.

    Suddenly the cliff walls to right and left were no longer empty. The first came at a run, jumping from one invisible foothold to another.

    "Grandfather, you're back."

    "And my son's idiot child is as usual doing his best to break his neck."

    Harald caught up Asbjorn, pretended to try to throw him into the air, put him down again with a loud groan.

    "Grow much more and you'll be carrying me."

    The mare nuzzled the boy's shoulder. He fumbled in the saddlebag, came out with an apple.

    "Not only does he buy the beast's loyalty, he does it with my apples."

    "And whose gold did you fight the Emperor with?"

    Harald tried to look angry, failed. The two walked together up the path, the mare between them, to where the cats guarding the pass stood waiting.

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