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Harald: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 26, 2005 23:15 EDT



Book II: Payment of Debts

A man should be loyal through life to friends,
And return gift for gift


Unfinished Business

It is always better to be alive.

    Harald's first day back was spent getting clean, apologizing to his wife, making much of his grandchildren--Asbjorn was the oldest--and telling the tale of his adventures to a steadily growing audience of relatives, friends and neighbors. The second was a council of war, including Egil, Harald’s eldest son, Hrolf, back the previous fall, the senior Lady from the nearby hold and several neighbors. Discussion continued the next day, now including the Greenvale paramount, who had been visiting kin halfway up Mainvale. Messages to Harald's friends--Harald had a lot of friends--went downvale on horseback, over the hills on foot. While waiting for replies, Harald sent two cats east with messages and found an excuse to visit the Order hold to see what his youngest son was looking so happy about. When he returned he discovered, not to his surprise, that Gerda had already satisfied herself on the matter.

    Niall looked up at his father's step, back to brushing his horse.

    "I visited Valholt yesterday."

    Niall said nothing.

    "Will she stay or go?"

    He looked up, puzzled.

    "Will she marry you--gods know Gerda could use another woman of sense about the place--or stay in the Order? She can't do both."

    "She. … We … I don't know."

    "You know their customs. A Lady can take a lover, can bear him a child. But if she marries she is no longer a part of the Order. Sometimes the Order rears the child--most often daughters--sometimes father's or mother's kin. There's always room here; one more in the pack we'd hardly notice."

    "I don't think she would leave the Order. Not now, at least. I've thought … It hasn't come to that yet. She's not … "

    Niall was still looking at the horse, not his father. Harald didn't think he had ever seen his son blush before.

    "You don't have to decide today, but you do have to decide. She is a brave lady, you love her, and she, for some odd reason, seems to love you. Get a chance, talk to your sister."

    Harald gave his youngest son a brief hug, walked back to the hall.

    During the next week the woods about Haraldholt filled with men; supplies poured up the vale on the backs of horses and mules. Twelve days after he came home, Harald was off again, east over the high pass with two cacades of cats, two hundred mounted archers, at his back.

    Like Harald and Hrolf a year earlier, the force reached the forest above the campground in four days, made camp at dark. Two hours before dawn the column, minus a decade with the remounts, filed silently along the final mile of trail to take up their positions hidden in the forest edge uphill from the campgrounds. At first light they began to move--two decades on the right of the line heading south and east on a wide sweep to cut off escape, the rest of the force coming down like a wave on the Wolves' camp.

    On the porch of the hostel a warden saw them and ran into the building. Men came out, most in sleeping robes. Voices, a stir in the pack train camped below. In the Wolves' camp a sleepy sentry looked up, yelled, died. The first man out of his tent, eyes blinking, clutching a sword still in its scabbard, faced a ring of mounted cats, bows ready. He considered the situation briefly, dropped his sword. Not all were so prudent. A dozen Wolves together, swords drawn, tried to break out of the ring. None made it.

    While the prisoners were being disarmed and bound, Harald rode over to the hostel to apologize for the disturbance, down to the traders' camp, then back. One of the cats had a fire going. The prisoners, arms bound behind them, were crowded in the middle of the campground while cats went through the tents making sure all were empty. Harald rode out to them.

    "The King's Messengers are dissolved. Some of you may be of some use for something. You will be branded"--he gestured to the fire--"with a cross on your forehead so that I will know you again, dispersed unarmed about the countryside. If I discover a man of you under arms, I hang him."

    One of the bound men stepped forward: "We are the King's men."

    Harald looked him up and down. "Murdering the King's friends is his concern. Murdering my friends is mine."

    "I appeal to the King's justice."

    "I will remember to mention the matter when next I see His Majesty."

    "Now do you cut my throat?"

    "If I judged plain speech so, I would have slit my own these many years past. Carry your complaint to the King if you will. But you go unarmed and on foot."

    The first group of Wolves were given two days food out of their own supplies, one day's water, directions to a spring a day's walk north and a village two days beyond that, and sent up the north road unbound, disarmed and on foot with two cats for escort. The next group went south. The cats took most of the remaining supplies to replace what they had used coming over the pass. Some of the captured horses were loaded with weapons and armor and sent out to villages in the plains and up into the western valleys; Harald did not think their lords would object. The remaining horses went back over the pass in care of a pack train boss from the vales.

    Early afternoon they started east, the prisoners on foot. The next morning the remaining Wolves were sent north and south. The men would not starve; summer labor was always scarce.

    Three days later the high hill. Harald camped his men at the bottom, a long bowshot from the walls for courtesy's sake, sent a few into the town at the hill's bottom to see what could be bought. He was not surprised, half an hour later, to see a rider coming down the path from the hilltop.

    "My lord asks what brings you into his province in arms?"

    "When last I visited His Majesty, he expressed surprise that I traveled without escort. Having discovered his advice to be good, I have followed it."

    Stephen's man looked slowly about the orderly lines of small tents, a lance with pennon flying at the end of each.

    "I do not think you need fear bandits."

    "We met some impeding trade over the pass and dispersed them. Now I travel to Forest Keep to thank the good Yosef for his hospitality, offer him aid if he has need."

    "Lord Stephen visited Forest Keep some weeks ago. The attackers were gone. He left a few men. How long do you remain here?"

    "We leave tomorrow." Harald gestured to where half a dozen cats were driving a small herd of sheep and several burdened pack horses. "We eat well tonight. If any wish to join us, I would gladly repay some part of the debt for past hospitality."

    "I will tell my lord."

    The messenger rode back up the hill; Harald walked back to where his decade was camped. Egil had their tent up. He unrolled his bedding and took a nap.



    "Father, a guest."

    Harald opened his eyes, stuck his head out of the tent, followed it. Sniffed.

    "I smell dinner. Will you join us?"

    Stephen nodded, accompanied Harald and Egil over to the small fire. One of their companions had brought a large pot of porridge, a leg of mutton balanced on top. The cats filled their plates and bowls and, at a glance from Harald, wandered off.

    Late the next day the force neared Forest Keep. Harald left them a little distance off, rode up with only Egil. Yosef met him in the courtyard; the two embraced.

    "Yosef, this is my son Egil. Egil, Yosef, Castellan of Forest Keep."

    A small figure came running out of the stable, wrapped itself around Harald.

    "And his son Henry." Harald carefully detached Hen, peeled back his tunic neck, felt the arrow wound.

    "You'll do."

    He turned back to Yosef. "I've brought some friends."

    "Your friends are welcome to my castle."

    "Quite a lot of them. Travel having become so dangerous, I crossed the high pass with two cacades of cats. By your leave they camp outside your walls. My son and I will gladly accept your hospitality within."

    "Told you."

    Harald turned to look; it was Kara who had spoken. The two had come out of the stable after Hen and were standing there listening. He walked over to them, spoke to Elaina.

    "Are you well enough to ride? To fight?"

    She nodded.

    "Can you two find your sisters? I was planning a hunt, and they may know where the game is."

    Kara looked at him curiously; Elaina put it in words. "What do you hunt?"


    Kara nodded, turned, went back into the stable. Hen followed her, leading the mare.

    At start of dinner they were missing both Kara, who had ridden off in search of friends, and Hen, who had last been seen heading out of the gate in the direction of the cats' camp. When they were half done, he came running into the hall to his father.

    "Father, there are hundreds of them. Horses, lances, tents, … It's an army."

    He stopped, looked at Harald, back to his father.

    "Father, Harl, he's …"

    Harald spoke.

    "Harl was what the Westkin named me, back when I was a little older than you are now. I think your father has figured out the rest of it."

    Hen sat down by his father, continued watching Harald. Someone passed him a plate of food.

    The next morning was a council of war--Harald, Egil, Yosef, Rorik, Elaina, Kara, and an older Lady that Kara had brought back with her. Hen sat looking into the fire pretending not to listen. The Lady spoke first:

    "Up in the fir woods above Willow Creek. We don't know how many, but it's a lot--six decades at least, maybe more. We only have two 'taves, more coming in. But bows in the woods … "

    Harald nodded. "Some of us might get hurt. Better to get them out."

    The Lady produced a rough map; Yosef corrected details. Harald leaned over it, looked back up at Yosef. "Willows along the creek, meadow up to fir woods?"

    Yosef nodded. Harald pointed at the map.

    "Along Willow Creek should be one way up to the east pass."

    Yosef nodded again: "One way goes up Ashvale, south of here, the other along Willow Creek and over. Might be why they're there."

    "Either way, a pack train, no guards … "

    Harald fell silent; the two men's eyes met.

    Harald sent out scouts, spent the rest of the day consulting on details. Hen divided his time between following Harald around, spoiling the mare, and exploring the cats' encampment; the remaining sheep had come in and were being butchered, cooked, and smoked. After dinner he went off with Elaina. In the morning Harald's force set off for Willow Creek, accompanied by Yosef, Rorik, his guards--Stephen's men were left to hold the keep--and twenty packhorses, heavily laden. An hour out they were joined by Elaina, Kara and three octaves of the Order. At noon they stopped, ate, made final plans. The Ladies, reinforced by three decades of cats, crossed the shallow creek, headed east and up into the woods that fringed its north shore. Egil, with one decade, went south and east, aiming for the back side of the pine woods uphill of the Wolves' camp. An hour later the pack train set off--Yosef and his men, armor hidden by their cloaks, leading the string of pack horses.

    The meadow was silent. The pack train moved slowly, parallel to the creek on their left but avoiding the soft banks, half a dozen men cloaked against the cold breezes blowing down from the pine covered slopes on their right, a score of loaded horses.

    From the edge of the pines a mass of mounted men charged the pack train, yelling; behind them more on foot, some with bows.

    Packhorses scattered, riders bolted for the stream, pursued by men and arrows; one fell. From the willows arrows came back at the mounted Wolves. Some tried to charge the hidden archers along the creek, others fell back towards the pine woods at the other side of the meadow.

    Yells from the trees, cries of "fire, fire, the woods." Scent of woodsmoke down the air. More Wolves crowding out of the forest on foot, pouring across the meadow. Someone looked left, yelled.

    The front line of cats stretched across the meadow from edge to edge. Charging, lances down, they hit the mixed mass of riders, men on foot, went through it. The second line stopped just short of what was left, poured in arrows.

    From the edge of the creek someone came running into the chaos. A Wolf, somehow still mounted, rode at him. Arrows from the willows; the horse ran on, saddle empty. From down meadow came the gray mare. Hen looked up from his father. Harald gave the boy one startled look, dismounted, bent over Yosef.

    "He's still breathing. I think it's all right. What are you doing here?"

    Hen said nothing. Out of the woods came Elaina, Kara behind her. Harald looked at her, looked at the boy, bent over his wounded friend.

    The battle done, chaos gradually settled into order. A few Wolves were prisoners, the rest dead. Yosef and two horses from the pack train, two of the Ladies and one of the cats that had waited in ambush along the creek, had wounds, none, to Harald's eye, dangerous. Hen was his father's concern; if nearly getting him killed failed to persuade Elaina that the boy did not belong in a battle, nothing Harald could say was likely to do it. The girl needed a mother's hand.

    Harald looked up from one of the wounded, saw Egil coming out of the woods. He rode over to his father, dismounted.

    "Worked like a charm; Rorik was right about the winds downslope."

    "All out?"

    "Bonfires still going some. Left Flosi and his brother to watch them, make sure nothing caught."

    "Couple decades, work back up, make sure there's no one left. Then see what's in their camp we can use." Egil went off. Harald returned to his work.

    They made camp near the stream, west of the battlefield. The Wolves' camp provided dinner, supplies for a week or more. As it grew dark, Harald heard a horse's hooves. Voices. He looked up, startled. One of the younger cats, a tall figure behind him, mounted.

    "Harald. A Lady. Looking for you."

    Dark hair under steel cap, down to mailed shoulders. Strong face neither young nor old. She slid down into his raised arms. He squeezed, lifted her off her feet.

    Her voice was a whisper: "I found her."

    He froze, let go. Looked up; with both on their feet she was still taller than he was.

    One glance from Harald cleared the nearest fire; he led her over, sat down, looked around. Nobody.


    "Southkeep. The rest of my 'tave keeping an eye on it; they're a family of hunters. One friend inside, servant woman. Fair garrison, fifteen decades, twenty."

    Harald thought a moment, the map of the kingdom clear in his head. Between Eston and the northern border two royal holds, nestled up into the eastern range. Birds in both, unless someone had changed things. South Keep almost in the hills at the south end of the kingdom. Long ride. Royal garrisons, if there were any, east edge of the plains. Along the west edge provincial lords with their house guards, but not like the border provinces. He turned back to Caralla.

    "Make noise up north; I can do that with these. Then south. How many tataves between here and South Keep?"

    "Mine, another I can find for sure, maybe more. "

    They fell silent, thinking. Something else occurred to him.

    "Your sister's here; nearly got a boy killed, helped him to a battle he'd no business in. Don't suppose you …"

    " 'Laina? Not a hope. We need a landmark. You don't know the south?"

    "Egil does; spent a month chasing that girl in Southvale. Didn't catch her, either. Caught it from Asdis when he got home, though, wouldn't speak to him for a week. Talk to him in the morning; I'm for bed. You don't know about Niall. Ask Egil."

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