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Harald: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Friday, September 16, 2005 18:23 EDT



Bird On the Wing

A small hut of one's own is better,
A man is his master at home

    The next morning he woke late and heavy headed, both due to a late evening of drink and gossip in the guard barracks. While helping himself to what was left of breakfast in the great hall, he heard the King's voice and looked up.

    "Your Excellency. Today my lords and I hunt in the woods and meadows south of here. Will you join us? I have heard tales of your skill with the bow."

    "What does your Majesty hunt?"


    "Hard to miss; rabbits are a better test. But I'll come."

    Returned to his room he considered the matter, stripped to his under tunic, pulled on the mail shirt he commonly wore under his war coat, a second tunic over that. In the stable he saddled his mare, slid bowcase and quiver over their hooks and tied them down, pulled sword and belt from the middle of one long bundle, wrapped the belt around his waist--despite some days of the King's hospitality it still fit--drew the blade out a few inches, slid it back, and rode out to join the gathering company. With the lords were several ladies also mounted, Anne not among them, and a small crowd of servants.

    Two miles south the woods were open, the land mostly level. The King planted his banner in a meadow; the servants set to putting up tables, building fires, while lords and ladies went in search of game. Some followed the dogs and their keepers, others, Harald among them, in other directions.

    He was sitting his horse in solitude, watching the bushes for movement, when a stag came out of the woods at a full run. It vanished into the woods ahead. Harald reached for his bow, urged his horse ahead with voice and knees, leaned forward.

    He was out of the saddle, the world spinning around him, hit the ground rolling, a sharp pain in his right arm, up again, back to a tree. Out of the corner of his eye, movement. He put his right hand on his sword hilt, ignoring the pain, turned. A man was coming out of the woods, a long staff in his hand, a second man behind him.

    "My damn horse threw me and ran. A silver penny if you find him for me."

    The man looked at him, hesitated, turned, spoke to his companion. The two turned and disappeared back into the woods.

    He put two fingers of his left hand in his mouth, whistled. Again. A moment later the horse came out of the trees, reins trailing; Harald saw that she was favoring her left forefoot. He steadied himself against the horse, looked down. Six inches above the hoof a red line, sharp as if drawn by a ruler. He reached down with his good hand, felt the leg; no break. At least one of them had been lucky. He mounted.

    In the middle of the clearing was a dead pine tree. Harald walked the horse over, reached up, broke off a short length of branch with his left hand. Right arm across his lap, he laid the stick along it, reached under the saddle skirt for a leather thong.

    It took ten uncomfortable minutes to roughly splint the broken arm with lengths of branch. He reached behind him, drew out the dagger that rested crossways in the small of his back, cut a long strip from the lower edge of his tunic. He wrapped it around sticks and arm, drew it tight, cut a slit in the front of his tunic, slid in the right arm, tied it to his body with another thong, using hand and teeth to make the knot. Gerda would be unhappy at the state of his clothing, but that was nothing new. More unhappy if he didn't come back to her.

    The world faded in and out on the way out of the wood, back down the road to the castle. It didn't seem to bother the horse.

    Approaching the stable, he saw a familiar form.


    "Harald. I heard you were here."

    "Hurt myself riding; need your help."

    The guard captain took in the bound arm, the color of Harald's face, reached up. Harald swung his right foot up and over the saddle, slid into his arms.

    "I'll get a groom for the horse."

    "Better deal with it yourself."

    Henry gave him a puzzled look, followed Harald's glance down at the horse’s forefoot.

    "Yes. I'll get one of my men to help you back. Where have they put you?"

    "Karl's old room, against the wall by the New Tower."

    The arm resplinted with help of another friend from the barracks, Harald rested, trying to ignore the pain. Outside the unbarred door he heard Henry's voice. Another. He relaxed, called out:

    "Come in."

    The lady Elen came through the door, eyes wide.

    "I heard you were hurt, Excellency."

    "Most folk call me Harald."

    "My lady always … "

    "Lady Anne calls me 'Excellency' because His Majesty does. His Majesty uses the title in hopes I'll forget who I am and where I come from, decide the North Vales are really a province of his kingdom and I'm their lord. His father got most things right, that included, not all."

    "Can I get you anything?"

    "You can get me a pitcher of beer and two mugs then sit here and let me tell you the rest of Saemund's tale, help me forget what my arm feels like. If you would, leave word for the King I won't be at council tonight and why."

    When she returned, with pitcher, mugs, and a servant carrying a stool, he was asleep.

    The next morning he was still lightheaded and the arm had swollen. Elen having brought him breakfast, he let her help him retie the splints, then told her the first part of Saemund's tale. Later Stephen arrived with news of the previous evening's council meeting. The King had again proposed calling out a part levy to deal with the Order. Stephen, backed by Brand, had pointed out that the more men were called to their month's service now, the fewer would be available later, when and if imperial troops crossed the Borderflood into their provinces. He proposed instead that Harald, with friends in both camps, be asked to try to negotiate a settlement with the Order. The meeting had broken up with no decisions made. Harald gave Stephen a complete account of the previous day and sent him off to collect rumors.

    It was most of a week before Harald felt well enough to consider the trip back over the mountains. He spent most of it in bed, gossiping with friends, entertaining a surprising diversity of visitors with stories from the Vales and beyond. The day he decided it was time to be up and about, the King came to visit.

    "I hope my people have been taking good care of you."

    "Concerning the hospitality in your castle I have no complaints, Majesty. I hope not to impose on it much longer."

    "What do you mean? You can't leave now."

    Harald looked at him curiously.

    "I still need your counsel. Besides, you can't cross the width of the kingdom and the high pass until your arm is healed."

    "Your Majesty can have my counsel now; it is simple enough. So far as the Order, your choice is war or peace. War, lose or win. Lose, the matter is ended, at least for you. If a half levy suffices to win, you then have the Empire to deal with--no allies, half the provincial levy spent. Two thousand of your own men, fewer after dealings with the host. Three thousand from the provinces. Your lady cousin and fifteen of her ladies. Again, that ends the game for you. I invite such of my friends as can to come over the pass and help settle Newvale, garrison Northgate, learn to live with the Empire east as well as north.

    "Peace is simpler still. Give back the holdings your men have seized. Pay the Order blood money for Ladies killed. Turn loose the Lady Commander--she can see over the Borderflood as well as I can. If Leonora is dead, put the matter to the Council of the Order, abide their judgment--and don't visit my side the mountains any year soon. Or after."

    "I will consider your words. But you stay my guest until I decide you are well enough to travel. When you go home, it is with an escort of my men. I will not have it said that I sent you out alone to be killed by bandits between here and the pass."

    "Your Majesty has odd ideas of hospitality."

    The King made no answer, turned, walked out of the room.

    Harald considered the matter for a long hour before he rose, found his cloak, set out for the kitchen and storerooms behind and then, somewhat burdened, to the stable. Having apologized suitably for neglecting the two horses he returned to his room carrying a smaller bundle. An hour's rest preceded a visit to the barracks to chat with friends. Not surprisingly, two planned to ride over to the city later that day. Harald entrusted one with a list of gifts for various of the castle ladies--his one-handed state making the ride imprudent--money to pay for them, a message for a friend. He left, ignoring diverse comments centering on good fortune, a busy convalescence and things a broken arm did not bar. Back in his room he rested for another hour before making his preparations.

    His bundle included a dagger blade, a mail coif, two short lengths of ash, a long strip of woolen cloth, another of linen. He resplinted the arm, taking the opportunity to feel out the break, only partly healed. The wool wrapped over the bandage. Over that the dagger blade lying flat along the back of his forearm, the wooden pieces at either side. He wrapped the whole forearm in the mail coif, over that the linen. The arm being now bulkier as well as heavier, he retied his sling, taking care with the knot.

    After another hour's rest a servant arrived with food for his dinner. Harald thanked the man, sent him off with a message for the King. The answer came as he finished eating.

    Half an hour later he gave a last look around the room, pulled on his cloak, went out into the fading light. Up the steps to the ramparts, along them to the door of the north tower. Men had been working on repairing a worn part of the wall. With his left hand he clumsily lifted a block of stone, heaved it up to the top of the wall, steadied it.

    The guard at the door opened it for him; Harald went in. The King was waiting.

    "You said you required speech with me here. On what matter?"

    "Whether I am your guest or your prisoner. I purpose to leave. Will you let me?"

    "I cannot."

    "I am not your man to command. Would you be at war with both your father's allies together?"

    "It is just that I do not wish. If you leave and do not reach home, I will be blamed. If you leave and reach home angry as you now are, you may come back with an army. You have spoken bluntly; I do so now. I grant that holding you is poor hospitality, but I have no choice. You do not have my leave to go, and I have given orders to the guards at the gate. You will not have my leave until your arm is healed and our dispute settled--peace with the Order or war, as I choose. It may be I will take your counsel, it may be not."

    "If you hold me here, do you think that gets you peace? I am not the only man in the Vales. When my kin come in force to fetch me home, what then?"

    "Why should they? They do not know why you remain here or for how long."

    Harald looked at him in frank astonishment.

    "Your Majesty's castle is an hour ride from a town full of busy tongues. What happens here is told there, and much that does not as well."

    "Rumor. Your friends are two weeks ride west of here. Will they come over the mountain and across the plain, sift out the truth, ride home, collect an army, return? By then the matter is settled between us. They know you came here, that is all they know. If need be I can close the pass westbound--the traders will be mostly through by now. I do not think it will come to that."

    "As to my broken arm, how I came by it, your Majesty's policy and my judgment thereon–save your Majesty has falcons enough to kill every pigeon in Eston, that news reached Haraldholt three days ago. Today's is already on the wing, and nothing on four legs will catch it. This time tomorrow half Mainvale knows I am held here."

    The King was silent, staring at Harald.

    "When the Empire crossed the border six years back, do you think I waited two weeks for a rider to reach me before calling out the host? His Imperial Majesty would be sitting here, not you. We trained the first birds twenty years ago."

    The King spoke slowly.

    "It seems all choices go ill. If I must have war with the Vales, better you here than leading the host."

    "Have I your Majesty's leave to depart?"


    "Then I go without it." Harald stepped towards the door, his left hand pulling at the knot in the sling."

    "Stop him."

    The guard stepped from the doorway into the room, his spear held crosswise to block. Harald caught the spear in his left hand, pulled. His right forearm, freed from its sling, swung like a mace, wrapping around to strike the back of the guard's head.

    The King stepped forward, reaching for his dagger, mouth open. Harald, his left hand holding the spear by its middle, rested his right arm against the shaft and pushed. The swinging butt caught the King just over his left ear; he crumpled to the ground.

    Harald bent over him; the King was still breathing. He walked over to the guard, dropped the spear by him, stood a moment catching his breath. Then he stepped out the door and yelled.

    "Help! Assassin! To the King!"

    With his left hand he shoved the block of stone off the wall; it fell into the moat with a loud splash. When the first guard reached him he was looking over the wall.

    "He went into the moat. Call out the guard. After him!"

    Men shouting, horns blowing. Harald ran through the dark for the stable, reached it in a crowd of men. He pulled a panicked groom out of the pack, got his help saddling the mare, bowcase, quiver, saddlebags, a thick bundle behind the saddle.

    The bridge down, the gate open, men streaming out. Harald joined them. Once over the moat and into the dark he brought the mare to a gallop, trusting her footing, found the turn to the west road, took it.

    With no hoofbeats behind he slowed to a walk, retied the sling for his aching arm. Two hours west, where a stream flowed across the road to join the river running down the valley, he stopped, dismounted, led his mare up a path to the right. A short way in he stopped, broke off a pine bough. Leaving the horse he went back and did what he could, one handed by moonlight, to wipe out the prints of her passage.

    Somehow he made it back onto the horse. The path left the stream, climbing along the side of a little valley. Again the stream on his right, now broad and shallow. Where it was bordered by rocks he swung the mare into the water, followed the stream uphill, away from the path. Dawn found him among trees, the stream to his left, the path well out of sight beyond it. Past the brush to his right he found a small meadow. With the last of his strength he unsaddled the mare, rubbed her down with handfuls of dry grass. The grass was soft, cloak warm, the bundle of bedding …

    It was past noon before the sun shifted far enough to come out from behind the oak tree and shine into his eyes. He kept them closed while he followed step by step what he could remember of the night's journey, opened them at last to the feel of a velvet muzzle against his cheek.

    "You've had your breakfast, heart's delight, and yes I'm sorry we had to leave him behind. Now I've to find mine. And more." He fed the mare handfuls of grass, walking around the meadow's edge while she nuzzled at his shoulder, stopped where an old tree had fallen a little back into the woods, one end supported by a massive boulder. An hour's work dragging dead branches and the shelter, not yet weather proof, was at least sight proof. Saddle, saddle bags, useless bow and quiver went into it. Over the pile his rain cloak.

    The next step was pine branches cut a safe way off to thatch the shelter, or snares, or … He found himself lying in the piled pine needles by his shelter, the sun a considerable way down the sky, considering that perhaps, at his age, a broken arm deserved more respect than he was giving it.

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