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Harald: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 5, 2005 19:27 EDT




Alone on a long road,
I lost my way:
Rich when I found another;
Man rejoices in man.

    He woke in a bed, a small room, fire in the fireplace at one end. A lump by his feet, a rock wrapped in cloth by the feel; someone had said something about hot rocks, sometime, but he couldn't remember who or when. A face. A boy, the boy who had taken the mare, was looking curiously into the room.

    "Hullo. You're awake. I'm Henry; everyone calls me Hen. Father's in the hall. He says if you're awake you can join him for noon meal, if you want. I didn't wake you?"

    "No. And yes. I'll be a few minutes."

    Someone had brought up his saddle bags, the heavy bundle that held his warcoat, the lighter bundle of bedding wrapped around cased bow, quiver. Nothing had been opened; courteous folk. The floor was cold against his feet; he had to catch hold of the headboard to keep from falling. After a moment the world steadied. His body was still slow to do his bidding. He limped over to the saddle bags, opened them, pulled out clean clothes.

    The hall was as small as he remembered. By the wall straw pallets were piled, bedding neatly rolled up. The long trestle table, covered with a litter of plates, mugs, platters, filled two-thirds of the room. A woman was clearing things away. At one end a man was sitting. He rose as Harald came into the room.

    "Welcome to Forest Keep. I'm Yosef, the castellan, hold from North Province. The snow's stopped, but it's no weather for a man your age to be out in alone. Or mine for that matter." He stopped, looking at Harald.

    "Harl, from Northvales some time back. I wasn't alone, that's why I'm alive; mare spotted the tracks. That and your hospitality. I'm your debtor."

    Yosef gestured to the table.

    "My boy, the guards, have left a few crumbs. Sit, eat."

    After the meal, Harald thanked his host, went back up the stairs for a wool overtunic and cloak, into the courtyard to explore the little castle. One corner was the old keep, its ground floor the stable, above that the old guard room, now the preserve of the castle women, top floor occupied by the guard captain and his wife. The next corner, the other side the main gate, was the new keep with the hall, guestroom and lord's chamber above. Ground floor of the new keep was storerooms, the kitchen a wooden structure built on, sharing one wall with the keep, one with the outer wall of the castle.

    He ended in the kitchen, drawn by the smell of baking bread. One of the castle guardsmen, there getting in the way of the cook, was chased out, a roll steaming in his hand. Harald found a convenient corner, enjoyed the warmth of the small room.

    "New face good to see--you last night's arrival?"

    Harald nodded.

    "Young men steal half the bread I bake. Only fair we old men get our share." The cook tossed Harald a roll; Harald caught it, bit into it while looking around the kitchen.

    "Lend you a hand? Meat to be cut up, I've handled a blade."

    The cook looked him up and down, nodded. Harald spent the next hour reducing a deer, brought in by two of the guardsmen the previous day, to pieces suitable for the pot.

    At dinner Harald met Rorik, the guard captain; his wife and two younger women brought food up from the kitchen. Asked about news from outside, Harald confessed that he had spent the past months visiting with friends up in the hills, apologized, and offered a story instead. By the time the fire had burned to ash the little hall held every man, woman, and child in the place, save for the two guardsmen on sentry duty, including a six month old baby asleep in her mother's arms. Harald tied up the last thread of a feud that had occupied the folk of Greenvale for two generations, off and on, and fell silent. Hen was lying at his feet, eyes closed, a smile on his face, looking absurdly young. Yosef bent down, picked up his son, carried him off up the stairs.

    The next morning, after breakfast, Yosef told Harald that, if he had no urgent need to be elsewhere, he was welcome to guest with them until spring brought better weather for traveling.

    Three weeks later Harald was coming into the stable with a sleeve full of apples when an arrow whipped past his nose, thudded into the wall, stuck there quivering. He stepped back, slammed shut the door with his right hand, reached left handed for his dagger.

    "I'm sorry; are you all right?" It was Hen's voice. Harald carefully put the dagger away. He was gathering spilled apples when the door opened. Hen stood there, bow in one hand, arrow in the other, a worried expression on his face.

    "I was just practicing; I didn't hurt you did I?"

    "No. Better luck next time."

    "They took down the butts by the postern when it got cold, and father won't let me go out and shoot at snow banks. If I don't shoot all winter I'll be hopeless by spring. I finished my target last night."

    Walking cautiously back into the stable, Harald saw that what the arrow had stuck in was not the stone wall of the stable but a thick mat of carefully braided straw almost two feet across, hung from a peg jammed between the stones.

    "Perhaps you should shoot at the end that doesn't have a door in it?"

    "I never thought of that."

    Harald took down the target, handed it to Hen, pulled out the peg, walked to the other end of the building, hammered it into a crack with a convenient stone. Hen handed him the target; he hung it on the peg. The two of them dragged a bundle of straw to the end by the door for Hen to use as a ground quiver. Harald watched for a while, then went out, closing the door behind him.

    The next day he went back to the stable with more apples, ended up sitting on a stool watching Hen shoot. The best that could be said for his aim was that all of the arrows ended up somewhere in the target. When finally one failed even to do that, the boy stopped, glared at his bow, muttered something under his breath.

    "Your bow didn't aim that arrow; you did."

    The boy glared at him.

    "Unjust to the bow. Bad for the liver. Makes for bad shooting, too."

    Hen looked as if he couldn't decide whether to laugh, cry, or throw something. He settled for a question:

    "Why do the arrows wobble through the air?"

    "You're plucking the string. Here."

    Harald took the bow in his left hand, drew back the string a few inches with his right, released to a loud twang.

    "See how I plucked sideways as I let go?"

    The boy nodded.

    "Makes the arrow wobble sideways. Bad aim, less range. Don't pluck, just open, let the string go." This time the release was almost soundless. He handed Hen back the bow.

    Over the next few weeks, Harald got in the habit of ending his visits to the mare by sitting for a while watching Hen shoot. The boy politely offered to give Harald a turn with his bow, Harald politely declined, restricting himself to advice when asked. Hen, without asking, explained that the reason he had to learn to shoot was not for hunting, although hunting was all very well, but because he was still too small to use a sword.

    "Last summer, at Lord Stephen's, they let me practice with a wooden blunt. He said I was pretty good--the lord did. I beat one boy two years older. But father won't give me a real sword. He says I'd get killed."

    "In a real fight you probably would. If a strong man--Rorik, say--swung at you as hard as he could, what would you do?"

    "Block with my shield."

    "Ever have someone that big hit your shield hard?"

    "No. I could duck."

    "Ducking a sword's easier to say than to do. Did you manage it with the blunts?"

    "No. But if I had to … "

    "Had to's a bad time to do your learning."

    "He can't hit me with a sword if I'm up on the castle wall with a bow and he's down below trying to batter the door down."

    Harald nodded approvingly.

    "Killing safe as you can. Much to be said for it. Ever shot out of an arrow slit?"

    The boy shook his head.


    The next day, Harald and one of the guards carried a bundle of hay out the main gate, left it on the ground five feet from the wall. Hen watched.

    "Enemy with a battering ram. Where do you shoot him from?"

    The boy ran up the stairway to the top of the wall, leaned far over trying to find a way of shooting down. The guard caught the back of his tunic, hauled him back in.

    "I could have done it."

    Harald answered:

    "Could be; some day show you how. Way you were doing it, only question is if you fall out and break your neck before or after someone on the other side puts an arrow through you. They can shoot too. Think, boy. Don't want them breaking down the door, killing us all."

    Hen thought; Harald and the guard watched. The boy got up, ran along the wall to the door into the tower of the old keep. Harald gave the guard a satisfied look, followed. Inside, he heard the voice of one of the women asking Hen what he was doing in their room. Hen said he was stopping someone from breaking down the front gate and killing them all.

    While Harald explained, Hen carefully examined the arrow slits, ending up in one cut into the wall part way up the spiral stair to the chamber above. Harald looked through a lower slit; there was nobody near the hay. When Hen had shot his arrows, the two went back down together. Two were in the hay bundle. The boy collected all eight, went back to his arrow slit; Harald remained behind to be sure nobody went out the gate at the wrong time. After the fourth round, he heard a step behind him, turned.

    It was Yosef. Harald held up a finger to his lips, pointed at the hay, waited. An arrow sprouted out of it. Another. Another. When the last went home there was a yell from the tower, Hen out the ground floor door and running for the gate. He stopped when he saw his father.

    "Might be some use yet, boy, ever comes to it."

    They went out together.

    Harald's strength came back slowly, but it came. Alone at night he uncased his bow, warmed it by the fire, strung it, drew, held at full draw for long seconds before his arm began to shake. By the flickering light he checked over the lacing of his lamellar war coat, replaced frayed thongs more by touch than sight. He oiled the ring shirt, patched the padding under it. Spring was a month away, perhaps longer. It too would come.

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