Death of a hero, p.1
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           John Flanagan
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Death of a Hero


  PHILOMEL BOOKS

  A division of Penguin Young Readers Group.

  Published by The Penguin Group.

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.).

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  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England.

  ISBN: 978-1-101-57779-0

  Copyright © 2011 by John Flanagan. All rights reserved.

  This story originally appeared in Ranger’s Apprentice: The Lost Stories, 2011.

  This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.

  Philomel Books, Reg. U.S. Pat. & Tm. Off. The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law.

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  Published simultaneously in Canada. Printed in the United States of America.

  Edited by Michael Green. Design by Amy Wu.

  DEATH OF A HERO

  A Ranger’s Apprentice Lost Story

  JOHN FLANAGAN

  PHILOMEL BOOKS

  AN IMPRINT OF PENGUIN GROUP (USA) INC.

  Also by John Flanagan:

  THE RANGER’S APPRENTICE EPIC

  BOOK 1: THE RUINS OF GORLAN

  BOOK 2: THE BURNING BRIDGE

  BOOK 3: THE ICEBOUND LAND

  BOOK 4: THE BATTLE FOR SKANDIA

  BOOK 5: THE SORCERER OF THE NORTH

  BOOK 6: THE SIEGE OF MACINDAW

  BOOK 7: ERAK’S RANSOM

  BOOK 8: THE KINGS OF CLONMEL

  BOOK 9: HALT’S PERIL

  BOOK 10: THE EMPEROR OF NIHON-JA

  THE LOST STORIES

  THE BROTHERBAND CHRONICLES

  BOOK 1: THE OUTCASTS

  BOOK 2: THE INVADERS (MAY 2012)

  Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  1

  IT HAD BEEN A LONG, HARD THREE DAYS.

  Will had been on a tour of the villages surrounding Castle Redmont. It was something he did on a regular basis, keeping in touch with the villagers and their headmen, keeping track of the everyday goings-on. Sometimes, he had learned, little pieces of gossip, seemingly trivial at the time, could become useful in heading off future trouble and friction within the fief.

  It was part of being a Ranger. Information, no matter how unimportant it might seem at first glance, was a Ranger’s lifeblood.

  Now, late in the afternoon, as he rode wearily up to the cabin set among the trees, he was surprised to see lights in the windows and the silhouette of someone sitting on the small verandah.

  Surprise turned to pleasure when he recognized Halt. These days Will’s mentor was an infrequent visitor to the cabin, spending most of his time in the rooms provided for him and Lady Pauline in the castle.

  Will swung down from the saddle and stretched his tired muscles gratefully.

  “Hullo,” he said. “What brings you here? I hope you’ve got the coffee on.”

  “Coffee’s ready,” Halt replied. “Tend to your horse and then join me. I need to talk to you.” His voice sounded strained.

  Curiosity piqued, Will led Tug to the stable behind the cabin, unharnessed him, rubbed him down and set out feed and fresh water. The little horse butted his shoulder gratefully. He patted Tug’s neck, then headed back to the cabin.

  Halt was still on the verandah. He had set out two cups of hot coffee on a small side table and Will sat in one of the wood-and-canvas chairs and sipped gratefully at the refreshing brew. He felt the warmth of it flowing through his chilled, stiff muscles. Winter was coming on and the wind had been cold and cutting all day.

  He gazed at Halt. The gray-bearded Ranger seemed strangely ill at ease. And despite his claim that he needed to talk to Will, once the usual greetings were out of the way, he seemed almost reluctant to begin the conversation.

  “You had something to tell me?” Will prompted.

  Halt shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Then, with an obvious effort, he plunged in.

  “There’s something you should know,” he said. “Something I probably should have told you long ago. It’s just . . . the time never seemed right.”

  Will’s curiosity grew. He had never seen Halt in such an uncertain mood. He waited, giving his mentor time to settle his thoughts.

  “Pauline thinks it’s time I told you,” Halt said. “So does Arald. They’ve both known about it for some time. So maybe I should just . . . get on with it.”

  “Is it something bad?” Will asked, and Halt looked directly at him for the first time in several minutes.

  “I’m not sure,” he said. “You might think so.”

  For a moment, Will wondered if he wanted to hear it, whatever it might be. Then, seeing the discomfort on Halt’s face, he realized that, good or bad, it was something that his teacher had to get off his chest. He gestured for Halt to continue.

  Halt paused for a few more seconds, then he began.

  “I suppose it starts after the final battle against Morgarath’s forces, at Hackham Heath. They’d been retreating for several days. Then they stopped and made a stand. We’d broken their main attack and we were forcing them back. But they were rallying on the right, where they’d found a weak point in our line . . .”

  2

  South of Hackham Heath

  “SIRE! THE RIGHT FLANK IS IN TROUBLE!”

  Duncan, the young King of Araluen, heard the herald’s shout above the terrible din of battle. The clash of weapons and shields, the screaming and sobbing of the wounded and dying, the shouted orders of commanders rallying their troops and the involuntary, inarticulate cries of the soldiers themselves as they cut and stabbed and shoved against the implacable enemy formed an almost deafening matrix of sound around him.

  Duncan thrust once more at the snarling Wargal before him, felt the sword go home and saw the snarl change to a puzzled frown as the creature realized it was already dead. Then he stepped back, disengaging himself from the immediate battle—physically and mentally.

  A young knight from the Araluen Battleschool quickly took his place in the line, his sword already swinging in a murderous arc as he stepped forward, cutting through the Wargal front rank, like a scythe through long grass.

  Duncan rested for a moment, leaning on his sword, breathing heavily. He shook his head to clear it.

  “Sire! The right flank—” the herald began again, but Duncan waved a hand to stop him.<
br />
  “I heard you,” he said.

  It was three days since the battle at Hackham Heath, where Morgarath’s army had been routed by a surprise attack from their rear, led by the Ranger Halt. The enemy were in full retreat. By rights, Morgarath should have surrendered. His continued resistance was simply costing more and more casualties to both sides. But the rebellious lord was never concerned with preserving lives. He knew he was defeated, but still he wanted to inflict as many casualties as possible on Duncan and his men. If they were to be victorious, he would make them pay dearly for their victory.

  As for his own forces, he cared little for their losses. They were nothing more than tools to him and he was willing to keep throwing them against the royal army, sacrificing hundreds of troops but causing hundreds of casualties in the process.

  So for three days, he had retreated to the southeast, turning where the terrain favored him to fight a series of savage and costly battles. He had picked the spot for this latest stand well. It was a narrow plain set between two steep hills, and recent rain had softened the ground so that Duncan could not deploy his cavalry. It was up to the infantry to throw themselves against the Wargals in hard, slogging, desperate fighting.

  And always lurking in the back of Duncan’s mind was that one mistake from him, one lucky throw of the dice for Morgarath, could see the Wargal army gain the initiative once more. Fortune in battle was a fickle mistress and the war that Duncan had hoped was ended at Hackham Heath was still there to be won—or lost by a careless order or an ill-considered maneuver.

  Momentum, Duncan thought. It was all-important in a situation like this. It was vital to maintain it. Keep moving forward. Keep driving them back. Hesitate, even for a few minutes, and the ascendancy could revert to the enemy.

  He glanced to his left. The flank on that side, predominantly troops from Norgate and Whitby, reinforced by troops from some of the smaller fiefs, was forging ahead strongly. In the center, the armies from Araluen and Redmont were having similar success. That was to be expected. They were the four largest fiefs in the Kingdom, the backbone of Duncan’s army. Their knights and men-at-arms were the best trained and disciplined.

  But the right flank had always been a potential weakness. It was formed from a conglomerate of Seacliff, Aspienne and Culway fiefs, and because the three fiefs were all about the same size, there was no clear leader among them. Knowing this, Duncan had appointed Battlemaster Norman of Aspienne Fief as the overall commander. Norman was an experienced leader, most capable of melding such a disparate force together.

  As if he were reading the King’s thoughts, the herald spoke again.

  “Battlemaster Norman is dying, sire. A Wargal burst through the lines and speared him. Norman has been taken to the rear, but I doubt he has long to live. Battlemasters Patrick and Marat are unsure what to do next, and Morgarath has taken advantage of the fact.”

  Of course, thought Duncan, Morgarath would have recognized the banners of the smaller fiefs on that flank and guessed at the possible confusion that might result if the commander were put out of action. Once Norman was down, the rebel commander had undoubtedly sent one of his elite companies of shock troops to attack the right flank.

  Momentum again, Duncan thought. Only this time it was working against him. He peered keenly toward the fighting on the right flank. He could see the line had stopped moving forward, saw his men take the first hesitant step backward. He needed a commander to take charge there and he needed him fast. Someone who wouldn’t hesitate. Someone with the force of personality to rally the troops and get them going forward once more.

  He glanced around him. Arald of Redmont would have been his choice. But Arald was being tended by the healers. A crossbow quarrel had hit him in the leg and he was out of action for the rest of the battle. Arald’s young Battlemaster, Rodney, had taken his place and was fighting furiously, urging the Araluen forces forward. He couldn’t be spared.

  “They need a leader . . . ,” Duncan said to himself.

  “I’ll go.” A calm voice spoke from behind him.

  Duncan spun around and found himself looking into the steady, dark eyes of Halt, the Ranger. The dark black beard and untrimmed hair hid most of his features, but those eyes held a look of steadiness and determination. This was not a man who would bicker over command or dither over what had to be done. He would act.

  Duncan nodded. “Go on then, Halt. Get them moving forward again or we’re lost. Tell Patrick and Marat—”

  He got no further. Halt smiled grimly. “Oh, I’ll tell them, all right,” he said. Then he swung up onto the small shaggy horse that was standing by him and galloped away toward the right flank.

  3

  ABELARD’S HOOVES THUNDERED DULLY ON THE SOFT TURF AS they drew near to the trouble spot. Now that he was closer, Halt could see that the Wargal attack was being spearheaded by one of Morgarath’s special units. They were all larger than normal, selected for size and strength and savagery.

  And they cared nothing for their own losses as they battered their way forward. Maces, axes and heavy two-handed swords rose and fell and swept in horizontal arcs.

  Men from the Araluen army fell before them as they advanced in a solid wedge shape.

  Halt was still forty meters away and he knew he would arrive too late. The Araluen line had bowed backward before the onslaught. Any second now it would crumble unless he acted.

  He reined Abelard to a sliding stop.

  “Steady,” he said, and the little horse stood rock-still for him, disregarding the terrifying cacophony of battle and the awful, metallic smell of fresh blood.

  Halt unslung his bow and stood in his stirrups. Then he began to shoot. He had three arrows in the air before the first struck the Wargal leading the attacking wedge. Halt had chosen his most powerful bow for the battle, one with a ninety-pound draw weight at full extension. Forty meters was point-blank range for such a weapon. The heavy, black-shafted arrow slammed through the beast’s corselet of toughened leather and bronze plates and dropped him where he stood. Then, in rapid succession, the next two arrows struck home and two more Wargals died. Then more and more arrows arrived, each with a deadly hiss-thud, as Halt emptied his quiver in a devastating display of accuracy.

  He aimed for the Wargals at the head of the wedge, so that as they fell they impeded the progress of those behind them. It was the sort of shooting no ordinary archer would attempt. If he missed, he might well send his arrows into the backs of the Araluen soldiers facing the Wargals.

  But Halt was no ordinary archer. He didn’t miss.

  Out of arrows, he urged Abelard forward once more. As he reached the rear of the line, he dropped from the saddle and ran to join the struggling troops. On the way, he stopped, tossed his cloak to one side and picked up a round shield lying discarded in the grass—the Ranger two-knife defense was no use against a Wargal’s heavy weapons. He hesitated a second, looking at a long sword that lay beside a dead knight’s outstretched hand. But it was a weapon he was unfamiliar with and he discarded the notion of using it. He was used to his saxe knife, and its heavy, razor-sharp blade would be perfect for close fighting. He drew the saxe now as he ran forward, forcing his way between the soldiers.

  “Come on!” he shouted. “Follow me! Push them back!”

  The soldiers parted before him until he was at the front of the line and facing a huge, snarling Wargal squad leader. The brute was only a little taller than Halt but was massive in the shoulders and chest and probably weighed twice as much as he did. Halt saw the red mouth open as the Wargal bared his fangs at this new enemy. A spiked mace swung horizontally at him and he ducked beneath it, instantly coming upright and driving forward with the saxe, sinking it deep into the beast’s ribs.

  He saw a sword coming from the left, blocked it with the shield, then kicked the huge Wargal off the point of his saxe, sending the dying monster sprawling.

  “Come on!” he shouted again, slashing his blade across another Wargal’s throat and sprin
ging forward. He dodged another sword and stabbed twice at a Wargal facing him, buffeting it aside with the shield as it doubled over in agony. The Wargals were immensely powerful. But they were clumsy, and Halt had the speed and reflexes of a snake. He ducked and weaved and cut and stabbed, carving a path forward. And now he sensed someone moving up behind him, heard another voice echoing his cry.

  “Come on! Forward! Push them back.”

  The hesitation in the Wargals’ attack caused by Halt’s volley of arrows, and his sudden appearance as he darted forward and took the fight to the enemy, gave the Araluen soldiers new heart. They began to follow Halt and his unidentified companion, moving forward once more.

  Halt turned momentarily to glance back. He saw a stockily built sergeant a pace behind him and to his right, armed with a spear. As Halt looked, the sergeant thrust the spear forward, skewering a Wargal so that it screeched in agony. The man grinned at him.

  “Keep going, Ranger! You’re getting in my way!”

  Behind him, others were following, forming their own wedge now and driving deeper and deeper into the Wargal line.

  Halt faced the front once more. A Wargal came at him, ax drawn back for a killing blow. The sergeant’s spear shot forward over Halt’s shoulder, taking the Wargal in the throat and stopping it dead.

  “Thanks!” Halt called, without looking. Two more Wargals were coming at him. He sidestepped the sword thrust of the first, felt his foot turn as he trod on the arm of a dead enemy, and tumbled sideways to the ground.

  The second Wargal had swung a club at him and the stumble probably saved his life. The club struck only a glancing blow instead of shattering his skull with a direct hit. But it stunned him and he hit the ground, losing his grip on the saxe knife. He tried to rise but was hampered by the shield on his left arm. Dully, he realized that the Wargal with the club was standing on the shield, preventing his rising. He looked up, still dazed by the glancing blow, and saw the club go up again.

 
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