The tournament at gorlan, p.10
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.10

           John Flanagan
 
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  “Well, the first order of the day is to replace Declan,” Crowley said. “Do you have any horses ready to go to work?”

  Bob rose eagerly from his chair. “I’ve got four three-year-olds in the stable. Fully trained and fit and each one ready to meet his rider.” He gestured toward the door. “Come meet your new horse, Master Halt.”

  Halt rose, the other three following, and Bob led the way out into the bright sunshine toward the stable.

  As they entered the big, dim building, Halt heard the sound of hooves shuffling in the straw and one curious whinny. His eyes became accustomed to the dimness and he followed Bob to where four horses were peering curiously over their stalls at the newcomers. Crowley, Berrigan and Leander, understanding what was about to take place, and knowing that it would be a personal encounter for Halt, stopped just inside the doorway.

  “Take a good look at them,” Bob told Halt. “See if one of them might be the horse for you.”

  Halt paused and looked along the line of heads protruding from the stalls. All four were turned toward him, horses being curious animals. Four pairs of big, dark eyes watched him calmly as he walked slowly down the line of stalls.

  Three of the horses were bay. But the third in line was a dappled gray. His eyes met Halt’s as the Hibernian reached his stall and paused to study him more closely. There was something in those eyes that seemed to reach out to Halt. This horse was more than simply curious. There was a level of understanding and communication in those eyes that seemed to say, you’ll do for me.

  Halt went to move on to the fourth horse, but something stopped him and he turned back to the gray. It shook its head, rattling its mane the way horses do, and met his gaze once more.

  Told you so, the eyes seemed to be saying.

  Halt gestured toward him, turning to Bob. He saw that the breeder was already smiling, a look of satisfaction on his face.

  “He talking to you, is he?” Bob asked. He kept his voice low so that Crowley and the others wouldn’t hear.

  Halt took a half pace back in surprise at the words. It had certainly seemed that the gray horse had been communicating with him.

  Bob saw the look of surprise and nodded wisely. “They say that a Ranger horse can talk to its rider,” he said. “Can tell him what it thinks, what it senses. Did you get that from him?”

  “Well . . . not exactly,” Halt said. He was sure he had been imagining those messages in the big, intelligent eyes.

  Bob didn’t press the point, but he reached out for the bar that closed the stall. “Would you like a closer look?”

  “Yes. I think so,” Halt replied. He was suddenly conscious that he had paid no attention to the fourth horse in the line. Then he dismissed the thought. The gray was the one that had seized his interest. Bob led the horse out of the stall and Halt moved round him, studying the sturdy body and strong bones, feeling the firm muscles in the shoulders and hindquarters, lifting a forefoot to study the hoof, pulling back the horse’s lips to inspect his teeth.

  He knelt and ran his hands over the horse’s front legs, feeling the cannon bone, knee and ankle in each for any sign of tenderness or heat. Then he stepped back a little to assess its general conformation, checking that the croup wasn’t higher than the withers, which was the mark of a “downhill” horse that would be prone to lameness in the front legs. The horse turned its head to watch him curiously as he did all this. It seemed to be vaguely amused by his attention to detail.

  Halt put his hands on his hips and a smile spread over his face. “He’s a fine one,” he said. Shaggy coat and barrel-like body notwithstanding, there was something very appealing about this little horse.

  Bob laughed, a strange, high-pitched cackle. “That’s what he says about you!” he replied, shaking his head with pleasure. He looked back at Halt and added, “We say a Ranger horse chooses his rider, rather than the other way around. I think Abelard’s chosen you, Master Halt.”

  “Abelard?” Halt said. The name seemed a little exotic for such a sturdy, workmanlike animal.

  “Oh yes. Abelard. It’s a Gallic name because his dam was from Gallica. Told you we’d included a few Gallic horses in our recent program.”

  “Abelard,” Halt repeated, trying the name out. The horse shook its head in answer to its name. “I suppose I can get used to that.”

  Bob moved into the stall and brought out a saddle and bridle, quickly putting them in place on the gray. Abelard turned his head to watch him as he did so, as if checking that the girth straps were tight enough.

  “Lead him out into the sun,” Bob said. “Get to know him.”

  Halt took the reins and led Abelard out of the stable and into the sunlit saddling yard. The other Rangers followed. Halt noticed that they exchanged a strange, furtive look. They were smiling about something and trying to conceal the fact. He shrugged. Crowley loved a drama, he thought. He was undoubtedly enjoying the sight of Halt and Abelard bonding.

  He went to place his foot in the stirrup, preparatory to swinging up into the saddle. Abelard turned his head around to watch him prepare to mount.

  Bob put out a hand, resting it on Halt’s arm. “Planning to mount up, are you?” he asked.

  “Well, unless you think I intend to spend the rest of our time walking beside him, yes,” Halt said sarcastically.

  Bob made a small moue. “All right then,” he said, removing his hand from Halt’s arm.

  Halt looked quickly around at the other Rangers. They were all watching him, with innocent looks on their faces. He had the distinct impression that they had been smiling broadly a second or so before.

  “Is there anything I should know?” he asked Bob.

  The breeder seemed to consider for a few seconds. “Let’s see. I told you a Ranger horse can never be stolen, didn’t I?”

  Halt brushed the comment aside impatiently. He didn’t see how that had any bearing on the situation.

  “Yes. You did. A fine trait to have in a horse too,” he said. “Now if you don’t mind?”

  Bob stepped back. Halt seized the pommel and used his bent left leg to propel himself up into the saddle. He settled himself, found the other stirrup with his right foot, and gathered the reins together.

  At which point, the world went mad.

  Abelard took off vertically, as if he had springs under his hooves. He shot into the air, arching his back, then came down on his forelegs. He jerked his rump up and down three times, moving in an arc to the left while Halt hung on for dear life. Then, suddenly, without warning, he reversed direction, spinning on his hind legs to the right, spinning in a wild circle three times. Halt was now jerking in the saddle like a rag doll, managing to keep his seat by sheer instinct—and a lot of luck. Abelard was moving too quickly for him to counter the horse’s wild motions in any conscious way.

  The saddling paddock whirled around him. The house, the stable, the drinking trough where Bob was leaning, watching. He was conscious of the blurred sight of his three companions and was sure they were all grinning hugely. He set his teeth grimly. He was determined that Abelard would not win this contest.

  Unfortunately, Abelard was determined that he would. He reared back on his hind legs. Halt compensated by leaning way forward, burying his face in the short, shaggy mane. But in a fraction of a second, Abelard reversed the action, suddenly dropping to his forelegs and burying his head and neck between them.

  The sudden, unexpected change defeated Halt. He shot forward, managing to kick his legs free of the stirrups as he went. He turned a half somersault in the air and crashed down in the dust of the saddling paddock, landing flat on his back.

  The air escaped from his lungs with an explosive WHOOF! and he lay, groaning and winded, desperately trying to suck oxygen back into his empty lungs.

  Slowly, as his breath returned, he rolled onto his stomach and got his knees under him, rising painfully to his
feet, dusting himself off with his hands.

  “Maybe I should try one of the other horses,” he managed to wheeze.

  15

  AS HALT DUSTED HIMSELF OFF, HIS THREE COMPANIONS moved forward to join him. All of them were wearing huge grins, which they now made no attempt to conceal. From somewhere behind the house, he heard the sound of children giggling.

  “Welcome to our world,” said Berrigan.

  Halt turned a baleful look on him. “You knew this was going to happen.”

  It was an accusation, not a question, and Berrigan shrugged diffidently. “Let’s say I had a good idea it might,” he replied.

  Leander said, past a huge grin that threatened to split his face in two, “It’s happened to all of us.”

  The baleful look now turned in his direction. “Your horses are constantly bucking you off into the dust? I can’t say I’ve noticed.”

  Leander shook his head. “Not constantly. It happened the first time to all of us. Because we forgot to ask the right question.”

  “And that question is?”

  “It’s a lesson in not taking things for granted,” Crowley said, joining the conversation. “Did Bob tell you that a Ranger horse can never be stolen?” he asked. Then he answered his own question. “Yes. He did. I heard him. Why do you think he told you that?”

  “I have no idea,” Halt said. “I thought he was just naturally garrulous.” He turned to the breeder. “No offense, Bob.”

  Bob shook his head and spread his hands out, palm upward, in a gesture of acceptance. “None taken, Master Halt. Gammulous is a good description of me, I think.”

  Crowley continued. “He told you just before you went to mount Abelard, didn’t he? In fact, he stopped you mounting to tell you. Didn’t that make you think?”

  “Think what?” Halt asked shortly, although he was beginning to get the glimmering of an idea about what Crowley was getting at.

  “Didn’t you wonder why a Ranger horse can never be stolen?”

  “Perhaps you could enlighten me,” Halt said.

  Crowley turned to Bob and gestured for him to explain. Like the others, Bob was grinning broadly.

  “It’s a matter of training, Master Halt. The horses are specially trained not to let anyone ride them unless they’ve said the secret password to them.”

  “Secret password?” Halt said incredulously. This was beginning to sound like some far-fetched fantasy tale. He wondered if this wasn’t a further practical joke that they were playing on him. But Bob was nodding, with no sign of any hidden smile.

  “Each horse is given a private phrase, or password, if you like, during its training. When the horse is assigned to a rider, he’s told the phrase and he has to say it to the horse before he mounts up.”

  “Every time?” Halt asked, his voice rising with his incredulity. “That could be a darn nuisance if someone was chasing you.”

  Bob shook his head patiently. “Not every time. Just the first time. After that, the horse knows you’re allowed to ride him. Didn’t you notice how Abelard turned his head to look at you just before you went to swing up into the saddle?”

  Now that he mentioned it, Halt did recall that Abelard had done so. He’d assumed at the time it was just the horse’s natural curiosity. Now it seemed there had been an ulterior motive behind the movement. He still wasn’t totally convinced, but when he glanced around at the other Rangers, he could see they were nodding in confirmation of what Bob told him. And none of them seemed to be hiding a smile.

  “Wouldn’t it have been simpler if you had just told me about this before I tried to mount?” He addressed the question to Crowley, who considered it, and then answered.

  “Well, yes. I suppose it would’ve. But it’s something we do with all our apprentices—a kind of rite of passage, if you like. It teaches them never to take things for granted, and always to question the most obscure and seemingly unimportant piece of information.”

  “I’m not an apprentice, you know,” Halt said. He could feel the heat of anger rising in his cheeks and worked to subdue it.

  Crowley inclined his head, admitting that there was some truth in what Halt had said. “That’s true. But you’re not formally a Ranger yet either, are you? And this way, you’ll know never to try to mount one of our horses without knowing the permission phrase, won’t you?”

  Halt said nothing for several seconds, merely glaring at his friend. Crowley seemed totally unabashed by the fierce look. He met Halt’s eyes readily, smiling back at him, until Halt eventually realized that he wasn’t going to shame or browbeat his friend into any sort of apology. With a sigh, he dismissed the redheaded Ranger and turned back to Bob.

  “Very well. What’s this magic phrase I have to say?”

  “No magic,” Bob told him. “Just good sense and good training. You say it once and you never need say it again.”

  Halt made a “hurry up” gesture with his right hand. “So what is it?”

  But Bob glanced at the three Rangers, who were well within earshot, and beckoned Halt closer.

  “It’s private,” he said. “Between you and Abelard. Although it might be a good idea to share it with one of your friends in case there’s an emergency and one of them has to ride young Abelard.”

  At that moment, Halt had no intention of sharing anything with his three so-called friends and his expression said so, very definitely.

  Bob, studying the dark-bearded man’s scowling face, nodded his understanding. “Still,” he said, “that’s up to you. You may change your mind in the future. Good enough to do it then, I say. After all, a man’s—”

  “The permission phrase,” Halt reminded him, an ominous note in his voice.

  Bob nodded again. He could see that Halt’s temper was stretched almost to breaking point. “Of course. Step a little closer, so the others can’t hear.” And when Halt stepped close to him, he put his mouth up to the Hibernian’s ear and whispered: “Permettez moi.”

  “Permett—” Halt began to say, incredulously, but Bob hastily silenced him.

  “Hush! Hush! Don’t tell the world about it. It’s just for you and Abelard. Whisper it in his ear.”

  Abelard stood by expectantly. He seemed to know what was going on. Halt sighed and stepped up to the horse, who moved his head round so that his ear was close to Halt’s mouth once more.

  “Now,” said Bob, rolling his right hand over in a “go ahead” gesture. Halt regarded him doubtfully, then, feeling a total idiot, leaned forward and whispered in Abelard’s ear.

  “Permettez moi,” he said. The horse’s head jerked up slightly and he made eye contact with his would-be rider. It seemed to Halt that there was an expression of acceptance, or understanding, in the big, dark eye next to his face. He glanced at Bob, who made a gesture for him to continue.

  “Mount up,” he said. “He won’t try to buck you off now.”

  For the second time in five minutes, Halt swung up into the saddle. Quickly, he found his seat, settling his feet in the stirrups and bringing the reins together over Abelard’s neck. The horse grunted and Halt tensed, waiting for a plunging, rearing attempt to hurl him out of the saddle. But none came. Abelard stood, solid and unmoving as a rock. Halt glanced at Bob, then at the three Rangers, who all nodded encouragement. Then Bob indicated the open gate that led into the larger field on the other side of the fence.

  “Give him a run,” he said.

  Halt tapped his heels gently into the horse’s flank. The effect was instantaneous and Halt delighted at the easy, flowing motion of the horse as he cantered through the gate and into the field. Abelard went from a solid, unmoving stance to a light-footed gait so smooth and even that his hooves barely seemed to touch the ground. Instead, he flowed across the field like a river through its bed, responding to every slight signal that Halt sent him through the reins or through the pressure of his thighs arou
nd the barrel-like body.

  Halt urged him further, and Abelard went from a canter to a full gallop in the space of two strides. The response was amazing as he shot forward like an arrow from a bow, striding out in a full gallop that was as fast as anything Halt had ever experienced on a horse.

  And yet, the rider had the distinct feeling that Abelard was holding more speed in reserve. They flew across the field, Halt’s cloak streaming out behind them, matched by Abelard’s long tail. Halt saw a fallen tree to their left and swung the horse toward it. Later, he tried to remember and it seemed that he had simply thought to go left and the horse had obeyed, without any physical command. But he knew that was fanciful. Abelard had sensed the minuscule shift in his position and understood instantly. He gathered himself, steadied, then leapt over the tree trunk, hitting the ground beyond with barely any impact and resuming the high-speed gallop.

  They swung in a wide semicircle until they were heading back to the farmhouse, and the little group of figures waiting for them in the saddling yard. As they came closer, the slightest touch on the reins slowed Abelard to an easy trot. They rode back through the gate and Halt twitched the reins once more to stop the horse. Abelard shook his mane and whinnied in delight. He loved to run and he recognized that his new master was an expert rider, with a good, balanced seat and light hands on the reins.

  The three Rangers’ horses whinnied in reply and in welcome. Abelard stamped one forefoot in the dust. Crowley grinned at the expression on Halt’s face—a mixture of surprise and delight. He’d seen it many times before on apprentices when they had their first experience of the horse that was to be their constant companion.

  “I guess he’s one of us now,” he said.

  Halt spent the rest of the day working with Abelard, learning the many signals the horse had been trained to respond to. At the end of the day, Bob gave him one last piece of advice.

  “There’s something else you need to learn. Abelard has a smooth, even gait when he gallops. There’s a point in every stride when all four feet are off the ground. It’s maybe a second or so. If you’re shooting from horseback, you have to learn to aim and release in that second, so that his movement won’t throw off your shot.”

 
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