The tournament at gorlan, p.11
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.11

           John Flanagan
 
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  Halt raised his eyebrows. “That sounds difficult.”

  Bob regarded him for a moment, his head tilted to one side.

  “It is difficult,” he agreed. “But that’s why you’re Rangers.”

  16

  KING OSWALD LOOKED UP AS THE DOOR TO HIS CHAMBER was flung open, slamming back against the wall then rebounding with the violence of the movement.

  He frowned. There had been no preliminary knock, no waiting for permission to enter, as might be expected of someone entering the presence of the King. Instead, Morgarath simply strode into the room, his attitude and expression showing all too clearly that he regarded this as an unwanted interruption to his day.

  “You wanted to see me?” he said brusquely.

  Oswald bit back an angry reply. There was no point in antagonizing the Baron of Gorlan, he knew. And in truth, he found Morgarath to be a rather intimidating figure. He seemed to dominate any room he entered, filling it with a dark energy. In part, that was because of his physical presence. He was a tall, powerful figure of a man. But there was more. There was a sense of self-assurance about him—self-assurance that bordered on arrogance. No matter whom Morgarath was speaking to, commoner or king, there was an underlying note of contempt and impatience—as was witnessed by his abrupt entrance and question.

  Oswald took a deep breath. He wanted to be calm and, above all, he wanted to make sure his voice didn’t tremble. It angered him that he should feel this way. He was, after all, the King of Araluen. But he couldn’t help it. Morgarath created this sense of uncertainty and inadequacy.

  “I’m worried about my son,” he said finally.

  Morgarath allowed himself a contemptuous snort. “So you should be,” he replied. “He’s killing and stealing in the northern part of the Kingdom. He’s alienating the common people and he’s antagonizing the Scotti with his forays across the border.”

  Oswald shook his head. “It’s just so unlike Duncan,” he said. “I can’t believe that he would suddenly start behaving this way. He’s always had a good relationship with our subjects.”

  Morgarath hid a scornful smile. That was precisely why he had instigated the program of stealing and raiding being carried out by a man named Tiller who was impersonating Duncan. If Morgarath’s plan were to succeed, he needed to destroy the affection that the prince’s subjects felt for him. He needed the common people to hate and fear the prince.

  “People change,” he said flatly.

  But Oswald continued to demur. “Not Duncan,” he said. “He’s a good man. Always has been.”

  “Is this the same good man”—Morgarath laid sarcastic emphasis on the two words—“who tried to assassinate you only a few months ago? Or did that poison find its way into your wine by accident?”

  “I’ve been thinking about that,” Oswald replied. “The more I do, the more I think it was a mistake. Why would Duncan want to kill me?”

  “Because,” Morgarath said, speaking slowly and distinctly, as if to a not-too-bright child, “he wants you out of the way so he can be King.”

  “I can’t believe it,” Oswald said stubbornly. “Now I look at it, I think I acted hastily in letting you persuade me to move here to Castle Gorlan.”

  Morgarath shook his head. “I can protect you here,” he said. “At Castle Araluen, you were at risk. If Duncan had made another attempt on your life, he might well have succeeded. After all, he has freedom of movement at Castle Araluen that he doesn’t enjoy here. And he undoubtedly has cronies among the castle staff who would have assisted him in another attempt. It’d be far easier for him to put a dagger in your heart there than he could manage here, with my men constantly on the alert.”

  “I don’t believe it,” Oswald said.

  “I can produce witnesses to swear that he was behind the attempt,” Morgarath replied. In truth, he could bring witnesses to swear that the sun rose in the west if it suited his purpose.

  But Oswald drew himself up and asserted himself. “Witnesses can be bribed to lie.”

  Morgarath’s eyes narrowed. “Are you saying that I lied, Oswald?” he challenged. The lack of any title before the King’s name was an obvious pointer to his anger.

  Oswald swallowed angrily. He had come this far and he wasn’t going to give in. But he knew there was no future in accusing Morgarath. He was alone in Castle Gorlan. None of his retainers had been allowed to accompany him—for his own safety, Morgarath had insisted. Oswald was all too aware of the uncertainty of his position. Effectively, he was powerless here, even though he might be King. At Castle Gorlan, Morgarath’s rule was absolute and Oswald knew he needed to keep the Baron’s goodwill. The fact might gall him, but it was incontrovertible.

  “No. Not at all. But other people, who wanted to mislead you, may well be doing so.”

  Morgarath noted the King’s retreat with satisfaction. Oswald’s next words, however, rapidly dismissed the feeling.

  “That’s why I’ve decided I need to confront Duncan myself,” Oswald said, a note of determination creeping into his voice.

  “Confront him? To what purpose?”

  “I need to hear his version of events from his own lips. I know my son. I trust him. I’m sure there’s a good explanation for all this—the poison in the wine and the raiding across the border. I want to accuse him face-to-face and hear what he has to say. If he lies to me, I’ll know. But I want to give him the chance to defend himself.”

  Morgarath shook his head, expelling his breath in a long hiss.

  Oswald continued, ignoring the man’s obvious disdain for his words. “It’s what I should have done in the first place,” he said heatedly. Now that things were out in the open, he was gaining in confidence. “What kind of king goes scuttling off to hide in someone else’s castle when there’s a hint of trouble?”

  “One who wants to stay alive,” said Morgarath sarcastically. But Oswald was shaking his head and Morgarath felt anger mounting inside him. So the royal worm is turning, he thought. He’d wondered how long it would be before they reached this point.

  “A king has to take chances,” Oswald said. “And he has to trust his own judgment. That’s why he is king. I’m sorry, Morgarath. I mean you no offense but it’s time I took charge of things and started behaving like the King of Araluen. I appreciate your concern for me, but I can’t hide behind your walls any longer.”

  You pompous fool, Morgarath thought. But he assumed a winning smile as he seemed to consider the King’s words. Morgarath could charm a snake out of its skin if he wished, as an old saying went.

  “And exactly what do you have in mind, your majesty?”

  “I want you to send to Castle Araluen for a company of my own guard, then I’ll ride north with them to confront Duncan, and settle this matter once and for all.”

  “So you’ll simply find Duncan and say, ‘Stop all this killing and stealing. You’ve been a bad boy’?” Is that the plan?”

  Oswald hid his anger at the obvious sarcasm. He nodded once.

  “That’s about it,” he said. “It’s time for me to start acting like a king.”

  Morgarath paced around the room for some moments. He stopped at the window, looking down on the green parkland that stretched out below the castle. It was time to stop the pretense, he realized. He turned back to Oswald, who was waiting expectantly for his answer.

  “I’m afraid the time for that is long gone, Oswald,” he said.

  The King took a step back, startled by the contempt in the man’s voice. “What are you talking about?” he demanded.

  “I’m saying your time to act like the King is long gone. Your time as King is long gone. You’re going to disinherit your son in my favor. You’re going to name me as your heir and as regent for the immediate future.”

  “How dare you!” Oswald exploded. “What makes you think I’d agree to such a threat?”

  “Se
veral things,” Morgarath said in a silky tone. “For one, you’re all alone here and I can make you do anything I want you to. And secondly, your son isn’t in the border country, raiding villages and stealing cattle from the Scotti.”

  Oswald felt a cold hand of fear clutching his heart. As Morgarath continued, the grip grew tighter.

  “Duncan, your oh-so-noble son, is currently being held prisoner by one of my followers. And if you don’t do exactly as I tell you, you’ll never see him again.”

  17

  IN LATER YEARS, HALT WOULD LOOK BACK ON THE DAYS spent traveling with his new friends as a particularly happy time of his life. Up until this point, he had been a solitary person, suspicious of strangers and, as a result of the events that had led him to leave Hibernia, even his own family. But now, as they crisscrossed the country in search of other Rangers to join their band, he found himself in the company of men whose friendship and camaraderie he valued.

  They were all driven by a common purpose and they were all men to be admired for their mastery of the Ranger’s craft.

  They shared the same skills, of course, and all of them were expert in each one. But some were more skilled than the others at certain disciplines. Crowley, for example, was an absolute adept in the art of moving silently and without being seen. Leander’s ability to track and read and understand signs on the forest floor was far above that of his companions. Berrigan’s accuracy with both his knives—the big, heavy saxe and the lighter, smaller throwing knife—was uncanny. Halt found himself asking the others for advice and tips on how to improve his skill in these areas, and he found his companions always willing to share their knowledge with him. As a result, his ability improved with each passing day. As he told himself, he was learning from the best.

  Halt himself was by far the finest archer in the group. His speed and accuracy were unmatched by any of the others, and since they had left Saddler’s farm he had practiced the extra skill Bob had mentioned—shooting while Abelard was moving at a full gallop—every day when they stopped to camp. Before long, he was almost reproducing the accuracy he showed when shooting from a standing position. The others were fascinated by this technique and they tried to copy it, with mixed results. Crowley was the most successful, but even he couldn’t match Halt. Of course, the redhead didn’t admit that this was due to any inferiority on his part.

  “Abelard’s obviously got such a smooth gait that it’s easy for you to gauge his motion and adjust your shooting to it. He moves like silk,” he said to Halt as they discussed it one evening. “Poor old Cropper”—he indicated his horse—“is such a tanglefoot it’s a wonder he manages to stay upright when he’s galloping.”

  Halt regarded Crowley’s horse, who was watching them with an interested expression. He hadn’t noticed any tendency for him to stumble or lurch unexpectedly when he was galloping. On the other hand, he had noticed a tendency for Crowley to try to rush his release when shooting from horseback. He didn’t do it all the time. Three out of five times, his shots would fly true, which was a more-than-acceptable average. But Halt managed to do it five out of five times—and ten out of ten times.

  He decided, however, to allow his friend this little conceit.

  They were approaching Seacliff Fief, a small barony set on an island off the southeast coast. The island, and the castle built on it, was accessed by a flat-bottomed punt that spanned the narrow waterway separating it from the mainland. Crowley, who was in the lead, raised a hand to stop the others as they approached the little strip of sand where the ferry was beached. They were still inside the fringe of trees and, so far, they hadn’t been noticed by anyone at the ferry station.

  “Question is,” he said in a low voice as they formed a semicircle around him, “do we all go across, or just one of us?” He paused, then added in explanation, “We’re becoming quite a noticeable group, after all.”

  Berrigan shrugged. “So people notice us. What harm does that do?”

  “People notice. People talk,” Halt said. “Word could get back to Morgarath that there’s a group of renegade Rangers recruiting their former comrades. If that happens, he’ll start to wonder what we’re up to.”

  “He’ll do that sooner or later anyway,” Berrigan pointed out, but Leander joined in, agreeing with Halt.

  “The later, the better. The more we can surprise him, the easier our task is going to be.”

  “You think it’s going to be easy?” Berrigan asked, his eyebrows raised in amusement.

  “I didn’t say easy. I said easier,” Leander replied doggedly.

  Berrigan nodded agreement. “Fair enough. It’s a good point, I suppose. So who gets to ride aboard the ferry?”

  There was a pause, then Halt said, in a voice that brooked no argument, “Crowley. This whole business has been driven by him. He’s the one to do it.”

  Seeing there was no disagreement from the others, Crowley prepared to ride out onto the sand. “Set up a camp back in the trees,” he said. “I’ll find you when I’ve made contact with Egon.” Egon was the Seacliff Ranger, who had been on the list of those to be dismissed.

  “Don’t get seasick,” Berrigan admonished.

  Crowley regarded the narrow neck of water that separated Seacliff Island from the mainland. The surface was as still as a millpond.

  “I’ll do my best,” he said. He urged Cropper forward and rode out into the sunlight.

  They had all decided to do away with their camouflaged cloaks for the time being. The distinctive pattern marked them out as Rangers—or, to be accurate, former Rangers. They all wore long cowled cloaks in dull colors of brown or gray or green. But even without the camouflage pattern, a band of four cloaked men, carrying longbows and armed with saxes and throwing knives, would be easy to recognize as Rangers of the old school, whereas one man in a brown cloak might well be taken for a forester or gamekeeper.

  Cropper’s hooves made virtually no sound in the fine dry sand of the beach, aside from a light squeaking as the tiny grains were compressed and rubbed against one another.

  Crowley was nearly up to the ferry master’s small house, built on pilings above the high tide mark, before he was noticed.

  “Da! Traveler coming!” It was a young voice and Crowley saw that there was a boy of about ten or twelve watching him from behind the railing of the small verandah that spanned two sides of the house. A deeper voice answered from inside, the words muffled and indecipherable. Then a door onto the verandah creaked open and a short but powerfully built man emerged into the light.

  “Welcome, traveler!” the ferry master called. He stepped heavily down the four stairs that led up to the verandah, buckling on a thick leather belt as he came. Crowley could see a long-bladed dagger in a scabbard on the right-hand side, and as the man reached the first step, he casually took up a blackwood quarterstaff that was leaning against the railing.

  As welcoming as the ferry master might seem, Crowley was still a stranger and, in these times, no stranger was accepted without some precaution.

  “I’m looking to cross to the island,” Crowley said. The ferry master regarded him for a few seconds, taking in the longbow and the shaggy-coated, small horse. He said nothing but Crowley sensed he had been recognized for what he was. Then the man glanced at the flat-bottomed punt pulled up on the beach and the island beyond.

  “Then I’d say you’re in the right place to do it,” he said pleasantly. He gestured to Crowley to move toward the punt. “Wait while I get the boat in the water, then you can come aboard.”

  Crowley swung down from the saddle and led Cropper toward the water’s edge. “I’ll give you a hand moving her,” he offered, but the ferry master shook his head.

  “I can manage,” he said.

  Crowley took in the thick, heavily muscled arms and massive shoulders. He had no doubt the man could move the ferry by himself. The ferry master leaned his shoulder against a padded post a
t one corner of the clumsy vessel and heaved. The punt slid easily down the sand and into the water. Flat bottomed and wide beamed as she was, she floated easily in a few inches. Crowley dismounted and led Cropper aboard as the ferry master lowered the ramp. “That’ll be one royal for the two of you,” the ferry master said. Crowley paid and the man began to haul on the thick rope that drew the flat-bottomed craft across to the far beach.

  After a few minutes, they glided into the shallows and the tapered bow ran up onto the sand, grating against it as it came to rest. The ferry master lowered the bow ramp and Crowley led Cropper ashore. He paused as he came level with the heavy-set man, who was leaning against the railing by the ramp.

  “The Ranger Egon,” he said. “Where would I find him?”

  The ferry master considered the question for a second or two. There was a knowing look about him as he studied Crowley once more. The mention of Egon’s name seemed to confirm his earlier supposition that Crowley was a Ranger.

  “Most likely in the tavern,” he replied eventually. “That’s where he spends most of his time these days, since the unpleasantness with the new man.” His tone was even, without any note of censure in it.

  Crowley nodded, keeping his expression neutral. “How do I reach it?” he asked. He had never visited Seacliff before.

  The ferry master gestured to an opening in the trees some thirty meters down the beach. “That’s the track to the top. It winds up to the castle at the top of the hill. The village is a hundred meters from the castle and the tavern is there.”

  Crowley held up a hand in a gesture of thanks, mounted Cropper and began to walk him toward the track. After a few paces, he turned and called back.

  “How do I . . . ?” he began but the man anticipated the rest of the question.

 
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