The tournament at gorlan, p.12
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.12

           John Flanagan
 
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  “Hit that gong on the tree there.” He indicated a metal hoop hanging from a tree branch, alongside a heavy wooden mallet. “I’ll come across to fetch you.”

  He moved to the hawser at the stern of the boat—although in truth, the bow and the stern were interchangeable, and depended on the direction of travel. Seizing the rope, he heaved and the boat slid smoothly into deeper water, the wavelets battering at the square bow as she slid forward. Crowley watched him go for a second or two, then turned back toward the entrance to the track.

  He was frowning as he rode into the shade under the trees. So far, the dismissed Rangers they had encountered had shown a sense of rebellion and defiance. The news that Egon was likely to be found in the tavern this early in the day was troubling. It indicated that the former Ranger had simply given up when he had been replaced.

  “Don’t like the sound of that,” he said softly to Cropper. The horse shook its head, rattling his mane and ears as horses tend to do.

  Apparently, he didn’t like the sound of it either.

  18

  THE VILLAGE OF SEACLIFF WAS SET ON A NATURAL PLATEAU at the top of the hill, alongside the castle itself. Crowley rode slowly into the village as he emerged from the tree line. Several of the villagers looked curiously at him as he passed. He nodded greetings to them and they responded awkwardly, a little embarrassed to have been caught staring. But he was a stranger, and in spite of the lack of mottled camouflage on his cloak, there was something about him that marked him as a Ranger.

  And, since the position of Ranger in the fief had recently been usurped by an overdressed fop, Crowley’s arrival might well signify trouble.

  He could see the tavern halfway along the main street. There were several tables and benches set out in the open air in front of the building, with a canvas awning above them to provide shelter from the sun. The awning bellied and flapped in the light sea breeze, alternately filling with air like a sail, then drooping once more as the breeze gusted.

  There was a solitary figure seated at one of the benches, his back resting against the tavern wall. A pottery jug and a pewter tankard were on the table in front of him and he turned an incurious gaze on the rider approaching down the street. As he came closer, Crowley took in the leather jerkin, the green woolen shirt and trousers tucked into knee-high boots. It was typical Ranger garb, matched by his own, and he was confident he had found Egon, former Ranger of Seacliff Fief. A cloak was lying, folded carelessly, on the table in front of him.

  Egon wasn’t a young man. His hair and beard were gray, turning white in places. His face was lined and showed the marks of a hard life. He must have been close to taking the gold oakleaf of retirement, Crowley thought, which would have made his dismissal even harder to bear. His advancing years were probably the reason he’d been assigned to Seacliff—a small fief where nothing much happened, other than the occasional raid by a Skandian wolfship. Seacliff was often a young Ranger’s first assignment or an older Ranger’s final one.

  His clothes were rumpled and stained with the marks of food and wine. His hair was matted and untidy and his beard was untrimmed. Egon looked like a man who simply didn’t care anymore.

  Crowley eased down from the saddle, knotted Cropper’s reins and let them fall across the horse’s neck. That, if nothing else, marked him as a Ranger. Ranger horses were never tethered. There was no need for it. A Ranger horse would never stray and, as Halt had discovered, could not be stolen. And, in the event of the need for a quick departure, a Ranger didn’t have to waste any time untying his mount.

  Egon looked up at the new arrival, recognizing him for what he was. His lip curled in a sneer.

  “What are you looking at?”

  The words were slurred. The tone was aggressive. Egon had obviously been here for some time. There were wet rings and spilled liquor on the table to attest to the fact.

  Crowley removed his riding gauntlets and dropped them lightly on the table. “Mind if I join you?”

  The other man snorted an unintelligible reply.

  Crowley shrugged his bow off his shoulder, leaned it against the table and took a seat. Egon grunted again, peered into his tankard, frowned at it, then upended the jug over it. A small trickle of liquid ran from the jug to the tankard. The former Ranger glared at it through bleary, befuddled eyes, then rapped the tankard loudly on the table.

  “Jervis!” he shouted. “Bring me more brandywine.”

  Crowley’s eyebrow arched. Brandywine was a potent spirit. Had Egon been drinking ale, there might have been some explanation or excuse. But brandywine? And at this early hour? No wonder the man was slurring his words. He wondered if this might turn out to be a fool’s errand. Egon, at first glance, seemed an unlikely recruit to their cause. He sighed. Everything had gone well to date. He’d begun to feel complacent, assuming that every former Ranger they approached would be willing to join them.

  The door to the tavern swung open and a bald man, wearing a long apron over his shirt and trousers, emerged, looking with some pity at the disheveled figure slouched on the bench. He placed another jug down in front of him and took the empty one. Then he noticed Crowley, with a small start of surprise.

  “Greetings, stranger,” he said.

  Egon snarled another incomprehensible comment at the words and hastily poured his tankard full to the brim.

  “Good afternoon,” Crowley said quietly. He was at the same table as Egon, but sitting far enough away for the innkeeper not to assume that they were together.

  “Can I get you something?” Jervis asked, gesturing to the jug in front of Egon.

  Crowley shook his head at the offer of alcohol. “Do you have any coffee?”

  The innkeeper couldn’t prevent a look of relief touching his features. Two customers drinking ardent spirits this early in the afternoon could turn out to be trouble.

  “I’ve got a pot just brewing. Be ready in a minute or two.”

  “I’ll have a mug then. A big mug,” Crowley said. He’d been riding since early morning and breakfast was a long time in the past. He glanced at Egon again. The man had his head sunk over his tankard and was muttering to himself. Crowley decided that before he spoke further to the man, he needed information. The innkeeper’s pitying look seemed to indicate that he had some sympathy for the Ranger. In any event, there was no one else available to ask.

  “Where’s the privy?” Crowley inquired.

  Jervis jerked his head toward the door. “Through the bar, out the back in the stableyard,” he said.

  Crowley rose and followed him back through the door. Egon watched him go, snarled something to himself and refilled his tankard.

  Once in the taproom, the innkeeper pointed to a rear door that led to the stableyard. But Crowley shook his head.

  “I wanted a word in private,” he said, “without Egon hearing us.”

  Jervis raised an eyebrow at the mention of the name. “You know him, do you?”

  Crowley dismissed the question with a negative gesture. “I know his name. I know who he is. Or rather,” he amended, “who he was.”

  “He was the Ranger of this fief,” Jervis told him. “But then a new Ranger arrived out of the blue, with papers that said Egon was to be dismissed from the service and turned out of his cabin.”

  “On what grounds?” Crowley asked.

  Jervis shrugged. “They said he’d stolen a necklace and a purse from a widow on the mainland, and when her fourteen-year-old son tried to intervene, Egon beat him half to death.”

  Crowley frowned. “And you believe this?”

  Jervis shook his head sadly. “Egon’s been the Ranger here for seven years,” he said. “In all that time, I’ve known him to be a good, gentle man. The people of the fief loved and respected him. I can’t believe he’d do such a thing. But the papers were given under the King’s seal, so they must be true.”

  Crowley
looked long and hard at him. Not necessarily, the look said. The innkeeper shifted uncomfortably. Denying the King’s authority was a dangerous path to follow. Crowley let him off the hook with a further question.

  “You say he was turned out of his cabin,” he said and, when Jervis nodded in confirmation, he added, “So where does he live? And how does he pay you for the brandy he’s drinking?” Brandywine was usually brought into the country by Gallican smugglers and was an expensive tipple.

  “I let him sleep out in the stables,” Jervis said, obviously feeling that the arrangement was an unfortunate one. “And the Baron pays for his drinks. I send him an account each week.”

  “That’s generous of him,” Crowley remarked, but Jervis shook his head, frowning.

  “More self-serving than anything else. There was a lot of bitterness between them when he dismissed Egon from service. I think he decided it was safer to keep him well and truly drunk. That way, there’s less chance of trouble. Egon may be getting on, but he was trained as a Ranger, after all.”

  Crowley took in all this information, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Finally, he looked up at Jervis. “Thanks for that,” he said, and turned toward the door again.

  Egon was still sitting slumped at the table. He glanced up when Crowley reemerged. He snorted again—it seemed to be his favored form of communication—and reached for the wine jug.

  “Put that down,” Crowley said and, for a moment, the note of command in his voice made Egon pause. Then his misery got the better of him and he tilted the jug over the tankard. Crowley noted that he had to tilt quite a way now that the jug was nearly empty. He reached out and pried the jug out of the old Ranger’s hand, placing it on the table out of reach.

  “You won’t find the answer to your problems in a jug of brandywine,” he said quietly.

  Egon went white with rage. Then his right hand shot to the hilt of his saxe and he drew the big knife with a ringing hiss.

  But Crowley was younger, faster and sober. He caught Egon’s hand and slammed it down hard onto the tabletop, catching his knuckles between the wood of the table and the hilt of the saxe.

  Egon howled with pain and rage. He released the saxe, lurched to his feet and aimed a wild, swinging right fist at Crowley. The redhead swayed back and the fist passed harmlessly in front of his face.

  “I’ll allow that once,” Crowley said. “And once only.”

  But Egon was beyond reason and, still wildly off balance, he aimed another jaw-crushing right hand at Crowley. This time, the young Ranger chose not to duck. He blocked the punch with a rigid left arm, then drove his own fist into Egon’s solar plexus.

  The punch only traveled thirty centimeters or so. But it was lightning fast and it had all of the force of Crowley’s arm and shoulder and upper body behind it. It sank deep into Egon’s gut and the breath hissed out of him. He doubled over, staggering, then began to retch, vomiting up the brandywine he had consumed that afternoon. The rank smell assailed Crowley’s nostrils. He waited, watching like a hawk, ready in case Egon was foxing. But the older Ranger sank to one knee, continuing to retch, even though his stomach was now empty.

  Slowly, he toppled over and lay on the dirt, knees drawn up, hands clutching his midsection. There was a rainwater butt nearby. Crowley took the brandy jug, tossed the remaining liquid out of it and filled it with cold water. He proceeded to throw that over Egon’s head. He refilled the jug and repeated the dose, while Egon spluttered and snuffled.

  The door jerked open with a bang and Jervis emerged, taking in the scene outside with wide eyes. He saw the discarded saxe on the table, looked down at the writhing, groaning form of Egon and shook his head.

  “Drunk or not,” he said, “I wouldn’t try to take his saxe away from him.” He looked at Crowley with a great deal of respect, mixed with a little fear.

  “Does he have a horse?” Crowley asked.

  Egon nodded, pointing to the rear of the building. “In the stable, with the rest of his gear.”

  Crowley smiled at him. “Would you mind fetching it for me?” he said. “I’ll keep an eye on our friend.”

  Eyes wide, Jervis backed away from the redheaded stranger. After a few paces, he turned and dashed through the door. Crowley heard his footsteps pounding across the taproom, then the slam of another door. Egon groaned and Crowley turned to look down at him. The older Ranger was still doubled up, clutching his stomach.

  “I’ll . . . kill . . . you . . . for . . . that,” he snarled, the words forcing their way past the skeins of drool and spittle hanging from his lips. The smile faded from Crowley’s normally cheerful face.

  “You already tried,” he said, his voice low and dangerous. “And it didn’t work out so well for you, did it?”

  19

  THE FERRY MASTER HAD BROUGHT ANOTHER TRAVELER across and decided to wait on the island for Crowley’s return. He was lying comfortably against the side railing, dozing in the sun, when he heard the soft whinny of an approaching horse.

  His eyes snapped open, then opened a little wider in surprise as he saw not one but two horses approaching. The first was Cropper, and the redheaded young Ranger was riding him. The second horse trailed a few meters behind Cropper. His rider wasn’t sitting upright in the saddle, but was slumped over it, head hanging down one side and his feet on the other. He emitted a constant low moaning noise.

  The ferry master stood and moved to where the ramp was let down onto the beach. The punt was floating in the shallow water at the edge of the little strait.

  “We’re going back across,” Crowley told him.

  The ferry master nodded absently, peering at the figure slumped across the horse, leaning down to see his face more clearly. “Isn’t that . . . ?”

  Crowley nodded briskly. “Yes. It’s the Seacliff Ranger. I’m helping him find something he’s lost.”

  “And what would that be?” the ferry master asked, genuinely puzzled. Crowley regarded him steadily.

  “His dignity,” he said.

  The ferry master opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, and closed it again.

  “Right,” he said. “Bring him aboard then.”

  Crowley rode up the shallow ramp onto the boat. Egon’s horse followed docilely behind him. He dismounted and gestured to the comatose body over the saddle. “Help me get him down, would you?”

  The ferry master took hold of one side. Crowley took the other and they heaved Egon down onto the deck of the punt. He slumped there, his head resting against the side rail, his arms clasped across his midsection.

  “What’s wrong with him?” the ferry master asked.

  “He had a gastric attack,” Crowley replied. He didn’t explain that the attack had come from his right fist.

  The man nodded somberly. “There’s a lot of that going around.”

  Crowley paid him for their passage and the ferry master began to trudge back down the length of the boat, dragging it along the fastened hawser that ran from bank to bank. Once again, the punt slid out into deeper water, and the pok-pok-pok of wavelets under the bow began their regular cadence.

  Crowley looked down at the gray-haired Ranger sprawling on the deck. He had the uncomfortable feeling that Egon was going to be their first failure and he frowned at the thought. Their numbers were small for the task ahead of them and the loss of even one man would make a big difference. Until now, it hadn’t occurred to him that any of the dismissed Rangers would reject his plan. He had assumed they would all join him and Halt without any argument.

  But Egon? He seemed to have lost his spirit and his sense of duty. Understandable, Crowley thought. He had probably been looking forward to his retirement. To be thrown out of his home, and to have his livelihood taken away at such a late time of his life, must have been a shattering experience.

  “We’ll give it one try to talk you around,” he said quietly. “Then w
e’ll have to move on.”

  “Pardon?” said the ferry master, as he trudged past Crowley on his endless task of hauling the rope from the bow to the stern, then repeating the action over and over again.

  “Nothing,” Crowley said. “Just thinking out loud.”

  The ferryman grunted and went back to his work. A few minutes later, the bow slid up the beach with the familiar grating sound of timber on sand. The current slewed the stern a little and the boat came to a halt. The ferryman approached Crowley and pointed to Egon.

  “Want a hand to get him back on his horse?”

  Crowley shook his head. “Just let me get him to his feet,” he said and together they hauled the limp body upright, leaning him against the side rail of the ferry. The ferryman moved away to lower the bow ramp onto the sand. He’d taken three paces when he heard a loud splash behind him. He swung around to see Egon’s head bobbing to the surface next to the stern of the punt, his arms thrashing wildly as the shock of the cold seawater revived him.

  Crowley grinned at the ferryman. “Thought a little swim might do him good,” he said.

  Egon was already floundering his way toward the beach. He was in waist-deep water now and in no danger of drowning. Sodden and spluttering, he staggered up the sand and stood, glaring at Crowley and dripping water.

  “I’ll kill you for that!” he snarled.

  Crowley raised an eyebrow. “So you keep saying.”

  He snapped his fingers at the two horses and they followed him down the ramp and onto the land. The ferry master watched with interest. He’d never seen a Ranger tossed overboard before—particularly by another Ranger.

  As Crowley drew closer, Egon set his feet and took up a threatening stance, both fists raised.

  Crowley stopped and smiled coldly at him. “Remember what happened last time,” he admonished. Then he jerked a thumb toward the grass at the inland edge of the beach. “Let’s go up there and talk. We’ve got a few things to go over.”

 
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