The tournament at gorlan, p.13
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.13

           John Flanagan
 
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  And saying that, he turned his back on the sopping wet Egon and walked up the beach. The two horses followed him. Egon’s horse actually turned an admonishing look on his owner. The gray-haired Ranger was left with no choice but to follow them.

  Crowley found a fallen tree and sat down on it, gesturing for Egon to join him.

  “So tell me about it,” he said.

  Egon hesitated, expecting an argument and not ready for the reasonable, sympathetic tone Crowley used. While he pondered, Crowley stood again, walked to where Cropper stood and took a small towel from his saddlebags. He tossed it to Egon.

  “Dry off,” he said, “and tell me what happened here.”

  Egon mopped the water streaming down his face, then toweled his hair and beard. He hesitated over the rest of his sodden form. A small hand towel would be useless there. Shrugging, he tossed it back to Crowley.

  “Thanks,” he said.

  Crowley grinned. “Least I could do,” he replied. “After all, I was the one who threw you in the sea. How’s the gut feeling?”

  Tentatively, Egon touched his hand to his solar plexus. He seemed to have sobered up somewhat. Possibly being tossed into cold seawater had that effect. “Bruised,” he said, and added with a wry grin, “and empty.”

  “Sorry about the former. But the latter is probably just as well. Seemed like there was nothing in there but brandywine.”

  Egon had the grace to look ashamed. “True,” he said. “I’ve been drinking a bit too much of that lately.”

  “Would that have anything to do with your being dismissed from the Corps?” Crowley asked.

  Egon nodded, his expression darkening at the thought. “It would have everything to do with it,” he said bitterly.

  He paused, then, sensing that Crowley wanted him to carry on speaking, and that he might prove a sympathetic audience, he continued. “I’ve served the King as a Ranger for twenty-three years,” he said. “Never a blemish on my character. Never had to be disciplined for anything. I had four commendations for bravery in that time, and every fief I served in respected me and honored me when I left.” He stopped, not wanting to proceed.

  “And then?” Crowley prompted.

  “And then . . . this! Out of the blue, an accusation that I robbed a poor widow and beat her young son when he tried to protect her. No chance to defend the charges. No opportunity to say that nothing of the kind ever happened. No chance to appeal to the Ranger tribunal. Just a letter to the Baron telling him I was dismissed. My replacement was already appointed and I was to be cast onto the scrapheap. That’s what I get for more than twenty years’ loyal service. Thank you, your majesty! How wonderful it must be to be the King and to make such decisions!”

  “It wasn’t the King who dismissed you,” Crowley said.

  Egon turned an angry face toward him. “The letter was under his seal,” he said belligerently, but Crowley shrugged the statement aside.

  “The letter was written and sent by Baron Morgarath of Gorlan Fief,” he said. “He’s holding the King prisoner and has his son Duncan as a hostage. And you’re not alone. You’re one of the last twelve Rangers to be dismissed. If it makes you feel any better, I was sacked a few months ago too.” He gestured vaguely toward the woods behind them. “And there are two more former Rangers back in the woods here who have received the same treatment.”

  The anger faded from Egon’s face as Crowley continued to talk. It was replaced by a look of astonishment and shock. “But . . . why? What does Morgarath hope to gain from this?” he asked in a quiet voice.

  “My guess is the throne,” Crowley told him. “And his first step toward doing that is to dismantle the King’s most potent force of loyal supporters.” He paused, waiting to see if Egon would make the obvious step of logic.

  “The Rangers.”

  Crowley nodded. “Exactly. He’s broken the Rangers up, replacing real Rangers with sycophants and favorites of his own. It’s been going on for some time.”

  “Pritchard said something along those lines,” Egon murmured.

  Crowley sat up at the name. “Pritchard? You’ve been in touch with him?”

  Egon nodded. “We stay in touch. He’s in Derry Kingdom in Hibernia.” He paused as a memory struck him. “I remember you now. You’re Crowley. You were his apprentice.”

  “I graduated a year or two before he left Araluen. He was one of the first to go.”

  “Like me, he was falsely accused of a crime,” Egon said heavily.

  “I never believed those accusations,” Crowley said, anger evident in his voice. “But at that stage, I had no idea Morgarath was behind them. And Pritchard wasn’t the only one. Some of the former Rangers have left the country. Some have been killed.” He paused and looked pointedly at the older man. “Some of them started drinking.”

  Egon’s eyes dropped from his. “All right,” he said softly. “I suppose I deserved that. But what are you planning to do?”

  “We’re assembling a group of Rangers—twelve men like yourself who have just been dismissed—and we’re going to stop Morgarath.”

  “Just twelve of you?”

  “Twelve, if you’ll throw in with us. And twelve Rangers will make a force to be reckoned with.”

  Egon gazed thoughtfully at his feet for a few moments. “You’ll need more than just twelve of us,” he said.

  Crowley smiled at the word us. “We figure not all of the barons will be ready to side with Morgarath. A lot will, of course. But there are others who recognize him for what he is. We plan to approach some of them and get them on our side.”

  “Arald of Redmont Fief would be a good one to try,” Egon said. “I’ve heard there’s no love lost between him and Morgarath.”

  Crowley smiled. “So we’ve heard. We plan to visit him next,” he said. “Will you be coming along?”

  Egon didn’t hesitate. His head nodded slowly, several times. “If you’ll have me. I’m not so young anymore, you know.”

  “You can still shoot, can’t you?” Crowley asked.

  Egon allowed a grim smile to cross his lined features. “Just let me get a clear shot at Morgarath and you’ll see.”

  “I’ll see if I can arrange that,” said Crowley. “Although there might be a queue.” He stood and offered his hand to help Egon up. “There is one other thing . . .”

  The older Ranger looked at him, understanding what he was about to say and preempting him.

  “No more drinking?” Egon asked.

  “No more drinking. Now come and meet the others.”

  20

  THEY FOUND THE OTHER RANGERS CAMPED FIFTY METERS into the trees, in a small clearing. Egon was welcomed enthusiastically into the group. Nobody remarked on the fact that he was soaked to the skin, but Berrigan and Leander quietly found a spare shirt and trousers for him, and helped him set his wet clothes to dry by the fire, on a rack hastily constructed from thin branches.

  Halt had shot a small deer during the day, as they traveled to Seacliff. He set a haunch on a spit over the fire, turning it from time to time and letting the juices and fat dribble onto the fire, sending flames flaring as they hit the red-hot coals. The smell of grilling meat was heavenly to the hungry men. Egon, however, eyed the roasting joint with a raised eyebrow.

  “I thought only the King could take deer in the forest?” he said mildly.

  Halt eyed him, straight-faced, as he turned the joint a quarter turn, setting more of the juices dripping into the fire and releasing more of the succulent-smelling smoke. “He wanted us to have it,” he said. “He’s a kindhearted King and he couldn’t bear the thought of his loyal Rangers starving in the forest.”

  Leander had gathered some wild greens for a salad. He tore them into small pieces, then doused them with a mixture of oil and vinegar to produce a tart dressing. Berrigan had found a flat stone and was using it as a table to pound an
d knead a large lump of dough. He shaped it into a loaf and pushed it into the edge of the fire, raking a thick layer of hot coals over it.

  When the food was ready, they piled thick juicy slices of venison onto chunks of the camp-bread loaf, then garnished it with Leander’s salad. The rich taste of the venison contrasted pleasantly with the astringent taste of the salad and the warm bread was ideal for soaking up the delicious meat juices. All conversation halted for the duration of the meal and the silence round the campfire was broken only by the occasional grunt of satisfaction or pleasure.

  Afterward, they cleaned their plates and utensils and packed away the leftovers for a later meal. There was half of the loaf remaining and they would toast that over the coals of the fire next morning to break their fast. Finally, replete and satisfied, they sat in a semicircle around the fire, their backs resting against the logs of several fallen trees. Berrigan had produced his gitarra and was strumming soft chords at random on it. Halt and Crowley were drinking coffee—as usual—while Berrigan and Leander shared a small flask of wine. They offered a mug to Egon but he shook his head decisively.

  “Water will be fine,” he said. Unnoticed by the others, Crowley eyed the exchange with a small nod of approval.

  There was a pleasant lethargy settling over them, the result of a combination of a day’s riding in the fresh air, a good meal under their belts and the warmth of the fire on their faces, contrasting with the crisp night air. Soon, it would be time to turn in and one of them would be assigned the duty of keeping watch for the next three hours. But for now, they could all relax and let their minds wander at will. So when Halt spoke up, there was a low murmur of protest from the others.

  “We need to discuss something,” he said.

  Leander groaned softly. He was stretched out comfortably, his head resting against a log, his cloak warm underneath him and his chin resting on his chest. His legs ached dully from the day’s exertions—not an unpleasant or painful sensation, but the enjoyable feeling that comes when one can finally relax after a hard day and let the muscles stretch out and loosen.

  “Let’s do it tomorrow,” Berrigan suggested, stroking one more chord from his gitarra.

  “Now,” Halt said firmly. The others eyed him with mild irritation.

  “I hate talking on an empty stomach,” Crowley said.

  Halt turned his steady gaze on him. “Your stomach isn’t empty,” he pointed out. “Your stomach is full of venison and bread and salad and coffee.”

  Crowley considered that point and yawned hugely. “That’s even worse,” he said. “I hate talking on a full stomach even more than an empty one.” He smiled, hoping that he might have dissuaded Halt from whatever it was he wanted to discuss. Halt continued to eye him steadily, however.

  Crowley sniffed with annoyance, pulling himself up to sit straighter. “Oh, all right,” he said. “Let’s talk if we must.”

  Egon glanced around at the faces of his new companions. As a new member of the group, he didn’t think he should voice an opinion for or against Halt’s suggestion. Time to do that would be when he heard what the dark-bearded Hibernian wanted to discuss. Berrigan and Leander, with great outward shows of reluctance, hitched themselves up into more attentive poses, their eyes on Halt.

  Crowley made an encouraging gesture with his hand, indicating that Halt should proceed. “So,” he said, “talk away.”

  Halt leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and let his gaze travel round the small semicircle of faces. When he was sure he had their attention, and that all protests and jokes were stilled, he spoke.

  “There are five of us now . . . ,” he began. He got no further.

  “Well,” said Crowley, “I’m glad that’s settled. I was wondering, seeing how I have trouble counting past three. But if you say there are five of us now, that’s good enough for me.” He settled back down to slump against the log, pulling his cowl forward to shield his eyes.

  Halt regarded him with enormous patience. The silence stretched out between them.

  Finally, Crowley roused himself, grinning at his friend. “Oh, did you want to say more?” he asked innocently.

  Berrigan and Leander hid grins. Egon, still not sure of the prevailing dynamic in this little group, watched without expression, but with great attention.

  Halt sighed. Sometimes talking to Crowley was like trying to herd smoke, he thought. Retaining his patience with great difficulty, he resumed. “Now there are five of us,” he repeated, and turned a warning glare on Crowley, daring him to interrupt. Crowley smiled guilelessly at him and he continued. “We’ve become a bit of an unwieldy group.”

  Berrigan frowned. “‘Unwieldy’? How do you mean?”

  Halt made a vague gesture with his hands. “We’re without cohesive direction,” he said. “By which I mean, nobody is directing our actions. We’re bumbling along from day to day—”

  “Can’t say I’ve noticed a lot of bumbling,” Crowley protested.

  Halt shot a warning look at him but he could see that, for once, the redhead was serious and not trying to make a joke.

  “Maybe not yet,” Halt agreed. “But with five of us, we’re bound sooner or later to disagree over a course of action. That could lead to squabbling and people taking sides. And if that happens, it could well break up the group.”

  “You’re saying we need a leader,” Egon put in, deciding it was time he took part in the conversation.

  Halt nodded at him gratefully. “Exactly. We need to elect a leader—and give him the power to make decisions and the authority to have those decisions obeyed and carried through. Otherwise we’re like a band of headless chickens.”

  “But dangerous chickens nonetheless,” Leander said with a faint smile. Then, as Halt turned toward him with an irritable look on his face, he held up his hands in a defensive gesture. “All right! Point taken, and I do agree. We need to elect a leader.”

  He glanced keenly at the Hibernian. In his experience, when a person suggested that someone needed to be elected leader, they often had themselves in mind for the position.

  “Are you offering to take on the job?” he asked and was relieved to see the shocked look on the bearded face.

  “Me? By the ghost of Barry Boru, no! After all, I’m not even officially a Ranger yet!”

  “Barry Boru,” mused Crowley with a smile. “He sounds like an interesting person.”

  Halt’s next words wiped the smile from his face.

  “I’m suggesting Crowley for the job,” Halt said.

  Crowley sat bolt upright. “Me? Are you joking?”

  “You. And no, I’m not,” Halt told him. “You’ve been the driving force behind this whole affair. It was your idea in the first place and you’re the one who’s recruited the rest of us. Who better to lead us?”

  “But . . .” Crowley searched for a good reason to refuse and thought he found one. “I’m younger than the rest of you—with the exception of you, of course,” he added, looking at Halt.

  Leander was shaking his head. “That’s not altogether a bad thing,” he said. “You’ve got a younger man’s passion and drive for this task. You’ve shown us that.”

  “And you’ve got a younger man’s energy to take the job on,” Berrigan said, his face serious. “It’s not going to be easy. I know I’d find it a daunting task.”

  “Shall we vote on it?” Halt suggested mildly.

  “No! We need to discuss it further!” Crowley answered immediately.

  Halt turned a wicked smile on him. “I thought you hated talking on a full stomach.”

  Crowley made an angry, dismissive gesture. “This isn’t a matter for joking!” he insisted.

  But then Egon coughed apologetically and they all turned to look at him. “I’m new to the group,” he said quietly, choosing his words with care, “and I don’t know any of you too well.” He nodded toward Berrigan a
nd Leander. “Oh, we’ve run into each other at Gatherings, of course, but I can’t say we’re close friends.”

  The two Rangers nodded. Berrigan smiled. “Not yet, anyway,” he murmured.

  Egon continued, acknowledging the comment with a small nod. “The thing is, Crowley, it seems to me you’re ideally suited to be our leader.”

  Crowley was still sitting bolt upright. A small frown crossed his face. “Oh? And why would that be?”

  Egon glanced around at the other three before he spoke. He wasn’t altogether keen to tell them about the condition he had been in when Crowley had found him. They had been welcoming and positive in their approach to him and he didn’t wish them to think any less of him. However, he felt he had to continue.

  “I was a bit of a mess when Crowley found me this afternoon,” he admitted. “I was looking for my future in the bottom of a tankard of brandywine. I’d been doing that for some time now,” he added sadly.

  He stopped for a second or two while he gathered his thoughts, glancing nervously at the others. He saw no sign of condemnation or criticism in their eyes. Just interest. He shrugged. They were men who had seen a lot of life, he thought. They weren’t likely to be horrified by an admission like the one he’d just made.

  “I was angry. I was disillusioned. I had lost all faith in the King. Crowley tossed my jug of brandy away and I lost my temper rather badly. I drew my saxe on him.”

  Halt winced. “Oh dear,” he said softly. He thought he knew what was coming. He had seen Crowley in action and he knew the redhead’s reflexes were as quick as a snake’s.

  Egon glanced at him and nodded. “Oh dear indeed,” he said. “After Crowley had taken away my saxe, and after he threw me into the sea off the end of the punt . . .”

  His audience exchanged a glance. That explained why Egon had arrived at the camp dripping wet.

  Egon went on. “After that, he sat me down and talked to me for a few minutes. That’s all it took. A few minutes.” He looked at Crowley, who gave a diffident shrug. “And in those few minutes, he explained to me what you were planning and convinced me that I should join you. He was able to put your case very succinctly and in a most convincing way. Perhaps the most compelling part of it was his total belief in what you’re doing. That came across unmistakably.”

 
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