The tournament at gorlan, p.15
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.15

           John Flanagan
 
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  “Then, presumably, it’s a good thing that he’s moved on.” Morgarath’s tone was silky and sarcastic. “Presumably, things are no longer unsettled, as you put it.”

  “No, my lord. I mean, yes, my lord. That’s correct.”

  “Then why did you see fit to interrupt my important research”—he flicked a finger at the huge book he had pushed aside—“to bring me such totally unimportant news? Leander was causing a problem. Now he’s gone. Why did I need to be apprised of this breathtakingly unimportant fact?”

  Teezal could feel a trickle of sweat running down the back of his neck. Morgarath was smiling coldly at him. But the smile didn’t reach his eyes.

  “It was more . . . the manner of his going, my lord,” he finally managed to say.

  “Oh? Did a dragon swoop down from the clouds and bear him away?” said Morgarath, the sarcasm heavy in his voice.

  Teezal, trapped by those eyes, shook his head. “No, my lord . . .”

  “A griffin then? A griffin swooped down and took him.”

  “No, lord. It was the former Ranger Crowley.”

  As he said it, Teezal realized the absurdity of his statement. He had made it sound as if the former Ranger had swooped from the heavens and borne Leander away. He waited for a sneering retort from Morgarath. But now the Baron’s face had darkened with rage.

  “Crowley? That redheaded interfering fool from Hogarth Fief?”

  Teezal nodded several times. “Aye, my lord. That’s the one. Crowley.”

  “And do I take it that the arrogant Hibernian Halt was with him?”

  Teezal hesitated. “He did have a companion, my lord. But whether it was the Hibernian or not, I couldn’t say.” It was better to profess ignorance than to offer Morgarath information that might prove false, he knew.

  Morgarath grunted. “I’ll wager it was. So Leander went off with them, did he?”

  “Aye, my lord. And there’s rumor that he’s not the only one to join them. Word is that the Rangers Berrigan and Egon are also—”

  “They’re not Rangers. I dismissed them. They’re renegades,” Morgarath snapped.

  “Of course, my lord. But as I say, it’s rumored that they’ve joined together.”

  “To what purpose?”

  Teezal hesitated, then shrugged unhappily. “I don’t know, my lord. I’ve had no information about what they intend to do.”

  “Hmmmph.” Morgarath stared at the window as he drummed his fingers on the table. So Crowley and several other Rangers had banded together, he thought. He wondered what they might have in mind. “Chances are, they’ll simply become outlaws. I’ve always thought that the Rangers were not much better than outlaws anyway. In any event, there’s not much they can do to bother me, is there?”

  “No, my lord.”

  “No. Four or five of them won’t pose any threat to my plans. We’ll have to deal with them at some time, I imagine. But for the moment, I have more important matters to deal with than a few disgruntled renegades hiding in the forest and shooting deer. I’ll deal with them when I’ve taken the throne.”

  “Yes, lord. I simply thought you should know,” Teezal said, suddenly nervous that he might have disturbed Morgarath for no good reason.

  But the black-clad Baron nodded absently as he pulled the massive book back to the center of the desk. “No, no. You did well to tell me,” he said.

  Teezal heaved a mental sigh of relief. After all, as he had thought before, with Morgarath, you never knew. He glanced down at the book in front of Morgarath and let out an involuntary exclamation of horror.

  “By the gods! What’s that?” He pointed at the illustration of the grotesque beast.

  Morgarath smiled. “It’s called a Wargal,” he said, looking down at the illustration himself. “Some people say they’re mythical beasts. Have you ever heard of them?”

  Teezal shook his head, his eyes riveted on the fearsome illustration. “Can’t say I have, my lord.”

  “And yet this book says they existed in times past. They’re simple-minded, semihuman creatures, strong as a bear and as vicious as a wildcat. They make fearsome soldiers, as they’re afraid of nothing. They will keep attacking as long as their commander orders them to do so. They kill without remorse.” He allowed himself an indulgent smile. “Rather like yourself, Teezal.”

  “How do you command them?” Teezal asked.

  Morgarath turned back a page and consulted the text. “It says they communicate without spoken words. Their minds contact each other. And they can be controlled and commanded by a mind stronger than their own.”

  Teezal frowned. “How would a person manage that?”

  Morgarath smiled sarcastically. “A person like you wouldn’t. But someone with a powerful, dominant mind”—he paused, then continued—“such as me, for example, can make contact and bend them to his wishes. It says here”—he tapped the text with one forefinger—“that King Prescott the Conqueror enslaved them to his will some three hundred years ago. They provided him with an unbeatable army and victory after victory—until he lost control of them.”

  “How did that happen?” Teezal said, fascinated.

  “He became a drunkard, and the alcohol weakened his brain, making his mental signals uncertain and disjointed. The Wargal army rebelled, killing their human commanders, and deserted. It’s said they disappeared into the Mountains of Rain and Night, and became lost in the wilderness up there.”

  Teezal nodded gravely. “I’ve heard tales about some terrible beasts in those mountains.”

  “And perhaps they were based in truth. Once we have the current problem settled, I might take the time to seek them out and bend them to my will. It’d be handy to have an inexorable force of killers who know no fear.”

  Teezal swallowed. The idea of the bestial creatures running amok and killing indiscriminately was a worrying one. Morgarath saw the concern in his eyes.

  “Never fear, Teezal. I’ll make sure they never attack you.”

  Teezal lowered his head in a small bow. “Thank you, my lord,” he said in a low voice.

  Morgarath looked at him for a second or two, then made a dismissing gesture. “Now go away and leave me to my studies,” he said.

  23

  THESE DAYS, THE RANGERS HAD TO SEARCH FOR A LARGER campsite when they stopped for the night.

  Halt and Crowley continued to share the lean-to tarpaulin they had been using since they began their journey. The others each had a small one-man Ranger tent, which they pitched in a semicircle facing the fireplace each night.

  Their horses, being Ranger trained, didn’t need restraining at night but were left to wander free and graze in the vicinity of the campsite. But the extra numbers meant that they needed to be more organized than they’d been before, so Crowley assigned camp tasks to each of them.

  He and Halt volunteered to continue with the preparation of meals. And, since they were good cooks, the others agreed readily. The more menial tasks of gathering firewood, building a fireplace and fetching water were all assigned on a rotating roster to the others, as was the cleaning of pots and pans used for cooking. Each Ranger cleaned his own plate and eating utensils and all of them contributed to the pot by hunting.

  The weather continued fine, although the nights were chilly. But camping outdoors was no hardship to such seasoned travelers and, in the evenings, after they had eaten, Berrigan would usually sit and coax pleasant melodies from his gitarra.

  Norris, it turned out, was an expert fisherman and he loved to spend the last hour of daylight sitting beside a stream, with a long, limber fishing pole extended over the water. He had an uncanny knack of sensing where fish might lie and often supplemented their larder with fresh river trout or the occasional succulent salmon. When such opportunities arose, he was excused from the daily chores of setting up camp. The prospect of fresh fish for dinner more than compen
sated for the extra work the others had to undertake.

  All in all, Halt thought, if it weren’t for the deadly serious reason underlying their journey, it would have been a very pleasant interlude.

  On this particular evening, Norris had managed to land a three-kilogram salmon for their supper. Halt and Crowley had wrapped the cleaned fish, liberally covered in butter and slices of wild-growing onion and lemon, in bark and large leaves so that it was completely sealed, then created an earth oven by shoveling red-hot coals from the fire into a small trench they dug next to the fireplace proper. They laid the wrapped fish into the trench, then covered it with more coals. Finally, they heaped earth over the layer of coals and left the fish to steam and roast inside the leaves while they sliced potatoes and fried them in butter in a cast-iron pan, with mushrooms and wilted wild greens to go with them.

  The group sat round the fire when the meal was served, eating steadfastly, without too much conversation to slow down the eating process. Finally, Berrigan leaned back after his third helping, licked his buttery fingers and sighed contentedly.

  “It’s a pleasure to have you aboard,” he said to Norris, who frowned, not understanding.

  “Aboard?” he said. “Aboard what? We’re not on a ship.”

  As has been stated, Norris tended to take things literally.

  Berrigan simply smiled at him. “I mean it’s a pleasure to have you around, if you can produce fish like that one.”

  “Oh. Thank you,” said Norris. He smiled awkwardly. He wasn’t a man who was used to compliments. Berrigan cleaned his greasy fingers on a convenient piece of cloth, realized too late that it was the hem of his cloak and shrugged. A few stains and smears on one’s clothes never hurt anyone. In fact, he thought, as he looked down his nose at the irregular, greasy stain, it might well add to the camouflage qualities of his cloak. He glanced across the fire to where Leander was absentmindedly wiping his hands on the front of his shirt. Beside him, Crowley belched gently.

  “We’re a refined lot, aren’t we?” Halt said. “We’d be a big hit at a formal dinner at Castle Araluen.”

  Crowley shrugged. “We’re not at a formal dinner party. We’re in camp. Camp manners and castle manners are two different things.”

  “So I’ve noticed,” Halt said, then he belched as well. Raised in Castle Dun Kilty in Clonmel, he had been taught to behave with strict table manners and politeness in his youth and he was enjoying the freedom of being on the road with such an easygoing group. The belch was a long and resounding one and he smiled in satisfaction.

  “Better out than in,” he said.

  Egon gave him a sidelong glance. “Not for those of us who are out here with it.”

  Halt considered that and nodded. He couldn’t argue with it.

  The beauty of cooking the salmon the way they had done was that there was no pot to clean afterward. The cast-iron pan in which they had cooked the potatoes needed cleaning and scouring, however. So Egon checked the water bucket and saw it was only a quarter full.

  “I’ll get water,” he said, and moved off into the shadows, soon being lost among the trees. Even on such a mundane task as fetching water, Rangers tended to be as unobtrusive as possible, instinctively moving from one patch of shade or cover to the next. It was a lifelong skill that they practiced constantly, and unthinkingly. On more than one occasion, a Ranger’s life had been saved by the practice.

  “We should reach Redmont tomorrow,” Crowley said. “I’ll be interested to see how Baron Arald greets us.” They were currently in Eagleton Fief and had spent the past two days inquiring about one of the dismissed Rangers—a man named Samdash. But they had had no success. People in the villages they had passed through had given them no word of the Ranger’s present whereabouts. Crowley’s inquiries were met with blank looks and stony silence. Finally, they had decided to abandon the search for Samdash and proceed to the adjoining Redmont Fief.

  “Who’s the Ranger at Redmont again?” Halt asked. He had been told, but he was full of delicious food and a little drowsy so the effort of searching his memory for the man’s name seemed too much.

  “Farrel,” Crowley told him.

  Berrigan looked up at the name. “He’s a good man.”

  Leander nodded agreement. “One of the best. He’ll be a great addition to the group. He’s fought in more than one battle on the northern frontier when he was assigned to Norgate Fief. I hear he uses a battleax in close combat. Frightened the lights out of more than one Scotti warrior, I believe.”

  “Is that allowed?” Halt asked. “I didn’t think Rangers were encouraged to use heavy, close-range weapons like axes and swords.”

  “Technically we’re not. But who’s going to tell a man with a battleax?” Berrigan said, his eyes half closed as he leaned back and enjoyed the heat radiating from the fire.

  Crowley yawned hugely. “We should start thinking of turning in,” he said, trying to remember whose turn it was for the first watch. The prospect of his bedroll was a very pleasant one. He looked up curiously as Cropper emerged from the trees and emitted a low-level grunting noise. “What is it, boy?”

  Then understanding dawned and he started to his feet, his hand reaching for the saxe knife, where it lay in its scabbard on the fallen tree trunk he had been using for a backrest.

  Before he could draw the weapon, however, an arrow hissed across the clearing and slammed, quivering, into the log, a few centimeters from his hand.

  “Don’t anybody move,” a harsh voice said out of the darkness. “There are four of us and we all have arrows ready nocked.”

  Four indistinct figures moved out of the shadows under the trees. Crowley, his night vision ruined by staring into the glowing coals of the fire, squinted to see them more clearly. As they came into the circle of light thrown by the fire, he could see they were all dressed in Ranger cloaks and carried massive longbows.

  As the speaker had said, each one of them had an arrow nocked on the string, drawn back about thirty centimeters. There was an air of competence and quiet confidence about them that told him they could draw fully and shoot in less than a second if necessary.

  Slowly, Crowley moved his hand away from the saxe.

  “Take it easy,” he said, his voice calm and untroubled. “We’re not your enemies.”

  “We’ll decide that,” said the speaker. His face was hidden in the shadow of his cowl, with only the lower third visible. Crowley, Halt and the others were caught at a disadvantage, lying relaxing against the trunk of the tree.

  Halt studied the four figures. He rolled slightly to one side and used his fingertips to slide his throwing knife out of its scabbard, keeping it concealed beneath his body.

  As he moved, the second figure from the right turned to cover him, the partly drawn arrow shaft pointing in his direction.

  “Don’t do anything stupid,” the man warned him. His voice sounded younger than that of the original speaker but his features too were concealed in the shadow of his cowl.

  Halt held his hands up in submission. “Wouldn’t dream of it,” he said mildly.

  “Who are you?” Crowley asked.

  The original speaker turned to face him directly, although his face was still hidden by the cowl. “That’s funny,” he said. “I seem to be the one with the bow. So I would have thought I’d be the one asking the questions.” He paused a few seconds, letting that sink in, then continued in a harder tone. “Who are you?”

  “My name is Crowley. I’m a former Ranger, as I’m guessing you are. And these are my companions, Halt, Berrigan—”

  He got no further. The cowled man interrupted roughly. “Actually, I don’t really care who you are. I want to know why you’ve been asking about me.”

  A look of understanding came over Crowley’s face. “You’re Samdash?”

  The other man made a peremptory gesture with the point of his arrow.
You’re fond of answering a question with one of your own, aren’t you?” he said. “Yes. I’m Samdash. Now why have you been asking about me? Did Morgarath send you to hunt us down?”

  “Morgarath?” Crowley said with a hollow laugh. “Far from it! I’m no friend of his. None of us are.”

  “So you say. Nevertheless—”

  “Put your weapons down . . . now!” Egon’s voice came from the darkness behind the four men. Samdash tensed and began to turn around, but Egon spoke again.

  “No. Don’t turn around or I’ll shoot,” he said calmly.

  Samdash stopped the movement and cursed under his breath. He hadn’t been told how many men were in the group who were asking about him. The villagers who had told him had been hazy on that point—five or six, they’d said. Obviously, he realized now, it had been six. But he didn’t let his sense of frustration show as he spoke again.

  “You do realize there are four of us and only one of you?” he said. “We could easily—”

  He flinched violently as two arrows slammed in quick succession into a tree stump by his knee.

  “You couldn’t easily do anything,” Egon said. “But I could easily take down two of you before you could turn—as you just saw.”

  In spite of himself, Samdash looked down at the two shafts quivering in the stump. That had been extremely fast shooting. Ranger-trained shooting, he thought.

  “In addition, I’m behind you and in the dark, whereas you’re outlined against the fire, where I can see you. Before your other two men could locate me, I’d have plenty of time to hit them as well.” He paused, then added, “Of course, that won’t be of much interest to you, because you’ll be the first one to die.”

  Samdash ground his teeth together in frustration and anger. He had been careless, he realized. They had spent the afternoon searching for the small group who were asking after him, finally locating them by the glint of their fire through the trees. Then, instead of waiting and watching to ascertain how many of them there were, he had led his men forward impulsively. And now they had been outflanked. Taking a deep breath, he glanced sideways at his three companions.

 
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