The tournament at gorlan, p.17
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.17

           John Flanagan
 
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  Crowley cleared his throat, then said deliberately, “We didn’t come from Morgarath.” He hesitated, looking to Halt, not sure whether he should reveal their hand. The Hibernian nodded and Crowley continued. “In fact, we think he means to usurp the throne. We plan to accuse him of doing that at the annual tournament at Gorlan.”

  Arald had been leaning forward to talk to them. Now he sat back in surprise, studying the two faces before him. He saw a grim resolve in each and he inclined his head thoughtfully. “I was going to bring the charges against Farrel before the Council of Barons at the tournament to have them dropped. Sounds like you’re preparing to do a whole lot more. Who’s we and how do you plan to do it?”

  “We are a group of former Rangers—all of us dismissed by Morgarath, who claimed to act on the King’s behalf. We plan to enlist the aid of Prince Duncan and get him to issue us with a royal warrant in lieu of the King.”

  Arald made a dismissive gesture. “Duncan won’t be any use,” he said bitterly. “Last I heard, he was stirring up trouble on the northern border and doing his best to break our treaty with the Scotti.”

  “That’s not Duncan,” Halt said. “That’s an impostor working under Morgarath’s orders. We’ve seen him. The real Duncan is being held prisoner in Castle Wildriver. We believe that’s how Morgarath is keeping the King under control.”

  Arald let out a low whistle of surprise. “Is he now?” he said. “How do you know all this?”

  Halt and Crowley exchanged a glance, then Halt answered. “We intercepted a messenger from Morgarath to the master of Castle Wildriver. He was carrying dispatches that detailed how Duncan was to be held prisoner until after the tournament. They also mentioned the fake Duncan and how he’s working to discredit the prince.”

  Arald studied the two young men with a new level of regard. “You two have been doing your homework, haven’t you? Do you still have those messages?”

  Crestfallen, Crowley shook his head. “We resealed them and left them with the messenger. He was unconscious and never knew we had read them. We thought it best if Morgarath didn’t know they’d been intercepted.”

  Arald absentmindedly popped another sweet into his mouth and chewed for a few seconds, thinking.

  “Hmmm. Yes. You were probably right to do that. No sense in forewarning him. Pity, however. They would have been concrete proof of his scheming.”

  He reached for a small silver bell on the desk and pealed it several times. Almost immediately, the door opened and his secretary’s face appeared around it.

  “Yes, my lord?”

  “Martin, ask Mistress DuLacy to join us here, would you? And send someone to fetch Farrel as well.”

  “Yes, my lord.” Martin disappeared around the door’s edge.

  Halt was vaguely reminded of a jack in the box. Then he remembered something. He leaned toward Crowley and whispered, “Samdash.”

  Crowley raised a finger, acknowledging the reminder. “My lord,” he said to Arald, “one of our men is watching the castle. If we don’t signal that all is well, it’ll trigger a rescue attempt from the rest of our men. We said we’d wave a red flag from the battlements near the gate.”

  “I’ll attend to it,” Arald said. At that moment there was a knock and Martin reappeared.

  “Mistress DuLacy and the Ranger are both on their way, my lord,” he said.

  Arald nodded and, as Martin was about to disappear round the door again, he held up a hand to stop him. “Martin, go out onto the battlements over the drawbridge and wave something red, would you?”

  Martin frowned. “Something red, my lord?”

  Arald waved impatiently. “Yes. Yes. A flag. Or a tablecloth. Or your underpants. Anything so long as it’s red. Otherwise we’ll have a gang of Rangers breaking in on us.”

  Martin’s expression made it clear that he had no idea what Arald was talking about. It was also clear that this wasn’t unusual. “As you say, my lord.”

  Arald turned back to Crowley and Halt with a smile that seemed to say he enjoyed confusing his secretary. Then he went back to business.

  “So what exactly did you have in mind?” he asked.

  “We plan to rescue Duncan from Castle Wildriver,” Crowley said, “and have him confront Morgarath at the tournament. We also think it would be a good idea to kidnap the impostor—the false Duncan—and have him confess.”

  Arald’s eyebrows went up. “Ambitious,” he said. “And exactly how many of you are there?”

  “There will be twelve,” Crowley told him. “All of us Rangers who have been unfairly dismissed.”

  “You plan to confront Morgarath and accuse him, with just twelve men?”

  “Twelve Rangers,” Halt corrected him.

  Arald turned to eye the dour Hibernian for a few seconds. “Point taken,” he said. “Still, twelve men, even if they are Rangers . . .” He let the sentence hang in the air, but Crowley was quick to reply.

  “We had hoped to have your support, my lord. We’d heard you weren’t fond of Morgarath.”

  Arald smiled, but it was a grim smile, and not at all humorous. “Not fond of him hardly sums it up. I believe he’s a liar and a traitor. And I think you’re right. He’s trying to take over the throne. Unfortunately, a significant number of the barons admire him and look up to him.”

  “We’d heard that you also command a lot of respect among the barons, my lord,” Crowley interjected.

  Arald reacted with a diffident shrug. “Possibly,” he said. “And if I could bring Morgarath before the Council of Barons with proof of what he’s been doing—”

  At that moment, there was a light tap on the door and he didn’t finish the sentence. He glanced across at the door. “Come in,” he called.

  The door opened and Halt’s heart turned over as he found himself looking at the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was tall and slender and graceful. He estimated that she would stand half a head taller than he. She wore a simple and elegant white gown, with the silver laurel branch brooch of her Diplomatic Service insignia on the right shoulder. Her hair was long and ash blond, falling below her shoulders, and her face was exquisite. Her eyes were blue and had a half-amused look to them, as if she watched the world about her and enjoyed what she saw. She looked now at the two strangers sitting with the Baron.

  Halt rose to his feet instantly, knocking his chair over backward, sending it clattering on the bare floorboards of the office. Hastily, he bent to retrieve it and his cowl fell forward over his eyes, so that he was groping blindly for the chair. Finally, he composed himself, shoved the cowl back and righted his chair. Crowley had also risen to his feet, but not in the same precipitate rush as Halt. Halt faced the new arrival, who viewed him with an amused look. She held out her hand.

  “I’m Pauline DuLacy,” she said. He seized her hand, realized he had done so with excessive zeal and released her. He essayed a half bow but only managed to look as if he were studying her feet.

  “Halt,” he finally managed to croak.

  She inclined her head gracefully. “Halt?” she said. “But I wasn’t doing anything. Why should I halt?”

  Halt opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again and searched for words.

  Fortunately, Crowley found them for him.

  “Halt is his name, Mistress DuLacy,” he said.

  Pauline DuLacy raised an eyebrow in poor Halt’s direction. “Indeed?” she said.

  “He’s Hibernian,” Crowley said, as if that explained everything.

  “Ah,” said Pauline DuLacy, as if it did.

  Crowley reached out a hand for hers and, when she took it, he bowed over her hand, touching it lightly to his lips. “And my name is Crowley, Mistress. Delighted to make your acquaintance.”

  “How very gallant, Master Crowley,” she said. She glanced back at Halt, who was still watching her, red-faced and with his mo
uth slightly open, cursing himself for a clumsy, stumbling social dolt.

  “Crowley is a former Ranger,” Arald explained. “Another one of those dismissed by Morgarath.”

  Pauline turned back to Crowley with a look of understanding. Then she glanced at Halt once more. “And Master Halt—are you a Ranger as well?”

  Again, Halt sought for words, and again, Crowley rescued him—although Halt wished, with a stab of jealousy at Crowley’s ease, that he hadn’t.

  “Halt is as good as a Ranger, my lady. He was trained by Pritchard.”

  “Was he now?” Arald interrupted. He looked at Halt with a new level of respect.

  So did the beautiful Mistress DuLacy, Halt noted, and felt his tongue well and truly tied in a knot once more.

  “Pauline is a senior Courier,” Arald explained, although her clothes made the explanation unnecessary. “She’s the head of the Diplomatic Service here in Redmont.” He allowed that to sink in, then said, “Pauline, these Rangers think Morgarath is planning to take over the throne.”

  The woman looked at him, then at the two cloaked figures before him. “I couldn’t agree more, my lord,” she said.

  “And they want to stop him,” Arald continued.

  Pauline now smiled at them with a new warmth. Halt’s heart lurched.

  “I think that’s an excellent idea,” she said.

  26

  “TELL US WHAT YOU FOUND AT CASTLE GORLAN, PAULINE,” Arald said. Then, turning to the Rangers in explanation, he added, “Pauline went undercover to the castle a week ago, disguised as a traveling noblewoman.”

  “A rather ditzy one, it must be said,” she added, smiling. “I find men tend to feel no threat from a twittering blonde—and because they’re not on their guard, you can learn a lot from them.”

  Both Halt and Crowley regarded her with new admiration. It would take a lot of courage to penetrate Morgarath’s lair in disguise. Pauline and the Baron seemed to think there was nothing special about it.

  “It was obvious that someone important was being kept prisoner in the castle—in the top floor of the eastern tower. I didn’t see who it was, but I saw food being taken in, and servants came and went. And the tower is heavily guarded. I’d say that indicates a high-ranking prisoner. But a prisoner, nonetheless. I assume it’s the King but I have no definite proof.”

  “Of course, Morgarath maintains that he’s protecting the King after that failed assassination attempt,” Crowley said. “That would explain the high level of security.”

  Pauline nodded. “That’s true. It’s a clever ploy. And I believe Duncan was the one behind the attempt on the King’s life.”

  Halt shook his head. “No!” he said abruptly and, as Pauline turned her dazzling smile on him, he found he was once more lost for words. “I, er . . . I mean . . . well, that is . . . ,” he stumbled. Once more, Crowley came to the rescue, and once more, Halt glared at him.

  “We’ve discovered that Prince Duncan is also being held prisoner by Morgarath,” Crowley said.

  Pauline’s eyebrows registered her surprise. “At Gorlan? I saw no sign of him.”

  But Crowley shook his head. “At Castle Wildriver. There’s an impostor moving through the north, leading raids across the border, throwing his weight around in border villages and generally destroying Duncan’s reputation.”

  “Halt and Crowley plan to rescue Duncan, capture the impostor and confront Morgarath with them both at the tournament,” Arald explained.

  Pauline inclined her head slightly to study the two cloaked men. “That’s taking on quite a lot.”

  Halt went to speak, found he couldn’t and cleared his throat instead.

  Crowley glanced at him with amused surprise, then replied. “We have help, mistress. There will be twelve of us, I hope, all former Rangers. And we’re hoping for support from those barons who are loyal to the King and who are willing to side with Baron Arald.”

  “With so many of the barons present at the tournament, along with their retainers and knights, Morgarath will hardly be ready to use force,” the Baron said. “Of course, he’ll have all his knights and men-at-arms present—it’s his home ground, after all. But I doubt he’ll be confident enough to try to do anything by force of arms. He’ll have no confirmed idea yet as to how many of the others will stand by him—particularly if Duncan appears unexpectedly on the scene.”

  Pauline nodded and steepled her fingers together, thinking over what Arald had said. “Yes. I agree. He’ll avoid direct confrontation as long as he can. It’s not his style. He prefers subterfuge and deception wherever possible.”

  “What I need you to do, Pauline, is find out how many of the barons will be prepared to take our side,” Arald said. “Send out your agents. Use your contacts. Get on the road yourself. I hope that the majority of the barons will be loyal to the King and to Duncan, but I want an idea of who won’t be.”

  “It’s a lot to do in the time we have left,” Pauline said.

  The Baron nodded. “I understand. Do what you can. Any information you can get will be valuable.”

  “Invaluable,” Crowley amended, and she smiled at him. Once again, Halt felt a surge of anger at his friend.

  There was a tap at the door and Arald looked toward it. “Come in,” he said.

  The door opened to admit a broad-shouldered man in a Ranger cloak. He carried a bow and there was a quiver slung around his back. On his belt, a heavy battleax was thrust through an iron ring, opposite the double scabbard that all Rangers wore. He wasn’t the typical Ranger, Halt thought. He was taller and more heavily built than most. Perhaps that explained his predilection for the battleax.

  Arald smiled a welcome. “Ah, Farrel. Come on in. Here are two of your confreres.” He indicated Halt and Crowley and the newcomer eyed them critically.

  Crowley held out his hand in greeting. “Crowley,” he said.

  Farrel took his hand, nodding recognition. “I remember you,” he said. Then he jerked his head toward Halt. “Don’t know him.”

  “He’s Halt, and he’s from Hibernia. Old Pritchard trained him in Ranger skills. He’s not officially a Ranger yet, but he’s already annoyed Morgarath considerably.”

  Farrel’s face registered interest at that. “Is that so? What did he do?”

  “Well, for a start, he fought off half a dozen of Morgarath’s men who were attacking me,” Crowley said.

  Farrel nodded approval. “That’s a good start.”

  Halt shrugged. “That was after Morgarath had the hide to offer me a job,” he said.

  “What did you say to that?” Arald put in.

  Halt turned to him to answer. “I told him where he could put it,” he said, then instantly flushed as he remembered Pauline was in the room. He turned to her. “My pardon, Mistress DuLacy. I didn’t—”

  She waved his apology aside. She was already laughing. “I imagine that angered him more than beating up his soldiers,” she said.

  Halt nodded. “I think you’re right.”

  Farrel had been regarding the newcomers and his eyes narrowed in thought. “Are you the two who are going round recruiting Rangers who’ve been dismissed?”

  Crowley nodded. “That’s right. There are ten of us now. Eleven if you’ll join us.”

  “Count on it,” Farrel said. He glanced at Arald for confirmation and the Baron nodded.

  “And twelve once we speak to Truscott, from Eisel Fief,” Halt added.

  But Farrel shook his head. “Truscott is dead,” he said sadly. “He resisted the attempt to have him discredited and dismissed. He was found murdered in his bed.”

  Crowley’s shoulders slumped in disappointment. “A pity,” he said. “He was a good man.”

  “He was a very good man,” Farrel agreed.

  Then Crowley squared his shoulders once more. “Still, eleven Rangers is a good start.”


  Farrel nodded. “Or, in Morgarath’s case, we might be a good finish.”

  27

  AT ARALD’S INVITATION, THEY FETCHED THE OTHER MEMBERS of their party and dined in the castle that night. The Baron’s chef was a smooth-faced young man named Chubb.

  “He’s an artist in the kitchen,” the Baron averred, patting his own belly. “Gives me a lot of trouble keeping the weight down.”

  It was apparent that Chubb had the same problem. Obviously, he spent a lot of time sampling his own wares. The other Rangers all chorused their approval of the magnificent feast he set out before them. The central piece was a splendid turkey pie, with golden-brown, glazed pastry concealing a savory mix of turkey mince, spices and vegetables.

  The Baron’s wife, a beautiful red-haired woman introduced as Lady Sandra—“Never mind the lady, just call me Sandra,” she said—joined them for the meal. She was a charming and gracious host and the Rangers were all captivated by her. Farrel was present as well, and was introduced to his new comrades. Most of them knew him already, of course, if not personally, then by reputation. Farrel was known as a fierce, highly skilled warrior, an adept with the battleax in addition to his Ranger training, and they all felt they were lucky to have him along as part of their band.

  When he first arrived, Halt scanned the dining room for a sight of Mistress Pauline. But the beautiful Courier was nowhere to be seen.

  Arald saw Halt’s quick look around the room, and the flash of disappointment, almost instantly masked, and guessed the reason. “Pauline is getting ready for her mission,” he explained quietly to the young Hibernian. “She’ll be sending out letters to her agents and informants and planning her own itinerary.”

  “Of course.” Halt nodded, showing no sign of his disappointment. He had hoped to make a better showing in front of the beautiful, graceful woman. He felt he had left her with the impression that he was a bumbling, tongue-tied clod. Now, he thought gloomily, she would retain that picture of him.

  For once he would have liked to talk about his past, and impress her with the fact that he was the son of the royal family of Clonmel, and an heir to the throne. That would have dazzled her, he thought. Then, sadly, he realized that it wouldn’t have impressed her in the slightest. A woman like Pauline would judge a man on his own merits, not his parents. He realized that Jurgen was asking Arald a question and turned to listen.

 
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