The tournament at gorlan, p.18
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.18

           John Flanagan
 
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  “Will you be defending your title at the tournament, my lord?” Jurgen asked.

  Arald ate a large chunk of pie and wiped his greasy fingers on his bright yellow doublet. His wife raised her eyes to heaven. For five years, she had been trying to break him of that habit.

  “I suppose so,” he said, spraying pastry crumbs across the table. “Have to give Morgarath a chance to win it back, won’t I?”

  Halt regarded him with interest. Arald was a little overweight, as he had noticed. But he was also burly and broad shouldered, and there were muscles underneath that doublet.

  “You defeated Morgarath in single combat?” he asked. He knew that Morgarath was regarded as one of the most accomplished knights, if not the most accomplished, in Araluen. But this smiling, good-humored, slightly chubby young baron had defeated him.

  Arald shrugged diffidently. “Good luck more than skill,” he said. “I got lucky and he tended to underestimate me. Never a good idea to underestimate an opponent, even if he’s me.” He laughed aloud.

  Halt glanced around and saw Lady Sandra watching her husband shrewdly. She didn’t join in the laughter and, from her expression, Halt guessed that Arald was making light of his own abilities. In his experience, people who attributed their success to luck often had a lot to do with making their own luck.

  The dinner broke up around ten o’clock. Crowley apologized to the Baron for the early finish to the night. “We want to be on the road just after dawn, my lord,” he said.

  Arald nodded his understanding. “I’ve never known a Ranger to sleep in much past sunrise.”

  The others all chorused their thanks as they trooped out of the dining room—making much of the fact that Chubb’s banquet was a welcome change after Halt’s and Crowley’s rough camp cooking—although in truth, they all enjoyed the meals that their two comrades served up each night.

  “I’ll see you at Gorlan on the third day of next month,” Arald told Halt and Crowley as they bade him good night. He gripped both their hands firmly and looked deep into their eyes. Theirs was a dangerous undertaking, but he saw no sign that either of them would flinch from it.

  Chubb hurried up to them as they were about to go, with a white cloth bundled around a large section of turkey pie. “It’ll be fine to eat cold on the road for your lunch tomorrow,” he said and they took it gratefully.

  Arald watched the two men descend the stairs, their soft boots making virtually no sound on the flagstones. Then, as they went through the high doorway and out into the castle yard, he returned to the dining hall, where he had a flagon of good wine to finish and where Sandra was waiting for him.

  “They’re a good group of men,” she said and he glanced keenly at her. He respected her opinion in such matters—always had, he realized.

  “You think so?”

  She nodded. “Well trained. Loyal. Expert archers. Eleven men like that will make a group to be reckoned with.”

  “They are Rangers, after all,” he said. “Real Rangers, not like the pretenders that Morgarath has been palming off on fiefs for the past few years. I’m particularly impressed with their leaders—Crowley and Halt,” he added.

  Sandra took a sip of her wine. “Crowley is their leader, isn’t he?”

  Arald acknowledged the statement. “He’s been elected as their leader. But the others look up to Halt just as much as to him. They’ll obey Crowley. But Halt is the sort of man you follow instinctively.”

  “Even you?” She smiled, but he took the question seriously.

  “Yes, given the right circumstances, I’d follow him. He’s a natural leader.”

  The door flew open and Pauline DuLacy rushed into the room, slightly flushed and a little out of breath after running up two flights of stairs. She looked quickly around the dining room, saw the empty chairs pushed back from the table and the servants clearing away the remains of the meal, and her face fell.

  “They’re gone?” she asked.

  “A few minutes ago,” Arald told her.

  She looked around, as if wondering whether there might be time to catch up to them, then realized that she hadn’t seen them crossing the castle yard as she ran toward the keep. They’d be well ahead of her on the way to their camp in the forest, she thought.

  “Oh . . . I wanted to say good-bye to Halt,” she said, then added quickly, “and to Crowley as well, of course. Halt and Crowley.”

  The Baron and his lady exchanged a knowing look. So that’s the way the wind blows, thought Arald. Over the years, he’d seen at least a dozen bold young knights try to impress the beautiful Courier. She had politely fended them all off. But now this bearded, beetle-browed Hibernian seemed to have sparked her interest. He wondered if he should mention the fact that Halt had been looking for her, then decided that, if he did so, his wife might hit him with the wooden serving ladle that lay close to her right hand.

  “Of course,” he said, hiding his smile. He noted with relief that Sandra moved her hand away from the heavy ladle. “But we’ll see them all at the tournament.” She nodded, a little distractedly, he thought.

  “Yes. Of course,” she said. “Well, I’d best get back to my office. I still have a few orders to send out with tomorrow’s post.”

  She gave a perfunctory curtsy and exited, closing the door behind her rather abruptly, so the room echoed with the noise of it.

  “Well, well,” Sandra said. “Pauline and the Hibernian. Who would ever have thought?”

  Arald smiled. “I saw it coming,” he said smugly, patting his stomach with both hands in a contented way.

  His wife looked at him, eyebrows raised in disbelief. “Of course you did, dear,” she said.

  He wondered when she had become so sarcastic.

  Half an hour after daybreak, the Rangers were on the road again. This time, as Halt had suggested, they broke into three groups, leaving a gap of ten minutes between them, to avoid raising the curiosity of anyone who saw them.

  Halt and Crowley rode together at the head of the first group. After some minutes of companionable silence, Crowley glanced sideways at his friend and said in an overly casual tone:

  “That Mistress DuLacy is quite a woman.”

  Halt looked quickly at him and grunted something that Crowley took to be agreement.

  Hiding his grin with some difficulty, the red-haired man continued, in the same overly casual voice. “I thought that when this is all over, I might call upon her.” He stared straight ahead, but when Halt said nothing, he stole a glance at his friend.

  Halt wore a stricken expression. The thought of his friend Crowley—witty, urbane and totally at ease with women—paying court to the stunning young Courier was too much for him to bear. Had it been any other man, he might have offered to fight him. But Crowley was a friend—more than a friend, in truth. Halt had come to think of him as a brother. In fact, he held him in a higher regard than his real brother, who had tried to murder him to gain access to the throne.

  “Good thinking,” he managed to croak. “Wish you both well.”

  Crowley looked at him again, startled by the break in his voice. Halt wore a miserable expression that tore at Crowley’s heart. He leaned over and seized Halt’s forearm.

  “My friend,” he said sincerely, “I was joking! That’s all.”

  Halt shook his head doggedly. “No. Really. Why would I care if you . . . saw her,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.

  Crowley shook his arm. “Do you think I’d do that? I can see how much she means to you, Halt. And I rather think,” he added thoughtfully, “that she returns the feelings.”

  Halt looked at him quickly, suspicious that Crowley, ever the trickster, was joking now. But Crowley met his gaze steadily, and nodded.

  “Did she . . . say anything about me?” Halt asked. His spirits fell when Crowley shook his head. Then rose again with his answer.


  “No. Not in so many words. But it was pretty obvious that she was interested in you. Didn’t you see the way she looked at you when you told Arald about Morgarath offering you a job?”

  Halt shook his head. “No. I didn’t notice.” All he could remember was that he had inadvertently used a rather crude expression in front of her. He flushed now as he thought of it.

  “Well, take my word for it,” Crowley said, “she was pretty impressed. And amused. And that’s always a good thing with women.”

  Halt rode on, facing forward, his mind racing.

  “And trust me,” said Crowley, who had kissed two women in his entire life—and one of them his mother—“I know about women.”

  Halt felt a warm glow suffuse his breast at his friend’s words. “Yes,” he said happily. “I should think you do.”

  The conversation about Pauline was interrupted as they rounded a bend in the road. Crowley reined in Cropper, Halt matching the action with Abelard.

  “Does that person look familiar?” Crowley asked.

  Halt leaned forward to peer more intently at a figure sitting on the side of the road, leaning back against a tree. He was wearing a cloak like theirs, but with the cowl pushed back to reveal his white hair and beard. A gray horse was cropping the long roadside grass a few meters away from him. It wasn’t tethered or hobbled, which marked it as a Ranger-trained horse.

  There was something very familiar about the seated figure. For a moment, they stared at him. Then recognition dawned. “Pritchard!” they both said at once and, clapping their heels to their horses’ flanks, set off at a gallop to greet him.

  28

  THEY RACED PELL-MELL ALONG THE ROAD TO WHERE THE figure sat, calmly waiting and watching them. Reining in in a cloud of dust, Halt and Crowley flung themselves down from their saddles and rushed toward him. Slowly, he came to his feet to greet them. A smile lurked around the corners of his mouth but outwardly he appeared solemn.

  “Pritchard? Is it really you?” Crowley shouted joyfully. He threw his arms around the white-haired, white-bearded man and lifted him from his feet as he hugged him. Halt stood ready nearby, waiting for his chance to hug his old mentor.

  “Yes. It’s me,” he said calmly. “And if you’re not careful, it’ll be me with half a dozen broken ribs.”

  “Sorry!” said Crowley, instantly releasing him so that he dropped awkwardly back to the ground. Then, just as instantly, Crowley seized him in another great bear hug. Pritchard looked over his shoulder at Halt, meeting his eyes with a bemused gaze and pointing at his former pupil with both hands.

  Halt stepped forward and tapped Crowley’s shoulder. “Crowley, let go of him. Now!” he ordered.

  Crowley released his second bear hug of the day and stepped back, beaming delightedly. As soon as he relinquished his hold on Pritchard, Halt stepped in and threw his arms around the old Ranger in his turn. Then, as Pritchard emitted a grunt of surprise and pain, he instantly released him.

  “What are you doing here?” Halt asked. He heard the shuffle of horses’ hooves behind them as the rest of the group caught up and stared at them with obvious interest. Halt heard the name Pritchard whispered among the others, in varying tones of surprise.

  Pritchard made a pretense of examining his ribs and arms for possible damage from the exuberant greetings of his two former students, then he smiled at them, looking from one to the other with obvious pride in what he saw.

  “I kept hearing rumors about two madcap youngsters who were recruiting former Rangers with an eye to confronting Morgarath,” he said. “Apparently, one of them is a grumpy Hibernian and the other is a redheaded prankster. Imagine my surprise when I heard it was you two.”

  The Rangers sitting their horses behind the group of three men all laughed.

  “So I decided I’d better come and see if you needed a hand,” Pritchard finished.

  Crowley shook his head in amazement. “But you were in Hibernia! How did you get word there?”

  Pritchard tapped a forefinger against the side of his nose in a knowing gesture. “Oh, I have my sources of information still. Not much goes on in Araluen that I don’t hear about.”

  Berrigan gave vent to a meaningful cough, which seemed to conceal the word rubbish inside it.

  Pritchard looked up at him with a smile. “Oh, and of course, I received a pigeon mail from Berrigan a week or so ago, telling me what you’re up to.”

  Halt and Crowley both swung round to look at the occasional jongleur.

  He shrugged. “Didn’t I tell you we keep in touch from time to time?” he asked, indicating Pritchard with a nod of his head.

  “No. Egon said he did. But I don’t recall your mentioning it,” Crowley replied.

  Berrigan thought for a second or two, then said, “Pritchard and I keep in touch from time to time.”

  “Highly amusing,” Crowley said, giving Berrigan a withering look. Berrigan managed to survive without being too withered.

  Unable to keep his delight in check, Crowley turned back to Pritchard, the huge grin returning to his face. “So now you’re here! Will you join us?”

  “Of course,” Pritchard replied and the other Rangers indicated their pleasure at the news. Pritchard was a renowned figure in the Ranger Corps. His dismissal from the Corps and departure from the Kingdom some years prior had been a source of great distress among his peers.

  “Then you’ll assume command?” Crowley said, indicating the line of horsemen facing them. It was typical of his friend, Halt thought, that he had no hesitation in offering the command to Pritchard, no regret at handing over his position of authority. But Pritchard was shaking his head.

  “The men elected you,” he pointed out.

  Crowley dismissed that with a wave of his arm. “Then they can unelect me and elect you in my place!”

  Pritchard, however, continued to shake his head. “No. You’re the commander and you’ll do a good job as commander. I know that because I trained you.” He glanced at Halt, who had been watching the proceedings with an interested look. “And young Halt here will make an excellent second in command for you.” He smiled again. “I trained him too, after all.”

  “But . . .” Crowley was momentarily lost for words. His confusion showed on his face. Before he could proceed, Pritchard spoke again.

  “I’m too old for the job, Crowley. This is going to be a hard battle. Morgarath is not going to relinquish his power too easily. Command of this group is a young man’s job. It needs a young man’s energy and determination. I’d probably fall asleep halfway through a battle,” he added, jokingly.

  “You’re not old!” Crowley scoffed. “You’re still fit as a fiddle and I wager you still ride and shoot as well as you used to.”

  “Well, yes. My accuracy is still pretty good. But I have to admit, at the end of a hard day’s riding, I tend to groan and grunt when I climb down from the saddle. I ache in places I never knew existed. I am old, Crowley.” He fingered his short white beard with his forefinger and thumb. “My hair and beard aren’t white because I got caught out in the snow.”

  “But . . .” Crowley still wouldn’t concede the point. He turned to Halt. “You tell him,” he said.

  But the Hibernian shook his head thoughtfully. “I think he’s right.”

  Crowley was scandalized. “How can you say that? He taught you all the skills of being a Ranger!”

  Halt nodded. “He did. And he taught me to recognize the truth when I hear it.”

  Pritchard smiled at his former pupil. “Well said, Halt. I can see I trained you well.” He could tell that Crowley was still prepared to argue the point, so he cut him off. “Besides, Crowley, I can be of more value to you in another capacity.”

  Crowley put one hand on his hip and stood straight, his body language challenging the older man. “Oh, really? And how’s that?”

  “This white hair an
d beard, along with the aching, creaking joints, make me appear less threatening to the enemy. It’ll be easier for me to infiltrate Castle Gorlan and find where they’re keeping the King. People don’t take notice of an old, white-haired, bent-over man.”

  Halt scratched his beard. “How did you know Morgarath has the King prisoner?” he asked.

  Pritchard regarded him evenly. “I told you, I have my sources,” he replied. “And Berrigan may have mentioned it,” he added, before Berrigan could utter another of those meaningful coughs.

  “You’re not bent over.” Crowley tried one more sally. But Pritchard merely stooped in front of him, holding one hand to the small of his back and groaning. It was a perfect picture of an old, harmless man. The assembled Rangers couldn’t keep themselves from laughing. Even Crowley cracked a smile.

  “Well . . . maybe you’re right . . .”

  “I am right,” Pritchard said, and finally, Crowley conceded. He held out a hand.

  “Very well. I’ll stay as leader and you can be our geriatric secret agent, and break into Castle Gorlan to see what’s what.”

  “Of course, I may need someone to push me in a wheelchair when I do break in,” Pritchard said with a smile. Then he became serious. “But we’re wasting daylight. We could still put a few kilometers behind us before we stop for lunch and share out that turkey pie.”

  Once again, Crowley regarded his former teacher with surprise. “How did you know about the turkey pie?” he asked.

  For the second time, Pritchard tapped his forefinger along the side of his nose. “I told you. I have my sources.”

  They rode on for another hour and a half before Crowley called a stop for the midday meal. There wasn’t a lot of talk as they ate. Even served cold, chef Chubb’s turkey pie was still a masterpiece, and it was quickly reduced to a small pile of pastry crumbs, many of them finding their way onto the Rangers’ jerkin fronts.

 
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