Death of a hero, p.2
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       Death of a Hero, p.2
 

           John Flanagan
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  So, this is it, he thought. He wondered why he felt such a stolid acceptance of his own death. Maybe the blow to the head had slowed him down. He watched, waiting calmly, fatalistically, for the club to descend.

  Then a flicker of light blazed over him, gleaming off a spearhead that buried itself in the Wargal’s chest. The force behind the spear thrust shoved the creature backward. It gave a hoarse screech of pain and fell, passing out of Halt’s line of sight. The sergeant jumped nimbly over Halt’s fallen form, dragged his spear free of the dead Wargal’s body and stood with feet braced wide apart, protecting Halt from further attacks. He thrust again with the spear and another Wargal retreated hastily. Then a battleax smashed down onto the spear shaft, and the heavy iron head went spinning away, leaving the sergeant with nothing more than the two-and-a-half-meter ash spear shaft.

  Halt’s head swam and his vision blurred. The blow to the head had definitely done him some damage. His limbs were weak and he couldn’t find the strength to rise. The scene before him seemed to unfold at a slow, dreamlike pace.

  The sergeant took one look at the headless spear, shrugged, then whirled the heavy ash shaft in a circle, smashing it against another Wargal’s helmet. Holding the shaft in both hands now, like a quarterstaff, he thrust underarm at a second enemy, driving the end deep into the Wargal’s midsection.

  “Look out!” Halt’s attempted shout of warning was nothing more than a croak. He had seen a third Wargal, crouching low and concealed behind his companions, a jagged-edged sword ready to thrust.

  One of the injured Wargals grabbed at the spear shaft, dragging the sergeant off balance, and the sword blade shot forward like a serpent striking. Red blood flowed from the sergeant’s side where the sword had taken him. But still he didn’t falter. He jerked the spear shaft free of the enemy’s grip and, with an overhand action as if he were casting a spear, slammed it straight forward, hitting the Wargal who had wounded him straight between the eyes with the blunt end of the shaft.

  The Wargal screamed and fell, throwing his hands to his shattered forehead and dropping the sword as he did so. Instantly, the sergeant seized it, tossing the spear shaft aside. Now he struck left and right with blinding speed and opened great slashing wounds in two more Wargals. One fell where he stood, while the other spun away, blundering into his companions, knocking two of them over. The sergeant parried a short iron spear thrust coming from his right. Another stabbed out from the left and struck him in the thigh. More blood flowed. Yet still he fought on. He killed the Wargal behind the spear with almost contemptuous ease. Then he slashed and cut left and right with the sword, taking a dreadful toll on any enemy who came within its reach. A knife thrust cut him in the side. He ignored it and dispatched the knife wielder with a backhanded slash.

  Then Halt saw something he thought he’d never see.

  As the bloodstained figure drove forward, sword rising and falling, hacking and cutting and slashing and stabbing, a tide of fear swept over the Wargals.

  Morgarath’s handpicked shock troops, who up until now had feared nothing short of mounted, armored knights, fell back in terror before the bloodied, death-dealing figure with the sword.

  And as they did so, the men of the Araluen army found new heart and swept forward in the wake of the sergeant. He was badly wounded, but he continued fighting until his comrades surged past him, slamming into the demoralized Wargals and screaming in triumph.

  For a moment, the sergeant stood in an empty space on the battlefield. Then, as the second rank of Araluen fighters poured past him to reinforce the first, and the Wargal line broke and retreated in total confusion, their hoarse, wordless screams filling the air, his knees gave way and he sagged to the ground.

  The noise of the battle moved away from them, receding like a tide, and Halt finally managed to free his arm from the shield, still pinned to the ground by a Wargal’s dead body. He tried to rise to his feet, but the effort was beyond him. Instead, he crawled painfully to the fallen sergeant, dragging himself over the sprawled bodies of the Wargals the man had killed.

  In spite of his wounds, the sergeant was still breathing, and he turned his head painfully as the Ranger approached. He managed a weak smile.

  “We showed them, Ranger, didn’t we?”

  Halt could barely hear the voice, and his own was a croak as he answered. “That we did. What’s your name, sergeant?”

  “Daniel.”

  Halt gripped his forearm. “Hold on, Daniel. The healers will be here soon.”

  He tried to put as much encouragement into the words as possible. But the sergeant shook his head.

  “Too late for me.” Suddenly the man’s eyes were filled with urgency. He tried to rise but fell back.

  “Rest easy,” Halt told him, but Daniel raised his head wearily and leaned toward him.

  “My wife . . . ,” he managed to gasp. “My wife and the baby. Promise me you’ll . . .” He coughed and blood rolled down his chin.

  “I’ll look out for them,” Halt told him. “But don’t worry. You’ll be fine. You’ll see them soon.”

  Daniel nodded and let his head fall back. He took a long, shuddering breath. Then he seemed to relax, and his breathing became easier, as if Halt’s promise had lifted an enormous burden from his mind.

  Halt heard voices then, and footsteps nearby. Then gentle hands were rolling him over and he found himself looking up at the concerned faces of a pair of medical orderlies who were setting down a litter beside him. He gestured weakly toward Daniel.

  “I’m all right,” he said. “Take the sergeant first.”

  The nearest orderly glanced quickly at Daniel, and shook his head.

  “Nothing we can do for him,” he said. “He’s dead.”

  4

  HALT WOKE.

  For a few seconds, he wondered where he was. He was lying on his back, staring at the canvas roof of a large pavilion. He could hear people moving quietly nearby, speaking in lowered voices. Somewhere, farther away, a man was moaning. He tried to turn his head but a sudden flash of agony greeted the movement and he grunted in pain.

  He raised his hand to his forehead and felt a thick bandage there. Then the memory began to come back to him.

  The battle with the Wargals. He remembered that. Remembered the club that had caught him on the side of the head. That must be the cause of the flaring headache he now felt. And he remembered a sergeant. What was his name? David? No! Daniel. Daniel had saved his life.

  Then he was overcome with sadness as he remembered the words of the litter bearer. Daniel was dead.

  How long had he been here? He remembered that as the medical orderlies had lifted him onto the litter, he had lost consciousness. It seemed that it had happened only minutes ago. He tried to rise and the headache speared him behind the eyes again. Once more, he grunted in pain, and this time a face came into his field of vision, looking down at him.

  “You’re awake,” the orderly said, and smiled encouragingly at him. He reached down and laid a palm on Halt’s forehead, testing for fever. Seemingly satisfied that there was none, he touched the bandage lightly, making sure it was still tight.

  “How . . . long . . .” Halt’s voice was slurred and his throat was thick and dry. The orderly held a cup of cool water to his lips, raised his head carefully and allowed him to drink. The water felt wonderful. He gulped at it and choked, coughing so that water bubbled out of his mouth. The action of coughing set his head aching again and he closed his eyes in pain.

  “Still feeling it, I see?” the orderly said. “Well, the healers said there’s no serious damage. You just need a few more days’ rest to let the headache settle down.”

  “How long . . . have I been here?”

  The orderly pursed his lips. “Let’s see. They brought you in the evening before yesterday, so I’d say about thirty-six hours.”

  Thirty-six hours! He’d lain here asleep for a day and a half! A sudden chill of fear struck through him.

  “Did we win?”
he said. He remembered that the Wargals had retreated ahead of Daniel’s attack, but that might have been a localized event.

  The orderly smiled, nodding his head. “Oh yes indeed. Morgarath and his brutes were thoroughly beaten. Someone referred to it as a rout. I hear you had a little to do with that, as a matter of fact?”

  He added the last curiously, as if interested to hear more about Halt’s battlefield escapades. But the Ranger waved that aside.

  “So Morgarath is retreating again?” he asked.

  “Yes. The cavalry are pursuing the enemy, of course. But the rest of the army is still here. Not for long, though. They’ll be moving out soon.”

  “Moving out where?”

  “Disbanding. The war’s over. The men will be going back to their farms and their families. And none too soon.”

  Farms and families. The words stirred another memory in Halt’s mind. Daniel had spoken of a wife and baby. And Halt had promised to help them. But now he realized that he had no idea where they were, and if the army was really disbanding, he might never find them. He sat up without thinking and swung his legs over the side of the bed, then doubled over as the crippling pain hit him. The orderly tried to restrain him.

  “Please! Lie still, Ranger! You need to rest.”

  But Halt seized his forearm and managed to stand, swaying, by the bed. He blinked several times. The pain eased a little. But it was still there.

  “I don’t have time,” he said. “Get me something for this headache. I’ve got to find out where he lived.”

  He remembered that the men he had been sent to lead were a mixed group from Seacliff, Aspienne and Culway. The soldiers around him when he forced his way through to the front rank had worn the crest of a black badger on their tunics. He had seen the same crest on Daniel’s. He had no idea what group marched under that banner, so he headed for the command tent, and the King’s Battlemaster.

  When he reached the command center, he found the Battlemaster gone. Of course, he was leading the pursuit that was hounding Morgarath and the Wargals back to the southeast corner of the kingdom. But his secretary was still there, making notes as to casualties, replacements and promotions. He glanced up as Halt entered, and smiled warmly. The entire army had heard of Halt’s feats during the battle.

  “Good morning, Ranger,” he said. Then he noticed the bloodstained bandage and saw how Halt swayed as he entered the tent, reaching out to steady himself against the tabletop where the secretary sat.

  “Are you all right?” he said anxiously. He rose and hurried to find a bench for Halt. The Ranger dropped onto it gratefully. He blinked several times. His vision was still blurry. He hoped that was only temporary. He couldn’t imagine shooting with such poor vision.

  “Just a headache,” he said. “I need some information. I took command of troops on the right wing in the final stages of the battle—”

  “Indeed you did!” the secretary said warmly. “The whole army has heard about it.”

  “There was a soldier. A sergeant named Daniel. He actually led the charge when I was knocked down. Did anyone mention his full name, or would anyone have a record of where he lived?”

  But the clerk was shaking his head. “I don’t keep the full roster. Each individual force looks after that for their own men. What unit did he belong to?”

  “I’m not sure. They wore a black badger as their crest.”

  The clerk’s eyes narrowed in concentration for a few seconds, then his expression cleared. “A black badger? That’d be Captain Stanton’s company, from Aspienne Fief. They’re camped over to the north, on a small hill. Stanton was badly wounded before you rallied his men. He’s been invalided back to Castle Aspienne. But his sergeant major should be able to help you.”

  “Thanks for your help.” Halt left the tent. He paused for a moment, looking to the north. On a low hill several hundred meters away, he could see a group of tents clustered around a banner. It was too far to make out the device on the flag, but he could see that it was black in color. He headed toward the tents.

  As was the custom, the banner marked the position of the commanding officer’s tent. As Halt drew closer, he could see that he had been right. The device on the flag was a black badger. He paused at the open entrance. The command tent was larger than the simple four-man units that surrounded it. The commander and his staff worked here, so it was used as a company office. At the rear, a separate section was screened off, forming the captain’s living quarters. Now, of course, that would be vacant. But a burly figure was sitting at a table in the front section, frowning over sheets of paper. He was an older man, somewhat grizzled and with an unmistakable look of experience and authority—undoubtedly the sergeant major the clerk had mentioned. He looked up as Halt stepped into the tent, taking in the Ranger cloak and the bandage around his head.

  “You look as if you’ve been in the wars,” he said, grinning. Halt allowed himself a faint smile.

  “Just one. Same one you’ve been in. I’m trying to find a home address for one of your men. A sergeant by the name of Daniel.”

  The grin faded and the sergeant major shook his head sadly. “Daniel? He was a good man. We lost him in the final battle, I’m afraid.”

  “I know. He saved my life just before he died.”

  The older man regarded Halt with increased interest. “Oh,” he said, “you’re that Ranger, are you?” He rose from behind the table and offered his hand. “It’s an honor to meet you. My name’s Griff.”

  Halt shifted uncomfortably. He disliked being the center of attention. It wasn’t his way. He preferred to move unobtrusively through life, going unnoticed wherever possible. But he shook the man’s hand. “I’m called Halt,” he said.

  Griff waved him to a seat and sat down himself once more. He pursed his lips thoughtfully.

  “Not sure I can tell you too much. Everything was pretty rushed when we mobilized the army, and Daniel was new to the fief. He and his wife had moved from Norgate not long before the war began.” He indicated the piles of paper and scrolls on the table that was serving as a desk. “We didn’t get time to put down all the men’s details before we had to march out. I’m trying to catch up on it now.”

  “Can you tell me anything about him?” Halt asked.

  “He had a farm, I believe, somewhere in the southeast part of Aspienne. But where it might be, I have no idea.”

  “Did he have any friends in the company who might know?”

  The sergeant major was shaking his head before Halt even finished the question.

  “He may have. Although as a sergeant he would have kept a little separate from the other men. You could ask around. He had command of the sixth squad. You’ll find them one row over and halfway down.”

  “I’m obliged,” Halt said. He rose to his feet, wincing once more as the pain lanced through his forehead. He put a hand on the table to steady himself and Griff looked at him with some concern.

  “Should you be up and around? You don’t look so good.”

  Halt shook his head—and immediately wished he hadn’t. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “Just a bit of a knock. I’m better off in the fresh air than in a stuffy healer’s tent.”

  “That’s true.” Griff looked back at the forms and papers on his desk with a degree of disappointment, as if he’d been hoping they’d fill themselves in while he talked. “Well . . . sorry I can’t be of more help.”

  Halt waved a hand in acknowledgment. “Every little bit of information helps,” he said.

  He strolled down the neat tent lines, cutting through between two tents to reach the next row across. About ten meters farther down, he saw a placard mounted on top of a spear shaft with the numeral 6 on it. He looked down the next five tents and there was a similar marker, this time bearing the number 7. Five tents, four men to each, that made twenty men in the squad. Assuming they had all survived, which he knew they hadn’t. Three soldiers were lounging in the sun outside the first tent. They looked up as his shadow fell across th
em. There was a hint of suspicion in their eyes, but since Crowley and he had re-formed the Ranger Corps, Halt was becoming used to that. Officers and sergeant majors might value the skills Rangers brought to the army, but the rank-and-file soldiers tended to be ill at ease around the gray-and-green-clad figures. He knew there were wild rumors circulating that Rangers practiced sorcery.

  “Good morning,” he said evenly.

  The men nodded, craning their necks to look up at him. They were seated on low stools. One was patching a ripped jerkin, a second was whittling a stick with a knife and the third was chewing slowly on a piece of dried beef. From where Halt stood, it looked as if the beef was winning the struggle. Halt indicated a spare stool, a few feet away.

  “Mind if I join you for a few minutes?” he asked.

  The man patching his jerkin nodded. “Why not?” he said, his tone neither welcoming nor dismissive.

  His companion with the beef jerky was staring at Halt, a frown of recognition on his face. “I know you,” he said thoughtfully, trying to place the memory. Then it came to him. “You were at the battle!” he said. “We were being driven back and suddenly you were there, shoving forward and slashing away at the Wargals and yelling at us to follow you. You did an outstanding job. Outstanding!” He turned to the others. “Did you see him? First of all, he dropped at least a dozen of them with his bow, then he darted in among them, slashing and stabbing. And look at him! He’s barely bigger than a boy.”

  Halt raised an eyebrow at that. He wasn’t the largest of men, but he knew the soldier was stretching it a little. However, he could see that no insult was intended, so he let the comment pass.

  “Your sergeant gave me a hand,” he said, and the man nodded vigorously.

  “He did! He took them on when you went down. Must have killed a dozen of them too!”

  Halt smiled quietly at that. The man was inclined to exaggerate. “He did a great job,” he agreed.

  The jerky chewer turned to his friends. “Did you see the sarge?”

 
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