The tournament at gorlan, p.2
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.2

           John Flanagan
slower 1  faster

  Halt set his own horse in motion, its hooves spraying mud and water in the air as he hastened to catch up with the Ranger. He was feeling somewhat out of sorts, he realized. But that was because for days they had been traveling with their bows covered by waterproof leather cases to protect the strings. Wet conditions could play merry havoc with a bowstring, reducing its tension and rendering the weapon almost useless. And Halt never felt comfortable when he was in unknown territory without ready access to his bow. It made him feel vulnerable, and that made him feel irritable and ill at ease.

  Over the pervading smell of rain and muddy ground, he detected a hint of woodsmoke. He glanced up to see it curling away from the inn’s chimney, weighed down by the rain and the driving wind so that it never rose more than a couple of meters above the roof.

  “Now that’s more cheerful than a yellow parrot,” he said.

  Crowley had already swung down out of the saddle. He tethered his horse to a ring set beside the door of the inn and waited for Halt to join him. Then, together, they pushed through the door, stooping slightly to go under the low lintel.

  After the chill of the rain and wind outside, it was delightfully warm in the taproom. It was a wide, low-ceilinged room, with a wooden plank that served as a bar, set on barrels running along the wall facing the doorway. Other barrels, large and small, were ranged on their sides behind the bar, set on racks so that their spigots were within easy reach of the innkeeper and his serving maids. The room was half full of men. Farmworkers and laborers, Crowley guessed, seeking refuge from the miserable weather. They fell silent for a few moments as they assessed the newcomers. Then the low buzz of conversation began once more and they turned back to their ale and their meals.

  At one end of the room was a large fireplace, with a roasting spit that was hinged to swing right into the hearth itself. There were several ducks on the spit, their skin glistening with fat that fell, dripping and hissing, into the coals. The room was full of a pleasant smell of roasting duck, rich ale and woodsmoke that eddied around the low ceiling, the chimney not quite up to the task of clearing it away.

  Halt and Crowley made their way through the tables to the bar, where the innkeeper assessed them briefly.

  Woodsmen, he decided. Possibly hunters. Not soldiers, at any rate. Soldiers in this area could mean trouble, he had learned over the past few years. They tended to take without asking and could be loud and demanding, bullying the villagers and farm folk and creating ill feeling and tension among them. And, while they drank a considerable amount, they often paid short measure and frequently started fights.

  Soldiers were bad business.

  Deciding that Halt and Crowley posed no potential threat, he took his hand away from the heavy, studded cudgel he kept under the bar and reached for two pint tankards hanging overhead.

  “Ale for you, my friends?”

  The two men nodded. The red-haired one spoke.

  “That would be very agreeable, innkeeper.” He unfastened his cloak and threw the cowl back. Already, steam was beginning to rise from the cloth, generated by the heat in the room.

  “And we’ll be needing a room. With a fireplace,” the dark-bearded one said. He had a pleasant, lilting accent that was unfamiliar to the innkeeper. The innkeeper set down two foaming tankards and the newcomers took grateful sips. The redhead smacked his lips in appreciation.

  “That’s good ale,” he said and the innkeeper inclined his head in appreciation of the comment.

  “I’m known for it,” he said. Then, turning his gaze to the darker-haired man, he said, “None of my upstairs rooms have fireplaces.” The man’s eyebrows came together slightly in a look of disappointment. “But I have an annex out the back with its own fireplace. There’s no access to it from in here. It opens onto the stableyard.”

  The disappointment faded from the man’s face.

  “That sounds just the thing,” he said. And as he thought about it, Halt decided that it was. A separate entrance, concealed in the stableyard and not visible from the main street, would give them a good degree of privacy and security, just in case Morgarath’s men came looking.

  They negotiated a price. Initially, Halt asked for one night, but seeing Crowley’s expression, he relented and made it two.

  “One night will hardly be enough to get our things dry,” Crowley pointed out, and Halt had to agree.

  The innkeeper, conscious that travelers would be few and far between in the current weather, offered to include their meals and the deal was settled.

  “Your horses can go in the stable,” he said. “Plenty of room there for them.”

  Halt finished his ale and set the tankard down on the counter.

  “We’ll bring them in now and rub them down,” he said. He never liked leaving his horse untended for too long—particularly after a long journey in cold, wet weather.

  “They can wait two minutes while we finish our ale,” Crowley said.

  Halt looked at him, one eyebrow raised. “You can finish that in two minutes?”

  Crowley regarded the large, almost full tankard in his hand. “I can finish this in one,” he said. “I figured you’d hold me up.”

  He finished his ale and, reluctantly, they went out into the weather once more, leading their horses through the stableyard gate and into the high-roofed stable building. It was clean and airy and there was only one other animal in it—a mule that regarded them with faint interest. They unsaddled the horses and dried them off, rubbing them down with handfuls of clean, dry straw. Then they put them in two adjoining stalls, and while Crowley forked hay into the two mangers, Halt went out into the yard and filled two buckets with clean water. Returning, he noticed that the mule’s water bucket was only half full and the water was green and scummy. Sighing, he took it down from the peg and returned to the pump, filling it with fresh water.

  As he replaced the bucket, he noticed Crowley grinning at him.

  “What now?” Halt said, an irritable tone in his voice.

  “Oh, you pretend to be so grim and grumpy,” Crowley said. “But there you go, fetching fresh water for a mule you’ve never seen before. You amuse me.”

  “Well, I’m always glad to lighten your mood. Although it doesn’t seem to take much to amuse you.”

  Halt made a final check on his horse and tack. His saddle blanket was wrinkled over the rail and he spread it out evenly so that it would dry more quickly. Then he jerked a thumb toward the stable door. “Let’s see what our lodgings are like.”

  Carrying their saddlebags and bow cases, they crossed the muddy yard and opened the door to the annex built against the rear wall of the inn. They were pleasantly surprised when they entered. The room was large and well ventilated and the walls were solidly built from timber, with mud and plaster sealing any cracks left by irregularities in the logs. In the end wall, a fire was already burning. The innkeeper had sent one of his serving maids to lay it and light it. Already, its warmth was filling the room and the yellow, flickering flames sent out a welcoming and comforting light.

  Crowley moved to stand by the fire, rubbing his hands together appreciatively. “Well, I must say, we’ve certainly fallen on our feet here!” he said.

  Halt nodded briefly. “I’ve stayed in worse.”

  Crowley shook his head, grinning at his companion. “Try not to overwhelm me with your boundless enthusiasm.”

  Halt, realizing that the room really was quite comfortable and he might have been a little more effusive, grunted an unintelligible reply.

  There were two beds in the room, each with three thick woolen blankets and a straw-filled pillow. There were no sheets, but compared to the branch-lined cots they had slept on for the past five nights, this was little short of luxury. A rough linen towel was folded over the foot of each bed and a washbasin and large water jug stood on the plain pine side table.

  There were two wooden ar
mchairs, set either side of the fireplace, and a small table with three straight-backed chairs set around it.

  Hastily, they stripped off their cloaks, spreading them over the chairs in front of the fire to dry, then did the same with their jerkins and shirts. Soon the room was full of the pervasive odor of damp, drying wool, as steam rose from the sodden garments.

  They both had dry shirts in their packs—although dry wasn’t quite accurate. The spare shirts were damp, as was everything they owned. But after they’d been held in front of the fire for a few minutes, they were comfortable enough.

  Halt tied the fastening at the neck of his shirt, then re-donned the wide leather belt that carried the scabbards for his saxe knife and throwing knife—one on each hip. He looked around the room, now littered with drying clothing spread on every available surface.

  “Well, we’ve got the roaring fire we wanted,” he said. “Now let’s see about that hearty beef stew.”

  3

  THERE WAS NO HEARTY BEEF STEW. BUT THERE WAS A RICH mutton broth—big chunks of tasty meat in a hearty broth of vegetables. And there was fresh crusty bread to mop up the scraps. They ordered a bowl each, and two more pints of ale to drink while they waited.

  “Find a table,” the innkeeper said, making an all-encompassing gesture around the room. “Millie will bring your food.”

  Without prior consultation, they both moved toward a table against the wall, at the far side of the room. It was well out of the immediate line of sight of anyone entering the tavern, but enabled them to keep a constant watch on new arrivals. The table was well away from the fire, and the nearest oil lantern was several meters away, so they were partially hidden in the gloom.

  For Halt, it was second nature to remain unobtrusive. He had spent several months traveling through Hibernia, avoiding recognition and staying away from the search parties his twin brother sent after him. Crowley’s training as a Ranger must have left him with the same sense of reticence. Pritchard had taught Halt that Rangers never sought to stand out from the crowd, preferring to blend in with the background.

  Millie, a pleasant-faced girl of about twenty-five, brought them bowls of mutton broth and two wooden spoons. She set a board down in front of them, with a warm loaf on it and a knife. A small crock held rich yellow butter.

  Crowley took a sip of the broth and smiled contentedly. “Oh, that’s good!”

  Halt followed suit and nodded agreement. The soup was hot and rich, and the heat of it seemed to spread through his tired, cold body. He even imagined he could feel the heat spreading down through his chilled and weary legs.

  Suddenly conscious of how hungry they were, after days of cold food and hard rations, they set to willingly, rapidly lowering the level in their bowls. Millie strolled past their table and indicated the near-empty bowls.

  “More?” she asked. “It costs no extra for a top-up.”

  Crowley instantly scooped the last of the mutton out of his bowl and crammed it in his mouth. Then he handed the bowl to the girl, nodding enthusiastically.

  “Mmmm. Yeff pleafe,” he mumbled round a mouthful of hot mutton and bread.

  She smiled and took the bowl, then glanced interrogatively at Halt. “How about you?”

  He shook his head. The bowl was still a quarter full and that would do him. “Not for me,” he said.

  She pointed to his tankard. “How about more ale?”

  This time they both shook their heads, without any pause to consider the question.

  “We’re fine,” said Crowley. “Thanks.” He smiled at her and she returned the smile with some interest. He was a good-looking young man, with a cheerful, cheeky light in his eyes.

  She glanced at his companion. He was a different kettle of fish, she thought. His eyes were brown, deep-set under heavy eyebrows. His face was thin and the beard was dark. There was something vaguely frightening about him, although she sensed no danger to herself from the man. Rather, she felt, there was potential danger for anyone who might cause him trouble.

  She realized her smile had faded as she studied the dark-bearded man and she hastily readjusted it. It was professional good sense to smile at customers, she knew, even the ones who had a somewhat frightening aspect to them. She moved away toward the kitchen door, Crowley’s bowl in her hand.

  “I’ll bring you your broth,” she said.

  She was halfway to the kitchen when the entrance door banged open, letting in a swirl of wind and rain and setting the smoke that hung about the rafters drifting uneasily. A stocky figure strode into the tavern, arrogance in every inch of his bearing.

  The room fell silent as all eyes turned to the doorway. The atmosphere was instantly heavy with distrust and apprehension.

  The newcomer was no farmworker or itinerant traveler. He was wearing a sword at his side, and as he pushed back his black cloak, it could be seen that his black leather surcoat was adorned with a gold slash running from his right shoulder to his left waist, shaped like a lightning bolt. A tight-fitting leather cap covered his head. A smaller rendition of the yellow lightning bolt was on its front.

  He wore high riding boots—again in black leather—with his trousers tucked into them. The heels clacked loudly on the floor as he advanced a few paces into the room, allowing the door to close behind him. He looked around, taking in the fourteen people sitting at tables and the innkeeper and his two serving girls behind the bar.

  If he was aware of the dislike radiating from the inn’s customers, it didn’t seem to bother him. He was probably used to creating a negative impression wherever he went, Halt thought. The newcomer’s left hand dropped to rest on his sword hilt—a crude reminder of the fact that he was armed.

  Crowley leaned closer to Halt and said in a low voice: “Black and gold. Morgarath’s colors.”

  Halt nodded. He had seen them before, when they had visited Castle Gorlan.

  Eventually, the innkeeper broke the awkward silence that had gripped the room.

  “Can I help you, traveler?” he asked mildly. The newcomer’s face creased with a scowl.

  “It’s Captain,” he said abruptly. “Captain Teezal, in Lord Morgarath’s service.”

  He waited for the innkeeper to amend his method of address but no amendment was forthcoming.

  “And . . . ?” said the innkeeper calmly, waiting for the soldier to voice his business. The scowl on Teezal’s face deepened. He was used to cringing deference when he spoke to people he considered to be his inferiors—which included most people he met. But he could see no sign of deference from the innkeeper and he was forced to continue.

  “And,” he said, placing sarcastic emphasis on the word, “I’m searching for two renegade Rangers—criminals who’ve broken Lord Morgarath’s law.”

  “This is Keramon Fief,” the innkeeper pointed out. “The lord here is Baron Carrol. Baron Morgarath has no jurisdiction here.”

  “Lord Morgarath has been offended by these two men. I’m sure Carrol would want to assist him in apprehending them.”

  The innkeeper shrugged. “I’m sure Lord Carrol would, if they were here. Which they’re not.”

  Teezal glared at him, his hand opening and closing on the sword hilt. “Do you have any guests at the moment? Have there been any travelers passing through?”

  Halt, scanning the room unobtrusively, saw several of the other guests look instinctively to the table where he and Crowley were sitting. Fortunately, Teezal was concentrating his attention on the innkeeper, who was shaking his head.

  “None. Just locals here.”

  At his words, Halt saw the other customers hastily avert their eyes from him and Crowley. The innkeeper appeared to be a man of some influence in Woolsey.

  “I’ll take a look around,” Teezal said brusquely.

  The innkeeper shrugged. “Suit yourself. But there are no Rangers here, renegade or otherwise. Come to think of it,”
he added, “I’ve never heard of a renegade Ranger.”

  Teezal, who had turned away, swung back on him.

  “They’ve offended Lord Morgarath and broken their oath. They’ve also injured several of his officers. As a result, they’ve been dismissed from the Ranger Corps. These are dangerous times and disloyalty must be punished.”

  The innkeeper made a compliant gesture with one hand. “I’m sure it must,” he said. “Go ahead and look around if you want to.”

  Teezal locked eyes with him for some seconds, trying to stare him down. The innkeeper held his gaze confidently. With men like this, he knew, it was best to remain firm and uncowed. Any sign of weakness or uncertainty would only increase Teezal’s arrogance and overbearing attitude.

  Eventually, Morgarath’s man switched his gaze away from the innkeeper and turned to walk among the tables, studying the men seated there. Other than the serving girls, there were no women in the room. His heels clacked loudly on the floorboards as he moved slowly between the tables, stopping from time to time for a closer look. But the inn’s clientele were obviously farmers or farmworkers. They wore farmers’ smocks and thick working boots, caked with mud. On several tables, felt hats, rendered shapeless by years of rain and sun, were evident.

  His inspection finished, Teezal grunted discontentedly.

  Then he noticed the two figures seated at the back of the room, in the shadows. Quickly, he walked toward them, his left hand opening and closing on the hilt of his sword. He stopped a few meters from them, reaching up to the oil lamp that hung from the rafters and tilting it so that its light shone more directly on the two men.

  These were no farmers, he could see. They wore leather vests and woolen trousers tucked into knee-high leather boots. Fortunately, however, Halt’s and Crowley’s cloaks were currently spread across the backs of chairs in front of the fireplace in their room. Even without the distinctive mottled pattern, they would have raised his suspicions. And of course, their bows and quivers were in the room as well. Outwardly there was nothing to show that they were Rangers.

 
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