The tournament at gorlan, p.20
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.20

           John Flanagan
 
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  Crowley grunted slightly as he heaved the second rawhide thong as tight as he could, then quickly knotted it. He tested the firmness of the knots, then set the arrow aside so that the rawhide could dry.

  “Once they’re dry, we should try a few shots to get used to the different weight,” he said.

  Halt nodded, then reached for the coffeepot standing to one side of their small fireplace. “Just time for a mug of coffee in the meanwhile.”

  Crowley was already beginning to work on a third arrow. “Good idea,” he said. Then he frowned as a thought struck him. “Have you noticed that Leander puts milk in his coffee?”

  Halt grunted. “The man’s a savage.”

  Crowley raised an eyebrow. “This from the man who laces his coffee with honey?”

  “Honey is natural,” Halt told him. “Milk is little short of an abomination.”

  For the next three days, they observed the castle, paying particular attention to the lack of sentries. What few guards there were tended to remain in the shelter of their guardhouses, well back from the parapet. Every hour or so, they would make a brief patrol around the walls, occasionally glancing down into the gorge beneath them, where the river thundered through the gap.

  “They’re complacent,” Halt observed critically.

  “The castle hasn’t been attacked in the past twenty years,” Crowley replied. “I suppose they think the river forms enough of a barrier. It would take hours to get an assault party across it. And then they’d be facing a sheer granite wall. Still, it’s all the better for us.”

  On the fourth day, immediately after one of the infrequent patrols, they moved down to the riverbank to a spot opposite the base of the castle. The roaring water shot past them, only a few meters away. Spray hung in the air and Halt kept his bow under his cloak, to prevent the bowstring becoming soaked and useless.

  Idly, he twirled one of the specially prepared arrows between the fingers of his right hand. Crowley had done a good job. The arrow felt a little head-heavy compared with a normal shaft, but its balance was true and it turned evenly in his fingers. He looked up at the battlements, towering high above them. There was no sign of any guards keeping watch. They’re overconfident, he thought. Crowley had told him that it had been years since there had been any assault on the castle. Apparently, the inhabitants felt the raging water was sufficient protection. Only a madman would consider crossing it.

  “Like me,” he muttered to himself.

  Crowley touched Halt’s arm and pointed across to the far bank. “There,” he said. “The tree stump.”

  At some time in the past, a massive tree had been cut down, close by the base of the castle wall. Possibly the castle’s defenders thought it posed a threat, providing a way for attackers to climb the wall and gain access to one of the lower windows or turrets. They had sawn through the tree on an angle, so that when it fell, it would drop away from the castle and into the stream. Now, only a stump just over a meter tall remained, with its angled top facing them—a pale oval of dense hardwood.

  Halt nodded, eyeing the smooth face of the stump, gauging the shot. The distance was less than thirty meters, but he knew the arrow would drop faster than a normal arrow.

  “Get the line ready,” he told Crowley, as he uncovered his bow and nocked the arrow to the string.

  Crowley took a length of light line from under his cloak and ran its end through one of the iron rings behind the arrow’s broadhead. The broadhead itself was heavy iron and razor-sharp, designed to punch easily through an enemy’s shield and chain mail.

  He moved to one side, wrapping one end of the line around his wrist and letting the rest of it lie on the riverbank in smooth coils, ready to run out when the arrow was under way. There were a few twigs on the riverbank and he carefully removed them, making sure nothing would snag or impede the line. There was at least sixty meters of line in the coiled rope, enough to bridge the river twice. The end was fastened to a small sapling behind them.

  “Keep the line clear,” Halt said, his eyes still fixed on the target as he saw, in his mind, the path of the arrow and its trailing length of line.

  Crowley checked one more time. “It’s clear,” he said. “Just make sure you don’t tread on it with your big, clumsy feet.”

  “Clumsy yourself,” Halt muttered. But he checked carefully as he set his feet in a balanced stance, making doubly sure the line was nowhere near them. He began to draw the bow back to its full draw. The string and wood creaked loudly under the eighty-five-pound strain but his face showed no sign of the massive effort it took.

  Crowley moved to stand a little ahead of him, holding the line clear.

  “Stop jumping around,” Halt told him.

  Crowley decided it was better not to make a sarcastic reply, but to let his friend concentrate on the shot. It wasn’t a difficult shot by any means, but Halt’s life would be depending on it.

  “I won’t move,” he said calmly. Halt snorted, then drew in a deep breath, sighted, exhaled half the breath and released.

  The arrow flashed across the river, dead on line for the tree stump, the arc of the twine following behind it as it unwound smoothly out of the coils on the ground between them.

  The arrow slammed into the tree stump, three centimeters from the center, and buried the barbed iron head deep into the hardwood.

  “You missed,” Crowley said.

  Halt glanced at him, unsmiling. “There’s a crack in the center of the stump. I aimed to miss it.” He set his bow to one side and reached for the coil of heavier rope that they had brought with them. Quickly, he tied it to the end of the light line that now stretched in a double loop across the river, and tested the knot.

  “Haul it in,” he told Crowley.

  The redheaded Ranger began hauling the light line in, feeling it running smoothly through the greased iron ring on the arrow. Before long, the heavier line began to jerk out across the river in pursuit of the lighter line. Halt held the second rope as high as possible, maintaining a light tension on it to keep it clear of the racing water.

  As the heavier line reached the ring, there was a moment of resistance as the knot joining the two lines jammed slightly. Crowley gave it a little slack, then tried again. This time, the knot ran through smoothly, and the thicker rope began its return journey across the river, pulled along by the light twine.

  Once they had the end back on their side of the bank, they secured the double line to a solid tree trunk behind them and tugged on the rope to test that the arrowhead was firmly set. There was no sensation of movement or looseness. Crowley surveyed the rope, sagging in an arc so that it was a meter above the river’s surface.

  “I think you’re good to go,” he said.

  He helped Halt into a harness they had fashioned from a few meters of rope. It had loops for his arms and ran round his chest, fastening at the front. He took the loose end and formed a loop over the rope spanning the river, tying it off with several half hitches. He tested the knots for security and stepped back, satisfied.

  “Are you sure I’ll need this?” Halt asked doubtfully.

  “You’ll need it. If you let go of the rope, you’ll be swept five hundred meters downstream before you can draw breath—although breathing might be a problem in itself. You’d be hard pressed to keep your head above water in that current,” Crowley told him.

  “I wasn’t planning on letting go of the rope,” Halt said.

  Crowley raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Halt stepped toward the river’s edge, treading carefully on the wet, uneven rocks. Crowley steadied him as he stepped into the water at the edge of the bank. He was wearing only his shirt and trousers, and had left his boots on the riverbank.

  Halt cursed as the water rose to his knees.

  “What is it?” Crowley asked, instantly concerned.

  “It’s cold,” Halt told him.

 
Crowley shook his head in relief. “Of course it’s cold. It’s fed by snowmelt. That’s why I wanted you to do this part.”

  Halt glared at him and stepped farther into the river. The bottom shelved steeply and with one more step he was chest deep. He gasped as the cold water rose round his body, then he pushed off into the stream.

  Instantly, he was engulfed by the racing, ice-cold water. His feet were swept from under him. He gasped again, then the violent current forced him under and his hands let go of the rope. With the gasp, he released most of the air in his lungs and found himself twisting violently underwater, held by the harness around his chest, and with no air. He had been turned onto his back and he reached wildly behind him for the rope. But his reach was restricted by his position and his hands grasped uselessly at the water. He was blinded by the wild rush of the water against his eyes and he felt his lungs bursting as he tried desperately to get his head above water for air. Water forced its way up his nostrils and he coughed once, unable to prevent the reflex action. Immediately, he swallowed more water. He thought he heard Crowley call out but he couldn’t make out the words. In any case, he couldn’t answer his friend. The urge to take a breath was becoming unbearable, even though he knew he was underwater and any such action would spell the end for him.

  After all the dangers he had faced in his young life, he thought this was a particularly useless way to die—twisting and turning on the end of a rope in a river, like a hooked trout. In spite of himself, he allowed a little water to force its way into his mouth, instantly coughed and gagged and swallowed more water. His chest was bursting with the need for air. He knew he couldn’t last much longer. Then he managed to twist onto his side and his flailing left hand touched something.

  It was the rope! He twisted his hand so that he wrapped a loop of the rope round his wrist and heaved himself back against the force of the current. He tried to open his eyes but the battering water kept them closed. Then his searching right hand closed over the rough texture of the rope and he gripped it fiercely. With both hands on the rope, he had better purchase and he hauled himself forward and up against the current. He felt his head break clear of the water and took in a huge, shuddering breath, feeling the burning pain in his chest abate.

  He slid his right hand farther along the rope, loosened the loop around his left wrist and began to haul himself toward the far bank a meter at a time. His head was constantly submerged and he learned to breathe quickly in the brief moments during each pull when he was above the surface.

  Doggedly, he continued to drag himself through and under the water, amazed by the sheer force of the current as it buffeted his trailing body. He knew that if he lost his grip on the rope again, he would never regain it. He wouldn’t have the strength. Once, he thought he felt the rope move slightly, as if the arrowhead holding it had loosened. His heart rose into his mouth at the thought of being cast adrift in this pummeling, freezing water. But the arrow held and he continued his slow, breathless progress.

  Working blindly, he crabbed his way into an eddy behind a large rock on the far side. The current suddenly lessened and his legs, for the past desperate five minutes stretched out horizontally by the force of the river, sank slowly down again until his bare feet touched the rocky bottom.

  He heaved himself out of the river on his stomach, sprawling on the rocks of the riverbank, too exhausted to move.

  After several minutes, retching and gasping, he rolled over onto one elbow and looked back to where Crowley was watching anxiously. He waved one hand to signify he was all right, then let it drop wearily. He needed more time to recover from the wild passage across the river.

  Correctly interpreting the signal, Crowley waved in encouragement, then pointed to the top of the bluff. Halt nodded, exaggerating the movement so that Crowley could see it clearly. Crowley waved once more, then set off for the slope leading upward to the bluff. He would shoot a line across the chasm from there, so that Halt could climb the castle wall.

  Halt, sprawled on the wet rocks, feeling the spray soaking over him, watched him go.

  “Take your time,” he muttered.

  31

  HALLER’S RILL WAS A TYPICAL SMALL VILLAGE, APART from its namesake. The rill, a small spring that fed a narrow stream, was located at the far end of the village, in a common grazing ground where villagers could run their pigs and sheep and cattle. A swiveling derrick was built on the bank, supporting a large wooden bucket over the stream. Obviously, the villagers would fill their household containers with fresh water from this source, although most houses also had large water butts standing under their eaves, where they would catch rainwater.

  The main street was empty, even though it was late morning. There was no sign of the usual bustle of movement that might be expected in a prosperous little village like this.

  “People are staying indoors,” Berwick remarked. He and Farrel were concealed in a small copse of trees ten meters before the beginning of the high street. From here, the road sloped down into the village, where it leveled out once more. The other Rangers were camped fifty meters back in the trees, well out of sight. Berwick and Farrel had come ahead to survey the village and plan their next moves.

  “Can’t say I blame them if Tiller and his gang of thugs are still here,” Farrel replied.

  “Sounds as if they are,” Berwick remarked. They could hear raised voices emanating from the inn, even though it was some seventy meters away. “When I saw them last, they’d taken over the inn for their own use.”

  Farrel glanced at him. “They sleep in there, do they?”

  Berwick nodded. “Tiller and his three senior men do. The others bunk down in the barn next door.”

  Farrel rubbed his chin reflectively. “And from the row they’re kicking up now, I imagine they sleep pretty soundly. That might be our chance to take him prisoner—wait till they’re asleep and capture him then.”

  Berwick grinned at him. “I thought you were planning to go in and bash him with your ax.”

  Farrel grunted. “That’s plan B. We’ll go to that if he annoys me.”

  They settled down for the next few hours to watch the inn. The sounds of singing and shouting and, occasionally, fighting continued through the afternoon, but there was no sign of Tiller. Once, one of his men lurched out of the door of the inn and relieved himself in the middle of the road.

  “Charming,” said Farrel as the man clumsily refastened his breeches and staggered back inside the inn.

  “But encouraging, in the light of what we’ve got planned,” Berwick replied. “If he’s typical, they’ll sleep the sleep of the dead tonight.”

  “Let’s hope so,” Farrel said.

  After another half hour, Farrel rose cautiously to a half crouch, staying below the level of the underbrush around them. “I’ll go and bring the others up,” he said. “Keep an eye on things here.”

  Berwick nodded assent and Farrel ghosted back through the trees, moving smoothly from one piece of cover to the next so that his progress was barely discernible. Berwick glanced back to watch him once. For a big man, he thought, Farrel moved with remarkable grace and stealth. Then he shrugged. It wasn’t really so remarkable. Farrel was a Ranger, after all, and stealth and silence were a Ranger’s stocks in trade.

  Stealthy as he might be, Farrel’s approach to the Rangers’ temporary camp didn’t go unnoticed. He had slipped past a large fallen log, covered in secondary growth and vines, when a low voice stopped him.

  “Welcome back.”

  He spun round, searching for the source of the voice. Then his eyes settled on a figure lying beside the fallen log, among the vines and bushes. The only reason he saw him, he realized, was that the hidden Ranger moved a hand in greeting.

  “Just letting you know that your approach has been noted,” said Norris, smiling.

  Farrel shook his head admiringly. The other Ranger was no more than five meters a
way, yet he had gone entirely unnoticed. “I remember you now,” he said. “You were always good at staying unseen.”

  Norris stood and moved forward to join him. “I’ll admit I’ve practiced it a lot,” he said. “What’s happening at the village?”

  Farrel gestured toward the campsite, visible through the trees twenty meters away. “Come on in and I’ll brief everyone. Tiller’s there, so far as we can tell, and he and his men are doing a lot of nonstop drinking.”

  “Good,” said Norris, falling into step beside him.

  The other Rangers looked up as Farrel and Norris entered the small clearing where they had pitched their tents. They gathered round and Farrel quickly brought them up to date on events in the village, and their plan to abduct Tiller that night.

  Samdash frowned as he heard this. “You’re planning to go barging in there without any idea of the layout?” he asked doubtfully.

  Farrel acknowledged the point. “Not completely. Berwick and I will go in there this evening and ask for rooms. If my guess is right, Tiller will send us packing. But at least we’ll get a look at the downstairs part of the inn. Then later, we’ll just have to play it by ear. I imagine Tiller will have taken the best room—which in most inns is the one facing the street. We’ll try that first. If he’s not there, we’ll look in the other rooms until we find him.”

  “They’ll have sentries out at night, surely?” Lewin said.

 
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