The tournament at gorlan, p.21
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.21

           John Flanagan
 
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  Farrel nodded. “Almost certainly. We’ll take care of them. They’ll probably still be half drunk anyway. Then we’ll find Tiller, knock him out and carry him downstairs, where the rest of you will be waiting.”

  “I take it we’ll be there to discourage any possible pursuit?” Lewin said.

  “Exactly,” Farrel said. “We’ll try to do it quietly so there’s no alarm raised. But if it all goes pear-shaped, I figure half a dozen archers can do a good job of discouraging anyone who might be following us.”

  He looked around the circle of faces. There were a few nods, and no sign that anyone had an alternative to offer. It was a simple plan, but they had all learned over the years that simple was best.

  “Pack up the camp here,” he said, sweeping an arm around the circle of tents. “We’ll move up to the edge of the village while it’s still light. That way, you can get a look at the place—and keep on eye on Berwick and me when we go to the inn.”

  As one, they turned away to begin breaking camp, striking their small tents, then folding them ready to tie behind their saddles. There had been no fire, so there was little else to do. One by one, they moved to where the horses were waiting in a larger clearing some distance away.

  Satisfied that things were in hand, Farrel nodded to Norris. “Bring them forward when they’re ready,” he said. Then he headed back through the trees again.

  Farrel and Berwick, minus their longbows and distinctive Ranger cloaks, walked down the middle of the high street, making no attempt to conceal their approach to the inn. There were no sentries visible, but that wasn’t to say that there weren’t watchers at the inn’s windows. They both carried stout oak staffs and Farrel had left his ax behind at the edge of the village. They wore plain brown woolen cloaks. Each of them wore his saxe, with the second, smaller scabbard containing his throwing knife concealed under his jerkin. The double scabbards, like the mottled cloaks, were unique to Rangers.

  The other Rangers, split into two groups, moved stealthily down the back roads on either side of the high street, stopping some thirty meters short of the inn and standing ready to lend a hand if their two companions found themselves in trouble. Unlike the two walking down the main street, they all carried their longbows and each man had a full quiver slung over his shoulder.

  Farrel strode up to the inn door and pushed it open, stepping inside with Berwick a pace behind him.

  The small room was crowded with armed men, drinking and talking noisily. The usual bar ran along one wall—a heavy plank set on wooden kegs. More kegs were held in racks behind the bar, lying on their sides. At least half of them, Berwick saw, were already tapped, with spigots set in the bungholes. Spilled ale and wine puddled on the floor in front of them, and on the bar and tables where drinkers sat. The innkeeper, a harried-looking man with receding hair, and his two equally harried serving girls, were kept busy filling and refilling tankards for their guests.

  “And who the devil might you be?” demanded a rough voice from a table close to the fire.

  32

  BY THE TIME CROWLEY WAS IN POSITION, HALT HAD recovered his breath and was ready for the next phase of the operation. He could see Crowley moving around at the top of the bluff. He moved along the steeply sloping bank until he was opposite his friend’s position.

  Checking that Halt was ready on the bank below him, Crowley nocked another of the line-carrying arrows to his bow and threaded the light line through the ring behind the arrowhead. He fastened the free end to a branch behind him, and laid the rest of the line out in carefully arranged coils.

  There was a heavy wood table on the castle terrace opposite and slightly below him, with chairs set around it. He had marked it out as a target several days ago. If it had been moved in the meanwhile, he would have targeted the wooden frame of the doorway leading to the tower rooms, but he preferred to avoid the noise of the arrow hitting the doorjamb. Any solid piece of wood would do as a target. This arrowhead didn’t have to support anybody’s weight. He simply needed a firm anchor point for it on the terrace.

  Standing, he checked one more time that the line was ready to run freely, then he drew the arrow back, sighted quickly and smoothly, and released.

  The arrow, trailing the light line behind it like a smoke trail, flashed across the gorge and slammed into one of the solid legs of the table. As before, he attached a heavier line to the free end and began to pull in on the guideline. A few meters past the point where the two ropes joined, a solid branch, a meter and a half long, was attached to the heavy rope as a crosspiece. Crowley pulled in the light line carefully, and watched the heavier rope beginning to snake out over the chasm, the piece of wood sitting at right angles to the line.

  He maneuvered the rope carefully, flicking it in a long loop, and taking a few paces to the side until the branch was positioned over one of the crenellations on the wall, then he slowly released the tension so that it sank into the gap. As soon as it was in position, he pulled gently on the heavy line until the branch was wedged across the gap in the battlements, firmly anchored in position. He tugged on the line more forcefully to make sure the branch was set solidly, and nodded with satisfaction.

  He glanced down to the far bank at the foot of the castle wall and saw the pale oval of Halt’s upturned face as the Hibernian watched him. He signaled that all was well, then looped the heavy line round a sapling to keep tension on it and keep the branch firmly wedged in the gap in the battlements.

  Checking once more that Halt was ready, he tied a large rock to the free end of the rope and moved to the edge of the bluff. He swung the weighted end of the rope several times, allowing it to gather momentum, then released it, sending it curving out and down over the gorge to where Halt was waiting to receive it.

  The rock bounced on the bank a few meters from where Halt stood and he scrambled forward to secure it before it could slide off into the river. He seized it firmly and took up the slack, then signaled to Crowley to release it from the far side of the river. Crowley unhitched the rope from the sapling and let it fall as Halt quickly hauled in the slack.

  This was the crucial point. As the tension came off the rope, the branch wedged between the battlements fell loose onto the flagstones of the terrace. Then Halt carefully began to take up the slack once more. He felt the branch riding up the stone wall, then it checked as it wedged in the crenellation again. Halt tugged on it to test that it was firmly set. Feeling the resistance on the line, he tugged harder, letting his feet come off the ground to test it with his full weight. No point in getting halfway up and having it come loose, he thought.

  But the rope held firmly and he moved close to the wall, took a bight around his upper body, then seized it firmly in both hands and heaved himself up, setting his feet against the rough stone wall so that his upper body hung back, at a steep angle from the wall—almost perpendicular to it.

  With the aid of the rope, it was a simple matter to scale the wall. The roughly cut blocks of stone gave his bare feet plenty of purchase and he walked up the wall, heaving in on the rope with each step. The thick branch held firm and supported his weight easily, and he made rapid progress upward.

  On the bluff opposite, Crowley watched his friend moving smoothly up the castle’s side, looking like a giant spider as he ascended. He divided his attention between Halt and the door leading into the tower room where Duncan was held, making sure there was no sign of anyone coming onto the terrace to investigate the thud of the arrow into the table leg or the occasional scraping sound of the branch wedged in the crenellation. But so far, there was no sign of movement.

  Halt had reached a point three meters below the terrace where the wall bulged outward slightly to provide defenders with a vantage point from which they could hurl down rocks or other projectiles. He leaned his body even farther back over the abyss and walked himself up over the reverse slope. The going was more difficult and his progress slowed.

&n
bsp; Crowley chewed his lip, his eyes flicking from Halt to the doorway into the tower room. “Come on, Halt,” he muttered.

  But Halt moved slowly and carefully past the obstruction. This was no time to rush and risk slipping. As the wall returned to the vertical, he straightened up and, with a few more carefully placed steps, heaved himself into the gap in the battlements, dropping lightly onto the flagstones of the terrace and releasing the rope so that it hung back down the castle wall to the bank of the river below.

  He looked across and up at Crowley and signaled all was well. Then he dusted off his hands and flexed his shoulders—which were aching from the strain of the climb. He gave himself a few moments for his breathing to steady, then moved, soft footed, across the terrace toward the door leading inside, drawing his saxe as he went.

  Gently, he tried the handle. It came as no surprise to find that it was locked. Leaning his ear against the rough wood, he listened for a few seconds, hearing muted voices inside.

  He turned around to face Crowley once more, and mimed knocking on the door. He saw Crowley nod in assent, then draw an arrow from his quiver and nock it to the bowstring.

  Halt raised the saxe and scraped its hilt across the wood of the door. The voices inside fell silent. He repeated the action, scraping the hilt on the metal door handle for good measure, making a soft metallic shriek. This time, the voices from within were louder and more easily understood.

  “What was that?” a man’s voice asked.

  Another replied, with considerably less interest. “What?”

  “There was a noise—something’s at the door.”

  “Probably a bird,” said the disinterested one. Halt waited but conversation had lapsed. He scraped the hilt of his saxe on the door handle again, a little harder this time, so that the squeal of metal on metal was louder and more distinct.

  “There it goes again. That’s not a bird!” said the first voice.

  “Well, go and see what it is,” said a third voice, with a distinct note of irritation perceptible.

  Halt frowned. Three of them. He half turned back to Crowley and held up three fingers. Then he stepped to one side as he heard a key turn on the other side of the door.

  He flattened himself against the wall as the lock clicked and the door began to open. A helmeted head emerged through the doorway, turning to peer from side to side. Unfortunately for its owner, it peered first in the direction opposite to where Halt stood.

  He grabbed the man by the scruff of the neck and heaved him out through the door, pivoting on one leg to spin him around and slam him face-first into the stone wall beside the doorway. The soldier let out a strangled grunt. The short sword he had been gripping fell from his fingers and clattered on the flagstones. A few seconds later, the soldier followed it as Halt heaved him backward, then released his grip. The man crashed to the ground, his helmet rolling free, then lay there, groaning.

  Halt stooped quickly to retrieve the sword. He felt a rush of movement behind him and threw himself to one side as a second soldier emerged, swinging his sword in a vicious arc that just missed Halt’s head. Halt hit the flagstones on his shoulder and rolled clear before the soldier could recover. He came to his feet in one smooth motion, sword in his left hand, saxe in his right, and faced the sentry.

  This man had a long sword and he swung it up to deliver a clumsy overhand stroke. Halt blocked it with the two shorter blades locked together, then brought up his right foot and kicked out at his opponent, hitting him in the midriff and sending him staggering, to slam back against the open door.

  The soldier cursed him and started forward again, the sword sweeping back for a round-arm cut, when something hissed viciously past Halt’s ear and an arrow thudded into the man’s chest. The man looked down at it in surprise. His sword arm dropped to his side as he staggered back several paces. Then the weapon dropped from his fingers as he hit the wall beside the door and fell, sprawling against it. His head sagged forward.

  Halt leapt over the still body and went through the doorway, dropping the sword and holding his saxe ready.

  The third sentry had been resting on a narrow cot by the far wall. He was busy untangling himself from his blankets as Halt burst into the room. He tried to rise to stop the intruder, tangled his feet in the blankets and tripped as he came out of the bed, falling to his knees. He reached desperately for a scabbarded sword leaning against the foot of the cot. Halt swept his saxe around in a short arc, slamming the heavy brass pommel into the side of the sentry’s head. The man’s eyes glazed, and he collapsed to the floor.

  Halt glanced quickly around the room. There was nobody else visible. There was another door leading to an adjoining room. He noted that there was a key in the lock.

  “Prince Duncan!” he shouted.

  “Here!”

  The voice came from behind the locked door. Quickly, Halt turned the key and threw the door open. He found himself facing a tall man not much older than himself. His blond hair and beard were long and unkempt. He was wearing a red surcoat, with a stooping hawk emblem. The surcoat was wrinkled and grubby. He looked at Halt, who was barefooted, still soaking wet, dressed in only a shirt and trousers and with a gleaming saxe in his hand.

  “Who the blazes are you?” he asked, more than a little confused.

  “My name’s Halt. I’m here to get you out of here,” Halt told him. He stripped the two unconscious sentries of their belts and used them to lash their wrists to their ankles, hauling the leather as tight as he could manage. He studied the result critically.

  “That should keep them out of mischief,” he muttered. Then he gestured for the prince to follow him. “Come on.”

  Duncan hesitated. “That isn’t the way out,” he said, but Halt grabbed his arm and dragged him toward the terrace.

  “It is now. Get moving,” he ordered. He half dragged the reluctant prince out and through the room that led to the terrace. Duncan took in the sprawled figure by the bed, then raised his eyebrows as they emerged into the open and he saw the man slumped by the door, an arrow in his chest.

  They raised even farther when he saw the original sentry sprawled on the ground as well. He was moaning weakly.

  “Did you do this?” he asked.

  Halt shook his head. “I did two of them. He did this one.” He gestured to the man by the door, then to the bluff opposite, where Crowley was standing, waving to them. Duncan recognized the mottled cloak and the longbow.

  “That’s a Ranger,” he said, a note of wonder in his voice.

  Halt continued dragging him toward the battlements. “So he tells me,” he said.

  But Duncan was still looking at the distant figure. “I didn’t think there were any Rangers left,” he said.

  Halt reached over the wall and pulled a loop of the rope up toward him.

  “There are a few of us,” he said. “Now grab this rope and get going down the wall.”

  Duncan backed away a pace. “It’s a long way down,” he prevaricated.

  Halt raised an eyebrow. “Castles tend to be that way. They build them high. Now get going.”

  But Duncan had paled at the sight of the drop below them. “I don’t have a head for heights,” he said. “I don’t think I can do it.”

  Halt sighed in exasperation. “What is it with you Araluens? Are you all afraid of a little fall?” He began hauling the rope up, coiling it over his shoulder as it came.

  “It’s not the fall that bothers me,” said Duncan. “It’s the sudden stop at the end.”

  “Be that as it may, this is the way we’re going.” Halt had retrieved all the rope now and he quickly tied a loop in the end. “Put your foot in this, hang on tight and I’ll lower you down.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “Can you swim?”

  “No,” said Duncan, as he slipped the loop over one foot and moved to the gap between the battlements.

 
“Then I hope you can hold your breath,” Halt said. He shoved the table up against the wall and belayed the rope around one of its legs. He wrapped the free end round his shoulders, seized onto the rope and leaned back, ready to take the strain. “Away you go.”

  Gingerly, Duncan lowered himself backward over the drop, holding tight to the rope as Halt began to pay it out. He used his free leg to fend off from the wall as he went. Halt grunted as the prince’s weight came onto the rope, but the bight around the table leg gave him a mechanical advantage and he let the rope run out smoothly and slowly.

  After several minutes, he felt the line go slack and he moved to the edge of the wall, peering down. Duncan was on the riverbank below, looking up and waving as he saw Halt’s face appear over the battlements. His relief at being back on firm ground was evident in his body language.

  “You’re all smiles now,” said Halt as he reset the wooden crosspiece in the crenellation, then lowered himself backward over the edge. “Wait till your backside hits that freezing river.”

  33

  FARREL LOOKED AROUND THE INN TO FIND THE MAN WHO had spoken. His face was set in a scowl and he wore a red surcoat, smeared with stains and grease. In the center of the surcoat was a crude representation of a red hawk in a white circle. Farrel, who had met Prince Duncan on several occasions, had to admit that there was a surface resemblance to the prince. But it was as if he were looking at an imperfect copy, with the lines blurred and inexact.

  Tiller was holding a flagon of ale in one hand and a joint of mutton in the other. As Farrel watched, he tore a strip of meat off the bone with his teeth, set the bone down and absentmindedly wiped his greasy hand on the front of his surcoat. That explained the stains, Farrel thought. The seated man continued to survey the two new arrivals as he chewed the tough mutton, his brows furrowed as he waited for an answer. Eventually, he lost patience.

  “Well?” he demanded. “Who the devil are you, I said.”

 
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