The tournament at gorlan, p.23
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.23

           John Flanagan
 
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  They weren’t a moment too soon. The inn door banged open, disgorging four of Tiller’s henchmen onto the street. A second later, another half-dozen armed men pounded out of the stableyard gate to join them, forming up in a rough line.

  One of them pointed his sword at the three figures hobbling down the high street. He hadn’t noticed the Rangers opposite, ready to shoot. “There they are! Get them!”

  “Don’t move!” It was Jurgen again and now the soldiers turned their attention to the single rank of dark-cloaked figures to their right. For a moment, they hesitated, then, with a roar of anger, they surged forward in a ragged charge.

  Instantly, six of them went down, arrows through thighs, calves or arms. Jurgen and his men hadn’t aimed to kill, simply to stop the charge. The impact of the arrows at point-blank range was staggering—literally. Those at the rear of the charge stopped as they saw their comrades sprawling on the ground, crying out in agony. Several more reinforcements exited the stableyard gate, took in the situation and withdrew immediately. There’d be no help from that quarter.

  The wounded men lay on the ground, sobbing in pain and shock. Their four remaining companions watched in horror and began to back toward the tavern door. Then one of them, perhaps drunker than the others, perhaps in a fit of bloodlust, lost control and charged after the retreating figures of Farrel, Berwick and Tiller, his sword drawn back, ready to strike.

  Norris, an arrow nocked and drawn, swung with the running man and released.

  There was no time to aim to wound. The arrow hit the man in the ribs and the force of it flung him sideways, so that he crashed into the wall of the house adjoining the tavern and slid to the ground, lying there silent. The sword clattered and rang on the hard ground as it fell from his fingers.

  Jurgen stepped forward from the shooting line and faced the wounded men on the far side of the street. “Don’t try to follow us,” he ordered, his voice cold. “Next time, we’ll shoot to kill.”

  The wounded men looked up at him, faces contorted with pain. None of them, he knew, would be anxious to face the seven archers once more. His words were aimed at the men back in the inn, and in the stableyard.

  “We’re King’s Rangers!” Jurgen called loudly, and was surprised at the small surge of pride it gave him to use the title. “Tiller is under arrest and will hang for his crimes. Any of you want to join him, you’re welcome. But if you try to follow us, you’re dead men. Get back to whatever hole you crawled out of and lie low. That way, you might have a chance to survive. If you keep raiding, we’ll come looking for you.”

  He made a quick gesture to the other Rangers and they began to trot down the high street after Farrel and Berwick, catching up to them and relieving them of their burden.

  Norris, Jurgen and Samdash stopped after thirty meters, standing in the middle of the street and facing the inn, ready to deal with any sign of pursuit.

  After a few minutes, the inn door opened and the three Rangers raised their bows in a warning gesture. Several men emerged, holding their hands up to show they were carrying no weapons, and began to help their wounded comrades back inside. The door closed behind the last of them and Jurgen turned to his companions.

  “That’s it,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

  35

  THE TOURNAMENT GROUND OUTSIDE THE WALLS OF CASTLE Gorlan was a cheerful riot of noise and color and surging humanity. Flags and pennants flew on all sides, flapping in the breeze. The turf, which had been mowed by an army of scythe-wielding peasants, was rich, lush and green.

  The long, rectangular tournament field was divided down the middle by a meter-and-a-half-high wooden fence called the tilt, which defined the jousting ground. At either end stood the varicolored pavilions of the competing nobles and knights. Their shields were mounted on poles outside the pavilions, the bright enameled colors of their insignia adding to the glitter and excitement of the setting.

  Each baron had his own roped-off area, inside which a main pavilion served as his headquarters for the duration of the tournament. These pavilions, decked out in the barons’ personal colors, were surrounded by smaller tents, accommodating the barons’ followers—knights, battle-school students, armorers, horse masters, cooks, servants and various other supernumeraries. In the case of the larger fiefs, like Redmont, there could be up to a dozen tents, so that the area resembled a small canvas village.

  Morgarath’s pavilion was at the opposite end of the field to Arald’s. His enclosure had only three tents, including the main pavilion, as most of his men would be accommodated in the nearby castle. His black shield, with its golden lightning-bolt insignia, was mounted on a tall pole outside his main pavilion—which was also finished in black and gold.

  The shields outside each pavilion were not merely for decoration. Young knights or squires wishing to make a name for themselves could challenge the senior knights and barons by striking a lance against the mounted shield. Those who were challenged could accept the invitation to joust or not.

  Not all the barons in Araluen had traveled to the tournament. For some, the distance was prohibitive—as was the cost. If a baron lost in a challenge joust, he would have to forfeit his horse and armor. Many of the smaller fiefs could ill afford such an expense—particularly as the barons were less than skillful in their weapons drill. Others were simply too old to be competitive, and had elected to remain at home. As a result, only thirty-two of the fiefs were represented here.

  The tilt was aligned in a north–south direction. On the western side, where the late afternoon sun wouldn’t strike into the eyes of its occupants, was a covered grandstand with separate sections laid out for the nobles and their followers. The seats in this grandstand were comfortable and padded with cushions. In the center was Morgarath’s section, which was only fitting as he was the sponsor of the tournament. There was a small separate section within this part of the grandstand to accommodate the King and his servants. But Morgarath had let it be known that King Oswald was indisposed and would not be attending.

  At either end of the grandstand were common areas, where jugglers and musicians performed and where cook fires were lit, preparing roasted meats, ears of corn or spitted, spiced river fish. The delicious smell of grilling meat and the sizzle of fat dripping onto red-hot coals set mouths watering. There were half a dozen tents selling ale and wine.

  These vendors supplied the needs of the junior knights and squires. In the space behind the grandstand, the barons’ servants prepared their food for them.

  On the opposite side was the commoners’ seating area. It wasn’t enclosed or covered against inclement weather and the seats were simple wooden benches, rising in tiers. It was nowhere near as comfortable, but it was said there was more fun to be had here than in the august—some might say stuffy—presence of the nobles and knights opposite. More food stalls and sideshow tents were arrayed in the open spaces beside the tiers of benches. There was no wine on sale here. Ale was the drink of the common people and there was plenty of that on hand. Several tents were set up with large barrels mounted on their sides, ready to be tapped. Each had long rows of wooden tankards hanging from pegs. Already, the ale sellers were doing a steady trade, even though the actual combats wouldn’t begin till the following day.

  On the tournament field itself, half a dozen squires were exercising their masters’ battlehorses, and an equal number of lesser knights, who couldn’t afford retainers, were getting a feel for the ground as well.

  The tournament rules were simple enough. Each combatant would wear chain-mail armor and carry a shield. His head would be protected by a full-face jousting helmet. The jousting lances they carried would be made of lightweight wood—usually pine—instead of the heavier iron-tipped oak that made up a war lance. The jousting lances were designed to shatter and splinter in the event of a direct hit on an opponent’s shield. An indirect or off-center strike would leave the lance undamaged. A kni
ght gained a point for each lance shattered in this way, with a maximum of five lances being used for each encounter.

  A dead-center strike on a shield could result in one’s opponent being hurled from the saddle, or in extreme cases, the horse being thrown down as well, in addition to the lance shattering. With the lightweight lances that were being used, it required a particularly skilled and exact eye to perform such a perfect strike.

  If a warrior was unhorsed in this way, his opponent was declared the automatic winner of the bout—unless the vanquished horseman indicated that he wished to continue the fight on foot. It was the winner’s prerogative to accept or refuse such a challenge. He could continue to fight from horseback, discarding his lance and continuing with his sword. Or he could, as a matter of sportsmanship, choose to dismount and face his opponent on foot. If he vanquished his opponent once more, he was awarded a double penalty and double points were added to his tally. Swords were, of course, blunted.

  The tournament was due to begin the following day. The first two mornings would be set aside for elimination bouts between lesser knights and final-year battle-school students, hoping to win their way into the main draw.

  In the hour after lunch, younger, less experienced knights would be able to issue challenges to their more senior and experienced colleagues—the barons, senior knights and battle masters. Those challenged could choose to accept or refuse the contest. Most would opt to accept, seeing a chance to get in some worthwhile practice against less dangerous opponents. The tournament was, after all, basically a fun event.

  Personal contests between the senior knights and barons would be held in the afternoon.

  On the third day, jousting would be postponed and the Grand Melee would be held, beginning at eleven o’clock in the morning. This was an opportunity for every combatant entered in the tournament to win prize money. The fighters were divided into two teams, wearing red or blue kerchiefs round their upper arms. They fought on foot, with blunted tournament weapons—swords, maces or axes. The objective was to seek out an opponent and force him to yield. Losers were tallied by heralds and referees, and their weapons and armor would be forfeited to those who had defeated them. As the numbers reduced, the more successful fighters usually retired from the field, taking their booty, and their captives, with them. At intervals, the teams were reassigned to keep the numbers more or less even, so it was possible to fight for an hour or so with another knight as an ally, only to find oneself facing him as an enemy as the numbers were adjusted. Technically, each combatant was supposed to fight as an individual, but loose alliances were often formed and it was hard to police the practice, given the wild, unstructured nature of the melee.

  Even though weapons were blunted, the melee was highly dangerous and serious injuries often occurred. The barons and senior knights generally refrained from taking the field.

  On the fourth and fifth day, jousting would resume and a series of elimination bouts would decide the eventual grand champion of the tournament.

  Baron Arald of Redmont sat at a long table set up in one of his service tents. It was normally used by his armorers, and racks holding chain-mail shirts and leggings, as well as various helmets and other fittings, lined the interior. Today, however, there was no sign of the armorers. The tent was being used for a secret council of war. At the table with Arald was Prince Duncan, Crowley and Halt, Mistress DuLacy from Arald’s Diplomatic Service, and Sir Rodney, the young battle master from Redmont Fief.

  Arald had elected to use this tent for the meeting as it was less conspicuous than his main pavilion, set out in the open where all could view it. The armorers’ tent was pitched back among the cluster of other, lesser tents and it was easier for those meeting here to make their way to it unobserved.

  As Arald drummed his fingers impatiently on the table, the final member of the council entered, pushing back his ragged cowl as he came.

  “Sorry I’m late,” Pritchard told the assembled group. “Had a little trouble getting away from the castle without being noticed.”

  “Have you found my father?” Duncan asked, the strain in his voice obvious.

  Pritchard nodded. “Yes, my lord. There’s a high-ranking prisoner being kept in the eastern tower’s turret room. I’ve made friends with one of the serving girls who takes him his meals and it’s pretty obvious that it’s King Oswald.”

  “Is he all right? Is he in danger?” Duncan wanted to know.

  Pritchard hesitated. “I won’t lie to you, sir. It sounds as if he’s in very poor health. The girl has told me he’s feverish and dispirited and he has long periods where he’s semiconscious. It sounds to me as if he’s being drugged.”

  Duncan slammed his hand on the table. “Then we have to get him out of there!” he snapped, but Pritchard held up a hand in warning.

  “It would be a mistake to act too soon. Morgarath doesn’t know you’re here. And he doesn’t know we’re aware of the King’s situation. We need him to show his hand before we act.”

  “But—” Duncan began.

  Arald interrupted him. “Pritchard’s right, my lord. We need to pick our time carefully. There’s no concrete proof against Morgarath—”

  “No proof? He had me held prisoner in Castle Wildriver!” Duncan said heatedly. “And he’s holding my father prisoner now!”

  “There’s nothing to tie him to the fact that you were held prisoner,” Arald told him. “He’s sure to deny any knowledge of the fact. As for your father, he claims he’s protecting him—against you.”

  “What about the impostor who was raiding across the border?” Duncan demanded.

  Crowley answered him this time. “Again, there’s no proof that Morgarath had a hand in that. Oh, we may get Tiller to confess, but it’ll be his word against Morgarath’s. It’s going to come down to an accusation against him before the Council of Barons. And Morgarath has a lot of support there.”

  Arald turned to Pauline DuLacy. “Speaking of which, what is the situation, Pauline?” he asked.

  The blond woman glanced down at a pile of notes in front of her. But she was merely gathering her thoughts. She had no need of written notes.

  “It’s close. A majority are on our side—probably thirty-five of the Council. But not all of them are present. On the other hand, most of Morgarath’s supporters are here. They’ve probably been warned that he’s planning some kind of grab for the throne. If we confront him here, we won’t have the numbers to find him guilty.” She glanced apologetically at the prince. “We need at least two-thirds of the Council to side with us, and they have to be present.”

  Duncan sat back from the table, his frustration all too evident. “So what can we do?”

  “Our best witness against him is your father, the King,” Pritchard said calmly. “But right at the moment, it’s impossible to get him out of Gorlan. Morgarath’s attention is focused on him and nothing short of a full-scale attack could get to him. On the other hand, once the tournament begins, it’ll be a different matter.”

  “How so?” said Arald.

  Pritchard turned to face him. “Morgarath’s attention will be distracted. He’ll be looking to whittle down our numbers. I’ve heard whispers through the castle that he plans to attack as many of his enemies as possible in the Grand Melee. His henchman Teezal will lead a group of warriors, targeting specific opponents. You can bet they’ll be either people already on our side, or tending to favor our position. Most of them won’t be senior knights, but if they’re put out of action it will weaken our forces.”

  “Against the rules, of course,” said Crowley. “But that’s never bothered Morgarath in the past.”

  “Perhaps we can turn the tables on him, with a group of our own men, targeting the targeters,” Halt suggested. Crowley and Arald smiled at him.

  “Not a bad idea,” said Arald.

  Pritchard cleared his throat. “There’s another thing, my l
ord,” he said to Arald. “Morgarath is almost certain to challenge you. And he’s almost certain to try to bend the rules his way so he can kill you. If you’re out of the way, our position is seriously weakened. You’re the focus for our campaign against him. You can bring enough of the Barons’ Council on board to defeat him.”

  Arald shrugged. “Let him try,” he said. “I’ve fought him before.”

  “My point is,” said Pritchard, “that once he’s involved in the tournament, it’s going to be easier to rescue the King. I could lead a small group into the castle. I know the layout now and I know where they’re keeping him. If we can set him free, he can denounce Morgarath as a traitor.”

  “Of course, Morgarath will demand a hearing before the Council of Barons,” said Arald. “He’s a stickler for proper procedure, when it suits his purpose to demand it. And it’ll take months to assemble the full council.”

  “But at least the King will be free, and we’ll have stopped Morgarath’s attempt to discredit Duncan and seize the throne.” Pritchard paused, then added, “We’ll have only one chance to confront him and we want to be sure he doesn’t wriggle out of it. We have to make it stick. King Oswald is the key to that.”

  Duncan looked around the table. It was obvious that he was still frustrated by the lack of immediate action, but he could see the sense of the arguments that had been raised.

  “Very well. We’ll wait. Crowley, are your men ready?”

  Crowley smiled. “They’re scattered among the crowds, sir, disguised as ordinary workers and yeomen. But they’ll be ready the moment you need them.”

  Duncan studied him for a few seconds, then nodded. “Good. And in the meantime, Arald, you are to do your best to prevent Morgarath killing you.”

  Arald smiled. “I did plan to do something along those lines, sir,” he said.

 
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