The tournament at gorlan, p.24
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.24

           John Flanagan
 
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36

  MORGARATH REACHED ACROSS TO REFILL BARON PELLER’S goblet.

  “More wine, Lord Peller?” he asked, giving the gray-haired Baron a winning smile. Behind the smile, he nursed the sarcastic thought that Peller was unlikely to ever refuse the offer of more wine. The network of veins on his nose and cheek bore testimony to his love of, and dedication to, more wine.

  “Why, thank you, Lord Morgarath!” the nobleman replied. He hastily took a deep gulp of the wine remaining in his goblet, then pushed it forward so that his host could top it up. He regarded the brimming goblet contentedly, and raised it to his lips.

  Morgarath was entertaining three of the barons who were favorable to his cause, although not yet fully committed. They were seated at a laden table in his sumptuous pavilion. The tent flaps were raised to allow a cool breeze to enter and they had dined on roast pork, a spectacular game pie and a wide assortment of vegetables. The remains of the meal lay in front of them and they were now setting themselves to the task of finishing off the fine wine that Morgarath had provided. He was an accomplished host and was known to provide excellent fare for guests. The three barons, Peller, Meagher and Cordell, had accepted his invitation eagerly.

  “How is the King, Lord Morgarath?” inquired Meagher.

  Morgarath shook his head and assumed an unhappy expression. “Not well, I’m afraid,” he said sadly. “His health deteriorates every day and his spirits are lower than ever. I fear his son’s actions in the north are behind it. He is vastly disappointed in Duncan and that is affecting his attitude and, in turn, his health. He’s not been strong since the assassination attempt. The poison took a lot out of him, physically and mentally.”

  “We’re all lucky that you got wind of the attempt in time to save him, my lord,” said Baron Cordell.

  Morgarath gave a deprecating shrug. “I simply did my duty. Any of you would have done the same.”

  “I’ve heard rumors, my lord,” Peller said ponderously, “that the King is thinking of disinheriting his son.”

  Morgarath raised his eyebrows in apparent surprise—although those rumors had been started by himself. “That would be a most serious circumstance, Lord Peller.”

  Peller shrugged. “No more than Duncan’s actions deserve, some might say.”

  Cordell and Meagher murmured agreement. Morgarath shot a shrewd glance at the two of them. He had staged this banquet to gauge their reactions to such an event. He felt a warm glow of satisfaction. His three guests did not represent major fiefs in terms of manpower or troops, but they did wield considerable influence with many of the other barons, particularly those who were so far uncommitted to either side in the obvious struggle for power going on in the Kingdom.

  “But if the King were to take such a step, he would have to name a successor in Duncan’s place,” Morgarath said mildly.

  Again, Peller couched his reply in those ponderous tones that were his trademark—particularly when the wine level in his goblet had been lowered several times. “I could think of no better candidate than yourself, my lord,” he said to Morgarath.

  But the Baron of Gorlan Fief waved the suggestion aside. “Me? I have no business being King. Nor any wish to become one. I’m content with my lot.”

  “I believe there are many among us who would disagree, Lord Morgarath,” said Cordell. “We would be happy to support your candidature for the position. After all, you are the foremost knight in the realm. Many of us look up to you.”

  Again Morgarath shook his head, smiling reluctantly at the idea. But inside, he felt a surge of triumph. Now that the matter was out in the open, raised by someone other than himself and greeted with approval by these three, he could progress his plan to the next stage. He had doubts that King Oswald would publicly denounce Duncan as his heir, but if the matter were already being discussed as a fait accompli, he could use a written proclamation, marked with the King’s seal, to bring the matter to a head. Such a proclamation would need to be ratified by the Council of Barons, but he sensed that he would be able to gather a majority there.

  “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, my lords,” he said easily. “I’m sure that if we put our minds to it, we can resolve this problem with Duncan.”

  The three men mumbled agreement, although they sounded less than convinced. Morgarath smiled to himself. The resolution of this problem might well be to have Duncan killed, he thought. But before that, he would need Oswald to put Morgarath’s name forward as his successor.

  He was about to speak when someone approached the entrance to the dining section. He glanced up and saw Teezal standing expectantly.

  “What is it?” he snapped, anger creeping into his voice. He had left explicit instructions that his banquet was not to be interrupted.

  “My lord, I have news,” Teezal said nervously.

  Morgarath frowned. Teezal wasn’t stupid and he was aware of Morgarath’s instructions that the luncheon not be interrupted. Therefore, what he had to say must be important. Still, the interruption gave Morgarath an opportunity to further ingratiate himself with his guests.

  “It can wait,” he said coldly. “I am entertaining honored guests.” He turned to smile at the three barons. Morgarath was a blackhearted killer, but he was capable of exuding enormous charm—just as a viper might lull its victims before striking.

  He saw the looks of gratification on their faces and turned back to Teezal. “Wait outside,” he said curtly.

  His lackey turned and stepped outside the pavilion. “Yes, my lord,” he said as he withdrew.

  Morgarath turned back to his guests, smiling expansively. “Now, my friends, some more wine? Or perhaps some fruit?” He gestured to the table, but already Cordell and Meagher were rising from their chairs. Peller followed suit, after a reluctant glance at the quarter-full wine jug on the table.

  “Really, my lord, we’ve taken enough of your time,” said Cordell, and the others instantly concurred. Morgarath feigned disappointment.

  “But we were just beginning to enjoy ourselves,” he said, although the real reason for the luncheon had been accomplished, as far as he was concerned.

  “No. We’d best get away. You have much to do as the host of this excellent tournament, Lord Morgarath, and we’re grateful for the time you’ve given us,” said Meagher, leading the way toward the doorway. The others followed, and as Morgarath ushered them out, maintaining his expression of disappointment at their departure, Peller turned back to him and tapped the side of his nose with one finger.

  “Remember what we discussed, my lord,” he said.

  Morgarath nodded, his expression serious and concerned. “I will, Lord Peller. But I doubt that anything will come of it. After all, the rumors about Oswald’s intentions are just that—rumors.”

  “Nevertheless,” Peller intoned, “these are troubled times and in such times we look for a man to take firm control.”

  “Perhaps,” said Morgarath. “But let’s not make any decisions in haste.”

  Peller nodded and followed the other two barons out into the sunlight and bustle of the tournament field. As he waved them good-bye, Morgarath turned and surveyed the anteroom to his private dining space. Along with several of his servants and his clerk, Teezal was waiting patiently, sitting on a stool. As his lord’s gaze fell on him, he rose to his feet. Morgarath jerked a thumb at the inner room.

  “Inside,” he said and, as the servants moved to enter to clear the table, he stopped them. “You wait here.”

  They stepped back and he followed Teezal into the inner room, once again taking his seat at the head of the table. He gestured to the wine jug and one of the glasses left empty by his guests. “Have some wine if you like. It’ll go to waste otherwise.”

  Teezal accepted this rather dismissive invitation eagerly. He knew that Morgarath would have provided the finest wine from his cellars for the day’s luncheon. He poured a glass and sipped a
ppreciatively.

  Morgarath waited a few seconds. “Well, what’s this important news that you’ve discovered?”

  Teezal set the glass down reluctantly. He knew that after he delivered his news, there’d be no more time for wine drinking. “My lord,” he said, “I’m sorry I interrupted—”

  But Morgarath waved the apology aside. “No matter. I was finished with those three self-important bores anyway. Gave me an excuse to be rid of them. Now what did you have to tell me?”

  “My lord,” Tiller said warily. He knew Morgarath’s violent temper only too well. “It’s Tiller. He’s here.”

  “Tiller?” Morgarath’s face was blank. For a moment, the name meant nothing to him.

  “Tiller,” Teezal repeated, emphasizing the name. Then, seeing Morgarath’s brows come together in anger, he elaborated. “The false Duncan. The impostor who’s been raiding across the northern border. That Tiller.”

  Morgarath’s face cleared, anger being replaced by curiosity. “You say he’s here? Here at Gorlan? What does he want? I told him never to show his face near me!” Momentarily, he assumed that Tiller had come of his own volition.

  Teezal quickly disabused him of that idea. “He’s not here willingly, my lord. He’s a prisoner. He’s being held in Arald’s compound.”

  “Arald? May the Fates curse the man! Must he always interfere in my business? How does he come to have Tiller as a prisoner?”

  Teezal shrugged. “I have no idea, my lord. I was keeping an eye on Arald’s compound, as you ordered, when I became aware that someone was being held prisoner in one of the smaller tents. I saw food being taken in, but whoever was being fed never came out. So I managed to get a look inside and there he was—Tiller. He’s chained up and can’t move more than a few meters in any direction. But it’s definitely him.”

  Morgarath stroked his chin reflectively. “Why would Arald have brought him here?” he wondered.

  “He could be planning to contest your plans for the throne, my lord,” said Teezal. “After all, they depend on Prince Duncan being discredited and disowned. If Arald produced Tiller, and had him swear he was impersonating Duncan on your orders, that could complicate things.”

  “True. But how has Arald got wind of my plans?” Morgarath was thinking aloud rather than asking questions. But Teezal replied nevertheless.

  “The rumors are all over the tournament, my lord, that the King plans to disinherit Duncan. It wouldn’t take much for Arald to guess that you were behind them, and were planning to replace him.”

  “True,” said Morgarath thoughtfully. “Very true. But how did Arald get hold of him?”

  “I can make inquiries, my lord. I’m sure I . . . ,” Teezal began, but Morgarath waved him to silence.

  “Time enough to do that later. If we start asking around, Arald might get wind that we know Tiller is here. No. I have something more urgent for you to do with friend Tiller.”

  “What’s that, my lord?” Teezal asked.

  Morgarath turned to look at him. Not for the first time, Teezal was reminded of the eyes of a snake about to strike.

  “Kill him,” Morgarath said.

  37

  PRITCHARD PEERED ROUND THE DOORWAY INTO THE MASSIVE kitchen in the basement of Castle Gorlan. For the moment, the giant roasting pits and huge iron ovens weren’t in use. But one of the kitchen maids was preparing a meal on a tray—as she did every day around midday.

  Having watched her for the past week, Pritchard knew the tray would be going to the isolated room in the tower—where Oswald was being held prisoner.

  He watched as the girl placed a bowl of thin broth onto the tray, then turned away to prepare a small plate of sliced chicken and green vegetables. The portions were never large. Morgarath had no intention of letting Oswald regain his strength and Pritchard had noticed that the girl stirred a small quantity of white powder into the soup each day, pouring it from a small bottle she kept in her apron pocket. He was convinced that Oswald was being kept sedated, although he had overheard the girl being told by the kitchen master that the powder was a tonic. She was a good-hearted lass and he knew she would have no willing part in keeping the old man in the tower drugged.

  Pritchard stepped down the three steps into the kitchen and moved toward her. She sensed him coming, looked up and smiled. She liked the ragged old man who had taken to loitering round the kitchen looking for scraps and handouts. He was invariably polite and courteous to her, and always thanked her profusely for the tidbits she gave him. And he had a delightful twinkle in his eye, she thought.

  “Good morning, Belmore,” she said now. That was the name he had given her.

  “Good morning, mistress. How are . . . ?” Pritchard stopped in mid-sentence and put his hand to his forehead, shaking his head. He staggered, regaining his balance by seizing the kitchen bench, and stood, swaying uncertainly, bewilderment and fear in his eyes.

  “Are you all right?” she asked anxiously and he made a dismissive gesture, taking his hand away from his forehead to do so.

  “Just a little dizzy,” he said, his voice quavering. “I didn’t eat yesterday.”

  The previous day, he hadn’t appeared in the castle kitchen. He’d been meeting with Arald and Prince Duncan.

  “You should have come to see me!” she scolded. Forgetting the tray, she turned back to the worktable and quickly sliced him a slab of bread from a fresh loaf, buttering it thickly, then poured a beaker of water for him. She placed the bread and water on the table and gestured to it.

  “Here, sit and have something to eat!” she said.

  Pritchard moved cautiously toward the chair she indicated, keeping his balance with one hand on the workbench. Then he sat heavily and began to eat hungrily, washing the mouthfuls of fresh buttered bread down with cool water. “Ah!” he said. “That’s better! The gods bless you, mistress!”

  The girl smiled at him, relieved to see he was obviously over the fainting spell that had seized him. “You have to look after yourself, Belmore. You’re not a young man anymore and you know there’s always plenty to spare in the kitchen. If you’re hungry, just find me. I’ll always get you something.”

  He smiled at her. “Thank you, mistress. You’re too kind,” he said. He felt a slight twinge of conscience over the fact that he had deceived her and taken advantage of her kindly nature. As she had turned away to fetch him food and drink, he had quickly slipped a folded scrap of parchment under the soup bowl.

  She patted his shoulder now, smiling at him. “I must be about my work,” she said. “You sit here and eat your bread until you feel better.”

  “I’m feeling better already, thanks to you,” he replied warmly. She gathered up the tray and headed for the door out of the kitchen.

  “Take all the time you need,” she said. “Nobody will bother you.”

  Pritchard waited, listening to the sound of her light footsteps as she crossed the flagstones of the vast central hall and began the long climb up a series of winding stairways to the eastern tower. In spite of her best efforts the broth would be little more than lukewarm by the time she delivered it, he knew.

  Once he was sure she had gone, he wolfed the last of the bread—which was fresh baked and warm and quite delicious. Then he hurried out of the kitchen by a side door and made his way out of the castle grounds. He had become a familiar sight around Castle Gorlan over the past week and was able to come and go virtually unhindered. In fact, he thought, the guards and sentries probably didn’t even notice him as he passed under the massive portcullis and made his way across the drawbridge.

  King Oswald glanced up from his chair as he heard the door of his turret room open. The sound of the large key grating in the lock was a reminder that he was a prisoner here in Gorlan. He sat at a table in his nightshirt—the only garment he had been given. A blanket was draped round his shoulders because the sentries would allow no fire in
the turret room.

  “Can’t have you burning yourself, your majesty,” they’d sneered when he’d requested some warmth in the chilly room. High above the surrounding countryside like this, the turret room was subject to constant chill winds whistling round it and finding their way in through the gaps in the shutters.

  He managed a wan smile as the kitchen maid appeared with his meal. At least she was pleasant, he thought, and was constantly solicitous of his health.

  He coughed, the action racking his body. He felt weak and totally lacking in energy. He was sure they were putting something in his food to keep him drowsy and dispirited, but he didn’t know where they were putting it, or what they were giving him. And, truth be told, as each day went by, he cared less and less. He could feel his will to live, his will to resist Morgarath’s constant demands that he disinherit his son, diminishing.

  Morgarath had made no bones about Duncan’s current fate. King Oswald knew his son was being held prisoner by Morgarath’s allies. And he knew that Duncan’s life depended on his, Oswald’s, doing as Morgarath commanded. He sighed unhappily. There had been a time when he had trusted Morgarath, but that time was long past and now he realized he had been a fool to do so.

  He also knew that the minute he signed any proclamation naming Morgarath as his heir, Duncan’s life would be over. Morgarath couldn’t afford to let him live, and possibly rechallenge for the throne at a later date. All Oswald could do was continue to resist.

  Although each day, his will to do so became weaker and weaker.

  “Here you go, my lord,” said the kitchen maid cheerfully. “A nice bit of chicken there, and some greens. Eat ’em up. They’ll do you good.”

  In spite of his situation, Oswald smiled tiredly. Her cheerful prattle reminded him of his old nanny when he was a boy. His nanny had been fond of telling him to “eat up, it’ll do you good.”

  He picked up the chicken leg and took a nibble. But the maid scolded him good-naturedly.

 
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