The tournament at gorlan, p.28
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.28

           John Flanagan
 
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  Crowley stepped past Halt, approaching the elderly man and dropping to one knee beside the bed. He took one of the thin, wrinkled hands in both of his and spoke quietly and soothingly to the prisoner.

  “Come on, your majesty. We’re King’s Rangers and we’re getting you out of here.”

  42

  THE TWO CONTESTANTS SAT THEIR HORSES AT EACH END OF the tilt. Their visors were lowered and neither man moved. They resembled metal statues, Morgarath in his all-black armor, relieved only by the patch of yellow on his breast and shield, and Arald in his dazzling blue, with the gold boar’s head on his shield that was his personal insignia.

  As they had ridden out to their starting positions, a hush had fallen over the crowd. Baron Naylor of Taft strode out to a position halfway down the tilt, and stood facing the western grandstand.

  He nodded to a herald who had accompanied him. The brightly garbed man raised his long trumpet and blew an echoing blast on it—the signal for silence—although, with the sudden hush that had fallen over the spectators, the signal was unnecessary. Still, it was part of the ceremony of the joust and so it was carried out.

  Naylor had a penetrating voice—one of the reasons he had been selected as grand marshal—and now he used it to its fullest extent.

  “Milords, ladies, noble knights and citizens of the Kingdom of Araluen! This will be a single combat, a challenge between Morgarath, Baron of Gorlan Fief, and Arald, Baron of Redmont Fief.” He paused, gathering his breath, then continued.

  “The challenge has been issued by Lord Morgarath, and accepted by Lord Arald. Both men have agreed that this passage of arms will be à résultat final.”

  Now a buzz of excitement ran through the crowd—particularly those in the public grandstand on the eastern side. Although many had heard rumors about the details of the challenge, this was the first time they had heard it officially confirmed.

  Naylor frowned. He was a somewhat pompous man and he didn’t like being interrupted. He turned and faced the eastern grandstand and its noisy inhabitants. Like a flock of starlings at sunset, he thought. The undercurrent of conversation continued in spite of his withering glance. He gestured impatiently with his grand marshal’s mace to the herald beside him. Again, the trumpeter blew a shattering blast, which finally brought silence to the crowd.

  Naylor now looked to the end of the tilt where Morgarath sat astride Warlock. The white horse was as unmoving as his rider.

  “Lord Morgarath, are you ready for combat?”

  Morgarath’s face was covered by his helmet. Knowing that his voice would be muffled, he chose to signal his readiness by raising his lance vertically in his right hand, then allowing it to drop back into the socket on his right stirrup.

  Naylor turned to Arald’s end of the field. “Lord Arald, are you ready for combat?”

  Arald mirrored Morgarath’s signal, raising his lance, then lowering it again. His battlehorse, Barnaby, flicked his tail at several errant flies, and trembled a muscle on his left shoulder. Otherwise, he too was unmoving.

  Naylor nodded and paced toward the western grandstand, leaving the field of combat clear for the two barons. He turned to face them and raised his mace toward the three additional heralds who were standing ready.

  Three trumpets rose to three sets of lips, and the strident notes of the signal to begin rang out over the field. As the last note died away, both warriors drove their spurs into their horses’ sides and thundered forward. In the same second, a massive cheer rose from the crowd. Individual cries could be made out, here or there, encouraging either Morgarath or Arald, but for the most part, the crowd simply gave voice to a wordless shout of excitement.

  The thunder of the two horses’ hooves rose in intensity and huge clods of torn turf were hurled into the air behind them as the massive beasts strained every muscle and sinew, striving for the maximum speed and power as they charged.

  The cries intensified as the two lances came down from their forty-five-degree angle to the horizontal. Some in the crowd had bet that one or the other of the riders would be unhorsed in the first pass and they leaned forward eagerly now as the collision was imminent.

  It came, a thundering crash of wood and metal as the horses hurled themselves at each other on either side of the wooden fence that separated them. In this first pass, neither rider tried for anything more than a centered hit on the other’s shield. This was a moment when they would assess each other’s strength and timing and balance. As they came together, each lance was trapped by the concave shape of the opponent’s shield. Both bent like bows until, in the same instant, they both shattered into hundreds of splinters, showering down on the riders as they crossed.

  A groan rose from those who had bet on the first pass being decisive. Then their voices were drowned by a swelling tide of cheering as the crowd, nobles and commoners alike, roared their encouragement.

  As they met, Arald had felt the shuddering impact of Morgarath’s lance against his shield, and the inexorable force trying to hurl him back out of the saddle. He thrust forward against it, gripping his horse with all the strength of his thigh muscles to retain his seat, feeling the same savage pressure on his own lance as it locked on to Morgarath’s shield.

  It had been a year since he last faced the black-clad Baron on the tournament field and he had forgotten the timing and power of the man’s lance stroke. For a second, he thought the sheer force of the impact would hurl him back out of the saddle and onto the ground. Then both lances shattered at the same time and he lunged forward, the backward pressure suddenly relieved. He shook his head. That had been a close call, he thought. But he felt that his own strike on Morgarath’s shield had been nearly as forceful.

  Morgarath, for his part, cursed inside his helmet. Arald had hit him hard—harder than he’d expected. In the past year, Morgarath had dueled occasionally, but never with a knight as accomplished or as skilled or as determined as his current opponent. For the first time, he felt a flicker of concern. Not fear, but simply the realization that he must not take Arald too lightly. That had been his mistake in the past.

  He knew he had hit Arald with a near-perfectly centered strike. A hit like that would have thrown most men out of the saddle. Yet he had felt no movement from the blue-and-gold knight. He might need to change tactics, he thought. He tossed the shattered stump of his lance to one side. Behind him, Arald was doing the same. Then they both checked and turned their horses at the end of the tilt.

  Arald’s black horse reared onto his hind legs as he turned, but the Baron of Redmont sat him easily. He calmed the horse and waited till his attendant ran forward and passed him a new lance. The assistant marshal stationed at this end of the tilt stepped close to Barnaby’s shoulder and called up to Arald.

  “Are you ready?”

  “Ready,” called Arald, his voice muffled and echoing strangely, sounding like someone else. He stared past the slightly blurred bars of his visor to the other end of the field, where he saw Morgarath answering the same query. Both marshals raised their batons, and the heralds blew the signal to charge once more.

  Again, the cheering swelled with the thunder of horses’ hooves as the two straining animals churned the soft ground in an attempt to put as much force behind their charge as possible. Arald could hear his own breath rasping hollowly inside the helmet, above the background of his horse’s pounding hooves. His eyes were set on Morgarath’s lance point as they approached and it came down to the horizontal. Then he saw a slight waver. He suspected that Morgarath would try to end this combat quickly, that he would use his undoubted skill and precision to achieve a decisive blow with the lance. Even as he had the thought, he saw the tip of Morgarath’s lance suddenly rise and center on his helmet, with only a few meters still separating them.

  Nine times out of ten, the ploy would have been successful. But Arald’s premonition had prepared him and his reflexes were lightning fast. Keeping
his lance trained steadily on the center of Morgarath’s shield, he swayed slightly to the right, allowing the black warrior’s lance point to slide over his left shoulder. A fraction of a second later, Arald’s lance hit Morgarath’s shield and, once again, shattered with a splintering crack.

  Morgarath, slightly unbalanced after his own thrust met no resistance, swayed visibly in the saddle before he recovered and galloped on.

  Now the spectators shouted even louder. In a normal joust, such a pass would have put Arald at an advantage. His lance had shattered; Morgarath’s had not. That would put Arald a point up. But this was to be fought à résultat final, so it really had no significance. It was a moral victory for Arald, but that was all.

  He slowed Barnaby, who was puffing and grunting with the effort of the two passes, and wheeled him at the end of the tilt, throwing his broken lance aside and taking a new one from his attendant. At the far end of the field, he saw Morgarath discarding his lance and he frowned, a little puzzled. Morgarath’s lance was undamaged. Why change it? Morgarath’s attendant passed him a replacement. The black-clad warrior tested the heft and balance of the new weapon, then tossed it aside, gesturing for another.

  Maybe I’ve rattled him, Arald thought. He wondered if he might try a helmet strike himself this time, then discarded the idea. Morgarath was too wily an opponent and he would probably be expecting such a move. Stay with what you’re doing, Arald told himself. Two good hits on the shield have unsettled him. Another one might do the trick.

  “Baron Arald! Are you ready?” It was the marshal beside him and he realized he’d already been asked the question and had given no answer. Stop woolgathering, he told himself angrily.

  “Ready,” Arald replied.

  At the far end of the field, Morgarath finally seemed to be satisfied with the feel of his lance. He brandished it several times, testing the weight and the balance. Then, as the marshal asked him, he signified that he was ready for the next pass. Warlock had begun to toss his head and paw the ground at the delay. Morgarath tugged his head around and calmed him. The battlehorse’s blood was up and the excitement of combat was making him agitated and eager to charge.

  Again the two batons were raised. Again, the trumpets blared out. And once more, the two combatants set off toward each other, digging in with their spurs and urging their massive steeds on to an even greater effort than before.

  The ground on either side of the tilt was torn and muddied now, after the horses had churned it in the two preceding passes. Their ironshod hooves had worn a track in the grass, leaving it more earth brown than green. Clods and divots of turf littered the ground to either side. But that didn’t diminish the enthusiasm or energy of the two horses. They pounded toward each other, not needing their riders’ hands to aim them at each other. These were battlehorses, bred, born and trained for the role, and they were each totally intent on one thing: destroying the other, smashing him down, leaving him screaming with pain and frustration in the dirt.

  Once again, Arald was conscious of the roar of his own breathing—and the accelerated pounding of his heart beneath the chain mail. He leaned forward, gripping with his thighs to guide Barnaby.

  Thunder of hooves. Roaring of the crowd. Morgarath, seen through the blurred bars of the visor, coming closer and closer, his lance point lowering. This time there was no wavering. This time, Arald knew his shield would be targeted and he braced himself for the impact, ready to thrust back as hard as he could.

  This time, he thought, I’ll have him!

  They smashed together, with that same terrible, rending sound of wood and metal colliding. Arald felt his lance bend and then shatter. He heard splinters raining down on his helmet.

  Then, a fraction of a second later, as Morgarath’s lance hit his shield, Arald realized that something was wrong—terribly wrong.

  43

  43

  IN HIS TIME, ARALD HAD FOUGHT IN HUNDREDS OF BOUTS—practice rounds, friendly tournaments and deadly serious battles to the death. He instinctively knew the difference between a strike with a tournament lance, designed to shatter on contact and fitted with a rounded wooden practice head, and a war lance, designed to penetrate and kill.

  Morgarath was using a war lance.

  There was a large puff of dust as the molded clay ball disguising the iron tip disintegrated. Then the iron head struck and held, biting deep into his shield, lodging there and gouging a jagged hole in the thin metal covering the wooden framework. The heavy oak shaft didn’t bend and splinter as a tournament lance would have. It held firm, barely flexing, and driving the lethal iron warhead deep into the shield, hurling Arald back, the massive power of the strike driving his horse down onto its haunches as Morgarath rose in his stirrups, using his own weight and strength and momentum to drive the lance home even harder.

  Arald tried to kick his legs clear of the stirrups. Barnaby screamed in rage and pain and crashed over onto his side, trapping Arald’s right leg underneath his massive body. Barnaby struggled to rise, but he was badly winded by the fall and the weight of his rider and saddle. Added to that was the fact that Barnaby had badly strained a fore shoulder muscle as he was sent twisting to one side, leaving him kicking and struggling helplessly on his side, his rider trapped beneath him.

  Desperately Arald tried to shove himself clear of the struggling horse, but the weight was too much. His left arm still retained the torn shield, and he held the horse’s reins in his left hand. Realizing that if Barnaby made it to his feet, the threshing, ironshod hooves might well put an end to his life, Arald took the reins in both hands and held the horse down as he struggled to extricate himself. Time enough to let Barnaby up when he was clear, he thought.

  He craned round to see where Morgarath was and saw the black-clad knight rounding the far end of the tilt and trotting his horse back toward him. He still had a few moments, he thought, thrusting despairingly with his left leg against the saddle to try to slip his right leg free.

  Morgarath was swinging down from the saddle. He drew his two-handed longsword from its scabbard with a ringing hiss of steel on leather. He shook the black-and-yellow shield from his left arm, discarding it on the grass. Then he turned to face the western grandstand.

  “À résultat final!” he shouted, reminding those watching of the agreed conditions of the duel. Then he began to run toward the stricken figure on the ground, raising the huge sword above his head in a two-handed grip as he went.

  Arald realized he had misjudged badly. Too late, he released his grip on the reins. But Barnaby was exhausted now by his struggles, and by the thundering charges he had delivered during the duel, and he lay, snorting and groaning, and refused to try to rise.

  The huge sword came down, hissing through the air. Arald, lying helplessly, his own sword trapped somewhere under his body, had only the light jousting shield with which to defend himself. Desperately, he threw it up into the path of the descending longsword and felt the heavy blade bite into the metal, tear through it and shatter the wood beneath it. The force of the blow drove the shield down against him. Morgarath struggled briefly to free the blade from the tangle of splintered wood and torn metal. With a final tug, he jerked it clear, breaking the shield’s leather arm straps in the process and sending it spinning across the field.

  Now Arald lay at his mercy. Morgarath brought the sword back again and swung it in a forty-five-degree arc, aiming to shear through Arald’s shoulder where his neck joined his body. Arald saw it coming and shut his eyes, waiting for the end.

  But the blow never landed.

  Morgarath felt a jarring vibration up his arm and heard a ringing crash of steel on steel as something intercepted his stroke, stopping it cold. He looked up from the helpless man trapped under the horse and saw another warrior had joined the battle—a tall man wearing a red surcoat and glittering chain mail. A flat-topped, cylindrical helmet was set on his head, with a broad nasal reaching down t
o protect his nose and face—and conceal his features.

  His sword, a heavy-bladed cavalry sword, had intercepted Morgarath’s killing stroke. His iron wrist had blocked the long blade, stopping it dead in midair, even though it had all of Morgarath’s strength behind it.

  Morgarath screamed in rage and stepped back, pointing accusingly at the interloper.

  “You have no right!” he screamed. “This is a duel of honor and you cannot interfere!”

  “There’s no honor here,” the other man replied. “You broke the rules of the tournament. You used a war lance with a killing head.”

  His voice carried clearly to the grandstands on either side and the crowd, which had grown silent at his intervention, began to buzz with comment. They had seen how Morgarath’s lance hadn’t shattered, how it had driven deep into Arald’s shield, sending his horse staggering and falling. Now they understood why it had happened that way.

  But Morgarath wasn’t about to give in easily. He turned and screamed toward his pavilion.

  “Crossbowmen! Shoot him down!”

  Tournament rules stated that two crossbowmen should always be on duty in case a combatant was seen to break the rules during a bout. Striking at an opponent’s horse, or turning to attack an opponent from behind after a pass was completed, were two of the situations that would result in the transgressor’s being shot. Another rule forbade a third party taking a hand in a duel, as had just happened. Since Morgarath was the host of the tournament, the crossbowmen were his soldiers. Now, they stepped forward and leveled their weapons at the red-clad knight facing their Baron.

  “Rangers!”

  Morgarath looked round, confused, at the cry. He saw a group of men, all wearing the distinctive mottled cloaks of the Ranger Corps, all with massive longbows, stepping clear of the public grandstand.

 
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