The tournament at gorlan, p.29
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.29

           John Flanagan
 
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  “Drop the crossbows!” The same voice carried across the field and the crossbowmen hesitated. They had heard the word Rangers. Now they saw eight men in mottled-green-and-gray cloaks, each one with a massive longbow leveled.

  These men, they realized, were real Rangers, not the ineffectual pretenders that their lord had been appointing over the past months.

  “Do it now!” the voice added and the crossbowmen set their bows down on the grass at their feet, backing away from them, their hands held in the air.

  “You cowards!” Morgarath screamed. “Shoot him down! I order you!”

  The two men exchanged a glance, then turned and ran.

  “He’s broken the rules! He must die!” Morgarath ranted after them. But the red-clad stranger interrupted him in a voice that was audible around the field.

  “You can’t break the rules of the tournament, then invoke them to suit yourself,” he said.

  His voice was vaguely familiar and Morgarath regarded him through slitted eyes. “Who are you?” he demanded.

  The knight smiled at him, a grim smile totally devoid of humor. Plunging his sword point into the ground, he reached with his right hand toward his shield. Morgarath realized now that the shield was covered with a thick linen overlay. The stranger released the retaining cord and the linen fell away, revealing a red-enameled shield. In the center, in a white circle, was the figure of a stooping red hawk.

  Prince Duncan’s insignia. There was a gasp of surprise from the onlookers.

  “Duncan!”

  “Actually, that’s Prince Duncan to you,” Duncan told him.

  For a moment, Morgarath was taken aback. Then his devious mind found a way to turn the situation to his advantage. He pointed accusingly at the prince.

  “Then I name you traitor to the Kingdom! You’ve been raiding across the border into Picta, looting and killing and endangering our treaty with our northern neighbors! Lay down your sword and surrender, you traitor!”

  Duncan shook his head slowly. He took hold of the sword, standing point down in the turf, and drew it clear.

  “Not going to happen, Morgarath,” he said.

  The black-clad Baron leapt toward him, swinging his vast sword in a horizontal stroke at rib height. It smashed into Duncan’s shield with a ringing crash.

  But this was a war shield, not a light wood-and-metal piece designed for friendly tournaments. It was thick metal set over a solid hardwood frame, with a slightly convex shape to deflect an opponent’s blows. The sword blade shrieked against the shield as it slid off, leaving a scar in the paint and a faint dent in the surface.

  And then Morgarath found himself fighting for his life.

  Duncan rained blow after blow on the tall Baron, one stroke blending into another in a continuous barrage. Morgarath had no shield and the longsword was a heavy and cumbersome weapon. It took all his mighty strength to position it for each parry and he was left with no time to attempt a counterstroke. He gave ground slowly, backing away from the relentless storm of blows, seeing Duncan’s sword as a glittering wheel of light, striking at him first from one direction, then another. His breath was coming in short gasps and fear struck deep in his heart as he realized that he was outmatched. For the first time, he was facing a swordsman who was just as powerful as he was, but faster and more skilled.

  They moved back along the tournament ground, their swords clashing in a continuous ringing, shrieking din. Then, as Morgarath had backed almost all the way toward his own pavilion, Duncan caught him with his sword momentarily lowered and struck down at it, beating it from Morgarath’s grasp and sending it thudding to the turf.

  The black-clad knight held up both hands in a gesture of surrender.

  “Wait!” he shouted, expecting Duncan to simply continue with a coup de grâce. But the prince stopped, his sword pointing at Morgarath’s throat.

  “What is it?” Duncan said.

  Morgarath heaved a shuddering sigh of relief. He looked around to the grandstand. The barons assembled there had risen from their seats. Some had even begun to move toward the tournament field itself. Morgarath’s next words were pitched to the onlookers.

  “I still call you traitor, and I demand the right to speak in front of the barons assembled here.” He raised his voice and beckoned to the nobles in the grandstand. “My lords! Join us, please! We have vital business to discuss!”

  As the various noblemen began to descend from the grandstand and make their way to the end of the tournament ground where Morgarath and Duncan faced each other, Duncan realized the moment was lost. A second ago, he could have killed Morgarath and claimed it was done in the heat of battle. Now, after Morgarath’s appeal to the assembled nobles, such an act would be regarded as cold-blooded murder.

  Morgarath glanced round and saw Teezal hovering nearby. He beckoned him closer and whispered, “Get the proclamation.”

  He had been planning to reveal the proclamation after his bout with Arald. Now, he realized, it could still be a deciding factor for him. Teezal nodded and turned away, but Morgarath’s hand on his arm stopped him. The Baron of Gorlan leaned closer and said in a lower tone, “And assemble our men.”

  As Teezal hurried away, Morgarath turned back to face the group of nobles. Behind them, members of the general public were also streaming onto the field, crowding around the group of barons and knights, jostling for a better view. That suited Morgarath. He was a skilled rabble-rouser, and the fake Duncan’s exploits had eroded the prince’s popularity and credibility with the common people.

  Duncan saw that most of the barons present had gathered around them. He decided not to wait for Morgarath. He sensed that the man had some stratagem in mind.

  “Morgarath, I accuse you of breaking the rules of your own tournament and attempting to murder Baron Arald of Redmont,” he said in a firm, clear voice.

  “And I counter-accuse you, Prince Duncan, of attempting to murder your own father, King Oswald, and of raiding and murdering in the north. I accuse you of breaking our treaty with the people of Picta and risking all-out war. I accuse you of treason against the crown and demand that you face the death penalty.”

  44

  THERE WAS A SHOCKED BUZZ OF REACTION FROM THOSE assembled, nobles and commoners alike. A royal prince was being charged with treason and threatened with the death penalty.

  Duncan ignored the muttering from the crowd and made a dismissive gesture. “All of these charges are false, Morgarath. The raids in the north were carried out by an impostor, sent by you to discredit me, while you held me prisoner at Castle Wildriver.”

  “I held you prisoner, Duncan? I did this?” Morgarath said with a sarcastic smile.

  “You arranged it,” Duncan said.

  Morgarath followed up quickly. “And you have proof?”

  Duncan realized he was on shaky ground. “The castle was commanded by Sir Eammon of Wildriver,” he said. “A well-known supporter of yours.”

  “And Sir Eammon is here to swear to that? To swear that he held you on my orders?” Morgarath made a show of looking around, then looked back to Duncan, his hands held wide in a gesture that said show me.

  Duncan set his jaw and said nothing.

  “Then perhaps,” Morgarath continued in the same mocking tone, “you can produce this impostor you say I hired to impersonate you? Is he here to speak up?”

  “He was,” Duncan said shortly. “But he was killed.”

  “How very inconsiderate of him,” Morgarath said. Several people in the crowd behind the barons tittered. Duncan flushed angrily. “And how very inconvenient for you.”

  Duncan decided he should counterattack and try to regain some lost ground by dealing with the one matter where there was concrete proof.

  “The fact remains,” he said, addressing the crowd, “Morgarath broke the rules of the tournament, the rules of honor, by using a war lance and try
ing to murder Baron Arald.”

  Sir Rodney, Baron Arald’s battle master, stepped forward, holding the lance. He had retrieved it from the jousting field. He passed it to Duncan, who held it up for inspection.

  “See? An oak shaft, not pine. And see the iron point—a killing point.” He looked at Morgarath. “I suppose you concealed this behind clay or plaster, painted to look like a wooden jousting tip.”

  Morgarath pursed his lips and shrugged. “I had no knowledge of this, I swear. Obviously, one of my followers took matters into his own hands. But if so, he did it without my approval. I’ll find out who did this and he will be severely punished, you have my word.” He had addressed the comment not to Duncan, but to the barons gathered around them. He noted with satisfaction that several of them nodded. Others looked less convinced, but he had sown the seed of doubt that would be vital to his defense.

  Duncan hefted the oak shaft once or twice. “And you’re telling us you didn’t notice the difference in weight?”

  Again, Morgarath spread his hands in a gesture of innocence. “I have all my jousting lances weighted with lead so that they feel the same as a war lance. You know the saying, practice as you plan to fight.”

  There was a murmur of concurrence from the barons standing around. Morgarath’s habit of weighting his lance with lead bands was well-known.

  Morgarath saw Teezal approaching through the crowd, carrying a roll of parchment. He turned to his henchman and beckoned him forward.

  He sensed that he was gaining the upper hand in this battle of words. This came as no surprise. Duncan was young and inexperienced in matters such as this. And Morgarath knew the prince had no concrete proof of the charges he was laying. He had bluster and indignation and unsubstantiated accusations. Given time, of course, he might be able to prove that he had been held captive. But here and now, his case was weak, and it was seen to be so. Now was the time for Morgarath to present his most conclusive argument.

  Behind the crowd of spectators, Morgarath could see files of his soldiers taking up their positions, ready to attack on his command. He estimated that Teezal had managed to assemble approximately fifty men, which would be more than enough for the current situation.

  Teezal stepped forward and handed him the rolled piece of parchment. Morgarath took it, then leaned close to his assistant and spoke softly.

  “Go to the castle. Kill Oswald and get rid of the body.”

  Teezal lowered his head in a quick bow. “Yes, my lord.” He turned and hurried away through the crowd.

  Duncan watched him go and wondered what Morgarath was up to. But Morgarath’s next words caused him to forget the hurrying figure.

  “My lords, and people of Araluen, I have a most unpleasant duty to perform here—one which I am reluctant to carry out. But in the light of the false accusations against me, tendered without proof or evidence of any kind, I feel I must bring this matter before you.”

  He brandished the rolled parchment above his head. Silence fell over the crowd as they looked at it, wondering what it was.

  “What trickery are you planning now?” Duncan asked angrily. But several voices from the crowd admonished him.

  “Let him speak!”

  “We’ll hear him!”

  “You’ve said your piece, Duncan. Now let Morgarath speak!”

  Morgarath waited, letting the moment stretch while the interjections grew and more people took up the cry. Duncan noticed that those calling out were barons who favored Morgarath’s cause. That was to be expected, he thought. But among the others, those as yet uncommitted, several were nodding their heads in agreement. Defeated, he took half a pace back and gestured for Morgarath to continue.

  Holding the parchment high, Morgarath allowed it to unroll. The crowd could see it was covered in ornate writing, and a large seal was fixed in red wax at the bottom.

  “This is a proclamation from King Oswald!” he shouted. “In it, the King disinherits Duncan, on account of his disloyalty and of his brigandry on the northern border. In his place, the King names me as his heir.”

  Uproar broke out among the crowd. Some protested that the proclamation was false. Others cheered Morgarath’s elevation to the position of royal heir. Duncan frowned as he estimated that the differing reactions were about equal.

  Morgarath handed the parchment to Baron Naylor and raised his voice above the shouting crowd. “Let Baron Naylor read and confirm what I have said!” he shouted.

  The bickering, catcalling, cheering and protests died away. The crowd waited as Naylor scanned the document. He was an irritatingly slow reader and his lips moved to frame the words as he read. The crowd waited on tenterhooks. Then he looked up.

  “It’s true,” Naylor declared. “King Oswald has disinherited Duncan and named Morgarath as his rightful heir.” There was a note of satisfaction in his voice. It was clear where his loyalty lay.

  Pandemonium broke out, with everyone speaking or shouting at once. Morgarath threw a triumphant glare at Duncan, then raised his hands for silence. Gradually, the noise died away. He took the parchment from Naylor and brandished it, pointing to the large seal on the bottom.

  “And this proclamation bears King Oswald’s royal seal!” he shouted triumphantly. He turned from one side to the other, showing them the seal.

  Then a thin voice broke the silence.

  “But not my signature.”

  There was a commotion at the rear of the crowd, as three figures pushed their way through to confront Morgarath. Flanking the central figure were Halt and Crowley. The man between them pushed back the cowl on his ragged cloak and revealed his features.

  Word ran round the crowd in a startled series of exclamations.

  “The King!”

  Oswald faced Morgarath, pointing a trembling, accusing finger at the Baron.

  “The proclamation is a forgery, Morgarath. You took my seal and fixed it there. I would never name you as my successor.”

  “The proclamation is true!” Morgarath shouted angrily. “You’re simply recanting now that your son is back with a cock-and-bull story about impostors and being held prisoner.”

  “Just as you held me prisoner, Morgarath,” accused Oswald.

  But the tall Baron shook his head violently. “I held you for your own protection!” he declared. He pointed at Duncan. “This man—your son”—he put a sneering emphasis on the word—“tried to kill you, remember? You were glad enough for my protection then, if you recall?”

  Oswald shook his head doggedly. “I was mistaken.”

  “And now you’re not?” Morgarath said sarcastically. “It seems our royal family are continually changing their mind as the situation suits them. One minute Duncan is a brigand and a traitor, next he’s a captive, being held against his will on my orders. And our good King seems to look for my protection one minute, then claim I’ve taken him prisoner the next.”

  Several voices were raised in agreement. Morgarath’s efforts currying favor among the barons were bearing fruit.

  But Duncan stepped forward angrily. This war of words had gone on long enough and he was amazed at the way Morgarath could sway the sentiment of the crowd.

  “Arrest him,” he said to Crowley. The Ranger leader made a gesture and his eleven companions stepped forward, bows ready and arrows nocked.

  At the same moment, Morgarath shouted an order. “Gorlan! To me!”

  The fifty soldiers Teezal had summoned now shouldered their way through the crowd and stood by their lord. Swords drawn, they faced the grim-visaged line of Rangers.

  “Say the word, Duncan, and we’ll start shooting,” Crowley said.

  But the King raised a hand. “No,” Oswald said. “Innocent people will be killed if we fight now.”

  Morgarath smiled grimly. He knew he had won this round and bought himself valuable time. He raised his voice and addressed the King.
/>
  “I will answer to your charges,” he said. “And I’ll bring my own against Duncan. But I’ll do it before the full Council of Barons, as is my right.”

  “The King himself has accused you!” Duncan shouted angrily. “You’ll answer to him!”

  Morgarath eyed his enemy and said, in scathing tones, “The days are long gone when kings could be judge, jury and executioner,” he said. “We have a rule of law here in Araluen now. And that law says I can demand to face the council of my peers.”

  “It’ll take months to assemble the full council,” Crowley protested.

  Morgarath allowed himself a bitter smile at the Ranger. “And I will await the assembly in my own castle,” he said. “Not in some dungeon at Castle Araluen, where Duncan and his backsliding father can plot my accidental death.”

  “You’ll surrender yourself to me now!” said the King, his face white with fury.

  But Morgarath shook his head. “As I’ve said, I’ll await the Council’s summons in Castle Gorlan,” he said. He turned to the commander of his force. “Captain! We’re going back to the castle.”

  “Yes, sir!” the captain snapped, saluting. Then he turned to his men. “Form a phalanx around the Baron, men!” he said. “Prepare to withdraw in force.”

  Morgarath’s soldiers had been well drilled. Quickly, they formed a protective circle around him, with all of them facing outward, swords drawn and ready to meet an attack from any direction. Slowly, they began to withdraw toward the castle, shoving aside any who were slow to move out of their way.

  Duncan watched, frustration mounting, as the group withdrew, in a shuffling gait designed to maintain their formation and conform to the slowest among them—those moving backward.

  “Can’t we stop them?” he said furiously.

  The others shook their heads. Morgarath was on his home ground, with all of his soldiers, men-at-arms and knights at his disposal. That totaled over one hundred men, a well-organized force trained to act together. None of the other barons had brought a full retinue to the tournament. Arald had the largest group and that amounted to less than twenty men. Given time, they could probably muster a force of around a hundred men, but right now they didn’t have time. Morgarath was in control of the situation.

 
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