Death of a hero, p.3
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       Death of a Hero, p.3
 

           John Flanagan
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  Both of them shook their heads.

  “We were farther over, on the right,” the jerkin patcher replied. “All we saw was that the line was about to break and run, then it started to move forward again. Then the Wargals were running instead.”

  But the question had been rhetorical and the beef chewer was keen to continue his story.

  “He did four or five of them with his spear. Then one of them chopped the head off it and he used it like a quarterstaff, spinning it around, knocking them over like ninepins. Then he grabbed a sword and killed eight or nine of them before they got him.” He looked to Halt for confirmation. “You saw it, Ranger! How many do you reckon he killed?”

  “At least eight,” Halt said. He saw no reason to contradict the man. The atmosphere was suddenly a lot more welcoming than it had been at first. “I wanted some information about him,” he said. “Any idea where he lived? ”

  He was disappointed to see the three faces cloud over in a now familiar expression of uncertainty.

  “Sorry,” said the man who had been extolling Daniel’s deeds and courage. “He was new to the unit and the area. Got promoted quickly.”

  “That’s right,” said one of the others, laying aside the patched jerkin. “The captain liked the look of him. Made him a sergeant almost immediately. Apparently, he’d had some military experience in Norgate before he came to Aspienne.”

  “He was promoted so quickly, we didn’t really have time to get to know him,” said the man who had been whittling. “I think I heard him mention a farm somewhere . . .” He trailed off, unsure of his facts. There was an awkward silence. Halt made a move to rise from the stool, thinking that once again his efforts to trace Daniel’s family were doomed to failure. The first man who had spoken, the beef jerky chewer, seemed to come to a decision.

  “You could try Kord and Jerrel,” he said. “They might have an idea.”

  “If they’d tell you,” the man with the repaired jerkin put in.

  Halt looked from one to the other. “I take it you’re not fond of these two?”

  The three men exchanged glances. Then the one who had suggested the two names answered him.

  “They’re a pair of liars and cheats. They run a dice game and they tried to make a friend of Daniel initially, playing up to him and inviting him to play. My guess is they were letting him win at dice to get in his good books. But he saw through their scheme before long and they found themselves doing their fair share of fatigue duties. So they dropped him.”

  “What makes you think they’d know where he lived?” Halt asked, and again there was an awkward pause. Finally, the whittler spoke.

  “They always wanted to know where everyone lived. Always asking you questions about where you came from, what you did back home. Can’t prove anything, but I reckon they were keeping a record, planning to go back after the war and rob people.”

  “Particularly those who’d been killed in battle,” the jerkin patcher said heavily. “They’d know the families would be easy prey. It’s the sort of thing they’d do, all right. They probably know where to find the sergeant’s farm.”

  “The trick will be getting them to tell you,” the beef jerky chewer said, and the others nodded. Halt looked around the small circle of faces, seeing the distaste for the two vultures called Kord and Jerrel.

  “How would I get to meet these two?” he asked.

  The jerkin patcher raised an eyebrow.

  “Play dice with them,” he said. “But be prepared to lose.”

  5

  PRIVATE JERREL OF THE BLACK BADGER COMPANY WAS WORKING on a pair of dice. He’d finished the first one and he was almost done with the second. He was filing off two of the sharp corners on the die, rounding them slightly so that they would tend to roll to a preselected point, showing a score of six more often than sheer chance would allow. It wasn’t as reliable as his alternative method of fixing a pair of dice. That involved carefully inserting weights to make it fall with the selected side faceup. But sanding the corners increased his chance of a winning roll.

  In his pocket, he had a pair of counterweighted dice, carefully doctored to show scores of one and two. But weighting dice was a tricky business. It took a long time to remove all signs that something had been inserted in the little cubes. His other pair had been confiscated some days previously by a passing officer. Now he had to resort to rounding the corners to replace them. You needed two pairs of doctored dice to fleece a new victim. You used one pair to get him interested, letting him win the first few rolls. Then, when he thought his luck was in, you suggested raising the stakes. And when he agreed, you switched the dice so he’d roll a losing number.

  A shadow fell across the entrance to the tent and Jerrel hastily shoved the die and the small file under a blanket. The entrance to the tent was blocked for a moment as a man entered. Jerrel looked up, frowning. The newcomer carried a kit bag and a sheathed sword and sword belt. He was wearing a soldier’s uniform with a black badger on the left breast. He looked around the interior of the tent, saw an empty bunk and dropped his belongings on it.

  “Who the devil are you?” Kord asked. He’d been lying back on his own bunk on the opposite side of the tent and the displeasure was obvious in his voice. He and Jerrel had enjoyed having the tent to themselves. Their four tent mates had been killed or wounded in the battle. Now, it seemed, they had a new man joining them.

  “Name’s Arratay,” the newcomer said. “I’ve been transferred from second squad. Sergeant major said for me to bunk in here.”

  He was a short man, slightly built but with powerful shoulders and a deep chest. His beard and hair were ragged and unkempt. He had a grubby bandage wound around his head. Above it, the hair was black and the eyes were dark and piercing. Like a bird of prey, Jerrel thought. Then he smirked at the idea. It was more likely that the stranger would become prey for him and Kord—once he had a chance to finish working on that pair of dice. Even so, he didn’t want the stranger in the tent with them.

  “Find somewhere else to bunk,” Jerrel said shortly. “We’re full here.”

  “There’s only two of you,” Arratay said reasonably, looking around the tent.

  “You heard him,” Kord said. “Now get out of here.”

  Arratay shrugged. “If you say so . . .”

  “I do,” Kord said. “So get out.”

  Shrugging, the newcomer picked up his kit and left the tent. Jerrel smiled at Kord. That had been easy, he thought. Then his face darkened as he heard a loud voice outside the tent.

  “You there! A-ratty—or whatever you call yourself! Where d’you think you’re going? I told you to bunk in tent forty-three, didn’t I?”

  “The tent’s full, sergeant major,” Arratay replied.

  “The blazes it is!” Kord and Jerrel exchanged exasperated glances as they heard heavy footsteps approaching. Then the tent flap was thrown back and the bulky frame of Sergeant Major Griff filled the entrance.

  “My aunty’s mustache it’s full! Get in here!” He glared at the two occupants. “You two make room!” he bellowed.

  “Yes, sar’major,” Jerrel said sullenly. Kord managed a grunt in reply. As Arratay reentered the tent, Griff stepped in front of him to bar his way, his hands on his hips in an aggressive posture.

  “As for you, A-ratty, you can report to the cookhouse and scrub rubbish bins and cook pots for the rest of the day. That might remind you next time to do as I tell you!”

  “Yes, sar’major,” the small man said. His eyes were down, not meeting the temporary commander’s. But as Griff stalked out of the room, Arratay made an insulting gesture toward his back. Then he turned, shrugging, to Jerrel and Kord. “Sorry about that,” he said.

  They exchanged a look, then Jerrel stood and took Arratay’s pack, placing it on an empty bunk.

  “Can’t be helped. Griff can be a real pain. Better get along to the cookhouse or he’ll be at you again.” He caught Kord’s eye. As soon as Arratay had gone, they’d go through his
kit to see if there was anything worth stealing. Kord nodded unobtrusively. The same thought was going through his mind.

  Arratay sighed and turned to go. As he reached the entrance, Kord called after him, “When you’ve finished your work detail, maybe you’d like a little game of dice?”

  Arratay smiled at them. “That sounds like fun,” he said.

  Kord threw up his hands in mock exasperation.

  “Another winning throw! Where does your luck come from, Arratay?”

  The small trooper grinned happily as he raked in his earnings. He’d thrown three winning scores in a row and now there was a respectable pile of coins on the low table where the three of them were seated.

  “Just my lucky day, I suppose,” he said, pushing forward a new wager and shaking the dice in their cup. The bone cubes rattled together, then he cast them onto the table.

  “Double six again!” Jerrel said. “I don’t believe it!” He looked at Kord. “I think we’ve got a professional in the tent.” Kord nodded gloomily, but Arratay merely laughed.

  “Not me, boys. It’s just clean living and a clear conscience. Want to raise the stakes?” He said it casually, but he noticed the quick, furtive look that passed between the two men.

  Kord agreed, after a brief show of reluctance. “Well, I might be crazy, but why not? It’ll give us a chance to win some of our money back.”

  “Or I’ll clean you out sooner.” Arratay smiled. He put another bet forward, waited till they matched it, then rolled again. Eleven this time, but still an automatic winner.

  “Can’t you roll anything but fives and sixes?” Jerrel said.

  “Not when I’m running hot.” Arratay smiled again, but his eyes narrowed as this time, instead of letting him reclaim the dice, Kord picked them up and handed them to him. He’s made the switch, Halt thought. He took the dice, placed them in the cup, shook them and rolled.

  The other two gave an ironic cheer as the dice turned faceup to show a two and a one.

  “Three!” said Jerrel. “And about time!”

  It was a simple game. Eleven and twelve were automatic winners. Two and three were losers. Any other score didn’t count. The gambler simply threw again until he won or lost. Halt grimaced as the others scooped in the money he’d bet. The dice passed to Jerrel and he threw a six. Then a four, then a two. Halt won back a small fraction of what he had lost on his last throw. Kord took the dice and fumbled as he placed them in the cup.

  He’s switched them again, Halt thought. And sure enough, Kord threw an eleven, then a twelve, winning two small hands, before switching the dice once more so that he lost, then handing the dice on to Halt. In the process of handing them over, he switched them again for the winning dice. The two cheats didn’t want Arratay, as they thought he was called, losing enthusiasm too soon. The game went on, Halt winning some hands, losing others, but generally staying just ahead of breaking even.

  The two cheats kept plying him with wine, which he surreptitiously managed to empty into an old boot when they weren’t watching. But he pretended to become more and more affected by the drink, slurring his words and laughing foolishly when he won.

  “Big day tomorrow,” he said after they had been playing for some time. “We’re moving out early and heading south.”

  His two companions reacted with surprise at that.

  “South?” said Kord. “Why south? We’re supposed to head home and disband.”

  Halt shook his head and peered at them owlishly. “Not anymore. Not anymore,” he said, tapping the side of his nose with his forefinger. “The Wargals are putting up a stiffer resistance than expected. Morgarath has them under firm control again and Duncan needs extra men. We’re them,” he added after a pause.

  He could see that this news had the effect he’d desired. Kord and Jerrel exchanged a glance. Then Jerrel questioned him further.

  “Where’d you hear this?” he asked.

  Halt jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the general direction of the administration section of the camp.

  “At the cookhouse,” he said. “The cooks had taken delivery of extra rations to prepare for us.”

  Now the two cheats looked thoroughly concerned. Cookhouse rumors were the source of much intelligence among the rank and file. And they had a reputation for accuracy. Halt, of course, had heard no such rumors. But he hoped that the thought of an imminent departure for the south might force Kord and Jerrel’s hand. If they were planning to rob Daniel’s farm, this might precipitate things.

  He leaned forward, peering with bleary eyes at the table.

  “Now where are those dice?” he asked. “It’s my throw again.”

  “Here you are,” Kord said, passing him the dice and throwing cup. He had just lost the last throw and it was Halt’s turn again. Halt was reasonably sure that he’d been handed the losing dice. His suspicions were confirmed by Jerrel’s next words.

  “It’s getting late,” he said. “Let’s put it all on one last big pot. What do you say?”

  Kord pretended to look doubtful. “It’s up to Arratay.”

  Halt shrugged. “Why not?” he said. “I feel my luck’s coming back.”

  They all shoved their remaining money into the center of the table. Halt reached for his tankard and took a deep swig—the biggest he’d had all night. Then, as he clumsily set the tankard down, he spilled the remaining wine on the table, flicking it toward Jerrel so that a red tide flowed across the rough wood and into his lap. Jerrel sprang backward with a curse.

  “Look out!” he said.

  “Sorry. Sorry,” Halt replied thickly. But in the confusion, he’d switched the losing dice for another pair that he’d had in his jerkin pocket. He’d prepared them that afternoon while he was supposed to be at the cookhouse, and they were shaved so that they would show a twelve at each throw.

  He shook them, muttering to them as he did so, then spilled them out onto the table.

  “Bad lu—” began Kord, already reaching for the money. Then he stopped as he saw two sixes gleaming up at him, like two sets of teeth in two tiny skulls.

  “How did you . . . ?” Jerrel stopped as he realized he’d give the game away if he went any further. Arratay might be drunk. But he wasn’t that drunk.

  Halt grinned foolishly at the dice, and scooped them up. “Lucky dice!” he said. “I love these dice!”

  He pretended to kiss them noisily, and switched them once more for the losing pair he’d been handed originally. That done, he slipped his own dice into his pocket and dropped the others back onto the table as he began to rake in his winnings.

  “No hard feelings, boys,” he said. “I’ll give you a chance for revenge tomorrow.”

  “Yes. Of course. Tomorrow,” Kord said. But his tone told Halt that there would be no game the next night. And there’d be no sign of Kord or Jerrel, either.

  Half an hour later, Halt lay on his back, breathing heavily and noisily through his mouth as he feigned sleep. His two tent mates were talking in lowered voices. They had waited until they were sure Halt was fully asleep. Kord was testing the dice, rolling them over and over again and constantly getting a losing score as a result.

  “I don’t understand,” he said quietly. “It’s simply not possible for him to roll a twelve with these dice.”

  “Careful,” Jerrel told him, casting a quick glance in Halt’s direction. But his companion waved his caution aside.

  “Aaah, he’s out like a light,” he said. “Did you see how much he drank? He’s full as a boot.”

  Halt’s mouth twitched slightly in amusement. There was definitely a full boot in the tent, he thought. His loud breathing was making it difficult to hear what the others were saying, so he stirred, muttered something and rolled onto his side, facing away from them. The snoring stopped as he was no longer on his back, but he kept his breathing deep and even. Kord and Jerrel hesitated as he stirred, but soon relaxed when it became obvious he hadn’t woken.

  Once again, Kord tested the dice. Once again
, they rolled a three.

  “Give it away,” Jerrel told him angrily. “It was an accident. They must have hit a crack or a dent in the tabletop. Besides, we’ve got more important things to think about.”

  Reluctantly, Kord stowed the dice away in his pocket. “You mean this rumor about us heading south?”

  Jerrel nodded. “Last thing we want is to get tied up in another campaign. It could go on for weeks, and we’ve got places to be. If we’re held up, there’s a chance that family members will arrive to help the widows and we’ll miss our chance.”

  Turned away from them as he was, Halt could allow himself a scowl of anger. It was true, he thought; the two of them were planning to rob the families of men killed in the battle.

  “So what’s your plan?” Kord asked.

  Jerrel paused, then came to a decision. “I say we pull out tonight. We’ll leave an hour or two before dawn and get on the road north. We’ll hit the sergeant’s farm first. That’s the closest.”

  “We’ll be flogged if they catch us deserting,” Kord said, but Jerrel dismissed the protest.

  “They won’t catch us. With all the recent losses, odds are they won’t even be sure we’re gone.”

  “Griff will know. I got a feeling he has his eye on us.”

  Kord snorted derisively. “Griff will be too busy doing his job and the captain’s job to worry about us. He’ll probably think it’s good riddance. Now let’s turn in. We’ll need to get started early.”

  “What about him?” Jerrel asked, jerking a thumb toward Halt’s still figure. Kord hesitated.

  “I’d like to knock him on the head and take our money back,” he said. “But if we kill him, Griff will have to take notice of the fact. He’d be sure to send men after us. Best if we leave him.”

  6

  HALT HEARD THEM LEAVE JUST BEFORE THREE IN THE MORNING. They were thieves and they were accustomed to moving quietly. But the Ranger’s senses were finely tuned and he was a light sleeper. He listened to their stealthy movements and quiet footsteps as they gathered their kits together and stole out into the night. The moon had risen and set hours ago and there was a scattered cloud cover riding on the wind, sending bands of shadows scudding across the silent camp.

 
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