The tournament at gorlan, p.3
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.3

           John Flanagan
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  “Names?” he asked curtly.

  Crowley smiled disarmingly. “Morris,” he said. “William Morris of Keramon.”

  “I’m Arratay,” Halt said briefly. He thought it best to keep his answers as short as possible, to conceal his Hibernian accent. Crowley obviously realized what he was doing, as he took the lead in the conversation.

  “We’re foresters, in the service of Baron Carrol,” he continued pleasantly. He was grateful that the innkeeper had mentioned the local Baron’s name a few minutes prior.

  Teezal sniffed. “Foresters? A fancy name for poachers if you ask me.”

  Crowley shrugged. There was no point answering such a statement.

  Teezal waited several seconds for a reaction. When none was forthcoming, he turned abruptly away, releasing the lantern so that it swung wildly back and forth, casting its yellow light in a wide arc.

  His heels clumped heavily on the boards as he strode to the door, ill temper obvious in every line of his body. He swung the door open, then turned back to the room, speaking to those present.

  “I’ll be in the neighborhood,” he said harshly. “If anyone sights these two renegades, he’d be well advised to come find me.”

  Silence greeted his statement. He let his gaze sweep the room once more, then abruptly went out, slamming the door behind him. A concerted release of pent-up breath swept the room as the customers relaxed. Gradually, conversations restarted and the atmosphere went back to normal.

  Crowley and Halt rose from their table and moved to the bar. The innkeeper was still looking at the entrance where Teezal had left.

  “Thanks for that,” Crowley said, then added, “Not that we’re the ones he’s looking for, of course.”

  “Of course,” the innkeeper replied, the vestige of a smile touching his lips. “But really, we don’t owe Morgarath and his men any favors. He’s been throwing his weight around lately and we’re getting heartily sick and tired of him interfering in this fief.”

  “I can imagine,” Crowley said.

  The innkeeper shook his head in frustration. “After all, we’ve got enough on our hands with Duncan and his band causing havoc in the district.”

  4

  BOTH HALT AND CROWLEY TOOK AN INVOLUNTARY STEP BACK at the words. They exchanged a quick glance, then Crowley asked:

  “Duncan? You can’t mean Prince Duncan, the King’s son?”

  The innkeeper regarded them with renewed interest. “The same,” he said. “He’s been in the north for the past few months, with a gang of armed men—none of them the type you’d care to run into on a lonely country road.”

  “Doing what?” Halt asked.

  The innkeeper switched his gaze to him. “Anything they please. Robbing, plundering, raiding farms and running off sheep and cattle. Sometimes they move into a town or village for a week or so and terrorize the locals, demanding food and drink and lodging and paying nothing for it.”

  “And they make sure they take only the best,” added another customer, a farmer by his clothes, who had risen from a nearby table to join the conversation.

  “But . . . he’s the King’s son!” Crowley protested. “He’s the heir to the throne!”

  “Then eventually, we’ll have a robber and a thief for a King,” the innkeeper said.

  The farmer nodded agreement. “The gods know what the old King makes of it all. He must be disgusted.”

  Halt turned to Crowley. “This is the Prince you said a man would be proud to follow?”

  Crowley shook his head, totally bewildered. “I . . . don’t understand,” he said slowly. “I know Duncan. Not well, admittedly, but well enough to know that this is unlike him.”

  The farmer nodded sympathetically. “I know what you mean. Up until a few months ago, I’d heard nothing but good about the prince. But now this . . .” He let the sentence hang.

  “There’s another thing,” the innkeeper added. “He and his men have been raiding across the border.”

  “Into Picta?” Crowley asked, barely able to believe his ears.

  The two villagers nodded. “Aye. They raid and burn, stealing cattle and horses. If anyone tries to stop them, they kill them.”

  “But that’s madness!” Crowley said, his voice rising. “We have a treaty with the Scotti!” He knew how long and hard the King had worked to establish that treaty. Duncan had actually handled some of the negotiations. Now the prince’s actions, if they were hearing the truth, would endanger the fragile peace that existed between the two countries, provoking retaliatory raiding and killing.

  “It seems he cares nothing for that,” the innkeeper said. “I suppose he assumes that if the Scotti start raiding back, he’ll be safe behind the walls of Castle Araluen. We’ll be the ones who’ll bear the brunt of the trouble he’s caused.”

  “I don’t believe this,” Crowley said in a low voice. “I can’t believe it. Why would he do such things?”

  “Power,” said the farmer succinctly. “A man gets a little power and he starts believing he can do whatever he pleases. “

  “But . . . Duncan? It’s so unlike him. I can’t believe it!”

  “So you keep saying,” said the farmer. “But it’s the truth.”

  Crowley made a hasty gesture of apology, aware that he might have offended the man. The farmer shrugged. He understood the stranger’s consternation.

  “Any idea where he is at present?” Halt asked.

  The innkeeper looked toward one of the tables in the middle of the room. The other customers had all been following the conversation and now he addressed one of them, a burly, gray-haired man. “Tom? What say you? You were up toward the border this week, weren’t you?”

  The man he addressed nodded confirmation. “Aye. That I was. Last I heard, Duncan and his men were in Lendsy village. Been there several days, I heard. I left quickly. I had no wish to run into them. No need to either,” he added.

  “Where’s this Lendsy village?” Halt asked.

  The innkeeper pursed his lips, then answered. “A day’s ride from here. Longer if the streams are flooded and the bridges are washed away. It’s to the northeast, a few kilometers from the border.”

  Halt took in the information and placed a hand on Crowley’s forearm. The Ranger seemed stunned by what he had been hearing.

  “Come on,” Halt said. “We need to talk.” He looked at the innkeeper and the farmer. “Thanks for the information.”

  The innkeeper shrugged away the thanks and held out his hand.

  “We didn’t introduce ourselves,” he said. “My name is Sherrin.”

  Halt took the hand. “I’m Halt.”

  A smile touched Sherrin’s lips. “I thought you told Teezal your name was Arratay, or something.”

  Halt smiled in his turn. “I thought you told him you had no lodgers,” he replied. Then, turning, he led Crowley toward the door. They had a lot to discuss.

  The annex was warm and a little stuffy, and redolent with the smell of drying wool. Halt checked his cloak where it was spread over an armchair by the fire. The fabric was still slightly damp, but it was a big improvement on its former state.

  “Be dry by morning,” he said. “And a good thing. We’d best be on our way.”

  They had planned on staying for two nights. But Teezal’s appearance, and the news they’d just received, dictated otherwise. Crowley was staring into the flames of the fire, his face set in grim lines.

  “There has to be some mistake,” he said. “Prince Duncan isn’t a thief or a bully. He’s a fine young man and he’ll make a great king.”

  “A wise man once told me, don’t believe anything you hear until you’ve seen it with your own eyes,” Halt said.

  Crowley looked up at him. “Who said that? Pritchard?” It sounded like the sort of thing their old mentor might say.

  Halt affected to think for a
few seconds, then gave a slight smile. “No. I think it was me, actually. I can be very wise at times.”

  “This is no time for joking,” Crowley said. “If this is true, our plans to revive the Corps are finished. I was depending on a royal warrant from Duncan to give me the authority. If he’s turned rogue, he won’t be likely to give that sort of permission.”

  His heart was heavy. He hadn’t realized how much he was depending on Duncan’s warrant to reform the Rangers. The idea had sustained him over the past weeks. Now he knew that Morgarath’s enmity would spell an end to his time in the Corps. Without Duncan to overrule the Baron, his plan was finished before it had even begun.

  “Then I suggest we ride north and see what’s actually happening,” Halt said. “Unless you simply want to give up here and now.”

  There was an element of challenge in the last few words and Crowley reacted immediately to it, looking up at Halt with an angry frown.

  Redheads, Halt thought. Quick to anger, quick to forgive.

  With an effort, Crowley forced down the anger.

  “You’re right,” he said. “We need to see for ourselves.”

  Sherrin gave them a hearty breakfast of thick, nourishing porridge laced with honey. He also provided a large pot of coffee and Halt downed three cups in quick succession.

  The innkeeper raised his eyebrows. “Pity you don’t like coffee,” he said mildly.

  Halt shrugged. “We’ve been traveling on hard rations and cold water with all this rain. I’m making up for lost opportunities.”

  They settled their bill with Sherrin and were on the road a few minutes after sunup. The clouds were breaking up, creating large patches of clear sky above them. In light of the drier weather, they had unpacked their bows, checked their strings and restrung the weapons. With the long yew stave settled comfortably over his left shoulder, and the fletching of the arrows tickling the back of his neck from time to time, Halt felt more at ease than he had for the past week.

  They rode in silence. There was no point in discussing Duncan any further. Halt knew that any such conversation would mainly consist of Crowley repeating the fact that he couldn’t believe the turn of events. And, since there was no point to that topic, they remained silent.

  They had to detour several times to bypass bridges that had washed away or fords that were still running too deep to cross safely. The countryside around them steamed with the rainwater evaporating under the sun. It made for humid conditions and by midmorning they had discarded their cloaks, rolling them tightly and tying them behind their saddles. At noon they stopped for a quick meal. Sherrin had provided them with a fresh-baked loaf of bread and slices of cured ham. They had also brought with them a supply of dry firewood and kindling from the stack in his stable. Halt built a fire and boiled water for coffee.

  He ate and drank with relish, enjoying the fresh food after the hard bread and dried beef they had been eating for days. Crowley didn’t seem to notice the difference. He picked idly at his food and barely touched the coffee. His thoughts were elsewhere.

  By midafternoon, they realized they were getting close to Lendsy village. They had passed a fork in the road and descended into a small valley. Now, as they rode up to the ridge at the far side, Halt raised his head and sniffed experimentally.

  “Smoke,” he said. “Do you smell it?”

  Crowley sniffed as well, then shrugged. “We must be nearly there. I imagine they have their kitchen fires alight.”

  They crested the rise at that point and looked across a shallow valley. Above the next ridge, a thick pall of smoke rose into the air. Halt shook his head, frowning. “That’s more than a few cook fires,” he said. “Come on.”

  He urged his horse into a canter—no sense in galloping and arriving with their horses exhausted. Crowley was a few strides behind him and their horses’ hooves thudded dully on the damp mud and leaf mold that covered the road surface. Then they were into the trees at the bottom of the ridge and weaving their way along the narrow path, riding in single file.

  As they rode up the far side of the valley, the trees thinned and once more they became aware of the smell of woodsmoke. Halt reined in as he reached the crest. The land here was an undulating series of ridges and valleys and he looked down now into the valley that stretched out before them.

  The trees had been cleared here for farmland. He could make out two farmhouses and, beyond, a huddle of buildings that had to be Lendsy village. That was the source of the smoke. Several houses, and a larger establishment that was probably the village inn, were burning fiercely.

  “Look there!” Crowley said, pointing. Beyond the burning inn, a makeshift barricade had been thrown up—consisting of several carts and assorted furniture from the houses. It formed a half circle, its back secured by one of the larger houses. A small group of half a dozen men sheltered behind the barricade, thrusting desperately with spears, pikes and, in two cases, sickles on long poles, to repel a larger group who were trying to climb the barricade. For the moment, they were being forced back. But there must have been at least three times as many attackers as defenders and it was only a matter of time before they overran the defenses.

  The attackers were armed with axes and long swords, with small wooden shields studded with metal. As they watched, Halt caught a glimpse of a swirling garment in red-and-blue checks. Tartan, he realized.

  “That’s not Duncan,” he said. “They’re Scotti warriors!”

  5

  HALT CLAPPED HIS HEELS INTO HIS HORSE’S SIDES AND IT sprang forward, going from a standing start to a full gallop in the space of a few meters. He let the reins fall across his horse’s neck and unslung his bow, reaching with his other hand for an arrow from the quiver angled over his right shoulder.

  Shooting from horseback with a full-sized longbow wasn’t an ideal position, but he held the bow at a forty-five-degree angle as he nocked the arrow, his hands moving surely in spite of the horse’s plunging movement. Guiding the animal with pressure from his knees, he raced down the gradually shallowing slope toward the village. As he drew closer, he could see several huddled forms lying in the road. None of them wore tartan, he noticed.

  He could sense Crowley a few meters behind him. He glanced back and saw that the Ranger had also let his reins drop and had an arrow ready on his own bowstring.

  Closer still and he could make out more detail as they swept into the space between the first of the village buildings. Several of the defenders behind the barricade were women, he realized. One of them was thrusting with a heavy spear at an attacking Scotti warrior. The clansman grabbed the weapon behind its iron head and jerked it toward him, dragging the woman forward over the barricade.

  As she fell, off balance, he tossed the spear aside and raised his huge broadsword over his head for a killing stroke.

  Halt heard the unmistakable thrum! of a bowstring from behind him, then an arrow flashed past, its fletching hissing in the air.

  The Scotti threw up his hands, the broadsword falling to the dirt beside him. He clawed at his back with his right hand, trying to reach the arrow that had impaled him. Then he pitched forward, landing on the barricade, then tumbling off onto the road.

  Another Scotti was striking with a sword at a villager armed with a sickle tied to a pole. The makeshift weapon was clumsy and unbalanced, and the villager was hard pressed to ward off the powerful strokes from the raider. As they watched, the pole spun out of his hands and he was left defenseless.

  Halt shot and the second Scotti went down. The villager looked up, startled, searching to see where his salvation had come from.

  The two riders were barely fifty meters from the desperate battle. Halt decided that was close enough. He reached down with his right hand for the reins—his bow was in his left. He dragged on them and pressed his left knee into the horse’s flank, bringing it to a skidding, sliding stop, side on to the barricade. Crowley mir
rored his actions and the two of them sat their horses, side by side in the middle of the village high street.

  Now the Scotti were aware of the danger to their rear. A group of them disengaged from the barricade and formed a line facing the two bowmen. There were ten of them and their small circular shields were pressed together to present a barrier to any further arrows.

  But not an impenetrable barrier. The shields couldn’t cover the raiders’ entire bodies and the two archers were expert shots who could pick the smallest target and hit it at this distance—virtually point-blank range. Halt shot again and one of the men in the middle of the line went down with a cry of agony, an arrow through his thigh. Then Crowley sent another arrow hissing on its deadly way and a Scotti warrior reeled back out of the line with an arrow transfixing his forearm. His weapon fell to the muddy road. As he staggered back, one of the defenders behind the barricade, momentarily forgotten, leaned out and brought a long, heavy staff crashing down on his skull. His knees folded up under him and he went facedown in the mud.

  A huge Scotti, apparently the leader, bellowed with rage as he saw his men wounded. He pointed his broadsword at the two mounted men and shouted a command. His warriors responded with an incoherent cry of their own and began to advance, shields up and weapons raised.

  Three more of them went down in the space of five seconds—two with leg wounds and the third with an arrow through his shoulder. Aside from the pain of the wounds themselves, the sheer force of the arrows at this range, propelled by eighty-pound longbows, knocked them backward. Another arrow slammed into one of the shields and its owner was forced back several paces. It was too much to expect them to continue to advance in the face of such withering shooting. The arrows came thick and fast and men screamed in pain and rage. One man turned and ran, followed almost immediately by another. Then the entire group had broken and were retreating at full pace to the north, those who were so far untouched by the arrow storm helping their wounded comrades to hobble with them at the fastest pace they could manage.

 

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