The tournament at gorlan, p.30
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.30

           John Flanagan
 
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  In addition, there was a strong possibility that a good number of the barons, sympathetic to Morgarath’s cause, would refuse to lend men to fight him.

  “We can contain them,” Pritchard said. “We can muster enough men to bottle them up, but not enough to storm the castle. By the same token, he doesn’t have enough men to fight his way out.”

  “So it’s a stalemate?” Crowley said.

  Pritchard nodded. “Until the council has assembled, that’s the situation. We can’t get in. He can’t get out.”

  Halt watched the shuffling mass of soldiers as they moved in a steel-bristling formation toward the castle. He could see the tall figure of Morgarath in the center, standing head and shoulders above his men. Acting on an impulse, he unslung his bow from his shoulder and began to move toward the exit to the tournament ground.

  Duncan caught up with him and stopped him with a hand on his arm.

  “Where are you going?” he said.

  The Hibernian faced him grimly. “I’m going to put an arrow through that blackhearted swine and finish this once and for all.”

  But Duncan shook his head. “That’ll be murder,” he said. “I won’t have it done on my account, or my father’s. We’ll leave Morgarath to the Council.”

  Halt dropped his gaze, knowing Duncan was right. “Even so,” he said, “I can’t help thinking we’re making a big mistake.”

  45

  A MONTH LATER, HALT RETURNED TO CASTLE GORLAN TO observe the situation and report back to Duncan and Oswald, who had taken up residence in Castle Araluen once more.

  He rode into the camp, noting with satisfaction that the haphazard accommodations that had been in place when he left were now replaced by ordered lines of tents and a small group of command pavilions. Central among these was Arald’s blue-and-gold tent. The Baron of Redmont had taken command of the force left to keep watch on Morgarath and his men. Initially, it had been a hastily thrown together group of knights and men-at-arms, gleaned from the retinues of the barons present at the tournament. As Duncan had feared, several of the barons had refused to provide troops to the force, withdrawing to their own castles with their men.

  Now, things looked more organized, with regular drafts of troops arriving from all corners of the Kingdom each day. He studied the rows of tents keenly. He estimated that there were over a hundred men encamped outside Gorlan’s walls.

  The tournament field was bare of all decoration. The flags and pennants were long gone and the tilt had been dismantled. The grandstands were bare. The canvas coverings, comfortable chairs and brightly colored cushions were all gone. On the jousting field where Arald and Morgarath had met in combat, a troop of spearmen were drilling, under the command of a sergeant.

  Above the fluttering canvas of the tents, Castle Gorlan loomed, its beauty and symmetry now seeming to bear an air of gloom and malevolence. He shook his head. He was being fanciful, he thought.

  Baron Arald stepped out of his command tent and came to greet Halt as he dismounted.

  “Welcome, Halt,” he said. “You’re a sight for sore eyes. What’s the news from Castle Araluen?”

  Halt frowned. “Not all good, I’m afraid. King Oswald’s health is very poor and he’s growing weaker every day. I don’t think he’s going to be with us much longer.”

  Arald shook his head. “That’s sad news indeed. How is Duncan taking it?”

  “He’s very worried for his father, of course. Oswald has appointed him Regent, so he can take most of the strain of command off his shoulders. That might help a little. But he’s kicking himself for the way he let Morgarath out-talk him and twist his words at the tournament. He wasn’t ready for the way Morgarath muddied the water with his barrage of allegations and accusations.”

  Arald shrugged. “Not his fault. He’s only young and Morgarath has years of experience in that sort of intrigue and obfuscation. Duncan will learn. In any event, once the King appeared and accused Morgarath, he knew the game was up. He had to act quickly and barricade himself in the castle where we couldn’t get to him. And that was as good as an admission of guilt.”

  “Duncan had better learn,” Halt said. “He’s summoned the Council of Barons, as you know, so he’ll be making his case before them. He’s also reinstated the Ranger Corps as it was. Crowley has been appointed Commandant—he’ll have authority over the entire Corps, not just the dozen of us who’ve been with him so far. He’ll have to recruit new apprentices and locate as many of the former Rangers as he can. He’s moved into quarters at Castle Araluen.”

  “Sounds like he’ll have his hands full,” said Arald. Then he tilted his head at Halt. “What about you?”

  “Duncan has ratified my commission as a Ranger,” Halt said. “Although Crowley tried to convince him that I still needed extra training as an apprentice.”

  Arald laughed. That was typical of Crowley, ever looking for an opportunity to pull Halt’s leg.

  “So he wanted you to revert to a bronze oakleaf?”

  Halt nodded. “Fortunately, he was convinced otherwise.”

  Arald’s grin widened. “By whom?” he asked innocently.

  Halt replied, straight-faced. “By me, mainly. I presented a most eloquent case against demotion. I threatened to shove the bronze oakleaf up his left nostril.”

  “That sounds eloquent indeed.”

  Halt turned away and studied the castle. Even at a distance, he could see the heads and shoulders of the sentries on the walls. One of them was leaning against the wall of a small fighting turret that projected above the battlements.

  “Anything happening here?” he asked.

  Arald shook his head. “Nothing. They watch us. We watch them. Haven’t seen or heard from Morgarath in over a week now. But I feel he’s going to have to make a move sometime soon. With every day that passes, his position grows weaker. We’ve got new troops arriving every week. Eventually, we’ll outnumber him and have enough men to storm the castle and take him prisoner.”

  “Hmmm,” said Halt thoughtfully. “Pritchard said something along the same lines. Have you seen him lately? He was heading here to check up on a rumor he’d heard. Didn’t say what it was. You know how Pritchard can be.”

  “He came through here four days ago. Stayed the night, nosed around, then must have headed out. He hasn’t been back since.”

  Halt nodded absentmindedly. “He’ll turn up sooner or later.”

  “You know him better than I,” Arald said cheerfully. “Are you staying with us tonight? I’d welcome the company at dinner and I have a tent you can use.”

  Halt glanced at the sky. The sun was sinking low to the horizon, through a screen of heavy clouds. It had rained the last few nights, heavy soaking rain, and it appeared that tonight would be no different.

  “That’d be most welcome,” he said.

  “I’ll see you at dinner then,” Arald said, turning back to his own pavilion. “Right now I have to write out my night orders for the new troops.”

  As he entered the tent, heavy raindrops began to thump down on its canvas roof and sides.

  Halt pulled his cowl over his head and looked up at the castle again. Lights were beginning to show in the windows of the towers, coming on one after the other. Braziers along the battlements began to flare as well, screened from the rain by wooden roofs. He could make out the form of a single man moving along the battlements, carrying a torch and moving from one beacon to another, lighting them in turn. The oil-soaked firewood they held flared quickly into life.

  He felt a touch on his arm and turned to see a young page, dressed in Arald’s blue-and-gold livery and staring at him with some awe. “Your pardon, Master Halt,” said the boy nervously. “The Baron said as how I should show you to your tent.”

  “Then lead on, young man,” said Halt, smiling at him. “But first show me where the stables are, so I can tend to my horse.”
<
br />   He slept fitfully that night, kept awake by the drumming of rain on the canvas. Around three in the morning the rain died away and he fell asleep. But at five thirty he was awake again, listening to the crowing of a rooster somewhere in the camp.

  Reluctantly, he decided that he was unlikely to fall asleep again. He rose, washed in the leather basin in his tent, and dressed.

  The cook tent was already in action and he made his way to it, striding through the long, sodden grass. He snared a small loaf of bread, tore it apart and filled it with hot bacon, wolfing the food down hungrily. There was fresh coffee in a pot and he poured himself a mug. Then, cup in hand, enjoying the rich hot drink in the chill of the morning, he strolled up to study the castle once more.

  He frowned. Something was odd, he thought. Something was wrong. But the castle was unchanged. The sentries were still visible on the battlements, still in their positions. The man he had noticed the previous evening, leaning against the turret, was still in the same spot.

  Then it hit him. Nothing had changed. Nobody had changed positions in eleven hours. That was what was wrong.

  Unslinging his bow from his shoulder, he began to walk purposefully toward the castle. As he came closer, he saw a line of white-painted stakes driven into the ground. One of Arald’s men stood just outside the line. He called a warning to Halt.

  “Careful, sir! These pegs mark the maximum range of their crossbows. Young Billy Creek was shot by the one of the swine just a week ago.”

  Halt ignored him and continued to walk toward the castle. His eyes scanned the battlements keenly, looking for the first sign of movement that would indicate a crossbow being trained on him. He stopped at a point a hundred paces from the moat, looking up at the dark figure of the sentry leaning against the turret wall. The man had shown no sign that he had noticed Halt’s approach.

  Halt drew an arrow, nocked it, and casually took aim.

  Still the man didn’t move—although he must have seen the Ranger on the sodden ground below the walls.

  Halt released. The arrow hissed away, in a fast-moving arc toward the figure high above. Still no sign of recognition or reaction. Then the arrow struck home and the figure was thrown backward by the impact. Faintly, Halt heard a clatter as it stuck the flagstones.

  But no cry of pain.

  He ran back to where the sentry was watching, a puzzled look on his face.

  “Get me a long rope,” Halt said. “I’m going over that wall.”

  The castle was empty, except for half a dozen servants who had been left behind to light the lamps each night. The battlements had been manned by mannequins—dummies dressed in cloaks and helmets, left leaning against the walls to create the impression that the castle was still occupied.

  Arald and Halt faced one of the servants, a sniveling, frightened man who was convinced they were going to kill him.

  Halt did nothing to disabuse him of that notion.

  “Where is Morgarath?” he snarled, his face close to the other man’s. The servant tried to look away but Halt grabbed him by the chin and forced him to look into his dark, burning eyes.

  “He’s . . . g-g-gone,” the man stammered.

  Halt allowed his anger at the inane reply. “When? And how?”

  “Four, mebbe five days ago. They all left. There’s a tunnel.”

  “Where?” thundered Arald and the servant looked at him in terror. The usually affable Baron of Redmont was furious. He had been tricked and he was in no mood to treat the man well. The servant gulped.

  “There’s a tunnel,” he repeated. “In the basement under the kitchens. They went out through it . . .”

  Halt and Arald exchanged a look. “Let’s go!” the Ranger said, and led the way to the kitchens.

  It took them five minutes to find the tunnel. The departing troops hadn’t bothered to close the entrance behind them. It gaped in the south wall of the basement, dark and forbidding.

  “Get some torches,” Arald told one of his men, and the soldier departed at a run.

  “This isn’t new,” Halt said as they made their way through the tunnel, the darkness pushed back by their flickering torches. The tunnel was wide, with room for two men moving abreast, and the walls were lined with brick and stone.

  “He’s had years to build it,” Arald replied. “Makes sense, I suppose, to have a bolt hole like this. I should do the same at Redmont.”

  “Are you considering bolting?” Halt asked.

  Arald thought about the question for a few seconds. “Not really. But you never know when it might come in handy.”

  As they walked farther through the passage, Arald gestured with his torch at the water that was running down the walls and pooling on the floor. “We must be under the moat,” he said. They stepped through it and continued.

  Halt sensed that the tunnel was beginning to slope upward. “We’re getting close to the exit.” For some reason, he lowered his voice, although the likelihood that Morgarath or his men would be waiting for them was slim. Then a glimmer of light showed ahead of them, rapidly growing into a lit rectangle as they got closer.

  They stepped out into the open air. The tunnel mouth was just inside the edge of the woods, concealed within a tangle of vines and brambles. Halt peered closely at them, seeing where they had been cut away in the past few days. The muddy ground around the exit had been churned by dozens of feet. But the tracks quickly died out as they moved across the thick grass, soaked by the rain of the preceding four days.

  “Tracks are washed away,” Halt muttered. “But this is where they came out, all right.”

  “Question is,” said Arald, “where have they gone?”

  Halt shrugged. “They could have gone in any direction.”

  “North, maybe?” said Arald. “After all, that’s where he had Tiller raiding across the border, so he might have some kind of base there.”

  “Maybe,” Halt said. He was unconvinced. “But as I say . . .”

  His voice trailed off. He had caught sight of something in the trees about twenty meters away. It wasn’t easy to see. It was mottled green and gray and blended into the forest background. But the wind had stirred it and the movement had caught his attention.

  “Oh . . . no . . . ,” he said softly, in a stricken voice. He began to run through the trees toward it.

  Pritchard was lying on his back, eyes wide-open. There were half a dozen gaping wounds on his body. He had obviously been attacked by three or four men. His bow was lying nearby, snapped in half. They must have emerged from the tunnel, catching him by surprise. Then they killed him and left him to lie here. The flutter of movement Halt had seen had come from a corner of his cloak.

  He dropped to one knee beside his old teacher, the man who, years ago, had replaced his own father in his affections. He felt hot tears forcing their way through his eyes and running freely down his cheeks.

  Vaguely, he was aware that Arald had followed him and was standing a few paces back, unsure of what to say or do.

  Halt bowed his head and said in a broken voice: “I’d only just found him again. And now he’s gone.”

  He remained kneeling, head bowed, beside his old friend and mentor for some minutes, thinking of the time they’d spent together in Dun Kilty, and of the sheer joy he had felt at their recent reunion. Finally, he wiped the tears away with the back of his hand, leaving a smear of dirt on his cheeks. Dry eyed, he rose to his feet and looked up into the morning sky.

  “You’ll pay for this, Morgarath. I swear on Pritchard’s life, you’ll pay for this.”

  EPILOGUE

  THE MOUNTAINS OF RAIN AND NIGHT

  THE CAVE WAS SMOKY AND DRAFTY BUT AT LEAST IT WAS DRY. Outside, the rain blew in almost horizontal sheets across the rock-strewn plateau.

  Morgarath sat, hunched over by the fire, facing the terrifying beast he had lured to his cave. It had taken
months to find the Wargal, and now he had finally begun to win his confidence. The Wargal was the leader of a tribe of similar beasts. He had cajoled it with gifts of fresh meat—treasured by the Wargals for its scarcity in these cold, dripping mountains.

  And it had taken days after that to establish a pattern of dominance over the primitive creature’s mind. It had been a slow process. Morgarath had begun by emptying his mind of all conscious thought, allowing it to be open to receive messages from outside. That in itself had taken days to achieve. Then, on one memorable occasion, he had seen an image growing in his mind—even though his eyes were shut.

  It was hazy and unfocused at first, and when he tried to concentrate on it, it receded. He realized that he mustn’t try to focus with his conscious mind. And when he cleared his mind of conscious thought, the image returned—clearer and sharper this time.

  He realized, with a start, that the image was himself. He was seeing what the Wargal chief was seeing.

  He began to try to form an image of his own—difficult to do when he had to keep his conscious mind at bay. He envisaged himself sitting on a high throne, and the Head Wargal was bowing down before him, placing its head under his hand in submission.

  Then he switched tack. He imagined Duncan, terrible in his red surcoat and glittering mail, cutting and hacking at a group of Wargals, killing and maiming them.

  Morgarath had been doing this for a week now, always projecting the same image. But today he felt a slight jolt in his consciousness—an impression of repellence.

  The Wargal had seen what he was projecting, and was disturbed and frightened by it.

  Morgarath half opened his eyes and saw the creature’s lips draw back from its fangs in a snarl.

 
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