Death of a hero, p.4
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       Death of a Hero, p.4
 

           John Flanagan
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  Kord and Jerrel had no trouble eluding the sentries. The men on watch were tired and bored as they neared the end of their three-hour shift. And besides, they were more inclined to look for intruders from outside the camp than people leaving from inside. The rumor that the company would be heading south and continuing the campaign was a false one Halt had concocted to force the thieves’ hand, so with the company due to return home and disband in the near future, there was little reason for men to desert.

  He waited fifteen minutes to give the two time to clear the camp perimeter, then rolled out of his blankets and ghosted out of the tent after them. He retrieved his own clothes from the company command tent. Griff was waiting for him, a shaded lantern throwing a dim light over the interior.

  “They took the bait?” he asked.

  Halt nodded. He changed clothes and placed the heavy purse containing his winnings on the table.

  “You can put this into the company fund,” he said. He knew most companies contributed to a fund that was used to help the families of those who lost their lives on campaign. Griff nodded his thanks.

  “If you catch them, feel free to bring them back here,” he said. “I’d be quite happy to see to their future discomfort.”

  “Oh, I’ll catch them, all right,” Halt told him. “And when I do, it’ll be up to them how I deal with them.”

  He shook hands with the sergeant major and went to the rear of the tent, where Abelard was waiting. He swung up into the saddle and trotted out of the camp. He made no attempt at concealment, identifying himself to the sentries as he went.

  He found the north road and held Abelard down to a walk. He didn’t want to catch up to the two men too quickly. Concealed in his Ranger cloak, they might not recognize him as their erstwhile tent mate, but the sight of a Ranger traveling the same road might panic them into abandoning their plans for the time being.

  As dawn came and the first gray light stole over the countryside, he increased his pace. Before long, he rounded a bend and caught sight of two figures trudging along the high road, several hundred meters in front of him. Thankfully, the headache and blurred vision that had plagued him were gone and he had no trouble recognizing the two men—Kord tall and wiry, Jerrel more compact and solidly built. He checked Abelard and moved off the road, where the dark green of the trees would conceal them from view.

  When Kord and Jerrel rounded another bend and disappeared from sight, he cantered slowly after them.

  He proceeded in that fashion for the rest of the day. As the light improved, he was able to make out their tracks on the dusty road—their hobnailed army sandals left an easily followed trail. He fell farther back, only closing up again when the light began to fail in the late afternoon. As dusk was falling, the two men moved off the highway and made camp.

  He spent the night wrapped in his cloak, leaning against a tree and watching the light of their fire. He dozed in brief snatches, confident that Abelard would wake him if there were any movement from the distant camp. He woke cold and cramped in the early-morning light. The fire had died before dawn and there was a thin spiral of smoke rising from it. After half an hour, he saw the two men rising and moving around their campsite. Abelard was back in the trees and there was no need for Halt to seek concealment. Wrapped in his cloak, he would be invisible, even if they looked directly at him. His stomach grumbled as they relit their fire and he smelled bacon frying. After that, the smell of coffee brewing made his mouth water. He contented himself with a discreet mouthful of cold water from his canteen. It was a poor substitute.

  The pair was slow in getting moving. Halt shifted uncomfortably a few times, waiting for them to get on the road. Finally, they rolled their packs and struck camp, heading north once more. He waited until they had rounded the next bend in the road, then moved to where Abelard waited inside the trees. He tightened the girth straps—he had left the horse saddled through the night in case of an emergency—mounted and rode slowly after them.

  When he reached the bend, he dismounted and went ahead to peer around, down the next stretch of road.

  There was no sign of them.

  For a moment, his heart raced with panic. This stretch of road was at least three hundred meters long—and there was no way they could have reached the far end before he rounded the bend. Where had they gone? Had they become aware that they were being followed? Perhaps they’d gone to ground somewhere along the road and were now waiting in ambush for whoever was behind them. Or had they moved more quickly than he had judged, and were now beyond the far bend?

  He forced himself to calm down. Both those theories were possibilities, he admitted. But it was more likely that they had moved off the high road onto a side track somewhere along the way. They were inside Aspienne Fief now and they could be close to Daniel’s farm. He remounted Abelard and tapped his heels into the horse’s side.

  The temptation was to gallop full out to see if there was, in fact, a turnoff. But doing so would cause noise and would risk drawing their attention. He trotted the little horse gently along the hard surface of the high road.

  Forty meters along, he found what he was looking for. A narrow side trail led off from the main road. It was well traveled and seemed to have been established for some time. He glanced along it, but it wound and twisted through the trees and there was no sign of Kord and Jerrel. But as he studied the ground, he saw a familiar footprint. Kord’s right boot was worn down on the inside—the result of an uneven stance. There in the sand that formed the path’s surface, Halt could see the distinctive track. He swung down from the saddle and led Abelard along the track. It wouldn’t do to come upon them unexpectedly.

  Presently, he began to smell wood smoke, then the rich and distinctive odor of a farmyard. It was a mixture of manure, fresh-cut hay and large animals that told him he was nearing Daniel’s farm. Then he heard a sound that confirmed the fact.

  Somewhere close to hand, a woman screamed.

  7

  HALT DROPPED ABELARD’S REINS AND BEGAN TO RUN. THE HORSE would follow along, he knew. Another scream came through the trees. The first had been a shout of fear and alarm. This one had anger mixed in. He ran faster, the saxe knife and quiver thumping on his hip and shoulder as his feet hit the ground. Belatedly, he realized that he would have been better off remounting and riding Abelard. But no sooner had the thought occurred than he burst into a clearing where a small thatched farmhouse stood, smoke curling lazily from its chimney, several cows moving uneasily in the fenced-off paddock beside the house.

  Another defiant scream, then a man’s voice raised in anger and the unmistakable sound of a blow. A gasp of pain from the woman.

  “My husband will kill you for that!” she cried.

  “Your husband’s dead!” a sneering voice replied. “And you’ll join him if you don’t do as you’re told. You and the baby!”

  Halt heard a quick sob of grief from the woman at these words. Seething with rage, he hit the farmhouse door with his shoulder and burst into the dim room inside.

  He took in the details instantly. A woman crouched in the far corner, close to the cooking hearth, her arms spread protectively over a cradle. Jerrel stood over her, his hand raised to hit her again, frozen in the act as the door crashed back on its leather hinges.

  To Halt’s left, Kord was rummaging through a chest, hurling clothes and household pieces in all directions as he searched for items of value. He, too, froze at the sudden appearance of the Ranger. Then recognition dawned as he made out the dark, bearded face.

  “You!” he snarled. “What are you doing here?”

  He didn’t wait for an answer but lunged to his feet, drawing the cheap sword that he wore at his waist and surging across the room to swing a downward cut at Halt.

  The Ranger’s actions were instinctive. He sidestepped the savage sword stroke, swaying to his right, and simultaneously drew the saxe knife with his left hand. He was bringing the big knife up to a defensive position when Kord’s momentum drove him onto
the blade. Kord looked down in horror as the razor-sharp hardened steel slid easily through the rusty links of his chain-mail vest.

  He gasped and blood welled out of his mouth. His eyes went dull and his knees gave way. Halt jerked the knife free of the falling body and spun to face Jerrel, who was still trying to take in the rapid sequence of events. Then Jerrel’s eyes hardened and he drew his own sword, stepping deliberately forward, not rushing as Kord had done, presenting the sword point first and letting it sway back and forth, threatening the smaller man who faced him.

  The woman dropped back on her haunches beside the cot, watching in wide-eyed horror as the scene unfolded before her.

  Jerrel advanced another pace. Halt switched the saxe to his right hand and withdrew warily. He was confident that he could handle the soldier, in spite of the apparent disparity in their weapons. Swordsmen often underestimated the lethal potential of a saxe knife, he knew. Still, he was prepared to let Jerrel make the first move, and so draw him into closer range, where the saxe would be effective.

  Jerrel feinted with the blade. Halt, watching his eyes, saw no commitment there and ignored the movement. His apparent calm infuriated Jerrel. Halt saw the hot anger welling up in his eyes.

  “You’re a dead man, Arratay,” Jerrel said through clenched teeth.

  Halt smiled. “That’s been said before. Yet here I am.”

  He took another pace backward, conscious of Kord’s still body on the beaten earth floor of the farmhouse, just beside and behind him.

  Jerrel darted the sword blade out at him. This time it was no feint and Halt was ready for it. He flicked it aside with the saxe, the two blades ringing together for a second. The speed and ease of his response raised a worm of doubt in Jerrel’s mind. He had the longer weapon. He had the advantage. Yet this bearded figure in the strange mottled cloak seemed completely at ease.

  He was thinking about this when Arratay, as he knew him, lunged forward with the short, gleaming saxe. Jerrel leaped backward, yelping in surprise, and managed to swipe his sword across in a clumsy parry, just in time. For the first time, he realized that he might be outmatched. He was about to drop his weapon and plead for mercy when something totally unexpected happened.

  Halt felt an iron grip on his left ankle, then the leg was jerked from under him, sending him sprawling awkwardly on the farmhouse floor.

  As he fell, he turned and found himself looking into Kord’s face. The eyes were filled with hatred, the lips curled back in one last snarl of triumph. With his final breath, Kord had managed to take his revenge on the small man who had ruined everything for them. Now the eyes went blank as the life left his body.

  Jerrel, who was never too quick on the uptake, saw that his opponent was, for the moment, helpless before him. With a cry of triumph, he raised the sword in both hands, point down, and stepped forward, preparing to drive it into the prone body on the floor. Halt struggled to rise but knew it was too late. The gleaming sword point began to descend.

  Then a figure came from nowhere and crashed into Jerrel, clinging to him and knocking him sideways, sending the sword spinning out of his grasp. Halt dodged sideways as the weapon fell close to him, then realized what had happened.

  The woman had launched herself at Jerrel, landing on his back and clinging there like a wildcat as she raked at his face and eyes with her nails.

  The thief staggered under the impact, turning so that the two of them crashed into the kitchen table, sending it spinning, then cannoned into the wall, smashing halfway through the close-woven willow sticks daubed with mud. Unable to dislodge the grim, clinging figure on his back, Jerrel twisted so that he was facing her and, drawing his heavy-bladed dagger, struck out desperately at her.

  She cried out in pain and released her grip, falling back, hands clutching at the savage wound in her left side. Blood covered her hands instantly, soaking the white cotton material of her shift as she sank to one knee. Then Halt was upon Jerrel, grasping the man’s knife hand and forcing it upward while he drew his throwing knife and rammed it deep into his body. Jerrel gave a grunt of pain. The heavy dagger fell from his hand and for a moment he was supported only by Halt’s grip on his right wrist. Then, as the Ranger released him, he sagged to his knees, looking up at Halt, his eyes showing shock at the fact that this was the way his life was to end. He fell over sideways, his hands desperately trying to stem the flow of blood from the wound. Halt stood warily for a second, making sure that Jerrel was truly finished. His recent experience with Kord had made him careful. Then, satisfied that Jerrel wasn’t about to rally for another attack, he knelt quickly beside the stricken woman.

  Her face was white and drawn with the savage pain of the wound. Halt looked at the amount of blood she had lost already and knew she had no chance of surviving. She looked up at the stranger who had tried to save her, whom she had saved with her desperate attack on Jerrel. She saw the sadness in the dark eyes looking down at her and knew the truth. She was dying. Yet there was something she had to know.

  “My . . . husband . . . ,” she managed to gasp. “Is he really dead?”

  Halt hesitated. He was tempted to lie to her, to comfort her. But he knew he could never carry off the lie. He nodded. “Yes,” he said. “You’ll soon be with him.”

  He saw the sudden look of anguish in her face as her eyes turned toward the cot in the corner of the room.

  “Our son . . . ,” she said, and coughed blood as she spoke. Then she made a massive effort and recovered herself. “Don’t leave him with the villagers . . . He’ll have no life with them . . . We’re strangers here . . . They’ll work him to death . . .”

  Halt nodded. Daniel and his wife were new arrivals in the area. They wouldn’t have friends in the village to take care of their infant son. An orphan would be a burden to most villagers. His only worth would be as a worker—a virtual slave.

  “I’ll take care of him,” he said gently, and the woman reached up and seized his hand in a surprisingly strong grip.

  “Promise me,” she said, and he placed his other hand over hers.

  “I promise.”

  She studied his eyes for several seconds and seemed to find reassurance there. She released his hand and sank back onto the blood-soaked floor. She spoke again, but her voice was so soft, he didn’t hear the words. He bent to her, turning his ear to her mouth.

  “Tell me again,” he said, and this time he could make out the whispered words.

  “His name is Will.”

  “It’s a good name,” he told her. But she didn’t hear him. She was already dead.

  8

  HE BURIED THE WOMAN IN A SMALL CLEARING BEYOND THE HOME paddock, marking the grave with a stone. He didn’t know her name, or the family name. So he inscribed the stone with a simple legend: A BRAVE MOTHER.

  Kord and Jerrel deserved no such treatment. They had destroyed a happy, loving family, so he dragged their bodies into the woods, leaving them for the foxes and crows.

  The baby slept quietly in his cot while Halt attended to these matters. As Halt sat nursing a cup of coffee in the disarranged house, the infant woke and muttered quietly. Halt noted with approval that he didn’t cry.

  “I expect you’re hungry,” he said. He had a warmed bowl of cow’s milk and a clean linen cloth ready. He twisted the end of the cloth into a narrow shape and dipped it into the milk, then placed it by the baby’s mouth. The lips formed around the cloth twist and the baby sucked the milk from it. Halt dipped it into the bowl again and repeated the process. The system was time-consuming but it seemed to work. The baby watched him as it fed, big, serious brown eyes staring at him over the milk-soaked cloth.

  “The question is,” Halt said, “what am I to do with you?”

  The farm, he knew, would revert to the baron of the fief, who would appoint another tenant family to work it. So there was nothing for the infant to inherit. He couldn’t leave him here—as the mother had so desperately pointed out. And he couldn’t raise the baby himself. He simply wasn’
t equipped to look after a baby, nor was he in any position to do so. His work as a Ranger would keep him absent from home for long periods and the baby would be left alone and uncared for.

  But an idea was forming. Baron Arald had created a Ward at Castle Redmont where the orphans of men and women who died in his service were cared for. It was a bright, cheerful place, staffed by kind, affectionate people, and there were several recent additions to the ranks of children being cared for there. A baby girl called Alyss, and another boy—Horace, his name was.

  Will would know warmth and companionship there. And as he grew, he would be given a choice of different vocations to follow. All in all, it seemed like an ideal solution.

  “Problem is,” Halt told the watchful infant, “we can’t let on that I’ve brought you there. Folk are suspicious of Rangers. If they thought you were associated with me, they might tread warily around you.”

  Rangers had an aura of mystery and uncertainty about them. And that could have drawbacks for the child. People often feared things they didn’t understand, and he didn’t want that fear transferring itself to young Will. Better if his background remained a mystery.

  “Which it is,” Halt mused. “I don’t even know your last name.”

  He considered that. He could ask around the district. But as he had learned, the family was new to the area and people might not know their names. In addition, he would have to reveal his plans for the baby, and he wasn’t sure if what he was planning was exactly legal. Will was the child of two subjects of the local baron and Halt technically had no right to carry him off to another fief.

  But then, in his lifetime, Halt had often ignored what was technically legal. Technicalities didn’t appeal to him. All too often, they simply got in the way of doing the right thing.

 
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