The tournament at gorlan, p.5
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.5

           John Flanagan
Download  in MP3 audio

  “Looking to cut loose, are you?” he shouted. “I’ll cut you loose, you worthless piece of dog’s droppings.”

  There was a hiss of metal on leather as he drew the sword and advanced on the men sprawled on the bench. The one who had spoken last lurched to his feet, his hands held out in supplication, panicked by the sight of the naked blade.

  “Steady on, Tiller—”

  “Duncan, you ignorant swine! Call me Duncan!” The tall man shoved the speaker viciously, sending him sprawling in the street. He was half turned away from the two watchers in the alley and his face was obscured. But his rage was all too apparent.

  He whipped the sword over and struck the prone man across the legs with the flat side of the blade. The man howled in pain, then howled again as the blow was repeated, this time across his shoulders. He crouched, trying to protect himself with his hands as the taller man rained blows down on him repeatedly, his voice rising in anger with each stroke, the blows punctuating his words.

  “I told . . . you ignorant fools . . . to stand guard on the road! Not sit out here drinking! Now . . . get . . . to . . . your positions!”

  “Yes, Captain! Yes, Lord Duncan!” the other men chorused. They rose hurriedly from the bench and, staying well outside the reach of the long blade, moved down the main street. Two of them went north. The third helped the unfortunate fourth man to his feet, then they half ran, half shambled their way to the south end of the village.

  Satisfied that they were complying with his orders, the tall man sheathed his sword with a gesture of annoyance. Then he turned back toward the entrance of the inn. For a moment, he was facing the two observers in the alley. Neither man moved, knowing that with the bright sun full in his eyes, it would be virtually impossible for him to see into the shadows where they crouched, unmoving. Then, with a muttered curse, he flung open the door of the tavern and went back inside.

  Halt had been crouching, every muscle tense as he leaned forward to watch. Now he relaxed, letting out a long-held breath with a low sigh.

  “Well,” he said softly. “What do you make of that?”

  For a moment there was no reply and he turned to look at Crowley, who was staring fixedly at the tavern door, shaking his head slowly. Then the Ranger spoke.

  “That’s not Duncan.”

  7

  THEY RETRACED THEIR STEPS ALONG THE BACK LANE, EASILY avoiding the guards now in position at the south end of the main street.

  They spoke no further until they reached the small glade where they had left their horses. Then, as they stopped to take stock of the situation, Halt turned to Crowley.

  “What do you mean, it’s not Duncan?”

  The Ranger shook his head once more. “At first, I thought it was. It looks like him. He’s about the right height and build. And the beard is similar. Even his voice sounds like the prince. But when he turned toward us, with the sunlight full on his face, I realized it’s not him. It’s an impostor.”

  “You’re sure?” Halt asked, although the conviction in Crowley’s voice was obvious.

  “Positive,” Crowley replied.

  Halt set about making a fire, to boil water for coffee. He frowned thoughtfully as he struck a flint on his saxe knife blade and sent a shower of sparks into a small pile of dried tinder—courtesy of Sherrin’s woodpile. He breathed gently on the smoldering tinder, setting a tiny tongue of flame licking the dry matter. Then he placed the flames in the kindling he had piled up in a cone shape. The flames grew stronger and ran up the dried saplings, quickly enveloping the entire pile. He added heavier sticks to the fire and soon had a fierce little blaze alight.

  “The question is, why would anyone impersonate Prince Duncan?” he asked.

  “You said it yourself. To discredit him. To turn the people against him.”

  “And who would benefit from that?” Halt asked. He had learned some time back that when a situation like this occurred, asking who would benefit from it usually provided a good direction as to who was behind it all. They exchanged a glance as he set the coffeepot down into the flames.

  “Morgarath,” they both said at the same time.

  “As you said,” Crowley said thoughtfully. “He’s hungry for power. He’s popular among most of the other barons. He’s the Kingdom’s champion knight, after all, so a lot of them look up to him. The only person who might have rivaled that popularity was Prince Duncan.”

  “But not now,” Halt said.

  “Not now. He’s provoked trouble with the Scotti and he’s becoming hated by the common people.”

  “Next question,” Halt asked. “What do we do about it?”

  There was a long silence, during which the two of them stared into the bright, leaping flames of the fire.

  “I suppose we could drag that false Duncan—Tiller, wasn’t he called?—out of the inn and ask what he’s up to?” Crowley suggested.

  But Halt shook his head. “Chances are, he doesn’t even know who’s hired him. He’s a cat’s paw, after all. Besides, he has twenty men-at-arms around him. That might make the dragging a little difficult.”

  “Then we’re going to have to find the real Duncan—assuming he’s still alive.”

  “How do we do that?” Halt asked.

  Crowley regarded him with a sidelong glance. “You’re full of helpful questions, aren’t you. How about coming up with an answer for a change?”

  Halt shrugged. “You’re the local expert. I’m just an ignorant foreigner.”

  There was another long silence, then Crowley spoke again.

  “If Morgarath really is behind this, then all I can suggest is that we head back into Gorlan and nose around to see what we can find out.”

  “And if he’s not?” Halt asked.

  “Then we’ll go with your plan,” Crowley told him.

  Halt raised his eyebrows as he tossed a handful of coffee into the boiling water. “Do I have a plan?” he asked mildly.

  “You’d better have.”

  The two friends rode silently, retracing their steps toward Gorlan Fief. There was an unmistakable air of defeat about them. They had found the false Duncan, which at least established that Crowley’s suspicions were correct and that the real Prince Duncan wasn’t behind the raiding and pillaging that had been going on. But they had no leads as to where the real Duncan might be, or what had become of him. They were back where they had started—in fact, Halt thought, they were several paces behind where they had started, with no leads to follow and only the vague hope that they might find more information in Gorlan.

  Although how we’ll go about that defeats me, the Hibernian thought. After all, Morgarath was likely to clap them in a dungeon as soon as he set eyes upon them. Still, Halt couldn’t think of an alternative, save for wandering aimlessly about the Kingdom hoping to hear some word of the missing Crown Prince. And that was no plan at all.

  They were almost at the border of Gorlan Fief, close to the winding body of water known as Crowsfoot River. The path here was a narrow one, cut through the thickly growing trees of an old forest. In fact, the path hadn’t really been cut at all. It had been worn by the passage of thousands of travelers over the years. They were riding abreast, which meant they took up the entire width of the path, when they heard drumming hoofbeats coming toward them, from the direction of the ford across the Crowsfoot toward which they were heading.

  As they reached a long, straight stretch of the path, a rider came into view. He was traveling at a full gallop, waving his arms at them to clear the path for him. He wore a black leather vest, studded with metal disks, and woolen trousers tucked into thigh-high riding boots. A sword bounced at his hip and he was also wearing a long-billed, crested cap—the mark of a messenger or dispatch rider.

  As he came closer, they could make out a gold insignia on the left breast of his jacket.

  “Black and gold,” Crowley mutter
ed. “Morgarath’s colors.”

  “Clear the way!” the rider shouted imperiously. “Dispatches from Lord Morgarath! Clear the way!”

  He was closer now, and showed no signs of slackening his pace. His horse was bigger and heavier than those the two Rangers rode and it appeared that if they didn’t move aside, he would plow right through them.

  “Notice how when you put a uniform on a man he tends to throw his weight around?” Halt said. Crowley didn’t answer but they urged their horses to either side of the path, leaving room for the man to pass between them.

  “Out of my way, curse you!” the messenger shouted, in spite of the fact that they had already made room. Perhaps it was the final, unnecessary demand that tipped the scales for Halt. He slipped his bow from his shoulder and, as the dispatch rider thundered past them, he reached to his right and dropped the end of the weapon over the man’s head, so that the thick bowstring fastened around his neck.

  “What . . . ?” the dispatch rider began as he felt the string draw taut across his neck. But at that moment, Halt heaved back on the bow, hauling the rider bodily out of the saddle and sending him crashing to the ground. There was a woof of exhaled breath as he landed flat on his back, then a dull thud as his head struck the compacted leaf mold and mud that formed the surface of the path.

  Halt swung down from the saddle to study the fallen man. Crowley did the same. About twenty meters up the path, the man’s horse seemed to become aware that its rider was no longer in place. It slowed to a trot, then a walk. Then it stopped, looking around curiously.

  Halt and Crowley knelt beside the unconscious man.

  “You didn’t kill him, did you?” Crowley asked.

  Halt shrugged. “I wasn’t trying to. But he certainly is still.”

  At that moment, the man took in a great shuddering breath. He twitched violently once or twice, but his eyes remained tight shut.

  “No. Just unconscious,” Halt said. “He should be out for an hour or more. He certainly caught his head a whack.”

  “So was this a good idea?” Crowley asked. He stood up.

  Halt remained on his knees, rifling through the inside pockets of the dispatch rider’s leather vest. “It certainly seemed like one at the time,” he said. There was nothing of interest in the man’s pockets. He stood and glanced down the path at the riderless horse. It was slowly picking its way back toward them. He walked to meet it, making calming, reassuring noises as he got closer, and patting its smooth muzzle. The horse pushed its head against him.

  “Good boy,” Halt said. “You can’t help who you work for, can you?”

  The horse shook its mane, seeming to agree with him. Halt grinned at it, then took its reins and led it to the side of the path, where he tied the reins to a sapling. He noticed the leather saddlebags hanging either side of the horse’s rump, behind the saddle. He untied the fastenings that kept them in place and lifted them clear.

  “He said he was a dispatch rider. Let’s see what dispatches he was carrying.”

  He unstrapped the saddlebags and dumped the contents onto the path. There were half a dozen rolled scrolls in the bags, each one fastened with a black ribbon, which was itself sealed with wax, into which a signet ring had been pressed. Halt picked up one at random and peered at the seal. It was the now-familiar lightning bolt that denoted the man’s allegiance to Morgarath.

  “Looks like a love letter from Morgarath,” Halt said. “Let’s see what he has to say.” He drew his throwing knife and worked the sharp blade under the wax seal, twisting it carefully so that the entire slab of wax popped clear of the scroll. He placed the small piece of wax carefully to one side, then tugged on the slipknot holding the ribbon and unfolded the scroll.

  “It might be a little difficult to reseal that,” Crowley murmured.

  “I’ll manage,” Halt said briefly, scanning the message written on the scroll.

  “Well,” he said, after a minute or so. “This is interesting.”

  “What does it say?” Crowley moved to peer over his shoulder.

  “It’s a list of twelve Rangers who are to be dismissed from the Corps and have their authority as Rangers revoked.” He paused. “And you’re the first name on the list.”

  8

  CROWLEY TOOK THE LIST OF NAMES AND SCANNED IT QUICKLY, his lips moving silently as he read. He looked up.

  “I know these men,” he said. He tapped the list lightly with his finger. “All of these men are trained in the old Ranger skills. And they hold to the old Ranger code of conduct.”

  “And the new appointees don’t?” Halt asked.

  Crowley shook his head in disgust. “Morgarath lobbied to have his own choice as Commandant installed, a man named Stilson. He had no particular skills, other than the ability to toady to Morgarath. Since he’s been Commandant, the Corps has become nothing more than a glorified social club. The members don’t train, they don’t practice their skills. They don’t have any skills, as a matter of fact. They simply enjoy the prestige and power that comes with being a Ranger.”

  Halt frowned. “How does Morgarath come to have so much influence?”

  Crowley shrugged angrily. “He’s a senior baron—probably the most senior in the Kingdom. And he’s highly respected. King Oswald began to depend on him for advice and counsel some years back. The King’s old and unwell. Perhaps he thought Duncan was too young and inexperienced to act as an adviser. Morgarath gradually assumed more and more power as time went by and the King obviously became more and more accustomed to letting him have his own way with things. He was tired and sick and I suppose it just seemed easier to let Morgarath make most of the decisions.”

  “So why would he try to weaken the Ranger Corps?” Halt asked, although he thought he knew the answer.

  “Because the Rangers are loyal to the King, first and foremost. They’re a powerful force and if you were trying to assume power in the Kingdom, they’d be a major stumbling block. He began by having Nicholl, the Commandant, accused of treachery and disloyalty to the crown. It was a trumped-up charge, of course, but Morgarath produced witnesses who swore to Nicholl’s guilt. He was found guilty and banished. Some of the other Rangers resigned in protest. Morgarath let them go, then installed his own puppet as Commandant. Since then, he’s been gradually weakening the Corps. Today, there are probably only a dozen of the original group left.”

  Halt glanced meaningfully at the parchment in Crowley’s hands. “Not even that, by the look of things.”

  Crowley nodded sadly. “No. It looks as if he’s finally destroyed the Corps—and removed it as an impediment to his ambitions.”

  “Let’s see what else he has to say,” Halt said. Kneeling, he picked up another scroll and carefully popped the sealing wax clear of the ribbon.

  He glanced quickly at the message on the scroll and shrugged.

  “Nothing important here. Just an appointment for some Baron Naylor to act as grand marshal of the tournament at Gorlan.” He looked up curiously. “What’s that about?”

  “The Gorlan tournament is the most prestigious in Araluen. It’s held in the first week of Fourthmonth. Morgarath has been hosting it for the past ten years. He’s won the Golden Spur trophy three out of the past four—”

  “The Golden Spur?” Halt interrupted. Tournaments weren’t a feature of life in Hibernia and he had no idea what a Golden Spur might signify.

  “It’s awarded to the grand champion of the tournament—the man who defeats all challengers in single combat. The winner gains enormous prestige.”

  “And our friend Morgarath is the current champion?” Halt asked, but Crowley shook his head.

  “No. Last year the Spur was awarded to a young baron—Arald of Redmont. He knocked Morgarath out of his saddle on the third pass.”

  Halt grunted. “I think I like him already.” He set the second parchment to one side, being careful to retain
the small blob of yellow wax bearing Morgarath’s seal, then pried the seal from another parchment roll. He read in silence for a few seconds, then let out a low whistle. He looked up at Crowley.

  “Well, I think this tells us just about everything,” he said, and handed the sheet to Crowley. The Ranger smoothed out the parchment, which had curled up on itself as Halt passed it to him. He read the first few sentences, then glanced to the bottom of the sheet, where Morgarath’s seal was affixed once more, confirming the identity of the writer. Then he went back to the main body of the message. This time, he read aloud.

  To Sir Eammon of Wildriver

  from Morgarath, Baron of Gorlan Fief, Lord of the Realm.

  Eammon my friend,

  I’m delighted to inform you that ill feeling against Duncan is growing daily. Our man Tiller is doing an excellent job of impersonating the prince. As we anticipated, the villagers in the north are already alienated by his raiding and looting. Before too long, I expect their resentment will turn to hatred against the real Duncan. At the same time, the nobles are becoming disenchanted with the prince as he continues to jeopardize the treaty between Araluen and Picta.

  As a result, it’s vital that you continue to hold Duncan in Castle Wildriver—and allow him no contact with the outside world. No one must know he is our prisoner.

  The time will soon be right for me to convince the King to disinherit Duncan in my favor. In the meantime, Duncan is to be kept alive. If Oswald refuses to cooperate, we can control him by threatening his son.

  I will announce my appointment as Oswald’s heir and regent at the annual tournament. It’s an appropriately prestigious affair and a large number of the nobles will be there. Many of them have already been persuaded to my cause. As for those who might oppose us, we’ll have them gathered in the one place, giving us a chance to thin their ranks.

  Once my position as Oswald’s heir is confirmed, we will have no further need of Duncan.

  Until then, allow no serious harm to come to him, at your peril.

 

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll
Add comment

Add comment