The tournament at gorlan, p.6
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.6

           John Flanagan
 

  M.

  Crowley looked up from the written sheet.

  “So now we know,” he said.

  Halt nodded. “The question is, what do we do about it?”

  Crowley thought rapidly. “The tournament is six . . . no, seven . . . weeks from now. We’re going to have to break Duncan out of this Castle Wildriver before then, and have him confront Morgarath. As Morgarath says, there’ll be a large gathering of barons and knights and that will work in Duncan’s favor just as much as it would for Morgarath.”

  “We don’t want to rescue him too soon,” Halt said. “If Morgarath hears he’s escaped, he may well change his plans. But you’re right. If Duncan appears at the tournament, he’ll have the chance to sway the barons back to his side—particularly if we free the King as well.”

  “And it might be a good idea to drag the impostor along and have him admit that he’s been the one stirring up the north.”

  “So it’s simple. We take the false Duncan prisoner, we set the real Duncan free and we rescue the King from Castle Gorlan before the tournament begins,” Halt said.

  Crowley raised an eyebrow as he considered the tasks before them. “That’s a lot to ask of just two men.”

  Halt smiled grimly and picked up the first dispatch—with the list of discredited Rangers’ names on it.

  “I think I know where we might find some help,” he said.

  Of course, their plans would be jeopardized if Morgarath learned that his dispatch to Castle Wildriver had been intercepted. While Crowley kept a careful watch over the unconscious dispatch rider, Halt set about resealing the scrolls they had opened.

  He unfastened a small pouch he kept at his belt and took out the contents. There was a cylindrical plug of lead some three centimeters in diameter—about the size of the seal used to fasten the wax over the ribbons on the scrolls. He rerolled the parchment sheets and tied the black ribbons to hold them in place. Then he set about carving a shape into the flat, smooth end of the lead plug.

  After making sure that the dispatch rider was still unconscious, Crowley looked curiously over Halt’s shoulder and saw that he was using a thick, pointed bodkin to gouge a lightning-bolt shape into the end of the lead. It looked roughly like Morgarath’s seal, he thought. But it wasn’t exact.

  “Do you think that’ll fool them?” he asked.

  Halt looked up briefly. “Think about it. If you received a message from Morgarath, carried by Morgarath’s messenger, how carefully would you check the outside seal?”

  Crowley pursed his lips. “Not too carefully. I’d just look to make sure it hadn’t been broken. So long as it was in place, holding the ribbon securely, that would be all I’d bother with.”

  “Exactly,” Halt said. He gathered the small tablets of golden wax he’d removed from the scrolls and, moving to the fire Crowley had lit, began to melt them again in a small mold. As the wax grew soft, then liquid, he poured some onto the first of the ribbons, sealing the knot. Then, before the wax hardened, he pressed the fake seal into the hot wax, leaving a fairly credible lightning-bolt shape impressed into it. He blew on the wax to cool it and harden it and studied his handiwork with a satisfied expression.

  “That looks good,” Crowley said.

  Halt nodded. He was busy melting the remaining wax so that he could reseal the other two messages.

  Crowley watched him, frowning uncertainly. “Where did you learn to do all this?” he asked suspiciously. He was a little scandalized by Halt’s unabashed ability to forge a seal.

  “Oh, I have many skills,” Halt said. “Fortunately, I’m an honest man.”

  Crowley nodded. “So I can see.”

  Halt waited a few minutes for the wax to harden completely on the three messages, then replaced them all in the rider’s saddlebag.

  “Now all we have to do is wait for Sleeping Beauty to awaken,” he said.

  Crowley grinned. “Do you want to try giving him the kiss of true love?” he asked. “I’ve heard that’ll do the trick.”

  Halt glowered at him. “I don’t think so.”

  It took a few more minutes for the dispatch rider to begin to stir. He moaned once or twice, then raised his hand to his forehead. Halt shook him gently, then tapped him lightly on the cheek with his palm.

  “Wake up, sir,” he said, affecting a thick country accent. “You’ve had a terrible fall.”

  The man’s eyes opened and he stared groggily at the bearded face looking down on him.

  “What happened?” he said, his voice thick.

  “You fell off your horse. You’ve been out cold for an hour or more.”

  The man looked around, confused and dazed. He saw his horse standing nearby, tethered to a tree. Crowley moved into his field of view, with a two-meter length of creeper he’d cut from a tree a few meters from the path.

  “This creeper was hanging in a loop from a tree,” he said. “It caught round your neck and pulled you from the saddle.”

  The rider nodded slowly. He had a vague memory of something around his neck, jerking him violently backward. Then suspicion clouded his face and he looked quickly to the horse again, reassured by the sight of the saddlebags hanging behind the saddle.

  “Do you know what’s in those saddlebags?” he asked, his voice harsh.

  Crowley shrugged and managed a guileless look.

  He’s good at that, Halt thought.

  “Lot of papers and such,” said Crowley.

  “Did you read them?” the man demanded. “It’s a crime to open a sealed dispatch. You could be in big trouble.”

  Crowley shrugged, maintaining his open-faced, honest look. “No point to that. Us can’t read.”

  Us can’t read? He’s laying it on a bit thick, Halt thought. The dispatch rider looked relieved. There was no reason for him to doubt Crowley’s statement. They appeared to be simple foresters, and it would be surprising if they were literate. The man held out a hand to Halt.

  “Help me stand,” he demanded.

  For a moment, annoyed by the arrogant tone, Halt was tempted to help him lie down again, by virtue of a fist to the jaw. But he managed a helpful smile and hauled the man to his feet, helping him keep his balance as he walked unsteadily to the horse.

  The rider rested his head against the horse for a few seconds while he regained his balance. Then, with Halt’s assistance, he climbed awkwardly into the saddle. He looked down at them, haughtily.

  “You did well to assist me,” he said. “A dispatch rider is an important person. I’ll see you’re rewarded.”

  And with that, he set his horse into a trot and rode slowly away from them. Halt and Crowley exchanged a grin.

  “Since he doesn’t know our names or where we come from, I imagine that’ll be a little difficult,” Crowley said.

  Halt nodded. “It’s the thought that counts,” he replied.

  9

  THE HOPELESS, DESPAIRING FEELING THAT CROWLEY HAD experienced was gone now, replaced by a firm resolve. He spread out a map of the Kingdom on the ground and they knelt beside it, studying it.

  “Castle Wildriver is here,” Crowley said, pointing with the tip of his saxe to a spot on the map.

  “I take it the river is appropriately named?” Halt said.

  Crowley nodded confirmation. “The castle is built on a long island that splits the river. As it narrows, the two arms begin to run with increasing speed. It makes the castle difficult to access. It’s a very defensible position. We’ll have to work out a way to get across the river and into the castle itself.”

  “We’ll come to that later. We’ve got nearly seven weeks before we have to set Duncan free. I think our first order of business is to find some reinforcements. Which of those renegade Rangers is the closest?” Halt smiled grimly. “I like the idea of renegade Rangers,” he said, more or less to himself. “It appeals to my natural s
ense of rebellion against authority.”

  Crowley ignored the comment while he studied the list of names and fiefs, mentally sorting through them to determine the most efficient path. “Leander,” he said, after some seconds’ deliberation. “He’s in Dacton Fief, and that’s in the northwest.”

  “Of course,” said Halt, “we’re assuming these men will have remained close to the fiefs where they’d been operating. They may have moved on.”

  Crowley considered the point with his head cocked to one side. “Possibly,” he said. “But that letter from Morgarath seems to indicate that they have only just been dismissed—or are about to be. I assume that’s just one of many letters he sent out. There will have been messages to each of the barons in those fiefs, telling them that their local Ranger is to be replaced. Presumably, they’ll have been sent out under the King’s seal. He’s the only one who can appoint or dismiss a Ranger.” He paused, then added dryly, “And we know how easy it is to forge a sealed message.”

  Halt assumed a look of wide-eyed innocence.

  Crowley eyed him for several seconds, then continued. “But even if those men have already been dismissed, odds are they won’t have moved on too far. And in any case, our best chance of finding out where they’ve gone will be from people in the fiefs they were appointed to.”

  “Very well,” said Halt, “our first stop is Dacton Fief. If we get started now, we should be there by tomorrow afternoon.”

  Crowley nodded agreement and folded the map, placing it in one of his saddlebags. They re-saddled their horses, which had been unsaddled to let them rest and graze while the two men considered the situation. Within ten minutes, they were on the road.

  Both of them were glad to put Gorlan, and the risk of being intercepted by Morgarath’s men, behind them. After an hour of traveling on narrow back trails, they reached the high road to the west and set their horses to a slow lope. They traveled at what Crowley described as “Ranger pace,” cantering for twenty minutes, then walking the horses, leading them, for ten so that the animals could regain their strength. Every two hours, they stopped for ten minutes by the side of the road to rest and eat and drink a little—hard rations like dried beef and fruit washed down by cold water.

  By late afternoon, they were well on their way and they found a small clearing a hundred meters from the road, well screened by trees, where they set up camp. Halt spent some minutes scanning the road, watching for traffic passing in either direction. In that time, he saw one farmer, slowly leading a plow horse past them.

  “I think we can risk a small fire,” he said. “That road doesn’t seem to be very well traveled.”

  During the day they had sighted plentiful wildlife along the road and had shot two fat plovers and a rabbit. Halt skinned and cleaned them while Crowley went looking for wild salad greens. He returned after twenty minutes with a broad smile. In addition to the bitter greens, he dumped half a dozen earth-covered lumps beside the fire.

  “Potatoes,” he said triumphantly. “There’s a small farm about half a kilometer in that direction”—he gestured to the trees behind them—“and they have a very convenient potato field planted right up next to the tree line.”

  “Excellent,” Halt said. The thought of potatoes with the meat set his mouth watering. Salad greens were all very well, but potatoes added a sense of solidity to a meal, he thought. He was busy threading the plovers and the rabbit onto a green stick they could suspend over the fire. “Rub some of the dirt off them and we’ll cook them in the coals.”

  One of the small pleasures of traveling and camping, he decided, was that, to compensate for the nights spent in the rain with no hot food, there were occasions like this, when they could take the time to enjoy a good meal. He placed the spitted rabbit and birds beside the fire, ready to rest the green branch on two forked sticks driven into the ground either side of the fireplace. Crowley passed him the potatoes, now with most of the earth removed, and he pushed them into the coals at the side of the fire, heaping the glowing charcoal over them. The rest of the dirt would come away with the skins when the potatoes were cooked.

  “Nothing like a brace of murphies to set off a meal,” he said contentedly.

  Crowley frowned at him. “Murphies?”

  “It’s what we call them in Hibernia,” Halt replied.

  Crowley shook his head. “Strange people, Hibernians,” he said to himself.

  In spite of the mouthwatering smell of the roasting meat, and the fact that they were both ravenous after a long day, they didn’t hurry the cooking. There was a temptation to simply char the meat over the flames of the fire and eat it half raw, but experienced campers as they were, they resisted the impulse, letting the flames die down to a solid bed of red-hot coals, then cooking the spitted meat over the fierce, steady heat they emitted, turning the spit regularly to ensure the meat cooked evenly.

  As a result, it took another forty minutes for the meal to be ready. But they both agreed, through mouthfuls of delicious meat, bitter salad and creamy potato flesh smeared with melted butter, that the wait was worthwhile.

  When they had finished eating, Crowley made coffee and poured them both a large mug. He watched quizzically while Halt scooped two large spoonfuls of wild honey into his. He’d noticed this strange habit before.

  “Why do you do that?” Crowley asked.

  Halt looked up, not understanding, and Crowley gestured to the small pot of honey that Halt kept in his cooking kit.

  “Oh. I always do it,” Halt said.

  “I know,” said Crowley. “But why? It seems to me you’re just ruining the taste of good coffee.”

  “On the contrary,” Halt replied, “I’m enhancing the taste of good honey.”

  Crowley shook his head. “Strange people, Hibernians.”

  They breakfasted early the next morning, before the sun was truly up. Halt had left a flour-and-water dough in the coals overnight and it had baked into a golden-crusted damper bread. They ate it with cold meat from the plovers and another pot of coffee to wash it down. Then they broke camp and took to the high road once more.

  “I was wondering,” said Crowley, with a sly little smile at the corner of his mouth, “why don’t you put honey on your meat?”

  Halt turned in his saddle to look at his companion. “Are you seriously asking that question?”

  Crowley shrugged. “Well, yes. After all, you put it in coffee, which has a perfectly acceptable taste on its own. Why not put it on grilled plover? Or rabbit?”

  Halt studied him for a long minute, then kicked his horse into a trot, pulling away from the grinning, redheaded Ranger.

  “You’re an idiot,” he declared, throwing the statement back over his shoulder.

  “Maybe,” said Crowley in a lowered tone, “but I don’t put honey in my coffee.”

  “Heard that,” Halt said shortly.

  Crowley grinned after his friend. “You were meant to,” he said, and tapped his own horse to catch up. Life was good, he thought. They had eaten well. They had a firm plan of action, and he had a traveling companion whom he could tease anytime he liked.

  Castle Dacton was an ugly, utilitarian building. Squat and slab sided, it was sited on a hill, as most castles were, which made it easier to defend as attackers would have to struggle up the slope for the last few hundred meters. The ground in front of the castle walls had been cleared. Again, this was the custom, as it allowed no cover for attackers, and lessened the chance of the castle being taken by surprise.

  There was no mistaking its purpose. It was a building designed for defense, designed for battle. Unlike Gorlan, no attempt had been made to beautify the castle. Even Halt’s old home in Hibernia, built from grim, uncompromising granite blocks, had a certain purity of line that gave it a simple attractiveness. This looked like a mass of stone plopped down on top of the hill, dominating the landscape, gloomy and threatening in appear
ance.

  “Nice place,” he said.

  Crowley smiled. “It’s not too stylish, is it?” he said. “But in over a hundred years, it’s never been taken by attackers.”

  Halt glanced around. “Who’d attack here?”

  Crowley gestured toward the glittering gray line of the sea, just visible to the west. “Skandians. And Sonderlanders from time to time. They were very big on raiding some twenty years ago. Got a bloody nose here at Dacton, however.”

  “So do we ride up, knock on the drawbridge and ask for Ranger Leander?” Halt asked, gesturing to the castle. But Crowley shook his head.

  “Rangers don’t live in the fief castles. We like to keep the barons at arm’s length. It doesn’t do to get too cozy with them.”

  “But you serve the barons, surely?” Halt said, and again, Crowley made a negative gesture.

  “We serve the King. We answer to him and him alone. And sometimes, that can be a little awkward for a baron. In a way, we outrank them—but we never push the fact.”

  Halt nodded. The concept was a sound one, he thought. As he had said the day before, he had an innate suspicion of authority. “So where do we find Leander?” he asked.

  Crowley indicated the small village that sprawled at the foot of the hill, overlooked by the massive castle. “We’ll ask there. Leander will have a small cabin in the woods somewhere beyond the village. That’s the way we do things.”

  They bypassed the squat, massive castle and rode into the village. In times of danger, Halt knew, the villagers would seek protection inside the castle walls. But in more normal times, the village gave accommodation for the workers who tended the surrounding farms, and provided the basic services that the villagers and castle inhabitants needed from day to day. A clear little stream ran beside the village and a mill was set on its banks, the running water being used to turn its massive mill wheels. There was the inevitable tavern and inn combined and a cluster of the usual thatched cottages around it.

 
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