The tournament at gorlan, p.8
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.8

           John Flanagan
 

  It was strange to have a new member in their group. Halt and Crowley had grown used to each other’s company over the preceding weeks, but it didn’t take Leander long to fit in. At least now, Halt thought, they’d get more sleep, with another member to take his turn keeping watch at night.

  As they rode, Crowley filled Leander in on the meager details he knew of Halt’s origins, how he had come from Hibernia, after being instructed in Ranger skills by Pritchard, and how he had helped Crowley when he had been attacked by a group of Morgarath’s soldiers. He had no idea of Halt’s royal antecedents, of course, so he made no mention of that side of his history.

  When he heard how the soft-spoken Hibernian had rejected Morgarath’s offer to join his forces, Leander nodded approvingly. His respect for Halt increased. He had already seen an example of his speed and accuracy with the longbow. He had no doubt that he would show the same skill with his saxe and throwing knife. And he was impressed with Halt’s woodcraft. The Hibernian had a natural ability to select a good campsite—one well screened from the trail through the woods, where they would have ample warning of someone approaching them.

  He also admired both the other men’s skill and ability at camp cooking. Leander was an indifferent cook at best—although cooking was one of the skills an apprentice Ranger was required to master. Leander had managed to pass his tests as an apprentice, but had then pretty well ignored the finer points. As a result, when he cooked game over a fire, he tended to scorch the outside and leave the interior virtually raw. He didn’t have the patience that Halt and Crowley displayed and quickly realized that he would eat a lot better if he left the food preparation to them.

  In return, he took on the menial chores around their nightly camp, preparing the fire, cutting firewood and cleaning their utensils after they had eaten.

  On the third day after they had left his cabin, they crossed the border into Weslon Fief. Crowley pointed to the small stone column that stood by the side of the track, marking their entry into the fief.

  “Another half day and we’ll reach Castle Weslon,” he said.

  “Berrigan,” Leander muttered, half to himself. “Think I remember him. He was the singer, wasn’t he?”

  “That’s right,” Crowley agreed. “He played the gitarra and sang. He was the one who composed ‘Cabin in the Trees.”

  Halt looked up. “What’s that?”

  “It’s the Ranger song,” Leander told him. “It’s sung at all our Gatherings.”

  There was a slight pause, then, without any discussion, both Leander and Crowley began to sing softly as they rode.

  “Going back to the cabin in the trees

  Going back to the creek beneath the hill.

  There’s a girl used to live there when I left

  But I doubt she’ll be waiting for me still.

  Never thought I’d be gone so many years.

  When I left always planned that I’d return

  But time slips away before we know

  That’s just one more lesson that we learn.”

  They stopped singing after the second verse, but Crowley continued to whistle the refrain softly as they rode. Halt frowned at him.

  “You’re making a strange shrieking noise,” he said.

  Crowley looked round in surprise. He hadn’t been aware that he was whistling and he didn’t immediately equate it with the phrase strange shrieking noise.

  “It’s music,” he said.

  “Not from where I’m sitting,” Halt said.

  12

  THE RIPPLING, FLUID NOTES OF THE GITARRA FILLED THE TAPROOM of the Jolly Frog tavern in Weslon village.

  The villagers sitting around the room, nursing tankards of ale and enjoying quiet conversations among themselves, beat time with their free hands—some of them not even aware that they were doing so. Most had stopped their conversations and turned in their seats to watch the musician as his nimble, fast-moving fingers seemed to fly across the strings, without effort or tension.

  The fingers of his right hand, curled up under themselves so that it was difficult to see what they were doing, picked out a complex rhythm on the strings, plucking the bass and treble strings in a set order, then occasionally breaking the pattern for a bar or two, and producing a sound that was bright and jaunty.

  After eight bars of the introduction, the player began to sing, his voice a light, attractive tenor.

  “Jenny in the village, Maisie by the mill,

  Katy at the castle, Hannah on the hill,

  All of them are pretty, that is plain to see.

  But Sadie in the stables, she’s the one for me.”

  He bent his head over the instrument and played a variation on the opening. As a result, he failed to notice the three cloaked figures who slipped in through the door and took seats toward the back of the room. Most of the audience, their eyes on the singer, missed seeing them as well. Only a few of the patrons glanced at the men. But they saw nothing noteworthy about them and quickly looked back to the singer. Now, as he began the chorus, the drinkers joined in with him.

  “Sadie in the stables, pitching out the hay

  filling up the buckets, every single day.

  She isn’t very pretty, but I have to tell

  I’m not very handsome. So she suits me well!”

  The crowd fell silent as he began another verse, all of them now engaged with the song.

  “Jenny said she loves me, Maisie said it too

  Don’t want to hurt their feelings, what am I to—”

  The door crashed open, interrupting the song. The singer’s voice stopped abruptly, although he continued to play the accompaniment for a few seconds more.

  Four armed men, wearing studded black leather vests over chain mail, barged into the tavern. They wore short swords at their belts and flat-topped iron helmets on their heads. As they entered, they spread out in a shallow semicircle, covering the interior of the room, those at either end of the line turning their attention slightly outward, alert for any sign of rebellion from the villagers. A fifth man entered behind the men-at-arms. He was wearing an ornate cloak, made from green silk and with an oakleaf embroidered in gold thread over the right shoulder. It was a short garment, little more than a cape, actually. There was no cowl, but there was a high collar turned up, framing his ratlike face.

  It was notable that this fifth man didn’t enter until he was confident that the four soldiers had the room well and truly under control. His confidence boosted by their presence, he stepped forward and pointed a finger at the musician.

  “Berrigan!” he snarled, his voice a little too high pitched to carry any real authority. “You have no right to be here. You’re no longer the Ranger of Weslon Fief!”

  “Let him sing,” muttered a customer in a surly voice. “He’s doing no harm.”

  Almost immediately, one of the soldiers stepped forward, his sword sliding free of its scabbard with a ringing hiss. He leveled the point at the speaker’s throat.

  “D’you want to argue with the Ranger, you scum?” he demanded.

  The man, an unarmed farmworker, shrank back, dropping his eyes. “No, sir. Not me,” he said, fear all too evident in his voice.

  “Then hold your tongue or I’ll cut it out for you!” the soldier threatened.

  The singer placed his gitarra carefully on the table behind him, out of possible harm’s way. He was wearing a double scabbard at his belt, and the hilts of a saxe knife and a throwing knife were visible. However, he made no attempt to reach for either of them. The pompous, overblown fool in the green cape didn’t concern him. But the four soldiers were armed and ready for trouble. In fact, he sensed, they would welcome it, and he didn’t want to give them any excuse to start what would be a very one-sided fight. If that happened, some of the villagers might try to take a hand on his side and they might be hurt. He didn’t want that
on his conscience.

  “There’s no need to threaten Isaac,” he said calmly. The soldier glared at him and he returned the angry look steadily, until the man-at-arms muttered a low curse and re-sheathed his sword. Only then did the former Ranger of Weslon address his replacement.

  “I’m doing no harm here, Willet,” he said in a reasonable tone. “I’m just trying to earn a few coins to pay for my dinner. Surely I can do that?”

  “Surely you can’t!” the man named Willet replied. “You’ve been dismissed from the Ranger Corps. And you’ve been singing insulting songs about the King! We don’t want your kind here in Weslon Fief!”

  Berrigan shrugged. “I was under the impression that the people here were enjoying my music. And I certainly don’t recall singing any disloyal song about the King.”

  “You sang about how the King has constant trouble with wind!” Willet shrilled and Berrigan couldn’t help smiling.

  “I assume you’re referring to ‘Good King Artur, the Terrible Farter’?”

  The new Ranger nodded several times. “Exactly! It’s insulting and disloyal. It could even be construed to be treasonous!”

  Berrigan shrugged. “But as the title says, the King’s name is Artur. He’s not our King. It’s just a silly doggerel song.”

  “That’s where you’re so clever! You pretend it’s about another king. But I know you’re referring to our King, and encouraging people to laugh at him!”

  The former Ranger shook his head. “Not so. I’ve been singing that song for years.”

  “So,” Willet crowed triumphantly, “you admit to the crime! And you admit to having committed it repeatedly!”

  Berrigan sighed. He looked sadly at his replacement. “Willet, do you sit awake at night thinking up stupid things to say? Or does it just come naturally to you—on the spur of the moment?”

  A couple of the watching villagers laughed. The men-at-arms swung round angrily, trying to see who was responsible. But the villagers had quickly composed their features. Willet glared at Berrigan for a few moments, his mouth working silently. The former Ranger watched him carefully. He sensed he may have pushed the ridiculous little man too far. Finally, Willet got control of himself. He thrust out his right arm, the forefinger pointing at the gitarra lying on the table.

  “Confiscate that instrument, Corporal!” he snapped. “Smash it!”

  As the leader of the small squad started toward the table, Berrigan stepped to block his way. And now his hand dropped to the hilt of the saxe at his waist.

  “I don’t think so,” he said. His voice was low but there was an unmistakable note of warning in it.

  The corporal stopped. He was armed with a sword. But he was facing a Ranger. Not one of the dilettantes like Willet, who had been appointed to the Corps in recent months, but a real Ranger, trained and ready to fight. He spoke out of the corner of his mouth.

  “Men!” he ordered and the other three soldiers stepped forward to join him, their swords hissing clear of their scabbards. Now Berrigan was in a dangerous situation. He was outnumbered and he was yet to draw his own weapon. Slowly, the corporal unsheathed his sword and turned an ugly smile on the former Ranger.

  “Step aside, singer,” he said. “I’ll give you two instruments for the price of one.”

  He drew back the heavy short sword, his eyes on the polished wood instrument on the table behind Berrigan. But before the corporal could act, Berrigan had drawn his saxe and stood ready to parry any blow the other man might attempt—either at the gitarra or at himself.

  There was a deep-throated thrum! from the back of the room and an arrow flashed across the bar. It caught the flared cuff of the corporal’s gauntlet, jerking his arm forward as it slammed into one of the heavy timber uprights supporting the ceiling of the tavern.

  The sword fell from the man’s grip as he struggled to free his hand, pinned by the arrow to the tough timber of the upright. His companions turned to see where the attack had come from. Three cloaked figures were advancing across the room toward them. One still held the massive longbow that had sent the arrow streaking across the room. The other two had saxes in their hands.

  As the three soldiers started to move to meet the obvious threat, Berrigan acted. He drew his own saxe and brought the hilt thudding down on the shoulder of the nearest man-at-arms, between neck and shoulder bone. The man screamed in agony and dropped his sword, clutching at his shoulder. His companions, now thoroughly confused as to where their greatest danger lay, hesitated and turned back to the singer. One of them aimed a diagonal cut with his sword—the low ceiling precluded a vertical stroke.

  Berrigan parried the blow easily with his saxe, and the sound of steel ringing against steel filled the room. Then he stepped forward and drove his left fist into the man’s solar plexus. The soldier was wearing chain mail beneath his vest. But the force of the blow crashing into his ribs forced the air out of his lungs and he doubled over, falling to his knees with a weak grunt.

  By now, Halt and Crowley were upon the remaining two soldiers. Crowley quickly slipped his throwing knife from its scabbard and parried a sword stroke with the two knives crossed in the classic defense. Then, as the other man’s blade was trapped in the V formed by his saxe and throwing knife, Crowley jerked his knives to his right and twisted the sword out of the soldier’s grip. It fell clattering to the floor. As the man stooped to try to retrieve it, Crowley hit him with a left hook to the jaw. The soldier, already bending toward the floor, continued the movement and fell to the rough boards, where he lay, moaning quietly.

  The remaining soldier, realizing that he was now facing odds of four to one against him—instead of the original four to one in his favor—dropped his sword and held his hands high in surrender.

  “Mercy!” he cried, seeing his doom in the dark, deep-set eyes of the man facing him. There was no sign of pity there and the saxe in the man’s hand gleamed in the lamplight of the tavern. The soldier fell to his knees, his hands still raised in supplication.

  Halt glared at him in disgust. “Oh, for pity’s sake,” he said.

  For a second or two, he was unsure about what to do with this unarmed former bullyboy. Crowley solved the problem for him. He brought his saxe around in a backhanded blow, slamming the brass-bound hilt into the back of the man’s helmet. The force of the blow was transmitted through the iron helmet almost undiminished. The soldier fell forward, facedown on the floor, his head spinning from the blow.

  Willet, the new Ranger, watched wide-eyed as his men were reduced to moaning, groaning wrecks. Realizing that no one seemed to be paying him any attention, he scurried toward the door and ran out into the night.

  But Halt saw him go and went after him.

  Leander stepped up to the soldier pinned to the timber column, still struggling to free his hand. The arrow had closed the cuff of the gauntlet close to his wrist, so he was unable to slide his hand free of the glove. Instead, he was forced to struggle with the arrow, buried deep in the tough wood.

  “I’d like my arrow back,” Leander said. He gripped the shaft close to the head and gave a solid jerk. The broadhead came free of the wood and the corporal’s arm, no longer suspended by the arrow, fell to his side. He glared at Leander as the Ranger slid the arrow back into his quiver. Then rage overcame him and he drew his broad-bladed dagger, striking up at Leander’s midriff.

  The blow never struck home. Leander dropped the bow and blocked the upward thrust with his left hand, turned over to seize the soldier’s wrist. Then, almost without pause, he jerked the arm upward, using the corporal’s own force to bring the knife high over his head. At the same moment, he slid his right hand behind the corporal’s knife hand, continuing to force it up and back. Then, stepping forward so that his right leg was behind the other man’s, he used both arms to continue twisting the knife hand up and back.

  The whole sequence of movements, practiced hundre
ds of times in the past in mock combat, took about a second. There was an ugly wrenching noise as the soldier’s shoulder gave way. The knife fell from his hand. He didn’t notice. He was conscious of nothing but the searing pain in his shoulder. He collapsed, weeping, to the floor.

  Berrigan looked around at his former attackers, now reduced to pitiful wrecks, either unconscious or disabled. The two cloaked men grinned at him.

  “Who the blazes are you two?” he asked.

  13

  IN THE STREET OUTSIDE, HALT SAW THE FIGURE OF THE caped would-be Ranger scurrying through the shadows.

  “You!” he shouted. “Stop or I’ll put an arrow through you!”

  In truth, he had left his bow inside the tavern. But Willet wasn’t to know that. He froze in place, eyes closed, waiting in terror for the smashing, tearing pain of an arrow.

  Willet heard footsteps approaching and opened his eyes to look into those of the dark-bearded stranger. Too late, he realized that the man was carrying no bow. He tried to bluster his way out of the situation.

  “Stand back!” he said, his voice cracking with fear, which rather ruined the attempted bluster. “I’m a King’s Ranger!”

  “You’re no Ranger.” Halt’s lips curled in a sneer. “You’re a posing, whining prat.”

  His eyes fell on a familiar shape at the man’s throat. It was a silver oakleaf pendant, the symbol of a Ranger’s authority. Seeing this man wearing it was an affront to Halt’s sense of justice and order.

  “Where did you steal this from?” he demanded, seizing the chain and pulling Willet forward. “Where?”

  “I confiscated it,” Willet babbled. “It’s mine by right. It was Berrigan’s.”

  “It still is,” Halt said, and ripped the oakleaf, chain and all, from Willet’s neck. Then abruptly, he released him and the caped man staggered back a few paces. Realizing he was out of reach, he regained a little of his former dignity.

 

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