The tournament at gorlan, p.9
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.9

           John Flanagan
 

  “Lord Morgarath will kill you for this!” he spat.

  Halt allowed himself a hollow laugh. “That’s as may be. But he won’t leave you alive to see it. You’ve failed him. And you know how he treats failure.”

  Fear lit Willet’s eyes as he realized the truth of what the stranger was saying. Morgarath was a pitiless, cruel taskmaster. Those who let him down weren’t allowed to make the same mistake twice. He whimpered softly, unaware that he was doing so.

  “If I were you,” Halt said in a low voice, “I’d start running. And I’d keep on running till I reached Celtica. Maybe Morgarath won’t bother with you there.” He paused, seeing the message sink in, then stepped forward abruptly.

  “Run!” he shouted suddenly and Willet, galvanized into terrified action, turned to do so—just as a well-placed boot, with all the force of Halt’s right leg behind it, slammed into his backside, propelling him for the first few meters of the journey to Celtica.

  “And there’s something to help you on your way!” Halt shouted after him as Willet ran, limping and rubbing his bruised buttocks, down the main street of Weslon village.

  “I think this is yours,” Halt said, tossing the gleaming silver oakleaf onto the table in front of Berrigan.

  The former Ranger looked at the little amulet and picked it up, a slow smile spreading across his face.

  “Didn’t realize how much I was missing this,” he said. Then he looked up at Halt. Crowley had apprised him of the Hibernian’s Ranger training while Halt had been outside. “Thank you.”

  Halt shrugged. “That can wait.”

  But the comment jogged a memory in Crowley’s mind, something that had been occupying his thoughts over the past few days. “Maybe that can wait, but there’s something else that can’t,” he said.

  Halt looked at him curiously, but Crowley made a negative gesture. He’d tell the Hibernian what he had on his mind when the time was right. Crowley jerked a thumb at Berrigan, who was packing his gitarra into a hard leather case.

  “We’ve filled Berrigan in on what we’re planning,” he said. “He’s decided to join us.” There was a note of satisfaction in his voice. In truth, he hadn’t expected Berrigan to refuse, but it was reassuring to see the way both he and Leander had decided to throw in their lot with Halt and him. A refusal at this early stage would have seemed like a vote of no confidence in their plan.

  “So now we’re four,” Leander said.

  Berrigan grinned up at him, fastening the last strap on his instrument case. “A good, round number.”

  Crowley shrugged. “I’d like it rounder,” he said. “Maybe three times rounder.”

  Their next potential recruit was Egon, the Ranger at Seacliff Fief. But before they headed to the east coast, Crowley led them westward. Halt noticed Crowley and the other two Rangers having several quiet conversations and, from the way they had looked at him, he knew he was the subject. They had seemed to come to a joint decision. But still Crowley could not be drawn on the matter. Halt shrugged philosophically. He knew enough about his redheaded companion now to understand that Crowley was an inveterate showman. He loved to dramatize seemingly ordinary events, to make them more memorable. Obviously, he had a surprise in store for Halt and, equally obviously, Halt would just have to be patient to find out what it was.

  And Halt, having a somewhat contrary nature, was determined not to feed Crowley’s enjoyment by asking what was in store for him.

  They rode west for a day and a half, eventually finding themselves riding up a long, winding access road surrounded by fenced paddocks and open fields. In the distance, trees marked the beginning of the forest.

  The road was fenced on either side, and looking into the fields beyond the fence, Halt saw several mature horses grazing, and a couple of younger animals running and kicking their heels up at the sight of the four riders. The horses were all of similar conformation—shorter in the leg than a battlehorse or a palfrey, with sturdy bodies and shaggy hair and manes. He glanced at the horses his three companions were riding and saw that they shared these characteristics.

  Interestingly, although the fields had been cleared, there was no sign of any crops growing. They were covered with rich, long grass, which in some places had been cut into hay, then rolled up in long bundles to be stored.

  They crested a rise and saw a small, neat farmhouse at the end of the road. Behind it was a much larger structure, longer and wider, and with a second story. A large double door opened into the top story, surmounted by a loading hoist, where a hooked rope swung in the light breeze. Now Halt understood the lack of crops in the fields.

  “It’s a horse stud,” he said to himself. There were no crops planted because the horses were the crop. The well-grassed fields provided them with room for exercise and with food. The large two-story building was a stable. He looked at it with interest. There would be room in there to accommodate at least eight horses, he estimated. That was a relatively large number for such a small farm. The farmhouse seemed only big enough for two or three people at most.

  The four riders walked their horses into the saddling yard in front of the house and stables and came to a stop. By unspoken agreement, they made no move to dismount, but sat quietly. Halt became aware of the buzz of flies and the flittering of crickets through the long grass on the other side of the paddock fence.

  “Bob?” Crowley called out. “Are you home?”

  He was facing the door to the house, expecting an answer, if it came, to be from that direction. There was no reply and he drew breath to call again, louder this time, when the sound of a large door sliding open in the side of the stable building turned all their heads in that direction.

  A man stepped out of the stable into the bright sunlight. He held up a hand to shade his eyes so that he could see the four mounted men more clearly. Then a slow smile lit up his homely face.

  He was quite small, probably shorter than the Rangers, who were all of a compact build. His lack of height was accentuated by the fact that he was severely bowlegged. Obviously, Halt thought, due to a life spent in the saddle. He couldn’t have been more than thirty years old, but he was already almost completely bald, with only a few tufty fringes of brown hair around his ears. His skin was tanned the color of leather—courtesy of a life spent in the open air—and his smile widened as he recognized his visitors.

  “Well, well,” he said, “Rangers. Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes. Step down, won’t you, and come into the house.”

  Gratefully, the four men swung down from their saddles. They had been riding steadily for more than half the day, keeping to the Ranger forced-march pace. Halt’s horse, Declan, sighed gratefully as his rider dismounted. He stood with his head drooping slightly. Halt glanced quickly at the other three horses. None of them showed any signs of weariness. They stood alert, their ears pricked, ready to move on at any time. He frowned. Declan was a fine horse, from one of the best breeding lines in Hibernia—a country famous for good horseflesh. Yet he thought back over the past week and realized that these shaggy, small horses that his friends rode seemed far more capable of cantering for hours every day without wearying.

  “Coming?” Crowley asked.

  Halt realized that he had been standing, studying the horses, for at least a minute.

  Crowley ushered him past, through the doorway of the farmhouse. “I think you might be getting an inkling as to why we’re here,” he said, grinning.

  Inside the farmhouse, which was small and neat and well kept, they sat around a wooden kitchen table while Bob served them mugs of cold, refreshing apple juice.

  The Rangers drank deeply, washing the dust of travel from their throats. When they were settled, Crowley caught Halt’s attention and indicated the small, brown-skinned, balding man.

  “This is Bob Saddler,” he said. “Or as we call him, Young Bob.”

  Bob grinned and tilted his head
, winking at Halt. He seemed to be an irrepressibly cheerful fellow, the Hibernian thought.

  Crowley continued with the introductions. “Bob, this is Halt, our companion. He’s from Hibernia, where he was apprenticed to Pritchard. You remember him, of course?”

  “Of course,” Bob said with alacrity. “He was a fine man. A fine Ranger too.”

  Crowley indicated the other Rangers. “And you know Berrigan and Leander,” he said.

  Bob nodded. He seemed to put a great deal of energy and enthusiasm into the action, his head bobbing rapidly up and down. Halt wondered if that was where his name came from.

  “Yes indeed,” Bob said. “Welcome, Rangers, to Saddler’s farm.”

  Berrigan and Leander murmured greetings in return. Halt could sense a feeling of expectancy about the two of them, and about Crowley as well. He looked at them suspiciously but they all returned his gaze with innocent eyes. Too innocent. He was about to challenge them when he heard a soft giggle.

  Turning quickly, he saw a swift movement at the door into one of the other rooms as someone, or something, pulled back out of sight. Bob noticed his reaction and sighed.

  “All right, cheeky monkeys,” he called in a stern voice. “Come show yourselves.”

  There was a pause, then two children appeared around the door frame—a boy and a girl who appeared to be around ten years old and who were smothering their giggles with their hands up to their mouths. It was obvious that they were brother and sister. And it was also obvious that they were Bob’s children. They were miniature versions of him: small, with high foreheads and wispy brown hair. Their skin was tanned like his. But the most obvious similarity lay in their wide, mischievous grins, which became apparent when they lowered their hands. Halt—grim-faced, serious Halt—couldn’t help smiling back at them.

  Bob scowled at them in mock ferocity. They seemed totally unterrified.

  “These are the twins,” he said. “Little Bob and Roberta. We call them the Bobbities. Say hello to the Rangers, children.”

  “Hello, Rangers,” they chorused, then dissolved into giggles again. The four Rangers, all grinning, returned the greeting.

  “Is the beardy man come for a horse, Da?” asked Little Bob, indicating Halt.

  His sister instantly added, “Can we watch?” and again, they dissolved into helpless giggles.

  Bob shook his head at them. “That’s enough now.” He turned to the inner room and called, “Robina! Can you remove these terrible children of yours, please?” The Bobbities shrieked with laughter at his description of them. Then a woman came bustling out into the room. She was short like her husband, but plump and motherly where he was wiry. Like his, her skin was brown from hours in the weather and sun. And like the rest of her family, her beaming smile lit up the room. Her hair was a gray-blond shade. Fortunately, she had more of it than her husband did and it was pinned back in a bun.

  “Greetings, gentlemen,” she said.

  Halt, raised in a royal court, instinctively rose from his seat to greet her. She looked, Halt thought, exactly like the sort of a person you’d want for a mam. Crowley and the others followed his lead, a little shamefaced.

  “This is my wife, Robina. I call her Bobby when we’re not being formal.”

  Halt made a gracious half bow in her direction and she giggled. The sound was surprisingly like the one made by her children.

  “No need for that, Ranger,” she said. The others, again following Halt’s lead, mumbled greetings to her and she turned her smile on all of them. Then she made a shooing motion at her children, as if they were a pair of recalcitrant geese. “Now then, out with you two! Leave your da alone with the Rangers.”

  The children reluctantly allowed themselves to be ushered out. At the doorway, the girl looked back at her father.

  “But can we watch the beardy man, Da?” she pleaded.

  Bob mirrored his wife’s shooing motion. “No. Now go do your chores.”

  The Bobbities departed. Their mother paused at the door, turned gracefully and dropped a perfect curtsy to the Rangers. Then, laughing aloud, she followed her children.

  “Nice family,” Halt said. His voice was a little wistful. His own early family life hadn’t been the happiest. Then, out of curiosity, he asked, “Is everyone in the family called Bob?”

  Bob Saddler frowned, puzzled. “No,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

  Halt shrugged. “No reason,” he said mildly.

  Bob’s frown deepened, then he dismissed the matter. “Now, to business. That horse of yours, he’s from Hibernia too, is he?”

  Halt nodded. “Aye. He’s from the Glendan strain in Clonmel.” He watched Bob carefully, to see if the name meant anything to him. He was gratified to see that it did, as the man’s head went up and down several times in quick succession.

  “Thought he had that look about him. Good horses in Glendan,” he said. He turned to the other three. “Used a few mares from Glendan two or three years back, when we needed to add some speed to our horses.”

  Halt frowned, slightly puzzled by the words.

  Crowley quickly explained. “Bob is the master horse breeder for the Ranger Corps,” he said. “He supplies all our horses.”

  The smile left Bob’s face. “Not anymore, young Crowley. These new men have no call for my horses. They want them tall and glossy and fine legged. Built more for show than speed and stamina.”

  “Speed and stamina,” Crowley repeated. “That’s why we’re here, Bob. Our friend Halt needs a good horse.”

  14

  EVEN THOUGH HE HAD BEEN HALF EXPECTING IT, HALT STILL reacted with surprise—and a little chagrin at the implied insult to Declan.

  “I have a good horse,” he said brusquely.

  Crowley raised his hands in a defensive gesture, conceding the point. “True,” he said. “I should have said, you need a better horse.”

  Halt went to reply, but Crowley held up a hand to stop him. “Declan is a fine horse, in his way. But Rangers need a different kind of horse—with different abilities. Our horses are fast—sometimes I’m not sure I know how fast mine is—but even more important, they’re bred for stamina. They can move fast and keep it up all day if necessary.”

  “What we do, Master Halt,” Bob interrupted, “is breed and interbreed different types of horse to bring out the qualities we want. I mentioned that we used some Glendan horses to improve the breed a few years ago. Our herd is based on the Temujai ponies from the Eastern Steppes. They’re small, rugged and shaggy in appearance. But they have enormous stamina.

  “Years back, we bred them with some Gallican Tireurs, to bring some sturdiness and power into the herd. Then we used Hibernian horses for their speed. Every so often, we reintroduce some of the originals to maintain the qualities we sought in the beginning.” He paused and glanced at Crowley. “Pretty soon we’re going to need some more Temujai ponies to enrich the bloodlines.”

  Crowley nodded. “We have other fish to fry first.”

  Bob returned his gaze to Halt. The horse breeder’s eyes were bright blue and they seemed to sparkle as he discussed what was obviously his favorite topic—the Ranger horse herd.

  “So as a result, we’ve ended up with horses that are fast, but have huge reserves of stamina. And they’re strong as well. No fine-boned legs that’ll snap like a twig. And a decent Ranger horse can bowl over a big, slow-witted battlehorse if it wants to.”

  Halt raised an incredulous eyebrow. Battlehorses were big and powerful. Slow moving at first, they would gradually gather speed and momentum until they were virtually unstoppable. The idea of a pony-sized, shaggy horse, such as the Rangers rode, bowling over such a monster seemed highly fanciful.

  Bob saw the look and tilted his head to one side. “Oh, I see you thinking that can’t be. But let me tell you, it can. A Ranger horse gets up to speed and rams its shoulder into the battlehorse’s
ribs, just behind his fore shoulder, getting down low and then lifting. And bang! There’s a battlehorse floundering on the ground.”

  Halt turned his gaze to Crowley. “Be that as it may, I have a horse. And Declan has suited me fine so far.”

  “So far,” Crowley repeated. “But it’s getting more and more difficult for him to keep up with our horses every day. He tires faster and takes longer to recover.”

  Halt pursed his lips. He’d noticed the same thing, particularly since they’d been traveling with the other Rangers. When he and Crowley were traveling alone, it wasn’t quite so noticeable that Declan was having trouble keeping up—there was only Crowley’s horse to measure him against. But it had become obvious that all of the three Rangers’ horses could outlast him over a hard day’s riding.

  “Perhaps so,” he said reluctantly. He was loath to admit that his horse was lacking in any way.

  Crowley recognized the fact and continued in a gentler tone. “Declan’s a fine horse, Halt. But our horses are purpose bred. There’s probably no breed on earth that can match them for their combination of speed, intelligence and stamina.”

  “No probably about it,” Bob put in. “And there’s another thing: a Ranger horse can’t ever be stolen. That can come in very handy.”

  Crowley glanced at him. “I assume you’ve kept up the breeding and training program even though the new Rangers don’t seem interested in your work?”

  “Oh yes indeed,” Bob said forcefully. “Just because those namby-pamby fancypants don’t know the first thing about good horseflesh is no reason to stop. I’ve kept breeding the herd, hoping that some of you would turn up.”

  Crowley grinned. “Well, here we are. And we plan to kick those namby-pambies, as you call them, right in their fancy pants—and get the Corps back on its feet.”

  “Or back on its horses,” Berrigan put in with a smile.

  Bob smacked his fist into his palm in exultation. “That’s what I’ve been wanting to hear! I’ll do all I can to help you!”

 

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