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Praise for the New York Times bestselling Tournament at Gorlan. 'Action and intrigue, great characters, and a properly scary villain make this book an absolute necessity for any library. DOWNLOAD NOW » Author: John Flanagan. Publisher: Penguin. Category: Juvenile Fiction. Book 1: the ruins of gorlan book 2: the burning bridge book 3: the icebound land book 4: the battle for skandia book 5: the sorcerer of the north book 6: the siege of macindaw book 7: erak’s ransom book 8: the kings of clonmel book 9: halt’s peril.
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The Tournament at Gorlan by John Flanagan. “That’s enough,” said Crowley, lowering his bow. He had no wish to shoot at men who were retreating and, effectively, defenseless. Halt nodded agreement. “They’ll keep running until they reach the border.”. They turned their horses and began to walk the remaining fifty meters to the barricade.
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Also by John Flanagan
THE RANGER’S APPRENTICE EPIC
BOOK 1: THE RUINS OF GORLAN
BOOK 2: THE BURNING BRIDGE
BOOK 3: THE ICEBOUND LAND
BOOK 4: THE BATTLE FOR SKANDIA
BOOK 5: THE SORCERER OF THE NORTH
BOOK 6: THE SIEGE OF MACINDAW
BOOK 7: ERAK’S RANSOM
BOOK 8: THE KINGS OF CLONMEL
BOOK 9: HALT’S PERIL
BOOK 10: THE EMPEROR OF NIHON-JA
BOOK 11: THE LOST STORIES
BOOK 12: THE ROYAL RANGER
BOOK 1: THE OUTCASTS
BOOK 2: THE INVADERS
BOOK 3: THE HUNTERS
BOOK 4: SLAVES OF SOCORRO
BOOK 5: SCORPION MOUNTAIN
an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014
Copyright © 2015 by John Flanagan. Published in Australia by Random House Australia in 2015. Map copyright © by Mathematics courtesy Random House Australia.
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
Philomel Books is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Also by John Flanagan
About the Author
THE EVENTS DESCRIBED IN THIS BOOK FOLLOW DIRECTLY from the short story “The Hibernian,” published in Book 11 of the Ranger’s Apprentice series, The Lost Stories.
For those who have not read “The Hibernian,” it describes how Halt and Crowley first met as younger men when Halt came to the Kingdom of Araluen as a fugitive from his homeland of Hibernia. Halt was the rightful heir to the throne of Clonmel, but his younger twin brother attempted to kill him and seize the throne. Saddened and embittered by his brother’s behavior, but unwilling to fight his own flesh and blood, Halt chose instead to leave Hibernia behind.
He arrives in Araluen at a time when Morgarath, Baron of Gorlan Fief and the Kingdom’s foremost knight, is engaged upon a carefully planned attempt to seize power. One of his first steps is to weaken and destroy the Ranger Corps, an elite special forces unit who are the eyes and ears of the Kingdom and the most powerful group supporting the existing King. Over a period of several years, Morgarath has organized for the more senior Rangers to be falsely accused of crimes and forced to abandon their posts or flee the country. He has replaced them with his own sycophants and toadies.
Morgarath is an influential figure and has gained King Oswald’s confidence, convincing him that his son, Prince Duncan, has been conspiring to murder him. Oswald takes refuge in Castle Gorlan, under Morgarath’s protection. As time passes, Morgarath’s protection becomes increasingly oppressive and the King finds himself a virtual prisoner.
Crowley, a recently commissioned Ranger, trained in the traditional skills by an old Ranger named Pritchard, is disillusioned by Morgarath’s scheming. Shortly after he meets Halt, he decides to reform the Ranger Corps. He plans to recruit the few remaining members of the original group and seek a royal charter from Prince Duncan. Crowley discovers that, like himself, Halt has been trained by Pritchard, one of the first of the Rangers to be driven out of the Kingdom by Morgarath. This seals their friendship. The bond between them is reinforced when Halt joins Crowley to fight off an attack by half a dozen of Morgarath’s soldiers.
With Morgarath’s men hot on their heels, Halt decides to join Crowley in his search for Prince Duncan. Together, they set off on their quest, with the ever-present threat of Morgarath’s enmity behind them.
IT HAD BEEN RAINING FOR A WEEK.
Not heavy rain, but a steady, persistent, soaking rain that finally overcame the protective oil in their woolen cloaks and worked its way into the fabric itself, making it heavy and sodden.
As they had done for the previous few nights, Halt and Crowley were camping out in the woods. Halt suggested that they should avoid towns and villages until they were sure they were clear of Morgarath’s sphere of influence, and Crowley initially agreed. Halt, after all, had more experience of traveling as a fugitive than he did. Now, however, he wasn’t quite so sure about the decision.
They were sitting under a rectangular oilskin sheet that they had spread between four trees, with the lower side angled so that the rain would run off it. The ground beneath them was saturated and they had constructed low cots from tree branches to keep them off the wet earth. Each cot consisted of a rectangular frame, with a series of short crosspieces, and leafy boughs laid across it to form a rough mattress. Each day, they would disassemble the frames and carry the longer timber pieces with them, lashed in a bundle.
A few meters away, their horses were tethered. The animals huddled together, sharing their body warmth and keeping their hindquarters turned to the wind and rain.
Halt shivered and pulled his cloak more tightly around him. As he moved, a runnel of water ran off the cowl and landed on his nose, continuing its downward passage to drip off the end. Seeing it, Crowley laughed.
Halt turned an accusing eye on him. “What do you find so amusing?” he asked coldly.
Crowley, also huddled inside his cloak, nodded his head toward his friend. “You sitting there, hunched over and dripping, like an old man with a runny nose,” he said. Unfortunately, the shrugging movement dislodged a stream of water from his own cowl and the drops
ran down his nose. He sniffed, the smile dying on his face.
“You find it amusing that I’m soaked to the skin and dying of cold?” Halt asked.
Crowley made as if to shrug, then realized that such a movement would send more water running, and restrained himself. “Not amusing, perhaps. But certainly diverting.”
Halt turned, very carefully, to face him. “And from what does this sight divert you?” he asked, with careful attention to his grammar. When Halt was in a bad mood, he invariably paid careful attention to his grammar.
“From the fact that I’m also sitting here with water running off my nose, cold, wet and miserable,” Crowley said.
Halt considered that. “You’re uncomfortable?”
Crowley nodded, sending more water cascading. “Totally,” he said.
“Some Ranger you turned out to be,” Halt told him. “I thought Rangers could face the worst discomfort in the line of duty with a smile on their lips and a song in their heart. I didn’t realize they would sit around whining and complaining.”
“Facing discomfort doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to whine and complain about it. Besides, only a few minutes ago, I was laughing and cheerful.” Crowley shivered, and pulled his cloak tighter. More water ran off it. “These cloaks are good up to a point. But once the water has soaked into them, they’re worse than nothing.”
“If you were sitting here wrapped in nothing you’d soon see the difference,” Halt replied. Crowley grunted, and a brief silence fell over the campsite, broken only by the persistent patter of rain on the leaves and the occasional stomp of one of the horses’ hooves.
They were faced with another cold supper. The air was so moisture laden that getting a spark to take from Halt’s flint and steel to ignite a handful of tinder would be beyond his capabilities. And even if he could manage that, there was no dry firewood. Usually, they traveled with an emergency supply of tinder and kindling, but they had run out of both two days previously.
Pity, Halt thought. Even a small fire would have provided some warmth, and the flames would have given them a psychological boost as well. He reached for the pack on the cot beside him and found a piece of beef jerky. He bit some off and began to chew methodically, his jaws working on the tough, flinty meat. Maybe the exercise of chewing the jerky would warm him, he thought. The meat was certainly tough enough to require considerable effort from his jaws. Slowly, the smoked meat flavor began to release from the jerky and fill his mouth. Then, of course, he realized how very hungry he really was, and how little opportunity he would have to relieve that hunger.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Being cold and hungry was miserable. Being wet was equally so. Being all three was well nigh unbearable.
“I’ve been thinking . . . ,” Crowley began, leaving the sentence hanging for a few seconds.
Halt shook his head. “And here am I without pencil or parchment to record this momentous event.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow in his direction. At least, he thought, that didn’t send water cascading down his face. He raised his other eyebrow as well, just to make sure. No cascade, so he relaxed them both.
“I think we might have crossed the border out of Gorlan Fief,” he continued. Halt grunted, a noncommittal sound.
Crowley took that as a signal to expound on his theory. “That river we crossed late this afternoon, I think that might have been the Crowsfoot River, and that’s the border between Gorlan and Keramon Fiefs.”
“Equally,” said Halt, “it might have been the Salmon River, and as I recall from the map, that’s still kilometers inside Gorlan.”
But Crowley shook his head. “The Salmon is much narrower—much faster running. And it’s farther west, closer to Redmont. So unless our navigation is well off the mark, we wouldn’t have come close to it.”
“Well, you were the one doing the navigating,” Halt said.
Crowley gave him a hurt look. “My map reading and sense of direction aren’t wonderful. But I’m rarely twenty or thirty kilometers offline.”
“Rarely, of course, implies that sometimes you are,” Halt pointed out. But Crowley stuck to his point.
“Not this time. And as I say, the Salmon is narrower and faster running.”
Halt decided to concede. “So, if you are right, what point are you making?”
Crowley shifted as cold water ran down inside his cloak. Halt was right, he thought, it might feel miserable sitting huddled in a soaking cloak, but at least it still kept most of the water out—and it did allow some body heat to be retained, damp as it might be.
“My point is, if we’ve moved out of Gorlan Fief, we might be able to look for an inn in a village and spend a few nights.”
“You think Morgarath would stop at the border between the two fiefs?” asked Halt.
Crowley stuck out his bottom lip. “Perhaps not Morgarath himself,” he admitted. “But if he sent some of his men after us—and we don’t even know for sure that he has—they might well decide to turn back once they reached the limits of the fief. Particularly in this sort of weather. They won’t be enjoying it any more than we are.”
“It’s possible,” Halt said. “So do you have a village in mind?”
Crowley nodded. He’d been studying the map before the light failed. “There’s a village called Woolsey,” he said. “I’d guess it’s about ten kilometers away and a little off the beaten track. It’s big enough to have a tavern or an inn. And if it doesn’t, we could always look for lodgings with one of the villagers.”
Halt said nothing, considering the idea. Then a problem occurred to Crowley.
“Of course, we’d need money,” he said. “Usually when I’m traveling, I pay with a chit that can be reclaimed from the Corps. But I can hardly do that now.”
Since their confrontation with Morgarath, and the fight with his men, they had decided that Crowley should relinquish his identity as a Ranger. Morgarath’s men would be looking for a member of the Corps. So far, Morgarath was probably unaware that Halt had joined Crowley. To this end, Crowley had set aside his mottled Ranger cloak and was wearing a simple wool cloak in a dark gray color. Halt’s cloak was a forest green. Both colors were adequate for concealment, and not as instantly recognizable as Ranger cloaks.
“I have money,” Halt said, and Crowley looked at him with relief. “But it’s Hibernian. I’m not sure if innkeepers here will accept it.”
“Is it gold?” Crowley asked and, when Halt nodded, he continued. “They’ll accept it.”
“Well then,” Halt said, “tomorrow we’ll head for Woolsey village. It’ll give us a chance to dry out our clothes and our gear. And the horses will benefit from spending a couple of nights in a stable.”
“Or even a week?” Crowley suggested optimistically.
Halt turned a baleful eye on him, peering at him through the multiple drips of water that were now running from his cowl.
Crowley shrugged. “A couple of nights is good.”
“Let’s turn in,” Halt said, yawning. It had been a long day and the thought of a dry bed on the morrow was an attractive one. He lay down carefully and, shivering slightly, wrapped the soaking wet cloak around him, pulling the cowl high up over his head. A gust of wind shook the tarpaulin above them and water cascaded down on three sides. He shivered again.
“To blazes with Morgarath’s men,” Halt muttered. “I want a nice roaring fire tomorrow night.”
“And a hearty beef stew,” came Crowley’s muffled voice.
“And a hearty beef stew,” Halt agreed.
IT WAS LATE AFTERNOON BY THE TIME THEY REACHED Woolsey. The rain had eased to a steady drizzle but still refused to stop completely.
They rode down the single street of the village, huddled in their cloaks. The two horses plodded stolidly through the thick mud that covered the street, their hooves making sucking, squish
ing noises as they alternately placed them down, then dragged them free of the clinging, wet ooze.
Crowley pointed to a building halfway down the street, larger than those surrounding it. It was the only two-story structure in the village, and a painted signboard above the entrance swung erratically in the wind.
He peered closely at the sign. “The Yellow Parrot. That does sound jolly.”
“What’s jolly about a yellow parrot?” Halt shot him a sidelong look.
Crowley considered the question. Truth be told, he had spoken simply for the sake of saying something, but he wasn’t going to admit it.
“Well,” he said eventually, “parrots are amusing creatures. They talk, don’t they? They say things like ‘Polly wants a bread crust.’ Or, ‘Who’s a pretty boy then?’ And they’re colorful, so they brighten things up.”
“What’s amusing about a bird wanting a bread crust? Or claiming to be a pretty boy then? After all, the bird doesn’t actually know what it’s saying, does it?”
“It knows it wants a bread crust,” Crowley said. “I mean, when it says that, and you give it a bread crust, it eats the bread crust, doesn’t it? So obviously, it knows what it’s saying.”
Halt nudged his horse so that it stopped, while he turned to look at his companion. Crowley twitched the reins and his horse halted as well.
“Are you always so insufferably cheerful?” Halt asked.
“I suppose I am,” Crowley admitted. “Do you always travel around as if there’s a big, black thundercloud hanging over your head?” He liked Halt, despite their short acquaintance. But the Hibernian did tend to be a bit of a Gloomy Gus at times, he thought.
“What did you say?” Halt demanded.
Crowley realized that he must have unwittingly muttered the words aloud as he had the thought. Hurriedly, he shook his head. Raindrops scattered around him as he did.
“I didn’t say anything.”
But Halt was glaring at him. “You called me a Gloomy Gus,” he accused.
Crowley shrugged. “It’s a term of endearment in this country.” He tapped his horse with his heels to start moving again. Squish, suck, squish, suck, ooze squish, went the hooves.
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“That’s enough,” said Crowley, lowering his bow. He had no wish to shoot at men who were retreating and, effectively, defenseless.
Halt nodded agreement. “They’ll keep running until they reach the border.”
They turned their horses and began to walk the remaining fifty meters to the barricade. As they approached, the villagers straggled out from behind the tangle of tables, chairs, handcarts and the other paraphernalia they had thrown up to stop the attackers.
A ragged cheer went up as the two riders stopped and dismounted.
A tall, heavily built man in his mid-thirties stepped forward. He was one of the better armed and equipped among the villagers, with a single-bladed battleax in one hand and a large wooden shield on his other arm. He wore an iron helmet, a simple piece in the shape of an acorn.
He leaned his ax against a nearby handcart and greeted them, right hand outstretched.
“Can’t tell you how glad we are to see you,” he said, smiling broadly. “We were on our last legs here. You arrived just in time. I’m Yorik, headman of the village.”
Halt deferred to Crowley, motioning for him to step forward. The Ranger did so, shaking the headman’s hand and grinning at the other villagers who were clustering around.
“Glad to be of service,” he said. “My name’s Crowley, and this cheerful chap with me is named Halt.”
Halt nodded a greeting as Yorik appraised them keenly. He took in the cowled cloaks, the dual sidearms—saxe and throwing knife—and, of course, the mighty longbows both men carried.
“Judging by the way you shoot,” he said, “you’re King’s Rangers.”
Crowley nodded. “I am. He’s as good as.” He gestured around the village, taking in the still figures lying in the street and the burning and smoldering buildings. “What caused all this?”
Yorik’s face clouded over. “Prince Duncan caused it. He went raiding with his men over the border and stirred up the Scotti. Then he moved on before they could retaliate, leaving us to face the music. Curse his criminal hide,” he said bitterly. Then a look of sudden fear swept over his face. These were King’s Rangers, after all, and likely to owe their allegiance to Prince Duncan as a member of the royal household. “Forgive me,” he said, dropping his gaze. “I spoke without thinking.”
Crowley shook his head. “No forgiveness necessary,” he said. “We’ve been hearing some strange tales about Duncan. Sounds like they’re true.”
Yorik nodded warily. He still wasn’t totally sure of his ground.
Halt entered the conversation. “We heard he’d been throwing his weight around—stealing and helping himself to anything he fancied.”
Yorik seemed a little reassured by the note of censure in Halt’s voice. “Aye, that’s right. And when he’d taken everything of value, he moved on. We were glad to see him go—until the Scotti turned up, of course. Duncan has twenty men-at-arms with him. They would have made short shrift of these brutes.”
He gestured at the two dead Scotti lying in the street. Already, the other villagers were beginning to dismantle the barricade and return the items of furniture to the homes they had come from. Of course, the inn was totally destroyed, so several pieces that had come from the taproom were left to one side. Yorik looked gloomily at the smoldering wreckage of the inn. As they watched, a final section of the roof collapsed in on the rest. Sparks flew in a shower, then settled slowly.
“We’ll give you a hand clearing things away,” Crowley said, and he and Halt joined the villagers in their work, returning the carts and furniture to where they had come from, and laying the bodies of those villagers killed in a row by the side of the road. The dead Scotti were piled separately, and with considerably less care.
“We’ll bury our people later,” Yorik told them. “The Scotti we’ll burn.”
Crowley dusted off his hands and looked around. The barricade had been dismantled and removed. The funerals, he sensed, would be a private matter for the villagers, where outsiders like him and Halt would be intruding.
“Thanks for your help,” Yorik said. “If you hadn’t turned up, we’d have been finished.”
Crowley and Halt shrugged diffidently. There was nothing to say, really. It was an awkward moment and Yorik smoothed it over with his next words.
“Come join my wife and me for a glass of cider and a bite to eat,” he said. “She’s the best cook in the village.”
They followed him toward one of the larger houses—a single-story wattle-and-daub structure with a thatched roof.
“I thought the Scotti might try something like this,” Yorik said. “So I’d posted lookouts along the road to the border. They caught one but the second got here in time to give us warning. We managed to throw up the barricade before they arrived.” He glanced down the road to where two men were lifting one of the still figures sprawled in the rapidly drying mud. “Not that it did young Merrick and his brother any good,” he added heavily.
Crowley dropped a consoling hand on his shoulder. “Still, you held them off long enough for us to get here,” he said.
Yorik nodded gratefully. “That’s true. You certainly taught those murdering Scotti a thing or two.”
He opened the door to the house and they went inside ahead of him.
“Maeve,” he said, “we’ve guests joining us.”
His wife was the woman Crowley had saved with his first shot. She nodded a greeting to them and began to set food on the table.
“You’re welcome in our home,” she said warmly.
There was a cold roast of beef on the table and a crock of yellow pickles stood beside it. Maeve was cutting thick slices of bread while Yorik poured three mugs of cider. She smiled and gestured to the chairs by the table.
“Seat yourselves, Rangers,” she said.
“I’m actually not a—” Halt began, but Crowley cut him off.
“You ride and shoot and fight like a Ranger and you were taught by one of the best of the old breed. Let’s just take it as read that you are one.”
Halt shrugged in acquiescence and reached for a piece of bread, piling several slices of beef on it and spreading a generous helping of pickles over the top. He bit into the food and sighed contentedly.
“So tell us about Duncan,” Crowley said.
Yorik paused, gathering his thoughts. “He and his men turned up here four days ago. Around noon, wasn’t it, Maeve?”
“Aye,” said Maeve. “Close enough to noon.”
“They marched into the tavern across the way, kicking everybody else out and helping themselves to the best wine and ale that Tilson had in the cellar.”
“They seemed to have an eye for the best,” Maeve said heavily.
Yorik glanced at her, nodded agreement and helped himself to bread and beef before he continued. “Young Jemmy Mandell was driving his father’s prize sow out to the green when they arrived. They took her and slaughtered her, right in the street. When the boy tried to stop them, they beat him something savage. Then they started roasting joints of pork over a fire, laughing all the while. Thought the whole thing was right amusing, they did.”
“And Duncan said nothing about this?” Crowley asked.
Yorik shook his head sadly. “Prince Duncan was laughing the loudest. He was cheering his men on. And he kept doing so while they stole and beat people and terrorized some of the womenfolk. He’s the worst of the lot of them, if you ask me.”
“It sounds like it,” Halt said.
“When did they raid across the border?” Crowley asked.
“That was the day before yesterday. They headed out around midmorning. We thought they were gone for good. Then they arrived back next day and told us what they’d been up to. ‘You can expect a return visit from the Scotti,’ Duncan told us. ‘They seemed quite annoyed when we left.’
“Then, yesterday, they finally left us in peac
e. Except, of course, that we knew the Scotti would retaliate. Which they did, as you saw.”
“I doubt you’ll see the Scotti again,” Crowley told him. “They won’t be too quick to follow a war leader who comes back from a raid empty-handed, with a third of his men dead or wounded.”
“No. That’s true,” Yorik agreed. “Although I’d give them free passage through here if they’d go after Duncan.”
“Where was Duncan headed when he left?” Halt asked.
“They went west. Nearest village of any size in that direction would be Kirkton-Lea. And God help them if Duncan decides to visit.”
“Have you thought of sending to Castle Araluen to ask for the King’s help?” Crowley asked. “After all, he’d hardly condone what Duncan is up to.”
But Yorik shook his head. “Haven’t you heard? The King is no longer at Araluen. There was an attempt on his life and Baron Morgarath insisted that he move into Castle Gorlan, where he could keep him safe.”
Halt and Crowley exchanged a surprised look. They both had the same thought but it was Halt who expressed it.
“Or keep him prisoner,” he said.
THEY SPENT THE NIGHT IN YORIK’S BARN—THERE WASN’T enough room for four in the headman’s house. The following morning, they set out on the road to Kirkton-Lea.
“Sometimes I get the feeling that we’ll spend the rest of the year trailing Duncan from one village to the next,” Halt said ill-temperedly.
Crowley’s gaze was fixed doggedly on the road ahead. The more he heard about Duncan’s exploits, the more he believed there was some terrible mistake being made.
“I want to talk to him myself,” he said. “I can’t understand why he would turn like this.”
Halt shrugged. “Why do I sense Morgarath’s interfering hand in all of this?” he asked.
Crowley looked at him in surprise. “Morgarath? Why would he have anything to do with Duncan?”
Halt shook his head thoughtfully. “Morgarath is hungry for power. Having Duncan discredited, and possibly disinherited, would work in his favor. And now we find that the King is in Castle Gorlan, under Morgarath’s dubious protection. That’s terribly convenient for our favorite baron, isn’t it?”
Crowley looked a little surprised. “I hadn’t thought of it in those terms,” he said. “But there could be something in what you say.”
Halt laughed scornfully. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t cooked up the assassination plot in the first place. I have an uncomfortable feeling about Morgarath. And if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s not to ignore that sort of feeling.”
Halt and Crowley paused on a small wooded knoll overlooking the village of Kirkton-Lea. They had sunk into the long grass at the edge of the small copse of trees. Their horses were tethered farther back in the woods behind them. Since Duncan was accompanied by at least twenty armed men, they had both thought it wiser to spy out the lay of the land before entering the village.
They could hear raised voices from the inn, with an occasional burst of ribald singing and, once, the sound of breaking furniture and a startled woman’s scream.
“Nobody on the streets,” Halt observed.
Crowley nodded, his brow furrowed by a frown. “Staying indoors, most like, to keep out of harm’s way.”
“Let’s take a closer look,” Halt said, gesturing toward the rear laneway running behind the houses on the left-hand side.
Without waiting for Crowley’s reply, he rose to a crouch and ghosted through the long grass, moving instinctively from one piece of vestigial cover to the next, using bushes and small trees to conceal him as he went. Crowley allowed Halt to establish a lead of thirty meters or so, then rose in his turn and slipped through the waist-high grass after him, barely seeming to disturb the long stems, only remaining visible for seconds at a time. For the purpose of this exercise, he had resumed his camouflaged cloak, and the mottled green-and-gray material helped him blend almost completely into the landscape as he passed across it.
When he reached the lane at the outskirts of the village, Halt continued to move stealthily, going deeper and deeper into the cluster of buildings, now using the lean-tos and barns for cover. Better to keep moving at a constant pace than to stop and start continually, he knew. Variations in pace would almost certainly draw the attention of any eyes in the vicinity, whereas a constant, steady movement was more likely to go unremarked.
He glanced back once or twice but saw no sign of Crowley, even though he knew the redheaded Ranger would be following him.
From the knoll, Halt had marked a house that stood opposite the tavern. He reached it now and flattened himself against the rear wall, listening keenly for any sound of people moving within. For a few seconds there was nothing, then he heard a man cough and a low murmur of conversation inside—too low to make out the words.
If people were whispering inside their own homes, he thought, that indicated they were nervous. He peered round the corner of the house, looking down the littered alley to the front door of the tavern opposite. Without the bulk of the building to block the sound, the noise of shouting, roistering men was once more apparent. Scanning the sidewall of the house, he could make out one window facing into the alley. Most likely it would be covered with oiled cloth—glazed windows were a rarity in country villages. But the cloth would show a shadow moving outside, so it would be wise to move past the window in a crouch.
There was a large barrel at the far end of the alley, set to collect rainwater runoff from the roof, and several broken pieces of farm equipment lying around as well. He heard a slight movement beside him and turned to find that Crowley had arrived. Halt indicated for the Ranger to take a look. When he did, Halt leaned close, so that his mouth was almost against Crowley’s ear.
“We’ll move down to the main street to take a look,” he breathed. “The water barrel will give us cover in case someone comes out of the tavern.”
Crowley nodded assent and Halt continued. “There’s a small window halfway down the alley. Keep below the sill level as you go past it.”
Again, Crowley nodded. Then, without further discussion, Halt moved out from behind the house, crouching low as he half ran down the alley. As he reached the window, he crouched lower still, staying well below the level of the sill. As he ghosted past the window, he heard another mutter of voices from the inside. This time, he thought he could make out the word Duncan, and he was sure it was spoken in tones of contempt.
He took up a position behind the water barrel, where he could see through the triangular gap left between it and the wall by the tapered top of the barrel. Crowley joined him, standing a little taller so he could peer over Halt’s shoulder. The shadows were deep in the alley, and as long as they didn’t move, Halt was confident their cloaks would keep them concealed from a casual viewer.
They had been in position for several minutes when the door of the tavern was flung open and four men staggered out. Halt’s heart lurched initially, but the men were looking into bright sunlight and the chances that they would see the two crouching figures in the shadows of the alley were slim.
They were all dressed in red surcoats over chain-mail shirts and they all wore swords at their belts. Short swords, noted Halt. Not long weapons such as those carried by knights or cavalrymen. These were simple men-at-arms then. Their mail coifs were folded down over their collars. None of them wore helmets.
Their red surcoats were dirty and stained with mud and food. On their right breasts, they carried the insignia of a red, stooping hawk in a white circle.
Crowley touched his shoulder gently, the contact barely noticeable.
“Red hawk,” he breathed. “That’s the symbol for the heir to the throne. These are Duncan’s men, all right.”
The four men were carrying tankards, beer slopping out as they moved. Obviously, they had been drinking for some time. T
here was a bench set against the wall of the tavern and they sank onto it, legs sprawling out toward the street, raising the tankards to their mouths to drink deeply. In the few seconds that the door had remained open to emit them, the sound of shouting and singing had intensified, only to be cut off again as the door shut.
“Not fair,” one of them slurred loudly. “It’s our turn to relax, not to keep watch. Tiller’s playing favorites again.”
Two of the others grunted agreement. The fourth man looked scornfully at the one who had spoken.
“Shut up and drink your ale. If he hears you complaining, you’ll be in for it.”
Scowling, the first man finished his ale, then viciously tossed his empty tankard into the street, where it bounced and rolled before coming to a halt.
“Let him try something with me,” he said, with the belligerence of the drunk. “I’ll soon show him what’s what.”
The others laughed derisively at his boast and he glared at them, his temper surging at their ridicule.
“I tell you,” he continued angrily, “I’m sick of this. I’ve seen precious little in the way of loot. Tiller keeps it all for his favorites. I’m of a mind to cut loose and leave this band, first chance I get.”
Unfortunately for him, the door to the inn opened as he said the last few words, and a tall, bearded figure in a red surcoat emerged. Halt stiffened instinctively. The man’s clothes and chain mail were of a better quality than those of the men-at-arms. For a second or two, he was facing them and Halt could see that he wore the red hawk symbol in the center of his breast, not offset to the right like theirs.
Plus the sword at his waist was at least a meter in length, and jewels glittered on its pommel. His right hand dropped to the hilt of the sword as he turned on the man who had spoken.