John Flanagan: Halts peril

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John Flanagan Halts peril
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    Halts peril
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'Suit yourself. Ale or ouisgeah?'

Ouisgeah, Will knew, was the strong malt spirit they distilled and drank in Hibernia. In a tavern like this, it might be more suitable for stripping rust than drinking.

'I'd like coffee,' he said, noticing the battered pot by the fire at one end of the bar.

'I've got ale or ouisgeah. Take your pick.' Ratface was becoming more peremptory. Will gestured towards the coffee pot. The tavern keeper shook his head.

'None made,' he said. 'I'm not making a new pot just for you.'

'But he's drinking coffee,' Will said, nodding to one side.

It was inevitable that the tavern keeper should glance that way, to see who he was talking about. The moment his eyes left Will, he felt an iron grip at the front of his shirt collar, twisting it into a knot that choked him and at the same time dragged him forward, off balance, over the bar. The stranger's eyes were suddenly very close. He no longer looked boyish. The eyes were dark brown, almost black in this dim light, and the tavern keeper read danger there. A lot of danger. He heard a soft whisper of steel and, glancing down past the fist that held him so tightly, he glimpsed the heavy, gleaming blade of the saxe knife as the stranger laid it on the bar between them.

Choking, he glanced around for possible help. But there was nobody else at the bar and none of the customers at the tables had noticed what was going on.

'Aach… mach co'hee,' he choked.

The tension on his collar eased and the stranger said softly, 'What was that?'

'I'll… make… coffee,' he repeated, gasping for breath.

The stranger smiled. It was a pleasant smile but the tavern keeper noticed that it never reached those dark eyes.

'Then that's wonderful. I'll wait here.' Will released his grip on the tavern keeper's shirt front, allowing him to slide back over the bar and regain his balance. He tapped the hilt of the saxe knife. 'Don't change your mind, will you?'

There was a large kettle by the fire grate, supported on a swivelling iron arm that moved it in and out of the flames. The tavern keeper swung it into the heat now and busied himself with the coffee pot, measuring grounds into it, then pouring the now boiling water over it. The rich smell of coffee filled the air, for a moment supplanting the less pleasant odours that Will had noticed when he entered.

The tavern keeper placed the pot in front of Will, then produced a mug from behind the bar. He swiped at it with his ever-present cloth. Will frowned, wiped it carefully with a corner of his cloak and poured the coffee.

'I'll have sugar if you've got it,' he said. 'Honey if not.'

'I've got sugar.' The tavern keeper turned away to get the bowl and a brass spoon. When he turned back to the stranger, he started. There was a heavy gold coin gleaming on the bar between them. It represented more than he would make in an evening's trading and he hesitated to reach for it. After all, that saxe knife was still on the bar close to the stranger's hand.

'Two penn'orth for the coffee is all,' he said carefully.

Will nodded and reached into his purse, selecting two copper coins and dropping them onto the bar. 'That's more than fair. You make good coffee,' he added inconsequentially.

The tavern keeper nodded and swallowed, still unsure. Cautiously, he swept the two copper coins off the bar, watching carefully for any sign of dissent from the enigmatic stranger. For a moment, he felt vaguely ashamed that he had been so overborne by someone so young. But another look at those eyes and the youth's weapons and he dismissed the thought. He was a tavern keeper. His notion of violence amounted to no more than using a cudgel on the heads of customers so affected by alcohol they could barely stand – and that was usually from behind.

He pocketed the coins and glanced hesitantly at the large gold coin, still winking at him in the lantern light. He coughed. The stranger raised an eyebrow.

'Was there something?'

Withdrawing his hands behind his back so that there could be no misunderstanding, no thought that he was trying to appropriate the gold piece, the tavern keeper inclined his head towards it several times.

'The… gold. I'm wondering… is it… for anything at all now?'

The stranger smiled. Again, the smile never reached his eyes.

'Well, yes it is, as a matter of fact. It's for information.'

And now the tight feeling in the tavern keeper's stomach seemed to ease right out of him. This was something he understood, particularly in this neighbourhood. People often paid for information in Port Cael. And usually, they didn't harm the people who gave it to them.

'Information, is it?' he asked, allowing himself a smile. 'Well, this is the place to ask and I'm your man to be asking. What is it you want to know, your honour?'

'I want to know whether the Black O'Malley has been in this evening,' the young man said.

And suddenly, that tight feeling was right back. Two 'O'Malley, is it? And why are you looking for him?' the tavern keeper asked. Those dark eyes came up to meet his again, boring into them. The message in them was clear. The stranger's hand moved to cover the gold coin. But for the moment he made no move to pick it up and remove it from the bar.

'Well now,' the stranger said quietly, 'I was wondering whose gold coin this was? Did you put it here, by any chance?' Before the tavern keeper could reply, he'd continued. 'No. I don't recall that happening. As I recall it, I was the one put it here, in return for information. Is that how you see it?'

The tavern keeper cleared his throat nervously. The young man's voice was calm and low-pitched, but no less menacing for the fact.

'Yes. That's right,' he replied.

The stranger nodded several times, as if considering his answer. 'And correct me if I'm wrong, but usually the one who's paying the piper is the one who calls the tune. Or in this case, asks the questions. Would you see it that way too?'

For a second, Will wondered if he wasn't overdoing the air of quiet menace. Then he discarded the thought. With a person like this, whose life probably centred around informing and double dealing, he needed to assert a level of authority. And the only form of authority this sharp-featured toady would understand would be based on fear. Unless Will managed to dominate him, the tavern keeper was liable to tell him any line of lies that came to mind.

'Yes, sir. That's how I see it.'

The 'sir' was a good start, Will thought. Respectful, without being too ingratiating. He smiled again.

'So unless you'd like to match my coin with one of your own, let's keep it that I'm asking and you're answering.'

His hand slid away from the gold coin once more, leaving it gleaming dully on the rough surface of the bar.

'The Black O'Malley. Is he in tonight?'

Ratface allowed his gaze to slide around the tavern, although he already knew the answer. He cleared his throat again. Strange how the presence of this young man seemed to leave it dry.

'No, sir. Not yet. He's usually in a little later than this.'

'Then I'll wait,' Will said. He glanced around and his gaze fell on a small table set away from the other patrons. It was in a corner, a suitably unobtrusive spot, and it would be out of the line of vision of anyone entering the tavern.

'I'll wait there. When O'Malley arrives, you won't say anything to him about me. And you won't look at me. But you'll tug on your ear three times to let me know he's here. Is that clear?'

'Yes, sir. It is.'

'Good. Now…' He picked up the coin and the saxe knife and for a moment the tavern keeper thought he was going to reclaim the money. But he held it on edge and sliced carefully through it, cutting it into two half circles. Two thoughts occurred to the tavern keeper. The gold must be awfully pure to cut so easily. And the knife must be frighteningly sharp to go through it with so little effort.

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