John Flanagan: Halts peril

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John Flanagan Halts peril
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    Halts peril
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Will slid one half of the gold piece across the bar.

'Here's half now as a gesture of good faith. The other half once you've done as I ask.'

The tavern keeper hesitated for a second or so. Then, swallowing nervously, he claimed the mutilated half gold piece.

'Would you be wanting anything to eat while you wait, sir?' he asked.

Will replaced the other half of the gold coin in his belt purse, then rubbed his fingers and thumb together. They were lightly coated with grease from their brief contact with the bar top. He looked once more at the filthy cloth over the tavern keeper's shoulder and shook his head.

'I don't think so.'

Will sat, nursing his coffee, as he waited for the man he sought to enter the bar.

When Will had first arrived in Port Cael, he had found a room in an inn some distance from the waterfront, in one of the better-kept areas of the town. The innkeeper was a taciturn man, not given to the sort of gossip that his kind usually indulged in. Gossip was a way of life with innkeepers, Will thought. But this one seemed decidedly atypical. Better section of town or no, he realised, this was still a town that depended largely on smuggling and other forms of illegal trade. People would tend to be closemouthed around strangers.

Unless a stranger offered gold, as Will did. He'd told the innkeeper that he was looking for a friend. A large man with long grey hair, dressed in a white robe and attended by a group of some twenty followers. There would be two among them who wore purple cloaks and wide-brimmed hats of the same colour. Possibly carrying crossbows.

He'd seen the truth in the innkeeper's eyes as he described Tennyson and the remaining Genovesan assassins. Tennyson had been here, all right. His pulse lifted a little at the thought that he might still be here. But the innkeeper's words dashed that hope.

'They were here,' he said. 'But they're gone.'

Apparently, the man had decided that, if Tennyson had already left Port Cael, there was no harm telling this to the young man asking after him. Will had pursed his lips at the news, allowing the gold coin to tumble end over end across the knuckles of his right hand – a trick he'd spent hours perfecting, to pass the time around countless camp fires. The metal caught the light and gleamed invitingly as it flipped end over end, first in one direction, then the other, drawing the innkeeper's eyes.

'Gone where?'

The innkeeper looked back to him. Then he jerked his head in the direction of the harbour. 'Gone over the sea. Where to, I don't know.'

'Any idea who might know?'

The innkeeper had shrugged. 'Your best bet would be to ask the Black O'Malley. Happen that he might know. When there's folk looking to leave in a hurry, he's often the one who'll accommodate them.'

'A strange name. How did he come by it?'

'There was a sea fight some years ago. His ship was boarded. By…' The man had hesitated briefly, then continued, 'By pirates. There was a fight and one of them hit him in the face with a flaming torch. The burning pitch of the torch clung to his skin and burned him badly, leaving a black scorch mark on the left side of his face.'

Will had nodded thoughtfully. If there had been any pirates involved in the fight, he was willing to bet that they were sailing in O'Malley's company. But that was immaterial.

'And how would I find this O'Malley?' he'd asked.

'Most nights, you'll find him at the Heron tavern, down by the docks.' The innkeeper had taken the coin and as Will turned away, he'd added:

'It's a dangerous place. Might not be a good idea to go there alone – you a stranger as you are. I've a couple of large lads do work for me from time to time. Might be they'd be willing to go along with you – for a small fee.'

The young man looked back, considered the suggestion and shook his head, smiling slowly.

'I think I can look after myself,' he'd said. Three It hadn't been any sense of arrogance that led him to refuse the innkeeper's offer. Walking into a place like the Heron with a couple of part-time, and probably second-rate, bully boys for company would cause nothing but contempt among the genuine hard cases who gathered here. All it would have done was advertise the fact that he was uncertain of himself. Better to be alone and rely on his own skill and wits to see him through.

The tavern had been half full when he'd arrived. It had been too early in the evening for the main trade to begin. But as he waited, it began to fill up. The temperature rose with the growing press of unwashed bodies. So did the sour, stale smell that pervaded the hot, smoke-filled room. The noise level increased, as people raised their voices to be heard over the growing clamour.

The situation suited him. The more people present and the noisier it was, the less chance there was of being noticed. With each new set of arrivals, he glanced at the tavern keeper. But each time, the thin-faced man merely shook his head.

It was somewhere between eleven o'clock and midnight when the door was hurled open and three bulky men entered, shoving their way through the throng to the bar, where the tavern keeper immediately began to pump up three large tankards of ale without a word passing between them. As he filled the second and placed it on the counter, he paused and, eyes down, tugged fiercely on his ear three times. Then he continued pulling the final ale.

Even without the signal, Will would have known that this was the man he was looking for. The large black burn mark on the side of his face, stretching from just below the left eye to the jawline, was obvious from across the room. He waited while O'Malley and his two cohorts picked up their tankards and made their way towards a table close to the peat fire. There were two men already seated there and they looked up anxiously as the smuggler approached.

'Ah now, O'Malley,' one of them began in a whining tone, 'we've been sitting here since -'


O'Malley gestured with his thumb and the two men, without further demurral, picked up their drinks and rose, leaving the table for the three smugglers. They settled into their seats, glanced around the room and called greetings to several acquaintances. Reactions to the newcomers, Will noted, were more guarded than friendly. O'Malley seemed to instil fear in the other patrons.

O'Malley's gaze touched briefly on the cloaked figure sitting alone in a corner. He studied Will for several seconds, then dismissed him. He inched his chair forward and he and his companions leaned over the table, speaking in low tones, their heads close together.

Will rose from his seat and moved towards them. Passing the bar, he allowed his hand to trail along the surface, leaving the mutilated half gold coin behind as he did so. The tavern keeper hurried to snatch it up. He made no sign of acknowledgement or thanks but Will expected none. The tavern keeper wouldn't be anxious for anyone to know that he had identified O'Malley to this stranger.

O'Malley became conscious of Will's presence as he approached the table. The smuggler had been muttering something in a low tone to his two companions and now he stopped, his eyes swivelling sideways to inspect the slim figure standing a metre or so away. There was a long pause.

'Captain O'Malley?' Will asked, finally. The man was powerfully built, although not excessively tall. He would have stood a few centimetres taller than Will but then, most people did.

His shoulders were well muscled and his hands were calloused. Together, they showed the signs of a lifetime of hard work, hauling on ropes, heaving cargo aboard, tending a bucking tiller in a gale. His stomach showed signs of a lifetime of hard drinking. He was overweight but still a powerful man and an adversary to be wary of. His black hair hung in ragged curls to his collar and he had grown a beard, possibly in an unsuccessful attempt to disguise the disfiguring mark on his left cheek. His nose had been broken so many times that it now showed no defining shape at all. It was a lump of smashed gristle and bone. Will imagined that O'Malley had trouble breathing through that nose.

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