John Flanagan: Halts peril

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John Flanagan Halts peril
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    Halts peril
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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.

His two companions were less interesting specimens. Big bellied, broad shouldered and powerfully built, they were larger and taller than their leader. But he had the unmistakable air of authority about him.

'Captain O'Malley?' Will repeated. He smiled easily. O'Malley frowned in return.

'I don't think so,' he said shortly, and turned back to his two companions.

'I do,' Will said, still smiling.

O'Malley sat back, looking away for a second or two, then turned his close-set eyes on Will. There was a dangerous light in them.

'Sonny,' he said deliberately, the tone condescending and insulting, 'why don't you run along now?'

The room around them had gone silent as the drinkers turned to watch this strange confrontation. The young stranger was armed with a powerful longbow, they could all see. But in the confined space of the tavern, it was not the most useful weapon.

'I'm looking for information,' Will said. 'I'm willing to pay for it.'

He touched the purse at his belt and there was a slight musical chinking sound from it. O'Malley's eyes narrowed. This could be interesting.

'Information, is it? Well, perhaps we might talk after all. Carew!' he snapped at a man seated at the next table. 'Give the boy your stool here.'

It was significant that the man called Carew made no argument. He hurriedly rose and shoved the stool towards Will. His look of resentment he reserved for the young Ranger. He made sure that no sign of it showed to O'Malley.

Will nodded his thanks, received a scowl in return and pulled the stool up to O'Malley's table.

'So, information, is it?' the smuggler began. 'And what might you be wanting to know?'

'You gave passage to a man called Tennyson a few days ago,' Will said. 'Him and about twenty of his followers.'

'Did I now?' O'Malley's shaggy eyebrows came together in a dark frown of anger. 'You seem to have a lot of information already, don't you? And who told you that?'

'Nobody in this room,' Will said. Then, before O'Malley could query him further, he went on quickly, 'I need to know where you took him.'

The smuggler's eyebrows rose in simulated surprise.

'Oh, you need to know, do you? And what if I don't need to tell you? Assuming that I had taken this person anywhere at all – which I didn't.'

Will allowed a flash of exasperation to show, then realised that this was a mistake. He composed his features but he knew O'Malley had noticed it.

'I said, I'm willing to pay for the information,' he said, working to keep his voice level.

'And would you be willing to pay another gold coin – like the one I saw you slip to Ryan as you came past the bar?' He glanced angrily at the tavern keeper, who had been an interested observer of their conversation and who now shrank back a little. 'We'll be having words about that later, Ryan,' he added.

Will pursed his lips in surprise. He would have been willing to bet that O'Malley's attention was engaged elsewhere when he had placed the half coin on the bar.

'You don't miss much, do you?' He allowed a note of admiration to enter his tone. No harm in a little flattery. But O'Malley wasn't as simple as all that.

'I don't miss anything, boy.' His angry gaze was back on Will now. Don't try to butter me up with soft words, it said.

Will shifted on his stool. He was losing control of this conversation, he thought. Then he amended that. He had never had control of this conversation. O'Malley had steered it from the first word. All Will had done so far was react to him. He tried again.

'Well, yes. I'd be willing to pay gold for the information.'

'I've already been paid,' O'Malley said. At least there was no pretence now that he hadn't given passage to Tennyson and his followers.

'Then you'll be paid twice. That sounds like good business to me,' Will said reasonably.

'It does, does it? Well, let me tell you a little about business. For a start, I'd happily slit your throat for that purse you're carrying. And I have no particular regard for this Tennyson fellow you speak of. If I'd had the chance, I would have killed him and dumped him overboard and no one the wiser. But those purple-cloaked friends of his watched me like a hawk the whole time. I tell you this to point out that trust means nothing to me. Nothing at all.'

'Then…' Will began, but the smuggler cut him off with a curt gesture.

'But here's what business is about, boy. I took money from that man to get him out of Clonmel. That's the sort of business I'm in. Now if I take more money from a second party to tell where I took him, and everyone here sees me do it, how long do you think my business will last? People come to me for one reason. I know how to keep my mouth shut.'

He paused. Will sat awkwardly. There was no reasonable answer he could think of.

'I don't believe in honesty,' O'Malley continued. 'Or trust. Or loyalty. I believe in profit, that's all. And profit means I know how to keep my mouth shut when it's necessary.' Without warning, he glanced around the tavern. Eyes that had been watching with interest turned quickly away.

'And everyone else in this room had better know the same thing,' he said, raising his voice.

Will spread his hands in a gesture of defeat. He could see no way to turn this situation around. Abruptly, he found himself wishing that Halt were here. Halt would know what to do, he thought. And with that thought, he felt thoroughly inadequate.

'Well then, I'll be on my way.' He began to rise.

'Just a minute!' O'Malley's hand slapped down on the table between them. 'You haven't paid me.'

Will gave a snort of incredulous laughter. 'Paid you? You didn't answer my question.'

'Yes I did. It just wasn't the answer you were looking for. Now pay me.'

Will looked around the room. Everyone present was watching the exchange and most of them were grinning. O'Malley might be feared and disliked here, but Will was a stranger and they were happy to see him bested. He realised that the smuggler had created this confrontation for the purpose of magnifying his own reputation. It wasn't so much the money he was interested in, more the opportunity to show everyone else in the tavern that he was cock of the walk. Trying to hide his fury, he reached into his purse and took out another gold piece. This was getting expensive, he thought, and he'd found out nothing worthwhile. He slid the piece across the table. O'Malley gathered it in, tested it with his teeth, and smiled wickedly.

'Good to do business with you, boy. Now get on out of here.'

Will knew his face was burning with the suppressed fury inside him. He stood abruptly, overturning the stool behind him. From somewhere in the room, there was a low chuckle. Then he turned and shoved his way through the crowd to the door.

As it banged shut behind him, O'Malley leaned forward to his two followers and said quietly, 'Dennis, Nialls. Bring me back that purse.'

The two heavily built men rose and followed Will to the door. With a shrewd idea what they might be about, the tavern customers cleared a path for them. Some watched reluctantly. They'd planned to go after the young man themselves.

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