John Flanagan: Halts peril

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John Flanagan Halts peril
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    Halts peril
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Dennis and Nialls stepped out into the clear, cold night, looking up and down the narrow street to see which way the stranger had gone. They hesitated. There were several mean little alleys that led off the street. The youth could be hiding in one of them.

'Let's try…'

Nialls got no further. The air between the two men was split by a vicious hiss as something flashed past Nialls's nose and thudded into the door frame. The two men jerked apart in shock, then stared in disbelief at the grey-shafted arrow, buried quivering in the wood.

From somewhere up the street, a voice carried to them.

'One more step and the next arrow will be through your heart.' There was a slight pause, then the voice continued, with obvious venom, 'And I'm just angry enough to do it.'

'Where is he?' Dennis whispered out of the corner of his mouth.

'Must be in one of the alleys,' Nialls answered. The threat of the quivering arrow was unmistakable. But they both knew the danger involved in going back to O'Malley empty-handed.

Without warning, there was another hiss-thud between them. Only this time, Niall's hand flew to his right ear, where the arrow had nicked him on its way through. Blood ran hotly down his cheek. Suddenly, facing O'Malley seemed like the better alternative.

'Let's get out of here!' he said and they jostled each other to get back through the door, slamming it behind them.

From an alley further up the street, a dark figure emerged. Will figured it would be several minutes before anyone chanced coming back again. He ran soft-footed back to the tavern, retrieved his arrows, then led Tug from the stableyard. Swinging into the saddle, he galloped away. The little horse's hooves rang on the cobbles, the sound echoing off the buildings lining the street.

Altogether, it had been a very unsatisfying encounter. Four Halt and Horace crested a small rise and reined in their horses. Less than a kilometre away, Port Cael was spread out before them. White-painted buildings huddled together at the top of a hill, which swept away down to the harbour itself – a man-made breakwater that stretched out into the sea then turned at a right angle to form an L-shaped haven for the small fleet moored inside the walls. From where they sat their horses, the ships could be seen only as a forest of masts, jumbled together and indistinguishable as individual craft.

The houses on the hill were freshly painted and looked neatly kept. Even in the dull sunshine that was breaking through the overcast, they seemed to gleam. Down the hill and closer to the docks, there was a more utilitarian look to the buildings and the predominant colour was a dull grey. Typical of any working port, Halt thought. The more genteel people lived on the hill in their spotless homes. The riffraff gathered by the water.

Still, he was willing to bet that the spotless homes on the hill held their share of villains and unscrupulous traders. The people who lived there weren't more honest than the others – just more successful.

'Isn't that someone we know?' asked Horace. He pointed to where a cloaked figure sat by the side of the road a few hundred metres away, arms wrapped around his knees. Close by him, a small shaggy horse cropped the grass growing at the edge of the drainage ditch that ran beside the road.

'So it is,' Halt replied. 'And he seems to have brought Will with him.'

Horace glanced quickly at his older companion. He felt his spirits lift with the sally. It wasn't much of a joke, but it was the first one Halt had made since they had left his brother's grave at Dun Kilty. The Ranger was never a garrulous companion, but he had been even more taciturn than usual over the past few days. Understandable, thought Horace. After all, he had lost his twin brother. Now, the Ranger seemed prepared to slough off his depression. Possibly it had something to do with the prospect of imminent action, the young knight thought.

'Looks like he's lost a guinea and found a farthing,' Horace said, then added, unnecessarily, 'Will, I mean.'

Halt turned in his saddle to regard the younger man and raised an eyebrow.

'I may be almost senile in your eyes, Horace, but there's no need to explain the blindingly obvious to me. I'd hardly have thought you were referring to Tug.'

'Sorry, Halt.' But Horace couldn't help a smile touching the corner of his mouth. First a joke and now an acerbic reply. That was better than the morose silence that had enshrouded Halt since his brother's death.

'Let's see what's troubling him,' Halt said. He made no discernible movement or signal to his horse that Horace could notice, but Abelard immediately moved off at a slow trot. Horace touched his heels to Kicker's ribs and the battlehorse responded, quickly catching up to the smaller horse and settling beside him.

As they drew near, Will stood, brushing himself off. Tug whinnied a greeting to Abelard and Kicker and the other horses responded in kind.

'Halt, Horace,' Will greeted them as they drew rein beside him. 'I hoped you'd be along today.'

'We got the message you left for us at Fingle Bay,' Halt told him, 'so we pushed on early this morning.'

Fingle Bay had been Tennyson's original destination. It was a prosperous trading and fishing port some kilometres to the south of Port Cael. The majority of shipowners and captains there were honest men. Port Cael was the home of more shady operations, as Tennyson, and then Will, had discovered.

'Had any luck?' Horace asked. While he and Halt had stayed to tidy up things in Dun Kilty, Will had gone ahead to trail Tennyson and discover where he was heading. The young Ranger shrugged now.

'Some,' he said. 'Good and bad, I'm afraid. Tennyson has fled the country, as you thought, Halt.'

Halt nodded. He'd expected as much. 'Where'd he go?'

Will shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. Halt smiled to himself. He knew that his former apprentice hated to fail at any task Halt set him.

'That's the bad news, I'm afraid. I can't find out. I know who took him. It was a smuggler called the Black O'Malley. But he won't tell me anything. I'm sorry, Halt,' he added. His old mentor shrugged.

'I'm sure you did all you could. Sailors in a place like this can be notoriously close-mouthed. Perhaps I'll have a talk to him. Where do we find him – this exotically named O'Malley character?'

'There's a tavern by the docks. He's there most evenings.'

'Then I'll talk to him tonight,' Halt said.

Will shrugged. 'You can try. But he's a hard case, Halt. I'm not sure you'll get anything out of him. He's not interested in money. I tried that.'

'Well, perhaps he'll do it out of the goodness of his heart. I'm sure he'll open up to me,' Halt said easily. But Horace noticed a quick gleam in his eye. He was right, the prospect of having something to do had reawakened Halt's spirits. He had a score to settle, and Horace found himself thinking that it didn't bode well for this Black O'Malley character.

Will still eyed Halt doubtfully, however. 'You think so?'

Halt smiled at him. 'People love talking to me,' he said. 'I'm an excellent conversationalist and I have a sparkling personality. Ask Horace, I've been bending his ear all the way from Dun Kilty, haven't I?'

Horace nodded confirmation. 'Talking nonstop all the way, he's been,' he said. 'Be glad to see him turn all that chatter onto someone else.'

Will regarded the two of them balefully. He had hated admitting failure to Halt. Now his two companions seemed to think the whole matter was a joke and he simply wasn't in the frame of mind to appreciate it. He tried to think of something crushing to say but nothing came to him. Finally, he swung up into Tug's saddle and moved out onto the road with them.

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