John Flanagan: Halts peril

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John Flanagan Halts peril
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    Halts peril
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'I've got us rooms at an inn in the upper town. It's quite clean – and reasonably priced,' he told them. That caught Horace's attention.

'What's the food like?' he asked.

They stood back a few metres from the end of the alley, concealed in the shadows. From their position, they had a clear view of the entrance to the Heron and they could see customers coming and going, without being seen themselves. So far, there had been no sign of O'Malley and his two friends.

Will shifted restlessly. It was getting close to midnight.

'They're late – if they're coming,' he said softly. 'They were here well before this last night.'

'Maybe they were early last night,' Horace suggested. Halt said nothing.

'Why not wait inside, Halt?' Horace asked. The night was cold and he could feel the damp chill rising through the soles of his boots, into his feet and legs. His calves were beginning to ache. Cold, wet cobblestones, he thought. The worst possible surface to stand around on. He wanted to stamp his feet to get the blood flowing but he knew that any such action would earn a quick reprimand from Halt.

'I want to surprise them,' Halt said. 'If they walk in and see us waiting, the surprise will be lost. If we wait till they're seated, then go in quickly, we'll catch them before they have much of a chance to react to us. Plus there's always the chance that if we're waiting for them in there, someone will nip out and tell them.'

Horace nodded. It all made sense. He wasn't big on subtlety himself but he could recognise it in others.

'And Horace,' Halt began.

'Yes, Halt?'

'If I give you the signal, I'd like you to take care of this smuggler's two henchmen.'

Horace grinned broadly. It didn't sound as if Halt expected him to be subtle about that.

'Fine by me, Halt,' he said. Then, as a thought struck him, 'What will the signal be?'

Halt glanced at him. 'I'll probably say something like, "Horace".'

The tall warrior cocked his head to one side.

'Horace… what?'

'That's it,' Halt told him. 'Just Horace.'

Horace thought about it for a few seconds, then nodded, as if seeing the logic.

'Good thinking, Halt. Keep it simple. Sir Rodney says that's the way to do it.'

'Anything particular you want me to do?' Will asked.

'Watch and learn,' Halt told him.

Will smiled wryly. He was over his disappointment about his inability to get O'Malley to talk. Now he was strangely eager to see how Halt handled the matter. He had no doubt that Halt would handle it – somehow.

'That never changes, does it?' he said.

Halt glanced at him, sensing the change in his mood, the eagerness that had replaced his disappointment.

'Only a fool thinks he knows everything,' he said. 'And you're no fool.'

Before Will could respond, he gestured towards the narrow street. 'I think our friends have arrived.'

O'Malley and his two henchmen were making their way up the street from the docks. The three Araluans watched as they entered the tavern, the two bigger men standing aside to let their captain go first. There was a brief hubbub of raised voices as the door opened, spilling light out into the street. Then noise and light were cut off as the door shut again behind them.

Horace started forward but Halt laid a restraining hand on his arm.

'Give it a minute or two,' he said. 'They'll get their drinks and then clear out anyone who might be sitting at their table. Where is it relative to the door, Will?' he asked. The young Ranger frowned as he pictured the layout of the room. Halt already knew the answer to his question. He'd quizzed Will earlier in the afternoon. But he wanted to keep the young man's mind occupied.

'Inside. Down two steps and half right. About three metres from the door, by the fireplace. Watch your head on the door frame, Horace,' he added.

He sensed Horace nodding in the shadows. Halt was standing, eyes closed, measuring off the seconds, picturing the scene inside the tavern. Will fidgeted, wanting to get moving. Halt's low voice came to him.

'Take it easy. There's no rush.'

Will took several deep breaths, trying to calm his racing pulse.

'You know what I want you to do?' Halt asked him. He'd briefed the two of them that afternoon in the inn. But it never hurt to make sure.

Will swallowed several times. 'I'll stay inside the door and keep an eye on the room.'

'And remember, not so close to the door that you'll be knocked over if someone comes in unexpectedly,' Halt reminded him. But there was no need for that reminder. Halt had drawn a graphic picture that afternoon of how awkward it might be if Will were suddenly knocked flat by an eager drinker shoving the door open to get in.

'Got it,' Will said. His mouth was a little dry.

'Horace, you're clear?'

'Stay with you. Keep standing when you sit. Watch the two bully boys and if you say, "Horace", whack them.'

'Very succinct,' Halt said. 'Couldn't have put it better myself.' He waited a few more seconds, then stepped out of the shadows.

They crossed the street and Halt jerked the door open. Will felt the wave of heat and noise and light once again, then stepped inside after Halt and moved to the side. He was conscious of a dull thud and a muffled 'damn!' from Horace as he forgot to duck under the doorway.

O'Malley, his back to the fire, looked up at the new arrivals. He recognised Will and that distracted him for a few seconds, so that he was too late to react to Halt, striding quickly across the room to pull out a stool at the table and sit facing him.

'Good evening,' said the bearded stranger. 'My name's Halt and it's time we had a chat.' Five Nialls and Dennis rose to their feet instantly, but O'Malley held up a hand to stop them taking any further action.

'That's all right now, boys. Easy does it.'

They didn't resume their seats, but moved to stand behind him, forming a solid wall of muscle and flesh between him and the fireplace. O'Malley, recovering from his initial surprise, studied the man sitting opposite him.

He was small. And there was more grey than black in his hair. Altogether, not someone who would normally cause the smuggler too much concern. But O'Malley had spent years assessing potential enemies and he knew to look beyond the physical side of things. This man had hard eyes. And an air of confidence about him. He'd just walked into a lion's den, found the head lion and tweaked his tail. And now he sat opposite, cool as a cucumber. Unworried. Unflustered. He was either a fool or a very dangerous man. And he didn't look foolish.

O'Malley glanced quickly up at the man's companion. Tall, broad shouldered and athletic-looking, he thought. But the face was young – almost boyish. And he lacked the smaller man's air of calm certainty. His eyes were moving constantly, between O'Malley and his two cohorts. Judging. Measuring. He dismissed the young man. Nothing to fear there. It was a mistake many had made before him – to their eventual regret.

Now he looked back to the doorway and saw the youth who had approached him the previous night. He was standing away from the door a little, his longbow in his hand, an arrow nocked on the string. But the bow was lowered – at the moment – threatening nobody. That could change in a second, O'Malley thought. Dennis and Nialls had appraised him of the youth's skill with the bow. Nialls's ear was still heavily bandaged where the boy's arrow had all but severed it from his head.

This – he searched for the name the newcomer had given, then remembered it – Halt character had a similar bow. And now O'Malley realised that he was wearing a similar cloak, mottled and hooded. Same weapons, same cloaks. There was something official about them and O'Malley decided he didn't like that. He had no truck with anyone official.

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