John Flanagan: Halts peril

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John Flanagan Halts peril
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    Halts peril
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The last of the local people were making their way out of the cavern now. Halt watched them go. He'd wanted to get them out of the way. He knew Tennyson wouldn't go quietly and with the cave full of people, it would be difficult to tell friend from foe. Besides, as he had said, these people were fools, not criminals, and he didn't want to see any of them injured or killed. Now, he thought, it might be time to pare down the odds even further. He looked at the row of white robes facing him. They were all armed, he saw. A few had swords or maces. Most carried clubs and daggers. There might be a few real fighters among them, he thought, but the majority would be nothing more than thugs. He was confident that he, Horace and Will could handle them relatively easily.

'My argument isn't with any of you, either,' he said. 'I want Tennyson, that's all. Any of you who choose to leave now can go freely.'

He saw a few of the white robes exchanging uncertain glances. They'd be Araluans, he thought, people who knew that tangling with two Rangers might not be the best idea in the world. Tennyson's Hibernian followers stood fast.

But before any of his followers could desert him, Tennyson's voice rose in a high-pitched screech.

'Do you think he'll just let you go?' he challenged them. 'He'll hunt you down once you're out of here. There's only one thing to do. We've got them outnumbered! An old man and two boys! Kill them! Kill them!'

And as his voice reached a peak of urgency, the tension broke and the white robes surged forward in a bunch, weapons raised.

Quickly, Halt retreated before their first rush, drawing his saxe to deflect a dagger thrust, then slashing the razor edge across his attacker's forearm. The man yelled in pain and dropped out of the fight, nursing his bloodied arm. But there were others behind him and Halt continued to back away. He had drawn his smaller knife now as well. He blocked a man's sword cut with his saxe, stepped in and rammed the short knife home. Halt saw the man's eyes glaze as his knees slowly gave way. But there was no time to see any more. Another attacker was pressing him and there were two more on his right. He turned to face the new attack.

Then there was space around him as Horace leapt to his aid, his sword flashing in the uncertain light of candles and fire like a giant blazing wheel of light. He cut down three attackers in the space of a few seconds. A fourth staggered away, clutching at the shaft of an arrow that protruded from his chest. Will again, Halt thought.

The white robes drew back to take stock. They had lost nearly a quarter of their number in that first mad rush. Clubs and daggers were no match for Horace's sword and even those among them with swords had no real weapon skill. And the Ranger with the two knives was as fast as a striking snake.

Then one, bolder or angrier than the others, stepped forward, waving them to follow.

'Come on! There's only…'

A deafening BANG! drowned out his words and a vast cloud of brown smoke billowed up right before him. He staggered back in panic. Another loud detonation and another dense cloud of smoke followed as Malcolm hurled a second mudball at the group of men. They fell back, crying out in fear.

Then the first man stopped, shaking his head. The explosion had happened right at his feet, barely a metre away. Yet, apart from a ringing in his ears and the sour smell of the smoke, he was uninjured. The missiles, whatever they were, were harmless.

'They can't hurt you!' he yelled. 'They're just noise and smoke! Come on!'

He led the way forward, but only a few of the others went with him. The rest huddled uncertainly, disoriented by the deafening explosions and the whirling smoke.

Perched on the rocks, Will stood ready to pick off any of the white robes who might pose a threat to Halt and Horace. His instincts cried out for him to scramble down the rocks and join them, but reason told him he would be more use to them up here.

Besides, he could see that the bulk of the white robes were no longer interested in the fight. They were cowed, huddled together in a group, backing slowly away from Halt and Horace. Something rattled against the boulder beside him, then a thin trickle of sand fell from the ceiling of the cavern, lost in the darkness above him. He had noticed this happened with each of the explosions. The mudballs might be harmless, but the noise set up vibrations in the cavern and sent loose rocks and sand falling from the walls and roof.

There was a louder noise of falling rocks now and a small cascade tumbled down from the roof in the centre of the cavern, falling close to the group of dispirited white robes. Will hoped that Malcolm would be a little more circumspect with the explosive balls. The roof seemed to be decidedly unstable. Too much vibration and they could be in trouble. It wouldn't take a lot to…

Where was Tennyson?

The thought struck him out of nowhere. He looked wildly around the cavern. He wasn't with the small group left facing Halt and Horace. He'd been by the altar when Will had last seen him, when he called on his followers to attack. But he…

There! There was a robed figure climbing the far wall, behind the altar. He was nearly six metres from the floor of the cave already. Above Tennyson, Will saw a ledge and the black mouth of another tunnel just a few metres away from the desperately climbing figure. There was no doubt that he was heading for it.

And there was no doubt in Will's mind that the tunnel was an alternative route out of the cavern. In a few more minutes, Tennyson would reach it and he'd be gone.

He nocked an arrow, drew and shot. But the uncertain, flickering firelight, coupled with the roiling brown smoke that filled the cavern, made it almost impossible to shoot accurately. The arrow struck sparks off the rock half a metre above Tennyson, and screeched off into the darkness. Galvanised by the sight and sound of it, Tennyson quickly moved sideways, into the cover of a vertical buttress that protruded from the wall. Will could see only occasional glimpses of him as he continued to climb – not enough to get away an accurate shot. When he reached the ledge, Will would have a second to aim and shoot again. But the flickering light and clouds of smoke would make an accurate shot almost impossible. And if he missed, Tennyson would escape.

He hesitated. Then he was bounding down the rocks to the floor of the cavern, racing across the cleared ground to the boulder where Malcolm was perched, his padded box of mudballs at his feet. Will scrambled up beside him. He had time to register that now there were only three attackers facing Halt and Horace and as he did so, he saw the three men throw down their weapons and call for quarter.

But across the cavern, Tennyson was escaping.

He reached down and grabbed the box of explosive mudballs from Malcolm, glancing into it to see how many there were.

Malcolm had started with a dozen and had used three. Like Will, he had noticed the effect the noise vibrations were having on the cavern and decided it was too risky to continue with them. Besides, Horace and Halt were taking care of things quite admirably, he thought. Now he watched, aghast, as Will seized the box containing nine more mudballs and drew his arm back.

'Will! Don't!' he cried. 'You'll bring down the…'

He got no further. The young Ranger brought his arm forward and sent the box spinning across the cavern. Instinctively, Malcolm fell into a crouch and covered his ears with his hands. The violent movement involved in throwing the box could be enough to rattle the mudballs together and detonate them.

But the box, spinning slowly, sailed across the vast cavern, reaching almost halfway to the altar before it sank to hit the sandy floor. It skipped, bouncing into the air again, then toppled in the air and hit the ground again, this time on one corner.

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