John Flanagan: Halts peril

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John Flanagan Halts peril
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    Halts peril
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John Flanagan


Halts peril

One

There was a raw wind blowing off the small harbour. It carried the salt of the sea with it, and the smell of imminent rain. The lone rider shrugged. Even though it was late summer, it seemed to have been raining constantly over the past week. Perhaps in this country it rained all the time, no matter what the season.

'Summer and winter, nothing but rain,' he said quietly to his horse. Not surprisingly, the horse said nothing.

'Except, of course, when it snows,' the rider continued. 'Presumably, that's so you can tell it's winter.' This time, the horse shook its shaggy mane and vibrated its ears, the way horses do. The rider smiled at it. They were old friends.

'You're a horse of few words, Tug,' Will said. Then, on reflection, he decided that most horses probably were. There had been a time, quite recently, when he had wondered about this habit of his – talking to his horse. Then, mentioning it to Halt over the camp fire one night, he'd discovered it was a common trait among Rangers.

'Of course we talk to them,' the grizzled Ranger had told him. 'Our horses show a lot more commonsense than most people. And besides,' he'd added, a note of seriousness creeping into his voice, 'we rely on our horses. We trust them and they trust us. Talking to them strengthens the special bond between us.'

Will sniffed the air again. There were other smells apparent now, underlying the salt and the rain. There was the smell of tar. Of new rope. Of dried seaweed. But, strangely, there was one smell missing – a smell he would have expected in any seaport along the eastern coast of Hibernia.

There was no smell of fish. No smell of drying nets.

'So what do they do here if they don't fish?' he mused. Aside from the slow clop of his hooves on the uneven cobbles, echoing from the buildings that lined the narrow street, the horse made no answer. But Will thought he already knew. It was why he was here, after all. Port Cael was a smugglers' town.

The streets down by the docks were narrow and winding, in contrast to the wide, well-laid out streets of the rest of the town. There was only an occasional lantern outside a building to light the way. The buildings themselves were mostly two-storeyed, with loading doors set on the second floors, and lifting gantries so that bales and barrels could be brought up from carts below. Warehouses, Will guessed, with storage room for the goods that shipowners smuggled in and out of the port.

He was nearly down to the docks themselves now and in the gap that marked the end of the street he could see the outlines of several small ships, moored to the dock and bobbing nervously on the dying efforts of the choppy waves that managed to force their way in through the harbour mouth.

'Should be around here somewhere,' he said and then he saw it. A single-storey building at the end of the street, with a low-lying thatched roof sweeping down to just above head height. The walls may have been whitewashed at one time but now they were a dirty smudged grey. A fitful yellow light shone through the small windows along the street-side wall and a sign hung creaking in the wind over the low doorway. A seabird of some kind, crudely rendered.

'Could be a heron,' he said. He looked around curiously. The other buildings were all dark and anonymous. Their business was done for the day, whereas in a tavern like the Heron, it was just getting under way.

He dismounted outside the building, absentmindedly patting Tug's neck as he stood there. The little horse regarded the mean-looking tavern, then rolled an eye at his master.

Are you sure you want to go in there?

For a horse of few words, there were times when Tug could express himself with crystal clarity. Will smiled reassuringly at him.

'I'll be fine. I'm a big boy now, you know.'

Tug snorted scornfully. He'd seen the small stableyard beside the inn and he knew he'd be left there. He was always ill at ease when he wasn't on hand to keep his master out of trouble. Will led him through the sagging gate into the stableyard. There was another horse and a tired old mule tethered there. Will didn't bother to tether Tug. He knew his horse would stay there until he returned.

'Wait over there. You'll be out of the wind,' he said, gesturing towards the far wall. Tug looked at him again, shook his head and ambled to the spot Will had indicated.

Just yell if you need me. I'll come running.

For a moment, Will wondered if he were being too fanciful in attributing that thought to his horse. Then he decided not. For a second or two, he entertained an image of Tug bursting through the narrow door into the tavern, shouldering drinkers aside to come to his master's aid. He grinned at the thought, then closed the stableyard gate, lifting it so that it didn't drag on the rough cobblestones. Then he moved to the tavern entrance.

Will was by no means a tall person, but even he felt constrained to stoop a little under the low doorsill. As he opened the door, he was hit by a wall of sensations. Heat. The smell of sweat. Smoke. Spilt, stale ale.

As the wind rushed in through the open door, the lanterns flickered and the peat fire in the grate on the far wall suddenly flared with renewed life. He hesitated, getting his bearings. The smoke and the flickering light from the fire made it even harder to see inside than it had been outside in the dark street.

'Close the door, fool!' a rough voice bellowed and he stepped inside, allowing the door to close behind him. Immediately, the fire and the lantern light steadied. There was a thick pall of smoke from the fire and dozens of pipes. It hung just above head height, trapped by the low thatched roof. Will wondered if it ever had a chance to disperse or whether it just hung there from one day to the next, growing in intensity with each passing evening. Most of the tavern's patrons ignored him but a few unfriendly faces turned towards him, assessing the newcomer.

They saw a slim, slightly built figure, wrapped in a dull grey and green cloak, face concealed beneath a large hood. As they watched, he pushed the hood back and they saw his face was surprisingly youthful. Little more than a boy. Then they took stock of the heavy saxe knife at his belt, with a smaller knife mounted above it, and the massive longbow in his left hand. Over his shoulder, they saw the feathered ends of more than a dozen arrows protruding from the quiver at his back.

The stranger might look like a boy, but he carried a man's weapons. And he did so without any self-consciousness or show, as if he was completely familiar with them.

He looked around the room, nodding to those who had turned to study him. But his gaze passed quickly over them and it was apparent that he offered no threat – and these were men who were well used to gauging potential threats from newcomers. The slight air of tension that had gripped the tavern eased and people went back to their drinking. Will, after a quick inspection of the room, saw no threat to himself and crossed to the rough bar – three heavy, rough-sawn planks laid across two massive casks.

The tavern keeper, a wiry man with a sharp-nosed face, round, prominent ears and a receding hairline that combined to give him a rodent-like look, glanced at him, absentmindedly wiping a tankard with a grubby cloth. Will raised an eyebrow as he looked at it. He'd be willing to bet the cloth was transferring more dirt to the tankard than it was removing.

'Drink?' the tavern keeper asked. He set the tankard down on the bar, as if in preparation to filling it with whatever the stranger might order.

'Not out of that,' Will said evenly, jerking a thumb at the tankard. Ratface shrugged, shoved it aside and produced another from a rack above the bar.

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