John Flanagan: Erak_s ransom

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John Flanagan Erak_s ransom
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    Erak_s ransom
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'I really don't give a fig if they don't forgive me,' he said. 'Over the years, most of them have gone out of their way to avoid me.'

Lady Pauline leaned forward and touched his arm gently.

'Halt, it'll be the high point in their lives for some of them. After all, nothing much happens in the country. Would you really want to deprive them of a little bit of colour and glamour in their humdrum existence? I know I wouldn't.'

He sighed, realising she was right. He also realised that he might have been protesting a little too much. He was beginning to sense that the prospect of a big formal wedding might not be as objectionable to Pauline as it was to him. He couldn't understand the sentiment but if that was what she wanted, that was what he would give her.

'No. You're right, of course.'

'Now,' she continued, recognising that he had capitulated and grateful to him for the fact, 'have you chosen a best man?'

'Will, of course,' he said promptly.

'Not Crowley? He's your oldest friend.' She was aware, if he was not, that assigning official roles was a perilous matter.

Halt frowned. 'True. But Will is special. He's more like a son to me, after all.'

'Of course. But we'll have to find a role for Crowley.'

'He could give the bride away,' Halt suggested. Pauline considered, chewing on the end of her quill.

'I think Baron Arald assumes he'll be doing that. Hmmm. Tricky.' She thought for a few moments, then came to a decision. 'Crowley can give me away. Arald can perform the wedding. That's solved!' She made two more notes on her growing list.

In Araluen, marriage was a state ceremony, not a religious one. It was normal for the senior official present to perform the ritual. Halt cleared his throat, making a great effort to keep a straight face.

'Wouldn't protocol,' he said with mock concern, 'demand that the King do that?'

A frown creased Pauline's elegant features as she realised he was right. He was also altogether too pleased with himself. The innocent look in his eyes confirmed it.

'Damn!' she said. It didn't seem strong enough so she borrowed his oath, 'Gorlog's teeth!' She drummed her fingers on the desk top in annoyance.

'That's beard,' Halt said mildly.

'He's got both, so I hear,' she said. Then inspiration struck her. 'I know. We'll invite King Duncan to be Patron-Sponsor of the event. That should do the trick!'

'What does a Patron-Sponsor do?' Halt asked and she shrugged the question aside.

'Not sure. I only just invented the position. But Duncan won't know. His grasp of protocol is nearly as weak as yours. It'll be a sort of glorified Master of Ceremonies for the whole thing. It'll lend a certain… royal cachet to our union. Hmm, that's rather good,' she muttered. 'I'll write that down.'

She did so, making a mental note that she'd have to square the King's Chamberlain with the concept of Patron-Sponsor. But Lord Anthony was an old friend.

'Now, who else? Have we missed anybody?'

'Horace?' Halt suggested. She nodded immediately. 'We'll make him an usher,' she said, writing furiously. 'Is that another one you just made up?' he asked and she looked up, offended.

'Of course not. It's official. You know: "Friend of the bride? Friend of the groom? Sit to the left. Sit to the right." An usher.'

Halt frowned. 'I keep thinking we're missing someone… '

Pauline slapped her hand against her forehead. 'Gilan!' she said. 'He'll be awfully hurt if we don't give him an official. role.'

Halt clicked his teeth in annoyance. She was right. Gilan was tall, cheerful, loyal – and Halt's previous apprentice. 'They would have to find something for him.

'Can I have two best men?' he suggested.

'No. But you can have an extra groomsman. Good thinking! That means I'll have to find an extra bridesmaid. I was just going to have Alyss.'

'Well,' said Halt, pleased that he was becoming better at this, 'that'll give Cassandra something to do.'

He was surprised to see a quick frown flash across Pauline's countenance. She had a shrewd idea that Alyss, her assistant, would be less than thrilled to have Princess Cassandra at the wedding table with her and Will. Better if she were kept at a distance for the evening, on the Royal Patron-Sponsor's table.

'No-o-o,' she said at length. 'We can't have that. As a royal princess, she'd take focus away from the bride.' 'Well, we definitely can't have that!' Halt agreed.

'Perhaps young Jenny, if Chubb can spare her. After all, she and Alyss and Will were all raised together.'

She made yet another note, finding a fresh sheet of paper to do so. The list was growing. So much to get organised. A thought struck her. Without looking up, she said:

'You will be getting a haircut, won't you?'

Halt ran his hand through his hair once more. It was getting a little long, he thought.

'I'll give it a trim,' he said, his hand dropping unconsciously to the hilt of his saxe knife. This time, Pauline did look up from her writing.

'You'll get a haircut,' she said and Halt realised that certain freedoms he had taken for granted over the years might be his no more.

'I'll get a haircut,' he agreed.

Chapter 4

'Take in the sail,' said Erak, Oberjarl of Skandia and, presently, captain of the raiding ship Wolfwind. Svengal and a small party of sail handlers were standing ready beside the mast. At his order, they released the halyards that kept the massive yardarm in position and began to lower it to the deck. As the big square sail collapsed, no longer held in position to capture the onshore breeze three other men gathered it quickly into neat folds so it could be stowed in the for'ard sail locker.

The yard itself was detached from the mast and swung carefully, avoiding any excess clattering or bumping, into its fore and aft stowage position along the raised decking between the twin rows of rowers' benches. Normally, the Skandians would not have been so careful about keeping noise to a minimum during such an operation. But this wasn't a normal occasion. This was a raid.

With the last of the way still on the ship, Erak swung the bow to port, running parallel to the low-lying coastline of Arrida, barely thirty metres away.

'Out oars,' he said, in the same low voice. Then he added, 'And be quiet about it, for Torrak's sake.'

One of the useful aspects about the Skandian religion, he mused, was the multiplicity of gods, demigods and minor demons one could call upon to emphasise an order. With almost exaggerated care, the burly rowing crew unstowed their oars and laid them into the holes that lined both sides of the ship. There was nothing but a few muted clunks and rattles to mark the movement but, even so, Erak gritted his teeth. Although it was usually a deserted part of the Arridi coast, there was always the chance that a solitary shepherd or rider might be within earshot, ready to pass word that a Skandian wolfship was slipping quietly through the pre-dawn darkness towards the town of Al Shabah.

There was a risk involved in coming in so close to the shoreline, he knew. But it was the lesser of two risks. They'd kept a steady south-east course through the night, driven by the unwavering northerly breeze that blew towards the coast at this time of year. Borne along by the wind, Erak had sailed in close to the land, inside a huge bay that took a bite out of the coastline. On the eastern end of the bay, on a raised promontory, stood the township of Al Shabah. By placing his ship inside the bay, and inland of the spot where the town stood, Erak knew he would be screened by the dark land mass behind him. Also, as the sun slowly rose, which it would be doing in about another forty minutes, his ship would still be in darkness, while the promontory and town, to the east of his position, would be illuminated.

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