John Flanagan: The Burning Bridge

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John Flanagan The Burning Bridge
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    The Burning Bridge
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"Come on!" he said. "Do it as if you mean it!"

Horace took a deep breath and swung a full-blooded roundhouse stroke at Gilan.

It was like poetry, Will thought. Like dancing. Like the movement of running water over smooth rocks. Gilan's sword, seemingly propelled only by his fingers and wrist, swung in a flashing arc to intercept Horace's blow. There was a ring of steel and Horace stopped, surprised. The parry had jarred his hand through to the elbow. Gilan raised his eyebrows at him.

"That's better," he said. "Try again."

And Horace did. Backhands, overhead cuts, round arm swings.

Each time, Gilan's sword flicked into position to block the stroke with a resounding clash. As they continued, Horace swung harder and faster. Sweat broke out on his forehead and soon his shirt was soaked. Now he had no thought of trying not to hurt Gilan. He cut and slashed freely, trying to break through that impenetrable defense.

Finally, as Horace's breath was coming in ragged gasps, Gilan changed from the blocking movement that had been so effective against Horace's strongest blows. His sword clashed against Horace's, then whipped around in a small, circular motion so that his blade was on top. Then, with a slithering clash, he ran his blade down Horace's, forcing the apprentice's sword point down to the ground. As the point touched the damp earth, Gilan swiftly put one booted foot on it to hold it there.

"Right, that'll do," he said calmly. Yet his eyes were riveted on Horace's, making sure the boy knew that the practice session was over. Sometimes, Gilan knew, in the heat of the moment, the losing swordsman could try for just one more cut-at a time when his opponent had assumed the fight was over.

And then, all too often, it was.

He saw now that Horace was aware. He stepped back lightly from him, moving quickly out of the reach of the sword.

"Not bad," said Gilan approvingly. Horace, mortified, let his sword drop to the turf.

"Not bad?" he exclaimed. "It was terrible! I never once looked like:" He hesitated. Somehow, it didn't seem polite to admit that for the last three or four minutes, he'd been trying to hack Gilan's head from his shoulders. He finally managed to compromise by saying: "I never once managed to break through your guard."

"Well," Gilan said modestly, "I have done this sort of thing before, you know."

"Yes," panted Horace. "But you're a Ranger. Everyone knows Rangers don't use swords."

"Apparently, this one does," said Will, grinning. Horace, to his credit, smiled wearily in return.

"You can say that again." He turned respectfully to Gilan. "May I ask where you learned your swordsmanship, sir? I've never seen anything like it."

Gilan shook his head in mock reproof. "There you go again with the 'sir,'" he said. Then, in answer: "My Swordmaster was an old man. A northerner named MacNeil."

"MacNeil!" Horace whispered in awe. "You don't mean the MacNeil? MacNeil of Bannock?"

Gilan nodded. "He's the one," he replied. "You've heard of him then?"

Horace nodded reverently. "Who hasn't heard of MacNeil?"

And at that stage, Will, tired of not knowing what was going on, decided to speak up.

"Well, I haven't, for one," he said. "But I'll make tea if anyone chooses to tell me about him."


"S O TELL ME ABOUT THIS N EIL PERSON," SAID W ILL, AS THE three of them settled comfortably by the fire, steaming mugs of herb tea warming their cupped hands.

"MacNeil," Horace corrected him. "He's a legend."

"Oh, he's real enough," said Gilan. "I should know. I practiced under him for five years. I started when I was eleven, then, at fourteen, I was apprenticed to Halt. But he always gave me leave of absence to continue my work with the Swordmaster."

"But why did you continue to learn the sword after you started training as a Ranger?" Horace asked.

Gilan shrugged. "Maybe people thought it was a shame to waste all that early training. I certainly wanted to continue, and my father is Sir David of Caraway Fief, so I suppose I was given some leeway in the matter."

Horace sat up a little straighter at the mention of the name.

"Battlemaster David?" he said, obviously more than a little impressed. "The new supreme commander?"

Gilan nodded, smiling at the boy's enthusiasm. "The same," he agreed. Then, seeing that Will was still in the dark, he explained further: "My father has been appointed supreme commander of the King's armies, since Lord Northolt was murdered. He commanded the cavalry at the Battle of Hackham Heath."

Will's eyes widened. "When Morgarath was defeated and driven into the mountains?"

Both Horace and Gilan nodded. Horace continued the explanation enthusiastically.

"Sir Rodney says his coordination of the cavalry with flanking archers in the final stage of the battle is a classic of its kind. He still teaches it as an example of perfect tactics. No wonder your father was chosen to replace Lord Northolt."

Will realized that the conversation had moved away from its original gambit.

"So what did your father have to do with this MacNeil character?" he asked, returning to the subject.

"Well," said Gilan, "my father was a former pupil as well. It was only natural that MacNeil should gravitate to his Battleschool, wasn't it?"

"I suppose so," Will agreed.

"And it was only natural that I should come under his tutelage as soon as I could swing a sword. After all, I was the Battlemaster's son."

"So how was it that you became a Ranger?" Horace asked. "Weren't you accepted as a knight?"

Both Rangers looked at him quizzically, somewhat amused by his assumption that a person only became a Ranger after failing to become a knight or a warrior. In truth, it was only a short time since Will had felt the same way, but now he conveniently overlooked the fact. Horace became aware of the extended lull in the conversation, then of the looks they were giving him. All of a sudden, he realized his gaffe, and tried to recover.

"I mean:you know. Well, most of us want to be knights, don't we?"

Will and Gilan exchanged glances. Gilan raised an eyebrow. Horace blundered on.

"I mean:no offense or anything:but everyone I know wants to be a warrior." His embarrassment lessened as he pointed a forefinger at Will. "You did yourself, Will! I remember when we were kids, you used to always say you were going to Battleschool and you'd become a famous knight!"

Now it was Will's turn to feel uncomfortable. "And you always sneered at me, didn't you, and said I'd be too small?" he said.

"Well, you were!" said Horace, with some heat.

"Is that right?" Will replied angrily. "Well, does it occur to you that maybe Halt had already spoken to Sir Rodney and said he wanted me as an apprentice? And that's the reason why I wasn't selected for Battleschool? Has that ever occurred to you?"

Gilan interrupted at this point, gently stopping the argument before it got any further out of hand.

"I think that's enough of childhood squabbles," he said firmly. Both boys, each ready with another verbal barb, subsided a little awkwardly.

"Oh:yes. Right," mumbled Will. "Sorry."

Horace nodded several times, embarrassed at the petty scene that had just occurred. "Me too," he said. Then, curiosity piqued, he added: "Is that how it happened, Will? Did Halt tell Sir Rodney not to pick you because he wanted you for a Ranger?"

Will dropped his gaze and picked at a loose thread on his shirt.

"Well:not exactly," he said, then admitted, "and you're right. I always did want to be a knight when I was a kid." Then, turning quickly to Gilan, he added, "But I wouldn't change now, not for anything!"

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