When a cult springs up in neighboring Clonmel, promising to quell the recent attacks by lawless marauders, people flock from all over to offer gold in exchange for protection. But Halt is all too familiar with this particular group, and he knows they have a less than charitable agenda. Secrets will be unveiled and battles fought to the death as Will and Horace help Halt in ridding the land of a dangerous enemy.
Perfect for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series, and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire series.
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Copyright © 2010 by John Flanagan.
All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group,
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Flanagan, John ( John Anthony)
To Catherine and Tyler:
SOUTHERN CLONMEL, THE ISLAND OF HIBERNIA.
The farmers had risen at first light, bringing in their cattle for milking, and releasing the sheep and chickens that had been kept overnight in the barn to protect them from nocturnal marauders.
The leader of the bandits crouched among the trees and smiled grimly to himself. Today, the inhabitants of this little group of farms would have more to worry about than animal predators. Today, real danger lurked inside the tree line, concealed from the eyes of the farmers as they went about their routine tasks.
His men had been in position since long before first light. A less experienced leader might have chosen to attack at dawn. Most people thought that was the best time for a surprise attack. But the bandit knew his business. Farmers rose early. They were wide-awake at dawn. They were prepared for unexpected danger, even if it were only a fox or a marauding wolf. And they often had tools ready at hand—axes and spades and scythes—that would serve as makeshift weapons in the event of an attack.
It was better, he knew, to wait until they had finished their early morning tasks and were heading in to breakfast. The sun would be up by then and warm on their backs. They’d be relaxed and a little weary from their labor, and looking forward to the hot meal their wives had waiting for them. Their defenses would be down and that was the best time to attack them.
He saw the nearest pair, who had been repairing a fallen fence rail, stop now and lay their tools down. One called to a group of three a little farther away. He stretched, his hands rubbing his back where the muscles were stiff. The bandit couldn’t make out the reply, but the tone was clear. It was good-humored, amused. Just a typical morning out in the fields.
The bandit leader gave a satisfied nod as he saw the men begin walking to the largest building. The little hamlet was probably a family settlement—mother and father in the big house; their offspring with their families in the smaller houses that had been built nearby. The one big barn served all of the families. He’d heard the high-pitched voices of several children chattering earlier on. A welcoming curl of wood smoke rose from the chimney and he knew that the wives would all be gathered in there, preparing a communal breakfast. He picked up the mouthwatering aroma of bacon frying.
At that moment, the door to the farmhouse opened and the oldest woman emerged. She moved to an iron barrel hoop hanging from a post and beat a rapid tattoo on it with a hardwood stick. The message was clear: Breakfast is ready. Not that the farmers needed telling. They were all on their way by this point.
The bandit reached into his pocket and found a bone whistle. He raised it to his lips, sensing the men closest to him stirring as they saw the movement. Then he blew a loud, piercing blast and rose from concealment, drawing his sword and yelling as he ran forward.
His men followed, charging into the open from three sides around the settlement. They were fierce, terrifying figures, wearing half armor and carrying weapons. Bloodcurdling war cries rose into the morning air as they ran forward.
The farmers were frozen in surprise for a moment. Then one of the younger ones was first to react. He reached for the ax he had just leaned against a water trough. Before he could raise it, an arrow flashed across the clearing and buried itself in his throat. He gave a choking cry and staggered, falling half into the trough. The water rapidly began to turn red with his blood.
“Inside the house! Quickly! Maeve, get the—” the father called. But it was already too late. The first of the raiders was upon him and a sword thrust cut off his words. His face showed surprise, then pain, as he sank to the ground and lay, unmoving.
His killer leaped over the body and shouldered the door of the farmhouse open. It was a mistake. The woman who had rung the breakfast gong was waiting with a pot of freshly boiled water, which she flung in his face.
He screamed in agony and lurched to one side, dropping the bloody sword and throwing his hands up to his face. But the woman didn’t have long to savor her momentary triumph. The raider following him struck swiftly with his sword and cut her down, her body falling across the threshold and preventing those inside from closing the door.
The remaining men outside tried in vain to stave off the attack. But they were fighting with their bare hands and didn’t stand a chance. In rapid order, they were surrounded and cut down by the raiders, without pity or compassion. They were badly outnumbered and their attempts to protect their women and children were to no avail.
The bandit leader stood back a little from the group who surrounded the fallen bodies. He’d seen one of the farmers dart aside and into the barn.
Now he reappeared, his gaze intent on the men surrounding the dead and dying members of his family. He had a long pitchfork in his hands and he raised it as he ran forward.
He never saw the bandit leader. He only felt the searing agony of the sword thrust into his side, underneath his raised arm. He tried to cry out but was unable. He fell facedown.
“You should have run when you had the chance,” the leader said.
Inside the house, three women cowered in the large kitchen as half a dozen men forced their way in.
The women saw the bloodied swords and knew their menfolk were gone. One of them raised her hands in entreaty.
“Mercy,” she pleaded. But there was no mercy that day.
The raiders, oblivious to the splashed blood and sprawled bodies around them, helped themselves hungrily to the platters of hot, sizzling bacon and fresh baked bread that had been laid out for the men’s breakfast.
“ They won’t be needing it,” one said. He added, “And it’s a sin to waste good food.”
The others laughed as they crammed the food into their mouths. But one stood aside, his head cocked, listening. From the adjoining room, he could hear a furtive hacking, scraping sound. He crossed the kitchen and pushed the inner door open with the blade of his sword.
It was dimmer in the bedroom, with no window in the far wall, and his eyes took a second or two to adjust. Then he made out three forms, kneeling by the back wall. A woman, a boy, and a girl, the children about ten years old. The woman was frantically hacking at the wall with a heavy kitchen knife. Now she stopped, looking up in horror at the silhouette that filled the doorway. Strangely, the raider paused and waited as she attacked the wall with new vigor, creating a hole large enough for the children to squeeze through. He watched impassively as she shoved the two wriggling young ones through the exit she’d created.
“Run, Seamus! Run, Molly!” she said.
Then she heard the sound of a footstep and looked up to see the tall figure approaching her. She wondered vaguely why he’d given her time to let the young ones escape. Then she stood and looked the stranger in the eye, facing him calmly.
“The Holy Man warned us you would come,” she said bitterly. “We should have listened.”
He drew his sword back and smiled—an ugly grimace of a smile that was without any vestige of pity.
“Yes. You should have,” he said, and brought the sword down.
In the trees, a figure stood watching the attack. He was tall, with shoulder-length white-gray hair. His eyes were a piercing blue and he wore a dull gray woolen cloak over a white, full-length robe. He watched as two children appeared at the end of the largest house—a boy and a girl. They paused uncertainly, but the men grouped around their dead kinsmen were facing away from them and they remained unseen. The tall man smiled as the boy took the little girl’s hand and led her stooping and running to the tree line at the far side of the clearing.
“Good,” he said, nodding his approval. “Leave a few survivors to spread the word.”
IT WAS TUG, OF COURSE, WHO FIRST SENSED THE PRESENCE OF the other horse and rider.
His ears twitched upward and Will felt, rather than heard, the low rumble that vibrated through the little horse’s barrel-like body. It was not an alarm signal, so Will knew that whoever Tug had sensed, it was someone familiar to him. He leaned forward and patted the shaggy mane.
“Good boy,” he said softly. “Now where are they?”
He already had a fair idea who it would be. And even as he spoke, his guess was confirmed as a bay horse and a tall rider trotted out of the trees some hundred meters ahead of him to wait at the crossroads there. Tug snorted again, tossing his head.
“All right. I can see them.”
He touched Tug lightly with his heels and the horse responded instantly, moving to a canter to close the distance. The bay whinnied a greeting, to which Tug responded.
“Gilan!” Will shouted cheerfully as they came within easy earshot. The tall Ranger waved a hand in reply, grinning as Will and Tug clattered to a stop beside him.
The two Rangers leaned over in their saddles to clasp right hands.
“It’s good to see you,” Gilan said.
“You too. I thought it would be you. Tug let me know there were friends nearby.”
“Not much gets by that shaggy little beast of yours, does it?” Gilan said easily. “I suppose that’s what’s kept you alive these past years.”
“Little?” Will replied. “I’ve noticed that Blaze isn’t exactly a battlehorse.”
In truth, Blaze was a little longer in the leg than the average Ranger horse, and had slightly finer lines. But like all of the breed, Gilan’s bay mare was still considerably smaller than the massive battlehorses that carried the kingdom’s knights into battle.
While the two young Rangers chaffed each other, the horses seemed to be carrying on a similar conversation, with a lot of snorting and head tossing to punctuate the good-natured horsey insults they were undoubtedly swapping. Ranger horses definitely seemed to communicate with each other, and Gilan regarded the two of them curiously.
“Wonder what the devil they’re saying?” he mused.
“I think Tug just commented on how uncomfortable Blaze must be, carrying a spindle-shanked bag of bones like yourself,” Will told him. Gilan opened his mouth to reply in kind, but oddly, at that very moment, Tug nodded his head violently several times, and both horses turned their heads to study Gilan. It was a coincidence, the tall Ranger told himself. And yet it was uncanny how they chose that very moment to do it.
“You know,” he said, “I have a strange feeling that you might be right.”
Will looked back along the road he had just traveled, then down the crossroad, in the opposite direction to the one from which Gilan had emerged.
“Any sign of Halt so far?”
Gilan shook his head. “I’ve been waiting for the best part of two hours, and I haven’t seen him yet. Odd, because he has the shortest distance to travel.”
It was the time of the annual Ranger Gathering, and it had become the custom for the three friends to meet at these crossroads, a few kilometers short of the Gathering Ground, and ride the remaining distance together. When Will had been apprenticed to Halt, he had grown used to meeting Gilan here. That was after Will’s first Gathering, when Gilan had attempted to ambush his old teacher and Will had spoiled the attempt. Since Will had taken over Seacliff Fief and Gilan had been posted to Norgate, they had continued the practice whenever possible.
“Should we wait?” Will said.
Gilan shrugged. “If he’s not here yet, something must have held him up. We might as well ride in and set up camp.” He urged his horse forward with the lightest touch of his heel. Will did likewise and they rode on side by side.
Sometime later, they arrived at the Gathering Ground. It was a relatively open forest area where the undergrowth had been cleared away. The tall trees had been left to provide sheltered spots where the Rangers could pitch their low, one-man tents.
They rode toward their usual spot, calling greetings to other Rangers as they passed. The Corps was a close-knit unit, and most Rangers knew one another by name. Arriving at their spot, the two dismounted and unsaddled their horses, rubbing them down after their long ride. Will took two folding leather buckets and fetched water from the small stream that wandered through the Gathering Ground while Gilan measured out oats for Blaze and Tug. For the next few days, the horses could graze on the lush grass that grew underfoot, but they deserved a treat after their hard work.
And Rangers never begrudged their horses a treat.
They swept the area clear of fallen branches and leaves and then pitched tents. The fireplace stones had been disturbed, possibly by some wandering animal, and Will quickly replaced them.
“I’m beginning to wonder where Halt’s got to,” Gilan said, glancing to the west, where the lowering sun’s light filtered through the trunks of the trees. “He’s certainly taking his time getting here.”
“Maybe he’s not coming,” Will suggested.
Gilan pursed his lips. “Halt miss a Gathering?” he said, disbelief in his tone. “He loves coming to the Gathering each year. And he wouldn’t miss a chance to catch up with you.”
Like Will, Gilan was a former apprentice of Halt’s. But he knew that there was a very special relationship between the grizzled senior Ranger and his young friend—one that went way past the master and apprentice relationship that he shared with Halt. Will was more of a son to Halt.
“No,” he continued, “I can’t think of anything that would keep him away.”
“Well, apparently something has,” a familiar voice behind them interrupted.
Will and Gilan turned quickly to find Crowley standing behind them. The Ranger Commandant was a master of silent movement.
“Crowley!” Gilan said. “Where did you spring from? And how is it I never hear you coming?”
Crowley grinned. The skill was one he was proud of.
“Oh, being able to sneak up on people has its advantages in the political world of Castle Araluen,” he said. “People are always discussing secrets, and you’d be surprised how many snippets I pick up before they realize I’m there.”
The two younger Rangers stood and shook hands with their Commandant. They all sat down, and while Gilan brewed a pot of coffee, Will asked the question that had been on his mind since Crowley’s sudden appearance.
“Is Halt really not coming?”
Crowley nodded. “I received a message from him the day before yesterday. He’s off on the West Coast, chasing down rumors about some new religious cult that’s cropped up. Said he wouldn’t have time to make it back here.”
“A religious cult?” Will asked. “What sort of religious cult?”
The corners of Crowley’s mouth turned down in an expression of distaste. “ The usual sort, I’m afraid.” He glanced at Gilan for confirmation. “You know the type of thing, don’t you, Gil?”
Gilan nodded. “Only too well. ‘Come join our new religion,’ ” he mock quoted. “ ‘Our god is the only true god and he will protect you from the doom that is coming to the world. You will be safe and secure with us. Oh . . . and by the way, would you mind giving us all your valuables for the privilege of being kept safe?’ Is that the sort of thing?” he asked.
Crowley sighed heavily.“That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. They warn people about impending disaster, and all the time, they’re the ones who are planning to cause it.”
Gilan poured three steaming cups of coffee and passed them around.
Crowley watched as the two younger Rangers spooned generous helpings of wild honey into theirs. He shook his head. “Never could get used to the taste of honey in my coffee. Halt and I used to argue over that in our younger days.”
Will grinned.“If you’re Halt’s apprentice, you don’t have a choice. You learn to shoot a bow, throw a knife, move silently and put honey in your coffee.”
“He’s a fine teacher,” Gilan said, sipping his coffee appreciatively. “So did Halt say what this new cult calls itself? They usually come up with some portentous-sounding name,” he added, in an aside to Will.
“He didn’t say,” Crowley said. He seemed to be hesitating over whether to voice his next statement. Then he came to a decision. “He’s worried this might be a new outbreak of the Outsiders.”
The name meant nothing to Will, but he saw Gilan’s head come up.
“The Outsiders?” Gilan said. “I remember that name. It must have been in the second year of my apprenticeship. Didn’t you and Halt go off together to see them on their way?”
Crowley nodded. “Along with Berrigan and several other Rangers.”
“That must have been quite a cult,” Will said, surprise in his voice. There was an old Araluen saying—“One riot, one Ranger”—which meant that it rarely took more than a single Ranger to solve the biggest problems.
“It was,” Crowley agreed. “ They were a very unpleasant bunch of people, and their poison had gone deep into the heart of the countryside. It took us some time to get the better of them. That’s why Halt is so intent on finding out more about this new group. If they’re a recurrence of the Outsiders, we’ll have to act quickly.”
He tossed the dregs of his coffee into the fire and set his cup down.
“But let’s not worry about what might be a problem until we know that it is. In the meantime, we have a Gathering to organize. Gil, I was wondering if you’d give our two final-year apprentices some extra tuition in unseen movement?”
“Of course,” Gilan said. If Crowley was an expert at moving without being heard, Gilan was the Corps’ master at moving without being seen. To a large degree, his skill was dependent upon instinct, but there were always practical tips he could pass on to others.
“And as for you, Will,” Crowley said, “we have three first-years this season. Would you be interested in assessing their progress?”
He saw Will’s attention snap back to the present. He could tell that the young man was still nursing his disappointment over the fact that his former teacher would not be coming. Just as well to give him something to take his mind off it, the older Ranger thought.
“Oh, sorry, Crowley! What was that you said?” Will asked, a little guiltily.
“Would you care to help out assessing our three first-years?” Crowley repeated, and Will nodded hastily.
“Yes, by all means! Sorry. I was just thinking about Halt. I’ve been looking forward to seeing him,” he explained.
“We all have,” Crowley said. “His grumpy face brings a special light to our day. But there’ll be time enough for that later.” He hesitated briefly. “As a matter of fact . . . no, never mind. That’ll keep.”
“What will keep?” Will’s curiosity was aroused now, and Crowley smiled to himself. Curiosity was the sign of a good Ranger. But so was discipline.
“Never mind. It’s something I’ll tell you about when the time is right. For now, I’d appreciate it if you’d coach the boys in archery and oversee a tactical exercise with them.”
“Consider it done.” Will thought for a few seconds, then added, “Do I need to set the tactical exercise?”
Crowley shook his head. “No. We’ve done that. Just see them through solving it. It should amuse you,” he added cryptically. He rose and dusted off the seat of his trousers. “Thanks for the coffee,” he said. “See you at the feast tonight.”
“ALL RIGHT,” WILL TOLD THE THREE BOYS, “LET’S SEE YOU SHOOT. Ten arrows each.”
He indicated three large, standard bull’s-eye-design targets set up seventy-five meters downrange. The three stepped forward to the firing line. A little farther down the line, two senior Rangers were practicing, shooting at targets no bigger than a large dinner platter, set at the one-hundred-and-fifty-meter mark. For a few moments, the three first-year apprentices watched in awe as the two marksmen slammed arrow after arrow into the almost invisible targets.
“Anytime before sunset would be fine,” Will drawled. He had no idea that he was mimicking the dry, mock-weary tone of voice that Halt had used with him when he was first learning the skills of a Ranger.
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” said the nearest of the three boys. They all looked at him, wide-eyed. He sighed.
“Stuart?” he said to the boy who had spoken.
“You don’t call me sir. We’re both Rangers.”
“But . . . ,” began one of the other boys. He was stockily built and had a mass of red hair that flopped untidily over his forehead. Will searched his memory for the boy’s name: Liam, he remembered.
The boy shuffled awkwardly.“But we’re apprentices, and you’re—” He stopped. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say. It was probably something ridiculous like, “But we’re apprentices, and you’re you.”
Because although Will didn’t know it, he was a subject of awe for these boys. He was the legendary Will Treaty, the Ranger who had rescued the King’s daughter from Morgarath’s Wargal army, then protected her when they were kidnapped by raiding Skandians. Then he had trained and led a company of archers in the battle against the Temujai riders. And only the previous year, he had repelled a Scotti invasion on the northern frontier of the kingdom.
These three would look up to any graduate Ranger. But Will Treaty was only a few years older than they were, and so was a subject for hero worship of the highest degree. As a result, they had been somewhat surprised when they met him. They had expected a larger-than-life figure—a hero in classical terms. Instead, they were introduced to a fresh-faced, youthful person with a ready smile and a slim build, who stood a little less than average height. Had Will realized it, he would have been amused and more than a little embarrassed. It was exactly the sort of reaction he was used to seeing in people who met Halt for the first time. Unknown to him, his own reputation was beginning to rival that of his former teacher.
Will may not have comprehended the hero worship these boys felt for him personally. But he did understand the gulf they felt existed between a Ranger and an apprentice. He had felt the same way.
“You’re apprentice Rangers,” he said. “And the important word there is Rangers.” He tapped the silver oakleaf amulet that hung around his neck. “As a wearer of the Silver Oakleaf, I might expect obedience and some level of deference from you. But I do not expect you to call me sir. My name is Will, and that’s what you call me. You’d call my friend Gilan and my former master Halt, if he were here. That’s the Rangers’ way.”
It was a small point, he knew, but an important one. Rangers were a unique breed and on occasion they needed to assert authority over people who were nominally far senior to them in rank. It was important that these boys knew that they might one day need to call upon the power and trust that the King conferred upon his Rangers. All of them—apprentices and graduates alike. The self-confidence they would need to do so was built initially by their sense of equality with their peers in the Ranger Corps.
The three apprentices exchanged glances as they took in what Will had said. He saw their shoulders straighten a little, their chins come up fractionally.
“Yes . . . Will,” said Liam. He nodded to himself, as if trying the word out and liking what he heard. The others echoed the sentiment, nodding in their turn. Will gave them a few moments to savor the sense of confidence, then glanced meaningfully at the sun.
“Well, sunset’s getting closer all the time,” he said to himself. He hid a smile as three arrows slid out of their quivers. A few seconds later, three bows twanged and he heard the familiar scrape-slither as the shots were on their way to the target.
“ Ten shots,” he said. “ Then we’ll see how you’re doing.”
He strolled to a nearby tree and sat beneath it, his back leaning comfortably against the trunk. With his cowl pulled up and his face in shadow, he seemed to be dozing.
But his eyes were moving ceaselessly, missing nothing as he studied every aspect of the three boys’ shooting technique.
For the next two days, Will assessed their skills with the bow, correcting small faults in technique as he did so. Liam had developed a habit of measuring his full draw by touching his right thumb to the corner of his mouth.
“Touch your mouth with your forefinger, not the thumb,” Will told him. “If you use the thumb, your hand tends to twist to the right, and that will throw the arrow off line when you release.”
Liam nodded and made the slight adjustment. Immediately, his accuracy improved—particularly on the longer shots, where the slight change in angle had a greater effect.
Nick, the quietest of the three, was gripping his bow too tightly. He was an intense young man and eager to succeed. Will sensed that was where the viselike grip came from. Nick was allowing his determination to affect the relaxed grip that the bow needed. A tight grip meant the bow often skewed to the left at the moment of release, resulting in a wild, inaccurate shot. Again, Will corrected the fault and set the young man to practice.
Stuart’s technique was sound, without any major faults at this stage. But like the others, his skill would only reach the required Ranger level with hours of practice.
“Practice and more practice,” Will told them. “Remember the old saying: ‘An ordinary archer practices until he gets it right. A Ranger practices . . .’?” He let the phrase hang in the air, waiting for them to finish it off.
“Until he never gets it wrong,” they chorused. He nodded, smiling approval.
“Remember it,” he said.
On the third day, however, there was a respite from the hours of practice with the bow. The previous evening, the boys had received the written outline of the tactical exercise that had been set for them. They had spent the hours between dinner and lights-out going over the problem and forming their first ideas for a solution.
Will had received the details of their assignment at the same time. He shook his head when he read the outline.
Excerpted from "Kings of Clonmel"
Copyright © 2011 John Flanagan.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
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