John Flanagan

Halts peril


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.

'Suit yourself. Ale or ouisgeah?'

Ouisgeah, Will knew, was the strong malt spirit they distilled and drank in Hibernia. In a tavern like this, it might be more suitable for stripping rust than drinking.

'I'd like coffee,' he said, noticing the battered pot by the fire at one end of the bar.

'I've got ale or ouisgeah. Take your pick.' Ratface was becoming more peremptory. Will gestured towards the coffee pot. The tavern keeper shook his head.

'None made,' he said. 'I'm not making a new pot just for you.'

'But he's drinking coffee,' Will said, nodding to one side.

It was inevitable that the tavern keeper should glance that way, to see who he was talking about. The moment his eyes left Will, he felt an iron grip at the front of his shirt collar, twisting it into a knot that choked him and at the same time dragged him forward, off balance, over the bar. The stranger's eyes were suddenly very close. He no longer looked boyish. The eyes were dark brown, almost black in this dim light, and the tavern keeper read danger there. A lot of danger. He heard a soft whisper of steel and, glancing down past the fist that held him so tightly, he glimpsed the heavy, gleaming blade of the saxe knife as the stranger laid it on the bar between them.

Choking, he glanced around for possible help. But there was nobody else at the bar and none of the customers at the tables had noticed what was going on.

'Aach… mach co'hee,' he choked.

The tension on his collar eased and the stranger said softly, 'What was that?'

'I'll… make… coffee,' he repeated, gasping for breath.

The stranger smiled. It was a pleasant smile but the tavern keeper noticed that it never reached those dark eyes.

'Then that's wonderful. I'll wait here.' Will released his grip on the tavern keeper's shirt front, allowing him to slide back over the bar and regain his balance. He tapped the hilt of the saxe knife. 'Don't change your mind, will you?'

There was a large kettle by the fire grate, supported on a swivelling iron arm that moved it in and out of the flames. The tavern keeper swung it into the heat now and busied himself with the coffee pot, measuring grounds into it, then pouring the now boiling water over it. The rich smell of coffee filled the air, for a moment supplanting the less pleasant odours that Will had noticed when he entered.

The tavern keeper placed the pot in front of Will, then produced a mug from behind the bar. He swiped at it with his ever-present cloth. Will frowned, wiped it carefully with a corner of his cloak and poured the coffee.

'I'll have sugar if you've got it,' he said. 'Honey if not.'

'I've got sugar.' The tavern keeper turned away to get the bowl and a brass spoon. When he turned back to the stranger, he started. There was a heavy gold coin gleaming on the bar between them. It represented more than he would make in an evening's trading and he hesitated to reach for it. After all, that saxe knife was still on the bar close to the stranger's hand.

'Two penn'orth for the coffee is all,' he said carefully.

Will nodded and reached into his purse, selecting two copper coins and dropping them onto the bar. 'That's more than fair. You make good coffee,' he added inconsequentially.

The tavern keeper nodded and swallowed, still unsure. Cautiously, he swept the two copper coins off the bar, watching carefully for any sign of dissent from the enigmatic stranger. For a moment, he felt vaguely ashamed that he had been so overborne by someone so young. But another look at those eyes and the youth's weapons and he dismissed the thought. He was a tavern keeper. His notion of violence amounted to no more than using a cudgel on the heads of customers so affected by alcohol they could barely stand – and that was usually from behind.

He pocketed the coins and glanced hesitantly at the large gold coin, still winking at him in the lantern light. He coughed. The stranger raised an eyebrow.

'Was there something?'

Withdrawing his hands behind his back so that there could be no misunderstanding, no thought that he was trying to appropriate the gold piece, the tavern keeper inclined his head towards it several times.

'The… gold. I'm wondering… is it… for anything at all now?'

The stranger smiled. Again, the smile never reached his eyes.

'Well, yes it is, as a matter of fact. It's for information.'

And now the tight feeling in the tavern keeper's stomach seemed to ease right out of him. This was something he understood, particularly in this neighbourhood. People often paid for information in Port Cael. And usually, they didn't harm the people who gave it to them.

'Information, is it?' he asked, allowing himself a smile. 'Well, this is the place to ask and I'm your man to be asking. What is it you want to know, your honour?'

'I want to know whether the Black O'Malley has been in this evening,' the young man said.

And suddenly, that tight feeling was right back. Two 'O'Malley, is it? And why are you looking for him?' the tavern keeper asked. Those dark eyes came up to meet his again, boring into them. The message in them was clear. The stranger's hand moved to cover the gold coin. But for the moment he made no move to pick it up and remove it from the bar.

'Well now,' the stranger said quietly, 'I was wondering whose gold coin this was? Did you put it here, by any chance?' Before the tavern keeper could reply, he'd continued. 'No. I don't recall that happening. As I recall it, I was the one put it here, in return for information. Is that how you see it?'

The tavern keeper cleared his throat nervously. The young man's voice was calm and low-pitched, but no less menacing for the fact.

'Yes. That's right,' he replied.

The stranger nodded several times, as if considering his answer. 'And correct me if I'm wrong, but usually the one who's paying the piper is the one who calls the tune. Or in this case, asks the questions. Would you see it that way too?'

For a second, Will wondered if he wasn't overdoing the air of quiet menace. Then he discarded the thought. With a person like this, whose life probably centred around informing and double dealing, he needed to assert a level of authority. And the only form of authority this sharp-featured toady would understand would be based on fear. Unless Will managed to dominate him, the tavern keeper was liable to tell him any line of lies that came to mind.

'Yes, sir. That's how I see it.'

The 'sir' was a good start, Will thought. Respectful, without being too ingratiating. He smiled again.

'So unless you'd like to match my coin with one of your own, let's keep it that I'm asking and you're answering.'

His hand slid away from the gold coin once more, leaving it gleaming dully on the rough surface of the bar.

'The Black O'Malley. Is he in tonight?'

Ratface allowed his gaze to slide around the tavern, although he already knew the answer. He cleared his throat again. Strange how the presence of this young man seemed to leave it dry.

'No, sir. Not yet. He's usually in a little later than this.'

'Then I'll wait,' Will said. He glanced around and his gaze fell on a small table set away from the other patrons. It was in a corner, a suitably unobtrusive spot, and it would be out of the line of vision of anyone entering the tavern.

'I'll wait there. When O'Malley arrives, you won't say anything to him about me. And you won't look at me. But you'll tug on your ear three times to let me know he's here. Is that clear?'