Halt and Will had been trailing the Wargals for three days. The four heavy-bodied, brutish creatures, foot soldiers of the rebel warlord Morgarath, had been sighted passing through Redmont Fief, heading north. Once word reached the Ranger, he had set out to intercept them, accompanied by his young apprentice.
"Where could they have come from, Halt?" Will asked during one of their short rest stops. "Surely we've got Three Step Pass well and truly bottled up by now."
Three Step Pass provided the only real access between the Kingdom of Araluen and the Mountains of Rain and Night, where Morgarath had his headquarters. Now that the kingdom was preparing for the coming war with Morgarath, a company of infantry and archers had been sent to reinforce the small permanent garrison at the narrow pass until the main army could assemble.
"That's the only place where they can come in sizable numbers," Halt agreed. "But a small party like this could slip into the kingdom by way of the barrier cliffs."
Morgarath's domain was an inhospitable mountain plateau that towered high above the southern reaches of the kingdom. From Three Step Pass in the east, a line of sheer, precipitous cliffs ran roughly due west, forming the border between the plateau and Araluen. As the cliffs swung southwest, they plunged into another obstacle called the Fissure--a huge split in the earth that ran out to the sea, and separated Morgarath's lands from the kingdom of the Celts.
It was these natural fortifications that had kept Araluen, and neighboring Celtica, safe from Morgarath's armies for the past sixteen years. Conversely, they also provided the rebel warlord with protection from Araluen's forces.
"I thought those cliffs were impassable," Will said. Halt allowed himself a grim smile. "Nowhere is ever really impassable. Particularly if you have no respect for how many lives you lose trying to prove the fact. My guess is that they used ropes and grapnels and waited for a moonless night and bad weather. That way, they could slip past the border patrols."
He stood, signifying that their rest stop was at an end. Will rose with him and they moved toward their horses. Halt gave a small grunt as he swung into the saddle. The wound he had suffered in the battle with the two Kalkara still troubled him a little.
"My main concern isn't where they came from," he continued. "It's where they're heading, and what they have in mind."
The words were barely spoken when they heard a shout from somewhere ahead of them, followed by a commotion of grunting and, finally, the clash of weapons.
"And we may be about to find out!" Halt finished.
He urged Abelard into a gallop, controlling the horse with his knees as his hands effortlessly selected an arrow and nocked it to the string of his massive longbow. Will scrambled into Tug's saddle and galloped after him. He couldn't match Halt's hands-free riding skill. He needed his right hand for the reins as he held his own bow ready in his left.
They were riding through sparse woodland, leaving it to the surefooted Ranger horses to pick the best route. Suddenly, they burst clear of the trees into a wide meadow. Abelard, under his rider's urging, slid to a stop, Tug following suit beside him. Dropping the reins to Tug's neck, Will instinctively reached for an arrow from his quiver and nocked it ready.
A large fig tree grew in the middle of the cleared ground. At the base of it there was a small camp. A wisp of smoke still curled from the fireplace and a pack and blanket roll lay beside it. The four Wargals they had been tracking surrounded a single man, who had his back to the tree. For the moment his long sword held them at bay, but the Wargals were making small feinting movements toward him, trying to find an advantage. They were armed with short swords and axes and one carried a heavy iron spear.
Will drew in a sharp breath at the sight of the creatures. After following their trail for so long, it was a shock to come upon them so suddenly in plain sight. Bearlike in build, they had long muzzles and massive yellow canine fangs, exposed now as they snarled at their prey. They were covered in shaggy fur and wore black leather armor. The man was dressed similarly and his voice cracked in fear as he repelled their tentative attacks.
"Stand back! I'm on a mission for Lord Morgarath. Stand back, I order you! I order you in Lord Morgarath's name!"
Halt nudged Abelard around, allowing him room to draw the arrow he had ready on the string.
"Drop your weapons! All of you!" he shouted. Five pairs of eyes swung toward him as the four Wargals and their prey turned in surprise. The Wargal with the spear recovered first. Realizing that the swordsman was distracted, he darted forward and ran the spear into his body. A second later, Halt's arrow buried itself in the Wargal's heart and he fell dead beside his stricken prey. As the swordsman sank to his knees, the other Wargals charged at the two Rangers.
Shambling and bearlike as they might be, they covered ground with incredible speed.
Halt's second shot dropped the left-hand Wargal. Will fired at the one on the right and realized instantly that he had misjudged the brute's speed. The arrow hissed through the space where the Wargal had been a second before. His hand flew to his quiver for another arrow and he heard a hoarse grunt of pain as Halt's third shot buried itself in the chest of the middle creature. Then Will loosed his second arrow at the surviving Wargal, now terrifyingly close.
Panicked by those savage eyes and yellow fangs, he snatched as he released the arrow and knew it would fly wide.
As the Wargal snarled in triumph, Tug came to his master's aid. The little horse reared and lashed out with his front hooves at the horrific creature in front of him. Unexpectedly, he also danced forward a few steps, toward the threat, rather than retreating. Will, caught by surprise, clung to the pommel of the saddle.
The Wargal was equally surprised. Like all its kind, it had a deep-seated instinctive fear of horses--a fear born at the Battle of Hackham Heath sixteen years ago, where Morgarath's first Wargal army had been decimated by Araluen cavalry. It hesitated now for a fatal second, stepping back before those flashing hooves.
Halt's fourth arrow took it in the throat. At such short range, the arrow tore clean through. With a final grunting shriek, the Wargal fell dead on the grass.
White-faced, Will slid to the ground, his knees nearly giving way beneath him. He clung to Tug's side to stay upright. Halt swung down quickly and moved to the boy's side. His arm went around him.
"It's all right, Will." His deep voice cut through the fear that filled Will's mind. "It's over now."
But Will shook his head, horrified by the rapid train of events.
"Halt, I missed . . . twice! I panicked and I missed!" He felt a deep sense of shame that he had let his teacher down so badly. Halt's arm tightened around him and he looked up at the bearded face and the dark, deep-set eyes.
"There's a big difference between shooting at a target and shooting at a charging Wargal. A target isn't usually trying to kill you." Halt added the last few words in a more gentle tone. He could see that Will was in shock. And no wonder, he thought grimly.
"But . . . I missed . . ."
"And next time you won't. Now you know it's better to fire one good shot than two hurried ones," Halt said firmly. Then he took Will's arm and turned him toward the campsite under the fig tree. "Let's see what we have here," he said, putting an end to the subject.
The black-clad man and the Wargal lay dead beside one another. Halt knelt beside the man and turned him over, whistling softly in surprise.
"Dirk Reacher," he said, half to himself. "He's the last person I would have expected to see here."
"You know him?" Will asked. His insatiable curiosity was already helping him to put the horror of the previous few minutes to one side, as Halt had known it would.
"I chased him out of the kingdom five or six years ago," the Ranger told him. "He was a coward and a murderer. He deserted from the army and found a place with Morgarath." He paused. "Morgarath seems to specialize in recruiting people like him. But what was he doing here . . . ?"
"He said he was on a mission for Morgarath," Will suggested, but Halt shook his head.
"Unlikely. The Wargals were chasing him and only Morgarath could have ordered them to do that, which he'd hardly do if Reacher really was working for him. My guess is that he was deserting again. He'd run out on Morgarath and the Wargals were sent after him."
"Why?" Will asked. "Why desert?"
Halt shrugged. "There's a war coming. People like Dirk try to avoid that sort of unpleasantness."
He reached for the pack that lay by the campfire and began to rummage through it.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?" Will asked. Halt frowned as he grew tired of looking through the pack and dumped its contents onto the ground instead.
"Well, it strikes me that if he were deserting Morgarath and coming back to Araluen, he'd have to bring something to bargain for his freedom. So . . ." His voice died away as he reached for a carefully folded parchment among the spare clothes and eating utensils. He scanned it quickly. One eyebrow rose slightly. After almost a year with the grizzled Ranger, Will knew that was the equivalent of a shout of astonishment. He also knew that if he interrupted Halt before he had finished reading, his mentor would simply ignore him. He waited until Halt folded the parchment, stood slowly and looked at his apprentice, seeing the question in the boy's eyes.
"Is it important?" Will asked.
"Oh, you could say so," Halt told him. "We appear to have stumbled on Morgarath's battle plans for the coming war. I think we'd better get them back to Redmont."
He whistled softly and Abelard and Tug trotted to where their masters waited.
From the trees several hundred meters away, carefully downwind so that the Ranger horses would catch no scent of an intruder, unfriendly eyes were upon them. Their owner watched as the two Rangers rode away from the scene of the small battle. Then he turned south, toward the cliffs.
It was time to report to Morgarath. His plan had been successful.