Table of Contents
Copyright © 2010 by John Flanagan.
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Published simultaneously in Canada.
Text set in Adobe Jenson.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Flanagan, John ( John Anthony)
The kings of Clonmel / John Flanagan.—1st American ed.
p. cm.—(Ranger’s apprentice ; bk. 8)
Summary: Halt, Will, and Horace set out for Hibernia, where a quasi-religious group, the Outsiders,
is sowing confusion and sedition, and they find that secrets from Halt’s past may hold
the key to restoring order before the last kingdom is undermined.
[1. Insurgency—Fiction. 2. Kings, queens, rulers, etc.—Fiction. 3. Cults—Fiction. 4. War—Fiction.
5. Fantasy.] I. Title.
eISBN : 978-1-101-18772-2
To Catherine and Tyler:
thanks for everything.
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.