Ulf laughed. “I could have if I wanted to. She was overwhelmed by my devilish good looks.”
“Devilish good looks? You’re as ugly as a mange-ridden monkey,” Wulf told him. But his brother was already shaking his head.
“It’s odd that someone as unattractive as yourself would say that,” he replied. “That was why she chose to sit with you when she planned to make me jealous. She chose the most unattractive person she could see.”
“Then obviously,” Wulf retorted, “she couldn’t see you.”
Of course, what made this discussion puzzling for the rest of the crew was that Ulf and Wulf were identical in every respect. For one of them to call the other ugly was for him to call himself ugly as well. But they never seemed to grasp that fact.
As they continued speaking, their voices, at first lowered, rose in volume so that the entire crew could listen to their meaningless drivel. Hal decided that enough was enough.
“Ingvar?” he called.
The massively built boy was sitting forward of the mast, leaning back against it, his long legs splayed out on the deck before him. He turned and peered back toward the steering position.
“Would you say that sailing down a river counts the same as being at sea?”
The rules of the ship were that if the twins carried on one of their idiotic arguments at sea, Ingvar was within his rights to throw one of them overboard. In fact, some of the crew felt, he was obliged to throw one overboard. Usually, a reference to this fact was enough to stop the mindless discussions they enjoyed so much.
Ingvar shrugged. “Eh? Oh, I don’t know. I suppose so.”
His voice was distracted and flat. Lydia, a few meters away, noticed this and turned to look at him, frowning. Hal mirrored the expression. Usually Ingvar was good tempered and cheerful. Now he sounded listless and bored. Hal wondered if something was on the big boy’s mind.
Ulf and Wulf fell instantly silent. These days, they were never quite sure how much rope Hal would give them before he ordered the huge Ingvar to toss one or the other, or even both, overboard. Discretion was the better part of valor in such a case.
Hal noted that they had stopped arguing, and he nodded in Ingvar’s direction. But the young giant wasn’t looking his way anymore. He had resumed his seat against the mast, and Hal heard him give vent to a loud sigh. Hal looked at Stig, who was also watching Ingvar curiously.
“Have you noticed Ingvar’s been acting strangely for the past few days?” Hal asked his first mate.
Stig nodded, a slightly worried look on his features. “Something definitely seems to be on his mind. I’ve been wondering . . .”
Whatever it was that he had been wondering was forgotten as the ship swept past a high bluff. In the near distance, set among tailored and carefully tended parkland, stood the majestic, beautiful Castle Araluen, a mass of graceful spires, soaring turrets, flying buttresses and fluttering pennants.
“Gorlog’s earwax!” Jesper said. “Will you take a look at that!”
The castle stood on rising ground half a kilometer from the river. It was surrounded by an area of open ground. In the intervening space was a narrow belt of forest—naturally occurring trees of a darker, wilder green, rather than the carefully planted and positioned ones that surrounded the castle.
The castle itself glittered golden in the sunlight. It was huge, but its size did nothing to diminish the grace and beauty of the building. Quite simply, it was like nothing the crew of the Heron had ever seen. They stood transfixed, staring at the castle with something approaching awe.
“It’s amazing,” Stefan said quietly, and the others murmured agreement—all except Ingvar.
“What is it? What are you all talking about?” he asked, the irritation obvious in his tone. Lydia turned to him and placed her hand on his arm in a gesture of apology.
“It’s Castle Araluen,” she explained. “It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s huge, but so graceful, and it gleams in the sun and there are all these colorful flags and pennants and—”
She stepped back in surprise as Ingvar shook her hand from his arm and scowled out in the direction of the castle. To him, it was nothing but a blur. In fact, he couldn’t even be sure that the blur he was he was looking at was the castle.
“All right. You’ve made your point,” he said brusquely. “It’s beautiful. I suppose I should be mightily impressed.”
For a moment, Lydia was too shocked to reply. This was so unlike Ingvar—gentle, good-natured, helpful Ingvar. She looked around uncertainly, to see if the others in the crew agreed with her. She caught Hal’s eye and the skirl shook his head in a warning gesture. He thought he was beginning to understand the reason for Ingvar’s recent depression.
“Of course. Forget I spoke,” she said.
Ingvar snorted disdainfully. “If we must,” he said, and moved forward to stand alone by the covered shape of the Mangler.
An awkward silence settled over the small craft, eventually broken by Thorn.
“Personally,” he said, “I don’t find it so impressive. It’s not a patch on Erak’s Great Hall.”
Stig let out a snort of laughter. “Erak’s Great Hall?” he repeated. “That’s nothing more than a log shanty compared to this!”
And he was right. Erak’s Hall was an impressive building by Hallasholm standards, but compared to this vision of wonder, it was little more than a log cabin.
Thorn refused to give ground. “Look at it!” he said scornfully. “All towers and flags and fancy folderol! Imagine what it takes to heat it in winter! At least the Great Hall only needs one big fireplace.”
“And it’s drafty and smoky with it,” Edvin said.
“But think of the cost of heating that . . . pile of masonry,” Thorn persisted.
Hal smiled quietly to himself. Thorn’s interjection had taken the crew’s minds off the awkward scene between Ingvar and Lydia. It wasn’t the first time the old one-armed warrior had done something like this. The young captain realized that he could learn a lot in man management from his shabby friend.
“I imagine Duncan can afford the heating bills,” Hal said mildly. “He is a king, after all. Kings usually have a pile of money stored away.”
“Hummph!” Thorn sniffed. “Provided by their long-suffering subjects, no doubt.”
“Well, you pay taxes to Erak,” Stig pointed out.
Thorn gave him a withering look. “Not if I can avoid it,” he said in an undertone.
The discussion could have continued indefinitely, but Stefan, standing on the bulwark for’ard of the mast, pointed to the bank.
“There’s a landing stage there, Hal—and a crowd ready to welcome us.”
Hal assessed the position of the substantial wooden jetty, then glanced quickly at the wind telltale on top of the boom. They’d be heading directly into the wind as they steered toward the jetty.
“We’ll go in under oars,” he decided. Then, raising his voice slightly, he called, “Down sail. Stow the boom. Man the oars.”
The crew hurried to obey his orders. Jesper and Edvin cast loose the sheets while the twins brought the mast and sail sliding down to the deck. The four of them quickly bundled the sail up and stowed mast and sail along the line of the ship. Then they hurried to their rowing positions, sliding their white oak oars out through the rowlocks.
Stig and the others were already in position, Stefan having slipped down from the rail and dropped onto his rowing bench. Thorn and Lydia stood close by Hal at the steering platform. Ingvar, Hal noticed, remained in the bow, staring moodily across the river. The young captain shrugged. Ingvar usually didn’t take an oar for ordinary maneuvers. His massive strength tended to un
balance the thrust on the ship.
“Ready?” called Stig, and the six oars rose slightly in preparation.
“Stroke!” he called and the oars went back, then dipped into the placid surface of the river. As the rowers heaved on their oars, Hal felt the ship drive forward, and the tiller came alive in his hand. He swung the ship toward the jetty on the southern bank of the river.
As Stefan had noted, there was a considerable crowd—perhaps fifty people—on the jetty and the riverbank beside it. A small group of three, presumably the official party, stood apart from the others. Two of them were clad in the now-familiar gray-and-green cloaks of the Ranger Corps. The third was far more lavishly dressed. Jewelry and decorations glittered on his doublet, catching the sunlight in a series of little flashes.
“There’s Gilan,” Lydia said quietly, as one of the cloaked figures stepped forward and raised a hand in greeting. Hal returned the gesture.
“There’s another Ranger with him,” Hal noted. He studied the third figure in the small group. “And someone who’s very fancily dressed.”
As they glided closer to the jetty, Hal could make out the rich accoutrements on the third man’s doublet, and the fur trim on his red velvet-lined cloak.
“Maybe it’s the King,” Thorn joked.
Hal grinned at him and shook his head. “Kings don’t stand out on windy jetties to greet common sailors.”
Thorn raised an eyebrow at the description. “Common sailors?” he repeated. “I rather see myself as a sophisticated world traveler.”
Kloof, sensing the interest that they were showing, advanced to the bulwark and reared up on her hind legs, her massive forepaws on the railing.
Kloof! she said. There were several dogs among the group onshore and they quickly replied, in a chorus that ranged from high-pitched yips to deep-chested baying.
“Looks like she’s found some friends.” Lydia smiled. The big dog remained in her position, her ears pricked. Lydia then indicated the wider group on the shore. “Who do you suppose all the others are?”
Hal shrugged. “Rubberneckers,” he replied. “Come to see the savage men from the north.” He allowed himself a sidelong glance at Thorn. “Along with the sophisticated world traveler.”
“Can’t blame them,” Thorn replied expansively. “I’m a fascinating sight for stay-at-homes like these.”
As they had been talking, Hal had automatically been gauging the distance and angle to the jetty. He called now to the oarsmen.
“Easy all! In oars!”
Stig and the others instantly stopped rowing and raised their oars to the vertical. Then, in one movement, they lowered them, dripping with river water, into the ship, stowing them along the line of the hull beneath the rowing benches.
With the last of the way on her, Hal swung the little ship so that she came alongside. Jesper and Stefan took bow and stern lines and scrambled up onto the jetty, making the ship fast and hauling her in against the timber pilings so that the fenders on her side creaked.
There was a momentary silence, then Gilan stepped forward.
“Welcome to Castle Araluen,” he called cheerfully. “Come ashore.”
Hal and Thorn stepped up onto the jetty, followed by Stig and Lydia, then the other crew members.
Gilan shook hands with Hal. “Good to see you again,” he said. He indicated the richly dressed man standing a few paces back. “This is Lord Anthony, the King’s Chamberlain. Lord Anthony, meet Hal Mikkelson, skipper of this year’s duty ship.”
The Chamberlain was short and stout. As Hal had noted on the approach to the jetty, he was dressed rather flamboyantly, his red velvet doublet decorated with precious stones and chains. Anxiously, Hal cast a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure Jesper was out of pickpocket reach. Then he shook hands. Lord Anthony’s grip was firm, but the hand was soft, not calloused and hardened like a warrior’s. Hal guessed he was the King’s administrator. He noted, however, that the man’s eyes were intelligent and observant, casting a quick, appraising glance over the assembled crewmen.
“Welcome to Araluen, on behalf of King Duncan,” the Chamberlain said, in a raised voice. “If you need anything to improve your comfort, please let me know.”
“Thank you . . . Lord Anthony.” Hal stumbled over the title. He wasn’t sure how one addressed someone called “Lord.” But he seemed to have got it right.
Anthony nodded and smiled, then stepped back. “I’ll return to the castle and make sure your rooms are ready for you,” he said.
Hal gave a half nod, half bow, then the Chamberlain turned away, swirling his cloak around him as he did, and strode off the landing jetty to where his horse was tethered.
“Anthony’s a bit stuffy, but he’s a good man,” Gilan told Hal. “Now come and meet Crowley, the Commandant of the Ranger Corps—and my boss,” he added, with a grin.
The other Ranger was a little shorter than Gilan, and as he pushed back the hood of his cloak, Hal could see that his sandy hair and beard were liberally sprinkled with gray. His eyes were blue and had a mischievous light to them. Hal found that he instinctively liked the older man.
“You must be Hal,” Crowley said, stepping forward to shake hands. Then those cheerful eyes turned on Thorn. “And you could be nobody else but the redoubtable Thorn.”
Gracefully, he switched hands to shake hands with Thorn in his turn, doing it left-handed.
“Don’t know about redoubtable,” Thorn said. “But I am a sophisticated world traveler.”
“You certainly have the look of one,” Crowley replied smoothly, then, as Hal introduced Stig, he looked up to meet the young man’s gaze, taking in the broad shoulders and well-muscled physique. “I imagine you’d be a handful in a fight.”
Stig grinned. “I try to be.”
Crowley, however, had already moved on to the slim, beautiful girl beside Stig. “And you, no doubt, are Lydia, the deadly dart thrower. Our Princess Cassandra is keen to meet you.”
Lydia flushed. She’d spent most of her early life alone in the forests hunting and she wasn’t good at social occasions. She shook hands with Crowley and mumbled something inarticulate along the lines of pleased to meet you. Crowley sensed her awkwardness and favored her with a friendly grin.
“Don’t know what you’re doing with this rough crowd,” he said and she smiled in return. Crowley had a natural charm to him and he was expert at putting people at their ease.
“I try to keep them in line,” she said and he released her hand, patting it with his free hand first.
Crowley moved on as Hal introduced him to the rest of the crew. Hal was glad to see that Ingvar had joined them and seemed to be over his disconsolate mood. Crowley raised his eyebrows slightly at the size of the young giant but, perhaps wisely, didn’t comment. He raised his eyebrows even farther as they came to the twins.
“And this is Ulf and Wulf,” Hal said.
Crowley looked from one to the other. “Which is which?”
“I’m Ulf,” said Wulf.
“I’m Wulf,” said Ulf.
The Ranger Commandant frowned thoughtfully at them. “Why do I think you’re not telling the complete truth?”
The twins looked crestfallen that he had seen through their ploy so easily. Hal grinned. It wasn’t often that someone got the better of the twins. Perhaps Gilan had warned his Commandant of the twins’ propensity to play practical jokes.
“Doesn’t matter which is which,” he said cheerfully. “They’re both idiots.”
Crowley nodded, then gestured to the stunning castle that stood on the hill behind them, visible above the belt of trees in the near distance. “Let’s get you settled into the castle then. We have horses here if you’d like to ride.”
He didn’t quite succeed in hiding his smile as he said it. Hal glanced quickly at Thorn before replying.
“I think we’ll
In spite of his earlier comments, Thorn couldn’t fail to be impressed by the size and beauty of the castle as they drew closer. They strode across the drawbridge and under the portcullis, their footsteps echoing on the flagstones of the large courtyard before the keep, and Thorn craned his head back to peer up at the soaring towers above him.
Lydia nudged him with an elbow. “Better close your mouth before a bird uses it as a toilet,” she muttered.
He glared at her, realizing that his mouth had indeed dropped open as a result of his craning back to look at the higher reaches of the castle. He clamped it shut now and said nothing. Sometimes, he thought ruefully, there was just no comeback clever enough. Lydia had scored a point in their ongoing battle of words.
The two Rangers led them into the massive keep building directly into the vast reception hall. Thorn wasn’t the only member of the crew to be staring around, marveling at the rich furnishings and tapestries.
There were beautiful, and no doubt expensive, artifacts in wall niches and displayed on polished wood cabinets and small tables around the walls. A huge tapestry on the wall facing the entrance depicted a boar hunt. Hal studied it critically. The weaver may have exaggerated the size of the boar, he thought.
Gilan noted his interest in the work and said quietly, “It’s a depiction of a hunt from King Duncan’s younger days. The boar gets bigger in the telling every year.”
Hal nodded, embarrassed that Gilan had obviously sensed his thoughts. To cover his slight unease, he turned and caught Jesper’s eyes. The former thief was casting an appraising gaze over the items on display in the room.
“Keep your hands off,” Hal said in a warning tone.
Jesper raised his eyes, spread his hands innocently in a “who, me?” gesture and smiled back at his skirl. “Off what?” he asked disingenuously.
“Off everything.” Hal knew Jesper never actually kept anything he took, but the Araluens didn’t, and things could get nasty before he had a chance to explain. Jesper’s skills were incredibly useful when it came to breaking in to slave markets and dungeons. They weren’t so desirable in the richly decorated halls of an ally.