"Are you excited Matthew? Tomorrow's Choosing Day!" Alfred, my twin brother, says excitedly as we make our way to dinner in the Ward building.
"Yeah I suppose. But I don't know what I want to do though. I can't cook like Jenny, can't write and debate like George, I'm not strong enough for Battleschool like Horace or you, I can't speak diplomatically like Alyss. What master will want me?" I say voicing all my doubts.
I don't want to end up on a farm along with Alfred for the rest of my life even though it looks like that's going to happen. Alfred could go to Battleschool if he really wanted to. Even at 15 Alfred was strong and athletic for his age, just like Horace. He fit the ideal image for knighthood, with his sky blue eyes, dirty blonde hair and even the stubborn cowlick that refuses to stay down. I, on the other hand, am only a couple inches shorter than Alfred, scrawny, blue-violet eyes, with light blonde hair and a strange curl hanging in front of my face. To be honest we look almost identical except for a few minuscule differences.
Alfred however, refuses to be parted from me since I'm his only family left. We don't know anything about our family, we literally just turned up on the doorstep of the Ward when we were babies. I think Alfred would be totally fine with working on a farm if it meant he gets to stay with me.
"Someone will choose us don't worry. We'll be fine." Alfred smiles reassuringly.
I smile back as we enter the dining room. I eat quietly as Al and the others converse loudly about the events happening tomorrow.
"Where do you hope to end up at tomorrow Alfred? Are you going to choose Battleschool?" Horace asks.
"No probably not Battleschool. I'm going wherever Matt chooses to go." Alfred replies, glancing at me.
"Don't you want to do something though?" Horace asks with slight confusion.
"No, not really. I'm fine with doing anything Mattie wants to do. Besides he's all I have left, I don't want to leave him." Alfred says a small sad smile in his face.
"Oh. Ok then." Horace says awkwardly.
"I think it's sweet. Wanting to be with your brother." Jenny says, placing her hand on her cheek.
The conversation then veered away from from tomorrow to random small talk. Although I noticed Horace would glance and frown at me every so often. My eyebrows scrunched up while I tried to think of anything I might have done to possibly upset him.
"Why are you stopping Alfred from joining Battleschool, Matthew?" Horace asks, interrupting Jenny's story about a pie.
"Ummm what? I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to ask?" I asks in confusion.
"Come on you know what I mean. Alfred can get into Battleschool without even trying but he's turning it down for you. I get the fact that he doesn't want to leave you but most jobs here are close, you could easily see each other if you wanted too." Horace asks.
Silence had fallen around then table. I tried to hide my wince because Horace had just voiced my thoughts about Alfred's future.
"It's not like I'm forcing him to follow me. It's his choice that he wants to follow me." I say, clenching my fist under the table.
"If he follows you, Battleschool will lose one valuable apprentice and some farm will gain two boys to work it. It seems like a waste." Horace says.
"Horace, stop. If Alfred wants to stay with his brother, he can. Don't try and force him into joining Battleschool if he doesn't want to." Alyss interrupts before I could reply.
I don't bother to hear Horace reply. I push back my chair and exit the dining room. As I shut the door behind me, a hand stops it as the owner slides out to stand next to me. I glance at Alfred, and continue to make my way out of the Ward building. We make our way to the fig tree growing close to the castles central tower. We climb to the top of the tree and sit in the lighter branches. Despite Alfred's bigger frame, he's actually quite agile and fast. We don't talk, just sit and enjoy each other's company. We stay in the tree until way past midnight, only climbing down when the light in Baron Arald study, that was directly across from us, was turned off. We slip into bed and fall asleep.
"All Right, Candidates! This Way! And Look Lively!"
The speaker, or more correctly the shouter, was Martin, secretary to Baron Arald. As his voice echoed around the anteroom, the six wards rose uncertainly from the long wooden bench where they had been sitting previously. After hovering uncertainly for a few moments, Alyss strode forward, taking the lead. The rest of the wards followed her into the study. I looked around the study curiously, despite looking in from the window last night. It looked different when standing in it, then from outside.
"Come on now! Stand in line, stand in line!" Martin seemed to be enjoying his moment of authority. They slowly shuffle into line and he studied him, his mouth twisted in disapproval.
"In size place! Tallest this end!"
Gradually the group arranged itself. Horace stood at the end with Alfred next to him, Horace only about an inch taller than Alfred. Then Alyss who was an inch shorter than Alfred. I was next to Alyss separated by only an inch difference in height. George stood half a head shorter than me and last was Jenny.
"Come on! Smarten up, smarten up! Let's see you at attention there," Martin continued, then broke off as a deep voice interrupted him.
"I don't believe that's totally necessary, Martin."
It was Baron Arald, who had entered unnoticed, through the small door behind his desk.
"Sir!" Martin says at top volume, causing the Baron to wince slightly. "The candidates are assembled!"
"I can see that," Baron Arald replied patiently. "Perhaps you might be good enough to ask the Craftmasters to step in as well?"
Martin marched toward the main door of the study. As Martin laid his hand on the door handle, the Baron stopped him.
"Martin?" He says softly. As the secretary turns around, he continued in the same quiet voice, "Ask them. Don't yell at them. Craftmasters don't like that."
"Yes, Sir," Martin looked somewhat deflated, he opens the door, "Craftmasters. The Baron is ready now."
The Craftschool heads entered the room in no particular order. First was Sir Rodney, head of Battleschool, then Ulf the Horsemaster. Lady Pauline followed Ulf. She was the head of the Diplomatic service in Redmont. Next was Nigel the Scribemaster, followed by Master Chubb, the castle cook. There were more Craftmasters but only the ones looking for apprentices showed up.
"Good morning, Lady Pauline. Good morning, gentlemen." The Barons greets them.
"Right, the Baron's waiting! The Baron's waiting! Who's first?" Martin says, voice slowly rising in volume.
I shift nervously from one foot to the other when I feels like someone was watching me. I looks up and freeze when I make eye contact with Halt, the Ranger.
I hadn't seen him come into the room. He must have slipped through in a side door while the other Craftmasters entered. Halt was an unnerving person. The superstitious village believed that Rangers practice a form of magic that made them invisible to ordinary people. I didn't know if I believed it, but I wasn't sure I disbelieved it either. I wondered why Halt was here today. He wasn't recognized as one of the Craftmasters and, as far as I knew, he hadn't attended a Choosing session before this one. Halt's gaze shifted from me to my brother very briefly before settling on the Baron as Martin started speaking again.
"First in line, step forward and face the Baron."
Horace stepped forward and after studying him for a few seconds the Baron asks for his name.
"Horace Altman, my lord."
"And do you have a preference, Horace?" The Baron asks, even though he knew the answer already.
"Battleschool, sir!" Horace says firmly.
"Battlemaster?" The Baron asks.
The knight stepped forward and walked around Horace.
"Looks strong enough, my lord, and I can always use new trainees." He rubs a hand on his chin. "Very well my lord. I'll take him for Battleschool, subject to the usual three month probationary period."
"Congratulations Horace. Report to Battleschool tomorrow morning. Eight o'clock sharp." The Baron says with a small smile.
"Who's Next Then?" Martin calls as Horace steps back in line.
Alfred steps forward, for once looking a bit nervous. He glances at me, then looks at the Baron.
"Alfred, my lord." Al says, confidently.
"Alfred? Alfred who?" Martin looks at his papers, upon seeing no family name, he looks at Alfred. "What's your family name?"
"Alfred and his twin Matthew are a special case, Martin." The Baron's voice told him to let the matter go.
"What school did you wish to apply for, Alfred?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but I have no school I wish to apply to other than the one my brother wishes to go to." Alfred says looking at the Baron.
"You don't have a preference? Surely there must be a school you want to apply to?" The Baron asks, confusion in his voice.
The other Craftmasters are also confused by this turn of events. They glance at Alfred then scan the line, stopping when they find me. I slightly duck my head under all of their gazes.
"If I may ask, why?" The Baron asks.
"I don't mean any disrespect but I would rather stay with my brother as he is my last living relative that I know of and I don't want to be separated." Alfred says, almost perfectly hiding the sadness in his eyes from all except his brother.
I glance at Halt and see the older Ranger watching my brother with what looked like approval in his dark eyes.
"Are you sure you don't want to go to Battleschool? You'll be perfect for a trainee there." The Baron asks.
"You along with Horace are perfect examples of what I look for in new trainees." Sir Rodney says, stepping forward again.
"I'm sorry, sir, but no. Again I'll apply to whichever school my brother applies to." Alfred says, not moving an inch on his decision.
"Well if you're sure then. We can come back to you after your brother has chosen." The Barons says, still with slight confusion.
"Thank you sir." Alfred says before stepping back in line.
Then before Martin could point her out, Alyss steps forward gracefully.
"Alyss Mainwaring, my lord." She says in her quiet, level voice. "I request an appointment to the diplomatic service, please, my lord."
Baron Arald glances at Lady Pauline. "My lady?"
"I've already spoken to Alyss, my lord. I believe she will be an excellent candidate. Approved and accepted." Lady Pauline nods her head at Alyss.
"Thank you, my lady." Alyss steps back in line.
"Right! You're next! You're next! Address the Baron!" Martin points out me.
"Matthew, my lord." I say, trying to make sure I can be heard.
"So Matthew, what school do you want to apply too?" The Baron asks, kindly.
I glance back at Alfred, who smiles encouragingly at me. I turn back to the Craftmasters, thinking which one I should choose.
"Um Battleschool, my lord?" Hesitance crept into my voice, twisting the would be statement into a question.
The Baron looks at Sir Rodney. Sir Rodney steps forward and looks at me for a moment.
He shakes his head. "He's too skinny. He won't build up enough muscle in the first three months, my lord."
"Is there anywhere else you would like to go?" The Baron asks.
I quickly rack my brain for anything I'm good at. Not Master Chubb, I burn everything I touch. Not Ulf either. If I'm not strong enough for Battleschool, I won't be able to hold onto the horses.
Silence takes over the room. Surprisingly, it was the Ranger who broke the silence in the room.
"There is something you should know about these boys, my lord." He says. I have never heard Halt speak before. His voice was deep and soft-spoken, with the slightest burr of a Hibernian accent still noticeable.
I glance at Alfred in surprise and confusion. His face shows the same mix display of emotions as mine. Halt steps forward and hands the Baron a sheet of paper. Baron Arald unfolds it, and studies the words written there and frowned.
"You're sure of this, Halt?" He asks.
"Indeed my lord."
The Baron carefully refolded the paper and places it on his desk. "I'll have to think on this overnight. Matthew and Alfred, I'll let you know tomorrow what I've decided about you. Martin, who's next?"
As Martin calls George forward, I step back and stare at the Ranger, wondering what information the mysterious figure had passed to the Baron. I didn't like the fact that the Halt knew something about us. Something that he felt was important enough to bring to the Baron's attention today, of all days. I knew that Alfred didn't like it either, judging by the look on his face. I glance at Al, he looks at me then the paper and back to me. I nod, understanding what he wants me to do. I distinctly hear George being accepted to Scribeschool and Jenny bouncing forward.
Most of the time people forget about me and don't see me. Al and I have used this to our advantage sometimes. When the others leave, I'll hang back and read what's on the paper. I tune back into the conversation.
"I have the right shape for it." Jenny says.
"She has a point there, Chubb." The Baron hides a smile as Master Chubb nods in agreement.
"Tell me," he says to the eager girl, "what would you do with a turkey pie?"
Jenny smiled dazzlingly at him. "Eat it."
Chubb raped her on the head with the ladle he carried. "I meant what would you do about cooking it."
Jenny hesitated, gathering her thoughts, then plunged into a lengthy technical description of how she would go about constructing such a masterpiece.
As she finished, Chubb nods thoughtfully. "Interesting. I'll take her, my lord."
"Very well, report to the kitchens in the morning, Jennifer." The Baron says, smiling.
"Jenny, sir" Jenny adds before she could stop herself.
"Congratulations to those who were selected here today. It's a big day for all of you, so you're free to have the rest of the day off and enjoy yourselves. The kitchens will provide a banquet for you in your quarters and for the rest of the day you have free run of the castle and the village." The Baron smiles.
He turned to Martian and gestured for him go show the new apprentices out. "Thank you, everyone."
The Craftmasters followed his lead then Martian ushered the former wards out the door. I slip, unnoticed, out of line and take a step towards the paper. Then I felt the sensation of someone watching me. I look up and find myself staring into the dark eyes of the Ranger, who remained behind the Baron's high-backed chair, almost invisible in that strange cloak of his.
I shudder in a sudden frisson of fear and hurried out of the room.