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Halts Two Apprentices

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Mathews POV

"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.

 

Chapter Text

Matthew POV

It was long after midnight. The flickering torches around the castle yard, already replaced once, had begun to burn low again. Al and I are once again in the fig tree waiting for the right moment to begin.

After the Baron had released us, Al and I had walked around the village. When the sun started to set Alfred and I slipped into the forest, a kilometer or so from the castle walls. There, in the dim green coolness the trees, we spent some of the evening planning on how to get back into the study to read the paper.

When the moment was right, we slipped down from the fig tree and crossed unseen over the yard to the central tower. I slip past the sergeant on duty at the doorway of the tower that led to Baron Arald's quarters. I open the door just enough to slip in without any noise. As I closed the door, I look back at Alfred and nod. My ability to pass unnoticed came in handy for when I started up the stairs, a servant came down the stairs, passing right by me. I made it to the top and waited in the shadows by the door.


 

Alfred's POV

I watch as Matthew closes the door and then turn my attention to the wall in front of me. I studied the wall in front of me, craning back to look up. The Baron's office was a long way up,and farther around the tower. To reach it, I would have to climb up, then work my way across the face of the wall, to a spot beyond the point where the sergeant stood guard, then up again to the window. I lick my lips nervously. Unlike the smooth inner walls of the tower, the huge blocks of stone that comprised the tower's outer wall had large gaps between them. Climbing would be no problem. I have plenty of foot and handholds all the way up.

I rub my hands together nervously. I hesitated, needing some extra push to get me going. It was that sergeant who provided it. I heard the heavy intake of breath, the shuffling of the man studded boots against the flagstones as he gathered his equipment together, I realized that the sergeant was about to make one of his irregular circuits around the tower. I realized that it would being me face to face with him in the next few seconds if I didn't do something.

Quickly I swarmed up the wall I made it up the first five meters in a few seconds. Then, hearing the heavy footsteps directly below me, I froze, clinging to the wall in case some slight noise might alert the sentry. The sergeant, however, continued to march slowly around the tower. It gave me the opportunity to move across the tower face so that I was directly below the window I wanted. I felt a surge of relief as my hands finally closed over the stone window ledge and I heave myself up and into the room, swinging my legs over the sill and dropping lightly inside. I quickly cross over to the door and quietly knock twice. I hear the reply knock and carefully open the door, letting my brother slip inside. I close and lock it as before. We glance at each other then turn towards the desk.

And there, on the desk where the Baron had left it, was the single sheet of paper that held the answer to the our future. I glance nervously around the room. Matt reached his hand out for the paper.

"Remember just read it and we'll go." I whisper to Matthew.

He nods and he's about to grab the paper. When his fingers touch it, a hand shot out of nowhere and seized him by the wrist. I shout in alarm, my fear of ghosts taking charge as I almost bolt from the room. Another hand grabs mine, stopping me from fleeing. I look up and meet the cold eyes of Halt the Ranger.

Where did he come from? There had been nobody else in the room. And there had been no sound of a door opening. Then I remembered how the Ranger could wrap himself in that strange, mottled, grey-green cloak of his and seem to melt into the background, blending with the shadows until he was invisible.

Not that it mattered how how Halt done it. The real problem was that we were caught, here in the Baron's office.

"Thought you might try something like this," says the Ranger in a low voice.

Matt and I looked at each and then hang our heads in shame and despair.

"Do you have anything to say?" Halt asks him.

We both shake our heads, unwilling to look up and meet that dark, penetrating gaze. Halt's next words confirmed my worst fears.

"Well, let's see what the Baron thinks about this," he says.

"Please, Halt! Not..." I started then stopped.

There was no excuse for what we had done and the least they could do was face their punishment like men. I glance and Matt and he nods at me. The Ranger studies us for a moment. I thought I saw a brief flicker of... recognition. Then the eyes darkened once more.

"What?" Halt says curtly.

"Nothing." I shake my head.

The Ranger's grip on my wrist was like iron as he led my brother and I up the stairs to the Baron's living quarters. The sentries at the head of the stairs looked up in surprise at the sight of the grim faced Ranger and the two boys beside him. At a brief signal from Halt, they stood aside and opened the doors into the Baron's apartment.

The room was brightly lit and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. In contrast to the Baron's sparsely furnished working quarters below, this room was a comfortable clutter of settees, footstools, carpets, tapestries, and armchairs. In one of these, Baron Arald sat, reading through a pile of reports. He looked from the page he was holding as Halt entered with his captives.

"So you were right," says the Baron, and Halt nodded.

"Just as I said, my lord. They came across the castle yard like a shadow. This one," he gestures to Matthew, "dodged the sentry and went through the door, straight up the stairs without being seen and made no noise and waited outside the door. The other one," he gestures to me now, "climbed up the tower wall and went through the window and opened the door for his brother."

How did Halt know what Matthew did? The only way was to have followed him then get into the room before me.

"He just walked straight by the sergeant? And he climbed the tower?" the Baron asks, a trifle incredulously.

"Walked right by him. He didn't even bat an eye. Yes, no rope, no ladder, my lord. Climbed it as easily as you get on your horse in the morning. Easier, in fact," Halt says, with just the ghost of a smile.

The Baron frowned. He was a little overweight and sometimes he needed help getting on his horse after a late night. He obviously wasn't amused by Halt's reminding him of the fact.

"Well now," he says, looking sternly and Matt and I, "this is a serious matter."

We both said nothing. Neither of us sure if we should agree or disagree. Either course had it's dangers. But I wished Halt hadn't put the Baron in a bad mood by referring to his weight. It certainly wouldn't make things any better for us.

"So, what shall we do with you two, young Alfred and Matthew?" The Baron continued.

He rose from his chair and began to pace. I look at him, trying to gauge his mood. The strong, bearded face told him nothing. I glance worriedly at Matthew. He gave me a small forced smile. The Baron stops pacing and fingered his beard thoughtfully.

"Tell me, Alfred," he says, facing away, "what would you do in my place? What would you do with two boys who broke into your office in the middle of the night and tried to steal an important document?"

"I wasn't stealing, my-" the denial burst out of my lips before Matthew elbowed me in the ribs.

"We just wanted to see it, my lord. We meant no harm." My brother says in his quiet voice.

"Perhaps so," the Baron says, "but you haven't answered my question. What would you do in my place?"

I thought for a moment. We knew what would happen if we were caught. We decided to risk it. Matt and I glance at each other coming to the same decision.

"My lord..." Matthew starts, "I don't know what we'd do in your place. I do know there is no excuse for our actions and we will accept whatever punishment you decide."

Matthew and I both look straight at the Baron as he finished and in doing so we caught the Baron's quick glance to Halt. There was something in that glance I saw. Strangely, it was almost a look of approval, or agreement. Then it was gone.

"Any suggestions, Halt?" The Baron asks in a carefully neutral tone.

We both look at the Ranger now. His face stern, as it always was. The grizzled, grey beard and short hair made him seem even more disapproving, more ominous.

"Perhaps we should show them the paper they were so keen to see, my lord." He says, producing the single sheet from inside his sleeve.

The Baron allows a smile to break through. "Not a bad idea," he says. "I suppose, in a way, it does spell out their punishment, doesn't it?"

I glance at Matt in confusion. There was something going on here that I didn't understand. The Baron seemed to think that what he just said was rather amusing. Halt, on the other hand, wasn't sharing in the fun.

"If you say so, my lord." He replies evenly. The Baron waved a hand at him impatiently.

"Take a joke, Halt! Take a joke! Well, go on and show them the paper."

The Ranger crossed the room and handed Matthew the sheet. His hand trembled as he took it. Our punishment? But how had the Baron known we would deserve punishment before the actual event?

I realized the Baron was watching us expectantly. Halt, as ever, was an impassive statue. Matthew unfolded the sheet and read the words Halt had written there.

The boys, Matthew and Alfred, have the potential to be trained as a Ranger. I will accept them as my apprentice.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I stare at the words in utter confusion. My first action was of relief. While I would have followed my brother anywhere, I didn't want to go to a farm, even though I would have gone anyways. And we weren't to be punished. Then that initial sense of relief gave way to a sudden, nagging doubt. I knew nothing about Rangers, beyond myth and superstition. I knew nothing of Halt- apart from the fact that the grim, grey-cloaked figure made me feel nervous and whenever he was around.

Now, it seemed, we were being assigned to spend all our time with him. And I wasn't sure I liked that idea at all. Matthew, I'm sure felt the same.

I look up at the two men. The Baron, I could see, was smiling expectantly. Apparently, he felt that we should greet his decision as good news. I couldn't see Halt's face clearly. The deep cowl if his cloak left his face in shadow.

The Baron's smile faded slightly. He appeared a little puzzled by Matt's and my reaction to the news- or rather, our lack of any visible reaction.

"Well, what do you say, Matthew and Alfred?" He asked, in an encouraging tone. Matthew drew a deep breath.

"Thank you, sir... my lord." He said uncertainly.

The Baron gave a little sigh of pleasure as he lowered himself into an armchair.

"Perhaps you might give us a few moments alone, Halt? I'd like to have a word with Matthew and Alfred in private," he says.

The Ranger bowed gravely. "Certainly, my lord." He replies, the voice coming from deep inside the cowl.

He moved, silently as ever, past Matthew and through the door that led to the corridor outside. The door closed behind him with barely a sound, Matt shivered. The man was uncanny!

"Sit down, Matthew and Alfred." The Baron gestured to some of the low armchairs facing his own.

Matt and I sit on the edge of a couple, as if poised for flight. The Baron noted our body language and sighed.

"You don't seem very pleased with my decision," he says, sounding disappointed.

The reaction puzzled me. I wouldn't have thought a powerful figure like the Baron would care one way or another what a couple of insignificant wards would think about his decision. We didn't know how to answer, so we sat in silence, until finally the Baron continued.

"Would you prefer to work as a farmhand?" He asks.

I glance at Matt and see him shaking his head. "No, sir!" He says hastily.

The Baron made a small, questioning gesture with his hands.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Matthew's POV

"Well then, would you prefer that you be punished somehow for what you've done?"

This time Alfred answered. "It's just that... I'm not sure you haven't." He says. Then noticing the frown that creased the Baron's forehead as he said the words, he hurried on. "We- we don't know much about Rangers, sir. And people say..."

Alfred trailed off. It was obvious that the Baron held Halt in some esteem and I didn't think it was politic for Alfred to point out that ordinary people feared Rangers and thought they were warlocks. Obviously Al thought the same. I saw that the Baron was nodding, and a look of understanding had replaced the perplexed expression he had been wearing.

"Of course. People say they're black magicians, don't they?" He agreed and both Alfred and I nodded. "Tell me, Alfred, do you find Halt to be a frightening person?"

"No, sir!" Alfred says hastily, then, as the Baron held his gaze, he reluctantly added, "Well... maybe a bit."

"And what about you, Matthew?" He asks looking at me.

"Yes, sir." After Alfred had confessed I didn't think it would be a bad idea to say that Halt scares me.

"The Rangers are a mysterious group of people," the Baron says. "But there's nothing about them to be frightened of- unless you're an enemy of the kingdom."

The Baron could see that we were hanging on to his every word, and he added, jokingly, "You're not an enemy of the kingdom, are you?"

"No, sir!" Alfred says in sudden fright, and the Baron sighed again.

"All right, all right," he says reassuringly. "I know you're not. But believe me, I thought you'd be glad of this appointment- adventurous lads like you should take to life as a Ranger like ducks to water. It's a big opportunity for you, Matthew and Alfred." He paused, studying the boys closely, seeing that they were still uncertain about the whole matter. He turns to me.

"Very few boys are chosen to be apprentice Rangers, you know. The opportunity only comes up on rare occasions."

I nodded. But I still wasn't totally convinced. I thought I owed it to Al to have one last attempt at Battleschool. After all, the Baron did seem to be in a uncommonly good mood this evening, in spite of the fact that we had broken into his office.

"I wanted to become a warrior." I say tentatively, but the Baron shook his head immediately.

"You mean you want to be a warrior so your brother can be a warrior. Also both your talents lie in other directions. Halt knew that when he first saw you. That's why he asked for you."

"Oh," I say. There wasn't much else I could say. I felt I should be reassured by all that the Baron had said and, to a certain degree, I was. But there was still so much uncertainty to it all, I thought.

"What does a Ranger do, my lord?" I ask.

The Baron shook his head. "That's for Halt to tell you himself. They're a quirky group and they don't like other people talking about them too much. Now, perhaps you should go back to your quarters and try to get some sleep. You're to report to Halt's cottage at six o'clock in the morning."

"Yes, my lord." Alfred and I say.

I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy life as a Ranger's apprentice, but it seemed that I had no choice in the matter. We bowed to the Baron, who nodded briefly in return, then we turned away for the door.

"Alfred? This time use the stairs."

"Yes , my lord." He replied seriously, and appeared puzzled by the way the Baron rolled his eyes to the sky and muttered to himself again. I let out a small snort as I got the joke this time.

"Thank you, Matthew. Finally someone gets it." The Baron mutters the last part to himself.

We let ourselves out through the door. The sentries were still on duty on the landing by the stairs, but Halt was gone.

Or at least, he appeared to be. With the Ranger, you could never be quite certain.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Are you sure about this Halt? It means two apprentices. One more than normal." The Baron asks the silent figure standing before him.

"Of course, my lord. I wouldn't have chosen them if I had felt I wasn't able to properly mentor them." Halt answered, unmoving in his decision.

"Alright. Very well, Halt. I don't know about you but it's late and I want to go to bed." The Baron says, rising from his chair.

Halt bowed his head then silently stepped out if the room.

 

Chapter Text

Alfred's POV

It felt strange to be leaving the castle after all these years. Matt and I turned back at the bottom of the hill, our bundle of belongings slung over our shoulders, and stare up at the massive walls.

Castle Redmont dominated the landscape. Built on top of a small hill, it was a massive, three sided structure, facing roughly west and with a tower at each of the three corners. In the the center, protected by the three curtain walls, were the castle yard and the Keep, a fourth tower that soared above the others and housed the Baron's official quarters and his private living apartments, along with those of his senior officers. The castle was built in ironstone- a rock that was almost almost indestructible and, in the low sun of early mornings or late afternoon, seemed to glow with an inner red light. It was this characteristic that gave the castle its name, Redmont or Red Mountain. At the foot of the hill, and on the other of the Tarbus River, lay Wensley Village, a cheerfully haphazard cluster of houses, with an inn and those craft shops necessary to meet the demands of day-to-day country life. The land around had been cleared for some distance, both to provide farmlands for the villagers to tend and to prevent enemies from being able to approach unseen. In times of danger, the villagers would drive their flocks across the wooden bridge that spanned the Tarbus, removing the center span behind them, and seek shelter behind the massive ironstone walls of the castle, protected by the Baron's soldiers and the knights trained in Redmont's Battleschool.

Halt's cottage lay some distance away from both castle and village, nestling under the shelter of the trees at the edge of the forest. The sun was just rising over the trees as Matthew and I make our way to the log cabin. A thin spiral of smoke was rising from the chimney, so I reasoned that Halt was already up and about. We step up onto the verandah that ran the length of one side of the house, I hesitated and glanced at Matt, then taking a deep breath, I knocked firmly on the door.

"Come in." Said a voice from the inside. I open the door and walk inside the cottage.

It was small but surprisingly near and comfortable-looking inside. We found ourselves in the main room, a combined living and dining area, with a small kitchen at one end, separated from the main area by a pine bench. There were comfortable chairs ranged around a fire, a well-scrubbed wooden table and pots and pans that gleamed from much polishing. There was even a vase of brightly colored wildflowers on the mantel shelf, and the early morning sun streamed cheerfully through a large window. Two other rooms led off the main room.

Halt sat in one of these chairs, his booted feet resting on the table.

"At least you're on time," he said gruffly. "Have you had your breakfast yet?"

"Yes, sir," Matthew said

I looked at Halt in fascination. This was the first time I had ever seen Halt without his grey-green cloak and hood. The Ranger was wearing simple brown and grey woolen clothes and soft-looking leather boots. He was older than I had realized. His hair and beard were short and dark, but peppered with steel gray flecks. They were both roughly trimmed and they looked as if Halt had cut them himself with his hunting knife.

The Ranger stood up. He was surprisingly small in build. That was something else that I had never realized. The grey cloak had concealed a lot about Halt. He was slim and not at all tall. In fact he was considerably shorter than average height. But there was a sense of power and whipcord strength about him so that his lack of height and bulk didn't make him any less daunting figure.

"Finished staring?" Asked the Ranger suddenly, Matthew elbowing me in the side at the same time.

I flinched away, rubbing my side. "Yes, sir! Sorry, sir!" I say.

Halt grunted. He pointed to one of the small rooms I had noticed as we entered.

"That'll be your room. There's an extra cot until we get another proper bed. You can put your things in there."

He moved away to the woodstove in the kitchen area and Matt and I hesitantly enter the room he indicated. It was kinda small but big enough to fit two beds comfortably. A small bed lay alongside one wall. A cot on the adjacent wall. There was a wardrobe for clothes and a rough table with a washing basin and jug on it. There was also, I noticed, another vase of freshly picked wildflowers adding a bright spot of color to the room. I glance at Matt and put my things on the cot. Matt opened his mouth to protest but I cut him off.

"I'll take the cot. It's no problem." I say, grinning at Matt.

Matt didn't look happy but let me take the cot, setting down his things on the bed and went back to the main room.

Halt was still busy by the stove, his back to them. I cough apologetically to attract his attention. Matt glances at me, his expression saying that it might just annoy Halt. I shrug, coughing again as Halt continued to stir coffee into a pot on the stove.

"Got a cold boy?" Asks the Ranger, without turning around.

"Er... no, sir."

"Then why are you coughing?" Asks Halt, turning around to face him.

I told you so, Matthew said through his expression.

I hesitated. "Well, sir," I began uncertainly, "I just wanted to ask you... what does a Ranger actually do?"

"He doesn't ask pointless questions, boy!" Said Halt. "He keeps his eyes and ears open and he looks and listens and eventually, if he hasn't got too much cotton wool between his ears, he learns!"

"Oh," I said. "I see." I didn't but and even though I realized that this was no time to ask more pointless questions and ignoring Matthews warning glance, I couldn't help myself, repeating, a little rebelliously, "I just wondered what Rangers do, is all. Ow!"

Matthew hit me behind the head as Halt turns to him, a strange gleam in his eye.

"Well then, I suppose I'd better I'd better tell you," he said. "What Rangers do, or more correctly, what Rangers' apprentices do, is the house work."

I had the sinking feeling as the suspicion struck me that I had made a tactical error. "The... house work?" I repeated. Halt nodded, looking distinctly please with himself.

That's right. Take a look around." He paused, gesturing around the interior of the cabin for us to do as he suggested, then continued, "See any servants?"

"No, sir," I say slowly.

"No, sir indeed!" Halt says. "Because this isn't a mighty castle with a staff of servants. This is a lowly cabin. And it has water to be fetched and firewood to be chopped and floors to be swept and rugs to be beaten. And who do you suppose might do all of those things, boy?"

I tried to think of some answer other that the one which now seemed inevitable. Nothing came to mind, so I finally said, in a defeated tone, "Would that be me, sir?"

"I believe it would be," the Ranger told me, then rattled off a list of instructions crisply. "Bucket there. Barrel outside the door. Water in the river. Ax in the lean-to, firewood behind the cabin. Broom by the door and I believe you can probably see where the floor might be?"

"Yes, sir." I said, beginning to roll up my sleeves, Matthew doing the same beside me.

We had noticed the water barrel as we approached, obviously holding the day's water supply for the cabin. I estimated that it would hold twenty or thirty buckets full. With a sigh, I realized we were going to have a busy morning.

As we walked outside, the empty bucket in my hand, I heard the Ranger say contentedly as he poured himself a mug of coffee and sat down again:

"I'd forgotten how much fun having apprentices can be.

Matt offered to chop the wood while I filled up the water barrel. I couldn't believe that such a small and seemingly neat cottage could generate so much cleaning and general maintenance. After I had filled the water barrel with fresh river water (thirty-one buckets full), and Matt chopped wood from a neat stack of logs behind the cabin, piling the split firewood into a neat stack. I swept out the cabin, then, after Halt decided that the rug on the living room floor needed beating, I rolled it up, carried it outside and draped it over a rope slung between two trees, beating it so savagely so that clouds of dust flew from it. From time to time, Halt leaned out the window to give me encouragement, which usually consisted of curt comments such as "You've missed a bit on the left side" or "Put some energy into it, boy." Matthew did a few chores inside the house.

When the rug had been replaced on the floor, Halt decided that several of his cooking pots didn't gleam with sufficient intensity.

"We'll have to give them a bit of scouring," he said, more or less to himself. I knew by now that this translated to "You'll have to give them a bit of scouring." So, without a word, Matt and I took the pots to the river's edge and half filled them with water and fine sand, scouring and polishing the metal until it gleamed.

"You're such an idiot sometimes, Alfred." Matt says as we were scouring the pots.

"I know, it's part of my charm." I grin and he rolls his eyes at me.

Halt, meanwhile, moved to canvas chair on the verandah, where he sat reading through a tall pile of what looked to be official communications. Passing by once or twice, I noticed that several of the papers bore crests and coats of arms, while the vast majority were headed with a simple oakleaf design.

When Matt and I returned from the riverbank, we held the pots up for Halt's inspection. The Ranger grimaced at his distorted reflection in the bright copper surface.

"Hmmm. Not bad. Can see my own face in it." He says, then added, without a hint of a smile, "May not be such good thing."

I said nothing. With anyone else I might have suspected it was a joke, but with Halt you simply couldn't tell. Matthew didn't seem to know either. Halt studied us for a second or two, then his shoulders lifted slightly in a shrug and he gestured for us to return the pots to the kitchen. Matthew went in first then I was halfway through the door when I heard Halt behind him say:

"Hmmm. That's odd."

Thinking the Ranger might be talking to me, I paused at the door.

"I beg your pardon?" I said suspiciously.

Each time Halt had found a new chore for us to attend to, he seemed to begin the instruction with a statement like "How unusual. The living room rug is full of dust." Or "I do believe the stove is in sure need of a new supply of firewood." It was an affection that I had found more than a little annoying over the day, although Halt seemed to be quite find of it. This time, however, it seemed that he had been genuinely musing to himself as he read through a report- one of the oakleaf-crested ones, I noted. Now, the Ranger looked up, a little surprised that I had addressed him.

"What's that?" He said.

I shrugged. "Sorry. When you said 'that's odd', I thought you were talking to me."

Halt shook his head several times, still frowning at the report in his hand. Matt came back over to listen.

"No, no," he said, a trifle distractedly. "I was just reading this…" His voice trailed away and he frowned thoughtfully. I, my curiosity and Matt's roused, waited expectantly.

"What is it?" Matthew finally ventured to ask.

As the Ranger turned those dark eyes on him, I could see my twin lean back slightly. Halt regarded him for a second or two.

"Curious, are you?" He said at length, and when Matthew nodded uncomfortably, he went on in an unexpectedly milder tone. "Well, I suppose that's a good trait for a Ranger's apprentice. After all, that's why we tested you with that paper in he Baron's office."

"You tested us?" I set a heavy copper kettle down by the door. "You expected us to try to see what it said?"

Halt nodded. "Would have been disappointed if you hadn't. Also, I wanted to see how you'd go about it." Then he held up a hand to forestall the torrent of question that were about to tumble out of my mouth. "We'll discuss that later," he said, glancing meaningfully at the kettle and a couple of other pots. I stooped to retrieve them, Matt taking one, and turned back to the house once more. But curiosity still burned in me so I turned back to the Ranger again.

"So what does it say?" I ask, nodding toward the report.

Again there was a silence as Halt regarded me, perhaps assessing me. Then he said:

"Lord Northolt is dead. Apparently killed by a bear last week while out hunting."

"Lord Northolt?" I ask. The name was vaguely familiar to me but I couldn't place it.

"Former supreme commander of the King's army," Matthew told me, and I nodded, as if I had known this. But since Halt seemed to be answering my questions, I was emboldened to continue.

"What so odd about it? After all bears do kill people from time to time."

Halt nodded. "True. But I would have thought Cordom Fief was a little far west for bears. And I would have thought Northolt was too experienced a hunter to go after one alone." He shrugged, as if dismissing the thought. "But then again, life is full surprises and people do make mistakes." He gestured toward the kitchen again, indicating that the conversation was over. "When you've put those away, you might like to clean out the fireplace," he said.

I moved to do as he told. But a few minutes later, as I walked past one of the windows to the large fireplace that took up most of one wall in the living room, I glanced out to see the Ranger tapping the report thoughtfully on his chin, his thoughts obviously a long way away.

Chapter Text

 Matthew's POV

Sometime in the late afternoon, Halt finally ran out of jobs for us to do. He looked around the cabin, noting the gleaming kitchen implements, the spotless fireplace, the thoroughly swept floor and totally dust-free rug. a stack of firewood lay beside the fireplace and another stack, cut and split into shorter lengths, filled the wicker basket besides the kitchen stove. 

"Hmmm. Not bad," he said. "Not bad at all."

I felt a small surge of pleasure at the sparing praise, no doubt Alfred felt the same, but before we could feel to pleased with ourselves, Halt added, "Can you cook, boys?"

"Cook, sir?" Alfred asked uncertainly. Halt raised his eyes to some unseen superior being. 

"Why do young people invariably answer a question with another question?" he asked. then, receiving no reply, he continued. "Yes, cook. Prepare food so that one might eat. Make meals. I assume you know what food is-what meals are?"

"Yes." I answered, careful to take any questioning inflection out of the word.

"Well, as I told you this morning, this is no grand castle. If we want to eat food here, we have to cook food here." Halt told us. There was the word we again, I thought. Every time so far that Halt had said we must, it had seemed to translate to you must.

"We can't cook." I said, and Halt clapped his hands and rubbing them together. 

"Of course you can't. Most boys can't. So I'll have to show you how. Come on." 

He led the way the way to the kitchen and introduced us to the mysteries of cooking: peeling and chopping onions, choosing a piece of beef from the meat safe, trimming and cutting it into neat cubes, then chopping vegetables, searing the beef in a sizzling pan, and finally adding a generous dash of red wine and some of what Halt called his "secret ingredients." The result was a savory-smelling stew, simmering on top of the stove.

Now, as we waited for the dinner to be ready, we sat on the verandah in the early evening and talked quietly.

"The Rangers were founded over one hundred and fifty years ago, in King Herbert's reign. Do you know anything about him?" Halt looked sideways at my twin, who was sitting besides him, tossing the question out quickly to see his response.

Alfred hesitated. I knew who King Herbert was, but that was because I actually had paid attention to the lessons and not mess around like my brother. Alfred looked at me, hoping I would help him. I shrugged my shoulders, hiding a small grin as my brother turned back to Halt. I knew my brother wouldn't want to look to ignorant on his first day with our new master.

"Oh... yes," he said. "King Herbert. We learned about him." 

"Really?" said the Ranger expansively. "Perhaps you can tell me a little about him?" he leaned back and crossed his legs, getting himself comfortable. 

I watched as Alfred desperately search his mind for something about King Herbert. It was a little amusing to see him look confused instead of him looking confident all the time. Alfred glanced at me pleadingly.

"He was..." Alfred hesitated, pretending to gather his thoughts. "The king." He glanced at Halt to see if he could stop now. Halt merely smiled and made a rolling gesture with his hand that meant go on. Alfred, once again, glanced at me for help. 

"He was the King... one hundred and fifty years ago," Alfred said trying to sound certain of his facts. The Ranger smiled at him, gesturing for him to continue yet again. 

"Ummm... well I seem to recall that he was the one who founded the Ranger Corps." he said hopefully, and Halt raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. 

"Really? You recall that, do you?" he said, and I could see Alfred realize that Halt had merely said the Rangers were founded during his reign, not necessarily by him. Alfred wasn't wrong but I didn't say anything. 

"Ahhh, well, when I say he founded the Rangers, I actually mean he was the King when the Rangers Corps was founded." he said. 

"One hundred and fifty years ago?" Halt prompted.

Alfred nodded. "That's right."

"Well, that's remarkable, seeing how I told you those facts a minute or so ago," the Ranger said, his eyebrows coming down like thunderclouds over his eyes. I thought it might be better for Alfred to not say anything, Alfred felt the same as he didn't say anything. Finally, the Ranger said, in a milder tone: "Boy, if you don't know something, don't try to bluff your way through it. Simply tell me 'I don't know', is that clear?" 

"Yes, Halt." Alfred said, his eyes downcast. There was a silence, then he said, "Halt?"

"Yes?"

"About King Herbert... I really don't know." Alfred admitted.

"Well, I never would have guessed. Lets see if your brother knows anything. Do you?" Halt asked me. 

I nodded, glancing at Alfred, he stuck his tongue at me. "He was the one to found the Rangers Corps. And he was the one who drove the northern clans back over the border to the Highlands. He's also known as the Father of Modern Araluen. He had banded the fifty fiefs together into a powerful union to defeat the northern clans." 

"Yes, he created the union between the fifty fiefs that is still our structure today." Halt said.

"I sort of remember now." Alfred put in. Halt looked at him, one eyebrow raised, then continued.

"At the time, King Herbert felt that to remain safe, the kingdom needed an effective intelligence force."

"An intelligent force?" Alfred asked.

"Not intelligent. Intelligence. Although it does help if your intelligence force is also intelligent. Intelligence is the knowledge of what your enemies, or your potential enemies, are up to. What they're planning. What they're thinking. If you know that sort of thing in advance, you can usually come up with a plan to stop them. That's why he founded the Rangers- to keeps the kingdom informed. to act as the eyes and ears of the kingdom."

"How do you do that?" Alfred asked, a question that had been on my mind. Halt noted the interest in Alfred's eyes, a momentary gleam of approval touched his eyes. 

"We keep our eyes and ears open. We patrol the kingdom- and beyond. We listen. We observe. We report back." 

Alfred nodded. "Is that why you can make ourselves invisible?" 

"We can't make ourselves invisible." he said. "People just think we can. What we do is make ourselves very hard to see. It takes years of learning and practice to do it properly- but you already have some of the skills required."

We both looked up, surprised. "We do?" I asked. 

"When you crossed the castle yard last night, you used the shadows and the movement of the wind to conceal yourselves, didn't you? And when you passed the sergeant and went up the stairs." 

We both nodded, "Yes. But Matthew is better at it than I am." We'd never met anyone who understood our skill for moving without being seen. Halt continued.

"We use the same principles: to blend into the background. To conceal us. To become a part of it."

"I see." Alfred said.

"The trick is to make sure nobody else does." Halt told us.

For a moment, I thought the Ranger had made a joke. But when I looked up, Halt was as grim-faced as ever. I quickly glanced at Alfred, who just shrugged. 

"How many Rangers are there?" I asked. Halt and the Baron had referred more than once to the Ranger Corps, we had only ever seen one- and that was Halt. I figured there had to be at least fifty, one for each fiefdom, but there could be more.

"King Herbert established the Corps at fifty. One for each of the fifty fiefdoms. I'm based here. My colleagues are based at the other forty-nine castles throughout the kingdom. In addition to providing intelligence about potential enemies, Rangers are the law keepers." Halt said. "We patrol the fiefdom assigned to us and make sure the laws are being obeyed." 

"I thought the Baron Arald did that," Alfred put in. Halt shook his head. 

"The Baron is the judge." he said. "People bring their complaints to him so he can settle them. Rangers enforce the law. We take the law out to the people. If a crime has been committed, we look for evidence. We're particularly suited to that role since people often don't realize we're around. We investigate to see who's responsible."  

"What happens then?" Alfred asked. Halt gave a small shrug.

"Sometimes we report back to the baron of the fief and he'll have the person arrested and charged. Sometimes, if it's a matter of urgency, we just ... deal with it."

"What do we do?" Alfred asked eagerly. Halt gave him a long, considering look.

"Not too much if we've only been an apprentice for a few hours." he replied. "Those of us who've been Rangers for twenty years or more tend to know what to do without asking."

"Oh," Alfred said, suitably chastened. Halt continued.

"Then, in times of war, we act as special troops- guiding the armies, scouting before them, going behind enemy lines to cause the enemy grief and so on." He glanced down at us. "It's a bit more exciting then working on a farm."

We both nodded. Perhaps life as a Ranger's apprentice was going to have its appeal after all. "What sort of enemies?" I asked. After all, Castle Redmont had been at peace for as long as I could remember. 

"Enemies from within and without," Halt told him. "People like the Skandian sea raiders- or Morgarath and his Wargals." 

I shivered, recalling some of the more lurid stories about Morgarath, the Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night. Halt nodded somberly as he saw our reactions. 

"Yes," he said. "Morgarath and his Wargals are defiantly people to be worried about. That's why the Rangers keep an eye on them. We like to know if they're gathering, if they're getting ready for war."

"Still," Alfred said, as much to reassure himself as for any other reason, "the last time they attacked, the baron's armies made mincemeat out of them."

"That's true," Halt agreed. "But only because they had been warned of the attack..." He paused and looked at us meaningfully. 

"By a Ranger?" I asked.

"Correct. It was a Ranger who brought word Morgarath's Wargals were on their way... then led a cavalry across a secret ford so they could flank the enemy."

"It was a great victory." Alfred said, I nodded.

"It certainly was. And all due to a Ranger's alertness and skill, and knowledge of back trails and secret paths." 

"Our father died in that battle." Alfred added in a quieter voice, and Halt cast a curious glance at him.

"Is that so?" he said.

"He was a hero. A mighty knight." Alfred continued.

While I do believe our father died in that battle, I don't want to think so highly of him even though he's dead and that he was our father. Alfred painted a pretty picture for himself but I don't want to get my hopes up only for them to be squashed in the future. The Ranger paused, almost as if he was deciding whether to say something or not. Then he simply replied:

"I wasn't aware of that."

I felt a sense of disappointment. For a moment I had a feeling that Halt knew something about our father, that he could tell us the real story of his death. I shrugged to myself. I glanced at Alfred, he was looking down at the wooden floor with a look of disappointment on his face too. I reach over to nudge him, he glances up and I give him a small smile. He grins back in return, the disappointment disappearing.

"Halt..." I said. The Ranger nodded for me to continue. "I was sort of wondering... the Baron said you chose us." 

Halt nodded again, saying nothing.

"And both of you say that we have other qualities-qualities that make us suitable to be a Ranger's apprentice."

"That's right." Halt said. 

"Well... what are they?"

The Ranger leaned back, linking his hands behind his head.

"You're agile. That's good in a Ranger." he began. "And, as we've discussed, you can move quietly. That's very important. You're fast on your feet. And you're inquisitive..."

"Inquisitive? How do you mean?" Alfred asked, Halt looked at him sternly.

"Always asking questions. Always wanting to know answers." he explained. "That's why I had the Baron test you with that piece of paper."

"But when did you first notice us? I mean, when did you first think of selecting us?" I wanted to know.

"Oh," said Halt, "I suppose it was when I watched you steal the cakes from Master Chubb's kitchen."

Our jaws drop open in amazement.

"You watched us? But that was ages ago." Alfred then added, "Where were you?"

"In the kitchen," said Halt. "You were both to busy to notice me when you came in."

Alfred shook his head in wonder. I had been sure there was nobody in the kitchen. Then I remembered how once again how Halt, wrapped in his cloak, was virtually invisible. There was more to being a Ranger, I realized, than how to cook and clean. Wait, if Halt was in the kitchen already, why was he there? I was about to open my mouth when Halt continued.

 "I was impressed with your skills," said Halt. "But there was one thing that impressed me far more."

"What was it?" I ask.

"Later, when Master Chubb questioned you, I saw you hesitate. You were going to deny having stolen the cakes. Then I saw you admit it. Remember? He hit you both with his wooden spoon."

We both grin and rub our heads. I could still hear the CRACK! made by the spoon hitting our heads. 

"I wondered if we shouldn't have lied," Alfred admitted. Halt shook his head very slowly.

"Oh, no. If you had lied, you both would have never become my apprentices." He stood up and stretched, turning to go indoors to the stew simmering on the stove.

"Now let's eat." he said.

 

Chapter Text

Horace's POV

I dropped my pack on the floor of the dormitory and fell across my bed, groaning in relief. Every muscle in my body ached. I had no idea that I could feel so worn out. I'd been a cadet for less than a week and already I was a physical wreck. 

The door at the end of the dormitory crashed back on its hinges and heavy boots sounded on the bare floorboards. I raised myself on one elbow and groaned inwardly. Bryn, Alda and Jerome were marching towards me between the neat rows of perfectly made beds. They were second-year cadets and they seemed to have decided that their life's work was to make my life miserable. Quickly, I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up, but not quickly enough. 

"What are you doing lying in bed?" Alda yelled at me. "Who told you it was lights out?" 

"Twenty push-ups!" Bryn ordered. "Now!'

I hesitated. If it came to a confrontation, I was sure I could beat any on of them, given the fact I was bigger than all of them. But they were three. Bryn had seen the hesitation and perhaps even the fleeting light of rebellion in my eyes. 

"Thirty push-ups!" he snapped. "Do it now!"

My muscles protesting, I dropped full length to the floor and began the push-ups. Immediately, I felt a foot in the small of my back, bearing down on me as I tried to raise myself from the floor.

"Come on, Baby!" It was Jerome now. "Put some effort into it!"

"Didn't you make your bed this morning?" Alda yelled, standing next to my bed. I, too busy struggling up against the pressure of Jerome's foot, could only grunt in reply.

"What? What?" Alda bent so that his face was only centimeters away. "What's that, Baby? Speak up!"

"Yes... sir." I whispered. Alda shook his head in an exaggerated movement.

"No sir, I think!" he said, standing upright again. "Look at this bed! It's a pigsty!"

Naturally, the covers were a little crumpled from where I had dropped across the bed. But it would have only taken a second or two to straighten them. Grinning, Bryn cottoned on to Alda's plan. He stepped forward and kicked the bed over on its side, spilling the mattress, blankets and pillows across the floor. Alda joined in, kicking the blankets across the floor.

"Make the bed again!" he yelled. Then a light gleamed in his eye and he turned to the next bed in line, kicking it over as well, scattering the bedclothes and mattresses as he'd done to mine.

"Make them all again!" he yelled, delighted with his idea. Bryn joined him, grinning widely, as they tumbled over twenty beds, scattering blankets, pillows and mattress around the room. Perspiration ran into my eyes, stinging them and blurring my vision.

"Crying, are you, Baby?" I heard Jerome yell. "Go home and cry to Mummy then!" He shoved his foot viciously into my back, sending me sprawling on the floor.

"Baby doesn't have a mummy," Alda said. "Baby's a Ward brat. Mummy ran off with a riverboat sailor."

Jerome bent down to me. "Is that right, Baby?" he hissed. "Did Mummy run away and leave you?"

"My mother is dead." I grated at them. Angrily, I began to rise, but Jerome's foot was on the back of my neck, thrusting my face against the hard boards. I gave up the attempt.

"Very sad," Alda said, and the other two laughed. "Now clean this mess up, Baby, or we'll have you run the course again."

I lay, exhausted, as the three older boys swaggered out of the room, tripping footlockers as they went, spilling his roommate's belongings onto the floor. I closed my eyes as salt perspiration stung its way into them again.

"I hate this place," I said, my voice muffled by the rough planks of the floor.


 

Alfred's POV

"Time you learned about the weapons you'll be using." Halt said.

We had eaten breakfast well before sunup and Matt and I had followed Halt into the forest. We'd had walked for an half an hour, with the Ranger showing us how to glide from one patch of shade to the next, as silently as possible. Both of us were good students in the art of unseen movement, as Halt already remarked, but we still had a lot to learn before we reached Ranger standard. Still, Halt was pleased with our progress. 

It was a slightly different matter when it came to less exciting tasks like map reading and chart drawing. I tended to skip over details that I saw as unimportant until Halt pointed out to me, with some acerbity, "You'll find these skills to be a little important if you were planning a route for a company of heavy cavalry and forgot to mention that there's a stream in the way." 

Now, we'd stopped in a clearing and Halt dropped a bundle that had been concealed beneath his cloak.

I regarded the bundle doubtfully. When I thought of weapons, I thought of swords and battleaxes and war maces- the weapons carried by knights. It was obvious that this small bundle contained none of those. 

"What sort of weapons? Do we have swords?" I asked, my eyes glued to the bundle.

"A Ranger's principal weapons are stealth and silence and his ability to avoid being seen," Halt said. "But if they fail, then you may have to fight."

"So then we have a sword?" I said hopefully.

Halt knelt and unwrapped the bundle.

"No. Then we have a bow," he said and placed two bows at our feet.

My first reaction was one of disappointment. A bow was something people used for hunting, I thought. Everyone had bows. A bow was more of a tool than a weapon. As a child, Matthew and I had made our fair share of them ourselves, bending a springy tree branch into shape. Then, as Halt said nothing, I looked more closely at the bow. This, I realized, was no bent branch.

I could see that it was a beautifully made weapon. Maybe, I thought, this really was a weapon after all. Matt and I picked a bow.

"Can I shoot it?" I asked.

Halt nodded, "If you feel that's a good idea, go ahead." 

I saw Matt open his mouth, like he was going to say something but thought better of it since he closed his mouth. Quickly, I chose an arrow from the quiver that had been in the bundle alongside the bow and fitted it to the string. I pulled it back with my thumb and forefinger, aimed at a tree trunk some twenty meters away and fired.

Whack!

The heavy bowstring slapped into the soft flesh on the inside of my arm, stinging like a whip. I yelled with pain and dropped the bow as if it were red-hot. Already, a thick welt was forming on my arm. I had no idea where the arrow had gone. Nor did I care. I heard Matthew chuckle softly before he cut himself off. I glare at him before I turn to Halt.

"That hurt!" I said, looking accusingly at the Ranger.

Halt shrugged.

"You're always in a hurry, youngster."  he said, "That may teach you to wait a little next time." 

He bent to the bundle and pulled out a long cuff made of stiff leather. He slid it onto my left arm so that it would protect me from the bowstring. Ruefully, I noticed that Halt was wearing a similar cuff. Even more ruefully, I realized that I had noticed this before, but never wondered about the reason for it. Halt handed another cuff to Matthew.

"Now, try it again." said Halt. 

I chose another arrow and placed it on the string. As I went to draw it back again, Halt stopped me.

"Not with the thumb and forefinger," he said. "Let the arrow rest between the first and second fingers on the string... like this."

He showed me how to nock- the notch at the butt of the arrow- actually clipped to the string and held the arrow in place. Then he demonstrated how to let the string rest on the first joint of the first, second, and third fingers, with the first finger above the nock point and the others below it. Finally, he showed us how how to allow the string to slip loose so that the arrow was released. 

"That's better," he said and, as I brought the arrow back, continued, "Try to use your back muscles, not just your arms. Feel as though you're pushing your shoulder blades together..." 

I tried it and the bow seemed to draw a little easier. I found that I could hold it steadier than before. I fired again. This time, I just barely missed the tree trunk I had been aiming for. 

"You need practice. You try." Halt addressed the last part to Matthew. 

Matthew chose an arrow and place it on the string, like how Halt had shown. He drew it back and Halt fixed the positioning of his fingers. Matthew drew it back again and fired. He just barely missed that same tree I had been aiming at. 

"Ok, Put the bows down for now." Halt said.

Carefully, we set down the bows. I exchanged an eager grin with Matt as Halt reached for the bundle again. 

"These are Ranger's knives." said Halt. He handed us both a double scabbard, like the one he wore on the left side of his own belt.

I took the double scabbard and examined it. The knives were set one above the other. The top knife was the shorter of the two. It had a thick, heavy grip made of a series of leather discs set one above the other. There was a brass crosspiece between the hilt and the blade and it had a matching brass pommel. 

"Take it out," Halt said. "Do it carefully." 

We slid the short knife from the scabbard. It was an unusual shape. Narrow at the hilt, it tapered out sharply, becoming thicker and and wider for three-quarters of its length to form a broad blade with the weight concentrated toward the tip, then a steep reverse taper created a razor sharp tip. We looked curiously at Halt.

"It's for throwing," said the Ranger. "The extra width at the tip balances the weight of the hilt. And the combined weight of the two help drive the knife home when you throw it. Watch."

His hand moved smoothly and swiftly to the broad-bladed knife at his own waist. He flicked it free from the scabbard and, in one smooth motion, sent it spinning toward a nearby tree. The knife thudded home into the wood with a satisfying thock!  We looked at Halt, impressed with the Ranger's skill and speed.

"How did you learn to do that?" Matthew asked.

Halt looked at him, "Practice."

He gestured for us to inspect the second knife. 

This one was longer. The handle had the same leather disc construction, and there was a short sturdy crosspiece. The blade was heavy and straight, razor sharp on one side, thick and heavy on the other. 

"This is in case your enemy gets to close quarters," said Halt. "Although if you're any sort of archer, he never will. It's balanced for throwing, but you can block a sword stroke with that blade. It's made by the finest steelsmiths in the kingdom. Look after it and keep it sharp."

"I will." we said, admiring the knife in our hands.

"It's similar to what the Skandians call a saxe knife," Halt told  us. I frowned at the unfamiliar name and Halt went on the explain further. 

"It's both a weapon and a tool- a sea ax originally. But over the years the words sort of slid together to become saxe. Mind you," he added, "the quality of the steel in ours is a long way superior to the Skandian ones." 

I studied the knife more closely, seeing the faint blue tint in the blade, feeling the perfect balance. With it's leather and brass hilt, the knife might be plain and functional in appearance. But it was a fine weapon and I realized, far superior to the comparatively clumsy swords worn by castle Redmont's warriors. 

Halt showed us how to strap the double scabbard to our belts so that our hands fell naturally to the knife hilts. "Now," he said, "all you have to do is learn how to use them. And you know what that means, don't you?" 

We nod our heads, grinning.

"A lot of practice." I said. 

 


 

Should I keep Tug, and make him a little taller, and if so who should I give him to? Or should I just give them two brand new horses? Any suggestions on what their names should be?

Chapter Text

 

Matthew's POV

 

Halt examined the target I had been shooting at, and nodded.

"Not bad at all," he said. "Your shooting has definitely improved."

I let a small smile appear on my face. That was high praise coming from Halt. Halt saw the expression and opened his mouth but Alfred cut him off. 

"What about me, Halt? Has my shooting improved?" Alfred asked, eager to receive the same praise I had.

Halt glanced at his. "It has improved some. With more practice- a lot more practice- you both might even achieve mediocrity." 

My smile, along with Alfred's eager face, faded and Halt dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand.

"That's enough shooting for now. Let's go." he said and set off, striding down a narrow path through the forest. 

"Where are we going?" I asked.

Halt looked up at the trees above him.

"Why do these boys ask so many questions?"

Naturally, they didn't answer.

 

They walked for an hour before coming to a small cluster of buildings buried deep in the forest. Alfred, I could tell, was aching to ask more questions but we both had learned by now that Halt wasn't going to answer them. Sooner or later, we'd learn why we had come here. 

Halt led the way up to the largest of the ramshackle huts, then stopped, signaling for us to do likewise.

"Hullo, Old Bob!" he called.

I heard someone moving inside the hut, then a wrinkled, bent figure appeared in the doorway. His beard was long and matted and a dirty white color. He was almost completely bald. As he moved toward us, grinning and nodding a greeting to Halt, I caught my breath. Alfred glanced at me then wrinkled his nose. Old Bob smelled like a stable. And a none too clean one at that.

"Morning to you, Ranger!" said Old Bob. "Who's this you've brung to see me?" He looked keenly at Alfred and I. The eyes were bright and very alert, despite his dirty, unkempt appearance.

"This is Matthew and Alfred, my two new apprentices," said Halt. "Matthew and Alfred, this is Old Bob"

"Good morning, sir." 

"Morning, uh sir." 

The old man cackled. "Calls me sir! Hear that, Ranger, calls me sir! Make a fine Ranger, these ones will!"

I smiled at him. Dirty as he might be, there was something likable about Old Bob – perhaps it was the fact that he seemed to be in no way overawed by Halt. I couldn't remember seeing anyone speaking to the grim-faced Ranger in quite this familiar tone before. Halt grunted impatiently. 

"Are they ready?" he asked. The old man cackled again and nodded several times.

"Ready they are indeed!" he said. "Step this way and see them." He led us to the back of the hut, where a small paddock was fenced off. At the far side, there was a lean-to shed. Just a roof and supporting posts. No walls. Old Bob let out a piercing whistle that made me jump.

"There they are, see?" he said, pointing to the lean-to.

I looked and saw three small horses trotting across the yard to greet the old man. As they came closer, I realized that two of them were taller than the third. But all three were small, shaggy animals, nothing like the fierce, sleek battlehorses that the Baron and his knights rode to war.

The smaller of the three trotted immediately to Halt's side. He patted its neck and handed it an apple from a bin close by the fence. The horse crunched it gratefully. Halt leaned forward and said a few words into its ear. The horse tossed its head and neighed, as if it were sharing some private joke with the Ranger.

The other two, a white one with grey flecks and a brown and white one, waited by Old Bob until he had given them an apple to crunch as well. Then the white one turned one large, intelligent eye on me.

"This 'un's called Kuma," said the old man. "He looks about your size, don't he?"

He passed the rope bridle to me, I took it and looked into the horse's eyes. He was a shaggy beast. His legs were longish, and sturdy. His body was barrel shaped. His mane and tail were ragged and unbrushed. All in all, as horses went, he wasn't a very impressive sight, I thought.

"This 'un's called Dallas." Old Bob handed the other rope brindle to Alfred. 

I may not be a battlehorse, its eyes seemed to say, but I might just surprise you.

"Well," said Halt. "What do you think of them?" He was fondling the other horse's soft nose. They were obviously old friends. I hesitated. I didn't want to offend anyone.

"He's nice." I say. 

"Mine's so cool. Not as big as the battlehorses though." Alfred says, reaching up to scratch behind Dallas's ear.

"He ain't no battlehorse, are he, boy?" Old Bob asked.

"Well… no, he isn't," I said awkwardly. I liked Bob and I felt any criticism of the pony might be taken personally. But Old Bob simply laughed again.

"But he'll run any of those fine fancy-looking battlehorses into the ground!" he said proudly. "He's a strong'un, this 'un. He'll keep going all day, long after them fancy horses have laid down and died."

I looked again at the horse. I saw Alfred looking a tad doubtful.

"Why don't you see?" Halt suggested. "You're fast on your feet. Turn him loose and see if you can capture him again."

We both sensed the challenge in the Ranger's voice. I dropped the rope bridle, Alfred doing the same. The horses, as if realizing that this was some sort of test, skipped lightly away into the center of the small enclosure. Alfred and I ducked under the fence rails and walked softly toward the horses. I held out my hand invitingly.

"Come on, boy," I said. "Stand still there." I reached out my hand for the bridle and the horse suddenly wheeled away. It shied to one side, then the other, then sidestepped neatly around me and danced backward out of reach.

I saw Alfred's horse do the something similar. I tried again. Again, the horse evaded me easily. I was beginning to feel foolish. I advanced on the horse and it backed away, moving closer and closer to one of the corners. Then, just when I thought I had it, it nimbly danced to one side and was away again. Alfred didn't have any more luck than I did. He was now running after it. I walked towards the horse, not putting any real effort into catching it. I was trying to think of a way to keep it still long enough for me to catch it.  I'd never catch a horse as light on its feet and fast-moving as this one. There must be another way…my gaze fell on the bin of apples outside the fence. Quickly, I grabbed Alfred's arm, as he ran by, and nodded at the bin of barrels. He looked at them, then understanding what I was saying, he ducked under the rail and seized two apples. Then he went back into the paddock and gave one to me. Together we stood stock-still, holding the apples out. 

"Come on, boy," he said.

Kuma's ears shot up, along with Dallas's. He liked apples. He also thought he liked this boy-he played this game well. Tossing his head approvingly, he trotted forward and took the apple delicately. I seized hold of the bridle and the horse crunched the apple. Alfred doing the same. If a horse could be said to look blissful, this one did.

I looked up and saw Halt nodding approval. 

"Well thought out," said the Ranger. Old Bob elbowed the gray-cloaked man in the ribs.

"Clever those boys!" he cackled. "Clever and polite! They'll both make a good team with Kuma and Dallas, won't they?" I patted the shaggy neck and the pricked-up ears. I looked now at the old man.

"Why do you call him Kuma?" I asked.

"He's one of them winter gods up in Alpina." Old Bob said. "Y'know because he looks a bit like snow."

"What about Dallas?" Alfred asked eagerly.

"Dallas, because well, because I liked the name and seems to fit him. Don't you think?" Old Bob said. 

Alfred looked at his horse again, and smiled a bit. "Yeah, it does."

"Take them over to the lean-to and Bob can show you how to groom him and look after his tack," he said, then added to the old man, "We'll stay with you tonight, Bob, if that's not inconvenient?"

The old horse handler nodded his head in pleasure. "I'll be glad of the company, Ranger. Sometimes I spend so much time with the horses that I start to think I'm one myself." Unconsciously, he dipped a hand into the apple barrel and selected one, absentmindedly crunching into it-much as Kuma had done a few minutes earlier. Halt watched him, one eyebrow raised.

"We might be just in time," he observed dryly. "Then, tomorrow, we'll see if they can ride Kuma and Dallas as well as catch them," he said. I'm pretty sure he said it knowing we would get very little sleep that night.

He was right. Old Bob's tiny cabin had only two rooms, so after their supper, Halt stretched out on the floor by the fireplace and Alfred and I bedded down in the warm, clean straw of the barn, listening to the gentle whiffling sounds of the two horses. The moon rose and fell as Alfred and I lay wide awake, wondering and worrying over what the next day might bring. We didn't talk, even though we were both aware that the other wasn't asleep. Would I be able to ride Kuma? I'd never ridden a horse. Would I fall off the minute I tried? Would I be hurt? Worse still, would I embarrass myself? I liked Old Bob and I didn't want to look foolish in front of him. Nor in front of Halt, I realized, with a little surprise. I was still wondering when Halt's good opinion had come to mean so much to me when I finally fell asleep.

 


I couldn't think of a name for Alfred's horse so I looked up popular horse names and went with Dallas because why not. And Alpina is a real place in the books. It's right next to Gallica. In case you were wondering.