Isn't that someone we know?" asked Horace. He pointed to where a cloaked figure sat by the side of the road a few hundred meters away, arms wrapped around his knees. Close by him, a small shaggy horse cropped the grass growing at the edge of the drainage ditch that ran beside the road. "So it is," Halt replied. "And he seems to have brought Will with him.
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King Duncan looked up and swept his gaze slowly around the room. Cassandra, he saw, was defiant as ever. Arald's face was set and determined. Halt and Crowley's faces were inscrutable in the shadows of their cowls. The two younger men were both a little wide-eyed- obviously uncomfortable at the emotions that had been bared in the room. There was still a hint of admiration in Will's eyes, however, as he continued to stare at the Baron. Rodney was nodding in agreement with Arald's statements, while Gilan made a show of studying his nails.
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I'll be getting you for this,' Halt had told him as he dabbed the diguisting mixture on the worst of the cuts. 'That soot is filthy. I'll probably come down with half a dozen infections.' Probably,' Horace had replied, distracted by his task. 'But we'll only need you for today.' Which was not a very comforting thought for Halt.
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You had this young man with you for... what, six years?" Halt shrugged. "Near enough," he replied. "And did you ever understand a word he was saying?" "Not a lot of the time, no," Halt said. Crowley shook his head in wonder. "It's just as well he didn't go into the Diplomatic Service. We'd be at war with half a dozen countries by now if he was on the loose." Will drew a deep breath to begin talking. He noticed that both men took an involuntary half step backward and he decided he'd better try to keep it as simple as possible.
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Halt snorted derisively. "Battleschool evidently isn't what it used to be," he replied. "It's a fine thing when an old man like me can sleep comfortably in the open while a young boy gets all stiff and rheumatic over it." Horace shrugged. "Be that as it may," he replied, "I'll still be glad to sleep in a bed tonight." Actually, Halt felt the same way. But he wasn't going to let Horace no that.
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I nearly forgot, Ragnak had a further message for you. He said if we lose this battle and loses his slaves as well, he's going to kill you for it," he said cheerfully. Halt smiled grimly. "If we lose this battle, he may have to get in line to do it. There'll be a few thousand Temujai cavalrymen in front of him.
Looks like he's lost a guinea and found a farthing," Horace said, then added, unnecessarily, "Will, I mean." Halt turned in his saddle to regard the younger man and raised an eyebrow. "I may be almost senile in your eyes, Horace, but there's no need to explain the blindly obvious to me. I'd hardly have thought you were referring to Tug.
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What was that, Kurokuma?' asked one of the escorts riding near him. The others chuckled at the name. 'Nothing important,' Horace said. Then he looked at them suspiciously. 'What's this Kurokuma business?' The Senshi looked at him with a completely staight face. 'It's a term of great respect,' he said. Several others within earshot nodded confirmation. They too managed to remain straight-faced. It was a skill the Nihon-Jan had perfected. 'Great respect,' one of them echoed.
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Halt! How are you? What have you been doing? Where's Abelard? How's Crowley? What's this all about?" "I'm glad to see you rate my horse more important than our Corps Commandant," Halt said, one eyebrow rising in the expression that Will knew so well. Early in their relationship, he had thought it was an expression of displeasure. He had learned years ago that it was, for Halt, the equivalent of a smile.
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Many rulers would have spent the morning complaining loudly about the cold and the discomfort, as if their complaints would actually serve to alleviate the situation and as if their attendants should be able to do something about it. Not the emperor. He accepted the situation knowing that he could do nothing to change the weather. Best to endure it without making life more difficult for those around him.
Now for God's sake, will you two start behaving like a princess and a Courier?" Halt told them. "If you don't, I'll have to think about sending Will home.' 'Me?' Will said, his voice breaking into a high-pitched squeak of indignation. 'What's it got to do with me?' 'It's all your fault!' Halt shouted irrationally.
How do we get there? How did you get here, by the way?' [Will asked]. He heard Halt's deep sigh and knew he'd done it again. 'Do you ever, ' the older Ranger said with great deliberation, 'manage to ask just one question at a time? Or does it always have to be multiple choice with you?' Will looked at him in surprise. 'Do I do that?' he asked. 'Are you sure?' Halt said nothing. He raised his hands in a 'See what I mean?' gesture... 'Halt, ' [Selethen said], 'I could be wrong, but I think you were just guilty of the same fault. I'm sure I heard you ask two questions just then.' 'Thank you for pointing that out, Lord Selethen, ' Halt said with icy formality.
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Easy climb, Kurokuma. You do it easily.' 'Not on your life, ' Horace said... 'That's what we have Rangers for. They climb up sheer rock walls and crawl along narrow, slippery ledges. I'm a trained warrior, and I'm far to valuable to risk such shenanigans.' 'We're not valuable?' Will said, feigning insult. Horace looked at him. 'We've got two of you. We can always afford to lose one, ' he said firmly.
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Gundar, seeing Halt upright for the first time in two days, stumped up the deck to join them. 'Back on your feet then?' he boomed cheerfully, with typical Skandian tact. 'By Gorlag's toenails, with all the heaving abd puking you've been doing, I thought you'd turn yourself inside out and puke yourself over the rail!'... 'You do paint a pretty picture, Gundar, ' Will said... 'Thank you for your concern, ' Halt said icily... 'So, did you find Albert?' Gundar went on, unabashed. Even Halt was puzzled by this sudden apparent change of subject. 'Albert?' he asked. Too late, he saw Gundar's grin widening and knew he'd stepped into a trap. 'You seemed to be looking for him. You'd lean over the rail and call, 'Al-b-e-e-e-e-e-r-t!' I thought he might be some Araluen sea god.' 'No, I didn't find him. Maybe I could look for him in your helmet.' He reached out a hand. But Gundar had heard what happened when Skandians lent their helmets to the grim-faced Ranger while onboard ship... 'No, I'm pretty sure he's not there, ' he said hurriedly.
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Will saw the first Senshi officer release and instantly knew where the arrow was aimed. 'They've spotted Shigeru!' He was about to turn and shove Shigeru to the ground, but as he did so, his eye caught a flicker of movement and he spun back. When asked later about what he did next, he could never explain how he managed it. Nor could he ever repeat the feat. He acted totally from instinct, an unbelievable piece of coordination between hand and eye. The Senshi arrow flashed downward, heading directly for Shigeru. Will flicked his bow at it, caught it and deflected it from its course. The arrowhead screeched on the hard, rocky ground and the arrow skittered away. Even Halt took a second to be impressed. 'My god!' he said. 'How did you do that?
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Will had been taken aback in his confrontation with Arisaka to discover that his name- Chocho- meant "Butterfly"... He was puzzled to know why they had selected it. His friends, of course, delighted in helping him guess the reason. 'I assume it's because you're such a snazzy dresser, ' Evanlyn said. 'You Rangers are a riot of color, after all.'... 'I think it might be more to do with the way he raced around the training ground, darting here and there to correct the way a man might be holding his shield, then dashing off to show someone how to put their body weight into their javelin cast, ' said Horace, a little more sympathetically. Then he ruined the effect by adding thoughtlessly, 'I must say, your cloak did flutter around like a butterfly's wings.
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Fighting positions, please, ladies... ' 'That's debatable, ' Halt said in an undertone to Will as they stood watching... 'The 'fighting' part or the 'ladies' part?' Will replied with a grin. Halt looked at him and shook his head. 'Definitely the 'ladies, '' he said. 'There's no debate about the 'fighting.'' Will shrugged. He knew there was an edginess to the girls' relationship and that it had something to do with him. Why that should be so was beyond him.
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Halt eyed them balefully. They were all being so obvious about not mentioning his sudden reappearance that it was even worse than if they had commented on it... 'Oh, go on!' he said. 'Somebody say something! I know what you're thinking!' 'It's good to see you up and about, Halt, ' Selethen said gravely... Halt glared at the others and they quickly chorused their pleasure at seeing him back to his normal self. But he could see the grins they didn't quite manage to hide. He fixed a glare on Alyss. 'I'm surprised at you Alyss, ' he said. 'I expected no better of Will and Evanlyn, of course. Heartless beasts, the pair of them. But you! I thought you had been better trained!'... 'Halt, I'm sorry! It's not funny, you're right... Shut up, Will.' This last was directed at Will as he tried, unsuccessfully, to smother a snigger.
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The two girls disappeared into the stern cabin once more. Will watched them go, then asked Halt, 'Anything you'd like me to do? Grow a beard? Learn to walk like a rooster?' 'If you could stop asking facetious questions, that'd be a start, ' Halt told him. 'But it's probably a little late in life for you to do that.
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But... ' Horace looked from one familiar face to another. 'How did you come to..?' Before he could finish the question, Will interupted, thinking to clarify matters but only making them more puzzling... 'We were all in Toscana for the treaty signing, ' he began, then corrected himself. 'Well, Evanlyn wasn't. She came later. But, when she did, she told us you were missing, so we all boarded Gundar's ship-you should see it. It's a new design that can sail into the wind. But anyway, that's not important. And just before we left, Selethen decided to join us-what with you being an old comrade in arms and all-and... ' He got no further. Halt, seeing the confusion growing on Horace's face, held up a hand to stop his babbling former apprentice... Will stopped, a little embarrassed as he realized that he had been running off at the mouth.
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Right! Let's get on with it! All right... you... Will... have trained as apprentice to Ranger Halt of Redmont Fief these last five twelvemonths and blah blah blah and so on and so on. You've shown the necessary level of proficiency in the use of the weapons a Ranger uses- the longbow, the saxe knife, the throwing knife." He paused and glanced up Halt. "He has shown the proficiency, hasn't he? Of course he has, " he went on, before Halt could answer. "Furthermore, you are a trusted officer in the service of the King and so on and so on and hi diddle diddle dee dee... " He glanced up again. "These forms really do carry on a bit, don't they? But I have to make a pretense of reading them. And so forth and so on and such like." He paused, nodded several times, then continued. "So basically... " He flicked a few more pages, found the one he was after and then continued, "You are in all ways ready to assume the position and authority of a fully operational Ranger in the Kingdom of Araluen. Correct?" He glanced up again, his eyebrows raised. Will realized he was waiting for an answer. "Correct, " he said hastily, then in case that wasn't enough, he added, "Yes. I mean... I do... I am. Yes." "Well, good for you.
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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 the boy sitting beside him, tossing the question out quickly to see his response. Will hesitated. He vaugely remembered the name from history lessons in the Ward, but he couldn't remember any details. Still, he decided he'd try to bluff his way through it... "Oh... yes, " he said, "King Herbert. We learned about him." "Really?" said the Ranger expansively. "Perhaps you could tell me a little about him?" He leaned back and crossed his legs, getting himself comfortable... "He was... " he hesitated, pretending to gather his thoughts. "The king." That much he was sure of. Halt merely smiled and made a rolling gesture with his hand that meant go on. "He was the king... a hundred and fifty years ago, " Will 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?
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