This does contain book 10 spoilors. You have been warned.
Anyway, as much as I enjoyed the Emperor of Nihon-ja, I felt like it wasn't a true ending to a series like Ranger's Apprentice. Many characters such as Gilan, Tug, Crowley, King Duncan, etc. don't even appear, and we never even see Araluen land which, to me, lacked the feeling of closure. I know there is more to come, but I believe the next two books are short stories and then another book that takes place twenty years later from what I've read Wiki and other sites.
I actually just refurbished this first chapter a little, to give a little more insight and more of a hint as to what is to come later in the story. Be warned of character angst and whumpage in future chapters.
This story contains WillxAlyss, HoracexEvanlyn (Cassandra), HaltxPauline, and possibly hinted GilanxJenny.
Dance of the Crimson Knives
A year had gone by since they returned from Nihon-ja. The kingdom of Araluen was bubbly with eagerness over the wedding of Princess Cassandra, which was finally almost here.
Sir Horace, to-be husband of the Crown Princess, was away from Castle Araluen in the Redmont fief, at Will's cabin table to be exact, on this fine morning.
"It's already here! How am I to live up to be the princess's groom? Oh, what if I fudge something up? You know I will! King Duncan will surely-."
"Horace!" Will raised his hand, cutting his frantically rambling friend off. "You still have a month to go for one thing. And you saw the look on King Duncan's face when you and Evanlyn announced your engagement. He was thrilled!"
"Before I mess up and ruin everything."
"Which you won't," Will shook his head at the young knight. "You knew what you were doing when you proposed to her a year ago. You're just getting the pre-wedding insanity." He wore a sly grin on his face, gently stirring his cup of coffee which he cradled in his hand.
In truth, Will could understand the doubts that must be zipping through Horace's mind. As the husband, or to-be husband, of the future Queen, great expectations rested on his shoulders. It was only just now dawning on Horace that, with marriage to the Crown Princess, he was to be future King.
"Well what about you?" Horace redirected the conversation. "You and Alyss? I mean, it's been a year since you stole my proposal."
"Oh, I didn't steal it! You just…gave me a boost." Will shrugged and kicked his feet up on the table. "If I stole it you wouldn't have it, would you?"
"Never mind…When are you two going to officially tie the knot?" Horace gazed expectantly at his friend, arching an eyebrow and, like before, doing it wrong.
The thought had struck both Will and Alyss since the night Will 'proposed' to Alyss. Although they considered themselves engaged and as did most of everyone, there has been little talk of actual wedding plans. In fact, life continued almost normally for them. Will knew it was because of nerves, mostly on his part, and suddenly he felt a pang of guilt towards Alyss.
However he shook it off. "We aren't royalty; we can take our sweet time and tie the knot when we feel ready." He smiled at his friend. "You just-."
A knock on the door interrupted him and, without waiting for a response, the door opened to admit Sir Rodney, Battlemaster of Castle Redmont.
Upon seeing his old mentor, Horace beamed and rose briskly to his feet. "Sir Rodney!" He greeted the chuckling man warmly with a bear-hug.
"Good for you to pay a visit!" Rodney said. He had always been fond of Horace, and he was almost just as delighted as King Duncan when he heard the news of the royal engagement. "Thought you could get away with not coming to Castle Redmont though, eh?"
Horace laughed. "It was stop number two. But I'm surprised you came here."
"Well, I knew you were coming and I figured this would be your first stop." The friendship between Will and Horace was infamous, Horace wouldn't pass Will's home without stepping in. "But I also had something for Will, an assignment actually."
Hearing this, Will rose to his feet and looked curiously at Rodney, a small smile on his face. "An assignment?" he inquired curiously.
Rodney nodded. "A thief's been causing some havoc, and he's a slippery one. Since we're having trouble catching him and you've been cooped up in here, I thought you'd be up for the job."
"As if I'd refuse!" Will smiled at the Battlemaster, nodding towards Horace. "I'll head out now while you two catch up at Castle Redmont. Just give me some details and I'll be off."
The sun-stained walls of Castle Redmont had now faded into the distance. A figure, cloaked in green and gray, rode away from the castle on a small shaggy horse. He sighed from under his cowl, gently patting the neck of his horse. "This fella sure covers distance."
Just this morning he received word of a fugitive on the run. He was a push-and-take kind and, luckily for him, a slippery one. However for a skilled tracker like Will, he practically paved his path which was taking him farther and farther from Redmont and its fief, for now it was around noon judging by the sun's location and Will's lack of a shadow.
He gently nudged Tug's sides, urging him to pick up the pace a little. They were going at a rather relaxed pace, and Will wanted to catch this criminal before he strayed too far from Redmont. It was daunting to have to actually part from your fief to track down somebody as harmless and typical as a robber, who hasn't even been reported to have threatened anyone. Missions like these Will prefers to have done with and return to a hot cup of coffee back at his cabin. Although Will had been eager to have something to do, he didn't want to waste away too much time of Horace's presence in Redmont.
A youthful fur of black and white bounded after them to keep up with the new pace. Ebony, the daughter of Shadow, now accompanied her master on most missions. She's no different than her mother, with the same mismatched eyes and the utter devotion to Will. Since Will had given up Shadow at Norgate, he was more than happy to welcome Ebony as part of his team.
Will reined Tug to a halt as they approached a forest, smoothly dismounting his horse into the soft grass. It took only a brief look to see what direction the fugitive had fled, the soft grass told that story fluently.
Shaking his head at his prey's naïve nature, Will stepped towards the forest when he heard an annoyed neigh coming from behind him. The Ranger turned around in puzzlement at Tug.
I can go in there too, you know.
Will smiled and stroked his friend's nose. "Good thing one of us is always on top of things." He mounted Tug once more and set off into the shrouded woods with Ebony at their heels, presently unaware of the pair of eyes that followed them.
Sure-footed Tug managed easily in the forest. Ebony had raced slightly ahead, her ears perked as she looked curiously around. The dog was still young and had limited experience with the world beyond Redmont. Despite her excitement, Ebony forced herself to remain focus on the task at paw.
He can't be too far now Will thought. The trail was quite fresh and no normal man could weave his way successfully and quickly through a trail-less mess like this. It wouldn't be long before Will caught him; he had to admire the fugitive's speed. I suppose you'd logically like to be fast as a robber.
Unlike her master, Ebony was no longer at ease nor happily looking about the unfamiliar trees. Just ahead, she had paused and her head had shot up, alert and scrutinizing the surrounding forest.
Will frowned when he saw this. "What is it girl?" He asked her softly, his eyes following the gaze of the dogs. The ranger saw nothing, but he was overcome with a foreboding feeling, as if the trees themselves had unwavering eyes on him. Something wasn't right. He didn't know what, he didn't now how that was, but he knew it.
He looked to Tug, who was also now alert seeing that the keen sense of the dog having caught on to something. It was unnerving, the feeling, for a Ranger is hardly ever the prey, which was what Will felt like right now. The hair on the back of his neck rose with every rustle of the leaves and cracking of the branches overhead. Instinctively, his hand went to his bow.
A growl then erupted from Ebony's throat and she barked, catching Will's attention. Once she saw his eyes on her, Ebony bolted off-course. This didn't concern Will; there was obviously a bigger picture that needed uncovering, so he set after the dog.
Will nearly gagged when a waft of blood scent rushed at him. It polluted the air like kicked-up dust. He clutched onto Tug's reins, pressing forward until he could see a small, grassy clearing where Ebony barked frantically. And he didn't like the reason why.
As soon as Tug burst from the shrubs, both Will and the horse stopped in horrific astonishment. Lying in a bloody pool, his clothes torn and reddened, was a figure in a green and gray cloak.
Beside the fallen was a shaggy brown horse who cuddled near his fallen master, neighing and whining pitifully as he continued to nudge his rider in a fruitless attempt to make him rise. The horse himself was battered with torn fur and ripped skin, one of his eyes has been bloodied and a leg evidently broken.
The sight was unknown to Will, but he was still quick to act. He nearly leaped off Tug and hurried to the other Ranger's side, checking for a pulse on his cooling neck. After jamming two fingers hopelessly in the Ranger's neck again, Will knew it was useless. The Ranger was dead.
"Damn…!" He cursed under his breath. Will felt his eyes water as he looked over the dead Ranger, Leopold was his name. He hadn't known Leopold too well among the Ranger Corps, but Rangers looked after their own kind, and this blonde-headed Ranger was one of them.
The same thoughts raced through Will's mind underneath his grief for his fellow Ranger. What could have possibly killed a Ranger? Looking over his wounds, Will could see several deep stabs, including one to the neck which was obviously the killing slice. Leopold's neck was coated in blood, the red liquid still oozing slowly out of the deep wound.
Will's eyes widened. This death was recent!
He rose from his knees, now drenched in the Ranger's blood, and knocked an arrow in a split second. Whatever had murdered Leopold wasn't afraid of Rangers, and could come back.
The sudden action brought Leopold's horse back to reality, neighing in alarm as it attempted to rise to its feet with no success. Tug, his gaze on the other horse, went over and gently nudged him, as if to offer his comfort with a small, low neigh.
Will ignored the horses. He knew something was moving under the cover of the trees' shadows. For a brief second, he thought he saw something move, and then it was gone. It was gone entirely. Only the stench of death hung in the air.
More to come! Reviews and constructive critiques appreciated. :)