Oops…forgot: I would like to thank my wonderful beta, Sauron Gorthaur. She completely exceeded expectations and my story would be nothing without her help. Much appreciated.
Sorry for forgetting to update last week. I dislocated my knee at soccer, so…things were busy being at the hospital and all…
Will ducked under the table, pulling Ember with him. "Stay here, and don't move. I need to find out who is outside."
Will used the snake-crawl technique that he had worked so hard to perfect to effectively slither to his bedroom. He emerged moments later with a strung recurve bow nocked with a black-shafted arrow. He crawled back under the table, ears sharpened, and waited, keenly listening for any sound. When none came, he crawled to the back door, and slipped silently outside, keeping his back pressed to the wall and staying crouched down. If he stayed crouched and someone was around the corner, it would be a lot harder for that person to see him. People usually expected to see a face at eye level, so they were typically not in the habit of looking down. People usually see what they want to see…Will figured that Halt's mantras would never leave his mind, ever. The senior Ranger certainly seemed to have used every tool in his arsenal to make sure this was case, in Will's opinion.
Ember waited impatiently under the table, her knees to her chest, her pulse beating twice as fast as normal. Her breath came in short, rapid gasps, and her eyes were dilated to the size of dinner plates. Her fear encompassed all of her thoughts. She sat, tense as could be while waiting for Will.
There came a loud crash and yelling from outside, which caused Ember to jump in surprise. She started, and her head hit the table. She cried out in pain and sat, rubbing it. She moved into a better position to see what was happening outside when she heard, "You! What the hell are you doing?"
Then, moments later, two men came back inside. The shorter one, Will, was enraged. "The heck do you think you're doing, sneaking up on us like that?! You couldn't just come up to the door like a normal person?"
The taller one simply laughed. "Well, you weren't supposed to answer the door. I was trying to sneak up on Halt and catch him with his breeches down. But anyway, come on, embrace your inner Ranger!"
"Inner what?" asked Ember, getting up from under the table. She had decided it was safe enough to come out now. Despite Will's rage, it was clear that he knew the handsome stranger whose cheerful demeanor and smiling face didn't look too threatening.
She was halfway emerged, her torso out from under the table with her hindquarters underneath, when the taller one asked, "Oh? And who's this?" He raised an eyebrow.
"I'm Ember." She straightened up and dusted off her skirt. "Pleased to make yer acquaintance." She curtsied then shook his hand.
"Well, no, the pleasure is all mine, Miss Ember. And you may call me Gilan," he said, going into a deep, theatrical bow and kissing her hand.
Will raised his eyes to the ceiling, an expression that instantly reminded Gilan of Halt. "You two are so dramatic," he said. "Stop it, Gil. Otherwise Jenny's going to have a heart attack."
Gilan gave Will a look of mock dolefulness. "You've been spending too much time around grizzled, old Halt! You're no fun, Will. Loosen up." He gave Will's shoulder a squeeze and shook him back and forth.
Will decided to ignore the friendly taunt and brushed Gilan's hand off his shoulder. "So what are you doing here?" he asked. "What about your fief? Or have you been too lazy to take care of those poor innocents?"
Gilan snorted. "Like the people of Redmont fief are in better hands just because you and Halt are taking care of them."
"The people here lead beautiful lives of luxury," Will said, grossly exaggerating the lifestyle of Redmont's folks in a jibe with Gilan.
"So why are ye here?" Ember interrupted, anxious to satisfy her curiosity. She sensed that this quibbling could carry on for a lengthy amount of time.
"My fief is currently being run by a recently-graduated junior Ranger," Gilan said. "Crowley wants to test his skills, and so he thought that I could afford some time off while the new Ranger is tested to see if he can be proven capable of handling his very own fief. I decided to come here. Where's Halt, by the way?"
"He's out hunting," Will supplied.
Pleasantries aside, Ember's curiosity took hold. "So what were ye saying about 'embracing your inner Ranger'?" She cocked her head to the side, and Will couldn't help but think that she looked like a curious little bird in that position.
"It's what we are." Ember's blank stare prompted Will to continue. "We work for the castle. We train for a period of five years in knife-throwing, archery, unseen movement, and survival skills. When there's trouble, we save the day. Ever heard of the saying 'One riot, one Ranger'?" Ember shook her head. Will wasn't entirely surprised. If she did not know what a Ranger was, what were the chances she knew any of their sayings? Still, Will could not believe that she had spent a few years in the castle without having heard something about them. Word must really have not gotten to or from that art wing…"Well, there're lots of little sayings, and a lot of bigger legends about us. Most of them are pretty exaggerated-"
"-Like the one about Halt wrestling a bear with his bare hands," Gilan interrupted with a mischievous grin on his face. He watched Ember's eyes grow large at the thought of a man strong and large enough to kill a bear.
"-but not by much," Will concluded.
"So ye two are Rangers?" she asked, receiving a nod from both Will and Gilan. "Well, I want to be one," she simply stated.
Gilan snorted. "What makes you think you could be a Ranger?"
"What makes you think I couldn't?" She answered a question with a question in a way that Will knew Halt would hate.
"Well," Will started, and two pairs of eyes, one brown and one grey, turned to face the apprentice. "It does take a lo-ot of work." Gilan could see that Will was leaning in the direction of his opinion. "But,-"
He was cut off by the persistent sixteen-year-old. "Well, why don't ye try me?" A daring gleam lurked in the corner of her eyes, matching her rigid posture. Will shrugged.
"Sure, why not?" Gilan said in a disgruntled, sardonic manner. "We train every day for five years. We practice archery until our fingers go numb, and tactical skills and mapmaking until our eyes are weary. We practice throwing knives, and too often cut ourselves in the process. We ride horses until our bums are saddle-sore. And then, on top of all that, we have to go on missions for the King whenever he so chooses." Gilan took a breath, implying that he was going to say more. He also noticed the fire in her grey eyes did not go out, but on the contrary brightened when he mentioned missions for the King. He now regretted saying that last line.
"Ye could always try me out…" she interrupted.
Will regarded Ember, thinking about Gilan's list of necessary Ranger skills. The girl's jaw line was rigid and her eyes fiery but excited; and stubbornness and energy were certainly assets when faced with typical, day-to-day, difficult Ranger problems. Her green velvet dress was practical, not too loose and not too tight, with sleeves that stopped short of her wrists and a skirt that stopped several centimeters above her ankles. Throw a mottled Ranger's cloak over it and perhaps… It was a bit scuffed up, but that was no surprise if she really had spent the last several days in the wilderness. She held herself with a stiffness that would benefit an archer, and he could already imagine a heavy saxe knife in one of those clenched fists. And he knew personally that being a tad on the small side was hardly a disadvantage when it came to stealth. Not to mention people would easily underestimate her. She really could be something, couldn't she?He couldn't help but feel excited at this new opportunity. "I don't know Gil, we could try training her to see what she's made of. After all, being a Ranger isn't so much about the training. It's about what you're made of in the first place." Ember's subtle change in expression said, Well, I'm made of some tough stuff.
"Are you mad? We're not even authorized!" Gilan protested.
"Well, sure we are, Gil. You are at least. You've graduated and haven't taken an apprentice yet. You know Crowley wouldn't care; he's always eager for new recruits!"
"Not like this he isn't. I mean, she's...she's a...a..." Gilan stopped short, not quite sure how to voice his concern that Ember was a lady, and he was pretty sure that ladies were not allowed to become Rangers. Girls usually became couriers if they wanted to do something like that.
"Are ye saying I couldn't be a Ranger just because I'm a girl? What's that got to do with anything?" cried Ember despairingly. She could feel her one chance at her dream slipping away through her fingertips, with nothing she could do to stop it.
"Girls aren't as strong. Have you tried shooting a longbow with a ninety pound draw weight any time recently?" Gilan said matter-of-factly while crossing his arms and standing at his full height. His eyebrows were furrowed into a deep frown, and he gave her an irascible glare. He towered above Will and Ember. Being lanky was an unusual thing in the Ranger Corps, but it had its uses. Gilan was a much more opposing figure than the average Ranger.
"Besides, remember I was a Skandian slave? It's not like I got weaker during that time. Carrying all that water did make me stronger, ye know. I've already got strong arms." She was completely unintimidated. She, too, straightened her back and stood at full height.
"Gilan's right, the longbow is the Ranger's primary weapon, and drawing one of those things is no easy task," said Will, taking an analytical view of things. Maybe George was rubbing off on him.
Gilan squinted his eyes, sizing her up. "Very few people, men or not," he emphasized, "have innate skills it takes to be a Ranger. It's not just strength. You have to be cunning, quick on your feet, things of that nature."
"Well, can't ye try me out before this Halt gets back? Where's the harm in that?"
Will raised an eyebrow at Gilan, as if saying, she has a point. "We can just give her a taste of what she would be doing as an apprentice until Halt gets back, and then we can talk to him about it, and if he approves, great!"
Gilan eyed Ember a few seconds longer. The comment about her having been a Skandian slave had surprised him, and he knew that Rangers were chosen for certain innate qualities, like ingenuity and fortitude, more often than for physical reasons. The slender Will and the unimpressively short Halt were prime examples of that. "Wait a second, why do you even want to be a Ranger? You didn't even know what they were a few seconds ago."
"It sounds…interesting," she said. She couldn't meet Gilan's eyes, a fact that he most definitely noticed.
"What's your real reason?"
"That is me real reason."
"No, it's not; now, don't lie. Lying's never gotten anyone into the Ranger Corps., and it never will."
Ember sighed dramatically. She toed the floor and fidgeted uncomfortably.
"It's okay to tell us," Will said comfortingly. "I didn't even want to join. But now I wouldn't trade it for anything. And Gilan here," Will nodded to him, "he wanted to join because his Dad said he couldn't. So what's your reason?"
Ember cupped her head in her hands; she was clearly agitated. "Well, it's just…ye see…me sister."
"What?" both boys said.
"Well, I had to jump over the edge of the ship and leave me sister behind. Now I'll never see her again. I never want to be powerless like that again. I want to be able to help people." She snapped her head up, looking Gilan and Will straight in the eye with a hard glare.
"Ah, I see," said Gilan. This was a much more probable and acceptable answer. He couldn't relate, per say, but he did understand her feelings. His own father had, in fact, told him similar stories many times.
"You can't say no to that!" Will cried. "Please, Gilan?" he whined in a very un-Ranger-like way.
"He'll say yes whether he likes it or not," Gilan nodded.
"Thank ye!" cried Ember, encompassing both boys in a rib-breaking hug.
Will silently remarked that she was stronger than she looked, and probably stronger than they had both been when they had started their training. He knew himself the rigors of life under a Skandian slave owner, and he recalled all too well how Ember had snuck up on him unobserved only a few hours ago. Gilan's scrunched up face showed regret, but something else Will recognized: hope.
Whoo! Long chapter. Spread the news of this story to your friends ;D