This is a test. Actually, I don't know what it is. It's sort of a try-out, a little experiment. It's also my first Ranger's Apprentice fic and I hope you like it :) At least this bit. I've fiddle-farted around with a few ideas, the biggest being what I said in the summary. I don't want to sound like this is a "I will only continue if there are such and such number of reviews, alerts etc" No. But at the same time, yes, I do. If no one reads it, why bother strain my brain?

Actually, I may just continue either way. An escape from the other fandom I write for. ;)

Disclaimer: I don't own this lovely, charming, kick-ass series. I tried to copy Flanagan's style a little ~ don't think it worked. Doesn't matter. I'm talking too much. Oh yeah, and it takes place five years after The Emperor of Nihon-Ja. Enjoy To Death and Glory :)

~1~ A Young Prodigy

Will slipped amongst the dense reeds, placing his feet oh-so-carefully as he crept towards the edge of the pond. The heavy stench of rotting, damp vegetation, released afresh with every soft placement of his boot, clogging his nostrils. But he refrained from breathing through his mouth, which would create unnecessary noise. So slowly did he move, the tall grasses paid him no heed and made no sound.

His quarry remained oblivious.

He lost sight of him for several moments as he had no choice but to duck into the taller reeds, trusting his cloak to soften and blend the hard edges his body would otherwise make against the greenery. He felt the hilt of his saxe knife snag on a cattail, but, moving slow enough to turn time backwards, he untangled himself and continued on, silent as the sleeping dead, lethal as a prowling lion.

As part of his training, he had learned to ignore the sounds that were nothing but background. This included the frogs, birds, wind in the grass and the gentle lap of water brushing the shore. Therefore, Will was able to hear the slight nicker of his horse, somewhere behind him, in the trees. That was usually a warning sign, but it might just as well be a greeting. When the Ranger glanced around, he saw no threats. He ignored the sound for now and continued on.

The rippling waters of the pond soon came into view again, but, as Will looked, he realized that his prey had wandered off. He had been on the muddy bank of the pond, and the Ranger could spot the footprints that paced along it before they dashed into the reeds. Will nodded in admiration and satisfaction. His quarry was smart enough to retreat quietly and so buy himself time to escape.

He turned back just in time to see someone brush the reeds ten paces away. He heard footsteps, boots squishing the pond mud, and then a slight, stifled snigger.

Snigger? Bandits don't snigger. Bandits chuckle evilly when they stalk, but softly enough so that their prey doesn't hear them.

Time to end this little game, Will thought, a wolfish smile splitting across his young features. Then he winced, the not-yet healed wound on his leg twinging in protest. He swallowed the pain and stepped more carefully.

He could see the ivy-swarmed log cabin that had been established some years past, a cozy little hut that remained cool in the summer and toasty in the winter. It was almost entirely green from the plant life that crawled up its walls and tangled on the eaves. A perfect place to blend. It stood about twenty paces away from the last of the pond reeds, a trail of smoke slithering heavenward from the stone chimney. Beyond it, to the far southwest, the jagged peaks of the Mountains of Rain and Night stabbed into the sky like the earth's broken, snow-dusted teeth.

Will slipped towards the cabin now, making no more noise than he had before. His calf flared briefly with every step.

There was open space between the cabin and the reeds, but the forest that walled the pond on the west side and curled around to the south provided excellent cover as the sun began to set. Long shadows cast by the trees made the window of opportunity so wide, Will could throw Castle Redmont through it, Baron and all.

The clear grass simply aided the Ranger as he made his way across to the forest, using the moving shadows caused by the wind in the trees to cross the barren space like a wraith. In one hand, it softened his footfalls and made his crossing silent; in another, he could see where his quarry had fled towards the cabin, his feet leaving light dents in the grass. In any case, there were dollops of pond mud left behind by the highwayman's shoes. It didn't take a half-baked tracker to notice that.

Will kept his breathing deep and regular, his body relaxed, preventing his muscles from clenching and cramping with tension as he crossed the open ground to the trees. Of course, it was no challenge for him. Such things were child's play now.

Tug, his faithful Ranger horse, almost whickered a greeting as though he had forgotten that his master was on a mission. With a brief flick of his hand, Will silenced the little horse, who almost seemed to shrug.

I didn't see nobody, Will imagined him saying. You're chasing shadows.

"Of course you didn't," the Ranger said aloud, so softly he could barely hear himself.

Ebony wagged her tail but retained her silence, hiding in the shadows of Tug. The collie, fully grown now, was an intelligent creature, knowing Tug's signals almost as well as the horse.

Will's yet unseen prey made another mistake by stepping on a twig. Ebony's head whipped around, toward the cabin, but she remained in place, knowing that if her owner wanted her to track something, he would signal to her.

Leaving the trees, Will's back was soon against the west wall of the cabin, and he used the tangles of green ivy that had made the hut their home to his advantage. He saw that the dents in the grass, the footprints of his prey, continuing around to the back of the house, the south wall. When he followed them, he realized, as he'd suspected, they continued to circle the log hut.

The Ranger could tell that the trod-upon twig was somewhere on the east side of the cabin. When he got there, of course, he couldn't see anybody. It was then that he heard the sound of wood hitting wood. A solid thunk. It was obvious that it came from the front of the cabin, where there was the wooden veranda.

Will contemplated whether he should just remain where he was, in the shadows and blending with ivy, and let his quarry circle the cabin again, to receive a nasty surprise when he realized that the Ranger was waiting for him. But some sixth sense, some instinct, told him that his prey had stopped and was waiting for him.

He slowly glanced around the corner, scanning the porch. There was a bench and an empty water barrel, but no bandit. He could see, even from a distance, the crushed grass that had been trod upon and the now reduced pieces of sticky mud. The tracks did not continue to circle the cabin, but ended at the foot of the veranda's two front steps. Neither the door nor the windows showed any sign of forced entry, and Will knew that they were locked.

Under the porch, he thought, and, without bothering to conceal himself any further, the Ranger dropped to the ground and peeked through the latticework that shielded the space beneath the veranda.

"Gotcha!" he said, but his grin faded as he saw that there was no one to get. There was just dirt and dead grass. "Hm."

Standing, favouring his injured leg as he did so, he moved toward the steps, pointedly ignoring the footprints in the grass.

"Where did he go?" Will scratched his head and looked around, then rubbed the stubble he had allowed to grow over the past few weeks on his chin. "It's like...he disappeared into thin air!"

He heard a giggle, but feigned obliviousness as he stepped up onto the porch and moved to lean on the rail, his back to the water barrel. "I just have no idea." He shook his head in mock despair. "Oh, Halt's going to be so disappointed in me..."

There was that solid thunk again, the sound of wood on wood. The water barrel. It was louder this time, and came from just behind him. A heartbeat later, Will felt small arms wrap around his waist.


"AHG! Something's got me!"

"Rawr rawr rawr!"

Will buckled his knees and collapsed, falling onto his side but propping himself up on one hand so as to not crush the tiny arms that had embraced his middle.

"Oh, all is lost! The bandit has caught me!" He let himself slowly roll onto his back, forcing his captor to giggle and scramble out of the way. His arm swept up to his forehead like a final farewell to life. "I am finished! Goodbye, cruel hard world!" His chest exhaled loudly, and then Will laid there, eyes shut, holding his breath.

A few seconds of silence, then the Ranger felt something poke his closed eyelid.

"Uncle Will? You not dead."

His eyes snapped open. "No." The Ranger's arms lunged up and grabbed the youth that crouched over him. The boy shrieked with laughter as Will tickled him, curling into a ball in a vain effort to defend himself.

"No no no! Rangers ain't ticklish! Rangers ain't ticklish!" Then all the boy could do was laugh, and Will figured that if he continued for much longer, his nephew would only pee himself with hilarity. So he let him roll away and get to his feet. Even though Will was sitting on his rear end, the youth barely met his height standing tall.

"I did it, Uncle Will! I did it! I got yew!"

The Ranger gave a graceful bow where he sat. "I am unworthy in the presence of a master. Please, spare my life, oh great and merciful one, so that I may learn your ways."

The boy put his finger on his chin. "Hm. I hafta fink about it."

"I'm begging you, great master. I have a horse to feed and a dog to walk!" Will was having a difficult time holding the pleading face and reining in the smile. Finally, his nephew grinned.

"Fine. But I git to see yer battle wound naow!"

The injury on Will's leg – a long, jagged gash that ran from a bit over his ankle, up his calf to just under halfway to his knee – wasn't exactly what he'd call a battle wound in regards to how he received it. Will was reluctant to show it, having come up with excuses for the past five days to deter his nephew's interest. Now, he sighed.

"Oh, all right then. You drive a hard bargain, master."

He pulled off his boot and hiked up his pant leg. The stitched cut was now covered in blotched bandages, stained by blood and mud and sweat. Inwardly, he was alarmed to see dark veins creeping along his ankle and upper calf, the signs of infection. It didn't smell too fresh either. He could have sworn it was fine yesterday! He was going to have to look at it closer soon.

He knew Halt wouldn't be pleased if he took off the linen to show off the stitches, and he was glad that the boy didn't ask him to.

"Do it hurt, Uncle Will? Do it hurt?"

"Aye, it do hurt, Crowley. But you know what? Your strength gives me strength. I can survive knowing there's you to protect me."

"And God knows you need the protection."

Will sat straight and turned his upper body at the new voice, the familiar waves of comfort and security washing over him at the sound of his old mentor.

"Halt. How wonderful of you to join us."

The grizzled old Ranger materialized from the trees and ghosted across the lawn to the cabin, leaving Abelard, his horse, behind to crop the grass. Halt grinned lightly as he lowered his cowl, a sight more common ever since four years ago, when his one and only son was born.

"Papa!" Crowley rushed to hug his father, who crouched to embrace him properly.

"Been a good lad, Crowley? Bug Will all the time like I told you?"

The boy giggled. "You said to protect Uncle Will, Papa, not bug!"

Halt rubbed his chin, coarse grey hairs pricking his fingers. "Did I say that? Hm. Must be getting old."

"You were old before I was born, Halt," said Will, but he was grinning. He stood up and lowered his own hood.

"Good to see you, too, Will." Halt squinted. "What's that scraggle you've got on your face?"

The younger Ranger felt the stubble along his jaw, stiffening indignantly. "This 'scraggle' is more neat than your mug could ever grow."

"What a scraggle?" asked Crowley, innocently curious. Will ruffled his sandy blonde hair.

"Your old man is just trying to sound smart by making up words," he said casually, a slight emphasis on old. He stooped over with a grimace, pulling down his pant leg to hide the bandages and carefully tugging his boot back on.

Halt bit back a retort out of concern for his former apprentice. Not that he revealed the concern either. He remembered some weeks ago receiving word that Will had been injured on a mission in the Mountains of Rain and Night, and his imagination had immediately went into turmoil. He pictured the young Ranger lying in a ditch somewhere, slashed open from shoulder to hip and bleeding his life away, alone and in agony. Then he pictured him hobbling around on a crutch, missing a leg and doomed to roam the country as a minstrel slash undercover agent like Ranger Berrigan. Such a fate might suit Berrigan, but not Will.

Fortunately, Halt had then been reassured that Will had merely sustained a wound in his leg that was prone to heal, so long as it was looked after properly. Again, the old Ranger withheld his relief as though it had been not but an ingrown toenail.

"You're getting lax, Will," he said, ready as ever to exchange witty remarks with his former pupil. "I must have thundered like the king's cavalry past the cabin, yet you didn't even bother to investigate."

"Oh, I detected you, all right," said Will, meeting the older man eye to eye. There was a mischievous glint there. "Well, Tug did. I heard him greet Abelard. You were too slow to order his silence before he made the sound."

This was partially a lie, but close enough to the truth for Will to retain a clean conscience. Relatively. He had indeed heard Tug nicker while his master was hunting in the pond reeds for Crowley, though he had disregarded the sound a moment later. It must have been Halt riding up to the cabin, only to realize what Will was doing and move to hide in the woods, triggering Tug's greeting.

Now the former pupil rolled his eyes at Crowley. "Mentors. Always try to outfox their old apprentices once they graduate." Will grinned at Halt's dangerous scowl. This, of course, wasn't true. In fact, it was the opposite. Apprentices went after mentors, which drove the mentors up the wall and across the ceiling.

"You and Gilan," Halt growled. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you're from the same brood."

"What a brood?" asked Crowley before Will could retaliate. Halt shook his head.

"Never mind, boy."

"Hey, Uncle Will! Can I call Tug? Peas?"

Will blinked until he realized that Crowley meant please, not peas. "Sure, lad. Remember how?"

The boy nodded proudly. "Two short wissels! Two short wissels!" His lips moved oddly as he tried to put them against his teeth and whistle. There were several unsuccessful whishing sounds, and Will humorously admired his determination.

"Place your lips like this," he said, showing Crowley the proper way. "Don't force all the air out at once, and use your tongue." He whistled in demonstration, twice. It would summon Tug, but reassure the horse that neither haste nor stealth was necessary. "Try again."

This time, spittle came from between Crowley's lips, and he somehow made a sound similar to a raspberry. He tried again and again, however, until something that half-sounded like a whistle came out. It was still whimsy. He pouted in frustration. "I can't do it!"

Will nodded enthusiastically. "But you did, Crowley, you did! Look!"

He pointed. Sure enough, the small, shaggy grey horse was walking into view, head high and nickering a greeting to all present. Crowley squealed with joy.

"I did it! Papa, I call Tug!"

Will and Halt exchanged a knowing look over Crowley's head, with Halt's showing gratitude. They weren't going to mention, of course, that it was Will's demonstration whistles that actually called Tug.

"Tug Tuggy Tug!" Crowley made for the little horse, slow enough to not startle the beast, and hugged his leg. "I luva Tug!"

The horse looked down at the boy, then at Will as though saying, I never knew humans came so small. Fun size.

Halt glanced sideways at Will. "Got any coffee?"

So yeah, it's not really Flanagan's writing style ~ I never once used the word "philosophically."

I know Halt and Pauline would have been too old to have a child, but, eh.

I should say that, whatever happens, this story will not become one of those overly-used child hostage situations. I have ideas that involve Will!Whump, though...

I won't grovel for reviews or anything but they're fuel for the fire! Energy for the engine! Coal for the...uh, cauldron...! Erm... (Searching for ways to outfox cliqués can be quite hazardous.)

Boons for the brain! There we go! :D