Boys Are Easier

By: Katerinaki

Published:3/16/2013

Beta'ed: No

Notes: Okay, here it is! BRAND NEW CHAPTER! Thanks for sticking with me as I made the transition. I know this should've been up yesterday, but again with the computer malfunctions at the most inopportune moments.

This is a brand-new chapter and as of right now, there is not Chapter 9 currently written. So it's going to take some time. Just keep in mind, I plan on having this whole story finished by the end of August this year, so the new update might not come tomorrow, but it won't be a year like last time. Bear with me and I hope to give you a story you'll really like. Thanks for all the support so far and I hope you enjoy.

-Katerinaki

Chapter 8:

After the festival, Kaye didn't have much of an excuse to go up to Castle Redmont again. Halt kept her busy. But all throughout her training, her mind kept wandering to Justin, Bridgette, Carolina, and all the other new friends that she'd met. After she'd re-joined the group, Justin and his friends had met up with a few more of the apprentices from Battleschool and their group continued to grow as more of the young apprentices around the castle met up with someone they knew and united with those already assembled. Kaye had never known just how many apprentices around her own age lived and learned within Castle Redmont. She made new friends and promised so many people that she'd visit the castle every now and then and stop in to say "hello". Of course, she hadn't really gotten the chance to. Not with Halt suddenly acting like a slave-driver.

Ever since the carnival he'd seemed to be particularly gruff and short-tempered. He worked her hard, from sunup to sundown and often times even longer. Where before Halt had taken the time to explain skills to her and had focused on those that Kaye struggled with, now he constantly drilled her on everything he'd taught her, from that first ride from Meric fief until now. And he was vicious when she got something wrong.

"What in the King's name do you think you're doing?" Halt growled.

Kaye was out on the range for target practice. At Halt's low, angry comment, she lowered her bow, gently letting the tension release so that she didn't actually fire the nocked arrow. "You told me to shoot until my arms fall off," Kaye replied, perhaps a bit more snappy than she normally would have been. Halt had been on her all day, though, from the time she'd rolled out of bed. It had nothing to do with not having his morning coffee either, he'd drank two cups before they'd set off into the woods to work on her tracking skills. Kaye had done well that morning, but Halt must've had a stick up his butt or something because all he'd done so far was criticize her. After almost a month of this behaviour, it was really wearing on Kaye's learned patience.

"You've missed the last seven shots," Halt retorted. "I expected you to be at least hitting the targets."

That wasn't true. Kaye had been hitting the targets. She simply hadn't been hitting the bull's-eyes. But she wasn't a bad shot. She was actually a pretty good shot by any archer or hunter's standards. But an archer or hunter's standards weren't a Ranger's standards. Kaye had learned within the first week of her apprenticeship that a Ranger's standards were much higher than anyone else's. And Halt's standards had to be the highest of all the Rangers'.

"I am hitting the targets," Kaye spat back.

"At this rate you're getting worse than when I first put that bow in your hands," Halt replied. "Abelard can likely shoot better than you right now."

Kaye glared at her teacher. "Don't start comparing me to your horse."

"I'm your master; I'll do whatever I feel like. You're drawing elbow is all over the place, you're not sighting down the shaft, and the few times that you did, you took a full ten minutes to aim at the target. If you were shooting an enemy they would've run you through by now. Do as you were trained or I'll have you running laps around Castle Redmont."

Kaye suppressed a grumbled retort and drew her bow again, aiming for one of the leftmost targets. She drew in a deep breath to calm her growing frustration and anger. She wished she could rant to somebody right now. Maybe Bridgette. She'd tell her friend about how unreasonable Halt was being. She'd tell her how he was demanding perfection when Kaye couldn't really be perfect, and then was getting angry when she messed up. It wasn't like she was purposefully missing the targets. Sometimes she just made mistakes. She released. The arrow went wide and disappeared into the trees. As soon as she realized the arrow was off target, Kaye braced herself for the inevitable storm.

"Well that was pathetic."

"I'm trying my hardest! It's difficult."

Halt rose to his feet, grabbing his own longbow, nocking an arrow and releasing as soon as he reached full height. The arrow soared past Kaye and embedded itself in the bull's-eye of the target she'd just been aiming at a moment ago. But Halt wasn't done then. He quickly emptied his entire quiver into the targets in the exact order that Kaye had been practicing herself. The whole display took about a minute and Kaye stood, watching, not having even been able to move out of the way for fear of being shot by one of the arrows that whizzed by her.

"Alright," Halt said, suspiciously even-tempered as he gathered his arrows from the targets. "Bow away and into the woods."

Kaye knew that tone. That was the tone Halt used when he was beyond blustering angry or frustrated. His voice got really low and even and Kaye knew that she was in for it. She'd be running laps through the woods all night now.

Kaye unstrung her bow and slipped it into the slot on her quiver as Halt strode back towards her. Her hands fumbled a bit, but she worked quickly, not wanting to make things worse with noncompliance. Halt walked by her, grabbing his arrows from the targets and heading towards the now familiar woods behind his house.

"If I hear a single sound…"he murmured as he passed. This was bad. He was making open-ended threats. Kaye tried to hurry off after him, but she still couldn't move as quickly as Halt when she was trying to remain unheard. The distance between master and apprentice lengthened until Kaye couldn't even see Halt ahead of her through the trees. And there was no way Kaye was ever going to hear Halt, unless he wanted her to hear him. For all intents and purposes, she'd been left alone in the woods.

'Stupid, old…horse-face,' Kaye raged silently. It really wasn't a very good insult, but it wasn't like she was saying it to Halt's face. In her distraction she stepped before looking and snapped a twig.

"I can hear you."

Kaye's face grew hot but she tried to continue on in the direction she'd heard Halt's voice. But she'd barely gone another three steps before she messed up again.

"I can hear you."

Kaye tried again and this time she was paying so much attention to her feet that she didn't even see the low branch until it was in her face, getting caught in her hair. She swore.

"I can hear you."

Halt's voice came from to her right and a little behind her. Kaye turned to face that direction. "Well maybe I wanted you to hear me!" she shouted angrily.

Halt appeared from the trees like one of the magicians that regular folks thought the Rangers were. "No, you're distracted. You have been ever since that bloody festival. I should've made you stay back and practice your unheard movement because obviously you still need more work. But I suppose the last few months of training have just flown out the window now that you've found a handsome future-knight to moon after."

"I'm not mooning after Justin!"

"Then one of his friends. It is exceedingly obvious that wherever your head is, it is not in your training. You've been slacking off during every task that I give you."

"I am focusing on my training."

"No, you're not," Halt replied, emphasizing each word. "You have not completed a single exercise to the necessary standards today, and your performance since the carnival has been pitiful at best. At this rate I would have better luck making one of those lumbering knight apprentices into a proper Ranger than you."

"Fine! Then why don't you skulk on up to Castle Redmont and ask one of them?!" Kaye spun and started off back towards the cottage, intent on gathering up all her things and going back to Meric fief. It was a mistake to come with Halt. Obviously she didn't have what it took to become a Ranger and Gilan had been wrong. She should've listened to her father when he had told her no.

"Where do you think you're going?" Halt thundered after her.

"I'm going home!" Kaye screamed back. She felt embarrassed at the tears that streamed down her cheeks but at the moment it wasn't her most prevalent emotion. Right then, she felt rage and frustration. The last thing she wanted to do was turn around and continue on with her training, no matter what insults and slurs Halt threw at her.

"Stop." It brought Kaye up short. She'd been expecting for Halt to scream and rage at her. Kaye was ready for that. She was ready to throw it all right back at her "master". But she hadn't been prepared for the simple word that was spoken no louder than Halt's normal tone of voice. She paused, and then turned to face the figure that seemed to shimmer in and out of visibility in the trees. It was getting darker out as the sun set meaning Halt's cloak, like Kaye's, blended into the trees even better.

"Take a deep breath."

Kaye did as Halt told her, breathing in through her nose and expelling the breath out of her mouth. It worked wonders to loosen the knot in her throat that had hardened with her aggravation. She did it again and she was better able to swallow around the knot.

"Better?" Halt asked after Kaye had taken a few more deep breaths.

Kaye nodded. "Yes."

"Good." Halt moved across the space between them, coming to stand in front of her. He looked down from the drawn cowl of his cloak, his dark eyes searching her grey. "Now listen to what I have to say before you decide to leave.

"Despite what you may believe, I have a good reason for pushing you these last few weeks. Every year, the Ranger Corps gets together at a designated place in a gathering. It is a time to test one's skills and gain knowledge from other Rangers who serve in other fiefs around the kingdom. But most importantly, it is a time to test apprentices. I am pushing you because the Ranger gathering is coming very soon. Because it is your first, you will be tested vigorously. If you pass, you will officially be a Ranger's apprentice and you will receive a bronze oak leaf." Halt pulled his own silver oak leaf from beneath his cloak and shirt. The last time Kaye had seen it was when she'd returned it to Halt, after the conflict with the slave traders.

"What will I be tested on?" Kaye asked.

"Everything," Halt replied. "Which is why I haven't been focusing on any one skill. You need to be proficient in all of them."

Kaye's eyes drifted down to her belt when she fingered the two knives in their sheaths. "I need some work then," she murmured.

"Yes, you do," Halt replied bluntly.

Kaye nodded. "Okay. But, I am working hard. I just get really frustrated when I keep messing up and all you're ever doing is insulting me."

Halt cocked an eyebrow down at her. "You need to learn how to control your emotions. Part of being a Ranger is presenting a calm, passive exterior. You can't get frustrated when things don't go your way. That's what the criminals we hunt do. Your job, as a Ranger, is to always stay calm and collected and to project that exterior. You never know, it might mean the difference between receiving help, and being denied it. Understand?"

Kaye nodded again. "Yes." Halt, to her, was the epitome of a calm exterior. Somehow, even when he was "speaking forcefully" as he put it, he still looked calm. Kaye knew her frustration and temper were something that she needed to work on. It had been even when she'd lived with her parents still. Kaye thought she'd been getting better, being Halt's apprentice, but apparently she still had to learn control.

'And focus,' Kaye added silently. She'd never admit it aloud, but maybe she had been slacking off just a little bit since Harvest Day. It had just been so nice to spend time with others around her age. Kaye had known going into this that becoming a Ranger wasn't going to be easy, but she'd never expected when she'd made the decision to leave her parents behind in Meric fief that it was going to be this hard.

"Alright," Halt concluded. "Now, since we are in the middle of the forest, we might as well work on unseen, unheard movement, since we are now focusing on our training once more. Then when we return, we are going to clean the cottage because it has grown muddy the last few days, as well as Abelard and Alejo's lean-to, and we will have to stock up on firewood because I do believe we will be seeing a storm within the next day or so."

Kaye didn't groan outwardly. This was her punishment for the shouting, chores after a long day of training. Kaye knew she'd crossed the line today. Halt had a fair amount of patience with her temper and they'd established a line, but Kaye had pulverized that line today. And that meant chores.

"Yes, Halt," Kaye replied.

"So, where exactly are we going?" Kaye asked as she rode beside Halt. So far Halt hadn't told her anything about where exactly the Ranger Gathering was taking place. He'd just had her pack supplies, saddle Alejo, and they'd left with only a brief message to Baron Arald as a courtesy.

"The Ranger's gathering place is a secret," Halt replied. "You'll find out its exact location eventually. I intend for you to be coming here for many years after."

Kaye raised her eyebrows in surprise. Was that a compliment? Maybe? 'No,' Kaye decided. 'He just doesn't want me to fail. It would make him look bad.' They had been riding for days already. Kaye tried to remember landmarks, tried to figure out where they were based on what she remembered of the map of the kingdom that Halt had made her memorize. But Kaye had an inkling suspicion that Halt was riding them in circles. She swore she'd seen that tree that was split in half by lightning before. It was a sight that wasn't easily forgotten.

Halt stopped suddenly and Alejo followed Abelard's lead before Kaye could even react. Kaye almost went tumbling over Alejo's neck at the sudden lurch.

"What?" Kaye asked Halt, her voice a bit sharp in her embarrassment at almost falling off her horse.

Halt ignored her, though, his eyes scanning the trees around them. Kaye followed his lead, taking in their surroundings, but she didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Still, she stayed quiet and kept one eye on Halt for further directions. He wouldn't have stopped if there wasn't a potential issue.

Halt dismounted and Kaye began to follow him. "No, stay," he told her, handing Abelard's reigns to her. "Take Abelard, continue east until I return."

"What's going on?"

"We're being followed."

Kaye's first reaction was to tense up and try to look around to catch the shadow. But that wasn't what Halt taught her to do, and that wasn't what he would want her to do now. He told her to continue on east with the two horses.

"Where are you going?" Kaye hissed as she took Abelard's reigns.

"For a walk around," Halt replied. "Just keep going. And put your hood up." Halt pulled his own cowl over his grey-streaked hair and slipped away into the trees before Kaye could make any further protest.

"Typical," Kaye grumbled. "Cryptic old man." Still, Kaye followed Halt's instructions. She pulled her hood up over her ragged red-brown hair and nudged Alejo on. Abelard followed with hardly a tug at his reins on Kaye's part. What Halt thought he might find on a walk around, Kaye wasn't sure. But she kept a steady light trot, putting the afternoon sun at her back.

Kaye continued on like this for almost half an hour. Ten minutes after Halt left it started raining and she, Alejo, and Abelard were quickly drenched through. There was absolutely no sign of Halt, or of anybody for that matter. She was actually starting to think that it was part of some elaborate training exercise put on by Halt. He'd take her to a place she wasn't familiar with, abandon her, and then see how long it took for her to realize 1) that he had abandoned her, and 2) how to get all three of them back home before they died of sickness. It could be some twisted way to test her tracking, navigation, and survival skills. Halt was probably off somewhere having a good laugh at her expense and then planning all the evil things he'd do to her if she let his horse catch cold. Could horses catch cold?

Kaye was just about to turn back when a Ranger appeared right in front of her. He didn't step out of the trees, he just appeared. And it wasn't down a ways either. Alejo snorted in annoyance as he had to practically skid to a halt and once more Kaye almost went over his head. Abelard seemed slightly more prepared.

It wasn't Halt. Believe it or not, the Ranger was actually too short to be Halt. His hood was up against the rain, but he was just as soaked through as Kaye. His cowl hid all but the tip of a clean-shaven chin. Definitely not Halt. At his back was the standard Ranger longbow and the hilts of his two knives distended the left side of his drenched cloak.

"Declare yourself," Kaye demanded with her hand on her throwing knife, a bit flustered at the way the Ranger had snuck up on her so effectively. Neither Abelard nor Alejo had given any sort of indication that someone was nearby, let alone practically in front of their noses.

"My, you're abrupt for a Ranger's apprentice," the Ranger teased. He pulled off his hood, revealing brown hair already plastered with rain to his head and a wide, grinning face. "Halt sure likes to pick the stubborn ones."

"I said declare yourself!" Kaye snapped.

"Okay, okay," the Ranger said, throwing up his hands in surrender. "Easy. The name's Will Treaty. I was looking for Halt, do you know where he got to?"

Kaye looked down at the young Ranger with new eyes. "You're Will Treaty?"

Will smiled. "I am."

She smirked. "Hm. I guess I just expected you to be..."

"Taller? Older? More dashing?" Will laughed.

"Serious," Kaye said finally. "Halt hardly ever smiles unless he's torturing me."

Will nodded. "Ah yes, his favourite pastime. Torturing his apprentices. Or former apprentices, as he's doing now. I wonder if Gilan had any better luck."

"Wait, you're looking for Halt? Me too."

Will's eyes widened in surprise. "You don't know where he—of course, what am I saying? Of course you don't know where he is. Let me guess, he gave you Abelard, told you to just keep riding."

Kaye shrugged, suddenly even more interested in Will and his current predicament. Will sighed and slumped in defeat. "Well, I've given myself away. If anyone can find him now, it'll be Gilan." Will pulled his hood back over his head. "Might as well ride with you into the Gathering site. No use in you catching cold, and I'm sure the horses would like a nice dry bed and some straw."

Abelard snorted something along the lines of "I'm getting too old for this". Will laughed heartily. "Good old Abelard. Permettez moi?"

Abelard tossed his head in acquiescence. If Kaye had had any doubts before about whether or not the man before her truly was Will Treaty, they were taken away now. With the passphrase, Abelard let Will swing up into his saddle and Kaye tossed Will Abelard's reigns. Will rode ahead of Kaye, leading the way to the Ranger Gathering grounds. They were just coming out onto a small clearing when an arrow suddenly whizzed by Will's face and across Abelard's neck. Before Kaye even registered what it was, Will had his bow up, an arrow nocked and aimed right at the point the arrow had been fired from.

Part of a tree branch separated from the tree and landed almost silently on the forest floor. "Finally got you, Ha—Will?" Kaye immediately recognized the voice of her own fief's Ranger, Gilan. He threw his hood back just as Will did, identifying each other.

"What are you doing riding Halt's horse?" Gilan demanded. "I thought you were him!"

"Of course I'm not him!" Will replied.

"Could've fooled me," Gilan said. "Actually, you did. You and he move exactly the same, and on Abelard, I couldn't tell the small height difference."

Will groaned in realization. "He set this up. He knew I'd go for his apprentice because I haven't met her yet and I'd be curious. And it's raining, so I'd take her back to the site."

Gilan groaned too as he caught on. "And I'd still be out here. He'd expect us to split up so if one of us was found out, the other still had a chance. But it also meant that I didn't see the switch."

"And on Abelard, with my hood up, I could pass for Halt."

"Better luck next year, boys." Kaye, Gilan, and Will all looked up. Reclining in the tree branch right over them was Halt. He looked down on all of them with amusement. "Although I am impressed with the speed of which you figured out your shortcomings. Perhaps you will catch me before I die of old age."

Yep, Halt treated all of his apprentices that way.

"Aw, c'mon Halt, give us some credit!" Gilan protested. "We found your apprentice, and your horse!"

"Yes Gilan, I believe that is the point of a decoy." Halt swung down from his tree branch and landed without a sound next to Abelard. "Now, I'd like my horse back, Will. Thank you."

Will dismounted and turned Abelard back over to Halt.

"It's good to see you again, Halt," Will said, patting Halt on the back.

Kaye thought she might've seen a smile, but decided later that she had just imagined it. Still, Halt replied, "It's good to see you too, Will. And you, Gilan. Now come, before we all catch our deaths. I'm getting too old for this."

Gilan and Will walked on either side of Halt and Abelard as they rode in to the Ranger Gathering. Kaye found herself watching the trio with interest. She'd seen Gilan interacting with Halt before, but she was interested in Will. Of course she'd heard all the stories about him dozens of times. Working in an inn, you get all your information first. Kaye remembered listening wide-eyed as traders and other travelers told the stories of Will Treaty, who was only a boy, but still managed to bring peace with the Skandians and travelled to distant lands in the name of the king.

He seemed like a boy even now, though Kaye had heard that he was engaged to one of the King's Couriers. Anna, Alyss was her name. How could one who has seen so much and done so many things still seem young and carefree? True, when she was little Kaye had pictured a strong, dashing young man hurtling head-long into a battle to save the day. After meeting Halt, Kaye expected maybe Will would be just like him, weathered and thoughtful, with eyes that had obviously seen more than most others would in their lifetimes. But Will joked and laughed with Gilan, even going so far as to accidentally-on-purpose whack Gilan on the head with his bow after a sly comment from the older Ranger.

"Something on your mind?"

Kaye looked down at Gilan, who had fallen back to walk beside her. "No," Kaye replied.

Gilan laughed. "I don't believe that for a second."

Kaye shrugged, but nodded towards the pair in front of them. "They look…"

"Like father and son?" Gilan supplied. "They might as well be."

"Why do you say that?"

"Well you know Will's an orphan; parents died in the first war. That's why his last name is 'Treaty'."

"I didn't know that."

"Yeah. He grew up as a ward of Redmont and when he was old enough, Halt took him as an apprentice. I think Will's the closest thing Halt ever had to a son, and vice versa."

"Not you?" Kaye asked.

Gilan smiled but shook his head. "I already have a father. It isn't the same. Will and Halt…"

"They're the same," Kaye finished.

Gilan nodded. "Yeah. But don't tell them that. Halt will think you're ridiculous and Will has a big enough head."

"I won't say a word."

"Good. So I've heard that Halt kept you busy. Well done, tracking those slavers."

"It was mostly Halt."

"That's not how I heard it. And I know Halt."

Kaye still shrugged.

"Is the life what you thought it would be?"

"No, not at all," Kaye said immediately.

Gilan chuckled. "It rarely is."

"But I wouldn't say it's bad. It's…interesting."

"Sure you shouldn't have gone into the Diplomatic Services?" Gilan teased.

"I would've gotten bored. And I'm not that fond of dresses."

"I noticed."

"Gilan, stop distracting my apprentice," Halt growled back without even turning his head. "She's not ready to multitask yet."

Gilan made a face behind Halt's back at Kaye but still dutifully replied, "Yes, Halt."

"If I were you I would show a bit more respect, or I might just have to take compensation for you almost shooting my horse."

That wiped the grin off Gilan's face. "Uh, Will, why don't we jog on ahead and get a stall ready for Abelard, hm?"

Will smirked back over his shoulder. "If you want to, Gil, feel free. I'm going to walk with Halt and Kaye a bit longer."

"Thanks for nothing," Gilan murmured, but he still jogged on ahead, deciding it would be better for him in the long run. Kaye watched him until he disappeared into the trees, a small smile on her face. It was nice seeing Gilan again. She hadn't known him all that well when she'd lived in Meric fief, but that didn't really matter. Gilan was as close to home as she could get. Perhaps later she could ask him if he had news of her parents.

Soon after Gilan left, the land began to rise and the trees fell back as their small group crested the hill. In the valley below, a small gathering of tents was nestled in down by a small trickling creek. In the rain, everything seemed gray and dreary, but even on a sunny day the small collection of drab green tents could be easily overlooked. The only rhyme or reason to their set up seemed to focus around a large, central tent. Off beyond the camp, a rather large lean-to had been constructed just on the edge of the trees and was guarded by a wide paddock in which horses of the short and sturdy Ranger variety grazed lazily despite the weather.

"What do you think?"

Kaye's attention was drawn down to Will, who grinned up at her from Alejo's side. Kaye looked back down at the encampment and found something rather curious. "Where are all the Rangers?"

"Eating, most likely," Halt replied from the other side of Will. "It's midday."

Kaye automatically looked up for the sun, but it was nearly impossible to see behind the thick, gray rain clouds that had been following them all morning and most of the day before. For all she knew, it could be midday, or mid-morning, or late afternoon. At least she couldn't be fairly certain it wasn't the evening.

"And Gilan will eat all the food if we don't hurry," Will said. He began jogging down the hill and Kaye was about to follow him when Halt stopped her.

"I wanted to speak to you a moment before we get into camp. Do you remember what I told you when you first began training?"

"That it wouldn't be easy?"

"Yes, but not only that. You are the first girl the Ranger Corps has ever had. As soon as we set foot in that camp, you will be under constant scrutiny. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if we were being watched right now. There are some in the Corps who do not believe you should be here. I doubt any will do anything, but you should remain vigilant. You can trust Gilan and Will, and you can trust Crowley, but beyond them you must keep your guard up. Do you understand?"

Kaye looked down on the camp with uncertainty. She could spot Will, who had reached the camp and was weaving his way amongst the tents. She already knew that she had to do well. But now it seemed that "well" wasn't going to cut it.

"I have to be the best," she murmured.

"Yes."

Kaye sighed and Alejo snorted, stamping his foot saying, "Let's go already." Kaye patted his neck and gathered herself up. "Alright."

Halt looked them over. From his sodden apprentice to her waterlogged horse. They looked like a pair of drowned rats, but that would hardly matter to the Rangers below. No doubt the rest of them weren't much better. He nudged Abelard into action and they began following Will's trail down the hillside. As they approached, Kaye's eyes kept wandering over the camp, searching for the mottled Ranger cloaks among the tents, but they remained elusive. Either the Rangers out and about were practicing unseen motion, or there really were none who were braving the rain.

Kaye and Halt saw to Alejo and Abelard in the lean-to. They un-tacked and gave the horses a hearty helping of the dry hay, which both horses began to lay into with relish. Kaye patted Alejo's neck as he ate, murmuring in his ear.

"I'll come back tonight and give you a good brushing, how's that sound?"

Alejo snorted in agreement. Halt rolled his eyes and grumbled about 'girls and horses', but he too spoke to Abelard and made a point of checking him over for any surface injuries. At last they finished settling their horses and began making their way back to the camp.

"Best to get this over and done with," Halt grumbled as he set course for the large gathering tent at the center of the camp. The flaps were pulled down against the rain and so Kaye couldn't see what they were walking into until she'd followed Halt through the opening, right into the tent.

They found all the Rangers. They were seated at various tables around the tent, talking and laughing, catching up with friends they only saw once a year and read about in Ranger reports. Kaye had never seen so many mottled cloaks in one place and frankly it was disorienting and made her eyes ache. The first ones to notice their arrival were closest to the entrance, but it wasn't until Kaye and Halt removed their sodden hoods that the whole tent fell silent. They recognized Halt, and then their eyes automatically slid to Kaye just behind him to the right. Kaye felt like every single eye was on her. All forty-nine Rangers, plus any apprentices in training like her.

Gilan got up from his spot all the way across the tent and began picking his way over.

"Alright you lot," he said loudly. "It's not like you've never seen a girl before." He reached Kaye and took her by the arm, dragging her along to his table and letting Halt follow on his own. He sat her down and shoved a piping hot bowl of stew under her nose, for which Kaye couldn't have been more grateful. She could still feel more than a few staring at her, but she set about eating her stew slowly and methodically, taking the time to enjoy the way the chill was chased from her bones. About halfway through her bowl, Will joined them. He shook out his wet head, earning a glare from Halt.

"I got your tents," he said. "You arrived so late; you're out by the paddock. Also, Crowley is on his way back in."

Kaye only vaguely remembered the Ranger Commandant from her ride to Castle Araluen. She'd been bone tired and not at her best, mentally or physically. "Where was he?" she asked, curious as to why the Commandant would leave the Ranger gathering, just as Rangers were arriving.

Will grinned. "Crowley likes to hide out and watch everyone arrive. A lot of other Rangers lay traps for each other, like we did for Halt."

"Tried to do," Halt corrected. "You've yet to actually succeed."

"You were the last in," Will said.

"And a right interesting arrival it was." The Commandant in question took the last empty seat at the table with a groan. "My bones are getting too old for this weather."

"You're probably getting fat living up in that castle," Halt muttered.

"Says the man who only takes on apprentices so he doesn't have to do his own chores." Crowley laughed, thumping Halt on the back before turning to Kaye. "Still, you don't look too worse for the wear. Halt hasn't left you in the middle of the woods."

"One time," Halt grumbled. "Not even my apprentice."

Kaye curiously watched the interaction between the two older Rangers. It was so different from the calm efficiency she saw after the slavers incident. Occasionally Gilan or Will would chime in with a detail or even stories of their own, from assignments or from their own apprentice years.

"…And then of course Halt had to chase the ducks away from our packs before they got into the food," Gilan laughed. "But they didn't give one wit about him."

"The big one was going to attack," Will added. "So much for Halt the Terrifying."

The rest of the table was in near stitches and even Halt had a bit of a grin, but Kaye would never have known if she hadn't spent the last year training with him. Looking around, most of the other Rangers had wandered away and so the only ones left behind were the cooks, eating their own meal, and the small group at the far table.

"Well, I've got some paperwork to do," Crowley said with a grimace. "And you both have lessons to teach tomorrow." He jabbed a finger at both Will and Gilan. "Are you prepared?"

The smiles fell from Gilan and Will's faces.

"Nearly done," Gilan assured the commandant.

"Right," agreed Will. "Just a few minor details."

"Go," Crowley ordered.

"See you around, Kaye," Will said as he and Gilan quickly picked up their bowls and scurried off. Crowley watched them go with satisfied amusement before he finally set about going himself.

"You know the routine," Crowley told Halt. "Testing starts bright and early tomorrow."

"I'll restrain myself from killing her tonight."

"Oh, by all means, if you're going to kill her, kill her tonight. I've got double the paperwork once she's a full apprentice."

Kaye stiffened as Halt and Crowley so nonchalantly plotted her untimely death. She stared with wide-eyes as Crowley left her with just Halt.

"You're not actually going to…"

"Kill you? Likely not. I don't like wasting time and killing you would be a huge waste of the last year. But, that doesn't mean your testers won't try. Come on, there's still plenty of light left. Unseen, unheard movement."

Kaye normally would have groaned, but she recalled Crowley's words to Halt. "Testing starts bright and early tomorrow" Halt made it clear that she had to be the best. Not just good. Frankly, she didn't know if she could do that. Halt wasn't very forthcoming with his praise and each criticism stuck in her head and repeated itself back to her that night as she sat by one of the camp's fires. She couldn't sleep; even though she was tired and knew that she would need all of her strength the next day. In her mind she kept going over and over each skill: shooting, mapping, tracking, unseen movement, knife throwing, close combat, everything she'd learned from Halt and even some things she hadn't. She would remember climbing up the large tree where she used to race her Meric friends. She'd be climbing, but the branch under her would snap, unable to take her weight.

"Warm milk."

Kaye squinted up at the visitor. The fire made it harder to see into the dark but Gilan stepped out from the shadows and took a seat on the ground next to her. He moved as silently as Halt. It was easy to understand why folk thought Rangers were ghosts.

"Huh?" she asked.

"When I can't sleep, warm milk helps, with a bit of cinnamon."

"Cinnamon?"

"It's a spice, from Arrida. You could say I come from a wealthy family. My father is Sir David, Commander of the King's Army and Battlemaster of Caraway fief. But before you say anything, I'm just a Ranger now. I don't take any handouts; I don't even communicate with my family all that much. I'm the same as Will, Halt, Crowley, and eventually you."

Kaye waited and listened to Gilan's little speech. When he was done, she raised an eyebrow at him, smirking. "Rehearsed that, did you?"

Gilan laughed. "No, I've just said it a lot. Not so much anymore, but when I'd first joined, the others weren't so sure I belonged among them. We're alike, that way."

"I suppose." Kaye picked at the grass at her feet. The temperature was dropping, but she stayed warm enough from the fire. Gilan picked up one of the nearby logs and tossed it on top of the pile, sending up a cloud of embers.

"I have something for you." Gilan reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded message. He handed it to Kaye and she recognized her father's large handwriting. "They are doing well. There was a lot of business, with Harvest Day."

Kaye wanted to read the message now, but she resolved to wait until she was in private. She slipped it into her own pocket where it felt like a warm patch against her leg. She smiled as she remembered cooking in the inn's kitchens with her mother and scaring the wits out of her father when she first climbed up on the roof of the inn. She also remembered the night she was going to leave them behind. She was glad that she hadn't left without saying goodbye.

"Try to sleep," Gilan urged her. "The tests aren't easy and I know that you'll do well. Halt thinks so too, even if he won't say it."

"How can you tell?"

Gilan shrugged. "It's just a thing. You'll learn it when you've been around Halt for a bit longer. Goodnight." He rose and headed back towards his own tent.

"Goodnight," Kaye replied. She lingered for a little longer by the fire, but the light dancing flames were beginning to, at last, make her feel sleepy. She stood and slipped back into her own tent.