“But what if I make a mistake?' Will asked.
Gilan threw back his head and laughed. 'A mistake? One mistake? You should be so lucky. You'll make dozens! I made four or five on my first day alone! Of course you'll make mistakes. Just don't make any of them twice. If you do mess things up, don't try to hide it. Don't try to rationalize it. Recognize it and admit it and learn from it. We never stop learning, none of us.”
“Always expect something to go wrong," he told him. "Believe me, if you're wrong, you're not dissapointed. If you're right, you're ready for it.”
“You surely can't be trying to blame us for Erak's habit of charging ashore waving an axe and grabbing everything that isn't nailed down? No offence, Svengal."
Svengal shrugged. "None taken. It's a pretty accurate description of Erak on a raid, as a matter of fact.”
“Remember no one expects you to be Halt. He's a legend, after all. Haven't you heard? He's eight feet tall and kills bears with his bare hands...”
“If they invent a four legged chicken," Will said, "Horace will think he's gone to Heaven.”
“Then, driven by the same impulse, they kissed him--Aylss on the let cheek, Evanlyn on the right.
And then they glared daggers at each other.”
“You know the old saying: 'one riot, one Ranger.'"
The saying stemmed from a legendary event in the past. A minor fief had risen up against their cruel and avaricious lord, with hundreds of people surrounding his mano house, threatening to burn it to the ground. The panicked nobleman's message for help was answered by the arrival of a single Ranger. Aghast, the nobleman confronted the solitary figure.
They sent one Ranger?" he said incredulously. "One man?"
How many riots do you have?" the Ranger replied.
On this occasion, however, Duncan was not inclined to be swayed by a legend. "I have a new saying," he replied. "One daughter, two Rangers."
Two and a half," Will corrected him. The King couldn't help smiling at the eager young face before him.
Don't sell yourself short," he said. "Two and three-quarters.”
“Then the two friends leaned back and watched the sun rise clear of the trees.
“Best time of day,” said Will.
Yes,” Horace agreed. “What’s for breakfast?”
“You know, one of these days, I'm actually going to take offense if people keep throwing out these slurs. And then things are going to get rather ugly. When we Skandians do take offense, we do it with a battleax.”
“You will be getting a haircut, won't you?"
Halt ran his hand through his hair. It was getting a little long, he thought.
I'll give it a trim," he said, his hand dropping unconciously to the hilt of his saxe knife. This time, Pauline did look up.
You'll get a haircut," she said. Her gaze was steady and unwavering.
I'll get a haircut," he agreed meekly.”
“Halt?" said Gilan, realization dawning. "You're not seasick are you?"
No," Halt said shortly, not trusting himself beyond one syllable.
Probably need a bite if breakfast to settle your stomach," Svengal said helpfully. "Gte something solid inside you."
Had...breakfast." This time Halt managed three syllables-but with some difficulty, Svengal affected no notice.
Cabbage is god. Especially pickled cabbage. Sits on the gut nicely," he said. "Goes well with a nice piece of greasy bacon. You should try that if you..."
But before he could finish, Halt lurched toward the ship's rail and hung over it. Dreaful noises were torn from him. Svengal, still affecting a look of innocence, turned to Gilan, hands spread and eyes wide.
What it the world is he looking for? Has he lost something, do you think?”
“Who's this?" he said, coming across a name he didn't recognize. "Lady Georgina of Sandalhurst? Why are we inviting her? I don't know her. Why are we asking people we don't know?"
I know her," Pauline replied. There was a certain steeliness in her voice that Halt would have done well to recognize. "She's my aunt, Bit of an old stick, really, but I have to invite her."
You've never mentioned her before," Halt challenged.
True. I don't like her very much. As I said, she's a bit of an old stick."
Then why are we inviting her?"
We're inviting her," Lady Pauline explained, "because Aunt Georgina has spent the last twenty years bemoaning the fact that I was unmarried. 'Poor Pauline!' she'd cry to anyone who'd listen. 'She'll be a lonley old maid! Married to her job! She'll never find a husband to look after her!' It's just too good an opportunity to miss."
Halt's eyebrows came together in a frown. There might be a few things that would annoy him more than someone criticizing the woman he loved, but for a moment, he couldn't think of one.
Agreed," he said. "And let's sit her with the most boring people possible at the wedding feast."
Good thinking," Lady Pauline said. She made a note on another sheet of paper. "I'll make her the first person on the Bores' table."
The Bores' table?" Halt said. "I'm not sure I've heard that term."
Every wedding has to have a Bores' table," his fiance explained patiently. "We take all the boring, annoying, bombastic people and sit them together. That way they all bore each other and they don't bother the normal people we've asked."
Wouldn't it be simpler to just ask the people you like?" Halt askede. "Except Aunt Georgina, of course--there's a good reason to ask her. But why ask others?"
It's a family thing," Lady Pauline said, adding a second and third name to the Bores' table as she thought of them. "You have to ask family and every family has its share of annoying bores. It's just organizing a wedding.”
“He waited while Gilan and Will moved the cloaks experimentally, eyeing each other and studying the unusual colors, seeing how they would blend into the landscape of rock and desert that surrounded Al Shabah.
All right, ladies," he said, "if you're finished with the fashion show, let's go meet the Wakir.”
“Is that all?” he blurted out.
Crowley and Halt exchanged slightly puzzled glances. Then Crowley pursed his lips thoughtfully.
“Um…it seems to be…Listed your trainging, mentioned a few achievements, made sure you know which end of an arrow is the sharp part…decided your new name…I think that’s…” Then it seemed that understanding dawned on him and his eyes opened wide.
“Of course! You have to have you Silver…whatsis, don ‘t you?” He took hold of the chain that held his own Silver Oakleaf around his throat and shook it lightly. It was a badge of a Graduate Ranger. Then he began to search through his pockets, frowning.
“Had it here! Had it here! Where the devil is it…wait. I heard something fall on the boards as I came in! Must have dropped it. Just check outside the front door, will you, Will?”
Too stunned to talk, Will rose and went to the door. As he set his hand on the latch, he looked back at the two Rangers, still seated at the table. Crowley made a small shooing motion with the back of his hand, urging him to go outside. Will was still looking back at them when he opened the door and stepped through on the verandah.
The massive cry went up from at least forty throats. He swung around in shock to find all his friends gathered in the clearing outside around the table laid for a feast, their faces beaming with smiles. Baron Arald, Sir Rodney, Lady Pauline and Master Chubb were all there. So were Jenny and George, his former wardmates. There were a dozen others in the Ranger uniform – men he had met worked with over the past five years. And wonder of wonders, there were Erak and Svengal , bellowing his name and waving their huge axes overhead in his praise. Close by them stood Horace and Gilan, both brandishing their swords overhead as well. It looked like a dangerous section of the crowd to be in, Will thought.
After the first concerted shout, people began cheering and calling his name, laughing and waving to him.
Halt and Crowley joined him on the verandah. The Commandant was doubled over with laughter.
“Oh, if you could have seen yourself!” he wheezed. “Your face! Your face! It was priceless! ‘Is that all?’” He mimicked Will’s plaintive tones and doubled over again.
Will tuned to Halt accusingly. His teacher grinned at him.
“Your face was a study,” he said.
“Do you so that to all apprentices?” Will asked.
Halt nodded vigorously. “Every one. Stops them getting a swelled head at the last minute. You have to swear never to let an apprentice in on the secret.”
“Sit down, Will. There’s a good fellow,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” replied Will, and Halt’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“He’s never called me sir,” he said.
“Probably trying to get on my good side,” Crowley replied.
Halt nodded savagely. “Probably.”
“Halt," said the elegant diplomat, "when you asked me to marry you, did you think we could just sneak off to a glade in the woods with a few close friends and get it done?"
Halt hesitated. "Well, no...of course not."
As a matter of fact, that was exactly what he had thought. A simple ceremony, a few friends, some food and drink and then he and Pauline would be a couple. But he felt that it might not be wise to admit that right now.”
“What are you looking at, foreigner?” the guard demanded roughly. The smile was a little unsettling. A prisoner shouldn’t smile at his captors like that.
“I’m just making sure I can remember you,” Gilan told him. “Never know when that might be useful.”
“As Patron-Sponser, I am charged with..."-he pasued and consulted the notes-"adding a sense of royal cachet to proceedings today."
He waited while a ripple of conversation ran around the room. Nobody was quite sure what adding a sense of royal cachet really meant. But everyone agreed that it sounded impressive indeed. Lady Pauline's mouth twitched in a smile and she looked down at the table. Halt found something of vast interest in the ceiling beams high above. Duncan continued.
My second duty is..."-again he consulted his notes to make sure he had the wording correct-"to provide an extremly expensive present to the bride and groom..."
Lady Pualine's head jerked at that. She leaned forward and turned to make eye contact with Lord Anthony. The Chamberlain met her gaze, his face completely devoid of expression. Then, very slowly, one eyelid slid down in a wink. He liked Lady Pauline and Halt a great deal and he'd added that duty without consulting them.”
“Young men!” he snorted to Erak. “They think a pretty face can cure every ill.”
“Some of us can remember back that far. Halt,” Erak told him with a grin. “I suppose that’s all far behind an old hack like you. Svengal told me you were settling down. Some plump, motherly widow seizing her last chance with a broken-down old gray bear, is she?”
Erak, of course, had been told by Svengal that Halt had recently married a great beauty. But he enjoyed getting a reaction from the smaller man. Halt’s one-eyed stare locked onto the Oberjarl.
“When we get back, I’d advise you not to refer to Pauline as a ‘plump, motherly widow’ in her hearing. She’s very good with that dagger she carries and you need your ears to keep that ridiculous helmet of yours in place.”
“Well I'm not dancing," Will said through gritted teeth. "I don't know how."
Oh yes you are," Alyss told him. "Let's hope you're a fast learner."
He glanced at her and saw no prospect of escape. "Well,at least I won't be the only one," he said. "Halt will be terrible too."
But nobody in the assembly knew tat for the past ten days, Halt had been taking dance lessons from Lady Sandra.”
“She knew more about these situations than she realized, he thought. She'd spent years at Duncan's side. "When in doubt," he added, "be pompous.”
“Would you trust him with your life, Halt?" Gilan interrupted, and Halt looked up at him.
"Yes," he said quietly. Gilan patted his shoulder once more.
"Then trust him with his own," he said simply.”
“Shut up, Axl!" he whispered fiercly. "If you want to break your neck, do it quietly or I'll break it for you.”
“Erak. The one they call the Oberjarl," the Arridi answered him.
Impulsively, Axl took a pace forward, raising his ax threateningly.
You'll have to go through the rest of us to take him!" he shouted defiantly.
Well done, Axl," he said. "You've just told them I'm here.”
“Tug looked nervously at his master.
Horses aren't supposed to fly, he seemed to be saying.”
“Horace, fit, and athletic and light on his feet, gave their guards the fewest opportunities to beat him, although on one occasion an angry Tualaghi, furious that Horace misunderstood an order to kneel, slashed his dagger across the young man’s face, opening a thin, shallow cut on his right cheek. The wound was superficial but as Evanlyn treated it that evening, Horace shamelessly pretended that it was more painful than it really was. He enjoyed the touch of her ministering hands. Halt and Gilan, bruised and weary, watched as she cleaned the wound and gently pated it dry. Horace did a wonderful job of pretending to bear great pain with stoic bravery. Halt shook his head in disgust.
“What faker,” he said to Gilan. The younger Ranger nodded.
“Yes. He’s really making a meal of it isn’t he?” He paused, then added more ruefully, “Wish I’d thought of it first.”
“Horace’s pulse was racing and adrenaline was surging into his system. But he showed no sign of it. He had somehow realized what was coming as the huge man had leaped and spun before him. The coordination of the back stroke with the turn had alerted Horace, and he had determined that he would not move a muscle when the stroke arrived. It took enormous strength of will but he had managed it. Now he smiled.
Prance and leap all you like, my friend, he thought, I’ll show you what a knight of Araluen is made of.
Mussaun paused. He frowned and stared at the smiling young man before him. In times past, that movement had invariably resulted in the victim’s dropping to ground, hands above head, screaming for mercy. This youth was smiling at him!
“That was really good,” Horace said. “I wonder, could I have a go?” He held out his bound hands.”
“Always expect trouble in the desert. Then you usually won't meet it.”
“Me?" he said in some surprise. "I won't be dancing! It's the bridal dance. The bride and groom dance alone!"
For one circuit of the room," she told him. "After which they are joined by the best man and first bridesmaid, then by the groomsman and the second bridesmaid."
Will reacted as he had been stung. He leaned over to speak across Jenny on his left, to Gilan.
Gil! Did you know we have to dance?" he asked. Gilan nodded enthusiastically.
Oh yes indeed. Jenny and I have been practicing for the past three days, haven't we, Jen?"
Jenny looked up at him adoringly and nodded. Jenny was in love. Gilan was tall, dashing, good-looking, charming and very ammusing. Plus he was cloaked in the mystery and romance tat came with being a Ranger. Jenny had only ever known one ranger and that had been grim-faced, gray-bearded Halt.”
“We must wait," she said. "They are involved in important buisness."
Her tone was serious, almost reverntial. The two of them stopped, some five meters from the group of me. They were all leaning forward, staring intently at an upright rock placed in the middle of the circle. Will thought they must be praying, although no words were being said.
Then, as one, they all slumped back with a roar of disappointment.
"It flew away!" said one figure, and Will recognized the voice. It was the man who had rescued him. "Almost to the top and it flew away!"
e lookd questioningly to Cieliema and she rolled her eyes at him. "Grown men gambling on two flies crawling up a stone."
"Gambling?" he said. "I thought they were praying.
She raised an eyebrow. "To them, it's much the same thing.”
“And no matter how many people surround you, that is still the loneliest place on earth.”
“Eliminating herself was a sort of aesthetic project. One can't go on anymore, she said, electronics seems so clean and yet it dirties, dirties tremendously, and it obliges you to leave traces of yourself everywhere as if you were shitting and peeing on yourself continuously: I want to leave nothing, my favorite key is the one that deletes.”
“This woman was eighteen years old. With eyes as old as stones.”
“Her sweat is a rank reminder, the only one, that she exists, that she is separate from the things that surround her.”
“Again came that ringing crow, and Peter dropped in front of them. "Greeting, boys," he cried, and mechanically they saluted, and then again was silence.
"I am back," he said hotly, "why do you not cheer?”
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