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The Ranger's Apprentice
In the far, darkest corner of a local tavern, Will Treaty, and his wife, Alyss Mainwaring Treaty, sat together. They watched Will’s apprentice quietly, protectively, as she sat in the full light of the room, by the enormous fireplace, talking and laughing far more than any normal Ranger’s apprentice would.
“You realize if she didn’t have parents, I would threaten to stay at Redmont until you let me adopt her,” Alyss said playfully.
Will smiled. “Saren would probably be of the same mind.” His smile darkened. “Actually, I think she’s mad at me.”
Generally, he didn’t think too much of what others thought of him—he now knew to use his reputation to his advantage. The famous Will Treaty, apprentice to Halt himself and largely responsible for the peaceful relations with the Skandians, usually got what he wanted when he wanted it. But this year at the Ranger Corps yearly apprentice assessment, something had shaken his relationship with his new apprentice, and for once, he was at a total loss as to what to do.
Alyss studied Saren. “She’s not like other apprentices, is she?”
Will shook his head. “She’s smarter than half of them, and the other half she can out-throw with a Saxe with her eyes closed.” The wave of paternal affection he felt for her surprised him. She was his apprentice. His and Alyss’.
Alyss glanced at him, a surprised look evident on her face. “You’re not hitting the main problem, Will.”
Will sighed, avoiding her gaze. He watched for a moment as Saren, in the middle of some story, windmilled her arms with a laugh. From across the room, their eyes met, and then Saren broke contact quickly, her face hardening almost imperceptibly.
“No, I’m just pretending I don’t see it,” Will explained wearily, ignoring the disapproval etched soundly onto Alyss’ features. “I can’t change who she is, Alyss. I can’t change that she’s a girl.”
Will had been checking over some official documents from King Horace. Hidden among them was a friendly letter he’d read first, despite his obligations as a fiefdom Ranger. In the Head Ranger’s tent, he was holding down the fort until MacNeal arrived at the Assessment grounds. MacNeal didn’t quite have Crowley’s flair for the Head Ranger position, but he had been a handpicked successor, and Will liked and respected him well enough. MacNeal apparently felt the same about him, because at the moment Will was alone in the tent.
Suddenly, Saren stomped into the tent. Will started, and scrambled to keep his papers from fluttering to the floor. He glanced up at his apprentice, and would have gulped nervously—had he not faced down Temujai and Arridi warriors, Skandian berserkers and wild boar before. Her hair, the color of fall leaves, was in disarray, yanked angrily out of its customary braid. Her cheeks were flustered, and a horrible black bruise that certainly wasn’t there earlier that morning pounded itself into her left eye. There was a look of intense resentment on her face.
Without giving Will a chance to recover, she held up her fist. From it dangled a fine bronze chain, on which hung a small, metal oakleaf.
“Why did you give me this, Will?” She was utterly and absolutely furious.
Will blinked. “Because of all the young men and—”
Saren threw the oakleaf to the ground at Will’s feet. “Damn it!” she swore bitterly. She was actually speechless for a moment before she gathered her words. “Are there any other women Rangers or aren’t there, Will?”
Will chose his words carefully. “No. You alone hold that honor.”
Shock mixed with hurt played across Saren’s face. Will bent, and gently picked up the copper-colored necklace.
“I didn’t choose you because of your gender, Saren, I promise you that.” He held out the oakleaf symbol to her. She stared at it darkly for a moment, then looked into his eyes.
“Yeah? Well, maybe you should have.” She stormed out of the tent without taking the necklace. After a moment, Will threw the papers onto the table and followed her, shouldering his bow and quiver.
“Saren!” he called, walking quickly. “Saren! Wait!” Something was wrong, very wrong, and Will would fix whatever it was, including, he decided with a final sense of purpose, whoever gave her that black eye. Other Rangers were staring at him as he strode along, following his apprentice. He didn’t care.
He finally drew close enough to grasp Saren’s shoulder. But before he could turn her around, she spun angrily, her hair whipping his face. “Saren, what happened?” he commanded. “Who punched you?”
“Doesn’t matter, he won’t be punching anyone else any time soon,” she said defiantly, glaring into his eyes. She was as tall as him, almost to the inch.
“Saren!” Will exclaimed, shocked. “No matter what, you have no right to—”
“He asked me what I was doing out of the kitchen, Will! He told me I wasn’t useful for anything other than cleaning and having children!” Saren was almost crying. “Don’t tell me I don’t have a right to defend myself when I’m being attacked!”
Will found his fists had clamped shut. Consciously, he loosened them.
“Who said that about you, Saren? Which apprentice?” Will asked slowly.
A wary light shined in Saren’s eyes. “It doesn’t matter. He knows who he is. If I tell you he’ll get in trouble, and so will I. It won’t make things better.”
“And getting into a fight with another apprentice will?” he demanded. “What will that solve?”
Saren gritted her teeth and looked at her boots. “It solves a bunch, actually. It shows I’m just as tough as them. And not only can I take punches, I can throw them too.”
Will resisted the urge to gape at her.
Halt, he begged silently, what do I do?
Alyss rubbed her temples. “Will, sweetheart, I love you, but you’re awfully dense at times.”
Will grimaced. “Thanks.” A thought struck him. “Maybe I could take her to see Cassandra next time we go to the castle. They’ve got a lot in common.”
Alyss rolled her eyes. “She’s a little busy being queen, Will.” When Will continued to look lost, she sighed. Some prompting would be required. “Can’t you think of anyone else she could talk to? Someone else who has to cope in a man’s world as a woman?”
“I’ve been racking my brains since the Gathering ended,” Will told her morosely, “but I can’t think of a single person she’d talk to.”
Alyss stood abruptly. “Me, Will. I meant me. I suppose I’d better earn my keep now.” She glided away from Will, torn between a smile and a frown.
Saren saw her coming, and broke off from her group of friends.
“Lady Alyss,” she said respectfully, but with guard evident in her voice. “I’m happy to see you again.”
Alyss smiled slightly, but something about her look reminded Saren of a viper about to strike. “How many times have I asked you to call me Alyss?”
Saren grinned, inexplicably put at ease. “More times than I can count, ma’am.”
“Do you have a moment?” Alyss asked politely, gesturing at Saren’s friends, who were all too clearly trying to look as though they weren’t paying attention to the older woman. The feeling of ease was instantly gone. Saren remembered now why she often thought of Will’s wife as more dangerous than him.
“Of course, Lady Alyss,” Saren reassured, grimacing internally. She knew where this was going. But she let her mentor’s wife lead her to the door of the tavern and out into the crisp evening air.
The moment the heavy wooden door swung shut, Alyss turned to Saren. “Out with it, Saren.”
Saren looked around. The street was empty, save for a few dogs she recognized from around Redmont. The sun was just barely set beneath the buildings around her, and the sky was dark but still light enough to see.
“Can we walk?” she asked hesitantly. “I don’t want Will to hear us.” When Alyss raised an eyebrow, she added, “Will has ears like a fox, Lady Alyss, trust me.”
Alyss smirked suddenly. “I know. I wanted to hear you say it.” Together, they set off at a casual pace. Saren glanced at Alyss dourly, and drew her mottled Ranger’s cloak around her before she began.
The story was much the same as Will’s, but Saren recounted for Alyss what she hadn’t for her male mentor. She told Alyss of how she’d gotten top scores for her Saxe knife combat, and how she’d cheered softly when they told her.
“I shouldn’t have done it, looking back,” Saren said gloomily. “That’s what started it. One of the other apprentices said it was cheat. So I asked him if he’d like another go. He laughed, and told me he didn’t think it was fair to beat a girl in single combat. So, of course, I challenged him to an actual contest.”
Alyss raised her eyebrows. “And none of the other Rangers intervened.”
Saren shook her head. “No. They were watching me. Almost like they were testing me. Which, now that I think about it, they probably were.”
Alyss placed a hand on Saren’s shoulder, and the younger girl started. Alyss didn’t withdraw her hand, though, and bent her knees so that she could look into Saren’s eyes.
“Saren, I know it’s tough being a girl in a man’s world. Trust me, I used to be one of them. In fact, I still am.”
Saren blinked, surprised. “But you’re a Courier! There’s not a more respected position in the kingdom except for Baron and King!”
Alyss smiled. “And for Ranger.”
“Well. And for Ranger.”
“Not everyone respects what it is the Couriers do,” Alyss continued. “Duncan, Queen Cassandra’s father, was one of the first to put women in the position at all. He felt that women used their heads, whereas men tended to rush into diplomacy rather blindly.”
Saren laughed. “That’s the truth. I mean—aw, really?” Her voice fell. She’d just caught on to what Alyss had said.
“Yes, really,” Alyss admonished. “You’ve got to use your head, Saren, and everywhere at every time. It’s hard work, being a girl nowadays. But smart, headstrong people like you, all you need is a little tact, and the stars are only a hair’s breadth away.”
Saren looked up at Alyss. She was surprised to see uncertainty in Saren’s usually fierce hazel eyes.
“Lady Alyss… I don’t want to let Will down, I really don’t. I know he chose me for what I can do, and I know how much of a risk he took choosing a girl for his apprentice. What if I’m not good enough? His entire career could fall apart if I don’t toe the line!”
“Saren, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Will secretly enjoys throwing caution to the winds. He was actually rather good at it as a young man. A little like another young Ranger I could mention.”
Saren balked. “Will? Impossible. He’s like the kingdom’s biggest stick in the mud.”
Alyss smiled. “You two have more in common than you think.” As Saren made a face, Alyss laughed. Then a thought struck her.
“The boy who’d provoked you. What did you do to him?” she asked. Saren blushed.
“Let’s just say…” Saren began quickly. “Let’s just say I kind of deserved the punch and leave it at that.”
“Strike that,” replied Alyss wryly.
Will removed Tug’s saddle, and hung it up on the wall of the stable.
“I don’t know, Tug. I mean, I didn’t think it was such a big deal when I asked her to be my apprentice.”
Tug raised his horsey eyebrows. Really? he seemed to ask.
“Well, okay, but I didn’t think it would cause any problems like this.”
Tug tossed his head, and turned around, swishing his tail brusquely.
Will raised his arms in defeat. “You too? I can’t solve everything! Give me an angry battalion of knights any day, anything but a girl.”
“Thanks,” Saren said from behind him. Will blanched, but kept his body appearing relaxed and unsurprised. There was no need for her to know she’d actually managed to sneak up on him. Will grunted in reply, tossing a horse blanket over Tug’s back.
The awkward silence was too much for Tug to bear. He whinnied, and plopped down onto the straw-covered floor, burrowing his head down beneath his forelegs so that he wouldn’t have to watch the painful proceedings.
Will opened his mouth, about to speak, but Saren, taking an enormous gulp of breath, beat him to it.
“Look, Will. I’m sorry I yelled at you back at the Gathering. I was just angry and upset, and I promise it won’t happen again.”
Will smiled. “ ‘It’ being that you won’t scream at me, or that you won’t get into any more fights?”
Saren’s shoulders visibly relaxed, and the tension drained from her face. She smirked. “The former, definitely. I can’t give you any promises about the fight thing, though.”
Will raised an eyebrow, the same way Halt had done to him so many times. Saren glanced at his face, grimaced, then nodded.
“Fine. No more fights.”
Will didn’t believe her for a second, but he smiled and held out his arms. They hugged, briefly but tightly. When they drew back, Will couldn’t help but have the last word.
“You’re still in trouble, of course.”
Saren frowned, and nodded suspiciously. “Okay.” She stood stoically, taking, he was sure, what she knew was coming. Will grinned. It was fun to be a Ranger with an apprentice.
“You’ll have to muck out the stables, the rug needs beating, I can’t help but see that the dishes are dirty, they’ll need a good scouring, and after that you can fletch some of those broken arrows from last week, then you can move around the targets out back…”
Saren groaned. But that was life.