IT WAS LONG AFTER MIDNIGHT. THE FLICKERING TORCHES around the castle yard, already replaced once, had begun to burn low again.Will had watched patiently for hours, waiting for this moment--when the light was uncertain and the guards were yawning, in the last hour of their shift.
The day had been one of the worst he could remember.While his yearmates celebrated, enjoying their feast and then spending their time in lighthearted horseplay through the castle and the village, Will had slipped away to the silence of the forest, a kilometer or so from the castle walls. There, in the dim green coolness beneath the trees, he had spent the afternoon reflecting bitterly on the events of the Choosing, nursing the deep pain of disappointment and wondering what the Ranger's paper said.
As the long day wore on, and the shadows began to lengthen in the open fields beside the forest, he came to a decision. He had to know what was on the paper. And he had to know tonight.
Once night fell, he made his way back to the castle, avoiding villagers and castle folk alike, and secreted himself in the branches of the fig tree again. On the way, he slipped unnoticed into the kitchens and helped himself to bread, cheese and apples.He munched moodily on these, barely tasting them, as the evening passed and the castle began to settle down for the night.
He observed the movements of the guards, getting a feeling for their timing as they went on their regular rounds. In addition to the guard troop, there was a sergeant on duty at the doorway of the tower that led to Baron Arald's quarters. But he was overweight and sleepy and there was little chance that he would pose a risk to Will. After all, he had no intention of using the door or the stairway. Over the years, his insatiable curiosity, and a penchant for going places where he wasn't supposed to, had developed within him the skill of moving across seemingly open space without being seen. As the wind stirred the upper branches of the trees, they created moving patterns in the moonlight--patterns that Will now used to great effect.He instinctively matched his movement to the rhythm of the trees, blending easily into the pattern of the yard, becoming part of it and so being concealed by it. In a way, the lack of obvious cover made his task a little easier.The fat sergeant didn't expect anyone to be moving across the open space of the yard. So, not expecting to see anyone, he failed to do so.
Breathless,Will flattened himself against the rough stone of the tower wall.The sergeant was barely five meters away and Will could hear his heavy breathing, but a small buttress in the wall hid him from the man's sight. He studied the wall in front of him, craning back to look up.The Baron's office window was a long way up, and farther around the tower.To reach it, he would have to climb up, then work his way across the face of the wall, to a spot beyond the point where the sergeant stood guard, then up again to the window. He licked his lips nervously.Unlike the smooth inner walls of the tower, the huge blocks of stone that comprised the tower's outer wall had large gaps between them.Climbing would be no problem.He'd have plenty of foot- and handholds all the way up. In some places, the stone would have been worn smooth by the weather over the years, he knew, and he'd have to go carefully. But he'd climbed all the other three towers at some time in the past and he expected no real difficulty with this one.
But this time, if he were seen, he wouldn't be able to pass it off as a prank.He would be climbing in the middle of the night to a part of the castle where he had no right to be.After all, the Baron didn't post guards on this tower for the fun of it. People were supposed to stay away unless they had business here.He rubbed his hands together nervously.What could they do to him? He had already been passed over in the Choosing. Nobody wanted him.He was condemned to a life in the fields already.What could be worse than that?
But there was a nagging doubt at the back of his mind:He wasn't absolutely sure that he was condemned to that life.A faint spark of hope still remained.Perhaps the Baron would relent.Perhaps, ifWill pleaded with him in the morning, and explained about his father and how important it was for him to be accepted for Battleschool, there was a very faint chance that his wish would be granted. And then, once he was accepted, he could show how his eagerness and dedication would make him a worthy student, until his growing spurt happened. On the other hand, if he were caught in the next few minutes, not even that small chance would remain.He had no idea what they would do to him if he were caught, but he could be reasonably sure that it wouldn't involve being accepted into Battleschool.
He hesitated, needing some slight extra push to get him going. It was the fat sergeant who provided it.Will heard the heavy intake of breath, the shuffling of the man's studded boots against the flagstones as he gathered his equipment together, and he realized that the sergeant was about to make one of his irregular circuits of his beat.Usually, this entailed going a few meters around the tower to either side of the doorway, then returning to his original position. It was more for the purpose of staying awake than anything else, but Will realized that it would bring them face-to-face within the next few seconds if he didn't do something.
Quickly, easily, he began to swarm up the wall.He made the first five meters in a matter of seconds, spread out against the rough stone like a giant, four-legged spider.Then, hearing the heavy footsteps directly below him, he froze, clinging to the wall in case some slight noise might alert the sentry.
In fact, it seemed that the sergeant had heard something. He paused directly below the point where Will clung, peering into the night, trying to see past the dappled, moving shadows cast by the moon and the swaying trees. But, as Will had thought the night before, people seldom look up. The sergeant, eventually satisfied that he had heard nothing significant, continued to march slowly around the tower.
That was the chance Will needed. It also gave him the opportunity to move across the tower face so that he was directly below the window he wanted. Hands and feet finding purchase easily, he moved almost as fast as a man could walk, all the time going higher and higher up the tower wall.
At one point, he looked down and that was a mistake. Despite his good head for heights, his vision swam slightly as he saw how far he had come, and how far below him the hard flagstones of the castle yard were.The sergeant was coming back into view--a tiny figure when seen from this height.Will blinked the moment of vertigo away and continued to climb, perhaps a little more slowly and with a little more care than before.
There was a heart-stopping moment when, stretching his right foot to a new foothold, his left boot slipped on the weather-rounded edge of the massive building blocks, and he was left clinging by his hands alone as he desperately scrabbled for a foothold.Then he recovered and kept moving.
He felt a surge of relief as his hands finally closed over the stone window ledge and he heaved himself up and into the room, swinging his legs over the sill and dropping lightly inside. The Baron's office was deserted, of course. The three-quarter moon streamed light in through the big window.
And there, on the desk where the Baron had left it, was the single sheet of paper that held the answer to Will's future. Nervously, he glanced around the room. The Baron's huge, high-backed chair stood like a sentry behind the desk.The few other pieces of furniture loomed dark and motionless. On one wall, a portrait of one of the Baron's ancestors glared down at him, accusingly. He shook off these fanciful thoughts and crossed quickly to the desk, his soft boots making no noise on the bare boards of the floor. The sheet of paper, bright white with the reflected moonlight, was within reach. Just look at it, read it and go, he told himself.That was all he had to do.He stretched out a hand for it.
His fingers touched it.
And a hand shot out of nowhere and seized him by the wrist! Will shouted aloud in fright. His heart leaped into his mouth and he found himself looking up into the cold eyes of Halt the Ranger.
Where had he come from? Will had been sure there had been nobody else in the room. And there had been no sound of a door opening.Then he remembered how the Ranger could wrap himself in that strange, mottled, gray-green cloak of his and seem to melt into the background, blending with the shadows until he was invisible. Not that it mattered how Halt had done it. The real problem was that he had caught Will, here in the Baron's office. And that meant the end to all Will's hopes.
"Thought you might try something like this," said the Ranger in a low voice.Will, his heart pounding from the shock of the last few moments, said nothing.He hung his head in shame and despair.
"Do you have anything to say?"Halt asked him, and Will shook his head, unwilling to look up and meet that dark, penetrating gaze. Halt's next words confirmed Will's worst fears.
"Well, let's see what the Baron thinks about this," he said.
"Please,Halt! Not . . ."Then Will stopped.There was no excuse for what he had done and the least he could do was face his punishment like a man. Like a warrior. Like his father, he thought. The Ranger studied him for a moment.Will thought he saw a brief flicker of . . . recognition? Then the eyes darkened oncemore.
"What?"Halt said curtly.Will shook his head.
The Ranger's grip was like iron around his wrist as he led Will out the door and onto the wide, curving staircase that led up to the Baron's living quarters.The sentries at the head of the stairs looked up in surprise at the sight of the grim-faced Ranger and the boy beside him. At a brief signal from Halt, they stood aside and opened the doors into the Baron's apartment.
The room was brightly lit and, for a moment,Will looked around in confusion.He was sure he had seen the lights go out on this floor while he waited and watched in the tree.Then he saw the heavy drapes across the window and understood. In contrast to the Baron's sparsely furnished working quarters below, this roomwas a comfortable clutter of settees, footstools, carpets, tapestries and armchairs. In one of these, Baron Arald sat, reading through a pile of reports.
He looked up from the page he was holding as Halt entered with his captive.
"So you were right," said the Baron, and Halt nodded.
"Just as I said,my lord.Came across the castle yard like a shadow. Dodged the sentry as if he wasn't there and came up the tower wall like a spider."
The Baron set the report down on a side table and leaned forward.
"He climbed the tower, you say?" he asked, a trifle incredulously.
"No rope.No ladder,my lord.Climbed it as easily as you get on your horse in the morning. Easier, in fact,"Halt said, with just the ghost of a smile.
The Baron frowned.He was a little overweight and sometimes he needed help getting on his horse after a late night.He obviously wasn't amused by Halt's reminding him of the fact.
"Well now," he said, looking sternly at Will, "this is a serious matter."
Will said nothing.He wasn't sure if he should agree or disagree. Either course had its dangers. But he wished Halt hadn't put the Baron in a bad mood by referring to his weight. It certainly wouldn't make things any better for him.
"So, what shall we do with you, young Will?" the Baron continued. He rose from his chair and began to pace.Will looked up at him, trying to gauge his mood. The strong, bearded face told him nothing. The Baron stopped his pacing and fingered his beard thoughtfully.
"Tell me, young Will," he said, facing away from the miserable boy,"what would you do in my place? What would you do with a boy who broke into your office in the middle of the night and tried to steal an important document?"
"I wasn't stealing,my lord!"The denial burst from Will before he could contain it.The Baron turned to him, one eyebrow raised in apparent disbelief.Will continued weakly,"I just . . . wanted to see it, that's all."
"Perhaps so," said the Baron, that eyebrow still raised."But you haven't answered my question.What would you do in my place?" Will hung his head again.He could plead.He could apologize. He could ask for mercy.He could try to explain.But then he squared his shoulders and came to a decision. He had known the consequences of being caught.And he had chosen to take the risk.He had no right now to plead for forgiveness.
"My lord . . . ," he said, hesitantly, knowing that this was a decisive moment in his life. The Baron regarded him, still half turned from the window.
"Yes?" he said, and Will somehow found the resolve to go on. "My lord, I don't know what I'd do in your place. I do know there is no excuse for my actions and I will accept whatever punishment you decide."
As he spoke, he raised his face to look the Baron in the eye.And in doing so, he caught the Baron's quick glance to Halt. There was something in that glance, he saw. Strangely, it was almost a look of approval, or agreement.Then it was gone.
"Any suggestions, Halt?" the Baron asked, in a carefully neutral tone.
Will looked at the Ranger now.His face was stern, as it always was. The grizzled gray beard and short hair made him seem even more disapproving,more ominous.
"Perhaps we should show him the paper he was so keen to see, my lord," he said, producing the single sheet from inside his sleeve. The Baron allowed a smile to break through."Not a bad idea," he said."I suppose, in a way, it does spell out his punishment, doesn't it?" Will glanced from one man to the other. There was something going on here that he didn't understand.The Baron seemed to think that what he had just said was rather amusing. Halt, on the other hand, wasn't sharing in the fun.
"If you say so, my lord," he replied evenly. The Baron waved a hand at him impatiently.
"Take a joke, Halt! Take a joke! Well, go on and show him the paper."
The Ranger crossed the room and handed Will the sheet he had risked so much to see. His hand trembled as he took it. His punishment? But how had the Baron known he would deserve punishment before the actual event?
He realized that the Baron was watching him expectantly.Halt, as ever,was an impassive statue.Will unfolded the sheet and read the words Halt had written there.
The boy Will has the potential to be trained as a Ranger.
I will accept him as my apprentice.