It had been a long, hard three days.
Will had been on a tour of the villages surrounding Castle Redmont. It was something he did on a regular basis, keeping in touch with the villagers and their headmen, keeping track of the everyday goings-on. Sometimes, he had learned, little pieces of gossip, seemingly trivial at the time, could become useful in heading off future trouble and friction within the fief.
It was part of being a Ranger. Information, no matter how unimportant it might seem at first glance, was a Ranger's lifeblood.
Now, late in the afternoon, as he rode wearily up to the cabin set among the trees, he was surprised to see lights in the windows and the silhouette of someone sitting on the small verandah.
Surprise turned to pleasure when he recognized Halt. These days Will's mentor was an infrequent visitor to the cabin, spending most of his time in the rooms provided for him and Lady Pauline in the castle.
Will swung down from the saddle and stretched his tired muscles gratefully.
"Hullo," he said. "What brings you here? I hope you've got the coffee on."
"Coffee's ready," Halt replied. "Tend to your horse and then join me. I need to talk to you." His voice sounded strained.
Curiosity piqued, Will led Tug to the stable behind the cabin, unharnessed him, rubbed him down and set out feed and fresh water. The little horse butted his shoulder gratefully. He patted Tug's neck, then headed back to the cabin.
Halt was still on the verandah. He had set out two cups of hot coffee on a small side table and Will sat in one of the wood-andcanvas chairs and sipped gratefully at the refreshing brew. He felt the warmth of it flowing through his chilled, stiff muscles. Winter was coming on and the wind had been cold and cutting all day.
He gazed at Halt. The gray-bearded Ranger seemed strangely ill at ease. And despite his claim that he needed to talk to Will, once the usual greetings were out of the way, he seemed almost reluctant to begin the conversation.
"You had something to tell me?" Will prompted.
Halt shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Then, with an obvious effort, he plunged in.
"There's something you should know," he said. "Something I probably should have told you long ago. It's just . . . the time never seemed right."
Will's curiosity grew. He had never seen Halt in such an uncertain mood. He waited, giving his mentor time to settle his thoughts.
"Pauline thinks it's time I told you," Halt said. "So does Arald. They've both known about it for some time. So maybe I should just . . . get on with it."
"Is it something bad?" Will asked, and Halt looked directly at him for the first time in several minutes.
"I'm not sure," he said. "You might think so."
For a moment, Will wondered if he wanted to hear it, whatever it might be. Then, seeing the discomfort on Halt's face, he realized that, good or bad, it was something that his teacher had to get off his chest. He gestured for Halt to continue.
Halt paused for a few more seconds, then he began.
"I suppose it starts after the final battle against Morgarath's forces, at Hackham Heath. They'd been retreating for several days. Then they stopped and made a stand. We'd broken their main attack and we were forcing them back. But they were rallying on the right, where they'd found a weak point in our line . . ."