John Flanagan: Halts peril

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John Flanagan Halts peril
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    Halts peril
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'For you, Wi' Trea'y.'

He took the pup, who immediately fastened her teeth on the ball of his thumb, growling and yipping alternately. He studied her. She was still covered in soft puppy fur and her tail, which would later become a bushy, slow-sweeping extension of her body, was now a whip-shaped narrow affair, with a white tip at the end. She glared up at him and he laughed in delight as he saw that she had inherited her mother's eyes – one blue, one brown. The blue eye had a peculiar, manic look to it. He smoothed the fur on her head and she stopped worrying at his thumb. The whip tail went back and forth in pleasure.

'She's beautiful!' he said. 'Thanks, Trobar. Thank you so much.' He grinned down at the struggling little pup. 'I wonder what I should call her?' he mused.

'Eb'ny.' Trobar said firmly. 'Her na' i' Eb'ny.'

Again Will frowned as he tried to interpret the word. Then he had it.

'Ebony,' he said and Trobar grinned confirmation. 'That's a good name. I like it.'

Then Trobar, still grinning, said. 'Be'er tha' Bla'hy.'

'Better than Blackie?' Will asked. That was the first name he had come up with for Shadow. Trobar had been scathing about it when he renamed the dog.

Trobar nodded vigorously.

'I suppose I'll never live that down, will I?' Will asked.

'Ne'er,' Trobar replied with great conviction. He smiled down at the pup, then put a massive hand on Will's shoulder.

'Ne'er,' he repeated. Will raised an eyebrow at him.

'I got it the first time,' he said. Fifty-two Will found the others waiting for him on the road south of Macindaw.

As the young Ranger rode up to join them, Horace couldn't help smiling when he saw the small black and white bundle perched on Will's saddle bow. He knew how much it had torn Will's heart to give Shadow away to Trobar all those months ago.

'From Trobar?' he asked and Will nodded, grinning.

'Who else?' he said. Then he added, 'Her name is Ebony.'

'Good name,' Halt said. 'Did you pick it?'

Will shook his head. 'Trobar's choice.'

Horace nodded sagely. 'That figures.'

Will considered glaring at him but decided it wasn't worth the effort. For the first time in months, they were free of any pressing obligation.

'What do we do now?' he asked.

It was Halt who replied. 'We go home.' And there was a wealth of contentment in his voice as he said it.

So they turned their horses south and rode at an easy pace for home. There was no need to hurry, no emergencies waiting to be dealt with, so they took their time, enjoying each other's company. Horace would be heading back to Castle Araluen and they didn't know when they would see him again. So they made the most of their time together, with Halt as often as not sitting back and watching and listening to the conversation between his two young friends. They were a good pair, he thought, just as he and Crowley had been in their younger days, when the Ranger Corps had fallen on bad times and needed to be reinvigorated. He was glad to think that Will had a friend like Horace. He had a vague memory that in his delirium, he had told an imaginary Crowley that these two young men might well hold the future of Araluen in their hands. If he had said that, he thought, he had been right.

The atmosphere around the camp fire each evening was lightened by the puppy. She seemed to attach herself to Tug, crouching in front of the shaggy horse, her chin on her paws and her rump high in the air, tail waving as she challenged him with a fierce growl. If Tug made the slightest move towards her, she would dart away, sidestepping and twisting furiously as she ran in a circle to escape. Then she would return to crouch before him and challenge once again, her manic blue eye fixed on the animal that towered over her.

Tug, for his part, treated the little pup with good-humoured tolerance. On one occasion, Horace was convinced that he saw the horse raise an eyebrow at Ebony. The others didn't believe him, but he knew he was right.

Occasionally, she would growl and crouch in front of Abelard as well. But they noticed that she never tried it with Kicker. Small and pugnacious she might be, but border shepherds were never stupid and she sensed that while the smaller horses would tolerate her approaches, the battlehorse was likely to unthinkingly kick her into the middle of next week.

His name was 'Kicker', after all.

On one occasion, she crouched before Tug, snarling and yipping and making little forward darting movements at the horse, who eyed her with an air of amusement. Slowly, Tug lowered his head until his muzzle was a few centimetres away from the tiny black and white face. Then he suddenly snorted, and the dog, caught by surprise, was bowled over backwards in shock, scrambling to her feet and shaking herself to make sure everything was still in place and still working.

Don't annoy me, little dog, Tug seemed to say. I know your mother.

Later that night, making the rounds of the camp before turning in, Will found Tug lying quietly under a tree, his legs folded up beneath him. Nestled between his front upper legs was a small black and white shape, its sides rising and falling as it breathed. Tug looked up as Will approached.

She's had a long day. She's tired.

All too soon, they reached the junction in the highway where Horace would branch off for Castle Araluen. They camped there, the two young men talking long into the night. As they went to turn in, Will dropped a hand on Horace's well-muscled shoulder.

'I wish we could get you assigned to Redmont,' he said. 'I'm sure Crowley could arrange it.'

Horace allowed a smile to touch the corner of his mouth. 'I'll come visit,' he said. 'But you know, there are some things I like about life at Castle Araluen.'

Will looked at him, his head tilted a little to one side as he considered the statement.

'Like Evanlyn?'

'Maybe,' Horace said, trying to sound casual. But he couldn't stop the smile widening into a grin as he said it.

Will smiled in return. He'd long suspected that there was something special growing between Horace and the princess.

'Good for you,' he said.

In the morning, they went their separate ways and for once, as he rode away after a farewell, Will did look back as he reached the crest of a hill. He saw Horace turned in his saddle looking back at him and they waved, then turned and rode on.

The two Rangers were spotted long before they reached Castle Redmont and by the time they rode in under the portcullis, their horses' hooves clattering on the flagstones, a sizeable crowd had gathered to greet them.

In the forefront, of course, was the bulky form of Baron Arald. But as Halt and Will swung wearily down from their saddles, the Baron grinned at them and stepped aside, bowing as he ushered two other people forward.

Both tall. Both elegant. Both clad in the white gowns that marked them as King's Couriers.

Halt stood, unmoving, as his wife approached. Normally, he was a person who avoided public display. But he felt his heart rise into his throat as he saw her now – the woman he had loved all his life. He remembered how close to death he had been as he lay on his bedroll in the north, fighting a losing battle against the Genovesan poison. He had only just found Pauline and he had come so close to leaving her behind. Casting aside his usual reticence, he stepped forward to meet her, swept her into his arms and kissed her for a long, long time.

'Ooooooooooooh!' went the assembled crowd.

Will, watching in no little surprise, felt a gentle hand on his arm and looked up slightly to meet Alyss's smiling eyes.

'Looks like a good idea,' she said, inclining her head towards Halt and Lady Pauline. Will had to agree. He stepped forward, embraced her and kissed her. His head swam a little as she responded enthusiastically.

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