John Flanagan: Halts peril

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John Flanagan Halts peril
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    Halts peril
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'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.

'Oooooooooooh!' went the crowd again.

Finally, the two couples separated, and stood back, hands joined, looking deep into each other's eyes. Baron Arald stepped forward and cleared his throat.

'My friends! An occasion such as this deserves a speech to mark it…'

'Ohhhhhhhhhhh,' sighed the crowd, this time with a disappointed inflection. The Baron smiled beatifically.

'But perhaps not,' he concluded, and the disappointed sigh turned into a giant 'Aaaaaah' of relief. Arald might like the sound of his own voice, Will thought. But he knew how to work a crowd.

'Instead,' the Baron continued, 'I'll announce a welcome home feast in the hall tonight.'

And now the crowd broke out in cheers.

'Who's this?' Alyss asked, noticing a little bundle squirming in the open neck of Will's jacket.

'This is Ebony.' He took the puppy out of his jacket and Alyss patted her head gently.

'Careful! She'll nip you,' Will warned but Alyss rolled her eyes at him.

'Of course she won't,' she said. 'She's a lady.'

And true to Alyss's words, Ebony allowed herself to be patted without her usual growling and yipping and nipping. Will raised his eyebrows in surprise.

'You just have to know how to treat a lady,' Alyss told him, smiling. He nodded acknowledgement and set the little dog down on the cobbles. For a moment, she stood there, feet braced, studying the scene around her. Her world was suddenly filled with a forest of legs and feet and massive beings. Her tail went down and she scuttled into the sanctuary between Tug's front hooves. Once there, the tail went up and she decided it was safe to yip at the world once more. Tug rolled his head to one side in order to look down at her. Then he looked up at Will and Alyss.

You go ahead and enjoy yourselves. I'll keep an eye on her.

Baron Arald loved a good banquet. And the best ones were those when Master Chubb, the Head Chef at Castle Redmont, and Jenny, his former pupil, competed with each other to create the finest dishes. Which was why he suggested that they share the catering responsibilities for Halt and Will's welcome home feast.

The food was magnificent and honours were declared even between the Head Chef and his former apprentice. Both of them fussed over the head table, where the guests of honour sat, both offering increasingly wonderful titbits to the two Rangers.

A succession of well-wishers filed past the table, welcoming Halt and his former apprentice home. People in Redmont were inordinately proud of their two famous Rangers. Sir Rodney, the Battlemaster, was one of the first. He immediately asked Halt for a report on Horace, his own former apprentice. He glowed with pleasure when Halt assured him that Horace had performed magnificently on their mission.

Gilan arrived halfway through the meal and was a welcome addition. He'd been the temporary Ranger for Redmont in their absence and he'd been called away to attend to a band of highway thieves. Knowing the fief 's Rangers had been sent on a mission, the thieves had begun to bother travellers on Redmont's roads. They were surprised to find that Halt's place had been taken by Gilan, an equally skilled and possibly even more energetic nemesis. Gilan had tracked them down to their lair and then led a cavalry patrol to arrest them.

It was noticeable that once Gilan joined their table, young Jenny concentrated less on offering choice food items to Halt and Will and more on presenting them to the tall, handsome Ranger.

As was always the case, Halt and Will said little about the details of their mission. They gave a brief outline to the Baron, who nodded his approval of their actions. Their detailed report would go to Crowley and then to the King. But people were accustomed to the usual Ranger reluctance to be in the spotlight. They were simply glad to see them home safe.

One person, of course, heard the full story of the mission from Halt's lips. Later that night, when the dining hall at Redmont was almost empty and the last guests were noisily heading for their beds, Lady Pauline beckoned to Will and drew him aside to speak privately to him. Her normally grave expression was more serious than ever and Will realised that she had worried about her husband the whole time he had been gone.

'Halt told me what happened up there in the north, Will. He said he would have died if it hadn't been for you and Horace.'

Will shifted his feet, a little uncomfortably.

'The real credit should go to Malcolm, my lady,' he said, and then as she raised a finger to remind him, he corrected himself, 'Pauline, I mean. After all, he was the one who cured Halt.'

'But you were the one who rode day and night to fetch him. And you were the one who captured that assassin so that Malcolm could discover which poison had been used. I know where the thanks are due, Will. And I thank you with all my heart.'

But Will was shaking his head. He had been bothered by something ever since they had discovered that terribly infected wound on Halt's arm. It had been at the back of his mind all that time and only now could he put it into words.

'My lady… Pauline, before we left, you asked me to look after him,' he said and she nodded.

'I remember.'

'Well, I didn't do a very good job of it. I should have realised something was wrong. I should have looked at that wound sooner. I knew he'd been hit but I just let it go. He was behaving strangely. The signals were all there and I should have seen them. But I just wasn't thinking. I should have done something sooner.'

She touched one gentle hand to his cheek. So young to feel so much responsibility, she thought fondly. She knew that she and Halt would probably never have children. This young man would be their son, she thought. And she couldn't have asked for a finer one.

'Pauline,' Will was saying, 'I came within an inch of failing you. I came within an inch of letting Halt down.'

'But you didn't, don't you see?' she told him. 'You didn't let him down. And I know you never will.'

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