The Royal Ranger
The story that brings the Ranger's Apprentice arc full-circle!
Will Treaty has come a long way from the small boy with dreams of knighthood. Life had other plans for him, and as an apprentice Ranger under Halt, he grew into a legend—the finest Ranger the kingdom has ever known. Yet Will is facing a tragic battle that has left him grim and alone. To add to his problems, the time has come to take on an apprentice of his own, and it’s the last person he ever would have expected. Fighting his personal demons, Will has to win the trust and respect of his difficult new companion—a task that at times seems almost impossible.
John Flanagan returns for one final bow to the series that has conquered millions of readers worldwide with this pulse-pounding adventure that brings one era to a close, and ushers in the next . . .
For fans of Tolkien, Redwall, Game of Thrones, and T.H. White, RANGER'S APPRENTICE delivers fantasy-adventure thrills with real-world historical details.
“The last few years have seen the publication of many fantasies, but few have the appeal of this original story.” —Booklist, starred review, on The Ruins of Gorlan
“Fans of the series will eagerly devour this one and wait impatiently for the next . . . A sure bet for fantasy fans.” —School Library Journal
“Flanagan's deft character portrayals and well-paced story will engage readers, and the ending will leave them clamoring for the next volume.” —Booklist, on The Icebound Land
It had been a poor harvest in Scanlon Estate. The wheat crop had been meager at best, and the apple orchards had been savaged by a blight that left three-quarters of the fruit blemished and rotting on the trees.
As a result, the share farmers, farm laborers, orchardists and fruit pickers were facing hard times, with three months before the next harvest, during which time they would have nowhere near enough to eat.
Squire Dennis of Scanlon Manor was a kindhearted man. He was also a practical one, and while his kindhearted nature urged him to help his needy tenants, his practical side recognized such an action as good business. If his farmers and laborers went hungry, chances were they would move away, in search of work in a less stricken region. Then, when good times returned to Scanlon Estate, there would be insufficient workers available to reap the harvest.
Dennis had acquired considerable wealth over the years and could ride out the hard times ahead. But he knew that such an option wasn’t available to his workers. Accordingly, he decided to invest some of his accumulated wealth in them. He set up a workers’ kitchen, which he paid for himself, and opened it to the needy who lived on his estate. In that way, he ensured that his people received at least one good meal a day. It was nothing fancy—usually a soup or porridge made from oats. But it was hot and nourishing and filling, and he was confident that the cost would be more than repaid by the continuing loyalty of his tenants and laborers.
The kitchen was in the parkland in front of the manor house. It consisted of rows of trestle tables and benches, and a large serving table. These were sheltered from the worst of the weather by canvas awnings stretched over poles above them, creating a large marquee. The sides were left open. In bad weather, this often meant that the wind and rain blew around the tables. But farm folk are of hardy stock, and the arrangement was far better than eating in the open.
In fact, “kitchen” was a misnomer. All the cooking was done in the vast kitchen inside the manor house, and the food was carried out to be served to the hungry tenants and their families. The estate workers understood that the food was provided free of charge. But it was a matter of principle that any who could afford a small payment would do so. Most often, this was in the form of a few copper coins, or of produce—a brace of rabbits or a wild duck taken at the pond.
The kitchen operated for the two hours leading up to dusk, ensuring that the workers could enjoy a night’s sleep without the gnawing pains of hunger in their bellies.
It was almost dusk when the stranger pushed his way through to the serving table.
He was a big man with shoulder-length blond hair. He was wearing a wagoner’s leather vest, and a pair of thick gauntlets were tucked into his belt, alongside the scabbard that held a heavy-bladed dagger. His eyes darted continually from side to side, never remaining long in one spot, giving him a hunted look.
Squire Dennis’s chief steward, who was in charge of the serving table, looked at him suspiciously. The workers’ kitchen was intended for locals, not for travelers, and he’d never seen this man before.
“What do you want?” he asked, his tone less than friendly.
The wagoner stopped his darting side-to-side looks for a few seconds and focused on the man facing him. He was about to bluster and threaten, but the steward was a heavily built man, and there were two powerful-looking servants behind him, obviously tasked with keeping order. He nodded at the cauldron of thick soup hanging over the fire behind the serving table.
“I want food,” he said roughly. “Haven’t eaten all day.”
The steward frowned. “You’re welcome to soup, but you’ll have to pay,” he said. “Free food is for estate tenants and workers only.”
The wagoner scowled at him, but he reached into a grubby purse hanging from his belt and rummaged around. The steward heard the jingle of coins as he sorted through the contents, letting some drop back into the purse. He deposited three pennigs on the table.
“That do?” he challenged. “That’s all I’ve got.”
The steward raised a disbelieving eyebrow. He’d heard the jingle of coins dropping back into the purse. But it had been a long day, and he couldn’t be bothered with a confrontation. Best to give the man some food and get rid of him as soon as possible. He gestured to the serving girl by the soup vat.
“Give him a bowl,” he said.
She dumped a healthy portion into a wooden bowl and set it before him, adding a hunk of crusty bread.
The wagoner looked at the tables around him. Many of those seated were drinking noggins of ale as well. There was nothing unusual in that. Ale was relatively cheap, and the squire had decided that his people shouldn’t have a dry meal. There was a cask behind the serving table, with ale dripping slowly from its spigot. The wagoner nodded toward it.
“What about ale?” he demanded.
The steward drew himself up a little straighter. He didn’t like the man’s manner. He might be paying for his meal, but it was a paltry amount and he was getting good value for his money.
“That’ll cost extra,” he said. “Two pennigs more.”
Grumbling, the wagoner rummaged in his purse again. He showed no sign of embarrassment at producing more coins after claiming that he had none. He tossed them on the table, and the steward nodded to one of his men.
“Give him a noggin,” he said.
The wagoner took his soup, bread and ale and turned away without another word.
“And thank you,” the steward said sarcastically, but the blond man ignored him. He threaded his way through the tables, studying the faces of those sitting there. The steward watched him go. The wagoner was obviously looking for someone and, equally obviously, hoping not to see him.
The servant who had drawn the ale stepped close to him and said in a lowered voice, “He looks like trouble waiting to happen.”
The steward nodded. “Best let him eat and be on his way. Don’t give him any extra, even if he offers to pay.”
The serving man grunted assent, then turned as a farmer and his family approached the table, hopefully looking at the soup cauldron.
“Step up, Jem. Let’s give you and your family something to stick your ribs together, eh?”
Holding his soup bowl and ale high to avoid bumping them against the people seated at the tables, the wagoner made his way to the very rear of the marquee, close by the sandstone walls of the great manor house. He sat at the last table, on his own, facing the front, where he could see new arrivals as they entered the big open tent. He began to eat, but with his eyes constantly flicking up to watch the front of the tent, he managed to spill and dribble a good amount of the soup down his beard and the front of his clothes.
He took a deep draft of his ale, still with his eyes searching above the rim of the wooden noggin. There was only a centimeter left when he set it down again. A serving girl, moving through the tables and collecting empty plates, paused to look into the noggin. Seeing it virtually empty, she reached for it. But the wagoner stopped her, grasping her wrist with unnecessary force so that she gasped.
“Leave it,” he ordered. “Haven’t finished.”
She snatched her wrist away from his grip and curled her lip at him.
“Big man,” she sneered. “Finish off your last few drops of ale then.”
She stalked away angrily, turning once to glare back at him. As she did, a frown came over her face. There was a cloaked and cowled figure standing directly behind the wagoner’s chair. She hadn’t seen him arrive. One moment, there was nobody near the wagoner. Then the cloaked man appeared, seemingly having risen out of the earth. She shook her head. That was fanciful, she thought. Then she reconsidered, noting the mottled green-and-gray cloak the man wore. It was a Ranger’s cloak, and folk said that Rangers could do all manner of unnatural things—like appearing and disappearing at will.
The Ranger stood directly behind the wagoner’s chair. So far, the ill-tempered man had no idea that he was there.
The shadow of the cowl hid the newcomer’s features. All that was visible was a steel-gray beard. Then he slipped back the cowl to reveal a grim face, with dark eyes and gray, roughly trimmed hair to match the beard.
At the same time, he drew a heavy saxe knife from beneath the cloak and tapped its flat side gently on the wagoner’s shoulder, leaving it resting there so the wagoner could see it with his peripheral vision.
“Don’t turn around.”
The wagoner stiffened, sitting bolt upright on his bench. Instinctively, he began to turn to view the man behind him. The saxe rapped on his shoulder, harder this time.
“I said don’t.”
The command was uttered in a more peremptory tone, and some of those nearby became aware of the scene playing out at the table. The low murmur of voices died away to silence as more people noticed. All eyes turned toward the rear table, where the wagoner sat, seemingly transfixed.
Somewhere, someone recognized the significance of the gray mottled cloak and the heavy saxe knife.
“It’s a Ranger.”
The wagoner slumped as he heard the words, and a haunted look came over his face.
“You’re Henry Wheeler,” the Ranger said.
Now the haunted look changed to one of abject fear. The big man shook his head rapidly, spittle flying from his lips as he denied the name.
“No! I’m Henry Carrier! You’ve got the wrong man! I swear.”
The Ranger’s lips twisted in what might have been a smile. “Wheeler . . . Carrier. Not a very imaginative stretch if you’re planning to change your name. And you should have got rid of the Henry.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” the wagoner babbled. He began to turn to face his accuser. Again, the saxe rapped him sharply on the shoulder.
“I told you. Don’t turn around.”
“What do you want from me?” The wagoner’s voice was rising in pitch. Those watching were convinced that he knew why the grim-faced Ranger had singled him out.
“Perhaps you could tell me.”
“I haven’t done anything! Whoever this Wheeler person is, it’s not me! I tell you, you’ve got the wrong man! Leave me be, I say.”
He tried to put a sense of command into the last few words and failed miserably. They came out more as a guilt-laden plea for mercy than the indignation of an innocent man. The Ranger said nothing for a few seconds. Then he said three words.
“The Wyvern Inn.”
Now the guilt and fear were all too evident on the wagoner’s face.
“Remember it, Henry? The Wyvern Inn in Anselm Fief. Eighteen months ago. You were there.”
“What about the name Jory Ruhl, Henry? Remember him? He was the leader of your gang, wasn’t he?”
“I never heard of no Jory Ruhl!”
“Oh, I think you have.”
“I never have! I was never at any Wyvern Inn and I had nothing to do with the . . .”
The big man stopped, realizing he was about to convict himself with his words.
“So you weren’t there, and you had nothing to do with . . . what exactly, Henry?”
“Nothing! I never did nothing. You’re twisting my words! I wasn’t there! I don’t know anything about what happened!”
“Are you referring to the fire that you and Ruhl set in that inn, by any chance? There was a woman killed in that fire, remember? A Courier. She got out of the building. But there was a child trapped inside. Nobody important, just a peasant girl—the sort of person you would consider beneath your notice.”
“No! You’re making this up!” Wheeler cried.
The Ranger was unrelenting. “But the Courier didn’t think she was unimportant, did she? She went back into the burning building to save her. She shoved the girl out through an upper-floor window, then the roof collapsed and she was killed. Surely you remember now?”
“I don’t know any Wyvern Inn! I’ve never been in Anselm Fief. You’ve got the wrong—”
Suddenly, with a speed that belied his bulk, the wagoner was on his feet and whirling to his right to face the Ranger. As he began the movement, his right hand snatched the dagger from his belt and he swung it in a backhanded strike.
But, fast as he was, the Ranger was even faster. He had been expecting some sudden, defiant movement like this as the desperation had been mounting in Wheeler’s voice. He took a swift half step backward, and the saxe came up to block the wagoner’s dagger. The blades rang together with a rasping clang, then the Ranger countered the wagoner’s move with his own. Pivoting on his right heel, he deflected the dagger even further with his saxe and followed the movement with an open-palmed strike with his left hand, hitting Wheeler on the ridge of his jawline.
The wagoner grunted in shock and staggered back. His feet tangled in the bench he’d been sitting on and he stumbled, crashing over to hit the edge of the table, then falling with a thud to the ground.
The wagoner lay there, unmoving. An ominous dark stain began to spread across the turf.
“What’s going on here?” The steward moved from behind the serving table, with his two assistants in tow. He looked at the Ranger, who met his gaze steadily. Then the Ranger shrugged, gesturing toward the still figure on the ground. The steward tore his gaze away, knelt and reached to turn the heavy figure over.
The wagoner’s eyes were wide-open. The shock of what had happened was frozen on his face. His own dagger was buried deep in his chest.
“He fell on his knife. He’s dead,” the steward said. He looked up at the Ranger, but saw neither guilt nor regret in his dark eyes.
“What a shame,” said Will Treaty. Then, gathering his cloak around him, he turned and strode from the tent.
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