chapter 1DISCLAIMER: I DO NOT OWN RANGERS APPRENTICE ALL RIGHTS BELONG TO JOHN FLANAGAN
It was early morning and Halt was frying bacon for breakfast. His apprentice, Will, was out feeding the horses their morning meal. The tantalizing fragrance of the bacon
mixed with the aroma of the pot of coffee hanging over the fire. Halt breathed deeply the scent of cooking breakfast and sighed contentedly. All was quiet and normal.
"Halt!" Will cried as he flung the door open, causing the Ranger to jump and nearly drop the sizzling bacon on the floor.
"This had better be good," he said in a low voice.
"Sorry," the apprentice apologized. When he didn't continue, Halt raised an eyebrow. "Oh, right. Come see," he instructed and jogged back out the door.
Halt rolled his eyes and followed Will outside. He found Will standing in front of the horses' stalls and pointing at something inside. Looking where the apprentice Ranger was indicating, Halt discovered there was a small, black goat sharing his horse, Abelard's, flake of hay.
"It's a goat, Will. You've never seen one before?" he asked dryly.
"I've seen a goat before," Will answered defensively.
"What's it doing there?" Halt questioned. He didn't own a goat, and he knew it hadn't been there the night before.
"I don't know, I just came out to feed and there it was," replied Will. Halt and Will turned back to study the goat.
Just then, the goat looked up from its meal. It stared directly at Halt, finished chewing the food in its mouth, stuck its tongue out and yelled, "Maaah! Maaah!"
Halt frowned at the little creature.
Will, on the other hand, was laughing. "I think it likes you, Halt," he teased. This caused his master to frown at him, which only encouraged his amusement.
"Get rid of it," Halt ordered.
"We can't keep it?" Will asked as emotionlessly as possible. He actually succeeded in perfectly replicating Halt's serious expression for a good three seconds, then he cracked and a big grin spread over his face.
"No! Goats eat everything and make huge messes. We're not keeping the goat," Halt announced.
"What should I do with it?"
"Will, to be a Ranger, you have to think, so think of a way to get rid of it on your own, it's good practice," he instructed. He then turned and headed back for the cottage, mumbling something about needing coffee.
"Maah! Maaaaaah! Maaahaha!" the goat cried as Halt entered the cottage and shut the door.
"Sorry, goat, looks like you can't stay," Will sighed.
"Maah," the goat replied, sounding incredibly sad. Will patted the animal consolingly a few times before finding a thin rope and tying it around the goat's neck like a leash.
"Come on, let's go before Halt decides to turn you into dinner," Will said as he tugged on the leash. The goat resisted at first, but as Will continued to pull on it, it finally gave in and followed.
"Alright, goat, you go find some nice farmer to live with," Will instructed once he was at the edge of the village surrounding Castle Redmont. He untied the rope, setting the goat free. "No following me back, understand?"
"Maaaahh!" the goat protested.
"I'm serious," Will said firmly. It then struck him that he was out in the middle of a public area, where anyone could see him, talking to a goat. He quickly looked around, but fortunately no one was there. "Go!"
The goat ran off a few paces at his shooing, turned, and gave him a very indignant look. It then bounced away in the direction of the village.
Will watched until the goat was no longer visible. Sighing, he headed back towards the cabin, sincerely hoping Halt hadn't eaten all of that bacon.
"Is it gone?" Halt asked as soon as his apprentice walked through the door.
"Yes. Is there any more bacon?" Will inquired hopefully. Halt waved a hand at a plate in the center of the table. Smiling, Will headed over to eat breakfast.
"We need to practice your shooting from behind cover," Halt commented. His apprentice looked up from his plate, mouth full of bacon. "I'll set up some objects for you use as cover. When you're done eating, grab you're bow and come outside," he instructed, standing up and heading for the door.
Will sighed; it was going to be another long and tiring day in the life of a Ranger's apprentice.
Halt stood watching his apprentice quickly step out of the cover of a tall barrel and let loose three arrows before ducking back behind the barrel. The three arrows thudded into the center rings of three targets spaced at different distances. This made Halt nod in satisfaction; Will was doing very well. One more round and Halt would let him be done with this topic for the day.
The hairs on the back of Halt's neck stood up and the feeling that someone was watching flooded over him. His hand dropped instinctively to the throwing knife at his belt. He looked over his shoulder and saw what was watching him.
Will jumped and looked at Halt, who was giving him an annoyed glare. He didn't understand why though; he had been doing everything correctly.
"I thought you said you got rid of that goat," Halt said.
"I did," Will replied.
"Then what is that?" Halt asked as he stepped to the side and pointed at the little black goat who had been watching him.
"Maaah!" cried the goat.
"It must have followed me back, but I swear it headed for the town," answered Will. He and his mentor stared at the goat. It glanced from Will to Halt. Then it burped and started chewing its cud. The two humans gave it a slightly disgusted look. "Do you want me to take it back to town?" asked Will.
"No, I'll handle it. I want you to practice what you're doing one more time then take Tug out for a ride. Find something to track and see how fast you can go and still be able to track it," Halt instructed. He had a plan to get rid of the goat. Will nodded and went to collect his arrows.
Halt headed for the horse stalls where there was a small pile of boards. The little goat followed him. He selected a good sized flat board and used his Sax knife to carve words into it. His sign read "Free to anyone who wants it." He then found a rope and tied it around the goat's neck, like Will had done earlier that morning.
Just then Will came around the corner. He looked quizzically at the sign. "You know, if anyone sees you leaving the goat there, I doubt they'll take it. They might think it's cursed or something, you know how they think we're sorcerers" he commented.
The older Ranger rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Good point. Here, hold this," he said and handed Will the leash. Will took it and Halt headed for the cottage. The goat tried to follow, but was brought to a sudden stop when it ran out of leash.
"Maaaah! Maaaaaaaah! Mahahahaaaa!" it cried.
Will felt sorry for the little creature. He knelt down and started petting it. The goat backed away form Will, lowered his head, and butted the young apprentice, causing him to lose his balance and fall over.
"Well fine then!" he yelled at it, pushing himself up off the ground. The goat backed up and butted him again. This time Will was able to keep from tumbling over.
"Making friends, are we?" Halt asked. He had walked out of the cottage just in time to see his apprentice get knocked to the ground by a miniature goat. Now he was giving Will one of his one-eyebrow-raised-slightly-amused looks.
The goat was very happy to see Halt. It ran to him and jumping on him, all the while yelling its little head off.
"Apparently it only likes you," Will said, glaring at the goat. Halt was now doing the same. Will handed him the leash and headed for his pony's stall.
Halt picked up the sign and began walking in the direction of the town. He didn't have to tug on the leash at all; the goat willingly followed him. His plan was to find somewhere in the center of town to tie the goat and leave it there with the sign. The next day was market day and many of the villagers and farmers would gather there. Someone was bound to take the goat. Halt had left the objects that easily distinguished him as a Ranger in his cottage; his cloak, his longbow and arrows, and his double knife scabbard. He still carried the knives, however the throwing knife was hidden and only the Sax knife hung at his belt.
At the town center, Halt found a patch of grass next to a sapling tree. He tied the goat to it, making sure it had enough room to move around a little, and placed the sign just out of the goat's reach, so it wouldn't eat it. That done, he turned and started walking back home.
"Mahahaaaa! Maaaah! Maaaaaaaaaaaah!" cried the goat, pulling at the end of its tether. It sounded so very sad. Halt looked at it and it stopped crying but continued to look pathetic.
"No," Halt told it and resumed walking. Again the goat began crying, but this time Hat didn't turn around.
"Is it gone?" Now it was Will's turn to ask. He had just gotten back from his ride and come into the cottage to find Halt making dinner.
"Yes, it's gone," Halt said cheerfully.
Apparently that goat was bothering him quite a lot; he hardly ever sounds this happy, Will thought.
"How did you do on the assignment I gave you?" Halt asked.
Will shrugged. "Fairly good; I was able to track a herd of deer through the woods at a fast trot."
"It's a good beginning, but you'll need to be faster. You're going to have to…" Halt began.
"Practice. I know," Will interrupted.
"And while you're at it, learn to not interrupt people when they're giving you instructions," Halt said pointedly.
"Sorry," Will apologized sincerely.
Halt nodded and continued cutting the slab of beef in front of him into bite sized pieces for stew. Will grabbed a knife and started chopping carrots.
"So what am I going to be doing tomorrow?" Will asked.
"You'll be throwing knives from behind cover, much like you did today with your bow, and you should practice tracking on Tug again," Halt replied. Will nodded. "And tomorrow we won't have any goat related distractions," he added optimistically.
Little did he know how wrong he was.
The following afternoon, Will was busy retrieving his throwing knife from the target in which it was lodged. Halt was sitting on the porch gluing fletching to a new set of arrows he had made.
"Uh, Halt?" Will said apprehensively. He had collected his knife and had started walking back to the barrel he was using as cover, but something had made him stop.
"What?" Halt asked, looking up from the black shafted arrow in his hands.
"It's back," Will replied, pointing.
Sure enough, the little black goat came bounding up the porch steps and hopped onto Halt's lap, ruining the arrow and nearly spilling the bottle of glue in the process. It looked Halt straight in the face, burped, and started chewing its cud, again.
"Get off!" Halt yelled at it. He stood up, causing the goat to tumble off his lap and onto the ground. It shook itself off indigently, then stood up on its hind legs, resting its forelegs on Halt's knee, and gave him a look that implored the Ranger to pet it.
The grizzled Ranger, however, had no intention of petting the creature. It was now no longer just a nuisance, it was an enemy. Halt wondered how he had sunk so low that a goat was his arch nemesis. Was it because he was becoming senile? Or was it simply because nothing new had happened in Araluen that required his services and he was getting bored?
Halt decided on the latter.
As Halt pondered the reasons for his new rivalry, Will had been trying hard not to laugh. The dark glare on the Ranger's face and the reason for the look was just too funny for Will to contain himself. He burst out laughing.
Halt turned his glare on his apprentice, who was trying to smother his laughter behind his hands. "And what, pray tell, is so funny?"
"It's just a goat, and you're getting all angry, and it's just a little goat," Will explained between snickers. When Halt continued to glare at him, he contained himself long enough to say, "I'm going to go ride Tug now."
"A wise decision," Halt said. He turned his attention back to the goat, who was nibbling contentedly at his pant leg. An idea formed in the Ranger's mind. He quickly walked into his cottage, making sure to shut the door before the goat got in. From outside the pitiful bleating of the goat could be heard. Halt ignored it and rummaged around until he found what he was looking for; a large empty sack. He draped it over his shoulder and headed back outside.
On the short walk from the cabin to the stable, Halt nearly tripped over the goat three times. It kept running between his legs and playfully butting him. He swore at it and pushed it out of the way with his boot, but it wouldn't give up.
Once Halt reached the stable, he tossed the sack on the side of Abelard's stall and began brushing and tacking the pony. Will, who was just finishing tightening the girth of Tug's saddle, glanced curiously at his teacher. When Halt didn't even look his way he shrugged and led his pony out of the stall.
The whole time Halt was getting his pony ready to ride, the goat was running around the stall, bleating, trying to get the Ranger's attention. Once, it stood next to Abelard's front legs and yelled at Halt. Abelard sniffed at it and then nipped the bothersome little creature just hard enough to cause it to flee temporarily from the stall. The Ranger gave his horse a hearty pat and a cheerful, "Good boy!" Abelard responded with toss of his mane that could only mean "You're welcome."
Finally, Abelard was tacked and ready to go. Halt picked up the sack and knelt down, looking at the goat. That was all the invitation the goat needed. It came bounding up to him, merrily bleating, oblivious to the cunning plan of the Ranger. Once the goat was close enough, Halt quickly grabbed it and pushed it into the sack. He pulled the drawstrings closed. From inside the sack, the goat yelled in outrage.
With one hand Halt held the sack and with the other he led his pony out of the stall. He awkwardly mounted Abelard; the squirming goat throwing off his balance. Once he was seated, he contemplated how to carry the goat. As much as he didn't want to hold it, he didn't want to risk tying it to the saddle, it might fall and it would be uncomfortable for his pony. Reluctantly, he decided to carry it in his arms.
Halt wondered what carrying a crying goat in a sack through town would do to his reputation. Most people feared Rangers, or at least respected them. The Ranger sighed; he hoped his image would not be too damaged in the eyes of the population by this annoying creature. He pulled the hood of his cloak up so most of his face was hidden in shadow. Sighing again, he gave Abelard a slight nudge with his legs and they started on their trek to Castle Redmont.
As Halt neared the village, his hope that the goat would stop its infernal bleating was dashed to pieces. It seemed the creature could continue to cry indefinitely. The goat wouldn't stop squirming either. Halt swore he would have bruises from where it had kicked him.
On the ride through town, the villagers stared curiously at Halt, not obviously of course. That would be, to their reckoning, an extremely dangerous course of action if the Ranger saw them. So they waited until Halt passed by to stare, or they darted behind buildings or peeked out from windows to see the odd sight of a Ranger carrying a squirming sack that bleated very loudly.
Halt could feel their stares. He cursed the goat in his mind. It would be doubtful the villagers would tell anyone about this strange sight for fear the Ranger might do something to them if they did. But if one of them did and Crowley, or worse, Gilan, found out, Halt would never be able to live this down. It would be terrible if Will found out also. Halt made a mental note to make sure that Will swore not to tell anyone, especially Gilan, about this incident.
Finally, Halt made it through the village and to the castle. Once in the courtyard, he dismounted. A guard tentatively approached him.
"Would you like me to put your horse up in the stable, sir?" he asked.
"No, I'll only be a minute," Halt answered. He knew Abelard would stay where he was until he returned.
The goat, who had at last stopped bleating, decided it was a good time to voice its opinion. "Maaaah! Maaaahaha!" it yelled.
The guard took a surprised step back and eyed the sack with interest. Halt flinched, ever so slightly. With all the dignity he could muster, which was surprisingly a lot given the circumstances, Halt turned and walked toward the castle's kitchen.
Returning to his post, the guard looked quizzically after the Ranger. He glanced at his duty mate, seeing if he agreed with his assessment of the event. The other guard shrugged in a way that said, "don't ask me why."
"That was odd," was his only comment.
Outside the kitchen, Halt was greeted by one of the young kitchen staff. He recognized her as Jenny, one of Will's childhood ward mates.
"Oh, hello!" she said, smiling. Jenny was one of the few people who wasn't automatically skittish around Rangers, most likely because of Will.
The goat, who had once again decided to be silent, changed its mind. "Maaaaaaaaah!"
"Oh! Do you have a goat in there?" she asked, looking expectantly at the sack.
"Just get Master Chubb," Halt said, but not harshly. The goat was starting to give him a headache.
"Alright," Jenny replied, a fleeting look of disappointment crossed her normally cheerful face. She walked toward the door leading to the kitchen, glancing back over her shoulder curiously.
Halt waited for the master chef. The goat started crying again. It's almost over, it's almost over, Halt reassured himself.
Chubb emerged from the kitchen, Jenny at his heals. Apparently, he hadn't wanted the girl to follow him. He turned to whack her in the head with his wooden ladle , but she scampered away. Halt saw her stick her head out of the kitchen to watch. Chubb didn't seem to notice.
"What business brings you here, Ranger?" Master Chubb asked. He had been around the castle long enough that he wasn't afraid of Rangers.
"A gift for you," Halt answered, holding the sack out so Chubb could look inside.
"A goat?" The chef looked at Halt after peering into the sack. Halt knew what Chubb was about to ask by the look on his face. "Why on Earth do you have a goat?"
"The pest has been wondering around my house. I thought you might have use for it," replied the Ranger.
Master Chubb shrugged. He took the sack form Halt. "I'm sure I do," he remarked.
"Good," Halt said. With that he turned and walked down the hall.
"That was odd," Chubb commented, not knowing he had exactly repeated the guard's statement. He knew Ranger's were different, but that was downright strange.
The goat poked its head up out of the sack. When it saw Halt wasn't there anymore, it started crying, again. It tried to jump out of the sack, but the fabric wouldn't give enough support to make that possible.
"Very odd indeed," said Chubb, looking at the little black goat. He turned and entered the kitchen.
The next morning, Halt walked out onto his porch just as the sun began to rise, a mug of steaming coffee in his hand. He breathed in the cool, clean morning air. A rabbit ran across the clearing. Birds called to each other from the tree tops. Everything was normal.
From somewhere to his right, Halt heard the cry that made his blood run cold.