This is my last entry into the Writers of the Future contest for the last quarter. For this story, I had an inspiration from writing my novel, due “Real Soon Now.” This tells a story mentioned by other characters in the novel.
By JB Steele
Ranger Cuileán Abel was not happy.
He had recently transferred into the King’s Ranger Corps from the knighthood. There was a lot of interesting things to keep him busy and the work was diverting. He was also discovering that there was a lot of things that he’d never thought about as a knight. Of course, then he was required to see to the security of the kingdom and fight for the King, along with a few other things, but as a Ranger he was also attending to internal matters as well. All King’s Rangers were required to serve as a Knight for at least six years and be recommended for entry to the Ranger Corps by a current member.
The loyalty oath to the King was nothing new, but the magical spell that came after a truly grueling training regimen was. It bound him to the office of the King, like every other Ranger in the Corps, and compelled him to always tell the truth to his sovereign in any official matters. It also gave the King absolute powers of punishment over any Ranger. The King could order the instant execution of a Ranger with a word. Every Ranger hoped that any King they were sworn to was wise enough to recognize the grave responsibility they carried, and was not capricious with them.
It seemed that King Samuel was a fair-minded sort. Tough, of course, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. He ran the kingdom well, and there was plenty of treaties with neighboring monarchies to prevent anyone with empire-building ambitions from going rogue. The kingdom was prosperous, and while there was some problems with pirates and other such rebellious types, for the most part things went well.
Ranger Abel rubbed the silvery tattoo with a sword glittering in the confines of an oval. There was room for more to be added in the event he advanced in the Ranger Corps, but for now all he had was a lonely sword. It still stung a bit, even after all this time had passed. He wondered if it was just something he was thinking about. The sergeant-at-arms in the castle that applied it assured him that it would fade in time, but how long was dependent on the person. The phosphorescent glow that came with a Ranger tattoo was caused by something that was in the ink. How they got the ink was something that he hadn’t found out yet. It was still new enough that to see it glowing after being in light was still strange to him, but the usefulness of being able to faintly see in dark confines amused him.
He was not so amused about where he was, stationed here at Drokan’s Beard yet again.
He hadn’t been too crazy about it the first time he’d been ordered here, some years ago. The young Ranger supposed that the act of dancing with all the King’s daughters as he had, freshly knighted and long before the Rangers had taken him, had maybe not been the wisest decision. The Knight Companion then overseeing his detachment had called him in and read him the riot act. The King wanted his brand of distraction away from his daughters and taken steps to see to it.
Hence, the arrival on station.
The Knight Companion was very stern as he told the young Sir Cuileán what had happened, and informed him of the urgent need to get his affairs squared away. There was a suspicion quiver at the corner of his lips at the word “affairs,” but the young knight thought he was imagining things. In any event, he was leaving that very day, so he’d had to hustle. As he ran off to his quarters, his very sharp hearing detected what sounded like bellows of laughter coming from the office. It couldn’t be, he thought. The Knight Companion had a reputation for being so serious, his head would split apart if he tried to smile.
As for the daughters, he remembered separate private dances with each one. It was good to be young, he thought, grinning.
Reminiscing was not going to help him now. Ranger Abel had to be vigilant in his duties here at Drokan’s Beard, or someone would sneak up behind him and bury a knife in his ribs. He looked around the area he was assigned to. It was a calm place at the moment since the day’s business had yet to be conducted. The Silvermoon Bay emptied into this harbor, and it was frequented by various traders and merchants. It did a great deal of business, and many items transited these docks that the Kingdom used every day. Quite a few fortunes had been made here, and in the case of hurricanes, quite a few fortunes had been lost. The first fortune to be made was by a long-dead trader named Drokan, hence the name. The trader had made this harbor his home port, and over time it was associated with him.
Of course, he’d been a conscientious and honest man beloved by many of the people who still spoke reverently of him in all the stories that they swapped. Cuileán Abel knew many of the stories by now, and had a pretty good idea what kind of man he’d been, even with the exaggeration such stories tended to take on over time. It was a shame that after his death, all the opportunistic smugglers and pirates took over by pretending to be some of the various traders and merchants that did honest business here. It didn’t help matters that there happened to be several governors that proclaimed that the rough elements would be cleaned out of the harbor, but secretly enabled all the illicit activities. The Rangers wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that some of the take from the transactions found homes in the governors’ pockets.
The Senior Ranger in charge of this station was a smaller man than Cuileán. That didn’t seem to matter to anyone, since his presence was arguably larger than anyone. No one would go so far as to say he ‘intimidated’ everyone, but not a single Ranger under his command went out of his way to make jokes at or about him. That was fine with the young Ranger, since he wasn’t really the sort to be humorous anyway. Cuileán paid attention to him the first time they’d met, especially since he’d found out that this place had only gotten worse since the first time he’d been there. He’d reported in to the Senior Ranger when he arrived and found him reading a letter that bore Sir Jorah’s distinctive seal.
“I understand you’ve been here before.” The statement from the Senior Ranger wasn’t a request for information. His voice was even, but it was austere. Cuileán fought the urge to stand rigid. He relaxed his legs and spoke up.
“And you got yourself shuffled off here for having the guts to do some dancing.” The man’s eyebrows raised in all innocence. If he didn’t know better, the young Ranger would swear that his superior was making a joke.
“That’s also right.” The Senior Ranger snorted at his even reply.
“Any man brave enough – or foolish, maybe – to risk the King’s wrath over his daughters isn’t a man who’s going to be worried about the malcontents here giving him a hard time.”
It didn’t seem to be a good idea to comment on that statement, so the young Ranger was silent. After a moment, the Senior Ranger went on.
“May as well get used to it. The Ranger Corps is still a small group, relatively speaking. You’re going to hear about any number of variations on your dancing ability for a while. Speculations, too. I decided to get mine in first. Sir Jorah had a few speculations of his own in the letter he sent me, but nothing serious.”
Cuileán Abel had already come to that conclusion. He resigned himself to it.
“Anyway, to business. Sir Jorah says that you work best alone, or with a partner. I don’t have anyone to partner you with, anyway, but I do have something that needs to be done.”
The young Ranger’s gaze sharpened, as did his attention. The Senior Ranger tossed the letter down on the rough-hewn table he worked from. His face took on a pinched look as he glanced out the window.
“What is that, sir?”
“First, know that we’re stretched pretty tight here. I alluded to the situation a moment ago when I said that we’re a small group. While that’s true here of the detachment at Drokan’s Beard, it’s just as true of the Ranger Corps in general. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a lot of sleep while you’re here. I don’t.”
The grimace on the man’s face was very real.
“Yes, sir. I understand.”
“No, I don’t think you do just yet. You will, though. Trust me, and this is not another joke, you won’t get any chance to dance with any daughters, King’s or otherwise.”
The young Ranger didn’t react, but winced mentally.
“What do you have for me to do, sir?”
The other man regarded him critically. He seemed to be coming to a decision, and if that was the case, Cuileán didn’t want to rush his answer. After a moment, he leaned back in his chair and gestured to an old wooden chair. The young Ranger eyed it doubtfully, but since it was the only other chair in the small room, he sat gingerly. It creaked and swayed a little, but held his weight.
“Ranger Abel, you have the look of a man who won’t put up with a lot of the games that people like this try to run on people like you. I want you to go out to Drokan’s Bay, and start gathering information. There’s been too much illicit activity out there, and it has to stop. Or, at the very least, get cut far down.”
“Yes, sir, I will.” The young Ranger peered at his superior. “Is there more I need to know?”
The man sighed. His fatigued demeanor seemed to relax more. The young Ranger couldn’t tell what prompted it. “Sir Cuileán, all I can tell you is that there is supposedly a special cargo coming into the harbor sometime in the next week, but what it is I don’t know. It has to be found, because it could be anything – and nothing good. I don’t want you to think that I’m throwing you off into the deep end just as you get here, you understand. Sir Jorah speaks highly of you, and I’d send someone with you to do this. But – I don’t have anyone, which means that you’ll be working alone. The people I do have are established in the things they’re working on. Yanking them off and reshuffling them now is a sure way to alert the other side something might be happening. If they get spooked by it, it might stop them from whatever they’re doing. That might warn them off, and I don’t want that. I want to catch them. Don’t think they don’t know where we are or where they think we are.”
Cuileán nodded. That made sense. It was good that the Senior Ranger didn’t underestimate them.
“One more thing. It would probably be a good idea to not show yourself as a King’s Ranger, so you need to find a way to hide your Ranger tattoo. I would suggest that you do your best to pass yourself off as the common riffraff. You’ve got longer hair than the usual, which will help.”
Cuileán didn’t mention that it was because several of the King’s daughters had enjoyed playing with it.
“Also, I want you to send me written reports of everything you find out, but don’t send me idle gossip. Can you distinguish between the two?”
“Good. If you find you need help, try to get word to me here. I will do my best to support you, but the first thing to do is ‘be careful.’ Got that?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Good. Get out of here. Get established and find out what’s going on.”
The older man paused at the certainty in the younger Ranger’s voice, but as he searched Cuileán’s face, he seemed reassured.
“Good, then do it.”
He turned his attention back to the work on his table, dismissing the young Ranger. Cuileán took the cue and left.
That had been a month ago, and he had not wasted his time. The young Ranger had found a long, loose coat that fit him extremely well and helped with the more frequent rains that Drokan’s Beard was prone to. The wear of long coats by knights was frowned upon, but now as a King’s Ranger he had more choices in his sartorial choices. The coat had several pockets that he found extremely useful, and in one he stowed a tiny jar of a concealer to cover his tattoo. If he needed to remove the jacket, he didn’t want to blow his cover.
The whisper from a narrow alley caught his attention. A hand gestured quickly from the depths of the alley. The young Ranger was using that name as an alias, and he looked around quickly before ducking into the alley. It was a tight fit, with all the trash and other debris scattered about. The man who called his name was one of the more unsavory types he’d made the acquaintance of, in his second week.
“I hear might be a little something coming in tomorrow night.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Don’t know quite yet, but it’s something you might be interested in. You strike me as a man who would take advantage of an opportunity.”
“Depends on the opportunity and whether I can stay clear of those Rangers.”
The man shuddered.
“You hadda go and mention them. I’m a good mind not to tell you.”
“Sorry, just speaking the truth. Wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, you’re right. I hate Rangers. Worse than the knights.”
“They got a job to do, just like us. It’s up to us to make sure the two stay separate.”
The man squinted at the young Ranger.
“You know, you make a lot of sense. But I’m a suspicious sort.”
“Yeah. Roll up your sleeve.”
Cuileán glared at him, his gray eyes growing chips of ice. The man shriveled back a little, but pointed at the Ranger’s left sleeve. Cuileán slid it up and showed him a hairy forearm without a tattoo showing. The man relaxed, and the Ranger slid it back down.
“I’ll give you this, you got balls. I would think you were accusing me of being a Ranger.”
The man started to speak, but Cuileán wasn’t finished. He grabbed the man by his filthy collar and pivoted. In the tiny alley, the man was slammed up again the opposite wall hard enough to drive the air from his lungs. He shoved his forearm against the man’s throat. The Ranger’s greater height let him hold the man off the ground. Cuileán pushed his face up into the other man’s filthy face and snarled at him.
“Do it again, and you won’t live long enough to finish the statement. Do you hear me, slug?”
The man nodded quickly, fear showing in his eyes at the expression in the freezing gray eyes.
“I… I hear you.” Cuileán released him, and he fell to the ground coughing. He clambered up, hanging on the side of the wall. The man kept an eye on the young Ranger, and his hand crept toward his jacket. Before he could blink again, the flat of a blue-green blade slammed against his collarbone and he collapsed again. The man looked up from a sprawl, his back against the same wall he’d just pushed himself up. Behind the razor-sharp blade, gray eyes stabbed him.
“You better start talking.”
“What’s in it for me?”
In answer, the blade shifted and lopped off the earlobe from which a gold ring hung. The man screeched and jerked to the left, only to find the same blue-green blade on his opposite collarbone just inches from the side of this neck. The man holding the sword had moved so quickly that it was a dim blur to him.
“Your pitiful life. Talk.”
* * *
The Ranger stopped in front of the small building on the waterfront. There was a small sign that said ‘Blackton’s,’ and the number over the door was the same that the brigand in the alley had told him. It had taken a little convincing, and he’d start talking after receiving a stupendous black eye. Cuileán thought about the information that he had gotten. Something was going on at Drokan’s Beard, something that was out of the ordinary even for it. The details were a bit sketchy, but the trail started with him and led him to this place.
He rapped on the door, in the sequence he’d been given. A muffled curse came from inside and footsteps stomped to the door. It was wrenched open, and Cuileán saw a grizzled man about his size glaring owlishly at him.
“What do you want?”
“Garrick sent me to remind you about the ‘prancing ponies.’ He didn’t want you to forget.”
A more suspicious look as Cuileán delivered the code phrase, then the man said “Get in here.”
The Ranger did, and ducked his head as he went through the low door. The man closed the door, and Cuileán could see the glint of a long curved knife in his hand.
“What happened to Garrick?”
The knife came up. Cuileán glanced at it, unimpressed. The stranger noticed but waited for the answer. He stood with his back to the door, other hand opening and closing.
“He decided that he wasn’t going to put in for anything this time around, and sent me. I’m interested.”
“Are you? I don’t know you. What’s going to keep me from killing you and tossing you to the sharks?”
Cuileán didn’t answer. He grinned at the man, who furrowed his brow at the response. The knife looped toward Cuileán. The Ranger’s left hand shot out, gripping the man’s wrist in an iron grip. His right hand swung up, not any slower than the other and catching the man on the chin. He collapsed in a heap, and the knife clattered to the floor. Cuileán grabbed the knife and rammed it deep into the door frame.
It took a good twenty minutes for the eyes in the grizzled face to blink open. During that time, the Ranger flipped through the book on the table and noted a few log entries on the front page. The rest of the pages were blank, and to Cuileán it appeared that this was a newly opened logbook. The entries seemed to be spaced about two weeks or so apart. His carefully trained memory noted the entries in the book. The man was still out cold, so he looked around some more.
He found another few books in the trash that looked very similar, and slipped them in the lining of his coat. Ashes in the stove had the consistency of burnt paper, so whatever the man had burned, it might have been more books like this. Cuileán’s lips thinned. No telling what he was trying to hide by burning. He didn’t look like a successful business person in any kind of legal enterprises.
The Ranger found a couple of maps shoved in the back of the stove that had charred edges. He got them out, cursing the hot coals. Those went down the lining, too. He had to spit on the burning edges to put them out, otherwise his coat would be rather warm soon. The man crumpled on the floor groaned. Cuileán quietly closed the grate, and drew his sword. He sat down in the chair, one foot propped on the table and sword on his knees. The blade gleamed with its unusual color.
The man groaned again and pushed himself up to a seated position. He shook his head. It seemed to Cuileán that he was shaking off a hangover. The Ranger didn’t think he’d hit him that hard, but it was possible. He waited for the man to blink a few more times, then spoke.
“What’s your name?”
“Thormond.” The name came out as a long groan. “I’m getting too old for this.”
“That’s for you to decide, Thormond. But I’ll tell you this: you come after me again and you won’t have to. I’ll decide for you, and you can rot. It doesn’t matter to me one way or another. You got me?”
Thormond looked up to see his knife buried in the wood. It would take him a while to work it out. He winced as he rubbed his jaw and looked at the Ranger sitting in his seat.
“I got you.”
“Good. Now, let’s talk business. Don’t bother getting up. We can talk just fine like we are, but if you get up this sword,” he raised the tip just enough to show the keen edge to the man, “will be the last thing you see.”
The man gulped.
“Garrick sent me, like I said before. He didn’t want to take advantage of an opportunity and he clued me in. I’m beginning to wonder if this ‘opportunity’ he was talking about is just small potatoes and not worth my time.”
Thormond colored up.
“It’s very lucrative. If you can take delivery of a cargo, handle payment, and get it to our agents.”
“Sounds simple enough. What’s the cargo?”
“Not all that simple.” The man rubbed his jaw again. “Did you have to hit me so hard?”
The Ranger shrugged, unrepentant. “If you’d rather I had cut your head off instead, that can be arranged.” The sword eased up, and the man shrunk back.
“No, I’m quite satisfied.”
Cuileán nodded at the response.
“Quit stalling and talk. Why not simple and what’s the cargo?”
“The port authorities have to be convinced to look the other way when the ship delivers seventy ‘guest workers’ for the fields.”
Cuileán schooled his face to stillness. He didn’t expect this. Smuggling goods or other objects was one thing, but people was another. He had a part to play.
“That’s all. Can you handle it? Or want to?”
The Ranger made a show of thinking about it, privately amused at the bead of sweat that popped up on Thormond’s forehead.
“I’m in. Garrick said it was tomorrow.”
The man blew a frustrated breath. “Garrick couldn’t remember a date if his life depended on it. It’s a wonder he’s lived this long.”
“So when it is?”
“Day after tomorrow. A few hours after sundown.”
“That’s not a problem. I can move some things around and make room. What’s your role?”
The man grimaced. “I’m the arranger. I get these shipments set up and line up buyers. I’ll give you the payment for the captain of the vessel, you give it to him. You take the cargo, get it stored, and release it to the buyer.”
“How do I get my cut? You?”
“No, after I give you the payment for the captain, you don’t see me again unless there’s a problem. Your payment comes from the buyer.”
“I give you the payment, and they give you a cut of it.”
“What if they short me?”
“Then it’s between you and them. This keeps suspicion off me.”
“Better not be any funny business. I don’t handle that very well.”
The man chuckled, although it seemed that the levity was painful. His eyes were still a little unfocused. “I’ve seen that. These people keep their word, since they know if they don’t then the word we’d put out would blackball them. They want to keep doing business here.”
“Good to know. Garrick wasn’t too forthcoming with details.”
“That sounds like him. He keeps a secret.”
“Why don’t you do this yourself? Just out of curiosity?”
Thormond grimaced. “I can’t get on a boat of any kind. I get sea sick without solid ground under my feet.” He even turned a little green at the reminder of it.
The Ranger stood up and sheathed his sword.
“I’ll see you here at dusk day after tomorrow. Be ready.”
Thormond nodded. He gasped as Cuileán picked him up roughly without straining in the least, and set him in the chair. The unspoken demonstration left him with no illusions about the nature of his new business partner. He watched as the door banged shut behind him, then blew out a long breath.
* * *
Later that afternoon, the Ranger slipped into the room that he stayed in while on this assignment. It wasn’t much, just a small room with a bed and no other furniture at all. He shrugged the long coat off and pulled out the items that he’d secreted there. The two books he lay on the floor, and the papers he spread out as well. Most of those looked like maps, but not quite. It took a moment to realize that he wasn’t looking at maps, but of hand copied charts similar to what sailors used. He studied them closely, seeing the marks on one that denoted Drokan’s Beard.
This was something new. Why would someone have a chart of Drokan’s Beard? He saw rough lines that could be bearing marks, but since he wasn’t a sailor he didn’t know. He knew how to read a land map, and he supposed that sea charts worked the same way. Cuileán flipped through the others and saw that they appeared to be ripped from a rough binding. Some of the jagged edges still had glue attached.
That gave him a thought. He moved closer to the window and laid the sheets out on the floor. He arranged them in a semblance of order and found out that some observant sailor had drawn a fairly detailed set of charts. He found gaps, but when the young Ranger finished a few minutes later, he had a hand drawn chart of the east coast of Cadealith. Cuileán’s gaze narrowed as he saw the collection of marks on the assembled charts resolve into locations of suspected smuggling hideouts – or close enough.
He made several notes and observations on his own paper. The first thing was the information that he had memorized from the logbook he’d left at the warehouse. It consisted of a date, which was in two days time, and a destination, which was Drokan’s Beard. There was a name, too. The entry ‘Capt. Sasaki’ was written in bold script, and underlined. The name was unfamiliar to him.
The young Ranger had made it a habit to put down his thoughts as he investigated something and it allowed his mind to poke and prod things with every entry. The first thing that occurred was that the arranger, Thormond, was into it up to his neck. Why else would he have these maps? The second was that if he could find out who drew the maps, he could yank the evidence chain and get more people. The third thought was that this was valuable information, just with the charts. Why was he destroying them? What did he have to hide? Several of the people he’d talked to after leaving Thormond didn’t seem impressed by him.
The Ranger looked at the section of floor where he’d laid the logbooks. From where he sat, he could see the year lettered neatly on the fronts. Cuileán picked them up, grimacing at the musty smell, and laid them on the open windowsill to open. There wasn’t anything there to intrude, much less any curious eyes, since the window opened up to a cliff side view of the ocean.
Cuileán immediately saw that each book contained roughly a year’s worth of entries, with the great majority of cargoes delivered to Drokan’s Beard. Maybe twenty went to other locations, some of which Cuileán recognized as marked locations on the map. He wrote that down, too. Since each entry followed the same format as what he’d memorized, namely, a date, a place, and a name.
He wondered if the places that he didn’t recognize signified where the cargoes came from. For that matter, if the cargoes happened to be slaves, then something had to be done. There wasn’t much time. The shipments had to come from somewhere, since they didn’t just appear out of nowhere. He looked again at the log books, and noticed that this ‘Captain Sasaki’ was repeated in a majority of the entries.
The young Ranger wondered about that. If this person came into the harbor and docked regularly, then his ship would be known. He’d have to find out what ship tomorrow, when he met with Thormond again under his Casimir alias. He didn’t like the idea of being out here all alone, not with something like this. Cuileán took a moment to organize his thoughts on a fresh sheet of paper, laying out the information he’d discovered in a report to the Senior Ranger. A conclusion was reached, and he put that down, too. He bundled the log books, the charts and this report into a package, which he sealed as tightly as he could. The young Ranger burned his sheet of notes and dumped the ashes out the window. He watched them flutter on the breeze into the water far below.
It was time to visit an old friend.
* * *
At first glance, it seemed that the woman in the chair was sound asleep. Her legs were tucked up under her body and she didn’t seem aware. A small smile was on her face, and she murmured as if dreaming. The Ranger eased through the gate and slowly climbed the steps to the wide porch. She didn’t react to his presence, and he grinned as he got closer to the chair.
The grin fell off when a crossbow came up and the quarrel poked him in the belly.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in! A rat!” A laugh bubbled under the mock stern voice. “I’m impressed. You got closer than last time. Must have been practicing.”
“A bit, yes, Anna. Now can you point that thing somewhere else?”
“I could aim it down a little.” The crossbow waggled and dipped.
“Um, no.” She did laugh, this time. Anna set the crossbow down on the rough boards beside her chair, then bounded up to hug the Ranger as tight as she could. She kissed him, hard. It took a moment, after which he had some trouble remembering why he’d come.
“Hello, Cuileán. I’m glad to see you, you rogue!”
He blinked. As always, Anna was effervescent and joyful in her outlook on life. She didn’t lack for any attention, but there were some that she particularly enjoyed spending time with. Those she didn’t feel as enthusiastic about soon found out. Some of those found out permanently. Hence, the crossbow.
Cuileán was glad that she liked him.
“I’m glad to see you, too, Anna.”
“Have you missed me?” She grinned up at him as she wriggled deeper into his arms.
He hadn’t realized how much until that moment, and it was a little painful to find out.
“I have, a lot.”
She smiled and tilted her face up for a kiss, which he delivered. She broke the kiss and stepped back a little, holding him at arms length and looking at his long coat and longer hair. Anna ran her fingers through it.
“You look different. I didn’t think King’s knights were allowed to dress like this.”
“They aren’t. I have a new job, now.”
He pushed his sleeve up, revealing the newly cleaned Ranger tattoo. Her breath caught in admiration.
“A King’s Ranger! Cuileán!”
“Yes, for a couple of years now.”
She was inspecting the tattoo, rolling his forearm back and forth. He was bemused at the intensity of her regard.
“Cuileán, it shines!” She stooped over and grabbed the hem of his coat.
“Anna, what are you….”
She covered her head with the hem and put the tattoo in shadow. He heard a delighted squeak as the tattoo shimmered with its phosphorescent glow in the absence of direct light. Anna dropped the coat and stood straight. Grabbing his hands, she danced around him and hugged him again.
He grinned. He’d forgotten just how exuberant she was.
“Ooh, now I have my own Ranger!” He blushed, and she chuckled to see it. “When did you come back, Cuileán?”
“About two weeks ago. I didn’t get to report in for any less than a few minutes, and I was sent straight off on a special assignment. It’s been a very busy time. Being a Ranger is considerably more work than being a knight, but I like it.”
“Is it dangerous?” Her eyes looked up at his with sudden concern, and he nodded.
“I won’t lie. It can be.”
She sighed, then hugged him closer.
“Promise me that you’ll be careful.”
“I promise you that, Anna. Always.” She looked up at him, eyes still dark and a slight frown. “We stand up for the ones that can’t, Anna. It’s like the chivalry code, but more involved. I’m finding out that there are things out there that a normal knight wouldn’t even have notice of until late. It’s amazing the seamy underbelly in the Kingdom. That’s why the King’s Rangers were formed long ago, from the knights that saw this within the kingdom’s borders and wanted to do something about it.”
“But King Samuel didn’t start the Rangers, did he?”
“No, his great-uncle did. King Nodar did.”
“I’ve heard stories about him.”
“So have I. We won’t get into those stories. Let’s leave it at that, and just say that King
Samuel is a good king to work for.”
She smiled at him, her mood changing back to her normal lightness. She pulled out of the embrace and bent to pick up her crossbow.
“Come inside and let’s get reacquainted before you tell me why you came.” She threw him a saucy look and ran inside. It didn’t take him much resolve to follow the sound of her giggles.
* * *
Anna stretched languidly. Beside her, Cuileán lay, watching as she snuggled into his arms.
“Being a Ranger is good for me,” she purred.
“You’re not a Ranger,” he protested.
“No, but you are, and you represented the Ranger Corps very well. I could stay here all night.”
He grinned, then sobered.
She snuggled closer still.
“Tell me why you came. I don’t want to move.”
He told her, in very general terms. When he got to the meeting, she sat up. The covers spilled off her body and he had to keep his eyes on hers.
“Cuileán! That sounds like danger!”
“It is, but it’s what I’m sworn to do, Anna.”
Her eyes filled with tears, and she collapsed on his chest. Her sobs filled the room. The young Ranger held her and let her cry. Finally, she eased off. He kissed her head as she looked up.
“Anna, I promised you I would be careful.”
“Yes, you did, and you’ve never lied to me.”
“No, I haven’t. Anna, I still have to do this.”
She hiccuped. “I know, but I don’t like it.”
“I’m not looking forward to it, either. People’s lives are at stake, and that’s why I have to.”
“I know.” She was silent for a while. “What do you want me to do?”
“I have a package that needs to go to the Ranger detachment inland. It needs to go to Senior Master Ranger Thomas.”
“I can leave here at first light. Where is it?”
He gently disengaged her from his side, and got up. She gasped silently as she saw a scar on his back, shining in the firelight. He looked up, but she had her expression under control, and he started looking for what he sought.
Cuileán had to collect his things first. His boots were at opposite sides of the room. His sword and long coat stood guard in a corner by the bed, and various articles of clothing lay near the hearth. Some were his, and he finally found his pack. The young Ranger reached in to grab the package.
“This is very important.” He tapped the bound package. “This is my life.”
She nodded, unhappily.
“I know. Put it on the table.” He did, and her eyes fell on his sword.
“Cuileán? Is that Feraeil’avel? Your Elven sword?”
“Can I see it?”
Wordlessly, he drew his blade partway. She gasped in surprise as the blue-green blade revealed itself with a slight glimmer. He offered the hilt to her, and she shook her head.
“I can’t carry it. That’s your sword? The last time I saw you, you didn’t have it. What happened?”
“My grandfather died, and passed it to me. My father carried it in one of the border uprisings, and helped put it down, but after I was recalled to court he told me that the time had come for me to carry it as Thedulean intended.”
“It never leaves your side for the next few days – please!”
He chuckled. “Feraeil’avel hasn’t left my side since I got it.” He replaced the sword in its spot, then used a poker to bring the fire back to life.
“Good!” She opened the covers, revealing herself. “Now come back.”
He needed no encouragement.