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Ranulf watched the Steward go.

"Or," he said, "you could show me one - and we could go and practice in the meadow - the direction my Lord Father rode off in." He tilted his head and looked at her. "Can you use a bow? There must be lots of targets in the meadow."

"I can use a bow," Aerin announced. "We could even go outside to the meadow lakeside to practice. But we shouldn't go far," Aerin decided out loud. "And you have to promise to take orders," she added as she led them into the armory to pick up some archery equipment.

"Very well," said Ranulf. "A man who is going to command should first learn to obey." It sounded rather grand for the boy - and he grinned. "The Septa tells me that - but I think it's only to make me do what she wants." He looked around the armoury in delight - it was clear iot was as new to him as it was familiar to Aerin, Captain's daughter.

"Can we take anything?"

Shade strolled over to inspect his reflection in a burnished shield ... and growled a threat.

"No," Aerin answered with her own grin. "But you can come here with me and I'll show you each of the weapons when you have time."

"Good," said Ranulf decisively. "I shall give orders that you are to teach me."

Aerin smiled. "I'll show you the weapons. But it will be a long road to learn them," she told Ranulf.

"It's just you," she whispered to Shade as she leaned over to stroke his neck fur. "See?" she said, looking up at her own and Shade's reflection.

Shade stared belligerently at his reflection for a moment and then yawned and stretched before sitting down to wash, feigning indifference. However, Aerin noticed that he cast the occasional covert glance at his reflection, as though hoping to catch it out.

She gave Shade another pat, then over to the rack of bows. She pulled out her old training bow from the back. It was slightly dusty, but oiled. She took a rag, wiped it down. Took the loose end of the bowstring, bent the bow, and restrung it.

"Here," she told Ranulf. "Let's see if this is small enough for you," she said, holding the bow out to him.

He reached out for it - and she saw how very frail his arms were - little more than sticks from his years of ill health. He would have the greatest difficulty in stringing the bow himself.

Aerin let him take the bow. Either the boy would improve or he wouldn't. And she wasn't about to tell him no.

She pulled another bow from the rack. "Alright. Now... hold it like so, at arms length," she instructed, demonstrating how to hold it up.

Ranulf took the bow, deft and neat in his movements - almost a little fussy. He held it as Aerin demonstrated, but she could see how the muscles in his arms quivered almost immediately. It was clear that he had never done even such simple physical activity before.

Nevertheless he glared at her, as though defying her to question him.

"Prince Rhaegar was devoted to his books until he was older than me," he informed her in his high voice, with its odd husky break. "And then he became a most puissant warrior. I shall do the same."

Aerin had a choice.

She wasn't good at inspiring talks. She wasn't good with rallying the troops. That was always her father's task. Or the lord's. Or the Steward's.

She could say what Ranulf wanted her to say. Tell him he would be a great warrior. But it wouldn't be honest.

Her father had taught her to look at a situation with an eye at what what possible. And what was practical.

In her mind, Ranulf was never going to be a warrior. At least... unless he wanted it more than anything else.

She lowered her bow, gave Ranulf a very serious look. "Yes, you could do the same," she said with complete conviction.

"And it will take all your time. And all your strength, And all your will. Is that what you want?" she asked seriously. "Do you want to devote yourself to this? I will help. But you have to do this yourself," she said with complete honesty.

Ranulf looked at her - and she realised that his dark eyes were very un-childlike; they had a gravity and a wisdom that seemed to be beyond their years.

"Other men will fight for me because I will ask them," he declared. And then suddenly he gave her an unexpected grin. "But it would be better for everyone if I looked as though I knew what I was doing, wouldn't, Aerin? And you can teach me hjow to =look= right, can't you? And how to get stronger. I mean, you're a =girl= and you can do it."

Aerin didn't rise to the bait. "I'm a warrior. It doesn't matter I'm a girl because I have the will and strength to do as I want," she told the lordling, looking straight into his face.

Ranulf considered. "I have the will," he said. "But not the strength. How much can I do with that?"

It seemed an open question.

"I don't know," she answered truthfully. "Maybe you can get the strength. Maybe not. Or maybe you don't need the strength. But you'd have to be a very clever wordsmith so people would listen to you."

Aerin tilted her dark head to one side. "Have you ever played outside? Climbed trees? Fished?" she asked, as if it was relevant.

"That's for smallfolk!" said Ranulf scornfully. Then he hesitated. "Is it fun, to climb a tree?" he asked.

Aerin gave Ranulf a grave smile. "Yes it is."

"And it helps to make you strong, too," she added.

He shot her a suspicious look.

"Very well," he said. "In the meadow - in case we meet Father there." He set down the bow with some relief. "I shall take a knife," he announced, looking around the armoury. "It will be useful. And easier to carry."

He moved to examine a tray of throwing knives.

Aerin put away her old bow for now, unstrung it and made sure it was stored properly. She pulled a quarrel of arrows out, and secured it over her shoulder.

The Steward had been extremely specific that Ranulf not leave her company, except to join her father or him.

That meant there was some trouble going on somewhere.

And she wasn't going to leave the lordling undefended.

She waited for him to pick a knife, noting which one he took from the group. Then she led the boy out of the armory and to the side gate. The one that led to the meadow lakeside. There were a few isolated trees there, easy to keep an eye out from. And hopefully not too easy for a small weak boy to climb, even with help.

Ranulf frowned at the trees.

"You can climb ... those?" he asked.

His scepticism was palpable, even as he walked forward and peered yp into the branches.

Aerin scanned the meadow, making sure there was no one nearby except for Shade.

"Yes... in fact scouts have to be able to climb trees much taller than this," she said matter of factly.

With a smooth motion she reached up, grabbed a knot on the side of the trunk of the oak tree, and swung herself up to the lowest branch.

She put her bow and quiver in a fork on the branch, then hooked a leg on another branch and hung down from the tree, her braid falling down past her and hanging toward the ground.

"Here... Give me your hand," she told Ranulf, stretching out an arm to him. "I'll pull you up."

His jaw dropped.

"You ... you're upside down!" he gasped.

Shade scratched at a nearby oak, displaying a more than impressive set of claws.

Ranulf shut his mouth with a gulp and stretched his arm up to Aerin.

"Very well," he said. "If you're sure I won't pull you down."

Aerin just grinned as she took Ranulf's wrist in her grip.

She started to pull the small boy up. "All right. See that knot I pulled myself up with? Go ahead and reach up and pull up with your other arm." Ranulf nodded, his thin face set and determined.

She pulled up lightly, helping him rather than doing it all for him.

He proved an apt pupil, and scrambled to reach the branch with little difficulty, hauling himself up into position. It was clear he had an excellent sense of balance, and when he said with evident pleasure as he sat stride the branch, "I've never climbed a =tree= before now," it suggested he might have climbed something else.

The idea that Ranulf wasn't the perfect little lordling his father thought he was intrigued Aerin.

"Oh? What have you climbed before?" she asked with real interest.

He shot a covert look at her, as though deciding how much information she could be trusted with.

"Walls," he said eventually. "There's a way ... from my room to the roof. You can see a lot from there, you know."

He looked speculatively up into the branches.

"Can we go higher, do you think?"

"Only if you don't fall," she said gravely as she started to reach up for higher branch. "If you do I will have to take you back all roughed up. And I think that might not be such a good thing today."

"I won't fall," said Ranulf with confidence. Then he hesitated. "Only ... it does sway a little. The walls don't do that, you see."

Nonetheless, he started to climb higher. He was wiry and agile, Aerin realised. The main danger was that he might outclimb his strength.

Aerin noted Ranulf's limitation in her mind as she moved to follow the boy up. And stayed close enough to him to capture him should he start to falter or fall.

Ranulf was about halfway up the tree now. Suddenly he gave an excited wriggle, perhaps foprgetting his precarious position.

"I can see my Lord Father! He's riding this way!"

Aerin suddenly feared what the Lord might say about his son climbing trees.

Especially if something was happening at the Keep. "Maybe we should be quiet. Practice being scouts," Aerin suggested.

The leaves rustled, and then she saw Ranulf's face peering down at her.

"Very well," he agreed. "Only you much teach me to swing upside down like you do. Afterwards."

"All right," Aerin agreed reluctantly. But she was thankful Ranulf was quick enough to appreciate their situation.

She sat quietly in the tree, watching Lord Draupaud as he rode toward the keep.

Then she saw Derron Thorne and Niko walking from the castle. Niko veered off, looking for something or someone - her and Ranulf, probably, but Derron Thorne addressed the lord almost beneath the tree where she was sitting.

"Steward Thorne! What brings you and Niko to the meadows so early?"

Derron grimaced and replied, "Several things, Milord, and none good. First, we think young Aerin may have brought your son Ranulf out here on a lark. We need to gather him up, to give him the news that has also summoned you." He paused, then said, "I can tell you now, and let you break it to the boy, or I can wait until we find him."

"If it is bad news," said LOrd Draupaud, "I might as well hear it now. What's happened?"

Aerin frowned where she was perched. She looked up toward Ranulf. Then laid a finger across her lips with a solemn nod. Better they find out now with no one to know that they'd already knew.

Derron sighed. He had always felt that bad news was best delivered in a straightforward manner. He had told the families of soldiers that their loved one would not return on more than one occasion. He had let go of workers of whom he was fond. But telling a powerful man his wife was dead would be a new experience. One he wished he could have avoided. He decided he also needed to gauge the man's reaction. He took a deep breath and began.

"Milord, it's your wife. I'm afraid she was found dead in her quarters this morning." He paused, then added, "When you wish, I'll tell you what we've learned so far."

Aerin froze at that point. Her mind slowly whirled through the knowledge.

And the, being the prepared soldier her father had prepared her to be, braced herself to catch Ranulf. She looked up at him with sympathetic eyes.

He was sitting on a banch above her head, his eyes wide and dark in his pale face - shocked, but motionless. And listening ...

Lord Draupaud sat very still on his horse for a moment. His face was still - beyond still. Marble.

Then suddenly, abruptly, he dismounted. He stood face to face with Derron.

"Tell me," he said quietly.

Derron relaxed just the slightest bit. The fact the man was not yelling, nor weeping and wailing, gave him hope they could manage the conversation in an emotionless manner.

"Her room was locked from the inside, and she looked unharmed. But there was a strange odor around her lips. Nothing in her room bore the same odor. A guard on the wall heard her singing, then stop as if surprised. The guard outside her room had been left a tankard of ale laced with something to make him visit the privy often." He paused before continuing. "It appears that someone used your missing key to get the tankard from your offices. But we do not know who is behind this. I have been working on the assumptions that she knew who came in, since she did not cry out when her door opened. Also, whoever took your key had access to your rooms. This could mean it was someone close to you. Oh, and I sent a raven to Holdfast summong Maester Merival back. Hopefully he will be back in three or four days."

Aerin was torn. She should climb up to Ranulf and hold on to him.

But that would let Derron and Lord Draupaud know they'd listened in.

And right now having Lord Draupand finding out they were out at this time was... difficult.

She looked up at Ranulf, trying to see how he was doing.

He was clinging now to the upper branch, looking stricken. But he was still, not trembling at all. He looked almost frozen into immobility.

Aerin bit her lip. Then with all the skill she possessed she moved as silently as possible, starting to climb up to the point where poor Ranulf was locked into immobility.

She glanced around for Shade. And thought now would be a lovely time for some sort of distraction.

Aerin reached Ranulf, who stared at her with glittering eyes. "Don't tell them we're here!" he said in an urgent undertone.

In the long grass, a ginger tail rose up and protruded, as malevolent as any shark's fin. It swayed gently, purposefully. Shade was hunting.

[rejoins other thread in Unpleasant Investigation Subthread 5

Page last modified on March 29, 2006, at 08:37 PM