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       The Royal Ranger: A New Beginning, p.1
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           John Flanagan
The Royal Ranger: A New Beginning


  ABOUT THE BOOK

  Will, you took an oath to the Ranger Corps. Does it mean nothing to you now?

  A senseless tragedy has destroyed your life. You are determined to punish those responsible, but you must not turn your back on the Ranger Corps.

  Now a routine mission has uncovered a shocking web of crime. Soon you will be forced to choose between taking the dark path of revenge, and saving innocent lives . . .

  Contents

  Cover

  About the Book

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Character Profiles

  Maps

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-one

  Chapter Thirty-two

  Chapter Thirty-three

  Chapter Thirty-four

  Chapter Thirty-five

  Chapter Thirty-six

  Chapter Thirty-seven

  Chapter Thirty-eight

  Chapter Thirty-nine

  Chapter Forty

  Chapter Forty-one

  Chapter Forty-two

  Chapter Forty-three

  Chapter Forty-four

  Chapter Forty-five

  Chapter Forty-six

  Chapter Forty-seven

  Chapter Forty-eight

  Chapter Forty-nine

  Chapter Fifty

  Chapter Fifty-one

  Chapter Fifty-two

  Chapter Fifty-three

  Chapter Fifty-four

  Chapter Fifty-five

  Epilogue

  About the Author

  Also by John Flanagan

  Brotherband extract

  Copyright

  For my family

  CHARACTER PROFILES

  WILL has been a Ranger for many years, having trained with the legendary Ranger Halt. Delivered to Castle Redmont as an orphan, he does not know the true story of his parents. When he was younger he dreamed of becoming a Knight, but he found his true path as a Ranger. Will is known for his loyalty and bravery, and has proven himself in countless battles. Now a grown man, he has recently been struck with personal tragedy, and the once mischievous and spirited young man has grown grim and humourless, and is now driven by a black passion for revenge.

  MADDIE – or, to give her formal title, Princess Madelyn of Araluen – is the 15-year-old daughter of Princess Regent Cassandra and Sir Horace. Bright and cheerful, she frequently defies the wishes of her parents to spend her time hunting game in the forests around Castle Araluen. Though she is heir to the throne, she does not wish to spend her life in a protective cocoon, and longs for a chance to learn the skills necessary for leading men into battle.

  HALT is a renowned member of the Ranger Corps, known for his mysterious ways and his unstoppable nature. Halt is a superb archer and uses a massive longbow. Like all Rangers his skill with the bow is uncanny, deadly accurate, and devastatingly swift. Although he rarely shows emotions, he thinks of Will as his son. He is now officially retired, but still occasionally carries out missions at the request of the Corps Commandant.

  HORACE is the premier Knight of the Kingdom. Like Will he was an orphan, and grew up as a ward of Castle Redmont. As a younger boy he used to bully Will, but now they are firm friends, having helped each other out on countless missions. He later married Princess Cassandra, the heir to the throne of Araluen, and his daughter will one day rule as Queen. He is dependable, loyal to the knightly code of conduct, and known for his hearty appetite.

  GILAN was once Halt’s apprentice and is the only Ranger who carries a sword. He is tall and humorous, in sharp contrast to his former master. He is generally considered the best in the Corps at unseen movement. For all his jokes and light-hearted manner, Gilan is serious about being a Ranger, and his skills have seen him promoted quickly to the upper ranks of the Corps.

  JORY RUHL is a former mercenary who now leads a gang of criminals who have been preying on villages in Anselm and its neighbouring fiefs, capturing children and demanding ransoms from their parents. Having shown he is prepared to murder innocents to preserve his freedom, Will is determined to stop him and his gang at any cost.

  HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A RANGER?

  The Rangers are an elite Special Forces Corps in the medieval Kingdom of Araluen. They are the eyes and ears of the Kingdom, the intelligence gatherers, the scouts and the troubleshooters.

  Rangers are expert archers and carry two knives – one for throwing, and one for hunting. They are also highly skilled at tracking, concealment and unseen movement. Their ability to become virtually invisible has led common folk to view them with fear, thinking the Rangers must use black magic.

  Occasionally, a young man who is judged to have the qualities of honesty, courage, agility and intelligence will be invited to undertake a five-year apprenticeship – to develop his natural abilities and instruct him in the almost supernatural skills of a Ranger.

  If he passes his first year, he is given a bronze medallion in the shape of an oakleaf.

  If he graduates, the bronze will be exchanged for the silver oakleaf of an Oakleaf Bearer – a Ranger of the Kingdom of Araluen.

  IT HAD BEEN a poor harvest in Scanlon Estate. The wheat crop had been meagre 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 labourers, orchardists and fruit pickers were facing hard times, with three months to go before the next harvest, during which time they would have nowhere near enough to eat.

  Squire Dennis of Scanlon Manor was a kind-hearted man. He was also a practical one and, while his kind-hearted nature urged him to help his needy tenants, his practical side recognised such an action as good business. If his farmers and labourers 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 a 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 labourers.

  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 marque
e. 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 dirty 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 travellers, 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 towards 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 draught of his ale, still with his eyes searching above the rim of the wooden noggin. There was only a centimetre 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 grey 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-grey beard. Then he slipped back the cowl to reveal a grim face, with dark eyes and grey, 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 towards the rear table, where the wagoner sat, seemingly transfixed.

  Somewhere, someone recognised the significance of the grey 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.’

  ‘No!’

  ‘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, realising 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?’

 
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