The rain came down in sheets. The cool autumn sky was unrelenting in the dismal weather. A wind cut from the south, stirring what was left of the leaves clinging to the lower branches of the towering trees. Weighed down by the rain, they dropped into the road before the shaggy barrel chested pony.
The rider pulled his mottled cloak tighter around his neck and the small bundle he carried in his arm. He would have preferred it not to be raining. No one really enjoyed traveling in the rain, but given his task the rain was a complete nuisance.
A new wave of rain began, the baby shifted in her blankets. The rider bent over her, trying to further shield her from the weather. She sniffed and let out a small cry.
"Hush little one, we're almost there," he tried to sooth her, urging his horse on with a touch from his heel. The steady gait of the little pony quieted the child, smiling the rider pulled his cloak up over the baby.
He wished this was not necessary, taking the child to Redmont, leaving her to the Ward. He knew it was not a horrible fate, after all Will Treaty had been raised in the Ward and he was the greatest hero Araluen had seen since the infamous Halt. She would be fine, the Baron there would make sure she was taken care of. But it would still mark her as different.
She would have been different anyway, her parents being who they were; the life that could have been. This was better by comparison, it would be more normal. She would need normal and she would need stability. All children needed stability, and Rangers could never give that to a child.
This baby was a very unique child. She was the very first child born to two Rangers. Since they had allowed girls into the Corps many unions had formed, wild adventurous couples that could work in perfect harmony. In the past ten years, all the couples had opted not to have children knowing it would limit them in their responsibilities for months if not years. But not her parents, they had made the brave decision to have a child.
Sadly they had died in the line of duty, leaving the ten month old orphaned.
It was Will who had suggested the Ward at Castle Redmont. And Will would be around to look after her, should she need looking after. And everyone agreed she would, even the Ranger Commandant Gilan. She was a Ranger's child and that meant she would be no end of trouble.
It was still pouring rain when Castle Redmont came into view. The red walls gleamed dully through the rainy gray sunlight. The Ranger smiled seeing his destination.
"See, I told you we were almost there," he whispered softly to the baby girl.
She had fallen asleep to the rhythm of his horse's gait, one small hand tightly holding the hem of his mottled cloak. He smiled down at her, he had only had her for the day, while crossing through Redmont Fief, but he had grown attached. All the Rangers in the Corps had unknowingly adopted the little girl.
Will Treaty was waiting for them outside of Wensley Village, his cowl pulled low shadowing his face and protecting him from the rain. He was the one who was actually delivering Angie to the Ward. Gilan said it was because he intended to take the girl on as his apprentice when she was old enough, like Halt had done for him.
"How was the ride?" Will asked as Angie was passed over to him. He took the child into his arms, appearing as confident and at ease as he had before.
"Despite the rain?" Will laughed. "She doesn't much like the rain," he continued with a sigh.
"I don't blame her," Will smiled down at the babe, tucking her beneath his cloak, "I'm not a fan of it either."
"Are you sure she'll be okay?"
"You do know I was raised in the Ward?" Will raised his brow at the young Ranger. "As well as Sir Horace, the Oak Leaf Knight, Champion of the Araluen, and husband of Queen Cassandra?"
"I know," the younger Ranger was too intelligent to take Will's harsh words to heart.
Will did not want to send the girl to the Ward either, but they all knew it was her best option. The Rangers could not afford anyone to care for her full time, she would be passed around the Fiefs and shunned by other children her whole life. It was unfair to ask a family to take her in, even though Horace and Cassandra had offered on numerous occasions, she would be raised like the family who adopted her and know nothing of the Rangers except fear.
"I'll be looking after her, don't worry," Will smiled at the young man and clapped his shoulder. "It's for the best, we all agreed to that."
"Can we un-agree to it?"
It was a tired question. They had all debated the future of the baby, of their baby. She really was their child, a child of the whole Ranger Corps. They were all sad to see her go to the Ward at Redmont. Some were still against it. A Ranger's child should be brought up with the Rangers all around them, trained in the Ranger ways their whole life.
"Take it up with Gilan," Will turned Tug with a gentle touch of the reins. "Until then I'll take Angie to Castle Redmont."
The young Ranger watched as Will Treaty rode away with the baby girl, his shoulders slumping under the rain sodden cloak. Parting really was the worst pain, and he had only spent a day with Angie.
Will held the sleeping child close to his chest as Tug walked down the high street of Wensley Village. Had Halt felt this knot is his stomach when he brought baby Will to the Ward? Had Halt debating just taking the sleeping child to his cabin to care for the child by himself? Had Halt wanted the very best, and decided the Ward was the right choice? He must have, and Halt had always watched after Will. Will would watch over Angie, always. It was the least he could do for the people who had left the precious child behind.
Inside the castle walls Will dismounted, holding Angie close to his chest and pulling his cloak in to shield her from the insistent rain. Tug looked down at the baby in his rider's arms with large curious eyes. He seemed sad to see the girl leave their care as well. "Don't worry Tug," Will patted the little horse between the eyes, "it's only for a little while."
Tug snorted and shook his head before nuzzling the baby one last time. The little gray pony had come to like the baby, she had been around long enough. Will smiled turning to enter the Castle where he would be meeting Baron Zander.
Zander had taken over leadership of Redmont Fief five years earlier, though he was not as involved as Arald had been in the affairs of the Kingdom, or his own Fief. The two were as different as day and night, but Zander had seen the merit in many of Arald's ideas, including the Ward for orphans. Since Araluen was at peace, the Ward was generally very empty, but it was still there for children who lost their parents in service to Queen Cassandra. If anyone deserved a place in the Ward it was Angie.
"Ranger Will," Zander greeted the Ranger with an open hand, "I see she's finally arrived."
Angie shifted in her sleep, taking hold of Will's silver oak leaf necklace. "Yes, she finally finished visiting all the Corps," Will held the child out to the Baron.
Zander reached out, taking the child carefully in his hands while Will pried his oak leaf free. They had agreed that Zander would take her into the Ward. If Will took her questions would be asked, and Angie would be outcast. It had to remain secret who her parents were, for her sake.
"Gilan sent something for her," Will pulled the chain from his pocket, it had been specially crafted for Angie, a symbol that her parents were Rangers. The charm on the necklace was twin oak leaves joined at the stem, forged from bronze like an apprentice's. Will draped the necklace over the child's head, placing the oak leaves in her small hand.
"Is there anything I should tell them, in the Ward?"
"Her name is Angie, her parents were heroes," Will answered, caressing the child's face for the last time. "Nothing else," just like me, he wanted to say.
"Are you sure this is what you want to do?" Zander asked as Will turned away.
"It's for the best," Will answered. It was for the best, he had to keep reminding himself, or Angie would be outcast her whole life.