"Martin can be so pompous at times," Halt said irritably as he strode through a corridor in Castle Redmont. His tall young apprentice nodded vigorously in reply. Halt, in the way that annoyed people with do, continued with his rant. "I mean, the man doesn't know when to stop ta-"
Halt was cut off as he distractedly bumped into none other then the tall, elegant Lady Pauline, who had just emerged from a side room. Gilan, in the smooth, athletic way of youth, had swerved artfully to the side to avoid her. Halt, distracted as he was, had not.
"Lady Pauline! My apologies," Halt said hastily, quickly scooping up the papers he had knocked from Pauline's long, slim fingers.
Pauline graciously accepted the papers back. "Of course, Halt. No harm done," she answered in her smooth, measured voice.
Halt inclined his head. "If you'll excuse us then, Lady."
Pauline nodded gracefully, then continued up the corridor. Halt, his expression soft, couldn't help turning to watch her leave. Someday, he promised himself, he would ask her to marry him. Several seconds later, his mesmerism was unfortunately broken by the voice of his apprentice.
"So... Lady Pauline?" Gilan queried curiously. Gilan was highly observant, and hadn't missed the way Halt's face had softened, the way his voice had risen slightly in pitch.
Halt's dark eyebrows furrowed. He recognized that overly innocent tone that Gilan would adopt, and was rightfully suspicious it. "What about her?" He asked coldly.
Gilan continued, pretending to ignore his mentor's increasingly dangerous tone. "She's very beautiful... Even you must think that!"
Halt scowled, wishing his cowl was up and desperately hoping he wasn't blushing. "No, no, and no! I am not discussing this with you! Have a ever mentioned how utterly annoying you can be? I think I have."
"More annoying than Martin, Halt?"
Halt scowled again. "Fine! Not quite as annoying as Martin, but that's still quite enough!" And with a swish of his cloak, Halt began purposefully striding down the aisle again, feeling exceedingly ruffled and half wishing he could banish his too clever for his own good apprentice to somewhere unpleasant.
Gilan paused a moment, adding to his mental notes that the Lady Pauline could fluster Halt, possibly the most stoic man Gilan had ever met. "Interesting..." He murmured to himself, then hurriedly turned to catch up with his mentor.
"Monica?" Gilan asked, sounding slightly of of breath from where he was forcefully kneading the bread dough, forming it into a loaf and moving to slide it into the oven.
Monica was a young, slim, pretty brunette woman who ran an inn in Wensley village called the Blue Bird. She had surprisingly befriended Halt some time ago, after the grizzled Ranger had chased some rather unsavory men out of her little inn. Now, whenever Halt was called away and was unable to take his young apprentice, Gilan was left in the care of Monica. The young woman greatly enjoyed the cheerful, lively boy's company, and had found that his seemingly limitless energy made the usually rather tiring, straight-forward task of kneading bread dough an ideal assignment - though he was intelligent and polite, his kitchen skills were sadly lacking.
"Yes, Gil?" She answered brightly, using her forearm to wipe her forehead. "Mind the oven! Halt won't be pleased if you burn yourself! Halt says last time you did it, you weren't able to hold a bow properly for a week."
"I'll be careful," Gilan assured her with a short laugh, successfully depositing the bread. "And I wanted to know how to... um... plan a romantic evening?"
Monica laughed. "Have a special lass in mind, Gil? Lucky girl."
Gilan blushed. "No, no, not for me! I wanted to plan it for Halt."
Monica's bright green eyes sparkled. "Halt? In that case..."
The two friends spent the rest of the evening having an enjoyable discussion. By the time Gilan helped Monica serve dinner, he thought Halt had quite the evening coming his way.
"Halt, Monica wants to serve you dinner tonight." Gilan said, not looking up from his geography exercise.
"Why?" Halt responded disinterestedly, signing his name at the bottom of a report to the Baron.
Gilan shrugged. "As a welcome home and as a thank you for lending me to her. She says I was very helpful."
Halt slowly nodded. Halt didn't have the heart to refuse her, in case it hurt her feelings - it also helped that Monica was a wonderful cook. "All right then. I'll have to run this report to the Baron first. Martin will probably rope me into a conversation." Halt shuddered at the thought.
"I'll take it." Gilan offered.
Halt raised an eyebrow. "I suppose it's only fair that you take your turn of Martin's insufferable attitude."
Gilan nodded, inwardly wincing. "Of course, Halt. Only fair."
Halt sealed the envelope, then slid it across the table into his apprentice's waiting fingers. "Will you be coming to Monica's after?"
Gilan nodded. "I thought I'd help with the dinner rush. It's a lot of work, and she hasn't much help." Gilan answered truthfully. He fully intended to help his friend. It was a hard job for one so young. He added with a wry smile, "And she made me promise that I would come get a plum tart."
Halt snorted. "You're spoiled." Inwardly, however, he felt the same way. Monica was a lovely girl, barely twenty. So much work was required in running the inn that she rarely had time to do do anything that most girls her age were doing. He decided then that a project to make her life easier was needed in the future. He made a shooing motion to his apprentice. "Off you go, then. The sooner you leave, the sooner you can lug trays around for Monica - and eat your plum tart." Halt inwardly sighed. The last thing Gilan needed was something sugary to fuel his already endless energy, but this time he would let it slide.
"I think she and and I will enjoy tonight very much," Gilan answered casually, then turned to the door to get Blaze. Almost as much as you and Pauline will! He thought gleefully.
Gilan exited the Baron's quarters. Martin had indeed cornered him into a conversation - literally backing him into the wall until he replied to the short but loud man. Gilan shook his head irritably. He might have been there all night until he had unsheathed his saxe knife and began to play with it in boredom in an attempt to back the overbearing man off. It had taken to just barely touching the knife to his finger and opening a thin cut before Martin had gotten the point. Gilan shrugged philosophically. Halt had once told him, Your fingers are your greatest tools. Take care of them, but just this once, considering it was Martin, Gilan thought Halt would understand.
The tall boy climbed the staircase to Lady Pauline's office. He knocked lightly, then entered as a calm, measured voice called for him to come in.
The tall, elegant woman was seated at her mahogany desk, reading a paper. She was dressed in her usual simple but beautiful white Courier's gown, and her smooth blond hair was swept to the side in a loose braid. "Good evening," She said pleasantly, setting the paper down.
Gilan bowed then said politely, "As Monica's, keeper of the Blue Bird Inn, unofficial assistant, I wondered if I might escort you to your dinner?"
Monica had sent a note the previous day, inviting Pauline to an evening at her inn, free of charge. Pauline had accepted, knowing the bright young woman would assure a pleasant evening. Pauline always enjoyed some leeway from the castle, and whenever she could, Pauline almost always went to Monica's inn.
Pauline, controlled in her emotions though she was, couldn't help a small smile tug at her lips at the normally cheerful, smiling youth's grave manner. "Gilan, isn't it? Halt's apprentice?"
Gilan flashed a quick grin, then gave another quick bow. "Not tonight, my Lady. Tonight I am simply your humble escort."
Pauline stood, wrapping a light green shawl around her shoulders. "In that case, I would be delighted to have you escort me."
Gilan held his arm out. Pauline gracefully stepped forward and hooked her elbow through his. Gilan's height meant she was able to stand totally erect as she did it. If it had been Halt, Pauline mused to herself, she would have had to stoop just a little. Not that that bothered her.
Together, the two of them exited the castle and headed down the path to Monica's warm, cheery inn.
Something was up. Halt could physically feel it. From the secluded table, to the flickering scented candle, from Monica's amused glances. Especially from Monica's glances.
"Here you are Halt, tonight's special. Roast duck with a light salad, and some garlic bread." Monica set the tray down, brushing her hands off on her crisp white apron. "Gilan made the bread." The girl added with a smile.
Halt eyed it skeptically. "Are you sure it's edible?"
Monica laughed merrily. "It's fine! I watched him. He kneads the bread better then I can. He's a good help - and a good boy."
Halt gave her a small smile - she was one of the few people who could elicit a smile from him. "You work too hard, Mon."
Monica brushed the comment aside. "It's fine! And what do you know? Here comes Gilan now!" Excitement underlay-ed her tone.
Halt shifted in his seat to see where Monica was gazing. And felt his stomach drop.
Walking beside his widely grinning, springy stepping apprentice, was none other then Lady Pauline.
"I'll bring out another plate." Monica said, turning hurriedly to the kitchen.
Halt swallowed thickly, subtly running his hand through his hair in an attempt to smooth it. Oh, Gilan was going to sleep in a tree for a year...
"Why, Halt, Pauline is here for dinner as well!" Gilan said, feigning surprise, eagerly motioning Pauline into the seat across from Halt's. Monica arrived, with another plate of the scrumptious smelling roast duck. Monica, a wide smile lighting up her pretty face, gently tugged Gilan's sleeve.
"We'll leave you to it! Dinner isn't going to serve itself!"
Halt watched the two young people go, disbelief in his eyes. Monica and Gilan were now stealing quick backwards glances, then dissolving into quiet fits of giggles that their plan had so perfectly succeeded. Shaking his head at it all, he turned back to the blond woman across from him.
"Well then... um..." He began awkwardly. Pauline graced him with one of her lovely smiles, secretly thanking Gilan and Monica for their devious plot.
"Shall we humor them?"
Halt exhaled slowly. "Why not?" Gilan might sleep in a tree for a month - Halt wasn't sure yet. But although Gilan didn't know, Halt would always be rather grateful to his annoying, impulsive, wonderful apprentice for setting up this evening.
And it wasn't like Halt was ever going to tell him!