Chapter 1: Emma, Marlow, Graham
Will woke to a darkened cell and his hands tied behind his back. Or, no, not tied, restrained. He could feel the familiar tightness of the thumb cuffs around his hands, as well as the hardwood of the chair digging into the sides of his arms. His head pounded, and he could feel the odd stretching of a newly healed wound just below his sternum. What happened?
He blinked once or twice, trying to clear his vision to better assess the cell around him. He last remembered the coldness of winter biting his fingers, so the slight humidity in the air and the dampness of the cell not only confused him but worried him. Where was he? How did he get here? How much time had passed?
Voices faded in down the hallway, familiar voices. Familiar and distressed.
Knowing he wouldn’t get out of the cuffs, Will stretched his arms anyways, feeling the leather stretch and dig into his joints. His legs were bound to the chair as well, he noticed, with regular rope.
Then he noticed his clothing—he wasn’t wearing his normal Ranger attire, or anything close. Black pants and a stained white shirt hung off his body, about two sizes too big for his thin frame. The shoes he was wearing were also too big and weren’t his custom riding boots he always wore, and that he was sure he was wearing when he left for … for where?
Will shook his head, needing to clear the fuzziness in his memory. He was in a dungeon, bound with Ranger issued thumb cuffs, either his own or someone else’s. He was wearing unfamiliar and unfitted clothing, and he couldn’t remember anything that could be remotely recent. It was winter, he knew, but it felt like summer now, and that was the season he was apparently dressed for. From what he could tell, his memory was missing about six months.
The voices were closer now, and now Will was sure he recognized them. Crowley and Halt, it sounded like, arguing not too far from the entrance to his cell. Was he at Castle Araluen? No, he couldn’t be—if he were, why was he in a cell?
“…there has to be something that we can do, Crowley. Will wouldn’t …” Halt’s voice faded out, as if he were pacing back and forth down the hall. He seemed frustrated. Sad.
Crowley’s voice was louder, stronger. “We have to wait and see what he’ll say, Halt. But it’ll have to be a good explanation, or he’s in trouble.”
“A lot of things could explain … we just have to talk to him. Jumping to conclusions will just …”
“He’s been out since yesterday, Halt. Mariam said that he’d be awake sometime today, but that in his state he might be groggy for a while. Even if he is awake now, we have to wait for his memory to clear.”
He’d been out since yesterday? What about the months he was missing? What day was it even? No matter how hard Will tried to think back, he couldn’t remember anything that would explain where he was and how he got there. He left Redmont in the winter for a solo mission about … what about, he couldn’t remember. It wasn’t supposed to be long though, because he vaguely recalled making plans with … with Horace. Horace.
Will groaned, frustrated with how spotty his memory was. But Crowley said his memory would clear, so maybe this is temporary. Maybe if he sat here for a while, his memory would come back and explain this whole ordeal.
It seemed like hours of silence passed before the door to his cell creaked open slowly, and the small form of the Ranger Commandant slipped through the crack. Will had been close to dozing at that point with nothing to stimulate his mind, but jerked awake at the noise.
Unfortunately, his memory was still weak. He left Redmont for … for a solo mission up north. Not as far as Norgate, no, but to a small fort that he couldn’t remember the name of. Not too long after Will arrived there, his memory started to fail. Hopefully, it was just whatever the healer had given him.
“Are you awake?” Crowley said quietly, eying Will from the opposite wall. Despite being restrained, the Commandant seemed hesitant to get too close to Will.
Will tried to say “Yes,” but found his throat was too dry. When was the last time he had something to drink? “Yes,” he said, audibly this time, his voice scratchy.
“Did you just wake up?” His voice seemed oddly flat and emotionless. Un-Crowley-like.
He shook his head, flexing his hands behind his back as he felt the feeling starting to fade again. The cuffs were too tight.
Crowley was silent for a moment, staring at Will with a blank look to his face. “Do you know why you’re here?” he said, leaning up against the wall and crossing his arms. His face was still impossible to read.
Will had never seen Crowley like this. Serious. Calculating. Dangerous.
“No,” Will replied hoarsely. “No, I don’t Crowley. I don’t—I don’t even know how I got here.” Crowley wasn’t his enemy, Will reminded himself. Crowley was a friend, his boss. Crowley would make things right. Crowley wouldn’t hurt him. All Will had to do was tell the truth.
The Commandant’s eyes closed, and for once, Will saw a flicker of despair cross his face. His hands balled into fists, and he seemed overcome with frustration and anger all at once. And then it was gone.
“Will, I’m going to ask you three questions, and I need you to answer them as honestly as you can. No matter what the answer is, okay?”
Will nodded, suddenly finding it hard to breath.
“Do you remember the murder of a farmer’s wife named Emma Mulloy?”
Murder? Emma … Mulloy? “Wh—what?”
“Answer the question, Will.”
“I—” Will’s voice cut off. He couldn’t breath. Had he killed someone? Had he murdered someone?
“Answer the question, Will. Please.”
He thought back, scouring anything he could remember. But he couldn’t remember, he couldn’t. He wouldn’t kill a farmer’s wife, nor could he think of a reason why he’d kill one. But there was only one answer he could give.
“I—” he stared at Crowley, horrified. “I don’t know.”
Crowley plowed ahead, taking Will’s answer in stride. The corners of his eyes glistened.
“Do you remember the murder of stable hand Marlow Willis?”
“I don’t know. I—No.”
“Do you remember the murder of seaman Graham Cullen?”
Two witnesses identified him for Emma’s murder, three for Marlow, and one for Graham. All weren’t completely positive, but still said Will looked like the guy who did it. There was also the fact that the stains on the white shirt he had been wearing was blood, and that he was found sitting outside the window, knife in his lap.
Not much evidence, but enough.
After Crowley had left, a guard came in with a servant and undid his restraints. Apparently, Crowley had told them he wouldn’t fight. He was too shocked. The servant handed over some cheese, bread, and water, and left with the guard, who slammed the door so hard, the bread fell out of Will’s numb hands. He stared at it, thinking.
He thought back to his last words to Crowley.
“Do you have anything to say that can prove your innocence, or help us investigate this, Will?”
“… I don’t know.”
The problem, though, Will realized, was that the moment Crowley said their names—Emma, Marlow, Graham—the moment he said their names, and that they had been murdered … Will knew that he had done it. His hands were clean but he could still feel the sticky, warm blood on them. He had killed people in his time as a Ranger, sure, but killing was different from murder. And the moment Crowley had said it, Will knew.
He knew he deserved whatever the punishment was given to him.
Will picked up the bread.
Halt slipped in early the next morning. Will had moved from the chair to the far corner, hugging his knees to his chest, now that he wasn’t restrained. Neither moved.
The older Ranger spoke first. “Crowley said that there’s too much evidence against you, Will … that you can’t even say where you were at when the … when the murders happened.”
Mutely, Will shrugged.
“You’re being accused of murder, Will … don’t you have anything to say?”
Will said nothing.
Halt closed his eyes, realizing that Will wasn’t going to fight it. He was just going to let what happened, happen. He sighed. “Duncan … can’t do much, Will. All he can do is spare your life, since all we have to go on is iffy identifications and circumstantial stuff. You’ll be banished for life. Until we can fix this.”
When Will said nothing in response, Halt looked away. He could feel the tears pricking the corners of his eyes, and for once Halt didn’t care if anyone saw. Will wasn’t a murderer. But there wasn’t much they could do if Will refused to give any assistance. Crowley had said that after he started questioning Will about the murders, he’d gone … oddly silent. As if he were in shock or disbelief.
“I’m sorry, Will,” Halt murmured, looking back to his son.
And that was when Will said his first, and last, words to Halt since he was brought in. “No. I’m sorry, Halt.”
Horace stood numbly behind King Duncan’s chair, taking his normal spot as the Head of the Guard. Today wasn’t like any normal day though.
Today, his partner and best friend was being tried for three murders.
Murders that anyone who knew him knew he hadn’t committed.
Crowley had offered Horace the chance to see Will before today, but Horace had struggled with accepting it. Will was going to be banished, for murders that Will seemed okay with taking the rap for. Horace wanted to believe that Will was innocent, and everyone else, Halt, Crowley, Duncan, probably Alyss and Pauline if they were here, all believed he was. But just thinking about it made Horace’s throat catch.
If he’s not proclaiming innocence, does that mean he committed them?
No one could figure it out, and Will refused to explain.
Without him realizing it, Duncan had begun to speak. Looking up, he realized he had completely missed when Will was brought in. Crowley and Halt stood slightly behind and the the sides of Will, looking uncomfortable despite already knowing the outcome to the trial.
Horace had also completely missed Duncan reading off Will’s crimes, as well as his punishment. Banishment, as everyone in the room knew it would be. Execution was the normal punishment for murder, but without better evidence, and with Will’s reputation, they knew they could get away with a banishment. That way, they would be able to come back to it without the pressure of having to punish Will.
Will had apparently been given a change of clothes, because he now wore standard Ranger attire of green and brown clothing, unlike whatever Halt had said he had been wearing before.
“…do you have anything to say for yourself?” Duncan said. Even the monarch seemed shaken, with an uncharacteristic frown to his face and furrowed eye brows.
The Ranger—no, ex-Ranger—shook his head silently.
“Out loud, Will. Please.”
He shifted his stance and looked up. “No, your majesty.”
Duncan seemed frustrated by this. “Nothing? Absolutely nothing?”
“I have nothing to say, your majesty.”
The room was silent around them. Normally, things ended there, but Duncan pushed forward, realizing that he was getting Will to talk more than anyone else. “And why not?”
Will, who had seemed prepared to leave it at that and accept his banishment, looked confused by the question. “…why…not?”
The King sat forward in his chair, studying the Ranger. “Your Commandant behind you told me you had no memory of the murders, or of the last six months. Why do you not defend yourself then? Many others seem eager to do it for you.”
Glancing back to Crowley, Will swallowed hard. Everyone in the room stared at him, but there was only one person Will looked to in that moment.
Their eyes met from across the room, and for the moment, Horace held his partner’s gaze. He needed support. He needed someone. Horace was willing to be that person for Will, no matter how long this investigation took. They hadn’t been able to tell him their plans just yet, to look into it after he made it to Hibernia or Skandia or whatever ally Will wanted to hunker down with until everything blew over. Horace nodded to Will, hoping that it sent the message that everything would be okay.
Everything would be okay.
“Because I know it to be true. I killed them.”
Early the next morning, Halt stood alone at the front gate. A few guards stood nearby, awkwardly looking back at the Ranger and then away before they thought he would notice.
Halt glanced back towards the castle, expecting to see at least one other face before Crowley came out with Will. But Horace was nowhere to be seen.
All of what was said in the throne room had been kept between those within the walls, but Halt could tell that it had shaken the knight. Absolutely no one in the room thought that Will had committed the murders … and no one could know that Will had technically confessed.
“Because I know it to be true. I killed them.”
Halt jerked back. “Will, what the hell—”
Duncan broke in, putting up a hand to stall Halt. “I thought you have no memory of the past six months, Will. Why do you claim now to remember the murders?”
Will looked back and forth between his mentor and the King. “I … I don’t remember the murders. I just … I know that I—”
Now it was Crowley’s turn to argue. “So you don’t remember, but you’re trying to confess to murdering three people?”
“I … I don’t …” Will paused, looking confused and frankly scared. He looked back up to the dais where Duncan sat and Horace stood behind him.
Horace was nowhere to be seen. He’d left. “I don’t know,” Will finished.
A door closed at the base of the keep, and Halt glanced up to see Crowley leading another figure towards where Halt stood. Will looked small, smaller than usual at least. He no longer wore the too-large clothing he had been wearing before, having been given an extra pair of his own clothing that Halt had kept in the bottom of his saddle bags. He carried no weapons—those had been confiscated—but he had a bag with simple supplies that would get him … somewhere. Hopefully to Hibernia or Skandia. He would have a week to gather his things in Redmont and leave the country, but the cabin would have everything Will needed to survive up until he … until he settled somewhere. All Halt and Crowley had to do was to let him know their plans.
When the two figures made it to where Halt stood, Will seemed to pause, and look around. Looking for Horace, Halt knew. Will had told him not to long before he left for the fateful solo mission that he and Horace were apparently in a relationship. It wasn’t a surprise to Halt, but he appreciated having been told. When Will had gone missing, Halt had gone to check on Horace to find him an absolute mess. He hadn’t been able to get any of his work done, thinking Will was dead or dying somewhere.
And now, he was the one that was missing.
Halt put a hand on Will’s shoulder, jolting him from his pointless search. Seeing him in the light broke Halt’s heart: his eyes had dark circles around his eyes, exacerbated by white-pale skin. His hair, grown out, was unwashed and dirty, messily tied away from his dirty face. Long sleeves and a dark shirt hid scars Halt didn’t know the origin of. In the cell, it had been too dark to see. In the throne room, he hadn’t been paying attention to how Will looked.
“Take care of yourself, Will. We’ll figure this out,” Halt murmured quietly. He started to continue on, to say “We’ll figure this out, this is our plan” but something in his throat caught. Looking at Will, Halt saw his 15 year old apprentice, his son, scared out of his mind. He looked so young that for a moment, all Halt wanted to do was comfort him.
For a moment, he thought Will was going to go in for a hug. Halt thought they were going to hug. But then the young man dipped his head, ashamed, and pulled his shoulder from Halt’s grasp.
“Don’t bother, Halt. I don’t want you to waste your time on me.”
And then—he was gone.
Chapter 2: An Unexpected Solution
Three years after Will’s banishment.
Crowley stared at their task for the day, mentally and physically preparing himself for what they were about to do.
They were going to organize his office.
“Crowley, how do you find anything in this mess?” Lady Pauline asked, kneeling in a semi-clean area by his desk. The desk itself was fairly clean: two stacks of files sat at either corner, one for assigned cases, and another for cases that still needed to be assigned. It was everything else that was the problem.
Behind him, Halt sighed. They had known each other long enough that Crowley immediately knew what Halt was sighing about. The stacks of paper and files surrounding his desk, filling the chairs, and making the bookshelves bow. The last time Halt had been in the room, he had knocked over a stack and when he tried to pick it up, he had knocked over more stacks. After that, Halt had told Crowley he was recruiting his wife and her protégé to help them organize his mess. Crowley had agreed, saying he couldn’t wait to see Pauline and Alyss.
Apparently the fact that they were there to organize his office had completely slipped past Crowley.
“It may seem chaotic to you,” the Commandant said, sitting comfortably on a dusty stack of papers, “but I know where everything is. Ask for a specific file and I could probably tell you which stack and how far down.”
Alyss smirked, and looked at Crowley from where she stood near the other end of his desk. Her long blond hair was tied up behind her head, and instead of wearing her courier uniform, she wore trousers and a loose blouse. Pauline wore something similar. They would be moving too much for them to bother wearing a dresses.
“Oh, really?” Alyss said, smiling, “Then what are you sitting on now?”
The Commandant thought for a moment, taking stock of his location in his office, and how high the file stack was. He could feel Halt’s eyes on him. “I have absolutely no idea,” he said, proudly.
Halt snorted, shaking his head and turning away from his friend. Alyss covered her mouth when she started to laugh, but couldn’t control herself and started laughing louder. Pauline smiled, looking between Alyss and Crowley.
There was a loud knock on the door, cutting off Alyss’s laugh.
Halt, who was the closest to the door, turned and stared at it. “I thought you didn’t have any meetings today, Crowley.”
“I don’t,” he said, but motioned for Halt to open it. “I asked someone else for help when I realized what the three of you planned.”
Shrugging, Halt moved from where he stood to open the door, revealing someone that no one had expected to see: Horace.
After Will had left, Horace had gotten quieter and distanced himself from the Rangers and his friends from the ward. Halt had tried to speak with Horace about it, but the knight hadn’t said much. Only that he didn’t know what to feel about Will, and that he regretted not seeing him before he left. After that, the only times Horace and Halt spoke were when they were assigned to a mission together, which Crowley did as often as he could manage with Duncan’s permission.
Crowley hated to see them grow apart, especially due to Will’s departure.
At the door, Horace looked … uncomfortable. He was still in uniform, but wore no armor, and while his sword was at his side, his shield wasn’t to be seen. He looked as if he had the day off, but was still keeping up appearances for the guards in the hall. He stood in the doorway, wide eyes going over the people in the room, people he probably wasn’t expecting to see.
Apparently, Horace still spoke to Crowley, because the Commandant smiled. “Horace! Get in here, we need your muscles to move this stuff.”
Crowley’s joke pushed the others to move, with Alyss smiling at him and asking how he had been doing recently. Pauline started questioning Crowley on what he thought each pile was, and Halt went through them to figure out if Crowley’s memory was actually accurate.
Horace started working with them with little word, picking up stacks and answering Alyss’s questions went prompted, but otherwise stayed quiet.
After moving a stack that the Commandant claimed to be murder cases in Aspienne Fief, which actually turned out to be arson fires in Corlant Fief, Horace uncovered a small stack shoved next to the bookcase by Crowley’s desk. Alyss immediately knelt down to look them over. “What do you think these are, then?” She directed the question to Crowley, who leaned over the edge to look at what she was rifling through.
He took one look at the stack, and raised both his eyebrows in shock. “Oh, that one’s easy. It’s a stack of unsolved cases. Ones where we had information, but one thing or another blocked us from finishing it. I would normally try to assign those cases to a new Ranger every few years, but things have been hectic recently and I haven’t been able to keep track of them like I normally would.”
Pauline tilted her head, staring as Alyss rifled through the papers, separating the files. “So you look through these often enough to keep them close?”
Crowley nodded, “Usually, but not recently.”
Alyss stood, carrying a few files to place separately, when something fell from the files and landed on the floor. The courier handed the files off the Horace, and bent down to pick up what had fallen.
It was a necklace, a medium sized blue stone wrapped in wire and hanging from a silver chain. It was a beautiful stone, the color of the sky, with a deep blue that seemed to come from the center of it, reaching for her.
Alyss had seen a stone like that, only once before.
“Alyss, you okay?” A soft voice asked, jerking her out of a reverie she hadn’t realized she had fallen into. Horace was leaning over her, concern evident in his eyes.
“I …” she paused, looking at the necklace then the files that Horace had placed on an empty chair they had just cleared. “Which file did this come out of?”
Horace frowned, looking at the necklace. It was gaudy, with such a huge stone, and the chain and wire itself seemed weak and poor-quality. With such a large stone connected to it, one would think that the quality of the rest of it would be better. “I’m not sure … why?”
The courier looked up to the knight, a pained look to her face. “Remember Macindaw?” she murmured, looking at Horace. Without Will, Horace was the only one to share her memories of that time with. He was the only one in the room who would understand. And yet, he didn’t.
“What about Macindaw?” He said, looking between her and the stone. He had shown up in the middle of the story, arriving as backup, and didn’t have the context of the first half of events to understand everything. Sure, Will and Alyss had filled him in, piece by piece, but still—he hadn’t been there for all of it.
“The stone, Horace,” Alyss said, her frustration growing. The others in the room seemed to notice their conversation and her frustration, because Crowley and Halt stopped talking, and Pauline had been watching her protégé with interest. “It’s the same as the one Keren used. Smaller, but the same.”
His frown deepened as he listened to her and as he watched the stone in her hand.
That’s when Pauline leaned forward, placing a hand on Alyss’s shoulder. “The stone he used on you?” she asked.
She nodded, “That’s why I asked where this came from … it can’t be a—”
“It’s not,” Halt interrupted, tugging a file from the stack Horace had just moved. It was the thickest one in the stack and had been on top. It wasn’t as dusty as the others, indicating that not only was it looked into often, but that it was constantly being added to. And yet, it was unsolved. “That’s from Will’s file. When he changed clothes, he turned that in along with everything else. We didn’t know what it was, and neither did he, so we just kept it in the file with all of the notes.”
Alyss’s eyes widened. Horace froze, not daring to look at anyone in the room, but keeping his eyes locked on the stone. Was it possible…?
“Will’s file?” Alyss repeated, standing up. She held the stone out, not wanting to bring it closer to her. While her time in Macindaw was difficult, the worst part of it was the blackness from the times Keren used the stone on her. She remembered nothing from those periods of time, but she automatically knew what she had done. She hated it, not remembering betraying her friends, but knowing that she had done so. Not remembering that she had attempted to kill Will, but knowing that she had been so close to ending his life.
And that’s when everything clicked.
“Oh … my god,” she whispered, tears welling up in her eyes.
After a banishment and three years, she finally understood. They all understood what had happened to their friend.
Horace stood, walked around the stacks of files, and left.
Duncan annulled Will’s banishment. Wrongfully convicted, Duncan ruled that whoever controlled Will would have to be found and questioned before Will could be punished for anything.
With very little persuasion needed, Halt got permission to visit allies where Will may have headed. Even though they hadn’t told Will their plan to continue investigating after his banishment, they hoped that he had headed to familiar territory such as Skandia or Hibernia to live. They had lost him when he had left, and now the revelation that Will may have been controlled similarly to how Alyss was controlled by Keren, it changed the entire case.
It said that he was telling the truth when he confessed, but it revealed that he had done it unwillingly, and that someone had controlled him.
Halt dragged Horace along with him, despite the younger man being a complete mess.
He had left Will when he had needed him the most, believed him guilty, when someone was using him. Horace hated himself.
First they sent a missive to Nihon-Ja, checking with Shigeru as well as the Kikori clan, considering Will had made a few friends with them while there. While waiting on a response, the two traveled in Hibernia, back through to Gallica and up north to Skandia and it’s outlying country villages. Nothing. They finally took a boat, offered by Erak to help, down to Arrida, where Will was likely to have joined the Bedullin tribe. Both Selethen and Umar hadn’t seen him. When Halt and Horace finally made their way back, they arrived to see that Shigeru had responded to their letter—he hadn’t seen Will, but he urged them to visit when they found him.
Without Will at any one of their international friend’s places, he was essentially … gone.
Ten years after Will’s banishment, seven years since the annulment.
“Should we stop here for the night?” Horace asked, turning to look at the older Ranger behind him. Halt looked at the small village before them, noticing that it was barely more then an inn and three houses in the area. It was probably a place meant for hunters and other travelers to congregate.
The two of them were traveling back from another display at Toscana, similar to the one they had gone to before joining Horace in Nihon-Ja. This one was more formal then the previous one, but Halt and Horace were the only ones available to send at the time. They were ready to be home, and were less then a week’s ride to Gallica’s coast when night fell.
Halt seemed to hesitate though.
Horace waited for Halt to speak his thoughts, knowing that asking him would just result in Horace being rebuffed.
“You go on ahead and grab us a room for the night,” Halt said, looking around them. They were on the edge of the path, in the middle of a dense forest, and had been for some time. They hadn’t seen other travelers either, except for when they passed through the other village not too long ago.
“Where are you going?” Horace said, turning to get a better look at Halt.
“I heard talk about an Araluen hunter in the area back at the last town,” Halt said, looking back to Horace. The knight got the message loud and clear.
It had been nearly a decade since Will had been banished, seven years since they had discovered what had likely happened to their friend. At every chance they got, they double checked rumors that sounded like him, no matter where they were, in hopes of finding him. ‘Araluen hunter’ was pretty vague, but it was something.
Horace nodded, wished Halt luck, and turned back to the town in front of them. Halt would travel faster on his own and would probably not get back until late. Horace planned to have the room and some dinner ready for Halt when he got back, minimizing what the Ranger would have to deal with on his own.
Leaving his horse in the stables, Horace grabbed his bag and went around to the front of the inn. The Ugly Swan Tavern. “I swear, these names get weirder and weirder,” Horace mumbled to himself, before pushing the door open.
As usual, the lively room around him paused when the door was flung open. He smiled, but headed for the bar across the room, and with his confident movement, the rest of the room returned to it’s conversations and laughter. The man behind the bar looked him up and down, and jerked his chin at Horace, motioning that he’d be there in a second. The man finished cleaning the cup he was holding, poured cup of some sour smelling beer, and moved down to where Horace stood.
“What can I get ya, friend?” he asked, raising his voice over the din of the room. Someone had started playing an instrument near the hearth, raising the voices of everyone in the room.
Horace leaned forward. “My friend and I were looking for a room for the night. Dinner, too.”
The bartender nodded, “We got a room for ya.” After working out a price, the innkeeper, named Joel, handed over the key to the room. He pointed to the hallway that lead to the back door, kitchens, and the stairwell, which would then lead him to the rooms. “Up the stairs, last door on the right, that one’s your’s.”
Nodding his thanks, Horace decided he would throw his things in the room before heading down for his dinner. The room was plain, with two beds on either wall, and a window looking out into the forest. He tossed his bag onto one of the beds, and looked over the locks on the door and windows. He looked over everything else in the room, and, satisfied, turned and locked the door to go get himself dinner.
He ate by himself, listening to the bard and remembering when he ran into Will playacting at being a bard and how they had given the poor innkeep a heart attack after they had left. Will had been so happy to see him. Horace missed that. That was well over fifteen years ago, he realized. The once delicious food now tasted like sawdust.
After finishing, Horace stood, thanked the waitress who picked up his plate, and went back towards the hallway that would take him back to his room. He would take care of his sword, clean his boots and other dirty clothing, before heading back down to fetch Halt some food for his return.
The knight swung around the corner and walked down the hallway. Right before the stairwell was an open doorway that led to the kitchen, and out of nowhere, a small figure ducked out of the opening, and slammed right into Horace.
Stumbling backward, Horace cursed. Whoever had run into him had knocked into the bottom of his jaw, snapping his teeth together and jarring him. The other person jumped back, also cursing.
“Shit, I’m sorry, I wasn’t—” the man froze, his voice stopping in the middle of the sentence.
Horace looked back up to whoever had ran into him, and suddenly found that he couldn’t move. He was paralyzed.
Will’s eyes were wide, and he stared at Horace in what looked like shock and fear. “I …” he trailed off, and as the two continued to stare at each other—both completely shocked to see the other—his look went from shocked and scared to … to hurt and angry.
“Will?” Horace whispered, not quite believing his eyes despite having literally run into him.
Before Horace could say anything else, though, Will shook his head. First slowly and then faster. His lips curled, and he stepped back. “No,” he said quietly, and shook his head more. “No.”
He spun on his heels, and fled out the back door, leaving Horace in the hallway, alone.
Chapter 3: The Araluen Hunter
Horace was too shocked to follow Will out right away. He stood there for a moment, his brain trying to process what had just happened, when the back door slammed and jerked him out of his reverie. Horace sprinted forward, dodging around the staircase and running past open doorways until he came to the back door. He threw it open into the cold night, looking around wildly for Will.
I can't lose him again, Horace thought, I can't. Not again.
With the only light coming from the windows of the inn, it took a moment for Horace's eyes to adjust to the starry night. He could see a well right in front of him, as well as a wooden fence between him and the edge of the forest. If Will had gone in there, he was as good as gone until he could get Halt to track his footprints.
A twig snapped to Horace's right, and he turned to see a figure rounding the edge of the stable.
"Will!" Horace called, booking it after him. He swung around the corner to see Will's silhouette walking quickly along the side. He kept walking, seemingly ignoring Horace's call.
"Will," Horace said again, racing forward to grab him. But the moment Horace's hand wrapped around Will's arm, the other man spun, pulling hard out of the knight's grasp.
"Leave me alone, Horace," Will hissed, anger burning in his eyes.
Horace jerked back, not expecting the reaction. Will took a few steps away, still facing Horace, but when he started to turn again, Horace knew he had to act.
"Will, please. Let's just talk—"
"Talk?" Will stopped in his tracks, turning back to Horace. Even though Will was obviously angry, Horace couldn't but help marvel at how his friend…partner?….had changed. Horace hadn't bothered with changing his appearance that much, keeping the same hair cut and not wanting to experiment with different facial hair styles and what not. Will, though, had went from his messy mop of hair to chin length wavy dark hair. He had a few days of scruff, but was still slim in his own wiry, Ranger way. His eyes were probably what had changed the most. Instead of his bright eyes that always seemed to be laughing at Horace, they seemed darker, angrier. Even when Will hadn't been angry at Horace specifically, such as when he was in the hallway, they looked darker. Less … less happy. Less like Will.
But the fact remained: the man who stood in front of him was his long lost friend and partner.
"What's there even to 'talk' about?" Will snapped, his lip curling. "I'm banished from the only home I've ever known. I haven't spoken to my own family in a decade because of it, because of something I can't even remember."
"Will, it's been a decade. There's a lot to talk about," Horace tried, taking a step forward. "Please, what happened back then—"
"It doesn't matter what happened back then," Will said, "What's happened, happened, Horace. You can't change the fact that—that I was banished for something I couldn't even remember, for something that you, you specifically, seemed fine with pinning on me." Will jabbed a finger at Horace's chest. Horace jumped back, not expecting Will to hit him like he had.
Horace stepped forward, trying to place a hand on Will's shoulder. "What? Fine? Will, banishing you was the last thing anyone wanted to do, least of all me. Let's just go back inside and we can—"
When his hand landed on Will's shoulder, it pushed him into action. Will shoved Horace's arm off of his body, and took more steps backwards. "Leave me alone, Horace. Forget this even happened. Forget you even saw me."
"I don't want you here, Horace, alright? Just go away, and leave me alone."
And with that, Will turned, and walked into the darkness, leaving Horace behind before he could react.
He stood there for a moment, completely flabbergasted as to what just happened. Will was angry. Will didn't want to talk. Horace … didn't want to lose him again.
"Not again," Horace said out loud, and started in the direction Will had went.
It was tough going at first, considering he wasn't trained to follow footprints and tracks like Rangers were. If only Halt were here, Horace thought, stepping over a fallen log as he entered the forest. He could still see some obvious footprints from Will, and he could still hear his old friend walking loudly through the forest ahead of him.
Halt. Horace paused, turned briefly to look back to the inn. Halt would walk in not knowing where he was. Sure, there were only a few different places Horace could go in such a small town in the middle of Gallica, but with his things still in the room, Halt wouldn't bother trying to find him. He would wait until Horace came back. Horace shook his head.
Halt was going to have to wait.
A few more minutes of walking, and Horace found his way into a clearing. The cabin in the center of the clearing, with the lean-to on one side and the porch built up on the front, reminded Horace vaguely of the Redmont Ranger cabin. It was small, a single story, and probably only one room, with a small chimney and front windows with shutters. At the moment, the shutters were open, but the windows had curtains closed from the inside, keeping Horace from seeing inside.
A quiet whinny came from the lean-to, and before he could help himself, Horace ducked around the side of the house to peek in to the lean-to. A brown horse he didn't recognize stood in it, munching on some oats from a bucket hanging in front of it. He didn't know what he was expecting, but it still made him sad not seeing Tug in the Ranger's lean-to. He had been getting old when Will left, so he wondered what happened and how Will took it. It was never easy losing someone you cared about, even if he was a horse.
Horace took a deep breath. It was never easy losing someone, even if they didn't really die. And now Horace had found him again, and he didn't want anything to do with him. He didn't want to upset Will, he really didn't. But at the same time … Will didn't know the truth. Maybe they didn't either, but with the information they had, they could find it. They could bring him home. And as selfish as it sounded, Horace really didn't know if he could lose Will again. It had been hard enough watching him get banished, then confessing to a murder, it would be so much worse leaving him behind when they had a chance to fix everything.
He walked back around the cabin, studying the craftsmanship of the walls with confusion. It wasn't like the Rangers cabins in the sense that it looked fairly new. The wear and tear on the Redmont cabin came from years of constantly being repaired and updated and the like, while this one seemed to have no marks whatsoever. It was probably built within the last decade.
Horace came to the front steps, noticing again the woodwork. It definitely wasn't expert, but it was crafted with an experienced hand, and obviously took time. Near the front door, WT was carved between the door and the window. Underneath that, a date—about a year and a half after Will was banished.
The knight knocked on the hardwood door.
Through the window, he could hear someone mutter "You have got to be kidding me." The door stayed shut tight, and Horace kept his place. A few minutes later, Horace knocked again. Louder.
And still, no one answered.
Horace could see the dull burn of a single candle through the curtains, as well as a single body moving around the room. Horace knew he had the right place, having followed Will directly here. That was also Will's voice he had heard. But Will would know who was at the door, and probably wouldn't open it. Horace sighed, glancing behind him. The night was getting darker, and the moon was high in the sky. He really hoped Halt wasn't looking for him at the tavern just yet, but he was looking forward to telling Halt he found who he left for without all the extra work.
He considered the situation, turning back to face the door. The candle still burned, but the body had quit moving around the room, the shadows still. He could still hear the horse munching away around the side of the cabin, but other then that it was nearly dead silent.
Horace decided to try something else.
"Will … I know you're angry about what happened," he said to the open window. "But none of us ever believed that you did it, and we wanted to help. We tried looking for you, Halt and I … We went anywhere we could think of, looking for you, once we realized what might've happened. We tried for so long. And I … I fucked up, letting you leave and never saying anything to you. For turning my back on you. I shouldn't have let you leave, when we were so close to figuring it all out."
Silence met his short speech. Crickets chirped behind him, and in the distance, an owl could be heard.
"I'm sorry, Will. Please. Just talk to me."
At that, the candle winked out, the cabin pitch black. He waited another ten minutes, moving around on the porch, but never knocking or saying anything else. Horace took one last look around, before turning his back to the cabin, and walking back into town.
Horace sat in the barroom, a glass of ale sitting in front of him as he stared at the wall. There was a small meal cooling down beside him, which he had ordered for Halt while he got his drink at the empty bar. He normally didn't drink that much, but a combination of traveling and finding Will pushed the knight to seek out something to help him sleep. At this time of night, or really, morning, the tavern itself was empty, the innkeeper wiping down tables and another waiter mopping up the floor. He felt bad, keeping them up, but at the same time, he had explained that he was waiting for his friend to arrive from a trip. Joel had said he would keep an eye out for him.
He took a sip of the ale, wrinkling his nose at the sour taste of the alcohol. The horrible taste was probably another reason he never drank.
The front door behind him opened, letting in the cool night air. Horace didn't bother to turn around—there was only one person it could be.
"Hello, sir. Unfortunately, we're closing up right now—"
"My friend's here already," came the gruff response, "That's him sitting there."
Horace raised a hand, his elbow still resting on the counter, waving to the people behind him.
"Oh, right," the innkeep said, "He mentioned you would be coming. Sorry about that, sir. Go on ahead."
Halt grunted, and, even though Horace couldn't hear him, walked across the room to sit next to Horace at the bar. Without a word, the older Ranger picked up his utensils, and started eating the meal next to Horace.
"No luck?" Horace said, taking another sip of beer. Maybe it would be best to tell Halt later, in their room or even in the morning. He would want to go out right away.
He shook his head, not looking up to meet Horace's gaze. "Don't know why I bothered," he muttered, shoving another bite into his mouth.
Horace frowned. "You know why you did it, Halt. You want to find him, just as much as I do." He said it quietly, knowing that the other two men in the room would definitely be listening to their conversation.
Halt was silent for a moment, before he set down his utensils, and looked at Horace. "Why are you drinking ale?"
The knight froze, looking at the glass. It was still mostly full, but Halt knew he didn't drink, and also knew that he wouldn't drink unless something happened. He looked over his shoulder, noticing as Joel, the innkeep, threw something out the front door, then shut and locked it. The waiter was gone as well, having taken the bucket of dirty water out back. Horace shifted in his seat, and turned to look at Halt. Now the older man looked suspicious, his gaze studying Horace with an intensity that kind of scared him. He signed internally, realizing he wouldn't be able to hide anything from Halt for much longer. "How 'bout I tell you in our rooms? Are you done?" he motioned to Halt's nearly empty plate, snatching a piece of bread off the edge. He dug in, but barely tasted the bread before swallowing.
Halt's frown deepened, his look of suspicion even darker. He seemed to consider the room around them, before nodding his head. He shoved his plate across the counter, where Joel was awkwardly wiping down mugs as he waited for the two of them to finish. Horace also pushed his glass of beer across the table, not bothering to finish it even though he had paid for it. The innkeeper or someone else in the back would probably finish it, having closed the shop and no one else needing anything.
Horace led the way upstairs, but all he could think about when he climbed the stairs was nearly running over Will in the hallway. He had been right there, so close yet so far, and he didn't know if Halt would be mad at him. He mentally reasoned with himself that he knew where Will was at, they could literally walk to his house right then, but it was still the thought of leaving Will alone after having lost him for so long.
When they got to the door, Horace fumbled with the key for a moment, feeling Halt's gaze on his back. Why was it that he'd known this man for a huge part of his life, but he still unsettled him sometimes? The knight opened the door, slipping inside in front of the Ranger.
Halt didn't wait a moment after the door was closed.
"What happened, Horace? I wasn't gone for that long," he said, whipping off his cloak and throwing it on one of the beds. His hair and beard were mostly gray now, but his rising age didn't stop his activity in the Corps. He was still an active member, and Duncan still considered Halt one of his best advisors (but never said that to his face). One way or another, he wasn't letting his age get the better of him.
Horace kept his back turned to Halt for a moment, collecting his thoughts. How exactly would he tell Halt about this without the Ranger walking out the door to find his apprentice?
He took a deep breath, and turned to look at Halt. His arms were crossed in front of his chest, and he stood in the center of the room, completely blocking Horace from the exit. Not that he needed an escape from the Ranger, but having the option was always comforting.
He sighed. "I … I found him, Halt. He was here, at the inn, coming from the kitchens when I was going up the stairs."
Halt just stared at him, his face a stone slate.
Horace continued, his voice coming faster, pressure building behind his eyes. "He—he was angry, Halt, so angry. He seemed scared at first to see me, but then he just got angry and left, and I followed after him and we argued, but then he went back to his cabin, which is literally just in the woods back there, and he locked me out. I tried talking to him again but he didn't respond and I didn't know what else to do except come back here and wait for you, but—but I—"
"Horace," Halt said gently, shocking Horace out of his panic. He hadn't realized he had started to cry, hot, salty tears making tracks down his dirty face and neck.
He had missed Will so much. Horace had felt as if a piece of him were missing when Will left, and he hated himself for letting Will leave without saying anything to him. Horace had panicked, making a poor decision when Will needed him the most. And now, years and years later, Horace had found him, and Will hated him. It broke his heart all over again, seeing that Will hated him just as much as Horace hated himself, but he also knew he deserved it. All Horace had wanted was to see Will again, to touch him, but know that he had that … it hurt.
Slowly, for once showing his age in the moment, Halt slowly moved to sit on the edge of the bed he had claimed. He put his elbows on his knees and held his forehead, looking at the floor. He took a deep breath before looking back up. He held tears in his eyes as well.
"Go back to the beginning, Horace, and tell me everything."
Chapter 4: An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object
The next morning, the two of them stood outside Will's cabin, both staring at the door. Contrary to what Horace saw last night, the shudders were closed this time, although one was propped slightly open enough for the two to smell something cooking inside while a familiar voice hummed a familiar tune.
Horace looked at Halt. Halt looked back at Horace, and raised an eyebrow. Horace shrugged.
Tentatively, Halt reached out, and knocked on the door.
"In a minute!" a voice yelled, one they both recognized immediately to be Will. Again contrary to last night, Will seemed ready to open the door and chat, which seemed odd if he wanted to keep Horace away. Did he really think Horace would leave, actually doing what Will said and forgetting he saw him? Who else would he be expecting if he was so ready to forget about their encounter the night before?
A few moments later, they heard the clatter of some pans, something sizzling, and then silence. Footsteps went from one end of the room to the other, before rounding back to the front.
The door opened, revealing Will as he looked at something to the side of it, counting something. "If you're looking for something else, Joel, I don't have much but—" Will didn't notice them at first. His longer hair was tied behind his head, and he wore a sleeveless shirt that showed off cuts, bruises, and burns all along his body. One part of it was pulled past his hips, while the other was rolled up, so Horace reasoned that he had just thrown on the shirt instead of opening the door without a shirt on. Some of the scars Horace recognized—others he didn't. He wore bed pants and no shoes, so either he just got up, or he never got dressed.
Then, he seemed to notice that 'Joel' was two people.
Two people he didn't want to see.
When Will's eyes landed on the two of them, the emotions on his face went from shocked to confusion to anger. Always the anger.
"I told you to leave me alone," he said coldly, turning to shut the door in their face.
Halt wasn't about to let that happen. He shoved his boot in-between the door and the door jam, preventing Will from shutting it. Before he could move it, Halt put his hand over Will's on the edge of the door. "Will, please, let's just talk," he said softly, looking at his kid through the crack.
Will ripped his hand away, and backed off from the door. It creaked open when Halt pushed it, but he still didn't walk inside. He may be desperate, but he wasn't going to disrespect Will's place by walking in uninvited, apparently. Horace just stood on the porch, awkwardly watching the two of them.
"I told you to leave me alone," he said again, standing in the doorway.
Halt shook his head. "No, you didn't. You told Horace to leave you alone, not me."
Will threw his hands into the air, and paced back into his cottage. Halt pushed the door open more, but stayed just within the threshold of the room. Horace couldn't see in that well, but just as he thought, it was a single room. In the far right corner, he could see a makeshift bed, a few sheets piled on top of it and a wooden crate that was acting as a table with a few cups and other things scattered on it. He also saw a fire place and a table, but that was mostly it. On the back wall, Horace could see a few different bows: his old longbow, the one he left with, a recurve bow which he didn't recognize, and a simple hunting bow. Sitting on the table were his saxe and throwing knives, but the double sheath was nowhere to be seen. Neither was his old Ranger cloak.
"You want to talk?" Will snapped, glaring at the two of them. "Fine. I'll talk." He stepped forward, looking at both Horace and Halt. "I lost six months of my life, only to come back and find out I murdered three people. And my family, the family I would do anything for, did little more then shrug and let it happen. I—"
"Will," Halt cut in, "We tried everything we could. Crowley talked to you but couldn't get anything out of you, and when we tried to tell you to stay in contact so we could figure this out, you left. We couldn't do much without your cooperation."
Will seethed. "Yeah, and what happened when I left? You all told me to shut up about the murders, and then he," Will once again shoved a finger at Horace, "he just walked away. Sure you and Crowley were there, but you all seemed so focused on finding out who did this when I told you what happened and you just didn't listen."
"We thought you just felt guilty, Will. We didn't have the full story then, none of us did." Halt stepped forward slightly, his hands spread in a way that said 'don't bite'. Horace still stood on the deck, watching the conversation and realizing that Halt was probably the best one for Will to have this with. Horace had only rubbed salt in the wound.
Will scoffed, his eyes rolling as he walked back towards the fireplace. There was a pan with some food sizzling on it, and he took it off the coals and onto the stone surrounding the fireplace. "Really? So what's the full story then? What's different now then before?"
Halt paused at that, looking back to Horace. Would he tell him everything? Horace wondered, stepping in further to follow Halt in.
"Alyss found the necklace you had, Will. She recognized it as the same thing that was used in Macindaw by Keren. We think—"
"Keren's dead," Will said flatly, not looking at them. "I don't know where the stone came from, and neither do you. That's a dead end."
Halt was getting frustrated. He wasn't used to his apprentice acting like this, especially to him, and Horace was starting to think it was getting on the old man's nerves. "It's not, Will. If we can—"
"No," Will said, finally looking up from the fire place. His face was empty now, the anger in his face now nowhere to be seen except for his pinched lips and down-turned eybrows. "I don't care anymore, Halt. Just drop it, and leave."
"But we can—"
"No," he said again, looking away. "Listen to me for once, Halt. I told you what I knew, but you either didn't believe me or wanted me to shut up. 'I don't remember what happened', so that means I'm uncooperative, but when I say 'Yeah, I killed them', you tell me to shut up and think straight." He took a deep breath. "I realize what you were doing Halt, trying to help me. But when I told you what I knew, it didn't help, and you didn't listen. And now we're here, me banished and you two going about your lives."
Halt's face looked angry now. "Will, we can fix that—"
"No, you can't." Will snapped, glowering at the two intruders in his house. Finally, he turned his back completely on them. "Get out," Will said again, the anger draining from his voice slightly. He just sounded tired now. He threw down whatever he had been toying with, standing to his full—albeit, short—height. "I don't want any of you in my life. You already fucked it up once, I don't need you doing it again. So just get the hell out of my house, and leave me alone."
Halt sat stewing at the bar, nursing the same cup of coffee he had two hours ago and staring at the wall.
Horace was the same way, but was instead on his third cup of coffee, and he noticed Joel dumping out the rest of what he had brewed, so it would probably be his last. Horace was shaking, so it was probably a good thing the innkeeper was getting ride of it.
Neither of them spoke.
Without saying anything, neither of them had packed any of their things, instead silently deciding to stick around for another day or two to see if they could talk with Will again. Horace had already arranged it with Joel, who took it in stride, and offered them a free breakfast for their patronage. Both just wanted coffee at the time.
A few locals were in the tavern, now that it was lunchtime, and were chatting away at the long table Joel and his waiters had set up for the rush. Horace, not knowing what else to do, listened to their conversation.
"Did you see that huge fire in the distance, Sinead? I almost thought it was your barn, but it's too close to town for that."
"Ha, no, it's probably just some random hunter who started a fire and didn't put it out properly. They're always doing that in this area."
Another voice piped in. "It looks too big to be just a small fire, it's gotta be a house."
"No, no, there's no houses in the direction it is. It's probably just some forest fire we're going to have to deal with eventually."
"My fields are still recovering from the last one. Ya'know Tolan? His were hit worse then mine, and I think that's in his area."
A few murmurs of assent, before someone else said, "I hope he's okay."
Horace finished his cup and pushed it across the table, thanking Joel as the man snatched it up from the counter. The knight turned to look at Halt, to get him to possibly talk, when he saw him standing up from his spot, the coffee still untouched.
"I'm going out," he said bluntly, shifting his belt where his knives were sheathed. Horace wasn't wearing his sword, mostly because that was more obvious then a few knives. Halt, though, as always, was always prepared.
"Where're you going?" Horace asked, turning to look at Halt. As he watched, the Ranger pulled his hood over his face.
"Out," Halt said again, looking blankly at Horace. "I'll be back before nightfall."
True to his word, the Ranger was back before nightfall. Horace spent the day sitting at the bar or in his room, cleaning his supplies or talking about Joel about local events.
Interestingly, he asked Joel about Will, and the man was actually fairly forthcoming. Will "Barton" had been in the area for about eight or nine years, and at first worked as a bard to make some money. He traveled the area, but settled down in the forest. He still sang at nearby inns to make money while he built his own cabin, and after it was finished, he hunted and sold the majority of his catches to the inns in the area. He brought in everything from deer to rabbits, and a few times had somehow gotten a hold of beef. Will mostly kept to himself, but most people in a fifty mile radius at least knew him by appearance and trade. That was probably why Halt had heard about the Araluen hunter in the previous town—Will sold his wares all over, but not many people probably knew where he lived.
They also knew that he was Araluen, and, Joel leaned forward to whisper this, many believed that he was an ex-Ranger, either having quit the Corps for personal reasons or having been exiled. Many people avoided him because of it, but Joel found Will pleasant enough, and usually gave him a job when he couldn't catch anything so he still had money. Horace decided not to mention how close the bartender was in his guess about Will's past.
Horace lay staring at the ceiling when Halt walked in, counting the wood pieces in the ceiling for the third time. Halt didn't say anything, instead taking off his cloak and laying it down over the back of a chair. He sat down on the bed, unlacing his boots and slipping them off. Horace noticed that they were fairly muddy, but other then that, the Ranger looked exactly the same as when he left.
"Have fun?" Horace asked, not really expecting a serious answer. He was just kind of hurt the Ranger left him alone for the day, not saying if he was going to watch Will's cabin or what.
"No," Halt said shortly, taking off his belt and throwing it and his knives on the table at the head of the bed.
From his silence, Horace guess that Halt might've gone back to talk to Will again, leaving Horace behind in case he was the reason Will was so testy. Will probably wasn't in an eager mood to see Halt again so quickly.
A few more minutes of rustling around, and the candle winked out on Halt's side of the room. Horace raised his eyebrows, turning his head to look over at the Ranger. "Going to bed?" he asked.
"Yeah," Halt responded, his back turned to Horace.
Without another word, Horace reached over his head and pinched out the flame on his candle.
Horace woke to someone slamming their fist on their door. The knight jerked up in his bed, the loud bang jerking him out of his nightmare and back into reality. The room was dark, the window partially cracked to let some air in, and nothing else in the room stirred.
The knock came again, weaker this time, as if it were unsure it had the right room. Horace looked over to Halt's bed, but saw that it was empty. Looking around, he saw the older man standing beside the doorway, his saxe held alongside his thigh. He must've heard someone come to their door much earlier then when they knocked.
Halt motioned for Horace to stand up, and pointed at the door. He wanted Horace to answer it, and Halt would stand to the side in case someone attacked him. The knight rolled his eyes. Why did he always have to be the bait?
Swinging his legs around, Horace got out of bed, the floorboards creaking underneath his bare feet.
The person outside knocked again, lighter, but they didn't stop this time. Instead, they seemed to just lightly knock their fist against the door every few seconds, not bothering to wait for someone to come to the door to open it.
Horace walked forward, his hand on the door knob, when he hesitated. He looked at Halt, who nodded back to him, and tightened his grip on the saxe.
He opened it slowly, peeking out into the hallway. Maybe it was just some drunk person who got lost, either up to their rooms or in trying to find the exit. He at first didn't see anything in the darkened hallway, but then his eyes landed on a small form leaning up against the wall on the far side of the door. The form was staying too still to be a drunk person.
Horace opened to door wider, stepping out partially into the hallway to get a better look at the person. That's when he realized who it was.
Will slouched against the wall in the shadows, his head ducked down and his chin tucked against his chest. His arms were around his stomach, and, what worried Horace the most, was that Will didn't look up when Horace said his name. He stayed absolutely still.
"Will?" he hissed, stepping towards his lost friend.
Halt, kicked into action by Horace's words, lit a candle from inside their room and brought it out into the hallway, and, just as Horace reached out to put a hand on Will's shoulder to get his attention, the light illuminated the hallway.
Blood trailed up the stairs, and stopped where Will stood. Blood was soaked into the front of Will's white shirt, dripping onto his shoes and the floor around him, creating a small, but distressingly large, puddle of blood. His skin was deathly white, and, horrifically, Horace could also see fresh burns on one side of his body, the fabric of his clothing mostly burned away in some spots, while others were spotted with soot. He smelled strongly of smoke.
"Will!" Horace said again, his hands grabbing his shoulders. He was standing, so he had to be alive, and he looked as if he were breathing, but—but there was so much blood and—
Will's head finally tilted up, and he seemed to meet Horace's eyes with the last of his energy. "I … I didn't know where else to go," he whispered, before taking a single step forward, and collapsing into the knight's arms.
Chapter 5: Ashes of Another Life
"I … I didn't know where else to go," Will whispered, before taking a single step forward, and collapsing into the knight's arms.
Horace held onto Will tightly, ignoring the feeling of warmth against his stomach as Will's wound continued to bleed out. "Halt—" Horace choked out, lowering himself and Will to the floor to take the pressure off the injuries. Will felt like a dead weight in his arms, but even as he thought that, he felt Will's fist tighten on his shirt. He was still conscious.
"Shit," he heard Halt hiss, and the next thing Horace knew, the older Ranger kneeled down beside him and Will. "Get him inside," he said after feeling for Will's pulse. "Put him on one of the beds."
Numbly, Horace slipped his arm underneath Will's legs and resituated his hold around Will's shoulders so he could comfortably hold him in his arms. He stood, barely noticing the fact that he didn't struggle at all to hold Will up. Before, he could carry Will as he was always a small person, but it was always with some degree of difficulty. In the years they had been separated, Will had lost weight. A lot of it. More blood dripped to the floor as he stood, making it hard for him to breathe. How much more blood could Will lose before it was too late?
Horace maneuvered into the room, taking care not to hit Will's shoulder or legs into the sides of the doorway. Without thinking, he gently laid Will down on his bed, and moved out of the way as Halt stepped forward.
He stood there, watching as Halt worked on Will. He cut Will's shirt off, taking care where it was melted into wounds on his side, using water to help with the stickiness. As he worked, a dark stain could be seen spreading underneath Will, who's head was facing towards Horace with his eyes closed. Horace gulped, wiggled his fingers, feeling the blood on his hands and drying on his shirt. Was it more blood underneath Will, or just the water Halt was using that was creating the stain? He looked back towards the hallway, through the open door, only to see more blood staining the hardwood in the hallway and in their room.
There was just so much blood.
"Horace," Halt snapped, finally grabbing Horace's attention. Halt had said it twice already, and when he had turned to look at his younger friend, he realized that Horace was falling into a panic attack. He needed to keep Horace moving, or else he would have two people under his care.
"I—" Horace tried saying something, but found it stuck in his throat. All he could see was the blood, pooling outside their door and staining his shirt and hands. "I can't—"
"Horace," Halt said firmly, pressing a random shirt he had to Will's abdomen. "Focus. Get me my other bag. It's underneath my bed, near my boots."
He stood there for a second longer, staring at Will's body. As he watched, he realized that Will's eyes were still open. Barely.
"Horace," Halt said again, which pushed the knight into action. He grabbed Halt's bag and tossed it at his side before kneeling at the bed near the pillow. Halt, going along with the fact that Horace was at least moving, started digging in his bag. "Talk to him. See if you can keep him awake," Halt said, pulling another cloth out of his bag. He dropped the shirt he had grabbed on the floor; it was already soaked in blood.
Bringing his hand up, Horace cradled the back of Will's head and held his cheek gently in his other hand. For the hour that Halt worked, he talked quietly to Will, telling him that they were there, and were going to take care of him. He kept talking, even after the Will's eyes closed, and his breathing slowed, he kept talking. He kept talking to Will about how they had searched for him, and how they hadn't stopped searching, and how Halt and anyone else would investigate rumors that sounded like him, and that they'd been doing that for the decade he'd been gone. He talked about how everyone still thought of him everyday, but especially on his birthday and on the day he left. They still hoped for his safe return. He kept talking, until Halt gently placed a hand on Horace's arm.
They stared at each other for a moment, both ignoring the fact that the other was covered in blood.
"Is he …" Horace murmured, his voice hoarse. His face had been wet, but now it was dry, and he didn't want to find out if it had been tears or blood on his face. He wanted to look back at Will, but he had been watching his face the whole time, and didn't want to see if his chest still rose or if it had gone still. He couldn't look until he knew Halt's answer.
Halt nodded his head. "He's going to be fine," he responded, looking back to Will, "for now."
"For now?" Horace repeated, his eyes finally going back to Will. Slowly, his chest did rise and fall, with his abdomen and stomach wrapped in bandages, as well as his left shoulder and arm where he had been burned. Now that they sat back and studied him, Horace noticed bruises around Will's throat and a deep cut on his cheek.
Someone had tried hard to kill him.
Halt stood, pulling off his shirt and rifling through his bag for another one. Horace knew he should do the same and change from his bloody clothes, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from Will. It had been so long since he had seen his partner, and now, in less then two days, Will had gone from telling them he never wanted to see them again, to him saying "I didn't know where else to go", and nearly dying in Horace's arms. He had so many conflicting emotions, but the only thing he found that he could focus on was the fact that Will's nose had been broken sometime between his banishment and their reunion.
Before, he couldn't look at Will, but now he couldn't take his eyes away. His eyes raked across Will's body, noting where it was different, where he saw scars that he didn't recognize. How much he had changed. For some reason, Horace hadn't thought that Will would change in the decade they'd been separated. To him, he didn't understand how Will could move on from his life in Araluen and do—be—something different. Horace had remained more or less the same in the 10 years, and yet, here was Will, apparently finished with them and adapted to his new life in Gallica.
"Horace," Halt said firmly, finally grabbing his attention. The knight turned to see that Halt had changed and had washed up. He held out Horace's own bag. "You need to change. You're covered in blood."
Mutely, Horace grabbed the bag and stood. "You never answered me," he said bluntly, placing his bag on the table behind the head of the bed Will was in and pulling the collar of his shirt up and over his head. He tried wiping his hands on the bloody shirt, but found that the majority of it was already dried. He would have to wash his hands in the water basin.
As he moved across the room to do so, he heard Halt move around the room. The Ranger pulled the clean blanket from his own bed, and fanned it out over Will. After doing that, he moved towards the doorway. "We need to get him to a proper healer," Halt said, peeking his head into the hallway and looking both ways. "I think there might have been something on the blade that got him." Halt paused, and looked back to Horace. "I'll be right back," he said, before ducking out of the room.
A proper healer, Horace thought, his eyes going back to Will's still body. Something on the blade. There were only a few people they knew of that would be able help with that sort of thing, and even fewer that Halt trusted.
Horace looked down into the water basin, finding it already tinged pink. He got to work, grabbing the soap and the cloth Halt had used to wash the dried blood from him, and watching as the water got darker and darker. When he finally pulled his hands from the basin, he looked down to see that blood had not only stained his shirt, but had also run down his pants.
He changed out of everything, looking in his bag for proper clothing, and finding that he would have to wear yesterdays shirt until they had time to wash their clothing.
Hearing footsteps, Horace turned to see Halt walking back into the room with a bucket of soapy water, a mop, and scrub brush in hand.
They were cleaning the blood until the sun rose. Halt had been smart enough to only change his shirt, knowing that kneeling in the blood and water would only stain them more. Horace hadn't thought that far ahead, and realized too late that he would have to buy new pants with how badly the ones he was wearing were stained. While they worked, Halt spoke to Horace quietly about what they needed to do.
They didn't know who attacked Will, if they were local or even still in the area. They needed to get him to a better healer, and the only one that Halt knew of that he trusted, had the expertise in poisons to help Will, and who would be close enough, would be Malcolm, in his cottage up north in Macindaw. They had a Skandian ship waiting for them not too far off the Gallican coast, but the problem would be transporting Will to the coast without furthering his injuries or being caught by whoever attacked him. After that, they could easily land on the banks of the River Oosel.
When Halt heard the innkeeper get up downstairs, he pushed Horace back into the room, and looked up and down the hallway. They had cleaned up as much as they could, and it was unlikely that anyone would notice the staining unless they studied the floor looking for it.
However, when they both turned back into the room and closed the door behind them, they realized at the same exact moment that Will wasn't unconscious.
Will had propped himself up partially, and, despite the blood that now stained the white bandages at his abdomen, he watched them with bright eyes and a slight frown. He had pushed the blanket to his side, revealing his bloodstained pants. The bed would be harder to clean, but, Horace thought, they would have enough money to pay for it.
Halt was the first to speak. "You shouldn't have sat up, Will," he said gruffly, moving forward. He reached across Will to pull the blanket back onto him, but Will balked, placing a hand on Halt's chest and trying to push him away. His eyes were wide, despite the bruises underneath them and the exhaustion on his face.
"You don't need to tuck me in like a kid," he said, his voice barely louder then a whisper. Halt didn't move from his spot though, still partially leaning over Will. When Will had tried pushing him, Halt had barely noticed, not feeling any pressure from Will at all. He was so weak, and that told Halt that they needed to get him to Malcolm—fast.
Horace stepped forward, a frown on his tired face. "Will, he was just trying to help. You need to rest," he said, looking towards the window in their room and the rising sun. The whole village would be up by now.
"I—I couldn't. I mean, I couldn't stop thinking—" his voice caught in his throat, and he looked away from his former family. Halt, without needing to be asked, retrieved his water skin from where he had tossed it on his bed. When he returned to Will, he kneeled, picked up Will's hand, and held the skin into his palm with both of his hands.
"Okay," Halt said quietly, "but you still need to take care of yourself. Drink some water," he let go of Will's hand when he was sure that he held it tight enough, "and then lay back down."
Silently, Will complied. He sipped water from the skin, his wide eyes roaming around the room but never landing on Horace. After a few moments of Will ignoring Horace, and Halt moving around the room cleaning, Will broke the silence once again.
"What were you two talking about in the hall?" he said, his eyes finally landing on Horace.
Halt picked up his bag from where he left it on the floor. "We need to get you to a healer," he responded as he packed the loose items away. "I know basic first aid, but nothing to the scale you need. There's also a high chance they used some type of poison on the blade, Will, and Malcolm is the only person I know of that can help. If we can get you to the coast, we can get you to Malcolm, where he can help you."
"You know I can't do that," Will immediately said, shaking his head. He grimaced at the movement, though, and looked away from Halt. "I can't go back."
"Yes, you can," Horace murmured, stepping forward slightly. He wanted to take Will in his arms again, but also didn't want to push Will away. He instead opted for sitting near the edge of the bed. "If you had let us speak to you, Will, we could have told you this earlier, but Duncan annulled your banishment. When Alyss realized what had been used on you …" he trailed off, not knowing how to quite explain what happened.
Halt picked up easily where Horace left off. "When she realized that the blue stone was used on you, the argument was made to Duncan that you had no control when the murders happened, even if they were done by your hand. He reasoned that judgment couldn't be placed on you until the person who controlled you was brought in. That's when we went looking for you, Will. We wanted to bring you home."
Confused clouded Will's face more then the exhaustion did. "I—I'm not banished?"
Halt shook his head, throwing his full bag onto his bed. "No, Will. You haven't been banished for the last seven years, but we just couldn't find you. That's why we wanted to stay in contact, but you left before we could set anything up."
Will fell silent, thinking. Horace watched as the familiar look filled Will's eyes, as he considered the situation, what he had just been told, and as he weighed his options. It was a welcome sight to see, after only see Will look angry or scared.
Looking away from his apprentice, Halt seemed to take a deep breath. "Even … even if you want to stay here, Will," he said, "we have to get you to someone who can help. I don't know the area or the people, but Malcolm is just over a week away. If—if you really wanted to, after he cared for you and you healed, you can always come back here.
"You don't have to stay with us."
Horace looked at Halt, surprised at his words. He knew why Halt said it: Will wouldn't want to be forced anywhere after the past few days, and giving him the option to come back would allow him to come with them with the knowledge that he could always back out. Either way, it hurt to think of. Having Will and then watching him leave again.
Now it was Will's turn for the deep breath. "Even if I did want to come back here, I don't think I can." At a look from Halt, Will looked away and up at Horace. "The people who attacked me … I don't know who they were, but they burned my cabin down. Everything I worked years for, gone."
The fire, Horace remembered, recalling the townspeople talking about it the night before and the burns marring the side of his ex-boyfriend's body. Too close to town to be a farm, but they had claimed no houses were that way. Apparently, they hadn't known of Will's small cabin.
Will shrugged, color rushing to his cheeks despite his pallor. "I—I don't know where I'd go now, if not with you."
Horace ended up paying for the bloodstained bed and sheets the next morning, explaining that he'd had a nosebleed during the night. Joel most likely didn't buy it, but accepted the extra payment with no questions. Before they had left, Halt and Horace built a quick, make-shift cot that they would have to carry for Will to lay in, but it would be better then him sitting on a horse or walking.
Will, of course, argued, until he realized he could barely sit up without nearly passing out.
Horace left Halt to fetch Will from the room, carrying him easily in his arms as if he weighed nothing. Will pointedly ignored this fact, awkwardly looking away from Horace as he brought him down the stairs. When he got to the stables, though, Horace found that Halt was no longer there.
They waited for ten minutes, Will sitting up against the wall of the stable, bundled in a blanket at Horace's feet, before Halt slipped back into the stable. He was leading the horse that had been kept in the lean-to at Will's cabin, and had a bundle over his shoulder.
"I gathered what I could," Halt murmured, setting the bundle at Will's side. He opened it, revealing a few items Horace remembered seeing in Will's cottage, all smelling of smoke. His old Ranger knives were in there, the sheath gone, but the knives only looking slightly worse for wear. Arrowheads and other supplies were also in the bundle, but there was no bow and no arrows to speak of. There was a ring, a plain silver band, that Horace recognized, and other miscellaneous items.
Will nodded, his hand brushing hesitantly over the blade of the saxe knife. "Thank you," he murmured, pulling his hand away.
They were a week from the coast, but with how Will had to be carried, him fading in and out of consciousness as the poison took hold, the journey was made slightly longer. When they arrived at the coast, Halt found the berth the Skandians were supposed to watch, signaled, and waited for them to come in. They pulled in, added room for a third horse in belly of the ship, and were off.
Halt, despite wanting to stay with Will, outcasted himself to the front of the ship for the first two days until his stomach settled.
Another few days passed before they landed in the River Oosel, where Halt had directed the Skandians to anchor as close as possible, and had them help bring his injured apprentice to the bank.
And then, for the first time in a decade, Will Treaty set foot on Araluen soil. Technically.
Chapter 6: Only Technically Legal
It took just under two hours for someone to report to Malcolm that a Skandian ship was anchored in the River Oosel, and that a Ranger, a Knight, and a third body, along with three horses, were waiting on shore for something.
Immediately recognizing the description of Horace, Malcolm asked Luca, one of his best scouts, to escort his friends back to the cabin. While he waited, he prepared the spare bedroom for whoever the injured body was. While Horace still visited him, he also knew it was likely that if Horace showed up with Halt unannounced (because the Ranger was Halt for sure, who else?), then it was because the body they carried with them was someone they needed to keep alive.
The old healer pulled the dusty bed sheet off the mattress, and dug through the closet for the clean one. He always kept the bed prepared, just in case, but if he had time, he also wanted to make sure it was comfortable for someone who might be spending an extended amount of time in it. He fixed the sheet, fluffed the pillows, and then moved around his house, making sure all of his supplies were in order, for he didn't know what this person would need. They could be sick or physically hurt. Or worse. Whatever worse was, the Rangers and Horace usually found it.
It was another hour before Malcolm heard the sound of something large and clumsy moving through the forest behind his cabin. Recognizing Horace's movement, Malcolm opened the door and went around the back of his house, believing he was prepared for whatever his young friend could throw at him.
Prepared for whatever, except for Halt and Horace to carry Will, their exiled and missing friend, into his clearing on a cot, followed by three horses, two of which he recognized.
Malcolm nearly dropped his satchel, freezing mid-step. "Is that—"
"Yes," Horace interrupted, moving around Malcolm with the cot. Halt nodded to Malcolm in greeting, but moved with Horace around the confused healer, ignoring his expression.
Malcolm, not knowing what else to do, followed after them, holding the door open for them as they maneuvered the poorly crafted cot through the doorway and into Malcolm's small cottage. He shook his head, following them into the house. "What—"
"Someone attacked him not long after we found him," Halt said, looking back to Malcolm, waiting for him to lead the way to the spare bedroom. "He's hurt, bad, and we're pretty sure he's poisoned too."
The healer had been slipping around the cot to get to the room, but right when he was going through the doorway, Halt finished what he said. Malcolm froze and looked down at Will, noting the paleness in his face and the way his eyes moved beneath his lids. He noted the sweat at Will's brow, even as the thin body, so much thinner then what he remembered, shivered underneath the piles of blankets the two had put on him.
He leaned closer despite the awkward position Halt and Horace were in, watching Will's chest rise and fall. Slowly, as if contemplating his next move, Malcolm placed two fingers at Will's throat, and waited.
It was slow-acting, Malcolm noted mentally. A slow-acting poison which caused fever and possibly gave night terrors, if the way his eyes moved and his body fought was any indication. Lastly, it suppressed his breathing and gave him an irregular heartbeat.
"Bring him in here," Malcolm said quietly, his eyes still glued on Will. He motioned towards the spare room right behind him.
Horace nodded, and started to walk backwards into the room. Halt moved the cot, moving Will's placement so that he didn't bump into the door jam or the table near the entrance. Malcolm watched as his two friends placed the cot over the bed and Halt sliced the cloth to take off the wooden sides that allowed them to carry it.
The moment Halt picked up the wooden pieces, Malcolm shooed Horace and Halt out of the room.
"I'll come out when I'm done," he said bluntly, and slammed the door in their faces. Malcolm turned and rolled up his sleeves and began to work on his missing friend.
Malcolm came out a few hours later, but instead of turning to speak to the two sitting at his dining room table, he moved to go into his room, past the kitchen. They heard some rustling, until Malcolm came out again, this time with a small, leather case in his hand. He slipped back into the room with Will in it, closing and locking the door.
Horace sighed, resting his head on the table. Halt, across from him, shook his head and stood up. "I'm going for a walk," he muttered, and walked out the door, leaving Horace there by himself. Horace closed his eyes, and proceeded to pass out.
It was another few hours before Malcolm slipped out of the spare room, this time moving to sit across from Horace.
"Is he even supposed to be in Araluen?" Malcolm asked, looking at Horace.
Horace slowly lifted his head. He had honestly fallen asleep where he sat, his head planted on the tabletop. He hadn't slept that well on the ride over here, nor when they traveled across Gallica, mainly because he had just been so worried about Will. He had gotten worse and worse the further they got, and Horace found that he couldn't sleep soundly knowing Will was so close to death.
Now that they were with Malcolm, Horace had finally felt comfortable enough to fall asleep. Will was being looked after. Will would be okay.
Shaking his head, he thought over Malcolm's question. "His banishment was annulled years ago, Malcolm. I thought I told you that?"
Malcolm stared at Horace, his eyes wide and alert for someone who had just been working on end for hours without so much as a warning beforehand. "Aren't there rules he has to follow for it to be made official?"
Horace frowned, unsure. He didn't know the answer to that question, although he had a feeling he had at one point. If anyone knew, it would be Halt. Horace opened his mouth to say as much, when a voice came out of nowhere: "He technically has to go meet with Duncan at Castle Araluen first." Horace jerked up, completely shocked to find that Halt stood leaning up against the kitchen counter. He hadn't heard Halt come in from his walk. "While the banishment is annulled, Duncan has to officially declare that with Will present. Similarly to his banishment."
"So," Horace muttered, looking between the two older men in front of him. "It's technically legal. Technically."
Nodding slowly, Malcolm gnawed on his bottom lip. He seemed to consider that fact for a moment, before shaking his head. "I need to go to bed. Don't bother Will for now—he's still resting. I'll check him in the morning."
Outside, Halt and Horace set up their tents, moving slowly but, for the first time in a while, with no fear or worry in their movements. Horace rolled out his bedroll, intending to just fall onto it and pass out, not even bothering to take his shoes off or cover himself with a blanket. Halt, though, had different plans.
"Horace," he said gruffly, grabbing his attention before he fell into the tent. "I want to talk to you."
So, instead of falling into the bed, Horace sat down beside Halt, who was still going through Abelard's saddlebags. "What about?" Horace murmured, exhaustion creeping into his voice.
Halt looked at him, his expression unreadable. He was silent for a moment, before putting the saddlebags down, and looking at Horace. "What's the likelihood that someone would attack Will right after we found him?" Halt said, getting straight to the point.
Horace didn't understand the question at first. "What?" he asked, glancing back towards Malcolm's cottage and seeing the last light flicker out. Instead of looking to the window where the candle had been, Horace's eyes were glued to the one that was dark.
"Think about it Horace," Halt said, shaking his head. "Will's gone for a decade, but the moment we find him, he's attacked? Someone burns down his house? What's the liklihood that, whoever attacked him, only found him after we did?"
Slowly, that detail made it's way into Horace's sleep deprived mind. Will had been gone for a decade, and yet he'd only been found and attacked after Horace had found Will and followed him back to his cabin. The cabin that was burned down.
"You think someone followed me to him?" Horace whispered, immediately awake. "But who? Why?"
Halt shook his head, for once admitting that he didn't know. "I think our best bet might be to find the file that had the mission Will went on before he disappeared. Figure out what he was dealing with to begin with."
Horace nodded, seeing the logic in that move. Start from the beginning and they'd eventually find their way to the present. There was only one issue with that plan. "Halt," Horace said with a frown, "those files are back in Crowley's office in Araluen. Do we really have the time to wait for Will to recover and to fetch them? Whoever attacked him could be right behind us—"
He broke off, finally noticing what Halt had been working on. He'd been checking over his camping supplies, making sure he had enough rations and the like. Horace sighed, sensing what he was about to be told. "You're planning on going yourself?"
Halt nodded and motioned back towards Malcolm's cabin. "Will's going to be stuck here for a while and I move fastest by myself. You can stay here with Will while I ride for Araluen. And," he continued, looking back to Horace, "even though I don't want to admit it, we don't know who we're up against. I'd feel better getting back up."
Horace nodded again, slowly. He would follow Halt's plan whether he liked it or not, but he had to admit that he agreed. They didn't know who had followed Horace, or why, and Will probably wouldn't take well to being left behind at Malcolm's while Halt and Horace rode for, what, files? They didn't need two people for that. But grabbing back up would be smart, especially if they were after Will and were somehow connected to the whole fiasco that got him banished to begin with. "But who'll you grab as back up?" Horace asked, curious. "Gilan?"
Now, the grizzled Ranger shook his head with an odd look to his face. "I don't want to pull Gilan from his fief." He shrugged, then quickly undid his boots and pulled his cloak off, throwing it into his tent with his own bedroll. "Guess I'll have to drag Crowley out of his office," he muttered, crawling into his tent. "Let's see how he'll take that one."
The next morning, Halt spoke to Malcolm before Horace woke up, explaining his plan and asking if he would be okay with Horace there and Will under his care. Malcolm laughed, saying it would be like the first time he met them, and that they would be fine. "Make sure to tell your people to watch out for anyone suspicious," Halt added before he left, "We don't know who was after Will, and I don't want anything to happen to you here." Malcolm nodded, thanking Halt and sending him off with fresh coffee.
It was a week later when Malcolm finally allowed Horace into Will's room. He had been conscious before, talking quietly to Malcolm, but apparently Will hadn't wanted to speak to Horace just yet, and Malcolm had kept that promise, keeping Horace out of the room with a sad smile.
"I can?" Horace asked, surprised. He looked at the door warily, knowing that a strained and awkward conversation waited behind it. Now that they had time to rest, Will and Horace would finally have a chance to talk about … them. Their relationship. Will had successfully avoided the conversation for a week, but denying Horace entry would only work for a while until Malcolm pushed Horace in forcibly, ignoring Will's protests. The healer didn't like the fact that Will was keeping Horace out, and couldn't stand the tension that filled the house every time he went in there. Malcolm found that he was spending more time with his people instead of holed up in his cottage doing research.
Malcolm nodded, staring at Horace warily. He knew of their past relationship, of course. He, hilariously, had been the one to find out first, and he'd been able to coax the two of them into bringing it up to their other friends and family. He motioned towards the door. "I would go now," the healer said, "He awake, but he needs to rest as much as possible." Malcolm grabbed a bag, and slung it over his shoulder. "Don't stress him out." With that, the healer was out the door, going to check on his people and any injuries or sicknesses they might need, leaving Horace alone in the house with Will.
Hopefully, when he got back, the tension would be gone, and he could breathe again.
Horace hesitated a moment, watching the front door that Malcolm had just walked through.
He knew this had to happen. It would probably be best for it to happen in private, without Malcolm or Halt in the next room.
Moving towards the door, Horace could feel the blood rising to his cheeks. He knocked.
"Yeah?" a weak voice called. Horace closed his eyes, still not believing that they had found him after all those years. That he was just in the next room. He was right there.
"It's me," Horace said, looking at the wood door. His hand waited at the handle, expecting to be denied.
"You can come in," Will said again, his voice carrying through the door.
Horace took a deep breath, and then opened the door and slipped in.
The room looked exactly like it had before. The bed was up against the wall, with room on both sides for someone to walk around. The window was cracked open, but the curtains were drawn to keep the light low in the room. It was the person on the bed that had changed. Horace hadn't seen him for a week, having been shut out first by Malcolm, and then by Will. He was still thin, still pale, but he was awake and sitting up. He wore a loose shirt over the bandages that Horace could just barely see wrapped around his abdomen and blankets were pulled up to his waist. His hair was pulled back in a messy braid, and while his eyes were open and alert, there were dark circles around his eyes that told his struggle to stay alive.
"Will," Horace murmured, looking at him as he slowly closed the door behind him. "How … how are you feeling?" he asked, brushing his own hair out of his eyes. He could feel Will's eyes studying him, taking him in through the darkness.
"I've been better," Will said, his voice soft. "I … I wanted to thank you and Halt, but Malcolm told me that Halt left." Will pulled his legs closer to his chest, crossing them. Horace, taking that as an invitation, hesitantly sat at the end of the bed.
Horace nodded, watching Will's body language. Even though it was dark, Will didn't seem to be angry or stressed, just tired and curious. "Halt left to find your old files. He wants to figure this out," Horace said simply, unsure how Will would respond to that. He hadn't wanted to figure it out before.
Will nodded though, looking away from Horace. "I figured."
They both fell silent, Will staring out the window and Horace staring at Will's hands, which rested in his lap. In their silence, they could hear people milling around in the clearing, Malcolm's voice laughing as a kid shrieked in joy and playfulness.
"You both saved me, even though I … I wasn't exactly making that easy," Will said, his voice falling even lower. Horace nearly had to lean forward to hear the words, but they were there. "I … thank you, Horace. It's been so long, and I gave up. I gave up, but you and Halt didn't." Will looked down, his gaze falling to his hands without realizing Horace was also looking there. He looked up, studying what he could see of Will's face. "You saved me even though I told you to forget about it."
Horace took a deep breath, but kept studying Will's face until he looked up. When he looked up, though, all Horace saw was the young Ranger he had fallen in love with, slowly and painfully.
He and Will had been working together for years, laughing and joking around as friends, before Horace realized how hard he had fallen for his friend. He struggled to even bring up those feelings to Will, despite not wanting to hide it. He didn't know what his friend, his crush, thought of him in that way, so he just stayed silent.
It was another year before they spoke about it.
Will and Horace's eyes met and Will felt the blood flow into his cheeks. All he saw was the knight he had pined after for years and years before finding out Horace had been unsure about the same exact thing.
The next thing he knew, Will found himself pulling Horace to him, their lips coming together as if they hadn't been apart for over a decade. His fist tightened on Horace's shirt, and as his arm came up to hook around Horace's neck, he felt the pillow dip beside his head as Horace placed his free hand there to prop himself up over Will. They kept kissing, feeling each other out for the other's reaction, both unsure, but both needing this.
Will hated that he needed it.
When their lips finally parted after some time, Horace continued, his lips going down Will's throat and to his collarbone. Will gasped for breath, for once not struggling due to his injury, but because of his need to be closer to Horace. He breathed deeply, feeling the knight's soft lips graze over the sensitive skin under his jaw. Holding him tighter, Will looked up to the ceiling, reveling and hating this moment.
He was absolutely, truly, fucked.
He needed out. He needed out now.
"Horace, s—" Will started, his voice barely above a whisper. He heard the front door open, and Malcolm's voice say something. He was just in the next room, and probably wouldn't appreciate his patient being so careless. But he couldn't bring himself to say the word. It had been so long, and Will had missed Horace so much—and apparently those feelings were reciprocated by the knight.
"Mm," Horace moaned softly, just as aware of their surrounds as Will was.
"Horace, stop," Will said, this time actually completing the word.
The lips on the hollow of his throat paused. Will wanted them to continue.
But the urgency that filled Will's body wasn't to pull Horace onto him, but to get from underneath him. He needed to get away. The people he had once called family had upturned and ruined his life not once but twice. And maybe they had saved him, maybe they had looked for him for years, but could he really fall for Horace again, when the possibility of it happening again seemed to be so high?
Will's fist in Horace's shirt flattened, and he found himself pushing Horace up and away from him—while he moved closer to the further edge of the bed. Before he could catch himself, his bottom slipped from the edge, and Will tumbled from the bed. Horace yelped, reaching too late in attempts to catch him before he fell. "Will!"
Now his ass hurt almost as much as the wound across his chest.
There was a sound of running feet, then at the door Malcolm could be heard. "What the hell are you two doing—" he barged into the room without knocking, the door flinging open and just barely missing Will's head.
Malcolm paused in the doorway, taking in the scene in front of him. Horace was leaning over the side of the bed, looking down where Will lay partially on the floor, his legs still propped up by the side of the bed.
"What … the hell—" Malcolm started, looking up and down at the two of them. Before he could finish, though, Will stumbled to his feet, immediately falling back onto the bed. Horace, surprised, caught Will's shoulders to anchor him in the bed.
"I moved back to make room for him to sit," Will said, pulling his shoulders from Horace's grip. "I didn't realize I was close to the edge, and slipped off."
The color in Will's face had moved to two small spots on his cheeks, otherwise completely normal for how he had looked earlier. Malcolm eyed the two of them suspiciously, not taking Will's statement as fact. Instead of calling him out on it, though, he looked back into the main room, to someone who was apparently standing there.
"Halt's back," he said simply, looking between them again. And then he stepped to the side, and Halt walked through the doorway, a curious look on his face, with the Ranger Commandant following behind him.
Chapter 7: The Copycat Sorcerer in the Not-So-North
Halt walked through the door, a curious look on his face, with the Ranger Commandant following behind him.
The moment Horace saw Crowley, he believed for a minute that he was going to straight up arrest Will and drag him back to Araluen despite his injuries and the annulment. Instead of his normal smirk and terrible jokes, the commandant was dead silent, his eyes intensely studying Will with a small frown. His copper hair was wind-swept and messy, something that Horace was used to, but the stormy look on his face alarmed the knight.
"Will," Crowley said bluntly, not even a hint of humor or relief in his voice.
Will shifted in his place on the bed, his face flushed and apparently unsure of how to respond. Horace, from his position on the other side of the bed, stood slowly, feeling the need to present himself at his full height. Crowley was taller then Halt and Malcolm and Will, but, as with most of the Rangers, Horace was much taller.
Crowley's eyes flicked up to Horace, pinning him in his spot. Horace froze, feeling immensely uncomfortable for the first time in a long time in Crowley's presence. Sometimes he forgot that Crowley, in all of his joking and laughter and friendliness, was a Ranger. And Rangers were a dangerous breed of enemy. Would he make us take Will down to Araluen first, either to finalize the annulment or to punish him for breaking the banishment?
"Crowley—" Horace started, wanting to defend Will. Would Halt have really brought Crowley here if he thought he'd take Will away? his mind reasoned, hoping, knowing that Crowley was on their side.
"You look like shit," the commandant finished, his lip curling in mock disgust as he continued to stare at Will. "Halt said you were in bad shape, but wow." At his side, Halt snorted and rolled his eyes. Crowley glanced to Halt, his frown morphing into a wide, lopsided grin that Horace recognized immediately. "What? He does—"
"We all know that," Halt muttered, shoving Crowley in the shoulder so he could walk around the bed. "You didn't have to go and point it out." Standing at the end of the bed, Halt studied Will. Even though Will was sitting up with his legs hanging over the sides, the way his former apprentice swayed was noticeable. They'd only been gone a week, though, and he looked better then he had before.
That's when Malcolm finally spoke up. "He's been doing a lot better since you left, Halt," the healer looked at Crowley, his eyes going between Halt and the commandant. "The poisons out of his system, so he just needs to recover from any damage it did to him."
Crowley slowly nodded, glancing back to the healer. Crowley had, of course, heard of Malcolm before, but had never gotten the chance to meet him before. So, when he finally met the healer, he'd of course introduced himself as Halt's husband, and ran into the house before Halt could react.
"Would he be able to travel?" Crowley asked, keeping his eyes on Malcolm. They may be speaking about Will, but Malcolm would be the one to know the answer.
"Not at the moment," he said, and motioned towards where Will still sat on the bed. Even though the young man was sitting up and watching the conversation with interest, it wasn't hard to see how the brief moment standing had exhausted him. He was slouched over, using his elbow to prop himself up. He followed the conversation, but seemed too tired and exhausted to speak himself. And Horace seemed too afraid to step far away from Will, the fear in his eyes as he watched the other young man sway in his seat. "He needs to rest more. I expected Halt to be gone longer, to be honest …"
That's when Horace finally spoke up, his eyes straying from Will's back. "Yeah … how did you get from here to Araluen and back in a week, Halt?"
The grizzled Ranger shrugged, motioning oddly in a seemingly random direction. "I took the Skandian duty ship that was waiting for us in the river. It was barely a day to Araluen, and then Crowley and I rode back together."
Horace slowly nodded, seeing the logic in that. It was faster, even if Halt didn't like sea travel. But did speed really matter when Will wouldn't be traveling right away to begin with?
But before anyone else could say anything about Will resting, Crowley was shaking his head, a slight frown to his face. "Can he travel, though? Nothing too strenuous, just basic travel," Crowley asked again. "I'm sure Halt said this, but we don't know who might be following them, or how or why. If Will can travel, even slowly, we can get you out of harm's way."
Malcolm looked taken aback, and looked between the other people in the room, gaging his response. His eyes went from Halt, who he knew just wanted to keep him safe, to Horace and Will, friends he was never expecting to make, but friends he cared about—and friends who cared about him. Malcolm sighed. With anyone else he had just met, he would have told them off for underestimating him, his knowledge, and his people. But Malcolm had worked with the Rangers often enough to understand what Crowley was doing, even if he didn't understand Crowley as a person just yet.
He was trying to keep Malcolm out of a dangerous situation that was overwhelming them. And if it was overwhelming them, if Halt of all people had decided he needed back up in the form of the Ranger Commandant, then it was serious.
Maybe he should have realized it was serious when Will was brought back. It was serious when Will had left—they had been searching for him for years afterwards. And now he was back, angry and injured, so it had to be serious.
It had to be dangerous.
Malcolm sighed, knowing what was going to have to happen even if he didn't like it.
"Two days," Malcolm finally said, responding to Crowley's question, "Give him two more days, and he should be able to travel." Malcolm's eyes flicked between each person in the room, landing back on Will. He didn't look well, but he was awake. He was alive.
"Two days," Crowley repeated, staring at the healer. Then, he nodded. "Two days it is."
Two days later, and Horace was out in the morning sun preparing his horse and Will's. Horace put on his battlehorse's saddle, double checking the bags. Next, he started preparing Will's horse, who's name he hadn't learned yet. He would have to ask Will, Horace thought, thinking back to Will's sleeping form that he had checked in on that morning before stepping outside. They would let him sleep up until it was time to leave.
"He'll travel faster with someone else," Malcolm said, coming out of nowhere and pulling the bridle of the horse away from Horace's grip. "Can he ride with you?"
Horace frowned. "How is making him ride a battlehorse with me any different from him riding his own horse?"
Malcolm raised an eyebrow, looking at the knight. "We won't know how steady he is until he gets up. I'd rather him ride with someone who can watch him closely then him ride independently and possibly fall off the horse." The healer started to lead the horse away, back around his house and to the small lean-to they had been using. "Plus, I think you two still need to talk a few things out," Malcolm finished, giving Horace one last smirk before rounding the corner.
"But—" Horace started, but then the front door opened and Halt and Crowley walked out. Horace shut his mouth. Maybe Halt and Crowley knew about their past relationship, but only Malcolm knew how their current one was strained. The knight sighed, knowing that the two older Rangers would listen to Malcolm about Will's condition.
It took another two days to make it to the fort that Crowley determined was the one Will had originally been sent to investigate. During their first day of travel, Crowley had ridden beside Horace and Will to talk with Will about what he could remember, but after ten years, it wasn't much. It was mostly the same story as before, the same one that was written down in Crowley's files.
Will left Redmont for the fort because the reports marked similarities to the original reports about Macindaw and Malkallam. Strange lights had been reported in the towers and surrounding forests by hunters and residents from the nearby settlement. A few other reports had mentioned odd sounds and screams. He had arrived at the fort and started investigating, but not long after he arrived did his memory start to fade. That was all he remembered, and that was all Crowley had written down.
"Droskyn Fort," Crowley read off, letting Cropper pick his own way while he flipped through the files. Halt rode slightly ahead of them, and Horace couldn't help but notice that his bow was resting on his saddle, an arrow on the string. "Used to be manned by Norgate soldiers and a knight by the name of Caldwen, but the baron at the time pulled all of them when it was determined that the Fort was a waste of manpower."
Will shifted his seat behind Horace, looking down towards the road. Of the few belongings of his they were able to scavenge, he simply wore the knives at his side and the rest were in Horace's bags. Halt had come back with a spare bow for him, but Will had kept it unstrung, and now rested against the rump of the battlehorse. He didn't want to make it obvious, but Horace could feel Will's weak grip at his shoulders loosen and retighten every once and a while. He was conscious, but he was barely holding on that first day.
"… do you remember all of that?" Crowley said, flipping through a few other pages. His eyes scanned the pages fast, and it seemed that he was scanning the documents for something specific. Something new, possibly, that they hadn't seen before.
"Yeah," Will said quietly, his voice weak. "I went through the town, and they directed me to the fort, even though I didn't ask. They all seemed pretty eager for me to investigate and get it all solved. I remember most details leading up to the fort, Crowley, just nothing much … past that."
The second day, Will was better on his feet, not holding onto Horace as much as he had the day before. Halt strung the bow for Will, but he didn't even bother trying to pull it. "I can barely hold myself up, Halt, let alone pull an eighty-pound bow."
Once again, Halt rode somewhat ahead of them, his bow ready, and Crowley, satisfied after quizzing Will, rode slightly behind them.
Will and Horace didn't speak, but feeling Will's arms around his waist, feeling the Ranger lean against him and not back away, made him hope that at least something had been repaired between them.
When they finally arrived at Droskyn Fort, it was late on the second day. It was built similarly to Macindaw, one large tower in the middle of a large square wall, everything made out of gray stone. The drawbridge was open and there were no lights in the windows at all, which for a moment caught Horace off guard.
"It looks abandoned," Horace murmured, more to himself then to one of the Rangers.
"It is," Will whispered back, his hands slipping from around Horace's waist to resting on his hips. A blush crept up Horace's face, but he didn't say anything. "It was abandoned for years before I was sent to investigate the area."
Ahead of them, Halt dismounted Abelard, but kept his bow out and an arrow ready as he did so. He glanced back towards his companions, nodding slightly before slipping into the darkness. Horace assumed that he was scouting the area and would be back soon enough.
"Horace," Crowley said behind him, making him turn around in his saddle to see the commandant. Crowley had ridden up just behind them and he jerked a thumb at Abelard. "Halt's just looking around. We're gonna look around a little bit, and then probably camp outside the walls tonight."
Nodding, Horace slipped from his saddle, turning to help Will down. For a moment, it looked as if Will was going to refuse his help, but he must've thought better of it, because he grasped Horace's arm, letting the knight support him as he slid from the saddle. It didn't help that the horse was so much bigger then what Will was used to, but the missing Ranger only stumbled slightly, hanging onto Horace for only an extra moment before his stance steadied.
"You good?" Horace said softly, trying to get a better look at Will's face.
"Yeah," he muttered, pulling from Horace's hold.
They and Crowley waited about twenty minutes alongside the road, slightly hidden in the trees as they looked up at the fort. Will said nothing, only watched the walls with an odd look of dread and confusion on his face. He refused to look at either of his companions, instead his eyes roving over every brick of the fort. He didn't say it, but he almost looked afraid to step into the courtyard.
When Halt finally returned, he said nothing, but nodded his head again and began leading Abelard further into the forest. They found a clearing still in sight of the walls, but hidden from the road, and they began to set up their camp. It was mostly dark by then, but Crowley still wanted to at look around the main rooms of the keep before settling down for the night. They could do a more thorough search the next day.
"Are you feeling well enough to come along?" the commandant asked, looking over to Will. He had sat on a log that was laying nearby, his face steadily getting paler and paler the longer they were in the area. He fidgeted in his spot, but he also looked too awake for his injury to be the thing dragging him down.
Will shook his head, standing at Crowley's word. "Yeah, I'm fine," he responded, pulling at sewing of his shirt. He was anxious, but he wanted to get it over with.
"Someone should stay with the campsite, though," Crowley said, looking back to Halt and Horace. The knight was still going through his things, and, unlike the Rangers, his tent wasn't up yet. "Horace, do you mind? We won't be long."
After seeing him nod, the three Rangers stood, Crowley leading the way through the forest. Will walked behind him, naturally falling into old habits—placing his feet silently, moving with grace through the shadows as if he were one of them. Seeing Crowley do the same thing in front of him, and not hearing Halt behind him brought Will back to the times before everything went down. Working with side by side with Halt, knowing his mentor would be there for him even if he didn't see him. Not even just his mentor, though. Working as a Ranger, he knew if anything happened to him, that he would always find support in the Corps.
He had lost all of that in just about six months.
He didn't have the assurance of friends and family while in Gallica. He was on his own.
Closing his eyes for a brief moment, Will had to fight for his emotions to not overwhelm him. So much was going through his head at the moment, he couldn't keep track of everything.
Opening his eyes, Will watched the fort rise in his vision. They were stepping across the road now, and every step closer made him more and more … scared. What would happen when he stepped through the gate? Through the front door? Would he remember?
The three Rangers crossed silently, one after the other, right up to the wall. The drawbridge was down, and, from their spot, they could see that no one else was around—at least, in the courtyard. Will saw no one in the windows, but he knew that meant nothing.
Crowley led the way across the drawbridge and through the gates and didn't hesitate at the front door, despite the tension growing in Will. He found that he couldn't even bring himself to look back to Halt, knowing that he would either break down or run when he saw his mentor's shadowed face.
Will walked through the doorway of the dining hall, trailing his finger along the grimy wall. If it wasn't obvious from the outside that the place was abandoned, then the inside told the whole story. Of the little that was left, most things were broken down or scattered. Chairs that were supposed to be stacked on top of the hardwood table in the center of the room were tossed around and broken, the table itself caved in the middle from rot. There were cobwebs and dust everywhere, and no matter what the three Rangers did, dust and dirt puffed up from their footsteps. No more walking unseen.
Crowley was the first to sneeze from the dust.
Walking slightly ahead of the commandant, Will studied the room, digging in his mind for something. Anything.
Behind him, Will could hear his mentor and commandant speaking quietly, but he didn't pay attention to if they were speaking to him. Or about him. Too much was going on in his head to split his attention right then, and he was already wasting enough energy over just staying on his feet.
He had thought that when he arrived here, he would remember everything. He had thought that everything would come flooding back, all of the answers that he had needed for the last decade of his life finally his for the taking. But there was still nothing. He didn't remember touching these walls before, he didn't remember climbing the stairs—nothing. Somehow, he knew that he had done those things. They were there in his muscle memories, the way he walked around the collapsed table, the way he studied the stairs before going up them. He had done them.
But he couldn't remember doing them.
But he knew they were missing.
If he had been alone, like he had been for so long, he would have cried. Screamed.
Why couldn't he remember? Why did remembering have to be so hard, when it had never been a problem before? He remembered everything about Horace. He remembered the bullying, the make-up, the first kiss. He remembered the sting of betrayal when Horace didn't see him off as Halt and Crowley had. Maybe he had blamed himself for the murders, but seeing the one person you needed to be there leave you behind hurt.
Why did he have to remember all of that, when he couldn't even remember the events that led up to it?
Will was at the end of the dining hall before he realized Halt was calling his name.
"It's too dark to go further," his mentor said, walking up to him without trying to conceal his movement. Will couldn't see Halt's face, not in the shadow of his hood, but Will recognized the tone of voice. Frustrated. Tired. "Let's head back to camp."
The next morning, Horace rolled over in his tent, taking a deep breath. He hadn't slept that well—sleeping in the shadow of that fort left him with weird nightmares and he had been tossing and turning all night. They were all about Will disappearing again. Sure, that had been reality after the last time he had been to the fort, but, Horace tried reasoning with himself, that wasn't going to happen again. Will wasn't alone this time, they could be there for him.
That's when Horace realized that the spot next to him, the spot where Will normally would have lain, was empty.
Horace shot up from his bedroll, his heart in his throat. Looking around the small tent, he scanned the other bedroll, noticing that the Ranger cloak he had used as a blanket was gone. Horace awkwardly crawled out of his tent, knowing, hoping, that Will was sitting in front of the fire with Crowley, who was the last one on duty last night.
But Crowley was sitting with his back to the log, feet nearly in the smoldering firepit, fingers playing with an arrowhead. The ginger Ranger looked up to him, his tired and bored look instantly turning to alarm at seeing Horace's face.
He was standing before Horace was even out of the tent. "What's wrong?"
Stumbling to his feet, he looked around first, not wanting to believe what his mind was thinking. "Where's Will?" he said bluntly, getting straight to the point instead of asking the million other questions floating in his head. "Did he come out here? He's not in the tent."
Alarm changed back to confusion. "I—" Suspicion flashed across his face, and then true, deep-hearted fear. "He's not in the tent?"
Horace shook his head, panic rising in his throat. "He was there when I came back from my watch. He didn't come out?"
A shadow slipped into their clearing, and Horace turned, hoping that it was Will. That he had only gone to the bathroom, and had somehow managed to slip by Crowley. But it was only Halt carrying three dripping water skins. Halt knocked back his hood, a look of concern on his face. Evidently, he'd heard what Horace had said.
"Will's missing?" he repeated, looking between his friend and the knight. "Neither of you heard or saw him leave?"
Horace shook his head again, looking between the two older men. They had to have seen him leave, right?
But Crowley was shaking his head too, a look of true horror on his face as his eyes traveled around the clearing, taking in the tents, the fire, and the forest around them. And then, finally, Crowley's head snapped to the side, turning to face the fort that could be seen through the trees.
All at once, Horace understood. There was no coincidence in Will disappearing the first night back here of all places. The first time here, he'd disappeared for six months before being found.
And now, they had willingly brought Will back to the place he'd lost part of his life to.
And he was gone.
Chapter 8: A Certain (Familiar) Darkness
"Where could he have—" Crowley muttered, spinning around in the campsite as if that would summon Will back to them.
He was cut off by Halt though, cursing as he went for his own tent, pulling out his bow where he had left it in it's case. Horace watched in frozen horror, not comprehending why Halt would need his bow to find Will. Will wasn't an enemy, he was a friend who needed help.
"We have to go after him," Halt said, throwing his quiver over his shoulders.
"We have to find him," Horace said back, his voice cracking, the panic in him building until he couldn't breathe. Why did Halt need his bow to find Will?
Halt looked up at him, his dark eyes betraying none of his emotions. "Get dressed Horace. We're leaving."
Minutes later and the three of them were ready. In getting dressed and collecting his sword and shield, Horace noticed a few other things. One, along with the cloak, the bow Halt had brought Will was gone as well. The knives were nowhere to be seen either. Two, Will had left willingly, as his shoes and jacket were gone as well. That meant that Will had gotten up sometime in the night, somehow didn't attract attention from Halt or Crowley, whoever was on watch at the time, and left by his own choice.
He told as much to Halt and Crowley, letting them know what he had found. "Did neither of you see him?" he asked, looking between the two older men. It was possible Will had slipped out the back and remained out of sight, but the fact that neither of the senior Rangers heard or saw anything was mind-blowing. Had Will maintained his Ranger training that well, throughout the years?
Crowley shook his head, his eyebrows furrowed and a slight frown on his face. He seemed almost as confused as Horace.
The three of them searched the immediate area first, checking the obvious areas. The creek where Halt had gotten water was empty, and no where around that held any sign that someone had been there. The road was just a few meters from their campsite and they walked down it looking for fresh tracks. The only ones the Rangers could find were theirs from yesterday, though, taking that off their list. The surrounding forest around the clearing were mostly empty except for a few squirrels and rabbits that fled the moment Horace stepped near. Will wasn't in the forest.
That left only one other place, unless Will had simply up and left them entirely.
Horace eyed the main keep of Droskyn Fort, sensing that it might be the answer but not knowing what that meant for Will.
Hearing a step behind him, Horace turned to see Halt move to stand beside him, his mouth a thin line on his face.
"Do you think …" Horace trailed off, not wanting to face the facts that presented themselves to his logic. Unless Will had left, which wouldn't make sense after everything, Will had to be somewhere near. The Fort was the only place they hadn't checked just yet.
"Crowley found his tracks," Halt said quietly, looking up to the knight. Horace had noticed Crowley break off from their search in the forest, diving for the area near the back of Horace's tent, but he figured the Ranger was checking something he had seen. Evidently, he had seen Will's tracks. "He's following them right now," he continued, and motioned down the road partially, where Horace could just barely make out the form of the Ranger Commandant bent over something at the side of the road. "So far it looks like they go to Droskyn."
Horace sighed, splaying his fingers along his sides as he thought through their situation. "Should we go look?" he asked, watching Halt's face for any clue as to what he was thinking. As he said that though, Crowley stood from his place on the side of the road and stepped across, following something only he could see. He paused a few feet from the other side of the road, his head rising slowly as his eyes followed Will's tracks. From what Horace could see … it looked as if he were looking directly at the fort. The Commandant looked up and over to where they stood, waving them over to where he stood.
As they approached, he pointed directly towards the gate, a grim look on his face. "I think he went inside," Crowley said when they came up next to him. "Alone."
They hadn't known how coming back to Droskyn would affect Will, and so they had wanted him to stay with one of them at all times, especially in the fort. Last time he had been there alone, he had disappeared for six months, and murdered three people under the command of someone unknown. They didn't know if this person was still here, or if they were apart of the group they believed to be following them. Either way, it wasn't good that Will had went off on his own.
Moving quickly, the three of them began to head for the fort, fearing the worst. They split up, Crowley taking the outside courtyard and surrounding out-buildings, Horace taking the main floor of the keep, including servant passageways, and Halt covering the rest. They would meet when they were finished in the main keep, where Horace would be.
Climbing the stairs, Halt kept his bow out, unsure of what to expect. Had Will left because he had remembered something, going back to the place that piqued his memory? Had he heard something that convinced him that the people after him were back? Was he afraid of remembering, fleeing to avoid the event from happening?
Halt shook his head, pursing his lips. Crowley said his tracks led into the fort, and from what Halt could see, they also led into the keep. But why?
The first level above the main floor were mostly sitting rooms, with a few offices scattered here and there. They were all run down and dusty, no marks or anything else telling Halt that another living person had been there recently.
Except the steps.
The steps held scuff marks, a few clear footprints, and swishes in the dust that made it clear someone wearing a cloak had walked through. These marks went up to the very top story—the sixth.
Halt frowned. What was he doing up here?
At the top of the stairs, a window let light in through the ripped and worn curtains, giving Halt two directions: left or right. He followed the markings, heading left into a dark hallway that was blocked from the stairwell with a wall. It wasn’t long before the hallway had doorways along the right side, showing him ruined rooms full of extravagant and destroyed luxuries the knight and his immediate circle had probably been afforded due to their position at the fort. The hall went all the way around the top floor the keep, circling around back to the stairwell. About halfway around, the marks on in the ground stopped.
The door next to the marks was shut, unlike all of the others.
Halt set a hand on the handle and pushed open the door. It was a wide room, but mostly everything was gone from this one. Only a few pieces of old furniture were left, most of it broken down or ruined. The dust on the ground was a mess, with so many footprints and scuff marks that made it look as if someone had been pacing for ages. There were other marks, but Halt couldn't make sense of them. And sitting in the window sill, hood down and arms crossed, was Will.
His eyes were focused out the window, wide and slightly watery. He was shaking slightly, the cloak wrapped tightly around him, but he looked otherwise okay. The bow he had taken with him was discarded on the ground, just below the sill where he sat, and his quiver was still full.
Sighing, Halt took a step into the room. "Will?" he said quietly, not wanting to startle him. He looked lost, sort of, and he hadn't looked up or moved when Halt had walked in.
The voice seemed to catch Will's attention though, because after a second, his head turned. For a moment, his eyes remained oddly unfocused, and then—"Halt?"
Halt stepped forward, carefully moving through the scattered remains of the furniture before he made it to Will at the window. This one was wide open, no glass or shutters keeping the elements out. Six stories up, too, was quite a drop. He reached out and set a hand on Will's shoulder, careful of his injury but uncomfortable having his injured apprentice so close to the edge. "Are you okay?" he asked gently, eyes going over Will's face and body, looking for anything that didn't look right. Cuts in the fabric, blood stains, bruises.
Will looked at him for a moment, eyes finally clear, and yet … and yet, something about him didn't look right to Halt. "Yeah," he said, looking at the room behind Halt. He almost seemed to not recognize where he was. "Yeah, I'm fine." He stood up, making Halt take a step back to give him enough room. The motion pulled his hand from Will's shoulder, and he turned away from his mentor. "I—I just needed to get some space, I guess."
Frowning, Halt watched Will with slight suspicion. "We were worried," he said bluntly, his eyes following Will as he stepped around and through the rubble. He was heading for the doorway, and Halt followed him out.
"I'm sorry," Will responded, not looking at Halt. He paused out in the hallway, looking one way and then the other. Did he not know how to get out? Halt ended up leading Will back around the hallway and down the steps, keeping a close eye on his apprentice. Will kept one hand on the wall, his face pale and drawn, but he refused help from Halt, and kept his face turned away from him.
When they finally stepped into the main room, Halt could see Horace and Crowley speaking at the far end. Horace ran a hand through his hair and gestured behind him, obviously saying how he hadn't found him. His sword was sheathed, and his shield was slung across his back. Crowley started to say something in return, his bow in hand, but his eyes caught the moving shadows near the steps, and stopped. "He's right there," they could hear him say, "Halt found him."
Halt pulled Will in their direction, but as they walked over, Halt couldn't help but notice that Will refused to look at any of them—and was instead studying his surroundings, a confused and panicked look on his face.
Crowley looked at Halt. Halt looked at Crowley. Horace kept his eyes on Will.
"Why did you leave, Will?" Crowley asked, staring at the side of Will's head. He was still refusing to look directly at any of them, but that wasn't what worried them the most. It was the way he was shaking and the panicked look he had to him. What happened to him, and what was making him so panicked?
"I—" Will started, but his voice seemed to catch, and he stopped talking. He looked down at his hands. "I thought I saw someone," he whispered. "They came in here, and I followed."
Halt frowned. That wasn't what he said earlier.
Crowley frowned as well, shifting his feet where he stood. He looked to Will, trying to meet his eyes but failing. "You saw someone?" he repeated, raising an eyebrow. He looked incredulous, but kept his eyes on Will.
Will nodded, not saying anything else.
"They came in here?" Horace asked, immediately on edge. Who else would be in the area, let alone in this ruined fort, besides whoever was after Will? And why would he willingly go in here after them?
Will nodded again.
"Why didn't you tell any of us?" Crowley asked, his eyes narrowing as he looked at Will. He sounded angry. "Why did you come in here after them, but not bring any of us along? Especially in your state?"
Will seemed to shrink in on himself, but still, he didn't look at the commandant. His cheeks flushed, as if he were a child being scolded. "I—I don't know," he whispered, looking at the floor.
Alarm bells went off in Crowley's head, causing him to jerk back slightly. Will had kept saying 'I don't know' when they had found him so many years ago and asked him what had happened. Will saying 'I don't know' after he had gone missing again was alarming.
Crowley had no idea how alarming it was, especially for Will.
Will couldn't face his friends for one reason, and it was the most alarming, upsetting, and frustrating reason he could have ever thought of.
He remembered seeing the shadow slip past the gate, going into Droskyn Fort.
He remembered following them, but not why he hadn't let anyone know.
He couldn't remember what happened after.
He couldn't remember what he had done in Droskyn Fort.
And he couldn't remember how long he'd been in the Fort.
He memory went from waking up in the middle of the night, his back against Horace's chest. He slipped out of the tent, going out the back and staying low to avoid Halt's watch. He didn't know why, though. And his memory ended when he moved to follow the shadow.
And then it came back, when Halt said his name and he was sitting in the window.
Knowing the alarm stating that would create, he couldn't find it in himself to tell his friends. It would only create more problems. But at the same time, not remembering scared him. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know what it meant for him.
Halt sighed, looking around the area. "How about this," he said, placing a hand on Crowley's shoulder to calm him down. He was frustrated and alarmed, sure, but that wouldn't help in their situation. "We'll give the fort a quick once over again and see if we find anything. We'll do it together," he said, turning his head to look at Will. For the first time since they found him, Will met his gaze directly. "And then we'll leave the fort until we can regroup and figure out what's going on. That way, we're all caught up on the situation, and can work through it. Together."
Will nodded, his lips a single flat line. His arms crossed over his chest, and Halt could see that he was still slightly shaking. It hadn't been that cold, he knew, even up in the top floor of the keep, standing in the window. Something else had to be making him shake. He would have to ask him later.
Together, Halt lead their small group through the main area of the keep, going through what Horace already had previously searched through. Will kept lagging behind while they did so, causing Horace to constantly have to turn and take his hand and lead him back to the rest of the group. Horace could feel the Rangers' eyes on him whenever he did so, though, which stressed him out. They kept glancing at Will with looks of concern or suspicion, making Horace want to ask what they were thinking. But that wasn't an easy thing to ask, especially when the person in question was so close to them. So he had to content himself with bringing Will back whenever he paused.
They went through the main floor, and then continued up into the areas that Halt was supposed to check. He hadn't gone through all of them, having followed the marks in the dust, but the group went through and checked each room. There were many rooms that he hadn't gone through, but there was no one in any of them. They were all completely empty except for the ruined remains of what was left behind and the memories the walls held. Horace had to keep pulling Will back to their group, though, and the longer they searched, the more distracted and preoccupied.
Satisfied that the upper levels were empty, they headed back down to the main room, where Crowley and Halt, who had been walking in front, turned to face Horace and Will. Crowley sighed and looked directly at Will. He was still slightly behind them, but he had remained with the group the entire time—with assistance. "Does that work?" he asked, studying Will. They had proven that no one else was in the ruins as best as they could.
Slowly, Will nodded.
Crowley nodded back, watching him warily. Then he turned away, looking to Halt. "Then let's get back to camp. I'm starving." Leading the way, the commandant walked through the rest of the main room, walking directly for the front door. Halt followed not too far behind him, and Horace began to follow as well.
It wasn't until he was halfway across the room, the Rangers already at the door, that Horace realized that Will wasn't walking with him.
Horace sighed and turned around, looking back to where they had been standing for his friend. He was still standing there, his face covered by shadow. Oddly, Horace noticed that the bow was no longer over his shoulder, but he couldn't see where it had went.
"Will?" Horace called, starting to walk back towards him. "Are you—"
His voice choked off as he watched Will raise his bow, an arrow nocked. He drew the string back, drawing it fully with little effort despite his injury. He shouldn't be able to do that, Horace thought, thinking back to what Malcolm had said about his injury. And Horace wasn't that well versed in archery, but it was obvious from the way he stood and how he held up the bow that it was aimed directly at Horace's chest. That didn't make sense either.
"Will?" he said again, not quite understanding what his actions meant, but knowing that it wasn't right. Will wouldn't hurt him.
Will released the arrow.
Chapter 9: Storm of Remembrance
Horace was moving before he could process what was happening. His instincts kicked in and he dove to the side, rolling and landing in a crouch even as he shouldered his shield onto his arm. His hand went to his sword hilt, but he didn't draw it. Not … not on Will.
"What the f—" Crowley's voice cut off, and Horace could hear in the distance as the arrow Will had shot slammed into the door they had been heading towards. From Crowley's yell, it didn't sound as if someone got hit, which was a good thing. But why was Will shooting in the first place?
He looked back up, eyes going to where he knew Will would be standing. His Ranger was standing partially in the shadows, his body in the light coming from the windows but his face was still shrouded in shadow. As he watched, he saw Will reach to his quiver and pull out another arrow, nocking it. He started to draw the bow and, despite the distance, Horace could see that he struggled to do just that—he was still healing, his muscles nowhere near back to strength to pull his full-weight long bow. And yet, he drew the bow back completely, aiming again.
Horace looked up the sight of the bow, eyes meeting Will's just as the string slipped from his fingers.
Again, his instincts reacted when his mind couldn't—his shield coming up milliseconds before the arrow slammed into the hardwood. He could hear something crack in the shield, and he fell back from his crouched position, falling out of his crouched position and onto his ass. Despite working with Rangers nearly every day for the majority of his life, he still struggled to comprehend the brute power that a Ranger's longbow held within it. The reason for that was probably the fact that he had never been on the receiving end of the arrow—up until now.
"WILL!" came Halt's voice, angry and confused all at once. "Stand down!" The older Ranger ran forward from where they had been standing near the door, his bow already half drawn and an arrow nocked. Despite Will's sudden violence, Horace's heart was in his throat, mind immediately going to the worst. He couldn't watch Halt shoot Will.
Will turned, drawing and aiming in one fluid motion in Halt's direction. He released the string, the arrow flying towards Halt's face. The arrow went wide, skittering off the stone walls and clattering to the ground just behind Halt. He had missed. An entirely un-Ranger-like, un-Will-like action that immediately caught Horace's eye, freezing him in spot. Halt, mid-draw, paused as well, his bow arm dropping slightly, his eyes wide and staring at his apprentice.
Swinging around, Horace searched for Will in the shadows. He stood there, still partially in the shadows, his face shrouded. As he watched, Will leaned forward partially, a hand falling to where he knew his wound was. When Horace had looked into Will's eyes earlier, meeting them through the aim of his bow, he hadn't seen pain or anger or anything in his best friend's eyes. He saw … he saw nothing. Will's dark eyes, normally bright and full of emotion—both good and bad—had been wide and blank, nothing inside betraying what he was feeling. If he had been lying down, Horace would have been convinced that he was dead. A complete blank slate.
Another thrum of the bow, an arrow flying across the room. Horace ducked down again, feeling the arrow whistle through the air above his head. Footsteps scuffed, and before Halt or Horace could do anything, Will was running, his cloak snapping at his sudden turn. He was gone in seconds, the camouflage of the cloak blurring his movements in the dark hallway until there was no trace of him.
Before he could move, hands gripped underneath Horace's arms, jerking him to his feet and spinning him around. Crowley gave him a once over for any injuries, before roughly grabbing the arrow stuck in his shield and snapping it off. "What the fuck was that?" the commandant snapped, his eyes looking between Halt and Horace. "Why is he suddenly—"
"You know just as much as we do, Crowley," Halt cut him off, his unused arrow going back into his quiver. His dark eyes went to Horace. "Unless you saw something we didn't."
Immediately, Horace was shaking his head, his freehand absentmindedly rubbing his shield arm, still slightly jarred from the force of the arrow. He had been halfway across the room from Will, with the long bow fully drawn. He wasn't entirely sure, but if Halt had given Will a bow that was Ranger-standard, then the draw weight would be anywhere from 70 to 100 pounds. If he had gotten one that was Will-standard, it would have been on the higher end of that range. Horace knew the damage a bow like that could do from a distance, and he almost didn't want to turn his shield to see how badly it was damaged. He would have to get a new one whenever he made it back to Araluen.
Before he could though, Crowley's angry voice caught his attention. " … he disappears and forces us to find him in this labyrinth, but then after, that he shoots at you and Horace? What the hell is going on—"
"That wasn't him," Horace interrupted, stepping forward to join the conversation between the two Rangers. It wasn't much of a conversation though; Crowley was very obviously upset, and Halt had just been standing in front of him, letting him go off about their situation instead of saying anything. Horace could see it in his eyes, though: Halt was thinking through what had just happened, and most likely had already come to the same conclusion Horace had. "His eyes," Horace gestured back into the fort, in the direction Will had disappeared in. "His eyes were—they were wrong. That might've been his body, but that wasn't him."
Crowley's mouth snapped shut. He looked at Horace, a deep frown on his face. Before he could say anything, though, Halt nodded. "He missed his third shot," he said softly, shaking his head. "He may be injured, but … Will doesn't miss."
The commandant sighed, eyes closing for a brief moment as he ran a hand through his dusty red hair. He almost seemed to want to leave, to give up on the decade old, unsolved mystery that cost him one of his best Rangers, despite having the majority of the puzzle pieces in his hands. He was just missing the piece that would connect everything.
"We need to follow him," Halt stated, taking one last look at his friend and then to the opening of the hallway Will disappeared down. "We can't let him get too far."
Crowley didn't want to split their group, not when they didn't know what Will would do if they found him. They all knew that splitting up would cover more ground, but staying together would keep them safe, both from Will and anyone who might be there with them. Instead, they stayed loosely grouped together, searching a floor together but not staying directly next to each other. The two Rangers walked with their bows out and drawn, a razor sharp broadhead pointed at the floor. Horace still didn't draw his sword, instead keeping his shield ready on his arm.
They worked upwards, first following the tracks Will had left. Not too far into the fort, though, they became obscured. Before too long, they were forced to go back through the fort as Horace and Halt had done earlier, sweeping through each room in search of their friend. Sometimes an arrow would fly at them from the shadows, but they never hit either of the Rangers or Horace. The closest call was an arrow hitting the very edge of Horace's shield, further cracking the already damaged plate. Another ripped the fabric of Halt's hood, ripping it off his head and jerking him backwards. But the arrows never drew any blood, nor did they have much force behind them.
Crowley was the first to find Will face to face.
On the third floor, Crowley stood in a hallway, looking into a room. It was a mess, but none of the dust or debris showed any signs of being recently disturbed. He was just moving out of the doorway when an arrow whipped by his face, barely skinning his cheek. He cursed, jerking backwards and looking in the direction that it came from. Just down the hall, in the light of a broken window, he could see a shadow slip through a doorway, the camouflage cloak only just obscuring Will's form.
"Over here!" Crowley yelled, sprinting in the direction he saw the shadow go. He drew his bow back partially, putting his back to the wall next to the doorway he'd seen Will disappear through. Another shadow ducked from a doorway behind him, but he made out Halt's form with little difficulty. He didn't know where Horace had gotten himself to, but he shouldn't have been far. Silently, Crowley motioned towards the doorway he was next to. Halt nodded, saying nothing.
Before Halt could take a step in his direction, though, there was a crack, the sound of old hinges moving, and something grating against the old stone.
Crowley spun, spinning and drawing his bow. He was expecting to see Will climbing out the window, something he was known to do fairly often before he had been banished. Except the room was already empty, from what Crowley could see. The window was open, a path in the dust heading directly for the broken shutters and brewing storm outside. Crowley cursed again, rushing to the window. Just as he looked out the opening, something crumbled above him, knocking bits of debris into his hair. Looking up, he could see Will slipping into the room above him.
"You have got to be KIDDING ME—" He pushed himself from the window, diving for the doorway.
Above him, Horace was jogging down the hall towards where he heard Crowley's yell, his shield still on his arm and his sword still yet to be drawn. He had wandered a bit further then he should have, following a noise he had heard up to the fourth floor. He barely heard Crowley's call at all, and, in all honesty, he couldn't remember where the stairs were.
Horace turned a corner, spotting the stairs just down the hall from where he was. As he took a step towards them, relieved to have found his way, something darted in front of him. Whatever it was knocked into his shoulder, throwing him off balance and into the wall. Along with him, it stumbled forwards, catching itself on the wall milliseconds before it's face would have smashed into the stone.
The shadow quickly regained it's feet, and that's when Horace recognized it for who it was: It was Will—his hood thrown back, cheeks flushed, and hair a wind-swept mess.
Sensing his chance, Horace lunged at his friend, hand reaching for his wrist and hoping to catch him before he lost him again. Will darted to the side, evading Horace's grasp by mere inches. He might have been injured, but Will was a Ranger through and through, and had survived on his own for a decade. He was much faster then Horace, both mentally and physically, and that wouldn't change anytime soon. Will, having escaped Horace's grasp, darted away from him, sprinting down the hallway in the opposite direction of the stairs. He turned a corner, disappearing from Horace's sight. Horace found himself shaking his head, unable to let him go, unable to give up on him. Not again, Horace thought stubbornly, I'm not losing you again. Not after all of this.
Horace ran after him, unable to let him go, unable to give up on him.
Rounding the corner, Horace saw Will partially down the hallway, pausing to reach for another arrow. His fingers snatched empty air, his quiver shockingly empty. He had managed to shoot all twenty-four of his arrows, missing his friends each time. When he realized this, Will threw his bow to the side, discarding it as if it meant nothing to him. His hand went to his belt instead, sliding his old saxe knife from its sheath at his side. He didn't throw it, thankfully, but instead turned it, holding it in a defensive stance.
Horace froze in the hallway, steps away from Will but not willing to get closer to the razor sharp blade. The grip was scorched from the fire, blackened leather crumbling in his grip. Will didn't seem to notice though, his other hand pulling out his throwing knife, eyes never leaving Horace.
That was not Will looking at him, though, Horace saw. It was someone else wearing his body, Will's eyes blank and emotionless despite his body's movement. He moved like Will and looked like Will, but everything about it rubbed Horace the wrong way. That's wasn't his Ranger.
He thought for a moment of drawing his sword, but immediately dismissed that thought. A sword would do no good in this situation. Instead, he worked his shield back over his shoulder, letting it hang from it's position on his back. Slowly, not wanting to provoke him any more then he already was, Horace raised his hands, palms out and facing Will to show that he didn't have anything in his hands. He took a deep breath.
"Will," Horace said softly, his voice cracking. He kept his hands up. "Will, it's me. I'm Horace, you know me."
The knives didn't waver in their position, but Will's eyes flicked from Horace's eyes to down his face and front, taking him in as if he had never seen him before. He frowned. "Horace?"
"Will, please," he said again, taking a hesitant step forward. "This isn't you. This isn't like you."
The moment Horace moved, Will swung. The saxe knife shot out, slicing past his front and snagging on the leather strap that held his buckler. He jerked backwards, shocked at Will's sudden strike. Horace cursed, only barely catching the strap as his shield slipped from it's position on his back. "Will," he gasped, keeping his distance now. He let his shield drop to the ground, going back to the position of holding his hands out to Will, palms out. "Will, please. Listen to me, bud, please. Please."
Back in his defensive stance, Will frowned again, his feet shifting backwards slightly. He seemed confused. "Why … should I?" he said quietly, head tilting.
Horace's mind raced. Was this what had happened to Alyss when Keren had her under his influence? Was this how Will had found her, talking and lucid but not herself? He knew what had happened up in the tower, both of them had told him everything they could remember. But it was also so long ago and such a different situation … Horace didn't know if basing his actions off what he knew Will had done would help.
"Because you know me, Will," Horace said back, making up his mind. "I—I may not have been the best person to you for a while, and maybe I messed up sometimes with-with us, but—but you're my best friend, Will. Attacking us, me, Halt, and Crowley, that's not like you. Whatever this is, it isn't you, and I need you back, Will." He gulped, slid his feet forward a bit. Will didn't react. "I need you, Will. I understand if you don't need or want me anymore, but right now—right now, I—we need you back."
Will seemed to think about it for a moment, his eyes narrowing. There seemed to be some level of confusion in his eyes, and, so quickly Horace almost didn't see it happen, Will glanced behind him. As if he were looking for someone. Looking for someone to give him guidance.
Then, Horace remembered something. A conversation he had had with Will, not too long after Macindaw.
"She would always turn to Keren," Will murmured, curled up next to Horace. The knight had his arm around Will's shoulders, and Will's legs were thrown across Horace's lap, snuggling the two of them against each other. The Ranger's head was resting on Horace's shoulder, watching his fingers fiddle with loose strings on his pants. "Every time I said something, she would turn to him and wait for his response."
Horace had frowned, not really understanding. "Why, though?"
Will shrugged, pulling a string out of the weaving of his trousers. Horace should probably stop him, but he didn't. "From what I could figure out, the stone didn't, like, tell her to do things. It made her more susceptible to being directed or coerced. If something came up and she needed to make a decision, Keren would have to make it for her, because the stone made it impossible for her to make her own choices."
"He had to direct her movement, then?" Horace mused, stretching his legs out and setting them on the coffee table in front of them. "She couldn't go very far, still attached to the stone. Right?"
Will shrugged again, tucking himself closer into Horace's chest. He crossed his arms. "I guess."
Horace glanced over Will's shoulder, wondering if there was someone in the shadows. If someone was directing his movements, his actions, as if he were a puppet. But there was a window at the end of the hallway, casting weak light down the hall and showing no one else to be with them.
Thunder boomed miles away, making Horace flinch.
"Will," he said again, catching his attention. "Please—come back to me. I can't do this without you," he said softly, reaching forward with one hand. He really hoped that Will wouldn't stab it, but it was better for just his hand to be injured over nearly getting killed.
For a moment, Will stood absolutely still, eyes glued to Horace's hand as if it had turned purple. Something wavered in his eyes, and he frowned again, eyebrows furrowing deeper, mouth twisting. He seemed conflicted, something in his mind snatching his attention but something else fighting equally as hard to bring him back.
"Will," Horace murmured gently, stepping forward again. His fingers brushed Will's wrist, the razor sharp blade within his radius of defense. At this point, if Will struck, Horace would be dead before he hit the ground.
"Will," he breathed again, letting his hand come up to hover at Will's cheek, lightly brushing away his wild hair from his face. "I can't lose you again, okay? Not again. I—I love you, Will, as a friend if not a partner, because we both know I fucked that up. I can't lose you, though. Please. Please, come back to me." Horace's voice cracked, a tear slipping from the corner of his eye and tracking down the side of his face.
He didn't dare move.
"Horace," Will mouthed back, no voice escaping his lips. As Horace watched, something happened behind Will's eyes, blankness going to confusion to panic to anger and back to confusion, all taking place within a few seconds. Will backed up slowly from Horace, the knives dropping. The knight let his hand go from where it had stayed at Will's cheek, recognizing that something had struck a cord with Will.
Then, the panic returned, fully charged and potent.
The knives clattered to the ground as Will backed up quickly, nearly stumbling over his feet in his haste to back away from Horace. His hands went to his throat, a strangled sob and scream ripping out of his chest as if someone had gutted him.
"Will—" Horace went to step forward, instincts telling him to help his Ranger.
But Will kept backing away from him, even as sobs wracked his body, forcing him to hunch over in his panic to breathe. His hands traveled over himself as if looking for something, before finally landing on his pocket.
He pulled out a stone. It was about the size of a river stone, ovular and smooth, and distressingly, horrifically, sky blue, with a deep inner blue that seemed to pull the eye.
It was the same stone that had been on that necklace Alyss had found in Crowley office.
It was the same stone that Keren had used on Alyss so many years ago, forcing her to raise a sword against her friends.
Will, horror in his every movement, reacted as violently as he had been acting before. He flung the blue stone away from him and down at the stone floor with more force then Horace had seen in a long while. It shattered on impact, sending blue, sparkling fragments everywhere. Across Horace's boots, down the hall, into rooms on either side of them.
The Ranger collapsed, legs giving out as another panicked scream tore out of his throat.
Chapter 10: Destroy What Destroys You
Horace's boots crunched in the pieces of the stone as he moved towards Will's crumpled body, instincts taking over and telling him to help. Will, bent over and on his knees, clutched at his head and hair as he screamed through his pain. Years of getting over the haunting horror of someone taking over your body, taking over your life, had been washed down the drain. The decade was suddenly gone, and Will was waking up with his friends and family afraid of him and the sinking feeling that he had killed innocents. He was no longer the disgraced, prodigy Ranger, but a murderer who couldn't remember but knew they had happened.
Will screamed through the pain of having his life, his joy, his family, ripped away from him all over again.
"Will," Horace gasped, hands going over his back, around his shoulders, pulling him into his chest. Will didn't resist, instead just collapsing over into Horace's arms. Behind him, Horace could hear footsteps rushing up the steps, confused and frantic calls from Halt and Crowley as they searched for them. But he didn't bother looking up. Will's voice was splintering, his shrieks coming out cracked and more like sobs than anything else. He curled himself tighter, pulling slightly away from Horace and sliding in the shattered debris.
"Horace? What—" Crowley cut himself off, looking down at Will and immediately seeing that something had changed.
Just to the side of Crowley, Halt was watching his apprentice with a practiced eye, the steel look in his gaze softening as he too saw the change. Instead of seeing a dangerous adversary, he saw the kid that he had taken care of for years, the boy he had adopted as his own son. The child he'd been trying to protect for years of his life only to fail the moment he got into Halt's life. His foot shifted, shattered blue stone scattering in his footstep and crunching underneath his heel. He looked down with a frown, momentarily distracted and already trying to dissect what had happened. Halt had to recognize the color of the stone, even without seeing the full thing for himself.
Will, now silent, was still gasping for breath, hands at his throat and eyes wide and streaming. He was partially in Horace's lap, but he kept his face down and away from his friends' gazes.
In his mind, they would let him go the moment they realized what happened. They would abandon this foolish quest the moment they realized he had lost everything again.
Leaning forward, Horace covered one of Will's hands with his own and placed his lips against the top of his head. "It's okay," he murmured against his messy, long hair. "And if it's not, we'll make it okay."
Will closed his eyes and tucked his face away from Horace. But he didn't pull out of his grasp, didn't fight the knight's embrace. He melted into it.
They stayed like that for a while, Will curled on the floor and Horace cradling him against his chest. Halt and Crowley eventually split away, scouting the surrounding area. Crowley came back first, but paced away not wanting to disturb them. Halt eventually came back, carrying the majority of the camping supplies with him. He had most likely left everything else with the horses. He set up something small down the hall, and Crowley joined him, leaning up against the wall and keeping his gaze away from where Horace and Will still lay. They had a fire going before too long, the warmth slowly seeping down the hall to where Will and Horace lay.
He was thinking that Will had fallen asleep when he moved, sitting up and pulling himself stiffly from Horace's arms. He put his hand down on the floor to support himself and immediately cursed, a shard of the gem sliding into his palm.
"Be careful," Horace said quietly, taking Will's hand gently and pulling him up to standing. There were still shards everywhere, but it would be better to stand and have the pieces go into their boots than to have more injuries. He could feel where shards had dug into his legs and scraped the sensitive skin on the back of his thighs. He didn't even have to look Will over much to know that pieces of the stone were embedded into his legs and arms when he'd collapsed.
Horace could feel Halt and Crowley watching as he helped Will stand up, the former Ranger's head still ducked down and hair covering his tear-streaked face. What was going through his head in that moment, Horace wondered as he studied the shard that had stabbed into Will's palm. He must be thinking over what had happened, but how would it have been from Will's perspective? Would he remember what had happened, or would he just remember holding a knife to Horace's chest and recognizing the feeling of being taken over? From how violent he had reacted, Horace didn't doubt that the blackness of Will's memory was already haunting him.
Without a second thought, Horace took the shard in-between his fingernails, and slid the piece out of Will's palm. It wasn't terribly long, but it had dug deep enough into his palm to need a wrapping. "Halt, did you bring up the healing kit?" Horace asked, tugging Will in the direction of the small campsite in the middle of the hallway. Thunder could be heard outside, while lightning flashed in the distance. The hallway was dry, and with all the wrecked furniture they would have plenty of fuel to last the night.
Halt nodded, reaching around him for the bag of supplies Malcolm had sent with them. Extra pain medication, gauze, different poultices and salves, and other things to help with Will's injury and any more they might incur on their travels. He pulled out the salve made without warmweed and a roll of bandages and handed them over to Horace. Again, still holding onto Will's hand, Horace sat down at the fire with Will, Halt to his left and Crowley studying them silently across the fire. Will was still looking down, eyes barely visible through the way his hair was hanging over his face. They were wide, though, with so much going on behind them that Horace had to look away. Carefully, he cleaned the blood off Will's palm with some water and a quick wipe, spread some salve over the wound and wrapped it, making sure to go around his thumb and to not make it too thick so that he couldn't close his hand.
After he finished, Will fiddled with the wrapping for a bit before unlacing his boots and staring at the soles. He didn't have his knives, abandoned in the hallway behind them, so he picked out the shards that stuck out of the bottom of his boots. Halt handed over some leftover food to Horace, who nudged Will to take a portion. He hesitated, until Horace nudged him again to take it.
The four of them ate the bread, cheese, and smoked meat in silence, letting the storm raging outside vocalize it's anger to them, battering the walls around them.
It was well into the night by the time one of them said something. Halt was still leaned up against the wall, his bow resting on the ground beside him. Crowley had sprawled out on his side of the fire, head supported by a rolled up blanket. Will still sat somewhat close to Horace, and his head had risen fractionally to study those around him. At the moment, though, his eyes gazed into the fire.
"Do you know what happened?" Crowley murmured from his position across the fire, eyes looking over to Will but his head still facing straight to the ceiling. There was no animosity in his eyes—only curiosity.
There was no confusion as to who the question was directed to. Will looked down at his hands, and then over his shoulder at the shattered remains of the stone.
"I—I don't …"
"Do you remember Halt finding you in the fort earlier today?" Crowley asked, sitting up and staring across the fire. He wrapped his arms around his knees, clasped his hands together in front of his legs.
From his side, Horace saw Will's head duck down, biting his lip hard. "I remember waking up this morning," Will said quietly, studying the bandages around his hand. A speck of blood had stained through the wrap and he picked at the layering of the cloth. "I remember coming into the fort because …" he paused, eyebrows furrowing. His eyes stayed locked on his hand, but they unfocused, staring into oblivion.
"You said you had seen someone," Crowley said.
From his side, Halt shook his head. "He said something else about needing space when I found him."
"I don't know," Will said quickly, his voice slightly louder and strained. His eyes were shut again with his lips pursed, as if he didn't want to hear about differing accounts of his actions. "I don't—I don't remember Halt finding me, I just remember coming in here and then—Horace, Horace saying something to me," his hands came up, fingers digging into his hair and grasping his head. "I don't remember anything past upstairs—I—"
"Upstairs?" Crowley cut in, frowning. Horace had been close to cutting the conversation himself and telling Crowley to leave it alone for now, sensing that Will was on the edge of another panic. But Crowley had beat him too it, confusion evident in the commandant's voice.
"He was upstairs when I found him," Halt said looking over to his friend.
"If you remember going upstairs, why did you go up there? " Crowley asked Will, ignoring Halt. Horace could see that Halt was also trying to keep Crowley from upsetting Will further, but at the same time, what Will had said was … off. Parts were missing.
"I—" Will's voice cut off and looked away from the campfire. He was clenching his jaw, Horace noticed, and his eyes were flicking all over the place, as if he were searching for a way out. It was like he was back in Gallica, on edge and distrusting. But since getting injured he'd been acting differently, more like the 'Will' Horace remembered. Almost like the attack had been a wake-up call for Will.
Crowley opened his mouth to say something, but was stopped by Halt's hand coming up to stop him, telling him to wait.
Will was silent for another few minutes before he sighed deeply and looked back to his friends. He shifted slightly, almost seeming to shrink into himself as he considered his words carefully. He crossed his arms, sitting similarly to how Crowley was, with his knees up and against his chest. Will rested his arms across the top of his knees, settling his chin on his forearms and staring deeper into the fire. He didn't want to rush into what he was about to say, knowing that it would push Crowley, if not Halt and Horace, into action.
"I … there was someone," Will said softly, considering his words. His eyes flicked up to Halt, then over to Crowley. "I thought I recognized them, but—but didn't believe what I was seeing, I guess. That's why I followed them." He stopped talking, eyes going back to the fire. "I followed them up to the highest floor, I think, and then … I don't know. I don't know what happened after we got up there."
Their group was quiet, considering Will's words when he finished.
Halt was the first to speak. "So there's someone here with us," he said simply, looking over to Crowley. His friend nodded, mouth in a thin line as he too considered their situation.
"We need to find them," the ginger-haired Ranger responded, looking around them at their surroundings. They may be sheltered from the storm outside, but knowing that they weren't alone in the large ruins put shivers up his spine. He knew that three of the four people in their group were trained well enough to sense if someone was following or watching their camp, but if their adversaries had proved anything, it was that they were good at staying hidden.
"We can't find them tonight," Halt said, a final edge to his voice. "We're all tired and it's late," he pointed out, eyes going from Crowley to Horace and Will. They hesitated on his former apprentice. "We should rest and find them tomorrow."
"Someone will need to be on watch, then," Crowley threw back at Halt, smirking. They were two old friends, used to throwing ideas and instructions at each other no matter the other's rank, and right then was no different. Crowley was there to get his finest Ranger back, and Halt was there to protect his son. This wasn't a normal mission.
"I'll start," Halt said, picking up his bow and standing from his position. "I'll wake you up when it's your turn, Crowley."
It took a few minutes before the rest of them were ready for bed. Horace spread out his and Will's bedrolls with some extra blankets next to the fire, but then hesitated. "Is your wound feeling okay?" Horace turned to Will, remembering how his friend had been pulling back his full-weight long bow as if it had been nothing, despite being currently incapacitated. Distinctly, he remembered Will's hand falling to the wound after drawing it back the third time, pain flashing across his face.
Will, eyes clear for the first time since yesterday except for dark circles around them, considered him for a moment before shaking his head. "It feels like I've been punched in the gut multiple times."
Horace nodded and leaned over to grab Malcolm's bag. "Let me check it over?" he asked, gesturing in-between Will and the bedroll that he had set up for him.
Slowly, Will made his way to his bedroll, but then paused. Without needing to be asked, Horace inched forward, placing a hand at the back of Will's neck and another at the side of his arm, easing him down gently. His ex winced slightly, but said nothing, letting out a sigh when his back was planted against the bedroll.
"May I?" Horace murmured, hand hovering over the edge of Will's shirt and where it was tucked into the waist of his trousers. He would need to get to Will's wound, but, knowing the state in which Will was in, wouldn't take individual steps without first obtaining consent.
Horace didn't realize that he was mimicking the way he acted when he and Will first started their relationship. Even down to his ticks and mannerisms, Horace moved as he had when Will had agreed to a first kiss, a first date, a first night together. His voice was gentle and his eyes were caring, and there was so, so much love in his eyes and every movement. Will closed his eyes, not being able to stand seeing that when everything in him was telling him to run. To go back to Gallica or another country even further away, and to just give this old life up.
It was hard to give up something when it wasn't mutual though, or if he were even sure if that's what he wanted. Why shouldn't he fight, if he were this close?
For another couple minutes, Horace murmured for consent to do anything from unwrapping the wound to applying salve and checking the stitches along his abdomen, and Will would nod or whisper back that it was okay. Neither of them said anything else past those words, and after watching for a bit, Halt turned away, sensing that this was a private moment between the knight and Ranger.
Early the next morning, the four of them started up the stairwell to the sixth floor. Halt and Crowley led the way, with Will trailing slightly behind and Horace staying at his side to provide support if he stumbled.
They had collected his knives and bow that he had discarded the night before, but when Halt tried to hand them back to Will, he waved them away, a look of fear and unease in his eyes. Halt had only paused for half a moment before shouldering the extra bow and sliding the knives into their camping gear. Will would go unarmed, and no one seemed about to argue that. Until whoever was with them in the ruins was found, they didn't know how Will would be affected or if they would try to take him again. It was for the best, surely.
Halt and Crowley made it to the top of the stairwell, looking around the hallway and the scattered debris. They could easily see footprints in the layers of dust and grime in some areas, but in others it was all washed away, the rain from the night before having come in where the roof had leaked or the windows had broken.
"Down there," Halt gestured down the left hallway, where they could see doors wide open and windows shattered. "This hallway curves around and meets on the other side, but you took the left hallway and were in the only room with a closed door." He said this to Will, but knew that the others would get what he was saying without any difficulty.
Crowley raised an eyebrow, looking behind them briefly to a few of the other rooms. "Looks like the storm messed around up here more than where we were," he muttered, pulling the edge of his cloak out of a puddle. The water was dirty, and it smelled worse up there than it had before. They all ignored it, knowing that that wasn't what they should be focusing on.
Halt led the way, glancing back briefly to make sure the others were following. Together, they walked around the top floor of the tower, glancing into rooms but never really stopping to study the details of the room. It was a routine scan, there to prove that no one was there, or to find whoever was. If they didn't find anyone up there, there either hadn't been anyone, or they had flushed the person to lower levels. It was unlikely that the person would flee, they assumed, figuring that the person's target was in their group.
And then, something caught Will's eye.
His feet scuffed against the stone, grit scraping against the stone fragments still in the soles of his boots. His fingers curled around the door frame, his eyes locked on something further in the room. A flash, barely noticeable, out of the corner of his eye.
Horace, being the one next to him, noticed first when Will had fallen behind.
"Halt," Horace said, the one word stopping both Rangers in their tracks. Horace turned just in time to see Will, his head tipped in curiosity, eyes focused on something, disappear into a room that they had just passed. "Will," Horace said, retracing his steps and following Will into the room only mere seconds after his Ranger had gone out of sight. Something in the way Will had been looking into the room alarmed Horace. He would go fetch Will, and maybe he could convince Halt and Crowley that being in this fort wasn't the best for Will, and that it was just making things more difficult. They could come back when Will was more himself, or figure something else out so that the people they were trying to find would come find them.
That didn't matter, though.
Will's eyes had locked on a familiar texture that was a familiar shade of blue, something he knew couldn't be up in the tower with them. He was immediately suspicious, his hackles raised even before he had entered the room.
Shards of the blue stone he had shattered, the pieces sprinkled near the broken window like confetti, other pieces scattered around the room as if they had been stuck on the bottom of someone's boots and trailed up here through the window.
A shadow moved to his side.
Something connected with his head, throwing him to the side and stunning him. Before he could react, someone gripped the back of his head by his hair and flung him into the ground, his face smashing into the stone and there no way to stop it. Red flashed in Will's eyes, but he wasn't out—he was still conscious. Blood spurted from his now-broken nose, dripping onto the floor as he tried to support himself up. The room swam.
"Will?" Horace said again, turning into the room from the hallway.
Will turned just in time to see the figure at the side of the door frame, jerking their elbow out and straight into Horace's face as he came around the corner, smacking him right in-between the eyes and throwing him back into the hallway with a swift kick.
The door slammed shut and the person moved to jam it, dropping a thick wooden bar into metal hooks across the door, something that obviously wasn't there from the beginning. It would prevent basically anyone from out in the hall from making their way into the room.
Will was trapped.
Eyes blurry from the broken nose, Will struggled to focus his eyes on the face of the person coming towards him. If he was going to die, or if he were going to lose himself again, he wanted to be sure that he would remember the person's face, so that he could at least bring the fucker down with him.
He almost didn't recognize him, but, as he considered his approaching doom, Will figured that it made sense. He had a square jaw and rough, dirty scruff, but an otherwise formerly-handsome face. Formerly, because rips and burns were scattered across his face, one of his eyes being blackened in it's socket, while parts of his lips and cheeks seemed to have burned off from the acid. His forehead was pockmarked, spots of the acid burned into his flesh from where it had splashed from the bottle and down his face and front.
Sir Keren of Macindaw, back from the dead, placed a boot on Will Treaty's chest, and flashed him a feral smile.
Chapter 11: The Fire Inside
Possible suicide ideation included in this chapter. Stay safe y'all :*
Will balked underneath Keren's boot, and shoved himself up the moment his captor seemed off-balance. Will's vision swam as he did so, his wound throbbing. He didn't even bother trying to get back onto his feet, sensing that he would fall over straight away. Instead, he kicked away from Keren, slashing out with his legs to hopefully trip the former knight up in his attempt to get Will back.
Instead, Keren's foot landed on Will's leg, trapping him in the corner that he'd pushed himself into. Across the room, he could hear yelling and banging coming from the door that Keren had blocked off and to his left was the window with scattered shards of blue. There was barely anything else in the room, which was suspicious if not alarming. Will's eyes scanned what little he could see, hoping to see something of use.
His mind kept coming back to the window.
There was another bang at the door, a loud crack shocking Keren enough to turn around and check the door. The board he'd put up was still up, but it was starting to splinter. Using that moment of distraction, Will kicked out with his other foot, his heel connecting with Keren's shin, throwing the man off balance just long enough for him to scramble to his feet and lunge for the window. If he could get out and through the window, even off-balance from the knock to the head, Will would make it out. He could get to another room and get back to his family. They'd be able to help him and prevent all of the last decade from happening again.
He just had to get out the window.
Will's hand closed around the window frame just as Keren's closed around his ankle.
The former Ranger was yanked back, his hand being ripped away from the window sill and his salvation. His face knocked back against the floor, and this time he tasted blood. He was dragged backwards for a moment, the wound and bandages across his front getting ripped and yanked through his shirt from the loose rubble across the floor. A rough hand gripped the back of his head none too gently, forcing his head to turn to the side. Keren was kneeling on him all of a sudden, on a knee next to him with the other on his back, pinning him to the ground. He pushed hard, putting his full weight onto Will, crushing his chest and making his ribs tighten uncomfortably. And then—blue.
Keren shoved one of his stones in front of Will's face and he pushed down on Will's head to keep it anchored in place, forcing him to look at the stone. Will could barely fight against the knight, his breath came up short and he struggled to inhale. But at the same time, he couldn't get his eyes closed fast enough, the allure of the blue stone once again drawing him in.
This is it, he realized, fear choking him as much as the supposed dead man on him was. I'm going to lose myself again and there's nothing I can do to stop it.
But the moment he thought it, that realization was out of his mind, replaced with another.
He had never before realized that blue was his favorite color.
Horace kicked desperately at the door, his leg coming up to his waist height and his heel connecting with the hardwood, right next to the door knob. It was a jarring kick, and with literally any other door it would have been flung open. It would have flung open the first five times he tried. It must have been blocked some way other than just a lock, he realized, stumbling backwards.
"WILL!" Horace yelled, rushing forward and banging his fist on the door. He wasn't really thinking, wasn't really considering his actions and how helpful or unhelpful they were. All he knew was that Will was stuck in that room with someone, unarmed, and that Horace couldn't get in. He had last seen Will on the ground, his face scraped up from where it had hit the ground, blood gushing from his nose, and then Horace's vision had went black as something hit him, and when his vision cleared, the door was shut.
A hand wrapped around Horace's elbow. "Horace—" came Halt's voice and the Ranger roughly pulled Horace back from the door, spinning him to face Halt. He could see clearly that Halt's bow was out and that so was Crowley's, who was standing slightly behind Halt. But to Horace, that wasn't helping. They needed to get into that room, before something worse happened.
"Halt—someone's in there with Will, I don't—" Horace pulled out of Halt's grasp, gesturing towards the door. He started back to the door, hand going back to the handle. It barely opened when he twisted, but not enough to let anyone in. He could see the board that was blocking the door though, and he took a step back to throw his shoulder against it.
"Horace," Halt snapped, fist shooting out and grabbing him before he could throw himself against the door. "Doing something stupid and getting yourself hurt even worse isn't going to help Will."
That made Horace pause, long enough to realize that something warm and sticky had dripped past his lips and down his throat. There was a familiar throbbing in his nose, higher up and just between his eyes, and one quick swipe of his fingers across his upper lip told him enough. Whatever had hit him had broken his nose.
Halt, sensing that he had gotten Horace's attention for a brief moment, nodded. "We can get that door open, Horace," he said, his voice sure and determined. "We can get it open, and we'll get him back."
Blue really was Will's favorite color.
Slowly, Keren felt the struggle leave Will's body, the loss of tension and fight letting his body go more relaxed and loose than it had been when he initially brought him down. Snorting, Keren kept his place on top of Will, knowing that, because Will had broken out of the hypnosis before, it might take longer or not hold as well. He knew this would be his last chance to do away with the Ranger, so he had to make this a good one.
Another bang sounded at the door behind them, and Keren quickly glanced over his shoulder to see if the wood plank was holding. It was a thick piece, but he'd also found it in another room a few levels down and it was partially rotted. He didn't know how long it would hold, so whatever he was planning to do, he had to do it quickly. Plus, if he'd seen correctly, it was the same knight that had been helping the Ranger below him when he was originally attacked at Macindaw. Horace, his name was, if Keren's informants had been right. Hiring out for these types of things was always risky, but it had gotten him this far, and they'd chased the Ranger out of whatever hiding spot he'd found. They'd done the job he hired them for, and now it was his turn.
Keren looked back down to Will, fury rising as he stared at the Ranger below him. So much pain, so much anguish, and for what? This cursed Ranger had ruined his life and Keren was going to ruin his. He'd make both of them suffer.
Will stared at the blue stone, his mind captivated by the swirling depths he could see just below the surface. The stone went from dark sapphire, to ocean blue, the night sky, slowly brightening to a beautiful, familiar, sky blue that Will was sad to see disappear underneath a vibrant aqua. After that, his mind was split in two—one side trying to figure out why that specific color of blue seemed so familiar, the other trying to cling to the fading beauty of that simple stone.
A bang somewhere in the room splintered his focus. No longer was he trying to stay connected to that stone, but instead he was studying the room around it, trying to place where he was. His head and mind were so fuzzy that for a moment his eyes wouldn't even focus. And for some reason, he was convinced that the source of the bang was where he would also find the source of that captivating sky blue.
The pressure subsided on his back somewhat, and Will found that he was able to slide his arm from his side. He reached out towards the stone, seeing that it was going back to that specific shade of blue that was holding his focus better than the stone itself. Another bang sounded behind them just as Will touched the stone and it turned a beautiful, sky blue on a summer day, bright and happy and calming …
He remembered sitting on the roof of a small cabin, woods on all sides and the sounds of a village not too far away, the sky stretching out above him. Hands went around his waist, tightening out of nervousness from the height but also out of love, and Will turned to meet a gaze that matched the color of that summer sky. He was leaning up against his company, his back against their chest, sitting between their legs. Slowly, Will smiled and shook his head, placing his life-scarred hand over their own rough one, prompting his partner to drop their grip around his waist. They slowly leaned back so they could stare up at the sky that was a mirror image of their own summer blue eyes—and Will couldn't take his eyes off of him. He turned his back on the stunning view, opting to lay facing his partner, chest against chest. Will's hand came up to trace Horace's jaw, studying his best friend and closest partner, before he placed a soft kiss on his lips. His eyes closed …
Will's eyes blinked open, his fingers sliding off the too-smooth surface of the stone in Keren's grasp, shocked to find Horace nowhere to be seen. The stone faded from the summer blue, diving back into the depths of the ocean—and that's when Will realized what was happening. What had already happened.
He had broken out of the hypnosis.
Malcolm had told Will and Alyss years ago, when Will had tried giving back the stellatite pebble to the healer, that the key to breaking out of the hypnosis was just to focus on something else. The stellatite was just to help that focus, it had been nothing special.
Another bang sounded at the door, but this time there was an even louder crack and Keren cursed. The knee came completely off his back, and for a brief moment, Will could breathe. He gasped for breath, inhaling dust and dirt quickly and coughing. The stone was left resting on the floor, but now Keren was standing just to his side, facing the door as he slid a broadsword from it's scabbard at his side. Will hadn't seen the blade before, but he remembered Keren's skill well-enough. He'd nearly died to back in Macindaw.
Remaining on the ground, Will turned his head just far enough so that he could see the doorway. The bar was broken across it, and the door itself was swinging open slowly, revealing Horace and the two Rangers. Horace held no weapon in his hands, a recognizable air of confidence in his every movement as his fingers tapped against the pommel of his sword. Horace could draw his sword as fast as a Ranger drawing their saxe knife, every part of it second nature to him. Will had no doubt that Horace could beat Keren if it came to that.
Both Rangers had their bows out and partially drawn, ready to be shot in a moment's notice. They seemed prepared to let Horace deal with whoever was in the room, though, with how relaxed they seemed.
Horace studied the room, taking in and trying to process what might've happened. A scarred but slightly familiar man stood between him and his Ranger, who seemed to have collapsed on the ground, a terrifyingly blue stone only inches from his face. His eyes met Will's for a moment, an odd stare meeting his gaze.
Keren sneered at the knight and two Rangers, and he moved his sword easily, swinging it up into a ready stance that immediately brought Horace's gaze back to the man. Horace frowned, trying to place the man's face.
He was handsome, Horace noticed, but heavily scarred. The scars resembled burns similar to ones he'd seen house fire victims come out with. But there was something different about them, and the way the man's golden brown eye stared back at him, the knowing and pure hatred in that eye, told Horace that this man knew him, even if Horace himself couldn't place the face. And then the knight's eyes, the blackened one and the golden one, flicked back to Will, the stone just in front of his face, and it clicked.
The stone. The memory. Of course it led back to the man who started it all. The man who used the blue stone in the first place.
"Keren," Horace said, disbelief nearly making him question what he was seeing. There was no doubt about it though—the burn scars, not fire but acid, the golden eye, the easy way in which he held the sword—it all added up to what he could remember Will and Alyss telling him about the fallen, former knight.
Except for the fact that he should be dead.
"Does it matter how," Keren snarled, his sword swinging up and pointing, unwavering, at Horace's throat. He didn't move, not wanting to give any ground to the disgraced knight. There was absolute hatred in the man's face, fury twisting his face into something inhuman. "Your Ranger friend ruined my life," he spat, gesturing wildly behind him. "He fucked me over when I was just taking what was rightfully mine and he deserves what he gets."
Abruptly, Will stood, eyes fixed not at Keren or Horace or Halt or Crowley, but at the wall just past Keren. There was something odd going on behind his eyes that Horace noticed, something different than before when he had been under the influence of the stone. Horace stayed where he was, heart in his throat as he watched Will's fingers curl at his side. His gaze was unfocused Horace could see, but instead of being empty, it was like when he had woken up from the hypnosis—so much going on behind his eyes that Horace couldn't even comprehend it.
Everyone in the room noticed when Will stood, but only Keren smiled at it. Horace couldn't see the Rangers behind him, but he had a feeling that they were just as alarmed as he was. Will didn't seem violent, nor did he look like he was being controlled, but he hadn't looked like he was when Halt originally found him up here. They simply couldn't tell what was going on with him, not until something actually happened.
"And I'm going to make him suffer first by making him kill you," Keren said quietly, his eyes wide and crazed, staring at Will like a wolf. "Will—kill him," he stated and pointed towards Horace's chest. Keren had learned not to say names in these situations, having tested it out when he sent Will to go kill a few random people. He needed to see what he could say before Will broke out of the trance. What he could make Will do before the Ranger wrested out of his control.
Will tipped his head, unfocused eyes still not meeting anyone's look. Until suddenly they were.
And then—"Keren, didn't you learn from the first time you tried that?" Will's eyes flicked to Keren's, anger filling his gaze. "Or did you really think that trying to get whoever you're controlling to kill your enemies would be the best after what happened the first time?"
There was blood in his mouth, his nose and face were throbbing, and he was sure there was more blood down his front, but Will almost didn't notice through the boiling anger that was filling his body. This was the man that had caused it all.
Shock flashed across Keren's face, quickly covered up by more hatred. The crazed look to him only increased as he turned halfway between Will and Horace, looking back and forth between them with his sword up, going back and forth between them. He didn't even seem to register the presence of the other Rangers, instead only focusing on Will and Horace.
"I should have killed you from the beginning," Keren growled, sword hesitating in Will's direction. Horace stepped forward though, sensing that if he didn't, Keren would go at Will, who was still unarmed. The former knight spun, sword swinging back and pointing at Horace, trying to keep him at a distance. "It would have been so much easier," he said, facing back towards Will.
"Maybe you should have," Will's voice cracked, but there was no sign of fear in his body language or face. "But instead you just decided to—to what? Make me commit murder and drive me away from my family? From my life?"
Keren tipped his head and stared at Will. "You weren't supposed to get caught," he said simply, "You're a Ranger, Will—you weren't supposed to get caught." Keren lunged, sword sweeping to take Will from the side.
Seeing it coming, Will did the only thing he could do while unarmed: he jumped backwards, his shoulder ramming into the corner of the room, the sword just barely missing his chest. Keren went for Will again, his sword rising and falling quickly, and Will knew he had lost. He was in a corner, unarmed, and an enemy from over a decade ago was going to be his killer. Halt and Crowley wouldn't shoot, at least not right away, not with Keren so close to him.
Swords clashed, steel against steel ringing out in the small room. Horace slid his sword down the length of Keren's, his guard catching the blade well enough for Horace to leverage in a rough, and very satisfying, push. Keren was launched backwards and he stumbled, loosing his footing and his shoulder slamming into the low sill of the window.
Horace readied his sword, standing defensively between Keren and Will. From the corner of his eye, he saw Halt and Crowley step in further, both with their bows more relaxed and pointed at the ground. He knew if anything too risky happened, at least two razor sharp arrows would be at the source of the problem before anything happened.
Normally, Horace didn't let himself get angry over things like these. Usually it was a misperception, a slight, from the other person, and things could be fixed easily. But in this moment, Horace knew that Keren had done everything with the simple intention on ruining Will's life, all because he blamed Will for what happened to him.
"You're blaming Will for your own mistakes," Horace said coldly, his voice sounding odd even in his own ears. He didn't know if he had ever felt this … this angry about a situation before. "You brought everything in Macindaw on yourself," he raised his sword, readying it. "You brought everything here on yourself."
For a moment, Horace thought that Keren was simply going to surrender. Or, worse, throw himself out the window in attempts to get away from them. His one good eye flicked from Horace to Will, who was still standing behind Horace in the corner, but then they flicked towards the window just to his side.
"Don't do it, Keren," came Crowley's voice, low and threatening.
And then the knight was out the window, not jumping out of it like they had assumed, but along the side of the tower.
"Damn it," Crowley snapped, and then he was out of the room, flying down the hallway to make sure the man couldn't get into the other rooms on the floor.
Then Will was out of the corner, sliding past Horace as he reached for the window. Horace immediately had his arm around Will, stopping him from going too far out the window. "Will—what are you—"
"Halt, make sure he can't get back in downstairs," Will said, turning to his mentor. He ignored Horace for the moment, silent words being traded back and forth between him and Halt. Then, Halt nodded without a word and ducked out of the room, following the commandant's tracks but going down to deal with the windows on the lower floor.
Will reached for the window again.
"Will," Horace stopped him, drawing him back from the opening. "You don't have to go out there, you—"
"You're right," Will interrupted him, turning swiftly out of Horace's grasp and stepping up into the window. "But I'm not letting him get away."
And before Horace could do anything, Will was out the window. He inched along the stone outcropping of the window. He felt a hand slip into his just as he started to go around the side of the window, and Will glanced back, seeing Horace leaning partially out the window, a worried look in his eyes. Will squeezed the knight's hand, and then turned to look towards the root of all of his problems.
"Keren," Will said, eyes never leaving the knight. He didn't look down—he didn't dare to, not with how off-balance he felt. He could hear shuffling near the window, Horace's breath catching as Will slowly moved out of his reach, forcing Horace to drop his hand. Will was suddenly cold.
"You're really going to try to get me down?" the dead knight sneered, his own hand gripping the closed shutters of the neighboring room. The knight had nowhere to go but down. Additionally, Will could hear movement below them, shutters being closed and footsteps scuffing in the debris the floor just below them. Halt and Crowley were making sure that Keren had no place to go except back into the room Horace was in.
Will considered Keren, the scars on his face twisting Will's own mental image of the knight. Before, Will could have seen being friends with the man, if he had only gone back on what he had been doing in Macindaw and tried to fix everything. But in the end, Keren had decided that that wasn't possible.
"Do you really think I'd try getting you down?" Will said quietly, just loud enough for Keren to hear. He didn't know if Horace could hear what he was saying. "Do you really think that I'd have enough—enough mercy left in me to try and save you after everything you've done?"
"Oh?" Keren murmured, top lip curled as he considered Will. "So you'll make yourself a murderer? You'll, what? Push me off and say I fell? Will that really make you any better than me?"
Watching him for a moment, Will considered just turning around and blocking the window behind him, forcing Keren to either climb down slowly or jump. He didn't want to deal with him any longer. And yet, Will couldn't force himself to do that.
He had too many questions.
"Why?" he asked simply, knuckles going white as he gripped the side of the tower. He let go with one hand, gesturing wildly around them. "Why go through so much effort of fucking me over, taking me away from my life and the people I love, when you could have simply just killed me?"
Now Keren tipped his head. His golden eye staring back at Will, boring into him. "Killing you would have been too easy," he said. "I wanted you to suffer, Will. You made me suffer when you and that bitch courier threw acid at me and dropped me out a window. But no. You didn't just kill me. You didn't bother to look down and see that I was still hanging on. I suffered for so long because of you, and Alyss, and that knight, and I wanted you to pay for it."
Just as Will thought Keren was going to jump, he lunged at Will, hands going for his throat. But Keren had completely let go of the tower, allowing Will to just pull away. On instinct, Will's foot shot out, knocking into Keren's knee.
His foot slipped, and in one last, desperate attempt to save himself, he grabbed Will's wrist, intent on pulling him down with him. Will's grip on the tower was stronger, though, and something else was holding the back of his shirt, keeping him against the tower. With one quick twist of his wrist, Keren dropped from the side of the tower, screaming in fury and fear as Will watched him fall.
Until he wasn't.
Chapter 12: The End ... ?
Will was frozen for a moment, staring down at the body at the base of the tower. He had landed in the courtyard, his body surrounded by old bricks and weeds coming up from underneath them, a small tree broken through the stonework not too far from where the knight fell. A circle of red was slowly spreading from underneath his head. Slowly, Will looked up from his vantage point and up at the sky, vertigo rushing over him.
It was a familiar, sky blue—the kind of blue that you would see on a too bright, too hot summer day. The type of sky you would see while lying on a roof with the man you fell in love with hard and fast, but took years to notice. Will let out his breath, sensing that he could finally do so in peace.
"Will?" his voice came, the tight grip on the back of his shirt loosening slightly. His voice wavered when he said Will's name, as if he were worried about Will still standing on the side of the tower. Will reached back feeling for Horace's arm, and when he found it, the hand released from his shirt. Horace's arm slid in Will's loose grip until their hands were together again, both squeezing the other's hand as hard as they could. Will kept his gaze up to the sky, still feeling off-balance and dizzy. He didn't trust himself to move.
"Will?" Horace said again, and this time Will could see part of Horace's body lean out of the window. He could see the hesitation in Horace's body movement, how he kept glancing down at Keren's body, how he kept looking behind him. He then recalled that Horace was afraid of heights, and yet he was leaning out of the window for Will. Horace's other hand, his left one, came out and planted itself on the window sill. "Are you—"
"I just—" Will closed his eyes, his head swimming. Now that the adrenaline was fading, he didn't trust himself to be able to get back through the window and back to his family. He was normally good with heights and climbing, but not this time. Against his better judgment, Will opened his eyes and glanced down. Someone was standing next to Keren's body, looking up to where Will was. They had orange hair, wore a green-gray Ranger cloak, and held what looked to be a long bow. Crowley. "I need a minute."
He stood there in silence, taking deep breaths as Horace stood in the window sill next to him, arm reaching out to him in order to keep a hold of him. Breathe in, breathe out, he told himself, trying to get his heart rate down and to lessen the pounding in his head. He could hear someone breathing along with him, keeping their breathe at the same rhythm as he did.
"I've got you, Will," Horace said quietly, his other hand releasing the window sill and reaching out towards him. "I'm here."
Will waited another moment, taking another breath. And then he slid his foot along the side of the tower, along the stone outcropping that traced the tower just below the window sill. A few more steps and he felt Horace's other arm go around his stomach to pull him back into the room. Will stepped back onto the sill and let Horace take some of his weight, twisting so that he came in face first rather than backwards. The moment Will's feet touched the ground, waves of emotion overcame him, the panic finally taking over, and he found his legs folding in on themselves. And Horace supported him the whole way, as he dropped to the ground, as the sobs built in his throat, and as the panic took control for the first time in years.
Horace pulled Will into his chest, wrapping his arms around him to cradle him as the sobs overtook him. Will's shoulders shook, and he held onto Horace as if his life depended on it. Decades of stress and frustration and loneliness came crashing down on Will in that moment, all of decades of pain over in what seemed to be just a matter of minutes. Keren had forced Will out of his life, and the moment they had figured it out, it was over. Keren was dead, Crowley standing over his body at the bottom of the tower, and that was that.
"Will—" Horace murmured, his chin resting on top of Will's head. Will was still holding onto him tightly, and as Horace looked over him, he could see how beat up he was. Blood from his nose and mouth was staining his shirt, and it looked as if the wound from whoever had attacked him in Gallica had been reopened, his shirt messy and ripped and the fresh bandages from yesterday covered in dirt. There was also a cut at the side of his head, which he assumed was from a hit to his head. Keren hadn't really held back when he had went after Will. "I'm here," he whispered, ducking his head to place his lips against Will's forehead. "I'm here."
The Ranger didn't respond to Horace's voice, but his sobs eventually calmed. He remained in Horace's embrace, and he moved his head to the side so that he was looking at the wall, his face turned away from Horace. Hesitantly, Horace's hand came up, brushing Will's hair out of his face. As if it shocked him, Will jerked back, his hand coming up and pushing away from Horace with a hand to his chest. There was a wild look in Will's eyes, and for a moment it didn't seem as if he recognized Horace. Slowly, Horace raised his hands to show Will that he meant no harm, recognizing the look. He was coming out of a panic attack, something that Horace had seen him go through due to Skandia multiple times. As if it were second nature, as if it hadn't been over a decade since the last time he'd helped Will through one of these, Horace spoke softly, kept his hands in plain sight, and did a simple hand motion for breathing.
"It's me, Will," he said softly, reaching forward to place a hand on Will's thigh. He took a deep breath, saw Will doing the same, and held it for a moment, before letting it out slowly. He repeated that a few times, watching Will copy him the entire time.
"I'm sorry," Will said suddenly, looking away from Horace. "I—I just—I don't know what—"
"It's okay, Will," Horace murmured, watching Will's face. "It's okay." He still looked shaken, but the tension was leaving his body. "Are you okay?"
The silence in the tower was nearly deafening. Will didn't respond to Horace's question, instead looking around the dirty room where they had ended up. He hoped to never see this room again. "Thank you, Horace."
Horace didn't need to ask what he was thanking him for, even if it made his skin itch. "You know I'm here for you, Will," he said instead, looking down to where Will was placing a hand over Horace's. "Even if I—I wasn't in the past. I'm here for you."
Will looked up finally, clear eyes meeting Horace's gaze with a surprising amount of confidence. At first, Horace thought that Will was going to thank him again and get up and leave. That's what he thought Gallica-Will would have done, having seen how abrasive his former partner had grown in the past decade. But instead, Will gave him an odd smile, before leaning forward and kissing Horace straight on the lips. It was quick, over before Horace even registered what Will was doing. Before he could say anything about it, Will was up and heading for the stairs, using a wall for balance. "Halt and Crowley are waiting for us," he said, looking back to Horace. "Can you help me down the stairs? I feel like I'm going to fall."
When Horace and Will emerged from the tower, Halt and Crowley were waiting for them. Halt was sitting on a fallen column, long bow resting up against the wall as he watched Crowley study the body. Crowley didn't even bother to look up when the two younger men emerged, instead placing his hands on his hips and frowning at the body.
"We're going to have to take care of this," he said, voice monotone and flat. He glanced up to his three companions, all of which were just watching the commandant. Halt hadn't bothered to stand, and Will and Horace were standing next to him, Will now leaning up against the wall. Crowley seemed to take their silence as questioning, though, because he next said "What? We can't just leave his goddamn body here to rot."
Will snorted. "Can't we?" he muttered, rubbing his arm where the shadow of Keren's grip was pulling him down. If Horace hadn't been holding onto the back of his shirt, it was likely that Will would have fallen with the knight. His head was ducked, and it was only now that Crowley was noticing how bloody Will was. Horace wasn't looking good either, with blood from his nose all over him. Crowley thought for a moment, studying his companions.
He sighed. "Let's take care of you two first," he muttered, eyes going over Will and Horace. There was more blood on the two of them than what he was comfortable with. He glanced at Halt, who had collected their camping gear, and Malcolm's medic bag, that morning and brought it back to where the horses were staying. "Where'd you bring the horses?"
Halt motioned around the keep, away from Keren's body. "Just around there, didn't want to leave them in the forest with us in here." Crowley nodded, and then started in that direction without saying another word, assuming the other three would just follow him.
Sighing, Halt looked over to Will and Horace. He'd come back up the stairs after hearing Keren fall, but had turned and left when he overheard Horace helping Will down. He also knew of Will's panic attacks, and knew that too many people in the room would just make it worse. He'd wanted to know that his apprentice was alright, and he had seen enough, so he had left Horace to support him, knowing that Horace knew what to do. Still, Halt reached to Will's arm, seeing him sway the moment they started walking. "Lean on me," he said quietly, and Will did just that. He saw Horace turn when he said that, but the knight simply smiled and walked in pace with them.
Crowley, of course, beat them to where Halt had left the horses. He was pulling out Malcolm's bag, as well as his own healing supplies, by the time Halt, Will, and Horace rounded the side of the keep. He passed off Malcolm's bag to Halt, who helped Will sit down against one of the walls. Horace sat not too far from him, not against the wall, but with his side facing it. The group of them worked in silence for a while, Halt cleaning off Will's face with a wet cloth and Crowley setting Horace's nose.
Stepping back, Crowley rustled through his bag for something for Horace, and Horace leaned back, blinking away the tears in his eyes from the pain of setting his broken nose. It wasn't the first time he'd had his nose set, but that didn't reduce the pain of it. As he waited for Crowley to find whatever he was looking for, he glanced over to Will. "Now what?" he asked to no one in particular, his voice stuffy and low.
Halt paused in what he was doing, turning to look back to Crowley, and then back to Horace. Will said nothing, knowing that the question wasn't for him, but that didn't stop him from sliding down lower against the wall. It wasn't for him to answer, but it was very obviously about him.
"Well …" Crowley said, turning with his entire bag in his grip. He set it down in his lap, once again facing Horace. "He …" Crowley looked up, a frown on his face. "Keren confessed, right? He said something about controlling Will during those murders?"
No one answered for a moment, before Halt shrugged. "Technically, he did. He said something to Will about not supposed to have gotten caught right before he attacked him." Halt turned back to Will, saying something quietly to him about laying down so Halt could look at his older injury. He would set his nose later, deciding that this injury was more important.
"And that stone," Crowley asked, looking to Horace, "the one that was one the floor. Is that—"
"That's it," Horace said, "We left it up there, but it should still be there if you want to go get it."
Silence once again fell in their group as they all considered the events that they had just gone through. In the silence, Horace stood to go through his bags to find shirt not covered in blood. He changed quickly, pulling his shirt off and the other one on over his head. He didn't have to deal with his usual straps because Will had cut his old when when being controlled. Horace would have to fix that.
Will spoke suddenly from his spot on the ground. "He said something else to me, after he went out of the window." He said it quietly, staring up at the sky above them. The ground he was laying on was still slightly damp from the storm the previous night, but he barely noticed with his mind moving so fast. He didn't even noticed when Halt gently lifted up his head and slid a rolled up cloak underneath it.
"He said he wanted you to suffer for what you did to him," Horace finished for him, sitting back down in his place. He stared down at his hands in his lap. "He wanted you to pay for what you did, and that's why he did it."
"You heard that?" Will asked, an alarmed look on his face. Horace had heard everything, but he wasn't going to say that. He definitely wasn't supposed to have heard the part about Will not going out there to save Keren, but to make sure he wouldn't come out alive. But he had also seen what had happened to make Keren fall, and that hadn't been on purpose. So, as far as Horace was concerned, that first part wasn't worth a mention, even if the second part he was talking about would further support Will's story.
Horace nodded, but said nothing else.
"What do you think this means for Will's banishment?" Halt said quietly, looking over to his friend. Crowley would know more about the process than him, despite having gone through it himself.
Crowley shrugged, a seriously unsure look to him. "Well … this is a bit different than your case, Halt," he said honestly. He seemed to hesitate on what he said next, but a minute later, he continued. "Will's been accused of murder, when you just insulted Duncan in a tavern. But at the same time, someone else has confessed to basically forcing Will to commit these murders in question …" Crowley trailed off, what he was saying sounding like he was thinking through it himself as he was talking. "The problem isn't that we don't know who to charge or who is actually responsible, now that we have Keren's confession, the problem is the fact that Will …"
"Would be known and seen as the murderer, no matter what decision is made," Halt finished, his voice low.
Crowley nodded, not trusting his voice to come out and not reveal him to be a frustrated mess. He knew Will, knew that he was a good man, if a little unethical, and that what had happened was unfair and angering. But even he knew that Will having been involved in this at all would pose too many problems. Crowley's mind kept coming back to the families of those that were killed, and how they would think of the man who killed their loved ones being released and allowed back in the country, let alone being reinstated as a Ranger.
It just didn't seem likely that Duncan would allow it.
"Are you okay?" Halt said quietly, handing off the extra shirt to Will. The bandages were tight, but not tight enough that Will wouldn't be able to put his own shirt on. Halt had cleaned up Will's other wounds, but with all of them being on his face, there wasn't much he could do. He set the broken nose, noticed that his former apprentice was severely concussed, and gave him something for the pain.
Will was silent for a moment, eyes looking at the stitching of Abelard's saddle. Halt's mind immediately went to Tug, Will's beloved horse that he had left with ten years ago.
Tug had been older then and horses simply didn't live that long.
"I will be," Will murmured, his hand coming up to brush Abelard's neck. It wasn't the same Abelard from Will's apprenticeship and early Ranger days, but it was still Abelard. "I just … need some time, I think."
Halt nodded, and glanced back to where he could hear Horace and Crowley arguing about something. There was a lopsided grin on Horace's face, so he knew it wasn't a serious argument, but it was entertaining to watch Crowley's face go from frustrated to exasperated to barely withheld, half-hearted anger. He looked back to Will, who was finally slipping the shirt over his head and wincing at the pain. These three men were insufferable, annoying, and a lot of work to deal with, but they were Halt's family, and he loved them. He loved them no matter what happened with them, and he knew that they knew that.
But sometimes they needed reminders.
Reaching forward, Halt cupped Will's jaw in his palm, studying his son's face. Will didn't react with shock or make a noise, his memory reminding him that Halt had done this all the time when Will had come back from missions cut up or bruised and Halt made a fuss about taking care of his injuries. His face would definitely be scarred from this, and his nose was going to be crooked, but he was alive. He was home. "I missed you, Will," he said softly, his throat catching. He didn't care if Will heard it, though. He wanted Will to know that he was back home, and that they didn't want him going anywhere. "You're home."
Will sat stiffly in the straight-backed chair, not exactly sure what to do with his hands. He'd crossed his legs easily enough, but it felt weird to put his arms on the armrests. Instead, he opted for setting them out in plain sight, both sitting on his lap.
The last time he'd been in this office, he was being sent on a mission that he wouldn't come back from. It had been over 10 years since that happened, but the place hadn't changed much. The hard redwood desk was still cluttered with papers, a few quills on one side, stoppered inkwells to the other. There were cabinets behind the man sitting at the desk, which he knew would be full of more paperwork and reports and other things that Will would never have to concern himself with.
While the office hadn't changed much, the man sitting at the desk had. King Duncan had more gray hairs than Will remembered seeing him with, and he was now using reading glasses to go over the file Alyss had handed him when she had led Will here. She had smiled and put a hand on his shoulder before leaving the office. Duncan also had a scar on his cheek, just below his left eye and going vertically down his face. It was a small scar, probably from an attempted assassination, but it nicked his lip and gave Will a different sense of the man. Previously, Duncan had been someone Will was comfortable with. Now, though, with the silver hair, glasses, and that scar, Will wasn't able to read him as well.
Or, that could simply be traced back to the fact that his appearance had changed and that Will hadn't seen the ruler in over a decade.
Duncan flipped one of the papers in the file, and Will caught a glimpse of Crowley's handwriting. He could figure out what most of the papers were, having been included in the writing of some of them, but there were a few he didn't recognize. For all he knew, there could be a paper about how Will was still a dangerous person to have around, and that he shouldn't be allowed back in the country, let alone given back what he had lost over this whole ordeal. Next to Duncan's wrist, a cloth bag sat there, tied tightly shut so that no one could see what was in it. It was obvious what it was though, the stone's shape visible against the cloth. Will deliberately kept his eyes away from it.
The King sighed, tossing away the paper he had been reading without finishing it. He took the glasses off his face and pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes.
Will said nothing, staring at the tip of his knee, waiting for Duncan to decide his fate. There were too many variables, too many things they didn't know for sure. Keren had confessed to influencing Will and pushing him to murder, but it was still Will's hands and blades that had done the killing. And sure, Will wasn't technically banished for eight years, but it hadn't been fully cleared and Will had traveled back to Araluen. Lastly, there was the fact that Keren's motive was still somewhat up in the air. Originally, he'd planned a coup, one that would have allowed the Scotti to invade Norgate and eventually all of Araluen. This time, however, they didn't know if his only motive was revenge on Will or if he had still been planning something against the kingdom. They didn't know the extent of his influence and they wouldn't know until it came up in the future. They still had no idea who had attacked Will in Gallica, since Will was sure it wasn't Keren himself. It was likely he had just used mercenaries, but they simply just didn't know.
"I'm assuming you know what all of these reports say," Duncan asked bluntly, dropping his hand and opening his eyes to look at Will. His put the glasses back on, but kept them low on his nose so he could look over them at Will and still read the papers. The younger man looked distinctly tired, as if he hadn't been getting enough sleep. Their group had been there for a few days already, but it was only now that he was letting Will into his office to hear his fate.
Will's eyes flicked from Duncan to the papers and back to Duncan. Everything will be okay, Will thought, looking at the regent. Just tell the truth. "Some of them," he said softly. "Others I don't recognize."
Duncan nodded as if he expected that, tapping the report he'd dropped. "This is your original confession," he said simply, eyes never leaving him. "From when you were originally banished. You said you knew you killed them, but couldn't remember the events."
"Yes," Will responded, throat catching. He remembered confessing, but had honestly forgotten about how that had tied into his banishment and conviction. And, apparently, how that would tie into his return.
"And you still stand by that confession?" Duncan asked, finger going along the edge of the paper.
He's asking if I want to withdraw my confession, Will realized, momentarily frowning. Normally, that wouldn't be given as an option to these sorts of cases, but he figured because of the time span and the memory issues, Duncan was asking again for clarity. Or, he was giving Will the chance to make things easier, to take the confession out of the equation.
Will stared at the paper in Duncan's hand and considered the silent offer. Keeping the confession would make the process more difficult, because it meant that Will was admitting to having killed those people. It would stay on the record that he was a killer, even if they added to it that he had done so unwillingly. But withdrawing the confession would also mean that he would have to provide another account, and he didn't know what he would say besides the truth. His family would know the truth and that he had changed the confession. Maybe they wouldn't mind, maybe they would see the logic in taking that out of the equation.
But after everything, Will didn't want to lie about that. It didn't matter if he took the confession away or not, because those that mattered knew the truth.
" … yes," he said slowly, eyes trailing from the paper and back up to Duncan. "But it wasn't willingly," he said, digging his fingernails into the palm of his other hand. His eyes flicked once to the cloth bag, but immediately moved away. "It—it wasn't willingly. I never wanted to do something like that, and the fact that I did—" Will cut himself off, sensing the pressure rising in his throat and behind his eyes. He looked down and blinked quickly to clear his eyes, before looking back up to Duncan. "I don't remember what or how it happened," Will said quietly, "but I know that I killed them."
Duncan was silent as he considered Will, thoughts that Will couldn't decipher flicking past in the King's intelligent gaze.
Then, he nodded, setting down the confession and sliding it underneath other papers in the file. "Okay," he said simply, shutting the folder. He opened one of the many drawers of his desk, slid the file into it, and dropped the cloth bag and the stone inside it into the drawer. He shut it.
The King stood from his seat and Will stood along with him, although it took him an extra second with his partially healed injury. Duncan watched him silently before he rounded the side of his desk. Will turned to face the King and as he did so, Duncan reached out and set a hand on his shoulder. Will froze, watching the King.
"The thing is, Will, Crowley was right. It's one thing to have the evidence and the knowledge of what actually happened and to know that you didn't do it willingly," Duncan paused, studying the Ranger he would trust with his life, his daughter's life, and his country. Maybe Will didn't know that, but Duncan still trusted Will simply from protecting his daughter while in Skandia. Not only that, but the young Ranger had proven himself time and time again when it came to protecting his country, both as Halt's apprentice and as a graduated Ranger. "I want you to listen closely to what I'm able to do, and then, after that, you can make your own decision, okay?"
If anything sounded like it was going to be bad news, it was what Duncan had just said. Will nodded, places he could go already flying through his mind. He would try staying in contact with his family this time, so maybe Halt could find a place for him in King Sean's court, or he could eventually make his way to Arrida. He could go to Skandia, having plenty of friends there, but the winters would be hard for him.
To him, in that moment, it was obvious that he wouldn't be allowed to stay: too much risk. His survival instincts were kicking in, and they told him to think of places before leaving this time.
Will nodded, swallowing hard.
"I can see it in your eyes, Will, that you're already thinking of places to go," Duncan said quietly, eyes flicking to the door and back to Will. "But no, that's not what I mean."
He didn't say anything, not trusting himself now. Will waited for Duncan to continue.
"Just as I said eight years ago, I agree that your banishment was wrong, and finding Keren and having his confession proves that. His confession also brings to question what your involvement should be considered in the grand scheme of things." Duncan paused, letting his hand drop from Will's shoulder. He considered Will, noticing how Will seemed thinner from when he had left ten years ago, and not in a healthy way. "Personally, I think the charges should be dropped and that you should be reinstated as a Ranger. It only seems fair."
Will froze, not quite believing what he was hearing. It didn't sound right, at least to him, and the way Duncan said 'personally' and 'it only seems fair,' told Will that it wouldn't happen that way.
"My advisers, however, pointed out the fact that, even if we clear you, you will still carry the … the stigma, per se, of a … a murderer. You will still be known as a murderer, because bad news spreads fast, but good news might never go anywhere. And giving you the power and duties of a Ranger, while also having that reputation, poses a problem. Especially as someone with such a well-known name."
Duncan stopped talking, going silent as he waited for Will to figure out what he was saying. Duncan sounded sad, upset even, and it took a moment for Will to parse that emotion for what he was actually saying.
"So … I … I can stay … but I'm not being reinstated as a Ranger?" Will murmured. For the past decade, Will had gotten used to his neck being bare, the oak leaf that normally dangled there being a hauntingly empty spot. He'd stopped wearing his collar partially open because of it, as it was too much of a painful memory. In the later years, he had stopped thinking about it, stopped caring about the missing piece of himself, and had let it go.
"Correct. You can stay, and I'm sure multiple people in the next room will physically force you to stay. But as for your oak leaf … not right away," Duncan said, his hand reaching for the door behind where Will stood.
Will almost didn't catch the last part of what he said, but as the King opened the door, it hit him. 'Not right away,' Duncan had said. 'Not right away' told Will eventually.
The next thing Will knew, Duncan was pulling him out of his office, a hand around his arm in such a casual way that Will almost had to double-take. And then it came to mind that it had just been Will and Duncan in that room—the King, alone in a room with a supposed murderer. Or—not a murderer. Just someone who was known as one, once.
Duncan's antechamber was the most crowded that Will had ever seen it, and he recognized everyone in the room. Across from Duncan's secretary's desk, Horace sat conversing with Gilan, the two of them in such an intense conversation that neither of them noticed the door opening right away. Next to Horace sat Alyss, her hands in her lap and who's face lit up the moment the door opened and she saw Will. Alyss sat next to her former mentor and boss Lady Pauline, who's gold-silver hair had gone all silver in the years since Will had last seen her. Standing just to her side was her husband, Halt, and next to him was Crowley. A few moments passed as Will stood in the doorway to Duncan's office, slightly shocked at all the people who were there, until the outside door flung open, revealing Cassandra in a tunic and leggings, out of breathe and her face red from an obvious run.
"Will!" she exclaimed, a wide smile spreading across her face. She rushed forward, ahead of the others in the room, some of which—specifically Horace and Gilan—were only just noticing that the door opened.
She threw herself into his arms, and he at first didn't know how to react. But from-over-ten-years-ago-Will reacted in a way that was so familiar with Cassie throwing herself into his arms for a hug, and he swung her around, burying his face in her shoulder. He blinked away the tears quickly, seeing the others in the room starting to stand.
Will closed his eyes, and held his family as tightly as he could without suffocating them. After the first two hugs, he saw Halt's face, his mentor standing in a corner, and completely broke down, nearly collapsing into Gilan's arms without warning.
At first, Will had been convinced that none of his former family would want him back, and that was why he had stayed hidden in Gallica for so long. Will could have easily made his way to another court and made his presence known, especially with allies, but he hadn't, hiding himself away for a decade. But, as Horace and Halt had proven the day they had found Will, none of his family back in Araluen had given up on him, and he saw that as they opened their arms to him—the tears on Alyss's face, despite her perfect act earlier when bringing him to Duncan. The absolute excitement and joy in Cassandra's voice when she burst through the door to her father's antechamber. The whispered words of love and encouragement from Pauline as she held him tightly, as he relaxed into the arms of the woman he had thought of as a mother for some years during and after his apprenticeship. Gilan, nearly choking him and whispering a half-hearted threat to him about never leaving again. Halt only nodded to him across the room, as he and Will had been sharing a room at Araluen for the past few days. Horace stayed back as well, but he could clearly see the grin on his knight's face.
It was Crowley's greeting that really threw Will off, though.
Instead of pulling him into a hug or saying something sarcastic, he held a hand out to Duncan, who pulled a cloth out of his pocket and handed it over to the Ranger Commandant. And then, Crowley held it out to Will.
Will accepted with some hesitation, looking at the commandant with some wariness. It wouldn't be his old oak leaf, he knew, as Duncan had just told him that he wouldn't have the Ranger title until everything had faded into the background and more people were aware of him being cleared of the charges.
But the familiar chain and pendant was clearly felt through the cloth, and Will froze before unfolding it.
"It's purely ceremonial, at this point," Crowley said, waving a hand in Duncan's direction. The King frowned at that, but then shook his head as if he were used to Crowley doing those types of things. "But the point, Will, is that you earned that fair and square when you went through your training. You earned it, it was yours, and it was taken away on charges that are now proven to be false."
Will was still looking down at the cloth sitting in his palm, and he could feel the eyes of his family on him. But he couldn't make himself look up, let alone unfold the cloth and take out what he knew was in there. He just … couldn't.
"Of course," Duncan said, continuing where Crowley left off, "like I said, you won't be able to have full Ranger status right away. We need to figure out more before we can take that step. You won't be stationed at a fief like normal, and it's likely you'll either be staying here or at Redmont, where people will know that you won't have that authority. It's possible you could end up assisting with missions during this period, and during those times, we'll let you get away with using the Ranger's title. But other than that, it's more or less just the leaf you're getting back."
"But," Crowley cut in, reaching out to close Will's hand around the cloth and the necklace held within. "That's your's, no matter what anyone else says. If you decide you don't want to continue as a Ranger, once things are cleared up, you can always trade it in for a gold one. But that's your decision to make, and you don't have to make it right now."
Will was frozen, not quite believing what he was hearing. Now that his hand was closed around the oak leaf, he could feel the edges of the familiar shape digging into his palm. He could even tell that it was his old oak leaf, the way the pendent bent and curved in that specific way. As he stared down at his fist, he felt an arm go around his shoulders, pulling him against whoever was holding him.
It was Horace, of course, holding him tightly and grinning. Will looked up, meeting eyes with Halt, who simply nodded at him, his smile telling Will everything he needed to know.
Horace woke to cool air against his bare skin. He didn't open his eyes right away, instead searching with his hands for the edge of his blanket, trying to pull it back over him. He turned in his spot and reached out for the body he knew should be laying next to him, but his arm met open air and landed in the cool bed.
He opened his eyes, suddenly alarmed.
Will had been staying with Halt the first few days that they had been back at Araluen, but after the meeting with Duncan, Will had spent a night with Horace. Nothing serious had happened, they had talked; about their relationship, about the future. Will had slipped into Horace's bed with a murmured question, and Will had fallen asleep in Horace's arms within seconds. For Horace, it was a familiar sensation that he hadn't felt in years—a warm bed, the love of his life in his arms. For Will, it was odd, having thought that he would never be back in this position after everything that had happened. But here they were, and Will found that he had missed it dearly.
Even though they had been talking, Will had been quiet about his intentions. He hadn't said anything about what he was planning, on if he wanted to stay or leave, if he was going to trade in his silver oak leaf for a golden one. Will was just staying silent on it, instead asking about what he had missed and catching up with his family.
Will hadn't said anything about leaving, but he had been quiet earlier that night. The cold bed told Horace enough: Will had left after he had fallen asleep.
Horace swung his legs out of his bed and looked around his room. His eyes scanned the small area before landing on the window that he had had his back to. It was open, wind pushing the curtains out and flowing in the room. The bed had been cold both because the sheets had slipped from around him, and because someone had left the window open.
A thin silhouette was sitting on the sill, their back to the room.
"Will?" Horace said, not even trying to speak quietly. He stood from his seat, walking the few feet to the open window. Now that he was closer, he could clearly see that it was Will sitting on the sill. His head rested against the side and his feet dangled out in the open air. They were only on the second story, but there was no sign that Will was holding onto anything.
Horace reached out and placed a hand on Will's shoulder, feeling the cold through his thin bedshirt. Will turned to look at Horace, his eyes clear. "Sorry if I woke you," Will said quietly, "I didn't want to bother you."
"Is everything okay?" Horace asked, eyes going over Will. He seemed fine, but you couldn't always tell.
"I—yeah, more or less," Will hesitated, and then looked back out to the field. Horace's window was the perfect height to see over the walls, and Will could see the distant forest in the moonlight. It was almost calling to him.
"More or less?" Horace repeated, reaching behind him for the blanket. Will was freezing, and Horace was already getting cold.
"I just—it's weird, Horace," Will said, looking down at his lap. He didn't react when Horace threw the blanket around Will's shoulders, nor when Horace sat down next to him, albeit with his back to the outside, and his legs in his room. "It's been ten years, and suddenly I'm just—allowed back. Ten years is a long time, and I don't know if I can—If I can just go back to what it was."
Horace was silent for a moment, before leaning closer to Will. "Will …" he murmured, "I don't know what you're calling the shit that went down with Keren and you nearly getting killed more than once, but I wouldn't call that nothing. And don't take this the wrong way, but it's not just going to go back to what it was. There's a lot that has to happen before that can even be possible."
Will wouldn't meet Horace's eyes. "I just—I don't think I can do that, Horace," Will whispered, his voice cracking. His voice was slightly pitched upwards too, and suddenly there were tears streaming down his face. "It's too much, Horace. I spent a decade of my life just—just surviving, trying to not remember what I once had, and just—just getting bitter. How am I supposed to just forget that decade happened?"
"You're not supposed to forget," Horace said, his voice confused. "You can take this however you want, Will. If—if you don't want to come back to this, then you don't have to." He was silent for a moment before what he said finally hit him. Will didn't think he could come back. Will was going to leave.
"You're going back to Gallica, then?" Horace asked, his voice flat. He wanted what was best for Will, always, but having to let him go after everything was going to hurt. He finally got him back, and now he was leaving again.
Will's head shot up, and he turned to look at Horace with an incredulous look. An odd smile twisted his lips, and he slowly shook his head.
"No—no, Horace. There's nothing left for me in Gallica, and I don't know where else I could go. I mean—" he paused, thinking through his words. "I mean, there are places I could go. But they'd never be … right. I don't know where else I could go except here."
Slowly, Horace let his breath out. Will wasn't going to leave. "What are you going to do then?"
Will was silent for a moment, but looked away from Horace, his gaze going over the wall and into the dark night. It was a clear night out, and with all the lights in the castle out, the two of them could clearly see the stars above them. Will stared up at the sky, reflecting on how he had never bothered to star gaze when out at his cabin, not wanting to do it alone. Being able to see them since having been picked up by Halt and Horace had been something Will had been thankful for.
A certain darkness was needed to see the stars, and up until then, Will hadn't bothered to go looking for it.
"I want to try," Will said quietly. "I don't think I can go back to what it was, but … I want my family back. I want my life back." He looked away from the stars, and over to Horace, who's sky blue eyes hooked his and wouldn't let go. "I want to try."
And that's the final chapter! I want to thank everyone for all the support this little story has gotten-I'm really proud of this one, and I'm honestly convinced that this is probably one of the best stories I've written. The support it's gotten both here and on FFN has been amazing and honestly made me cry at times, so thank you, thank you, thank you, for supporting this and commenting and keeping my spirits up. I don't know how my fanfiction writing days will continue, but I'm so glad that I was able to finish this one. I hope y'all enjoyed this wild ride, and I'm looking forward to what y'all have to say about this now that it's over.