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Trouble the Wolf

Chapter Text

The slight, curly haired young man on the little horse plodding down the quiet, country road formed an innocuous sight—or it would to the untrained eye, or to anyone not well-versed in customs of Araluen. They might miss the dual blades at his waist or the recurve bow that lay across his saddle within a moment’s reach. They might overlook the casual grace of the man and the ease with which he bore arms—an ease that bespoke a deadly familiarity with them. To any man, woman or child of Araluen, though, his garb alone was enough to swath him in an air of mystery and mark him as a Ranger.

His stocky little horse, however, did not share in this awed reverence.

Tug whickered in derision when he paused at the sign before them, which announced that the road they currently stood upon led to the town of Piker’s Pace. The sign hung off the post, barely supported by the strength of a single nail and most of the paint had chipped off.

“What’s the matter, Tug?” Will asked, smiling slightly. The years they had spent together had accustomed him to the horse’s strongly held opinions. “Not up to your standards?”

Tug shook his mane. You would think they could stand to take a little more professional pride in their town. It makes a bad impression. Now, we’re arriving already with a low opinion of them.

Will just laughed. “I think you have enough professional pride for the both of you.” Tug snorted but did not otherwise deign to respond to that.

In the past, Will had occasionally questioned the fact that he held conversations with his horse. Halt and Crowley, he knew, did the same, but whether that should be a comfort him or not, he couldn’t decide. Best not to examine it too deeply.

Thinking of the Ranger Commandant and his former mentor brought to mind thoughts of his current mission, and as they rode in silence, Will took a moment to reflect on his task. A wild boar was on the loose somewhere in the vicinity and he had been sent to kill it.

Normally, a hunting party would be sent out and sport would be made of it but with Horace and Cassandra’s wedding so soon, it was a busy time, and Baron Arald hadn’t wanted any other fanfare to detract from it. The boar had injured and evaded the party of local men who had attempted to deal with it, so Arald had asked Will and Halt to step in. An easy enough task for expert trackers and marksmen.

Unfortunately, another matter had arisen simultaneously. The evening before the Rangers had been commissioned to handle the boar, they had gotten word of a string of highway robberies from the eastern edge of the fief. Weeks before, Halt had received a letter from Ranger Andross, of the neighboring Caraway fief, informing them of the issue but assuring them it was a matter not necessitating their assistance—he and his apprentice would handle it. Hearing now of these latest developments, it appeared they had not managed to do so, and the problem had now spilled over to Redmont land. Neither matter could wait, so the two split up and agreed that whoever resolved their task sooner would join the other with his.

At first, Will had been saddened by the fact that his first mission back in Redmont would not be with Halt, but then he realized this meant he would have all of the coffee he’d packed to himself. Not a bad deal, he smiled, considering that Halt usually drank far more than what they agreed would be his ration. “I’m an old man,” he would say, waving off Will’s protests as he poured himself a third cup. “I need the energy more than you young people.”

 Presently, as the trees began to thin out, Will could see a tavern with an inn up ahead.

“Perfect timing,” he said aloud to no one in particular. It was just beginning to get dark. From inside he could hear rough voices singing cheerfully off-key to some song.

After personally brushing down Tug and getting him settled for the night, Will went to see about the price for a room. It would be good to spend a night under a roof considering how rainy the sky looked—especially since he would be spending the next few nights camping outside as he tracked the boar.

The tavern was warm and well-lit with plenty of tables. Will took one alone in the corner as per usual Ranger habit and settled in to observe the locals. It was a lively crowd tonight; a traveling minstrel with a lute led the customers through a song that seemed to be about a one-eyed man named Peter. The owner worked busily behind the bar, and a gray-haired woman with her hair bound in a long braid down her back—perhaps his wife —popped in and out of the kitchen. Two young waitresses served the customers. Will waved one of them over.

“Coffee, please.” She nodded and bustled away. Will’s gaze slid casually over the faces of the customers seated around the tavern, as he leaned back in his chair. The locals looked friendly enough, perhaps being slightly under-armed. There were barely a half dozen with weapons among them. Farmers, he supposed. This was a relatively safe part of the fief, so Halt and Will hardly ever had reason to visit.

“Anythin’ to eat, sir?” The serving girl was back, shyly placing his coffee on the table. In many fiefs the appearance of a Ranger in such a casual setting would unsettle people. Redmont fief was less fearful of the Rangers than most, and room had taken note of but not been too thrown by his arrival.

“A bowl of stew, if you have it,” he answered with an appreciative nod for the coffee. He took a long sip, savoring the warmth of a hot drink on a cold night. It was no Arridi masterpiece like the beans Halt kept in supply, but Will would never turn down coffee of any kind. Horace, on the other hand, whose addiction to coffee had been acquired from his time with his Ranger friends, had gotten a bit choosy, last Will had seen him.

“It seems rubbing elbows with such fine folk all of the time has made a snob of our Horace,” Halt had commented sardonically when Horace had made a face at the brew at Castle Redmont.

“I’ve simply developed a more sophisticated palate,” Horace had responded, unable to resist rising to Halt’s jab. Will smiled and opened his mouth to respond, but Jenny beat him to it as she appeared from the kitchens with dinner in time to hear Horace.

“I guess you won’t be wanting any of this crude, backwater cookery then,” she cut in, with a raised brow and pointed look at Horace as she placed a meal before Will. Horace shot up straight with a look of such dismay at their childhood friend—who had grown to be among the finest cooks in Araluen—that Will had struggled not to laugh.

“I didn’t mean… that is to say—” he fumbled.

“A gourmet triumph, Jenny,” Will spoke through a mouthful of food, adding a cheeky grin once he swallowed. “Your culinary skills are legendary.” He ignored Horace’s dramatic look of betrayal in favor of taking another bite.

“Chew with your mouth closed, Will dear. We don’t want Araluen’s most famous ranger to choke to death on his peas, now would we?” Jenny turned on Will now, taking pity on Horace and giving him a meal.

“Yes, Ranger Will, watch out for those deadly peas,” Horace smirked.

“I hardly think he’s Araluen’s most famous ranger,” Halt had sniffed. The discussion that night had grown only more animated from there as old exploits and ventures were brought up. He smiled at the memory but made an effort to draw himself back to the present.

When he finished his meal, he ambled over to the bar to speak to the owner. The man looked up as Will approached. “Something to drink, Ranger?” he inquired.

Will smiled but shook his head. “Just information. What’s the latest news of the boar in these parts?”

“Ah,” the man inclined his head. “Enormous beast—larger than any boar in my lifetime. No one’s killed it yet, that I’ve heard. It turned up near the Clover farm earlier this week. Nearly hurt a child, but the boy managed to get out of the way in time. It injured a few of the men who went out to kill it in a hunting party. I think it turned up a few days ago up near the woods by the old mill, but it hasn’t been seen since.”

“Maybe someone managed to kill it,” Will suggested mildly. He wasn’t sure how quick news would spread around here.

The man scoffed at the idea. “Not likely! If anyone from these parts killed it, they’d be here right now, with a pint in hand, telling everyone who’d listen how bravely they faced it down and speared it with a single thrust. Or how it was his cousin or neighbor.” He snorted again. “If someone had killed it, this crowd would be talking of nothing else.” Quick enough then. Will nodded.

“Any rooms free for the night?”

“Aye,” he slid a brass key across the bar. “Second floor of the building next door at the end of the hall.”

“Thanks for the news and the meal.” Will slid the appropriate coins, along with an extra couple to the man.

“Thank you, Ranger. Have a good evening.” In the morning, he’d go see about this boar.

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Dawn found Will heading down a dirt road toward the old mill the barkeep had mentioned, which stood at the edge of the woods. It was as good a place as any to start looking, so he plunged into the forest. The bracken and undergrowth were thick in these forests and the soil moist enough to be impressionable; it would not be hard to follow a trail here.

He soon discovered that finding tracks was not to be his problem. The forest floor was littered with a copious number of prints, crisscrossing and covering one other. His challenge would be finding some belonging to the boar that had not been obscured amidst these multitudes. Still, despite the chaos, he hit upon the right trail within an hour, finding prints of the animal’s hooves and some broken branches. The size of the prints and width of passage forged through the bracken suggested a large girth indeed. Perhaps the townsfolk’s talk had not been so fanciful.

Though he followed its path and found places it had doubled back on itself, he found no signs fresher than several days past. Will was beginning to feel perplexed. It clearly had repeated a circuit of this area several times over, and he found no tracks leading away, but still he saw nothing fresh. Where had it vanished to? The afternoon was drawing to a close when he stumbled upon a small clearing he had yet to canvas.

Before him he saw evidence of a struggle. The ground deeply imprinted as if hooves had charged across it, and the bramble at the edge had been crashed through. Even more noticeably, a slight depression lay in the center –about the size of a large boar laying on its side—with the ground around it torn up, where hooves and tusks had scrabbled at it in agitation. A darkening of the dirt in this spot revealed itself to be the remainder of blood spilled days prior. Clearly, the boar had met its end in the glade. Strange, though, that the barkeep had had no news of it. 

In the mud there lay the broken shaft of an arrow, from its midpoint to the fletched end. Will knelt and lifted it to examine. Probably, this had snapped apart from the end embedded in the boar when it collapsed against the ground. It was an unusual looking arrow; the shaft was composed of a deep red-hued wood and the fletching of inky black feathers. This wood did not come from any sort of tree that grew in these parts—nor anywhere in Araluen, as far as Will knew—and black feathers were certainly not the most convenient to gather either. Domestic fowl or the more common wild birds were the usual choices.

Will and Halt, like most archers, made their own arrows. They had to be replaced regularly, so it was only convenient to use the native wood more readily at hand. Perhaps then this was some traveler passing through from other parts? It might explain why the locals hadn’t heard of the boar’s demise. The boar was a large quarry, though. Not something easy to cook while on the road and far more than a small group would be able to consume. But what large parties of skilled hunters from afar would be in the area? None than Will had gotten wind of. He’d ask the people at the inn tonight.

And he would be returning to the inn tonight. He would get to enjoy another night sleeping in a nice bed, since someone had gone ahead and killed the boar for him. It looked like he’d be joining Halt sooner than expected. Will smiled at his good fortune and stood, ready to make his way out of the forest as the shadows began to grow long.

Before leaving the clearing, he took one last survey of it. No other signs emerged, but the broken arrow continued to pique his curiosity. It looked to him rather like a redwood usually seen in Iberion, but that was rather far for it to have made its way here. Well, simply staring at it in the woods would get him no farther in understanding, Will decided, and he began the trek out.

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“I’ve never the seen the likes myself,” the barkeep drawled, holding the shaft close to his face and turning it thoughtfully in his hands.

“No one in the area uses these? Nor anyone passing through that you’ve noticed?”

He shook his head with gusto. Will eased back and drummed his fingers thoughtfully against the bar. He glanced around the room; it was a quieter scene tonight without the minstrel. Just a few men from the town—as well as a boy earlier, who had watched Will mistrustfully with narrowed eyes. It was not that unusual; not everyone appreciated the presence of a Ranger. Children in particular often took the more fantastic versions of their reputation to heart—that they were warlocks who could render themselves invisible.

At least the barkeep here was friendly and talkative, making Will’s information gathering an easy enough task. If this sort of man—one who worked in a tavern or inn—was willing to share, he was often the most informed person to talk to. He had his finger on the pulse of the town, hearing both the oldest stories and latest news of the locals when they came in to unwind, as well as having an awareness of who was passing through and staying a night.

“Has anyone at all traveled through that you know of? Particularly, any large groups?”

He pushed the arrow back towards Will, shaking his head again ruefully at the absence of news and began polishing the mugs. “Like I said, the most interesting thing to happen around here was that boar, and now that’s over too.” He and the other patrons had taken the news of the boar’s expiry with some disappointment.

“Will you be staying the night?” He inquired. Will assented, and the man passed him a key. “Same room as before. Building next door, the end of the hall.”

Will thanked the man and stepped out into the night. He’d pen a letter to Arald tonight and in the morning, he’d post it and leave to join Halt. Maybe he’d catch up to Halt before he arrived at Andross’s cabin if he left early and made good time.

 As Will rounded the corner of the building, he sensed rather than saw some sort of movement and instinctively dodged left. A heavy piece wood crashed through where his head had been moments before, still managing to land a glancing blow to his skull. Pain lanced through his temple, and his vision darkened as he staggered. Will kicked out where he thought his attacker stood, to keep him at bay while he blinked his vision clear. The figure let out… a rather high-pitched yelp.

The assailant went to strike another blow, but Will caught the wrist and twisted, disarming him of his blunt weapon, then yanked, pulling the fellow forward and off balance. Hooking his foot around his attacker’s ankle, Will swept the feet from under him and swiftly pinned him on the ground, both wrists behind his back in Will’s grasp with Will’s forearm bearing down on his neck.

 “King’s Ranger,” he snapped. “What is your name, and why on God’s earth did you attack me?”

Ranger?” the boy beneath him gasped. “Your folk are part of it too?” And it was just a boy, he realized as he blinked the spots clear from his vision.

“Part of what?” Will questioned, still very confused.

“I saw your arrow,” the boy snarled. “The red one. You’re one of the thieves that shot at us and took my brother.”

“Oh.” Will released the boy, who quickly scrambled to turn around and sit up, facing Will who crouched before him. “I found that today in the forest. I took it with me to investigate. You’ve seen men who use these before?”

The boy continued to glare at him. As some of the light from the tavern porch fell across his face, Will recognized him as the boy who had been staring earlier. No wonder the lad had looked so hostile. He thought Will was in cahoots with his brother’s captors. “Yes, I’ve seen them. What are you going to do when you find them?”

“Well, that depends on what I find and what they’ve done. What happened to you and your brother? And tell me, what’s your name?” The boy brushed the dirt from himself and climbed to his feet, leaning against the side of the building. Will rose as well.

“Murrow,” he said slowly. “My name’s Murrow.” He seemed to weigh his distrust of Will a moment longer before plunging into his story. “A few days ago, my brother—Ruari—and I were travelling on the King’s Road. We were bringing our wool to market. Well, just after a merchant—sort of wealthy, he had a fine carriage—passed us by, these men emerged from the trees. They shot those red-black arrows and stopped the carriage. I…froze,” Murrow swallowed and glanced at Will. “Ruari threw the bundles of wool off the pony onto the ground and tossed me up on it. Turned it around and slapped it on the rump, saying, ‘Go, Murrow! Quick!’

“The pony ran; it was all I could do to stay on. When I looked over my shoulder, they were grabbing Ruari. I don’t- I don’t know what’s happened to him.” Murrow drew a shaky breath before continuing quickly. “When I got to the nearest town, I started asking for help. I told them- bandits! Bandits in the area and we need to find my brother! But they didn’t want to help. Leave it alone, boy, they said in that town. They didn’t want the trouble. So, I decided I’d look for my cousin. I think I have one here in Caraway. Stuart? Or Stephen? I only met him once. I thought he’d probably get people to help.”  Now he paused to eye Will evaluatively. “But this is better. You’re a Ranger, you can find them and shoot them and get my brother back. What did you say you were called?”

“Will Treaty,” Will supplied. “And I’m actually headed that way anyway. My friend—Halt, a fellow Ranger—is a few days ahead of me. He set out to look into rumors of highwaymen, so it sounds like he’s on your case already. I’m set to join him now.”

Will moved toward the tavern porch, so they could talk in the light instead of in this darkened aisle.

“I’m coming with you then.”

“What?” Will swung around sharply, and the boy had to stop short to avoid crashing into him. A wave of dizziness washed over Will, and his head throbbed where the kid had hit him. He clutched it and winced. “No, I’m afraid you’re not. It’ll be a long day of riding, and then it’ll be dangerous when we confront these men. I can’t be watching after you and doing my job all at the same time.”

“Really?” Murrow looked unimpressed. “You’re Ranger Will Treaty. You’re incapable of looking out for one boy?”

“I- you- it’s,” Will floundered. “I am not incapable, it’s just that… well, my efficiency will be compromised.” He settled on. “And besides—you said it yourself—you’re a boy … of what, twelve years? You’re young. And it’d be safer for you to stay here a bit longer. I’ll come back for you when the danger’s resolved.” He nodded firmly and reassuringly—he hoped.

Murrow scowled. “I’m thirteen. And if I’m a boy, what are you? You’re hardly any older.”

Will sputtered for a moment. “I am a full twenty years old. Very much a man,” then he kicked himself inwardly. A man wouldn’t say that, would he?

“Well, I’m near as tall as you,” the boy continued resolutely.

“It’s not about height!” Will said, his voice getting higher. Damn. That really wasn’t helping his case. He was all out of sorts with this kid. Maybe it was the head injury? Yes, it was probably, definitely that. 

He took a deep breath and said in a calmer voice, “Look, Murrow. This is my job as a Ranger. I’m trained to do these sorts of things. Simple as that. I promise you that as soon as the situation’s dealt with, I’ll return and find you.”

Murrow narrowed his eyes but said nothing further.

Will shifted on his feet. He wasn’t sure what else to say to the boy with the lack of response. “Look, do you have a place to stay? Tonight and beyond. I can pay for you to room here a few weeks until I return-”

“No, I’m fine.” Murrow cut him off.

“Are you—” Will began.

“I’m fine.” Murrow ground out.

Will sighed. “Alright well…. good night.” He hesitated. “I’ll be back soon,” he promised, then turned to catch a few hours sleep before his journey tomorrow. When he glanced over his shoulder, Murrow still stood on the porch, looking out at the darkness from amid in the flickering torchlight.

_______________________________

 

Will’s day once again began before dawn on a misty, quiet road. He patted Tug’s side absently as they loped down the path. Hopefully, Murrow’s brother was alright. What would Murrow do if he wasn’t? Maybe find that cousin he’d mentioned. Was that where he’d be staying for now? Will bit his lip. He should have asked, but Murrow had refused to keep talking to him. He’d left a few coins with the owner anyway to cover a few meals for Murrow, if he did end up hanging around there. He was a very stubborn boy, Will hoped he’d accept the help.

Will was pulled from his worries about Murrow’s stay at Piker’s Pace by the unsettling feeling pricking the back of his neck. Halt had always impressed on him that a Ranger’s instincts were one of his most valuable weapons. He tried to put his finger on what he was feeling. Though he didn’t hear or see anyone, he had the vague sensation of being followed. Deciding to follow his intuition, he led Tug off to the side of the road and removed himself from view of the road, with the trees obscuring them. Before long, the soft weight of hooves on dirt became audible. A figure emerged from the mist.

Murrow,” Will groaned. “What’re you doing?”

The boy looked around wildly for the source of the voice, so Will emerged and guided Tug back onto the road. Catching sight of the Ranger, Murrow drew in a breath and sat up straighter in the saddle. “Traveling,” he replied shortly, keeping a straight face. Will shook his head in exasperation.

“I told you last night- you can’t.”

“I’m pretty sure I can. I have a pony, same as you.”

“Tug is not a pony! He is a small horse!”

“Well, I'm going, regardless.” Murrow stuck his chin out stubbornly. “You can’t kick me off the roads! They don’t belong to you… These- these are the King’s roads!”

“Well I am a King’s Ranger, which means I am the highest authority on these roads, short of the damn king himself!”

“What crime did I commit?”

“Well, you did assault a Ranger without provocation.”

“OK, then arrest me.” The boy looked at him pointedly. “And take me with you.”

Will let out an explosive sigh. “You are very stubborn, aren’t you?”

Murrow’s lips twitched slightly. “My brother says Phil here is his pony, and I’m his mule.”

Will smiled slightly at that, then shook his head. “Very well! I bow to your infinite persistence. Come along then! Let’s go. Daylight is wasting.”

Murrow looked at him skeptically and glanced at the sky. “Sun’s not up yet.”

“Oh, would you just come along!”

And so, the two boys on their ponies began their journey. No, sorry—a boy on his pony and a man on his horse.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Halt stood before the dilapidated façade of The Yellow Parrot. He was slightly amazed it was still standing. He’d last been here—what was it, twenty? Twenty five?—years ago with Crowley. This slightly-listing building was the only two-story structure in the little town of Woolsey in Caraway fief. Whether its two stories were structurally sound was another matter entirely.

 Halt stepped inside the tavern before he got too lost in memories of those days, not wanting to prolong his reminiscence out in the heavy rain that was falling. He was wet enough already, thank you very much. His stiff bones yearned for a dry seat by the fire. The grizzled ranger surveyed the room briefly from the entryway, counting men, women, weapons and exits, before stepping in fully.

The taproom he had entered was a wide, low-ceilinged room with a fireplace and a roasting spit at one end. Scattered throughout were a few pockets of people nursing mugs of ale or tucking into a meal. The ale here was good, if he remembered correctly. The real question, though, was how was their coffee? Halt’s love of the stuff back in those early days had not been as fervent as it was now. He barely drank it then. Looking back, he wasn’t sure how he survived.

“Coffee and a hot meal. I’ll be by the fire,” he told the tavern keeper, nodding towards the warm flames. Halt’s cloak was a sodden mess, so he removed it as he headed towards his seat. Luckily, he was carrying a spare, nondescript brown cloak with him as well. It was useful on missions when one didn’t want to be recognized as a Ranger, and it would do now as a backup until this one was dried.

As Halt soaked up the heat from the hearth and began his meal, he looked around at his fellow tavern-goers. There was a group of boisterous young men drinking to one side, a well-dressed family sharing a meal in the corner and a scattered collection of other folk throughout, dining or drinking more sedately. Not an odd array of people to see in a place like this. A tavern near the King’s Road probably got its fair share of travelers passing through in addition to the regulars.

A burst of laughter from the group of young men drew Halt’s attention back to them. They seemed to be in pretty high spirits, despite the rain. Halt wasn’t entirely sure what sort of things would be considered exciting to young folk these days, but he supposed in a town this small the standards for excitement were probably pretty low. Maybe their pig won a prize at a fair or the artichoke harvest was good this year. Was it artichoke season now? Halt didn’t know. Or care. Artichokes were bitter, disgusting things that had no business being eaten, in his opinion.

Well, whatever it was, perhaps Andross would tell him when he arrived to share intel on the matter for which Halt had been called in. Halt had arrived at the little cabin occupied by Andross and his apprentice, a girl named Lirrin, yesterday to find it empty. A note had been pinned to the door asking Halt to meet him here at this tavern instead, so Halt continued on without lingering. He’d left the note up, in case Will came through in the next few days and caught up with them. The boar situation seemed like it could be handled more quickly than whatever the matter was over here—a matter that Andross had felt the need to involve more Rangers in. That was a little unusual, Rangers normally handled matters within their own fief themselves, but Andross clearly felt this situation could use the a few more quick minds and talented bows on the task.

Well, Halt didn’t mind too much. Andross was a good ranger, and things had been quiet in Redmont lately. He knew Will was itching for things to do. To occupy himself, the boy had been dabbling in all sorts of self-initiated projects that he thought would someday come in handy on missions, like breathing tubes for swimming unseen below the surface, “self-sharpening knives”, and a “new and improved” chicken hutch with a higher ceiling and a built-in lantern, because, according to Will, good lighting would be key to improving their egg production. (Halt mentally applied quotations marks in his nomenclature of many of Will’s schemes.) In the trials of that last invention, the chickens had been terrified of the flame and refused to lay eggs for a week. Yes, Will definitely needed a mission to channel his energy into.

Halt settled in to wait for Andross and tried to decide how best to tell Will that sometimes chickens just needed to be allowed to lay eggs their own way, and it was better if hyperactive young Rangers just left them alone to do it.

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Two days later Andross was still nowhere to be seen. Halt took a few short forays through the little town and the area but hung mostly around the tavern, because he didn’t want to miss the other Ranger and his apprentice if they came. And so, he had noticed a few odd things while there.

Firstly—and this was unsurprising—the merchants passing through the area seemed to be somewhat nervous. Clearly, the rumors of highwaymen had reached their ears, and they were feeling wary. This sort of crime tended to dampen the lively trade the King’s Road normally helped facilitate in the kingdom—for obvious reasons. What was strange was that the uneasy mood didn’t seem impressed upon all of the locals. Some, yes—particularly the older crowd—seemed subdued and on edge, like one would expect in a crime wave. But quite a number of people’s moods seemed to be downright sanguine.

The boisterous young men who’d caught his attention the first day continued to hold it with their cheer and volume. What was more, their accoutrements were worthy of notice in Halt’s eye. Like most people in town, their general attire was rather faded and worn. They didn’t have the wealth to keep their wardrobe particularly fresh in the face of long days in the fields or at work in whatever trade they practiced. And yet, along with their worn raiment, more than a few of these lads also bore an trinket such as a fine brooch or carried a pocket watch. A couple wore cloaks of high quality that did not match near-rags beneath them, and one boy stood in a pair of fine leather boots… that did not fit him.

Halt was starting to, ahem, wonder about the origin of these pieces. Possibly, they were purchasing these items illicitly (at cut rates?) from the highwaymen. He did not think they were the highwaymen themselves, though. Most of the lads didn’t look capable of directly committing the crimes. They appeared untrained in combat, most went about unarmed, and they wore these trinkets in ways that were… not subtle. In short, they weren’t acting like they’d stolen it. If they were the highwaymen, well, Halt did not know why Andross had asked for his help. He watched as one of them tripped over a stool that was not even in the way and then clumsily flailed about before another boy steadied him. Not exactly fearsome bandit material.

Halt was interrupted from his musings by a timid throat clearing to his right. He glanced over to see the aforementioned well-dressed family standing at the edge of his table. The woman stood with her hands on the daughter’s shoulders, and the man nervously twisted a ring around his finger.

“Hello, sir. My name is Anselm Blum, and this is my wife Sassa and daughter Thilde. We’re cloth merchants, and in light of the recent rumors about bandits, I was hoping to contract your services for a bit of security in our travels. Only as far as Grenzen, we are headed to market there.”

The Ranger stared at him a moment in confusion before he realized what was happening. His cloak, still heavy with rainwater from the downpour the day before, sat in his room. These people hadn’t seen him wearing it and so hadn’t recognized him as Ranger. Given his sturdy weaponry and intimidating mien, they had assumed him a mercenary, available for hire as a bodyguard. Halt saw no reason to disabuse them of this notion. It was looking more and more like Andross wasn’t coming, and this might lend him an opportunity to see the action on the roads himself.

“What are you offering?”

The man smiled weakly in relief. Hopefully, Halt would find Andross before long. If he got on the trail himself, perhaps it would be sooner rather than later.

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Will and Murrow sat side by side after their long day in the saddle as their little fire burned lower, with ever-increasing intervals between its pops and crackles. They had made it through the meal with only four aspersions cast on Will’s cooking ability, two on his height and three on his capability as a Ranger. Will tried to remind himself the boy was simply under a great deal of stress since his brother was missing, as he set to scrubbing clean the pot they’d used. If he channeled a little more energy into it than usual, well, that wasn’t hurting anyone.

“So, you’re really Will Treaty?” Murrow asked, frowning thoughtfully.

Will glanced over, wondering where this was headed. “I really am,” he nodded.

“Is it true you kissed the princess?”

Will’s eyebrows shot up. Is this the sort of thing people discussed if they spoke about him? Not his Ranger-ly exploits, but that he went around kissing princesses? Well, Cassandra was a swell girl, but Will hoped he would be remembered by posterity for more than just that. He thought back to the day the boy was likely referring. “Well, more like she kissed me.”

Murrow seemed to consider this a moment. “So, was she in love with you?”

Will might be a little more offended that the boy found this so dubious, if he didn’t think the idea so funny himself. He snorted. “Ha! No, she’s more like a sister to me.”

“Eugh! And she kissed you?”

“On the cheek! It wasn't- You know what- you are quite a nosy fellow. Why don’t you go scrub this pot or something?”

He handed the dish off abruptly to the boy, who fumbled it for a moment before getting a grip and beginning to wash. Will leaned back for a moment considering the lad in the firelight. This must be my punishment for all my years of bugging Halt, he mused. But really, my questions were always exceedingly pertinent and informational. None of this nosy prying.

Nodding once to himself, satisfied at this reassurance of his questions’ doubtless relevance, he stood and went to go brush down Tug and the pony for the night.

“What town was it that turned you away?” He asked the boy as he worked.

“Lendsley, I think. Or no, maybe Woolsey. Around there. Why?”

“It sounds like something funny’s going on there is all. No one would help a young boy, who was attacked and alone? That’s not right.”

Murrow shrugged. “Maybe they’re just not good people.”

“Maybe. Or maybe they knew something. Or someone. Could be they’re friends with your robbers. I don’t know. I suppose we won’t know until we get there”

Murrow just shrugged again. “I don’t really care about them. I just need to get Ruari back.” He paused. “And our fleeces if they’re not ruined.”

“I know. And we will. It’s just important that we don’t rush in without knowing what’s going on, because I’m pretty sure something is.”

He rolled his eyes. “Impressive. ‘Something’s going on.’ You’re quite the Ranger, really. Yes, I think robbery is what’s going on.”

Will huffed in exasperation and dropped his head against Tug’s flank in exhaustion. He lifted his head to look into Tug’s soulful brown eyes, conveying with every fiber of his being: What am I to do with this kid? Tug’s soulful eyes seemed to say, my heart goes out to you. You must be a man of infinite patience. Or something like that.

“I meant something more, beyond simple highway robbery,” Will finally said. “And I’m starting to think your brother was wrong about which animal you are,” he continued darkly.

Murrow stopped scrubbing. “Huh?”

“Not so much a mule as an ass,” he muttered.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing.”

_______________________________

 

When they arrived at Andross’s cabin, Will was disappointed but not surprised to find it empty. This was just the sort of luck he was having lately. He quickly read the note pinned to the door.

“What’s it say?” Murrow asked. “I can’t read.”

Will glanced over at him. “That’s OK. It’s not in plain writing anyway. It’s in a sort of code devised by the first Rangers that changes whenever—”

“Should you even be telling me this?”

Will paused, lips pursed. “Well, I wasn’t going to tell you exactly how we keep it shifting. Just a bit of background. Besides, you can’t read; the underlying encrypted phrase is formed from the standard alphabet, then encoded. And—”

Oh my god, what does it say?”

“It says, ‘Yellow parrot to talk’.”

“Oh, that’s a tavern in Woolsey. I guess he wants to meet you there to talk.”

Will mourned the fact that this meant there would likely be no real talking parrots for a moment, before nodding. “Sounds like it. Halt’s probably there already. Hopefully, we can catch them all there, before they move on.”

“Alright then, let’s go.” They headed back to their mounts.

“This is the town that turned you away?” Will inquired.

“Yeah, where ‘something’s going on’.”

“Oh, get off it already.”

_______________________________

 

Halt decided that pretending to be a mercenary so he could be attacked by bandits was not his finest idea to date, as he stared down the length of the arrow pointed at his face.

 The merchant’s wife glared at him as the thieves rifled through their wagon. “I hope you realize we’re not going to pay you after this.”

“That’s fair,” Halt admitted. While the thug in front kept the arrow trained on him, another wrenched Halt’s bow from his hands. He let it go. The little girl was being held at knifepoint, and he didn’t want this standoff to end badly.

Just a few minutes ago, he’d been riding alongside the merchants on their carts when something had come into view on the road ahead. A man lay on his side in the middle of the path. Before Halt could warn him, the merchant stopped his cart, and stepped down from it.

Halt immediately swung about, casting his gaze around the nearby trees to look for the bandits who no doubt has manufactured this distraction. He spotted movement in a tree to his left and fired. He let two more shots fly towards the bushes to his right, before the man in the tree on his left cried out and fell to the ground with an arrow in the thigh. The merchant stopped in his approach of the shill and looked around wildly when another yell came from the right-side bushes as a man staggered out with a feathered shaft protruding from his shoulder.

There were more brigands than Halt could handle at once though. He downed three more men as they ran to attack the merchant or himself but was forced to stop when another ruffian dragged the little girl screaming from the wagon and called for him to stop his shooting or watch her throat be slit. Things settled down pretty quickly after that.

The men who’d waylaid them—of whom there were about a dozen it appeared—were a strange mixture of green and seasoned. A few were young lads who looked out of place with the others. One lanky brown-haired boy rummaged enthusiastically through the cart, handing down boxes to another outlaw, while a stockier boy with curly, dirty blond hair hovered uncomfortably at the periphery. That one behaved strangely reluctant about the whole business, and both lads held their weapons clumsily as though unaccustomed to the feel of a blade in hand. The bulk of the robbers though—somewhere between six and nine depending on who Halt had left laying in the bushes—were hardened, fighting men.

They carried multiple weapons each—and not re-appropriated garden hoes or wood-chopping hatchets either. Some carried longbows themselves and wore quivers that long reddish, black-feathered arrows poked out of. Others carried well-made swords or clubs. They had quite a little assortment gathered, and Halt found the whole scene slightly strange.

The carriage emptied of its valuable contents, and one of the horses taken from off the wagon, some of the bandits began to head off into the woods with their prizes. With their money secured and Halt still lacking his bow, the thugs must have considered the threat lessened, because they released the little girl, who ran and buried her face in her mother’s skirt.

“What’s to become of us?” the woman asked timidly.

“You can keep the cart,” a large, scarred man rumbled. “Don’t be spreading no rumors or telling no tales about these woods though. We can always come find you when you’re traveling again.” This was a little absurd; they had no way of knowing if the family talked or where they’d be if they did, but apparently it was a fairly successful tactic for them so far. People were still using the road here. The woman nodded fearfully.

“Kill the guard,” the man continued, nodding to his compatriot who stood before Halt. The Ranger tensed, getting ready to spring into action, but a voice cut through the tension.

“Hold your fire,” came the smooth voice from some unseen spot. The henchman eased off his bowstring, and Halt’s head swung around to locate the source of voice. The man who emerged from the trees was broad shouldered and of a medium height. He had thick black hair atop his head and thick eyebrows that were arranged in a vaguely amused expression. The clothes that adorned his frame were well-fitted, and he strode confidently out onto the road. Their leader, then.

“I think we might find a better use for him than as carrion.” The man drew nearer, and when he stopped in front of Halt, he addressed the Ranger directly. “You’re a guard for hire?”

“They contracted me last night for the journey to market in Grenzen, yes.”

“Well, it seems as though they will no longer be heading to market in Grenzen, so it seems your contract is ended.” The man surveyed the scene around him with a hint of pride, before his gaze returned to Halt. “How would you like to join another, more lucrative venture? Your skills with that bow are admirable, and a man of your talents would be appreciated in our company.”

Well, an invitation to join up with the highwaymen was not exactly what Halt had been seeking, but it might just be the ticket to getting to the heart of their operation. He didn’t want to seem too easy to win over though, so the Ranger raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“It looks like a brisk business, but I’m not too keen on ventures that end with me dangling by my neck.”

The man’s wide mouth spread in a delighted smile. “Now, that is a wise policy, sir archer. But you have no need to fear. The law in these parts is weaker than a calf with three legs, and the people here are our very own protectors, so the prospects of evading the noose are really looking quite favorable.”

That… was a strange thing to say about the people whose land they were terrorizing, but Halt decided another objection might spell his execution, so he gave a tight nod.

“Sounds promising,” he said slowly. “I’m willing, if you’ll have me.”

Unfortunately, the merchant chose this moment to make a poorly planned attempt to attack the bandit standing nearest to him, now that most of the robbers had left with the goods and only a few remained on the road. It was doomed from the second he lunged at the robber though. He was armed with only a dagger, and as he drove it forward, the robber dodged, and he missed, merely cutting into a bicep. The robber drove his sword through the man’s chest, and it emerged bloody from his back.

The little girl screamed from where she watched behind her mother’s leg, and the woman let out a wretched sob as the robber roughly pushed the merchant off his sword using his boot. Anselm Blum’s blood soaked the road where he lay, staining the dirt around him red. As the robbers faded back into the forest, the women were left alone by the emptied cart, with their tears and little else.

When Halt looked away from the scene, the leader was staring intently at him as if waiting to see if he would make any objection to the casual murder that had just played out. Halt hardened his face into an impassive mask.

“Coming, archer?” the highwayman inquired offhandedly, as if nothing had occurred.

Halt glanced over at Abelard, who tilted his head. Are sure you know what you’re getting into? The little horse seemed to ask.

Not at all sure, Halt thought. “Lead the way,” he said aloud.

Chapter Text

Halt expected them to take him to some sort of hideout in the forest, but instead they arrived at a little village a few miles off the King’s Road. Lendsley, the signpost proclaimed. It was fairly secluded, tucked away back here without a main thoroughfare leading up to it, but a number of hunting trails cut through the forest to lead to the town. These were what Halt and the highwaymen followed once they left the King’s Road.

Beyond the town, the elevation rose, leading up to a sight that Halt had seen before. Upon the hill sat Kirkton-Lea, a fort from the war with Morgarath. It was abandoned now, or so Halt presumed, and from what was visible at this distance, it looked to be in ill repair. Behind it, he knew, was a jagged drop-off —a cliff that jut out over a wide portion of the Crowsfoot River. The river cut through much of this fief and the other surrounding ones before emptying into the Endless Ocean.

Halt watched as part of their group broke away with the majority of the purloined goods to head toward the fort, while Halt and the rest continued towards the town.

“Why are they taking the goods that way?” Halt asked the man riding nearest him.

He received a stony glare in response. “Security,” came the monosyllabic reply.

Halt’s eyes roved over the bandits once more. For the most part, they seemed completely at ease as they entered the town. The townsfolk, too, seemed accustomed to their presence. People looked up as they passed, but no one seemed startled to see the heavily armed men making their way through the streets. Some of them even seemed pleased or at least satisfied by their return.

Halt soon saw the reason why.

By the time they reached the center of town, a strange procession had formed, following Halt and the bandits as they moved through the streets. Ahead of and behind them, people gravitated slowly but steadily toward the town square. Positioned near the square’s edge, Halt watched as the crowd was drawn in— inexorably pulled closer by the leader of the bandits— as iron to a magnet. Now they stood in suspended silence, eagerly awaiting the words about to fall from the man's lips.

“Another day, another victory!”

His voice rang out from where he stood upon a large crate. It raised him high enough that he could be viewed by all, over the heads and shoulders of the closer onlookers. A cheer rose up in response, but quieted when he raised a hand after a few moments.

“We have struck another blow to the powers that be,” he continued. “Every day our strength grows and our fortune with it. We have secured today a new man to raise arms for our cause, and new wealth to support it. It has been an honor once more to humbly serve you, my brethren. Come and share in our bounty.”

Well, this was not at all what Halt had expected. Things had begun to take a turn for the strange the moment the townsfolk had accepted the highwaymen in their midst, but at first it still hadn’t been clear whether their real occupation was known to the villagers. Evidently, it was. And it was not an issue for them either—that much was apparent from the warm welcome they received and the way in which people eagerly pressed forward and received bolts of cloth or other spoils in return.

Halt ran back over the highwayman’s words in his head while the strange queue filed by. Attacking and robbing a little family of —at most, modestly successful—cloth merchants was hardly striking back against “the powers that be”. So, what sort of tale was he spinning for these people?

Halt watched with unabated incredulity as the townsfolk gratefully received dole from the thieves. The real prize to them, though, seemed to be the chance to enter into the orbit of the charismatic headman. Each person who approached him shared a few words and received a firm handshake or a charming smile in return. Halt watched as he clapped men companionably on the arms and kissed a woman’s hand or two. Obviously, the people of Lendsley adored him.

Halt remained at the edges, largely dismissed by the townsfolk and ignored for the moment as the leader continued with his bizarre politicking. The Ranger spread his attention more broadly across the scene and noticed the stocky, reluctant blond boy from the raid casting quick, furtive glances his way. The boy still looked ill at ease despite the high spirits in the square and radiated tension from the stiff set of his shoulders and the restlessness of his hands. His eyes caught Halt's before breaking away. Halt decided to seek him out to talk later. Perhaps, he would have something interesting to say about this… unusual arrangement.

As people wandered off and the square emptied, the other robbers—Halt mentally labelled them henchmen (they really lent themselves to that sort of categorization with the sharp contrast between their leader’s smooth charm and their own sullen reticence)—packed up the emptied crates and took them away, their contents done being distributed amongst the townsfolk.

It had not escaped Halt’s notice that the majority of the stolen goods had been secreted away to the old fort, and no mention had been made of them to the people of Lendsley. Another secret being held back, it seemed. It appeared this man had secrets to spare, but in spite of that, trust was being offered to him in spades.

Folks always seemed to place their trust in the people who least deserved it, Halt mused. Maybe that was because the people doing crooked things sought it out, hungered for it, and wore that misguided trust like armor. No doubt it was their best defense against the suspicions that were bound to shadow them.

Well, Halt was a master of suspicion. He suspected nearly everyone and everything until he had solid reason not to. It served him well in his work as a Ranger and saved his life a number of times. It was also key in evading the mischievous attempts to pull his leg that were constantly being made by his former apprentice and a certain young knight. Those two were incorrigible menaces, both of them.

God forbid they ever learn how much they amused him.

Speaking of amusement, the ringleader was making his way toward Halt, now with a satisfied smirk on his face. As he reached Halt, the bandit turned and stood at the Ranger’s side, looking back toward the square. Halt waited for him to speak. After a moment, he did, breaking the silence.

“A rousing sight, wasn’t it? The support of the people is a beautiful thing.”

Halt gave a slow nod. “I was glad to see our stroll through town didn’t end with a short march to a tall gibbet... That is a beautiful thing.”

The fellow looked over at him and winked. “Indeed. A fruitful relationship, wouldn’t you say?”

“More fruitful for whom, though, I wonder,” Halt said calmly, then waited to gauge the man’s response.

He laughed. “Fruitful for all, I should think: a glimmer of hope for the people and a glimmer of coin for us.”

“Hmm. How much do they know about the additional, ah, glimmer up at the fort. Anything a man should avoid mentioning here in town?” Halt glanced over at him meaningfully.

The rogue flashed a quicksilver grin his way. “You’re a sharp man, I see. Good. It’s a reasonable arrangement, I should think. What we do is work of high risk and high reward. The roads aren’t always friendly to us, so we deserve some thanks for our troubles… and if the townsfolk don’t know the specifics of our arrangement…well, they hardly need to.”

“Fair enough for me,” was Halt’s gruff response.

He received a quick but firm clasp on his shoulder in return. “Good man. You’ll get on well here. Come by the tavern this evening. You’ll get a feel for our ‘movement’.” He winked once more before swanning off. His eye must get tired with all that winking, Halt thought, unimpressed.

Halt turned on his heel and left the square. It was late afternoon now. That left him time to roam Lendsley a bit before heading to the tavern later. He wanted to get a better feel for things as they stood here. Normally, dealing with highwaymen was not a complex matter. They could be arrested and brought to justice, or if they resisted and fought back, they could be shot. Pretty open and shut cases. But, here, the outlaws had somehow managed to secure the goodwill of the people and that vastly complicated things.

Halt’s greatest concern was the volatility of the situation. He did not yet know how the people would respond if he were to move openly against the outlaws. They might simply only be of no assistance to him (which would be no great hardship), but if they concealed the thieves or outright opposed Halt, he would quickly be surrounded by enemies at all sides. Halt had no desire to end up in a fight with the entire populace of the town. Aside from the purely strategic disaster that would be, he couldn’t bring himself to blame them entirely for their complicity in this scheme. They were being misled—of that he had no doubt—and he suspected their gullibility and willingness to participate in this ‘movement’ was fueled more by desperation than by greed.

Walking the streets, Halt saw far more houses in poor states of disrepair than he did houses that were not. Many walls fit together unevenly, where boards were warped or missing. The wood was grayed with weathered age, and paint chipped away like sycamore bark. It looked like there hadn’t been money for repairs in a long time. The clothes the people wore were as worn and faded as their homes, and he saw more than a few children without shoes. This was not a prosperous town. It was easy to see why they had been so eager to believe in this man’s promises of change, especially if he backed it up with just enough fulfillment to make them believable.

So, no, Halt wouldn’t do anything rash until he knew just how deep this charlatan’s claws were sunk in.

Halt roamed the streets without a destination in order to take full stock of the town. In doing so, he made spontaneous turns, and the path he trod formed an aimless pattern. It was convoluted enough that when he noticed the footsteps tailing him and the hooded figure that copied his turns, he knew without a doubt that he was being tailed.

The question was: by whom?

Giving no indication he’d noticed, the Ranger continued at a steady pace. He made his next turn down a narrower street with no pedestrians on it and ducked into the alcove of a doorway. Heartbeats passed as he waited. He listened to the water drip from the overhang, until footsteps drowned it out.

When the hooded figure drew even with his spot, Halt moved.

He leapt out and in a single fluid motion pinned his pursuer to the wall opposite with a knife resting on the throat in firm warning but without breaking skin. He held back from any further violence, though, when he saw who it was he'd accosted.

The sudden movement against the wall had caused the man’s hood to fall back, revealing the face of the young man with the blond hair, who’d been nervous in the square.

“Please don’t kill me!” The words spilled out of him in a rush. “I didn’t mean any harm. I only wanted to talk!”

Halt raised an eyebrow but didn't back off. “So, you decided to stalk me through town in a hood?”

The boy swallowed nervously, but for his next words, he summoned his resolve. “I just wanted to talk away from the rest of them, and I didn’t know where you were headed off to, so I followed. Honest.”

Honest or not, the boy wasn't much of a threat to him either way, so Halt removed his knife from his throat. The boy let out a quiet breath... which was silly really. He wasn't actually in any less danger; Halt could still kill him in under a second if need be. He just wasn't planning to at the moment. The boy seemed genuine enough.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“Ruari, sir.”

“Alright, Ruari, why is it you wanted to talk to me?”

The boy hesitated. 

“I wanted to warn you,” He stared intensely at the Ranger, as though trying to get a better read on him before choosing his next words. Evidently what he saw satisfied him, because he continued. “These men you’re workin’ with… well, they aren’t good men.”

Ruari’s brow furrowed, and he glanced up the street quickly, then lowered his voice. “They got everybody around here caught up in their fancy. Talking about a future without hunger and getting paid for what's ours, things like that. But it’s just a joke to them, really. I heard some of em laughin' at it when they were outside town. It's just pretty words. And I know for a fact they’re skimming off everything they take, while lyin’ through their teeth about it.

"They go after all sorts, too—not just the rich, like they’re claimin’—and they kill folks that fight back. It’s not an uprising, not really... it’s just crime. And everyone’s either taken in by their rubbish—or letting’ themselves be—or they’re coldhearted killers that don’t give damn. . .”  He lost his steam for a moment and looked Halt in the eye uncertainly before finishing. “… I just thought you should know who you’re falling in with.”

The Ranger’s face remained impassive. “How do you know I’m not another cold-hearted killer who doesn’t give a damn?”

The boy shook his head fiercely. “You’re not. I was there at the robbery today. I saw when they grabbed the girlie. You were outnumbered, and there was no chance of gettin’ that wagon train to market and gettin’ your fees for it....You could’ve kept fighting, though, and gotten just yourself free and made the break for it. But you didn’t. You handed over your weapon for the sake of the girlie—even though you might as well’ve been signing your own death warrant—‘cause you didn’t want her hurt. No, you’re a good man. I can tell.”

He spoke with fervent conviction but seemed to find no comfort in his surety. Halt felt a stab of sympathy for this young man. He seemed confused and desperate and terrified and in way over his head.

“How did you get caught up in this mess, son? You’re no coldhearted killer either.”

Ruari’s face took on a pained look. “A little over a week ago my brother and I were on the King’s Road when this lot attacked the bluebloods on the road ahead of us. My brother got away on our pony, but I got caught. I thought they’d just kill me, but after fightin’ off the guards on that carriage, their crew was short a few men. They needed help carryin’ off their loot… Said if I wanted to live, I’d get to it. So, I did.

“I went with ‘em, and afterward they told me I’d be stayin’ on. Didn’t offer me a choice. I can’t fight well or nothing, but I guess they think the numbers help to scare people, and they also need folks for carryin’ their haul.”

He looked at Halt, and his face was twisted in guilt. He went on desperately, “It makes me sick helping ‘em, but I can’t get myself killed. Not now. My brother- he’s only just a boy still, and we got no parents anymore. I’m all he’s got, and I can’t die on him.”

Halt put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It’s alright, son. You’re not dying if I have anything to say about it. But why don’t you just leave? They're not watching you all the time, and I doubt they’d bother to come after you.” The boy shook his head again though.

“I can’t. They got the deed to our farm. Our parents took ill a few years back and died. Since then, me and Murrow been running the farm on our own. But when da died, I found out the family’s massively in debt. We tried to keep it running and set things to right. Murrow’s wicked smart and good with his numbers, so we thought we’d figure something out.” He waved a hand despondently. “There was nothing for it though. We had to sell off our chickens and things bit by bit, but none of it was enough. Finally, this month we sold our sheep after this last shearing. We were heading to market just now to sell the wool and then to sell the land.

“I thought we could start over. I could find work somewhere— doing anything. I’m strong, and I’m not picky. And maybe Murrow could get apprenticed by someone, make a good life, y'know? A new beginning for both of us. But now? Without the deed, or even the damned wool? We’re penniless. Nothing at all left. We’d be starving ‘til I could find work. Even worse, though, without that deed, Murrow’s chances are ruined. Nobody would take on an apprentice for no payment.” He shook his head once more, before locking eyes with Halt. His face was set in lines of firm determination.

“I need to get that deed back, so we can sell the land. And I’m not leaving ‘til I can.”

Halt paused a moment longer, weighing the decision, before pulling out his silver oakleaf. The boy’s eyes widened.

“Maybe I can help.”

_______________________________

 

Before he and Murrow entered the town of Woolsey, Will removed his Ranger cloak and silver oakleaf and tucked them into his pack.

“What are you doing?” Murrow asked, frowning.

“When we go into town, I’m going to be posing as your cousin. I think people might be more willing to talk if I don’t make it known that I’m a Ranger investigating things.”

“If you want,” Murrow seemed dubious of the whole idea but raised no outright objections. “Aside from meeting up with your Ranger friends, though, I don’t see why we need this town’s help at all. They were pretty useless before.”

“I just want to see what we can learn. We’ll hear more this way.”

Murrow made no further comment and turned his attention back to the road ahead of them, so Will took this as a sign of acceptance.

As they made their way through the streets, a number of other people seemed to be out and about. More people than Will would expect to be in a town this size. By their more rustic dress, it looked as though people from the surrounding countryside were in town for the day. Privately, he wondered why. Market day perhaps? Will kept glancing around, to take in the scene around him, but nothing really jumped out to him as amiss.

They stabled Tug and the pony once they arrived the Yellow Parrot. Though Will checked, he found no sign of Abelard or any of the other Ranger horses. Halt’s absence was confirmed when they entered the old tavern and found it devoid of any irascible, gray-haired Rangers.

“There are no Rangers here.” Murrow pointed out, sending Will an accusing look as though it were Will’s fault.

“Alright, calm yourself. We’ll get a meal, and I’ll ask around.”

They approached the man who appeared to be the tavern keeper. He looked up as they drew nearer.

"I remember you," his eyes narrowed as he studied Murrow. "You came by about a week ago. Looking for help or something?" He glanced at Will but looked unimpressed by what he saw. "You found it, I guess?"

Murrow scowled. "Yeah. Got my cousin." He tilted his head at Will, who gave a nod. "This is..." 

"...Stuart." he finished, just as Will said, "Will." They looked at each other.

Will turned back to the tavern keep. "...It's a nickname," he explained. The man grunted, looking supremely uninterested. "Anyway, could we get some dinner?" The man nodded languidly then ambled away into the kitchen.

"Hmm, that could've gone better," Will remarked.

"Whatever. It's not like it matters whether he thinks we're cousins or traveling clowns."

"It's not a big deal," Will shrugged. "But I guess I'll try to get the news from someone else then... someone who doesn't think we're a struggling circus act."

They found a table by the wall, and settled in. It wasn't long before the tavern keeper dropped off their meal and ambled back to the kitchen. Will scanned the room quietly a moment as Murrow dug into the stew. He caught the eye of a waitress loitering by the kitchen doors and took the opportunity to wander over to where she stood.

“Hello,” she smiled at him and tucked a hair behind her ear. He smiled brightly back.

“Hello, to you too! I was wondering if you could help me. I’m looking for a man who may have passed through here recently. Short fellow,” he gestured a height with his arm. “And an even shorter temper. He’s got gray hair… talks with his eyebrows.”

The girl laughed at the description. “Yes, I do recall him. Scowled at everyone from the corner.”

“That’d be him,” Will agreed, grinning. “Is he still around?”

She shook her head. “No, you just missed him. He left with some merchants a day or two ago as their bodyguard.”

“Ah well, thanks anyways,” Will nodded politely and headed back to Murrow.

He sank down heavily into his chair and took a first bite of his stew. It was hot and delicious. Will wasn’t a bad cook, despite Murrow’s comments to the contrary, but there were limits to what one could make over a fire on the side of the road. This meal definitely exceeded those limits. While he’d been gone, Murrow had finished his own meal and now moved on to stealing Will’s bread. He let it happen without protest. He was wise enough to pick his battles with this kid.

“So, what’d she say?”

“We just missed him. He left a day or two ago posing as a guard for hire. I guess he was trying to get closer to the action. I’m not sure about the other Rangers though. I didn’t want to ask directly about it and let out that we’re looking for Rangers.” He took another bite of his food and savored it.

When no scathing rejoinder came from Murrow, though, Will looked up. The boy was staring woodenly at the street outside the tavern. Will looked out the window in confusion, but all he saw were a few people strolling past.

“Him.” Murrow said, pushing back his chair and standing, his gaze trained on someone outside. “He was one of the people who attacked us.”

“Are you sure?” Will asked urgently. He set down his spoon. “You thought I was one of them too.”

“Yes! I saw his face,” he snapped and began striding toward the door. Cursing under his breath, Will left his unfinished meal, threw some coins on the table and ran after his young charge.

Luckily, Will managed to grab Murrow by the arm before he did something rash like jump the man right in the middle of the street.

“Hang on!” he whispered. “We’ve got to be at least a bit careful. Let’s duck in that alley, and when he leaves the main street, we’ll pull him in to talk a second.”

“Fine… fine.” Murrow muttered, his eyes staying on the man.

They made their way quickly to the narrow backstreet and ducked out of sight. Will scanned the alley and found it empty. He turned back to the boy and set a hand lightly on his arm.

“Let me talk, alright? I don’t want to give up our aims here too quick,” Will looked expectantly at Murrow, who nodded.

When the unsuspecting man drew even with their passage, Will shot an arm out and pulled him swiftly off the street. The Ranger had him pinned to the wall in moments with a hand over his mouth and an arm twisted behind his back.

“Don’t scream,” he commanded. “We need to talk to you.” The man nodded, confused, and Will removed the hand over his mouth.

Where’d you take Ruari, you bastard?” Murrow was in the man’s face immediately, interrogating him. Will closed his eyes a moment and sighed. So much for letting Will ask the questions.

The young man stared at Murrow in bewilderment. “What?” he asked, then seemed to look at Murrow more closely. “Ohh yes, I remember you. Look, brother, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were after the trader, not you.”

Murrow face twisted up in disgust. “Brother?” That... was a sore point, given their mission.

“Well, it’s us against them isn’t it?” he continued, unfazed by Murrow’s intensity. “We need to band together and not betray each other. That’s what they want.” He added conspiratorially.

“What who wants?” Will asked, feeling increasingly confused by the man’s strangeness and oddly relaxed demeanor.

The fellow just shook his head pityingly, like they were beyond his ability to help. “Look, you should just come to hear him speak tonight. It’ll all make sense. Man’s a fuckin’ wordsmith and a hero—honest! He’s really been helpin’ out everyone around here! Showin’ us the way and all,” he said fervently.

“Who the hell are you talking about?” Murrow’s patience was at its breaking point. Or perhaps it had broken a long time ago. Will couldn’t be entirely sure.

“Lannulo, of course,” The man looked between them in genuine surprise that they didn’t know. “Our very own highwayman.”

What? Will and Murrow exchanged a perplexed look. The man wriggled in Will’s grasp, and the Ranger released him reluctantly. He straightened out his shirt and gave them a quick wave and smile as he headed back onto the main street... as though they were a couple of friends finished chatting and not strangers who’d accosted him in an alley and shoved him against the wall.

“Tonight in the square at sundown!” he called back cheerily. Baffled, they watched him go.

“Weird fellow,” Will said wonderingly. He turned back to Murrow. “Well, it’s a start. We’ve got a name and a place.”

“And his purse,” Murrow added, holding it up.

“You stole it?”

“He robbed me first!”

“I… don’t even know what to say to that,” Will shook his head as they stepped onto the street.

Murrow shrugged and headed back toward the Yellow Parrot.

Will sighed. “Well, you’re buying the next meal then, since you didn’t let me finish this one!”

_______________________________

 

Halt awoke to the sensation of being pulled up from the ground. Hands grabbed his arms and hauled him into an upright kneeling position, as he struggled to orient himself. What had happened?

His last clear memory was of talking to the boy and agreeing to help recover the deed to his farm. After that, things got… disjointed. Halt vaguely remembered breaking into the building they thought the deed would be stashed in, with Ruari keeping lookout around the corner so he could alert Halt if anyone returned from the tavern early.

More details trickled back to him as his head cleared: a heavy door whose lock he’d picked, a room with several chests and cases of stolen goods. Rifling through a thick sheaf of papers. Footsteps coming, a scuffle, then… a sharp blow to the back off the head. Oh.

What a short tenure as a bandit I had, Halt mused. Privately, he had always thought he’d make a rather good one—he had the skill set for it and people seemed generally intimidated by his presence—but, well, know he knew better.

When he blinked his vision clear and his head stopped spinning wildly, his gaze settled on the man seated in the chair before him. It was the leader of the bandits.

His hands were clasped in his lap, and his head tilted slightly to one side as he studied Halt pensively. He raised his eyebrows. “Ah you’ve rejoined us: welcome back.” The exaggerated geniality in his voice filled Halt with annoyance.

“A pleasure to be here,” Halt shot back, his tone dripping with sarcasm. The hands gripping him tightened painfully, but the man in front of him remained unperturbed.

“It should have been,” he leaned back in his chair and sighed melodramatically. “I offered you every opportunity you could have wished for. I spared your life, invited you into our company, and extended the chance to share in our winnings… and yet, you have thrown my generosity back into my face. Tell me, archer, what is your name?”

“Arratay.”

The man sighed and rolled his eyes. “Ah, I should have guessed: another Ranger. Very amusing, Mr. Halt. But did you think you were the only man in Araluen who spoke Gallican? Alors, pourquoi ne vous arrêtez pas avec les déceptions?”

Fuck. In fact, he wasn’t used to there being much overlap between the Gallican-speaking population and the pool of criminals who would recognize his real name. Well, something to keep in mind for the future. He maintained his steely gaze on the brigand though.

“I could ask the same of you. Enough with these games. Who are you really, and what do you want with me?

“I’m quite glad you asked. How ill-mannered I’ve been, forgetting to introduce myself. My name is Lannulo,” he bowed theatrically. “And as far as what I want from you? Well, very little actually. I want you not to interfere with my plans. You Rangers are a very troublesome lot… and I try to avoid trouble where I can.” He withdrew a knife from its sheath at his side and idly fingered the sharp tip as he spoke.

“I’d argue we’re only troublesome to troublemakers.”

“Me? A troublemaker? Well, I suppose from a certain perspective. From another, you might call me a visionary. You see, sometimes change—sometimes progress—requires a bit of struggle before things can more forward, because there are inevitably people who try to stop you.”

“I think to be a visionary you have to actually believe in the vision you’re peddling.”

“You wound me, Mr. Halt. You are a man of no manners, I see. That is regrettable. But! More importantly, you are a disruption to my campaign, and I simply cannot have that.”

Halt narrowed his eyes. “You’re going to kill me, then?”

Lannulo’s white-toothed smile widened. “I’m not going to kill you, Mr. Halt. Didn’t you hear? I’m their hero.” The absurdity of idea seemed to delight him. “And of a fashion, you might be too. An old hero, to be sure, and probably not as much of one as you might like to think. Some people still remember your part in the Morgarath skirmish you Araluans had, and most folk heard of that business with Skandia from a few years ago, but…. they forget. Distance and time, my friend, distance and time. It all fades. Here and now, you are the King’s man, and I am the people’s.” He gestured with the knife, pointing at Halt then himself.

He sighed slightly and shook his head with regret. “In spite of this, someone would inevitably recognize you and raise a fuss. So, it still wouldn’t be very…hmm well-regarded… if I cut your throat myself.” His eyes flickered back over to Halt, and he flashed his sharp grin again. “So, I’ll be letting the people do it for me.”

Halt’s mouth stayed pressed in a thin line, and one eyebrow raised as if to say go on, but Lannulo was standing now and brushing off his hands. He smiled once more, serenely.

“No, I think that’s all we’ll chat about tonight. I’ll let you settle in for now and set the stage for what comes next.” He turned to leave then paused.

“Oh but remember: don’t try to run or pull any tricks,” he warned, wagging his finger at Halt. “If you do, I’ll be sure to kill four or so of these witless young yokels. And you don’t want their blood on your hands now, do you?”

Halt’s jaw clenched at the mocking tone this man used as he threatened to murder four young people. “You can’t just start killing these youths. They’ll throw you out. You need the support of these ‘yokels’.”

Lannulo tsked, as though disappointed. “Mr. Halt, of course it won’t be me that killed them. It will have been you.” He smirked then put on a falsely earnest voice. “‘That traitorous ranger escaped! He slaughtered four of our brave young men to do it! Gone back to report all his spying to his King.’ I have your arrows. And these farmers can’t tell one knife’s cut from another. All the signs will point to the slippery spy, to our own little snake in the grass: you. So, don’t cause any trouble, hm? I’d hate to see those young lives cut short.”

With those parting words and a flutter of his coat, he spun on his heel and strode away. Halt watched the tall, sharp figure until it was swallowed by shadows, leaving behind nothing but the afterimage of a flashing white smile in the darkness.

Halt didn’t like men who showed so much teeth. They had a thousand smiles each, and not one of them real. False grins for false men. Wolves, really: hunger in their eyes, in their prowling steps. Their teeth bright and sharp: bared as a taunt, a challenge, a promise that soon those jaws would snap shut—around you.

Well, Halt had put down his share of wolves. Men and beasts, both. This one would be no different.

Chapter Text

The guards took Halt to a section of the fort surrounded by a tall sturdy-looking palisade of sharpened wood. A gate in the wall swung inward when the guard lifted the crossbar obstructing it. Within the little prison—for that was what this was—a group of people were gathered around a small, dying fire. Farther back lay a few small huts made of wood and thatch.

The group had been talking quietly before Halt and the goons had approached, but now they sat watching the new arrival. The hand of the man who had been strumming his instrument slowed.

“Don’t mind us, keep playin’ your lute,” the lackey drawled sarcastically, before shoving Halt forward the last few feet and slamming the door heavily behind him.

“Mandola,” Halt corrected automatically, then scowled. Damn it, the boy’s gotten to me. The people looked at him appraisingly as he approached. They appeared neither hostile nor welcoming, but instead hovered at a middle ground of civil wariness. That was fine. Halt could live with that.

He suppressed the urge to groan as he sat down stiffly on one of the logs. Being knocked unconscious and hauled around had done a number on him. He wasn’t as young as he once was, and his ability to bounce back easily from bodily assault was apparently waning.

“So, what did ya do?” An old woman asked, her keen eyes pinning Halt under their steady gaze. “Complain about the way he was doin’ things? Spreadin’ word about somethin’ ya weren’t supposed ta hear? Hm?” She looked him up and down. “Or just guilty a not bein’ a gullible fool?” she finished wryly.

Halt glanced around the circle. Presumably, these were all dissidents who’d objected to Lannulo and his methods. They were, therefore, also his most likely allies in the near future, so he decided to be frank with them.

“I’m a Ranger,” he said. Their reaction was mild. Most nodded as though this were unsurprising.

“Ah,” the old woman said, inclining her head knowingly. “We got a few of those here. In the hut over there,” She gestured with a wizened hand. “Go talk to your fellows, Ranger. Then come back here and tell us what old Lannulo’s up to now.” She patted the space on the bench beside her and winked. “I’ll save ya a bite to eat.”

Halt nodded—amused despite himself—and walked over the little shelter. He knocked once on the flimsy wall to announce himself, before ducking inside.

When his eyes adjusted to the lower light, he perceived two figures before him. A man lay on his back, cushioned by straw, with his leg splinted and bandaged heavily, while a girl sat by his side. She looked up sharply at Halt’s entrance.

Halt looked between them once more, recognizing the man as from old ranger from Keramon and the girl as Lirrin, Andross’ apprentice. The older Ranger looked up and eyes widened in surprise. “Halt?”

Halt gave a grim nod. “Egon, was it?” The old Ranger nodded. Halt looked to the girl. “And Lirrin?” She nodded as well. He stood there in silence for a moment.

“… How have they been treating you?”

Lirrin gaze fell back toward the ground in despondent silence, as Egon shrugged his bony shoulders. “Well enough, I suppose. I haven’t much experience as a captive to compare it to.”

Halt tilted his head in acknowledgement and sat down heavily. “Fair enough.” He let out a deep breath. “So. What happened here?”

Egon sighed. “It’s not happy tale, but I suppose I’d better start at the beginning.” He pushed himself into a more upright seated position, wincing as his injured leg shifted. Halt reached out to steady him by the shoulder. He nodded in thanks, before he spoke once more and his story began.

“As the Keramon Ranger, the fault for this mess we’re in falls squarely on my shoulders. He got a foothold here in my fief, and things went downhill from there. If I had stepped in sooner, perhaps I could’ve prevented all this, but I suppose we’ll never know now. I am … ashamed I let it come to this. I hadn’t the handle on things I thought I had.

“I’m set to retire come next spring when the next apprentice graduates. I’m getting too old for riding about all the time, so my rounds of the fief had gotten somewhat more infrequent of late. I didn’t notice things building as quickly as I might’ve.

“Oh, I can still handle the day-to-day fine. It’s mostly just minor matters to deal with around here. Small crimes for a small fief with few people. You see, there’s very little of interest here to outsiders. There isn’t even a proper Baron since Jasten died. The taxes could barely sustain the fief castle in the first place, so after Jasten’s death, Baron Fergus from Caraway began to handle most of those duties, and a new Baron was never instated. We’re a fief in little more than name these days. So, on the whole, we’re hardly worth troubling. These people are farmers and herders. They haven’t much of value—not of value in coin anyway. There’s nothing here at all, really, save for— ”

“The King's Road.” Halt said grimly.

“Aye, the King's Road,” Egon nodded. “He turned up in spring, I think. I’m not sure precisely when. It was after a hard winter, and he just said all the right things. At first, he wasn’t asking anyone to do a thing. He’d just speak his mind at the tavern, sitting at a table. Soon enough, he was speaking at the taverns, standing on the tables. People started turning up just to listen to him talk. They liked what he had to say. Or at least they hated the things he ranted about as much as it sounded like he did.

“Well anyway, the lads and young men were especially taken with him. The old codgers my age would just nod along, then head home, but the young fellows would stand and cheer and follow his group around like puppies.”

“His group?” Halt asked.

“Oh, yes. Big, armed and dangerous blokes—none of them farmers, that’s for sure. That was part of the appeal, I think. The lads wanted to learn how to use swords like that and fight and shoot. They’d spar and wrestle in the yards. We thought it was just boys being boys. The young ones always want to wave around big sticks. He was training them, though. Getting them ready for the next step.

“Soon enough his talk of injustice took on a more proactive bent. ‘Sometimes fairness goes beyond the written law.’ Some such talk as that. And that’s when the robberies started.” He sighed long and slow, but after shifting his leg slightly, the old Ranger continued with his tale.

“He and his men started robbing those who were traveling through on the King’s Road. He came into town with what he’d stolen—made no effort to hide what they’d done—and went about proclaiming it a movement. Claimed that he’d done it for them. He said it wasn’t truly stealing when the wealthy amassed their fortunes by stealing from the poor in the first place. The lads were fired up already on his words alone, but this they saw as proof of his devotion. The rest of folk were wary, but they didn’t turn down what he gave them. Many simply couldn’t afford to.

“You see, the people of Keramon haven’t seen prosperity since before Morgarath. The war ravaged our fief, and the vacuum—in particular, the economic void—left in Gorlan in the aftermath made recovery harder still. In truth, things still haven’t recovered. The best folks can do is get by. So, when Lannulo sunk his teeth in, when he offered them the slightest bit of hope that there could be something better… well, they couldn’t say no. He must have been looking for a place like this. When people are desperate, they’re standing right on the knife-edge of things. A man like Lannulo comes along and he can push them over whichever way he wants to, because they haven’t got much to stand on in the first place. With him pushing, it wasn’t hard to tip things, and they fell hard, and they fell fast.

 “They came for me in the night. I’d been talking to folks, following his movements, planning my next steps. I hadn’t outright acted against him yet. Too many were enamored of him at that point, so any move against him would be resisted. And I hadn’t caught him in the act just yet. While I was sleeping, they set my cabin alight, and when I staggered out coughing on the smoke, they struck. I fought back and took a few down with me, but they got me in the leg—” he gestured to it, “—and I went down. To my great surprise, they didn’t kill me, though.

“They wanted me to write to Andross—with some sign to prove it was written by my hand and authentic—telling him not to get involved in this matter. So, of course, I slipped a warning in. Since then, I’ve been kept here… and with my leg out of commission, I’ve been, unfortunately, quite useless.

“Gradually he started adding people to my little jail. Folks who disagreed with him or started up trouble by questioning things—he locks them up here. Enough of them have family and friends that if he killed them outright, the town would be up in arms against him. So, he takes them here instead. I think he tells the townspeople their missing friends saw reason and got to working for the cause up here in other ways. I’m not sure of the specifics.”

Halt nodded, taking all this in. “And Andross?” He looked at the young apprentice, who had sat quietly as Egon told his story.

Lirrin pressed her lips together and shook her head roughly. “Dead. His vile men did it. They shot him through the throat when he tried to stop them from attacking a young noblewoman. I saw him fall, and – and - I didn’t know what to do… I froze up.  That’s when they caught me.” She swallowed thickly, but though her voice grew thick with emotion, she allowed no tears to fall. “When Lannulo found out though, he was furious. You fools killed a Ranger? What did I tell you? Kill one of them, and more will come pouring in like ants!”

Halt’s eyebrows shot up. The voice that came from the girl’s mouth for those last lines was a startlingly real impression of Lannulo.

“That was … uncanny,” he said.

Lirrin nodded again, growing calmer in a sort of resignation. “I can do voices. It’s what caught Andross’ attention first when he recruited me. I used to put on little shows with hand puppets in the market square and have them talk all in all sorts of ways . . .” She reddened. “And sometimes I also threw my voice… to distract people, so I could take things when they weren’t looking-- if the show didn’t bring in enough pennies.” She glanced up at Halt as if to see if he would reprimand her for this. She must not have found any judgment in his face, since she continued.

“I got caught one day, and Andross approached me when I was in the gaol. I was to be branded a pickpocket. But he offered me another chance and invited me to be his apprentice.” She smiled sadly in memory. “We spent the first few months reciting the King’s Laws every night. He was trying to straighten out my criminal bent, I think.” She chuckled softly, then seemed to recall the topic of their discussion and looked to Halt and Egon again. “He’d been taking me to taverns lately, making sure we spend time in town to hear people talk. Had me listen to different voices and test me at the end of the night. He thought it could be a useful skill for a Ranger to have, and we’d have a chance to keep up on news that way. It was rather fun, too…” She trailed off. “Andross was a good teacher. And a good man,” she said sadly.

“That he was,” Halt said.

“A good man and a fine Ranger,” Egon echoed. The moment that followed was filled only by the sound of their breathing. A fallen Ranger deserved a moment of silence, at least. Halt hoped Andross had been buried properly. He would try to find out, if possible, when they got out of this mess. He didn’t know if the Ranger had family, but the Corps at least would hold a service.

The sound of the mandola being tuned filtered into the hut and drew Halt from his thoughts. “Have you eaten recently?” he asked the other Rangers. “They’re cooking outside.” They shook their heads, and Lirrin climbed to her feet. Halt glanced at Egon’s leg. “Are you able to stand? Or would it be easier to bring something to you in here?”

“I may be old and injured, but I’m not bedridden just yet,” The older man chuckled ruefully. “I can hobble my way out—with a bit of help perhaps.”

Halt nodded, and Lirrin silently moved to help. They each got an arm around him, and together the Rangers made their way unsteadily out into the firelight to join the other prisoners for their meal.

 The old woman smiled toothily when they emerged from the hut and made room for them around the circle. “What’s your name, young man?” she asked Halt, when a bowl of soup was passed to him. “I’m Magritte. And these rascals are Arthur, Borin, Leo and Josef. Over there is Gwendolyn, Sibyl and Richard—my grandson. And that rogue with the mandola is Armand.” Most gave little nods or smiles as she introduced them. She addressed Armand. “Why don’t you play us something cheery, hm? Put those strings to use. Goodness knows we had to listen to you begging those crooks for days to let you have it back.”

Richard smirked at her bossiness as Armand sighed and hefted his instrument, tuning it. He made eye contact with Halt and spoke conspiratorially. “My grandmother is a force to be reckoned with. As fierce a woman as you will ever meet.”

“I know the kind,” Halt said, thinking of Pauline’s sharp tongue and formidable brilliance. He recalled the question she’d asked at the start of the introductions and spoke to the group. “My name is Halt,” he began. “I’m the Ranger of Redmont fief. I was called here when Ranger Andross sent word to me of trouble. He didn’t have the chance to meet with me or explain the situation before he was killed, so I arrived here and had to put it together for myself. I ended up being attacked by and then joining with the bandits—to infiltrate their operation and find out what they were up to.” Halt paused. “They ended up finding out what I was up to, so I now find myself here…with the pleasure of sharing this meal with you.”

“What a gentleman!” Magritte crowed. “It’s a pleasure to be here with us. Well, I suppose he hasn’t tasted Borin’s soup just yet, so he doesn’t know any better.”

Josef and Sibyl chuckled quietly, and even quiet Lirrin’s lips were twitching into a slight smile. Borin rolled his eyes but made no comment to defend his soup; he knew better than to open himself to further ribbing.

“The soup’s good,” Lirrin offered.

“Thank you,” Borin sent her a kind smile, before ladling another bowl.

For all their fractious jesting, the group functioned smoothly as they passed around the food, and they seemed actually quite close-knit and comfortable with each other. That was good. It would make cooperation, during whatever escape plan they might attempt, easier to elicit.

Halt noticed, after he introduced himself, Armand had absently begun playing the melody to a song known as Old Joe Smoke… or as Halt more frequently heard it sung following Will’s cheeky rewrite: Greybeard Halt. Damn him—had that doggerel spread? Hopefully, it was just an unfortunate coincidence. Halt decided the best course of action was to ignore it.

“Ooh, I like this one,” Magritte smirked, then glanced at Halt saucily.

Not a coincidence, then. He looked intently at his soup and dutifully ate a spoonful.

“Leave the poor man alone, Nana,” Richard pleaded with a grin. “If you break his spirit now, he won’t be able to help us escape.” To Halt’s relief, the attention moved away from him, and conversation continued on to harmless topics for the moment. Sibyl, the woman at Halt’s left, turned toward him after a moment.

“Sorry if we seem a bit rowdy. We’re a bit starved for entertainment,” she said to Halt apologetically, by way of explanation.

“Surely not with the good Lady Magritte around,” he replied quietly, the corner of his mouth curling upward. Sibyl’s shoulder shook with silent laughter.

“No, I suppose not too much. She keeps us in line and in stitches.”

They sat in companionable silence, while others carried on talking, until the soup was all gone.

“Are there any more of you coming?” Halt looked up to see the woman named Gwendolyn addressing him. “More Rangers, I mean,” she clarified.

Halt hesitated but nodded. “Yes, though I’m not sure how soon. Ranger Will was to join me after dealing with another matter in Redmont fief. It likely didn’t take him too long, but I can’t be sure exactly when he’ll arrive in Keramon. Or what he’ll find when he does.”

 “Well, let’s hope he doesn’t join us in here any time soon,” Magritte remarked with a crooked-toothed smile.

Halt nodded. “Let’s hope he has better luck, or better sense, than us.”

_______________________________

 

“Hello, my brothers and sisters! It is good to see your faces!”

Will and Murrow stood at the edge of the square in Woolsey. They had arrived about a half hour before and had observed as people began to gather in the square a little while before sundown—just as the man from earlier had predicted.

As the sinking sun began to paint the sky red, a dark-haired man had swept in with several broad-shouldered men in his wake. They all carried weapons; some wore well-made swords at their hip, while others bore bows and quivers.

Quivers full of red arrows with black fletching.

When the man stepped up onto a makeshift platform, the crowd quieted. In the sudden silence Will could hear his own breathing. It was loud to his ears, and for a moment the suspense built. Then the man spoke.

His voice was clear and strong, and loud enough that it echoed a bit off the buildings.

“My brothers and sisters,” he repeated. “I address you here today, because a great change has begun. And it is we who have begun it. The gauntlet is cast. Now we must be firm of purpose and walk united in our next steps toward our shared future.”

Affirmative murmurs rippled through the crowd. He raised his voice further, and it rung out confidently over the susurrus.

“We must remember why it is that we act! Think now, my friends, of how you are treated—how you have beentreated—year after year, generation after generation. Look to the evidence in your own lifetimes. There are many among you who recall when Morgarath brought bloodshed to our fields. A nobleman who wanted more,” he sneered. “The height of hubris—what greed! This is what they do, everyone of them alike: they want things… and so they take them. And they use people like us to do it.

“It was brave men like you who fought and died for his folly; it was our fathers and brothers and friends. All because one man wanted to sit on a finer chair, we suffered. We suffered then, and we suffer now, because they do not care.

“When the harvest is poor—the harvest taken in by men like us, day by backbreaking day—when the granaries are low, and the days are cold, and your babes cry for nourishment and your wives must water the soup—when we endure these hard winters, do they suffer?”

“No!” came a shout.

“When the taxes are high, and you must hand over more of your hard-earned crop—more than you can afford—do they care?”

“No!” more people roared back.

“When their taxes are raised, they raise our taxes higher! The merchants raise their prices, and the doctors turn away our ill because we cannot pay, and so our children go barefoot and threadbare and sicken, and what do they do? They look away.

“We are not the thieves; they are! We are taking back what belongs to us! This land that you work, that your father worked, and your father’s father before him—who are they to tax it? Do they know the paths of the plows that tilled it? The number of stones that had to be cleared? Have they felt the weight of the scythe?

“Your right to this land is written in your hands with every callus earned from hard, proud labor. It is painted on your knees where the dirt lingers from kneeling in the leas. It is carved across your faces, in the deep lines borne of weathering the hot sun and the harsh wind and every other face nature has shown you, while they sit back on their cushions, with their soft hands and consume the fruits of our labor. They need us to stay like that, kneeling in the dirt, because if we look up and see, they know we will see the injustice—see their greed! They oppress us with hardship so that we are too busy struggling to survive to look around. 

“Well, I say look! From now on, every hardship they place on us, we will pay it back tenfold! And we will do it by having them pay us!”

A deafening roar rang out from all around them. In the dying light it surrounded them from all sides and took over the square.

Will felt a chill run down his spine at the raw fury of it.

To the west the horizon still glowed, but above them darkness was beginning to bloom across the sky. The distant light drew Will’s eye toward it as the angry voices thundered on. It glowed fierce and bright— a violent red, like spilling blood.

Chapter Text

By the time the fire burned low and the soup was long gone, Halt’s fellow prisoners had exhausted most of their questions for him. Their inquiries ranged from questions about the current state of the town and their families, to Lannulo’s latest gestures, and whatever else he could tell them. There was little he could offer about their particular families, but he relayed everything he could about Lannulo and his men.

“So, now that you’ve met him yourself, what do you make of him?” Egon asked when he’d finished.

Halt exhaled. “He’s a very clever confidence man working on an ambitious scale… and from what I’ve seen so far, he’s very good at what he does.”

“Hold on,” Arthur cut in. “Clearly, what he’s doing is wrong,” he began firmly. “He’s a robber and a murderer, and attacking innocent people on the road is obviously not going to solve our problems. But it’s not exactly a mastermind scheme, is it? Highway robbery’s not much of a trick. Plenty of fools manage it. And there’s not much mystery to it either. When you’re robbed, you know it. I don’t see who you think is getting scammed.”

Halt arched an eyebrow. “There’s a saying at the card table, that applies here: If you can’t see who the mark is, it’s probably you,” he replied. “And by that, I mean you the townspeople—the very people he’s claiming to champion.”

 “Can you explain that?” Lirrin interrupted, her brow drawn together in confusion. “I haven’t heard about this before- marks and cons and all.”

“From your work in the marketplace, I imagine you already have some familiarity with this sort of misdirection, if not in these exact terms. Put simply: you distract, you strike, you vanish. Those are the basic steps of a con, too.”

“That’s not what Lannulo’s doing here, though,” Leo frowned. “He hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s sticking around and getting people all riled up.”

“That’s just because you haven’t seen his whole game yet,” Borin said quietly. “He’s still just distracting people…. from the fact that he’s a highwayman. A common crook.”

Halt nodded “Exactly. The way his attacks play out on the road are almost a miniature version of his real game. It starts with a diversion: the shill. The shill is the man on the ground. He looks injured, hurt somehow. Maybe he begs for help. You look like a kind soul, he might plead. Help your fellow man. That sort of sentiment.

“And the merchant passing by probably does like to think he’s a good man. They eat it up, because helping the poor bastard strokes their ego and ignoring someone who’s just framed it like that is basically admitting you’re a terrible person.”

Or they actually are good people, stopping to help out of kindness,” Sibyl interjected, offended by Halt’s cynicism.

Halt tilted his head in acknowledgement. “That too. I’ll admit there are a few good souls out there. But the framing makes it a catch-all for both the vain and the humble. It’s irresistible. And that’s what a con comes down to: the irresistible. A man becomes a mark when he is offered exactly what he wants—the one thing he can’t say no to.

“Like the example I just described, some confidence tricks bank on people wanting to believe themselves good-hearted. Others rely on people wanting to believe they’re cleverer than others. In that variant, the con man let something small slip, so the mark thinks they’ve uncovered the game. But really they’re being shepherded to do exactly as the confidence man wants. It’s dropping hints, throwing out distractions, and at its core, the brazen manipulation of a person’s most basic desires.”

“Most basic desires?” Leo raised an eyebrow. “What have those got to do with it?”

“Get your mind out of the gutter!” Gwendolyn elbowed him. “That’s not what he’s talking about!”

“What are you talking about, then? What are they manipulating?” Leo asked, rubbing his arm.

“It varies; sometimes it’s greed. Other times it’s dishonesty, vanity, lust, compassion… there’s truly no end to the list of things a confidence man will exploit.”

“What is it here then?” Lirrin asked, growing impatient.

“Desperation.”

The group of prisoners was quiet a moment.

They knew that state all too well. They saw it on people’s faces everywhere they turned. Halt continued in a measured voice.

“He’s offering hope. And a chance for change, which in this case, they not only want, but also desperately need…. and so they can’t say no. He may be stealing, but he’s stealing for them. He makes people feel seen and heard and important. He speaks to them, and he speaks for them.”

“And it’s been so long since anybody has done that,” Gwendolyn murmured.

“And so it will be that much more awful when he runs out on us—taking his pretty baubles and pretty words with him,” Magritte rasped. “Leaving everyone high and dry to face the music on our own.” She shook her head. “What a mess he’s made.”

Egon sighed. “I do not think it is possible to regret anything more deeply than I do my failure to prevent this from happening.”

“It’s not your fault. Not alone anyway,” Sibyl said, laying hand on his shoulder comfortingly. “We’re all at least a little bit complicit.”

“Based on how smoothly he has things running, I’d wager you’re not the first to fall prey to his tricks either,” Halt observed.

“He’s forgotten something, though.”

To everyone's surprise, it was Lirrin who’d spoken. All eyes turned to the girl, where she sat, looking at her hands where they were clasped in her lap.

“What’s that?” Egon asked, curiously.

She looked up, and her eyes were full of fire.

“We’re not just prey. We’re goddamned Rangers. And I say we run our own little con.”

 

_______________________________

 

Will and Murrow remained where they stood for a long time as the crowd flowed out of the square, the revolutionary words echoing in their ears. Neither spoke for several minutes.

“It looks like we have our work cut out for us. He’s gathered a lot of support here,” Will said eventually.

“I don’t know why,” Murrow scowled. “He’s a thief and a liar. If they can’t see that, they’re fools.”

“Don’t judge them too harshly. They haven’t all seen the dark side of him and what he does, like you have.” Will turned away from the empty platform and began to follow the crowd, Murrow at his side. He continued, “And a lot of his points are valid. There are a lot of problems here in Keramon that are very real. These people know it, and finally someone else does too. They’re following him, because they want change, and he’s offering it.”

“Things being hard is no excuse. They’re not the only ones who have had it rough. It doesn’t mean you get to start robbing people.”

“No, it’s not an excuse. But it is part of the problem. The other problem is that they don’t have the full story here—and we don’t yet either. But we at least know he has anything but their best interests at heart.”

“Where do you think he’s keeping Ruari?” Murrow changed the subject abruptly. Will’s stomach twisted with worry. They had no way of knowing for sure that Lannulo did have Ruari. It didn’t make all that much sense for them to hold him prisoner—it probably wouldn’t be worth the trouble. But he hoped Ruari was in hiding somewhere or playing along for now or alive somewhere, because the alternative was too horrible to entertain.

“I don’t know,” he answered Murrow. “I think our best course of action would be to tail Lannulo. Pretend to be a supporter and keep an eye on his movements. With any luck, he’ll lead us to his hideout … or whatever location he operates out of.” Another thought occurred to him. “Also, keep an eye out for any Rangers. I don’t know where they are, but they’re bound to be following Lannulo and his men like we are… or else they’re his captives too.” Will finished darkly. Again, the other alternative was too dark to consider.

Murrow was quiet a moment, but he nodded.

“If… if Ruari is a prisoner, I hope there’s a Ranger there with him.” He looked ahead resolutely and avoided meeting Will’s eyes.

A smile widened on Will’s face. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were growing fond of me.” He threw an arm around the boy’s shoulder to lighten the mood, which Murrow immediately shrugged off, muttering something under his breath.

The smile stayed on Will’s face, but he didn’t tease Murrow any further.

They drew nearer to a tavern that was full of revelers who’d just heard the speech in the square. This was where Will had seen Lannulo enter. The Cracked Flagon, as its equally cracked sign proclaimed, was crowded already, but Will and Murrow were both slight enough that they managed to weave their way in between bulkier fellows.

“I think this is the most taverns I’ve ever been to in a week,” Will remarked near Murrow’s ear, so he could hear him over the noise.

“This is the most taverns I’ve been to in my life,” Murrow grumbled.

Will scanned the room and its occupants. There was only one entrance: the one they’d entered through. A bar stood to one side and plenty of tables, too. The bartender bustled, keeping the ale flowing. Most people were standing, the crowd packed too tightly for much else. Will’s eye landed on Lannulo, who stood surrounded by sycophants, looking like a king holding court in the world’s seediest palace.

Will leaned over the bar to talk to the man behind it. “A coffee and some water please.”

“Water?” Murrow made a face.

“Would you prefer milk?”

“What am I, ten?”

No, you’re thirteen, which really isn’t all that different.”

“I’m just saying, I’m not a child.”

“Have you ever drank ale before then, my fellow adult?”

“Well, not exactly, but like I said, I just haven’t been to many taverns, that’s all.”

“Well, I’m not going to be the one to supply you with your first.”

“You’re not in charge of me.”

“No, but I am paying.”

At Murrow’s sour face, Will relented slightly. “How about when we rescue your brother, we’ll all have a pint together to celebrate?”

“Might be good luck to have one now.”

Might be a good way to get you drunk. We need to stay sharp, we’re not here to party.”

Whatever. I’m going to use the outhouse.”

“Stay safe!” Will called after him.

“Yes, mother,” he threw over his shoulder. Will rolled his eyes. That surly kid might pretend to hate him, but he saw that smile tugging at Murrow’s lips.

The Ranger turned his attention back to Lannulo and his men. Most of his inner circle were seated in the corner, while Lannulo himself circulated the room. An inebriated man from the town started a raucous round of singing. At the top of their voices, the men launched a lusty rendition of an old song about Lady Luck and her… endowments. Some of the lyrics were sort of clever, but it was not a song Will would play in front of Halt. That was his main yardstick for the songs he added to his repertoire.

Although that didn’t always stop him, as the annual tradition of performing Greybeard Halt at the Ranger Gatherings had proved.

A man pushed past him, jostling him from his thought. He had come from outside and was moving through the crowd with purpose. His path headed straight toward Lannulo’s group. Will set down his coffee and began to weave through the crowd as well, as quickly as he could without attracting notice. The man spoke in Lannulo’s ear, and the demagogue’s face grew grim. His mouth moved, as he gave the newcomer his response, and the lackey nodded shortly.

Clearly, whatever news Lannulo had just received had not been welcome.

As the man moved on through the crowd, Lannulo returned to his hobnobbing with fake cheer. The man reached the group of the professional thugs next. Will had gotten closer now, but over the loud noise of the tavern it was still too far to hear what they said. After the bearer of news spoke to them, they stood and left their table—drinks and chairs abandoned.

They began to head toward Will, and his heartbeat sped up. Had he been too obvious? They had no way of knowing he was a Ranger, though. Right? As the first of them passed him by, a wave of relief washed over him, though he let nothing show outwardly. They were just moving toward the door.

He watched their backs as they slid through the crowd. Someone bumped into Will suddenly from the side, and he stumbled, toppling over forward before an arm roughly grabbed him. It arrested his fall, and he stared down for a instant at the large, steel-toed boots against which his face had been about to collide. Then the owner of the boots yanked him back, and Will was greeted by a scarred face twisted with contempt.

“Watch yerself, boy,” he sneered at Will. For the briefest moment, Will stared back uncowed, his face impassive, before he remembered the role he was meant to be playing. He plastered a vacant grin his face and patted the man clumsily on the shoulder.

“S’rry, mate,” he slurred. “I might’ve had a feeew too many.” He laughed shamelessly, as though deeply inebriated. The man’s eyes narrowed, and his grip on Will’s arm tightened.

Someone else jostled the man from behind though, distracting him, and he glanced away from Will. Catching sight his companions already at the door, he released Will after one more brief glance and walked away. Will exhaled and abandoned the act of false drunkenness. He took a quick look around the room.

Lannulo was surrounded by eager supplicants at the room’s center. Around the edges, only four of Lannulo’s thugs remained. How many had just left? More than that, at least. Whatever they were doing now, it was important, Will surmised.

He was tempted to follow them, but suddenly remembered Murrow had not yet returned. Shit! Where was he? He shouldn’t have taken this long.

Had he been recognized? They wouldn’t send that many men out for a boy, though, would they? Will hastily pushed out of the room, his anxiety and annoyance growing as the press of people in his way wasted his time. When he reached the periphery, he stepped outside the building with relief, before hurrying around to the back. The yard behind the tavern was empty and the outhouse unoccupied, as far as he could see from what light spilled out the windows of the tavern.

“Murrow!” he called out in a low voice. “Murrow!” The only answer was a goat bleating and the light tinkle of the bell at its throat.

The Ranger groaned in frustration. He turned on his heel and retraced his steps. Where could Murrow have gone? He paused at the front of the tavern, as a thought occurred to him. There was somewhere Murrow might’ve gone. Somewhere he definitely would have gone if he thought it would lead him to Ruari: after the men who’d just left.

The very dangerous, armed and ruthless men who’d just left.

Will whirled around where he stood. Which way had they gone? They’d already vanished into the darkness before Will had made it outside. He hadn’t seen which way they'd went. The Ranger looked desperately at the ground for some clue. The dirt road he stood on was inundated with footprints, but it was a mess and nearly unreadable, even to the practiced eye of a Ranger. He could make out a few paths, but he hadn’t the slightest clue of which belonged to who. It was simply impossible to tell most of the shoe prints apart.

But wait.

Steel-toed boots.

His eyes widened. That stumble might just prove the key to finding Murrow. He searched quickly and spotted them in the dirt. Their path led out of town, heading northwest—toward the King’s Road.

The Ranger strung his bow and gripping it, ran into the night.

_______________________________

 

Murrow had just rounded the corner outside of the tavern when the front door slammed open. With the first glimpse of the men who’d emerged, he leapt back around the corner he’d just rounded, concealing himself in the shadow. The redwood arrows were unmistakable. These were Lannulo’s muscled bravos.

“Where are we going?” One of them asked.

“Where do you think?” Another voice snapped.

Murrow heard footsteps receding as they walked away from the inn. Their voices were too low for him to hear more. He stood frozen a moment, paralyzed by indecision.

This was exactly the sort of opportunity he and Will were waiting for—to be led to the hideout or whatever. He nearly ran inside to get Will, but looking down the road in the direction they’d gone, Murrow could barely make out their figures—they were meters from disappearing from sight. What if they have Ruari? his mind prodded. What if they have Ruari wherever they’re going and you’re wasting your only chance to find him?

Murrow’s legs began moving before he even reached a conscious decision. When he did, though, he decided it was a quite rational one. He’d follow them. He’d just follow them in secret for now, and then he could lead Will back to their hideout later. Or if Will noticed him missing before he returned, the Ranger could always just track his path. Everyone said Rangers could do that sort of thing; it’d be no problem for him.

And most importantly, Murrow could find his brother.

Murrow ran down the street but slowed to a walk once he closed the initial gap, and to an even quieter tread once they entered the forest. He could hear them easily now. They were breaking lots of branches and made far more noise than Murrow. That was helpful, because he couldn’t imagine them hearing him over the racket they produced.

The sound of trampling branches reduced once they arrived at the King’s Road.

“You sure they’re coming here?” One of the bandits griped. “It’s a long way from home for them.”

I told you. Morrison saw them,” another growled back. “They’ll be passing this way soon, so shut up and hurry up.”

“Are they well-armed, do you think?” Another voice asked.

Of course they’re bloody well armed!” He spoke through gritted teeth. “But so are we. And we’ve got the jump on them. So, we’ll kill ‘em quick and then you can go back to your goddamn party.”

Murrow stumbled in surprise. They weren’t heading to their secret hideout at all.

They were out for blood.

Horror filled him, and suddenly the night seemed darker. He shouldn’t have come. What was he supposed to do now?

He froze. The noise from up ahead had stopped. Why?

His question was answered a moment later when a hand grabbed him by the collar and another covered his mouth. He choked at the sudden loss of air.

“Well, look what we have here,” a gravelly voice crooned by his ear.

_______________________________

 

Will’s heart leapt into his throat. Even through the darkness that cloaked the forest he could see Murrow being held captive by one of the thugs. Another man—who had his back to Will—approached the boy and a weapon glinted in his hand.

Will wasted no time; Murrow had none to spare. In a fluid motion he nocked, drew and fired one arrow, then another, sending them arcing away through the night toward the figures he could make out. He began to run before they even hit their marks, closing the distance between him and the group with every racing stride. His first arrow took the man who stood facing Murrow in the back. He dropped his blade and crumpled. The second struck the man to Murrow’s left in the breast. He, too, fell down, dead.

Will would’ve aimed for the man holding Murrow if he could have, but between the lack of light and the way Murrow’s position shielded him from Will’s deadly aim, the shot was too likely to hurt Murrow. Luckily, Murrow didn’t wait to be saved.

As soon as the arrows began to hit, he stomped on his captor’s foot and twisted his way free of the man’s grip. The man released him—too worried about the sudden attack to focus on the boy. Murrow managed to scramble off to the side, grabbing the dead man’s fallen knife as he did so. Will had drawn near enough now to see exactly what he was facing. Four men remained—all of them from Lannulo’s inner circle of criminals.

Will fired off one more shot before they were upon him. It struck as true as his others. Three remaining then. Three large men and one small Ranger.

Well, he’d faced worse odds, hadn’t he?

The first man to reach him had a narrow face and two long daggers that flashed in lethal arcs. The moonlight glinted sharply off them before they struck, giving Will a brief moment to sidestep. One of the blades still cut deeply into his left forearm. He inhaled sharply. It was a painful but thankfully not crippling wound.

In his attacker’s momentary state of unbalance after missing the bulk of his intended target, Will kicked out at the man, catching him in the side of the rib cage. He stumbled, and Will pressed the advantage. With a thrust of the saxe knife, Will ended his life.

Only the instincts that years of training had drilled into him saved his life in the next moment. The faint whoosh of a blade through the air led Will to throw himself to one side. He rolled to his feet and turned to meet the man who’d just struck. This one carried a sword. A heavy footstep behind him alerted Will to the presence of steel-booted man at his back. He danced out of the way again, trying to avoid being flanked by the two opponents.

The man with the sword swung, and Will brought up his knives in the double knife defense Gilan had taught him so long ago. The two smaller blades caught the plunging sword between them, but the force of the impact almost brought Will to his knees. He grimaced with effort. Will could hear the steel-booted brigand moving but he couldn’t risk looking away from the swordsman he now faced.

“Now, Halt! Shoot them!” He shouted desperately, hoping it would save him.

Halt was not there. Will knew this, of course. But his enemy did not. Shouting distracting things to imaginary allies was a good, if desperate, strategy for when one was outnumbered and surrounded. It often threw the enemy off their rhythm and caused a bit of chaos. Crucially, it might just create a split-second opening that could be taken advantage of. In a fight for one’s life, that instant could mean the difference between life and death—and it did today.

The man’s eyes flickered away from Will for the briefest moment in anticipation of the supposedly imminent fire. It was enough for Will to get his knife past the man’s guard and into the unprotected hollow of his neck. He fell, and before he hit the ground, Will was already spinning to face the last of the thugs, who’d come up behind him.

As the Ranger turned, he kicked his leg out, making contact with his taller opponent’s kneecap. It was as ineffectual kicking a tree though. Worse actually, because the man not only didn’t fall, but also returned with an angry kick of his own. Will tried to evade it, but his body felt sluggish and he couldn’t move in time. The steel-toed boot caught Will right in the ribs since he was still in a half-crouched position from the low spin-and-kick he’d just attempted. It knocked the air from his lungs, and Will prayed he hadn’t just heard something snap. He staggered backwards and brought his knives up to defend himself. God, they felt so heavy. Did they always feel this way?

He slashed out clumsily but missed, and suddenly his feet left the ground. The thug had grabbed him by the throat and now slammed him against the tree. The knife fell from his nerveless fingers, and he blinked back stars. Will grasped desperately at the man’s hand and at his face- at anything he could reach, but he couldn’t pry the man’s hands away. His grip was unrelenting, and Will’s desperate scrabbling was weakening.

Then suddenly, it relented. Will’s back slid down tree, and he fell to his knees gasping for air. When the spots cleared from his vision, he saw the man lying face down in front of him, a knife protruding from his back.

Murrow stood there, his hands empty, staring at the body. His breathing was ragged and panicked, and his eyes were wide and distant with shock. Will stumbled to his feet and grasped Murrow by the shoulder. Mostly to reassure the boy, but also because he was about to keel over.

“Are you ok, Murrow?” he rasped, then coughed at the pain speaking caused in his throat.

Murrow was roused from his stupor. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I…” Then the words began to spill out of him in a rush. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have gone after them, I just thought they might lead me to Ruari and I didn’t- I mean I…”

Will gave the boy’s shoulder a weak squeeze of reassurance. “It’s ok, Murrow. It’s ok… You’re alright. It’s ...” he trailed off.

What was it? He’d forgotten what he was saying. His mouth felt so dry, it made his tongue feel thick and clumsy. He didn’t feel like speaking anymore. His arm felt so very tired too, so he let go and allowed it fall to his side. A familiar warmth was spreading through him, and the heat of his skin burned with only the mild breeze to cool it.

On instinct, he waited expectantly for the gust of frigid air to buffet him or the icy splash of near frozen water to hit... because...  because.... Will’s mind fumbled. Then, he hit upon the reason, and the realization made his gut twist in horror: warmweed.

The jolt of panic cleared his thoughts. The knife fighter must have coated his blades with it. Damn! He needed to rinse his wound quick. He needed... he needed…

He needed to get warm… he was so cold, wasn’t he? No. Not now. He needed to stay focused. Why? What... was he....?

A boy stood in front of him. His mouth was moving but it didn’t seem to matter what he was saying. At least Will was warm for now....  wasn’t he?

__________________________

 

Murrow chest tightened with growing worry. “Ranger! Ranger Treaty! Will!”

The young Ranger’s head turned slowly in a daze, but he met Murrow’s eyes. His eyes were cloudy with confusion, and his pupils were the size of pinpricks.

Murrow didn’t know what was happening. One moment the Ranger had been whirl of motion—knives and arrows flashing in a deadly dance—and now he stood vacantly staring, looking dead to the world. Did he hit his head too hard against the tree? He had seemed fine moments ago.

A new sound reached Murrow’s ear, and his blood ran cold. Hoofbeats. Someone was coming along the road—in fact, in sounded like much more than one someone. They needed to move—to hide—now.

Will!” The Ranger didn’t respond.

Murrow grabbed at his hand, as though to pull him out of this state of confusion and back to his rational self. Will’s hand was pale and sweaty and lay limply in Murrow’s grasp. The man’s brow furrowed in confusion.

“Ev- Ev’nlyn?” he muttered.

 “No, it’s Murrow! We need to get off the road,” he hissed urgently. He could hear the pounding of the horses’ hooves drawing nearer. What if it was more highwaymen? Murrow’s heart was still racing from the fight, and panic was beginning to suffocate him.

It was all his fault. He shouldn’t have followed, not without telling Will, and now Will was injured or sick or something. It was all his fault, so now he had to save them from the mess he’d gotten them in, because he had gotten them into it, and Will couldn’t now, so it was up to him. He could do this.

His jaw clenched in determination.

He tightened his grip on Will’s arm and wrapped his other arm around the Ranger’s shoulders. Pulling at the confused man, he tried to get them moving. Will stumbled along as Murrow dragged him forward. He looked intently at the boy pulling him, his face furrowed in concentration.

“Murrow?” he asked, uncertain.

“Yes!” the boy responded with relief. At least the Ranger knew who he was. “Now let’s move. Someone’s coming!

Will nodded mechanically. “Halt's coming. S’okay, Ev’nlyn. Halt's coming. HaltscomingHaltscoming...” His voice trailed off into increasingly incoherent mumblings.

Murrow’s heart sank. He was still confused. … And they were out of time. The horsemen came around the curve in the road, and the bodies—along with Will and Murrow—came into their view.

“Whoa,” one called, reining in his horse. “Who goes there?”

Will spun, twisting out of Murrow’s grip, and drew his knives as if in reflex, but then wavered in confusion, listing unsteadily to the right.

“Wait!” Murrow cried, when one of the men took out a longbow. "We mean you no harm!”

“Tell that to your friend,” the man responded firmly, but not harshly.

“He’s not in his right mind! He’s sick or something!” Murrow desperately hoped they wouldn’t attack. The man peered intently at the dazed Ranger but didn't fire so Murrow took that as a positive sign.

He turned to the Ranger again. “Will, put down the knives. OK? Give them to me.” Will glanced down at his hands, looking vaguely surprised to find the knives held in them. “Give them to me here, Will.”

Slowly, Murrow took them from him. “OK, thank you,” he said uncertainly, trying to keep his voice steady. It was like trying to calm a spooked animal at the farm. Murrow had done that before. He could do this, too.

While Murrow took custody of the knives, one of the men on horseback had dismounted and was inspecting one of the fallen men’s blades. He sniffed it, then grimaced. “Calhierba,” he said darkly to his fellows. They exchanged grim glances, before their attention turned back to Murrow. 

“These men attacked you?” the one in the lead asked.

“Well sort of. Just now, they were planning on attacking you, but we’ve been investigating them ever since my brother and I were attacked about a week ago.”

“What happened here, chico? Who killed these men?”

“Will did—but only because he had to!” Murrow began defensively. “I- I followed them out here alone to see where they were going, but they caught me. It was my fault, he didn’t have a choice…”

“You misunderstand,” the man had his hand lifted to slow Murrow’s anxious tirade. He shook his head kindly. “I do not mean to accuse him but to thank him. I believe we recognize the hand behind this attack; it is one we know and loathe far too well. Any strike against this scoundrel is one we commend.” He glanced around the scene, taking in the result of the chaotic fight. “We owe him our thanks, as well, for saving us from this ambush.”  

He looked over his shoulder to address his men: “We make camp here. Luís, see to our rescuer.”

The group was quick and efficient at setting up their little camp in a clearing a couple dozen meters off the road. In a half hour or so, the horses were brushed down and tied to the trees, and small tents were erected in a half circle. Some of the men returned to the road, to remove the bodies from it. Those were left in a gully off to the other side of the road, beneath piled stones to keep the scavengers away. The thugs and murderers would languish in a nameless grave. Even had anyone wished to mark them, they would have been unable, since no one knew the names of the dead men.

Murrow found himself somewhat relieved that all of the men who had been killed were of the hardened criminal sort that Lannulo had brought with him, and none were young men or boys from the village, who had families to worry and wonder about their fate. These brutal men inspired no pity in Murrow. As a kindness from the very men they were planning to murder, a humble unmarked grave was a generous enough treatment.

Before long, they had gathered enough kindling for a small blaze, and the men began to congregate around its warmth, trickling back in as they finished their tasks.

The man, Luís, had meanwhile gotten out a bundle of medical supplies and approached the dazed Ranger, who stood motionless as the men strode by him in ceaseless activity. When the healer drew him aside, Will sat down obediently against the trunk of thick oak tree, still staring fixedly at the ground. He offered no resistance as Luís rolled back his sleeve and set to rinsing his wound. Murrow watched from Will’s other side.

“What’s wrong with him?”

Luís glanced up at him briefly.

“It is a drug known as calhierba. Or warmweed, in your tongue. It dulls the mind and slows the body. These criminals were using it as a poison daub for their blades.” He began to wrap Will’s arm in gauze, before continuing.

“I would guess they chose it, because calhierba is relatively cheap among the ranks of dangerous substances. To obtain poisons of the deadly sort would be far more costly. But this drug can be just as devastating. It does not kill directly, but it is potent and acts swiftly. In a fight it would cripple your ability to defend yourself and permit your enemy to kill you more easily. Your friend was lucky; he lasted long enough to finish his fight before it affected him.” His brow furrowed and he looked thoughtfully at the young ranger. “Most people succumb extremely quickly. Most people do not speak in its grasp, though, either."

Will was still muttering softly at odd intervals, barely audible.“Yessir,” he murmured, eyes lifeless. Murrow could not suppress the dismay that threatened to overwhelm him at the Ranger’s unhinged state.

“You have experience dealing with it, though? You’ve healed people from it before. He’ll be ok, right?”

The Iberian nodded. “The dose was not too large, and we have cleansed it from the wound. We can only wait for the effects—of that which already entered his bloodstream—to fade on their own. It has already lasted nearly an hour; it should be eliminated within another.” Murrow’s chest loosened and expanded in a deep, shuddering breath of relief. One of the men offered him a flask of water, which he gratefully accepted.

He looked around the circle of people gathered around the fire. “I’m, er, sorry. I didn’t get your names. My name is Murrow, and this is Will,” he said jerking his elbow toward his companion. “He’s a Ranger.”

“Ah, that explains how he fought so many. Your Araluen Rangers are a fearsome company,” replied the leader.

The edge of Murrow’s mouth turned up slightly. “They’re not bad.”

The man smiled in amusement. “My name is Cristián, and these men are my guard: Santiago, Elio, Fermín, Guillermo, Esteban, and Iñigo. And Luís- our man of medicine.”

Murrow nodded politely. “You are… Iberian?” They nodded. “You’ve traveled far, then,” he remarked.

“We come to pay our respects at the royal wedding.”

“Oh,” Murrow’s eyes widened in surprise. “You are dignitaries, then?”

Some of them smiled in amusement.

“You could say that,” Cristián smiled, then took pity at the boy’s confusion. “I am the Crown Prince of Iberion, Cristián Federico Cesár Angelo de Montaña.”

Murrow’s eyes widened further in shock. “Your Highness!” he exclaimed in embarrassment and tried to bow clumsily from his already seated position.

The man chuckled. “There is no need for that, young man. Please, call me Cristián. Consider me a friendly visitor to your homeland. Please, there is no need to stand on ceremony.” Murrow nodded slowly in disbelief. He was sitting around a campfire in the company of foreign royalty and a member of the mysterious Ranger corps. What had his life become?

They offered him a piece of bread and jerky, which he took and chewed numbly. He should probably talk to the Iberian Prince—that would be polite—but he couldn’t focus. His thoughts kept straying back to the fight and the sight of the life leaving a man’s eyes. He’d seen death before; he’d lived on a farm, after all. But a human life… that was different. Even if those men acted little better than animals.

Murrow’s attention was drawn back to the present by the sound of Santiago speaking in a low angry voice to Fermín. Several of the men nodded in grim agreement.

“What did you say?” Murrow asked, worried by the mood of the group.

“You alarm our guest, Santiago,” Cristián said, in slight reproval. Santiago turned to Murrow.

“My apologies, chico. I was just saying it seems the filthy dog has not changed his methods. Always using cheap tricks and vile poisons to do his dirty work.”

“You know of Lannulo?” Murrow asked in surprise. Several of the men spat at the name.

. I am not surprised he has taken up with the drug of the Skandian savages. He took what he saw and turned it to his advantage. As he does many things,” he finished darkly.

“Hmm,” Cristián nodded in agreement. “I would not be surprised to learn he fell in with such pirates for a time. This is a drug found in unsavory quarters.”

“Like the slaveyards of Hallasholm,” supplied a quiet, raspy voice.

 Murrow spun sharply to look at Will. “You’re back!"

The young ranger offered a weak smile. “Wasn’t gone too long, was I?"

“No more than an hour and perhaps half of one,” Luís answered. He offered the Ranger a drink of water. “Your throat, it is dry?” 

“God, yes,” he accepted the water gratefully and drank deeply. 

The healer gazed at Will before speaking. “I am surprised,” he said carefully. “I did not expect the effects to wear off so swiftly.” The look in his eyes said he suspected the reason for it. 

Will set down the flask. His lips pressed in thin line, and he nodded.

“I have... been under its influence before."

“Under the Skandian barbarity?”

Another slight nod. “They don’t use it anymore though,” he defended. “Under the former Oberjarl—Ragnak—warmweed was rampant in the yard, but since then his successor, Erak, has banned it. In fact, Skandians don’t generally deal in it at all now— the Oberjarl disapproves quite strongly… And it never really reached Araluen shores in any meaningful quantity. I’m rather surprised to have come across it all.” He paused, before adding softly, “I’d been hoping I wouldn’t ever again in fact.”

Cristián was nodding sadly. “Unfortunately, it is still very possible to find in Iberion. It is trafficked in from other parts of the continent. It grows easily in our temperate climate as well, so we have not been able to rid ourselves of it. I would see it purged from my land, but there are still those who seek it out. It is not so prevalent—for that I am thankful—because it is a drug with no purposes but sinister ones. But Lannulo is a man with no purposes but sinister ones. There is much he trucks in that any decent man would scorn.”

“You know him, then,” Will said.

Cristián nodded. “We have the unfortunate dishonor of calling him our countryman- by birth at least. He is wanted there by the law and the people alike. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he is fiercely not wanted. He lives in exile, because to return would be to court death, and foolhardy in the extreme. If he set foot on Iberian soil again, he would be hunted down by his enemies. And he has made many enemies. They-”

We,” a man interjected.

“We,” Cristián inclined his head. “—are numerous and widespread and still very, very angry.”

“What did he do?” Murrow set down his bread. He had no appetite for it.  

“Precisely what I imagine he must be doing here: twisting people’s lives to further his own ends. Robbing the rich, only to turn around and rob the poor, as well. Rousing the rabble, then leaving when the punishment for his deeds is rained down upon them. Strife follows in his footsteps, and where he goes, he leaves ruins in his wake.”

Santiago cut in angrily. “He is a filthy dog. No, he is a rat! A piece of vermin weaseling his way in where he isn’t wanted and spreading disease and filth. He is a blight on all those he meets.”

Will’s head still felt foggy from the drug, but the man’s hatred was unmistakably intense. “I take it you’ve dealt with him personally?”

Guillermo spoke for him. “He came to Santiago’s town soon after he left home to join the army… There was little for him to return to, when Lannulo was finished with it.”

“My family was destroyed. He took everything from us,” the man growled. His hand was clenched around a flask of water, so tightly it looked like it might burst.

“My younger brother, Ramon, he was a foolish boy—but harmless. I joined the guard, but he was set to spend his life on the farm. He enjoyed it, the quiet life, until that swine came. My brother believed the pretty speeches he made about the unfairness and injustice and how robbery was the answer. He was killed the first time he went along for one of their little highway raids.

“And my sister Marina nearly died too. When the army came and the riots began, our house burned, and she nearly burned with it. She still has scars on her face from the flames. Our home was destroyed, and our family torn apart. My sister moved in with relatives in Castillos, and I stayed on in the guard and never went back. Our town, Villaluescas, it never recovered. The people lost everything.”

The group was blanketed by silence for a moment, but for the crackling of the fire. 

“Ranger,” Cristián began, thoughtfully. Will looked to the man. “If you do not object, my men and I would like nothing better than to join you in catching this blackguard. Enough suffering has been caused at his hands; I would spare your people it if I could.” He tilted his head and smiled wryly. “Not to mention, we would take great, personal satisfaction in seeing him thwarted.”

Will looked around the circle and perceived the eagerness that shone in Santiago’s eyes and the fierce determination in the others’. These men not only knew intimately the enemy they faced but also had the skills to see it done.

He couldn’t have asked for better allies.

“I’d be honored to work alongside you.”

____________________

           

Things quieted down after that declaration. Eager as the men were, it was late, and Will’s head still felt addled and slow. Cristián declared they could discuss their plans further in the morning and bade his men to begin putting out the fire and organizing a watch.

As they set to it, Will turned hesitantly to Luís.  “Erm, what can I expect after – after this? I mean in terms of effects since I… have been on it before.”

Luís looked at him with sympathy. “There will be some symptoms of withdrawal, this I cannot prevent. You may be relieved to hear there is no need for any more of it—the dose was small enough there is no need to taper off gradually. But it will not be a pleasant few days.”

“Days, huh?” Will sighed. He could already feel it beginning—the sensation of his heart beating a little too fast, the cold sweat on his brow and an uncomfortable twitching in some of his muscles. “I was hoping it would be quicker.”

“It should be only occasional and slight discomfort after the first twenty four hours.”

Will nodded, resigned. Luís was quiet for a long moment before he spoke again. “Ranger, your tolerance for calhierba most likely saved your life this night. You would have succumbed much more swiftly had you not experienced it before. It is a small comfort, in the face of your suffering, but tonight it meant your life.”

Will did not answer immediately. He had long ago come to terms with the most of hardships he had undergone in Skandia. Had he and Evanlyn not been taken, Halt would not have come to the icebound land and led the fight against the Temujai or forged a treaty between the nations. Will had come to consider his enslavement a price worth paying, in the grand scheme of things because of the good that resulted from it.

But his addiction to the drug he had not fully accepted in the same way. The things he’d endured in the yard had been needlessly cruel, and no good that he could see came out of his time dying in the clutches of warmweed. He couldn’t help resent it in a deeper, more indelible way for the changes it had forced upon him.

To know, now, that it had saved his life today? It lifted that weight the smallest amount. The barest hint of a smile flit across his face.

“Thank you,” he said softly to Luís. The man nodded and moved to pack away his medical supplies.

Murrow shifted where he sat, then moved hesitantly closer to sit by Will.

“I didn’t know... that happened to you in Skandia.”

“Most don’t,” he gave a small, bitter smile. “The victory over the Temujai and the peace treaty that I'm named for are the more exciting parts of the tale anyway. If you add in the details that I was only there because I got enslaved by pirates and spent a winter drugged out of my mind, it doesn’t make for as good of a story.” His tone stayed light, but in a way that sounded brittle and forced to Murrow’s ear.

Murrow was silent a moment. He was never good with saying the right thing at the right time to people. Right now, least of all.

Right now he was angry, and scared, and worried about Ruari, and starting to fear he would never see his brother again. He already would never see his parents again, and he’d probably never go back to the farm, and if he lost all of that and Ruari too… what was there even left?

He scowled in frustration at the mess of his feelings, but he spoke again. He had to say something. So, he drew in a breath.

“It... it’s an important story. It’s your story. And ... you should be proud that you survived. And made it home. That’s what counts. That’s what really m-matters,” He opened his mouth to continue but had to close it to prevent something alarmingly close to a sob from escaping. 

Murrow,” Will said kindly, with a sad—but real—smile this time. He pulled the boy into a tight hug. Murrow froze a moment, then let his chin rest on the Rangers shoulder and slowly put his arms around the man.

“We’re going to find Ruari and make sure he comes home,” Will spoke right by his ear, softly but fiercely. “Both of you will. You are going to survive this and then… then it’ll just be a part of your story. Someday you’ll be telling everyone all about how you rescued your brother by teaming up with a heroic young Ranger--”

The boy snorted at that. And if his eyes were looking wet… well, the smoke from extinguishing the fire was in his eyes. Will smiled, and after another moment, released him.

Murrow was just climbing to his feet when Will stilled suddenly. Iñigo, who had been walking past, looked at the Ranger curiously. “¿Qué pasa?”

“I hear someone coming.”

The men dropped their tasks, and hands found weapons. Will automatically reached for his bow but struggled to grasp it as tremors shook his hands. Luís lay a hand on his arm. “Your hands are not steady just yet, Ranger,” he spoke gently but firmly. “Our men will handle it.”

Will hesitated but nodded. Any shot he fired now would be more hindrance than help if his shaking hands caused his aim to go awry. It was frustratingly painful to be back in this state of infirmity, like that which had plagued him when he suffered through withdrawal the first time in the Skandian mountains. Thank heavens, this was not nearly so bad, but he shuddered to have any reminder of those days.

Murrow was on his feet too, craning his neck to see who approached. Elio nocked an arrow to his bowstring in readiness, as the horse and its rider came into view.

Murrow sucked in a sudden breath.

“DON’T SHOOT! THAT’S MY BROTHER!”

Chapter Text

It was curious the way fate led paths to cross, again and again across time and distance, bringing together people whose journeys had long since diverged.

Curious, and at times, unfortunate.

When Cristián set out from Iberion to attend the wedding of the Araluen princess, he did so both as a long-time friend of Duncan and as the monarch of a neighboring state. It could not—alas—be wholly the former, because as much as he genuinely wished the young couple well, he also knew he could not entirely dispense with his political obligations on this journey. Royal weddings were important events for gathering dignitaries from far-off lands. They were a rare opportunity on which there could be conversation and cooperation without tense negotiation or the threat of imminent war. So, he had known the trip would mean seeing old friends and acquaintances he had not encountered for many years.

He had not expected it to bring him face-to-face with old enemies once more, however.

Lannulo. The very name was foul on his tongue. Or el Lobo de Villaluescas, as he was known in Iberion. There were other names for him too, but none that truly bore repeating. (Despise the villain he might, but Cristián was ever the consummate gentleman.... Even when dark times sorely tested his patience and he felt on edge, as he did now.)

A disquieting suspicion that something was amiss had begun to needle at the back of Cristián’s mind long before he had ridden around the bend to the sight of the panicking lad and afflicted Ranger stumbling down the King’s Road away from a field of slain men. That was merely the first piece that fell into place and began to make sense of the fragmented picture he had before him. He had had the first hints of suspicion much farther south.

The feeling had taken root as he'd ridden past fallow fields, where the land had succumbed to the gorse and nettle that grew high and wild where there should have been crops. That sense of unease had heightened with each passing wooden shack that stood uninhabited—graying and collapsing under the invisible weight of neglect. In fact, that weight seemed to extend to the road too. It was not in poor repair, precisely, but it was in worse condition than the better-groomed paths they had traversed in other fiefs.

The rumors of bandits that reached them as they neared Keramon had been the latest matter of concern--a rumor that they had now, unfortunately, verified. Clearly, this was not a place where all was well.

Despite his displeasure at finding Lannulo at the center of the trouble here, it was a small relief to put a name to that apprehension, to know its source. The poison-daubed blades along with black-fletched redwood arrows together were a trademark of Lannulo’s and would have made obvious to the Iberians his involvement even had the Araluens not confirmed it. It was precisely the type of macabre showmanship Lannulo relished.

Lannulo was a man whose dark path Cristián had no great desire to cross again, but it seemed fate that it should be so. After all, the cunning devil was his subject and therefore his responsibility to bring to justice—a justice which had been thwarted once… but perhaps this time would not be.

It was a strange bit of chance, but sometimes when Cristián was feeling contemplative, he wondered whether such a thing even existed. Perhaps, nothing was random, nor had it ever been. Perhaps all things, no matter how great or small, were intimately and inextricably tied to all others, and, justice was not merely something that could or should be, but something that was and would be—even if the road to arrive there was not always apparent.

It was a fanciful bit of thinking, but Cristián figured that, in a way, it was his duty to hold on to his faith in justice. If, as king, he could not, how could any of his people hope to?

Regardless—even had he not believed in such things—the touching reunion before him would have been a strong force in swaying him. Two brothers, torn apart by misfortune, but brought together once more by the threads of fate? It was a stirring scene.

“Murrow?” The rider was already sliding off his horse and squinting to see who was racing towards him

Ruari!

The boy slammed into and wrapped himself tightly around his startled brother like a bola around its quarry. He buried his head the stocky young man’s chest and clung to him fiercely. Ruari ran a hand through the boy’s hair and returned the hug tightly.

“I’m so glad you’re alright,” he was murmuring. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

The Iberian monarch smiled, knowing precisely the sort of intense worry—and relief—only one’s family could provoke. After all, wasn’t that exactly how he felt for his nephew, Raul, whenever the boy turned up after staying out late to play with his friends and missing his sunset curfew by hours? Raising Raul as his own following the death of the boy’s parents had involved more scraped knees, sleepy bedtime stories, temper tantrums and consoling cookies than he could have ever anticipated, but there wasn’t a minute of it Cristián would’ve traded for anything.

Cristián glanced around to check on his men briefly, to afford the brothers a moment of reunion without his watching. They were sheathing their blades, relaxing from the sudden alarm that had been raised by the sound of an unknown rider now that his identity was known. His attention was called back to the brothers as the older began to speak.

“Are you really alright? Where have you been these past days?”

Me? What about you? Are you okay? You’re the one that got captured!”

“Yes, but you’re my little brother,” the young man retorted with a smile. “So, I get to ask about you first.”

Murrow huffed and grabbed horse’s bridle, dragging both it and his brother towards the camp and the firelight.

“I passed through a few towns—Woolsey first and some others near there—but they were useless. Nobody would help me when I told them about the bandits,” Murrow groused.

“I don’t imagine they would,” Ruari said, his mouth twisting grimly in agreement. “Lots of sympathizers there.”

Murrow’s expression was a practiced blend of disgust and frustration. “I know that now. Will and I heard all that rubbish earlier today in the square.”

“Will? Who’s Will?” Ruari looked around the group now, taking stock of whose company his little brother had been in.

“That’d be me.”

Cristián turned to see the Ranger in question smile and raise a hand in greeting from where still stood by Luís, leaning slightly against a tree. He set down his bow before approaching Ruari, and the two young men clasped hands in greeting. He already seemed steadier than he had before, Cristián noted.

“Will’s a Ranger,” Murrow supplied.

“A Ranger?” Ruari replied slowly, with surprise. “I’ve met one as well. He’s the reason I’m here, in fact.”

Fate, indeed, Cristián mused, returning his thoughts from earlier. Or perhaps it is just Rangers behind it all, he considered with a wry smile. If that were true, it would certainly help along the hand of justice in the world.

“His name was Halt—do you know him?” Ruari continued.

Will’s eyes widened. “Yes! You’ve seen him? Do you know where he is?” Ruari’s expression twisted into one of dismay, and he glanced at Murrow before meeting Will’s gaze once more. Once he began, the words spilled out of him in a rush.

“He’s been captured by Lannulo. It’s my fault, really—he was trying to get the deed to our farm for me. I was supposed to be keeping lookout, but there were already some men inside. They managed to catch me off guard, and by the time I knew anything was wrong, they already had him. I managed to get away- I- I thought I’d ride to the baron of Caraway for help. I didn’t know what else to do-”

Captured, you said—so he’s alive, then? They didn’t kill him?” Will’s gaze was searching, desperate for news.

“Not last I saw,” Ruari responded uncertainly.

“And when was that?”

“This afternoon.”

At this piece of news, the young Ranger’s intent questioning eased up for a moment, and he drew in a deep breath to think this over. Cristián decided to step in there. The young people were all looking slightly overwhelmed.

“Come, take a seat, chico,” he said, gesturing to the little camp they’d made. “The hour is late, and you look weary.”

Ruari thanked him, with a glance of mild confusion at his brother, probably wondering who this group was. Murrow’s face turned red as he realized his oversight. Cristián had never been a typical monarch, with his total disinterest in pomp and protocol, but Murrow was clearly horrified that he had forgotten about the king in their midst.

“Er—Ruari, this is Cristián and his men. He’s… the King of Iberion.” Ruari’s eyes somehow managed to widen even further at this revelation.

“Y-Your Majesty,” he stuttered, as he hurried to bow before the man. Cristián would have chuckled at the boy’s clumsy but earnest attempt at it had he not caught the wince that tightened Ruari’s face with the movement. His amusement was replaced by concern.

“You are injured?”

“Only a little—” he began, before Murrow cut him off.

What?” he squawked, indignant. His hands began searching his brother for the injury. “You’re hurt? Why didn’t you say so? What happened? Where—"

Will laid a hand on Murrow’s shoulder to slow the stream of panicked babble.

“Let’s let your brother sit, and Luís can have a look,” the Ranger said calmingly. He looked hopefully to Luís who was already making his way over to them.

Together Will and Luís helped ease Ruari to the ground to be seated. When Luís’s careful hands drew back the folds of his jacket, a blossom of dark red became visible on the fabric over his abdomen. Murrow sucked in a sharp breath.

“Ruari!” His eyes were wide with horror.

“Don’t worry about me, Mur,” Ruari said, wincing even as he did so. Luís cut away the shirt and set to work cleaning the wound. It was bleeding only sluggishly now. “It’s not so bad,” he insisted. Murrow did not look persuaded. He looked to the Ranger as if for confirmation, but the curly haired man suddenly stilled as though something had occurred to him.

“Ruari,” he began in a carefully measured tone. “After they stabbed you, did you feel at all strange, or foggy?”

“What? No,” he frowned. “Should I have?”

“There is no sign of any poison in the wound,” Luís cut in smoothly. They all breathed out in relief at that. The healer finished wrapping the wound as he spoke. “The blade appears to have missed anything vital, because it entered near the side. The bleeding is controlled, and there has not been such a substantial amount lost already as to be a danger to you. My only cause for concern is the possibility of infection, which is the case with any wound not immediately treated. For now, rest and try not strain yourself.”

The young man’s shoulders slumped in relief, and he nodded vigorously at that. “Yes, sir. Thank you, my lord.” Cristián and Luís’s eyes met, and they tried not to smile. Cristián hoped he wouldn’t re-injure himself with all the enthusiastic nodding. “And, thank you, Your Majesty. It’s an honor and—”

Cristián interjected before he ran out of breath. “It is my pleasure,” he smiled and gave a small, polite bow. Ruari looked dumbstruck at this.

His younger brother, meanwhile, had stopped fussing around him for a moment as his eye caught on at the Ranger, who was still staring intently at their newest arrival. Murrow’s brow wrinkled in concern. “What is it?” he asked anxiously.

Will just shook his head in awe. “Your brother—he’s just so …. polite.” He looked at Murrow. “Are you sure you’re related?”

Murrow just scowled and moved to slug him in the arm, before stomping over to resettle himself beside his brother. Will laughed softly, with fondness in his eyes as he took in the sight of the re-united brothers. It was clear the Ranger was relieved to see the boy back to his old self. He gave Ruari a quick smile and a small pat of reassurance, then stood and turned to go, giving the brothers a minute to themselves.

The others were settling down once more for the night all about the camp, setting up a watch and taking out bedrolls. Luís re-packed his supplies, as Elio and Fermín took first watch. Cristián set up his own place to sleep and that of Luís as well, while their healer was still otherwise occupied. When the king finished, he noticed the Ranger still standing at the edge of the camp, his mind obviously very far away and his stare focused on the middle distance. Brushing the dust off his knees, he approached the young Araluan, stopping by his shoulder.

“He is strong for one so young,” Cristián began with a nod towards Murrow, feeling a small smile pulling at his lips. Will turned to see who had spoken, then glanced at the brothers, taking in the sight of the two falling asleep leaned up against one another.

“Yeah, he is—they both are,” he agreed with a smile of his own. Cristián let the moment linger briefly, loath to disrupt the goodwill, but—alas—there were matters afoot that could not be ignored.

“Ranger, this night has been a long and trying one, but before we retire, I must ask: what move will be your next? The lad’s brother is returned, and now you have learned something the fate of your comrade: he is in Lannulo’s thrall,” he turned his head expectantly toward Will. “What do you intend to do from here?”

Will sighed wearily but offered a wry smile as he met Cristián’s eye.

“Well, I suppose it’s time to devise a plan for the rescue. A certain knight once informed me it’s what Rangers do best.”

____________________

 

Night had fallen, the darkness painted in thick swathes around the fortress. Though it sat high in the sky, the thin sickle of a moon did little to pierce the shadows that hung from its walls.

The riders that approached on the old, broken road shattered the tense silence with their hoofbeats. The staccato beat slowed as they neared the guarded walls. Voices called between those arriving on horseback and those on the rampant, but their words were pulled away by the westward wind. Before long, the gaping maw of the tall gates was opened wide to accept the newcomers.

The clatter of hooves filled the courtyard, and the low murmur of angry voices followed. Their words were muffled by the thick wood of the palisade, but the man listening kept his attention on the commotion, nonetheless. His patience was rewarded when the next exclamation came from a voice raised in agitation.

“They didn’t come back,” it protested insistently, before continuing at a lower but still audible volume. “Somebody’s killed them—I’m certain of it.”

He couldn’t hear the question that this provoked, but he caught the response.

“I don’t know! Either it was them or more Rangers. Everywhere we turn there’s another fucking one. Whoever it was, we didn’t stick around—when none of ‘em returned, we left before things had a chance to catch up to us.”

Another part too low to hear.

“No, we’re done here. A few loose ends, then we’re gone. I bet it’s another two days at most, then we head downriver… someone’s onto us.”

In the shadows, a gray-bearded Ranger smiled.

____________________

 

Will lay on his back, his eyes open and staring up at the canopy of branches that stretched out high above him. They overlapped and tangled with each other, and he could see the pale morning sky only in pieces where it peeked out from the small spaces between them. His thoughts felt just as tangled as the mess of boughs and shoots above him. It filled him with a weary, familiar frustration. With an annoyed shake of his head, he rolled over and pushed to his feet. He’d had a restless night and couldn’t bring himself to stay in that spot any longer.

Watching the two brothers’ tearful reunion last night, he’d been overjoyed for Murrow. The boy had been so desperate to find Ruari, and now that he had, it was as though a great weight had been lifted from him. But for Will, the troubles were only just beginning, because Halt had been captured by Lannulo. For the brothers’ sake, he’d smiled and teased and been outwardly calm the night before, but by the time everyone had turned to sleep, his mind had been fully oriented towards his next steps and whirring through the possibilities of where Halt could be, how he might be, and what Will could do to get there.

Ruari had known disappointingly little about Lannulo’s operation. He’d thought the man might be using some sort of abandoned fort to store some of the stolen goods, and he had named Lendsley, a small town not far from the King’s Road, as the con artist’s main base of operations, but had had no idea which of the two—if either—would be Lannulo’s preferred site to hold a prisoner. Will had already decided he’d go to Lendsley today and scope out the people and resources Lannulo had on his side there.

Hopefully, it was not so small a town that he would be immediately an object of suspicion on account of being an outsider. He was aiming to gather information by talking to some of the villagers. Surely—even if he was not trusted by any of the individuals privy to Lannulo’s secrets—there would be some, who either resented or opposed the man, with whom he could work. Nowhere Will had yet traveled had he encountered a place where everyone’s politics agreed and they all thought along the same lines as one another. Disagreement was simply a natural state of being for most of humanity. Here, that division could prove his best hope for turning the tables on the thief.

As a Ranger on a mission, Will knew that officially his first responsibility was to focus on the big picture of Lannulo’s schemes for the fief. The silver oakleaf around his neck hung there to remind him of his duty to the people served. However, none of this changed the fact that—if he was being completely honest with himself—as Just-Will-Treaty, his first priority was Halt’s safety.

Together they’d survived the monstrous kalkara, slaving piratical axe-men, rampaging mounted warriors from the East, sandstorms and vengeful desert tribesmen, ruthless assassins, fanatical cults, and insurgent members of a warrior nobility as far as half a world away. It would almost be offensive to their Rangerhood if a con man from a neighboring kingdom got the best of them on their home soil now.

That, and Will would fight and bleed and die before he let Halt get hurt.

One could never reliably trust in the safety of hostages, because their position was a precarious one. They would not outlive their usefulness should the situation shift. So, Will had to make sure they (for he had no doubt this was where the other conspicuously absent Rangers had disappeared to) remained useful. It was time to put some pressure on Lannulo, before he decided to cut his losses (figuratively) and his hostages’ throats (literally) and make a break for it before he could be stopped. Really, Will surmised, ensuring Halt’s safety and stopping Lannulo were two goals that went entirely hand in hand.

He had thought his way in circles to this conclusion a few times now—on each circuit, analyzing possible resources and allies he might pull in to assist him—and had realized there was no one near enough at hand who he could call upon in time, save for possibly what townspeople he could turn against Lannulo and, most crucially, Cristián and his party. Thank Gorlog for small miracles like their appearance (…Will wasn’t actually sure if Gorlog was supposed to be invoked in gratitude, but without Halt around to consult on his favorite Skandian deity, Will would just have to do his best to blaspheme clumsily in his honor for now.)

The futility of overthinking the whole scenario without further information had finally overtaken Will and pushed him to get up. He felt a little stiff from his night on the cold ground, but a moment or two of quick stretching straightened him out. The air was fresh and crisp this morning and he inhaled deeply to clear his head.

He still felt a bit off-kilter from his scare the day before—his re-encounter with warmweed. It had shaken him more than he had initially realized, and that had been another factor keeping him from sleep. Even after he had escaped the drug-induced stupor that had imprisoned him during that long Skandian winter, his mind had felt cloudy and slow for some time after. Throughout all the strategizing and planning they had swiftly become embroiled in to prepare for the battle against the Temujai, Will had felt impeded by his own limits. He had worried he would never regain the mental capacity he’d possessed before his addiction. His fears had proved unfounded, thankfully, and it had only been a matter of time before a clear mind was his once more.

Still, none of this stopped him from feeling that familiar stab of worry now, as he struggled to chart his course of action. The headache brewing in his temples was no comfort on that front either, but at least his unsteadiness of the night before had passed. Small mercies.

Gorlog’s teeth, he was a mess. Well, at least I used it properly that time, Will smiled wryly to himself. Erak and Gundar would be proud.

Most of their little camp was still asleep, with only Guillermo and Santiago awake to keep watch at the moment. Will nodded to them in greeting, before deciding he would check on and brush down the stolen horse Ruari had ridden in on last night. Will missed Tug, but as much as he wanted to go retrieve him from where he’d stabled the little horse in Woolsey, he knew he didn’t have time to backtrack. Will had paid in advance for Tug’s stay, so his old friend would just have to sit tight another few days.

“Ranger Treaty,” a voice called softly. Will paused in his stride and turned to find it was Ruari who’d spoken. The young man lay under a blanket nearby, with Murrow still sleeping to his left. The younger boy was sleeping deeply, undisturbed by the sound.

“Please— call me Will,” the Ranger smiled, coming closer.

“Will,” he nodded, shifting so he was sitting halfway up. Will took a seat on a rock beside him so they could speak quietly without disturbing the others. It was early yet. The Ranger took a more evaluative look at the young man now that he was closer: in the morning light Ruari was looking a bit clammy, but overall in good spirits—probably still flooded with relief from his reunion with Murrow the night before.

 “I wanted to thank you for looking after my kid brother,” Ruari continued, his voice full of earnest gratitude.

Will smiled gently. “Of course.” They both glanced to where Murrow was sleeping. The boy appeared far younger now than he had in all the days Will had seen him—his face smooth and relaxed with sleep and not set in a frown. “But,” Will continued, and Ruari looked back to Will. “Even if I hadn’t, I have no doubt he’d have managed anyway. He’d have raised an army somehow and come marching to your rescue.” He grinned crookedly. "He’s unstoppable."

Ruari laughed softly. “Yeah. He’s something alright.” He paused for a breath. “But, truly, thank you. I dunno what I'd do if he weren’t ok… Do you have any siblings, Will?"

Will hesitated. “None by blood. I was left as a baby to be raised at a castle ward—but my ward mates are as good as family to me.” He thought fondly of Jenny, George, Horace.

Ruari nodded in understanding. “Murrow’s all that’s left of mine. I’d die before I’d let anything happen to him.”

Will put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll make sure it doesn’t come to that.” A small shiver went through the blonde boy.

While they had been speaking, the morning light had woken a few more of the men, who now stirred and began to rise. Luís had gathered together his kit of supplies and now approached them to examine his patient. Will stepped back to give him room to unwrap the bandages around Ruari’s middle.

He watched as the man hesitated after drawing back the gauze covering the wound. The Ranger glanced over the healer’s shoulder to see why. Though Will was certainly no expert, he had been on the receiving end of a bad wound or two, and he was pretty sure the inflamed redness he now saw surrounding Ruari’s was not a good sign. Will bit his lip at the sight of the streaks of muted scarlet under the skin tracing away from the injury.

“What’s wrong?” Ruari asked, his brow furrowed. He had noticed the concern of the other two.

“I am afraid the wound is infected, signor,” Luís responded carefully.

“Oh,” he said faintly. “I suppose that’s no good. Can you, er, fix it?”

The Iberian pressed the back of his hand to his patient’s forehead to feel the temperature and shook his head gravely. “Unfortunately, no. Not with the limited supplies that are available to me.”

Will sat back on his heels to consider this. Most of the others had awoken by now and were beginning to break camp. Elio, who had slept nearby and overheard Luís’s proclamation called softly to Cristián in Iberian.

As the monarch approached, Murrow stirred and sat up with a deep yawn. He took in the serious expressions on their faces and swiftly shook off the last vestiges of sleep to make way for some alarm.

“What’s going on?” Murrow asked, looking from his brother to the others then back to Ruari.

“We’re just a little worried about your brother’s wound,” Will began.

“Why?” Murrow cut in.

“It’s become infected,” Luís reiterated. “He needs better treatment than I can provide here. Where is the nearest village? Any healer not on the road as I am should have the necessary resources.”

Will glanced at Murrow. “That’d be Lendsley. It’s just east of here.”

“Lendsley? Hang on, I can’t go back there,” Ruari protested. “That’s where I’ve just come from.”

“What about Woolsey?” Murrow interjected, frowning. “It’s in the other direction but it’s not that much farther.” They turned to Luís for his medical opinion.

“I would rather not move you at all in this state as it will be quite painful to ride with your injury as it is. But to seek proper treatment, it is a necessity that we do. Since we must, the shorter the distance, the better,” he said firmly.

Will and Cristián exchanged a troubled look.

“I was planning to go to Lendsley on my own today anyway—to find out more about this fort and figure out where Halt is being held,” the Ranger said. “But no one knows me there—our main concern is anyone recognizing you, Ruari. Have you met the physician in Lendsley? If we managed to avoid anyone else seeing your face, could that work?”

Ruari grimaced. “I’m not sure. I mean, I haven’t met him, but I’m pretty sure the healer was helping Lannulo’s men when they got injured. He might tell if I come in stabbed like this. I don’t know how far his loyalty to them goes…”

“Maybe they’re intimidating him,” Murrow cut in. “I bet he’s only helping because he can’t refuse—like you did.” Ruari looked guilty the reminder, so Murrow hurried onward. “Anyway, Will and I saw Lannulo in Woolsey last night, so he probably won’t be there. And he’s down a bunch of men since then, too. We’ve got to get you help, Ruari.”’

Murrow looked at his brother with imploring eyes, but Ruari still seemed undecided. “What do you think?” he asked Cristián. The Iberian monarch waited a moment before responding, a thoughtful look on his face. He laid a hand on Luís shoulder.

“If Luís says the journey will be painful, then for your sake, we should not prolong it. If Lendsley is truly the nearest town, I think we must risk it.”

Ruari let out a breath—wincing as it pulled at his wound—and nodded slowly.

“OK. There’s a man who lives at the north end of Lendsley named Lucius. He’s the one people go to if they’re hurt or ill. I guess we’ll go there.”

Cristián nodded. “To Lendsley it is, then.”

It only took a few more minutes to fully pack up their supplies before all the men were ready to go. Looking over the available horses, Luís turned to his patient.

“You will ride with me.” His tone left no room for disagreement, and Ruari nodded meekly.

Will looked up at the lightening sky once more between the branches that arched overhead. It was just past sunrise and he was anxious to be going—every second that passed felt like one that Lannulo might use against them. With the disappearance of the thugs he had sent out last night—who he must know by now had been killed—Lannulo would be aware that he had enemies on his trail. The time for surveillance and information-gathering was over; they needed to strike—and soon.

At the healer’s instruction, Elio and Fermín lifted Ruari into the saddle in front of the Luís. The small Iberian wrapped a wiry arm around the boy to steady him as a violent shiver wracked his frame. A sickly sheen of sweat covered Ruari’s forehead. Will grimaced. For so many reasons, time was their enemy right now. Glancing at Murrow, Will noticed the younger boy was also looking at Ruari with concern. This stirred him from his thoughts, and he spoke to divert Murrow’s attention.

“I guess you’re stuck with me a little longer then, Murrow,” Will said, reaching for the bridle of the stolen horse. The boy tore his gaze away from his brother to roll his eyes.

“What did I ever do to deserve this?” he grumbled as he marched over.

“Must’ve been a saint in your past life,” Will smirked, swinging up into the saddle.

“Must’ve killed a saint in a past life,” was his response.

Will extended a hand to Murrow to help him up onto the horse and opened his mouth for a witty retort, but it caught in his throat when he noticed the tremors shaking the hand he’d offered. He grit his teeth and tried to still the twitching, but it barely lessened.

Without comment, Murrow took the hand firmly, steadying it with his own. He climbed into the saddle in front of Will and settled in facing forward.

“Stuck to me like a freaking leech,” the boy continued in a surly but steady voice, as though nothing had happened. The Ranger took a breath to re-center himself and accepted the gesture.

“Stuck to you… like amazing jam,” he tried.

Ew. No one wants jam stuck on them either.”

“Well, I happen to like jam,” Will said, sounding offended. Atop their horses, the eleven of them stepped back onto the King’s Road, this time in the light of day, and turned toward their destination.

No one likes jam that much…”

“I… like jam,” Iñigo offered uncertainly, clearly not too confident in his understanding of the disagreement. Murrow groaned as Will beamed at Iñigo.

They set a fast pace, moving as quickly as they could travel without fear of Ruari falling from the saddle. He was obviously trying not to show it, but with the jolting gait of the horses—which only worsened once they left the road to head through the forest toward Lendsley—he was clearly in excruciating pain.

By the time they reached the tree line and the little town became visible where it sat down in the glen, Ruari was barely conscious and being held upright only by Luís’s steady grip. They pulled back on their mounts, pausing momentarily to orient themselves and take stock of the village. It was small and humble-looking, but Will knew appearances could be deceiving.

“We must go immediately to the healer,” Luís advised. No one disagreed.

Cristián nodded. “We shall all go. We stay together until we know it is safe,” the monarch said. Will agreed, having felt the same way. Even though they would be more noticeable as a group of their size, it would be easier to keep Ruari safe if they did not split up. They would have attracted attention regardless, so it would be worth the advantage, since they were taking a risk by going in blind like this. Taking Ruari back to the place he’d just escaped from was a desperate measure, but, well, desperate times and all. 

Cristián kicked his horse forward and began the descent to the village. The others followed behind.

“To Lendsley,” Will murmured.

To his left, he heard Elio echo him in a low, solemn voice.

“En la boca del lobo.”