A/N: Hello everybody; I hope all of you are doing well! The next chapter is finally out and I predict about 2-3 more chapters before the end of this work. We're nearly there! I was also going to include a 2-3 chapter tag after that to bring everything to its fullest conclusion. There is a certain warlord/traitor Baron to consider, after all XD. Thanks so much to everyone who reads, follows, favorites, and reviews; your support is invaluable and really provides the motivation to continue. Thanks again!
*Side Note* I'm not sure if I need to say this because I think it's pretty self-explanatory but, better safe than sorry, right? That being said, I'd like to give a little bit of an unreliable narrator warning for the flashback in this chapter: it takes place almost directly after Gilan leaves Highcliff Fief and, therefore, he's in a bit of a bad headspace on account of all he went through/everything that happened. In short, he goes a little dark and engages in/dabbles in unhealthy self-talk and destructive behaviors/actions—similar to the way Horace's thoughts about himself and his situation centered in earlier chapters. I just want to make it clear that I am by no means encouraging or advising people to blame themselves when they are hurt/attacked/abused/bullied/mistreated by other people. The ultimate fault always lies with the perpetrator/s of those actions, and never the victims.
KiiroDora: I love the Halt and Will bond; it just can't not exist. Glad the resolution to the cliffhanger was alright in the end. XD Thanks so much for the review, I really appreciate it.
Potato Ranger: Thank you so much for the kind words and the support. I am very glad you found it meaningful. As always, please don't hesitate to reach out if you need/feel it might help. Thanks again!
Valtameri: Thanks so very much for the review! It really made my day to read. I really appreciate the compliments and the support. I often get worried when writing so many characters at once, so I'm glad to hear all their arcs have been interesting and meaningful. I've never seen Teen Wolf, is it a good series/would you recommend it? I have wondered why she is not in the picture or mentioned either: did she pass away? Was she not a good person? Did she abandon/leave David and her son? It'd be cool to get some answers and sad we can only speculate. I do apologize for the cliffhanger. I would have liked Flanagan to expand on things like the Kalkara, Wargals, and Stone Flutes too. I agree; It would indeed be cool if we got more backstory on why Morgarath became who he did. Thanks again for the long in-depth review!
PacificZip16: Poor Halt indeed: he hasn't had it easy in this book. Yes, that argument was a long time in coming :( But I think they needed to have out with it. Thanks so very much for the review!
Jammeke: Glad you are enjoying the Gilan and David stuff so far. Yes, he's very close to getting the truth and it will out pretty soon. I love Will and Halt: they always made me smile in the books, their relationship/dynamic was always the best. Thanks for the review! It means a lot :D.
Fawn: I'm sorry for causing you to wait so long. It would be awesome if I could get chapters out sooner/spend my whole day writing XD. Thanks so much for the review and the encouragement; I really appreciate it!
End3000: Thanks so much for your thoughts and the review. I took your suggestion about moving the order of the chapter sections and fixed the chapter number typo: I hope it reads better now. Thank you for pointing that out. I've been enjoying writing Will and Halt and Evanlyn and Horace—same with David and Gilan too. I'm very glad you have been enjoying their dynamic/portrayal. I was hoping for it to come off as more realistic and didn't want to lose the thread that despite it all both do care about the other. Yes, the reveals and confrontations are on the way lol. Thanks again for the in-depth review. It totally made my day!
Dragonslover98: No worries! Thanks so much for taking the time, I really appreciate it! Yes, the kids' plan is finally coming to fruition XD The answer to those questions will be in this chapter and the next X) Thanks so much for the support and the review! It means a lot :).
Guest: Yes, that's exactly Halt lol. Thanks so much for the review!
Chapter 30: The Weave of Time Part I
A Few Years after the Battle of Hackham Heath
Fifteen-year-old Gilan crouched in the early evening shadows, nearly invisible to anyone walking past the alley he occupied. His attention was fixed upon the window of the tavern across the street from his position. Because of the growing darkness, he could see clearly into the brightly lit building through the large open windows at the front.
Amidst the drinkers and merrymakers inside, there sat a man in fine clothes: Rubin—the town's most wealthy merchant. He sat at a table flanked by two burly men, alternating between eating his dinner and sipping at his tankard. Gilan's sear red-rimmed eyes observed every move that the man-made with a single-minded fixity. The stare's intensity was only matched by the pulsing anger that seemed to burn in his chest.
It was an emotion that had hardly ever reared its head in his young life—he had ever been hard to truly anger or upset—but he felt it now. And it was such anger that he half wondered whether it wasn't just that, but rather hatred. It was a slightly disturbing thought to him. He supposed he'd hated a few things over the course of his life but never a person. He'd often disliked, but never truly hated. Now there were too many, he thought, too many that the mere thought of made that twisting roiling feeling of pain and fury rise up in him.
Even as the man he watched rose up from his seat and headed to the door—after pushing his bowl and cup away and retrieving his leather bag—Gilan still couldn't decide how deeply his anger ran. But, as the man opened the door and slipped from the highly lit tavern and out into the shadowed street with his two bullyboys in his wake, Gilan shrugged to himself. A slow mirthless smile touched his face. In the end, it didn't really matter how deeply his anger ran; the man would pay all the same, he thought as he fingered the hilt of the simple sword he carried.
The man would pay for his lies… for the pain. For nearly three days now Gilan had been unable to sort through all the emotional hurt, loss, physical pain, anger, and humiliation enough to decide what he would do about it all. But, as he had slowly started to work his way through that, if not past it, he had found himself wondering who the cause of it all had been. Who had been the first cut that felled the tree? And it was this man.
He shadowed the merchant now as he moved in his usual arrogant manner, his pace slow and unconcerned. He was completely oblivious to all around him. His two hired bodyguards were little better. Gilan had perused their stance and bearing. To him, they appeared to be all size and muscle but very little skill. It was he had thought earlier, bullyboys.
Gilan smiled again and wider this time. The fool took no real precautions, and the ones he did were all for show. Gilan could be on him in an instant. Another, cooler, emotion rose to take its place among the fury: scorn, he recognized distantly. If Gilan had just destroyed someone's life, taken away everything they had, and ruined all the things that mattered to them, he would at least have taken the care to watch his own back afterward. The merchant was as easy a target as the castle's quintain that the Battleschool apprentices practiced their jousting on.
Gilan knew he had four days to leave this fief and all of Baron Douglas's holdings. And he had expected to use up the majority of those days watching, planning, and waiting for an opening. But he could have this man in his grasp on his first night, in seconds, and with minimal effort… and then what?
The rise of righteous and malicious pleasure suddenly fell slightly with that question: and then what? What would he do? Challenge the man to a duel he could not fight as he wasn't a knight or warrior? Beat the man senseless? Kill him? Hurt him just to let him know he had the power to do so? Make him feel as powerless and betrayed as he had felt? Make him hurt as much as he had been hurt and was still hurting? Quite aside from the fact that he honestly doubted that the man would even be capable of feeling that much—when he had so little heart—all that hardly mattered in the end, did it? What he would do mattered as little as the issue of exactly how deeply he hated this man, he thought as he slipped from shadow to shadow… didn't it?
A quiet voice inside of him whispered another question: even if it doesn't matter, what will you really gain if you carry out any one of those things? What will it truly give you? And no matter how hard he tried, he could not get that thought out of his head. It wouldn't change what had happened, wouldn't give him back what he'd lost, wouldn't take away his pain—not truly. It would only spread that pain to someone else—someone who deserved it, he tried to angrily reason with himself. Maybe he does deserve it… but where exactly will it leave you? That quiet voice whispered, insisted. He felt his anger beginning to fizzle out some as he slowly came to the realization that it might not truly be worth it. Not worth losing himself, and everything he had thought himself to be, in exchange for a single hollow moment of righteous retribution and satisfaction.
But this man had been the one to provide the grounds for everything that had happened. It was this man's actions that had destroyed his life….
Was it though, was it truly?
He felt some of the tension drain from his body and he stopped moving forwards as he once again reminded himself that he had had a hand in all of this too. He'd made the first mistakes that had initially placed him in the situation. If the merchant had provided the grounds, then Gilan knew that it was none other than himself who had provided the means for the man to do so. What was more, he'd made the choice to push the limits around him and to let his desire for something challenging, better, more, get the better of him. The truth was that this never would have happened if he'd been a proper knight, a proper nobleman's son—if he'd just been less, well, less himself. That, when coupled with his own mistakes, had paved the way to the end.
And the merchant hadn't done it all on his own either. Far too many people had lent a willing hand with their lies, betrayals, and senseless cruelty; or by putting appearances, expectations, and their own interpretations of honor and duty over the pursuit of the real truth. He couldn't pin all the blame for it all on the merchant any more than he could on the others… or even on himself.
Although what had been done to him could never be justified or excused, that calm voice still whispered that he knew that he'd made his own mistakes. And it whispered also that he would never learn from them if he didn't accept responsibility for his own small part in all of this—if he didn't stop trying to rationalize it all in his mind. Although getting revenge might satisfy him in the short term, it would do nothing but harm him in the long run. He'd become just like this man: empty, small, and good for nothing but hurting those around him while he made the same mistakes over and over and ruined whatever infinitesimal chance he had left of having a semi-fulfilling life. He didn't want that… he hadn't wanted… he hadn't wanted any of this.
He watched with dull eyes as the man walked away—walked away while he stayed where he was in the shadows of the alley. Without the anger to keep him moving, he felt the exhaustion that had been his constant companion beginning to take hold. He placed a hand against the alley's stone wall and leaned heavily against it, taking a few deep but silent breaths to ease the pain of his injuries as they too caught up with him. It was made all the worse by the fact that he had moved so suddenly after staying still for so long. It had caused all his wounds to stiffen. He even felt a small amount of fresh blood seep from a few places under his shirt and bandages where some of his newly formed scabs had split. That was something he noticed happened rather easily whenever he twisted or bent.
Helpless, useless, weak…
Perhaps he truly was as deficient, as deserving of contempt, as he'd been told so many times over. He couldn't even get revenge right, he thought bitterly, mouth twisting at the thought—couldn't do anything without messing it all up somehow… And wasn't that just pathetically funny?
His eyes stung, burned, at the thought, and he closed his fists tightly to still the faint tremor that had grown there. He clenched his teeth as his shadowed gaze again sought out, and found, the still visible figure of the merchant and his goons continuing on their way. A barely audible, strangled, noise escaped his lips.
He couldn't just let him go: let him get away with it all, let him get away without the slightest of consequences, free to hurt others as he pleased, whenever the mood struck, he saw opportunity, or needed someone to take a fall that should be his own…
But, Gilan realized then that he didn't have to.
He didn't have to let him go without pause, but there was a right way to go about it. There was a way to make sure the man would be brought to justice for what he had done without compromising himself, and everything he had ever been, in the process.
He just had to be smarter.
Slowly, he felt the smile returning to his face as his eyes lit upon the leather satchel that the man carried. Gilan's eyes hardly missed anything and, despite the turmoil that had been surrounding him for the past several weeks, he had noticed that, since this merchant's house had burned down, he had taken that leather satchel with him everywhere. It was obviously the one thing that he'd saved from the fires of his home. Gilan had had occasion to watch this man many times before and during the incident, time enough to come to the conclusion that this man probably valued his wealth above all else.
And Gilan knew that the man hadn't saved his money from the fire, because that was one of the numerous points of contention that had come up in his court-martial. In fact, Gilan suspected that this was one of the reasons that the merchant had sought a scapegoat for the fire. If he'd started it himself, there would be no compensation for his own careless mistakes. But if someone else took the blame, then he would receive some.
So the question was, why had he, a man who so valued money, chosen to save this satchel instead of some of his funds? Gilan thought he knew. As he had observed earlier, there was hardly ever anything that he missed. And he hadn't missed the occasional glance of fear or anger directed at the merchant whenever his back was turned. And he hadn't forgotten seeing this man out conspicuously late a few times when Gilan had snuck out of the castle after lights-out to wander the village. There was also the matter of how the merchant had managed to produce false witnesses that had testified against him at trial when the man had no coin with which to bribe them.
Yes, he was fairly certain he knew why the man had saved his satchel first. And he was fairly certain he knew what it contained. A new sense of purpose drove all thoughts of exhaustion and pain from his young frame and he once again began to shadow the merchant. He followed him all the way to the inn he was apparently staying at. And he learned which room was his by watching the windows from outside. It was on the second story.
The smile flitted across Gilan's face again as he located the room. It was on the second story, true, but a tree grew not more than four meters from the side of the building parallel to the window in question. The window itself was like most in the village. Glass was expensive, so all it had were shutters to close against the cold. As tonight was fairly warm, the shutters were currently open. Also, he doubted that the merchant's hired muscle would be sharing his room. All things considered, he'd had harder obstacles to overcome when attempting to steal tarts and pastries from the castle cook. He quickly shoved those thoughts and memories from his mind—he couldn't think of them.
He stayed in the shadows until he saw the light in question go out. But some inner instinct, some inner voice, counseled patience, whispered for him to stay motionless and wait still longer. It was nearly an hour or two later when he moved slowly and carefully from his hiding spot and to the tree. He swung up carefully, painfully, into the branches until he was parallel to the open window. Even from that distance, he could hear the man snoring.
He stopped for a moment to catch his breath. His injuries and the weeks of maltreatment and inactivity had left him… not in the best condition. His muscles were trembling fractionally from overexertion. He shifted position in an attempt to ease it while he considered his next moves. There were no branches wide enough growing out towards the window. He supposed he could jump to it and catch the sill, but he feared the noise that such actions would make, and didn't fully trust himself to be able to pull it off as he was now. He hadn't stalked this man unprepared though, nor had he left the castle unprepared. He un-slung a coil of rope from his shoulder and from his own leather satchel, he took out the head of a grappling prong. He tied this to the end of his rope.
He moved to a more secure position and calculated the distance mentally as he weighed the grapnel in his hand. Once he was sure, he attuned himself to the rhythm of the man's snoring and then cast. His aim was good, as was his timing. The small thud the iron grapnel made as it hooked into the windowsill was masked by a loud snore.
After waiting a few moments to make sure that the sound had been undetected, Gilan tugged the rope testing to see the prongs had caught firmly under the jutting-out part of the windowsill. He then secured the other end to a sturdy branch. He made his way across the rope in a sort of upside-down crawl. Once he made it to the windowsill, he pulled himself up and into the man's room without a sound. He moved carefully forwards, his soft leather boots aiding in his silent movement.
In the dimness, he could just make out the man's satchel lying on the bed next to him. Gilan easily reached it and opened it.
There was actually far less in it than he had thought.
He took the sheets of vellum paper over into the moonlight to see if he could ascertain the contents. He squinted as he read in the faint light. Then a wide exultant smile crossed his lips. It was as he had thought.
His smile faded slightly, however, as he realized that only about five of the papers in the bundle had to do with blackmail. And it faded further when he realized that there was no way to connect those papers back to the merchant. He wouldn't be able to use blackmail to catch the merchant out as he had planned. But the other papers he had found were just as incriminating in a different way. They would definitely do, he thought, the smile returning. In all truthfulness, he didn't really care how the merchant was brought to account, just that he would be.
Keeping his ears attuned to the sounds of the man's breathing and snoring, and so attuned to danger, he rifled through the papers until he found some of the most condemning pages, ones that were guaranteed to lead back to the man: ledgers in his script with his signature in a few places. These he folded and placed in the breast of his leather jerkin.
He returned the rest of the papers to the satchel and made his way back to the window and climbed out the way he had come. Once he was back in the branches of the tree, he loosened the tension on the rope so the prong would slip from its snug hold and then flicked it free with a wrist movement. It came loose instantly. It was a practiced skill and, at the moment, he couldn't quite remember where, but he was sure that he had done it, and practiced it, before somewhere. He didn't really care in the heat of the moment.
Once he'd re-gathered his supplies and made it to the ground, he again had to stop to catch his breath and then breathe through another flare of pain. He was certain he had cracked several more of his scabs: he could feel the blood along with the sickening pain. He'd need to rub some more salve and balm on them later. He blinked a few times, trying to shake himself from that feeling of illness and fatigue. His eyes felt like sandpaper. He needed to find someplace safe to rest, but not before he finished what he'd started.
He'd need to find a way to slip the papers to someone official, he thought as he made his way down the street. Perhaps he could find some pretense to get in to see the Captain of the Watch or even break into his office. He tried to keep his movements as steady as possible despite the lightheadedness and the fact that he was unable to hide the limp brought on by the aching and piercing pain in his back anymore.
He was running out of time.
Then he saw the answer as he was hit with the first piece of good luck he'd had in over a month. One of the Town Watch had been heading down the street when the man stumbled and accidentally dropped some of the papers he carried without notice. Gilan saw his chance, secured his things in an alley, and hurried forwards, stooping very carefully, painfully, to pick up the few sheets of what looked, in the faint light, to be reports. He placed them on top of the papers he had stolen before calling to the watchman.
"Sir, you've dropped something!"
The man turned, surprised at the call, and took several steps forward to meet Gilan halfway. Gilan stopped just outside easy reach of the man and proffered the papers towards him. The watchman gratefully took them, smiling in relief and gratitude, his posture friendly, easy. Gilan allowed himself to relax the barest fraction.
"Thanks, lad," the man said. "The Captain of the Watch wouldn't have been pleased if I'd lost those reports."
Gilan smiled internally, exultant, knowing for certain that the papers he had stolen would reach the head of the Village Watch's eyes. He hadn't seen the Captain of the Watch mentioned anywhere on the merchant's blackmail ledgers and papers, after all. He knew that, just because the man's name hadn't come up, it didn't absolutely guarantee that he wasn't somehow under the merchant's fist. But Gilan was confident enough that that wasn't the case and willing to gamble besides. Outwardly, he merely shrugged. Minimal as the movement had been, it still hurt… badly.
"No problem, sir," he said aloud, glad that the uncertain light and the hood of his cloak had shadowed him just enough to allow him to remain unrecognized. The recently twisted nature of his reputation made potential recognition a danger and could well have ruined this scheme after all.
"You're out rather late," the watchman said then, but his tone was filled more with concern than with reproach.
"I was just on my way home."
The watchman nodded acceptance of that fact.
"Best you hurry along then, so you don't worry your parents."
Gilan nodded merrily, trying hard not to let the flash of pain he felt at the mention of homes and family, bleed through to his outward appearance. Instead, he let a friendly smile appear on his face.
"Yes, sir," he said simply.
He surreptitiously backed away to a safer distance before turning his back on the man to take his leave. He had not taken more than a few tired and painful steps when the watchman stopped him.
"Are you doing alright, lad? You're not hurt or sick are you?"
Gilan tensed, his heart rate increasing, fingers making a covert yet reflexive jump in the direction of his sword hilt as he turned partially to face the watchman.
"I'm fine, sir," he said cheerily, inwardly cursing his inability to hide the pain and weakness as successfully as before anymore. He'd hoped the man wouldn't notice or, at the least, wouldn't care—after all, it'd been many weeks since anyone had. "Just tired is all," he tried, casually.
The man looked at the position of the moon and then nodded wryly. Gilan relaxed, letting out an inward breath of relief.
"You and me both. Thanks again, lad," he said, waving a hand in farewell.
Gilan returned the wave and moved away. Once he had reclaimed his supplies and made it a fair distance from the village and castle, he spent the rest of the night and most of the next day in the woods with his horse, too exhausted and hurt to set out as early as he'd wanted.
Late in the afternoon he finally headed off, moving steadily towards the fief's boundaries.
It was a couple of weeks after the fifteen-year-old had left, once things had again settled down after the Kalkara attack, that the Captain of the Watch realized that there were extra papers and ledgers mixed in with his reports. A week after that, the village was filled with gossip of extortion and tax fraud, and the baron and his knights were forced to take action. But, by then, Gilan was long gone.
"What do we do now?" Evanlyn asked Horace, glancing to where Foldar was tied firmly to the trunk of a nearby tree.
It had been a day since they had captured the man and they had already hunted down and recaptured Foldar's mount. In the saddlebags, they had found communications from Morgarath that would help quite a bit when it came to exposing Douglass's treachery as well as Foldar's involvement.
"I mean," Evanlyn said then, "I know we agreed to wait a day in hopes that the Baron Arald and Battlemaster of this fief might have been successful with their battles and headed back here."
That part of the plan had been put in place so that they wouldn't have to accuse Baron Douglass on their own without support. But it was also, she knew, a very real possibility that the king's men had been defeated and Morgarath's invasion was continuing full force. They had no idea how the battles had gone. If the kingdom's troops lost either fight, Morgarath's plan would be that much closer to succeeding. The worst-case scenario, she knew, was that Morgarath's men had broken through on both fronts. If that were the case it, in turn, meant that keeping the fief from falling was down to them. They had to warn the people of Highcliff of Douglass's treason before Morgarath's men swept in and Douglass granted them access to the fief and castle. That was why they had decided to wait a day—but no longer than a day.
"Are we sure this is something we can do alone?" She asked finally, voicing the concern that had been plaguing her since the night before. She had been hoping that the morning would yield sight of the King's men returning, but that hadn't been the case. She swallowed hard. "We don't know how many men are in on Douglass's scheme. What if it's most of the people there? We could be walking into a death trap."
Horace nodded thoughtfully. In truth, his thoughts had been following similar lines. They would be, in a sense, attacking a seat of greater power, from a distinctly disadvantaged position and they didn't know the terrain or enemy numbers. He frowned and then spoke.
"If the majority of people in the fief were in league with Douglass, then why was he, and even Foldar, so careful about making certain that no one knew about or was involved with the schemes. If more people were truly involved then he wouldn't have had to hide things as much as he did, right? That means that there must be a lot of people in Highcliff who don't support Morgarath."
Evanlyn nodded having followed and grasped Horace's simple but effective logic. She realized he might be right. "But without Baron Arald or the Battlemasters to support us it means we'll have to rely on those people to turn against their own Baron…" she left the sentence hanging.
Horace had little recourse left but to shrug diffidently, unhappily. "Either way I think we have to risk it. If we don't..." he didn't need to finish. They all knew what would happen.
The irony of the situation was not lost on Gilan. He couldn't quite keep a humorless smile from touching his face as he thought it. Finding himself riding back with all speed to Highcliff castle in the company of none other than his father and his father's knights hadn't exactly been something he had ever pictured himself doing… But, then again, neither had returning to Highcliff at all. Once he had found a way to even the score with Rubin all those years ago, he hadn't much entertained the thought of coming back.
The smile grew grim as the reason why all this had come about clawed more firmly at his thoughts. His worry for Will, Halt, and Horace hadn't eased much. And the very idea of Horace having to face anything near what Gilan had all those years ago by making an enemy of Baron Douglass and his men at arms wasn't an idea he could devote any sort of positive attention to. He just hoped they weren't too late to keep it from coming to that.
They hadn't long yet to go. Through the trees on the main road, Gilan caught a glimpse of the familiar castle in the distance, perched, looming like a shadow over the cliffs that stood sentinel above the sea. That place had been his home once. He felt a muted twisted feeling grip his chest at the thought, all trace of his smile fading. He turned his head away and towards the young girl who rode beside him, her white Courier's gown billowing in the wind of their hasty passage.
"It's right ahead," Lady Alyss shouted over the sound of their hoofbeats. "They said that they were going to ambush Foldar near where the road forks, just there!"
At a gesture from Sir David, the knights slowed the pace of their horses as they neared the point she had indicated. Gilan unslung his bow, placing an arrow to the string. Nearly simultaneously, he saw his father and his men reach for their own weapons. The land near the fork in the road wasn't deserted. They could make out the bodies of men and horses through the trees. He replaced the arrow in his quiver however as soon as they broke through the final stretch of trees enough to make out the faces of the men in question. It was Baron Arald, a party of knights, and Will. All were dismounted and standing around the area, looking for any sign of Horace and Evanlyn if Gilan had to guess.
Gilan had dismounted Blaze before she even came to a full stop. Ignoring her disapproving snort, he rushed forwards to greet his young friend, the boy that he had, like Horace, come to regard with fondness of a younger brother.
"Will!" he called, overjoyed to see him safe and alright… well, mostly alright if the few bandages the boy was sporting was of any indication.
"Gilan!" Will called back just as happily, running to meet him in turn so they collided in an embrace.
"Just what exactly were you and Horace thinking? Are you alright? Have you seen Horace? What happened to Halt?" Gilan abruptly cut himself short as Will chuckled at the multiple questions, that was usually Will's area of expertise and they both knew it. Gilan smiled wryly at himself and shook his head. "I see your bad habits are rubbing off on me, you've become a terrible influence."
"It a two-way road," Will jibed back before sobering a little to tell Gilan what he knew.
"I understand that it's a serious problem with very troubling implications," Crowley said as soon as Halt finished telling him what he had learned from Arald.
He had arrived back from his scouting trip early that morning before the sun had risen. Halt had been waiting for him and had wasted no time in letting him in on the situation.
"But I don't see why that means you need to rush back. Surely Arald has the matter in hand and I can be there soon to back him. You look a little like death warmed over." Crowley said then added hastily, "No offense."
Halt merely offered him an impatient glare to that.
Crowley shifted uncomfortably. "All I mean to say is that you look like you could still use the rest. Those Kalkara are no joke."
"I wasn't laughing," Halt said deadpan then cut to the chase. "That doesn't matter anyway. I don't have the time to sit and rest."
"Why not?" Crowley countered. "Arald is an experienced leader with a good head on his shoulders after all."
"It isn't Arald I'm concerned about," Halt said mildly.
"Then what?" Crowley made a gesture with his hands that invited elaboration.
"My apprentice—former apprentice—could be in serious trouble," Halt admitted finally, voicing the concern that had plagued him since the previous day.
"Apprentice?" Crowley asked.
"Yes, apprentice," Halt said, trying to sit up straighter on the edge of the healer's cot. The pain was still there like a pulsating backdrop to his every movement, but at least the dizziness had subsided. "You've met before, or so he told me: stopping a gang run by a man named Bartoc and more recently when you encountered roadside bandits. I met him while in Gallica and trained him as my apprentice. We got separated and fell out of contact. I only recently discovered he'd come back here to his homeland."
The puzzlement on Crowley's face cleared. "The young sellsword. That makes a good deal of sense. I always suspected he had some sort of connection to the Ranger Corps. His skill set was so similar." Then suspicion started to cloud his face as he turned back to Halt.
"But I thought you told me that you had no memory of being a Ranger—how is it that you took an apprentice?"
Halt was gripped by a cold sensation in his gut at the sight of the suspicion on Crowley's face. His head was spinning, catching from the injury and the storm of thoughts clouding it as he tried to think back to his previous wording, wondering and dreading that he might have said something that had given him away somehow. Not exactly, as it turned out. His mind raced to find an explanation and he breathed just that much more easily when he found one.
"I didn't think I was training him to be a Ranger at the time," Halt said with a casual shrug. "As far as I knew, or remembered, I thought I was teaching him to be a mercenary."
Crowley accepted that explanation readily, nodding with understanding, all that previous suspicion seeming to melt away.
Halt breathed an inward sigh.
"But you said he was in trouble," Crowley prompted. "How?"
"He's in trouble because he is Sir David's son."
Crowley's eyes widened with surprise before they became clouded with several other emotions a man might show when learning someone he'd liked wasn't really who he'd thought they were: disappointment chief amongst them.
"I can see the problem," Crowley said, voice carefully neutral.
"You know the story then," Halt said and it wasn't a question.
Crowley nodded grimly. "I've heard of it from Arald and David. I take it you didn't know about his… sordid past when you decided to teach him."
"I think I've been around long enough to be a good judge of character, even then, if that's what you mean," Halt shot back, giving his friend a challenging look before continuing. "But, more to the point, that's why he's in trouble. If I know him at all, then I know he's heading back to Highcliff Castle to try and save young Horace from Foldar and potentially Douglass. But I'm, pretty sure his cover might have been blown—which puts him in a lot of danger."
"So you want to get him out before it's too late?"
But Halt shook his head. "I have something else in mind. I intend to stop all this entirely by clearing his name. When he told me his story, he told me the names of those responsible for framing him—"
At Crowley's fairly dubious and questioning glance Halt explained his idea.
"I could use the help of another Ranger if you're up to it," he said when he was finished.
"And you're entirely certain that your apprentice told you the truth?" Crowley asked, that trace of doubt still obvious on his face.
"From what I heard of the case, it was entirely conclusive on account of all the evidence and witness testimony," Crowley mused, tone more thoughtful than challenging.
Though clearly skeptical of Gilan's side of things, Crowley was wavering, Halt could see. He played his final card.
"Humor me," Halt said dryly. "If I'm wrong for believing his story, then the worst that will happen will be that we will have wasted a few hours. But, if I'm not, then we'll stop a great deal of harm and set quite a lot of things right."
Halt watched as a wide smile crossed his old friend's face then.
"Whether you're right or not, it doesn't matter. I'd be glad to offer my assistance."
"Why is that?" Halt raised an eyebrow.
"I owe him one," Crowley said with a smile. "Can't let him stay one up on me, or I'd never hear the end of it. What's the plan? Is the merchant… Rubin, was it? Is the merchant still around?"
"Gilan says he isn't," Halt said then thoughtfully, "but there are others living in Highcliff that corroborated with him and know the truth. They should be easy enough to trace given the information Gilan gave me." Halt rose to his feet then, swaying a little as he did so. Crowley instantly reached out a hand to steady him. Halt's head and shoulder throbbed painfully, but it was manageable. "I'll tell you the details on the way."
"State your name, rank, and purpose here," one of the soldiers of the gatehouse that guarded the land bridge to Highcliff castle challenged as soon as Horace, Evanlyn and a captured Foldar approached.
"My name is Horace Altman and I'm a mercenary, here to deliver a captured enemy commander to Baron Douglass for the price on his head."
The soldier eyed the pair and then the man that was tied and slung over the saddlebow of the horse they led.
"And who is this man?"
"I have evidence to prove he is Foldar, Sir: one of Morgarath's lead commanders," Horace answered promptly.
The soldier who had spoken stood speechless with shock at the revelation for several moments as he attempted to gather himself or hesitated, Horace wasn't certain which.
"The longer we delay the greater the chance is that we'll lose him and I don't think the Baron will be pleased about that," Evanlyn put in.
"Right," the gatehouse guard said, yet still hesitated until his companion intervened.
"Set out the flag and let them through. I have seen them both before at the castle. One of them works for the mercenary the Battlemaster hired," he said with much more urgency, able to see the bigger picture beyond the wanted man's infamy. "If that really is Foldar, the Baron must hear of this immediately. It could help turn the tide of the war for us."
The first soldier nodded mutely, still staring wide-eyed at Foldar. He complied quickly however and raised the flag to signal the main castle, gesturing for Horace and Evanlyn to cross the bridge.
Once they reached the other side, their story and purpose had to be repeated once more to a new group of soldiers and knights. Horace noted gratefully that these men seemed as able to recognize the importance of Foldar's capture and as eager to capitalize on it as the second gate guard had been.
The senior knight of this group, an older man with a look of experience, a cold steely gaze, and no-nonsense demeanor seemed to take it especially seriously. He took charge immediately and organized his men in hasty escort. They were then taken quickly to Douglass's receiving hall where he was holding court. As Horace moved in step with the knights, he breathed an inward breath of relief. So far things were going well. He did not, however, allow himself to relax, knowing that the most difficult and dangerous part was still yet to come. But if the men's negative reaction to Foldar was any indication of how they might respond to the accusation of treachery, Horace couldn't help but feel a small measure of hope. Perhaps, just perhaps, things might work out smoothly. Their party finally stopped short once they reached the receiving hall. Horace and Evanlyn were allowed entry, followed by Foldar who was currently being frog-marched between several of the men at arms behind them.
"Apologies for the intrusion milord," the lead knight spoke in response to the look of disdain or displeasure he received from the Baron at the sudden unannounced interruption. "But there is a potentially vital matter to report."
"What is it, Sir Richard?" Baron Douglass asked. But, before either Horace or the knight could say anything, Douglass's eyes had already settled on their captive man behind them and widened in a shocked guilty start. He rose hastily to his feet.
"Seize those youths and release that man, immediately! That man is a messenger of the King and those children have accosted him unlawfully!"
Horace felt his blood freeze at the order, recognizing the danger. If they were arrested and silenced before they got the chance to even accuse Douglas… His mind whirled desperately for what to do when a voice cut through his panic and swirling thoughts.
"Belay that order!" The command in the voice caused the soldiers to still and straighten to attention. Horace whirled to see none other than the Battlemaster of the fief, Sir David, burst into the room. Following behind him Horace could see Gilan, Will, Lady Alyss, Baron Arald, and several knights.
The soldiers hesitated, momentarily torn and confused over the two conflicting orders from their Baron and their Commander, before Arald stepped forward.
"That man is no servant of the King," he gestured to Foldar. "Rather he is one of Morgarath's lieutenants, Foldar. Douglass's claim was made merely to protect himself because of his own involvement with both Foldar and Morgarath. I have witness testimony and proof attesting to that."
In the shocked silence that followed Arald's accusation, Evanlyn found her voice.
"We also have proof of his identity and involvement with both Morgarath and Baron Douglass."
"Preposterous," Douglass boomed emphatically. "These are all ridiculous and unfounded claims and I will not hear them in my own court in my own castle! That man is a mere messenger. There is no way he is Foldar."
"I could tell you whether he is or not." All eyes turned to Phillip the Seneschal who had spoken. "I used to work at Castle Gorlan before Morgarath's rebellion and so saw Foldar often enough to be able to identify him."
The seneschal pushed his way through to peer more closely at the man beneath the messengers' disguise. Having done so, he took a step back in shock.
"That man is indeed Foldar and I let him in to have a private audience with Baron Douglass in the middle of the night not two days ago now. It was late and dark when he arrived and so I never got a close look at his face the time, but that is Foldar."
Murmurs ran around the room in the silence that followed the claim. Horace felt his heart lifting in hope and exchanged a relieved glance with Will from where he stood on the opposite end of the room.
Douglass spluttered and then cast about himself momentarily before pushing forward with another empathic denial. "I had no idea that this man was working with the enemy! I was tricked as much as the rest of you!" he tried desperately, sensing he was losing ground.
"But we have documents found on Foldar's person with Morgarath's seal that says otherwise, milord," Evanlyn said again. She lifted the documents that she had taken from Foldar's saddlebags.
"Under the laws of our King, I demand you to arrest Foldar and Baron Douglass for treason," Arald said, "so he can be taken to the capital for trial."
The soldiers and knights, bolstered by a nod from Sir David, as well as with the overwhelming evidence provided, moved quickly to do as asked. Douglass, finally realizing that the game was up and he was out of options, drew his knife, raising it to attack the nearest soldier approaching him—only to have his knife hand caught and twisted until he released the blade by Arald who had stepped up to oversee the arrest. The knife clattered to the ground and Arald secured Douglass's hands roughly behind his back.
Horace looked gratefully towards Evanlyn and then towards Will and Gilan before looking back at the disgraced baron. Douglass's expression had gone from white-faced fear at being caught out to impotent rage as he was dragged out of his own receiving hall by many of his own men, his guilt and complicentness with the enemy bared for all to see as he cast his gaze desperately around the room, looking for an ally or support. Upon finding none, he settled on something else.
"You may have me," he snarled to the court at large, "but I am not the only lawbreaker here. That man is Sir David's son!" He shouted, gesturing with his head and body towards where Gilan stood near Will. "He was tried and convicted for arson, manslaughter, and theft—banished from this fief for his crimes. He was promised death if he ever broke the terms of his sentence and returned here! His presence breaks the law and threatens the people of this fief. You here dare claim to serve the king's law? Well, it must be applied equally and without favor or all of you are just as corrupt and guilty as you claim me to be!"
His last acts before he was dragged away he had dedicated in an attempt to get revenge; revenge against Sir David and all the people who had thwarted his plans, dashed his goals and orchestrated his downfall. If there was no way for him to weather this, then the least he could do would be to tear as many people as he could down with him.
"Marlow Stowe?" The voice that asked was low, toneless, and bore the faintly melodic lilt of a Hibernian accent.
Marlow, the keeper of Highcliff Fief's most popular tavern, turned away from where he had been cleaning the bar to ascertain the speaker. He felt his skin grow cold and prickle as he recognized the man as Ranger. With his hooded cloak, longbow, and the way he moved, he could hardly be anything else. Nervousness and dread twisted the pit of his stomach painfully, even as his heart rate spiked inadvertently.
"Who's asking?" The old tavern keeper tried, playing for time as he tried to think of what to do. It was never a good thing to have a Ranger asking for you by name. He needed the time to try and gather his thoughts, anticipate what this was about. Several possibilities flicked through his mind and he tried to sort them in order of likelihood. But the Ranger was having none of it.
"The Baron of Whitby," The Ranger said with obvious sarcasm. Then his tone changed slightly, it became lower and more clipped. "I'dve thought you'd be able to know a Ranger when you saw one."
The man shrugged helplessly, realizing his mistake. It was pretty foolish to pretend not to know a Ranger when you saw one. It had as good as confirmed that he had something to hide, he knew. That decided, he tried to change tack, making his voice sound more congenial, accommodating, and, he hoped, innocent.
"Whatever it is you're after, I swear it's got nothing to do with me, good sir. I run an honest business here, I do," he said.
The Ranger took a step forward, not appearing phased or appeased by his attempt.
"I don't have times for games, so let's just get to the point, shall we?" the Ranger said bluntly, his tone showing that he had already lost his patience. Marlow got the distinct impression that it wasn't really a question.
So thinking, he nodded, nervously licking his lips.
"I know that you lied to the Baron and his knights under oath at a trial concerning a young knight apprentice and a fire several years ago. Your testimony as good as secured the outcome of that trial against that apprentice."
Marlow felt an ugly sinking feeling growing in his gut as the Ranger said it. He knew exactly what the Ranger was referring to. Lying under oath at a trial was a serious crime; he'd known it when he'd done it. He hastily tried to cover his initial reaction, deciding that his only way out of this would be to try bluff his way through.
"I haven't the foggiest idea of what you're talking about. I've not been to any fancy trial so far as I can remember. I spend most of my time in here," he said, turning away to gesture ingenuously at the worn walls and tables of his establishment.
In hindsight, turning his back to the Ranger probably wasn't the smartest thing he'd ever done. He was just turning back from his sweeping gesture when he felt the cool steel of a knife pressed against his throat. Marlow went absolutely still with fear. He had no idea how the Ranger had moved so silently and so fast. It was almost as if he simply appeared behind him by magic, weapon in hand. The thought of magic and witchcraft did absolutely nothing to allay his fear.
"I think I told you that I didn't have times for games," the Ranger said softly, dangerously. "Save the weak denials and excuses."
Marlow could just feel the menacing tickle of his breath against his ear. He shut his mouth tightly, knowing that the game was up. He'd done a bad thing all those years ago, and he'd known it. He also had known that it might well catch up to him someday. It appeared that this was that day. His shoulders slumped in defeat even as his legs trembled slightly in fear.
"It were Rubin! He blackmailed me into doing it!" he protested weakly, desperately. "I was in debt to Rubin up to here," the old tavern owner raised a hand to indicate the vast amount, franticly trying to justify himself, to excuse the lie he'd told, to diminish the crime he'd committed all those years ago. "He said he'd demand everything I owed all at once, a-and send his bully boys after me unless I did what he said and testified against the boy at the trial. I'd have lost everything—even me life most likely! It would have left my whole family penniless. I had my wife, children, and my son's newborn babe to think about. I didn't want to do it, but I had no choice! Ye have to believe me, Ranger!"
"Here's the thing," the Ranger said leaning forwards, his words dangerous, "your false testimony hurt someone I care for, a great deal. Right now, I don't really care why you did it. The way I see it, you have two choices: either you can come with me and tell the baron and his knights the truth, get this all off your chest, or I can make certain that you'll not get the chance to hurt anyone else like that again."
His words hissed menacingly into Marlow's ear and his legs nearly gave out in terror. Rangers, he knew were not people to make angry—and this was very, very angry. He could not help thinking of all the horrible ways the man could carry out his threats; Rangers were black magicians after all. At that moment, it was far more terrifying than admitting to his long-ago crime.
"I'll come with ye," he said, swallowing hard.
"I was hoping you'd say that," the Ranger said, withdrawing his blade and stepping back.
A/N: Thanks again for reading! As usual, feedback means the world if you have the time or inclination to leave any. Constructive criticism is welcome too. I'm always eager to improve. We're finally reaching the end of this tale. I'm looking forward to getting the next chapters out as soon as I can. There are also a few RA short stories I'd like to work on next so that should be fun. I feel like it'd be nice change of pace to get back to shorter works after this one lol.
Best wishes to you all until next time!