M.P.O.: I have a copy of the book! I borrowed it from my library, so I'll have at least two weeks to write and hopefully post some more on this. ^_^ Enormous thanks to those who reviewed the last chapter. Made me happy to know that more than one person still reads this fic. Please note that I JUST finished typing this chapter up and I'm about to go swimming. I'll read over it and check it for spelling/grammar screw ups later, so if you spot any, please tell me so I can find them easier. Review Questions (or quirky comments) will be answered at the end of the chapter, but for now, enjoy!

Chapter 4:

The winter season was rearing it's crispy head, with fresh snow covering the ground nearly every morning. Gilan, having taught all the signs he knew to both Will and Halt, had returned to his own fief to prepare for the Gathering. Halt had said that it was the one time a year when all fifty Rangers gathered to share news, discuss problems, and present apprentices for testing. Will was practicing nearly 24 hours a day, determined to pass the exams even with only 7 months training.

He was currently in the meadow behind the cottage, firing at four different targets, randomizing his shots and making sure not to hit the same target twice in a row. Halt had set him this excersize, with the requirement that he take no more than five seconds between each shot. Knowing better than to protest, he had set out to do just that, managing to finish with most of the arrows clustered in the bullseye or the inner ring. Smiling faintly at his accomplishment, he set the short recurve bow down and turned to gather his arrows, stopping mid-step when the sound of footsteps caught his attention. Spinning slowly on one foot, he tilted his head at the three boys standing behind him. Each carried a thick cane and wore the red surcoat of a Battleschool Second-year, so he nodded at them, relaxing a little. the closest, a handsome blond with a decent supply of muscle, smiled at him.

"Would you be Will, the Ranger's apprentice?"

Will smiled and nodded, giving them an inquisitive look at the same time. The Ranger cloak about his shoulders clearly marked him as an apprentice, but he figured they were being polite.

"We've brought a message from the Battleschool for you," the boy replied. Will frowned, wondering what message they could have for him. From Horace maybe? He knew he hadn't had a chance to speak to the other boy since the boar hunt, but he didn't think Horace would be so busy as to send three older boys with a message for him. The first boy had moved closer, his companions- a red head with freckles and a crooked nose, and an olive skinned lad who was the tallest of the group- flanking him on either side. Will backed off a step, a faint tingle warning shooting up his spine and making his fingers twitch.

"It's about what happened at the boar hunt," The redhead started in, his flat tenor making Will uncomfortable. Something in the air was setting his senses on alert and he didn't like it. He knew that the towns-folk had been spreading word about the hunt, exaggerating the tale in a few different ways, most of which centered around Will's 'heroic' attempt to sacrific himself for the Battleschool Apprentice that had accompanied the hunters. Gesturing helplessly and trying to communicate that he had no say in what the villagers gossipped about, he backed up another step as they moved closer.

"Don't try to play innocent cripple with us, it won't work." The redhead snapped, eyes flashing. The olive skinned boy stepped forward this time, speaking up.

"You made us all look foolish. A shrimp like you 'defending' the clumsy first year Battleschool student, as if. Playing the crippled kid to get attention." The taller boy snarled, leaning down slightly to try and intimidate the smaller apprentice. Will took another step back, his eyes wide, and shook his head in denial. Distracted as he was by the tallest boy, Bryn, he didn't notice the blond, Alda, coming up on the side, a bag held between his hands, ready to slip over Will's head. Catching the slight sound of movement from the side, will ducked at the last second, narrowly escaping being trapped under the hood's grasp, and rolling forwards, under Bryn's legs and sything his legs to bring down Alda while the other boy was distracted. Unfortunately he'd forgotten about the redhead, Jerome, and as he rolled to his feet the last boy's cane swung around, impacting across his shoulders with a ringing crack.

Tears springing to his eyes, Will stumbled forwards, unable to block the strike from Bryn's cane as it snapped against his side, or the hood that Alda managed to slip over his head and tighten in place, trapping his arms to his sides. The three boys laughed, each taking another hit as Will sunk to his knees, sobbing silently. The pain was intense, and he screamed out in his thoughts, calling for help that he knew wouldn't come, because no one could hear him.

'HALT! HELP ME!' He cried, tucking himself into as small a ball as he could manage, hoping to lessen the damage on his sensitive stomach and chest. He could feel his chest filling with a comforting heat, the soothing warmth flowing down his arms. A faint echo, remembered from one of his dreams, swam into the forefront of his mind.

'EXPELLIARMUS!' His mental voice thundered, all of the pain and anger at the boys' actions against him expelled in that one word. Blinded by the bag, he was unable to see the shock on the faces of his tormentors as their canes flew way from them, struck from their hands by thick bolts of neon blue lightning.

"You little freak," Bryn growled, pulling his foot back. "Think you can scare us do you?" His foot swung forwards, connecting with the center of Will's back with a dull thud. Will arched in pain, mouth open in a silent scream. A mere second later, as the other two were rearing back for more kicks, a voice rang out, startling them all.

"That's enough!"

Will went boneless with relief, recognizing Horace's voice, though it sounded hoarse and fairly dripped with pent up anger. Bryn turned, sneering at Horace while Jerome gathered the canes, which hadn't flown far. Alda, accepting the thick wooden stick, grinned, taunting his fellow apprentice.

"Baby followed us."

"Baby wants another beating." Jerome piped up from the side.

"And Baby's going to get it." Bryn finished, his voice filled with self-confidence and malice. Will, still curled in a protective ball, shivered, fearing for his friend, and wished he could see. The hood was stifling, made of thick brown fabric that both obscured his vision and made it hard to breathe. A sudden yelp made him jump and he wiggled, attempting to free himself in order to see what was going on. A second yelp to his right made him smile as he recognized the dull thud of a thick arrow hitting wood.

'Halt...' He thought happily, stilling once more as he listened for the older Ranger.

"I think one at a time is fairer, don't you?" the Ranger's voice was calm, cold and quiet, and yet it carried from his place hidden in the shadows. Will could almost see him, standing in a deceptively loose stance, an arrow knocked and ready at the massive longbow he always used. Alda, either extremely stupid, or stubbornly rebellious ('Same thing,' Will thought sourly), stood his ground, attempting to bluster his way through the situation.

"This is Battleschool business, Ranger. You'd best stay out of it." Will winced. The arrogant words were sure to spark Halt's infamous temper, and he almost felt sorry for the young whelp, until a throb from his aching shoulders and side put a stop to any pity he might have felt otherwise.

"Battleschool business, is it, sonny?" Halt's voice was dangerously low, and Will could feel him moving across the ground, swiftly and silently covering the distance between them in seconds. Alda stood firm, growing more confident as he realized exactly how short the elder man really was.

"i seem to notice that there was a Ranger apprentice being attacked," Halt continued softly, dark eyes boring into the upstart in front of him. Alda audibly sneered.

"Make it your business if you like. I really don't care one way or the other."

"Well then, I think I will make it my business... But I won't be needing this." Will felt the bow land near him and blinked, confused. What happened next was fast enough to make his head spin and he couldn't even see it. He heard a crunch, a yelp, another thud as something impacted something else and the panicked breathing.

"Don't ever talk to me like that again, boy." Halt said, so softly that Will had to strain his ears to catch the faint words. "And don't ever lay a hand on my apprentice again. Understand?" There was a pause, filled only by stunned silence and harsh breathing.

"Understand?" Halt repeated, shifting a little.

"Yes...sir." Alda croaked in reply, sinking to the ground when Halt released him. Will heard the faint sound of metal on leather and smiled in amusement, realizing what Halt had done. He turned his attention back to the group as Halt turned to the other apprentices.

"You," The Ranger spat, his words edged with contempt, "Pick up your cane." There was a pause as one of the two shuffled around, picking up the indicated item.

"Now give me back my arrow." Halt ordered. Will listened as the boy struggled to remove the heavey arrow and stepped closer to hand it to the man, taking a quick step back again afterwards. Halt chuckled lightly, sounding disgusted, and turned to Horace, who had stood silently so far.

" I take it these are the three who gave you those bruises?" Will frowned. He hadn't realized Horace was hurt too. He perked up when the young swordmaster replied decisively.

"Yes, sir."

"I rather thought so," Halt continued. "Well then, I've heard rumors that you're pretty good with a sword. How about a practice bout with this hero in front of me?"

"I think I'd like that." Bryn, the coward, protested, backing away.

"Just a moment! You can't expect me to..." Will gave a soft snort as he heard Halt take a step forward.

"You've got a cane. I suggest you use it. Now get on with it." Halt ordered gruffly before stepping back and crouching beside Will. Keeping one eye on the admittedly onesided fight, he gently untied the rope binding the bag to Will's sides and slipped it off. Will sighed with relief, breathing in an enormous lungful of clean air and relaxing against the grass. Halt frowned, noticing the bruises on his hands, and shifted the cloak aside to get a better look, fingers tracing gently over the abused flesh. For every wince Will made, his frown deepened and his eyes grew darker.

"Sir Rodney will want to be a part of this." He muttered, helping Will sit up and sweeping his cloak over the smaller boy, hiding him from view. Will huddled against his mentor, grateful for the time to recompose himself and wipe away the tear tracks. He stayed there for a moment, soaking up the warmth and subtle affection halt was giving, before tapping the man's arm. Nodding, Halt moved his arm to the side, letting will out from under the cloak while his gaze remained on the two boys fighting. Now and then he would give suggestions, almost smirking as Horace thoroughly trounced Bryn in a matter of minutes. At one point Jerome had tried to slip away, only to be stopped at a word from Halt and a pointed finger.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you." The redheaded menace turned and froze, for Will was standing a few feet away, an arrow knocked and ready to fire, aimed at the boy's left calf. Unwilling to test his shoulders at the moment, Will merely stood as though he were ready and able to fire within a seconds notice, his eyes flashing a deep, emerald green.

Within another ten minutes Horace had cowed the other two and all three were nursing injuries, whimpering like beaten dogs or in the case of Alda, lying unconscious. Horace stepped back from his fallen enemy and smiled, rubbing his hand and giving a satisfied sigh.

"You have no idea how good that felt." The boy said, looking at Halt. "Thank you, Ranger."

Halt merely nodded, glancing at Will. "Thank you for taking a hand when they attacked Will. And by the way, my friends call me Halt." Will smiled, signing something.

'Or grumpy old fart.' He grinned. Halt shot him a glare, but it lacked the usual fire.

"Don't push it."

M.P.O.: I do hope that this chapter was more to your satisfaction my dear readers. ^_^ Anything familiar to the book is probably quoted, as I tried to keep with the flow of events and didn't want to change up the dialogue too much, and No, I don't own it. If I did, I wouldn't be writing fanfiction for it now would I? Review Q&A below.

You're not dead!- Nope, don't plan on it either. XD Though I may have extremely long breaks between postings, I will always update at some point. And If I do end up dead at some point, I'll be sure to have a friend tell you all so that you don't have to worry.

Enormous thanks to That Random Kid Over There, Crazy-About-Books, and Hanzo of the Salamander for reviewing and showing me that there is more than one person still reading my ramblings. This one's for you all.