Ha! It's one of my WIPs finally updated! I hope you all enjoy. :) Sorry, that was random sounding. But I'm really glad that this draft was somehow saved, while the rest...well, are gone. e_e But still...spring break is a lifesaver. Definitely.

Thanks for your patience, everyone.


"Will, wake up!"

The call was repeated several times, getting successively louder, pounding into Will's head. He gritted his teeth, held out for several more seconds, and then jumped up, searching wildly for whoever had been shouting.

"Who are you?" Will yelled, voice cracking as he turned around in a full circle, looking at the tall evergreen trees that loomed over him. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

"Will!" the call came again.

This time, he recognized the voice.

"Alyss?" he breathed, and then rushed past the trees to the little clearing where he'd caught the glimpse of blond hair. He glanced wildly around him, searching for the tall girl, his closest friend, and repeatedly shouted her name for the whole forest to hear.

Nothing.

"Where could she be?" he said softly, head down, glaring at the mud patch at his feet. "Why doesn't she answer me?"

"Will, I'm right here," Alyss replied quietly.

The boy started and jumped back, then looked up and saw her standing several meters away from him, gazing into his eyes. He in turn stared into her eyes, stern and gray, unwavering, unblinking, drinking in his presence and seeming to swallow him up so that-

He abruptly shook away those thoughts and said quietly, taking her hands in his own, "How did you escape that vile man?"

Alyss shook her head, whispering, "I'm sorry, Will, but I cannot tell you right now. The Baron will have discovered my escape. His guards are most likely rushing towards us this very moment, Will! We must go!"

Will frowned. "What do you mean, Alyss? How could they possibly know where we are?"

As she glanced around them, her face suddenly paled and she yelled, "Look out, Will!"

Inadvertently, his head turned, but he was shoved out of the way before he could get a clear sight of whatever was coming at them. Suddenly, a blur flashed past him with a wicked hiss, and as Will fell onto the hard ground, mouth dry, heart pounding in his chest, his head turned again, looking to see where the arrow had come from.

But then he heard a weak groan from behind him and immediately whirled around, gasping when he saw the pool of blood rippling over the ground. Then he looked farther and saw-

"My god, Alyss! Are you all right? I'm sorry, so sorry," he whispered, tears streaming down his cheeks as he took her hand.

"Will..." she gasped, clutching his hand with all her might.

"I'm sorry, Alyss," Will cried, pressing his lips fervently to her ice-cold hand, desperately trying to revive her, hoping against hope that she would stay with him. "Hold on, Alyss. Don't go. Please don't leave me. Please!"

"Will..." she said one last time, weakening as the blood continued to pour out of the wound in her side, "Will...please...remember me..."

Then, the light in her pale gray eyes faded, her hand thudded heavily on the ground, lifeless, and Will was quickly surrounded by the Baron's men and led away from the forest under their escort.

"No...no...not Alyss..."


"NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

The anguished scream pierced the night and echoed throughout the forest.

Will sat up, glancing wildly about him, breathing hard. Gradually, as he came to his senses and relaxed, his heart rate slowed and he was able to further examine his surroundings.

"Am I...dead?" he whispered. Then, as he felt a flash of sharp pain on his leg, he muttered, "Apparently not."

Gingerly peeling his burnt pants away from his leg, he held his breath, expecting the worst, but was pleasantly surprised to see only one angry red burn down his thigh.

Not to say that it didn't hurt like the very devil.

"You're finally awake, are you?"

Will's head jerked up, searching for whoever had just spoken to him. After several moments, he finally caught sight of a figure wrapped in a cloak calmly sitting in the shade of a nearby pine tree.

"Wh-who are you?" the boy asked, instinctively backing away from this grim stranger. "And how did you-"

He stopped as he looked down at his arms and legs again. Burned as his clothes were, it made sense that his body would also be severely burned...and yet...when he looked over them, there were only a few scars left.

"You treated my burns." It was not a question-it was a clear statement.

The cloaked figure nodded. "I did." His deep voice was even-pitched, with just the slightest burr of a...was that a Hibernian accent?

Will looked down at the tight bandages that wrapped around his ankle. "What happened? How long have I been out?"

The stranger tilted his head to one side. "I heard the whole argument in the Baron's chambers and climbed to the top of the Incinerator building before you and the guards made it. Then I simply lifted the little lid on the top, tied a rope to the handle, and swooped down to fetch you. As it is, you've already been unconscious for more than a week. I've had to spoon-feed you rabbit stew to keep your strength up while your body and mind rested. Admittedly you'd gone through quite a lot, otherwise your subconscious wouldn't have conjured up that most vivid nightmare."

"You...you were listening?" Will choked out. He couldn't believe that something so precious, so dear, and also private had come tumbling out of his mouth to the ears of this stranger! Well, he had saved his life, but still...

"I wouldn't have been a very good savior if I'd simply left you to die in the forest, now would I?"

Will considered that for a moment, and then reluctantly agreed with the stranger's viewpoint. That didn't mean he had to like it, though.

"Just who are you, anyway?" he asked, meeting the calm, unflustered gaze of the stranger head-on.

"I?" the stranger said, lowering his cloak hood to reveal a stern, grim-lined face and salt-and-pepper gray hair. "I am the infamous Ranger Halt, known throughout all Araluen for being one of the lone remaining rebels against Morgarath's ambitions."

"I think I have heard about you," Will said thoughtfully, frowning as he tried to remember when he'd been told about how Halt and someone else had constantly raided the cruel overlord of Araluen and his soldiers, stealing their weapons, supplies, and occasionally even their horses. "But...everyone said that you died! So how can you still be alive right now?"

Halt flexed his fingers on the massive longbow that Will noticed only now. "My friend and I were captured by Morgarath's men," he said slowly. "We were chained together in the cell at the very heart of Castle Araluen's dungeon, other, lesser rebels surrounding us. We managed to escape after my friend and I worked together to weaken the lock mechanism, and we also coughed the key up out of the cell guard-"

Will's jaw dropped. "How in the world did you do that?"

Halt glanced at him, then replied briefly, "Practice."

Will's jaw dropped open about another two inches. "You practiced how to do that? What kind of teachers did you have?"

Halt smirked and answered, "The very best." Now serious again, he continued, "After knocking out the cell guard, we pretty much set everyone else free, using the ring of keys on the guard. Then we all separated into small groups and navigated our way around the Castle until we found an exit that wasn't guarded by dozens of guards. We were lucky; we only met two guards on the way. Others were not so lucky and were recaptured."

"And...what happened to them?" Will asked in a very small voice. His insatiable curiosity simply had to be satisfied, but something told him that he'd gone too far with this question-

"Executed," Halt said shortly.

Will sat back, brown eyes wide. "Ex-executed?" he finally managed to ask weakly.

"Executed, yes," Halt repeated himself, brow darkening in anger as he continued, "my friend and I left decoys behind us in the woods, using two young guards that were bothering us. After that, those guards were brought to the Castle and were killed for our 'misdeeds', while my friend and I escaped. So..." He shrugged slightly. "Ever since then, we've been traveling undercover, disguising ourselves and slipping around the country through the forests to where Morgarath's head henchmen were. But my friend and I were separated some time back in an ambush fight in the forest, and since then..."

His deep voice trailed off, leaving the two of them in an uncomfortable silence.

Eventually, Will cleared his throat. "Um...well..ah, Sir Halt-"

The Ranger flinched as if struck and growled, "Don't call me that, boy."

"Er-all right then," Will said. "Sir, I...well..."

"Yes?" Halt asked, raising an eyebrow impatiently.

"Well...why did you bother to save me in the first place? I was sent down there for a specific reason."

"Which would be?" Halt said, eyebrow still raised.

"Well, I...ah...wasn't exactly treating the Baron respectfully," Will mumbled.

"And you were right to do it that way, boy," Halt replied. "After all, if you hadn't talked back to him like that, I don't suppose you would have been able to find out who you really stand for in this battle?"

Will looked up, eyes narrowed, at the grim Ranger. "Wait a minute. There's a battle? Since when?"

"Ever since Morgarath took over," Halt replied heavily. "Though only in small actions and groups. Once we recruit more people to our side and find some more weapons, we'll be able to start a real rebellion. But until then..." He glanced sidelong at the boy leaning forward towards him, a fiery light dancing in his eyes.

"Care to come along with me?"

"Would I!" Will exclaimed, grinning. Then his expression sobered, and he turned to face Halt squarely and look him right in the eye. "But before I agree to do that, I need to help my friends. We're not starting a rebellion without them." The firm tone in his voice left no doubt to Halt that the boy would stick through thick and thin to stay loyal to his friends and Wardmates.

"Oh, very well then," Halt replied, sighing, though Will noticed that the ghost of a smile lingered at the upturned corners of his mouth. "Where to first?"

"The Baron's tower," Will said, jaw set as he turned to face back towards the dark, imposing figure of Castle Darkmount. "To rescue Alyss."


Ooh, yes, I really like this chapter. *cackle* I wonder what the readers would do if I got both Halt andWill captured? *evil grin* But then again, I'm not sure what my readers would do to me...hmm. Well anyway. On to the contest results!

GRAND PRIZE: RoMythe, who correctly PMed me the answer that I wrote in the first chapter that Alyss had blueeyes, whereas in the first book JF says that Alyss has grayeyes. Good job, RoMythe, and congratulations! If you would PM the specific style of critiques you'd like on your stories, and how many and which stories you want critiques on, I'd be very happy. ^_^

First place: Spookisapuppy, who pointed out that I had turned the fig tree in the Yard magically to an oak tree. I didn't realize I'd made that mistake until she pointed it out to me. And also for listing my grammatical errors. ^_^ Kudos! PM me with the style of critique you want and how many and which stories you want critiques on.

Honorable Mentions: Dodo.123, AmyOfRedmont, GodricsRangerall also came up with possible errors. I apologize for the confusion-I should have told everyone that I purposely changed Redmont's name (and yes, there is meant to be a 'u' in Darkmount), the name of Araluen to Morgarien, and repeated that the mistake was in Chapter One, not Chapter Three.

If you three would PM me which stories you want me to critique (up to a max of 3, please) and also tell me which critique style you'd like from me, I would be very much obliged.

Congrats! And thanks to all the readers who read and reviewed even though the contest was over.

I promise that I will upload the next chapter within a week.