Chapter 11

I have so many story ideas that will be so fun to write! I simply don't have time to write them all and, being me, the majority are chapter fics. But no, I'm not going to start any of them, until I've finished the three in progress fics I have at the moment! *Raises determined fist*

In other news, I have a two week holiday! I have to study and work, but I'm still going to try write one chapter of something a day. *Is pumped up* Even if it means I must stay up late at night, or get up early in the morning, I will defeat the demons of procrastination, close my eyes to the temptation of books and manga, ignore the anime on my computer, forget that sims 2 is only one click away, and write! Huff, huff, huff... Then exams, but then is the christmas holidays when I'll really be able to update.

Will was not sure how long the storm raged on. He clung to his tree, the mud coarsing around him. It got in his clothes, his mouth and eyes, and he spluttered. Breathing was surprisingly difficult through the thick rain and the mud. It felt like he was drowning every bit as much as it had when the monster fish dragged him under.

But no storm lasts forever, and when the watery light of dawn peeked through the canopy, the clouds had retreated. In a heartbeat, the rain seemed to have been hours ago; the forest back to dry humidity without a breath of wind.

Will dragged himself out of the mud. His front was caked in brown, but his back and head had been exposed to the rain and so were cleaner. Water still dripped down his face, and he realised with a shock that he had been crying.

Halt.

He'd forgotten for a second. And now, he sloshed a few paces in the mud and vomited. He was sick to his stomache. Halt. Gone.

It couldn't be real.

It wasn't real! It wasn't! Halt wasn't dea-...gone, until Will found his body. Halt was strong, stronger than anyone Will knew, and he couldn't be killed by just a little mud and a cut.

Will glanced around frantically. He saw a shape in the mud move and had a flash of hope, until he realised it was just Ruch. Then he felt guilty for being disappointed.

"Will," Ruch said, joining the young ranger. "I managed to grab a tree trunk; I don't know where the others are."

Will closed his eyes. He didn't care about the others. He just didn't. It was horribly selfish of him, he knew that, but it didn't change his feelings.

The forest had changed completely. The mudslide oozed with knee deep muck, and below the slope, a swamp had formed. A rustling came from above them, and Will spotted Sirisa, who had made it to the top before the wind and rain became unbearable. She waved at the other two to join her, but Will had no intention of moving until he found his former mentor.

"Where's Halt?" Ruch asked quietly. The cringe on his face showed that he had already written the older ranger off as deceased, and he rested a comforting hand on Will's shoulder.

"Around here somewhere," Will snapped. He slipped down the mudslide, frantically searching.

"Will," Ruch said gently. "Will, he's badly injured and-"

"I know!" Will screamed. There was a stunned silence, as if the whole forest had been shocked by the outburst. "I'll find him; he'll be fine; he always is!" He dropped to his knees and began digging in the muck, just in case Halt had been buried by the ooze.

Another movement in the mud, another flash of hope, but this was only Lillian. Her hair could barely qualify as blonde under the grime, and there was a pallor to her cheeks. Wearily, she staggered her way up the hill.

Lillian was climbing the hill, Will realised, so she must have slid down. She'd fallen and she'd survived. Halt was much stronger than Lillian, there was no way he would die when she lived.

His mind told him: Lillian didn't have an infected torso wound.

"Did Ranger Halt finally...?" Lillian trailed off as she noticed the growing rage on Will's face.

"Did he finally what?" Will repeated, his voice rising in both pitch and volume. "Did he finally die? Was that what you were about to say? Were you all waiting for him to die? You-you-" he couldn't manage any more. He was crying too hard.

Halt, who had tested him in the baron's office. Halt, who had taught him the ways of a ranger. Halt, who was grim and unemotional, but who hugged Will when he was scared, and smiled when Will needed encouragement. Halt, who would have that glint in his eyes when he said, "I'm proud of you."

Will rocked forward. He buried his hands in the mud; let his nose touch the surface. His tears plopped into the mud as he curled up, in the middle of the Oramine forest, feeling more anguished and more alone than ever. His so-called companions stood by uselessly and watched.

This wasn't helping Halt. All this crying was doing nothing to help. Would Halt stand by and sob if he was in Will's position? No, he would find a body first. Just in case.

Will leapt to his feet and hurried down the slope, ignoring Lillian's exclamation of his name. He threw himself into the swamp and ran as best he could when waist deep in water, praying that around the next bend, Halt would appear.

Then he spotted Antil. The healer had found a spot where two interlocking trees had provided some shelter from the storm. He was kneeling on a rock that jutted out from the swamp water, crouched over something.

Will was muttering, "please, please, please," under his breath. As he got nearer, he realised Antil was crouched over Halt, pushing down on the ranger's chest to try and get him to breath. Will had to fight back the urge to shrink into the ground in despair as he realised Antil was shaking his head. And then Antil stopped his attempts.

"Is he...?" Will hurried over. Antil looked over at him, his face completely blank, his eyes vacant and still shaking his head.

Halt's face was white, deathly white, and his lips had a blue tinge to them. His salt and pepper hair was streaked with mud that actually made him look younger, if it weren't for the deep lines on his features that had been creased in pain over the last few days. Like all of them he was caked in mud, but fresh blood from his wound added another colour to his grimy clothes. With his eyes closed, his body limp and still, Halt appeared unaturally peaceful amongst the devastated forest. Far too peaceful.

But he was still breathing. He was still alive.

…...

Antil continued to shake his head as the two of them carried Halt up the slope.

"I don't believe it," he said. "I thought he was dead for sure when he drifted beside me."

Will couldn't control the tremors that were racking his body- in part because his wet clothing was sticking to his skin and it was freezing, but mostly because his heart was still beating eratically.

"I thought he was gone," Will whispered. "I thought that was why you were shaking your head."

"No, not at all," Antil dismissed the notion. "I was simply amazed at this man's strength. You two rangers have certainly taught me something. I won't be giving up anymore."

Will let out a shaky breath. "Well, you didn't have to scare me like that."

The other three were equally as amazed that Halt had survived. They all clambered up the muddy slope, slipping and sliding, but having a lot more success without the wind and rain. At the top, Will instructed everyone to strip down to their underwear. Standing around in wet clothes was deadly, he told them.

Sirisa and Lillian hid behind a tree- they weren't going to hang out half-naked with a bunch of men. Will and the others could hear their bickering from behind the tree, and then they all had to avert their eyes as Sirisa stormed over to find another tree.

They were back to square one. No shelter, no food, and now they had no clothes.

Ruch and Will set about lighting a fire, while Antil checked on Halt. It was difficult to find dry firewood, but a tangled shrub had been dense enough to shelter the innermost branches and before too long, the girls joined them in huddling around the fire.

"How is he?" Will gestured to Halt. Antil shrugged.

"I wouldn't say he is stable. Nor can I say the swelling or infection has gone down, and he has a high fever. He's at risk of illness if he gets too cold." He saw Will's downcast face and added, "but he's surprisingly good considering all he's been through. I'm starting to think we might just make it out of this cursed forest."

This cheered everyone up, particularly because it had been the pessimist of the group to say it.

"So," Will said at length. "Exactly what happened with that painting?"

"It's a sacred artifact," Ruch said, a bitter smile playing at his lips. "You've heard of the Arasi?"

"Yes," Will confirmed. "The neighbouring country and traditional enemies of Oramin."

"You've done your homework, foreigner," Sirisa said, and she managed to make it sound like an insult.

"When the fifth lord was ruling Oramin, that painting was made. It was a huge hit at the time- this was hundreds of years ago," Ruch explained. "It was at the time of the great war. The painting was a bright spot in the war; a splash of hope if you like."

Sirisa continued, "the Arasi resented the painting because they hated for their enemies to have any form of happiness. So they stole it! They stole our sacred painting!"

"It was many years later before the Oramine managed to steal the painting back," Ruch said. "Since then, it has been upheld as an Oramine treasure as well as a war memorial. It has been regarded for hundreds of years, ever since the painting was stolen, as a capital crime to touch it."

"That's ridiculous!" Will couldn't refrain from his outburst. "It's just a painting. We're in this mess because of a painting!"

"I wouldn't expect a foreigner to understand!" Sirisa snapped. "Only a true born Oramine can appreciate the value of art!"

"Sirisa, hush," Ruch quieted her. "Different countries have different customs."

"Um," Lillian brought the attention to her. "I studied Oramine customs before I came here, but I'd never heard of the painting. Was this story documented in any way?"

Sirisa snorted. Ruch cast her a patient, but vaguely weary look. "No, Lillian. It is a story told down the generations. It was never recorded, or written down."

Lillian nodded thoughtfully. Will couldn't see why it mattered.

"I think our clothes are dry enough now," he said. They dressed; the mud caked material stiff and itchy but dry. Ruch and Antil helped Will to dress Halt.

"I'll take first watch," Will said, despite his tiredness. He felt he hadn't been doing much to keep the spirits up lately. The others were all too happy to lie down by the fire and close their eyes.

They slept under the stars that night. At some stage, Halt started to groan and toss in sleep. Will stroked his forehead and tore off another strip from his rapidly diminishing cloak to use as a fresh (though not clean) bandage.

"Will?" Lillian asked drowsily.

"What is it?" Will murmured back to her.

"What did you think of the Five Lords Painting story?" It took him a moment to remember the name of the painting was 'Five Lords'.

"It sounds like Oramin and Arasi have been enemies for a while," Will answered.

"Yes, but I mean...it was passed down the generations...stories like that usually change over time," Lillian said.

Will suppressed a yawn. He glanced up at the sliver of a moon through the canopy. It was nearly the end of his watch. "Does it matter?"

"I suppose not."

…...

In the morning, they doused the fire and dragged themselves further uphill. If another storm hit them, they wanted to be well away from the water.

Sometime around noon, when all their limbs were trembling with weakness that stemmed from little food and water and exertion, and Will's arms were aching from carrying Halt, they found a good spot to camp.

But spirits were low, and they didn't particularly want to begin making shelters yet again. Who knows what could happen this time to ruin everything? Perhaps a bear would come and knock them down, or the tribespeople would return, or beavers would chew them. This last one made Will chuckle, which meant the others stared at him like he'd finally lost his marbles.

Why did people say that anyway? Lost his marbles...Will had never had any marbles to begin with. He'd never played with them as a child, and life as a ranger wasn't exactly marble-enticing. This made him laugh again.

"Will?" Lillian sounded concerned.

"Oh, I was just thinking about how I don't own any marbles," Will explained to her, quite comfortably.

"I think he's dehydrated," Antil put in. "We all need rest and water."

So they sat on the ground for an hour, staring at the sun which seemed inordinately hot whe compared to the rainy weather they'd been previously getting. Ruch explained that Oramin weather could change as fast as you could blink.

"Are we going to make shelters?" Lillian asked.

"Oh, I cannot be bothered," Sirisa groaned. "Let's just shelter under these trees."

"Will?" Lillian put the question to him.

Will shrugged. "It's hot enough now."

"But we'll pay for it if it rains later," Ruch argued. "You'll regret it if Halt gets rained on."

So once again, they set to making sheltor (without Sirisa's help). This time, they went for a roofing area connected by trees, and without any sides. Will also set up his snares again, and Ruch helped him. Antil and Lillian took a quick trip down to the swamp to fill up their water bottles- the Oramine had a way of draining out the muck through a cloth and letting the good water seep through into the water skins. Back at the camp, they lit a fire and boiled the water to make sure it was safe to drink.

All of this took just under two days. Will could hardly believe it had been a week since they had first been thrown into the wild, and they still had not even begun to find their way home.

It would be nice, he reflected, if they could get some good luck, for once.

Review? I just want to know people are still reading :)