It was only his first year as a ranger's apprentice and already Will was becoming used to travelling. He didn't bother complaining about the hard rations anymore, or the aches when he dismounted in the evening, or the heaviness of his eyelids as he kept watch after another long day.
However, he was also becoming used to being among friends. Halt and Gilan were constantly engaging in light hearted banter, and they often included him. Will had developed a friendship with the tall fire elf. He found Gilan to be bright and funny. When Will started worrying about how wise it was to ride up to Morgarath's realm, Gilan would distract him with dazzling fire tricks, manipulating the flame from hand to hand and writing words in the air.
That was all well and good, but was it useful at all? Will found out the answer to this when they had a few days of rain. They struggled to find dry firewood and night descended upon them. They were all shivering, but Gilan lit a fire on his hand to keep them warm. Eventually, they gave up on finding firewood and warmed up the coffee pot over his hand. They sipped their coffee and curled up in their tents, leaving Halt with the first watch. Will noticed that Gilan's palm was black and felt awful even when the elf licked it and the skin returned to a healthy colour.
It was hard to sleep in the cold. Will wrapped his arms around himself, tucking his sleeping roll over his head to keep his ears warm. The chill always seemed to find him. He'd feel a rock or twig beneath the leather floor of his tent, so he'd roll over to get more comfortable, and the cold air would trail down his spine.
On nights like this, he found that his mind wandered. Sometimes it was all the way back to his childhood, other times to the Kelpie at Celsey, or when he found out Halt was a vampire. This night, his drifting thoughts led him to a week or so before, as they left Redmont.
Alyss had come to say goodbye to him. She'd made it quite clear with an aloof shrug that she still wasn't pleased with him. But he knew she'd never had a chance to say goodbye to her parents so she always made sure to farewell her friends.
He grinned to himself. It meant that at least they were still friends. She still cared about him, even if just a fraction of what she had felt before.
Faul was the only dull spot in their company. He whined about the cold at night and the heat at midday, the wind and the walking (it's alright for you, you ride on horses and make them do the hard work), he made out that his hooves were lodged with stones but wouldn't let them look to confirm this. Will couldn't see how the same centaur had made it all the way to the Solitary plains.
Time and time again, Faul came up with excuses to rest, and as they got closer, to turn back altogether. On one occasion, Halt took him aside to reassure him. The whinging didn't diminish after that. If anything, it became more pronounced.
"Why do you want to turn back so much?" Gilan inquired during one of their frequent rest stops. This time, Faul had dug his hooves into the soil and refused to move. They were at the border of Celtica, his home, yet he wanted to turn back.
Faul studied a boulder with an interesting shape and refused to answer.
He was a frustrating companion. His petulence combined with Halt's grimness- Will was thankful that Gilan was around to lighten the mood.
However, as they moved through Celtica, even Gilan left his cheerfulness behind. He had a constant crease between his eyebrows. It deepened whenever they came across strange happenings. Or rather, strange not-happenings. The towns and border posts were all deserted.
Faul had told them this was the case. That didn't stop it from being eery. Will was certain the buildings were craning to get a good look at him. A tomcat darted over the path, his ribs sticking out and his fur in matted clumps. He hissed at them, his lantern eyes almost popping out of his skull. Will couldn't wait to leave the spook infested town.
So he wasn't at all happy when Halt announced that they would spend the night.
"Here? Right now? It's barely dark!" Will protested.
"It'll be dark in an hour," Halt said. "We might as well make the most of the shelter."
"And the stables," Gilan agreed. Blaze shook her mane in satisfaction. He grinned at Will. "Problem?"
The apprentice flushed. "No," he sighed. "No problem." He felt their eyes all on him and he peered up through his lashes. "You don't think...I mean...there could be ghosts?"
Halt snorted. "Will, you're a werewolf, Gil's an elf, we have a centaur with us and I'm a vampire. I don't think we're the right group of people to worry about ghosts."
Will wasn't reassured. "That doesn't mean they won't haunt us," he muttered as they bedded the horses down in the abandoned stable. There were spider webs on the rafters and dust layered the beams. Even so, Faul opted to stay in the stable. He was more at home among the whuffles of horses and preferred their company than the ranger's- he made little attempt to tactfully hide this point.
Inside, there was a stale loaf of bread cut on the table, and mouldy slices of cheese. A jar of pickles, a half eaten roast, a fly on buttery potatos. Will scraped the leftovers outside- that tomcat could have them- while Gilan lit the fireplace, expelling the dampness in the room. Halt rummaged through the pantry for anything edible. He layed out some dry biscuits with a relish, pickled onions, broccolli, carrots, beans, cabbage and sweet potatoes, supplemented with the tough, chewy beef from their supplies. Of course he made them coffee as well.
Halt and Gilan tucked in straight away. Will prodded the broccolli with his fork.
"Are you sure we should be eating this?" he cautioned.
"You're a bit old to be complaining about eating your vegetables, aren't you?" Halt muttered through a mouthful of cabbage.
"It's not that," Will denied. "It's just...don't you think...I mean..."
"You aren't worried about ghosts again are you?" Halt snorted. "You saw the table. These people aren't dead, they just left in a hurry."
"You should have seen that, Will," Halt scolded. "There are no more ghosts here than there are in any other place. You never worry about the ones in Redmont."
"There are ghosts in Redmont?" Will exclaimed.
"Yes," Gilan answered in all seriousness. "They come into the houses at night, holding the weapons that killed them."
Will leaned forward, his eyes wide. "What if they died of an illness?"
Gilan shrugged. "Then they'll reach out for you and brush their cold fingers over your neck until..."
"Until what?" Will breathed.
"Until you come down with the illness that killed them."
"That's awful," Will gasped. He had a prickling feeling at the back of his neck and he swatted at it. How many ghosts came into the cabin at night? Did they watch over him as he slept? What about his parents? Maybe even they hovored over him. But maybe they fended off the other ghosts and that was why he was still alive. Still, his parents might not know he was in Celtica. His breath came faster. "That's a horrible way to die," he said.
"That's a ridiculous way to die," Halt put in. "Honestly Gil, how do you come up with this rubbish?"
Something in Will's chest loosened. It may have been because Gilan was now grinning. He glanced at the elf suspiciously.
"For the record," Halt explained, "ghosts are created by those who grieve."
"You mean they're not real?" Will asked, glaring at Gilan who was grinning more than necessary.
"They exist," Halt shrugged. "That is, they can be felt sometimes, or heard, or seen, which is about as existing as you can get. But they aren't the dead. They come from the grief and thoughts of the living, figments of air and space, if you like. They'll only hurt you if you hurt yourself. On the other hand, the dead are just that- dead. They've moved on to another place, no one knows for sure where, although many speculate."
"I see." Actually, Will was a tad confused. He got the gist of it though. Ghosts weren't coming to kill him in his sleep.
"On that cheery note about ghosts and dead people, who's for bed?" Gilan suggested. "I had first watch last night. Someone elses turn now." He stretched his lanky limbs, standing up and clearing away the plates.
Will scoffed the last of his dinner, finishing just in time to pass his gleaming plate to Gilan.
"You're on first watch, Will," he said. They retreated to the master bedroom. Even though they weren't bothered by ghosts, they were still on a war footing and it was safer to stay in the same room. It was a double bed anyway, so they topped and tailed, with the third person perched on an armchair as he kept watch.
Will refilled his coffee cup- he needed energy to keep watch after all, and settled into the armchair. It wasn't such a great vantage point. He found that the plush cushions lulled him to sleep and he had to stand up and pace around the room. At one stage he stepped on a creaky floorboard. It was disgraceful for a ranger, but the drawn out creak under his own foot made him flinch in surprise.
"That had better be an enemy sneaking up on me and not an apprentice ranger standing on the floorboards," Halt grumbled.
"Sorry Halt," Will said quickly.
"Right." He clamped his lips shut and stood still. When his eyelids started to droop, he pinched himself and he'd flutter awake again. It was a relief when Gilan took over and he could sink into the mattress, Halt's even breaths beside him a comfort. No ghosts would dare sneak up on Halt, after all.
There was a rope bridge rigged across the fissure. Wargals guarded it, snuffling and pawing the ground. Will bit his lip until it bled, anxious about those shambling, bear like creatures that were the basis of bedtime stories (if you don't go to sleep Will, the wargals with climb out from under your bed and get you) and of several nightmares. He drew back into the bushes, turning to Halt and Gilan for reassurence.
Halt gestured for them to move back. They slithered through the forest to where Faul, a more conspicuous presence, was waiting for them.
"There were only four," Gilan said. "We can deal with that many." His fingers drummed on his longbow but Halt was shaking his head.
"We won't need to. We're going over the fissure, remember? They don't have long distance weapons so they won't be able to stop us."
"You aren't serious!" Will exclaimed. His fellow rangers looked at him as if he was the one who'd taken leave of his senses. "What are we going to do, sprout wings?"
Faul's tail flicked. He shifted uncomfortably, frowning. He too was confused about the plan.
"No," Halt replied evenly. "We'll borrow someone elses wings."
Which raised more questions than it answered. "Well, who's wings?" Will questioned. "Didn't you say we'd meet the corps commandant here?" He looked around, expecting a cloaked ranger to emerge from the trees.
"We will," Halt nodded. "He has further to travel than us. He'll be here soon. Ah," he added. "There he is now."
Will frowned, perplexed. Halt raised a hand- he must have gone mad- and a hawk spiralled down from the canopy. It landed on Halt's fist, careful to avoid scratching him with it's talons.
Ah. So now he was a hawk whisperer? Evidently Halt was a vampire of many talents.
"Halt, is that your pet hawk?" Will asked. He had a deja vu moment from when he'd first been apprenticed to the ranger. There had been a small, brightly feathered bird bopping around then. It occurred to him that the bird's name had been Crowley. Had Halt named it after the corps commandant? Mind you, Halt had never confirmed that it was his bird and Will had never seen it since.
The hawk preened its feathers with a high amount of dignity. It ruffled its wings and fixed a peircing gaze on Will.
"They did this to me too," Gilan said, taking some sympathy for the puzzled boy. "I went two years thinking birds just liked Halt. They even tricked me at the gatherings. I only found out when one of the other rangers let it slip."
"Found out what?" Will asked.
Gilan nodded at the hawk. "All those birds that fly over to Halt are named Crowley," he said. "Not just any old Crowley either. Will, meet our commandant."
Will blinked. "You mean, the head of ranger command is a bird?"
"Not exactly," Gilan said, but Will's attention was diverted because the hawk had vanished. Instead, a man leaned on Halt's shoulder, grinning, with sandy red hair and wearing his ranger uniform.
"You're no fun Gil," Crowley complained. He turned his attention to the stunned apprentice. Reaching out a hand in greeting, he said, "you must be Will. Pleased to meet you."
"Yes sir," Will said, hurridly shaking the offered hand. "The pleasure is mine."
"Isn't he polite!" Crowley said. "Obviously, you haven't had enough time to rub off on him, Halt."
"He hasn't had enough time to know how annoying you are," Halt retorted.
"Were you the little bird at the cabin when I became Halt's apprentice?" Will asked. Crowley nodded.
"I get around a lot, under many different disguises," he explained. "I'm a shapeshifter."
"So you can turn into anything you want?" Will asked.
"Sure," Crowley smiled at him. Before he could blink, there was a cat winding around his legs, then a shetland pony nosing his side, then a monarch butterfly, then the sandy haired man was back in front of him.
"Can you carry all of us over the mountains?"
"That's the plan," Crowley said cheerfully. "One at a time though. First Halt, then Faul, then Will, then Gilan, alright?"
They all agreed. Will was glad that at either end of the journey, he'd have a fully qualified ranger with him. He'd never be left alone. He didn't envy Halt, having to wait by himself in the midst of the mountains.
Crowley transformed into a massive eagle. Will had never seen one so big. The tawny feathers, tinged with sandy red, rippled over a large wingspan. With a powerful flap of his wings, he rose into the air, snatching Halt's upheld arms in his talons.
The remaining three watched in trepidation as the senior rangers soared higher and higher. Halt's cloak fluttered in the wind behind him. Will had a perfect head for heights, but even he was nervous about flying. Faul was worse. He paced back and forth, his hooves clopping on the ground.
"He won't be able to lift me," he said. "I'm much heavier than you three. I might as well stay behind."
Gilan shook his head. "We need you to guide us through the mountains."
They munched on biscuits and stale bread as they waited. This was always the worst part- the waiting. The more time that dragged by, the more anxious they got. Will started to worry- what if Crowley had accidently dropped Halt? Or what if Morgarath had heard of their plans and had slaughtered the rangers as they landed?
Gilan kept watch over the sky. He picked apart a leaf to give his fingers something to do as he scanned the clouds. After what seemed like forever, he said that he could see Crowley, and they all watched the eagle's graceful descent. It turned glided above them, heading for Faul. The centaur gathered his legs under him to run and found himself moving backwards. He glanced down and the horror was evident on his features as he realised the canopy was below him.
They heard him whinnying in anxiety. Abelard shifted at the noise- they were leaving the horses behind for they didn't want to get them trapped in the plateu with no easy retreat. In this case, hiding was more imperative than speed anyway. Gilan waved cheerfully at the petrified centaur.
This time, they knew how long it would take for Crowley to fly them over the mountains, so they didn't panic as the minutes ticked by. They led the horses further from the fissure, up to where there was an abundance of fresh green grass and trees to hide in. They gave them instructions to be stealthy and not let anyone detect them.
They made it back to the meeting spot just as Crowley circled above them. Gilan nudged the apprentice, and Will took a deep breath, holding his arms up as he'd seen Halt do. Claws grasped them and he couldn't help a yell of surprise as the ground was whipped away from him.
It wasn't an enjoyable flight. The wind whooshed at his hair, and billowed his cloak. He scrabbled for a handhold on the claws. It felt like he'd slip from the bird's grasp at any moment. Below him, he saw the deep chasm of the fissure, and the top of the forest. That soon disappeared from view as they tilted around. Will gasped, certain that the commandant would drop him as they turned a sharp corner. But they straightened out, soaring over the rise and fall of the mountains. The tallest mountains were above them. Crowley navigated between the peaks. Far to his right, Will thought he could see the fires of a camp. They were avoiding flying directly over Morgarath's domain, he realised.
Crowley soared down a valley. The rocks closed in to a stream, lined by green trees begginning to show an orange splash of autumn. By now, Will was starting to lose some of the tension and relax into the ride. It was uncomfortable, but the views were stunning, and he marvelled to think that he was seeing a perspective of araluen hardly anyone else would ever see.
He spotted Halt and Faul. Crowley dipped down. He seemed to be coming up t the ground at great speed, Will thought. Then nothing was securing his wrists and he tumbled forward, his boots hitting the turf. His knees collapsed and he staggered. Halt caught him. He leaned against his mentor and glanced up to see Crowley spiralling back for Gilan.
Now that he was on the ground, the mountains looked much bigger and he felt much smaller. Somehow, they had to make their way to the centre of Morgarath's kingdom, find a way to destroy the stone, and do it without being detected.
When Gilan joined them, Crowley briefly turned human again. "I'll meet you back at this spot in three weeks, if you haven't already fought your way out," he said. With that, he was a hawk (a reasonably sized one) and he disappeared into the open skies.
"Can he not stay and help?" Will asked as they began to make their way down the valley.
"We won't need his help," Halt said. Faul said nothing, Gilan nodded agreement, and Will wished he had the same confidence.