I don't usually take so long to update, but I wanted to stockpile the gunpowder before firing the cannons.


~2~ Battle Wounds

For the past fortnight, Halt had been on a mission for King Duncan, leaving Pauline to look after young Crowley in Redmont fief. The boy, however, was avid in visiting his "Uncle" Will in the south, where he had been investigating unrest in the villages there. It was somewhat unclaimed land, with no baron to oversee it properly and therefore no Ranger. Being a member of the Special Task Force, Will had been dispatched to reveal what was so troubling. It was there, on the jagged slopes that the dark lord Morgarath had once called home, that he was injured by a Wargal. Only when he returned, his mission complete, was he able to see his "nephew."

Now, Halt, too, was done his task and had come to pick up his son. For now, though, they sat around the comforting fire while the night loomed outside, sipping coffee in Halt's and Will's case, chewing a sugar cane in Crowley's. It was a rare treat, something Halt had come across during his mission in Arrida. It didn't look very appetizing, but once the boy tried it, it was impossible to take away from him.

"So tell me more about your...misadventure," said Halt, cupping his mug in his hands. The warm, savoury brew was helping him settle his aged bones nicely. The grounds, after all, came right from Arrida as well. "Your letter was very vague...and I can see you jiggling in your seat, anxious to tell me."

Will blinked, thinking that he'd held his composure rather well. Then he shrugged. "Well, a carrier pigeon can only carry so much." Crowley was lying on his stomach beside Ebony, sugar cane in hand, but it was obvious that he was listening. Will knew that he was going to have to downsize some of the details.

He started with his briefing with Crowley, Halt's son's namesake and the Ranger Commandant, which had informed him of the restlessness in the villages near the Mountains of Rain and Night. The remainder of Morgarath's human followers, notorious criminals, had already been rounded up; still, the king had feared the rise of another warlord, and ordered a Ranger to investigate.

Taking up temporary residence in the log cabin Will and Halt were currently enjoyed coffee in, the young Ranger had continued on until he came across what seemed like three completely ordinary villages. When he arrived to the first, incognito in his minstrel garb, the people were cold and aloof. Not hostile, just unusually reserved. It was strange, seeing as Will was acting as a travelling jongleur, a normally welcome face in places like that. In fact, he was hastened right out the door of the first inn he came to, the keeper begging him to simply leave and never return.

Will could see Halt's interest in this, though the grizzled Ranger was clearly trying to hide it.

Having checked the other inns and taverns at the three villages, each about five miles apart with farmland in between, Will had recognized the need for some serious undercover prying. An instinct told him that bribes and threats were going to do no good, and would only serve in revealing his presence to whoever was disturbing the settlements. People talk to those with influence and power, be it benevolent or malevolent. Will had had no doubt that there was something malevolent creeping about, and knew that secrecy was his best weapon now.

By much spying and eavesdropping, he discovered that the headmen of each village, who were three brothers, had been kidnapped, along with their wives and children. The people were shut up tighter than clams on that regard, terrified as they were by...something Will had yet to discover. Then, it was by pure chance that he came across a group of individuals who had an air of maliciousness about them. He tailed them, unsurprised when they led him to the forests at the immediate foot of the Mountains of Rain and Night.

For three days he followed them, quickly crossing the forest and climbing the Mountains themselves. It wasn't pleasant for Will. The trails were coarse and treacherous, and he had to leave Ebony and Tug behind for their own safety. He would have to rely on his own senses to detect danger.

His prey passed through two Wargal hamlets. Will called them that because of their size and temperament. The creatures, once seen as vile, savage beasts, were harmless unless provoked. But provoked one was when Will accidentally stepped between a mother and her cub.

The bearlike Wargal had roared in fury as she charged from a crevice, giving the Ranger no time to raise his longbow in defence. He threw himself to the side, narrowly missing the creature's lunge. He stood just in time to see a Wargal cub, mewling in fright, scurry to hide behind the raging adult, and the Ranger understood immediately what he had unwittingly done. That stopped him from shooting the Wargal. Instead, he climbed, practically throwing himself up the rocky cliff that blocked the sun with its size. But even so, he was too slow to avoid the Wargal's last attempt to deal with the threat. Her claws sliced down his calf, leaving three gashes. Two were pretty much healed by the time his mission was over, but the third, the middle one, was deep and painful. Will had nearly fallen in the agony, which would have been fatal. He managed to cling to the wall like a limpet, and soon the frustrated Wargal left him, ushering her cub to safety.

There was no greenery in the Mountains, but the Ranger Commandant, Crowley, had the foresight to give Will a cloak not unlike his current green-mottled one. It was a mixture of greys, blacks and whites, which gave the young Ranger the ability to blend with the rocky, snowy Mountains. He tried to do so after the Wargal left, figuring that his quarry, the six suspicious individuals from the village, had heard the defending mother and would come investigate. However, his wound hindered him, prevented him from moving quickly, and leaving a blood trail in his wake. He tried to bind it hastily to staunch the flow, wondering if it wouldn't have just been wise to kill the Wargal in the first place. He disregarded the thought a heartbeat later. Every creature had the right to protect its offspring, to follow its nature. Will just wished that nature had been more merciful to him.

"I did manage to hide," the young Ranger said, finishing his coffee. It was cold now, and his throat was parched from so much talking. "But only just. They had a half-decent tracker with them who found the blood. I overheard them talking, not twenty paces from where I hid, that they figured that it was from a conflict between two Wargals, that's all."

"Fortunately for you," Halt replied flatly. He wasn't pleased that Will had let himself get injured. But then he mentally slapped himself. Will didn't let himself get injured. It just happened. He couldn't have known that there was a silent Wargal cub on one side and the parent on the other without Tug or Ebony's warnings. "So where did the six take you?"

"To another, sullen village, somewhere in a lake valley. A real dodgy place, with depressing buildings and even more depressing people. It isn't on the map," Will said. "From listening in on the six, I discovered that there was a rivalry between the leader of that village and the three of the others—rather, the leaders' families were in the middle of a blood feud. The man in the mountains – his name was Berkart Falk – believed that he had the rightful ownership of the lands the other villages had occupied."

"Sounds like Morgarath," said Halt thoughtfully. Will nodded.

"That's what I thought, too. Anyway, he'd kidnapped the leaders of the other villages and their families, threatening torture and death unless they revoked their land claims. The usual stuff."

"You learned all this from six men?" Halt's signature eyebrow-raise made Will blush slightly.

"They talked a lot! In any case, they were drinking about a tonne of horse p— I mean, a tonne of cheap ale the whole time. It was a miracle they didn't totter drunk over the edge of a cliff."

Continuing with his tale, despite his growing exhaustion, Will recounted how he had needed definite proof that Berkart had the rightful ownership of the other lands, if indeed he had. Will had left the Mountains as fast as he could and made for the nearest fief, where he found the legal documents. They had been placed there for safekeeping.

"I was surprised to discover – as I assume you would be, too – that Berkart was telling the truth," said Will. Just as he suspected, Halt raised an eyebrow again. The minimal display of emotion was enough for the young Ranger to recognize his old mentor's astonishment. "Berkart's family, the Falks, was indeed entitled to those lands. Apparently, there had been a fight between the two large families many years ago, and Berkart's was chased out, into the Mountains. The Falks declared the blood feud not long after."

"What were they fighting over?" asked Halt.

Will shrugged, then yawned widely. Why was he so tired? "The records didn't say much. Sounded like the usurpers, the Callips, simply thought themselves better leaders. The people certainly loved them, and feared the Falks."

Halt grunted, then eased his legs onto a footstool. "I suppose your mission ended there."

"Pretty much. It got all legal and political from then on. I won't bore you with the details, so to make things short, I dragged Berkart out in his nightshirt and demanded he release the other village headmen at once before I stuffed him inside a boulder. Wearing the cloak that I was, which made me look like I came out of the boulder in question – and him recalling the magical abilities of Rangers – he believed me quick enough." Will grinned. "I thought I'd take a leaf out of your book, you know. Very effective."

Halt nodded in appreciation but said nothing.

"I took him and the other headmen before Baron Geoffrey to determined the rightful ownership."

"Which was Berkart, you said."

"Yes. But Geoffrey didn't like him. He gave the land to the Callips."

"Why?"

Will shrugged. "Berkart, essentially, was an ass before the Baron. Earned him a one-way ticket to exile." The Ranger tried to put up his feet, too. He winced as his leg rippled with pain and he gave up. "The villagers had been terrified of the Falks in the past anyway. Berkart gave them no reason to like him. He basically set himself up for disaster."

Halt studied his former pupil, almost tasting the dissatisfaction radiating from him like heat. "You aren't pleased." It wasn't really a question. Will sagged slightly.

"No. It was too easy, almost boring. Idiots like Berkart always set themselves up for disaster, leaving no fun work for me." He glanced furtively at Halt. "I wish I had the chance to at least throw someone into a moat."

Halt grimaced. "Not terribly original, I'm afraid."

"Only because you made it that way."

Will stifled a yawn and looked to young Crowley. The boy had fallen asleep, face buried in Ebony's ruff. His half-chewed sugar cane was only in his hand because he had gotten it all sticky.

"You're teaching him well," he said finally, and Halt jerked awake.

"Hm? What?"

"I said, you're teaching him well. He moves almost completely silent now." Will smirked. "Have to work on those giggles, though."

Halt glowered. "He doesn't giggle. He...he..."

"Chuckles in a manly fashion. Okay, Halt."

The old Ranger grumbled incoherently, and Will smiled again. It wasn't five quiet minutes later that Halt's snores started to rattle the windows.

"Blimey," blurted the younger man, and Halt jerked awake a second time.

"Huh? What...? I wasn't sleeping, you ragamuffin!" He sat up, eyes glinting dangerously.

"No. You were snoring."

"I don't snore!"

Will clucked his tongue. "Wow. You must be the only man I know who snores when he's awake."

"I was clearing my throat!" Halt retorted. "Gets cold down in these parts, you know."

With a grunt, Will stood. "I need to change these bandages. Been a few days."

"Need any help?"

"No, but thanks, Halt. I—" The Ranger crumpled to the ground in a dead faint.

"Will!"