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|flames scathe only the unpurposeful|

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He stood before the barren field, and his heart was in ashes – and so was the inn that once stood here, red and living and proud, and as soon as he saw its ruins his chest got tight. He didn’t have the slightest idea how he knew this was the place, this was it, but he did, and what was left of the building was still warm, pulsing with life snuffed out mere weeks ago, no more, no more.

She was here, he thought distantly, and the thought dragged closer, and closer, and closer, then crossing his chest like flaming iron, like the slice of a Seax, he might find, if he was ever swung at with one. She was here, he told himself, sliding off the horse with the most intelligent eyes many would ever see, and the horse’s expression – or at least so it seemed to him, was kind – and a little saddened. He hated it. He was wrong. The horse was wrong. She was here.

He walked – half stumbled, half ran – to the wasted wood and the chipped stone, and he dove around in the abandoned rooms that barely stood as they were, and once a loose plank slid out of place and a half-melted nail buried itself in the ground, falling mere inches from his head. He looked at it with copious disgust written cleanly on his face, and merely moved forward, turning over every stone, kicking every rotten log to the sky.

“She was here,” Will Treaty muttered feverishly, looking up to the ceiling and realizing there was none; he was standing on what used to be the ceiling, he was watching the sky. Rainclouds gathered over his head, angry and full, and they sank down all the way to his heart. He put his head in his hands so nobody would see his face, not the wind, not the grass, not Tug behind him, not the ashes of which every dust could’ve been his Alyss, and he said, once more, for what must’ve been the hundredth time, “Oh, gods. She must’ve been here.”

 


 

 

Halt had never felt like rain could make life so miserable before. Rain usually meant poor visibility and a hell of a day for tracking, but it also meant better cover and ease in confusing foes. Now, rain meant—

Well, he wasn’t even sure of what rain meant. He was no philosopher. It was dark, it was bleak, it was empty, and despite the fact that he felt like by not lighting any candles he was deliberately putting himself through more turmoil, he couldn’t bring himself to light even the smallest one. He could hardly make himself move, even, only occasionally standing up to march back and forth across the cabin before sitting back down and staring at the wall for another hour.

He wasn’t sure when he had last eaten, but he couldn’t say that he was hungry. There was a cup of cold coffee on the table, and, although he didn’t know when he’d made it, he couldn’t say he cared, either. Most often, he’d stand up to look through the window, overtaken by this dreadful sense of déjà vu.

Alyss had left right about three months ago, and she was supposed to return around a month back. It’s just a small trip to Gallica, she had said, smiling bright and easy, I’ll be back in no time.

Well, she was not back in no time. In fact, she was not back at all, and Will had not taken that well at all either. In fact, he’d taken it horribly. There were only a few constants in life – you will only remember the coffee that was too hot to drink when it’s already too cold, one’s best friend would always remember every single one of your shortcomings for optimal comedic value, and the final and most certain one was that, if Lady Alyss bloody Mainwaring said she’d be back in two months, she would be back in two months and not a day more. Breaking this cycle of continuous punctuality was unnerving to say the least, and it turned to absolutely terrifying with the passing of the days – then weeks. Nobody had a clue on where she was. No letters, no ravens, not a single sign that she was even out there somewhere. They wouldn’t let the waiting turn into months.

Naturally, they started asking around, and it was, of course, Lady Pauline’s close-knit web of ears everywhere that reported Alyss last being seen in Anselm fief. So Will, who’d spent most of his life hardly believing the fortune that helped him marry someone like Alyss and obviously extremely lucky to not need any direct permission to travel from the Commandant as there was a retired Ranger living right next to his home, rode right out. The retired Ranger was Halt, obviously, and he had been quite willing to take over Redmont for a bit – see, he didn’t particularly enjoy the idea of Alyss being missing either. He cared for her. Loved her like his own daughter.

His other reason, as if the first one hadn’t been enough, was what it did to his own wife – Pauline had been all but sleepless most nights, pacing around, waiting for a raven, if not from Alyss herself, then from one of her informants, one of her diplomats, they would’ve recognized Alyss Mainwaring anywhere. She was constantly irritated, snapping at nearly anything he did, and, well, he couldn’t say he didn’t understand her. Halt could still foggily remember the few months before his banishment, when everything seemed desperate and obscured and he was trying to paddle through it alone, no hope, no certainty.

When a Courier apprentice barrelled straight through the door, holding a letter from his mentor, the one that told of Alyss’s location, Will was off the very next day. Hardly the next day, even – the letter was delivered somewhere after midnight, and he waited right around until dawn before jumping on Tug and disappearing in the dust of the roads, barely even stopping in his tracks to make sure his teacher would take over for him.

After he’d left, promising to turn the earths itself inside out if it meant finding Alyss, Pauline, exhausted, anxious and, frankly, far too worn out for this, finally sat down next to Halt, having found some sort of kicking point. And, as was expected, she was almost immediately claimed by sleep, falling right into his arms. Halt then decided the cabin could wait one morning.

He was tracing the white strands in his lap as the sun came up outside the window, and he thought – what insufferable weather for an occasion like this. He saw her chest rising and falling and her hands twitching slightly once in a while, and he knew this would make him feel at peace like few other things could, did he not know about Alyss.

Halt listened to her breathing slowing, and, for the first time in years, possibly, he prayed. Wasn’t even sure to who. Or from where. The Hibernian gods or the Araluenian one, or just anyone who was willing to listen. He prayed that Will would find Alyss there, somewhere, safe and sound, led off the track or helping someone out on the road as she was known to do, and they’d come back together, hand in hand like on their wedding day. They’d sit like Halt and Pauline were now, and Will could brush his fingers against the gold in her hair and hear her laugh, and that all would be alright.

Around noon, he decided praying was rather stupid and settled on something else, something that had gotten him through the Kalkara and banishment and even the goddamn Genovesans – this was Will he was thinking of, this was Will searching.

If Alyss was to be found, he’d find her one way or another.

Pauline woke up right around this time, too. She shot up straight, looked at him and went bright pink for a moment before a shadow set over her face again. After that, it was a blur – he found himself standing in his old cabin, and there was only Abelard in the stable and, if he could feel as lonely as the few years between Gilan and Will made him feel again, this would’ve been it.

Blurring, blurring, then screeching to a halt, the days. He slowly became aware of every second, because every second was another second of Will’s search somewhere out there, and another second in which he wasn’t back.

Now, here was when he ran into a dilemma: Will was gone for longer than he had promised.

He had left right around a fortnight ago, and he was supposed to return a few days back. If Halt knew anything about him, then he’d either return with Alyss or return having turned the entire fief inside out and concluded that she was either not there, or in the earth – which neither of them talked about, simply because, even to Rangers that were used to even the wildest theories in practice, this was too unreal to even consider. And still, even knowing that his prolonged stay at Anselm didn’t inherently mean anything good or bad, Halt’s mind had made up many horrible things. It had done far worse at other times in his life, but waiting for another person that he treasured like his own child and them not showing up again did things to his brain.

Here he was, sitting and watching nothing, thinking about nothing and, at the same time, everything. Again. Somewhere in the back of his head, he wondered when he’d gotten so antsy – and the little voice there reminded him that he’d always been that way, whether it was with his siblings or friends or apprentices. He sighed, beat the little voice to death with a visualized broom, and picked up his cold cup of coffee.

And that was, precisely, when Will barged in. It took Halt a second to even recognize him, despite not feeling even a sting of unfamiliarity – Abelard didn’t warn him, and that was reason enough.

Will, however, didn’t seem to give half a crap about Halt’s horse, or any horse in general. Or anything, to be quite honest, judging from the look of total misery on his face. The rain had absolutely done him in. There were droplets he didn’t bother to wipe off, his hair was a mess of dust and water, and he generally looked like something between a kicked puppy and a soaked feral hound.

He opened the door widely, and Halt immediately noticed Alyss’s absence. And his heart sank again.

Will stumbled in, looking like hell on wheels, and, with not even a word of greeting, collapsed into a chair by the door, and buried his face in his hands.

He stayed like that for a minute, mute, deaf and blind to everything.

“Will,” Halt finally said, and his voice, albeit composed, rang eerily loud in the silent cabin. Unsure of what to say, he simply stated, “No luck.”

“Astute observation,” Will muttered from underneath his palms.  He even sounded miserable. “Not a hint. I looked everywhere. I questioned everyone. I...”

He shook his head. Halt nodded.

“Did you look for her—“ He paused before finishing, quietly, “Did you look for her body?”

Will winced, drawing in a stuttering breath. It was a fair question, but Halt didn’t even want to think about it, really – Will, walking in ruins, looking for his wife’s body. Did he pray? Did he curse whoever was responsible?

“I did,” Will confirmed, dropping his arms. “She wasn’t there.”

Halt hummed in response, deep in thought. There were many possibilities to explore – only one of which was that Will was correct and she really wasn’t there.

“You said you asked around,” he said. Will closed his eyes. “You’re sure they weren’t crooked?”

“They just wanted me off of them, nothing to hide,” he responded. “If they’d kept her away, I would’ve found out.”

Something in the way his posture stiffened made Halt realize that he would, in fact, have found it out. And the culprits would not have a great time afterwards.

“And were there any parts you found difficult?” Halt asked, watching him open his eyes and furrow his brows. “Debris, I mean. Or, if the weather was—“

Gods, the decay—

“Halt,” Will cut him off, damn near tears, and Halt figured he hadn’t seen him look so sixteen and so terrified since he was— well, sixteen and terrified, fire in his eye and hands that shook in a mix of anger and surprise. He looked like a boy. Leaning forward, he said, “I checked everything. All of it. I considered everything.”

“Okay,” Halt said, leaning back simultaneously. “And you found nothing. That means she isn’t there.”

“Then where is she?” Will snapped, raising his hands, finding nothing to do with them and dropping them on the table again.

“Somewhere else,” he answered, simply. Will sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Real encouraging, Halt.”

“No news is better than bad news,” Halt told him, and Will snorted.

“No news is a bad news in this situation.”

Halt looked at him, really looked at him, and realized he seemed wrong, somehow. Slumped over, hands in his hair now, reddened eyes staring a hole through the table.

“I don’t know what to do,” Will said, tone hollow and face even more so. “I—I don’t know.”

Halt paused for a moment. He couldn’t help him, and all was awful.

He reached out and ran his hand over his hair, disentangling a few knots along the way, a mirror of the few times years ago when Will was a scared kid and Halt was a man who couldn’t quite find the words to let him know he wasn’t alone in it.

“Considered everything, did you?” he asked, softly. “And did you consider sleep?”

Now there was a reaction – Will glaring. “Harmless question,” he said. “I think I’d prefer to keep it that way.”

It was Halt’s turn to sigh, dropping his hand and intertwining his fingers on the table.

“I can tell you what to do,” he said. Will let out a pitiful chuckle, wiping his nose with his sleeve.

“I’m sure you can.”

“We ride to Castle Redmont.” Halt ignored his comment. “And you go and get some sleep—You’re doing it either way, don’t look at me like that. You sleep a little, Pauline and I can send some letters to the neighbouring fiefs so they know what to look for. As soon as we get news, you can ride out again.”

“Don’t see why I should go to Castle Redmont, then,” Will said, not defensive just yet but something in his tone that suggested he didn’t like where this was going. “I can stay here for the bit.”

“You’ll want to be there for the bit,” Halt said. “You’ll find out faster.”

That wasn’t what he had in mind, truly. But the very idea of Will alone in the cabin, sitting around and waiting for a letter, doing nothing but thinking about it, about her, worrying, again – it made him sick.

“I’m riding out anyway,” Will said, then, suddenly up taller and determined. “I’m gonna circle the areas close to where she was. One of those is bound to have noticed something. Just had to come back so you didn’t think I— That I went missing too.”

The phrase didn’t go well on his tongue, Halt saw it, and said, “I appreciate that.”

Will nodded blankly, making a meaningless gesture with his hands and looking up at him. There was no usual twinkle in his eye, no head that was playfully tilted, always, just a crinkle in his forehead and a stiff jaw. He didn’t look like anything in particular. Like an empty slate with nothing to add and everything to lose. Halt said nothing.

They’d gone in a few measly minutes, without waiting for even the coffee to brew - Halt watched that Will doesn’t slide off Tug in his trot; meanwhile brown eyes stared at the road with disinterest. Halt wasn’t sure why Will even went with his plan. Had this not been this hopeless, he probably would’ve resisted, worked until he fell from exhaustion because that’s how he dealt with his problems, but this was, indeed, that hopeless. Halt didn’t yet have the heart to point out that by the time Will uncovers any amount of information about Alyss, her traces will be lost already, but somewhere inside Will must’ve already known it too. He was too clever not to.

Abelard huffed under him.

Say something, you bloody moron.

Say what? Halt thought. What would you say to someone like this?

I don’t know, but the lad looks like he’s about to throw Tug in a gallop and fling himself off a cliff.

Halt nudged him in the side harshly.

Will spoke up instead, so quiet that Halt barely heard him from behind the already weakening drizzle.

“Sorry about the,” he stopped for a moment, shrugging. “The chill, I suppose. I—, I just really, really don’t know what to do.”

Halt regarded him for a moment before reassuring, “There’s nothing you can do about it today. Better to just not think about it.”

“Easy for you to say,” Will muttered. His knuckles were going white from holding onto the reins.

“It’s not,” Halt said. “Even harder for you, I’m sure, but there’s really nothing else to it right now.”

Will opened his mouth, then closed it, nodded and sped Tug up a little. Abelard followed on his own accord.

Before they sink into silence again, Halt caught up with him.

“If it were up to me,” he said simply, “I’d come with you. And if it was up to her, Pauline would come with you too. So would Horace and Cassandra, if it were up to them. Just because it isn’t doesn’t mean you’re alone in this, Will.”

Will glanced up at him, and a ghost of a smile touched his face before he stuck his gaze into the dirt again.

“I know,” he said, and, for the first time in weeks, there was something that sounded a little bit like a higher note. “Thank you.”

The rest of it was quiet.

The rest of it was quiet, save for the even constant of the rain. Neither of them really wanted to say anything. Even if they did, they wouldn’t have known what that’d be.

The rest of it was quiet. So was clambering through the dirt to get inside of the castle, and crossing the halls, and climbing the stairs to Pauline’s office. The guards kept their silence upon seeing the silver oakleaves they left open to air on their vests.

Once Halt actually raised a hand to knock, however, the door opened on its own – or, rather, Pauline was quicker to get to it. She’d begun recognizing Halt’s footsteps somewhere down the line when he wasn’t making an effort to be quiet. He wasn’t sure when she started. Maybe she always had known.

“You’re soaked,” were the first words to come out of her mouth, more sympathetic than annoyed.

“Yeah, ‘s raining,” Halt muttered, stepping inside, dragging Will along. “But look who came home.”

Pauline’s eyes darted to Will, then softened. She, too, took note of their grim demeanour and pressed her lips together, masking disappointment.

“Not a trace,” she said to Halt, quietly, a question in mind.

“No,” he replied in a hushed whisper.

Pauline looked down, shook her head, and settled down with it. Then she stepped closer to Will, outstretching her arms.

“Oh, Will, I’m delighted to see you,” she chimed with a little sad smile as he wrapped his arms around her obediently, resting his head against her shoulder. Kindly, she commented into his hair, “Poor pet. You look exhausted.”

“It’s alright, Lady Pauline,” Will replied in monotone. “I’m not that tired.”

“He’s about to drop,” Halt clarified, no doubt being hanged by Will in his head at the very moment.

“Thanks for that,” he muttered, drawing back from Pauline and tilting his head back so he could look her in the eye. “Halt said you’d send letters to the neighbouring fiefs?”

He saw her consider it, think it through, then nod.

“I don’t know why we should stop there,” she said, crossing her arms and turning around to return to her table. “Alyss is one of the best diplomats this country has ever seen. If that doesn’t authorize at least one letter to each fief, I don’t know what would. She’s of considerable importance to foreign affairs too, considering her recent progress in Ni—“

“That’s not why we’re looking for her, though,” Will cut her off, brows furrowed. “Who cares about foreign affairs right now?”

“Of course that’s not why we’re looking for her, Will.” Pauline sat down in her chair, intertwining her fingers over a pile of papers she was working on. There was a glimmer in her eye – Halt recognized it as a mask, a fabrication to conceal her now constantly-present worry. “But hundreds of people go missing. If you want the Barons – the country – to search for her, you have to find a way to make her valuable to each and every single one of them.”

Will paused, thinking it through, then, hesitantly: “Alright.”

Halt looked at him, barely standing on basis on outrage and anxiety, then at Pauline, who was opening her mouth to speak again, and stepped between them.

“Will, you should take a bed,” he told him. “Pauline and I will have the letters sent by morning.”

“I could help you write,” Will offered, but Pauline, having caught on with ease, held up her hand.

“You could not,” she told him calmly. “You could help yourself by getting some rest. And it’d put us far more at ease.”

Will stuttered something incomprehensible in response, looking at Halt for help, forgetting that Halt was firmly with Pauline on the matter. He parted his lips, said nothing, and then shrugged off his cloak in a pitiful display of displeasure.

“I’ll see you in a few hours,” he said, and it almost sounded like a mock threat. Spinning on his heel, he closed to door behind him with a little more force than he intended.

Without really realizing he’d frozen in place, Halt listened to the footsteps echoing down the hallway – quiet, but not soundless. Just loud enough to draw attention, Pauline cleared her throat next to him, snapping him out of it. She slid back into her chair, leaning down to pull out some parchment.

“Will you take a quill or will you stand there for the rest of the night?” she asked, not unkindly.  Halt said nothing, turning to drag a chair to the other side of the table. “Deal with Steadlow, please. I don’t want to even think about the man.”

Halt gave a thin smile. It didn’t help much. “Again?”

“He writes regularly.”

He shook his head incredulously, taking a piece of paper from her and reaching to pass a quill. “I’ll ride down to Steadlow one day, if you’d like.”

“It’s alright,” she said, quill already dancing over the table as she smiled distantly. “I’d like to do that myself, you wouldn’t mind terribly. I’d gladly shiv him in his sleep.”

They had a chuckle before it died down as abruptly as it surfaced. Halt had always admired her ability to write and speak at the same time. It was a talent. Crowley, of all people, as restless as he was, could manage it too – and that reminded him.

“I’ll write to Steadlow if you want, but I’ve got to send a letter to Araluen first,” he told her. She furrowed her brows.

“Araluen is so far, though.” She leaned forward a little, dipping her quill. “Wouldn’t you start with a fief a bit closer?”

“I’m not writing to Duncan, I’m writing to Crowley.” He pushed the inkhorn closer and put the quill to the parchment, drawing out a familiar greeting. “I can’t keep Will’s post covered unofficially for longer than a few days, and I’m technically already behind on it.”

Crowley had been informed of Alyss’s disappearance, of course, and what that meant for the Redmont Rangers, and he’d agreed to let Halt deal with the intricacies of the law after the initial shockwave had subsided. Halt supposed now would be as good a time as ever.

“Do as you see fit. I’ll pick off the fiefs around Anselm.” Pauline stopped momentarily to look up at him, tapping her quill on the paper. “Oh - did you give Will the letter?”

“Which one?” he asked, a little too concentrated on his message to hear himself. With the permission of Ranger Will of Redmont Fief, I am available to temporarily fill in on his duties to the Baron and fief. The period of change requested...

“Love,” Pauline called. “The one from Norgate.”

He perked up suddenly, her words just now registering in his head. “Oh. No, not yet.” He fixed a crooked letter and shrugged his shoulders. “Thought he should sleep a bit first before we drop anything else on him.”

Somewhere inbetween the blurry days and the constant dreadful wait, there had been one more letter, directed to Will, straight from Norgate fief. Halt debated opening it before deciding to leave it up to Will. After all, whatever information it might carry, it was only addressed to him, not anyone else. Halt could’ve recognized Malcolm’s handwriting from a hundred forgeries, it was that bad – most healers shared the trait, for some reason. And, since it was from the north, the letter most likely had nothing to do with Alyss.

Either way, he preferred not to stall any longer. Or, well, no, that was a lie—he preferred to stall, but only until Will woke up.

“You think he’s gonna fall asleep in there?” Pauline leaned back down to her work. “If only for a few hours?”

“Even a few hours would do him well,” Halt muttered. “Though I’m doubtful.”

“Doubtful, but willing to stuff him back into bed if he shows up before dawn?” Another faint smile lingered briefly on Pauline’s face. Halt mirrored it.

“You know me rather well.”

“I should think so.” She pressed her lips together firmly, finishing the letter, adding an additional mark here and there, and then placing the paper in front of Halt. “As soon as you’re done, you can copy mine. No need to vary them. I made sure they understand that this is no joking matter either way.”

“Thank you,” he said, brushing a farewell to Crowley at the end of the letter and pushing it away to dry.

When he picked up another piece of parchment from Pauline’s pile, she already had another, but had seemingly run out of thought – the ink dripped from her quill onto the words, drowning the message. Dark, black, almost seeping into the table underneath, but Pauline didn’t even seem to notice it. Finally, after a minute, she dropped the quill on the paper with a noise of frustration and pushed herself away from the table, staring hollow-eyed into the wooden surface. There was something coming off of her in vicious waves – anxiety, flooding, pent-up.

He froze, unblinking, then reached out to brush his fingers against her cheek gently. “Hey.”

Pauline shook her head and his hand slipped off, but she didn’t notice that, either. She leaned back onto the table, propping her head up on her elbow, rubbing her temples.

“This is a mess,” she said, so quiet that Halt had to strain to hear her. “Why can’t I—Why can’t I just go and search for her, too? Instead I’m stuck here writing letters. Bloody letters, when I could be out there, with Will, looking for her.”

Halt drew back, settling in the chair, looking at her with his head in a thoughtful tilt. She went on, a little red.

“Gods know where she might be, or if she’s still alive, I—I don’t want to think about it, but she would’ve sent news if she was unharmed by now. She would’ve found a way.” Her hands traced a path into her hair, fingers tangled in the dark curls, pulling in desperation. “The only thing we can do is find her, and no letter will help that. And here I am, writing my way out of a situation when you need people, not words.”

She closed her eyes. After a pause, she made another frustrated noise and looked down, settling herself.

“You’re a Diplomat, not a tracker,” Halt said, as softly as he could manage. “Will’s better suited for this one.”

“I know, I know,” she responded, voice a little strangled. “But I still—“ she finally dropped her arms, opening her eyes to stare at the paper again. “She’s the best we’ve ever had,” she muttered.

Halt knew it to be more than just that; Pauline treasured Alyss like her own child, similar to him and Will. Halt remembered being much the same way decades ago, sitting back in his cabin with hands in his hair and a deranged look in his eye, willing to do quite literally anything to bring Will back home and away from danger.

But at the very least he had a lead. Alyss, however, just evaporated into thin air. Just any tracker wouldn’t do.

He reached out to take her hand. She didn’t protest, but kept her eyes on the table still.  

“If she’s out there, Will won’t miss her,” Halt reassured her. “When’s he failed before? Besides, I can’t leave Redmont now. If a letter comes saying they’ve seen her, you’ll be the only one available to ride out.”

She sighed, squeezing his hand before giving him a brief smile.

“You’re right,” she said. “But it doesn’t help my worry.”

"I understand that." His thumb began drawing gentle circles into her palm. "But maybe it'll help the guilt."

Pauline gave a tearful chuckle. "How would you tell I feel guilty?"

"Because that's how you feel when you can't directly help someone," Halt said. "And that's how I felt when Will was off in Skandia. I thought if only I'd been a little quicker, or if I'd known better, or if I'd just wasted less time, I would've gotten to him first. But that wasn't going to happen. I didn't know where he was or what was happening, and now you don't, either."

"Hah." She pressed her lips together, nudging at him knowingly. "I can't really imagine drinking at a time like this, though."

Halt raised his hands, letting her go.

"You're handling it better," he confessed, bringing the now-dry letter for Crowley back to himself and rolling it up, then pressing it down flat on the table. "I'm glad."

"I'm sure you are." She snorted. "We couldn't even mention Will back then, much less…"

She cut herself off with a sudden half-sob, made a helpless gesture and went quiet.

Halt stood up, helped her up and pulled her into a hug.

They stood so for a moment, her nails in his arms, and neither wanted even to take a single breath.

“I never wanted her to face something like this,” she muttered into his hair. He kissed her on the shoulder.

“Neither did any of us.”

A minute or so passed, and her heartbeat was slowing. Halt waited for her to draw back herself, and, when she did, a little reluctant, they sat back down. Then, already missing the warmth, Halt wordlessly pushed the inkhorn to her and switched her completed letter with a new piece of paper.

"He'll find her if she can be found," he told her again, firm and careful at the same time. "If it can be done, he'll bring her back home, no matter what it takes. You know that."

"I know." She sniffled, her voice barely audible. "Well, I've-- I've wasted enough time. Let's get back to it."

So they did, and all fell quiet once again. 

The chilly air of the night warmed up as they breathed, and, hours later, the rising sun found a stack of completed letters on the table. It also found a silver-headed couple frozen by the table; a Courier that had propped her head on her elbow and was staring blankly out the window, watching the sunrise as her free fingers tapped soundlessly on the boards, and a Ranger resting on his arms, eyelids half-open, not asleep but not quite awake either, listening to the chirping of the birds.

Above them loomed hollow silence, and below them - a couple of meters below them, to be precise - Will Treaty had surprised not only everyone else but even himself by falling asleep almost immediately. He had planned on staying up - mapping up a route, perhaps, plotting a letter or two. But that was only as he descended the stairs and found the guest room; all what came after closing the door was a blur. 

And now, he wasn't even dreaming.

 


 

 

It was right before noon that Will barged in through the door, and Halt had no previous knowledge of him managing to look this furious and this sleepy at the same time. His hair was a mess, the cloak was pinned on wrong and there was a bright red mark on one half of his face, the one he'd slept on. It didn't do much for being intimidating, but it sure did make both Halt and Pauline jump at the sudden sound.

"Why didn't you wake me?" Will demanded, leaning onto the table - he didn't slam his hands on it, but it was a blurry line. "You-- I-- I spent so much time in there!"

Halt almost winced physically. It was so close to what Pauline had said that it pained to listen. They were repeating each other, and Halt felt like he'd definitely thought something similar through the days in the cabin.

"Because you woke up when you needed to wake up," Halt answered him, masking in calm. "We would have checked on you at noon."

Will turned to him, eyes burning, and Halt instinctively leaned back the tiniest bit.

"Halt, I could be off by now," he said, the quiet tone slowly rising. "I could be out there right now, searching, instead of having-- slept through it. I could be doing something useful! No, instead I'm wasting time here, in a bed of all places! Was it really so hard to understand that I need to go as soon as I can? Was it really that hard to understand that I'm only here because I wanted to let you know I'm alive and still looking for her?"

Pauline went about pointedly fixing the pile of letters Will had sent flying with a shaper move, very subtly leaving him to Halt. And Halt settled back, one hand on the arm crest, staring right back at Will.

"Are you done?" he asked.

"No!" Will snapped, leaning forward. Halt didn't back down this time. "Honestly! Should I have just stayed there? Maybe I could've found her by now, instead of doing gods-know-what here! Maybe I could've--"

"I doubt it," Halt said, cutting him off. Will opened his mouth to say something again, but he was faster. "Maybe. And maybe you would be lying down in a lowly ditch somewhere because you neglected yourself so much that you lost your guard or concentration and became an easy target. Maybe you would have just fallen off Tug and snapped your neck because you hadn't gotten any rest in days. Maybe Tug would've tripped and broke something because you'd forgotten to let him rest." Horror flashed in Will's eye at the mere thought of his horse harmed, but Halt didn't stop. "You wouldn't have found anyone because you wouldn't have made it here in one piece if you'd gone around any longer." He leaned forward himself, close enough to feel the huff of anger on his nose. "I know you're not that senseless. Tell me you're still thinking straight, Will. Tell me you're not that stupid."

A beat passed with not one of them even drawing in a breath. Pauline’s hands were moving just out of sight, her eyebrows raised – she evened out the letters, making a point not to look at either one of them.

Will parted his lips again. Closed them. Looked mad for a moment, then snapped his eyes shut and took a breath, painfully slow. Halt watched him, head tilted slightly, wondering if he’d overstepped it, he’d never had a feel for that sort of thing, but— no, he needed to hear it. Nothing good ever comes out of overexhausting oneself. He’d know.

“I could’ve made time—“ he tried.

“You did.” Halt held his eye, unblinking. “Six hours or so. This doesn’t ruin your plans at all.”

"Still, you should have woken me," he muttered, defeat evident.

"No, I should have not." Halt's tone carried a note of finality. "End of discussion."

That’s when Pauline cleared her throat loudly, picking up the letter pile.  There was a sparkle in her eye and Halt didn’t like it. Though that was, of course, her intention.

“That’s enough,” she managed through grit teeth. “I can’t believe you two are at each other’s throats at a time like this.”

“We’re not,” they said in surprisingly clean unison, giving each other a glance.

“We’re not,” Halt repeated calmly.

“He’s right,” Will added, voice still a little too quiet.

“Alright.” She rose from her seat. “Then manage yourselves without passive aggression.” Turning sharply on her heel, she gave them one last look. “You’re Rangers, for pity’s sake.”

They said nothing. Pauline frowned, pushing the door open with her hip.

“Right, then—I’ll get those on the pigeons. Halt, maybe you should give him the letter now.” And, with that, she was gone, whether to truly get the letters out or as an excuse to leave the room with tact.

Will turned to Halt.

“What letter didn’t you give me?” he asked, incredulous.

Halt stuttered an incoherent would-be-word out and stood to walk to the cupboards to search for it, lifting a few papers and decorations while he was at it.

“It’s from Norgate,” he said, finally locating it under a large book. He didn’t remember putting it there. “Malcolm, if my memory serves right.”

Will perked up. “What’s in it?”

“It’s addressed to you, not just any one of us. We didn’t open it.” He pulled it out triumphantly, walking back to the chair to hand it to Will. “Figured we could wait.”

“Oh, that’s,” Will stumbled over his words, looking away as the untouched wax on the letter split. “Thank you.”

“Read it,” Halt urged him, and Will did.

His eyes darted for a second, then jumped back up to the name on top and froze there. As confusion surfaced on his face, he skimmed over it a few more times.

“Well?” Halt asked. Will passed the letter to him wordlessly.

He took the paper with two fingers and squinted to read it. It was barely legible. Healers, he thought. What’s with them and horrible handwriting? Halt had chicken scratch on the regular, but this was a whole another deal.

Will, it said, It’ll do you good to visit me with utmost urgency. You must come at your earliest convenience and, if possible, by yourself. There is something you ought to see in my home. It ended with a simple, Yours, Malcolm.

Halt squinted at the paper even harder. He’d read quite a few vague requests in his life – the paperwork of a Ranger really made one well-versed in subtle insults, but this one took the cake.

“Then,” Halt said, looking up at Will, who was standing in place, fists still clutched. “When are you—“

“I’m not,” Will said, plain and simple and decisive all in one. “I’m not going.”

A little taken aback, Halt raised an eyebrow, swallowing his statement. He sat back, tapping his fingers on the table like Pauline for a moment.

“No?” he prompted. ”Sounds like it’s something important.”

Will turned to him with pleading eyes, holding his hands up, palms out.

“Please, Halt, I don’t want to get into this again,” he said. “It can wait. Whatever it is, Alyss is more important. I’ll find her and then I’ll see what Malcolm wants with me.”

“Alyss is more important,” Halt agreed easily, and, to Will’s disappointment, continued, “But you’ve got no path to her, you don’t even know which direction she went in.”

“I’ll go over all the paths if that’s what it takes,” Will told him.

“And you will miss her a hundred times if you do.” Halt crossed his arms, looking up at him, but there was no reprimand in his eye now – something closer resembling sympathy, more like. “You can’t go chasing the wind, Will. You ought to wait for a new lead to arise.”

“And waste time doing nothing?” Will inquired. There was no more colour to his voice, just cold formality.

“He didn’t say that.”

Lady Pauline’s voice startled them both: Halt jolted and Will whipped his head to the door. In their focus on each other and Alyss, they missed her coming back in. In their defense, she had been quiet. Rangers and Couriers were often so similar to each other in occupations that, when one put two together, rubbing off on each other was fairly common.

Of course, there was also plenty dividing the two, and one of those qualities was a diplomat’s unconditional refusal to become emotional while in distress, at least when not alone. Pauline embodied this – she stood with her arms crossed, like Halt, but she was leaning back onto the door and watching them with mild interest and plenty of frustration.

“Say, Will.” She moved to take her seat back at her table, nodding toward a chair next to Halt. Will took it, albeit unwillingly. “What if you’re away in the middle of nowhere, searching for Alyss, and news come that she’s been spotted in... Well, for the sake of example, Eastern Araluen. How do we get a message to you if we don’t know where you are?”

Will opened his mouth, thought for a second. “That’s if you get news.”

“You stumbling upon Alyss in a plain field or something is far less likely than us getting a letter,” Pauline told him matter-of-factly. Will huffed, and she raised a hand. “It’s true. Scouting the neighbouring fiefs is not a walk in the garden, wouldn’t you know?”

“Of course it’s not,” Will agreed, though clearly hesitant.

“Then go to Norgate,” she said. “Find out what’s on Malcolm’s mind. We’ll know where to find you when the time comes.”

“And what if he just wants me to finish off a merry band of cut-throats by the border?” he asked, words coated in sickly sweet acid.

Halt cleared his throat.

“I doubt that’s the case.” He shrugged when Will turned to him. “Why’d he be so secretive about it? It’s not that mysterious of a matter. And he definitely wouldn’t be asking you to come alone.”

“He wants you for something important, maybe vital for you, I’m sure,” Pauline added.

“Besides,” Halt said, softly, “maybe whatever he’s got to say will aid you in finding Alyss.”

Will was staring at the table for a while. Halt could sense his old apprentice’s many thoughts swirling into a mess that was only truly coherent for him alone. There were many options to be considered when searching for a missing woman, as many as there were when one disappeared without a trace. And it was hard on all of them, they could all see it, but Will was, like Pauline, torturing himself with guilt and the now-undying wish for their mistakes, if one could call them that, to be fixed.

It was a hopeless situation.

“It’s the only lead we’ve got,” Halt said quietly, bowing his head to catch Will’s glance.

Will took a tiny shaky breath, and pushed himself away from the table, looking up at Halt and Pauline.

“It better be a good one, then,” he said. “Because if I find myself cutting bandits left and right, I will not be happy.”

Pauline gave him a faint smile over the table, and Halt nodded.

“That’s fair.”

Will stood up, flexing his hand, doubting himself.

“Go,” Halt told him, as kindly as he could. “Gather your things. The sooner you’re out, the sooner you’re back.”

“That’s my line.” Will returned the weak smile to Pauline, heading for the door. Just before it swung, he added over his shoulder, “I still don’t like this.”

 “Neither do we, Will,” Pauline said, deceptively calm. “Trust my word. Neither do we.”

When the door closed, she glanced at Halt, and when Halt saw her eyes, he thought he might just start crying, too.