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|flames scathe only the unpurposeful|

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The road stretched in front of him and Redmont faded behind him, and he was alone again.

Will tried his very best not to be angry with Halt when they parted – or to be upset with Pauline, as much as he wanted to. He found it exceedingly difficult to be displeased with either of them; he knew Pauline wanted only the best for him just as much as she wanted the same for Alyss, and Halt, well, Halt was pretty much one of the dearest people in his life since he became his apprentice all those years ago.

Either way, in some sense of the word, he liked his anger having flared up, as much as he hated himself for admitting it. He liked being able to get up in Halt’s face about it, and he liked Halt telling him exactly where to shove his anger just as much. He liked Pauline telling both of them to sort themselves out before they said another word, and he liked the sting of humiliation when she made him sit down and talk to her like a boy.

He had to tell himself the truth at some point, and the truth was simple and extremely upsetting: he wanted to latch onto just about anything that would make him feel something other than what he was stuck in right now. All was a perpetual cycle of gray and nothingness, numb and cold and biting. Halt and Pauline didn’t exactly deserve to be the targets of his attempts to colour the void however he could, at least in anger.

Whichever way it was, he thought to himself, unable to hide the bitter note in the voice his mind took, still, I really could’ve used those few hours.

No, you couldn’t have, Pauline and Halt’s voices berated him in unison in his own head, and he decided to give up the argument.

The rain had crept up on him again, and he pressed on Tug with his heels. The horse sped up with a soft nicker of concern, and Will only shook his head, unsure if Tug could even feel something like that.  He seemed to, though. He didn’t say anything. And neither did Will.

As the rain droplets rolled down his cloak and his hands, and the reins, and Tug’s mane, Will thought back to the still-smouldering remains of the inn he’d seen in Anselm. The ashes still felt warm in his hands. The gray sands spilling through his fingers, disappearing in thin air, and all of it could’ve been Alyss. Her bright eyes, her lovely smile, her pointed look, her raised chin. Her obvious feigned anger with hands on her hips whenever he was a minute late home, the halo of golden hair around her head, her gentle palms, her head tilted in question, soft, soft touch, soft kisses. The laughter that Will would’ve killed, died and lived for. The ring she carried on her finger, the ring Will had put there and brushed his lips over so many times.

All of it. To ash.

He was crying again. Raised a hand to wipe it off, ultimately decided to let the wind do the job and leaned forward as the road blurred underneath him. Slowly, his eyes dried.

Will , Tug called, then, still just as softly.

Realizing he’d been sending him galloping, Will slowed, muttering a half-assed apology.

We’ll get there when we get there, Tug comforted him, stepping in a far more appealing trot. There’s no point in wallowing in despair while we’re on the road.

“I’m not wallowing in despair,” Will said, wallowing in despair.

Whatever you say. Think about it, though.

Then there was silence.

Furious that his horse was always right, Will clicked his tongue. The frustration did, after all, provide him with a moment away from what might or might not have happened to Alyss.

Bones don’t burn, Pauline told him just before he went for the first time, with her voice quivering and her hand in Halt’s. Bones don’t burn , she said. So if you find her bones, you will have found her. If you do not find bones, you will have found hope.

He did not find any bones. He looked as hard as he could, despite wanting to find them the least, but he knew best of all that futile hope hurt more than the hard answer.

But, even after every stone was upturned and every blade of grass searched over, he did not find hope.

Instead, he found wretched fear.

What if he never finds her, he thought. What if she stays a gray little woman – her place unknown by the world, between life and death, between two worlds? It was better to know of death, Will thought, and knowing that he’d only feel her hands in his dreams, he’d only touch her with his eyes closed again. It was better than knowing that every time he lay to rest, she’d hover over him, calling, reaching for him.

Will, Will, Will , she cried every time he fell asleep.

I’m sorry , he would say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry . He had nothing else to offer.

He could never touch her. She was always just out of his reach, the corners of her bright blue cloak slipping through his fingertips at the last second, reflecting light, blinding him. She looked like she wanted to come to him just as much as he wanted to catch her, but it never worked out, and Will would wake up, and there would be tracks on his cheeks again, and the sky would blur not because of the blue cloak.

One would think you’d run out of tears at some point. Will was the expert here, and there really was no end. It just kept on hurting – the emptiness did not make him numb. It pained him all the way through.

He just wanted it all to end – he wanted to find Alyss, alive, and that was it. He would’ve done just about anything for it.

And, instead, he was riding to Norgate. A bitter branch of his heart surfaced again, poking around in his chest.

He was actively driving himself away from any hope of finding his Alyss, just because he’d been convinced there was absolutely nothing he could do to help. And now he was having doubts again; what if a letter comes in while he’s on the road? What if the raven doesn’t make it in time? What if by the time he’s there, it will be too late?

There had been a pit in his stomach the past fortnight, and it only kept on growing like an eternally ravenous beast, consuming him from the inside bit by bit, thought by thought. He kept feeding it – it’s alright, he’ll find her, she’s far too clever to get herself killed under such circumstances, returning from a mission of all things, she’s been through far worse things, maybe she was sidetracked, maybe she was lost.

But she’s far too clever to get lost as well, isn’t she, the pit would respond with its growling hunger, ever-growing, ever-biting. She’s far too clever not to send a message, far too clever not to figure out a way to let him know she was alive, she was okay, she was there, he’d see her again. The lack of such a message could only mean one thing, one single thing.

He physically doubled over in the saddle. It hurt, gods, it hurt, so much. He never thought his own speculation could punch him in the gut so hard. He simply felt sick at even the notion Alyss could be...

Tug’s step stuttered for a beat.

Cut it out.

Will didn’t even know whether it was Tug or his own common sense at that point. He decided to abandon the question for now. Trying desperately to come up with something else to think about, he realized he’d nearly forgotten where he was going.

“What do you think Malcolm wants from me?” he asked nobody in particular, waiting, of course, for Tug to respond. And he did.

I don’t know , he said simply. We’ll see.

“Yeah, but, humour me.” He made a gesture, the reins still in his hands. He began wrapping the loose ends around the front of the saddle, searching for just about any mindless task. “Bandits? Wolves? Feral squirrels?”

He wouldn’t be asking you to come alone for bandits, you haven’t got the greatest record with wolves and we both know Malcolm can clear out a vermin infestation far better than any Ranger.

“Gee,” Will muttered. “Thanks for that. The wolf, I mean.”

Oh, Will.   Tug raised his head a little bit, as if he wanted to turn and look at Will. Will knew the wise brown eyes all too well anyway, without even having to see them. There’s really no need for you to beat yourself up over it anymore. Last I heard, Bellerophon was doing quite well.

“How on earth did you hear that?” Will, with a tiny semblance of a smile on his face, leaned closer. When there was a moment of silence, he clicked his tongue. ”Come, now. You know I keep secrets better than anyone else.”

And so do I, Tug ended. Will cocked his head to the side mockingly, but didn’t press any further.

And, the moment they stopped talking about Will’s first horse, the pit reopened again. The smile faded from his face. Tug felt it, most likely.

This felt so eerily different from all the missions the two had gone on before. They were always uncertain, unsure, but ultimately confident that they had the necessary preparations to turn the tide, whatever the risk. Sure, they planned and plotted and tried to cover every single possibility up until they dropped from exhaustion (that was mostly Will – good for Tug to have four legs, the bastard), but they never really stopped to consider what would happen if they one day simply didn’t return. Just like that. If things went go horribly wrong, the tide rose out of control and drowned them in retaliation, and if there was no changing course.

They did not consider it, no. And Alyss most likely didn’t either.

Now, Will was determined to trace every single step she took – if that meant growing wings to fly over the land and spot her with a bird’s eye, by the gods, he would, with no hesitation. If that meant wandering Araluen for the rest of his life, eating whatever he found on the road, he would, with no hesitation. If that meant dying for closure, with no hesitation... he would.

He just wanted to find her.

There were many plans spinning in his head already, with no true borders – at least not yet. Every waking moment he would count them, sort them, throw the rotten ones out, keep the plausibilities. Hours mashed into a thick, concrete mass, Tug’s hooves melted into a constant underneath him, and the road was eternal. But he would find her, despite going the wrong way – despite wandering around aimlessly, when he was supposed to be looking for her.

The dawn of the second morning crept upon him suddenly – he hadn’t meant to ride all night. He’d been thinking again, mapping out roads in his head: what’s the fastest way, he asked himself, to get from Anselm to Redmont? The roads, obviously, what about the sidetracks? The Couriers knew many of them, he was sure. He should’ve asked Pauline. Maybe she didn’t go for Redmont – it’s almost a week’s travel on horseback, anyway. Maybe she went back to the Gallican border, maybe she was friendly with someone there.

Overtaken by guesswork, he didn’t even notice the stars start to fade – and when the first beams of sunlight kissed his face, he was hit with genuine surprise.

Oh well, he thought – if he went this far, might as well keep going. He could rest the next night.

Will had a single stupidly obvious flaw and never got truly rid of it, despite his wife’s many efforts and his teacher’s many warnings: he didn’t know when to stop. Not just in any situation. Whenever he was doing something he deemed important, he went above and beyond, and it was a definite advantage – just not in every case. He liked working, he liked knowing he was doing something and he felt utterly terrified of being anything less than useful – in this particular situation, however, this meant that he wouldn’t stop going until he fell out of the saddle, rest be damned.

And, as unfortunate of a flaw as this was, it pushed him on, hands trembling while holding the reins and legs stiff and uncomfortable, but by the gods he had to go on. In some way, it was, again, Alyss who was always on his mind, urging him on, forcing him to hurry. The sooner I see Malcolm , the tiny little voice in Will’s head muttered, the sooner I can find her .

The day passed as it did, with short breaks and short flashes of emptiness in his head, and he prayed for more of them – he found he rather liked feeling nothing, when feeling too much sorrow couldn’t be replaced with feeling too much of anything else. A strange sixth sense would drown his mind out, and then, after a while of blissful unawareness, he’d think – Wait, what was making me feel so horrible after all? And although he knew he didn’t want to remember, he forced himself to anyway. And the golden hair and the soft smile and the eyes that could so easily turn mischievous would stand vivid in his head again, and he’d push his heels against Tug’s sides a little harder, desperately trying to return to the comfortable numbness and finding himself unable to.

Well, he might’ve handled himself until exhaustion physically forced him on the ground. His companion was not as keen on it.

It was the third evening of his travel. Halfway point to Norgate – maybe a little more, even. Will hadn’t noticed. He only saw the sun go down.

The ground – or Tug, more like – suddenly shuddered underneath him.

You know, Will, I really don’t mind most of the time, Tug said, throwing up his head a little bit, and Will noticed how hard he was panting before he could say anything else. But you really ought to take a moment for both of us every once in a while.

A pause until everything clicked into place, and:

“Fuck,” Will swore. Tug graciously refrained from commenting.

Will had underestimated himself. His stupidity, rather, he thought, blood boiling at the thought of being so careless. Halt had warned him, even - Maybe Tug would trip and break something because you'd forgotten to let him rest, he said, drilling him with clever eyes, clever dark eyes, and Will closed his, furious once again that his teacher was right. He’d forgotten. He’d bloody forgotten .

He let go of the reins and relaxed his legs a little, letting Tug stop at his own pace, which he did, carrying him the last few meters and coming to a gradual halt, huffing in appreciation.

Will knew, after all, that Tug would run for him until all the blood in his veins turned to flame. He was tired, sure – but he’d never before told Will to stop because of it. He should’ve, Will always told him so, but it seemed like gritting their teeth and bearing it was a whole separate skill the Ranger horses possessed.

No, the bigger reason Tug suggested a break was because of Will himself, and by the time he realized it, he was already out of the saddle. Tug trotted lightly to where they’d stay for the night, no previous exhaustion in his step, and Will sighed.

“If you’re not tired, Tug, then we can go on,” he said, and weariness immediately found itself a way back into the little horse.

Oh, no, trust me. I’m crippled. Can barely walk.

“Tug,” Will tried again, biting back a smile at the display. “Look, I—I really do want to make it to Malcolm as soon as possible.”

You will . Tug stopped in front of him, swaying ever-so-slightly. We’ll be on the road again first thing tomorrow morning.

“You don’t understand, my friend.” Will threw up his arms in a helpless gesture. “As soon as I can means I’d like to be on the road, right now. Up until I can’t see straight anymore. Think of it as breaking some sort of a standard. You liked standing out, didn’t you?” He summons a little simper onto his face. “Fastest horse in Araluen, mm?”

I’m not denying it. Tug’s posture looked a little smug. Then, he looked down at Will, and lost all his glamour. But there’s a little detail you’re not catching on to.

“And what would that be?” Will asked, approaching him and putting a hand on his neck, ready to jump back on if he confirms not to truly be tired.

I’m not going anywhere until dawn.

Will blinked. His hand slipped off.

“Sorry?”

Tug said nothing, merely freezing in place, his eyes drooping.

Apology accepted. Goodnight.

“What— Wait, are you—Hey, Tug, c’mon, you can’t do this to me.” Will felt like he was about to either laugh or start crying. He pat him gently on the nose, poking with the bottom of his palm lightly. “You’re not sleeping. Hey.”

Tug imitated a comically loud human snore in Will’s head, making him flinch away.

“Tug,” Will called again, but there was no answer this time. “Don’t you understand? I have to get there as soon as I can. I have to find Alyss, come on, this isn’t a good time for jokes. You don’t wake up, I’ll walk.”

Tug sighed and shook his head, eyes wide open again.

Don’t be stupid and listen to me . He brushed his head softly against Will’s shoulder. Halt was right, you need to understand when your ideas are crossing the line.

“You didn’t hear—“

You were thinking about it when you weren’t making up plans on how to get to Alyss, whose location you, might I remind you, still have no idea about. And he’s right. A few more hours, and you’ll drop dead from overexhausting yourself. I know you can’t feel it, but trust me, that’ll happen, and, if you haven’t noticed, I can’t talk! How am I supposed to communicate to some poor sod in Coledale that there’s a fallen moron a dozen miles down the road?

“I’m sure you’d figure something out.”

Yes, and you’d waste another good fortnight. Tug’s eyes were smarter than he remembered. Please, Will. Don’t do this to yourself.

A moment of silence, and Will finally caved in.

“Now you just sound like Alyss,” he muttered. His hands slowly fell to his sides. Painfully hesitant, he turned away from Tug, whose voice was finally mixed in with something resembling a smile.

That’s no insult. She’s terribly clever.

“That, she is,” Will agreed, glad to be using present tense, collapsing into his own cloak as a makeshift seat on the dewy grass. “That, she is.”

He should try to get some sleep, then, he thought as Tug lowered himself by his head, allowing him to use his side as a sort of pillow. He was stuck for the night anyway, might’ve as well made himself comfortable. Throwing his hood on, he hugged his own bag, turning to the side.

Surely enough, within a few minutes, he already felt like he was sinking – and, then, everything became so uncomfortable he thought he might just cry out.

He tore his eyes open to find his legs looking just the way they were before – but they were sore to hell and back. He could only feel it better now, as there was no horse to hunch over.

Will cussed under his breath again and sat up straight, reaching to touch the back of his thighs, then the sides. Even through the cloth of the pants, he could feel the coarse skin – dry, uncomfortable, possibly bleeding and so, so inconvenient. He muttered a few curses to nobody in particular and stood to search the satchel attached to Tug – there had to be something in his supplies to put against the pants to soften the friction. Anything, really. Even a bit of bandaging would do.

See what happens when you don’t listen to me , Tug said, a little pity and equal amount of I-told-you-so in his tone. When’s the last time you had marks from riding?

“I won’t answer that,” Will told him, jaw clenched.

I can. You were a third-year. Nineteen, if I can recall correctly.  Rode all night. Two nights.

“Shut up.” Tug did. Most likely because Will didn’t tell him that often.

Fumbling with the strings, he only got a better look at the state of his skin in a minute or two. The sides of his thighs had reddened, turned rough to touch, and Will sighed – Tug was right, of course, as always.

The last time he had marks was, in fact, when he was nineteen and a half, just before he finished the third year of his late apprenticeship. Halt had scowled at him, unfairly, in Will’s honest opinion, upset at his efforts. He, in hindsight, was right about it as well.

“Pain will limit your movement,” he said, only adding the figurative salt to the physical wound as Will was already not in his most joyous mood of the day. “You cause yourself pain, you make it easier for others to do the same. And you don’t always rise stronger, you know. I, for one, know no benefit of aching legs.”

“Well,” Will muttered, holding onto the bruises with grit teeth. “At least I made it in time.”

Halt’s expression softened.

“Here.” The tightly-sealed container flew from his hand, and Will caught it with little effort. “You should put some salve on it.”

You should put some salve on it, Tug advised.

“Yeah,” Will muttered, not really listening. Tug kept his silence, and Will perked up, words registering late. “Oh? You mean the—“

The only one you carry, yes. He came off as a little annoyed. The warmweed.

“No, that’s alright.” Will shook his head absentmindedly. “They’re not that bad. Might as well save it.”

Tug gave him a knowing look. Will shrugged. “It’s true. They’re not that painful.”

They will be if they don’t heal before you ride again, Tug told him.

“Eh. I can handle it.” He grew quieter and quieter. “I’ll sleep on it. Won’t feel anything by the time dawn comes.” Tug should’ve caught on – he probably did.

Just say you don’t want to use the warmweed and go.

Will pressed his lips together in distaste. “Alright – I don’t want to use the warmweed. Happy?”

A pause, and Tug gave another soft nicker. Not exactly the word I’d use, Will.

“Well, sorry about your sorrow. Might as well sleep it off, since you’re so adamant about staying here for the night.” The same complaint crept into his speech as he leaned back, and Tug went quiet again. Disagreeable silence.

Will turned on his side, then to another. A frown spread over his face as he wrapped his arms around himself. He found himself being wrong on things more and more often these days. “Say something, then,” he muttered, and Tug stirred.

Like what?

“I dunno. You want to say something, say it.”

I don’t. I’m not the problem here. Tug’s breaths were deep. Calming, almost, or they would’ve been if Will hadn’t been so upset at something. Look, just put some salve on it. It’ll feel better. They won’t get worse. Faced with Will’s silence, Tug nudged his side softly. You won’t get addicted to it from the salve.

“I know, that’s not what I’m worried about.” Will turned to the other side again. If the claim of liars’ noses being long were to be correct, Will would probably have the longest one in Araluen.

Then do it.

He huffed and sat up, finally willing to give it a shot. “Only if you be quiet.”

 If that helps you sleep at night.

“It’s supposed to,” Will said, jokingly, trying to swallow the mass that was slowly rising in his throat as he reached for the container. As many times as he’d taken the lid off, he couldn’t still his fingers, even after all this time. The top slipped out of his grasp – he attributed, or at least tried to attribute the quiver of his fingers to the evening’s chill.

Touching the salve itself was even worse, but it was not truly pure warmweed; it was a product, including other herbs and other contents, and Will had learned to scoop out as tiny of a bit as he could, just enough for the wound. Or, well – wounds, in this case.

It cooled the skin, then it warmed it up, and Will pressed his lips together, feeling like he suddenly wanted to kick something. He put the lid back on and stuffed it as far back into his bag as he could, angry for no particular reason.

He leaned back again, then, wrapped his arms around himself once more, dragging his knees to his chest, and squeezed his eyes tightly shut.

The sleep he fell into was quiet, dreamless and, unlike he claimed, absolutely well-deserved. It made sense to Tug to let him have his peace for as long as he could.

That’s why, when Will woke, the sun was high in the sky and Tug did not look as smug as he’d like to, most likely.

“You traitor,” Will threw at him. “You vile creature. To think I trusted you.”

I’ll kick you in the face next time, if that’s a preferable alternative , Tug spoke in a tone that made him sound sleepy as well.

“You’re so loud all the time anyway.” Will stood up, stretching unenthusiastically. “Might as well make it useful.”

Tug didn’t answer him, and he immediately felt like the scum of the earth. Gods, at least he wasn’t the one doing the legwork, and he was being horrible about it, too. Tug made him get a few hours of darkness, and he was berating him for the kindness.

“I’m sorry,” Will said, as genuine as one could. “I really am. About all of that. And about yesterday, too.”

Tug let out a quiet snort. No worries. I’ll get back at you sometime anyway.

“I’m sure you will,” Will muttered, picking up his cloak and slinging it over his shoulders. Throwing his hood up, he added, absentmindedly, “Dunno what’s up with me these days.”

Well, I do , Tug said. And I’m sure you do too.

“Refrain from enlightening me, then,” he grumbled, stuffing his things back into his bag, taking a bite out of an apple and gifting the rest of it to Tug before jumping into the saddle.  “I can take a few days without thinking about it again.”

It , Tug snorted again.

Will closed his eyes. I’m calm. I’m calm , he told himself.

“Her,” he said. “And whatever might’ve happened to her.”

Well, at least you slept.

Will didn’t grace that with an answer, only pressed his heels a little bit. Tug didn’t hurry.

Inside, Will knew Tug was right to suggest he stay the night on the ground, but he was absolutely not about to admit it. He was absolutely not about to give Tug the pleasure of always being right, no matter the cost. And still, everything was a little brighter after his little nap, and so, a day or so later, he agreed to another stop, kicking around just for the show.

This time, however, things were a little different. They were going to reach the outskirts of Norgate the very next day, and Will was aiming to see Malcolm by the evening – praying to all that were that the job he had would be quick and easy. Or, well, as quick and easy as a job for a Ranger could be – to most people, not quick nor easy.

Because of this, before laying his head down on the cowl of his hood, he turned to his horse and wholeheartedly promised to pick out the song Tug liked the most of all he knew and hum it under his breath for as long as he was around him, up until Tug started to develop a distaste and eventually a hatred toward it if he did not wake him up properly. Tug snorted and gave no promises, but it only took Will a few quiet notes to get him to comply, in the end.

He closed his eyes, and, for a few hours, he felt less alone.

Will dreamt of Alyss again. He woke up with cold sweat like a shallow lake on his back, and his chest was tight, caging his wildly beating heart. He didn’t remember much – her face, the two little moles just above her lip, her hands cupping his cheeks, and she leaned close to his ear and whispered something to him, something so quiet and joyful, something so wonderful it could only be shared through silence, and he took her into his arms and lifted her up and spun her around until neither could breathe, from laughter and the quick kisses amidst the wild dance.

When Will woke up, his heart sank, because he’d truly believed the dream was real for a moment. It took him a minute to come back to reality, to remember what was going on – and that the warm streaks on his cheeks were not Alyss’s hands, but tear tracks once more.

He wiped them off, almost angry now. How long could he cry for?

He threw his head up to look at the sky. Thankfully, the stars had begun to dim and sun was seeping through the far reaches of the horizon. Content with the sight, Will turned to poke Tug in the stomach.

“Wake up, boy,” he called.

I wasn’t sleeping.

“No, no, of course you weren’t.” Will gave him the weariest of smiles and stood, stretching his arms, then legs. In feigned cheer, he added, “And now you won’t get the chance to for a while, as we’re riding out again!”

 Tug muttered something and stood up, Will gathering his things and stuffing them back into his bag again. He reached up to pull himself into the saddle with no effort, and back on the road they were.

This time, it was taking them to the lands before Norgate: Drayden Fief, the lands many merry bands of objectively awful people now roamed as their own territory. No Ranger had been sent to even out the many little instances of ripples going through the fief outside of Rowan, the only poor fellow with a silver leaf stationed here, and, to be fair, taking into account the circumstances, he was doing a damn good job keeping the mess contained.

Will hoped it was contained enough not to bother him on his way, but knowing his luck, he’d probably stumble into a camp of cut-throats headfirst. Problems seemed to find him. Now, though, he wished for anything but.

It was not meant to be, after all.

He got right about three or four hours of calm, listening only to Tug’s hooves on the ground and his own damned thoughts (one of those he could do without) before he took an unfortunate turn to the woods. Well, he had reasoned, he was not a child, he wasn’t afraid of a few squirrels, and going through a forest instead of around it would save him an hour or two, even if he would turn up on the other side with a scratch or another on his face. It was no big deal to him.

Unfortunately, he was not the first traveller to think so. And people who preferred to acquire their earnings through rather violent means tended to pick up on those things.

He noticed them just before he entered the forest, in a serene clearing. It’d be a nice place to sit down and relax, not that Will had any intention to do so. He’d felt them. To his sides.

A presence. He was being watched.

Immediately, his whole body was on full alert. He switched Tug’s gait a few times, listening – there were no horses, but someone was clearly following him. They weren’t trying to make it discreet, either. So they were planning to jump on him sooner or later then, anyway.

Will sped Tug up a little, and whoever it was started catching up. Will, in no mood for games, then, simply brought Tug to a halt and leapt out of the saddle. His main desire was now speed – the faster he gets this over with, the better.

“Alright, get out,” he commanded, pulling out his seax. “Come on. Get out here.”

Sometimes, merely letting them know he was not going to be crept up on deterred them – sometimes they’d turn around and Will would never see them again. He’d gladly chase them, though, unless he needed to be somewhere else.

Well, he wouldn’t have chased them today.

The men, as they turned out to be, were not smart enough to realize that, apparently.

Will drew out what was possibly the longest groan of his life as four men blocked his road. “Oh, you’ve got to be goddamn...”  

They were armed, Will’s trained eye noticed. One of them – the leader, most likely – stood up a little taller and cleared his throat, leisurely pointing his sword right between Will’s eyes.

“These woods belong to Lord Clerbald, traveller,” he said in a voice that deliberately showcased authority. Will was nearly tired of hearing it already. “It is not to be crossed without official permission.”

“These woods belong to nobody except perhaps Ranger Rowan of Drayden Fief,” Will shot back, twisting it a little – the woods belonged technically to Baron Thorn, but not much except Ranger business went on in the woodlands anyway. “And you made the Lord up just now. Let me through.”

“You claim to know the ruler of the land better than us, common rat?” One of the others spoke up, clearly less composed than the first one.

“I don’t claim to, I do.” Will squinted at them, his hand still steady on the seax. “Now, I’d strongly advise you to leave these woods as fast as your legs can carry you, because from what I know of Ranger Rowan, he’s not too fond of bloodsuckers in his fief.” What you know of me , he knew young Rowan would mock, rolling his eyes far into his skull. Bloody hell, you’re pretentious, Will Treaty . Will smiled a thin little smile at the image.

“You dare insult us?” A third cut in. Will watched with mild disinterest as the first one raised a hand to silence him.

“You have been disrespectful to the keepers of the law, traveller,” he told him in a sickly sweet voice. “That does not go unpunished.”

“Keepers of the law,” Will repeated in a high, mocking tone. He had to admit to himself, he didn’t act like this often, but there was something about them keeping him from the most important goal in his life that made him bristle. “Quit tricking honest people and figure out a way to make a coin in life without yapping at every poor bastard that comes through the woods. I’m done wasting my time with you.”

He turned to go back to Tug, heard rustling behind him and snapped back on his heel, one hand with the seax in front of him and the other holding out his oakleaf he ripped from underneath his vest in a single moment.

“Queen’s Ranger,” he said, and they froze for just a second, the first one mere inches away, the very tip of Will’s knife almost touching his chin. Will may not have identified himself with a name, but he didn’t exactly need to. A Ranger’s reputation carried weight in Araluen, blessed be the Corps that made it that way once again.

The pause lasted only a moment, though.

“Ranger.” The first one crossed his arms, a cheeky smile still on his face. His men still held their weapons, and Will gave a sigh, realizing he was in for a little tumble anyway. “Guess you’ve tricked us, eh? Think you’re so smart, don’t you?”

“Rather, yes,” Will agreed, frowning and dropping the leaf back under his vest before sheathing his knife and slinging the bow off his shoulder. The bandits didn’t seem very bright, not picking up that they should’ve probably attacked while he was nocking the arrow. Will wouldn’t complain, though.

“Well, we outnumber you by quite a few, don’t you think?” The first man, the leading bandit, if Will had to guess, grinned again, showing shiny teeth. “I don’t understand how you hope to pin us down all on your own, short stuff.”

Will didn’t feel like he exactly needed to humour that with an answer. He raised his bow, the head of the arrow pointed straight at the man. It wasn’t drawn just yet – there was no need to waste his strength. Tug had already stilled completely behind him, waiting for him to take a shot or tell him to bolt.

“You saw my oakleaf, yes?” Will said with uncharacteristically charitable patience. “You see my arrows? I have twenty four. I’ll stick six in each of you if you waste more of my time. Let me through, and we’ll have no problems.”

One or two of them, if he saw correctly, actually seemed at least mildly swayed by his suggestion, which he would’ve been glad for if the leader hadn’t immediately started berating them. Something around the lines of “You fools” and “Subdue him”. Nothing he hadn’t heard before.

“Rangers don’t take to offense lightly this and Rangers don’t let attackers go that,” Will repeated his own words back to him, disgusted at what he was going to say. “But if you let me through right now, with no hassle, I will genuinely forget you ever existed. I’ve got better things to do than solve skirmishes in the middle of nowhere.”

One of them let out a low laugh. It was a predator’s laugh, but not quite enough to make someone like Will quake in his boots. “Oh, you’ll forget, alright,” the man huffed, raising his sword to the evening sun. “You’ll forget. You should know that corpses remember nothing.”

Will sighed again, absolutely and utterly unimpressed. People liked to act tough around him, bad people especially – he had no idea why. Well, no, that wasn’t the case, he knew how influential a scene in front of a Ranger could be, but he did truly not know why people wouldn’t cave in under a direct threat to their life.

Oh well. If they wanted a fight, Will decided, they’d get it.

If I find myself cutting bandits left and right, I will not be happy, the voice in his head mocked in a dramatically heightened tone. Way to call on it, you right bastard.

And here they were, the idiots, standing like they were already sure of the victory, standing so disgustingly tall and proud as if they weren’t blocking Will’s way to the continued search of his wife. As if they weren’t blocking his way to Alyss.

“A’right,” he said quietly, assessing them as his bow fell to the ground – he couldn’t use it anyway, one of them was too close. Instead, the seax was back in his hand, and, a millisecond before the point of no return, he repeated, in a whisper, “A’right.”

They weren’t officially trained, not rogue knights or anything, it made Will wonder absentmindedly what made them believe they could take down a Ranger. The first one, albeit one of the two armed with a sword, didn’t stand a chance. Will grabbed him by his free wrist and pulled him past him, then raised a knee to kick him in the back. The man hit the ground with a dull thump, and would soon be joined by his comrades, if it was up to Will.

The next two attacked together, somewhat souring the situation, but Will just let himself be grabbed by one and, while the other swung with his knife, he rocked to the side hard, throwing the one that had captured him, letting the poor fellow take a knife between his eyes, and while his companion dealt with the moral horror of having stabbed a teammate, Will pulled on his arm and slashed his throat with his own knife.

It stayed in his hand. He now had two knives before the last one, the leader, who held a sword.

“Ah, damn you to hell,” to his mild curiosity, the man chuckled. “Well, at least I won’t have to share you with anyone.”

As he charged, Will leapt to the side wordlessly. The man was ready for that, however, turning with him, and Will ducked to the ground to avoid the blow, getting kicked to the side. He was up on his feet in an instant, and here was where the leader made his mistake of the day – and life – he raised his sword over his head instead of cutting cleanly.

Will surged forward, grabbing him by the lapels with one hand and wrestling the sword out, dropping it by their feet along with the excess knife he held himself and pushing the man forward. The bandit stumbled over the handle, and now Will grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, holding his seax up to his throat.

“You morons,” Will muttered right by his ear. Cold fury held his hand, the anger he felt at the loss of the strength the men caused him, strength that could be used to get to Norgate faster – and then, to Alyss faster. The precious minutes they stole from him, the minutes he could’ve spent with his wife. “You despicable, worthless morons.”

He took a tiny breath, and, before the man could say anything – he wasn’t interested nor could he be swayed - tilted his head back for the slash.

“You better think hard before you go on.” A voice from the side made Will snap his head toward the source.

The first man was standing right by Tug with his long sword at his stomach. Will’s heart jumped for the first time in the encounter, but he noted Tug’s eyes. He didn’t look nervous. Exasperated, more like, and Will also saw what was going on.

Anger rose in his throat. They were no threat to him or his horse, but they were wasting time . They should be, Will thought, searching for Alyss. And they’re wasting their time.

“I better,” he agreed, waited a moment, and, calmly: “Okay. I’m done thinking.”

As he dragged the knife across the man’s throat in one swift move, the other turned to the horse. Tug, in his mind probably imitating the most accurate horse expression of “oh well, screw it,” made peace with the situation.

The bandit flew backwards, sword abandoned on the ground, having slipped out of his grasp as Tug’s kick definitely shattered something – his head, most likely, judging by the way he didn’t even make an attempt to twitch anymore.

Nevertheless, Will approached, having let the body of the leader drop to the ground. Kneeling by the unconscious dying man, he finished the job with his seax and stood up, paying little attention to the blood on the blade.

He turned to Tug, anxiety shining through his expression. “You alright, Tug?”

Getting kicked around now, Will? Tug, uninjured, looked himself like a mix of concern and mockery. Next thing you know, he’ll have crushed your head with the handle of his sword.

“Yes, yes, like you crushed his with your hoof,” Will answered, pulling himself up into the saddle and touching the bruise that was swelling up under his vest, just on his side. It would hurt, but nothing Will hadn’t felt before. He turned to look at the pile of bodies he’d left behind. Normally, there’d be some sort of regret looming above him for loss of life, no matter how wretched. Now, though, he felt awfully practical. His eyes were cold.

“Do you say we ought to tell Rowan what happened?” Will asked Tug. Tug snorted in affirmation, and Will managed a silent groan. “Gods. I really don’t want to make a side-trip.”

Get close, but don’t change course, Tug suggested. You know he’ll see you anyways.

“Yeah,” Will muttered, looking up at the sky to adjust for direction. “I suppose you’re right. Wouldn’t be right to just leave those bodies lying around here.”

In agreement and with no further conversation, they rode forth. Will wondered momentarily whether they’d even find Rowan – but daylight was seeping into the ground and dyeing it red for the evening. If he wasn’t out on some larger-scaled escapade, he would probably be home. Then it was a question of whether he’d recognize Will, or know he was there, or even if he’s left the cabin.

Will shook his head, pushing the thoughts away. He remembered fondly his own suspicion whenever someone entered his woods – it was some kind of sixth sense, he assumed, stemming from the relationship he had with the place; it was where he first started sticking arrows into the trees and where he sat in the evenings, sewing holes in his cloak, and where was now his home – and home of Alyss, and he’d bring her back there once he found her.

It all went back to Alyss again, and as he rode over the roots and the high grass, he wondered how long he’d have to search for her. How well had she had been hidden from him, how far he’d have to go to catch even a glimpse of her, be able to put a flower crown on her head again, be able to wrap his arm around her shoulders, tell an anecdote from a screwed-up mission that’d make her laugh.

He’d search forever if it came to that, this he knew.

Lost in thought, he failed to recognize Tug’s greeting, mistaking it for an idle noise. He recognized a Ranger himself instead, more so felt than heard the ruffle of the leaves and an arrow scraping against the bow as it was drawn back.

“Identify yourself,” a soft voice called, and Will could sense both a pair of keen eyes and a sharp head of an arrow staring right into his soul. Or in his general direction, considering he was still wearing his cloak, some of which draped over Tug’s back, blending into the green of the forest once more.

At the very least, it was Rowan’s voice.

“Will Treaty,” Will reported dutifully, raising his oakleaf off his chest and into the air. “I wanted to tell you about the unfortunate gathering I stumbled upon east of the woods.” He dropped his oakleaf and crossed his arms, staring the way he thought the speaker was standing. “You got anything to tell me about that, Rowan?”

Rowan emerged only a little away from where Will imagined him to stand, the good Ranger. He was in the process of sliding an arrow back into his quiver, and a little smile surfaced on his face.

“Will,” he called, and his voice was far smaller. It was in all of them to be as quiet as they could when they were not intimidating anyone. “Oh, what a pleasure to see you again.” He cocked his head to the side. “Whatever happened?”

“I encountered a group of commonfolk,” Will answered him, leaping down to the ground as Rowan approached him. It was nice to hear a friendly voice outside his head – Tug huffed at the thought, though. “Must’ve been a dull afternoon – the fellows seemed rather enthusiastic in practising swordplay on a living dummy and his horse.”

Rowan clicked his tongue in annoyance before pulling Will into a hug, which he gladly took part in, wrapping his arms around his waist – Rowan was, just like most, taller than Will.

“Here I am, scouring the streets, hoping Drayden is kind to travellers, and a damn Ranger gets attacked in my own woods,” Rowan muttered as they drew back, giving him a guilty smile. “Thank you for the notice, friend. I’ll make sure to come back to the trees more often.”

Will chuckled, slapping him on the shoulder.

“You’ll have no complaints from me,” he agreed. “I could’ve used a distraction.”

Rowan nodded mindlessly, remembering something only after a moment. He grabbed Will’s upper arm with an apologetic face.

“Oh, Will, I’m very sorry about your wife,” he said, voice coated thickly in compassion. “Haven’t kept up with the news the past few - has she been found yet?”

Will’s slightly brightened mood turned sour again.

“Not quite,” he answered bitterly. “I’m still searching.”

Rowan put a hand on his shoulder in comfort.

“If anyone can find her, it’s you, my friend,” he assured him. Will smiled a sad little smile.

“Thank you, Rowan. I hope so.”

Before Will could step away and jump back into the saddle, Rowan cleared his throat with something to add.

“Ah, but – wasn’t she in Gallica? What brings you all the way to my humble homestead?” He cocked his head to the side. Will waved his hand, clearly dismissing the question.

“Long story,” he replied shortly, and Rowan shrugged.

“Well then, I won’t ask,” he relented and perked up again. “One last thing, before you go on your merry way.”

“Yes?” One foot in the stirrup, Will turned his head to Rowan. The Ranger looked a little confused.

“I’m guessing they were on the outskirts, waiting for you. Did you just, tie them up and leave them there?” He inquired, making a wide gesture with his hands, implying the bandits. “No chance they’ll have escaped by the time I get there?”

It was Will’s time to go a bit red.

“No, I don’t believe so,” he answered. “I... made very sure.”

“You mean as in—“ Recognition flashed in Rowan’s eyes. He gave Will an impressed nod. “Well. I see. At least they won’t kick as I’m dragging them back.” He sighed. “Still could’ve left at least one. Would’ve told me right where the rest of them are hiding.”

“Sorry, friend.” Will shrugged, dragging himself back up into the saddle. “They didn’t seem much for conversation, anyway.”

“Oh, I would change that in an hour or two,” Rowan chuckled. “Weren’t you an apprentice under Halt? Old man’s the go-to for interrogation.”

“I’m aware. Think of it as me saving you from a messy ordeal.” Will gifted him with a fleeting smile, rather quick to end their meeting. “Godspeed, Rowan.”

“Right. All the best to you in your search, Will – and, again, thank you.” Rowan bowed his head before turning on his heel and disappearing between the tree trunks, the cloak blurring the lines between him and the forest, as any good Ranger cloak did. Will watched for a minute, up until he couldn’t tell where he was anymore.

What now? Tug asked quietly.

“Now,” Will replied, “we ride like hell.”

 


 

Grimsdell appeared suddenly and unexpectedly, just as it always seemed to, tall and looming and darker than its surroundings. The roots of the trees had gone so dark they seemed black, the trunks thick and the leaves formed a crown far above Will’s head. It had always been difficult to enter such a place – he felt like he was defiling a secret. He still held quiet, respectful fear for the forest, albeit now controlled – and that was probably how it was going to be for the rest of his years.

It would always get easier once he was amidst the trees, not just watching from the side. He’d recall walking here with Shadow, Horace, Trobar, and then Alyss. Her footsteps had been silent on the forest floor, but his trained ear still listened – her voice echoed in the clearings and sounded muffled and soft in the confined spaces between four trees and not much else.

Once, when they were passing the place after a joint mission and decided to pay a visit to Malcolm, they had held hands as they stumbled over the roots and bushes. The woods had not heard much laughter in their age – something new was always exciting. They welcomed them, and Will hoped they would again, once he found Alyss and they could walk wherever, and he can feel her warmth beside him.

He pressed his lips together and rode forth. He didn’t have to remember where to go, exactly – what had not been in his instincts, Tug compensated for. A few branches scratched his face, but he barely reacted, squinting, trying to get as much of the light dripping down from the blankets of leaves above as he could.

It didn’t take long to pass the warnings and the signs – useless now, he thought, except maybe as direction to where to find Malcolm.

Then, he stumbled into the clearing, finally – and jumped off Tug. It wasn’t quite noon just yet, but he hoped at least someone would be awake.

They were.

Malcolm’s home was bustling with activity, in fact – just from a glance, he recognized Luka, sitting by the steps of the house, who raised a hand to him, gifting him a smile. More people were rushing around – he noticed a few kids he didn’t know playing, all with the usual deformities of their own. A few chuckled upon seeing him – a few said a word or two in greeting. He nodded and turned to approach the door when a black and white form erupted from nowhere and tackled him.

It didn’t do much harm considering the form was just taller than the distance from the ground to his knees, but momentarily Will forgot why he was there and crouched down to greet Shadow.

“My my, girl,” he told her softly, making an attempt to give her a pat on the head – she threw her head back, trying to lick his fingers. “You don’t plan on stopping, do you? Not letting time get the best of you?”

Yes, it certainly seemed so. Her clever eyes hadn’t lost their shine and her body, although now decorated by graying fur, still seemed youthful. Trobar must be treating her well, came a thought to Will, and he smiled at himself – of course he was. Trobar loved the dog.

Speaking of which.

A shadow appeared over Will, who jumped up with ease to greet his friend.

“Trobar,” he said, and whatever happiness of reunion would usually shine in his voice at this time was mixed with melancholy. “I trust you’re doing well?”

“Will,” he replied with a smile of his own, seemingly empathetic. He’d been saying Will’s name with ease the past few times they’d met – Will wondered whether his name was just simple enough or if he’d gotten used to it. “Go’dh he’e qui’h’ly.”

“I was in a bit of a hurry,” Will agreed, giving him a little sad simper. “Is Malcolm—“

A loud wave of laughter interrupted him, unnaturally loud and clear and echoing. Will snapped his head back to look at the house, only to see a boy not older than him in his first year of apprenticeship – he held two misshapen canes  and, when standing straight, his back looked bent to one side. He was the one laughing, and he was looking right back at Will, and nobody else seemed to have noticed Will’s surprise or the deafening screech of the laughter; so it must’ve been normal.

Will hadn’t heard much of that sort of laughter directed at him. It wasn’t mocking – it was purely joyful, enthusiastic, excited for him, almost. The boy rested one of the canes against the railing and covered his mouth, trying to stifle the uncontrollable giggling. He sat down on the stairs and pressed his forehead to the side of the foundation for the house, trying to catch his breath.

“Go,” Trobar urged Will on, giving him a gentle push toward the boy. Tug, who was standing not too far away, had an aura of incredulity around him – his eyes were stuck to the door.

Will swallowed and rushed to the door, stopping by the stairs to check on the boy.

“You alright?” he asked. The boy nodded, coming down from the momentary hysteria – Will still didn’t know what he’d done to cause it, but he gave the boy a light pat on the head anyway. “Is Malcolm inside?”

The boy stilled and looked up at him. Slowly, his smile grew wider. He closed his eyes and, without answering, turned his gaze into the clearing, a distant rumble in his throat suggesting another surfacing chuckle.

Will raised an eyebrow and climbed up the stairs. He wondered for a moment whether he should knock, decided that’d be the polite option, and opened the door.

It was quiet inside. It didn’t seem like many people were there – only a few, and all eyes were immediately on him. Many smiled at him. Will only raised his eyebrows higher.

“Sorry,” he stopped a passing woman. “I was looking for—“

A quiet voice stopped him, coming from a room close by.

“No, not yet, I don’t think so. It takes at least a week to get here from Redmont. It’s just Malcolm, I’m sure.” A soft chuckle. “Oh, and I—I forgot how to sign Redmont, can you do it again, please?”

Will barely heard what the voice was saying. He was frozen – in time, in space and in place. Everything around him stretched. He felt like he was going to fall to his knees, and not without good reason.

Will’s breath hitched in his throat.

The silent voice, unmistakeable in its lilted tone and melody, belonged to Alyss.