Will woke up right before dawn. He sat up, vaguely wondering where he was. He realized he wasn't in his own cabin back in Seacliff. The memories of the previous night came flooding back to him as he sat up. Halt was gone, and he needed to find Crowley. He needed to leave now.
He stood up a little too quickly, and he swayed as his head throbbed. When Will reached the kitchen, he found a note on top of his packed supplies. He tore open the seal and recognized James' messy hand writing.
I am leaving early this morning so I can try to get a head start on trying to track down the ones who captured the rangers. Find Crowley first; then come and find me. When I find out where Halt and the others are, I'll wait for you before continuing on.
Setting the letter down,
Will quickly checked to make sure all of his supplies were ready.
Satisfied, Will left the familiar cabin to saddle Tug.
Tug neighed a greeting to his master. He was fully rested and ready for the journey that awaited them. Swinging up into the saddle, Will headed off towards Castle Araluen in search of Crowley.
James was headed towards the Ranger's Gathering Grounds, because Halt had been taken not far from there. The King did not know where the Gathering Grounds were, so he could only describe the area where he was when they were attacked. However, Will had confirmed the place to James the night before.
A kilometer away from the grounds, James slid down from his horse and kneeled down to study the ground. There were definitely tracks, and they were poorly concealed. James figured there were about seventy-five people in the party, with a third of them on horses. James felt a pang of sorrow for his mentor. He had probably been restrained to one of the horses and forced to walk under torturous conditions for an unbearably long time. Worried for Halt, James swung back up into his saddle and quickened his pace.
He arrived at a glade in the forest around noon. Again keeling to study the tracks, James frowned. The tracks seemed to be too obvious, like they wanted him to find them. James debated whether or not to follow the tracks. Well, he thought, if I follow them, there will certainly be the risk of getting captured. But if I don't follow them, I might not find out about Halt. He decided that he would follow them, but the next question was whether or not he should wait for Will. No, I can't. I might lose their trail. James shrugged. He'll understand, and he can still catch up to me. He knows where to look.
With that thought, James led Mika to a thicker part of the forest where she would be out of view. "Stay." He gave the one word command knowing his horse would listen. Then he added, "Silent." If Mika heard someone or something, ranger horses were trained to freeze and stay silent to avoid being discovered.
James seemed to glide through the forest instinctively, using the shadows and making no sound. No matter how many times he went on missions, he always got nervous. When he reached the grove he stayed back a few meters. He took a deep breath and continued forward.
Tug's hooves rang on the cobblestones as Will raced towards Castle Araluen. Finally, the castle gates came into view. The two guards posted outside moved out of the way of the racing ranger. If his cloak and small shaggy horse were not enough to prove who he was, the silver oak leaf that hung on a chain around his neck was. Once inside the gates, Will reined in Tug and slid out of the saddle while leading him towards the stables. The relationship between a ranger and his horse was strong. Whatever the matter was, it could wait until after his horse was cared for.
Will quickly climbed the stairs to Crowley's room. "Crowley?" Will knocked on the door.
Will opened the door and slipped silently into the room. The room was dark when he entered, and there were signs that no one had been there for a while. The fire not lit, dust on the normally polished table, the bed perfectly made. Crowley had obviously not been here for some time. So where is he, then? Will asked himself. I need to see Cassandra and the King. Maybe they will know where he is.
He moved quickly towards the throne room, staying in the shadows to avoid being seen. He was just outside the grand doors when he heard his name.
"Will?" He recognized the voice as Gilan.
"Hey Gilan," Will said turning to face him. "Have you seen Crowley?"
"No. Actually, that is why I am here. He doesn't seem to be anywhere in the fief, and no one seems to know where he went."
"Oh. That's not good."
"Why? Will, what's wrong?" Gilan noticed that his friend looked very worried. "Crowley's probably just out on some mission. He'll be back soon."
Will was already shaking his head, "I don't think so, Gil. Halt was captured the other day. Now Crowley's gone too. I think he's been captured like the other missing rangers."
"Oh," Gilan was at a loss for words. Halt and captured in the same sentence? It didn't make sense. And adding Crowley to that really didn't make sense. He simply couldn't grasp the concept.
"Yeah," Will nodded, confirming what he said. He understood that the whole idea was a lot to take in. "We need to go find James. He is tracking the ones who took Halt and the others. So far we are the only ones who know what is happening."
"Do you know where he is?" Even though it was under bad circumstances, Gilan would enjoy seeing James again.
"No, but he was heading towards the Gathering Grounds last time I heard from him."
"That sounds like a good place to start then," Gilan said with a grin.
James, blending in with the shadows of the tree, peered into the clearing before him. As he scanned the trees on the other side, everything seemed normal, but a strange sixth sense told him that something was not right. He did not understand what his instincts were telling him. There was nothing in the clearing. Oh. Not in the clearing, he realized, but on the other side of the clearing. He scanned the other side of the tree line, his eyes constantly changing focus from close to far. There. A movement deeper in the trees caught his eyes. No. That's impossible, James thought as he caught site of the figure. It looks like Halt. James moved closer and confirmed his thoughts. Halt was definitely over there in the trees. But wait. James drew in a sharp breath. Halt was restrained to a fallen log. Gagged and wrists tied, James almost cried seeing his mentor look so defeated.
James crept around the back of the log, staying out of sight. He made Halt jump when he put his hand on his shoulder. James took off the gag. "Halt, what's wrong?" He asked, puzzled by Halt's alarmed expression.
"James! Duck!" Halt ordered.
James yelped and dropped to the floor in a crouch as a cross bolt flew over the top of him, missing him by a few centimeters.
"James! You need to leave now!" Halt commanded, "You should not have come!"
"No! I can't leave you here!" James said, still crouching beside him.
"James-" Halt started to growl, but he was cut off by another voice.
"You should have listened to him, James," A man stood a few meters away from them.
James looked up to see who had spoken. "D-Daniel?" he stuttered.
"Nooo," the man said sarcastically, "It's your father. Of course I'm Daniel, you idiot."