The day was still young. The sun could be seen rising slowly from the west. The air was cold, and the two rangers were able to see the cloud that formed from their rapid breathing.
Gilan and Will, leaning low over their horses' necks, rode hard and fast towards the Gathering Grounds. The two rangers had agreed on bringing Abelard along who easily kept up with the other two horses. They were not planning on returning without the missing rangers.
The horses stopped.
"Tug?" Will exclaimed, "Gilan what are they doing?" Astonishment was written clearly all over his face. It wasn't the way of the rangers' horses to stop without being told to, unless of course there was danger. However, neither of the horses had given a warning signal.
"I – I have no idea." Gilan replied. He was just as confused and surprised as his companion.
Ears pricked, the horses turned their heads towards the deep forest to their right that held the secret location of the Gathering Grounds, before setting off in that direction at a slow trot.
"Tug!" Will exclaimed again. "Where are you going?"
It's Mika. His horse answered. She's in the forest, but I can't find James.
Gilan was having a similar conversation with Blaze before understanding dawned on both of the young rangers.
They then urged their horses into a gallop, racing towards the trees, hooves barely making a sound, with Abelard not far behind.
Once they were within a few meters of Mika, James' horse came into view. The four horses neighed their greetings, before Blaze and Mika seemed to have their own conversation, with Tug and Abelard listening intently.
Mika, where is James? Blaze asked.
I don't know. James' horse replied. I have been here for a couple of days waiting for him to return.
Oh. Blaze knew her master would be upset when he and his friend found out James was gone.
Sadness crept into Mika as she thought about her missing master and friend.
Mika! Abelard snapped James' horse back to the present. He, being the most experienced of the four horses, knew that now was not the time to dwell on what had already happened. They needed to move forward so they could find James. Was there anything that James told you that would be useful to finding him?
Oh! That's right! Mika answered excitedly. He said that if you and Tug and Blaze saw me before he came back, that the letter in his saddle bags should give Gilan and Will the right information.
I see. Abelard replied.
Finally, Will interrupted the horses' conversation, "So, Tug, will you be so kind as to fill Gilan and myself in with what is going on?"
Gilan turned to Will with an amused smile, "Impatient much, Will?"
Will rolled his eyes, "Oh shut up, Gil. You know that you are just as curious as I am." Will gave his attention back to his horse and missed Gilan's smile that proved Will's point.
Well, Tug said, to sum it all up, James left a note for you and Gilan in Mika's saddle bags.
Will and Gilan slid off of their horses and walked over to where James' horse was. "May I?" asked Gilan. The horse bobbed her head once. Gilan reached into the saddles bags and drew out a note addressed to Will. He slid his thumb underneath the oakleaf seal to break it. He unfolded it, seeing not for the first time, James' messy hand writing, and began to read out loud.
Obviously, I will not have returned to Mika yet, or you wouldn't be reading this. I am sorry I cannot wait for you to catch up to me. I have caught up to the group whose tracks I found. I have decided that I am going to go on ahead. I know there will be the risk of getting captured if this is the group who took Halt. However, if this is indeed the group that is capturing the rangers, then I cannot lose their trail. I am heading towards a clearing east of this position. Look for one of my arrows; I will leave one behind if I am captured.
Refolding the letter, Gilan addressed his friend. "We should leave the horses here, Will. It will be easier to stay concealed,"
The younger ranger nodded. They stayed instinctively in the shadows, ghosting towards the clearing that James had indicated. Finding that they were alone, Will stepped out into the open.
"No one is here, Gil." He said, stating the obvious.
"Obviously." Gilan smirked giving Will a playful shove, making Will stumble. "Oh." His smile faded away. "Will, please tell me that is not what I think it is," Gilan pointed to something that was behind Will.
Will's smile faded as well as he crouched down and pulled the grey shafted arrow out from underneath the pile of golden colored leaves. Standing back up he faced Gilan. "Not James too," he whispered, "Gilan, we have to find them."
Gilan nodded; his face grim with the last traces of his playful attitude gone.
Whack! James winced as the soldier's spear cracked across his shoulders yet again. He knew it wouldn't be the last time. He sighed at the thought. He and Halt were walking in the center of the mounted riders with their wrists tied in front of them. They were being led by Michael and Daniel, the two riders in the lead. James glanced up at the man who had struck him. He was smiling at the pain he had caused him. James shook his head slightly in disgust before continuing to watch where he was stepping. Even though he knew it was hopeless, he was trying to avoid stumbling, therefore, trying to avoid another blow from the spear.
James was dreading the days to come. Daniel and Michael were taking the rangers deep into the Mountains of Rain and Night. Speaking of their destination, James could see that they were only an hour or so away from the brothers' massive fortress. He had no idea what was waiting for them when they got there, but he knew for sure that it would not be good. He studied the Mountains of Rain and Night. They definitely live up to their name. He thought grimly. Tall, dark, and wet.
Finally, they reached a point where they could enter their captors' ginormous fortress. As they came to a stop, Daniel and Michael dismounted from their horses.
Oh. James noticed for the first time that his mentor still rode his horse from when he was still a ranger. Of course he still rides him. He thought. Daniel and his horse still have the normal relationship that most rangers have with their horses. Pocket was his name…
James was snapped out of his thoughts by Daniel, as he was jerked forward by his lead rope. James growled quietly under his breath as he stumbled foward. They were being treated like animals. A simple 'come here' would have been fine. When the two rangers were standing directly in front of their captors, their ropes were cut, and four soldiers escorted the prisoners through the doors. James gasped at what he saw. The inside of the brothers' fortress was terrifyingly magnificent and beautiful.
The walls were made of a dark stone that glinted in the low light, giving them a menacing look. They were trimmed with polished gold and precious gems. The ceilings, covered in fractals painted blue and black, were tall. The hallways were long and wide. The worst part was that all the rooms looked nearly identical. Once they passed through the first few hallways, James was hopelessly lost. The only room that appeared to be different was Daniel and Michael's throne room.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, James knew it had been only a few mere minutes, they reached a door that most likely led to the dungeons. The two rangers were shoved through the doorway, and were followed by their escort, who shut the door behind them. Grabbing the rangers by their arms, the guards pulled them to a cell holding three other rangers. None of them spoke until James and Halt were shackled by one wrist to the wall and the soldiers were long gone.
"James. Halt." The sandy haired commandment ranger said nodding to both rangers in turn.
"Hey." James said sullenly. Three more of his friends captured. "How long have you three been here?"
Shayden answered, "Sammy and I have been here at least two months. Crowley showed up about two weeks ago."
"I'm sorry, Shayden," Now that James actually looked, he could see that Shayden, who was twenty-two, the same age as himself, with blond hair and blue eyes; and his first year apprentice, Sammy who was fifteen, with brown hair and green eyes, both looked weary and exhausted like they hadn't slept properly in months. Apparently they hadn't.
"Don't be, James, it's not your fault." his longtime friend said.
"Crowley?" It was the first time Halt had spoken since they had arrived. "Do you know how many other rangers are here?"
He nodded, "At least half of the corpse, Halt. They have at least twenty-five rangers."
"That many?" Halt breathed.
Crowley nodded again. "More and more keep showing up." He paused to let the information sink into the minds of the new arrivals before continuing. "We should get some sleep. We don't know what will be waiting for us in the morning."
Only the shadowy figures of the four horses and two riders could be seen as they raced through the night, in search of their missing friends.
The next morning, the five rangers were awakened by the sound of keys clattering in the lock of their cell door. The door swung open on rusty hinges revealing Daniel, Michael, and six guards. Two guards hauled Crowley to his feet, and the remaining four guards and their sword points kept the remaining rangers on the ground. All five rangers glared at their captors. They all trusted each other with their lives, and they knew none would give away any information. They would not break.
"I know you are still the commandment ranger, Crowley." Daniel said in a deadly calm voice. Somehow, that was more frightening than if he had been angry. "Obviously, we know where the Gathering Grounds are, but we don't know when the next gathering is."
"Why do you care?" Crowley spat, "You are no longer one of us."
"It would make our job of capturing the rest of the rangers so much easier." There was a warning laced in Daniel's voice.
Crowley definitely heard it, but he wasn't about to give away information that might be fatal to his fellow rangers. "Why, pray tell, would I give you information that could kill my rangers?" he asked incredulously.
"You might regret it if you don't. That's why." The warning was greater this time.
Crowley met his eyes defiantly, not saying a word. These men would not get to the rest of the rangers.
The two guards that had pulled Crowley up off the ground pulled his arms painfully behind him. "Answer me!" Daniel demanded.
"You won't find out." Crowley growled through gritted teeth. "Not from me; not from any of us." The defiant look was still in his eyes.
Realizing that they wouldn't be getting any answers from theses rangers at the moment, Michael interrupted his brother. "Daniel, just let them be for now. We can find a better method later on."
Daniel turned towards his brother running a frustrated hand through his hair. "You're right, Michael." He headed towards the door. "Let the ranger go for now." He ordered his men.
The door was shut and locked, and the five rangers were alone again. Crowley sighed and slid to the ground. "Halt," He began, "We need to figure out what to do soon. He knows too many of the ranger's secrets, and that makes him a dangerous enemy."
"If any of us are given a chance to escape," Halt instructed, "We need to take it. James, Shayden, Sammy, you three are the youngest out of us five. If you see that chance, take it and do not worry about me or Crowley. Understand?"
The three rangers nodded.
Being able to fall asleep if the opportunity presented its self, the rangers were able to get a solid hour of sleep before the door opened again to reveal five guards.
"Take those two." The leader repeated his given orders to his four companions. Shayden and James were led out of the cell. Before the leader could shut the door, Halt stopped him.
"Wait!" Halt commanded. His voice ringing in the small space, "Where are you taking them?" He was worried for the two young rangers; James especially, since he was a son to Halt.
"Daniel and Michael have ordered these two to be brought before them, ranger." He spat Halt's title with distaste. He shut the door not hearing Halt's protest.
Shayden and James, hands tied behind them, were pushed down the hallway. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the two rangers could whisper without their escort noticing.
"James, there is an entrance with no door down the next hall, in the first room on the left. The throne room is the room after it."
James glanced at this friend. "How would we break away? Shayden, my ropes are really tight. I don't think I can get away."
Shayden asked, "What if you didn't have any ropes to deal with?"
"Well, then I wouldn't have an issue, but unless any of these guards are willing to untie the ropes, which they won't be, then I don't see how either of us would have a chance." James responded miserably.
Shayden smiled mischievously, "They will not need to untie them, because I will do it for them."
"What are you talking about, Shayden? How can you do that unless…" he trailed off realizing what Shayden was up to.
James hesitated a step, and fell in line right behind Shayden. Shayden's wrists were free. He was simply holding his hands crossed, and the rope was looped around them to make it look like his hands were still tied. James was nudged back into position by one of the guards.
"You never cease to amaze me, my friend," James said, not bothered that the guards took every opportunity to prod the two rangers with their spears. Shayden flashed him a lopsided grin.
Shayden and James, both rangers no longer bound, took off at a sprint down the hall way that had the open doorway. The boots of the pursuing soldiers sounded extremely loud compared to the leather soled boots the rangers wore. "You two! Stop!" They called.
Yes. James laughed silently. Telling us to stop will definitely work.
Side by side, the young rangers raced across the hard uneven ground. James flinched as an arrow hissed by him barely missing. The men on the top wall of the fortress were shooting at the two escaping prisoners. Hundreds of arrows flew by the rangers just missing them. Finally, the two rangers reached the cover of the trees. It would be impossible for the enemy to be able to aim through the mess of branches and leaves.
"James…hold…on…a sec." Shayden had stopped to catch his breath.
James smiled wryly as he thought about what just happened. "Either we have extremely good luck, or these archers have awful aim." He said.
Shayden laughed, "Probably the latter. We rangers never have very much luck."
James joined in laughing, "Yeah, you're right."
They both fell silent when they heard the shouting coming from the fortress behind them.
"We should get going." James whispered. They began to jog through the trees.
The fortress was fading farther and farther into the distance behind them when Shayden voiced his thoughts. "James, I can't believe we left them. Halt and Crowley! I left my apprentice behind!"
"Hey." James grasped Shayden's shoulder pulling him to a stop. He waited until Shayden looked at him before continuing. "Sammy will be fine. Halt and Crowley will take care of him, okay? We will get them away from Daniel and Michael. We will."
Shayden nodded. "Thanks, James. You're right."
James squeezed Shayden's shoulder before letting go. "I know I am, mate." He replied grinning, "Now let's get out of here."
Shayden nodded again, and they continued their escape from the Mountains of Rain and Night.