"Crowley?" Sammy's voice was very small. "Do you think Shayden is alright? And James too?"
Crowley looked at Shayden's apprentice. He shouldn't be here; he was barely more than a child. "Sammy, your mentor and James are two of the best rangers in the entire corpse, and they can take care of themselves. I believe they will be alright."
The apprentice let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, "Thanks, Crowley." That small assurance from the ranger commandment caused some of his worry to go away, but not all of it. "I am just worried about them, that's all."
"It's okay to worry."
The boy nodded, grateful he was with the two most experienced and trusted rangers in the entire corps. Not only that, but Halt and Crowley had mentored both James and Shayden.
Michael and Daniel chose that moment to enter the rangers' cell followed by two soldiers. The two soldiers pulled Sammy up off the ground and removed the shackle from his left wrist.
They started to pull him from the room but Halt and Crowley stood up to stop them. They grasped Sammy's arms with their free hands, Halt's right and Crowley's left, unwilling to hand him over. "Where are you taking him?"
"I need answers, and I want them now," snarled Michael. "I know the rangers won't spill their secrets, but he is only a child. He won't last long."
"What happened to James and Shayden?" Halt asked, ignoring Michael's threat. They wouldn't let them hurt the kid. "Why are they not here with us?"
"They're gone," answered Daniel annoyed with the interruption. "They slipped through our defenses and left you behind. They left all of you behind."
They got away.
"Now, either you can tell us when the next Gathering is, or we will make this apprentice tell us."
Sammy's eyes widened in fear. He knew these men wouldn't hesitate to kill him, but…he didn't know when the Gathering was…What was he going to do?
Halt and Crowley looked at each other and reached a silent agreement. Now that James and Shayden had escaped, they could warn the other rangers, so giving away the date of the next Gathering would not do the rangers any harm now. In any case, they could not let anything happen to Shayden's apprentice, because now that Shayden had escaped, it was up to Halt and Crowley to take care of him.
Halt shrugged, "It's in a month. Now let the boy go!"
"Thank you very much." Michael's warm smile never reached his cold eyes. He turned and left without another word.
Only after the two brothers left did the older rangers release their hold on Sammy. The soldiers slipped the shackle back onto Sammy's wrist and made sure it was secure before reconnecting it to the wall. When Sammy was released he nearly fell to the ground, but he managed to use the wall for support. With his free hand resting on the wall, he asked, "Now what do we do?"
Both senior rangers shook their heads, "I don't know, Sammy. We wait and see what Michael and Daniel do with their new information."
"Look, over there." James pointed through the trees. He saw the smoke of a camp fire in the distance. The day was at an end, and the moon was high in the sky. Everything looked silver.
"Do you think it's Will?" Shayden asked.
James shivered. It was getting colder and they would need to find a place to rest soon. "Let us hope so."
The two young rangers had finally left the Mountains of Rain and Night far behind them. They were traveling slowly back towards the Gathering Grounds, and they were hoping to run into Will on the way. The closer they got to the camp, the faster they went. A camp meant food, and both rangers were starving; Shayden especially, considering he had been a prisoner longer than James.
When they were close enough, James studied the camp. They had a clear view of the campsite from their hiding spot. There was no one there, but if they were not in the camp, then where were they?... He froze when he felt the cold steel of the stranger's sword against his neck. "You've lost your edge, Ranger." A voice hissed in his ear.
Wait. James recognized that voice. "Gil!" he exclaimed happily. "Get your sword away from my neck. I would prefer to keep my head." James grinned as his friend released him. He turned to see Will releasing Shayden beside him.
"It's great to see you, mate!" Gilan said holding the younger ranger at arm's length to study him. He was sporting a few cuts and bruises, but otherwise he seemed alright. He asked anyways, "You alright, James?"
"Yeah, but you two don't happen to have dinner ready do you?"
Gilan laughed, "A bit hungry are we?"
James' smile widened, "That doesn't even begin to cover it, Gilan. I am absolutely starving!"
"Literally!" Shayden called cheerfully from his spot by the fire.
Gilan and James jumped over the logs surrounding the camp before sitting down across from Will and Shayden. Will took four bowls from their supplies and filled them with his stew. They each took a warm bowl from him.
"Thank you so much, Will! You're a lifesaver!" Shayden said through a mouthful a stew.
"This is really good, Will, thanks." James added taking another bite.
Will beamed at their compliments.
After a few moments of companionable silence Gilan spoke up, "Shayden, James, what happened to you two?"
James glanced up at Gilan, then at Shayden. His friend was inhaling a third bowl of stew. He looked towards Gilan again. "Do you remember my mentor, Daniel?"
"Yeah. He and Halt were great friends. He disappeared during your apprenticeship though, didn't he?"
James nodded, "That's right. He left after my first year."
"And that's why you and Will were trained together by Halt, right?"
Again James nodded, "Yes."
"But…I don't understand. Daniel has been gone for many years now."
James dropped his gaze. "It was him," he said, "Daniel and his brother, Michael."
"Do you know why?" he asked.
"He wants us dead. Morgarath was their brother."
"Oh…" Gilan trailed off.
After dinner, they sat around the fire making plans, while James and Shayden made new long bows to make up for the ones that they had lost. "Daniel took my favorite bow," James had complained. Along with their bows, they were able to borrow spare cloaks from Will and Gilan. They were both happy to be back. They began to decide their next course of action. Now that they knew the brothers' intensions, they had to warn the rest of the rangers.
"We won't split up this time." Will decided. He looked pointedly at James, "It is simply too dangerous."
James cracked a guilty grin, "Er, sorry about that, Will, but I'm here now aren't I?"
Will simply shook is head.
Once all the details were decided, they set off. They would go and collect all of the rangers that were left. Then they would travel back towards the brother's fortress. They were fairly certain that Daniel and Michael found a way to discover when the Gathering was so it wasn't worth the risk to have the annual gathering. The brothers would be waiting for them.
It took the rangers almost a full month to find all the remaining rangers and begin the journey towards the Mountains of Rain and Night. The small group of rangers didn't need to travel all over Araluen. Word had spread like a wildfire that the rangers were gathering. They found the four rangers and slowly that number increased. It started with one or two rangers showing up, and then it increased to three or four. By the end of the third week all of the remaining rangers and apprentices had found James' group.
"Alright! Everyone!" Gilan called to the rangers to get their attention. It was the night before the Gathering officially began. "Tomorrow we were supposed to pass by the Gathering Grounds, but the scouts have returned with news. The brothers have been spotted. They have stopped for the night, and they will arrive by midmorning tomorrow at the Gathering Grounds. All of the captured rangers are with them. We will no longer have to travel to their fortress. When their captors come to wait for us to arrive, that will be our chance to break them free." The gathered rangers cheered.
When they all crashed for the night, three rangers were on guard at all times. They were stationed in a triangle like shape around the sleeping rangers. The current watch was three new rangers that had only graduated a few months before, and they didn't know of the silent and unseen movement skills that Daniel possessed. The night was a cold one, and the stars and moon were concealed by a thick layer of clouds. The young men were nearing the end of their watch. It was late, and they were tired. What they didn't see was the five shadows slipping through the night, heading back to the camp of their masters. They had news to deliver. The prisoners had been found.