Author: Obi the Kid
Summary: Takes place after Halt and Horace are reunited with Will and Evanlyn in the beginning of book 4. Will comes to terms with the recent past.
Disclaimer: These characters and their world belong to John Flanagan. I in no way claim to own them. I'm only playing in the fandom for a short time and appreciate the world and characters that Mr. Flanagan has created with his book series "Ranger's Apprentice."
Note: I stumbled onto this series about a month ago while wandering around the book store. The series is aimed at teens obviously, but me, being in my 30's have found myself very attached to the characters and universe that John Flanagan has created. I'm looking forward to the other books in the series being published here in the US. I don't know if my small story here will lead to me writing any others, but I hope it will. I've been writing Star Wars based stories for about 8 years now, so it was fun to step outside that fandom into something else. Please excuse any minor errors or typos. I think I got them all, but those pesky little things can creep by sometimes. Thanks for reading.
The quieting fire crackled softly. The burning embers struggling for air to maintain their grasp on life. The Ranger gazed across the dying orange glow where Horace and Evanlyn had finally succumbed to sleep. The days harrowing events, followed by the reunion of the four of them after so many long months of pain and angst, had gotten the best of them. Halt held the responsibility of their lives in his skilled hands. Hands that could fire arrows from a longbow almost faster than a man could blink. Though the hands had not been fast enough to stop his apprentice from being captured and enslaved. Will had survived though. With Evanlyn's friendship and his own strength of character, he'd come out of this trauma scarred but alive.
Halt glanced around for his apprentice. Will had excused himself after they'd eaten their catch, then vanished into the forest, his dedicated pony, Tug, following closely behind. The elder Ranger wondered at the boy. The differences he saw him him were worrisome. Captured, tortured as a slave and then enslaved as an addict of warmweed, Will's spirit seemed shaken. Part of what Halt so enjoyed about him had been taken away. The pure innocence of his questions and his curiosity. Halt had missed the young presence. And would even admit to missing those constant questions that the boy was famous for throwing at him. Thinking to himself, he wondered if the Will he had taken as an apprentice would return to him in time.
Upon their reunion, they didn't speak much of the time that Will was held captive. Evanlyn's retelling captured enough details for understanding. They spoke even less of the warmweed addiction. Halt refused to blame the boy for what had happened. Truth be told, he blamed himself more than anything else. Certainly there was more he could have done to find him sooner. No second guessing. He could have left Horace behind. He could have…no. It wasn't worth it. He'd done all he could. What mattered now was that this one young student that meant so much to him, was home. Home at his side, where he belonged.
One day they would truly return home. Halt had explained his expulsion from the Kings land and from the Ranger corps, never considering that Will would lay blame on himself for Halt having to take such drastic action just to come to his rescue. But Will did just that. Wondering, if he'd only waited for Gilan. If he'd only been able to keep the fire on the bridge from burning out. If only he had done so many things differently, perhaps his teacher would not have been expelled from the life that he held so dear. The inner conflict was evident, surfacing hard for Halt to see, but there seemed to be little he could do to force Will to see things differently. Halt felt no shame for the boy. Found no fault in him. Only pride. Pride in his courage. Pride in his strength to continue. The Ranger saw no blame to be placed on the small shoulders.
Evidently, however, the apprentice felt differently.
To Will, it wasn't so much the mistakes he'd made or the paths he could have taken differently. There was one thing more than any other that continued to eat at him. The addiction. That damned drug. He had taken so easily to warmweed. It was his savior in an unforgiving world. One dose and it freed him of pain and cold. It made him numb to the suffering. Never had he craved something so much in his life. Mind and body yearned for it. Begged for it. It was his survival. It was his existence for that time. And it made him weak, at least in his own mind's eye. He found it hard to look Halt in the eye, fearing the shame from the man at how much he'd failed his training when he gave himself so freely to the drug. Sure, Halt hadn't openly faulted him for it, but Will knew it was there, somewhere under his teachers skin. Gnawing at him. It had to be. Didn't it?
Will felt a failure and wandered about a hundred yards off camp where he could be alone. Funny that all those months, he yearned for his teacher's presence. Hating to be alone when things were at the worst. The warmweed had then numbed his memories of his life as a Ranger's apprentice. The name Halt meant nothing to him for a time. The only thing that mattered was the drug. It allowed him to escape his enslaved reality. Why now he felt the need to be alone, he couldn't understand.
He wasn't completely alone though. Tug had followed his master into the forest. The shaggy coated pony ever mindful of him, almost as if he was afraid to let the boy from his sight, for fear that he might lose him again. His soft muzzle gently pushed into Will's chest. Will leaned forward to rest against the pony's head, reaching up with one hand to scratch the furry ears. For a moment, that desperate need to feel loved and safe was answered. Tug asked no questions. He showered no blame. Will let out an exhausted breath against the pony's face. The last several months had been so hard. Physically, he was not what he used to be. Far from it. Underweight and out of shape and out of practice…for a Ranger. His body tired on him much too quickly. And at times he'd much rather sleep than do anything else. Will, unable to see past the fault he'd laid on himself, figured Halt could never understand all that he'd gone through and all that he felt now. But Tug could. Tug understood. As faithful a beast as there ever was, that was the small, shaggy pony.
Feeling his eyes clouding up, he closed them tightly while still leaning against Tug. A small sob escaped. Several tears followed. He was losing what little control he had left as his weary mind made it seem like his world was crashing in around him.
Then, a familiar presence.
Halt found a dry spot on the log Will was sitting on, and perched himself next to the boy. The grizzled archer took a deep breath, relaxing in the forest sounds and smells. His dark eyes found a spot in the distance to focus on as he spoke.
"You can't hide from what happened, Will. It's part of you forever. You may see it as a weakness, but I can see that this has, and will continue to make you stronger."
Will reached up to stroke Tug's nose, unable to face those unwavering eyes of the elder Ranger. But he listened.
"It's easy to give in when things are difficult. The fight to get out is much tougher. It's what tests us. You faced it and you defeated it." He paused for a moment, knowing full well that he was more a man of brief meaningful looks and gestures than words, but he knew that no simple look would comfort the boy's fears and anxieties right now. He needed to hear the words. He needed to feel them. And he replied, "For what you fought against and overcame, I…am very proud of you, Will."
The words startled Will. He'd never heard his mentor say such a thing. In the past, a slight smile or a brief nod would be all Halt had to do to let his apprentice know how proud he was of him. Those simple gestures meant the world to Will. But to finally hear the words… He hadn't known how much a few simple words could affect him, until now.
"You are?" he replied as he finally turned to look in Halt's direction, another tear sliding a path down his cheek.
Halt blinked slowly at the young Ranger. "I am. And know that I would have done anything to find you, even if it risked expulsion from the Rangers for life…or worse. I am very glad to have you back." Tug pushed his nose into Will's chest again. "As is Tug. He was ever loyal as Horace and I searched for you. I suppose he knew all along that we'd find you."
"Thank you for coming for me," Will said, realizing now how silly it was to have thought that his teacher would think less of him, or would not have understood him. "I tried to hang on to my memories of you as long as I could. The drug took that away from me though. I was…consumed by it. It ruled me. I think I would have done anything to get the drug. And I hate myself for that." Voice breaking, the tears fell easily now and he surrendered to them. Feeling Halt's arm folding over his shoulders, he leaned towards his teacher, suddenly needing the comfort that had been missing for so long while he'd been a slave of labor and drug. He fell into the embrace as Halt wrapped both arms around him.
And for the first time in a long time, Will felt completely safe. He felt home. His mentor, the man he looked up to for everything, hadn't given up on him. Hadn't made him feel less worthy because of the addiction. With only a few words and the simple act of an embrace, Halt had managed to make the memory of that painful time a bit easier to deal with.
Will relaxed into the comforting arms, wishing to always feel so safe. Hoping that one day he would be able to put the haunting memory of the addiction behind him. At least for now, he could look forward. It would be many months before he and Halt were truly allowed home, back to their beloved cottage and life as Rangers, but Will was beginning to realize that those things didn't accurately define what it meant to be home. What mattered most were those around him. He had friends who cared about him and risked their lives for him. He had his devoted pony. And most of all, he had his mentor. The man who would teach him and care for him no matter the hardships or failures along the way.
Giving into the emotional exhaustion that compounded the physical, Will didn't resist when his eyes drifted shut and his head fell against Halt's chest. His breathing slowed down. His mind settled. Even in the unfamiliar forest and the uncertainty of what lie ahead, the soft whinny from Tug and the secure arms surrounding him told him that he was safe. He was home.