Title: Cold Fear
Author: Obi the Kid
Summary: Will has lost his nerve, but why? (Takes place during Will's first year as an apprentice.)
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."
THANKS to those of you who read my first story "Home" and have stuck with me so far, now on my 3rd story of this fandom. I don't know how far Ranger's Apprentice will take me in terms of the number of stories, but right now, I'm still planning to do more. Thanks for all the reviews and comments. I've been pleasantly surprised that there are quite a few fans of this wonderful book series. I'm having fun playing in the world that Mr. Flanagan's created, and I'm so happy you guys are enjoying my take on his fantastic work.
Will's frustration boiled. Time after time he fired the arrow at the target. Time after time he missed that target. His shoulders fell in defeat. "What's wrong with me?" Inner thoughts became vocal as he fought to understand what was happening. His mechanics seemed correct. Physically he couldn't feel any difference in his hold or release of the arrows. But still his aim was completely wrong. After seven months of Ranger training under the close watch of his teacher and mentor, Halt, Will had quickly become of the best young bowmen in the Ranger Corp. Right now though, couldn't hit a tree standing just twenty yards away.
Out of sheer determination he fired three arrows one after the other in quick rhythm. The only thing he managed to hit was a small rabbit that he hadn't been aiming for.
"At least you got us dinner for tonight," a deep voice said from behind. Halt approached shaking his head. "I expect you to practice, but usually one improves with practice. Rarely do they revert back to their beginning skills."
Will hung his head. His performance, or lack thereof, made him uncomfortable and angry with himself. He'd come so far in such a short time. Now things had gone completely awry.
"I was aiming for the tree."
"Yes, I know that. You've been aiming for it for the past three days. That rabbit should have known better than to get anywhere near that tree."
Will was not amused by Halt's attitude. There was nothing he found funny in his frustration. "What's wrong with me, Halt? I thought I was improving."
"You were, until five days ago. Track backwards. Tell me what that day brought about."
The boy thought back a few days prior, and quickly found himself lost once more in the face of those events.
They had been on a tracking mission, following the path of an animal suspected of causing chaos and death in several small villages on the eastern side of Barlet. Although not a part of Redmont Fief, it lay just outside it's border and Baron Arald had asked the pair to look into the situation and try and help those suffering from the beast. Will had been studying the tracks intensely. Trying to guess the age and size of the creature based on the footprints. It was one aspect of Ranger training that he found exceedingly difficult and one that often tested his patience. At times it seemed that Tug, his faithful Ranger pony, was a better tracker than he. But he was determined to work on the weakness.
Halt allowed him to lead. Careful to watch the surroundings. Another of Will's weak points, he noted, was not always paying attention to what was happening around him while being focused on his tracking skills.
The trail led them into a deep ravine. The rushing sound of water disrupted the boy's concentration. He had been using the quiet of the darkening forest to his advantage. Now he was flustered and stopped his progression. Times like this he wished Halt had allowed him to bring Tug along. Tug seemed to have a natural ability to calm the boy's frustrations. Will silently wished for that reassuring presence now. "Halt, it ends here. I don't see where it could have gone. Not even up. The trees show no evidence of broken bark or branches in the trees."
"The beast only wants you to think his trail ends here. He's a smart one. There is something you are missing. Think about the water."
The vague clue confused Will. The water was still fifty yards off. No way could any animal have leaped that far, or run without making tracks. He pursed his lips and shook his head. After a few moments he surrendered, shoulders falling in defeat. "I don't see it, Halt."
"Think, Will. Think from another's point of view, not from that of a Ranger. What is impossible for you may be possible for others."
A deep breath and Will knelt to the ground. Hands and eyes worked the area, scanning with touch and sight, searching for anything that might give him a clue as to where the creature went from here. Still, he found nothing. Then he wandered towards the river. Halt had said to think about the water. The beast could have gotten to the river and used that to cover his path. But how did it get there, and in which of the four directions could it have gone? The river forked off into three different paths, in addition to upstream. If the beast had entered the river, there was no way to tell which direction it traveled.
As the night blacked the forest, the hours passed. A frustrated apprentice ceded the chase. "I'm sorry, Halt. I've let you down and I've failed my training. I just don't know where it went."
A hand on the boy's shoulder stilled him. "It's not a failure, Will. You are learning. Which is, of course, why you are an apprentice. Tracking is difficult, especially when tracking something that can give thought to those who follow. It's hard to see in the dark, but above us in those trees, did you notice the vines?" Halt waited for the anticipated nod before continuing. "All the beast needs is the ability to leap vertically, grab the vines and then swing to where it wanted to go, providing there was another vine to catch. On the ground, below where the vines hang, you'll see small shredded bark pieces. Those fell from the vines when the animal grabbed hold. Those vines only follow one fork of the river. I suspect he swung well above the water, following that path."
"Sometimes what we track can be smarter than we think," Will replied with a small amount of relief in his voice.
"Never underestimate the intelligence of your enemy. Especially when it doesn't wish to be caught."
They decided to camp for the night. The sky was dark, the moon dull. There was little natural light to help them along. And the last thing Halt wanted to do was come up on this thing in the dark. Tracking a killer was one thing. Tracking a killer in the dark was simply not a good idea.
Halt took first watch while Will slept. The master Ranger saw the restlessness in the boy. He saw it wasn't a peaceful sleep, knowing full well that Will possessed a strong tendency to dwell on what he perceived to be his own failures. The youthful mind was always moving, always worrying about how to do something better. And while Halt appreciated the boy's willingness to try so hard, he was sometimes troubled by how tough Will could be on himself.
After watching the disturbed sleep for a time, Halt walked around the fire, knelt next to his apprentice and touched his shoulder softly. "Relax, Will. Rest yourself." The comforting voice seemed to do the trick, and the apprentice sighed heavily as his mind finally descended into a settled sleep. The Ranger smiled, and tucked Will's cloak tighter around his small frame before returning to his spot near the fire.
All was quiet when Halt woke Will for his time at watch. "Keep eyes and ears open. If something doesn't seem right, wake me. Yes?" He waited for Will to agree, then leaned onto the forest floor, lying on his back with hands folded across his stomach. Over the years, he'd trained himself to find sleep quickly, as a Ranger could never be certain of how long or how often he might sleep when danger was around. A few minutes later, Halt was snoring soundly.
Will just shook his head. "Show off," he muttered at his mentor before turning attention to his surroundings. The noise of the river seemed more muted than it had earlier. More than likely, he'd just gotten used to the constant sound. It unnerved him though, because it veiled so many other sounds. And it made keeping watch all that more difficult.
Two hours into his watch he felt something. No noise preceded it. There was no visual of any kind. But Will felt uneasy. He just couldn't explain why. A glance at Halt to see that the man was still in his trouble-free sleep. Then the boy took his longbow in hand and skirted to the edge of their camp, alert in every way. Still there was no sound other than the river. Closing his eyes for a moment, Will took a deep breath and unlocked all of his senses, searching for what was making him so anxious.
With mindfully placed steps, he ventured just beyond the camp, towards the rushing river. With the light of the fire dimming behind him, he realized how intensely dark the forest could be. His breathing quickened. His eyes tried to peer through the blackness. He looked up into the trees, those vines on his mind. Had the creature made its way back to them? Was it sitting in the trees now planning its next move…its next kill? Would it swing down and be on him before he ever saw it clear enough to aim an arrow?
He tried to shake those thoughts without success. The thoughts had made him lose his focus, and with the sight of the fire completely gone, he was deeper into the forest than he'd meant to go. Unconsciously, he'd started following the river, but could not understand why. Why would he leave the safety of a lighted camp to venture into the unknown…alone?
It took some time, but he finally managed to force himself back towards the camp. The dark played with his sense of direction. Or was something else playing with it? Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. He needed to get back to Halt. Halt would know how to deal with this.
The boy jogged to where he thought the camp was. A great sense of relief came over him when he saw the first hint of firelight though the trees. Panic came over him when he saw what waited at that firelight.
The beast had indeed doubled back for them. He'd created a false trail, so his pursuers would think just as Halt had. That he'd moved downstream swinging from vine to vine.
Now, it was here, one of its giant claws pinning Halt pinned against a tree. The other claw snapped his longbow like a simple twig. The quiver of arrows fared no better and were crushed beneath the power of the creature's enormous weight.
The beast was tall and broad. It had the look of immense power. What it used as arm, were actually its two front legs, but with its ability to walk partially upright, they could be used as either. The head of the animal was rounded, with an elongated snout and large pointed ears. An impressive mouthful of teeth was made more fearsome by the deep rhythmic growl in its throat and saliva dripping from its two longest fangs. Thick brown-gray fur coated its entire body, and its intelligent eyes bore into Will's soul…scaring the life out of him.
As he stood there with an arrow nocked in his longbow, he couldn't make himself fire the weapon. He was frozen. He also felt a presence in his mind. Something was actually working to instill fear into his mind and causing his focus to blur. Closing his eyes tightly for a moment, he tried to find his center. Halt was there in the creatures grasp. Blood streamed down his face as his head lolled to the side in a semi-conscious state. If Will didn't fire, Halt would die. But still, he could not release the arrow. His hand shook. His body shook. Panic held his breath. He swallowed hard and kept trying to blink himself back to where he needed to be and what he needed to do. But the cold fear gripping his mind would not let that arrow release to its target.
Halt's eyes opened brighter as he found a little life. They caught those of his apprentice and he saw the fear and confusion there. But he couldn't understand why the boy was not attempting to shoot the beast. He cleared his throat of the blood dripping into it. "Will…shoot it. Find your center and fire the damn arrow." His words were stopped by the creature tightening its hold and pushing him harder into the tree. Halt gasped for air. His eyes pleaded with his apprentice to fire. Then he felt a presence in his mind. Not knowing Will was also feeling it, and being controlled by it, Halt knew it was the creature. Seemingly it possessed the ability to instill enough fear into another's mind, that it had mastered a way to control that mind. Long ago, he'd heard rumors of such a legend, but until today, there had never been any truth to those rumors.
Halt understood what was happening before the animal was able to bury itself into his mind and he immediately forced all of his thoughts towards Will, so that the apprentice Ranger was his only focus. The beast grunted and growled at the man's push into its psyche, and for few seconds it followed that push. It turned all of its attention towards the smaller human, digging deeper and deeper into the young mind. Will dropped the longbow and stood helpless. Fear was all he knew.
The brief diversion was enough for Halt and he reached a hand around his back and grabbed his saxe knife. With three quick movements, he stabbed at the monster with enough force to cause a moment of brief disorientation needed for him to break free from its grasp. A moment that provided the few seconds Halt needed to reach Will's longbow and fire a sudden succession of arrows into the creature before it could reorient itself.
It took seven carefully placed arrows to down the beast, but it did come down… With a dull thud.
Halt fell to his knees to catch his breath before turning his attention to his horrified companion. Will had come out of his mind-controlled daze and collapsed into a sitting position against a log. Legs bent against his chest, his head lay in his hands and he rocked back and forth. The elder Ranger came to his side and knelt in front of him, pulling the youngster's hands away from his face.
"Will. Will! Look at me. It's over now. That…thing is dead. You're safe now."
But Will wasn't ready to accept all that had just happened. His mind was his own and the entire scene began replaying itself over and over. His master was about
to be killed. All he needed to do was shoot the creature. Release one arrow. Something he'd done thousands of times since becoming Halt's apprentice. But he didn't fire that arrow. Or he couldn't. He'd failed his mentor and his training. And the whole thing had scared him more than anything before.
Not prepared to give up on his student, Halt held the smaller hands in his own, gripping them strongly. "Look at me, Will." It pained Halt to see the fearful tears in the young eyes as Will finally did raise his head. Without another word, Halt reached one hand up and gently placed it on the back of the boy's head, pulling it towards him. He pressed his temple against Will's and held him there quietly until the tears stopped.
Will was grateful for the touch. It meant that Halt didn't hate him for his failure. And after the terror he'd just experienced, the simple comforting act brought him back to his focus.
After Halt released him, he said, "I don't want to hear that you're sorry for your failure. I know what the creature did. He tried to get into my mind as well. He…it controlled you and your fear. You didn't freeze, Will. It overpowered you with thought. An extremely dangerous animal. Hopefully there was only one of them. I used to hear rumors and legend of a creature with such powers, but I've never come across anything like it until now. You all right?"
Will only nodded, afraid to speak for fear that his voice would break and the tears would start again.
"Come on then," Halt said as he put a hand under the boy's arm to help him stand. "Let's go home. Our mission was a successful one, if not one that scared the life out of the both of us."
As they walked for home, Will finally found his voice. "You were scared too?"
"More than ever. I felt its physical power. And I could see its mental power by looking at you. I saw the fear in your eyes. That scared me more than anything, knowing how much it had manipulated your thoughts to create those feelings in you. I was scared for you as well as myself."
Will was satisfied with that response. He was more than grateful that Halt didn't think he'd failed him. And his thoughts echoed his teacher's earlier words. He hoped there was only one of that creature.
Thoughts came back to the present. Will grabbed the unlucky rabbit and made his way back to the cottage. It would be his job to skin it and cook it. The skinning part he didn't mind so much, but he wasn't much of a cook. Halt was next to him.
"Tomorrow we'll practice again. You just have to get your nerve back is all. You see that creature when you raise your bow. It's only been a few days, Will. Certain missions can do that to a Ranger. We aren't immune from fear and its effects."
The rabbit lay dead on a tree stump as Will reached for his knife. "I don't just see the creature, Halt. I see it holding your life. I see your life in my hands. I see me frozen, unable to help…unable to do anything."
"You've lost your nerve. It happens to the best of us. Time is a great healer. We'll adjust training for the next week to vary things a bit. It'll keep you more focused. The more you have to concentrate on something, the better it'll be for you. And that beast will be a thing of the past."
The rabbit skinned, Will left it to lie on the stump and looked at Halt. "Have you ever lost your nerve? Something that made you question everything you are?"
"More times than you can imagine, my boy. My theory is that it makes one stronger. That doesn't make it any easier though."
"Will you tell me about the first time it happened to you? And how you dealt with it?"
A quick wink and Halt motioned for Will to get the rabbit, then they walked towards the cottage. "Sure. I wasn't always what people think I am. I've had my fair share of being scared out of my wits."
For Will, that was hard to imagine. Everything about his mentor was tough and focused. Strong. To think that Halt could feel the same type of fear that he himself felt today…
"Get the rabbit cooking. We'll have dinner. Then we'll talk."
Will nodded eagerly. He always enjoyed hearing about Halt's past. Now it seemed they had a shared experience to forge their master-apprentice bond even closer. And when their talk had ended, Will did indeed feel closer to his mentor. Halt knew what he had felt. He could sympathize with those intense feelings of fear, and the inability to do anything to counter it during the moment. He knew he wasn't alone in this experience. Perhaps it was one that all Rangers shared.
"Go on and get some sleep now, Will. Mentally, it's been an exhausting week for you. For the both of us. A good night rest and tomorrow we'll begin again."
Will grinned as he retreated to his room.
Halt watched him disappear and then settled his gaze on the dancing flames of the fire, grateful to finally have one with which he could share those never before told stories of fear and confusion. Years ago, he had buried them deep into his subconscious, hoping to keep them hidden forever. Never wanting to relive them. Now they were a weight that had been lifted from his shoulders, one that he'd carried for far too long.
He would make certain that Will did not carry that same weight.