Title: Compassion

Rating: G

Author: Obi the Kid

Summary: Towards the end of Will's first year as an apprentice, the arrival of the Winter Festival holiday brings with it a giving of a gift to help the emotional pain of a friend.

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."

A story to celebrate the spirit of the holidays.

~*~*~*~*~

Compassion

~*~*~*~*~

"You're strangely quiet."

"Just thinking."

"Anything that I might want to hear about?"

Will nudged Tug to quicken his step a notch to come even with Halt's horse, Abelard. The two ponies on long lead ropes behind them kept pace easily, although the shaggy gray, the smaller of the two, seemed melancholy…for a horse at least.

"I was thinking about Devan. To work so hard towards his dream of being a Ranger, only to have his world collapse on him with the viscous death of his mentor, struck down in front of him. And then to have him die in his arms. Any desire he had to continue on this path, was all ripped from him in just a few short minutes. He was so heartbroken yesterday when he told Crowley what he was feeling, and about his decision. I felt so bad for him."

Devan was a sixteen year old apprentice to Quin, a Ranger of vast experience and many years of service. They'd been sent on a routine mission, only to be ambushed. Quin was killed, taking his last few breaths in the arms of his apprentice. It had happened only a week before the annual Gathering. Crowley had put the boy under the temporary care of another Ranger until the Gathering, where Devan announced that he was giving up his training as a Ranger, and returning to his home to live with his mother and help her tend their modest family farm.

Crowley had charged Halt and Will with the task of taking Devan and Quin's ponies back to Old Bob's place. Devan's final goodbye to his pony Acer, was the most emotionally agonizing scene Will had ever witnessed. He;d never seen anyone cry so hard as Devan hugged his horses' neck. Will was almost overwhelmed by the emotion, and eventually had to turn away. Though he couldn't put it behind him and continued to reflect on the scene since they'd left the Gathering, especially with Acer trailing behind Tug, lost in his own world of heartache. Quin's horse, a taller dark bay mare named Jade, for her unusual green eyes, trudged alongside Acer.

"Do you think Devan made the right decision to leave?"

The answer to Halt's question, Will already knew. "Yes. He was devastated by Quin's loss. It would affect his training and his focus and I know how important it is to have your mind in the moment. If you don't, it'll get you killed. He made the best decision he could in returning home. His mother can give him the support he needs right now."

The older Ranger nodded. "He struggled in his training and was always a short step behind others his age. But Quin had told me that he tried hard and practiced hard. It was just a little more difficult for him. Quin thought he would have made a fine Ranger in time, perhaps with an additional couple of years added to the normal five year apprenticeship. But I agree, going home was the best decision for him. He and Quin were very close. This is a loss he'll feel for a long time."

The four ponies slowed their pace and plodded along. A few snowflakes began falling, just in time for the Winter Festival, Will thought. Somehow he doubted this year's festival would be as joyous for him as in years past. All his young life he anticipated this one day. An annual day at Castle Araluen of music and dance. Food and friends. Gifts and fun. Not to mention, his first as a Ranger. With what he'd just experienced and witnessed though, the mood just wasn't there.

"I guess I won't see him in a few days at the festival."

Halt shook his head. "No. He needs time away from things. It'll be all right as he comes to terms with what happened, and his new life. He'll be all right." Smiling at Abelard as the horse shook the now heavier falling snow from his mane, Halt tried to change the subject. "So, have you decided what you want for Winter Festival? You know the Ranger's allow one gift to be given during the day to each apprentice, by their teacher. Many times, it's a surprise. But one can always drop clues."

Will sucked in and released a deep breath. "I wish I could find the spirit, Halt. I really don't need anything. I'd like to see Devan happy again. But no one can do that. Acer too." He stole a glance back at the gray pony, nuzzling his older companion as they made their way to Old Bob's.

"This really has gotten to you, hasn't it?"

"Yes. I'm sorry. I shouldn't be focused on it so much."

"It's all right, Will. You have a deep affection for others in pain. That's not a bad thing. I'm glad that you haven't just brushed this off. That you actually care about what has happened and what will happen to Devan. It shows your character." He paused for a minute, then again tried to move the subject away from the sadness that had taken hold. "I still plan on getting you something for the festival though. Crowley and Gilan would hound me for the next ten years if I showed up without something for my apprentice on the one day when I'm supposed to care about this stuff." A raised eyebrow got the reaction Halt had been looking for. Will laughed. A small laugh, sure. But a laugh nevertheless.

"You shouldn't seem so sincere about this, Halt."

"I'm not, shall we say, a festive person, but Winter Festival was important to Gilan when he was my apprentice. So, I humored him. Needless to say, he's never let me live that down. I still humor him."

The snow came heavier now. Both Rangers lifted the hoods of their cloaks over their heads to provide some water resistance. The horses didn't seem to mind. They were a hardy lot and snowy weather didn't faze them unless the temperatures sunk too low.

Will was quiet for a few miles as they strode over the covered ground when without warning, he reined Tug, Acer and Jade in. They stood, covered in white, in the middle of the large field. Old Bob's place lay just a couple miles ahead. It was a few seconds before Halt realized his apprentice was no longer with him. Looking back, he offered a puzzled look at the boy before signaling Abelard back to the snow sodden group.

"What are you doing, Will?"

"I had a thought."

"Congratulations. Come on now. It's getting bad out here and I'm cold."

"A serious thought. Halt, what happens to Ranger ponies when they are returned to Old Bob?"

Halt thought for a moment. It wasn't common that a horse was brought back to their beginnings, but it did happen. "Well, usually they live out their lives at his farm. There has been one occasion that I recall when a horse was reassigned a new master. But most have done their duty and are given a life of retirement. Why are you asking?"

Will's mouth formed a small smile. "I know what I want for the Winter Festival gift."

"Another pony?"

Tug grunted and tossed his head. Will eased him with a reassuring pat to the neck.

"No. I want to give Acer and Jade to Devan."

Halt hadn't seen that one coming. But…that was Will.

"Can that happen, Halt?"

"Well, I don't actually know. And I'm not sure if it's Crowley's decision or Bob's."

"Can we find out? Jade served Quin for a long time. Acer was dedicated to Devan. It would be wrong to separate them now."

The apprentice was as sincere as Halt had seen him in their first year together. Only Will would stand in the dropping temperatures and now blowing snow to be concerned about the well-being of a boy he hardly knew.

"I suppose we can. But can we get out of this weather first? The horses might not mind this, but I do. And you will to when your fingers freeze to the reins." He clicked to Abelard and sent him off in a soft canter. Will soon followed and the small herd's muted snow-padded hooves thumped the final path to their destination.

~*~

The gray-bearded, stable-smelling, Old Bob greeted them grumpily as the nights impending darkness began creeping into the snow-pink sky. Wondering what two Rangers were doing out in this weather, he thought about asking them if they had lost their minds, but then saw the two rider less horses behind them. The empty saddles were not a happy sight. The small man pointed them to the stable. "Get 'em taken care of, Ranger, then 'ee can explain. Hurry now!"

The four ponies were grateful to get out of the wind and snow, and each settled in front of a bag of hay. Tug and Abelard munched greedily, while their companions, Jade and Acer, were more subdued. They'd both been through a lot with the loss of their masters and then being taken from the Ranger life they loved. But they were hungry, and even sadness could not deter a horses' appetite.

Halt and Will had hurried into Bob's modest cottage a found a warm place by the fire.

"Tell me, what's going on now? 'Ee don't normally bring 'em back to me. What happened to Ranger Quin and the Devan boy he had with him?" The man never forgot a Ranger-Pony combination.

Accepting a steaming cup of welcomed coffee, Halt gave a short and concise version of what had happened. "Quin was killed. Devan was distraught and made a choice to leave the Corp."

"Ah, the poor thing. He was a good kid. A little slow with the horse handling skills, but he and Quin made a good team. He and Acer too. So, you want me to take 'em back in then, I suppose."

"Well, that was our original intention. However Will is wondering if they're lives might hold a different fate." Halt glanced at Will and nodded once, motioning the boy to ask his questions.

"I watched when Devan had to say goodbye to Acer," Will began sadly. "He was...I think it was probably the most painful thing he's ever been through. Losing his mentor and then his pony. He didn't want to let go of Acer, he cried so hard and for so long." Will paused for a moment to keep his emotions in check. It was hard to do when thinking about Devan's goodbye to his dedicated friend. He couldn't imagine ever having to say goodbye to Tug. "I want to know if, instead of retiring Acer and Jade, if they can be given to Devan to live out their lives with him. He's working the family farm with his mother. I'm sure they could be of help. And it would…it might lessen the pain for all of them."

Old Bob pondered, scratching his long, dirty beard. This was a first for him. He'd gotten horses back, sure, but never been asked if they could be sent elsewhere. Or given away. He had a curious question though. "Acer I can understand, but why Jade, young Ranger?"

"She is his last tie to Quin. And she dedicated many years of her life to serving him, and then to helping to train Devan and Acer. The three of them…they're a family. Devan lost his mentor. Maybe he can keep hold of his memory if Jade was there to look after him."

"Ya got a special 'un on ya hands, Halt," Old Bob said. Halt's reply was a knowing half-smile and a slow intentional blink of his dark eyes. "Will, I'll tell ya. This 'un is an odd request. And I'm not completely sure 'bout it. But ya got a good heart. And I have no doubt that Devan would take good care of these two." The little man stopped short of agreeing to the boy's request.

Halt took the lull to intercede on Will's behalf. "Bob, if it means anything, I agree with Will's line of thinking on this. I believe it would be healthy for all involved, and it would honor Quin's memory and the service he gave to the Rangers, that his trusted Jade was being loved by his apprentice. I'm not certain if Crowley has any say a decision such as this, but…"

Old Bob held up a hand. "Nah. Decision is mine, no matter what that old crow might say."

More silence. Will sat hopeful, but Bob's indecision still worried him. The cottage was quiet for what seemed like an eternity. In actuality it was only a minute or two that had passed before the old man grinned.

"Ya take 'em ponies to Devan. Tell him that he better care good of 'em, or I'm gettin' 'em back, ya hear?"

The biggest smile in Araluen lit Will's face. "I promise. I'll even check on them from time to time and give you updates."

"Ya do that. Ya wait 'til tomorrow morning to set out though. Snow's comin' down something awful right now. It'll let up in the morning." Will didn't question how Old Bob had suddenly become a weather predictor, but no one would dare cross his judgment. "Ya both hunker down here for the night. I got no beds, but blankets will do. Keep ya warm by the fire."

Will nodded eagerly, while Halt sat knowingly, approving of the genuine actions of his apprentice. Blankets were pulled from a small closet and two makeshift sleeping areas arranged on the floor.

The trio spent time talking about various things until Bob called it a night. The cottage creaked and groaned in the harsh weather, but held enough warmth to be comfortable until morning, when, as predicted, the snow had stopped and the sun began its ascent into the cloudless blue sky.

Horses were saddled. Destination was set. They would head west towards the farm where Devan had returned to when he left the Rangers days before. Old Bob bid them farewell, and the two Rangers and four ponies jogged off into the snow.

The ride to the farm took several hours, but the beauty of the white surroundings made the journey an enjoyable one. The farm was small, but held a healthy looking barn. Chickens ran here and there, though most didn't seem to care much for the snow. Four milk cows hoofed at the snow to find the tasty grass hidden beneath. The cottage was humble, and smoke streamed silently from the chimney.

Halt motioned for Will to dismount and see who was home. A knock on the door, but no answer. There were tracks however leading from the door to the barn. Will followed them and stuck his head around the open barn door. "Hello? Anyone here?"

A female voice returned the greeting though Will couldn't see the woman attached to it. "Be right with you. If you're here to buy milk or eggs, you'll have to return tomorrow. I'm a little behind with the weather."

"Actually I'm here to see Devan," Will replied, feeling a bit foolish talking to a voice.

The woman popped out from behind one of the stall walls. "Devan?" She took in the small boy's appearance, quickly identifying the Ranger cloak that he wore. Devan had proudly worn the same for two years.

"Yes, ma'am. I've brought him something. Oh, I'm sorry. My name is Will. I'm a Ranger apprentice. My teacher, Halt, is outside. Is Devan here?"

She stood, examining him. "He's cleaning the snow from the chicken pen in the back."

"May I see him for a moment?"

"He's having a difficult time readjusting to farm life, you know. And he's still saddened over the loss of his Ranger teacher. Please don't bring him anymore pain. He doesn't need that." Her sincerity in her love for his son shone through in her voice and her face. Will knew for certain that Devan did make the right decision to return home.

They walked out of the barn and around the back to the larger chicken pen. Devan was bundled in warm clothes and moving snow from the pen to a pile just on the other side of the wire fence. He looked up at his mother as she approached, then caught sight of Will in his Ranger cloak just behind her.

"Devan, young Will is here to see you. I'll leave you too alone." Walking a short distance away, she made herself appear busy, though she was really there to keep a protective eye on her son.

Will introduced himself, although he'd met Devan briefly at the Gathering. "I'm Will. I only met you for a moment though. Maybe you don't remember me."

"I do," the older boy said and offered his hand. "You are Halt's apprentice. I hope you're not here to try and talk me into returning to the Rangers though, because my decision is final on that. I just can't go back. It's too painful."

Shaking his head, Will said, "No, that's not it. The Ranger Corp will miss you, but I've come for another reason. Do you have a minute to spare? I need to show you something. Halt is out front."

"Okay," Devan nodded and trudged along beside Will through the barn and towards where Halt stood with horses. The former apprentice immediately recognized his old pony Acer and his former master's horse Jade. He ran to them and tossed his arms around Acer's neck, lost in emotion that quickly.

Reaching over to scratch Jade's muzzle, he finally stepped back, wiping his eyes. He smiled sadly at Halt, then looked back to Will. "Are you on your way back to Old Bob's with them?"

"No. Halt asked me what I wanted for Winter Festival. After talking with Old Bob, this is my gift. Acer and Jade are yours now, if you'll have them and care for them."

Devan was stunned. So much so that he almost asked Will to repeat what he'd just said. "Are…is…is this for real?" He reached out for Acer and stroked the gray face. "I can keep them, both of them?"

"Yes." Will was struggling to keep his emotional composure. The tears running down Devan's face were contagious.

"But…why?"

"Because you need them. And they need you. They can help you deal with what you're going through, and they'll enjoy being with someone that they love. Of course you know how much Ranger ponies like learning new things. Farm life should suit them."

From atop Abelard, Halt watched the scene, the gift of compassion from one boy to another. From the entrance to the barn, Devan's mother also watched, and overheard. She made no attempt to stop her own tears. Devan had shared so many of his pony stories with her since he'd returned home. She was more than aware at how severely he had missed his equine friend. Now to see him so wrought with joy – it was overwhelming.

Devan turned from Acer to Will. "I barely even know you and you'd do something like this for me?"

Will shrugged. "It was the right thing to do. I'm just glad Old Bob agreed. You'll give them a good home. I know it."

"I will. I really will. I have two stalls that I can clean out just for them. I'll make sure they are safe and happy for the rest of their lives." Wrapping his arms around Acer's neck once more, he lost himself in happy sobs. "I can't believe you're back with me, Acer. I've missed you so much." Acer whinnied softly as Devan pulled away and moved to Jade. Scratching her nose, and then pressing his temple against her face. "You too, Jade. I know you miss Quin as much as I do. I promise we won't ever forget him. You'll help me with that, right?" Jade nodded as if she completely understood the question, then took a few steps towards Will and nudged him hard in the chest. Devan laughed. "She likes you. That's her way of showing it."

"Tug here tries to nip ears. He has an odd way of expressing his affection." Tug responded to Will's words by turning around and swishing his tail. "And then he acts like that."

Both boys laughed at Tug's antics. Then Devan stepped forward and put his arms around Will. The embrace held deep emotion. "Thank you, Will. I'll never forget this. What you've done. This is nothing that I ever expected. I can't believe I have Acer back. I feel…I…I can't put it into words how much this means." He released his new friend and then swiped at his eyes again. "I can't ever repay you for this."

"There's no need to. Just knowing that the horses will have a good life and that they can help you is enough. I know what I would feel like if I lost Tug. And it's something I never want to think about. And if you're ever in Redmont, stop by."

"And if you are ever around this way away again, I offer the same."

"I'll see you again." Will took Tug's reins in his hands then legged himself into the saddle. "Bye Devan. Good luck with the farm." Clicking to his pony, Will began trotting off as the former Ranger called back to him with tears still wetting his eyes.

"Bye, Will. Halt. Thank you! Happy Winter Festival to you!"

And just like that, they were gone.

Devan turned around to see his mother standing behind him. He about launched himself at her and cried tears of joy for a very long time. Eventually he composed himself enough to put his attention back on the horses. "Mom, this is Acer and Jade. They're ours now and forever."

With the elation behind them, Will and Halt rode for home. Winter Festival was coming in two days, and they had a few preparations to help with at Castle Redmont, through the request of Lady Pauline. Halt swayed in the rhythm of Abelard's walk, smiling inwardly at the thought of what his apprentice had done. The selflessness he'd shown in declining a material Winter Festival gift and asking only that a boy – a former Ranger – be given the most meaningful gift he could ever have wished for, it made Halt damned proud to be the mentor and teacher of such a young man. If only he could put those feelings into actual words. The moment wasn't right though, meaning there wasn't enough distraction for him to admit to those words orally. So he wandered away from that train of thought.

"So, any ideas what you might like for Winter Festival? I still need to get you an actual gift."

Will glanced over at Halt and shook his head. "I don't want anything. You saw what I saw. Seeing Devan's face when he realized Acer and Jade were his…that's worth more than any gift you can buy anywhere."

"So true." Then Halt sighed. "But I still need to get you something. I really don't have the energy to fend off the harassment of Crowley and Gilan that I know will come if they find out that you received nothing from me. Humor your old master, Will. For his own sanity. Please."

"Well, if it's that important, how about something simple. A new set of arrows."

"No, I don't have time to make those."

"A new saddle."

"Sorry, you've got to put orders for those in the year before."

"A new longbow."

"There's nothing wrong with the one you have. They won't go for that."

"A new quiver?"

"My stitching ability is dreadful since the injury to my hand two months ago."

"A new bridle?"

"Tug likes his old one."

"New boots."

"One pair per Ranger per year."

"Halt! This is not helpful. I've named everything I can think of, and you have an excuse for each one."

"Legit excuses, Will."

"Whatever. Okay, how about you let me sit in your favorite chair at home, one night a week for the next month."

"I think not! That's not a gift. That's stealing your master's chair."

"Buy Tug a bushel of apples." Tug tossed his head in agreement.

"A gift for you, Will, not for that shaggy overweight pony of yours."

Tug rolled his body to the right and bumped Abelard hard, throwing Halt off balance. Will patted his friend's neck. "Good boy, Tug. Don't take that from him."

"Never mind. I'll find you something."

"Like what?"

"I'll ask Alyss."

"Oh no you won't."

Halt laughed at Will's reddening face. "I would, but I can't. I'd just laugh, and you know how rarely I laugh at anything.

"Halt, this is stupid. I don't want anything. Can't you just lie to Gilan and Crowley?"

"Yes, but then I'd have to remember my lie. And if they ever catch me in it, It'll be worse than if I didn't get you anything. That won't work."

"Then think of something. I don't care." He clicked to Tug to send him into hard canter, kicking snow into the face of his mentor and horse.

Halt hurried to them as they bounded along at ever increasing speed. Then he found just enough distraction…and it presented the moment he needed. "I'm proud of you, Will."

An unseen nudge to Abelard and they took off into a full gallop leaving the younger pair in their snowy wake.

Before Will countered the move and had Tug catch them – because he knew he could – Will smiled. His mentor, the man of few words, of few praises, had just given him the greatest gift he could ever ask for on Winter Festival Day.

Five simple words that told the boy that he'd done the right thing where Devan was involved.

Five simple words that told the apprentice how much his mentor thought of him.

Five simple words that Will – although not needed - had always longed to hear, but never thought he would.

He signaled Tug to run after Halt and Abelard. Through the snow they sailed, catching and then passing his mentor. The smile never left the boy's face.

END