They arrived home and Halt sent Gilan into the cottage with Will while he took care of the horses. The young apprentice was exhausted from the ride and events during. His weary body screamed for a respite. It would also give the two of them a few moments to say goodbye, as the tall Ranger would be heading for his own fief within the hour.
Will sat on his cot watching Gilan stir up a quick mug of warm tea, which he accepted gratefully. "You're leaving now, aren't you?"
"Yeah," Gilan released a deep breath. "Back to work tomorrow. I miss that old fief of mine. Though, I suppose it's survived without me."
"It'll be quiet around here without you and Blaze."
"The quiet will do you good. It'll let you center on getting yourself back. You know Halt will look after you. He has a hard time admitting some of those mushy things, but you know how much he cares about you. You're more of a son to him than apprentice."
The boy smiled. "I'm lucky then."
"Truly. I'll try and stop by in a week or so, just to say hi. And you - don't be a stranger. When you're strong enough, I expect a visit from you to my neck of the woods. Understand?"
"I can't wait."
Silence fell over the pair as they both avoided the actual saying of the word goodbye. But it needed to be said. Gilan got up and walked to Will. He knelt in front of him and put a hand on his knee. "Take care of yourself. Go slow. Don't be in a hurry to do everything right now. I'll see you soon."
Tears slid down the youngest Ranger's face as he leaned towards his friend and put his arms around him. The embrace was returned warmly. "Thanks for everything, Gil. I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you too, Will. Keep an eye on Halt and Abelard for me, okay?"
They released each other and Gilan touched the boy's face. "Bye, Will." And he walked out the door.
Will wiped his face and tried desperately to refocus himself by starting a fire and working to not think about his departing friend.
Gilan packed his saddle bags on Blaze and said a quick farewell to Tug and Abelard. Halt came around the front of the horse as he addressed his old apprentice. "Be careful on the way home. And I mean it, if you even think one of those damn Kayzar are anywhere nearby, don't even think about getting near them. Just get the hell away from there."
Halt then looked directly at bay horse in front of him - a firm hold on the bridle. "You too, Blaze. You sense those things, you run. Don't listen to your crazy master if he decides to investigate. Just run and take him with you."
Blaze tossed his head up and down in agreement.
"Halt, don't influence my horse. He's bad enough when he's around your two. All those bad habits, learning how to steal apples and con people into feeling sorry for him so they'll feed him. He's gained fifty pounds since he's been here."
"Don't listen to him, Blaze. Although…he is a good friend." Halt changed the light banter to the more serious matter of saying goodbye. He owed his former learner more than he could ever pay back. He stroked the pony's face as he continued addressing the horse, as it was easier then saying the words directly to Gilan. "I couldn't have done this on my own, Blaze. Will either. We're both grateful for his presence. Yours too, boy." The older man patted the pony's nose and only then looked at his fellow Ranger. So proud of what he had become.
Gilan took pity on the man. "You don't have to say anything else, Halt. Blaze is confused enough. I know what you mean to say. And you're welcome."
"You may know what I mean, but I need to say it. Too often I avoid these conversations. But you know me. Thank you, Gil, for everything. I know he's still on his way back, but he's come so far in such a short time, in big part thanks to you and your patience with the both of us. I'm fortunate in my friends."
The shorter Ranger reached out to the taller and pulled him into a snug embrace, appreciative of the younger's dedication to his old master, even years after he'd last been under his care. A couple of friendly pats on the back and they broke the hold.
"Take care of him, Halt. I mean it. He's a good kid and his complete trust is with you, you know that."
"Good. I better get home. No telling what's been going on in that place while I've been gone. I'll see you soon though."
Gilan legged himself up on Blaze and with a final look back, jogged off into the forest.
One week later Crowley thundered to a stop in front of the tiny Redmont cottage calling out for Halt. He was surprised when Will stepped outside to greet him. "Will! How are you?"
"Getting better every day."
"Good, good boy. I'm very glad to hear that. Where's Halt?"
"Chopping firewood a ways off. What's wrong?" Will could see that Crowley was worried about something. And there had to be a particular reason he was here, it surely wasn't just to visit and say hi, not as busy as Crowley was as Commandant of the Ranger Corp.
"I'll ride back and see him. Thanks, Will." He trotted off.
"But…Crowley!" Will shouted before hurrying off after him. When he caught up, he overheard them as he approached.
"Gilan has called for help. He's tracked the three Kayzar to the western border of his fief. And before you get all wound up and your trousers in a knit, don't worry. He's not challenging them. He's safe and keeping his distance. But he wants them out. We're sending a group after them."
Halt put the wood axe down and leaned on the handle. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted Will's approach and immediately detected the concern in the young face. "I can't go, Crowley. Will is doing well, but I'm not comfortable leaving him yet."
The sandy-haired Ranger leader rubbed his beard. He'd expected that Halt would decline but he had to try. The knowledge Halt had of the beasts and his renowned abilities as a bowman would be a great asset in their quest. Crowley pushed. "I figured as much which is why I spoke with Lady Pauline. She's offered to stay with Will while you are gone. We need you, Halt. Gilan needs you. We have to put an end to those things before they hurt anyone else. You of all people understand that."
"Crowley, please don't play Gilan's well-being against me or against Will. I know his feelings on our situation here. I'm disappointed that you would try such a thing." To be honest, Halt was slightly angry that his old friend had just played the well being of his apprentices against each other. It was uncalled for.
Still sitting on the sidelines, worried that Halt would soon be gone and chasing those evil beasts, Will spoke up nervously. "Halt, I can ride with you. Or I can stay here by myself. I'll be all right alone for a time. I've only had a few nightmares and problems in the last couple days. I'll be all right."
"No, Will. You need to stay here, and you cannot stay alone. I'm not comfortable with leaving Pauline to keep watch on you either. Trust her as I do, she's not been dealing directly with the situation. And I don't want you to lose what ground you've gained. And you're not ready to face those things again. I don't want you anywhere near them."
"But I can do this Halt. I can try at least. I'm getting stronger every day. You've said to yourself. I can help."
Crowley looked between them. Although the brave words came from the boy, he could see right through them. They were hollow. He was terrified at the thought of Halt leaving him to face off against those monsters that had tried to destroy him. He feared losing Halt. He feared losing Gilan. He feared losing himself. The Ranger Corp leader was seeing how truly young and fragile Will was right now. It was wrong to have come here and ask Halt to leave his charge when there were many other capable Rangers available and ready to depart. His error he saw on the anxious face of a sixteen-year-old boy and he called himself on it. "Halt, Will. I apologize for throwing this at you like I did. I haven't been living what you have, so I can't understand it completely. And you're right, Halt. Gilan would not expect you to come. He probably would be disappointed if you left Will to his own recovery to come chase monsters with him. I should get back. I've another couple Rangers to recruit for the job. I'll send a rider back with information for you when we know more about what's going on."
Halt bowed his head. "We would appreciate that, old friend. And Crowley?"
"Keep an eye on Gilan for me."
"That I can do. I'll be in touch." He turned his horse around. "Goodbye, Will."
Will stood quietly watching horse and Ranger vanish into the forest when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Come on, it's clouding up again. Probably rain. Gilan will be all right. He's not doing this alone."
The boy said nothing but the tension in him spoke volumes. Just the thought of those things hurting his friend or even another Ranger was upsetting enough, but it also brought back memories of what they'd done to him not more than a month ago. Halt sensed that and led him silently into the cottage and sat him at the table while he brewed a pot of coffee. He handed a cup of the steaming liquid to his apprentice. "It's easy to worry. Difficult to think that everything will be okay. Gilan is smart. He knows what those things are capable of. He'll have plenty of company too." When Will didn't reply, and instead kept a snug hold of his coffee mug, is when Halt figured they needed a distraction. Getting up, he dug a package out of the small closet and tossed it across the room. "Catch!"
Will did so at the last second, grabbing the brown paper with the tips of his fingers. "What is it?"
"Something you've been missing for a while."
Ripping the paper, his hands floated across the softness of a new Ranger cloak. Thinking of what the Kayzar did to his other one and the method in which they tore it from him and destroyed it, Will allowed a few fresh tears to fall. Hurriedly, he unwrapped the cloak and put it on, breathing in the feel and smell of the fabric.
Halt then motioned for him to stay put as he scooted outside and returned holding something behind his back. Bringing it around Will saw what it was and his eyes lit up. A newly made longbow. Freshly carved and strung. Made from Halt's own experienced hands. "I've been working on this since I found you. Progress was slow because of limited time I could devote, but I finished it yesterday. I think it's time we start you back on your task of training to be a fully fledged Ranger. And you'll need the cloak and longbow to complete that journey."
The bow was beautiful as Will ran his fingers over its surface. Smoothly curved, carefully crafted. So much like his old one, but so different. It felt good to hold it in his hands again. How he'd missed that oneness that was a Ranger and his bow. A Ranger's weapon. Everything about it was almost perfect.
Looking over at Halt, he put the bow down for a moment, crossed the several feet separating them, and hugged his mentor. "Thank you, Halt. It's beautiful."
Holding him away, Halt grinned but said nothing.
"Can I practice with it?"
"How else will we get you back to Halt standards, huh? Come on, I've got a new quiver of arrows with your name on it too."
Two weeks later, no news had come of the Ranger posse sent out after the Kayzar. No word from Crowley. No word about Gilan.
Will was out practicing with his longbow. He'd improved dramatically since he'd gotten back to it during the last fourteen days. There was definite room for improvement, but his knowledge and skills had not been lost when the Kayzar took from him. And it gave him the confidence to realize that he could indeed return to what he once was.
Three arrows he fired in succession. The first hit the target. The second bore to the right. The third chased a small sparrow out of her nest, one that then proceeded to turn on her attacker to demonstrate her displeasure. The boy laughed, and it felt so good to laugh, even at something so silly as a small angry bird. After a few seconds he realized that he wasn't laughing alone. Another voice joined in. Figuring it was Halt, Will paid it no mind until the laughter stopped.
"Interesting shot. Don't you know it's not nice to mess with Mother Nature? That's one ticked off little bird."
Will spun around, saw who the voice belonged to and shouted, "GIL!"
The tall Ranger leaped from his pony and accepted the small thud that was Will throwing himself into his arms.
"We were so worried about you. Crowley said he'd tell us what was going on, but we heard nothing. What happened? Are you okay? Did you get those things? Did anyone get hurt? Why didn't someone tell us what was happening?"
"Easy there, Will." He held him away. "Always with the multiple questions. Everything is fine. Those damn monsters are dead. They won't hurt anyone ever again."
The incredible relief that had lifted from Will's shoulders the second those words left Gilan's mouth was obvious from a mile away. There would no longer be that nagging fear that one day the Kayzar would return and hurt him again. That fear was abruptly vanquished with the news that Gilan brought.
Feeling suddenly embarrassed, the young learner rubbed at several surprise tears that tracked down his face.
Gilan patted him on the back. "I know it's been eating at you that they were still out there. No longer."
"Thank you, Gil."
"We did suffer one casualty however." He nodded at Halt who had just joined them from inside the cottage. "Mason's horse, Snap. He went out a hero, saving the lives of not only Mason but two others as well."
"Not Snapper. He was a good horse. Reminded me of Tug. I'm sorry for Mason. I think I can imagine what he feels after worrying so much about Tug's well being not long ago. But…I got Tug back." Will hung his head sadly, accepting Halt's arm around his shoulder.
The elder Ranger released him and offered his hand and then an embrace to his former student. So relievedto see him safe and alive. "How is Mason handling the loss?"
"Not well right now. It just happened yesterday when we finally cornered the Kayzar and eventually took them down. Snap got wind of one of them sneaking around from behind, none of us could hear or see it, or knew where it had gone. Honestly we thought we had killed that one already. By the time we saw it, it would have been too late had Snap not taken action and thrown himself at the beast. It was the bravest thing I've ever seen a horse do. Crowley has put Mason on a temporary reprieve from his fief to deal with what's happened. I suppose he'll visit with Old Bob and see about a new pony, but it'll be hard. Snap did us proud. He won't soon be forgotten." He fell silent in honor of the fallen Ranger pony, then moved on. "How are things here? Will, other than trying to slaughter poor defenseless birds, you look good. Put a little weight back on. You look healthier…stronger. How do you feel?"
"I feel good. I still get some bouts of confusion, but less and less all the time. Nightmares are few and far between. The healer has started weaning me from the sedative. Maybe I can get back to full duty soon. I'm trying to be patient, but…"
"Sitting around a tiny cottage with Halt watching your every move can be boring after a while, huh?" Halt pursed his lips at Gilan, which caused the younger a mischievous grin. "Oh, I've some good news. Remember those horses you started out to find?"
"Oh," Will didn't really want to remember the failed mission that had started this entire episode. Off on his first solo journey to retrieve several of Baron Arald's horses that had escaped, when he was attacked by the Kayzar. "Yes. I guess I forgot about them."
"Eh, don't worry. We found them. They'd fled together into higher elevation, found them fat and happy and munching on grass. They are safely home now. I believe Seran has been put in complete charge of entire Redmont stable. I doubt they will be escaping again anytime soon."
At the thought of Seran and his uncanny ability with horses, Will was pleased. The stable boy had been solely responsible for the delicate care of two Rangers horses in the past year, both suffering in some way, and he encouraged them back to health. There could be no finer person to be put in charge of the constant care of the Baron's impressive and rather large stable.
"So, what's for dinner?" Gilan asked as he walked his tall frame back towards Blaze to remove the saddle. "I didn't ride all this way just to say hello."
Halt sighed and scowled slightly. "I suspect you probably did. But since you are the only one in this trio with magic cooking hands, how about you cook?"
"Yes, I rode here to cook for you. That's what I did."
"Sarcasm is so very ugly on you, Gilan."
"I know," he replied as he laughed at his former mentor. "Well, if I'm not cooking and you're not cooking. Will?"
The boy shook his head. "Oh no, I'm not even going there. All the preparation and work, only to have the both of you critique my creation and then turn your noses up? I don't think so."
Halt mused for a minute, then came up with a suggestion that he knew Will might baulk at, but life couldn't return to normal until all aspects of the former life were back on track. "How about we ride to Castle Redmont for dinner? I'm sure Lady Pauline would fall all over herself to have us at her table this evening." He watched his student's reaction. First nervous. Deep breaths followed. Then an unsure nod. "Sooner or later, Will, you've got to see your friends. It's been enough time. I think if they ask, it's up to you what to tell them and how many details. My guess is that they'll understand if you'd rather not saymuch about what happened. But they've been concerned. It'll do you good to visit with them and – yes, Gilan – get away from me for a while."
More steadied breaths before Will agreed. "I do want see them. I've missed them all. And I suppose it might be good for me to talk about some of this."
An arm around his shoulder pulled him close for a moment. "I told you this experience would see your growth," Halt said approvingly. Then to Gilan, "Put the saddle back on Blaze. Let's head out." remark
Blaze grunted his disapproval.
The arrival of three Rangers at Castle Redmont was not going to be kept secret for long, and almost immediately after they were greeted by Pauline and sitting down to dinner, Will's friends entered the dining hall. Alyss had gotten the word out that Will had come, and somehow Jenny, George and Horace all managed to get out of whatever they were doing and to the dining hall. With a slight nudge and an approving look, Halt encouraged him forward to greet them. He'd never seen so many hugs with such a small group of people before. Will seemed to meld right into them and before long the five were cramped at a small table, hands flailing in gesture, voices raising then lowering in waves of enthusiasm. They seemed to pick up right where they left off the last time they were all together. Halt was glad. Will needed his non-Ranger friends. He needed to maintain those ties. And it was healthy for him to be with those his own age from time to time. It was healthy to get away from the job – or in this case, the recovery – and just spend time worrying about nothing in particular.
Gilan motioned to Halt. "You've done a good job getting him back. He looks happy and content for the first time in a long time."
"It was a difficult journey. I'm not sure how much he'll remember of it."
"But you'll remember," Pauline said, smiling gently at her grizzled friend. "And you'll want to overprotect him. Make sure to give him space, Halt. Don't be afraid to let him fail or even get himself into a bit of trouble. As Gilan would say, don't mother hen him to death. It's been a difficult journey for you as well."
Halt agreed, and knew he would struggle to do all those things. It would be natural to try and protect the boy, more now than ever before, but he did need to let him progress on his own. To fail. To succeed. Important final steps in the journey through recovery. Though he also realized Will would look to him in uncertain circumstances. There he would have to find the balance of allowing Will to move on his own while at the same time providing the encouragement he still needed.
Glancing at the table of friends, Halt saw Will turn towards him. They caught each other's eyes. Halt gave a single nod. Will beamed a grateful smile and turned back to his friends.
Gilan, who hadn't missed the gesture, placed a supportive hand on his former master's shoulder as he lightened the mood. "Eat your food before I do. This stuff is good! Oh and then we are going bribe Jenny into baking about twelve dozen more of those cream cake things. I'm taking those things home with me."
Both Pauline and Halt shook their heads at the always good natured Ranger. Halt turned his focus back to his food, but couldn't help stealing a sneaky glance at his apprentice every so often. Thankful to see him happy and in the company of those that cared about him.
Another positive step in the difficult journey to recovery.
A journey that would continue to strengthen and mold him into the Ranger that Halt knew he was destined to be.
The five young friends got up from the table, laughing towards the door. Will said something to them and hurried back to Halt's table. Leaning down, the apprentice wrapped his mentor in a spontaneous hug. "I'm glad we came here tonight, Halt. I missed them, but didn't appreciate how much." He released the older Ranger and wiped a stray tear away.
"The time is yours, Will. Enjoy it."
Will smiled. "I will, Halt – thanks to you - and Gilan." The smile continued as he hurried back towards his group, greeting them with more laughter.
Halt blinked rapidly to keep his own emotions contained. Then, taking a note from Will, turned back to his own small gathering of intimate friends to relax into and appreciate their companionship.
The past two months had tested his patience, his emotional mettle and his dedication to his apprentice like nothing before. And like Will, he was a stronger man for it. As he relaxed into conversation with Gilan and Pauline, he found that for the first time in a very long time, he too was content.