First, I would like to extend a thank you to an unknown, unreachable author, Zaber3.
I would like to thank you very much for your lovely flame. Not only did the entire thing give me a hearty laugh, but it was also incredibly useful for roasting marshmallows to make cyber-s'mores, which will be handed out to all who actually bother reading my story before reviewing it.
Now that that's taken care of, back to the actual author's note. As many of you know, this is the last chapter of this story. A sad day, yet a relieving one. I rarely get around to finishing any stories these days, and I'm glad to have this one done and off my plate. I hope that I finish and wrap it up in accordance with all of your expectations. Enjoy.
Also, a BIG thanks to Furuba99SSBB, who gave me the idea that you'll see executed in this chapter. I was scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas, coming up with only overly-mushy premises and a good deal of splinters until she showed up and threw out a funny, clever idea that (I think) is totally in the character of everyone involved. So, thanks a million, Furuba99SSBB!
Wow. Long author's note. On with the show!
It was early morning, and the sun was only metres above the horizon, casting long morning shadows and illuminating the drops of dew that lay fresh on the grass. The breeze was slight, but crisp and fresh, the temperature only just stirring away the cold of last night. Across the fields of Redmont fief, the sounds of the just-woken farmers and their families could be heard – a door shutting softly, a cart beginning its rolling trail down the main road. Overall, it was a supremely peaceful morning, as mornings tended to be here at the edge of the forest.
One of the few observers to the early sight couldn't hold back his small smile. He breathed in the fresh morning air, enjoying the sweet taste of it. He surveyed the expansive view of the village and the castle beyond it with a lifted feeling before heading off to his morning chores. He remembered a time quite clearly when he hated mornings. Often, he proffered sleep over early rising, as most wards did. It was shocking what a year or two in Ranger training did to a person. Many things, his unsleeping master among them, had long since converted him to the peculiar race of 'morning people', and he now enjoyed mornings, despite the chores and lost sleep. Well, so long as there was coffee to be had.
But he had already downed his first cup in record time, and so he had no qualms now about fetching the water.
Heaving up the bucket with practiced ease, Will trudged over to the small stream behind the cabin in a casual way, though his eyes scanned the surrounding area subconsciously. He wasn't wearing his cloak this early in the morning; he liked the feel of the cool breeze. He scooped up a bucketful and turned back toward the small cottage. This would be his thirty-first and last trip back to the cabin's water reservoir, and so once he'd deposited the bucket and its water, he went up on the veranda and sat in his designated canvas chair, which stood on the opposite side of the doorway from Halt's.
It had been three weeks since he'd been admitted to the infirmary. He'd spent one-third of that time in the infirmary itself (much to his chagrin) being treated like a king, but feeling like a prisoner. There was nothing worse, Will had concluded, than being bedridden non-stop for a week with nothing to do and healers and their apprentices watching your every move like sentinels. He, Halt and Gilan had shared a small celebration when he was finally allowed to return home, but the festivities were short lived. Halt quickly had him back on his regimented schedule, with reinforced severity to make up for lost time. Will smiled at the thought, remembering how many times Halt had grimaced in the past week at an only marginally perfect shot of Will's bow, and muttered the enduring mantra, 'Practice, practice, and more practice.', a careful eye on his apprentice, before grumbling something derogatory about infirmary protocol taking the edge off his protégé.
Gilan had left a day or two after Will had returned home. He didn't want to leave, but was sure that the lord of Merric fief would start sending Halt threatening letters if he didn't sent Gilan back soon.
So off he went, and life was back to normal in Halt's cabin – if it was ever 'normal' to begin with, anyway.
Halt broke into Will's thoughts suddenly, the door squeaking in its noisy way as the older ranger stepped out on the veranda and wordlessly handed Will a second mug of coffee. Will smiled at his master and took it gratefully. Halt sunk into his own chair and sipped at the steaming cup in his hand. He stared out across the calm, familiar fields, and rested several minutes in silence before saying:
"A lovely morning."
"Yes, it is." Will said without looking over at him.
"Not too much wind. Good for shooting. Why don't you go see if you can work off all that lying around you've been doing? Then we'll do some knife practice." Halt said. His voice was as steady as ever, but Will, familiar with Halt's mannerisms, just barely caught the hint of amusement lying beneath it. He held back a grimace as he swallowed the last of his coffee. Halt just loved torturing him, he thought.
With the slightest of sighs, Will rose, grumbling, to retrieve his bow and quiver, which had been receiving extended practice the past two weeks. Halt only smiled deviously at the complaints. Music, sweet music.
And so, from morning till noon, Will was drawing and firing arrows at a blinding, ranger-standard rate. Near, far, left, right, up down, random succession. Every arrow hit its mark. At some points, Halt would go out behind the cabin where he was practicing and give a compliment masked in dry sarcasm, nod approvingly, perhaps give a few instructions, before leaving his apprentice to his own devices.
But for all Halt's extended misgivings, Will was doing surprisingly well for being three weeks out of practice, and Halt was, all things considered, impressed. However, there was a reason for the extra practice hours he'd ordered for Will. The young apprentice didn't know it yet, but a letter had arrived a few days ago with an interesting proposition. Halt, for his own amusement more than anything else (though he would later insist that it was some sort of impromptu training exercise for Will) had kept the letter from his apprentice, and Will was happily oblivious to the surprise that awaited him.
From his chair on the porch with the quick thunk thunk thunk of arrows hitting wood drifting in from the woods, Halt sat poring over new reports. Occasionally, he glanced up to the road just by the woods, as if he was expecting someone. He looked over at Abelard.
"You didn't tell the boy anything, did you?"
The horse looked over at him in a long-suffering way.
"Good. It'll do him some good for a surprise. Keep him on his toes." Halt indulged in a sardonic smile. "Keep him on his toes, indeed."
Later that afternoon, after he'd eaten his midday meal and taken a brief respite from shooting, Will was back at it again, this time with his throwing knife. After he'd finished the hour of practice that Halt had prescribed, he was quite sure that he'd done enough. He started around the cabin to go to the front door. He'd grown strong enough over the past few years so that he no longer became exhausted from hours of practice, but that didn't mean that he wouldn't be exceedingly happy to sit down in his chair and have a nice glass of cool water. He rounded the corner. After all, there was a nice big bucket of water sitting conveniently by the door, right over-
"Gilan!" Will stopped short of his intended destination to stare wide-eyed at the smiling blonde figure before him.
"Hullo, Will." But it wasn't Gilan's voice who said it. Will turned and visibly started, his eyes widening further.
"Crowley! What are you doing here?" Will looked back and forth between the two new arrivals, Gilan, standing on the edge of the porch, and Crowley, who'd made himself comfortable in Will's canvas chair by the door.
"Oh, nothing much." Crowley said dismissively, smiling faintly. "Just paying a house visit to a few hermits who couldn't be bothered to actually show up at the gathering. Don't act so surprised, Will! It's not like you didn't know we were coming or anything." Crowley laughed lightly, but stopped when Will's expression continued along the lines of utter befuddlement. The Commandant's smile faded. He turned his head to glare over at Halt, who was slouching comfortably in his own chair. "You did tell him, didn't you, Halt?"
Halt stared out across the horizon for a moment, pretending not to have heard, until Crowley coughed loudly in his direction. "Hmm? Oh, yes… It must have slipped my mind." Halt told the other ranger innocently.
"Slipped your mind?" Crowley asked dryly, cocking an eyebrow.
Halt, unfazed, nodded seriously. "Getting a bit forgetful in my old age, I'm afraid. By the way, Will," Halt turned towards his confused apprentice, "I forgot to tell you: Crowley and his lot are coming this afternoon for your formal assessment."
It took a moment for the words to sink in, but when they did: "My what?" Will's voice unintentionally cracked higher as he said it, and he could feel a blush rising on his cheeks.
"You going deaf, boy? Your formal assessment – the one you missed at the gathering." Halt told him, before remarking aside to Crowley, "Young people. Always answering simple statements with questions." He shook his head.
Will, however, didn't even notice the insult. Instead, he marched past the veranda and looked over at the lean-to that usually housed Abelard and Tug. There was an unusually large amount of ranger horses standing out in the small clearing around the shelter – including his and Halt's, Will counted nine in total. But that meant that…
"Seven of us came in total." Gilan said from behind Will's left shoulder.
"Gilan! Don't do that!" Will whirled around suddenly to face the other ranger.
Gilan stayed where he was and smiled before continuing on as if Will hadn't said anything. "Crowley, Myself, and five of the other senior and higher-rank rangers, to assess your training. Though I haven't the slightest idea where we're all supposed to sleep…" Gilan's brow furrowed suddenly as he looked up at the rather small cabin to his left.
Will looked at him, horrified, and then stormed back over to the veranda where Halt and Crowley were arguing in moderate voices.
"I can't believe you didn't tell him, Halt."
"It's for his own good. Keep his responses sharp."
Crowley scoffed. "Sharp responses indeed. You're going to make Will paranoid."
"Crowley, it's hardly done any harm. Just a bit of fun."
"Fun! Halt, this is his assessment – the least you could have done was give him a day's warning-"
"And have to deal with his nervous wreck the rest of the day? No, it's better this way, all at once."
"You just like to see him suffer, don't you?"
"Me? Enjoy Will's pain? I can hardly entertain the thought. I'm surprised at you, Crowley."
"Halt, has anyone ever told you that you are a sadist?"
"Never heard it."
"Well you're hearing it now."
"Oh, if you had an apprentice, you'd enjoy it too."
"I cannot believe you."
"What in the world is going on?" Will burst in, confused and a little more than annoyed. The older rangers abandoned their bickering match and turned towards the young man. "Why on earth is there a small army of rangers on our doorstep? Are you really here to assess me? When did you get here? And why the bloody blazes didn't you tell me about it?" Will turned an accusatory glare at his master.
Crowley took the initiative. "Well," He said, composing himself, "when I received Gilan's letter a few weeks ago, and was informed that you would miss your annual assessment – again – I decided that it wasn't fair or decent for an apprentice to go so long without being formally tested by the heads of the Corps. So, I put together an impromptu team to come out and give you a, er, house call, under the special circumstances." Crowley smiled encouragingly at him. "As for why your dear old teacher here decided to keep this information from you…" Crowley looked over at Halt. "Your guess is as good as mine. Though I'd wager it has something to do with the fact that his mind is a twisted, sick bundle of-"
"Just trying to keep you on your toes, Will." Halt cut in quickly. He then looked at Crowley, and motioned towards Will. "Whenever you're ready, you can start." Crowley nodded, and Will stepped forward indignantly.
"B-But Halt," He sputtered. "That's… That's not fair!" He managed. It was a lousy protest, and he knew it. However, rather than making some sharp sally about 'fairness', Halt looked over at his apprentice calmly and said:
"Not fair? Perhaps. But don't worry, Will. You're in good health; I'm sure you'll do just fine." And then subtly, so that only Will could see, Halt winked, with the lightest of smiles resting on his face. Surprised at the gesture, Will suddenly felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He fought it, but it showed anyway. He felt his aggravation melting away. Something about Halt's confidence in him made the whole situation better immediately – and the words he chose to express that confidence made Will think ruefully back on the day that had started this whole mess.
Gilan, the only other ranger who had caught the slight interchange, smiled to himself as he surveyed his two friends. After a moment or two, he stepped down off the veranda.
"Right, then." He said authoritatively. "Now that we have dear old Halt's permission, let's go see how your unseen movement's coming along, shall we, Will?" Gilan clapped the younger man on his back and guided him off into the forest. As he did so, Will shook his head.
"He did this on purpose, didn't he, Gil?" He asked, smiling despite himself.
Gilan chuckled. "Of course he did. Did something similar to me once or twice." Gilan told him, then added, "But he does it because he's glad to have you back, Will. He just doesn't know what to do with himself when he doesn't have an apprentice to torture." Gilan leaned in and whispered: "I'd just go along with it if I were you. In Halt-speak, it's more or less like he's giving you a giant bear hug and saying 'welcome home'."
Will smiled, and glanced back at his straight-faced mentor. "I know."
From his seat on the porch, Halt watched Will with a thoughtful eye. Apprentices could be difficult things, he knew. At best, they required constant attention and endless nurturing. They spouted off endless questions without thinking, ate every piece of food in his cupboards without thought to the dwindling contents of his purse, and consumed altogether too much of his coffee. They complained, slept too late, did too little, and insisted on following him everywhere. And yet, somehow, someway, inexplicably, this bothersome little excuse for an apprentice had found a place in Halt's heart that was considerably closer to that of a son than a pupil. Will was special to him, he couldn't deny it. When the boy had been lying feverishly on death's doorstep, Halt couldn't even bear the thought of what he would do if he lost him. And now that Will was back, alive, healthy, and just as badgering as ever, Halt felt oddly joyful, thankful, and an unusual swell of affection for Will.
Not that he would ever show it. At least, not in any conventional way. Surprising the boy with a impromptu, grueling training assessment by the Corps Commandant was much more befitting to Halt's style. However, Halt knew that Will received the underlying message when he caught sight of the grin on the boy's face as Gilan lead him away.
Yes, Halt thought, despite their endless questions, bottomless appetites, and all-around knack for annoying him to hell and back, apprentices, especially Will, had a certain way of bringing that bright, cheerful spot into his life as no one else could. It was good to have Will back home and healthy, Halt thought as he watched his former apprentice guide his current apprentice off towards the forest. Briefly, Will looked back up at Halt and grinned at him. In a rare turn of events, Halt grinned back – a genuine, wide smile.
Yes, it was definitely good to have the boy back.