Okay, this is a really long oneshot. Really long. Be prepared.
SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for books one through four, though mainly for two and three. Don't say I didn't warn you!
OTHER WARNINGS: This story is rated T for violence and violent flashbacks. It's really no more violent than the actual book series, so it's not that bad. But it does still need to be rated T. There is NO inappropriate language and NO suggestive comments. So you're safe there. = D
Now that that's over with, please read and review!
Disclaimer: I do own Ranger's Apprentice, but my sister got the flu and puked all over the official papers. Oh well...
Four people sat at the dinner table. Three of them were engaged in a conversation. One of them was staring down at his lap in silence.
Halt had decided to have Gilan over when he saw that he was in town. And Crowley, being, well, Crowley, decided to join them. Uninvited, of course.
Gilan was devouring seconds of Halt's rabbit stew. Crowley was staring at him, amazed at the amount of food the Ranger had packed away in such a short time. Halt, meanwhile, was watching his young apprentice.
Will had been staring at the ground for a while now. The Rangers had been talking about the Battle for Skandia, as it had come to be called. Will, instead of joining in, had merely nodded or shaken his head when asked questions. And—most importantly, Halt thought—he hadn't asked any of his own.
Will jolted Halt out of his reverie, mumbling something and getting up from the table, taking his plate with him. Gilan looked up at Halt, waiting for the reprimand. He had served five years as Halt's apprentice, after all. But it never came. All he saw was a slightly sad look on Halt's face, as opposed to the stern one he had been expecting.
Gilan watched Will shuffle out the door and disappear up the stairs. He turned to Halt.
"What in the world's gotten into him, Halt? He barely spoke a word through dinnertime, and there wasn't even one question!"
Halt looked up at his old apprentice tiredly, running a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair as he answered.
"He's not really the same person he used to be." Gilan scowled in irritation.
"Oh for heaven's sake, Halt, that's obvious!" But Crowley leaned forwards.
"No, no, I'm listening. How do you mean?"
Halt sighed exasperatedly. "That's just it, you idiot. He's different. Skandia changed him."
Halt allowed himself a moment to contemplate how Crowley had ever become Commandant with a brain like the one he now possessed before flashing back to the first time he had noticed something was amiss with his young apprentice…
Erak was slightly nervous.
If you asked him, of course, he wouldn't have said so. But Halt was nothing if not observant. The way Erak's eyes darted all over the gate, fixing on one point, roving, and returning clearly stated what he himself would not.
Halt was scared as well. For Will. He wouldn't admit it either, but he was more skilled in hiding his feelings than Erak, and it was likely that no one would ask him in the first place.
Hallasholm leered down at them, large and ugly looking. Evening was falling over the quiet little settlement, somehow making it look even more threatening. The peaceful quiet that had befallen the town could easily be twisted into a cold, forbidding silence. Houses built of grey brick lined the cobblestoned streets, their thatched roofs devoid of the usual light snow that graced the town. Halt was forcibly reminded of spring in Araluen—for it was spring here, he remembered, despite the chilly temperatures and the biting wind.
He drove Abelard forwards, allowing himself one small glance at his apprentice's face. It was unnaturally pale, he thought. He brushed it off as nerves. Then he had to pause to think about why he had to brush the thought off in the first place. Anyone in Will's place would be nervous.
Erak called out a less than polite greeting to the guard on duty, and the gates—if you could call them that—opened. They were officially in Hallasholm.
The party rode towards the main house unchallenged, their horses' hooves clattering loudly in the resplendent quiet that graced the town. The sound set Halt's teeth on edge, but that was all. He wasn't sure what he had expected—an ambush perhaps, where Will and Evanlyn were dragged off by vengeful Skandians. Seeing the peaceful-looking stone building where the Skandian jarls were gathered made Halt's nervous fantasies seem silly.
Erak suddenly stopped his horse—which he hadn't been exactly happy about riding in the first place. He promptly fell off. "Oh for Loka's sake!" he snarled viciously. Will stopped Tug next to Erak's now riderless horse.
"What?" he asked. Halt couldn't help the little half-smile that came whenever Will's insatiable sense of curiosity was displayed.
"Slagor," Erak answered in a grim voice. Will flinched.
"Wasn't he the one we ran into on Skorghjil?" Evanlyn asked. Erak nodded. "Oh," she said in a subdued tone. "He doesn't like us much," she added for the benefit of those who hadn't been present for the knife-throwing incident. It was unnecessary.
The figure approached. Halt eyed him keenly. He didn't seem particularly smart, but he was a Skandian, and that meant he could easily pose a threat.
Slagor stopped near Erak. "Jarl Erak!" he called out in what he clearly believed was a pleasant voice. Halt was strongly reminded of Morgarath. Will shrank into Halt, his cowl pulled up over his face. Slagor continued.
"You're just in time for dinner! Who's that you've brought along?"
Horace drew in a sudden breath. Evanlyn gave a small squeak. Halt felt Will trembling slightly and squeezed his hand. The trembling didn't stop.
"None of your buisiness," Erak growled out. Slagor was clearly afraid of angering the Jarl, but his curiosity outweighed his misgivings as he stepped forwards and looked the group over.
"Shy lot, hmm?" he said, noting the cloaks that hid the Araluens' faces. He eyed Evanlyn appreciatively.
"Nice girl you got there," he said. "She going to join us for dinner?" Erak nodded. It wasn't a nod that particularly encouraged further conversation. Slagor continued anyway, confirming Halt's earlier conclusions about his mental capacities.
"Why doesn't she show us her pretty face?" He reached up a hand and, before Evanlyn could pull back, flicked the cowl of her cloak away from her face. She looked borderline terrified. Halt could have smacked himself—the look on her face was practically a dead giveaway.
There was a moment's silence while recognition set in. "You!" Slagor snarled. He grabbed her arm and pulled her from her saddle. Halt moved for his bow, mentally berating himself for not doing so sooner, but before he could do anything more Slagor had a knife held to her throat. Evanlyn eyed it nervously.
"No one move or she dies!" Erak moved to intervene, but Halt stopped him.
"He's serious," Halt muttered. Slagor took a step around the caravan, pulling Evanlyn with him.
"Hmm," he said to himself, putting the pieces together. Connecting Evanlyn to Will. "If she's here, then…" he trailed off. His eyes sparkled with the light that can only come from the promise of revenge. He moved suddenly, letting go of Evanlyn and lunging at Will's horse. Horace pulled Evanlyn up on Kicker, feeling her sigh of relief, then of terror at seeing Will in danger. He could feel his own stomach twisting up in knots as well. He heard Halt draw in a sharp breath.
Halt helplessly watched Slagor moving to grab Will. Will jerked back instinctively, frightened, but not entirely surprised at the wild hatred in Slagor's eyes. This, Halt thought, was a man beyond reason. And a man beyond reason was almost always a threat.
Slagor reached out a well-muscled arm and grabbed Will, pulling him down from Tug, who whinnied in alarm as his master was jerked roughly away from the safety of his sturdy little back. Horace felt the breath leave his body, and it was a tremendous effort to get it back in again. Halt, he saw, was staring at the scene, eyes unmoving, slightly narrowed, unblinking. Only someone who knew him well could recognize the anger in his posture. Evanlyn, strangely enough, was the only one who remembered Tug. She reached out a gentle hand to calm him, but he would not be comforted. He reared up his front legs at Slagor, who started in surprise.
"Get away from me, you dang horse!" he yelled, throwing Will behind him as he backed away. Will staggered at the force of the blow. Halt, meanwhile, grabbed Tug's reins and held on, calming the horse with a soothing hand.
Slagor finally looked down at his young captive, who was currently struggling to get away. He twisted Will's arm cruelly behind him, making him gasp with pain. He stopped struggling. "You're the one they call Will," he said slowly, menacingly. Will stared up at him and made no sound.
"Well, you might not be," Slagor continued after a moment's contemplation. Halt would have snorted if Will's life wasn't in jeopardy—Slagor would never forget how Will had humiliated him at Skorghjil, and would thus never forget him. "Maybe I should ask Egon."
Will squirmed, trying to get away from Slagor, but the knife that had once been held against Evanlyn's throat was now against his. "Do you think I should ask Egon?" he asked, looking down at Will. Will's movements became even more pronounced, until he felt metal pressing into the soft skin of his throat.
"EGON!" Slagor bellowed. A man began walking towards them from around the main house. Will twisted desperately against Slagor's iron grip, but to no avail. He looked up at Halt, a silent pleading in his eyes. Halt's own were dark and threatening. But Will's keen gaze—ironically sharpened at Halt's demand—caught the worried, helpless frustration hidden behind the fierceness. And Halt's eyes—perhaps for the first time—slid away from Will's in a gesture of silent defeat.
Neither had time to dwell on this, however, for Egon had stepped forwards. He had an overly cruel look to him, Halt decided. Slagor turned to him, Will held up against his chest, the knife still in place. "Tell me, Egon," he began, "Is this the slave that escaped you several months ago? Is this the one they call Will?" Egon's eyes drifted over Will. He grinned. A demonic grin, Halt thought. Will stared up at him defiantly. Egon reached out and pulled Will's shirt collar down, revealing his right shoulder. His eyes settled on something, and he replaced the collar.
"Yes," Egon said. He reached out an arm and grabbed Will. Slagor let go readily. Egon had Will's thin arm in a viselike grip. He looked down at Will contemptuously, then turned to Slagor.
"How did it escape?" he asked softly. Halt felt his breath quicken. It. Will was a living, breathing human being—not an it. Slagor shrugged. Egon glared down at Will.
"Anyway, that doesn't matter. It knows what we do with recaptured slaves." Halt's stomach fell; he suddenly felt nauseous as possibilities ran through his head, each more gruesome than the last. He shook them out in an almost desperate manner, forcing himself to believe that none of them were possible, let alone true.
Evanlyn's face drained of any blood that was left in it. Oh, God, she prayed sliently. Please, please, anything but that… Images and sounds from last time made their way through her brain so fast that they melded together; one big ball of screams and blood. And pain. And now she realized that, quite truthfully, as another escaped slave, she was in almost as much danger as Will. Possibly more, if they found out her true identity as the Crown Princess of Araluen… Either one of those Skandians could drag her off her horse at any moment to share in Will's fate.
Will's brown eyes were filled with fear. Evanlyn couldn't blame him. He tried to worm his way out of Egon's grip. Egon slapped him across his face, with enough force to turn his head. Will stopped trying.
Halt could hear Horace's angry breathing beside him. The warrior apprentice, however, had the presence of mind not to pull his sword from its scabbard. In this tense atmosphere, if Horace drew his sword, Will could die. And then, for the first time, the thought struck Halt that Will's life was quite literally in the hands of these poor excuses for human beings.
Halt's stomach clenched at the thought of Will in danger. Will in pain. And it was clear that both were happening. Halt glanced at his apprentice—the one he had come to see as a son. His head was bowed, not looking up at his captors. Halt felt his heart break in two at the pained look on Will's face.
Halt's mind was a whirlwind, his thoughts moving so quickly that he barely had time to focus on one before the next popped up. Even so, his face was a mask of composure to anyone that didn't know him personally. For those people, Halt's perfectly calm, unworried stance in the face of danger was something to be feared. Horace saw this now, and found himself feeling almost sorry for the Skandians who were currently holding his best friend hostage.
Then he pondered that sentence for a minute and discarded the thought.
Egon looked down at Will's bowed head. "That's better," he said conversationally. He turned back to Slagor. "It does know what we do, doesn't it?" Slagor nodded. Halt noticed that Evanlyn looked slightly sick.
"It knows." Will looked up and opened his mouth to try and say something. Egon smacked him again without a second thought.
To say that Halt felt the need to intervene was under exaggerating. "What do you do with recaptured slaves?" he asked in a neutral tone. There was a tightness to it that made Horace's head jerk up in surprise. Will's head remained facing the ground. Egon smirked slightly.
"We teach 'em a lesson, see, so they don't try it again." The smirk was still there. "A good whippin' won't kill 'em, only makes 'em more obedient in the future." Evanlyn gave a small whimper. Will met her eyes—they clearly knew something Halt didn't. " 'Course, they always get punished for somethin' else later, but…" Slagor was still talking, Halt assumed, but he simply didn't care anymore. All he wanted was Will, safe and sound where he belonged—at his side. "This one should remember that," Slagor said, jerking Halt back to reality and glancing at Will.
Halt felt the world fall away beneath a sea of despair. They hadn't—had they? Surely they wouldn't have dared… But a small, insistent part of him said that they would dare. They cared less for the fragile gift of human life than anyone else Halt had ever seen, ever heard of. He could only imagine the damage they had managed to inflict upon Will and Evanlyn—it was obvious that they were both eager to avoid… Whatever it was that Egon was talking about. All he had now was hope—a strange, desperate sort of plea that Egon was lying…
Halt could see Erak clenching his fists. Whatever it was that was happening, it was clear that Erak didn't approve of it. Halt felt his respect for the jarl heighten considerably.
Halt's hopes were dashed, however, as he saw Will trying to back away towards him, fear in his eyes. "No," he mumbled. "No, don't."
Slagor reached out to grab Will's free arm. Will twisted, trying desperately to avoid him. Egon kicked Will's legs out from under him, then grabbed his other arm from Slagor and held both of them together. He pulled out a rope and swiftly had Will's hands tied behind his back.
Erak stepped forwards, no longer willing to sit by and ignore his oath. "Slagor, let him go," he growled. Halt noticed that Will had a shallow cut on his face, just below his right eye, and forced himself to turn his gaze downwards until he regained his composure. From when Egon smacked him. Halt looked up just in time to see Egon grinning maliciously.
"It's the law, Jarl. Escaped slaves are answerable to Ragnak. We gotta follow the rules." Erak ignored this.
"I've made a helmsman's oath that they won't be harmed."
"Oaths like that are void if they break the law." Lies, Halt thought angrily. He noticed idly that a drop of blood had slid out of the cut on Will's face. Erak looked frustrated.
"Hear us out!" he yelled. Not it was Slagor's turn to ignore him. He gestured to Egon, who shoved Will in the back. Hands tied behind him, Will was slightly lacking in balance, and stumbled. Slagor caught him by one arm. Will grimaced at the awkward position.
"Move!" he barked.
This was too much for Halt. He calmly stepped out of his saddle and walked up to the group. Will was in a strange sort of half-fallen position, with Slagor being the only thing keeping him off the ground. He had Will by one of his bound arms, causing him to wince in pain.
"That's enough," he said quietly. Egon chuckled.
"As if you could do anything to stop us. Listen to me, Araluen," he said, his face close to Halt's, "If I had my way, once we punish this one you'd all be chucked right over there—" he pointed to a ramshackle building Halt recognized as the slavehouse in the middle of the yard. Will shivered involuntarily. "—But you're clearly under the Jarl's protection. So we'll just take this one and be on our way." He grabbed one of Will's arms and Slagor took the other. They began leading him away from the group, completely ignoring Evanlyn. Halt briefly entertained himself with the thought that Will clearly hadn't made himself popular with the Skandians. As the thought crossed his mind, Egon smacked Will again, the sharp sound ringing in the silence.
Will's head turned around, blood now smeared all over his cheek. His eyes met Halt's. They were begging, pleading even, for Halt to do something. For Halt to save him.
And Halt took off after them, because he knew he had to. He couldn't let those monsters torture Will. Because Will was more to Halt than an apprentice. He was like his son.
He had saved Will, of course. He still remembered the look of relief on Will's face as they had convinced that poor excuse for a human being Egon to let go of him. He remembered gently untying his hands and cleaning his face—and, most of all, he remembered the way Will had clung to him for most of the rest of the night, refusing to let go.
He thought back to the first time Egon smacked Will. Will had stopped fighting. That wasn't the Will he knew. It was the Will that had vanished along with his innocence, the Will that had been stamped out of the current Will by cold and starvation.
He was different, there was no denying. He knew more, had seen more. But, Halt mused, in several ways it made him stronger that he was before. Even with the information he had learned the previous night…
"I'm starving!" Will said, moving quickly over to the dinner table. Halt came out from the kitchen carrying two bowls laden with beef stew and set them on the table.
"Good." He said shortly. Will smiled—a bit sadly, Halt thought—and sat down. Halt glanced at the table in front of him with a raised eyebrow.
"Are you planning on eating that with your face?" he asked, indicating the lack of utensils next to Will's plate. Will looked up with a puzzled expression on his face before dawning one of sudden understanding.
"Oh," he said. "I'm not quite used to it yet." He grinned ruefully. Halt watched him disappear into the kitchen. Something about that was not quite right. Will came out several seconds later with a spoon.
They ate in silence. Halt finished with his bowl, and was looking up to ask Will if he wanted more when he stopped. Will was staring at his lap. He had only eaten a few spoonfuls of his stew.
"You going to finish that?" he asked. Will didn't respond. Halt sighed—Evanlyn had warned him about this. It was one of the side effects of the warmweed. "Will!" Nothing. Halt walked over and gently slapped the boy. "Will?" This time, Will looked up, his eyes slightly unfocused.
"Hmm?" he questioned. Halt sighed.
"Your stew. Are you going to eat it, or just stare at it all night?" He raised an eyebrow in predictable Halt fashion.
"Oh. No, I'm full," Will said distractedly, the unfocused look gone from his eyes. Halt stared at him skeptically.
"You said you were starving." Will ignored him.
Normally, this would have infuriated Halt to no end, but now he had to make an exception. He walked around the table, pulling his chair up so it was next to Will's.
"Will," he said, his voice serious. Will looked up this time, Halt noted with relief. "We need to talk." Will shrugged.
Halt thought for a moment—after all, there were several ways not to start a conversation, and one of them was asking someone exactly what happened when they had been kidnapped by bloodthirsty pirates. But he couldn't think of any other way to begin. Evanlyn had told them enough to get by, enough to understand what had taken place and why. But that wasn't enough. Halt needed details, and there was only one way he was going to get them. He hesitated—then took the plunge.
"Will—what happened to you? In Skandia?"
Will was quiet. "We told you. First, there was a storm, so we stopped at Skorghjil—"
Halt held up a hand, warding off the rest of the explanation. "No, that's what you did. I want to know what they did to you."
Halt knew from the look on Will's face that he had known exactly what he had meant the first time.
"Why do you need to know?" he asked softly. Halt stared.
"You flinch when anyone raises their voice near you. You say you're starving, then only eat a few bites. You don't ask questions."
Will managed a weak grin. "That gave it right away, I guess." Halt nodded.
Will looked out the window. "I don't want to talk about this, you know." Again, Halt nodded.
"Yes. I do know. But I need to understand what happened. If I don't, I can't help you."
"What if I don't want help?" Will asked loudly. Halt shushed him.
"Not so loud. You do want help. You just don't want to ask for it."
Will resumed his deadpanned stair at the wall. He began to speak in a quiet voice.
"They rarely ever fed us. I remember being so hungry my insides actually hurt." He stopped. Halt motioned for him to go on, giving no sign of the anger that was building up inside him. That explained Will's strange eating habits—he wasn't used to having this much food. Will brought his knees up to his chest and hugged them tightly. Remembering.
"It was so cold. Sometimes that's all I can remember. It was so intense; it was like a physical being. I would sit there, in the slavehouse, night after night, and all I could feel was the cold. And it was painful; I remember how every inch of exposed skin felt like it was on fire, how my body ached, how the wind stung like hundreds of tiny needles. It was all-consuming. It was all that was there. Just the cold. You couldn't remember what it felt like to be warm, because it was just the cold."
Will rocked back and forth, shutting his eyes tightly. Halt stared on in amazement. He couldn't imagine how Will had survived.
"And when they knew you were giving in, they gave you the warmweed. To keep you going. To keep you working. And eventually, it kills you."
Will shook his head. Silence enveloped the cabin. Halt was stunned. He had heard about warmweed's addictive properties, but never had it come up in conversation that it killed. Will had been that close to dying, and nobody would have cared. Nobody except Evanlyn, he corrected himself, and once again thanked his lucky stars for that girl's bravery and resourcefulness. Without her, Will would have died in a frozen corner of hell devoid of any warmth or kindness. As it was, he was here. They were both here.
"Was that all they did?" Halt asked quietly, hoping beyond hope that it was. Will shook his head, and Halt felt his heart drop into his stomach.
"They gave us so much work to do, but they didn't want me—or anyone else—getting away. So they—they shackled our ankles together, so we couldn't run. They made it so hard to get the work done—" Will broke off. "And they never took them off. They hurt so badly sometimes…"
Will couldn't help it—a tear slid down his cheek. He made no move to wipe it away. Halt stared at him, aghast at this newfound piece of information. The other two, he had already guessed. But this… This was inhuman. He suddenly remembered the way Slagor had called Will 'it' and snarled—mentally, of course.
"Anything else?" Halt asked, concern in his voice. There was no point in hiding it now, he thought. And it would be good for Will to finally have someone in his life who would be concerned for him—not that he would notice at the moment, Halt thought. Will had his eyes squeezed shut tightly and was maintaining that constant rocking motion. Back and forth. Back and forth.
"Whenever we did something they didn't like, they would beat us," he said suddenly. Halt's head jerked up in astonishment. In some ways, he supposed, he had known it was coming. In others, he had just been hoping against all hope that it hadn't.
"Sometimes they just beat us whenever they felt like it. Egon, he—he was one of them."
Halt thought back to that horrible day when Will and Evanlyn had entered Hallasholm as escaped slaves, and Slagor and Egon nearly dragged Will off to… The very thought made his blood run cold.
"How many times did this happen?" Halt questioned softly. It was starting to sound like an interrogation, he thought. Will thought for a minute before answering.
"They would always carry leather straps around. It was when they were really mad that they—they would drag you off and—" he took a gigantic, shuddering breath and squeezed his eyes shut. "They bound your hands over your head and ripped off your shirt and then—they whipped you. Ten lashes," he whispered at the end.
Halt felt like exploding. He didn't, of course—he couldn't. Not with Will in the state he was in. He settled for pulling the boy into his arms, sensing his need for comfort. He felt Will lean into the embrace readily.
"I was so scared," Will whispered. "I was so scared when they had me in Hallasholm. I thought they were going to—" he stopped. "One of the slaves tried to escape once. They made us all watch while they—whipped him. He almost died. I thought that was going to be me," he finished softly. Halt pulled away from the hug and looked at him sternly.
"Will, you know I would never let that happen to you while I was there," he said. Will nodded.
"I know—it was just—scary."
Halt nodded before thinking of something.
"Will, pull up your shirt please." Will gaped at Halt.
"Just pull up your shirt or I'll pull it up for you!" Halt said.
Will lifted his shirt with trembling hands, knowing the reason for the command. Halt gently turned the boy around so he could see his back, forcing himself to ignore how painfully thin he was. He closed his eyes briefly and winced.
Dozens of white lines crisscrossed Will's back. Whip scores. Halt hated them, but he couldn't pull his eyes off them. They were ugly and beautiful; terrible and wonderful all at the same time. There were so many.
He could feel the anger building up inside of him. How dare anyone even touch Will? he thought angrily. Will slowly turned around and dropped his shirt.
"Will, why—why didn't you tell anyone?" Shrug. Halt persisted. "Will, those monsters hurt you. You can't just hold all this inside—Will, you can't go on like this!"
Will looked up at Halt with his big brown eyes. Once, they had been sparkling and full of curiosity. Now they were filled with silent suffering and pain.
"I thought—I thought—" he trailed off. "I don't' know what I thought. I'm just so confused!" he burst out. Halt let him continue yelling, knowing he needed to get it all out of his system.
"I was done with the whole 'hero' thing after the Kalkara incident. I was looking forward to some quiet time—or as quiet as my life can get—" Will laughed bitterly. Halt had to admit that the boy had a penchant for trouble he hadn't' seen in anyone else, not even himself. "—When this happened! I'm glad I met Erak and Svengal, but why did everything have to happen the way that it did? Why did all this happen to me? Why does everything always happen to me?
"And people are talking about it everywhere! I'm no more than a figurehead to them; I'm not really a person. And all I want is to get away from all of it—the attention, the memories—but it's a part of me,and it defines me, and it always will!"
Will sank down against the wall and touched his head to his knees. Halt walked over to him and gently put a hand on his shoulder.
"Will, it doesn't define you—you aren't a slave any more. You're safe."
Will let out a brokenhearted sob and reached up for his shirt collar. He pulled it down, revealing his right shoulder.
The first things Halt saw were the whip scores—it seemed the whippings hadn't merely been contained to Will's back. The second thing he saw was what Will had meant him to see—what Egon had looked at when identifying Will. The black marking on his upper arm, in the shape of a sideways eight, an infinity, burned into his flesh.
"They branded me," Will whispered. "I can never get away."
Halt looked up at the expectant faces of Gilan and Crowley. Waiting for some sort of explanation. Having no idea…
"Well," he began. "You know that Will and Evanlyn—Cassandra—were captured by Skandians after burning the bridge." Nods. "What you probably didn't know is that they weren't just prisoners of war." Gilan looked puzzled. Crowley had a grave look on his face, and Halt nodded in his direction. He continued.
"Think, Gilan. These are Skandians. When Wolfwind reached Skandia, Will and Evanl—Cassandra were sold as slaves."
Crowley nodded. He had expected as much. Gilan looked horrified.
"What?" he said. Halt gave him a sad look.
"Yes. Now, in Skandia, once you 'own' a slave, you can do anything with him or her," he said, careful not to use the word it. "Unfortunately, most Skandians don't consider their slaves to be actual humans. They're completely expendable possessions."
Gilan looked up. "That's horrible," he said softly. Halt nodded.
"It can have quite a demoralizing effect on people."
"Will." Halt nodded again. He was going to have to actually use words soon to answer those one-word questions, he thought, as he realized his neck was getting sore.
"Well, Will and Evanlyn were both sold to the Oberjarl—all the jarls really; most of them sleep there—" Gilan made a get-to-the-point gesture.
"Anyway, they were put to work in different places. Evanlyn was placed in the kitchens—hard work, but there was food to eat and a roof over her head. Will—" Halt stopped. He didn't want to relive any of this again. He forced himself to continue.
"There's this place called the Yard," he said carefully. "The slaves there take care of all the yard work that needs done there. It's not quite as pleasant as being in the kitchens—"
"Halt?" Gilan asked, not liking where this seemed to be going. Halt wouldn't meet his eyes. He took a deep breath before continuing.
"They put Will out there. He told me—actually, I almost had to force it out of him—about some of the things that happened there. It's horrible. They rarely ever feed the slaves, and they don't care about them at all past their ability to work. As I said, they're expendable. The slaves themselves usually freeze to death after several years. They don't want any of the slaves running away—as if they could try—so they shackle their ankles together."
Gilan looked very close to tears. Crowley was grave. "Is that all, Halt? Tell me that's all." Gilan's voice was pleading. Halt shook his head. Gilan's breath quickened.
"They beat him," Halt found himself saying.
"Beat him?" Gilan asked. There was something in his eyes Halt couldn't quite place. His voice was distant.
"You know, the process of hitting someone repeatedly with an object," Halt said wearily, without any of his usual sarcastic sting.
"They didn't!" Surprisingly, this was Crowley. Halt recalled something Erak had said several months ago—"That boy's a Ranger. They look after their own." Crowley's anger came from the fact that someone had harmed one of the close-knit group he was a member of, even though he didn't know Will personally. Halt knew the other Rangers would be furious when they heard—and Halt had no doubt that they would. He couldn't work up the courage to nod in answer, much less tell them about the brand or the warmweed. He decided that could wait.
"Why?" Gilan asked him, his voice cracking slightly. "Why would anyone do that?" Halt just shook his head. "He's just a boy! A boy!" He should be worrying about whether or not he's going to pass his next assessment, not—not any of this!" Gilan yelled frustratedly. Crowley couldn't help but nod.
"Halt," he couldn't resist putting in, "A little adventure is good for the soul—" Gilan snorted derisively "—But this is getting ridiculous. Will has saved multiple countries from being taken over and he's been captured and nearly killed and tortured and he's in—what, his second year?" Halt raised an eyebrow.
"Of course, how silly of me. I'll have to go ask him to tone it down a bit."
Gilan gave a laugh, which he managed to turn into a cough at the last minute. Crowley gave him a suspicious look before replying.
"Really though, you should just try and lay low for a few years. Relax. Give Will some time to be a normal apprentice. He'll be his same old self soon enough."
Halt gave Gilan a quick glance and shook his head. It was a lie, and they all knew it. Will was different—too different.
Gilan gently brushed a hand across Will's peaceful face. Halt stood in the doorway to Will's bedroom, watching silently. Gilan stared down at Will's sleeping form for a moment.
"He didn't deserve any of it," Gilan said, addressing the figure in the doorway. Halt shook his head, walking over to his former apprentice.
"No, he didn't."
Gilan traced a scar down Will's face. It was one of the ones that Gilan had noticed upon his arrival because Will hadn't had it when he'd left.
"Will he ever be back? To normal, I mean."
Halt sighed deeply. Truthfully, he'd asked himself that question more than once ever since returning to Hallasholm and seeing for himself just how scarred his apprentice truly was.
"I don't know, Gil. Time will tell." Gilan sniffed pathetically. Halt couldn't blame him. He knew that Gilan had come to see the younger boy as somewhat of a surrogate brother—to have found all this out must have completely destroyed him, especially when he still thought some of the blame for Will being captured rested on his shoulders.
Will tossed in his sleep. Halt thought nothing of it—until he saw with horror that Will's right shoulder was exposed, and Gilan was staring at in intently.
"Infinity," Gilan whispered quietly. Halt walked over and put a hand on his shoulder.
"He's strong. He'll pull through. I know it."
Gilan nodded. But it was a lie. No one could know whether or not Will would put this behind him.
All they knew was that they would be there to help.
Will's tossing grew more and more pronounced. His fists were clenched. As Halt and Gilan watched, he cried out.
"Will?" Gilan asked. No response. Will shrank back—supposedly responding to the sound of Gilan's voice—and made a noise Gilan could have sworn was a whimper.
Halt was shaking his apprentice's shoulder gently. "Will! Wake up! It's not real, it's just a nightmare!" He didn't respond.
Will gasped suddenly, jerking away from Gilan in fear. Gilan started. "Halt?" he asked uncertainly. Halt didn't answer. He was staring intently at Will's face, contorted with some unknown pain.
Will's arms flailed in the air. "Gilan, help me hold him down!" Gilan grabbed his other arm and held it down to the bedcovers, which were damp with sweat.
"No, please, no, help, stop, please…" Will whispered to an unknown assailant. Gilan's eyes widened in shock. Neither was aware of the dark figure in the doorway, who was watching the proceedings with sorrow.
"No! No—STOP!" Will screamed suddenly.
"Will!" Halt yelled. "Wake up—WILL!" Will thrashed around wildly, held back only by Halt and Gilan.
"HALT!" Will screamed in desperation.
He sat up suddenly, shaking and covered in cold sweat. "H—Halt?" he said fearfully, as if worried that his master would disappear. Halt nodded. Will sat still for a moment getting his bearings. His chest was heaving. He was trembling uncontrollably. And he was terrified.
Without warning, he threw himself into Halt's arms. Halt tensed at the unexpected contact, then relaxed as he soothed his apprentice.
"It's alright, it's over now, you're safe," Halt murmured comfortingly. Will buried his face in Halt's cloak. Halt was surprised to feel the boy's shoulders heaving with great, wracking sobs of relief. He patted Will's shoulder awkwardly, unused to dealing with this sort of thing.
Gilan slipped quietly out of the room. He bumped into the figure in the doorway on his way out. Before he could even start in surprise, Crowley grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the room, leaving master and apprentice together for some much-needed time alone.
Will's sobs began to slow. Halt rubbed a hand along his back in a soothing gesture. Halt waited for Will's breathing to steady before pulling away from the embrace to look over the young Ranger.
Will's face was pale. His eyes darted around the room fearfully. He was still shaking slightly. He looked like a hunted animal, Halt thought. Then he corrected himself. A helpless hunted animal.
He waited a moment, letting Will's nerves settle. Letting his mind carefully run over the familiar details in the room. Letting him realize that he was safe.
"You know," he started quietly. "Sometimes it helps to talk about it." Will's eyes refused to meet Halt's. Slowly, he shook his head.
Halt sighed. "It makes you feel better." Will looked up. Halt nearly stopped breathing when he gazed into his eyes. They were wide open and dark. Where one could normally see laughter and happiness, there was only suffering and fear, and a painful sort of denial.
"It might," his apprentice whispered, so softly that Halt had to lean his head closer to him in order to hear. "It might help," he said again, " If it was just a normal nightmare. If it was just an irrational twist on reality. If it was something completely impossible that could be talked away, back to where it came from. If…" Will looked down.
"It's not. It's not any of those things. It's something very rational, very real, very possible. It can't just be talked away. It's always there. It's a memory," he finished softly.
That had not been what Halt had been expecting. Surely someone had been hurt, or killed, or maybe, Halt thought, Will had even dreamed that he had abandoned him willingly, left him to the Skandians. But memories? He was totally unequipped to deal with such a situation.
"It still might make you feel better." Will looked down.
Will's voice was even, a block, Halt knew, for the inner turmoil Will was experiencing. He placed a hand on the young man's shoulder. Halt wasn't sure if it did any good, but he kept it there.
"We were on Skorghjil," Will said in a shaky voice. "It was the day after Erak and I scared Slagor with the knife-throwing thing. And he wasn't very happy with me." Will swallowed.
"He wanted revenge. So he waited. And he found me one day, when I was alone.
"Skorghjil isn't a large island, but it's big enough that you could hide there for several hours. So he grabbed me, and took me to the other side of the island.
"And then it stops."
Will looked up. Halt's brow creased.
"What happened after that?" Will looked puzzled.
"I woke up." Halt shook his head.
"I mean, in real life." Will made a helpless gesture with his hands.
"Why does it matter?" Halt raised an eyebrow.
"Will, it matters because I need to know. You didn't leave off at a very good place for my nerves."
Will thought for a moment. "No, I suppose I didn't." He gave Halt a weak smile. "It wasn't too horrible. He just hit me around a few times. The really terrifying part was when he was dragging me away. I didn't know what was going to happen, so of course my mind was coming up with the most painful things possible. I've noticed that that tends to happed."
Halt nodded at the last part. "It does. And it's never helpful." Will gave a small laugh. Halt was pleased to realize it was genuine. He allowed Will to think he's managed to get away with it for a few more moments more before looking deep into his eyes.
"It didn't really stop there, did it." It wasn't a question. Will's head jerked up in surprise. There was a moment's silence.
"And he did more than just hit you around, didn't he." This time, there was a cautious pause before the answer."
"Yes? Well, no—I mean, sort of, but—" Halt cut him off.
"What do you mean?" Will considered.
"Well, he did hit me—just perhaps a bit more than previously implied."
"And perhaps it was also slightly more painful than one would think from my previous summary."
Halt leaned forward. "Will."
Will sighed in defeat. " Slagor was so angry—he was furious. And he wasn't thinking straight. I think he was drunk, which he probably was, judging from the last night's events. He just came up on me, and grabbed me—which hurt a lot, by the way—and dragged me off to some corner of the island where no one could see us."
Will took a shallow breath. Halt was pushing away his anger, forcing himself to listen patiently and calmly as Will related the details of his nightmare.
"He had two of his crew members waiting there. He had them blindfold me, then grab me, one by each of my arms. They forced me to kneel, and held my arms outstretched. And then he started beating on me."
"How long?" Halt asked. Seeing Will's puzzled face, he expanded. "How long did it go on for?"
"Er—" Will swallowed nervously. "Erak might have found me unconscious a few hours later?"
Halt cursed. He couldn't believe anyone would be—could be—sick enough to actually do that. And not just do it, but to take pleasure in it!
"That was the night I got this," Will muttered, tracing the scar on his face. Gilan had been looking at it earlier, Halt remembered.
The scar was now a pale whitish color, after almost a year. It ran diagonally from just below Will's right eye to near the corner of his mouth. It was, Halt remembered, the same spot where Egon had opened up a shallow cut in what seemed like a lifetime away.
"Will, how did you get that?" Will shrugged.
"As I said, he was drunk. And angry. He grabbed his dagger, and the rest is history, as they say."
Halt said nothing. He settled for looking intently at his young apprentice. "Did he get you anywhere else?" he asked concernedly.
The corners of Will's mouth twitched upwards in a smile. "Yes. It's smaller, though." He pulled up his sleeve, exposing his right forearm. There was a thin, shallow cut that ran from the crook of his elbow down, slightly off center, for about three inches. Halt examined it carefully.
"Hmmm… You're lucky that it missed that vein there—that could have been ugly…" The corners of Will's mouth twitched upwards.
"I think he was aiming for it. But, luckily enough for me, he couldn't hold the knife still. Hurt like heck, though," he added.
Halt sighed. For a few moments, the master and apprentice sat in silence. As Halt could have guessed, Will was the one to break it.
"Halt?" he asked tentatively. Halt gave a noncommittal grunt. Will took it as a sign to go on and continued. "How did you know? That I was lying about my nightmare?"
Halt answered immediately. "You were yelling and kicking up a storm. I thought that there was no way it was as mundane as you described if you reacted that violently." Will nodded.
Several minutes later, Will lay down. He closed his eyes, feeling the world of sleep beckoning welcomingly. But something in his mind said no, he wasn't done yet, he had yet to complete an important task… Reluctantly, Will pushed through the fog of sleep into total wakefulness. He smiled—a real, truly happy smile as he remembered his reason.
"Halt?" His voice was soft, even in the total quiet of the room.
Halt was shocked. When he finally regained his composure, his apprentice was already asleep, exhausted after the night's events.
Halt watched the steady rising and falling of Will's chest. It was strangely comforting. Up and down. Up and down.
Suddenly, he was reminded of a day, over a year ago. Sitting on Abelard, the ocean lapping gently at his ankles, watching his apprentice—his son—sailing away from him.
He remembered his promise. He had sat there, long after the wolfship disappeared over the horizon, watching the sun sinking in the sky, his mouth moving in a silent promise, over and over, to the boy who was courageous enough to fight a battle he knew he could never win.
I'll find you, Will.
And now, Halt was reminded of his promise. He looked down at the sleeping boy beside him.
"I'll always find you, Will," he whispered. "No matter where you are, or what you've done, or on what terms we may be on, I swear I'll find you."
Once again, two shadowy figures—one older, one younger—watched the proceedings from the doorway.
But this time, they were smiling.
Now that you're done with this, read about the conversation between Crowley and Gilan in my story 'Different.'
Clocking in at 25 pages in Word and 7, 923 words, this is by far the longest oneshot I've ever written. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
It's been revised dozens upon dozens of times, by me and my friend The Lone Clapper, my wonderful beta-ish person. I tried to make it as in-character as possible, which is harder than it looks. Halt isn't very easy…
Please review. I put so much hard work into this. Please tell me what you think. I want to improve this in any way that I can, but I can only do that if you tell me!
Thank you so much for reading. Now go off and REVIEW!