Title: Keeping Him Safe
Author: Obi the Kid
Summary: Will and Gilan return home to Halt after escaping from capture.
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."
"If either of you ever do anything so stupid again, so help me to any power that will listen, I will kill you both myself!"
The weariness in Halt's voice, matched by the weariness in his mind, fed the emotion of the moment. Feelings of anger, relief and everything in between settled into his heart at the sight before him.
His students, former and current. Both worn and haggard…but alive.
There had been no certainty of the 'alive' part until an hour ago when Halt had gotten desperate word that Will and Gilan had been found staggering through the forest and now were being treated in the Redmont castle infirmary. The exhaustive three week search, finally over.
It was Halt's first glimpse of them in over three weeks since they'd vanished during a seemingly routine hunt. In Gilan, he saw evidence of physical abuse, lack of sleep and most worrisome - malnutrition. But he also saw determination. Halt was more than certain Gilan had done everything in his power to look after Will during whatever they'd been through.
Will had all the same marks as Gilan, only worse. He was thin and sleep deprived. The hollowness that rested beneath his eyes brought a haunting and aged look to his formerly bright and youthful face. Sitting quietly in his infirmary bed, he appeared fatigued and haggard - as if the slightest movement would push him over and into unconsciousness. Somehow though he held on and kept himself upright.
Halt moved closer to them, wanting to be certain that they'd heard his worried threat. "You understand, yes? You ever disappear like that again, and I'm done. I mean it."
Pure, visible emotion was rare for the elder ranger, but Gilan and Will both saw the water brimming in the dark eyes before them, especially as those eyes came closer. Halt reached for Will first, putting his hands on either side of the young face, smoothing the dirt and dried blood with his thumbs. Trusting the castle healers, but needing to know for himself, he continued his exam, running his hands through Will's disheveled hair, around his head, over his back, before pushing back slightly and holding him at arm's length.
Solemnly, Will watched his mentor work, and when the exam was complete, he said only, "I'm okay, Halt."
Halt said nothing as he pulled the boy to him in an embrace and held him there for a long moment. Will sagged against him, exhausted. Upon release, Halt pushed his apprentice down onto the bed, ordering him to stay put. A warm blanket was drawn to his shoulders.
The Ranger then turned to his former apprentice, conducting much the same exam on the taller man. Gilan accepted the hands and the worry behind them. He also accepted the warm, desperate embrace from his former teacher. When Halt finished, he held Gilan's face between his palms. "You both look a mess. But you took care of him."
Gilan sighed. "The best I could, Halt. He…we've both been through a lot and I know you and everyone else needs to hear the details, but we've not slept in such a long time."
"I see that. I won't push, Gilan. I swear. I owe you for bringing him home in one piece."
"He was strong and stubborn, Halt, you know how he can be."
Halt sat on the nearby chair next to Gilan's bed as the taller Ranger leaned back to rest himself. Gilan let tired words fall easily. "Feels so good to lie down and rest, but there's something else…the horses! Halt…"
"They're fine. Nervous, but fine. I have to tell you though when they came back to us days later with empty saddles and bloody reins, I..." His voice broke off, not wanting to speak of what his worst nightmares had suggested.
"S'okay, Halt. Safe now." The younger Ranger began drifting off, but felt a calloused hand on his own as he did. They were safe now. Halt would see to that.
Against healer orders, the Rangers left the infirmary the next day. Neither of the injured were in any shape to ride however, so they borrowed a horse-drawn wagon and driver - the smoothest driver in the fief. The Baron had requested more details of the ordeal, though in reality, the Rangers were only required to report to the Rangers, and Crowley would be by soon enough. Halt however promised that Baron Arald would get the complete story once Will and Gilan had an opportunity to settle, to rest and to tell that story.
Will was ordered straight to bed, despite the late morning hour. The boy had no strength with which to protest. There wasn't even an objection when Halt followed him into the room, sat at his bedside and waited until he was asleep before leaving. Back in the living area, he pushed a few logs around the fire place until they were burning hot. Only then did he sit and allow his shoulders to fall free of the weight of worry.
Having made himself a spot on the couch, Gilan leaned back and ever so carefully stretched his legs out, allowing his lanky frame to lay lengthwise. The bruising on his face seemed less pronounced, but still marred his handsome features. Gilan ran a hand through his long hair, brushing it away from his eyes.
"I can't wait for a bath. Feels like I've lived in a pile of dirt these last weeks."
"You're welcome to use the bath. You know this cabin as well as anyone. Everything is yours as long as you stay."
"About that, Halt…"
"Don't start, Gilan. You can't even sit upright for more than a few hours, much less sit horseback for the long ride back to your fief. Crowley will set up a temporary Ranger there, you know he will. You're either here or back in the infirmary until I see you are capable. And don't try to counter me on this. You will lose."
He would lose. Gilan was no fool and he knew Halt better than almost anyone. The man would follow through on his threats. Well, all except the one where he promised to kill he and Will if they ever disappeared like that again. Halt knew it was no fault of their own, and Gilan knew that his former master was only speaking from painful emotion.
"Your home is my home, huh?"
"Don't argue with your teacher, Gilan."
Gilan stifled a laugh and held back from saying the obvious that technically Halt was no longer his teacher. Technically. In reality, he would always be a student of the venerable Ranger, and happy for it.
"So you want some of the details before I pass out again?"
"If you're up to telling them."
"We never saw faces. They were hooded. I can't place the voices or accents either. They wanted information on the King's Army. Weak points, favored strategies, things like that. That part I did tell the Baron as soon as I saw him. He's aware."
"You didn't give them any information though."
Gilan slid his head to the right to look Halt in the eye, hating what had to admit next. "No." He paused briefly, before finishing. "But Will did."
"He didn't mean to and held out as long as he could, but they did a number on him, Halt. Will flat out told them that they would have to kill him first, but they didn't fall for that old trick. They kept him awake, upright and unfed for days. He was half delusional when he finally submitted to their questions, two weeks later. And after they got the information they wanted, or at least all they figured he had, they had no more use for us. So, they humored themselves by beating the crap out of us every day afterwards. We were kept in some type of underground cell. Hands and feet chained. The only comfort was that they kept us together when one of us wasn't under interrogation. I had a chance to bring Will's mind back to me at the end of the day, trying to keep part of him safe. He did respond to me, sometimes just staring at me and putting a death grip on my hand for hours at a time. I promised him I wouldn't leave him to die by their hand. If death was the only option, I would make that decision for both of us and I…"
The young Ranger's voice broke at the thought of what the outcome may have been. He turned his head away from Halt's gaze and closed his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Halt. I did all I could for him, and he did everything to withstand them. He's just a boy and no boy should be submitted to the types of horrors they put him through. I can tell you though, Will held out longer than most men would have. You'd have been proud of him. I was."
Halt said nothing for a time. Emotions were much too close to the surface. When he finally did speak again, he wasn't sure if his former student was still awake.
"Still awake. For now."
"How did you escape?"
"They were raided. By who and why I have no idea, but they scattered quickly and had no time to finish us off or whatever they had planned. Luckily at the time they were raided, we were not chained to anything. We walked out, hitched a ride on a hay wagon with a man who said he was coming close to Redmont, then we walked – well staggered really – until an out-riding patrol found us. Not a very dramatic rescue and the end of the tale seems simple enough, huh?"
Again, Gilan turned his head to face Halt. His tone lowered as he flashed his eyes back towards Will's bedroom. "He feels terrible about what he told them. He knows he did it, but he can't understand why he did it. When you bring the subject up, just be aware, he's not handling that part very well."
"I won't fault him, you know that."
"I know that, Halt, but Will's biggest fear has always been that one day he'll fail your training – he'll fail you. In his mind, he's done that now. When they tossed him back to me in the evenings, he stammered on about that, mumblings that you'd be disappointed in him. I tried to reassure him, but the lack of food and sleep will do funny things to one's mind and ability to think logically. So just go easy on him for a while when it comes to that subject."
Halt nodded, appreciating Gilan's honesty and concern with Will's well being.
"He seemed awfully attached to you on our way here this morning. I noticed him on the carriage sitting as close to you as he could."
"That's how I had him sit when it was just us. That small amount of contact and familiarity helped us both. His mind isn't right yet, Halt. I think that's why the healers were upset with you talking him home so quickly."
"One of them is coming here this afternoon to instruct me on what he needs. But, seeing how lost he
was yesterday, I couldn't leave him there. He needed to be home. Familiar. Tug is here. His bedroom. Smells and sights that he knows. And he doesn't need his friends gawking at him in the infirmary until he feels better - no matter how much they care. I'd have done the same for you at his age."
"I know you would," Gilan said softly and knowingly. Halt may seem difficult and tough on the outside, but if he allowed you close to him, there were no better hands to be in.
The elder Ranger followed Gilan's eye lids rise up and fall down systematically until finally he put him out of his misery. "Go to sleep, Gil. I'm here."
And that's all Gilan needed to know, that his former teacher and still close friend, was there looking after he and Will as late morning melded into afternoon and beyond.
Beyond - turned out to be the next day for Gilan and two days later for Will. The uninterrupted rest had given them both a period of energy enough for several hours of consciousness. Will took a spot on the couch, accepting a plate of soft food from his master. Not the most appetizing of provisions he'd ever been offered, but Halt had been instructed by the doctor to follow certain protocol or he would return Will to the infirmary, Ranger or no Ranger. In addition, the lack of sustenance in the past three weeks had left the boy's stomach extremely sensitive and it would need to be reintroduced to food carefully. The bigger issue however was this; no coffee for an entire week. It was simply too strong for his stomach to handle.
The problem with all of this was that as hungry as he was, Will couldn't bring himself to eat. No matter how much he craved the intake, his stomach just couldn't convince his mind how important the nutrition was.
"Will, eat. It's not as disgusting at it looks, trust me. Even Gilan ate it. If you don't eat, you'll end up in the infirmary again under the care of one of those cold-handed castle healers."
The boy pushed the food around his plate, carefully lifting the fork to his lips and tasting gingerly. "Not too disgusting."
"See? Now eat it."
Instead of moving food to his mouth, he used his mouth to ask questions. And although Halt was glad for the questions, eating was more important right now. Still, Will persisted.
"Seeing to the horses before he falls asleep again."
"Is he okay?"
"Better than you, but he still needs a lot of rest."
"Can I go see him?"
"Not right now, Will. Please eat something. I don't want to harp on you about this, but I will."
"I just want to make sure Gilan is okay." Will's worried eyes cast downward, as if ashamed of his need to know his friend was well.
Halt moved to the boy and knelt in front of him. "Will, I promise you, he's all right. I was here the entire time that you both were sleeping. I made sure you were both safe. Look at me please."
He did, and saw only concern in his mentor's dark eyes. But still…"I just…I can't explain it, Halt. Can I see him, please? Just for a minute? I'll eat, I swear I will."
Halt sighed. There was no reason for Will to explain. Gilan had taken care of him during the nightmarish ordeal, and Will had attached himself to that care during that time. It was difficult to let go of that connection so quickly.
Disappearing for a short time, Halt returned with Gilan in tow. The tall Ranger, moving slowly, went to his friend and knelt tentatively in the same place Halt had been moments before. He put a soft hand on Will's knee. "Hey. Heard you were looking for me."
Surprisingly, a smile crossed the boy's bruised face as he nodded. "Was worried is all. You're okay though."
"I am. Halt's taking good care of us."
"Yeah. He always does."
"He does. Tug looks good. Halt said he had a few minor scrapes, but he's all healed now. I told him you'd be to see him soon. But you need your strength back first. That mush on your plate, don't be too scared of it, even if Halt did make it himself. It's healthy if nothing else."
"Can't have coffee."
"For a week, I heard. Brutal. I'm off the stuff too. It may be the worst punishment there is for a Ranger – to take away his coffee. You'll make it though. And I'll be around, but you need to trust Halt when he tells you that I'm all right."
"I do. But, I just needed to see for myself. It's…hard to explain." The young eyes begged for his friend to appreciate his bemused state.
And his friend did. "Hard to explain, but easy to understand. We know, Will. We know. I should get back to the horses now before I tire out. I'll see you soon."
Will nodded and refocused on his food, forcing forkfuls down almost against his own will. Halt set a warm cup of herbal tea on the small table near to the couch. "It's not coffee, but the best I can offer."
"Sorry for the Gilan thing."
"You've got a few weeks to get yourself back to normal. If seeing my annoying, much-too-tall, non-scruffy looking former apprentice makes things better, I'm all for it."
The reward of another small smile at Halt's description of the younger Ranger. "He's a little scruffy looking right now though. Even his hair got messed up."
"And you know how he hates that, Mr. Perfect that he believes himself to be." A wink and half grin offered as they shared the friendly joke about their good friend. It helped to lift the spirits of them both. As they joked, Will lost track of his food, and glanced down to find his plate empty. The distraction was just what he had needed.
"You want more?" Halt asked hopefully.
"Not right now, but you were right. It wasn't too disgusting."
"Good. Because I made a tub of the stuff."
"Oh, great. I can't wait."
"Sarcasm, Will? It's so unbecoming on you."
Will smiled tiredly and sipped on his tea. He surprised his teacher then as he brought up the subject
that Halt had decided to leave alone. "I gave secrets away, Halt. I tried not to, but I couldn't stop it
from happening. Whoever these people are, they know things now. Things that few others do."
"Gilan told the Baron. We'll be ready for anything and Sir Rodney is already on the move. He'll counter the lost information, don't worry. He's not a Battle Master for nothing."
"I'm sorry I broke. I'm sorry I failed everything you taught me."
"Nonsense. Gilan said you held out longer than most. You failed nothing, Will. You did your training as a Ranger proud. As Rangers we can be courageous and we can be strong, but we can't be invincible."
Will accepted the words – the praise – from Halt and for a fleeting moment, felt a little less horrible about what he'd done.
The memories of what happened though – what he'd given up - would continue to weigh on him until the passage of time could dull the edges.
That next week was difficult. Will slept a large portion of the time, and when awake, Halt spent his time encouraging him to eat and keep an intake of fluids. Vivid nightmares plagued some of his rest, and he still held a needy attachment to Gilan's whereabouts and state of health. Gilan on the other hand was recovering much quicker, having not been not been subjected to the non-stop abuse that Will had suffered. On the ninth day, the young Ranger was antsy to return home. Not that he didn't appreciate Halt's care and hospitality, but if he was being truthful, the couch was not something he wished to make permanent. His tall, lean body needed the softness of his own bed and his own cabin.
"You can leave on one condition," Halt said to him as Gilan brushed Blaze's coat clean. "That Horace ride with you to the boundaries of your fief. Then you can release him."
"Halt, really. This isn't necessary. I'm strong enough to spend a day in the saddle. Blaze will go easy on me. I don't need a…"
"Don't say babysitter. It's just an 'in case' type of thing. Humor me, Gilan, for once in your life."
"I've lost count of how many times I've humored you, Halt."
"Okay then, consider it a favor. Will is still worried about and connected to you. If I tell him that you rode off for home alone…"
Gilan saw his point and conceded. "Fine. I'll take Horace with me. I can't believe you have me being escorted by a battle school apprentice."
"You can believe it and you expected it."
"Okay, so I did. That doesn't make it any less…humiliating." Gilan paused for a moment, seeing that Will had appeared in the doorway of the cabin. A quick glimpse in that direction, then he turned back and whispered, "He'll be okay, won't he Halt?"
The elder man didn't glance towards the cabin, he knew by Gilan's tone and eye movement that the boy was watching them. He too kept his voice low. "He will. This shook him rather severely in several directions and he's having a tough time figuring out which way to go. But he is getting stronger and he's gained a little weight back. Even lost some of that paleness in his face. We'll spend a few days with the horses and some light exercising to help occupy his mind. Do me a favor though. Don't be a stranger."
"I'll come by next week to see him as long as you promise me you'll keep him safe."
"You know I will. Now before you're off, stay with him while I ride to the castle and tell Horace where and when to meet you."
"You're leaving, aren't you?" Will squandered no time in asking the obvious when Gilan returned to the cabin.
"I am. I have to, Will. I'm strong enough to get home and begin to resume my duties there. I'm sure Crowley will keep my temporary replacement there with me for a week or so, to make sure I'm fully healthy, so don't fret. You're looking better each day. Halt says you'll spend a few days with Tug to start getting back into the swing of things. Tug's been missing you. He butts his head into me each time I mention your name. I do believe that's his way of telling me that it's you that he needs and not me."
The mention of his beloved gray pony brought a pleased smile to Will's face, but the expression quickly turned to sadness at the knowing of Gilan's departure. "What about the ride home? How will we be sure you got there safely?"
"Don't start on that. Halt has assigned me a babysitter. Horace. He rode into town to drop the message for Horace to meet me in an hour. He'll stay with me until home then let you know I arrived without trouble."
"Horace will like being assigned to sit a Ranger."
"Funny. You and Halt will get a good laugh out of this, I'm sure," Gilian replied with mocking hurt in his voice, as he gave a quick wink to his younger comrade.
Will turned a more serious path with the conversation. "You saved my life, Gil. You may not know it, but you did. You were the only thing safe and familiar that I had when I was out of my mind with no food and no sleep. At the very least, you helped me find part of myself each time they tossed me back into the cell. Sorry, I've been so clingy. I know I'm doing it, but I can't stop myself. That seems to be a theme with me lately."
"We saved each other. I'm glad neither of us had to go through that alone. You were strong, Will. I was proud of you. Still am. And although our stubborn old teacher won't ever admit it, he feels the same. So, you go easy and be safe. I'll see you next week for a visit. And the week after, you should be strong enough to visit me."
Will nodded and accepted Gilan's embrace, clinging to him briefly, but knowing it was time to let go of the need. He laughed as his hair was given a tousle by the tall Ranger before the man returned to the horses to pack Blaze's saddle pack. Halt returned soon after, spoke for a short time with his former pupil, gave a quick hug and sent him on his way to meet Horace at the edge of the forest trail.
Returning back inside, he found Will looking somber. Halt motioned at the couch where the boy sat. "At least we get our couch back. Those long legs of his take up a lot of room."
"You aren't happy to see him leave, are you, Halt?"
"Happy? No. Relieved he's strong enough to return to his duties, which means leaving? Yes. It was time, Will. He was anxious to get away. This cabin is small enough with the two of us here. With three of us…you all right?"
Will shrugged. "I guess so. It's hard to find normal again. I don't know which problem to work on first."
"Working on one will help the others. We go one step at a time, and that first step is spending some time with your horse. He's tired of me talking to him. Go out and visit for a while and when you feel worn down, come back in."
"I get worn down fast. At this rate, I'll never get back to me again."
"Patience, Will. Patience. We've got all the time in the world right now and your pony is needing and demanding some of that time. Go on now, see to him."
Halt watched his apprentice wander gingerly to the horse shelter. Tug whinnied a loud and happy greeting at the return of his master. Will stroked the pony's face and scratched behind his ears. Tug returned the touch by settling his head gently into Will's chest and remaining still and quiet for several minutes.
There was still more Halt needed to know about the young man's time in capture. Gilan had told him all he could, but Will had a side to tell too. And there would eventually be a search and hunt for the men that so abused the two people that Halt considered family. These men had hurt those close to him and to this grizzled Ranger there were few more serious offenses.
Revenge would come later however. For now, Will needed his full care and attention.
The emotional scene between boy and pony still playing out before him, Halt sat on the tiny veranda of his cabin, keeping Will within view -doing as he promised the boy's father so many years ago, and as he'd promised Gilan just recently.
Keeping him protected.
Keeping him safe.