A/N: As ever, many thanks to Rilwen and Lycaenion for beta-reading for me. Many thanks also to everyone who's been following this story; it's incredibly encouraging to see that people like it that much. Reviews are always welcome - I like to know what I'm doing right and what people think could be improved. Thank you for reading!
"Hold steady," Tarl breathed, watching the arrow trained on the hare nearby. "Wait for it, wait…" The hum of the bowstring sounded in almost the same instant that the hare, finally aware of its danger, sprang.
The archer was faster.
Rydel laughed triumphantly as he stepped out to collect the fallen creature. "I'm getting better at this," he said, pulling the arrow free.
"You are, at that," Tarl replied approvingly, straightening up from his hiding place. "You'll be better than me with a bit more work. Seems you've the knack for it." Rydel positively glowed at the praise, and to hide his surge of glee he quickly set about the task of cleaning the hare out. It wasn't as efficient a job as he'd seen Tarl do, but he was improving quickly with practice.
It had been several months since he'd first met the older ranger, but the time had flown by. Basic tracking and travelling skills, plant lore, the intricacies of hunting and butchering; all these and more had been solidly pounded into Rydel through daily lessons, both spoken and practical.
And, of course, fighting skills. Tarl was no mean archer, but he favoured the use of two blades for combat. Rydel had frequently been thoroughly pummelled in practice sessions, and was firmly convinced that he'd never be the swordsman his teacher was. Not that he minded all that much; he preferred archery anyway, and against larger targets than a hare he was becoming a dangerous foe.
Rydel abruptly became aware of the fact that Tarl wasn't in the clearing any more. He silently cursed himself for having missed the man's departure, knowing this was a test of his observational skills, and immediately strained his senses to the limit to try to catch Tarl sneaking up on him even as he continued to clean out the hare, tossing the innards to one side.
Feeling a presence behind him, the young man twisted suddenly, but not quite quickly enough to avoid being seized by the shoulder. Once again his mentor had been just a bit too quick and sneaky.
"Still too slow," Tarl chided, letting go. "What if that'd been an orc or something?"
Rydel waggled the hunting blade in his hand. "I'd have given him a taste of this."
"Bold words for a lad who's never even seen one."
"Haven't you been teaching me to strike at the first hint of danger? I don't forget all your lessons a short song after they get repeated to me."
"Get on with you," Tarl retorted, hiding a smile at the cheeky grin Rydel gave him. "We'll still be here after nightfall if you sit there jabbering."
"I'm almost done." A few more cuts, and the hare was bundled up ready for processing back at the cave. "There." With his knives cleaned and packed away, Rydel bounced back to his feet, still wearing that almost irrepressible smile. "Shall we?"
Tarl mock-scowled at him and began to lead the way. It was late afternoon, and he was looking forwards to getting back and settling down to a hot meal. Once or twice he found himself having to glance back to check Rydel was still there, and smiled briefly. The boy had very quickly grasped the trick of walking silently in a forest once he'd been shown how. Much of it was to do with stepping in "elven-fashion"; setting the toes and ball of the foot down first, in an almost prowling gait, made it far easier to control the sound.
Tarl felt a little surge of pride. He's got the forest in his blood, he thought. My boy. He'd made the decision to keep it to himself - the last thing he wanted was awkwardness and questions - but nonetheless he was thrilled to have Rydel with him.
A harsh growl echoed through the forest, seizing his attention, and his mood changed in an instant. "Mind yourself, lad."
Rydel stopped dead. "What -?"
"Can't be certain, but I think I know what that was. Keep your bow ready. We're going after it." Tarl plunged into the trees, and Rydel followed, pulling his bow from his back and fumbling for an arrow.
"Is it dangerous?"
"Should we be trying to -"
"Yes. Now silence, if it hears us we're in trouble." The pace increased, and so did Rydel's unease. The growling was becoming more frequent, and to him sounded like a beast he'd never heard before - a big one. The noise was less unnerving, though, than the expression on Tarl's face; it was set as though carved from stone.
The young man shuddered a little.
Finally, they dropped down into the shelter of the undergrowth, and slipped up to the edge of a clearing. A figure sat there that seemed half hyena, half human, and beside it the remains of a fresh carcass, from which chunks were being torn and eaten.
Rydel glanced at Tarl with a puzzled expression.
"Gnoll." The word came out as a flat murmur. "Filthy beasts. Reckon you can put an arrow through its head?"
"Not without being seen."
Tarl inched his sword and dagger from their sheaths. "Shoot it where you can, then, and I'll take it on."
"That thing must be seven feet tall!"
"I've slain its kind before, without the advantage of surprise. Do as you're told, lad, and we might survive."
Rydel fell silent. There was a look in Tarl's eyes that chilled him. He'd never seen anything like it before. After a moment's hesitation, the young man nodded and set arrow to string.
The gnoll looked up from its meal sharply as the arrow arced out from the bushes, striking it solidly in the side. It threw back its head, letting out a roar of mingled pain and rage, and scrambled awkwardly to its feet just as Tarl exploded from the foliage, blades flashing in the evening sun.
Rydel was frozen in shock. The battle that had just erupted in the clearing was pure savagery. Tarl was barely avoiding getting his limbs or head torn clean off, and the gnoll was getting progressively bloodier with every slash of the ranger's blades. He felt an overpowering urge to help, but blundering in there would probably get him or his old companion killed, and so he remained where he was, crouched in the bushes and shivering as the two combatants returned thrust for bite, slash for cut, locked in the dance of death.
A choked-off yelp and a crash finally compelled him to look up again, and he let out a shaky breath of relief. Tarl stood over the twitching corpse of the gnoll, bleeding from numerous cuts and scrapes, but not in serious need of help.
Rydel stood up and approached hesitantly. "Are you… going to be all right?" he said weakly. It was a stupid question to ask, he knew, but what could he really say to someone staring at their fallen enemy with such an expression of loathing?
"I'm fine. Nothing that won't heal soon enough." Tarl wiped off his weapons and put them away.
"…I've never seen you like that before."
"Never seen me face a gnoll before." Tarl spat on the corpse.
"Why do you hate them so much?"
The fire-haired boy almost wished he hadn't asked as Tarl rounded on him. There was a bleakness in the old ranger's face now that Rydel couldn't ever remember seeing.
"These beasts are the foulest scum to walk these lands, lad. They kill for the love of killing, and whoever they don't kill they enslave and torture. They eat the dead, defile graves, they're savage even to their own kind. Not one of these beasts deserves to live, and so I've taken it on myself to wipe out any I find."
"Did they hurt you?" Rydel knew he shouldn't be asking these things, but he badly wanted to know just what had fuelled the rage he'd witnessed.
There was silence for a few moments. Tarl stared at the dead gnoll, apparently unwilling to meet the young man's eyes.
"…They killed my wife," he said hoarsely, and then turned for home.
A knot of guilt settled in Rydel's stomach as he followed. I shouldn't have asked. He decided not to talk any more about it; he had no right to go dragging up memories that clearly hurt Tarl so much, and had already got more than enough answers to explain.
A fierce blaze of loyalty sprang up in his chest as he watched the solid man trudging ahead of him - the man who was teaching him all he'd ever wanted to know, the ranger who seemed to regard him as the next best thing to the son he'd never had. I'll never hesitate again when I face a gnoll, I promise, he vowed. For the sake of your wife and for everything you've done for me.