A few days after King Duncan had publically thanked Will for his services to the country, and his daughter, newly Knighted Horace and resumed Ranger's apprentice Will took a ride. They stopped at a stream, and Horace decided to go for a swim, to cool off from the hot midday ride.
"I'm going to take a swim. Are you going to join me?"
Will averted his eyes, not looking Horace in the face.
"Er, no thanks Horace."
To say that Horace was shocked would be understating it.
"No? Wh- What?"
"Look, I said no. Is that such a big deal?" Said Will irritably.
"I guess not, but why? You always used to like swimming!"
Horace was sitting on the bank in his trousers, feet dangling in the water as he queried his friend.
"I just don't want to. You go ahead Horace."
But Horace wouldn't let the matter drop. He had a feeling something was wrong; of course he knew that Will would need some time to get back to normal, but what did not swimming have to do with it?
"What's wrong Will? Why are you acting so…"
Will flared up.
"So what? Weird? Strange? Different?"
"N-no, I didn't mean…"
"Well I am different! Got a problem with it?"
Now Horace was getting angry. What had he done to get Will so worked up? He was just trying to help!
"Alright! Be that way! I don't care if you want to melt away there in the sun. Pardon me for being concerned! I shouldn't have bothered about such a hothead."
He turned away in a huff. Somehow, the prospect of a swim didn't seem so appealing anymore.
Will was about to retort, but he caught himself, realizing what he was saying. With an huge effort, Will called to Horace.
"I- Horace! Wait, I'm sorry. I don't know what got into me." He said, ashamed. Horace was still a bit mad, but he turned back to his friend.
"Well, then why don't you come swimming?"
"I just can't Horace! Don't you understand? Just leave me be, please."
Horace jumped in the creek, the cold water gradually soothing his temper.
Will sighed. How was he going to make amends? He couldn't go swimming, he couldn't let Horace see…
In a moment of inspiration, Will took off his cloak, tunic, belt, and other things, until he was, like Horace, in his trousers. But he left his linen shirt on.
"Alright, I'll come in if you insist." He called, not bothering to wait and see if Horace heard him. Jumping in, he felt a moment of panic as the coldness brought up unpleasant memories, but he pushed away the thought and swam over to Horace.
"Will, you came in! But why are you…"
"Don't ask. I'm in the water, aren't I?"
Horace was slightly sheepish.
"Yeah, about that…sorry for insisting so much; I should've just let it go. Halt said you might need time…" He trailed off uncomfortably.
Will shrugged it off.
"No matter. Now are we gonna discuss me all day, or are we gonna have some fun?" A sparkle returned to Will's eyes, and the boys paddled off, laughing and dunking eachother merrily.
Hours later, they got out of the creek, exhausted by their sport. Heaving himself up onto the bank, Will leaned forward propping his elbows on his knees. Coming up beside him, their quarrel forgotten, Horace stretched out lazily, drying himself in the sun. Tall trees framed the clearing, and a few high clouds drifted in the milky sky. Sunlight filtered through the leaves, sending down emerald beams on the two boys. Breathing deeply, Horace's face set in a pleased grin. The sun was so warm on his skin, the grass tickling and soft, the warm breeze driving off the chill of the water; everything was right in the world.
That is…What had all that with Will been about? He'd never known his friend to be so reluctant about something as trivial as a swim. And how he snapped at Horace; he'd gotten so angry over nothing! The tall young warrior glanced at Will, who was still sitting with his elbows propped on his knees, looking down into the rippling water. The sun shone onto his back, causing his wet shirt to become transparent. Horace's eyes widened at what he saw. Just then, Will looked back at Horace grinningly, apparently about to relate something humorous. The grin swiftly vanished when he saw the look of horror on Horace's face.
Guessing what had happened, Will quickly snatched up his jerkin* nearby, and pulled it on quickly.
"It's nothing." He mumbled.
"Will- what- how- what is that?" Stuttered Horace. How do you talk about such things?
"It's my back. What else?." Said Will dryly, facing away. Horace shook his head.
"It's not nothing! What happened? How did that…" He'd only caught a glimpse through the wet linen, but it was enough for Horace to guess what it was. But how did it happen? When? Sitting up resolutely, Horace knelt behind Will, placing his hands on the shoulders of his jerkin.
"Will, let me see." He said softly. Twisting out of Horace's grip violently, Will stood up, backing away.
"No, there's nothing to see. You don't need to know, stop it!" He voice got louder and louder, backing away frantically, memories surging in. Memories that were still fresh enough to haunt him, now that the excitement of the battle for Skandia was over. Confused and pained, Horace stepped forward, closing the distance between them with a long stride. He grabbed Will's arm. Will jerked back as if bitten.
"Don't touch me!" He screamed; stumbling on a rock, he fell down. Tug reared up, neighing with worry. He butted Horace away, causing him to fall down also. Horace's mind whirled. What was that all about? What was happening to Will? The latter lay breathing hard. Slowly, he pushed himself up until he was sitting. Drawing his knees up, he crossed his arms over them, slouching his head down wearily.
No response. Not a single noise: no sobbing, sighing, yelling, nothing. Horace stood up, walked over to Will, and crouched in front of him.
"Will, I need to see. What did they do to you?"
Looking up with dead eyes, Will wordlessly shrugged off the jerkin and resumed his previous posture. Taking that as assent, Horace walked around to Will's back, and pulled the wet shirt up and over Will's head. A terrible sight greeted him: Will's entire back and shoulders were covered in a lattice of scars. Criss-crossing lashes, long, white and ugly. Many had ridges on the sides, as if where the skin had torn raggedly. Some were still red and sore looking, some were short and deep. Some looked like thin whip-marks, others like heavy blows of a stick. Appalled, Horace couldn't tear his eyes away from the horrible sight. Against his will, his hand reached out and his fingers traced the marks. Trailing his eyes after his large hand, Horace breathed in sharply. The scars across Will's shoulders were the worst; the deepest, reddest, longest. The shoulders expanded as Will drew in a long, shuddering breath.
"Will, I-I didn't know. That's why you didn't want to go swimming? You could've told me! I would understand. Were you afraid I wouldn't be able to handle it?"
"No." Said Will softly.
"I was afraid I wouldn't be able to handle it. I was right, I suppose."
"How did it happen?" Will stiffened. Horace could've kicked himself for being so stupid. It was none of his business! Will surely wouldn't want to talk about it.
"I-I'm sorry, I shouldn't have- you don't have to…" Will interrupted him.
"It's fine. I should probably get it off my chest."
Pausing for a moment, Will told Horace the whole story, from the knife throwing incident to their kidnapping by Slagor. He spared no details. Afterwards, Horace was speechless for several moments.
"You did that? How could you be so bra- "
Will cut him off.
"Before you go praising me, I wasn't brave. I was terrified. I spent hours regretting it afterwards. Well, at least my body regretted it. It was in those moments that I knew what a weakling I was. If I truly was brave, I wouldn't have hesitated. It would've hurt just as much, but I would be stronger, less doubtful."
Horace shook his head.
"No, you can't tell me that what you did wasn't bravery, wasn't courage. It takes guts and conviction to do something like that. Does King Duncan know what you did for Cassie?"
Will glanced back at him, a small grin on his face.
"Cassie? On nickname terms with the princess are we?"
Horace blushed at his gaffe, but turned the conversation back to Will.
"But does he know?"
"No. I made her promise not to tell him. Though she sure wanted to, lemme tell ya."
"Why ever didn't you let her? You deserve to be personally thanked for your loyalty to the King's family!"
"I don't want all the fuss. Like I said, it wasn't heroics. It was very hard. I don't deserve credit for simply doing the right thing. Besides, I couldn't stand for Halt to know; he'd blame himself hugely. And he'd worry so much."
"Hmph. There was a time when I wouldn't have thought Halt capable of something like worry." Said Horace with a laugh.
"But that time is long gone," he mused.
Will took his shirt off the rest of the way, straightening it with a snap! He spread it in the sun to dry.
"No sense in bothering with this wet thing now that you know. But there's one more thing I want you to see."
Turning around, he pointed to a mark beneath his collar bone. Two knotted ropes, bound in a figure-eight knot. It symbolized the bondage of a slave, which was until death, and it symbolized the lash that all slaves bore.
"They branded me. To show who I belonged to." He said bitterly.
"This was Ragnak's personal device. It hurt like hellfire when they did it."
Horace's fingers traced the mark. A mark that Will would bear for the rest of his life.
"That's- that's- how could they do that?" Said Horace, rage in his voice. Will shrugged.
"What's done is done. I'll have to live with it."
They continued to talk for a while, eventually drifting to other, more pleasant subjects. They dressed and got ready to ride back. Will stopped Horace in passing.
"Thanks Horace. I needed to talk. I feel much better about it now. I'm glad you got me to tell you about it, if it did take some force." Said Will wryly.
"And I'm glad you told me about it. I was rather worried about how you'd been acting."
He pulled Will into an embrace, and they pounded eachother's backs as young men do. Although Horace more like timidly patted Will's back; he wasn't sure if the wounds still hurt or not. But he had one more question:
"Will? There's something I need to know. Did they brand Cassandra too?" He said, careful not to use her nickname this time.
"What, no Cassie now? No, they didn't as far as I know. They only branded the yard slaves, as they had a greater chance of escaping."
"Oh. Thanks then."
They mounted and rode back to the castle lightheartedly.
From a distance, a hooded figure watched.
"He didn't tell me…."
A slow, rare tear slid down Halt's cheek.
* A jerkin is a type of long vest that sometimes belts at the waist, or draws close with laces.
A/N I came up with this for the epilogue, because, well, there's waaay too many stories with Halt finding out about scars on Will, or fluff with them two, so I put in Horace!:D Everybody loves him, you gotta admit.:3 Plus, this way I could sorta make an argument for tension. Plz review, and thank you to everyone who reviewed! You guys rock!X3 Coffee all around!