It had been an unusually long day.
Not that the fact was surprising. After all, the last few weeks had been hectic for him and Will. The entire Ranger Corps had their hands full preparing Duncan's armies for war with Morgarath. In fact, Halt mused, today's journey out into the country to deal with some small-time highway bandits had felt like a fleeting return to normalcy.
Halt had also found himself quite enjoying the time with Will. Too often, in the past few weeks, he had found himself busy in meetings, trying to tactfully – or less than tactfully – convince regional strongholds throughout Redmont to send their men to Duncan's aid, while Will had spent most of his time practicing his skills. Halt knew how anxious Will was to be skilled enough to make a difference in the coming conflict.
It had made Halt miss the full days spent with Will in the forests surrounding the cabin, teaching his apprentice to track or shoot or belly-crawl – and even more, he missed having the time to just talk . To hear Will's thoughts about his life, to give him advice and guidance, even listening to his seemingly endless supply of questions. And the long ride to and from the northern village where the bandits had been sighted had given them the chance to do just that.
Perhaps that was why he felt so discouraged – much as he missed Will's company, Halt felt so worn out that even staying upright on his horse was a challenge, let alone keeping up with a conversation.
They had made relatively short work of the bandits. As usual, it was a rag-tag bunch of highwaymen preying on the uncertainty that came with being so close to war, more used to frightened travelers than well-armed opponents. Once the bandit crew had been disarmed and turned over to the custody of the nearest town, the two of them had been ready to ride for home.
Now, Halt made an effort to pull himself together, determined not to waste what little downtime they had.
"That was a good knife throw, Will. When you disarmed the second leader."
"Really?" asked Will, turning to face his mentor. His eyes shone with pleasure at the praise.
"Really," said Halt. "Your aim is improving, and so is your timing." He turned back to face the road ahead, hiding a flash of a grin. "With several more hours of practice, every day, maybe all your throws will be as good as that one. Though, what with all we've been asked to do to help get the army together, I don't know if you'll find the time..." Halt's voice grew quieter, and his grin faded just a bit. "It's been a bit of a hard week, hasn't it?"
"Halt... are you all right?"
The question startled Halt, and again he turned to look at the young man beside him. Belatedly, he realized that his face had formed into a grimace without him even noticing.
"Me? I'm fine," he said. He laughed, without much humor behind it. "Just a little tired."
Will nodded understandingly, but Halt could see a shade of doubt behind the boy's eyes.
Didn't Will believe him? He was fine. It was normal to be exhausted, especially after such a long day. It had been a long ride and a hard fight, and then a long ride back. Perhaps they might have made camp for the night and ridden back the next day, but Halt had decided to keep pushing on to arrive that night – after all, they were sorely needed back at home. Anyone would be exhausted and achy after all that.
The truth was, his legs hurt .
The wounds he had received from the Kalkara had closed long ago, but his leg still wasn't fully back to normal, even though they had faced the monsters months ago. Castle Araluen's healers had told him this was normal. That it would take time for the deep lacerations to fully heal. Halt had done his best to be patient, and as time had passed, they had come a long way towards healing. But the long day of riding – to say nothing of subduing the highwaymen – had bothered them.
Halt didn't want to admit it even to himself, but that pain had exhausted him - and, worse, it had roused a ghost of itself from other wounds as well. Much, much older wounds. Almost more memories more than actual aches, but painful memories.
He wanted to think that Will hadn't noticed that he was in pain, but he could see the furtive glances being tossed his way every now and then – at what cues, he couldn't say. And he could see Will start to open his mouth to ask again if he was all right, each time closing it again with his worries unspoken.
Halt didn't press him. He was already kicking himself over the fact that his apprentice had noticed at all – the last thing Halt wanted was to admit aloud that something was wrong. He didn't want to worry Will.
Didn't want to rouse the echoes of long-remembered voices. Voices that said so much about making excuses.
"Are you sure you're all right, Halt?" Will asked again. Was it the third or the fourth time he'd asked over the last hour? Halt wasn't sure. There was beginning to be a note of fear in his apprentice's voice as well, and Halt definitely didn't like that.
"I'm all right," he said again. "Like I said, I'm just tired."
Will paused to consider this, but a new thought seemed to strike him. "Were you hurt in the struggle? Did he get in a hit with that mace?" Will spurred Tug closer to Abelard, his eyes scanning Halt for injuries.
"No! Will, I told you, I'm fine," said Halt. "I'm all right. I wasn't hurt."
Despite Halt's attempts to calm him, the worry didn't fade from Will's eyes. "You keep..." Will trailed off, seeming to not want to offend Halt. Finally, he continued. "I don't know. You seem to be in pain."
"I'm fine," Halt repeated, but the words felt ashy on his tongue. Why did he keep protesting?
Will's eyes widened, as he seemed to remember something. "The Kalkara – your leg. You haven't been healed for very long. Is that it?"
Halt opened his mouth to deny it once again. But at the quiet concern and worry in Will's eyes, something inside Halt shifted. What reason did he have to lie to his apprentice? Will kept asking, because Will wasn't like those long-remembered voices. Will cared.
The truth was written on Halt's face, and Will's worry was mounting. "Did you reopen the wound somehow? Is it infected? Halt, do we need to get to the castle healer?"
"Will – I told you, I'm okay." He reached out and put a hand on his apprentice's shoulder, steadying him. "I'm in pain, yes, but the wound is healing well. It... it just aches, sometimes. Maybe it always will."
If his earlier wounds were any indication, Halt thought.
"How often does it happen?" Will asked.
"It's usually fine. Since it's been healing, it's gotten to where it hurts less and less... but sometimes, when the weather is bad, or when it's been a very long day... it just happens." Halt took a deep breath, shaking his head as if to brush off the subject. "It doesn't matter. I shouldn't let it affect things."
"Of course it matters, Halt," said Will. "If you're hurt, you need to give yourself a chance to recover - isn't that what you always tell me?"
"I have recovered," said Halt. "It's just the lingering, now."
"But that still counts," said Will. "If you have days where it still hurts... well, then those days count as part of recovering. You still deserve time to heal."
It was some time before Halt spoke again, his voice quiet. "I hadn't thought about it like that."
"It's true," said Will.
After a moment, he continued. "We could... we could make camp tonight, and get back to Redmont in the morning."
Halt shook his head. "We're almost there," he said. "Another hour, maybe."
Will sighed. "I just... I wish there was something I could do." Quieter, he added, "I mean... it's my fault you got hurt in the first place."
Halt turned to face his young apprentice. "Will – how could it be your fault? What happened was no one's fault but Morgarath's. What you did was save my life. And Baron Arald's, and Sir Rodney's."
"Everyone keeps saying that," said Will. "But if I had just been faster –"
"There's no point in what if's," said Halt. "No one can predict what might have happened. You went as fast as you could, Will. I know that, and so does everyone else. So do you. If you had pushed yourself and the horses any faster, one of them might have tripped, broken a leg. You might have been hurt or even killed – and then so would have the rest of us. You did the best that anyone could have done, Will, and I'm proud of you."
It took the two of them a little more than the hour Halt had predicted to get back to the little cabin in the trees. Halt insisted on caring for Abelard himself, and Will didn't press him – seeming to understand how important it was to Halt. But Halt did notice that Will took a few minutes longer than he normally did to care for Tug, and stayed for a while after he was finished.
And when the two of them finally mounted the steps of the little cabin, it didn't take Will very long to put together a delicious lamb stew the way Halt had taught him. It was the first time Will had made dinner without help, and Halt could tell that he had tried hard to get it perfect. Despite the fact that Will could do little to ease Halt's physical pain, he still seemed determined to make Halt feel better in whatever little ways he could.
What a difference it made, Halt thought.
On one hand, the long-remembered ghosts and echoes of the family he had grown up in. All they had said about pretending and excuses.
On the other, the family he had found. Will, and all the rest of them – for he had no doubt that Gilan, Crowley, and Pauline would react exactly as Will had.
And that knowledge eased an ache deep inside him – one that had hurt him far more, and for far longer, than the pain in his legs.