A Rangers Tale
Part Ten
By: Jeff R. Young

The rush of happiness and relief Draven felt when Arun, the dire wolf that had become his friend and guardian, rounded the corner of the cottage. It had been five days since Kaylen, the stranger who rescued him from a band of goblins, before promptly leaving him stranded on a broad island in the Shade. The plot of land was several acres in size, surrounded not by water but rather by a deep chasm and a high cliff that dominated the western end.

As Arun and Draven smothered each other in heartfelt greetings, Kaylen emerged from around the corner, following in the wolf's wake. He wore the same simple robe brown robe and carried the same long, smooth staff he had when they first met. Without saying a word, he moved to one of two chairs sitting just outside the cabin door, taking the one on the right.

"Five days," Draven commented as he stood and sat in on the other chair. Arun followed the few steps to lay comfortably at the Ranger's feet. "Do you know how boring it was, trapped here with only the plants to talk to?"

"So, I take it he never came out?" Kaylen chuckled, glancing west to where a hole in the cliff face marked the entrance to a cave.

"I think he did," Draven returned, scratching his head, "Every morning, I found a bowl of dried meat, bread, and a fresh bucket of water. Twice I awoke to find the new wood on the pile to replace what I was using for the hearth inside."

"He's a good man, that one," Kaylen proclaimed with a nod. "But a bit cautious around others, more so with those he's never met."

Draven looked off towards the cliff. Several times over the past few days, he entertained the idea of going in and introducing himself, but he never worked the nerve up to do it. Each time, he would stand near the mouth of the cave and listen to the sound of metal banging metal, which gave him the unneeded excuse to keep from disturbing whoever was inside.

"Who is he?" Draven asked finally, looking back to Kaylen.

"His name is Karag," Kaylen answered, "He came here back when the dwarves still called this place home."

"He must be a blacksmith with all the hammering I hear when I get close."

"A good one," Kaylen replied, "Taught by the two dwarves themselves. Karag has many talents, including leatherworking."

Draven dropped his gaze to his legs and the new leather trousers he wore. Though a bit snug, the dark brown leather was soft and surprisingly durable. He ran a hand over his thigh, then tapped his chest, which was now covered in a new loose-fitting off-white tunic. "Oh, yeah…I found them in a chest inside, along with this shirt."

"Good," Kaylen said succinctly, "I had rather hoped you wouldn't still be near-naked. And you bathed too."

"Yeah, I did snoop around and helped myself to a few things," Draven admitted, "But I did my part to pay for the stuff."

"Oh?"

"I did what I could," Draven said, motioning out towards the open land before the rock wall. "I tended to the garden as best I could, and after the storm that passed the second night, I found the roof needed patching in more than a few places." Draven fell quiet a moment, then furrowed his brow, "If this Karag lives here, why was the cabin in such poor shape?"

"Karag lives in the cavern there. The last occupants were the two dwarves." Kaylen offered evenly.

"What happened to them?" Draven questioned.

"Don't know. One day they were gone. Simple as that," Kaylen shrugged, "It may be that Karag knows but never said."

Silence fell between the two as Draven shifted a bit in the old wooden chair, finding a little more comfortable position. His mind was a hurricane of questions, and even if he wanted to, he had no idea which to start with. Several times he tried to speak, but no words came out. After more than a few minutes passed, Draven gave up and remained silent.

"Who are you?" Kaylen asked, breaking the silence. His tone was casual, even friendly, but somehow demanded an answer.

"I think my name is Draven," The Ranger told him as he looked to the other man. His face showed the confusion and anxiety he felt. "But I really don't know."

Kaylen eyed him with a look of curiosity. "I'm a stranger to you, I know. But I am interested in why you are here."

Draven shot him a guarded look, "Why, am I not supposed to be?"

"I don't know." Kaylen shrugged again.

"Truth is, I don't even know where I am? A group of hunters I encountered said I was in the Shade. Whatever that means." Draven offered.

Kaylen motioned off to the east, over the vast chasm to the forest beyond. "You are in the ancient forest realm of Amraphel. This is a wilderness as old as the gods and is both wondrous as it is deadly."

"Why did they call it the Shade?" Draven asked.

"I'm not really sure," Kaylen responded with a shrug, "Perhaps because the deeper into the forest you go, the darker the land seems. The trees are thick in many places and are homes to many dangers."

"That would explain why those men seemed so nervous about being there," Draven said, looking down to Arun, remembering clearly the encounter.

"I would like to hear about these men, but I have other questions that need answers."

"Like?"

"As I asked before, why are you here?"

"I'm here because I have no idea where else to be?" Draven shot him another look. "Why are you here?"

Kaylen crossed his arms over his chest, then tapped his chin. "You don't trust me."

"And you trust me?" Draven laughed darkly.

Kaylen sat in quiet contemplation for several minutes before speaking. "My name, as I told you, is Kaylen. I am what the rest of the realm of Cadirath calls a Druid. A guardian of the forest."

Draven cocked an eyebrow in return.

"My purpose here is to maintain balance. To preserve and protect this ancient land."

Draven frowned, "You protect the whole forest?"

"No," Kaylen said bluntly, shaking his head. "Amraphel is incredibly vast. To travel the territory from its eastern border to the shores of the Dread Sea in the west would take more than a few fortnights. I live in just a small part of a much larger world."

"Are there more of you?" Draven asked.

Again, Kaylen shrugged. "some secrets are best kept."

"Secrets," Draven echoed as he looked past the Druid to the forest, then muttered in frustration. "Well, that makes two of us."

Kaylen frowned. "What do you mean?"

"My life past a few weeks ago is a secret, even from me!" The Ranger all but yelled. "I woke up, here in the forest, with no idea how I got here or even who I am. I think my name is Draven because that was the first name that came to me!" He lifted his shirt, showing the four healing gashes on his upper left chest. "These were fresh when I woke. Something did this and left me for dead."

Kaylen sat quiet; his bushy eyebrows furrowed over a thoughtful gaze. Draven, his curiosity piqued the moment Kaylen spoke of secrets to be kept hidden, wondered what those eyes of have seen or what knowledge he might know. The man was, to his admission, a druid. A forest guardian. That meant something important, but the meaning was lost to him. It was all there, just behind the fog that clouded his memories. Yet somehow, he knew the situation he found himself in held tremendous meaning, one that a select few ever experienced. But his excitement was tempered by a nagging feeling that he walked a dangerous path.

"I'm not safe here, am I?" Draven asked carefully.

"Hu? What do you mean?" Kaylen responded. Draven tried to read the expression on the man's face, but any emotion was hidden behind a stoic gaze.

"I'm getting this nagging sensation in the pit of my stomach, a sense of fear and caution as if I should already know I'm not where I am supposed to be." Draven offered honestly. "But at the same time, I feel this sense of familiarity."

"As if you have been here before?"

Draven shook his head slowly and swept his gaze out around the area. "No, it's the forest that feels familiar. It's raw yet strangely calming." He frowned in slight confusion as he swung his gaze back to Kaylen. "After my experience with those hunters, I got the impression that those living outside the borders of the forest find it intimidating and dangerous."

Kaylen cocked his head slightly, "Is that why you think you are not safe here?"

"No," Draven said, shaking his head quickly, "Just the opposite. I feel…welcome. Invited. All this despite whatever horrors might lurk in the dark."

"So why did you ask if you were safe?" Kaylen asked. The look the man offered Draven seemed a mix of curiosity and confusion.

Draven let loose a resigned sigh as he shifted in the chair. He could not fathom the implications of the subtle warnings his gut seemed to be issuing. Nothing Kaylen has done pointed to the notion he may be a threat other than marooning him on this quaint tiny island.

"It's you," Draven stated bluntly, causing Kaylen's brows to raise in surprise. "I can't explain why, but my gut is all but screaming that I should be cautious and on guard when I am in your presence."

"Your skepticism is well warranted," Kaylen offered candidly. "My kind has a well-earned reputation as being fanatics. Making interactions with us difficult and unpleasant."

"You don't seem like a fanatic," Draven noted, "Unless this is some trap or deception."

"Why would I do that?"

"My brain isn't functioning well enough to answer that question." Draven mused, "I get this feeling there are very few who understand the motives of wizards."

"I'm not a wizard," Kaylen said flatly.

"Yeah, you said that." Draven countered, "But the problem behind all this is the fact that I woke up in Amraphel, with no memory of how or why I'm here. And every day, I seem to experience things as foreign to me as they are familiar."

"Your loss of memory could be due to any number of reasons," Kaylen suggested after a few minutes slipped by in silence, "I'd say it might be possible you took a violent crack to the head."

"Nah," Draven blurted as he ran a hand through his hair and around the top of his skull, "I don't feel any dents."

"Well, I know there are several species of plants and fungus that release spores that alter the mind in various ways." Kaylen declared.

"Yeah," Draven commented ruefully, "I've been down that road. It didn't affect my memory, but it did detach my sanity from reality for a while."

Kaylen chuckled, "Of course, there is the possibility that someone has placed you under a spell or curse."

"But why?" Draven growled, shaking his head.

"Maybe you saw something you shouldn't have or know something someone does not want to be known?" Kaylen listed with a shrug, "But I would risk the assumption that such a spell would be challenging to perform, if not near impossible. Imagine someone with the skill to strip the mind of memories while still leaving the victim with accumulated, learned skills. This would be a being of immense and terrifying power."

"So," Draven started, casting a probing glance over Kaylen, "Have you mastered the wizardly arts enough to break said spell from the said victim?"

"Perhaps if I was a wizard."

"I know, you're not a wizard," Draven grumbled, then added quietly, "At least not a good one."

"What was that?"

"Nothing," Draven said quickly, "So what do I do?"

Sorry kid," Kaylen replied with sincere sympathy, "Such things are beyond my knowledge."

"Great, just great," Draven steamed, "I have to spend the rest of my days wondering about who I was for the first…" he paused, then snorted, "You know, I have no idea how old I am."

"Is there anything, anything at all you can remember past waking up?" Kaylen prodded.

Draven didn't answer. He couldn't. He tried hard to concentrate and push through the blackness that shrouded his past with all his being, only to fail yet again. He let out an angry growl that prompted Arun to look up.

"It just makes no sense," Draven began, "How can I talk, or how is it I know things about the forest. I mean, really, I know which plants are what, and…." He threw his hand up, "How in the god's names do I know how to speak in the goblin tongue?"

The Druid pursed his lips, pondering some deep thought. Draven looked down to his large wolf companion in the silence, suddenly feeling grateful Nyrarae, his beloved goddess of nature, sent Arun to protect him. He realized then how much he had missed the wolf over the past days.

"Wait a minute," Draven said, looking at Kaylen suspiciously, "How come you and Arun came together?"

Kaylen looked at the Ranger, his eyes wide with surprise. "What did you say?"

"You and Arun," Draven motioned to the dire wolf. "You came here together; how's that possible?"

"He was sitting at the edge of the ravine when I got here," Kaylen replied absently, but his eyes narrowed, and his gaze bore into Draven's, "How do you know this word?"

"Um….what word?"

"Arun, you said his name was Arun."

"Yeah," Draven replied, confused, then shrugged. "It seemed a fitting name, and he didn't complain."

"Do you know what that word means?" Kaylen asked, his gaze still stern.

"Yeah, it means ghost, in…" Draven paused, snapping a look at Arun, then back to Kaylen. "wait, I know how to speak the language of the Druids?"

Kaylen frowned deeply, "Our language is a closely guarded dialect, one that can only be taught by another druid."

Kaylen stood suddenly, stepping away from the cabin to where Draven had built an area for a campfire. He stood for a moment before looking back. With a sigh, he seemed resigned to an idea that played out as he looked up and blew an eerie whistle that echoed all around and varied in pitch, making it seem otherworldly.

Draven waited a few tense moments, his curiosity beginning to boil over, but just as his mouth opened to speak, the familiar sound of a hawk's scream silenced him. He stood slowly, his eyes up to the sky, and was awed by the sight of the winged predator gliding down to land gently on Kaylen's outstretched arm.

"Tell me," Kaylen started, "what is it you see when you look into the forest?"

"What, besides trees?" Draven mused. Kaylen just stared, unamused. Draven decided to take the question seriously and looked out into the deeper woods, but nothing seemed unusual. He knew for whatever reasons, he felt comfort under the leafy crowns of the various trees but did not understand why.

He began to feel frustration and bubble up inside; the answers he was seeking were out there, hiding somewhere among the trees. But where was he supposed to look? The thought that the key to his misery could be buried in some old hollowed-out tree was absurd. He would be like a child on a treasure hunt, darting from one place to another, praying to find something that was not even tangible. The only form a memory could take was an image inside the head of the one who experienced it.

With his eyes still trained out into the forest, an intriguing thought began to form. With all its wonder, secrets, and beauty, the forest pleased the eye in a pleasurable, artistic sort of way. But it was not just some random creation of the gods. It was a kingdom unlike any in the realms of Alsyn. It was a dominion of chaos, governed only by the laws of nature, which supported more lifeforms than a mind could comprehend.

Draven realized with no small amount of awe that proper understanding of the forest realms went far beyond the tangible aspects of the physical plane into something beyond the senses of mortal beings. Unless you had the heart to see what your eyes couldn't and hear beyond the ear's capabilities.

"Kaylen?" Draven said softly.

"Yes?" The other responded with a curious gaze.

"Is it bad that I know the true heart of the forest lies beyond this plane?"

"Explain," Kaylen prompted.

"The song of life, the life that lives in this kingdom, echoes in a realm behind this physical earth. What our eyes see is just the skin, a protective cover over the essence of it all."

Draven looked over at Kaylen and watched as the man's face seemed to cycle through several expressions ranging from surprise, curiosity, then suspicion. When he finally pried his eyes of Draven, he looked to the hawk perched on the roof of the cabin. With a sigh, he then turned and walked the short distance to the edge of the ravine.

"Come here," He motioned to Draven, who complied with a furrowed brow.

"What?"

Kaylen leaned out, looking down into the black depths far below. Draven, confused, leaned out to do the same.

"This is a bizarre turn of events, wouldn't you say?" Kaylen asked as he tilted his head to look at Draven.

"It does testify to all forms of peculiar," Draven chuckled. "So what happens now?"

Kaylen's left hand came up and rested on Draven's right shoulder, "There is only one thing I can do."

"That is?"

Kaylen's grip tightened on Draven's shoulder, "Let's see if you can fly."

-

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