A Rangers Tale
Part Four
By: Jeff R. Young

"Arun!" Draven cried out, letting go of his makeshift spear, which was stuck deep into the Horned Sabercat's eye socket. Arun, his dire wolf companion, had become buried under the cat's significant weight and was even then struggling to get free. The Ranger did all he could to help by ramming his left shoulder against the dead beast in a vain attempt to move it. Despite what little help Draven could offer, the wolf managed to squirm his way out.

The Ranger slumped down next to his friend, inspecting the four long gashes the cat's claws created as they raked down the wolf's side. The cuts ran deep but didn't seem to be life-threatening, but given how Arun licked at the wounds, Draven knew he was hurting, bad.

"Well, that was fun," Draven said darkly as he moved to stand. He winced through the maneuver, becoming acutely aware of his own sustained injuries. Glancing down, he saw what he had already expected to find; the wounds to his chest had reopened. Though, after a closer inspection, the Ranger found some comfort in seeing it hurt worse than it looked.

Moving his way over to the stream that cut a path through the forest floor, Draven searched for and found the makeshift bowl he had used to mix his healing salve, which, unfortunately, had been tossed around in the fight. With a silent curse, he picked up the rock and looked from it to his chest. There was just enough of the salve left to ease some of the pain if applied carefully enough, but a glance at Arun gave him pause.

"I'm sorry, my friend," Draven said evenly as he walked over to Arun, "We only have a small amount left, and you know how I like to share." Through a grunt of pain, the Ranger sat down in the leaves next to his friend and studied the bowl in his hands; then, with a single finger, he scooped up what was left of the healing paste and sighed. Reaching out, he began to gently apply the balm to Arun's wounds.

"Don't look at me like that," Draven ordered after the wolf when it tossed him a questioning glare. "I just don't want to hear you whimpering pathetically over this little scratch." Despite his words, he was more than happy to sacrifice his own relief to dull that of his friend and guardian.

"There," He murmured as he sat back, "better?

Arun grunted out a soft woof that sounded like a sincere thank you.

"You know," Draven started thoughtfully, his brow furrowed as he scanned the forest around him. With the small battle over, life had returned to normal throughout the woods. The birds chirped, rodents squeaked, and insects buzzed as if nothing had happened. "What was a Sabercat doing in the forest, to begin with? They hunt the open grasslands, don't they?"

He cast a curious eye over the dead cat, straining against his clouded mind to decipher the fragmented memories and knowledge that once was second nature. He stood and slowly began to circle around the dead beast, studying it for reasons he could not understand. Arun, curious as well, watched Draven with ears perked.

"Obviously," Draven said to himself, "We must be close to the edge of the forest. But if it came in to hunt, where is its prey? Or were we what it hunted?"

Arun huffed quietly and stood wearily, slowed by the trauma of the injuries sustained during the fight. Had Draven been paying attention, he might have noticed the hair stand up on the wolf's back as it stared intently off in the woods behind the Ranger.

"You know," Draven said absently as he cocked his head, "I won…" His thought was cut short as something whistled past his ear, followed by a twangy thump of an arrow sticking into the tree a few paces to his left. Startled, the Ranger yelped and flung himself backward only to trip on the outstretched paw of the Sabercat. He tried to counter the fall but somehow only managed to twist himself around to crash into the same tree the arrow had. Before he could shout out a warning to Arun, another arrow screamed in and planted itself right below the first one. The wolf growled low and deep, starring off in the direction the missiles had come from.

The dire wolf issued an even fiercer growl as three men rounded thick trees, each armed with bows that were currently loaded and ready. Draven silently marveled at how skillfully they had crept in, taken Arun and himself entirely by surprise. Knowing there was nothing he could do, he slowly raised empty hands in the air to show he was unarmed.

"We don't want any trouble," Draven called out, hoping they heard the honesty he felt in those words. He wanted to stand but decided against moving for the moment. He wasn't as much afraid as he was disappointed. This was turning out to be a somewhat troublesome day.

"Judging by your current position," A man called out as he came out from behind the same tree the middle bowman had. "you couldn't be much trouble if you wanted to."

The man spoke with calm confidence and looked to be several seasons older than his companions. Draven might have taken him for a kind gentleman had he not currently been holding an unsheathed sword. The stranger made it several steps past his bowmen before he came to a sudden halt, spurred by the dark and dangerous sounding growl issued from Arun.

"Question is," Draven replied as he pushed up to stand. He hoped he was able to hide the pain moving caused. "Are you…looking for trouble?"

The older man's eyes bounced between Draven and Arun. He looked hesitant and curious all at the same time. "That's quite the kill." He finally said, fixing a friendly gaze on Draven. "We've been tracking that beast since dawn. Seems you beat us to it."

"Not intentionally," Draven replied, "It sort of found us." He motioned to Arun, who remained at the ready, eyes fixed on the strangers. The Ranger took two easy steps forward and rested his left hand on the tip of the improvised spear poking out of the cat's skull. The older man stiffened slightly, though he still had a casual air about him.

"Did you really kill it with a stick?" The man chuckled and asked.

"One works with what they have," Draven answered, cringing on the inside when he realized he had admitted to being basically unarmed.

"That's impressive."

"You should see what I can do with a rope and a giant's toe," Draven offered, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. Without thinking, he grabbed the spear with both hands and yanked it free. His stomach turned over itself at the slurpy sound it made as it slid out, and he cringed even more as he realized the cat's eyeball had stuck to the crude weapon.

"That is really gross!" Draven laughed. But his mirth died the moment he heard the strings of three bows tighten. He slowly shifted his gaze to the armed men. There was no way either he or Arun would be able to stop all three from shooting, and there was the man with the sword to worry about as well. So, he took up the wood spear and held it tight, hoping he looked menacing and dangerous. The only reaction he managed to elicit was a couple of chuckles and a deadpan look from Arun.

"Look, son," the man started calmly, "I believe you two are quite the scrappers. Hells, you killed an adult Sabercat with nothing but claws, teeth, and a stick. But it's clear you and your friend here are both wounded and outnumbered. The last thing you need right now is another fight."

"Boss," The archer to the older man's left spoke out, "Let's take what we want and get out of here."

Draven replied before the boss could, "I don't know what you think you are going to take from me; all I have is…" he raised the spear up a bit, "…this, my boots and my pants. And I'll fight to the death before I walk off naked!"

"We didn't delve this deep into the Shade to steal a boy's boots," The boss offered behind a smile.

Draven frowned in confusion. "The Shade?"

Boss cocked his head as he glanced from the Ranger to the wolf and back before gazing hard at the Ranger. "What kind of game are you playing here, boy?"

"I didn't realize this was a game." Draven countered, trying to calm his nerves and ready himself for a fight he knew Arun and himself could not win.

"Boss!" The archer said again, and this time Draven could sense the urgency in the younger man's tone.

Boss raised his hand to silence the other before he could say more. He silently studied Draven and the wolf again, his eyes narrowed in inner thought.

"There really is nothing for you to rob me of," Draven claimed honestly, "I possess nothing more than what you see."

"I believe you," The older gentlemen said after a few more uncomfortable moments. "But you are not the reason we came here, to begin with."

"Then what…" Draven paused, suddenly understanding. He looked down to the dead Horned Sabercat and sighed. "You were after the cat."

The man nodded and smiled in reply.

"Your trophy hunters!"

"Aye, son, we are." The boss admitted. "But the situation has taken an exciting turn."

Something about that man's words made Draven's gut scream out in warning. He gripped his simple weapon tighter and asked, "What do you mean?"

"You would be amazed how much coin one can get when selling off parts of exotic creatures. The horn there alone will bring us at least five-hundred gold. The paws, over two-hundred, a piece."

"So, you're here now, wanting to take the cat and sell it off piece by piece," Draven said, shaking his head sadly. Then he shrugged, "I can't stop you. But I do have to laugh."

"At?" Boss asked curiously.

"The lies you'll spread," Draven answered evenly. "I assume you have something of a reputation, you know, being the courageous hunters, you are. I can't imagine you'd honestly tell the tale of a young boy and his wolf killing the prized beast with a stick."

The older man's grunt and shoulder shrug was all the answer Draven needed. The exciting turn he mentioned had nothing to do with him or the cat. He snapped his eyes to Arun. By selling off the trophies they cut from the Sabercats body, they'd be temporarily rich, but if they were to claim awards from a dire wolf at the same time, they'd be wealthy for a while.

"Not going to happen," Draven warned, gripping the stick tighter. Arun must have sensed the warning in his words and let loose a dangerous snarl through bared teeth.

The one they called boss looked from Draven to Arun, then back to his three companions. As he did, they raised their bows some, ready to lose the arrows when the command came. Draven scanned the area with his eyes, desperate for a plan, but found nothing. He sighed and resigned himself to the inevitable.

"Run," Draven commanded the wolf, whose only response was a deeper growl aimed at the men. "Damn it, I said RUN!"

Arun let loose a barking growl that set all four men back a step. The bowmen raised their aim, and judging by the bows' slight quivering, they were getting nervous and hopefully scared.

"No, son," The boss said, almost sadly. "You should run. Just turn and run, and don't look back."

"No," Draven barked defiantly. Something strange was bubbling up inside him. His focus sharpened, and all feelings of fear left him. All that remained was an animalistic urge to fight. And his ice blue eyes showed it.

The older man began to speak but hesitated when he found himself under that cold fixed gaze Draven locked on him. He raised his sword, pointing it at the Ranger.

"Don't do this boy, I don't want to hurt you."

With no other option coming to him, Draven tensed and readied himself, hoping if he charged them in a sudden attack, he might throw off their balance at least for a moment. It was a fleeting idea, but at least he wouldn't be letting Arun die alone. Just as the moment came to make his move, that peculiar connection he seemed to share with the forest kicked in and gave him a moment of pause.

Draven's eyes slowly lowered to the ground as he took on a blank expression. Once again, he opened his senses and became acutely aware of things he could not see. He caught the faint scents of flowers in the air, all of which were almost overpowered by the smell of fresh blood emanating from the Sabercat. He focused harder on his sense of hearing and was startled by the silence that surrounded all of them. It was a silence that spoke loud and clear, and all the Ranger could do was smile. Which was the last thing the hunters expected to see.

"I don't think you appreciate the situation you find yourself in, son," Boss said, then scowled deep when Draven chuckled, "My generosity is fading, boy, I won't hesitate to kill you if I must."

"I know," Draven said smoothly as he tossed his primitive weapon aside.

Bossman frowned, confused by the Rangers response. Then grew more agitated when he realized the wolf had relaxed some too. "Do you think this is a game?" He demanded.

"No, I really don't," Draven replied through a chuckle. "I just realized how one-sided this all is. It just doesn't seem fair."

"Fair or not, it's life, boy. We can't go around thinking we'll always get a fair shake in life. You'll understand someday."

"Oh, I understand," Draven said lightheartedly, waving away the man's words. "I understand that I'll give you the chance to run, just like you were going to give me. I would be a shame to see you all hurt, or worse."

The man sighed, "Boy, you can't count, can you?"

"I can," Draven answered, then raised his fists as if to fight. "I see a very unfair advantage here. But let me promise you this, if you so much as try to hurt a hair on my friend here, I'll be the last living person you all ever see."

"You can't kill us all." The boss claimed darkly as he raised his sword.

"Your right; I can't." Draven said with a smile, then nodded past the four men, "But they can!"

In unison, all hunters turned to look back and were greeted by a genuinely frightening sight. Six large and angry dire wolves had somehow snuck up behind them, all growling viciously and poised to attack.

"I think you can agree," Draven offered to the men now frozen in terror, "that the number really not fair. But before my friends decide to have you all for a late afternoon snack, I want one question answered."

They all turned back towards Draven, but only the boss man seemed to have held any sense of composer. "And that is?"

"Where am I?" Draven demanded.

"What?" The man stuttered, clearly confused by the question.

"I said, where am I?" Draven repeated as he walked up to the man. He motioned to the sword with no extra words, which the man let drop to the forest floor. A quick glance to the bowmen had them laying their weapons down carefully as well. "What is the Shade?"

The man balked, "Kid, I don't know what your trouble really is, or if you are playing some game. But if you really don't know, you are wandering around the largest forest in this realm, called the Shade. Only fools walk these lands alone."

"Well," Draven replied, "as you can see, I'm not alone."

The man nodded, "Yeah, I see."

"So what do we do with these guys?" Draven asked Arun, who let loose a quick bark. Behind the men, the rest of the wolves all added in their own voices.

"Oh, oh no," Draven said in mock sorrow as he looked the man in the eyes. "My friends are hungry. And they have pups to feed." Arun moved over by the Ranger and sat next to him but left serious eyes glued to the boss.

"Tell you what, I'm feeling generous today…" Draven paused to wrinkle his nose, "and since none of us really likes the taste of human meat, you can be on your way. So get out of here."

The four men hesitated, each seemingly unsure if it was a trap. The man they called boss was the first to move as he bent to pick up his sword, but Draven stopped him. "No, you leave that here, the bows too. And drop all your arrows."

"We need our weapons!" One of the men pleaded, "We'll never make it to the edge of the grasslands without something to defend ourselves with!"

Draven looked to Arun as the wolf stood and trotted past the hunters. There seemed to be some unspoken words shared between pack as they suddenly spread out and heading into out. Only Arun stopped and looked back as if waiting.

"They will get you to the edge of the forest safely." Draven offered. But his eyes ice blue eyes hardened again, and he leveled a dangerous gaze at the boss. "Don't confuse what is happening here for any sort of kindness. I would like nothing more than to see the pack tear you and yours apart."

"The Shade is a dangerous place, kid." The boss said honestly as he turned to follow the wolves. "Even more so with you in it."

Draven watched the group of wolves and men walked off, wondering to himself if those words were meant to be a compliment.


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