Chapter 2: Rogue versus Ranger

Thomas simply sat there numb with shock.

He tried to grasp the fact that the famous Will Treaty was at the opposite end of the bridge and had shot an arrow nearly between his eyes. It was unreal! The Ranger, meanwhile, had already notched another arrow but hadn't fired it yet. Instead, it was maintained at the ready, levelled at Thomas's neck to be fired in a moment's notice should the need arise.

Thomas shivered.

"Since I seem to have the upper hand," The Ranger was saying in a stern tone of voice but not harshly. "I suggest you tell me who you are and what business you have stalking a bridge. If you are the vagabond I have heard so much about then be warned. I am a fully-fledged King's Ranger and am fully capable of clapping you in irons, which I fully intend to do if you are that man.

Thomas's mind reeled.

So this newcomer really was the Ranger by the name of Will Treaty! A living legend lurked at the other end of the bridge waiting to pounce on him if he reveals his name.

"Hurry up, fellow," The Ranger said. "I don't have all day."

Thomas needed to buy time. He needed to take stock of things and see if there was yet a way of escape. He didn't want to end up in prison, not yet anyway. There had to be a way out. There simply had to!

His mind raced.

A thought struck him and he snapped out of his reverie.

"I am an innocent forced into these woods not of my own choosing," He said. "Because of that I won't give up without a fight." He had no idea why he said what he did next. He just blurted it out on impulse. "If you win, you get to haul me off to prison. If I win, you take me on as your apprentice!"

For a split second, pure shock registered on the Ranger's face. His shock mirrored Thomas's own. Later on, he would still be unable to explain why he said that. It just came from him inexorably. He couldn't put his finger on it but call it destiny, fate, or fright pushing him to do wild things; it just happened. Once again, the Ranger smiled. A mischievous glint danced in his eyes. He nodded shortly.

"Very well," He said. "I am a fair man and will accept your terms."

What? Thomas's mind screamed at him. You asked to become his apprentice? Are you insane? Rangers are witches of the dark and wraiths of the forest. They hide in the shadows and can even become invisible at will. You are a downright fool to become his apprentice. What were you thinking?

Truth be told, Thomas had no idea what he was thinking at the time. The terms just burst out of him without his consent. Oh, well. He'd just have to make the best of it!

The Ranger's eyes narrowed.

"But there will be rules," He said. "Break one and I get to take you to prison even if you're winning. There will be rules. How do you wish to fight?"

"Wait!" Thomas stuttered. "You're just accepting me like that?"

He flicked his fingers for emphasis.

The Ranger grinned.

"I'm not an idiot, you know," He said with the hint of a warning in his voice. "I came here at a friend's behest. I was told that the infamous John Buttle of Seacliff Fief had returned from the dead and is harassing innocent bystanders foolish enough to pass through these woods. I did not believe my sources at first but I was begged to come. Thus, I decided it was worth a looking into. Now that I see you, I see that you are not, in fact, John Buttle.

"You look a lot like him but are different. I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt in that matter. Also, I don't want my journey here to be in vain. A fight would spice things up even if there is the chance of me taking a new apprentice. I doubt you would make a very good Ranger but you never know. Also, I never lose! Even so, I do enjoy a challenge. Now, who are you and how do we fight?"

"My name is Thomas Tanner and we shall use..." Thomas trailed off trying to determine which way would be the best one to fight.

His eyes dropped to his staff that was waiting almost expectantly for the fight to ensue.

"We will use staffs," He said.

"But I don't have one!" The Ranger said.

"Doesn't matter," Thomas replied. "You can cut one for yourself. I'm sure that would be the least of your abilities considering the circumstances."

The Ranger smirked and jumped up nimbly, landing softly onto the river bank. He shrugged off his cloak to reveal simple clothes of brown and green. He stooped down and produced a strange type of knife. Sliding it free of its sheath, he hefted it carefully in his hand and strode over to a clump of trees and bushes several feet away.

After casting about for a fallen branch of considerable size, he found one that was poking its way out of a bramble bush. The Ranger proceeded then to carve it to a certain length. He tested it to see if it could withstand blows from an opposing staff. When he was satisfied, he returned to his end of the bridge. The chilly water flowed swiftly beneath them.

Taking a deep breath, Thomas stepped onto the bridge and walked halfway across it. The Ranger followed in suit. The two young people tensed for a moment.

Without warning, the Ranger lashed out catching Thomas in the ribs with his staff. Caught off guard, Thomas sputtered and staggered but regained his balance just in time to avoid another jab by the short but quick-witted Ranger. He hopped back as the opposing staff was thrust towards his ribcage. But Thomas wasn't always on the defensive and managed to deliver several good blows of his own.

Crack!

The Ranger's staff landed smartly on his left shoulder. Thomas winced but backed away as the staff flung forward to his stomach.

Bang!

Thomas used that opportunity to surprise the Ranger by faking a blow to block the staff. Instead, he whirled his own one around and brought it down on the Ranger's foot. Cursing, the Ranger bounced about. But just as Thomas took a few seconds to get a quick breather, the Ranger heaved and wacked his right arm with his staff.

Thomas yelped in surprise, but regained his bearings quickly. With a cry to distract the Ranger, he whirled his staff in the air and aimed for the Ranger's knuckles. The Ranger dropped his staff automatically as the blow struck home. In that split second, Thomas wacked the Ranger's ankles, flinging him into the river.

"Oh!" The Ranger said in stunned surprise, before plummeting into the river with a resounding splash.

Heaving a sigh, Thomas sat on the bridge and took in a deep breath of fresh air. He let his feet dip into the water, soothing them.

"Ah," He said a little too long for emphasis. "That feels nice!"

The Ranger scowled at him. Then he grinned and hoisted himself up onto the bank.

"Well," He said slowly after wringing the water out of his tousled, brown hair. "Looks like I owe you something."

"Ur, yes," Thomas said not too certain if he wanted to press the bargain.

"So how does it feel for a boy to beat the 'all-famous' Ranger Will Treaty?" The Ranger asked.

Thomas's eyes widened. "You know?"

The Ranger nodded with a grin.

"Yes," He answered. "I knew all along. This was my old fief before I returned to Redmont Fief. I was asked by an old friend of mine in the village to check up on some giant of a rogue in the woods. Apparently, you've made travelling through these parts not the best way to pass the time. At first, I was ready to send you into jail. But after doing some research first, I found out why and I can sympathize."

Thomas's eyes narrowed and was about to ask something when the Ranger held up his hands for silence.

"You still want to become my apprentice?" He asked.

Thomas hesitated. He nodded finally.

"Good," The Ranger said. "Then we should get moving."

"Thank you, um, Ranger," Thomas said uneasily, still unsure of what to call his newfound master.

"Please," The Ranger said. "Call me Will."