In The Night
On a chilly night, a group of bandits tell an ambitious new member about the Rangers.
The day had been clouded, but as the hours grew late the sky began to clear, exposing the setting sun in the midst of a dusky pink sky. Drake followed the other bandits as they stopped and began to set up camp. It was unusually silent, the stillness broken only by the occasional quarrel.
Drake had just taken his seat by the fire when he was shoved to the side none to gently and barely avoided falling to the ground. Glaring, he whipped around to see Tyle's un repentant face. Tyle was younger then him, sixteen to his seventeen, and slimmer. Drake was taller, and older, something that should have given him superiority in the group but Tyle had been with the bandits for two years, twice the time Drake had, and so the boys remained at odds with each other, constantly fighting for a higher position. It didn't help that Drake had recently joined this group, and was still new to the area.
"What is it?" he snarled at Tyle, getting to his feet and effectively towering over him.
"I was gonna ask what you thought of the town, if you could spare a moment with your expert opinion," Tyle said sullenly.
Drake relaxed slightly, seeing as Tyle wasn't planning on picking a fight. "The folk at town seemed mighty foolish to me. I didn't see one weapon on any of them, even them set to guard the gate! If these are your pick for raiding you have it easier then we do up by the sea. Where I'm from the folk all have suspicious eyes and well tended swords, not to mention the creatures you find running about wild. Why, I haven't seen one goblin since I've come here!"
He added for a good measure. "I'd like to see you last one day by the sea, Tyle."
The other men had come up and sat down in a messy circle as they argued. "More dangerous thing roam here then you'd think boy," one of them said darkly.
Another glanced up at the darkening sky. "Say, how 'bout we tell the new lad about The Rangers?"
The others nodded in agreement, pulling out their pipes.
"The Rangers?" Drake asked, skeptical.
Tyle gave him a scornful glance. "Hold your tongue and listen, lest you meet a ranger!"
Drake scowled at him, but drew closer to the kindled fire. "So, what's so frightening about them rangers?"
"Well," said Huir, a copper-haired man with a scar cut under his eye, leaning back on the ground, "you sure you want to know boy? Sure you won't have nightmares?" He smiled mockingly.
"I won't have no such thing!" Drake spat out. "I'm not some pale skinned shoe maker and there's nothing you can say that'll scare me!"
"Hmm," said Huir. "You know, them rangers have pale skin or so it's said. I ain't seen one." A scowl marred his face. "And I don't want to."
"They're men then?" Drake asked, beginning to feel uneasy. Anything that Huir didn't want to meet was worth staying far away from.
"They're men," said Huir. "But they don't act like men, or move like men. It's said their steps are as quiet as a wolfs. You won't hear no twigs crack nor bushes rustle, not if a Ranger's after you. They wear travel stained cloaks and seem to melt into the shadows, and they never leave a trace that they've been bye."
"Not a trace?" Drake asked, his voice a mite bit higher then usual.
"Nothing but the bodies," Tyle cut in.
"There one second and gone the next," continued Huir. "You don't know they're there until an arrow's notched and pointed at your heart. If they aim they will shoot and they don't ever miss. And don't think you're safe out of bow range, oh no. They all bear great swords, of sharp and shining metal and don't hesitate to use them neither."
"I've fought men before!" retorted Drake with false bravado.
"Not these men. They fight with a deadly sort of grace and they don't utter a word. Dead silent in battle even if you throw a thousand taunts their way."
"What for do they fight?"
Huir paused. "I don't right know. But they say that the wild creatures that stalk the woods don't ever harm the rangers. The wolves that howl at night avoid them, the bears pass them by and all the great birds seek to do their bidding. They own these woods."
"But there's more. Once you got a ranger on you're trial you can never rest again. You can't eat, sleep or even breathe without the paralyzing fear, because one day you look behind you and they will be there. There's no escaping the rangers, they will tail you through the towns, hiding in the alleys of the streets, they will trail you on the roads, just out of sight. And if you dare to step inside the woods then your doom is set. You won't ever hear them but that's all the worse because you know they're there." Huir fell silent.
"That ain't true, ain't it?" Drake said, not able to hide his uncertainty.
"It's true enough," said Tyle.
Dinner was a silent affair.
Drake twisted on his bedroll, trying to get comfortable but he could not. He felt the sensation of eyes upon him; he jerked up, sure he was being watched! Relax, he told himself, you're imagining things because of that story is all. Now get to sleep! He took long, deep breathes but the thoughts and uncertainties kept dancing on the edges of his mind. Each time it seemed Drake had slipped into sleep dark dreams came to him and woke him once more.
Unable to stand it any longer he sat up and surveyed the camp. Everything was in order, though the sentry was yawning with tiredness. Seeing him, Drake felt the same feeling over take him. There's nothing there, he told himself, it was just a tale. Just . . a . . tale . . .
Sleep finally took him.
Drake didn't wake for the rest of the night, not even as the sentry slumbered, and cloaked figures appeared on the outskirts of their camp, approaching as silently as wolves in the night.