The Rangers' camp appeared deserted, despite the unmade bedrolls and the pot of relatively fresh coffee sitting in the campfire coals. Tomas looked at Lachdanan questioningly. They had walked into the woods for the better part of the day and he expected the Captain to be irritated at being stood up.
"Hector, are you here?" called Lachdanan.
"I need to speak to you regarding a serious matter."
Around them, the trees themselves seemed to sigh. "They're all serious matters with you, Michael."
Tomas startled. Even though the voice was as clear as if it had been whispered in his ear, he could not pinpoint its source.
"Be that as it may," continued Lachdanan, "I need to speak with you."
"I'm in the middle of a training exercise," explained Gorash. "Putting a quartet of rookies through the paces."
Again, the voice seemed to to come from nowhere and everywhere. Leaves rustled at opposite sides of the tiny clearing, hiding the Rangers' presence as much as they hinted at it.
"Tell you what," continued Gorash, "why don't you and your scribe join us and we can talk while we work out?"
"Fine," agreed the Paladin.
"Grab a wooden sword and have the boy put on the padded armor and cap."
Lachdanan and Tomas complied with the instructions.
"All right, boys and girl," announced Sir Gorash. "The name of the game is 'Grab the Scribe.'" Tomas startled again. "The goal is to grab the boy, deposit him on the gray bedroll in the middle of the clearing, and keep him there for a full two hundred-count. Captain Lachdanan will try to stop you and I'll wager he'll succeed. Just try not to make it too easy for him. This is a friendly game, but beyond that, anything goes."
Silence fell across the clearing and Tomas glanced over at Lachdanan nervously. "What should we do?" he whispered.
"Can you see any of them?" asked the Paladin calmly.
Tomas shook his head.
"There's nothing harder to spot than a Ranger hiding in the woods. We'll know where they are when they move, and not a moment before."
Before Lachdanan could explain further, the forest floor rose up before them; a wall of leaves, dirt and shaggy brown fur. A pair of massive clawed hands grabbed Tomas around the waist and lifted him high in the air. The Gargantuan Beast that had him covered the distance the bedroll in three huge strides and sat him roughly on it.
The beast spun to face Lachdanan while standing over Tomas. It bared its teeth and claws and let out a roar that shook the surrounding trees. At the same time, Tomas felt something briefly brush by him, just out of his line of sight.
Quietly calling on the blessings of Zakarum, Lachdanan smote the beast, stunning it. A quick chop of his wooden sword sent it sprawling.
"That was sloppy," commented Gorash from somewhere in the trees. "The big, scary monster routine may work on Fallen or common bandits, but you won't intimidate a seasoned warrior. Anyone with a grain of experience under his belt will simply see you as a big, hairy target. You're out. Go sit until the exercise is over."
The Gargantuan Beast struggled to her feet and staggered to the over side of the clearing. She did not look back at Tomas or Lachdanan.
Tomas was sitting on the bedroll and heard Gorash beginning to count to two hundred. He jumped up, but as soon as he set foot off the bedroll, a snare made from a stout vine coiled around his ankle. With a cry, Tomas fell backwards onto the bedroll.
Gorash interrupted his count to comment: "Having Cholba distract your opponents while you laid snares was fundamentally a good strategy, but, if we were playing for keeps, she would have sacrificed her life for it. Now, you may be called upon to give your life for your team or your cause, but for Zak's sake, make it worth your while. This simply isn't that important. The next question is, can you keep him imprisoned?" Gorash resumed his count.
Tomas struggled to loosen the vine, but it was like an iron manacle. He put his hand down to reposition himself and get a better grip, but, to his dismay, another snare wrapped around his wrist.
Gorash continued counting.
Lachdanan turned toward the bedroll to aid his faithful scribe. He blocked two arrows with his shield and a third embedded itself in the ground at his feet. Another snare coiled around the arrow. Lachdanan jumped over the arrow and other hidden snares and landed on the bedroll next to Tomas. He drew a knife from his boot and began working on the tough vines that held Tomas.
"Rangers," criticized Gorash, "if you're going to use your trap and snare skills, make sure you and your team remember where they are."
Despite the resistance the vines gave, Lachdanan cut through them without too much difficulty.
"You've got a Paladin in your prison," observed Gorash. "Can you keep him there?"
As they stood to leave, more arrows thudded into the ground, blocking their way. Each attempt to move was met by more warning arrows, each time from a different direction. Gorash continued counting.
"When I get the opportunity," Lachdanan whispered to Tomas, "I'm going to charge at our opponents. When I do, jump over the snares and get as far away from this bedroll as you can without going into the woods."
"100... 101... 102..." counted Gorash from somewhere.
Lachdanan feinted toward the trees and was met with a warning volley. He moved again and received another warning. Each time, he noted the angles and positions of the arrows in the ground. The three remaining Rangers were constantly, silently on the move. Anyone would have guessed that there were at least twenty of them hiding in the forest.
Tomas watched the Paladin, trying to figure out what he was doing. Then suddenly, Lachdanan called on Zakarum for speed and charged into the bushes. Tomas was so startled, he almost forgot to run. He jumped away from his prison and ran for the edge of the clearing. Gorash stopped counting. No arrows were directed toward him, Lachdanan had drawn all the fire to himself. None of the startled Rangers' arrows found him, for Zakarum had granted His Paladin superhuman speed.
There was a distinctly unRanger-like rustling in the bushes, which ended with a thud. A figure wearing light leather armor and a mottled cloak tumbled out of the bushes backwards and landed on his rump amidst a short bow and a scattering of arrows. It was a boy about Tomas' age. Lachdanan stepped into the clearing and seemed to tower over him.
"Should've stayed in the trees," chided Gorash. "Once you were on the ground, you were fair game. You're out, Ranger. Go keep Cholba company."
The boy shot Lachdanan a defiant look, as if to say, "I could have beaten you if Gorash hadn't called me out." Then he made the long trek to the other edge of the clearing.
"All right, Rangers," Gorash addressed his remaining men. "That wasn't too pretty. You've lost half your number and your prisoners have escaped. What are you going to do about it? Do you try to recapture your prisoner or take out his protector?"
The clearing fell silent. A crow cawed, followed by the rattle of squirrel claws skittering down a tree truck, and Tomas suddenly realized that the noises were actually the two Rangers pondering Gorash's question with one another. He tried to pinpoint their sources, but couldn't.
There was an obvious flash of movement in the woods near Tomas, and even Lachdanan took a step toward it. Another Ranger seemed to materialize behind Lachdanan and delivered what would have been a crippling blow, had he been using a real sword. Instead, the young Ranger reeled as if struck himself. Lachdanan had called on Zakarum for an Aura of Thorns that reflected damage back onto an attacker. The Paladin turned and, almost casually, delivered a counterstrike with his own wooden sword. Gorash called the Ranger "out."
"Against an ordinary foe, that would have worked," commented Gorash. "But when you're fighting a Paladin, you're fighting Zakarum."
Out of nowhere, a flock of cawing, flapping ravens surrounded Lachdanan. At the same time, a strong, wiry forearm wrapped around Tomas' throat from behind. The last remaining Ranger was a tall youth -- at least six-and-a-half feet -- with a head full of long orange hair.
Lachdanan rolled under the clawing, pecking birds and came up with the bow and one of the arrows dropped by the second Ranger.
The single shaft flew through the air and struck the tall Ranger squarely in the forehead. The arrows were only light practice shafts, but they left very real bruises and welts when they hit. The red-haired Ranger would have a very real knot on his forehead for a few days. He released Tomas and sent the ravens away before Gorash could even call him "out."
"If that had been a real arrow, you'd be a brain-kabob right now," said Gorash. "One day soon, you're going to have to choose between the Druidic skills of your people or developing your Ranger skills. In this case, summoning the birds cost you your camouflage, but at the same time, you didn't have enough control over them to keep Captain Lachdanan from getting the bow and arrow. It's better to excel at a few things than to stink at a lot of things."
Sir Gorash appeared in the center of the clearing, as if out of nowhere. He was a broad-shouldered muscular man, maybe a half-head shorter than Lachdanan. He wore a mottled cloak over hard leather armor. His face was brown and the sun and elements had etched their along association with him into the lines of his face. "Front and center, Rangers," he ordered. The Rangers fell in before him. Silently, he regarded them with brown eyes.
Lachdanan had called on Zakarum for Healing energies and, already, his Prayer Aura was healing the young Rangers of their cuts and bruises. It was beyond the Paladin's power to heal their wounded pride, however. To Tomas, they all looked young -- even the hairy Gargantuan Beast -- and demoralized as any soldier might look after receiving such a sound thrashing in front of his commanding officer.
"The truth is," said Sir Gorash after studying his troops, "you weren't that bad. Don't get me wrong, you weren't that good either. I saw a lot of sloppiness and mental errors that would have gotten you killed in real combat. Although adequate individually, I didn't see much evidence of teamwork out there. You had your opponent heavily outnumbered, but somehow managed to get picked off one at a time. That has to get better.
"That said," continued Gorash, "you faced an unusual foe under circumstances not wholly to your advantage. First of all, obviously, you had the restriction on lethal force, and I could tell that trying not to hurt your opponents slowed you down some. We'll be having a lot more exercises like this one before you earn your oak leaves. Remember, you're not just warriors, you're protectors. Not all situations are life-or-death, you need to be able to take an opponent down with minimal force and harm.
"Another handicap was the daylight. Even filtered sunlight like this..." He gestured at the canopy of oak and pine branches above them. "...took away some of the advantage you'd have had fighting at night. But you know what? Daytime happens. Be prepared to deal with it.
"Finally," finished Gorash, "you were fighting a veteran Paladin. Now, unless we declare war on Westmarch or something equally unlikely, that's simply not going to happen in real life. However, there are plenty of creatures out there who can mimic one or two Paladin powers. Likewise, there are Sorcerers, Conjurers, Illusionists, Enchanters, and Necromancers who each have whole menus of different tricks they can use against you. You need to be able to think fast and adapt faster."
Sir Gorash nodded to Captain Lachdanan, who nodded back. "Now. the good Captain and I are going to spar a bit. I want you to watch carefully how I use my skills and, just as importantly, how he uses his."
Tomas and the Rangers watched the two commanders duel, the clack of their wooden swords against one another filled the woods. Gorash's moves were graceful and cat-like. Not a dry leaf crackled under his soft leather boots unless he willed it.
By contrast, Lachdanan was disciplined and soldierly. The bout was like a chess match to him, with each move and countermove planned well in advance. Sir Gorash seemed able to disappear behind a fallen twig and renew his attack from a different front whenever he willed it. Lachdanan switched Auras to keep his opponent off balance and, above all, kept him away from the edges of the clearing.
The two men spoke softly as they sparred. "Your troops show promise," commented Lachdanan.
"Thank you," replied Gorash.
"Even if they are a bit undisciplined," finished the Paladin. It was a deliberate goad. Gorash's Rangers always looked like wild men of the woods next to Lachdanan's white knights in shining armor. Lachdanan had never made a secret of the fact that he felt the Khanduran Rangers could benefit from a little more traditional military discipline. For his part, Sir Gorash had never made a secret of his belief that Lachdanan could use, among many other things, a little more fiber in his diet. It was he who had coined the nickname "Captain Wet Blanket" to describe the head of the rival branch of the Khanduran military.
This time, Gorash did not rise to take the bait. "So what brings you out here on your magnificent white charger?" Gorash wanted to know.
Lachdanan had been enjoying the exercises and had temporarily managed to put the unpleasant matter out of his mind. He allowed himself a guilty sigh. "I'm here investigating the murder of Glorianna Lester."
Gorash missed a step and Lachdanan scored a touch. In response, Gorash backed into the afternoon sun and seemed to disappear again.
"Do you have any suspects?" asked Gorash from very close on Lachdanan's flank. The Paladin whirled in time to block a shot with his shield.
"Yes," replied Lachdanan. "Farmer Lester, the two dancers she disappeared with after Caravan." The paused. "And you."
Lachdanan scored two more touches.
"Me?" Gorash used one of his medium-level Ranger skills and a cloud of blinding, choking yellow pollen surrounded the Paladin. It was a cheap shot, but so was accusing someone of murder in the middle of a friendly duel. Lachdanan switched from his Aura of Thorns to a Cleansing Aura to relieve him from the toxins he'd inhaled. Gorash was able to score enough hits to bring their contest even.
"Personally," gasped Lachdanan, "I know you didn't do it. But you all but threatened to kill her in front of a tavern full of people during Caravan. Plus, your affair with her was the talk of Tristram a few months back. I'd be lax in my duties if I didn't at least come talk to you."
"This is going to keep coming back and haunting me for the rest of my Zak-damned life," complained the Ranger. He was genuinely frustrated, but also hoped the blasphemy would startle the Paladin and allow him to score another touch. It didn't. "What can I tell you that didn't already come out during the hearing?"
Deeply offended by Gorash's unwarranted language, Lachdanan recalled the case against Sir Gorash. "Late last winter, you rode out to the Lester farm in response to reports that bandits had been seen in the area. Farmer Lester was away in Lut Gholein on business, and you were met by the young and pretty Mrs. Glorianna Lester."
Gorash grimaced. "Except she didn't tell me she was his wife. She claimed to be his niece."
"Deep down, you knew that not to be true. There are people in Tristram who thank Zakarum daily that Farmer Lester was an only child, so you knew he could not have had a niece. Likewise, it was common knowledge that Farmer Lester had taken a young bride in recent years." Lachdanan scored a touch. He continued: "Nonetheless, over the subsequent weeks and into the spring, you visited the Lester farm often. During that time, intimacies were exchanged. Inevitably, Farmer Lester returned, discovered the affair, and promptly sued you for adultery."
Gorash vanished in a rustling of leaves and shadows and renewed his assault from Lachdanan's flank. Thanks to the Paladin's Aura of Thorns, however, Gorash received the worst of his own offensive.
"It was your position during the hearing that Mrs. Lester deceived and seduced you," continued Lachdanan.
"She did!" insisted Gorash.
"Sadly for you, the judge did not find that a credible defense. Glorianna claimed that you took advantage of her youth and innocence," Lachdanan went on.
"That mad wench is about as innocent as a grinning succubus," snarled Gorash, dodging under Lachdanan's sword.
"The judge did not find that position entirely meritless either, and ruled that you had 'engaged in activities, free from coercion by either party, that you found mutually acceptable at the times in question,'" concluded Lachdanan. He sidestepped to avoid one of the Ranger's increasingly clumsy attacks. "Throughout all this, Farmer Lester played the role of the wounded party, claiming anguish and financial damages due to the resulting loss of productivity of himself, Glorianna, his farmhands, and, incredibly, his cows."
Gorash scored a touch, reminding Lachdanan that it was a sin to gloat. With a silent prayer to Zakarum, he forgave Gorash for his blasphemy. "The rest of the story," finished Lachdanan, "is a matter of public record."
Gorash sighed. "The judge found in favor of Farmer Lester and put a lien on my earnings, including spoils of adventuring, for the next five years. I also lost the rank of Captain, although my experience and other qualifications still permit me to remain as commander of the Khanduran Rangers."
"The last time you saw Glorianna was when she confronted you in the Tavern of the Rising Sun during Caravan," said Lachdanan. "What was going through your mind during that encounter?"
"She was the last person in the world that I wanted to see. I wanted to be left alone."
"What did she want from you?"
"Honestly?" replied the Ranger. "I have no idea. She'd been drinking. She made several suggestions."
"Is it true you reached for your sword?"
"I did not, at any time, touch my sword or any other weapon," said Gorash in an even voice.
"Did you consider it?"
"Drawing my sword and hacking an unarmed woman to pieces in front of three dozen witnesses?" asked Gorash. "Don't be ridiculous."
"And if there hadn't been witnesses?"
"I am many things that you do not approve of, but I'm no murderer and you know it."
Lachdanan nodded and they sparred a little longer.
"Did you love her?" asked Lachdanan.
Gorash actually stumbled. "I..."
Lachdanan scored a touch and another.
"Let me ask you this then," suggested Lachdanan. "Do you think she loved you?"
"I never asked."
"I didn't ask if you asked," pressed the Paladin. "Do you think she loved you?"
"Does it matter now?" asked Gorash.
"Of course it matters!" snapped the Paladin. "Zakarum teaches us that Love Always Matters. Let me tell you what I saw during your hearing: I saw a man and a woman who could have come out of that mess a lot better than they did if they'd been willing to stand together instead of accusing each other. The judge was a follower of the Lighted Path and, because Love Always Matters, he might not have weighed so heavily in Farmer Lester's favor if you or Glorianna had given any indication that Love was at stake. You'd probably still owe a lot of money, but you'd have your rank, and Glorianna would have had grounds to get out of her marriage contract to Farmer Lester. She might have been alive and with you today."
Gorash froze and slowly lowered his sword and shield.
Lachdanan regarded the Ranger thoughtfully. "Something to ponder over the nights to come." Then he said loudly enough for Tomas and Gorash's Rangers to hear: "You've dueled well, my friend. Today, I yield." He put down the wooden sword and bowed to the silent Sir Gorash.
"Come, Tomas," he said walking away. "We have a long journey back to Tristram and I'd like to speak with Archbishop Lazarus before the day is done."
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