Eleint 19, 1479, Year of the Ageless One
Both rangers saw the man in polished plate mail armor standing in the middle of the road.
He was tall, had a weathered face, and was armed with sword and shield. They saw that his shield bore a yellow skull wearing a horned helm on a black field. He resembled a knight.
Behind the knight, a large wagon sat in the middle of the road. One of its wheels had been removed from the axle and was propped up against a nearby tree. A second figure in fine clothing stood next to the wagon, hands on hips, frustration clearly displayed by his body language. A cowl obscured the person’s face.
Nearby, two green-scaled drakes lounged in the sun. Beyond them, two horses, free from the wagon, grazed lazily at the eaves of the woods.
The knight smiled when he saw the two rangers.
“Greetings and well met, good travelers,” the knight said. “My name is Sir Tyros Halfhelm, a knight by trade. This gem cutter, Lerix, hired me to escort him on these dangerous roads. But our wagon’s wheel is damaged. We could use some help getting it back on the wagon, but I am hesitant to take my eyes off the road. I’ve heard tell that travelers have disappeared out this way in recent times. Brigands, no doubt.”
“Well met to you as well,” Therand said while looking around at the surrounding area. “How can we help?”
“I wonder if you would be good enough to offer us some assistance?” Sir Tyros said. “Perhaps one of you can help us with the wagon.”
“We would love to help,” Rowan said while still keeping his distance. “But we are Wardens of the Vale. Our job is to patrol and watch for danger and cannot directly help.”
The knight regarded Rowan with curiosity and a hint of frustration. "I have never heard of people whose task it is to “watch” but not help."
Therand moved closer to Rowan.
“I will climb up upon the ridge to the south and cover the high ground,” Therand said.
“Good. I will speak with this knight and see what he is about,” Rowan said. “But let us not forget our mission. We are to find the gnoll chief, Toryk. Any delay will cost us precious time.”
Therand nodded in agreement and made his way up to the high ground that ran parallel to the road. When he reached the area where the ground sloped upward towards a thick copse of trees, he found the ground soft and difficult to climb. Try as he might, he slipped and slid down. Covered in mud, Therand made his way back to Rowan who had walked back to a safe distance after speaking to the knight.
“The slope is soft and hard to climb,” Therand explained.
“Remain here then and watch the road,” Rowan advised. “I’ll try to find an easier way up there where we can have a vantage view of the road and these two travelers.”
“What did you learn from the knight?” Therand asked.
“He repeated what he’s already told us,” Rowan said. “He did add that they lost another in their party further down the road from where they came from. He described an ambush by brigands.”
“Yet those two managed to have escaped a deadly ambush?” Therand added with a hint of disbelief.
“Aye,” Rowan said. “My thoughts exactly.” The ranger then turned and quickly made his way towards the slope. From where Therand stood, he could see Rowan making good progress up the slippery ground. In a short time, the ranger had disappeared from sight.
“I’ll be just as skilled someday,” Therand whispered to himself.
Keeping the knight in his view, Therand walked over to a large oak tree at the edge of the road.
Above the road, Rowan quietly pushed his way through thick briers.
He suddenly stopped. The scent of smoke caught his attention.
Turning away from the direction of the road, he made his way towards the source of the smell.
He emerged from between two maple trees. A camp was spread out before him. Three weathered tents were pitched around a campfire that looked like it was recently put out. He quietly moved into the camp, keeping vigilant for any signs of the camp’s inhabitants.
A man suddenly stepped out of a tent a few feet from where Rowan stood. The man was dressed in leather and held a longsword. The man’s eye grew wide in surprise when he spotted Rowan. He opened his mouth to yell—
Rowan silenced the man with a well-placed arrow shot into the man’s throat. The man fell back into the tent. Rowan spotted another man emerge from behind a tree at the other side of the camp. The man, too, wore leather but held a short bow in his hand. The man turned to flee into the woods. Rowan stopped him with arrow through his back.
Rowan quickly ran through the camp searching for any more of the armed men. When he was certain no one was left in the camp, he quickly made his back to the road to warn Therand.
Therand meanwhile scanned the area nearby. The knight and the other man working on the wagon’s wheel suspiciously kept looking at his direction. Therand also noticed that the knight kept looking towards the treeline where Therand was. He looked around and swore he saw what appeared to be someone hiding behind a small maple tree a short distance away.
Therand had an uncanny feeling that something bad was about to happen.
Above the road, Rowan moved fast. He came out of a thicket and spotted two more men trying to hide behind a large outcropping of rocks. They were both armored like the men back in camp. Each also had shortbows drawn back and trained at the road below.
The ranger moved in quick, firing arrow after arrow into each one. Both lay dead by the time Rowan reached the edge where the ground sloped downward.
Down below, Therand fired at the figure crouched behind the maple tree. His arrow struck the tree but scared the hidden figure into revealing himself. A short human man armed with a crossbow stood up and fired in Therand’s direction. The bolt zipped past his head.
Suddenly another figure—a male half elf—emerged from behind a clump of thick bushes some distance away. The figure raised his crossbow and fired at Therand. The bolt struck the ranger, nearly causing him to double over in pain.
From the direction of the wagon, Therand heard the angry chirping staccato of the scaled-drakes get louder. He looked towards the wagon. The knight, Tyros, was moving in his direction while Lerix, the cowled figure working on the wagon wheel ran towards the tree line.
Therand knew he was being flanked.
He fired again at the nearest crossbowman but his aim was too high.
Fearing he would be surrounded, Therand ran towards the wagon hoping to find better cover. All the while, he wondered where Rowan had gone. Was he dead? Did he flee back to Bear’s Head to warn the others? All these crossed his mind as another bolt buried itself into his lower back.
He managed to make it to a short tree when he suddenly spotted Lerix step out into the open from behind a bush. The man’s cowl fell back to reveal a cat-like face with reddish eyes and oily brown hair. Small black horns grew out of his forehead. Therand recognized Lerix as a tiefling, beings who can trace their ancestry back to the Nine Hells.
With a wicked grin, the tiefling raised his hand and pointed it at Therand. His hand began to glow. Suddenly, a fiery bolt materialized and hurled itself at the ranger. When the magical bolt struck him, intense white fire quickly spread throughout his body burning him painfully wherever it touched his exposed skin.
Giving up his position, Therand bolted towards the wagon. He saw the two horses tethered near the wagon. If he could reach one of them, he could try to escape on horseback. He knew Rowan was capable of taking care of himself.
A crossbow bolt zipped past him, while a second one struck his calf.
To his right, he saw armored knight run behind the wagon for cover. Behind him, the tiefling wizard sought cover behind a large boulder. He was looking up where Rowan went earlier and was shouting orders to the crossbowmen to be alert.
He looked at the nearest horse and saw something that nearly caused him to stop dead in his tracks. Unbelievably, the horse started to split in two! The entire top portion of the horse was separating itself from the lower half. Inside the fake horse, two men armored in leather were trying to take off the lower half of the horse which was held up by suspenders worn by the two.
Moments later, they were both free and had unsheathed longswords. Both looked at Therand and started to move towards him.
Therand took aim and fired at the two men. He struck one who dropped dead. The other kept moving towards him.
Just then, another magical bolt struck Therand from behind. Searing heat engulfed him sending waves of fiery pain throughout his entire body. As darkness engulfed him, Therand felt the ground rise up to greet him. Then everything went dark.
Above the road, Rowan watched as Therand was struck by the tiefling’s fiery bolt. He quickly loosed an arrow that struck the tiefling. He also saw a man armed with a longsword run up to the fallen ranger. Seconds later, the man raised his blade above the ranger’s body then drove the blade downward to make certain Therand was dead.
To be continued…