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The Woodsmen are a conclave of rangers that, prior to the Liberation, haunted the woods around Bestraville in Kelerak, menacing dark folk and evildoers. Bestraville, owing largely to the deeds of the Woodsmen (as well as to the aura put forth by the grand Temple of Bestra), gained a reputation as one of the most dangerous places in Kelerak for orcs and other minions of the Lord of Lust, and the town had a great deal of difficulty keeping Hoths and orc bosses. Eventually, the Lord of Lust was forced to appoint a human as lord of the town, and the Woodsmen made it very clear to the newly appointed ruler that he owed his true allegiance to Bestra and the humans there.
The Woodsmen were instrumental in the liberation of Bestraville, and they sent troops to aid in the conflicts that took place post-Liberation. Today the Woodsmen are publicly accepted in the town and even hold official meeting in Woodhall, a large and recently-constructed building in the north of the town, and they continue to protect the community. But they harbor a secret....
History and Nature of the Conclave
The Woodsmen were founded in 7922 F.R., a bit over a century after the Dark Conquest. A local Bestraville woodcutter named Fulk Ack-Martin, who was quite a woodsman himself, earning a living not only by cutting down trees but by surreptitiously hunting in the Hoth's woods, came upon a wounded wolf. Normally he would have slain the wolf outright, but something about the look in the eyes of the creature gave him pause. Instead, he knelt down and offered the beast some water from his water skin, pouring it near the dying creature's snout as it greedily lapped up the liquid. After it had slaked its thirst, the creature spoke! In a growling voice, it murmured, "You have shown kindness where none was due. Take now and drink of my blood, that you may gain my strength without suffering from what afflicts me." Almost without knowing why he did so, Fulk took some of the creature's blood from its wound in his palm and lapped it up as if he himself were a wolf. Within moments the wolf died—and suddenly a man, a stranger from the east, lay dead in its place. Fulk was horrified and amazed.
Yet the man's blood had an amazing effect. Strangely, Fulk seemed to gain the powers of the wolf: his hearing and smell were heightened, during darkness his face became more lupine, and he prowled the forests, hunting better than he ever had. Fulk knew the creature had been a werewolf, but since the thing had not bitten him, he did not change into a monster during the full moon. Instead, he retained his form and his mind, but he became stronger. He used this newfound gift to harass and terrify the orcs that occupied his beloved Bestraville, hunting them during the night and any time they ventured into the woods surrounding the town.
Before long, news of the Woodsman—or some called it the Wolf man—that haunted the environs around the religious center spread, and the orcs and dark folk began to fear the place. The oppression of the goblinoids in the town grew less, and the townspeople perceived the good that the mysterious person was doing. Other men and women from the town sought out Fulk in his hideout in the forest, and they offered to join him in his defense of the town. Fulk's skill as a woodsman had increased immensely in the time he'd been hunting and battling the occupying force, and he gladly took on the most capable of the applicants, training them in what he knew of woods lore. He also required them to swear an informal oath to uphold the teachings of the gods of light, to defend Bestraville, and to fight for what is right.
After the applicants had trained and engaged in combat against the orcs, Fulk took the best of the best and ushered them into the inner circle, letting them in on his secret. And once they knew, he gave them no choice—he mingled their blood with his, passing his gift on to them and making them his "pack." They too gained the powers of wolves and became privy to the knowledge that the Woodsmen were, in reality, actually "The Wolfmen." Fulk styled himself "The Alpha."
As the years passed, and successes against the orcs mounted, Fulk became more and more wolf-like until he was eventually able to assume the form of an actual wolf. Not long after, he disappeared, leaving the Woodsmen bereft of leadership. His second in command, one Hebert Ack-Turpin, became Alpha, and though he struggled to fill Fulk's shoes, he eventually became a capable leader of the conclave.
For more than two centuries, the Woodsmen fought and died in order to resist the Dark Occupation and keep Bestraville as pure as possible. Sometimes they won great victories, and sometimes they suffered agonizing defeats. They went through a succession of Alphas, male and female, and ever they kept focused on Fulk's original goal. The Alphas also maintained Fulk's Inner Circle, which became known as the Pack, and the blood of the original Wolf man was passed down.
The Pack became the true power of the Woodsmen, for although the rank and file rangers that made up the conclave were formidable indeed, especially when fighting in their local environs, the night time attacks by wolf-like creatures were what terrified and decimated the orcs and other dark folk that attempted to occupy Bestraville. Slowly the Woodsmen and the Pack began to prevail against the orcs and goblinoids occupying Bestraville, until eventually the dark folk began to resist attempts to be stationed there. After the third Hoth found an urgent reason to be transferred elsewhere, Lust gave in and appointed a human lord to manage Bestraville. The Woodsmen made it very clear to this human lord that he owed his true allegiance to Bestra and to the people of the town. All future lords of Bestraville, right until the Rebellion, were human, and while they paid taxes and lip service to the Lord of Sin, they enforced the evil laws not at all, and Bestraville became a relative haven in a sea of darkness.
When the Rebellion broke out in Kale, the Lords of Sin became aware that they had better crack down on their own domains, lest the revolt spread. In the two years preceding her overthrow, Lust removed the human lord in charge, Lord Hroald, and installed a particularly nasty orcish Hoth, Grug One-Fang, who brought with him handpicked orcs and oluks to pacify the place. This caused open war to break out in the town between the troops of Grug One-Fang and the Woodsmen. But few of the battles took place literally in the open, because the Woodsmen, being rangers and with their own unique talents led by the Pack, kept the fights to the heavily forested environs surrounding the town. They harassed the orcs with guerilla tactics, making it impossible for them to move supplies or troops into or around the community without heavy losses. Their own losses were few, for the Woodsmen, with their intimate knowledge of the territory, and with an uncanny ability to know the locations of the dark folk, managed to avoid almost all traps and snares set out by Hoth Grug. Payn Ack-Arthur, who would later become one of the Lords of the West, joined the Woodsmen and distinguished himself in these battles against Grug One-Fang, although Payn never learned the secret of the conclave because he was never inducted into the Pack. By the time Valanduil and Bartarius slew the Lord of Lust and led the troops that freed Dragonspur City, the Woodsmen had slain Hoth Grug and were chasing the last dark folk out of Bestraville and the lands surrounding it. Shortly after, Lord Hroald was re-established as Lord of Bestraville.
The Modern Conclave
Today the Woodsmen enjoy respect like they never have before. Indeed, they have become part of the establishment of Bestraville and gained a modicum of responsibility. With the blessing of Lord Hroald, a large hall, called Woodhall, was built in the north of the town. The conclave conducts monthly meetings in the hall, and the Pack actually lives in the outbuildings that surround it. The rangers also lend out the hall for other town business when they are not using it.
Despite this new status, the Woodsmen have not grown soft. Even though the kingdom of Kelerak has been liberated, the dangers it has faced since have decreased little. Bandits, monsters, and rogue dark folk still prowl the wilderness and sometimes menace the town. Undead are always a threat as well. The ranger conclave still patrols the woods, although now they do so with the official blessing of the Lord of the Town and of the High Deacon of Bestra. They even have small badges that they wear on the lapels of their cloaks. Yet because of their presence, the town remains one of the safest places in Kelerak.
Becoming a Woodsman
To become a member of the ranger conclave, one must be an established resident of Bestraville. The rangers prefer that members be born in the town or the vicinity, but they will accept applicants who have lived in the town for at least 5 years. The town itself is small enough that eventually all residents become known to the Woodsmen, and they are quite good at "smelling out" disloyalty to the town. If the applicant satisfies the conclave that he or she is a good-willed resident, then a few of the members of the conclave will accompany the applicant on a hunting trip, where they will evaluate his or her woods lore. If they are satisfied that the applicant has the makings of a ranger, they will invite him or her along on their next foray into a dangerous situation, such as an attack on a bandit camp. If they feel the applicant has acquitted him or herself well in the face of peril, they will officially offer membership in the conclave. Upon acceptance, the applicant will take the informal oath of the Woodsmen, administered by the Alpha, and will officially become a member. Then the rangers of the conclave will train him or her in earnest.
Becoming a member of the inner circle, the Pack, is another thing entirely. When a member distinguishes him or herself in a particularly special way—for example, by single-handedly accomplishing an amazing feat in battle or in woods lore—the Alpha may approach him or her and offer membership in the Pack. Residents of the Pack must be single and free of ties, for the Pack becomes their new family. Unlike in the main conclave, where members may leave at any time, membership in the Pack is a lifelong commitment. The Pack is never more than about 10 percent of the size of the conclave as a whole. Since membership averages around 40 to 50 rangers, the Pack usually consists of 4 to 5 individuals, including the Alpha.
Once an invitation is made and accepted to join the Pack, the new initiate spends a week meditating alone in the wilderness, living off the land. After the week of meditation is complete, on the next full moon, the Pack meets in an open glade at midnight to complete the initiation. The new member takes the Pack Oath, wherein he or she swears to lead the Woodsmen by example, to uphold the traditions of Fulk, and to always direct the wolf's ferocity towards enemies of Bestraville. At the conclusion of the Oath, the initiate mingles his or her blood with the blood of the Alpha. During the early history of the Pack, this was done by lapping up the blood from a silver chalice, but nowadays, both the Alpha and new member cut their palms and clasp hands. The initiate is now a full member of the Pack, and he or she is sworn to secrecy regarding its true nature.
A Dark Secret
While the true nature of the Pack is ostensibly a secret, many of the Woodsmen know the legend of Fulk and know what membership in the Pack means. They whisper that the Woodsmen started out being called "The Wolfmen," and only to allow the children of the town to sleep at night was the name changed.
What they don't know about is the Curse of the Pack. Its members keep the Curse a secret indeed. The truth is that every few decades, a Pack member gives in to the call of the moon and becomes a full blown werewolf. When this happens, the beast is hunted by the rest of the Pack and laid to rest with silver weapons kept just for this purpose. The Curse of the Pack happens seemingly at random, and it is in no way inevitable. Some Pack members live their whole lives and die of old age having enjoyed the wolf blood of Fulk without suffering the Curse. Others live for only a few years as Pack members before they give in to the wolf blood. Secret legends tell that Fulk himself eventually succumbed to the Curse. Whether it will afflict any specific member seems unpredictable, but the worst fear of the Pack is that a member succumb to the Curse and hurt innocents in Bestraville.