Part 8: Not just fun and games

Nægling and Interalia were riding through one of the the sandy valleys of Redridge, on their way to the South bridge of Stonewatch Tower. Interalia still felt silly with her small form atop one of these huge horses, but she had to admit that it was faster than running. She didn’t think even she could charm Nix into giving her a mechanostrider, so she’d just have to save up. She looked at Nægling riding next to her. Nægling rode like she was born on the back of a horse. She’d been to the armoury, and had got a set of Caer Bannog chain and a sword as long as Interalia was tall. The helm was at the back of her saddle. Her reddish brown pony-tail hung half-way down her back. The scar on her face was on the other side, and Interalia could see that before all this business with the Gnolls, she must have been quite striking to look at. Her expression was serious, as she scanned the valley ahead of them, looking for Horde scum. Interalia caught the look in Nægling’s eyes, and bit her lip. She looked scary as hell.

It was slowly getting dark. Interalia liked the last hours before nightfall. Nice deep, dark shadows to hide in. Enemies’ minds slowing down, yearning for sleep. This time of day belonged to the Rogues. She turned her mind to the mission ahead. Simple enough. Done it dozens of times before. Count the Orcs, get into the rooms where the papers were and use the magical device to image them. Then out, hand the imager back to Scribble Man for translation and report to the boss. It wasn’t that hard. Her stealth techniques were more than a match for the eyes and ears of the Blackrock Orcs, and nobody in the Tower had any clue that she had ever been there. They wouldn’t see her now, unless of course, she got complacent and did something stupid. It was a real danger to any Rogue. At some point, they all got cocky. Then, they got careless. Then, they got caught. And then, after a long and very unpleasant time, they got dead. The tales of how Rogues were treated before they were finally allowed to die was the stuff of nightmares. Professional Rogues told them to each other constantly, to keep up each other’s fear. Fear was your friend. Lose your fear, lose your life.

X

They stopped about a half-mile away from the bridge. Nægling dismounted, carefully, and took Interalia’s horse by the bridle as she jumped off.

“Right Nails. This is where I go on alone, on foot. Sorry to leave you here on your own, but…”

“I’m not as adept at stealth as you are,” said Nægling. “Don’t worry. May the Light shine upon you.”

“That’s a really bad wish for Rogues, but thanks. See you in a few hours. If I’m not back before midnight, something has happened. If so, go home and tell someone. Don’t come looking for me.”

“Understood. Don’t get caught. I do not wish to explain to your friend how I lost you.”

Interalia grinned, waved and trotted off into the dusk. Within seconds, she disappeared, a shadow among the shadows. She crouched down in one of her favourite hiding spots and listened for any activity on the bridge. Nothing. Carefully, she peered out from between the shrubs. The guards were standing like statues, looking down the road for enemies. Interalia recognised one of them. He’d annoyed one of Gath’ilzogg’s sergeants, so now he was doing double guard duties. He bore his fate with typical stoicism, reserving his grumbling for the barracks.

A noise reached Interalia’s sharp ears. She frowned. Steel on steel? She turned her head. There it was again, but it wasn’t coming from the tower. She took a breath. Oh crap. In a flash, she turned round and dashed towards the noise, swearing silently, but continuously. A few hundred yards ahead, Nails was fighting a group of four Orcs on her own. Interalia dashed ahead. Nægling was clearly winning. Her voice rang out strong as her sword slashed round in great arcs, never missing.

“And I will execute great vengeance upon them, with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I serve the LIGHT, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.”

Her large sword rose, then slashed down with frightening speed, it connected with the Orc in front of her, and nearly severed head and arm from his torso. Nægling kicked the body to get her sword free, and continued on to the next. One of the Orcs turned tail and fled towards the tower, while Nægling dealt with the last. Then, she set off after the fleeing Orc, but her legs would not carry her fast enough to catch up.

Still swearing, Interalia dashed towards the fleeing Orc, poison dart in hand. She crouched down, took careful aim and threw the dart. It hit the Orc in the neck, and she went down. Her body twitched once, then lay still.

Nægling came walking up, and stabbed her sword down into the body of the Orc female. A fierce glow was in her eyes and her misshapen face was burning with the light of battle.

“Victory is ours! By the grace of the Light, we have destroyed our enemy!”

“She was already dead,” said Interalia. “She was one of the Tower guards.”

“She will bother us no more,” said Nægling. She held her hand out to the small Gnome woman, who ignored it, glared at Nægling, took a deep breath, and exploded.

Heeft jou stront tussen die oor? Jou dom teef! What in the name of all that’s thinking possessed you to attack a bunch of Orcs who were just walking back home after a day’s patrolling?”

“They were headed in your direction. They might have seen you. Besides,” Nægling’s eyes narrowed. “They are the enemy. Where I come from, we kill the enemy before they kill us.”

“Then I hope you live a bloody long way away! In case you’ve missed it, the bloody greens are out of season. We don’t bother them, they don’t bother us, everybody gets to fight the Big Bad that the Lich King is sending our way. As for any of this lot spotting me, what do you think I am? Drunk? The greens let Boss Man chop one of their own soldiers’ head off yesterday because he looked at one of our guys in a funny way. Boss Man shook on it that we would not do precisely what you did just now.”

Nægling took a step back, as though she had been slapped.

“I… did not know. I…” She closed her eyes, anguished. “I failed you. I am… sorry.”

“Yeah? Well that buys us exactly nothing. Grab her legs, I’ll grab her arms. There’s a ravine a few hundred yards up. Count your blessings. Nobody saw us.”

With considerable effort, they dragged the dead Orcs over to the ravine and tossed them over the edge. Interalia had seen two of them before. The others, she didn’t recognise. No matter. Time to shift. They mounted up. Interalia rode a few steps ahead of Nægling, and did not look round. Neither of them spoke.

X

They entered the castle just as night fell, and Nægling, with a few muttered words, went to the shrine, to pray. Interalia sighed, and knocked on Gerrig’s door.

“Boss Man?”

“Sergeant? You are back early. Has something happened?”

“Yeah. In private, please.”

Gerrig saw Interalia’s expression, and asked no more questions till they were in his workroom. He sat down behind his desk, and Interalia sat down on the other chair.

“It’s Nægling,” she said.

“Nails?” said Gerrig, surprised at Interalia’s use of her real name.

“Yeah. She ran into a bunch of Orcs.”

Gerrig breathed in sharply. “Is she…”

“In the chapel, praying. She won. Not a scratch on her.” She frowned. “No new ones, anyway. Don’t know who started it, but that doesn’t matter, does it?”

Gerrig rubbed his chin, and sighed. “No. No, it doesn’t. I did tell everybody, didn’t I? Stay away from the Blackrock.”

Interalia shook her head. “She wasn’t there. She was in her usual place, all alone inside her head. When she prays, she prays hard. Anyway, I don’t think anyone saw us. We dumped the bodies in a ravine. Could have been done by any wandering warrior.”

“Hm. That’s a blessing at least, unless someone did spot you.” Gerrig drummed his fingers on the table. Interalia gave him a long, hard look.

“You’re not thinking of handing her over to them, are you?”

“Ye gods, no! Father Eolas would never forgive me if I did. For that matter, neither would I forgive myself. The poor woman has suffered enough. I just hope this doesn’t come back to bite us at some later date. So. Did you find out anything interesting?”

“Didn’t get the chance to. Except… Nails is good. Chopped her way through four Blackrock warriors, no problem. She’ll scare the hell out of any Scourge scum she comes across, come the time.”

“Let’s hope she’ll get the chance.”

X

“Interalia?”

“Hi Nails. Careful. Don’t step on Nix.”

Nægling stepped over Nix’ peaceful form, as he lay gently snoring on the other half of Interalia’s straw mattress on the floor. She quietly undressed, climbed the ladder Interalia had requisitioned from the kitchen and pulled her blanket over her.

“I’ve put you all in danger. I am sorry. The Orcs heard my horse. I should have stayed farther away from the road.”

“Bygones. Nothing to be done about it now. I think we got away with it. Don’t do it again.”

“I told Sir Gerrig, but he already knew.”

“Yeah. From me. I had to.”

“Yes.”

“It’ll be alright. Get some sleep.”

Nægling nodded in the dark.

“Interalia?”

“Hm?”

“You have been a better friend to me than many Humans. Thank you.”

“Welcome. Night, Nails.”

“Good night.”


Cuchullainn peered into the night, sniffed the air. Something ahead smelt bad, rotting, but somehow different from normal rotten meat. His claws opened and closed. Two of his brothers were with him. One of Rose’s men was there as well.

“There.”

They looked. In the gloom, dark shapes were moving. They were moving slowly, keeping to cover, making no noise.

“They smell rotten,” said one of the Worgen.

“Spies of the Forsaken,” said the Human. He pointed at Cuchullainn and one of his comrades. “You two get behind them. Be careful of the leader. It’s a Dark Ranger. They have very good night sight.”

Cuchullainn wrapped the dark round him, and disappeared from sight. He moved as fast as he could without giving away his position. There were five of them. Cuchullainn’s nose twitched. They wore dark chainmail, which left their arms bare. Cuchullainn breathed in slowly. Their arms were more than bare; there was no flesh on them. It was the first time that Cuchullainn had seen the Undead, though many tales were told of them in Gilneas. Dead Humans, wrenched back to life by foul magics. Darkened souls bound in rotting carcases. Cuchullainn’s eyes were drawn to the last spy. A slender woman, clothed in dark grey. She had a short bow in one hand, an arrow ready in the other. His stomach tightened. Even though he knew full well that this was an enemy, who would kill him without hesitation, deep in the core of his being, he knew that it was wrong to harm women. Every time Loren the Fence had him demonstrate some technique or other on her, he had to force himself. He looked at the ranger, as she pushed past some shrubs. Her cloak caught on the branches, and she pulled it free. This woman would die tonight. Loth as he was to shirk his duty, he hoped it would not be by his hands.

Some twenty yards ahead of them, there was a sudden snarl, and the frightening shape of a Worgen came rushing out at the Forsaken, sword out, teeth bare. Next to Cuchullainn, his comrade ran out as well. Cuchullainn followed. He stepped behind one of the Undead, and his short sword swung round, hitting the Undead between head and shoulder, severing its spine. The thing tried to turn round, hefting its sword, but fell to the ground, twitching. Another one of the moving corpses turned to him, swinging a two-handed sword. Cuchullainn dodged the stroke, and counter-thrust. The undead creature parried his stroke, half-heartedly, as if it didn’t really care whether it was hit or not. It raised its sword for another sweep, but the stroke never fell. The armour-plated form of a Worgen appeared behind, and cut it down with one stroke of a broadsword. Cuchullainn opened his mouth for a thank-you, but then barked a warning. Behind the warrior, the Dark Ranger aimed her bow at him. The warrior turned round, raising his shield, and the arrow flew. It bounced harmlessly off his shield. The Human and one of the Worgen finished off the last Undead, and the Ranger was left on her own.

Cuchullainn watched her, crouched down, arrow on her bow, looking from one enemy to the other. Her eyes burnt red under her hood. The Worgen and the Human circled round, as she backed up, her long legs taking careful steps. Cuchullainn could hear her breath, quick, desperate. Moving quicker than sight, she drew back the arrow, aimed for the Warrior, fired. The Warrior raised his shield, and the arrow stuck in it, quivering. The Ranger reached for another arrow from her quiver, but it was empty. With a hiss of breath, she dropped her bow, drew a long, thin dagger.

“Oh, I’m going to enjoy this,” said the Worgen warrior.

“They say Blood-elves don’t feel pain,” said the other. “Let’s see if that’s true.”

“Oh, they do. It just takes a while to break them.” He licked his jaws. “Good.”

“She’s pretty. I wonder what she’ll do if we promise to let her live.”

The Human laughed. “She’s not stupid. Look at her. She knows she’s done for. Ten silver says she’s going to use that dagger on herself.”

“And spoil our fun? Bitch.”

The ranger spat out words. Cuchullainn didn’t know the language, though he understood perfectly. Which one of you dogs is going to be the first to die? Her teeth were showing between full dark lips. The Worgen slowly advanced. She retreated, unable to turn and run, realising she could not outrun these creatures. Cuchullainn looked at his comrades, smelt their sweat, their blood-lust. They were going to make this woman suffer. Their orders were to kill her, and they would. Inch by screaming inch.

Cuchullainn closed his eyes, and took a step back. Once more, he hid himself in the shadows and stalked off to one side, circling round. He knew what he had to do, though every shred of his soul was shouting at him not to. Unseen, unheard, he approached the ranger from behind. He briefly bowed his head, then leapt forward. He clapped one hand over her eyes, and kicked her in the back of the knees, dropping her. His other hand was on her chin as she took a quick, startled breath. She didn’t even cry out, didn’t even try to stab Cuchullainn as his muscles tensed, pulling her head backward and twisting. He felt the crack of her neck breaking in his fingers, heard a last laboured sigh, heard her heartbeat slow down, stop. Her muscles, stiff from her surprised reflex, relaxed, and she went limp as a rag doll in his arms. Just to be sure, Cuchullainn gave her neck an extra twist, then gently laid her down on the ground.

“Forgive me,” he whispered.

“You bastard!” The warrior growled at him. “What do you think you’re doing? Wanted her to yourself did you?” He stepped forward, and kicked the lifeless form of the dark Elf.

Cuchullainn bared his fangs. “You mongrels. Do you think we have the time? Do you think this is the only group of spies? We’re not on a fun trip, we’re protecting Gilneas from the walking corpses.”

The warrior opened his mouth to say something, but the Human stepped forward.

“He’s right. Plenty more toys where she came from, and no time to play with them. Get a move on.”

The warrior looked sideways at the Human, then back at Cuchullainn.

“Watch your back,” he said. “It’s dangerous out here.”


Selena set her teeth. A few hundred yards in the distance, she could see sentries walking on the mountain ridges. She wanted to turn back, back into the nice, safe, hidden tunnel. They looked big. Green-skinned, tusked warriors. Massive arms, bigger even than her brothers’. They were carrying swords and clubs. She had a staff. Ridiculously small.

“Right,” said Berrin. His gun was on his back, ready to use at a moment’s notice. An axe was in his fists. “Time to roll. Don’t you worry, young Selena. You’re stronger than they are, though ye may not look it. Hugin can tear them to shreds.”

Thorfin Stoneshield hadn’t even drawn a weapon, and simply stood there, rolling his shoulders.

“Only she won’t,” he said. “All pets on passive?”

“Aye,” said Hieronimo. She was looking forward with a worried, but determined look on her face. Her gun was in her hands. She turned to her bear.

“Bjorn my lad, this is not the time for sulking. Look scary.”

“Go,” shouted Thorfin. Something in his bearing made them want to move, put wings on their feet, and they ran like a pack of wolves. Their pets ran and flew by their sides. Their eyes were firmly on the entrance to the other tunnel, a few hundred yards away.

They were spotted about half-way to the other end. Harsh voices sounded. The sound of booted feet running was in their ears. Selena narrowed her eyes, making herself breathe regularly. Run. Run!

“Don’t let yer pets attack them,” shouted Thorfin. “Passive, remember?”

Selena said nothing, and tried to squeeze a bit more speed out of her legs. Next to her, Hieronimo ran, gun in hand, looking left and right over her shoulder.

A large shape appeared next to Selena, and knocked into her. She rolled over once, staff in hand, and was on her feet again. She faced the Orc, too concentrated to feel fear. The Orc slashed at her with a scimitar, trying to cut her in half at the waist. Selena’s experience from her sparring matches took over, and she pushed the blade up with the iron shodding on her staff, over her head. Quartermaster’s voice rang in her head. Don’t oppose. Deflect. Evade. Counter! The Orc whirled round, raised his scimitar and slashed down on Selena. She leaped to the side, dodging the attack and counter-thrusted, scoring a hit on the Orc’s face. The Orc reeled back for a heartbeat, then advanced again. Before Selena could cry out to Hugin, or call for help, Berrin appeared next to the Orc, put his shotgun to the Orc’s temple and pulled the trigger. The contents of the Orc’s skull blew out, mercifully not onto Selena. The body fell to the ground.

“Well done, lass. Now keep running!”

Selena didn’t need to be told. Staff in hand, she sprinted to the welcoming mouth of the tunnel where Hieronimo had already arrived, with Thorfin. She was on one knee, gun out, looking for any followers.

“Don’t dawdle,” said Thorfin. “Keep going.”

Selena scowled. “Thanks for the advice.”

“Shut up and run!”

X

Selena’s breath and heartbeat had almost returned to normal when they emerged from the tunnel and Dun Algaz lay before them. Thorfin Stoneshield made for the door and walked through without even breaking step. The rest followed him. All round them, iron-clad Dwarves walked about, speaking in Dwarvish. As they watched, a company gathered, and moved out.

“Busy lot,” said Berrin. “Something afoot?”

“Usually is,” said Thorfin. “Well, quick break here to drop the meat on the vendors and have a bite to eat, and then it’s off into the Wetlands, Light be praised. Can’t wait for a bit of peace and quiet.”

“No enemies,” said Selena. She was still badly shaken from her fight, and was only slowly realising that she’d fought an Orc and lived. How long she would have lived without Berrin’s help was not something she wanted to think about.

“Well, no Hordies. At least, not in the places where I mean to go. Plenty of biting wildlife, though. Don’t get too comfortable.”

X

They left the road almost as soon as they entered the wetlands. No slacking, as Thorfin said. He was grumbling. He’d expected to find crocolisks here, and there weren’t any. Possibly, another hunting party had been through already and the beasts had turned shy.

“Bloody unfair,” said Hieronimo. “They should leave some for educational purposes. How are we supposed to learn to hunt if there’s no bitey things?”

“Ye look harder,” said Thorfin. He struck a path to the North, though ‘path’ was possibly not the right word for it. It was difficult to tell paths from streams. Thorfin seemed to know where he was going, though, and they trudged on.

It started to rain. Selena pulled up her hood, and scowled. Couldn’t they have put off the rain till the more advanced lessons? Why were they here, anyway? You could learn to hunt perfectly well, say, hunting sea-turtles somewhere warm and sunny. Hugin found a rock somewhere to perch on and looked at Selena, ruffling her feathers.

X

They were there without warning. Selena heard a snarl, and then a dog-like Gnoll came rushing at her, teeth bare. She could just raise her staff before it crashed into her. She landed on her back, and stared at the face of the creature that had jumped her. With her staff, she pushed it away before it could bite her. She kicked up as hard as she could, and sent the Gnoll flying. The loud voice of Thorfin Stoneshield was in her ears.

“Gnolls! Get them! Pets on agressive!”

Selena leapt to her feet, just in time to push away the Gnoll who’d jumped her. The Gnoll stood on his hind-legs, crouching, claws out, teeth bare. Carefully, he tried to circle round Selena. Selena could hear the barks and noises of her friends fighting. She cried out to Hugin, and her bird fell out of the sky, beak and talons tearing into the Gnoll. The Gnoll howled in pain, and slashed out at Hugin with a strong paw. Selena swung her staff round and brought it down with crushing force on the Gnoll’s leg. She shivered as she heard, and felt in her hand, that the Gnoll’s thigh bone broke. The Gnoll howled. A horrible sound, filled with pain, fear. He knew he was going to die, and tried to force his broken limbs to obey him. He couldn’t. Lying on his back, he looked up at Selena, who hesitated a moment. Then, she brought round her staff and stabbed down with the iron-shod end, into the Gnoll’s dog-like face. His howls stopped, and he made choking noises, writhing round in agony. Selena hit him again, and again. Make it stop. Finish it. Let it be over. Selena cried out and with a final hard blow to the skull, the creature lay still, limbs slightly twitching.

There was no time to think. She could hear the cries of her friends as they fought the rest of the Gnolls. Hieronimo’s gun. Bjorn’s growls, Berrin crying out as he slashed at enemies with his axe. She saw Thorfin Stoneshield pick up one of the Gnolls, lift the legs up in the air and bring him crashing down on his head, breaking his neck. There was another howl behind her and she turned round, calling to Hugin. She was just in time to parry an attack from another Gnoll. Hugin leapt upon Selena’s enemy, and with her beak tore his throat out. The Gnoll fell down and Selena’s staff came down on the head.

As quickly as the battle had started, it was over. They looked round and only Dwarves and one shaky Human were standing. Thorfin Stoneshield looked around, walked to one of the Gnolls, put his knee on his back and with a short jerk twisted his neck.

“There! Now that’s what we call hunting.”

Selena stopped short, then turned round to the Dwarf. Her eyes glowed with anger.

“Hunting is what you do to get meat. This isn’t hunting, this is bloody murder. We have just killed…” She looked round. “Six people!”

“What? Feelin’ sorry for those bloody Gnolls? Are ye mad? They aren’t people! They’re bloody murdering bastards.”

Selena stood in front of Thorfin and bent down. She pointed and screamed.

“They build bloody shelters! They know how to tie knots! They make fire to cook their dinner! And they would be eating their dinner if we hadn’t blundered onto their little patch of the world!”

“Would ye care to see what that dinner is made of? If ye can’t find a Human skull there, count yerself lucky. These are Mosshide Gnolls. They’ve been a hazard to travellers here since the Horde drew off our forces to the North. Dead Gnolls mean live Dwarves. And live Humans too. Don’t bloody thank me.”

Selena gave him a look, biting back the tears. Then, she pulled her hood over her face and found something to do. Thorfin looked round at each of them.

“Anyone get hurt? No? Good. Don’t forget to put yer pets back on Defensive. Too dangerous to stay here. We’re heading west, direction of Menethil, though we won’t reach that till tomorrow. Look sharp. There may be more of these mutts about.”

Berrin put his axe on his back, and checked his shotgun. “Why did we run into these Gnolls, Stoneshield?”

“I was tracking beasts, not people. Had no idea that they’d advanced as far as this.”

“Imagine that,” said Berrin.

X

Selena had volunteered for first watch. Couldn’t sleep anyway. There was no camp fire. All wood here was too soggy to burn. She had cast her tracking spell, but any people moving about were far away. Good. She didn’t want to fight again. It was too dark to see, but she knew blood stuck to the end of her staff. She’d flushed it in one of the many streams in these parts, but the memory would never leave her. Bannog had made this staff for her, while he was in Menethil. She’d always loved it, the smooth wood, the silver bird inlay by the middle handhold. And all the time she had kept it with her, walking with it, sparring with it with Quartermaster and her brothers, she had never even thought that it was a weapon capable of killing. Stupid. Of course it was. She’d killed a wolf with it only two days ago. And now, two Gnolls. Did Gnolls get to meet the White Lady, or did they simply cease as their heart stopped beating? She closed her eyes, then opened them quickly, as though even this brief moment of inattention could cost them dearly. She swallowed. One of the specks of Light near her moved, and she felt Hieronimo’s small, strong hand on her shoulder.

“It’s not midnight yet,” said Selena.

“I know. Can’t sleep either.”

Selena looked at Hieronimo’s face. It was hard and still as stone, as though she didn’t want anyone to see what was going on behind it.

“Your first time too?”

“Aye. I’ve hunted, of course, but never something that ties knots.”

Selena sighed. “Shouldn’t have shot off my mouth to Stoneshield.”

“If you wouldn’t have, I would have. The bastard led us here on purpose, I’m sure of it.”

Selena looked round.

“He wouldn’t.” After a small pause, she said, “Would he?”

“Bloody useful exercise,” said Hieronimo.

“We could have got killed back there.”

“Hurt, yes. Killed, no. I saw him hold back. If he’d have thought we’d go under, he’d have jumped in.”

“He doesn’t get paid for dead students,” said Selena.

“Yeah,” said Hieronimo. “Bastard is probably doing exactly what he’s paid to do.”

They fell silent. Neither of them wanted to sleep, so they kept watch together till dawn’s grey light shone upon the next day.

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