Part 1: Circle of Friends

“So how do we get in?” Ariciel pointed at the drawbridge. “They closed the door.”

“We ask nicely,” said Bannog. “It’s meant to keep people out!”

“I do not think that the persons by the campfires will let us pass. They will feel that they have been waiting longer than we have, and they should be first to enter.” Mareva surveyed the campfires. “There are about two hundred fighters. Too many for the three of us.”

“I think I could probably sneak past them. How deep is that moat?”

“Very. I helped dig it out. My head is under the water in the middle. Can cats swim?”

“Provided there’s a cosy fire at the other end.”

Bannog grinned. “And a bowl of milk?”

“Wouldn’t hurt.”

“I thought all castles had a secret entrance for just such an occasion,” said Mareva.

“If it has, nobody told me about it. I could have visited more harvest fairs if they had. Anyway, even if you do sneak past the fighters and get into the moat, there’s a sheer wall on the other side.”

“It would help if we could send a message to the people inside. Before we invented wireless communications, we used to signal with lights.”

“I should have asked Infantryman Kent. He could have taught me. Shame I broke his filthy neck.”

Ariciel pointed at Bannog’s quiver. “You could attach a note to an arrow and shoot it over the wall.”

“Not from here, I couldn’t. It’s several hundred yards away. I don’t think they’ll let me walk down there and shoot. Mareva, Don’t you have a clever Draenei device that’ll let me talk to someone inside?”

“I am afraid not. Even if I had, we would still need to bring one into the castle and tell them how to use it.”

Bannog stared at the dark shape of Caer Bannog, lying just a few hundred yards away. So close! Still, he couldn’t get a message inside, or walk in. Maddening! Drawbridge was up. Moat was deep. Enemies were all round it. Nobody was expecting him. In fact, nobody inside might know that he was still alive. Captain Swann had told him he would send an official letter to his father, and everywhere else he could think of.

Gerrig the Ancient had known what he was doing when laying out the plans for Caer Bannog. At least it seemed none of the undesirables outside had found a way in. A worried look passed over Bannog’s face, and he rubbed his head. He hoped that everyone inside was alright.

“Ssht!” Bannog looked at Ariciel, who had closed her eyes and was listening intently. Unkind souls might say that she, with her long ears, was the girl for the job, but then they might suddenly be staring at the end of the Night-elf’s quarterstaff, up close. She pointed to their right. “Incoming. About five men. Hide!”

Ariciel didn’t move, and simply vanished on the spot, using an Elf-trick to make herself inconspicuous if not invisible. Bannog and Mareva ducked behind some boulders and pretended to be rocks themselves. Ariciel stood absolutely still. Her stealth technique didn’t work if she moved. Soon, the group came into view. Moving nothing except her eyes, she gazed at them. They were human, average build except the leader, who was larger. All were carrying bows and arrows, enough of them to turn her into a hedgehog if they’d notice her. She held her breath. Hidden as she was, she knew they wouldn’t see her unless they blundered straight into her. If they kept going in the direction they were, she’d almost be able to touch them. Ariciel thought invisible thoughts, and her eyes narrowed.

“Halt! In the name of Caer Bannog!” Bannog’s deep voice rang out.

Ariciel had to suppress a yelp, and she turned her head round to her friend, lover, rescuer, love of her life, dearest to her in all of Azeroth, and wanted to shoot firebolts at him. That stupid Human had actually come out of hiding and was walking forward, while at least five arrows were aimed at him. The leader of the men slowly turned round, facing Bannog. Mareva was still hidden. Slowly, he stepped over to Bannog. Then, moving fast for a Human his size, he punched him in the stomach.

“Oof,” said Bannog, taking a step back.

The big man grinned. “You’re not a ghost!”

Bannog frowned at him. “Did you have to hit me to find that out?”

“No, but I like hitting you!” He held out a gauntleted hand to Bannog. Bannog took it, then pulled the other to him in a big hug.

“Gerrig! Good to see you, big brother!” Bannog turned round to Ariciel, then to Mareva. “Come on out, ladies. Good people.”

Ariciel broke her stealth, and became visible, noting with something approaching smugness the startled looks on some of the bowmen’s faces. Then, Mareva appeared from behind the rocks, and jaws actually dropped. Obviously, a staff-wielding, blue-skinned, horned, hooved woman with pale blue luminous eyes was not an everyday experience. When first she arrived on this planet, the stares she got from these pink-skinned creatures had annoyed her, but these days, secretly, she enjoyed the attention. She knew she was beautiful, but not uncommonly so among her own people. Here, she could impress.

“Dyonis A’ka. My name is Mareva. Long life, good health.”

Gerrig was the first to recover. He stepped forward, took Mareva’s hand and bent over it.

“Good evening, Lady Mareva. Welcome to Caer Bannog, or at least its vicinity.” He turned round to Ariciel. “And you, Lady. It is not often that we see one of the Kel’dorei in these parts.”

“Thank you. You must be Bannog’s brother. He told me about you, but it’s good finally to meet you in person.”

Gerrig smiled at Ariciel. Night-elves were rare in Redridge, but Night-elves who spoke with a Northshire accent? Unheard of! Little Brother had some explaining to do. He turned to his brother and his ladies.

“I would invite you all to the castle, but we’re on a mission. We’re culling the uninvited guests a bit. If you would like to wait here, then we can pick you up on the way back.”

Bannog shook his head. “I’m a military man now, Brother. I can pull my weight. I’d like to see you in action.”

“What about the women?”

“They’re not exactly weak and feeble. They can help.” Gerrig looked from Ariciel to Mareva and back. Well, if Little Brother thought so, that was fine by him.

“Right. Move out, ladies and gentlemen.”

They walked through the dark, looking for likely targets, until Gerrig stopped by the small stream that fed the moat. A group of fighters was sitting on the bank, filling water bottles. Bannog sidled up to him.

“Who are these guys anyway? They don’t look like Defias.”

Gerrig shook his head. “Defias Brotherhood has left these shores for a while. Busy elsewhere. These are Blackrock Orcs. Proper Hordies if you’ll believe it. We’ve killed maybe a dozen of them, but it doesn’t seem to scare them off.”

“It wouldn’t. Warrior cults. They’ll fight to the last. How long have they been here?”

“About two weeks. They can’t get in, we can’t get out. All they can do is try to starve us, but we’ve got supplies that’ll last till Winter. Oh damn!”


Gerrig pointed. “That’s a mage. Shoots nasty dark firebolts. I lost a man to them.”

Bannog looked, counted. Five big Orc warriors, one mage. Nine of us. What was the problem? If Joran and Ramoc had been there, they’d just have rushed them, especially with Mareva there as well. Only problem was, he hadn’t replaced his armour yet. That, at least, was a problem with a solution.



“Could you do me some armour?”

“Sure. Wait.” She concentrated, and green light flowed from her to surround Bannog. “You’re going to show off, aren’t you?”

“Oh, when have I ever done that?”

“Never, Bannog of Caer Bannog.”

Bannog laughed. “Gerrig? Could you tell your bowmen the difference between your brother and an Orc?”

“Certainly. I am already the heir to the castle.”

“Good. Now what do we do with mages?”

“I don’t know.”

“Rush them!” Bannog leapt forward, sprinting straight at the Orc-mage while bows twanged. Behind him was the familiar “pop” of Mareva’s fire totem, and firebolts started to zoom past him as he slashed at the Orc-mage with Joran’s sword. The mage bellowed, one arm hanging limp, until Bannog finished him off with another stroke. Left and right, Orcs were falling over, hit by arrows, green fire, red fire, lightning bolts and Bannog’s sword. It was all over in a matter of minutes. Bannog took stock of his body. Not even a scratch. Either Ariciel’s magic armour was excellent, or he was too good a swordfighter for words, or the orcs weren’t as tough as they looked. Or any and all of the above, of course. He pulled out a bit of cloth, and cleaned his sword before sheathing it.

“That could have been harder. Any more?”

Quartermaster nodded at Sergeant Smitty, holding his club at the ready. Smitty pulled the chain, and the stone hatch of the tunnel opened. He lowered his club, recognising the shaggy head of his master’s first son.

“Evening Quartermaster. The guy who’s following me is very dangerous. Give him a good wallop as soon as he sticks his big bald head up.”

Quartermaster stared. Surely… A big grin appeared on his weathered face as he recognised the second son of the house. He put down his club, and reached down. Bannog grabbed his hand and was pulled up into the small room.

“Welcome home, lad! How’s life treating you?”

“Couldn’t be better Quartermaster, except by adding drink.”

The next to come up was Mareva. Quartermaster blinked twice, then held his hand out to her.

“Arquenon Porous, Lady. Welcome to Caer Bannog.”

Mareva gaped. “You speak Draenei?”

“I get by. They still laugh at me when I try.” He helped Mareva up, then opened the door into the castle. “Keep moving, people. Who’s next?”

Next was Ariciel. Quartermaster looked her up and down. So this was the new girlfriend, then. Very pretty. Bit more delicate than any of his other flames. He gave her a big smile.

“Lady Ariciel, I assume? Welcome!”

“Thank you.” She walked over to Bannog and drew close to him as the rest of the soldiers filed in. Quartermaster looked back into the tunnel, checking for any stragglers, Orcs or other scum, then gave Smitty the sign to lower the hatch. With a rattle of chains, the heavy stone lid was lowered onto the exit.

Quartermaster pushed them all out of the small room, and into the corridor. Bannog stared at the door. He’d seen it before, of course, but stupidly, he’d always assumed that it was a storage cupboard or something like that. Gerrig grinned at him and slapped his back as they filed up the winding stairs.

“Yes, so now you know. We do have a secret exit. Don’t feel bad, he only told me a week ago, after the attack on the farmstead.”

“Your farmstead was attacked? Damn! Everybody get out?”

Gerrig gave him a sad look. “Two of the farmhands were slain, but everybody else got out safely. They burned the place down, but they didn’t touch any of the crops. Not ripe yet. I hope we can kick the bastards out before it is. We haven’t planted all that grain for the Horde.”

“Marcia alright?”

“Yeah. She’s here, too. Broken up about the farm, but alive. We can always build another farm.”

“Kids take it well?”

“Hah! They love it here. Long stay with Grandfather Bannog. What can be wrong?”

“How’s Father?”

Gerrig pointed. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?”

Old Bannog was standing in the door to his study, his arm in a sling. As he saw Bannog the Younger, he walked out, and put his left hand on his shoulder.

“Welcome home, Son. I’m sorry you had to come in through the sewers, but our friends outside get pushy if we lower the drawbridge.” He saw Bannog staring at his arm. “Don’t worry. This’ll be healed in a week or so. When the fun started, I ordered everyone off the walls, and then I made a last round myself. Some Orcish bastard took a pot shot and got lucky.”

Ariciel moved up. “Would you allow me to take a look?”

Old Bannog’s gaze moved to the young Elf, looking her up and down, then settling on her eyes.

“And you would be?”

Ariciel gazed at Old Bannog’s face. He couldn’t be more than about sixty years, given Bannog’s age, but he looked much older to her. Elves with that many wrinkles were usually more than eight hundred years old. Still, his eyes glinted in a way that she recognised.

“I’m the unsuitable girlfriend,” she said. There was a pause, then Old Bannog threw his head back and laughed.

“Lady Ariciel. If you would be so kind, I would be most obliged.”

Old Bannog lifted his arm out of the sling, and presented it to the Night-elf, who held his wrist gingerly. Carefully, Ariciel undid the knot that held the bandage and unwound it. The arrow-wound had been cleaned and bandaged properly. It was mostly closed, though a little blood still clung to the bandage. No infection. In time it would heal by itself. Not much to do, really. Still, no need for the old man to suffer longer than necessary. Ariciel cast Healing Touch. The household looked on in awe as Ariciel’s magic did its work. A few moments later, Old Bannog raised his sword arm and flexed his muscles. In his military career, he had been healed before, by priests and paladins, but never by an Elf. He recognised the rush of activity in his wounded arm, but this was somehow more gentle than the Human battle healers. Perhaps she was deliberately going easy on the Lord of the Manor. He took off the sling, rolled it up and dropped it on a chair.

“Thank you, Lady. It’s been a long time since I was last healed with magic. I was hoping that it wouldn’t be necessary again, but we can only influence our fate so much.”

“Glad to help. I owe my life to your son’s skills. And those of others.” She glanced at Mareva, smiled.

Old Bannog opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by a high-pitched squeal: “Bannog! You’re back!” Bannog hardly had the time to turn round, before his sister head-butted his chest, arms round him. Bannog smiled, stroking his little sister’s back. He suddenly realised. He was home. All he had to do was get rid of those bloody orcs outside, and then all would be well again.

Old Bannog sat in his chair, in his workroom. Opposite him sat his sons. It was good to have them both back. Maybe together, they could do some of the things that he was most definitely getting too old for.

“So, what do you think of our siege-layers, Bannog?”

“So far, they haven’t brought in any heavy equipment or battle-mages. I’m sure the Horde has heavy balistas or catapults, but none here. I’ve also seen tougher fighters, to be honest. I shudder to think what’ll happen if they stop pissing about.”

“They don’t need to. The cheapest way to bring down any castle is to sit round it and wait for those inside to starve or surrender. That’s what they’re doing.”

Gerrig stirred. “They were tough enough to kill two of my bowmen. Also, they do have mages. Don’t underestimate them, Brother. They may not be the strongest individuals, but there’s lots of them.”

“The mage I killed tonight was an overseer. At Refuge Pointe, we faced fire-mages who could blast their way through walls. These ones are only good for killing people.”

Old Bannog snorted, a disapproving look in his eyes. “So we’re only getting second-rate Orcs here? I don’t know whether I should be happy or insulted. Still, they keep us from going out and sending aid to some that need it. We may be safe here, but the farms aren’t as heavily defended.”

Gerrig nodded, a painful look on his face. “So far, I haven’t heard of any attacks on the other farms. They’ll think twice before attacking sir Roland’s farm with this lot. He’s got half the garrison there to fatten up. Mind you, if he were to send enough to clear up this lot, he’d be in trouble. I’m more worried about Sir Arthur’s. He’s only got fruit trees, cattle and horses. We can’t do a damned thing with these Orcs on our doorstep.”

Old Bannog smiled grimly. “So what they’ve found, is a pretty cheap way to keep us out of action. Any word from Westbrook?”

“They say they have problems of their own, and good luck.”

“Hah. They may be right. Stormwind?”

“No word back yet. Problems ignored are problems solved.”

Young Bannog stirred. “I don’t understand. There’s maybe two hundred troops crawling about the place. If we use hit-and-run tactics, we should be able to get rid of them. Only a matter of time.”

Old Bannog and Gerrig exchanged looks. Then Old Bannog smiled.

“Son, my troops aren’t up to that. We tried making sorties when first they appeared, but as soon as we show our faces outside the drawbridge, they swarm us. Up to now, we’ve lost five men, one wounded. We’re not tough enough to resist these Orcs in great numbers. Don’t blame them, neither were you when you left for Goldshire. You’ve grown a bit since last I saw you!”

Bannog stared. Had he really gained that much since he left about a half year ago? He’d mainly been fighting Murlocs. A few gnolls, dwarves. He had, of course, had proper army training, but surely that couldn’t make such a big difference? He thought back. When his father sent him out to the Fifth in Goldshire, the prospect of having to fight Orcs had frightened him. Having fought Ogres in Searing Gorge, everything back here looked easy by comparison.

“What we need, is a proper trainer. There’s thirty people in here. If they were all up to my standards, then we could mop up this lot bit by bit.” He smiled. “I am, of course, exceptionally capable, but the difference can’t be that much.”

Old Bannog laughed. “It’s a wonder you are still as humble as you are. However did you fit that head of yours through the tunnel?”

Gerrig shook his head. “We don’t have the time to train up our men till they can face the orcs outside. It’d take months. We need someone to rid us of them now, before more farms are lost.”

Bannog rubbed his bald head. “Well, if they’re up for it, I can make a start start together with Ariciel and Mareva. Maybe take a few men with us to show them the orcs aren’t as scary as they think they are.”

“You mean that you’d take those girls out to face Orcs? Come on, Brother! Stop making fun of our troops. They may not be the strongest yet, but there’s no need for this!”

“I’m not joking, Gerrig. You’ve seen them in action tonight, and I assure you, with your bowmen there, we could’ve taken a group twice the size.” Bannog looked at the table. “Admittedly, I would have liked a bit more armour first, and Ariciel would have fought with me, but still.”

“You’ve gone mad! Ariciel is a tiny thing! I’ll grant you those fireballs are powerful, and she’s probably a good staff-fighter, but her against a bunch of Orcs?”

Bannog grinned. “You haven’t seen what she can do yet. But you will.” Suddenly, Bannog’s face fell. “Though she’s had a rough time recently. Shouldn’t offer up her services without asking her.”

Old Bannog nodded grimly. “Well, we’ll see about that in the morning. The ladies can sleep in Selena’s room. Your room is still available. I think we’ll all feel better after a night’s sleep.”

“Hold on. Ariciel can sleep in my room, can’t she?”

Old Bannog gave him a fatherly look. “What? You’re married? You might have told me!”

“No, but…”

“There, then. Good night!” Old Bannog walked out of the room.

Gerrig laughed quietly to himself, admiring the gold ring on his finger. “Get two of these, Brother. Then, you can do what you want. Until then…”

“I don’t like you.”

“Welcome home!”

“I do not understand. Until marriage, are only women allowed to sleep together?”

Selena looked at Mareva in the mirror, turned round and pointed her hairbrush at her.

“Hey! How young do you think I am? I know what you’re talking about! No grubby remarks to the lady of the house, please!”

Ariciel sat on the edge of her camp bed, a little smile on her face. Bannog had broken the news to her about the sleeping arrangements. The look on his face! Oh well. She’d have to sneak in, then. Eventually. Let him suffer a bit first. She looked through her pack. It was a new one, bought in Lakeshire. She’d come out of Searing Gorge with nothing but some clothes borrowed from Mareva. The shirt had been too large for her, and the trousers were… interesting, but beggars can’t be choosers. Lakeshire was too small to have many shops, but she’d got some servicable second-hand leather armour (carefully checked for disturbing signs of previous use), a few red shirts, under-things and pale blue robes. She’d travelled here in the armour, and it would be nice to slip into something a bit more feminine for a while. She reached round and undid the straps. The leather chest piece fell to the ground, followed by the reinforced leather trousers. She unbuttoned her shirt and added it to the heap. As she turned round, she heard a gasp from Selena. She turned round, to see Selena staring at her with big, horrified eyes.

“What happened to you?”

Ariciel looked down at herself. The bruises were starting to go down a bit, but it would take some time for them to disappear completely. Healing magic did little for that. It did nothing for her mind at all.

“I was beaten up by Ogres.”

Selena said nothing, drew her eyes away from Ariciel’s body and looked at her eyes. Ariciel sighed.

“I was lucky. I had friends who rescued me, before they did worse. Mareva. Bannog. My mother wasn’t as lucky. She died there, under torture. They…”

“Ariciel.” Mareva looked at the Elf, then at Selena. She put her finger on her lips. Ariciel’s eyes closed for a moment. Mareva was right. Sharing her nightmares with a young girl wouldn’t help anything.

“Anyway, I got them, the Ogres. I changed into my bear shape and dealt with them.”

Selena’s head tilted to one side. “Bear shape?”

“Bear shape. I’m a feral Druid. I can turn into a bear, a sea lion or a cat. Two different cats, counting my travel shape.”

“What, here? Now?”

“Well, I do need a bit of room, but yes.”

“Can you show me?”

Ariciel looked round. “Sea Lion only works under water, and Bear is a bit large for this room.” Ariciel got up and took a few steps. There was a sound like a rush of wind, and a moment later, a large black panther sat on Selena’s rug. Yellow feline eyes looked back at Selena, and her coat shone. Ariciel had loved this shape since first she learnt how to use it. It wasn’t as strong as her Bear shape, but much more sensitive to its surroundings. Using it, she could slip unseen through any forest, and sense the presence of all creatures round her. Also, its fur didn’t show the result of events she was trying to forget. She smiled at Selena, baring large fangs. It didn’t disturb Bannog’s young sister at all.

“It’s beautiful!”

Ariciel looked at the floor, and put a paw over her face. At that moment, there was a knock. One of the chamber maids stuck her head round the door, to ask if Lady Selena or her guests might need anything. The words never left her mouth. She stared, white-faced, at the wild animal in the room with her Master’s daughter. Before she could scream, Mareva jumped up and put her hands on the chamber-maid’s shoulders.

“Do not be frightened. There is no danger. Ariciel!”

Ariciel blinked, then turned back to her bruised and battered Elf shape. The maid’s lips trembled, and she screamed after all. Then, she turned on her heels and ran. Mareva stared after her, then turned round to Ariciel.

“You are a disaster waiting to happen.”

Ariciel looked round at Selena, pointing at Mareva.

“She can turn into a wolf.”

Old Bannog knocked on the door, waited as long as propriety required, then opened the door.

“Good evening, ladies. What is this I hear about wild animals and wizardry in my daughter’s bedroom?”

Ariciel smiled shyly at Old Bannog. “Apologies, Sir Bannog, for frighening the maid. I was demonstrating my shape-shifting abilities to Selena and she surprised us. I hope she is alright. She ran off before we could put her mind at rest, and I thought it best not to pursue her.”

“Hmph. The maid is in the kitchen. Quartermaster is calming her nerves with one of his special mixtures. Go and see her if you wish to apologise in person. Meanwhile, do I need to warn you against doing this again? No? Good. Good night.”

Old Bannog stomped off down the corridor. It was good to have his son back home, and these girls seemed nice enough in their own foreign way, but he had more important things to worry about than chamber maids startled out of their wits by Elf-magic. He climbed back into bed, put out the candle and fell asleep.

Ariciel sighed, pulling her robes tighter round her. “I think I’d better go to the kitchen, and put that poor woman’s mind to rest. Otherwise, she’ll be hiding whenever I walk by.”

“I think you are right,” said Mareva, climbing into her bed. “Be quiet when you return.”

Ariciel walked along the corridors of the castle, looking for the kitchen. It was dark, but not so dark that she couldn’t make out her way. Caer Bannog was only a small castle. Tapestries were on the walls, and there were wall-sconces for torches, though none were lit at the moment. People walked carrying candles or a lamp. Being blessed with the eyes of the Night-elves, Ariciel did not need any. She found the kitchen easily enough, knocked and entered. The chamber maid was sitting in a chair, clutching a hot drink, being talked to by Quartermaster.

“Ah, there she is. Evening Lady, meet Leona. Leona, meet Lady Ariciel.”

“Ishnu-alah. Please forgive me for startling you. I meant no harm.”

“I thought that beast was going to kill Selena!” Leona swallowed with difficulty. “I mean you. Begging your pardon.”

Ariciel sat down next to Leona, and put her hand on her arm.

“I’m sorry. I was explaining to Selena what a feral Druid was, and decided to show her my cat form. I shouldn’t have. My apologies.”

Leona stared at the strange woman in front of her. Those eyes! Shining from within with an eerie light. Obviously something unseelie. And those strange markings on her face, like the wild men of Stranglethorn Vale. She looked at Ariciel’s hand on her arm. Her sleeve had moved up a bit. But just look at the poor girl’s arm! From what she remembered, her whole body was covered with bruises like that. Did that happen every time she… changed, or had something dreadful happened to her? Who would do that to a young girl? Leona looked again at Ariciel’s face. She did have a nice smile, outlandish though it was. At any rate, it didn’t look as if she was about to slaughter her master’s daughter, or herself.

“Pardon me, Lady. I hadn’t seen anything like you before in my life.”

“Please stop calling me ‘Lady’. Before I knew Bannog, I used to be a chamber maid myself, in Auberdine.” She grinned. “I know that ‘Lady’ is not always a compliment.”

Leona said nothing for a few moments. Then, a glint appeared in her eyes. “Why, of course Elf Nobles would have chamber maids as well. I just imagined they’d be Gnomes or something.”

“Goodness, no! None of my masters would let a Gnome go anywhere near them! I never even met one till I came to Ironforge.” Her smile faded. “Some of them are alright, but to think of them as servants to the High-borne…”

Quartermaster sat back in his chair. His amicable smile did not fade in the slightest. “I don’t think many of them would want to. They don’t tend to go where they’re not wanted. I don’t blame them. People look at them, and think they’re children. I’m ashamed to say, but so did I, until I saw a Gnome Warrior take down an Orc. That was an eye-opener, that was.”

“A gnome defeating an Orc? Really? How?”

Quartermaster reached in his pocket for his tobacco pouch, and started to fill his pipe. “Well, all creatures go all the way down, no matter how far they go up. Once you cut up their legs enough, they don’t stay up.” He reached back to the fireplace, lit a splinter of wood and held the flame to his pipe. Clouds of smoke surrounded him. “Personally, I’d rather be cut down in one blow by an Ogre than inch by inch by a Gnome. Taught me some respect, that did.”

“But surely, that Orc could have swatted him with one blow?”

“Aye. But have you ever tried killing a fly with that quarterstaff of yours? These warriors know exactly where their strengths lie, and they don’t hang about if someone tries to hit them.”

Ariciel thought about Interalia. In their fight against the Dark Iron Dwarfs, she’d defeated one of them, but the next one had got her. She’d been hurt quite badly. Poor Aquaregis had been cut down by an Ogre. Ariciel decided to reserve judgement till she saw it.

“Well, I think it’s time for bed. Good night Leona. Apologies again for scaring you. Quartermaster.” She got up.

“Good night, lass.” He smiled. The girl was a product of her people. He had yet to meet a Night-elf who didn’t look down on Gnomes. She’d learn. One way or another.

“Oh Damn!”

Ariciel woke up, and took stock of her surroundings. Small but comfortable camp bed, unfamiliar stone ceiling, strange smells. Someone had just given a shout. She sat up in her bed. Mareva was slowly stirring in her sleep, about to wake up. Selena was sitting up in bed, staring down. Her bedcovers were pulled back. Ariciel’s jaw dropped. There was blood on them! In the blink of an eye, she was on her feet. Had some freak arrow come sailing in through the window? Impossible! She prepared healing magic, looking where Selena’s wounds might be.

“Easy. Let me take a look. Where does it hurt?”

“Where do you think it hurts? Sod off!”

Ariciel stared, not understanding. Selena glared at her.

“Time of the month?”

“What time? What does that mean?”

Selena growled. “Means I’m not expecting.”

“Expecting wh… Oh.”

Mareva turned over. “She is a Night-elf. She has no periods. They also do not get pregnant unless they want to. Lucky nactba.”

Ariciel turned towards Mareva. “Not you too?”

Mareva stretched, swinging her hooves out of bed. “Not at this time. Same thing, longer cycle. Each day is a blessing.”

“Well, we live longer. If we’d just get pregnant at any time, we’d crowd each other off Azeroth.”

Selena turned to Mareva. “Shall we gang up on her and kill her?”

“That would make your brother sad, and the maid would have to clean it all up.”

Ariciel smiled sweetly. “Anything I can do for you, then? If you’ve finished plotting my death?”

“Hand me the bandages from the top drawer, and leave the room for a bit. I’ll be fine.”

Ariciel and Mareva quickly pulled on some clothes, then made their way down the winding stairs, across the court yard, to the dining hall. They entered the hall to find Old Bannog, Gerrig, Young Bannog and Gerrig’s wife, Marcia, sitting at the main table at one end of the room. Two seats were left on Bannog’s left and he waved them over. Ariciel saw he’d had a change of clothes. Instead of the leather shirt and trousers he’d been wearing on his way here, he now had a chainmail vest, chain leggings and chain gauntlets, which he had taken off and put down next to his plate. Gerrig was wearing similar armour. Ariciel could plainly see the family resemblance, even though Gerrig had a full head of blonde hair. She studied their faces. Old Bannog was staring at his empty plate, a dark expression on his face. Every now and then, he would run a hand through his grey beard, glance out into the hall, then resume his staring. Gerrig was talking to his wife, who had his youngest son, Little Bannog, on her knee. Ariciel vowed silently that no son of hers would ever bear that name no matter who by. His eldest son, Icebrand, had his own chair at the table, though he needed a few pillows to raise him.

“Morning ladies. Have a seat. Breakfast is about to be served. Not the usual quality, but then again, there’s a siege on.” Bannog smiled grimly. “But not for much longer if I have anything to say about it. We’ve had some bad news. Father will tell all, when the soldiers are in. Where’s Selena, by the way?”

Before Ariciel could, Mareva whispered: “She will be late. Problems of a feminine nature.” Bannog asked no more.

Selena joined them a bit later, still in a bad mood. She sat down next to Old Bannog. A worried look flitted over her face as she saw her father’s expression.

“Good morning, Father.” Old Bannog gave her a sad smile.

“It’s not, Daughter, but thank you.”

Seeing that all the soldiers not on guard duty were now in, and that large cauldrons of porridge were being carried in, he stood up and hammered on the table for silence.

“Ladies, Gentlemen, Soldiers of Caer Bannog. Grievous news has reached us. The Orcs now laying siege to the castle have broken into the cemetery, and desecrated some of the graves. Those of you who have relatives buried there, I have already spoken to, which is why they are not here. Please rest assured that no dark magic will be able to touch the souls of our departed. They have rejoined the Light and need not fear anything in Azeroth again. Neither do we need to worry about dark uses the bones of our ancestors could be put to.”

Old Bannog’s eyes surveyed the occupants of the dining hall, sitting at the long trestle tables.

“What then, is the purpose of our enemies? Their main purpose, as always, is to eliminate Caer Bannog as a threat. They have so far been successful by laying a ring round our castle, cutting us off from the rest of the world by sheer weight of numbers. We did not dare venture out for fear of being overwhelmed.”

Old Bannog paused. Thirty soldiers looked back at him, expectantly. The castle lord took a deep breath. One hand was in his belt, the other on the hilt of his sword.

“The purpose of the enemy in defiling the memories of our ancestors is twofold. First, to frighten us. They think we were born yesterday! We know that the proper rites and rituals have been performed over those who lie buried there. Their bones and those graves serve no purpose other than to remind us, the living, of their valour when they walked the lands of Azeroth. If they think to frighten us in this manner, they have failed.”

“Their second purpose is to anger us.” Old Bannog paused, glaring at his men. Then his fist hit the table. “In this, soldiers of Caer Bannog, they have succeeded! But these Blackrock Orcs will find out soon that we do not lose our common sense when we grow angry. Up till now, we have simply repelled the attackers. Fifteen orcs lie dead by the arrows of our archers and the swords of Gerrig and his men. But things have changed. To my left, you will have noticed already that my second son, Bannog the Younger, has returned from the wars in the Arathi Highlands, after great deeds. Now, his sword will serve to rid us of these orcs once and for all! Even before entering the walls, he has slain several of these foul creatures. Many more will follow, until we can once more enter and leave our castle as we please.”

“My son did not return alone, and I welcome to Caer Bannog the Lady Ariciel, Druid of the Cenarion Circle, and Lady Mareva, Shaman of Exodar. Of their reason for being here, I cannot speak as yet. They are our guests. Though the situation is difficult, show them the hospitality of the castle.”

Old Bannog raised himself to his full height, crossing his arms in front of him.

“We have tolerated this affront long enough now. Today, we strike back! Today is the turning of the tide! Now eat well. There is much work to do.”

Old Bannog sat down and gave the sign for breakfast to be put on the tables. Mareva glanced at Bannog, then turned to Ariciel and whispered in her ear.

“He will be impossible to live with now. If it becomes too bad, hit him.”

“The reason, ladies, I couldn’t speak of your reasons for being here, is that I don’t know myself.”

In Ariciel’s honour, Old Bannog was pouring cups of Darnassian green from Quartermaster’s dwindling stock. He put down the bottle and sat down.

“As you can see, the situation is difficult. My younger son assures me that these Orcs are practically begging for the privilege to hurl themselves at his blade, but nonetheless, I lost five good men to them since they first came to trouble us. We need help to get rid of them.”

Ariciel gave Old Bannog a serious look. “Sir, I am in your son’s debt for saving my life in Goldshire, Elwynn and many other places. As I wrote to you in Stormwind, I am at your service. I will do what I can.”

Old Bannog smiled. “I hadn’t forgotten that, but my son told me you were still recovering from your ordeal in Searing Gorge. Still, I thank you for the offer.”

“Sir, I managed to heal my body well enough. The memories will fade, as will the marks. I will be glad to help.”

“Thank you, Ariciel. Rest assured, I will make use of that.”

Mareva looked from Ariciel to Old Bannog. “My friend, she needs looking after at times. I also offer my help, though I have toiled long and hard under masters of variable competence. At this time, I have no master. I prefer it like that. I will make myself useful in return for your much appreciated hospitality.”

Bannog laughed. “Thank you, Lady Mareva, though the hospitality of Caer Bannog may have suffered somewhat from recent events.”

Mareva sat back in her chair, smiled and steepled her fingers.

“All the more reason to solve the problem. You have about two hundred Blackrock Orcs to deal with. Your son Bannog would survive a fight with three of them at the same time, even without our help. In addition, you have Orcish mages. I have not encountered them before, but they are akin to dark priests. Their main weapon seems to be the Shadow Bolt. If the proportions are congruent with what we found in our encounter last night, then there will be about twenty-five of them. I do not know if they receive reinforcements. You have thirty fighting men in the castle. Ten of those are archers, and twenty are pikemen, though some have swords as well.”

“From what I have seen, your men are quite capable fighters. However, they have not yet been shown that they can defeat the Orcs while taking no casualties in return. I suggest that we take out a small force consisting of your son Bannog, three more fighters, two bowmen and Ariciel for support. The second group would be your son Gerrig, also with three fighters and two bowmen, and myself as support for emergency healing and additional firepower. If we specifically target groups of no more than ten orcs and perhaps two mages, we can destroy them piece by piece.”

“But first, we need to find the management units of the Orcs. The bosses. These are likely to be more powerful and defended by a more powerful entourage. However, if we manage to kill them, the remaining orcs will be leaderless, and hence more vulnerable. I suggest that Bannog, Ariciel and myself find these bosses first and eliminate them. Using these tactics, I predict that we can destroy the forces currently at the castle in no more than a week, unless reinforcements show up. In which case, we need to re-evaluate the situation.”

Mareva reached out a long, slender hand, picked up her cup of wine and took a sip, while Old Bannog, Young Bannog, Gerrig and Ariciel stared at her.

“This wine is excellent,” she said.

Copyright: © 2008,2009,2010 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.


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