Part 15: The mirror cracked from side to side.

She was standing in the wood, eyes closed, lips slightly apart, breathing, taking in the scents. Apart from the buzzing of insects, and the singing of birds, there wasn’t a sound to be heard. She stood perfectly still, quarterstaff forgotten in her hand, one tip gently resting on the ground. Her face was turned up to the warm sun. There was the soft sound of hoofbeats to her left. She opened her eyes to see the slender form of a Dryad, one of the children of Cenarius, as it approached her, shy but smiling. Ariciel smiled back at her. Dryads had the body of a deer, but where a deer’s head would be, they had the torso of a girl, much like a Centaur, though Dryads were much more graceful and beautiful. The Dryad’s smile widened.

“Hello. I’m Therylune. You’re beautiful. Would you like to be my friend?”

“Of course. But haven’t we met before? I think I remember you from this place.”

Therylune smiled again. Smiling came easy to her, and when she did, somehow, the sun seemed to shine just that little bit brighter.

“That’s possible. Lord Cenarius has not given us very long memories.” Her eyes shone. “But that means that we get to make new friends all the time! I love making new friends.”

Ariciel laughed. “Forget your own name next, do you?”

The Dryad’s laugh was like water trickling down a mountainside, the sound of pure joy.

“Of course not, silly! Who’d forget their own name?” She turned her delicate head this way and that. “I love this place. The trees and the flowers are so pretty, and they smell so nice!”

Ariciel took a deep breath. “Hmm. Yes. You come here often, then?”

“Oh yes, yes! I love it here! Ahh. The great Outdoors!”

“Umm, do you ever meet anyone else here? Humans?”

A cloud passed over Therylune’s face, and her smile faded briefly. “Oh, I don’t like them. They scare me. They have glowing hands. I always have to hide from them.” Therylune beamed. “But then, there are always new friends to keep me safe! I’m so lucky to have so many friends! They make the bad people go away. I don’t like the bad people.” She took a step towards Ariciel. “Is there trouble? Would you keep me safe?”

Her front left hoof met with something soft on the ground. She looked down into the staring eyes of one of the Human mages. Ariciel’s blood-stained hand gently brushed Therylune’s cheek. Therylune looked round nervously. Wherever she looked, there was another body.

“Of course, Therylune! In fact, I already have. Twice now.” She pointed. “Do you remember what’s over there?”

“The… the road?”

“Yes! Very good! Do you like the road?”

Therylune nodded, not daring to disagree.

“Wouldn’t you like to be there?”

Eyes wide open, Therylune nodded again.

“Then get!” Ariciel slapped her on the haunch, and Therylune galoped off like a startled deer. Ariciel watched her go. There was a small choking noise at her feet. In a fluid motion, she swung her staff and brought it down with crushing force. She felt strangely unsatisfied. True, these were the scumbags that had tried to rape and kill Lesta, but significantly, they were the scumbags who’d tried and failed. Still, it would teach them not to bother Night-elves in this place. She looked round at the corpses. Well, it would teach the others. Ariciel frowned. What others? Should’ve left a survivor to tell the tale. Obviously not thought this through. She sighed. A waste of time, then. It had felt good at the time, but now, she just felt empty. She turned round, and staff trailing, slowly walked to the road.

Bannog came riding through the gate, to be greeted by Quartermaster and Gerrig. He dismounted, holding the bridle in one hand, and led his horse to the stables to the left of the entrance. In the smithy next to it, one of the craftsmen was fitting new horseshoes on a horse. He held the hot horseshoe to the horse’s hoof, and there was a sizzling sound, and a burning smell. Bannog knew very well that this did not hurt the horse, but still, it always made him wince to see it. He handed the bridle to one of the stable hands, and turned to Gerrig.

“Brother! Good to see you. How did your business go?”

“Very well. You should have seen the demonstration. Very impressive. So impressive, in fact, that I bought five then and there.” Gerrig pointed at six covered carts standing in the courtyard.

“Get one for free?”

“No, that’s tools and paraphernalia. The Light prevent it, but if we’re attacked now, they’ll find that Caer Bannog has grown teeth. Big nasty ones, too.”

Bannog sighed. Caer Bannog was not like one of those castles that are built mainly so that the Gentry could have a quiet retreat in the country. It was a proper fighting castle, with arrow slits instead of windows, thick walls that could shrug off all but the heaviest attacks, a deep moat round it, and definite opinions on the difference between In and Out. Still, it had been his home, and while he lived had never come under attack until quite recently. Part of him was sorry to see the happy memory of his childhood disappear. Oh well. He walked over to one of the carts and peered under the covers.

“Bah. You always get the fun jobs. All I got is boring trade missions.”

“Don’t let Ariciel hear that. Anyway, next time you buy the weapons, and I’ll bring your girlfriend to Darnassus. All go well, I trust?”

“Not altogether. We met with some adversity. Long story. I’ll tell you when I talk to Father.”

Bannog put his fingers on Old Bannog’s work table and looked at his father and Gerrig in turn.

“Now what I’m about to say must never leave this room. If it does, it’ll just stir up trouble for people who don’t need it, for no good reason.”

Old Bannog looked at his son, both amused and slightly annoyed.

“Right. Out with it.”

“Puissance did not die when everybody thought she did,” said Bannog. “She faked her own death, to get away from Ariciel.”

Old Bannog raised his eyebrows.

“Why? She was already getting away from here, and Ariciel wasn’t likely to come looking for her.”

“On the way out, she tried to kill Ariciel,” said Bannog. “Unsuccessfully. Now at the time of that fight, Ariciel said that she’d kill Puissance if ever they’d meet again. That must have spooked her enough to make her bolt. Unfortunately, she decided to steal a Succubus as well. The Warlock Society takes a dim view of that. So, she ran all the way to Kalimdor.”

Gerrig grinned and nodded. “And you ran into her?”

Bannog shook his head. “No. She ran into a friend of Ariciel’s. And killed her. Messily.”

“Ah,” said Gerrig, “And Ariciel caught her?”

“No, but one member of the Warlock Society did. They fought, and Puissance lost control of her demon. Big mistake. I’ll leave out the details, but rest assured, Puissance did not survive. I helped bury her.”

“Her lie come true after all,” said Old Bannog. “How did Ariciel take it?”

“Lesta was a very dear friend. Probably the last link she had to her past. She’s devastated.” Bannog’s face showed Ariciel’s pain. “Especially after that business in Searing Gorge. Her teacher and her friend are keeping an eye on her, but still…”

Gerrig nodded. “She’ll recover, though. Night-elves are remarkably resilient.”

Bannog glanced at Gerrig. Based on your extensive knowledge of Night-elves, Brother?

“Ariciel has a very strong spirit. Stronger than many others I know. But this will take time. So be nice to her when she comes back.”

Old Bannog poured more tea into his tea-cup. “We’ll keep it in mind when she returns. How did the rest of the business go?”

“I got lots of orders, especially for grain and fruit, but we’re not getting any guests. They don’t like our neighbors.”

“Can’t blame them for that,” said Old Bannog. “Though the mighty army of Darnassus shouldn’t be so scared of Chief Gharash and his friends. I told him what we’d be doing, and he said fine, and that he had something similar going on. He’s asked for another meeting tomorrow.”

“Do any of us have to come along?”

“No. You familiarise yourselves with our new toys. I’ll take a few men.”

Gerrig frowned. “Aren’t you taking too great a chance?”

Old Bannog shrugged. “Our accord has so far served us both well. Gharash’s Orcs would be happy to put us all to the sword, but Gharash is honourable.”

“All you know is he’s kept up his end of the bargain till now. Trusting him would be taking things altogether too far.”

“Hence the few men. They’ll be quite able to protect me long enough to get away if things turn sour.” Old Bannog frowned at Gerrig in a fatherly way. “Anyway, if you or Bannog come along, two officers will be in danger.”

“I still don’t like it,” said Gerrig.

“Noted,” said Old Bannog. “Anything else?”

“Yeah. Wilkinson is back. He should have lots of information on our neighbors.”

“Good. I’ll ask him in next.”

Ariciel walked into Bearwalker’s room. He was standing by the window looking out, deep in thought. She coughed, and he looked round.

“Young Ariciel. What’s going on in the Master’s Glaive?”

“Nothing much. Same old same old. They were still experimenting with the same sorts of magic they always had. At least up to now.”

“Oh? What happened?”

“Well, one of them spotted me and I had to fight them. I won. Go me!”

“You what?”

“Well, I was walking up to see what they were up to, and one of them saw me. They still thought we don’t know about them, so they thought they’d try to keep me quiet. After, as they put it, having some fun with me. I killed them. Serves them right for bothering Lesta.”

Bearwalker stared. “You fought… a dozen guys?”

“And two girls. They were nasty. Kept out of each other’s weapon range so I had to hit one while shooting at the other. Got them in the end though. Nothing that a few Regrowths won’t take care of.”

Bearwalker stayed quiet for at least ten whole seconds. Ariciel raised her eyebrows.


“You were using stealth, weren’t you? Cat shape? Prowling?”

“You know? I may have forgotten that. Anyway, there will be no more magic being done there for a while. That’s a win, isn’t it?”

Mathrengyl Bearwalker gave Ariciel a friendly smile. Oh girl? I can see a lot of delivery quests in your near future. Just until I no longer have to add “And don’t kill the lot of them” to every reconnaisannce mission I give you.

“That was… very enterprising of you. Thank you. At the moment, I haven’t got any jobs for you, so enjoy the rest of your afternoon.” He reconsidered. Who knows what the silly girl might get up to when left to her own devices? “In Darnassus, though. I’m waiting for a few reports, and if they turn up I might have a job for you.”

“Right ho, Boss. I’ll be at home if you need me. Bannog said I should write often while I’m here.” She grinned at Bearwalker, waved and walked out of the door, leaving a very worried Druid trainer staring after her. He ran his hand through his long, dark hair, and shook his head. Time for a little chat with that Priestess friend of hers… Liri… Lirael. That’s it. He ran towards the Temple of the Moon at a brisk pace.

He found Priestess Trainer Jandria in her usual place by the temple door. Druids and Priests did not tend to socialise much, but he’d seen her once or twice at official functions and the odd ecumenical meeting or two. She was his favourite kind of priestess: wholesome-looking, pretty, friendly, and dressed in a simple light green dress that went well with her light green hair. Her elaborate clan markings showed her to be at least three hundred years old.

“Lirael? Oh, she’s off. She’ll probably be in Saelienne’s tavern, singing lewd songs with her disreputable friends.”

“They’re mostly with the choir, aren’t they?”

Jandria grinned. “Yes they are, so I speak from knowledge. All sweetness and Holy Light in the temple, and all grubby Human songs by night.”

“Who says our international relations aren’t enriching our culture?”

“Hah. ‘My inclination lies in your cuckoo’s nest’. Honestly. Don’t these yokels know that a double entendre should have a clean meaning as well?”

“Oh well,” said Bearwalker, “Give them a break. In person, they’re as straight as an arrow. Singing about it is about the worst thing they can do.”

Jandria grinned. “Mr. Bearwalker, don’t tell me you’ve tried and failed!”

Bearwalker gave her a faint smile. “Miss Jandria, I do not ‘try’, nor do I ‘fail’.”

“Hah. I bet you a bottle of fifty-year old green that you won’t get anywhere with her.” She jerked her head at the Human portal trainer, who was standing a small distance away with a contemplative look on her face.

“Hmm. No time, nice though she looks. I really need Lirael now. I have a feeling that one of her friends, my student, is about to go off the deep end.”

“Ariciel? Oh my. Well hurry then.”

Bearwalker blinked. “You know her?”

“I know of her. Lirael asked me for advice. Poor girl lost her mother, sister and lover to violence in the space of a few months. And to top it off, she’s in love with a Human. Which is a whole subject in itself. But Lirael is dealing with it admirably. I’m giving her lots of merit marks. She deserves them. That girl sounds pretty messed up.”

“Hm. Let’s see if we cannot un-mess her. She’s very talented, and I’d hate to see all that training go to waste.”

“Well, go find Lirael at Saelienne’s then.”


“Why Mr. Bearwalker! Not often do the senior Druids of the Cenarion Circle patronise my humble tavern. I hope I have wine to suit your tastes!”

“Actually, I’m looking for someone. A priestess named Lirael. Is she here?”

“You just missed her. She’s off home, said she had some new canticles to practice. Her friend went with her. Apparently, it’s a duet.”

Bearwalker frowned. “Can’t these priestesses stay put for five minutes? All I need is a quick word with her.”

Saelienne’s face was completely straight. “I have a feeling she’ll stay put for some time when she gets home. Some of these canticles are pretty difficult, and need lots of practice.” She radiated innocence. “They may not want to be disturbed.”

“This is important. Where is her house?”

Saelienne gave him a long look. Oh well. On his head be it. She pointed.

“Follow the path to the end of the Tradesmen’s terrace. Then, walk on till you find a pool. Her house is on the other side.” She raised her finger. “Knock and wait. Don’t just enter. Like I said. They don’t like being disturbed while practicing.”

“Right. Thanks.”

Lirael’s place was easy to find. The light was on. Oh good, she would be home. He walked up to the door, and raised his hand to knock. Suddenly, he stopped. His jaw dropped. While he could hear voices, they were not singing, unless these were very experimental cantos. He hesitated. On the one hand, this could probably wait. He could simply go away for a while and come back later. On the other hand, he didn’t know how long the, um, practice would last. Damned if you do… Bearwalker took a deep breath, and knocked on the door. There was a dead silence within. Then, a moment later, the door was pulled slightly ajar, and Lirael looked out, dressed in robes, barefoot, with her black hair ruffled. She didn’t have to say a word. Her eyes said: “If this is not important enough, there will be Pain in your future.” She recognised him.

“Mr. Bearwalker. What brings you here?”

Bearwalker bowed his head.

“Forgive me for disturbing you. It’s Ariciel. I spoke with her this afternoon, and I’m very worried about her.”

Lirael took a deep breath, puffed out her cheeks and ran a hand through her hair. Then, she nodded.

“Give us a moment.” She closed the door. Mathrengyl Bearwalker could imagine some whispered discussions and stumblings going on. A few moments later, the door opened again, and Lirael invited him in. Inside, he immediately recognised Arador, and nodded politely at him.

“Pleased to meet you, sir. I am a great admirer of your work.”

“It is nearly always good to meet admirers, Mr. Bearwalker. Thank you.”

Lirael stood to one side, arms crossed.

“Right. Now what is this about Ariciel?”

Mathrengyl’s eyes found hers. “This morning I sent her on a recon mission to the Master’s Glaive. Nothing special, not very dangerous. Just find out whether the mages there are still practicing the fairly harmless stuff they always have.”

Lirael took a breath. “She is back, isn’t she? Or was she hurt?”

“No, nothing like that. In fact…” Bearwalker paused. “Instead of just watching them, she walked right up to them, and fought and killed them all.” His eyes didn’t leave Lirael’s for a second. “Each and every one of them. She said it would serve them right for disturbing Lesta.”

A painful look came into Lirael’s eyes, and she winced.


“Indeed. I sent her home, and she’s probably writing to her Human now, but you may want to look her up and see if she’s alright. I’m taking her off any jobs that involve the Enemy for now. I can’t imagine the kind of turmoil her mind is in now. If it gets worse, I’ll send her off to Moonglade for some expert counseling, but I’m counting on your friendship. It’s always a bit, um, embarrassing to be sent to the spirit priest.”

Lirael nodded. “I’m on it.” She gave Arador a wry smile. “Sorry.”

Arador’s eyes wrinkled. “We can always practice later.”

“Yeah. When there’s no bloody Druids around.”

Bearwalker found himself walking with Arador in the direction of the Temple, where Arador’s house was.

“Again, I apologise for disturbing you. Normally, I would never have, but the situation…”

Arador waved a hand in the air. “You were right to. Ariciel is a very good friend of Lirael’s, and of mine as well. I would like nothing better than to see her happy and untroubled again. She has seen things that nobody should have to. I hope we’ll be able to bring her back into the Light.”

“She has come back from some hard knocks before. But this last thing. For some reason it affected her more than all the things that went before. Or maybe she never recovered fully from those, and this is the last straw.”

Arador stared ahead.

“She will recover. She has a long life before her, and many joyful things to look forward to. As well as more sorrow, but then again, who hasn’t?”

Mathrengyl said nothing, and they walked on in silence.

Lirael knocked on the door to Ariciel’s place. There was no answer, but the door wasn’t locked. Quietly, she opened it, and went in. Ariciel was sitting by the table, looking outside. A quill pen was in her hand, poised over an almost empty sheet of parchment in front of her. Lirael looked over her shoulder. It said simply: “Bannog, my love,” and nothing more. Lirael gently put her hand on Ariciel’s shoulder, took the pen from her hand and put it down. Then, she pulled Ariciel to her feet, and put her arms round her.

“Lirael? I just killed fourteen people. Fourteen. Men, women. Because I wanted to. Killed them!” She looked up into Lirael’s eyes. “What am I turning into?”

Lirael pulled her friend a bit closer, and put her hand on her hair. For a while, she said nothing. Then, she ran her hand gently down Ariciel’s cheek.

“You’ve been hurt. Not only in the body, but in the mind. In the soul. You feel you no longer are who you once were. That’s why you’re not thinking straight.”

“I don’t like who I’m becoming. I tried to think what makes me different from the evil ones. What makes me different from…” She took a shivering breath.

“Different from Puissance? Easy. You don’t like to hurt people. You don’t like to have someone killed, inch by inch. You don’t enjoy the screams. You could never watch while even your worst enemy, not even Puissance, burnt to death.”

Ariciel shook her head. “You’re wrong. I went into the Glaive. Didn’t even try to hide. I just walked up to them, and they attacked.” A desperate look was in Ariciel’s eyes. “Lirael, it felt so good! It felt so good to feel their bones breaking under my staff. To watch them burn to death with my Wrath spells. Just afterwards, I felt so… so… peaceful!”

“And then?”

“Then what?”

Lirael smiled. “After you felt peaceful, what happened?”

Ariciel sniffed, and looked down. “Some stupid Dryad showed up. Blathering on about the great friends she was making and how nice it was.”

Lirael laughed. “What? Therylune?”

“Uh… yes.” Ariciel frowned. “You know her?”

“Everybody knows her. Arador and I pulled her out of the Glaive once. The silly thing always, always walks back in. What did you do?”

Ariciel rubbed her forehead. “Pointed her at the road and gave her a good slap on the hindquarters to get her going. The mages lying around must have spooked her a bit. I must have spooked her a bit.”

“You didn’t kill her as well?”

“What?! No! Of course not! Can’t kill people just for being stupid!”

“I know that people have died trying to rescue her, you know. You’d probably have done everybody a favour if you’d just have broken her neck. You’re a strong girl. She’s a scrawny little deer-thing. Easy!”

“But you can’t do that! She’s not bad. She’s just incredibly naive and has the attention span of a gnat.”

“So? Silly thing is probably wandering round in the Glaive right now, waiting for some other poor sod to pull her out. Just so she can get in again five minutes later. Ooo! Pretty flowers! Oh dear. Lots of nasty mages around. Oh help! Why didn’t you just put her out of everybody’s misery? It’s not like anyone’d miss her!”

Ariciel stared. “She’s got a sister. Called Therysil. She’d miss her.”

Lirael took Ariciel’s face in her hands.

“Do you think that Puissance would remember her sister’s name? What do you think that little Warlock bitch would have done to Therylune? Puissance enjoyed watching people suffer. People like Lesta. People like you. You were too strong for her, but Lesta wasn’t. You could not save Lesta from her. You could not even avenge her. So you took it out on other people who’d tried to hurt the girl you love.”

“Used to love.”

“No. You still love her. Always will. You wanted so much to protect her, and you couldn’t. That’s the difference between you and Puissance.”

“So why did I kill all those people in the Glaive, then?”

“Because you’re not thinking straight. You wanted to protect Lesta, or failing that, others like her. If you were yourself, you wouldn’t have bothered. But you’re not. So you did a stupid thing. Don’t you worry. You’re a good person. Hurt and confused, but good. Come with me. You’re not sleeping alone tonight.”

“But… Arador?”

“Off home. Your boss knocked on our door while we were practicing canticles. Told us about you.”

Ariciel’s jaw dropped. “He didn’t!”

“Oh yes he did. Don’t worry. He’ll live.”

Mareva waved at the Lakeshire flight master, and they rode off at a leisurely pace. Morgan was trotting along between the massive shapes of their mounts. The innkeeper had found some lovely leftovers and bones for him. Morgan was a happy cat. They rode past the rocks that used to be the favourite ambush place of the Blackrock Orcs, before the accord. They even saw a few Orcs there, but they were playing dice and didn’t even look at them. Mareva looked at the stars and the road. They could have stayed at the inn, but for some reason they both were eager to find the castle. Besides, it was a beautifully clear night. Being blessed with excellent night vision, they easily found their way through the Redridge mountains, until they heard a strange creaking noise ahead. Whatever it was, it was moving only slowly. The Draenei looked at each other, and reined in their elekks, slowing them down to a walk. Mareva pulled out her long-view and peered ahead. Her mouth fell open and she passed the tube to Stetson.

“That is some serious equipment,” she said.

Stetson focused the long-view on the slow-moving column. “What are they? Mangonels?”

“I think so, but larger than the one we took from Ogre-mage Far’rokh.” She looked at Stetson with wide-open pale blue eyes. “These catapults are meant to break castles. Do you know of any castles in the vicinity?”

Stetson gave Mareva back her long-view. “You know? I think I do. I think we ought to proceed to Caer Bannog at full speed.”

Mareva put away her long-view. “I agree. Shall we give these people a wide berth?”

“Sounds good.” Stetson turned his elekk about, told Morgan to follow and they galopped off into the woods.

“Good morning, Chief Gharash. What have you to discuss?”

Chief Gharash motioned Old Bannog to the bench opposite him, a serious look on his old face. Old Bannog reflected that for a Warrior Orc to become that old, he had to be remarkable indeed. Orcs led a rough life, and usually a short one. Old Bannog sat down.

“The battle against the Scourge is about to become more difficult, Sir Bannog, but not due to any of their doing.”

“How so?”

Chief Gharash frowned, and stared at the table for a moment. Then he looked up.

“Some krypdyr leaked word of our accord to my masters, who disapproved of it. I am afraid this means the end of our agreement. I have been ordered to recommence a proper campaign.”

Old Bannog took a deep breath.

“We knew from the start that it could not last.” He shook his head. “I won’t deny, we have been strengthening ourselves against the Scourge. No doubt you have been doing the same. We were trying to avoid us wearing each other out for the benefit of the Scourge. I wonder now if all we did was make the resulting explosion a lot worse.”

“That may well be the case.”

“So. Now what? Are we going to have a siege again, like that of Ogre-mage Far’rokh?”

Gharash scowled. “Far’rokh was an imbecile. You did the Horde a great favour by ridding us of him. But I am not at liberty to discuss my strategy with you. I have…” The old Orc briefly closed his eyes. “An overseer. I have my orders. I cannot ignore them.” He held out his green-skinned hand to Old Bannog, who took it. Gharash’ eyes looked sad, and tired. “Forgive me.”

“What is there to forgive? We are on opposing sides. I count myself lucky that so far, we have had no bloodshed between us, but you can ignore your orders no more than I could mine.”

“Not for that,” said Chief Gharash.

Old Bannog frowned. Then, realisation dawned. An immeasurably sad look came to his old eyes.

“Oh no…”

He felt a sudden, sharp pain in his back, and gave a short gasp. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. Darkness closed in, and he slumped forward onto the table.

Gorm Bladebreaker drew out the dagger, and looked at it. He made a move to clean the blood off it, but then snarled, and threw it into a corner of the room. He looked accusingly at Gharash, who nodded.

“I know, curse them. We have followed our orders.”

“I am a Warrior of the Blackrock Clan. From the day I was born, to this day, I have not stabbed a single enemy in the back. I have the scars to prove it.”

Gharash stood up. “I know. May the spirits forgive us. Have the body brought to the gates of Caer Bannog as the last act in our accord. Tomorrow, we attack.” He turned round and stepped towards the door. Gorm made a noise.

“Chief, you should not go unaccompanied. The accord is no longer in effect.”

Chief Gharash scowled. “I will walk. And may I meet the men of Caer Bannog, and die with what little honour I have left.”

Stetson peered through the leaves, and saw the castle lying in the valley. Finally. The night had been one of endless roundabout ways, short-cuts, brief scuffles with enemies and similar annoyances. At least, there seemed to be no need to take the secret entrance. He turned round and waved Mareva on. She handed him the bridle of his Elekk, and mounted up. Side by side, they rode to the castle. The guard at the top of the wall recognised them, and waved. Mareva first, they gallopped through the gate. Now-lieutenant Smitty came walking down the stairs to greet them.

“Hunter Stetson! Lady Mareva! Welcome back to Caer Bannog!”

Stetson jumped off his mount, nodded briefly.

“Close the gates! Trouble! Took us all night to get here. The Orcs are restless.”

“They can’t be. We have an accord! We don’t bother them, they don’t bother us. In fact, Sir Bannog is meeting with them right now.”

“Then when he gets back, maybe he can explain why three heavy mangonels are wheeling in this direction. Also, your accord does not seem to include Draenei. We got jumped by four, and Morgan had already eaten. Lots of leftovers.”

“Gate! Four orcs are approaching, with a cart. There’s a box on the cart.”

Smitty looked up at the lookout. “What sort of box?”

“Two yards long by one. Made of wood. Oh. They’ve stopped. They’re turning round, and running off. What the hell?”

“A question in search of an answer, soldier.” Smitty stepped into the barracks and shouted for four volunteers. Three men and one woman stepped out. Given this and that, they opened the box outside the gates. Even from a distance, they could see that it was bad. They closed the box, then rolled the cart into the courtyard.

“Close the gate and fetch Master Bannog and Sir Gerrig.”

Smitty frowned. “What’s going on?”

The guard just shook his head. “Get them. Really, Lieutenant.”

Smitty gave him a hard look, then lifted the cover on the crate. He stared for one second, then closed it again. He turned round.

“Battle stations! Raise the drawbridge! Close the portcullis! We’re at war!”

She lay back in the soft pillows, smiling up at the beautiful green haired woman, who was sitting on top of her. She put her hands on her lover’s thighs and slowly ran them up to her breasts. Lesta took a deep breath, briefly closed her eyes. Then, suddenly, her eyes opened wide. She screamed. Blood welled up between Ariciel’s fingers, and she quickly pulled them away. Lesta screamed again. Streams of blood ran down her body, onto Ariciel’s. Ariciel desperately tried to stop the flow with her hands, but wherever she touched Lesta, more wounds appeared. Lesta’s screams were now so loud that Ariciel could not tell whether she herself was screaming as well, or not. Then suddenly, Lesta was silent, and her body fell forward. There was a hand on Ariciel’s shoulder, and she opened her eyes.

“Ssh. It’s alright. It’s only a dream.”

Ariciel looked into Lirael’s eyes, shaking.

“Deep breaths. You had a nightmare, but it’s passed. Come here.”

Still shaking, Ariciel lay back down. Lirael put her arms round her. Ariciel closed her eyes, taking comfort in the warmth of Lirael’s body, her soft voice, her arms. Slowly, slowly, afraid of what she might see next, she allowed herself to drift off to sleep again.

“So. Did you manage to finish that letter?”

Ariciel nodded. “It still doesn’t seem right. It makes me sound so… whiny and desperate.”

“Let me see.” Lirael picked it up and read. She didn’t agree. It was a bit more emotional than the things Ariciel usually wrote, but that was dry stuff. Reports. Essays.

“This’ll do fine. He’ll understand. Come on. To the mailbox.”

Lirael half dragged her friend to the mailbox. She stood there, letter in hand, hesitating.

“Come on. Drop it in. You’ll feel much better for having told him.”

“Hold on. There’s a letter for me. From the Caer.”

Glad of the excuse, Ariciel opened the letter, and read. Her mouth fell open and she turned pale. Wordlessly, she handed the letter to Lirael.

“I have to go to the Caer. He needs me.”

Lirael read:

My Love,

We are once more at war with the Blackrock Orcs. To our great
sorrow, the first victim in this war is my father, Sir Bannog
of Caer Bannog. He was murdered in a cowardly manner by the
leader of the Blackrock Orcs. His body was delivered to us,
thank the Light, and buried with proper ceremony before the
attacks began. So far, Caer Bannog stands. Should you need to
gain entrance, light a fire by the secret entrance. Its secret
has been betrayed, and we had to flood the tunnel, but a feral
Druid should have no problem negotiating it. Do not fear for
me, my love. The walls are strong, and so are our sword-arms.
The Blackrock Clan will pay the price for their betrayal.

Yours, Bannog.

“I’m going,” said Ariciel. “I can’t sit here while Bannog is in danger.”

“But what would you do there?”

“Fight by his side. Die if I must. I will not have another of my loved ones taken. Not while I’m alive. I’m going.”

Lirael gave the letter back to Ariciel, and rubbed her chin.

“You should not go alone. You’re not up to it. You’re in a strange mood, Ariciel. You’d get reckless, pick a fight on the way and get yourself killed.” She pointed her finger. “I’m coming with you. Someone has to keep you from doing stupid things.”

“Oh no you don’t. I’m going into danger. People are trying to break down the castle. If they find you inside, the Temple Choir will have to look for a new soprano.”

“Pff. Tiriel has been waiting forever for a chance to get into the spotlight. The choir can survive without me for a few weeks. Just till I can see you’re alright in there.”

“Huh. And how were you going to get there, then? I can travel pretty fast if I need to. And I do need to.”

“Elissa Dumas, the portal trainer, owes me a favour. She can teleport us both to Stormwind. You’ve got your hearthstone, right?”

Ariciel’s face fell, and she shook her head.

“Ogres took it away from me when I was in Searing Gorge. That means I’ll have to slog it.” She looked up. “You’ll beat me to Stormwind. That’s embarrassing.”

“Naah. Saelienne has hearthstones. I was always losing them before I started travelling all over with the Choir. You go get one, and I’ll go talk to Shan’do Jandria.” Lirael grinned. “We’re supposed to do a special project this term. You’re it, my dear. Also this way, I get to study Humans in their natural habitat.”

“Oh great. And I thought you loved me for my endearing personality.”

Lirael laughed. She took Ariciel’s letter to Bannog out of her hand and dropped it in the mail box. She reached out and put her hand on Ariciel’s cheek.

“Helping people deal with their problems is what I do. Well, what I’m training to do anyway. What sort of a priestess would I be if I’d just let you drown?”

Ariciel swallowed. She took a deep breath.

“Thank you.”

“Hearthstones? By the gross.” Saelienne dug under the counter. “Want me to set it here?”

“No! Can you keep it to where it was before I lost mine?”

“Certainly. Though I usually set it when I give them to people. I want them to return here.”

“Will all my flight points still be on there? It would be a pain if I had to go to all those places again.”

“Oh yes. The places where you’ve been aren’t really on the stone. They’re in your head. The stone just lets people look at them.”

Ariciel nodded. “I need to be in the Redridge Mountains. Quickly. As far as I know, my home is still set to Northshire Abbey. Never set it anywhere else so that’ll come in handy now.”

Saelienne gave the pebble to Ariciel. “Hold on for a second. Wait for it to soulbind. There. Now can I have it back a moment?” The inn-keeper held it in her hand, and concentrated. “Yes. Northshire Abbey. Find a friendly portal mage, show them and away you go.”

“Excellent. That’ll save me lots of flying and sailing. Thank you Saelienne.”

“Ande’thoras’ethil, Druid Ariciel.”

It was time. Ariciel had spoken with Bearwalker, who was deeply worried about her, but could see why not going would be worse. She’d talked to Lirael, before she stepped through the Stormwind portal opened for her by Elissa Dumas. She had written to Bannog, though the letter would probably not reach him before she did. She was packed. She stood by Lesta’s grave, in a few moments’ contemplative silence. Then, she turned her face to the Temple of the Moon, and set off.

Elissa Dumas was one of the very few Humans who lived in Darnassus. She taught passing mages how to work the magic that would send them through the Twisting Nether. Portal Mages had set up markers in all the Alliance capital cities, so that people could travel there from anywhere in the world. Everyone with sufficiently advanced magical skils could learn how to use these markers to move themselves and even others. These days, that mostly meant Elissa taught passing Human or Gnome mages. Night-elf mages were not very popular. Their magics didn’t always sit comfortably with the natural flow of energies used by Priests or Druids. Ariciel always felt vaguely uncomfortable around Mages. Trainer Dumas looked friendly enough, though. She spoke Darnassian, with an accent that Ariciel assumed was Stormwind or Goldshire.

“Druid Ariciel. Good day to you.”

“Ishnu-alah, Trainer Dumas.”

Elissa blinked slowly. “You must forgive me, Druid Ariciel. My mana is low. I have done much work this morrow.”

Ariciel looked at the woman. Her eyes didn’t glow like those of Night-elves, but that was normal. Still, she looked tired.

“Shall I come back later, when you are restored?”

Elissa Dumas closed her eyes a moment, then shook her head.

“Lirael told me about you, and your need. I will do much for Lirael.” Her eyes softened when she mentioned Lirael’s name. “She sang beautiful at my wedding. Nobody else would. I can do a teleportation for you. Where do you go today?”

Ariciel took a deep breath, and closed her eyes.

“Home,” she said. “I want to go home.”

“Very well,” said Elissa. “It will be a teleportation. I cannot do a portal before I am restored.”

“Thank you.”

Elissa put her hand on Ariciel’s shoulder, and she heard the sound of magic being done. For the smallest moment, she felt like she was floating in water, or falling through the air. Then, she smelled the familiar scents of Elwynn Forest. She heard a voice behind her.

“I can’t believe my old eyes! Ariciel?”

She turned round, and looked into the face of the first Human who had been genuinely nice to her. She hid her face in her hand. For Elune’s sake, why had she said “Home”, and not “Stormwind?” Oh well, she’d have to run to Stormwind to pick up Lirael, then. Meanwhile, she folded her hands and bowed her head at the old priest.

“Ishnu-alah, Father Eolas. It is good to see you.”

“Do you think that is wise, Sir?” Gelt’s weathered, scarred face did not betray any emotion. From under his black and grey hair, dark, empty eyes regarded Bannog earnestly. Bannog looked back. Who’d have known a year ago they would be employing people like this? Still, here he was. A rogue. An assassin. A skilled one, too. Bannog’s father had called him in when the accord with the Orcs was first agreed upon, to spy on the Orcs, under strict orders to let missions fail rather than risk being caught. Gelt and his friends had been good at their jobs. They had brought back a wealth of information. But this, they hadn’t seen coming. Possibly due to the fact that the Horde could move very fast if they needed to. Still, Gelt did not like to be outmaneuvered, and he felt a measure of guilt for the situation.

“If we cut the head off the snake, who will surrender to us?”

“I am not interested in their surrender,” said Bannog. “I intend to wipe them out and drive off any that I cannot kill. I want them to be disorganised when we strike, under an inexperienced leader.”

“That depends entirely on who they have, to replace Gharash. I know of leaders who will not need long to get the whip hand in.”

“I intend to strike quickly after you kill the leaders. Can you do it?”

“Certainly. We know exactly who sleeps where in Stonewatch Tower. It’ll be a pleasure. Still, I find that the Horde functions quite well, even when disorganised.”

“As long as there are no clever leaders to organise two- or three-pronged attacks on us.”

“Very well,” said Gelt. “When would you like us to strike?”

“I want to be at maximum strength when we strike. Sir Roland’s men are coming back from their training the day after tomorrow, and half of them need to come here. So do a number of Sir Wilfrid’s men. We’ll need to assemble a strike force, which should take only a few hours, so that means about three days.”

Gelt frowned. “You should not have told me that, Sir. It is valuable tactical information and I am going to be at risk of falling into the enemy’s hands.”

Banog mentally slapped himself. Gelt was right. He sighed.

“I apologise. Have you any missions planned between now and then?”

“I have.”

“Cancel them and give them to one of your associates instead. By my error, you have a few days off. Use them well.”

Gelt nodded. He liked working for inexperienced masters about as much as he had liked having his teeth extracted, but at least this one was capable of learning.

“I will give the jobs to Wilkinson. He will not fail. Now that the accord is no more, do we still need to prioritise on not being seen, rather than gathering the information at all costs?”

“Gather the information we need. If the Orcs sleep worse at night because they know we are watching them, so much the better. Be especially alert on any changes in the command structure. If a new leader appears, I want to know.”

“I will send out my men immediately. We will have the information by tomorrow. We will do a quick check again before we are due to kill the leaders.”

“Good. Unless something happens, we strike Stonewatch Tower in three days. Payback time.”

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


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