Part 16: I know how to fight, thank you.

“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry, but I can’t stay. I have people waiting for me. But do come with me. You’ll like this. Come!” Father Eolas waved Ariciel on.

“Uh, sorry Father. I cannot stay either. I have someone to pick up in Stormwind. Damn. Lirael will think I’m giving her the slip. I teleported to the wrong place. I have to go.”

“Not tonight, you don’t. The roads aren’t safe at night. Better stay the night here and go to Stormwind tomorrow. Shouldn’t take you more than a few hours running. But at night, you could meet all kinds of unsavoury characters. Oh. Would you like a drink? I can’t possibly drink all this on my own and whatever I don’t drink, I have to tip out.” Father Eolas offered the bottle to Ariciel. She hesitated. Lirael would be waiting, worrying about her. She could probably make it, even by night.

“Where is your friend?”


“Right, and where are you going?”

“Caer Bannog, a small castle in the Redridge-“

“Ah, I know Caer Bannog. You wouldn’t have made that tonight, even if you’d have started from Stormwind. Your friend will probably wait for you in Stormwind. Have a drink. Calm down. Stay the night here and have an early start tomorrow.” He offered her the bottle again. She accepted it, took a big swig, coughed, politely wiped the bottle on her sleeve and handed it back to Father Eolas, who took a small sip, sighed and turned it over. Ariciel grinned.

“And in that accursed place, no grass would grow again.”

“Either that or it becomes the happiest grass in the world. What have I done?” Father Eolas walked off, with Ariciel following, till he came to a water-basin that had been built against the wall. The water streamed from a fountain that had been carved in the shape of an enormous lion’s head. Ariciel remembered it well. Each time she came home from a trek in search of her family, drinking from that fountain had meant she was home. Father Eolas pulled up the sleeve of his robes, and watched the bubbles come up as he held the bottle under. Ariciel watched him curiously.

“Why are you replacing strong drink with water? Are you hoping nobody will notice?”

“In a way, yes. Follow me.”

Father Eolas walked into the Abbey, with Ariciel behind. Ariciel looked inside, and saw a large group of people in the Hall of Arms. The large stone table in the middle had been cleared, as was often done for demonstrations. She followed the monk into a side chamber where a brown-skinned man was waiting. Father Eolas handed him the bottle, and he sniffed it.

“Ahh,” said Wu Shen, “It’s the good stuff.”

“Oh, that would be a cruel, cruel joke.”

“It would. Are you going to announce me?”

“Aye. Come along, young Druid.”

Ariciel gave Wu Shen a nod, then followed Father Eolas into the hall of Arms. It was filled to capacity. People were even standing on the balustrade above them. Ariciel smiled a private smile, as she noticed people looking at her. That’s right boys. Long ears, and all that comes with them. She watched Father Eolas step up onto the table and bang his staff to get some silence. There was a great hush.

“Ladies and Gentlemen! It is not often that we at Northshire Abbey have the opportunity to learn from one of the true Masters. Normally, this man teaches only Warriors, but tonight, he has agreed to show the Paladins of Northshire some of his special fighting styles. Without further ado, Master Wu Shen!”

Nothing happened. Father Eolas looked over his shoulder and shouted again: “Wu… Shen!”

Wu Shen came staggering into the Hall, and pushed Father Eolas out of the way. He stood in the middle of the large round stone table, and swayed from side to side. He took a long drink from his bottle, then belched loudly. He looked round the hall, at the assembled paladins, and lost his balance. With some amazingly fast footwork, he managed to stay upright. He giggled at some private joke, then drew himself up to his full height.

“The mosht important thing!” he shouted. He looked puzzled for a moment, trying to remember what the most important thing was. Ah. He beamed, and held the bottle upside down over his mouth.

“Proper inshulation! No Orc freak ever come near me! Because I’m Insulated! From th’pain!” He frowned. “Don’like the pain. Hurts. But I’m in… vincible! Hic!” He tried to take another drink, and almost fell over backwards doing it. He frowned. This bottle wasn’t working properly. Ah. He knew about this. If you hold it upside down and no drink comes out, it’s…

“Empty! Light damn it!” He drew back his arm and threw the bottle. It sailed through the air and shattered on the armour of one of the paladins who was already wearing chainmail, unlike his brothers in arms, who had to make do with leather or even just robes.

“Now I’m pished! Off! Wanna beat someone up! You!” Shen pointed at the Paladin he’d just assaulted by bottle. Father Eolas elbowed Ariciel in the side, chuckling to himself.

“Oh. Good choice. That’s Bors. He’s the son of a nobleman, and doesn’t he like to let us poor clods know it?”

Ariciel watched the lad. He looked like your basic fighter type. Rough kind of face. Nice big muscles. Short cropped, blond hair. Quite cute actually, if you ignored the arrogant frown. There was a murmur in the hall. Several dozen variations on “What the hell?” Ariciel looked at Father Eolas, who shook his head.

“Just watch. This is going to be fun.”

Bors had stepped onto the table, and frowned at Shen. “What do you want with me, you drunken fool?”

Shen shouted at Bors, spittle flying. “Do you think you can beat me? Do you? Well come on! Show me what you can do! Right here!” He pointed a brown finger at his chin. “I’ll have you for lunch!”

Bors wrinkled his nose. “Duels are fought for honour, little man. I would earn none from beating you up.”

“Pff! Yer mother hassa… hassa… beard! Hihi!” Shen chuckled to himself. “Beard.”

Bors’ face turned a few shades redder. “I am descended in a straight line from Daelin Proudmoore, you fool. You would do well to show some respect.”

Eolas grinned. “Oh, not quite that straight, my lad. Even the great are sometimes struck by desire.”

Ariciel watched Bors in amazement. Was he really that thick? Even if she hadn’t known that Shen had been drinking nothing but water, all kinds of alarm bell would have gone off in her head. For one thing, he was staggering all over the place, but so far, he hadn’t put a foot wrong. He swayed on his feet, then bent forward and put a hand on Bors’ shoulder to steady himself.

“Yo mother… ssso ugly… that she needs…” He raised a finger, frowned, then raised another. “Two! Two bagsss… In bed. She does.” Shen looked at Bors with a drunken grin. “One for for for overrer head and…” He took a deep breath “One for over my head for when hersh breaks!”

He burst out cackling with laughter as Bors growled and aimed a murderous left hook at Wu Shen. By some amazing coincidence, Shen was leaning back at the time, and the stroke passed in front of his face. Bors followed up with a powerful right uppercut, but that one missed, too, as Shen fell on his back, still laughing his head off. He raised his legs in the air, pushed against the floor with his shoulders and flipped back onto his feet.

“Missed me!”

Bors charged, fists raised, at the small brown man, murder in his eyes. Wu Shen chose this moment to fall over to one side, inadvertently getting his leg in front of Bors’ running feet. Shen rolled through on his shoulder and was on his feet again, as Bors crashed into his fellow Paladins. Nobody helped him to his feet, but he got back up, eyes glaring. His hand went to his sword, and there was the sound of metal.

Ariciel’s eyes opened wide, and automatically her hand went to her staff to come to Wu Shen’s aid if necessary, but Father Eolas put his hand on her arm.

“Easy, Ariciel. See what happens now.”

Bors slowly walked forward, and stepped onto the table where Shen was still swaying back and forth.

“Die, you miserable excuse for a Human!”

His sword hissed through the air as it swung round in a great arc. Ariciel winced as Shen’s erratic movements miraculously brought him out of the way of the attack. Bors aimed a vicious sweep at Shen’s midsection, but Shen fell over backwards, kicked himself into the air and leapt over the approaching blade. He landed hard on the floor and lay there a moment, stunned. Bors followed up with a hard downward stroke, but Shen rolled out of the way and the sword hit the stone table with a bone-jarring crash. Once again, Shen jumped to his feet from his back, and Ariciel made a mental note to learn that technique. It looked too cool for words. Shen pointed a brown finger at a point that was moving in circles round Bors’ head.

“Missed me! Again! Hihi!”

Normally, going berserk was the hallmark of the Warrior, but this Paladin managed it. Ariciel was impressed. They could almost see the red mist round Bors’ head as he bellowed, and stabbed out at Shen, who swayed out of the way, lost his balance and grabbed Bors’ arm to steady himself. Bors crashed forward and his fellow pupils scattered to the four winds as he was thrown at them, sword out. He landed on his face on the floor. Shen had apparently decided that enough was enough. With a wonderfully choreographed swaying move, he was on his feet and followed Bors. He took hold of Bors’ arm, and twisted it behind his back till Bors dropped his sword. He picked it up and gently laid it against Bors’ throat as he held him down with no apparent effort.

“Or, perhaps, that was someone else’s mother.” All the drunkenness had left his voice. He let go of Bors’ arm, got up and held out his hand to Bors, who now realised, belatedly, that he’d been had. Slowly, he came off the boil, and held out his hand to Wu Shen, who pulled him to his feet and gave him his sword back. Then, he stepped back onto the table and adressed the crowd.

“Honoured Paladins, what you have just witnessed is a demonstration of the Eastern fighting style known as Zhui Quan, or ‘Drunken Fist’. As you can see, it relies heavily on improvisation, deception and agility. When executed well, it gives the opponent no chance to predict where you will move. Also,” Wu Shen grinned like a maniac. “It makes you look like a complete pillock. Which is never a bad thing for an enemy to think. Now for the more agile ones among you, I can show you a few of the basic techniques. I can show you how to use momentum to increase the force of your punches, and how to kick from awkward positions.”

Ariciel and Eolas were sitting next to each other on a bench in the Hall of Arms, being treated to the sight of about a dozen Paladins swaying about drunkenly, and loudly insulting each other’s mothers. Wu Shen passed among them, offering bits of advice.

“So, young Ariciel, how have you fared since last we met? Found your family?”

“In a way. We found Berciel, but she was… changed. She attacked us and we had to kill her. Before she died, she told us that Mother was dead.” A hard look came into Ariciel’s eyes. “Trainee healers were using her to… practice on.”

“Ah. I’ve heard of that practice. It makes perfect logical sense, if you are an evil-minded bastard with no respect at all for life.”

“Like Berciel?”

Eolas shook his head. “Don’t judge her too harshly. Given the situation, she had to adapt, or perish. But you say ‘We’. Who is, or are, the others?”

Ariciel leaned her back against the wall. “Mareva. Interalia. Bannog. Mareva is a Draenei Shaman, and a very good friend. Interalia is a Gnome rogue. She let me out of the cage when I was captured. Bannog is a Human warrior. I’m on my way to the castle of his father, Old Bannog, who has been murdered. My friend Lirael is coming along, and she’s the one I have to pick up in Stormwind.”

“You seem to have made many new friends since last we spoke.”

Ariciel stared at a Paladin who was trying, without much success, to flip back onto his feet in the same way he’d seen Shen do it. She sighed.

“Just as well. All my old friends and family are dead. Mother, Berciel, Lesta. That was the worst one. I got to see what the little Warlock bitch had done to her. I wasn’t there when Mother died, and Berciel was dead almost before she knew what hit her. But Lesta…” Tears welled up in Ariciel’s eyes. “She was innocent. Hadn’t raised her fist against anyone in her life. When we found her, there was hardly anything left of her. Killed by one of those Lightless Succubi. Made to suffer as long as she could.”

Eolas stared at the ground. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“I couldn’t even avenge her. Before I found the one who killed her, she was already dead.”

“Revenge is not good for the soul, Ariciel. It may seem like the restoration of balance, a life on either end of the scale, but it is merely another life lost.” He turned his old eyes to the Elf, sitting next to him, shoulders drawn, face pale and wet with quiet tears. “I am glad you did not find the murderer alive. Killing her would have damaged you more even than her.”

“It seems I’m already damaged. I took revenge, but not on Puissance. On a few mages who’d tried to kill Lesta before I found her. You are right. It doesn’t help.”

“This friend of yours. Who is she?”

Ariciel smiled through her tears. “Lirael. She’s a singer in the Darnassus Temple Choir. A priestess. You should meet her sometime, she’s lovely.”

“Ah. It’s a long time since I heard them sing. Possibly before her time. Why is she accompanying you?”

“To keep me from doing stupid things. She’s probably right. I feel like there’s hundreds of little springs in my head, all waiting to go ‘Ping’ and make me slaughter hundreds.”

“Concentrate on her. Concentrate on your new friends, and what you feel when you think of them. Concentrate on your family, and how they made you feel before tragedy struck. All this anger. Let it wither and fizzle out.”

“Easier said than done.”

“I didn’t say it would be easy. But you need to do it. You’re an Elf. You can’t live for a thousand years if you don’t let go of your anger.”

“I may have the opportunity to channel it away. Bannog’s castle is under attack. I may have to help in the fight.”

Father Eolas looked doubtful. “Maybe. Anyway, I will pray for you. Your spirit is strong.”

Wu Shen joined them. End of lesson.

“That was fun. I have enough taunting material now to last me a lifetime. There’s actually a few among them with some talent. I need a drink. A real one, this time.”

“Then you shall have it! Dinner time. Joining us, Ariciel?”

Ariciel rubbed her face with her long fingers. Then she nodded.

“I’d be a fool not to.”

“So what am I going to do now, Father? Is it the right thing to do, to assault Stonewatch Keep? To have our own murderers kill those who killed you? All I want is for Redridge to become safe again. I want Selena to be able to walk out of the front door and hunt, the way she used to. I want Gerrig to be able to concentrate on breeding the best horses and growing enough food to last us all through Winter. And I want the weight of this castle off my shoulders.”

Then, my son, you need to move. We are strong. We can defeat the Blackrock now that we have had our training. You can’t simply kill those who present themselves at the castle. You have to get to the source of trouble. Can’t mop with the water still flowing out of the barrel.

“But if I drive all the Orcs from Blackrock, won’t we simply have to deal with another place to defend? At least Caer Bannog, we know how to defend. Stonewatch? It’s lying half in ruins as it is.”

Maybe. I tried making some kind of peace with them. You know how well that went, Son. I wish the bastards hadn’t back-stabbed me, but I never had the illusion that we’d sounded in a great new era of peace. The best you can do, is make it clear to the Blackrock what kind of price they will pay for attacking us. There are more Blackrocks in other places than Stonewatch Keep. Make an example of it.

“But what if we fail? Then we’ll be worse off. I wish I had your experience, Father. Just today, I gave important information to a man about to risk capture by the enemy. Luckily, he pointed it out, or it could have been disaster.”

Oh, you’ll learn my son. I just hope you’ll learn fast. If you don’t, everybody in the castle will die. But don’t let that worry you. They won’t say “I told you so”.

“I still don’t know enough about the enemy. What’s their strength? Do we even have a chance?”

You are asking a dead man for tactical information, my boy. Time for a quick sanity check. Anyway, what’s the problem? Need information? Go get it. That’s what Gelt and his unlovable rogues are there for. I didn’t summon them out of their maggot-holes in Stormwind for nothing.

The door opened, and Bannog saw the blue-skinned face of Mareva. She came in, looked round the room.

“I heard voices inside. What are you doing?”

“Talking to my father,” said Bannog. Mareva pulled up a chair, and sat down opposite him. She put her elbows on the table, folded her hands. She studied Bannog’s face carefully. He looked tired. Tired, and fed up. Bannog stared back at Mareva, then suddenly, the glint that Mareva knew and liked came back into his eyes.

“Don’t worry, Mareva. I haven’t gone round the bend. I just find that the answers come more easily if I pretend to ask my father and imagine what he might have said.”

“I do worry about you. You seem perfectly alright. You are polite, patient and do not shout at anyone. You are friendly to the soldiers. You have not taken unnecessary risks.”

“And this is bad, because?”

“Because it is not consistent with the behaviour of someone who has just lost his father to cowardly murder. A terrible thing has happened to you, and you seem unaffected.” Mareva’s eyes narrowed. “You are storing your anger somewhere, aren’t you?”

Bannog briefly closed his eyes. He didn’t want to tell Mareva about the tiny red ball of fire, now almost a tangible object, that was located somewhere behind his mid-riff. Whenever something happened that he should get upset about, he channeled the anger into this store, like a water-skin. One day, it would burst. When that happened, Bannog did not want any of his loved ones to be there.

“I’m fine, Mareva. My father is dead. Nothing will bring him back. If I start walking round like bad weather made Human, I will only sully his good name. I’m saving my anger for the people who killed him.”

“Precisely,” said Mareva. “I hope you will soon have the opportunity to vent that anger. I have seen you angry before now, and you… what is that phrase again? I heard one of the soldiers use it.” Mareva turned her eyes to the table a moment, then looked up again. “Ah. Scare the shit out of me.”

Bannog laughed. “Good to see your study of our sayings goes well. Though you may want to stay round the women rather than the soldiers. I imagine they have a bit more classy sayings.”

Mareva chuckled. “You have never heard women talk amongst themselves. Pray that you never do. But seriously, Bannog. Take care of yourself. Project the image of Under-chief Gharash on a training dummy and beat it to bits if you have to. Nobody will know and it is good practice.”

“Sounds like a plan. Maybe I will. Meanwhile, how are you two doing? I heard you had a bit of a scuffle last night.”

“We were patrolling in the same area as a few Blackrock outrunners. We saw them before they saw us. Morgan could have taken them on his own. Our fire was merely ornamental. I cannot keep from thinking that this is too easy and that the worst is yet to come.”

“You’re still risking your life out there. I’m immensely grateful that you do it, but please do take care. Ariciel would never forgive me if something happened to you.”

“Neither would I,” said Mareva.

She was sitting in a cell, quietly swearing at herself, the people who had captured her and the world in general. They had at least given her a robe of some description, as they guessed, correctly, that she would have all manner of useful devices in her own clothes. Sodding beginners’ mistake. Always check if the sodding room is empty before looting it. Just in case some sodding big knight is sleeping in the bed and bops you on the head while you’re not looking. But he had been an incredibly quiet sleeper.

She’d woken up here, naked, hair untied, and with aches and pains in places she did really not want to mention. She took stock of her surroundings. Iron bars all around, including above. A lock that you can pick with a bent nail, provided you have one. She didn’t. Wooden bunk, straw mattress. She put on the robe against the chill. She was the only guest in this particular area. No guards, either. Hmm. She walked up to the bed and pulled up the mattress. Sod. No nails in the bunk to be pulled out and used. The thing had been put together with nuts and bolts. Her fingers were strong, but she couldn’t undo nuts with her bare hands. She dropped the mattress, and examined the next cell. Someone had been lucky enough to be given a blanket. Though ‘lucky’ was likely stretching it a bit. Probably swinging from the gallows right now. She lay down on her own bunk and tried to reach the blanket. Damn. About an inch would do it.

From out of nowhere, there came a terrible scream. She turned her head round to the door, and swallowed. Crap. The words ‘Where have you hidden the loot?’ started rolling round in her head, and it did not cheer her up. She stretched hard, and with two fingers managed to grab a corner of the blanket. She pulled it to her, through the bars. She tested the fabric. Good. Nice strong military issue blanket. Whoever it was, screamed again. Rack? Hot irons? With trembling fingers, she put the blanket to her mouth and started tearing it into strips. She had just arrived in Stormwind. She had no loot. Exactly the kind of thing that the nice Humans would not believe while she still had unburnt skin. Better to avoid the issue.

Working with the speed of the inspired, she twined strips of blanket into a rope. Tested it. It would hold her weight. Good. She didn’t simply want to fall down onto the floor. She tied the rope to her on one end, put her bare feet to the iron bars and shimmied up. She climbed hand over hand to the middle of the cell. Holding on with one hand, she threw her rope over the bar, and with a little effort managed to tie two half-hitches. It’d have to do. She took a final deep breath. Farewell, cruel world. She let go.

Ariciel, in cheetah shape, ran through the gates of Stormwind. For some reason, it cheered her up. Stormwind looked so wholesome, with its bustling crowds of all shapes and sizes, the guards in their polished armour, and its clean streets. She changed back to her Elf form, and set off towards the Blue Recluse. It was as good a place to start looking for Lirael as any. The streets of Stormwind were very familiar to her. She remembered walking round here with Bannog, in that delicate stage just before falling in love. Waiting for the Tram go get moving again. Meeting Lirael for the first time. She ran past the stockade, over a few bridges to the Mage Quarter. Ah. there it was. She opened the door, and found Lirael sitting at a table, with a dark-haired Elf. That must be Milo, then, Lirael’s friend in the Stormwind Male Choir. Lirael grinned, and waved.

“Hiya! What took you so long?”

“Had to watch someone get drunk and fight off a paladin. Milo, I presume?”

Milo nodded his head at Ariciel. “And you must be Lady Ariciel. Pleased to meet you.” He had a rich, deep voice. Ariciel could see what attracted Lirael to him. He was a picture. Luxurious, dark, long hair. Small neatly trimmed beard and a wonderfully intelligent look in his eyes.

“Likewise. I must admit that when Lirael told me you were in the Stormwind Males, I thought you’d be a Human.”

“Eww,” said Lirael. “Who’d want to date a Human?”

Ariciel looked down on her. “I’ll have you know, they can be utterly adorable and affectionate. I wouldn’t trade him in for the world!”

“Chacun a son gout,” said Lirael.

“Oh hi, sweetie! Didn’t see you come in, so I didn’t get you any drink. Would you like some?”

Ariciel turned round to see a tall Elf woman standing next to her, drinks in hand. For an Elf, she had dark skin, and even rarer, brown hair. Milo gave her a warm look, and took the drinks out of her hands.

“May I introduce? My wife, Elvira.”

“Pleased to meet you. My name is Ariciel.”

“As am I. So you are taking Lirael into the cold hard lands?”

“Well, not very cold. There’s no such thing as bad weather. Only insufficient clothes.”

Milo nodded. “Just as well we went shopping then. She was wearing priestly robes when she came here! Hardly an outfit for roughing it.”

Lirael reached behind her, and showed Ariciel a white coat, lined with fur. Ariciel took a breath, and felt the fabric.

“Oh, that’s beautiful,” she said. Thin, she thought, but beautiful. “Which reminds me, I have to get some supplies as well. I’m travelling a bit light.”

“Of course. Would you join us for lunch, after you’ve made your purchases? My treat.”

“I’d love to. I won’t be long.”

She left the tavern, and made a straight beeline for the tailor where she and Bannog had bought their new clothes, all that time ago. The Gnome lady actually recognised her, which was amazing. Ariciel bought two thick woollen jumpers, and a water-tight cloak. Lirael was a bit taller than she was, so she tried on the clothes herself and allowed a bit extra. The trousers were a bit trickier, as she was certain that Lirael’s thighs were smaller than hers. Oh well. Warmth before style. She stuffed the clothes into her pack, waved goodbye to the Gnome lady, and went to a food merchant for some trail rations. With that done, she returned to the Recluse to rejoin Milo, Elvira and Lirael. Lirael had never seen the Great Outdoors in her life, and Ariciel was not about to let her suffer for her generosity.

The guard came in, and took one look at the cell.

“Oh damn.”

In the middle of the cell, the small body of a Gnome was swinging gently back and forth, on the end of a rope fashioned from a blanket. Damn. He’d been looking forward to breaking this one. For some reason, it always amused him to see such a little Gnome on a big rack. They had susprisingly loud voices, too. He swore at the stupid guard who’d left that blanket in the next cell. Bit busy having fun to watch the details, are we? Prisoners here were usually under no illusions as to what would happen to them. A friendly chat to find out where they had hidden the shinies, then a long drop down the hole. You could figure out that some of them would try to avoid the friendly chat by making their own arrangements. Well, couldn’t be helped. He produced his key, opened the door and grabbed the rope, preparing to cut down the Gnome girl.

With amazing speed, the little girl grabbed his wrist and twisted it. the knife fell out of his hand, and the Gnome girl caught it. She stabbed out, and blood spattered all over her robes. The guard’s eyes became empty, and he fell down, leaving the Gnome girl swinging back and forth in the middle of the cell. She grabbed the rope above her, which went under her arms, cut it with the knife and fell the three feet to the floor, landing on her feet. She glanced at the guard’s body. Killing the extras usually didn’t get you any points, but she wasn’t about to take chances. Right. Next thing, find some clothes. She took a deep breath, and made herself inconspicuous. Then, on bare feet, she sneaked to the door where the guard had entered. Ah. A small storeroom. A little way off, another guard was sitting on a stool next to a rack, upon which a man lay, eyes staring wildly at the ceiling. The guard was smoking a cigarette. Between the puffs of smoke, he asked the man on the rack a question. The man shook his head desperately. The guard sighed, and crushed out his cigarette on the man’s chest. He gave a shivering, hoarse cry, and the guard turned the windlass again.

The Gnome girl closed her eyes briefly, as the man cried out again. Just let me get to my kit. I’ll give you some answers. Quiet as a mouse, she opened the door to the storeroom. With satisfaction, she saw stacks of boxes placed neatly on shelves. Good. Nasty buggers, but organised nasty buggers. She quickly went through the boxes, till she found the one containing her leather armour. With a great sigh, she quickly put on her kit, and put away her knives. Her eyes glowed, as she found her lucky silver coin. She made its familiar weight dance through her fingers, then put it in its usual place in her bra. She looked over her shoulder. Right. Now for a little controlled violence.

“You know, we can stop this, and I’ll call in the priest. He’ll fix you up in no time. Wouldn’t that be nice? Just tell us where you’ve hidden Miss Benson’s gold, and all this will be over.”

“It’s behind you,” said the Gnome girl.

The guard jumped, turned round, and saw the little Gnome. She stabbed up with her dagger. The guard’s mouth opened wide, unable to scream. The Gnome twisted the knife, and pulled it out. The guard fell down, twitching as the poison did its work. The gnome walked round to the man on the rack. With quick movements, she undid the straps round his arms and legs, and helped him sit up. The man groaned, trying to hold both his arms in the other. Tears and filth were on his face, and he was shaking.

“Thank you,” he stammered.

“You’re not out yet. Can you walk?”

“I will. Crawl if I can’t.”

“You know the way out?”

The man nodded. Slowly, gingerly, he got to his feet. The Gnome girl looked away as he rose. The man examined the dead guard, then turned round to the Gnome.

“You’ve ruined his trousers.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not. I’ll find something in the storeroom instead.”

The man limped into the storeroom, and came out a while later, wearing trousers that were too short for him, and leather chest armour. On his belt was a dagger.

“Let’s go.”

There was a loud thud. Bannog stirred from his bed, ran to the window and looked out. In the distance, he could see three heavy catapults, and they were hurling boulders at the front door. Bloody rude. A swarm of Blackrock orcs was running for the main gate, hoping that the boulders would make a breach in the wall for them to enter. Within a minute, Bannog had his chain on, as his plate armour took too long to put on, and was running down the stairs to the gate. His fists beat on the parapet.


Lieutenant Smitty appeared next to him.


Bannog pointed. “Get rid of that, will you?”

Smitty looked, then nodded. “Permission to use the Hwacha sir?”

“Use what you need, Lieutenant.”

“Aye, sir. Want me to try and capture the balistas?”

“Don’t bother. Torch the things.”

“Right you are, sir!”

Smitty ran down the stairs, shouting orders. Bannog looked back at the approaching Orcs and the siege engines. A grim smile was on his face. Time to teach the bastards not to disturb his beauty sleep.

“Hwacha number one forward! Make ready! Lower the drawbridge! Make ready to open the portcullis on my command! Horsemen, to the left! Stay out of bowshot of the door!”

With creaking wheels, one of the carts was moved forward behind the portcullis. Bannog looked down from the wall, as the cover was taken off, and the instrument was revealed in all its terror. A large wooden frame was set on top of a two-wheeled cart. In the frame were two hundred steel-tipped arrows. Bannog knew. He had counted them. There was a hand on his shoulder. Gerrig stood next to him.

“Were you going to play with our new toy without me?”

“Never. Oh. If Smitty pulls the rope and nothing happens, I’ll never forgive you. Is that clear?”

“Hah. The Goblin said that he’d never had anyone complain of failures.”

“Yeah. There may be a reason for that.”

The brothers grinned at each other. Life was about to get interesting. The Orcs came in range of the mini-balistas on the North and West tower, and bolts started to rain down among them, spearing several as they ran.

“Smitty! They’re in range!”

“Raise the portcullis! Hold ready to fire!”

The orcs were now so close that they could hear the war cries. They were a fearsome sight, running in no discernible order, spurred on by an Ogre behind them. Creaking, the portcullis rose. The Orcs reached the bridge.


The soldier behind the cart took a deep breath, then pulled the rope. Two-hundred vials of acid burst, spilling onto the ignitors. With a sound like a dragon’s breath, two hundred rockets launched at the same time, into the approaching group of Orcs. As they hit, the secondary charge ignited, and exploded. The result was devastating. Within two seconds, an approaching army of Orcs was turned to a writhing mass of broken bodies. Those who still could, turned tail and fled, only to be shot down by the Ogre-mage, who was under orders to kill any deserters. The East mini-balista twanged, and a yard-long bolt speared the Ogre-mage through and through. One of his heads looked incredulously at the shaft protruding from his chest. Then, he fell over.

“Horsemen! Attack!”

With a sound like thunder, thirty horses ran over the drawbridge, crushing the bodies of the assault force under their hooves as they raced towards the balistas. Bannog looked behind him.

“Hwacha number two! Target the balistas! Maximum range!”

The second cart rode forward, past its brother. Soldiers were already frantically reloading it with new rockets , and attaching the primers to the main firing rope. Hwacha number two trundled forward, then the soldiers aimed it upwards, at the balistas.


Once more, two-hundred arrows ignited at the same time and flew over the heads of the horsemen, towards the target. In the distance, two-hundred explosions burst asunder Orcish armour, or rained down on the siege engines. When the horsemen arrived, they had little else to do but kill a few survivors and two mages. Gerrig grinned.

“Oh, I must write a letter of recommendation about this. Look at the grouping!”

“Yeah. That ought to give them pause next time they feel like visiting us. Ah look. Up they go!”

In the distance, they could see the soldiers tipping over the vats of burning oil onto the siege engines. The men ducked as the ropes caught fire, broke and swept about. Then, seeing their job was done, they rode back to the castle, to the cheers of their comrades. Bannog slapped Gerrig’s shoulder.

“That’s one for Caer Bannog, none for the Orcs.”

Gerrig gave Bannog an earnest look.

“Not so, brother. We are still behind, and it will be a long time before we draw level.”

Bannog’s grin faded. “You’re right. Still, they won’t try that again.”

Lirael pulled her coat round her, and shivered. It had started to rain. She loved her new coat, but still. She was freezing. Ariciel was happily riding next to her, face turned up to the rain, silly girl.

Ariciel looked round, and concern was on her face.

“You alright?”

“S-sure,” said Lirael.

Ariciel reined in her cat, jumped off and started looking in her pack. She pulled out a cloak and gave it to Lirael, without comment. Lirael hesitated. Putting on the cloak felt like a betrayal of Milo, who’d given her this lovely coat. This lovely thin coat. Lirael put on the cloak.

“Thanks. You sure you don’t need it yourself?”

“I’m fine. I have lots of layers on. I should have given you some pointers for clothing. I’m sorry.”

“You Druids do this for fun?”

“All the time. Will you look at that view?”

Lirael looked. They had come to a clearing in the woods, and the whole of Redridge lay before them. Large red rolling mountains. Miles and miles of them.

“Very nice. Any chance of a working toilet here in the woods?”

“None whatsoever. That, at least, is an advantage of having a bear shape.”

Lirael stared at her friend for at least ten seconds. Then, she got it, and closed her eyes laughing. She grinned at her Druid friend.

“Let’s keep moving.”

They were sitting on a small hill, looking Eastward. Ariciel had made a fire, and Lirael was sipping tea. It felt good to be off her feet for a few moments. They had come to a bit that was too difficult for their mounts to negotiate, so they had walked. She turned her eyes to Ariciel, who had put her staff between her legs to sit on. She was staring in the distance, a sad look on her face.

“What’s up, girl? What are you thinking about?”



“Not about what happened to her.”


“It’s just… Oh, I shouldn’t talk about her.”

Lirael closed her eyes, breathing in tea-fumes.

“You know, I’m cold, wet, miserable, and I have a blister on my foot that comes back every time no matter how often I heal it. I’m in a place where at any moment bad nasty Orcs can come and attack us, and I’m convinced that you outdoorsy types are a few stitches short of a tapestry.” Lirael took a small sip of her tea. “And then, the sun comes out, and wherever I look, there’s something bright, colourful, glad to be alive. I can see the Light pouring itself out into everything from the largest tree to the smallest blade of grass, all striving, growing. And into you and me.” She took a deep breath. “Thank you for taking me and showing me this.” She turned her face to Ariciel, and gave her a smile. “I may not be ordained yet, but I am a priestess. If I were prone to gossiping, people wouldn’t tell me things I need to know. In one ear, out the other. Nothing in between to stop it.”

Ariciel chuckled, said nothing.

“If it bothers you, out with it.”

“When I met Lesta, I was a chamber maid, She was selling fresh flowers to the Manor. Then one day, she dropped a bucket of wildflowers on the floor, and I helped her clean it up, and she bent over to pick up something and I found I just had to touch her bottom. One thing led to another and before you know it, we were in and out of each other’s beds.” Ariciel smiled. “I was all ‘Oh my! I’ve never done this before!’, which was a filthy lie, and she was all set to teach me what girls can get up to together. And it was all lovely, especially with Orin joining in as well.”

“Mm hmm?”

“Well, then the whole thing with the High-borne happened, and I went to travel to foreign places, make my way into the world, and push myself through those two years of searching, and all those lessons from Bearwalker, and…” Ariciel looked round at Lirael. “Meeting Bannog, and falling in love, and being captured by Ogres and escaping. You know how I met Bannog right? Those Defias cutpurses. They almost got us. Do you know what I’d need to do now to beat them? Cast Thorns on myself and let them hit me. The bite-back would kill them.” Ariciel looked at her mug, which was empty. She shook out the last few drops and put it in her pack.

“Back at the Manor, one of the sons of the High-borne nobles tried to force himself on me. He was much bigger and stronger than me, so I let him. He gave me some money to ease his conscience, and that went into the piercing fund. Knocked too weeks off the wait. If the same lad would try that again now, I could force myself on him.”

Lirael drained her mug, and stowed it. “You’ve grown stronger. You’re no longer the chamber-maid for whom the greatest adventure was getting in bed with two people at the same time. You’ve done things. Seen things.”

“Yeah. And then I found Lesta back in Auberdine, and instead of flowers she was selling candy for Lady Fiora.” Ariciel stared in the distance, not really seeing. “And for her, still, the greatest adventure was getting in bed with me. And maybe another one into the bargain. If I’d have told her about Searing Gorge, she’d just have stared, and said nothing. And eventually, I’d have grown tired of her and let her off. And I feel awful about that, but it’s true.”

“I see. Well, it happens. People drift together, then drift apart again. You’re right. You are no longer just Lesta’s lover. You’re a very capable Druid, and a fighter. At least Lesta didn’t have to see you leave her.”

“Yeah. Good thing she died before that, eh?”

“Nothing that happens is completely good or bad. It’s all shades of grey.”

“Bloody dark shade of grey.”

“True. But if Lesta had met Puissance after you’d let her off, then it would be worse.”

“I suppose. Well. Ready to get going again?”

“No, but I will.”

He didn’t do badly for a Lug. Kept himself out of trouble, hid when she told him to. So far, they’d made it without attracting anyone’s attention. She could see the exit. Things got a bit challenging at that point. There were lots of guards there, and it almost seemed like they were expecting trouble. Come on guys. Just a little Gnome. All this activity is entirely uncalled-for. She thought of the Human. She might be able to sneak past those guards, but him? Never. His arms and legs weren’t up to either sneaking or running. She could, of course, just leave him here, but that would be half a job. Poor sod would be worse off if he’d get caught again. She frowned. What in Azeroth was all that weaponry about? The two dead guards wouldn’t even be missed yet.

“I think someone big is making a run for it. Maybe we can get lost in the confusion.”

“Well, you’re not sneaking past them in your condition, unless you do stealth.”

“Not a chance. I’m a Paladin. Or used to be, anyway.”

“Maybe we can grab one of them and disguise you.”

The Human ex-paladin shook his head. “They know my face. I used to be one of them.”

“So you’re a Paladin, and you went out stealing?”

“No, I bloody didn’t. Some bastard set me up, and if I get out he’s going to find out what I think of him.”

“What we need, is a distraction.”

“Let me think…”

“Eh lads? How would you like a shot at running out of here?”

“Piss off. I know there’s at least a dozen guards out there.”

“So? There’s at least twenty of you here. They can’t take you all.”

“Yeah, right. You may not have noticed, but they have spiky things. We don’t.”

“So jump a few guards and get their swords. Do I have to tell you everything?”

“Sod you.”

The Gnome Rogue listened to her Human friend trying to convince the prisoners to come out. So far, it was going swimmingly. In plate armour. Carrying a king’s ransom in gold. She pulled the door ajar.

“The door is open. Want me to tell you what you’re in for once you get down in the cellar? It’s not pleasant. And if you pull together, most of you will get out.”

“Up yours, shrimp.”

The Human sighed. “Bloody Defias. They can’t even take a shit without orders.”

The Defias prisoner frowned. “Hey! We’re the Brotherhood man. Don’t disrespect us.”

“You’re a poor sap prisoner behind an open door. They have racks down there, and nice hot irons. I even saw a few Iron Maidens for if you’ve really pissed them off. You rush them, they’ll run you through. Trust me, that’s much better. I’ve done the other thing.”

A door behind him opened, and one of the prisoners stepped out.

“I’ll do it, if you’re coming. And the little runt too.”

The Gnome glared. “The little runt opened the lock to your door. Don’t annoy me, lug.”

Slowly, one by one, prisoners came out of their cells, until a critical mass was reached and they all came out. Some enterprising thugs fashioned weapons out of table legs.

“Way out is that way, boys.”

In the disorganised fashion of mobs, the crowd marched on to the exit, Gnome Girl and her Lug somewhere in the middle. It wasn’t long before one of the guards spotted them. The Human ex-paladin shouted.

“Get them, boys!”

The stockade guards came rushing in, swords out. The Gnome rogue engaged her stealth and disappeared from view. The Human solved the problem by playing dead. Given that there were now several dozen Defias Brothers on the move, nobody looked at another unmoving body. It was not a fair fight. The armed guards steadily drove the Defias back into the prison. One of the corpses carefully lifted its head, got to its feet and hobbled out of the door.

“This way! Into the water!”

They jumped in with a great splash and swam under the bridge. There, they paused a while, grinning at each other. The Human held out a big hand to the Gnome. She took it.

“My name is Osric.”


“Seems we’ve made it.”

“So far. Let’s get out of here.”

Quietly, they swam out. Interalia knew you could get out of the water somewhere near the harbour, and was making for it. Osric winced at painful limbs as he swam.

“I thought you paladins could heal yourselves?”

“We can. I got excommunicated. Can’t call on the Light anymore.”


“Yeah. When I clear my name, I plan to get re-communicated.”

“Tell them to get lost.”

“Can’t. The rotter is still in there somewhere. Once I get him, all will be well.”

“Here’s the stairs.”

They climbed out of the water and walked in the direction of the harbour.

“Well, it’s been fun,” said Osric. “Until we meet again.”

“Best of luck,” said Interalia, and meant it. With a wave, they parted. Interalia scanned the surroundings. Her face lit up. Ah! Gnome dwellings. She could get some supplies, weapons, food, or at least some clothes there. She needed a disguise. And then, she needed to get out of here and give the nice lugs the chance to forget about her.

“Eeny meeny minie moe,” said Interalia, and pointed at a door. She walked up to it. Hmm. Slightly more complex lock than usual. She fumbled in her sleeve for her lockpicks and opened the door as quickly as the usual occupant. She stole in. Ah. Living room to the left. Bedrooms to the right. She went into the master bedroom and opened a wardrobe. Aha. Nice dresses. Very good. She pulled a few off the coat hangers and selected a dark blue one. She held it in front of her. It’d do. She started to take off her clothes. Suddenly, she froze.

“Hello. Don’t move. As one rogue to another, this is the nasty stuff on this blade. Warn me if you want to swallow. Welcome to Steambender Manor.”

They came upon them, without any warning. Big tusked warriors. Six of them. Ariciel jumped off her cat, raised her hands, and started shooting Green Fire at them. She needed two shots to take one down. Not fast enough. Lirael was looking wide-eyed at Ariciel fighting, when suddenly there was a noise behind her, and a big hairy arm was wrapped round her, and a blade pressed to her throat.

“Have you! Kek!”

Ariciel heard, and looked over her shoulder. She turned round, and the expression on her face was terrible to see.

“Put down hands, or little Elf scream.”

Lirael shook like a leaf. This was it. There were simply too many of them even for Ariciel to fight. They would kill her before her eyes, and then… Great tears trickled down Lirael’s face. She would never see Arador again, or Milo. She would never sing again in the choir.

Ariciel slowly walked towards Lirael. The other Orcs had stopped and were jeering at her.

“That close enough. Want to see blood?” The Orc laughed. “Maybe little first? Cut ear off?” He moved his dagger from Lirael’s throat to her ear.

Lirael! Ne bouge pas!” No need to say that. Lirael was stiff as a board. Ariciel raised her left hand, fingers up, then closed her fist. With a creaking noise, great green roots grew out of the earth, and twisted themselves round the Orc’s arms and legs. Then, they pulled the Orc away from Lirael, large thorns pressing into his flesh. The Orc cried out, as Ariciel walked towards him, slowly raising her arms.

“Nobody. Touches. My. Friends, and LIVES!”

Her arms came down in a swift move, and a monstrous ball of energy slammed down onto the Orc. In a second, his entire torso was turned into a charred, blasted mass of flesh. Ariciel whirled round, white hair flying, and took a deep breath. The other Orcs came rushing up, seeing what had happened to their comrade. Ariciel’s firebolt hit the first one in the chest, and he exploded into a shower of gore. The other three stopped dead, gaped, turned round and fled. With a great cry, Ariciel shot another one, who was dead before he reached the ground. She raised her fist, and brought it down. A shaft of Moonfire consumed another Orc. The last one kept running. Ariciel shot a green firebolt after him, but it dissipated before striking and the Orc kept his head down and ran. Ariciel cried out. Wordless cries of pure anger. Then, she lowered her hands, still shaking, and turned to Lirael, who had her eyes closed and hadn’t moved from the spot. She didn’t dare look behind her. Her lips moved quietly. As Ariciel walked up, she could only just hear what she was saying.

“Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Lirael slowly opened her eyes, and looked up at Ariciel. A grim smile appeared on her face.

“Remind me, dear, never to make you angry at me.”

Ariciel took deep breaths, and made herself calm down. The beast put back into its cave.

“Seven more miles to the secret entrance. Can you cope?”


Griggin paced back and forth in front of the rogue, who was sitting on a chair, arms cuffed to it using Nix’ very well-designed handcuffs. Interalia stuck her chin up, and defiantly looked up at him.

“Now what am I going to do with you? I probably should hand you over to the guards, but recent events have left me somewhat… disgusted with torture. On the other hand, I can’t leave you cuffed up here till we get back. You’d starve. Or escape. Can’t let you go, either. You’d come back here and empty the place out, now that you know it’s going to be deserted.”

“If you’re going to kill me, just say so.”

Griggin scowled. “I do not kill people merely for trying to steal. There’s been quite enough killing already.”

Griggin looked at his wife, who stared angrily at the rogue.

“I’d kill her. That blue dress cost a fortune. You gave it to me.”

“No fireballs indoors, please.”

“That’s a Bieslook rule,” said Lenna, wriggling her fingers.

Griggin smiled at her. “A rule for one is a rule for all, lest it become tyranny.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

“Only one thing remains. We take her with us.”

Nix grinned. “She can be our team mascot!”

Trixie simply stared at her father, mouth open. “When I get to be as old as you, do I go mad too?”

Griggin shrugged. “Any suggestions are welcome, as long as she isn’t dead or in the hands of the Guards at the end of them.”

Bieslook came walking forward. Nix put a hand on her shoulder before she could get to Interalia. The young Gnome stared at Interalia’s face.

“She’s got sad eyes.”

Nix ruffled Bieslook’s hair. “That’s because she got caught. I caught her! Go me!”

Interalia looked from one to the other, and kept quiet. She smiled at Bieslook, because she seemed to be the friendliest one up to now. Bieslook beamed at her.

“You can come with us! You won’t be sad anymore. I was sad till I went with Lenna.”

“You didn’t try to steal my dresses, dear,” said Lenna.

Bieslook looked at her feet. “Stole cookies.”

“That was a while back, dear, and we’ve forgiven you.”

“Can you forgive her as well?”

“In a while, dear. Say, a hundred years or so.”


Griggin had put their mechanostriders in front of the small cart that he used to carry his engineering kit. Interalia was in the cart, under the cover, guarded by Nix and Trixie. Bieslook sat between Griggin and Lenna in the front.

“Everybody nice and tight in the back?”

“Yes,” said Trixie, holding on.

“Ready,” said Nix.

“Couldn’t move if I wanted to,” said Interalia.

“Right! Off to Caer Bannog we go!”

Interalia’s jaw dropped, and she was almost thrown out of the cart as they started moving.

Ariciel stared down into the no-longer-secret entrance. It was filled with lovely moat water. So… A swim then. She rubbed her chin. She had her sea-lion form, but Lirael didn’t.

“Lirael? Can you do water-breathing?”

“Nope. You’re not thinking of going in there, are you?”

“Well, loads of Orcs are watching the front door. This is easier. For me, anyway.”

“Yeah. I’ve never seen your sea lion shape.”

“It makes my bum look fat,” said Ariciel.

“How long can a sea lion stay under?”

“Normal sea-lions have lungs. They can stay under for half an hour or so. Druids in aquatic form get a built-in waterbreathing spell. I can stay under for a week. Well… I think I’ll go in and reconnoiter a bit. See if there’s air on the other side. Stay in here and keep quiet.”

She gently lowered herself into the water, turned to her sea lion shape and went under. She’d walked in and out of this tunnel many times before. Strange to be swimming now. Sea-lion-Ariciel arrived at the other end, and found she could stick her head above the surface. Ah. Air. Good. With some difficulty, she turned round and swam back. She changed back to her Elf form and called up to Lirael.

“There’s air on the other side. Come on in! The water’s lovely!”

“I can’t swim that far under water. In the dark. Underground.”

“I’ll change again. Hold on to me, and I can pull you through in thirty seconds. You’ve sung phrases that long. Get in!” Ariciel splashed water up and over Lirael. Lirael frowned, held her nose, closed her eyes and jumped.

“Right. Hold on, and I’ll pull you through.”

Ariciel turned back to her aquatic shape, and Lirael put her arms round her neck. The sea lion grunted. Lirael took a deep breath and tapped Ariciel on the shoulder. Ariciel dived, and with powerful strokes shot away into the tunnel, with Lirael hanging on for dear life. Soon, they emerged on the other side. Ariciel turned back to her Elf shape, and considered knocking, but Lirael was yelling her head off, which probably worked just as well, and required more immediate attention. She grabbed Lirael’s shoulders, and made her look into her eyes.

“Easy! It’s alright! I’ve got you.” She looked again. Lirael was laughing! She raised her arms in the air and made big splashes.

“I want to do that again! My goodness! The speed! I imagine you can really move if you don’t have to pull me along!”

Ariciel grinned. “Well, yeah.”

There was a grinding noise above them, and they looked into the face of Quartermaster. Ariciel saluted.

“Evening Quartermaster. Two Elves to enter, please. Mildly moist.”

Quartermaster was suddenly pulled away, and a large arm was thrust down. With a yelp, Ariciel was pulled out of the water, and crushed to a familiar, broad chest. For a moment, nothing happened.

“Bannog? There’s another one down there. Don’t forget her!”

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


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