Part 17: Ready. Set…

Bannog reached down into the corridor that until recently allowed one to cross the moat with dry feet. Lirael took a firm grip on his arm and he lifted her out of the water.

“Now this is an entrance that’s hardly worthy of the Darnassus Temple Choir’s star soprano,” said Bannog.

“Fun, though! Did you know how fast Ariciel can swim?”

“Got a demonstration in the pool by Stonewatch Falls. She’s faster in Sea-lion shape, but nicer to watch in Elf shape.”

“I bet she is,” said Lirael. She looked round the small room. “What’s that smell?”

Quartermaster signalled the man on the ropes above them, and guided the heavy stone lid onto the entrance.

“Crispy Orc,” he said. “The bastards knew about our secret entrance, so they thought they’d come in and murder us in our beds. Pretty enterprising lot. They’d brought some device for getting the lid off, and that’s heavy. It’s also alarmed, so they interrupted my beauty sleep. Nobody interrupts my beauty sleep.”

“You need it,” said Bannog.

“Exactly. The beauty I was sleeping with quite agreed. So I turned on the oil and dropped in a match. My eyebrows are still growing back. Up the stairs here, Ma’am. Allow me.” He walked up, with the Elf girls squelching behind him. Bannog walked behind Ariciel. He stroked her bottom. She looked round and raised an eyebrow.

“Still wet,” said Bannog.

“Got a towel?”

“Up in my room.”

As they reached the top of the stairs, Lirael looked round the place. She’d never been here, but it looked like most of the castles she’d been in. Functional. Walls mostly bare, except for the occasional tapestry, presumably woven by Bannog’s mother. She closed her eyes a moment, trying to hear the voices of the people inside. Even though it was early in the afternoon, people went about their business quietly. The death of Old Bannog affected all. A young boy came out of the dining hall, and stared at her. She smiled at him, and the boy’s face turned red and he disappeared out of a door. Lirael shivered.

“Not a step further! What do you think you’re doing?”

Bannog turned round. “Hullo Marcia. We’ve just fished two Night-elves out of the tunnel.”

“I can see that, you big oaf! They’re dripping all over the floor! Look at the poor girl. Her teeth are chattering! This way, ladies.”

Like a whirlwind, Marcia swept across the hall, to the kitchen, which was winding down from providing lunch for about a hundred. Chamber-maids were stacking bowls and putting them away. Pot-boys were scouring the cauldrons that had held porridge. A few leftover loaves of bread were put in a basket, later to be toasted. Mareva was sitting at a table, talking to one of the chamber-maids. She turned round, saw Ariciel, grinned and waved.

“Warm wishes to you! Have you had a good trip?”

“Relatively uneventful,” said Ariciel. “Orcs are getting up themselves here.”

Lirael started to say something, but Marcia walked to the middle of the room, took a deep breath and shouted.

“Right! Everybody who doesn’t have breasts, out! That includes you, Quartermaster!”

Quartermaster snorted. “I have walked these lands for over sixty years. I should know what a pair of woman’s breasts looks like. Human, Dwarf of Elf!”

“And we can do without your appreciative comments, thank you. Get out! Not you, Maisie! You’ll get them later on.”

Without too much grumbling, the male occupants left the kitchen. Marcia rubbed her hands.

“Good. Lady…” She raised her eyebrows at the tall, dark-haired Night-elf.

“Lirael.”

“Lirael. Pleased to meet you. Get out of those wet clothes and give them to Maisie there. You too, Ariciel!”

Ariciel cast a longing glance at the door, up the stairs.

“I’m fine. Take care of Lirael first.”

“Not on your life. You’ll catch your death like this. Off with those clothes.”

“Look, I’m a Druid. I do this all the time. If I had to change every time I took a swim, I wouldn’t have time for…”

Marcia pointed a finger at Ariciel. “Off with those clothes, or I’ll give you a hand. You don’t want to go prowling around those Orcs sneezing every minute.”

Ariciel frowned at Marcia. Marcia looked back without flinching. Seconds passed, then Ariciel sighed, and started undoing the straps on her armour.

“Good girl. Right. Leona? Go get a few blankets. Mareva? Chest of drawers behind you. Bottom drawer. There should be towels in there. Toss us a few, will you?”

Mareva rummaged in the drawers and took out towels, which she handed to Lirael and Ariciel. There was a glint in her eyes and she lowered her voice.

“Would you like me to do your back?”

Ariciel pulled a face. “No dammit. Bannog.”

Mareva laughed, and shrugged. “Get wet again later.”

“Naah. I’ll just jump him the first chance I get.”

“There. Problem solved.”

Lirael was sitting in front of the fire, a blanket wrapped round her and a steaming bowl of soup in her hands. Her eyes were closed, and a happy grin was on her lips. She opened her eyes and turned round to Ariciel, who sat next to her.

“I love these people.” Lirael raised her voice a bit. “People? I love you.”

Leona put a hand on Lirael’s shoulder. “Nothing like a bit of soup to make you feel human again. Want some more? I’ve got a bit left if you want it.”

“Please,” said Lirael. She felt too comfortable to comment on her feeling Human. She handed over her bowl, and Leona emptied the pot into it.

“Oh, Ma’am? Are you likely to turn into a wild animal at some point?” She shot Ariciel a glance. “Just asking. Sort of thing I’d like to know in advance, is all.”

Lirael grinned and pointed her thumb at Ariciel. “Animal shapes are her thing. I do Shadowform. Means I go dark and somewhat transparent, but I keep all my limbs in the shape they are now. She’s a Druid. I’m a priestess.”

Leona nodded slowly. “Servant of the Light?”

“Servant of Elune, but mostly servant of people. Healing of mind and body.”

“Hm. With those murdering devils at our gates again, we can use a bit of that. Eat up, my child.”

Lirael looked at the woman who was probably about thirty years her junior, and sipped more soup. Chicken soup with hot spices. She must get the recipe. She hadn’t cooked for Elvira and Milo in months. She was well and truly behind. This might help. She handed her empty bowl back and moved a bit closer to the fire.

“That lady, Marcia. She does know how to organise.”

Marcia overheard her, and grinned broadly.

“I have two strapping sons and a husband. If you don’t know how to put your foot down once in a while, you end up a smear on the wall. Speaking of which, I have children to look after. I’ll see you at dinner time.”


The small cart was slowly making its way up to Lakeshire. Lenna was sitting next to her husband in front, an arm wrapped round Bieslook, who had fallen asleep.

“What are we going to do with her?”

“Oh, when we get to Lakeshire, I’ll ask Nix to get a bit careless with the handcuffs. She’ll disappear into the undergrowth and for her, the path of least resistance will be to go bother someone else rather than go back to Stormwind where they’re already looking for her. She’ll be out of your hair before tomorrow.”

Lenna put her hand on Griggin’s leg. Her eyes gleamed at him.

“I wasn’t really going to kill her, you know?”

Griggin’s moustache bristled. “I know. Poor girl. Life can’t have been easy for her.”

Lenna frowned. “We’re not taking on another stray, my lief. Bieslook is utterly adorable. She’s not.”

“Like I said, she’ll be gone by tomorrow.”

Interalia fidgeted. Unfortunately, Nix had done an excellent job on the design of the handcuffs. They did not pinch or cut off her circulation, but they were impossible to shift. Nothing worse than having a Rogue design stuff against other Rogues.

“Hey!”

Nix looked up. “What?”

“Any chance of getting me out of at least one of these cuffs?”

“Haha. No.”

“You’ll have to get them off sometime, you know. I assume you’re not going to let me starve. How will I eat?”

Nix grinned. “If you’re a good girl, I’ll feed you. If you’re not, I’ll let Trixie feed you.”

“Hah. And how about it coming out the other end? Are you going to help me with that as well?”

Nix said nothing.

“I’ve got an itch behind my ear,” said Interalia, truthfully. Nix shrugged, reached out and scratched.

“Up a bit…” Interalia closed her eyes and sighed. “Ahh. Bliss.”

Nix gave her a look. “I know what you’re trying to do, you know.”

“Good for you. Don’t stop scratching… Aww.”

Nix sat back. “So. Were you always a thief, or were you on the run, or what?”

Trixie laughed. “I’ll bet you she was a right…”

“I was a prostitute,” said Interalia. She gave Nix a smouldering look, full of promise. “I know twenty-seven different ways to please a man. Three of them, I don’t need to use my hands. For the best ones, though, you’ll need to give me at least the use of one hand.”

Nix swallowed, looking at Interalia with new eyes. Trixie laughed.

“Hey, your dark-haired sultryness? Remember that to get out of those cuffs, you need to seduce me as well.” Trixie scowled. “And to do that, you’d need to grow another body part.”

Interalia smiled. “You don’t think I can seduce a girl if I need to? All part of the job, cutie. The words ‘I don’t like to do it with a girl’ don’t really cut it in a brothel.” Her eyes gleamed adoringly at Trixie. “And I just looove pink hair.”

“Get your fingers anywhere near this pink hair, and I’ll beat the stuffing out of you.”

Interalia shrugged. “May as well. Some of my regulars did. Pays more than straight, and a few streets down, there was a nice priest who’d heal us for free.”

“Huh,” said Nix. “Do you mean that there’s really twenty-seven different ways to let a guy get on top of you? Really?”

Interalia turned her face back to Nix. “Hell yeah. Oh… Hold on. You? On top of me?”

“Uh… yes… hypothetically.”

“Ha! Then I now know twenty-eight different ways!”

Trixie groaned. “There isn’t a dwarf with a beard as long as that one!”

Interalia laughed. “Had to be said, though. Ah well. It wasn’t all bad. Once in a while, you’d get a customer where you didn’t mind all that much.” She nodded at Nix. “You remind me a bit of him, actually. You’ve got the same…”

Interalia hesitated. She should have thought that one through before saying it. She scanned Nix for some distinguishing feature. Sadly, if there were such a thing as ‘Totally unremarkable Gnome Magazine’, Nix would be on the cover. On all of them. Normal short dark blonde hair, regular kind of face, not ugly, but not particularly handsome either, not particularly muscular or particularly thin…

“Eyes,” said Interalia.

Trixie poked her brother. “Hey! Did you know that the word ‘gullible’ is not in the dictionary?”

“No,” said Nix, clearly miles away.

“Anyway, I stopped doing that a while back. I used to help myself to the customer’s valuables after they’d collapsed into a happy little puddle. Then I figured that if I just bopped them on the head, I could avoid all the unhygienic sweaty stuff. Then, I figured I didn’t want to stay in the brothel after all and took off. The pimp sent some heavies after me, and a Rogue helped me shake them off, for a Midnight Special, and I followed him to his trainer and found that I was pretty good at sneaking and hiding. So that was the start of a very successful career. And then it got a bit too hot in Ironforge, so I thought I’d try my luck in Stormwind. Not very lucky, as it turned out.”

“Get caught?”

“Yeah. First bloody night. I don’t recommend the stockade. It’s not comfortable. Got out by sheer luck.” For a moment, Interalia’s seductive smile faded, and a steely look was in her dark eyes. “I don’t ever want to go back in there.”

“Aw, come on. So they toss you in the nick for a while,” said Trixie. “Serves you right for clawing other people’s stuff.”

Interalia’s eyes turned back to the Warrior girl. Probably all of thirty or forty years old. Still thought that the world was a happy place, or would be once they got rid of the Horde. She could tell her, of course. About the things that Humans did to you in there. The racks, that pulled your arms and legs out of their sockets. The hot pokers in the fire. Whips. Chains. Little rooms with only a metal chair in them. Execution chambers, just a hook in the ceiling and something to stand on. Above all, the people who devoted their time to making other people suffer. Suffer more pain than they could stand, and then some. The screams. Interalia’s muscles tightened against the handcuffs. She forced her mind away from the darkness. It would’t help her get loose and get out of here.

“It’s not a nice place.”

Her ear started itching again. She rubbed it against her shoulder. Her big, dark eyes turned to Nix.

“Please?”

Nix reached out and scratched.


Blackrock Warlord Gath’ilzogg ran his fingers between the ears of his drake pet, Singe, and looked down on the old Orc, who was sitting at the table opposite him. Under-chief Gharash looked up at him. Warlord Gath’ilzogg was a big Orcish brute, wearing plate and chain armour. Chief Gharash was not impressed. The Orc suffered from delusions of grandeur. And he was his superior officer. What had he done to deserve this?

“You have failed me, Under-chief Gharash. A hundred swords lie dead. Three valuable catapults are destroyed. What have you to say for yourself?”

Chief Gharash’ eyes narrowed. “The enemy had a weapon that we did not know about. I have not seen these weapons in these lands before. They are of Goblin origin, used in the East.”

“Did your spies not inform you of this, then?”

Gharash scowled.

“No, Warlord Gath’ilzogg. Not since you ordered them to report only to you. If they have informed you, why did you not pass on the information to me? That would have been most helpful.”

That was utter nonsense. Gharash was still given all the information the spies gathered. They knew who in the Keep was competent, and who was not. However, this new weapon had remained secret. All they had reported was that a few carts had entered the castle, presumably supplies. Food for the Human soldiers. They hadn’t been able to enter the castle, so nothing more was known.

“I will ask the questions here. After the initial attack, which was a spectacular failure, why did your soldiers not attempt to defend the catapults?”

“They are not experienced enough. Some of them hardly know which end of a sword goes into the enemy. They are here to learn the craft of war.”

Gath’ilzogg’s eyes narrowed. “Do you doubt their courage?”

Under-chief Gharash stood up so fast that his chair clattered back onto the floor. He was too old for this. His fist hit the table, and he glared at Gath’ilzogg.

“Our recruits would run through fire for the Horde. You insult their honour by even suggesting otherwise. Having our own Ogre-mages execute those who recognised a superior force and ran, was…” Gharash thought a moment. “Madness. A waste. Idiocy!”

Chief Gharash paced around the table and stood in front of Gath’ilzogg, who overlooked him by a head. Gharash did not let that bother him. He’d brought down much larger things than this krypdyr in his time.

“If I may remind you, the task of Stonewatch Keep was never to launch an attack on the nearby Alliance strongholds. We were taking the raw recruits, training them to the level where they can survive small to medium battles, then sending them on. The nearby Alliance wildlife was practicing material, nothing more. Until you changed policy, we merely trained up our Warriors, then sent them away.” Chief Gharash pointed a finger to the North-east. “Over there at Caer Bannog, they have also been training up their soldiers, but they are keeping them. They have grown much, much stronger since the old days of Ogre-mage Far’rokh. Even with all our soldiers, we can no longer contain them. If they get it into their heads to visit us here, then we are lunch.”

Gath’ilzogg laughed. “With such an attitude, our defeat will be a certainty indeed. I can see now why I was sent here. Clearly, this place needs a more capable leader.”

Gharash took a deep breath. He knew as well as Gath’ilzogg did himself who was to blame for the recent disaster. Gharash was too old to take this kind of crap from a fallen-up incompetent from Blackrock Mountain. He squared his shoulders and glared at the so-called Warlord.

“I was fighting the battles of the Horde when you were barely continent. I have served the Horde with honour and dedication for more than fifty years. This assignment was to be my last. A way for an ancient Warrior to serve out his last days and still make himself useful to the war effort.” Gharash pointed his finger at Gath’ilzogg’s face. “It was your command that we provoke the wrath of Caer Bannog by murdering the old Warrior. Then, it was you who told us to mount a frontal assault on the castle. Even without the aid of that hellish weapon of theirs, they would have had a very good chance of defeating us. So now, not only have you made them angry at us, you have also revealed our weakness to them. Just before the death of Old Bannog, we sent off another batch of Warriors to Blackrock Mountain. So now, we have only the trainers, yourself, me, and a large mass of recruits. What does this suggest to you?”

“Nevertheless, the blame is yours, and I will report this to Blackrock Depths. Perhaps you should hope that you do not survive the oncoming battle. We will be victorious!”

Gharash laughed inside. He knew exactly into whose hands that report would be delivered, and it was one of his friends, who probably owed his life to Under-chief Gharash.

“You do that. Anything else, Sir?”

“No. Get out of my sight.”

“Aye, Sir.”


Griggin peered ahead along the road, then pulled the reins. The cart came to a standstill. In the back of the cart, there were a few muffled cries as Gnomes were tossed about. Lenna raised her head, startled.

“Trouble?” She pulled Bieslook closer to her.

“Band of Orcs ahead. About fourteen or so. Can’t charge through with the cart behind.”

Nix’ head appeared between his parents’ shoulders.

“What’s up?”

“Get ready, son. Trixie too. We’re going to have a bit of a scuffle.”

“Oh great. Can’t we go round?”

“Not with all the equipment. The bastards know where to set up their roadblock.”

“Right then. Heads up, Trixie! Fourteen Orcs. Six for me, six for you.”

“Had worse.” Trixie grabbed her two-handed sword and jumped off the cart. “Let’s have them.”

Lenna had woken up Bieslook. “Stay behind me, dear.”

“Yes Lenna. Can I shoot?”

“Not this time, dear. It gives you a headache.”

Griggin took a deep breath, popped a soulshard, and summoned his Voidwalker.

“Why have you summoned me?”

“To protect me and mine, for which I thank you. Slay all who attack me.”

“I obey.”

Interalia stirred. She was still handcuffed to the cart, as the Steambenders prepared for battle.

“Nix.”

“What?”

“Uncuff me. I can help if you give me my knives back.”

“Yeah, but you can also make things a lot worse.” Nix gave Interalia a long hard look.

“Aww, come on. If this goes badly wrong, then what do you think those Orcs will do to me if they find me here, like a sitting duck?”

Nix looked round at his father. Griggin nodded. Nix climbed back onto the wagon. He placed his fingers on the handcuffs and concentrated. The enchanted steel springs opened and the cuffs came off. Before Interalia could move, he grabbed her wrists and whispered to her.

“I am trusting you, when I know I really can’t. I just wanted you to know that I know. Also, if you make trouble and we get hurt because of it, I will find you and drown you in your own vomit. That clear?”

Interalia looked over her shoulder into Nix’ eyes, and saw he meant it. She nodded.

“Understood. You’re really cute when you’re angry you know?”

“Yeah yeah. Cut it,” said Nix, giving Interalia her weapons back.

“I plan to.”

Griggin surveyed his small army. Big mage, little mage, warrior, and two rogues. And one Warlock and his faithful Voidwalker. Bit short on healers. It’d have to do.

“Right, Steambenders and temporary addition. The Voidwalker goes first, then Trixie. Once they have their full attention, the rogues attack from the shadows. Finally, the shooters cut loose. Any questions? No? Here we go. Thuljuk, attack!”

Interalia gaped. “Thuljuk?”

The large blue creature looked round to her.

“I know you.”

Thuljuk glided towards the enemy, and attacked.

The Orc spotted Thuljuk as soon as he started gliding up, and their archers laid down fire. Thuljuk ignored the arrows cutting into his magically-armoured body, and slid forward at speed. Trixie followed behind the blue Voidwalker, silent up to the last moment, when she let loose a high, piercing battle cry and dashed forward, sword out. Nix and Interalia skirted round, one on each side, shadows in the twilight of the Redridge Mountains. Griggin, and Lenna with Bieslook hidden behind her, slowly moved up, waiting for the right moment to strike. When all the Orcs’ backs were turned to them, they started firing. Griggin used shadow bolts, Lenna firebolts. Suddenly, one of the Orcs looked over his shoulder and saw the shooters. With a great cry, he turned round and rushed at the lightly-armoured Gnomes. Griggin’s eyes narrowed. He was angry at himself for letting his attacks get out of control. Now, the Orc had noticed them. Griggin hated knife-work. Messy and it allowed the enemy to fight back. Nothing for it, though.

Just as he drew his dagger, there was a sound like a rush of air. Interalia rushed up from behind, leapt up on the Orc’s back, reached round, cut his throat and ran back to the fray without even waiting for the Orc to fall to the ground. Griggin nodded grimly, then once more concentrated on his shooting.

“Well, that was a short fight.” Nix was cleaning his daggers and applying fresh doses of poison for the next fight. Sitting next to him, Interalia was re-doing her hair. She didn’t like to wear it down. She was an up kind of girl. With practiced speed, she wove the strands of her long dark hair into her usual standing-up plait, and tied it up with a final knot. Knowing full well that he wouldn’t, she offered up her wrists for Nix to cuff.

“Oh don’t be silly,” said Nix. “You’ve been a great help. Besides, dinner’s coming up and on second thought, I don’t want to feed you after all.”

Griggin inclined his head towards Interalia. “I thank you for your help, Miss. I remove any restrictions we have imposed upon you. Should you wish to leave, you may do so with our thanks and blessings.”

Interalia looked round her. “But I don’t want to leave yet! There’s wild animals here. Besides, I have fallen madly in love with your son.”

Griggin chuckled. “He does have that effect on women. But I did not mean ‘Leave now’. You are welcome to stay till we reach civilisation. Unfortunately, since we’ve already passed Lakeshire, that will mean either one of the Human camps, or Caer Bannog.”

“Caer Bannog will do fine. I think I know someone there. Oh, one thing. Thuljuk. Where did you get him?”

“He was returned to the free pool quite recently, when his employer passed away. I acquired his hither image.”

“Aquaregis?”

“Indeed. A sad loss, but he died with honour.”

“I know.” A sad expression was on Interalia’s face. “I was there.”

Griggin rubbed his chin, thinking. Ah.

“Then you were Aquaregis’ um… slave?”

“Yeah. But since he’s dead, I’m free again. Don’t get any ideas.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it. The legal complications would stretch into infinity. I’ll face Orcs rather than the Gnomeregan legal board. Orcs are honest in their intentions. You have no idea how kind Aquaregis was to do what he did.”

“Oh, I do. I’m breathing because of it.”

“Well, then. All aboard that’s going aboard. We’re off to Caer Bannog.”


Lirael was standing outside the dining hall with Bannog, Ariciel, Selena, that strange blue woman Mareva, and her large boyfriend, Stetson. Gerrig and Marcia had made their excuses earlier, leaving the six of them to enjoy a quiet contemplative drink or two. The tart, fruity Redridge Claret had been surprisingly good. She must remember to get her hands on a few bottles to take home. She yawned.

“We still have to find you a place to sleep,” said Bannog. “I’m afraid we’re a bit stretched on the first floor, though. Gerrig and family are in one room, Stetson and Mareva in another. Ariciel’s with me, at least.”

“You bet I am,” said Ariciel. Nobody suggested letting Lirael sleep in Old Bannog’s room. Lirael put her hand in front of her mouth.

“Oh, I’m so tired I could sleep on any horizontal surface. Surely there’s space in the barracks?”

“Haha,” said Bannog. “No. Our soldiers are not a bad lot, but letting a single Elf female sleep among them could be interesting for all concerned.”

“Oh she can sleep in my room,” said Selena, turning to Lirael, “If you don’t mind sharing. I have a proper double bed.”

“That will do splendidly,” said Lirael. A dreamy smile was on her face. Soft pillows. Warm blankets.

“Settled then,” said Selena. “Oh. Before I invite you into my bed, you do like boys don’t you?”

Lirael studied her fingernails, then gave Selena an ingratiating smile.

“I have three boyfriends, and I like them very much. So that would be a ‘yes’, then.”

“My goodness! Three? Well, at least I’m safe, then.”

Mareva raised a finger. “That does not necessarily follow. Sister Lirael might have three girlfriends as well.”

Lirael laughed. “Three girlfriends as well as three boyfriends? Bless me, I do need to sleep and eat and practice singing sometimes.” She gave Mareva a look. “You, Lady Mareva, have been lied to a lot.”

“Worse,” said Mareva, “I have been told the truth a lot, in the hope that I might misinterprete it. Starting with the healer who told me that ‘this won’t hurt a bit’ when she re-set my shoulder. Needless to say, it did indeed not hurt a bit.”

“Oh, I’m happy,” said Selena. “It’s just that the last girl to sleep in my bed was a bit of a disappointment.” Lirael winced and shot Ariciel a look. Let me tell you about this thing we Elves call ‘tact’, sweetie. Luckily, Ariciel seemed to have missed it. She was whispering promises into Bannog’s ear. He seemed pleased.

“Well, I am too tired to molest anyone. Any sighs of pleasure will be due only to the fact that I haven’t slept in a proper bed for months.”

Ariciel heard that, and laughed. “Oh poor dear! Did Milo make you sleep on the floor?”

“Well, the sofa. He and Elvira are trying again, you know? Not with me in the house, but still. I do hope it works out this time. Elvira was so looking forward to being a mother. And then…”

“Aww. Poor woman,” said Ariciel. “She looks nice.”

“She’s a sweetheart. She’s always trying out her new recipes on me. Sometimes I think she’s fattening me up for the pot.”

“Oh what’s a little cannibalism among friends?”

They walked up the stairs, waved goodbye and went into their rooms. Lirael looked round Selena’s room. As girls’ rooms went, it was pretty empty. Large bed, chest of drawers, wardrobe, mirror. Her longbow hanging on a peg on the wall, quiver next to it, various items she guessed were used in falconry. Very few… girly items. No make up, a hair brush, small mirror. Trousers, mostly leather, all of them practical. Dark green shirts and a cloak. Selena was changing into a nightgown. Lirael’s eyes turned to the bed. Just one single night of sleeping outside, and already she craved. She laughed quietly to herself, then started to drop her clothes. She paused.

“Uh… I’m not making you uncomfortable, am I? I do mostly do boys, but I’m not, um, entirely innocent of girls. If that offends you…”

Selena laughed. “Oh don’t worry. I was only joking. I know Ariciel does girls and I’m perfectly happy to curl up next to her.” She stared at the wall. “Puissance was a different story altogether. She didn’t really scare me, but I did feel strange. Even before I knew. She turned out to be a nasty piece of work, though. I know I shouldn’t say, but I’m glad she’s not here anymore.”

“She’s rejoined the Light,” said Lirael. “I hope Fate will be kinder to her next time. People aren’t born evil. Something always happens.”

“I suppose.” Selena got into bed. Lirael followed soon after, wearing a borrowed nightgown that only went half way down her legs. The white pillow gently enveloped her head as she lay down with a sigh.

“So,” said Selena, “Three boyfriends? How does that work? And one of them is married?”

Lirael turned over and put her head on her arm.

“It works very well, actually. You never get bored. You’ve seen Arador, yes?”

Selena nodded.

“Well, apart from him, there’s Feanor. He’s a fellow priest who lives in Dolanaar. He’s probably the most intelligent person I’ve ever met. I love just talking to him. It’s not like he’s imparting his wisdom on me, you understand. We’re just bouncing ideas off one another.”

“Uh huh,” said Selena.

“And then there’s Milo, who gave me that beautiful coat. He’s a baritone in the Stormwind Males.” Lirael grinned in the dark. “What can I say? He’s a baritone, and I’m helpless against deep voices. Ask me to come hither in a rich deep voice and I’m yours forever.”

“Bannog’s got a deep voice,” said Selena.

“He hasn’t tried yet,” whispered Lirael. “Don’t give him any ideas. I might not be able to resist.”

Selena laughed. “Oh, he’s already got an Elf. So you’re safe.”

“Oh good. So. I’ve told you about all my boyfriends. How about you? Do you have one?”

Selena shook her head. “None. Lucky for you, or you’d be between Bannog and Ariciel now.”

“Oh come on! This is a big castle, with lots of people in. Surely, there’s someone you watch with more interest than others?”

Selena lay back, hands behind her head, and didn’t say anything for a while. Then, still staring at the ceiling, she smiled.

“Joseph’s nice.”

“Joseph?”

Selena smiled. “Lieutenant Joseph Smith. Known to his friends and vague acquaintances as Smitty. I’ll point him out tomorrow.”

“What’s he like?”

“Maybe three, five years older than I am. Pretty strong. Nice muscles. I mean, not a big ape like my brother, but… impressive. I’ve seen him at sword training without a shirt on. I make arrows sitting near when they practice.”

“Sounds good,” said Lirael.

“Mind you, he probably hates my guts.”

“Oh? Why?”

“Well,” Selena turned her face towards Lirael. “In the last siege, I charmed him into letting me out of the castle. That cost him a severe bollocking from both of my brothers. And my father.” Selena looked back at the ceiling. “I miss him.”

Lirael touched Selena’s hair for a moment. “Good. He was a good father then.”

“The best.” Selena smiled. “He taught me to shoot with a longbow. He gave Hugin to me, when she was just a chick. I was so happy.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Still miss him.” Selena turned over, then looked over her shoulder at Lirael. “Oh. Please, don’t tell anyone. About Joseph, I mean.”

Lirael smiled. “Priestess. Won’t tell anyone. Promise.”

“Good night, Lirael.”

“Good night.”

Goddess watch over you, Lirael thought. Then she turned over and fell asleep.


Under-chief Gharash opened his eyes. Sitting on the edge of his bed was a Human dressed in black and grey, watching him. Gharash looked sadly at the man.

“You have come to kill me.”

“I already have,” said Gelt. “Just a little scratch on the arm. You should feel the numbness spreading already. It will spread across your body, then the brain.”

“Why are you still here?” Chief Gharash tried to lift his left arm, and couldn’t.

“My associates are taking care of your lieutenants. Gorm Bladebreaker, that Ogre-mage. If I know my men, they won’t even wake up. But you, I wanted to see die.”

Gharash’ breathing slowed down.

“Why?”

“Old Sir Bannog saved me from the gallows, or from being tortured to death. Every breath I draw, I owe to him. You had your minion stab him in the back.”

“Don’t tell me… you never did.”

“I won’t. I am not the same quality Human as Old Sir Bannog.”

“How… long?”

“Minutes. There won’t be any pain. No need to endure anything. No need for courage. If my lover were dying of a terrible disease, so would I end her suffering. A gentle end for a warrior.”

“I… hope.”

“Yes?”

“I hope… I will be able… to see Sir Bannog… in the Afterlife, where all… battles are fought… and quarrels… laid to rest. I… hope… I am still…” The old Orc closed his eyes.

“Worthy.”

Gelt knew exactly the effect of each of his poisons, so he wasted no time checking for a pulse. He stole to the door, opened it and peered out. One floor up, along the corridor, there was a sudden burst of noise. Orc-voices shouting. Metal on metal. Gelt frowned. Hidden by his camouflage and his Rogue’s tricks, he made his way towards the noise. It would not do to leave without knowing what’s what.

Very carefully, Gelt walked up the stairs. In the room at the end of the corridor, there was a fight going on between one of his men, and about half a dozen Orcs. They were large, and too many for Gelt, even with the help of his unlucky comrade. As he watched, Wilkinson was overcome, and pressed to the ground, kicked, beaten. Then, two of the brutes pulled him to his feet. An Orc Gelt had not seen before, started asking questions. Who are you? What are you doing here? Are there more of you? Wilkinson said nothing, feigned unconsciousness, but it didn’t work. As two of his warriors held Wilkinson up, the leader punched him in the stomach.

Gelt sighed, knowing what to do. He reached into a pocket for a blowgun and a dart. Wasting no time on sentiment, he aimed and blew. Gelt never missed. The dart, as large as a pencil, hit Wilkinson in the back of the neck, and he slumped between the two guards. One of them saw the dart immediately, looked where it came from and spotted Gelt. No time to lose. Master Bannog must learn what he, Gelt, had found out. Gelt ran down the stairs. Once he was out of sight, he hid in the shadows. The Orc guards came running past, and failed to notice him. At the end of the corridor, they stopped, looked round and spoke briefly in Orcish. Gelt recognised the name of Gath’ilzogg among the words spoken. He knew what he had to know. Trusting the rest of his men to have come out, he engaged his Rogue’s stealth once more and made for a window. Once outside, he made for the rendez-vous point.


Bannog woke up, sat up and stuck his feet out of bed. It was still dark. He walked up to the window and stared out. Guards were making their rounds on the wall. He walked back to the bed and looked down on Ariciel, who was fast asleep. For a brief moment, he considered letting her sleep and going off on his own. He shook his head. She’d never forgive him if he did. Not after all the trouble she’d taken to join him. He gently placed his hand on her shoulder and shook her, till he saw the light of her eyes.

“Battle time, my love. Get kitted up for Orc.”

Ariciel stared, nodded. She got out of bed and started a circuit of the room, gathering up her clothes. Bannog looked at her. She still scattered her clothes all over the place when the mood took her. His were all on the chair next to the bed. It had the advantage that he got to see her walk round the room semi-clad, picking up things and putting them on. Bannog figured he had half an hour or so. He started putting on his plate armour. This was not the time for half-measures. Calmly and methodically, he put on the leg pieces, boots, chest piece, shoulders, cloak. On his belt, he fastened the scabbard still containing Joran’s blade. He still thought of it as that, even though Joran had given it to him at their parting, and was unlikely to return and ask for it back. It was probably still the best blade in the castle. On the other side, he put a dagger. That dagger had belonged to his father, and he carried it now in the hope of meeting the person responsible for his death. He took his shield from the wall and slung it on his back. Then, he put on his gloves and picked up his helm. Holding it under his arm, he turned round to Ariciel, who had finished putting on her armour minutes before him, and was watching him. She checked her supply of mana potions, and the one healing potion for when she ran out of mana. She grabbed her staff from where it was resting against the wall, and slung it on her back, fastening it with a strap. Bannog looked her up and down.

“Ready?”

“Ready.” Ariciel put her arms round him, kissed him, Human fashion, then looked deep into his eyes, Elf fashion.

“Be safe, my love.”

“And you.”

Bannog marched out into the courtyard, where the soldiers were gathered. They were watching him with studied nonchalance. Interested in what he would be saying, but secretly expecting nothing much. There were about sixty of them, with more patrolling the walls. Bannog mounted his horse, and rode out in front of them. Though his face didn’t show it, inwardly, he smiled. Just a few months ago, this was a group of about thirty men and women, lacking in confidence, lacking in equipment, lacking in spirit. They had invested. Now, there were thirty pikemen, most of whom could ride, twenty archers, and five healers. The last had been mostly due to Gerrig’s efforts in winning over the support of the Paladins of Northshire Abbey. A significant number of the soldiers were guests from other castles, who came here to train under Quartermaster Declan and his assistants. The understanding was that they would then also be available for use in Caer Bannog’s own campaigns. Such as this one. Bannog stood up in his stirrups.

“This castle is known as Caer Bannog, and I am the third in the history of the castle to bear that name. My brother Gerrig’s son is the fourth. We have lived in these lands for two hundred years or more, and when we are all gone, and our deeds forgotten or passed into legend, still the castle will remain. I can say this with certainty as I look upon you, the soldiers of Caer Bannog. As long as men and women such as you call this castle home, it will never fail.”

“We do not lack for enemies. The Horde is ever at our doors, and even worse may await us. Five days ago, the Blackrock Clan hurt us grievously, by murdering my father, Sir Bannog, even as he held out his hand to them, hoping to put to rest the enmity between our races. The Blackrock Clan spoke in deeds louder than in words, and today is the day they will learn of the price owed to us for such treason. We will destroy them! Today, we march on Stonewatch Tower, to clear it of all Blackrock presence. We will slay any Blackrock Orc at large in Redridge. We will slay any of their servants, be they Human, Orc, Ogre or otherwise. We will not take prisoners. We will give no quarter. We will clean our lands of their presence. This, I swear upon my honour! By the grace of the Light that drives our bodies and our souls, we will do this.”

Bannog put on his helm, drew his sword and raised it in the air. Then, he lowered it.

“Move out!”

With a crash of booted feet, the soldiers set themselves in motion. Bannog rode at the front. Ariciel rode a bit to the side of the soldiers, on her large cat. A strange smile was on her face. Bannog’s speech had stirred her, alright, but she felt oddly out of place. She’d thought about joining Bannog at the head of the column, but decided against it. Somehow, it wouldn’t look right. Somewhere behind her, someone called her name. She looked round, and saw Mareva and Stetson mounted on elekks. With a smile, she joined them. Mareva grinned at her.

“I do appreciate a leader who keeps his motivational speeches short,” said Mareva. “It indicates a sense of priority.”

Ariciel nodded. “This is our land, they killed my father, let’s kick them out. Short and to the point. Still, this whole business is a bit too organised for me. I like it much better when we’re just a small group.”

“The four of us would take all week to get rid of all the Blackrocks,” said Stetson. “This is much more efficient.”

“He does look rather good in that armour. If circumstances were different, he’d be enjoying himself far too much. But he’s not enjoying himself now. I worry about him.”

“So do I,” said Mareva. “He behaves differently from other people who have lost close relatives. I see no anger, no grief. It is most concerning.”

Stetson grunted. “He is saving it all up for that special person. I would really, really hate to be that person.”

Ariciel watched Bannog. Knight in shining armour. Except that Bannog’s armour didn’t shine. It was a dull black, relieved only by two purple stripes down his tabard, between which was the crest of his house. He had his helm on, but his visor was open, and he was looking this way and that. He looked over his shoulder at her, and Ariciel smiled at him. She couldn’t see if he smiled back, and suddenly, a chill ran up her spine. She realised, as if for the first time, that her lover, friend, dearest in all the world, was a very dangerous man. She took a deep breath. People were going to die today. Please, Elune, let it not be him. Ariciel looked at the path, and rode on.


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

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