Part 19: Aftermath

Selena was standing at the door to the keep. From where she was standing, she could see the main gates. She’d been warned against going on to the wall, for fear of reprisal attacks from the Orcs. Her bird Hugin was sitting on the roof of the armoury, watching her. A few horses stood nearby, still like statues, apart from an occasional swish of their tails. She was waiting. Her brothers would be coming back any moment now, and she wanted to be there the moment they arrived. She made herself breathe regularly. Once more, she concentrated on her bird, and sent her up into the sky, gazing out through her eyes. Nothing. No line of soldiers returning victorious. She broke the spell, and Hugin flew back to her. Selena sat down on the top step of the small stairway that led up into the keep. There was a small noise next to her, and Lirael appeared. Her long fingers gently brushed Selena’s hair.

“They’ll be back. I promise.”

“I know. Just wish they’d hurry.”

“Could you help me? I need to boil lots of water and make a few bandages. Ariciel told me you are good at making bandages.”

Selena’s eyes turned to the gate, then back to Lirael.

“Sure. Just give me the linen and a pair of scissors.”

“Got it.” Lirael put her hand on Selena’s shoulder, and wanted to tell her not to worry. They went inside.


Bannog and Gerrig walked side by side into the keep, and up the stairs to the library and war room. Gerrig opened a cupboard and pulled out a bottle of fortified wine and some cups. Then, he poured them both a drink. Bannog raised his cup.

“Our foes lie dead, while we draw breath,” he said.

“Ever be it so,” replied Gerrig.

The door opened with a crash, and Selena came storming in. Her eyes quickly took in the sight of her brothers. Bannog had a torn shoulderpiece. Gerrig’s chest plate was dented. They were both upright.

“Oh the Light be thanked, you’re alright.”

Gerrig poured Selena a cup, and gave it to her.

“We are, little sister. In fact, we took only light casualties, by the grace of the Light. The Orcs were not so lucky.”

“Seven dead, five wounded, three grievous,” said Bannog. “With Smitty being the last of ours to be wounded in battle.”

Selena paused, cup of wine half way to her mouth. She felt like a cold hand had reached into her chest, and squeezed.

“Jo- Smitty? Is it serious?”

Gerrig nodded. “Most grievous. We are not sure whether he’ll ever sit at the table with us again.”

Selena put down her cup.

“Where is he?”

Gerrig raised his eyebrows. “Smitty? Dining hall. Lirael and Ariciel are working on him.”

Selena turned round, golden hair flying, took a breath, and stormed out of the room, down the stairs. The brothers watched her go. They looked at each other. Gerrig scratched his head.

“She did catch on that I was joking, right?”

Bannog rubbed his chin. “You know, that was Aspect of the Cheetah. I think she may not have.”

Gerrig drained his cup and poured himself another one.

“Oh well. She’ll be pleasantly surprised then.”

Lirael put down her scissors, grinned and called out.

“Oh Ariciel, come and help me here. We have a job to do for the good of womankind!”

Ariciel looked.

“Oh my. You’re right. We can’t stand idly by while this work of art is being ruined.”

Smitty looked over his shoulder. He was lying on his stomach, on the operating table. Lirael had just cut open his trousers. The broken shaft of an arrow was protruding from his rear. He shot these horrible Elves a filthy look.

“Just get on with it, will you?”

“Relax, Soldier,” said Ariciel. “We’ll have you restored to full function in no time.”

Selena rushed in, and took one look at them. She closed her eyes a moment, and in the same prayer thanked the Light, and vowed to murder both her brothers and feed them to Hugin. She walked into the room.

“Hello Joseph. They told me you were grievously hurt. I’m glad to see it’s not as serious as I thought.”

“Thank you, milady,” said Smitty. He caught Ariciel’s eye, and jerked his head slightly to the left. Ariciel bent over, so Smitty could whisper in her ear.

“Lady, send her away. I don’t want her to see me like this.”

Ariciel gave him a quizzical look, then gave a small nod.

“Oi Short-ears. We’re all out of towels here. Run out and get some, would you?”

Selena sneered.

“That’s no way to talk to the future Heiress to the castle. Oh alright. I’ll get you your towels. Then, if both my brothers disappear in a freak accident, it’s nothing to do with me alright?”

Selena ran off. Smitty smiled an uncomfortable smile.

“Thank you, Lady.”

“No problem. Now hold my hands. On the count of three. One…”

Lirael yanked out the arrow, and cast her healing spell. Smitty screwed up his face, and made a choking noise. He gripped Ariciel’s hands tightly.

“You… bloody healers… Still think we haven’t caught on to that ‘count of three’ thing do you?”

Lirael patted Smitty’s unhurt buttock.

“Think of it as traditional, Soldier.”

“That’s Lieutenant to you. See the stripe?”

“Well, you’ve still got a nice butt, Lieutenant,” said Lirael. “Now get it out of sight. There’s trousers in the bag over there.”


Griggin sat in a small corner of the dining hall, with Lenna’s hand in his, looking into her eyes as if he would never look away again. Lenna looked back at him, her eyes shining.

“You haven’t looked at me like that since the wedding. Perhaps we should get a spider pet.”

Griggin laughed.

“You looked beautiful then. Even more so now.”

Lenna turned to the small Gnome girl next to her.

“Bieslook? Could you go and find Trixie? I need to ask her something. She’s in the castle. Don’t go out.”

“Alrighty, Lenna. Back in a tick.” Bieslook trotted off.

“Don’t hurry,” said Lenna.

Griggin laughed quietly. “Alrighty? Back in a tick? Where’d she pick that up?”

Lenna reached out, put her hand on Griggin’s shoulder and pulled him to her.

“More importantly,” she said, and kissed him.

“So you weren’t really a…” Nix faltered, looking for the right word.

“Hooker? Nope. That was just a sob story to get you to uncuff me.” Interalia put her hands behind her back and jerked her shoulders. “The nasty customers used to cuff me and beat me. With sticks.” Her lip trembled.

Trixie grinned. “With nails in?”

“Big rusty ones,” said Interalia.

Nix gave her a look.

“So you don’t really know twenty-seven ways to, er…”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Yeah?”

“No.”

“Oh.” Nix’ face fell.

Interalia grinned. She leant over to Nix.

“I just know three or four, but they’re really, really good ones.”

Nix opened his mouth, and closed it again.

Trixie scowled at Interalia.

“I hate you.”

“Oh? And why today?”

“I want to make him squirm like that, but I’m his sister.”

Interalia closed her eyes, enjoying the warm sun on her face. She was an only child, and not a very welcome one at that. The little whirlwind of a girl didn’t know how lucky she was. She leaned her head back against the wall of the castle, and sighed. She didn’t really get on well with people, at least not for longer than maybe a few weeks. Any time longer than that, and she invariably found herself with some possession of theirs in her bags, and it was time to move on. She knew it was stupid. But still.

“Found you! Trixie, Lenna wants to ask you something. When she’s done cuddling Griggin.” Bieslook was standing in front of them, eyes shining. Interalia smiled at her.

“Hi Squirt! Don’t rush. Maybe Lenna just wanted you out of the way for a bit. For the best cuddles, you need just two, you know?”

Bieslook shook her head incredulously.

“Lenna wouldn’t tell lies! You shouldn’t tell lies. Come on, Trixie!”

A wicked grin appeared on Trixie’s face, and she got up.

“Well, hurry up then. I can’t wait to find out what Mum would want to ask me!”

Interalia looked at Trixie’s back, as Bieslook tugged her away in the direction of the dining hall.

Nix moved a bit closer. “So where are you going?”

“Dunno. There’s always Gnomeregan.”

“Oh don’t go there! Glowing in the dark is very bad for stealth. It’ll take a century at least for Gnomeregan to become inhabitable again. Some arsewipe flooded the place with radiation to get rid of the Troggs. Shame they can take it better than we can.”

“Language dear,” said Interalia. “Or your mum will get you.”

“Yeah,” said Nix. “Yeah, she will.” He smiled. “Have you got any folks?”

Interalia shook her head. “None to speak of. My dad doesn’t know I exist, and my mum is in Dun Morogh doing research into the effects of cheap booze on the Gnome body.”

“Oh,” said Nix. Then, he looked at Interalia’s face. “This isn’t a sob story to get something out of me, is it?”

Interalia sighed. “If only. I try not to think about it.”

Nix put his hand on her shoulder. Interalia’s eyes snapped round, but he wasn’t picking her pocket.

“I’m sorry.”

Interalia smiled. “You’re way too nice a boy for a girl like me.”


“Oi! Ariciel!”

Ariciel looked round, and saw Lirael in the door to the dining hall-cum-infirmary. She waved at her friend and walked over. Lirael was wearing a mostly white linen working dress, and a white scarf over her dark hair.

“Hiya. What’s up? Something with Lenna?”

“No, nothing like that, but I need your help with something.”

Ariciel followed Lirael to a part of the dining hall separated from the rest with a few curtains.

“Wasn’t Selena helping you?”

“Yes, but I don’t like to ask her this. I’ve done all the others, but I need someone strong.”

Ariciel’s eyes needed only a second to get used to the dark, and she took a breath. There was a large table, and on it lay the still form of one of the archers who had been killed in the battle. Ariciel tried not to breathe.

Lirael pointed at the crossbow bolt that was still in the woman’s chest.

“I need to get that out. Can’t shift it.”

Ariciel couldn’t take her eyes off the woman. Girl, really. Couldn’t be more than twenty years old. And now, she never would be. She was lying on her back, arms and legs bent, her hand half way to the shaft of the crossbow bolt, as if she were going to grab it and try to pull it out of her. Someone had closed her eyes, but her mouth was still open.

“Hey!” Lirael snapped her fingers. “Stay with me. I’ve tried pulling it out, but it won’t budge. Bloody barbs. So we’ll have to push it all the way through, and then pull it out the other way.”

Ariciel shivered.

“Can’t we just saw off the shaft?”

Lirael shook her head.

“Come on. We can’t send this girl back to her parents with half a bloody broomstick in her. We’ll have to cut a hole in her chainmail so we can pull on the other end. I’ve got the cutters here.” Lirael gave Ariciel a look. “Being a priestess isn’t all singing in the choir and talking to people, you know. This is one of the less glamorous parts, but a very important part.”

“Why? She’s dead. What does she care?”

“She doesn’t. This is for her family. They don’t want to see her like this.”

“Why put them through it at all? Just nail the coffin shut, and be done with it.”

“Because they need to see for themselves that she is dead.”

“Won’t that hurt them more?”

“It will, but it will be one big crash of hurt, and then they can start getting used to living without her. If you don’t show them the body, then they’ll keep expecting to see her walking in the door, and they’ll never stop hurting.”

Ariciel stared at Lirael’s face. Then, she nodded.

“What do you want me to do?”

Lirael pulled on the woman’s shoulder, and turned her on her side.

“You hold her steady, while I push. Mind the pointy bit.”

Ariciel walked round the table, and put trembling hands on the woman’s shoulder and waist. The limbs felt stiff, and were still in the same position. Lirael took a firm grip on the crossbow bolt, put her weight behind it and pushed. The woman’s body slipped from Ariciel’s grasp and almost fell off the table. Lirael frowned.

“Keep a grip, will you? It’s hard enough as it is.”

“Sorry. I… Sorry.” Ariciel put one hand between the woman’s shoulder blades, the other in the small of her back. She braced herself, and nodded. Lirael tried again, and with a grunt pushed the crossbow bolt through. There was a horrible cracking sound as the metal point broke ribs leaving the body. Ariciel shivered. Her breath was unsteady.

“Stars and stones, Ariciel, get a grip on yourself. If dead bodies bother you, perhaps you might want to try not making so many of them.”

Ariciel closed her eyes. Lirael sighed, and put her hand on Ariciel’s arm.

“She doesn’t mind. She’s not here anymore. Her spirit has rejoined the Light, and soon, she will be reborn as a new person. What we are doing now, will be a comfort to those who are left behind.”

Ariciel nodded. Lirael looked into her eyes, and smiled.

“Just one more should do it. Then, we can cut open the chainmail and pull it through.”

Ariciel put her hands back on the dead girl’s body. Her eyes found Lirael’s. Lirael pushed again, and the crossbow bolt went through, pushing up the chainmail. Lirael picked up the cutters and cut through the metal rings. The point of the bolt appeared, stained with the girl’s blood. Ariciel sighed.

“She never had a chance.”

Lirael said nothing, and took hold of the end of the bolt. With Ariciel holding the girl steady, she pulled it out, and laid it down on the other table. She turned the girl onto her back.

“Hold her legs, please.”

Ariciel did, and Lirael pushed up the left arm, with some difficulty as the body had already stiffened. The other arm followed, and then, Lirael could finally pull off the chainmail shirt that would have protected her from swords. The chainmail joined the crossbow bolt on the table. Next, the leather jerkin came off. Ariciel noticed that she had a heart tattooed on her breast, with a dagger in it. Embarrassed, she looked away.

Lirael tried to straighten the legs, but found she couldn’t. Ariciel gently pushed Lirael’s shoulder and put one hand on the girl’s ankle, one on her knee. Her muscles rippled as she pushed, and using all of her strength, she straightened the legs. Lirael smiled her thanks and pulled off the leather trousers.

Ariciel swallowed. Nice legs. Strong muscles. The girl had been in good shape, up till this morning. Ariciel looked away. The girl could no longer tell Ariciel to get lost and stop staring at her.

With a spunge and a bucket of water, Lirael washed the blood off the dead girl. Then, she put a linen bandage round her chest. She had ugly dark marks, like bruises, on her back, and on the back of her legs. Ariciel wanted to say something, to see if her voice still worked.

“Why the bandages?”

“Don’t want her oozing through the gown,” Lirael explained. She pulled a simple linen gown from a bag, and with some difficulty put it on the girl. The arms were folded over the chest, and the mouth was closed. Finally, Lirael brushed the brown hair and carefully laid it over the shoulders. For the briefest of moments, Lirael laid a hand on the dead girl’s forehead, and smiled. Then, she looked at Ariciel.

“Thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you. Sorry to put you through it. Could you help me put them all in coffins? And then, we’re done.”

Ariciel nodded. Together, they lifted up the bodies of the fallen, and laid them in the wooden coffins. They nailed the lids on. Ariciel frowned. Lirael was putting the fourth nail in, and they were very close together.

“Hey! If you keep that up, you’re going to need a hundred nails.”

“I won’t. This poor man got his head almost split in two. The nails close together are a sign for the priest in his home town not to open the coffin unless asked.”

Ariciel watched Lirael as she stuck a few nails in her mouth and hammered the lid shut.

“You are so kind. I would never think to do what you just did. That poor girl. You made her look like a normal Human again.”

Lirael smiled at her. Her words slurred, as she tried not to drop her nails.

“All in a day’s work for a priestess. It’s not all battle healing and shooting.” She hammered in the last nail. The coffins were lined up against the wall for men to come and put in the coolest bit of the castle. Then, she picked up a bucket and washed her hands. Lirael’s calm grey eyes stared at the wall, or through it.

“I saw the smoke to the south-west. They tell me they slew some two-hundred Orcs. Give or take a few brothers, sisters and orphans, that means four hundred unhappy parents. Some of them may be here to avenge them. No reason that I can think of they shouldn’t. We would.”

“They didn’t have to come here and attack the castle,” said Ariciel. “Old Bannog was trying to form some kind of agreement. The Orcs said no.”

“That’s the thing about peace. It only endures as long as everybody keeps quiet. It only takes one troublemaker to stir up the whole hornet’s nest again.”

“Let’s hope the Orcs have learned to leave us alone now.”

“Probably not. Oh well. Enough of all this gloom. I want some fresh air. And a large mug of tea.”

“Follow me. I’ll get you some.”


“Comrades in arms! Dwellers of the Castle! We now honour our fallen! They gave their lives so that we might live. Praise them!”

“We praise them!” The voices of the soldiers cried out in unison.

Bannog needed only one quick glance on the list of names. One by one, he called out their names.

“Steve Wilkinson, Praise him!”

“We praise him!”

“Eleanor McColl. Praise her!”

“We praise her!”

Ariciel sat next to Bannog at the High Table, looking up at him as he read out the names. Eleanor. That was her name, then. Ariciel had never spoken more than maybe two words to her. She looked at her plate.

“By the Light that guides us! By the Light that nourishes us! By the Light that flows through us! May their spirits find peace and may they rejoice in their rebirth! So be it!”

“So be it,” chorused the men and women of Caer Bannog.

Bannog kept a few moments of silence.

“Now for more cheerful matters! We have defeated the Blackrock Orcs. No more will they trouble Caer Bannog. This we have achieved by the might of our arms, and the valour of our men and women! For this, I thank you, and may your lives be long and blessed. There are those among you who have done more than their duty. I give you Mr. Gelt, though he is not present at this time. His information gave us the chance to surprise the Orcs and destroy their leaders. I salute him.”

“Next, I give you Hunter Stetson of Outland. His observations kept you smelly lot out of trouble more than once, and without him, this gathering would be significantly smaller. I salute him.”

Stetson laughed quietly, and pulled Mareva a bit closer. He whispered in Mareva’s ear.

“I thank you, Bannog of Azeroth.”

“Oh be quiet. He’s saying thank you.”

“Next, I give you Lady Mareva of Exodar. Her kind words of advice at a difficult time have proven invaluable, and I promise to listen to her next time so she will have to expend no mana to attract my attention. I salute her!”

Mareva beamed.

“Lady Ariciel of the Cenarion Circle! She broke down the door to the first watch tower where a band of soldiers could not, at great cost to herself. I salute her!”

Many of the soldiers had distinguished themselves in one way or another. Bannog saluted them all, to cheers of all the assembly. Finally, he reached the end of the list.

“Lady Lirael of the Moon Temple of Darnassus. Not only has she healed many of us today, but she has also done right by our fallen comrades. May her life be long and blessed. I salute her!”

“And finally,” Bannog grinned. “I do not wish this person to be the butt of any jokes. If he is, I will get to the bottom of it and kick their arses. I give you Lieutenant Joseph Smith. He led the first charge into Stonewatch Tower, and with great courage faced the enemy. With even greater courage, he faced me, and kept my hand from striking down those who were already defeated. For this, I thank him. I salute him, and I promote him to second Lieutenant.”

“One more thing remains. I declare the siege of Caer Bannog over, and may we never be assailed again! In the light of this, I hereby relieve myself of command, and give authority back to the rightful ruler of the castle, my brother Gerrig, and may he rule as wisely, courageously and with as much humility as I have done!”

Bannog sat down to cheers and laughter. Gerrig stood up.

“Comrades in arms, Dwellers of the Castle, Honoured Guests. With my brother having taken care of all the good bits, only one more thing remains to do. Eat, drink and be merry! Let the feast begin!”

Ariciel looked at Bannog, who was sitting next to her. People came in with large plates of food, and the soldiers served themselves. Ariciel looked at the cooks and other servants. Some people have to work even if all the others are feasting. Would Bannog or Gerrig remember them? Someone put down a dish in front of her. It was Leona. Ariciel smiled at her, and she smiled back.

“Thank you.”

“My pleasure. Enjoy, dear.”

Bannog, who had been talking to his brother, saw that food had magically appeared before him and served himself. Ariciel tasted. Darnassus style stew. Good stuff. She looked round. All the others were having Large Lumps of Meat, unadorned by any vegetables. Ariciel laughed to herself. Someone in the kitchen must like her.

Selena was sitting on her other side. She was casting surreptitious glances at one particular table. Ariciel grinned.

“He’s a handsome guy. Great butt.”

Selena turned round to Ariciel, and a cloud of anger passed over her face. “What? Did she tell you? Dammit, she promised!”

“Huh?”

“Lirael. Did she tell you?”

“Uh… Tell me what?”

“Nothing.” Selena frowned at her plate.

Ariciel raised an eyebrow. Ah.

“You came cheetering in at full speed, and I had to peel you off him. We Night-elves are very subtle creatures, you know. We notice things like that.”

“Pff.”

“I think he likes you.”

“Yeah?”

“Definitely.”

“Hmm.” Selena looked again. By some coincidence, Second Lieutenant Joseph Smith was looking in her direction. She blushed and looked away.

“Oh, I wish I could blush at will,” said Ariciel.

“Shut up.”

“Oh yes,” said Bannog. “I am well impressed with Smitty. He’s got guts.”

“Still, he disobeyed an order. Not sure if we want to encourage that sort of thing. Discipline could go all over the place if it spreads.”

Bannog shook his head. “Blind obedience is good for soldiers. My officers, I want them to use their heads. Mareva was right. I was all ready to chop those Orcs’ heads off. That would have been bad.”

“Hm. You might just have mentioned him, rather than promoting him.”

“I don’t agree. I’m a scary guy when I’m angry. Smitty isn’t stupid. He knows what’s what. Mind you…” Bannog took a bite of pork’s leg. “If I read the signs right, we may have to promote him to something altogether different.”

“What do you mean?”

“Little Sister has a bit of a crush on the Second Lieutenant, unless my eyes deceive me.”

“Oh gods, no. Who’s his father?”

Bannog laughed.

“You sound like Father. He’s a blacksmith somewhere in Lakeshire. We get armour plate from him. Actually, I’m about to have Master Smith repair my shoulder piece.”

“Hm. A workman.”

“Yeah. And a good one.”

“Wasn’t Selena supposed to marry some noble over in Stormwind?”

“I’ll let you break the news to her, brother. I’m next in line to inherit the castle. Remember, we’ve met some of those nobles. Wouldn’t be seen dead with ’em, myself.”

“Oh well. Maybe it’ll come to nothing.”

“Hope springs eternal.”

Dinner ended, and the tables were pushed aside. Barrels of beer were rolled in, and some of the soldiers brought out musical instruments. Gerrig whispered into the band leader’s ear, who nodded, and struck up a waltz. Gerrig held his hand out to Marcia, and together, they opened the dance. Ariciel watched. Several more couples stepped up. Griggin with Lenna. Stetson with Mareva. Stetson looked unexpectedly graceful for such a large person. Lirael nudged Selena.

“He’s free. Get him.”

“Shouldn’t really.”

“Yes, you should. If you don’t, I will. Purely professional interest, you understand. I need to check if the healing spells worked.”

“Oi! You’ve already got three!”

Lirael chuckled. “Always room for one more. Oh, would you mind bunking up with Bannog and Ariciel tonight?”

Selena gaped at Lirael. “You wouldn’t!”

“Hey, I’m a Night-elf! We’re well known for that sort of thing. Now if he’d already have a dance partner, then of course it would be very rude of me to interfere. But if he’s free, I’ll have him!”

Selena looked at Lirael. Then, she stood up. Lirael grinned.

“Good girl. Now get!”

Selena turned round and walked to the other side of the room. Ariciel laughed.

“You are mean.”

“Cruel to be kind. There she goes! Oh well. I’ll have to be a wall flower, then.”

A soldier hovered into view, hesitating. Lirael gave him a radiant smile, and stood up. She was about half a head taller than the soldier, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“Or perhaps not,” said Ariciel. She looked round to find her Human, walked up to him and prodded him in the back.

“Oi. Ever dance with a Druid in the pale moonlight?”

“Oh, you tempt me.”

“Not yet. That comes after.”

The celebrations went on for a long time. After the dance, there was singing. Marcia knew many Redridge folksongs, and had a good voice. After three songs, she pointed at Lirael.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a professional singer among us: Sister Lirael of the Darnassus Temple Choir. Do you think we can persuade her to sing something for us?”

Lirael looked down, briefly closing her eyes.

“I would not want to intrude, Lady. My style is perhaps not appropriate for this occasion.”

“Nonsense,” said Marcia. “It’s high time we had a bit of culture in this place. Three tunes, if you please!”

Lirael got to her feet, smiling. She gave Ariciel a look, and whispered at her.

“Voice’s not warmed up dammit. Going to sound like a crow.”

Ariciel grinned. “Do a folk song. Nobody’ll know.”

Lirael walked up, borrowed a lute from one of the soldiers, and struck a few chords. She screwed up one of the strings a tiny bit and began.
 

She sat down below a thorn
Fine flowers in the valley
And there she has her sweet babe borne
And the green leaves they grow rarely.

Ariciel sat rapt, her face turned up to her friend. She didn’t think Lirael sounded like a crow at all. The song continued, a sad story about a woman who murders her new-born illegitimate baby. The song finished, and people were quiet. Lirael smiled.

“Right. Now I’m warmed up a bit, time for something a bit more challenging.”

Carefully putting the lute on the floor, she raised herself to her full height, closed her eyes a moment and took a deep breath. Then, the first notes of a Darnassian hymn filled the halls of Caer Bannog. Ariciel had heard Lirael practice this one many, many times before, as she wrote essays on the doings of the flowers and creatures in her little patch of the Teldrassil forest for Mathrengyl Bearwalker. It was not the most difficult work Lirael could do by a long stretch, but then, for the really hard stuff you needed to prepare longer. It brought to Ariciel’s mind visions of blue skies and icy mountains. Of flying. She sighed. Would she ever get her flight form, and be able to travel the skies freely? She must ask Bearwalker when she came back to Darnassus.

Lirael finished the hymn, and smiled at her audience. She raised an eyebrow. Most of her audience were sitting there with their mouths hanging open. Only Ariciel, Mareva and a few others were clapping. Oh dear. She’d apparently somewhat misjudged the company she was in. Time to adjust the repertoire a little. A wicked glint in her eye, she took a deep breath and started on the next:
 

Oh the minstrels sing of a Stormwind King of many long years ago,
who ruled his Land with an iron hand though his morals were weak and low.
His only outer garment was a dirty yellow shirt,
with which he served to hide his hide, but he couldn’t hide the dirt!

Ariciel took a startled breath, and clapped her hands over Selena’s ears, as all the depredations of the various kings of Stormwind were described in excruciatingly biological detail. The cheers and applause at the end of the song threatened to blow out the windows.

Then, finally, Lenna took the stage. Lirael was sitting next to Ariciel, grumbling, until the first notes of Lenna’s song sounded out, high and clear, in a lament for Gnomeregan:
 

Brandend zand en een verloren land, En een leven vol gevaar…

Selena bent over to Interalia. “That’s beautiful. What’s it mean?”

“Burning sands, and a lost country, a life of danger,” said Interalia. Her voice sounded unsteady. “I used to live in Gnomeregan. The sod who set off that bloody radiation bomb died there, or I’d have had him. Would have had to join a queue, most likely.”

After Lenna’s song, there was more dancing. Selena didn’t think twice now about tapping Smitty’s shoulder. She stuck out her tongue at Lirael. Lirael laughed. She was dancing with a nice young chap who tried to speak Darnassian at her. Ariciel wasn’t so much dancing as standing in front of Bannog, making rude remarks in Body Language. This kept them both occupied. In a quiet corner, Griggin and Lenna stood, Gently rocking back and forth, not bothering anyone and unobserved, quietly whispering to each other in Gnomish.

Ariciel was standing close to Bannog, with her arms round his neck. He held on to her waist.

“You’re not dancing anymore,” said Bannog.

“J’en ai marre,” said Ariciel. “Allons se coucher.”

“I’m going to get into trouble repeating that in polite company, aren’t I?”

“Means I’m fed up. Let’s go to bed.”

“Good plan.”


“You look very pleased with yourself,” said Stetson. He’d taken Morgan out for a quick run round the castle, and had returned to find Mareva lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, hands behind her head.

“I think I have a right to be. Today, I kept Caer Bannog from turning into a place of dread. I think I’ve earned some kind of reward.”

Stetson started taking off his clothes, under Mareva’s appreciative gaze.

“How did you do that?”

“I told Bannog what would happen to him and this place if he killed some poor sods who’d fallen into our hands. He was still so wound up from killing the big boss, that he wasn’t thinking straight. Wouldn’t even listen to me at first. I had to get his attention somehow.”

Stetson put his shirt on a chair, and unbuckled his belt.

“What did you do?”

“Lightning bolt.”

Stetson froze, one leg still in his trousers.

“You shot him?”

“Just a little bolt.”

Stetson kicked off his trousers, and laughed till the windows rang.

“Master-at-arms of the castle, lord of all things living and dead, and you shoot him?”

“He was ignoring me.”

“Engineer Mareva of Exodar, I love you.”

Mareva smiled.

“And what have you done today, that Bannog should mention you specially?”

Stetson snorted.

“Nothing much, really. Some zlotnik wanted to give chase, and I told him that a few hundred yards further on, there was a band of several dozen orcs and mages. So they decided not to, and all saw the sunset.”

“Excellent. Maybe we can reward each other.”

Stetson gave her a filthy grin.

“What did you have in mind?”

Mareva said nothing, and pulled away the blanket. Stetson stared. There wasn’t a stitch of clothing on the woman’s body. He checked again, just to be sure. Correct. Zero items of clothing. Mareva looked up. Well? Stetson sat down on the bed.

“Turn over,” he said.

Mareva radiated innocence.

“Why?”

“So I can give you more pleasure than any woman has ever had,” said Stetson.

“No,” said Mareva. “I am not interested.”

Stetson raised an eyebrow, lay down next to Mareva and laid his arm over her chest.

“Feel this,” said Stetson. Mareva obligingly ran her fingers from his hand, over large bulging muscles, all the way to his shoulder, and back. Hmm. Nice. Well?

“I am much stronger than you are,” said Stetson. “I can make you turn over if I want to. Or…” He whispered in her ear. “I can make you want to turn over.”

Mareva’s eyes gleamed at Stetson. Oh, they had played this game before. Several times before. Mareva thought back. Many times before. Her white teeth showed in a wicked grin. Embarrassingly often, in fact. So far, evidence showed that Stetson was indeed strong enough to make Mareva turn over. However, the experiment contained a significant flaw. Mareva did not really want to spend the whole night lying on her back. She considered. Force or subtlety? Hmm. Today, she felt like…

“You will never convince me to turn over, Hunter S’Dezo’Houn.”

“We’ll see about that.”


They had gone to bed with all the right intentions, but for some reason, they had ended up lying quietly next to each other, staring at the ceiling. Bannog sighed, as if he wanted to be asked something. Ariciel obliged.

“What are you thinking of?”

“My father. I nearly lost him today. Again.”

“How?”

“I let my anger get the better of me. I nearly did things that I would have regretted all my life. Things that would have appalled my father.”

“That Orc? Gath… whatever?”

“No. Don’t regret that. Not for a second. Bastard deserved everything I gave him and more. But I nearly snapped and went killing crazy after you’d run off to find the Steambenders.”

Ariciel looked up at the ceiling again.

“That would have been bad. So that’s why you promoted Smitty? For saving your… the ghost of your father?”

“Not exactly. More for having the guts to do it.”

“And then the last Orc in the place shoots an arrow in his butt. Talk about bad luck.”

“Better than anywhere else,” said Bannog.

Ariciel lay back, and put a hand behind her head. She could feel Bannog’s thigh warm against hers. He’d come through the battle almost unscathed, except when she’d had to heal him. That Orc leader hadn’t even managed to land a single blow on him. He was doomed the moment Bannog laid eyes on him. Ariciel swallowed. He’d even held back. Made it last longer. Talked to him as he killed him. Cruel. Remorseless. Deadly. Flowing with a deep, deep anger that went beyond battle-rage. She glanced aside at him. His face was calm now, but she recalled the expression on that face as he was fighting. She had been truly, deeply, scared of him, and had never wanted to see him like that ever again. Her fingers absent-mindedly brushed his thigh. It made him smile. She watched him for a while. They had fought together. Many times. Fighting was never nice. Someone tried to kill you, you were trying to kill them. So you got on with it. Hit them hard and fast, where it hurt most. You had no choice if you wanted to live. But this fight… Bannog could have done away with that Orc in a few moments, but he had taken his time. Causing the Orc as much pain as he could. As much fear as he could. Breaking him, body and spirit, and taking pleasure in the breaking. She had caught a brief glimpse of what was hidden within, and it frightened her. She paused in her thoughts for a few moments, then slowly allowed herself to move forward, asking herself the question she’d been avoiding. Why then, young Druid, are you breathing faster now, thinking of it?

Ariciel raised herself on her elbow, and gave Bannog a smile.

“Hey.”

“Mm?”

“I didn’t say before, but I’m glad you weren’t hurt.” She rolled over, on top of him, and put her arms on his chest. She looked deep into his eyes. “I haven’t done all the things with you that I want to do yet.”

Bannog pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Glad to hear it. Anything particular in mind?”

“Just the usual.” Suddenly, she grinned. “Hold on. Don’t go away.”

She got up, rummaged in her pack and pulled out a red shirt, which she put on. She got back in bed.

“Make love to me. Human style.”

Bannog blinked. Not that the request wasn’t welcome, but…

“So why did you put on a shirt if you want to…”

“I don’t like it. Rip it off me. If it survives the evening, I will be very disappointed.”

“Why?”

“Don’t argue. Do it. Not in the mood for sweet and gentle tonight.”

Bannog grabbed Ariciel, and rolled over on top of her.

“Hm. I can be very much not sweet and gentle. But that usually results in people getting hurt.”

“I can heal. Move it, big Human.”


Selena stepped into her room, a wild grin on her face. Oh my… She sat down on her bed, and jumped up, startled.

“Hey!” Lirael blinked. “Oh, it’s you. Had a good night, then?”

“The best. My legs are sore. You ducked out early!”

Lirael sat up, grinning at Selena.

“No I didn’t. So. Smitty.”

“Joseph. He was wonderful. We… danced. I’m glad to say his leg is all better.”

“Yes? Good. And?”

Selena frowned. “And nothing. I went up. He’s probably still down there.”

“Oh come on. You sat on me. At least I deserve some details.”

“Well, he’s very good at the waltz.”

“That, young lady, is not the kind of detail I’m talking about.”

“It’s the only kind of detail I have! I can do waltzes. Anything else I just shuffle along.”

“You enjoyed yourself, then?”

“Oh yeah. You?”

“I had a great time. I was dancing with this guy who kept trying to speak Darnassian with me. Obviously hadn’t a clue. He kept asking me if he could eat me, drink me, put me on the table, sit with me on his chair. At one point he actually asked me if I was frigid and should he get me a coat! It was all I could do to keep from cracking up.”

“Hmm. Describe him.”

“Dark hair, about a head shorter than I am, thin beard, moustache. Wearing a green shirt, blue linen trousers.”

“Ah. Albert.” Selena giggled. “You, Sister Lirael, have been had.”

“Huh?”

“Albert is the scribe. He’s fluent in seven different languages, including Thalassian, and can speak Orcish. He translates Darnassian poetry into Common. For fun! He knew exactly what he was saying.”

Lirael stared.

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

Lirael fell back into the pillows laughing.

“Oh you bastard! I’ll get him for this!”


“Nix! Turn on the pump! Let’s see how watertight this tunnel really is.”

With a hellish noise, the water pump sprang to life. The big hoses moved like snakes as they filled up with water. They ran from the keep all the way to the gates, and out. A great jet of water spewed out of the end of the last hose, into the moat. Griggin smiled. After all these years, he still liked to make a fountain. Rainbows in the sun. Some people gathered to watch, and Griggin signalled Nix to turn it up. Great sprays of water flew out over the moat. Lenna walked up behind him.

“I knew it! All this engineering stuff is just an excuse to play with water.”

Griggin said nothing, and held his hand in the water jet. Water splashed all over Lenna, who squealed and ducked. She crossed her arms and tapped her foot, gently dripping on to the ground.

“Well in touch with our inner child, are we?”

“Yes Mum,” said Griggin, happily. He wandered over to the pump, and checked the meters. All was well.

Trixie walked up, wearing a diving suit, holding her helm under her arm.

“Small leak about fifty yards in. Got any more cement?”

“In the cart. Left side-box, two more bags.”

“Right!” Trixie trotted off.

Mareva stepped up, and examined Griggin’s water pump. She sniffed the air.

“What does this pump run on?”

“Grain oil,” said Griggin. “Hence the frying smell. It’s just a simple centrifugal pump, but it works, and it’s the biggest one I can fit in the cart.”

“Ah. You are emptying the secret entrance.”

“Indeed I am. I can see why they flooded it, but they could have kept out undesirables with a simple steam pump. That would have made the whole flooding unnecessary. As a matter of fact, this looks like a great site for Steambender’s Tunnel Defender.”

Nix grinned. “Formerly Steambender’s Doorstep Sanitiser, formerly Steambender’s Relaxing Steam Bath. It’s one of Dad’s best inventions yet. We rule at engineering. We suck at marketing. Nearly boiled our first customers.”

“That was a clear case of user error,” said Griggin. “They let people in, then set it to ‘Sterilise’. And I had clearly marked that setting as well. Those people were lucky that I was there the first time they used it.”

Mareva laughed.

“Our cradles stood light-years apart, yet I name you my brother. I have often observed how a machine can be improved by replacing the bit behind the controls.”

Ariciel watched the pretty water drops clattering down into the moat. She looked round at Mareva.

“Replace? What with?”

Griggin sneered. “Yeast, in some cases. It’s smarter than some of the users.”

After about half an hour’s solid running, the hose began to sputter and Griggin waved at Nix to shut off the pump. Blessed silence descended upon the courtyard. Ariciel watched as Trixie disconnected the hose from the pump, and started to roll it up, squeezing out the last of the water. Ariciel jumped in and gave her a hand.

“Hey! I didn’t see you at the party last night.”

“Turned in early. Didn’t feel like staying much.”

“You don’t like to dance?”

“Name me two guys my size. There’s Nix and there’s Dad. Dancing with your father is lame. Going cheek to cheek with your own brother is beyond lame.”

Interalia laughed. “I don’t think it’s lame to dance with your brother. He’s actually pretty good. Showed him the moves twice and off we went.” She looked at the sky, smiling. “And what they say about good dancers? It’s true!”

Trixie put the hose back on the ground. Slowly, she turned to Interalia.

“You didn’t! You… you…” she took a deep breath. “Didn’t!”

“Sure did. He was great!”

“You? And Nix? You…”

Nix came walking up, wiping his hands on a rag. Trixie whirled round. She pointed at Nix.

“You? And… and.. her?! What have you done?”

“Don’t tell her,” said Interalia. “It’s none of her business.”

“Like hell it isn’t!” Trixie growled.

“Don’t tell her what?” said Nix.

“Exactly,” said Interalia.

Trixie breathed fire at them both, grabbed the hose and ran off. She chucked it into the cart with considerable force, and stomped off. Interalia sat down on the floor and laughed till she burst.

“What did you tell her?” said Nix.

“Nothing! That’s the best bit!”

“Tired of life, are you?”


There was a knock on the door, and Quartermaster recognised the knock. He walked over and opened it. He grinned broadly at the once-familiar visitor to the castle.

“Porigg! Finally you see fit to drag yourself all the way here! Has the wine run out in Lakeshire?”

Porigg laughed, dropping his satchel on the table.

“Well, it seems the Orcs have. I heard what you lot did over at Stonewatch Tower. So I reckoned it might be safe for a personal delivery.”

Quartermaster disappeared into the larder. From inside, his voice was heard.

“Not that safe, you old fool! We’ve used up the current supply, but I’ll bet the new lot are already measuring up the tower for tapestries. And perhaps for a few Human skulls to go with them.”

“Pah. If rain and sleet and gloom of night can’t keep me, neither can a few greenskins. Anyway, I was sorry to hear about the Old Man. He’ll be missed.”

Quartermaster returned, carrying a jug of wine and two cups. His eyes met Porigg’s and he nodded.

“Aye. He will. The curse of our age, my friend. Our friends dwindle and all we get in return are these youngsters.”

Porigg sat down in his usual place at the table, and accepted a cup. They said nothing for a while. Porigg stirred.

“Anyway, lots more mail for you. No more from the King, mind, but there’s one all the way from Northrend, bearing an Argent Dawn seal. For Young Bannog. Looks important.”

Quartermaster picked up the letter and looked at it.

“Ah. Paladin Peterselie. So she’s in the cold hard lands, then. Hope she’s doing alright.”

The door opened and Mareva appeared, looking tired. Porigg stared at her, but recovered marvellously. Draenei were becoming more and more familiar, even in these parts. Quartermaster smiled.

“Lady Mareva. How can I help you?”

“If I may, could I have something to eat? I missed breakfast because my patrol returned late.”

Quartermaster scratched his head.

“I think there’s some bread and cheese left. Will that do?”

Mareva grinned. The local food still delighted her.

“Excellent. I was planning to go to the library and read a bit before going to bed.”

“Oh, in that case. would you take up these letters?”

“Of course.”

Mareva walked up the stairs to the library. The door to Old Bannog’s study was open, and she saw Young Bannog sitting behind the big desk. The desk was covered with neat stacks of paper and various writing implements. He was reading a parchment, and clearly unhappy with what he was reading. Mareva walked in, her hooves clunking on the wooden floor boards.

“What troubles you, Master-at-arms?”

Bannog smiled at her. “Retired Master-at-arms. Just clearing up some of the administrative debris. I sent a report to Stormwind on what we’ve done here. I wish they’d replied as quickly to our calls for help!”

He gave the letter to Mareva. She read.
 

From King Varian Wrynn,

 
To Bannog the Younger at Caer Bannog,

 
Greetings,

 
On your resounding victory over the Orcs of the Blackrock
Clan, our most sincere congratulations. As to the future
deposition of Stonewatch Tower: You are not to occupy it, nor
do we find it necessary for you to guard it against further
incursions by the Blackrock Clan. We are confident they will
not dare to return after this staggering defeat. As soon as
this is reasonably possible, we will dispatch a force to
occupy the Tower, and workmen to restore it to its former
glory.

 
For the Alliance,

 
King Varian Wrynn (pp)

Mareva put the letter on the desk, and looked at Bannog, one elegant eyebrow raised. Bannog picked up another letter.

“It’s not even from the King himself, just one of his functionaries writing in his name.”

“As I understand it,” said Mareva, “Your King’s strengths lie not in intellectual pursuits such as writing.”

“Few people can write with a sodding big Orc-slicer in their hands,” said Bannog. “Anyway, here’s my reply.”
 

From Bannog the Younger at Caer Bannog,

 
To King Varian Wrynn at Stormwind Keep,

 
My Liege,

 
I thank you for your kind words, but rest assured that it is no
trouble at all for us to keep Stonewatch Tower safe from any
forces that would occupy it, be they Horde, Scourge or even
Alliance. Our workmen are second to none, and will already have
started work by the time this message reaches you. I fear that
if we do not do this, undesirable elements will attempt to
re-occupy that which we have fought long and hard to obtain, to
the undoing of us all. If this course of action displeases you,
then I suggest you send a force of your own and if they are
able, they can take up residence in the tower complex.

 
Your humble servant,

 
Bannog of Caer Bannog.

Mareva bit her lip as she read this. She looked at Bannog, carefully studying his face. A small smile appeared on her lips.

“You do not intend to send this, no?”

Bannog laughed. “No. But it felt good to write it.”

“I understand. I have written several fiery letters of resignation myself, after some particularly bad jobs. I never sent them, but it was a great relief nonetheless. Be careful, though. If this gets into the wrong hands, it may well be taken in entirely the wrong spirit.”

Bannog got up, took the letter out of Mareva’s hand and dropped it in the fire. Then, he turned round to the blue-skinned woman.

“Your words, as always, overflow with wisdom. I say this only because I agree, you understand.”

“Of course.”

Bannog walked over to the window and looked out. Across the moat, he could see Gnomes walking in and out of the tunnel. So much for the secret entrance.

“I’ve pulled the men out of there. Chances are, the Orcs are back already. Seems like a waste, doesn’t it?” He looked over his shoulder at Mareva. “Still, the Blackrock now know that we have teeth here, and that we are not afraid to use them.”

Mareva leaned against the wall, and ran a finger up one of her horns. She rubbed her fingers together. Hmm. A bath, perhaps.

“I think King Varian’s advisors wish to avoid escalating the battle in their own back yard. If the Blackrock are set on re-occupying Stonewatch Tower, then they will send in a stronger force, which can only unsettle this area. It is easier to let them, and ignore them.”

Bannog nodded. “Something like that.”

“What will you do?”

“Keep a close watch on them, I suppose. Though Gerrig insisted on sending Gelt and his unlovable rogues packing. Can’t say I entirely disagree. I’m deeply grateful for what they did, but they don’t go with the rest of the crowd here. We’ll pay them off and send them back to Stormwind. Which will leave us short on stealth. Can’t have Ariciel doing it all.”

Mareva nodded.

“Maybe you might want to ask Interalia. She is quite capable and less…” She searched for a word. “Evil.”

Slowly, a glint appeared in Bannog’s eyes.

“She’s a thief. I’ll never be able to thank her enough for her help in Searing Gorge, but still. She’s a thief.” Bannog’s smile broadened into an evil grin. “She’ll annoy the Lights out of Gerrig.”

“Most probably,” said Mareva.

“She’s perfect. I’ll have a word with her.”

Mareva put her hand in front of her face and yawned. Bannog noticed the letters she was carrying.

“More letters? There must hardly be a tree left near the paper-mills.”

“There is one from Paladin Peterselie. From a place called Dalaran.”

“Dalaran? That’s a city near Alterac. It’s filled with mages, sorcerers and other cloth-wearers. What’s she doing there? As far as I know, you can’t even get in.”

Mareva shook her head. “The Kirin Tor moved it to Northrend. I believe the city is like Exodar, a ship. I would quite like to see the engines if it is.”

Bannog smiled, produced his father’s dagger and opened Peterselie’s letter. His face grew more serious as he read, finally turning into a scowl.

“Bastards,” said Bannog.

Mareva raised her eyebrows. “Bastards?”

“They sent her into Northrend for coming here and helping us with the training of our men.”

“That is unexpected,” said Mareva. “Her friend, Grain-wolf? He would explain to her bosses, no?”

“Korenwolf. He would. He’s over there as well. I think what we have here, what is that word again? The one that makes you feel all red and angry? Starts with M.”

Mareva scowled. “Management. What is she doing there?”

“They’ve got her running bloody errands in a place called Valgarde. Picking up some buggers’ left belongings in a place filled with giants. Not friendly giants.” Bannog looked at Mareva. “I’ve got to go and help her. I owe her.” His eyes fell on the stacks of paperwork. “But I still have work to do here, too. Damn.”

“You cannot be in two places at once,” said Mareva. “The castle is important. Finish your work here, then go.”

“I suppose. Well, that’ll make me get on with things.” He looked at Mareva, who was yawning again. “Get yourself to bed, woman. You’re dead on your feet.”

“Hooves.” Mareva stretched her shoulders, and turned round to leave. “I will. If there is anything I can do for you, ask. In about eight hours.”

“I will. Now get.”


“Father, see us now. We live. The castle stands.” Gerrig fell silent. He was standing by the grave, his hand on Selena’s shoulder. Bannog stared at the freshly stirred earth, and the large square marble grave stone that bore the name of his father. His own name. The name of Gerrig’s second son. And if the Light allow it, the name of many more to come.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the Blackrock,” said Bannog.

“Probably not, but we’ll deal with them if they show their faces here again.” Gerrig’s face was grim. “We are not the pushovers we were a while back.”

“So. Who’s going to look after your farm now that you’re here?”

“Smitty. It’s only fitting.”

“He’s not a farmer,” said Bannog. “He’s a fighter.”

“Good. We’re building another barracks near my farm. I’m not having a bunch of Orcs burn down my home again without a fight.”

Selena looked over her shoulder at her eldest brother.

“You’re sending him away?”

Gerrig pulled his sister a bit closer.

“I am. It’ll be a good opportunity for him to show what he’s made of.” Gerrig grinned. “Why? You never ask me about any of the other soldiers I send on missions.”

“Very funny. Finally, I find someone I like, and you bloody exile him.”

Bannog coughed. “Exile. To a place not a half-day’s ride away from here. With a nice large farm, including a hunting lodge. Fields of grain. A few apple trees, though admittedly not as good as sir Wilfrid’s. Could you exile me as well, Brother?”

Selena fell silent. A thoughtful expression was on her freckled face, as she contemplated… possibilities.

“A hunting lodge?”

“Oh yes,” said Gerrig, seriously. “No aviary or mews, though. But who there hunts with birds anyway?”

Selena said nothing. There were still horses in the stable. She could go for… oh, a hunting trip. There were plenty of rabbits to the south-east. Deer, even. Hugin could certainly use the exercise. The Caer Bannog kitchen was seriously low on fresh meat, what with the siege. And she knew the lands to the South-east like the back of her hand. No chance of her getting lost, was there? Good thing too, because who knew where she could end up?

Bannog chuckled to himself as he watched Selena’s expression and shot Gerrig a glance. Gerrig grinned back.

“It’s going to rain,” he said. “Let’s get back inside.”


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

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