Part 2: Fish and guests begin to smell.

Bannog followed his favourite Night-elf through Mareva’s long-view. Her shape was perfectly hidden in the undergrowth, and he could only determine where she was by the slight movement of the branches. She was looking for the Orc leaders. They had spent all of the morning and the start of the afternoon looking for camp sites. The camp sites were surprisingly orderly, though the Orcs in them looked bored. Apart from the times Gerrig ventured out on harassing attacks, none of them had seen any action since the last Caer Bannog sortie about two weeks ago. In one of the camps, as they watched, a fight had broken out between two Orcs, over the Light knew what. An Orc-mage had dealt with it ruthlessly. The Orcs would probably recover, eventually. The excitement over, Bannog had surmised that High Management was not here and moved on with the girls. They had made half a circuit of the castle. This was the third camp, in front of the castle gates and the drawbridge. It looked hopeful, as there was a somewhat larger tent in the middle.

“Gah. Lost her.”

Bannog gave Mareva back her long-view. Nothing to do but wait. Bannog knew Ariciel was good at this, so she wouldn’t get caught. She’d sneaked all the way out of Grimsteel Manor, which was a much worse place than this. She’d be fine. Bannog bit his thumb, and stared at the place where he’d last seen her. For an eternity, nothing much happened. The Orcs were waiting for the castle to crumble into dust. The people inside the castle were waiting for the Orcs to bugger off. Neither was likely to happen in the near future. It was probably an easy job for the Orcs. Bannog smiled grimly. Not for much longer, lads.

Within the ring of siege-layers, the castle Caer Bannog lay to the South. He could see the gates, the drawbridge and the North and East towers. The walls were good and thick, built to withstand balista bolts or catapult shot. The first night of the siege, the Orcs had shot many burning arrows at the wall. Few had actually made it over, and those that had, fell on the stone roof of the main hall. They hadn’t even bothered putting them out. Then, mages had come and shot shadow bolts at anyone stupid enough to show their faces above the parapet. Not many were, and the return fire from the arrow-slits in the keep and towers had been deadly accurate. When five mages lay dead, that strategy had been abandoned as well. After that, a stalemate had developed. The Humans couldn’t go out. Expeditions through the gates had proven to be suicidal. Before the drawbridge could be lowered completely, a large group of screaming orcs had gathered before it, waiting for them. They had pulled the drawbridge back up before it was even down. Arrows and shadow bolts had flown, killing one of the men inside by an unlucky hit.

That had been the situation a few weeks back. It was still the same now. The Orcs couldn’t get in, and the Humans couldn’t go out, apart from a few expeditions through the secret exit: A tunnel to a secluded spot in a small cave nearby. They couldn’t risk going out too many times and being spotted, or the Orcs would set a trap there. So far, the secret entrance was still secret.

This was the largest camp of all, holding almost half the enemy soldiers. One big tent had drawn their attention specially, and Ariciel was presumably making for it now. Bannog fretted, tapping the hilt of his sword. So far, there had been no outcry. No rush of activity. No sign of her getting caught. He knew full well that if there was, there was nothing he or anyone in the castle could do about it. His fingers kept tapping on his sword. Mareva put her hand over his. He looked aside at her.

“Please be nervous in private. You are making me nervous as well. She will be fine.”

“I know. It’s just that if she gets caught, she’ll be just as badly off as back in Searing Gorge. Or worse. No others with stealth capability for miles round.”

“She knows that. She has no intention of letting herself be caught.”

“Nobody has.”

There was a small cough behind them. Ariciel turned back into her Elf shape.

“I’m impressed by your faith in my abilities. Do you think that I’d let those lumps blunder into me or something?”

Bannog grinned at her, too happy she was back to argue. “Never doubted you for a moment. Find anything useful?”

“I’d say that. I think I’ve found our bosses. Two big nasty orcs and another one of the glowy hands types. And to finish the set, an honest-to-goodness two-headed ogre. So now we know where the leaders are. Home?”

Bannog nodded. “There’s one more camp to the East of the castle. If we search that as well, we’ll have done the lot. Also, we have to pass two camps if we go the other way round.”

They retreated enough to stand up, then made a wide loop round the enemy’s main camp. Then, they made their way to the East side of the castle. It didn’t take them long to investigate that camp. Forty soldiers with swords and one mage to command them. Good. Time to report back. They made their way to the south of the castle, and to the small cave that held the entrance to the tunnel into the keep’s basement. As they approached, Mareva suddenly froze, held up her hand and pointed ahead.

“There are three Orcs coming towards us. I believe the phrase is ‘target of opportunity’. Shall we attack them?”

Bannog looked round for more. “If there’s no others about, sure. I play tank, and you shoot?”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Ariciel. “Hold on a moment.” She concentrated, drawing energy from her mana pool, and moulded it into a protective shield for her friends and herself. Her bite-back spell of Thorns followed. Anyone who’d hit them, would be sorry they did.

“There. All done. Mark of the Wild lasts half an hour, Thorns ten minutes.”

“Should be enough,” said Bannog. The Orc patrol came nearer. Bannog held up three fingers, then two, then one. Without a noise, he rushed out at the Orcs, while behind him, magic fireworks started. He caught them by surprise, putting in the first few hits even before they had drawn swords. Even without the girls’ help, Bannog could have defeated these orcs. With the girls there, they hadn’t a chance. Using large sweeping strikes, Bannog hit the two Orcs nearest him, while Mareva and Ariciel shot the third with fire and lightning.

Mareva stood still, hands raised in front of her, pale blue eyes burning with a fierce light. As she opened her mouth to say something, there was a hissing sound behind her, and something hit her hard in the back. She cried out, and spun round quickly. Her fire totem started to spit more flames in the direction of their new enemies.

Ariciel looked behind her, and saw about a half dozen Orcs. There were two archers and four, no, five sword fighters. She spun round, quickly glancing at Mareva. She was still on her hooves. The arrow had fallen to the ground after hitting her. Ariciel knew Bannog would be rushing at the sword fighters, so she concentrated on the shooters. Angry bolts of green fire flew from her hands, hitting one of the archers in the chest. It took her about five shots to bring him down, and she started on the next, while Bannog ran between her and Mareva towards the sword fighters. Mareva launched lightning bolt after lightning bolt at the sword fighters, swearing profusely in Draenei. The arrow that had hit her, had mostly been kept out by her tough leather jacket and Ariciel’s magic. Still, a trickle of blood ran down her back, drenching her shirt. It didn’t hurt, but she knew that was because of adrenalin. Best to finish this fight before the rush wore off.

Bannog reached the sword fighters, and slashed out with his sword, shouting. As usual for Warriors, his main job was to keep the enemy fighters occupied while the girls laid down a barrage of fire. This strategy was known as “tanking” among warriors, while keeping the enemies’ attention was called “pulling aggro”. He didn’t like to brag more than strictly necessary, but he was good at his job. There’s something about a large muscle-bound individual bearing down on you, sword in hand, shouting, that makes you forget about the small girls shooting the pretty lights. Even if those pretty lights are doing as much damage as the Warrior’s weapons.

Even so, five Orcs were a bit of a tall order for Bannog. He did have the tactical advantage that he could swing wildly, and whatever he hit would be an enemy. On the other hand, these Orcs were no fools, and had worked together before. They were slowly advancing towards Ariciel and Mareva. Ariciel had taken care of the archers, and now joined Mareva in shooting at the sword fighters, who were falling one by one to their combined attacks. One of the Orcs, a female, came to her senses, broke free from the group and charged at Ariciel, sword held high. Her sword slashed down at the Elf, who dodged to the side and struck out with her staff. The jewels on it hummed, adding their stored energy to her stroke, and she struck the Orc woman’s temple. It wasn’t enough to bring her down, though she shook her head once before swinging her sword again. aimed at Ariciel’s midsection with enough force to cut her in two. Ariciel dropped to one knee, and used the copper shodding on her staff to divert the stroke over her head. With a swift stroke, she swept the Orc woman’s legs from under her, and she landed on her back. Ariciel leapt back, took a deep breath, and as the Orc looked up at her, she shot her with a bolt of green fire. It hit between head and shoulders, charring her green face till it was black. The Orc woman made a choking sound, dropped her sword and lay still. Just to be sure, Ariciel shot her with another bolt, then another few. There was a hand on her shoulder. Ariciel’s head snapped round to see Mareva’s face. Her jaws were clenched, and her eyes shone dimly.

“I think that you have her.”

Ariciel’s hands dropped to her side, shaking. She looked at the charred mess of the Orc woman’s head. Suddenly, she turned round and threw up. Bannog came limping towards them. One of the orcs had hit his leg. Leg wounds were by far the most common injury on a battlefield. He also had suffered a blow to his head and blood was running into his eye. Without a word, he handed Mareva a healing potion, which she drank in one slow draught. Her eyes closed a moment, then she gave Bannog a wry smile. Bannog smiled back. Ariciel turned back round, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, tears trickling down her face.

“Sorry.”

Bannog threw away his empty potion bottle, and put his arm round Ariciel’s shoulders.

“It’s alright. Let’s get inside.”


“Scratch eight sword fighters and two archers.”

Gerrig gave Bannog a look. “Impressive. Did you want to leave us any or what?”

Bannog grinned, he was still glowing with leftover adrenalin.

“Mareva and Ariciel did most of the actual work. I just kept them from attacking the girls. Mostly. We got jumped by another group after we finished the first three. If they’d all have hit us together, it could have gotten nasty. We were lucky.” He held up his chain-mailed arm. “Also, I like my new armour. Mail instead of plate, but good.”

“Hm. Did you find out anything?”

“Ariciel did. The bosses are in front of the gates, as we might have guessed. One two-headed ogre, two big orcs and a mage. Surrounded by at least seventy of our little green friends. There’s also a few tents full of mages. You were wise not to charge in. They’d have made mincemeat of the lot of us.”

“Let’s go tell Father.”

They walked up the stairs to Old Bannog’s workroom.

“That Elf of yours seems to be a very capable young lady. But I can sense some great sadness about her.”

“Hm. Yes. She spent the last few years looking for her family, and a few days ago, we found her sister. She’d gone over to the Horde.” Bannog sighed. “Poor lass. They made her witness all the tortures they put her mother through. Told her it was all her fault for not working hard enough. Then, her mother died by her own hand. The sister attacked me, and I killed her. Ariciel helped. I can’t imagine what that did to her.” He shook his head. “Ariciel’s spirit is… irrepressible, but even she can’t go through something like that unscathed.”

“What about her father? Was he killed, too?”

“No, but I don’t think she even knows who he is.”

“What? She’s illegitimate?”

“She hasn’t told me whether her parents were wedded or not, but I don’t think that would make her illegitimate by Elf laws. They do things differently.”

“Hm. Apparently. A child needs a father, Bannog.” Gerrig smiled. “If only to rebel against. So far, Icebrand still thinks I pour the Light over the lands, but how long will that last?”

“You are the one with the children, Brother. You tell me. For my part, I’m happy to let you produce the heirs. I don’t want to lose my woman to the perils of childbirth.”

“Nor would I, but what happened to Mother was a cruel stroke of fate, no more. If nobody were to have children, where would we be?” Gerrig paused in his steps, looked back at Bannog, and smiled. “Your woman, you say. Are you planning on marrying this Elf?”

“I haven’t thought that far yet. She’s glorious, and I am lucky to share her company, but Elves and Humans are very much different creatures.”

“That, Brother, is a true word.” Gerrig knocked, then opened the door to Old Bannog’s workroom. They went in to discuss the things that Ariciel had discovered.

Ariciel was sitting on the bed, leaning back against the headboard, eyes closed. At Old Bannog’s suggestion, they had moved from Selena’s room to one of the guest rooms, which now had fresh bed linen and a small coal fire in a brazier to one side.

“Not that I don’t enjoy your company,” Selena had said, “but that room at least has a big bed. Much nicer than the camp beds if you don’t mind sharing.”

“I do not mind,” said Mareva. “We have shared sleeping space before.”

“Me neither,” added Ariciel, smiling. “We’ve had to make do with much worse than a double bed.” They had gathered up their possessions and had been shown to this guest room by Leona.

Mareva stepped out of her clothes to inspect her injuries. She looked round at Ariciel, a wicked glint in her eyes.

“Do you think we should have told someone about Winterspring?”

Ariciel’s eyes remained shut, but a smile played on her lips. “Last time I told someone about that, I didn’t like the reaction.”

“If you tell them, they may let you sleep in Bannog’s room.”

“Or they may let us both sleep under the stars with the nice Orcs. I’m not taking any chances till I know a lot more about these people.”

“That would seem wise.” Mareva looked over her shoulder, trying to see where the arrow had hit her. “We will just have to be very quiet.”

Ariciel laughed. “I like the way you’re thinking, but it would be a bit like dancing on the edge of a cliff. Fun, but it could go horribly wrong.”

“You do not know how to enjoy yourself properly.”

Ariciel opened her eyes, and smiled at her friend. “Time and place. Is your back alright?”

“I cannot see. It feels a bit sore, but not too bad.”

Ariciel swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and examined Mareva’s back. The arrow point had penetrated her protective magic, her leather armour, and her blue skin. The potion had taken care of the bleeding, but the wound had not yet closed completely. Ariciel laid her hands on either side of the cut and let her healing magic flow. With satisfaction, she saw the cut close up and disappear, leaving no scar that she could see in the dim light of the candles.

“There. Good as new. Smooth as ever.” She ran her hand up Mareva’s back, just because. Mareva put her hand on Ariciel’s.

“Joking aside, I think Bannog has forgiven us for our bit of play in Winterspring. I do not know whether he would forgive us if we would do it again without talking to him first.”

“I know.” Ariciel grinned. “Maybe we should feed him some of that Qrovna of yours. Makes people see reason where they didn’t see it before.”

“That is one of its traditional uses.” Mareva held up her torn and bloodstained shirt to the candle light. “I liked this shirt. I must see if I can wash it and repair it.”

“I think I still have some fine thread somewhere. Let me see.”

“But not tonight.” Mareva dropped the shirt onto her pack, and pulled up the blanket. Woollen blankets. Linen sheets. With a smile, she slipped in, and watched Ariciel as she got ready. The marks on her pale skin were rapidly fading. Soon, they would be gone. After that, only the mind to worry about.

“You shot me!”

A large shape moved between them. A sword rose, then fell. There was a short cry from the woman in the red dress, then… nothing. She did not want to look, but she did anyway. The image of her sister’s upturned face, mouth wide open as if in a final cry, staring at nothing with unshining eyes, was burned into her mind for as long as she would live. Her vision failed, and she fell to her knees.

She was sitting straight up in bed, staring, breathing in fast, shallow breaths. Next to her lay Mareva, deep in sleep, breathing regularly. The brazier in the corner glowed orange. She closed her eyes a moment, and rubbed her forehead. Despite the fire, despite the woollen blankets, she felt cold. She needed warmth, comfort.

She got out of bed, pulled on her pale blue robes. Then, she quietly left the room, and walked across the hall. Making doubly sure it was the right room, she opened the door, went in, and closed the door behind her quickly before anyone could see. Bannog lay with his back to her, bald head shining in the dim light of the moon, fast asleep. Ariciel smiled, and hissed softly between her teeth, but there was no response. Hmm. Last time she’d simply poked him, his trained reflexes had almost cost her her young life. The hiss was the signal for him to wake up, but it didn’t seem to work tonight. She hissed again, louder. No response. Making ready to jump back, she reached out and gently touched his shoulder, then shook him. He gave a few snorts, then turned round, saw her and smiled.

“Hey! There’s an Elf in my room. That’s not something that happens every day!”

“How about in your bed?”

Bannog yawned, and moved over. “I can safely say that hasn’t happened in my lifetime.”

Ariciel’s robes fell to the floor, and she slipped under the covers with him. His arm felt nice round her.

“Mareva a noisy sleeper?”

“No. I had a bad dream and thought I’d wake you up instead of her. I thought you were supposed to wake up if I hissed.”

“Not between ten foot thick walls, I don’t. What kind of bad dream?”

Ariciel said nothing for a moment. “Grimsteel manor. Top floor.”

“Ah.” Bannog’s big hand gently stroked Ariciel’s hair. He tried to think of something to say. Nothing came to him. He looked at her smooth, platinum-blonde locks, imagining ghosts and raging storms inside her head. She sighed.

“I still wake up and think I should go looking for them, before I remember. But they’re gone. I keep wondering if there’s something we could have done differently. But there isn’t. There really isn’t.”

“She would have killed me. And then you. Couldn’t let that happen.”

“I know that.” She shuddered. “Remember the fight this evening? I threw up.”

“Don’t let it bother you. Seeing corpses can do that to you. Happened to me a few times, quite recently.”

“That’s not why. I was fighting this Orc woman, and I shot her. Almost turned her head to a cinder.” She put her hand on Bannog’s arm and pulled it closer to her. “Know what I felt?”

“Hm?”

“Nothing.” Her head turned round to Bannog, an indescribable expression on her face. “I can kill, and feel nothing.”

Bannog put his arm round her waist, and tried pulling her even closer than she already was.

“I’m losing the difference between myself and those ogres that beat me up. They’d have killed me like you’d throw away some leather scraps. I don’t want to be like that.”

“You aren’t.” Bannog wrapped his arms round her, deeply worried. He knew her now for how long? Half a year? They’d been really together for a few weeks, from Goldshire to Menethil and from the Arathi Highlands finally to the Caer. For the rest of the time, they’d written. He’d never seen her other than determinedly optimistic, refusing to let the world beat her. She had lost not only her family, but also her reason to keep moving. There was nothing he could do about that. Again, here was a lovely girl in his arms, suffering, and he couldn’t solve her problem, not even help much. He was a Warrior. He hit things till they stopped moving. Bloody useless now.

Ariciel closed her eyes, taking comfort in the reassuring mass of her large friend’s body behind her, his strong arm round her, his hand lying still on her thigh. Her thoughts slowly backed away from her pain and fear. Just for now. Instead, she thought back. How many times had they been together like this? Hmm. Stormwind. That didn’t count. Separate beds. Ironforge, then. Oh definitely Ironforge. After that, the Wetlands. She thought about it. It probably counted, even though they had both kept their armour on for fear of biting things. Menethil. Then, nothing for a long while. Nothing while they travelled from Arathi to Southshore. Then Menethil again. She had mixed feelings about that one. She’d made love to him, Night-elf fashion, using her magic in bed with him for the first time, but then she’d told him about her and Mareva in passing, and she had almost lost him. Ariciel frowned. Only by almost dying had she won him back. Let’s try not doing that again. Her mind gave the next few days a wide berth, until she came to dwell on Lakeshire, after they’d pulled her out of Searing Gorge. She thought about that and smiled. She’d come out of bed that morning still smelling of olive oil. Who’d have thought? So that made… she tapped her fingers on Bannog’s arm… five times, not counting now. That was silly. When first she met Orin, stumbled over a tree root, fell over and slept with him, they had been in and out of each other’s beds more times than she could remember. Then, they had met Lesta and that was even worse. It had eventually settled down to more… maintainable proportions, but still she could not remember actually sleeping during those first few weeks. Absent-mindedly, Ariciel ran her fingers along Bannog’s arm. Five times in almost six months? She took Bannog’s hand from her thigh and placed it on her stomach. Behind her, she felt him move as he raised his head to look at her.

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

Ariciel turned round till she lay on her back, looking up at him.

“Well…”


“You will wipe that grin off your face, or everybody will know what you have been doing.”

Selena came out of her room, dressed in a red shirt and a long brown skirt, straw blonde hair tied in a ponytail.

“Doing what?”

Ariciel’s cat-that-ate-the-canary smile vanished, and was replaced with an innocently friendly one. “Oh, been exploring the castle a bit this morning.”

Selena giggled. “One room at a time?”

Old Bannog came walking down the stairs, papers in hand, saving Ariciel the need to come up with a good answer to that.

“Good morning ladies, or what’s left of it. I trust everybody slept well?”

“I slept well and long, Sir Bannog,” said Mareva. “I hope our laziness has not cost us breakfast.”

“Not if you’re quick. Soldiers had theirs at six this morning. There may be some scraps left. After that, I’d like a word with you and lady Ariciel in the library. And those sons of mine as well. If you see them, please tell them.”

They walked down the winding stairs, then into the dining hall, where they found Bannog and Gerrig at the table, deep in talk over the rest of their breakfast. Around them, bowls were cleared away by the chamber maids. Ariciel saw them go about their business, and recognised the practiced speed with which the hall was prepared for the next event. She and Berciel had done exactly the same thing for years. She closed her eyes for a moment, then walked over to Bannog and put her hand on his shoulder. He looked round.

“Any breakfast left?”

“I told the maid to save some for you. Ah. There she is.”

One of the maids came up with a tray. On it were plates of scrambled eggs, bacon and bread. Ariciel sat down next to Bannog, with Mareva opposite her. The maid gave Ariciel a look as she put the plate in front of her. Apparently, word got round. She didn’t dare stare at Mareva. Selena sat down next to Mareva and accepted her plate with a smile. The last big cauldrons were taken away. Apparently, the soldiers had got porridge for breakfast. Ariciel stared at her plate. She’d got the good stuff. It didn’t seem right somehow. Still, she was hungry. She delved in.

“Your father wishes to speak with us, when we have finished,” said Mareva, cutting her bread. “In the library. I did not realise the castle had one. I like libraries.”

Gerrig grinned. “Uneducated boors as we are? Yes, we do have a library. Though it’s as much the war room and meeting room as anything else. It’s opposite Father’s workroom.”

Mareva’s face turned a darker shade of blue. “I beg your pardon. I did not mean it like that.”

“No offense taken. Quartermaster tells me that your people can fit libraries in their pockets, using magical devices.”

“That is true,” said Mareva, putting bacon and egg on her fork. “Though quantity is not always a sign of quality. Many of the texts in our libraries are a waste of storage. I suppose if all your libraries are books made of paper, you put only the most deserving texts in them.”

“Any that we can get our hands on. Gerrig the Ancient started the tradition. We tend not to throw anything away once it is in there. Some of the books are his actual handwriting. Incredibly dull, unless you have a great interest in accounts of the lands around us.”

“I made a very long journey once, by ship. The ship’s library is mostly what kept me sane. There is no such thing as a dull book.”

“I’ll show you some books that will change your mind.”

After breakfast, Bannog, Gerrig and the girls went upstairs, and into the library. Mareva looked round like a child in a toy store. Book cases lined every wall, except the one where the door was. She stomped over to one of the cases, and pulled out a book at random.

“Green Hills of Stranglethorn,” read the cover. She opened it, and raised an eyebrow.

“Page four seems to be missing.”

Gerrig smiled wryly. “We spent weeks gathering up all the pages you see now, in Stranglethorn Vale. Trolls stole a whole wagonload of them. Scattered the pages all over the place. For some reason, page four is the one that none of them kept. In the end, we just couldn’t be bothered and left. If you ever find yourself in Stranglethorn Vale, and actually get your hands on page four, guard it with your life! It’s worth gold to collectors.”

Mareva carefully put the book back where she had found it, then looked at the large table in the middle. Her eyes lit up brighter as she saw that it contained a highly detailed map of the castle and its surroundings. Every path, hill, and stream was carefully drawn in.

“This is beautiful! Who drew this?”

Old Bannog came in just in time to hear that question.

“I did. So did my father and his father before. It’s a family heirloom, that map. When I grow too old to see, Gerrig will keep it up to date.”

“You could put a sheet of glass on it. Then, you could draw your plans on it with a grease pencil and erase them afterwards.”

Old Bannog smiled. “And where would we get a plate of glass that large? It would be cheaper just to redraw the map.”

“Exodar. If I ask, I can have them send it here. The table is about four yards by two. We can easily make a pane that size.”

“If our Orcish friends would be kind enough to let it through, that is. Which brings me to the purpose of this meeting. We need to get rid of them, but I don’t think we can do it with the men inside. We need help from the outside.”

Bannog stirred. “Half the garrison is over at Sir Roland’s. If we combine those with ours, then we can wipe away these Orcs.”

“We’d still be outnumbered more than two to one, son. If we are overwhelmed, we could lose the castle. I have another plan. Last time I looked, I was still honored by the Stormwind Guard. They have been ignoring our messages, but those were letters. Easily lost, easily ignored. I intend to send them something that they can’t ignore.”

Old Bannog looked from one son to the other. “You two. You will go to Stormwind and make enough noise there to get us some help getting rid of these Lightless Orcs. I’ll write letters of recommendation to everyone I can think of, including the Boy King himself. Not that I think that’s where you should start, but needs must. Organise for me some cavalry, to assist my own men.”

Young Bannog looked doubtful. “Would they send us that many men? There is a war on. Everybody’s resources are stretched. We’re better off than many.”

“They’ll have to. So far, we have been patient, the Orcs have been patient. I don’t want them to wear out their patience and start flinging diseased carcases over the wall. All these years, I’ve been sending weapons to the Stormwind Guards, food, horses. It’s time that they returned the favour. Once the Orcs here and now are gone, we’ll keep new ones from coming in. But now, we need help. You will leave tomorrow evening, late.”

Gerrig raised a hand. “Who is to go? Just us two, or do we take some men with us?”

Ariciel looked at Old Bannog. “Where Bannog goes, I go. I’ll assist him when he needs it.”

Mareva smiled. “I will also go. I cannot leave Ariciel to go on her own. She would worry about me.”

Old Bannog’s eyes moved from Mareva to Ariciel, then to his youngest son. “You have dedicated friends, my son.”

“I know.”

“Well then. You, Gerrig and your two ladies. I have letters to write.”

He stood up, nodded at the assembled crowd and walked over to his workroom on the other side of the hall. Gerrig stood up as well, and went to tell his wife of his new assignment. Bannog remained seated for a while, staring at the map, deep in thought. There was a noise at the door, and Bannog’s little sister stuck her head round the corner.

“Are you done in here already? I was expecting it to take longer.”

Bannog smiled at her. “Yeah, we’re done. Just brooding on it for a bit.”

Selena came in, carrying a sack. Ariciel looked at it. There seemed to be some disturbing brownish red stains on it.

“What’s in that bag?”

Selena raised it, noticing the bloodstains.

“Severed head of my ex-boyfriend. I’m free again!”

Mareva laughed. “Among my people, we simply tell unwanted lovers to go away. They do not always receive the message. Your way is much better in that respect.”

“Actually, it’s food for Hugin. Oo!” She pointed at Ariciel. “You’re a nature lover. You’ll like this! Come look!”

Ariciel smiled, got up and followed Selena out. Mareva pushed back her chair, but Bannog put a hand on her arm and she sat back down.

“What do you think?”

The Draenei woman said nothing for a few moments, studying Bannog’s face.

“You will not repeat anything I say, no?”

“Not a word. I promise.”

Mareva leaned forward, elbows on the table, staring at nothing. A serious expression was on her delicate features, as if she were looking for the right way to say something difficult. Then she looked up at Bannog.

“I do not understand why your father does not attack with the men inside. They are more than up to it. You yourself are strong enough to defeat five of their swordfighters with only a little help from us. I have seen even larger men than you in the hall. If we create two hunter-killer parties like I said, then we can remove all the orcs in a week.”

“You can see from one glance at meal time?”

Mareva scowled. “If you do not trust my judgement, why ask?”

“Relax. I think you’re right. There’s guys there who can arm-wrestle me and win. But put them opposite even one of these Orcs, and they’ll bolt.”

“The problem is in the spirit. They have not yet been shown that they can defeat the Orcs.” Mareva paused. Her pale blue luminous eyes stared straight at Bannog’s. “And neither has your father. Nor your brother, though he is learning.”

Bannog gave a slow nod. “My father was a military man. He should have learnt to overcome his fear. I know he did some amazingly courageous things in the previous war.”

“Perhaps not against Orcs, and when he was much younger.”

“Maybe.” Bannog sighed. “I’d much rather lead our own lot in a few attacks than get bloody stormtroopers in from the outside. This is not going to do our reputation any good. But I can’t go against my father’s orders, so off to Stormwind we go.” He smiled. “I should still know the way.”

Mareva grinned. “And this time you have not one, but two beautiful women with you!”

“And one ugly brother, but if we run fast enough, we can lose him.”

Ariciel climbed up the ladder, following Selena to the roof of the keep. The guards there gave them one look, then went back to scanning the hills for signs of unwanted activity. Selena went to a large cage, opened the door and went in. Ariciel held her breath. She’d heard of people hunting with hawks. They’d bring rabbits back to their master’s hand. This bird looked like she could bring back a small horse. She glanced at Selena. They were about the same height. Ariciel was sure she was more muscular than Selena. Still, Selena calmly took a long leather glove and put it on. She grabbed her staff and gave a bird-like cry. Ah, so that’s how she did it. With her staff planted firmly on the ground, she was able to support Hugin’s weight. Ariciel winced at the sight of her great claws around Selena’s arm. The bird was probably quite capable of snapping her arm off, she just chose not to. Selena held one end of the bag between her teeth and worked it open. Then, she pulled out a bloody bit of animal and held it up to Hugin’s beak. The great bird took it, very carefully, and swallowed it whole. Selena looked round at Ariciel, eyes gleaming.

“So? What do you think of my little bird?”

“Bird? I thought it was a griffin!”

“Griffins are for wimps.” She fed Hugin another piece of meat.

Ariciel looked round her. The cage was very large. Still, birds of this size could fly hundreds of miles every day.

“Do you let her out often?”

Selena kept feeding her bird from the bag. “Used to, but since the siege, I’ve had to keep her in. She was hunting Orcs, believe it or not, and one of those mages almost shot her down. So it’s just short flights now.” She looked at the horizon, far away. “Don’t like to keep her in the cage. She likes to sleep here, but not all day and all night.”

Ariciel took a step forward so she could see better. She started to raise her hand, but Selena stopped her.

“Better not. She’s trained for attack. She’ll have your fingers off even if you wear mail gloves. She’s used to me.”

“What do you hunt with this bird?”

“Anything up to a deer. Birds. Wild boar, once.” A grim look appeared on her face. “Humans. Orcs. Though those are not for food.”

“Hm. No Elves or Draenei then?”

“Naah. The ones I know are too nice.” With another bird call, she told Hugin to go back to her perch. She took off her glove and hung it on the peg. She put her staff next to it. Ariciel admired Hugin’s healthy, glossy brown feathers. Her yellow eyes stared back at Ariciel with complete disdain.

“Soon, you will return to [Free-room-above-where-food-runs],” she said, in Wildspeech. Selena stared at her.

“You can talk to animals?”

“Wildspeech. It’s used by those with fangs or beaks instead of mouths like the Elves or Humans. I learnt it when I was given my bear shape.”

“I still want to see that! When Leona’s not around.”

“I’ll probably be using it on my way to Stormwind, with my luck.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Just for a bit. Your father asked us to get some help from Stormwind. Shouldn’t take more than a few days.”

“Oh you lucky woman! I’d love to go to Stormwind! Instead, I’m stuck here, with lots of bloody Orcs round the place so I can’t go out.” She frowned. “I’ll need to have a word with Father.”

“Ariciel? Have you seen my shirt? I would like to repair it before I leave.”

The Elf quickly searched the room.

“No. Do you think someone has thrown it away?”

“I hope not. I will be back in a moment.”

Mareva walked out the door, down the stairs and to the kitchen. She found Quartermaster at the kitchen table, adding up numbers in a large book. Not wanting to disturb his calculations, she waited in the doorway, till he noticed her and looked up.

“Lady Mareva? What can I do you for?”

Mareva frowned. “Do me for? Is it not ‘do for me’?”

“So it is. What can I do for you?”

“I am missing one of my shirts. It was torn and bloodstained. I was going to repair it, but someone must have taken it and thrown it away.”

“Oh, none of our maids would do that. Where did you have it last?”

Mareva’s horned head tilted slightly to one side. “In my room. On my pack. I clearly remember putting it there.”

“Ah. What colour?”

“Green, with yellow stripes.” She gave Quartermaster a look. “Greenish blue bloodstains.”

“Just a moment.” He wallked over to the storeroom, and returned with the shirt, neatly folded and clean. He shook it out, and handed it to Mareva.

“There you are, Lady. I hope the needlework meets with your approval?”

Mareva held up the shirt and looked at the tiny stitches where it had been torn. It smelt fresh and clean. She looked up to Quartermaster.

“I must apologise. The needlework is excellent. I am not used to being waited on. Please give my thanks to the maids.”


Night fell over the Redridge Mountains. A half moon was out, giving just enough light to walk by. Bannog ducked his head as a very large bird swooped by, checking on the well-being of her mistress. Selena’s eyes gleamed under her dark blue hood.

“Doesn’t she look happy? To be flying again after all that time cooped up in that cage?”

“She’s not about to start hunting Orcs is she?” asked Gerrig.

“Of course not. She’ll only attack if something attacks me.”

“Your bird, could she really carry back an Orc? It would be most distressing to worry about a sudden rain of Orcs.”

“She’s probably strong enough, but I didn’t train her to. What would be the point? I’d have a dead Orc.”

“Loot the bodies, loot the bodies,” sang Bannog, grinning.

“My brother’s muse is not fettered by any such inhibiting factors as taste,” said Gerrig. “I think Sir Arthur’s farm is up ahead. It’ll be good to see them.”

“I haven’t been here since Arthur Halloran asked me to leave after scrumping his apples. Bloody dogs.”

Mareva looked uncertain. “What is scrumping?”

“Obtaining fruit without the permission of the owner,” said Gerrig. “And preferrably without their knowledge. That’s where my younger brother went wrong.”

“Hmm. Back on Draenor, we would call that ‘thieving’. Those found engaging in it would be given a good kicking.” Mareva stomped her hooves a few times. “We are good at kicking.”

“Well, Sir Arthur left that part to his dogs. Never knew I could run that fast. Of course the heir to the castle was still up the tree.”

Gerrig chuckled. “Well, I shared, like good brothers should.”

Ariciel grinned. “Good to see that honesty is valued among thieves.”

Gerrig turned to her and whispered: “Ate half of them on the way home. The rest wasn’t ripe yet, so Bannog was welcome to them.”

“Yeah. Gerrig got away with things. I never did. That’s what taught me to be honest and virtuous at all times, and turned Gerrig into the annoying git you see before you.” Bannog bowed his head in an attempt to look pious. “In the end, the greater reward was mine. Remember that, Selena.”

“When scrumping apples, be the one up the tree, not the one running away. I hear and learn, Brother.”

“Lights,” said Ariciel, pointing forward. “Want me to go ahead and scout?”

“Race you,” said Selena. She squatted down on the ground and concentrated. Hugin came swooping down over their heads with a cry, then flew to the farm. Selena melded her mind with that of her bird, and was able to see through the eyes of the beast. Almost as good as flying herself. Ariciel changed to her black cat form and ran after the bird, towards the farm. Bannog and Gerrig looked at each other, then at Mareva. She stared back.

“What?”

“Are you going to do something as well?”

Mareva shrugged, walked over to the nearest apple tree, peered between the branches, then threw her staff up, knocking an apple off the branch. She caught her staff in one hand, the apple in the other. She walked back and bit into it.

“Two girls are already on the job. I may as well stay here and try this ‘scrumping’ you speak of.”

Sir Arthur Halloran was tall and thin. His hair hung down to his shoulders, and was black, though starting to go grey at the temples. His expression was one of permanent amusement, despite what must be frightening and worrying times.

“Well, good evening ladies and gentlemen. It’s been a long time since I had as illustrious a bunch of apple-thieves to visit me at my farm.”

“They are delicious,” said Mareva, without a trace of shame.

Sir Arthur’s eyes gleamed at her. “I know. There’s something about paying for them that quite spoils the taste. Though a lady as lovely as you need only ask, and I’d give her an orchard’s worth.”

Ariciel giggled. “Why Mareva, you’re blushing!”

“It would be rude not to.”

Gerrig shook his head. “Sir Arthur, we need to travel to Stormwind, at speed. Could you lend us a few of your swift horses?”

“Certainly. I’ll ask the boy to get them ready for you. Five, then?”

“I don’t need one,” said Ariciel. “I can travel in animal shape.”

“So can I. I would not wish to inconvenience you further, Sir Arthur.”

“As you wish.” Sir Arthur left the room for a few minutes, then returned.

Bannog turned to Sir Arthur. “Have you had any unwelcome visitors, Sir Arthur?”

“None whatsoever, my lad, thanks be to the Light. Long may it stay that way. I understand you were not so lucky, Sir Gerrig?”

“Farm was attacked and burnt down, curse them. Two farmhands slain. The rest of us got away more or less unscathed.”

“Of that, at least I am glad. Please give my regards to your wife and children when next you see them.”

“I will.”


“Right. Where next?” Ariciel bounced up and down on the spot, and Bannog watched her with interest. He pointed to the North-west.

“Down the road, seven miles or so, and left at the next crossing.”

“Good. Coming, Mareva? See you there!”

The girls changed into their animal forms and dashed off. Bannog watched them go, then nodded at his brother and his sister.

“Let’s go!” They spurred their horses into action, and galloped after the cheetah and the ghost-wolf. They passed them after a few hundred yards, and left them in their tracks.

“See, Gerrig? We must tell Sir Arthur that his swift horses can outrun even a Druid in Cheetah form. That will drive up the price no end!”

They were waiting at the crossroads, as Mareva and Ariciel came running up, breathing hard. Ariciel changed back to her Elf form, and shot Bannog a filthy look. Bannog laughed, and held his hand out to her. He pulled her up behind him in the saddle. Ariciel put her arms round Bannog’s waist and laid her head on his shoulder.

“Hmm. I could get used to this riding!”

Mareva stared at her. Selena laughed. “Mareva, my brother is a married man. Let’s not lead him into temptation!”

Mareva grinned, and climbed onto the horse, behind Selena.

They set off again, towards Stormwind.


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

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