Part 7: Good things come in small packages

“Bloody hell,” said Stetson. He lowered his crossbow and looked at the thing he’d been shooting at, which was now lying on the ground in Darkshire, looking like an abominable pincushion. He and Mareva had decided against going to the Hinterlands, opting instead for a trip down to Stranglethorn Vale, which was a jungle almost as beautiful as Nagrand back home. They’d hit a bit of an obstacle.

They were riding to the West from Darkshire, when there was a great cackling laugh, seemingly from nowhere, and what looked like a mountain of putrid flesh came lumbering towards them. For a single moment, they stared in horrified fascination. It was… big, overlooking even Stetson by at least a foot. Its skin was a sickly white, and long rows of stitches ran criss-cross across its massive arms and torso. In one hand it wielded an enormous meat cleaver. In its second hand, a sickle on a chain. Stetson swallowed. In its… third hand, it held another sharp implement. Whoever had… assembled this abomination, had made a lousy job of it. Some of the seams across its grotesque stomach had come apart, and its entrails came leaking out. It didn’t even seem to consider this unusual. Stetson made his elekk turn round in record time, and galloped off back in the direction of Darkshire, pursued by this… thing. It had spotted them, and, incredibly, kept up with them. Mareva looked back.

“We’re going to have to fight it.”

Stetson reined in his mount, and jumped off, calling to Morgan. Mareva set down her totems: Healing stream, Mana Stream, Strength of Earth and most importantly, Fire. Fearless Morgan charged the abomination, and they cut loose with Blackflight arrows, lightning bolts and fire. Stetson winced as Morgan took the brunt of the thing’s attacks. Suddenly, it broke away from the great cat and ran straight at Mareva, swinging at her with a meat cleaver meant for Elekks. Stetson yelled, drew swords and slashed at it. He managed to get its attention and jumped back, towards Morgan, who gave a menacing growl and charged in. With the thing’s attention distracted, Stetson could run and rejoin Mareva, who was huddled by her healing totem, face pale.

“Enough is enough,” said Stetson. He concentrated, and a targeting mark appeared above the abomination’s head. The next arrow he shot glowed with a poisonous green light. The one after that bristled with lightning. Next to him, Mareva recommenced her lightning bolt attacks, until finally, the thing gave a hoarse cry, stood still for a second, and then fell over.

Stetson took a deep breath, then another. He turned to Mareva, who was down on one knee, examining her leg.

“Are you alright?”

“This skirt is ruined. Damn. I liked it!”

“Never mind the skirt. I’ll get you a new skirt. What about your leg?”

Mareva gave Stetson a wry smile, and pointed at her healing totem.

“Being taken care of,” she said. Then, she grinned. “If you want, you can put on a bandage. Or perhaps some healing balm.”

Stetson laughed with relief. “You know what Humans say about Draenei women?”

“Yes, but only in the right company.”

Stetson pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “That? By the Light, Mareva, I do worry about you.”

Mareva stood up and put her arms round him. “I was thinking of you, you big lump. That… thing just provided the necessary appreciation of life.”

They turned round to examine their fallen foe. It was vaguely Humanoid, but much, much bigger. It had obviously been stitched together from body parts donated by various occupants of the graveyard, hopefully posthumously, though with this sort of thing, who could tell? Whoever had done it, had given it an extra arm, hoping it would be useful. Stetson pulled out the arrows he had shot at it, making the thing come apart at the seams with a horrible stench. Mareva shuddered. Stetson looked at the arrow.

“If I hit anything with this now, it’ll die instantly.” He grinned at Mareva. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t eat anything that had this in it.”

“You know, I think this could be a present from that hermit we met earlier in Raven Hill cemetery.”

“Hmm. Looks like the thing for him. I’ve got half a mind to go there and explain to him what I think of his presents.”

Mareva’s totems faded one by one, then disappeared.

“I don’t think it’s worth our time. Let’s keep moving.”

“You’re right. A bit further on, we need to take a left to get to Stranglethorn. Last time I was there, there weren’t any undead there.”

Stetson’s elekk stood a small way away. With a bit of whistling and coaxing, it came walking up. Stetson mounted, and pulled Mareva up behind him.

“Off we go!” He stared at his cat. “Morgan! Put that down!”

The big cat dropped the large thighbone he’d been gnawing, and looked at Stetson accusingly. Stetson delved into his pack and tossed a few pieces of meat at Morgan. They didn’t hit the ground. It didn’t take much to make Morgan happy.

Keeping a sharp lookout, in case any more of these things came up, they rode to the West. They came upon a camp, where some soldiers were tending to their wounded. Three bodies could be seen with blankets over their faces. The men eyed them suspiciously, and with barely a nod, they rode on to the South.

“This is one to write to Ariciel about,” said Mareva. “Do you think there is a postbox in Stranglethorn?”


Ariciel sat on a wall, watching Bannog explain to the soldiers the working of the mangonel they had captured. It really wasn’t all that difficult. Attach the heavy rope there, turn the windlass to pull back the arm, fix the arm using a clamp, put the thing you want to give to the Orcs in the arm, then release the mechanism and off it went. Aiming was the difficult bit. Even without moving the siege engine, their projectiles had landed in a rather wide area. From a purely logical standpoint, Ariciel approved of using the enemies’ weapons against them, but this was the mangonel that had flung the dead body of Sir Arthur over the wall. Two of the soldiers here had been in clear and present danger of being thrown over the wall themselves. It would have been quite satisfying to watch the thing go up in flames.

“It has a range of some three hundred yards, as my brother will now demonstrate. Gerrig, would you care to sit down?”

Ariciel winced. Not funny, my love. Not funny at all. She looked down the path to North. Just a few days ago, they had said goodbye to Stetson and Mareva. Ariciel couldn’t help smiling when she thought of her. She looked so happy. If only she and Bannog could have gone with them. She wasn’t really made for military life in a castle. She stared in the middle distance. Or even for life as a Lady in the castle. It made her feel strange. She’d seen to the needs of the High-borne for as long as she’d been able to. From when she could walk, really. She’d joked with the rest of the staff about some of the Lords’ inability to keep themselves fed, wipe their noses or put on their underwear before they put on their trousers. Now, presumably, the staff were joking about her behind her back. Well, it was only fair. She knew all too well that there had to be a balance between being all correct, polite and at everyone’s service, and making rude jokes about them. Ariciel frowned. She was sharing Bannog’s bed with him. If she was any judge, that would be discussed in great detail. This was a small castle, and there was no room for secrets.

She looked at Bannog, who together with Gerrig was loading the mangonel with a heavy boulder. He pulled the appropriate rope, the arm flew up and hurled the boulder away. It landed with a heavy thud a few hundred yards off.

Not that she was making any great secret of it. She loved him. Let everyone know it! But damn it. Some things are nobody’s business. And still, if she cried out too loudly, or on the other hand, didn’t make a sound, that would be carefully weighed, its meaning determined, and its effect on the future gauged with as much accuracy as the boulders flung by the mangonel. She knew. She’d done it herself. Nothing to be done about it. But thinking about it now, she did mind.

She closed her eyes, and shook her head, making her ears flap. Straightening her hair, she got to her feet and walked over to Bannog. She needed some fresh air.

“My love,” she whispered in his ear, well aware of the stares she was getting from the soldiers. “I’m going to take a run to Lakeshire. See if there’s any mail. Could you hold your fire till I’m out of range?”

“I could set you on your way,” said Bannog, pointing at the mangonel.

“Like Sir Arthur? No thank you. See you later.”

Bannog opened his mouth, realised what he’d said, and closed it. Ariciel smiled at him, decided that a kiss would be too distracting for the lesson, turned to her yellow spotted cat form and dashed off to the North.

The world rushed by her, in drab white, brown and black, but instead with glorious smells. This was her travel form, and meant for speed more than for anything else, but still, the changed perceptions were a marvel. In her black cat form, she could sense the precise location of all kinds of creature. Her senses weren’t anywhere near as sharp now, but she could see the other creatures of the forest in bright white. To her left was Stonewatch Tower. Since it had been overrun and taken by Ogres, it was not a good place for jogging, so she gave it a wide berth. Not really in the mood for fighting, especially not fighting and losing. Too much Horde there. But there was another thing she could… Hmm. With a feline grin, Cheetah-Ariciel turned to the South, running past some Blackrock Orcs with no hope of catching her, and headed for Lake Everstill. She didn’t even pause for breath as she reached the edge of the hills. Instead, she took a great leap and landed in the water. Her travel form fell away from her, and the cool water of lake Everstill soaked her to her skin. Magic flowed and she shape-shifted into her aquatic Sea-Lion form. She disappeared under the water. This was not entirely without danger. There were Murlocs here that could swim as fast as even she could. Ariciel dived down, nearly to the bottom of the lake, moved her flippers and shot away to the West. Literally speaking, this was nowhere near as fast as running as a cheetah, but the sense of speed almost made her feel like she was flying. Aware of a Murloc camp to her right, she twisted to the left, making for the Lakeshire bridge. She rose almost to the surface. Her sleek form made only the tiniest of ripples.

Several people were fishing on the landings, and she snatched the fish off one of the lines, being careful not to get the hook. She surfaced, floated on her back, tossed the fish into the air, caught it, and swallowed it whole. Then, she shot to the bank, leapt up and changed to her Elf form in mid-air. She clutched her stomach, but grinned. She’d just swallowed a whole fish!

“That’s my fish, you thieving Elf!”

“Not before you’ve landed it, Hooper!”

“Well, choke on it. I used at least three night crawlers to catch it. They were very wriggly and slimy.”

“Delicious!” Ariciel grinned at Matthew Hooper, the fishing trainer. She’d bought a fishing pole from him, and he’d given her some pointers on where to fish, for no other reason than that he seemed to like her, pilfered fish nonewithstanding. She shouldn’t get away with it, but what other use was there for being pretty?

She wandered to the inn, and checked to see if she had any mail. Ah. One from Mareva! A long one. Good. She stepped inside. The tavern was almost empty, and she sat down in her favourite spot, close to the fire, to dry her wet clothes. Darcy walked up with a flagon of mead without being asked. Ariciel smiled her thanks, ripped open the letter and began to read.


Bannog was standing on the wall above the gate. She wasn’t back yet, but she was a very capable Druid. She could take care of herself. He turned his eyes up to the North and East towers, then back at the keep. Soldiers were walking back and forth, keeping a lookout for anything unfriendly. He was mildly pleased with his preparations. There were now two crossbows on each of the towers, and they had their new toy. It turned out to be grossly inaccurate for aimed shots, but for flinging burning matter out over the gates, it was perfect. Woe betide any group of enemies that would try to keep them from opening their gates. Trials had shown that they could turn the entire bridge leading up to the castle into a lake of fire with only a few shots. The oily rags would then burn out in a matter of minutes and they could ride out. Or, at the moment, rush out on foot. Some of Sir Arthur’s horses had been in the castle at the time of the attack, and they had been sent to the farm, to rebuild the stocks. Sir Arthur had been succeeded by the recently-knighted Sir Wilfrid, one of the soldiers who had been captured to be used as live ammunition. It was mainly through his clear-headed actions that any of them had survived at all. He’d managed to get the servants out and to safety, for one thing. Bannog had spoken to him, and decided he liked him.

The sun was sinking in the West. Still no sign of a yellow spotted shape rushing up the path. The sky was painted in fiery purples and crimsons, with just the occasional black cloud. Bannog leaned on the wall, enjoying the view. He was getting hungry, but he ignored it. There were footsteps to his left, and Bannog turned round to see his brother walking towards him.

“Aren’t you coming to dinner? It’s bean soup and deer today. Caught by our very own sister. If you don’t taste it, she’ll be annoyed.”

“She’s not back yet. Tell the kitchen to save us some.”

“Hm. Not like her to stay away that long. If you want, I can have Selena send her bird out to look for her.”

“Naah. She’s fine. She’s probably just enjoying herself out there and has forgotten the time.” He turned away from the road and the sunset. “You know, you’re right. Let’s have dinner.”


My dear friend,

 
We have just arrived in Booty Bay. It is a mad place, filled to
the brim with goblins, all of whom are trying to, as my friend
Stetson puts it, shaft us. He managed to make it clear to them
what would happen if they kept trying to overcharge us. They no
longer try to sell us food at three times the usual rate. The
inn here has no beds. Instead, they have a kind of hanging rope
construction called a “Hammock”. They are quite difficult to
get into, but susprisingly comfortable once you manage it. I
am afraid that I cannot trust these things to support the
weight of two Draenei. It is most frustrating. I cannot wait to
be out in the jungle again.

 
I can recommend the trip to you. Stranglethorn Vale is warm,
humid and utterly beautiful. We have met black panthers, yellow
tigers, raptors, crocolisks, gorillas, and basilisks. All of
them meat-eaters, except for the gorillas, who are vegetarian.
Almost none of them are fit for food unless you blast them with
hot spices. We are surviving on fruits and berries. We could
not bring ourselves to cook any of the gorillas. They remind us
of Bannog.

 
There are also sentient species in the area. We have
encountered Trolls, despite our efforts not to. They use magic,
and take violent exception to our being here. They use pages
of a book as we do currency. I am enclosing in this letter
several pages of a book called “Green Hills of Stranglethorn”.
The first troll we fought carried page four, so Gerrig will
have his book complete. Other pages make excellent fire
lighters, or are usable for certain unmentionable purposes.

 
Hunter S’dezo’Houn informs me that he has caught enough fish in
the bay for our dinner, and told the food merchants to go forth
and multiply. They are on the grill now. I must tell him to
take the Goblins off and put on the fish.

 
I am enjoying myself like never before, and I hope you are
doing the same.

 
Warm wishes to you, Mareva

Ariciel smiled. She picked up the pages, and read some of them:
 

“Prepare to embrace your creators in the stygian haunts of
hell, barbarian”, gasped the first soldier.

 
“Only after you have kissed the fleeting stead of death,
wretch!” returned Grignr.

Hold on… This wasn’t about Stranglethorn! Ariciel read on, in a kind of horrid fascination. Emerald green orbs glared lustfully at the wallowing soldier… She really, really did not want to read on, but she was drawn, powerless to resist. Oo! There was sex too! “Thou hast need to occupy your time, barbarian,questioned the female?” Ariciel laughed. She should try that pickup line on Bannog. She skipped a few pages. Oh dear. Cast into the stygmatic pits of hell. Bastards. Oh, he gets out again. Good. And he saves the girl, too! The last few pages seemed to be missing, and Ariciel didn’t know whether to be disappointed or glad. Grinning, she put the pages back in the envelope, wondering vaguely whether her nose was opaque enough to please Bannog. She looked outside, and saw it was getting late. Time to go. She wandered over to the bar, settled her bill and walked out. She changed to her travel form and ran along the road to the North.

Ariciel hit trouble almost immediately. She could hear the sounds of battle. She changed back to her Elf form and peered ahead. Someone was fighting a group of Blackrock Orcs. She frowned. So they hadn’t got rid of the entire clan after all. The Orcs seemed to have the upper hand, and no wonder. They were fighting Gnomes. Well, she wasn’t about to let the little guys fall to them. Gathering up her powers, she ran forward. One Gnome girl was lying sprawled on the ground, not moving. Another was fighting them off with a sword, moving with incredible speed, while two others were casting spells. Ariciel’s green fire flew, blasting into the Orcs. Two immediately turned round and came running at her. Whoa, guys! Change of tactics. Ariciel concentrated and great tendrils of green roots sprang up out of the ground, catching one of the Orcs. That gave her time to burn the other with Moonfire. Damn! He was too close, that is to say, in sword range. He aimed a great sweeping blow at her. Ariciel dropped to the ground, rolled over and was on her feet again, rushing to put some distance between herself and the Orc. Another shot of Moonfire sent him reeling backwards, and he fell over. Meanwhile, the other Orc had managed to free himself of the entangling roots, and came rushing towards her. With a very loud high-pitched battle cry, the Gnome Warrior charged. Her blade hit the Orc’s leg, severing tendons and making him fall over. In a flash, she was upon him, stabbing once, twice. The Orc shivered once, then lay still.

Ariciel looked round. The Orc she had shot earlier was trying to crawl away. Before she could turn round to shoot him with green fire, another Gnome appeared out of nowhere, and calmly stabbed the Orc in the throat with a dagger. He turned round, and faced Ariciel even before the Orc stopped moving.

“Good evening, and thank you for your help. Your extra bit of firepower was just what we needed.”

Ariciel frowned. She’d just disposed of two of the Orcs. Extra bit of firepower indeed. Oh allright, that Warrior girl had put in the final few blows, and Ariciel suspected that dagger did not really need to cut deep to kill, but still.

“You’re welcome. Is anyone hurt?”

The Warrior girl took a quick breath, turned round and ran to her fallen friend, who was still lying on the ground, moving feebly. She turned her over and looked at a groggy face.

“Right, Bieslook. What have I told you about clothies?”

“Keep sodding head down. Ow. Head hurts.”

“That’s because an Orc hit it. Hitting Orcs wth great big fireballs is not keeping your head down.”

Bieslook tried to sit up, grimaced, and lay back down again. “Was attacking you.”

“Damn right he was! That’s what I’m here for. You’re a mage! You’re supposed to be subtle!”

“I got angry,” said Bieslook.

The older Gnome walked up. “That’ll do, Trixie. Let the poor girl recover.” He turned to Ariciel and smiled at her. “Good evening, Lady. Allow me to introduce my wife Lenna. You’ve already met my son and daughter, Nix and Trixie. Our unfortunate young friend here is called Bieslook. She is no relation of ours, but part of the family nonetheless. My name is Griggin Steambender, at your service.”

Ariciel nodded, smiled. “Ariciel. Of,” she hesitated. “The Cenarion Circle. Well, if everyone is alright, I’ll be on my way.” She took a step to the East, but the son put a hand on her arm. Ariciel suppressed an urge to check her pockets.

“You don’t want to go in that direction, Miss. Lots of Blackrocks on the war path.”

Ariciel looked down on the Gnome. “I can do stealth.”

“So can I,” said Nix. “I still wouldn’t go there. Just too freakin’ many of them. Don’t know what they’re up to, but they don’t want any spectators for it.”

A sudden thought occurred to Ariciel. “What direction were they going in?”

“Along the lakeside, East.”

Ariciel took a breath. That could mean they were heading for Stonewatch tower, or for Caer Bannog. She really needed to get back and warn people.

Trixie had pulled out a cloth and was cleaning her sword. In the last light of the sun, she examined it carefully, turning it over in her hand. She saw a tiny speck of dirt, and rubbed at it with her cloth. Then, being careful not to touch the blade with her fingers, she sheathed it. Oh yes, she was a Warrior all right. Completely obsessed with their weapons, the lot of them. Ariciel looked the girl over. She was… cute. Cute, in a cotton candy, sickeningly sweet kind of way. She had large liquid blue eyes, rosy cheeks and pink hair bound up in pig-tails. You could almost miss the fact that she was running around in plate armour, and had only just now hamstrung an Orc more than three times her own height. She saw Ariciel staring at her.

“What are you looking at?”

“You don’t look like a Warrior.”

“That’s the idea,” said Trixie. “False sense of security and all that. I’m a little girly girl, not about to stab you in the goolies at all.”

“You should wear a pretty dress, then, not plate armour. And perhaps a bit of make-up.”

Trixie scowled. “I’m going for the ‘Innocent child’ look, not the ‘Cheap hooker’ look.”

“Hah! Is your hair really that colour?”

“Nobody’s hair is really this colour. Now if you’ve finished staring at me, is there anything we can do for you, or would you like us to bugger off now?”

The Gnome woman, Lenna, was sitting on the ground, Bieslook in her arms. She frowned at her daughter. “That’s quite enough from you, young girl! The nice Elf lady helped us get rid of those filthy Orcs.”

“She likes Orcs even less than she likes Gnomes,” said Trixie.

Lenna gave her a motherly stare. “That’s not a nice thing to say.”

Trixie looked at her feet. “No, it isn’t,” she said.

Griggin smiled at Ariciel. “Please forgive my daughter. She can be a bit… irritable at times. Accept my thanks for your help. If we can do anything for you, please say so.”

Ariciel bit a nail. She needed to get back to the castle, in case this bunch of Orcs was headed there. But if that boy wasn’t simply too scared to count properly, that could prove to be a bit challenging. She could only move slowly while prowling, and she needed to move quickly. It was too late to go back to Lakeshire and swim from there.

“I need to get to a castle in the North-east of Redridge. Caer Bannog, if you’ve heard of it.”

Griggin shook his head. “I’m afraid not. We just arrived from Ironforge. We’re headed for Stormwind. They are opening a new harbour there, and we were planning to monetise our vast engineering experience.”

“Oh, you’re in good company then. There’s lots of Gnomish engineers there.”

Griggin smiled. “But they are not as good as I am. I have provided devices to King Magni Bronzebeard. As a matter of fact, I designed some of the heat exchangers that provide Ironforge citizens with warm water in their very homes.”

Ariciel gaped. “You made those shower-baths?”

“Oh goodness, no. That’s mere plumber’s work. I worked on the installations that today provide heat to every hot tap in Ironforge!”

Despite herself, Ariciel was impressed. She’d quite enjoyed the hot showers in Ironforge. But then again, those little Gnomes had always had a way with metal, pipes and mad contraptions. She roused herself. She still wasn’t a step nearer Caer Bannog. Time to go. She smiled at Griggin, then at Lenna, who was still holding Bieslook in her arms. Ariciel knelt by the Gnome girls, laid her fingers on Bieslook’s forehead and cast Regrowth, hoping it would be useful.

“Thanks miss,” said Bieslook. Ariciel smiled.

“You’re welcome. Well, can’t stay here. Have to get to the castle. Good luck with your engineering!” She waved and trotted off in an Easterly direction.

Trixie stared at her back. “Good-bye and good riddance. Smug bimbo.”

Nix scratched his head. “She’s going to run into trouble. The place is crawling with Horde. But she wouldn’t do something novel and strange like, oh, believe me, now would she?”

“Why should she? She’s an Elf! Elves know better. Every Elf knows that!”

Bieslook giggled. “She’s got funny ears. And too many fingers.”

Griggin looked at his children, adopted and otherwise, with a half amused, half annoyed look in his eyes.

“Have you all quite finished? If you think she’s that bad, remember some of the others we’ve met. At least she didn’t leave us to those cursed Blackrocks. She could have hurt herself.”

He stared in the direction where Ariciel had just disappeared. Nix was right about one thing. That area of the woods was not safe. Not safe at all. He smiled at Lenna. Lenna smiled back at him.

“I suppose Stormwind can do without even your engineering skills for a few more hours,” she said.

Trixie’s jaw dropped. “You’re not thinking of going after her, are you? Her getting herself killed is bad enough. Us all getting ourselves killed…”

“Yeah,” added Nix. “And it’s not like she’ll appreciate it! She thinks we’re a worthless bunch of little buggers.”

“Ooo! Bad word,” said Bieslook.

“Indeed,” said Griggin. He looked at his son. “So. Do we let her die in the not entirely mistaken belief that we’re a bunch of useless little sods, or do we help her, so that she can live to tell her Elf friends what magnificent creatures we Gnomes really are?”

Nix opened his mouth to say something, frowned, and closed it again. Bieslook got to her feet, and smiled.

“She cured my headache,” she said.

Trixie snorted. “Well, I protest.”

“Good,” said Griggin. “You should never be afraid to speak your mind. Now get!”

Lenna got to her feet, and brushed the dust off her skirt.

“Do you think we could use a little extra help? There wasn’t the time when they jumped us earlier, but I don’t want Trixie to do all the tanking.”

“Hmm. You’re probably right,” said Griggin. “I don’t like to walk around with a great blue Daemon in tow. It upsets people. But under the circumstances, I suppose…”

The Gnome closed his eyes, and spread his arms. Shimmering lights flew from his hands, joining above his head in a small flame of white light. Then, a deep voice was heard.

“Why have you summoned me?”

Griggin turned to the Voidwalker. “To protect us and ours in our need.”

“I obey.”

Griggin nodded. “Right. Everybody ready? Move out!”


Bannog stared at his plate. It was empty, so he must have eaten the food. His mind was not on the job. She still wasn’t back. He looked round the table. Everybody was staring at him.

“What?”

Marcia put her hand on his shoulder. “I could tell you that she’s probably perfectly fine, she’s got magic and animal shapes. But you want to go looking for her. Go on, then. I’m sure there will be more hunting before long.”

Old Bannog took one look at his son’s face, over the rim of his cup, and nodded with a grim smile.

“Take a few men with you, just in case.”

Bannog pushed back his chair. “I will. My apologies, Selena.”

“Get going already,” said Selena. “Tell that Elf what she’s missing.”

Bannog smiled, and quickly went to the barracks. He called for five pikemen and two archers for an expedition, then went up to his room to arm himself. His mind wandered over the road to Lakeshire as he pulled on the chain leggings, plate chestpiece and helm. He put Joran’s sword on his belt, grabbed the metal bracers and gauntlets and walked out of the door. In the courtyard, his men were waiting for him.

“Right, gentlemen. We’re looking for Lady Ariciel, who has gone missing. We want to find her and bring her back to the castle. She may have run into the remnants of the Orcs of our acquaintance, she may be hiding somewhere, she may be hurt or taken. We won’t know till we look. Let’s move!”

They ran out of the gates in a relaxed trot, one that even in their armour, they could keep up for hours. The soldiers of Caer Bannog were strong and healthy. Bannog was running in the middle, with the archers next to him. Three pikemen ran ahead, two behind. As he’d done in Arathi, they occasionally swapped positions to avoid losing concentration. Not knowing what else to do, Bannog ran in the direction of Lakeshire, staying on the road. He planned to go and ask for Ariciel in the Lakeshire Inn, then trace her movements back from there. It wasn’t much of a plan, but never mind. Suddenly, the first pikeman stopped, dropped to one knee and raised his hand. The group came to a halt. Bannog carefully walked up. The pikeman pointed forward. A group of some ten Orcs was on the road, marching in the opposite direction. Bannog frowned. He wasn’t really planning on fighting tonight, though they could probably take them if pressed. He waved at the men, and they left the road, hiding behind some trees.

“Are we going to let them walk free?” One of the archers asked.

Bannog smiled. A few weeks ago, they wouldn’t even have asked. They had grown.

“Today, we are. We’re not here to fight, but to find Lady Ariciel. Sit tight, and let them pass.”

The Orcs were not making any attempts to hide themselves. They were simply marching along the road in two lines of five. The Humans held their breath as the orcs passed, no more than thirty yards ahead.

There was a slight rustling in the trees behind Banog, and suddenly one of the men cried out, with the sound of a drawn sword. Bannog’s head spun round, startled, to see one of the huge spiders that inhabited the area attack one of the archers. Bannog drew his own sword, and with a swift move brought it down on the spider, together with the archer who had been the spider’s intended dinner.

Orcs might be big and nasty, but deaf they weren’t. They responded to the noise in the only way they knew how. Scimitars were drawn and with great cries, they ran towards the group. The men raised their pikes and swords, and readied arrows. From the road, there was a great shout:

“Hold!”

The Orcs stopped in their tracks at the word of their leader, a somewhat larger Blackrock Orc dressed in chain and plate. The groups of warriors glared at each other.

“I can get him,” said one of the archers to Bannog, in a low whisper.

“Don’t,” said Bannog. “They don’t seem to want to fight.”

The Orc leader stepped forward, sword drawn, but pointing down. He looked over Bannog’s group.

“Who leads?” he asked, speaking the Common speech. Bannog took a deep breath, and stepped forward.

“I do. What do you want?”

The Orc laughed. “What I want is to slaughter every last Human in the world. Sadly, I’m under orders not to start any new fights. What do you want?”

Bannog studied the Orc, who was standing in front of him, wary but unafraid. Though a bloodbath was clearly an option, the Orc did not seem to desire it enough to start ignoring orders. “We’re heading West, on a mission. We’re not looking for a fight.”

“Hah. Anything my masters would want me to stop?”

“Hardly. Anyway, would I tell you if it was?”

“In the end, yes.” The Orc gave Bannog a thoughtful look. “In the end, they all do. But it would cost me warriors to find out, and you have no real reason to lie.”

“Then let us both continue on our way, and slaughter each other another day.”

The Orc leader stared long and hard at Bannog, then sheathed his sword. Bannog did the same. The Orc turned round, and waved his warriors on.

“Move out.”

“Wait,” said Bannog. “What is your name?”

The Orc turned round. “I am Gorm Bladebreaker. Remember that name, as you owe the rest of your life to me.”

“Bannog the Mage-killer. Likewise. Gentlemen, the sports have been cancelled. Move West!”

With many suspicious glares, the Orcs and Humans departed in opposite directions. They resumed their five-point formation.

“I still think we could have taken them,” said the archer.

“Noted,” said Bannog. “Now look sharp. They may not all have the same self control.”

They moved on, carefully. Bannog frowned. Why this sudden reluctance to attack? They weren’t scared, they were following orders. Someone was keeping them back. Why? Were they preparing for something? Regrouping after a defeat? No way to tell. Oh well. He’d discuss it with Father when he got back. They moved on in the dark.


“Well, that didn’t take her long, did it?” Nix was peering forward through his night-vision goggles. “Heading three-point-two, distance two-oh-seven, up against the wall. Orcs haven’t seen her yet.”

Griggin raised his goggles briefly. “Not likely they will. They don’t have infra-vision. Alright then. Nix, would you like to go and ask her if she needs any help?”

“Not really, said Nix, “But you’re telling me, not asking me, right Dad?”

“I can tell I didn’t raise a stupid son. Stop your arguing and get moving.”

Nix sighed, and disappeared from sight. As his family looked on, he zig-zagged his way through the ranks of Orcs, and slowly but surely made his way to the Night-elf, who was standing very still against the wall, with her stealth up.

“Good evening Miss. Lovely evening, isn’t it?”

Ariciel nearly jumped out of her skin, but somehow managed to keep up her Shadowmeld spell. Nix grinned at her from waist height.

“Now when I was talking about ‘lots of Blackrock’ a while back, these guys were what I was talking about. You see, we came down this way a while back, having taken a bit of a detour round a bunch of Gnolls, that were on the other side.”

Ariciel said nothing, waiting for the Gnome rogue to stop rubbing it in. She gave him a weary look.

“Now is there anything we little sods can do for you?”

“Do you have any tea?”

“No.”

“Oh. Then I’d like to get to the East, past the tower.”

“Twenty silver,” said Nix.

Ariciel gave him an incredulous look.

“Take it or leave it.”

“You know, if I throw you at them, I can probably change to my cat form and re-stealth before they know I’m here.”

Nix grinned. “Oh, alright. Just kidding. Just a moment.”

The Gnome turned back to where he knew his family was, and made some gestures. Someone on the other end waved back. The tiny shapes started moving Eastward. Nix nodded with satisfaction, then turned back to the Night-elf.

“Right,” said Nix, reaching into a pocket. “My folks are moving East to see if the way is clear. I’ll sneak us both past the Orcs, and you can thank us in whatever way you see fit. You’ll want to hold on to my shoulder, I’ll need both hands.”

“I can see by night, you know? On account of being a Night-elf.”

“Yeah, but are you a Smoke-elf?” Nix showed her two small metal globes. “These are Steambender’s patented kill-and-obscure smoke bombs. They go off with a big bang and produce lots of smoke. I can see through, using my goggles. Sorry, don’t have a pair for you.”

“Ah,” said Ariciel.

“Now these things have a twelve-second fuse. You’ll want to wait ten seconds before throwing them, or some blasted Orc will pick it up and throw it back at you. So you pull this pin, count to ten, then lob it at the Orcs there. It’ll sting a bit and turn the night into soup. While they’re blundering about, we make our escape. That clear?”

“Count to ten, throw, bang, smoke, grab you, run off. Gotcha.”

“Good girl,” said Nix, handing her a bomb. “Here we go. Ready? Go!”

At the same time, Ariciel and Nix pulled the pins from their bombs. Nix counted: “One… Two… Three…” Ariciel swallowed. This thing could take her hand off, if not worse. Nix was unfazed. “Four… Five… Six…” Ariciel’s breath quickened. “Seven… Ten!” Nix lobbed away his bomb, then looked at Ariciel, horrified. “Throw it!”

Ariciel did, with the proper inspiration. Nix dropped to the ground, four-fingered hands behind his head. Ariciel followed suit, just in time. There were two large bangs, followed by a hissing sound and surprised shouts from the Orcs.

Nix stared daggers at Ariciel. “You stupid bitch! Are you trying to get us killed, or didn’t you learn how to count?”

Ariciel glared back, making strangling gestures with her hands. “What the everlasting shit happened to eight and nine, you little moron?”

Nix stared at Ariciel’s hands, mouth open. “You twelve-fingered freaks count in base twelve!” He slapped his palm into his face. “Complicated things and lugs. Right. We’re still alive. Grab my shoulder, here we go.”

Nix grabbed Ariciel’s hand, put it on his shoulder and set off. He had been right, she could hardly see her hand in front of her, let alone an Orc. She held on tightly to Nix’ leather jerkin as he moved back and forth, often changing direction without any warning. All around them, Orcs were blundering about, walking into trees and shouting at each other. Nix laughed.

“Nearly there. Hold on tight!”

He suddenly sped up, and Ariciel had to run to keep up with him. Then, he suddenly changed direction, and Ariciel’s hand slipped. She immediately dropped to one knee, listening intently. Damn! Where’d he gone? All she could hear were Orc-voices, and she could see absolutely nothing. Someone grabbed her hand.

“Sorry about that. Keep up, now.”

After a few hundred more yards, Nix stopped.

“There you go, Dad. One Night-elf, in prime condition.”

“Excellent,” said Griggin. “So, we meet again, Lady Ariciel.”

“So you say, I’ll have to take your word for it,” said Ariciel.

“The smoke should clear up in a few minutes, and then we’ll head further East. I won’t sleep easy of nights unless I drop you off home, so if you’ll show us the way, then we’ll boost you there. Easy as four and four makes ten!”

“Bloody eight,” said Ariciel.


“What the hell was that?” The left forward pikeman blinked, and pointed West.

“Explosions,” said his mate. “Want to check it out, Boss? Maybe it’s your Elf friend.

Bannog considered. Bangs and smoke weren’t really Ariciel’s thing, but who knows? Maybe it was something she hadn’t told him she could do.

“Why not? Careful now.”

With as much stealth as an iron-clad company of soldiers can achieve, they moved towards the location where they’d heard the bangs. They reached the edge of the grove, and walked slowly, while round them, the thin wisps of smoke thickened into a sweet-smelling fog. Bannog stopped dead. He’d heard of armies using poison gas. Could this be it? If so, he might be dead already, even though he was still drawing breath. He strained his eyes, to see through the fog. Oh forget it. This was no use. He called out.

“Men! Fall back. We can’t see through this and we’ll only lose each other!”

They fell back to where they could see properly. To their dismay, they were missing two of their pikemen. Bannog rolled his eyes, took a deep breath, threw caution to the wind, and shouted:

“Men of Caer Bannog, This way!”

A few moments later, one of the pikemen came out of the mist with a sheepish look on his face. Bannog pointed behind him with his thumb, and the pikeman joined his comrades. Another shape appeared in the mist, but… this couldn’t be one of his men, unless the mist shrunk them to a third of their original size! Bannog stared. And… gave them pig-tails and glowing eyes. The Gnome girl walked up, raised her goggles, and looked up at him.

“Did you say Caer Bannog?”

“Aye.”

Trixie grinned, in the happy knowledge that they’d get this tall bimbo off their hands now.

“We got something that belongs to you!”

A taller shape came out of the mists, eyes aglow, and wrapped her arms round him.

“Hast thou need to occupy your time, barbarian?” she asked.

It took Nix only a few minutes to find Bannog’s lost pikeman, and return him to the fold, though he did grumble a bit about redefining the word “volunteer”. Griggin smiled at Ariciel and Bannog.

“Well, now that you are re-united, I think you can see her the rest of the way home. We’ll be on our way, then.”

“Oh, but you must come to the castle with us,” said Bannog. “It’s getting late, and we can offer you at least a good night’s rest and a breakfast for all your troubles. Don’t you agree, Ariciel?”

“Of course.” Ariciel’s smile looked only slightly forced. Trixie scowled.

“Well, if you put it like that, how can we refuse?” Griggin bowed his head.

“You say ‘No, thank you’, Father,” said Nix in a whisper.

“Quiet, boy.”

The group headed back to the castle, with Griggin walking next to Bannog. His Voidwalker ran point, and the pikemen walked next to him, giving the blue Demon sidelong glances.

“I knew a voidwalker once,” said Bannog. “He belonged to a Gnome Warlock named Aquaregis.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know the gentleman. I only recently acquired Thuljuk. He is most useful.”

Bannog blinked. “Are they all named Thuljuk? Aquaregis’ one was also called that.”

The blue giant looked over his shoulder.

“I remember you.”

“We’re going to a castle, Bieslook!” Lenna smiled at her adopted daughter.

“Are there any princesses in there?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Does Ariciel live there?”

“I think so, yes.”

“She’s cuddling the big lug!”

“Man, Bieslook. Lug is a bad word.”

“Sorry,” said Bieslook. She looked up, and ahead into the distance.

“Won’t the sodding Orcs mind us going there?”

Lenna looked ahead. “Oh crap!”

“Bad word!”

With great battle-shouts, the Orcs charged. There was no question this time: They were in for a fight, and a heavy one. Twenty or so Orcs were rushing at them. Men drew swords, bent bows and raised pikes. Ariciel stood to one side, hands already glowing green. Nix went invisible and ran off, and round, hoping to attack from behind. Griggin and Lenna stood side by side, readying their attack spells. Bieslook stood between them. Trixie’s sword was in her hand. A fierce expression was on her face, and suddenly, she was not cute anymore. Bannog raised his sword.

“Attack!”

The group plunged into battle, Human, Night-elf and Gnome. The Voidwalker led the charge, beating down on the Orcs with his great fists. Bannog charged in, slashing with his sword, a grim expression on his face. This was going to cost lives, he knew it. And all he could do was make sure it wasn’t his. He parried a blow from a scimitar, and instantly counter-attacked, sending the Orc flying back.

Lenna and Griggin looked at each other.

“Get her out of here. I’ll catch up if I make it.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too. Now get!”

Lenna grabbed Bieslook by her robes and ran off to one side with her. Griggin winced. They didn’t get far before an Orc spotted them, and ran after them. Like a ghost, Nix appeared behind the Orc, stabbed him once. The Orc fell, mouth foaming, twitching.

“Nix! Stay with them!” shouted Griggin. There was a sudden hard knock to his head, and he fell over and knew no more.

Lenna shouted, then pointed a wand at the Orcs and let fly a barrage of silvery magic arrows. The Orc was dead before he hit the ground.

“Lenna?” Bieslook tugged Lenna’s robes.

“Bit busy, dear,” said Lenna.

“Can I shoot?”

“Yes dear. In a bit.”

Bieslook smiled. She raised a small hand at the Orcs.

“Woosh,” she said.

In an instant, the night was turned to day as Bieslook’s monstrous fireball tore through the Orcs. The survivors looked round blearily, then turned towards Lenna and Bieslook, and charged.

“Bang,” said Bieslook, and a dome of light formed, tossing Orcs back as if they were rag dolls.

Lenna shouted: “Bieslook! Stop that!”

Bieslook lowered her hands. “You said I could.”

“Yes, sweetheart. But that’s enough. Easy now.”

There were few enough Orcs left. The warriors killed those they didn’t chase off. Then, everybody turned to the small, small Gnome girl who was sitting on the ground, head in her hands.

“Ow! Head hurts.”


“Well, I’m sure I can make several improvements to the castle’s defences, and because you were so kind to me, I’ll give you a good discount.”

Griggin was sitting in Old Bannog’s study, with a bandaged head. His son was sitting next to him. Quartermaster came in, put down a tray with cups of tea and sort of lingered at the edge to keep his boss from being taken for a ride.

“The steam-powered catapult for securing the exit, I can let you have for only one hundred and twenty gold.”

Old Bannog simply stared at the Gnome, in unbelief rather than outrage. Nix blinked and nudged his father.

“Humans. Base twelve, Dad.”

“Oh, of course. That’s eighty gold,” said Griggin. He bent over to Nix, and whispered. “That was base twelve, Son, but thanks for the idea.”

Old Bannog looked at Quartermaster, who shook his head a fraction of an inch. Old Bannog smiled.

“I will take that matter under advisement, Mr. Steambender. In the mean time, please accept my hospitality until you are ready to move on.”

Griggin Steambender nodded.

“We will be getting on as soon as young Bieslook wakes up. We need to be in Stormwind before the day after tomorrow. You have my post box address?”

“I have. Thank you for your kind offers.”

Ariciel stroked Bieslook’s hair. Bieslook giggled.

“Are you sure she’ll be alright?”

Lenna smiled. “Already is. As long as she doesn’t use those heavy magics, she’s right as rain. But those battle spells are taxing even for a full-grown mage. She should never have learnt them, but she did. We’ll look after her.”

“Well, I may be coming through Stormwind soon, to the new harbour. If I do, I’ll look you up. Give Trixie a big hug.”

Lenna looked up at the Night-elf. “I still don’t think Trixie likes you very much, I’m afraid.”

Ariciel grinned. “I know. You’re off then?”

“Yes.”

Bieslook smiled. “Thanks for curing my headache, Miss!”

Ariciel kneeled in front of the Gnome girl. “Want a ride down?”

“Oh, yes Miss!”

Ariciel changed to her black cat form, and Bieslook got on. They went down the stairs, and joined the rest of the Gnomes at the drawbridge. She leaned on Bannog as they waved their goodbyes. Bannog put his big arm round her.

“So when are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning. I hear there is a boat to Auberdine from Stormwind now.”

Bannog put his hands on her shoulders, then pushed her hair back.

“For how long?”

“Oh, maybe a month or two. Don’t worry. I’ll be here for a few days every other week. But I have to get on with my studies. Last night’s fight showed me that I have a long way to go.”

“I wish you wouldn’t have to. There’s Druid trainers in Stormwind, even.”

“I started out with Mathrengyl Bearwalker, and I trust him. I don’t think Bearwalker does house visits. But hey! If the mood takes you, why don’t you come to Darnassus with me?”

“Can’t. I don’t know what this sudden truce means between Humans and Orcs, but I feel in my water that it’s something bad. I have to be here to help us weather the storm.”

“Well, no reason why you couldn’t visit a few days.” She grinned at him. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, not to mention…”

“You are a rude, rude girl.”

“That’s why you love me.”

They turned back into the castle, Bannog’s arm round her. In the dining hall, a soldier was standing on a table, reading aloud from a stack of papers. Suddenly, in mid-sentence, he burst out laughing, and he was pushed off the table by his comrades, to be replaced by another. Ariciel raised her eyebrows.

“What on Azeroth are they doing?”

“Remember that story Mareva sent us? First one to read the whole thing out loud, drinks for free the rest of the week.”

The soldier on the table turned red, and cracked up. Ariciel pushed forward.

“My turn!”


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

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