Part 4: The rocky road to Dun Algaz

One of the good parts of early watch was that you got to see the sun come up. Apart from some animal noises, there had been no disturbances, and Bannog enjoyed the spectacular colours that appeared in the sky to the east. With slow deliberate steps, he moved to the other end of his patrol area, nodded at his fellow watchman and turned round. The camp awoke, with the soft noises people make in the morning, the subdued rattle of cooking gear and hushed conversations. Captain Swann emerged from his tent, walked up to Bannog.

“Anything to report?”

Bannog shook his head. “All quiet Sir. Looks like a fine day.”

The captain offered no opinions. “Break camp. We move in an hour.”

With familiar efficiency, the tents were removed while the cooks prepared a hasty breakfast, to be eaten while on the march. An hour later, the troops were on their way again. Despite their recent stay in Menethil, the warriors were well used to this kind of work, and apart from an occasional yawn, there were no complaints. More or less to his own surprise, Bannog had taken to military discipline like a fish to water. He enjoyed being able to force mind and body into this routine. The company made good time, marching ten rows, two abreast.

Bannog thought back on the days when the company was first formed. They had not been quite so efficient then: an unruly mob of young men, with the only common characteristics that they were all Human, and all had heard the Warrior’s call. Except for Ramoc. He and his friend Joran had joined up together, and Captain Swann had looked long and hard at the small man, who did not look like Warrior material at all, at all. However, Joran did, and had informed the Captain that as far as he was concerned, they came as a single package. Grudgingly, the rogue was admitted as an attachment to a seasoned Warrior. On the whole, this had worked out well. Watching Joran and Ramoc fight together had been a revelation. The big man favoured the hand-and-a-half sword. It was longer than the usual arming swords or broadswords, and thinner. Joran usually kept his shield on his back and wielded his sword with two hands. It gave him the advantage of speed.

Ramoc worked quite differently. He was one of those men who could pick up and use any weapon light enough for him to carry, be it spear, scimitar, dagger or throwing knife. Through years of experience, he could predict without seeing where Joran’s sword was likely to be at any one time, and fill in the gaps with deadly accurate thrown knives, darts and stabs with his dagger.

Bannog’s own training had turned out to be better than average for the troop. He was big and strong, and could wield a broadsword as though it were a twig. Together with this, his keen eye for battle situations had earned him a good reputation. Captain Swann, assisted by his sergeants, had taken these men and turned them into a fighting force. Any indulgent habits were ruthlessly dealt with, sword-fighting techniques were honed and brought into tune with the rest of the army and discipline was introduced. More importantly, a sense of pride had been instilled in the men. Time and again, it was told to them that the skills they had just learned were not shared by the more common soldiers. The company had numbered twenty-five when they started. Since then, they had lost five men, two of whom were still alive and had been reassigned to other companies after their injuries healed. In a war where small companies like these are eaten up for snacks in larger battles, this was nothing short of remarkable. And so the twenty-fifth company was born, and thrived.

This company now pulled into Dun Modr. The men were parked somewhere by a large bridge that had seen better days and Swann went to see the commander. As it turned out, theirs was one of the first of a number of companies to arrive for some much needed reinforcements to the Arathi Highlands. Depending on how things worked out, they were to go either to Refuge Pointe or to Thoradin’s Wall. Until further notice, the company waited.


As mornings went, thought Ariciel, this was a good one. She was lying in a bed wide enough for a normal-size Dwarf. It was cramped, and she didn’t mind a bit. Next to her lay her friend, protector, and now lover. It had been unlike anything before. Elves were creatures of magic, and the magic permeated every aspect of their lives, including the most intimate. Bannog had introduced her to the Humans’ ways: physical, vigorous, surprisingly tender at times. It was not that Elves could not make love like this. They just, normally, didn’t. Ariciel started to put her arm over Bannog’s chest, then suddenly froze and hissed softly between her teeth. Bannog’s eyes remained closed, but he smiled.

“Well remembered, but you were already touching me.”

Ariciel laid down her arm. With her finger, she traced the scars on Bannog’s chest, both old and more recent. Scars. That’s another thing Elves didn’t get. There wasn’t anything magical about that, at least she didn’t think so. The skin just kept healing until the scars were gone. Even the clan markings on her cheeks would fade in a few years and have to be re-done. But these Humans recorded their history on their very bodies. Especially their painful histories. She wondered what signs were left by the happy memories. She closed her eyes and savoured these last few precious moments. Soon, they would leave and this chapter in their lives would be finished. When she opened her eyes, Bannog was looking at her. It was time. She got up from the bed, and wandered round the room, retrieving her clothes. They had scattered over a rather large area. Bannog’s clothes, on the other hand, were all hanging over the back of the chair, making Ariciel reflect on the sort of person that could, even in these circumstances, put their clothes away tidily. Hadn’t slowed him down, either. She felt an impulse to pick them up and throw them about the room, but suppressed it. Ariciel disappeared into the bathroom, and the noise of the shower-bath filled the room.

Bannog sat up in bed, and looked at the bathroom door. He briefly thought of joining Ariciel there, but no. Play-time was over. As he waited for her to come out, Bannog thought on how last night had changed his feelings for Ariciel. He now knew what she looked like naked. He even knew the location of several of her exotic piercings, though she had hinted that there might be more, just keep looking. He knew he’d taken a chance when he’d literally swept her off her feet, away from the ways she was used to and comfortable with, but she had embraced the novelty. Ariciel was not the first woman to sleep with him, but with all his previous lovers, he’d mostly admired a shapely pair of legs, dark brown eyes, long fiery red hair or some other mark of beauty. Much to his own surprise, despite Ariciel’s good looks, he found himself admiring her spirit most. Not her beautiful luminous pale grey eyes, but the expression in them. Not her full lips, but the smile on them. He knew only a little of what she had been through the last few years, separated from her closest family, living among strangers. Yet, she was able to enjoy such novelties as unfamiliar food, unfamiliar places, and even unfamiliar ways of making love. Bannog stared ahead of him. He imagined himself in Ariciel’s position. Caer Bannog lying in rubble, all the people he knew and loved vanished to unknown fates. Would he still be able to admire a beautiful sunrise? She would. She did.

The water stopped, and a few moments later, Ariciel emerged, regrettably fully dressed. Leather armour and all. Bannog got up off the bed and walked into the bathroom. As he passed her, she couldn’t resist patting his bare backside. Bannog just looked over his shoulder at her, one eyebrow raised. As the warm water rushed over him, his mind turned back at last to the road ahead. It still did not seem any easier to him than it had yesterday. He did not have much faith in the air services. He feared that they would have to walk all the way, through dangerous country. How they would fare if they attempted that, he did not know. He closed the taps, dried and dressed himself and stepped into the bedroom. His eye caught the two beds: One neatly made up, the other in disarray. He caught Ariciel’s eye.

“Ready?”

The Elf nodded. As Bannog’s hand touched the door knob, he felt Ariciel’s hand on his shoulder. As he turned round, Ariciel closed her eyes and kissed him, taking her time. She slowly opened her eyes. Without much doubt in her voice, she asked, “Was that right?”

Bannog held her in his arms for a moment. “I think you have it,” he said. They left the room.

They went down to the dining hall for a quick breakfast, and made ready to leave the Stonefire Tavern. Stephen was not on duty this morning, so another Dwarf added up their reckoning, which came, unsurprisingly, to a rather sizable portion of their money.

“But worth it,” said Ariciel.

She wandered off to find a clothes shop, where she might find some warm cloaks against the cold winds of Dun Morogh. Bannog went to the mailbox to find, with some apprehension, two messages: One from Quartermaster (and the suggestion “Read This First”) and one bearing his Father’s seal. Taking the advice, he opened Quartermaster’s message first:
 

From the Quartermaster of Caer Bannog, to Young Bannog
greeting!

 
You miserable clod! Your irresponsible actions have cost me a
right bollocking from the Old Man, and I only got out of it by
blaming everything on you. There will be a reckoning when you
get back, let me tell you. Your feeble muscles need training
and the stack of firewood behind the shed needs moving to the
south wall. I see a great opportunity for you. Now having said
that, well done for beating up on those Defias thugs. Do not,
repeat not let this go to your head, though. The Defias
Brotherhood is a much larger organisation than you realise and
not all of them are so easily overcome. If we find them at the
gates of Caer Bannog, then we will not thank you for their
attention. Now I have not read your father’s note to you, but
if he orders you to go back to Goldshire, take your time. I
need to ask my friends there what’s what and report back to
you. As for your new friend, I cannot fathom her. Her
handwriting is familiar, but apart from my wine merchant
friend, I can’t remember where I last saw it. I seem to
remember some kind of trouble, though, so keep your eyes open.
I’ll see what I can find out and write to you if I find
anything. Finally, whatever may have got into that silly head
of yours, you would do well to follow your father’s orders to
the very letter. It’s never too late to learn.

 
Yours, Quartermaster Declan.

Bannog read this several times over. Then he put the letter in his pocket, and steeled himself to opening his father’s letter:
 

From Old Bannog at Caer Bannog, to Young Bannog.

 
It is with extreme displeasure that I heard of your complete and
utter disregard for my orders. In a court-martial, the punishment
for such an action would be death by hanging, so count yourself
lucky that you are not in the Army yet, if you ever get that far.
Soldiers who wander off to play with the fairies are not an asset
to the Corps. The only reason that I have not, as yet, cut you off
the family tree like a bad branch is that your actions seem to be
motivated by chivalry, if we can call it that. In connection with
this, I would appreciate it if no grandson of mine were to have
pointy ears.

 
As for my orders: As you clearly seem hell-bound to go to Menethil,
I resign myself to the situation. I have contacts there, and I may
be able to find you an assignment there more easily than in
Goldshire, as they are more desperate there for fresh Warriors. It
will also be more dangerous there, but you have only yourself to
thank for that. Let me make this as clear as possible: Once you
arrive in Menethil, you are NOT to leave there for any reason
whatsoever. Not if all the Sirens in the Southern Seas beg you to
follow them. If Menethil were to be swallowed by the seas, still
you would remain there, until my express orders.

 
Your Father, Bannog the Old.

Bannog swallowed. His father was usually not one to speak softly, but talk of court-martials and hangings were unheard-of. It could have been worse, though. Also, the “grandson” comment had disturbed him badly, and he wondered belatedly if Elves and Humans could even inter-breed. As he re-read his father’s letter, suddenly there was a very loud shout behind him, and someone slapped him hard on the rump. Bannog responded as any Warrior would: his arm swung round in a fiendishly fast semicircle and tried to break body parts of the man behind him. Fortunately for his assailant, the stroke went wide. Or rather, over. Bannog found himself looking, slightly downward, into a grinning face.

“Bannog! Ye big clumsy oaf! I’d recognise those buns anywhere! What happened to your hair?”

Bannog’s anger disappeared for a happy grin. Standing in front of him stood a chain-mailed female Dwarven Paladin, with a fiery mop of short red hair, and the life-force that should have gone to a pair of bulls, all compressed into one compact package. She’d been the first female Dwarf Bannog had known, and had completely obliterated the silly notion that female Dwarves looked just like their male counterparts. Bannog ran his hand over his bald head.

“I fell down the stairs in Caer Bannog and broke it. It had to be amputated. It was very sad. Anyway, what is it with you Dwarves and my arse? The receptionist in the Stonefire Tavern was also after me.”

The Paladin looked puzzled, then realised. “Stephen? Hah! I’ll bet! He’s one Dwarf who’s immune even to my incredible charms.” She ran a hand through her hair. “He’s quite intelligent, though. But what are ye waiting for? Find me a chair and give me a hug!”

Bannog could see no chair, so he kneeled in front of his old friend and hugged her. She hugged him till he felt his ribs creak. Then, he held her at arm’s length.

“Peterselie, I’m glad to see you.”

Peterselie grinned. “And I! But what in the name of the Light are you doing here? Weren’t you destined for some military body or other in Goldshire?”

Bannog stood up. “Aye, but that company was destroyed before I could join. I’m here to take someone to Menethil while Father finds me another job.”

Peterselie nodded slowly. “That’s a long way away.”

There was a small noise behind Bannog. Ariciel stood behind him, carrying two large packages under her arm.

“Ah,” said Bannog. He pointed one hand at Ariciel. “Peterselie, this is my friend Ariciel. Ariciel, meet Peterselie, Paladin of the Light.”

Peterselie held her hand out. Ariciel expected her to grip her hand tightly. Fighter types often did, to show you who’s boss. Peterselie didn’t. Instead, she glanced at Ariciel’s face, then Bannog’s.

Leather armour?”

Bannog smiled shyly.

Peterselie led them to a tavern she knew where the coffee was good. She’d never taken to tea. They sat round a small table and discussed the road ahead.

“How did ye think to get to Menethil? The roads aren’t exactly safe anymore.”

Bannog tasted his coffee – a bit of an acquired taste. “We were thinking of taking the griffins there.”

Peterselie inhaled coffee fumes. “Either of you ever been to Menethil?”

Bannog shook his head.

“A year ago,” said Ariciel, “but I don’t remember any griffins.”

Peterselie shook her head. “They won’t take you then. Security measures. You can only go to places where the flight master’s seen your hearthstone before. Can’t have Hordies frequenting our fine flying services.”

“That’s stupid,” growled Bannog. “Surely they realise that the Horde can also walk from here to there like we can?”

Peterselie took a deep breath, and let it escape upward, making her hair blow up. “Dint say it was clever. Just said it was Security.”

Bannog drummed his fingers on the table. “Perhaps we can use someone else’s hearthstone?”

Peterselie laughed. “Now there’s a daft idea! What do you think will happen if you apply to the flight master with a hearthstone not soulbound to you? And then what do you think will happen to the stupid bastard who tried to bugger up their ill-conceived security measures?”

Bannog’s fist hit the table.

“So just because they think the bloody Horde can’t walk to Menethil, we’re going to have to walk all the way?”

Peterselie gently set down her cup on the saucer.

“I think it’s time for that prayer I taught you.” She closed her eyes, and folded her hands, two index fingers sticking up.

“You know the one I mean. After me please… May the Light grant me…” Bannog glared at Peterselie, but she took no notice.

Ariciel looked from the one to the other over the rim of her coffee cup, watching the exchange with interest. Peterselie opened her eyes.

“Bannog my lad, we are going to say this prayer together. You have a choice. Either we say this prayer both sitting in our comfortable chairs, or we say it with you lying on your stomach on the floor and me sitting comfortably on your back.” Peterselie’s bright eyes glistened at Bannog. “And of late, I have eaten very, very well.” They stared at each other.

Bannog looked away.

Peterselie nodded.

“Good. Miss?”

Ariciel raised her hands. “I’m a druid. I worship Elune. My mind is tranquil.”

“Fair enough. Now then. May the Light grant me the strength to bear the things I cannot change.”

Bannog repeated Peterselie’s words.

Peterselie continued. “May the Light grant me the courage to do the things I must.”

Bannog repeated Peterselie’s words.

“And may the Light grant me the wisdom to only kick the stupid bastards up the arse in the privacy of my own skull,” she finished, with Bannog repeating the line with relish.

“Good,” said Peterselie. “Now with that done, let’s see what we can do. Griffins are out, you’ll have to walk. But as I was going to tell you, I have orders to go to Algaz station on Regiment business, so I can take you as far as that. From there, it’s just a long sodden road to the North-west through the swamps. Still risky, mind, but if you stick to the road and don’t go looking for trouble, you should be able to do it. Then with your friend here safely on the boat, you can take the bird back here, if you want.”

Bannog looked at Peterselie, eyes misting over slightly. Why hadn’t the woman said that in the first place? He’d gladly have gone along with any silly prayer, if he’d known that.

Peterselie was once a frequent guest at Caer Bannog. Before the great battles of Old Bannog’s age, he had requested that she oversee the training of his men, so that they would be able to defend Caer Bannog against the Horde. Then, the King had sent out a call for assistance in the final conflicts of that war, and Old Bannog himself had gathered his men and left for the battles. He had served the King well, though without major events, and had been honourably discharged. As a reward for his services, he had earned the right to manage the farmlands nearby Caer Bannog, the masters of which had fallen in the battles. Old Bannog regarded this both as a duty and a reward, and under his leadership, the farms had thrived. He had also invited his sergeant Declan to come and join him as Quartermaster of the Castle.

All these events had passed Little Bannog by, though. All he saw in Peterselie was an adult no taller than he was. While the men trained under Peterselie’s capable leadership, Bannog would usually be leaning on the fence, watching. Finally, Peterselie took pity on him, handed him a practice sword and gently nudged him in the direction of a training dummy. Bannog had practiced, copying the moves of the other men, until the dummy had been reduced to straw and splinters.

After that, Peterselie would often let him demonstrate some kind of slash or stab on her, as she explained to the men how to parry it. The practical reason was that Bannog was the only one there not to overlook Peterselie by at least three heads. Thus, Bannog was introduced to the basics of swordfighting, and the men were entertained.

Of course, after the great battles, Bannog’s education was continued by the most capable Quartermaster Declan. By then, Peterselie had heeded the call of the Light, and become a Paladin. As her duties took her, her visits to Caer Bannog became less and less frequent, until finally years lay between them. But whenever she visited, she made it a point to look up Young Bannog, by then no longer Little.

That afternoon, the three of them were standing at the Gates of Ironforge, meaning to press on the rest of the day and most of the night. It was gently snowing, and the world looked bright and new. Peterselie sniffed the air.

“There’s more snow coming. Best get going.”

They set off at a trot, Peterselie’s chainmail gently clinking as she ran, but no other sound. They ran in a triangle formation, Peterselie in front and Ariciel and Bannog behind her on either side. As before, from time to time they switched positions. They ran on, until Ariciel, who was in front at the time, saw a group of creatures on the road. They looked vaguely humanoid, but they wore few clothes and were furry, almost dog-like. Peterselie licked a finger, and held it up to see which way the wind was blowing. Across, from the right to the left. Very quietly, she took her warhammer from her back, and pointed to the left. Ariciel and Bannog followed her, until they were hiding in the undergrowth, downwind from the group of creatures. Ariciel looked behind them. Being surprised by a second group of unfriendlies while sneaking up on the first, would be… stupid. Peterselie peered ahead.

“Gnolls,” she whispered, sounding surprised. “Big ones, too. What are they doing here?”

Bannog tried to get a glimpse of the gnolls without being seen.

“Do we try to sneak past to the east?”

Peterselie shook her head. “Dun Morogh is where we send our rank recruits for a bit of peace and quiet while they train up. If they run into this lot, they’ll be slaughtered. To the south is Kharanos. That’s where I started my training. I’m not letting these bastards get anywhere near there!” She grinned at Bannog and Ariciel. “Fancy a little hunting?”

Ariciel studied the creatures. “Hunting for what?”

Peterselie snorted. “Can’t eat them, can’t skin ’em. They carry sod all loot, too. No bloody use to anyone. So we’ll just have to hunt them for peace and quiet.”

Peterselie crawled back into the undergrowth, to prepare. The others followed. Bannog checked his new longbow.

“Want me to shoot one of them?”

Peterselie gave him a look. “Arrows are for sissies! Now if I were on my own, I’d probably try to lure them out one by one, or perhaps two.” She studied the others, assessing their worth in a fight. “We three should be able to take on the lot of them outright. I’ll do most of the work. Bannog, you pick up any that I can’t hold. Ariciel, you take care of any that Bannog and I let slip. Now while I’m fighting this many, I won’t be able to keep an eye on your health to heal you. I’ll do what I can, but you must shout if you’re hurt badly.”

Ariciel stirred. “I’ll heal,” she said. “You two concentrate on your work. If any of you get too bad, I’ll jump in.”

Peterselie gave her a long look, then nodded. “Right. Time to buff up.” She closed her eyes, and her lips moved silently. These were different prayers from the one in the tavern. A pure white glow grew about Peterselie. Bannog felt the Light work in him, strengthening him and protecting him. Then, Ariciel’s hands glowed green, and the emerald glow surrounded first herself, then Bannog and finally Peterselie. Going into battle prepared was nice for a change. Bannog drew his sword. Peterselie raised her war hammer above her head.

“Ready?”

Ariciel dug her toe under her staff, kicked it into the air and caught it. “Ready.”

Peterselie growled. “Now this is what we call retribution!”

With a great crash and a shout, she ran towards the group of gnolls. The distance was too great to catch them wholly unprepared, but still it took the gnolls a few moments to respond. Peterselie and Bannog were upon them. Peterselie swung her war hammer about in great forceful arcs. She got lucky twice in a row, and one of the gnolls fell. Few of the gnolls had eyes for Bannog, and none even noticed the slender Elf, even as she shot several of them with angry bolts of green fire. When there were only three gnolls left, Peterselie’s luck ran out. One of the gnolls managed to get a good shot in and she fell over. Like a pack of angry wolves, the gnolls jumped her as she lay. Bannog’s deep voice rang out in a mighty battle shout, as he hewed at the gnolls, who then suddenly turned on him. Peterselie managed to free herself and scramble backwards, trailing her war hammer. Suddenly, Ariciel’s green healing magic was about her, and she found she could get back to her feet. She gave Ariciel a grateful look, and set to to relieve Bannog, who was hacking away furiously at the gnolls. The heavy head of Peterselie’s warhamer swung round so fast that it whistled in the air, and knocked the head clean off one of the gnolls. The last were soon dealt with. Peterselie stood, breathing hard, her hammer raised. She peered round for any additional enemies that might have shown up while they were fighting. There were none.

“And that, my friends, is how you do that,” she said.

They dragged the corpses to the side of the road and searched them, as much for clues as to what brought them here as for any loot. The few coppers they shared. Nobody fancied any of the clothes. All round them, the snow was already covering up the red bloodstains on the ground. They moved on. Soon, Bannog caught sight of a row of fearsome-looking contraptions. There was a strange burning smell in the air and the noise of machinery. Peterselie grinned.

“Hah! Steelgrill’s depot! I have a few words to say to these guys!” She bounded to the machines and poked one of the Dwarves standing near in the midriff.

“Hey you slugs! I thought you were supposed to keep the roads safe here! We just surprised about half a dozen Gnolls on the road to Kharanos. Have ye been drinking the fuel and putting the drink in the tanks?”

The Dwarf’s face moved from incredulous to embarrassed.

“Damn. They must have snuck past us through the mountains. No excuse, but our patrols can’t be everywhere at the same time. Well done catching them. Best put out a few parties to see if there’s any more.” He went into the tent and started giving orders. Then, he came out again and asked, “Where are you off to anyway?”

Peterselie pointed to the East. “Algaz station, to bring them some documents. These guys are along for the ride.”

Ariciel studied the Dwarf’s machine. “What’s this thing do?”

The Dwarf grinned broadly. “Old Trollplow here takes you from here to where ye’re going, even if a whole bunch of hordies stand between you and it. Ye’ll never see a finer tank in all Khaz Modan!” He scratched under his helm. “Though for finding bloody gnolls in the undergrowth, it may be a tad unsubtle. Let me show you – I’ve just upgraded the engine, it’ll now do-“

Peterselie groaned and glared at Ariciel. “Ye’ve set him off now! Hope yer proud of yerself!”

Bannog pointed at the sun. “We’ve got maybe three hours of daylight left. Are we done here?”

Peterselie nodded. Ariciel waved at the pilot.

“Got to go, but maybe you can show me how it works sometime.”

“Delighted to Miss!”

With a wave of hands, they set off again to the East. They resolutely passed the Thunderbrew tavern, knowing full well the kind of delays that could ensue if they went in there.

“More of a Barleybrew girl myself, anyway,” said Peterselie.

Bannog knew the Thunderbrew name from Quartermaster’s enthusiastic endorsements. Once, Quartermaster had made a pilgrimage to these selfsame breweries. He had much impressed the Dwarves there by correctly identifying each of their brews in a blindfold tasting. As a special reward, they had allowed him to buy a barrel of their Special Reserve that they normally entrusted only to the capable hands of other Dwarves. That barrel now lay maturing in the capacious cellars of Caer Bannog, waiting for a Special Occasion.

Night fell. There was a bright moon out, and the reflection of its light on the virgin snow let them see the quiet landscape almost as well as by day. They pressed on tirelessly, with only a few short stops, until the moon disappeared behind the clouds and darkness came. They left the road and made a very small campfire in a hollow between some hills. Peterselie dug round in her pack and pulled out a small kettle that unscrewed in two parts. She made some arcane preparations involving a bag of brown powder and some snow, which she put in the lower part of the contraption. Then she put it on the fire. As the snow melted, she added more and more till the lower half of the kettle was full of warm water. Then, holding on to the bottom end with a bit of cloth, she screwed on the top part, and there was a strange gurgling noise as the melted snow came to the boil. A few moments later, the smell of coffee drifted across the camp. Ariciel distributed fruit, while Bannog passed round dried meat. They ate, then rolled out sleeping bags. Peterselie volunteered for first watch. Bannog said he’d take second. Losing no time, he took off most of his clothes, climbed into his sleeping bag, feet to the fire, turned over and in a few minutes, he slept. Ariciel again marvelled at the discipline that allowed him simply to take sleep as he needed it. She pulled up her own sleeping bag while Peterselie wrapped hers round herself and put some more wood on the fire. Ariciel studied Peterselie’s figure, motionless except for her eyes.

“You look like you’re family to Bannog, How long have you known him?”

“Not quite from the cradle, but I knew him when he was no taller than I am now. Caer Bannog was almost my second home, then. Old Bannog paid me well to train his men, but I’d have done it for free. I needed a job more than I needed the money.” Her eyes shone at Ariciel from under her red hair. “I liked him. I once saw him run to the aid of a small boy who was being bullied by an older kid. Turned out the older kid could take on the both of them, but still he came.”

Ariciel laughed quietly.

“He still does that. I’m living proof.”

Peterselie reached out, picked up the coffee pot and refilled her cup. She held up the pot. Ariciel handed over her cup and Peterselie filled it.

“I thought it was probably something like that. That, and you’re just the kind of girl he likes!”

Ariciel stared into the fire.

“Chicks in armour,” she said.

Peterselie raised her eyebrows. “Heh! That’s what he said? The correct phrase is chicks in chainmail.”

Ariciel’s eyes met Peterselie’s. “But I wear leather.”

Peterselie grinned. “Aye, that ye do.”

She drained her cup, rinsed it with some water and put it back in her pack, together with her coffee maker.

“Where are you going? after Menethil, I mean.”

Ariciel swirled the last of her coffee in her cup, drained it. “Darnassus on Teldrassil, to study with one of the Druid teachers there.” She stared straight ahead. “The land is too dangerous for an untrained Elf. Once I can handle myself, I’ll set out again.”

Peterselie kept completely still.

“I’ve lost my mother and sister. I must find them back.”

Peterselie’s eyes softened. Poor girl. She wasn’t stupid. She knew full well what the odds were after all this time. But still she would not give up. Family’s not dead till you drop the soil on ’em. This damn war was littered with stories like Ariciel’s. Almost since she’d been born, she’d seen fathers leaving, brothers dying, children crying, without the comfort of knowing that all would be well. She’d seen or heard of it all. She hated this war, as all soldiers do. The people who flourished and shone in the war were never the people at the ugly business end. The end with the blood, the death, the pain, but mostly the fear. Soldiers were trained very well in the Alliance armies. Their best swordsmen had no equal in any of the Horde’s legions. Their bodies were trained for hard work, long marches. But the true strength of a warrior was the ability to overcome fear.

Peterselie was a Paladin. To her, this meant a Warrior with extra Lights on. She had her faith to strengthen her, not merely as a figure of speech, but as a tangible asset in battle. She could heal terrible wounds on herself and on others, by tapping into the limitless source of life force that drove the creatures of the world to breathe, eat, grow and give birth to more. They called it “The Light”, but it was more than simple sunlight. It was life itself.

Peterselie disliked petitioning the Light to remove the afflictions caused by people who should not be fighting in the first place. Or asking it to be a shield against the weapons of the enemy. She felt that she was distracting it from the more important business of growing the world.

But that was philosophy. Back down on the ground, or under it, she knew that things moved that should not be there. Predators, or worse. She didn’t mind bears, tigers and wolves or even people. They had to eat meat or starve. But these things didn’t simply want to feed. They desired the whole of their prey’s life, to do with as they pleased. They had Ambitions. They wished to take the world from those who lived on it and corrupt it into their private source of energy. They planned to do this by turning the green, fertile lands into a garden of agony and fear.

The Light was a mighty source of energy, but it was not a person. It didn’t think as such, it simply flowed. It needed the uncountable minds of all creatures to steer it. So while all this healing, shielding and smiting was a terrible waste of resources, Peterselie knew it must be done. Not doing it would be infinitely worse.

Peterselie looked at Ariciel.

“Get some sleep,” she said, “Long day tomorrow.”

Ariciel yawned.

Peterselie snorted. “And stop that! Ye’re making me yawn as well!”

Ariciel grinned, and turned over. A few minutes later, she was asleep.


“Berciel! Wake up!” Ariciel grabbed her younger sister’s arm and shook her. “It’s almost time to go to work. If you don’t get up, you won’t get breakfast!”

Berciel’s eyes opened. She yawned. “Let the High-borne make their own breakfast for a change. It’s not as if they appreciate us!”

Ariciel grabbed Berciel’s blanket and dragged it off her. “They may not appreciate us, but they certainly do pay us. Which they will stop doing if we show up late and then you’ll not have any breakfast ever again!”

Berciel turned over, still grumbling, and got out of bed, pulling on her servant’s outfit. It was like all servant outfits: Unflattering and inconspicuous. Berciel tied up her black hair in a tight pair of braids, then followed Ariciel down. Her mother ladled steaming portions of porridge into their bowls. They left their small home and walked up the path to where the High-borne did their great works, from which they could not be disturbed for such trivialities as preparing food. Ariciel’s mother was one of the two cooks in the place. Berciel and Ariciel ran errands and did odd jobs around the place.

Together, they went into the dining room, set plates and lit candles. Presently, High-borne entered and were served their breakfast. If any of them noticed the two serving maids, one of them with white hair, the other black, they did not show it. They spoke softly, using many words that Ariciel could not understand, part of the incomprehensible jargon of their arcane craft. Ariciel didn’t care. Her own magic was much kinder, flowing with the voices of Nature, running like a stream through her body. She was strongest when she was outside, in the ancient forests of Darkshore. The High-borne’s magic was different. Harsh, immensely powerful, capable of tearing rifts in the very sky, so that one might look upon distant places, no more than an arm’s reach away. Ariciel always felt uncomfortable whenever one of the High-borne’s great spells was cast. She’d tried talking to Berciel about this, but she hadn’t noticed. Typical. The High-borne rose from their table. The Master spoke:

“Let us perform the spells.”

Ariciel wanted to scowl, but knew all too well not to show any emotions around the High-borne. If the High-borne were casting powerful spells today, it would almost certainly give her a headache. Couldn’t be helped though.

Ariciel and Berciel cleared away the breakfast things from the table, and cleaned it for the next use, which would be dinner. The High-borne preferred to have food brought to them while they worked, so they could eat without interrupting. The girls were not allowed to enter the rooms while the High-borne worked, though, so they left the tray outside the door on a small table for the occupants of the hall to pick up. On one occasion, Ariciel had arrived at one of the Ladies’ chambers to find the door open. The Lady was sitting at her desk, writing. She noticed Ariciel and beckoned her in. Ariciel put the tray on her table, nodded politely and made to leave. The Lady spoke.

“Wait. What’s your name, girl?”

Ariciel felt uncomfortable, but told the Lady.

“Ariciel. I knew a woman named Ariciel once, long ago. She was a mighty sorceress. Have you any magic?”

This annoyed Ariciel. Every Elf had magic. An Elf with no magic was not an Elf! What this lady wanted to know was whether she had insane amounts of it.

“Just the usual, Lady,” said Ariciel.

The Lady closed her eyes, said nothing for a few moments. “You are too modest, girl. I feel more than the common store of energy within you. Would you like to know how to use it?”

Ariciel decided that she didn’t like this lady. She automatically assumed that Ariciel didn’t know how to let her magic flow. She could make lights. She could use the energy to hunt for rabbits, deer and even wild boar. She could speed up the healing processes of her own and other’s bodies. She could even use her magic to… She stopped herself. She did not want to think of Orin or Lesta just now.

“I can do all I need to do, Lady.”

The Lady sat back in her chair. Her gaze moved from Ariciel’s face to her feet and back. “But you could do so much more! You might even add your strength to our cause. I can feel you have the energy, if we can just teach you how to tap into it.”

This frightened Ariciel. She looked at her feet. “I should not presume, Lady. Your magics are far too advanced for me.”

The Lady picked up one of the parchments in front of her. “If you have the time, come and see me. We will see what you can do, though you may not know it yourself, yet.”

Ariciel bowed her head. She walked out of the room, though she wanted to run. The thought of her helping with these Earth-rending magics made her shiver. She returned to the kitchen. She wanted to talk to Mother about it, but Mother was busy. Berciel was away somewhere. Oh well. She’d find Lesta later on. Ariciel got on with her jobs.


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

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