Part 5: Battles of body and mind

They were on the move again. Apparently, news had been received of an imminent Horde atack on Refuge Pointe, so for any company worth its salt, that was the place to be. Time was short, so instead of marching, they were jogging double-time. They weren’t the only ones. A few hundred yards in front of them, another company ran. Captain Swann would not allow his men to gain on the company in front of them, so they were running slower than normal. If they were to join up with the company in front of them, they would present too tempting a target for any of the Horde mages, who could then kill two companies with one fireball. With the companies separate, one company would be wiped out and the other could kill the mage. It was all part of the uncomfortable mathematics of war. On the same reasoning, they ran twenty paces apart. Suddenly, Sergeant Benn gave a shout and pointed forward. The other company had stopped. Captain Swann raised his fist and the men stopped. Swann peered forward, but was unable to see what was going on. He started shouting orders.

“Sergeant Benn! Take five men. Surprise prevention detail. Sergeant Newton and the rest, spread out, go to ground, hold ready. Joran! Bannog! Ramoc! You’re with me.”

“Aye Sir,” called the men in turn.

Captain Swann waved his arm and trotted off to the next company, followed by Bannog and Joran on either side and Ramoc, who watched their back. They reached the other company and were shown to their commanding officer. Swann shook hands with him while Bannog and Joran eyed up the competition. They were big sods, dressed in plate mail. Joran was impressed. It would probably take them all afternoon to kill them all if need be. Having Bannog there would give them time for a brew-up half-way through. But that was hypothetical, of course. We’re all friends here.

As it turned out, the reason the company had stopped was that a messenger had reached them. Apparently, the fun had already started at Refuge Pointe. It was bad. Several dozen warriors of different kinds, including archers. The most worrying thing, though were three fire-mages who were battering the defences with fireballs. Captain Swann had a quick word with his counterpart. All of their lads were wearing full plate. They couldn’t move any faster than they already did, or if they did, they would fall over on arrival, which was sub-optimal. They decided that it would be better if they arrived a bit later, but would come in with a big crash when they did. Swann’s men were in leather or light chain, making them more mobile. They would be the first to arrive. There was no more time to be lost. They returned to their own company and got a move on. Soon, the Thirty-first Heavy Infantry was out of sight. They ran in the same wide formation with determined looks on their faces, thinking of the poor bastards who were now hiding behind crumbling defences, the target of arrows and mage-fire. Time to inform their enemies that they had a problem.


Ariciel sat by the last dying embers of the fire and watched the sun rise on Dun Morogh. The fire was out. The firewood had run out and she could hardly wander off to get more. The others were still asleep. Ariciel straightened her back, breathed in the cold forest air, concentrating, hands in her lap. She focused on a small shrub a few yards away, and took slow, deep breaths. All thoughts slowly melted from her mind, except for the plant. The shape of the branches, snow on the thick dark green leaves. Red sunlight playing in the drops of melting snow.

She picked up her staff, and got to her feet. Paying close attention to form, letting out her breath as her staff accelerated, she performed sweeps, then thrusts, then blocks. She went through this series twice, then paused, and started again, at double speed. The ends of Ariciel’s staff hissed through the air, stopping at precisely defined positions. Her eyes narrowed in concentration as she came to the last block. She stood suddenly still like a statue, arms raised in the air, staff horizontal above her head. She took two deep breaths, then restarted her exercise, twice again as fast as the last round. This time, she mixed sweeps, thusts, blocks, passing her staff from one hand to the other in exact, well-practiced motions. Sweat shone on her forehead, making the wind feel cold. She cycled through all the moves twice, finishing with a cry and a fast forward thrust. She planted her staff in front of her between her feet, briefly closed her eyes and took one, two, three deep breaths, then a fourth. She settled.

Each morning, when she could, she did this short meditation and exercise. It cleared the mind and kept her technique up to par. She missed it when she skipped it, but the last two days, there had been other things to do. Also too little space to swing. She turned round to the campfire. She noticed Bannog had woken up and was watching her. Ariciel held her staff horizontal in front of her, then started spinning it round, passing it from hand to hand, in front of her, behind her back, above her head. This exercise was of no tactical use whatsoever. In a fight, when you see someone spinning their staff like this, it’s a wonderful opportunity to stick your own staff up their nose. It just gave her muscles something easy to do, to cool down from her exercise. And it looked pretty. She finished by spinning her staff in one hand, left of her, then right, then suddenly making it stop right next to her face. She looked at Bannog, who smiled.

“Showoff.”

She laughed, threw her staff in the air and caught it.

“You haven’t seen anything yet! But for the hard stuff, you really need a sparring partner.”

Bannog came out of his sleeping bag, retrieved his clothes from the foot-end, where they’d been keeping dry and started pulling them on while he still had some body heat. He grinned at Ariciel.

“Truer words were never spoken,” he said.

Ariciel pointed her staff at him. “Mind your words, Human. It’s too early in the morning for lewd innuendo.”

Bannog slipped into his chainmail vest. “Lewd innuendo? Is there any other kind?”

He held out his hand, and Ariciel gave her staff to him. He gently shook it to get a feel for its weight. Privately, he was not much impressed. It wasn’t even a single piece of wood; just three pieces glued and lashed together with wet strips of leather, which were then allowed to dry and shrink. The outer parts were made of a heavier wood than the middle. Bannog didn’t recognise the wood of the central part. A bit like ash, but with a coarser grain. He stepped back, and took a few swings. He’d been trained to use a staff, of course, but hadn’t used one since he switched to swords. He gave the thing back to Ariciel, and planned to get her a better one. He was careful not to make any comments, though – perhaps she had made it herself or been given it by someone special.

Peterselie woke up, listening carefully for a few seconds. She heard the kids’ voices, but no signs of alarm. Time to get up. She climbed out of her sleeping bag and dressed quickly while Bannog and Ariciel talked about different kinds of wood and quarterstaffs. The fire had almost gone out, but she could see a few glowing bits. She looked around, and a few hundred yards further on, she spotted a fallen tree. Ah good. She wandered off towards it, war hammer in hand, and tore off one of the branches. There was a loud snarl, and one of the native white snow leopards leaped out at her. Reacting quickly, she batted its first swipe away with her chain-mailed arm, then swung round her war hammer and cracked its skull open. She wandered back to the campfire trailing both branch and snow leopard, just as Bannog and Ariciel came running up, sword and staff in hand. Peterselie held up the snow leopard for all to see.

“Look what I found! Any of you know how to skin one of these?” She dropped the dead cat on the floor at Bannog’s feet, then wandered over to the fire, broke up the branch into smaller pieces and started to revive the fire. Ariciel looked at Bannog. Bannog looked at Ariciel, then shrugged.

“She does that. I have tried asking her not to, but…”

He sheathed his sword, produced his skinning knife and with one practiced movement slit open the snow leopard from bottom to top. A few minutes later, he had a skin and a few pieces of meat, which he brought back to the camp fire. Peterselie looked pleased.

“Ah! Prowler flank. I know a recipe with that. Hold on. I may have some spices somewhere. No use roasting meat-eaters if you don’t have spices.”

They had toasted bread, dried fruit and spiced snow leopard for breakfast. Then, they put out the fire, buried their waste and set off on the road again. Peterselie loved this country. She’d been born in Ironforge, and was a city girl through and through, but still the rolling snowy mountains moved her in a way that nothing else did. As they ran, she pointed left and right at landmarks or places where Dwarves lived and worked. The Gol’Bolar Quarry, for instance. Used to be a rich source of metal, though fairly recently, it had been overrun with Troggs. They weren’t Horde, but bloody annoying nonetheless. No matter how many times Dwarves came and kicked them out, more always appeared as if from nowhere.

“Someone must think we bloody enjoy kickin’ Troggs, and breed them for our entertainment.”

Or the Amberstill ranch, where the rams were bred that Dwarves used as riding animals, or to pull carts.

“Of course they don’t breed just the rams,” said Peterselie, “But nobody knows what happens to the ewes.” She stared dreamily in front of her. “They also do a great curry there. And you haven’t lived till you tasted their Sho’Arma with garlic sauce. Or their Kebabs with Token Vegetables. Great mystery about the ewes though.”

“Do they do anything for vegetarians?” Nothing on Ariciel’s face indicated that she was anything but completely serious.

“Aye, that they do. They kindly point out to them the shortest way out of the county.”

Bannog snorted and almost stumbled over his own feet laughing. They ran on, past Helm’s Bed lake (good fishing there), and met no opposition until they came to the North Pass Gate that led into the tunnel to Dun Algaz. The unfriendly people they met there were Alliance guards, so that was alright. Bannog stopped a few moments and ran his hands along the smooth walls of the tunnel.

“Incredible how they could get it like that, just with pickaxes.”

Peterselie gave him a sad look. “Sad to think that we haven’t invented any tunneling equipment after that. You see, we have strict religious rules against using labour-saving equipment such as tunnel borers. They are very bad for the soul. Don’t even start about explosives!” They ran on, while Peterselie described in excruciating detail all the things the Dwarves could have used if their religious laws didn’t forbid it.

Bannog praised himself lucky to have such a friend, who was not afraid to point it out to him when he said something stupid. The only thing that could make him even happier was to have a friend, a True Friend, who stopped pointing it out to him within, oh, three hours or so.

They emerged from the tunnel and found the Dwarven tower of Algaz Station. Peterselie wandered through the doors with barely a wave. Bannog and Ariciel were eyed suspiciously, but since they were with Peterselie, they were let through. Peterselie led them to the dining hall, where the off-duty guards were hanging out, and went to see the commander and hand him his papers. They found a table in a corner and sat down, feeling rather out of place. All around them, Dwarves were talking in their native, throaty language, which neither Ariciel nor Bannog could understand. To give him something to do with his hands as much as anything else, Bannog pulled out his sword and maintenance kit, and started tending to his blade. Ariciel asked Bannog for some of the leather he’d been gathering, dug some thread, a small sharp knife and a heavy needle out of her pack and started turning the skins into reinforcement kits for armour. These were always popular among Warriors and other armour-clad persons. They didn’t reinforce the armour itself much, but they made it more comfortable to wear by replacing some of the inflexible parts with leather. This made the armour easier to move around in, increasing general defence.

Peterselie walked into the room, followed by an impressive Dwarf: the renowned Mountaineer Stormpike. He walked up to Bannog and Ariciel, shook their hands and bade them welcome to Algaz Station, offering them beds for the night. They gratefully accepted. The ice broken, some of the Dwarves joined them at the table, asking them about their travels. Bannog’s account of how they’d defeated the Defias thugs was met with shouts of approval.

“Good on ye, Mate! Those Defiases are right bastards.”

Peterselie joined them, two cups in her hand. She shook the cups, and turned them over on the table, then lifted them to reveal a set of dice.

“Anyone feel like a friendly game of poker under the cup?”

Several of the Dwarves quickly backed away. Apparently, Peterselie’s reputation was fearsome. Ariciel confessed that she’d never played before. Bannog had, and he pulled out his pen and a scrap of paper to write doen the combinations in the right order. Peterselie dug out a small stack of coppers and started to explain to Ariciel.

“Right. You got the combinations there? So you throw the dice under the cup, and you look under it, without showing anyone. Then, you tell Bannog what’s under it. Then Bannog looks under the cup, takes out a few of the dice and throws them under the other cup, then tells me that there’s something better under there than you said. Got that?”

Ariciel nodded.

“Good,” continued Peterselie. “Now you and me both know that he’s a Human and, worse, a male. So you can trust him about as far as you could spit a rat.”

Bannog smiled, and stroked his beard. He would have twirled his mustache, but it wasn’t long enough for that.

“So if he says that there’s three sixes under there, and I don’t believe him, I pick up the cup like so…” she lifted the cup, “And if by some weird chance there really are three sixes under there, or better, then I’ve lost and I drop one of my coppers into the pot. And then I start the next round. Now if there’s not at least three sixes under there, he loses, drops a copper in the pot and he starts new. Last one to have any money left gets the pot. Got that?”

Ariciel nodded. Peterselie looked at Bannog, then back at Ariciel.

“Want to do a trial run?”

She shook the cup, plonked it down and tilted it to look. “Two pair,” she declared and shoved it over to Ariciel, who accepted it.

“Two pairs what?”

Peterselie waved her hand. “If I don’t say, it’s the lowest you can get. Ones and twos. You can also say something like two pairs and a five. Yer safe as long as it’s at least that.”

“Ah right,” said Ariciel. “So now I throw?”

Peterselie nodded. “No fingers under the cup, though! Too tempting even for a holy person like me. Use the other cup.”

Ariciel transferred three of the dice to the other cup, rattled them and put the cup on the table. She peered under.

“Four sixes,” she announced and pushed the cups over to Bannog.

“I believe everything you say,” said Bannog, looking under the cups. “To my ruin,” he added.

Ariciel looked indignant. “It’s true!”

Bannog retrieved one of the dice from the cup and threw it open on the table. It came up a three.

“Four sixes and a three,” he said.

Peterselie gave him a long, hard stare. Bannog smiled at her. Peterselie lifted the cup. Four sixes stared at her.

“Well that’s the trial run then,” said Peterselie. She gathered up the dice, and passed them to Ariciel. They each dug out ten coppers. Bannog stacked them neatly to one side. Peterselie laid them out in two rows of five. Ariciel dumped hers in a little pile.

“You start. Oh wait! We’re missing the most important thing!” She glanced at the clock. Six thirty. In other words: Barrel time! She stepped out for a moment, to return with three mugs of ale.

“Impossible to play this right dead sober. Throw the dice!”

Ariciel did. She passed three of a kind over to Bannog, who accepted it without comment, threw two of the dice and passed over a full house to Peterselie. The Dwarf had played this game for too long to fall for that. She knew full well that if there really was three of a kind under there, all Bannog had to do was throw a fourth to be safe. She looked under the cups, threw one of the dice and with a flourish passed a large straight over to Ariciel. Ariciel blinked. She knew she’d passed three of a kind over to Bannog. How could that have changed into five different numbers? She lifted the cup. Four threes.

“Or better,” said Peterselie.

Ariciel frowned, dropped one of her coppers in the middle of the table. “Are you sure Paladins are allowed to do this?”

Peterselie grinned broadly. “It is bad and morally wrong to let suckers keep their money.”

Ariciel scowled in an I’ll-get-you-for-this kind of way, picked up the dice and passed on two pairs to Bannog, who passed three of a kind. Let the women fight each other to death, then mop up what’s left. Peterselie picked up Bannog’s three of a kind, threw two and passed on another large straight with an evil grin. Ariciel peered under the cups, gave Peterselie a look, then threw the same two dice again and passed Bannog four fours. Bannog moved one of the dice from one cup to the other, then threw the last.

“Poker”, he announced. Peterselie looked at him.

“If you don’t look, you don’t have to throw,” she said. Ariciel looked at Bannog, who nodded.

“Poker fours,” she said, passing the cup straight to Ariciel. Ariciel stared hard at Peterselie. She knew that there were four fours under there. So did Bannog, so she couldn’t pass him poker fives. But… Peterselie hadn’t looked, so she only trusted Bannog to have provided the last four. Which was a one-in-six chance. Pretty slim, really. She lifted the cup. The four fours were there as expected. She lifted the other. Six. Yes! Peterselie chuckled, and dropped a coin. The game continued. Bannog kept his head down, while Ariciel and Peterselie tried to trip each other up. Peterselie had five coppers left. Ariciel had four, Bannog had seven. Peterselie was just about to pass on a small straight, when she noticed.

“Miss, I note that our large friend is ahead. I think he wants to watch us two wear ourselves out, then wipe the floor with whoever’s left.” She raised an eyebrow. “And then, he’ll have beaten two women! Small straight.”

Ariciel accepted the cups and looked. “You know, you’re right! Us girls got to stick together against the enemy, while we have one.” She manipulated one of the dice into the other cup, threw and peered under. She put her elbows on the table, took a deep breath and batted her eyelids at Bannog. “If I tell you there’s a large straight under there, you’ll believe me, won’t you?”

Bannog admired the beautiful Elf-maiden in front of him, quite enjoying the view. “You know, my lady, you are really not wearing the right type of armour for this particular tactic. It’s altogether too… protective.” He lifted the cups.

Ariciel looked down on the dice, pointing with a slender finger. “Two, three, four, five…” She smiled sweetly. “Six.”

Peterselie burst out laughing, and held her hand over the table. Ariciel slapped it. Things then took a bit of a turn for the worse for Bannog. In very few rounds, his stack of coppers disappeared. Finally, Ariciel passed him a full house, twos and threes, from Peterselie’s bid of three twos. Bannog peered under the cup and gave Ariciel a mournful look.

“I don’t believe ye,” said Peterselie.

Bannog looked at her. “I haven’t said anything yet,” he pointed out.

“I don’t care,” said Peterselie. “Whatever ye say, I won’t believe ye.”

Bannog stared at his dice again: the most inglorious jumble of numbers ever seen under a poker cup. He tossed his last copper onto the pile and passed the cup on to Peterselie.

“Good lad,” she said. She straightened her shoulders and stared at Ariciel. “And then, there were only two.” She turned over the cup on the table, looking into Ariciel’s eyes and not under the cup. “Three of a kind.” She pushed the cup over to Ariciel, who looked under. She pulled out two dice, threw and passed back four twos. Peterselie took a good look at Arciel’s face, then lifted the cups. There were indeed four twos under there.

“Aww. Yer too honest for this game. Can’t you bluff sometimes?”

“Sure. Next round I will.”

Bannog sat back and took a swig of his ale. Watching his old and his new friend lock horns was probably the best entertainment he’d ever got out of ten coppers. Peterselie had played this game for years, but Ariciel was a quick learner. Also, she had phenomenal control over her facial expressions. While Peterselie betrayed absolutely nothing in her body language, Ariciel managed to trick Peterselie twice: Once, she passed Peterselie a full house with such a look of frustration on her face that Peterselie promptly lifted the cups. After that, Peterselie grew more careful and managed to whittle away Ariciel’s stack to just one coin. Then, she ran into some bad luck and lost all of hers but one.

“Last round,” Peterselie announced. She shook the cup, turned it over and gazed under it, holding the cup between her hands, a neutral look on her face. She slowly looked up to Ariciel.

“Full house,” she said and slowly, carefully, pushed the cup over.

Ariciel studied Peterselie’s face. “In one go? That’s very lucky!”

Peterselie crossed her arms. “My luck is as the luck of ten, because my heart is pure.”

“No fair calling for divine intervention,” said Ariciel, carefully tilting the cup. Her eyes gleamed at Peterselie.

“Well, we both know about these.” She raised the cup to reveal four fours. Spectators gasped. Ariciel picked up the last die, threw, looked under the cup and gently pushed it back across the table.

“Poker. Fours.”

Bannog raised a finger. “Poker rule,” he announced.

Ariciel looked round at him.

“If she believes you, then she gets three throws to get a poker as good as yours or better. If she does, she wins.”

Ariciel looked back at Peterselie. Their eyes locked, almost with an audible click. Peterselie started to smile slowly. Her small, strong hand reached out for the cup. And pulled it towards her. And tilted it. Without showing anyone else the die, she gathered up all the dice, dropped them in the cup and threw. She lifted the cup and found three fives and change. She put the fives to one side, gathered up the other two dice and threw again. Five and two. The five joined its three brothers. The last die went into the cup. Peterselie shook it, then turned it over, right in the middle of the table, next to the heap of copper pieces. Then, she sat back on her chair and smiled at Ariciel, her face a picture of serenity. Ariciel smiled back, her bright Elven eyes shining, her face completely still. Seconds passed. Then, still looking into Ariciel’s eyes, Peterselie reached out for the cup and lifted it. Only after the first cheers started did either of them look at the die. Six. Peterselie dropped her last copper onto the pile and pushed them all over to Ariciel.

“You are good, miss. You sure you’ve never played this game before?” Ariciel picked up her coins.

“There is a game that’s a bit like it, but you use only two dice and no cup. This is a much better game, though.”

Peterselie laughed. “Next time, we play for silver! More drinks anyone?”

Ariciel hadn’t finished hers, but Bannog accepted a fresh mug. Dwarves were deservedly renowned for their ales, the weakest of which were best drunk ice cold on a Summer’s day, and the strongest of which could fell an ox at thirty paces. Or give a Dwarf a bit of a headache.

As was wont to happen among Warriors, the conversation quickly turned to the relative merits of various tools of war. Most of the Dwarves present still preferred the two-handed axe, though they had to admit that swords had their place. Ariciel made a brave stand for the quarterstaff. Unlike maces, war hammers, axes and swords, the staff required a bit of finesse and subtlety to use well. The Dwarf sitting next to Bannog nodded.

“Aye! We Dwarves are well known for our opinions on finesse and subtlety.” He took a swig from his mug. “And where ye can stick them both.”

Ariciel frowned at him. “But a staff is faster! By the time you swing that big war hammer, I’ll have hit you three times and drawn back where you can’t hit me!” The Dwarf looked at her, then made a fist and pounded first his chest armour, then his helm, then his shoulder.

“Aboot that hard?”

Ariciel gave him a look, then bent over the table. Her hand stabbed out once, twice, three times at throat, jaw and finally stopped about a quarter-inch short of his eye.

“Well, you’d want to hit where there isn’t any armour, but yes.”

She sat back down and the Dwarf gave her a slow grin.

Bannog picked up his mug, and said, “But even with a staff, speed isn’t everything. If you just keep poking them, they have the time to get lucky, even if their weapons are slower. You want to do lots of damage, quickly, and you need power for that. A good big guy can always beat a good little guy.” He drank from his mug.

Ariciel looked round at Bannog, slowly, and a wicked smile appeared on her lips.

“Would you care to demonstrate that? A bit of friendly sparring perhaps?”

Bannog choked on his ale and coughed. “What? You and me? But I haven’t got a staff and my sword is far too sharp for sparring!”

An expression appeared on Ariciel’s face that Bannog had come to recognise, even in this short time. It could mean both fun and trouble, but at this point he expected the latter. She turned back in her seat to the dwarf at the table behind them and tapped his shoulder.

“Excuse me?” She pointed at Bannog. “That Human thinks he can beat me up with a staff because he’s bigger than me!”

Peterselie burst out laughing.

The Dwarf scowled at Bannog. “Och, does he noo?”

Ariciel smiled helplessly at the Dwarf. “But now he says he hasn’t got a staff. Would you happen to have one for him?”

The Dwarf ran his hand through his beard. “Well, lass, staffs aren’t really a Dwarvish weapon as such. I don’t think…”

One of his mates interrupted. “Rob, do you remember that mage we had visiting a while back? Only he turned out not to be a mage but a sneak-thief?”

Rob grinned. “Aye! He buggered off rather sharpish when we found out. And he left his staff behind.” He turned back to Ariciel. “Nothing to worry about, miss. If that staff is magical, then so’s my beard! Just let me fetch it.” He disappeared into a side room and came back with a staff, which he handed to Bannog.

“Here ye go my friend! Now show us how a big strong lad such as yourself beats up on a wee lass!”

Bannog accepted the staff, protesting feebly. “That’s not what I said!” He pointed a trembling finger at Ariciel. “She’s not a wee lass, she’s evil! Evil I tell you!”

Ariciel was already on her feet, staff in hand. Bannog sighed and got up, sizing up his newly-acquired weapon. It was a staff of the wooden variety, about as long as he was. Solid enough. Simply put: a long stick. Fine. Meanwhile, a few of the Dwarves had helpfully pushed aside some of the tables, giving them room to play. He looked round at Peterselie, who was taking bets. They were happily discussing which one of them would score the first hit, with Ariciel being the clear favorite. Oh well. It wasn’t as if he had any reputation here to begin with.

Ariciel grinned, as she always did in situations where she’d jumped in without looking, and life became more interesting as a result. She didn’t know what had possessed her to challenge this big Human. Possibly the sheer male-ness radiating off the group: Big, stupid and proud of it. She noticed that Bannog held his staff with one hand in the middle, the other three-quarters from the end. That meant he had greater reach, but only one end to work with. She held her staff at one-thirds and two-thirds: An extension of her fists. She stuck her chin up at Bannog.

“Well?”

Bannog lunged, aiming for her body. She deflected easily. A couple of blows followed, none of which came even close to hitting her. He was going easy on her! Sweet, but it wouldn’t exactly allow her to make her point. On the next sweep, she blocked, feigned a counter-thrust with one end of her staff, then tripped him up with the other. He didn’t go down, but he did stumble back a few steps. She grabbed her staff in the middle and spun it left and right of her.

“Why Bannog! I don’t believe you are really trying! Were you going to make a real effort any time soon?” She knew she was shamelessly showing off, but she knew it was safe because Bannog would never-

There was a swish and a loud snap. Her staff clattered onto the floor. Bannog stood there, smiling, leaning on his staff.

“You may be the party’s staff chick, but that doesn’t mean you get to make fun of me!”

Ariciel’s eyes narrowed, and she kept her gaze on him while she retrieved her staff, especially when she bent down to pick it up. Bannog stood stock still. Hitting Ariciel’s bottom as she bent over to pick up her staff wasn’t half as much fun as not hitting her bottom and watching the suspicious look on her face.

Ariciel leapt to her feet, this time in a proper defensive stance. Bannog readied himself. Knowing that Ariciel could probably take it, he made a quick series of attacks, all of which she parried easily, then charged forward, staff in front of him, pushing hard enough to send the Elf tumbling into the next room. Of course, she didn’t fall for that. She twisted round out of Bannog’s way and aimed a low blow at Bannog’s shins, which he blocked. Keeping his staff in contact with hers, he twisted it round and bumped her with his thigh, sending her stumbling a few yards back. He followed up with a fast blow to the midsection. Her armour could take the brunt. But it didn’t. Ariciel had recovered already and deflected his powerful blow by tapping it up and over her head, leaving Bannog’s back open to Ariciel’s counterstrike. Bannog only just managed to stop his sweep and swing his staff back to block it. Ariciel still connected, though most of the force had been taken out of the blow. Bannog took a few steps back, nodded at her. Ariciel raised her eyebrows at him.

“That was fun! Can I have a go now?”

With a cry, she lunged forward, long white hair flying, and unleashed a barrage of sweeps and thrusts at Bannog, who was hard put to it parrying them all. Finally, he managed to shove her back. The light in her eyes shone fiercely, and she attacked again, even faster. This time, she connected several times: one on each of his shoulders and a leg strike. Bannog abruptly switched tactics. Ignoring the blows to his shoulder, body and leg, he took a quick step forward, hooked his leg behind Ariciel’s and threw her, pinning her down with his staff. She struggled in vain against twice her own weight in Human. Bannog grinned at her.

“You realise, there’s no way for me to win this! If I beat you, I’ve beaten up a wee lass. If I let you win, I’ve been beaten up by a wee lass.”

Ariciel grinned back, wickedly. “Bit late to think of that now, isn’t it?”

Behind them, a Dwarven voice rang out. “If ye’re interested, there’s a wee room that we can rent oot to ye at very reasonable prices.”

Bannog laughed and lost his hold on Ariciel, who rolled out of his grip and jumped to her feet. She stood there looking at Bannog, tapping her palm with her staff. Bannog changed the grip on his own staff and charged straight at her from a kneeling position. Ariciel tried to dodge, but he was expecting that and changed directions with her. Ariciel dropped to one knee and pushed his staff over her head, then jumped to her feet, stepped forward, turned around and struck out at his back. Bannog turned round, letting his chainmail take care of the blow. He made a quick grab for Ariciel’s staff, trapping it under his arm. The other end of his own staff shot forward, stopping a half-inch short of Ariciel’s cheek. They stopped. Ariciel looked aside.

“Eep,” she said.

They looked at each other, grins slowly appearing on both their faces.

“Alright. Point for you,” said Ariciel. She tilted her head. “One more round?” They separated, took a few steps back. Now that they had an idea of how good they both were, they could adjust their techniques to match. And hit harder. Ariciel showed a graceful economy of movement, without a gesture wasted. Bannog, on the other hand, used his strength and weight to force his way through Ariciel’s blocks, and achieved the quick changes in direction he needed by sheer muscle. It was clear that Bannog could do more damage with a single blow, but Ariciel’s speed and her talent for striking where Bannog’s defence was weakest meant that she got more chances. Another advantage she had, was that due to the glow in her eyes, Bannog couldn’t easily see what she was looking at. Also, though he would never admit it to anyone, not even Ariciel herself, he took a couple of hits simply because he was watching her. The fight went on, until Bannog was forcing Ariciel further and further back. She felt her back leg hit a table, and she couldn’t retreat further. Jumping onto the table was probably suicidal as she couldn’t see what was on it. Desperate times, desperate measures. Making sure that Bannog knew what she was looking at, she drew back the bottom end of her staff, then swung it forward in a low arc. Bannog gasped. She wouldn’t! He lowered his staff to block this vilest of blows, which was just what Ariciel had been waiting for. Her staff changed direction, and before Bannog could respond, it hit his shoulder and stayed there. While Ariciel was not a muscle-bound Human, she could hit hard enough to break bones, and this counted as a head shot. Bannog gave Ariciel a Look.

“Eep bloody eep,” he said. The bloody oldest trick in the book, and he’d just fallen for it!

Ariciel smiled, and said a single word.

“Priorities.”

There was a cough from the other end of the room.

“Are ye finished playing now? You’re standing between a company of Dwarves and their dinner!” Roars of approval from the crowd. Bannog and Ariciel put away their tools of destruction, gave a hand putting the tables back and dinner was served: Great bowls of stew.

Bannog poked Peterselie. “Win anything?”

Peterselie shook her head. “I bet on a draw. She won.”

Ariciel shook her head. “No I didn’t. He threw me first, when I wasn’t expecting it. Nothing to keep him from punching my lights out.”

Bannog pointed out that Ariciel had got in a few good shoulder shots before that, which could easily have been head shots.

“You are very fast, lady!”

Rob laughed and slapped Bannog’s back. “But headshots won’t hurt this one much. Never uses it anyway!”

Peterselie shook her head. “That’s all speculation. If I had, but then she would have… So for betting purposes, you just count the number of hits.” Peterselie radiated feminine pride. “And looking at it like that, she flattened you!”

Dinner finished, and the Dwarves stoked up the fire and got out their musical instruments. Rob picked up a frame-drum: a round frame with a goat-skin head, almost like a tambourin, but larger and it didn’t have any bells. He laid his left hand on the skin inside the drum, and with a small two-headed drumstick in his right hand started tapping out the rhythm of a reel. By pressing his hand more firmly against the skin, or releasing it, Rob was able to vary the tone of the drum. The drumming continued for a while, then another dwarf joined in on a small copper whistle. The high pitch of the whistle blended with the deep tones of the drum, and a third dwarf started to follow the tune on a mandolin, occasionally strumming a chord. The musicians got into their stride, and switched to a different reel. The tune sped up, changed key, then finished with a high note on the whistle. There was a round of applause, then another dwarf struck the strings on his harp, and sang a sad song in Dwarvish that brought tears to Ariciel’s eyes, even though she could not understand the words. After that, Mountaineer Stormpike himself sang part of a duet with Peterselie. When they finished, Peterselie looked at Ariciel. Ariciel thought a few seconds, then smiled. She stood up, and sang a song by the same poet that had written the song she and Bannog had heard Lirael sing in Stormwind. Bannog sat quietly in a corner, enjoying the music and the ale. He really should learn to sing a few songs. Ariciel’s sad excuse for a quarterstaff was lying on the table. How much better she could do if she had a proper one! Bannog smiled, and produced his writing kit. Without Ariciel noticing, he wrote a small note to Quartermaster:
 

From Bannog the Younger, at Algaz Station, Dun Algaz.
Quartermaster.

 
I’ve just spent a rather hectic half hour or so in a friendly
quarterstaff sparring match with Ariciel. Keeping in mind your
advice on not beating up girls you like, she won. But the poor
girl has to go out into the world with three pieces of firewood
lashed together. Could you ask Selena for one of her staffs and
send it to me? Tell Selena I’ll make her a new one and send it
back when I get the chance. Ariciel is about the same height as
Selena, so one of the copper-shod ones should be just fine. I
just haven’t the time to carve her one now, as she’ll be on the
boat the day after tomorrow.

 
Yours, Bannog the Younger

He tapped one of the Dwarves on the shoulder and asked where the post box was. The Dwarf pointed, and Bannog quietly stole from the room and posted his note. Then, he returned without Ariciel noticing.

It was time to retire. They picked up their packs and were shown to two beds in the communal sleeping hall. Ariciel simply curled up under her sleeping bag, but Bannog fretted a bit: His feet were sticking out beyond the mattress. He tried moving up, but that was worse. Finally. he got close to comfortable, lying with bent knees diagonal across the bed. Ariciel chuckled in the dark.

“See? Bigger isn’t always better!”

Bannog yawned. “Sorry. I’ve made all my grubby remarks for the day. Come back tomorrow.” Ariciel’s eyes shone at him in the dark. She reached out and put a hand on his arm.

“I’ve been awfully mean to you tonight. Sorry.”

Bannog laughed quietly. “I like sparring with you. Wouldn’t want to fight you for real.”

Ariciel sat up. “You’d win. I’m not really a fighter, except to defend myself.” She turned her face to Bannog. “I saw you at work in Elwynn, against those thugs. I wouldn’t have lasted a minute.” She lay back down. “And besides, I prefer to do other things with you than fighting.” Though it was dark and he couldn’t see her face, Bannog heard the smile in her voice. “And that’s not meant as a grubby remark.” She turned over, and a single word, quiet as a whisper, drifted across to him.

“Entirely.”


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

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