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Archive for December, 2012

I sometimes shudder to think of the millenia to which I have stood witness. The spirit of my companion, Valar, has existed in more creatures, whose life spans are but the blink of an eye, than I can recall. The ghosts of the Tor Melarorah live in my thoughts as if this stay in Telaar is but a resting place in our travels, and yet in the same moment, they are distant as Argus itself, and in their absence, the hollowness of the village is exacerbated.

Seated thus on a carved stump, the simply garbed draenei strummed a single experimental note on the lute and cast a glance around the vacant inn. The draenei’s only audience was her dogged companion and the remote Caregiver. Isel looked up to the bard, from polishing a wine glass, and the ghost of a smile curled the corner of her mouth. “Play a song for an old innkeeper, will you?” This request was met with a sly grin from the bard herself, and she assented with a brief nod.

The pale bard shifted her long fingers on the neck of the lute and regarded the newly arrived dwarf with a speculative gaze. Another strum of the lute sounded, and she drew in a breath. alien as the Draenei was – although perhaps not on this planet – it was an odd sound that originated from her chest. Low and resonant, her voice slid into the melody of the song, and when it formed to words, they echoed across the vast chamber.

“We drink to our youth, to ages come and gone

For the eon of oppression is now surely done…”

The first notes of that song were slow, and if an audience was present, the familiarity of the tune would have picked up the atmosphere. It was a melody that was common, whose original lyrics adapted many a time to fit various occasions. Rhythmic plucking of the chords brought forth the next verse, which the minstrel sang out,

“We’ll drive out Sargeras from this realm we call home,

with our blood and our faith we will take what we own.”

The Caregiver grimaced at the sound of the accursed name, and the bard herself could feel the ghosts of paranoid viewers from audiences past. Something flickered in those oceanic eyes of hers, and with the melody picking up pace, she launched into the chorus.

“All hail the Light! To its praise the Prophet sings,

as the Naaru bear us atop their own wings.

We’re the chosen of Salvation, yet we fight all our lives,

And when the Legion does find us, every one of us dies…”

The dissonant notes wove through the chorus and came to an abrupt halt with the last word in the verse. This was the moment where dead silence, followed by raucous laughter would fill the air. As it were, to the Caregiver who heard the song a dozen times, only the faintest of smirks was given, and the wolf at the bard’s side snorted in his sleep.

The foreign minstrel carried on nonetheless. The cavities of nose and lungs lent the song a resonant air, and the bangles on her wrists jingled with each movement of her arm. The chorus was thence repeated, seceding a particularly detailed note by the lute, and the bard settled in for the final verse, as there was no particular need for the song to go on for any length of time.

“This world is ours, and we’ll see it wiped clean…”

Her voice traveled throughout the vaulted ceilings of the inn, and with a few more chords plucked from the lute, she concluded very softly,

“Of the scourge that has sullied our hopes and our dreams.”

With the closing of the melody, the bard cradled the bowl of the lute in her lap and turned her head toward the Caregiver, who erupted into an appreciative applause for the lonesome performance. “That was lovely,” Isel assured, and the bard met the compliment with a slight bowing of the head and a faint smile. “It was no particular trouble.”

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Dusk was falling over the moor, and with it heavy clouds that rolled over  the frame of mountains that surrounded the highlands. Into a space on the lee side of a rock outcropping, the mage blinked into existence, with a field of arcanic energy congealing to her solid, tangible form. A gloved hand was touched to one of the rocks, and brazenly, she thrust her head into the natural doorway created by the slanting stones. It was, as suspected, what she coined a “Traveler’s Hollow”, with a small space protected from the wind by the formation of the stones. An aged, blackened ash pile in the center marked its previous use. A moment was taken for brief inspection of the ash, before she turned to glance over her shoulder at the rugged woodsman. “It’s safe,” she assured with a smile, before slipping through the crevice herself.

She was followed shortly by the woodsman, who thought the torrent of spitting rain made the hollow a desirable companion for the night. A whinny of protest announced Liandrigh’s great stallion’s disapproval of getting his coat wet, and the sound was met by a lilting chuckle from the mage herself. The two had spent the majority of the day traveling over the rocky hills of Arathor and settled down into the moors.  The former glory of Stromgarde stood in the distance.  Campfires of Syndicate highwaymen and the remaining Arathi Retainers flickered in heavily barricaded parts of the streets. “Bloody rain,” Artairr cursed.  “It stays dry for months on end, but the day we choose to depart it follows us like a lost dog.” Churchill lifted his tired snout at the mention but then returned his nose to his paws.

“You wanted to go back into the city? We should wait for nightfall for a safer passage. Not tonight, climbing the rocks in rain is a fool’s way to die.”

“I love the rain,” countered the mage. “If I didn’t think marinating in drenched garments was an awful idea, I would’ve been dancing in it already.” This was delivered with the assurance one might have of a widely known fact. Her features, however, darkened with the mention of the city. “I needed to find the archives,” She stated, and loosed the straps binding her bedroll, before spreading it out to the best of her ability in the cramped hollow.

Artairr grumbled to himself. Of course she needed the archives, the room at the heart of the city under hidden passageways and old black halls.  The smell of the musty books already filled his nose. “Aye, we’ll get you there.  Not tonight, there isn’t in good in bringing a corpse to a bookshelf now is there?” A fire had been light and the wood cracked in the flickering flames.  Clad in leather boots and light mail, the woodsman looked like a relic from ages past.  His companion, born of the ‘tramp’ generation, as Artairr called them, fit the description perfectly.  Their horses snorted and whinnied outside as the water started to hit their coats.  He had half a mind to bring them into the hollow, but their blankets would suffice.

“What is it that you’re exactly looking for? The last time I found you mucking about you nearly burned the damn place down!”

A guilty smile flashed across Liandrigh’s lips at that particular reminder, though she grew quiet for a long moment. In the silence, her attention was given in the form of scratches to the wolf as her thoughts ran in circles around her head. Finally, she drew in a breath through her nose and blurted out swiftly, “I am trying to locate my brother, Branwell. Branwell Grant.”

The hunter’s face contorted at the name.  An old wound had been opened in his heart and he had to turn his head away. Don’t say it, he thought bitterly.

Not a muscle movement of his face had escaped that watchful gaze of hers, and a long thought was given to the possibility of it. “He’s probably dead,” She added bitterly, with an undercurrent of pain that was likely noticeable. “… I thought the newspapers might have been a good place to start.”

As Artairr roasted two fetched hares on a spit, the skinned meat cracked and popped in grease. Churchill eagerly awaited the moment they were finished cooking and Artairr desperately looked for something else to speak about. “There are many ghosts in those cellars. Are you sure you wish to climb down there and disturb them?” His metaphor meant more things than one.  The rain had picked up and the woodsman became more and happier with their choice of shelter.  The horses were spared from the downpour the best they could, as the branches of tall oaks shielded them from the heavy wet drops.

“You may not like what you’ll find Liandrigh Grant.”

She had long since felt a degree of familiarity about his features, and though they hadn’t exchanged names, his recognition of her was enough to spark her own of he. Where eyes had previously been resting hungrily on the cooking rabbits, they snapped back to his face and her mouth formed a small ‘o’ with surprise.

“Artairr!” His name was thus blurted, and a degree of excitement replaced that surprise on her face. With it, she sat up quite straight from the slumped posture previously held. “You must know! Something, at least…”

She averted her gaze and stopped quite suddenly in her flurry of words, only to continue a moment later on a sombre note. “I have to know,” She declared.  “I haven’t anywhere else to go, nor anyone else to see.” This admission was uttered matter of factly, and any pain over it had long since been dealt with.

He couldn’t look her in the face, but the long-eared hares were finished roasting and the woodsman handed her a smoking skewer.  The meat had been seared more than he liked, and he worried for a woman’s taste. By luck of the draw in terms of personality, Liandrigh was by no means a finicky lady. The grand banquets of Dalaran seemed like a different life altogether now, and when offered the skewer, she unceremoniously tore a leg from the rabbit. Churchill put a large white paw on her lap to signal attention. Despite the dark conversation, a slight laugh welled in her throat with the wolf’s begging, and she sacrificed a small piece of meat to sate his cuteness.

“You look like your mum.” He spoke, with the Highlander accent thick in his voice.  A Knight’s courtesy left him as the two spent their days together.

“You’ll not find anything in those cellars, nothing but secrets and old memories best be forgotten.  I knew your brother. I knew him well.”  Artairr leaned back against the stone blocks that formed their nook. “Funny thing is that when I close my eyes and think about my father I can’t even remember his face.  Not like how it is, but your brother, aye I remember him well.  A handsome lad, like your father.  Big green eyes that were filled with wonder. He and I followed Lord Lothar across the world.  We were too young to fight, but we tended to the camp.”  Artairr took a bite of meat, and grease licked his chin and clung to his red mustache.  He couldn’t see her directly, but he knew that her heart bled.

She ate silently while she listened, and though slightly over-cooked, the meat tasted heavenly as ever. The quality of her diet had improved vastly since she had accompanied Artairr, and soon, she suspected, her hipbones might not stick out like knife points.

“They always said he looked like Da,” She added softly. “I don’t mind listening to stories. Truth told, I don’t remember much of Bran, because by the time he was supposed to come back, I’d left with Ma and Auntie Jen.”

It felt odd to utter their names in so careless a manner, when for so long she had been strangled on the mere existence of them. While her core ached, she knew it was better to air her thoughts than keep them bottled, or pretend they didn’t exist.

Artiarr knew both of the mentioned ladies well.  In fact, he knew the family line as far as it stretched back to the first Branwell Grant that settled in the crossing.  Artairr’s family name was self-chosen by the pikemen of the Highlands.

“When we were your age we signed up for the White Falcon’s.  It is a rather frivolous name to be told.  We were cavalry men that rode up and down the Highlands.  The war had been won then, and we had the unceremonious task of overseeing the internment camps between Durnhold to the veiled sea.” There was a hidden falcon of Strom etched in ink on his back that only a few had seen.

The mage listened to the woodsman’s recount far more attentively than she ever had any professors in any lecture theatres.

“When word came up in Lordaeron about a plague we went there to help.  Foolish men, he and I. We should have settled down and had four or five pups, but who could shame us from seeking glory.  When the going got bad he and I were separated.  The last I saw of him was at the battle of Crows Crossing.  I haven’t heard word of him since.”

While the tale was spun, the image of her brother came clear in her thoughts. He hadn’t the vibrant, fiery hair of Liandrigh herself, but rather the sandy chestnut of her father, with the green eyes Artairr had mentioned before. Her nostrils flared quite suddenly and her lips pressed tight together, as her hazel eyes started swimming with unshed tears.

She had to fight with herself to not let those waterworks spill over, and she touched her forehead lightly to hide her face. A moment later, in an even tone, she replied lightly, “I can’t imagine what it must have been like– the plague.” She had heard of it, but hadn’t so much as witnessed one of the Scourge until she emancipated herself from the clutches of the Kirin Tor.

“At first we thought of it as some sickness running rampant through the cities.  It came and went so quickly that we could hardly understand what was happening.  When the common folk started to get black spots at the lumps in their throat and then die we grew worried.  The dead fell faster than we could have ever imagined and it wasn’t a fortnight before they were walking again.” Artairr’s voice sounded old and troubled.

Liandrigh tried to comprehend the horror of watching the plague from start to finish, and related it dimly to her experiences traveling south from Northrend. There weren’t many encountered on her way, as Grizzly Hills and the Fjord were largely exempt from the Scourge, but she did recall one such occasion, and the horror written on the creature’s face that couldn’t feel such things any longer.
For a moment, the peaceful fire in the barrow took on the scent of the creature’s roasting flesh, and a great shudder wracked her narrow frame.

The woodsman tossed the remaining bones to Churchill, which were ravenously cleaned of any meat. “We were low in the south along the edge of Caer Darrow.  The wicked school of Scholomance sat high on the hill.  When the dead start roving the woodlands we thought the peasantry spoke of ghosts.  It wasn’t until Darrow Hill was burned and the village slaughtered we knew the truth… then word came from Stratholme.”  Artairr’s eyes couldn’t face her.  It had been the most he had ever spoken about the plague.  Its wickedness sat heavy on the lost parts of his mind.  “Your brother and I,  we stuck together as long as we could.  While he was three years my junior, he was thirty years my elder in the face.  His hair already gray from war.  I always spoke about going home, and he just smile and nodded.”

Though she wasn’t cold, she drew her cloak tighter about her shoulders and stretched out a hand to rest lightly on the scruff of Churchill’s neck. While she had beaten the tears that threatened to spill over into submission, she could not battle the ache in her heart over such words, and her hazel gaze gradually lowered to her pack in the corner of the hollow.

“Before I went to Dalaran, he wrote me for a time. I was very young. Ma taught me to read and write, but I was never an eloquent one.” She paused in her words and laughed shortly. “I would send him scraps of parchment with nothing written on them, save for what I had eaten that day, and maybe something I’d done.”

A smile had begun to upturn the corners of her mouth. “I remember his writing, and how he would tell me about the things he saw.” A small shrug moved her shoulders. “I still have them – the bundle was one of the only things I took with me from Stromgarde to Dalaran, and back.”

The thought amused him greatly. “This must have been before we went to Lordaeron.   Writing was easy then.” He licked the top of his fingers, his stomach still growling for more.  Liandrigh had offered food many times to him before, but he had refused.  There was a pride in him that refused to be quelled.  This pride diminished however when he continued his story.

“When we got to Crows Crossing there was a holdfast built high on the hill.  By this time the war had waged and the young Prince of Menethil had sailed north.  The reports from Hearthglen were dire and Tyrs Hand was three days ride south before the dead caught us.” His fingers itched for his bow, a natural habit when he thought of the battle.

“We had run out of arrows on the third day.  They assailed us with the fleshy ones at first.  Their grotesque bodies absorbing as many fletchings as they could.”  He looked over to the long goose-feather arrows that lined his quill. “The draw bridge across the canyon was smashed to keep them from the gates, only a hidden sally port was our to-and-from the hold.  Bran rode out to find help.  He had hoped he could reach Tyr’s hand and bring a host far enough north to relieve us.  It never came.”

Her rabbit was progressively getting to sheer bone status, and though the tale was gruesome, she ate the meat hungrily, no matter what it made her think of. “Was it airborne, then? How’d you know you weren’t infected with it just by being around the creatures?” She inquired grimly, with a fiery brow quirked in question.

He had to think.  There were so many explanations of the plague that it was hard to keep fact straight from fiction. “At first they thought it was just ghost stories of grief stricken widows about their lost ones.  But as more and more reports came of the walking dead we had to believe it was true.”

Truth was a hard thing to swallow. War was as thick of lies as it was of death. “Some people blamed the Trolls in the hills with a great vex.  Others claimed it was the end times, ready to reap the lost souls of those who were gone.  We knew those who ate grain were the first to be infected.  It was mostly the common folk because their diet was so much dependent on bread.  But when the dead struck down the living and saw them rise up again, we knew there was something more foul than we could ever understand.  Finally, when we saw the abominations rise up and cross over the tops of the hills, we knew that the foulest magics were at play.”

Artairr hated magic.  It had done nothing but bring him trouble, and he couldn’t count how many times Liandrigh burned him versus some other unfortunate soul.

“It was the final night of the siege when the undead came again.  This time they had constructed a bridge of bone and raised it across the gap.  Soon a ram was at our gates and we knew our end was soon.  When they broke through the door, it wasn’t long before the garrison was overrun with them.  I managed to leap from the walls into the lake below.  I can’t say I expected to survive the fall.”

The mage had since eaten all that she could of the rabbit and made its bones a donation to the ravenous Churchill. In the absence of anything else to do with her hands, she rifled through her bag for a simple ivory comb, and began to brush out the knots in her lengthy crimson locks. “The bread,” She echoed softly.

“There was no grain for the students in Dalaran. All cheeses and salt meats, some conjured food.” She shifted in her cloak. “There was a time when the new wave of students was taught to conjure sweets, rather than breads, cheese, and water.”

Her head tilted a fraction to the side and suddenly a grin broke out over her features. “They all fattened up like spring lambs. I was never talented at conjuration m’self.” Her stark brows drew together. “I never progressed past the stage of conjuring things out of something that already existed. A stalk of wheat to a loaf of bread, for example– I have to draw on properties that already exist.” She shrugged again. “My blame rests on the professors. How am I supposed to learn anything reading from a parchment, rather than knowing it with my hands?” It was a rhetorical question asked to the fire, which crackled in the middle of the hollow.

“If you find your brother, then what?” He said to interrupt her string of consciousness.

“What will do next? Surely he’ll try to take you home, or somewhere.” Artairr knew the answer but he wondered what she saw him for. “What if you find the truth of what happened to him and it crushes you? Do are you prepared for what you might find?”  It was such a bitter thing, to think of the dead.

Ghosts never left Artairr.  They troubled his sleep as he stirred and once or twice he had found Liandrigh over him, holding his face still.  They have slept near each other many times.  Once, when it grew cold he found her balled up against him shivering in the night.  “Are you prepared to leave this life of traveling? The Grants are a well to do family, I’m sure they may want their wayward daughter back.”

Liandrigh was caught off-guard by that question. “I hadn’t thought. I always assumed I’d figure it out if it happened, but truth told, the odds of him being alive don’t sound well, however much I hope for it.”

A great sigh was heaved through her knife-edge nose, but with the last question, her attention was rounded upon sharply. Her hazel eyes widened and she affected an imperious tilt to the head. “I will die if I must go back,” She uttered fervently. “The very thought of it strangles my breath.”

“It was made very clear to me that, unless I adhere to their expectations of me, I shouldn’t be considered family. That this is the path I’ve wrought for myself” The flame was the unfortunate recipient of a ferocious glare from the mage, and her long fingers curled into fists.

“Though destitute and hungry, this life is one vastly preferable to where I came from. The moor- – it sings to me, aye?” Another breath came, and with it a wave of calm that ushered her fingers apart from each other.

With her gloves since unwrapped, she stretched out her digits against the dilapidated skirt and stared at the burn scars that mottled her flesh. The texture of burn scars was an odd one. It was smooth in the way flesh shouldn’t be, like a shiny, glassy surface, undermined by ripples of awkward healing. Beauty was certainly no stranger to the mage, but perhaps those hands of hers were the proverbial kryptonite. As such, they were almost always gloved – at least around the knuckles and palms. Her fingers, thankfully, were free of scarring. The ragged woodsman was one of the only aside from her family and nurses to see the mottled flesh, and that he made no comment nor drew any discomfort from it comforted her.

Watching her fidget with the burns, Artairr spoke low in his gruff harsh tones. “The burns are reminders to the life we will live, not the life we have lost.”

“I should think I deserve residence in Dalaran as much as a wolf deserves to be caged.” Liandrigh growled.

“Men are never meant to be caged.” Artairr said quietly to himself.  A long pipe rested between two fleshy lips.  Artairr enjoyed the musk of the tobacco, finally letting himself rest against the stone pillars of the hollow. “Arathi men most of all.  The gods gave us rolling hills and tall mountains to make us roam.  They gave us the golden grass and sharp stones to please our hearts.  These views were never meant to be shared from the panes of windows.  Perhaps that is why Stromgarde had become what it is?”  Hurt pride sat angrily in his heart.

“Then so be it.  If you wish to be an urchin, then I can give you an urchin’s life.  For I do not have the means to give you a better one.” His accent started to become apparent again.  “The Highlanders own nothing but their freedom, no lords to oppress us, no laws to rule us. We are free, right little bird?”

The mage was written for a life where marks of the flesh were merely tales to weave, rather than blemishes to be hidden. His speech had thus enchanted her, and by the time he concluded, it was a large smile that met his eyes.

The tobacco floated his mind into the clouds.  He could see her gaze settle on him curiously, wondering what stirred in his head.  He set the pipe down, watching the fire dance and flicker in the night.  Churchill had already tossed himself on the side, his paws twitched in dreams and his cheeks puffed with muffle barks. His voice was soulful, morning, and sound.

‘To her eyes he spoke
And his heart did broke
They had seen all to be seen
In a life once full
She had and empty face
He put the blossoms on her early grave

Liandrigh had been progressively sinking into reverie, but it was the low sound of Artairr’s voice that snapped her attention back to reality. Her features shifted into some mixture of awe and surprise, and she listened quite eagerly to the song, curled up as she was amid her cloak and bedroll on the other corner of the small hollow.

Tears of hope
And his voice did croak
He dreamed all to be dreamed
Of white and pearls
And littered with lace
And the world of her beauty she gave

We are free
We are free
We will never stop to be
Of white and red and of falcon wings
We will always be free’

The old woodsman mimicked his sleeping hound and rolled onto his side. The bedroll that was patched and broken let his head sit wearily in the quiet.  A long stretching yawn echoed past his lips as he watched her before heavy eyes shut. “We will always be free”.

With only a few cracks in the rock, rain still got in, but the warmth of the fire kept it the cold at bay. What was left was a heady mixture of tobacco and bonfire scent, of which Liandrigh breathed deeply, as she settled more comfortably into a wedge between two rocks. The song filled her mind as her eyes fluttered shut, and toward its end, she was uncertain if she had dreamt it, or if it had occurred in reality. Nonetheless, she heaved a soft sigh of contentment and drifted into the realm of slumber alongside he and Churchill.

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