Tattered cloaks soaked by rain, the refugees huddled before the gate of Gilneas City. A constable in a black velvet waistcoat stalked past the ragged hopefuls, a heavy-jowled Gilnean mastiff sniffing the mud-caked boots. At random he’d pull a rucksack or bag from clutched hands, rummage through the contents, and throw it down in the mud upon passing inspection.
The man nearest me, dressed in the patchwork remnant of what had once been a fine suit, sighed. Like most Gilneans he wore a stovepipe hat, his riddled with holes. At times, the guard shouted, his archaic invective occasionally clarified by a Common word.
I’d stumbled across the refugees as they hiked towards the capital, necessities crammed into fraying rucksacks and their scrawny children in tow. I introduced myself in Common, but their faces indicated no understanding. They probably thought me a lunatic, but at least one harmless enough to tag along. I could only assume that they were fleeing the worgen. I’d thrice encountered the worgen in the past, and did not relish the idea of doing so a fourth time.
Having inspected us to his satisfaction, the constable ordered the armored guards to step aside. Passing through the gate, we emerged into a nearly deserted courtyard, our surroundings as gray as the stormy sky. A single Gilnean, wrapped to his chin in a thick greatcoat, hurried past us without a glance. Narrow alleys spilled out from the plaza and into the city, winding through shadowed eaves and the guttering light of oil lamps. We heard only the sound of rainwater pouring into storm drains and clattering on the steep, slate-tiled roofs.
Not wanting to stay in the grim space, we turned east through one of the connecting streets. Rain fell through a narrow crevice between houses, the sides of the street already ankle-deep in water. Only a sliver of gray sky remained visible, the passage soon as dark as night. Ahead of us, windows slammed shut, and forlorn dogs barked in closed-off alleyways.
We drew together, a few of the women singing a song that might have been a prayer. Oil lamps stood few and far between, dying flames flickering in bulbs of burnt glass. Some of the doors that we passed had been nailed shut with wooden boards, like a city in the midst of a plague.
At last the street opened up, depositing us into a triangular plaza. More crowded than the gate area, destitute Gilneans huddled under tents as women in dove-gray robes ladled soup from a fat cauldron. A few armed guards stood at the edges, speaking in the rough and yowling Gilnean tongue.
One of the attendants hurried to us, conversing with the dour-faced man who seemed to be the refugee leader. Her compatriots ushered us into the tents, one of them placing a wooden bowl in my hand. I soon found myself sitting next to a venerable Gilnean garbed in assorted and multi-colored castoffs. He shivered beneath his thick clothes, a scraggly white beard reaching down to his chest.
He spoke to me, his voice scarce above a whisper, and I could only shrug in response.
“Forgive me, I’m afraid I don’t speak Gilnean.”
He blinked, astonished.
“You’re from Lordaeron? How in the world did you get here?”
“I purchased a pass to Gilneas at great cost, before the wall was raised. Since then, I’ve been living off the land as best I could. Now, with things so chaotic…”
“I fear you are no better off in the city, my good sir. This is a troubling time. I count myself fortunate that I will not have to concern myself with it for much longer. My name is Stewart Ellinson.”
“I’m Ordian Sterrenus. How did you learn Common?”
“I fought alongside the king’s men! When Greymane made the call, I answered as did every other patriot of my time. With us, the Alliance marched all the way down to Blackrock Mountain, where we showed the greenskins of what we Gilneans are made!” He thrust a scrawny fist in the air as he spoke.
“How did a hero like you end up like this?”
“I worked on a farm for many years. Hard labor, but we are a hard people. Circumstance forced me here during the Northgate Rebellion. Rebels seized my farm and pushed me out when I refused to deny the king.”
“I heard a little about the Northgate Rebellion, but I don’t know the specifics.”
“What is there to say? Cowards and traitors spitting on the word of their liege! King Greymane built the wall to protect this green and ancient land. He took no joy in walling off the north, but what choice did he have? Darius Crowley turned traitor, proclaiming the wall an error!
“Like a disobedient child fearing the belt, he slunk away to his friends in the lonely corners of our kingdom. He thought our liege held too much power. Everyone knows that Crowley just wanted the throne for himself. Nobles, brigands, and others flocked to his churlish banner.”
“How did it end?”
“As it must in any Light-blessed kingdom. Crowley now languishes in Stonegate Prison, not far from here, his compatriots dead or in hiding. I think King Greymane was too merciful with the cur,” he sniffed.
“And now the worgen?”
“A sad thing it is, for those beasts to roam the kingdom. Some say that it is a sign of heaven’s wrath for letting Crowley live, but I do not doubt my king. I take no joy in telling you that the worgen are in the city as well. There is no safety here.”
“I noticed that much of Gilneas City is boarded up.”
“Some ran from the city, hoping for sanctuary in the countryside. They will not find it. Now is the time for action, when every Gilnean shall stand together in the name of king and country! I only wish strength had not fled my withered form.”
I offered to get Stewart some soup, an offer that he gladly accepted. I returned with a bowl full of some kind of turnip stew. He accepted it with trembling hands, and I fetched another for myself.
“Truly, you know the Light. Whatever I might say about Lordaeron’s politics, we are blessed to have the men of faith that hailed from its alabaster towers.”
“Did you ever see the capital?”
“A fine sight it was, gleaming in the summer sun. I went there as a part of the victory celebrations. If only King Menethil had not chosen to spare the orcs… I fear that mercy is a trait that our monarchs share.”
He told me more of his life after the war, working on a wheat farm in a place called the Headlands, under the jurisdiction of Lord Barthrowe. His wife and all but one daughter had perished in the catastrophic famine that swept Gilneas soon after the kingdom’s self-imposed isolation. Barthrowe’s tax and harvest collectors soon stopped arriving (the noble himself lived in the capital), and the Northgate rebels seized the land.
“What happened to your daughter?”
“Little Mary? We used to call her that for she was always ever so tiny, a delicate little thing even as she grew up. We quarreled often, I fear. I struck her for her impudence—such a fiery thing, as tough as iron—and each blow strengthened her resolve. She fled not long after we got here, and I’ve not seen head nor hair of her!”
His wrinkled face screwed up, though only for a moment.
“Pardon this old man his ramblings. I know you’ve no such desire to hear of such things.”
“No, it’s fine.”
“We Gilneans are made of sterner stuff than that.”
Talking to Stewart felt like traveling back in time to the Second War, perhaps even before that. He spoke Common quite well, considering how long he’d been away from the outside world, but his was the Common of 30 years past. Gilneas is a time capsule.
Night drew near, and Stewart’s shivering grew worse. I offered him my coat, which he apologetically accepted.
“An old dog like me should not be demanding so much.”
“You fought in the Siege of Blackrock Mountain. No one in this city would be alive today had it not been for the courage of you and your comrades.”
“Thank you, my lad. It is good to hear that.”
I fell asleep as Stewart snored fitfully in his rags, a hollow wheezing underlying his breaths. When morning arrived, as damp and cold as its predecessor, he was dead.
I crept out of the refugee camp on silent feet, the early morning fog rendering me a faint shadow. Avoiding the darker paths, I headed west on a broader street. Though morning, the city still looked all but abandoned. Men in shabby suits checked the gas lamps, refilling them from brass canisters.
From what I had seen, I judged the Gilneans to be a better fit for the Horde than the Bilgewater Cartel. I do not say this because I believe their society to be ideal; certainly they are retrograde in many respects. But they appeared no worse than the Horde’s orcs, and perhaps shared a common warrior spirit. Unfortunately, that same quality may engender hatred for the orcs that once threatened Gilneas.
Lost in the fog and winding streets, my lip curled in frustration. Why did the Horde deem me suitable for this task? Surely they could have found somebody who at least spoke Gilnean. Though I had been in similar positions of linguistic isolation, never before had the international stakes been so high.
I could not even assume that Stewart was by any means the norm for lower class Gilneans. Perhaps he had been some embittered royalist fanatic. I could infer information from what the poor man had said, but there was no way for me to know if my inference was correct.
I passed scores of neglected-looking pamphlets nailed to posts and walls, inches thick in some parts. The most recent showed heroic Gilnean troops protecting cherubic women and children from slavering worgen. Most relied on pictures, though some displayed short and bold slogans.
I did not yet trust myself to approach most Gilneans. My cover story seemed too flimsy for such a fearful kingdom. Skorg had said it should do, but he knew less of Gilneas than did I; I suspect that desperation had rendered him impulsive.
Coming to a stop at a stout granite wall, I realized that I stood before Stonegate Fortress. In ancient times, Stonegate was a humble motte-and-bailey castle to which Gilnean shepherds fled when under attack from the restive gnoll tribes. For centuries it had acted as the seat of the Greymane monarchs until they relocated to their ancestral estate in northwestern Gilneas. Today, the medieval castle is almost buried by the steep gables and high chimneys gathering around it like carrion birds. Glass windows and steel fences along the walls are the only concessions to modernity.
Going north, I crossed a stone bridge going over a sluggish canal. I hadn’t seen more than a dozen Gilneans the entire morning. Though the fog had begun to lift, the drizzle remained. I entered what I guessed to be the Merchant Quarter, where the streets grow a bit wider, and the houses still look cherished. Dark flowers grew in wooden planters, and ash trees spread their limbs over empty markets.
Looking up from where I stood, I saw a sign placed over a doorway’s gothic arch. Beneath a mining pick laid under a stylized crown was the title: “Hoddington Royal Exporte Companee.” Looking inside the window, I saw a gaunt clerk scribbling away with a quill pen. As an export company, perhaps someone inside spoke Common.
I knocked on the door, almost flinching at the sound. Who knew what sort of trouble I might be getting into by such a reckless act? The door opened an inch, held in place by a small chain, and the clerk peered through with cautious eyes.
“Pardon the interruption, but does someone here speak Common?”
Surprised, the clerk drew back. I heard a sliding noise as the chain fell away, and the door opened. The clerk ushered me into the office. Logs crackled and burned in a stone hearth at the far end of the office. I counted ten wooden desks, of which only three were occupied. The other workers, similar in appearance to the first, tried to focus on their tasks.
The first clerk bade me sit down on a bare wooden chair next to the fireplace. A gilded picture portrait hung on the wall over the mantle, showing a rather cruel-seeming man with long black sideburns. I heard the clerk speak to someone in another room, followed by footsteps on the wooden floor.
“Good day, good day! Well, I must say I am surprised to see a Lordaeronian in Gilneas. Are you quite comfortable?”
The man speaking to me looked to be of means. His short black hair was immaculately combed, and a golden watch chain twinkled where it hung out of his vest pocket.
“Oh, but where are my manners? My name is Jacob Stonwyn, appointed by his honor Lord Danforth Hoddington to run the regional office for the Hoddington Royal Export Company!”
“I’m Ordian Sterrenus. I used to sell luxury goods to select Gilneans, namely good and honorable men like your liege. Respect for your king obliged me to remain in Gilneas, but I tried to live out in the countryside, hoping to make it on my own. Needless to say, I failed.”
“I must confess that I have not heard your name before, but that is no matter. I mostly dealt with buyers of ore.”
“If I might ask, how is business?”
“Limited, but we continue selling the fine ore for which Lord Hoddington is known.”
“To whom do you sell?”
“King Greymane, of course. His generosity and Hoddington’s influence in court guarantee that our company will remain profitable for the foreseeable future! You know, there is a small community of outsiders here in Gilneas City. Lordaeronians and Tirasi, for the most part. We only allowed the most reputable sorts within our kingdom, so you may be assured that they make good company.”
“Thank you. I was actually wondering if perhaps you had any work available. I’m afraid that my ability to speak Gilnean is limited—my late wife acted as my translator. I fled the countryside due to the worgen infestation.”
“Oh, well! I suppose I could find you a reasonable position. You are an important person after all. I must first confer with Lord Hoddington, of course.”
“I would expect nothing less.”
“Goodness, you only just arrived here haven’t you? I do beg your pardon, sir, I was not aware of your difficult circumstances.”
“It is no matter. I am still alive, and that is what counts.”
“Indeed. I regret that there is little in the way of hospitality that I can show you in this office. However, until you are able to find lodgings appropriate for your station, you are welcome to stay with my family.”
“That would not be an intrusion?”
“Not for one such as yourself. We can go right now if you’d like.”
“There isn’t any work here that demands your attention?”
“I suspect today will be rather quiet.” Speaking briefly to his subordinates, he donned a thick black coat and top hat. Grabbing a stout cane, he motioned for me to follow.
Outside, a rag-picker wandered through the streets, hunched over in a gray and shapeless cloak. Holding a wooden bowl in a near-skeletal hand, he implored us for alms. Jacob withdrew a copper coin from his pocket and tossed it at the beggar. The man ignored it, letting it fall to the cobblestones.
“Outrageous that they now get access to the Merchant Quarter, and are not even graceful enough to accept gifts. Food is worth more than money these days, but that is no reason to be disrespectful. I do hope you did not have to mingle with such sorts on your way here?”
“I did. They helped me reach the city.”
“They are sometimes capable of great generosity. A word to the wise though,” he said, leaning in closer, “never admit that street beggars or rural farmers helped you in any way. Doing so is sure to sully your reputation. Times are unusual, of course, but the rules are rules.”
I followed Jacob through the streets, the loud tap of his cane like a signal beacon in the fog. On occasion we passed other Gilneans of substance, their faces grim and fur collars pulled high. Only a handful stopped to greet Jacob.
“Ah, I remember the grand old days when I could scarce walk across the street without a dozen well-wishers and friends coming to say hello. Now, nobody wishes to spend any longer out of doors than they must.”
“Is it really that dangerous?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. The point, my friend, is that people think it is dangerous. I must say that I am surprised that you came to the city. Hundreds of Gilneans have already fled to other towns.”
“Why? Isn’t the worgen infestation worse out in the countryside?”
“There have not been any reports of worgen attacks in the larger townships, like Tempest Reach. Food is easier to come by, or so they say. Something to do with those preposterous harvest witches.”
“Oh, madwomen who claim some connection with faerie that grants them power over nature. The whole idea is rank superstition, the refuge of spinsters and old maids. They even claim that they halted the famine, if you can believe that. And here we are!”
Jacob pointed to a tall and narrow house, distinguishable from its neighbors only by a green door, painted bright to the point of incongruity. His pace quickening, Jacob opened up the door and called out in greeting.
Past the threshold awaited a world of warmth and color, a place of thick rugs and soft chairs basking in the hearth’s ruddy glow. Bookcases bulged with well-thumbed tomes, the shelves decorated with plaster busts of scholars past. Portraits of esteemed Gilneans crowded the walls, sharing space with a veritable garden printed on wallpaper. Opposite the door, a tall grandfather clock ticked away with reassuring authority.
Hearing footsteps on the staircase, I looked up to see a pale brunette wearing a stiff pastel green dress that reached down to her soles, innumerable petticoats rustling as she walked. A few loose ringlets added a touch of insouciance to hair done up in a very proper bun.
Moments later, with a loud percussion, a bundle of energy hurtled down the steps. Jacob knelt down and stretched out his arms as a small boy jumped into them. Clasping the child, Jacob spun around on the wooden floor, laughing heartily before putting the boy down. The woman laughed at the sight as another girl, in her early adolescence and dressed similarly to her mother (though in blue rather than green) looked down from the top step.
Speaking in Gilnean, Jacob switched to Common as he introduced me.
“Ordian, I am honored to have you meet my dearest wife, Eleanor, and my two darling children: William and Rebecca.”
Before I knew it, I sat in a chair so soft that I was nearly drowning in the velvet upholstery, my hosts insisting to see to my every need. Eleanor spoke Common with fluency and Rebecca had studied it for several years, her proficiency limited only by a lack of experience.
“I think, as this is a most momentous and august occasion, that it would be fitting to pour a glass of sherry for our guest. The real sherry,” said Jacob.
“Of course. Rebecca, fetch your father and his guest some glasses. I will get the bottle from the cellar. Please forgive the lack of help around her; our serving girl disappeared a year ago, and we have not been able to find a suitable replacement. The lower Gilneans grow more inconstant each month.”
Understanding, the girl smiled and went to a squat cupboard at the other end of the room, beneath a painting of the moors at sundown. Her mother opened a circular door under the staircase and soon reemerged, carrying a long and slender bottle, the label boasting its Tirasi origin.
I squirmed amidst the comfort, my gut twisting with the same guilt I’d felt in Exodar. I, a liar and a monster, accepting a graciousness I did not deserve. I reminded myself that, with any luck, the Gilneans would soon befriend the Horde. Certainly the Kalimdor Horde would approve of their hospitality.
Jacob, Eleanor, and I made a toast to Gilneas once the glasses filled up. Taking a drink, I tasted an echo of the beverage’s intense sweetness. I had never really cared for sherry while alive. Undeath has limited, but not changed, my palate.
As gray afternoon descended into black night, the Stonwyn household stayed a bright island of good cheer. William lit candles around the sitting room as Eleanor and Rebecca went into the kitchen to prepare a dinner of roast pheasant. I contrasted it to the less formal family structure of old Lordaeron; I can scarce imagine my mother taking to a strange and unexpected guest with such alacrity. Perhaps Eleanor’s enthusiasm was forced, but it appeared genuine.
Middle class Gilnean décor tends to the visually busy, every inch of space crammed with designs. The furniture in the Stonwyn home was heavy, clearly the property of someone well established. As afternoon gave way to dusk, Jacob drew my attention (with laudable subtlety) to some of the more notable pieces.
“That clock is a point of pride for this family, if I may say so. I inherited it from my father, who received it as a gift from Lord Hoddington. I believe it is of Lordaeronian manufacture.”
Nearly everything in the room seemed to come from Lord Hoddington.
Dinner arrived, and we relocated to a narrow but handsomely appointed dining room. Wax candles burned on silver holders, and a full-length portrait of Jacob Stonwyn in a military officer’s uniform hung on the wall.
“A bit ostentatious, perhaps, but I did serve. I saw no combat, however.”
“Yet you are still brave enough to frighten away any orc, dearest,” laughed Eleanor.
Looking at his wife, his eyes brimming with a deep fondness, Jacob smiled and took her hand.
“Is she not marvelous, Ordian? Eleanor is far more than a wretch like me deserves, and I am ever thankful for her.” He kissed her hand, and she curtsied in response.
Knowing I would never be able to experience such joy, I could only force a smile. As we ate, Jacob spoke in greater detail of his work, which consisted of little more than sitting at a desk and waiting for directions that never came. He seemed to understand the superfluity of his position, while still hoping that good times would return.
Upon dinner’s completion, Eleanor cleared the plates. At their father’s urging, the children began to play music. Rebecca took up a maple wood violin while her brother sang, his voice high and clear. Unable to understand the words, I found myself imagining new meanings, the merry and freewheeling tune inspiring thoughts of a heath at springtime, when the wildflowers first come into bloom.
We clapped heartily at the song’s conclusion, his children bowing in response. I was impressed (and perhaps a little perturbed) at William being so well-behaved; fairly obedient in my own childhood, I’d have still been fidgeting after spending so much time watching adults speak in a language I didn’t understand.
The family soon retired for the evening, Jacob showing me to the guest room, a crowded yet lavish chamber half-filled by a luxurious bed. Pale angel statues emerged from the walls, white hands holding up glass lamps. In the candlelight, I noticed a row of perfume bottles near the bed, a silent reminder that the house lacked plumbing.
I sank like a stone into the too-soft mattress, drawing the wool blankets to my chin. Outside, I heard the rumble of a passing stagecoach, and a driver’s rough shout. I wondered what to do next. With their values of martial courage and loyalty, along with the presence of an oppressed underclass, I imagined that Gilneas would be a good fit with the orcs.
I spent a full week with the Stonwyn family, every one of them endeavoring to make my stay as pleasant as possible. Jacob promised me an audience with Lord Hoddington (apparently a necessity if I was to be hired) as soon as he returned from vacationing on his ancestral estate.
“It used to be that the lords took their holidays in Southwood or Kul Tiras. In a sense, we are lucky in that we will not have as long to wait.”
Jacob also provided me with information regarding the Northgate Rebellion. King Greymane had built his wall in the Misty Pine Pass, the most strategic available location. This had the result of isolating (and dooming) the northernmost portion of the kingdom. Lord Darius Crowley and several others protested this move, and moved against the king. Jacob had nothing but loathing for Lord Crowley, whom he described as a traitor and a subversive. Jacob also said that Lord Crowley had long agitated for constitutional reforms, which he saw as proof of his wickedness.
The Stonwyns adapted well to their declining living standards. Each morning, the children went out early (under Jacob’s escort) to draw water from the nearby well. Formerly the work of servants, the middle classes did this chore before dawn so that the lower classes would not see them in the act. Getting water became a furtive, shameful affair, different families saying nary a word to each other around the well.
The worthlessness of Gilnean money has made it all but impossible to hire servants. Lower classes typically barter for goods, and the Stonwyns were reluctant to part with their personal possessions.
I shouldered some of the household chores, on occasion taking the children to the well or helping Rebecca learn Common. Most of the schools had closed and the tutors had fled, forcing the Stonwyns to manage their children’s education. When I said I could help in cleaning the household, Jacob interpreted my offer as a strange joke.
“I am quite serious,” I said.
“My friend, men do not do that in Gilneas,” he said, whispering with a nervous smile. “Certainly not well-bred men like you and I.”
Gilneas takes its social roles very seriously. When a sleepy William protested his pre-dawn water gathering chore, Jacob’s face turned red and his eyes hard. His right hand raised and shaking, he spoke in a cold and blustery tone. William instantly complied. I have no doubt that Jacob was entirely, utterly devoted to his family. However, I was astonished at the sudden transformation he underwent the moment his children showed recalcitrance.
I made a few surreptitious visits to the lower class neighborhoods, but was unable to glean much information. The language barrier proved impossible to overcome.
In her quiet way, I think that Eleanor held the Stonwyns together. Jacob spent his days in an office, waiting for work that never came. Eleanor made sure that the family kept its lifestyle even as the world around them sank into entropy.
Eleanor and her children spent some time each day making clothes and other goods, made out of cast-offs. They would then trade the items for fresh food and needed supplies. Trade is also done in secrecy, and Eleanor donned a voluminous hood when she ventured out into the marketplace. I doubt that the Stonwyns were fooling anybody, but the pretense served a valuable psychological purpose.
The dinner that I’d enjoyed on my first night had been a luxury; preserved goods are the norm. As they worked their handicrafts, Eleanor gave basic lessons in literature, mathematics, and history to her daughter. I actually offered to help Eleanor in her manufacturing, and she reacted with the same shock as her husband.
I do not mean to say that Jacob was a layabout. As I said, his devotion to his family was supreme. However, if he left his post for more lucrative work, he’d lose everything. The Stonwyns did not own their house, it being a gift from Lord Hoddington (as was Jacob’s job at the company). He had no choice but to stay at his desk. I did once see Jacob bringing home a hatbox containing a crude basket, which he’d presumably made at the office. I asked him about this, and he clumsily denied it.
“It would be more than a little insulting to Lord Hoddington if I wasted his company’s time on petty handicrafts. You are my guest, Ordian, but please remember your manners.”
“My sincere apologies, I was not aware that I was causing offense. I regret that I am still so ignorant.”
“Never fear, you are learning quickly,” he said.
I also accompanied the Stonwyns to a service at Light’s Dawn Cathedral. By its nature, a cathedral must be somewhat imposing, but should reflect both the power and the inclusive nature of the Light. Light’s Dawn Cathedral, with its many sharp spires and windows of red glass, seems designed to repel.
The cathedral underwent significant renovations after the Second War, becoming the first religious building to incorporate steel girders. Intended as a display of Gilneas’ wealth, the steel can be seen holding in place the large glass dome built over the nave.
At the tolling of the iron bells, the parishioners line up according to social status; the nobles in front, and the retainers behind them in order of importance. The Stonwyns occupied a midway position. As a guest, I stood behind Jacob and Eleanor, with their children.
Much like the Gilnean houses that I had seen, going past the bleak outer façade takes one to an almost comfortable interior. Wood paneling covers the floor and ceiling, giving the place a reassuringly homey look. Placed on a high dais, the pine altar bathes in rosy light shining from three stained glass windows done in the gothic style. The overall impression is far more welcoming than is the Cathedral of Light’s rather sterile sanctuary.
We took places in what I learned were assigned pews. Acolytes lit candles and burned incense as the congregation sang various hymns. At times, a senior priest read passages from a vernacular copy of the Exegesis of Light. Worshippers stood up and sat back down at various points in the service, all of them (except me) knowing exactly when to move. Eventually, an elderly priest gave a brief sermon, and the service came to a gradual end with more songs and readings.
Once the final hymn came to an end, the socializing began. I watched as Jacob and Eleanor talked to other families, always taking time to introduce me. A few greeted me in Common. Eleanor also took Rebecca to see a gawky young man named Worthel Burl. Pale almost to the point of translucence, Worthel followed his father (John Burl) like a fearful puppy. John and Rebecca made a brief introduction, and ushered their children forward.
Rebecca and Worthel stood in the middle of the sanctuary, and I felt a pang of sympathy for the boy as all eyes focused on him. The two of them spoke in stilted tones for what seemed like forever. At last, Worthel bowed and Rebecca curtsied, and the two parted.
“Worthel is John Burl’s eldest son,” explained Eleanor. “He is a promising young lad, considered very handsome, and with good connections. He and Rebecca will likely be married in a few years.”
“Do they meet very often?”
“Ever week, in the church, before the Light and all Gilneas,” she laughed. “A bit daunting to be sure.”
“Only in Light’s Dawn?”
“As is proper. They will have plenty of time to better know one another after they are wed.”
“How long has this been planned?”
“Eight years. The dowry will be taxing, but it will be worthwhile. Mr. Burl is a kind man, and I have every reason to think that Worthel has inherited that trait. Nothing but the kindest for my little one,” she sighed.
Dowries and arranged marriages fell out of favor in most of the human kingdoms even before the First War, existing only in a few rarified and out-of-touch aristocratic circles. In Gilneas, the customs stayed strong, and children are used as bargaining chips. To the Stonwyn family’s credit, they did not see marriage as a purely financial transaction. I learned later that the Worthel had been selected more for his sterling reputation than for the connections that the Burls could offer (certainly the Burls were not lacking in this regard, but there were better options within the Stonwyns’ reach). Of course, reputations can be deceiving.
The congregation filed out of Light's Dawn to a gray and heavy afternoon, thick clouds bulging with rain. Jacob and his family home at a brisk pace, casting anxious glances skywards.
"I still remember the grand old hansom cabs that would take us to and from the church. I wonder what happened to them," he sighed.
Upon returning home, the family retired to the sitting room. The storm broke soon after, a constant barrage of rain hammering onto the roof and the walls. Eleanor knitted next to the fireplace while Jacob taught his children the Common tongue. Gilnean education is based on rote memorization, similar to what I'd undergone as a child. Rebecca seemed a capable enough student, writing Common verb conjugations in painfully neat handwriting.
Rainy weather and empty streets are not unusual in Gilneas, yet something in the air that day felt peculiarly oppressive. Jacob kept drifting off, his tired gray eyes looking away from his children and to the shadows that pooled in the corners. Eleanor prepared a simple dinner of biscuits and turnip soup (more typical fare for the Stonwyns), and they went to bed soon after.
Back in the guest room's overstuffed darkness, I realized that I'd have to be more aggressive. Of course, once I did talk to Lord Hoddington (or some other noble), I'd face a new set of challenges. The harder I tried to concentrate on my own shoddy plans, the more my ideas seemed to fall apart under the weight of complexity and uncertainty.
I awoke to alarmed shouts outside my room, in the alley adjoining the house. I first dismissed it as the voices receded into the night, but took notice when I heard more commotion, the sound of wood breaking. More yells rang down the streets, and then came a howl that I knew all too well, that awful mix of human and animal. I remembered hearing it in the shadows of Duskwood and in the mud streets of Solstice Village.
Untroubled by doubt, I got out of the bed and ran upstairs to Jacob and Eleanor's room, the sound of my footsteps on the creaking staircase probably awakening the entire house. Monsters howled outside the house, and gunfire responded. I knocked loudly on the door.
"Who is it?" called Jacob.
"Ordian! Do you hear what's happening outside?"
"Stay where you are."
The door opened to Eleanor's eyes, wide and fearful. Still in his nightclothes, Jacob stood by the shuttered window, a brass candlestick shaking in his hand. Licking his lips, he nodded at me.
"Eleanor, get the children. Ordian, go with her, I will make sure that nothing happens up here."
Eleanor practically bolted, flying down the hall to where the children slept faster than I thought it possible. Talking and moving at the same time, she scooped them up from their beds and half-pulled, half-carried them back to Jacob. Jacob had taken an old blunderbuss out from under the bed, looking at it the way one might look at a snake. Jacob spoke in consoling tones to the children.
"Jacob, I do have some experience in the arcane. I will help defend your family."
"Where did you learn—never mind, that doesn't matter now. I am sure that the guards have it under control."
No sooner had he spoken then did the alarm bells start ringing, the damp air suddenly alight with their brassy cries. A voice came from down below, and Jacob went even paler. Daring to open the window an inch, he looked out and responded. Jacob stepped back, seeming to regain some of his composure, and spoke to his family. Then he turned to me.
"Ordian, get your things. We are going to evacuate; some patrolmen are waiting outside, sent here by Lord Hoddington."