Sunday, September 30, 2012

Gilneas



((There may be a few discrepancies in this entry regarding the sequence of events.  The chapter takes place after the fall of Gilneas City and ends shortly before the attack on Duskhaven.))

*********

We ran in darkness, hemmed in by gaunt houses and the hot breaths of panicked crowds.  The Stonwyns kept together, each person holding someone's hand as they fled, faces fading in and out of lantern light.  Gunshots pealed in the narrow alleys, aimed at the lithe shapes leaping from roof to roof, their claws scraping the shingles.  All at once, Gilneas City had turned in on itself, the gray streets like slavering maws as its inhabitants tried to escape.  We tried not to hear the awful screams that came from behind shuttered windows.

Another fleeing mob merged with our own, more feet slapping against the wet cobblestones.  Someone next to me cried out, pitching forward, and I reached out to grab him by the back of his coat.  His weight threatened to pull me off-balance and I pedaled my feet to keep moving forward, somehow avoiding a fall.  The man I had caught wheezed a thank you before another terrified Gilnean came between us.  Moments later, I realized that I'd completely lost sight of the Stonwyns.

Howls shook the sky, piercing out from peaked gables and chimney tops.  I heard fighting in the street parallel to the one we ran, shouts and snarls intertwined in a single sound.  The crowd pressed closer together, reminding me of antelope herds pursued by lions.  I could only join the stampede. 

Passing under a tunnel, it took me a while to realize that we'd escaped the city.  We kept running down the paved road leading out of the capital, the swampy moors around us lost in the night.  Whether or not the king's men still led us, I had no way to tell.  At last we began to slow, exhaustion creeping up legs and chests, the Gilneans taking deep gulps of the cold air. 

The lead lantern bearer stopped and turned around, sweat glistening on his blocky face.  Holding up the light, he spoke, his ragged voice attempting reassurance.  Looking out into the pitch darkness stretching for miles in all directions, he shivered.  A few Gilneans spoke up, their tones questioning, but no one had any answers.  We continued at a slower pace, the Gilneans casting backwards glances into the gloom.  I tried without success to find any of the Stonwyns in the crowd, and prayed that they’d soon reappear; it was difficult to make out anything in the confusion.

As it turned out, nineteen of us had escaped into the countryside, including Eleanor and Rebecca.  Her tear-streaked features twisted in anguish, Eleanor clung to her daughter, wracked with silent sobs.  Rebecca bore up with a forced calm, her cheeks bloodless and her eyes wide.

“Ordian!  Did you see William?  Or Jacob?  Light save us!” she wailed.

“Eleanor, I am sure that they are fine.  They’re probably safer than we are—“

“You do not know that!”  She cried out, a long and wordless wail. 

Dawn brought paltry light to the gray clouds.  A steady drizzle had picked up during our escape, the drops growing heavier by the hour.  Those of us with overcoats gave them to those unfortunates still dressed in their nightclothes, their faces nearly blue from the cold.  We’d reached the sodden heath of Gilneas, a capacious landscape of hills and bogs spreading for miles around the capital.


Not knowing where to go, we kept walking away from the city, Eleanor too despairing to make any sound beyond quiet weeping.  Soon after sunrise, we spotted an abandoned farmhouse.  I took point, opening the front door and investigating it for worgen.  Finding it empty, we decided to use it as a temporary base. 

Unable to scrounge up anything better than damp kindling, I used magic to light a spark in the cold hearth.  The barren sitting room soon filled with the dank smell of a fire on a rainy day.  Most of the Gilneans in our group were simple laborers; Eleanor, Rebecca, and two others unknown to me came from the middle class.

“I am glad to have you here, even if you are a foreigner,” remarked one, a thick-bodied man with white streaking his red muttonchops.  “You seem to be a fellow of good standing, so Martel and I—my name is Connell, by the way—will start figuring out what to do.”

I gathered that Martel was the other bourgeoisie, a jaundiced-looking clerk shivering in a corner.

“I was with some others, Jacob Stonwyn.  His wife is—“

“We will worry about that later.  This lot is our responsibility now, so we had best find a way to keep them safe.  Martel, do you speak Common?”

Martel jumped in shock at hearing his name.  He gave Connell a confused look.

“Apparently not.”

“Why not in Gilnean?” I asked.

“Best to get these poor beggars some hope; maybe they will think we know what we are doing this way.  The city is out of the question—“

“Forgive the interruption, but we should try to ask them what they think.”

“You are not in Lordaeron.  Gilneans don’t think like Lordaeronians do, they want direction.  Our responsibility is to give it.  Our best option is to stay here and wait for the authorities to retake the city.”

“I suppose it’s reasonably defensible, but what about food?  I can conjure some, but not enough for everybody.”

“I am a close personal friend of Lord Barthrowe, whom as you know, is a skilled hunter.  I had the privilege of going along in one of his hunting parties several years ago, and am quite capable of catching game.”

“Are there many large animals here on the moors?”

“Only one way to find out.”

Connell raised his arms and gave a short speech, his tone gruff and confident.  He began directing the Gilneans to various tasks; some he sent to stand outside and act as lookouts, and directed the more physically able to join his expedition.  I noticed the latter category stepping up to the task with obvious reluctance; I doubt they felt much confidence that they’d stay the hunters in such circumstances. 

“Give everyone a place, that is the key,” he chortled to me after finishing.  “You ought to stay here; a scrawny fellow like you will not be of much use on the field, though I imagine you can teach those beasts a thing or two with your spells.”

With that, he left, tramping off into the grass with his rifle in hand.  As he left, Eleanor got up from her seat, wiping the tears from her eyes.

“Forgive me, Ordian.  I should not have let my emotions get the better for me like that,” she stammered.

“There’s nothing to forgive.  We’re all quite safe.   I’m not sure if I’d have acted any differently under the circumstances.”

“Nonetheless, it is not appropriate.  I must be strong for Rebecca, and for the others here.  Seeing me as a silly girl weeping like that—inexcusable!  I will make myself useful in whatever way possible.”

“How well do you know this area?  Do you think Connell will find any large game?”

“He is a friend of Lord Barthrowe, so I am sure he would know better than I.”  He voice shook, and she closed her eyes for a second, taking deep breaths.  “My husband entrusted you to guide me to the rooms of Rebecca and… William.  I trust you to lead in his stead.”

“Eleanor, I know very little about this area.  You are a Gilnean; if anything, you should tell me what to do!”

“I thought you had lived out in the country.”

“I did, but near Duskhaven.  I went to town to get food, barely talked to anyone,” I lied.  I vaguely remembered a settlement in southwestern Gilneas called Duskhaven.  “What do you think?  Should we stay here?”

“Part of me yearns to go back to the city, to find Jacob and William.  Light, where can they be?  Staying here—who knows what monsters lurk in these hills?  I pray that Connell gets back safely.”


I conjured some bland arcane bread, giving it to Rebecca and another youth, a boy of about thirteen.  He took the offering with great surprise.  The Art can be taught, but it takes months to learn the first cantrip, and many months more before even the simplest conjuration. 

One of the Gilneans went to the well and pulled up a bucket of murky water.  The refugees were starting to feel hunger pangs, and we scoured the homestead for any dried goods.  Unsurprisingly, we came up empty.

At noon, the earth shuddered beneath our feet, sawdust sprinkling from the roof as the old timbers groaned and swayed.  The jolt subsided, only to start up again seconds later.  Surprised Gilneans jumped and ran to the door as the quake moved furniture across the floor.  We heard a terrific crash from the second story and the ceiling exploded into splinters as planks fell through to the floor, the entire house seeming to tumble.

All at once the quake stopped.  I’d been thrown to the floor by the force.  I pushed myself back up, half-afraid a wrong movement might destroy the structure.  No one had been hurt, but the farmhouse was clearly out of the question.  Already in bad shape, the whole thing looked ready to collapse.  This gave us no option but to stand outside in the cold.  Though no longer raining, the dark clouds promised more and worse to come.

Gilneas is located on a tectonic plate that presses into Silverpine (creating the mountains for which the region is known), so earthquakes are not uncommon.  Still, to get it after so many other misfortunes seemed like a bad omen.

Connell returned shortly before nightfall, one of his aids carrying a bucket full of soft and moldy apples.

“We found an orchard only recently abandoned.  I’d rather have venison, but it will do for now.”  Connell looked half the man he’d been in the morning, soaked through and visibly exhausted.

A laborer (named Joffrey, I later found out) had found some old tarps in the cellar.  With some effort, we managed to set up a tent.  Damp and cold, it at least offered a bit of protection from the rain.  The more vulnerable took shelter, while the rest of us stood outside, including Eleanor.

The earth quaked and shifted all through the interminable night, and lightning cracked in the darkness.  We must have endured a dozen small earthquakes in just a few hours, making sleep impossible.  After the first, the house gave its last, leaning to the side and collapsing in a heap.

Eleanor led the refugees in a hymn, their wan voices fighting against the crack of thunder.  My mind returned to the last days of Lordaeron, hiding in darkness with the pain of hunger, watching the world die.  

We all gave prayers of thanks when morning came, though the ground still shook with alarming frequency.  The restless earth had pushed the fence posts a full foot north during the night.

“It is as if the world is ending,” said Eleanor, hugging herself to keep warm.  “There has never been an earthquake like this.  The city must be in ruins—“

She forced herself to stop.  Some of the refugees helped themselves to apples and I conjured some more bread.  Connell sat in the mud, unable to either sleep or to stay awake.  I’d seen that sort of situation before, and knew full well that it would not be long before people started to die.

Not long after sunrise, a lookout spotted a lone Gilnean on the road, headed away from the city.  Seeing us, he ran to the camp and fell to his knees, sobbing.  Some Gilneans covered their faces.

“The city has fallen,” whimpered Connell.

*********

We walked for days beneath weeping skies, the soil made a grasping mire by the downpour.  The earth rumbled as if in pain, and we watched as entire forests sunk into the mud, the world eating itself.  At dusk the western clouds blushed with flashes of violet light, a phenomenon that none had ever seen.  Windstorms picked up without warning, screaming as they knocked grown men to the ground, only to vanish moments later. 

The first refugee died a few days south of the farmhouse, an older woman named Samantha who simply collapsed mid-step.  Without any digging tools, Eleanor and I covered the body with rushes and kept on the path.  As Connell shrunk into a fearful ghost, Eleanor emerged, a pallid queen in catastrophe, Rebecca her loyal retainer.

With Gilneas City in the hands of the beasts, and our only shelter ruined, we had no choice but to go further into the countryside.  I entertained the idea of taking the Gilneans north and appealing for sanctuary among the Forsaken, but quickly dismissed it.  My words carry no weight in Undercity, and I knew too well the hatred that blinds my people.

Duskhaven to the west and Stormglen to the south were our only reasonable options.  Duskhaven seemed the better of the two: large and near the king’s personal estate.  But the strange sights and sounds to the west gave us pause.  So too did the fact that many of the refugees so recently entering Gilneas City had fled from the worgen-haunted countryside around Duskhaven.

This left us with Stormglen, the very name of which caused several of the Gilneans to blanch.  Wedged between craggy seaside bluffs and the nightmarish Blackwald, it is a town of strange reputation.  

Eleanor announced the decision, and Connell went along without complaint.  I tried to get Eleanor to ask the other Gilneans, but they showed little inclination to disagree.  As far as I could tell, they were glad that someone else had chosen for them, even if they turned pale at the mention of Stormglen.

We kept to the road, the paving shattered by the endless quakes, some portions buried by mudslides.  My own travel experience proved useful, and I was able to keep us on the path in spite of these obstacles.  We foraged at dusk, finding berries and roots and, on one occasion, a family of rabbits.  Howls echoed in the night as the worgen bounded through the fog somewhere in the distance.

Martel, the clerk, simply vanished on the third night.  We found out when we awoke, and no one could say where he had gone.  I think everyone suspected the worgen, but none wished to say it.  Two more died later that day, a man named Showard and a woman named Erietta, felled by hunger and cold.

We reached Gilneas’ high and rocky southern coast on the fourth day, currents swelling and crashing against the gray cliffs.  Romastes Cortellus, the medieval Lordaeronian poet, wrote effusive on Gilneas’ melancholy beauty and it is easy to see why.  Hardly a welcoming land, the fogbound moors and gnarled forests inspire the darker emotions.  Gilnean popular literature celebrates the morbid and passionate, perhaps as a response to the constrained lives of its readers.

Perhaps no locale quite evokes Gilneas like the Blackwald.  Its black and thorny trees shrouded in a year-round fog, the Blackwald seems made for superstition.   From the road, we could just see the Blackwald’s edges, the twisting branches like tendrils in the mist.  

“Ordian, do you know the stories they tell of Blackwald?” asked Eleanor.  Her eyes had turned as hard as stones during the journey.  She kept walking by virtue of sheer willpower, though her gaunt cheeks and slumped shoulders revealed the extent of her exhaustion.

“Only vaguely.”

“Consider yourself fortunate.  I did not select this route lightly.  My father used to tell me, on rainy nights, how the old ones fled to remote places as the cities of men rose up on the plains.  Many lurked in the Blackwald, luring in peasant children with dancing lights.”

“Old ones?”

“The lords of faerie, masters of dreams and spinners of illusion.  Anyone who set foot in the Blackwald put himself at their mercy.  Some found themselves welcomed into neverending banquets and dances, at last emerging 50 years later though not aged a single day.  Others ended up on the platter, grisly feasts for their hosts.”

“Do you think these are true?”

“Doubtless there is some truth to them.  It is said that the blood of fae runs through the veins of Stormglen’s men, that they are attuned to the Blackwald in some way.”

“Is it safe to seek shelter with them?”

“None doubt that they are a brave bunch, fine Gilneans to the last.  If anything, they will protect us from the darkness in the Blackwald.  Many of the harvest witches came from there.  Some think them charlatans, but I suspect there is more to them.”

“I’ve heard of the harvest witches.”  Jaocb had told me, though I did not mention this.  As if reading my thoughts, Eleanor continued.

“I felt it yesterday.  Jacob is dead,” she uttered.

I looked at Eleanor, her face almost set in grim acceptance, though her lips trembled slightly.

“He may still live.”

“I appreciate your attempt, good Ordian, to protect me with noble lies.  But I feel it in my bones.  William too, I fear.  I will weep later.  Rebecca needs me, and it is clear that no one else here can care for her.”  She glanced at Connell, who stumbled along in the rear, half-asleep.

Three more Gilneans, Joffrey, Lizaveta, and Gordon, perished in the night.  Another died the morning after, a man named Darson.  Whittled down to twelve, we pressed on to the east, the shadowed tangle of Blackwald inching ever closer to the road, a beast waiting to pounce.  I conjured food, again giving it to the youngest and weakest, painfully aware of how little I could really do for them.

The fog intensified the closer we got to Stormglen, and the earth still shook several times a day.  The refugees kept close together, not letting anyone go out of sight.  Despite our best precautions, a woman named Bellinda disappeared on the sixth day.  For what seemed like hours we called her name, no one daring to leave the road for fear of losing it.  She never reappeared.

That night, a strong ocean wind cleared some of the mists, letting us see the damp and rocky fields.  We walked less than a mile from the Blackwald, its edge almost a solid wall of rough wood.  We reached our destination shortly before noon.

Doubt darkened Eleanor's eyes when we saw Stormglen Village.  Always under Blackwald’s shadow, the people of Stormglen had never been able to rest easy in their homes.  By the time of our arrival, it appeared that they had given up the fight.  Black trees root in the streets, their dry limbs pulling at the shuttered windows of ancient homes.  A blood-red moss native to the region grows around the sagging pits of caved-in roofs, ocean winds moaning through empty halls. 


Eleanor gasped when she saw the thin spiral of smoke wafting up from behind a many-gabled roof.  Still, she did not hurry, taking measured steps along a path of broken cobblestones, past rosebushes weighed down by bruised and blackened flowers.  Noting the open doors absent of any light, I readied my magic.  I remembered the looters who had drifted from town to town during the Third War, carried on the winds of strife.  They’d defended their prizes with sharp knives and hard hearts.

Four burly Gilneans sat around a sputtering fire, sparks straining to take hold in the damp wood.  Dressed in heavy coats and top hats, their neatly trimmed beards suggested that old comforts had not yet entirely died.  Two of them cradled aging blunderbusses that probably dated back to the Second War.  A mule, laden with heavy packs, stood on knobby legs near the quartet.  Eleanor walked at the front of the column, a smile on her weary face.

Summoning all the authority she could muster, Eleanor began speaking to the Gilneans, who got up and offered her a seat next to the fire.  Emboldened, the refugees inched forward, starting to hope but not yet daring to give in all the way. 

“Ordian, providence has delivered us.  These are the footmen of Lord Barrows.  His grandfather, a hunter of some renown, built an estate on the edge of the Blackwald.  A goodly number of Gilneans have found shelter there,” said Eleanor.

“Excellent.  But what happened to Stormglen Village?  No one seems to live here.”

“The villagers fled to Tempest’s Reach, a few days northeast of here.  They departed with great haste, leaving much of the stores behind.  That is why Lord Barrows sent people here; we cannot afford to waste a single crumb.”

Sure enough, the lead footman (whose name I learned was Tormley) began passing out jars of preserves, mostly fruits and salted meats.  Tormley’s team was one of several combing the town.  They planned to return to the Barrows estate shortly past noon, not wishing to travel during the night.  I rested on a stone planter surrounding a patch of rosebushes.  Colored a pale yellow, they were easily the biggest rosebushes I’d ever seen, and the arrangemet of petals looked almost too artful to be real.  Thorns, no sharper or longer than nubs, studded the branches.

Eleanor took a seat next to me, her shoulders slack with gratitude.  Examining the roses, she spoke for a moment in Gilnean.  Seeing my confusion, she explained.

“An old poem, that we all recited as children, describes what each color of rose represents.  Yellow is for friendship, a bright and merry color that bespeaks the joy that comes from friends.  You can even see the thorns on these speciments, worn down to show how true friends get along with one another, despite differences.”

“These traits were bred into the roses?”

“Indeed.  Stormglen Village grew the finest roses in all Gilneas.  There is a quality in the soil here that is unique—perhaps the legacy of faerie.  You can say more in a single rose than with a thousand words.  We all heard stories of women going mad or killing themselves when their beloved gave them a pink or yellow rose instead of a red.”

“Red symbolizes love?”

“Love for which one is willing to die.  I remember how I used to fear Jacob would find another.  I would wait in my father’s sitting room for hours, hoping he would come by, all the while imagining him with some other lady.  The day he arrived, the red roses in his hand—“

She broke off, gripping her knees and closing her eyes.

“We must be strong,” she said, more to herself.  “Color is not the only way in which these flowers speak.  The breed carries a message of its own.  Have you seen the Gilnean rose?”

“No.”

“Red in color, like what my Jacob gave me.  Yet it symbolizes a love of country, the patriotic sense that we need now more than ever.  The Gilnean rose has the longest and sharpest thorns of any variety, so that our enemies know they will suffer if they trouble us, and a reminder that we must willingly spill our own blood.  You can see these roses on the kingdom’s crest.”

Tormley soon guided us to his liege's estate four miles northeast of Stormglen.  We walked on a dirt path winding around the Blackwald's edge, keeping as far as possible from the sinister forest.  Surf crashed against the rocks to the south, and seagulls turned on cold winds under the gray clouds.  Emboldened by their good fortune, the refugees kept up a fast pace as if to spite their hunger.

A three-story stone lodge in serious disrepair, the Barrows estate still looked a good sight better than anything else we'd encountered.  Thorny trees had broken through the wooden fence and birds roosted in the outlying buildings.  The tents of Barrows's men signified more recent activity.  I watched as Tormley explained the situation to another footman, who nodded and knocked on the house's oak door.

However great a hunter his grandfather had been, Lord Barrows looked as if he'd never spent a single day out of doors, with his etiolated skin and sunken eyes.  Still dressed in the finery of Gilnean wealth, he gave us a wan smile.  Singling out Connell, he spoke for a while.  The other man nodded with the stiffness of a marionette.

"Lord Barrows welcomes us," whispered Eleanor.  "He is glad to help the people of this kingdom, as is his responsibility."

I exchanged glances with Eleanor, who appeared more comfortable with the situation, and followed her as she went towards the door.

I followed her into a cavernous parlor, its eaves cloaked in dust and cobwebs.  Old furnishings hinted at the estate's former grandeur, like the matted bearskin rug pulled out in front of a hearth where a timid fire flickered in the grand hearth.  Lord Barrows motioned for us to sit on the crates placed around the fireplace, his teeth chattering.


"I understand that one of our guests is a Lordaeronian.  Good Ordian, you will be happy to know that I am well-versed in your language," piped Barrows. 

"You speak it flawlessly."

"A Gilnean who counted for anything had scarcely any choice but to speak it well.  A declining standard in this grim age, sad to say, but we shall keep the old traditions alive in this merry hall."

"Forgive my impertinence, milord, but might my daughter have some food?  We are both very weary," implored Eleanor.

"Of course!  Dallon!  Fetch our guests some of yesterday's venison."

A stout man in faded livery melted out from the shadows at the aristocrat's bidding.  He bowed in acknowledgement before disappearing through a doorway.

"I come from a long line of hunters," boasted Barrows as he sat down, his movements slow and aching. 

"You honor your predecessors by continuing the tradition, milord," said Connell.

"Is there a lady of the house?" asked Eleanor.

"No, I regret to say.  My wife died in a riding accident, almost five years ago today.  I never found a suitable match since then."

Lord Barrows went on to discuss life about the estate, evincing little interest or awareness in the troubles afflicting Gilneas.  My companions listened attentively, offering the occasional compliment, their tones light and submissive.  Dallon eventually returned with a tray of cooked deer's hind leg, fresh through unseasoned.  Lacking utensils, Barrows' pale fingers tore off a chunk of flesh and popped it into his mouth with relish.

"Forgive the lack of knives and forks.  We cannot afford to let the commoners see us eat this way, though there is a sort of pleasure in such atavism."

Connell nodded, while Eleanor observed Barrows in silence, her eyes cloudy. 

"The wine cellar is full of vinegar at this point.  I fear I let the estate go to seed during the Northgate Rebellion.  I am optimistic, however.  There is every reason to think that order will be restored.  I certainly do not fear a bit of rough living.  Might I add that your lot makes for serviceable company?  You are all proud examples of Gilnean—and in Ordian's case, Lordaeronian—shopkeepers."

"We are honored, milord."

“Assure yourselves that you are far better than the chattel outside.”

“They will be given food, won’t they?” I asked.  Lord Barrows’ mouth dropped open in surprise.  Connell roused out of his stupor to shoot me a blistering gaze, and Eleanor seemed only slightly less shocked.

“Good sir, I suggest that you remember whose hospitality it is that you are enjoying!” spat Barrows, his pale cheeks flushed.  “I know that in Lordaeron the burghers once grasped at the titles of lords, and rats in human form walked the streets in pride.  Need I remind you which nation still stands today?  I think not.  Lest you think I am a brute, I have still fed the curs outside, saving the choicest cuts for my guests here, as would any gentleman.  Dallon!  Show our guest out of doors.”

“Forgive him, milord.  He is a good man, and I fear that hunger has robbed him of his sense,” interjected Eleanor, going down on one knee.

Barrows appraised her in silence, some of the tension leaving his narrow shoulders.

“Very well, I shall permit him to stay.  However, he may not utter a single word when under this roof.  I find his accent—indeed, his language—uncouth.”

Humiliated, I sat still as the night wore on, Lord Barrows rambling interminably in Gilnean to the nods of the refugees.  They shivered in the dank, bare room, winds whistling through cracks in the walls.  Tiny fingers of flame clawed at charred kindling, freezing shadows enveloping the sorry group.  Barrows’ voice weakened, drawing to a thin whisper.

A howl, long and keening, interrupted Barrows mid-sentence.  I could just see the smile on his thin lips.  He spoke in a reassuring tone, the fearful looks of Eleanor, Rebecca, and Connell dispelled by a mere wave of his hand.  Again the night howled, and I shivered in dismal fear.

*********

I slunk out of the Barrows manor the next morning, an impenetrable gray fog surrounding the estate.  The refugees slept beneath a large tent, wrapped in hide blankets.  To his credit, Lord Barrows did appear to care for their health.  Noblesse oblige may be one of Gilneas’ saving graces.  I walked the grounds for a while, the grass wet beneath my feet.  

A plot of land that might have once been an orchard drowned under a tide of weeds in the southern half of the estate.  In a nearby toolshed I found the implements of agriculture, rusted to uselessness.  Gilnean nobles sometimes played at being farmers, a distant echo of the feudal days when none doubted their worth. 

Stepping outside, I saw a bearded man with a shapeless ascot pulled over his head studying something on the ground.  He regarded me with surprise, and made a hurried bow, speaking to me in Gilnean.  I nodded in response.

“Pardon me, sir, are you the Lordaeronian?” he asked, speaking with a thick accent.

“I am, in fact.”

“Terrence mentioned you came from the north.  I spoke a bit when I worked in the city, under Mister Hadrowe, Lord Barrows’ agent in medicine exporting.”

Gilneas had been the source of a wide array of herbal remedies, some beneficial, others useless.  These tended to be treatments for problems like headaches or a lack of virility, which the priests’ powers were sometimes unable to cure.

“Sir, did you hear the worgen last night?” he asked.

“How could I not?”

“All through this damned forest.  More of them call out each night.  I hope milord will take action soon.”

“Take action with what?  I don’t see any soldiers.”

The man bit his lip, looking over his shoulder.

“Lord Barrows is a good man, he always has something planned,” he said.  “Forgive me, I had best go back.  It is my responsibility to make sure everyone is in good health.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jerron, good sir.”

I watched as Jerron hurried off into the mist.  Going to where he had stood, I saw tracks in the mud, prints made by bare human feet grown to monstrous size, claws on each toe.  Alarmed, I followed the worgen’s trail, the prints leading all the way to the edge of the manor house.  Branches of a warped black tree sheltered the path of grass next to the wall, the limbs on the other side extending into the surrounding forest.  Seeing the trail end, I wondered if the worgen had climbed the tree so as to retreat to the Blackwald.



Further, what had caught the worgen’s attention?  The gray wall offered no hint of anything beyond the basic appearance.  Kneeling, I probed the damp earth around the foundations, noticing the deep cracks in the masonry.  Thinking of lupine senses, I sniffed at the air, knowing full well that I’d turn up nothing.

“Jerron!”  I called out.  Cursing, I hurried back to the populated part of the Barrows Estate.  Some of the refugees already stirred, the estate staff handing out more preserved foods.  Even if Lord Barrows’ hunting skills matched his boasts, he would not be able to single-handedly feed the entire population.

I saw no sign of Jerron, though some of the surviving refugees bowed at my presence.  I waved, figuring that responding in kind might only confuse them.  As far as I could tell, Eleanor, Rebecca, and Connell still slept in the manor. 

I wondered if my concerns really had much of a base.  Jerron’s indifference might be normal considering the extent of the worgen infestation.  Who was I, an exhausted stranger, to trust my own interpretation?  The Blackwald can inspire all manner of fear and delusion.  Even in the outskirts the trees still bend under the primeval weight of great age and draped in red moss.  Thorny branches wrap around each other in the canopy, like the snarled tangle of Razorfen Downs in Kalimdor.

Kalimdor.  The burning heat of an endless summer, dry winds spinning whirlwinds of red dust in the streets.  I needed to return, to get away from the damp and rainy land.  How long had it been since I’d spoken to Daj’yah?  I was no longer sure.  Icecrown blots out memory, and there are times that I fear I never truly escaped.

Forcing myself to stay in the present, I returned to where the worgen tracks had ended.  Something in the manor must have drawn its attention, but I could not imagine what.  If it was prey the worgen desired, there were plenty of specimens throughout the estate.  Doubtless Barrows thought himself a more desirable quarry due to his noble blood, but I suspected the worgen themselves cared little about such things.

Lowering my head to the earth, I again tried to fathom for what the worgen had searched.  Noticing a gap in the foundation, I leaned in close, a part of me hoping I wouldn’t find anything.

I jumped back when I heard the low growl, the tone weak like that of a great beast slowly waking.  Again moving closer, I heard a thick and labored breathing, rattling into a dry wheeze.  I tried to compose myself, wondering if my dread created monsters where none existed.

The growl convinced me, too low and gutteral to be human.  I’d heard the sound before, animal breaths at my heels on Duskwood’s lonely road.  Had the worgen gotten in?  I saw no means of entry.  Surely there would be screams. 

“Ordian!  You ought to stay with the others.  Even under the protection of his lordship, the Blackwald is a very dangerous place.”

Jerron and two more of Barrows’ men walked towards me, their faces undreadable.  I got to my feet, not sure what to expect. 

“Jerron, with all due respect I think you ought to be more concerned about the worgen tracks you found.”

“The beasts come in to sniff around, nothing more than that.”

Did he know?  Perhaps a better question: did I know?

“Doesn’t it strike you as curious that the worgen would go up to a wall and simply stop?”

“You seem to know a good deal about the beasts if you can say what is or is not curious behavior for them.  I spoke with Lord Barrows, and he informed me of your shameful behavior.  Outlanders like you have no place in Gilneas, and you really have no right to be asking more questions of your host.”

“Forgive me, but it seems like every caution should be taken—“

“Everything is under control, Ordian.  His lordship has been kind enough to give you special accommodations.  If you will follow me?”

Not seeing any other option, I let Jerron lead me through the mists and to a rotten toolshed next to the gate.  A pallet of moldy straw covered the dirt floor.  I considered fleeing, but was not wiling to leave the remaining Stonwyns, or to abandon my mission.

“Please stay here, sir.  For your safety, and out of respect to Lord Barrows.”  I noticed that the door lacked any kind of lock; they apparently expected to intimidate me into compliance.  I decided to acquiesce until I found a better means of escape.

The morning mists dispersed into a gray afternoon.  I kept the door open, watching the refugees as they lingered in the tents.  At noon they were each fed a paltry sample of preservatives, probably just enough to sharpen the hunger pangs.  I spotted Eleanor walking the grounds, at least showing that everyone inside remained safe.  Had my imagination been playing tricks on me? 

I had been a fool to accept Skorg’s mission.  I barely knew what I was doing, and had only managed to offend an important noble.  Assuming Gilneas even survived its travails, I doubted they’d listen to the Horde. 

The sun peeked out from the clouds just before dusk, its rays washing the gloomy land in the color of blood.  Tired Gilneans closed their eyes and raised their faces to the heavens, feeling the warmth that most had nearly forgotten.  A respite made all the more precious for its fleeting nature.  Lanterns winked on as they prepared for another long night.

Without much to do, the refugees went to sleep after a wretched dinner of dried bread.  I noticed that Barrows’ men dined on meat in their pavilions.  Had they all hunted?  I feared that more Gilneans would die if not soon given better food.

A commotion awoke me a few hours later.  At first, I could not understand why the refugees began stepping out from the tents as if entranced, their eyes to the Blackwald.  Then I noticed it, the ghost of an aroma on my ruined senses, the smell of food and plenty.  Barrows’ men caught it too, fed though they were, and made no move to stop their charges.

Music burst forth from the woods, merry drums guiding a melody driven by flutes and trumpets, a raucous tune in the style of centuries past.  Lights suddenly blazed between the trees, a noon of flame in the night.  Gilneans drew back in panic, remembering the stories of haughty fae courts.

I do not speak Gilnean, so I will simply describe the following as Rebecca would later explain it to me.

“Gilneans!  Why do you suffer so in this green and bountiful land!  Come, feast with us and make merry, as is your birthright!”

Even then, I could sense something off about the voice, a sort of deep roughness.  People looked about frantically, seeking its source.  The manor door swung open and Lord Barrows inched out, clutching a rapier.

“Light save us!” cried a refugee.

“Indeed, it has!  Is it not of the Light to walk about with joy in your heart?  Come, join us, whether serf or lord, it matters not here.”

“Who are you?  I demand that you show yourself!” shouted Lord Barrows, his sword at the ready.

“Ah, good Lord Barrows,” came another voice, a woman’s, though inflected by the bestial deepness of the first.  “Are you ready to renew your fealty to his majesty, Genn Greymane of Gilneas?  We serve him, though not in the same manner that our kindred are made to serve you.”

“I demand that you step out and show yourself!  That is my right as a scion of the Barrows line!”

I exited the toolshed to get a better look, in time to see the fantastic and torchlit procession come out from the woods.  Worgen and human marched side by side, dressed as peasants, lords, and everything in between.  Those at the front, all of them worgen, carried swords in clawed hands and wore woven circlets of crimson flowers on their heads.  Some of the humans played on recorders, the piping song jaunty and in tune with the forest’s unseen concert.  A ramshackle carriage rolled in the middle of this strange array, pulled by a pair of proud white warhorses, their manes bedecked with ribbons of red and green.  A lone worgen crouched on top of the carriage, dressed in a black velvet coat and a broad-brimmed hat decorated by a single emerald plume, his golden eyes alight in triumph.

Before this phantasmagoria, I could only stare in awe.  Barrows’ men looked back and forth between their lord and the worgen.  Onwards came the procession, and the worgen on top the carriage catapaulted off the roof, doing a curl in midair and landing in front of Lord Barrows, genuflecting in mocking courtesy.

“And how does this night find you, Lord Barrows?  Much better than your prisoners, by appearances.”  To my surprise, I realized it was the woman’s voice I’d heard earlier.

“Are you the leader of this pack of mongrels?”

“Leader?  We serve good King Greymane and his friend, the Queen of Faerie.  She holds her court in the Blackwald, even more wondrous than the legends of old.”

“What is this nonsense—“

“Not nonsense at all.  This is the new world, Eldwar,” she said, snarling the name.  A few of the Gilneans gasped.

“How dare you—“

“How dare I?  The rules have changed, that’s how!  You, Lord Eldwar Barrows, and me, Goodwife Madlein Gyle, Rag-Picker and Charwoman of Blakely Street.  Many a lord and lady’s submitted to my claws, Eldwar.  Blood matters little in the pack.”

“Yet you claim to serve the king.”

“We do, and good King Greymane will soon be here in the Blackwald.  The Queen of Faerie awaits him most eagerly.  I half-think your mind would break if you saw her retinue with your own little eyes, the mighty huntresses riding their great cats, the handsome elves in their robes of leaves.”

“Begone from this place.  Gallant men, protect me!  Release the worgen—“

With a terrifying howl, Madlein plunged her clawed hand into Eldwar’s gut, lifting the man bodily as he screamed in pain.  He lashed out with his sword, Madlein swatting it aside as if it were nothing.  As the dying aristocrat cried his last, more howls erupted, that time from within the manor.

The door broke as a bristling pack of feral monsters poured out to attack, black muzzles snapping in anticipation of blood.  Barrows’ men shouted, the night rent with the sounds of gunfire.  Madlein threw Eldwar’s body to the side as a worgen twice her size barreled towards her.  It lunged at her throat, only to bite down on air as she jumped over the beast.  Ready when she landed, she spun and ripped into the worgen’s side with her haunches.

Madlein’s followers rushed into the estate with swords drawn, a hearty cry of “Gilneas and Greymane!” on their muzzles.  Refugees cried out, and more than a few of Barrows’ men dropped their weapons.  To my relief, Madlein’s worgen spared these, though they slaughtered anyone who tried to stop them.

A cry caught between a howl and a scream diverted my attention to one of Barrows’ worgen as it loped after an unarmed Gilnean.  I reacted without thinking, a hemisphere of blue light expanding out from the earth.  The force of the arcane burst sent the worgen spinning in the other direction, its bones shattered by the impact.

The Gilnean worgen dodged their clumsy attackers, striking back with feral force.  Beast-men roared as they tumbled in the dirt, sword and fang watering the field with blood.  I watched as one of Madlein’s worgen stretched out his claws, fire smoldering in the leathery palm before shooting out to fell an opponent.

Not knowing what to do, or whose side to take, I called out for Eleanor.  I found her clutching Rebecca, the older woman hyperventilating.

“They murdered him!  Light save us!”

“What were those worgen doing in the manor?” I asked.

“Murdered a lord!”

“Ordian, I think he was keeping those things as pets,” said Rebecca, her voice calm though her face was flushed.  “I heard them all last night, but I could not say a thing.  Is he really dead?”

“I believe so.  I think the newcomers might be our friends,” I said.

“They killed a lord of Gilneas!  How?”

I had no answer that would make sense to her.  I watched as Madlein threw a feral worgen on the earth, claws raking its belly so that it screamed.  Pinning the worgen with her foot, she watched as it squirmed, at last whimpering in defeat.

The battle drew to a close as the last of Barrows’ worgen gave up, one slinking away with its head in its claws, and the other dead.  Howls of victory rose from the Gilnean worgen.  Before my eyes, Madlein underwent a metamorphosis, her body seeming to fold in on itself, fur slipping into skin and the muzzle crumpling as if being broken in slow motion.  Moments later, a squat middle-aged woman stood in the monster’s place.  Her face stony though not cruel, she bore the signs of having endured a difficult life.

“Good Gilneans!  You are among friends.  The fae courts have returned to us in our hour of need and King Greymane will soon be here.  We have not yet met with him, but a man of his honor will accept our allegiance. 

“Lord Barrows,” she growled, spitting at the mangled corpse, “had been brewing foul potions to keep Gilneans like yourselves in a savage state.  He used them as weapons against us, and hunted game as if it belonged to him.”

A worgen in a black velvet great coat stepped up to join Madlein.  He too transformed, taking the appearance of a burly middle-aged man with a trimmed black beard. 

“I am Lord Barthrowe, and you have my word that the good charwoman speaks truly,” he announced.  “Barrows was no friend of the king’s.  Though she should have left him for me—“

“Don’t you forget which of us is better in a scrap, Lord Barthrowe,” she smiled.

“Regardless, we are all Gilneans on this night!  We have feasts aplenty for your hungry bellies!”  He gave Madlein a dark look when he finished.

I cannot hope to describe the confused glee that followed.  The worgen brought out trays of roast venison to the starved Gilneans, along with sweetbreads and fresh fruit.  Yet that was only the beginning as the legendary fae joined the festivities.  I saw them with a sinking heart, for though I had not understood Madlein’s description, I recognized the beings who strode in mantles of living leaves and robes as white as the moon.  The Kaldorei had reached Gilneas.

Kalimdor fruit wines soon flowed, the Gilneans accepting it without complaint.  I do not think anything would have surprised them at that point.  Eleanor’s hunger finally got the better of her and she took a few tentative bites before diving into it, tears streaming down her cheeks.  She was not alone, the other Gilneans teetering between terror and gratitude.

I did not get a good account of what had happened until the next morning, which dawned bright and early as if an omen of better times to come.  Rebecca explained the night’s events to me, Eleanor lost in a merciful slumber.  She had spoken to a few of the worgen, who told her how they’d reached their state.  Hunting in packs through the Blackwald, they’d stumbled onto a Kaldorei encampment (exactly how the elves got there is still unclear to me, though I have heard that the Emerald Dream played a part).

Somehow, the Kaldorei had performed a ritual that gave the Gilneans control over the transformations.  Barrows had apparently been doing his own experiments on the Blackwald worgen, trying to turn them into pliable minions.  His medicine exporting company had doubtless provided many resources for that dark task.  Barrows’ worgen who had survived the battle were already en route to the Kaldorei base of Tal’doren, where they would undergo the same ritual.

“I know the whole thing seems preposterous, and I am sure there is still much that we do not know or understand.  But this is what a worgen named John Harlow told me last night.  He is a farmer, did you know?  I thought him a burgher the way he approached me,” she said, shaking her head.

“They are confident that King Greymane will accept them?”

“So it seems.  I just hope my father and brother are with the king.  I miss them so much!  When I was hungry I did not have the strength to mourn, but now I do and I fear I will never stop.”

“You are a very brave girl, Rebecca.  I think you need to stay strong for your mother; she seems to have been more shocked by this than you.”

“I will try, but I am only a girl.  These worgen do not seem to have any rules at all, except rule by the fiercest.  They were saying we could become worgen as well, and the thought makes me sick.  Except…” she trailed off.

“Except what?”

“The dark times are not yet over!  John told me that the undead have finally broken through Greymane Wall, and are already ravaging the north!  How can this be, after all our misfortunes?”

“Undead?  But the Scourge is—“

My stomach lurched, the world thrown into disarray.  The Forsaken were on the march, ready to inflict more indignities on the reeling kingdom.  That damned fool Garrosh had started the war he’d promised.  Had Thrall done anything to stop him?  Could he do anything?

“Rebecca, I think you are going to be safe here.  Stay with your mother, and I am sure your family will be whole again.  I think I need to be alone for a while.”

I reasoned that she was safe enough; Madlein’s worgen appeared friendly, and the Kaldorei would never let her come to harm.  I needed to escape, to learn what had happened in my absence. 

A lone worgen leaned against a tree just past the gate, armed with a crude great ax.  Connell sat slumped against the wall a few feet away, his face that of a man's whose world truly had ended.  He looked up at me with bleary eyes.


“Ordian, is it?”

"Yes," I said.

“Strange times, are they not?  The worgen there is Marson, a florist.  Good shopkeeper like you, I suppose—now a worgen.  Where are you going?”

“For a walk.”

“Be careful out there.  Oh, Marson says you smell funny.  Not quite right.  But who knows what that means to a worgen?  Take a dip in the stream I suppose, scarcely matters now.”  He covered his face with his hands, shivering.

Marson sniffed again, as if for emphasis, his eyes curious.  Assuring them I’d be back, I headed south to the main road, praying that there was still hope for the Horde.

3 comments:

  1. Hey, I'll start off with listing the two mistakes I've noticed.

    The first is a simple editing error in Destron's second talk with Elenor, midway trough the conversation he addresses Rebecca, instead of Elenor as he should.

    Duskhaven is also in the southwest, not northwest. And one more which I can't remember.


    As for the chapter itself, it was quite awesome, the highlight being Lord Barrow's plot with the worgen, I did not see that one coming. It was obvious that he was involved with them somehow, but I was expecting him to be in league with Alpha Prime.

    Lastly I'd advise that you write in a visit to the UC so Destron can make his disguise worgen proof, that way there won't be a plothole next time he is range of worgen nose. Unless of course you have other plans for that :)

    C9H20

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, C9H20! I fixed the errors.

    Also, I've already written out how the narrator will handle the disguise issue. It'll happen a bit farther down the road; he won't again be disguising himself as a human for some time.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I really like the Gilneas culture. Makes the people feel real. Worried about Jacob!

    ReplyDelete