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RiktheRed21

A Wolf, A Horse, and A Rider

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She woke from an unrestful sleep beneath a tree that seemed doubled-over in pain. Dry leaves fell about her and rain pattered on the moist ground. Brinnea wiped damp hair from her eyes and stood to greet the new day. Dreary and grey, the day seemed unwilling to return her hello.

She gathered her meager supplies – a sword belt and a satchel with some money and first-aid kit – and hopped on the back of her last loyal companion. The deathcharger stood still, its eyes vacant as a corpse’s. When she gave it a kick, it moved, but there was little evidence otherwise that it was even conscious. On they went, kicking up moisture from the summer rain and crossing long, desolate miles of the Wetlands in silence.

Brinnea slowed as they approached a small farm. She gazed at it longingly, catching sight of a family at work. The eldest man appeared to be complaining bitterly about the rain while the youngest children frolicked about without a care in the world. By instinct, she began riding towards it. Once she realized what she was doing, she quickly yanked the reins and spurred the charger into a gallop northward. The farm shrank into a dot behind her, though she never looked back to see it.

The rainclouds gave way to thunderstorms. Winds shrieked across the wavy hills and sent droplets scraping across Brinnea’s bare flesh. Drops tinned against her armor. She wondered if the soldiers back at Greenwarden’s Grove would be able to keep the rain out of their tents tonight. She wondered if somewhere on the passage into the mountains far to the south Charlotte and August were dressed in their warm clothes for the journey to Ironforge. Would they like it there? Would they make new friends? Would they ever forget about her?

The wind picked up further until even the undead charger balked at carrying on at full gallop. The death knight eased her mount towards the dense hills where they might find some cover from the storm. Lighting crashed somewhere nearby. She couldn’t see where it had struck home. She imagined a fire trying to survive in a storm like this, but her imagination failed her.

The horse and rider strode through clefts populated with fleeing deer and rodents, squirrels and birds of every sort. Plantlife was abundant here, ranging from flowers to fungi, small shrubs to huge trees spreading wide canopies. Thinking of the tree she had slept at the night prior, Brinnea decided to continue searching for better cover.

A wolf’s lonely howl took to the air. Brinnea waited, but heard no response. She counted it a blessing without thinking. A pack of wolves is dangerous, after all. But then she got to thinking of the lone beast out all alone. What had happened to its pack? Was it cast out, as she had been? Perhaps it had hoped too greatly, and tried too hard to further itself and its pups. The alpha could only tolerate so much before he had to act.

At last, Brinnea found a cave gashed into the rocks and hurried toward it. She dismounted, for the ceiling was too low to fit on horseback. The deathcharger squeezed into the cave and stood resolute at the back, facing a wall. Charlotte had named the horse Spaklehoof for its bright hooves, but the beast was far from intelligent.

Brinnea guessed it was evening. The sky seemed a little less bright than it had when she first entered the hilly area. She knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight. Last night’s dreams had confirmed it. Brinnea had never been able to sleep well as a death knight, but after a while living in Greenwarden’s Grove, she found she was able to have more restful nights than she used to. Despite being an overgrown, swampy backwater, the Grove had started to feel a little like a home.

The wolf’s howl shook her back to her senses. Again, it sounded lonely and sad, and again it garnered no reply save for the roaring wind, the screeching rain, and the thundering storm. Brinnea had removed her armor and began polishing it, but every time she started to lose herself in the monotony of work, the howl returned. Somehow, it seemed to be growing both louder and weaker.

She tossed her pauldron into a pile of armor and yanked her sword belt about her waist. After tying her cloak and lifting her hood, she stalked out into the storm.

Brinnea was by no means an expert tracker, but she figured in this case it would be easy to find what she was looking for. The wolf howled every few minutes, so she used it as a guide. It became more difficult every time the thunder and wind deafened her, and for many hours, she felt as though she were wandering in circles about the hills.

Then she spotted it – the wolf huddled under a tree with its leg caught in a trap. A kill was decomposing nearby, swamped by rain and eaten through by all manner of bugs. Odd that the wolf would remain trapped for so long without the hunter whose trap was laid coming to check on it. Brinnea thought as much, until she found whom she presumed to be the hunter in question lodged under a fallen tree stump. The char pattern was rippled like tree roots, but more jagged like hands with too many fingers and fingers with too many joints. Brinnea searched the man for weapons and found a knife, a bow, a length of rope, and arrows. She left the bow, but added the knife to her belt beside her own, and pulled the rope over her shoulder.

The wolf had awoken while Brinnea was investigating. It sniffed and growled at her weakly, but made no attempts to move. Brin approached carefully, and eased herself to a crouch beside the beast. She reached out to touch the trap, but the wolf barked at her warningly. She pulled her hand back. Taking the rope from her shoulder, she measured a section of it and cut it with the hunter’s knife. Then she deftly clamped the wolf’s snout shut and forced the rope around and tied it tight. The wolf tried to paw it off, but otherwise acted with meek acceptance.

Brin grabbed hold of the clamped trap, the leather of her handwraps thick enough to keep her hands from getting shredded by the sharp metal. She pulled with all her strength. The metal creaked, and the wolf whimpered. Blood spurted from the reopened wound, but the wolf pulled itself loose. Brin yanked her hands free and left the trap clamped and bloody where it was.

The wolf tried to nuzzle the wounded hind leg, but was impeded by the ropes. Brinnea retrieved bandages from her medical kit and carefully grappled the wolf, then applied the cloth to the bleeding leg. After, she drew her knife and carefully cut the rope muzzle free, then pulled back. The wolf growled at her bitterly before madly licking its newly bandaged leg.

“There, mangy mutt,” Brinnea said, “I saved you. Now scamper off and don’t do anything stupid.” The wolf watched her and continued to nibble at the bandages. In time, they would rot away, but that would be long after the wound healed. “You should be more worried about predators than a little cloth, idiot.” The wolf ignored her advice. Shaking her head, she turned to head back to her cave. It wasn’t until she was halfway back that she realized the beast was following her.

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((Warning: sexual themes and language))

The wolf followed her for ten miles before she lost sight of it. By then, she was nearing the northern crossing at Dun Modr. Brinnea swung west from the highlands down to the cobblestone road leading onto the Thandol Span. From there, she would continue north.

But for how long? How far would she go? Brinnea had lain awake the night prior, unable to close her eyes for fear of nightmares, thinking about her destination. Or rather, her lack thereof. Once upon a time, she had lived in Lordaeron, at a well-travelled town called Andorhal. But now, Andorhal was deep within Forsaken lands, and any Forsaken would attack her on sight. Yet, she felt unavoidably drawn to Lordaeron, as if called home by something familiar.

Five more miles passed, and the wolf padded out into sight again, carrying a half-eaten squirrel. Brinnea realized then that she must have slowed her pace, else the beast would not have caught up again. She groaned at herself for wasting precious time before she realized that time didn’t mean much to a soldier with no war to fight.

Night began to fall when Dun Modr appeared on the horizon, just around a tall hill. The dwarven fortress had once guarded the border between dwarven Khaz Modan and the human kingdoms to the north. But since the Second War, Dun Modr had fallen into disrepair, and after the Scourge and Forsaken invasions, the bordering human kingdom Arathor was almost entirely wiped out. That made the crossing a hub for oddities, wayfarers, and vagrants of all sorts.

Brinnea meandered into the town square beneath the dwarven fortress. If she was to travel north, she needed to prepare. Glancing back, she saw no sign of the wolf following her here. The throng of people all about explained that. Humans, gnomes, dwarves, worgen, and even elves wandered about the mossy ruins of Dun Modr wearing largely threadbare clothes in hundreds of styles. Even now, nearly twenty years after the Scourge attacked the northern kingdoms, people were still reluctant to let go of their homelands. Yet, the people here all looked filthy and gaunt. Food and clean water was scarce in these hills, it seemed.

Brinnea dismounted at a squat wooden structure. A sign nailed to the unsteady beam serving as a roof marked it as a stable in both Common and Dwarven script. Brin searched for the owner of the meager establishment while fishing coins from her purse, and settled for handing a couple silvers to a mud-speckled boy who might have been a very young human or a ten-year-old dwarf. He muttered a half-hearted thanks and took to her steed as she instructed.

Brinnea kept a hand on her purse as she walked through the town, not enchanted by the idea of having it cut from her belt by some desperate soul. The crowd was brimming with folks who looked down on their luck, but also with merchants crying wares marked at ten times the price Brinnea would expect at Greenwarden’s Grove or Menethil Harbor. Typical of merchants to exploit the poor in such a way.

She set her sights on the stone buildings up the hillside. They looked less ramshackle than the lower square, so she hoped for better wares than down where she was. At the very least, she expected better security.

Wandering eyes latched on her for uncomfortable lengths of time. Rough looking men and women sat, squatted, or leaned along the sides of the road, carrying weapons auspiciously. There were no guards about wearing Ironforge badges, nor the mountaineers that the dwarves of Khaz Modan used to patrol the far reaches of their clans’ holds. No, this land was ruled by those with the coin to pay for protection. Brinnea noted that the mercenaries mostly flocked near merchants, taverns, and whorehouses. Any of the three would have enough coin to pay for them with the times as they were. She moved quickly to get away from their vulturelike gazes.

In the upper part of the town, Brinnea finally found some of the garrison. Most were milling about as if there was no job to do. A pair of them sat at a Hearthstone board drinking cheap ale and laughing raucously. She felt the need to smack their heads together and yell, “You are defenders of the weak, now act like it!” But then again, who was she to judge?

The shops she passed had more potential than the merchant stalls in the lower square, but that didn’t make the prices any fairer. Criers announced goods in stock at exorbitant prices. Brin shook her head, gazing down at her half-empty purse. For these people, this much is a fortune, she thought to herself, And yet I still may beggar myself before I depart north. Ludicrous!

 Brinnea finally settled on a humble shop built into the hillside. The crier outside welcomed her with a sly smile that made her nervous. She kept a tight hold on her purse until she was finished with her purchases.

By the time she exited the shop, her purse was light, but her pack was full. She had enough cloth to make bandages, rope for various uses, bits of leather and metal for repairs, a couple tools to replace old and rusted pieces of hers, paper and ink for letters, (though she had only picked them with great reluctance), and a cleaver for chopping firewood.

The store owner had looked at her skeptically and asked, “No food for your travels?” Brinnea had answered, “My horse and I don’t eat much.”

Outside the store, the sun had sunk below the hills and night began to set in. Chirps from a million crickets filled the air in chorus, heralding the end of the day. People stepped quickly about their final business. Brinnea followed suit; it would not do to be out and about at night in a place like this.

She noticed the thugs following her almost immediately. They weren’t trying to be stealthy about it. Three men, a dwarf and two humans, followed her loosely down the hill path. They had swords on their belts and leather on their bodies. Tattoos marked them as belonging to some mercenary band, unless Brinnea’s eyes deceived her in the dim light. That was trouble. Kill three thugs and you might be safe from further violence, but kill three members of a band of hundreds and you had better skip town before the sun rises.

She tried to lose them by ducking into a tavern, but she misread a sign and ended up standing in the front room filled with fox fur decorations, soft-looking fox fur couches, contented and eager looking men fiddling with their coin purses, and mostly naked women. The sight of it all brought back uncomfortable memories for Brinnea, but at least the three men hadn’t followed her inside.

The matron of the establishment approached her, carrying a board with a stack of papers and a candle in one hand and a quill in the other. She examined Brinnea skeptically. She was a dwarven women of freckled complexion and coppery hair tied up in businesslike braids. Her green eyes were stern and unwavering. When she spoke, she sounded very much like a man.

“Good ‘eve, lass. My name is Sionnach, though you can call me Sio. What can the Foxy Sisters provide ye tonight?”

Brinnea cleared her throat awkwardly. “Nothing, miss. I was only…passing through.”

Sio’s eyebrow rose at that. She did not seem the type to enjoy having her time wasted. “Just passing through me house? Well, sorry to say, there’s no back door, so ye’ll have to pass back the way ye came.”

Brinnea did not welcome the thought of searching for a tavern with the streets the way they were. Before the matron could walk away, she said, “Perhaps I could stay here tonight? I have coin.”

Sio wheeled about, twirling her quill between her fat fingers. “My rooms are reserved for my daughters’ company. I’m afraid I have no gentlemen to provide you entertainment. So, unless you are—”

Brinnea cut her off there, “I am not interested in that. But perhaps we could come to some arrangement for a place to lay my head tonight.”

“What sort of arrangement?”

Brinnea tapped the hilt of her longsword. “I could provide protection for your establishment tonight.”

Sio pursed her lips thoughtfully. “And ye’d charge nothin’ so long as ye’re allowed to stay the night?” Brinnea nodded. Sio made some marks in her papers and waved for Brinnea to follow her. “Ye’ll stand guard in the corner. Swords make men nervous before a tumble, which isn’t good fer business. Stay here, out of sight.” She directed Brin to a chair, which the death knight sat in happily. Her joints ached from a long day of riding and walking.

Sio went on describing the sort of things to look out for to aid security before she waddled off to see to other guests. Brin settled in to watch her surroundings. Her mind wandered back in time all the while.

Brinnea, her mother Maria, and her sister Christa had lived in a run-down hut outside the walls of Lordaeron City after they left home to escape her father. While their mother fought a nasty fever, Christa and Brin had to look for ways to bring in coin, lest they all starve. Weeks went by with little work to be found, and their bellies grew emptier with each passing day. Christa had been the one to come up with the idea.

“The brothels always pay their girls well,” she had explained to their mother as she lay in bed, “And Matron Kathy said I could start so long as I tell people I’m fourteen. They’ll never notice I’m younger by two years.” Maria had been adamant they never whore themselves out in such a way.

“You are my daughter, Christa,” Maria said sternly despite her weak state, “You are not a piece of meat for men to buy and sell.”

Brinnea had spoken up then, “But mother, we have nothing else to sell. And besides, we’re all girls.”

She looked about now at the scantily-clad women, some no older than twelve as her sister had been. She saw through the masks they wore. They put on brave faces, even managed to look pleased to do their work. Perhaps some of them really were. A few hours of pleasure, a few hours of soreness, and at the end of the day, you had enough food and water and rest to feel comfortable. But none of them looked truly alive underneath those masks. Brinnea sighed softly. Not for the first time in her life, she felt powerless.

“What do you mean, ‘you owe me?’ You charge silver for that sort of tumble?” A man, red-faced and drunk, stumbled out of a back room shouting and waving his fists wildly as Sio tried to calm him. He wore the same leathers and tattoos as the men who had followed Brin down the street. She watched him carefully.

“What did the girl do wrong, Vic? Jessaya’s never made a mistake large enough fer such anger before!”

The red-faced man looked all the wilder for Sio’s words. “Well clearly your standards are lax, Matron! That little slut just up and bit me! Like a fucking mutt, she just bit me!”

The girl he pointed at with his angry red finger was in tears, holing sheets about her body to cover herself. She looked a teenager to Brin, though on the younger side. Her hair was a pretty shade of yellow, like a honey bee’s hair. Brinnea placed a hand on her sword’s hilt, eyes fixed on the escalating situation.

Sio remained calm, unperturbed to be looking up at the angry man. “Vic, please! ‘twas a small mistake. Nothin’ to get so wild about! And ye will not storm out of me house without settling yer debt again!”

A vein popped out of the side of Vic’s head. “A small mistake? She could have taken my bloody cock off! I ought to knock her teeth in!”

“Please, sir,” the honey-haired girl wept, “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to!”

Vic took a step forward, and his eyes said everything Brinnea needed to hear. In a flash, she was between the two, sword unsheathed. She held the point to his throat and flashed an icy glare at him. The man shrunk back in horror, though not too far, for Brin’s sword followed.

“Pay what you owe and get the fuck out of here,” Brinnea snarled. Vic fumbled for his purse, a little too slow for Brin’s liking. She yanked it off his loose belt and tossed it behind her to rest at Jessaya’s feet. Then she kicked the red-faced man to the door.

“That was…excessive,” Sio said quietly. “Vic’s a lout, but he’s never hit one o’ my girls before.”

Brinnea sheathed her blade, still eyeing the door. “People change,” she said icily.

Jessaya tackled Brinnea with a hug. The death knight held her arms outwards in surprise. “Thank you, miss!” the girl said tearfully, “Thank you so much!”

Sio pocketed Vic’s purse and tugged at Jessaya’s sheets. “A’right, girl, enough. Go clean yerself up and eat some supper.” The girl obeyed, glancing back at Brin with thanks in her eyes. Brinnea returned to her chair as Sio muttered to herself about death knights and bringing down the mood and losing clients. Brin’s thoughts were on the man she had threatened. He must have been a member of a mercenary band, and a tight-knit one to have tattoos on even a lowly member like him. Killing him might have brought worse wrath upon her, but if she had hidden the corpse, the rest of the band may have never found out. Now, though, he was likely to run straight to his friends and stir them up with his drunken, red-faced fury.

As the night went on, Brinnea became more convinced she would have to leave town before dawn.

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