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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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Near on a week passed before Brinnea left Dun Modr. Though loathe to admit it, even to herself, she had become attached to the girls in Matron Sio’s boudoir. Ever since she saved Jessaya from the drunkard Vic, the other girls had pestered her with questions and requested help with anything from braiding hair to making beds. Brinnea didn’t mind lending a hand, and they quickly caught on. Their company was worth the pestering, so far as Brinnea was concerned, but the more comfortable she became, the more anxious she was to depart.

When she did, it was early in the morning, before the sun could rise. It was at that hour the boudoir was most quiet, when all the drunkards had fallen asleep and the late-night lechers had fled to bed before their wives could wake and find them gone. Brinnea had stolen out while Sio slept, and left all the money the gruff matron had secreted into her purse. I never asked to be paid, Brinnea had thought, I shouldn’t have even stayed as long as I have.

Now the sun was rising to her right, over mossy green hills. The crossing of the Thandol Span lie behind her now, and before her rose wave after wave of green hills. This was the land of the most ancient human civilization, the Strom. Arathi Highlands was true to its name; the death knight found herself riding up and up and up as she ascended from the dull basin the Wetlands sat in on the other side of the wide Thandol gap. Beneath the grass and dirt Brinnea knew there were relics to be found, some as old as she was and some far older. This was a land where civilizations rose and fell – one massive graveyard buried beneath pleasant green hills.

The wolf made its appearance known again a few miles north of the Span. It baffled Brinnea that the beast would have waited so long for her to leave Dun Modr, let alone follow her across the great stone bridge over a massive, wet, and windy gorge. A lone wolf seeks a pack where it can find it, I suppose.

A few miles more, and Brinnea found the road blocked by two boulders as large as she was. Given that the road was tightly flanked on both sides by hills, making going around on ordeal on horseback, she immediately suspected a trap. She dismounted and clambered up a hill, her sword drawn and ready for an ambush, but when she reached the top, she could see no sign of anyone or anything. A pair of birds weaved about one another in an angry dance up above, and the wolf was nowhere to be seen, both otherwise there was nothing of note.

“Nothing to do but move the boulders aside,” she mumbled to herself. A wind whipped at her cloak, as if trying to reply. If it was speaking to her, she did not know the tongue.

A sudden yelp back down the road caught her attention as she slid down the hill. The wolf eyed her and barked. It lifted its head, and the bark flew into a wild howl. Brinnea’s eyebrows knit in annoyance. “Did it occur to you I didn’t want to attract attention, mutt?”

The wolf kept up its howl, and padded up and down the road. It kept looking at her with its unnervingly focused eyes. She called out to it loudly, “Go bother someone else! I’m a poor replacement for the pack you lost!” The wolf sprinted down the road, away from her. Guess that finally drove it away, but for how long?

Brinnea set to work moving one of the boulders. There was little chance of removing them entirely from the road with such steep hills to either side, but at least she could move one so there would be a narrow s-shaped gap to ride around. Any travelers with carts would be out of luck, but that wasn’t Brinnea’s problem. She found a thin, sturdy tree a way off the road and hacked at it until the little trunk gave way. She shaved off the branches and returned to the road. The trunk was sturdy enough to serve as a lever, but getting the proper leverage took much longer than anticipated. Eventually, she managed to get the boulder to budge, but the process of moving it out of the way was gradual and often resulted in the damn thing rolling back the way she had moved it from. Frustration was among the emotions left to Brinnea, though she could have done without it right about now.

While considering better methods of moving the boulder, she happened to glance back down the road, expecting to see the wolf coming back. When she saw no sign of it, she felt oddly disappointed. “Get ahold of yourself, Velmon,” she muttered, and set back to work.

The screaming started a few minutes later. The wolf’s howl accompanied it, making it hard to know for sure, but it sounded just like a girl’s scream. Brinnea listened closely, uncertain. It could have just been a bird with a peculiar cry; it wasn’t as if she knew the fauna of this region well.

The screams stopped of a sudden. Brinnea told herself to pay it no heed, but before she knew it, she was clambering into her saddle and leaving her boulder and level behind in a cloud of trail dust.

Not a mile south of the road obstruction, she came across a dead horse swarmed by flies. The smell of it was fresh, and there were clear marks indicating the rider was dragged off the road by something with deep footprints. “Ogres,” Brinnea said.

Something moved behind her, too soft to be one of the great oafish clansmen responsible for this mess. She whirled about, and lowered her blade when she saw the wolf padding up to her, its fur a reddish brown she hadn’t noticed before. “You’re growing bolder to get so close to me, mutt,” she said.

The beast panted and watched her expectantly. She imagined it speaking to her; Are you going to do something about this mess?

“What’s there to do?” she replied, “Anyone taken by an ogre is bound to wind up in an ogre’s supper.”

They could still be alive.

“It’s none of my business. I have more important things to worry about.” She turned towards her horse.

Some urgent meeting you have to get to? And here I suspected you were wandering aimlessly.

“I know where I’m going.”

But you don’t know what you’ll do when you get there, do you?

Brinnea spun to shout back, but the wolf was gone. She looked around and caught sight of its tail retreating up the hill, in the direction of the ogre trail. “You have to be joking!” Brinnea exclaimed, but when she remounted, she followed right along, looking back at the northward road woefully.

The trail was clear enough, but Brinnea lacked the skill to interpret how many or how fast her query was moving. Based on how long it had been since the screaming, she figured the ogre or ogres couldn’t be more than a couple miles ahead of her. She urged her charger into a gallop. Even at a dead run, an ogre couldn’t outpace a horse. The wolf bounded to try and keep up, and Brinnea was surprised at how long it managed to do so. Before too long, it fell behind, panting and yapping. The ogres are like to hear us coming with all this noise. Oh well, I prefer a fair fight, anyway.

She caught sight of them after ascending a hill. They were within a couple minutes’ ride of her, and had lit a fire under the cover of a heavy stone outcrop. A stream trickled beside them, no deeper than Brin’s ankle, she guessed, but it would be an asset in the fight to come. The death knight couldn’t tell if the captive was alive or not; they appeared only as a white and yellow smudge in the distance. The ogres, on the other hand, stood out greatly. There were three of them, more than enough to overwhelm Brin if she wasn’t careful.

She rode around the ogre’s camp, sticking to the shadows. It seemed that they hadn’t spotted her yet, so she intended to keep it that way. She made her final approach with the westering sun at her back and the stream at her side. The ogres stirred from their seated position as she approached, cantering carefully. Ogres were dull creatures, but smart enough to set traps or tame wild beasts. She watched closely for any sign of a trap.

“HEY!” one of the ogres roared at her, “THIS OUR CAMP! NO STEALING!” The three ogres faced her, two carrying crude clubs, and the other a net and spear shaved from the trunk of a tree much larger than Brin’s lever. Their captive was wrapped up tightly in another net. A great boar was turning on the spit over the fire. Luckily the beast seemed a better feast than the small woman the ogres had captured, else Brin’s detour would have been for nothing.

“I’m here for the girl, the one you idiots pulled from her horse,” Brinnea said calmly. Her sword rested in its sheath for now. Let them think I’m not hostile. They’ll underestimate me and charge blindly.

“NO LIKE HORSE!” the head ogre shouted back, “WE EAT GIRL INSTEAD! BRING SKIN BACK FOR TENT!”

“I didn’t ask. You’re going to give her to me. Now.”

The ogre with the spear and net laughed first, but the other two joined in, as if just getting the joke. “YOU STUPID! YOU NO BEAT US! YOU WANT BE FOOD TOO?”

“If you want a taste of me, you’ll have to come get me.” As expected, all three sprinted at her, roaring and bashing their weapons against their chests, bare but for a few furs and leather straps. Brinnea wheeled her horse to run down the line of the stream. Once they were chasing her, big feet clattering along the wet pebbles, she drew her blade and pointed it at the water behind her. In a flash of blue light, the water began to freeze. The ogres were too dead-set on her to even slow down. All three fell over on the patch of ice, making a great THUD!

Brinnea spun her charger around and urged it to do what it was made to do. The killing was bloody, brutal, and brief. Her sword flashed thrice in wide silvery-blue arcs, each time turning red midway through. She raced past the ogres, and left them with three slit throats.

Brinnea came to a stop at the camp and dismounted. The wolf was there now, gnawing at the nets angrily. Brinnea drew her knife and cut the animals free first, shooing them away easily enough. Then she freed the girl. Somehow, Brinnea wasn’t surprised to recognize her.

“Jessaya, were you following me?” She helped the girl sit up and looked over her head. It was cut and bleeding, but her eyes focused when Brin passed a finger in front of them, so she figured her brain was likely safe.

“Yes,” the girl admitted quietly. She was always quiet and shy. It was part of why the men liked her so much. That, and her absurd youth. Tonight, she wore one of her white robes covered by a cloak of foxfur she must have stolen from Sio along with the horse. Her clothes were dirty and tattered, but still usable. Brin noted with annoyance than the girl wore only underclothes beneath the robe.

“You’re going straight back to Dun Modr in the morning,” Brinnea said.

“But…!”

Brinnea hushed her with a look. “There are worse things than ogres about. You’re lucky to have been saved this time, but your luck won’t last.”

“But if I stay with you…”

“You won’t.” I’m more dangerous than anything you’ll face on the road.

“Why not? You’re all by yourself out here. Everyone needs company.” The girl was utterly innocent, her eyes telling a story of hurt and sadness, but hope too. It was too much for Brin to look at. The wolf lay nearby, warming its fur by the fire. Brin noticed Jessaya watching the beast carefully.

“You’re going back, and that’s final.”

“It’ll be dangerous for me to go back by myself now,” Jessaya replied, “And without a horse now. I couldn’t ride very well, but it was faster than walking.”

Brin sighed. The girl was right, but the last thing she wanted was to delay her travel further. “You’ll just have to tread carefully and hope for the best.”

The girl was devastated, Brin could tell. Better sad than company with a walking disaster. Her odds could be worse. It’s only a couple days back to Thandol Span.

Brin picked meat off the spitted boar and offered it to Jessaya. She ate hungrily, thankful for the food. Brin tossed a few meaty ribs at the wolf too, when she saw it eyeing the meat and licking its chops. The charger, Sparklehoof, stood sentry out in the open. It and Brin were the only ones not eating.

“I didn’t just come because I wanted to,” Jessaya said after a while. “I’ve been hearing about Vic’s company for a while from the girls. They’re called Bronto’s Bruisers, and they practically own Dun Modr. After you kicked Vic out of Sio’s, the word was they wanted blood for being made fools out of.”

“You think I didn’t notice?” Brinnea asked rhetorically. “I’ve been keeping the Bruisers out of the boudoir for a week.”

“But you left. They didn’t even wait until morning before they came to Sio demanding free tumbles for the whole company. ‘When one Bruiser gets shortchanged,’ they said, ‘All the Bruisers are robbed.’ Sio couldn’t stop them with you gone.”

“So you came to fetch me back?”

“No. I just wanted to get away, like you. Sio will find a way to survive. She always does. They probably won’t leave you alone, either. They might have sent people out here hunting for you.”

Brin cleaned off her sword with cloth and tempered the edges with a whetstone. “They can certainly try.”

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