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Sauren - The Twisted Blade

Chapter Text

   

 

 

"You were born a freak and you will remain a freak," the blacksmith said as he sneered at the crumpled form on his workshop floor

Huddled in the corner of the schoolyard, the boy watched the other children as they played their games of hopscotch, tag and boules. From behind his platinum mane his eyes stung from fighting back tears. They didn't let him play with them. He was a reject, a dud, a creep. And lonely. But he would not give his classmates the satisfaction of seeing him cry again. At least they didn't torment him quite as much these days which was good – it gave him time to observe, think, scheme.

A select few afforded him the occasional sneer; others deliberately ignored him, considering him as something lower than a maggot. Others still, who had been nice to him in the beginning now pretended he did not exist for they had underwent scurrilous reprimands from those who, for some reason, hated him with a passion.

He had cried plenty when he'd started at the Junior School on Providence Lane three years ago. Initially, it was just because he didn't want to be parted from his favourite housemaid, Brigitte. She was so patient and kind with him. She was funny, snuck him treats, covered up for him if he had an "accident". It was also she who told him wonderful stories and thus taught him to read and write so he could discover more such marvellous tales for himself. Sadly, she was gone now – where he didn't know, but her teachings had placed him ahead of his peers at school.

He showed an aptitude for nearly every subject the teacher taught them; history, geography, numeracy, language. He loved learning and was always asking questions. This seemed to annoy a certain group in his class and he wondered then if that was why they loathed him.

Through time however, he heard words like "halfbreed", "elf-puke", "monster" and "freak". They even made fun of his name, Nightflame, calling him "Nightmare" and saying he had no right to be out during the day, he was a creature of the dark; a vile, hideous little half-elf.

He was pushed, knocked down, tripped up. Stones and mud-cakes had been thrown at him, though some of the culprits always attempted to remain unseen. Cowards they were, targeting him from behind walls, doors, carts and then ducking out of sight; their snickering carrying on the air.

Heading home was no fun either as he'd been hounded by a regular band of youngsters who hurled the names and missiles at him as he ran along the cobbled streets trying to dodge into alleys and narrow closes in a bid to lose them.

Reaching home was almost as daunting as it was getting there for he wondered how he was going to face the head housekeeper, Mrs Dalton when she saw him all mud and torn clothes, again. She was a severe woman and just as scary if not more so than the mobs whose life ambition seemed to be to make his very existence a misery.

The bullies' parents had often turned a blind eye, or worse, encouraged their children in their detestable behaviour.

Quite why, they hated him he knew not, then. But, two years later, one boy stood up for him and he soon learned about the prejudice of some of the city folk.

Having fallen foul of the bullies once more, the Nightflame boy had taken another beating. His attire was muddied, a sleeve torn and his face cut in two places from a sharp piece of flint the head boy had used as a weapon.

The torment was interrupted by a tall, mousy-haired lad who was carrying two large buckets of charcoal, each balanced on either end of a shoulder-yoke. He asked what was going on and he was promptly told to git. "This is none of your concern." He was told.

He caught a glimpse of the young boy on the ground; he'd taken a fair punishment but there was a determination in his eyes, a hidden agenda perhaps.

The main antagonist snorted. "You're obviously new here. What's your name?"

"Don Stanton."

"Benjamin Morley," the leader replied eyeing Don suspiciously.

"Well then Benjamin," Don said, lowering the shoulder yolk carefully, sliding the bucket handles from the grooves. "Is he that scary it takes five of you to beat him?"

"Scary?" Benjamin laughed. "He is filth, a freak."

The newcomer leaned forward for a better view. The victim chanced a peek at him through the matted curtain of platinum hair, the tails of which were tipped in blood from his cheek. A look of expectancy rippled through his mahogany eyes. "Seems perfectly normal to me," Don said.

"Normal? He's half-elf," Benjamin spat.

"So?"

"So?" Benjamin echoed, incredulous. "He's shit. Worthless."

Don took another step forward, his hands still gripping the shoulder-yolk. "Don't look so worthless to me going by his clothes. He's better dressed than any of us, even though his jacket's ripped and muddy."

"Fuck off!" one of the other bullies shouted. Don cocked an eyebrow. He wasn't used to little girls using such profanity.

His hands tightened around the shoulder-yolk. "Why don't you all fuck off?"

"What did you say?" Benjamin moved forward, his tone menacing.

Don glanced down at the boy with platinum hair and with the subtlest of nods, gestured for him to move out the way. Minute though it was, it didn't go unnoticed by the bullies' leader and he spun to grab the half-elf.

At that same moment Don swung the shoulder-yolk up using it like a staff. He knocked the feet from Benjamin and he fell to the side, landing with a crunch on his left shoulder and hip. He cried out and writhed on the cobbles. The remaining four were stunned at first then the two other boys ran at Don.

He stood his ground until they were almost upon him then pushed forward holding the yoke straight out in front. It connected with both boys chins and they fell in a heap, cracking their skulls together. Groaning, they sat, legs akimbo, massaging their bruised heads.

The taller of the two girls came forward, fingers curled like claws. Don ducked and pulled the yolk along her shins. She cried out as the hardened wood smacked against the bone. Stumbling and whimpering, she fled the scene, swearing they would get him back.

Now only the girl who cussed was left standing. Her little fists flexed and she bounced, agitated, on her toes. "You wouldn't dare!" she hissed.

Don grinned, stepped forward and whacked her backside with the tip of the yolk. She clasped her behind, shocked that he hit her. Rendered speechless, she scampered after the other girl.

The three boys were still gasping and groaning on the muddy cobbles. Don moved over to where their victim had shifted during the fight. For a moment, the half-elf just stared, measuring him up. Don smiled. "Hi," he said. "Let's get out of here."

The half-elf smiled and pushed himself up, dusting off his now scruffy attire.

Don was surprised to see the boy whom he had assumed to be about ages with the pestiferous little viper whose bottom he had just whacked, was slightly taller than himself, but spindle thin. He offered his hand in greeting. "My name's Don. How old are you by the way?"

"Hello, Don. I am Sauren and I am eight."

"You're tall for eight!"

The boy's mouth twitched at the corners. "And you are strong for...?"

"Oh, I'm ten. I help my dad out..."

The bullies grumbled again as they started to rise from the ground. Don once more tightened his grip on the shoulder-yolk and faced them. All three held out placating hands and limped and shuffled their way past the human and the half-elf. Before they disappeared from sight, the one called Benjamin turned and faced them again. He said nothing, but the darkness in his eyes screamed his loathing for the both of them. Then he turned and left.

Don relaxed and picking up the buckets with the use of the shoulder yolk he led the way towards his father's workshop. "I don't like bullies any more than you do. I like to see them get their just deserts," he said as they walked.

"Thank you, for helping me."

"Pleasure. You should mention this to your parents though."

"My mother is dead and my father is often away on business."

Don stopped in his tracks. "Oh, I'm sorry."

The half-elf shook his head and gestured they move on. "It's alright. My father and I are close for all he is gone a lot of the time. But, I will not tell him of these – incidents."

"This happens regularly?"

"Yes." Sauren halted this time. "But, I will deal with them – in my own way. Eventually." A flare of fortitude rippled in the half-elf's eyes again and something else – an equanimity seldom seen in one so young and even more unusual in one who suffered countless beatings.

Don was quietly impressed by the tall and lanky half-elf. He smirked. "Oh, I'm sure you will, Sauren and - well, if you want some help..."

"Thank you. I consider it an honour to have made your acquaintance."

"You don't half speak all grown up," Don laughed.

Sauren smiled. "I believe it may be part of my charm which earns me such popularity."

The two boys laughed as they continued along the narrow streets.

Melting into the shadows once more, Sauren Nightflame made his way back to The Crimson Blade headquarters

Chapter Text

Music: THE SCARECROW by Avantasia

Music: THE SCARECROW by Avantasia

   

The Crimson Blade was still in the process of appointing staff from pageboys to stable-hands, cleaners to cooks and trainers to administrators.

The newfound complex had been a hive of industry over the past few weeks. Supplies had steadily arrived through the portcullis in wagonloads. Armour, weapons, saddles, equipment for the kitchens, halls, dormitories and private chambers; not to mention all the luxuries; portraits, books, wines, food. It had indeed been a busy time.

But, today was the day the boy had been waiting for. The teenage son of the guild's founder, stood admiring the individuals gathered in the missions room. He had heard his father talk about the majority of them over the past months and how delighted he was that they had considered his venture worthy of their loyalty and dedication. They would aid towards ultimately making this, Sa'themar's legacy for his son, a reality at long last. The rogues in front of the boy were the elite of their craft. These would be the leaders of groups his father would assign the more important tasks.

He kept far enough back in the room, pressed up against the wall actually, as they milled around the room, taking in its detail, its purpose, chatting and laughing amongst themselves.

His heart started to hammer as one of the individuals neared him. A beautiful blonde high elf in red leather armour with a golden phoenix emblazoned on the chest piece. Her stride was confident, powerful and utterly mesmerising. She had the bluest eyes Sauren had ever seen and a gentle smile which normally would calm the most nervous of people, but in this case, made a young pubescent boy flush furiously. He shifted awkwardly, painfully aware his bodily reaction to the woman was most inappropriate. He clutched his hands in front of his crotch, trying to assume a calm exterior.

His brown eyes darkened in panic as behind the woman a man also approached. He too, a high elf was, in fact, the woman's husband. He was tall, athletic with long dark brown hair which he wore in a high knot. His face though kindly, held a quiet fierceness which the boy just knew one did not antagonise.

They were the Firefurys. Sauren had watched them from the shadows in the upper walkways as they had trained with others within the grounds over the past few days. They were unique. Their skills so perfect, so fluid, synchronised beyond anything the young boy had borne witness to before; and he had seen many as they had all poured into the grounds seeking employment or an opportunity to define their craft.

"Hello young man," the woman said. She held out her hand to shake his. Hesitantly, he unclasped his and shook hands with her. His face reddened a little more. "I am Lina Firefury and this is Yathas, my husband." The man came forward and he too offered to shake with Sauren.

"I am most honoured to meet you," the boy said a little awkwardly but bowed before them graciously enough. He quickly clasped his hand back before straightening.

The couple smiled at him; his manners were impeccable for one so young. "So you must be Sauren, Sa'themar's son?"

"Yes, Madam Firefury." The blond youth replied.

The woman laughed lightly. The sound was quite enchanting. A small smile teased the corners of Sauren's lips.

"Please Sauren, call me Lina. And this is Yathas. No need for such formality with us."

Sauren inclined his head in acknowledgement.

Yathas then spoke, his voice rich, deep. "Are you going to follow in your father's footsteps then Sauren?"

"I certainly hope to. My father has arranged for my training to commence soon."

"Oh! Well then, would you perhaps like to also join us sometime when we do our training?" Lina offered.

The boy's eyes shone. This was an honour indeed. "Thank you very much. I would not want to get in your way, however."

"Not at all, Sauren," She smiled. "It would be a pleasure. Obviously some of the advanced things we will have to ask you to stand back from, but otherwise, you may train with us as much as you like."

"Providing your father does not object," Yathas added giving his wife a knowing look.

Sauren watched as Lina nudged her husband playfully. "Oh, I'm sure he won't." She cast a reassuring smile at Sauren. He smirked back.

"Ah, so you have met," a voice came from their right. Sa'themar Nightflame had entered the room and headed straight for his son. The man was an imposing figure, tall, strong and to some perhaps, intimidating. But this high elf, who originally hailed from Quel'thalas, was highly respected; a fair and just man who loved his son dearly and wanted only the best for him.

Sauren inclined his head. "Father," he said in greeting. The elf put a paternal arm around his son's shoulders and smiled broadly.

"Sauren is a perfect gentleman," Lina said to Sa'themar. "Most definitely his father's son."

The leader of the Crimson Blade smiled appreciatively, his blue eyes sparkling at the compliment. "Thank you Lina. He is a good boy, I have been blessed." He gave Sauren's shoulders a squeeze.

The boy's face flushed again. He adored his father, but sometimes the affection he awarded him in public, made Sauren a little embarrassed. It was not that he considered such displays of parental pride as inappropriate, but rather he hated the consequences cast upon him by some who bore witness to it. Not that there was any threat of that kind inside the grounds of the guild, but in the city, where their home had been since he was born, that was a different story.

"Would you object to Sauren training with us occasionally?" Lina asked, her smile wide.

Sa'themar seemed taken aback, but pleasantly surprised. "Well," he began, as he looked at his son. Sauren's brown eyes were wide, pleading, and the boy's perfect teeth glinted from behind his full lips. His father smiled. There was little he could refuse him. "It seems Sauren is keen to partake in your tutelage, am I right?" He pointed the question to the boy.

"Yes father, I would like that very much."

Sa'themar nodded, his long platinum hair falling forward over his shoulders as he did so. "Very well, but Brett will be your trainer for the most part."

"Of course, father." Sauren agreed.

The boy stood silently after that, listening to Sa'themar converse with the Firefurys. He tried not to stare at Lina. She was a striking woman and it was very easy to understand why she would occupy a young boy's fantasies from a sexual perspective. For young Sauren however, there was more to her than that. Yes, she made his body respond in a natural way, but it was more to do with her admirable ability as an assassin, a rogue, a spy which drew him.

The chemistry between her and her husband was also oddly stimulating for the young boy. It created a desire within him to find someone with whom he could be as in sync with as the Firefurys were with each other. They had become something of an aspiration for the boy.

Having heard his father enthuse about their abilities over recent years and how they had bonded with Sa'themar while on missions for other guilds and individuals, it still took witnessing them, albeit it just in training, to understand exactly how impressive they were.

Lina, according to his father, was already a highly adept rogue when he met her and her then new husband, Yathas, was still honing some skills. The couple requested Sa'themar's instruction and he found himself often training the two of them out with their assigned workloads. He had not, however, expected them to become so attuned to each other in ability, where each worked like an extension of the other. Their skills, timing and expertise were choreographed to perfection, quite unlike anything even Sa'themar had witnessed before or expected to evolve.

Excusing themselves after a few minutes, the Firefurys and his father then moved into the centre of the room to mingle with the other rogues. The platinum-haired boy simply watched, smiling, catching snippets of conversation here and there from the culminated group of elites.

The rogues consisted of a cross-section of races; humans from the sprawling continent of Eastern Kingdoms, high elves from Quel'thalas like his father, in the north, descendants of the reclusive night elves from Kalimdor - the once enormous continent and largest land mass in Azeroth until the War of the Ancients when it was torn asunder by the destruction of the Well of Eternity. And finally, dwarves from Ironforge and its surrounding hamlets in the snow-covered plains of Dun Morogh.

As a learned observer, Sauren noted the different traits, the accents, the manner in which they addressed each other, their opinions, their adopted strategies. There was nothing the boy did not absorb.

Another youngster came forward and stood next to Sauren. He was human, and one of the few real friends Sauren had. He was the son of the blacksmith Matthew Stanton whose skills had been hired by Sa'themar for the stables within the Crimson Blade grounds. Two years older than the half-elf, Don Stanton had been one of the few kids in the city who had stepped in when Sauren had been victim to the bullying tactics of some other vindictive youngsters.

Sauren Nightflame was a half-breed after all and some still did not accept such unions; they considered them disgusting, going against the natural way of things.

Even some individuals who came from a far less fortunate lifestyle than the platinum-haired boy also partook in shaming and humiliating him for what and who he was. Don had shown decency and respect towards Sauren, and the two quickly became friends.

Don suggested they tell Sauren's father of the abuse, but the affluent boy had refused. He was taking note of those who defiled his name, heritage even his apparel and assured his newfound friend that one day, they would regret what they did.

Now, the two boys stood side by side, quietly watching the assembly of the finest rogues in the Eastern Kingdoms. Don broke the silence. "It is coming together very nicely, Sauren." He turned his blue eyes to the half-elf and a smile which concealed a hidden knowledge curved his lips.

Sauren mouth twitched at the corners. His physical "admiration" of Lina Firefury had now subsided and he clasped his hands behind his back. Pushing himself up on his toes and down again, he rocked a couple of times, then sighed out loud. "Indeed it is," he replied, his elocution loaded with secret machinations.

By all accounts, the seventeen-year-old boy oozed a maturity far beyond his years; acquired from spending most of his young life in adult company, be it tutors or associates of his father. A mind as keenly honed as the sharpest blade, he formulated plans, which if they had not been tinged with a hint of sadistic intent, would have been seen as positively genius.

As it was, the youngling was surveying his future, his inheritance and he would covet it with a fierce determination, no matter the cost. He had not studied exceedingly hard since he had learned to read, just to sit on his highly propitious ass and watch the world go by. He was going to mould it to his advantage. He was going to be the one who all others respected. And, if need be - feared.

He had another exceptional gift, however. Patience. He would not rush blindly into anything. He was an observer, a listener and from those traits, he would devise whatever chicanery suited his purpose.

Finally, over and above all that, he had impeccable manners, charisma and a blossoming desirability, for all he was still so young. Many a young girl had been known to sigh as he passed, then giggle amidst tight little groups of friends as he flashed his brown eyes and perfect teeth in her direction. 

Oh, he knew how to play it. But the play was all he knew. The deed itself was still to be done and he wanted it to be with a woman of experience. He had heard some of the conversations of the male staff and had an inkling of where to find what he sought. That, however, was by the bye and could wait for the time being. More pressing matters awaited him for now.

All in all, there were many positives which had formed his privileged and mostly happy upbringing. With a doting father, who felt the need to over-compensate for the time he'd spent away from home, he could not truly complain. "Have you completed the list?" he asked the human boy.

"I have," Don replied. "It is in the usual place. But, why, if I may ask, all the cloak and dagger?"

Sauren laughed lightly at Don's metaphor. The humour was not lost on the human either, he joined in the laughter. Sauren's deep brown eyes flitted over to where his father stood. The guild leader must have heard the boys' laughter and turned to see what amused them. Sauren merely smiled reassuringly and bowed his head towards his father. Sa'themar beamed back, his exceptionally long hair slid over his shoulder and covered his back as he returned to his elites-in-waiting.

Sauren then leaned a little closer to his friend before answering his question. "It is prudent to carry out these little exercises as they may prove to be invaluable methods of communication in the future." His perfect teeth flashed as he studied the boy next to him.

The human was well enough turned out, but there was room for improvement. His unruly hair, for one thing, needed cut. Sauren took pride in his own appearance, and he expected those close to him to do likewise. Digging into his waistcoat pocket, he produced some silver and passed it to Don in a phlegmatic manner. "I suggest that mop of yours is tended to."

Don glanced down at the money in his hand then quickly closed his fingers over it. Sauren was always generous. "I shall have it tended to with immediate effect then," he said quietly.

"Good, do so and I will see you later at the banquet." Sauren watched as his friend left the missions room.

He smirked as he saw him nearly bump into Brett Hornsby, Sa'themar's right hand, on the way out. Brett, laughing, dodged to the side as the boy picked up pace exiting the room.

He was a very tolerant man of the youngsters who ran about the place. Sauren, having eavesdropped on conversations between his father and Brett, expected the man's tolerance was partially due to an element of underlying sorrow. His wife Mary, had borne him no children, having miscarried several times.

Unlike Sauren's own mother who eventually gave birth, Mary was told there was no possibility of her ever carrying a child full term. There was no doubt, Brett was good with children and they all seemed to look up to him. He would have made a good father, of that, Sauren was certain. Yet, there was just something about the man that half-elf could not entirely warm to. It was nothing specific. He had, after all, been a friend to the boy's father since Sauren could remember. He had also, on more than one occasion, proved fiercely loyal and completely devoted aiding in Sath'emar's service. But, there was just - something! Enough for Sauren to goad the man now and again, albeit in a dangerously subtle manner.

The man walked over to him, a smile still playing on his mouth. He combed his fingers through his floppy brown hair, pulling it back from his brow. "And how are you this fine morning, Sauren?" he asked.

"I am very well, thank you, Brett. And you?"

Brett chafed his hands together, trying to warm them against the cold. His eyes scanned the people in the room until he caught sight of Sa'themar. He waved greeting. Sa'themar returned the gesture. "I am good, thank you," he replied, turning his attention back to Sauren.

"And your wife? I trust she too, is well?"

Brett nodded. "Aye."

"Hmm. I have been wondering, when are we are going to see a young Hornsby running around?" The boy turned his brown eyes to the rogue and wore an innocent smile which again, showed those perfect teeth.

The man stilled, his chafing of hands drawing to a gradual stop. His eyes avoided Sauren's, a pretence made of looking around the room once more. The subject had indeed hit a tender spot; an expression of contrition evident in the set of the human rogue's jaw. 

The awkward moment was saved by Yathas who had come over to take Brett into the gathering. The man glanced back once at the platinum-haired half-elf, the question having remained unanswered - as always. There was another look in Brett's eyes, however; acerbity.

Sauren respected the man as a rogue and as his father's right-hand man. He didn't have to like him though. And there was no harm in setting boundaries, laying foundations, as it were. Even subtle ones placed now would stand the test of time.

To ensure the man did not chew over that little incident, Sauren bowed in his direction; a show of respect. As he glanced up through his platinum locks, he noted Brett's mouth twitch at the corner, then slowly the blue eyes softened as his attention was drawn to the other rogues in attendance.

The boy straightened and once more cast his eyes over the calibre of today's assassins. He smiled to himself. This was his future, his destiny. His empire.

Yes, one day, he would eventually be the leader of the Crimson Blade. And what a day that would be.

 And what a day that would be

Chapter Text

 I hope it does not disappoint

 

Music: AGE OF WONDERS composed by Brunuhville

   

The dining hall was actually two elongated stores knocked into one dilatant and impressive room which could accommodate around one hundred and seventy diners. 

The otherwise cold stone walls were adorned with huge, finely detailed tapestries and various coats of arms representing the transection of races which would form the guild. Many of these exquisite, and in some cases slightly gruesome, works of art, had been gifted to Sa'themar by some very influential clients who had been more than delighted when he announced he was going to inaugurate his own guild.

The floor, made of the same solid stone as the walls had been vigorously buffed and polished to a high-quality sheen, the embedded mithril deposits giving an almost iridescent look to it.

Tables, long and sturdy were basic in design but made from the best timber available - Ashenvale Oak. The grain, having been stained many times over to produce a  deep, rich mahogany colour, was a trend favoured by the consequential establishments of the day. Benches were lined under the tables which normally would be simple hard seating for students, but on this evening, they were draped in soft furs to provide comfort for the guests attending the grand opening.

At the top of the room on a broad platform was the head table. It was not as basic as its counterparts on the hall floor. Its edging and legs were embellished with detailed mouldings depicting the ornate emblem of the high elves and the sigil for Lordaeron and its Capital City. This would be where the guild master and his senior staff, or guests of a venerate disposition would be seated. No benches here, instead, elaborate high-backed chairs, with identical mouldings to that of the table, provided padded, comfortable seating for elite posteriors. 

Above their heads, five large dark iron chandeliers hung from the ceilings between the wooden beams. These tiered lights had been made by Don's father.  The bases were constructed from cartwheels, their rims whittled out to provide bedding for candles. Trimmed in iron bands, six solid chains supported their weight and provided a frame where the smith's creativity was well displayed. He had woven ornate iron candelabras between the chains, each offering a setting for more candles, numbers tapering to the thick loop on which the chains interlocked. One heavy duty chain then held the entire creation suspended above the diners. More free standing candelabras were lined along the walls and so the enormous hall had more than adequate lighting.

To the rear of the hall, a double door led through and down to the kitchens. Wafting up from the extensive scullery, the aroma of roasted meats, spiced stuffing, game pies, fresh breads, sweet potatoes and honeyed pumpkins permeated the hall. Judging by the looks of anticipation on the faces of the diners, the pending fare had already been awarded their veritable approval. 

Cooks had been busy since the day before preparing a banquet fit for a king. Appropriate, considering the king of Lordaeron, being an enthusiastic advocate of new businesses and professions in his city, had in fact been invited. Regrettably, he had declined Sa'themar's invitation due to important state affairs which he explained, could not be adjourned. King Terenas wrote a genuine apology for being unable to attend, for he was most exuberant that Sa'themar had decided to actuate his own guild (having made use of the rogue's services in the past and been most pleased with the results). He did, however, insist that he be represented at such a significant event and announced that Queen Lianne and their daughter, Princess Calia would attend in his absence.

As a thank you for their contributions, efforts, resources, loyalty and dedication, this was mainly a celebration for those actively involved with the guild, however, there were to be a few other notable dignitaries also in attendance. 

From Quel'thalas, Belo'vir Salonar a prestigious magus and friend of Sa'themar, was from one of the seven noblest families in the high elven realm. The House of Salonar had a seat in the Convocation of Silvermoon enabling it to have great influence in the rule of the high elf kingdom. Belo'vir, who had fought valiantly in the Troll Wars and had proven time and again an auspicious ability in the art of magic, now looked set to being appointed Grand Magister.  It was not however, a position which was expeditiously bestowed upon one; it was a long, laborious process. The magus was, nonetheless, a patient man and one who knew his worth. 

He was due to arrive along with another magus, one who, by all accounts had been a most illustrious contributor to the creation of Quel'thalas. It was rumoured that he was very ambitious young man, with an eye on the title of Grand Magister himself, although he was not presently being considered. He was according to rumour, assiduously talented in arcane manipulation and considered a worthy ally to have.  Sa'themar was looking forward to meeting him.

The dwarves, not to be outdone in noble representation had King Magni himself making an appearance. Truth be told he was actually coming to the city to attend an audience with the human king. 

His business was actually part of the reason King Terenas could not attend the banquet at Crimson Blade. Regardless, when he got wind of the new enterprise and the festivities he was quick to jump in when heard King Terenas had declined and was sending his Queen and daughter in his stead. 

Always one for a decent mug (or two) of ale and first class fare, he advised the king of Lordaeron that as he was certain the state business needing to be discussed would be concluded by early evening he thought it only prudent to escort the Queen and Princess - merely as a courtesy, of course, to King Terenas. 

The Night Elf representation was being kept a closely guarded secret. Much supposition abounded, although it remained in cloistered whispers. Only a few High Elves really knew about them after all. Being descendants, although their paths seldom crossed due to the rather contumacious nature of the Night Elves since the months after War of the Ancients, the race was seldom seen or indeed mentioned. News about them was also rare, although Sa'themar had never wanted to completely lose contact with his roots so the rogue network managed to deliver snippets of information, albeit on an irregular basis.

Was it going to be the maniacal Archdruid Fandral Staghelm perhaps? It was doubtful, the elf was undeniably powerful but also unstable, particularly since the death of his son in Silithis. He was also, by nature, extremely irritable, so was not really the ideal dinner guest to have. 

Perhaps it was going to be his contender for Leadership of the Night Elves, High Priestess of Elune, Tyrande Whisperwind. It was common knowledge that the woman was a true beauty who possessed a shrewd brain along with an unequalled grace. Or, perhaps her mate, the Archdruid Malfurion Stormrage had returned? 

Speculation that the latter was still lost in the Emerald Nightmare created one or two chuckles amongst those not of night elven heritage; the seriousness of the Archdruid's predicament being lost on them.

One other astute brain, however, doubted very much it was any of those Night Elven hierarchy. Sauren's mind worked through all the history he knew, but the immortal diner still remained elusive to his power of deduction.  It was, in truth, the only part of this evening's festivities he was looking forward to; the revelation he hoped, would not be an anti-climax. 

While he was suitably impressed by all the individuals who had come to offer their services be it in construction, training, assignments, administration, even down to the housekeepers and cooks, the thought of sitting for goodness knows how long and having to play the part of perfect host was not how he favoured spending his evening. At least, not now. 

Leaning against the stables door frame, he watched in disgruntled silence as the Crimson Blade recruits milled about making their way towards the dining hall. He knew he had to enter soon and stand with his father, where he would need to greet all other guests in the customary fashion. His mind was elsewhere though.

Music: WOLFBORN composed by Brunuhville

   

He glanced down at his hand. Just as Don had said, the list was in the usual place; at the back of the stables tucked into Sauren's saddle via the small incision he'd made with his anelace. 

Loosely, he held the folded piece of parchment. He flicked it over, weaving it between his slender fingers. The names and details were emblazoned on his brain. His lips curled in quiet contemplation. 

Patience was indeed a virtue, he thought. All those vile little upstarts who for years had ridiculed him dishonoured him and his family name with their taunts and filthy missiles launched at his person were now due for some payback. He had wanted every detail about their families; their kin, their jobs if any, likes, dislikes, fears and phobias, everything he could use for dramatic effect.

He sighed, lifting his brown eyes for a moment to watch the crowd entering the dining hall. 

This was not, as some may have considered it, just a petty revenge. This was a lesson in life – firstly for those on the list. A lesson which would indubitably teach them to never underestimate him; a half-breed, ever again. 

This was also going to be a lesson for himself. The way of the rogue, the assassin, was always personified by their ability to meld with the shadows and absorb their surroundings rendering them invisible to their victims. This was the one field Sauren had focused on fiercely and practised every day without fail. It was a trait in which it was extraordinarily easy to err, and it needed honing with pure dedication. In stealth, therefore, he knew he possessed an unprecedented skill.

He pushed himself away from the door frame and started towards the hall. On the way, he passed a brazier near the portcullis at the entrance to the grounds. Deftly, he dropped the note into the crackling heat. 

The yellow and orange flames reflected in his deep brown eyes, their dance curling around the parchment turning it black until it disintegrated within the iron base. A satisfied grin crept over his mouth before he continued to the open doors of the dining hall. 

As he passed under the lintel, Brett unexpectedly appeared beside him. Sauren could not disguise the fact that the human rogue had startled him and he took a couple of rapid steps backwards, colliding with one of the candelabras. 

Brett quickly caught the boy by the arm and pulled him to the side while straightening the candelabra. Normally, within these walls, such an ambuscade was met with good humour, but on this night, in front of so many important guests, Sauren was sorely affronted to have been taken by surprise.

     "Kindly think before such foolery!" Sauren snapped, smoothing down his waistcoat and jacket. He inspected the shoulders to ensure no wax or worse, burn marks had been acquired. When he turned his eyes to Brett he was infuriated more to find the human rogue smirking.

     "What's got into your britches?" Brett said still looking amused.

Sauren straightened. With a concentrated effort, he relaxed. He chose his words carefully. Belore forbid that Brett should think he was being apologised to. "Tonight is not a night for such pranks, Brett. I would have thought you of all people would have understood that." He watched as Brett's grin started to fade. 

Then he planted another foundation. "It is not fitting for our guests to see the guild's right-hand man make a fool out of his future guild master." Sauren casually glanced around the hall before turning his attention back to Brett. He forced his lips to remain tight as he noted the human's expression had changed dramatically.

Brett swallowed, took a deep breath then leaned in, so only the boy heard. "You may be guild master one day,  Sauren, but you will be a conceited little bastard for life."

At that, Sauren did smirk.  The normally placid man had foolishly attempted to place some boundaries of his own. After picking off some loose blond hairs which had settled on his jacket sleeve and discarding them in mid-air he turned and held Brett's stare. "For future reference, I may also produce an heir one day Brett, who will succeed me.  Something, by the way, I think you and Mrs Hornsby should be focusing on before time runs out."

It took Brett Hornsby all he had not to react to that comment. He had tried, sometimes very hard, to warm to the boy.  

Playing such tricks on him as he had done just then, he had tried to include him in fun games and exercises from when he was a nipper, as he had done with all the kids that ran around their respective homes in the city.  Fair dues to the boy, he had participated readily enough, but there was just something amiss.  

Even though his loyalty and friendship with Sa'themar was solid, Brett sensed a side to Sauren which he could only describe as dangerously unpredictable. The little swine now seemed to know his most private concerns. He knew without a doubt that his personal discussions with Sa'themar would never have been discussed at the Nightflame dinner table, but it niggled him to think that they had somehow reached Sauren's devious half-elf ears. 

Many a time he had thought he was being unreasonable in his assumption about the lad and voiced so to Mary, his wife. She'd massage his tired shoulders and listen to him trying to rationalise his thoughts and feelings. All the while she smiled wistfully, believing his misgivings were all rooted in the fact that they did not have a son of their own.

Sa'themar arrived at their side. Sauren's demeanour changed immediately. "Father," he greeted, bowing his head with respect. 

The guild master smiled at his son and placed a paternal hand on his shoulder. "Come, we have guests and a duty." He nodded to Brett then turned towards the base of the platform on which the main table sat. 

There they awaited the human and dwarven nobility who had just passed through the portcullis. A large shimmering light source in the courtyard also heralded the arrival by portal of the high elves from Quel'thalas. Sa'themar straightened, nudging his son to do likewise. He then quickly glanced around the hall to ensure everyone else was standing in readiness to greet his royal guests, before returning his attention to the door.

Royal guards marched in and took their places at opposite sides of the doorway. More poured into the hall, their mail and plate armour clinking as they moved, before stopping just a few short yards in front of Sa'themar. There, they turned to face each other and made a unified salute slamming their lance bases on the floor. They adopted a rigid stance, awaiting their queen to enter.

Wearing a teal coloured gown and matching cloak, the graceful figure of Queen Lianne appeared at the entrance of the dining hall. She was indeed a striking and somewhat imposing woman, very much befitting of noble blood. 

She was not however aloof, and with a radiant smile readily stretched out her hand to greet Sa'themar as she approached. He took it, brushing his lips against her rings, bowing deeply, his hair falling forward over his shoulders and almost touching the ground. 

A small giggle sounded from behind the queen. She flitted her eyes to the side in warning but returned her gaze quickly to her host. "Good evening Sa'themar. It is wonderful to see you again."

     "Your Majesty, you are most gracious and very welcome to the Crimson Blade."

He released her hand and stood straight again, his height dwarfing the woman without diminishing her regality. She leaned a little closer. "I for one, am most pleased that Terenas was unable to make it, and sent me instead. I look forward to this evening." She laughed quietly.

Sa'themar's soft laughter rumbled in his chest. "I would have insisted he bring you with him had he accepted, your Majesty."

She pouted then laughed again. "He would just have spoiled my fun, Sa'themar." Her smile broadened then her eyes turned to Sauren. For a moment she simply smiled at him, taking in his attire and poise. She had heard of but never met the boy. "And you must be..."

     "Forgive me, your Majesty..." Sa'themar started. "This is Sauren, my son."

The queen held out her hand and the young boy greeted and addressed her in the same fashion as his father had. "Why, aren't you just a paragon of your father," she smiled. Sauren bowed his head again in response.

     "He is the image of his mother, however," Sa'themar said proudly.

The queen continued smiling. "Yes, I can see it. He has Elmina's eyes and her complexion. But he is also very much a Nightflame, Sa'themar, there is no mistaking his heritage."

Sauren listened with growing agitation at being spoken of as if he was not present. He knew however that he should not dare display such annoyance in the presence of the monarchy. He was also, nonetheless, quite adept at making someone reconsider their method of address, regardless of who they were. 

"Thank you, your Majesty, your words are most kind and flattering." He offered. "May I also take this opportunity to say that I am most honoured you have graced us with your divine presence at our celebrations." He bowed low although his eyes never left hers.

Sa'themar's eyebrows twitched and he glanced sideways at his son. The sentiment had not been from his tutelage, that had been entirely Sauren's own words. 

Queen Lianne was unable to contain a small gasp. Sauren could not help but notice how her bosom heaved within the tight restraints of her corseted gown. "My, you are quite the gentleman, Sauren." Queen Lianne said in a rushed breath.

The boy straightened and gave one of his charming smiles, the perfect teeth on clear display. "You are too kind, your Majesty." He released her hand and took a step backwards. 

The Queen seemed somewhat flummoxed and it was a tiny cough behind her which brought her back to the moment. She turned and beckoned the one who coughed. 

Princess Calia emerged from behind her mother. The girl could be no more than ten maybe eleven years of age, but already with her blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, it was obvious she was destined to be a beautiful woman. She afforded the customary greetings, coaxed by her mother, but there was a coyness about her and she blushed profusely when both Sa'themar and Sauren spoke to her. She was quick to step back behind her mother once the introductions were over.

 

Music: SLAVA, MOY BRAT composed by Adrian von Ziegler  

   

Queen Lianne stepped aside as a gruff voice grunted then cleared its throat. 

From her left King Magni appeared. Next to the elves, he was positively tiny, but he was broad and without question, strong. Most of his red hair was pulled back and tied with a leather thong while two thick plaits hung either side of his ruddy face. The characteristic large nose sat above a moustache and beard which had been strenuously brushed and plaited, adorned with engraved rings that clinked like tiny bells when he moved his head. 

This was a man who wore his armour with pride. It had been buffed to a high sheen and his fur mantle hung from one shoulder. There was no doubt if this dwarf charged you, you were not going to regain your feet in a hurry.

     "Sa'themar!" he said brusquely and offered his hand.

The high elf shook with him. "Your Majesty," he replied.

     "Ach, let's be done wi' the Majesties. Jist ca' me Magni, it's  less of a mouthful."

     "I would not wish to disrespect ..." Sa'themar began, but the dwarf king cut him off.

     "Dinnae dae as I say and that will be looked upon as disrespect!" King Magni responded with a twinkle in his beady eyes.

Sa'themar smiled. "Very well, Magni. I bid you welcome to the Crimson Blade. Eat plenty and be merry."

The dwarf huffed. "Oh, ah intend tae! Now whar oo sittin'," he said before remembering to greet Sauren. He quickly shook the boy's hand and grunted a greeting. Sauren was not in the least bit offended, he instantly liked the king.  

Magni led Queen Lianne and her daughter to their seats, while more Royal guards stood behind them.

Next to enter the dining hall was not the high elves as the hosts expected, but instead a lone figure with their face obscured by a large hood. 

Sauren felt a tingle of excitement. Here was the mysterious night elf representative and Sauren was desperately trying to work out who it was as the figure started its approach. 

A purposeful stride, with a confident posture. From beneath the cloak, Sauren could make out a glint of green armour and a sword in an elaborate scabbard. He noted the sigil on the breastplate. Then the puzzle fell into place. The answer it gave to his probing mind had a hard time registering the fact, however. This individual had been presumed dead for thousands of years. 

Sauren looked at his father. The guild master seemed oddly uncertain of the advancing night elf.  He had assumed at least his father had known who to expect. With a quick glance at night elf, gauging the distance remaining between them he whispered the question to Sa'themar. "Do you know who this is, father?"

Sa'themar looked at his son from the side then quickly returned his attention to the night elf. "Yes son, I know who he is. Though, few have met ..." His voice trailed off as the night elf came to a halt in front of him. The hooded figure offered an almost regimental bow. Sa'themar mirrored him. "I am honoured that you have chosen to join us..."

     "I did not," a deep voice answered. "Time has chosen for me." He rounded his shoulders  "And I was in the vicinity," he added with just the slightest hint of humour.  He pulled his hood down. The elf was considerably older than Sauren had expected, for the night elves had been blessed with the gift of immortality by an aspect of the bronze dragonflight, Nozdormu the Timeless One.  This elf, however, looked like age was finally catching up with him.  

Sauren noticed from the lack of reaction within the hall few, if any, other than the smattering of night elves in the company, knew who this man was. He sensed also, it was how the man wanted it. Though why he would come to the Crimson Blade celebrations of all places if he wished to remain incognito puzzled the young boy.

His father wore a forlorn smile then turned to him. "Sauren, this is..."

     "Commander Shadowsong," Sauren finished. For the second time that evening, Sa'themar was once more surprised by his son, but he tried not to show it in front of guests. Sauren bowed to the night elf. "It is an honour, Commander."

The night elf's silver orbs held the boys stare, then slowly he offered him the same polite bow. Sauren watched as he alighted the platform and went to sit beside Princess Calia.

Finally, the Quel'thalas delegates arrived in front of them. Dressed in the crimson and yellow colours pertaining to the Silvermoon insignia of the Phoenix, they looked every bit the affluent magic wielders from the land which harboured the powerful Sunwell. 

"Old friend," Sa'themar said reaching for Belo'vir's arm. They clasped forearms in a warm greeting.

     "It is good to see you Sa'themar, it has been far too long." Belo'vir enthused.

     "Indeed, yet you have not changed."

The magus laughed heartily. "Oh, I can assure you I have. The years, however, have been good to you, I see. And a fine young son to show for it, too." He turned his eyes to Sauren who bowed in greeting. 

This was the first time the boy had met the aspiring magus from Quel'thalas. He had to admit he seemed an affable man going by first impressions.

Belo'vir spoke again to Sa'themar. "I hope we will have some time to reminisce, however, for now, let me introduce you..." he indicated the high elf standing next to him.

The companion did not look as if there were many years between him and Sauren, though going by what he had allegedly achieved, he should have been considerably older. He had, what perhaps those of the female persuasion may consider, a handsome face, framed in light brown hair which he wore loose over his shoulders and back. His azure eyes were bright, alert and intelligent. 

Perhaps this legendary Sunwell was also a fountain of youth, the boy thought, although he had not read any documentation to evidence that assumption. The man stepped forward and his smile was certainly charming. He bowed with a flourish to the two Nightflames. As he straightened, he tilted his head at Sauren, almost like an inquisitive child.

Belo'vir had deliberately waited until his companion had stepped forward and greeted his hosts. "This is one of the individuals responsible for creating our beloved Quel'thalas and Silvermoon City..." His companion smirked, obviously relishing the accolade. "This is Dar'khan Drathir."

Sauren and the young magus locked eyes. There was something of a quiet understanding passed between the two. Both recognising the need for more knowledge and power, which each craved. Sauren inclined his head to the young magus. 

It seemed the evening might be more entertaining than he had first thought.

It seemed the evening might be more entertaining than he had first thought

Chapter Text

The abundance of premium food with exceptional quality wines and ale made for a very pleasurable start to the evening at the Crimson Blade headquarters

The abundance of premium food with exceptional quality wines and ale made for a very pleasurable start to the evening at the Crimson Blade headquarters. Blended with some humorous, compelling and often stimulating conversations, it all bespoke a successful grand opening.

Loud chatter and raucous laughter erupted from some of the guests in the hall. The culprits would glance up to the top table as if seeking reassurance that their behaviour was not offending the royal presence within the hall. No recriminating looks nor words of warning were conveyed and so the atmosphere remained relaxed and free.  

Serving staff made sure there was fare aplenty for the guests, replenishing empty platters and goblets alike. 

It had been at Sa'themar's insistence that they too partake of the celebrations, for they, in his eyes, were as much part of the guild as any of the trainers, advisors or administrators were.  The staff, therefore, worked a rota basis so that they too could enjoy the festivities, a separate table for them having been allocated at the edge of the hall.

A young woman, dressed in simple staff attire made to sit at the table with some of her colleagues when one of the male occupants at a table close by shouted her name. 

She looked up, blushed furiously then went to sit beside her co-workers. She budged up along the end of the bench, trying to hide behind one of her friends. With a furtive glance over their shoulder at the man who had tried to grab her attention, she promptly lowered her head again and started placing some food on her plate from the available platters.

Laughter erupted from the others at the table opposite along with some playful shoulder slapping of the man who had tried to capture her attention. The woman's cheeks were rosy, her silvery eyes avoiding the table of rogues.

A cheer rose as one of the men swung his legs over the bench and stood up, facing the woman. She sneaked a look from under her lashes. Her head slowly came up. She was clearly surprised, for the man who shouted her name was not the one who approached. 

This one was an elf, like her. He tugged his tunic down and straightened the fabric of his jacket. Nervously, he ran his fingers through the sides of his hair, clearing stray strands away from his face. He looked almost as awkward as the woman did. His colleagues relentlessly egged him on, laughing and cheering. 

He turned to them, his face showing annoyance. Enough! he mouthed at them. Silence befell the rogues. For a moment. Then they were stricken with small guffaws. 

The elf sighed heavily, then moved forward until he drew to a halt beside the woman. He bowed deeply and spoke to her, holding out his hand at the same time.  Whatever he said, the woman seemed to like it. Her hand rose and accepted the rogue's gallant gesture. He bent low and brushed his lips across her knuckles. 

His colleagues all applauded.  The two elves grinned at them then turned their attention back to each other.

A pair of brown eyes watched the exchange with mild irritation from the top table. Tossing a rib on his plate, Sauren picked up his napkin and dabbed the corners of his mouth. He had noted the woman's change in reaction once she realised it was her own kind who was interested in her. She had been mortified when she thought it was the human who wanted a dalliance with her. 

It seemed the old prejudices abounded, even within other races. Or perhaps she simply did not find the human attractive. Sauren grinned a little to himself and his initial mood lifted as he thought about it more. The human, athletically built as he was, would still have been dwarfed by the female elf. It would have been a comical coupling if nothing else. 

If he were totally honest, other people's preferences for a mate did not bother him. It was only when that bigoted attitude was cast at his own family that he vehemently objected.

His eyes drifted over the room, absorbing every interaction between guests. To his recurring annoyance, he found he was particularly drawn to those engaging in affectionate conduct. He leaned on his fist, disgruntled with himself. 

The capacious opportunity afforded this night to glean information on persons of import, tactics, strategies in covert operations, tips on devious deeds was preposterous; yet, here he was, inexplicably drawn to the amatory behaviour of a handful of those present. 

Their soft laughter, tender glances, coy smiles, the not-so-secret brushing of fingers on table surfaces drew his eyes. There was little he did not see. But there much more he did not fully understand.

He also noted those in the room who were displaying parental affection to their youngsters. Not that there were many present, but those who were going to be permanently based at the guild had their offspring in tow. 

So, it was not just the raging hormones of a young boy that made him observe all these exchanges, but also that of one who was often unbearably lonely. He did not know from where this feeling of emptiness came, but it often plagued him, had done from when he was a young boy. 

His thoughts turned inward and he found himself thinking of his mother. He had not known her, but he sorely wished he had. She had died shortly after giving birth to him. For many years his father did not speak of her either; his silence containing the pain of losing the only woman he had ever truly loved.

It had taken Sauren's disobedience that finally made Sa'themar open up about Elmina. A keen collector of art, his father had, over the years, acquired many beautiful paintings, some of which he had specially commissioned. 

Most were landscapes, a favourite being those of his homeland, Quel'thalas, or amazing creatures found throughout Azeroth.  

Some, however, were of ancestors, all handed down through the years and others were of existing family surviving somewhere in Azeroth; all, he later found out, were too occupied with their own dramas to be remotely interested Sauren and his father. They nonetheless adorned the walls of the Nightflame home and from an early age, Sauren learned to appreciate the many artists whose brushes had so skillfully created such detail and beauty.  

One day, when his father was away from home, Sauren had been passing the doorway to his father's study. It was a room Sauren was not permitted to enter. On this occasion, however, a housemaid was busy doing her chores within and curiosity bested him so he stole quietly inside then hid behind the heavy drapes at the large window.  

When he heard the soft click of the door closing he ventured out from his hiding place.  He froze momentarily as he then heard the loud clunk and scrape of the key locking the room. He was trapped now. He knew it would not be long before voices calling his name would sound through the halls and rooms, but he doubted anyone would think to check the study, at least not to begin with. 

He sensed he would be in there for quite some time so he decided to do what he came in to do; snoop.

Glass display cases were lined along two of the walls. Within was an assortment of collectables, memorabilia – blades of varying size and design; coins made of copper, silver and gold with strange symbols and persons no doubt of high importance embossed upon them. Trinkets made of exotic metals, some with exquisite gems lay in regimental lines. He wondered if they were magical or merely ornamental. He wished he could have picked them up but the cases were locked and he knew not where the keys were kept.

Music: THE ESSENCE OF LIFE (Instrumental) composed by Brunuhville

   

He moved forward towards his father's desk. It was kept immaculate, the leather surface unmarked; probably just as good as it had been the day it was made. 

Bottles of ink and quills were arranged in a sectional silver box. Wax blocks and a signet bearing his father's family coat of arms sat next to them. A tray on one side of the desk held some parchment while yet another contained official-looking letters and documents. 

Even then the young  Sauren knew they would not be the super secret ones which his father kept locked in a hidden alcove behind one of the paintings in his bedchamber.  

Sa'themar was unaware that his son practised stealthing about the house. Granted Sauren was not actually able to achieve that then, but, having overheard the accounts of some of the business colleagues his father had invited to their home on occasion, he liked to pretend he could, as if he was one of them; a rogue. He was, though, very adept at finding places to hide.

A sensation at the back of his neck, like he was being watched, had the boy suddenly rooted to the spot. His little heart was pounding, nervous that his father had somehow entered unheard and was standing behind him glaring down at his blond head, furious at his disobedience. 

Nervously, with his eyes cast down, he turned slowly. He was bewildered when he didn't find a pair of leather-booted feet in his sights. The feeling of being watched however had not left him. Lifting his head, his view travelled along the floor and into a darkened recess. He gulped, panicked that he had not noticed this as he'd circled the desk. His eyes continued up the far wall. Then, his breath caught in his throat.

Sa'themar had returned home earlier than expected and after frantically searching the house, shouting accusations at the servants and slamming doors in panic, he found his son. 

The housemaid who had been cleaning the study bumped into Sa'themar as she ran into the room behind him, apologising profusely for not having noticed the boy entering earlier. 

The high elf merely raised his hand to silence her, then softly, over his shoulder asked her to leave them. 

She caught sight of Sauren, sitting cross-legged on the floor staring into the recess, his little face tilted up, full of wonder. She clasped her hand to her mouth, a tear escaping, trickling over her cheek before she then turned and left the room. 

Once Sa'themar heard the click of the door closing, he stepped carefully towards his son.

At the age of five, Sauren saw his mother for the first time. There on the wall in the recess, lit by a candle on a tall ornamental stand at either side, was a portrait of a human female. Her long brown hair was draped over one shoulder, falling over the bodice of a beautiful white gown, embroidered with golden thread. 

She stood in front of a latticed archway which was adorned with roses in pale, pastel colours. Her large eyes were like Sauren's, warm mahogany and her smile, though subtle was unmistakably his also.  

Sauren had never felt so safe in his short life until that moment. There was something which reached out from that painting, something he knew was meant only for him. He could feel the love she would have showered upon him had she lived.

When he heard the soft footfalls approaching from his left, he lifted his eyes to his father. They were brimming, threatening to spill at any moment. Sa'themar struggled to contain his own tears. He opened his arms to his son. "Sauren," he said, his voice breaking with sorrow.

     "Sauren." Again more purposefully. "Sauren!"

Jolted back to the present, the sixteen-year-old boy blinked then bowed his head. "Forgive me, father."

     "Me'doreu thenoam, da'dort,"* Sa'themar replied. He was not angry with his son, he had merely needed to get his attention.

Sauren smiled appreciatively then shifted in his chair. "What is it you require of me?"

Sa'themar gestured behind Sauren. Turning, the boy saw the young magus standing.  A curious expression on his face, Dar'khan waited in polite silence until Sa'themar explained. "Perhaps you would give Dar'khan a tour of the guild grounds? I am sure sitting at a table of elders is not exactly entertaining for you younglings."

Sauren raised a quizzical eyebrow, glancing in the direction of Princess Calia. His father grinned and shook his head. "I think her being alone with two young men would be frowned upon."

     "Some of the guards could escort us." Sauren suggested.

Again his father smiled. "The girl is too painfully shy, and I think she would be uncomfortable out of her mother's company."

Sauren nodded and carefully pushed back his chair. He bowed to Commander Shadowsong who returned the gesture with a mere nod of his head. He then approached Queen Lianne. "I hope you will excuse us for the time being, Your Majesty, it has been requested that I give the magus Dar'khan a tour," he smiled, bowing once more.

Queen Lianne was noticeably impressed by the young man's manners. She had warmed to the boy, finding him utterly charming. "Think nothing of it young master Sauren. We will hopefully enjoy your company again when you return."

He chanced a look at the young princess, but she ducked behind her mother's arm when their eyes met. Before he left the table with Dar'khan he afforded another bow, this time to king Magni who simply gave a curt nod with a grunt as he rammed some boar meat into his mouth and washed it over with a generous swallow of ale. Sauren tried not to grin. 

He gestured for Dar'khan to step ahead of him and the magus obliged in a flamboyant manner. As they made their way to the doors Sauren's eyes drifted over some of the guests one more time;  his earlier reverie still lingering in his thoughts. Once they were outside in the courtyard, however, the young magus drew all of Sauren's attention.

     "Well now," Dar'khan began, swirling around so his cloak buffeted high around himself, settling slowly to cover his slender frame.  Sauren looked at him with a high degree of incredulity.  "I do so hope you are not going to bore me with showing me rooms full of books, paintings, armour, lavish furnishings and the likes," Dar'khan concluded.

     "Then what else, pray tell, do you think there is to see?"

The magus offered a sly smile. "Come now, young master Sauren," he mimicked the queen's tone. Sauren's eyes darkened at the slight. "Material things are of no consequence to me, I can create what I wish as I am sure you have been made aware."

It did not take long for Sauren to decide this loathsome individual would never be considered a friend. However, he did recall that it had been said he would be a worthy ally and as the two things did not necessarily go hand in hand, he thought it prudent to hear what the supercilious young man had to say. "Then please, do enlighten me."

Dar'khan's mouth curved into a pretentious smile. "I have an affinity with those who are, how shall I say... prone to engineering their path in life with an unprecedented skill."

Sauren smirked. He crossed his arms and leaned back against a supporting pillar for the overhead walkway. "Is that merely self-descriptive, or an attempt at flattery?"

Dar'khan laughed haughtily then leaned in. "Why, both of course."

 Sauren couldn't keep a small laugh at bay.  "And just how have you arrived at that conclusion?"

     "You fit my criteria as a potential ally in shaping the history of Azeroth."

At that, Sauren laughed heartily. The magus eyed him with a degree of lassitude. "You are a truly aberrant dreamer, Dar'khan, I will give you that. Every living creature will contribute somehow to the history of our lands. So step down from your pompous pedestal, for you do not own the monopoly of creation. You may have shaped Quel'thalas and given the High Elves a home which warrants the title of being the Quel'dorei Jewel of the North, but constructing bricks and mortar whether it be by manual labour or through magic, is still just that; bricks and mortar."

He waited for a response. Dar'khan crossed his arms too, then raised one and cupped his chin in his hand. Silently, he studied the young blond in front of him. "You are correct, of course," the wily magus replied. Sauren was caught off guard; he had not expected him to admit that his notoriety played a vapid relevance to the lofty ideal he had voiced earlier. "You look surprised, Sauren."

The half-breed took a moment to compose himself. "Surprised? Merely intrigued, Dar'khan."

The magus made a show of looking around the courtyard, taking in the buildings, the towers, the stables. "All this will be yours one day, yes?"

Sauren's eyes narrowed just slightly. "One day, yes." He wondered where the flamboyant magus was going with this. He pushed himself away from the pillar and with hands clasped behind his back, circled Dar'khan.

     "I know that you intend to serve justice to those who have shamed you." The magus said matter-of-factly.

Sauren controlled his reaction to this news. The jury was still out on Dar'khan Drathir, so he would tread very carefully. "I will not insult your intelligence by accusing you of childish fabrication, nor shall I admit to such a tenuous connivance. But also, do not dare to besmirch my acumen by thinking you can make me bend to your will."

     "Is that what you think I am trying to do here?" the magus feigned effrontery. Sauren could not help but smile. Dar'khan smiled back.

     "I think you are devious, that is for sure, and perhaps not quite as clever as you think you are. Make no mistake Dar'khan, I am no fool. In my few years in this world, I have learned much and I will not allow anyone to make a fool of me or my family. You would be wise to take heed."

In a theatrical flurry, Dar'khan wound the red cape around his body, and he protruded his chin in a somewhat bombastic manner. "I am capaciously warned then Sauren Nightflame. I do so look forward to future meetings with you."

Sauren inclined his head and waited for the magus to step forward. After he had reached the doorway to the dining hall, Sauren followed. He watched as Dar'khan resumed his seat next to Bel'ovir and slowly he made his way back to his. 

As he sat down, he heard the dulcet tone of Queen Lianne. "Glad to have you back, Sauren. You may entertain me now." She turned her blue eyes towards him.  There was a look in them he was unfamiliar with, yet strangely, his body responded in its customary fashion of these days when in the presence of a beautiful woman.  

He glanced away and nervously draped his napkin over his lap before reaching for his goblet. 

He may have handled the deceptive magus well enough, but a queen with a lecherous look in her eye would require completely different tactics.

He may have handled the deceptive magus well enough, but a queen with a lecherous look in her eye would require completely different tactics

Chapter Text

 

Capital City was a mass of fast running narrow streams as the drainage system struggled to cope with the unexpected deluge of the previous evening. Large drips and rivulets run over from clogged guttering, splashing on the wet cobbles, the moss between laden with the excess water.

The smell of damp horse manure hung heavy in the air along with the musty scent of spreading fungus growing within cracks in the walls of the older buildings.  The city gardens were not too far off, so the sweet fragrance of fresh new blooms would soon be a welcome change to the rather malodorous smells of the old part of the city. 

It was harvest time, therefore it would be busy that day. Traders would want their wares displayed and sold as soon as possible, especially in light of the heavy rain from the night before. They could not afford for their produce to go to waste, it had been a tough enough year as it was without added losses at the market too.

The muffled sounds of stall holders' voices rose from the market area as Brigitte, a pretty housemaid from the Nightflame residence bustled along with a small platinum-haired boy in tow.  

The boy's eyes were fixed on the small heels of Brigitte's boots as they click-clacked across the cobbles and around puddles. Her long woollen skirt hid them from his sight periodically as it swished back and forth with her quick strides.

Her attire was so commonplace for servants that he would have to keep watching her boots so not to lose her in the crowds once they hit the market. Her boots at least were special, different from most serving staff whose shoes were mainly plain black or brown. Brigitte's had decorative gold-coloured rims around the base of the heels; a gift from her beau who was a cobbler.

She had been sent on an errand by the head housekeeper, Mrs Dalton and asked to take Sauren with her so the rest of the staff could ensure the house was prepped properly for the master's return that evening. Sa'themar had sent word he would be arriving with guests and required dinner for six plus the guest rooms to be readied. As such, the young maid was scurrying along the side-streets to the market to purchase some fresh produce. She artfully dodged all the puddles, hitching her skirts just above her ankles to try to keep them dry. 

Brigitte was Sauren's favourite. She was funny, kind and smuggled treats to him when the other servants weren't watching. But oh dear, when it was her turn to go to the market, she moved so quickly that his little legs had difficulty keeping up with her.

"Come along now, Sauren," she called over her shoulder. "Today is particularly busy. It won't do if I lose you."

"Please stop walking so fast then, Brigitte," the boy pleaded. He slipped on the wet cobbles but she turned and caught him before he fell.

She smiled at him, playfully tapping his nose with her forefinger. "Now don't you go falling in the mud neither, young man or Mrs Dalton will have my hide."

The boy giggled as Brigitte made a show of placing an imaginary noose over her head and pulling it tight. She had a slightly bizarre sense of humour, but that was partly why he liked her too. All the other servants were so dull and serious and old.

Brigitte stood straight again and put out her hand to take Sauren's. The boy smiled and raised his hand towards hers.

"You would actually touch a half-breed?" A shadow fell over the two of them. Sauren glanced down at the puddle to their right. It rippled as a boot was planted in its centre. The wavering reflection showed a man clad in cloth britches, a linen shirt and a long butcher's apron.

Brigitte grabbed Sauren's hand and pulled him close to her, shielding him from the large figure blocking their way. The boy's fingers fisted in her skirts, a small whimper escaping his lips. The butcher was a scary looking man as was the two younger males beside him.

Half-breed. It was a term he had heard a few times when out in the city with his governess or one of his tutors. He didn't understand it or why it seemed such a dirty word going by the manner in which people said it. When he asked what it meant he was told not to bother about such things and hurry along.

"There is no need to be so rude, sir," Brigitte said in a nervous whisper.

The three males laughed, and the butcher slapped his cleaver against the flat of his hand.

"Rude?" he guffawed. "I'm just calling him what he is, a filthy half-breed."

"He is not filthy, and I object to you calling him a half-breed!" Brigitte defended.

"Really?" The man on the right grabbed Sauren's arm and yanked him away from the young maid. "It's only half human so what else would you call it!"

The little blond boy tried to lash out at his attacker, but the man was too big and strong and pulled him up off the ground.

"Put me down!" Sauren yelled repeatedly. His voice rose in panic as the brute pulled him further away from Brigitte. The boy was not for giving in and he punched at the man's arm and kicked out with his little feet hoping to hurt his assailant.

With a sharp jerk, he was cast down into the puddles and mud. Sauren landed heavily on his back, the impact caused the thick sludge to spatter upwards then cover his clothing in the glossy brown matter. His hair ended up matted with the mud, the blond strands adhering to his cheeks. The man stood over him laughing. "He looks real filthy to me!"

Brigitte rushed forward to reach Sauren but the second young man stepped forward and pushed her back, forcing her into the narrow close between the buildings. She tried to run forward again but he just blocked her path. "Sauren!" she called trying to beckon the boy.

The butcher grinned. "Stay with it," he said to the first hoodlum nodding his head towards Sauren. The man sneered as he brought his foot down on the boy's forearm pinning him to the ground.

Sauren watched helplessly as the butcher and the second man pushed Brigitte further along the close until they reached the yard at the end and disappeared around the corner.

He heard the young maid scream then the sound was muffled but no less desperate. He struggled against his captor's foot but all it did was result in the man pressing his foot down harder. Sauren  winced.

Suddenly the butcher appeared back. There was fresh blood on the cleaver's edge. Sauren looked up the close; no sign of the other man.

"What the..." the one pinning Sauren down said in a hoarse whisper.

The butcher looked frantic, his eyes wild. "Quiet!" he growled.

The second man though was not for being silenced. "What have you done?"

The butcher was obviously flustered, but he eyed Sauren as the boy started flailing about in the mud again. His eyes hardened and he loomed over the muddied figure.

Instantly Sauren stopped struggling and stared up at the butcher; loathing written clearly on both parties faces. "As fer you, half-breed, if you ever mention this to anyone, then you'll be next for the block."

The third man suddenly appeared beside the other two. He was hastily tucking his shirt into his britches. Blood was smeared on his face, hands and shirt.

The boy's eyes also noticed scratch marks on his face and neck. The butcher caught the look in the young boy's eyes; there was an intensity, unlike anything the man had seen in one so young. "One day..." Sauren started, his small voice loaded with venom. He never finished his sentence. The wooden end of the butcher's cleaver was brought down hard on the side of his head.

As the boy's body started to slump his eyes turned lazily towards the courtyard at the end of the alleyway. He thought he saw movement but couldn't be sure. He hoped Brigitte was alright, but in his tiny heart, he knew she had not fared well at the hands of their assailants.

He felt his body go limp and his eyes closed just before he landed sideways in the muddy puddle. His platinum hair fell over his face and soaked up the murk from the water clogged cobbles as complete blackness engulfed him.

 His platinum hair fell over his face and soaked up the murk from the water clogged cobbles as complete blackness engulfed him

Music: TIDES OF TIME || Epica

   

"Sauren." A voice was luring him from the depths of unconsciousness. Swimming against the tide of darkness he forced his way up towards the sound of his name.

"Sauren. Wake up young man." The gentle tone of a woman's voice. Brigitte perhaps? Maybe she had escaped those men? He could feel his heart starting to pound – relief that his favourite maid, his friend, was perhaps in good health after all.

His lips parted slowly, feeling dry, they peeled open as he breathed her name. "Brigitte?"

Soft laughter. Slowly his eyes opened and a face hovered above him. It was out of focus, but he could still tell it was indeed a woman.

"It seems, young master Sauren, the wine was a little too much for you."

He felt fingertips trace across his brow and brush strands of hair to the side. There was something comforting in the touch. He moaned lightly.

"Oh, if only you weren't so young..." the voice said, almost distantly.

The corners of Sauren's eyes were crusted but he battled to open his eyes wide. The tone in that last utterance informed him this was not his favourite maid. As the residue of sleep left his eyes he focused on the visage of Queen Lianne.

It took a few moments scanning his immediate surroundings to realise he was in his own bedchamber at the Crimson Blade headquarters. How he arrived there was, however, questionable. But, the most apocryphal issue was the Queen's presence and the fact she was sitting on the edge of his bed.

"You – Your Majesty! I – I..." Never had Sauren felt so embarrassed nor so vulnerable as he did at that moment. The Queen's teasing laughter did not ease his angst.

Queen Lianne then almost purred as she continued combing his long platinum hair with her fingers. "Worry not young master Sauren. I merely offered to check on you before I leave the grounds."

"Check on me?" Sauren pushed himself up, his head swam and so did his focus. He grabbed his stomach as a small wave nausea washed over him. His brown eyes looked up from behind stray strands of platinum hair. Once more Queen Lianne brushed them aside.

"Yes," she said. "My son managed to get himself drunk once too. He is a little younger than you and his consumption was that of the scullery maid's hidden stash. She had been secreting the odd bottle away while carrying out her duties." She laughed, although there was a hint of smug satisfaction in the sound. "I fired her of course. Arthas however, well he was rather ill for a couple of days, but he was taught a lesson."

"Lesson?" Sauren asked. A small guffaw fell from his slightly sickly lips as his initial nervousness started to dissipate.  With a measured degree of subtlety he glanced down. His physical adoration of the woman had not yet subsided, but judging by her demeanor and the underlying intent he sensed, it could be advantageous in more ways than one. "Never to drink again, I take it." He smirked.

The Queen smiled. "On the contrary. I have no problem with him having a drink, within reason of course. No, the lesson taught was that he should be careful with whom he played and with what toys are at their disposal. I had taken pity on the waif originally that's why I agreed to her employment, but as it turned out she was a vile little creature; I was glad to be rid of her."

She inched up on the bed, her eyes scanning Sauren's outline beneath the covers. Her eyes hovered over his hips for a moment before travelling up to meet his eyes. Her mouth twitched as she recognised agonised anticipation of a virginal young man. She held his gaze, enjoying the steady darkening of his eyes, the flush on his cheeks. The fact he did not avert his eyes, however, surprised her somewhat. It was almost as if he was challenging her; or, she grinned a little hopefully, inviting her?

Momentarily thwarted, she turned. Grabbing the side of her gown she stepped up and moved away from the bed. A furtive glance over her shoulder told her he still watched her. This was intriguing. Normally, they would look away, embarrassed or uncertain. Sauren on the other hand, was strangely unperturbed for all his cheeks, eyes and anatomical admiration suggested he would have been a willing subject for a Queen's womanly expertise. 

By all accounts, whether hung-over or not, this young man seemed in possession of an impressively perspicacious mind. There was much potential here.

"I have been watching you very closely this evening, Sauren," the Queen said measuredly. She crossed to the window. Peeling back the heavy drapes just a fraction she stared out over the moonlit lake to the rear of the complex. It was a serene setting. 

Strange considering the land was recovering from the recent war with those green devils, the orcs. The city was fast becoming a pilgrimage for those who had lost everything. Masses were arriving from south of Thandol Span, their broken homes and lives left behind in the ashes of the once great city of Stormwind. Even Lakeshire and Westfall had suffered from the hands of the marauders. As a result, she presumed the tranquillity of her city's location would soon vanish amid the hustle and bustle of an expanding population. She sighed.

Glancing back at the figure now sitting up in the bed, she was struck by how handsome he was.  The elven genes were clearly dominant in him; the height, build, colouring. But feature wise, his mother's side prevailed. The eyes were undeniably human, a warm, sensual brown, framed by the long fair lashes. His mouth, inviting for one so young, concealed the most perfect teeth she had ever seen. They did not have the customary elven fang trait, but they did afford him a most charismatic smile. Also, his ears were not quite as tapered as those pureblood high elves and his eyebrows were in keeping with the humans. She foresaw this young half-elf being a very desirable male. 

"And what did Your Majesty find on such scrutiny?" Sauren asked confidently.

The Queen let the drapes fall back into place and returned to the side of the bed. She stood, with hands clasped low in front of her. Smiling down at him her voice was almost that of a purr. "I see a very astute young man. You will achieve great things I am sure, Sauren."

The boy grinned. "Forgive me Your Majesty, but we have only met this evening. How is it you can form that opinion about me in such a small space of time?"

The Queen looked upon him with surprise. "About the same as you have formed an opinion about me, I would say." She grinned as her eyes drifted south. She laughed lightly as his hands moved down to cover his still-present avidity. When she looked back up at his face, however, she was surprised to see that he showed no embarrassment now whatsoever.

"May I speak frankly, Your Majesty?"

"But of course you may."

"Good." He shifted slightly to get more comfortable but also to offer her a place to sit next to him. She cordially accepted, choosing to sit at an angle with her back to the headboard, her ample cleavage on display.

The young man's eyes rested on her heaving chest. With an assured smile he began. "If you had intended to seduce me, Your Majesty, I would say you would have done so before now."

Queen Lianne inched back a little, surprised by his opening line. Her lip curled at the side with the knowledge that she could so easily have him incarcerated for treason with such an outlandish supposition. Truth be, however, it was something which had, in fact, crossed her mind. She had never taken one so young before though. It was against her rules. Still, she liked to toy with them.

"And right now you are thinking "Shall I have him cast into the dungeons or flogged for such treasonous talk?" Sauren continued.

She laughed out loud. "Oh, I knew I liked you for a reason, Sauren."

Once her laughter subsided he continued. "So, Your Majesty, with the greatest of respect, what is your true reason for being in my bedchamber?"

The Queen sat straight and looked purposefully at the half-elf. "I noted you are very much like me – an observer. You soak in snippets of information, you see the smallest details which flit before your eyes, and you absorb all like a sponge. I could do with someone like you under my employ."

"To do what exactly?"

"What you will be good at one day. Spy for me."

"You have need of such a service?"

"I am the Queen of Lordaeron, of course I have such need." She replied haughtily. "Do you honestly believe it is Terenas' decisions alone which keep this kingdom strong? Who really employs the skills of your father and his rogues? Why do you think I was the one to attend this evening's festivities and not the King?"

Sauren smiled. "And why was it deemed necessary to conduct this conversation in here?"

"An opportune moment let's say. When you and your friend were found inebriated in the library, I don't think your father was very enamoured. But, I sweet talked him and said not to be too harsh on you, it was after all a momentous occasion and perhaps a little overwhelming for you."

Sauren cocked an eyebrow. "And my father believed you?"

"I am his Queen, why would he doubt me?"

Sauren bowed his head, concealing a grin and the strong desire to laugh. It seemed Queen Lianne was quite the manipulator. In the back of his mind, he wondered if Brett had been privy to the conversation between the Queen and his father. No doubt the right-hand man would not be so easily convinced. 

"And so," he continued, relieved that both his cupidity and mirth had subsided. "Please tell me why you feel it necessary to tell me of this when my training has not even started? I am not even considered one of my father's troup."

"Because dear boy, I believe you will be one of the finest before too long. The true skill of a rogue is not how fast he moves, nor his ability to take his victims by surprise. The sharpness of his mind is his best weapon and even finely honed blades pale in comparison. From what I have witnessed this evening, I think in that department, you are far beyond your years."

Sauren stared at the woman in front of him. He duly realised that he had not just acquired a magus as an ally that evening but also a Queen. And he hadn't even started on his training yet.

"I thank you, Your Majesty. Your faith in me is most encouraging and this I promise, I will not disappoint you. I will find out whatever you want me to and perhaps even more than you bargained for."

Queen Lianne inhaled, her bosom almost ready to burst through the fabric of her gown. "Well then, I look forward to the day you join the ranks, Sauren. And should I perhaps require you sooner, would you be available?"

"At your service, Your Majesty." He inclined his head.

The Queen rose and swept towards the door, the rustle of her skirts the only sound in the room. She stopped at the door and turned to face Sauren once more. "Oh, one more thing," she said with a sagacious smirk.

"Yes, Your Majesty?"

"Regarding that ... other issue," she pointed to his crotch.

Sauren grinned, his perfect teeth just being hinted at. "Issue?"

"Yes. I shall see that it is properly dealt with. I have ladies in my employ who are masters of their craft too. I will arrange it. Consider it a perk." With that she opened the door and left the room. It drew closed with a soft click.

Sauren stared at the door. He slid down under the sheets again, laughing softly to himself. Having in effect just received a Royal Seal of Approval, today had turned out not too bad after all.

 

 His platinum hair fell over his face and soaked up the murk from the water clogged cobbles as complete blackness engulfed him 

Chapter Text

 

"Wake up, Sauren! Your training starts today."

The half-elf shaded his eyes as the drapes in his room were abruptly opened. Sunlight streamed into his bedchamber giving everything it touched a warm golden glow.

Brett eyed the boy as he approached the end of his bed through the haze of morning brightness. Sauren sat up, rubbing his eyes then he focused on the figure that closed in.

Sa'themar's right hand man stood, hands on hips half grinning at him. "A little fragile this morning, are we?" He could not keep the humour from his voice.

The boy looked a tad nauseous still and it appeared that his delicate condition made him keep conversation light and pleasant. "I will find out shortly, Brett," Sauren replied. "Would you be good enough to pass me my robe, please?" He indicated the dark blue dressing gown draped over the back of a chair near the window.

Brett eyed the young man. His mouth twitched a little at the corners. Generally speaking the boy was indeed mannerly, but he often forgot such basics around Brett, favouring instead a show of self-importance. Nevertheless, it was a little amusing to see the usually composed half-elf on the verge of turning the sickly shade of death-warmed-up.

He strode over and gathered up the robe then threw it lightly onto the bed. "Get up and dress in basic combat attire. Do keep it simple Sauren, your starting from scratch and I doubt you will like the foundation course."

The mahogany eyes fixed on him through wayward platinum strands.

The older rogue expected a prototypic response from the boy but was taken aback by what tumbled from Sauren's lips. "I am well aware of the beginnings, Brett. If I am to lead this guild in future years, I will do so with experience and not simply the knowledge of such training."

Brett was actually impressed by what he heard but he could not bring himself to award the boy heartfelt praise. He opted for a more tentative form of credit. "That is encouraging, Sauren. I'm sure your father would be most pleased with your approach."

Sauren laughed softly. "This morning, however," the boy continued, clutching his stomach. "I am sorely having difficulty believing that, Brett."

It was one of the rare occasions the boy displayed a mote of humour. That plus the fact he was clearly suffering from an over-indulgence of wine from the night before, made it even more amusing.

Brett watched Sauren shifting gingerly in his bed. He moved as if he had underwent a wrestling match with an ogre. His perfect teeth flashed in small grimaces as he swung his legs over the side of the mattress. He reached for his robe. He slid his arms into the sleeves then fastened the tie-belt around his waist. "Explain to me if you please, how it is I feel so much worse now than I did a few hours ago when Que.." He stopped suddenly, his posture rigid.

Brett's laughter was low and measured. He knew the boy would try keep the Queen's visit quiet. Pointless really, considering it was Brett who escorted her to the Sauren's room. "The Queen was most concerned for you - and Don, I hasten to add. The two of you were passed out in the library. I think perhaps her maternal nature was at the fore."

Sauren nodded carefully, concealing his smirk. "Yes. She told me my father was not best pleased."

"I can assure you he was only concerned too. He seemed suitably impressed by how you conducted yourself during the earlier part of the evening."

"That is a relief at least. I would not wish to embarrass nor offend him."

Brett believed him without question. He knew the bond between father and son was strong and for all he himself has some misgivings about the boy, he did not doubt that Sauren loved and respected his father unconditionally.

The seasoned rogue ran his fingers through his floppy brown hair pulling it back into a ponytail and securing it with a small leather thong. He then turned to leave the room with the hint of a smile. "Alright lad, freshen up then and make haste. I will be in the courtyard at the stables."

Descending the spiral staircase to the ground level of the tower, voices drifted towards him. Brett smiled. This was officially the first day for the Guild to be operational – it was coming alive.

As he entered the large hallway which encompassed the grounds, connecting all towers and rooms, he greeted chambermaids, pageboys, administrators and other rogues. He grinned. One or two of them, mainly the rogues, looked almost as sickly as his ward in the main tower had mere moments ago.

Just as well today would be occupied with the checking of inventories, discussing the intake of students, determining the tutors. The Gods be thanked it was not a day for missions. He laughed to himself.

He had worked alongside Sa'themar for nigh on eighteen years now and they had become close friends over that time as well as excellent, covert operatives.

Unlike his high-elf colleague, however, Brett was starting to feel and show signs of his age. Although only in his mid-forties, the lifestyle of the rogue, and in particular due to the high calibre of his work, his joints and muscles ached more in recent days than they used to. There was no doubt there was still a good many years left in him yet, but his genes were not like those of his elven friend.

The elves were undeniably built for longevity with their boundless energy and adaptability. Not so the humans. For all they were relatively hardy and capable of achieving much, their main gifts came from leading nations, armies and developing strategies to designing and engaging in construction, commerce and farming.

There were, of course, a select few who excelled in the art of war and fighting, but generally speaking, their minds were their strength, moreso than their bodies. It was pointless trying to keep up with the elven nations which time itself seemed to have embraced and endowed with immutability.

He was not an envious, nor a resentful man. He knew his limitations as well as his capabilities and had in fact, lived life well - sometimes too well in his youth.

Mary Hallewell pulled him into line though. Brett smiled warmly as he thought of his wife. She had been the best thing to have ever happened to him and he loved her dearly.

They had met a number of years earlier when he had just completed a mission for one of the noble families in Stratholme. She had been working as a nurse in one of the infirmaries. Brett had been unfortunate to take an injury to his right side and was told to attend the infirmary. He did as instructed.

The building was a dark, cold place. Consisting of one very large room for the patients and two smaller rooms off to one side, the hospital was basic to say the least. Of the two smaller rooms, one seemed to be a store room, most likely containing medicines, bandages and instruments for treating the sick. The second one perhaps was a room for the nurses to record cases or maybe even have a few moments to take a break from their hard work, he could only hazard a guess, but that one seemed feasible.

The smell of alcohol mixed with the coppery scent of blood and other unmentionable bodily fluids permeated the air. It was not by any stretch of the imagination one of the better infirmaries Brett had had reason to visit over the years but it served its purpose adequately enough.

Bunks were lined in three rows, some of which were occupied, others made up ready for any new patients. The bedding at least appeared clean.

Dirty windows, however, affording little light into the building made it necessary for candelabras to be dotted throughout along with small oil lamps carried by nursing staff as they checked on the poorly.

The soft click of tiny heels sounded on the stone floor as nurses moved between bunks and low murmurings were infiltrated by moans and groans of patients being tended to or waiting to be seen.

And that was when he saw her. A young nurse with raven hair pulled up tight into a bun. She was not overly pretty, but she was striking, her face almost heart-shaped, tapering into a little point. Her smile was warm, friendly and although he could not make out the colour of her eyes, he could tell there was a kindness and sincerity held within.

Her voluptuous figure was clad in a light blue gown. Its skirts swept back and forth as she busied herself between occupied bunks, tending to the occupants. He saw her smile as she spoke whatever reassuring words she needed to utter to the sick and the frail.

He watched as she administered various embrocations and compounds to the people. She plumped up pillows, mopped brows and sorted the bedding around those who were under her care. 

Other nurses had tried to help him but he shooed them away, saying he would wait until the lady in the blue dress could see to his wounds.

"Nurse Hallewell is too busy at the moment," one said to him.

"I can wait," he'd replied, smug he had her name now.

"You will slip into delirium if you leave this untended much longer," she argued.

"Then Nurse Hallewell will have to see to me won't she?"

The young nurse huffed and turned abruptly to leave. Brett grinned and winced at the same time. He knew the nurse had a point. The wound was becoming uncomfortable to say the least and he could feel the spreading warmth of blood as it seeped through the make-shift field bandage.

Yet, he was fixated on the nurse in the blue dress. Her voice wafted over to him. The sound was like a lullaby. He closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying the soothing timbre of her voice as she comforted a young child with a broken leg.

"Right! Sit up young man."

Brett's eyes sprang open, his indulgence rudely interrupted. A stern looking woman was standing over him, her facial features like that of a crone. Dressed in the customary grey with a white starched apron and bonnet she was quite possibly the scariest thing Brett had seen in  years. Even the harpies in Hyjal were less scary than this nurse.

"Erm... I'm fine, thank you," he stuttered. 

"Then why are you taking up bed space?" came the shrill reply. "Out with you. Go to an inn if you wish to sleep off your ale."

"Oh no, I am ..." Brett started to protest.

"Come on now! Up with you!" She started hauling him up by the arm. He was amazed that for such an old woman she was surprisingly strong.

The bandage around Brett's chest gave way causing the wound to gape once more. He cried out. 

"Oh stop the dramatics!" the crone chastised.

"Let me be, woman!" Brett hissed between clenched teeth.

The fracas had drawn attention, not least, that of the pretty young nurse in the blue dress. The old woman was not for giving up trying to evict Brett from the bunk and with another hard jerk, his bandage came undone altogether. His left hand came round to clasp the now fully opened wound, blood spreading rapidly under his shirt, soaking the material.

"Lilith, stop!" A voice came from behind the crazed old woman. The face of Nurse Hallewell appeared at the woman's side. "Lilith!" She said, placing a reassuring hand on the old woman's arm. "He is injured. Now return to your bunk immediately."

"Bunk?" Brett gasped. He stared at the two women.

The young nurse merely nodded to him and moving round she clasped the old woman's upper arms. "Lilith, you must go back to your bed. Holly will be with you in a moment."

The crone stopped pulling on Brett's arm, allowing him to settle back once more. She looked into the young nurse's eyes. Her demeanour changed entirely; she calmed down almost instantly. "She will?" she asked the nurse.

"Yes. I promise. Now go lie down. Try and rest."

With that the old woman turned, almost trancelike and moved over to the other side of the room where she lay down on an empty, unmade bunk. The nurse nodded to another young woman nearby; Brett assumed this was the Holly she had referred to. The other nurse then hurried over to the old woman.

Turning her attention back to Brett,  Nurse Hallewell signalled to an assistant. "Bring fresh bandages, needles and twine and some alcohol." The assistant glanced at the bloody patch on Brett's side and took off at a run.

Brett gazed up at the nurse as she busied herself cutting away his shirt with a small blade she had extracted from a hidden pocket in her apron. "I thought she was a nurse," he said lamely.

The raven-haired nurse smiled. "So does she," she replied affording him a quick glance before focusing on the ruined bandage around his chest.

"Well, I'm glad she's not, she is a bit rough handling the patients."

A small laugh tripped from Nurse Hallewell's lips. "Bless her, she had a malady of the mind. We can only offer her sedatives until the priests arrive to banish her illness."

"Oh." Brett glanced down at his chest as she gently peeled away the soiled linen.

He had to admit he had taken quite a blow. He had underestimated his opponent and it nearly cost him his life. Quick thinking, however, saved the day and the enemy axe-wielding warrior now lay at the bottom of a well, broken, with a slit throat. Lifting his eyes back to the nurse he saw the hint of a grimace, but it was fleeting. "Am I going to live?" he joked.

The assistant arrived with the items Nurse Hallewell had ordered. They were placed on a table beside the bunk. The assistant stood wide-eyed staring at the open laceration across Brett's ribs. 

"You will, yes," the nurse replied, smiling. "However, you were foolish not to accept help from the other nurses."

"I wanted you to tend me." Brett said with a grin.

Nurse Hallewell eyed him before she nodded to the assistant again and together they gently raised Brett's back enough to allow her to remove the old bandage completely. He winced slightly. The manoeuvre caused fresh blood to trickle down his side from the gash, widening it slightly before it settled once he was rested back against the pillows.

Her lack of response to his comment made him follow it up. "What's your name?"

"Nurse Hallewell."

"No, your first name."

"Why?"

Brett hoped humour might work. "Why? Now that's a strange name. I haven't come across that one before."

It worked. Nurse Hallewell laughed. The sound was soft, delightfully feminine. "I am Mary," she said, still smiling. "And what is yours?" She gently bathed around the wound with the warm water and a soft cloth.

"Brett. Brett Hornsby."

"Well, then Brett Hornsby, by the looks of things I am pleased to report your wound is not infected, however, I am going cause you some more pain before it heals."

"Oh I don't feel...aargh!!" The sudden burn of alcohol as it swept into the open wound took him by surprise. His hands clenched the sheet under him and his back arched slightly.

Mary grinned. "You were saying?"

"Nothing," he replied hoarsely. He felt momentarily embarrassed.

"Uh huh. So what is it you do, Brett Hornsby, that would merit you such an injury?" She poured more alcohol over a large needle.

His eyes fixed on the implement only too aware of what followed. He had many a wound sewn before, but it still wasn't an experience he enjoyed. "I –uh – I do whatever my employer requires of me," he replied.

She pinched the edges of the wound together then quickly inserted the needle. He had tensed, ready for the jab and corresponding discomfort, but was somewhat bewildered by how little he felt the needle puncture his skin.

"Ah, you are a nobleman's mercenary then?" she asked glancing at him before concentrating on her work again. She tied off the twine, then made a second incision.

"That is a rather diplomatic way of putting it," Brett replied. "But, yes, that is what I am." The third break of his skin wasn't quite so painless.

Her eyes flitted back to his again. "Are you alright?" she enquired.

"I'll be fine."

"I know you will."

The soft curve of her lips made him catch his breath.  She poured a little more alcohol on the wound, this time the burn was not so intense but it helped with the remainder of the sutures.

Brett found himself becoming drowsy. He did not want to sleep but it was calling to him. Distantly, he heard her voice. "Lost a lot of blood... need time... rest now..."

Before he sank into the velvet comfort of slumber he managed a few words. "Mary. Thank you. Sweet lady."   

**

As he reached the stables, his face bore a huge grin. Mary always made him smile. She was his strength, his conscience, his purpose. His life.

His work still managed to bring him home with an occasional scar to heal, though the frequency had lessened with experience gained in the field. Now though, perhaps his advancing years may start the process over again. He laughed lightly. He doubted Mary would allow him to continue in a position that put his life at serious risk. If things were to become too much, he was sure he could adjust to a ... less demanding role within the guild.

Reluctantly pulling himself from his reverie, he inspected the stalls of the stables. It seemed Sauren would get off lightly today after all. There was little in the way of equine deposits, having only had a few horses in the previous night. All the horse tack was untarnished and still pristine. Brett reckoned it would perhaps take the boy a couple of hours at least to clean what filth there was.

A groan came from above, followed by a thud. Another long drawn out moan. Brett moved towards the ladder that led to the roof space. Blades of hay showered down to the cobbled floor. Quietly he ascended. When he peered over the ledge of the roof space floor he rolled his eyes.

Don lay spread-eagled over some bales of hay, his clothing all rumpled with his shirt halfway up his belly and his britches untied. Most undignified, his manhood poked out from the loosened lacings. He snorted and draped a lazy misguided arm over his face. It seemed Don's father Jeff, had banished him for the night, due to his drunkeness no doubt, and he had found his way back to the headquarters, opting for the nearest place to bunk down. 

Brett heaved himself up over the top rung and crossed to the dishevelled lad. He nudged his legs. Don groaned. He nudged again, harder this time. Another grunt. Brett huffed then kicked one of the bales out from under the boy.

Don grumbled again but this time he was wakened. His eyelids struggled to part, never the twain quite managing to open at the same time.

"Come on, you," Brett boomed. "You have chores to see to."

"Wha-?" The hung-over youth clapped a grubby hand over his mouth; a fistful of dried grasses making him spit out blades of hay. He pushed himself up to a sitting position before abruptly turning to the side and emptying his stomach. The liquid content steamed a little in the cool morning air before the wisps vanished and the yellowed gloop sank into the strewn hay.

"Nice!" Brett muttered.

Don dragged his sleeve over his mouth, but he had not finished trying to evict the previous night's intake. Unfortunately for the lad, it was just the burn of bile which hurtled up over his throat.

"Go freshen up, lad." Brett said dismissively as he started down the ladder. "Perhaps some ham and eggs might be in order." He grinned as he heard Don retch again. Won't get any easier the older they get, he mused.

Back at ground level, Brett meandered outside and took in all that was happening around him. The headquarters were off to their first day and as The Crimson Blade opened its gates to new trainees, the rogue smiled to himself.

This had been Sa'themar's dream for many years. His friend was now a Guildmaster and the founder of what was going to be the most prestigious rogue's guild in the Eastern Kingdoms. The best of the best had come forward to work with him, such was his reputation. And Brett was going to be part of it all.

"Oof! Sorry!" Don bumped into him as he emerged from the stables tucking in his shirt. "I – I'll just get cleaned up now. Sorry."

Brett laughed softly. He remembered his own first hang-over quite vividly and truth be told, he was in no better condition then, than Don was now. He watched as the boy staggered past him towards the dormitories. As Don veered to the left, Sauren exited the tower that housed his chambers and that of his father.

He had followed Brett's instructions to the letter, having dressed in plain tan-coloured britches tucked into knee-length boots with a plain shirt and tunic. He was busy tying back his hair as Don tripped over the entrance to the boys' dormitories. The smirk on the half-elf's face did not go unnoticed by the right-hand man. It seemed the founder's son had fared better than his friend had from their over-indulgence of the previous evening.

The mahogany eyes found Brett's steady gaze. Just as the older rogue had surmised, the earlier pleasantries induced by his fragility would be short-lived. The calculating look behind the brown eyes was back. No doubt the war of wits would now continue.

 No doubt the war of wits would now continue

Chapter Text

At sixteen years of age, the half-elf was already a few inches taller than his appointed rogue trainer. Standing at six foot two, he possessed the characteristic muscular, toned body of elven males. That did not, however, automatically give him an advantage as a rogue.

He would still have to undergo the necessary, rigorous training to execute successful consanguine manoeuvres, exhibitive of a thief, spy and assassin.

Nevertheless, he knew he was a little ahead of the game there, having gained a certain level of fitness by training in secret for years.

A keen and highly astute observer from an early age, Sauren would steal into the not-so-secret passages between rooms in the Nightflame residence and watch and listen to his father tutoring other rogues and honing their skills.

He particularly enjoyed watching them in the exercise area. A walled courtyard to the rear of the house offered various constructs where Sa'themar and some of his colleagues would build their strength and agility, pit themselves against each other in duels, and timed events – generally keeping themselves physically fit for their profession.

Sauren loved the courtyard. The servants never bothered with it so when his father was away on business, the boy snuck in and used the equipment.

Initially, he had thought it may be difficult explaining the bruises and cuts he'd acquired. As it happened, the staff had become accustomed to the boy returning home with some form of injury or damage to his person or attire. Maintaining his silence, therefore, about certain incidents, he soon mastered deflecting  too many questions when new injuries appeared.

And so, he would launch himself fearlessly around the pillars, climb ropes, ladders and practice balance and poise, increasing his endurance. Weighted equipment allowed him to build his then small slender frame into the more emblematic elven shape.

He enjoyed how it all made him feel. Invigorated. Alert. Powerful. And there was something else; something which registered although he did not understand it then. On reaching a certain age, however, he began to comprehend. Especially when he noted some favourable female eyes following him as he would pass by.

All that secret training had most definitely aided his current physique. His mental state had received a very different education. The majority, from tutors and books aplenty, still failed to sate his curiosity about the workings of the world and its people. The boy had demonstrated a hunger for knowledge which even some of his peers were left wondering about.

Other forms of "education" were not so eagerly sought, but they found their way to the young boy. Per contra to all these "incidents" he had kept his silence, vowing that one day, all would be set right.

Now, with an assiduous mind, Sauren studied everything and everyone he came into contact with. His analytical ability was worked upon just as enthusiastically as was his physical well-being. Furthermore, by combining these disciplines an indicative patience resulted. And so, now he had to learn to apply all that and more to the lifestyle of a rogue.

Once more he was under tutelage. This time by a seasoned rogue of the guild.

Sauren studied the man in front of him. Brett Hornsby was without doubt a very dedicated and proficient assassin; the testament of  which was accredited by the boy's father appointing the man second in command.

Yet still, Sauren knew there was no love lost between himself and the human rogue. Perhaps it was a deep-rooted resentment towards the half-elf's very existence especially when the human's own wife remained barren? Even in Sauren's somewhat twisted and calculating brain, he doubted that was the reason. Brett was not a man who held such grudges merely because he was not blessed with issue of his own. No. It was more likely to be a simple clash of personalities.

The platinum-haired youth recalled something he had overheard when spying on one of his father's meetings. Keep friends close, but keep your enemies closer still.

While Brett was not an enemy, neither could he be considered a friend – at least not in Sauren's extending circle. He would, nonetheless, show the older rogue the respect he deserved, peppered perhaps with a little subtle scorn now and again. Until of course, he outlived his usefulness one day. But that would be a long time coming, the boy reckoned.

"You're looking remarkably fresh... considering," Brett offered in way of greeting.

Sauren laughed lightly. "Looks can be deceiving. I am still a little ... fragile, that was how you put it was it not?"

"Yes." The older rogue looked him over. He was confident the boy would manage what was expected of him, even if it did result in him throwing up a few times. "Right, then. So you know what is required?"

Sauren inhaled and exhaled lengthily. "Yes. I will be a stable-boy for a few hours."

"Correct. Well, you've been around horses long enough so will know the routine I gather?"

"Yes, I do."

"Go to it, lad. See you in about a couple of hours." Brett moved away and headed in the direction of the dining hall. 

Without hesitation Sauren entered the stables. Removing a pair of heavy duty gauntlets tucked in the belt of his tunic he started to pull them on as he surveyed his workspace and its occupants.

Two mustangs stood in stalls, one black as night the other a soft bay. They turned to look at the boy standing at the entrance. Chewing from a bale  the bay snorted flicking its ears and tail before turning its attention back to its food source. The black one whinnied on seeing Sauren.

The platinum-haired boy grinned and strode over to the horse, slowly offering his ungloved hand – a show of affection and at the same time calming the beast. "Hello boy," he said, his voice soft. He ran his palm down over its neck to its shoulder. With another whinny it turned its head towards Sauren and nudged his chest with its nose. The boy smiled.

The horse was a gift from his father for his sixteenth birthday. Blaze, he'd called him for the flame-shaped white streak which ran the length of his face.

Sauren loved horses. His father had acquired riding lessons for him when he was still a small boy and he had taken to it like makrura* took to water. They had enabled him to escape the confines of the city and some of the unwelcome attention he seemed to draw when out with his guardians and other household staff.

He loved the freedom riding gave him. The sense of being untouchable, spirited, elevated was addictive. Even his tutor, to begin with, was impressed by his aptitude although there had been the odd time when Sauren had recklessly spurred his horse into a gallop. On those occasions he had to be chased after and stopped before he had ridden into dangerous or unknown territory.

Such was the boy's enthusiasm trainers came and went. There had been no doubt he was a natural but his continual bids for complete freedom left the trainers unsettled. Worried that perhaps they would lose the son of an affluent and highly regarded rogue, or that he would suffer a terrible injury while under their supervision, the trainers' faces changed four times over as many years until finally one kept his nerve ... and the boy under control.  

Jonas Marlowe had a true affinity with horses. He understood them like no other and it was this gift which kept Sauren in check, rather than merely a strict teaching regime.

Through him, Sauren learned the majesty of horses. He saw them as something much more than just beasts of burden and creatures to make quick getaways or simply ride into the ground. They deserved tremendous respect, great care and affection. These were attributes the boy found easy to convey to the animals. They were not judgemental, they did not care that he was a half-breed – you treated them well, they were good to you. 

Before Sauren knew it he was grooming Blaze's coat, marvelling at the sheen on the beast's back, neck and shoulders. He spoke softly to him, the horse seeming to answer in well appointed snorts and whinnies. Long slender fingers of his free hand followed the brush which groomed the animal. 

He was very proud of his steed and always inspected the farrier's work before he allowed him to shoe his horse. He knew it irked Don as it was his father under scrutiny, but Sauren was insistent that only top quality workmanship from both smithy and leather workers who provided tack was duly afforded Blaze.

"Not quite what you were sent in here to do." A voice from somewhere in the rafters sounded.

Momentarily startled, Sauren dropped the dandy brush and his eyes scanned the upper floor of the stables. A gentle laugh came next. Gauging the sound, the half-elf deduced it was not someone who intended harm, but still he would exercise caution.

He moved to the ladder and started to climb, slowly. His eyes remained alert as did his ears picking up any sound from the wooden boards and covering of loose hay. The most subtle of sounds came from his left, like a shoe lightly scuffing the floor. He pulled himself up over the ladder rim. He stood stock still, staring in the direction of the sound he'd heard.

His eyes moved slowly in arc in front of him making him face the opposite direction. "Who are you?" he asked, keeping his voice low, calm.

"Your senses are quite impressive, I must say." Came the reply.

Sauren's eyes narrowed. "Your skill in shadow melding is equally so, but I can still see the distortion around you."

"Ah, now you can, but neither you nor Brett saw me when I snuck past you both."

Sauren was surprised. "Indeed! Perhaps I was merely distracted and looking entirely the other way?"

"I ran around you three times."

The young half-elf smirked assuming he must be in the presence of one of his father's reliable elite.

"So you have worked alongside my father and you know Brett?"

"Who me?" The voice omitted a small guffaw. "No, not I. I am a lone wolf. And I heard others speaking with Brett, that is how I know his name."

Music: I WALK ALONE || Jorn

   

The news alerted Sauren to this individual being a possible mercenary, an opportunist who was planning to benefit from some of the valuables in the grounds.

As if reading his mind the stranger spoke. "Worry not, I am not here to steal nor spy other than to satisfy my own curiosity."

A crouching figure then materialised just below the sloping roof.

The light filtering through the occasional gaps in the wooden rafters added to Sauren's blurred view of the visitor. Sharp-eyed, however, he absorbed what he could through the rays and dust particles as the visitor moved forward in slow, deliberate steps.

The man appeared to be just a few years older than the half-breed, but already he had displayed the attributes of a more seasoned rogue. His shoulder-length black hair brushed against the collar of his jacket, the odd wisp rippling across his face from his forward progression.

He halted in front of Sauren, bright blue eyes sparkling with mischief and mirth.  The platinum-haired boy scanned the individual before him. He possessed a pleasant face, youthful, and so the monocle he wore seemed somewhat out of place - more cosmetic perhaps than practical.  He was well-dressed. Whether that came from his earnings, thievery or perhaps lineage, Sauren knew not, but there was no denying the man had style. The jacket was a deep blue under which a high-collared shirt was adorned with a decorative waistcoat. The britches were plain black, but well tailored and tucked into recently-heeled boots. By all accounts, he had bore an affluent air. 

The man made a flamboyant gesture with his right hand and with his left behind his back he bowed deeply. "Nottley," the man said. "I am Louvel Nottley." He straightened. A playful smirk played at the corner of his mouth. "I would have said "at your service" but that would be a lie."

Sauren relaxed and decided to show a little convivial gallantry to the rogue. Bowing equally as deep but keeping eyes locked with his visitor, he spoke quietly. "Sauren Nightflame. At your ... peril."

Louvel laughed out loud. Sauren grinned back. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Sauren."

"And yours, Nottley." The half-elf grinned.

"Louvel!" came the indignant reply. The blue eyes flashed and the monocle fell from his right eye to swing on a fine cord attached to his lapel.

"Hmm," Sauren responded instantly noting the man's dislike of being called just by his surname.

Louvel seemed to take measure of the youngling in front of him. He circled him, wearing some rather byzantine expressions and sounding his approval or criticism in short, incoherent mumblings.

Oddly, Sauren did not find the man's inspection of his being threatening or impudent. He thought it a little amusing. "And to what do we owe the pleasure of your unexpected tarriance?"

Louvel halted his circuit of the boy and faced him straight on. "Oh, nothing really, I was merely curious."

"Really? And you have no hidden agenda?"

"Come now, it wouldn't be hidden if I said there was one now, would it?" He waited to ensure the half-elf realised his tease. A smile informed him he did indeed. "No, I have simply been at a loose end today so thought I would see what the most talked about new enterprise to grace our profession was truly like."

"And you have chosen the stables to satisfy your inquisitiveness?"

Louvel laughed. "I admit I have a somewhat bathetic reason for starting in here. I love horses too. They are magnificent creatures."

"I see," Sauren acknowledged. "The magnificent creatures, however, are down there," he pointed to the ladder. "You will only find an occasional bat or bird up here in the rafters."

Again Louvel's laughter reached through the upper section of the building. "That is very true. May I be so bold as to ask for a tour?"

"It would give me great pleasure but I am starting training today and so would suggest another more convenient time. You may, however, see the horses if you wish."

Louvel bowed acquiescence. "After you," he indicated the ladder.

Sauren stepped forward and took to the first rung. Clasping his hands on the ladder's supports and placing his feet similarly, he then slid down the remainder of the way. As he spun at the bottom he was momentarily surprised to find Louvel already waiting at the stalls. He glanced back up at the upper floor, calculating the jump. "You are reckless," he said.

"Correction, I am experienced. You will be able to do that too soon enough." He glanced down and saw the dandy brush on the straw covered cobbles. He stooped and picked it up. He offered it to Sauren but the boy gestured he was welcome to groom Blaze. Louvel smiled and proceeded brushing the horse. "He is beautiful," he commented.

Sauren leaned against one of the supports and watched the well-dressed rogue as he lovingly drew the dandy over Blaze's haunches, down to his quarters. "Do you own one?"

"I am in between mounts you could say. I'm in town at the moment trying to acquire a decent steed. I have heard the liveries in the region are quite reputable."

"Yes. I could ask my father to advise of the better ones."

"Most gracious of you, thank you."

Sauren found himself very curious about this individual. He was by all accounts a most proficient rogue and obviously he seemed to be doing well for himself. He seemed most affable actually. And there had been no judgement in the man's eyes.

It was a look Sauren had become accustomed to over the years. When people met him for the first time – at least with the majority of humans (who had a distinct bias against elf and humans uniting), their faces bore a look of disgust.

Granted not all, but the city had been a cruel place in his earlier years. Now he was older and his father was well established even respected by the nobles and various dignitaries, the insults had lessened.

They would never be forgotten though, and for a fleeting moment his mind conjured the note left for him by Don – all the names of those who would pay for past injuries and denigration. All memorised.

"You are preoccupied I see," Louvel said looking directly at Sauren.

The half-elf blinked and then smiled apologetically. "Forgive me, I am considering all I have to do today."

"No need to apologise, I understand. I have taken up enough of your time I think, so I will take my leave and allow you to continue with your ...training. I admit I do not quite see how cleaning out the stables is applicable however."

Sauren pushed himself away from the supports and accepted the brush from Louvel. "It teaches one the value of being disciplined, respectful and it aids with stamina."

"Hmm, I see. Well, I am not one to disparage such qualities nor methods so if this exercise is beneficial then so be it."

Sauren reached out to shake Louvel's hand. The rogue accepted the pro-offered hand and shook firmly. "It has been a pleasure, Sauren. I look forward to meeting again one day."

"Likewise," he replied.

Louvel turned and exited the stables, stopping at the entrance to turn to face the half-elf. "I wish you well."

"Thank you...Nottley." Sauren grinned.

The blue eyes narrowed but a smirk played at the corners of his mouth. "Farewell...whipper-snapper."   

  *makrura  - a race of aquatic humanoid lobsters which are capable of surviving on land for short periods of time

  *makrura  - a race of aquatic humanoid lobsters which are capable of surviving on land for short periods of time. Also known as lobstrok 

 

Chapter Text

 Thank you :)

 

"So who was that?" Don asked jerking his head in the direction Louvel had taken.

"He is called Louvel Nottley, that is all I know."

"I'll find out about him later then," his friend said, picking up a pitchfork readying himself to start with the chore of mucking out.

Sauren grinned. His friend had adapted well to the role of bodyguard it seemed and Sauren did not object.  In fact, he revelled in it, but he set the rules.

"You will do no such thing," Sauren said replacing the dandy alongside all the other grooming implements which were neatly contained in a leather holder. He turned and looked at Don who stood with an ambivalent look on his stubbled face.

The human leaned heavily on the pitchfork. "Sauren, he could be..."

"He is not to be investigated. Do I make myself clear?" Sauren's brown eyes fixed Don with an unrelenting stare. Don nodded, clearly disappointed.

Sauren pulled on his other glove and moved over to take the pitchfork from his friend. Don surrendered the tool without question. With a sigh, he voiced his agreement to Sauren's instruction ending in a quiet mumble.

"You will, however, acquaint yourself with one of the new trainees who arrived yesterday."

Don's face lit up. He readily enjoyed tasks the sagacious young master set him. They were more often than not simmering with some potential sophistry. Don also considered himself the brawn to Sauren's brain so if anything involved a bit of muscle he was more than up for the job.

Plus, being trusted by such an individual was bound to be advantageous in many other ways too. Don had his sights set on luxury and a recrementitious future was achievable in the employ of one who already enjoyed an exorbitant lifestyle. Not forgetting the fact he actually liked Sauren who, in his opinion, had been treated horribly by the bigoted pigs in the city.

"And to what avail?" Don asked.

"Over the next year, we shall be busy attending to that... list." Sauren held his gaze.

"Year? You think it will take a whole year?" Don's face split with incredulity.

"Longer, actually." The half-elf said with aplomb. Sauren laughed, but the sound had very little mirth to it. His eyes darkened, menace manifesting behind them. "I will not rush blindly into dealing with these imbeciles..."

"Excuse me, but I would hardly call a year rushing! Besides this has been going on since you were knee-high to a murloc."

At that Sauren did laugh out loud. There were times Don helped keep his feet planted firmly on the ground, others where he amused him greatly. Then there were the times where he irked the half-elf to the point he wanted to hit him. Fortunately for Don, it was the middle of the three this time.

With his mirth subsided, he explained. "I want to ensure this is executed perfectly, Don. I do not wish my father to be held accountable or embarrassed by an 'errant' son,  so it must be done with the utmost precision."

"Yes, but I thought this was also a way to ensure no others would ever attempt the likes again and a means to make the scum fear you."

Sauren began clearing the soiled straw and hay as he spoke. "The fact is the victimisation has lessened considerably, Don. They will think no doubt that I am... weak, cowardly perhaps. I think they feared for long enough that my father would seek retribution. So, this will give them all a false sense of security."

Don picked up another pitchfork and started clearing the hay on the opposite side from Sauren, but he remained within hearing distance. 

The half-elf continued. "I want them to think their little lives are safe within their dark, insignificant existences. Let them believe they are untouchable; superior as some consider themselves. They will learn... in due course. There must be no association, however, with the Crimson Blade. I shall not have that which my father has worked hard to achieve, besmirched by my own hand."

Don grumbled as he swept.

"Oh, they will come to respect this half-elf, Don, believe me," Sauren added.  "I'll be damned if I allow their ignorance and prejudices to go unpunished."

With that, the human boy grinned, contented with the chicanery implied in Sauren's statement. "So, what is it you want of this trainee?"

Sauren finished clearing out the soiled bedding and moved the barrow to the next stall before grabbing the broom to sweep out the remainder of old straw. "I will need another accomplice, Don. You are my right-hand, I need someone as my left. I am particularly interested in this Reed Hale. He seems to be of the calibre we need." 

Don nodded while he continued with the stalls on the opposite side. "Fair enough. I will check him out later."

"Good." Sauren had no doubt Don would be thorough but with a measured level of discretion. While the boy enjoyed showing off his strength and prowess he also possessed an excellent degree of guile and shrewdness – essential qualities for a potential second in command in Sauren's opinion.

It was something he too prided himself in. He had often sneaked into the missions room while his father was absent and inspected all the letters from hopeful applicants. Most of these were from individuals with some form of experience albeit dissolute and sometimes amateurish. Others, well...

They had been separated into those "seriously considered", those who were "possibles" and the final pile of individuals whose list of skills with sharp objects would fare better learning "needlepoint".

Sa'themar was not an unkind man by any stretch of the imagination, but he said it like it was and if he felt someone was wasting his or indeed their own time, he let them know. He was fair and just, always impeccably polite and this was also conveyed in the responses he had penned to the applicants. Nonetheless, he was occasionally heard laughing out loud at some of the letters' content.

Sauren had also sniggered when he'd overheard some of the comments that passed between his father, Brett and some of the other trainers as they had ploughed through all the hopefuls.

It was during one of Sauren's secretive visits to the missions room where his heuristic method of prying proved fruitful. He knew he wanted to recruit more reliable individuals for his own purposes, and realised it was only prudent to do so within the boundaries of hopeful applicants. As they would no doubt be novices to the more regimental methods of training rogues and it being within a residential academy they could be easily moulded to his needs.

He'd sat behind the great desk, feet propped up on its edge and leisurely viewed the pile of successful applicants. They came from all over the Eastern Kingdoms, some as far north as Eastweald and the Blackened Woods while others came from the south in Duskwood and Westfall.

It also surprised him to find so many female applicants. Quite a few were suitably impressive by what they had achieved so far in their own little towns and hamlets.

He pondered a little as his mind drifted to Lina Firefury. She was a truly astounding woman; magnificent in fact, in every way. He shifted in his seat; his body having just stirred with admiration of the woman. He chastised himself. This was improper - the woman, after all, was married and old enough to be his mother.

Unfortunately, his relatively newfound "need" seemed unable to disassociate itself from such women. They were... alluring and he often found himself drawn as a moth to a flame. 

Grunting, he shifted some more. There was no time for such distractions. Priorities had to be carried out. He needed another bodyguard - he guffawed slightly at the idiom – and this unbidden desire of his had to be quashed. Glancing at the pile of "potentials" a name loomed up at him.

He replaced the letters he had been studying and reached out to select the one which had caught his eye. Relaxing once more in the chair he scanned the contents. 

Reed Hale. He was a seventeen-year old whose uncle, a warrior from Stromgarde, had moved the family to a small hamlet on the northern border of Khaz Modan. This had resulted from the war continuing against orcs, and forces had been sent to prevent them from advancing into Southern Lordaeron.

The boy had spent his life under the shadow and supervision of his uncle, having lost his parents to plague when he was but an infant. From his uncle he learned how to fight, to provide and protect. He has been shown the way of the swordsman but it turned out not to be his forte. Instead, he had shown an aptitude for daggers.

This was encouraged by his uncle but it had now reached the stage where he could no longer tutor the boy proficiently. His skills needed honing and that was where the Crimson Blade would benefit the boy greatly. The guild itself would inherit a capable, loyal and dedicated pupil who would more than indemnify the necessary costs for his tutelage. He had the promise of an ambitious Blade in years to come.

Sauren toyed with his bottom lip as he gave the letter considerable adjudication. Why would that have ended up on the "possibles" pile instead of the "seriously considered"? He wondered.

The potential in this individual was too good to throw away. That was when Sauren made his first decision in the selection process of new trainees. Reed's application was slotted into its rightful pile.

Now, weeks later, Don would play his part and confirm or negate Sauren's initial impression of Reed Hale.

The two boys continued with their task of cleaning out the stables and time passed quickly. It was barely mid-morning when they emerged and crossed the courtyard.

The place was already a hive of industry. The odd cart still trundled in under the portcullis, laden with provisions for the rapidly increasing population within the walls of the complex.

Rows of new recruits lined the far side of the courtyard. Four trainers were calling out names and sorting the youngsters into dorms and groups. The trainees dutifully milled around and stood in their appointed lines.

Sauren eyed them all carefully. One or two looked his way. His brown eyes darkened as he noted hints of distaste behind some of those faces. He smirked. This was his domain and any who dared show disrespect would be ousted. One or two admiring glances, however, soon laid rest to the undesirables.

Don headed to the dormitories to freshen up. He would proceed afterwards in acquainting himself with the newly arrived trainees, in particular, this Reed Hale.

As Sauren proceeded to the tower which housed his rooms a pageboy came running towards him. The youngster was one of the kitchen staff's children and went by the name of Thomas. "Master Sauren," the high-pitched voice gasped.

The half-elf's stride slowed until he came to a stop just before the youngster reached him. Peeling off his gloves he stared at the boy who looked slightly nervous to be in his presence. Sauren smiled. "What is it, Thomas?"

The boy's black curls bobbed as he bounced nervously on the balls of his feet. "There is someone to see you, Master Sauren. They said they have been sent by Her Majesty, Queen Liane."

Sauren's breath caught in his throat and he felt a blush rise from somewhere on his midriff. The Queen made good on her promise so soon? "Really?" He managed, trying hard to maintain some control.

He tried to stem the sudden rush of blood south and the oddly confusing bundle of nerves which had just gripped his stomach, but he was faltering. In a bid to appear calm he cast his eyes around the courtyard, systematically nodding a greeting to those who busied themselves with their daily tasks. "Very well," he swallowed. "And where might they be?"

"In your rooms, as instructed apparently."

"Ah. Yes." Sauren's mouth twitched. "Very well, Thomas. And erm, where is my father, by the way?"

"I believe he left an hour ago on business. Somewhere in the Hinterlands, I think."

Sauren inwardly sighed with relief. If the "guest" was who he suspected they were, then he most certainly did not want his father looking for him at an inopportune moment. This also meant that Brett would be at his father's side, so no more training for the time being.

"Thank you," Sauren said.

The pageboy inclined his head in a small bow then scampered off towards the dining hall.

It took the platinum-haired young man a few moments to find the nerve to put one foot in front of the other. This was something he had looked forward to often enough, but now the time was here, he found himself extremely nervous.

He had overheard men boasting of their conquests and by all accounts, they seemed to have left the women gasping, satisfied and hungering for more. Other than the basic mechanics of it all, he knew not what would be considered pleasurable or acceptable.

His nervousness was rooted more from the fear that he would be a miserable failure in the most natural thing known to all species. His confidence in all other matters was contributive to someone with ample experience in life and perhaps more mature. In this matter, however, Sauren was indeed vestal.

He paused at the bottom of the spiral stairs. Nerves or not, the chafing against his britches was becoming most uncomfortable.  He tried to adjust himself before he started what seemed to be an inordinately long climb to his rooms.

Even his hair was adhering to his face. He tugged it back, slipping it behind his ears, cursing that he felt so uncomfortably warm and sweaty.

He was only half a dozen stairs up when the stable odour hit his nostrils. He groaned. Gods be cursed! He had some alluring concubine waiting for him and he stank of horse manure. How to make a good first impression, he thought. This was going from bad to worse; not at all how he had envisioned it.

He halted and took a few deep breaths. Then he recalled how the Queen herself had reacted around him. She had been aroused by him, of that he was certain. He remembered the lecherous look in her eyes at the banquet and the husky tone of her voice as he lay in bed, slowly reaching  consciousness following his over-indulgence – "Oh, if only you weren't so young." A Queen, no less!

Fair enough, he was not dressed in his finest, nor did he smell good. But, he was still Sauren Nightflame and the Queen had promised him one of her ladies who, being expert in such matters, would tend to his needs. That being the case, his current appearance would be of no consequence. The lady would not want it known that she had failed in a task set by Royal Decree.

His deliberation altered his viewpoint and suddenly he felt a little calmer. He was more like himself. With one more deep breath, he ascended the remaining stairs.

At his door, he hesitated a mere moment and then stepped into his rooms. Closing the door quietly behind him he turned the lock and heard its metallic click. His eyes scanned the large room. 

Its opulence could not fail to impress anyone who set foot inside. It was furnished with plush comfortable longues and armchairs with a large fireplace surrounded by a decorative mantle. The windows were dressed in rich heavy drapes pulled back in deep folds and secured by ornamental cast-iron tiebacks. Large sumptuous rugs of the softest fur adorned the floor, removing the chill from the wooden boards. 

Such luxury and yet, no-one was there. Briefly, he felt his heart sink, but then a soft voice came from within the bedchamber.

He remained where he was. He reminded himself that this woman was here to serve him and so he would have her come looking for him. It was not long before a slender leg appeared around the partition between the rooms. A gossamer veil slid down the thigh and vanished again. The sight had left the young virgin a little awestruck once more.

Music: ALL I NEED || Within Temptation

   

"Master Sauren?" A velvet voice spoke his name.

"Y – yes!" He inwardly fumed at the break in his voice.

Soft laughter floated through from the bedchamber.  His eyes were riveted to the edge of the wall which separated the two areas of the large quarters. Then from behind the partition, a beautiful woman appeared.

Sauren made a concentrated effort to keep his mouth closed. She was stunning. Obviously a good few years older than himself, she possessed a most copacetic presence. Her hair was like an autumn evening sunset, vibrant copper and it fell in luxurious waves over her right shoulder, covering her naked breast and down to her waist. Around her left arm, the gossamer scarf coiled and rippled as she held up her arm and beckoned him with a slow, seductive motion of her hand.

"Come now. Do not be shy." She said. "I will make of you a man this day."

He felt himself drifting towards her as if pulled by an invisible force; such was her allure. Before he could stop himself he uttered the most pathetic words. "I thought you would arrive at night."

The woman did not mock him, instead, she smiled reassuringly. "Such intimacy is not only for under the cover of darkness, Sauren. It is for any time of day. Pleasure is not ruled by a clock."

He smiled, nervously. His brief assured countenance had vanished entirely. But in its place, a desperate hunger had evolved.

"You have such a charismatic smile," the woman said, almost purring as her fingertips brushed the corners of his lips.

He faltered and glanced at the floor. "I – I apologise, I am ..." He groaned as he observed his stained attire. "Well, I am filthy! Not befitting of a woman so beautiful..."

She cupped his chin and gently lifted his head. His eyes travelled up her legs, rested on her pubic mound for a few moments and then proceeded up over her exposed breast before finally reaching her eyes. They were startling green. "A little muck on a man is good, but worry not, it will be taken care of." She smiled and ran the tip of her tongue over her lips.

Again his mouth trembled. "What is your name?" He breathed, painfully aware of other more insistent twitching within his britches.

"Maya," she replied. Her eyes studied him closely. She took his hand and placed it on her breast. He audibly gasped.

"We have had a bath prepared for you." Maya cooed, caressing the back of his hand, tracing his slender fingers and pressing them against her flesh.

Sauren stumbled back a step. "We?" His eyes widened as another gentle peal of laughter came from his bedchamber. Maya stepped back, pulling him with her to the open doorway.

There sitting on his bed, with arms stretched along the length of the headrest, and legs crossed at her ankles was another extremely attractive woman. This one was blonde, her hair pulled up in a high knot, the tresses of which, similarly to her friend were draped over her very full breasts. She had a voluptuous figure with rounded hips and a gentle curve to her belly. She was exquisite in Sauren's eyes.

"Hello." Her voice was as sultry as Maya's. "I am Leola."

The platinum-haired virgin was rendered speechless. Maya tugged playfully on his tunic. "Are you going to strip, Sauren? Or shall we do it for you?"

The boy laughed, a mixture of his avidity and euphoria taking hold as he glanced from one seductress to the other. 

Her Majesty, Queen Liane, had just climbed his ladder of favoured acquaintances. She had more than exceeded his expectations.

With a ripple of mischievous mirth, the two women descended upon a more than eager Sauren.

With a ripple of mischievous mirth, the two women descended upon a more than eager Sauren

 

Chapter Text

Music: Blackheart || Thomas Bergersen

   

On the eastern border between Hillsbrad Foothills and Hinterlands amid the pine forests, a group of rogues lay concealed amongst the underbrush. Their mission: only to gather intel. This was a relief for some still slightly hung-over individuals in the group.

The exercise had been unexpected, truth be told, but a messenger had delivered a missive bearing the Royal Crest in the early hours of the morning. Sa'themar, forever one to accept a challenge, had gathered twelve of his most reliable colleagues on receiving this particular assignment.

The band of rogues were the espionage needed to further assess the situation. Scouts had returned to the city with news of a decimation to allied forces. There was something else amiss, however, and the King wished it routed out. Therein lay the need for Sa'themar and his specialists' intervention.

They sat around in a close group, their voices low, planning their next move. Sa'themar firstly brought them up to speed.

"While we were busy celebrating last night..." his voice held a hint of reproach aimed as much at himself as others "...heads of state continued forming strategies to quash the approaching Horde."

The rogues glanced amongst themselves, the opprobrium growing on hearing their Guild Master's tone.

Sa'themar studied the faces before him. They were decent, good people who had strived hard for years helping him build the foundations for the Crimson Blade. It was unfair to issue guilt upon them for having enjoyed one night of merriment and gaiety; the reward for their efforts. Instantly he regretted his accusing connotation.

He lowered his head, long platinum tresses just skiffing the moss and ferns beneath his crouched figure. He sighed heavily and apologised for such an unjust allegation. Murmurs of acceptance swept through the group; they understood how he felt.

Lifting his eyes to the group once more he continued. "As we now know, the dwarves of Khaz Modan were ready for the Horde invasion and collapsed the mountain tunnels hoping to stop them from progressing south. But it did not work in its entirety. The invaders reached the Wetlands and built ships to continue their advance on Lordaeron, coming at us from the Great Sea."

More murmurs rippled through the group. Brett then spoke. "There is some encouragement, however. Their fleet was intercepted by Alliance ships under the command of Admiral Daelin Proudmoore. Large numbers of Horde ships sank taking countless orc soldiers to their watery graves..."

"Aye, but the Horde still held an ace."

All heads turned as a hooded figure approached. Sa'themar was stunned to see the night elf Commander. "Jarod! I thought you were heading back to Kalimdor."

The night elf halted and lowered his hood. The silver eyes quickly scanned the gathered rogues but he answered Sa'themar directly. "I am. However, when I heard tell that you were heading out here, I thought I would accompany you. It is, after all, en route to Menethil Harbour from where I will find passage to Kalimdor."

Some of the rogues did not miss that their leader flinched a little when Jarod said he had heard about their destination. Sa'themar did not take kindly to outsiders hearing of their covert operations, regardless of who they were. The guild leader rose and stepped in front of the ageing night elf. "Walk with me please, Commander," he said.

Jarod Shadowsong wore an enigmatic smile as he turned and moved away from the troupe with Sa'themar. The forest was dense and they could afford to stroll a little from the main group without their presence being betrayed.

Sa'themar considered his words carefully. "Our conversation last night was somewhat of a dance, Commander..." If he expected a response, he was very much mistaken for the night elf remained silent; he merely grunted, the corners of his mouth curving into a smile again.

The Guild Master continued. "I had heard rumours for long enough that you had been sighted occasionally in Kalimdor, but your presence here, and no less at my guild gives rise to many more questions."

"Hmm," Jarod offered finally, his lips twitching at the corners. "And what questions do you wish to ask me?"

Music: Lament of the Shadow Elves || Peter Gundry

   

It was Sa'themar's turn to grin. He had tried to engage in conversation with the night elf the previous night but had been expertly thwarted by him from probing too deeply into the man's psyche. He did, however, glean the distinct impression that he was a most modest man and one with whom the title of Commander sat awkwardly upon his large shoulders. "You must know what people will ask when they see you, for your past achievements and, forgive me for saying, but some of your controversial decisions have left many minds wondering about the legendary Commander Shadowsong."

The soft lilting tone of night elf laughter sounded deep in Jarod's chest. He drew to a halt and faced the Guild Master. He regarded him for a moment before speaking. "To begin with, Sa'themar, I am not legendary. I am a man who fought a war against one of the most powerful and destructive forces known to all. I merely did what I had to do." He resumed their stroll while he spoke some more. "It was others who decided I should lead, not I, and their decision cost them dearly. Many lives were lost."

"Many thousands more were saved, my family included," Sa'themar riposted. "There are always casualties in war, Jarod, that is the nature of it. Surely you do not feel guilt for something which is unavoidable?"

Jarod looked off into the distance, his jaw set firm. He swallowed before responding. "It was a truly harrowing and traumatic time Sa'themar. The world as we knew it then, was literally torn apart. In order for us to return that enemy from whence it came, we had to sacrifice many of our own and the earth ran red with their blood."

"You did not sacrifice anyone. They were soldiers, they knew the risks of war. Would you have rather the enemy had won? For the result then would have been complete annihilation."

Once more the night elf halted. He turned slightly and looked back at the assembly of rogues. He could sense the loyalty within the group; the undeniable faith they had in their leader. "One day, when you lose some of those good people to a cause, a mission or war, you will then know what it is I feel." His silver orbs seemed to flare as he turned his attention back to Sa'themar.

The Guild Master held his gaze for a few moments. A brief empathy passed between them before Jarod looked away.

"I removed myself from society, or what was left of it," he continued without prompting. "Even when you are driven to do what you consider the right thing at the time, the results can often leave you... disheartened, disillusioned. I saw no place for me amongst my people anymore. Time and their various skills would eventually afford some healing from the devastation, but it was not a world I wished to be part of, nor felt that I could contribute anything worthwhile. So I left and have spent countless eons in the wilds. So now tell me, Sa'themar, do you think that makes me legendary? Heroic?"

"You are asking the wrong man, Jarod. Who am I to determine what constitutes a legendary or heroic status? But this much I will say, you were instrumental in a great victory and many followed you, for your tactical mind and plan of forethought enabled us to survive and rebuild. You may not see yourself as a hero, but you must not under-estimate how influential you have been to our people, yes even those of us who were banished, and how inspiring you remain."

Jarod sighed heavily. He seemed embarrassed, almost uncomfortable by the Guild Master's words of praise. But when his eyes focused once more on Sa'themar, his voice had a dark edge. "And so you wish to know why I suddenly appeared at your table?"

Music: Impossible || Thomas Bergersen 

   

Sa'themar felt the hairs at the nape of his neck bristle. He afforded a quick glance at his troupe. They tried to be subtle but their eyes were trained on the two elves as the conversation continued. "Indeed," he acknowledged. The air was filled with an ominous chill. Subconsciously, he rested his hands on the hilts of his daggers, his fingers flexing as he waited for Jarod's explanation.

"Some affiliations do not waiver through time, Sa'themar. "As part of the Kaldorei Resistance, I formed strong bonds with the Moonguard, the Sisterhood of Elune, Rooksguard and even the Dragonflights. I cannot explain how, but of late my chosen lifestyle has been invaded by some of those affiliations. They come to me in dreams or pass in front of my eyes in the form of some unusual or rare occurrence, but I know it is them; calling to me."

"To fight again? To lead perhaps?"

Jarod shook his head, hesitantly. "I will not lead again nor have I the desire to fight. Look at me Sa'themar! What was once a gift bestowed upon us by the dragon aspects was torn from us in the destruction of the Well of Eternity." He held out his hands as if to demonstrate, then gestured his face and overall being. "I am now old and tired. But, through these "visions" and "experiences" I sense that events occurring in the world now are being moulded from the once defeated force which has been biding its time for revenge."

"You cannot mean..." Sa'themar grew rigid.

"Yes. The Burning Legion. This war has undertones of their involvement. For all I have chosen to live apart from my people, it does not mean that I am oblivious to what effects them. As you yourself will be well aware, there are sources of power which we are inextricably tied to..." He noted the flicker of recognition in Sa'themar's eyes. "Yes, I know of the Sunwell and of Nordrassil, both borne from the waters of the Well of Eternity. And both sources capable of summoning the Legion."

Both men noted the whispering from the group crouched a few feet away. They had obviously overheard, not that Jarod had intended for them to be unaware of the situation. It would, in his opinion, after all, have an impact on all races on Azeroth.

Sa'themar gestured towards the rogues. "Will you enlighten us then?" he asked the night elf.

Jarod's silver whiskers twitched as he offered an acquiescent smile before joining the expectant band of rogues.

He furnished them with a little intel of his own, the source of which he did not embellish.

The Horde's Warchief, Orgrim Doomhammer, had exercised on the side of caution and seemed he was prepared for a potentially costly depletion of his forces. He had effectively turned the tables on the Alliance' naval superiority by deploying an airborne attack. From the former Wildhammer fortress Grim Batol, he employed the indomitable Dragonmaw Clan and their newly acquired red dragonflight against the human armada. This had Admiral Proudmoore's fleet retreating unable to contend with the firepower of the dragons.

As a result, the Horde had continued advancing on Lordaeron, taking down a high number of Alliance soldiers in their wake. If they reached the city gates this would in effect cripple the newly formed forces heralded by the Council of Seven Nations.

Their march towards the Alterac Mountains was a precarious route to take but it provided a potentially clear path to Capital City. At least they had assumed it would. They had, in fact, met fierce resistance from Allied forces with the added presence of the Knights of the Silver Hand; paladins trained in the way of the Light and enabling the Alliance ranks to forge forward with renewed vigour.

"Then the Horde has been defeated?"

Jarod turned his eyes to the woman who spoke. Lina Firefury held his silvery gaze with a look of quiet determination and resilience. He smiled wanly. "Temporarily deterred, would be a more accurate definition, my Lady."

Lina fought a blush at being addressed in such a manner. "How so?" she inquired attempting to look unfazed.

Jarod took a deep breath. "They were not without a new weapon which I believe is influenced by the Burning Legion."

"What engine have they constructed now?" Another voice asked.

"It is worse than any engineering schematic can produce," Jarod replied, his voice dark. "Imagine if you will, a re-animated creature, stronger and fiercer than any normal warrior, astride a skeletal steed. This creature could wield a blade imbued with magic which would drain the very resolve and courage of its adversaries..."

All eyes stared at him, a mixture of denial, horror and disbelief swimming within them. "Then imagine as it strikes down its enemy, a chill fog roils over the fallen and from within the caliginous vapour, new re-animated creatures rise and take up arms against their own."

He paused, allowing them all time to gauge the truly horrific implications of such a "weapon". "They are called Death-Knights and are the creation of an orc warlock some of you may have heard of. Gul'dan."

Heads nodded in recognition of the name. It had been feared since the time the orcs first invaded Azeroth through the Dark Portal. Tales of his dark magic had reached the ears of many.

"Forgive me," a voice spoke. All heads turned to look at Brett. The human rogue's face instantly flushed.

"Yes?" Jarod asked.

Brett seemed to think twice about saying anything more and shook his head.

"Please, ask what you will." The Commander coaxed.

Sa'themar's countenance wore an uncharacteristic disquiet with which the troupe noticed he was struggling to keep at bay. He nodded to Brett nonetheless, knowing his second-hand man would not offend the reclusive Commander.

Brett cleared his throat. "I do not doubt what you tell us, Commander. I, however, like many am not as well versed in your history as some of my fellow elven colleagues are, but I have deduced your people are somewhat... conservative when it comes to being seen or indeed even heard of by others. I, therefore, ask, how is it you know so much?"

An uncanny silence followed Brett's question. While it may have been on their minds, no-one else would have asked. Their faith in their leader's acceptance of the mysterious Commander was proof enough that he was not one to be under scrutiny.

The quiet was broken by Jarod's soft laughter. Looking at Sa'themar he smiled. The Guild Master was once more relaxed by the night elf's genteel response. "It is a fair question," Jarod agreed and turned his attention back to Brett. "You are correct and very diplomatic in your assessment of us," the night elf continued to smile, his fangs showing every now and again. "It is true we are somewhat aloof, suspicious of people and that stems from the war many thousands of years ago. It also created a divide between our people, your own Guild Leader will attest to that." He glanced at Sa'themar, who nodded in agreement.

The Commander continued. "That is not to say, however, that we do have adventurers in our midst. Some of my people have never forgotten the horrors they faced and have always believed the time will come when we must face them again. Those individuals travel in secret all over Azeroth, keeping vigil. That in effect is how they found me.

"You have not seen, nor heard from them because that is how they want it. Many have adopted the druidic way of life and you may, on the odd occasion be within close proximity of one without even realising it. They are shape-shifters."

A ripple of awe spread around the group to which Jarod added. "I tell you this in confidence, however. It was only befitting to tell you as you had asked and I have already enjoyed an evening of good food and wine in your company."

Everyone agreed the information would not be divulged to anyone outwith the current company.

Jarod then turned his attention to Sa'themar and the Firefurys. His face bore a sorrow which immediately alerted the Guild Master that what was going to be uttered next would be something particularly personal to him and the high elves.

"The Alliance has for the time being, stalled the Horde's advance on Capital City. But, as such, they have turned their focus north. They now march on Quel'thalas."

Yathas was first to speak up. "If the orcs invade our homeland, I am certain the Amani Trolls will join them in their quest to eradicate the elven nation."

"Our sons! Yathas!" Lina's voice broke. Her husband placed a hand on her shoulder in a bid to soothe her angst.

Sa'themar nodded understanding as he studied his two comrades. She was one of his best and fiercest rogues, but when anyone or anything threatened her family, Lina Firefury would undoubtedly become the deadliest assassin he would ever know. And quite possibly reckless too.

Jarod suddenly stood to take his leave and Sa'themar rose with him. "Are you sure you will not return to do battle?" he enquired of the Night Elf.

The Commander smiled and moved away. Lifting his thumb and middle finger to his lips he emitted a brief but sharp whistle.

To their left, the sound of twigs breaking and the rustling of undergrowth drew closer and louder. From under some giant ferns two great yellow eyes framed in frost-white fur appeared. Jarod clucked his tongue and a frostsaber emerged from the foliage.

The beast was enormous, it's shoulders in line with that of the elves. Its luxurious coat was striped, fading into its snow-white belly. On its back, a leather saddle was fastened atop a decorative quarter sheet of purple, gold and azure design.

The huge paws padded towards the elves. Sa'themar could feel the beast's hot breath as it halted in front of them.

Jarod patted its head. The cat nudged his hand in response, a throaty purr conveying its pleasure at being with its master.

"I guess that is a 'No,' then?" The words fell aptly from the High Elf's lips.

Jarod gathered the reins of his mount and pulled himself up into the saddle. "You guess correctly, Sa'themar. Perhaps one day I will return fully, but that time is not deigned for me yet. For now, I will return to the wilds."

Sa'themar held out his hand. The Night Elf smiled warmly and shook with the Guild Master. "It has been an honour," Sa'themar voiced.

"I may take of your hospitality again one day," Jarod replied with a grin. "It was most enjoyable."

"Thank you. You will always be welcome."

"Fare thee well, Sa'themar. I wish you all the best with your enterprise. The Alliance will tend to what is left of the Horde army in Hinterlands, so go see to your homeland. Be wary of that warlock though. Not only is he enemy to you, I suspect he will be traitor to the Horde also if the Burning Legion has him in its grasp."

He jerked the reins and the frostsaber turned. With a kick to its flanks, the beast carried the enigmatic Night Elf swiftly through the ground cover until they were visible no more.

The rogues awaited their leader's orders. He glanced around each one, gauging their readiness. Finally he looked at Brett.

The human rogue knew what the decision was. "Shall I send word back to headquarters?"

Sa'themar shook his head, his platinum mane rippling as he gathered it up and tied it securely with a leather thong. "No. This is still a surveillance exercise..."

"Not if that warlock is unleashing his necromantic army it isn't!" Lina objected. She locked eyes with her leader.

"Have you forgotten about the magical wards, Lina?" Sa'themar urged.

The blonde High Elf jutted out her chin and adopted a defensive stance. "No, I have not. But going by Commander Shadowsong's warning, this orc is a force which should not be under-estimated. He opened the Dark Portal after all at the cost of many innocents." Her husband grunted and she shot him a look.

"Lina," Yathas said softly. "If these Death Knights ride in our homeland we must exercise caution..."

"Our sons are..." Her eyes hardened, but Yathas intervened.

"Well protected!" he replied more forcefully than intended. Lina fell silent. Yathas continued a little more calmly. "Have you considered how much use we will be for them, however, if that chill fog claims us?"

Sa'themar stepped forward. "Yathas has a valid point Lina. Fear not. Our people have thwarted attacks on our lands before and they contend daily with the trolls. We are not without our own devices Lina."

The woman nodded her concession to Sa'themar. He acknowledged her apology then turned back to the main body of rogues.

Yathas caressed his wife's palm affectionately. She awarded him a meek smile.

"Do you wish me to advise Sauren, nevertheless?" Brett whispered to Sa'themar.

"Do you honestly think he will mind missing a couple of days training that much?" Sa'themar cocked an eyebrow.

Brett grinned. "No, probably not," he conceded.

Sa'themar signalled for them to ready to move out. Ensuring his weapons were secured in their scabbards, he looked once more to his right-hand man. "I'm sure he will get stuck into something to keep himself occupied."

Little did he know that his son lay prostrate on his bed, spent, with a huge grin on his face. He had been deflowered by two very experienced ladies of the court in a marathon of sexual discovery.

"You will definitely please many lovers, Sauren," Leola cooed as she had traced a long fingernail down over his chest.

"Do you really think so?" the boy asked breathlessly. His body still trembled in the aftermath of pleasure.

At that same moment, Maya's head rose from beneath the sheet. Her green eyes looked at him sleepily as her tongue traced a little residue from the corner of her lips. "Oh, yes," she agreed. "Many indeed!"

 

 "Many indeed!"      

Chapter Text

Music: FINAL TEST || Steve Jablonsky

   

Sa'themar was a man whose proclivity for perfection looked well beyond his own specialisation. He knew that his ranks would benefit greatly from other skilled individuals.

Thanks to his time served in the Troll Wars alongside  Bel'ovir Salonar he learned much about the prestigious magic wielders and how decisive their involvement was in the war effort.

After the War of the Ancients, it was deigned the use of the arcane arts - the magnet for the Burning Legion - was outlawed. The penalty for use of the magic was death. The number of rioters against this decision, however, was sufficient enough to have meant a severe depletion of the elven nation.

Arch-Druid, Malfurion Stormrage, could not agree to the death of so many of his people and so he banished them from a broken Kalimdor.  Amongst them, a young Sa'themar travelled with his parents and younger siblings.

Their journey across the seas brought them to Azeroth where attempts to establish a new home was met with resistance from the resident Troll nation. Sa'themar was astounded at the fierceness of these people. He and his fellow warriors, rangers and mages were continually on alert for sporadic attacks by Troll war parties.

At that time, a scattered population of humans had banded together as they too were fighting the Trolls further to the south. Led by a formidable chieftain, Thoradin, the humans fought valiantly against the savage adversaries but had had very little contact with the elven magic-wielders.  As the years passed, the human nation of Arathor grew and became an impressive force as it continued the battle against the tusked rivals.

Meanwhile, the elven king, Anasterian Sunstrider, saw his people nearing defeat having undergone years of attack by the Trolls. He decided to approach the now strong human armies to ask for their assistance against a common enemy. It was much to the relief of the exhausted defenders as their resolve was depleting, Sa'themar's included.

Thoradin was prudent enough to realise the implications of letting the elven nation fall and so agreed to an alliance with the condition that their sorcerers taught one hundred humans to wield the arcane magic while the armies massed to join the war against the enemy.

Initial reservations of the elves' inclusion in the wars stemmed from their often questionable treatment of the humans as well as that of the Trolls. The fight against the adversaries, however, had escalated to an extremely brutal confrontation which lasted for days in the Alterac Mountains and numbers needed to be strengthened.

Thoradin finally agreed with the elven masters to let the mages, both human and elven unleash their magic upon the Trolls. This decision proved to be the turning point in the war.

Their magical deluge opened the way for warriors and rogues to slaughter the enemy, which they did with newfound, fierce resolve. They drove the enemy back, decimating the Troll empire.

Therein, friendship between Sa'themar and Bel'ovir developed with a profound mutual respect for each of their specialist abilities. The realisation that both benefited greatly from each soon enabled Sa'themar to devise better tactics within his group of fighters. It was not long therefore, before others looked towards him for leadership.

Now understanding essential elements provided by his magical kinsmen, Sa'themar also employed the mages' teleporting services, enabling his troops to travel seamlessly to targeted destinations. Their ability to portal them in a swift and silent manner to places they needed to be had proved more than advantageous on many an occasion. They could also provide timeous salvation by porting everyone beyond the lines of any overwhelming contingency.

Not only that, but his predilection for individuals with a leaning towards an exorbitant talent in theurgy ensured the mages who worked for him were amongst the best there were - outside of the exceptional magi in the city of Dalaran and Quel'Danas.

For the welfare of his rogues also, he enlisted priests, healers who would stay within the boundaries of the group so they themselves could be protected. He had seen many a healer taken down by over-zealous fighters whose focus was to prevent their adversaries from being revitalised. So his troupe were split into pockets of protectors and those who battled the enemy or infiltrated antagonists camps. It had worked well although inevitably, there were still injuries.

And now, as they all poured through a portal to the Blackened Woods, Sa'themar gathered his colleagues close. He had his dozen rogues, two battle mages and a priest.

They were close to the Troll province of Zul'Aman. Dotted around at the base of Amani Pass and all the way along the eastern side of Lake Elrendar were various huts which numerous Trolls lived and worked around. Although the elves and humans had been successful against the aggressors in years gone by, battles still continued and the loathing between the two races had never ceased.

Their persistent savage attacks over the years on the northern elven settlement of Quel'thalas had been bothersome, to say the least, but the real problem had arisen when one of the fiercest forest trolls, going by the name of Zul'jin, had unified some of the contentious tribes in and around Zul'aman with the intention of amassing an enormous and truculent war party.

His notorious hatred of the High Elves was the driving force behind the unification and it had been rumoured he intended to unite all tribes to wage a massive attack on the elven nation and wipe out the High Elves once and for all. The Second War, thankfully, had scuppered his plans when he was finally captured by the humans and incarcerated. But, the war was not over yet.

Perhaps it was Jarod's warning which had the troupe unsettled, but Sa'themar decided he was taking no chances. Turning to Brett, he instructed him to send word back to headquarters. He wanted more bodies out here – just in case. Brett was to go with Alaen, one of the young battle mages, and the second-in-command was to personally select the team most suited for a potential battle with Trolls. 

He also told him to check reports from the rogues' network, which was an extensive channel used to shuttle information back and forth between many of the allied guilds. The Blades would reconvene at this very spot in an hour.

With Brett and Alaen gone, the troupe were divided. They would not be idle though. Sa'themar set them to work. He wanted them only to use their ears and eyes and find out if there was any truth in Jarod's words. "Be diligent," he warned. "We only want information at this time."

He assigned one rogue to guard the remaining battle mage and priest, the others split into pairs and proceeded with caution towards Zul'Aman.

He assigned one rogue to guard the remaining battle mage and priest, the others split into pairs and proceeded with caution towards Zul'Aman

 

Brett and Alaen portalled into the courtyard. Numerous heads turned as they stepped through the watery centre.

"Couldn't you have at least taken us to the missions room?" Brett said, his voice laced with incredulity.

The mage stared at the rogue as if not quite understanding what he had heard. "And what, exactly, is the matter with this location?" A haughty look adorned his youthful, handsome face.

"Well..." Brett said in a heated whisper. "For one thing all the students are gaping wondering what's going on. We don't want them worried about anything."

Alaen made a show of looking around. With a dismissive wave of his hand, he shrugged. "They do not look too perturbed to me, merely curious."

Brett huffed. "Well, you know what curiosity did to the cat!"

"Yes," Alaen replied suddenly fascinated by his fingernails. "It learned something of great importance..." He glanced back up at Brett whose furrowed brow implied he was lost for a response.

Alaen grinned then his eyes caught sight of several individuals coming their way. "It seems my intellectual choice of location has also saved you considerable time gathering the troops." Another flamboyant hand gesture made Brett turn to look behind him. 

The rogue had no choice but to admit defeat. "Alright, you win this one, little mage."

Alaen smirked once more. He did so enjoy banter with Brett Hornsby especially when he won an argument or a difference of opinion went in his favour.

Brett grinned back at the High Elf then turned his attention to the approaching group. Nodding greetings to them he then led the way to the missions room.

Crossing the courtyard he caught sight of Don with two others. One was a pageboy by the name of Thomas and another boy, whom he recognised as a new recruit but could not remember his name. They were engaged in some sort of gossip by the looks of things.

As the group of rogues neared the main turret, Brett heard Don goading the young pageboy. Although he was not actually tormenting him, he kept at him for something. Brett signalled for his fellow rogues to go ahead then he veered off to see what was going on with Don and the pageboy. Thomas was an innocent wee soul and he looked a little uncomfortable. This will only take a minute, Brett thought to himself.

Thomas' eyes widened as he saw Brett striding over. Don remained oblivious, caught up in his teasing of the young boy. "C'mon! You can tell me. I'm his best friend."

Thomas shook his head, refusing to utter a word.

"Why are you so scared of him? Do you think he will hurt you if you tell?"

"N – no!" Thomas stammered, wide-eyed. It had not been a consideration until Don mentioned it.

"Then come on! Who wanted to see him? Tell me, or..."

"What's going on here?" Brett's voice caused Don and the new trainee to jump. Even Thomas fidgeted for all he had seen him coming over.

Don spun round. His face bore the expression of one who had been caught out. His mouth fell open and then slapped audibly shut.

Brett eyed the other boy who glanced away, trying to stifle a grin. "What's your name?" he demanded.

The boy instantly straightened. "Reed, sir. Reed Hale."

"Right then, both of you, git, and do some chores."

Don and Reed turned and started moving away. "And tell Sauren to do something useful as well, he isn't getting to sit on his arse neither." The boys broke into a jog. "And I'll be checking up on you all!" At that, the two scoundrels broke into a run towards the tower that housed Sauren's rooms.

Brett turned back to face Thomas, who, for a fleeting moment, looked relieved until he saw the questioning eyes of the rogue standing over him.  Brett felt rather protective of the boy; he was a sweet wee lad.  Hooking his thumbs in his belt, Brett smiled down at him. "Well?"

"Y – yes, sir, Mr Hornsby?"  The squeak of a voice told Brett the boy was almost shitting his pants.   

For some inexplicable reason, Brett likened the boy to a kitten, its innocent eyes growing larger with trepidation.   Omitting a deep sigh, he tried to look less intimidating. Slumping his shoulders he kneeled down in front of Thomas, resting his forearm on bended knee. "They won't bother you again lad, you have my word."

Thomas hesitantly nodded and eventually managed a tiny smile.

"Is there anything I need to know? I heard that Sauren had a visitor, should I be concerned?"

Thomas' brow furrowed and he glanced at his feet before making eye-contact with Brett again. "I don't think so, sir, Mr Hornsby." Then, as if to confirm, the boy said a clear and concise, "No, sir."

Brett held the boy's gaze for a few moments then reached out and ruffled his hair. "Okay lad. Off you go."

The boy didn't need any further encouragement – he was off, heading for the kitchens.

Pushing himself up Brett turned and looked back at the tower. Just at the doorway, the two older boys stood watching the elites entering the turret where the all-important missions room was located.  All Brett needed to do was tilt his head and scowl, then they too were off, bounding up the stairs towards Sauren's rooms.

Laughing lightly to himself, he proceeded towards the missions room to join his colleagues. It was time for more serious matters.

He assigned one rogue to guard the remaining battle mage and priest, the others split into pairs and proceeded with caution towards Zul'Aman

 

Music: AMEN || Halestorm

   

Distantly, the sound of persistent knocking bled into Sauren's exhausted anamnesis. He moaned and flexing his back and shoulders the muscular clicks and cricks sounded dully in his ears. Settling once more, he felt the lure of sleep beckoning him again.

The knocking continued. His lips parted and a slightly irritable grunt tumbled out.

Knock, knock, knock.

His brow furrowed. He was fighting wakefulness, his body felt drained, heavy – and slightly sore. The mahogany eyes flitted under the deep lids.

Knock, knock ...KNOCK!

Then the scent hit him; a salty, yet tangy smell, mixed with – strawberries? His tongue passed lazily across his lips. He could taste it too! It was – erotic. Like a serpent to a snake charmers flute, he was summoned from the world of slumber and his eyes slowly peeled open.

His attempt to stretch met with some resistance. He turned his head to the left.

A mass of blonde hair was spread over the pillows and its owner was lying snuggled against his shoulder. Leola sighed and shifted slightly in her sleep, an arm draping over Sauren's chest. He grinned. He was instantly aware of her full breasts pressing against him. Such bliss!

Another mewl came from his right. There Maya lay curled against him. He could feel her breath against his skin as she breathed softly. Her legs were tangled with his and her left hand was resting between his legs. Her fingers flexed a little as his body was quick to respond when the memory of the past few hours flooded his mind.

The knocking persisted. His pleasurable memories melted,  promptly replaced by agitation.

"Wh –whuu, izh it!" he managed, although it barely sounded like proper speech.

"Sauren! It's Don. And Reed."

"Hmmm..." Talking for some reason was proving a little difficult. "Go...away!"

"I'm coming in!" The loud thud of a wooden door hitting the wall sounded from the outer room. Heavy footfalls followed, hurrying towards the bedchamber.

Sauren groaned as his bed-mates started to stir. He pressed his palms on the mattress and slowly pushed himself up until his back leaned against the headboard. Leola's hand slid down from his chest and landed on top of Maya's which had not surrendered its position for all the half-elf had shifted considerably. 

Both women turned their sleepy eyes towards the young half-elf. He smiled warmly. "Send him away," Leola whispered. "We have not finished with you yet."

Maya cooed, tracing her fingertips over his newly awakened arousal. "And neither have you with us it seems," she sighed. Again, Sauren groaned. Life at that precise moment was looking very good indeed.

"Are you alri..." Don skidded to a halt as he leapt up the two steps which led into the bedchamber. His eyes were wide when he saw the two women curled around his friend. "Oh!" His voiced dwindled, and his mouth remained agape.

There was no denying the look of envy which crossed Don's face. Sauren grinned, smug. His perfect teeth then beamed into view as he saw the curious face of Reed Hale appear behind Don's shoulder. 

He felt incredibly superior and was going to relish the moment. "This had better be important!" Maya's teasing fingers under the blankets made it difficult for him to sound as authoritative as intended, but the gobsmacked boys at the doorway didn't seem to notice the tremor in the half-elf's voice. They were still looking at the beautiful women who purred and cooed beside their friend.

"Huh?" Don managed.

Sauren's arms curled around the women's shoulders. He brushed his lips against Maya's brow and in a pained whisper, begged, "Stop. Please."

She withdrew her hand. Leola followed suit. Once more the mahogany eyes focused on the intruders. "Tell me what is so important that you burst into my chambers." This time there was an edge to his voice.

"Forgive me, Sauren..." Don finally paid attention to the young master. "Something is amiss."

Sauren sat forward. "With what, exactly?"

Reed peered around Don's arm. His focus was still on the two beauties in the bed beside Sauren. He was no virgin himself, but his conquests had never been with such exquisite women – merely a farmer's daughter and a scullery maid - and never at the same time.

"Reed!" Sauren's reprimanding tone was sharp.

The young man immediately looked to Sauren. He held the half-elf's gaze and in that instant, knew this was not one to trifle with. He bowed his head apologetically.

Don continued to tell Sauren about Brett's return and how the remainder of the elites had all congregated in the missions room.

The half-elf held up a hand, preventing Don from saying anything more. He sat for a moment, his head bowed, the platinum hair like a curtain over his face. Moments passed then with a heavy sigh, he lifted his eyes to the two boys. "Gentlemen," he said quietly. "Please move through to the other room."

With slightly robotic bows, they acquiesced.

Two pairs of hands then travelled over the half-elf's chest and shoulders. Cherry lips pressed against his neck and earlobes. The temptation was almost too must to resist, but he had his interest peaked in an entirely different direction now. "Ladies," he said in a husky voice. "You have been a delight in every way possible, but I must ask you to leave now."

Both women sounded their disappointment, their fingers trying to coax him into changing his mind. But he resisted. Something in his eyes told the women he was serious.

Leola breathed in his ear. "You have been a pleasure, master Sauren. Perhaps we can sate your hunger another day?"

He smiled, the perfect teeth on full display. "Oh, I am counting on it," he replied then pulling her to him he kissed her fully on the mouth. He repeated the gesture to a pawing Maya.

Two pairs of eyes watched through the door frame gap as the two women then rose from the bed and began to dress. "Lucky bastard!" Don whispered.

"Yes," Reed agreed readily.

Sauren rose last, his cupidity still noticeably present. Maya reached up on tiptoes to kiss the half-elf and the two boys witnessed her caress him below.  Sauren laughed and pulled quickly away wrapping his robe around his person. "You are very naughty, Maya," he said softly. She laughed.

Leola then shared one last kiss with him before the two women sashayed out of the bedchamber, skirts rustling and bosoms heaving. They gave knowing smiles to the two avid onlookers.

Sauren escorted them to the door. "Goodbye, ladies."

"Until next time," Leola said. The door closed.

When he turned to face Don and Reed, there was no evidence in his face of the hours of pleasure he had just shared with the two beauties. In its place was a determination, a new hunger. The kind Don was more familiar with. The sharp, keen edge of a highly attuned gambit had now possessed the half-elf's imagination.

"What are you going to do?" Don asked him as he followed him into the bedchamber again.

Ignoring the awkward looks on Don and Reed's faces, Sauren cast his robe over his bed and wandered over to the large wardrobe. His nakedness bothered him not and choosing a pair of fresh britches from within he pulled them on. "I'm going to find out what's going on," he smirked. Next, he pushed his arms through a loose fitting shirt and tucked it into the waistband of his britches.

"What do you want us to do then?"

Sauren sat back down on his bed and reached for one of his boots. He looked up at Reed. Studying the new recruit he slowly pulled on the boot. "You are on board?" he asked picking up his other one.

"Yes," Reed replied. "You can count on me."

Standing up, Sauren lightly stamped his feet ensuring the boots were comfortable and straightened the waistband of the britches. "We will see about that then, won't we?" He eyed Reed again.

"Ask what you will," Reed said in a slightly contumacious tone.

Sauren's eyes flashed dangerously. Then with a mocking grin, he asked, "What time is it?"

"I – I don't know exactly," Reed stumbled.

Sauren looked questioningly at Don.

"Early evening. Supper will be in... say an hour, maybe two?"

Sauren nodded. "Good. Then you two will get me something to eat." He waited to see the stunned expressions on their faces before pushing past. He pulled his hair back in a ponytail and secured it with a leather thong as he strode to the door.

"Are you serious?" Don called after him.

He turned to face his deflated right and left-hand men. "Well, yes!" He smirked. "I have had a great deal of exercise this afternoon and built up a mighty appetite. So humour me! I will find you in the dining hall in approximately one hour."

Leaving them stupefied, Sauren then hurried down the stairs, laughing to himself. His mood was buoyant, no doubt as a result of the Queen's "gift", but he was also eager to learn what was going on with the elites.

He had suspected something important was afoot when he heard his father had left the compound, along with Brett, but for the second-in-command to return hours later and hold a meeting in the missions room, it had to be potentially critical. His father was not one to habitually under-estimate the numbers needed for a mission and so this occurrence suggested an interesting development. Sauren, being of keen mind, was always on the hunt for more knowledge on the workings of the world and indeed the Guild.

He knew better than to cockily walk into the missions room. Brett would simply have him leave being of the opinion he was still an untrained boy whose nose was prone to poke in areas which did not involve him. 

The young Nightflame had familiarised himself with the complex, however, even before his father had acquired it. He knew all secret passages and crawl spaces. The missions room had not one but two entrances to it from the library, one of which Sauren was fairly certain remained undetected by his elders.

With little effort, he melded with his surroundings becoming invisible to the un-enquiring eye. He slipped into the library and crossed the vast room. There were still piles and boxes of books, scrolls and maps waiting to be put in their rightful places. 

As he bounded over the more obstructive piles he deduced it would also be included in the chores he would be assigned to help with. Not that he minded actually, he loved literature and the power to be gained from the knowledge within pages was too tempting to ignore. Neither was he averse to work of any kind. Apart from cooking - that was Don and Reed's forte, he grinned as he remembered their vanquished expressions.

He reached the recess in which the secret entrance lay. Running his slender fingers under the dado rail he moaned with satisfaction as he heard the giveaway click of the lock opening. He pushed against it and a partition slid to the right. With a furtive look behind to check there was still no-one else around, he then squeezed his way in behind the panel and drew the door closed.

The way ahead was murky, hanging with cobwebs and dust-bunnies but he could see slivers of light passing through small gaps in the wall up ahead. They were in fact, spy-holes. The original construction of the buildings had obviously been devised by the notoriously paranoid nobility, much to Sauren's delight. He loved the secrets the complex held, it was so like the family home he had grown up in.

The sound of scurrying feet alerted him to one or two rodents in the vicinity - no surprise there and it could well prove to be to his advantage should he inadvertently make noise himself. The furry creatures were common enough that people turned a blind eye, or indeed a deaf ear to sounds within the walls.

He could make out voices from the missions room, Brett's voice being the one that carried the most. He crouched as he reached the ideal viewpoint and with one mahogany eye pressed against the spy-hole he then settled to hear what was going on.

"He has been rescued?" Brett asked one of the rogues.

"So word has it through the network and if indeed it is true..."

"The network has never proven false before," another voiced.

"Nevertheless, if it is true, he will undoubtedly forge ahead unifying the tribes with the full intention of an all-out massacre."

Sauren shifted slightly as he swatted a spider from his cheek. His mind was trying to fathom who exactly they were talking about.

Brett took over. "There is also talk of an orc warlock being involved. Commander Shadowsong has advised us that this Gul'dan has been creating foul creatures, regenerating dead soldiers and imbuing them with magic powers which makes them insanely powerful.  If any of us fall in their wake, we will be resurrected as one of these abominations. The Commander also hinted that it was possible the warlock may betray even the Horde."

Silence befell the group for a few moments, then one of them spoke up. "If this orc transforms the Trolls in such a way, then we are in for a desperate fight indeed."

Sauren was intrigued. Certainly, he had not had the misfortune to run up against a Troll, but he had studied them to a degree through various books and listening to stories his father used to tell him when he was a small boy. They were undoubtedly fierce warriors, and very much sworn enemies of the High Elves.

This orc they mentioned was also interesting. He had mastered necromancy, a foul magic, which Sauren suspected may not even sit well with the Trolls as it violated their Loa.*

"We must reconvene with Sa'themar just beyond the Amani Pass. It is territory some of you will not have set foot on before. It is dark, foreboding and harbours many other threats as well as the Trolls. This is initially surveillance, but if the need arises, we may have to fight and it will be bloody. Be wary, be vigilant and do not take unnecessary risks! Now collect your weapons, your poisons and let's go."

Sauren watched as they all started to file out of the room. Brett advised Alaen to ask another mage and two of the Priests who often offered their services to the troupe to accompany them also.

Brett was last to move towards the door, but something stopped him in his tracks. Sauren held his breath as he observed the second-in-command's eyes scan the room. Had he sensed they were being watched, he wondered? Brett stared directly at the wall behind which the platinum-haired half-elf stood rigid for all he had remained concealed in shadow.

Alaen appeared back beside the human rogue, his face bearing a questioning look. "Something wrong?" he asked.

Brett remained as he was for a few moments more then huffed and looked at the mage. "Just a strange sense there's a cat exercising its curiosity," he said.

Alaen glanced around the room and shrugged. "Or merely an old man's paranoia."

Brett fought a grin before laughing out loud. "You're probably right." They left the room.

Sauren slowly exhaled. Brett may be old, but he was still a shrewd and perceptive rogue.

***

 

*Loa - the beings Trolls worship; their religion

He assigned one rogue to guard the remaining battle mage and priest, the others split into pairs and proceeded with caution towards Zul'Aman      

 

Chapter Text

The elites readied themselves for a potential battle      

The elites readied themselves for a potential battle. They were occupied in the armoury selecting a variety of carefully manufactured poisons to coat their blades when Sauren darted across the lobby leading from the missions room to the dining hall. He needed to find Don and Reed.

The two boys were just coming up from the kitchens when he spotted them with a tray of food each. Busy talking to each other they didn't see the slight distortion of air circling them.

Sauren smirked as he looked at the contents of their trays; a haunch of venison, roast boar, glazed ham, sweet potatoes and glacé carrots. On other plates, they had their desserts – a fair selection of fruits, cheeses and of course, the irresistible cakes.  He could not deny he needed something to eat, but as ever, his ubiquitous hunger for knowledge and the intricate workings of the Guild, especially where it involved the elites, far surpassed his need for a succulent pastry.

"They weren't regular whores," Don said to his colleague who was hungrily munching away on a savoury.

"Ah knaw," Reed mumbled between over-enthusiastic mouthfuls. "They were too refined."

"Yes." Don heaved a huge sigh. "Two of them as well! By the gods, I can't even get one!"

Some crumbs fell from Reed's mouth when Don confessed the pitiable truth and clumsily he dropped his tray on a nearby table.  "What? You mean you haven't...?" His eyebrows disappeared into his fringe.  He made a lewd gesture with his fingers.

Don blushed.

Sauren was equally stunned. He had assumed Don had been quite busy in that department. A little self-satisfied grin played on his stealthed lips.

"No, I haven't. I'm too...shy." Don said in a whisper as he took a seat next to Reed.

"Oh, we'll have to sort that then," Reed said, resuming his demolition of pastries.

Voices from the courtyard alerted Sauren that he could not hang about listening to his two bodyguards as they organised Don's sexual goals. He needed to make haste. With the subtlest of moves, he materialised, facing them across the table. "I suggest you visit the city then, Don, and pay your coin at the brothels."

Both boys were taken unaware having been engrossed in their conversation. Reed laughed a little nervously as Don blushed more and tried to disguise his embarrassment by pushing the tray of food towards Sauren. "Here's your food." He said, disgruntled.

Sauren grinned and pushed the tray back. "I shall decline, thank you."

"But, you said..." Reed began.

"Yes, I know," Sauren replied, raising a warning eyebrow at the boy's tone. "But, I have places to be, so no time to waste. Enjoy the food!" He turned to leave the dining hall.

"Wait! Where are you going?" Don rose. His humiliation was replaced by concern.

Sauren merely raised his forefinger to his lips before he melded with his surroundings and slid from the room.

The elites were gathering in the courtyard where Alaen and another mage with two priests were already waiting. Brett was nowhere to be seen so Sauren assumed he was still in the armoury with some of the others. It would be unwise to go in there, even stealthed – the trained eyes of the elites, Brett, in particular, would probably detect him easily.

He cursed himself for not having had the initiative to have taken weapons from his father's private collection before he decided to snoop in the missions room. He swithered whether he would have time to run up and get them now. Luckily, Brett's voice carried out the room announcing all to congregate in the courtyard in ten minutes. He had time!

Turning back towards the tower he darted between the supports of the walkway and made his way up the spiral stone staircase to the chambers. He was not aware that a pair of blue eyes watched him like a hawk.

He quietly closed the door behind him when he entered his father's rooms and checked that no maids were within doing their housekeeping. After due consideration, he realised they had been and gone; probably hours before. It was, after all, now early evening.

He stole over to the recess which housed the portrait of his mother. As always, her sweet face captured his attention and a pang of regret at not having known her washed over him. But, he did not have time to pay respects now, he needed the secret she kept concealed.

He ran his fingers along the bottom of the painting and pressed the small cover which guarded a button. On releasing it, a metallic click announced the secret stash of daggers was open. Sauren pulled the portrait towards him and there, enclosed in a glass case, five sets of specialised daggers were displayed on a bed of crimson silk. These lethal beauties had been gifted to his father from appreciative clients and to the boy's knowledge, had not actually been used by Sa'themar in battle. They were, nonetheless, designed to kill and not meant to be merely ornamental.

He weighed each pair in his hands, assessing how they balanced in his grip and chose a set based on which ones he felt would serve him best. Closing the glass front he then took down a belted scabbard from those hanging on hooks at the edge. With the weapons secured in place around his waist, he then closed the portrait. "Sorry, mother. Another time," he said, placing a finger kiss on the portrait. 

He left the room and descended the stairs two and three at a time. Stopping just inside the doorway to the tower he watched as the elites gathered. Brett was speaking to them all in a lowered tone, but Sauren could pick up enough snippets to know the plan of action. 

He waited as the mage conjured a portal and the elites started to pour through. He inched nearer as each one vanished from sight.  Apart from the conjuring mage himself, Brett was last to pass through and Sauren, still stealthed, moved swiftly.   

 

Music: PROTECTORS OF THE TRUTH|| Immediate

   

Absorbed within the watery centre he followed the rogues through the tunnelled passage. His heart was hammering. He knew he was taking a huge risk, but he felt daring today. He was uncertain, however, that he could contribute effectively to the possible battle which lay ahead. He had after all, only trained against dummies and other inanimate objects. He had not yet driven a blade into flesh and quite frankly, he doubted he would be given the opportunity under Brett's tutelage until possibly years later. This way, he may be able to prove he would ripen as a rogue sooner than most.

The end of the portal drew nearer, giving way to a somewhat dark and forbidding environment - the Blackened Woods. The rogues stealthed just prior to exiting the spinning circumference and moved to the left. Sauren dodged behind them, watching them all keenly, making sure none had detected the stowaway. 

The portal snapped shut once the mage stepped through. A suppressed grunt sounded nearby and the half-elf glanced to his left then right, alarmed that he might have been spotted. Nothing, no-one. All the Blades were in front of him. 

From the right, he heard the signature whistle which announced his father was near. Sa'themar approached his troupe. Moving slightly further back, Sauren listened intently.

"It is as I feared. We must fight. The Rangers are defending to the northeast but the war party is sizeable. We have to cut the trolls down."

"What of the others - the orcs and those diabolical beings Brett informed us about?"

Sa'themar's tone hardened. "They are pressing forward with the trolls."

Brett spoke up. "You should know Zul'jin has been freed by the orcs."

The Guild Leader's eyes flashed. With a curt nod, he addressed them all again. "The trolls fierceness and hatred of my people will be galvanised by this... unfortunate turn of events." There was no mistaking the sound of despondency in his voice.

Sauren's resolve trembled at his father's tone. Sa'themar was not a man to be easily intimidated nor unnerved. For his voice to be attenuated by such emotion was a sign that perhaps Sauren's decision to follow in this matter had been the dumbest idea he'd had. It was uncharacteristic enough his acting on impulse but now it also seemed utterly irresponsible. He felt the blood drain when his father signalled for the troupe to move out.

Staying far enough behind so not to be detected, he crouched as he advanced through the woodlands and out onto the open ground. Up ahead he saw lynx stalking their prey and bats flitting below the canopies of the trees. 

The group of shadow-melded rogues were safe from attack from the beasts due to their numbers, but a lynx was steadily following the path Sauren was taking a short distance behind. He had hoped his stealth kept him safe, but as the yellow eyes continued to stare in his direction he soon realised it could see the distorted air rippling around him and knew he was the stray from the pack - he was prey.

Lost for what to do, he nervously continued following the group of rogues, hoping the lynx would find something else to draw its attention. He equally knew if it decided to attack he had no alternative but to defend himself and that in turn would reveal his presence to the elites - and his father.

At that point sounds of battle reached the group. Up the east bank of the lake, all manner of shouts, screams and roars could be heard. The rogues pressed forward picking up speed.

Sauren thought the ruckus would frighten the lynx, but he couldn't have been more wrong. As the elites widened the distance between themselves and him, the lynx lowered itself, preparing to run and pounce. Its movements were like lightning. It was bounding towards him and he had no choice but to be ready for the attack. He crouched and drew his daggers. 

His eyes widened as he saw the beast leap towards him. He brought up the two blades. As the lynx passed overhead, Sauren thrust his daggers up in a cross then pulled them apart. The beast roared and the half-elf felt something warm and wet sliding down his head and neck. The cat's blood. A moment's euphoria filled him - he had succeeded in injuring the animal at least. He spun round and there it lay, it's chest heaving as it fought for air. A wide grin played on his lips and amazement at his own skill then fed his ego.

"Do not get cocky, whipper-snapper," a familiar voice spoke. "It was not your blade which dealt the killing blow." Louvel materialised next to him.

The half-elf was stunned yet rather pleased to see the monocled rogue. "What are you doing here?" He asked.

Louvel smirked. "Well, I saw you watching them..." He pointed to the band of rogues cresting a hill up ahead. "...And I sensed you were going to follow, so I thought I would tag along." He adjusted the monocle. "Just as well I did if you ask me." 

They both looked at the lynx.  A chesty, blood-filled grunt was the last sound it made. Louvel stepped over the beast and recovered his dagger from its throat. 

Sauren could not deny he probably had a very lucky break in Louvel being there. "Thank you," he said. "But, I think we should move forward." He gestured towards the rogue troupe.

"Oh, you are serious about catching up with them?" Louvel voiced with a degree of diffidence and humour.

The half-elf furrowed his brow, a little annoyed. "But of course. I don't intend to remain here and be stranded."

"Or eaten," Louvel jested, nudging the dead cat with his foot.

Sauren huffed, glancing at the lynx. "I concur."

"Then youngling, you should have thought of that before you stepped through the portal." Louvel said, re-sheathing his dagger.

Sauren shifted indignantly. "I am not a youngling, I am a man and one who will lead this guild someday with adequate if not exemplary experience."

His companion laughed lightly. "Dead men lead nothing, Sauren. I do not doubt your enthusiasm nor your dedication to doing well, but today will probably be the biggest mistake you make. Are you sure you wish to continue?"

Again the half-elf was irritated. He inwardly admitted that Louvel was most probably correct in his assumption but he would not back down now. "There is no point procrastinating this matter Louvel. I made my choice and I know what I'm doing." He bluffed.

"Very well." The well-dressed rogue tucked his monocle into his waistcoat pocket and started the way ahead. "But try to stay alive. This is not going to be like scratching the belly of that pussycat there. This is going to be seriously bloody."

Sauren did not argue the point, he was mature enough to know that bravado did not prepare one for battle, it only opened the way for a certified disaster. 

They caught up with the others, remaining just a little way back behind some dark, thorny shrubbery. 

As they peered over, the sight that met their eyes was indeed bloody. Rangers were firing their arrows with notable accuracy and pace at what seemed an endless stream of trolls. The aggressors' numbers were punctuated with large fierce orcs and at the very edges of the swarm, strange looking individuals on skeletal steeds progressed with an uncanny tenacity. 

The two young rogues looked over to Sa'themar's troupe.  With weapons at the ready, his father signalled the order to move forward. 

Still concealed by the abundant foliage,  Louvel skulked to the hilltop; Sauren kept close beside him.

To their far right, the wave of rogues melded with their surroundings and crested the hill. The scene below was grisly. 

Rangers in uniformed lines hailed their fletched missiles at the encroaching army of trolls. Many fell to the skill of the archers, but more simply ran over the top of the still bodies and pressed forward with an unwavering ferocity. The fervid outpouring of hatred of the elves was clearly seen and heard in the trolls' vicious attacks and shrill battle cries.  

 

Music:  THE WICKED SYMPHONY|| Avantasia

   

Even the valiant elven warriors were hard-pressed to defend against such zealots. Sauren watched, wide-eyed as the swordsmen slashed and tore into the tusked barbarians, flesh and limbs flying through the air in a bloodied mass but still, the trolls' resolve was unshaken. 

Spears and blades were launched at the high elves and many crumpled. The injured suffered even more as the trolls trampled over them and drove their weapons deep into the writhing bodies of the defenders. The din of clashing weapons, cries and screams rose steadily from the battlefield.

It was both exhilarating yet terrifying to the young half-elf. Sauren saw for the first time the enormity of such a battle and for all he firmly believed his father's skill and judgement was extraordinary, still, he feared for him. He turned concerned eyes towards the rogues and watched as his father lay out his strategy to the troupe. He was focused, in control and above all inspiring but he was entering a bloodbath and Sauren could not prevent the sense of dread washing over him. 

The rogues suddenly moved out and disappeared over the opposite side. Sauren rose and made to move forward - the urge to shout out to his father gripped him.  Louvel's hand clamped over the half-elf's mouth, drawing him back. The brown eyes looked at the rogue, mild irritation burning. Louvel held one of his blades to his lips and shook his head. "Do not call out, Sauren. Your father does not need the distraction." 

Sauren's eyes once more followed the troupe before he hesitantly nodded in agreement. He had to concede to Louvel's wisdom and for having read him so accurately; he could have easily jeopardised the party by his lack of forethought.  Together they watched and could easily make out the stealthed forms as they charged into battle.  Their enemies were unaware of their presence -  until numbers started to wane.

The agile assassins circled their targets and jabbed quickly, repeatedly and mercilessly. Some of the trolls were immobilised and cut down, left to bleed out or suffer agonising deaths from the poisoned blades. The swiftness of the assault produced surprisingly encouraging results for all the rogues were a small band in comparison to their adversaries. The tactics behind the rogue attack were well executed and Sa'themar had little need to keep barking or signalling orders to his troupe - they all knew exactly where to be. 

Although Louvel and Sauren could see the combined efforts of the Rangers and the rogues were starting to cause a dent in troll numbers, the threat from the axe-wielding orcs and the sinister horsemen was still advancing with impenetrable resolve. Inadvertently, the two youngsters shivered as they noted the crepuscular vapour which roiled and curled its way around the emaciated soldiers.   

Fixated, Sauren started to feel an inexplicable pull towards the centre of chaos.  His perturbation gave way to a strange and somewhat inapposite trembling, as if he was being charged, infused by an unknown impetus.  An unspoken understanding passed between himself and Louvel. With a perceptive grin, the noble rogue jerked his head towards the fight and together they took off down the hillside.

"You have a death-wish, whipper-snapper," Louvel said over his shoulder.

"Perhaps it is in the blood, Nottley!" Sauren replied.

Louvel laughed and the two of them sped forward. "I'll top, you tail!" he said.  Sauren nodded. He knew exactly what he was meant to do. 

They neared the first few enemies on the left flank. He watched as Louvel projected himself forward, leaping high. One dagger was angled to slice the nearest troll's throat while his other would land the second cut, nearly decapitating the creature.  Without pausing he leapt again and twisted mid-air as he delivered the same deadly strike on another troll.

In an almost frenetic outburst, Sauren sprinted before dropping to his knees, sliding towards the back of another troll's legs.  Swiftly he drew his blades up across both the hamstring and Achilles tendon, causing the enemy to buckle instantly. The tusked warrior roared as he hit the ground flailing his arms bringing his spear in an arc as he tried to skewer whatever had attacked him - but by then Sauren had moved to his next target.

Still slashing and hacking, the half-elf tore between the advancing trolls, delivering the debilitating strikes which left the adversaries to the mercy of the elites if not the arrows from the Rangers bows.  Each success fuelled his deep-set ambition but still he kept a close eye on Louvel - he did not want to lose this newfound friend. 

A rush of air ruffled his platinum locks and he stared wide-eyed as the Firefurys jumped over where he crouched and engaged in combat with one of the orcs just a few yards ahead. He saw first-hand the exquisite choreography for which the couple were renowned.

Yathas, a few feet ahead of his wife suddenly turned his back on the orc, cupping his hands in front of himself. Lina used her husband's boost to launch herself high enough to reach the orc's shoulders.

The moment her thighs closed around the hulk's neck, Yathas resumed his advance. He leapt, pushing his daggers up under the orc's raised arms as it tried to grab for Lina. The blades penetrated just below the armpits causing the orc to spasm. At that same moment, Lina plunged her daggers into its temples. The enormous orc staggered forward losing balance.

Before it hit the ground, Lina had cleared its body and was advancing towards another with Yathas keeping perfect pace beside her.

Thwack! Thwack! Sauren looked to the skies. The muted whistles of speeding arrows preceded the dull thwacks as they either embedded themselves in enemy flesh or buried into the soft ground nearby. He had to move or he would become a pin-cushion within moments.

He rose and moved deeper into the throng of battling bodies where he thought he heard Louvel shouting his name. Twisting to find the source, he was faced instead by one of the enemies.

A forest troll, considerably taller than himself, all limbs, muscle and tusks. Yellow irises with pin-prick pupils scanned the tell-tale ripples indicative of a stealthed individual. Like a mouse trapped by a housecat, Sauren found himself unable to move.

One of its tusks was broken near the tip, its fractured edge jagged and capable of rending flesh. Dry, cracked lips curled in a sneer revealing smaller pointed teeth, varying from shades of ochre- yellow to brown.

Skin the colour of forest vines bore tribal markings on muscular arms and were bound at the wrists with protective leather guards. Its neck and chest were adorned in necklaces bejewelled with morbid souvenirs - ears, teeth and tiny skulls, most likely of forest creatures; or so Sauren hoped.

The troll leaned closer, audibly sniffing, it's hooked nose barely inches from the half-elf. The creature emitted a sound, possibly laughter but minus the mirth. Its breath was rank mingled with a sickly, pungent odour, perhaps herbal of some description.

The only sounds Sauren could hear now, were the throaty growl of the antagonist in front of him; the clink and jangle of the metal hoops through its ears, the hollow clack of bone adornments around its neck. "Wat du wi ave here?" the troll said in a slow, deliberate drawl. "Yu be but a bwoy pickney." This time the laughter tripping from its lips was loaded with a vindictive mockery.

Rooted still to the spot, Sauren remained quiet, unable to think of how to respond partially because he could not quite understand the creature, but also in his mind, he was assessing his chances of survival; they were debatable, to say the least. This creature was undoubtedly experienced in war, swift in its attacks and devoid of any qualm to killing elves, pure-bred, half-breed, old or otherwise.

"Mi guh make yeye-wata a-plenty," it said, stepping nearer.

Sauren's eyes flashed to the spear as the troll tossed it up just enough to alter its grip on the shaft. Adrenalin fired through the half-elf and he kicked off, projecting himself in a somersault over the troll. His combatant lifted the spearhead as Sauren passed over-head, its blade tip nicking the boy's ribs. Sauren twisted as the sharpened flint pierced his skin but still managed to land in a good enough position to thrust his daggers into the troll's kidneys.

The creature roared more from fury at being duped by a young boy than from the pain he inflicted. Nonetheless, it soon turned into a scream as Sauren twisted the blades, shoving them deeper. Still, the troll attempted to turn, its three-fingered hand reaching for the platinum locks to try and yank the half-elf around.

Sauren glanced up as a spray of troll-blood hit him square in the face. Momentarily blinded, he felt the weight of his attacker slide from his daggers. He wiped the blood from his eyes with his sleeve and saw Louvel standing in front of him, his own daggers running with rivulets of fresh blood. The affluent rogue flashed a cheeky grin at the half-elf.

Unified roars of warning from the Rangers alerted the young men of a change in dynamics. All around them the battle still ensued; elves against trolls and orcs, warriors clashing with enemy warriors, rogues and archers. Blood flowed endlessly soaking the lichen and fern-covered ground. Bodies, mutilated, broken and crushed lay amid the chaos of battle - respect for the dead forgotten in the bid to win or at least survive the clash. But the way was opening for the macabre army of Death Knights to lay claim to the fallen.

Skeletal horses moved steadily into the passage afforded by the orcs and trolls. The ominous fog seemed to cling to the necromantic riders like a gigantic, expanding cloak as they infiltrated the battlefield and the path of the dead.

Louvel and Sauren felt their stomachs churn as from beneath the nocuous mist writhing bodies started to rise. Once human and elven, the creatures which took up arms in the wake of the Death Knights turned icy eyes towards their one-time brethren and started the advance to the weakened defence lines in the rear.

Again the roars erupted, but a spark of hope resounded within them. Straining to see over the combined mass of corpses, and still-battling foes,  flashes of light and the unmistakable low thrum of powerful sortilege began to build from the east near the Farstrider's Enclave at the lake's edge. The elves, Rangers, warriors and rogues alike started to retreat towards the pulsing light.

The battle acoustics changed. Now the trolls and their allies were displaying uncertainty. Even the malignant dead warriors drew to a halt within the masses.

"Come on!" Louvel tugged at Sauren. "The tides will turn now."

"What?" Sauren flinched as the human rogue pulled him along. The wound to his side felt like it was burning. He placed a hand on the injury and gasped when he saw his fingers were coated in his own blood. Still, he had no time to worry about it now. They needed to reach safety or risk being caught up in whatever the next onslaught consisted of. "Louvel, what's happening?"

"The magi have arrived in force," Louvel explained.

Finally understanding, Sauren pushed along with the human rogue, artfully dodging any stray trolls that were still trying to keep their own advance moving.

A firm hand gripped Sauren at the back of his neck. He was about to strike with his blade when the one voice he did truly did not want to hear growled in his ear. "What the blazes are you doing here, boy!"

His mahogany eyes met his father's furious visage. The intensity of the Guild Master's eyes clearly stated that Sauren had more to worry him now than merely reaching the rear lines.

"I - I..." the half-elf gasped.

"Save it! You will have time to explain later, make no mistake." With a burst of speed, Sa'themar pulled Sauren along effortlessly. His troupe followed, snatching up the young noble rogue who accompanied their leader's son and escorting him within their group.

On reaching the Enclave, finally, the elves halted. There, still arriving through a myriad of multi-coloured portals, magi from Quel'thalas and the Isle of Quel'Danas arrived including Belo'vir and the self-opinionated Dar'khan.

 

 

Music: WE ARE THE CHOSEN ONES || Dream Evil

   

 

"You took your time!" Sa'themar sniped at his magister friend.

"One must never rush one's cup of tea, Sa'themar," Belo'vir answered humorously until he saw an injured Sauren at the Guild Master's side. His smile faltered and he cocked a questioning eyebrow.

Sa'themar snarled. "Don't even ask!" He thrust Sauren towards Brett and the other rogues but it was Lina's fingers which rested on the half-elf's shoulders and she gave them a gentle, almost maternal, squeeze. The gesture did not ease the growing sense of dread the boy felt, however. He knew he was in for a severe reprimand when this debacle was over. 

Dar'khan eyed the half-elf, a supercilious smirk playing at the corners of his mouth. "Playing with the big boys now are we, Sauren?"

The half-elf glared at the magi through his blood-spattered hair. "We all have to start somewhere," he spat back, clutching his side.

His injury did not go unnoticed, in fact, the mage almost seemed to revel in it. "I dare say," Dar'khan retorted, haughtily. "Let us show you how things get done around here though."

The fighters were ushered back as a long line of magi moved towards what remained of the suspicious, restless rabble that was the trolls and their recondite army.

The air seemed to vibrate and shimmer as incantations were muttered in unison.  Building to a rapid crescendo a synchronised wave of arcane energy spread out from the spell-weavers and razed the front lines of trolls and orcs. Amethyst ripples hissed and spat as the wave gradually diminished.  Another chorus of enchantments was spoken and a larger, brighter cast reached further afield, pushing back the now panicked Death Knights and their emaciated steeds. Orcs grunted and roared, some making a bumbling attempt at backing away, crashing into trolls and falling over corpses.

The magi moved forward, their spells intensifying as they crossed the battlefield, erasing the now scattered pockets of enemies. Elemental streams of fire, frost and arcane shot forward catapulting the foe like coconuts from their stands at a shy. 

The enemy was retreating. Of the Death Knight casualties and their newly-risen comrades, the magi separated heads from bodies with simple chants and anagogic blades shooting from their fingertips. 

Behind the magi, priests who now exited the still open portals proceeded through the war-torn forest and administered aid to those who lay injured and bleeding. Prayers were said over the elves and their allies who were less fortunate.

The spell-casters continued pushing the enemy back over open ground and through the forests. It seemed, for the time being, the horde's attack had at least been severely fragmented.

Sa'themar turned to face his troupe. Few had come through without injury, varying degrees of cuts, gashes and bruises faced him, including that of, he now saw, his son's.  The blood from the boy's wound was trickling over his slender fingers and splattering on the ground between his feet.  

Sauren attempted to hold his father's gaze but as he heard the command for the Guild mages to take them home, consciousness slipped from the half-elf and he entered a very lurid, strange world indeed. 

           

Chapter Text

     

 

Pain. Indescribable agony. He sensed he was falling into a paroxysm of grief and despair for events which had not yet been visited upon him. They seemed to hover over his head like a warning, a divination of things to come but still, their obscurity confounded him.

His side felt like it was on fire. The flames seemed to be licking through his insides, melding his innards, reaching every extremity. He roared out with the pain, thrashing and writhing, his skin slick with perspiration.

Four people tried to stabilize him, each gripping a limb firmly attempting to keep him prostrate so the healers could do their job. But, he fought them. Squirming, twisting, bucking, almost pulling them over the bed onto him.

"By the gods where is he finding this strength?" someone voiced.

"I know not. He was as weak as a kitten when they brought him in," another answered.

The voices were familiar and yet they were not. They kept fading and escalating, sometimes making no sense at all.

He heard an orchestra of voices; shouting, screaming, whispering, laughing, crying, cackling. It was riotous. He was sure his ears would bleed from the onslaught of sounds. He fought the restraints on his wrists, arms, legs and ankles. His back arched pulling him up from where he lay, shackled, as he thought. The noise was becoming unbearable, the incessant voices pounding his brain turning it to mush.

Then, suddenly - quiet. For a few brief moments the heavy silence pressed down on him then his body started to relax. The fight was being drawn from him.

Sounds of drumming and the hollow tinkle of wood or bone reached his ears. His fractured mind conjured the troll he had encountered in the Blackened Woods with its macabre jewellery and he automatically felt himself shrink back. Panic started to build but...

Unexpectedly, his body went rigid, the suddenness of it alarmed those who were pinning him down. He vaguely heard them asking each other what was happening and frantically calling for a priest, a nurse. Anyone!

But, further still in the distance, he heard another voice. This one was undefinable but it seemed to have some sort of asomatous hold over him. He tried to block its constant chatter but it seemed vigilant to his frame of mind and his intentions. He was being steered towards something, someone.

From behind his lids, a swirling, murky nebulous formed. It kept whatever was pulling him forward, concealed from his view, but he sensed who or whatever it was, lay just beyond the mist and was staring directly at him.

His eyes peeled open. He stumbled as he found himself upright in the middle of the fog. It swirled around his body, weaving, folding, encircling him. A strange smell hung heavy in the vapour. It was pungent, sickly sweet and yet intoxicating. He inhaled deeply instantly feeling himself become almost buoyant, giddy.

His head wobbled as he breathed in more of the odoriferous air. His mouth curved with an uncertain smile unable to determine whether he felt good or somewhat disconnected, as if in limbo.

He blinked repeatedly, trying to ascertain the strange location. It was vague, unfamiliar. An underlying sense of foreboding stirred deep in his befuddled mind. He was definitely being watched, he could sense it, yet they remained elusive.

Raising his hands to wipe away floating strands of his hair, he noticed his fingers were still covered in blood; his blood? Or the troll's? He knew not. Unable to look away from them, he watched with a muted fascination as they wavered, warped before his eyes; his focus honing in on the dried blood and grime beneath his fingernails.

The drumming suddenly stopped and an eerie silence took over. He listened to his breathing, short, calculated gasps as he strained to hear any other sound that gave him a clue as to his whereabouts.

"Sauren." A woman's voice gentle, youthful.

He spun round, searching for the source. His name had been but a breathy utterance, almost sweet. " Sauren!" Now it was a desperate plea.

"Brigitte?" Frantically he combed the mist but there was no-one there. "Brigitte!" He called more forcefully.

"Half-breed!" This one was not so pleasing. Automatically, he reached for a dagger from the scabbard around his waist only to be dismayed at finding it was no longer there. Cruel laughter followed. He crouched, defensively. But something changed in the atmosphere. The oppression lifted.

"Come here, boy." His father's voice cajoled him further into the mist.

Confusion. Disorientation. "Father?" Sauren said tentatively, stepping carefully, still enveloped by the swirling vapour.

"You will be fine, do not be frightened," Sa'themar's voice was soothing. It reminded Sauren of the first time his father had put him astride a horse. In his mind's eye, he could still see that day.

He was wary of the beast for all it was a pony, it was still bigger than him. His father handed him the reins. "Hold on, but not so your muscles cramp, son." Sauren had smiled a little wistfully at his father's comment. Sa'themar laughed softly at his son's worried expression.

But it soon faded and gave way to yet more laughter. This time it sounded like children. Mocking children. "What's wrong with your ears, elfy? Catch them on the way out of your mummy?" Peals of high-pitched laughter erupted.

"Where is your mummy?" Another asked.

An older voice then answered. "Daddy elf must have slit her like a hog to get him out of her belly!" The laughter reached hysteria.

"Stop it!" Sauren said, lifting his hands to his ears to block out the caustic remarks.

"Elves eat their mates like snakes and spiders do," the first voice teased.

"Snakes do not!" Another said.

"Do so!"

"Do not!"

Screams started, followed by scuffling and the sound of a slap and a yelp.

He felt himself being yanked along a cobbled street. The rustling of heavy skirts and click-clack of heels was suddenly the dominant sounds. "Honestly!" a rather shrill voice said. "Can't you stay out of trouble for one second, boy?"

Sauren looked up through tearful eyes. A woman with dark brown hair greying at the temples and a stern face glared down at him. Mrs Dalton, head housekeeper, was a scary woman. She had little tolerance for Sauren, though she never uttered the word the street children did. Half-breed. Not that he understood what it meant, he just felt the hatred when others said it to him.

Next, he found himself being dragged upstairs. "In! And stay there!" She pushed him into his room and slammed the door behind her. He heard the key turning, trapping him within. He also knew though, that she would unlock it before his father came home and say what a good boy Sauren had been during his absence. How Sauren hated that woman.

The drumming started up again. The sound sent shivers up the half-elf's spine.

"Yuh be holding pon to dat anga, bwoy. It will serve mi well."

Sauren caught his breath. This voice was new. He spun round in the fog, his movement causing it to roil and swirl in his wake. Still, he could not see anyone. "Who are you?" His voice was husky, weak but he could not disguise the unease in it.

A hiss sounded near him – was it the one who spoke? Or a trick of his mind? Was this all a trick of his mind? No answer was forthcoming so he asked again. Silence prevailed.

He jumped as something moved against his foot. The fog weaved in and around his legs, the opaqueness preventing him from seeing anything below his waist. Another hiss, long, drawn out. His heart started to pound, the beat in keeping with the tempo of the drums he could still hear. He sensed a danger.

His eyes widened as the head of a huge serpent rose from the vapour and levelled with his face. Its slitted eyes bewitched him as the tongue flicked the air, tasting the air around him.

"De serpent - him be fi yuh spirit animal," the voice drawled.

Sauren shook his head, slowly, concerned any sudden movement would make the serpent strike. "No," he said. "This is not real." He rubbed at his eyes then looked again, straight at the reptilian face, its scales oddly shimmering in the dense fog.

"Yuh ah de serpent, bwoy; ah patient killa."

"Wh – what?"

Sauren tried to rationalise what he was hearing, seeing and feeling. There was no logic here. He gulped air and instantly the serpent vanished; a veil of calm draped over him once more. The strange laughter sounded again and whether it was the herbal content in the atmosphere which took the edge off it or not, Sauren was unsure. Still he was no longer tight or quite as anxious.

"Yuh a nah like de oders," the voice said, nearer this time. "Mi see and smell mixed blood inna yuh."

Sauren stayed his ground, though instinctively he still reached for his non-existent daggers. He made a conscious effort not to show his disappointment when he remembered they were no longer available.

Staring straight ahead the fog started to disperse. A strange environment opened up before him. His eyes explored his surroundings, taking in every detail as best he could through his still slightly distorted vision of the world.

He was in a hut constructed from pliable logs and saplings, bound by a mucilage most likely that of clay or manure. It was fairly roomy, its roof domed and thatched in forest ferns bound by vines. A hole at the top allowed the smoke from a centralised fire to escape.

Casting his eyes down, the floor was mainly dry earth over which a thin covering of dry grasses provided some insulation and rough woven rugs placed around the fire's edge constituted a form of seating.

A myriad of carved wooden bowls and bulbous containers littered a low table to one side of the abode. Various other objects lay beside them; feathers, beads, small bones even what looked like teeth. Slivers of what he assumed were also made from bone appeared to be tools or utensils of some kind and they lay next to phials full of different coloured liquids and powders.

A haze hung in the air, its aroma now seductive, inviting. He inhaled again, welcoming the analgesic effect it was having on his body; the intense burn in his side having lessened considerably. With it, however, his vision seemed somewhat impaired still. The inanimate objects he had noted moments before now possessed a life of their own.

His eyes widened as the liquids bubbled in their containers, powders puffed up, coating the table and its contents in burnt siennas, ochres, reds, and blues. The implements rattled and rolled across the surface leaving strange patterns amid the multi-coloured dusting.

Sauren heard a laugh escape his lips.

"Half-breed!"

The word had a strong sobering effect on the platinum-haired boy and he spun round to meet the one who uttered it. His eyes though still hazy and dilated from the drug-infused air took on a fierce glow – his now natural response to the derogatory term he had endured for years.

A red-haired troll stood before him. "Ah! Such anga. Yuh wear it lacka talisman. Yuh swift an silent death – like de serpent."

He stumbled back, alarmed that he was once again faced with the mortal enemy of his kinsmen. The troll laughed, the sound guttural but without the hint of mockery, he had expected.

As he righted himself he sensed this one was not about to attack. At least not yet. Gradually, he calmed and studied the creature in front of him.

It was female. The hair was pulled back at the crown and gathered into a taut ponytail which cascaded over her shoulders and down her back. Some fronds framed her face in tight plaits, their tails adorned in coloured beads.

Yellow eyes stared back at him. They seemed to ripple like liquid gold, the tiny pupils though black as night.

Multi-layered necklaces in varying lengths were draped around her neck affording only a tantalising glimpse of pert breasts beneath. An earthen coloured skirt was wrapped around her waist and tied in a knot at her side.

Her skin had an unusual hue to it; a mixture of indigo fading into phthalo blue – it almost seemed to shimmer as she moved. Small tusks protruded from her mouth, one bearing a gold-coloured ring. Her ears, long and tapered like the elves were also decorated with a sequence of different sized hoops. She was oddly - fascinating.

"Who are you? What do you want?" he asked in as measured a tone as he could muster.

The troll purred and she slowly started to walk around the half-elf. Her eyes worked up and down his frame, taking in all the details.

He twisted, turning his head to follow her, then snapping it to the opposite side as she came to his left.

"Mi am Tulu," she said, casting her eyes to where his wound was hidden beneath his ruined shirt. "Mi am a hexa of de Amani tribe," she continued in her slow drawl. "Mi gada souls to tap dem hurting fi m smadi."

Sauren stared at her, disbelieving. "You mean I am dreaming?"

"Nah bwoy, dis ah real." Her lips broke into a calculated smile. Her yellow eyes still studied the blood-drenched shirt and she guffawed. "Him gat yuh gud."

The language barrier was breaking down. Sauren sneered. "I got him better."

Quick as a flash she drove her fingers into the gaping wound in his side. He folded against her, crying out in pain.

Distantly he heard his father..."Save my son!"

Tulu cackled. "Fi yuh ah beyond saving." She pressed deeper into his wound.

Sauren felt panic rise to mix with the pain. "What do you mean?" he gasped. "Am I – am I dead?"

Again she cackled. Her yellow eyes rippled, as she felt him squirm against her hand. "Nah yet, bwoy. But yuh will be before much longa!" With a sharp tug, she extracted her fingers. Fresh blood gushed from the half-elf's side and pitter-pattered on the dry earth at his feet. Sauren collapsed to his knees. His face was damp and clammy, perspiration beads trickling from his brow causing his hair to adhere to his cheeks.

"I've got it! It's out!" a man's voice announced.

Sauren glanced from side to side as he clutched his side and panted with pain. Who was speaking? No-one other Tulu and himself were present. His eyes fixed on her as he saw her toying with something between her fingers. He had to concentrate to make out what it was she held. It looked like piece of metal or smooth stone, flint - a spear-tip.

Tulu purred and she cast the shard into the fire. The flames roared, rising like fiery claws. After a few crackles and spits, it settled once more to small sedate flames over glowing embers. The yellow eyes turned on him. "Him gat yuh betta dan yuh tink."

"He's not out of the woods yet!" a ghostly voice said.

The floor was starting to swirl. The half-elf scrunched his eyes closed, willing the sudden rise of nausea to abate. He felt more than he heard Tulu scuff her feet near his head.

"Fi yuh soul belongs to Tulu!" Her voice had taken on a sharp, caustic tone. "Ah de price yuh pay fuh stealing fi mi husband fram dis life!"

In a voice weakened from pain, Sauren spat out his response. "His death was the cost of war, Tulu. You brought it upon yourselves."

His words angered the troll. In a rage she started to babble incoherent words as she grabbed his hair, ripping some out by the roots. Yanking him down she slammed him flat against the ground on his back. She kicked at his legs, forcing them straight and apart. Bending down, her three-digit hands grabbed his wrists and pulled them above his head. He had no strength left to fight and lay, prostrate, awaiting his fate. More distant than ever, he heard the voices from another plane.

"Save him!"

"I'm trying, but you must give me room and silence."

"My son! I cannot lose my son..."

Sauren's eyes flitted behind his lids as he felt something being cast over him. It felt like snow. A memory stirred. His father had taken him to the Alterac Mountains when he was a small boy. They had spent the day riding and Sa'themar wanted his son to visit the mountains. There he saw his first snow. He'd loved the feel of it on his face, dusting his eyelashes. He'd marvelled at the intricate designs of the flakes, trying desperately to stop them melting from the heat of his hands.

His eyes struggled to open. This was no snow, however, this was some of the coloured powder in the troll's hut. Tulu was still babbling under her breath as she threw generous handfuls of the fine particles over his sprawled body.

His vision started to waver and her form ebbed and flowed from sight. Her voice changed slightly. She was chanting.

"It was poisoned, Sa'themar. I'm losing him."

"Sauren!"

"Poisoned," Sauren whispered. "How fitting..." His breathing became laboured. He only had enough strength left to manage the hint of a mordant smile.

"No! I will do anything to save him. Ask what you will!"

"There is nothing you can give, Sa'themar, that will change this."

"There has to be something..."

Sauren's head lolled to the side. Faces floated in front of him. His father, Brigitte, Brett, the Firefurys, Don, Reed even the delectable Leola and Maya – all swam in and out of focus. "Father, forgive me." His eyes closed.

Tulu had stopped her chanting but she was not completely silent. Low laughter punctuated the indecipherable words which were tripping from her mouth again and still, she wafted around Sauren's body.

There no more pain. He felt like he was floating; the sensation was ... rather wonderful. He was being drawn towards a bright light still some distance away. It was almost – heavenly, serene.

So, the journey had begun. Sooner than anticipated certainly – a small laugh sounded in his mind. Was that him laughing?

Regrets? He pondered. He was too young for those. Again, a laugh. The light was becoming brighter, and it seemed to have adopted a low thrum.

A piece of parchment played before his mind's eye – four names were written on it. There should have been more really, but those four were the worst. It was a crime that he would not have the opportunity to execute his plans for revenge. He watched and listened as flames devoured the note with a crackle and a hiss. Hiss. Hisssssss...

His body jerked as his lungs filled to capacity. He exhaled and from within the flames, the serpent returned. It rose above him then closed in on his face. He stared into the slitted eyes and there he saw a reflection.

A man with platinum hair and clad in black leather strode towards him. As the figure neared it dawned on the boy who he was. The brown eyes locked with his and the charismatic smile revealed perfect teeth. "Get up!"

Sauren felt his chest vibrate as laughter started to build.

"Get up!" his older self repeated. "We are swift, we are silent death. We are the serpent. Rise!"

He shuddered, the laughter coming full bore from the pit of his stomach as the bright light flared, reaching towards him.

In the background, he heard Tulu scream. "Yuh will still pay de cost, half-breed! An de price has just gat higha!"

His back arched, limbs seized as his fingers dug into the earth beneath him. In a sudden burst of speed, he was pulled forward and into the light. Breath then seemed frozen in his chest as he was extracted from the border between the Twisting Nether and life itself.

He had been balancing on the cusp of death and his spirit's sudden plummet into his body was brutal. The wound on his side burst open again and fresh pain roared through his entire being.

A loud gasp escaped him as the reconciliation of his body and soul was complete.

Exhausted, he slipped into a deep sleep as his father's tears of relief were absorbed into the pillows. 

           

Chapter Text

     

 

 

Music: LONE SURVIVOR || Steve Jablonsky  

   

 

 

"How is he?" Sa'themar stood over his comatose son, his eyes never leaving the youth's face as he prayed to see a flicker of consciousness pass over the handsome features.

"He is stable." Cyrus Deighton, a Priest renowned for his theistic faith offered the Guild Master. In a quiet and respectful tone, he added, "The poison itself was common enough."

Sa'themar's azure eyes flashed at the priest. "How then do you account for his catatonic state over the past four days? Common you say? We have a plethora of poisons both common and exotic on these very grounds and I have never seen them affect anyone as this did my son. We nearly lost him!"

Cyrus' intelligent eyes looked upon Sa'themar with empathy. "I believe it was tainted further, with dark magic..."

The Guild Master's brow furrowed, alarm tightening his jaw.

Cyrus gave a timeous response. "It has been ousted, be rest assured. But, that is why it took longer to extract the venom. Troll magic is extremely powerful, Sa'themar, complex to those of us who do not fully understand nor come across it often. Your son will make a good recovery though. I promise."

Sa'themar sighed heavily. He had no choice but to accept the explanation of the elderly priest; he was, after all, the most competent healer in the city.

He traced his fingers over his son's brow and cheeks. Cyrus acknowledged with a nod. "Yes, the fever has broken. Hopefully, he will regain consciousness soon."

A knock at the door made the priest look round. He glanced back at Sa'themar. The high elf was absorbed in his son, oblivious to the interruption.

In a soft rustle of robes, Cyrus crossed the room and opened the door. Brett stood outside. The priest smiled wanly. He had known the man for many years having worked alongside Mary, Brett's wife, in the infirmary.

"How's the boy?" Brett whispered, chancing a glance in the room.

"Recovering," Cyrus replied quietly. He looked round at Sa'themar then back at Brett. "Not sure about his father, though."

Brett's mouth twitched at the corners. He knew the near loss of his friend's son had taken its toll on the man himself. It had been many years since Brett had seen that kind of fear in the Guild Master's eyes, and both times involved Sauren; the first being at the boy's birth with the corresponding passing of Sa'themar's wife, Elmina. Now, he'd almost lost his son to the Twisting Nether as well.

Whether Sa'themar sensed his right-hand man's presence or heard the quiet chatter between him and the priest was uncertain, but the high elf turned and managed a brave smile. He nodded acknowledgement. With a final look at his son, he crossed the room and joined the human rogue at the door. Cyrus moved back to tend to Sauren.

"Is there news?" the Guild Master asked.

"Some, yes."

"Good, let us go to the missions room."

His constant concern over his son's survival had severely interrupted Sa'themar's business acumen since their return from the Blackened Woods. Now, however, his stride was once more strong and determined.

Staff were busy milling about tending to their duties. In the courtyard, they were setting up dummies and obstacles to aid with the students' training. Others were working in the stables, mucking out and tending to the horses while more still were seeing to supplies and equipment for the guild which was stored in a number of outbuildings throughout the grounds.

Voices rippled through the various rooms and corridors. The sounds of sweeping, scrubbing, trays rattling and housemaids being given instruction by their peers provided a constant thrum of activity throughout the complex. Even the sounds of pots, pans and cutlery being used and cleaned drifted up from the kitchens. All in all, a normal day's work.

Two young maids, left to their own devices, however, were giggling, flicking each other with their cloths in hand as Sa'themar and Brett rounded the corner towards the library. The high elf's eyes flared, his face stern, and immediately the girls quietened. They stood, heads bowed, hands by their sides as the Guild Master passed silently by.

Brett casually glanced at the girls but made no comment. He knew his leader was not averse to their laughter but these past few days had been void of such luxury for him as he'd worried about his son.

Sa'themar walked without pause until he arrived at the centre of the missions room.

Brett closed the doors behind him and then moved to stand in front of the high elf. He didn't wait for a prompt. "The magi forced the trolls back as far as Darrowmere Lake. The best news is that Zul'jin has been recaptured again."

There was no mistaking the look of relief on Sa'themar's face. "Hopefully this time, they will just kill him!"

Brett shifted from one foot to the other. "Well, they might - after some considerable torture I hear." The right-hand man was one who advocated a clean kill, he was no fan of prolonging an enemy's life for the sake of some misguided need to torture. His distaste was evident in his tone.

Sa'themar turned from him with a grunt. He paused at the side of the large desk on which maps and carved and moulded figurines represented allies, the Blades and enemy forces. He picked up one piece and studied it with something bordering on revulsion. Suddenly, with a roar, he cast it aside; the small figurine was sent tumbling over the surface and bounced off the raised lip of the table.

The human rogue was taken aback by the sudden outburst. His friend was uncharacteristically agitated. He was well aware of the constant battles which had ensued since the elven nation had arrived on the shores of Azeroth. The trolls fought to secure their northern lands and push back the encroaching elves. There had been much blood and life lost during the conflicts on both sides. It was never going to be anything other than an unassailable hatred between the two races. 

Equally, Sa'themar was not blind to the dangers which could escalate from such a strong and deep-rooted loathing. He had lost many a friend in the battles over the years. Friends whose blinding rage against the enemy had more often than not been the very thing which had cost them their own lives.

He had made a conscious effort over the years not to let his anger against the barbaric tribes make him reckless or put anyone more at risk than war itself claimed. He had deployed his troops using carefully devised strategies and cunning tactics to try and always have the upper-hand. The majority of the time it had worked.

He had not bargained on his inexperienced, over-enthusiastic and, he recently discovered, idiotic son to put a spanner in the works, however. This in itself had re-ignited his fury against the trolls as a whole and in particular, Zul'jin. "That fiend you feel pity for is pure evil, Brett!"

Although he did not voice it, Brett did wonder at times, which of the two races were the true fiends. The elves also had a reputation for some barbaric practices and going by the word on the network, they were administering those said methods on Zul'jin - and enjoying doing it.  "A young lieutenant of the Farstriders is in charge of the prisoner..." Brett pulled out a piece of parchment from the small satchel attached to his belt. He could never remember all the elven names and had to write them down. "He is called - Halduron Brightwing, and he has the troll chieftain held prisoner in his camp." 

Sa'themar mulled over the name, it was familiar.

Brett continued. "His men have tortured the troll relentlessly. They seem to be waiting for something. Perhaps orders from the lieutenant on their next move?"

"Waiting?" Sa'themar gasped with incredulity. "He should order the beast killed!"

Brett rounded his shoulders; he was uncomfortable with his Guild Master's tone. "They appear to be doing that bit by bit! One of them gouged out an eye!"

Sa'themar spun to face his right-hand man. His features were hard, unforgiving. "Well, I hope they take the other one and his tongue so he cannot incite his followers should he escape. He is a wily one make no mistake. Keeping him alive only fuels his hatred for my people and his determination to annihilate us. The risk is too great, they should end him!"

"And make him a martyr?" Brett stated. "Then what Sa'themar? Another chieftain rises, one bathed in even more hatred with a misguided sense of loyalty to Zul'jin giving them yet another reason to slit your throats?"

Azure eyes flickered dangerously between wayward strands of long platinum hair. Sa'themar's face seemed distorted, twisted, making him appear as some heinous dark version of himself. At that moment, his right-hand man saw the full extent of loathing which his friend had suppressed for years, decades. "Reason?" The Guild Master hissed. 

Brett was not intimidated by Sa'themar. Even faced with this unfamiliar demonic, almost exsanguinous portrayal of his friend, he remained the steadfast, loyal comrade and confidante. And he had also never been afraid to speak his mind. "It is inevitable that war will ensue when invaders swamp the home of an indigenous race then try to lay claim to their lands. You, of all people, surely understand, nay! - remember, this."

"Do not..."

"Do not what?" Brett straightened, though he still remained dwarfed by the six and a half foot elf. Nonetheless, his stature reiterated that the Guild Master did not disconcert him in any way. "Tell you that at this precise moment in time you are the embodiment of that which you hate?"

Sa'themar's head bowed, his hair falling forward over his shoulders and serving as a curtain to his features.

Brett knew his words had struck a chord with the normally punctilious leader of the Crimson Blade. Scrupulous to the point of being over-conscientious at times, the high elf had always feared he would turn rancid from the decades of extreme loathing he felt towards the troll nation.

Yet, even before the Crimson Blade was established, Sa'themar Nightflame had always taught those who followed his meticulous battle strategy that they should never let their hatred or fear devour them; they should always strive to rise up where the air and their vision of the world was clearer, untainted. Only that way would they gain proficiency, pride and honour.

The familiar near noble elocution answered. "You are right, Brett." The Guild Master looked at his friend. He smiled, the gesture somewhat tired but nonetheless sincere. "As always you keep my feet firmly planted. I'm afraid I let the fear of losing my son cloud my perspicuity."

Brett nodded and planted an understanding hand on Sa'themar's shoulder.

The elf attested. "Torture, even of one who has been accountable for much of that visited upon my people, is not justifiable. Our ways would be best; quicker and cleaner. He will be a martyr no matter which way he dies, though, mark my words."

His second-hand man, after a few moments digesting the ramifications, realised there was indeed truth in what Sa'themar said. He nodded.

A knock came to the door. "Enter," the Guild leader said.

Both men were surprised to see the Firefurys striding across the room. Lina was wearing her "maternal" face again.  Sa'themar looked at her respectfully and nodded permission for her to speak. He was prepared to hear her voice concerns for her sons again, but he didn't expect to hear what he did. 

"We have heard that Halduron has Zul'jin in captivity."

"That is correct. You know the lieutenant?"

"We do, yes." Lina seemed unsettled and a little hesitant.

"Well? Is there something we need to know?" Sa'themar pursued.

Yathas stepped forward. "Halduron is a very close friend of a young man we took in under our roof a number of years ago. He too is a Farstrider Lieutenant, his name is Lor'themar. Our eldest son Duthan is to join the rangers under his command."

Brett and Sa'themar glanced at each other, none the wiser. "What has this to do with the capture of Zul'jin?"

Yathas continued. "A few years ago Lor'themar along with three others were held prisoner by the trolls and tortured relentlessly. Zul'jin oversaw the whole incident. It lasted for days. They eventually escaped thanks to one of the prisoners, a young mage, creating a commotion. But, Lor'themar was haunted by nightmares for some considerable time afterwards. The chieftain is sadistic to say the least and revelled in torturing the elves."

The Guild Master was familiar with that much about Zul'jin's nature, he had heard other stories, and come across a few who had survived. They were damaged in more ways than just physical.

Lina spoke again. "Our concern is that Halduron will not wait for his Ranger-General to reach him to hand over the chieftain. We think he may try to take the troll to Silvermoon - to Lor'themar - so he can exact his revenge for past crimes." 

Sa'themar took a few moments. He turned to the large table and his eyes scanned the maps. He pulled the one depicting the kingdom of Quel'thalas and the entire area stretching from Eversong down through the Blackened Woods to Darrowmere Lake, west of Lordaeron. He stood silently, his mind calculating what it would take the young Lieutenant to even find passage half-way to Silvermoon.

The Firefurys and Brett gathered at his side, all looking at the map.  Although the trolls had been scattered and pushed back during the wars, there was still sizeable tribes present in various locations throughout the old forest areas, not forgetting the troll capital of Zul'aman. And furthermore, Zul'jin had been attempting to unite all the tribes to launch one almighty campaign of terror on the elven kingdom.

The high elf shook his head, his long hair waving back and forth in soft ripples. "He will never make it for one thing." He said candidly. "Even with his expert Rangers at his side, once the tribes know their chieftain is in their custody, the attack on the Farstriders would prove ... fatal. Too many lives could be lost on the way, not to mention it would exacerbate our mutual hatred and lead to there being more tactical attacks on Silvermoon."

Brett looked at his friend trying to work out what he was planning. The azure eyes gave nothing away. "You're not suggesting we help them get through, are you?" he asked.

Yathas and Lina exchanged a look. Whether it was hope or dread, Brett could not tell this either.

 An emphatic smile settled on Sa'themar's lips. He glanced to either side of him, addressing his comrades. "No. I am going to relieve the lieutenants of exacting their rancour. I propose doing what should have been done in the first place – swiftly and without error. We kill Zul'jin." 

 

Cyrus was a learned man, knowledgeable of everything known about the physical body, its intricate workings, pressure points, the effects certain substances had on it including more recreational substances as well as the diabolical poisons. He was well versed in the normal methods of administering medicines, potions and poultices but some things took that little bit extra. And that's where his expertise in healing through the celestial power of the Light came in.

Using this form of healing, the priest could cure almost anything. He made no promises and readily stated "almost anything" because there were times where he had been too late in attending, or the damage was beyond repair, or his prognosticative ability had been challenged by something entirely new and unprepared for. Regardless, he was still considered the finest healer in the city and one who was held in high regard by everyone from lowly street beggars to nobility.

He had just removed the old bandage covering Sauren's injury. He took time checking the wound itself. The spearhead had made a long cut over four of the boy's ribs and the tip had snapped in between the lower two. He had been very fortunate it had not punctured his lung.

As it was, the wound was still serious; not so much because of the physical substantiality of it nor even the poison used, but more to do with the magic involved.  The trolls clung to some of their dark practices.

Trolls were considered primitive by the human population; as were the elves to be honest, although elves seemed to adapt to change quicker and hence appeared conventional in today’s society. Trolls, however, were still antediluvian, their ways of living timeworn and obsolete. Yet, they had survived as such for thousands of years. 

Cyrus chuckled quietly to himself as he worked. Of course, there was the belief that the elves, in fact, evolved from the ancient troll nation. Oh, elves did so hate to hear that theory. But, it was only known by a group of studious individuals (mainly priests) and they quietly referred to the elves as modern day trolls. Naturally, as things had progressed through the years, and the elves were now an integral part of the population, such knowledge was not discussed in polite society. 

Sadly, of course, there was still a degree of prejudice towards the elves from humans based on nothing other than “they were different” and yes, possibly fear of them too for past events. This bigoted opinion tended to raise its head particularly if elves dared to enter into marriage with a human. Both parties were more often than not ostracised by the human’s family. Quite how the elves viewed it Cyrus was uncertain, but as with most peoples, he was relatively sure there would be similar feelings on their side too. Hopefully, one day, such issues would be eradicated and they could all live and work together in complete harmony.

Perhaps that was being a bit too optimistic though. Again the priest laughed a little to himself. Dark and Light presented itself in so many guises, it was unrealistic to assume one would extinguish the other – how else would the world evolve without its contrasts, its differences, its struggles. Night needed day and sun needed the storm after all.

He tended his patient with diligent care, mouthing a silent chant which evoked ethereal streams of holy light. They, in turn, entered the wound, searching out any lingering diabolism within the young boy’s body. Sauren moaned and moved a little as the exploration took place. Cyrus carefully wove the magic through and once he seemed satisfied that all was well, the effervescent waves dissipated. Moving him just enough, he carefully wrapped a fresh bandage around the boy’s chest and secured it in a neatly tied knot.

A soft breeze ruffled the drapes at the large windows. Cyrus inhaled as he stood straight and started to clean away the old bandage. “And how long have you been there, young man?” he asked still disposing of the linen.

Silence.

“I know you’re there, Louvel.”

An audible sigh followed and the well-dressed rogue stepped forward materialising at the side of Sauren’s bed. “How is it you always know I’m around?” Louvel asked Cyrus.

The priest chuckled. “I have watched out for you since you were a street urchin  running errands for me to earn your keep, Louvel.”

Louvel shook his head and huffed. “That was years ago. I haven’t been around for quite a while, old man.”

“But you always leave an impression on those who you encounter.”

“Hmm,” Louvel grinned, toying with his monocle. “Not a very good one on Sauren’s father, though.”

Cyrus smiled. “Well, Sa’themar is a very devoted father, Louvel. He just reacted impulsively by forbidding you to enter the grounds because he is worried for his son.” The priest gave a look of mock reprimand that the young rogue had already disobeyed that order.

“I'm not one of his trainees nor intend to be so he cannot order me to do anything. And I protected Sauren, anyway!” Louvel said defensively.

“I know, that is your nature always looking out for the underdog.” Then glancing towards the still-unconscious Sauren, he lowered his voice. “This is no weakling though Louvel. Sauren, I believe will achieve some notable, but not necessarily great things in life, if you get my meaning?”

Louvel shrugged and looked at Sauren. “He’s a bit pompous yes, but surely…”

“I may be a priest lad, and I may be old…”

Louvel snickered.

“…ish!” Cyrus said with a dry smirk. “But, with my years of experience comes wisdom and I can recognise the often small but significant traits in an individual. All I will say to you is, exercise caution with this one.”

“He’s just a kid!”

“Hmm.” 

Movement from the bed drew both their attention.  Fair lashes flickered open revealing dull brown eyes. Sauren’s fingers flexed on the bed sheets then relaxed again.

Cyrus turned to Louvel. “You will have about fifteen minutes tops to say hello and goodbye. I must let his father know he has regained consciousness. Be gone by the time we return and remember what I have told you, Louvel.”

The rogue watched as the priest left the chambers in a rustle of robes.

He looked back at Sauren. The half-elf’s eyes were fixed on him.  “Nottley,” he said, his voice but a husky whisper.

Louvel grinned. He liked Sauren even though he was prone to arrogance. Nevertheless, the old priest’s words did not go unheard, for Cyrus had indeed been a kind and wise friend over the years. He would afford Sauren comradeship if he was so inclined but he would be wary of this half-elf at the same time. 

"Been up to anything dangerous recently?" he asked the wounded boy.

"Cut myself shaving," Sauren replied trying to keep a straight face.

Louvel pointed to the new bandage. "Just what  were you shaving?" He asked with exaggerated surprise.

At that the two young men laughed.

Chapter Text

The twang of steel vibrating in a solid surface sounded for the umpteenth time      

 

The twang of steel vibrating in a solid surface sounded for the umpteenth time. It was accompanied by an irritable grunt and increasing profanity.

A wooden construct at the top of the steps into Sauren's bedchamber had taken a severe beating over the last few days. Gouges in the roughly built wooden target were too many to count, the shavings and splinters liberally littering the floor at its base.

Two days prior to that, he had been too weak to even sit up in his bed. Recovery from his wound had drained him of his usual sprightliness. Monotony had set in.

His condition had irked him to the point he was unusually foul-tempered. He'd demanded Don and Reed fetch one of the training dummies up from the stores for him to vent his anger.

Their efforts had received a few titters from those observing the rigmarole as they huffed and puffed their way across the dust and grit of the courtyard with the tripod target. The dummies were deceivingly heavy and it took the two boys a good half hour to drag it up the spiral stairs which led to their young master's chambers. Their effort resulted in chafed fingers and a few splinters.

Don had delivered an array of throwing knives to Sauren earlier and by the time they had the target in place, he was so primed and frustrated before they had a chance to move out the way he threw the first blade  – and missed. He roared his fury and both boys ducked, dreading an onslaught of awry steel.

"I'm going to kill that bitch!" he snarled.

"Not like that, you ain't," Reed smirked pointing to the knife still twanging in the door frame.

Sauren's eyes flared with irritation. "Perhaps I should try a soft target first!" He flipped a knife in his hand, curling his fingers around the leather handle.

Reed ducked behind the target again more to hide his smirk than to shield himself from Sauren's ire. He waited until he heard the thud of the blade hitting the target before he came out from behind. Sauren's face was still like thunder but Reed was pretty confident the half-elf was not going to skewer him.

"Who's the bitch?" Don asked.

Sauren threw another blade. It landed to the outer ring of the target. The result infuriated him more. "Troll!"

"Okay! I was only asking," Don said with a shrug.

Sauren glared at him. "Not you, you fool! The bitch! She's a troll." Another blade whistled through the air and barely skiffed the top of the target. It fell and slid across the floor in the adjoining chamber. Sauren huffed and threw himself back onto his pillows a string of obscenities falling from his lips.

"Oh," Don nodded as he moved round the room collecting the three blades already cast.

Reed took a seat on the longue at the other side of the room. He sat lazily, resting an ankle on the matching footstool. He cupped his chin in his hand as he leaned on the armrest and watched Don retrieving the blades like a hunter's pet would a kill. It was hard to conceal a smirk at Sauren's pathetic throws and subsequent frustration but he quickly looked away when the mahogany eyes stared at him. His shoulders however, could not conceal his mirth.

Don dutifully gave Sauren the throwing knives back and stood aside.

The half-elf familiarised himself with one of the blades turning it over in his hand, slowly, methodically, testing its weight and balance. A sly grin crept over his face and he afforded a quick glance at Don. His friend suppressed a knowing smirk.

His eyes drifted back to the target. A moment of two passed as he lined up his shot. Then he threw the knife.  It was still nowhere near the bulls-eye, but it was firmly embedded.

A snicker escaped from Reed.

"I'm just not getting the hang of this," Sauren said. "The last few days have taken their toll."

"No kidding," Reed said quietly, trying hard to keep the mirth from his voice.

Again, Sauren took his time calculating the throw. A second knife whistled through the air, this one landing nearer the centre, but still far from the half-elf's normal standard. He grunted. "Bring them to me, Reed," he said, indicating the knives in the target.

"Why don't you try another first?" Reed answered, reluctant to move from his comfortable position.

"I need to focus more and I favour those two best, so bring them over, please." Sauren's voice was measured.

Reed huffed and pushed himself up from the longue. He reached out to collect the first blade. As his hand closed around the handle, the dull thud and soft twang of steel sounded again. A third blade had pinned him to the target by his sleeve. "What are you doing?" His voice quivered as he turned towards the half-elf.

"Practicing," Sauren replied. His face was dark, not even a hint of humour rested in his eyes. He threw another knife. It landed next to the first one pinning Reed, its kiss of steel singing in the air.

"Stop it!" Reed whined.

"Not so amusing now, is it?" The half-elf pushed the covers back and rose from his bed. The bandage round his chest being the only thing he wore.

Reed watched nervously as Sauren tossed a blade in the air, caught it and threw it at the target again while he continued walking. Once more, the fabric of his shirt was pierced. The blade this time however, nicked his skin; the red stain slowly spreading either side of the steel.

Sauren grinned, walking casually towards his pinned henchman. He held another blade. Raising it to his lips, his tongue caressed the flat of the blade. Reed's eyes were fixed on him. The half-elf spoke, his voice loaded with impendence. "You did not make it into the Crimson Blade without my intervention, Reed. You were destined to be rejected."

The young man stilled, clearly surprised by this piece of news. He glanced at Don whose face gave nothing away.

"I saw your potential so I ensured you became part of our guild; not my father, nor his advisers. Me!" Sauren gloated. He stopped directly in front of the young rogue. Humiliation was ripe on Reed's face and in his slumped posture. "I could so easily have you sent back to your uncle, all shame-faced and a failure," Sauren said, yanking out the blade which had bled Reed's arm. He wiped the blade on Reed's shirt. "You will learn that you may laugh with me - but never at me. Do I make myself clear?"

Reed stared, his voice seemingly lost.  Sauren held his gaze, the half-elven features sharp and unforgiving. The young henchman nodded curtly, duly chastised. 

"I'm glad we have an understanding, Reed." Sauren removed the other blades including the ones he sent the young man to collect. "I would not have wanted to add you to the list."

"L - list?" Reed pulled up his sleeve and checked the cut. It was, thankfully, insignificant and would heal quick enough.

"The reason I wanted you in the first place," Sauren explained as he meandered over to the chair next to the window. He placed the blades on the seat then shrugged his way into his robe. Fastening the tie-belt securely around his waist he turned to face his two bodyguards. "Yes. Don will bring you up to speed on it. My recent experience has somewhat whetted my appetite for retribution." 

Don came round the side of the bed, his face displaying enthusiasm. "We are going to get started then?"

Sauren smiled. "Yes. But that does not mean tonight or tomorrow or even next week. I want this done properly as I have already explained to you, Don."

Slightly deflated but nonetheless still encouraged, his friend nodded understanding. "I take it this troll you were on about is to be added to the list?"

The half-elf had moved towards the water closet but stopped on hearing Don's words. "No," he said after a few moments contemplation. "I will keep that one separate. In time ... but not for now."

"So what's the plan?"

Reed stood beside Don and waited for Sauren's reply. It was nothing like they expected.

The half-elf's lips broke into a grin, then a broad smile. "First I am going to relieve myself, wash and dress appropriately. I suggest you two do the same, for we, gentlemen, are going to visit some ladies."

Don looked at them both, a mixture of confusion and nervous anticipation on his face.  The half-elf laughed. "I am not quite at my best yet to start eradicating imbeciles. But, I am well enough for some carnal pleasure."  Reed slowly smiled, knowing the implication straight away. 

Sauren looked directly at Don, his smile broadening. "And as for you, young man, you are finally going to get laid as well." 

     

A short time later, the three met in the courtyard, all washed and dressed. Sauren, impeccable as always, looked at his two sidekicks casting a critical eye over their appearance. Don had grown accustomed to Sauren's expectations and had learned a thing or two about making the most of himself, all thanks to his friend's advice. Reed, however, while not entirely boasting the country-bumpkin look, still had ample room for improvement.

"What?" he asked the half-elf, assessing the disapproving look.

"Have you nothing better?" Sauren asked, waving his hand over the youth's raiment.

Reed looked down; brown britches (one knee a little faded but not worn through yet), a light, ordinary shirt and a black tailcoat, which was missing a button and looked like the local cats had used it for a bed. He licked his palms and ran them over the coat, trying to dehair it as they spoke. "My family are not as affluent as yours Sauren, so no, I do not."

The half-elf's eyes narrowed just a little. "I was not passing judgement on your family's status Reed, I was merely enquiring if you had anything better in your closet."

Reed was still offended. "Well, nothing I seem to do pleases you. You are constantly critical, or bear a demeaning tone when you speak to me." Try though he did, he could not remove the whine in his voice.

Sauren turned to Don, a look of mock surprise on his face. "Am I that way with him?"

Don suppressed a smirk. "Yes - kind of."

"I see," the half-elf grinned then turned his attention back to the incensed Reed. "Well, I'm afraid you will have to get used to it until you improve. Don has managed and he was a very rough diamond to polish." The mahogany eyes flitted back to a rather perplexed Don who, a split second later, realised it was a jest. He hoped.

The second sidekick, however, was despondent and chose to stare at the sand and grit on the courtyard floor.

Sauren tutted and rolled his eyes. "Oh, for goodness sake, Reed. I am teasing you. Now buck up, we are going to purchase some new attire for you and then you will feel much better."

"Okay," came the mumbled response.

"And pick up that petted lip before I trip over it," Sauren finished as he started to walk away.

Reed turned his head just enough to eye the half-elf moving towards the portcullis. Don drew up beside him. "Is he always such a bastard?" he asked.

Don laughed a little, the sound making Reed stare at him slightly aghast. "You will get used to him. He has not been without hardship himself Reed, for all his father is wealthy. He has had to endure a lot of hatred from bigots since he was a small boy. Be loyal and you will be rewarded handsomely."

Reed took a deep breath. "Might take a while."

"Oh, I don't think so. You'll see."

They caught up with Sauren just as he left the grounds.

     

 

It was a little after midday when the three young rogues wandered down Merchant Lane in the city. The cobbled street boasted the finest hatters, cobblers, haberdashers and expensive outfitters in Azeroth since the great Stormwind had fallen in the war. As such, the proprietors were insistent that their street be immaculate so that clients did not drag muck and filth into their ostentatious establishments.

Reed had never seen such an abundance of finery before and certainly nothing so vulgarly priced as some of the items displayed in the shop windows. He had a little money on him, a month's allowance from his uncle, but that wouldn't even cover the cost of on one boot, let alone a pair.

His defeated expression did not go unnoticed. As he looked in one of the windows he watched as Sauren's reflection came up behind him. "What is the matter, Reed?" The half-elf's voice was low and husky.

Reed did not turn to face him nor did he meet his gaze in the glass. "I have insufficient funds for these things, Sauren. Is there nowhere else where I can find adequate clothing. Somewhere I can afford?"

The half-elf moved round to the young man's side. The close proximity forced him to look up. He was a little surprised to find a rather kindly face looking back at him; he had expected the mocking grin he was used to.

"Your money remains in your pocket, Reed. Your wardrobe for today is my responsibility."

Reed looked away, embarrassment swallowing him. "It will take me months to repay you."

Sauren laid a hand on his shoulder, commanding his attention again. "The only repayment I ask is your loyalty." The half-elf smiled. "I was recently called a conceited little bastard, a term which I am sure you are in agreement with."

Reed pursed his lips and stared at his feet. Sauren's laughter was not mocking nor reprimanding, it was friendly. Reed dared to look back up. He had not seen this side of Sauren before. Perhaps Don had been right – it would not take long to grow accustomed to him; maybe even like him.

"Well, I admit I can be," Sauren continued. "But I am also good to those who serve me well, to those who dedicate themselves to the guild no matter their station. So do not concern yourself with the trivial matter of money, Reed. If you prove to me that I was not mistaken in your potential, that will be repayment enough and you will, in time, make enough money to buy everything in this shop and more."

Sauren stepped back and gestured to the door. With a look of quiet gratitude, Reed moved forward and opened the door. The shopkeeper's small bell announced new custom had just arrived.

Don entered last and closed the door. The shop smelled of beeswax, the counters and shelves all having been vigorously polished and buffed. Along the top shelves an array of hats to accommodate whatever the occasion from casual to formal to downright pomposity. Sauren smirked a little as he thought of a pretentious mage who would have loved the one in red felt and gold brocade with the flamboyant feather in its band.

Beneath those an arrangement of cravats in all colours and quality fabric. Below those, jackets, coats and suits all hanging neatly, their cuffs pinned to the pocket seams to aid in their visual appeal.

A shuffle was heard and from a doorway behind the main counter and an elderly man appeared. He was a little stooped, but it did not slow his approach. His wispy grey hair floated around his head as he neared the three young men. He looked up at the half-elf.  "Why if it isn't young Master Sauren. Oh, it has been a while since I last saw you."

Sauren bowed to the old man. "Indeed it has, Mr Atherton. I take it you are well?"

The old man's eyes twinkled behind his spectacles. "I am thank you. Sadly, I cannot say the same for Mr Emsworth, he passed away in the Spring."

"I am most sorry to hear that," Sauren said. "So I take it you have a new tailor?"

"I do yes. A bit more contemporary perhaps in his designs, some, I admit I find a bit dubious, but he is fitting in well enough." Mr Atherton then chuckled. "Fitting in. Oh, dear."

Sauren joined in his laughter, as did Don and eventually Reed.

"So, how can I help you today?" the old man asked once the laughter subsided.

"Well, my friend here is in need of a tasteful ensemble, but we do not have a lot of time to spare so I would request an assortment of your ready-made habiliments for him to try."

"Of course. Well, if I may take some measurements and then I will bring a selection of things for him to consider. Would you and your other friend care to take a seat, Master Sauren?"

The two young men sat down on the ornate longue and watched Mr Atherton at work. Reed was noticeably uncomfortable being the centre of attention in this way and when he was asked to which side he dressed, his face flushed a furious red. Reed asked the old tailor why he needed to know.

“Just so I don’t get any nasty surprises lad, that’s all,” came the reply.

Sauren and Don hid their laughter behind their hands as they attempted to nonchalantly look out the window. “He’s keeping those for later,” Sauren snickered.

Don almost guffawed but managed to choke it down when Reed glared at him.

Finally, with tape measure slung around his shoulders, the old man disappeared into the back shop to select some items for consideration. Reed shuffled over to the two observers. “I didn’t know about that measuring thing,” he said quietly, still a little embarrassed.

“Well, how have you been fitted before?” Sauren asked.

“I haven’t, I just bought things that looked like they’d fit or my aunt used to make my clothes when I was smaller. She used to just hold the material up against me and... well, guess, I suppose.”

“Ah, I see,” Sauren nodded. It was so removed from his own lifestyle and upbringing, but never did he mock those less fortunate.

Mr Atherton arrived back with a selection of garments and behind him, a young man followed with an even larger assortment.

Sauren’s eyes darkened as he recognised the man. He may have grown a good few inches in all directions, developed facial hair which was well-groomed, but still, there was no mistaking who he was. Number three on “The List” - Benjamin (Ben) Morley.

Don also recognised him. He glanced at Sauren who stared back; the question in the half-elf’s eyes plain to read - Did you know he worked here? Don shook his head.

Mr Atherton was busy showing Reed the collection, suggesting he try some on and led him through to where he could change. Benjamin was carefully laying the garments he’d carried through on the counter and smiled at Reed as he passed by. The smile vanished, however, when his eyes turned to the two men on the longue.

He was met by the dark and dangerous stare of Sauren Nightflame who he used to torment relentlessly when he was a young boy.  Although years older, he obviously still recognised the half-breed.

Sauren’s lips split in a menacing sneer as he saw beads of perspiration trickling down the new tailor’s brow. Oh, how the tables have turned, he thought to himself, enjoying the young man's noticeable discomfort. “Is there something wrong?” he ventured, pointing to Benjamin.

Mr Atherton had arrived back from the rear of the shop and having overheard the question, looked at Sauren then the young tailor. Benjamin did not answer, his mouth simply fell open with no sound emanating from it.

Sauren’s heightened hearing could easily make out the conversation between the old man and his employee for all they kept to subdued whispers.

“Where are your manners, Ben. Answer the gentleman,” Mr Atherton insisted.

The half-elf watched as Benjamin Morley clearly writhed with humiliation and no doubt annoyance he was being informed that such a creature as he was being considered a gentleman. Benjamin fixed Sauren with a hard stare. “Nothing,” he said, a little caustically.

“Sir!” his employer hissed.

"What?" Ben glared down at the old man. "Do you know what he is?"

Music: SHARP DRESSED MAN || ZZ Top

   

 

“Both he and his father have been exceptionally good customers of mine over the years, and you shall address all my customers as Sir. Unless for some bizarre reason they are a Madam.”

Sauren barely managed to suppress a smirk at Mr Atherton’s reprimand. Again his eyes met with Benjamin’s. 

Begrudgingly, he had no choice but to do as his boss told him. “Sir!” he hissed before quickly disappearing into the rear of the premises.

Reed suddenly reappeared wearing a very fine ensemble. The trousers were dark grey with matching tailcoat; a white dress-shirt was finished with a mauve waistcoat. Mr Atherton applauded the look and Reed seemed very pleased indeed with the result. He posed and strutted the length of the shop, giving his captive audience flamboyant bows. It was then Mr Atherton did a double-take and dashed to the shelves near the window where a small selection of shoes was displayed. After careful consideration, he returned with a pair and asked Reed to try them on.

Again he was off across the floor, testing the new footwear. He looked up and saw two young women staring at him through the window. He winked and blew them a kiss. They hid blushing giggles behind their hands then hitching their skirts, hurried away.

Sauren and Don laughed at the audaciousness of his conduct and strolled over to the counter. The half-elf was most pleased by Reed’s choice, he looked every part the young gentleman now.

“I take you are happy with this choice?” he asked Reed.

“Happy? I have never had such luxury before, so yes, I am most happy. Thank you.”

Sauren nodded and turned to Mr Atherton who had already started wrapping Reed’s old clothes up in brown paper. “I take it all these are the same size as he is wearing just now?” he waved his hand over the garments still draped over the counter.

“Yes, Master Sauren, indeed they are.”

“Then kindly wrap two more pairs of trousers, two shirts and one more jacket for Mr Hale and have them delivered to the Crimson Blade headquarters please…”

“Sauren, that is too much, I cannot…” Reed protested.

The half-elf held up his hand to silence him and continued speaking with Mr Atherton. “And be so kind as to send me the bill for it all.”

“Certainly, Master Sauren.”

“Thank you and good day Mr Atherton.” Sauren bowed to the old man.

“Thank you. As always it has been a pleasure. Please pass on my regards to your father.”

“I shall. Good day.”

The three rogues left the premises, the shopkeeper's bell chiming as they closed the door.

Don circled Reed, admiring his attire. He awarded him a congratulatory slap on the back.

Sauren stood silent, absentmindedly playing with the cuffs of his shirt, tugging them down below those of his jacket. His thoughts were honed in on the new tailor. Benjamin still harboured feelings of hate towards him, of that there was no doubt. That in itself did not bother him, it had been expected when he clapped eyes on him. These prejudices did not disappear, especially when they had been drilled into you from an early age. It was not just Benjamin who had offended, it was also his parents, his siblings – all four of them. Benjamin was perhaps just the most vocal of the family.

Don stepped up to him, bringing him out of his reverie. “I apologise Sauren, I did not know…”

“It is no matter, Don. We know now, that is the main thing. My main concern is that Mr Atherton is now aware of the bastard’s viewpoint and the old boy just humiliated him in front of me.”

“What have I missed?” Reed asked.

Sauren smiled his perfect teeth on full display. “We will bring you up to speed, worry not. But for now, let us partake of some good food and perhaps some wine if we can get away with it.”

“What of the … ladies?” Reed asked, his face showing a renewed eagerness. Don blushed.

Sauren nudged his right-hand man. “Oh, I took care of that before we left the compound,” he smirked. “I sent a messenger. I expect a response while we dine. I think we will be well – received. And you, Don, will be duly deflowered - until you can barely walk I would think.”

Again Don’s face flared red. His two companions laughed, nudging him on towards King Street and the irrefutably excellent eatery, Capital City Inn.

          

Chapter Text

Capital City Inn, having taken its name from the metropolis within which it stood, was one of the busiest establishments of its kind.

It had provided many out-of-town traders with very satisfied full bellies and a good night's sleep. Influential officials, faction leaders, even some notable dignitaries had spent many an eve under the roof of the popular inn.

It was a spacious establishment yet it boasted a homely ambience with excellent service and sometimes lively entertainment.

To the back of the enormous dining area were booths. The wooden bases were stained and polished, boasting a rich, warm glow, enhancing the grain and was upholstered in a patterned red and black fabric. The tables were plain but in keeping the booths, again polished to a high sheen.

The forefront of the inn was furnished in a manner which offered diners ample room whether their dining party be large or small. Each table had a small bouquet in its centre, its sweet fragrance more often than not smothered by the culinary delights wafting through from the kitchen.

A large extensively stocked bar stood to the left of the entrance. It had a regular clientele who liked to prop it up. There was always chatter and periodic raucous laughter coming from its direction although the bartender was good at keeping noise to a minimum when diners frequented during the day.

When the three rogues stepped over the threshold, heads turned in their direction. Mostly it was a reactive awareness that someone had entered the premises while others seemed expectant as if waiting for guests to arrive.

None, however, addressed the new punters with any scorn; which was something the half-elf realised he had been expecting. Inwardly chastising himself for having allowed old prejudices to constantly prep him like a tightly wound spring, he moved towards the bar; Don and Reed following close behind.

The bartender knew who he was and greeted him with a smile. "Afternoon, Sauren. How be you this fine day?"

Sauren inclined his head. "I am well thank you, Nicholas, I am also hungry." He paused, holding the bartender's gaze. "And thirsty," he added quietly.

Nicholas finished wiping a glass and grinned. "You know I shouldn't," he whispered.

Sauren grinned. "I know. It hasn't stopped you before though."

"Aye," Nicholas said leaning across the bar so the half-elf was the only one to hear. "Your father was not best pleased with me that day."

The platinum-haired young man placed his hand to the side of his mouth ensuring no-one else heard his response either. "Well, my father is off on one of his missions so - I won't tell if you don't."

Nicholas smirked. "Okay lad. What's your poison for today?"

Sauren's lips split into a smug grin. "Well, I am hoping for some very pleasant company later so perhaps wine would be in order?"

Nicholas busied himself putting three glasses on the bar and a bottle of Dalaran Red. "I shall bring more, should your guests arrive," Nicholas whispered with a wink.

"Thank you," Sauren said picking up the bottle and the glasses by their stems.

"Oh!" Nicholas said with a grin. "I think this is for you, too." From his inside pocket, he removed a letter bearing a wax seal and waved it under Sauren's nose.

The half-elf grinned and closed his teeth over the corner of the letter with a grunt. Nicholas laughed. "Let me know how many more glasses you will need, lad. Now go sit in one of the booths and we will come get your order."

Sauren nodded and led the way.

The sound of cutlery on plates, glasses clinking, tankards banging on the wooden surfaces and the odd unfortunate loud slurp and burp from some of the diners did battle with the various conversations going on at the tables and bar. The eatery was quite busy already and no doubt more would descend before too long.

On reaching a booth, Don took over the pouring of the wine while Sauren unfolded the letter. His two sidekicks waited with bated breath to have the contents of the communiqué revealed.

Sauren's brow furrowed. The young men groaned, deflated. His eyebrows cocked. They sat up, hopeful. He emitted a non-descript "Hmm." They slumped once more.

Quietly, he folded the letter and placed it on the table. Lifting his glass he watched his two friends over the rim as he sipped, long and slow. Their faces boomeranged between every possible expression of sexually fuelled anticipation to complete and utter despondency.

He could maintain his inscrutable elucidation no more. His teeth made a dull clink on the glass and he had to draw it from his lips. He took a deep breath, gently placing his wine on the table. Slender fingers then played with the corner of the letter. He sighed deeply and met the two pairs of expectant eyes. "Well," he said in a measured, husky tone. "I'm afraid my two lovelies, who you previously met, feel that it would most inappropriate..."

Don's face was stuck in limbo while Reed's head thumped down on his folded forearms. Sauren sighed again and picked up his drink once more. He swilled the contents around the glass letting it coat it in the deep, plum red of the wine.

The corner of his mouth twitched. "Yes, I'm afraid they have decided that for the two of them to see to all our - needs, it would be bordering on unfair and even greedy of them..." His eyes drifted out over the diners as if checking to see if their conversation was being listened to.

Reed's head snapped up. "We wouldn't!" He said hurriedly.

Sauren stretched his other arm along the back of the booth and turned back to his companions. He held their gaze for a few highly charged moments. Then he continued. "So, they will be inviting some friends." He grinned as he watched the two faces in front of him light up. "Four of them, to be precise," he finished with a smile.

"What?" Don wheezed. "Two each?"

Sauren laughed. "Indeed." He sipped more wine.

"They're coming here?" Reed asked.

"No," Sauren laughed a little again. "That would be a breach of etiquette. We will dine, then make our way to the Keep."

Don almost knocked his wine over. "Seriously? We are being invited to the Royal residence?"

Sauren grinned. "Hmm. We will not be walking in the front door, gentlemen. There is a secret entrance where Leola will meet us."

They all looked to the front as a young woman approached with a notepad and pencil, three menus tucked under her arm. She looked shyly at the three smartly dressed men as she handed them the lists of culinary delights on offer. "Shall I give you time to decide, gentlemen?" she said in almost a whisper. Her eyes rested on Sauren. Her cheeks flushed.

The mahogany eyes darkened as he looked at her, scrutinising every inch of her waif-like figure. His lips spread into a slow smile. "It's quite alright," he said, his voice taking on the husky tone he seemed to have adopted since his injury on the battlefield. "I know what I want."

The girl's face flared even brighter; the suppressed laughter from the other two young men beside him adding to her discomfort.

Sauren's smile widened an act which was almost the undoing of the young girl. Nervously, she put pencil to paper. "Wh – what can I get you, Sir?" she choked.

He held her gaze for as long as she could bear before her eyes dropped to the pad in her hand. "I will have the steak," he said. "Medium, with all the trimmings, please."

A squeak was all she could muster as she scribbled down his order. She then looked at the other two for their choices. Reed ordered the same and Don settled for fish. The girl collected the menus then hurried away to the kitchen.

Don smirked. "How do you do that? Medium with all the trimmings, please! She was literally drooling over you for talking about steak!"

The half-elf sipped more wine as he studied his friend over the rim of the glass. He ran the tip of his tongue along the crease of his mouth and grinned. "I have no idea," he replied. "Perhaps it is just mere juvenile infatuation or something." He glanced around the dining room again - he was well aware some girls found him attractive, he was not oblivious, but neither did he boast about it. He looked back at his friends.

"Well, I can't say those two gorgeous women we saw in your bed could be called juvenile!" Reed laughed.

Sauren's perfect teeth flashed. "No, that's true."

Don pointed ahead, drawing Sauren's attention. Nicholas meandered over to their table with another bottle of wine in hand and two more glasses. "I assume your special company will be joining you soon?" he enquired.

The half-elf tucked the letter into his inside pocket. "I'm afraid they are running a little late so we will be meeting them elsewhere, Nicholas."

"Ah. Fine lad, no problem." The bartender nodded and turned to leave.

"Excuse me!" Sauren called after him.

He faced the young man again. His eyebrows, bushy and black climbed up his forehead in a mono-brow and the thick moustache twitched mirthfully. "Yes, Sauren?"

"It is a shame to bring that bottle all the way over, just to carry it back again."

"Now lad..." Nicholas shook a reprimanding finger at him, but not without a smirk causing his facial hair to spread wider.

"I am sure your excellent cuisine will, after all, soak it up, as it were."

Nicholas scratched his bald pate with his forefinger, careful not to bash the glasses against his skull. "You always were a silver-tongued devil lad, even as a nipper."

Sauren grinned as the bartender put the bottle on the table. "Enjoy, gentlemen." Nicholas turned and left them in peace.

After a few moments, Reed asked about the tailor. Don's eyes narrowed and he nudged the appointed left-hand man. "Let's not discuss this today!" he reprimanded.

"It's quite alright, Don," Sauren reassured. "He has to be informed about the List and where better to start than after our encounter today?"

He reached over and replenished their glasses before relating an incident Benjamin Morley had been responsible for.

 

 

*****

 

Trying to integrate him into mainstream education had been the first hard lesson Sauren experienced about the hatred afforded a half-elf/human boy. To a child, it seemed the general consensus of the city's population enjoyed subjecting him to various forms of bullying, name-calling, cruel pranks and never-ending mockery.

Appearing home, sometimes very late due to running away from a group of vile schoolchildren, he was then exposed to more humiliation as servants from home were assigned to drop him off and collect him from school. The torment continued and as such he often ducked out one of the rear windows to escape the promised beating he had been advised of earlier in the day.

The teachers didn't seem to care much either, paying little if any heed to the missiles thrown in the boy's direction during the play-times or indeed, sometimes in class.

Mrs Dalton, head housekeeper, had tried very hard to ensure Sa'themar did not hear of the trouble Sauren was having, although he knew the old witch was convinced he was the cause of the said trouble. He was also positive she enjoyed the fact he was constantly terrorised; maybe even hoped some permanent injury would render him a babbling idiot or better still, dead.

That in itself made him build walls of protection around his then small and skinny frame. Impenetrable barriers where his feelings could no longer be damaged or dented. Within his prefabricated shelter, he processed, plotted and planned. Sadness turned to apathy, the chasm he swam within became his sanctuary, his thinking place, his little den of devious thoughts. And his pain became the building blocks on which he devised methods of payback – albeit in the distant future.

Finally, he realised his body, clothes and belongings could take any amount of beating, but emotionally he could hold it all in.

Until that fateful day when Benjamin Morley made him cry as if there was no tomorrow.

At ten years of age, Sauren had become the proud owner of his first horse - a beautiful dark bay colt called Shadow. By then, he had learned to appreciate the beasts for the truly magnificent creatures they were all thanks to Jonas Marlowe, his riding instructor.

In hindsight, the half-elf now understood his attachment to Shadow. He had been intolerably lonely. Once his father had learned of the treatment he'd received from some of the school-children he arranged to have him home-schooled. But, it had not made anything better. It only isolated the boy more. Except for a young servant girl named Brigitte, who somehow managed to make him smile. It was she who coaxed him to study hard and become an all-powerful leader of - well of something, one day. She had made reading fun and exciting. Learning was his new challenge, his passion.

But a few short years after, Brigitte vanished and he never saw her again. He had a vague recollection of some incident or other, but it was foggy, hidden, obscure.

Shadow, however, was the one thing which seemed to make him surface from his well of doom. He took enormous pride in making sure he had the best of the best for his horse. At that point, he had also befriended Don and it was his father who shod the horse and checked all the tack, explaining everything to Sauren in detail, showing him how to look after everything properly.

Having just had Shadow's new shoes fitted, Sauren had swung up into the saddle, proud, like a peacock, patting the horse's neck and talking calmly to the beast.

He hadn't noticed Benjamin with his gaggle of siblings standing huddled in the narrow alley between Mr Stanton's forge and the adjoining stables. The family had plagued him when he had been at school but he had hoped their brutality was a thing of the past. Alas, that day, he found out it was not.

He steered Shadow out from under the overhang of the forge and was waving farewell to Don and his father. They disappeared inside the workshop and through to their house at the back of the premises.

It was only a short ride home from there, but Sauren did so enjoy prancing through the backstreets. Oddly, he seldom met any harm there.

Then he felt it. Something hard and sharp hit his cheek. Instinctively, he gripped the reins as something then bounced off the colt's neck causing Shadow to rear. Another sharp object flew past his eyes.

Turning he saw the Morleys, Benjamin, the eldest brother heading the little troupe of troublemakers. They had catapults and continued firing their missiles at the platinum-haired boy and his horse.

More hit Shadow and the horse whinnied loudly, panicked by the barrage of sharp stones. Sauren tried to calm his steed enough to steer him from the courtyard and gallop out but more stones were fired their way. He felt wetness on his cheek and raised his hand; he found blood smearing his fingers.

The brood charged forward, still with weapons in hand and Shadow's eyes started to roll. The group were backing them into the forge. Sauren tugged at the reins trying desperately to steer his horse from the dangers which lay within, but their attackers pressed forward.

Shadow reared again knocking away one of the corner supports of the thatched overhang which stretched out over the courtyard. The roofing started to tumble covering the boy and his horse. Shadow's panic reached a peak and his feet lost their grip. Before Sauren knew what was happening he was falling backwards, the colt going with him.

"Sauren!" Mr Stanton came running at the ruckus just in time to see the boy and his horse taking the fateful tumble. "Jump, boy!" The 'smith yelled.

With split seconds to spare, the half-elf launched himself from the saddle. He hit the cobbles hard as Shadow let out a heart-wrenching scream. The boy pushed himself up to see what had happened. Shadow had landed badly between a rack of iron rods and one of the anvils; its right foreleg was bent at an impossible angle. The horse was in extreme pain.

Mr Stanton rushed over to check that Sauren was alright but the boy pushed him away asking that he help Shadow instead. The blacksmith looked at the horse and slowly shook his head.

"No!" Sauren yelled, tears spilling. He gripped Mr Stanton's shirt, begging him. "Help him!"

"It's no good lad. He fell bad. His leg's broke and he's impaled on one of them rods."

"No!"

Mr Stanton signalled behind him. At first, Sauren didn't understand until he saw the 'smith's fingers curl around a long rifle.

As Mr Stanton moved away to carry out the necessary deed, Don looked at Sauren. With his head bowed, the regret etched on his face almost matched the pain in Sauren's eyes. He had to look away, he could not bear that his friend was about to lose the one thing he idolised and treasured above all.

Sauren jumped as the loud crack of the gun resounded around the forge. A heavy silence then fell over the courtyard. Except for the snickering on the far side near the alley where Benjamin Morley and his vile siblings stood pointing and pulling mocking, sorrowful faces.

For all the half-elf was near blinded by tears, his chest burning from the crushing heartbreak at the loss of his colt, he still made out the bullwhip hanging from a hook on the remaining support.

A rush of adrenaline made him push himself up and run forward. Stretching out his hand as he ran past the wooden support, his slender fingers snatched the leather whip from its hook. He charged full pelt at the Morleys, unravelling the long leather whip as he advanced.

Surprise replaced their laughter as the half-elf sped towards them circling the whip above his head. He managed to lash out once, the leather stripping moss and weeds from between the stones of the building the family cowered beside.

The Morleys turned and high-tailed it just before Mr Stanton wrapped his huge arms around Sauren, stopping him from his pursuit of the cruel boys. Struggling against the grip of the burly man the half-elf finally gave in and he folded with grief.

Mr Stanton picked Sauren up and carried him back to his house. He sent Don to the Nightflame residence to fetch Sauren's father or one of the servant's if Sa'themar was unavailable.

 

*****

 

Sauren sipped from his wineglass then skewered a piece of steak on his fork and lifted it to his lips. His eyes scanned his friends' plates. Their food was barely touched, Don had not even made a start . "Eat!" he said waving his fork at them.

They dutifully started to cut up their food. Not a word was uttered.

Sauren guffawed, although there was a mixture of bitterness and sorrow in the sound. "Goodness Don, you were there! Why so surprised looking?"

His friend swallowed some fish and licked his lips before answering. "It's just hearing it from you makes it all so – real again. As if it happened only yesterday."

The half-elf grunted. "I still feel sad about it," he said, dabbing his mouth with his napkin. "But today, having seen Benjamin again, my anger has once more been fuelled."

"I'm sorry for your loss, Sauren. That must have been awful to witness." Reed uttered, staring blankly at his plate.

The half-elf eyed his left-hand man. He was starting to warm to him, even though he still had a fair way to go until he was exactly how Sauren expected him to be.

"Thank you. However, gentlemen, we have a meeting to attend, a most pleasurable one I have no doubt, so I suggest you eat up and sup up so we can get moving."

Silence prevailed once more, punctuated only by silver cutlery on china plates and the odd slurp of wine.

On the northern side of the city boundary, a wall covered in ivy shielded the Keep from the shores of Lordamere Lake

On the northern side of the city boundary, a wall covered in ivy shielded the Keep from the shores of Lordamere Lake. It was here where a cloaked figure awaited the arrival of three young men. Leola glided towards the half-elf and without hesitation reached up and kissed him.

Don and Reed grinned at each other, thinking of who awaited them in this secret location.

"I heard you were taken ill," Leola said to Sauren. "We were worried."

Tracing her lips with his thumb, Sauren smiled warmly at the voluptuous blonde. "No need," he replied in his husky voice. "I am all the better for seeing you, Leola."

"You say the sweetest things," she trilled. "Follow me and please, keep quiet all of you." She grabbed Sauren's hand and led the way through an ivy-covered door.

They entered well-landscaped grounds with stone statues and vibrant flora abound. Leola halted as she indicated some guards off to the right and also some stationed through the arches near the main entrance.

She steered the half-elf and his comrades through another concealed doorway. They moved through a deserted chamber. Its floor was tiled in the dark blue and silver of Lordaeron's insignia. Pillars of beautifully smoothed stone stood sentinel around its perimeter, the Menethil coat of arms resplendent in a banner stretched across the diameter which wafted softly in the draught caused by their opening the secret door.

Leola tugged Sauren's hand and turned sharply to the left. There she stopped in front of a large tapestry. Releasing the half-elf's hand she reached behind the thick wall covering. The sound of a click announced yet another secret entrance. Taking Sauren's hand once more she pulled him in behind the tapestry. "Push it closed please," she whispered to Reed who was at the rear of the group. He nodded and closed it behind him.

An old spiral staircase led into the bowels of the royal residence. Keeping hold of Sauren's hand and with the two young rogues behind them, Leola led the way collecting a flaming torch to light their path. The torchlight rippled along the walls rising just above them and beyond before vanishing back into darkness keeping the four individuals in a cocoon of golden light. Loud drips hitting some water source deeper in the caverns echoed up through the stairwell.

"I'm not sure I like this," Don whispered nervously, the acoustics of the old passages picking up his voice and making it drift unintelligibly around the ancient stone.

Sauren's low, husky laugh was all that answered it.

They turned right through an old arch and along another passage. Periodic torches fixed to the walls offered brighter illumination. They hissed and crackled as the group passed by, the flames just taking the edge off the cool air.

The passage opened up to a large chamber in the centre of which was a pool. The colour of the natural stone beneath the water gave the pool a jade hue which reflected on the damp, craggy walls of the room. There was a wide walkway all the way around and another opening on the opposite side which led even further into the grotto. At intervals, free-standing candelabras were aflame bearing a dozen candles each. Three low tables sat abound with bowls of fruit, flasks of wine and three glasses each.

Leola pulled the half-elf around to the far side. Sauren smiled as he caught sight of the rich auburn hair belonging to his second playmate. Maya stepped through the natural archway, a diaphanous gown of gold and silver floated around her otherwise naked body. With her, four other courtesans, equally as beautiful although a little younger than Leola and Maya, came towards the three young men.

Leola reached up and whispered in Sauren's ear. He smiled and turning to his friends behind him, he indicated Don. She moved forward and linked arms with two of the women. Drawing to a halt in front of Don, she guided the courtesans forward. "Don," she smiled. "This is Calissa and Ellen. They are looking forward to serving you."

Even undercover of the jade and golden reflections of the chamber, Don noticeably flushed. He grinned awkwardly and managed a shy hello to the young women whose fingers were already exploring him.

Maya, meanwhile, introduced Reed to his female companions - Madelyn and Sasha. He wasted no time kissing his newfound friends.

Music: WISH YOU WERE HERE|| Bliss  

   

The half-elf watched as the ladies led his friends to their respective tables. A well-manicured forefinger traced his jaw, turning his face to meet the green irises of the autumn beauty. Her eyes darkened as he held her gaze. Leola stood behind him her hands already wrapping around his waist.

"Do you think your friend will be as studious a pupil as you?" Maya breathed.

"Oh, I'm sure he will be," Sauren smirked. "Once he overcomes his shyness."

Leola reached up and slid the jacket from his shoulders, slowly easing it down his arms. She placed it carefully on a small stool near the table. A slight tug at his chest drew his attention back to Maya. She had started to unbutton his waistcoat. Once more he was drawn to her eyes and her coquettish smile teased him. "Perhaps we should give him a demonstration?" she purred.

Sliding his hand around the back of her neck he drew her to him, pressing their bodies close together. A small gasp escaped her pouting lips. "I think he will be pre-occupied. But, by all means, indulge me in your decadence."

"Oh, we intend to," she replied.

Leola moved in behind, moulding herself to his frame, her hands once more moving around his waist and venturing lower. He heard her moan as her hand brushed over his rigid member.

Hovering over Maya's lips he breathed slow, deep and heavy. His free hand clasped her buttock, fingers flexing on the soft flesh. "You are in danger of becoming my obsession," he divulged. He groaned as Leola's hand toyed with him. Inclining his head slightly to the side, he added, "Both of you."

His mouth found Maya's and she leaned into the kiss, her tongue enthusiastically duelling with his. Together, the women removed his waistcoat and shirt, trailing kisses over his skin as it became exposed.

Leola exchanged places with Maya. Sauren was no less hungry when the blonde's lips pressed against his. He grabbed her hair, winding it around his fist, pulling her in close. His other hand slipped between the folds of her cloak. His soft laughter at discovering she was completely naked underneath led to her giggling mischievously - her head-tilt almost coy. "You are beautiful," the half-elf whispered against her ear. His warm breath on her neck had her cooing.

An almost girlish yelp made them turn towards Don. The already naked young man was hard up against the wall with Calissa working her way down his torso, planting kisses on his skin. Ellen stood to his side guiding his hand over her breasts and nuzzling his ear. The lad looked about ready to explode.

Reed meanwhile had buried his hand between Madelyn's thighs while Sasha peeled off his trousers. He clearly needed no instruction although his eagerness was being kept in check with the odd playful smack to his hands.

Sauren turned his attention back to Maya and Leola. "You certainly know how to throw a party," he said.

"This is a one-off Sauren. If we are caught entertaining you down here, our heads will hit the bottom of a basket."

"Why?" He was taken aback at such news. "It is just a cavern with a pool."

Maya tugged at the ties of his britches, freeing him completely. "It is the Queen's pool though, meant to be only for her ...and her lovers."

"But, you were ordered to be with me."

"Yes," Leola responded. "But not here. The King does not know of this place and that is how the Queen wants it to remain."

Sauren looked at the women, stunned. "What has he to do with us? And how can he not know of this place? It is directly beneath his feet."

"Terenas is an old man. Do not get me wrong, he has ruled wisely and diligently over the decades but he has become complacent. Ruling for years from the safety of his throne he has established peace and brought prosperity for Lordaeron. But now, following the First War and still battling through the Second, he seems "lost", as the Queen puts it. She wants him to pick up arms and fight again, but he prefers negotiation. Long gone are the days he would wield a sword, now it is only his tongue and a quill with which he does battle. And he has no interest in what lies below his throne, only what spans the kingdom above."

Their conversation was interrupted by a loud gasp and grunting from Don's general direction. Sauren flexed an eyebrow but otherwise paid no heed. "I take it the Queen's lovers, therefore, are men of influence and power?"

Maya and Leola exchanged a look but did not comment. The half-elf did not pursue the subject. The women were clearly loyal to their Queen, even though they had admitted she would not hesitate to have them beheaded for nothing more than pleasuring young men in a location reserved for her own rendezvous'. He only needed to know one more thing. "I take it then, she is not in the Keep this day?"

Music: LOST SOUL || Bliss

   

Both women confirmed with a nod. His lips curved into a licentious smile. He brushed Leola's hair back off her shoulders, his slender fingers caressing her cheek before working on the clasp of her cloak. The garment fell from her body in a soft whoosh and pooled about her feet.

His eyes raked her body. She was divine. A fuller figure than her cohort, she was desirable beyond words. His physical response to her curvy figure twitched as Maya rid him of his boots and britches. Leola's hand reached out and wrapped her fingers around his length. He moaned.

"Ladies," he said, the slightest quiver in his voice betraying his craving. "I want you to sit at the edge of the pool in front of the table."

Sharing another smile they did as he bade and sat with their calves immersed in the water. They watched eagerly as he stepped slowly into the pool. His mouth twitched at the corners as he noted the appetency in their eyes when he turned to face them. Mahogany irises darkened further as he looked at each wanton woman in turn. Lust was indeed a powerful emotion. He leaned in and kissed both firmly on their mouths.

His fingers came up above the waterline and slowly he walked them up the women's thighs. Soft sighs ricocheted around the cavern their sound reverberating with the shimmer of jade and gold. His skin took on the cavern's hue though the golden candlelight reflected strongly in the fully dilated eyes. He progressed until he reached both shaven mounds where his fingers caressed and kneaded the flesh, worshipping the ecstasy which each promised within.

Leaning forward again, he brushed his lips over Maya's. She lifted a hand to comb through his platinum mane. "No," he whispered. "Do not touch - yet."

She giggled and her hand rested on the stone again. His lips travelled down her neck, along her collarbone and to her breasts. The autumn beauty let out a low moan as his tongue lapped and flicked over a nipple, teasing, before his lips closed over the pert bud. Maya's head lolled back as she indulged in the sensations he sent firing through her core. She shuddered and gasped loudly as his fingers ventured inside.

Leola quietly observed, her tongue running over the crease of her lips in anticipation. He caught her watching and a slow smile of promise adorned his mouth. Still working Maya, he shifted over and pressed down on the blonde's pouting lips. She pushed forward, her hunger causing goosebumps to dot her skin. As with Maya, his fingers explored her internally. "Lean back," he said.

She did as he asked, supporting herself on her elbows and forearms. He turned to Maya and withdrew his fingers from her. "Don't move." Her mouth opened a little as she watched him lick her essence from his fingers.

He reached to the table and lifted down the bowl of strawberries. He popped one in his mouth. As he bit into the sweet flesh, its juice trickled down from the corner of his mouth. He beckoned Maya. Her mouth closed over his and they shared the fruit.

Leola moaned under his touch. He turned to her and picked up another strawberry. Her eyes turned almost eerily black with desire. He teased her, popping the fruit in his mouth, then pulling it out and repeating the act. A sound like a whimper came from her and in that instant, he crushed the strawberry in his hand and smeared the pulp down her soft belly to where his fingers still worked her. He picked up a handful of the fruits and again crushed them, letting their juices trickle over her breasts and sternum. He then rubbed the pulped fruit over her mound. She wriggled.

He crouched slightly and moved in. As his fingers released her, his tongue took command. She squirmed beneath him uttering a low and suppressed cry of delight and rapture. He lapped and sucked until all the strawberry residue was cleaned from her skin. Rising from the water he stood, watching the look of bliss on her face. His wet skin had a hypnotic glow to it as his chest heaved. A pulse throbbed at the base of his neck and just under his sternum, small thin streams of pool water tracing down over his abdomen.

A silent plea shaped her lips and he obliged. Grabbing her hips he pulled her towards him and claimed her. Her back arched as she accepted him, her throaty moan echoing around the poolside. He moved slowly, deliberately, his fingers digging into the soft flesh of her hips.

Maya inched nearer. He turned fevered eyes to her and without losing rhythm he stretched towards her and they kissed. The auburn haired woman slid into the water moving slowly behind him. Her hands felt their way around his thighs and she kneaded his skin feeling his muscles flex from his thrusting. Her caresses kept travelling; over his buttocks and under, taking hold of his sac as he continued to pound into Leola. She squeezed him gently.

   

A guttural groan sounded deep in his throat and he withdrew from the blonde turning to meet Maya. She pressed him against the back of the pool and Leola's arms encircled him. She kissed and nibbled his neck as Maya positioned herself for the taking. A small ledge a foot below the water's surface afforded a seat and as the half-elf sat down, so Maya climbed aboard. She rocked her hips against his, causing the water to lap and splash up over his chest.

He closed his eyes, surrendering to the woman who rode him. From somewhere across the pool he could hear his friends engaging in carnal pleasure and the gasps and sighs emitted from their female companions. Don's cry of "Praise the Gods!" would have been utterly hilarious had Sauren not been lost to the ways of the exceptional libertine who ground upon his own arousal.

Leola's hands continued to massage his pectorals, plucking his nipples with her long nails. She propelled herself a little over his shoulder and he opened his eyes to see the two women engaged in a deep kiss. He trembled. The sight fired his libido. His hips lifted to meet Maya's grind.

The blonde, however, had not finished with him yet. She joined them in the water and Maya's cue to remove herself from the half-elf's endowment was served. Sauren's note of disappointment did not go unnoticed. It caused the two concubines to giggle among themselves.

The autumn-haired beauty slid in behind him, nudging him round and forward. Then Leola positioned herself between the two of them. The women engaged in another kiss but the voluptuous blonde clearly offered herself to the young rogue.

He didn't hesitate. He moved in behind and entered her. His thrusting this time hungrier, hotter, needier. He leaned over her and cupped her breasts as he pounded within, the peak of his cupidity almost upon him.

"Pleasure her," he breathed in Leola's ear. The blonde began to work on Maya, her fingers deftly bringing the woman to fruition. The three moved as one, their locomotion intensifying as they neared the plateau of release.

The women kissed again, Maya's moans lost in Leola's mouth. Sauren pushed back up, one hand firmly holding Leola's hip and the other gripping her shoulder as he quickened his pace.

Leola's voice hitched. Sauren felt her tighten around him and he knew she had peaked. He felt his own orgasm starting to build, Leola's shudder bringing him forth. Maya suddenly squealed out and that brought Sauren full bore. His husky climactic roar echoed through the chamber.

He pulled away from the blonde staggering slightly to the ledge where he slumped back down beside Maya. The blonde took a seat next to him. He lazily put his arms around the women's shoulders, his long slender fingers squeezing them gently.

Closing his eyes he reclined as far back as the ledge would allow, pulling Maya and Leola with him. The platinum hair was drenched at the tails and clung to his shoulders and chest in thick wayward strands. The women snuggled at either side of him as he recovered from the intensity of his release, gradually catching his breath.

A low, congratulatory "Wow!" sounded from across the pool. Sauren cracked an eye open. Raising his head he looked at his two friends across the pool. Both sat similarly to himself on the underwater ledge with their concubines either side. Don looked drunk, a somewhat maladroit grin playing on his lips as he stared back at the half-elf. Reed, with hair ruffled, was absentmindedly popping fruit into his mouth but he too stared at Sauren.

"What?" the half-elf asked.

Reed gulped loudly. "That was quite a show!"

"Yeah," Don managed, breathlessly.

Sauren laughed and rested his head back on the lip of the stone walkway again. "Imbeciles! Focus on your own performance."

Laughter rippled around the cavern. 

Chapter Text

     

 

The Blackened Woods, so named following the recent desecration of vast areas of Quel'thalas' forests had resulted from the Horde's carefully devised attacks during their campaign to take Capital City. Dragon fire had wounded the land severely, accumulating many elven protectors into segregated pockets thus enabling the trolls and their newfound allies, the Horde, to bombard them with muscle, brawn and dark magic.

A contingent of the Horde led by the warlock, Gul'dan, had attempted to convince the Warchief they would crush the high elf nation by remaining in Quel'thalas and laying siege to Silvermoon City. With their armies increased by the Amani trolls they would pursue destroying the Sunwell, the source of the elves' power. The orc claimed they would succeed in this mission and in doing so take down the shield which protected the city against attack affording the Horde the necessary advantage to annihilating the northern kingdom.

Not entirely enthralled by Gul'dan's proposals, the Warchief had left the orc warlock to his own devices - he wanted no more delays in reaching his destination in Lordaeron. He left orders with the Dragonmaw Clan to force the orc and the armies to march west should their attempt at quashing the elves' precious city ensue for longer than his agreed three days deadline.

The trolls had readily agreed to continuing their assault on Silvermoon City and with unrelenting vigour pushed towards Evermoon Woods. Gul'dan's Death Knights and the orcs had been a weighty addition to their war parties and although they were not without losses of their own, they made steady progress.

Even when Gul'dan turned from them and left the battle along with his Stormweaver Clan to pursue what had been his ultimate goal, the Tomb of Sargeras, the trolls did not relent. Their focus was the high elves.

They had not quite bargained on the elves' allies joining forces, however, and when met with resistance from humans and dwarves as well as the Farstriders with some very unexpected bands of rogues, their advance was somewhat hindered. Once the arrival of the magi from Quel'Danas was established, so the trolls and the remaining Horde numbers were thwarted from their advance.

Meanwhile, the Dragonmaw Clan, instead of carrying out the Warchief's command to have Gul'dan march west, decided in their wisdom to warn him of the orc's betrayal instead. Along the way they duly set aflame many more Alliance held territories and not only did this aid the Warchief in progressing towards the Alterac Mountains, it also cut off a party of Farstriders from their Ranger-General. Furthermore, they had with them a principle captive – Zul'jin.

As Sauren had been recovering from his wound, Sa'themar and his troupe had set out to find the seemingly heteroclite Halduron Brightwing and the imprisoned troll Chieftain.

The dragon fires had decimated much of the surrounding countryside with some fires still raging. Their bright orange, red and yellow flames birthed thick black plumes which filled the skies for several leagues along the Eastweald and Lordaeron borders.

Portalling would have proven dangerous as well as possibly pointless under the conditions; to emerge encircled by fiery barriers would not have been conducive to locating the Lieutenant's camp. The rogues needed to utilise their cunning and expertise in finding a path through the flame-riddled ground. Being teleported out, however, would quite possibly be life-saving, so Sa'themar had the foresight to take four mages and four priests with him.

Dividing the troupe into four bands of five, each with a mage and priest in tow, Sa'themar sent them off to locate Brightwing and his party of Farstriders. He led one group, while Brett, Lina and Yathas led the other three respectively.

Even with scarves covering their noses and mouths the smell of the burnt ground, wood, foliage and countless bodies of woodland creatures was drawn into their lungs, making progress slow and at times painful. Try as they might, the odd fit of coughing and gagging was unavoidable. Eyes streaming from the smoke-infused air added another complication to the already perilous journey through the fire-torn maze. Walls of flames made the trek not only potentially lethal but truly exhausting, the intense heat bearing down on the already hard-tested groups of rogues.

The only thing which was in their favour was the distinct lack of the enemy. Other than a few blackened corpses which littered the way, no evidence of troll parties having braved the paths which the Blades travelled was found. With luck, this would remain the status quo.

Trudging through the charred forestation, an odd but strangely familiar sound came from Sa'themar's left. He crouched, signalling his team to follow suit – caution had to be exercised at all costs. 

They focused on the whirring, hissing sound and moments later a break in the wall of flames opened up with a trail of frost crystallising the ground ahead of them.

Alaen stood about ten yards from them, madly patting his robes. He glanced up and frantically signalled the group to hurry through the path he had made for them.

On reaching the mage, Sa'themar nodded gratitude before moving over to join Lina and her team. Alaen repeated his magic a few yards to the right of where the guild leader's group had just emerged. Next to join them was Brett and Yathas whose paths had just crossed moments earlier.

Brett stared at Alaen who still made a fuss of his attire. The mage turned irritated eyes to the seasoned rogue. "Fifteen gold this cost me!" he grumbled. "Fifteen gold!"

Brett grinned as he saw the scorch marks on the fabric. "Well, you shouldn't wear such finery when you are in battle."

Alaen looked utterly insulted at the mockery the rogue afforded him. "I do not have the means to fritter away like you overblown and overpaid rogues do!"

Brett simply laughed. "Rubbish. You are just a tight-assed little mage. That rag will be tomorrow's dishcloth and you know it."

"How very dare you!"

"Alright! If you two have quite finished then we have business to see to." Sa'themar called over.

Without protest or explanation, the two men joined the once more complete rogue troupe.

Lina's group had successfully located the Farstriders. A short distance from where the troupe had convened, approximately the same number of rangers as there were rogues camped in a clearing close to the lake's edge.

Lina inched back and whispered to Sa'themar. "Anything strike you as strange?"

He let his eyes scan the rangers and their immediate surroundings. "There should be more of them," he responded matter-of-factly.

"Yes," the blonde replied. "Either many have already been killed or Halduron has them posted around the vicinity."

Yathas spoke up. "Knowing Halduron, it is more likely the latter. His company is tightly knit."

"Agreed," Lina admitted. Sa'themar nodded.

The smell of wet earth and foliage permeated the air. On close inspection, it seemed the rangers had generously doused the clearing up to the perimeter. Using water from the lake this ensured the flames would not take again if the breeze swept the fire their way once more.

To the left of the rangers an old brick ruin once covered in fertile moss and ferns were now blackened, the foliage crisped and flaked after being engulfed by the rampaging dragon fires. A huddled figure sat side-on to the stone. Although they were still a fair distance away, it was not hard to tell that this prisoner had been subjected to a severe beating. Dried blood was crusted around many grazes and gashes not to mention an eye-socket. The one remaining fierce yellow eye watched the Farstriders closely.

Two rangers approached the ruin and the prisoner. The metallic clink of chains sounded as the figure shifted.

Sa'themar watched silently as the two rangers threw scraps of food down on the charred earth.

"You better eat, troll. We need you alive, although barely will suffice." One said, laughing.

"Judgement will be passed, but not by us." The other said before proceeding to urinate on the food offered.

The figure didn't answer it just stared contemptuously at its two tormentors.

The rangers kicked at the burned, damp ground until a divot-sized chunk also covered the food they had thrown. Laughing quietly to themselves, they then turned and rejoined their comrades.

"Are you going to try to talk some sense into the Lieutenant?" Sa'themar asked Lina. His expression was hard to make out in the fading light of day but his tone was unmistakable. He clearly didn't think there was any chance of reasoning with the man.

"I have to," Lina insisted. "I cannot allow him to throw away his and the other rangers' lives all because he wants his best friend to dole out justice.  I agree, it can be settled here and now."

Sa'themar nodded. "I will come with you, then."

Yathas and Lina exchanged a look. "Very well," she conceded.

Moving back to the rest of the troupe, Sa'themar instructed Brett to keep a sharp lookout. From experience, he knew the trolls favoured night-time attacks and for all there had been none since the Farstriders had been stranded with their prisoner near the lake, that did not mean it wouldn't happen. The Amani were bound to know now that their mortal enemies had their Chieftain and they would not give up until they rescued him. He also warned them there could be Rangers concealed in the woods who would not necessarily be throwing down a welcoming mat for them. Their prisoner was considered invaluable and interference with their plans may be viewed as a threat.

Brett duly fanned out the rogues assuring the area was covered to the best their numbers could manage. The mages and priests had to remain in hiding unless their services were required.

Halduron Brightwing was a brave and loyal Farstrider having fought valiantly against the Amani tribe even before he was enlisted by Ranger-General Sylvanas Windrunner. He was, however, no different from any other man who had borne witness to the horrors of war. He too felt pain from seeing friends and family cut down. All too familiar with the torturous measures inflicted upon prisoners of the trolls, he was haunted by some of the desperate pleas from their victims begging to be put out of their misery. As such he had no qualms about letting his men exercise their hatred on the Amani Chieftain.

Lina approached first. So as not to unduly alarm Halduron or his company, she decided it was best to advance without using the trait rogues specialised in. From the scorched forest she walked into the clearing holding up both hands in full view. Yathas and Sa'themar followed suit.

Their presence was noted by a few of the rangers who instantly readied their weapons but hesitated when they saw the visitors extend amnesty.

Halduron had sat with his back to the rogues but on seeing his men react he quickly assumed a fighting stance. When he recognised Lina and Yathas, he lowered his sword and signalled his company to do likewise.

His welcoming smile was fleeting, exhaustion possibly the reason. He greeted them with a bow, his eyes taking in the platinum-haired man who accompanied them.

"It is good to see you, Halduron," Lina offered, uncharacteristically nervous.

The young man's eyes moved back to Lina. "And you Lina. Yathas." His attention shifted once more to Sa'themar.

"This is the leader of The Crimson Blade, Sa'themar Nightflame," Lina advised.

Halduron offered a curt nod which the guild leader reciprocated.

The young Farstrider's countenance was stern. "And to what do I owe the pleasure of your presence in this burnt-out, forsaken place?"

Lina was noticeably taken aback by the ranger's tone. 

Another voice unexpectedly intervened. A woman emerged from behind some of the rangers. She was striking with vibrant red hair and a presence which demanded reverence.

Sa'themar observed with interest the dynamics playing between his rogues and the Farstriders. He decided to let Lina and Yathas lead.

"Lady Liadrin," Lina inclined her head. Again Yathas did likewise. The woman's eyes rested on Sa'themar, clearly awaiting his accolade. A moment later he obliged.

"Lina," Liadrin replied facing the Firefury woman. "Forgive Halduron's rather testy welcome..." she flitted her gaze to the young ranger before focusing once more on the three rogues. "It has been a harrowing few days, I am sure you will appreciate."

"Understand yes, appreciate – no," Lina said quite firmly.

The woman smirked. "You are still as feisty, I see."

"I'm afraid that will never change."

A small ripple of laughter passed between the two. Lady Liadrin stepped closer, encouraging Halduron to accompany her.

The two women looked at each other. A silent communication between them was sensed rather than perceived. Sa'themar remained quiet nonetheless.

"I think we share a similar opinion, Lina," Liadrin reassured.

The female rogue straightened, her acuity of the intimation clear. She directed her response to Halduron. "You are an exceptional Lieutenant and have proven your ability, loyalty and worth countless times. Equally, you have always demonstrated a wisdom beyond your years, Halduron. Why, therefore, are you allowing this barbaric treatment of the Chieftain?"

The young Farstrider's jaw tightened. He spoke with deference, but nevertheless, there was a touch of reproach in his tone. "It is out of my hands."

"And whose hands, therefore, is it in?" Yathas enquired.

The young ranger did not respond. At this point, Sa'themar could no longer maintain his silence. "You do realise your chances of survival between here and Silvermoon are not in your favour?"

The Lieutenant's eyes were hard when he looked at the guild leader. "I do not understand what you are implying."

Sa'themar openly guffawed. "Come now," he began. "You have not acquired the position you boast through ignorance or stupidity."

"Sa'themar!" Lina protested.

Lady Liadrin watched the exchange with mild amusement.

Sa'themar continued. "No! He needs the bare facts reiterated so he doesn't have to live the rest of his life – if he survives long that is – regretting a misplaced idea of who should rightly decide the punishment of the Amani Chieftain."

"Well put," Liadrin added. "And I wholeheartedly agree."

Halduron huffed and crossed his arms.

Sa'themar was momentarily caught off-guard by the praise afforded from the Blood Knight and his mouth involuntarily twitched at the corners.

"As you have surmised what my intentions are Sa'themar Nightflame, might I ask once more, to what do I owe the pleasure of your esteemed presence? Are you here to help or hinder me?" Halduron posed.

From the sidelines, Brett watched the group as they conversed. He wasn't completely sure if it was going in the Blade's favour, but as always, he would bide his time and keep the troupe back unless it was necessary for their intervention.

A low menacing laughter drew his attention towards the prisoner chained to the old broken-down building. The troll was also watching the young Lieutenant and his visitors. He seemed to find it rather amusing.

The crunch and crack of brittle twigs in the undergrowth made Brett turn swiftly. He was met with Alaen and the other mages and priests being marched into the clearance by a small band of rangers. He watched as they passed where he remained cloaked in shadows.

Alaen was being his usual self, craftily issuing a needless warning. "Well, I advise you all to say and do nothing," he spouted, ensuring any nearby stealthed rogues heard while pretending he was speaking to his fellow captives. "Won't do with us all in trouble, now would it?"

The Lieutenant on seeing the new group of individuals entering the clearing commented, “Well, it seems you have come with something in mind certainly, so please do enlighten me.” 

Lina jumped in before Sa’themar could utter a word. “Halduron, please! I know you are a fiercely loyal friend to Lor’themar, but do you think taking the Chieftain to him would serve as some sort of abstersion from the wrongs he suffered at the hands of Zul’jin? You are risking many more lives in doing so.”

The lieutenant looked squarely at her. “Are you suggesting we sit and do nothing, Lina?”

“Do nothing? You seem to have kept yourselves amused for the past few days,” Sa’themar commented pitching a thumb at the creature chained to the ruins.

The call of a hawkstrider encircled the camp. Instantly the rogues were on alert. Halduron did not miss the change in the visitors' awareness. “A signal?” he enquired, readying his sword. His company, including Lady Liadrin, also prepared for battle.

“Indeed,” Sa’themar replied drily. “Seems your “fun” has finally drawn the attention you really don’t need.”

The sound of missiles whistling through the air was heard mere seconds before the surrounding woods erupted with roars and the clashing of weapons. Dull thuds peppered around the clearing as spears, axes and arrows hit the ground narrowly missing some of the rangers.

Another hawkstrider call and Sa’themar knew his troupe were engaged in battle around the perimeter. “I sincerely hope you have more people out there defending,” he shouted over his shoulder at Halduron.

“Yes, I do,” the Lieutenant shouted back as he deflected troll missiles with his sword. “I have ninety men in total.”

“Well, remember that number and see how many you can account for when this is over!” The guild master quickly stealthed as the first of the trolls appeared in the clearing.

Two tusked marauders were instantly incapacitated, folding over as Sa’themar’s blades tore open their bellies. Innards fell to the damp, blackened ground, their sickening coppery scent rising on thin swirling vapours as the warm organs mingled with the cool evening air. As the huge bodies hit the ground squirming, Sa’themar spun back and quickly slit their throats - their death-rattles lost amid the increasing sounds of clashing weapons, tribal roars and shouts.

More spears rained down into the clearing this time claiming one or two of the rangers. Alaen signalled to his fellow mages. Chanting in unison, polychromatic domes spread above them acting as a shield preventing any more missiles entering the camp from on high. Sounds of flint and wood bouncing off the enchanted canopy confirmed the shield’s effectiveness.

The priests aided the injured rangers. Luckily the wounds inflicted were not fatal or life-threatening and they healed quickly. The offending weapons were tossed aside.

Lady Liadrin cleaved her way through several trolls, finishing a few with decapitation. Blood spatters covered her armour, hands and face but she fought on with notable skill.

Halduron equally impressive moved nearer to the ruin in a bid to prevent the trolls from reaching their Chieftain. At one point he had six of the tusked warriors coming at him but he pushed them back, wielding his sword with admirable proficiency.

Alaen, on seeing the young lieutenant trying to hold off the rescue party uttered a spell which produced a circle of fire around the Chieftain. Halduron acknowledged the mage’s assistance with a nod.

Enemy numbers had to be kept to a minimum for those in the centre to stand a chance and the mages came to the forefront blasting away the trolls who charged into the camp in droves. Bodies were thrown through the air on blinding jets of frost and arcane sorcery. Ejected from the epicentre of battle the battered and winded trolls were left to the mercy of the combined forces of rogues and Farstriders who fought around the perimeter.

Rivers of blood congealing with the scorched earth made it difficult for the allies to keep their footing and many had slid along the coppery forest floor. Although the night rid the world of her colours turning everything black and grey, it was not hard to assess the slick coating on the armour of both rogues and rangers was attributed to the blood drawn from battle. From some laboured breathing and limping individuals, it was also apparent some of that crimson flow was their own.

Brett managed to keep an eye on the fight within the centre of the camp and he slashed and gouged his way through the enemy. He also had to gauge how the rest of the troupe were faring. From what he could see, at least four were down, their mutilated bodies trampled into the charred undergrowth. A few rangers lay close by in a similar state. Now was not a time to grieve for fallen comrades, now he had to focus on the living.

The hawkstrider call echoed around the camp again and the remainder of the troupe moved in. It felt like an age since the battle had begun but the reality was about twenty minutes, half an hour tops. It was a fierce fight though, and it was starting to take its toll on the allies.

Lina and Yathas had tried to keep the mages and priests protected as well as fight off the trolls who targeted them as well. Lina’s blonde hair was matted, clinging to her face and neck, exhaustion was starting to wear her down.

She glanced at her husband. Concern in his eyes made her smile reassurance. He nodded. He too was starting to feel the effects of the fight. Breathing deeply, he pulled himself upright and lunged at another oncoming troll. He brought his weight down on his blades. They gouged a trough down the troll's chest, it’s customary symbolic neckwear popping and pinging as the sharp edges were drawn down. Yathas fought the need to shake away the blood spatter from his face; even with this type of injury, the troll could still inflict immeasurable damage to him if he so much as blinked.

The troll’s yellow eyes contained disbelief and insurmountable fury as it saw its skin being sliced open, blackened rivulets of blood coating the waistband and britches below. The thick slop of guts hitting the existing pile of corpses was barely audible above the surrounding clash. A speedy change in grip of his daggers and Yathas yanked the blades back up and to the sides, practically skinning the troll before it crumpled to its knees. The final slice across the throat ended the creature’s life. It fell forward, joining its dead comrades.

Glancing back at his wife Yathas and Lina shared another smile, weary though they were. Still, the troll corpses littered at their feet was testament to their ability and stamina so far.

Halduron had kept close to the Chieftain, determined to keep him as his prisoner. His attackers were relentless and equally as single-minded to reach Zul’jin. With sword slick in enemy blood, he parried and lunged pushing the trolls back. But no sooner had he gained distance between them and their Chieftain more came from another direction - and he was tiring. 

As he turned to face the latest onslaught, a searing pain shot through his side.  Shocked, he stared at the attacker then his eyes travelled along the shaft of the spear driven into his body. He staggered back. The troll kept advancing, forcing the elf against the wall of the ruin. The young Farstrider stared defiantly into the yellow eyes of his attacker.

“Fi wi Chieftain belong to wi,” the troll drawled, its ochre-tinged tusks coated in blood and saliva.

His face twisting with pain, Halduron refused to relinquish his prisoner. “That fiend will be served justice this day.”

The troll’s guttural laughter washed over the elf’s tortured expression. “De only justice served dis day will be fi yuh death.” He twisted the spear, causing the elf to roar.

The sound of a huge blade swinging through the air made the elf look up. Just in time, he saw Lady Liadrin behind the troll arcing her sword round to take out the enemy out. The elf ranger slid down the wall as the troll parted company with its head. The spear had gone straight through, the tip catching on the stone as Halduron fell.  Liadrin ran to his side and inspected the wound.

She cupped his face in her palm. “It’s bad, Halduron, but I can heal you. It’s going to hurt some more first, though, I have to remove the spear."

The Lieutenant managed a nod and braced himself for more pain as the Blood Knight rolled him gently onto his side. Managing to open a pouch on his belt Halduron withdrew a thick leather block. He put it to his lips and smirked at Laidrin. “Just for such emergencies. Won’t do if I bite my tongue off as well,” he tried to joke. She smiled, then he bit down on the leather.

“Ready?” she asked.

Again he nodded. She placed her foot as near to where the shaft entered his body as she dared. Bending down she applied pressure, then grabbing the protruding part of the shaft she forced her foot down and pulled up at the same time. The snap of the wooden shaft was drowned by the Farstrider's cry of pain.

Ensuring no loose splinters were on the part still within the elf, Liadrin moved behind him. Taking a firm hold of the spearhead she pulled until the weapon was clear from Halduron’s body. She cast the spear aside.

Shuddering from the experience, the brave Farstrider Lieutenant lay limp, reflections of the mages’ magical bolts and persisting shield reflecting in his azure eyes. The ground suddenly adopted a warm golden glow as Lady Liadrin called upon the Light to help her heal her friend. 

He wondered if he had drifted off for a while for when he opened his eyes again, the sky was dark, nothing more than the moon and millions of stars lighting the world. There were no sounds of battle either. Only muffled voices nearby. He slowly pushed up, propping himself on his elbow.  Squinting to adjust to the darkness he scanned the camp. Rogues and Farstriders helped each other tending wounds until the priests could do their work. Others ventured to the lake's edge and splashed their faces with the cool water, some even immersed their whole head, ridding their hair of the blood, sinew and guts which had resulted from the gory battle.

Sa'themar's words came back to haunt him.  "See how many you can account for when this is over!”  Making a haphazard guess from the bodies milling around or sitting in front of small campfires, he reckoned he had lost about a third of his company. Sighing heavily, he sat up and rested his back very gingerly against the ruined wall.

Then he saw it.

A pair of leather-booted feet stopped beside him. He did not need to lift his eyes to know who presided over him. The guild master did not speak and Halduron knew he was waiting for him to utter the first words. "They got him." He said simply. 

Sa'themar huffed. "What you left of him, yes."

"We did not do that!" Halduron pointed to the severed arm chained to the adjacent wall.

"No, he managed that himself with the spear that impaled you no less. But, your men did beat him up until he was all colours of the rainbow, no doubt with several fractures and not forgetting a missing eye."

Halduron finally lifted his eyes and looked up at the darkened high elf next to him. "I understand now," was all he could offer.

Sa'themar hunkered down next to the Lieutenant. "I have no doubt you thought you were doing the right thing, lad. Our - sometimes misguided sense of duty has shaped many of us into becoming the thing we hate.  You, from what I have been told by Lina, Yathas and the Lady Liadrin, are one of the strong. You are a natural leader who has an impressive military record." 

The guild leader looked over at the severed arm.  "This ... glitch in your performance is a lesson, Halduron. Yes, there is always cost in war and a high price it is for some, that cannot be laid at your feet. However, know this." He faced the Farstrider Lieutenant once more. "You have inadvertently created a god. That creature limped out of here, battered, disfigured, some of which was carried out by his own hand. If that does not make him transcend to the seat of their gods or Loa, or whatever, then nothing can. And once he takes that throne, his people will worship him like a god. He will be unstoppable."

"I should have killed him," the Farstrider admitted.

"Yes, you should have, the moment you captured him. I believe your friend, Lady Liadrin, even tried to tell you that."

Halduron nodded. 

Sa'themar stood tall again. "It was an error in judgement. You will need to learn from it because this is not over yet. And next time, you may not be so lucky to survive." The guild master then left the young Lieutenant to consider his future.

 

     

From deep within the troll city of Zul'aman, the witch doctors tended their Chieftain's wounds, bathing, applying elixirs and bandages where required. He sat brooding on his throne, picturing every face that had tortured him. He also recalled three strangers who walked into the camp and spoke with the Farstrider Lieutenant.  He remembered a name and muttered it under his breath.

"Wat was dat name yuh just utta?” a voice said from Zul'jin's right.

He grunted turning his one eye towards the female who had entered. The click-clack of beaded necklaces and hair adornments was strangely comforting to the Chieftain.  He held out his right hand to the Hexer who visited. She graciously accepted and stepped up to the throne where she planted a small kiss on his brow. He squeezed her hand, laughing lightly. "Dawta," he said. "Yuh ah mi bess medicine."

The female troll smiled and looked over her father. She shook her head, vexation furrowing her brow as she noted all his injuries. “Dey mus suffa fah wat dey ave don to yuh, fada.” Anger mixed with sadness swam in her eyes.

Zul'jin straightened on his throne. “Everybody wan to tek fram wi. Now wi guh start taking bak,” he growled.

“Let mi help yuh,” she said.

“Fret nah, Tulu,” he comforted. “Anybody wo get inna way... gwona drown…inna deir own blood.”

Tulu clasped her father's hand to her cheek. A tear rolled from her eye and trickled over his knuckles. 

“Ah, yuh still be grieving, gyal.” Zul'jin said to his daughter.

 “Yes, dey took fram mi, too. Just gimmi ah name, fada, mi ave fi mi own ways of helping.”

The Chieftain looked at her. He managed the semblance of a smile. “Dere a too nuf…” he tried to deter her.

"Mi want dat one yuh uttered before - mi wish only dat one!" she said, stroking the strands of hair tied to her belt.

Resigned that she would not relent, he sighed deeply, then granted her wish. "Nightflame," he said.

Tulu grinned, satisfied.

     

Chapter Text

The rogues and Farstriders stayed no longer than they had to in the burnt and bloodied landscape at Darrowmere lake. Sa'themar had his mages portal them all to Silvermoon City where word reached the Ranger-General that the company of Farstriders had returned. Arrangements were made with other priests and magi to bring the dead to Silvermoon as well. There they would be reunited with their families before receiving the traditional and honourable exequies.

Those who survived would also be given some time to heal properly, regain some strength before returning to their duties. As for the rogues, if at all possible they would also have a little relaxation before heading back to headquarters.

Some of the Blades had never visited Silvermoon before and they absorbed its beauty with awe as they walked through the Walk of Elders and on towards the Royal Exchange.  

The city bespoke the nature of high elf society in its grandeur; its vibrant colours, the wide walkways, cultivated gardens, singing fountains and pristine architecture. Suspended over the streets, red and gold banners heralding the phoenix emblem rippled and snapped taut in the breeze.

Enormous statues stood sentinel at sheltered junctions separating the city's districts. Eyes rose to the stone-armoured figure of Dath'Remar Sunstrider as they entered the junction which opened to the Royal Exchange. Even for those who were not overly familiar with the elves' history, there was no denying the figure of the first King in the Sunstrider dynasty was the embodiment of a man who had once possessed immense power, nobility and foresight.

Sa'themar noted the awe-struck troupe and obliged by telling them a little about the man who led his people to the shores of Lordaeron.

Strangely, for all he hailed from a wealthy and powerful Highborne family, Dath'Remar was markedly different from his night elven brethren. For one, the night elves were a nocturnal people, worshipping the deity Elune (Moon) and the Sunstrider family name, which in itself was odd, literally meant "He Who Walks The Day" in Darnassian.  Secondly, his auburn hair bore streaks of gold, again more in keeping with Belore (Sun).

Banished from their native land due to their heavy dependency on arcane energies (plus an unfortunate display of power gone awry in Ashenvale, Kalimdor) and after many years at sea, they landed upon the shores of what would become known as Lordaeron.

Initially, they settled in Tirisfal Glades, but that settlement was stricken with strange maladies and madness. It was believed something ancient and evil slumbered deep in the bowels of the land and this somehow had affected the well-being of the elves.

As the years passed, the general appearance of the high elves became more removed from their night elven kin. This was due mainly to the absence of the Well of Eternity, their life-giving force for eons. The basic physical attributes of tapered ears, elongated eyebrows remained. However, a slight reduction in their height ensued and their colouring waned from the inherited violet hue of their moon-worshipping relations.

Dath'Remar had no option but to move his people on and he established a foothold within the northern troll-dominated lands. There he discovered ley energies which offered the promise of a more familiar habitat.

Battling with the native trolls, they finally reached the northernmost tip of the lands and there, Dath'Remar and his elves created the Sunwell. Finally, a mystical font derived from a stolen vial which contained waters from the original Well of Eternity would replenish their strength and vigour. 

Sa'themar grinned at his rapt audience and finished with a flourish. "And here ends today's lesson." He was answered by a few impressed mumbles.

Moving on through the Royal Exchange, the human and dwarf contingent of rogues were looked upon by the city-dwellers with a haughty indifference. Seldom had such individuals set foot in the Jewel of The North, as some referred to Silvermoon, but it was understood that they were allies, albeit not to everyone's affinity. 

Nearing another junction, Lina suddenly halted and turned to face Sa'themar. Yathas seemed somewhat embarrassed and remained a step behind his wife. The guild leader looked questioningly at Lina.

"I have a confession to make," she whispered.

Sa'themar glanced at Yathas. From his apologetic expression, it was plain to see this was a delicate matter. Sa'themar signalled to the others to stay put and he moved a few yards away with the Firefurys. His azure eyes held concern for the woman who by all accounts was becoming more uncomfortable by the second. "What is the matter?" he asked gently.

This was so unlike Lina. There was a lugubrious attempt at a smile as she turned her eyes toward him. "We – want to visit our children," she said.

Sa'themar smiled, relieved that was all which concerned her. "Well, of course, you do! I would have been surprised if you did not. I look forward to meeting them," he beamed.

Once more she hung her head. Sa'themar was perplexed, he simply did not understand the problem. He looked to Yathas, finding Lina's awkwardness unfathomable. The man stood forward, taking his wife's hand as he did so. "Our children do not know what we do," he offered. "We have spun a yarn that we are tanners. I am supposed to have a shop in Capital City."

Sa'themar stumbled back but quickly corrected his footing. He had never heard the likes of this before. "They have no idea you are rogues?" he asked, incredulous.

"No." Yathas confirmed.

Sa'themar looked at them both, still at a loss. "But why? And how? I mean, how can you keep such a thing secret?" Yathas was about to re-iterate the tanner cover-story, but the guild leader dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "Apart from the shop!"

Lina met his eyes. "I do not wish my children to think of me as a murderer. I do not want to have to explain why I took someone's life."

The other rogues looked on with interest but, thankfully,  were well out of earshot. The guild master gave them a quick look, his eyes lingering only on Brett, whose reticent features subtly indicated he was aware of the situation.  Sa'themar sighed heavily and looked back at the Firefurys. "We are at war, Lina," he tried to reason. "Many of us, and I am not just talking rogues, have to kill or be killed. It is survival we fight for."

"I am talking outwith war, Sa'themar!" Lina's eyes flashed. "How do you explain to a four-year-old girl that mummy and daddy kill people for a living?"

Still, her rationale was bewildering. He opened his mouth to speak again but the woman silenced him. "I do not question how you bring up Sauren, please do not analyse my methods of raising my children."

It was a rare occasion indeed when the guild master was lost for a response. After a few moments' awkward silence, he stepped back. "Go then," he said gesturing they depart. "Spend time with your young ones. I will send Alaen to let you know when we return to - the shop." He made to move away.

"Please!" Yathas stammered. Sa'themar turned to meet the rogue's remorseful eyes. "We do not mean any offence. We are proud to be Blades."

The guild master stood, hands behind his back, swaying a little on the balls of his feet, his leather armour creaking as he moved. He managed a furtive smile and turned once more to rejoin the rest of his troupe.

"You are most welcome to meet our children, Sa'themar, but they cannot know..." Lina said moving forward so she did not have to raise her voice.

Once more Sa'themar halted. Turning askance, he answered from behind the curtain of hair which slid over his shoulder and concealed his face. "Thank you, but, I am what I am, Lina. I cannot pretend to be anything else." He heard a small gasp escape her. He moved on and marched away with his troupe.

 

Music: DIARY OF A WORKING MAN || Blackfoot

   

 

On a small balcony, above Murder Row, Sa'themar Nightflame sat alone. His azure eyes were set on the western horizon, watching Belore's jewels dancing on the sea's surface as she cast her final blessings for the day. The heavy scent of Sin'Cierbita, Blood Thistle, rose in the air. The aroma was oddly more potent at sunset when the flower's crimson petals slowly changed to black with the fading light. 

He had almost forgotten how beautiful the city was, particularly at this time of day. A soft smile played on his lips as he drank in the warm colours of the sun's rays. Strange to think he used to watch them from the cliffs, imagining they stretched across the waters to share one last kiss with the shore before the veil of night cloaked everything in shadow.

He was suddenly steeped in nostalgia remembering his youth when he would dart around the city with his friends. The tricks they used to play on each other, as well as the community, were a source of great amusement; harmless pranks but at the immense annoyance of many citizens. The swapping of garments for example, on neighbours' washing lines, or stealing them altogether; the sabotaging of market carts so the wheels fell off when traders started to move out – apples, oranges or bolts of multi-coloured fabrics all rolling along the walkways. He and his friends would then offer to help and the traders would grudgingly offer some coin as a thank you for coming to their aid while glaring distrustfully at the youngsters. They were, after all, suspected as the culprits, but it was never proven.

He smiled a little more as he remembered stealing kisses from young women who they went about their daily chores, utterly oblivious that he and his friends were there. The look of indignation on some and the odd one or two who blushed furiously, their eyes darting trying to see who dared be so bold. Some of his friends met their future wives that way.

He laughed lightly to himself, thinking a lot of people were relieved when his brothers and sister moved away. It was three Nightflames less to worry about, but he missed them back then. Sadly, as time went on, communication dwindled until he wondered if they were still alive. In later years, thanks to rogue networks, he found out they were, but they preferred to revel in their new lives and leave their past one well and truly behind.

The only one remaining at home and with the unrelenting battles against the trolls he had no choice but to fight and so he learned the way of the rogue. Thanks to skulking around the city for years he was well versed in the agility and cunning it took to be a shadow. He learned quickly and he rose through the ranks with ease, finding others were more than willing to follow his lead.

A gentle breeze played with his long silver hair, the tails floating and rippling before settling once more, draping over his shoulder. A few stray strands settled on the crease of his lips.  He swept them aside with fingers too elegant to belong a rogue.  His eyes settled on his knuckles, then spreading his fingers he suddenly noted Sauren had inherited the very same hands. He cocked an eyebrow at such a random thought.

His leather armour creaked as he reached for the goblet which sat atop the stone balustrade.  The wine swirled around the glass, creating a thin glossy membrane in its beautiful burgundy colour. He stared at it a few moments then swallowed a draught, its rich flavour coating his tongue and throat.  Sitting back, his platinum mane swept over the back of the latticed chair just dusting the stone floor. Closing his eyes he savoured the wine. 

He was glad he had decided to remain a little longer in Silvermoon than was really necessary. Some of his troupe were keen to spend time with their families and friends and it was not something he wished to deny them. 

The humans and dwarves in the group had been welcomed well enough by the innkeeper and they sat downstairs enjoying the roasted fare and full-bodied wines. Their laughter rippled up the stairs assuring the guild leader they were relaxed and enjoying their time in the city.

He mulled over the last two day's events. He could not deny he was seriously irked that Zul'jin had escaped his just deserts yet again. It would have been much simpler had the young Lieutenant possessed the gumption to slit the troll's throat when he came across him.  Still, he sighed not much point in dwelling over the man's foolishnessWhat's done is done. He refused to ponder over it, there was no point.

Thus his thoughts turned to the Firefurys and their strange desire to keep their lives secret from their children.  All he knew of their children were their names; Duthan, destined to join the Farstriders, Inaris who according to his parents showed an affinity for sorcery, so no doubt he would practice either the ways of the mage or warlock. And a girl, Tiene - four years of age and already as feisty as her mother, or so Sa'themar had been informed. He grinned.

There was no denying they were a close family. Lina's eyes beamed when she spoke of her children and Yathas spoke proudly of them all, recounting things they had achieved - or destroyed, as in one case of misfired sorcery from the junior warlock in the family. 

The hour was getting late and he imagined the little girl would be asleep by now. The young men would likely be relating all that had been happening in the city the past few days, bringing their parents up to speed with the latest news. 

Sa'themar knew the Firefury's had a governess who had looked after the children in their absence, but still, he also saw the look of longing in Lina's eyes. She wanted to be home with her children, even more so since she had Tiene.  Sa'themar suspected he would lose one if not two of the best rogues he had ever had the privilege to work with.

"You still moping about what Lina said?"

The guild master had been so deep in thought his right-hand man took him completely by surprise. Brett laughed as he witnessed Sa'themar flinch at the intrusion.

"I was not moping, as you put it," Sa'themar finally offered once Brett leaned against the balcony facing him.

"Oh, really?" the human rogue insinuated. He lifted his goblet to his lips.

"Yes. Really." Sa'themar put his goblet down on the balustrade, throwing a sideways look at Brett as he did so. "Alright!" he admitted. "I guess I was a little - surprised." He swept his hair over his shoulder. "I could tell you already knew."

Brett grinned. "Yes, I knew. Yathas is a very close friend, has been for many years."

The guild master nodded. He was quiet for a few minutes before he ventured, "Do you think I have been wrong in my ways of bringing up Sauren?"

Brett stopped mid-sip and lowered his goblet. Sa'themar's brow was furrowed with self-doubt. In all the years he had known him,  it was an expression which Brett could not recall having ever seen on his leader's face.  He had known him to question many things certainly, mainly to do with tactics, or who to deploy on certain missions and he regularly challenged and renegotiated payment because he felt the reward offered did not reflect the risk taken by his troops.  But, never had he questioned his ability as a father. Unfortunately, it was a province in which Brett did not feel qualified to answer.

"You are asking the wrong man," he managed before promptly lifting the wine back to his lips.

Sa'themar's eyes flicked to the human rogue then back over the darkening sea. "Forgive me," he said quietly noting the reserved hitch in Brett's voice. "It's just - what Lina said made me wonder."

Brett sighed heavily. "The boy is very proud of you," he said. "And he would never do anything to cause you shame – granted his foolishness recently almost cost both of you dearly, but, overall, Sauren loves you fiercely."

Sa'themar looked up, surprised. "He has said as much?"

The human rogue nodded. "Pretty much, yes."

There was no mistaking his words meant much to Sa'themar. The guild leader smiled to himself and took another sip of wine.

"And as for Lina and Yathas' decision to keep their work secret from their children, I can understand that too," Brett added.

Sa'themar nodded after a few moments. "I guess there is no right or wrong way. We simply do what we think is best for them."

This time Brett nodded. "And I would say you are all doing a fine job."

The platinum mane swayed a little in acknowledgement of the compliment. "Thank you. Having said that, it is time for that son of mine to be put through the paces. I want his training to resume tomorrow. Circumstances interrupted his lessons, but no more. If we are called on missions I want you to appoint one of the other trainers to take over in your stead."

Brett grinned behind his goblet. "As you wish."

"And I do not want you to be lenient on him. If anything, drive him harder."

Brett nodded and drained his wine. He was about to leave when Sa'themar held up his bottle offering to refill Brett's goblet. He duly accepted. The two rogues clinked goblets and took a draught. 

Sa'themar fixed his right-hand man with a steady stare. "I want him primed, able to fight with the best of us. He will be the leader one day, and I want to make sure he earns the title."

The human rogue fought to keep an impassive expression. He had no doubt the boy would excel in the ways of the rogue. As an individual and a leader, however, he had his reservations. Still, he could not voice this to his friend and colleague who doted on his son. He could only try to do his best to help mould the boy into what Sa'themar wanted him to be.

"Wider!" Sauren demanded.

Don sat in the secret pool under the throne room of Capital City's Keep. His face was spattered with berry juice, pulp and seeds.  Reed fared no better.  Sauren had a little in his hair, the soft fruit broken, mushed on his neck and chest. Out of the three, however, the half-elf was the clear winner in more ways than one.

"Oh, come on!" Reed groaned, frustrated. "You are a far better shot than that! You proved it this morning." 

Sauren laughed. "I guess I was just lucky then."

"Rubbish!" Don grunted having received another large berry to the face. "You just don't want to share!"

Sauren laughed out loud with Maya and Leola giggling beside him.

A game had developed between the three rogues and their companions. Each concubine would aim and launch berries at the other rogues' open mouths.  The prize for the perfect hit was to lay with the woman who threw the winning shot. Both Don and Reed's ladies had successfully landed their fruit in Sauren's mouth three times now, but he insisted the game continued on for a while regardless. 

As Maya and Leola's aim was awry to say the least, Sauren offered to help them.  Their little mumbles of protest made him aware they did not wish to be with Don or Reed and had been missing on purpose. With a whispered reassurance, he stood behind them in turn, his hand gently holding theirs and helped them take aim with the fruit. 

He derived fun in plastering his friends with the soft berries and listening to them whine as their chances of enjoying Sauren's concubines seemed more unlikely as each fruit hit them anywhere but their open mouths. Little did his two friends or their companions realise he had no inclination whatsoever in exchanging his carnal pleasures. 

Another fleshy strawberry splatted on Don's cheek closely followed by another landing equally recklessly on Reed's head.

"That's it!" Reed protested. "You stick with your ladies and we'll stick with ours. I'm looking like an orchard floor." 

The four young women sighed disappointment as they looked longingly at Sauren. He winked at them and indicated with a nod of his head that they fulfil his friends' desires. Their mouths curved into resigned smiles before they focused their attention on the two rogues they had been appointed.

Maya and Leola cooed, snuggling up against Sauren. Using the empty fruit bowls they started to pour water over his hair, neck and shoulders, washing away the berries' residue.

"What are we going to do about Benjamin Morely?" Reed asked out of the blue.

Sauren fixed him with a stare, his body suddenly tensing that the subject had been raised in the presence of the women. Maya and Leola sensed the change in him. "Worry not," Maya whispered. "We are sworn to secrecy."

Sauren's mahogany eyes turned to her, their fierceness softening as her sweet smile reassured him that anything discussed in the pool, stayed in the pool.  He took a deep breath then turned his attention back to Reed and Don. "He is the third on my list."

"Third? After what he did?"

"Yes." Sauren paused. "Although, I am more concerned for Mr Atherton."

"Do you think Morely would hurt him?" Don asked.

The half-elf pulled away from his concubines and sat forward. They remained at his side but halted in their grooming of him. "Not necessarily physically, but I do think he will take the old man for all he can get, as punishment for treating me like any other gentleman."

Reed quickly looked at Don then back at the half-elf. "Then what are your plans?"

Sauren's lip curled into a cruel smile. He sat back and pulled Maya and Leola to him. With his arms around their shoulders, his slender fingers stroked their cheeks and necks. They resumed their meticulous cleansing of his chest and hair. Closing his eyes, enjoying their touch, he issued his answer. "There is an old ruin out by Cold Hearth Manor. It is rumoured to have been used as a slaughterhouse many years ago.  A dangerous place indeed with all sorts of nightmarish implements just lying about, abandoned -" He opened his eyes and looked over at his friends.  He was pleased to see that neither needed much more explanation, they understood him perfectly.

"So, he has moved up your list?" Don enquired.

"No. But, we keep vigil on Mr Allerton, ensure he is not being taken for all he has by the little bastard. And then, I intend to make a start on that list." He looked back at the two beautiful women by his side. "I feel invigorated now," he smiled. "So we begin with the blacksmith, Joe Langdon and his pitiful son Adam."

"It begins?"

"Yes. For the next two days I want you, Reed, to carry out surveillance on their premises, find out when they are likely to have a quiet spell. You are unfamiliar to them so you will not raise any suspicion. You will be a potential new customer of theirs, but you will stress that the work must be done later in the day, preferably evening as you are due to leave the city soon and will be busy up until that time." 

"And what do I do?" Don asked.

"Once we have an evening reserved for our - intervention, shall we say, you will stand by and watch me take a beating..."

"What?" Don exclaimed. Everyone in the cavern expressed surprise, Maya and Leola curling themselves protectively around their young lover.

Sauren laughed lightly. "Worry not. They are fist-fighters. Adam was encouraged by his father to pummel me when I was a small boy. I took many a boot and fist to my gut back then. But I was a small, skinny lad then with no knowledge of how to fight back." His voice hardened. "They just saw a weak, privileged little freak who shouldn't even have been born..." 

The two women at his side cuddled in even more, their hands caressing his chest and lips brushing his skin. The sensation calmed him a little. He squeezed their shoulders lightly. "I am not, however, that pathetic little boy any more. I know enough to show them their hateful ways and vile bigotry shall earn them nothing but a painful end."

"Still, I cannot be expected to just stand there," Don pleaded. "I'm your bodyguard for goodness sake." Calissa and Ellen closed in around him, almost mimicking Sauren's lovers in their attentiveness to the half-elf. Don melted at their touch.

"I have it all worked out Don, you will know when to move in." He reached back for his goblet of wine and took a sip.

"Do you have a timescale for the others?" Reed enquired, his breath hitching as his playmates started toying with him once more.

"I have no doubt my father will insist on vigorous training for me after the Blackened Woods incident, so scheduling times will be difficult although not impossible. I suppose another advantage will be the improvement of my skills. I had a little taste of my potential with the trolls, and I know I will be a fastidious student. So, for the time being gentlemen, we will focus as I say on the Langdons, make sure Mr Atherton is unharmed and last but definitely not least..." He turned and kissed both of his ladies. "We shall enjoy the pleasures these beautiful women bestow upon us." 

The cavern soon filled with the sounds of passion and release. 

A fleeting shadow moved over the far wall. Unbeknown to the writhing bodies in the pool, their conversation had been noted to the last detail and a pair of green eyes bore witness to their sexual preoccupation in the water. With a satisfied and slightly vindictive smile, the figure moved quietly and slid through another secret entrance to the underground pool.

Chapter Text

     

 

Early next morning the whoosh of heavy drapes being opened and the corresponding daylight streaming into the room abruptly woke the young half-elf. Blinking against the brightness his blurred eyes fixed on a figure standing next to his bed.

“Father?” he mumbled. He was vaguely aware of a dull pounding in his head, no doubt from his ample consumption of the pressed grape the day before.

The Guild Master loomed over him, his thumbs hooked through the belt-loops of his waistband. He was dressed in casual attire, a fine linen shirt tucked into black britches. His silver hair was worn loose, long strands hanging over his shoulders and chest as well as the mane reaching down to the base of his spine. He allowed his son long enough to focus and push himself up against the pillows.

Sauren rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. Feeling it would be an impertinent act in front of his stern-faced father, he fought to suppress the threatening yawn. The blur left his eyes and once more he looked up at Sa’themar.

The azure eyes did not meet his mahogany ones, instead, they seem focused on the scar below his ribs – and the marks on his chest which were clearly scratches from fingernails. Absentmindedly, Sauren pulled the sheet up and folded his arms, keeping it in place.

His father looked directly at him now, his expression unfathomable. “You will resume training today. There will be no more interruptions. Should Brett be required elsewhere at any time he will appoint one of the trainers to continue in his absence.”

“Yes, father,” Sauren replied. He was normally good at interpreting his father’s tone, but this morning it was different, abstruse, hermetic. It gave rise to Sauren’s curiosity and he wanted to ask how the mission had fared, but something in his father’s eyes staid his tongue.

A long pause stretched between them before Sa’themar spoke again. “I may not have witnessed you sneaking into the exercise courtyard when you were younger, but I know you did not develop as you are now without some form of vigourous workout over time. Plus, you never did leave everything as you found it, so I knew, for all you thought I did not.”

Sauren swallowed. He was unsure where this was going. Nevertheless, he sensed his father was not finished and so he remained quiet.

“I also know I have been absent during some of the many academic and progressive achievements in your young life - and I regret that more than you realise. But, I am aware of your acumen, the innate knowledge you have acquired through your studies and observations. I am -proud of you.”

The half-elf’s silence prevailed, rooted by his father’s praise. 

Sa’themar turned, his head lowering just a shade as he moved to the foot of his son’s bed. Without looking at Sauren he spoke once more. “You will be leader one day and I have no doubt you will strive to ensure the Blades continue to grow and become the best there is. I also want you to be respected, someone for others to aspire to and admire…” He then faced his son, something of a wistful smile hinting at the corners of his mouth. He raised a long slender finger and pointed to Sauren’s chest. “Over and above those of the female persuasion, I mean.”

The half-elf lowered his eyes, unexpectedly embarrassed that his father had deduced his recent activities.

The sound of Sa'themar's boots dully clicking on the steps descending from his bedchamber made him look up again.

As the Guild Master's back receded from view, he called over his shoulder, “Let not the intemperance of seduction distract you from your training, Sauren.  Now, get dressed and prepare for your workout. Be in the courtyard in fifteen minutes.”

Sauren listened as Sa’themar crossed the outer chamber followed by the door opening and closing with a dull thud. The youngling sat, still somewhat confused by his father’s mood. Glancing down he noted the telltale scratches. A small guffaw vibrated in his throat. The Gods forbid Sa’themar saw his ass.

Throwing back the covers he rose, a little gingerly at first. His mouth felt dry, and the threat of bile rising was not far away. With a deep breath, he stumbled a little to the washroom and proceeded to freshen up for the day ahead.

     

The courtyard was already awash in the morning sunshine and readied for the Crimson Blades students’ training. A roll-call was being carried out by each trainer as pupils gathered around them. Sauren watched all the new starts mull around, all looking uncertain of what awaited them. He grinned, not entirely unsympathetically, but with a degree of certainty that some would not make the cut. This first month would sort out the already adept, the complete novices to the utterly useless (one or two would have slipped through the selection process on a bed of lies, without doubt). Then finally, each successful group would be assigned to appropriate mentors.

The dry, dusty ground close to the storehouses boasted four rows of wooden targets, some with padded ‘limbs’ which all sat regimental, several yards to the right of where Sauren had emerged from the tower. These were designed to aid the development of different attacking styles and enhance a rogue's blade-throwing ability. The sight reminded the half-elf that his two friends would need to return the dummy in his chambers to its rightful place.

Continuing on, various constructs of different heights and widths were strategically placed in the centre of the grounds. Their purpose was to determine trainees’ guile as well as stretch their fortitude to the limit. Tiered seating surrounded the obstacles enabling trainer observation and an assemblage of fellow trainees to view those being put through their paces.

Beyond that a square area was cordoned off for basic exercising to take place; the warming up of muscles and stretching so as not to cause stress to the body before more gruelling tests. This would be the main port of call for first-year students - after the cleaning of stables and latrines, of course. A similar exercise pen lay a few yards to the left of it and another beyond that. The latter benefited the more advanced individuals, which at the moment consisted of only the trainers and elites. It would be a while before students reached that stage.

Sauren noted one or two professionals already going through their routines - including Lina Firefury. His steps slowed as he watched her. Such grace, he observed, even in the simplest of manoeuvres. His mind flitted back to the battle in the Blackened Woods where Lina and Yathas consummated the most perfectly synchronised attacks. They moved with such fluidity, their timing and intuitive evaluation of each situation seconded to none.

Her series of dynamic stretches held him captivated. He absorbed every move, assessing the muscles being worked and the benefit which attributed to the female rogue’s expert delivery. A wish formed in his mind - to find someone who would compliment him in battle as the Firefurys did each other.

The sun’s glow radiated in the woman’s hair making it appear a lustrous, liquid gold. All senses fused giving rise to his appreciation of the woman in the all too familiar arena of lustful thought. He smiled to himself; perhaps someone would compliment him in that way too one day. His father’s parting words interrupted his reverie; “Let not the intemperance of seduction distract you from your training, Sauren.” He sighed. Father always managed to dissuade him from such daydreaming – even when he wasn’t physically present.

“She’s something else, isn’t she?” a familiar voice said to his right.

He turned to face Reed, and Don, who had just caught up with the half-elf’s left-hand man. They still looked a little peaky from the previous day's escapade not to mention the generous amount of wine. Sauren smirked. “Yes, she is. Quite…wonderful.” He cast his eyes in Lina’s direction again but was drawn back to Don, who stood trying to subtly disguise the fact he was rubbing his crotch. Sauren’s brow creased. “What the hell are you doing!” he growled, placing himself between Lina’s line of vision and that of his fidgeting friend.

“Sorry,” Don almost whined, embarrassment rising in a fiery flush from his neck. “But, I’ve scrubbed myself nearly raw. Damn well bled my cock.”

Discombobulated for a few moments, Sauren looked to Reed. The young man offered no explanation but was apparently trying to suppress a giggle. With as much control as he could muster, Sauren asked Don what the problem was with his penis.

“Bloody pips and seeds,” Don explained, still rubbing.

Reed had to look away, making a pretence of admiring all else in the courtyard. It was obvious he was about to explode with laughter.

Again, Sauren attempted to offer polite consideration to his bodyguard. “And how, pray tell, did you end up with them there?”

Don looked doubly embarrassed. “I – I tried what you did with your whores.”

“Concubines!” Sauren corrected in a hiss.

“Yes. Sorry!” Don mumbled, rolling his eyes. Clearly, Sauren didn’t like Maya and Leola being referred to as basely, but that's exactly what they were. Still, he offered sufficient apology to the half-elf.

“What do you mean you tried what I did?” Sauren enquired again.

With a resigned huff, Don explained. “When you rubbed the fruit onto Leola’s body all the way down to … to her cunt. I tried it with Calissa, but..."

The half-elf chanced a glance at Reed. His eyes were welling with suppressed laughter. “I think he got confused with the pilgrim’s bounty,” Reed wheezed. “Thought he was stuffing a turkey.”

“I did not!” Don protested hotly. “It - well it just looked like that’s what he did," he whined, nodding in Sauren's direction.

Sauren’s mouth split into a wide smile, mirth barely contained in his voice. “You idiot! I didn’t put it inside her, only on the surface. The reason being, well…” A bray of a laugh escaped him. “…because I didn’t want the problem you’ve ended up with, let alone the discomfort it would have caused Leola.”

Don bowed his head and continued rubbing his genitals. “Well, I know that now!” He shook his head, deflated by his then lack of experience. “But I didn’t at the time because I never thought about the pips getting under my foreskin as I was too…” He stopped.

“Horny,” Reed finished for him with a snort.

Sauren and Reed took up position, their backs facing their agonised friend and debated what to do while trying desperately hard not to give in to helpless giggles. After due consideration, Reed went to the dining hall while Sauren tried to comfort Don, assuring him all would be well again. A few minutes later Reed emerged carrying a bowl with a cloth over it. He handed the bowl to Don.

“What’s this?” the troubled lad asked.

“It is simply cold tea,” Reed said.

“What good is that? Is it drugged or something to stop the burning sensation?” Don pleaded.

“No,” Sauren explained. “It’s not to drink! Go into the loft in the stables and just dip your penis in the bowl. Cover with the cloth while it's soaking and it will soothe it. Best to sit down when you do that, by the way.”

Don looked at his two friends. “Are you sure?” He reached out to accept the bowl, his hand a little shaky.

“Yes. Now go, before Brett arrives and sends you off to start training.”

Don nodded and limped away to the stables, his friends, still smirking, watching him go.

“It is tea, isn’t it?” Sauren asked.

“No,” Reed replied.

“What then?”

Reed snorted again, the smile on his face infectious. “Cooking sherry.”

Sauren bit his lip and scrunched his eyes. “You evil bastard,” he laughed.

“Right!” a shout came from behind. The lads’ mirth soon dissipated at the sound of Brett’s voice. “Are we ready?”

“Yes,” Sauren replied, tight, fighting to dispel the dregs of humour from his voice.

The human rogue walked round to face them. He took his time checking them over. “Where’s the other one?” he asked, suspicious.

“He’s seeing to an injury,” Sauren replied, the faintest of twitches tugging the corners of his mouth. Reed cleared his throat in a pathetic attempt to disguise a laugh.

Brett stared at them, his obvious disbelief sounding in a low ‘Hmph’. “Well, he’ll just have to double-up when he graces us with his appearance.”

Sauren and Reed both lowered their heads at the unfortunate turn of phrase as Brett stepped back and turned towards the exercise pen where Lina was still going through her routine. “We’re going to start off with some stretches, and I want you running around the complex for a few laps, build your speed. Let’s get…”

A bestial roar came from the direction of the stables. All eyes, including those of Lina Firefury turned towards the building. A thud followed and horses whinnied, the roaring now barely a  series of disjointed grunts. From between the stalls, the dishevelled figure of Don staggered his way out, bumping into the doorway and the vertical support of the overhanging canopy. His eyes fixed on Reed and Sauren whose amused expressions infuriated him. He moved towards them, legs crisscrossing as he stumbled, his hands cupping his crotch. “Just you bloody wait!” he shouted and turned to bumble his way towards the infirmary. Questioning faces followed the enfeebled rogue as he made his way to the building at the far end of the complex.

The half-elf and his companion were still laughing when a very stern Brett glared at them, nostrils flaring and arms crossed over his chest. “I don’t know what you’ve done to that lad but I’ll find out and make no mistake, you are going to suffer also. Now git!” He gestured they enter the pen. “Lina!” he shouted over.

The blonde looked at Brett and his two pupils. She stood, hands on hips waiting for Brett to speak again.

“Put these two scallywags through their paces, will you? I need to see to the other one.” He said.

“No problem,” she answered, beckoning the boys over as Brett jogged towards the infirmary.

Sauren felt a little awkward being handed over to the female rogue who he admired so much, especially as she was now aware he and Reed had played some prank on Don.

The two boys stood in front of her, both staring at her trying to push certain thoughts to the back of their brains. Although not quite as tall as Sauren she still stood above Reed by a few inches. “Well then,” she said, looking at each in turn. “What have you done? And you may as well tell me because I’ll hear it from Brett anyway.”

Reed blushed and lowered his head. “We can’t tell you, Ma’am.”

Lina moved her weight to her left leg, her leather girdle creaking as she moved. “I have two sons at home, one is ages with you Sauren, the other is a few years older and believe me there is little you can tell me that would shock.”

Reed shifted, looking askance at Sauren. The half-elf had turned his head the opposite direction. “Well, yesterday we all…”

“We went climbing!” Sauren injected quickly, looking at Reed, eyes hot. He would not divulge their sexual exploits, particularly when it had all happened in a secret location in the bowels of the Keep. He turned his eyes to Lina, the mahogany once more toned down. “Don, unfortunately, lost his footing and his… well, a branch scraped his…erm…” He couldn’t quite bring himself to say the word penis to a lady, regardless of the fact she had two sons, whose penises no doubt she had seen many a time when they were little boys.

“Oh, I see,” she said, nodding her head in understanding.

Relieved she had accepted the fabricated explanation of the origin of Don's discomfort, he felt the rest of the story could remain unchanged and admitted what they had done.

Her mouth fell open. The boys were startled when she knocked their heads together; not hard but it took them completely by surprise. They were massaging the sides of their heads when she spoke again. “You must have known alcohol would burn, and to apply it there, well that was just irresponsible, boys!”

“Sorry, Ma’am,” Reed offered. Sauren mumbled something along the same lines, mortified that the woman he had been worshipping saw fit to crack his skull with that of his friend.

“I think it’s Don you should be apologising to, not me.”

“As you wish.” Reed spun on his heels.

“Not now!” she said forcefully. “Right now you are going to drop and give me twenty push-ups. Both of you.”

The boys shared a knowing look. Twenty was easy. Down they went and completed the task relatively quickly. Both were fit enough to endure simple things as push-ups. They were about to rise but Lina told them to stay where they were. “Put one hand behind your backs and give me another twenty using one arm. Then change arms and repeat.”

It was doable, but it ached a little. They didn’t finish the sets quite as quickly as the first, but they at least completed them.

Next, she had them doing more using their knuckles for purchase. By the end of that round, they were feeling the burn in their triceps, serratus anteriors and creeping along their pectorals. They were instructed to flip onto their backs, the next exercises being alternate crunches - again twenty. Now abdominals were starting to feel the effects. Sit-ups, twenty – core, lower back and obliques. She told them to get up and start lunges, again twenty, alternating legs. The bite began in their hamstrings and quadriceps.

The sun had risen a good bit above the horizon now and the temperature was already indicating a very hot and sticky day ahead. With all the exercising issued and the sheer determination to complete it all, the two boys shirts were clinging to their skin and hair clamped to their faces.

“Okay, go get some water,” Lina said to them. Each pen had a water bucket and ladles for the participating students' and trainers' refreshment. These were replenished by staff regularly during the day.

Sauren and Reed rested on the small bench next to the water and drank avidly. The half-elf drew his arm across his brow making his sleeve darken from the sweat. From a pocket in his britches, he pulled a thin leather thong and tied his hair back in a ponytail. He cursed under his breath that he had not thought to do that before the exercises had begun.

They sat for a few minutes, quiet, simply taking sips of water and looking around the complex. New trainees were being put through their paces too. From the expressions on some faces, it was proving hard-going for them, while others seemed to sail through whatever their trainer instructed. Chatter, shouts, hails and the occasional laugh reverberated around the courtyard. 

“She’s a taskmaster,” Reed opined, wiping away sweat that trickled into his eyes.

Sauren grinned. “That she is. Doesn’t help that we were still half-drunk from yesterday.”

Reed laughed. "True."

The boys looked towards the infirmary. "Wonder how he's doing," Reed said.

"Probably all bandaged up now," Sauren replied almost distantly. Reed's bubbling laughter, however, pulled him back to the present. The imagery struck him and he couldn't keep the smile from his face either.

"Wh - who do you think had the honours? Pretty nurse or ugly old priest?" The left-hand man managed in a whisper.

The mahogany eyes sparkled with mirth. "Stop it! We'll get into more trouble."

Reed's laughter subsided and he nudged Sauren, spilling his water as he knocked elbows with him. "I think we are by the looks of it."

The half-elf turned. From the edge of the wooden constructs, Brett's thunderous face appeared. He was striding purposefully towards them. "I guess he doesn't see the funny side," he sighed. As if there wasn't enough ill-feeling between him and Brett it seemed the gauntlets would be cast on the ground once more.

"We're going to be really sore by the end of this day I reckon," Reed said in agreement.

"Boys! Up! Give me the same again," Lina ordered.

Replacing his ladle in the water bucket, Sauren stood. "I think 'sore' will be an understatement, somehow."

Nodding, Reed joined his friend and the two of them dropped in front of the female rogue then started the whole series of sets again.

     

 

     

Chapter Text

The next few day's training was indeed intense, the focus on building strength, stamina and speed

The next few day's training was indeed intense, the focus on building strength, stamina and speed. It was something which Sauren welcomed enthusiastically. Until the complex had been acquired, he had spent years sneaking into the courtyard at his old home to use the equipment there. Granted, it had served him well, his physique had developed steadily, he was toned, his musculature well formed but the courtyard had been restrictive. Plus having no-one to show him a proper routine, or how best to escalate and progress from what he was already doing, it more often than not became a chore.

Now, however, even with Brett shouting the odds, it was invigorating, challenging and he loved pushing himself to the limit.

Reed was equally enthused. His physique had been well adapted from the basic form of training he received from his uncle. The lad embraced the physical disciplines at his disposal.

Even Don, who rejoined them two days after his 'incident', showed an aptitude for the drills they were put through. At first, of course, he wasn't for speaking to his two friends especially with all their little quips and puns they fired at him. He was grouchy.

The ice was finally broken when Reed just had to find out how the injury was treated. Begrudgingly, Don filled them in. He had indeed been bandaged, by the old priest Cyrus. Don was sure the priest smirked when he was advised of his predicament, in fact, he was positive the old sod was laughing when he left after bandaging him the first time. Nevertheless, Don admitted he was relieved, in a way, because had it been one of the young nurses instead, he was pretty sure he would have required extra bandages to cover his injured member. At that, the three boys laughed and once more they were all on good terms.

From above the courtyard, Sa'themar observed their progress, in particular, that of his son. He meandered around the upper walkway which linked the towers, stopping occasionally and leaning on the balustrade as he looked down at the pens. His azure eyes followed Sauren's progress through the different stages of the exercise regime.

A mixture of pride and melancholy swam within as he witnessed what the boy was capable of. He had indeed missed much of his son's growing up, but now all the boy's studiousness and dedication were being authenticated before his very eyes.

Sa'themar's decision to allow Reed and Don to train alongside Sauren instead of being planted in with the first-years as technically they should have been was paying off. Both the boys were proving to be healthy competition but Sauren's determination to be the best was indisputable. He was a natural, a phenom in the ways of the rogue, using not only his strength and speed but also his acuity to quickly validate an advantage and move him beyond his contesters.

There were a couple of areas where his companions did eclipse the young Nightflame and one of those was discovered entirely by accident which, in a rather un-fatherly moment, Sa'themar had found rather amusing.

It had occurred during a break in the boys' routine when Sauren and Don decided to test each other in a boxing match. Sa'themar looked on as his son's litheness enabled him to land a few punches on the heavier-set Don and artfully avoid the swings from his challenger. The blacksmith's son, however, whose obvious irritation at being hit so often, managed a manoeuvre which appeared to even take him by surprise.

Sauren had moved in to land another punch to his friend's side when Don side-stepped, spun round and brought up his fist. It smashed into Sauren's chin and lifted him straight off the ground. Rigid as a board the half-elf flew a few feet, horizontally, before impacting on the ground sending up a dust-cloud as he landed. Both Don and Reed noticeably panicked and ran to Sauren's side. They shook him, slapped him and finally threw water over him from the bucket at the edge of the pen.

Sauren coughed and spluttered then awkwardly propped himself up on his elbows. Something was muttered between the three and they helped Sauren to his feet. Next, Sa'themar heard them laughing, Don and Sauren giving each other congratulatory slaps on the arm or back. All was well. But without a doubt, Don was the one with the most powerful punch.

Reed, on the other hand, showed an exceptional, or perhaps insane talent for launching himself from heights which had many of the observing trainers and students gasp, scream and hide their eyes. He would bounce from one construct to the other, sometimes even the walls of the complex itself and he always co-ordinated each contact skilfully so to land crouched, unhurt, perfect.

Sa'themar knew these three were inseparable. Sauren had chosen his comrades well, in that, the Guild Master knew his son's future would be spent in reliable and trustworthy company.  There was a noticeable bond between them, particularly Don and Sauren. He had found out over time about some of the incidents his son had endured years before - he could not unburden the guilt he felt for not having been there when it mattered. But, thankfully, Sauren had proved to be strong-willed, a survivor and now he displayed a natural flair for the life of a rogue, his legacy. He would achieve great things, from that Sa'themar drew some comfort for his failings as a father.

 

Even though their training left them tired, hot and sweaty by the end of the day, the plans for eliminating the first name on 'The List' did not go unattended.

Reed carried out his part of the deal, watching initially to assess if there was a quiet period at the forge during early evenings. Midweek had been quiet the first spell of surveillance but he would need a little more time to be sure. Sauren accepted this, not being one who wanted it rushed therefore bungled and the guild being laid to blame for having a freak in its midst.

Sauren also kept a close eye on Mr Atherton ensuring he was not at risk from his opprobrious apprentice. One perfect excuse to gauge the situation was to pay the bill for Reed's clothes. The half-elf subtly asked the old proprietor about his new tailor while finalising payment of the goods. Quietly, the old man admitted he was starting to regret taking Benjamin aboard.

With head bowed, Sauren glanced through the doorway to the back shop and suppressed a grin from behind his curtain of hair. Benjamin was glaring at him as he stretched out a measure of fabric from a bolt of fine woollen cloth.  The apprentice continued to watch him as he placed one of his designs atop the material, his eyes only leaving Sauren once he started to chalk around the pattern.

As much as it went against the grain, Sauren pretended to be neutral and asked to see some of Benjamin's work, voicing that perhaps his designs may attract a new, younger clientele. Mr Atherton mumbled compliance but clearly, he wasn't convinced there was a future for his apprentice's creations.

He returned from the back shop with two samples of Benjamin's work and laid them on the counter. He mumbled some more, saying that the patterns and fabrics he and his late partner manufactured were timeless, classics which would never go out of fashion. These, he feared would corrupt his reputation and ruin him.

The old man's conviction was unsettling although Sauren presumed it was more to do with his disappointment he had not found someone with a like-minded approach to tailoring. Still, he would keep a close eye on the odious Benjamin Morley and do his best to ensure Mr Atherton's safety.

Concealed in shadows he skulked after the bigot, observing his habits. This helped Sauren to deliberate whether his decision to keep him at number three on the 'List' was viable or not. Although not learned in the tailor profession, he was astute enough to realise that some of Morley's shady dealings involved exchanging high-quality fabric for ones of a poorer grade and some treacherous coin. It seemed Mr Atherton's supposition of his apprentice's intentions was not misplaced. Benjamin Morely had just been promoted to position two.

Two weeks later the three rogues quietly discussed their findings in the dining hall.

Secreting themselves to a corner in the giant room they enjoyed a little supper following yet another day's training. From a nearby candelabra, golden light flickered and danced from the passage of two trainees and tutors who also sought a little evening snack. They nodded a greeting to the three young men and received a polite response in the form of a smile or incline of heads.

In a low voice, Reed opened the conversation. "Tomorrow night will afford you the best opportunity at the Langdons."

Sauren and Don waited for him to elaborate. "With Midsummer upon us, Langdon gets little business around the festivities – the pyrotechny frightens the horses and tomorrow eve being the start of it all, he only does minimal business."

"Excellent," Sauren grinned. "But, he expects you still?"

Reed cut himself a generous slice of roasted ham and slapped it on his plate along with a wedge of cheese and crusty bread. He nodded reassuringly. "Yes. I explained tomorrow night would be the only chance I had to purchase the sword."

"Sword?" Sauren looked up. The apple slice he'd just carved sat between his thumb and the blade of his anelace.

"Yes," Reed replied, rather pleased with himself. "I thought to make out I was interested in a gift for my uncle, something particularly appropriate for him. He is a warrior, so..." He shrugged, confident his reasoning was self-explanatory.

The half-elf popped the slice in his mouth. Continuing to hold his friend's stare he bit down on the apple, the crunch being the only sound in the immediate vicinity. Don stabbed a piece of ham on his plate and lifted it to his mouth. He chewed, slowly, watching his friends as they eye-duelled.

A grin stretched Sauren's mouth as he cut another apple slice. His eyes dropped to his blade. "Good thinking," he praised. "Especially considering the pending celebrations."

Reed nodded, as he munched on some cheese. "Yes, I thought so myself." He smiled, pleased with his ingenuity.

"So," Sauren said, shifting forward on his seat, ensuring no-one else could hear. "Tomorrow night it is."

"I have arranged to collect the piece after nine bells."

"Perfect. You won't be paying for it," the half-elf muttered biting into another slice of apple.

Reed grinned. "Thank you!"

Sauren laughed lightly and still holding his anelace, shook a finger at him. "No. Neither will I," he said, low.

Reed stopped mid-bite and glanced at Don then back at Sauren. The mahogany eyes held him, the barest twinkle of mirth swimming within the candlelight's reflection. Reed nodded understanding. "Ah, yes. I get it."

Don smirked. "It will part of their penance - mark one, let's say."

Platinum hair rippled as the half-elf agreed with a nod and soft laughter.

"So how else do you intend to make them suffer?" Reed asked finishing off his meal.

A silence fell over the table, the two bodyguards, unblinking, watched Sauren as he pushed his plate forward and proceeded to dab his mouth with a napkin. He studied the anelace, a gift from his father, and very slowly, almost lovingly, wiped the blade clean on the napkin. "I believe the Langdon's have notable differences of opinion, shall we say; constantly bickering, sometimes quite heatedly," he offered before sliding the blade inside his boot. With his elbows resting on the armrests he steeple-jacked his fingers and studied the two faces before him. He nodded to Don to fill in the spaces.

His friend duly obliged. "There is no love lost between father and son. Many have seen Joe launch some dangerous items - you can imagine what lies about in a smithy's workshop - at Adam." Don grinned as Reed's mouth dropped open at the thought. "A few have hit the target too. Adam fights back just as viciously though. But, in one thing they are united."

Reed waited for him to continue, his eyebrows creeping up his brow as the silence drew out. Don leaned in. "They absolutely hate anything elven and the Gods should never have allowed the likes of Sauren - a half-breed."

Reed looked at Sauren. The half-elf sat, his eyes looking inward as if lost in a memory of how his lineage had invoked Langdon's prejudice. He had no doubt Sauren was justified in his want for revenge going by what he had already revealed about other incidents with the likes of Benjamin Morley.

Over the past few days, Reed had come to realise this was a not a young man who just wanted to rebel or create chaos for the sake of it. He had undergone experiences as a child which would have broken many or made them withdraw, fear society, seek shelter from its divisions, its dark and hateful side. Instead, he had bided his time, purposefully feeding his brain with knowledge of the world, its people, their loves and hates, wars, politics, returning heroes and the fallen. Sauren's intellect was expansive and he continually fed it, listening to and observing all around him. He was quite formidable for his young years and Reed had no doubt he would become a man who wielded power as efficaciously as the most accomplished of warriors did their trusty weapons. For now, however, he decided not to press for an explanation. 

Another silence fell over the three boys. Eventually, Sauren rose from his reverie and looked at his friends. Scrunching the napkin in his hand he cast it on the table. He pushed his chair back and stood as a young serving girl approached to remove their plates, goblets and cutlery.

Silently she went about her duty, unperturbed by the son of the Guild Master and his two friends. Sauren thanked her once she had everything carefully balanced on her tray. When she moved back towards the kitchen he spoke. "An early night is in order, I think. Goodnight, gentlemen." Without waiting for a response, he turned and left.

The two remaining watched his receding back; unspoken questions hanging in the air. Don stood next, quickly followed by Reed. "We will go over the finer details in the morning. Perhaps he is right, an early night will do us good."

Reed nodded. Together they left the dining hall and headed to their dorms.

 

The rope bit into his wrists as he struggled against the constraints which had him dangling from the wooden beams of the workshop. A charcoal-stained rag had been rammed into his mouth, the cloth tasting vile and making him retch. His earlier hopes that someone was being nice to him for a change, had been brutally dashed.

He had seen the blacksmith's son, occasionally, when - depending on whether he had been pursued or not - he ran or walked past the workshop on the way home.

Adam Langdon was a strange looking individual. His eyebrows, black and bushy sat on a prominent brow which looked like a shelf above his eyes. At first, Sauren thought his blue eyes were cold, unfeeling until he saw what he could only describe as pure hatred brewing in them as the young man stood closer to him. His mouth was misshapen with a cleft lip hitching his upper lip towards wide nostrils. Yellowed, teeth peeked out from the gap the condition produced. And being at least ten to twelve years his senior, the blacksmith's son was taller and heavier than the slim-built Sauren, who was only aged seven at the time.

He'd been lured into the 'smith's workshop on the pretence of being shown the latest selection of daggers Langdon had been commissioned to make.

Knowing full well the half-elf's father was a rogue, it turned out Adam had surmised the subject of daggers would have piqued the boy's interest. Unfortunately for Sauren, his assumption had been correct. It did not take long for him to realise his gullibility had a price.

Wound around his skinny wrists within seconds, the rope was thrown up high and it looped over the lower beams. Sauren had kicked out and his pitiful voice squealed to be let down as Adam yanked him a few inches from the ground. The rag was then rammed in his mouth. With a satisfied grunt, the 'smith's son stepped back and looked at his captive.

His eyes raked over the slim, well-dressed boy with a mixture of revulsion and morbid curiosity. "Stop struggling," he ordered.

As Sauren stilled, his mind frantically thought of the people his father had over at the house on occasions. He had watched them all in the courtyard from his special hiding place; they were lithe, fast, dexterous individuals. One moment, his young brain tried to imagine how they would get out of a situation like this and the next he was chastising himself, for they would never have been stupid enough to end up like this in the first place. Still, he tried to focus, remembering some of the moves...

His knees suddenly drew up as Adam's fist ploughed into his stomach. Tears sprang to his eyes. He had never been hit so hard before and it nearly took all the air from his lungs. 

Adam laughed and pushed him so he swung on the rope. The brute moved around and landed another punch to his side. Sauren's cry of pain was lost in the dirty rag. 

"Well, at least you feel pain the same as us normal folk do, " Adam commented.

Although Sauren was brought up to never be rude to anyone, he could not suppress the thought that pinged in his head at that moment.  Adam Langdon thought he was normal?  Thank the Gods I'm a freak!

Another fist, quickly followed by another pummelled the half-elf's abdomen. Try as he did Sauren could not stop the tears falling as the blacksmith's son delivered punch after punch. He felt consciousness starting to slip and his head lolled forward.

"Oh no, you don't!" Adam said. Cold water was thrown over Sauren's head. The shock made him snap his head up, eyes wide.

"Now, then, elf boy, " Adam said standing directly in front of him again. "What else could I do to you." Sauren's panicked eyes saw Adam slipping one hand under the apron which covered his crotch.  A lecherous grin stretched the malformed lips and a low, menacing laugh bubbled in the brute's throat. Quite what he was planning Sauren didn't know, but he knew it was something really bad. His eyes darted around his surroundings, helplessly looking for something which he could use to escape. 

"Let's see what that pretty mouth of yours is capable of, freak," Adam said.

Pain shot up Sauren's legs as the rope restraint was suddenly loosened and he dropped, his knees crashing onto the stone floor. Next Adam grabbed a handful of his hair and jerked his head up. "You don't want me to hurt you any more, do you?"

A muffled whimper swallowed in the rag was all Sauren could muster. 

"Good, then you're not going to hurt me, are you?" Adam pulled the apron to the side, exposing himself.  

Dread and fear exploded in Sauren. He tried to stand, dragging his right leg round to get purchase on his foot, but his captor forced him back to his knees. Adam still had a grip of his hair, taut, the roots being tugged as he attempted to pull Sauren's head closer to his erection. He yanked out the rag and slapped Sauren's jaw. "Don't you fucking bite, freak, or else..."

No. No. NO!

Sauren bolted upright. His hair was plastered to his face, his body glistening in a fine coating of perspiration. His lips felt dry, cracked from taking in heavy gulps of air. His eyes darted from side to side, panic still keeping him rooted. Shadows surrounded him but within them, familiar shapes started to form. He was in his chambers, in bed and he had just relived an experience he had buried deep in the farthest reaches of his mind. 

He wiped his face with the palms of his hands, peeling strands of hair from his skin. Then he sat, lost in thought yet trying not to return to the memory which had been dragged up to his conscious through a dream. He closed his eyes, focused on his breathing - inhaling through his nose, exhaling by mouth. He always knew he had been victim to the father and son bigots with their name-calling, degrading remarks about him and his family, Adam's regular beatings and bullying, but that particular memory had been sealed, secured, forgotten - until now. 

He held out his hands and stared at them. Even in the semi-dark, he could see they trembled. He clenched and flexed them, willing the tremors to recede. When at last they did, his resolve had returned, along with a fierce, cold determination. 

It was time for debts to be paid. 

 

Chapter Text

 

 Morning and the house-staff went about their duties as normal in the grounds of the Crimson Blade albeit the week's end. It was never quite as busy a day as others, for many of the students spent it with their families, or if they were too far away, the youngsters milled around the grounds or even the city. It was a day for relaxation, perhaps some study in the extensive library, or even worship at the Cathedral for those so inclined.  

Nevertheless, for those still in the grounds meals were prepared and cleared away accordingly, fresh linens and bedding were provided in the dorms and the general housekeeping continued.

This particular day of rest, however, was also infused with excitement for the forthcoming frivolity – the Midsummer Festival was upon them once more. It was, as its name suggested, a celebration of the hottest part of the year. A time when people enjoyed the baking hot days and muggy evenings engaging in outdoor events such as picnics, swimming in the lake, organised competitions in archery, wrestling, sprinting, and tests of strength. The morning air on the start of this year's celebrations, however, was a little cooler than anticipated.

It was a welcome celebration which lasted for nigh on two weeks ending with truly spectacular pyrotechnics. Granted, there were some culprits who set off the odd unplanned firework during the fortnight's merriment, but if no harm resulted from such foolery it was overlooked in the spirit of the festival.

Don and Reed were looking forward to exploring the city and all the various little shows on offer, it would, after all, be a good relaxant before they saw to their plans for the evening.  Both eager for the off they nonetheless waited in the courtyard for Sauren and whiled away the time with some friendly competition. Both adequately skilled in blade-throwing, they thought to challenge each other by practising in the "advanced" pen.

State-of-the-art targets required good hand-to-eye co-ordination and expert balance. These mechanically controlled marks, therefore, were a true test of skill. Twelve objectives on two overhead pulleys were suspended at different levels and distances apart. The winding mechanism turned to its maximum potential was then released, making the targets flit left to right or spin around. Backed by wooden boarding designed to catch any misses, the marks were positioned in a wide semi-circle and the object of the trial was to hit all twelve consecutively while turning on the ball of one's foot.

A few profanities escaped the boys' mouths as they missed some of the targets and had to start from scratch.

"Damn! Almost!" Reed stamped his foot in frustration.

Don laughed and started winding the pulleys again. "What do you mean 'almost'? You missed three!"

Reed having retrieved his throwing knives scuffed the dirt under his boot. "Two better than last time and also two better than you."

"Luck! Pure luck," Don teased. He looked over at Reed who was scowling and pretending to target him. Don's laughter was infectious and soon Reed joined in the mirth as the two friends exchanged places.

The pulleys screeched and scraped as they turned the marks. Don aimed and launched his first blade. Success, then another, another and... a miss. The fifth blade landed perfectly, as did the following three. He wobbled a little, lining up once more. He pulled back his blade and...

"You're thinking about it too much," Sauren's voice said from behind him. The blade went flying into the backboard.

Don groaned, his momentum scuppered by the interruption. "Fuck!" he muttered.

Sauren grinned and offered a look of apology as his friend turned to glare at him. The mahogany eyes then looked past his shoulder. "Hurry," he encouraged. "You are running out of time." The targets' motion was starting to slow down.

Don shrugged and looked back at the marks. "No point, can't hit them now anyw..."

Without warning, three blades shot past his head and embedded on the remaining marks before the pulleys stopped moving. Don and Reed just stared. "How the f..."

"Luck," Sauren smiled at Don's exasperated face and moved past him as Reed came towards them. With a shake of his head, Don joined his friends. 

Sauren, as always was impeccably dressed even in casual attire; a plain white shirt tied loosely at the neck, tan-coloured trousers and brown shoes. A mid-length cape was flipped back over his right shoulder and fastened with a decorative yet simple silver clasp. "Well then, gentlemen," he began ensuring he had their undivided attention.  "Firstly, I want to say I know tonight is a personal crusade, one which in all honesty should not involve you. Nevertheless, I will be leader of this guild one day and I need to know those at my side will be loyal, trustworthy and carry out orders." He looked at each, in turn, studying their faces to see the slightest trace of hesitancy or doubt. They stared back, unflinching, steadfast. Sauren took a deep breath. Remnants of last night's dream still haunted him; he had to try and push it to the back of his mind again. What happened then had never been revealed to anyone, not even Don and that was how it would remain.

"These individuals are vile beyond words," he went on, his voice a little gravelly. "They repeatedly defiled my family name, my heritage; they beat me and terrorised me with threats. Simply speaking, they petrified me when I was younger. They have also berated others from the elven community here and beyond. But, tonight - tonight it is going to stop."

Reed shifted lightly from one foot to the other. "Forgive me for asking..." His eyes held a little uncertainty.

"Ask," Sauren said, controlled.

"What exactly has all this fanaticism grown from? And how come other elves have not seen fit to teach them a lesson when they have continually been derogatory to their race?"

Sauren's eyes scanned the courtyard as he carefully constructed his answer.

"The city was and is primarily the humans' domain and there are, albeit a relatively small number, those who still despise the elves for past grievances. When first the two races met it was not with pleasantries. Battles between the two ensued and they were savage. The elves had powerful magic at their disposal and they demonstrated a particular ruthlessness towards any humans who were captured. That spell of history has not been laid to rest by the likes of the Langdons. The elves, however, although many still remain suspicious of the humans, choose to uphold a questionable clemency, especially now as the current war requires the races to unite and defend the lands against the invading orcs."

"And trolls," Don injected.

Sauren nodded agreement. "However," he said, forcing himself to sound and look brighter than he felt. "Let us have some breakfast, discuss how we will proceed this evening and then..." he smiled, his perfect teeth on clear display.  "I suggest we embrace the Midsummer celebrations  which will be starting shortly." 

Melting into the shadows once more, Sauren Nightflame made his way back to The Crimson Blade headquarters

 

As the day continued to warm, so the masses descended and enjoyed the first day of the festival.  The parks were colourful and fragrant with summer blossom, jasmine and roses. Butterflies and bees busied themselves flitting from flower to flower, industrious in their pollen and nectar gathering and oblivious to the extremely vocal tradespeople calling out for townsfolk to come and buy their wares. People duly weaved their way in an out from the myriad of stalls and entered into the spirit of summer celebrations.

From a huge variety of vendors providing ample summer fare, the people could enjoy spit-roasted meats served in toasted buns, a large selection of pies made with succulent meats and vegetables, an assortment of cheeses from all over the land, fresh, juicy fruit tarts and a variety of other sweet treats and beverages.

Novelty goods in abundance ranged from dried scented petals bound in delicate little sachets, knotted with silk ribbon; colourful baubles such as necklaces, torcs, bracelets and earrings; some very outrageous garments (which would never be seen in any of the city's outfitters' windows) tunics, capes, hats all adorned in fabric flowers and flowing ribbons were surprisingly popular. 

Stands with craft items, cards, scrolls, crayons, quills, inks, beads, feathers were aplenty along with others specialising in unique fabrics and ready-made items from cushion covers, bedding and curtains to unique items of clothing. Containers, flasks, vases, perfumes and scented oils - the selection was endless.

For children there were toy torches, made from conical shapes covered in fabric stuffed with red and yellow ribbons representing flames; foam swords; kites; dolls; wood-carved and soft toys; rolling hoops and batons which had groups of children racing each other along the paths - much to the irritation of some adults who were simply trying to enjoy a summer stroll through the park.

Many travelling minstrels also descended upon the region. There was music to be found along the streets as some entertained passers-by with sweet sounding ballads and lively folk tunes. Others were found in the parks on bandstands where the audience could choose to simply listen or dance to the melodies they played. 

Areas cordoned off for safety permitted flame-throwers to thrill onlookers with their manipulation of fire by juggling flaming torches, jumping and somersaulting through blazing hoops or swallowing fire and emitting almost dragon-like fiery jets in the air.

Bonfires would be lit in the evening encouraging the city and country-folk to come celebrate more of summer's gifts.  And if one scoured the horizon as darkness fell, the red and orange glow of bonfires throughout the land could be seen for many leagues.

Browsing a stall where trinkets and pocket-watches were displayed Reed nudged Sauren. The half-elf looked at him questioningly.

"You are being admired," Reed whispered.

Sauren's mouth curved. "Admired or targeted?"

His friend laughed lightly. "Possibly both." He nodded in the direction of the stall across from them.

Sauren lifted his head and looked across to where Reed indicated. A young girl, possibly around his own age quickly glanced away as his eyes met hers. She huddled a little closer to a woman who stood beside her. Sauren assumed it was the girl's mother. He waited a moment then resumed his study of the trinkets. 

"What do you think?" Reed enquired.

The half-elf was paying particular interest to a silver pocket-watch. "Very intricate indeed," he replied, knowing full well it was not the watch Reed was referring to.

Reed rolled his eyes. "Not the watch! The girl!"

Sauren could not suppress a giggle. "What am I supposed to think? She looked away."

"Well, she's looking over again now," Don joined in the conversation as he handed over some silver to the stall-holder for a decorative cravat pin and thanked the stall-keeper. 

Once more Sauren's eyes drifted over to the girl. This time she held his gaze a little longer, offering a coy smile. He smiled back, his youthful charisma seeming to overwhelm her as she snapped open a fan and rather fervently cooled herself.

Sauren grunted and stepped round to the edge of the stall he was perusing, moving nearer to the girl. He shot a look at his two friends who were observing, encouraging him. He scowled at them but the hint of a smile played on his lips.

He casually looked back at the stall where the girl and her mother stood. It sold bolts of fabric, lace, gossamer, ribbons and coloured threads. The girl's mother was trying to negotiate an acceptable price for a fuchsia-coloured bolt of satin.

Sauren moved over, close to the girl. Her fan flapped a little more furiously. He noted her chestnut hair neatly rolled into a snood, some small tresses framing her face. Pale-skinned, she wore a little rouge, nothing harsh just a subtle shade to enhance her cheeks, although, at that precise moment, it was an unnecessary addition to her toilette; colour seemed to be rising steadily as he inched a little closer. Blue eyes sparkled from behind her fan, the irises dilating rapidly in keeping with the obvious attraction she felt towards the tall, smartly-dressed young man nearing her.

Her mother suddenly shot an acerbic look in his direction. Remaining composed, Sauren inclined his head in polite greeting and looked pointedly at the fabric she was trying to haggle for. "Forgive me, Ma'am," he said. "I just so happened to notice the colour of the material you are purchasing and thought perhaps it was for a gown for this young lady?" He gestured to the blushing girl who concealed the lower part of her face with her fan.

The woman's eyes softened slightly. "It is indeed," she replied, the dialect informing Sauren they were not from his neck of the woods.

"Then I hope you do not object to me saying it is a perfect choice." His eyes drifted back to the girl. "She would look..." The girl lowered the fan slightly, her smile sweet, tempting. In the time it took to blink he realised she was very pretty, quite becoming, in fact. His lips curled in a smile. "Exquisite," he finished.

The mother was, at first, speechless by his boldness, but then drew herself up, indignant, ready to answer with a haughty response.

"There you are!" An unexpected voice sounded from behind the woman. She turned, her skirts rustling as her attention was drawn from the half-elf.

"Duncan!" she replied, her demeanour suddenly brightening.

Sauren was most surprised to see the gentleman's tailor, Mr Atherton, appear beside the woman. Slightly stooped, he was dressed in his finery, top hat included and an ebony cane in his right hand. In all the years as a customer, Sauren had never once seen Mr Atherton outside of his shop. He kept his amused expression controlled.

"Catherine," the old tailor beamed as he kissed the back of her hand. He smiled fondly at her daughter and then he noticed Sauren. "Oh, you have met one of my favourite customers, I see."

The woman seemed taken aback and looked again at Sauren. "Well, we only just this minute..." she started.

"Ah, well let me introduce you all. By the way, where is Oscar?"

Sauren stood, hands clasped behind his back, looking on. He was aware that his two friends were watching with interest, their occasional sniggers and comments drifting over. He pretended not to hear. He also noted the stall holder was becoming exasperated waiting to close the sale of the fabric, but the woman and her daughter were distracted now by Mr Atherton.

The woman was quite articulate when answering the tailor. "He is just looking at some tinkering stand. You know Oscar, he is a hoarder."

"And an accomplished engineer, my dear. He hoards with good reason." Mr Atherton intoned.

Catherine scoffed. "Oh, really, Duncan. It is a wonder we can move in our home at all with the amounts of ludicrous things he buys, most of which, he forgets is even there for all he trips over them on a regular basis. I simply cannot keep such clutter in the house any longer, and his workshop is almost full to brimming as well..."

The expression on Mr Atherton's face was one of regret. Regret at having asked after the woman's husband. She continued gabbing on about Oscar's crusade for engineering parts when finally he decided enough was enough. "Ah, Master Sauren," he injected. "I see you are impatient to rejoin your friends." Don and Reed instantly quietened as Mr Atherton awarded them a quick wave.

"Not at all," Sauren replied, politely. "We are merely browsing and passing time."

Mr Atherton nodded then proceeded with introductions. "Well, I would like you meet some very fine friends of mine from Duskwood. They are considering moving to the city..." He quickly checked with the woman to see if that was still the plan. She nodded. He then carried on quickly. "This is Madam Catherine Alston and her charming daughter, Piper. Ladies, this is Sauren Nightflame, a very pleasant young gentleman whose father is the honourable Sa'themar Nightflame, Guild Master of the Crimson Blades."

Sauren bowed respectfully to the woman, voicing he was most happy to make her acquaintance before turning to Piper. He held her eyes for a few moments, and smiling one of his brightest smiles, he bowed to her too.

"Crimson Blades?" The woman enquired, oblivious of the guild or the name Nightflame.

"Yes, Madam Alston," Sauren replied. "Nobleman's Mercenaries, as some refer to us. My father recently inaugurated the guild on the north side of the city. You may if you wish, visit the complex, it is still open to visitors by appointment." He was positive the woman inwardly cringed. "The Crimson Blade is destined to be the most reputable and successful guild of its kind in these lands."

Madam Alston seemed uncertain whether to be impressed or aghast at such a revelation and toyed with the peridot jewel which hung around her neck. "Well then," she ventured. "I dare say we have kept you long enough, Sauren. We too have things to be seeing to, so I am sure you will..."

Sauren was aware of the woman's discomfort, although it did not seem to be from his slight elven appearance, more from his association with rogues. "But of course, please forgive me for detaining you."

Mr Atherton cleared his throat. "Such a charming young man as always, Master Sauren. A pleasure, as always, to see you."

"And you, Mr Atherton. I hope you all have a most enjoyable Midsummer Festival."

Madam Alston gave a brief nod in response.

"It was nice to meet you, Sauren," Piper volunteered, lowering her fan.

"And you, Miss Alston."

"Please, call me Piper."

The half-elf caught the look of disapproval on Madam Alston's face, but paid no heed and smiled warmly at the young girl. "I am honoured, Piper. Perhaps we will meet another time."

"I hope so," the girl breathed, not intending it to be heard, but Sauren's elven senses picked it up. His subtle acknowledgement of her sentiment had her raise the fan again in an attempt to conceal her blushes.

Rejoining his friends, the half-elf endured a couple of nudges and arm punches as they moved on into the milling crowd to enjoy the rest of the day's celebrations.

Melting into the shadows once more, Sauren Nightflame made his way back to The Crimson Blade headquarters

Music: PROTECTORS OF TRUTH|| Immediate

   

Their plan of action had been discussed over a light dinner in Capital City Inn.  On the first of the nine bells, Reed made his way to the Langdon's premises, closely pursued by Sauren and Don who remained concealed in the shadows. 

Joe Langdon was waiting for the young rogue and stood next to an anvil where he slowly, almost lovingly polished the sword he had been commissioned to make. The balding 'smith looked up as Reed's footsteps sounded on the stone floor. "You're on time lad. I like that," he said, chewing on some tobacco.

Reed halted halfway under the canopy. His eyes nipped from the workshop's odour which hung thick in the air – the stench of coal dust and molten iron mixed with quenching oils and wax. Blinking, he quickly glanced around the premises. Implements and tools placed in regimental groups and clusters were dotted throughout the workshop in buckets, racks and stands. Above him, he saw chains from which thick deadly hooks swung, the clink of the metal resulting from a combination of the rising heat in the foundry and the evening breeze circling in under the canopy. He had seen it all before, but tonight it all seemed more menacing.

"Yes, I do not take kindly to tardiness myself," Reed replied, trying to sound confident. 

The 'smith grunted at the response and tucked the rag he was using to polish the sword into his belt. He lumbered over, his large midriff making his movements slow. He may not have been the fastest creature on the planet but he was certainly strong. His hands, the size of shovels, were large and calloused from his trade, the fingernails chipped, ingrained with charcoal and oil. His arms were powerful, developed from years of angling, drawing, hammering and hardening copper, iron and steel.

Reed swallowed, trying hard to maintain a cool and collected facade. For all his friends were close by, knowing what was about to happen was a little unnerving, to say the least. He just hoped Sauren's plan would work. Standing in front of this beast of a blacksmith, he had misgivings about the half-elf surviving a beating from him.

Langdon thrust the sword in front of Reed for him to inspect. "I think you will find the craftsmanship second-to-none," he boasted.

Testing the weight first, Reed accepted the weapon and cast his eyes over it. Langdon was right to be proud of his work, it was indeed a fine sword and one which he reckoned his uncle would be most happy to receive.

"Well? Are you satisfied?" Langdon asked, wiping his hands on his apron.

"It will do nicely, yes. By the way, I have a friend who is also looking for some weaponry. His preference, however, is daggers."

"Oh, aye? Well, tell him to come and see me," the blacksmith said. "Now, there's a matter of..."

"Actually, he came along with me." Reed interrupted.

The blacksmith's eyes looked beyond Reed's shoulder at a tall figure standing just under the canopy. Platinum hair was rippling on the breeze, and the half-elf features were unmistakable. His eyes narrowed. "What's the meaning of this?" he growled.

Reed had started to back away, clutching the sword.

"Don't you bloody think about leaving without paying for that, boy!"

Sauren took two steps under the canopy. Without looking at Reed he said, "Go now." Reed turned and ran from the workshop.

The blacksmith hollered after him but the boy was gone. Langdon turned back to Sauren, his eyes black with hate. "You've got nerve coming here."

"Yes," Sauren said, tight. He had prepared himself for this day, yet, as he stood before one of the bigots who had made his younger life a misery, there was just a tiny bit of apprehension. Whether it was because this time he was deliberately walking into the den of hate, or due to the fact that he was going to take a life – his first life, he knew not. But, he was going to see it through.

"Yes? " Langdon said, heatedly.

The half-elf moved further into the premises, his eyes darting around taking in the layout, the tools, the weapons, the flames. "I am merely agreeing with you," he said.

Langdon moved towards Sauren, his eyes never leaving him. "I heard you were still around," he said.

"Hmm," Sauren continued to casually look around but not without the occasional glance at the blacksmith, gauging his intentions. None of which would be good. "I gather you have also heard my father is now a guild master and head of the Crimson Blades."

"I heard," the 'smith spat on the floor. "Your kind are spreading everywhere these days." He was within arm's reach now.

Sauren grinned. "I believe it is called - survival of the fittest."

A long pause followed before Joe Landon uttered his threat. "See if you survive this then, half-breed!" Joe Langdon swung his enormous fist into Sauren's side and it impacted on the wound he'd suffered from the troll attack.  Although the gash itself had knitted together the area was still tender but he was determined to disguise the fact it was a weak spot. 

Sauren was pushed back into a shelf covered in boxes of different sized nails. Some were knocked down, the nails hitting the stone floor sounding like a small timpani.   He turned and the next punch caught his kidneys.  It hurt, but not as badly as it had when he was younger. 

So as not to make it seem too easy, he did manage to dodge a few swipes and even land one or two punches himself. The squabble, however, created a lot of noise, not only the grunting and crying out of the opponents but also from metal rods and spars dislodged from their stands, swords, scythes and axes falling from their racks; keys, bolts, hinges  and spikes - all crashing to the floor in the wake of  the fight. The clanking and tinging of their collisions around the workshop drew none other than Langdon junior. Sauren caught sight of him just before Joe landed another punch to his stomach.

Adam staggered out the door that opened from their house into the workshop, his 'smithing apron twisted on his hips. He was worse for wear having sunk a few ales in the afternoon. It took a while for him to register what was happening but by the time he did, his father had knocked the platinum-haired youth to the floor.

"You were born a freak and you will remain a freak," the blacksmith said as he sneered at the crumpled form by his feet. "Half-breed!" He completed his insult with a mouthful of tobacco-stained spit excreted from his thick, slavering lips. The gelatinous globule dangled for a moment, elongating slowly before it dropped onto Sauren's platinum hair and slid down over his cheek.

Joe Langdon drew his forearm over his brow wiping away beads of perspiration which oozed continuously. With a satisfied grin, he returned to his anvil at the other side of the workshop. There, he started to methodically oil the sides of the iron.

The scuffing of a boot and throaty laughter made him glance over his shoulder. Adam, his son, having crossed over to the defeated half-elf, was grinning maniacally, taunting him with his boot.

"Throw it out with the rest of the trash," Joe ordered his son. "With luck, no-one will notice him amongst the rest of the shit out there."

"With pleasure," Adam said, smug.

His father grumbled to himself then turned his attention back to the tools of his trade. "We'll get the other thieving bastard another day. No-one steals from me!" The heat soared as the bellows were compressed several times breathing new life into the forge before he continued with the loving care of his anvil. The steady roar of flames drew him in like a siren's song, and suddenly he was lost to all other sounds in the workshop.

Adam bent over the folded half-elf. His charcoal blackened hands reached out to grab the front of Sauren's jacket. "Just couldn't stay away, eh, half-breed?"

Mahogany eyes looked out through the strands of platinum hair which now served as a curtain over Sauren's bloodied face. He smirked, knowingly. The arrogance of the 'smith's son was always going to be his downfall but as luck would have it, he was also drunk.

Shifting himself with the fluidity of a cat, Sauren melded with the shadows. Adam's eyes widened in disbelief. He snatched desperately at the thin air where the half-breed had been a mere second before.

With lightning speed, Sauren grabbed a rasp from the young 'smith's apron and the filthy rag which hung from his waistband. Adam barely had time to realise what happened before the pointed end of the rasp was rammed through his left eye while the rag was simultaneously forced deep into his mouth. Sauren's lips hovered close to the 'smith's ear. "Payback, you sick bastard."

Adam struggled against his attacker, his muffled roar of pain lost to the rag but Sauren was unbelievably strong for one who had just taken a beaten from a heavy-set blacksmith. Rising to his full height with little to no effort, Sauren twisted Adam round and pinned him tight against his chest.

The 'smith flailed against the night air as Sauren cupped his slender fingers over the gag to ensure no sound distracted Joe from his work.

Shock was setting in and Adam's limbs started to grow limp. His right eye then suffered the same fate as his left. Sauren's mouth twitched a little as he heard the squelch and small pop from the punctured orb. He pushed the tool deeper, grinding it against the eye-socket, the required force causing his hand to tremble.

Once the body stopped moving, he slowly extracted the rasp and let Adam's body slide; a bloodied heap on the straw-covered cobbles.

It had been easier than the half-elf thought it would be. Brett had told him his first kill may prove to be somewhat difficult to come to terms with, perhaps leaving him emotionally scarred. On the contrary, this had left him feeling exhilarated. The added satisfaction was in the knowledge justice had just been served on this individual for the horror he had forced upon a seven-year-old boy.

He looked over at the anvil and roaring forge. Joe had not lifted his head once.

Sauren studied the two ruined eyes on the end of the rasp. One slid from the tool and splatted on the ground.  Still embracing the cloak of shadows, he slowly strode towards the sweating bulk of a man who had never kept his dislike for anyone of elven extraction secret. The beast had brawn but Sauren was lithe, agile and brilliantly clandestine.

The constant squabbling between father and son would make the 'smiths' "accident" believable enough. The only time they had actually seemed civil to one another was when they shared their hatred of elven-kind and anything associated with them. Sauren smiled. How ironic the subject of their hate would be the very thing to defeat them.

He scanned the various items that hung overhead. All manner of implements were suspended. He had to admit, the 'smith's work was extensive and of good quality. But, all he needed was something basic, brutal and he found it easily enough.

Movement to his far left told him Don was in place. His right-hand man picked up the limp body of the 'smith's son and approached the forge slowly, quietly.

Once he was level with Sauren, the half-elf whispered his instructions. Don grinned. The dispatching of these two would not only sate Sauren's need for revenge but also it would open up more business for Don's father at the Guild. He waited for the signal.

Music: SUN AND STEEL || Audiomachine

   

Sauren effortlessly leapt onto the shelving close to the fiery grate and inspected the chains above. The heat from below was rising in waves, he knew he could not bask in the simplicity of his plan - he had to act quickly and precisely.

He made his move unhitching the heavy chain above him then leapt over the stooped figure of Joe Langdon and repeated the same act on the opposite side of the grate. As the burly 'smith's attention was drawn by the clanking of chains above, Don threw Adam onto the red-hot grate. The body landed with a dull thud, causing the grating to shift and screech against its fittings.

The 'smith twisted to see what caused the disturbance. Shock flooded his face as his eyeless son lay limp on the grate. He leaned over just as the heavy chain fell and pinned him to Adam's still body. Sauren dropped silently to the ground and secured the links around the anvil before he materialised at Joe's side.

"Bas-tard half-breed! You lousy piece of filth," Joe hissed.

"I have bested you and your monster of a son though, and I have enjoyed doing it!" Sauren grinned. He looked almost demonic,  evil,  as the fiery glow from the forge reflected in his eyes. Snatching a blade from the array of customised weapons to the side of the iron, he then jumped onto the brawny 'smith's back and knelt; his bended knee digging into the cleft between Joe's shoulder blades.

Adam's hair had crisped and curled rapidly, eaten by the flames. His neck and face then started to sizzle and pop in a macabre dance of swelling blisters which rippled and blackened. All the master 'smith could manage was some breathless loud grunts, the chains having knocked the air from his lungs.

"Your relationship with your son needs some work, I believe," Sauren said. The 'smith flinched, trying to shake free, but the weighted chains and that of a young man on his back kept him pinned in place. He grunted loudly again as his hands were seared when he tried to find leverage on the edge of the grating.

Sauren nodded to his friend. Don set the scene so it appeared the chains had collapsed from wear and tear of the fixtures; an unacceptable state of affairs in the arrogant Blacksmith's premises. As a result, the consistent bad blood between father and son would be staged convincingly enough.

The heat was becoming fiercer the longer the bodies were on the grating. Sauren had to act fast now. Adam's shirt took hold and the flames started to lick around his torso.

Sauren grabbed Adam's right hand, placing the newly acquired blade in the palm then with all his strength he pulled up, forcing the keen edge into Joe's throat. The large 'smith bucked but to no avail. The blade was well placed for its purpose and the insistent hiss of fresh blood hitting the flames filled the air with its thick coppery scent before being swallowed by the stench building from the burning bodies.

Next, the rasp was placed in Joe's blistered right hand and plunged back into the empty left socket of his errant son.

Sauren jumped down just as the fire started to feed on the apron and shirt of Joe Langdon. The final grunts and groans of the bigoted blacksmith were devoured by the fire.

The young rogue watched for a moment or two as the flames curled and licked their way around the two 'smith's bodies; their flesh gradually being fused together from the heat.

His nostrils flared as the smell of their smouldering flesh filled the open workshop. Straightening the cuffs of his jacket and pulling the lapels straight he turned to his friend. "Family feuds can be so tragic at times, don't you agree, Don?"

His friend grinned. "Indeed Sauren, they can so easily get out of hand." They laughed.

Sauren's perfect teeth flashed. "Good job. I will meet you back at headquarters. Make sure you are not seen." With a nod, his friend disappeared into the night.

Sauren loosened the links from around the anvil and threw them carelessly to the edge of the grate.

With one last look, he mentally scored the name Langdon from his list of vengeance. Three more names remained. He had no doubt their demise would be equally enjoyable. Tonight had proved a perfect paradigm of his capabilities.

Melting into the shadows once more, Sauren Nightflame made his way back to The Crimson Blade headquarters.

Melting into the shadows once more, Sauren Nightflame made his way back to The Crimson Blade headquarters

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Music: ICARUS || Michael McCann

   

 

 

She looked up at the crescent moon. Incandescent rays bathed the city in a silver shroud, giving it an almost celestial aura. Soft, shimmering fronds of moonlight fell upon her and she let them ripple across her body for a while, watching how the hue of her skin altered in their path. A sob caught in her throat. Unbidden tears fell as she remembered how he used to hold her on nights such as this. "Roshu," she whispered.

Now she was destined to a life of solitude - an interminable, lonely existence with no issue to nurture, no living memory of her beloved. She inhaled deeply, forcing back her sorrow and willing her fury to the fore.

Closing her eyes, she let her mind drift to the visions she bore witness to on that fateful day. The spirits had allowed her to see through Roshu's eyes when the battle ensued. In her mind's eye, she saw it all clearly. Her people were mighty warriors, fierce and strong. They had been fighting the elves for millennia and now with her father at the head of the troll nation, they should have come home victorious. Instead, they had been forced back, dispersed and defeated. Within those losses, her beloved husband.

He had been taken by the mongrel son of a high elf. She had seen his face as his daggers sliced her Roshu's flesh and that image would burn forever in her mind. She stroked the hair which was tied to her belt - not a lot granted, but enough for what she had planned. 

It had taken time for the tribe to locate her father through her ways, but it had worked and so she would employ the same tactics with the half-breed.  This time, however, she would not stop at a simple location spell. His was a destiny which she would control. As he had robbed her, so she would deny him

Now that she knew the boy's father was amongst those who fought alongside the Farstriders in a bid to keep Zul'jin imprisoned, she would invoke the spirits to help her identify those who were most important to the boy. She would still need to tread carefully though, for the Loa were not ones to be approached with frivolous and petty requests. They demanded the utmost respect. They would send the spirits to aid the tribe with its struggles, strifes, campaigns and victories but a personal vendetta? 

The elves numbered in their thousands and now they were aligned with the humans and dwarves - their impact on the tribes was proving more formidable than years gone by. She was under no delusion. For her to focus her powers on one minor elf and a mere handful who meant something to him could incite her father's anger.  And even a Warlord's daughter would not be exempt from his wrath.

She was not the only hexer in the Amani though, others could easily medialize their attention on the elven nation and their King;  surely her cabalistic rites would remain hidden among the many? A sharp tug at her heart gave her the necessary conviction to proceed. Roshu.

Looking up once more to the crescent in the sky, she made a quiet promise. "Fah yuh, fi mi husband." 

Turning, she started towards her hut. Eyes followed her as she moved along the sandy path, her necklaces and beaded braids click-clacking with each step. Some observers mumbled a greeting but she heard them not, she was lost in her thoughts. Her yellow eyes stared straight ahead, oblivious of the living. Grief, pain and loneliness fuelled her need for vengeance but she had shed enough tears. It was time.

Echolocation squeaks of bats carried on the air as the creatures searched for their evening meal, their shadows flitting across the bamboo, reed and vine rooftops. The occasional low growl of a lynx or chatter of a raptor sounded from pens buried deep within the metropolis' obsidian shadows. Campfires and torches dotted around Zul'aman afforded golden ripples within the clusters of huts and paths. Tiki totems sited throughout the troll city cast grotesque stares as the light from both moon and fire shifted across their stone and wooden carved effigies.

She ran her fingers over the contours of one which stood sentinel outside her door. From within its wooden heart, she could feel power stirring, pulsing. Perhaps the spirits would offer blessings in her bitter journey? Unlikely. 

She pressed her lips to the totem. "Du wid mi wat yuh will but allow mi justice first, mi beg yuh," she said in a broken whisper. Tulu waited, but the spirits were not for answering. A resigned smile traced her lips. She knew she had to perform a ritual before she would be acknowledged, but a little part of her had hoped for their favour. She stooped a little and went inside her hut. Tonight, it would begin.

 

The Midsummer celebrations were still ongoing in the city and most likely to continue for a few hours still. The night was growing cooler with only a light breeze on which the smell of burning wood, charcoal and kindling hung thick and heavy.  Muffled chatter, laughter and music drifted up from the many venues where minstrels carried on entertaining their audiences. 

Sauren was inwardly relieved that the Crimson Blade was quiet, it made reaching his chambers all the easier. For all he was stealthed, other rogues would have been able to detect him. As it was, most seemed either absent from the complex - enjoying the festivities perhaps - or they had opted for an early night. Nevertheless, caution was exercised.

His appearance would cause concern to any who saw him so he was best pleased when he located and asked the pageboy, Thomas, to see to the tub in his chambers being filled.  The small boy had initially jumped when the gravelly voice spoke from the shadows - then promptly paled at the request.  He nervously replied he would try and do his best although he feared the water would be cold by the time he managed the last bucket. Sauren could not help but smile. He reassured Thomas he did not expect him to personally bring the water, he simply wished for him to ask the house staff to fill his bath. Thomas notably sighed with relief and ran off in the direction of staff quarters.

Safely in his chambers, Sauren peeled off his bloodied clothes and tossed them in a corner. He would burn them once he had his bath; he could not risk the laundry woman asking questions.  

He picked up his robe which was carelessly draped over the back of a chair and with a grimace and a flinch he shrugged it on.  The visible signs of his conflict with the blacksmith were becoming more apparent as time ticked by as were the aches and pains, although nothing in comparison to what he used to endure.  His slender fingers sought the belt of his robe. Tying it loosely around his waist he crossed to a window and looked out. 

His eyes scanned the dusky landscape. Dots of light could be seen far across the lake and also to the north-east up into the mountains. He had no doubt more were flickering to the west and south, although he did not cross to the other windows to verify. There was a strange comfort to be had from such a sight - even when there was a war raging in parts of the land people still found something to celebrate; a unification of minds enjoying simple pleasures.  He managed a wistful smile. Turning from the view he heard a knock at his door followed by the creak of heavy wood on iron hinges.   He concealed himself behind the rich drapes as staff entered.

The sound of footsteps mingled with some light laughter and a grunt or two carried across the outer chamber. Sauren honed his superior hearing to the hushed whispers of chambermaids and valets as they fetched the water for his bath. 

"Is he here?" A young female voice trembled.

"Doesn't look like it. Now hurry." A more authoritative one replied, male.

"Are you hoping to scrub his back, ?" another laughed.

"No! And be quiet!" the female replied hotly.

"Ah, you are! I can see you blushing."

Mahogany eyes peered out from the side of the curtains, curious. 

"Stop with your teasing, Marcus, and get that water through to the tub!" the one in charge said.

"Watch what you're doing, you're spilling it everywhere!" the girl complained.

"It's you! All flustered being in his chambers..."

"Quiet! Both of you. You will show respect when speaking of or to the young master at all times."

"Yes, Mr Bryce," Marcus and the girl relented. Sauren grinned, amused by the conversation.

More feet shuffled into the chamber - four large water buckets were emptied into the tub, with another three smaller ones following suit. 

"I forgot fresh towels!" the female said, concerned.

"They were supplied earlier, Heidy, when the housekeeping was done," Mr Bryce assured.

Sauren felt a moment of panic as he saw the young girl venture over to his discarded clothes.  She knelt down to pick them up.  He inched out beyond the drapes.

"Leave those!" Mr Bryce ordered. "The chambermaids will see to all laundry in the morning." The girl looked embarrassed and coyly returned to the bathtub and in line with the other servants.

Sauren sighed with relief and concealed himself once more. 

"What about scented oils for his bath?" she then enquired. The others snickered causing the girl to blush furiously.

From the tightness in Mr Bryce's voice, Sauren could tell the senior valet's patience was being sorely tested. "He will be retiring to bed after, I doubt very much, Heidy, that he needs to smell nice in order to sleep."

"I just thought..." she ventured coyly.

"Well, don't!" Mr Bryce said firmly before ushering everyone out of the chambers.

Sauren pressed against the wall as they all made their way back to the door. Last out was Mr Bryce, preceded only a few short feet by Marcus, who was still quietly teasing Heidy. 

"No sneaking back for a peek at him all wet and naked, mind," Marcus chortled.

"Oh, do be quiet! You are truly indecent!" Heidy dug her elbow into his side. 

Marcus guffawed but was soon silenced after a disciplinary clip to his ear from Mr Bryce.  

Once the door was closed, Sauren moved out from behind the drapes, chuckling at Marcus' teasing of Heidy.  

Stepping into the rear chamber he let his robe slide from his form - it fell in a crumpled heap close to the tub. He groaned as he entered the water - it could have been a little warmer, but it was welcome nonetheless. He eased himself down and reclined with arms resting along the sides of the bath. He looked down at his body. Blue and yellow bruises had formed around his ribs and the scar from the troll's spear. He was a little tender, but they would heal soon. 

Reaching out to the small vanity unit, he picked up a bar of soap and rubbed vigorously to build a lather. He soaped his face and hair then closing his eyes, slid down immersing himself, rinsing away the blood and grime from his scuffle. He remained under, holding his breath, listening to the sound of his heart beating and the blood pumping through his veins. 

 He relived how it had felt to drive the rasp into Adam's eyes - remembering the euphoria which had coursed through him as the loathsome bully struggled against his grip.  Bubbles escaped his lips as he smiled. 

But, a second later he shuddered as the memory he had suppressed for years floated back to the surface. He slammed his fists against the side of the tub and focused on the punishment he doled out to blacksmith's son. Eventually, as the image from his past faded he pushed himself up from the water.  His chest hurt from holding his breath for so long but he forced his breathing to be slow and steady. 

A shadow flitted across his lids.  He flinched.  "Yuh guh fi drown inna dere, bwoy," a voice said. The dull clack of wooden tubes and hollowed bone rattled before him. 

Instantly, his eyes sprang open and he projected himself from the tub. He crouched on all fours, fingers spread wide on the wooden floor giving him balance.  His heart was pounding and he fought to keep the tremors at bay - there was no denying that female troll had somehow invaded his psyche. Water dripped from his hair and body creating reflective puddles beneath him.  His eyes burned through the drenched mane.  Every muscle was taut ready to propel him forward, to attack. 

"Jumpy, are we not?" a familiar voice chuckled. The troll beads rattled again.

Sauren took a long, deep breath. "You bastard, Louvel!" he growled.

The young rogue laughed openly and tossed the beads on the floor in front of the naked half-elf. "A souvenir from our battle," he announced. "I gather my impersonation was convincing as well,  judging by the way you leapt from your bath?"

Sauren pushed up and reached for a towel. His nerves a little less frayed he managed a small chuckle. "Yes. Bloody convincing, in fact." He dried himself roughly then picked up his robe and put it on.

Louvel watched him, noticing the bruises to his ribs. "You been battling on your own?" he motioned to Sauren's torso.

Sauren tied the belt around his waist. "Training has been intensive," he lied.

The flamboyant rogue grinned. "I see," he replied. 

Sauren chose to ignore the hint of suspicion hanging in Louvel's tone and moved through to the other room. "How long have you been here?" he threw over his shoulder, trying to disguise his irritation.

Louvel glanced around as he moved through to the bedchamber. He spotted the bundle of clothing in the corner at the window. He stopped beside it, flipping his monocle between his fingers. "Oh, not long. I didn't see you slip into your bath, put it that way." He looked up to find Sauren staring at him, his eyes hard, accusing, but he was no fool.  He knew the half-elf was hiding something, the furtive glances to the floor at his feet were enough to inform him of that.

He stepped away from the window, proving a point to himself as he noted the tension leaving Sauren's shoulders. "I happened by as I was concerned," he offered.

"Concerned?" Sauren watched him closely as he neared the small cabinet beside the bed. 

Without even asking, the rogue bent down and opened the bottom door.  A small pleasurable sigh left Louvel's lips. He had discovered a little secret. He reached in and grabbed the bottle of wine and two glasses. "Does your father allow you this in your chambers?" he asked, an eyebrow cocked while removing the cork with his teeth. He proceeded to pour, eyes twinkling as he saw the ambivalent expression cross Sauren's face.

"He doesn't know," Sauren said dismissively. "How did you...?" the half-elf started, pointing to the wine.

Replacing the cork and returning the bottle to its rightful place, Louvel then handed a glass to Sauren. "Oh, I have a nose for a good vintage."

Sauren accepted the glass. He took a sip then returned to the subject in question. "You said concerned. Why?"

His unexpected guest patted the bed then sat down, reclining against the headboard. "I heard there was an incident in the old quarter."

Sauren's jaw tightened. "Incident?"

"Yes. Some blacksmith and his son, I assume, were found dead in his workshop," Louvel's eyes never left Sauren's and the half-elf maintained the contact, steadily.

"Regrettable," he replied. "I do not follow though. Why would that make you worry about me?"

Louvel drained his glass and placed it on top of the cabinet before rising from the bed, straightening his waistcoat. "I gathered you would be out enjoying the festivities and I wanted to make sure you were not injured." Again the rogue held Sauren's stare. 

The half-elf was astute enough not to fall into a trap of wits. "I still do not get the connection, Louvel. Someone dies and you think I might be injured as a result? People die every day in the city - all over in fact."

Louvel smiled, a hint of quiet resignation flickered in his eyes. "That is true. I just assumed you were out celebrating, perhaps a little worse for wear and I just - well, worried that you had been in the area and perhaps ..." He shrugged. "Silly of me, really. I guess after our encounter in the Blackened Woods I feel a little responsible for you."

At that Sauren guffawed. Relaxed now, he put down his wine on a nearby table. "There is absolutely no need for that. I was foolish in my bravado then, it was no-one's fault but my own. You did, however, save my life and for that I am indebted. I can assure you I have learned from that experience."

Louvel nodded. "That is good then."

To authenticate his explanation the half-elf then enquired how the blacksmith had died. Louvel said it was unknown what had happened exactly, but the two bodies were discovered badly burned, unrecognisable, really. People in the vicinity believed it had to be the blacksmith and his son, not only because it had occurred in the forgery but also they reputedly fought on a regular basis. It was surmised that perhaps too much festival ale had caused the feud to go too far.  Sauren nodded and assumed a somewhat sympathetic countenance.

"Anyway," Louvel announced, once more him amiable self. "As I see you are in good health, I shall bid you goodnight. I shall be heading off on some missions tomorrow so I will not see you for quite a while, whipper-snapper."

Sauren could not hide the grin on hearing Louvel's nickname for him. "Missions? I thought you were a lone wolf."

Louvel opened the window and started to climb out onto the walkway. "Oh, I never said they were my missions," he smiled mischievously.

Again Sauren laughed at the rouge's temerity. "You could use the door you know," he gestured towards it.

"Oh no, I could not. Should your father find me disobeying his disbarment, I do not think he would be too pleased."

Sauren shrugged and stepped towards the window to close it after Louvel made his exit. His foot nudged something on the floor. He looked down. Feathers and beads all intricately bound by a pliable vine had skittered across the wooden boards. He bent down and picked it up. "Hey, Nottley!" he called and reached the window, holding out the bizarre little talisman. "Stop leaving your souvenirs everywhere."

The affable young rogue looked at what Sauren held, his brow furrowed. "That's not mine," he said shaking his head. "I've never seen that one before, only the one I left on your washroom floor." Then he turned and disappeared over the wall.

The half-elf stared at the talisman, his mind starting to form ludicrous explanations as to how the thing was in his chambers.  He felt goosebumps run up his spine. Was it some sort of hex?
 No!  Surely, Louvel was teasing him. Yet, somehow, he did not think he was. He cast the object from the open window, over the wall, no doubt into some unkempt shrubbery on the other side.

He slammed the window closed and locked it, pulling the drapes shut. For a moment he stood, inwardly chastising himself for thinking such nonsense - he was being irrational. 

Reaching for his glass he crossed to the cabinet and retrieved the bottle of wine. His hand trembled as he poured. Holding the bottle up to the fading light from the other side of the room, he saw it was still half full.  

Not for long, he thought.

Chapter Text

 

 

     

 

Sauren was stirred from his sleep by a dull, distant boom

Sauren was stirred from his sleep by a dull, distant boom. His eyes fluttered open momentarily to blurred images then slowly slid closed again. Another boom; this time louder. Lazily he stretched. The tinkle of shattering glass brought him fully conscious. He groaned. His head hurt. His body hurt. 

Next, a sharp, insistent knock sounded at his door followed by a vaguely familiar voice. "Master Sauren, you must get up! Your father has ordered you go to the main hall." When he did not reply, the voice called out his name again.

"Yes! I hear you," he growled.

BOOM! The outside noise continued. Pressing his hands on the mattress he pushed himself up and glanced over at the broken goblet. He must have fallen asleep still holding the glass after he'd finished the wine. He glared at the bottle on the bedside cabinet - it had only been half full, so how on Azeroth did he have a sore head? Dark embedded bruises answered his query. The beating he had taken, of course- a couple of well-aimed pounds to the head, that must be the cause, he reasoned.

Other sounds now reached up to the complex. Muffled screams, shouts, roars. He peeled the covers back and crossed to the windows, his aches and pains forgotten. Parting the drapes he looked out at the courtyard. The elites were assembling in the centre and staff were running around in what seemed like an organised panic. What was going on? 

He saw his father striding towards the troupe, a fierce determination written on his weathered features.  Acute though his hearing was, at this range and from behind a window Sauren's ability did not grant him privy to his father's words. Nonetheless, he could sense the urgency by Sa'themar's articulated movements and stern facial expressions. Something major was happening.

Music: IMPOSSIBLE|| Thomas Bergersen

   

Again he heard the dull booms. His attention was drawn towards the portcullis and out over the city. He narrowed his eyes, straining to see the main gates in the distance. Dark plumes of smoke hung thick in the air, looming above the ramparts and gate tower. A fearful realisation dawned on him. The city was under siege.

Quickly he moved across the room. In a separate compartment within his wardrobe, he stored custom-made armour, another gift from his father. First, he pulled on britches, a shirt and boots then strapped the protective leather on - a harness,  pauldrons, couters, bracers and greaves. Added to that, arm, leg and body scabbards in which he sheathed a full set of throwing knives as well as his chosen daggers. They had intricate feeders for poison should one wish to lace the blades. They were, nonetheless, effective enough without added venom - insanely sharp, lethal. The final touch was a black bandanna which kept his long hair tied back. Armoured and bladed to the teeth he left his rooms with purpose in his stride.

At the bottom of the spiral steps, he noted Don and Reed had taken the liberty of preparing themselves for battle too. The three armoured rogues greeted each other with a simultaneous nod, their faces displaying the prototypical expressions of men going to war - severe, determined and masking a respectable quantum of fear.

They approached the elites who were readying to move out. One or two turned as their leader's eyes focused on the three boys nearing the troupe. Sa'themar's jaw tightened. He muttered orders to Brett, Lina and Yathas then moved around the rogues to face his son. In a flinty tone, one word fell from his lips. "No!" His eyes flared, the authority unquestionable.

Sauren was not one to challenge his father, but in this his recalcitrance was unshakeable. He gestured that they move from those nearby for more privacy. "Yes, father," he began adamantly as they halted a few yards away. "I will defend what you have laboured to build and also that of the city which I call home."

The high elf was momentarily caught off guard, his eyes flitting to the other two boys a few yards back who aired equal contumacy. His voice still tight, he leaned in towards Sauren. "You are just a boy..."

"Older than you were when you started to fight, father." Sauren's eyes never blinked, a measure of temerity reaching out through his judgement call.

"That was different," Sa'themar argued.

"Yes. But, with respect, you fought for a foothold in another nation's land and established a new home, one which you have continued to defend since. And you fought even harder for a life here with mother and then me. So, I am going to fight for what is rightfully mine, father, and you will not stop me."

Sa'themar stepped back, lost for words. Yet again, his son had displayed a maturity beyond his years. That did not, however, waive his fear of losing the one person who meant the world to him. 

Sauren was aware of his concern. He stepped forward absentmindedly laying a comforting hand on his father's forearm. "You knew this day would come. I am destined to follow in your footsteps and I will do so to the best of my ability. To stop me now would be denying me that right."

Sa'themar closed his hand over Sauren's.  With a forced but whimsical smile, he assented with a resigned nod. "At least you are better dressed for the occasion this time," he said taking in the black and silver-threaded leather armour.

The half-elf smiled. "Yes, well, I thought it was time to bring it out for something more than just an airing."

The guild leader guffawed, then once more serious, he looked at his son. "You will partner up with me."

"It will be an honour, father."

"And tell your goons to stay close and follow our lead." He nodded towards Don and Reed.

Sauren smirked. "I think you may be pleasantly surprised by my ...goons."

"I will be - if they stay alive." His asteism did not go unnoticed and Sauren could not help but grin.  It was oddly encouraging to find his father maintained a scintilla of humour even in the wake of war. Sa'themar nodded then made haste to the front of the troupe again. 

Turning to his two friends Sauren advised them what was going to happen. In those few moments, the three boys adorned the mantle of men prepared to defend and fight for the city and their guild.

A series of whirring and sloshing noises drowned startled gasps from staff who still dashed about the complex in a bid to preempt an effective barricade from the pending assault.  Watery specks expanded, intensifing as portals manifested around the inner perimeter. Magi, including Bloodmages from Quel'danas and priests, emerged from the magical transports all wearing armour ready for battle.

Don swallowed. "This really is going to be fierce," he commented.

His friends agreed. "I have never seen conjurers so heavily armoured before," Reed added, his face betraying a degree of apprehension. 

The three boys watched as Belo'vir Salonar and a female Bloodmage approached the guild leader. The woman acknowledged the Firefurys and Brett before engaging in conversation with Sa'themar.

Remaining behind the main troupe so as not to be detected eavesdropping, Sauren inconspicuously honed in on the new arrivals and his father. "Treason?" Belo'vir enquired.

The guild leader nodded. "Yes. We heard through the network about an hour ago. King Aiden has aligned himself with the Horde. He allowed them uncontested access through the mountains..." He glanced in the direction of the city gates. "And now they are trying to take over the city."

The Bloodmage then spoke. "We had hoped to bring the Alliance army with us, but, they, with our Rangers and magi, are still rooting out the few orcs left and the Amani who were involved in the attack on Silvermoon.  They will, however, get here as soon as circumstances allow them."

"What of King Terenas?" Belo'vir asked next.

Sa'themar hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. "He has been advised of Perenolde's betrayal and against council, he has now positioned himself on the battlements."

"To do what, exactly?" the woman asked, her voice thick with scorn.

Wearing a hesitant grin, the guild leader explained. "He is a master at inciting his people, Lady Liadrin. He will easily put it to them that this city and their livelihoods are dependant on their ability to defend. They will fight to their last breath if need be. Soldiers are at the ready, certain defence measures were already taken care of and engines of war are being prepped to push back the invaders."

"Fairly well, then," Belo'vir voiced. "We will aid you in this defence until the Alliance armies arrive at least."

Sa'themar expressed his gratitude with a curt nod. "I thank you for your quick response and coming to our aid, but what of Quel'thalas?"

The Magister guffawed. "The worst seems over for the time being but our aspiring magus, Dar'khan, is maintaining its conservation by ensuring the magical wards are intact. Thankfully, the shields have not been breached."

Sauren cocked an eyebrow as he noted the dismissive expression on the Bloodmage's beautiful face. It would seem she was not a fan of the flamboyant Dar'khan Drathir. Conversation was over, it was time to make fast the defence of Capital City. 

He shifted back beside his friends as the troupe once more readied to leave the complex. More portals then opened, these merely to transport the rogues and their allies to the front lines. 

Sa'themar made one last stop, instructing the senior staff to barricade the students in the main hall.  Should the complex be breached they were to utilise the underground passages which would lead them to safety out towards Silverpine Forest. He awaited confirmation of their understanding before leading the rogues through the transports.

Belo'vir brought up the rear of the portal in which Sauren and his two sidekicks entered. "Well, we meet again, Sauren. Once more to the fray is it?"

The half-elf smiled and inclined his head. "Indeed, Magister. It will be the first of many from now on I dare say."

"I have no doubt of that. And judging by your conviction as well as your obvious verisimilitude I do declare you shall do your father proud."

The half-elf missed a stride. He cleared his throat, notably astonished by such an accolade from one whom he had only met once before. "That is most generous of you Magister, although perhaps somewhat premature. We are not well enough acquainted for you to form such an opinion of me."

Belo'vir chuckled. "You are as your father was when he was your age, Sauren, so in that respect, I can boast that I know you very well indeed." With a paradigmatic flourish, the Magister closed the portal behind them. "Shall we?" He gestured forward.

The rogues, magi and priests moved through soldier units posted to afford the most effective line of defence behind the city walls.  There were already countless injuries and the siege was only in its infancy - barely more than two hours had passed since the first fireball had hit the battlements. The ramparts had held fast against the steady stream of missiles fired at them, but the Horde being pertinacious and bloodthirsty would inevitably cause massive damage to the fortifications. Their relentless need to conquer and rule was disquieting at its best.

Apart from those people rallied to fight following their King's motivational speeches, the city streets had been evacuated. The majority, including the children and elderly, had been moved deeper into the metropolis for their safety, although dependant on how long the siege lasted, they could be required to leave as rations could become scarce. A few families had managed to flee the city just prior to the Horde's assault starting, but it was already rumoured their bodies littered the fields and roads leading to the main gates. They may even have become some of the Horde's innovative and unidentifiable missiles. 

Littered in the streets were other burnt bodies. Creatures such as sheep, cows, darkhounds, even the odd wolf and bear lay broken, bloodied and blackened in the streets and city gardens. It appeared the orcs were not discriminating in their choice of ammunition for their catapults. These, combined with several fireballs had managed to reap havoc on the buildings within their range. Business premises, entire dwellings, even some festival stalls were set ablaze and people were running back and forth to the wells trying to douse the fires. 

The smell of burning wood, coal, oil and gunpowder hung heavy in the air. Mixed with the amaroidal stench of the burning corpses it soon caused the rogues' eyes to water, chests burn, throats and noses to dry and nip. Sauren pulled off his bandanna. Folding it once more he tied it around his mouth and nose to afford some protection against the acrid air. He witnessed others doing similarly.

Brett, Lina and Yathas led their squads towards the main defences, Sa'themar reminding them to proceed with caution.  Belo'vir sent a few of the healers to assist any medics with tending the injured, then ordered his mages and remaining priests to join the rogues.

Hearing his name being called, Sauren hurried over to his father, Don and Reed in quick pursuit. He followed Sa'themar who picked his way through the corpses and debris towards the military units. Glancing up at the defence wall, he saw the Lordaeron banners rippling in the breeze; their fabric greyed from the thick smoke and tattered at the edges where fire-laden ammunition had skiffed them as they had hurtled over the walls. Moving back and forth, an armour-clad figure amid a dozen others was watching the enemy from the crenellations around a parapet.  Archers stood, backs against merlons, awaiting the order to fire.

The Horde catapults continued their assault, the dull, heavy booms of missiles hitting the outer walls and battlements. Flaming hay bales, more corpses, and massive boulders battered the inner city claiming some of the defenders as they showered down into the pulverized streets. 

Skilled tradesmen were hard at work building tall wooden structures with operating platforms and pulleys. These were being trundled into place along the base of the defending wall and lifting the cargo of oil barrels and huge cauldrons to the top of the battlements.  

Ballistae were primed and already firing atop the parapets, huge iron-tipped arrows being stockpiled into barrel-like containers by their sides.  They hit their targets, causing enough damage to make the orcs regroup elsewhere and again the giant crossbows fired.  Their impact was destined to be short-lived, however, as the enemy counterattacked with more powerful machines.

The smaller, more mobile military crossbows, springalds, were already in position. Placed in a large arc formation in front of the main gate tower they would cut down large numbers of the enemy should the barricades fail and the orcs invade the city. 

Sauren could not help but wonder, however, how much of this weaponry would still be operational amid all the flaming ammunition bombarding the city.   

Dodging the fires and consequential buckets of water being thrown, Sa'themar and his troupe made haste to the stairs which led to the battlements. Climbing two or three steps at a time the leader of the Crimson Blade ascended quickly with Sauren following close behind. Reaching the top, they slowed as they neared the pacing armoured figure. The man turned as the shuffle of many feet graced the stone platform. 

Wearing no helm the aged man was otherwise clad in full battle armour. The rising thermals from the fires below blended with the summer breeze and made his wispy hair weft and warp around his plain silver crown. Blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he greeted Sa'themar, his mouth set in a tight smile of welcome.

The guild leader bowed deep, respectfully acknowledging the man's station. "Your Majesty."  Sauren mirrored his father. Glancing askance, he noted all the rogues and their accomplices did likewise. 

"Sa'themar," King Terenas replied, striding towards him. "As always, I knew I could count on you and your men."

A cough was heard from within the troupe. The king looked at the assembled rogues, his eyes lingering on female assassins long enough to let them know he was well aware of their gender. A small, somewhat pedantic smirk toyed with the corners of his lips. He turned his attention back to the guild leader, refusing to address the female members in any other manner than that which he had just uttered. With the formalities clearly over, the rogues all straightened again.

Sauren had only ever seen the king from a distance, normally with his beautiful queen at his side and amid pomp and circumstance that went with such sightings. There were rumours, however, that the royal head of the Menethil bloodline was inclined to be dismissive of his wife and daughter. Any female for that matter; and those whispers had just been confirmed in Sauren's opinion. Perhaps the queen's dalliances, therefore, were understandable, he mused.

  Music: ONCE UPON A NIGHTMARE || Epica 

   

 As if he had heard his thoughts, Terenas turned to Sauren. The half-breed was not perturbed by the monarch's calculated scrutiny. He met it with an assured equanimity.   

Terenas' eyes flitted to the high elf. "Your son?"

"Yes,  Your Majesty. This is my boy."

Sauren expected for the king to address him next, but instead, he continued with a comment to Sa'themar. "To have a son fight by your side has to be the proudest moment in a father's lifetime," the king said.

The guild master appeared lost for words. Sauren, well aware of the fear which gnawed at his father's heart quickly reacted to save face. "I am sure your son will wield a sword for you one day, Your Majesty." He ended with a small incline of his head.

King Terenas' stoic disposition faltered slightly as his eyes betrayed a very personal Utopian dream. He acknowledged Sauren's comment with the barest of nods before resuming discussions on tactics with the guild leader.

He led him forward to the parapet's perimeter and from behind the merlons Sa'themar witnessed the Horde's war machine first hand. The guild master surveyed the land before him, taking in the defence system already deployed by the Alliance monarch. He peered over the wall and along to the gate tower. He grinned. Earth and boulders had been compacted against the outer walls preventing the siege towers from reaching the fortifications thus denying the enemy access with their ladders. It would serve as a deterrent for while anyway. From behind the enemy front lines, an armour covered construct moved slowly forward, concealing the orcs who marshalled it. At its nose, a battering ram cut no doubt from the ample forests surrounding the city. The landscape with its many dips, troughs and variable inclines would at least hinder the ram's progress a little.

Catapults, large cog and rope mechanisms, weapons designed for launching boulders, firestones and rubble at outer walls continued their barrage. It took time, however, to reload and rewind the ropes until they could fire again. This was a small but perhaps significant advantage for the Alliance.

Sa'themar suddenly became aware Sauren was standing next to him. He glanced at his son, noting the determined set of his jaw, the clenching of impatient fists, his readiness to fight. He could tell his son was also calculating the weapons trajectory and re-arming times.

Their eyes continued to study the battlefield. Behind the catapults stood massive trebuchets. These powerful and longer reaching ballistic devices were the ones launching the fire-riddled missiles over the city walls. Squinting his eyes the guild leader could see the Horde were arming the reinforced slings with flaming carcasses and burning hay bales.  "They will try to destroy us from within," he aimed at the king but said it loud enough for the benefit of his son and the rogue troupe. 

"Yes. They will try." The king gestured to the people below, resolute in his belief that they would successfully defend the city.

"And while we are busy trying to salvage a few insignificant buildings, the Horde are cracking open our defences," Sauren said. 

A preternatural silence befell the parapet, the surrounding noise of battle strangely muffled from the weight of the monarch's stare. The troupe stood silent, stunned at the boy's boldness. The guild leader looked to his son but no reprimand or reminder of protocol resided in his azure eyes, only a burning question needing a swift answer. Sauren did not disappoint.  Looking back over the wall he explained. "I see orcs with shovels and picks along the base of the wall. By all accounts, it would seem they are attempting to carve a way through the constructed mound to gain access  for their siege towers."

King Terenas' face remained impassive with just a hint of intolerance lacing his mouth. "Of course they are, but it will take them a long time to achieve that."

Sauren lifted his eyes to the king. "Mayhap, Your Majesty. But, considering the advantage such tactics would gain for the enemy, I question why there are so few equipped for this task. They have in way of four such contraptions on this side alone, each capable of granting unlimited enemy numbers to scale our walls when they reach them. Yet, under a canopy of enemy shields, there are many more glinting pickaxes and shovels near the gate tower."

Sa'themar and a number of his troupe looked down at the city's entrance. Sauren was not mistaken, and his observation was readily understood by both his father and the king.  Terenas shouted an order for the oil cauldrons to be readied above the gate tower and his archers to fire flaming arrows on his command.

"Sire?" Sauren said, drawing the king's attention. "May I suggest a secondary means of defence?"

The king eyed the half-elf with a modicum of admiration. "Speak."

"Meet them from within."

The king stood rigid, staring at him. Sauren continued with judicious regard to deflect any suspicion of how he attained certain knowledge. "I would imagine there must be some sort of labyrinth beneath this city, surely? From my studies, I believe it is commonplace for a monarch's realm to have a means to escape underground. I am also assuming the orcs will either not have thought of this or, have not yet found any other way in, hence they're attempting to mine under the outer gates." He risked a glance at his two friends before casting his eyes over the assembly as if innocently searching for commendation.

"Smart boy," the king said finally. He turned to Sa'themar. "I must congratulate you on having such a learned and astute son."

The parapet shuddered as yet another series of missiles hit the stone wall. Some of the crenellations were hit directly and started to crumble, the dust and rubble skittering across the ground where the ballista continued to fire, its sisters joining in the assault all along the defending wall. 

Cauldrons were tipped on engineered platforms, emptying their slick and flammable substance over orcs nearest the outer wall. An order was issued. Archers lit their oil-soaked arrowheads on the burning braziers and fired at the spilled oil, some catching light as it still poured down. Roars rose from the base of the wall and the burning orcs attempted to flee, arms flailing and knees buckling before the flames lay final claim to their bodies. This was answered by another barrage of unspeakable missiles from the Horde.

Atop the parapet, amid the deployment of fighters, soldiers, rogues and mages alike, father and son shared a knowing look. This was going to be a long and arduous battle.

 

Chapter Text

The bombardment had continued all day    

The bombardment had continued all day. The Horde pelted the defensive wall heavily with massive boulders and launched a myriad of burning missiles into the city. Lordaeron's defenders worked relentlessly keeping the fires at a minimum and ensuring their own weaponry hit their targets with equal indomitability.

For all their valiant efforts, the air was thick, heavy with smoke. The fetor of sodden, blackened and charred timbers rose on ghost-like tendrils. They danced on the evening breeze before wafting throughout the streets permeating areas otherwise unaffected by the flame-ridden assault. Unidentifiable mounds of rancid matter lay splattered across cobbles, public gardens and even on rooftops and walls of buildings which had, somehow, withstood the onslaught.

With the relentless pounding from catapults, trebuchets and ballistae there had been no one-to-one combat on that first day, at least not of the melee kind. The magi had provided protective shields to the parapets, their occupants and weapons. The thaumaturgy held for a while but even that was put to the test. The orcs had their own sorcerers and they attempted at deflecting the wizardry which the magi conjured. The air was filled not only with fire and ash from the weapons of war, but bright flashes of amethyst, silver and azure as the sortilege crackled and hissed between the opposing sides.

As of yet, the defence wall had not been breached although it had undergone a considerable battering. The Horde's attempt at mining their way under the gate tower was also a slow, laborious task for the orcs, not made any easier with the occasional cauldron of flaming oil being poured from the battlements. The liquid defence would have to be used sparingly, however, for effective as it was, to run out too soon could be detrimental to the Alliance' war effort.

Although they were tiring by late evening, both Alliance and Horde showed no abatement of hostility. Both needed to harness their manpower for the final push, but when that would be, was debatable, for neither side's reinforcements had yet arrived. Quite how long their resilience and courage would last was anyone's guess at this stage. Thankfully though, the siege for that day drew to a close; the armies needed to rest.

With the noises of battle diminished, citizens cautiously emerged from alleys and adjoining streets. Some ran frantic, searching for loved ones who had been in the fray. Wives threw themselves into their husbands' arms, children clinging around their parents' legs as once again families were reunited.

Food and drink were brought out for the brave defenders, the citizens picking their way through the filthy streets to offer nourishment to all who wanted and needed it. Exhausted mumbles of gratitude carried in the air.

The injured were huddled under makeshift shelters manufactured from salvaged planks and shop canopies. Individuals who were badly burned received potions and elixirs to stay the pain until the priests tended their wounds. The Light eased their agony sufficiently, but it would take time for their seared and blistered skin to heal completely. Others had suffered broken bones and cuts from being caught amid the collapsed buildings when the heavier missiles had pummelled the streets. They bade their time for the healing power of the priests. Throughout the night the pained cries of the wounded would be a forlorn lullaby.

Gasps and mournful cries also rose amid the destruction indicating some of the less fortunate had been discovered under stones, scorched timbers and fetid creatures.

A battered helm, rolling from side to side, lay near a collapsed building, its owner buried beneath the bricks. The armour had offered little protection for those caught in the demolished structures; plate and mail covered limbs poked out from piles of rubble. Occasionally fingers flexed, a sign that someone was still alive beneath the carnage. People worked together to rescue them; some survived, others - it was just too late.

The rogues had aided in the preservation of the city grounds, helping with fetching water to douse flaming buildings and assisting the injured. They had also helped with the onerous task of moving fallen comrades and soldiers from the plaza. All they could do at that time was pile the bodies to the rear of the battle zone. Ceremonies would have to wait, and depending on how long the siege lasted, they may not even happen at all. It would quite possibly end up as an enormous pyre on which all the dead would be consumed at once. For now, the priests uttered blessings on the departed souls. As a mark of respect, they then circled the dead and cast an expanding gossamer blanket of Light over the bodies, shielding the living from having to look upon their ashen, disfigured faces.

The rogues and magi's efforts had been greatly appreciated by the king who had determined that defending the inner city as well as the fortifications was the priority. But, it had not been the way of the rogue; they were not accustomed to being mere rats in a cage. They wanted to do something far more cogent than mop up the mess the orcs created; they wanted to put a spoke in the wheels of the Horde's war machine. Sa'themar, therefore, had ordered his people to rest when they could; their work was going to start in the dead of night.

For now, they huddled in groups enjoying some food brought to them by kindly city folk. A woman and her two children had come around offering stew, bread and drinks to soothe parched throats. She had smiled as she ladled out the hot meal and handed it to the half-elf and his colleagues. He nodded his thanks, apologising for the dirtiness of his hands as she passed a large loaf of bread around. Again, she smiled telling him it was of no matter, she was just happy she could give them sustenance in exchange for their bravery. He accepted the more than welcome food with an appreciative smile.

He had not realised just how hungry he was, the day's events having absorbed his attention completely. The stew therefore, was the finest he had ever tasted. As he sat eating from the tin plate and mopping the gravy with a chunk of torn bread, he looked out over the broken streets and gardens surrounding the plaza. He watched as the people tended their families, friends and even strangers out of sheer gratitude and kindness.

A good number of defenders took shelter in some of the nearby buildings which had remained largely unscathed while others preferred to remain in the open, gathered round small campfires which crackled and spit, offering heat and light as the night rolled above them. Weary though they were, the men and women who bravely defended the city would rally again in the morning or indeed, during the night should the Horde try a devious tactic and attack under cover of darkness. Low murmurs continued to ripple through the small groups; quiet conversations loaded with exhaustion yet bolstered with a tenacious loyalty to king and realm. More distantly, the soft weeping from those whose loved ones had perished in the first onslaught was a painful reminder of the true cost of war.

Darkness was settling, wrapping long obsidian fingers around the battle-weary inhabitants. Movement of one figure, nevertheless, captured Sauren's attention. Inexplicably, he was drawn by the somewhat conspicuous individual. It was male, he gathered, going by the build and the slow, yet deliberate stride. A full-length hooded cape fluttered and billowed at the hem as the man stepped around bricks, rubble and burnt down timbers. He slowed now and then to peer through broken windows and behind shattered walls and in doorways, then he moved forward, nudging rubble with his foot.

Wiping the back of his hand across his mouth Sauren put down his plate and watched, fixated like a cat focused on a mouse.

Accustomed now to Sauren's acicular manner when his attention honed in on something, Reed inched nearer. "What's wrong?"

Sauren remained focused on the mysterious figure. "I'm not sure," he whispered back. "But, I sense something odd about that person." He jutted his chin in the direction of the hooded individual.

Don moved closer now, his eyes also fixed on the man. "We could pretend we need to relieve ourselves," he suggested as an excuse to investigate.

Reed snickered. "All three of us? Girls do that, Don, not men."

"They do?" Don asked.

Reed just shook his head. Sauren's attention had never wavered from the man navigating his way through crumbled stone and burnt out shells of small buildings.

"Are we all clear on what must be done?" Sa'themar's voice sounded above the rogue troupe. They answered with a unified "Aye", all except Don and Reed, who jumped slightly at the interruption. Sauren didn't even flinch. His father said his name a little more forcefully. The half-elf acknowledged he had heard, quickly glancing at his father before returning his focus back to the hooded man.

"Good. We will move out in an hour." The guild leader announced and moved along to speak with Belo'vir.

Another voice suddenly spoke behind the half-elf. "You have noticed him too, yes?" Alaen hunkered down beside the three boys and pointed to the man who had grabbed their attention.

"Yes. What is he doing?" Sauren whispered.

The young mage inhaled lengthily before answering. "Nothing good, no doubt."

His tone drew Sauren's attention. "You know him?"

"Not one of my close associates no, but I know of him. I wondered actually if he would be poking around here."

"Who is he?"

"He is Archmage Kel'thuzad. He is one of the Council of Six from Dalaran."

"They oversee all matters that are magic do they not?" Reed asked.

Alaen scowled. "Put simplistically I guess, yes, but he is under scrutiny."

"Why?" Sauren asked, his interest piqued.

"He is suspected of dabbling in the forbidden magic which the Council does not tolerate."

"Forbidden magic?"

Alaen held the half-elf's gaze, an unformed question swimming behind his eyes as he inexplicably wondered if he had said too much. Sauren did not relent, cocking an inquisitive eyebrow encouraging the mage to continue.

"Necromancy," Alaen said finally in a rushed breath. Don and Reed shuddered.

Sauren's eyes widened and turned back momentarily to the hooded man who still seemed to be sifting through the wreckage. "You think he is looking for subjects, don't you?" he asked after a moment.

"Yes, I do. Although I may be wrong..." His face, however, clearly stated he believed his own assumptions.

The half-elf narrowed inquiring eyes. "And how is it you know of this?"

The fair lashes blinked slowly as Alaen fought the urge of a petulant retort. A prideful look then adorned the mage's features. "Rogues are not the only ones with networks, Sauren."

The half-elf nodded in understanding as Alaen stood to take his leave. "Do not cross that man, gentlemen. He is undeniably influential, highly intelligent, well learned and ..."

"Powerful," Sauren finished, once more drawn to the man in the ruins.

"Yes. Although I was actually going to say he is also considered dangerous."

Don guffawed. "As if we don't have enough problems beyond the wall, now we have one in beside us?"

Alaen looked down upon the three young rogues. Gone was his usual mischievous demeanour and soft smirk. His eyes drifted back to the Archmage whose myopic focus rendered him ignorant of the group's scrutiny. "Hmm. Just stay alive," Alaen said before moving back into the main group.

Reed shuddered at the mage's ominous parting words. "Suddenly the orcs seem friendlier," he muttered.

Sauren scoffed. His eyes continued to follow the Archmage as he wandered through the plaza. Nodding an occasional greeting to those huddled around campfires and in doorways no-one seemed to pay much heed to the man.

A few priests stood guardian over the dead, so there was no threat of the magus stealing away with any of the fallen defenders through a portal. After a while, he disappeared behind a mass of tumbled bricks. It seemed he had given up as the darkness was pierced by a soft silvery flash; the signifier he had left the area.

"Well, I really do need to pee now," Don announced.

"Yep, me too," Reed concurred. They waited to see if Sauren also needed to answer the call of nature. He shook his head and off they trundled in search of a place to relieve themselves without offending anyone in the vicinity.

Before long, the woman and her two children who had served their meal made the rounds once more, this time collecting plates, cutlery and mugs. The troupe thanked her for the food again, complimenting her cooking. She tilted her head in a modest but appreciative manner as she placed the items in big baskets which her children carried. A few of the rogues ruffled the kids' hair or just smiled and passed a coin or two into the grateful little hands.

Sauren noted the look in Lina's eyes as the girl and boy thanked her for her generosity. She seemed reluctant to let go of the little girl as she folded the tiny fingers over the silver she pressed into her hand. There was no doubt she was thinking of her own children, wishing she was with them instead of sitting amid the burnt and bloodied surroundings. He found himself wondering if her sons looked like Yathas while their daughter was perhaps the image of her mother. Lina stared after the little girl as she moved along with her family through the rest of the rogues.

Unexpectedly, her eyes turned to Sauren and for a moment he was oblivious that she was staring at him. The instant he became aware, he felt the heat rise from his neck, embarrassment at having been caught watching. Inwardly, he cursed the flush but he forced a smile of understanding. A memory crossed his mind and with it came a distant longing for a mother he had never known. It took all he had to maintain composure as Lina rose and carefully stepped between her colleagues to make her way towards him.

"How are you, Sauren?" she asked as she planted herself down beside him on an upturned crate.

"I am well, thank you, Lina," he replied, slightly agitated and a little vulnerable. "And you?"

She smiled, exhaling lightly. "Fine, thank you, but that's not really what I was asking, was it?"

He dropped his eyes to the ground, looking at nothing in particular, just feeling awkward.

"You have worked well today," she said softly. "Your father is proud of you."

It was Sauren's turn to exhale. Inexplicably, this conversation was causing his chest to tighten and he was a loss as to understand exactly why. He kept his eyes averted and flinched as she placed her hand on his knee. "Be careful tonight, young man. It will be dangerous out there."

"I know," he replied, his voice husky, strained.

A crystal silence followed, broken only by the sound of the troupe preparing to leave. He lifted his head and Lina was looking straight at him. He stilled, painfully aware of how beautiful the woman was and also how genuinely concerned she was for his safety. "I know how your father must feel. He loves you very much and he will worry about you, as I do for my children - every day. I know you are a very astute and able young man, Sauren, but please, abide by your father, follow his lead. Do not try to be heroic."

The platinum-haired half-elf suddenly felt very humble. His chance to respond was stolen as the rogues all gathered in front of him. With one last smile, Lina stood then joined her husband. Don and Reed trotted back, taking their place beside Sauren, now upstanding and facing his father who addressed the troupe again.

"We need to work diligently and skillfully. Use your cunning to trammel any threat in your path - we do not want to waken the entire field army." He scanned the assembled rogues. Heads nodded and soft acknowledgements sounded. His eyes flitted to the mages and priests and his tone held an air of regret. "We go out there alone. No magic and no Light to protect us. We cannot risk the mages nor the priests' lives, we do not have the resources to both protect them and do what needs to be done. And - " he glanced at Belo'vir, a mixture of respect and humour in his eyes. "Your methods of offense and defence seriously risks awakening them all." A modest ripple of laughter ran through the assembly.

Belo'vir smirked. "Point taken. We will, however, remain just as vigilant upon the battlements and if need be, we will teleport you out. You will be 'tagged' by our magic before you leave so just try to remain grouped then we will be able to lock onto you."

Sa'themar nodded and turned back to his rogues. "So, I re-iterate - be observant, careful and thorough. We are assuming their weapons are similarly constructed to ours, but we do not know for sure. They will no doubt be guarded, by how many - again, unsure. That is all."

It was already agreed mages would teleport the troupes, thus 'tagging' them, to the far side of the south-facing wall. It would take longer certainly as only two at a time could be transported by this means, but at least it reduced the risk of detection by the enemy for it did not light up the night sky, as would fluorescent, whirring portals.

Quietly, they proceeded to a deserted courtyard and the teleports commenced. Belo'vir assigned two mages per rogue squad, himself being one of them. Oddly, it was an art which many mages did not employ. The conjuring of portals, which required more skill to open 'doorways' to other locations, was favoured by the majority and therefore mere teleporting was often pushed aside, forgotten. It did, however, demand another skill-set, for primarily it was intended for a mage's own personal method of travel and not the transporting of others. Furthermore, unlike portals, teleporting could enable one to track those ferried as it left a residue of the hermetics involved.

Squad leaders awaited their troupes' arrival and once all were assembled the rogues moved out towards the now quiet, slumbering Horde. The land between the two factions was strewn with all manner of obstacles created from the days' battle. Enormous boulders that had been harvested as ammunition sat amid shale and rubble from areas of the defending wall which had been hit repeatedly. Corpses, both Horde casualties and who or whatever they deemed useful to set alight and fire at the fortifications all lay haphazard, limbs in grotesque, normally impossible positions. The malodorous night air was heavy, thick with the result of war; the coppery stench of blood, ammonia of urine and faeces and the still-smouldering, charred flesh of people and creatures alike.

Sauren, Don and Reed followed Sa'themar's squad, keeping close and quiet. They moved nimbly but with due care as determined by the terrain. Moonlight afforded them the outline of their targets - the Horde's weapons of war. The squads split on the guild leader's signal. Each group of rogues moved towards their designated marks.

Music: ROAD OF THE CROSS || Jorn

   

With Sa'themar leading, the three boys continued onward. The night offered many pockets of shadow in which to disappear, caution nonetheless, was still required. They needed to give campfires a wide berth for even in stealth, they could be detected if they cast a shadow when caught by the light. It was a predicament which Sauren was expert assessing and he deftly avoided areas which would betray his presence. Don and Reed followed his path to the letter and so made safe progress.

Most of the orcs were asleep, only a handful remaining on watch, their sights being focused on the city walls. As suspected, others were based around the rogues' targets - the giant catapults and trebuchets which wrought so much damage to the city.

Stopping a few yards from the first machine, Sa'themar drew his squad in. "We want to disable these weapons," he whispered. "We kill the guards as swiftly as possible. Remember these orcs are insanely strong." He eyed his son and the two boys by his side. "You three concentrate on the weapon, the rest of us will see to the orcs."

Sauren was stunned. "But..."

His father held up a hand, forbidding him to question his authority. The half-elf snapped his mouth closed but was clearly incensed at being denied the chance to fight.

Sa'themar signalled for the others to take up position and for the three boys to proceed with the disarmament. Reed leapt onto the trebuchet with ease, shimmying his way along the beam to the guide chute. Once he reached the apex he dislodged the pin which held one side of the sling while Don and Sauren focused on the trigger for the counterweight. The sling itself would also be destroyed but it was important the mechanics were sabotaged first. They were thankful the machine had not been cocked for that would have made the task nigh on impossible without waking every orc within the camp.

Sauren looked down from the beam. He saw his father and colleagues kill the orc guards easily enough. The enormous tusked warriors had not stood a chance, the skills of the rogues being superior in light of the perhaps overly confident, musclebound menace from Draenor. Still, he knew they could not afford to become cocky. There were still a number of weapons to decommission and more orcs to defeat before the night was through. He glanced across the fields towards where the rest of the elites had gone. It was hard to be sure with only occasional moonbeams piercing drifting clouds, but it looked like they too had success.

The three of them descended the trebuchet and once more, they were on the move. Entering deeper into the camp, they came across makeshift shelters where some of the enemy slept. The rogues proceeded with caution. Other than the odd belch or fart in between snores, there was nothing to indicate the orcs were awake.

Only those guarding the artillery were alert. Their unintelligible orcish mumblings oft gave way to low laughter before resuming their conversations.

Another machine rose above them and Reed and Don ascended, sabotaging the various mechanisms. Sauren climbed slower, his attention drawn to the receding back of an orc a few yards away from the others. He was heading to a thick crop of ferns at the edge of some trees. The half-elf surmised he was going to relieve himself.

Checking with his friends, he indicated his intentions. They glanced in the direction of the tree line. Reed vigorously shook his head, pointing to Sa'themar. Don started to move back down the beam towards Sauren. He attempted to grab his shoulder but the half-elf swung around the beam and landed on the platform just below.

He hunkered down and peered over the frame to where the rogues were readying to attack. He deduced they had their hands full with the five orcs remaining on guard. If the other one came back to find his fellow soldiers slaughtered or in the process of being dispatched, he would warn the camp and all would rise. The troupe would not stand a chance.

Sauren leapt down, ignoring his friends' silent protestations. Keeping himself in the shadows he made his way to the trees.

He covered the ground quickly and soon found the orc squatting in amongst the soft undergrowth. Gauging his path so as not to betray his presence, Sauren neared the gigantic target, realising even when crouched the beasts were massive. He shimmied silently up the tree behind the orc. Studying the sheer bulk, he knew hand-to-hand with this thing would result in him being pummelled into the forest floor, so he needed to call forth all he had learned about the art of surprise and points on which he could render the orc incapacitated.

Like a spider, he lowered himself down the trunk on a vine until he was about three feet above his mark. He grinned, noting the obvious discomfort the orc was in - rations in the Horde camp could not have been particularly nutritious. Nonetheless, he would have to act quickly, for not only would his father wonder where he had disappeared to, but the stench from the orc's shit threatened to cause an algospasm.

He inched to his left searching for access to the vital point behind the orc's jaw and underneath its ear. The beast shifted, grunting as he strained. Then Sauren found the area he needed. If he could jab there and also below its cheekbones it would collapse in considerable pain. This would give Sauren ample time to slit the orc's throat. It was now or never.

Releasing the tension of the vine he slid down, closing the gap - and attacked. As he hit the mastoid the orc had just managed to turn opening the way for the half-elf to jab at the second pressure point. Dropping to the ground in front of the orc he watched as it collapsed on its side, the fiery eyes wide with shock and pain.

Sauren shifted, stepping from the shadows. A grin of utter satisfaction crossed his lips as the orc saw its tall and agile attacker. The thick lips juddered around yellowed tusks as it tried to call out but Sauren unsheathed his blades and drawing them across either side, silenced the orc for good.

"What do you think you are doing!" His father's voice sounded.

Even the ire in Sa'themar's voice could not deflect the rush Sauren was feeling at that point. He turned fearless eyes to the guild leader. "I am preventing the tables turning on us, father," he said, his voice bold, confident almost daring Sa'themar to scold him. "You said 'use your cunning to trammel any threat in your path'. That is exactly what I have done. Had this one come back to find what we had done, you would have had the entire Horde army to face."

Even in the dark, the high elf's eyes flashed dangerously. "A strategic consideration, I grant you, but you will not score points with me for disobedience, regardless. Abandoning your troupe is unforgivable."

Angered, Sauren wiped the blades on his shirt sleeves. Sliding them back into the scabbards strapped to his back he pushed past his father. "Would you rather I lay dead with you all for the sake of protocol?" Concealed once more in shadow, he crossed the expanse and rejoined the troupe. There he stood waiting, his annoyance with his father causing him to breathe hard as he tried to suppress a sense of hurt that his quick thinking had not even been commended.

The troupe remained until the guild leader rejoined them. Without so much as a glance at his son, Sa'themar signalled them forward.

"Did you kill it?" Reed asked.

"Yes!" Sauren replied, taut.

Both his friends congratulated him with amiable pats on his shoulders. Sauren stared straight ahead, still irked. Biting the inside of his cheeks he dutifully did as his father expected of him when they reached the next machine, but he was seething. He knew he had to contain his emotions, they could lead to mistakes and that would give Sa'themar another reason to humiliate him. Yes, he needed to calm down - there was still much to do before the night was over.

     

Chapter Text

 

Although it had seemed they would have ample time to dismantle the majority of the war machines, dawn was fast approaching. Apart from guards needing to be dealt with, swiftly and above all else, quietly, the added difficulty of one or two of the devices being cocked, hindered progress. Disarmament, therefore, required more than just the three boys. Others had to provide balance so the counterweights didn't cause the machines to fire; albeit minus ammunition, they would still have made enough noise to rouse the orcs.

As it was, the number of successfully decommissioned weapons would at least give the Alliance a respectable stay from the amount of heavy artillery. 

The indigo sky was starting to wane and a sliver of fuchsia and gold cut across the horizon. The thick cloud cover above, however, heralded a downpour heading inland. The rogues had to leave and quickly. Sa'themar grouped his team. "We need to get to the tree line. Move!" Melding with the remaining shadows the troupe made their way to the woods. 

Sauren kept looking over his shoulder in hope of seeing the other groups making their way to safety. It was impossible to tell – distance and daybreak affecting his ability to detect them amid the enemy camp. Worse still, the slumbering giants were starting to stir. Shouts from within the camp erupted as the rogues' work was already being discovered.

As soon as the troupe reached their destination, they started to vanish, two at a time. The most subtle of signifiers resulted from the teleports and did not attract unwanted attention. Sa'themar and Sauren were the last to be transported.

Back behind the city walls, the defenders were preparing for another day of battle. The projectiles for the ballistae and more barrels of oil were hoisted on the lifts to a chorus of grunts from those operating pulleys and heaving the items aboard the platforms.

Archers resumed their posts on the battlements, concealed by the merlons, loaded quivers on their backs and extra arrows lined up in bundles against the wall.

The clank and rattle of mail and plate armour sounded as the king's soldiers moved into position, more being deployed in the plaza and near the city entrance. 

Springalds were shifted and primed again in front of the gates, their iron-tipped javelins placed in large containers at the side of each weapon. Four men were assigned to each machine and lines of soldiers stood behind them, swords and pikes at the ready.

The rogues' work during the night would certainly save the city from as vicious a battering as it had suffered on the first day of the siege - at least for a while. The Horde's remaining weapons would need to be re-positioned in order to do sizeable damage; a time-consuming task in itself considering the terrain but no doubt quicker than trying to repair the damage the rogues' had caused. 

In order to compensate for the loss of some of their most effective weaponry, it was, therefore, the consensus of opinion that the Horde would have no alternative but to utilise their infantry. They would no doubt work harder at mining under the gate tower and use battering rams to forge forward in a desperate attempt to breach the city gates and walls. 

Even the plate helms of soldiers could not disguise the fear on their faces. These fierce, enormous brutes from another world were on the verge of breaking through one of the last Alliance strongholds. The dawn air was heavy with trepidation and dread. It would take a highly motivational speech from their monarch this morning to allay the creeping sense of doom. It did not help that inclement weather was now upon them, adding to the bleakness of the day ahead. Drops of rain dully tinging off armour and splatting on the ground gradually built like a steady, forlorn timpani. 

The rogues who had returned so far were bloodied and weary. Their short fitful rests during the previous day and early evening had only imbued them with enough spark to carry out the night's work. Now they were starting to flag. Those who had suffered injury were ordered to return to the guild headquarters and were not to come back until their leader deemed it practical. The others would have to endure the coming onslaught for a while longer.

Sa'themar ordered Brett to wait and ensure the remaining rogues adhered to his orders. He needed a moment with his son.  He turned severe eyes to the boy and gestured to the small courtyard where the magi had teleported them out the night before.

Sauren huffed, glancing at his two friends. They stared back, silent, affording only the smallest of nods. With fists clenching, the half-elf followed his father.

Sa'themar turned once they were out of earshot from the others. He glared down at his son who stood defiantly. Rigid. Seething still. "What is it you expect of me?" he asked Sauren.

The half-elf's lips tightened, his eyes flitting to the side as he mustered a reply. "Recognition!"

Sa'themar guffawed. "For what? Foolishness? Stupidity? Then you have it - tenfold."

Sauren fought the sting of tears. He had not expected such an unfair retort. A moment or two passed and he composed himself. He swallowed and looked straight into his father's eyes. His inner fire noticeably took Sa'themar by surprise. "I was foolish once, father and I paid the price," he indicated where the troll's spear had wounded him. "And I have had enough of this city looking down on me without you doing it too."

The guild leader flinched but he waited for Sauren to voice his piece.

"I am well aware of who and what you are, father; a renowned defender of the realm, an esteemed leader of a guild which I truly believe will go from strength to strength. You are respected and loved by many. You are also a loyal subject to your king – Anasterian."

The guild leader made to speak but his son forged on. "Your service to the human king is only out of devotion to your late wife, my mother; a woman who I never knew but felt her love for me through a painting hung on your study wall." Sauren's acidic tone hit a nerve, the effect of which made Sa'themar lower his eyes. The boy continued. "Yes, a portrait of my pregnant mother somehow reaches out to me. Strange considering she had only lived long enough to name me."

"Sauren..." his father began. 

The boy cut him off by turning away. "I know you have done well by me, father. You saw to my being cared for - by some anyway, others were - well, debatable..." A fleeting memory of Mrs Dalton crossed his mind's eye. "Nevertheless, I put up with a lot of hostility from the humans in this city. The hatred for the likes of me, a half-breed, was ripe when I was a child and there are still traces of it today."

At that moment, Brett came to the edge of the courtyard and shouted to the guild leader that all the rogues were back. Sa'themar acknowledged him with a wave and stepped forward. "Sauren, this is not the time..."

The half-elf spun round, his face contorted. "Not the time?" he said incredulously. "You took me aside. That said, however, this is probably one of the few times I will have a chance to say what needs to be said because normally you are away and when you are here you seem determined to keep me wrapped up in swaddling."

The high elf halted and faced his son again; a look of wounded discomfiture written on his weathered features. "Very well, say what you need to."

Sauren moved directly in front of his father. "Many hate me for who I am, what I am, but I can now brush that off. Why? Because I am your son. I am strong, learned, focused and yes, I will lead this guild one day. I will  maintain and increase its prosperity with pride and notability."

His father's jaw tightened and an indecipherable flash crossed his eyes. He knew his son had not finished and so once more waited for him to continue.

"What I did out there..." the boy's asseveration was embellished with a hand gesture indicating the battlefield.  "...was notable, father, and it was in keeping with your own instructions. But, furthermore, I saw something which you missed. Something, which had I let it slide, would have cost you greatly. At least acknowledge it for what it was."  Sauren's eyes burned, his indignation being forcefully kept in check.

Sa'themar's tongue slid across his upper lip and he swallowed for all his mouth was dry. With a deep breath, he answered his son. "I am and always have been proud of you, Sauren. I am also guilty of wanting to protect you; that is something you will experience one day when you have a family of your own, so I make no apologies for that." His eyes narrowed as he noted no give in his son's disposition. "I concede, you did indeed thwart a very unpleasant outcome and so yes, I commend you for that." He deliberately waited until Sauren's eyes softened before continuing. "Nonetheless, should you ever operate in a nocuous manner, or a judgement call of yours proves detrimental to the troupe, then I will discharge you with immediate effect."

Sauren drew himself up, slightly stiffened by the warning, but accepting of the penalty which befell all who put the troupe at risk. He bowed to his father then made to join the rest of the rogues.

"By the way," Sa'themar called after him. Sauren stopped and slowly turned to face his father again. "You forgot to mention the most important quality of being leader one day."

The half-elf raised his chin, his demeanour somewhat challenging and waited for his father to finish. 

"Above all Sauren, you must lead with integrity."

The mahogany eyes crinkled as a smile smoothed across his lips. "Of course, father. That goes without saying."

Although he could not rationalize his misgivings, Sa'themar's smile hid a tinge of uncertainty.  

Sauren left the courtyard, his face stony as he passed Brett who waited for the guild leader.

The right-hand man grunted, used to the boy's dismissive behaviour towards him. Whatever had been said between father and son, he had no doubt somehow, the half-elf had come away a little more triumphant than when he had gone in.  A weary Sa'themar approached him, his eyes following his son as the boy rejoined his friends.

"Everything alright?" Brett asked.

The high elf nodded. "Yes..." He sighed deeply before turning his full attention back to the human rogue. "How is everyone else faring?"

Brett glanced behind at the troupe. "I have sent some back to headquarters as you ordered. Once they have rested I suggest we swap out those still here." His eyes rested on Sauren and his two sidekicks.

"Yes, I will go with that," the guild leader responded.

"You yourself should rest," Brett suggested.

Sa'themar shook his head, the silver mane swishing as he did so. "No, not yet."

Brett knew the guild leader would not leave his son so he did not argue the point.

The sound of rising voices suddenly drew their attention; a warning. Next, a loud boom near the gates indicated the start of the day's assault. The defenders sprang into action.

"Seems they managed to get some of the other catapults in place then," Brett shrugged.

The guild leader grimaced. "So it seems. Still, it should not be quite as fierce as yesterday."

They gathered the rogues about them. "We may have a repeat of some of the tasks we performed yesterday," Sa'themar announced to the attentive faces. "There is also a high chance, the orcs will manage to break through as they will focus on destroying the gate tower. So I want some to remain here and work with the soldiers." 

He cast his eyes to the top of the wall. King Terenas had taken his place on the battlements once again. After a moment's reflection, he recalled a comment made by Sauren the day before, one which although not denied by the king, neither had he confirmed he had acted upon it. As the Horde would now focus on pushing through and namely under the gate tower, it would be prudent to investigate his son's suggestion. His eyes then locked with Sauren's. "Yesterday, you mentioned a possible labyrinth beneath the city," he said matter-of-factly.

Sauren grinned. "Yes, I did."

The guild leader chose his words carefully. "From your studies, do you think you could locate a way in?"

The half-elf nodded. "I believe it should be relatively easy. There are common denominators in such designs."

"Very well. Take Reed and Don with you and once you find it, let me know. A group of us shall then go underground and be ready to meet the enemy."  

Sauren smirked and nodded in acquiescence. He turned and headed towards the Keep with Reed and Don in close pursuit.

Two more loud booms were heard and felt as the gigantic boulders hit the defending wall. 

"Was that a ruse to keep him out of harm's way?" Brett asked Sa'themar.

The high elf managed a tight grin. "Not quite. Firstly, I think he had a valid point. The Horde will push to gain entry into the city and if we do not cover all bases, we could be overrun.  Hopefully, they will not succeed in their attempts at mining under us. Secondly, since he was a boy, he always excelled at finding secret entrances, doorways, passages and the likes, to hide. He thinks I do not know." A soft, reflective smile curved his lips.  "If there is a way in, I suspect Sauren will find it." 

 "Are you mad?" Don asked Sauren as they weaved their way through the back streets of Capital City.

"I'm as crazy as a murloc!" Sauren threw back over his shoulder with a grin before leaping and yanking a sheet from an overhead washing line. Not understanding his actions but deducing it was relevant, the two boys did the same when approaching another array of sheets between buildings.

"Who in their right mind hangs out a washing during a war?" Don commented, laughing.

"And in the rain," Reed piped in.

Sauren joined in the mirth. "Women are strange creatures but sometimes their fickle ways are to our advantage."

"No kidding!" Reed added, tripping on the end of his sheet. He righted his stride and scurried after his two friends.

Sauren slowed and finally drew to a halt as they neared the Keep. His eyes darted around taking note of the guards still present. "There are likely only enough to protect the royal family within," he muttered to his friends. "The majority are with the king."

"So this time we go in through the front door?" Don asked.

Sauren smiled. "In a manner of speaking. Keep your eyes peeled for anyone going about." He indicated the sheets.

"A bit of a giveaway, are they not?" Don smirked handing his over.

"Hardly what you would call crisp-white and with all this rain they will soon blend in with the colour of the stone."

Quickly, Sauren tied the ends together before moving to the edge of the wall which bordered the Keep. "If my estimations are correct, then on the other side of this wall are the gardens we passed through with Leola."

He reached into his boot and pulled out his anelace. Securing it to the end of the sheet, he then took a step back. Circling the makeshift rope above his head he threw it up towards the iron railings. He failed. He tried again and on the third attempt, it caught – the anelace wedged nicely between railings. After testing it was anchored securely and would support his weight, he started to climb.

Once he reached the top he signalled for the other two to follow, then jumped down into the grounds of the Keep and waited for them in amongst some shrubbery.

He had correctly guessed their location and spied the doorway the concubine had led them through. The three of them melded with their surroundings and moved swiftly and quietly to the doorway. As suspected, guards were sparse but the rogues were under no delusion that they would be lax in their duties.

They slipped into the chamber. On reaching the tapestry which secreted the way into the catacombs, they pulled it aside searching for a locking mechanism. One slightly protruding stone was the key. Sauren pushed it and the door groaned as it gave way. "We have to risk leaving it slightly open, the tapestry should provide cover."

The eerie stone stairwell was no more comforting for Don than it had been the first time he descended. The catacombs were still one of the most unsettling places to be ensconced. He shivered slightly as they stole their way down.

The rogues moved quietly and swiftly, keeping themselves blended in shadow. They made their way along the passage towards the pool of pleasure and through the opening on the other side. Sauren duly noted torches lit along the passageways. It would suggest someone had been there recently – perhaps King Terenas took on board his suggestion and had the way scouted after all. He grinned to himself - the queen would not be happy.

Their descent was not yet complete and they continued into the bowels of Capital City. Occasionally, Sauren stopped to listen, trying to detect any tell-tale sounds. Other than dripping water and the whispering echoes of their footfalls there was nothing to suggest the enemy had broken through. Nonetheless, he knew it was still a fair way before they reached the defence wall and pressed on in the direction his senses advised him to go.

Further down the acoustics changed and so did the smell. As the boys emerged from a dank passageway, the sight which met their eyes halted them in their tracks. 

"By the gods! What is this place?" Reed gasped.

The catacombs opened into a vast maze of chambers, walkways and small bridges interlocking over a stagnant river. Movement in the water drew the boys' eyes, their hands reaching for their daggers. Gaseous bubbles from the sewage and rats which swam across it were all that moved the dark water. High above them, the craggy stone ceilings afforded soft shards of light from the city's drainage inlets. It was enough though to make out the general layout in front of them.

"In the darkest places, there be light," Sauren uttered, astounded by the sheer amplitude of the place. "It's an under city beneath our very home. Surely, the king is aware of this at least!"

"How could he not be?" Don said in awe, peering over at the water then scrunching up his face as a gaseous bubble popped emitting a foul stink.

"It was something Leola said to me..."

"She has to have been mistaken then," Reed injected, his eyes also scanning the enormous underground metropolis. "Perhaps it is she who is unaware of anything other than the queen's pleasure pool."

Sauren cocked his eyebrows and shrugged. "You could be right."

A new sound caught the boys' attention.

Don crouched. "Did you..?"

"Shh!" Sauren put up his hand.

They held their breaths, waiting to hear the noise again and hear it they did. This time there was no denying it; the sound of armour and steel clunking in the distance.

Sauren signalled they move ahead towards the sound, he needed to find out exactly what was going on before he sent word back to his father. They moved up over a nearby bridge and once on the other side stole into the shadows again.

Progressing, they saw rows of weaponry and armour set out in one of the wide recesses. There was no mistaking now the King certainly had taken Sauren's suggestion seriously. On one hand, this was good; it proved his sagacious mind was considered worthy in the eyes of the monarchy. On the other, however, it also pointed towards the very real threat of the enemy breaking through.

There was no denying the relief all the boys felt when voices drifting towards them were none other than that of soldiers of Lordaeron. It was short-lived when they overheard the soldiers discussing the orcs were now making rapid ground - they could literally be heard chipping and digging their way closer.

Sauren moved into another darkened embrasure, signalling his two friends join him post-haste. "Go back and tell my father the enemy is nearly through," he whispered to Reed.

His friend nodded. "What about you two?"

"We will wait here for the time being, but if they breach the walls before you return, we will have to fight." Sauren wished him good luck and then watched as he made quick progress back the way they had come.

 

Chapter Text

 

   

Reed found the way out easily, stopping only long enough to breathe in the considerably fresher air; war, after all, did taint even the sweetest scents.

He checked if any guards were nearby. The last thing he needed was for them to think he was up to no good and detain him – or worse. The area was clear.

Thankfully, the landscaping of the gardens meant the wall which the rogues had crossed wasn't as high from the Keep's side. He ran up the incline to the wall and propelled himself forward, zig-zagging his way at the corner until he could reach up and grab the railings. Testing their makeshift rope was still secure, he lowered himself down - back onto the subjects' side of the royal residence.

Pressed against the stone, he could hear the distant boom of catapults' ammunition hitting the defence wall. The confusing din of defenders shouting and screaming also carried on the air as once again they worked hard keeping their city secure. Inwardly, he sighed, disappointed their night's work had not managed to disarm all of the Horde's engines of war. The only appeasement being it did not seem to be quite as constant as it had the day before.

He raced through the otherwise deserted streets; those citizens not able to fight had again, no doubt, been ordered to stay indoors, if possible retreat to cellars for safety. A shiver ran up Reed's spine. Somehow, the ominous stillness of the inner city had a prophetic feel about it. It seemed the scars of war did not pertain to merely the physical consequences, but also to an underlying sense of doom, dread. He cursed under his breath. This was no time to conjure up fanciful horrors, the real ones were bad enough.

The sounds of battle intensified as he drew nearer the gate tower. The downpour did nothing to abate the Horde's incessant assault with fire-riddled ammunition crossing the wall. Only those slamming onto the cobbles were eventually doused by natural means, others required the intervention of the defenders. Flames licked their way around buildings again, their burning fingers laying claim to contents and structures alike – no mercy. Giant rocks rained down on the burning buildings taking advantage of their weakened state and causing them to crumble, become ruins.

Reed continued to run, dodging burning bodies and crossing over piles of rubble. The rain was now persistent and he had to shield his eyes against it to try to find Sa'themar and the rogues amid the soldiers. He scanned the plaza, ducking as some fiery missiles hurtled through the air and impacted on already burning structures. He noted some of the springalds had taken damage. His heart lurched as he saw the gate move inwards. It held, but it wouldn't be long before it was breached.

Still he searched for his Crimson Blade comrades and finally, he found them. He ran over to Brett who was aiding in dousing fires. "Where is Sa'themar?" he gasped.

Brett jutted his chin to the battlements. "Up there beside the king."

Reed turned but Brett shouted him back. "I take you found a way in?"

"Yes. But, the orcs are about to make their own way in. I need to get to Sa'themar."

"Go on then, boy. He will let us know what he wants us to do."

The young rogue reached the stairs and bounded up, slipping on a few but regaining his footing. The thud and thwack of the ballistae sounded from atop the battlements, weapons-masters working tirelessly to keep the giant crossbows armed. Others were emptying barrels of oil into the huge cauldrons to cast over the orcs below. The open braziers were being doused by the rain though and panic was setting in at the lack of fire available to set the oil alight.

Roars heard from over the wall now depicted the orcs were directly outside the city wall. The clash of steel sang as they now seemed to be using their weapons to attack the gates as well as a battering ram.

Reed reached Sa'themar who was in urgent discussions with Belo'vir. The magister swiftly moved aside gathering his mages and instructing some to use magic to set the oil alight. Others were positioned along the parapet and ramparts, ordered to cast their sorcery over the wall at the encroaching orcs. The air soon hissed with the sounds of fire and arcane magic.

Sa'themar, oblivious of Reed's presence, accompanied the king to the edge of the parapet. The boy followed close behind and dared to glance over as well. They assessed the effectiveness of the mages attacks - it was at least putting a dent in the enemy's assault. But, the siege towers had started to move forward as the excavating of paths to the wall was made easier by the heavy rain. 

The guild master shouted on Belo'vir and pointed out the approaching towers. The mage smirked and rallied more of his sorcerers. En masse their incantations produced frost and ice which they cast at the sodden earth. The orcs progress to the wall was hindered once more by the newly frozen ground. It would be an ongoing enchantment, however, nature itself was against them making the ice melt.

The guild master turned and at that point noticed Reed standing beside him. His face instantly paled on seeing the young rogue. "Tell me!" he demanded.

"We found a way in but the orcs are almost through, in fact, they may have already succeeded. Sauren and Don are still inside. "

The guild leader's eyes flashed and Reed saw fear pass over his face. He turned to the king. "Your Majesty," Sa'themar said drawing the monarch's attention from the battle below.

King Terenas stepped closer and glanced at Reed then fixed Sa'themar with a tenacious and noble countenance. "What is it, Sa'themar?"

"I make no apologies but I sent my son to locate a way under the city. He and two young rogues have found the way in. Reed, here, has reported back the orcs are on the brink of getting through."

The king's eyes narrowed. "No apologies needed, Sa'themar, I would have expected nothing less under the circumstances. I did take on board what your son said and have deployed soldiers in the catacombs. Gather your resources and head down, we will ..." The sound of a horn coming from the north-east stopped Terenas in mid-sentence. The king smiled broadly. "Our reinforcements have arrived!"

As all eyes turned in the direction of the horn, the king removed his ring and covertly handed it to Sa'themar. "This will grant you unhindered entry, the boy there will no doubt lead you down into the bowels of the Keep." He stepped back. "Go! We will continue to defend from here."

Word of the timely arrival of the alliance armies soon spread among the defenders and a remarkable shift in mood resulted. Sa'themar quickly spoke with Belo'vir again, explaining what he needed to do. The magister instantly called forth a few of his mages. They were to accompany the guild leader, the others including himself would remain on the battlements. Sa'themar nodded his appreciation and descended the stairs.

He found Brett, Alaen and Lina and ordered the young mage to fetch the rogues from the complex. They were to meet him outside the Keep. Reinforcements or not, he needed everyone back ready to fight. Alaen teleported immediately.

The gate creaked and groaned as the enemy tried to forge forward again. It was only a matter of time, their desperation would have peaked now with the announcement of Turalyon and his army approaching. Brett and Lina nodded in agreement saying they would keep a squad at the gates ready for the fight.

Sa'themar was more than pleased when he arrived in front of the Keep to find a portal forming. Yathas stepped out of its centre, followed by the rogues who had been rallied by the young mage. The guild leader could not contain his pride as he looked upon his colleagues. For all they were still tired and recovering from injury, there was a spark in everyone's eyes – they were ready and would fight to the death to prevent the city from falling.

Reed made to climb the rope, but Sa'themar detained him by placing a hand on his shoulder. He held up the ring to the boy's questioning eyes. "This will allow us through the main gate. I take it you will know your way from there?"

Reed grinned. "Yes, Sir."

The guards at the entrance stood aside as the guild leader explained the group's task and showed them the royal signet. Reed then led the way, rogues and mages following closely behind.

They poured out into the under city, momentarily in awe of the vastness of the place, but their attention was soon grabbed by the sound of roars further into the tessellation of tunnels, chambers and bridges. The young rogue started off in the direction he had left his friends, Sa'themar and the others in quick pursuit.

Sauren and Don remained where Reed had left them and they materialised in front of the approaching squad. Relief swam across both the young rogue's and Sa'themar's faces.

The half-elf looked at his father, an unspoken need evident in his eyes.

"You have done well. Your tactical thinking is indeed commendable." Sa'themar said maintaining steady eye-contact with his son. A flicker of a smile played on Sauren's lips. Sa'themar moved closer, whispering, "And you have no idea how relieved I am to see you are unharmed."

Sauren nodded acknowledgement and quietly added, "I hope I am still intact once this fight is over."

The guild leader fought an urge to bite at such a comment for he knew it stemmed from his fear of losing his son - very much a prominent concern now that he was no longer safe within protective walls. Instead, he simply forced a smile and signalled for the troupe to move forward.

A little closer to the fray he told the mages and priests to remain where they were; the opposite side of the river to the where the skirmish ahead sounded. He would need their skills when the pending battle spilt out into the nexus of the metropolis. Their magic and healing would be best applied from a distance, hopefully reducing the risk to their own safety. The rogues then pressed on, across a bridge.

No sooner had they reached the other side but alliance soldiers spilt out from one of the tunnels, their armour bloodied, one or two with armguards, breastplates and helms battered or even just hanging by their fastenings.

Music: NOSFERATU || Bloodbound

   

The rogues, all synchronised, instantly melded into the shadows and took up positions at the entrance of the tunnel and further back, fanning out to capture the advantage over the enemy.

Within moments, the enormous, fierce warriors from Draenor charged out, growling and roaring, swords and axes swinging.

The orcs were so huge and powerful, even a highly skilled rogue in this environment would be sore pressed to take one alone. The enemy was in full battle-mode and their weapons were wielded with alarming ferocity. Even though they did not wear much in the way of armour as did the alliance soldiers or even the rogues, to land an effective blade in such bulk would require precision and a degree of strength. That exercise had also proved tiring, as many of the rogues experienced from the previous night.

What Sauren had deduced from witnessing the fights against them out in the battlefield, was simply trying to slice the muscle-bound beasts was folly. With an insane amount of endurance, they took many bladed attacks before their strength waned. His method, on the other hand, had been swift and most effective. Whether he had been merely fortunate at employing such a tactic or possessed a particular skill in its application, was not exactly a proven science. Plus there was the small fact the orc had been defecating at the time. Still, it was a move he was willing to try again.

"Jab it behind its jaw and below the ear," he said to his father.

"Is that what you did out there?" Sa'themar asked with a look of amazement that his son's education had covered such tactics already.

"Yes, and also just under the cheekbone. To be sure it wasn't just blind luck I will go for the hamstrings at the same time. When it falls, slit its throat."

Sa'themar's tapered eyebrows flexed. He was impressed his son was thinking about the attack instead of just plundering in as often was the case with novices.

Remaining in the shadows and singling out one of the orcs, Sa'themar gave the nod. He went high, aiming for the mastoid using the pommel of his dagger. As the orc roared he brought the dagger head round and jabbed the zygomatic nerve. At the same time, Sauren had somersaulted behind the giant and thrust his daggers into its thighs. Throwing his weight into the attack he yanked the blades down. The blood spatter coated his face and hair. With a smug smirk, he noted the orc folding. His father grabbed one of the beast's tusks and yanking its massive head up drew his blade across its throat. He too was now covered in blood. Quickly, Sauren moved to his father's side and they attacked the next one in a similar fashion.

Two of the elites had teamed up with Don and Reed and they gave all they had in the fight. Don excelled at running circles around the brutes, jabbing and slicing their backs and bellies, the guts revealed. Reed's blades also exacted a heavy toll on the advancing orcs, shearing off ears, cutting into faces, piercing eyes, exposing jawbones and teeth. Still, the foe could not be toppled until they noted Sauren's technique of slicing the hamstrings and calcaneal tendons. After this, a respectable number of orcs fell foul to the rogues.

Soldiers continued battling on, they too managing to halt some of the beasts in their tracks, but a heavy price was paid. It seemed for every one orc killed two more came in its stead. Valiantly they tried to deflect their strikes but casualties were inevitable. The enormous and weighty cleavers and swords of the Horde were wielded with devastating accuracy. The body count grew, more on the defenders' side than that of the enemy.

Yathas noticed a soldier stumbling back as one beast charged him, swinging an axe above its head. Before the rogue could reach the young man the heavy weapon had been buried into his chest, the breastplate having offered no protection against the power of the orc. Placing an enormous foot on the soldier's arm the tusked warrior yanked out the axe, innards trailing through the air from it along with shredded bits of armour and bone. It grunted, apparently pleased it had gutted the human.

Leaping onto its back, Yathas buried his blades in between its shoulders and twisted them at an angle tearing open the thick flesh. The orc roared in pain staggering back. The high elf wasn't quick enough to jump away and he was smashed against the rock wall. Winded, he slid to the ground but managed to shield himself again in a cloak of shadow as the brute turned to face his assailant. The look of puzzlement on the orc's face almost made Yathas laugh – it could not see him. Another rogue came to Yathas' aid and with both hands, he dragged his dagger across the giant's stomach. As the contents slopped out on the ground in a steaming pile the rogue helped Yathas to his feet and moved him away from the conflict. The orc was still trying to gather his intestines as they slithered out between his enormous fingers, but his battle was over. He fell forward over the sickening pile of innards.

"Thank you, Luther," Yathas said to his colleague.

"Anytime. Will you be alright?" the human replied.

"Yes, I just need a moment. Go! Help the others."

Luther nodded and swept back into the fight, melding with the shadows once more, leaving Yathas to recover.

The clatter of armour, weapons, roars and screams of the defenders resounded through the underground city.

A whole row of Lordaeron's brave warriors was thrust into the air as yet an even more monstrous orc who had joined the battle swung a heavy mallet which was almost the size of a man. Some of the armoured soldiers were smashed against walls and bridges, their broken or bruised bodies slumping to the ground. Others landed in the malodorous river pulled under by the weight of their armour and drowned or left bleeding, struggling to reach the edges.

Sauren witnessed the assault. The sheer mass of the orc was impressive at best, but he had to be brought down; he was ploughing through the soldiers as though they were the year's harvest. Dismembered limbs and heads slid across the blood and guts covered ground adding to the mephitic stench and disturbing, grisly scene of battle.

The guild leader realised the odds were not going in their favour. Enemies were still flooding through the breach and growing wise to the rogues' strategy as well as that of the soldiers. Many alliance were being swatted like flies, sent skittering across the ground or through the air. Some never got up again.

Sa'themar turned as he heard his son's warning shout. His eyes rose to the powerful bulk of an orc which was thundering through the troops. The beast seemed unstoppable, relentless, battering its way through the lines. Whoever it missed with the mallet it reached out and grabbed them by the throat, squeezing or shaking them until their necks snapped then discarded the corpses as if they were mere bones from a rack of ribs picked clean.

Stealthed or not, when that mallet swung, Sa'themar would be in its path. He found himself at a distinct disadvantage and there was only one place he could escape; the river. He was not quick enough, however, and the orc just clipped him as he dove towards the stagnant water. His body plummeted into the now blood-steeped sewage and Sauren watched in horror as his father's body sank.

He skirted around the piles of massacred soldiers and without a second thought dove into the river. He swam through the filth and murk to where he saw his father last. The sludge, silt, faeces, new and old body-parts plus the sparse light in the caverns as a whole made it impossible to see underwater. He surfaced, fighting the overwhelming need to vomit as the rancid content coated his hair, skin and armour. He treaded the gloop, blinking rapidly to clear the filth from his eyes as he searched frantically for his father. He called his name but to no avail. Down he dove once more searching blindly, combing the sewage hoping to grab onto Sa'themar while above the battle raged on. More limbs sank within reach as defenders were hacked apart by the invading orcs.

One almighty swell announced that one of the beasts had become the latest member of the rotting populace in the river. The water displacement also gave Sauren a glimpse of his father. He fought his way through the contamination and reached out to him. Grabbing his pauldrons, he heaved him to the surface. The effort to pull him through the congested river was taking everything Sauren had left. He felt himself sliding back under, his grip on his father tightening as he struggled to keep him above the surface.

Suddenly, four hands grabbed both him and Sa'themar yanking them onto the steps carved out at the river's edge. Sauren lay on his back, exhausted, gasping. He looked up into the faces of Reed and Don, both bloodied, filthy and obviously tiring too. 

He rolled onto his side spitting out putrid matter and he caught sight of his father lying next to him. A priest was aiding him, applying some healing spell. The guild leader heaved, a rush of dark fluid spilling from his mouth. The priest rolled him onto his side, the motion helping Sa'themar to disgorge more of the revolting content from his stomach and lungs. Sauren, relieved his father was going to be alright, managed a grateful smile at the priest.

Flashes of silver, amethyst and azure illuminated the labyrinth. The sudden outpouring of sorcery was greatly amplified within the boundaries of the underground city. Magi rained their magic upon the orcs now out in the open and just across from where the spell-weavers stood. They were as merciless as the enemy had been to the defenders. The furious hiss and sharp crackle of the blinding sortilege rendered the orcs stunned, slowed, some burned and others frozen.

It was much to the soldiers' and rogues' relief that the orcs had not seen fit to have their warlocks accompany them through the excavated tunnel. As it was, the sheer volume of magic being conducted was starting to shake the very foundations and overhead structure.

The spells kept firing regardless, the magi working as one indestructible weapon. Even priests called upon their discipline and shadow teachings and together they helped push the enemy back. The practitioners of the Light levitated and pressed forward, their exorcism of the labyrinth almost complete. The magi followed, crossing the bridges and when the last of the fleeing orcs disappeared the way they had entered, the tunnel was sealed using a mixture of surrounding rubble and magical wards to prevent a future break-through.

With the sounds of battle depleted, the defenders took stock of their fallen comrades. Amid the orc corpses, blood, innards and sewage, soldiers and a few of the Crimson Blades lay battered, crushed and hacked; their lives bravely offered defending Lordaeron.

Sa'themar rose, a little unsteadily at first but with Sauren's aid, he regained his balance. He smiled gratefully at his son. His eyes then surveyed the dead, his heart heavy. Quietly, he asked if Alaen would kindly teleport the fallen Blades to headquarters. The young man nodded and along with another mage dutifully tended to the fallen. One of the priests was teleported back to the surface to enquire about arrangements for the soldiers who had died in the conflict.

Sa'themar, along with Yathas, Sauren, the two young rogues and the surviving Blades were all portalled back to the Keep above. The battle in the under city at least was over. 

      

Chapter Text

     

 

Portalled into a war zone, the rogues had no choice but to rally and come to the aid of those still fighting.

The gates had been breached at ground level too and the orcs had poured in, bringing with them some of Gul'dan's loathsome aberrations, the Death Knights. It was difficult to tell which terrified the people more – the enormous, muscle-bound giants or the cold, necromantic cavalry.

The scene in the plaza was a slaughterhouse; walkways, alleys and buildings spattered with blood and body parts. Although the humans numbered greatly in the dead, some of the Draenor invaders also lay still or dismembered in the streets. Soldiers of Lordaeron had fought fiercely, setting upon each orc with an almost deranged vigour as they chopped, hacked, stabbed and clubbed the giants. Their zeal did not let up until they were certain the beasts would not rise again.

Then the Death Knights stole their way in through the gates. The emaciated steeds automatically created a path as both warring sides tried to get out of the way of their death chill. The reanimated riders slew humans with enormous unhallowed swords often sending limbs and heads hurtling through the air. As they swept further into the plaza, their diabolic presence started to syphon the pugnacity of the Alliance. Soldiers noticeably flagged, their weapons seemingly too heavy to wield anymore and their ability to do their duty sucked from them.

An eerie fog started to build, rolling in behind the undead knights to claim those that lay lifeless on the bloodied streets. The ultimate horror of the once brave defenders being reanimated to then fight for the Horde would soon be a reality if the macabre fetor reached the bodies. The secular creatures had to be stopped at all costs.

Sa'themar gathered the rogues within shouting distance. Quickly scanning their numbers he realised some were too far into the plaza to hear him. He did not have time to go searching and together with the mages and priests he led them towards the battlements.

The heavy thwack and thud of ballistae, springalds and catapults, along with the clash and clank of steel, iron and armour surrounded them as they made their way to the foot of the wall. Together with shouts and screams of soldiers, roars and grunts of thundering orcs, the sounds of battle were deafening. Unnervingly, the ghostly, metallic voices of the Death Knights carried above all the others.

As the troupe fought their way through the carnage, Sa'themar kept a close eye on the enemies coming through the gates. A sense of doom gripped him when he heard another horn sounding, albeit a little distant. It was not like that which announced the arrival of Turalyon and his armies. This was definitely ominous. What had happened to the Alliance reinforcements? he wondered. Had they been defeated? He leapt up the stairs to the parapet.

King Terenas was ordering the re-positioning of the oil cauldrons and ensuring archers and magi were focusing their efforts on the gates. The ballistae were realigned but still aiming at the Horde's war party charging towards the city entrance. He caught sight of Sa'themar as the high elf crested the stairs. He could read the look on Sa'themar's face. "I'm glad to see you made it, my friend," the king said, his voice weary.

"And you, Sire," Sa'themar replied, clearly wanting to hear about the allies.

"The Horde numbers were greater at the entrance until some were drawn east, to deal with Turalyon, no doubt," Terenas offered in answer to the unspoken question.

The troupe were now assembled behind the guild leader, Sauren at the forefront. Briefly, the king looked at him with tired eyes. The half-elf inclined his head in respect.

"That horn," Sa'themar said, drawing Terenas' attention again. "Their reinforcements have arrived now, haven't they?"

The king held him in a steady stare and with an adamant jut of his chin he answered. "Yes, but we will not relent. They shall not have my city!" He turned and signalled to Belo'vir who stood at the ready with his battle mages.

The cauldron was tipped and the magi set the oil alight. A river of fire poured over the orcs and Death Knights below. The spell-weavers maintained their casting, the flames reaching out claiming more victims.

Again, the horn sounded but this time it was prolonged; the order to retreat. The king, bolstered by the sound, ordered his people to keep fighting until every last one of the enemy was either dead or fleeing.

A foot soldier clambered up the stairs and clanked his way to Terenas. Enervated, the young man took a few deep breaths before bowing and gasping his message. "Your Majesty. King Thoras Trollbane has seized the Alterac kingdom and the way back to the mountains has been barricaded by troops from Stromgarde."

Terenas smiled. "The Horde is trapped then." He looked out over the battlefield. "They are flanked by the Alliance armies." His voice rose in triumph as he saw the enemy gathering their resources and retreating. "The Alliance of Lordaeron has prevailed. We are victorious!"

Staring out over the battered wall the defenders watched as the fleeing orcs stumbled and limped their way over fallen comrades and smashed artillery.

Exhausted though the people were, a steady cheer rose throughout the plaza. Those around the king were hailing the Alliance, their loyalty and pride being generously voiced. Terenas faced the magi and assembled rogue troupe. "Thank you all, for your help in winning this battle and securing our city."

He turned to Sauren. A benign smile graced the royal lips. "As for you, young man..." All eyes fixed on the young Nightflame.

The half-elf held the monarch's stare. For all he was filthy and stank like a sewer, Sauren was nonetheless egocentric, his poise confident and proud as the king approached him.

"Your powers of deduction and utilitarian way of thinking have indeed impressed me. You are a credit to your father. Perhaps one day, my son, Arthas, and you will unite in another campaign for the securing of Capital City and Lordaeron."

"Thank you. It would be an honour to fight beside Prince Arthas, just as it has been to fight alongside Your Majesty these past two days." He finished with a respectful bow.

Terenas moved away and engaged in conversation with Sa'themar and Belo'vir.

"You reek!" Don whispered beside Sauren.

Merely inclining his head a little so he could keep watch on the king, Sauren replied. "You don't exactly smell of roses yourself."

Reed was quick to cut in. "He was referring to your pompous, narcissistic, over-inflated self-opinion and your kissing of the king's ass."

The silence which followed suddenly left Reed bereft of any self-worth he had felt for his part in the undercity defence. It also made him question if he had seriously over-stepped the mark with the half-elf.

Sauren turned to face him, slowly. The boy stood, staring into the mahogany eyes with as much confidence as he could possibly hold on to.

"He didn't..." Don injected, also feeling a tension in the air between the two. Sauren silenced him by simply raising his hand.

"Well, that certainly makes a pleasant change from being called a half-breed," Sauren said flatly. A grin slowly spread over his mouth giving way to a smile.

Don managed a relieved guffaw and Reed's shoulders relaxed. Both made Sauren laugh. "Oh, really! Lighten up you two. We have just survived one hell of a battle and you think I will be offended by something like that?"

The two lads smiled and laughed freely.

Sauren looked over his shoulder still maintaining vigil on the king with his father and the magister. "Just make sure you enjoy your next meal for you won't be able to taste another once I remove your tongue." His eyes turned back to the two young rogues. Their laughter dwindling in their throats.

It was pointless, Sauren just couldn't keep up the pretence. He slapped the side of Reed's arm. "I'm joking! For goodness sake. You have survived... but I seriously think your sense of humour died in the battle."

"Sometimes, Sauren..." Reed breathed.

"I know! At the risk of sounding vainglorious, life with me is never dull." He smirked.

Sa'themar rejoined the rogues and as always, his presence demanded their attention. "Well done everyone, it was a hard fight and you all did exceptionally well. We will now all return to headquarters. There are enough people in the city to aid the injured and start the clean up for the time being. Whoever wishes to return here and help later may do so, but I strongly suggest we all clean ourselves up and rest for a while. We also have our own losses to see to. It has been a long two days."

He was answered by unanimous consent.

 She had been waiting for him to do so and offered a coquettish smile and nod before she caught up with her parents as they headed towards the city centre      

 

The next few days were spent helping the citizens gain some sort of normality back into their lives following the siege.

The unpleasant task of heaving unidentifiable, scorched creatures from the streets as well as the fallen orcs both in and outside of the defending wall needed to be tended to first. Bodies were loaded onto carts and taken to a mass grave outside the city walls.

The sun had returned and as such the stench of death was almost overwhelming. It clung to the individuals aiding in the necessary work. Vigorous scrubbing at night followed, in a vain attempt to rid them of the putrid smell. But it wouldn't be until all the dead were removed and buried before the malodorous air would clear.

Flies had already made some of the corpses their feeding and breeding grounds and wriggling clusters of fat maggots fell from the carts as they trundled and bumped their way to the grave. Some children, morbidly fascinated by the relocation of bodies, followed behind stomping on the bugs, seeing who could achieve the loudest squelch underfoot. The children were repeatedly chased but soon returned once another load of bodies started the final journey.

The clearing of the rubble, broken statues, fountains and burnt timbers was next on the agenda. Again, cartloads were shifted allowing masons and carpenters to restore the buildings. It would not be a quick recovery, but in time the city would heal.

Music: WHAT KIND OF LOVE || Avantasia

   

The boys had taken a break from their lifting and shifting and sat with backs against one of the ruined buildings. They welcomed some cooling lemonade offered by the shop proprietor whose damaged premises they had been helping to clear. Chatting and joking, the boys relaxed, faces to the sun, eyes closed to the brightness.

"Damn, I could do with seeing Madelyn & Sasha again," Reed said out of the blue.

Don agreed. "Oh, yes! I think we deserve a little pleasure after all we have been through."

Sauren's lips split into a smile. "I will see what I can arrange. There is always Odette's if the ladies are too busy."

"Who is Odette?" A female voice startled the three boys, their eyes springing open and being automatically blinded. A young woman stood in front of them with her back to the sun and appeared momentarily as a silhouette, the bright rays spreading out like an aura around her.

"Piper?" Sauren asked, pushing himself up.

"You remember," the girl replied.

"Yes. I do indeed." He straightened before inclining his head in a polite bow. "What are you doing here?"

"We have been here since the day I first met you. We couldn't leave as originally planned because - well, because of the orc problem."

Sauren's eyebrows flexed at her term. He knew his two friends would be suppressing their laughter and was oddly relieved when they said they were going to get back to work.

Returning his undivided attention to the young woman in front of him, he quickly took note of what she was wearing. Dressed in a plain, sage-coloured gown which accentuated her slim waist, she still looked rather refined and somewhat more mature than when he had first clapped eyes on her. The chestnut hair was worn in a loose ponytail with one or two loose strands floating around her face. Her blue eyes darkened as he met her gaze. "So what brings you to this part of town?" he enquired.

"A number of us have been helping at the infirmary and we make rounds to ensure the people who perhaps cannot make it there are offered aid as well."

"Most charitable." He watched her skin flush when he smiled at her, the colour creeping slowly up from her neck. She seemed lost for something to say so he eased matters. "Would you like me to accompany you? It may still not be safe in some areas."

"I am with four others," she said quietly looking behind her at the young women who checked in doorways and through broken windows for anyone in need of help.

"Oh, I see. That's a no, then?" He enjoyed watching her blush, it was endearing.

"Well, to be honest - they are rather dull company," she whispered.

He smiled broadly. "I hope you will forgive my poor attire then, we have been somewhat busy ourselves," he said, offering his arm for her to link.

Her lips curved in a smile, emphasising the dimples in her cheeks. "We cannot expect to be in our finest at this point in time carrying out such duties, Sauren." Accepting his arm, she happily stepped in beside him and they started along the street.

They strolled in silence for a while, occasionally stopping at the entrance to alleys and buildings to check if anyone was injured or hungry. It seemed most had been tended to or indeed did not require assistance.

"I am surprised your mother allows you to venture out in this way," he commented, noting her perfume; the delicate orange blossom pleasing to his senses as was the way she moved next to him.

Piper laughed lightly. "She is not quite the stern matriarch she appears to be."

"Oh, I merely noted she was most protective of you that day at the stalls. I was not implying anything unkind about her."

"I didn't for a moment think you were. But yes, she can be a little overbearing when she chooses. Other times she is quite, lenient. Even indulgent sometimes actually."

Sauren subconsciously caressed her fingers as she flexed them lightly around his forearm. "In what does she indulge?" The huskiness of his voice a little daring, testing the water. He was pleased to see she was not offended, but the colour of her cheeks did flare slightly.

The tip of her tongue traced along the crease of her mouth before she answered. "Why sir, I do not know you well enough yet to divulge such secrets."

The inveiglement of her answer amazed and pleased him equally. His eyes dropped to her neckline just for a beat, then quickly looked away as he felt stirrings which he really could do without when walking along city streets.

Her voice lowered as if to ensure no-one but he heard her. "Talking of indulgence, who is this Odette you mentioned back there with your friends?"

Sauren looked to the sky. This young woman was full of surprises and not at all dim. She was as sharp as a knife. Hoping he had read her right, he chanced another audacious retort. "Why Miss Alston, I do declare that if I revealed such a secret, you would not wish to know me well at all."

Her soft laughter thrilled him. She threw him a sideways look, her lashes blinking slowly. "Oh, I think I can guess what Odette does, but do not assume that you know what I wish, Sauren Nightflame."

"You think it is my mere assumption?"

Stumbling on the cobbles her pedantry faltered slightly, but her riposte was once more open to interpretation. "I think this conversation is in danger of becoming a battle of wits, Sauren."

And at that, his perfect teeth flashed in a victorious smile and his eyes raked over her. "I am done with battles for a while, Piper, they are too messy. Now, I will focus on a straight win and I intend to get what I want."

His reply caused her to gasp. At the same time, a shrill voice called her name. They turned to see her mother coming towards them with a man in a dark, tailored suit. Sauren gathered this was Mr Oscar Alston, the illustrious engineer.

Piper stepped back from Sauren, dropping her hand from his arm.

Catherine Alston bittled up to the young couple, her haughty countenance no more than Sauren expected. "Piper, I thought you were with Charlotte and the girls helping..."

"Good afternoon Mr and Mrs Alston," a chorus of female voices called over. Mr Alston waved cordially.

Catherine looked momentarily chagrined at the timely arrival of said girls. Her mouth tight, she looked back at her daughter for an explanation. Piper, however, added to the woman's displeasure and introduced her father to the gallant half-elf instead. "Sauren very kindly escorted us through the plaza and adjoining streets. Many of the buildings are still unsafe and he did not wish us to come to any harm."

Mr Alston readily accepted his daughter's explanation and shook Sauren's hand, thanking him for looking after his daughter.

"You are most welcome, sir. It was my pleasure." Sauren responded.

"Duncan has told me, well – Piper, mostly, quite a bit about you and your father," Oscar said amiably. Catherine huffed. "I believe also that you were instrumental in securing the catacombs. You kept those foul beasts at bay. Well done, young Sauren. I doubt we would be standing here had you not been so assertive and decisive."

Mrs Alston's demeanour completely changed. A moment's stunned silence was then broken by her breathy, "Quite!"

The revelation that this had been open discussion also took the half-elf by surprise. The acknowledgement, although somewhat overly embellished, was nonetheless welcome. He nodded gratitude for the accolade. "Thank you, you are most kind. I must, however, return to work."

He turned to Piper, his eyes warm and slightly mischievous. She offered her hand and lightly taking it, he brushed his lips over her knuckles. Her returning smile held a hidden promise. Facing her parents once more he bid them good day. Even the previously stern Catherine bade him a courtly farewell.

Moving back towards the plaza, he turned to look at Piper once more. She had been waiting for him to do so and offered a coquettish smile and nod before she caught up with her parents as they headed towards the city centre.

 She had been waiting for him to do so and offered a coquettish smile and nod before she caught up with her parents as they headed towards the city centre      

          

Chapter Text

 

"My, we are looking pleased with ourself, are we not?"

Sauren spun around at the familiar voice. A smile spread easily across his face. "Oh, you pick your times to leave town," the half-elf teased.

Louvel Nottley, the noble rogue had returned and was leaning against an open doorway, the building it once graced now just a burnt out shell, dilapidated and dark.

The young man laughed and pushed himself away from the door-frame, dusting down his jacket sleeve as he stepped forward to meet Sauren. Securing his monocle, his blue eyes twinkled mirthfully as he greeted him. "Yes, I heard you had a bit of trouble here."

Sauren guffawed and moved on, shaking his head. Louvel, with hands behind his back, fell in step beside him. "I am glad to see you have survived the battle," he said.

"I am duly flattered."

Louvel surveyed all the damaged buildings, walkways, sculptures and public gardens. His voice adopted a more sombre tone. "It must have been a traumatic and arduous fight. Harrowing in many ways."

Sauren nodded. "Yes, it was. Nonetheless, it also provided a veracious chronicle of how effective the city's defences are. Perhaps, in light of their defeat, the orcs will think twice of trying to conquer Lordaeron again."

"Perhaps," Louvel responded. Clearing his throat his voice become lighter once more. "Now that you mention conquests, however, who was that pretty little filly I saw you with?"

Sauren stopped in his tracks, the realisation that Louvel's exceptional skill in melding into the shadows had caught him out before. "And just how long were you watching me?"

A slightly perturbed expression crossed Louvel's face causing his monocle to drop on its fine cord and swing over his waistcoat. "Why Sauren, I am offended. You think I was spying on you?"

"Well, were you?"

With a lofty sniff, the human rogue explained. "I merely observed you as you sauntered past with the young lady on your arm and that gaggle of girls following behind."

Sauren laughed and then resumed walking. "You missed an opportunity then, you could have had one of the gaggle. Or more, if so inclined."

Louvel snorted. "Oh, no! Not I. I am soon to be a father and my wife is the bloom of the forest."

Once more the half-elf drew to a halt. "You're married? I did not know that."

"Yes," Louvel replied, noticeably proud. "Almost two years now. If we have a daughter we shall name her Kaitlin or a son will be called Lewis."

"I congratulate you, Nottley."

The black-haired rogue grunted and narrowed his eyes at the half-elf's constant use of his surname. "So, whipper-snapper..." a smirk duly replaced his brief annoyance. "Was that possibly the future Mrs Nightflame?"

Again they started walking. "I do not intend to pledge myself to one woman yet. I wish to sample the fruits of the orchard."

"Ah. Well, be careful of those fallen from the tree, all manner of nasties can they harbour."

"Nasties?" Sauren laughed. "I take it you mean undesirable conditions of the genitalia?"

"Exactly. You do not want to contract Cupid's itch."

"Are we talking from experience?" Sauren afforded a sly look at the noble rogue while trying not to laugh again.

"Not at all, merely hearsay." Louvel sniffed, his manner off-hand.

"Hmm," the half-elf grinned. "And how does hearsay suggest one takes care of such a malady?"

"The apothecary on Elder Row mixes an excellent remedy at a very good price. At least he did about four years ago - so I believe." He caught Sauren grinning at him and he could not suppress his own mirth. "Those days are long gone for me. I love my wife very much and would not betray our union."

"Then again, I congratulate you. Might I suggest that as you are about to embrace fatherhood you consider joining our guild? It would be most lucrative for you and your family, of that I am sure."

Louvel laughed loudly, the sound was most refreshing amid the dolorous surroundings. It was infectious too. "I think your father would have my guts for garters if I were to even consider seeking such employment."

"Oh, I think he may look at things differently now."

"Well, thank you for your consideration but I am, as I have already said, a lone wolf. I intend to remain so."

"Perhaps I will convince you one day," Sauren smiled amiably.

"Do not count on it," Louvel said, repositioning his monocle.

They had reached the shop where Sauren and his two friends had been working to help clear the debris. Don met Louvel with a suspicious glare while Reed smiled a greeting to the rogue. The half-elf introduced them all. Gradually, Don seemed to relax, his protective persona finally surrendering in favour of Sauren's judgement of character.

Louvel removed his jacket, carefully folding and placing it over a bench which had strangely survived the battering the shop had undergone. He offered to help the boys in their task and together the four of them finished clearing out the rubble, broken timbers and the ruined goods. The proprietor was most grateful for their help, now he could look towards rebuilding his business. He offered them all a monetary reward, but taking the lead, Sauren declined on behalf of the group. He suggested the proprietor put it towards his livelihood. All were in agreement.

It was early evening and Sauren invited Louvel back to the complex for some supper. He was reluctant, to begin with, but the half-elf convinced him he had nothing to worry about and so he accepted the invitation.

As they strolled through the courtyard at the Crimson Blade, the boys were greeted warmly by house-staff and trainers. One or two of the elite rogues still graced the complex as they awaited orders for their next missions. They too nodded or waved their greetings.

Don and Reed excused themselves to freshen up and hurried off towards the dormitories. Sauren led Louvel to his chambers where they would do likewise. The half-elf offered a change of clothing to the noble rogue, but apart from accepting a clean shirt Louvel respectfully declined, opting merely to wash at the basin and dust down his existing attire.

He emerged from the water closet drying his hair roughly with a towel. Sauren had placed a shirt on the bed for him. "Thank you," he said picking it up, his smile betraying the appreciation of such fine quality. Sauren grinned saying he could keep it.

As Louvel pulled the shirt over his head, the half-elf noticed a ragged scar on his side. "And how did you earn that trophy?" he asked indicating the scar.

Louvel grinned and shrugged. "That was about three, maybe four years ago now and I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I nearly died, actually." He tucked the shirt tails into his britches.

Sauren asked him to elaborate. The human rogue proceeded to tell his host what happened as he finished dressing. It had happened in Redridge Mountains, he began. A grin crept over his lips as he confessed he had been following a group of mercenaries with the intention of collecting a few of the spoils from their endeavours.

All had been going well until they'd reached Stonewatch Keep. There they had been outnumbered and bested by orcs who had made their way down through Blackrock Pass (affectionately known as The Gates of Hell) into the region.

Louvel was left lying bleeding against a tree, a large gash to his stomach threatening to bring about his demise. Fortunately, he was discovered by a young priest in the employ of Marshall Reginald Windsor whose forces fended off the orcs from invading the town of Lakeshire. "Fyn Godwin was the priest's name," Louvel said rather fondly. "An affable man indeed, most kind. He spent a long time tending to my wound. We started talking and he has become a good friend over the years although we do not see each other very often."   

"Tell me more about yourself," Sauren coaxed, pulling his hair back into a ponytail and securing it with a leather thong.

Straightening the lapels of his jacket, Louvel eyed the half-elf warily. "There is nought to tell," he said flatly.

"There must be something. Where do you come from? Who are your parents? Do you have other family, brothers, sisters?"

Louvel sighed heavily and took his time before answering. "I was left on the steps of the chapel when I was but a babe with nothing more than a blanket, a pocket-watch, allegedly from my father and a note. It said "Look after my son, for I cannot. I have named him Louvel Nottley after his father who died an honourable man." The expression on the rogue's face was one of pained bewilderment.

The half-elf was surprised by the story.  After a moment he ventured, "Are you not curious to know..."

"No, I am not!" Louvel cut him off.  "While I was blessed to be so well cared for by the priests, even after they realised I would not conform to their teachings of the Light, I did not pursue trying to discover who my parents were."

"Why?"

Louvel was becoming noticeably uncomfortable judging from his posture and tone and yet he continued with an explanation. "From the time I was a small boy, Cyrus hinted I was of noble birth. Quite why he thought such a thing I know not, but he was convincing to a small boy. Nevertheless, I decided I did not wish to know my origins. The fact I was left on cold stone steps in the middle of winter made me realise I was not wanted by my mother and if, as the old priest thought, I was from a noble house, whoever she was, would most likely reject me again as she would not want the shame of her bastard showing up. It was best just to live my life as best I could."

Sauren realised he had just been privy to a secret which Louvel did not share willingly and it was something which also left a deep hurt in the otherwise jovial young man. He decided, out of respect, he would not to pry any further. "Come. Let's eat," he gestured to the door.

The jet-haired young man nodded appreciatively and with a wistful smile stepped ahead of his host.

Don and Reed were already in the dining hall seated at their favoured place waiting on Sauren and Louvel to join them. No-one else was in the dining hall, it seemed the four young men were the only ones hungry this evening. As such, Sauren beckoned the other two and led the way to the kitchens.

As they descended the stairs, the warm glow from the kitchens rose to meet them along with the aroma of the day's cuisine still lingering in the air. Sounds of crockery, pots and pans and cutlery ascended also, the few staff still working on ensuring all was its rightful place before they retired for the evening.

The kitchens were large, divided into four specific areas; meat preparation with a cool room where the cuts of meats were kept fresh and cool thanks to the dexterity and ingenuity of gnomish engineering. External buildings were still utilised for the likes of the butchery along with a smokery and curing room which also sat in the small courtyard behind the kitchens.

The buttery and bottlery were located to the far side of the kitchens en route to the dining hall. A variety of beverages were stored there but through a low doorway was a cellar in which the ales and wines were kept.

The pantry with its variety of cupboards and dressers was host to a myriad of perishable goods and this led through to the bakery where the aroma of fresh bread, rolls and pastries wrapped itself around the heart making one feel all warm and contented.

The young pageboy, Thomas, was sitting on a low stool near his mother who was busy buffing the cutlery and folding the recently laundered napkins in preparation for the following morning's breakfast sittings. The boy looked up when he noticed the four rogues descending the bottom stairs and frantically tugged his mother's apron to get her attention. At first, she chided him, she was busy and needed to finish what she was doing but the young boy would not relent. Irked, she turned, smoothing down her apron ready to give Thomas a telling off, when she caught sight of the young master approaching with three other young men.  Sauren smiled warmly.

Instantly, the boy's mother fixed her bonnet and curtseyed. "Master Sauren," she greeted a little flustered at her show of intolerance in front of the young men. "I apologise, I did not hear you calling for service."

Sauren's friendly demeanour did not waver. "I did not call, Editha. It is late, there is no-one in the hall and I realised you would all be in the process of finishing up soon, so I took the liberty to come down with the sole intent of raiding the larder. Young Thomas here, however, has scuppered my plans." He winked at the pageboy.

Thomas giggled. His mother looked embarrassed. "May I get you anything, then, Sir?" Editha asked.

"Please do not call me Sir for one thing - I am not my father." The woman blushed but nodded her acquiescence.  Sauren continued. "I can manage thank you, Editha. We will not leave a mess for you to clear either, so please finish what you were doing and enjoy the rest of your evening."

"As you wish." She curtseyed again before turning her attention back to her work and shushing her still-giggling son.

The four young rogues moved through to the larders. Sauren hauled out some platters containing cured and roasted meats, cheese, reserves and slices of bread and passed them to his friends who placed them on the table where the kitchen staff ate their meals. Excusing himself for a moment he disappeared into the buttery and emerged shortly after with two bottles of wine duly picking up four goblets on his way back to the table.

Editha and Thomas bid them goodnight shortly after. The rogues watched as mother and son ascended the stairs and headed to their quarters.

With their supper now in front of them, the young men tucked in, their appetites having peaked from their day's work. Their conversation initially revolved around the siege and the subsequent devastation to the city. The following work involved to rebuild, strengthen and improve the city was now being carried out in earnest and everyone was contributing in one form or another to aiding the development.

Eventually, however, the topic came round to the young lady Sauren had escorted back to the centre of town. All manner of suggestive caterwauling fell from Reed and Don's lips, much to the amusement of Louvel and Sauren himself. 

"She is very pretty, yes," the half-elf agreed with them. "Her mother could be a problem though."

"Fuck her too then," Don said. The table erupted.

"That is scandalous!" Louvel laughed.

"Could work though," Reed added, chomping on a generously loaded sandwich and struggling to keep it in his mouth while laughing.

"No thank you," Sauren guffawed, nearly choking on his wine. "Besides I think there would be a more pleasurable response from a stone gargoyle than with Catherine Alston."

Again the young men were in an uproar. "That is a shocking thing to say about your future mother-in-law."

"I told you before, Louvel, I do not intend to settle down."

"Yet," the noble rogue smirked. "I guarantee within two years you will be walking down the aisle with that girl."

"I can think of at least two broken hearts at that prospect," Reed commented.

Sauren fired him a warning look. For all he liked Louvel immensely, he did not want the subject of the royal concubines disclosed. Thankfully, the affable rogue merely smirked and advised the half-elf that while he should enjoy the raptures of wanton women he should also exercise his lasciviousness with due care. The last thing he would need, other than the previously mentioned Cupid's itch, would be a stream of grieving ex-lovers at his wedding. Sauren laughed and pinged a grape at him. The result was a food fight, with the only one coveting his supper being Reed who, by rights, should have been three times the size he was with his enormous appetite.

Another hour passed and having enjoyed the camaraderie along with their fill of food and wine, they cleaned up behind themselves as promised. Louvel left the grounds bidding all goodnight and the three Blades retired for the evening.

Standing at one of the windows looking out to the city's centre, Sauren pulled off his shirt and britches casting them to the floor

    

Standing at one of the windows looking out to the city's centre, Sauren pulled off his shirt and britches casting them to the floor.  His eyes drank in all the little lights flickering from windows of the stretching metropolis and he found himself wondering - Where is she? Is she sleeping? 

There was no denying he found Piper Alston alluring and just perhaps Louvel's laughable prediction had fuelled thoughts of the chestnut-haired girl beyond that of simple attraction.  The corners of his mouth twitched as he scoffed at such a notion.

Reaching up, he yanked the leather thong from his hair and shook it free. The platinum mane fell around his shoulders and back, one or two strands shielding his eyes from the view. He pulled them back over his ears and with one last gaze across the city he sighed and turned in for the night.

Chapter Text

     

The battle with the orcs was still ongoing albeit far from the city. Troops were still being sent to front lines, rogues and mages amongst them.

Units from the Crimson Blade were sent out and they worked closely with other guilds, relishing the advantage of important news from the network reaching their ears post-haste. This provided crucial intel as to the Horde's progress. It also enabled Sa'themar to ensure his rogues were always at the top of their game. He had his magi portal out those who had fought for days and replenish ranks with fresh assassins, priests and mages from headquarters.

Sauren and his two henchmen had played their part and with each encounter, their skill and resilience were fortified. Sa'themar could not help but feel pride in his son's achievements and with this came the realisation that the boy was a born leader. His methods at times left a sour taste in the guild leader's mouth, but he could not deny Sauren got the job done.

The war rolled on and the Horde's retreat to Khaz Modan was constantly hindered by the relentless Alliance armies. As the weeks passed, the exhausted and battered orcs shuffled into Wetlands and attempted to cross Thandol Span. This was another failure for the invaders from Draenor, they were forced further south and the battle continued.

Back in Lordaeron, it was nigh on three months since Capital City had been under siege and it had begun to reclaim some of its former lustre. The plaza having suffered the worst of the orcs' assault had been rid of almost all signs of battle - at least cosmetically.

The area had been restructured or rebuilt depending on the amount of damage it had endured and with the aid not only of skilled masons but also some very accommodating mages from both Dalaran and Quel'thalas, the city's "wounds" were healing at a steady pace. Capital City was once more becoming a thriving community. With the moratorium of its commerce behind them, the economy now rose as rapidly as the buildings which housed its businesses and families alike.

This particular morning brought two lots of happy news to Sauren. Having requested his breakfast in bed (a luxury he enjoyed when his father was not on the grounds) a valet arrived with a tray containing ham and eggs, some toast, coffee, The Lordaeron Bulletin (the local newspaper) and two letters; one written in a hand unknown to the half-elf.

Firstly, he opened the one which bore a familiar penmanship. Piper Alston. With a broad smile, he read the young woman's words:

 With a broad smile he read the young woman's words:               

 

He folded the letter and popped it back in its envelope, satisfied with the outcome. The Alston's had been making enquiries on property within the city with a view to moving from Darkshire. It had meant their stay had been extended again and this enabled him to have secret rendezvous with the delectable Miss Alston.

He found her more charming with every meeting. Yet, strangely, although certain thoughts had indeed crossed his mind and regularly, he did not try to engage her in any physical intimacy other than kissing the back of her hand or linking arms with her as they walked. There was something decidedly intoxicating in the knowledge that her desire for him was almost as, if perhaps not more compelling than his salacity for her.

It was possible, however, that now he was awarded her father's official approval as a suitor, that particular abstinence may indeed be quenched by the chestnut-haired beauty.

Nevertheless, until such opportunity presented itself, he continued to partake of carnal pleasures elsewhere; twice more with the outstanding Leola and Maya and he had also dipped his wick in the sensational delights Odette had to offer.

Wisely, he had also remembered the warning Louvel had issued and although he had not suffered any discomfort he nonetheless paid a visit to the apothecary on Elder Row. He was best pleased to find out he did indeed offer an elixir which kept certain conditions at bay should the need arise.

He picked up the second letter which came in the form of a scroll with a wax seal. He scrutinised the handwriting but still, its author eluded him. He laughed out loud when he broke the seal and read the contents:

 He laughed out loud when he broke the seal and read the contents          

     

He chuckled at the letter as he ate his breakfast. Louvel certainly made him smile and together with the man's expertise as an assassin and thief, he was all the more determined to have the rogue join the ranks of the Crimson Blade. 

The good mood his communiques had given him was excuse enough to venture into the city and pay a visit to Mr Atherton. He would require new attire with the coming event to be held at headquarters in two month's time. He had every intention not only to truly impress Piper but also soften her sour-faced mother.  

The bi-annual event, known as The Gathering, was held on the eve of Winter's Veil. It was a social evening for the rogue communities and was held on a rota basis at one of the more renowned rogue guild headquarters. Although the Crimson Blade was still in its infancy, testimonials and recommendations from prominent and influential clientele had already aided in placing it amongst the most prestigious establishments of the day. As such, it was selected to hold this coming year's celebration. 

There was, of course, an overdue matter which needed his attention also and that too would be dealt with during his visit to the tailor.

Setting the tray to one side, he threw back the covers and ventured through to the wash closet. He liberally splashed water over his face and neck then dried himself.

Halfway through getting dressed a knock sounded at his door. He called for whoever it was to enter. He was surprised to see the young housemaid, Heidy, who had been teased mercilessly by the valet, Marcus the day he returned from despatching the blacksmith and his vile son. She was in the main chamber, eyes lowered to the floor. "I have been sent to collect your breakfast tray, Master Sauren," she uttered, barely audible.

Sauren stood bare-chested, his britches unfastened as he searched his wardrobe for a suitable shirt. He could not help but smirk. Sent, or volunteered, he wondered. The girl was obviously taken with him. He knew he shouldn't but he was in a playful mood. "Up here, Heidy."

The girl coyly lifted her eyes to where he stood then quickly looked away. Again he grinned. "It is up here. On my bed," he told her. He could have sworn she inhaled sharply.

He moved to the top step where he towered over her.

Her hands were wringing together nervously. "Forgive me, I – I thought you would be in the wash closet. Shall I return later, Master Sauren?"

It was difficult for the half-elf to suppress a chuckle at the housemaid's reasoning. "Just as well you arrived when you did then," he replied. "Or else you would have caught me completely naked."

Heidy made a noise like a whimper and even with her head bowed, Sauren could tell she was blushing furiously. He suddenly felt very guilty for making her so uncomfortable.

"Please, go in. I will stay down here." He pulled on his shirt and tucked it into his waistband as the girl scurried up the steps to his bedchamber. He heard the plates clattering against the mug as she lifted the tray, her hands obviously shaking. As he heard her descend he turned to meet her. She carried the tray in the crook of her elbow as she dug into her pocket with her free hand.

"By the way, I found this below your window, Master Sauren when I was in the yard. I thought you might want it returned." She managed a small, hopeful smile.

The half-elf's eyes widened as he saw what she held. The troll trinket which he had cast from his room weeks before sat in the palm of her hand. A cold sweat overcame him and a rage started to build. "That is not mine," he said, low and dark.

"But - but I saw it in your room when we filled your bath that day..." Heidy explained.

His demeanour changed completely. "Still it is not mine. Keep it!" He turned from her, signifying her dismissal.

"But..."

"You have done what you came in to do, Heidy. Now go about your chores!" His voice was harsher than he intended, but his nerves were inexplicably raw.

He did not need to look to know the girl was upset by his manner, he heard the choked sobs as she left the room. He stood, clenching his fists, trying to calm down. Why did a silly trinket affect him so? Then he remembered the one Louvel brought him. He could not for the life of him remember what happened to it. Oddly, however, that one did not bother him the same. The one Heidy held did. It was the same the day he'd found it; a sinister vibe seemed to ooze from the strange talisman. 

He shook his head, determined to erase such nonsensical thoughts from his mind. But, the realisation he knew not from where it came was what caused his agitation. That, plus the sporadic dreams he still suffered since the Blackened Woods - all added to his angst. 

His irrational thinking was interrupted by another knock at his door. "Enter!" he snapped.

Don and Reed crossed the threshold and into the main chamber. Don looked at Sauren then Reed and back again. "You get out the wrong side of the bed or something?"

Sauren's eyes were still blazing as he fixed both his friends with a heated glare. After a moment's awkward silence he forced a laugh. "No, I – I misplaced something, that's all," he lied.

"What?" Reed asked looking around the room for all he knew not what for.

"It doesn't matter," Sauren dismissed and finished tying his britches cord. He took a deep breath, actively ridding himself of the dregs of his foul mood.

With boots and jacket then on, his eyes fell on the letters he had received. Once again, his more jovial temperament took over. "Now then gentlemen, we have some business to tend to."

"Oh? What's on the agenda for today then?" Don asked.

"Well, I have received word that my request to court Piper has been agreed..."

"Congratulations! Seems Louvel was right," Reed smiled.

Sauren eyed the rogue for a moment, then smiled at the conjecture. "Perhaps. Early days, yet. As for the man himself, his son was born three days ago. He will be coming to visit in two weeks during which time we will assist in celebrating the birth."

The news was met with a mirthful cheer.

"So what business do we attend today?" Don asked.

Straightening his lapels and cuffs, Sauren grinned. "I think we need to acquire some new clothing for our Gathering and in so doing, we will assess things with the duplicitous Benjamin Morely."

His two friends grinned, the eagerness evident in their smiles.

His two friends grinned, the eagerness evident in their smiles      

 

"Welcome, gentlemen! As always, it is a pleasure to do business with you. What is it I can do for you today?" Mr Atherton, tailor extraordinaire, smiled and shook hands with the young half-elf and his friends before duly taking out a piece of parchment and readying his quill to note their measurements.

Sauren smiled warmly at the old tailor and explained they needed new suits for the pending Gathering. He also informed him that he wanted something that little extra special. Mr Atherton chuckled and tapping the side of his nose and winking, he said he understood.  Of course, the tailor no doubt knew of Sauren's interest in Piper, being a close family friend and all of the Alstons.

The old man took all their particulars, even when Reed's grumbled about it. He thought his measurements from last time would suffice until Mr Atherton explained each fitting required new measurements to allow for any increase or decrease in the customer's size. Sauren and Don laughed as they saw Reed inhale and stand straighter sucking in his stomach – not that there was much to draw in, he was still of an athletic build for all he had the appetite of a bear.

"So, how is your apprentice doing?" Sauren enquired as the old man finished off with Don's measurements.

Mr Atherton huffed. "He’s still here.”

Sauren’s face remained impassive as the old man aired his chagrin but inside he was seething that Mr Atherton was so disgruntled by his apprentice and rightly so, although he could not divulge what he knew to the tailor. In order to ensure his hand was not discovered in dealing with Benjamin’s fate, he had to sound supportive of the worm. “Perhaps he just needs time and I would think under your tuition and expertise he can only succeed.”

Mr Atherton’s eyes twinkled behind his glasses. “You are such a gentleman, Master Sauren and your compliment is most appreciated. I fear, however, your faith in me could be unfounded where Benjamin is concerned.”

Sauren’s eyes flicked to his friends who were struggling to appear neutral in the matter also.

“I am old,” Mr Atherton continued. “Forgetful now and again…ha, sometimes I don’t even know what day it is…” he chuckled a little. Sauren smiled in response. “But that does not make me a fool. I know he just wants to line his own pockets as quickly and probably as deviously as he can. You see, he does not have the passion to be a tailor as I do nor, bless his soul, the late Mr Emsworth. Benjamin does not appreciate the beauty of the weft and weave, he does not care how he handles the fabric or best positions the patterns. And he has no concept of the sheer quality of some materials.”

Sauren flexed an eyebrow. He knew Benjamin did indeed comprehend the value of such fine fabrics and was making a profit for himself on the side. “In that case, I hope you do not allow him near our suits.”

“Oh, worry not young sir. I shall see to your attire from beginning to end. Thankfully, this is the lad's day off too so he won't put his grubby hands on what we choose for you all. Now, let’s talk style and fabric shall we?”

For the next hour, the old tailor showed them a selection of materials in an assortment of colours pertaining to their requirements and he drafted quick sketches of his ideas. The man was a marvel. For all he was, as he claimed, old and forgetful at times, he was nonetheless exceptionally gifted in his trade and he had a unique sense of what his clients looked for. The young rogues left with an appointment to return for a fitting in two weeks time.

They stood outside the shop for a few minutes debating why Mr Atherton did not simply fire Benjamin. Sauren reckoned it was the old man’s good nature that prevented him from doing so, plus as Benjamin was technically just learning the trade, the old tailor no doubt felt it would be unfair to dismiss him without giving him a fair chance. Regardless, it was time this bodger was made-to-measure and a plan needed to be devised.

"It has been quite a day so far," Reed offered, clapping his hands together.

"In what way?" Sauren asked with brow furrowed.

"Well, we have Louvel's news of becoming a father. We also have you starting out on the journey towards wedded bliss..."

Sauren guffawed.

"And we are planning to rid the city of yet another nasty little nuisance. So you could say it is a day of Hatched, Matched and Despatched!"

The three boys burst into laughter, nudging Reed playfully. Stepping down from the front step Sauren heard his name being called. 

On turning he was acutely surprised to see none other than the flamboyant and arrogant Dar’khan Drathir approaching. With him, an older man; another mage going by his robes although they were purple as opposed to the red and gold like the magi of Quel'danas. “Well, well,” the young mage enthused. “If it isn’t the hero of the hour. Hello Sauren.”

The sarcasm dripping from the mage’s words made the half-elf’s hair prickle at the back of his neck. He really did not like this man. Nevertheless, he acknowledged the power he possessed and decided to be civil. “Good day, Dar’khan. And to what do we owe the pleasure of your presence today?”

In his self-appointed deistic manner, the pompous spell-weaver straightened emphasising his very tall and slender frame. “I am helping my friend here with his research.” He gestured to the man at his side. “He seeks out prominent ley energies to their source and often discovers interesting artefacts in the world of thaumaturgy along the way.”

Sauren’s mouth twitched at the corners. Dar’khan did like to try bamboozle people with his superlative knowledge in the workings of the magi, but the half-elf was quietly confident he could show the mage a thing or two in basic manners.

His eyes drifted to the older man. He was human, with medium brown floppy hair and a beard. His blue eyes were intelligent yet secretive. The man regarded Sauren with a reserved and taciturn gaze.

Turning his attention back to Dar’khan the half-elf could not help but voice a smart riposte. “So, you are on a hocus-pocus discovery then? And here was I believing you knew it all already, Dar’khan.” The affluent mage held back a sneer. Sauren continued. “However, I think it would be more polite to make introductions, for now, don’t you?”

Before he could respond, the older man stepped forward. His mouth hinted his amusement. “I am Kel’thuzad,” he held out his hand and Sauren accepted with a firm handshake. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Sauren. Dar’khan has told me about you.”

Sauren expertly hid his surprise on hearing the mage’s name. So, this was the man who skulked about the ruins of the plaza during the siege. He could not help but wonder if he was still searching for more than just magical sources. “Nice to meet you, Kel’thuzad. I’m afraid Dar’khan has not been so liberal in informing me about you, but am I right in thinking you are on the Council of Six in Dalaran?”

From the corner of his eye, Sauren saw Dar’khan stiffen. He obviously did not expect the half-breed to be knowledgeable about the omnipotent magi.

“Ah, so you are acquainted with the Kirin Tor?” Kel’thuzad enquired.

“Acquainted no, but I do have a regard for your magical community. We employ mages at our guild and it is in our interests to keep up to speed, shall we say, with your eminent council.”

The older mage smiled broadly, his eyes crinkling at the corners. Sauren readily recognised the workings of an intellectual mind. “Then I think perhaps, one day, you could join me in Dalaran, Sauren. I would be most happy to furnish you with a further insight into our discoveries and progress.”

Despite Alaen’s warnings about the man, Sauren could not suppress his jubilance at such an invitation. “That is most generous and I would be delighted to accept.”

“Good, then I shall check my schedule and pen you a date to visit.”

“I look forward to it.” The half-elf inclined his head, sneaking another furtive glance at Dar’khan. The obvious displeasure on the young mage’s face only led Sauren to torment him more as he recalled a certain item in the shop behind them. “Oh, by the way, Dar’khan…” The mage eyed him with a somewhat stony regard. “I know you like flamboyant garb and when I saw this, I automatically thought of you.” He gestured Mr Atherton’s window and the red and gold hat with the pristine feather on the shelf.  

He grinned as he saw Dar'khan's eyes darken, the effrontery in the presence of such a prominent figure of the Kirin Tor being painful at the very least. Sauren then politely bowed to Kel'thuzad and slightly less so to his companion before he moved off heading towards the inner city.

A few yards away from the mages, Don noted the smug smirk on Sauren's lips. "We were warned about him. What are you thinking?"

The half-elf looked at his right-hand man, a clandestine smile now in place. "Foundations, Don. I am merely laying foundations."

His friend was none the wiser but fell into step with him and Reed.

Sauren moved steadily ahead. "For now though, gentleman, let us devise a little plan to take care of a spurious apprentice tailor."

His two friends grinned, the eagerness evident in their smiles      

Chapter Text

     

Sauren spent the next five days deliberating over the fate of Benjamin Morley. His recent discovery on the reprobate's behaviour along with the odd flashback to his youth when the apprentice tailor hounded him, helped drive the mechanics behind his thinking.

As the leader of a group of bullies, some of which were his "family", Benjamin took great joy in slicing at Sauren, be it his clothes or indeed his skin. Granted, he had used base tools such as flint and glass and tugged or tore at him until either garments or flesh were rent, but he had accomplished what he had set out to do. The half-elf battled with a concoction of shame and anger at his then inability to stop it. Nevertheless, there was a certain farcical irony that the boy had ended up as a tailor; and this fuelled a particularly gruesome sophistry in Sauren's mind.

He had discovered that Benjamin's unsavoury dealings had been with common brigands, reputedly vicious individuals if their black-market profits were trifled with. They, in turn, had sold the expensive fabrics along with other contraband to whoever was willing to pay top price. 

Sauren knew it was pointless and extremely time-consuming trying to retrieve all of Mr Atherton's stock, but in the middle of the night on day three of his surveillance, he caught the name of the crook who dealt with Benjamin and managed to follow the last exchange. 

With Don and Reed's help, he then took back what the apprentice had sold that day and all without bloodshed. It would not have been wise to invite the wrath of these outlaws; the Crimson Blade could not, at any cost, be associated with what Sauren had planned. But, at least he could put a stop to the old tailor's losses by ridding him of his unscrupulous apprentice.  

He made certain the villains would think Benjamin had double-crossed them and would have in due course sought an audience with him. Sauren would save them the trouble with the added bonus that any suspicion about Benjamin's disappearance would lie not at his door, but that of racketeers. So, in keeping with the customary method of communication the apprentice would receive an invitation under the pretence, it was from his "business associates".

As for the Crimson Blade, as a whole, things were all back to normal at the guild headquarters. Sa'themar was gone on a mission with a select few, others were assigned different contracts which meant key individuals were gone from the complex for some time. 

Sauren, while crafting his vengeance had suggested that he stay back to continue more training. That had been more than acceptable to his father as the guild master still viewed the boys as students for all their recent involvement since the siege. 

"All is set for tonight?" Sauren muttered as the three of them strolled to their training area. 

"Yes," Don replied. "He won't suspect a thing."

"And the note?" Sauren turned to Reed.

"Delivered in keeping with Torp's methods. I slipped it under the stone at the rear door."

"And you are sure Mr Atherton did not see?"

"Positive."

Sauren nodded approval, his long hair swishing before he pulled it up into a high knot. "I think we should practice then," he said as his eyes travelled up the new construct of ledges, platforms and beams.

There had been alterations made to the obstacle course, much to Sauren's delight and intervention. He'd felt it was a good way to thin out the strengths and weaknesses of students. Voicing his opinion on the matter had initially taken his father by surprise as the development of training was a task for those appointed to school the recruits. His ideas, however, were aired at a meeting in the missions room.

The subject was debated at length and at first, there was a mixed response from trainers. But Sauren persisted, his rational and progressive thinking finally being accepted as good policy especially when he pointed out it would save time and money not forgetting the effort afforded in training students. He argued that parents, or the few individuals paying their own way, did not spend their hard-earned money needlessly or indeed waste it if certain students were found incapable of fulfilling the criteria. The Crimson Blade, he proposed, must set the bar for all rogue guilds and students alike. 

Now, he was about to test out the new rig and it couldn't have been at a more opportune time. The setting for Morley 's punishment would require the boys to scale certain heights and while none of them was particularly phased by the prospect, it nonetheless did no harm to ensure they were adept at managing such a skill.

Reed, of course, led the way – he was a natural. Don and Sauren nimbly followed on, small slips quickly corrected. The boys spent a good two hours practising balance, scaling the higher planes of the apparatus, perfecting their ability to jump and launch themselves from the dizzying heights. Sauren, nonetheless, remained sound of mind and kept himself and his two friends from becoming over-confident or thinking they were indestructible. He could not afford for them to think they were smugly apodictic; that in itself could jeopardise the evening's plans. 

The day passed without incident, the boys had been studious indeed, paying attention to detail of their plan let alone their skills within the complex' training facilities.

A light meal was eaten before the three boys retired to their rooms and readied themselves for the night's task. The sun had dipped over the horizon by the time they emerged. They saddled up and rode out under the portcullis.

 

Some two leagues to the north west of the city a dilapidated farmstead sat on the outskirts of the Whispering Forest. A crumbling grain silo dominated the skyline. This was their chosen location. 

They had surveyed it weeks before when they first hatched a plan to deal with Benjamin.  With its layout emblazoned on Sauren’s mind, he recalled every loose brick and those which protruded affording something akin to steps ascending to the shattered roof. Ropes connected to large wooden cogs which the boys had previously delivered to the site ran up to two beams, their excess coiled in place ready to be unravelled at the appropriate moment. A strategically placed counterweight was balanced on a ledge above the door, a mechanism designed to prevent the quarry from escaping once he was in the trap.

Now, however, in the dark, the structure looked menacing, to say the least and distinctly hazardous. Once Sauren retrieved his saddlebag, Don tethered the horses out of sight and then joined his friends as they entered the old building.

The sky was clear and the moon offered enough light through the rafters for them to pick their way around the old silo. 

“Won’t be long now,” Sauren said quietly. His two henchmen stood beside him allowing their eyes to adjust to the inky blackness.

“Just to recap,” Reed uttered. “We stay above until you signal?”

“Yes. I want him to think I am alone when he discovers the deception.”

“You realise, once he does he will flee.”

Sauren guffawed pointing to the counterweight. “He will try.”

Reed shrugged, he had forgotten about that.

“Nevertheless, he won't go down quietly,” Don said. 

Sauren merely grunted and moved off across the dusty floor. "Places, gentlemen," he said. Pressing themselves against the wall Don and Reed climbed to the beams. Don settled in a crouch at the end of one. Reed took the second beam and scuttled across to the shadows. From their viewpoint they sensed, more than saw their leader behind a mound of bricks and splintered rafters.

Sauren opened the saddlebag. His fingers searched the contents; clothes to replace those he wore at present. The punishment he had devised for Morley was going to be bloody and he was not going to risk the same mistake he made last time. Tonight, soiled clothing would be disposed of out with the complex. 

His lips curved in a malevolent smile as he found what he was looking for. His companions would be in for a surprise, for he had not divulged his exact intentions. He had merely let it be known that he would end Benjamin Morley this night and nothing more. He had given them a small role to play in the deed, saying he wanted their victim bound, but that was it. He was about to test their mettle too. Foundations, he thought. They must be set with everyone. 

Night sounds such as the echolocation squeaks of bats flitting nearby, a distant owl calling on its mate and the rapid scurrying of rodent feet across the silo floor was all that could be heard. Morley ’s approach would, therefore, be easily detected.

Sauren removed his jacket and lay it down over the saddlebag. He rolled up his shirt sleeves. For all the bite of winter’s chill was in the air, he did not shiver from the lowering temperature. The shudders coursing through his body was caused by anticipation of dealing with this loathsome individual.

The repeated beatings he’d suffered at the hands of Benjamin and his brood of bullies when he was but a slip of a lad flitted across his mind. Many a time he’d been left in a bruised and bloodied heap, clothes torn and muddied. His mind then conjured the memory of that fateful day at Stanton’s smithy when Benjamin was responsible for the loss of Sauren’s horse. The images still burned his mind. His heart contracted when he recalled Shadow’s panicked eyes as the beast lay impaled upon the iron rods. And now, Morley was cheating a reputable tailor of his livelihood, ruining the old man, bolt by bolt of materials. Benjamin’s nature had never changed, only his tactics and his victims had.

The sound of hooves nearing the silo drew Sauren from his reverie. He was here. It was time. Although the shadows concealed him amply enough, still he melded, absorbing his surroundings. He glanced up and saw his two friends do similarly as they waited, poised next to the coiled ropes.

His eyes focused once more on the door as it swung open on rusted hinges. Benjamin stood holding a lantern in his hand. His head turned side to side as he scanned the room within the range of the light's beam. In a voice barely more than an emphasised whisper he called the name which had been on the deceptive note. No answer. He stepped further into the silo. “Torp! Where are you?”

Sauren launched a throwing knife across the room. A squeak followed it. He grinned as he realised the blade had claimed one of the rats scurrying around the edges. Benjamin spun, thrusting the lantern forward towards the vermin's squeal. "Torp! Quit playing around."

"Torp?" A voice spoke.

The apprentice tailor faced forward again. Sauren stood in front of him.  Benjamin's face morphed from initial shock to stunned surprise, through to an arrogant sneer. "Sauren Nightflame."

"Ah, you remember. I am ... moved." A manic glint flashed in the half-elf's eyes.

"Freaks are hard to forget," the acidic response came.

Sauren remained silent just long enough for it to unsettle his quarry. "By that, I take it you consider yourself justified in terrorising young children?"

Benjamin guffawed. "Filth like you, just like those vermin over there - " he jerked his chin to the rats, " - should be ousted, yes. Your kind has no right even breeding and especially not with our women."

For all Sauren had tried for a very long time to shelf most of the hatred afforded him and elves in general, hearing it drip from Morley 's lips now rekindled old feelings of hurt, pain and incredulity at such prejudice. It also fuelled his loathing of the man in front of him. “My kind?” he said, his voice gravelly, low. “Whether you like it or not, you ignorant pig, I am neither one nor the otherI am a half-breed, as you like to call me. And, as such, I have inherited advantageous traits from both parents. A respectable, well-learned woman was my mother and I have a brave and righteous father. They were united in wedlock – ah yes, now there’s something. You, on the other hand, being spewed forth from a whore’s belly have nothing worth bragging about, do you? Not even those brats you call siblings are blood-related.”

The revelation that the freak knew of Benjamin ’s lineage clearly shocked the bigot, he was rendered speechless. The manner in which Sauren delivered it also surprised the two rogues perched on the beams above. 

Sauren stepped forward. “You are a loathsome, insignificant individual, Benjamin Morley who has lived his life dragging others down instead of trying to improve yourself. Now you sink even lower to robbing an old man who has worked hard all his life, founded a profitable and well-respected business serving the people of Capital City and further afield. You are despicable beyond words. Your days of deluded despotism have come to an end.”

Finally, the apprentice found his voice. “You think you are some sort of Cerberus of the underdog, now?”

“Yes,” Sauren answered coolly. “You and those like you have moulded me into one.”

Benjamin spat in the dirt. “You may be rich and academic but you were and always will be a freak, Nightflame. That is all you are.”

Sauren grinned and slowly moved towards the apprentice tailor. “Well, seems we all have a role to play in life, Benjamin. And for some, such as yourself, the time has come to leave the stage. Permanently.” His tone was preternaturally calm, measured and ultimately menacing. His eyes dilated as he noted the subtle change in Morley ’s stature. The young man was unnerved. 

Benjamin flinched as Sauren’s shoulder brushed against his. His head snapped round as the half-elf circled him in slow, deliberate strides. He swallowed before daring a response. “I can still beat you,” he bluffed, fighting the tremor which threatened to give away his unease.

“No. You cannot.”

The reply was voiced with such conviction that Benjamin found himself backing away. "I'm leaving now," he hissed, stumbling over some rubble.

"I think not." With no prior warning, Sauren threw another blade, this time towards the door. It struck the rope holding the counterweight in place. The rope snaked through a hole in the wall, dropping the weight down and wedging the door firmly closed. 

Benjamin launched the lantern at Sauren, but the half-elf melded into the shadows once more, deftly avoiding the flaming lamp. The apprentice instinctively readied himself for a frontal attack. Mistake number one; Sauren was behind him in the time it took for the lantern to hit the floor.

The half-elf jerked Benjamin’s head back and pressed the tip of his anelace to his throat. As Don predicted, Benjamin would not cave in. He grabbed Sauren’s hand which held the dagger then drove his elbow into his ribs.

Sauren was forced back, stumbling to the counterweight against the door but he did not lose his blade. Benjamin quickly assessed available weapons and grabbed a wooden spar, three sharp, but crooked nails protruding from one end. He rushed forward and swung it at the half-elf.

Ducking and rolling away, Sauren avoided being perforated by the makeshift weapon. Still, his opponent did not relent. Benjamin spun round and again swiped at him. It barely missed his face but gave him enough opportunity to gauge their position in the room. As Benjamin tried again to hit his target, Sauren called up to Reed. 

Benjamin was thrown by the distraction and looked behind himself to gauge what was coming but all to no avail. The rope dropped to his right and Sauren quickly grabbed it. The already knotted end made it easy to loop around Benjamin’s arm and with another shout, the rope was pulled taut jerking Benjamin off-balance. The second rope quickly followed and this time Sauren somersaulted over and lassoed Benjamin’s other arm in order to remain out of reach from the nailed spar.

Benjamin was confounded at his capture. It had happened so quickly, he was still reeling from it. 

With both ropes securing the target, Sauren pulled himself straight, dusting down his shirt and britches then shouted the order to turn the cogs. The creak of wood and metal grinding sounded as the ropes were pulled up. “Stop,” the half-elf said after a few moments. Benjamin's toes were just touching the ground and no more. The click of the locking mechanisms resounded around the silo.

Picking up the lantern, which strangely was still lit, Sauren held it before him in front of the suspended apprentice. Hatred oozed from Benjamin’s eyes. Sauren sniggered then planting the lantern on the floor a few short feet from the man, he returned to where he’d left the saddle bag.

“You are making a big mistake, freak!” Benjamin growled.

“Oh, really?” Sauren grinned as he foraged inside the bag. “And how do you arrive at that conclusion?” He returned with another two lanterns. With a makeshift taper, he used the lit one to fire up the other two then positioned them so the figure of Benjamin Morley was bathed in their yellow light. Sauren stood, hands clasped in front, looking to the prisoner, waiting for an answer.

“People will know,” Benjamin said between tight lips.

“Know what?”

“That I’m here.”

“So, you advertise the fact you are in league with black marketers and are selling on Mr Atherton’s expensive fabrics? Is that what you are saying?”

“Torp will know.”

“Again I ask you, who do you dare tell of your shady dealings? I presume you know how dangerous it would be to do so? This Torp fellow, I doubt very much he would be too pleased to know you even uttered his name let alone admitted you are in cahoots with him.”

Benjamin tugged at the ropes burning into his wrists, but all it did was bite into his skin more. “I am one his main suppliers, he will wonder where I have got to if I do not answer his call.”

Sauren laughed out loud. “You make yourself sound more like a lap dog than a devious impresario. Besides…” he reached behind his back. “I left a little token of your affection when I took back your recent exchange with him. He may end up looking for you certainly, Benjamin, but I doubt it will be to continue business. More likely, to conclude it."

The apprentice tailor was starting to realise the severity of his current situation. His eyes flitted about wildly, his mind desperately trying to work out a way to escape. 

As he turned his attention back to Sauren, he saw him toying with a blade.

“Do you know what this is?” Sauren asked him, holding up the small curved blade. Its edge glinting in the light, showing its keenness.

“A knife,” Benjamin replied, trying hard to cap both his rising agitation and anger at having been so easily duped.

“Your powers of deduction are quite remarkable, Morley. I applaud you.”

“You arrogant cunt!”

Sauren’s eyes flashed the insult just a mild irritation like a persistent mosquito. He tutted. “Such profanity!” Then he turned to Reed and Don. “Gentlemen,” he announced and gestured with his hand.

The click and grind of the cogs started again, lifting Benjamin higher, pulling his arms more angular to his torso and his feet further from the ground. “Enough.” The cogs stopped. “Manacles.”

Benjamin tried to turn his head to see who approached as the sound of chained links neared him within the gloom around the edge of the silo. Before he knew it though, iron shackles were around his ankles and they were attached to heavy weights which two other young men were pulling back forcing his legs straight and open. He felt the muscle burn beginning in his thighs and calves. Sauren nodded to Don and Reed and they returned once more to the cogs giving them a final turn.

Benjamin winced as his sides and arms now felt the stretch. Sauren looked up at him. The brown eyes were full of a pernicious promise and at that moment, Benjamin knew his fate was sealed. In desperation, he yelled for help at the top of his voice. When he saw that the half-elf did not even flinch, but remained grinning, he yelled again, and again.

“Do continue, please, although it will do you no good. I have selected this setting very carefully. There is no-one within miles; you will not be heard.”

There was no denying the freak had thought it out well. Benjamin ceased his shouting. His breathing was short and sharp the need to gulp air was almost overwhelming, but doing so would aggravate the pain in his limbs from being stretched so tautly.

Sauren smiled smugly. “Now then, I admit I am becoming bored with you so let us continue with your education.” He held up the knife again. “Try to be more specific this time.”

Benjamin’s eyes started to water, his situation desperate and hopeless. “I – I don’t know,” he whimpered.

“Ah. Well then, I shall try to enlighten you.” Sauren turned and moved into the gloom. Moments later he returned, holding the rat he had skewered earlier. He extracted the throwing blade and wiping the blood on his shirt then tucked it back into its small scabbard strapped to his thigh.

He held the rat up in front of Benjamin. “Did you know, that there are some rather forward-thinking designers out there who are now using rat fur for trimming or even lining their garments.”

Benjamin stared at him, dumbfounded.

Sauren continued. “This is a rather quirky way to control numbers of the vermin which live in our cities and towns but it is effective and you may well have noticed an increase in rat traps over the past few months.”

The apprentice remained silent.

Sauren huffed. “I am merely telling you this as you are an aspiring designer yourself and thought you may find it interesting. They are all properly treated, cured, whatever it is that they do to hides. Fiddly though, I would have thought.”

He looked towards Don and Reed, who seemed bewildered by this strange development to the plan. Benjamin still looked hatefully at him. 

He sighed and holding the rat up again he pushed the curved blade into its throat, then dragged it down. Blood ran down his arm. He moved the tip of the blade to just under the rodent’s ear and again pulled the knife down. Next, with thumb at the tip, he attempted to peel the fur back. He only managed a small area before it came off in a thin strip. “See what I mean?” he said holding the rat out again. “Very tricky to take the fur off in a decent measure.”

Reed fidgeted to the side, glancing quickly to Don, but the other young man was fixated.

Sauren cast the rodent to the side and turned to face Benjamin. “So, I will ask you again. What is this?” He held up the knife.

Benjamin, it seemed knew the answer, after all, his lips quivered and eyes watered as he replied. “It’s a skinning knife.”

“Bravo,” Sauren smiled. “That was, of course, just a small rat. There are much larger ones to be had and they can be particularly violent and devious. Sometimes they operate in a mischief, but more have been known to work alone.”

He neared the suspended apprentice and with the tip of the blade, popped the top button of his shirt. Benjamin trembled, catching his breath. The pain in his muscles was quickened as his body tensed. Another button was popped, another and another until none was left.

“Remove it,” Sauren aimed at Reed. He held his friend’s gaze, assessing how he was bearing up. A satisfied smirk toyed at the corners of his mouth as the rogue moved past him and he heard the fabric rip. He looked askance at the torn garment hit the floor.

He circled Benjamin and stopped in front of him once more. The man did not look quite so sure of himself now. In fact, the tears tracing down his cheeks signified regret for past actions. “You – you know skinners only skin dead things?” he ventured.

“Yes,” Sauren grinned before he pressed the blade against the edge of his collarbone. “But I’m not a skinner, remember. I’m a freak.” The smile vanished as he pulled the knife down to just below Benjamin’s ribs. The apprentice screamed, the sound chilling. He roared again as the half-elf carved around the top of the collarbone and down the side, the blade jarring on the rib-cage.

"Am I making a good job of cutting the pattern? Is it made to measure?" Sauren hissed between his teeth as he repeated the act on Benjamin's left side.  He was answered by an agonised scream. 

Another sound reached the half-elf's ears; the baying of prowling darkhounds in the vicinity. Their highly attuned sense of smell would pick up the scent of blood even from within the crumbling confines of the old silo.

“Make a fire over there,” he ordered Don and Reed, pointing to where the saddle bag remained. “Burn this.” He flung the apprentice’s torn shirt their way. Pulling their gaze from the grisly torture they did as he bade. Sauren continued with his work.

Through his wracking sobs and copious tears, the apprentice tailor/bully and extortionist saw the contorted features of the half-breed staring back him. It was the most elven he had ever seen the boy look. And it terrified him. Even as he accepted he was going to die, somehow a fear he had never experienced before formed deep within. Through all those years when he had showered ridicule and harassed Sauren, he had been ignorant of the true, terrifying potential such a being could harbour.

Consciousness was waning as Sauren continued to butcher him. He had no strength left to cry out, he could barely whimper. He was beyond feeling the pain anymore; he was just numb. Yet, he was aware of his skin being peeled from his bones. He could hear it and his body jerked against his restraints as it was stripped from him. Through the blur he could see his blood soaking into Sauren's shirt, the stain spreading steadily as the half-elf continued to hack at his skin.

Distantly he heard him telling the accomplices to cut him down. He hit the stone and dry earth with a dull thud and sickening squelch. Innards slopped out from his body as the impact punctured some of the translucent tissue which had been exposed. Faeces and urine seeped through his trousers, the torture having rendered control of his other bodily functions redundant. His body was then dragged near the fire. They sat him up, his head lolled forward. He noted the red pulsing mush that was once his chest. Slivers of bone shone through the raw tissue, the sheets of epidermis hanging like parchment from his frame. He tried to speak.

Reed and Don started to move the counterweight blocking the entrance. Sauren changed out of his bloodied shirt, using water from a canteen to wash off the worst from his skin. Around the base of the door, he wrung out the sodden shirt then returned to the fire and cast the garment into the flames. As he pulled on his clean shirt he glanced down at the dying apprentice. He saw his lips moving. Curious, he hunkered down to listen.

"I - I'm sorry," Benjamin breathed.

Sauren stared at him. "Now you're sorry?" His nose twitched from the stench of blood and faeces that rose from the pitiful figure before him.

Benjamin could only manage the briefest of nods.

"So am I," Sauren said. He lifted Benjamin's chin. Life was leaving the blue eyes. "I'm sorry that your prejudice has made you such a loathsome person. I'm sorry that you were driven to cheat an old man who gave you a chance to better yourself." He paused, making sure the apprentice was still breathing. Then he continued. "I had done nothing wrong as a young boy. My only crime was being different from you, yet you saw fit to cause me harm, to besmirch my family, to kill my horse. So above all, I'm sorry that your poison has made me what I am now. I hope you rot in hell, Benjamin Morley. You will have no forgiveness from me."

When he stood, Sauren was surprised to find his friends to his side. He gathered they had overheard. Their faces were hard to read in the firelight and for a moment, he thought he had lost their loyalty, their friendship. What he had done in this abandoned silo was incredibly brutal and it hit home just how much of a beast he could be. He did not want to surrender to the seduction of decay. He needed his friends, his father, his legacy. He swallowed, momentarily uncertain of what to do next.

Reed placed a hand on his shoulder. A simple act yet loaded with empathy and it was complimented with a reassuring smile from Don. “Come, Sauren. The debt has been paid.”

The half-elf glanced down at Benjamin. It would not be much longer now before his very last breath was taken. The baying hounds were closer now they would soon have their fill. Then a very unexpected rush of sympathy washed over him.

“Sauren, we have to go. Now!”

The door was nudged, the ravenous predators keen for their evening meal. He nodded and handed over the saddlebag, then the two rogues made for the stepping stones up the circumference of the wall. He shifted to join them, then stopped. An almost inaudible whimper came from the skinned carcass beside the fire. The first of the darkhounds pushed in through the door. Its guttural growl rising from its belly to the snapping jaws.

“Sauren!” Don shouted down from the beam.

He made a quick decision. Lifting Benjamin’s head he drew the skinning knife across his throat finishing him before the hounds could tear him apart. Then he spun round and melding with the shadows he leapt up past the predators and climbed one of the ropes.

When he reached the roof he looked back down and saw the beasts devouring Benjamin Morley, pulling him away from the fire. 

The tear that fell from his eye, was not for the butchered bigot he’d left below. It was for himself and the monster he had become.

     

     

Chapter Text

   Since the night he had erased Benjamin Morley, Sauren was plagued by new nightmares

 

Since the night he had erased Benjamin Morley, Sauren was plagued by new nightmares. Repeatedly, the images of skinning the young man alive ran riot through his unconscious mind. He could feel the texture of Benjamin's skin as he cut, then tugged, peeled and sliced it away. Then he heard the sounds; from Morley's cries of pain and tearing of flesh to the braying darkhounds at the door. Even that of his own voice; acidic, dark, dangerous, all kept playing over and over again. The thick coppery smell of blood, mingled with faeces the tailor could not contain under such torture- all was as vivid as the evening he had lured him to the silo.

He would wake at all hours awash with sweat, the sheets clinging, restraining him within his own bed. His chest heaved as he gulped for air, questioning why Morley's demise haunted him more than that of the blacksmiths. Theirs had been brutal deaths too, but he had felt elated after those ones. Morley's, however, for some reason, gnawed at him. Quite why, he knew not. He would try to assess how executing the torture affected him - again, there had been a sense of satisfaction in it, akin to pride in one's work. So, what was it that bedevilled his somniferous mind? Mulling it over made it no less clear.

If he managed to drift back to sleep he was further tormented by his more frequent nightly terror - the troll, Tulu. Her voice would penetrate the fog of his mind and repeat the same words over and over, "Yuh will still pay de cost, half-breed! An de price has just gat higha!" Her yellow eyes would loom up through the murk, studying him with an unabated hatred, cursing, condemning.

In the background, a shuffling of scales moving over dry earth sounded as his serpent-self slithered close but always out of sight. Another voice, deep, husky and oddly familiar also spoke to him, but the words remained mainly unintelligible, except for - "But I... I would kill for you."

Again he would wake, this time in confusion. He attempted to interpret what his dreams were trying to tell him but all to no avail. The cocktail of fear, revulsion and despondency was potent, and yet strangely, the words from the serpent, which he believed to be his future self, held a hint of promise. Of what exactly, he could not determine, but of all the things which visited his dreams, that was what he would try to focus on.

It had not been easy. The days turned into weeks, and each day had felt like a trial, the evening somewhat of a goal and yet filled with dread at the same time for there his dreams would consume him again.

Eventually, he visited the apothecary on Elder Row and acquired a sleeping draught after some persuasion. The gallipot had questioned why a young man would need such an elixir.

Sauren bit down his irritation at being interrogated but with quick thinking explained the horrors of the siege still played over in his mind, preventing him from a peaceful slumber. And, on hearing his name the pharmacist duly apologised and handed over a small vial.

"It is strong enough to knock out an ogre, so caution should be applied," he'd advised. "Two drops in hot tea before bed will suffice."  On that note he proceeded to explain the various properties of the drug but Sauren cared not what it contained, he just needed to be able to rest when he closed his eyes.

With instruction to keep his purchase secret, Sauren handed over the exorbitant price asked and said he would return if more was required. A sly grin crossed the man's lips. "The utmost discretion I assure you, Master Sauren, and anything you require shall be at your disposal."

At headquarters, both Don and Reed sensed the change in Sauren. Other than continuing to train together, or go into town to collect their suits for the Gathering, eat out or visit Odette's, they did not pry into what seemed to be troubling him. He treated them no differently, still managing to laugh, joke, play pranks - but there was just something amiss. At a guess, they thought perhaps the night at the silo had  affected him quite profoundly, but he never spoke of it and their assumptions remained unconfirmed. Eventually, however, he became more relaxed, more himself and so their quiet concern lifted.

As for Sauren himself, the added panacea to ease his predicament came in the form of Piper Alston. Now that their courtship was blessed by her father, they met regularly. He wined and dined her and presented her with gifts from trinkets and baubles to perfumes and bouquets.

Her family had not yet secured a home in the city, areas to their liking having no property available nor land on which to build. Mr Alston decided to bide their time, much to Catherine's irritation, but on this matter he would not be pressed by his wife's desperation to be city dweller.

The truth, he revealed to Sauren, was in fact that he liked where they lived in Darkshire. He had been born and bred there as had his father, grandfather and great grandfather. There was nothing wrong with it as far as he was concerned and the home they owned was more than ample to house all his inventions and knick knacks. Recalling Catherine's conversation with Mr Atherton during the Midsummer Festival, Sauren knew that she most definitely did not share her husband's thoughts on the matter.

Regardless, the young beau had made one or two visits to Darkshire once the family had returned home. But now, the Gathering was upon them and Winter's Veil celebrations had begun.

The family were invited to stay at the Crimson Blade headquarters in guest rooms. Sauren could not help but smirk as he thought of Catherine's discomfort being in an environment where noblemen's mercenaries normally worked, ate and slept. He had no doubt she was unnerved to think she was amid men and women who were paid to dispatch particular persons on an employer's instruction, and spy, steal, or sabotage adversaries plans or that of their families.

A profitable life it was, but honourable? In the eyes of the rogue and those who utilised their services, yes it was, but individuals such as Catherine Alston were at odds with the logistics of such a career path. Still, her eyes did sparkle when she saw the lavish furnishings of her and Mr Alston's guest rooms.

Of the conglomerate of assassins and their kin, Brett remained at headquarters and along with his wife, Mary and Don's father, Matthew, would be attending the special evening also.

The winter celebrations meant the bulk of the rogues and trainees departed to their own homes for the duration of the holidays. The few which stayed on were of course attending the festivities. The general quietness of the complex was a novelty, having been buzzing since the opening day a few months prior. With fewer people residing on the grounds, a reduced house staff was required to tend the remaining rogues and of course the special guests of Sa'themar and Sauren. Preparations, nevertheless, were in full swing and the dining hall had been bedecked in holly and winter veil decorations.

Staff had been busy since the day before ensuring the rooms, grounds and fare would be seconded to none. The pride they felt in their guild being chosen to host this year's Gathering was evident in their attention to detail, all the little extras they saw to and the jovial festive tunes they hummed and sang as they busied themselves preparing for the evening.

As an event designed primarily for prestigious rogue guild leaders to enjoy a little soiree with their fellow peers, Sa'themar braved a new approach and opened the Gathering to include the invited guilds' top three students to the mix. At first the suggestion had been met by a few raised eyebrows and some subtle questioning as to the appropriateness of such a break in tradition. His reasoning, however, was readily accepted. It not only encouraged a welcome integration of aspiring young rogues to meet on a sociable footing but also allowed for a little healthy competition in the form of mini tournaments between individuals. He also announced the overall winners would receive a trophy from the hosts. A few mumbles of appreciation then followed, with a subtle lean towards a wager or two also being considered.

Sauren turned to the window overlooking the courtyard as he shrugged into his jacket. Torches burst into life within their elaborate wrought iron sconces lining the way along a decorative, temporary walkway from the tower gate to the main hallway. The portcullis had been raised and soon carriages would be arriving along with some of the rogues making the journey on horseback. Guests would start arriving just prior to the sun bowing out for the day.

As etiquette demanded, Sauren had to greet the guests with his father. With one final check in the mirror and a tweak of the cuffs, he left his room and made his way to the dining hall. As he approached the double doors he was joined by Don and Reed. He smiled. His two friends brushed up very nicely and by all accounts appeared to be of affluent means.

They stopped at the doors and surveyed the large decorated hall. It was resplendent in its festive greens, reds and golds. The tables had exquisitely embroidered runners on which the place settings were sparkling; the glassware and cutlery buffed and polished to reflect the many golden lights from the candelabras, chandeliers and strings of brightly-coloured baubles looped and laced over the beams.

An enormous tree dominated the top of the hall. Its branches were laden with ribbons, painted decorations, glistening cones and a large glittering star sat at its apex. Sprigs of berry-bound holly were mounted over the tops of the tapestries and coats of arms on the walls. It was most convivial indeed and all infused with the aroma of festive fare and mulled wine.

Sauren raised an eyebrow as he saw his father enter from a side door with Catherine and Oscar in tow. Sa'themar, as always cut an impressive figure, tall, athletic, dressed in a damson coloured suit with long tail-coat and silver brocade waiscoat. His hair was tied up in the customary high knot but otherwise draped over his back like a cape.

Catherine wore a very fitting lilac gown, its bodice beautifully embroidered and skirts full and flowing. Oscar, forever the rebel country bumpkin, wore a plain but well-tailored charcoal-coloured suit, a flash of colour offered in the teal waistcoat. Sauren smiled. He noted Catherine looking at his father now and again. Whether she was in awe or nervous of the high elf he was uncertain, but the slight flush to her cheeks definitely indicated his father had an effect of some kind on the uptight woman.

"Remember my suggestion if the evening doesn't impress Mrs Alston," Reed chortled.

Sauren bit down the urge to guffaw. "I think I will leave that pleasure entirely to you, but I can somehow guarantee your cock will fare no better than Don's did in the fruit incident."

"Ugh! Don't revive that memory," Don grumbled, instinctively cupping his crotch before reminding himself company approached. Sauren and Reed laughed quietly, trying not to attract any unwanted attention.

The half-elf's laughter was instantly cut short when Oscar stepped aside. In a tiered and ruched fuchsia gown Piper appeared from behind her father. Sauren's eyes widened at the sight of her, taking in the tapered waist and low neckline which sat straight across her bust. She had wore a coquettish smile which faltered the moment she saw Sauren's mirth abandon him.

He responded quickly. Sensing she had misconstrued his reaction as disappointment he stepped forward. Taking her hand, he bowed deeply and brushed his lips across her knuckles. His mahogany eyes darkened as he met her gaze. "You are - beautiful, Piper," he said drinking in the way her hair was piled up with ringlet strands framing her face. The young woman blushed and found her smile again.

Sauren moved to her side, offering his arm for her to link with him. His face bore pride as he turned towards his two friends who were in the process of bowing to the Alstons.

Brett, Mary and Matthew then arrived and introductions were made, Mary having met the Alstons for the first time. She commented on what a fine young couple Sauren and Piper made. The half-elf could not hide his appreciation and bowed graciously to the right hand man's wife. Catherine, it seemed, was taken by Mary and the two women quickly built a rapport. The evening, by all accounts, was off to a good start.

Shortly after, the first of the other guild guests started to arrive. Mary had suggested that she and Catherine take a back seat and they duly retired to the top table where they were to be seated. Oscar bowed to Sa'themar before whispering that he should join his wife. He turned to his daughter, expectantly. Piper was uncertain what to do and looked to Sauren for guidance.

"I would be honoured if you would greet our guests with me," he said softly.

Piper's delight was obvious and she smiled broadly before letting her father know she was staying at Sauren's side. Oscar nodded and then toddled off to join Catherine and Mary. 

Leaders from forty renowned guilds across The Eastern Kingdoms arrived with their representatives

 

 

Leaders from forty renowned guilds across The Eastern Kingdoms arrived with their representatives. From Quel'thalas in the north to Stranglethorn in the south an impressive and intriguing collection of rogues arrived at the Crimson Blade.

Every leader was presented by way of their invitation being read out by Mr Bryce, self-appointed Master of Ceremonies. Each was warmly welcomed as they bowed to Sa'themar, Sauren, Piper and Brett. Ushers then led the guests to their tables.

"I am surprised to see some women as guild leaders," Piper whispered to Sauren.

"Are you?" The half-elf bowed to one such leader as she moved along the line. The woman was of medium height, dark-skinned, with piercing blue eyes. Striking yet rather daunting at the same time. Her avaricious smile as she greeted Sa'themar and then Sauren was unmistakably predatory.

Piper curtsied a little grudgingly as the woman looked upon her with lassitude and indifference. She waited until she had moved a few feet away before she spoke. "Do you know her?"

Sauren continued to nod and bow as the guests filed by. "No," he replied, undeterred from the protocol he had to perform.

"Are you sure?" she breathed, persistent.

Sauren turned to Piper just as the female guild leader faced him from a distance and awarded him one of her enigmatic smiles again. He held her gaze, for all it was merely a moment, until her attention was taken by one of the ushers leading her to her table. His eyes drifted to Piper's. There was a heat of a different kind behind hers. He smiled sweetly. "Yes, I am sure."

Once the guests had been shown to their seats, all eyes turned to the top table. Sa'themar stood, looking out over the sea of faces who watched him silently. "Fellow rogues, guild leaders and friends, I am delighted you have agreed to attend this bi-annual Gathering at the Crimson Blade. It is a great honour to have been selected as this year's hosts especially as we are still a relatively new guild. I hope you will enjoy this evening's celebrations. We offer you a warm and sincere welcome, exquisite festive fare, wine and ale. We have music, dancing and for those of you feeling the need to be competitive, a tournament to be held later where you can show off your skills as the expert rogues which you duly are." An audible gasp escaped Catherine's lips to which Sa'themar responded with a smile as he glanced her way. "There will be no bloodshed I assure you, the weapons are merely toys dipped in dye."

Soft laughter rippled through the guests. Catherine's rutilous face lowered, more abashed by her own outburst than Sa'themar's reassurance or the guests' laughter. The guild leader, noting her discomfort, drew attention away from her. "And so, please raise your glasses and let our merriment begin."

Everyone followed suit and hailed the Winter Veil's celebration, toasting good health and happy holidays to their host. Then the parade of platters began. A selection of quality roasted meats ranging from boar, venison, bear and wolf to turkey and the gamey strider all basted in honeys, wines and seasonal herbs and spices. Sweet potatoes, sauteed carrots, roasted parsnips and chestnuts accompanied the meats and homemade breads were sliced and laid out with generous helpings of chutneys and preserves.

Piper ate delicately, cutting her food into small pieces. She kept an eye on the female guild leader who equally appeared to be paying particular attention to Sauren.

"Is it to your liking?" he leaned to her and asked.

"What?" she asked, a little snappily.

"The food."

She turned to him briefly before her eyes drifted back to the woman at the table directly in front of them. "Yes, it's very nice," she replied.

Sauren noted her focus of attention and he too looked to the guild leader.

The piercing blue eyes crinkled at the corners as the female leader smiled, oozing a confidence which distinctly implied she was a woman who was used to getting anything she wanted. Sauren locked eyes with her for a moment but in that time he managed to convey a mutual understanding.

It had not went unnoticed. "I do not like her," Piper said under her breath. "She looks at you as if she could devour you."

Sauren fought the urge to smirk. "She probably could..."

Piper's eyes flashed as she turned to him again. It was not what she had wanted to hear. Neither did she expect to hear what he whispered next, his lips just brushing her earlobe. The cutlery almost fell from her hands and a flush rose from her neck to her cheeks. With a somewhat triumphant curvature spreading over her lips she eyed the female rogue once more. The satisfaction she felt as the woman's smug countenance faltered was truly invigorating. The female, however, then set her sights elsewhere and Piper was unsure whether to feel sorry for the woman or for the man her eyes rested upon. Sa'themar. "Your father is in trouble now," she whispered.

Sauren glanced across then laughed into his napkin. With a broad smile he turned to Piper again. "She is wasting her time, he will not entertain her either, not in that fashion anyway."

Piper giggled, inwardly euphoric that the predatory female would not get her way.

After dinner, dancing proceeded in the grand hall which was just along from the dining one through a passageway adorned with paintings of various landscapes throughout the Eastern Kingdoms.

Sa'themar was approached by none other than the female guild leader who had honed her sights on him.

"I don't believe he accepted!" Piper said to Sauren as he guided her around the hall in dance.

Sauren laughed as he caught sight of his father leading the woman onto the floor. "He is merely being polite. He will let her know in no uncertain terms that he will not be prey to a predator."

Piper looked up at him. "Maybe he is lonely though," she ventured.

For a few moments Sauren didn't answer and watched as Sa'themar swept the woman around in a waltz. He turned his attention back to Piper. "I have no doubt at times he is, but my father is a very discreet man and still devout to my mother."

"So you think he does not... you know?"

Sauren smiled sedately. "I have no idea, but I would imagine he has needs the same as any man." He waited as the blush rose on her cheeks again. Looking across the room he caught sight of Catherine watching his father and the female guild leader. He found himself feeling a little sorry for the matriarch. A small "hmph" escaped him, causing Piper to look at him questioningly. "I take it your father does not dance?" he said nodding over to where the Alstons stood.

Piper looked over to where her parents were at the edge of the dance floor. Oscar was engaged in conversation with some of the rogues, no doubt about some invention of his, while her mother watched those dancing with a wistful look in her eyes. She turned back to see Sauren smiling sympathetically. "I haven't seen them dance for many years now. I think my mother misses those days, perhaps it is part of the reason she wants to live in the city where all this happens regularly and just maybe she will dance again."

Sauren steered Piper towards her. "Then maybe this is my chance to get your mother to at least warm to me."

Piper understood and willingly let him lead her towards her parents. As they swept in front of Catherine and Oscar the young couple parted but remained standing together. Oscar broke off his conversation to greet them. "I trust you are enjoying your evening Mr Alston?" Sauren enquired.

"Yes, very much so," Oscar replied. "These gentlemen are most interested in some of my inventions and are even offering suggestions as to things which may be of particular use for the rogue community."

The three rogues, all from different guilds, nodded to Sauren attempting to look genuinely invigorated by the conversation. He gathered it took some effort on their behalf. "I see, well in that case, with your permission..." he then turned to Catherine, "...and Mrs Alston's willingness, may I ask your wife to dance?"

Oscar's mouth fell open, then promptly closed again to show a large, possibly relieved smile. "Why of course, Sauren." He then turned to his wife. "Dear?" he asked her.

Piper's mother looked truly surprised, but she found herself accepting the half-elf's hand quickly enough and allowed him to lead her onto the floor. "And are you enjoying this evening, Mrs Alston," he ventured as they started to waltz.

"I have not been to such a grand affair in some time, Sauren. Your father has organised quite an event." She would not surrender her haughty countenance.

Sauren's lips fought a smirk. He found Catherine's knack at avoiding a straight answer and her matriarch persona quite amusing.

"His efforts have impressed you then?"

The woman was noticeably flustered. "Yes." She replied rather tartly.

He swept her around the floor a few times noting how she became more relaxed the longer they danced. He chose then to speak again. "If you will forgive me, when first you heard about us that day at the Midsummer Festival, you looked aghast. We rogues are quite civilised beings, Mrs Alston."

Catherine looked up at him, a look of mild embarrassment crossed her face before she smiled quite pleasantly. "I admit Sauren I was a little concerned, but that was mainly due to my impression of your - career. I see now that I was misguided."

"I am duly relieved for I would have you know I will be a good husband to your daughter and would be most honoured if you would give us your blessing."

Catherine pulled back a little. "Oscar has already given it."

"Yes, but I think a personal blessing from the mother of my bride-to-be, equally if not a little more special."

From the softening of her features, Sauren knew he had finally won her over. Her smile broadened, lifting her eyes and making them sparkle. "Then you have it, Sauren. I do believe you are quite the young gentleman and will provide amply for my daughter. I can see that you love her, too."

"Mrs, Alston, you do me a great honour."

"Call me Catherine. Mrs Alston makes me sound like a relic."

Sauren beamed, the act having quite an effect on her as her cheeks reddened slightly again. "Very well, Catherine and I concur you are no relic, but a most gracious and very refined woman."

An inaudible thank you was mouthed from Catherine's astonished lips. The music stopped and Sauren led her back to where her husband continued to chatter to the now seriously tested rogues. He could not help but smirk as he caught one rolling his eyes. "I think I saw your leaders looking for you gentlemen," he offered as a means of escape for them, even though it was a complete fabrication.

"Ah, yes. Thank you, better not keep them waiting," one of them replied with a knowing wink to his young host. They said their farewells to the Alstons and moved through the throng of chattering guests.

Sa'themar appeared at Sauren's side. He advised the tournaments would being in about an hour and would be held in the room adjacent to the grand hall. Oscar was quite enthusiastic about it, Catherine was still a tad unsure. "Do not fret," the guild leader assured her. "There will no danger to life, it is merely exercises in skill with pliable foam daggers and some vegetable dye. The most harm will be to some coin purses I dare say." At that Catherine smiled and accepted the guild leader's hand as he too asked her to dance.

A very quick scan of the crowd told Sauren and Piper, that the predatory female leader was already grooming other potential "victims".

The half-elf then excused themselves from Oscar's company. After a few steps he turned to Piper. "We have an hour. Do you wish to pursue what I suggested earlier?"

Her breathing quickened, her green eyes large and darkening by the second. "Yes."

He took her hand and after checking that they were not being watched, he led her out of the grand hall towards the tower that housed the private rooms.

"Where are we going?" she breathed, trotting beside him clinging to his arm.

"My chambers," he replied. "Your mother may decide to look for you if she realises you are gone and she would most likely check your rooms first, so it would be unwise to go there."

He reached the base of the tower steps and again checked they were not seen before he started the ascent. Piper's gown rustled as she hitched one side to climb the stairs easier. Once at his door she gasped and pulled back. He turned to her, his eyes ablaze, dark with desire. "Second thoughts?"

She swallowed, her chest heaved. Shaking her head she managed a timid No, then he swung the door open to his chambers. Stepping inside she was astounded at the luxury. Her rooms were beautiful, but this was extraordinary. A fire was crackling and glowing in the ornate hearth, its surround and mantle sculpted with phoenix heads and open wings. Rich, heavy drapes adorned the latticed windows, all drawn keeping the occupants hidden and adding warmth to the room. A bureau was hard against the wall and occasional tables were sited between plush armchairs and a longue.

Turning she saw the few steps which rose to the bedchamber. He stood at the top, watching her as he loosened his cravat. Behind him was a huge bed, plump pillows stacked, decorative rolled sleepers in front and a fur throw over crisp bedding.

Nervously, she climbed the steps. He took her hand and led her around the side of the bed. She was trembling. He did not need to voice the question again, she knew from his face. "Yes," she said quietly. "I am ready, but I know not what to do."

He moved behind her and started to undo the small buttons on her bodice. "Don't worry, I will show you."

"Will it hurt?"

"A little perhaps, but I will take it easy." He slid his hands between her gown and corset, then gently slipped the dress from her. He stood admiring the curves of her body before starting to untie the lacings.

"Do I need to remove this too?"

He laughed softly and brought his mouth to her ear. "You may find yourself needing to take deep breaths. Removing this will make it easier for you."

"Oh," her nervousness was mounting. "You will need to help me back into it."

"I will, don't worry."

The last of the ties loose, the garment slid from her figure. Clasping her arms around her breasts she slowly turned to face him.

"Please do not hide yourself from me," he said in a heated whisper.

She was so nervous, her eyes started to well. He reached up and caught a stray tear. "If you would rather not..."

"I want to," she replied hurriedly. "It's just..."

"Just what?" He stroked her cheek.

"If I do not satisfy you, will you go Odette's instead?"

He cupped her face and pulled her near. "You could not fail to satisfy me, Piper. It is merely the unknown which unsettles you. The first time will be strange, you may find it uncomfortable, but I assure you, you will please me." His mouth covered hers and he felt her arms wrap around him.

He drew back and removed his clothing. Piper watched, transfixed as he stood straight again, casting his trousers to the armchair behind her. He circled her, tracing his long slender fingers over her skin. She sighed. "Sauren..."

He pulled her close, a small gasp escaping her lips. "Relax," he whispered, his breath on her skin causing her to tremble. "To hell with waiting until we are wed. I am going to make you mine tonight."

He pulled her down to the bed and slowly, tenderly, he claimed her.

He pulled her down to the bed and slowly, tenderly, he claimed her       

 

 

Chapter Text

The dining hall had been cleared of the previous night's celebrations leaving only the decorations and winter veil tree in place

The dining hall had been cleared of the previous night's celebrations leaving only the decorations and winter veil tree in place. The staff as always had been up early and diligent in their tasks making ready the large room for breakfast.

The Nightflames and their special guests sat at the main table while servants duly arrived with a variety of mixed berries and warm honeyed oatmeal and sunfruit juice. Once that course was finished they were then served with eggs - baked or as an omelette - hams, forest mushrooms and crusty breads with jams and preserves. Large pots of strong black coffee and tea were also provided to wash it all down. 

Oscar looked a little under the weather and was encouraging Heidi to fill his coffee mug to the top. 

"Be careful, Sir, it is very hot," she warned the engineer. 

He simply nodded and took a large slurp instantly burning his mouth. He coughed and spluttered, drawing the napkin to his lips. Heidi panicked and then offered some cold water to drink. He snatched the glass from her and gulped it over. After a few moments, he calmed down, as did the housemaid.

She then proceeded along the back of the seats asking if anyone else would like coffee. Catherine and Piper wanted tea, which the maid signalled to another servant to fetch. 

"Master Sauren?" Heidi asked, gesturing towards his mug. He passed it to her and watched as her hand shook slightly while she poured some of the fresh black liquid for him. His eyes travelled slowly up her bodice to her face and he found her blushing.

"Thank you, Heidi," he said taking the mug,  just touching her trembling fingers and no more. 

She bowed her head then quickly moved on to Sa'themar and poured some for him.

Sauren blew on his coffee and sipped. The conversation between mother and daughter then reached his ears. He grinned.

"And where did you disappear to last night, young lady?" Catherine interrogated Piper. "You were gone a good hour and a half. I even looked for you in your chambers."

Piper shot a furtive glance Sauren's way. He continued to drink his coffee, but she could tell he was smirking. "I - I was..." she stammered.

"Piper said she felt a little hot and so I suggested some...relief," he offered, smiling as he met Catherine's suspicious eyes. He also noted Piper's throat flexed as she swallowed quietly and cast her eyes to the half-empty plate in front of her.  His fingers caressed the back of her hand as she held her knife tight, nervous. "I think she was a little overcome with the festivities and the wine." He concluded.

Catherine glanced at her daughter then returned her gaze to Sauren. "Indeed," she muttered. "An hour and a half though?"

Sauren put his mug on the table and dabbed the corners of his mouth with his napkin. "Forgive me, I saw it as an opportunity to show her around the premises for I knew you were leaving today. I'm afraid I did not realise it took so long, nor did I think you would worry when she was in my care."

At that Catherine relaxed slightly but she did not miss the look which passed between her daughter and the young beau. She managed a small guffaw and attempted to look self-assured. "It is a parent's eternal obligation to worry for their children, Sauren. You will perhaps know that yourself one day." 

He toyed with the handle of his mug. It seemed she was not so easily beguiled. The temptation to shock was almost too strong to resist but he had won over Piper's mother the night before and did not wish to lose her favour. "I am sure I shall," he replied, measured, as he looked back at her. "I could not hope for a better mother for my children." He lifted Piper's hand to his mouth, brushing his lips across her knuckles. "Nor indeed, a more considerate and loving grand-mother for them." Again he held Catherine's gaze. This time she smiled and nodded appreciation of his sentiment.

"Have you considered a date yet?" Oscar piped up, ramming some bread with jam into his mouth.

The question threw Sauren. The couple had not discussed it at length although he had considered it was perhaps wise to be married sooner rather than later, especially in light of the previous night's activity which would, no doubt, be the first of many. He had at least advised her to douse herself with vigour following their carnality, but he strongly doubted Piper was educated in any other precautionary methods. So, he took it upon himself and sent word to the apothecary to deliver a potion post-haste. It was expected within the hour. That aside, Oscar, Catherine and even Sa'themar were all now looking at them for an answer.

"Sometime in the Spring," Sauren heard himself saying. Piper's fingers closed around his. She smiled at him, a look of utter adoration in her eyes. He managed a brief smile.

"Wonderful!" Oscar enthused. "We had better start getting things organised then, Catherine, Sa'themar."

Sauren looked to his father. The high elf sat stock-still, his face impassive. "The time of year for new beginnings," he offered, his voice bearing a somewhat mnemonic tone. He then nodded consent.

"Then it is decided," Sauren said. "Details will be discussed after the holidays." 

As they moved through to the large living quarters at the base of the private tower, Thomas ran towards Sauren. He held a small box in his hand. "We will join you in a moment, father," Sauren excused himself and Piper from the company. Sa'themar nodded, merely eyeing Thomas then leading the Alstons through to the sitting room. 

Sauren accepted the box and gave Thomas some coins for his troubles. A note was attached and Sauren read it carefully. He then refolded it and smiled at Thomas. "Run along now, enjoy the festivities," he said to the beaming little boy.

Piper looked at the box, then at Sauren. He realised what she must have been thinking. "No, this is not your gift, that is indoors. But this is for you," he said softly, taking her hand.

"Oh? What is it?" she smiled.

He pulled her aside, ensuring no inquisitive ears heard their conversation. "I need you to drink this - now."

Piper staggered back a little, surprised by his fervent instruction. "Why? What is it?"

He removed the lid of the small box and took a deep breath before explaining. "I do not wish you to suffer the humiliation of being with child before we are wed. This will ensure last night's passion does not inconvenience you so."

"Oh. I see." Her breathing was short and rapid. She still seemed unsure and stared at the bottle nestled within the box, it's amethyst content strangely hypnotic.

"Trust me, Piper. This is for your own good."

She nodded and accepted the vial. The top came away with the quietest of pops and she raised the bottle to her lips. She halted. "This will not prevent me from being with child indefinitely, will it?"

Sauren smiled reassuringly. "No. According to the apothecary's note here..." He unfolded the note again. "It is only to be used shortly after love-making and will not affect future impregnation. But, perhaps we should abstain or..."

"No!" She blushed furiously at her sudden protestation. Sauren smiled and laughed lightly. She lifted her eyes to his. "I cannot wait until Spring to be with you again."

"Very well," he traced a slender finger down her cheek to her chin. "There are other elixirs available, I believe, which can aid in such matters. They are taken before we have pleasure."

She nodded, then with only a brief hesitancy, she drank the contents of the vial. Her tongue traced over her lips, the act having quite an effect on Sauren. "Alright?" he breathed, his voice unexpectedly weak.

Smiling, she nodded.

He sighed. "Then let's head inside ... before I have to order up another bottle."

Piper giggled and handed the empty vial back to him. He secured it in the box then placed it in his pocket. He moved aside, allowing her to precede him into the sitting room. 

As her skirts rustled past, he could not help but smirk, smug in the knowledge she hungered for him. There was something decidedly delicious that a woman other than his favourite royal concubine or the whores at Odette's wanted him. The smile then faltered slightly as an image of Heidi flitted, unbidden, across his mind. Further consideration soon had the smile return.

"Sauren?" Piper whispered as she waited just inside the doorway of the sitting room. 

The sight of her sweet and inquisitive face banished the maid's visage from his thoughts -although it did not completely disappear until the realisation settled that he knew Heidi would succumb to his charms if he so much as invited her. He offered Piper his arm, and together they joined the others for the exchanging of gifts.

To save the Alstons the painstakingly long journey by carriage to Darkshire, Sa'themar had one of the still resident mages conjure a portal to take them home. It was the one time Sauren noted real relief in Catherine's face. 

Oscar being simply excited to travel by such a method as it was his first time, was already discussing the magical schematics with the mage. The elf shrugged his shoulders at the never-ending questions and apologised as all he knew were the chants which summoned the power to open the portals. Catherine, who had been engaged in conversation with Sa'themar, then told Oscar to stop pestering the young mage.

The betrothed couple looked on. Piper smiled as she watched her parents at the threshold of the portal. "Father is relentless in his quest for knowledge on how everything works," she said.

"He has an inquisitive mind, as it should be for one of his profession."

Piper turned to Sauren and clasped his hands, pulling them close to her bodice. He noted a look of doubt in her eyes as she gazed up at him. Loosening his right hand, he traced her cheek, tucking some strands of her hair behind her ear. "Why do you worry?" he asked.

"I don't know exactly," she replied. "All I know is I ache for you and the thought of being apart, not knowing when I can see you again, fills me with sorrow. And..." she stopped, lowering her eyes.

"And?" He lifted her chin so she had to look at him again. 

"I have to know, Sauren. Will you be faithful to me?" Her voice dwindled and tears brimmed.

Sauren adored her, he could not deny that. She was pretty, funny and could hold an interesting and intellectual conversation with him. He thought he may even be happy with her in due course. But her question was one which made him feel the need to tread very carefully with his answer. There was a side to him, recently awakened which was becoming more prominent as time went on. "If you feel you cannot believe in me, then perhaps it is your inability to trust which is truly in question here. Have I done something to cause this?"

Piper balked. His response had not been what she had hoped for, nor expected. That the problem maybe lay with her and not him was something she had not even considered. For a moment she seemed lost for words. "It's just... that day I met you when you were with your friends after the siege, you spoke of Odette's and I have heard whispers between you all since."

He smiled. "That day was before we were even courting, Piper. And yes, my friends and I still talk of Odette's for they are regulars. Is that my crime?"

She exhaled, then slowly smiled. "Forgive me. I guess I am still a little overwhelmed that you, son of a highly respected Guild Master and heir to such a lucrative empire would be interested in a country girl like me."

He laughed softly and took hold of her hands again. "All this," he gestured the complex with a nod of his head, "...has taken my father many years of work to accomplish. Granted, he was always ...fortunate shall we say, to be able to provide for me in the manner you see here. But, it has been and always will be hard work to maintain. I am therefore not determined by material things, I am simply a man you see before you who will have to work hard to provide for those that matter to me. So, how can you consider yourself unworthy of the likes of me?"

The look in her eyes confirmed he had deftly swayed her from her fears. She reached up on her tiptoes and kissed him, to which he responded warmly, pulling her against him. 

"Piper," Catherine called.

Sauren looked over at the straight-laced matriarch, expecting a look of disapproval but was surprised to see her expression more that of a wistful woman. He groaned a little as Piper pulled away. 

"Coming, mother," she replied. Then with one last kiss, she joined her parents at the portal. 

They thanked both Sa'themar and Sauren for their hospitality and generosity, wishing them a continued joyful Winter's Veil.

"Miss Piper!" A voice called from behind them. They all turned to see Heidi running forward. She was carrying a small, clutch bag. When she reached the Alstons she curtsied and addressed Piper. "I am so glad I caught you before you left. You had left this bag. I found it when I was tending to your rooms just a few minutes ago."

Piper smiled and accepted the bag. "Thank you," she said. "I had forgotten all about it."

The maid curtsied again then walked back to the towers where she would finish her duties. Sauren did not watch her, but in his mind's eye, he traced her steps. A moment later with the Alstons having stepped through, the portal closed with a small pop.

Once more for that day, little Thomas came running towards Sauren with something in his hand. A letter. Sauren thanked him and the boy ran off again without looking for a reward. The half-elf looked curiously at the seal on the folded parchment.

"Are you sure you wish to proceed down the matrimonial path?" Sa'themar asked his son suddenly.

It appeared to be a day for questions which left Sauren momentarily stumped. "Yes, father I am. Why do you ask?"

The high elf turned to face him and took a deep breath before looking at him square in the eyes. "I know you have been indulgent with women in the city. You are young, curious and no doubt, insatiable for now. But, do not hurt that young woman, Sauren."

Sauren's brow creased. For all this was his father talking considering the subject, he nonetheless found it rather impudent of him. In an uncharacteristic response to the man he held in high esteem, he felt his lip curling in a sneer. "I am not wed yet, father, I am still my own man. And I shall continue to be so even after Piper and I marry. That is not to say that I do not intend to be the faithful husband, but who knows what lies ahead?" With that, he turned and made for his rooms.

Sa'themar was left staring after him, perplexed by his son's retort. Perhaps it was just the boy's youth; confident, brash, which made him so assured of his own abilities. But it also had him failing to recognise the seriousness of what he was about to commit to. And there had also been a coldness in his words. It was then Sa'themar pondered the measure of human to elf which resided within his boy. 

Once inside his rooms, Sauren leaned his head back against the door. He felt irritated. Firstly, Piper's testing of his fidelity and then his father having the audacity to follow suit and tell him, no - demand that he did not hurt Piper's feelings. He hit his head on the wooden panels. How dare they!

His hands curled into fists. It was then he remembered the letter in his hand. Opening his fist he stared at the vellum as it slowly uncurled within his palm. It bore the royal crest of Lordaeron. He blinked then broke the seal.

 

His heart clenched. So, she knew. Leola and Maya had said she would not be best pleased if she knew they had used her secret pool. He squeezed his eyes shut, praying his precious lovers had not been harmed. If not, he would have to come up with a convincing argument as to why they were there and ensure he did not incite the Queen's anger. 

While she had seemed somewhat enamoured by him at the grand opening of the Crimson Blade and had kept her word about having his "need" sated, he was not stupid. It would not do to underestimate the power of a woman who could so easily make heads roll.

He folded the letter and pressed it into his pocket. Then he cast off his jacket and threw it on the armchair across from where he stood. His waistcoat quickly followed.

A scuffling sound from his bedchamber alerted him he was not alone. He crossed the few feet to the bottom of the stairs which led to his bed-chamber and peered around the partition. 

There, standing like a startled deer, was Heidi. She had been changing the bedding and cleaning his room. Her face was flushed, panicked. Her throat flexed with a dry swallow as she clutched the end of the bed sheet in her hands. Lips moved but no sound emanated from them.

He stared at her.  She didn't flinch, she seemed almost frozen to the spot but her eyes did not leave his. Inwardly he smiled. The opportunity had presented itself after all. He resisted the temptation to speak, wanting to see how things played out - how much she could withstand before she either ran out in panic or melted against him. He had never felt more like his so-called spirit animal, the serpent, than he did now; his prey, trembling at the side of his bed, caught in the middle of smoothing out fresh linens for him to sleep on, which, if all went according to plan, would prove a fruitless exercise anyway. The anticipation awakened his own desire, the result starting to chafe against the fabric of his britches. Slowly he climbed the steps. 

Still, she remained motionless - the only movement being her eyes as they followed him and a pulse - putt-putt-putting away at the side of her neck.

Coming to a stop in front of her, he maintained his silence. His eyes raked over her; the plain brown dress fastened at the neck, covered with a crisp white apron hiding what assets she possessed. Her hair, pulled back in a loose bun, tendrils of it framing her face. Rosy cheeks, growing hotter by the second and brown eyes darkening rapidly. Her mouth, unpainted but still a deep, natural pink looked full and soft. Inviting.

His eyes drifted to the sheet she still clutched and the hint of a smile played at the corners of his mouth as she released it. Awkwardly, her hands rested at her sides, fingers flexing, brushing against her apron, not quite knowing what to do.

He towered over her, her face barely level with his collar-bone. Curling his fingers around the fabric of his shirt he yanked it out from his waistband and pulled it off over his head. Freeing his hands from the cuffs, he stood looking down at her then let the shirt drop to the floor.

He studied her face. Nervous anticipation swam in her eyes. She barely moved, except for her chest, which rose and fell in short, fevered breaths. Taking a step forward he shortened the distance between them. Now he could hear her breathing.  Her lips parted and the tip of her tongue slid across the crease.  A soft moan sounded in his throat. With a simple nod of instruction aimed towards her apron he watched as shakily she untied it and slipped it over her head. He took it from her and cast it to the floor.

His hands reached forward to the small buttons at her neckline. It was the first time her eyes left his as she watched the slender fingers deftly undo the fastenings. Slow, measured, he continued down to her waist.

A small gasp escaped her lips as he tugged the bodice open.  He jerked the dress down, peeling the sleeves from her arms and letting the fabric fall, pooling around her feet. All that remained between him and her flesh now was the thin shift she wore under the dress. She stood, trembling slightly, her small pert breasts heaving, prominent against her undergarment. 

He brushed his fingers across her nipples causing the pink buds to pucker more, tighten. A sigh.

One more step forward and his chest almost touched hers. His hand travelled up between her breasts, raking up the shift before his fingertips stroked her collarbone and on around the nape of her neck. His other hand loosened her hair making it tumble over her shoulders in soft, bouncing waves. 

Tentatively, she placed her hands on the planes of his chest, fingers spreading as she caressed his skin. 

Now the fire in his belly started to grow as her touch ignited him, the carnal need coursing through his body, screaming to be sated. Gently, he pressed her down. She did not resist, her hands travelling down as she sank to her knees. With her hands resting on the ties of his trousers she looked up at him with hungry eyes. His lips curved in a lascivious smile.

"Please me," he said in a voice thick with lust.

He watched as she pulled at the lacing and opened his britches, setting him free. As she took him, his head lolled back, his long hair brushing against his skin. Closing his eyes he abandoned all notions of fidelity and decency, allowing himself to wallow in the pleasure Heidi's tongue and lips awarded him. 

He had every intention of enjoying this young woman. Tonight and many other nights.

Chapter Text

     

"You are daring to attend an audience with the Queen carrying these?" Don said, incredulous. He held up the blades his friend was insisting he wore within the lining of the brocade jacket.

Sauren finished fastening his shirt cuffs then glanced at the secreted blades before he gave Don his full attention. "Yes," he replied assuredly with a smirk. He pointed to the multi-dagger, light-weight scabbard in which all five blades; a ballock, two baselords, a stiletto and a rondel with its customised pommel, were all easily hidden side by side. The deceptively light weaponry was then placed under a section of the jacket's lining and easily accessed should the need arise. "See? They are all adequately concealed."

"You have a death wish, you know that?" The scowl on Don's face clearly indicated his disapproval. "Do you honestly think you won't be searched before you are even allowed within sight of her?"

"You have very little faith in me, Stanton."

"Oh, don't start your surname shit with me," his friend grumbled.

Sauren laughed, his mirth joined by that of Reed who sat, leg draped over the arm of the fireside chair, munching on a turkey leg.

"I say we go with you," Don grunted.

"No, you cannot. I am to go alone."

"We shall escort you part of the way then," Reed stated tossing the poultry bone in the fire. The scraps of meat still attached hissed as the flames consumed them. "Then we'll veer off and go to Odette's. Don't know about you Don, but I am in need of a festive fuck."

A very brief smirk tweaked the corners of Don's mouth, but Sauren's safety was still his predominant concern. "I think we should stay close..."

Sauren slapped a friendly hand on his shoulder. "Listen, I will be fine. What's the worst she could possibly do?"

Reed tossed a date into his mouth and then guffawed. "Chop your cock off for dipping it in her sacred pool I would imagine." He turned to face his two friends. Don's face was ashen with a contradictory coating of perspiration causing his brow to glisten. Sauren, though his mouth was pulled taut and thin appeared to be holding back the need to blurt out an exclamation. 

"What? You'd rather it was your head?" Reed asked.

Sauren blinked. Then with a shrug, he answered. "Yes. Of course!"

Don's face was still stony, panic rising behind his eyes. It just set the other two off in hysterics. "Oh please, lighten up my friend," Sauren chuckled as he looked at Don. 

Funny though he found Reed's joke to be, Sauren could not shake off a sense of foreboding. He was still worried about the delectable Leola and Maya. Logic hinted at the unlikelihood of his own person being at risk; his father, after all, was held in high regard by the King and although Queen Lianne had inferred she was the puppeteer, somehow he doubted that rang completely true. She may, however, be devious, with her own aspirations and schemes going on in the background. 

These thoughts he kept to himself so as not to worry his best friend unnecessarily. Sometimes, Sauren still saw Don as the shoulder-yolk defender of his younger days. Reed, on the other hand, seemed more relaxed, one to take things in his stride. He had come far in Sauren's opinion and in the process had earned both his trust and friendship.

Don sighed heavily, his trepidation still at the fore. Nonetheless, he knew Sauren would not allow either of them to accompany him. It was he after all, in whom the Queen had expressed an interest, not Don and not Reed.

Sauren shrugged the jacket on, taking time to check the secreted scabbard remained undetectable as he moved. Happy that it was, he turned to his two friends. "Will I do?" He stood, arms extended.

Reed looked up from the armchair and smiled. "Oh, I think you will meet with Royal Approval, yes. But, erm ... what's with the doo?" He pointed to the three plaits weaved into the left side of Sauren's hair.

The half-elf grinned, his fingers tracing down the locks. "Ah, this was something Heidy wanted to do."

"Heidy? You told her you were meeting with the Queen of Lordaeron?" Don asked totally missing the point.

"What? That little housemaid?" Reed had cottoned on. He sat up straight and looked at Sauren. "Are you banging her?"

Turning from them and looking back into the mirror, Sauren laughed lightly. "No. I did not tell her I was meeting the Queen, Don. And yes, that little housemaid, Reed."

"And?" His feasting friend, inquisitive, rose from the chair and climbed the steps to the bedchamber, stopping just short of Sauren who still primped and preened in front of the dresser. The two boys' eyes met in the mirror. 

"Yes," Sauren confirmed, fixing his cuffs.

Reed cussed, punching a fist in the air. "Damn! You'll have them queuing at the door soon!"

Don was inwardly disgruntled he had missed the significance of Heidy's hairdressing skills. "Hmm, and he might even fuck royalty today," he commented, his voice not conveying any mirth whatsoever. 

Sauren spun round. "Why, Don, do I detect more disapproval or perhaps... envy?"

Don rolled his eyes. "No thanks! I wouldn't trust that woman with my cock. There is something I ... I just can't quite warm to her."

Sauren studied him for a moment or two, weighing up his words. A loyal friend since they were small boys, Don's advice and observations over time had been welcomed indeed, sometimes even sought after. If anything, he managed to keep Sauren's feet planted firmly on the ground. He nodded. "I do not disagree with you," he said.

Don's eyes lifted and he stared at his friend.

"There is something certainly which I too sense. Be rest assured though my friends, I do not intend to fuck her, but I am curious as to what she wants me for. In order to do that I must play the part of the Queen's Pawn."

He turned back to the dresser. He pulled out a belt onto which he attached a single scabbard with a small dagger and a pouch laden with coins. 

"More weaponry? And what's the pouch for?" Reed asked.

"The dagger is a decoy thus ensuring my collection is not discovered," the half-elf explained patting the section of the jacket where the secreted blades nestled. "The pouch is a tradition for me."

"What tradition?"

Sauren glanced at Don, who knew only too well what it was, then he answered. "It is alms for the poor. My father does it, although on a grander scale and I have followed suit. One day, when this is all mine, I will do more, but for now, I have only coin to give and some supplies."

Reed stood, speechless, trying desperately not to look so surprised in fear he offended Sauren. But, it seemed his expression did not go unnoticed. "I know what you're thinking," Sauren smiled although it bore the complexity of the man himself. "How can someone like me, who is capable of such base behaviour and brutality possibly care for those less fortunate?"

His friend's voice evaded him, his mouth simply flapping like that of a fish on land. 

Sauren placed a friendly hand on his shoulder. "I sometimes wonder such things myself." He laughed lightly before explaining further. "Having grown up amid equal shares of kindness and bigotry, I guess I have learned that I cannot judge all as either one or the other. Whoever does me or mine wrong, they deserve my wrath and it be will  be visited upon them, as well you know, but those who have hit hard times for reasons outwith their control - they do not deserve to suffer more."

Obviously still taken aback Reed stared at him; his expression led to Sauren asking a question. "You do not approve?" His tone was subtly contentious.

"Actually, I think it is admirable," Reed answered after a moment. "I just did not expect it, that is all. I wish to do the same."

The half-elf stepped back and gestured to the dresser. "Good, for I have more coin here for you to..."

"No!" Reed replied, shaking his head. "I will use my own. I can earn more as the year goes on but I will not simply take that which is yours and then try to make out it was my own effort for charity."

It was Sauren's turn to be surprised. Although the young rogue had indeed made earnings from his few months efforts at the guild, his monies were considerably less than that of the affluent son of the Guild Master. Sauren's offer had not been intended to humiliate his friend or emphasise his lesser means, it had been merely made so he could join in the small but significant effort of making the festive season a little brighter for those who had nothing.

Reed turned and left to go to his dorm to collect some of his savings, stating he would meet them in the courtyard in a few minutes.

"I think he has even exceeded your expectations," Don voiced once they were alone.

"Yes, he has, Don." Sauren looked at his best friend. "I am most fortunate to have both of you at my side."

Don smiled then his voice adopted a serious tone. "Regarding the list - I know now is not the time for such business, but when do we score off number three?"

Sauren finished securing his belt before answering. "Not for a while certainly. I have to see what Her Majesty requires of me first, not to mention I have a wedding to consider in Spring." 

"Ah yes!" Don laughed. "What happened to the man who said he had no intention of being tied down to one woman and wanted to sample the fruits of the orchard?"

Sauren flexed his eyebrows and sighed heavily, puffing out his cheeks. "Yes, well... I was put on the spot, wasn't I? Still, I will not be married for three to four months yet so I intend to enjoy those fruits for the duration of my freedom."

"I don't think that's quite what is meant to happen during a courtship, Sauren."

They made their way to the door. "I know. But, it is better I get it out of my system before I make my vows, do you not agree?"

Don shrugged. "I suppose there is that side of it, yes." 

"Good, then let us go. I will join you at Odette's."

"But..."

"Later. And most definitely after I have met with the Queen."

Don laughed as they descended the stairs.

 

All three young men were dressed very smartly, as they usually were when going out, but this day awarded them more admiring looks than normal and not all due to their attire. 

It was still relatively early and this gave Sauren time to do what he habitually did on an annual basis. He took his friends to parts of the city where he knew many unfortunate souls hid from plain view. Some were huddled in dank, cold alleys, or grouped in deserted buildings of which there were a fair few in the northeast part of the city. This was an area plagued with rot of one kind or another and seemed to be a magnet for those who found themselves on the wrong side of society for whatever reason. 

Thankfully, one or two establishments nearby offered proper shelter and hot meals to some of the unfortunate street dwellers but rooms were limited and they were only available at a cost; this was where Sauren's coins came into play.  

Some faces had been there for a number of years and the young half-elf recognised a handful of familiar ones as he moved through the Beggars Quarters as it was commonly known. They nodded greeting, some even managed to smile.

He had requested service of two of the guild's mages to portal blankets, food and some clothing for those who would not be able to take refuge in the paid accommodation. 

As expected he found Cyrus with some other priests among the hapless bodies. They readily helped the young men distribute the goods portalled through. 

"You are a bit of an enigma, young Sauren," Cyrus commented while passing blankets over to his fellow helpers and those who came near for the hand-outs.

"Am I?" Sauren asked with a grin.

"Yes, normally you come incognito. I am surprised to see you so well attired for this task."

Sauren laughed lightly. "It is merely because we have appointments directly after this, ones which we cannot arrive at in casual wear."

"Ah, I see. Well, that aside your aid in these matters is greatly appreciated as is your father's help too."

"Yes. I believe he is now headed north to offer aid to the elves, who also have unfortunate stories.  They too were affected quite dramatically when the orcs and their foul pestilence ran riot through the lands."

"I have no doubt. It was a dreadful time which is hopefully behind us now."

They all continued to work handing over items to help the poor. They knew it would be an endless task; many of these people had survived this way for years, but the recent events in the land's history had meant more had joined the ranks of the unfortunate.

People in dirty, worn clothing shuffled closer. Most concealed their faces with scarves or hoods, their haunted, hollowed eyes mostly hidden from view. Scabby finger-less mitts worn by some, inadequately covered cold, filthy hands, some of which no doubt had raked through rubbish and piles of rubble hoping to find something better to wear or even something resembling food. The smell of soiled clothing mixed with a damp, mustiness from being worn for days, sometimes weeks at a time lingered around where the helpers were stationed.  

Sauren was handing out coins to some of the outstretched hands, while the others continued to give out the blankets and food to those who clearly were remaining in the Quarters. Most nodded or mumbled incoherent thank yous, or just grunted and moved away, their shame at being so downtrodden crippling their ability to look others in the eye. 

But one truly surprised Sauren. A woman, stooped, dressed in black, her face hidden by a heavy shawl, kept her head bowed as she accepted the coins from him. "Thank you, young master. May all good fortune shine upon you." 

She turned to move away. "Wait," he called. The figure halted, her head still bowed but looking askance at him. Quickly, he picked up a cup and filled it with the hot soup bubbling in a large pot which the mages had portalled. He handed her the mug. "This will give you some sustenance and warmth until you secure accommodation," he said.

She fiddled with the sides of her skirt, searching for a pocket in which to put the coins he had given her. Her hand then shook as she accepted the cup. He heard her sniff. Whether it was due to the cold or her being a little overcome he knew not, but with a breathy thank you this time, she turned and moved away into the back of the building. He stared after her.

"She keeps very much to herself, does that one," Cyrus said as he moved beside Sauren. "She comes by very rarely, but I think with the weather changing and her getting older, she needs this more."

Sauren nodded finally pulling his eyes away from where the woman had shuffled into the shadows. "None of them has ever said as much as she did, that's why I was intrigued."

"Hmm, I have come across her over the years usually holed up behind an inn, or another establishment, taking shelter in their rubbish, off-cuts and abandoned goods. Always polite though very secretive. They are all tragic though, Sauren, and each and every one has a story that could break even the hardest of hearts."

The half-elf nodded. Then with a large sigh, he announced it was time for him and his friends to depart. Cyrus thanked them again for their thoughtfulness and bade them farewell.

The Queen had not given him much direction pertaining to a time he should arrive, nor indeed by which entrance and so he assumed to enter the Keep's grounds via the same route he had been led the day Leola and her cohorts entertained him and his friends. The fact that guards were waiting for him on the other side of the doorway strongly suggested the Queen had known exactly where and when to find him. This in itself, raised the question - how?

Just as Don suspected, they searched him for weapons. The dagger on his belt was spied straight away and cunningly he raised his jacket so they could see there were no more placed around his waist. They patted him around his middle and down his legs. Satisfied, they told him to stay close and then proceeded to march him into the chamber where the entrance to the catacombs was concealed.

With one guard ahead and the other at the rear, he was escorted down the long, spiral stairway and into the caverns. It was better lit than the first and indeed the second time he'd ventured into the bowels of the Keep. As they approached the chamber which housed the pool, he picked up the sound of whimpering and stifled sobs. This did not herald good news; concerns for his lovers magnified with each step. He had to think and think fast.

The narrow passage opened up into the location where the Queen awaited his arrival. As he neared the pool he was ordered to halt. The guards continued around the perimeter and came to a stop beside their monarch. There on an elaborate large chair, not quite of throne dimensions but nonetheless reflective of the noble posterior which graced it, sat Queen Lianne. 

On either side of her, on their knees, was Leola and Maya, their hands tied behind their backs and mouths gagged. It took all Sauren had not to show the shock and dread he felt on seeing his beautiful playmates so shamefully bound. 

He bowed before the Queen. "Your Majesty," he greeted, just managing to thwart the tremor in his voice.

"Ah, young master Sauren. I am delighted to see you keep your promises."

Keeping his voice steady he replied. "Promise or not, Your Majesty, it would be deigned impolite to have declined your invitation."

She smiled, slow. "Impolite, eh?" A laugh more mocking than mirthful left her lips. 

Trying not to look at the two women on their knees, Sauren still caught their flinches as the menace in the Queen's laughter echoed softly around the cavern.

"And would you say you were polite when you frolicked in my pool with these whores?"

His muscles tensed as the guards unsheathed their swords and took up position behind the two helpless women. He chanced a glance at Leola, her tearful eyes watching him closely. His mind raced to come up with a fitting answer. "Forgive me, Your Majesty, I apologise profusely for ... contaminating your pool." 

With a wave of her hand, the guards raised their swords. "Shall I show you what contamination of my pool truly looks like, young master Sauren?"  She looked at the guards. The women sobbed behind the cloth gags.

"Your Majesty!" Sauren said, a little more forcefully than he would have liked. "Surely you would not harm your devoted servants."

"Devoted?" Queen Lianne guffawed. "They defied me." Her eyes were dark, dangerous.

Sauren swallowed. He had no choice but to take the path he had chosen and just hope it would lead to a victory. "Yes, but perhaps it was just as well that they did."

The Queen's eyes widened in surprise and she pushed herself up from the chair. Slowly, she started to circle the rim of the pool towards the half-elf, her robe whispering over the smooth stone as she walked. "And just how do you come to that conclusion?" she asked.

Sauren's jaw flexed and he clasped his hands behind him, his fingers subtly searching for the blades hidden in his jacket. He found little comfort at the touch of the cool steel. "If they had not brought me down here when they did, then I would not have been able to ensure the defence of the keep during the siege."

She scoffed. "You are very self-opinionated aren't you? Anyway, I heard your studies told you about the catacombs."

"To a degree, yes, but every castle, keep and fortress has its own specific design. I am not privy to the blueprints of this keep, Your Majesty." He paused, allowing his words to infiltrate her mind.  "Had Leola and Maya not brought me here, I doubt very strongly that defeat of the orcs would have occurred. They would have broken through with little resistance and it would have resulted in your body lying face down in that pool."

The Queen stopped a few feet from him and considered his rationale. "The King had already deployed soldiers down here though, Sauren. We had men in place."

"Yes, but almost all were killed, Your Majesty, as you well know. Without the help of the Crimson Blade and our mage allies, you would surely be dead and quite possibly the king too. Leola and Maya's insubordination inadvertently has kept you alive. Surely, your royal acumen knows this to be true."

She looked across at the two concubines, her eyes dark and searching. Finally, after a few minutes, she nodded to the guards and they re-sheathed their swords. "Release them," she ordered waving a dismissive hand at the two women. 

Sobs of relief echoed around the chamber and the women muttered their gratitude to the Queen swearing their undying fealty to her royal person. They avoided Sauren's eyes and scuttled away through another exit.

Inwardly, he sighed with relief that they were free although he was not entirely confident he could trust the Queen not to harm them still. He was not done yet, however; that card, he would play a little later. Now, he at least had the measure of Her Majesty. If indeed she was driven to want to take someone's life for something as trivial as bathing in a source of underground water she claimed as hers, then she was capable of other unhinged acts. She could potentially be a more dangerous ally than she would be an enemy. 

"Now that little ... incident has been explained away, let us get down to business," she said. 

Sauren looked about himself, wondering if she intended to continue their meeting in the cavern. That question was answered when one of the guards pulled another chair  out from behind an opening. From the same direction, a young servant girl appeared with a tray, its contents being wine, 2 goblets, some cheese and fruit. This was placed on a low table between the throne-like chair and the more modest one placed for himself.

Queen Lianne ushered him around the pool. He waited until she sat down before he took his seat. The young girl poured the wine, under the scrutiny of the Queen's intense stare. The girl's hands trembled ever so slightly, but she did not spill a drop. 

Sauren quietly observed, very aware that the lighting and jade luminescence of the chamber added menace of the Queen's poise. He assumed that was partly why she had chosen this location to hold their meeting. The young girl then curtsied and left with the guards following behind as the Queen dismissed them also.

A few moments passed. She seemed to be waiting for Sauren to do something. Her gaze lowered to her goblet and then back to his eyes. He smiled knowingly and lifted the goblet to his mouth. This was a test of his loyalty more than a suspicion that her wine was lethal. He let the liquid coat his lips and swallowed for all he had not taken a drink. He would drink from his own, confident that she would not want his corpse on her hands.

She waited a few minutes, watching him closely. Then she laughed. "I do like you, Sauren," she said, almost in a purr. "I like that you defended Leola and Maya and there is truth in your delivery. You have quite simply proven that your loyalty is genuine to both those you care for and..." She took a sip of wine. "Those whom you serve." She maintained eye-contact.

"You made good a promise to me, Your Majesty, I therefore return the compliment."

Again she laughed, but the sound was lighter, more carefree now. "Are you telling me that because your carnality was tended to under my instruction, that is what warrants me your loyalty?"

Sauren grinned. "I am just a horny young man, Your Majesty, what more can I say?" He took a draught of his wine, his eyes sparkling with mischief over the rim of his goblet. 

The Queen laughed again and pushed over the platter with cheese and fruit. He picked at some of the offerings and sat back leisurely in the chair. "So, what is it you require of me?" he ventured.

She picked up a few thin slices of apple and popped one in her mouth. "Just how much do you know about magic?"

The question surprised Sauren. Of all the things he expected the Queen to need him for, his knowledge of magic was not one of them. He considered his answer carefully. "Only that as a guild, the Crimson Blade works closely with magi. The ones who are part of our army, as it were, are exemplary magic-wielders. Agents of such power can be a considerable boon to the ranks. A rogue mage, however, could I dare say, tip the scales as indeed did the Guardian Medivh."

Her lips curved. "I knew you were learned."

"I am limited in the ways of sorcerers, Your Majesty."

"But you have struck up a friendship with one I believe. One who has quite an impressive reputation and yet it goes unrewarded."

Sauren shifted in his seat and took another sip of wine. He paused a moment, savouring the flavour before its potency waned in light of the Queen's questioning. "You speak of Dar'khan Drathir, I take it?"

"Indeed I do. I watched him during the grand opening of The Crimson Blade and even had the opportunity to speak with him a little."

"Then you will no doubt know as much about him as I do."

She laughed. "By your tone, I see you are not enamoured by him."

"Not particularly, no. He is arrogant."

"As are you."

The half-elf stiffened slightly. 

"Oh, come now, Sauren," she chuckled. "Arrogance is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it is founded through belief in one's own superlative abilities."

"I am aware of my own strengths certainly..."

"And I of your weaknesses," she said, her eyes flitting to the exit where the concubines had vanished earlier. She had just placed her bargaining chip on the table. He focused on keeping his feelings buried.

"So, what is it you want me to do?" His voice was measured.

"Simply what you are doing already. Engage in friendship with this intriguing magus, but take note of anything he discusses."

"Pertaining to what exactly?"

"Connections, people of influence." She stared at him. Daring him to ask more. He did not.

"As you wish, Your Majesty. Is that all?" He set his goblet down.

"For now, yes. We shall start with small steps, I think."

Sauren grunted then stood before her. He bowed. "Then with your permission, I will take my leave."

She smiled up at him and raised her hand. He kissed the large jewelled ring which adorned her middle finger. "We shall work well together, Sauren, I am sure."

He nodded, then stepped back and turned to leave the same way he came. After a few paces, he stopped and turned to face her again. He raised a finger to his bottom lip, pensive. "There is one more thing, Your Majesty, if you would kindly indulge me?"

She lifted her goblet, ready to sip. "Yes?"

"Leola and Maya truly do have your best interests at heart and more importantly, your safety..."

"Oh, please, Sauren, the subject is tired," she smirked and took a drink.

He quickly continued. "Your guards on the other hand I would say are a different matter."

Her eyes flashed in his direction. "What are you inferring?"

He slowly walked towards her, hands behind his back. "They failed you, Your Majesty. In fact, they have put your life in danger."

She guffawed, yet there was a slight unease in her posture. 

The half-elf continued leaning towards her. "You and I both know that I will not harm you, but nonetheless, I could have been a potential threat. You see..." He produced the slender rondel in one hand and the stiletto blade in the other. "They did not carry out their duty of ensuring I was unarmed before they brought me in front of you." He let the glint of steel reflect in her eyes as the light from the sconces bounced off the blades. Her breath caught in her throat. Then her eyes darkened as she faced the exit the guards had left by with the servant girl. 

Sauren stood straight and re-sheathed the daggers in their secreted scabbard. "With all due respect, I suggest you choose your protection with more care, Your Majesty. I bid you good day." With a low, courteous bow, he turned and left, a smug smirk toying at the corners of his mouth.

Chapter Text

     

 

SPRING - YEAR 599

"Sauren! It is time."

The tone in his father's words instantly made the half-elf desist from the mindless frivolity in his chambers. The young man had been enjoying some last minute freedom with his trusted 'henchmen' before he committed to the young woman who would become his bride. 

"I will be there in just a moment, father," he replied, slightly tight.

Sa'themar eyed his son and his friends, then with a grunt he turned and left the room. 

Sauren sighed, a mixture of irritation and disbelief at being spoken to as if he were still a child. His father had got wind of how he had spent the last few weeks and no doubt last night. Although the Guild Master did not openly voice his disapproval, he nonetheless made it known in his disparaging looks and unintelligible grunts. 

Of course, a fragment of the groom-to-be's agitation also stemmed from a degree of pre-marital nerves churning his stomach  (although he would never admit to that). Plus, he was a little worse for wear as he and his friends had been whoring the previous night. They had fondled their way through Odette's prime stock; a gift from the Madame for his last night of bachelorhood. Don and Reed chose to remain with their elite ladies of the night but Sauren had slipped away to spend it with his favourite fruits, Maya and Leola. 

He now had special access to the Keep, albeit still by a secret entrance. The Queen had deigned he could meet with the concubines in their chambers as long as he was discreet and maintained his side of the bargain to keep her informed on the ostentatious Dar'khan Drathir.

This he had done dutifully over the past three months occasionally writing to the young magus inquiring when next they might meet. He had penned that having given considerable thought to their earlier meetings, in particular, that of the grand opening for the Guild, he was now ready to discuss the 'vision' the young mage had spoken of.

Dar'khan's eagerness to comply turned out to be fortuitous indeed. The information Sauren surreptitiously gleaned from the vain mage bore some very interesting connotations, the measure of which he decided how much the Queen needed to know, and that which would benefit himself in later days. All in all, the 'arrangement' had proved fruitful for both parties.

But, for now, the big day had arrived - Sauren's wedding.  His father had declared the complex closed for business for the three-day event and as such the trainees had ventured home for the duration. Only those attending the wedding would be present and of those, many would be going home at the end of the evening.

"You have the ring?" Sauren asked Don.

"Yes." His friend proudly patted his inside pocket.

The half-elf nodded and shrugged on his jacket. He smiled as he looked at himself in the mirror. Mr Atherton how out-done himself. The suit was exquisite; cream trousers with an azure piping down the outer seams matching that of his long-tailed, beautifully cut jacket. The fabric was unlike anything Sauren had worn before. It was a type of satin the tailor told him, though he was reluctant to divulge its particular qualities or origin; he did like to keep certain things under his hat did Mr Atherton. 

The azure material had been tastefully embroidered around the collar and cuffs which also had three decorative silver buttons on each. A waistcoat of sage-green, fitted to perfection was finished off with a fine silver chain looped through one of the button holes and attached to the pocket-watch Sauren had purchased at the Mid-summer festival. It in itself was not an expensive item, but he had grown rather fond of it and it did go well with his wedding attire.

All three boys squeezed themselves into the reflection. Sauren grinned as Don and Reed took to cutting certain poses. Mr Atheron had outfitted them in the sage, their suits otherwise similar in style but not quite as exquisite as the grooms. "Remember, she is to throw the posy to me," Reed said with a grin, puffing out this chest.

"Oh? And who do you plan to marry?" Sauren asked.

Reed shrugged. "Spoiled for choice, although I rather like Esther."

"You cannot marry a whore! Besides Odette would be furious to lose one of her finest." Don guffawed.

"Those women have the same right as any other to a life of marital bliss and let's face it, with me it would nothing other but blissful."

The groom and best man laughed out loud to which Reed feigned offence.

"Come on, we better make our way downstairs, or my father, let alone Catherine will have a fit." Sauren moved towards the door.

"Not the bride then?" Reed teased him.

"No. She knows well enough I am worth waiting for," Sauren retorted with a wide grin.

"You really are an egotistical son-of-a-bitch, aren't you?"

"Yes. And I get better at it every day."

The three young men were in good fettle again, laughing and joking as they made their way to the small chapel. It had been decided when construction of the headquarters was underway, that no one faith would be granted the privilege of a house of prayer. With the guild open to more than one race, it was deemed appropriate that the room would serve all beliefs. It could also be used as a sanctuary for moments of quiet contemplation, which, considering the nature of a rogue's lifestyle was seen as a necessity more than a luxury.

The pews were filled and as Sauren and his two friends entered with ripples of laughter still falling from them, expectant faces turned in their direction. Their mirth left them rather abruptly and they moved silently to the front, Reed taking a seat while Don stood dutifully next to the groom. 

The half-elf quickly scanned the guests. The majority of the elites were present - a slight sting hit him when he noted the Firefurys were not amongst them. Nevertheless, there was a good attendance. He also saw some serving staff dotted around the perimeter of the room, peeking around some of the pillars. Heidy was one of them. He lingered long enough to award her a small smile. The corners of her mouth trembled before she quickly looked away.

On the bride's side, there were a number of guests too, some obviously family going by resemblance; others no doubt close friends, possibly neighbours or even customers of the Alstons.

Catherine looked at him, her face stern as always. He inclined his head just a fraction, and her severe lips gave way to a semblance of a smile. A tweak at the corner of his own mouth threatened as he found himself thinking perhaps Reed should give her a 'good seeing to', it may make her less rigid and more likely to stop her suspicious mind always cranking up every time she laid eyes on Sauren.

A diplomatic cough from his best man made him look towards the door. There, arm linked with her father's stood Piper. She was stunning. Smiling, he watched as a little flower girl walked a few steps ahead scattering petals on the floor offering a scented walkway for the bride.

Piper's gown of soft white satin, its skirts, long and flowing, whispered along the stone floor as she neared him. His smile, warm and appreciative, brought a slight flush to her cheeks as if she was seeing his adoration for the first time. 

Oscar steered her towards her beau and then went to stand beside the gargoyle that was his wife.

Sauren leaned towards Piper. "You are breath-taking," he whispered. The dimples in her cheeks were pronounced as she beamed a smile.

Placing her hand on his forearm they stepped before the priest who would be presiding over the ceremony.  Her fingers lightly gripped the fabric of his sleeve, her nerves starting to show. 

Silence fell over the room and the priest began. "We are gathered here today to witness the marriage of these two fine young people. The union between a man and woman is a blessed, sacred bond and should not be entered into lightly. I see many gathered here to celebrate this couple's exchange of vows, but should anyone object to this marriage then speak now or forever hold your piece."

Quietly confident though he was that no-one would oppose their union, his keen sense of hearing picked up stifled sobs from the rear of the room. He shifted a little uncertainly on his feet then inwardly sighed relief when the priest continued. 

It was not a long ceremony, both Piper and Sauren had asked that it be kept simple but eloquent so that the guests could then partake of the festivities and celebrate their marriage. As they left the chapel, guests then hurried along to offer their congratulations as the bride and groom entered the dining hall. 

Sauren shook hands and Piper offered a small bow of her head in appreciation to the well-wishers and their messages of good fortune. One guest, however, took Sauren completely by surprise but he forced himself not to show it. "Your Majesty." He bowed deep, Piper lowering to a curtsy in front of Queen Lianne.

The monarch smiled and waited for the young couple to rise. She looked at Piper, a look of mild indifference in her eyes before turning her attention back to the man of the hour. "You make a lovely couple," she said, one corner of her mouth betraying her amusement at his slightly pained expression.

The half-elf bolstered himself and stood tall and proud in front of the Queen. "Thank you, Your Majesty. Your presence is a great honour indeed. I did not imagine for one moment my wedding would take priority over your many stately affairs - no doubt all of which are dying to have your undivided attention."

Queen Lianne stared at him for a moment, her eyes narrowing just a fraction before her mouth split into a wide smile. She had become accustomed to his slightly procacious barter, in fact, it was something she particularly looked forward to at their meetings. "Well, I couldn't miss one of my most favourite subject's greatest mission to date, now could I?" From beneath her long lashes, she quickly glanced at Piper again then back at the groom.  

Sauren's eyebrows pinched. "Well, we are delighted that you have taken time out of your busy schedule to help celebrate our happy union. May I introduce my wife, Piper."

Queen Lianne inclined her head to the young woman as Piper curtsied once more. "Charmed," she said, "I have no doubt you will just be as happy together as I am with my husband."

Sauren's mouth tightened.

The Queen continued. "Oh, and if I may, I would like to introduce my two accompanying Ladies in Waiting..." From behind the royal personage, Maya and Leola stepped forward, both resplendent in gowns of the finest silk. 

The Queen liked to play games there was nothing new there. Still, at his wedding? For the time being it felt they were in a slightly crude check-mate. Suppressing a grin, Sauren bowed curtly. "You are most welcome," he responded. "I hope you have a very pleasurable evening."

"Thank you," Maya cooed. "We wish the same for you."

With that Sauren quickly progressed along the line of well-wishers.

"Highly unusual," Piper whispered.

"What is, my darling?" 

"The Queen! You did not mention she was invited. Furthermore, she is without her guards."

Sauren smirked. "Her guards are here, be rest assured. As for not letting you know, I thought it best not to say as I assumed wedding day nerves would have the better of you as it is." He tried a reassuring smile as he lied through his perfect teeth. "I did not want to risk you running from the altar and leave me looking like a fool."

A small gasp escaped her. She tugged at his arm. "I would do no such thing, Sauren Nightflame. And perhaps a little more faith in my ability to handle such esteemed company would not go amiss."

He looked at her and her eyes sparkled as her lips played a soft smile. "Duly noted, Mrs Nightflame."

As always the fayre was plentiful and musicians offered a delightful variety of music from beautiful ballads and folk-based tales to both sedate and vivacious dances. The gaiety of the evening even managed to get Oscar up to dance with Catherine, quite possibly encouraged by Mary and Brett who spun each other around the dance floor very impressively. 

Piper went to mingle with a group of guests; friends of hers from Darkshire. Sauren watched as she showed them her wedding band and they huddled and giggled together, as girls do.

He lifted his glass to his lips, surveying all in attendance as they too drank, danced and laughed together. He caught sight of his father talking with Queen Lianne. They were engaged, it seemed, in a most fascinating conversation.

Reed and Don, as ever, were sniffing around single girls, showering them in compliments and if lucky, being awarded a dance and a peck on the cheek.

He glanced down inside his glass, catching his reflection in the red glossy vintage. He looked almost happy, content. Strange considering there seemed to be an underlying torrent of emotions just waiting to surface  - and not all good. 

Yet, he could not deny he felt a semblence of joy, one which he had not felt before. His eyes looked back at his wife. Was she the reason? he wondered. Or was it more to do with the knowledge that the woman actually loved him, unlike any of the others who merely wanted to serve him. With luck, he would find some happiness with her and he would try to be a good husband; she at least deserved that. He pondered the Queen's words from earlier - her implication that his marriage would end up as emotionally stagnant as hers would be disconcerting to most, but he felt it held a horrible truth.

Piper was beautiful, attentive, compassionate and funny - she was all and more which most men would wish for in a wife. He was not 'most men' though; he had no delusions on that front. She simply wasn't enough for him. Whether he would find that 'missing' element of himself, he knew not, he just sensed he had not discovered the one who would make him feel - complete.  

"You seem inordinately pre-occupied with thoughts of self. Should you not be focusing on how your evening is going to end with that divine creature who has succumbed to your charms?" 

Lifting his eyes to look across the room, he saw his father now chatted with Mr Atheron and several of his elite. Sauren grinned knowingly as Queen Lianne stepped up beside him. "And just which divine creature do you refer to, Ma'am?"

Soft laughter fell from her lips. "Why, Sauren, I swear every time you open your mouth, I like you even more."

"I am unsure whether to be extremely flattered - or afraid by that remark." He retorted. They laughed softly together.

A  waiter approached with a tray of glasses. Sauren beckoned him over and placing his empty one on the tray picked up another two. The waiter offered a polite bow to the Queen before continuing his rounds of the guests. Sauren offered a glass to the Queen. She cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Do you require me to taste it for you, Ma'am?" he asked, a sly smile tugging the corner of his lips.

She accepted the glass with a grin. "I shall put my life in your hands, Sauren." She sipped.

A moment or two passed before he simply had to ask the obvious. "Why have you brought Maya and Leola?"

"Oh, you are very fond of them aren't you?" she smirked.

"They are delightful ladies, Ma'am. I have enjoyed my... education, shall we say. But, is it not a little inappropriate to have them attend my wedding?"

"As inappropriate, I dare say as you spending your last night of bachelorhood with them. You were all rather vocal, I hasten to add."

Sauren felt the heat rise from beneath his collar. "Oh! Forgive me."

"No need to apologise. But, do not be a hypocrite, it does not suit you."

He remained silent, chewing over her words for a few moments before reminding himself now was not the time. He turned his full attention to her. "So, if you do not object to my asking, what really brings you here?" 

"I don't suppose you would believe I simply needed a night of gaiety and joyfulness?"

"At a cut-throats' wedding?" He laughed lightly. "I think not, somehow. Your presence here is far removed from etiquette. Neither do I think you were even invited." He surveyed the guests and afforded a reassuring smile to Piper who was trying, albeit dismally, to disguise the fact she was keeping an eye on them.

The Queen's eyes narrowed. "I do enjoy our little secret assignations, Sauren, but sometimes you do border on impudence."

The half-elf did not even flinch. "Am I wrong though?"

She held his stare until eventually, she gave way to a grin. Raising her glass to her lips she muttered. "No, you are not." She drank. "I did, however, inform your father last week that I would attend."

Although Sauren had suspected this, to hear it had been deliberately kept quiet, irked him. He did not react other than take a generous gulp of wine. "I take it you were hoping to see Dar'khan?"

"Well, yes. I thought it seemed a most innocuous setting for meeting him again."

Sauren grinned for all his muscles tensed. "Well, Ma'am, I have to tell you I did not invite him either. I'm afraid you will be disappointed."

"Tut! What kind of friend are you?" She guffawed then sipped her wine.

A careful one, he answered inwardly.

"I took that liberty myself," Queen Lianne confessed, a small hiccup escaping from behind her gloved hand. Her eyes, however, betrayed any sign of inebriation; she would not allow herself to lose control.

Sauren fought very hard to stop his jaw clenching. This was his  day. And Piper's. Not the Queen's. Still, he had to remember he was but a pawn. It would not do to show such displeasure. And as if to make his inner conflict even harder, the swaggering, bombastic magus announced his presence.

With an elaborate bow to the manipulative monarch, he then turned a slightly salty look Sauren's way. "Congratulations are in order but, I was truly hurt not to receive your invite," he said, smug.

The half-elf was not without a response, however, and his 'outside' surveillance was about to hit two birds with one stone. "But, I have a sound reason for that. You see, I heard you were in Northrend for a number of weeks with your fellow magic practitioner, Kel'thuzad..." He watched the magus pale. "I, therefore, considered it pointless sending an invite to my wedding when you so obviously enjoy the company of said learned gentleman with his intriguing studies of magic."

Sauren noted the Queen's eyebrows creep towards her hairline and the ripple of annoyance behind Dar'khan's eyes. Sauren had enjoyed that and just could not resist one final little dig. "Her Majesty kindly wanted to give you the opportunity though and so invited you anyway. Your tardiness this evening, however, could be deigned as impolite." 

Dar'khan was silently raging but kept his annoyance at bay.  Sauren smiled. "Now, if you will excuse me, I must mingle with my other guests. Enjoy your evening." He bowed reverently to Queen Lianne, relishing the fact she now looked duly amused. He awarded a curt nod towards the magus before turning away.

He was quietly confident he had just manoeuvred himself out of check-mate.

Chapter Text

 

"I can't believe you need to come all this way for herbs, lass," the old trader commented as his passenger climbed down from the wagon.

The girl smiled as she raised her hands to take the large basket he handed down to her. "The herbs here are much fresher than those nearer the city, Woodrow," she offered as her reason for coming to such unstable territory.

The trader huffed. "Well, I still don't understand you insisting on going about here without an escort. It's madness if you ask me."

Again she smiled. "I am not asking you, Woodrow. I come from these parts originally so I know my way around."

Gathering the reins in his calloused hands, Woodrow readied to move out. He sighed heavily. Shaking his head he looked at the girl once more. "I'll be back again in a couple of hours, as normal."

"I shall meet you here then," she said, pulling her hood up and stepping back. Spring air here was a little cooler than in Capital City.

Woodrow clucked his tongue and flicked the reins. The two-horse wagon trundled away, its load of furs and hides along with some crafted goods bumping about under the secured cover.

She waited until Woodrow was out of sight before she started her journey towards the pass. Her visit this time was filled with conflicting emotions.

Initially, she had been helping a childhood friend get some information, nothing more. Even early on, she did question the morality of what she was doing. Her friend, after all, had become somewhat bitter, recently. Understandable, she guessed, considering the circumstances, but still, her behaviour unnerved her. The friendship was becoming strained. 

She wished they could return to the days when times were more innocent – at least for the two little girls they were back then. There had always been conflict between the peoples since she could remember, but somehow, two children managed to overlook their differences and become friends – albeit secretly. If either of their parents found out, she was sure they would be angry, to say the least.

She fought a sob. Her parents, of course, were no longer, she had been on her own, in a manner-of-speaking, for a few years.

The kindly priest, Cyrus Deighton, had found her amidst the ruins of her village following an attack by the troll war parties. Cyrus had taken her, along with the other parent-less youngsters, back to Capital City. There they were looked after at the orphanage. 

When asked how they had survived, she did not dare confess the truth. She could not tell them that she had escaped harm through a forbidden intervention. All she told the priest and the Matron was she took some of her friends to play a game in a cave to the east of her home. They had all been so carried away playing they had not realised how late it was. The screams from the village started at dusk and echoed throughout the night. Terrified, the children knew not to venture from the cave. Once dawn arrived, they returned to their village. 

The gratuitous scene of slaughter which greeted them should have shocked her to the core and made her hate her unusual acquaintance, but for some reason, it did not. Instead, she inwardly thanked her friend for having spared her life and that of the other children. And she knew she owed a debt.

Now, however, she questioned things. Not openly, for she was certain that would visit trouble upon herself and she was not a brave person, at least not by her accounts.

She kept her head low, collecting some goldthorn, sungrass and fadeleaf on the way. This was an unusually quiet stretch of road, only some foraging creatures weaved in and out of the tree line hunting some morsels on which to dine. Nonetheless, it unnerved her a little. Few humans came this far as the magic behind the border was much more potent than many were accustomed to.

The shimmer ahead depicted the giant elf-gate which separated the Blackened Woods from the rest of the land. This, she had been advised by her friend, was put in place by the invading high elves eons ago and it infuriated the trolls (whose land it was in the first place). The trolls knew not how to diffuse its power, but they were not without their own way through to Eastweald and other territories within the largely human and dwarf dominions. They had their own passages which wove through the hills, not forgetting their own sorcerers who could teleport in and out at will.

It was the latter method which would take her to her friend. A trusted accomplice materialised a few yards ahead. He did not speak, never did. She wondered if he actually could talk. She tried desperately to push other more sinister reasons for his silence to the back of her head. These thoughts had only arisen in recent months when she realised her friend had a certain agenda. 

The familiar routine began with a wave of his arms. Although he uttered incoherent sounds – more like grunts and hums, it was always a little unsettling for the girl. Magic was not something she understood, but she did find it intriguing. Even darker forms of conjury, such as the illusion the troll now cast upon her, fascinated her.

The tingle which flowed through her very being was strange, yet exciting. She closed her eyes as the magic took hold. She convinced herself that tusks sprouted from her gums, her fingers fused to form three digits instead of five and her hair was pulled taut in many thin, beaded braids. Her friend had explained it was only a visual deception, there was no actual physical change. But, still she 'felt' altered.

The troll's vocalisation ceased. Opening her eyes, the girl was met with his piercing stare. Slowly, he turned – her cue to follow.

The vibrations she felt next were from her transference to Zul'aman, the troll city in the Blackened Woods. Journeying through portals could be rather disorienting to the lesser experienced traveller, but she had done this enough times now to pass through without any side-effects.

As expected, she arrived in her friend's hut. The array of pots, bowls and urns were in their usual places. Each contained all sorts of items used by her friend in her mystical practices; a variety of seeds, coloured powders, small bones, feathers, beads – even teeth. She smiled at the one which held simple fruit.

She inhaled the kef-infused air. It was a little guilty pleasure in which she indulged and one she was definitely in need of on this occasion. She needed to relax. A small central fire crackled and burned keeping the hut warm and it made her a little confident that she would soon feel more at ease.  

"Welcome mi bredren," a voice spoke from behind a screen.

She jumped a little and looked to where the voice had come from. "Hello, Tulu," she replied.

Amid the click-clack of beads and necklaces, the hexxer moved out from behind the screen. As always, she was heavily adorned in tribal jewellery, macabre though some pieces were - to a human at least.

Eyes the colour of sunflowers greeted the girl with an unsettling intensity. "Wi nuh ave lang todeh, mi ave oddah mattas which need tended to. Di war gainst di elves ave priority – apparently," the troll said, a sneer rippling her lips.

"Has that not always been the case?" the girl said, timidly.

Tulu sashayed over. She lifted the girl's chin and stared at her. She detected a slight tremor and scoffed. "It intafeerin wid mi plans fi di Nightflame bowy."

Trying to conceal her dismay, the girl forced her voice steady. "What more is there?"

The yellow eyes burned, fury rising. "Him robbed mi of happiness, suh wi mi deny him!" 

The girl pulled away but remained silent. Tulu was wise what plagued her though. "Mi si tears inna yuh eyes. Ave yuh pretty bowy taken fi him bride den?" She was answered by a mere nod. Tulu laughed. "Foolish gyal, him tainted."

“He has not had it easy either, Tulu,” she answered, defensively.

Instantly, the girl regretted her utterance as her cheek felt the sting of a sharp slap. The rattle of beads and bones sounded close to her face as the troll gripped her by the arms and shook her. “Him nuh kno wah it is to struggle, to haffi fight to survive! Him chooses fi him own path - fi profit, an den carves one fi odders! Yuh yuhself tell mi him ave had a privileged lifestyle, him want fi nuttin. Ow den ave him nuh had it easy?”

“Please stop! You’re hurting me.” The girl wailed.

Tulu pushed her away and strode over to her table of powders and potions. She picked up three small vials, studying them closely. A noise outside her hut then had her quickly replacing them in their respective holders. She whirled round and came back to the girl, shoving her towards the screen. “Quick! Ova der!” she whispered.

“Tulu!”

The two women stopped in their tracks. Someone had entered the hut. The girl looked askance at Tulu. The troll’s rigid posture indicated this was an unexpected interruption. Nudging the girl forward a little more she told her to tidy things from behind the screen. The girl scurried behind the reed partition. Kirtles and skirts were scattered on the floor and draped over a stool. A myriad of necklaces and bracelets hung on individually carved notches of the hut wall.

Her attention, however, was drawn to the confrontation beyond the screen. She inched nearer, a split in the bindings allowing her a view of the man who had entered.

For all he was minus an eye and his left arm, she still knew who he was. Many years ago Tulu had pointed him out from a distance as the two girls hid behind one of the Loa statues. Apart from his deformities, there was no mistaking the commanding and fearsome leader of the troll nation. There seemed little that could be done to this individual to make him any less imposing. 

She shrank back a little as Zul’jin gestured to the screen with a jut of his chin. Tulu waved a dismissive hand and muttered something only her father heard. Creeping closer to the gap again, the girl watched and listened with interest to the exchange between father and daughter.

“Fada, waah da yuh require of me?” Tulu bowed before the Chieftain.

“Wah mek yuh nuh at di temple?” he asked, low.

“Mi making final preparations fi di rituals, fada,” Tulu replied, hovering back at her table of potions and powders.

The Chieftain wandered over beside her. “Mi kno yuh ave suffa, mi feel yuh grief, but yuh muss focus fi wi needs as a tribe, a nation.”

The rattle of adornments was the only hint that Tulu was offended. Her voice was kept hushed, but still, the girl could make out her response. “Mi haffi mek things right. Roshu's death cyaa guh unanswered fi.”

The girl’s eyes widened as she saw Zul’jin grab his daughter’s wrist and spin her to face him. Bearing down on her he warned her. “Nuh offend di Loa, Tulu, or yuh run di risk of dem wrath apan wi people!”

His daughter did not answer, but she held his gaze. Zul’jin released her arm and turned away. “Roshu be a proud warria, an him death waz tragic, but, it is a risk wi all tek wen wi at war.” He faced his daughter once more. “Yuh wi nuh pursue dis vendetta, Tulu. Da killa wi cum to a sticky end soon enuf. Dem aal wi.” Then in three deliberate strides, he exited the hut. 

The girl was unsure whether to emerge from the screen and waited until she was told to come out. She moved to the troll's side. Tulu was collecting the little vials again. She popped them into the small basket the girl had brought with her, hiding them in between the gathered herbs. “Put a few drops inna him bride's food or jink, eitha fos ting inna di mawnin or laas ting at night,” she instructed.

“What?” the girl gasped. “You want me to kill her?”

Tulu’s eyes softened a little and a small laugh escaped her. “It wi mek har sterile. Mi wi nuh tolerate dat monsta half-breed's issue being baan.”

The girl was horrified.

“Waat? Yuh wudda radda it kill her?”

“N-no! But…”

Tulu swept past her to the door and called the accomplice who had brought her little servant through the portal. She stepped back into the room.

The girl noted the look of hatred in Tulu’s eyes. At that point she knew without a doubt, the troll would defy her own father and continue her vengeful practices against Sauren. “Listen well, gyal. Him wi forget yuh soon enuff, yuh ave serve yuh purpose fi him carnal needs. Dat one wi find pleasure wen an weh him wan it, mek no mistake. Him wedding band wi nuh tap him wandering, suh tek comfort inna knowing it waas neva personal.”

The troll’s words stung. A grunt from behind informed her the transport back to Eastweald was ready. She nodded to Tulu and turned to leave.

Just before she stepped through the portal, Tulu issued one last warning. “An Heidy, forget nuh… mi kno powerful magic. Mi hold yuh life inna mi hands as well as yuh young Master's.”

The girl swallowed, then stepped over the magic threshold.