[Story] Strangers

Whoever Risarra was tracking wasn’t being very stealthy about it.  She’d overheard the reports the past few days, of someone new in the woods to the north.  No, they weren’t orcs — that much was obvious. There were no heavy tracks, no slashed trees or burned places, there had been no attacks on Astranaar nor war cries in the still of night. In fact, the orcs seemed to have pulled out of Ashenvale altogether, and while some believed they were merely regrouping for another assault, Risarra allowed herself to believe they might finally be gone for good.

The men — Nimrathis and Bear — had returned to their camps, though the patrols still came by to check on them. That wasn’t true, it was mostly herself and Zhyra that did so, in spite of the knowledge that neither man really wanted them there. After the festival she had hoped Bear might have changed his mind, but it didn’t seem that way. Once they’d returned to their camps, the men proved as elusive as ever. She knew that Zhyra had gone to see Nimrathis once or twice, to observe his strange “practice” as he called it, when he fought with shadows. Once she’d tried to explain it, but it hadn’t made much sense. Risarra doubted it had made much more when Nimrathis said it in the first place.

The ridge that Risarra followed now wasn’t far from Nimrathis’s cave, and she thought briefly of stopping by to see him, but she could see no signs of him there now. Maybe he was sleeping, and it was never a good idea to stir sleeping creatures. Whoever had stayed here hadn’t made any great effort to conceal themselves. Dangerous, Risarra thought, frowning to herself. If the orcs were here, they’d have made a target of them quickly. She placed her fingers on a tree, feeling the claw-marks gouged there. The wound in the bark was fresh, still seeping fragrant sap. They were the size and correct height to be from a bear, had they passed this way? Bear’s camp was far to the south, beyond the lake, but perhaps his animals had wandered further.

“Is someone here?” Risarra whispered, her ears perked for any reply.

From beneath the brush, she heard what sounded like a growl — but there was something wrong about it, a gurgling and unhealthy sound. Clutching her glaive, Risarra ventured closer. She crouched to peer into the tangled vines, when a hand on her shoulder startled her.

“Wait–” said the stranger, his eyes wide. Risarra regarded him warily; she’d never seen this man before, and she hadn’t heard him approach. But he looked more frightened of her, and quickly took a step backward, toward the brush. “Don’t hurt him!”

Risarra heard someone else approaching, the winter twigs and dead leaves crunching beneath his heavy boots. He looked very similar to the man in front of her, though older. Risarra guessed that they were related — probably a father and son. He regarded Risarra curiously, then looked toward whatever was hidden in the thicket.

“I’m from Astranaar,” Risarra explained, because someone ought to start. “Our patrols saw you out here. It’s not safe.” This wasn’t totally true; no orcs had been sighted in months. But Risarra didn’t think these two were very accustomed to hiding their tracks, and they would be safer in the town.

The older man removed his helmet — it was heavily armored, with crescent-shaped decorations on either side. Risarra had never seen armor like that. He noticed that he had the same pale-blue hair color as the younger man, too. “Are you good with animals?” he asked her quietly.

“I’ve tried,” the son explained, gesturing toward the thicket. “Nothing seems to work.”

She didn’t have very much experience with animals at all; Magnolia had been her only companion and she had died defending Risarra. But she was curious to see what lay hidden in there. Burrowed under the tangles and thorns lay a bear, but something had happened to it. Open wounds lay open on its sides and flanks, and a foamy substance clung to its jaws. The animal’s eyes were clouded and distant, and she was unsure if it was able to see at all. Worst of all, it had the scent of death about it, of something rotting and long forgotten. Risarra didn’t see how it could be alive at all, yet it seemed to be. She could see its torn sides rising and falling with each labored breath, and now and then its feet twitched.

Risarra didn’t see what could be done for the poor thing. It would be kinder to end its misery. But the younger man regarded her with such a hopeful look that she decided she should at least try, even if nothing came of it. “I think we’ve a druid back in town,” she told him. “I’ll go and fetch him and see what he says.”



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