[Story] Story a Week 35 – Grey

The Gilnean countryside in winter was a study in grey, as if the driving rain and ceaseless winds had washed all trace of color away. But it seemed even more dreary than usual, as Marjolaine stood barefoot and shivering in the mud. How had she come to be here, in the middle of the bleak woods, her shoes gone and her hems torn? She couldn’t quite remember. Looking down, she saw her nails were dirty, traces of mud and blood beneath them. Had she fought with someone? Her body ached all over, with every step she could feel the complaining of her muscles. There were some bruises, she thought, but for the most part it was the ache of exertion rather than injury. Had they gone for a ride? She could not see any of the horses in the fields, though they could have gone to seek shelter from the freezing rain. She wanted to herself, but she could see no buildings closeby. If they were here, they had no lamps burning to light the way through the grey.

She had ridden the trails in the forest hundreds of times, so it should have been familiar to her, but there was a strangeness to the way everything looked. More than that, she could smell everything — not only the ordinary things like mud and the smell of rain on the plants, but the distant smell of smoke, and the smell of a deer. How did she know it was a deer? She wasn’t sure, but somehow she did. There was another smell too, something feral and musky — and there were several of them. It reminded her a bit of the stable after the horses had returned, but somehow more menacing. She didn’t smell any horses.

What had happened? She tried very hard to remember. Her head ached vaguely, but she didn’t think she had struck it. There had been a storm, she remembered that. She had gone around and secured all of the shutters of the house, and the stables as well. She remembered the icy wind tearing and rattling, howling around the corners and hollows. But there had to be something else. Where was everyone? All of the servants, the stablekeepers and cooks? All of the  other people in town? It was as if the dreary grey had yawned and swallowed all of them up.

Marjolaine followed the banks of the stream, knowing that it would lead to something eventually. Dirty snow, half-melted by the movement of the water, was piled along either side. The mid-morning sun shone weakly through the clouds, doing little to warm her. She thought she was near the mill, but she wasn’t certain. Would anyone be there? It was unlikely, but she had to hope. At the very least, she could get dry and perhaps find something to eat. Her stomach felt like a twisting void inside her, as if she hadn’t eaten for weeks. She knew she had, they’d eaten roasted quails right before the storm blew into town. Or had they? Was it possible that she’d been sleeping for days, like that story she used to listen to as a girl? She supposed it was.

A branch snapped, impossibly loud in the still forest. She turned to see a shaggy grey figure emerging from behind the trees, followed by others. Two, or three — so four of them in all. That wild, musky smell surrounded them and their eyes burned like embers in their long faces. But she wasn’t afraid. They had come to find her. She knew, all at once, that she was one of them.

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[Story] A Story a Week 13

[[ Prompt: A story that takes place entirely inside a vehicle.]]

“Best hurry, Lady Danforth,” said the doorman, opening the carriage door. “It’s raining something fierce.”

Large drops pattered heavily onto her woolen travel cloak, and the heavy clouds promised much more to come. A little rain never bothered Marjolaine, though it’s true she would rather not ride all the way out to the countryside soaking wet. She settled onto the plush velvet cushion as the footman tied her trunks outside. There were only two small ones, along with her small bag; she wouldn’t need any fancy gowns or shoes back at the farm. The footman gave the ropes a final tug and he came around to close the carriage door. “Travel safe,” he said, with a tip of his hat. “Hope that storm doesn’t catch you.”

Marjolaine heard the snap of the whip and the horses’ hooves scuffling on the gravel as the carriage began to move. She took off her shoes and got more comfortable on the seat; the countryside was a long ride from here, even in good weather. Her husband had called for the carriage, though she hadn’t expected it to arrive quite so late at night. He and the other gentlemen had lost track of the hour during their card game, as they often did, and she’d finally had to go and remind him. She hadn’t been back to see her parents since the wedding. How much had it changed? Or more importantly, how much had she changed? It was a fancy carriage at least, with real glass windows, which she appreciated especially given the foul weather. Gusts of wind pushed against it now and then, the rain lashing the roof in sheets. Marjolaine was glad she wasn’t the one driving tonight.

The gentle rocking of the wheels and the steady patter of rain made her drowsy, and she dozed off for a time beneath the warm blankets and furs. When she woke and checked her watch, it was well past one o’clock, which meant she still had some distance to go. It was too dark to read within the carriage, so she watched out the windows into the darkened forest. But were they near a town? Marjolaine saw dim lights in the distance. There weren’t any villages along the road, but perhaps there were houses back in the woods? It was possible. But she still thought it strange that their lamps would be burning so late into the night. They weren’t the warm golden glow of a lamp, either, but a cool bluish white, like the moon on cold nights. The storm had not relented, and rain seemed to pour down upon the carriage roof as if from a barrel. She could not hear the thunder over the din, but she saw lightning flicker on the horizon every now and then, illuminating the dark forest for only a moment. She hoped they would not need to stop due to the storm; there were no inns along the route, either. Sleeping in the carriage all night did not sound very appealing, nor did she wish to be out in these woods alone. Stories of bandits and worse, wild animals, were common. Marjolaine dismissed these as spooky tales meant to frighten children, but now that she was out here, she did not wish to test whether or not this was true.

Perhaps the horses and driver sensed it too, because the carriage kept a quick pace over the muddy roads, and Marjolaine worried that it might be dangerous to drive so fast in such poor conditions. She did not wish one of the horses to slip, or the carriage to tip over around a sharp curve in the road. She leaned forward and rapped on the front panel. “Driver? Driver!” She waited several long moments, but he did not open the panel. Likely he couldn’t hear her above the noise of the carriage and the storm. Marjolaine knocked again, more insistently this time, but he still did not hear her, it seemed. She settled back into her cushion, looking out the windows again. Surely he knew the route well, and would not push his horses into danger — or at least this is what she told herself for reassurance. Even above the din of the storm she could hear their hooves pounding the ground. Tree branches reached ominously out of the darkness like black spindly fingers, scratching the sides of the carriage as it rushed past. Shouldn’t they be close to the village by now? At the very least, the crossroads. At such a pace, they should arrive a bit ahead of schedule, yet Marjolaine saw nothing familiar outside. A fearful thought occurred to her; had the driver taken the wrong road in the darkness? If they had already passed through the crossroads, it was possible. But she knew from the map in Lord Danforth’s study that there were villages along the other roads; they would have come across one of them by now. Someplace she could stop and sleep for the night and get dry, have a little something to eat, perhaps a hot bath. It sounded nice, but at the same time so far away.

Where were they, then? She looked out into the darkness again, and as if in answer, the horses increased their pace yet again. The carriage jostled and bounced over the road, and Marjolaine feared they would certainly crash. It seemed that the horses now ran in a blind panic, how else could they keep such a pace? “Driver!” She shouted, pounding on the panel with her fist now. “Slow down!” The road curved, and the carriage leaned into it. Marjolaine had to scramble to keep from sliding along the bench. She pried open the front panel. Maybe he just couldn’t hear her. “Driver–”

The driver’s perch was empty. At first, she thought she just could not see him in the darkness, but a flash of lightning revealed the truth — he was gone. Panic rose in her, had he fallen off somewhere back on the road? How long had the driver been missing? How did the horses know where to go? She knew how to drive, she’d driven the farm horses around in their old wagon since she was a small girl. But there was no way to get up into the seat without climbing out the door, and that was impossible at the pace the horses now kept. They must tire soon, she assured herself, and she could guide them then. Or maybe she could pull herself up, it wasn’t very far but it would be difficult in the best conditions, nearly impossible in the dark and rain, with the horses at a full gallop. The last thing she needed was to end up stranded on the road as well, without any of her things in the middle of the dark woods. Still, she convinced herself to look. Marjolaine leaned as far as she could against the door, but she could not see to the front. She would have to open the door and lean out. The wind pushed back against it and the rain felt like a waterfall rushing against her. There weren’t any hand-holds that she could see. The carriage jolted suddenly to one side, and Marjolaine gave a little cry of surprise. Thankfully she did not fall, but she pulled the door closed after her quickly. Had they hit a rock? Probably–

The carriage rocked again, now the other direction. It felt like something large had hit the side of it, but she could not think what it could possibly be. And again, this time it seemed that the wheels teetered an instant off the ground before deciding whether to fall again. They would tip over, especially if it happened as they rounded a curve. The road was never this bumpy, what could be causing the carriage to rock so violently? Marjolaine pressed close to the glass, looking down at the road. There was something there. Something large and dark, darker even than the surrounding woods, and it was hairy. Her hands shaking, Marjolaine fumbled for her travel bag. It had fallen off the bench in the commotion, but she found it now. She’d thought her husband absurd when he insisted that she bring along one of his pistols, but now she was grateful for it. Had he known? She didn’t have time to consider that now. She prayed the powder was still dry enough, it had been inside the entire trip so it should be. She dropped one of the lead balls into the barrel and readied the shot. She couldn’t fire through the door. At best, it would make a hole and ruin a fancy carriage door, at worst it would simply bounce back at her. She would have to open the door again, and fire with the other hand. Marjolaine was not sure her aim was so good, but she’d fired pistols before. Just never in a moving carriage in the dark. But the thing — the animal, whatever it was, was only feet away. It had to be keeping pace with the horses, she realized in horror. What animal could run as fast as a horse at full gallop?

Holding her breath, Marjolaine inched open the carriage door. She could see the thing there still, hear its panting breath as it ran. She pulled the trigger, and smoke poured into the carriage. She heard the thing outside cry out — she’d hit it! But it was still there. A moment later, the carriage rocked again as it hurled its body against the side. Too far, Marjolaine realized, but it was already too late. She heard the loud snap of the wooden tongue as it broke, and the horses fled into the night without her. The carriage lay on its side in the mud, the wheels still spinning. The beast closed in.

 

[Story] Thorns – Arrival

Josie and Pup are here. They both seem to be taking everything in stride, better than I had in fact. It took me a few days to find my bearings and make sense of everything. Pup took off to explore immediately — I wasn’t too concerned because I knew he’d be within the walls of the outpost. There are enough workers here that they’ll keep an eye on him, and I warned them that he’d be coming. I have no doubt he’ll be following them around and watching, the way he does with the elf. It’s my hope that he’ll find something practical to hold his interest, perhaps even help out a little. He’s certainly old enough. I asked Josie to bring his lesson books, but realistically I don’t see him getting much work done. Though at least we will be able to read together in the common room.

Josie was matter-of-fact about it all. She was hungry, no doubt from the ride to the outpost, but otherwise seemed unruffled by having traveled to a different time and place. She was concerned about getting able to get back, a fear that I admitted that I share. But the mages assured everyone that returning would be a simple matter, and they’re all known in the city so their reputations would be at stake if it were all some sort of scam. I made sure to write their names down, just in case. But people arrive every day, surely they wouldn’t if it wasn’t safe. I showed her my shirt, I think she probably just said she liked it to spare my feelings. It is comfortable though, and warm. It’s not as cold here as it is in the city this time of year, but there’s a sort of perpetual twilight which means the sun never really reaches its full height in the sky. I told her she ought to get a red one. It’s a goal to get her one before we leave.

We spoke about that, too. As much as I like it here, I don’t know what we’d do in the long term. There is work, but it’s physical for the most part — building, cutting trees, hunting and the like. I am sure that someday down the line there might be a proper town with proper shops, but that is dependent upon a lot of things. I told Josie about the forests, dark and shadowed, with plenty of space to run. Yes, there are orcs, but their outposts are large and easily avoided. There are little ponds hidden behind hills and among the tree roots, the water shining bright with moonlight. It’s a good place to run, and no one can see us.

But she’s right. I can’t ask them all to uproot and move here, simply so that I can play at being a wolf. We have responsibilities back home and I must think of the others. There’s no school here, no cathedral and no clock shop. Josie and I decided that we’ll just have a little vacation here, a nice break from everything. When the elves come back from the Plaguelands, we’ll come back too. Except they might not return at all. Josie was concerned about that too, which surprised me a little. For as much as she and the elf lock horns, she seemed genuinely worried that he might not return. I trust that they know what they are doing — Alinash in particular should have some knowledge of that area, having lived near there. They’ve been away before, sometimes for ludicrously dangerous jobs that I only find out about long after. It’s always been fine before. But what if it’s not? What if they just decide not to come back? I don’t have an answer for that. I tell Josie that we can write to the Argent outpost there, if need be, but I know that isn’t a real solution. But I’m not going out there to look for them, either. Hopefully finding this book is a simple matter and they’ll return soon.

But not too soon.

[Story] Thorns – A Letter Home

[[ A letter sent to the watch and clock shop in Old Town, addressed simply “Elf”. ]]

I’m still getting my bearings here. Unfortunately, the map that you gave me is completely useless, nothing at all is the same. I later learned that’s because this is actually a different version of Outland, further in the past. That seems like the sort of thing the mage making the portal should have warned me about, you know? I don’t know what will happen when I come back, whether I’ll be older or younger, or what will happen. The place I’m staying is an outpost in the forest, and it’s surprisingly busy. Seems other people had the same idea that I had. Most of the other towns in the area are built and populated by draenei. It’s not bad, really, it’s just a lot different than what I’m used to. They’re friendly, if wary — which is understandable — but I feel so much like an outsider among them. I guess that’s probably how you felt when you came to Stormwind.

Speaking of which, there was an elf at the inn last night while I ate supper. There were a lot of other people too, including a troll and a cursed Gilnean simply walking around in his wolf shape. No one seemed to mind, however. I guess that kind of thing is less shocking out here, but I still thought it in poor taste. I spoke to this elf for a while, she asked if I was looking for work (I guess it’s that obvious), and mentioned a bounty for information about some shamans or elemental lords. To be frank, I hadn’t the first clue what she was talking about. I always considered myself fairly worldly, but I haven’t the first idea where to even begin finding that out. I guess that’s why there’s a bounty. If you are able to find anything out, I can look into it. I know you’re good at that.

I’m told there is a mining operation here, I’ll go by tomorrow and see if I can get a sample of the ore they’re digging. I don’t know if it’s suitable for working with, but it must be if they’re bothering to mine it. The elf told me that there is a great demand for supplies here as well, since everything must be either scavenged or traded with the local draenei villages. Some can be ported via mages, though this is very exhausting for them and they cannot maintain the portal very long. So that’s a fruit that demands to be picked. If only we knew some mages! I wonder if there’s a way to make them able to cast spells longer.

Many of the people here have heavy shirts woven with stripes in both directions, I’m told they are quite warm but they look absurd. That almost makes me want one, however. I should ask about buying one. I could get one for you as well, maybe a blue one. That elf told me she was three hundred years old. Are you that old? I can’t imagine living for that long.

Tell Josie that I miss her, and I’ll do my best to be back for Winter’s Veil, but I cannot be sure how long I will stay here. I may well find more work, there is much of it — real, honest work outside. I admit that a part of me misses that. And I haven’t any idea how time works, whether I’ll return to the same time as you or not. I haven’t been able to get a straight answer from anyone yet. Tell Pup to keep at his lessons. His gift is hidden in the big trunk underneath the bed, though he’s probably already gone in and peeked at it. Make sure that Alinash is safe and getting his food. You and Josie had best be getting along, you need her to look pretty and take orders from customers, because Light knows you can’t.

I think that’s all for now.

Be safe,
Marjolaine

 

[Story] Thorns

[[ I need a new header for the Marjolaine/Harrier/Josie/Alinash crew, this will do for now! ]]

Cold settles into the nooks and corners of the city, and I realize it’s been another year that we have lived here. It’s home in the sense that it feels familiar, that I know the streets and the smells and which parts to avoid at which times. But it’s never really been home, and it saddens me to realize that it probably never will be, not after all this time. Still, things aren’t bad right now. The watch shop continues to do well — this is the busiest time of the year and the elf is up all hours making custom orders and clocks for the shop window. He still makes his clockwork animals, though less often. The last one was a little hawk, for Pup.

For all my maternal feelings, wanting to watch over the others, I realize it is nothing like truly being a mother. They are grown, whereas Pup is an actual child — and a teenaged one, at that. I simply don’t know what to do with him, and he knows it. Most days he won’t rise until late in the morning, and that’s only after I’ve gone down to wake him several times. I suspect that he’s making trouble — the dangerous kind — but the elf assures me that’s not the case. I thought I’ve smelled blood more than once however, but I expect the guards would have come asking around if it was anything serious. I was never meant to be a mother, and I’m rather terrible at it. I guess it’s better I found out before I was stuck with one of my own. The elf on the other hand, in spite of his relatively young age, seems a natural. He’s actually coaxed Pup into reading books simply by reading them himself, and Pup gets curious and asks about it. I can’t say I approve of all of his lessons — Pup is already a very skilled lockpick, and can cross the rooftops just as quickly as the elf can. I’d hoped for something more for him than we are, a real education where he could make a real living. But perhaps this is what he’d rather be, or maybe it’s in his blood.

Since the soldiers have returned from Orgrimmar, our other business has been slow. For a time immediately afterward, people were buying like crazy — sort of a collective sigh of relief, I suppose. Even Nash feels a bit safer now — not safe enough to go without his hat, but less on edge. He told me that everyone in Silvermoon was conscripted to fight, even the shopkeepers. I can’t imagine sending shopkeepers up against war machines. I bet there are a lot fewer shops in Silvermoon now. The elf said there’s some talk among the mages about a portal to Outland. I don’t know what he was doing around there, I didn’t ask. But he said it could be a good opportunity. I told him no way was he leaving the shop during the holidays again, he did that before and it was a nightmare. So, he said I should go, and I realize that was probably his plan all along. Except it seems pretty dangerous, doesn’t it? I don’t even like using the regular portals, let alone one to Draenor. What if only half of me goes through, would I be stuck like that forever? There are probably mages to “fix” things like that, but it’d be awfully embarrassing. And uncomfortable. I told the elf I’d look into it. As much as I don’t like the idea, I don’t really see any other alternatives, and if there is money to be made, we can’t afford to wait.

[Story] A Tangle of Brambles 107

There haven’t been any more flowers delivered to the shop. Josie pretends that she doesn’t notice, but I know she has. This is my fault somehow, my keeping her here. If not for me, she’d have followed Kal to Pandaria by now, be playing house in a little place by the river. Instead she’s still in Stormwind, the same old Stormwind. They’ve made repairs, replaced the stones on the towers that were torn down by the dragon’s claws, but the scorched crater of the park still remains. It’s a reminder of everything here that is broken. She’d never say it of course, but she doesn’t have to.

I know the elf isn’t helping, the way he bares his teeth at her whenever she passes, that’s if he bothers to acknowledge her at all. I don’t know quite what it is between them, but I’m tired of it. I’ve tried asking, but there’s little use, I get tired of talking in circles and his answering my questions with more questions. I know he doesn’t want her here, but I need her here. She’s the last of them, the only one of our ragged little pack who still remains. If I cling tightly enough, maybe she will stay too. And she’s always counted more than the others, if I am being honest with myself. She was the one I always wanted to keep safe, and now she is — but I don’t know whether she is happy.

I told her I was sorry that he hadn’t come back for her, and I meant that. He doesn’t raise my hackles the way Kor did, and I know he can give her something that I can’t. I want things to be good for her, even if it means she must be far away. But the wolf doesn’t want her to leave — the wolf imagines the warm spring nights after a sudden thunderstorm, the rain soaking our paws as we bound through the grass. She remembers the ethereal glow of the fireflies above the water, the whirring of crickets as the moon’s eye watches. She’ll think of that little cave halfway up the slope, hidden from the rain and wind and the night watchmens’ torches, where they can lie close together, their bodies pressed for comfort and warmth, black and copper. I don’t know if it’s what she truly wants, but I know it is what I want.

Pup has abandoned any pretense of studying, now that the days are warm and bright. At least the elf has given him tasks to keep him busy — rough shaping of gears and cutting pieces to length. These he performs with a focus and gravity that I only wish were in his schoolwork. Not everyone is meant to be a scholar, of course, but I do want him to at least be able to read and write. On top of everything else, it would be a further disadvantage if he cannot. The moon will be full in a few days’ time, and I wonder if I ought to go with him. Alone, he may get into trouble that I cannot get him out of. The farmers found the sheep last time, next time it may not be sheep.

As for the elf, he is as puzzling as he has always been. I told him of the news from southern Kalimdor, where he must be from and he must know people still. It isn’t his concern, he says, what they do in Kalimdor. It should be, because it could affect our business. Then let him worry about it, he says. Except he doesn’t seem worried. I may have left Gilneas, but I still think of it often, and were something to happen there I would do my best to make it back. Maybe it’s different with elves. After I went to bed, I heard him go to the desk and find a piece of paper. For a letter, I hope.

[Story] A Tangle of Brambles 105

One evening I came back to find the elf working in the shop, as if nothing had happened. As if he hadn’t been gone for more than a month. I’m not happy to admit that my first feeling was relief: I didn’t know how we could keep the shop open without him there. People will only wait so long for their orders. I’m sure we could have sold more over the winter holidays, if we’d had the stock to do so. Of course there’s another holiday now, there are wreaths of roses hung all around the city, over the doorways and on the lamp-posts. I do my best not to look at them as I walk past, but it’s hard to get his nickname out of my head.

I didn’t get any answers, not that I really expected to. Where did he go? “Away.” Why? “Because.” Only that one I do know the answer, at least part of it. And I thought maybe things would be okay again, but Kaldor was in Stormwind last night and stirred up that hornet’s nest all over again. The last thing I need right now is more trouble. Pup’s enough, I’m not a mother, I don’t know how to deal with him. Maybe it’s normal for a boy, I haven’t the first clue. But he has the curse on top of it, and that’s more than any mother should have to deal with. When he’s a wolf, he reacts as one and will back down in the face of a superior. That’s really the only thing keeping everything from falling apart, but I have the feeling that it won’t last forever. Soon he’ll challenge the wolf too, and I don’t want to have to fight him. He’s not as big as me, but he’s growing. And he’s angry and desperate, something I’m not any longer. He still won’t do his schoolwork; some nights I go into his room to find all of the pencils snapped out of spite. I can only hope the elf’s presence will keep his energy focused elsewhere. The elf, I suspect, was once an angry boy himself and will know what to say.

I haven’t seen the other elf, but that’s for the better. The city seems to have forgotten its rage for the time being, caught up in the business of everyday life, but I still wouldn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. The nights are still cold, but the days should be warmer soon. He must have a warm place to sleep, as he hasn’t taken up the offer to stay in the house yet. I wonder if he knows anything about taking care of boys.

Harrier wouldn’t tell me very much of what Kaldor said — I’m certain it’s his least favorite subject — but he said he’s here in Stormwind for a few days. That surprised me, given his half-blood I would think he’d steer far clear of both Horde and Alliance cities. He’ll be checking on his “business”, Harrier said. The business that resides in our house, no doubt. Josie didn’t mention it to me, and I won’t ask. Given the situation between the three of them, I do  my best to tread carefully and avoid the traps. Of course I want her to stay, but I want her to be happy to. I don’t know if I’m doing a very good job of that.