About halfway through. The story is turning out to be not quite as short as I'd hoped
I'll update as I can. They'll be slow though.
Hope it's enjoyable - comments and constructive criticism welcome. I've proof read, so hope that I haven't let too many errors slip through.
The soft light of dawn streamed through the open window, illuminating one side of the room, leaving the other shrouded in dim twilight. The figure lying prone on the broad bed stirred as the golden rays touched her features, nudging her gently towards wakefulness. With a wistful sigh, she pushed away the coverlet - still warm and snug from the heat of her body - and raised her arms in a long, languorous stretch, wincing slightly as her joints creaked and popped.
She turned to the other form, still slumbering peacefully beside her, soft snores punctuating the early morning hush. Keralai smiled to herself.
A herd of Elekk could come stomping through here; trumpeting noisily and I doubt Veliir's eyelids would so much as flicker.
Taking matters into her own hands, she laid close to Veliir, an arm draped across his broad, powerful chest as she rubbed her back-swept horns against his shoulder, sweeping aside his long, indigo hair.
First the carrot....
"Love," she murmured softly, her lips brushing his ear as she spoke, "It's dawn - and you need to be on the marshalling yard in an hour."
Her ministrations elicited a sleepy rumble of protest from her drowsy spouse.
"S 'not," he complained, his voice fuzzy with sleep and sounding strangely childlike and petulant despite its deep baritone, "Can't be dawn already."
Keralai suppressed a grin. It never ceased to amuse her that a fully grown, highly trained and disciplined Paladin could still be such a child when it came to something as simple as rousing himself in the morning. It was rather endearing, really.
... And then the stick.
She poked him, much less gently than her previous caresses.
"Up, you overgrown baby! Up, up! I don't want to deal with your sulking if you get another dressing down for lateness!"
She punctuated her words with more pokes. Veliir sat up, scowling darkly at her, the coverlets falling away from his heavily muscled torso. Keralai allowed herself a moment to enjoy the sight of her husband in his current state of undress before rising from the bed. She stood, one hand on her ample hip as she wagged a finger at him fiercely.
"If you've fallen back to sleep when I come back in here, I... I shan't be responsible for my actions!" she stated, one hoof stomping into the heavy pile of the carpeted floor in mock indignation.
Veliir's languid gaze travelled from the tips of her hooves to the points of her horns and back again as she scolded him, then a grin suddenly brightened his angular features. He was out of bed and standing over her in an eye blink, his speed and agility belied by his large frame. He caught her around her slim waist, pulling her in close to his chest, smiling down at her fondly.
"And what exactly are you going to do about it, woman?" he rumbled, arching a brow.
She wriggled in protest, attempting to cross her arms beneath her breasts, hampered by the powerful arms that enclosed her. She glared back at him in response, her expression severe, but the light of mischief that danced in her eyes gave the lie to her apparent irritation.
"My ways are subtle and devious, husband. You'll regret manhandling me in such an undignified manner."
"Mm hmm. I can show you some really undignified manhandling, if you wish, wife."
A throaty chuckle slipped past Keralai's lips and a flutter of excitement bloomed in the pit of her stomach at her husband's words. She suppressed both, regretfully.
"Vel... tempting as you are, I don't think partaking in your, ah, conjugal rights is considered to be a valid reason to give your superiors when you arrive tardy and dishevelled for muster."
Veliir sighed, deep and heartfelt. "There are times when duty is such a bloody inconvenience."
Keralai squinted critically at the sparkling, multifaceted stone she held firmly between her deft fingers, scanning for any flaws in the gem itself, or for any flaws in her workmanship - unlikely though she was to find anything wrong with the latter. Afternoon sunlight filtered through the vibrant red gem, which refracted the light in a dazzling display. It was - of course - flawless.
She carefully set the stone back onto the worktable in front of her. The table itself was meticulously organized, everything in its place and a place for everything. She beckoned over the apprentice, who, up until that moment had been standing against the wall. He hesitated half a moment before joining her at the work table, nervously shifting his weight from hoof to hoof.
She picked up the gem she had been scrutinising so carefully mere moments before. Then she plucked another dazzling ruby from the table and placed them in the young apprentice's slightly sweaty hands.
“Tell me what differences you see between these two samples,” she said, her expression and tone very carefully neutral.
The apprentice's eyes flicked to Keralai's face, desperately seeking some kind of small hint as to what she wanted him to observe. He was disappointed. He licked his dry lips, trying to tamp down his apprehension, and carefully analysed the two jewels whilst trying to bring to mind all the points that Keralai had drilled into him time and time again. Cut. Clarity. Colour. They were the three key points to determining the quality of the stone, and the craftsman who cut it. His discomfiture faded into the background as he lost himself in the exacting perusal of the beautiful objects in his hands.
After two long minutes, his raised his eyes from his analysis and was almost startled to see Keralai still standing there, her scrutiny of him every bit as keen and meticulous as the attention he had been paying the stones.
She raised an eyebrow in wordless query.
He cleared his throat.
“As far as I can tell, these two samples are as alike as it is possible for two stones to be. The cut is identical, they are both equally fine, excellent quality natural resources, some very, very slight deviation in colour – unsurprising. But that's the only difference I could see, and an extremely minor one at that.”
Keralai was silent for several moments, head cocked slightly to one side as she considered her reply. The palms of her young apprentice broke out in a cold sweat once again.
Her face broke into a broad grin and she clapped him on the shoulder.
“Excellent deduction, Hasil. You'll be even more pleased to know that particular stone,” she pointed to his left hand, “was cut and shaped by none other than myself. And that wonderful specimen,” she pointed to his right hand this time, “is your own work, exactly as you presented it to me earlier this week. You have a strong grasp of jewelcrafting theory and its practical applications. You should be proud of yourself.”
Hasil preened a little at her effusive praise. Keralai could be a harsh task master – she was noted for her somewhat acerbic tongue and she did not often give praise – the advantage to that was when she did bestow acclamation on one of her apprentices or journeymen, they knew it was acclaim well earned and deserved.
“You're ready to move on. I expect to see your plans and proposal for your journeyman piece in three days. Once we have an idea of what you're planning to craft, we can review time scales and cost. Now, take the rest of the afternoon for yourself – a reward for a job well done.”
Hasil's eyes lit up. It really was his lucky day! He nodded gratefully and scurried out before his teacher had a chance to change her mind.
Keralai watched Hasil's rapidly retreating back and once she was alone in her workshop she finally let the laughter that had been building in her belly to bubble past her lips. Her grin faded to a small, satisfied smile. There was something deeply gratifying about teaching her craft. She thoroughly enjoyed cultivating the burgeoning skills of her apprentices, pruning a clumsy technique here, encouraging a glimpse of artistry there, until their abilities flowered under her watchful care.
She turned to the work table and began to clear away the implements of her trade, placing each tool carefully in its place – she insisted on strict organisation of any work station, and any apprentice unable to abide by her stringent standards did not remain an apprentice of hers for long. Her fastidiousness was not without purpose. Her craft demanded that an artisan often had to work with dangerous apparatus – searing hot forges, wickedly sharp cutting tools and the like. An organised workplace meant that accidents were kept to a bare minimum.
Her task completed, she glanced around the room and nodded, pleased to see everything as it should be and not an object out of place.
I believe I'll indulge in an early finish myself.
“... he was barely alive himself when he reached the city. He told as much as he could, then simply slipped into unconsciousness...”
Gisur's usually sonorous tones were hushed, subdued and dwindled into silence as Keralai entered the room. He glanced up at her arrival, the lines of concern and worry that furrowed his patrician features eased as he smiled warmly at her. He stood and held out his hands to her in greeting. Keralai gladly clasped her father's hands in her own. As always, she felt that irrational, childlike sense of security as his massive, calloused hands engulfed her slender ones. She balanced on tip-toe to set a kiss on his cheek.
Keralai was concerned to see that his eyes looked dull and sunken, as if he had experienced too many sleepless nights recently, and even the warm smile he wore for her could not completely smooth the care and worry from his face.
“You look tired, Father,” she said, her concern for him obvious in her unusually gentle tone.
He sighed deeply in response, shaking his head.
“My fatigue is the least of our worries little Kera. Come, sit. We're waiting for your brother and sister to arrive. The news I have for you is gravely troubling – I'd rather not repeat it, if I can avoid it.”
Keralai only nodded in response, moving to embrace her mother in greeting before taking her place beside her husband on the broad divan in her parent's elegant and spacious sitting room.
The door burst open and her brother fairly bounded inside, his usual exuberance in full display. He grasped their father in a hug, a younger, ebullient mirror to the somewhat taciturn, older male. The resemblance between them was startling, Haatimur had inherited their father's dark, almost purple skin, strong features and thick black hair. They stood almost exactly the same height and their powerful shoulders were nearly the same breadth, though the weight of centuries of command and responsibility had lent a slight stoop to her father's bearing. Keralai's sister, Relyna, trailed him into the room, a rueful smile upon her pretty face and her eyes rolled heavenward at the entrance of their brother. Keralai couldn't help but answer with a smile of her own.
Both Keralai and Relyna, favoured their mother in appearance, with skin of the same pale blue hue and silken, silvery-white tresses - as Relyna moved to sit beside Keralai, they truly looked like a matching pair.
Haati turned his ever present grin on his sisters, but before he could sweep them up in one of his rib-cracking hugs, the soft yet authoritative tones of their mother rang through the room.
“Sit, boy, before you wear me out with your enthusiasm,” she said, her gentle smile softening the words.
Haati bowed his head to her in submission – with more than a trace of mockery in the gesture - and sat beside his mother.
Gisur paced the middle of the room as his family watched him expectantly, becoming increasingly troubled at this display of distress from him. The patriarch of their family was usually self contained, reserved, his gestures carefully, constantly controlled.
He stopped abruptly and faced them, his feet braced as if expecting to ward off a blow, his face haunted and haggard.
“War is coming,” he said, simply, “And none of our people will escape unscathed.”
Keralai's breath escaped in a soft gasp and an icy lump of fear settled in the pit of her stomach. She unconsciously clenched and unclenched her fingers as Gisur grimly confirmed the rumours that had been flying around Shattrath, whispers in darkened corners, glimpses of the occasional gaunt and careworn refugee. The Orcs had turned on them. The blood of the Draenei was already on Orcish hands, but they would not be satisfied until it was a torrent, a river, a flood, until the land was awash in the blood of her people, her kin.
Keralai glanced at the faces of her family – her husband's grim, determined expression matched that of her father. Haati and Rely were obviously shocked, their faces aghast and dismayed. Only her mother's features were schooled to neutrality, giving nothing away.
Ah. So she knew.
Like Gisur, Jalena had risen to the top of her chosen field and was a respected Aldori anchorite, it made sense that she would already have been made aware of such desperate tidings – she would be expected to help guide the populace through these dark times.
“But why are they doing this?” Keralai asked, “We've always lived alongside one another peaceably enough. Granted we've never had a warm relationship with the Orcs, but it has been cordial at least – there has been trade, some mutual understanding. This makes no sense!”
Her father shrugged and the gesture said everything and nothing. He could explain it no more than she.
“We don't know. They have attacked some outlying towns and villages – we still don't know why – but one of our scouts reached the city this morning, more dead than alive but he could deliver this last message: The Orcs are gathering and have turned their eyes on Shattrath.”
“What will we do?” Relyna asked softly, her tone almost imploring.
Her father shook his head.
“We will save as many as we can. But the Orcs are barely two days march from the city. We're outnumbered and unprepared and their intent is to wipe us out. Every last male, female and youngling. Our only hope of survival is to convince them that they have succeeded, whilst as many of us as can be spared slip away from the city.”
He looked towards the window, his eyes distant.
“There are many families doing much as we are, this night,” he said, “sharing the news, making plans. Saying their goodbyes.”
“Their goodbyes?” Keralai asked, a sick sense of foreboding twisting her insides in knots.
Gisur's gaze suddenly locked to hers.
“Yes little one. Necessity and survival dictates that families will be split up. Some to remain behind, the rest to flee into hiding. Jalena and I have elected to stay with the defence. It is my place as an Exarch to lead our army to battle and your mother has already made it quite clear that she will not leave my side.”
His eyes blazed with sudden, terrible fury.
“We will take many of them to the grave with us, before we fall.”
Haatimur stood. He walked slowly to his father's side and placed a large, calloused hand upon his shoulder.
“I will stand with you father. And fall, if that is what fate decrees.” His usually jovial voice was sober. Gisur looked at his son, so much a reflection of himself, a wealth of emotions flickered through his eyes. Pride, that his son would so readily offer himself up to defend his kin. Love for the boy that he had raised, and warmth for the man he had become. But chiefly, grief, that his son was likely doomed to die for his noble actions.
Veliir, following Haatimur's lead, made to stand and show his support for his father-in-law and respected General. Gisur's lips split into a ghost of a smile and he held out a hand to stay him.
“No, son of my heart. I do not doubt your courage or your sword arm, but my daughters will need you to see them safely away.”
Veliir subsided, quietly taking Keralai's hand in his.
Keralai's head was bowed and she struggled to hold back her tears, not wanting to show her family the depths of her distress, knowing this was probably the last time they would be together. She wanted to savour it, to sear it into her memory. When she felt that she had her emotions under control, she raised her head, a brave smile curving her lips, determined to relish every last, precious moment with her loved ones, and to horde her memories of them close.
Keralai's awareness had receded to placing one hoof in front of the other, doing her utmost to remain within Veliir's hoof prints, forcing her weary body ever forward. The tracks they left behind them in the sodden ground quickly filled with water and she nursed the hope that the marsh would swallow up the signs of their passage.
As she numbly battled her exhaustion, Veliir forged ahead, picking a path through the Zangarmarsh, attempting to find reasonably solid ground and leading her around the gargantuan mushrooms that towered over their heads, shielding them from the worst of the sullen, steady rain. At first she had marvelled at the fungi looming so large over them, and the quality of light that filtered through the low hanging rain clouds which painted their surroundings from an ethereal, eerie palette. The novelty had long since worn off as the damp chill seemed to soak into her very bones. She realised how terribly sheltered she had been, barely venturing forth from Shattrath city itself, and this was the first time she had seen the neighbouring marsh up close, rather than at a distance from the city walls.
Refugees had been slipping from the city in small bands, heading out into the surrounding countryside. Theory held that smaller groups had a higher chance of remaining undetected by the bands of Orcs that roved the land ahead of the main mass of the horde, killing indiscriminately. Each group was accompanied by several paladins and soldiers as guardians and guides. All but the young children were armed. Their group had either been extremely unlucky or the theory was not as solid as it seemed. Keralai and Veliir had become separated from their group when a band of what she supposed were Orc scouts had descended on their party in an ambush as they had entered the forests of Terrokar In the ensuing melee, the Draenei fighters had desperately protected the children and non-combatants as best they could by launching into a frenzied counter-attack, pushing back their assailants with sheer ferocity. At the rear of the column, caught between the Orcs and the surrounding woodland, Veliir and Keralai had little choice but to slip into the forest and escape, circling around to come into the marsh - if any of the Orcs had turned on them, they would have been quickly cut down. Keralai could not help but worry over the fate of her sister, despite that she was an accomplished mage surrounded by experienced warriors. A stray arrow, a single savage Orc breaking through the press of battle was all it would have taken to end her.
That worry now faded into the background, along with everything else not immediately related to survival. Her grief for her parents and brother, her fears for her own future, the sheer fatigue that made every step feel like a trial, exacerbated by the sucking mud that gripped her hooves as if the ground itself was unwilling to relinquish her - all of it had been shunted aside as her mind narrowed
to following in the steps of her husband as they made their slow but steady way towards the distant peaks of the Blade's Edge mountains and - she fervently hoped - a modicum of safety.
So intent was she on the simple act of movement, that when Veliir stopped suddenly, she almost blundered straight into him. Noticing at the last moment, she contented herself with resting her weary head on his shoulder, relishing the moment's respite.
She could feel the tension thrumming through Veliir's body; it felt as if every one of his nerves were on edge. Fear coiled like a writhing serpent in her belly.
Veliir pointed back the way they had come, Keralai's eyes followed and she saw the vague shapes in the distance, barely visible through the mist which curled sinuously around the trunks of the mushrooms, four murk-shrouded shapes heading in their direction. There was no way to tell whether they were friend or foe, and they dared not dally to find out.
Veliir quietly fumed at the injustice of this latest blow to their hopes.
We're so close! We could be safely into the mountains by tomorrow afternoon. He looked again at the figures behind them. He did not know if they could stay ahead long enough, they were both bordering on exhaustion and would be unable to stop for rest without making their discovery a certainty. His eyes strayed to his wife and as his resolve to get her to safety hardened, his heart softened with sympathy. She was virtually wilting but doing her utmost to gamely keep up with his punishing pace.
Light, please. Do not take her from me.
Keralai exchanged a glance with her husband, and his grim expression confirmed her dread. The chances of their small group of followers being friendly were extremely slim. They had been amongst the last refugees to leave Shattrath.
"We go on," he murmured, "If we're lucky, they haven't actually seen us and we can reach the mountains unhindered - there will be scouts of our own kind there to support us, if it comes to confrontation."
Keralai lowered her eyes for a moment, attempting to smother the icy breath of terror that raised the hairs on the back of her neck at his mention of a confrontation. She did not want Veliir to read the fear in her eyes.
After a moment to compose her self, she raised her eyes to his and nodded wordlessly, her face set in purposeful lines. Veliir squeezed her shoulder, the only reassurance he could offer as he lead them deeper into the gloom.
Keralai fought down tears of frustration. The mountains seemed so tantalisingly close, but Veliir had already warned her that their apparent proximity was an illusion caused by their sheer size – they were still a good half day travel away.
Their pace had slowed to a weary trudge – they had travelled through the evening, and darkness had slowly enveloped them, making the footing ever more treacherous. To Veliir's relief, the cloud cover dissipated as the night had worn on and they cold at least find their way using the cold, distant light of the star-strewn sky to guide them.
Now the Eastern horizon blushed softly with the first hint of dawn and still they had not stopped for rest or respite.
Keralai cast a hesitant glance over her shoulder and nearly broke down and wept. They had not managed to lose their pursuers during the night and she could still make out the four figures that trailed them. They had drawn closer, and there was no mistaking the powerful, hulking shapes for anything but Orcs.
Veliir's head whipped around at the sound of her choked gasp, his reaction still surprisingly fast for his fatigued state.
He noted the Orcs behind them. They moved at a purposeful lope. There was no doubt in his mind that they had been sighted and this was a mere cat-and-mouse game to heighten the anticipation of closing with the quarry and slaughtering them. He glanced again at Keralai, read the fear in the taut lines around her eyes and the grim set of her mouth, though she did her best to hide it from him. He would need to make a stand and soon, before exhaustion sapped too much of his strength. At the very least, he prayed he could buy time for his wife to make a break for the mountains and - Light willing - injure the Orcs enough to prevent pursuit.
He started to scan the landscape as they kept up their dogged trudge, looking for favourable ground to make their stand. It would be difficult to persuade Keralai to flee, he was not sure he could manage to convince her to leave him to face the Orcs alone. But he must try.
Her skill with the small mace that rode at her hip was rudimentary at best. He did not doubt that she would fight with ferocity born of fear and desperation but she would be a distraction – Veliir would be worrying for her safety and seeking to protect her would leave him more vulnerable.
They started up an incline and Veliir realised this was the best spot he would be able to find on such short notice – it was not ideal, but he could keep his back to the line of giant mushrooms cresting the hill and the Orcs would be forced to fight uphill. Veliir already had the advantage of height and reach – he was willing to take whatever edge he could, no matter how small.
Keralai felt her husband's hand on her arm and halted, glancing around her wearily.
She looked up into Veliir's face and read his intention there. He confirmed her suspicion with stern finality.
“We make our stand here.”