Chapter 16: The Path to Reality’s End
Rhoelyn headed back toward their camp at a run, her bare feet silent in the grass and her sleeping gown, moist with morning dew, gripping her ankles with each stride. She was no athlete like her beloved brother, always slower and less agile, but she was forest-born and kal’dorei and far more fleet than most of their blood-elven guard.
It was a speed that she used, not to escape but to cut off the half-dozen guards who surged around the tents in an ever-widening arc, heading inevitably too close to where they might stand a chance of discovering the escapees’ trail. The priestess needed to distract them and mislead them, so she rushed to the north in a wide circle, hurrying up another hillock and down the far side to where a field of tall, odd, green-and-pink plants grew in profusion. They nearly obscured her entirely in the deep shadows as the sky was just starting to pinken, allowing her to approach close to the camp before the first frantic guard spotted her.
Into the resulting chaos, Rhoelyn strode with a calm and apologetic smile, a hastily-plucked bloom in her hands. The one who reached her first was friendly Orin, and his face reflected a confused mix of relief and fear when he gripped her wrist.
“Consort! Where did you go? Are you hurt? Where are the others? You must-”
“Do not fear, Orin. We shall sort this out, only be a little patient and let me speak with your commander,” Rhoelyn soothed as she offered him the flower. The young man took the bloom automatically, barely noticing it so fixed was his attention on the night elf. Instead, he gulped and tugged her toward the camp as the others gathered around them, not entirely ungently, but with a banked desperation that she knew was related to the rest of their missing charges and the trail that she hoped and prayed was growing colder and colder by the moment.
Orin couldn’t resist peppering the lovely night elf with questions as they crossed the tall grass, but she simply patted his arm and repeated, “Do not fear.”
The non-response earned her a worried frown, the washed-out blonde of the guard’s thick brows furrowing deeply. He glanced over at one of the others, a ruddy-haired woman who was usually stern and serious; Galandrie looked merely grim, at the moment.
“Consort,” Orin scolded, “I don’t think you understand. It’s vital that we find them. If you’ve… i-if you’ve helped them escape our protection, they could be in danger. As could you…”
Speaking softly, the night elf nodded and lifted her free hand to touch the collar at her neck. “I know what your prince’s law says, cousin. But I know, too, that we still have room for discourse before drastic choices are made.”
The guard, his face lined with tension, mumbled, “Light, I hope so.” Striding beside and a little behind him, her wrist caught in his grip, Rhoelyn quietly shared the thought behind her mask of peaceful calm, her heart thundering in her ears.
Before long, they stood before the stiff commander assigned to her guard, Blood Knight Rannick Starbreaker’s wizened face stoic as he looked her over from unbound silver hair to bare violet toes. The empty tent she’d been sleeping in just a few short hours ago stood beside them, its scarlet pennant, adorned with the Duskfall house crest, dancing in a gentle breeze at its point.
“Yer not helping me by being close-lipped,” Relare’s loyal soldier grouched, shoving a hand through his cropped, brown hair. Age had graced him with a matched pair of white-silver patches at his temples, and Rhoelyn had always been rather fond of the look for him. “You know the last thing I want to do is see you hurt, consort, but the law on this don’t leave much room for interpretation.”
The healer nodded slowly, intoning, “I believe you, sir knight, but I wish my family to stay free. I will not deny my complicity in their departure, but neither will I tell you anything that you might use to find them.” Her silver-blue eyes, soft with a gentle, unyielding determination, stayed fixed on him as she added, “I know you understand my feelings, Rannick, just as I know you are torn by your duty. Allow me to offer you a solution to the problem you perceive.”
The older blood elf, himself a father and grandfather both, blinked at her, his scraggly brown brows going up. He opened his mouth and then closed it again, flicking a glance to the trio of guards flanking the night elf, all that remained after he’d set the last few back to searching.
“Orin,” he barked, “I want you to take Joelena and Calistor with you and look for signs of their trail to the south, where she approached from, while I speak with the Lady consort. You make sure that you don’t harm Master Leothir’s slaves if you find them. And don’t scare that little boy.”
“Yes, sir!” The young soldier saluted sharply and turned to rush off, the other two looking rather relieved to be trailing in his wake rather than having to stay with Rannick and Rhoelyn.
When they stood alone, the soldier gestured a calloused hand to the tent and inclined his head. “Let’s get ya dressed and comfortable, Miss Rhoelyn, and then ya can explain to me just how we’re going to avoid nastiness, here.”
“That would be welcome,” she responded with a little nod, lifting the cream-colored flap and stepping into the opening. The night elf paused there and glanced back at her companion. Her guardian. Her captor. She managed a slight smile and a bow of her head. “Thank you, cousin.”
Wincing, the blood elf shooed her on and said, “Don’t thank me, yet, Rhoelyn. I’ll catch ‘em if I can. Ya know I have to.”
“I know. In many ways, you are as much a victim of this cruel system as I,” she said softly, watching him with a discerning gaze. “I hope you find no sign of my family, Blood Knight Starbreaker. Then you will have no further need to make hard choices, today.”
Rannick could offer her no response save a sad little smile and a sigh as she let the oiled fabric flap fall closed between them. He turned his back to the tent and folded his arms, cursing under his breath while he settled in to wait.
By the time the sun had cleared the horizon, the beautiful priestess found herself seated in one of the folding camp chairs, quietly graceful in her gown of navy blue and white accented with violet and gold. Her long locks were tucked into a pair of entwined braids at the nape of her neck and secured by a pin of gold with a spray of freshwater pearls that splashed like dew across a wrought feather and culminated in the largest one that dangled on a short chain link against her silver hair. She kept her hands clasped in her lap and her legs demurely crossed, the soft folds of the dress and her matching navy and gold cloak draping around her like silken water that sought to lap at her serene form. The dusky swan resting at the heart of a deep-sky pond.
Rannick Starbreaker had long since abandoned his chair to pace, and his hair had gone wild with the number of times he’d run his hands through it in stressed agitation. He wore the Duskfall armor in scarlet and ivory and black, the family crest emblazoned over his heart and the white pinions of a hawkstrider lining the bottom of his short cloak. The formal garb never suited him – “overly fussy” as he liked to grouse – but he’d dressed expecting to reach the war camp as an honor guard by midday. Now, the plan was knocked astray, and his gauntlets and plumed helm rested on the rug by the tent flap.
“Wait, so let me get this straight. Ya forged the entire thing?”
Rhoelyn shook her head, no pride in her expression but also no shame. “Not all, knight lieutenant. Only the part that requested my family accompany me to the Swelltide camp. Leothir and Relare do expect our party; they simply do not expect Faeroh and Ryni and Alensyr to be a part of it as I lead Master Baritold to believe.”
The old soldier grimaced, turning at the end of another step, his fel-emerald eyes clinging to her expression as if he could calm himself by borrowing hers. Of course, he didn’t know how thin it was, the calm she wore like a shroud. In truth, fear ran cold in the young woman’s veins, part of her dreading the shout, any moment, of a sign of her people found, or the moment when he decided he had to obey Prince Kael’thas’ edict. Her heart quavered with the knowledge of the law’s merciless punishment for aiding kal’dorei slaves to escape. The one that no one wanted to even name.
Still, nothing got beyond the mask of her placid eyes and the relentless peace in her demeanor, and it served them both well. Rannick forced himself as still as she was, resting his hands on his hips and taking a moment to breathe. When he closed his eyes, the little night elf worried at her fingernail subtly, giving him time to think. He needed to come to his own conclusion, now.
“You’re saying that we have time before anyone knows anything is amiss. Anyone save my own people, here.” The soldier speared her with his attention. He didn’t need the night elf’s nod, but she gave it anyway, her silver-blue eyes fixed patiently on him. “And ya think by the time they know, you can convince Master Leothir to just… just let them go? To decline to punish you? Miss Rhoelyn, even if I can convince the rest of the guard, here, to keep quiet… I’m not sure ya realize how much that man loves the little boy. He’s gonna be heartbroken. He’s gonna be furious.”
Rhoelyn’s brows furrowed, but her nod was immediate. Of course, it was something she had already considered long before she put the plan into place, long before she discovered how it would all come together. “I know, Rannick. He will hurt when he learns what I have done. If he learns that Alensyr is gone.”
“If?” the blood elf asked, blinking.
“I cannot explain well, but… I feel that there is more to this story than we know, that circumstances will save us all from the uglier parts of our own.” His charge ducked her head, sheepish uncertainty cracking her mask of serenity for the first time as her cheeks darkened in a self-conscious blush. “Elune guides us somewhere unexpected, knight. We have only to get past this last hurdle before I feel new possibilities will open before us.”
When Rannick only stared at her, his scruffy brows high, she blushed darker and muttered, “I suppose you think that sounds like heathen nonsense.”
The old soldier sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face, his shoulders rounding for a moment before he straightened them once more.
“Unfortunately, priestess, I’ve seen a thing or three in my years of fighting. There are all kinds of mysteries in this world, and this isn’t even the strangest I’ve heard of. It sounds right up your moon goddess’ alley, actually, and my gut…” Though he hesitated and made a sour face, the honest man was forced to admit, “My gut says you’re right. And Light knows, I don’t want ta have ya hurt. Master Leo would never forgive me, law or no.”
Her companion fell still and silent for a long breath, after that, his emerald gaze sliding to the sliver of sunlight beaming through the gap in the tent flap. When he finally moved, again, Rhoelyn watched him raise his square jaw, feeling her spirits raise with it. The brief, curt nod he gave her was a weight lifted off her shoulders.
“Fine. I’ll talk to my people and convince them to keep the secret. On one condition.”
Smiling gently, the lovely healer nodded. “Name it.”
Rannick stared at her, sober and intense, as he said, “You can promise me they’re going to be safe out there? Faeroh seems like a strong druid, but this is a dangerous land we’re in. Yer family isn’t safe running around on Draenor alone.”
The deep breath Rhoelyn took before she answered him was full of a complex mixture of relief and regret, but her lips lifted in a brighter smile as she slid from her seat and claimed his hand between her own.
“Elune as my witness, I promise you… they are safe and in good company. My beloved family is not alone and is in no danger. But I am grateful that my guard has a commander with such a luminous heart and soul as to worry about that above all else. Rannick Starbreaker, you are a good man.”
His cheeks flushing a bright pink, the wizened commander ducked his head for a moment in the face of his charge’s praise. “Yeah, well. I… I wouldn’t want to see that little boy hurt. He’s too much like my granddaughter, the mite.”
The priestess smiled tenderly and patted his hands before she released them and stepped back, brushing an imaginary wrinkle from her gown before she folded her hands together by her gold-link belt. “I should like the opportunity to meet her, some day. She must be a joy.”
“O’course she is,” Rannick answered her with a matching smile, nodding proudly before he remembered himself and schooled his expression a bit more. Still, the warmth remained in his eyes as he saluted her formally with his hand over his heart.
“Very well. We have an understanding, then. Now that we’ve settled things, I’d like to move, soon, consort. We’re behind schedule.”
Her answer was a simple nod. “I am at your disposal, knight lieutenant.”
The blood elf nodded and leaned down to collect his gauntlets and helm. Once his hands were covered and his headpiece tucked under his arm, he turned back to her, the appropriate coolness in his demeanor once more.
“If you’ll wait here, I need to say a few words to the rest of the guard. I’ll have Orin bring you some refreshment, soon.” His eyes twinkled with a banked, dry wit as he commented, “It’s been a busy morning, and I’m guessing ya skipped your breakfast.”
Her smile amused, the little healer nodded. “That would be welcome. Thank you.”
Moving with her typical grace, the night elf slid back into her chair and started to arrange her skirts around her legs. “I will wait for your word. I believe I am looking forward to continuing our journey, now. How luxurious, to have the carriage to myself!”
Rannick barked a short laugh, his lips twisting up. “Oh, now won’t ya just be spoiled rotten. Saucy wench.”
The giggle that followed him from the tent left them both feeling much lighter at the end of their conversation than at the beginning, and the commander strode into the orange-blue morning confident that he could convince his soldiers to help ensure it stayed that way.
A few hours later, near midmorning, the large and ornate carriage slowed from its steady gait, the rumble of the wheels over the dirt changing pitch and cadence. Rhoelyn lifted her eyes from the page in her lap, her quill stilling as she leaned forward and swept aside the ivory silk curtain that draped the window, the fabric cool against the back of her fingers.
She barely noticed, her fascinated gaze sweeping over the war camp it revealed. Far from the regimented array of tents and equipment she expected, the place was a collection of crates and loaded wagons awash in chaos, soldiers in Alliance blue and gold hurrying here and there, stacking things high or securing them with lengths of rope and chain, shouting back and forth to coordinate their massive effort. Her brow furrowed in confusion while she felt the conveyance lurch to a stop, her eyes following a dwarven lass with fiery braids as she rushed by with an armful of scrolls.
What was happening? It was a question she repeated in respectful tones to Orin as he opened the carriage door and unfolded the stairs.
“Oh, the camp is preparing to move, consort,” he answered, handing her down. He turned his fair face in profile to her while he watched the bustle. “Commander Duskfall has prepared a forward location, gaining ground on Karabor Temple.”
The night elf considered that as she straightened beside him and followed his gaze, a cleric’s perception drinking in all the little details about the men and women rushing around. What she saw only furrowed her brow further. “But they are upset. Something is wrong, Orin. Do they not wish to move forward?”
Her escort winced, glancing back at her. “Ah… no, miss. It’s not that.”
When he said nothing more, she turned her thoughtful attention to him, instead, raising her brows. “Am I not permitted to know?”
Orin cringed, his shoulders raising defensively along his ears. His reclaimed hand rose to scratch as his cheek. “Um… well, it… I…”
Another voice interrupted, deeper and more sure, saving him from the need to explain. “No, Rhoelyn. It’s not that you’re not allowed to know so much as that I think our young blood knight is afraid you’ll dislike what you hear.”
Rhoelyn gasped and turned to beam at the gleaming figure that approached, his cropped, ruddy hair perfectly in place and his ivory and gold armor shining. The blood elf matched her smile with his own, taking the hand she offered him and using it to tug her close for a hug.
“I heard your carriage had arrived, so I came to greet you.”
“Relare,” she exclaimed, holding him tightly. “I have missed you, brother. And I have worried for you.” The healer pulled away after a moment, her luminous gaze drifting up and down his form in an assessment he knew all too well. What she saw broadened her smile. “Thank Elune you are well.”
Try though she might, she couldn’t help her attention flicking over his shoulder, looking for a familiar, beloved face. Relare lifted her knuckles to his lips with a little chuckle, bowing over her dusky hand. His emerald eyes landed on Orin for a brief moment, and they shared an amused look.
“He’s not here, I’m afraid. He’s already gone to the forward camp.”
His perception earned him a blush, her cheeks darkening as she dragged her attention back to the paladin. “O-oh. Of course. It isn’t that I-… that is, I was o-only…”
Relare laughed while she stammered, flustered. “Leo is well, Rhoelyn, and very, very anxious to see you. Once Aron settled the idea in his head, he took to it like a mana wyrm with a node, and he’s been practically counting the minutes until you arrive. He’s excited to introduce you to our new friends, as well. I think he’s found quite a kindred spirit in this R-”
A raucous clatter from somewhere deeper in the camp interrupted him, and the commander winced as a plume of disturbed dust drifted up from behind the wagons.
“Excuse me,” he bit out with a grimace, his attention already swinging away. “I need to see to that. It’s chaos right now, but if you can just wait here for a while, we’ll be moving within the hour.”
“Of course, Relare. I will stay with the carriage.” The night elf bowed her head, her luminous blue-silver gaze dropping to the dirt and back to his chiseled face respectfully. Still, she missed nothing, and her calling as a healer prompted her to add, “I hope that you can rest, soon, and eat. You are tired, brother.”
Leothir’s younger sibling smiled and cupped her elbow, leaning forward to press a quick kiss against her cheek. “I’m fine, Rhoelyn, but thank you for your concern. You look very lovely in those colors, by the way. Leo will be stunned.”
“Oh.” The priestess blushed to the tips of her ears as he released her, stepping back. She couldn’t do anything but lower her head shyly and reach down to smooth her skirt in self-conscious pleasure. “You… you are too kind, Relare.”
The commander chuckled at her reaction, his glance flicking to the soldier waiting patiently over her shoulder. “Blood knight Skyclimber, please stay with the lady. I asked Rannick and the others to contribute to the effort to get the camp move underway, since we’re… ah… finding ourselves shorthanded.”
His answer was a respectful nod and a wordless salute from the youngster, which he answered with a mumbled, “Excuse me.”
Rhoelyn watched her love’s brother turn and stride away, calling for his knight-lieutenant. Silence fell in his wake, and her gaze flitted to her guard.
“There are no kal’dorei,” she announced, all the pieces suddenly, belatedly falling into place. “That is why the camp is short-handed and why everyone is upset.”
Orin lowered his gaze and nodded, his pert nose wrinkling. “Yes, miss Rhoelyn.” His voice fell much quieter when he leaned closer and muttered, “Your family weren’t the only slaves to escape, last night. Only one remained behind. You… When I heard the news, I thought you might have known. Didn’t they go… um…?”
The healer reached for him, patting his arm. “They did. And in retrospect, I did know, but… I suppose I had not realized what the impact was or what it would look like, here.”
“… you should know that the commander has sent people after them. Good people. His very best. Miss Rhoelyn, they… they could still be recovered.” The kind young man, influenced more by Relare and Rannick than by others, ducked his head uncomfortably. “Returned to… ah… safety, you know.”
“I know,” Rhoelyn answered quietly, her gaze going distractedly to the aqua sky’s long horizon. “But Elune will not grant them success in this, I think.”
The blood elf beside her sighed and rubbed his cheek. “Ah…”
“Come, we do not need to discuss what might be, cousin,” the priestess offered with a merciful look, pulling her cowl up over her hair. “If you will fetch some seed and the plumage comb, I should like to give our faithful steeds some attention. They have worked hard, today, and they should be rewarded.”
Orin smiled with relief and bowed. “Of course, miss. I’ll get them for you.”
Alone for the moment, Rhoelyn went quietly thoughtful as she wandered on slippered feet to where the hawkstriders stood, harnessed and patient, their frilled heads moving in darting, short jerks as they looked around. She smiled gently, reaching up and smoothing the feathers on the nearest.
“Hello, Nifaroi, you ridiculous, spindly chicken,” the night elf muttered, amused to use her brother’s favorite description for Relare’s beloved flock. She fell quiet again when Orin quickly returned, Nifa nuzzling against her touch.
“Some birdseed, miss. And if you don’t mind, I’ll take the plumage comb over to Gaolis. He’s got some nasty-looking burr stuck in his frill.”
Rhoelyn smiled and accepted the small sack of seed, tying it on her belt while she answered, “Certainly, Orin. I will see what I can do to spoil our mounts while you tend to the poor boy.”
“Sure.” Her guard chuckled as he walked away, leaving her alone with her bird.
“Nifa, we have traveled far, these past days,” Rhoelyn muttered quietly, feeling an odd mix of anxiety and anticipation wash over her as she smoothed a few uneven feathers. It gave her pause, the rush of an awareness that was both familiar and all-too-new, and her hand stilled against the avian’s warm neck. Nifaroi trilled a little objection, squirming in her search for more affection, but the priestess barely noticed, her brow furrowing.
“Much is different…” she continued softly, sifting her thoughts and her odd emotions. “And I cannot help but feel… that there is yet more to discover. One last surprise that awaits us.” Sucking in a deep breath, the night elf ran her fingers along his beak, and she sighed before her lips twisted up in a little grin. “Well, me. I think you will not care one whit for what comes next, you silly bird. Whatever it is.”
Rhoelyn shook her head and dug a hand into the pouch at her waist, pulling out a palm full of birdseed and holding it high for the tall creature to peck at. Nifa was one of the more gentle of the hawkstriders, so her sharp beak barely tickled the priestess’ skin as she ate. With a deep, calming breath, the woman closed her eyes and went still, letting her focus collapse down to the press of a hard, questing beak against her hand and the measured cadence of her breath. It helped to calm the sudden turmoil that assailed her… that is, until a pleasant giggle intruded into their tiny pool of silence.
“I’ll try not to,” came a woman’s voice, her Common familiarly rounded with the slightest hint of a Darnassian accent. “That’d be embarrassing.”
The voice that answered was higher and doughy with the country Lordeaeron sound – or something like it. Rhoelyn could practically hear the grin in the words. “Don’ worry none. Ah’d catch ya if ya did. An’ ah promise not ta laugh.”
The healer grinned to herself, watching Nifa make quick work of the dwindling treat in her cupped palm, and idly listening to the conversation behind her.
“Thanks, Ry. Is that carriage for Lady Emeria?”
“Naw,” the second person said with a laugh.
Rhoelyn blinked, realizing that the voices were approaching steadily and bracing herself for the encounter. She couldn’t help but lift her free hand to rest it against her slave collar, worried, before she forced herself to smile a friendly smile and turn.
“Ishnu alah,” the night elf began, dusting the seed from her hand before she lifted it to her head to lower her navy and gold cowl politely. When her attention settled properly on her guests, she gasped, feeling her awareness crystallize and freeze for a heartbeat. “…s… sister.”
The human faded into the background while Rhoelyn stared at the night elf beside her, a woman with lithe muscles, an open and honest face tattooed with leaves, and long hair the color of grass after a thunderstorm, vibrant and verdant. The elf wore a collar of leather and fur, a slave – the last slave, clearly – clad in a similarly rustic kilt and a leather shirt that was better described as a harness, revealing more than it covered. She was a stranger, and yet… and yet… the priestess suddenly felt tears press at the backs of her eyes while she resisted the irrational urge to rush over and wrap her arms around the other night elf. Long-lost. Much-missed. Sister, in this case, was a word that echoed through her heart far more deeply than her usual address for a brethren of the kal’dorei.
Perhaps, from the wide-eyed, stunned stare the other woman gave her back, the feeling went both directions. Maybe this wa-
A gurgling, groaning growl from the depths of the stranger’s stomach interrupted the priestess’ thoughts, startling her, and the other elf blushed darkly. Rhoelyn grinned and pressed her fingers over her lips to keep from laughing. Joy bubbled from somewhere deep in her heart, making it extra hard not to further embarrass the woman.
Instead, she kept her calm and said, “Oh! Have they not given you breakfast?”
“N-no, I m-missed breakfast, and I’ve b-been on rations. I’m so s-sorry,” the stranger groaned and covered her face, a vision of mortification that was nothing short of adorable. Lovable. Unfamiliar and yet not. Rhoelyn struggled quietly with the incongruous feelings, reminded suddenly of those first days when Leothir’s touch was alarming and comforting at once.
The shorter human at the night elf’s side laughed, re-inserting herself into the consort’s attention. “Nysse is always hungry.”
Nysse. Yes, it was another piece of something right. Rhoelyn stepped forward and claimed her sister’s hands gently, tasting the name on her own tongue.
“Nysse, is it?” It was so natural. A name she might have said a thousand times. Nysse. Sister. They linked together, one and the same. The healer hid her odd thoughts and merely continued as she tugged toward the carriage door, “That is easily enough rectified.”
With an amused grin, the young, brown-haired human urged her protesting friend along. “Ah’ll leave ya t’it.”
“N-no, I couldn’t. I c-can wait- I’m dirty.”
Waving away Nysse’s protests, Rhoelyn grinned to herself while she dragged the woman into the safety of her carriage. Something was falling into place, the end of the circle meeting the beginning once more. Something was right with this calloused hand in her own, even if that hand trembled from hunger and from reaction. And as the healer settled her companion across from her on the plush seats of her carriage and reached for the basket of food under her seat, that something buoyed her spirits and brightened her smile.
Nysse could make things right, she knew suddenly, and it would start with an apple and a few short words:
“What’s your name?”
To Be Concluded in … TwitRP Vol.5: Warlords (Chapter 16)