((Approx. 100 years ago))
Kalenedral yawned as she nudged Nyte back towards the caravan. The start of the route was always the hardest, when leaving the comforts of a town for the rocky beds and dull trail rations of the road. Doesn't help when you stay up half the day, either, she thought, glancing at the guard commander. As if sensing her gaze, Tal looked back at her, and winked. Glancing around to make sure no one else was looking, he mimed a yawn at Kal, then grinned. Kal grinned back, shaking her head, as she approached.
"All clear to the road, sir." she reported. Tal nodded, and turned to signal the drivers to begin the journey.
The trade route between Astranaar and Feathermoon Stronghold was fairly easy most of the time, but it was long, the trail switching back and forth and detouring around mountainous regions most of the way. There were several places along the route where centaurs could attack, and a few points near where tauren tribes gathered, but enough guards usually deterred any attackers. The caravan was currently departing from Feathermoon, heading home to Astranaar, taking with it furs, ore, gems, and several old relics found in the ruins scattered across the mainland. It did pay very well, which mostly made up for the length and possible boredom of the trip.
Kal had dismounted briefly, to give Nyte a snack from the pouch on her saddle. When the drivers called out their readiness to start, she swung up onto his back and prepared to take her usual place, at the point. As she trotted her saber along the train of wagons, Tal watched her closely. She glanced back as she passed the leading wagon, and he caught her eye, giving her a slow wink. She flashed him a warm smile, and urged Nyte into a lope, as Tal called for the drivers to start.
- - - -
Talathian had joined the caravan route about a year after Kal. Within the next year, he was in charge of the guards. Calm, quiet, but forceful when necessary, he was a good commander, never asking any of his fighters to do anything that he was not willing to do himself. Kal wasn't sure exactly when she had fallen in love with him, but when the first tentative attempts at flirting began, she was quick to respond. The other guards found it amusing, and never said anything about the pairing to any of their superiors, at either end of the route. The drivers, of course, kept to themselves mostly, and hardly seemed to notice.
They were an unlikely pair, their personalities so different that some were surprised that they didn't drive each other crazy. Tal was quiet, level-headed, and didn't like drawing attention to himself unless it was necessary. Kal, on the other hand, was cocky, self-confidant, and could be hot-tempered at times. The two of them were practically inseperable, however, at least when they were on the road. Their differences seemed to balance each other, rather than cause problems. The level of respect they had for each other made sure there were no problems on the job, either. Kal had no trouble taking orders from her lover, and Tal always made sure she knew the reasons for those orders. All in all, it was as close to a perfect relationship that either of them could have asked for.
- - - -
The journey was looking to be completely uneventful, for the first couple days. The weather stayed reasonable, the road hadn't had any recent rockfalls or other obstructions. As they passed the border between Feralas and the land known as the Desolace, however, Kal began seeing some disturbing signs. At first she thought the hoofprints were just from random hunting parties, but over the next few days, she saw more and more of them, always in the same direction as the caravan route. Centaurs appeared to be stalking them. Or leading them, Kal couldn't tell which. And leading them could only mean one thing: a possible trap or ambush. As they neared the border of Stonetalon Mountains, she began spotting the tracks more often, and in even larger numbers.
"Tal," she called, reporting her from her latest scouting trip as camp was being set up for the day. "I found more hoofprints. Same as the last few times, fresh, leading our trail, and way too many of the urfes for a simple hunting party." She looked at him nervously as he watched the caravan, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"Alright, m'love, maybe this is something serious, but what can we do about it? We're going as fast as we can now. Any faster and the horses will start wearing out, then we will be in trouble." He shrugged in frustration. Kal rubbed a hand over her face, her own frustration matching his.
"I still think we could try pushing on through at least part of the day. Maybe start a bit later so everyone gets some extra rest first. It will be unexpected, and might throw these bloody centaurs off our track," she responded, with a slight grumbling tone. The helplessness and uncertainty of feeling like they were being hunted was finally beginning to wear on her nerves. Tal finally turned towards her, as the last tent went up, and the cooking fires were all lit. He carefully looked her over, noticing the faint signs of stress she was starting to show. He stepped closer, putting his arms around her waist and pulling her body close against his own.
"I know, and it just might work, but I would like to see you convince all these people to change their habits. You know how set in their ways most of them are. Night has always been the time we are strongest, and it just seems to make the most sense for them if we are moving then. Please, just try to stop worrying about it? Just for a little while." He raised one hand to gently brush some stray hair out of her face. "I can think of something I'd much rather be doing than arguing over this..."
Kal looked up at him, and gave a slow, wolfish smile. Tal leaned down to give her a kiss, and slowly guided her towards his tent. Any thoughts of food or rest were quickly shoved to the back of their minds, as they tried very hard to make each other forget their troubles. At least for the next hour or so.
- - - -
Tal carefully untangled himself from Kal, settling down next to her close enough so their bodies were still touching. "Sweet holy Elune, Kal..." he whispered, panting slightly. She chuckled softly, curling close against him and nuzzling his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her closer and murmuring in her ear, "Love you." "Love you too," she whispered back. They were silent for several long seconds, then, "You know.." Tal began, thoughtfully, "When this trip is done, we should take off for a bit, just us two." Kal raised her head to look at him, one eyebrow raised. Tal grinned at her, a glint of mischief in his eyes. "It would be nice to really be alone for a few weeks. I've been saving for a long time, and I know you have too, so we can miss the next trip, if we wanted to." Kal nodded, a thoughtful smile on her face. They both suddenly looked at each other, identical grins on their faces. Tal voiced the thought they both had first. "Your mother is gonna be so scandalized." They both chuckled at the thought, then Kal settled back down again, her head resting on Tal's shoulder. She lay still for a long time after that, just listening to him breathe as he fell asleep.
- - - -
Tal watched Kal for several seconds, trying to make sure she really was still asleep and not just pretending. He leaned down to kiss her shoulder, only to have her eyes open before he had touched her. He completed the motion anyways, and she gave him a slightly-sleepy smile. "Someday," he whispered, "I'm going to wake up first and surprise you." "Keep dreaming, love," was her reply. She started to say something else, but then he kissed her again, and they quickly forgot about everything except each other for a while.
After the conversation, and the things she had found while scouting the previous day, Kal's lovemaking might have had a bit of desperation in it. Tal gave no indication of noticing, but he did hold her for a bit longer than usual, when they were done. Eventually, however, they had to get up and face the long night on the road.
Kal tried to ignore the vague sense of dread she was feeling, which slowly got stronger as the night passed. Finally, she was getting so jumpy, she came back to the caravan and sent two other scouts ahead to the point. She rode Nyte up and down the line of wagons, watching the sides of the trail for anything threatening, but seeing nothing. Tal stopped her only once, as the pre-dawn light began brightening the eastern sky. "Kal, I know you're nervous, but please, try not to do anything crazy?" he told her, looking at her worriedly. She could only look back at him, and then offer a sort of half-nod, half-shrug, then she went back to her 'pacing'. She began wondering if she should ride out to check on the scouts.
- - - -
The attack, beginning at dawn as the drivers were starting to look for a likely camping spot, was sudden and vicious. With no warning from the scouts, the centaurs opened fire on the wagons, aiming for drivers and horses alike. The drivers tried to make a run for it, but when the lead horse of the first wagon went down, it started a hopeless tangle. Kal choked back a cry of mingled anger and frustration, and turned Nyte back to the caravan, urging him into a flat run. She charged past the line of wagons, straight at where the arrows were coming from. She barely heard Tal's yell of "Kal! DON'T!!" as she flew past, pulling her sword from it's scabbard. The dim-witted creatures didn't even notice her, so intent on the wagons, until she was close enough to see them through the rows of bushes they were using for cover. There was only enough time for a couple arrows to bounce off her breastplate, then she was crashing through their cover, sword swinging. Nyte struck out as well as he could without losing his stride, and several of the beast-men fell.
As she swept past the line of archers, however, she looked up and saw just how much trouble they were in. A huge, milling mass of the centaurs were forming ranks for a charge, and she could see at least three clan banners. Several dozen centaurs, at least, perhaps close to a hundred, were about to overrun the caravan. Nyte stopped and spun without any guidance, and they charged back through the archer ranks, taking several more out as they rushed back to the caravan. As the warrior broke free of the bushes, she felt an impact in her left shoulder. A moment later, burning pain raced down her arm. Her adrenaline quickly dulled it, and since it wasn't her sword-arm, she decided it wasn't important. Kal headed straight for Tal, and quickly gasped out her warning, "They're gonna charge. Three clans at least." He stared at her for a single second, then his eyes widened and he spun, shouting orders. The wagons that could still be moved were pulled into a defensive half-circle, and the horses were cut free, with the idea that anyone that survived could track them down later.
Kal finally took a second to look at her shoulder, and angrily tore out the crude arrow she found buried in the muscle. She dropped from Nyte's back, letting him loose to wreak what damage he could, and began trying to help Tal get the drivers away from the wagons and running for (hopefully) safety. A pair of Sentinels followed them, for protection. The rest, along with the mercenary guards, began preparing to buy the drivers as much time as possible to get away. She then suddenly heard a loud roar, followed by what sounded like a stampede, and realized they had just run out of time.
The following battle was a chaotic mess. Kal lost track of how many centaurs she hacked, slashed, or stabbed. Her sword arm grew tired, then sore, then went numb, and still she fought. When her sword was too heavy to lift, she switched hands, fighting left-handed and ignoring the stabbing pain from the arrow-wound in her shoulder. She caught occasional glimpses of Tal, either fighting the beast-men, or perched on some part of a wagon, feathering them with arrows. He always seemed to be alright, so she quickly turned her attention back to her next target.
A mistake was inevitable, as tired as she was. She was holding off two centaurs, and didn't see the third come up behind her. A split-second flash was her only warning, and her automatic reflexes saved her when her body was too fatigued to respond on it's own. The descending axe, which had been aiming to split her skull, instead only sliced down her cheek. She spun, disemboweling the centaur, then suddenly the two in front of her were down as well, one with an arrow through it's eye, the other choking it's life out through it's gaping throat. She looked past the bodies and saw Tal, panting heavily and covered in blood, most of it not his. She barely registered that fact, then realized the fighting was slowing down. A look at the sky showed it was almost noon. As battle rage faded, exhaustion began setting in.
Tal caught her good shoulder as she staggered slightly. "It's over. There's too many, and most of the fighters are dead," he told her, a grim expression on his face. "C'mon, we have to get away while they're picking over the loot." Kal looked over his shoulder and saw that he was right. With most of the fighters dead or run off, most of the centaurs were breaking into the wagons, pulling out crates and sacks to look through for.... whatever it was they had wanted. She shook her head slightly, looked at Tal, and nodded. They took off, running as fast as their weary bodies could manage, then suddenly they heard a shout. Several centaurs had trapped three drivers against a wagon, and were toying with them. The two warriors reacted instinctively, charging the beast-men from behind, and each cut down one before the rest realized they were being attacked. Most of the rest were quickly dispatched, but one broke free and ran back to the other wagons, calling an alarm. Tal turned to Kal, a desperate light in his eyes.
"Go, get them out of here." he told her, in his do-not-argue voice. She tried anyway, "No, come on, we both can. You-" He cut her off. "There's more elves stuck back there. I'm going to try to help, then we'll muddle the trail as we catch up, in case the urfes try to track us. Now go. GO ON! I'll see you again soon." She stared at him helplessly for a brief moment, then grabbed the front of his armor and pulled him into a quick, hard kiss. She pressed her cheek against his, and breathed into his ear, "You'd better." She then released him, turned to the terrified drivers, and herded them off, following the faint trail of the other escapees.
The bedraggled group finally caught up with the rest of what was left of the caravan. All but two drivers had gotten away, but only four of the twenty guards, mercenaries and Sentinels both, had survived, including Kal. She surveyed the little group for a few moments, then, when no one made any move to take charge, she called out, "We need to move. We need shelter, and a hiding place, in case any of those things try to hunt us down." At the alarmed looks most of them gave her, she quickly assured them, "I don't think they will, they seemed like they were happy to loot everything and go their way, but better safe than sorry, eh?" The other guards, and two of the drivers that seemed to be in better shape than the others, began guiding the group towards a boulder-strewn ravine, with plenty of shade and hiding places.
Kal stood still, staring back down the trail. A worried expression was crinkling her forehead, and she didn't even notice when one of the drivers, a tall slender female, approached. The driver cleared her throat slightly, making Kal jump. "You coming? These people need someone steady to watch over them. I think anything bigger than a bug is going to set them all into a panic, right now." She gave a weak attempt at a chuckle, then gave Kal a curious look when the warrior didn't move. Kal shook her head. "I gotta go back and check things. Tal should be coming soon, and I want to meet him. He may need help with any injured with him." The other elf looked at her carefully for a long moment, then nodded. "I guess I can try to keep everyone settled for a little while. You just hurry back now, okay?" Kal nodded absently as she spun on her heel and strode back the way they had come, worry giving her a small spurt of new energy.
She hadn't gotten very far when a familiar "Whuff" made her pause. Nyte trotted up to her and rubbed his massive head against her, carefully. She gratefully rubbed his ears as she inspected him. He had a few minor cuts, but seemed mostly unscathed, so she swung up onto his back, guiding him back towards the caravan. She mentally cursed Tal and his sense of responsibility the entire way back, keeping an eye out for any sign of him or any other stragglers, but finding nothing.
The sun was beginning it's westward descent as she approached the ruined wagons. Everything was still, no sign of the centaurs, but no sign of any elves either. Kal felt her heart clench in her chest with fear. She urged Nyte into a cautious trot, then slid off as they reached the nearest wagon. Before she could even begin searching, a quiet cough guided her to him.
Tal was lying, half on his back and half on his side, next to a pile of centaur bodies. The bodies of several other elves were mixed in with the beast-men, but Kal had eyes only for the fallen warrior. She thought he was already dead at first, but when she knelt next to him, he opened his eyes. Kal choked back a sob at the sight of the wounds that covered his body, and the gritty dirt she was kneeling in was saturated with his blood. He blinked a couple times, as though not sure if he was really seeing her, then reached a hand weakly towards her face. She caught it and held it up to her unmarred cheek, as he tried to speak. He coughed again, lightly, then cleared his throat, spat out a small glob of blood, then tried again.
"I'm so sorry, Kal," he whispered hoarsely. Her eyes stung with tears as she understood. She didn't even try to say that everything would be alright, because he knew better, and they had never been less than completely honest with each other. She softly replied around the knot forming in her throat, "I know, love. You tried." "Love you so much," he whispered. A sob broke free from Kal's tight control, as she answered him, "I love you too..." Tal's fingers moved slightly, as he tried to stroke her cheek, then his eyes rolled back and he went limp, his last breath rattling in his throat. Kal pressed her face against his hand as she let go of her control, and she cried brokenly over his body for what seemed like hours.
Finally, Nyte interrupted her mourning by coming behind her and gently nudging her back. She looked at the saber through sore, red eyes, then looked back at Tal. She slowly lowered the hand she had been holding, resting it on his chest, and stood shakily, leaning against her mount. A shout got her attention, and she looked up at the small group of elves approaching, all on sabers and several leading horses. The female driver from earlier led the way over to her. The elf looked down at the mess of bodies, and grimaced, shaking her head sadly. "I was afraid of this, when you were taking so long," she said quietly. She looked at Kal, saw the condition she was in, and slid off her saber. "You okay?" she asked, then quickly answered herself. "No, of course not." She sighed, then motioned towards the others. "We were starting to get worried, and then a bunch of our sabers found us. We found the horses on the way back here. We figured that if the vermin left anything, we could hitch them up and go collect the rest of us." She looked around at the wagons. Several had been broken into so badly that they would be useless as shelter, but a few were still in good enough condition to use. She pointed this out to Kal, who nodded, took a deep breath, and began directing a couple of the drivers to start hitching up. The rest of the group helped Kal with sorting bodies, and building two pyres with the remains of the useless wagons. The centaurs were mass-piled onto one, set ablaze, then ignored. The dead elves, except for one, were laid out neatly and respectfully, then set on fire as the Sentinel guard that had come with the group spoke the last rites.
Kal took Tal's body a short distance apart from the rest. The look she gave anyone who approached told them all that she didn't need, or want, any help. She built a small pyre, laid Tal on it, then piled the weapons of several centaur at his feet. Before lighting it, she took a moment look look at him one last time, gently stroking his hair and then bending down to kiss his forehead. She then took a step back, and set her torch to the base of the wood. As it caught, she turned away, not able to bear the sight of her love burning. When she turned, she found the rest of the elves waiting, ready to go. She looked at them all, then gave a nod, mounted Nyte, and led them away. She did not look back.
- - - -
Kal made them all press on, instead of turning back. When someone tried to argue, she merely looked at him, and asked, "Do you really want to go back through that place?" That shut everyone up, and she had no trouble for the rest of the nightmare journey, even when she forced them to reverse their schedule, traveling by day and camping at night. She drove them mercilessly through Stonetalon and the Barrens. Then, finally, almost a week behind their normal schedule, they crossed the border into Ashenvale.
- - - -
The remains of the caravan slowly limped into Astranaar, among the shocked stares of the town's inhabitants. Nyte strode over to the town's elder, and Kal leaned wearily over his shoulder, to look the elf in the eye. "Get your people to help. Now." she ordered hoarsely. He blinked at her for a brief second, then spun around and began shouting. Sentinels and various others were quickly helping the drivers unhitch the half-foundered horses, and the local priests began looking after the all-too-few remaining guards, and the few drivers that had been hurt in the escape. One priest finally gathered the courage to approach Kal, who was still sitting on Nyte's back, watching the proceedings impassively. "Warrior, I need to look at that cut on your cheek," he said, his tone making it a request rather than an order. Kal stared at him blankly for several long seconds, then slowly slid off Nyte's back. The priest had to catch and steady her as her knees buckled, but then she regained her balance, and walked unaided into a nearby building, which was being set up as a temporary healer's station.
Inside, the priest washed away the dried blood crusting Kal's face, and winced at the long slash running from just above her ear, across her cheek, all the way down to her jaw. "Much deeper and you wouldn't be able to chew on this side," he muttered quietly to her. "Hold still, this might burn a bit. And will most likely leave a pretty impressive scar." He held his hands towards her, hands already glowing softly with Elune's light. There was a very slight burning sensation, as Elune's powers cleaned the wound and sealed the skin and muscle, but it was less than what Kal expected. Her mask slipped just enough to give the healer a faint, grateful smile, then the blank expression returned, as he bent his attention to the arrow wound in her shoulder. He was able to heal that perfectly, leaving only the barest trace of a scar, which would likely fade completely with time. Now if only the scars on the inside would fade, as well, she thought to herself, as the lump in her throat threatened to choke her yet again.
((urfe = 'bastard' in Thalassian))
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