The Long Road

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The Long Road

Postby Shaurria » Sat May 08, 2010 10:35 pm

(The northern Barrens, roughly 500 years before.)

The Kal'dorei crouched and studied the traces before her. "Centaur. Looks like too many for a hunting party, but not enough for a whole tribe." She looked over her shoulder at her companion. "What do you think, Lath?" The pale gray cat came up beside her and studied the tracks too, sniffing. "I think you're right, Lark," he replied. "It's a warband." Lark stood, brushing herself off. "Let's get back and warn the boss," she said, and the druid nodded and started off.

He stopped when he realized she wasn't following. "Lark?" She still stood where he had left her, staring at a rock formation a few dozen yards away. Lath looked too and started. Sitting on the rock, watching them both, was a lion, one of the dusty-looking brown ones typical to the plains here. It sat still, not moving except for its ears and tail tip, which twitched every so often. Lath stared at it for a bit, wondering what it was doing. "Ugly thing, isn't he?" he commented finally. It was, sort of, with one ear split and a thick scar running down its cheek from just below the eye to its throat. The lion showed its opinion by yawning widely, exposing yellowed teeth. At that moment the rising sun peeked around the mountain behind them, its rays striking the big cat and turning its dull yellow coat to glowing gold. Lath drew in his breath as Lark stirred next to him. "She," she said, her voice sounding distant. "Not he." With that she started toward the lion.

Lath blinked at her, then trotted after. "Lark? What are you doing?" She didn't answer, and he looked up at her face. She still stared fixedly at the cat, expressionless except for her eyes. That look.... Lath had seen it many times before, and it reassured him greatly. Shifting out of his cat form, the tall druid bent to whisper in Lark's ear. "Give her a name. It binds her to you." With that, he stepped away and headed back to their camp.

Lark gave no indication that she had heard; she just kept up her steady progress toward the lion. Finally she stood with her face a few hands-breadths away from the cat's. Their eyes met, and Lark felt like she'd found something that had been lost, something she hadn't even realized she was missing. She breathed a single word, and the cat's ears twitched. "Tuah." The golden eyes blinked, and she hopped off the rock to rub her head against the Night Elf's hand.


Lark had first met Lathenil almost five years before, in a small settlement in Ashenvale. The druid was considered a bit of an oddity even by his own kind, who could be rather eccentric themselves. Tall and thin, he wore rough leathers that he had made himself from tanning the hides and stitching them together. His light blue hair reached to the middle of his back and had all kinds of decorations braided into it- small bones, feathers, seashells and even a bear claw. Lark found him fascinating, and they had quickly become friends, then lovers.

Lath had helped her get into the group of caravan guards he was a part of. Lark was grateful, since she hadn't been able to find anyone that would take her on. A lone female with no connections, armed only with a bow and with no other skills, was often encouraged to go try the Temple, or else find a man to keep house for. Lath's influence was enough to get her accepted by his company, and she proved her worth in their first trip. After that, no one said a word against her. She had been with them for a little over three years now, and this was her fifth trip along this route, so she knew it well enough.

Now, as she entered the camp with the lion at her side, several of her fellow guards gave her looks ranging from amazed to congratulatory. Lath found her on his way back from the leader's tent. "I've given him our report," he told her, then looked down at the lion. "I see you made a friend," he said with a grin. Lark looked down too, still with some wonder. "Her name is Tuah," she said. Lath gently took her arm and guided her back toward the main fire. "Good name. How about something to eat before we get some sleep?" he asked her, and she let herself be led away. Tuah followed close on her heels, paying no attention to anything except the Kal'dorei she had bonded to.


The next week and a half were an exercise in frustration for Lark. Tuah never let her out of her sight, but neither would she listen to a thing she told her. Lark tried every animal-training trick she knew, as well as anything else her fellow guardsmen offered. None of it worked. Tuah clawed the tents, scared the horses drawing the wagons, tried to fight with the guards' nightsaber mounts, and stole any food she could get her teeth into. She would accept anything from Lark and, rather strangely, from Lath, but she growled at anyone else that came near her. Her intelligence couldn't be questioned- she simply chose not to listen, and made it obvious that's what she was doing. Lark's patience wore thin quickly, and finally one morning she broke and began yelling at the cat. The shouts quickly attracted Lath's attention, and he followed the sounds to find Tuah stretched on the ground with a haunch of meat, with Lark standing above her. The lion calmly ignored the Night Elf as she chewed on her prize.

Lath stood back and watched for a moment, until he saw Lark draw one foot back. He quickly stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back before she could complete the kick. "Physical punishment won't solve anything," he murmured into her ear as she struggled against him. She stopped, and he let her go, then led her back to the tent they shared. Tuah stayed behind, enjoying her meal.

Inside the tent, Lark turned to face him. "Then what do I do?" she snapped, her frustration evident in every line. "She won't listen to me, won't do a thing I say. If she didn't keep following me around, I'd think she didn't care about me at all! What am I doing wrong?" Lath just looked at her until she visibly calmed herself down. "I don't know," he said finally. "I know next to nothing about hunters and their companions. I think she may want something from you, but if you don't know what that is, we'll just have to wait and see what happens." Lark groaned in frustration, and he chuckled as he wrapped her in his arms again. "Why don't we forget about her for a little bit," he breathed into her ear. Lark sank against him, allowing him to draw her down to the floor. For a little while at least, she let herself be distracted by other things.

The caravan workers started to break camp as the sun went down, and soon after the call went out to get ready. Lath was up before Lark, and was already dressed by the time she pulled herself out of their bedroll. She heard him stumble and curse softly as he went out, and sighed to herself. Dressing quickly, she went to the tent flap and peered out. Tuah looked up at her, calm despite being tripped over yet again. Lark stepped out and crouched in front of her, speaking softly. "Alright, you picked me for some reason, though I can't guess why. You wanted me for a partner, why don't you act like it?" The big cat blinked at her slowly, then stretched her head out to lick at her face. Lark sighed again, then stood and began taking the tent down.


For the next couple days, Lark ignored the cat. This didn't seem to faze Tuah at all; she simply continued her previous behavior. By this time they had passed out of the plains and were now heading down into the canyon known as the Thousand Needles. The guard captain, heeding Lath's warning, kept them all on watch for centaur bands, but they had passed through without incident, despite finding a ravaged Tauren camp just north of the path down into the "Pins".

This tricky path was difficult in the best times, so they made camp at the head of the trail, preparing to go down the next night. Once Lath and Lark's tent was set up, Lark walked out of the camp, Tuah at her heels. She said nothing to Lath, except to ask him not to follow.

They returned before an hour had passed. Lark said nothing as she burrowed into the bedroll. Tuah simply lay down across the tent entrance like she always did, but Lath noticed that she kept glancing at Lark more often than she usually did.

The next night as they traveled down the narrow trail, Tuah stayed close to Lark's mount, keeping out of trouble and out of the way. In the morning when they camped, she padded over and sat by their tent, waiting patiently while Lark prepared some food and brought it over. As the lion dug in, Lark watched her with a satisfied smile, rubbing her ears affectionately before leaving her. Lath could only shake his head in amazement.


"All right, what did you say to her?" Lark raised an eyebrow at Lath. "What do you mean?" she asked him. "It's been two days since you took her off, and since then she's behaved almost faultlessly. What did you tell her that made her change?" She shrugged with a half-smile. "Just that I didn't care for the way she acted, that it made me look bad, and if she really wanted to continue that way she'd be on her own. Then I may have mentioned that I wasn't the only one in the caravan with a bow." Lath snerked a bit at that, then shook his head. "Pity you didn't think of that sooner," he groused good-naturedly as he lay back on the ground, settling his head in her lap. "The peace and quiet is nice." "Yea, well," Lark shrugged again. "Hindsight is perfect, they say."

The two Night Elves lapsed into silence. Lark toyed with one of the feathers in his hair. "You know, it's not fair," she commented. "I'd like a few feathers of my own, but can't wear them. They'd flutter too much when I need to hide." Lath grinned impishly. "Doesn't matter to me, they don't show in cat form." She swatted at him, also grinning. Lath suddenly sobered, looking up at her face carefully for a moment before returning to his normal expression. "Well then," he said casually, still watching her, "Would you like to wear some at our wedding?"

Lark blinked, unsure if she had heard him right. He just stared up at her, a little smile tickling around his lips. She opened her mouth, but couldn't get any words out. Finally she just leaned down and kissed him soundly. He returned it, and when she finally straightened up he raised one fist in the air, in triumph. The rest of the camp exploded in cheers and clapping as Lark blushed.


Lark woke up slowly, to realize that Lath still lay next to her instead of being up and about like he normally was. She turned her head to look at him and found him already awake, watching her. "Good evening," he said with a smile, and she couldn't help but return it. He leaned in and kissed her softly. "We should be up already," he said quietly, and she nodded as she disentangled herself from him.

Dressed, armed, and armored, the two Kal'dorei left the tent, this time stepping over Tuah, who was stretched across the doorway as usual. They found the camp already bustling in the dim light of the sun's last rays. Lath turned and kissed Lark again before heading off to prepare their mounts, and Lark began taking down their tent.

That night's travel saw them to Thalanaar, a small outpost on the Ferelas border. The wagon drivers quickly off-loaded the supplies they had brought while the guard captain, who also acted as the caravan leader, haggled with the Sentinel in charge, finally reaching an agreement. The space previously occupied by the supplies was soon filled with furs, valuable trinkets recovered from the forest ruins, and wooden carvings and small pieces of furniture. The captain also received a small coinpurse, which he hid away. The work lasted well into the morning, but they were back on the road again that evening, everyone now anxious for home.

The attack came at the end of the following night. They had reached the base of the trail up when dawn was just starting to lighten the sky. The captain called them to a halt and gathered them together, guards and drivers alike. "You all know it'll take a couple hours to reach the top," he told them. "The sun will be well up by then. Do ya'll want to try and make it now or should we wait til this evening?" He called for a vote, and it was decided to continue on and camp on the plains above.

Lark rode her nightsaber near the head of the group, idly letting Wynd pick his own path. Tuah followed at her side as usual. Lark paid her no attention, certain now of her good behavior. Then suddenly Tuah snarled, followed by a shout from the rear guard. She looked back to see him waving his arm, then he drew his bow and fired at something farther down the trail, still out of sight. The call came up the line quickly. "Centaurs attacking from behind, get the wagons up quickly!" yelled the next closest guard, and Lark turned to the nearest driver. "You heard him, go!" she ordered, then heard a familiar battle cry from the front, a half-shout, half-roar. She looked up to see Lath running through the wagons toward the back of the line. He passed her without a glance, then suddenly vanished in a swirl of smoke, and the gray cat ran on toward the fighting. Lark watched him weave between the wagons and horses for a moment, then turned back to the driver. "GO!" she repeated, then urged Wynd up. Tuah started to go down toward the battle, but a sharp command brought her back to heel.

Lark knew Lath wouldn't have left the front if there was any danger there, so she concentrated on keeping them moving forward. By some miracle, none of the horses or wagons slipped over the edge of the trail. Once the last wagon crested the top, she wheeled Wynd back down, only to see the other guards heading up, one or two of them limping. Among them was a dusty, bloody cat. The fight was over.


"They turned back- ouch- once they saw we had reached the top," Lath told her, as she dabbed the blood away from a cut on his face. "They won't go beyond their territory, that's one good thing about them." Lark snorted. "The only good thing. I wish something would happen to the lot of them, the world would be better without them." Lath frowned faintly, but said nothing.

They had had no casualties and only a couple serious injuries. The blood that had covered Lath, when he returned with the rest, had been mostly from the centaurs; he had only taken a few cuts. With the day already well along, the captain had told them to clean up and get some rest.


The next leg of their journey through the quilboar's Razorfen Downs was uneventful, the quilboar keeping quiet and out of sight. Two more days' travel saw them nearing the closest oasis, and they all looked forward to a chance to wash the road dust from themselves and their clothing. Before they reached it, however, trouble found them again.

Lath was perhaps the first one to hear the cries behind them, having traded his nightsaber for his own paws. The others soon heard them too, and before long the rear guard cried out, "Centaurs!" The guards all wheeled their mounts around as the captain barked out orders. Within minutes the wagons were drawn in a defensive circle, then the centaurs, maybe a dozen in number, were upon them. Lath charged into the melee with the other guards, while Lark swung from her mount up onto the nearest wagon, stringing her bow quickly and sniping along with the drivers.

She lost track of Lath in the first chaotic minutes, and was only dimly aware of Tuah fighting off anything that got close. Her world shrank to the bow in her hands and her next target; when the battle finally ended, it took her a few minutes to realize it. She eased off the arrow she had drawn and lowered her bow, looking around. The few surviving centaurs were fleeing in the distance, and her fellow guards were taking stock of the damage while the drivers began setting up camp.

Lark began looking for Lath just as he limped up to her. "It's not good," he said. "This looked like a scouting party. The ones that got away are probably going to get the rest, and they'll be back." Lark said nothing as she knelt and picked up his foreleg. He winced, and she frowned. "It doesn't feel broken. What happened?" "Big one with a club," he told her. "Got a glancing blow on me. Just bruised, it'll heal." She frowned again, but let him go as the captain came up. "Two drivers and a guard are dead," he said tersely. "Lark, I want you in one wagon. I'll take the other." Without another word he stalked off again.

They made a careful camp, with the wagons still in a circle and a watch set. The day passed quietly enough, and they headed out again as soon as the sun went down. Lath rode near the head of the column, his arm in a sling. Lark kept an eye on him, but he seemed all right. They could see the oasis in the distance and pressed on with all speed, but they still hadn't reached it as dawn broke. The centaurs returned with the sun.

As soon as the harsh battle-cries reached her ears, Lark knew they were in trouble. The horses and Night Elves were all tired, both from the previous battles and the hard pace they had been keeping. When she saw the numbers coming at them, her heart sank even lower. There were at least forty of the beast-men, against the dozen guards and five drivers that were left. Nevertheless, she turned her saber and started stringing her bow.

Before the centaur reached the caravan, a big stormcloud suddenly formed above their heads, and lightning struck down at one of the wagons. "Shaman!" someone yelled. Lark saw flames flickering up as she urged Wynd away, out of the cloud's range. Then the battle really started, with the big centaur fighters charging into them while the smaller scouts and shaman kept to the fringes. Lark found herself surrounded at the start and drew her sword, holding the bow in her off hand. Feeling suddenly grateful that Lath had insisted on her learning the sword back when she first joined, she kicked Wynd at the closest centaur. At her heels, Tuah ran silently, watching her mistress' back. The centaur swung a heavy sword at her, but it went whistling over her head as she ducked, and the horse-man found her own sword suddenly driven through his throat. Swinging her bow at the next nearest enemy, Lark broke free of the trap into the open.

They gave a good accounting of themselves from the start, but Lark knew they were doomed. She saw two drivers cut down in front of her, and got some small revenge by killing the centaur as they hacked at the bodies. She lost track of Lath, but couldn't spare a thought for him- he would have to take care of himself.

She focused on a big male with a spear and charged him, Wynd snarling as he ran. The centaur saw them before they reached him and turned about, then drew back the spear and flung it. Lark saw it coming, but couldn't stop or turn her mount fast enough, and it hit Wynd in the chest. He gave a grunt, ran another couple strides, then fell, plowing into the ground and throwing Lark over his head. She struck the ground hard and lay dazed as a shadow fell over her. The centaur loomed above her, sneering, then raised a club. Lark could only watch. Off to the side she heard a shout, "Lark!" then a huge shaggy shape slammed into the centaur. Lark's breath finally returned, and she scrambled to her feet to see Lath, in his bear form, fending off the centaur she had charged, even as several more saw the commotion and came running. "Run!" he roared at her, and, still dazed, she obeyed without thinking, sprinting out toward the oasis in the distance.

She looked back, once, to see a cluster of shapes tangled together. The distance was too great, however, and she couldn't see what was happening. The rest of the caravan was a shambles, the centaur milling around, probably looting. Then a group broke off from the rest, heading toward her, and she realized they were tracking her. She turned and continued on.


For the next four hours, she played a cat-and-mouse game with the band chasing her. She kept trying to get back to the caravan, but the centaur found her and cut her off each time, driving her farther and farther away. Twice she was able to find a hiding spot, from which she sniped at them once they came in range. Then she was off running again, before they could reach her. Every time she ran, she kept waiting for a crude arrow to find her back, but apparently they had no archers with them. Running, ambushing, then running again, she made her way to the oasis.

By now she was almost stumbling in exhaustion. Tuah stayed near her, watching her anxiously. Once inside the relative shelter of the trees around the oasis, Lark stopped to catch her breath. She could hear the grunts and cries of her pursuers, not many now but still more than she could handle by herself, and looked at her companion. "I'm tired of being chased, how about you?" she asked the cat. Tuah pricked her ears, then laid them back and growled. "Thought as much," Lark said, then headed toward a rocky outcropping.

The first centaur to reach the trees suddenly sprouted an arrow from its face. It toppled over, and the rest of the group yelled and ran forward. Lark stayed in her perch on the outcrop, calmly nocking and firing. She felled two more before the three that remained reached her. So enraged were they that they forgot about the cat with the Elf. Suddenly the trailing centaur cried out and fell. The other two paused to look back as Tuah jumped on it, scrambling up its body in her eagerness to reach its throat. A second one dropped, with Lark's last arrow in its neck, just as the lion fastened her teeth in the neck of the one she had hamstrung. The remaining centaur let out a defiant bellow as Lark jumped down from her perch and drew her sword. It swung its own sword at her, then Tuah's fangs fastened in its haunch. Lark lunged in and drove her sword into its chest, shrugging off the awkward counter-blow. Tuah left her hold and dove for its belly, and it fell.

Lark tugged her sword free, letting it hang loosely in her hand as she recovered her breath. Then she climbed back up the outcropping and stared out toward where the caravan had been. The sun made her eyes smart, but she stared fixedly until she could make out the smoke columns. She thought she could see a huddle of moving shapes heading off into the distance, leaving whatever was left of the wagons behind. She kept staring until Tuah chuffed below her, then climbed back down again. Picking up her bow and the bloody sword again, she started walking.


She didn't have much trouble finding the battle site; she just followed the smoke. The wagons were burning, the remaining horses and sabers long gone. There were bodies scattered everywhere, centaur and Kal'dorei both. Lark looked around numbly, then began her search.

She found his body in short order. He had reverted to his elven form in death, and for a moment she could imagine he was simply sleeping- until she looked down, at the horrific wounds covering his body. She gently stroked his cheek, already turning cold, then her vision blurred. She angrily fought back the tears, then got up and began searching for wood.

Even in the dusty plains, there was wood to be found among the trees growing around the oases. With Tuah helping to drag the heavier pieces, she had a pyre ready in a few hours. The cat helped to drag Lath's body to the pile, then stood back, as if knowing she wouldn't be wanted for the moment. Lark heaved Lath up onto the pyre, settling him there and straightening his limbs. She stared down at him for a moment, then took his face in both hands and kissed him. Then she stepped back, took her makeshift torch, and set it against the wood. It caught fairly quickly, and Lark watched as the flames licked up.

She kept watching until the breeze changed direction and began blowing the smoke toward her. It stung her eyes and brought tears that, once started, refused to stop. Stumbling blindly, she made her way to her makeshift camp and curled up on her bedroll, shaking and sobbing. She barely registered when Tuah came and curled around her. Eventually she dropped into exhausted sleep.


Lark stared at the pile of smoking coals and ashes. This is it, she thought. I'm alone, the only one left. Then she felt a furry cheek brush her hand. Not alone, it seemed to say, and she looked down at the golden eyes of the lion beside her. She suddenly felt like she could hear the cat's thoughts, only with feelings and images instead of words. "What now?" she asked, her voice cracking from the smoke and her grief. "There's nothing left here." You're the leader, she felt from the cat. Where you go, I'll follow. Lark considered her choices. She had no mount, no food, and no shelter. She could retrace her steps to Thalanaar and take a hippogryph back north, to give her report on what had happened. Or she could continue on the route all the way to Hyjal, looking for any survivors along the way. Thalanaar would be shorter, the land route harder. She looked to the cat again.

"The road will be hard," she said softly. Tuah blinked at her slowly. The road is always hard, it's what makes us stronger. "We have no supplies. We'll have to hunt on the way." An ear twitched. That's nothing new when your life is one hunt after another. Lark smiled a bit, she couldn't help it. "I'm glad one of us can keep things in perspective." The cat sneezed and shook her head, then stood and trotted off. If we stand around here, we get nowhere, she seemed to say. The road is long, and the sooner started, the sooner finished. Lark smiled again as she picked up her pack, then she followed her partner toward the road. Toward home.


(( To be continued... someday... maybe...))
Will you carry me down the aisle that final day
With your tears and cold hands shaking from the weight
When you lower me down beneath that sky of gray
Let the rain fall down and wash away your pain

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