Thursday, March 5, 2020

One Final Lesson -- Part 2/6

Previous installments:  

Traveling through the portal was one thing: first we were in our barn and then we stepped into a long room with stone walls and filled with bookshelves. But the sensation of moving was akin to a wave washing over me, stripping away all weariness and stress.

"Ah," Mistress Evelyn said. "That rush never gets old."

I felt around to be certain I still had my clothing, and just as I breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn't naked I realized we weren't alone.

Men and women in various colored robes milled about the room, some reading, others talking in small groups, and some few surrounded by larger numbers of people. All seemed to ignore the fact that two disheveled women --one old, one young-- just popped into their midst.

Evelyn tugged at my sleeve once more. "Let's move," she said. "It's not polite to block the portal."

I took a step or two forward, glanced behind me, and nearly tripped over myself. A huge ring of metal with glowing runes carved in it, at least 10 feet high, stood behind me. Within the ring was a swirling mist of green, brown, and white, obscuring anything else. Standing beside the ring was a woman in robes and holding an ornate staff, watching.

"Welcome to Stormwind," she said in a carefully neutral tone. "Please clear the portal for other arrivals."

"Thank you," Evelyn replied, and yanked at my sleeve a bit harder this time. "Try not to look like you were living out in the Hinterlands," she whispered to me.

I gulped and nodded.

"Just follow me," she said a bit louder. "I know the way."

We walked toward the far end of the room, where another portal awaited. To my right, staring at a bookshelf, stood an impossibly tall woman wearing a blue, black, and gray robe with gold trim. My head barely came up to her chest, but what drew my attention were the long, vertical ears that poked out from above her golden hair and angular face. She glanced our way and did a double take. 

"Evelyn!" she cried, crossing the distance between us in two long steps and embraced Mistress Evelyn. "It's been years! How have you been?"

"Elsharin," Evelyn replied with a smile. "My bones complain a bit more, but the years since we last met have been too long."

"I would imagine," Elsharin replied. She spoke in an accent I'd never heard before. "I can see you're in a hurry, so I won't keep you." She then turned to me, her grin turning mischievous. "Is this your apprentice? I thought you'd retired."

"I did retire, but I do still teach non-arcane subject matter for the most part. Cardwyn here is the daughter of friends."

"I'm sure she is. Greetings to you, Cardwyn," she added, folding her hands together in a formal manner.

I mimicked her action. "Greetings to you, Elsharin."

Her smile grew even wider and nodded, as if I'd passed some test. "I'm certain we'll see you two around here again. Please do stop by when you're finished with your business here; we've a lot of catching up to do, and I'd love to get to know young Cardwyn better."

I could feel Elsharin's eyes on us as we strode up to the other portal. Mistress Evelyn didn't pause, but instead just walked right into the mists. I swallowed, took a breath, and followed her through.

Beyond the portal lay a small, circular room, with a stone staircase leading down. Another person dressed in similar robes to Elsharin stood atop the steps, watching the portal. He nodded to Evelyn as we passed by and descended along the staircase, which ended in another room with an open door.

"I hope you're not scared of heights," Mistress Evelyn said as she stepped through the opening.

I followed her out and found myself standing on a slim, well lit walkway that descended around the building in an elegant manner. With a start, I realized we were outside the Mage Tower of Stormwind.

So many questions bubbled to the surface, and I bit my lip to keep from blurting them all out. I didn't want to offend anybody here, and even more importantly not offend Mistress Evelyn, but one thing stood out: Elsharin called me Mistress Evelyn's apprentice, and Mistress Evelyn had not explicitly denied it. I knew enough to realize that what was not said was frequently more important than what was said, and I wondered what Mom and Dad would think of all this.

We reached the bottom of the Tower, and even at this late hour there were still some people about, talking. An occasional flash of light by one person was met with an excited babble of discussion from others in the group. "Are these all Mages?" I asked as we walked down a curved grass-lined street with tall stone buildings to either side. The road was just wide enough to keep claustrophobia away.

"For the most part," Evelyn replied. We passed another impossibly tall woman dressed in brown and green, but this time her hair was green, her skin a pinkish blue, and her pointed ears swept far back behind her. "Tannysa," Evelyn murmured and nodded.

Tannysa nodded in return, pressing her hands together as if in prayer and bowing in an elaborate fashion.

We crossed over a bridge and disappeared into a confusing maze of people and streets. I struggled to keep from gawking; I thought Goldshire was large, but Stormwind made it look like a backwater.

"Tannysa is Kaldorei," Evelyn explained as she kept up what was for her a brisk pace. "She's the best herbalist in Stormwind, and probably older than everybody in the Mage Quarter put together."

"So that means Elsharin is Queldorei?"

"Very good, Cardwyn. Yes, she is Queldorei, and an exile. We've known each other for a long time, long before... what happened in the North."

"Oh." Until this evening I'd never seen an elf, and now I met one each from two separate Elven Kindreds.

I bit back another half dozen questions as we crossed another bridge and entered into a broad plaza. 

In the center stood a tall building with gleaming, multicolored windows, and three spires that reached into the sky. In front of the building a fountain bubbled, ringed by mature trees. I didn't need to ask where I was.

We walked up the blue carpeted steps in front of the Cathedral of Light and straight through the center door.

The interior of the Cathedral was even more impressive than the exterior. Arches gave the main sanctuary an airy feel, with the shimmer of light and color cascading down on all who came to worship. Priests in white vestments strode up and down the main aisle alone or in pairs, while armored warriors dressed similarly in white hung back in the left facade. Healers and surgeons held court on the right facade, while in the distance richly dressed priests gathered around the altar.

Evelyn strode up to an altar boy, exchanged a few words with him, and he scampered off.

"I'll be needing some rest soon," she said as she rejoined me by the entrance. "Tomorrow is going to be an eventful day."

"Mistress Evelyn," I began, "I noticed something. When you talked with Elsharin..."

"Yes, Dear. I noticed the style of clothing that is fashionable in the Tower these days. I personally think it silly to have an opening cut in the robes that exposes your belly button, but I'm more of a traditionalist."

My mouth hung agape long enough for a fly to land inside.

Evelyn held my gaze for a long moment. "Yes, Cardwyn, I noticed the other thing. You performed the Mage greeting very well."

"I.... I didn't mean..."

"Oh hush, girl. I'm not offended. I've had far worse students, and you're practically my apprentice anyway."

I blinked. "What do you mean?"

"Tell me," Mistress Evelyn replied, "do you still use that little rhyme I taught you to get baked goods out of the oven?"

"Of course. When I recite that rhyme I hardly feel the heat."

"I'd certainly hope so, as I'd taught you how to make a ward the way my mother taught me when I was a little girl."

"What?" A couple of priests turned and looked our way for a moment, then shrugged and went back to their discussion.

"I taught you how to make a Fire Ward, Cardwyn," Mistress Evelyn replied in her teaching voice. "In Dalaran, arcane magic is taught at a really young age, and to help prepare the mind for spell casting, children are taught certain rhymes. The words in the rhyme help to clear your head of distractions so you can focus on casting. I felt that you could use a little boost to stay one step ahead of your mother, and you'd always shown a knack for understanding complex subjects, so I figured 'why not' and let you try to manipulate the arcane without realizing it. That you were able to master the ward quite easily confirmed to me that you have a talent for Magecraft."

She paused as the altar boy reappeared at the far end of the aisle, an older man in tow.

"Good," she exhaled. "He's here. I was afraid he wasn't."

"A Fire Ward?" I said. My mind was still a minute or so behind.

"Yes, a Fire Ward, and it'll do far more than simply keep you from burning your hands on piping hot loaves of bread." Mistress Evelyn began walking toward the older man, and I fell in behind. 

"Antoninas, you have no idea how good it is to see you again," she said when she finally reached the older man.

He stood about as tall as Dad but was far slimmer. His thinning brown hair was touched with silver, and his close cropped beard hardly had any brown left. If he ever worked hard in his life, I'd eat my boots. Yet his eyes were sharp, and his mouth shaped in a disapproving frown. "Evelyn?" he asked in a clipped accent that oozed culture, "young Thomas here woke me up saying you had urgent business and it couldn't wait."

"Indeed I do," Mistress Evelyn replied. "We need to speak in privacy. Is there a quiet room nearby?"

"That can be found, but I want to know what crusade you're up to this time."

"I've a couple of friends who are about to get run off their farm if they don't get some help. Have you ever heard of the organization called the Defias?"


I sat on a wooden bench outside the room where Mistress Evelyn and Antoninas were talking, trying hard not to listen too closely to the voices within. But if Antoninas was Mistress Evelyn's friend, I'd hate to see what her enemies were like. I could hear Mistress Evelyn raise her voice, matched in intensity by Antoninas'.

Neither sounded pleased at all.

Antoninas knew about the Defias, of course. I could read that much in his face when Mistress Evelyn brought the subject up, but he also looked annoyed, like it wasn't his problem.

Typical Stormwind, I thought.

Heavy footfalls came from down the corridor, along with the rustle of metal. I folded my hands and tried to not to look like I was eavesdropping, or at least that I'd taken up an interest in the marble floor at my feet.

"Well, Lass," a voice said, "ye look like somebody else took the last pint from yer keg. Although to be fair, if ye were mad I'd have said the same thing."

I'd met a few dwarves, so I wasn't completely surprised when I glanced over and found one watching me. But unlike the others I'd met, he was armored and dressed in white with the Hammer and Mountain of Ironforge emblazoned on his tabard. His hair and beard, once deep red, were now streaked with grey, but he smiled in a kindly way that put me more at ease than I'd have expected.

"Well met, Lass. I'm Balthan," he said by way of greeting. "And ye look like ye could use a friend." 

The bench protested loudly as he plopped down next to me. The sweet odor of sweat and the outdoors, mixed with oiled metal and beer, filled my nostrils.

"I suppose so," I replied, resisting a sudden urge to blurt out everything. "It's been a pretty eventful day."

Balthan nodded and straightened his rumpled tabard. "That it has," he replied. "I just arrived in Stormwind an hour ago, and the trip here was.... invigorating. Perhaps I should have taken the Tram."

"How did you get here?" I asked.

"I'd come from Theramore," he said. "Visiting friends, ye see, and instead of heading to Ironforge straight from Menethil Harbor I decided to take the long way around. Stretch my legs, ye know."

The casual fearlessness the dwarf embodied awed me. "Isn't Stormwind the really long way around?"

"Ay yes....." he paused, looking at me expectantly.


"Ay yes, Cardwyn. It is a very long way around. By way of Booty Bay far down south."

My curiosity got the best of me. "You went from Theramore to Menethil Harbor to Booty Bay to Stormwind?"

Balthan looked embarrassed. "Not all at once, Lass. I've been traveling for some months now."

"That's 'stretching your legs'? But you made it sound like--"

"I'm sorry I led ye on, but this most recent leg of my trip was up to here by way of Darkshire. I'd meant just to pass on through Stormwind to go back home, but what I saw on the road from Darkshire, well, I felt I should report to Lord Shadowbreaker here."

"Wait, I'm confused. You started this talking about the Tram." Even I'd heard about the Tram connecting Stormwind and Ironforge.

"Oh! I meant way back when I first arrived at Menethil. If I wanted to go to Stormwind here, I should have just gone up to Ironforge and taken the Tram to here. But that's neither here nor there, young Cardwyn, because I'm here now and it sure looks like you've got some problems."

After that long, meandering story much like his trip itself, I wasn't expecting the dwarf to put the focus squarely back on me. Well, I thought, if he came up from Darkshire, perhaps I could use it to my advantage. "My family does, Sir Balthan," I said.

"I'm not 'Sir' anything, Lass. If you ever hear a dwarf out o' Ironforge use that title, kick 'em in the groin for me."

"Apologies, "Si..... Balthan. My family lives on a farm off the Old Elwynn Road not too far from the logging camp to the east. If you take that road and bend south at the fork, you go straight to Darkshire. Is that how you came to Stormwind?"

"That I did, Lass. That I did." Balthan stroked his beard, his eyes darkening. "And I think I know what you're implying. Black clothed folk, wearing red bandanas?"

"Yes. They call themselves 'Defias'."

"Whatever they call themselves, their real name is 'Trouble'. A couple o' them must've thought I was easy pickings, but I gave them a decent helping of the power of the Light and I don't think they've stopped running yet."

I hesitated just a moment, enough to hear Mistress Evelyn's voice rise once more behind the door and plunged forward. "They're trying to run my family off of our farm."

"And how do they intend to do that?"

"They've demanded all of our farm tools, including our plow."

"Including the plow?" Balthan's eyes darkened further. "Did they say specifically they wanted you out of the land?"

"Well, no, but without a plow..."

" can't work the land. I may not be a farmer, but I know that much. And a well-made plow is worth more than a dozen horses." Balthan shifted his body on the bench, causing the whole thing to creak. "Cardwyn, based on the yahoos I've met I don't think they're that subtle. Sounds to me like they were told to get those things without wondering why. It's their bosses that have the idea, and I'm not sure their ideas are what you think it is. I'd figure that if they were to try to run people off their land, they'll have the Guard swarming all over them before they could ask what happened."

"But that's the thing, nobody has seen the army in ages. They're all supposedly off somewhere, on 'the front', wherever that is." I winced, because I sounded like Mom.

"Aye, and that set of front lines has been shifting quite a bit. Stormwind never had to worry about land north of the Thandol Span before, because Lordaeron, Alterac, and other places would take care of it. But now with Lordaeron being destroyed, Dalaran rebuilding within its own bubble, and Alterac and Arathor lawless land, you'll find Stormwind people stationed as far north as Hillsbrad." Balthan stroked his beard. "But here, there's a few patrols on the Old Elwynn Road, especially between Goldshire and Stormwind itself. And the barracks here in town certainly seem full.

"But back to the problem at hand," he continued. "Your family isn't happy with the situation they've found themselves in, I take it."

"No, and these Defias people are coming back tomorrow for everything. My family has vowed to fight rather than surrender."

"That's a noble thought, Lass, but it'll get them all killed."

"We're not just farmers, sir," I replied, my voice rising. "We were all taught to fight in self-defense. My parents fought in the Second War. My uncle was a casualty of the Third War when--" I choked and couldn't finish that thought.

"Aye, Lass. I fought in the Second War m'self, and I'm sure your parents taught you well, but these are killers. Trained or not, they'll fight dirty."

I began to calm down. The dwarf was right, but I didn't like him insulting my family in such a back handed manner. "Yes, sir. I understand. We --my teacher and I-- are here to get assistance before tomorrow."

"Ah." That simple sound carried a lot more weight than I thought possible. He cocked his head, listening to the muffled voices beyond the door. "And not having a great time of it, from what I can hear.”

I shook my head.

"Bureaucrats. They're the same the world over, whether they be in a royal court or in a church. Well, Lass, I--"

The door slammed open and Antoninas emerged with a frown. Mistress Evelyn followed, her face a thundercloud. If I thought she was mad earlier, she was a tower of fury now. I stood up and quickly straightened my clothing so as not to draw her ire.

"Well, as I live and breathe, Evelyn Aldcock!" Balthan shouted, nearly knocking me over as he rushed to embrace her. "I had no idea ye were still alive, ye old coot!"

Like a rainbow after a rain shower, Mistress Evelyn brightened as she returned the hug. "Balthan Steelhammer, thank the Light!" she cried in relief. "How did you get here, and at precisely this moment?"

"I'd say it was the power of the Light, but ye can thank the Lass, Evelyn. I'd just arrived and was going to speak with Shadowbreaker when I found her. She was sitting here looking all forlorn, like her dog had died, and I thought 'There's someone who needs some help.'"

"She certainly does, Balthan. That she does." Evelyn turned to Antoninas, the thundercloud making a reappearance. "It seems we no longer require the assistance of the Church after all, Antoninas," she said icily.

"As I said, Evelyn, my hands are tied," Antoninas began, who seemed nonplussed by the appearance of the travel-worn dwarf. "Lady Prestor requested--"

"Antoninas is it? Whatever yer name, yer an ass," the dwarf snorted. "Hiding behind orders when ye should be out there assisting the people. I'll have a wee chat with both Shadowbreaker and Benedictus about this when I get back."

I swallowed. You just didn't insult members of the Church like this. But even in the few minutes of chatting I discovered that Balthan had a disregard for the rules that approached Dad's. And, apparently, he felt he had the clout to back it up by throwing around Archbishop Benedictus' name like that. But I still had the urge to hide, seemingly caught in the middle among people who were well above me.

"Now look here, Balthan--"

"Look 'ere, yerself," the dwarf cut Antoninas off again with a growl. "I didn't take my Oaths just so I could go drink at taverns all over Azeroth. But oaths mean something, and Light willing I'll fulfill mine."

The priest finally began to look agitated. "Oaths are only part of it, Balthan," he spat out. "We need to also keep Stormwind and the monarchy protected at all costs, because this is the sole remaining Human kingdom in Azeroth. Without the leadership of Stormwind, the Alliance would fall completely apart."

"How can ye stand there and preach about 'preserving Stormwind' when the wolves are at ye door? That the Defias aren't a 'big enough problem' fer ye? If they take over the countryside, Stormwind will starve, and then where'll ye be?"

"We can and will remain a bastion of hope in Azeroth, Balthan. That is our primary goal. And running after every little problem distracts from that."

"Every little problem? Will ye listen to yerself? Forest fer the trees, Antoninas. If ye ignore those little problems, they become big ones before ye know it. The Light calls us to defend and protect the weak and smite evil in all forms. And I didna spend all those years watching friends and allies die just to 'focus on the larger issue'..."

Balthan paused, a sudden realization spreading across his face. He turned back toward me with the grace of an ox and stared hard into my eyes. "Didna know how I missed it before," he said, "but burn me if yer not the spittin' image of..."

"Yes," Evelyn said, quietly. "Cardwyn is Mona and Daryn's youngest."

"That settles it," Balthan said. "I'm not gonna lose any more friends. Not today. When do we start?"

1 comment:

  1. Ooh Balthan is a friend of the family! I’m reading this appreciating how well you know Azerothian history, Red.