(Written by Jolly, Tarquin, and Annalea)
The highlands of Lordaeron were not for the faint of heart; be it the putrescence of the Scourge’s long-lingering remnant, or the rock-strewn hills and valleys that made farmers out of only the most hardy and stubborn of peoples, the very land itself was a fine depiction of the people that had long inhabited it. The clouds that had moved in threatened to wash the land in dread, with Thorim’s distant rumbling echoing the sentiment. Coniferous and deciduous trees alike fought branch-to-branch in tight knots dotted throughout the ups and downs of the horizon, nature’s own version of unlikely allies against a never-ceasing tide of earth. The only invaders able to easily take the place lacked the necessities of food or rest that the land demanded of a traveler.
Through this scarred home the party pushed, coming across the old dirt path that led up a hill, steep on both sides and knotted with trees. “Through ‘ere,” Aely said, leading ahead with more eagerness than the others. The sky had begun to let loose the faint pitter-patter of rain that was sure to thicken soon.
Before she could reach the top of the hill, one of the trees moved. Not a tree, but near as big around as the oak he moved out from behind. He remained in the shade, the blade of his greatsword held straight and steady before him, ready for grim business. His face, despite its youth, was as craggy and full of old tales as the very land they had traveled across.
“Aely,” the man said, dropping his guard and moving forward two steps, seeing only her and not registering the others initially. When he did see the others, his eyes widened angrily, blade coming up again fiercely. Runes along bare arm and blade flared a malevolent purple. Kaleigh’s blade was out and her body in front of the paladin in what was an inhuman feat of speed, a hairsbreadth from violence. “Who–so manah,” Jol said through gritted teeth. “Ap Danwyrith onleh, yeh said!”
Tarquin drifted out from behind the two armored women, scarecrow frame banded in dark leathers. “So she said, aye. But I am a cautious lad, an’ willna go in the deep dark woods alone.” He showed his teeth in a perfunctory smile. “Yeh shid recall that ay me, auld boy, if it’s Jolstraer ap Taborwynn yeh are.”
“Fear?” Jol asked, his eyes half looking inwardly. “Nae. Far pas’ that, me thinks. If I am ‘oo I am.” He frowned at that, the faraway look going further, deeper in. The blade never wavered; the violet hues thrown off by his runes danced to a dirge unheard.
“Souls carry mem’ries like scars ay tha bodeh. From fleshwounds tae tha bone, ‘ey remain. Wot manner ay fel can make ‘et? Arcanery? Dark necr’mancy?” The runes flickered in color, an unholy red. “Blood ay tha witch. Bite ay tha Scourge. Cold ay tha grave. Kynaugh magyath.”
Kynaugh magyath, mouthed Tarquin back at him, face carefully blank. The younger man stepped forward, and Jolstraer’s hands tightened on the hilt of his sword, hard enough to make knuckles crack. Chryste was between them then, in two quick steps, but Jolstraer looked right through them all. “Awright, big lad,” Tarquin began, “Let’s say that yeh–”
“I. Exist!” bellowed Jolstraer, his eyes regaining their focus and flaring with the impassioned cry. “Tha road ay tha otherwordly is full ay gits an’ charlatans! Lorn Daer Ronae, tha taint wos named. But tha blood ay Lordaeron is strongah. Believe as may be, but ap Taborwynn remains ‘ere wit’ tha living. Me will is me oan, me fury’s unquenched, an by tha blood ay our oldfathers ah’m nae done wit’ this worl’ yet! Seek yer proof, Tarquin!”
There was silence in the glade when the echoes of the death knight’s challenge faded, a true silence, as if beast and bird had fled. It came to Aelflaed, through the twin curtains of her hope and her dread, that this was familiar. The stillness and the quiet of decision, before blood was spilled. And what would she do then, if the choice was forced on her?
Then Tarquin gave some minute signal and stepped back, and Annalea slipped forward in his place. Hair pulled back, wearing a leather vest over shirt and breeches, she could have been a craftswoman hawking her wares in Trade Square. Jolstraer looked through her, then at her, his eyes softening. “Anna. Pret’y lil’ songbird. Darker now, yeh feel.”
“Still a flatterer, I see.” Anna stepped forward from the other three then, showing courage in the face of what might very well be a greatsword-wielding madman. “Jolly was always straight with us, so I’m just going to say it: I need a look inside your mind. To make sure these Aes’kyr didn’t leave any traps behind, or that they haven’t managed to thoroughly convince some other poor dead man that he’s our Jolstraer. It’ll hurt some, I won’t lie, but it’ll fade. Will you trust me?”
“Yeh ken tha dead can sing? Beau’iful, wordless, sadder an’ swee’er ‘an any livin’ mout’ ken try ta match. Drive ay soul mad, because yeh ken ne’er escape it.” Jolstraer straightened, slowly, lowering the sword and plunging the point into the earth. “Word ay tha colors, yeh ken ‘ave me trust. But pray, one errant tendril an’ ay’m liable tae die wit’ me han’s aroun’ yer pret’y lil’ t’roat.”
Perhaps she ought to have flinched from that thought, but Anna stood her ground and met the huge man’s eyes. “I’ve had rougher hands than yours around it and lived to sing the tale.” She held up her hands. “But I won’t go fucking with your mind. You have my word.”
She looked about for a sheltered part of the hill and pointed at a fallen log beneath a stand of thick pines. “There. It’ll keep the rain off of us if it starts coming down. I just need you to lie back and let me sing.”
The big man let out a long breath, as a man does before he lifts a heavy burden for a long travel. “Aye ‘en.” He trudged towards the log, thumping down with his back to the log like a sack of turnips. “Least ay git ay song out ay ‘et, aye?” he said to no one in particular as the four arranged themselves around him in various states; Anna was calm and collected, kneeling there beside him like they were settling for a picnic. Tarquin hovered just outside of arm’s reach, shifting and swaying, his eyes flickering between Jolstraer and Annalea with animal alertness. Aely was at Tarquin’s shoulder, her face impassive but her stance near radiating nervous energy. Kaleigh took up her post behind the big Northman, and he spared her a glance as they settled in.
“Keep yer blade out, Kaleigh,” Jol said with a resigned sigh. “Make ‘et quick if’n ‘et goes sour, ay?”
If Chryste said anything, Jol didn’t hear; Anna’s sweet voice filled the air with song.
At first it was only the stirred forest air, the rumble of thunder from the north and the tang of dampness in the air. Jol opened his mouth to speak, and that’s when the forest itself…came alive. As she sang, the memories came to life in his eyes. What the others could not see came to life in the forest around them.
The song had a Northern lilt to it, a melody they could almost (but not quite) put their fingers on. A few more bars, maybe, or the first bit of the chorus, and the name of it would come. Except the song changed. Here it was a ballad, here a marching song, a lullaby, a dirge. That melody remained, drawn out, sped up, but always there, hiding in the tune. And while she sang, Annalea sifted through the memories of the man claiming to be Jolstraer:
…Of five brothers, riding against the Orcs near Darrowmere…a broken drunk, stumbling into the Pig and Whistle…fire and brimstone in the depths of Blackrock, guarding backs coated in Black and Red…Aelflaed, and pride…
“Easy now,” Tarquin said, to nobody in particular. Chryste Kaleigh didn’t need the warning; she held her sword level and statue-still, a heartbeat’s action away from Jolstraer’s broad back. At the Boss’s elbow, Aelflaed knit her hands together and mouthed a prayer, whatever words were in it lost to the sound of Annalea’s song.
…Northrend, pain and uncertainty of Threnn’s slumber…Angra’thar, fighting side by side with his family, pride and glory…fear and worry – where was Aely!?…picking a fight with Bricu, going fist-to-fist despite the festering plague in his side…his family, trying to save him…
Annalea sang, until her voice was a hush, the notes in the lower part of her range. She drew a breath — not the end of the song, but a pause, a storyteller’s trick — and when the next notes poured forth, they were brighter, hopeful. The melody invoking home to those inclined to hear it. Invoking family. She guided the memories along, watching as Jolstraer thought–
…Of Aelflaed, so strong and so beautiful, the last sight he saw living…
He sat bolt upright then, his face a rictus of pain and an angry shout coming from deep within. The song stopped as abruptly as he moved, his fists all balled up like a child about to tantrum. “Enough!” he gasped, chest heaving and unshed tears in his voice. “No more, please,” he pleaded, leaning back against the log with a heavy thump. The rain began to fall, pattering against the forest in a sharp contrast to the five stalwart forms nestled in its midst.
Annalea stepped back calmly, but still got herself out of swinging range. When she spoke, her voice was hoarse. “It’s him,” she said. “It’s Jolly.”
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