The Panther and the Fox
Very little moonlight reached the foorest floor, but it was more than enough for the panther stalking his prey. Each of his senses were attuned for the late night hunt. He followed his prey’s frightened, erratic tracks through the forest floor. He smelled the fear left behind in each paw print. He would pause and listen as his prey’s breathing quickened.
He felt that the fox was close.
The panther had hunted the fox for hours as she ran through Elwynn forest. The chase led him to a clearing, halfway between the forest and the hills that surrounded the human city. The fox sat on a rock, looking towards the hills. The panther approached slowly, crouching low to the ground, his belly rubbing againt the twigs and leaves of the forest flooor. His tail swished, once, before the pounce. The fox’s ears perked as the panther’s tail hit the ground. She jumped from the rock and bounded off into the hills. The panther pounced and landed where the fox was. She was yards ahead, looking down on the panther from the top of a hill. The panther gave the chase.
He gained on the fox quickly, closing into pounce once more. The fox ducked right. The panther lunged, falling for the feint. She bounded down another path on the left, forcing the panther to slow and turn. It took a moment for the panther to track the fox, but the moment was all the fox needed to disappear into the hillside. The panther smelled the fox–she had ran down this path–but the scent trail ended in front of a small, narrow cave.
He could feel the fox was nearby, but his senses focused on closer prety. The sounds of mewling caught his ear. He smelled somethign similar to the fox–her kin–but he could not see them. Her kits were close, in a cave too small for the panther to reach them. So he waited. The kits would eventually stop mewling and look out for their mother. When they would, the panther would be there, ready for them.
The kits didn’t stop mewling. He walked a few paces away, downwind, so the kits couldn’t smell him, but not a single one looked for their mother. As the panther waited, the moonset behind the hills. The mewling grew fainter. Soon the panther walked back to the cave and listened for the mewling. The cave was silent. While he smelt the fox still, the kit’s scent was fading. Another smell, sickly sweet, filled his nostrils. Something above the cave cracked and shattered. The panther lept backward, dodging the falling rocks and debris, sealing the cave completely.
His senses focused on the cave, the panther didn’t hear the fox as she crept behind him, but he felt her when she pounced on his tail. Lighting quick, the panther reared round to face the fox, but not before the fox bit into the panther’s paw. The panther growled and lashed out with the the same wounded paw, but the fox glared and barked at her.
“Annie!” it growled. “ANNIE!”
Annalea Al’Cair sat straight up in her bed. Her dream still playing in her mind as she looked for the buzz box she had left on her nightstand. The nightstand, and its contents, were scattered to the ground, knocked over in her sleep. She found the box underneath her notebook. Her brother in law’s voice barking her name.
“Oi, fer fuck’s sake, ANNIE!”
“I”m here, I’m here. I was just…getting…What’s wrong?”
“Nothin’ wrong. Everythin’s on schedule. Threnny’s water broke.”
“Is everything okay?”
“I think so…but yer the other fuckin’ midwife. Yeh’re supposed t’tell me! So get yer arse o’er here!”
“I’m coming.” She paused for a moment, trying to clear her head. “Did you get my list?”
“Aye, only thing missin’ are yeh an Shad an our Naiara. I’ve gotta get that one on the box. Yeh comin’?”
“Aye, aye.” She said. “Be there in two shakes.”
“We’ll be waitin’.”
Annie set her buzz box down on her bed and started to change from her night clothes into something more appropriate for her niece’s birth. She looked at her right hand, the same she must have used when she knocked the nightstand over. A bruise was forming. By the time Naiara would be born, it would be a sickly purple green. Annie tried to focus on the bruise, but all she could remember was the fox’s bite and the kits trapped in a cave.
The Gilded Rose had always been considered a respectable establishment, even in its early days. It was the sort of place that, rather than being tarnished by those of its clients with tarnish to impart, gave them a sort of glossy sheen. But there were always going to be those who disagreed.
The trouble started with a toast, old John Bell lifting a glass of the Rose’s good dark beer to Threnn Al’Cair’s good fortune, and his sons responding in kind. Really, not the sort of thing that should have inspired trouble. Then William toasted Bricu Bittertongue and his good fortune, which Robert suggested was much greater – “After all, he’s getting a lovely child and our Threnny.”
None of the Bells knew the man who rose from a table of five companions and made his way to their snug table by the fire, but John at least recognized the emblem stitched onto his tunic – House Fairfax’s horse-and-horn quarterings. He was an athletic-looking young fellow, with handsome features spoiled primarily by the supercilious sneer lurking on his face waiting for an excuse to pop out. “What’s the happy occasion, citizens?” he inquired pleasantly enough.
“A birth, sirrah,” reported Robert with a grin. “And the couple’s first to boot. Join us for a drink, won’t you?” He was in the sort of ebullient good mood that manifests itself as contagion. “Anyone, in fact, who’d like a round on my brother can have one!”
The Fairfax man chuckled at that, and William’s protesting shout. “Well, it’s rare enough I turn down a free drink. Only – who did you say were the lucky couple again?”
“Threnn and Bricu Bittertongue,” Robert answered. “Fine Stormwind business-folk, the both of them, and proper soldiers to boot.” The uniformed man lifted an eyebrow and made a noise in the back of his throat that carried some unflattering connotations.
“Something troubling you, sir?” asked William, with a wary glance at his brother.
“I’ll have to decline, with all respect,” the Fairfax man said in a tone that implied very little in the way of respect. “While I’m sure you’re fine Stormwind gentlemen, a greenskin’ll sit the Lion Throne before I’d lift a mug to the likes of those.” That sneer had no compunctions about making itself shown.
“And what likes would that be, my friend?” Robert pushed his mug aside and let one tattooed arm fall on the tabletop,fingers tapping. As carpenters went, he was a fairly muscular sort. The standing man seemed unimpressed, but his five friends at the far table might have had something to do with that. “Threnny’s like a sister to us, I’ll have you know.”
“Not much of a brother then, are you?” The Fairfax man planted his own hand on the tabletop, not far from Robert’s. “I couldn’t imagine letting any sister of mine marry that Bittertongue sot, or wear those colors.”
“Not our bloody fault you haven’t any imagination,” offered William, putting a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Look, fellow, why don’t you go and sit down? This is meant to be a happy occasion.”
The man scoffed. He practically said “Scoff.” William was seized by a sudden urge to laugh, and the looming man caught it and scowled. Nothing irked the likes of the provocateur more than not being taken seriously. “Well, then again,” he said with weighty sarcasm, “Maybe your ‘Threnny’ is just where she’s meant to be, with the criminal scum. Like that sister of hers, hm?”
William and Robert were both on their feet in an instant, the smiles wiped from their faces. “Say that again,” Robert said flatly. “Go on and say that again, you streak of piss.”
“Better,” grunted their father as he got to his feet. “Don’t. Turn around, walk out that door, and go tell Lord Fairfax to give you something useful to do.” John Bell clasped his big gnarled hands in front of his chest. “Because if you say it, then you have my personal guarantee that whatever else happens, my boys will knock the teeth from your head for speaking ill of the Al’Cair family. I’ll put it on paper if you want.”
The Fairfax man glanced around the room, which had fallen silent. A bit less than twenty people in the commons, split three ways between Bittertongue well-wishers, unrelated guests, and of course his own five companions. Apparently, he liked his odds. “Bricu Bittertongue is a drunken, murdering bastard,” he said with slow and oozing malice, “And Threnn Bittertongue and Annalea Al’Cair are nothing but a pair of-”
“-virra lovely an’ charmin’ ladies.” Somehow, the speaker had entered the Rose in the few moments between the Fairfax man’s survey of the room and his address to the brothers Bell and their father. “An’ I’m glad ta join yeh in the privilege ay thir ‘quaintance, Bennett, auld boy. It is Bennett, innit? Hadyn Bennett?” The apparent Master Bennett made no reply, but the color could be observed to be leaving his face at an unusually rapid rate.
Tarquin ap Danwyrith strolled into the room, glancing over at Bennett’s table of friends, none of whom made move to rise. He draped one lanky arm around Bennett’s shoulders. “Hadyn Bennett, an’ in the colors too! Fuck me, mate, but yeh’ve moved up in the world, have’na yeh? I recall when a keen punter could get yeh ta break yir ain dear auld ma’s knees fir the price ay a whore!” He laughed at his own wit, grinning broadly at the slightly bemused trio of Bells across the table. “An’ look at yeh now. Time’s been kind, eh?”
He adjusted his hat and leaned in to speak into Hadyn’s ear, his smile getting even wider while the latter’s sickly grin curdled. From his place across the table, William could hear quite clearly. “If I see any ay yeh Fairfax cunts within a hundred paces ay Threnny’s child, they willna find the bodies ’til she’s a grandmother. Take yir lads an’ go tell Fane what I said. Now.” Tarquin let go and clapped Bennett on the shoulder, then turned away, not bothering to watch as the man made a hasty gesture to his table of companions and exited the Gilded Rose with haste unbecoming a sworn man of House Fairfax.
Once the six had left, Tarquin planted one foot on an unoccupied seat, tilting his hat back to peer at the brothers Bell, still standing. “Well, thit wis divertin’. Which yin ay yeh’s Bell, then?”
“Ah – all of us,” answered William, staring at ap Danwyrith skeptically. Robert settled for a pugnacious glare, a recalcitrant blood vessel still throbbing slightly at his brow.
“I’m John Bell,” responded that eminent personality, comfortably ensconced in his seat once again. “Those two are my sons, William and Robert. And you’re ap Danwyrith, aren’t you?”
“Guilty, ay thit if naught else.” Tarquin tipped his hat to all three and stepped back, buffing the buttons on his green tunic. They seemed perfectly shiny, but he was the sort of man who always needed something to do with his hands, if only to keep them out of trouble. “I’m meant ta tell yeh thit Thenia an’ Padraig’s oan thir way. Have a drink or twa ready fir thim, eh?” Some prestidigitation with his right hand saw a gold half-crown glittering on the tabletop. “Oan me.”
“Very generous of you, Master ap Danwyrith,” observed John with a certain wry twist to his lips that neither of his sons completely understood. “Have that drink with us?” William, back in his seat, moved to draw out an empty chair.
“Love ta, auld boy, but Threnny wants me up thir ta keep her husband fra’ breakin’ down wi’ the terrors.” He smirked and stepped back. “I’ll see yeh eftir, na doubt. Cheers, Masters Bell, an’ keep up the guid work.” He withdrew his leg and made his long-stepping way up the stairs, as the rest of the room slowly returned to its previous mutter of conversation, less the empty corner table.
William broke the silence, smirking at Robert. “Are you ever going to sit down?” Robert coughed and did so, a touch of that pugnacious scowl still on his face, and Will turned to his father. “That fellow, he’s the same one in the papers. The one who…” He couldn’t seem to find an adequate way to finish the sentence, and settled for picking up the gold coin from the tabletop. “All those stories can’t be true.”
“Half’d be enough,” said John quietly. “But that’s the way it is, boys – if Threnn’s family, then so’s Bricu, and so’s that one.”
The brothers Bell looked at each other, and then Robert shrugged and lifted his glass. “Alright, then. Wouldn’t be here if we didn’t trust our Threnny, now would we?” William smiled, put down the coin, and found his own beer.
Threnn checked three times to make sure she was broadcasting to a private channel rather than to the Riders’ common one. “Fellsie?”
It took a minute for the other woman to answer. She was likely busy putting the house in order, or outside, fingers dug deep in the earth, planting her garden. “Mmn? Whatsit?”
“Think you can get to Stormwind soon?”
“Threnny? Everthin’ a’right?”
“Yeah. Everything’s fine so far.” Bricu had put out the summons to Anna and Haemon already. She could hear him talking quietly with Tarquin now. Kara had been sent to find her parents. This was really happening.
“‘So far’.” The sound of a bridle jangling as it came down from its hook almost drowned out the concern in Fells’ voice.
Threnn tried to keep her own calm. “So far. My water broke maybe ten minutes ago. Can you–”
“‘M ON M’WAY.”
She grinned as Fells switched off, and settled down to wait for her family to arrive.