Chapter One: Sentinel Hill
It was colder that morning. A low wind howled over the flat, barren land and whistled through the cracks and leaks in the small hut she called a home. She pulled her small, threadbare blanket closer around herself and pressed her hands between her legs to keep her fingers warm. It was the first sign of the cold season. During the long summer, the winds from Stranglethorn made the air warm and damp. But the winter winds blew east from Duskwood, much colder, but still damp, piercing her clothing and chilling her right to the bones.
The sun hadn't yet risen above the horizon, but Addy was awake, shivering and teeth chattering. She knew sleep had long abandoned her, but her eyes were still heavy, still longing to go back to their slumber.
But eventually she groaned, sitting up in her straw mattress, stretching her muscles, stiff and sore. She stumbled to her feet, wincing as her bare toes touched the cold stone floor. She reached blindly for her cloak, huddling it around herself as she tip toed over to the fireplace. She hurriedly gathered the kindling and firewood she kept nearby, striking at the flint until she had a roaring fire, lighting up the dark room.
She collapsed on the floor next to the fire, curling her cloak around her as she warmed her hands and feet. The cold winds had come early, and she wasn't prepared. She hadn't run the fire all summer and she was low on wood and kindling. She'd need a new blanket and cloak, and some more nails to fix the numerous holes in the ceiling. The cold winds almost always carried rain with them.
She climbed to her feet, walking over to the table in the corner of her small cottage, grabbing her coin purse and opening it. A single silver piece and five copper pieces - enough to buy food for the next few weeks, but not much else.
Which meant a trip to the Hill.
Addy grumbled as she pulled herself to her feet. She had been planning to head to Sentinel Hill to sell her new stock in a weeks time, when it was finished. As it was now she'd likely have to make a second trip before winter.
She walked to the door of her cottage, pulling her cloak tightly around herself to block the wind as she wandered out into the small vineyard she called home. It was nowhere near the size it had been when her grandfather had run it, when the rows of grapes had run over the neighbouring hill and his wine was sold as far north as Ironforge. But while grapes were easier to grow in the fallow earth than most other crops, the famine had hit her hard as well. Gone were the dozens of workers and constant inflow of money. Now, only she worked the vines, growing them and making wine to sell to the locals. She wasn't particularly good at making wine, and most of her stock was a bit too bitter and left a strange aftertaste - but most of the soldiers and heroes sent by Stormwind were young and inexperienced and couldn't tell the difference.
She checked on the vines first, inspecting the grapes. She hoped the cold snap overnight hadn't damaged them. They were her last crop of the summer and their wine would hopefully strive off starvation through the winter.
Luckily, they seemed fine. She grabbed a few and popped them in her mouth to test their ripeness, pulling a face at the burst of sour on her tongue. They definitely needed another couple of weeks to ripen.
She hurried to the other side of the vineyard, grabbing a rusty key and opening a cellar door beside her hut, descending into the dark, freezing basement. She hummed to herself as she quickly lit a few candles to light the room, then looked into the old rusty buckets around the dark room which held slowly fermenting grapes. She dipped a finger in and touched it to her tongue, nodding as she walked over to her finished product. Half a dozen bottled, corked and ready to go. They were from last winter, the newer spring bottles sitting behind them. She grabbed them all and placed them into a cloth bag with a frown. She hoped it would be enough for what she needed.
She hooked the bag of wine bottles over her shoulders, adding a water skin and some jerky for the trip. Before she left, she knelt by the floor of the cellar, peeling up one of the rotten floorboards. She smiled to herself as she reached into the hole and pulled out a long hand-and-a-half broadsword, sheathed in poor leather. It was probably the most expensive item she owned, but she couldn't ever bring herself to sell it. It was a reminder of a life that could have been…
She attached it to her back, making sure it would be within reach should she need it. She always brought it with her, both as a security against any wayward bandits or gnolls, and also in case she needed to make an expensive purchase. She didn't want to sell it, but she would in a second if she needed to.
The road to Sentinel Hill used to be rife with dangers - she wouldn't have dared walked alone on the main road a few years earlier. If bandits and gnolls didn't kill you, the Defias sure would have. But in the years since the Defias was defeated there was a much more noticeable presence from Stormwind, and it wasn't uncommon to see the Alliance banner flying along the roads accompanying patrolling soldiers. Most of them would check the locals farms out if they passed, to discourage bandits from attacking. While many of the people of Westfall had mixed feelings for the crown, everyone agreed that the soldiers had made the roads much safer, and were a welcome presence.
The walk to Sentinel Hill wasn't terribly long, she could actually see the tower from her home. But it was so flat in Westfall one could see for miles. Once all you could see was wheat as far as the horizon. Now the ground was the same colour, but from the dead grass on dead fields that didn't have enough nutrients to feed the weeds.
She started her walk when the sun had barely passed the horizon. It would take a few hours to make the familiar trek and she passed the time by whistling old songs from her childhood. When she was a child her grandfather would sing songs from his days as a sailor and they were as fresh in her mind as if he'd sung them yesterday
The closer she got to The Hill, the more people she saw milling around. Most were homeless farmers, sitting in tent cities on the countryside. A few of them said hello, trying to sell her baubles and trinkets they'd crafted out of scarp materials. She always felt terrible turning them down, but she just didn't have the coin to spare. She tried to avoid eye contact, keeping one hand on her ware as she approached the Hill.
When she was a kid she thought Sentinel Hill had the biggest tower in the world. Of course she'd probably seen bigger back in Stratholme, but against the flat landscape the tower had seemed giant. The world world was so much bigger when you were a child.
But now she could see it for what it was. A crumbling ruined wall surrounding a single guard tower patched together with wooden boards and nails, a sad shadow of its former glory. A small number of homes were scattered around the hill, mostly used to house the soldiers who manned it.
She walked through the small encampment, nodding and smiling at the people who lived there and recognized her. A few stopped to say hello and ask how she was. Addy gave them quick short answers, but then went on her way, searching for someone in particular. It didn't take long to find him. He stood at the entrance to the tower, speaking with several soldiers and pointing to several points around the hill. The men nodded, saluted, and went on their way.
Addy ran up towards him, waving wildly to get his attention.
"Gryan!" She shouted. The man turned to her, his eyes crinkling in a smile as he beamed at her. He was tall, and well muscled with wrinkles around his eyes and salt and pepper hair that fell past his ears. Addy was sure he'd been something of a lady killer when he was younger, and even now she'd heard some of the older women in town giggling behind their hands when the aging paladin passed by with his men.
He walked down the hill, holding his arms out as he beamed at her, "Addy!"
She wrapped her arms around him as he hugged her, picking her up and spinning her around as she laughed.
"It's been ages!" He grunted, putting her down, "Light, you're not as small as you used too be."
She smacked his chest playfully, "You're just getting old."
He chuckled lightly, shaking his head, "I've missed you, Addy. You should come visit more often."
They started to walk along the path in a comfortable stride. Addy smiling at the familiarity of the surroundings. "I can't afford to leave as often anymore."
Gryan frowned, but looked unsurprised, "Are you still living all by yourself out there?"
Addy rolled her eyes at his concern, smiling, "It's fine, Gryan. Your patrols come by every few days anyways."
"I don't know…" Gryan shook his head, "I still think you should move here. I'd feel a lot better if you were closer."
Addy smiled at the old man fondly. Gryan was a well loved leader amongst the people in Westfall. The man had started the People's Militia when the Defias Brotherhood had taken over the land, defending it when Stormwind hadn't been able too. Now the Defias was all but gone from the land and Westfall was secure and mostly safe for the first time in decades. For a man like Gryan Stoutmantle, it had been hard to let go of a past like that. He'd taken some of his men North to fight during the Northrend Campaign, but after the death of the Lich King he'd ended up back home in Westfall.
"It's perfectly safe." Addy assured him, "Besides those grapes are my only source of income. Without them I'd be homeless."
"You could come live with me." He offered. "The countryside is no place for a young woman to be living alone."
Addy knew the man was sincere. He'd been friends with her grandfather, and she'd known him since she'd come to live here as a child. Most of the original militia members had watched her grow up here, but Gryan had always been closer than that.
She waved off his concerns, "I'm fine Gryan. If you're so worried about me, you should make time to come visit."
He chuckled, nodding his head, "You're right. I'm sorry I haven't been around much - been training some of the new stock from Stormwind."
He motioned his hand to a group of young recruits, none older than about twenty, who were all standing around looking rather bored. Probably not the glamorous lifestyle they thought they'd lead as Knights or warriors.
"Speaking of new stock." Gryan continued, "I suppose this isn't a social visit?"
"No." Addy reached into her bag, pulling out one of the bottles, "Cold snap hit last night, hoping to sell and buy some supplies."
"You running low on food?" Gryan sounded concerned, "Because you know Stormwind sends us surplus, and every citizen is welcome if they need it."
Addy wrinkled her nose, "I'm not there yet, give it to someone who needs it. Besides, I'm not here for food. It's getting colder, I need to stock up for the winter."
Gryan inspected a wagon as they passed, and Addy stopped with him. He turned his head to look at her, "What kind of supplies are you looking for?"
"Nails, for a leaky ceiling." Addy listed, "A winter cloak, and new gloves if I can afford it - mine have worn a bit thin. And a warmer blanket."
They continued their walk, Gryan stepping in beside her, "We've got some iron nails laying around that we could lend you, a blanket too if you want."
"How much?" Addy asked, feeling for her change purse.
"Come on, Addy." Gryan stopped walking, turning to face her with exasperation, "Must we play this game?"
"I don't need any charity." Addy argued, feeling the age old irritation growing with her. They had this argument every time she came to town. She always lost, "There are people without homes, living in the dirt and cold - they need these things more than I do. I can pay."
"Barely." He mumbled, and Addy glared at him. He rubbed his hand down his face, fiddling at his beard, "Addy, I'm not offering you anything I wouldn't offer any other man, woman, or child. And I'd rather you get the nails from me than some blacksmith who made them half-assed out of bad iron."
She knew he was right. Bad nails would rust and break easily. And the last thing she wanted was for the roof to cave in in the middle of the winter.
"Fine." She gritted her teeth, "But at least let me give you a few copper for the blanket."
He gave her a look, "Two."
She hesitated before nodding, "Fine. Two."
She handed him the two coppers and he pocketed them. "As for cloaks and gloves I'd ask Gina, maybe Will. I know they won't try to overcharge you. Otherwise you'll have to take your chances with any travellers."
He motioned to a small camp at the base of the tower. Most of the men surrounding it were guards, both from Westfall and Stormwind. But every now and then she saw a stranger dressed in mix-matched leathers and armour. Heroes and other mercenaries who thought they'd come here to help save the poor people of Westfall from their own misfortune. Usually they had odd items they'd picked up in their adventures that they would sell. But the prices they were looking for were usually higher than she could afford.
She gnawed at her lips, fiddling at the belt around her shoulders from which her sword hung. Gryan caught her eye and looked down.
"You're not thinking about selling it, are you?" He didn't sound disappointed, just saddened by the inevitable. They both knew that a day would come when she'd need too.
Addy swallowed, "Not unless I have too."
Gryan stared at her for a few moments, searching for something. She avoided his eyes, hoping he understood that she didn't want to have that conversation again. After a few moments he sighed and they continued their walk in silence.
There was always awkwardness surrounding this particular topic of conversation. How five years earlier Gryan had taken her on as an apprentice of sorts, training her to be a Paladin. It had come naturally to her, the light flowing through her like a faucet, ready for her manipulation into attacks and strikes that could take down men three times her size.
But that was over now. Gryan was a good man, but not a particularly good Paladin. He could train her to use a sword, and the very basics light based spells, but to receive proper training she'd need to go to Stormwind. And that was nothing but a dream. No Paladin worth his hammer would accept her as a student - she couldn't afford a proper weapon, let alone a full suit of armour. And moving to Stormwind was nothing but a fairytale.
Gryan had offered to buy armour for her, but it was only a gesture. He couldn't afford it anymore than she could. She knew he felt guilty he couldn't give her more training, and felt like he'd limited her future. Every time she came to town they would argue about it.
She felt her stomach jump other throat at the thought. The last winter had been rough, and she'd had to use her savings to stave off starvation - the savings she'd been building since she was young, to hopefully pay for training. Gryan would understand, but she couldn't bare to see the heartbroken look of disappointment.
A solider ran over and quickly got Gryan's attention. He apologized to her, giving her a quick hug before jogging off back towards the tower. Left alone, Addy made her way to the camp by the tower where several people, men and women of various races, where hanging out around a campfire, some sparring, others sleeping under tents in sleeping mats.
A few of them were regulars, mostly human mercenaries and heroes from Elywnn who hadn't grown bored and moved onto Duskwood yet. There was a dwarf passed out under a tent, and even a few Night Elves whispering in hushed Darnassian at the fire.
Addy gave them all a polite smile as she approached, "Hello."
One of the heroes, a boy only a few years older than her waved his hand at her, "Addy! My Hero!"
"Hello James." She smiled at him, trying not to blush. He was a very handsome boy, only a few years older than her. His large doe eyes were sparkling amber and he had a button nose. His hair was in a constant stat of mess, and she'd used to imagine what it would be like to run her hands through it. "How are you?"
"I'm very good." He held up a sack of coin, "Just got back from selling some goods in Stormwind, so I can live a few weeks without having to kill a Gnoll." He shuddered lightly.
Addy eye'd the bag of coin with greedy eyes, trying not to make it too obvious, "I hope you didn't fill up on any of that good Stormwind brew."
He beamed at her, "And miss out on my Best Girls wine? Never."
Addy flushed right down to her roots.
"How much you sellin' for girl?" A silver haired solider sitting nearby spoke, an older man that Addy usually saw around here. She didn't know his name, and he never called her anything but 'girl', but he always bought from her.
"Silver a bottle." She told them. Honestly that was a bit steep - her bottles probably weren't worth more than a handful of coppers, but a girl had to eat.
He grunted, fishing in his pocket and pulling out a silver, flipping it to her. She stumbled a bit to catch it, fumbling it a bit before she discreetly slipped it into the pocket of her apron. She pulled a bottle out of her bag and handed it to him.
"Give me a couple." James handed her two silver, his smile blinding. Addy avoiding stuttering like an idiot when she thanked him, her face warm as her hands brushed against his lightly. She handed him two bottles and he winked at her lightly. She almost broke the bottles.
She quickly sold the last two bottles she had with her and said goodbye, giving James one more shy smile before she walked away. She supposed she might meet up with him later in his tent. It would hardly be the first time she'd spent the night with him. It was because of those nights that James knew just how to make a fool of her.
It had been profitable trip - her pocket was now five silver thicker, more than she had hoped. She might actually have some left over at the end of the day.
But, of course, she wouldn't ever find out.
Because in that moment, the entire world exploded