A/N: I thank all my readers for patience. Finals are coming up swiftly - I hope to have the rest of the first 15 chapters done before January 4th, at least. We shall see!
Chapter Nine: Secret
When Mendingwall awoke from his restful slumber, it was to one of the most shocking and frightening moments of his life.
Perhaps some of you, my human audience, know the feeling - that eerie, uncomfortable feeling that there are eyes upon you while you sleep, and your body awakens you from that instinct of danger. So it was with our dear Mendingwall. His eyes shot open and he became aware that there was another soul in his room - and was startled to find himself face to face with the boy he had seen the night before.
Velorian, Rhonwen's gangly nephew, was perched upon his bed in a low crouch, knees against his chest. His dark eyes were wide and his dark blue hair fell in long, unruly strands across his face. With one hand he balanced his weight, and in the other there was a silver kris, it's edges jagged and uneven.
And he was holding the dagger right to Mendingwall's throat.
He could not think to shout, lying perfectly rigid, at the mercy of this strange boy, while Velorian was as still and as steady as stone. Mendingwall swallowed and felt his skin scratch faintly against the blade.
"You know who I am." Velorian said at last, his voice a thick baritone that made Mendingwall's skin crawl. That such power in a tone could come from such a lanky boy was an accomplishment indeed.
Mendingwall forced his mouth to open and reply, though every muscle in his body screamed at him to defend himself. "You are my masters' nephew. Velorian, right? Last night. I saw you." He managed, his voice cracking. "May I ask, why you are in my room - no, let me rephrase. Why exactly are you holding a knife to my throat?"
"Vengeance, perhaps. Or justice; though both could be said, in this case." Velorian answered as if it meant nothing to him, indifference in his face. He spoke like an educated man, however frightening his appearance was. "My mother was taken from me in less than a fortnight. Why not visit revenge upon the man responsible?"
"The man responsible?" Mendingwall was utterly confused. "You mean the Sentinel Captain?"
"As well as you play the part of idiocy," Velorian answered, pressing the knife's edge closer to his skin, "you cannot fool me."
"I am not in the habit of trying to fool anybody, especially someone who has the my life in his hands." Mendingwall's fists gripped his bedsheets, trying to keep his breathing under control. "Begging for mercy, right about now, is sounding better and better - but I'd like to know what my crime was against you, considering the circumstances I've found myself in."
"I would thank you to just shut up for a moment, so that I can kill you properly," Velorian said. "It would be most appreciated."
"O-oh. All right. I'm very sorry. I'll be quiet, I suppose."
Mendingwall waited for the killing blow, his eyes tight shut and muscles rigid as he braced himself. but it did not come. He squinted at Velorian expectantly, but the boy was exasperated and his wielding hand fell from his throat, clearly annoyed. "If you could, please wipe that ridiculous look off of your face. I cannot spill your blood when you're lying there, looking like a fool."
"I am trying to keep my bowels intact."
"Stop blabbering on about your bodily functions, it's completely inappropriate."
"I'm sorry, I've never been killed before."
"Obviously not." Velorian exhaled, rolling his eyes. "Idiot. What is your name, anyway?"
"M-Mendingwall, son of Kuja Stormherald." Mendingwall said, inwardly wondering what the hell was going on. "It's a . . .pleasure?"
"Kuja Stormherald?" Velorian drew the dagger away from him. "Really?"
"Yes, of course! Who else would I be?"
Velorian blinked, and then he sat back and crossed his legs. "Well, why didn't you say so? What a terrible mistake that would have been. I would have stabbed you multiple times if you hadn't piped up, and it would not have been a pretty sight, at all. My aunt's bedsheets would have been ruined - she would have had a fit about that, you know. Blood everywhere." He rolled his shoulders.
Mendingwall realized he was gaping. "The sheets."
"Yes, the sheets. She's so particular." Velorian agreed.
They were silent for a long time, just staring at each other, until Mendingwall awkwardly cleared his throat. "Well, I'd like to get changed now . . ."
"I suppose you do." Velorian hopped off his bed and walked out, waving before disappearing from sight. "Good morning, then."
Mendingwall shook his head, at a loss for coherent speech or thought.
When he finally felt brave enough to step out of his bedroom fully dressed, Mendingwall was greeted by nothing and no one, save a chilly morning draft that floated through the Oakensong home freelly. He peeked outside a window and saw that they were surrounded by an unearthly fog and that dawn had only just begun to break over the horizon. He could hear Oone and Rhonwen downstairs preparing breakfast in the kitchen; they spoke freelly and without any sort of hush about their sudden change in plans. He crept down the hallway when he saw Lycentia's bedroom door wide open, and timidly peered inside.
Lycentia smiled at him wistfully. "Oh, good morning, Mend!" She was holding a steaming bowl of broth, which smelled divine to the hungry stomach. Lying in her bed, feigning sickness quite well, was her cousin. Velorian had been presented with a large tray of food, and when he saw Mendingwall entered, he flashed him a subtle wink and a coy smile when Lycentia was not looking, before coughing weakly.
"Have you met my cousin? He's quite ill, you know, after what happened, the poor dear." She touched his arm sympathetically. "He won't talk at all, not even to my father." She set the broth down on the tray and hopped to her feet, her eyes alight with adoration as she moved to stand before Mendingwall expectantly. "Would you like to walk the beach with me for shells? It's a lovely morning."
"Lycentia." Rhonwen reproached, making her daughter jump with surprise. "You will not distract your father's student today, or any other day. He is to concentrate on his training alone." She gave her a warning look before her gaze gently rested upon her coughing nephew. "Has he eaten any?"
"Barely anything and he insists that I feed it all to him," Lycentia complained, and Mendingwall perked his brow skeptically. Velorian was certainly milking his misfortune for all it was worth.
"Than continue to feed him," Rhonwen said shortly, "but only for today. Tomorrow, he is given chores to do. As much as I would wish it, the world and our duties do not end when there is grief. Mend, if you would follow me, please. I wish to speak with you."
Rhonwen led Mendingwall outside with a heavy, tired stride. He could tell from her eyes, she had little sleep the night before. What concerned him further was a saber, awaiting her patiently on the beach side. It was a lovely creature, dark and sleek, with piercing yellow eyes. It yawned as they approached, and he felt a pang of guilt take hold in his chest when he remembered Shadowfell. He must be so confused . . .
"You're leaving?" He asked, watching as Rhonwen proceeded to tie packs, blankets, and other odds and ends to the saber's saddle. It's ears pricked when he spoke, and was quick to turn and nuzzle his offere'd hand with a growl, tusks smooth to the touch.
Rhonwen looked to him apologetically. "I am sorry, Mendingwall, but I will be unable to train you myself. As things stand, I must go immediately to Astranaar to settle matters of my sister's Estate."
"I am sorry," Mendingwall offered with a respectful, bowed head, "about your sister."
"Andulasia was a good woman." Rhonwen tightened the saddle straps with haste; her saber grunted. "She did not deserve such a fate, but she met it with honor."
"How long will you…?"
"I don't know," Rhonwen admitted. "But speak with my husband – he was once a Cenarion Druid, as I am. He shall train you appropriately as a Naturalist until I return."
Oone, a Cenarion Druid? Mendingwall managed to nod graciously.
"Take care, Mendingwall Stormherald – and watch your back."
Mendingwall blinked at this, awkwardly waving farewell to his master as she mounted and nudged the great cat into a graceful run, disappearing into the shadows of the Darkshore forests. He stood a while in the chill morning air, staring out to sea. His heart stung in the newfound solitude.
Wandering back inside, he went upstairs to see Lycentia still reluctantly tending to Velorian. She looked up and smiled brightly at him when he approached, quick to leave her cousin's bedside. Her wistful expression made Mendingwall shift uncomfortably from foot to foot and Velorian's once curious face twisted into a glare of knives.
"Mend," she said, taking his hands forcefully and squeezing them. "Won't you come sit down with me? I'm trying to get Vel to talk, but he won't."
Mendingwall lifted his eyes to return Velorian's wicked stare with pure, uninterested skepticism. "Will he not?" He asked. "Where is your father, 'Tia? I need to see him."
"He goes to the fisherman's docks every morning," Lycentia pouted, "you'll find him there."
He brought his hands away from her grasp as Velorian brooded unhappily. "Thank you."
When he had gone, Lycentia sighed dramatically, lifting up the hem of her lavender dress from the floor as she returned to her cousin's side. "He's so wonderful, isn't he?"
Velorian said nothing, eyes moving from her innocent face, fixing on her bodice before moving down her waist and skirt while she was preoccupied with her childish swooning. She sat down beside him and his gaze quickly snapped up to the proper place as she attempted to give him another spoonful of hot brother, but he grunted and turned his head away. She frowned with genuine concern. "You can't be full, Vel. You must eat, you are practically skin and bones as it is – my father even said so."
Vel stubbornly shook his head, gesturing to a book lying on a nightstand, out of his reach. Lycentia blinked. "Oh! Shall I read to you?" She offered. "I can, you know, I am a very good reader. Here, let me…"
Lycentia stretched across the bed, which was just what Velorian was waiting for. As she reached to retrieve it, and after he had gotten an eyeful of her pretty rear underneath her silken clothes, he grabbed her by the shoulders, yanked her to face him…
…and hungrily kissed her mouth.
Lycentia was stunned for one moment, unable to think, her lips fiercely pressed against his. His dark eyes were watching her, awaiting some sort of reaction, though whether or not he expected an affectionate return or a beating could not be distinguished.
He got it. Lycentia pulled away, gasping and covering her mouth in disgust as if she had committed a terrible sin. Velorian smiled at her victoriously, enjoying the rise and fall of her chest and the shock upon her face, reveling in the blush that had appeared on her cheeks. Then, to his surprise, she moved to kiss him again – or so he thought, but instead of an eager mouthful of pretty lips, she deliberately spilled hot broth in his lap. He yelped and tried to get the soaked sheets off of his legs, all the while crying, "ow, hot, hot!"
Lycentia smirked at him. "Talking now, too? You poor, poor thing."
Velorian patted his scalding trousers down and chuckled. "I thought you were beautiful before," he said, "but you look like the goddess herself when you are angry."
Lycentia swung at him with an open palm, infuriated, but Velorian easily caught her by the wrist and pulled her up against him, admiring her flustered skin and burning eyes. "You let go of me right now," she threatened, "or my father will hear of this!"
Velorian clicked his tongue, quite amused. "Tut, tut, little princess – I'm beginning to think perhaps you didn't enjoy our first kiss."
"First and last," Lycentia corrected hotly, "and I did not enjoy it, not in the least. You, cousin, have stolen my very first kiss, one that I was saving for someone special. I will never forgive you."
"Your first kiss." Velorian hypnotically brushed her sweet, full lips with a coarse finger. Lycentia shifted nervously and Velorian let go of her wrists, yet she stayed as if mesmerized. "I am honored, little princess, but you make me feel so dishonest. Stolen your very first kiss? How terrible of me. I tell you what – I will never kiss you again, unless you ask me. This, I swear."
"You'll be swearing oaths up and down once my father gets through with you," Lycentia had gotten out of whatever trance held her there, and she quickly picked up the spilled bowl off of the creaky wooden floor, stripping the ruined sheets from the bed as well.
Velorian hopped to his feet and stretched his arms high above his head. "I wonder what my dear uncle would say if he knew his sweet little darling was spying on his wife's student while he dressed."
Lycentia's mouth dropped open. "You wouldn't."
"Wouldn't I?" Velorian gave her a sly grin.
Lycentia knew she had no other choice but silence, but was a very poor loser when it came to arguments. She furiously stomped her foot to the floor. "Fine, but no more kissing, I can promise you, never in my life will I ever ask you for a kiss."
"Never say never, princess." Velorian winked.
Lycentia's face went red as a beet, and she wanted so very much to strike him across the face. "What is wrong with you, anyway? Your mother just died and you're acting like a…"
She faltered. In that moment, Velorian's face completely changed, stopping Lycentia short in her sentence with a very vile look. In the pit of her stomach she felt unease, even fear. No longer was there a playful, mischievous grin on her cousin's face – no, now there was anger, twisted with an unfathomable sense of vengeance and bitterness, as if he were a dangerous animal trapped in a cage, ready to break out and lose himself in a very deadly rage.
"Get out." He snarled. His expression startled her, along with the sound of his voice coming from deep within his throat.
"Vel, I'm sorry –" She timidly tried to fix what she had done.
"Get. Out. Now."
She did not need to be told again, leaving him alone in her room in a hurry, nearly tripping over the sheets she held in her arms. Velorian stood rigid, staring with eyes as wicked and as livid as that of a demon. He had not forgotten his mother's death; he would never forget.
Elhadin Blackbough. He thought the name darkly. Elhadin Blackbough.
Mendingwall found Oone sitting with his feet dangling, fishing rod in hand, on the edge of the Auberdine docks. His first impulse was to laugh. The man was wearing gray patched overalls tucked in heavy black galoshes, a dirtied white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and a brown mottled hat with a flamboyantly green feather stuck in its rim. This odd man was a Cenarion Druid? He had thought of Rhonwen as a powerful master, with infinite wisdom and the grace of a lady. Oone seemed the exact opposite in a very comical way.
"Ah, Mendingwall," Oone greeted him cheerfully. "Grab a rod, and sit down, sit down."
He hesitated, and then picked up a rickity old fishing rod that looked like it had seen far better days - he worried it might fall apart at any moment. "I'm afraid I've never really fished before, sir, not since I was very little," he admitted, awkwardly scooting himself to the dock's edge to sit near his newly appointed master.
"I figured as much." Oone laughed, a jolly sort. "Noble boys are trained in word and fencing sword, and little else nowadays, as if all other things - food, shelter, comforts - will be forever provided to them by merchants, traders and the like. It is partly true, of course."
He wrapped a small feather around the hook of Mendingwall's line, and then instructed him to cast after his example. "The thing about aristocrats, boy, is that unless they are capable of being completely self-reliant, their status in life becomes absolutely useless. Building yourself on the wealth of your father begets no responsibility at all. One must learn to be a productive part of society...at one with nature, with the skills of survival, to be of any merit."
"I'm not sure I agree..." Mendingwall pondered aloud.
"Disagree, and it makes little difference, Mendingwall." Oone reeled in a fish and tossed it into a small barrel of water, where it desperately splashed about until he removed the hook and it calmed down. "The goddess is in the nature all around you, one simply cannot deny it. A priest cannot heal the sick without the breath of life Elune's creations gives her. A warrior cannot fight without knowing his terrain, or the earth might swallow him up. A hunter cannot commune with animals unless he first learns to respect them – and a druid cannot change her shape, without its understanding."
Mendingwall felt a tug on his line and clumsily reeled it in – a baby Little-mouth squirmed defiantly on the hook, unwilling to let go of the feather. "Let him go," Oone instructed with a chuckle, "he's barely a mouthful. When he is grown, we will cross paths with him again."
Mendingwall obeyed and tossed it back into the water. "So, you will teach me to be a Naturalist?"
"I am teaching you." Oone nodded. "A Naturalist's job is to balance harvest and preservation, and to understand that what we take from the earth we must give back equally. The first lesson is fishing and patience. You must learn to hunt as well, and how to survive in the wilderness. Just like a man must know, all things take time. A year and I will have you a full-fledged Naturalist – a year longer and you could possibly be something more."
Mendingwall was intrigued. "But Staghelm said I would only ever be…"
Oone shook his head and chuckled. "Greatness runs in your veins, Mendingwall Stormherald. I can feel it."
And so Mendingwall went fishing with Oone every day – first with a rod, up on the docks, where they would catch a few fish worth eating. Then, they would take them back to the cottage, and Oone would task him with the gutting, cleaning, and cooking of the meat, over a roaring fire built on the sand or a wood stove in the kitchen. Needless to say, the first few suppers were burnt and the bread overdone, but Oone and Lycentia never complained while he learned, praising him for each attempt. "This tastes like feet." Velorian was a bit more honest.
Once he could make a dinner without spoiling it, Oone took Mendingwall into a small Darnassian fishing boat, with ribbed paper sails of royal purple, silver, and gold, with the emblem of the World Tree painted across the centers. They fished by casting nets over the side, and dove into the water to set traps for crab and other shellfish. He got better at fishing, and cooking, and swimming. Velorian was soon forced to learn the same things, and would accompany them out to see, pulling heavy, full nets of fish back onto the boat. What they did not use themselves, they sold in Auberdine, and always at a fair price – Oone was a popular name in the village and everyone preferred him over foreign traders.
After a storm hit and raged for three days, Oone's next task for them was the making of a new boat. It was a long process. Mendingwall and Velorian said farewell to an unhappy Lycentia, who was deemed too young for such a journey, and traveled South, following the road for half a day and half a night by foot, until they reached the Glade of the Ancients in Southern Darkshore. There, they praised Ornu, an old ancient Oak with lovely golden leaves. They asked for permission to use his trees, and Ornu spoke, saying he saw goodness in their hearts, and gave them two large bags of seeds. His permission was granted only if they planted two hundred trees along the shore banks to replace the twenty or so they would need.
Velorian did not say anything about it, until they were away from old Ornu's ears, and then he said very shortly, "hooray, planting trees – just what I wanted to do with my life."
Mendingwall laughed and despite Velorian's lack of eagerness, they had a good time on their return to the shore. As Oone had asked, they felled trees with axes in their hands, and under his supervision they cut, sawed, polished and smoothed the wood, carving a new boat far more ornate and sturdy than the last one. Velorian enjoyed whittling prayers of protection on the curved bow – Mendingwall noticed he was happiest whenever there was a knife in his hand.
Oone noticed this too, and when he caught the boy stealing food from the kitchen, he punished him by teaching him how to throw, properly stab, and use his knife on a log. Velorian was never satisfied. He trained every day until his target was nothing less than shreds of wood.
It took them a full week to plant the seeds Ornu had given them; Oone himself never aided them, instead spending his time teaching Lycentia her scripture lessons in the home. Lycentia still smiled that same wistful smile that made Mendingwall uncomfortable, reminding him of the girl he was forever trying to forget. Velorian never seemed to like it, and he would never allow them to be alone together if he could help it. Mendingwall was inwardly grateful for that.
While planting the seeds, with their shovels and bags, they would often talk and plan their future together. Mendingwall and Velorian were friends, now, and inseperable. It was closer to the truth to refer to them as brothers. When Velorian was around, with his dry humor and his unending mischief, Mendingwall found it easier to forget Bellthaine and fill his mind with other matters. The slightly younger boy had no desire to go to Darnassus, ever, instead talking of the adventures they would have traveling far South, East to the Human Kingdoms, and then up North, where some great land had yet to be properly explored.
"You'd never figure that Oone knew so much," Mendingwall commented on the final day of planting. The afternoon was warm and sweet with pine; both of them had shed their shirts and were covered head to toe with dirt and sweat. He walked to the sea as it lapped upon the shore to wash himself off and cool his skin, when he noticed his reflection. In just a few months, he had grown, no longer small and thin, but with a muscular chest, strong arms, and a thick neck. His navy blue hair was long enough to pull into a tail in the back, and he had the makings of a beard. He looked to Velorian curiously, and saw that his friend had changed too, no longer frail, sickly, and gangly.
Velorian nodded, pushing his shovel into the earth with his boot to plant another seed. "Makes sense, if you think about it."
Mendingwall was confused by this; Velorian noticed. "Oh, come on now, you mean little Mrs. Mendingwall Want-To-Be never told you?"
"Please, don't call her that," Mendingwall groaned, thinking of Lycentia. "And I have no idea what you are talking about."
Velorian was amused by this. "Oone Oakensong was an aristocrat, same as you; not only that, he was pretty much the right hand man of Staghelm, back in the day. Top Druid underneath him, Head Warden, and had control over several territories as far as where the Cenarions moved and why."
"So, what happened?"
Velorian grabbed their bag of provisions and pulled out a slice of bread, snarfing it down hungrily without even breathing. "He met Rhonwen."
"Rhonwen was a Warden – Staghelm really favored her. A little too much, it was said. So when Oone began courting her, the Arch Druid threw a royal fit. He had Oone sent to the very edge of the world on a wild quest and forbade him from returning to Darnassus until it was completed, in hopes Rhonwen would lose interest, but she didn't. Instead, she came here, and married him, and when she heard Staghelm had really lost it and was plotting to get rid of him so she would be free to court again, she got pregnant with Oone's child."
"Eventually Lycentia." Velorian shrugged. "She never had a problem getting pregnant, I heard – it was carrying to term. You've seen their garden behind the house?"
"Failed childbirths. There are seven markers back there, I counted." He said without any sort of emotion in his voice at all.
Mendingwall felt sick to his stomach. "Poor Rhon."
"Well, they saved her, really. When the Arch Druid heard she could not carry a healthy child – well, he lost interest in her entirely."
"That's terrible." Mendingwall picked up his shovel to continue planting. "I never thought of Staghelm as politically ruthless."
"It really shouldn't surprise you. I mean, look at your mother."
Mendingwall's digging stopped. He looked up at Velorian, eyebrows raised. "What about my mother?"
Velorian saw his eyes and immediately knew he had made a mistake. "Sorry," he said quickly, "I misspoke. Not your mother. I…meant mine."
"No," Mendingwall said stubbornly, shaking his head as he threw down his shovel, "you very deliberately said my mother. Why? What about her?"
"I told you, I meant mine." Velorian answered.
"What have you heard?" Mendingwall scrutinized him. Was it about his mother's illness? Did Staghelm have something to do with her weakened state? "You're hiding something from me."
"No," Velorian retorted, becoming angry. "I'm not."
"Liar!" Mendingwall lunged at him, pushing him to the ground. He was not sure why he had this sudden rage, but the other boy was quick to pull his feet out from under him. They grappled and wrestled, rolling about in the sand, throwing wild punches.
It was Oone. He leapt faster than a mortal man could blink to Velorian's aid, grabbing Mendingwall's arms and lifting him away as if he weighed nothing. "What on earth is going on?"
"He hit me!" Velorian said, absolutely furious as he tried to take another swing, but Oone was in the way.
"He said something about my mother!"
"Enough, both of you!" Oone snarled, and the panther-like sound in his throat was enough to render both of them obediently still. "Tell me what happened, one at a time."
"He said something about my mother and Arch Druid Staghelm, and I want to know what he meant." Mendingwall demanded.
"I told you, I made a mistake! Staghelm's men killed my—"
"You haven't talked about her once since her death, and now suddenly you'd bring her up?" Mendingwall scoffed. "I don't believe you."
Velorian's clenched fist hit Mendingwall's jaw so squarely, it sent him careening backwards. Oone held the boy in an armlock and he struggled, growling. "All right, that is enough. There will be no more insults here. Mendingwall, go home and help Lycentia in the kitchen."
"I said, go home."
Mendingwall scowled and quickly stalked off, grabbing his shirt and rubbing his grubby face with it. Oone then turned to Velorian, hissing through his teeth as the boy nursed a busted lip. "What have you done?"
Velorian stared at the ground in shame. "I thought he knew. I'm sorry."
Oone nodded slowly, and then patted his shoulder with a sigh, his own aggravation subsiding. "It's all right, it's all right. You didn't mean to. Go home, boy, I'll finish up here…then I will talk to him."
A note for all of my human readers – never insult the mother of a Kal'dorei. It could be the very last thing you ever do.