Coward Delivery [Final]

13 Apr

Because I can’t stand for Tiger’ and Klinderas to be hidden away forever…

Stone Guard Tigerclaw was furious. Yet she remained outwardly calm and composed, if perhaps in a rigid and white knuckled sort of way. To Warden Bloodfrenzy, who did not know Tigerclaw beyond her reputation, she simply seemed rather dull and passive, bored maybe, and he could not blame her.

“Sorry lot this,” he said motioning off toward the pens. One might have thought he was referring to the haphazard arrangement of stalls and wallows that made up one of Warsong Holds many pig farms, but Tiger’ knew better. They kept them here too.

“If you ask me, we’d be better off killing these worthless bags of blood instead of bringing them here,” the warden continued. “Alliance would be a damn sight better off as well. So maybe that’s why we keep them around.”

Tiger’ frowned as the big orc laughed as his own joke. He was referring of course to the deserters, the Alliance deserters. While no longer truly at peace, the Horde and the Alliance were united at least in the battle against a common enemy – against Arthas and the Scourge. So it made a bizarre kind of sense that from time to time, half starved, wild eyed Alliance troops would show up at the gates of Warsong, lay their weapons down and ask for quarter.

“It’s a sham of course,” Bloodfrenzy said as they walked toward one of the larger pens. “They’re cowards and filth no doubt, but they’re smart. If they can’t stomach the fighting anymore they can quit and work off their debt to the Alliance in other ways. Nasty, humiliating ways. Or they can come to us.”

Tigerclaw raised a brow at this but said nothing. The warden barked a laugh and unlocked the pen’s front gate.

“Doesn’t make sense does it? To surrender to your oldest enemy, the ones that believe in victory or death.” Warden Bloodfrenzy cast Tigerclaw a half smile as he swung the pen’s gate open. “They’re smart though, like I said. You see, the Alliance Army has a statute in place, it’s called Article 57. It states that any Alliance soldier captured by enemy forces and held as a prisoner will be immediately discharged with full honors at the end of their imprisonment.” The orc laughed again and spat his next words.

“Full honors…”

Tigerclaw surveyed the scene in front of her and couldn’t help but blanch. The pens were a filthy mess of cracked, half frozen mud, littered with beds of old straw, feeding troughs and piles of reeking waste. While the pigs inside were healthy and well fed, the same could not be said for the two-legged inhabitants. The faces she looked upon were each a pale canvas painted with mud and misery. While none were truly starving, all had the hollow, pinched look of one that has known cold, hunger and fear for too long.

Hands on his hips the orc warden glanced up at Tigerclaw. “They’re not pretty for certain, but we don’t have room for them anywhere else. No food to speak of either. Plus, Garrosh enjoys seeing them here and Saurfang won’t let us kill them.” Bloodfrenzy spat noisily onto the muddy ground. Tigerclaw figured she knew where he stood on the whole matter. The warden pocketed his keys and continued almost absently.

“Senior Sergeant Ratshag’ had the perfect plan too. Cheap, entertaining. Figured we should load them into ballistas and shoot them back to Valiance Keep.”

“That seems…impractical.” Tigerclaw replied neutrally.

“Aye, aye, range is a problem too. In tests we couldn’t get them much farther than the outer perimeter.”

Tigerclaw glanced down at the orc in surprise.

“You tested this?”

“With bags full of sand, ma’am – bags full of sand. No sense giving the Scourge out there a free meal. The ones we had weighted for gnome size seemed to travel the farthest, but even then we couldn’t get much farther than the Bloodpetal Grounds.” The orc laughed at Tigerclaw’s expression and slapped the Tauren companionably on the back. Faced with Tiger’s stony silence as his only reply, the warden suddenly got down to business.

“Anyway, you’re here for weekly exchange am I right?”

It really wasn’t a question. To his benefit, Warden Bloodfrenzy kept his face impassive. He might not know the Stone Guard, but he could smell her anger. The weekly exchange was not a job usually handled by one of Garrosh’s officers, so her presence here spoke of some punishment or insult.

Tigerclaw bit down slow and hard on the inside of one cheek.

“I am, Overlord Saurfang demands it,” was all she said.

Bloodfrenzy considered this for a moment and then nodded.

“Right you are. Well then, we’ll waste no more time.” The warden paced out into the middle of the muck and barked a few words in the humans common tongue. Slowly, prisoners rose to their feet to form a shaky and miserable line in front of him. Bloodfrenzy referred to a scroll of names he carried in a cylinder at his belt.

“Private Yolaf Pinwhistle – front and center.”

The line of former Alliance soldiers shifted as a very small and very dirty gnome stepped forward. His head was hung and his hands listless at his sides. Tigerclaw’s frown doubled at the sight of him.

“Private Pinwhistle, you are to be given into the care of Stone Guard Tigerclaw. She will return you to Valiance Keep. You are a deserter and a weakling and this will be known by the officers we release you to. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Private Pinwhistle did not, but the wave of anguish that rolled off of him was so strong that Tigerclaw could almost taste it. He was she thought, the most miserable looking thing she had ever seen….

II

Leading the bedraggled Alliance soldier from the pens by a short rope knotted around his waist, Tigerclaw made for the hold stables. She took the long way. Tiger’ did not trust herself to pass back through the great center of the main keep, the fastest and most direct route to her mount. To do so would take her past the great central hall, where Saurfang and Hellscream argued strategy. A place where she should rightly stand as part of Saurfang’s advisory staff.

“Instead, I get you,” the warrior muttered bitterly and fought the urge to give the gnome’s lead rope a savage jerk. The exchange, the “coward delivery” as it was called, was something normally given to incompetents or to troops far more junior than she. That Saurfang, her old commander in the war against the Silithid, had give her the task personally, in front of Garrosh and his senior staff, had been particularly mortifying. Though hurt and stunned by the order, the Stone Guard was far too professional a warrior to question her commander. She had simply acknowledged the command, saluted and walked away to find Warden Bloodfrenzy.

Standing nearly as tall as many of the hulking male Tauren, Tigerclaw’s black mood made her seem even more imposing. Stoic and silent even at the best of times, the aura of promised destruction that radiated from the Stone Guard made orc and troll alike move respectfully out of her path. Still, angry as she might be, the most troubling aspect was not that she was doing grunts work again, but the reason why she was doing it. Tigerclaw had been a loyal brave for nearly twenty years. She had won honor in Thunderbluff and Orgimmar both. She had seen battle all over Azeroth and been part of Thrall’s honor guard when he returned to Nagrand to reunite with the Mag’har and to bring hope to a very different Garrosh Hellscream. She had first come to prominence over a decade ago, fighting in the Ashenvale lumber wars. While mighty in battle, it had been the young tauren warrior’s ability to find common ground with her enemy and her skill as a negotiator that had truly set her apart. Where the more hot headed would have demanded victory or death and razed a grove of the night elves beloved star aspen, Tigerclaw could take a step back, offer a hand in peace to the night elf forest wardens and work with them to find a mutually acceptable arrangement. While her results never made the Horde quartermasters particularly happy, the slow and careful logging that occurred in Tigerclaw’s sector of Ashenvale was enough to meet quotas – and she did so with a minimum of bloodshed. Though her tactics often put her at odds with more bloodthirsty commanders, her ability to compromise and find a third way was what had brought her to Saurfang’s attention. He had cultivated the quiet and complex Tauren officer for many years and offered her a place in his vanguard when the Might of Kalimdor marched against the Qiraji.

So the question of why she was suddenly being sent from Warsong Hold on a grunts errand was of keen interest to the Stone Guard. It was that, and that alone which Tiger’ focused on as she all but dragged her diminutive charge into the Warsong Stables. There was an answer to be had, she was certain of it. The question was whether or not Private Yolaf Pinwhistle was going to survive long enough for her to find it.

“Lok’tar, Durkot Wolfbrother, is my mount prepared? I sent word by runner that I would be departing within the hour.” The orc pack brother looked up with surprise from where he tended the wounded paw of a cinnamon colored riding wolf.

“Indeed, Stone Guard – that great beast of yours is saddled and there’s two days worth of water and hard tack in your saddlebags,” he said. “I’m surprised though – I didn’t think you’d be leaving now.”

Tigerclaw blinked.

“Why not?” she asked. The stable master’s eyebrows raised, his fangs glinted as he smiled.

“The Scourge are on the move. They’ve swung ’round from the Plains of Nasam to knock on our front door. They’ll be hitting our southwestern pickets with at least a regiment. ”

Tigerclaw cursed and pulled Pinwhistle closer to her, several of the wolves had begun nosing him curiously.

“How long?”

“You’ll be saying hello to their van as you pass the great gate,” Wolfbrother said, still grinning. “Be sure to pass along the pack’s regards to them as you leave.” Tigerclaw grunted and pulled Pinwhistle after her.

“I’ll do just that brother, strength and honor.”

“Strength and honor, Stone Guard, die well.”

For Private Yolaf Pinwhistle, what followed was a rush of thundering speed and terror. First the stoic tauren had led her white skinned kodo from the stables and lashed the gnome to the back of the beast’s saddle. When he began sliding off after the first test gallop around the corral, Tigerclaw had dismounted, untied him and instead sat him between her legs, with his hands tied to the kodo’s saddle horn.

“Don’t fall off,” she said simply and kicked the great beast into a thundering run.

Tigerclaw raced her great white kodo, Shambala, towards the southwestern perimeter. The advance guard caught sight of her as she crested the rise and rumbled toward the rude gates. Seeing the tauren officer’s tabard and her high rate of speed, a Warsong Grunt put song to his horn and blew three short blasts.

The meaning was simple – outgoing – one rider.

With inches to spare, Tigerclaw threaded Shambala through the sliver of an opening the gate forces managed to make for her. Moments after leaving the meager picket behind, Tigerclaw and Shambala found the first of the horde forces. The Scourge were pushing hard, their vanguard, a wall of undead nerubian crypt fiends and the massive, tank like crypt lords were massing along the road leading to the Riplash Strand. Two more formations of undead foot soldiers, abominations and Scourge plague spreaders were forming up behind them. All in all there looked to be a day of glory ahead for the 3rd Durotar Guard. The 3rd, known affectionately as the “Frostwolves” were the Horde forces selected to meet the Scourge attack. Most of them were fresh off the troop ships and zeppelins from Kalimdor, but their leader, Tah Mahok, was a seasoned commander and an old hand at siege breaking.

Tigerclaw found Tah almost instantly. He was a massive orc with skin so dark green as to be almost black. He was holding a quick counsel of war with an odd assemblage of orc battle captains, quartermasters and goblin engineers. Tiger’ nudged her mount toward them, hailing the commander by the nickname he’d earned while the garrison commander at Hammerfall in the Arathi Highlands.

“Lok’tar Ironeyes, I’d say you’ve a fine day shaping up ahead of you.”

The orc turned from what appeared to be a heated conversation with one of the goblins and his scarred face broke into a broad grin.

“Tigerclaw! What’s a nice girl like you doing in my supply train?” Tah Mahok barked a laugh and pointed a mailed fist toward the tauren as she pulled Shambala up short of where they stood. “I’ve no feed to spare for that tank you ride – so point him away from Gortok’s supply wagons if you please!”

Tigerclaw made a show of pulling Shambala’s rein as if to lead him toward the army’s store of grain and hard tack. She cast a rare smile at the orc and gestured toward the Scourge front line.

“I’m just passing through, old friend. Was hoping you might ease my way a little.” She said.

Tah Mahok spat and eyed Tigerclaw doubtfully.

“Alone?” He asked. Tiger’ simply nodded.

“On Saurfang’s business,” she said and the orc commander’s eyebrows raised.

“That would explain the ugly colt you’ve got up there with you then,” he said, pointing at Pinwhistle with his chin. “Since he looks nothing like you, I’m assuming you’re either going to eat him or use him as a decoy.”

Tigerclaw laughed.

“Both, if I can,” she replied. Tah Mahok looked back to where Horde forces were marshaling small packs of wolf rider calvary, he looked thoughtful.

“We’re going to engage them at the choke point up ahead. Channel their van and those crypt lords up like they’re in a pipe and start hitting them with bombards and flaming pitch. If we do it right, it’ll keep their plague spreaders and blight bombs at range,” he said. “Assuming they don’t pull a Wrathgate on us and drop the filth on their own troops, we should be able to start pushing them back up the valley, split their force and destroy them in detail.” At the mention of the Wrathgate, Tigerclaw felt Private Pinwhistle tremble. She had still been in Ogrimmar when news came of the Forsaken Treachery at Angrathar, but she knew well the story and the near unending list of dead that had been penned into Thrall’s tome of honor.

“The bug and bone brigade is stuck where they’re at for the moment,” Tah said. “Their controllers will keep them halted for another few minutes while they figure out what to do with the assault forces behind the van. I can make a run at them with some calvary to cover you, but they’re going to pull up short before they hit the line.” Tigerclaw eyed the slowly moving Scourge formation in the distance and frowned. She would have to move fast. In a half a glass of time or so the undead army would be massed on the choke point. Short of flying, there would be no way she could break through. Tah Mahok looked back to his staff and barked at one of the goblin engineers.

“Feldwebbel, are your men ready to prep the front lines yet?” Standing barely as high as the orc commander’s hip, the goblin nodded.

“Aye, we can pepper them up fairly nice. The heavy bombards are still loading though,” he replied. Tah Mahok frowned a little then nodded once.

“Do it,” he said. Turning from the goblin, the orc commander pointed to one of his battle captains. “Logar Broadaxe, send word to the riders – tell them to ready a charge in five minutes. They’re to dash the line and deliver our lady and her ugly colt to the Scourge – understood?”

“Yes, commander!” The younger orc barked and raced off toward the small knot of wolf borne calvary. Ironeyes Mahok turned back to his friend, he didn’t look pleased.

“You’ll ride with my wolves,” he said matter of factly, “we’ll hit them hard with the artillery as you close the distance. We’ll bust them up nicely – make a hole for you. It’s up to you after that.” Tigerclaw nodded grimly. She and Ironeyes clasped wrists briefly and the big orc slapped Shambala’s flank.

“Blood and Thunder, Tigerclaw – give them both!”

Ten minutes later, Tigerclaw’s white kodo slammed into the Scourge lines with all of the grace and velocity of a falling mountain. Tigerclaw unlimbered her shield and used it to thrust away the nightmare tangle of jagged limbs and questing jaws that surged in on the unlikely pair from every angle. The goblin artillerist had done their job nicely. There was a smoking pile of ruin that marked a companies worth of nerubian crypt fiends before her and the great beetle like mountain of a crypt lord’s corpse smoking in the distance. Goblin rockets and Scourgebane shrapnel packs were still exploding in front of her as Tah Mahok’s people slowly walked the artillery fire up the enemies ranks, plowing a glorious road of carnage and sulfurous stink for the Stone Guard to race through.

As Tigerclaw lined Shambala up for a last desperate charge through a thin spot in the Scourge flank she heard a ragged cheer erupt from the ranks of the Horde forces behind her. Suddenly the valley was split asunder by the ringing clamor of Loktar and Ogar, the great horns of Warsong Hold. As loud as dragons on the wing, the horns call rolled up the valley and hit the Scourge forces like a rune forged hammer. The Horde forces echoed the call and for some reason, Tigerclaw turned in her saddle and looked back. The view was glorious. Smoke trailed great flaming balls of pitch and glowing blue stars of Scourgebane as they arced over head. As one, the 3rd Durotar Guard parted ranks and the ragged silhouette of a rider, moving fast and low, broke through their lines and sped toward the embattled Stone Guard. A forest of axes and spears were raised in salute as the rider, a black clad form on wolf back, raced toward her. Hell broke lose suddenly as fiery pitch and Scourgebane started impacting the Scourge ranks with devastating effect. A squad of panicked crypt fiends set upon Tigerclaw from all sides. The warrior hauled on Shambala’s reins and the big kodo reared and spun, nimble as a stallion and began to crush and rend the undead spiderfolk without mercy or hesitation. Neck bent and roaring like a dragon, the massive war-beast’s armor caught and splintered the orange stained morning sun as the wolf rider, a blood elf wearing a knight-ranger’s tabard bounded through the opening in the Scourge lines. Through the chaos, Tigerclaw could hear the cheers of encouragement that followed in the rider’s wake.

“Klinderas, Klinderas the Black rides to war! Clear the way for the wolf-rider!”

Shambala’s fore legs thundered back onto the ground and the Scourge were on them again. Tigerclaw shouted a challenge to the wall of chitinous undead as it pressed in on her. As if in answer Loktar and Ogar sounded again and joined in a ferocious symphony with the supporting roar of the Horde at her back. Tigerclaw urged Shambala forward and the massive beast responded eagerly, her powerful legs grinding the undead into paste as she stampeded through them.

As suddenly as the artillery prepped gap opened, it began to close again. Suddenly Shambala seemed to be lost like a leaf in a fierce torrent as the Scourge forces tried to fill the horrible rents in their line and to expel the great white kodo. As Tiger’s cleaver-like cobalt blade bit into an enemies hide, the wolf-rider was among them, his black war wolf a blur of fang and claw as its rider cut a path along side the Tauren and her mount. Gleaming blades bit and snapped the air, cleaving through leathery hide and armor-like chitin with equal ease. Another wolf, this one a smaller but equally savage black Snarler from the emerald depths of Feralas fought at the riders side.

“Ride for the beach, sister – ride for the beach if you value life!” The rider shouted up at her.

Tigerclaw’s blade rent a crypt fiends skull and she put down the clacking jaws of one of the vicious flying Scourge with a mighty slam from her shield.

“The beach and the mist – are you mad wolf rider?”

Klinderas the Black, called so by the orcs of Warsong Hold, barked a laugh and rode his war wolf in a tight circle around Shambala. His blades found their scabbards as he unlimbered a mighty bow of horn and sinew from the wolf’s harness. In a blur of fluid action that impressed the Stone Guard, the chesnut-haired elf drew a triplet of yard-long shafts from his quiver and with a word of power to speed them along, let them fly into the crush of enemy. The resulting crash and blast of destructive force stank of arcane magic. Another unexpected hole was opened in the enemy lines.

“Mad indeed my lady – but keep on my heels or dine with the Scourge for eternity!”

With that, Klinderas urged his wolf through the gap he just blasted through the Scourge ranks and the three of them sped away in a rush of powerful paws, his war bow singing a steady song of destruction. Tiger’ wasted no time, she dug her hooves into Shambala’s sides and and raced after the blood elf hunter. Almost forgotten, sitting betwixt her legs – eyes as wide as saucers – Private Yolaf Pinwhistle, his hands tied with leather tongs prayed wordlessly for deliverance and white knuckled, held on for dear life as Shambala thundered across the plain towards the sea.

III

Pinwhistle’s fingers moved with careful, clever precision over the many wounds that covered Shambala’s flanks. Barely knee high to his ivory hided patient, the gnome worked silently, seemingly oblivious to the kodo’s size and normal ill-temperament. For her own part, the war-mount was accepting the gentle care with all of the grass cropping solemnance of a milk cow.

Tigerclaw watched the gnome as he moved over and around Shambala, a skin of sour wine in one hand and linen bandages torn from his own tunic in the other. She had half expected the exhausted and annoyed kodo to crush Pinwhistle with the stomp of one mighty foot, but to her amazement, the beast did little more than grunt from time to time and nose him gently as he worked. It was surprising and puzzling. For as long as the two had been paired, Shambala had been terrorizing friend and foe alike. Contrary at the best of times and downright mean the rest, the great white kodo had been banned from corrals all over Mulgore before Tigerclaw had ridden her off to war. So the fact that the gnome continued to breathe as he cleaned and bandaged Shambala’s wounds was nothing short of miraculous. Tigerclaw finally shrugged and turned her attention from the odd pair, tended the fire and reflected on their escape.

The flight through the Scourge lines had been a terrifyingly close thing. Klinderas and his wolves had proven true to their reputation though as they blazed a trail through the enemy ranks. From time to time they had been forced to enter into the Mist, the shrouded gray otherworld that was slowly devouring the coast. It had been a risk, but short of facing a regiment of Arthas’ best it had been the only way to break free. Hours later, camped amongst a tumble of massive boulders they had taken time to rest, eat and mend their wounds. Tigerclaw had unbound the alliance deserter not long after stopping. After all, there were precious few places he could run that did not lead to certain death. Here at least there was a small fire for warmth and work to keep his mind calm and hands busy. Klinderas had raised an eyebrow at this but accepted the Stone Guard’s action with little more than a shrug and a wolfish grin.

“I’ll mark you two Thrallmar Sovereigns that she eats the wee-lad right after he’s finished patching her up.” Tigerclaw snorted a laugh and accepted an armful of neatly broken twigs from the elf.

“So much the better for me,” she replied. “If Shambala eats him, my work is complete and I can return to the front.” Klinderas crouched next to Tiger’ as she fed twigs to the small fire.

“If it’s battle you seek, sister, I believe you’ll find more than enough very soon,” he said. Tigerclaw cocked an eye at him.

“You know something?” She asked. Klinderas sat down across from her.

“I know nothing – I’m simply a messenger boy. But why else would Lord Saurfang send a Knight Ranger through the very teeth of an invading army to assist one of his most trusted officers with the delivery of an Alliance coward?”

“Maybe he doesn’t like you?” Tiger’ replied dryly. Klinderas’ eyes twinkled.

“He may not, but regardless of how High Overlord Sourpuss feels about anything, he still wanted me to get this to you.”

Tigerclaw glanced up from her work, the elf was nimbly twirling a messenger’s dispatch tube between his fingers. With a small flourish the tube danced down from finger tip to finger tip until with bowed head, Klinderas offered it to the frowning Stone Guard like a supplicant presenting gifts to his liege lord.

“Scribbles from High Overlord Sourpuss, milady.” Tigerclaw snorted a laugh and snatched the tube away.

“He’d have that pretty scalp of yours nailed to the walls of Warsong if he knew you were calling him that,” she said. Head still bowed, Klinderas cocked one eye to look up at the Tauren.

“More than my scalp I think.”

Tigerclaw ignored her companion and settled back to open the message tube. She snorted, the wax security seal had already been broken.

“You’ve read it,” she said in exasperation.

“Of course I did,” Klinderas replied calmly and scratched the head of the large black wolf that had wandered next to the fire. Tigerclaw’s mouth opened – then closed. The knight-ranger was impossible. With a quick twist she opened the hollow bone tube, pulled out the parchment and began to read….

Throm-Ka Stone Guard,

Time is short and your current task, distasteful. Forgive an old commander for sending you forth under a cloud of dishonor, but it is vital to the war effort that you be out of Warsong Hold and appear to no longer be in my favor. Make your way to Taunka’le Village with all haste. Our friendship with these people is strained for many reasons, but thanks to that idiot, Steeljaw taking his convoy through a Taunka burial ground, matters are worsening. Nothing is lost, but between our blunders in the field and the disappearance of the Taunka High Chieftain Roanauk Icemist, we could very well be facing ruin and retreat all along the Dragonblight front.

I need your eyes and your strength on the ground in Taunka’le to make this right. Steady the Taunka elders, reaffirm the Horde’s commitment to friendship and support. Find High Chieftain Icemist, for it is his words that the Taunka people harken to.
The Horde asks much of you, Tigerclaw and it pains me that I must send you forth without a company of heavy-sword at your back. But these are tasks that also require subtlety and cunning. I send only you because It is necessary to veil your movements and your mission from friend and foe alike. There are some amongst Hellscream’s command that seek to use the Taunka as a hammer against the Alliance at the cost of our battle with the Scourge.

The loss of Icemist would work to their advantage. Thus – we come to your regrettable assignment and your most unpleasant company.

I mean the deserter of course…not Klinderas.

Fetch whatever bag of bones Bloodfrenzy has you escorting off to our Valiance contacts as soon as you can – then get to Taunka’le! Keep in touch via the wolf-rider, he too is on my business and you may trust him to keep our communications in confidence.

Keep your eyes open and your shield up.

Varok

Tigerclaw read the message one more time and with a much lighter heart tore it up and fed the pieces to her small and greedy fire. Klinderas was mercifully silent, allowing the Stone Guard to come to grips with everything she had learned. She was relieved of course. Relieved and worried. That she had not displeased her old commander was a relief. Yet, the mission that Saurfang had entrusted her with was daunting. She sat for some time longer, watching the fire burn and thinking. She truly had no idea where to begin. Looking back towards Shambala, the shock of Saurfang’s message was replaced by the unbelievable sight of the great white kodo administering an affectionate lick to Yolaf Pinwhistle. The gnome laughed in spite of himself and in spite of the predicament he found himself in. Shambala nosed him appreciatively and licked him again, one great wet swath from his toes to his nose.
“I think she’s going to eat him now,” Klinderas said happily.

Tigerclaw laughed and for a moment she met Pinwhistle’s eyes. For the first time since the two had met, they had both found a moment of peace. Recognizing a small gift from the Earthmother when she saw it, Tigerclaw motioned to the gnome and invited him to join them at the fire.
Tigerclaw had little experience with deserters, or cowards for that matter. But for all the bluster of Warden Bloodfrenzy, Yolaf Pinwhistle did not seem to be a coward. First, the small soldier mastered himself admirably. At no point during the flight from Warsong Hold or the battle the clear the Scourge lines had the gnome panicked or tried to flee. Even now, surrounded by enemies and facing a the humiliation of being delivered to his own army as a deserter, he seemed strangely at peace. He had accepted a small meal of dried meat and travel biscuit from Tigerclaw and ate in silence while she and Klinderas discussed the best route toward Valiance. Much to her surprise, he even thanked her in horribly accented Taurahe for the food and for his life.
” You have a gentle manner for a soldier, little one.” Tigerclaw said to Pinwhistle and made the sign of the Earthmother. The gnome laughed and shook his head ruefully.
“I’m afraid I was never much of a fighter,” he replied quietly.
“And that’s why you deserted?” Klinderas asked. A cloud passed over Private Pinwhistle’s face. But it was anger, Tigerclaw realized, not shame. Klinderas leaned back and stretched.
“It’s no surprise, ” the elf said. “I’ve met some of your commanders before, long winded things. Always wanting to discuss this and discuss that. Weigh options, determine outcomes. It’s a wonder your armies move at all.” Klinderas pulled a small flask from one of his saddlebags and took a pull off of it.
“Gods know I’d have deserted too if I’d been caught up in that mess,” he said and took another drink. Tigerclaw watched Pinwhistle’s face as Klinderas continued to discuss the many failings of Alliance senior leadership. The gnome had positively bristled each time the blood elf had disparaged the Alliance officers, their generals, or the fighting spirit of his people. It was a careful game the elf played – for he never directly insulted the suspected deserter. Finally, curiosity got the better of her.
“Tell me little one, why did you desert your army? What battle?” She asked. Yolaf Pinwhistle’s eyes flashed and for a moment, true thunder shown on his small craggy face.
“I didn’t desert,” he said tightly.
“Of course not, Tigerclaw, how crass of you. Of course the lad didn’t desert. There’s a perfectly sound reason why he’s lived in that pig pen for what? Six weeks – seven?” Klinderas’ tone was as light and unconcerned as ever, but Tiger’ could tell that he was fishing for something.
“I didn’t desert,” Pinwhistle said again.
“Of course not,” Klinderas agreed, “captured sounds so much better at an Alliance Court Martial.” At this the gnome just shook his head and looked at his feet.
“I wasn’t captured,” he said weakly, “not really.” Tigerclaw cocked her head at the gnome.
“Then what?” She asked.
Pinwhistle was silent for a long time. When he finally started to answer, Klinderas cut him off.
“This should be good – he’s been formulating his story for at least five minutes now. I say he was shipwrecked off of Garrosh’s Landing where he was captured while trying to singlehandedly destroy a siege tank with a satchel charge and a belt knife.”

Pinwhistle’s face contorted, the anguish that was written across the gnomes face was as real as anything she’d seen in a lifetime spent at war.

“I didn’t desert” he said passionately. “I was the only one…the only one left.” The last words came out in a whisper. Tiger’ looked to Klinderas’ lean form, he was watching the gnome intently, his black eyes searching.
“Where?” Tiger’ asked.
“Fordragon Hold…” the gnome replied miserably. Klinderas’ raised an eyebrow.
“Indeed?” Klinderas’ tone was mocking. “You were at Angrathar then, at Icecrown when thousands, thousands died?”
“I was.” Pinwhistle replied simply.
“Oh well done, lad. You must have been working on this tale the entire time you were keeping the pigs warm. So what was it like – you were obviously on the front lines, strapping lad like yourself. Tell me, how did you survive when no one else on the field of battle that day did?”

Tigerclaw looked at Klinderas sharply, the elf’s tone had gone from mocking to venomous in an instant. Tiger’ knew the elf had been at Angrathar shortly after the battle – had seen the destruction – had helped count the bodies. But Pinwhistle was shaking his head.
“No. I wasn’t on the field that day.”
“Under the weather?” Klinderas asked, his tone once again flippant. Yolaf’s face twisted with hurt and what seemed to be guilt, he shook his head again and wrung his hands miserably.
“I was in the stables – as I was supposed to be,” he said. Tigerclaw touched the gnome gently on one shoulder.
“What was it you did for the Alliance?” She asked. Pinwhistle looked at the Tauren warrior and said very meekly.
“I was a hostler.”
“A what?” Klinderas asked, not recognizing the word.
“A hostler,” Tigerclaw said with a small smile, “Private Pinwhistle worked with horses.”
This admission seemed to take some of the fire out of Klinderas’ disbelief. The elf settled back against his wolf and listened as Pinwhistle told them of the battle for the Wrath Gate. His perspective was a unique one to say the least. A volunteer to the Alliance cause in Northrend, Pinwhistle had enlisted in Ironforge and been assigned to the dwarven run quartermaster corps that supported Alliance field operations. The day of the battle he had been on duty. He watched as High Lord Bolvar Fordragon led his men out the gate for the very last time. Beyond that he admitted, there was little to tell. He could hear the cheering of the Alliance forces as they took the field and the battle cries of the Horde forces as they swarmed down from their own camp to stand side by side with the Alliance army. He had felt, rather than saw the Lich King step onto the field of battle.

“His words hurt,” was all he said, “I couldn’t listen.”

Of the great betrayal and the death of the combined armies he could say little.

“It was madness,” he said. “The horses were panicking, the air burned. I remember screaming,” he said. Yolaf pointed to an old scar just below his temple. “I took a hoof from a strawberry roan right about that time and woke up in a cage a day later.”
“A cage?” Tigerclaw prompted. Pinwhistle nodded.
“They evacuated me along with the rest of the wounded,” he said. “Moved us south, tried to get us back to Valiance. We got ambushed by spider folk before we could make it out of the Dragonblight.”
Klinderas cocked his head. He looked very wolf-like when he did that, Tigerclaw realized with some amusement.
“If that’s so,” he asked, ” then how did you wind up in Bloodfrenzy’s loving care over at the Warsong Inn?”
Pinwhistle pushed a burning twig back into the fire and met the elf’s gaze levelly.
“We weren’t far from the Taunka refugee camp on the border with the tundra when we got hit. One of their hunting parties managed to fight the bugs off and saved a few of us,” he said. The gnome paused a moment and looked at Tigerclaw with a small smile. “They were very kind,” he said. “But they barely had enough food for themselves. One of your patrols visited the camp a day later and offered to return us to Valiance.”
“Then how?” Klinderas started to ask, but Pinwhistle motioned for him to wait.
“They took us back to Agmar’s Hammer first. Many of the orcs there were ready to feed us to their wolves the moment they saw us,” the gnome said quietly. “Said if it was the Alliance commander’s fault that so many were killed at the Wrath Gate. That if we had been true warriors we would have died like all the rest.”
An uncomfortable silence settled over the small camp as the two captors waited for their charge to continue his tale.
“And so we were in cages again,” he said. “They sent us with the supply convoy headed back to Warsong Hold. The boss orc told us he’d let Hellscream decide what to do with us.”
“And Hellscream put you with the pigs….” Klinderas said. Pinwhistle nodded.
“And Saurfang made sure to send you with me….” Tigerclaw thought ruefully. The thought sparked something in the back of Tigerclaw’s mind.
“How many of you are left?” She asked. “How many still back at the hold?” Pinwhistle shook his head.
“None,” he said mournfully. “Fezeem died on the trip to Warsong Hold and Lamures died of a fever while we were in the pens. I’m the only one left.”
No one spoke. The fire continued to crackle gently as night came and the uncommon trio sat in an uncomfortable silence. One of Klinderas’ wolves – the smaller one – settled itself next to the silent and sorrowful Yolaf Pinwhistle and laid its great shaggy head in the gnomes lap. The wolf whined gently and Pinwhistle began to scratch the beast behind its ears. They stayed like that for a long time, each lost in thought as the fire burned to embers and night claimed the Borean Tundra.

IV

“Tiger’ wake up.”
The Tauren warrior woke, her hands instinctively moving to her weapons. Klinderas was crouched next to her, he was dressed for travel and his riding wolf was saddled. The Stone Guard did not speak, but instead sat up and looked to the east. The sky was burning – and it was an hour or more until dawn.
“Is that Valiance Keep?” She asked in disbelief. Klinderas shook his head, but there was something in his dark eyes that told the Tauren he wasn’t sure. The two of them watched for a few moments as an ugly orange light sparked and flitted through the night. Tiger’ breathed deep and tested the air.
“Smoke – bombards – and fire,” she said matter of factly. Klinderas nodded.
“I think our Alliance friends might be enjoying a visit from that motley crew we battered through yesterday,” he said.
“I think you might be right,” Tiger’ agreed and she began to strap on her armor.
Minutes later they struck camp. Yolaf was perched atop Shambala as Tigerclaw checked and rechecked the kodo’s barding to ensure that everything was secure. The gnome was not bound, nor did the Stone Guard intend to keep him that way. There was much she wanted to learn from the Alliance horse tender that directly impacted her own mission. Had Saurfang known about him? Had he ensured that the gnome was to be returned to his people so that Tigerclaw could eventually hear his story? There was so much that Pinwhistle could tell her about the Taunka and about the disposition of the Horde forces between the tundra and the Dragonblight. That Varok might have orchestrated all of this would have seemed far fetched to some, but not to Tigerclaw. She burned for answers, but she knew that they needed to live through the day first.
“I’m going to ride ahead and scout the path. Parallel the roads and keep an eye out for Scourge outriders,” Klinderas said as he swung onto his riding wolf. He pointed a little north and a little east of the the angry orange glow. “Try to skirt the blood petal grounds if you can. Scourge won’t want to mess with that area if they’re tangling with our Alliance friends. You’ll know one way or another if you’ll be able to deliver your package by then,” he cocked his head toward Pinwhistle. Tigerclaw nodded and kicked dirt over the remains of their fire.
“What if we get separated?” She asked. Klinderas frowned, it was obviously a thought he didn’t care for.
“Head on to Taunka’le if you can. If we do get split up, wait for me at the crossroads – Scourge permitting of course. Otherwise head cross country to the Taunka, I’ll catch up with you there…eventually.”
Tigerclaw nodded to the blood elf and then touched her closed right fist to her breast in salute.
“Travel well Wolf Rider,” she said. Klinderas nodded in reply and spurred his wolf into a run. By the time Tigerclaw had mounted, the elf was already out of sight.
Tigerclaw and Pinwhistle rode hard through what remained of the pre-dawn dark. The closer they got to Valiance, the brighter the ugly orange glow became. By the time the sun broke over the horizon, they could feel the heat of the fires in the distance and hear the sounds of battle carrying up from the Alliance coastal fortress. Wordlessly the two moved across the barren landscape, Tiger’ felt terribly exposed but there was nothing for it. The tundra offered little cover. In another hour they mounted a small rise and managed to get a better picture of what lay ahead.

“There are hundreds of them…” Yolaf said from where he sat. Tigerclaw didn’t answer but she felt the number was probably closer to thousands. The Scourge were arrayed in full assault on the Alliance keep. Plague spreaders, ballista, heavy infantry and crypt lords. The pale skins were certainly in for a fight.
“This complicates things.” She said matter of factly.
“So does that,” Pinwhistle replied and pointed off to their left. Scourge. A mixed company of shambling undead supported by Crypt Fiends. Whether they were late comers to the main event or a picket in charge of guarding the Scourge flank made no difference. They had seen Shambala’s unmistakable bulk and were headed with all speed towards them. Tigerclaw cursed. They were pinned. With the main assault on Valiance going on to their right and the Scourge raiders spreading out and racing toward them from the north there were only two options.
“Run or fight?” Tigerclaw asked the gnome as she wheeled Shambala in a circle looking for some advantage to be had from the flat terrain.
“What do you recommend – I just take care of horses!” Pinwhistle yelled back. Tigerclaw estimated the distances involved and frowned. They were caught well and good.
“Both I think,” she replied and kicked the giant white kodo into a charge.
If Private Yolaf Pinwhistle’s courage had ever been in question, he answered in a most satisfactory manner, Tigerclaw decided. The gnome nimbly moved from between her legs to behind her. He wound one hand onto a length of strap from the kodo’s harness for stability and reached for the small axe strapped to the saddlebags. It wasn’t much, but at the moment, Tigerclaw welcomed his contribution.
“Get ready!” She shouted over the roar of their charge and aimed Shambala straight at the thin line of undead pressing in on them from the north. The sound of the kodo hitting the Scourge soldiers was a giant wet slap. The shock almost unhorsed Pinwhistle, but he managed to regain his seat and even hack at the hands and spear tips that sought to pull them both from their mount. Tigerclaw urged Shambala through the slow moving foot soldiers and turned the kodo to make another run around a small rise. She bit back a curse as she noticed that the spider folk had changed direction faster than she expected. She would not be able to break free and run for the crossroads as she’d intended.
Turning Shambala in a tight circle, Tigerclaw wrought blood and thunder on the Scourge foot soldiers that they had just charged through. Little more than animated corpses with little intelligence and worse for wear from exposure to the brutal northern elements, the Horde warrior and her fierce mount left none standing. She turned Shambala in another tight circle as the Crypt Fiends pressed closer. There was a small hill with steep approaches on three sides a short distance back the direction they had come. It wasn’t much, but it would do for a last stand. Turning Shambala around again, Tigerclaw sent her thundering back through the blasted remains of the Scourge foot soldiers.
“Are we running now?” Pinwhistle yelled up to her as he fought to keep his saddle. Tigerclaw started to answer when a mountain hit her helm. The Stone Guard saw a bright flash of light and felt herself lose her grip on the reins. Unable to control her body she felt a brief moment of despair as she rolled and flipped backwards off the saddle.
The impact was brutal. Her head ringing and unable to breathe, Tigerclaw tried to push herself up. It was too much. The Scourge were on her in an instant. The Crypt Fiends were terrifyingly fast and three of them boiled into one another as they each pressed in for the kill. Tiger’ couldn’t even manage a last prayer as the biggest of the undead spider folk pinned her to the ground with its mandibles. The things breath was a fetid stink not unlike that of an ancient bog. It hissed in annoyance at its squad mates and tried to crush the life out of the Stone Guard. Tigerclaw gasped, the strength of its jaws was amazing and she felt the hard saronite breastplate begin to buckle. Tiger’ nearly blacked out again, when suddenly the ground fell away she felt herself tossed into the air like a rag doll.
Shambala.
The massive kodo hit the three nerubian from the flank. Pinwhistle, mounted properly now urged the great beast on as it stamped and kicked the Scourge into a ruin of twisted chitin and torn flesh. Standing over her master like a massive guard dog, the kodo gave an angry honking roar that pulled the second wave of spider folk up short. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to let Tigerclaw pull herself up off the ground, get a foot in a stirrup and cling on for dear life as the kodo charged the Scourge line again.
For a time, Tigerclaw lost herself to battle. If you could call it battle. A wild and brutal flight back and forth through the nightmare of undead nerubian spider warriors. Somehow she found her seat with Pinwhistle holding them both upright in the saddle. The two of them were caught up in a chaotic whirlwind of butchery and flight and fear. Shambala made for the hill as best she could, but their were more and more of the crypt fiends hemming them in, pressing them from all sides. Tiger’ and Yolaf fell to hewing at the Scourge until nothing existed in their world but falling blades and the stink of hewn spider flesh. Only Shambala’s great braying roar as the spiders finally pulled her down shocked them back into reality. Tiger’ and Pinwhistle spilled off of the kodo’s saddle and onto the ground. Scrabbling and fighting to stand, they pulled free of the stampede of undead bugs as the Scourge fought one another to be the first to feast on the great white kodo.
Tears streaming down her face, the Tauren and the gnome fought backwards up the hill, the press of Scourge gone as they roiled and teamed over Shambala’s fallen form. Tigerclaw’s spat into the multifaceted eyes of a smaller nerubar ambusher and clove its skull in two with her blade. She was spent. Exhausted, sick with fury and despair. Another of the bugs trampled the one Tiger’ had just killed, its mandibles clacking for her throat. Tiger’ went down under its assault. Her sword flew free of her grasp as she hit the ground. Her arms strained to keep the things jaws at bay. It was too much. The undead spider monster had a strength that was beyond anything the Stone Guard could muster and the questing jaws drew closer.

Tiger’ suddenly felt something hit the bug from the side. There was the sound of tearing flesh and in moments she was covered in the beasts foul viscera. She heard Pinwhistle grunt and the Alliance hostler shoved the things carcass off of her.
Yolaf was bleeding from a dozen wounds and his face was as lost and hopeless as the day she had led him out of that pig pen in Warsong Hold. Tigerclaw managed a smile for the gnome. She reached for him to steady him and praise his courage. But he seemed so far away…so far away. The world spun dizzyingly away from Tigerclaw and she realized she was blacking out. The last thing she saw was the gnome dragging at her war harness. He had something. Something important. A flare gun. An impractical thing – dangerous too. Goblins made them. She was to have used it to signal Saurfang’s Alliance contacts to do the exchange…the coward delivery. She felt, rather than heard the gun go off, saw the flare arc into the morning sky and explode in a dazzling shower of red and orange and white. Beautiful, she thought and the darkness took her.

V

It took a moment – but Tigerclaw realized she was laying on her back looking into a sky that was full of heavy black clouds. The air was frigid and she could smell snow on the wind. For a moment she simply luxuriated in the fact that she could still catalog her aches and taste the blood on her lips. Alive.
“Yolaf,” she gasped weakly. She tried to sit up, couldn’t. Tiger’ closed her eyes and sent a prayer to the Earthmother. She felt soft hands touch her brow, then her breast. Suddenly the most delicious warmth she’d ever known flowed into her, filled her.
“Sit up daughter of the Horde, the Light has deemed you worthy to see another day.”
Tigerclaw blinked. The Earthmother’s accent sounded like it was from Westfall? Still feeling wretched and trembling like a new born colt, the Stone Guard levered herself into a sitting position. She turned to the sound of the voice and found herself looking at an Alliance warrior. Resplendent in silver plate armor and the blue and gold of the Alliance, the woman was kneeling next to Tigerclaw. Something, some great light seemed to shimmer from within the warrior and the warmth that it cast continued to give the Tauren strength.
“Yolaf?” Tiger’ managed and cast about looking for the gnome. There he was. A night elf ranger was slowly wrapping a bandage around the gnome’s head. He smiled weakly at her and tried to wave.
“Was quite a fight the two of you made up here,” the warrior next to Tigerclaw said. She paused a moment and rested one of her warm hands on the tauren’s shoulder. “I’m sorry about your mount.”
Tigerclaw looked at the woman and nodded her head gently…Shambala….
“I am Coriel, a paladin of the light and a knight commander of Valiance,” the woman said.
“Tigerclaw, Stone Guard – I serve Saurfang,” was Tiger’s only reply.
“Interesting. Saurfang and not Garrosh?” The paladin steadied the Tauren as she struggled to find her balance, tried to stand.
“You were here for a delivery.” It wasn’t a question. Tigerclaw paused and looked at Yolaf.
“Not of the usual sort,” she said. Coriel’s golden eyes regarded her curiously.
“This is Private Yolaf Pinwhistle,” Tigerclaw said. “A veteran of the Wrath Gate. A valiant companion and my friend. Our forces recovered him from an ambushed convoy some weeks back. I was escorting him home when we ran into this small trouble.”
Pinwhistle closed his eyes as he heard Tigerclaw’s words. He didn’t speak, the elf had bound his jaw closed with bandages. But when he opened them again, the gratitude and warmth in the gnomes eyes spoke volumes. Tigerclaw knelt next to her small friend and gently touched him, forehead to forehead as Tauren warriors often do.
“Fare you well little wolf. You fought well.” Tears were welling in Pinwhistle’s eyes. He gripped the Stone Guard’s shoulder fiercely.
“Loktar Ogar,” he said with all of the fire and strength he could muster.
The night elf knelt down next to Yolaf and regarded the pair with an amused, but warm smile.
“Do you feel up to riding, Private Pinwhistle?” She asked. Yolaf nodded and stood shakily.
“I am Tawyn of the Silver Hand,” the ranger told Tigerclaw as she helped the gnome to his feet. Tiger’ nodded to the elf and clasped her hand in greeting.
“You are welcome to come with us, Stone Guard. I’m sure we could offer you at least the same hospitality you afforded Private Pinwhistle here.”
Tawyn of the Silver Hand did not understand the laughter that gripped the Tauren warrior or the battered gnome right then. She smiled and glanced over at her commander. Coriel shrugged.
“Thank you, no.” Tigerclaw said, and remembering something that Saurfang was fond of saying looked to Yolaf and added.
“I don’t eat pork.”

** If that last line doesn’t make sense to you – it’s worth a trip to War Song Hold to hear Saurfang and Garrosh Hellscream argue!  Until next time!

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7 Responses to “Coward Delivery [Final]”

  1. Pike April 13, 2009 at 13:31 #

    Oooh, Tawyn of the Silver Hand? Clever nod to the server I love. I like it 🙂 Good luck in the contest!!

  2. Klinderas April 13, 2009 at 16:09 #

    *sniff*

    I wonder if I make it out alive?

    Windpaw, allow me to say this. I am completely and totally indebted and honoured by this. Thank you so much!

    Plus, this is totally an ego boost, and you should know how dangerous that is…

    /flourish

    Once again, thank you so much! I will find a way to repay you, this I swear on my chestnut hair.

  3. Negathle April 13, 2009 at 18:53 #

    I hate to be the competition!

    I couldn’t stop reading it. Well done!

  4. Negathle April 13, 2009 at 18:54 #

    Er, *I’d hate. I wish I had your talent and dedication to submit anything 😛

  5. Sarai April 13, 2009 at 19:52 #

    This was awesome. Well worth the wait. Got my fingers crossed for you in the contest. 🙂

  6. Capn John April 20, 2009 at 16:22 #

    I read this a couple of days ago but forgot to post. Great job! I loved it!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Wrath Of Windpaw II: The Windpaw Strikes Again! « Slow Wolf - April 15, 2009

    […] those wanting to know, the story Coward Delivery is about a tauren shamaness who is instructed to bring a coward from a Horde penitentiary to the […]

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