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It was Atalania’s habit to visit every stall in the stable before turning in, to bid good-day to every animal boarded there personally. Too many of the jousters here took their efforts for granted; they’d be overworked, bruised, sometimes even speared or injured in falls, then locked away for the Crusaders’ lunch hour with nothing more than a sloppy healing spell and a bucket of moldy grain. Their treatment was outrageous, but after a harsh scolding by Mistress Starseeker, Atalania had agreed to hold her tongue; she would not stop coming to visit the stables, though, and paying individual attention to each of its residents.


Several of them she had come to know quite well. An elderly nightsaber that the Sentinel rarely saw in the ring slinked over to butt her head affectionately against an offered hand – a speckled gryphon also pressed forward to demand attention, as excited as ever despite the injured wing keeping him confined to his stall. Everyone was doing much the same as usual, if not entirely well, and so she continued along her usual route, fingertips touching the fur and feather path-marks along the way before settling on the coarse wood of a particular gate, the final stall she’d visit during her routine before retiring.


It was dark in this corner of the stables; she leaned forward to peer inside, squinting. Settled in the corner, meeting the silver gaze with a gold one of her own, was the one whom Atalania had come to see. She, too, looked the same as usual – thin, filthy, disheveled, lying in a pile of broken brown feathers, cream-colored poofs of down showing on her back and chest where she’d pulled the feathers out. She moved no more than necessary to fix the elf with her usual blank stare – if not for the slight rise and fall of her body with each of her slow breaths, it would have been hard for a layman to tell if she was alive or dead.


“Good sister,” Atalania sighed in Darnassian, resting her weight against the stall door, “how long are you going to continue this? Wouldn’t you like to taste the high, cold air again?” She smiled, tilting her head, but the hippogryph did not respond, continuing to stare, still and silent. “It must have been a grave loss you suffered indeed,” the elf went on, “for one as young as you to tear out her feathers. Is there really nowhere you would like to fly again?”


Once again, no response, the hippogryph lying there silent and still – before lifting her head suddenly, sharp gaze looking past the Sentinel and through the open stable door. Atalania, startled, looked as well, blinked – and wrinkled her nose with disgust. Heading up the path towards them was a figure dressed all in black, cowled, but with its arms exposed to the frigid air. Arms that were unnaturally pale, even greenish, with bruiselike patches of rot – that gave her enough information to know what the thing approaching was.


Its slow approach gave her enough time to lift a hand and cover her nose pre-emptively, a gesture that, once it had drawn close enough to peer back at her with blazing blue eyes, prompted it to lift its long white brows and snort with amusement. "Don't blame me, miss," came its hollow voice in fluent Common, though only after the speaker had taken a luxurious moment to lower the pipe from its lips and exhale a cloud of smoke, "'twas the mess hall chef who insisted on beans, not me."


The death knight didn't wait for comprehension to register on her face, turning to look at the hippogryph instead. Its black hood fell almost of its own accord as a pair of ears twitched and wriggled free; the sight of them, tall, slender, punched with symmetrical holes, only added to Atalania's revulsion. Then it was not only a mockery of the sanctity of life but also an arcane-fouled abomination that was leaning into the stall to study the beast.


"Don't disturb Ah'falore with your vile habit," she snapped, drawing herself up and leaning forward protectively. "Though perhaps I ought not expect any better from a," and she hissed the word with mocking sarcasm, "quel'dore."


Her words elicited a nonplussed sideways glance but little more; it soon looked back at the hippogryph, who, perhaps bothered by the smoke and smell, was beginning to stir, shaking herself slowly. "Ah'falore?" it repeated, in its strange day-walker's accent, heedlessly returning its pipe to its mouth.


"It is what I call her, as she is like a sister to me," the Sentinel replied, a bit too distracted by the sight of the beast at last moving to apply quite the sneering disdain she normally would have – as the 'gryph shuffled towards the front of the stall, Atalania extended her arm, offering a hand in greeting. "I am not so disrespectful that I would address her without a proper name, like some kind of common beast."


Her fingertips contacted neither feather nor fur, though; as the creature's warm weight eased past, she turned and blinked with surprise. The death knight had barely moved; leaning forward with its sallow forearms resting on the wood, holding its pipe in its mouth, it kept its gaze steady on the hippogryph as she drew closer, cocked her head, and began to tentatively beak at the rising stream of smoke.


It didn't move, didn't speak, not until the hippogryph had drawn back to peer at the knight with critical amber eyes. It leaned back, then, to take pipe in hand once more and look sidelong at the Sentinel, Scourge-blue eyes narrowed. "She has a name," came that dead voice, soft and low. "It's Bonnie."


It took a moment for Atalania to recover her wits; then, frowning, she leaned forward, hand tightening on the wooden railing, partly to restrain herself. "A Common call name," she scoffed, "suited for a gryphon, perhaps. One cannot expect a human to understand the proper naming conventions of Cenarius's winged children."


The death knight snorted in reply, turning its gaze back to the 'gryph now resettling in the corner of its stall. Taking a drag from the pipe, it blew a long stream of bitter smoke towards her, but before Atalania could condemn the blatant disrespect, it spoke again. "Much less a human country boy turned 'Verdict blacksmith an' then into ninepins f'r entertainin' the Lich King's ghouls, I guess." A pause long enough for another drag, but not long enough for the night elf to interrupt – "Still hasn' accepted a new rider, I take it."


Atalania swallowed – must have been the smell of the smoke or maybe the smell of the corpse that was making her queasy. "She hasn't."


The knight grunted acknowledgment, turning eyes and ears away from the Sentinel dismissively, studying the resting hippogryph in silence, still puffing great clouds of foul-smelling smoke. Atalania wanted to say something, communicate how gross these insults were, but her head was bothering her and the words weren't coming. And so instead she edged around the rotted quel'dore in a wide arc and stepped through the doorway, taking deep gulps of the freezing Icecrown air as she headed down the path to the Darnassian pavilion.




[the remainder to be posted later!]
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