“Fresh loaves of bread! Muffins! Get your pastries here!” cried a hoarse male voice just audible above the din of the Stormwind Trade District. Tiny feet crept closer to the sound of the merchant and the tantalizing smell of baked goods.
“Pies! Muffins! Cakes! Come get your sweets here, folks!” called the young baker, now visible through the crowd. Slowly, the child made her way to the merchant's stand, where a mountain of appetizing edibles teetered perilously on a poorly constructed wooden table. The merchant, still engrossed in attracting the attention of passersby, did not even notice the young girl until a tug on his threadbare sleeve pulled his gaze downward.
“Would you care for a muffin, young miss?” he asked with a smile. The girl, whose blond hair was matted with mud and looked as if it hadn't been washed in weeks, simply stared at him with blank blue eyes.
The young man glanced around but saw no adult rushing forward to claim the child, who appeared to be four or five years old. Unable to bear her unsettling gaze, he picked up the nearest muffin and offered it to her. He knew that his father would not mind the loss, and he preferred to give what would simply be stolen instead.
The child continued to stare at him as if she had no concept of what he was trying to do. Sighing, he gently grabbed her hands, turned them palm side up, and placed the large muffin upon them.
“There you go, miss. Run along now,” he said, feeling good about having done his charitable deed of the day.
The little blond head bowed slightly to inspect the muffin, but made no move to bite into it. Instead, she looked back up at the young man with no more expression than before.
“Aren't you hungry?” he asked more sharply than he'd intended--he was beginning to lose patience with the unresponsive girl. That snapped her out of it. Big, fat teardrops formed at the corners of her eyes, and the baker's son could see his reflection shimmering in the pool of unshed tears.
“Oh no. No no no. I can't have you crying here. Nobody wants to buy from a guy who makes little girls cry, and my father will kill me if I don't sell the rest of this!” he briefly considered sending her away, but she seemed so fragile and lost that he couldn't bring himself to do it. Hastily, he grabbed a rough woolen cloth from under the table and spread it on the wheelbarrow he'd used to bring the goods from his father's store in the canals to the center of the Trade District. As tears splashed down her dirty cheeks, the young man picked up the little girl and sat her upon the blanket.
“Just stay there until I can figure out what to do with you,” he said as kindly as he could. The girl seemed to understand, and the tears gradually stopped. Hesitantly, she took a bite of the muffin she had been given.
The baker's son turned his attention back to the crowd, and continued to sell his remaining goods over the course of the day. He found his thoughts drifting from pies and cakes to the problem of what to do with the child who had found him. The young man guessed that she must be an orphan since no one had made any move to claim her, but his parents had enough children to provide for, so taking her home was not an option. As the cathedral bells started to chime the sixth hour of the evening, he decided to take her to the orphanage. His mother occasionally took him along to drop off extra sweets that had not sold, so he knew where it was.
Realizing that he would not be able to sell any more today, he placed the leftovers into his wheelbarrow and carefully picked up the girl. “Come, little one,” he said gently, “if we hurry, we can make it there by seven.”
The distinct ring of cathedral bells startled Seven from her dream. To her dismay, the child's heartbroken tears lay wetly on her cheeks and pillow.
“I haven't had that dream in years,” she mused while wiping away the salty evidence. Somewhat composed, she sat up in bed and glanced around the room she shared with her fellow novices. Luckily, the light sleepers had risen earlier and the heavy sleepers wouldn't budge for mere church bells.
Satisfied that no one had witnessed her temporary lack of cheer, Seven hopped out of bed and considered the events of the day.
“I can't wait to see the look on Father's face when he realizes I'm going with them,” she thought as a small grin crept onto her face. Newly promoted priests and priestesses were sent to Old Town on a monthly basis to help tend those who were too ill or crippled to make the journey across town to the church's complex. This also gave the young healers a chance to practice their spells in a less than ideal environment. Seven had not officially passed the test because novices were not allowed to take it until they reached sixteen years old. However, since her exact age was unclear, she planned to argue that it was possible for her to be sixteen.
“Have I really been in Stormwind for ten years?” she wondered quietly aloud as she grabbed her simple robe from the dressing closet. Glancing quickly into a mirror, Seven paused to tie her blond hair back into a high ponytail that bounced against the middle of her shoulder blades as she started towards the sanctuary.
Once inside, Seven scanned the crowd of a dozen or so young healers who were conversing excitedly about their trip to the city. “Seven! What are you doing here?” asked a short, pretty brunette with a slightly puzzled look on her face.
“The same thing you are, Aronlei. I'm waiting for Father Theo so we can get going!” Seven replied with perfect innocence.
“But Seven, you haven't taken the test yet,” Aronlei said, tilting her head to the side. “What are you plotting?”
Seven's blue eyes widened, “Plotting? I'm shocked! How could you think I'd be plotting anything?” she asked, biting her lower lip to keep from laughing as Aronlei rolled her eyes.
“Well, whatever it is, you'd better do it quickly,” Aronlei replied with a knowing grin, “I can't wait to see how you talk your way into this.”
“At least I'm talking myself into something instead of out it for a change,” Seven said with a mischievous smile.
Aronlei snorted, “You mean instead of me talking you out of it.”
“Fair enough,” Seven agreed, “but you know I think those rules are silly anyway. I've been practicing those spells non-stop and can heal just as well as anyone here! Why should a stupid thing like age matter?”
“Why don't you ask him?” Aronlei asked, nodding at Father Theo, who had just walked into the sanctuary.
“I plan to. Wish me luck!” Seven said over her shoulder as she hurried over to Father Theo.
“Father Theo!” she called, “May I speak with you?”
Recognizing her melodic voice, Father Theo responded without turning around, “Whatever it is, the answer is no.”
Undaunted, Seven inserted herself between Father Theo and the older priestess with whom he had been conversing. “Excuse me,” she said, flashing a bright smile at both of them, “you're looking a bit tired this morning, Father. Let me rejuvenate you.”
Without waiting for his approval, Seven allowed the Light to fill her and directed it into a spell of fortitude that enveloped both Father Theo and the woman nearby. As she caught her breath, she noticed the shocked expressions on both of their faces. Seven thought the woman might need to chase after her eyebrows, which were trying their best to become part of her greying hair.
“Who is this girl, Father Theo?” she asked. Though her voice could grind rocks, her tone was kind and speculative.
“Just a novice, Lady Teresa,” Father Theo replied with a sigh, “a novice who should be out tending the herb gardens.”
Sensing that this lady must be important, Seven grabbed the older woman's hand and shook it vigorously, saying “My name is Seven and I will be joining the other healers in Old Town today. I can't wait to get started!” She focused on keeping her voice steady and studied the woman in order to keep from laughing at the dumbfounded look on Father Theo's face. Teresa wore the robes of a high-ranking priestess, but Seven did not remember seeing her before now.
“I see,” Teresa said neutrally, though her brown eyes danced in amusement.
Father Theo closed his gaping mouth and then opened it again to protest, “But you're not sixteen yet! You are not permitted to roam the streets of Old Town unattended!”
That was the opening Seven had been waiting for, “Are you sure I'm not sixteen? I don't even know what my exact birthday is, so how could you?” she challenged.
Seeing the look of confusion on Teresa's face, Seven explained, “I came to Stormwind as an orphan and found the church a few years later. Since I got here, I've been practicing every spell that I've managed to get someone to teach me. I am ready to become a full-fledged priestess, sixteen or not.”
Before Father Theo could tell Seven exactly what he thought of that idea, Teresa raised her hand, “She does seem quite sure of herself, doesn't she Theo?” she said wryly, “Why don't we let her try?”
“I'm sorry?” Father Theo asked, unsure of if he'd heard her correctly.
“I said that we should let her try,” Teresa repeated, “If she makes a good showing of herself today, we can allow her to ascend to the priesthood.” Seven thought she heard some of the amusement in Teresa's eyes creep into her gravelly voice, but she was far too distracted by scoring a win to be sure.
“I won't let you down,” Seven assured them with a smile before running off to join her friends, who were following the priestess assigned to oversee them out of the sanctuary.
Seven caught up with the group as it stopped in the courtyard. The young, red-headed priestess leading them hopped onto a bench and turned to face the small crowd.
“Hello there brothers and sisters,” she said cheerfully, “I am Sister Elaina and I will be your guide for the day.”
Seven snuck next to Aronlei and nudged her with an elbow. Aronlei's eyebrows shot up, but she gave Seven a welcoming smile. “You'll have to tell me how that went later,” Aronlei whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
Seven grinned and tried to focus. By her estimate, Sister Elaina was in her early twenties and stood about as high as Aronlei, which meant that the top of her head was even with Seven's shoulders. Though Elaina's face was unremarkable, her shock of curly copper hair would be easy enough to spot in a crowd.
“Perhaps that's why she was chosen,” Seven thought to herself.
Sister Elaina's clear, high-pitched voice recaptured Seven's attention. “As you all know, we will be going to Old Town today to care for those too ill to make their way here.” Seeing the scattered nods throughout the crowd, she continued, “I would like each of you to find a partner.”
Aronlei linked her arm through Seven's immediately. Seven looked in askance at Aronlei and received a half-shrug in response. “I want to keep my eyes on you,” Aronlei said innocently, but the sparkle in her hazel eyes suggested otherwise.
When Sister Elaina saw that everyone had a partner, she explained, “Having a partner will help keep you safe. Though we do the Light's work, some of the places we visit may not welcome us. Now, let's get going.” With that said, she turned and headed briskly out of the courtyard. The pairs of priests and priestesses followed behind her, forming an impressive line of purity. Their plain white robes almost shone in the sunlight of the summer morning.
Seven paid little attention to the route they took because she was used to finding her way to Old Town at night. She was never content with practicing her spells on healthy people, so she snuck out several times a week to aid whomever she could find. Old Town, with its plenitude of war veterans and widows, was perfect for that. They didn't tend to ask too many questions either, for which Seven was grateful.
“Let's stop here,” Sister Elaina said when they'd reached a small open area just inside the district of Old Town. She divided the pairs into two groups, one with eight healers and the other with four. “Set up a base here,” she said, gesturing to the larger group that did not include Seven and Aronlei. “The rest of you go out and spread the word. Make sure you stick with your partner,” she cautioned.
Seven and Aronlei dashed off when Sister Elaina turned her back to them. “You know this place pretty well, don't you Seven?” Aronlei asked when they were out of earshot.
“Some of it,” Seven replied, scanning the streets for the beggars she regularly tended. They made their way down the cobblestone road, but did not see anyone in need of attention.
Aronlei turned to Seven and said, “Well, it looks like everyone's fine. Let's go to the Pig and Whistle Tavern.”
Seven laughed, “All right. But you know we can't heal hangovers, right?”
Aronlei's response was drowned out by the scream of a child. “Help!” cried a young voice not far away.
Immediately, Seven and Aronlei ran in the direction from which the voice came. They didn't get far before a little boy ran right into Seven. Seven grabbed Aronlei and the three of them toppled over in a tangle of limbs and panic.
Seven recovered first. “What's wrong?” she asked the boy, who appeared to be eight or nine years old.
“It's my da!” he cried, “Please miss! You have to help 'im! He's coughin' up blood and everything!”
Scrambling to her feet, Seven helped Aronlei up and pointed her back the way they came, “Aronlei, go get Sister Elaina. I don't know if we'll be able to handle this by ourselves, but I'll go with the boy and figure out how bad the situation is.”
Aronlei shook her head, “No, I won't leave you alone. We can both go together and send the boy to fetch Sister Elaina.”
The terrified boy in question was clutching Seven's leg like his life depended on it, and she knew she couldn't leave him alone. “Aronlei, please. It'll take all of five minutes to get her. I've got to go with him,” Seven begged.
Against her better judgment, Aronlei nodded her assent and ran off to find the sister. “I'll be right back! Be careful!” she shouted over her shoulder.
“Which way?” Seven asked urgently. The young boy ran off and Seven had to walk fast to keep up with him. She soon realized that he was leading her into a part of Old Town that she'd never visited before. The winding streets had her completely lost within a few intersections, but her concern for the boy and his father overrode the vague sense of uneasiness she felt.
Eventually, the boy stopped in a small alley. Puzzled, Seven asked, “Where is your father, little one?”
The boy simply stared at her, or perhaps at someone standing just behind her. Before she could turn around, a heavy blow to the back of her head sent Seven sprawling face first onto the pavement.
“I hope the boy got away,” she thought before the world went black.
“Wake up, dearest,” called an unfamiliar male voice.
Seven's eyes snapped open as a cool shower of water drenched her awake. Coughing and spluttering, she tried to wipe her face, but realized that her wrists had been bound tightly behind her with some sort of coarse rope.
“That's better,” the deep voice from somewhere in front of her said.
Shaking her head to clear it was a mistake. A wave of nausea knocked Seven onto her side. Luckily, she seemed to be lying on something soft, so her face fell onto what could have been a blanket or a pillow.
Seven cleared her throat as her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. From the nearby window, she could tell that it was well into the night. When she trusted her voice not to shake, she quietly asked, “What happened to the boy and his father?”
She felt more than saw a dark shape move towards her. “The boy? He was some street urchin I paid to lure you here. He's probably off buying sweets with the money I gave him. Forget about him. You're here now, and that's all that matters,” said the voice in a tone that was almost tender.
“Lure me here?” Seven repeated in confusion. “What could you possibly want from me?” she asked, honestly bewildered.
Her question was met by a horrible coughing fit that sounded every bit as painful as the one from which she'd imagined the young boy's 'father' was suffering.
“What I want,” the voice croaked, “is to keep you safe. I lost you once, Anari. I will not...” he trailed off with a choked sob, “lose you again.”
None of what the voice said made any sense to Seven. “Anari?” she thought, “I wonder who that is.” Seven squinted, but she could not pick the face attached to the voice out of the darkness. “Who are you?” she asked.
Something, a chair perhaps, flew into the wall next to her and smashed into pieces. “Who am I?” the voice repeated angrily, “Who am I? Anari, how could you ask that of me, your own father?”
Thoroughly confused, but unwilling to provoke the voice further, Seven did the first thing that came to mind. She apologized.
“I-I'm sorry, father. It has been so long and I didn't recognize your voice. It's too dark in here to see,” she stammered, hoping that the man would believe her.
“Oh,” the voice said. Heavy, irregular footsteps plodded away.
When the man returned, Seven almost wished that he hadn't brought the lit candle he now carried back with him. Dried blood stained the corners of his mouth, and his dark hair stood at crazy angles with the top of his head. His face was thin and fragile-looking, as were the parts she could see of his body. She noticed that he held a cane in one hand and decided that he must have used it to subdue her.
“Is that better, my lovely Anari?” he asked gently, placing the candle on a rickety table next to her.
Not trusting her voice, Seven nodded. “His eyes,” she thought, “they're so bright. Feverishly bright. He's dying.” She had seen death before and it didn't frighten her, but she felt such pity for him that it was all she could do not to burst into tears.
“Good, good,” he said as he sat down next to her, “I'm so lucky to have found you again. I thought you were...” his voice broke off as another coughing fit wracked his body.
“You thought I was what, father? I don't remember much from back then. Please, tell me what happened,” Seven asked, trying not to flinch as his clumsy caress left a bloody smudge on her cheek.
The man's eyes turned inward, tinged with some emotion that Seven could not identify. “Dead,” he whispered flatly, “everyone's dead. They took you! They took you away from me! I saw them shred you to pieces. I saw them feast on your flesh. There was blood everywhere. So much blood,” he continued in a haunted voice “and the screams, Light protect me, the screams...”
“No!” he howled, jumping to his feet in a tormented fit of anger. Unfortunately, his legs were not strong enough to support his weight without the help of his cane, so he fell forward onto the ground sobbing. “You can't be dead!” he whispered brokenly while pounding his fist on the floor, “you can't be.”
As the man continued to rant against his past, Seven realized he must have mistaken her for his daughter Anari, who had likely been dead for years. Given the severity of his condition and the depth of his trauma, Seven was surprised that he'd survived as long as he had. She knew she didn't have the power or knowledge to heal him completely, but she could ease his pain.
“Father,” she said while attempting to smile, “please untie me. I can't hug you if my wrists are bound.”
Her quiet, firm appeal jolted the man out of his grief. With great effort, he hauled himself onto the bed and started fiddling with the ropes around Seven's wrists.
“Of course, Anari, of course,” he said tenderly, “I was just afraid...” his voice trailed off as if he couldn't remember why he had tied her up in the first place.
Rubbing her now free wrists, Seven turned her attention to the man's breathing. It was ragged and labored, like he was trying to inhale through a glass of water. Blinking back tears, she let the Light flow through her as she put her arms around his shoulders in a gentle embrace.
Some of the tension and pain melted out of his face though his breathing did not ease. Fighting back a wave of nausea, Seven cast a spell that would soothe his mind and allow his exhausted body to rest. As she watched his eyelids droop, she considered her options.
“If I stay here, he will die,” she fretted, knowing that even if she had been at her peak, she had no idea how to cure what was ailing the man, “but if I go, he might die before I'm able to find help for him.”
Deciding that some chance was better than no chance, Seven spent the rest of her energy on another healing spell she hoped would keep him stable until she found a priest. Steeling herself, she arose from the bed and carefully walked over to the door.
“I'll return soon,” she promised the man as she opened the door and headed into the streets of Old Town.
Though Seven was accustomed to find her way to the district at night, she was not familiar with this part of it. Her navigation problem was compounded by the fact that moving too fast caused the world to spin alarmingly. Dazed and overextended, Seven picked the direction with the most visible lights and started walking.
The streets were mostly empty, and it was all she could do to keep one foot in front of the other. After what seemed like an eternity, Seven thought she heard the sounds of laughter and music.
“Seven!” a familiar voice shouted. Looking up, Seven saw Aronlei's concerned face floating somewhere in front of her.
“You have to help...” she managed to whisper before collapsing onto the cobblestones.
“Wake up, sleepy head!” chirped Aronlei. Seven's eyes snapped open in a panic.
“The man!” she said while trying to roll out of the bed in which she found herself. Aronlei's firm grasp kept her pinned.
“Relax, he's not here,” Aronlei soothed, “and you've got a nasty concussion, so no sudden movements okay?”
“He's dying!” Seven said with tears welling up in her eyes, “Someone has to help him!”
Aronlei blinked several times in shock, “What are you talking about?”
Briefly, Seven outlined her story to Aronlei.
“I'll go get Father Theo,” Aronlei said as she hurried out of the room.
Seven sat up and took stock of her surroundings. She guessed that they had taken her back to the cathedral, though she could remember nothing after leaving her captor. Looking out the window, her heart sank as she saw the noon sun shining brightly overhead. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sudden arrival of Aronlei and Father Theo.
“Glad to see you're looking better,” Father Theo said pleasantly, “you gave us quite a scare there. What's this Aronlei says about someone dying?”
As completely as she could, Seven related her tale to Father Theo. Though she tried to give him as many details as possible, she was unable to describe where she was held. By the end of it, she was sobbing from a mix of concern for the misguided father and frustration at her inability to help him.
“I see,” Father Theo said soothingly as she broke down, “Unfortunately, if he is as ill as you say, I'm afraid that it is too late. You have been sleeping for two days already.”
“Two days...” Seven repeated softly as Aronlei sat next to her and hugged her tightly.
Father Theo nodded somberly. His heart went out to the young novice, but she needed to learn this lesson sooner or later. Instead of the fresh outpouring of tears he'd expected, Seven wiped her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Thank you for letting me know, Father,” she said in a tone that only wavered slightly. Aronlei released her from the embrace but remained close.
“I have duties to attend to, but if you need anything, please come see me,” Father Theo said as he turned to walk out of the room.
“Oh, I almost forgot, I brought this for you as well,” he said, fishing a small scroll out of his robe. He handed it to Seven with a hint of a smile and left the room before she could reply.
“What is it?” Seven wondered as she removed the ties and unfurled the scroll.
Skimming through the elaborate script, Seven realized that it was the official document given to newly ascended priests and priestesses. Her eyes were drawn to the title: Priestess Seven of Stormwind.
“Congratulations, Seven!” Aronlei squealed as she hugged Seven again, “They discussed it while you were sleeping but made me promise not to say anything until Father Theo made it official.”
“Thank you,” Seven said distractedly, her thoughts drifting to the poor man and his daughter, “Aronlei, will you bring me a quill and some ink?”
“A quill?” Aronlei asked, puzzled. “Sure, give me a minute,” she said as she skipped out of the room.
Slowly, Seven got out of bed and made her way over to one of the tables that held healing supplies. She used four empty bottles to pin the scroll's corners to the table as she waited for Aronlei to return.
“Here you go!” Aronlei said as she handed the quill to Seven and put the bottle of ink on the table.
“What are you doing?” Aronlei asked as Seven dipped the quill into the ink and began to write.
“Fixing it,” Seven said, smiling sadly at her handiwork. The title now read: Priestess Seven Anari of Stormwind.