The familiar smells of the Stormwind docks reached him first, long before the ship came abreast of the heavy pier - salt soaked wood, raw fish, and the peculiar rot sea smell that permeated every beach on every coast, a combination of debris and seaweed washed up to decompose beneath the warm sun. On the deck of the merchant ship Anduin filled his lungs and wondered how he had thought it would ever change, or why this one port should smell any different than any other.
It didn't, and he had been in and out of enough of them now to know it. But what the scent lacked the visuals provided, the pale stone of the great curving Stormwind dock walls rising high into the morning sun, imposing and majestic. Home, Anduin thought, but he couldn't feel it, not in his breath or his bones, and he wondered if he ever would again.
The ship was within reach of the dock now; Anduin stepped back and out of the way as the crew swarmed the side, heavy ropes flung across the narrow gap and secured. There was no fanfare, no honor guard; the pier itself was one of the worn utilitarian ones that housed nothing more important than merchants or fisherman trawlers. Anduin raked his hair out of his gaze as he watched them lower the gangplank; it was too long by half, curling past the nape of his neck and he had taken to tying a strip of cloth across his forehead in the vain hope of keeping it out of his eyes.
There was, he knew, nothing to mark him apart from the traders and merchants that bustled around him on the deck except for the more exotic cut of his worn and dusty travel clothes that placed him, some of his fellow travelers had guessed, from southern Kalimdor, or maybe even Northrend. There wasn't a speck of Alliance blue or the golden Wrynn lion on him anywhere and the scrap of silvered mirror in his travel kit had told him, daily, that he no longer looked like the crown prince of anything, much less a city as grand as Stormwind - dusty, dirty, his exposed skin tanned like leather, hair bleached near white from the sun and salt. Thin; for all that he had lost muscle he had also lost the last of the adolescent softness to his features that had plagued him for years, his cheeks and nose standing sharper than he had ever seen them and entirely too much like a family resemblance for Anduin's peace of mind. It was, however, utterly unlike him, and that had served him well enough while traveling.
The gangplank was secured in place, the crew directing foot traffic down first while the more prosperous traders were still seeing their goods brought up from the hold. Anduin shouldered his pack and walked sure footed down the swaying plank, only to nearly fall as he stepped, for the first time in months, onto solid unmoving ground. One of the ship crew caught his arm, laughing; "Careful, that first step's always the hardest!"
Anduin bit back the first word that came to mind, sealed hard and tight beneath the sudden rapid and fearful beat of his heart at the unexpected touch. It was harmless, helpful even, and he swallowed down the lump in his throat and made himself murmur a low thanks, letting his voice rasp, too aware of how the cultured shape of educated vowels in his words could mark him within a stone's throw of the noble neighborhoods, particularly here on the edge of Stormwind itself.
His first steps were shaky and he had to steady himself against the sturdy breadth of a lamp post before he made it to the end of the pier. The solid planks under his boots seemed to pitch and heave in ways that hadn't bothered him on ship in months. Sea legs, they called it, and land legs, and he had sacrificed one for the other and now was back to being unsteady on his own feet once more. It had, he acknowledged with a sigh, been a very long trip - Winterveil had come and gone sometime between Theramore and Gadgetzan, and now, across the great sea, there was the tinge of spring threading into the morning air, the trees starting to sprout green once more.
He had to step out of the way twice more, once, politely, for a merchant couple struggling to keep track of three small children and their goods besides, and the second for a small herd of goats and sheep shipped from Westfall that hadn't a care for what was in their way provided it got them off of the boat. The warm weight of the bundle at his hip stirred at the sound of the bleating goats; Anduin soothed it with motions that were more automatic than sleep or breath.
One of the does, a hand higher than her fellows with a sturdy but graceful build and thick fur that marked her well apart from the rest of the herd, shouldered her way past the others to shove her head up against Anduin's hip. He laughed softly, rubbing his knuckles over her head and fumbled in his pockets until he found a piece of dried apple left over from breakfast, letting her lip it out of his palm with her soft mouth. The milk doe had been a last minute necessary purchase at the start of his travels - they had told him he might not need her at all and he could still recall, with a burning crystal clarity, the dizzying feel of holding a tiny mouth to his own chest and the tight, hot bloom that had stolen his breath away as that mouth latched on and suckled. He had cried at the time, overwrought and exhausted and floating on the cushion of healing spells after prolonged pain.
He had cried again a week later when he had had to admit the milk goat was necessary and no amount of wishful thinking was going to make it less so. The doe had come from a Grummle trader happy to exchange her for some of his last Alliance stamped coins, and she had faithfully provided a supply of rich milk morning and night for months until, at the end, she had also provided Anduin with passage from Booty Bay to Stormwind. She was probably worth twice that; the proud Kun-lai stamp of her breeding would bring a small fortune on the market she was headed towards from some farmer hopeful of starting a hybrid strand from the rarely seen exotic Pandaren breed.
The merchant he had traded her to waved to him as she herded the goats away. Anduin raised his hand, then turned the gesture into pulling a fold of his cloak up, hiding the bright shine of his hair beneath it. The passengers of the ship were still disembarking and all around him the docks were bustling with workers and crewmembers and passengers from a handful of ships, coming and going in swirls of bodies and goods and carts. Beyond the white stone walls rose the spires of the great cathedral, the deep bells pealing out the morning hour in a sound Anduin could remember all his life.
Home, and he felt as though he might be ill, stomach clenched tight and painful beneath his ribs. He tucked the sleepy bundle at his hip closer, wrapping his cloak around them both, and started on unsteady feet for the broad shallow steps that lead up to the city proper.
* * * *
By the time he reached the Cathedral square he had drawn his cloak tighter, the hood pulled all the way up to shadow his face, and Anduin still felt as though he couldn't breathe. Everywhere was familiar - familiar voices in the language of his birth, familiar sounds as the city woke up and moved into the bustle of the day, sight and scent and he could have walked the streets with his eyes closed but he didn't dare. He couldn't stop looking, flinching, and more than once he saw the helmets of the guards stationed along the roads turn towards him; he looked drunk, he was sure, his legs still unsteady, wobbling from side to side in an uneven meandering path. None of them moved from their posts, however, and he didn't care if they thought him drunk or deranged so long as they didn't come any closer.
Alliance guards, some dim part of him tried to tell himself. Blue liveried guards that he had been taught from an early age meant safety, meant security, the ones he was meant to go to if anything was wrong. But that was then and now the sight of a uniform, any uniform, set his heart to racing, his hands clammy and shaking, looking for a threat that wasn't there.
He knew weapons - offense or defense, knew the basics of most any blade, blunt, or ranged weapon, far more than most of the priesthood would ever touch - but his hands were full of travel pack and the bundle at his hip was too fragile to risk. He had abandoned his mace early on, the weapon useless when his movement and grip were fouled around what he carried. Even a staff was pointless, though he wished he had kept one just to steady his steps. More and more, as he wound his way through the increasingly populated streets, every brush of another body making him flinch, he found himself biting his tongue. It was a habit that had become entrenched through the long journey, easily called up when his nerves were itching beneath his skin, his heart hammering in his chest. Pain, it whispered just beneath his breath, the Shadow word oily and dark on his tongue, ready to be unleashed on a single exhale, the weapon that required no hands. Death hovered behind it, the two circling, unspoken, in his throat as he passed a pair of guards, trying not to flinch beneath their bored eyes as he crossed over the sturdy stone bridge that spanned the canal waters between the districts.
He didn't remember Stormwind having so many people. He didn't remember the walls that rose up to either side of the winding streets pressing so close, he didn't remember the noise of his native language being so harsh in his ears. He felt brittle, inside and out, the protection of the cloak wrapped around him too flimsy for safety, and every raised voice made him flinch, shoulders hunching, afraid that the next one would be raised to exclaim over the miraculous return of their prince.
It never came, but by the time he reached the entrance of the courtyard that lead to the castle he was having trouble breathing. Anduin kept his head down, watched his boots upon the flagstones, one step after another. It was morning still, the great gates flung open - public audience, open to the citizenry, he knew the schedule like his own hands. The King would hear the concerns of his people for a handful of hours every morning he was in residence. Anduin had known it and been counting on it.
He hadn't counted on the sight of the castle making him have to stop by the grand fountain, looking up at the shining statue of King Wrynn in full armor. There was a ringing in his ears, too like the droning endless peal of bells, and his breath was coming short and sharp. Shock, the healer in him classified. Nerves, and he had never been a coward no matter what anyone might say, but the idea of mounting the steps to the castle entrance was more than he could bear.
He could, Anduin thought dimly, sit down on the edge of the fountain and catch his breath. It sounded reasonable, a simple stopgap measure before climbing the broad, stately stairs, but he knew if he sat that he would continue to sit until the morning sun crept away, the audience over, and nowhere to go when they closed the gates. His coin was long spent, nothing left for lodging or supplies. He could, if it were just him, fare well enough overnight. One more night of anonymity, safe in namelessness, no one's pawn. One more night...
The bundle at his hip shifted and Anduin soothed his hands over the familiar shape of it before turning his faltering steps to the stairs.