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Fist Full of Steel -- (COMPLETE)
((The thread has been edited and reposted. Every post i made to this story was corrupted in some way since the original posting -- possibly from that forum crash we had, i'm not sure. Anyhow, everything should be fixed.

I welcome criticism, and comments and question. As a disclaimer, let it be known that my greatest weakness, when it comes to writing, is my utter dislike for the editing/revising process. I DO do it, eventually, but for most of my short fiction, I prefer to bang it out, give it the once over, then display it in its rawest form. Don't ask me why.))

Fist Full of Steel

Part I

The tossing and turning is making me irritable. This is the third night. The lack of sleep is beginning to affect me, I think. I am the only one struggling to sleep, yet again, but it doesn't surprise me. The others are decades my elders, and what happened those days past wasn't something they'd consider worth losing sleep over. But I can't help it.

I killed my first man three days ago.

I don't know how to feel about it, either. I'm not even sure what I feel right now. The others have noticed a change in me, I’m certain, but they won't comment on it, unless I begin to let them down. I should feel something beyond this numbness, I know. Anger, shame, disgust? Should I feel vindicated, or perhaps satisfied?

We were below Red Cloud Mesa, just having dropped off another load of kodo hide for tanning. The others wanted to make a trip into The Barrens to hunt Thunderhides for a week or two. Redhoof mentioned something about a new market for them in Orgrimmar, but I can't be sure. I wasn't listening too closely. We skirted the harpy woods, keeping to the grass so our sledges wouldn't be ruined on the roads, nor hinder anyone else who might be traveling them. Redhoof was talking quietly with Razormane, as they are wont to do while our kodo carry us placidly from one hunting spot to the next, so they didn't see what I saw.

The coppery scent of fresh blood made my nostrils flare, and my eyes immediately fell to the ground, searching for I knew not what. There -- faint ruts flattening down the grass to my right. The grass was still struggling its way back up too, so whatever had passed this way had done so not too long ago. Here and there, I could just barely make out glistening drops of scarlet, painting the grass in a way that Mulgore was not unused to. But we Tauren, when hunting, use sledges. What I saw belonged to something else.

My eyes scanned the grasslands, trying to follow the faint impressions left in the ground. The sun was bright and beating down on my head -- but it wasn't so hot that I was seeing things. I shaded my eyes with my hand and squinted, peering into the distance, towards the harpy woods.


My eyes widened reflexively and I snorted in shock, perhaps disbelief. Humans? In Mulgore? There was a full party of them, seemingly on foot but for the team of horses that were snorting and prancing in fear -- the wagon they were harnessed to shaking behind them. The first thing I noticed was that a few of their number were fighting off a trio of harpies that must have swooped down on them from above. It's never wise to pass too near the harpy woods. They hate any sort of intrusion that might threaten their young in the gnarled trees. The second thing I saw took away whatever wondering I had about why the humans were there. The wagon was heaped with hides of all kinds. But lying over top of the myriad of cougar and wolf hides was a layer of grey, and yes, golden too, kodo hides.

I would have shaken my head in wonder at their audacity, to come poaching on our lands. It was no wonder they were passing so close to the harpies. They knew the risk they were taking by setting foot in Mulgore.

However, I didn't know the risk would originate with me. I don't even remember what happened very well; a scattering of sounds and red-tinged images are all I’m left with. Razormane and Redhoof both had to tell me what happened, later, after we'd decided to camp outside Camp Taurajo for the night.

"And here I thought you were a hunter, Wrallac, not a warrior!" Razormane said, clapping me on the back as he moved past to crouch by the fire, stirring the coals a little. He shook his head slowly. "That sound you made -- I thought a wild kodo cow was bearing down on us. But when I turned to look, it was you! I've seen a few battles in my time, and I've the scars to prove it, but I think I could count the number of times I’ve ever heard a bellow of rage quite like that on one hand."

I don't remember it. Nor do I think I could have made quite the sound he describes. His wild kodo fear is warranted though. We've had it happen before. The sight and smell of our hides has driven more than one wild kodo into a fit of stampeding rage.

Redhoof nodded in agreement. "At least you didn't go charging off on your mount. It would have been a shame to have to pick up all those hides later. Your sledge would have broken free for sure. But, lad, to go racing across the grass with nothing but a kodo spear to your name? That was folly."

The story goes, as they told me, that they heard my bellow, and by the time they turned to see what the problem was, I was already a good way towards the humans, racing as fast as my powerful legs would propel me across the grass. The two of them unhitched their sledges and came after me as quickly as they could. Being mounted, they hit the human party only a moment after I did. Two of the humans were still battling the harpies, but the other three had drawn up with shields locked, awaiting my charge. And me, with only my sudden madness, and my heavy kodo spear, to face them.

"I doubt any human has ever faced a kodo spear before today, Wrallac!" Razormane chuckled and stirred the coals some more, watching the sparks climb into the night with interest. "That human's shield didn't stand a chance, the way you punched through it, and through him, so easily."

"Again, folly, I say," Redhoof said quietly. "No, I doubt they'd thought to face an eight-foot, nearly seven-hundred pound Tauren bull armed with a spear bigger around than their legs -- but Wrallac wouldn't have stood a chance afterwards, if we hadn’t been there. What was the first thing he did? Disarmed himself. That still left four of the humans, even if two of them were busy with those feathered fiends."

Razormane's head bobbed up and down. "Big as you are, Wrallac, who do you think you are to go charging into their midst like that? Cairne Bloodhoof?" Redhoof laughed from the other side of the fire and I felt my face heat with a mixture of anger and shame.

"No," I said. "Not him. Just me. Wrallac Blackhoof."

I saw them share a sudden glance. I don't know what passed between them, but I can imagine. Was it understanding? I've rarely ever told anybody my tribe name, and had never told either of my companions, despite the fact that we've traveled together for nearly half a decade. Now they knew.

My first dead human. And I felt numb. After all they'd done, I deserved to feel some sort of satisfaction, didn't I? I had killed him, in madness -- but it was still revenge, of a sort. My poor tribe.

I can feel the cold of the night seeping into me, despite the fire, and my memories weigh down upon me, crushing me against the ground. It will force me to sleep, I know, if only for a little while. But I don't want to sleep. That is when the dreams come.
Part II

The dreams are almost always the same, and are, in fact, more remembrances than disparate images sewn together by my unconscious mind. You might think that after having the same dream almost every time I would recognize it for what it is. But this is not the case.

The sky is a sun-soaked blue overhead, and a gentle wind brings the scent of wildflowers to us at the same time that it rustles the leaves clinging to the slender branches above us. It’s a perfect day for a picnic, just the two of us, as it has been for years. I am just a young bull, and she is barely my senior. We nibble at cinnamon rolls and sip at a slightly watery port while we pass the time speaking of our plans for the future.

She is progressing much more quickly in her studies of the Earthmother than I am, but I don’t mind. Some day she’ll make a great druid, and maybe serve Cairne himself! Me? I’ll be happy with whatever comes my way, so long as she’s in my life.

I am picking a wrinkled currant from between my molars when I notice something is amiss. The air seems strange, and the wind carries sibilant whispers to my black ears that I can hear, but make no sense of.

Suddenly, I know I’m dreaming. She is gone. The sky is dark – black and sultry, and so covered in heavy clouds I cannot see the soothing light of the heavens. I know I should feel afraid, but all I find myself feeling is unbearable dread.

Here, now, is my tribe’s home. Nothing is left but coals and scorched hides strewn about. The stench of burned flesh and old smoke lays heavy upon the ground, and is so acrid I scrub at my nostrils, trying to drive the smell away. I wasn’t there when it happened.

I was sneaking spider herbs from the Charred Vale with a small group of friends. We’d been gone for two days. This was our home – the home of the Blackhoof, a splinter of the family tree dominated by the Runetotem and the Wildmane. My people were peaceful, and introspective, rediscovering the ways of the Earthmother and the Druidic paths. We were not so different from our kin that dominate Mulgore, except for the fact that our tribe preferred to live among the foothills of the Stonetalon Mountains. We had an uneasy relationship with the Grimtotem, but there was an understanding. I, and my friends, knew that they were not responsible for what we saw. No, this was someone, something, else.

In my dream, my friends are not with me. I am alone – as alone as I always feel every single day that I plod through life. I don’t even know if those friends still live, or if I could even still call them such. Only a few Blackhoof survived, and we are scattered to the corners of Kalimdor, and beyond, now.

Alone in the darkness, I look around reluctantly, my eyes fixating upon every charred and tortured body with a life of their own. Once, the tears flowed at the sights, but no more. Most of the bodies I recognize as friends and extended family. Our tribe was small, so it should be no surprise that I would know most of the slain. My parents are not here, but that is not a mystery. They died many years ago, when I was much younger, of disease brought upon many of our people by goblin traders who bartered with us for our goods, and in turn giving us materials containing sickness brought from the Eastern Kingdoms. At the time, our shaman and druids were able to fight it, but not a number of our people had succumbed.

I mourn them, in my own small ways, but that was a long time ago, and I don’t feel bad about not missing them anymore.

I glide through the ruins, stepping amidst the smoldering coals and scattered belongings, looking for her. I recognize this dream now for what it truly is, as I always do now, at this point, and I wait for it to runs its course. She is not here, I know, but I look anyhow. Once, when the dreams first began, my nights were filled with terror and frenzied panic, and I would awaken suddenly, unable to breathe. Now I let the dreams unfold, and try to remain detached – numb, if you will. But it’s a different kind of numbness from what I’ve been feeling during the day. I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.

I wander amongst the devastation for what seems like hours until I finally come upon the old bull. He has struggled up against the trunk of a scorched tree, and sits propped that way, his large hands limp in his lap. His legs are a shattered ruin, and blood wells from numerous wounds upon his gray-furred body. I kneel beside him, as my friends and I had done that day, and we listen to him explain to us, in halting, yet hurried, speech, of what had befallen our people. His last words. I remember them clearly still, but I have never, and will never speak them aloud.

The attackers had been humans, coming under the pretext of trading business. The Venture Co. were their employers, the old bull explained, and they were looking for volunteers to see and mine the world, and were looking to trade with us as well, for their supplies were running low. The elders turned them away gently, remembering the hard lesson of the past, and it was that refusal that made the humans reveal their true intentions.

They worked for the Venture Co. all right – but as a press gang and slave traders. But to the old bull, they looked very much more like human military than employees of independent business concerns. Our people resisted valiantly, but the humans had brought many more than the dozen or so in their advance party. The humans swarmed our village, putting everything to the torch that could not be easily carried off, and cutting down the old and young alike, despite their need for slave labor.

I still wonder about that now sometimes. Had they been truly slavers, or had they been an attack force, perhaps scouting the mountains to see if they could enlarge their presence so close to the borders of The Barrens. One would think they would have learned their lesson after what happened to Northwatch. And yet the marines of Theramore still maintain a force there, even though they will never hold more than that.

I ask after my grandparents, and learn of their deaths. I ask after others I knew, close to me, and learn of either their deaths, or their abduction. I ask of her. My hands are tight around the lapels of his blood-damp vest as I pull him close to my face to hear his words. I am frantic, despite my normal detachment. She is gone. Dead, captured – he does not know. I let him go and fall back, fresh tears soaking my face. No. He’s wrong – she can’t be gone. Not her. Not her.

The old bull is dead. I close his eyelids gently with my thick fingers and resume my search of the village. I search through the carnage all night, as I have done now for years on end, until dawn breaks upon the world, awakening me.

I awaken slowly to the sounds of Redhoof and Razormane talking quietly over their morning mugs of tea, and the images of my dream fade away slowly. I am puzzled. Sometimes the dreams are slightly different, but this dream had been akin to one of the first ones I ever had, when they started becoming a problem. Over the years, I’ve learned to push my emotions aside and observe the dreams – to let them pass without immersing myself in them, otherwise I would get no sleep at all. But towards the end I found myself drawn back into the dream in a most disturbingly whole way, much as the past few nights. I remember that last day picnicking with her, keenly, before I went herb-hunting with my friends.

I searched for her for years, and found nothing. I tried to follow the trail the humans had left, but lost them when they moved deeper into the mountains. She is dead. I know it, and I accept it. No, that is not quite true. My eyes itch, but I avoid rubbing at them. I don’t accept it – I never will. She was the one. She was mine for life, as I was hers, and they took her from me.

I can feel the others watching me, but I do not look their way. My puzzlement gives way to something else I can’t identify. It is then I realize that the numbness I felt after killing that man has faded. So what do I feel now? This isn’t shame. No, I know that feeling all too well. I never found her. I rest my chin on my chest for a few moments, considering.

It is not anger. No, my rage has long since bled away, along with my hope, and my love for life. For the longest time I was angry with the Earthmother, and raged at her day and night until I had no anger left. I ran wild for many years, alone, or in the company of others who felt outcast from the ways of our people.

Is this – satisfaction? Justice? What does justice feel like, I wonder. I killed a man, and for some reason, I feel better than I have in years. What is wrong with me?

I look up at Redhoof and Razormane and meet their eyes. They have been watching me. They know something is different.

“Go to the ‘bluff,” Redhoof says gruffly. “You never go there with us. Go alone, now. Talk to someone. We can’t help you, Blackhoof. What happened to you is beyond what most Tauren are capable of dealing with. Seek someone wiser than us.”

I see Razormane nod in agreement. He is twisting a strip of leather in his hands nervously. Do I make them uncomfortable, now that they know my past? “Go, Wrallac. You’ve started down a path on which we can only guide you so far. Talk to Hamuul – he will understand once you tell him who you are.”

I exhale slowly, heavily, and climb to my feet. I stare at them, each in turn, studying their faces, committing them to memory. They are turning me away, but not unkindly. No more words are needed between us.

I will go to Hamuul, and seek his advice, and judgment. If she were still alive, would she understand what I’ve done? Would she counsel this as well? I am a killer now.
Awesome story Khrale! Quite vivid and well written, dispite your claim to not really proof your stories. Wink

Throughly enjoyable, and I can't wait to read more.
[Image: 85443.png][Image: 85444.png]
Thanks Zuipol, i appreciate the comment, and hope you enjoy the rest -- of which, i'm thinking, there will be much more. We're only getting started here.
Part III

Hamuul Runetotem wasn’t nearly as helpful as I, or for former companions, had hoped for – at least not at first. The trip to Thunder Bluff didn’t take very long, but I was already feeling week from the lack of sleep, not to mention the self-loathing that had slowly descended upon me.

I’ve spent very little time among the mesas of the ‘Bluff, for I dislike crowds of any sort. I was glad to see, however, that the when I stepped off the lift, my arrival went largely unnoticed but for a few disinterested glances in my direction. I was a stranger to the regular inhabitants, but such a thing was commonplace now. Who knew how many anonymous Tauren from the far reaches of Kalimdor had come and gone in the many years since my last visit.

I made my way through the city quickly, avoiding who I could, while at the same time nodding politely to those whose paths I crossed. The guardians watching over the entrance to the bridge to the Elder Rise gave me the once over quickly, but determined I wasn’t a threat to those revered Tauren residing on the other side, and let me pass. The bridge swayed uncertainly under my heavy tread and I felt a moment of fear, even though I knew the chances of my falling were slim at best. I found myself glancing over the edge of the planks, however, several times, considering how easy it would be to slip, or to deliberately pitch myself over the edge. Sure, the fall would be terrifying, and there would be great pain, but in the end, I would be at peace, wouldn’t I? She and I could be together then – in the Emerald Dream perhaps, or maybe elsewhere. I can’t say for sure where the spirit truly goes when it leaves the body, but I would like to think that there is a chance for reunion of some sort.

But no, I told myself. That would be a cowardly thing to do, and she would never have forgiven me for doing such. She is dead, but I am alive, and I will struggle forward until the day I meet my death naturally. To do otherwise would be an affront to the Earthmother. I may no longer follow the druidic paths, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten what I’d learned so long ago.

Steeling myself, I placed one foot in front of the other and plodded along the remainder of the bridge, towards the huge, hide-sewn structure that dominated the centre of the mesa.

I passed over the earthen threshold carefully, noticing, as I did, how the outside world seemed to fall away. The sounds inside the cavernous tent were muted and peaceful. The carefully tended, immaculate bonfire in the center of the structure burned happily, as well-made fires do, while the few Tauren inside spoke quietly, whispering to one another more often than speaking aloud.

I recognized none of them, of course. None of my people were there. These were Runetotem and Wildmane only. If any of my tribe, who had completed their training, still lived, they were elsewhere – and by elsewhere I would like to think that means they’re serving the Cenarion Circle, or helping those in need around Kalimdor. But I know in my heart that when I think of ‘elsewhere’, I’m thinking of that place beyond death.

It took a few moments for me to realize that a hush had fallen upon the room soon after I’d entered. I don’t know how long I stood there, lost in the rising depression that was eating away at the edges of my sanity, but my arrival had been noticed.

Hamuul Runetotem was staring at me.

To my surprise, the grizzled old Tauren’s face lit up with a toothy grin, and he spread his arms wide as he strode across the ground towards me.

“This is a sight these old eyes never thought to see again!” he said, his voice deep and gruff at the same time. “Look, all of you. A Blackhoof has come home!”

I felt all their eyes on me, and my flesh crawled underneath my dark fur. I shuddered a little, and a look must have crossed my face, because Hamuul frowned when he reached me, and instead of wrapping his huge arms around me, he merely placed one hand upon my shoulder and stooped a little to meet my eyes. And here I thought I was one of the biggest Tauren I’d ever seen.

Mustering my courage, I lifted my eyes to his. “The Blackhoof are dead, and have been for years.”

A look of sadness washed across his eyes, and his nostrils flared slightly as he smelled the lie behind my words. “Indeed, I thought they were. And yet --,” he paused for a moment, his eyes still locked on mine, and it was all I could do not to look away from the strength I could see there – a strength I wished I possessed, but knew I never would.

“All right, all right,” he continued, reluctantly it seemed to me, “I must have been mistaken.” Hamuul sighed and his shoulders slumped a little. I felt ashamed. “So what can I do for you --?”

“Wrallac,” I said quickly. “Of no tribe. I’ve come for advice. I’ve – done something that I don’t know how to deal with, and my companions suggested speaking to you. You are wise.”

Hamuul snorted. “And by wise you may as well say old. But your friends were right to send you to me – Wrallac.” He paused again, and I tried not to squirm under his scrutiny. I could only imagine what could be going through his mind. He did know who I was, but was letting me deny it.

“Companions,” I corrected him, audaciously. “Not friends.”

The Arch Druid arched one bushy eyebrow at that. “No?”

“I have no friends,” I admitted. And it was no lie I was telling him. None of the people I’ve met since that terrible day have been people I would consider my friends. All my family and loved ones perished, and my remaining friends scattered, and are all dead as well for all I know. I will not let that happen to me again, and the only way to prevent it is to let nobody close to me. Ever.

I felt Hamuul’s grip tighten on my shoulder and I looked away briefly. All the Runetotem and Wildmane were still watching us. Hamuul’s declaration of me as Blackhoof was something they wouldn’t let go so easily. My people had had promise, and would have taken their place alongside the other druidic tribes of the Tauren people. They would have flourished, too, if not for the humans. I felt a strange heat suffuse my face as I thought about that, and I was surprised to realize that I was being filled with an anger that bordered on unbridled rage.

I was struggling to bring myself under control when Hamuul spoke again, focusing my attention back on him. “Tell me.”

So I did. I told him everything that had happened the last couple days, while the druids looked on, listening to every word. It all came out in a rush, and before too long, my eyes were burning with unshed tears. Whether they were tears of sadness or anger, I couldn’t say, for I would not let them fall. Before long, Hamuul’s soothing words even began to coax the rest of the story from me, and when I spoke my first halting words about my lost tribe, he took me aside, away from the eyes and ears of the other druids, so that I could spill my heart to him, and only him.

We talked for what seemed like hours, just the two of us, on the supple, slightly dirty skins that he held his meditations on. The rest of the world moved around us, and I was only vaguely aware of the arrival and departures from the tent. Eventually I found the fire behind my back growing hotter as the day cooled around us, and I knew it was close to nightfall. I told him everything, and I felt drained.

The tent was largely quiet by the time I finished, and Hamuul spent some long minutes considering me and my words before he moved again. There were only a few other Tauren inside the huge tent now, and they were being polite enough to go about their own business, trying to ignore the two of us, even though I knew they were probably burning with curiosity inside.

“You are not a killer,” the Arch Druid finally told me, and that simple statement lifted some of the weight form my shoulders. To think that someone such as he would absolve me of such shame! “But nor are you an innocent,” he finished, and I felt puzzled again.

“You have seen and experienced much -- more, in fact, than many Tauren could imagine. You are who I named you, but at the same time, you are not any longer. You trained as a druid, but you are not one, and, I fear, could never be.” He gazed into my eyes as he said this last, and I felt reassured. He wasn’t telling me I could never be a druid because it would never be allowed, but rather that I couldn’t because that was no longer my path.

“You’ve told me much,” he continued, and I nodded slowly in bashful agreement. I’d told him much more than I’d planned or expected to. “But you haven’t told me all.”

My eyes narrowed slightly at that. “What do you mean? I’ve told you things I’ve never told anyone else. There is nobody alive who knows more than you.”

“Oh?” Hamuul struggled from his sitting position and knelt down in front of me. He lifted his hands slowly to either side of my head and brushed the tips of his digits against my horns. “And what about these, then, Wrallac who is not a Blackhoof?”

It was my turn to frown. My horns? What could he possibly be referring to? “I – I don’t understand what you mean.”

“You don’t?” Hamuul asked, sitting back, letting his hands fall to his lap as he stared at me, his grey eyes huge and liquid, and his gaze penetrating. “You would lie to me, even now?”

“I’m not lying!” I told him heatedly. My horns were my horns, and that was that. They were a part of me, and there was nothing odd about them.

Hamuul shrugged deliberately with exaggerated slowness. “So you say. But, young one, I can’t say that I’ve ever met a Tauren with broken horns before who didn’t have some story attached to them. In fact, I don’t think I know a single Tauren with such.”

I was beginning to feel a little angry. “They are not broken. I was born with abnormal horns. There is nothing wrong with that! I will not sit here and let you ridicule --.”

“No,” the Arch Druid said quickly. “Stop, and listen.” He reached forward and placed a hand on either shoulder. “You were not born this way. Violence has been done to you, Wrallac, and it is part of your story. Either you don’t want to tell me, or you are not letting yourself remember what happened.”

Not letting myself remember? I went from puzzled to feeling truly perplexed. “But – how?”

“I don’t know,” Hamuul admitted, “but I can help you discover the truth, if you’ll let me.”

Was there a part of my own history that I couldn’t, for some strange reason, remember? I wondered, quickly, if it maybe had something to do with the way I’d been feeling since we’d come upon the human poachers. I nodded my assent to his help.

Hamuul Runetotem rose from before me and spent the next few minutes bustling around the tent, rustling through a sack here, digging through a box or apothecary chest there, until he’d finally found what he was looking for. When he rejoined me, there was a strange look of anticipation on his face, and his hands were loaded with things I didn’t recognize. He knelt before me again and went to work, combining this and that and other things I didn’t recognize, but that made me feel more than a little wary.

“Done,” he said, finally, and poured an almost sap-thick liquid into a clay mug of steaming tea that he’d brewed while he searched. “This is – something different,” he admitted with a slightly rueful smile. “I’ve had a theory for some time now, Wrallac, but could never bring myself to let anyone help me test it. But you – you’re brave enough, are you not?”

Brave? That wasn’t something I’d ever considered myself. I knew courage, surely. Years of hunting had proven that to me, and my actions against the humans were a sure sign, weren’t they? But bravery? I didn’t eve know what that was. But that lack of knowledge wouldn’t stop me.

“Of course.”

“Good, good,” Hamuul smiled again and placed the warm mug in my hands. “This is a mixture of many things. Dreamless Sleep, Dream Vision, and Wildvine being the prime components, but there are others in there as well. It is the Morrowgrain that I think will prove successful.”

“What will it do?” I asked cautiously, lifting the mug towards my mouth, letting the steam waft towards my nostrils. It smelled sweet and bitter at the same time.

“If it works,” he said, with a grin, “you will sleep, and dream. The veil to the Emerald Dream will thin for you. You will be able to glimpse the world as it should have been, as well as help you see what has passed before. Seeing the past is not truly a part of the Emerald Dream, but I hope that by interacting with that plane, if only a little, it will help you remember. If you want to.”

I nodded, once, stiffly. “I do.”

“Then drink, Wrallac.”
Arggg! (whacks Khrale) Way to keep us hanging on! I demand more! Great story, giant. I'm loving it.
Don't mess with the trees!

"I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody."

~Bill Cosby
Why thank you Chaska! <grins> I know, like family (almost!), your have to like it, but i think you Actually do!
Part IV

I can still taste that brew now, if I concentrate on the memory. It was sickly sweet and so bitter as to make my lips pucker, and my gums want to peel back from my teeth. I know that Hamuul told me what he’d put I the brew, but all the same, I have no idea what he was talking about.

All I know for certain is that it worked. Before too long, I was nodding off, my eyelids feeling like granite, and I could barely concentrate on the swimming images before me. Hamuul helped my lay down.

After that, I dreamed – most of which I can’t remember. For once though, my dreams weren’t of that terrible day so long ago. This I know. I felt at peace, and my mind wandered as my body relaxed. The potent tea Hamuul had mixed together burned through me, spreading comfortable warmth throughout my limbs. I was conscious of this, even as I dreamed. How, I do not know, but it is the truth.

I was drifting through the serene air, and the land that passed beneath me was a familiar one, but only just. Everything I saw seemed hazy, and slightly indistinct, as if I were looking through clouded glass. This was Kalimdor, but not one I was familiar with. Below me I could see no signs of habitation, and I was so high up that I could see for quite a distance, though anything too far away was just a blur.

Time seemed to move differently in the Emerald Dream – or at least that was where I assumed I was. Was everything so hazy because I was looking in from the outside? Hamuul had mentioned something about a veil between our realm and that of the Dream, but I know little of such things. She could explain it to me, I’m sure, if she still lived. Everything had started out dark but for the bright moon higher above me, and I could see no lights shining valiantly anywhere across the inky landscape. As I watched, the sky around me began to brighten, and the landmass began to take more distinct shape before me. I recognized where I was. I was somewhere north of Freewind Post, entering The Barrens. But, and I had to look twice to be sure, over my shoulder, there was no Great Lift! Nor was there a road that I could see.

I could, however, make out great thorny vines strangling mountains, and crowds of quillboar below me, so small I almost didn’t recognize them for what they were. Nor was The Barrens as barren as I recalled. Life seemed to be positively teeming. I watched as an organized pack of scytheclaws ran down and fell upon a terrified mass of gazelle streaming across the green plains.

Hamuul had been right – the Emerald Dream was a vision of the world as it might have been, untouched by the hands and industry of us myriad higher intelligent species. For a while I closed my eyes and let the pressure of the wind against my face bring me relaxation. Without knowing how, or why, I was moving towards someplace else, and I was almost certain I knew where.

Indeed, when I felt the temperature of the air change around me, I opened my eyes slowly to see familiar mountains coming into view. They too were familiar, but different. There were many more trees, for one thing, and the more life going about its business without a care on the ground than I remembered. The air was cooler, and it wasn’t long before the slight pressure of the air moving past me simply ceased. I knew where I was now – directly overhead where my tribe’s village had stood.

I stared down at the ground now, and could see nothing but grass and scattered shrubbery. After a moment however, my vision blurred, and I shook my head, confused by a sudden dizziness and queasiness in my stomach. Below me, the landscape shimmered. Now my village –was- there, but it was a ghostly image.

I began to feel a little fright when I began to descend through the air, slowly at first, but with increasing quickness, until my hooves thumped to the ground with jarring suddenness. Diaphanous images of my past flitted around me. People I’d known ghosted past and my eyes widened as I recognized myself with my friends.

And her.

I shivered. I was seeing, or remembering, the day I had left for the Charred Vale. My friends were standing to one side while I said my goodbyes to the one I’d lost my heart to. Even after I’d parted, I could see, after I’d long trudged off with my companions, she stood there, on the edge of the village, watching me. A small brown cat lay curled in the crook of her arm, purring, I imagine, contentedly. Olm Blackhoof, the eldest of us all, had told us young ones to commune with the feral parts of our nature, from time to time, to aid us in our training and help us understand what it was we were to become. She was almost never parted with that cat – and was one of the only Tauren in the village who could get near the wild thing.

Tears welled in my eyes, and a lump rose in my throat, threatening to choke me as I watched her. It had been so many years – her face had grown almost unfamiliar in my mind’s eye, and now I was seeing her again, at least once more. I felt ashamed that I could have ever forgotten the details of her face, or the lines of her body.

Then the world shifted again, shimmering brightly, hurting my eyes, and I threw up my hands in front of my face to ward off the brilliance. When I lowered them again, the village was still there, but things were much different.

Everything around me was burning, and bodies lay in front of tents, or strewn about the village green everywhere I could see. On the far side of the green was a crowd of Tauren, mostly young, with shoulders slumped, trudging after the rear of a trundling cart. They were strung together with rope, with both their wrists and ankles hobbled, so they had to hop as much as walk to keep up. Scores of humans surrounded them, laughing and poking at their captives with the butts of spears.

Outrage made me grind my teeth, and anger, at seeing her amidst them all, nearly blinded me. How I could be seeing any of this, since I had not been present, was a mystery to me, but I trusted it to be the truth all the same. The Earthmother existed here in the Emerald Dream, didn’t she? Was this her hand, showing me these events? But why?

I shook my head, confused, and hurt that I was seeing my love being led away. And I had been only hours away at the time, ignorant of what would ruin my life.

The vision around me shimmered again, and I let the light blind me, to try and wash away what I’d seen. It had been terrible imagining what had happened. Witnessing it was much worse. When only a few lights danced before my eyes, I recognized the time again, and knew this was memory yet again. There was myself, looking lighter, younger, and much more innocent than I had any right to at that age. I watched as my other self rooted through the ruins, going from body to body, searching and hoping to find someone alive – to find a specific someone. I felt those old panicked feelings rise, threatening to make me lose my composure, but I fought it. I swallowed the cold, hard lump in my throat and watched on.

Hamuul told me that the brew would help me see whatever it was he believed I wasn’t telling him. Everything I’d seen of my village was memory, with only the one strange vision to show me what I had missed. What else could there be? After I’d searched the village, I’d followed the tracks the slavers left, like a hound on the trail of freshly-blooded prey, but I’d never found them, or even caught sight of --.


Icy, painful shivers shot up and down my spine and spread out to the muscles in my back. Nearly every inch of my flesh pebbled as I felt something else within me –shift-, as if something was being pushed aside. The air shimmered again, but darkly this time, and I gasped for air, my lungs suddenly tight.

No. No, no, a thousand times no. I did NOT find them, I screamed at myself. At no time had I even been close to them. But no, there I was, jogging along a rocky path, a broken spear clutched tight in my right hand as my eyes followed the foot and hoofprints in the dust. I’d never been this way before. There was nothing in this bowl valley but trees and a meandering stream, and – stumps?

I was following behind my ghostly self, but at the same time, I –was- him. I wasn’t seeing through his eyes though. No, I was remembering, and that realization sent a thrill of terror shooting through me. Stumps, where there should be no stumps, and odd sounds I didn’t recognize came to me, distantly. What was going on? Only the elves had any sort of presence in the mountains, and that was much farther to the north. On the other side of this valley was a wall of mountains, and on the other side of that, Ashenvale.

Was there some secret pass to Ashenvale my people, and Thrall’s people, didn’t know about? It would explain why the humans’ path was taking me this way.

As I fell more and more into remembrance, I forgot about where I was, about being in the Emerald Dream, and felt myself become my past self. I was only distantly aware that what was happening was the past, and not the present, but I couldn’t control myself. I had been blocking something, and as much as I feared finding out what it was, I still had to know.

To my dismay, it didn’t take long to find out what that something had been. I did catch up to the slavers, or at least, I almost did. My path crested a ridge that had once been crowded with trees, but was now all but bare. The trees lay felled and I could see the dusky sky beyond. Stupidly, I stood tall at the top of the ridge, staring down in stunned disbelief at the sight below. Small fires dotted the valley, some glittering as they reflected off the slow-moving waters of the stream winding below. Some strange, bizarre shape hulked in the distance, and the sounds of hammers ringing on metal came to me across the way along with the sounds of dozens of voices I didn’t understand.

They were goblin, I knew, coming to myself a little, and I tried to separate myself from the memory, trying to view it from the outside as I had the others, but I could not. Across the valley floor, moving along a wide path cleared of trees, I could see my people, shuffling along, defeated, behind their human captors.

Before I knew what I was doing, my lungs were expanding with drawn in, slightly metallic air, and I –bellowed- her name to the heavens. She was alive! But they were taking her from me. Perhaps it was my imagination, and I only wished to see it, but I thought I saw one of those Tauren turn her head at the sound that soon echoed from the walls of the valley and look my way.

I hope she had heard me – hope she knew that I was trying to come for her, that I hadn’t given up hope when I’d arrived home to find my world in shambles.

Of course, my bellow had an undesired effect as well. Below my, so close that I could have hit them with a rock, were a crowd of surprised humans, all looking at me with horrified expressions that slowly turned to ones of amusement as they saw that I was alone. One Tauren, with a broken spear. They came for me quickly, weapons bare, and I backed up slowly, not knowing what to do. I’d had some combat training, of course, but only rudimentary. I was years away from learning the feral skills my training would eventually bring me. Now here I was, outnumbered, and afraid.

But these people had taken my life away from me. I charged, head lowered, spear held low in front of me, and I crashed into the surprised humans, tossing my head, lashing out with horns and spear alike, trying to do what I could, hoping for the opportunity to break away from them and catch up to my people and --.

And what? What could I possibly do? This was a valley full of hostiles, and I was not a fighter. This I realized when I felt something cold, solid, and heavy strike the side of my head, distracted as I was by my sudden doubt. I crashed to the ground.

Pain burst in my hand as a hob-nailed boot crashed down on it, and the shaft of the spear spilled out of my spasming fingers. More boots then, in my sides, my abdomen, my head. My eyes blurred and the world rang in my ears as pain filled me from every possible direction. Then there were gauntleted hands digging into my mane, and into my clothes, dragging me backwards, towards the light of a fire. So dazed was I that I didn’t know what was happening anymore. Shame and fear filled me, and I think I wet myself – or was that blood?

The next thing I knew, I was on my knees, head bobbing woozily as a huge, armored figure in front of me shouted words I couldn’t understand. He drew back his hand and smote me across the face, working loose at least two teeth that I could feel. My tongue probed at the wet, salty holes of its own accord, and I spat the teeth out reflexively, ringing them against the man’s armor, and spattering the shining plate with bloody saliva.

More words cane then, angry, outraged, and then a hand in my mane, forcing my head to the side and down. I felt a cool dampness against my cheek, and smelled pine, strong in my bleeding nostrils. My eyes focused long enough to see the man who had hit me standing before me again, with a heavy, two-handed blade clutched in his fists. He lifted the blade high, preparing to strike, and I could not look away. Had it been the me then who had stared at him, or was this me now? Had I closed my eyes back then, waiting to feel the blade bite into my neck? I don’t know for sure, but the next thing I saw was a hand placed against the man’s chest as another man came into my view, this one shorter, but wearing finer armor. They spoke, one angrily, the other more calmly, but with a strange-sounding cruelty to his voice that only made me more afraid.

My love was being led away across the valley, towards some fate I couldn’t imagine, and here I was, about to die. Thoughts of her, and of the Earthmother, filled my mind as I waited for the end, but when, after a few minutes, it didn’t come, I grew curious, only to have that curiosity dashed away as a hand again wound its way tightly in my mane and forced my head to the side awkwardly.

The smaller man stepped into view. In one hand he hefted an iron hammer that looked more like a mallet one might use to bang tent stakes into the ground. In his other hand was a keen looking hand axe with an etched blade. The firelight behind him made the strange symbols along the face of the blade stand out in sharp relief, and for some reason my eyes were fixated on this. Perhaps, I think, because I had some inkling of what was coming, and didn’t want to think about it.

The next few minutes were filled with jarring pain and horror as my head was jerked first this way, and then that, so that the cruel-sounding man could smash his mallet down upon my horns in turn, crushing and splintering them against the not-so-soft pine my head lay against. Nearly blinded with pain, and suffused with shame at what was being done to me, I barely registered the sight of the axe until I saw it flash down, and I cried out each time it struck my splintered horns, severing the shattered mess from each side.

Soon after, hands grasped me again and dragged me back the way I’d come. My head swimming, my blood pounding in my ears, I could hear the men talking to one another, and cursing me for some time before they finally threw me down to the ground and stormed away, back into the woods. They’d left me to die, I thought at first. It was only a little later, as I lay there bleeding and shivering that I realized what they hadn’t, really. They’d mutilated me, and left me to my shame. I’d been beaten, scarred, and my life torn from me. It was the cruelest thing they could have done to me short of killing my love before my eyes. Crueler still, to shame me, and then drag her away to a fate I could not know.

My own cries awakened me, and I thrashed about on the ground at Hamuul’s feet. Oh, Earthmother, it was terrible. I felt the shame, and the pain, and the crushing loss succinctly, as if it had just happened. The old Arch Druid knelt at my side swiftly and held me down firmly to ease my thrashing, and his touch seemed to help, calming me, if slowly.

“Oh Wrallac, I’m sorry for that. I fear The Nightmare visited its corruption on you while you dreamed. I should have warned you. I forget that you were young when your people were taken – that you couldn’t have known of the dangers of the Emerald Dream. I’d hoped you would only remember, and see what you were blocking, not relive it!” He said, and bowed his head. His hand was heavy on my chest, and, with some effort, I lifted one of mine and placed it over top of his.

“And p-perhaps it is better t-this way,” I said haltingly, then proceeded to tell him everything I’d seen and felt.

This time I left nothing out, because I remembered everything. Not only had the humans taken my tribe, not only had they taken the love of my life, the soul the Earthmother had destined mine to mate with, they had taken my pride along with my horns. I fingered the rough-hewn ends of my horns as I told him of those memories, and I followed the splintered cracks that snaked along the outer casing with a fingernail.

When I’d finished, Hamuul rocked back on his heels and spent a little time mulling my words over in his head. Finally, when I knew I could nearly bear no more silence, he spoke.

“You feel ashamed, now, and hurt. One day soon, that will turn to anger. And following that will come rage. These are not necessarily bad things, Wrallac, if controlled. You would not be the first among the Tauren to lose yourself to a raging madness,” he said, his voice soft and lulling.

“What, then, should I do?” I asked. But I think, even then, I already knew. “I can’t live with myself now, knowing what I do. Not after remembering all of that. I was so close! But I was weak,” I said, letting my chin fall against my chest even as I struggled to sit up.

“You must leave,” he replied gruffly, lifting my chin roughly with solid fingers. “The Hunter’s Rise. Go there, now. Ask for Sark Ragetotem. He will help you.”

“I – I don’t understand,” I stammered uncertainly.

“Tell him I sent you, Wrallac Blackhoof. Tell him your name, and ask him to train you. He will help set your hooves upon your new path, and maybe, just maybe, one day you will find peace through adversity.” Hamuul yanked his fingers away, as if ashamed of what he’d just told me, and rose creaking to his feet. He backed away as I struggled to right myself, but his eyes never left me.

“I am sorry for what happened to you, Wrallac, and sorry for the loss to the Tauren people. I’m sorrier still for what you might become, but it is the only path left to you. Make use of that coming rage,” he said, then shook his head and turned away from me.

I was dismissed. He would speak no more, and I would not press him. I knew what his words meant. Who had –not- heard of Sark? Sark Ragetotem. I chuckled sadly and shook my head in wonder as I stumped out of the cavernous tent, into the chill night air outside.

I stopped for a moment and gazed out towards Thunder Bluff proper, seeing lights glittering, and people moving about still. And further, beyond another precarious-looking, yet sturdy, rope bridge, was Hunter’s rise, bright still with flaring torchlight, the mesa that never slept. It was home to the hunters, and the guardians of our people.

I took my first step forward, onto my new path – the path of the warrior.
Part V

Even as a young druid-in-training, I had heard tales of Sark and the mighty Ragetotem tribe. They were the quintessential examples of the heights any Tauren following the warrior’s path should strive to attain. Their exploits against the Burning Legion while allied to Thrall still circulate the tribal fires on dark nights, making young eyes glow and flanks quiver with excitement. Not only were the Ragetotem fierce fighters, and their leader a beast in combat, but they were also peerless when it came to upholding and demonstrating the honor that dominated their lives. Sark stepped down from leading the Ragetotem, in favor of, and allegiance to, Cairne.

To this day, I wonder what Sark might have attained through strength of arms and courage alone had he not chosen to train the united Tauren people in the ways of war instead of leading his tribe against their enemies.

I was afraid of meeting him – I’ll admit it. This was the Tauren I would eventually have to prove myself to, and, if I was lucky, one day be judged worthy enough to be named a warrior in truth.

My legs were a little shaky when I finally crossed that bridge to the Hunter’s Rise, and I spent several long minutes trying to work up the courage to mount the steps and enter his tent. I feared, a little, what kind of reception I would receive. I knew little of how things like this worked. But I trusted that Hamuul had known what he was doing when he sent me this way.

I’d expected to meet a towering, fearsome-looking Tauren capable of crushing heads with his bare hands. I expected him to glower at me and demand to know my purpose with a gruff, commanding voice. What I found, instead, was a Tauren who knew the value of life, and was perhaps wiser and gentler than even he had one day expected to be. He had arched one graying eyebrow quizzically as I approached his seat by a brazier, where he sat with one leg crossed over a knee, honing the edge of a blade that scared me just to look at.

When I explained who had sent me, he had smiled, and then welcomed me, then demanded, but not forcefully, as I’d expected, to know why Hamuul had sent me, and why I thought I should be following the path he, Sark, would set my hooves upon. I feel no shame now in admitting that he frightened me, even though his entire demeanor was unthreatening, had I thought to study the actual him, and not judge him on the tales I’d heard. With understanding words, he coaxed my story from me, and only interrupted long enough to ask me to repeat something he found significant.

“And when you think about all that has happened to you, and your loved ones – how does that make you feel?” Sark asked me. He studied the glistening blade lying across his calf and slowly drew his whetstone along the edge of the blade with long, careful, even strokes.

“I – I’m not sure I know how to answer that,” I replied truthfully. I was ashamed, and angry, and sad. My feelings about everything were so mixed up that I think I was feeling everything at once. Perhaps that was why I felt so confused.

Sark halted the motion of his stone and looked up, his hard, old eyes meeting mine and holding them there by sheer force of will. “Does it make you angry?”


“How angry?” This was no simple question, either, I felt. This was important.

I paused for a moment, thinking about how I should answer. I knew, though, that telling Sark anything but the truth would be a mistake. “Angry enough that I acted without thinking several days ago and killed a man. And would have killed the others too, if I’d had the ability. But if my friends hadn’t been with me, my spirit would be with my family now.”

“That answer is acceptable,” Sark said and nodded. A smile pulled at the corners of his lips. “Anger is a good motivator, but one of the first things you will need to learn is that keeping your head free from emotion while fighting is essential to survival, and to beating your enemy. Instead of letting anger motivate you to fight, and to strike, let it instead fuel your resolve, the strength of your strikes, and your desire to protect others who cannot protect themselves.”

I stared at the polished wooden floor beneath my hooves. “I know so little. If only some of my people had been better fighters – maybe things would have turned out differently!” There was anguish in my voice, and I know he heard it.

“Perhaps, but you don’t know that. Do not blame yourself, and do not blame your tribe for following a peaceful path. You can, however, blame those that wronged you and yours. There is nothing wrong with that. We may, according to Thrall and Cairne, be at peace with the humans and other allied species, but if it were –me- still leading my tribe – well, there would be fewer pink-skins to be found in our lands.” He paused, and leaned forward over the sword, his voice lowering as he continued. “Our leaders are too trusting of them, I think. Look what happened to your tribe. Nothing was done in response to that, when the truth became known, and no reparations were made or asked.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Sark was sympathetic! And he didn’t seem to trust our leaders implicitly, as I’d always assumed most of the Tauren did. “You will teach me then?” I asked bravely, hoping that what I was hearing meant that one day, perhaps, I could avenge her. I wondered if her spirit was restless, and wondered if she knew how much I loved her still.

“And, should I let you join the Ragetotem in training, what would your goals be?” he asked, and I cursed myself for seeming too eager. Should I lie in hopes of ensuring my place among the new trainees? No, I decided, after a moment. It would dishonor me to lie to him, and I felt that he would –know-, somehow.

“The protection of the Tauren people, so that what happened to my tribe does not happen again, and should injustice be done, then justice will be sought. Revenge. Atonement. I will forever blame myself for not being able to rescue my Miah when I had the chance. I will forever blame the humans for what happened. Even the innocent among them carries the taint of those deeds now.”

Sark nodded slowly at my words, and I wondered if telling him the truth had been too much. What I said was deeply ingrained in my heart now. The past several days had changed me more than I’d realized at the time. It was only then, upon speaking those words that I realized my feet were already –on- my new path.

“You are troubled, and there is a rage deep inside you that will hurt you in the future. If you can learn to control that, then you will make a fine warrior. Tell nobody about what you plan – and I know you –do- have a plan, of some sort. Train, live, and grow wise. Maybe one day revenge will cease to be one of your goals. But for now, what you’ve told me is enough. The Ragetotem will train you,” he said and pressed his large hand to his chest.

“Strength and honor,” he said softly.

“Strength and honor,” I repeated, amazed that he would take me in, even though Hamuul had assured me Sark would.

“Now,” Sark Ragetotem continued, after a moment, “find a place to sleep in one of the recruit tents, and try to rest.”

He paused. He grinned.

“Tomorrow, we see how well you bruise.”
Amazing work, Khrale.
Thank you Penny -- I appreciate the encouraging comment. It's been a lot of fun so far, when i can find the time to work on it.
Part VI

I bruise very well, I found.

I awakened that day feeling incredibly rested and at peace with myself. If I had a nightmare that night, I didn’t remember it, and that alone made that dawn the most wonderful one I could remember.

I ate with the younger warriors, but I spoke to none of them, and none of them approached me, so intent were they on stuffing themselves. I wondered if I should be doing the same, but ended up eating sparingly. I was too nervous about the rest of the day.

Would Sark train us personally? How many of the others eating with me were new trainees, and how many had more experience? I wondered this as I picked at some moist cornbread, letting my eyes roam the big tent. I was amazed to find so many non-Tauren there. Surely the others had trainers of their own they could go to. Were there no Orcish or Troll heroes who could train them? It’s not that I felt any animosity towards them – I just didn’t understand, at the time, why they would come all the way to Thunder Bluff. Were the Ragetotem simply that good?

They were. Or at least I thought so.

After two hours of nearly non-stop training, I felt like collapsing. It was only midmorning. I sat heavily on the smoothed surface of a split-log bench and rested my head between my hands, elbows on my knees, and gulped in air greedily.

I felt a shadow touch my face and I looked up, breathing heavily. “You must remember to breathe Wrallac!” Ker Ragetotem admonished me and patted my head quickly. “Try to count your breaths as you fight, to remind yourself to do so, and soon you will be doing it without thinking. You are not the first green warrior I’ve seen who holds his breath when trying to concentrate on the exercises and you will not be the last!” She chuckled and wandered away as quickly as she’d come, moving on to offer advice to someone else.

I watched her briefly as she knelt down by a young Orc who was favoring his left arm. Her heavy black braids swinging free. I tore my eyes away and tried to concentrate on what we’d been learning. Ah, but she reminded me of Miah – at least a little.

I was sore, and I was tired, but I was happy. I had wondered, that morning, if Sark would take a personal hand in training us, but he did not. He was there, yes, but only to watch, and judge us, I think, to see if we were worthy. His two favored sergeants, Ker and Torm Ragetotem were our immediate trainers. Ker had quickly taken our small group in hand and shown us the basics, then set us against one another, and against some of guards who had come to watch. Torm, on the other hand, was training the more experienced recruits on the other side of the Rise, instructing them in specific strikes and counterstrikes.

I was fortunate to have such a dark hide – my bruises didn’t show that well. There were many of them. The welts though – those were easy to see, lifting my fur in lumps here and there across my limbs and torso.

We fought with heavy oak shields strapped to our arms, and three-foot ironwood staves in our hands. For the first hour, Ker instructed us on how to stand, and how to hold our shields, and how to maneuver them ever so slightly to block or turn a blow to head or legs. Then she showed us how to strike and return our ‘blades’ to a ready position in preparation to strike again. She explained that what we were learning was fundamental to what we would learn later on, and that while this might not be exactly how warriors fought in battle, it was the backbone of nearly ever offensive and defensive action.

For the second hour, she set us against one another – which I found both exciting and troublesome. It was exciting because I was walking the warrior’s path! I was learning what I needed, and wanted, to know. It was exciting to face off another recruit and feel that slight thrill of momentary fear, wondering if you would win or lose, anticipating and dreading the pain of a blow. But it was troublesome as well – to me at least.

Of the group of us, only myself and three others seemed to be taking the training seriously. The other six were having a good time, certainly, but they were not concentrating on what they were doing. I found many of the mock-combats against those six to be too easy. Their blows were wild, and their shield-work sloppy. I had to watch my own blows, to make sure I didn’t strike them too hard, and I walked away from each of those fights feeling disappointed. Didn’t they want to learn?

The other three I trained with were much more serious about what they were doing, and those fights left me sore and breathing heavily, with them striking me as much as I was able to strike them. But still, I felt a little bad about fighting them, because I felt I had too much of an advantage. I was head and shoulders taller than the Orc, and his Troll friend was so slender that I thought I would snap his bones if I hit him too hard. I felt most comfortable facing off against the other Tauren, but I was still a head taller than she. Of course, none of them felt any reservation about giving their all against me, and I was thankful for that, because it made me really –try- to fend them off, and I learned much in that first hour of actual fighting.

After a few rounds of facing off against one another, Ker called for a couple of the older Tauren guards to help out, to show us what it would be like against someone with years of experience. Those fights were difficult. They let us attack them, and fended each one of us off easily. Then it would be their turn, and they would strike at us, slowly at first, but with increasing speed, varying their angle of attack to force us to concentrate on defending, until finally, an attack would come out of nowhere, when we were expecting a different one, to strike home with painful finality.

Two of the other recruits had already been taken away to visit the Elder Rise to be treated – one Troll with a broken arm, and a Tauren who complained about a terrible ringing in his ears.

I rubbed my ribs on my right side, below my armpit, and winced. It had been a hard hit to end that last fight, but I was big, so I could handle it. Had that Tauren hit me any harder though, I would have had a crack or two for sure.

“Let’s go!” Ker’s voice came, loud and almost shrill as she called us back to the training circle ringed with painted stones.

I was tired, and had only gotten a few sips of water, but I was ready for another two hours, I thought. I wondered if we were going to keep up the pace for the entire day, and I shook my head slightly thinking about it. I would sleep like a rock.

But I wouldn’t be training the rest of that day.

We had just paired off once again, now short two recruits, and were trying to follow Ker’s instructions, trading equal blows, back and forth, one after the other, to begin to get used to striking in a certain way. My partner was the serious Orc, and he grinned at me over the edge of his shield as he blocked my strike at his temple, and then lashed back with one of his own. He was enjoying himself, and I smiled back, beginning to feel like I belonged.

That was when we heard the derisive, dry laughter drift across the training circle. It was enough to distract me for a moment, and the Orc’s blow landed, skipping along the edge of my shattered right horn and thumping home against the side of my head. I rocked back a little, dazed, as the laughter came again, louder this time. I could hear the Orc trying to apologize to me, and I waved it off lamely. It hadn’t been his fault – it was mine.

“Hold!” Ker Ragetotem shouted, and we all stopped immediately. It was one of the first things she’d drilled into us – the importance of stopping everything when you heard that word, because it usually meant someone was hurt, or something was wrong.

“I’m glad we amuse you so, Forsaken. But if you have business here, please do it quickly, and then leave. We are trying to train here,” she huffed, and I turned to look at who she was talking to.

A gangly, impressively armored undead warrior with mottled grey skin, his flesh hanging slack on his face, sat on the steps to Sark’s tent. A long, heavy-bladed sword with gilded quillons lay sheathed across his knees, and a dark shield with a wicked-looking spike leaned against the steps.

“My businesss iss my own,” he said, his words sounding strange to me. I spoke the common Orcish tongue a little, but not very well, but I knew enough to be able to understand him. “And your warriorss need much practice!”

Ker snorted and placed her hands on her hips. “Well of course they do! They’re new, just as you were, once, I would wager. You shouldn’t laugh at them though. If you insist on watching, then I insist on you holding your tongue. Or you can leave,” she finished and turned away from him, facing us anew.

“You should show me ssome respect!” the Forsaken said suddenly, loudly. “Don’t you know who I am? I am--,”

“I don’t –care- who you are,” Ker said angrily, whirling back to face him. “You are unimportant as the dirt beneath my hooves. You are disrupting my training. Leave.”

I was surprised by the heat that had come into her voice, and I was worried about what might happen. I could see Sark, over by Torm’s recruits, and he was watching the sudden spectacle with interest.

“Why you filthy Tauren cow--,” the Forsaken began, rising from his seat on Sark’s steps.

“You watch your mouth rothead!” I shouted in Orcish before I knew what I was doing, and the Forsaken’s eyes shifted to me suddenly. I don’t even know why I did it for sure. Maybe it was because Ker reminded me of Miah, and I would never have stood for someone talking to her that way, or maybe it was his attitude alone that made me speak when I probably shouldn’t have, but I had, and there would be consequences, I thought. Why had the insult come so easily? I couldn’t even remember where I’d heard it before.

“Rothead iss it?” the Forsaken asked me, approaching slowly. He’d left his sword on the steps, but he’d taken up his heavy shield, and seemed to carry it easily. “Perhapss you should take your own advice. That mouth will get you in trouble.”

I watched in silence as he came forward, then suddenly yanked the stave from the hand of one of the recruits closet to him.

“Perhapss I should teach you some manners. I have a right to laugh, compared to the likess of you.” He finished and then looked directly at Ker, who was only feet away. I looked too, and didn’t know what to think. She looked confused, and unsure of what to do. She turned her head to look for Sark, and found him watching. I saw the elder Ragetotem nod his head, every so slightly, and my heart sank.

“It is allowed. Wrallac? It was not your place to speak, and maybe a match against someone who has seen a few battles will do you good,” she said. Then she stepped closer, staring into my eyes. “Do not hold back against him like you did the others,” she whispered, and I felt my eyes widen.

I’m not sure what I felt when he squared off against me, because I was too confused. All I can say for certain is that I was ready for the pain I knew would come, and even accepted that it was probably my due. What I didn’t expect, though, was for me to block his first few blows so easily. He threw a flurry of strikes at me, and I retreated slowly, as Ker had shown us, turning a little to provide him with as little a target as possible. Was he taking it easy on me, or was he just out of practice? Or, I wondered, was he – had –he- been a bad recruit who didn’t take his training seriously, when he first began?

I thought it likely when I saw his stave-arm drop, leaving him open. Maybe he didn’t expect me capable enough, but I didn’t let the opportunity pass, and lashed out with my ironwood stave, cracking it against his armored wrist. I heard him gasp in pain, and the stave thumped to the dust.

All around me I heard indrawn breaths. I was shocked as the rest of them. But if that had shocked everyone, seeing the Forsaken draw a wide-bladed shortsword from an upside-down sheath on his back harness was even more of one. Almost before I knew it, he launched himself at me, snarling angrily, spitting insults in Orcish and common – human common that is – while he hacked at my quickly raised shield.

I think it was the human words that caused the change in me. Some of the words he said very much reminded me of what I’d seen and remembered in the Emerald Dream. It also occurred to me, then, unfortunately, that as a Forsaken, he had once been human.

The rage took me.

He hacked once at my shield, and I countered by punching the edge of it at his face, making him sway backwards to avoid being hit. I my arm down and twisted my wrist, trying to dislodge the straps from my forearm and let my arm free. I saw him recover and draw his arm back for another blow – one that would have hit me for sure, had it landed.

The shield dropped into the dust. His arm came down, and my massive left hand came up, catching his wrist. I registered the surprise on his face, I think, but the rage was hot in my now, and my skin burned. I don’t remember everything for sure – only what the others told me afterwards.

I grasped his wrist, and twisted it around, turning his arm unnaturally, his shoulder turned forward. I brought the length of the ironwood down viciously on his elbow, and felt it give. He screamed and tried to duck down, to pull away, but instead his face met with my fleshy knee and his head jerked back. I let go of his wrist and kicked a hoof out, catching him in the stomach, sending him tumbling backwards. I bellowed, the bloodlust in me, and moved forward to grind my hooves into him, to make him pay, but it never happened. Strong hands grasped my arms and shoulders and held me back even as I strained forward against them.

“Stop! Wrallac stop!” I heard someone shouting at me, as if from a great distance. I struggled forward, wanting nothing more than to pulp the Forsaken beneath me. He was human! Humans had taken and killed Miah! Humans had disfigured and shamed me!

I don’t know how long they had to shout at me before I began to become aware of them, but eventually it happened. The look on Sark’s face was unreadable. Ker looked at me apprehensively, and, I think, with a little bit of horror, and the other recruits were staring at me with any number of emotions painted starkly across their faces.

The Forsaken lay on the ground, groaning, but alive.

“Go to your tent, recruit,” I heard Sark say, his voice flat. “We will discuss this later. Go, and reflect.”

And so, amazed that I’d been let off so easily, after what I’d just done, I trudged off to the tent I’d slept in the previous night, wondering what was going to happen to me.

Unknown to me, of course, was that that day’s actions were just a precursor or darker times – of a darkness within.
Part VII

My punishment never came. I waited for days, wondering and worrying about what was going to happen to me – very much afraid that Sark would say I could no longer be trained by the Ragetotem. After a few weeks, during which my training continued unabated, I realized that my punishment had already been delivered. The worry and anxiety I felt about what would happen had been my sentence.

I didn’t feel bad about what I’d done to the Forsaken though – I was simply afraid of not being allowed to continue. Should I have felt remorse, though? I did what I thought was right, even though I let my anger control me, and I feel that my actions then were justified.

Ker never made mention of it to me, although I think I caught her looking at me, once or twice, in the following days, with what I can only describe as wary admiration. Thinking about that makes me uncomfortable. What I’d done, in the eyes of my people, and by that I mean my lost tribe, would be considered brutish. The Earthmother, if I still had a relationship with her, would have frowned on the deed as well, I’m sure.

My people, as a species, revere the Earthmother, for she is just that – the mother of the land we stride, and all that inhabits it. Oh, I know, the other species have some strange notions about otherworldly masters and benevolent creators, but what do they know, really? Because the Earthmother is such a large part of our lives, we speak of and to her, regularly, and are mindful of how our daily actions would be viewed in her eyes.

But I am angry with her, and speak to her no more. I still heed her teachings, passed down through the druids and the shaman, but she no longer has a place in my life. I know what some of the elders say – that she doesn’t have any direct involvement in the world, that it is her spirit within nature, and her love for us all that should provide us with strength, but at the same time, I wonder about her cruelty.

How –could- she allow my Miah to die? Oh, the long, bright, happy days we spent together, smiling, holding hands, speaking softly of our future together, how I miss them. I try not to think about the day we speculated on what our calves would look like. Would they take after us, and become druids too, or would they grow to surpass us in time? Our lives were to be joined, formally, less than a few seasons after the slavers came.

Why did the Earthmother allow it to happen? WHY? There is a pit inside of me. I know it is there, but I avoid peering into its depths too deeply, for fear of falling forever. Is that where my rage comes from? Has all the pain and loss and shame found a home there, and joined forces to overwhelm me when I can least control it? I fear that it is so.

I do not hate the Earthmother, but I no longer trust her. Perhaps this is why I find my new path to be an easy one. If I train hard enough, and if I throw myself into my role as a warrior for my people, and the Horde, perhaps one day the void will be fed – be full – and I can feel some sort of peace again.

Oh, Miah. You would be disappointed in me now, if you could see me. Sometimes I feel like you are, but I hope the opposite. You should be happy, and free, not watching me descend into barbarism.

I never saw that Forsaken again, nor did I bother to learn his name. The moment before I let my rage take over, I had recognized him for what he was – a poor warrior who probably spent far too much time posturing instead of using his skills to protect others, or to bring them to bear against the enemies of Kalimdor.

My actions that day had an unexpected result, in that from that day forward, I never again felt distanced from my fellow recruits. I don’t know where they all are now, although I know some of them have fallen over the years, but I’ve never forgotten the friendships that grew among us after that day. I didn’t feel comfortable with the way some of them seemed to look up to me, but I accepted the role, knowing that to do otherwise would invite their scorn.

I fell into my training quickly, and easily, and I seemed to learn much faster than the others, such that they would come to me later and ask me for advice. I don’t know if anything I said helped, but I’d like to think so.

None of this escaped the attention of our trainers, however, and as the weeks turned into months, I found myself being scrutinized by them, and they slowly manipulated me into a leadership role that, to this day, still weighs heavily upon my broad shoulders. After spending several decades alone, or wandering with but one or two comrades, the change in responsibility was jarring, to put it lightly.

Why did that role bother me? The best way to explain that would be to tell the truth about a fateful day that I still consider both a personal failure on my part and the beginning of something else, that I am only now starting to feel comfortable being a part of.

After several months of training, Ker and Torm combined our groups, forcing us to train with, and compete against, one another. Up until then, we’d only really known our fellow recruits. The more experienced among us had their own tents, and their own training, under the harsher eyes of Torm Ragetotem. For reasons I don’t understand, instead of passing us to Torm’s care, and sending the others off to train and serve in the distant reaches of Kalimdor, Sark decided to have us finish our training together. No new group of recruits was accepted in the meantime, which I found exceedingly odd, but I assumed there was a good reason for it. I know what it was now, of course. Instead of training small groups of warriors, and then sending them off to join others they didn’t know, Sark, Cairne, and Thrall had struck a plan to try to create a larger group that could work well together, and could be called together to perform tasks, if they should ever be needed.

We trained, and trained, and then trained some more. The moon went through its cycles several more times as we trained together, drilling and sparring and running mock battle scenarios time after time, either up on the Rise, or down on the plains of Mulgore, or among the harpy woods (which was, of course, more thrilling, and much more dangerous, since the harpies didn’t exactly approve of our presence there).

Finally, one hot day in the depths of summer, Sark gathered us all together. We sat and crouched in the dust and grass of the Rise in neat, orderly rows, and waited with eager anticipation. We knew that all our training had been building up to something – but what?

“I am not a human,” he began slowly, “so I’m not one for lengthy speeches.” Nobody laughed. It was the truth. “We’ve trained you for a reason, and most of you wonder what that is. You’ve worked long, and hard, and your skills and bodies have become tempered. You are not a finished weapon, just yet, but you are well on the way.”

I didn’t have to look around to know that looks were being passed back and forth, and I listened carefully, but heard no wondering whispers. I was glad for that. I would have been disappointed if I had heard anything other than Sark’s voice. The others respected me enough to hold their tongues. I still found it an amazing oddity that they, for the most part, looked to me – even the more experienced recruits! Although, truth be told, I was probably the eldest among them, so maybe that was a contributing factor.

“But how should we finish you? By polishing? Certainly, if we were humans,” he paused, and I could swear he looked right into my eyes when he said that, wondering what my reaction would be, “but we are not. Why train more, when you can be sharpened instead?”

Sark knew all about my hatred for humans now. In fact, I think most everybody did. I made no secret of it, though I did not tell my story to anybody else. Only Hamuul and Sark knew for sure what lay in my past. I know there was speculation, but despite my leadership role, I was still a private person. Let them wonder, I thought then. How many of them would even recognize the Blackhoof name, seeing as how young so many of them were?

“And so,” Sark continued, and I berated myself for letting my thoughts wander, “in several days, Torm Ragetotem will lead you on a trek to The Barrens, to seek our Regthar Deathgate, at one of the northern bunkers in The Barrens, north of The Crossroads, to serve him for a period of time. That is all.”

With that said, Sark turned and strode back into his tent without a backwards glance. Ker and Torm dismissed us, with promises of explaining more about our future duties later, and we were glad to be let go. We were so full of excitement, and confusion! There wasn’t a one among us who didn’t know of Regthar Deathgate – the only Orcish commander to be able to hold back the centaur hordes that were multiplying in The Barrens. When Thrall and his followers had helped our people push the centaur from Mulgore, they had to go somewhere. Many relocated to other areas of Kalimdor, but a large population of them simply took up residence all over The Barrens. They were a beaten species, though they refused to acknowledge that.

Leaders had arisen among them, slowly, but surely, and they’d managed to incite their people more and more over the years, urging them back to hostilities. It wasn’t completely open warfare yet, but with every raid the centaur led against the Horde’s holdings in The Barrens, the more violent the reprisal against them became. As such, the centaur grew angrier, and their leaders pushed them harder. Raids against the northern holdings had become a constant for the past several years, from what I learned, and finally troops had been sent out to establish a fortified frontier from which to fight the centaur. The Barrens still technically belonged to the Horde, but the centaur wanted it for their own.

We were to serve Regthar! He’d beaten back the centaur so many times that everybody thought they would eventually give up and cut their losses.

But we were to find that that belief was to be turned on its head, and I was to find that the others shouldn’t have placed such faith in me. Disappointed? You should be, because I am with myself. But despite my failings to come, the trial would also bring me face to face with my future – in the form of an unlikely pair of Tauren named Umu and Mahiah.

Sweat burned in my eyes and my limbs felt like stone, so heavy were they with fatigue. My fur was matted with blood, and I could still feel seepage coming from the worst of my wounds. The shallow cuts stung, but they would congeal soon enough with a little rest. It was the rough centaur arrow dangling stiffly from the flesh above my collarbone, and the thick flap of skin hanging from my right thigh that worried me. The arrow I could do nothing about, for fear of injuring myself more trying to remove it, but the flap of skin I’d bound tightly with linen, and hoped it would hold. It still bled, though, and I worried that the water from my canteen hadn’t been enough to clean it properly. But I would have to worry about infection later.

Rethgar was alive, as far I knew, as were the bulk of the forces that had stayed with him to defend the outpost, half-destroyed as it had been. When we’d left, two buildings had already been torched, and were burning fiercely in the night. That’s right; I said ‘we’ left. The fight was going badly, despite the presence of our troop from Mulgore. Rethgar and his soldiers had been just as surprised as we that the centaur had shown up in such numbers, let alone at night.

Not long into the fighting, after we’d pushed them back furiously for a third time, I made a decision. Half of use were up with the more seasoned soldiers, trying to hold the lines, while the other half was hanging back in reserve, watching the fighting anxiously, wishing to be there too. I, and a number of others, had just rotated out to be replaced by bodies with fresh wind. My chest heaved as I struggled to catch my breath, and my ears roared with the combined noises. There seemed no end to the number of centaur who’d gathered for this fight and I didn’t think Rethgar or anyone else knew just what we were up against.

We’d all held our own well enough so far, but we were falling, all the same – either from wounds or from exhaustion, while the centaurs came in wave after wave, whipping their spears through the air and peppering us with arrows. I didn’t think we could last through the night without reinforcement, but any help was hours away at best. Runners had been sent to the Crossroads for help, and then from there to Orgrimmar, but it would take time that I didn’t think we had.

So far, the centaur had the upper hand, and I believed it was because we were being forced to fight defensively. So long as they kept putting pressure on us, we were going to be in trouble. We had the heart, but not the numbers to push back – to counterattack long enough to try and change the flow of the fighting. I looked around at my fellow warriors, trying to read their expressions, and I didn’t like what I saw. Not only was there exhaustion and pain, but also surprise, and despair. Combined, there was a look of defeat on the faces around me that made me shiver.

So I made the decision.

There was no time to ask for permission, or look for advice. I took that score of battered fighters and we disappeared into the night, slipping out behind the outpost, south, and west into the darkness across the northern road. I was pleased that they didn’t even question me, or look back. They all had some idea about what we were doing, especially after we swung back east again, after running for long minutes through the darkness. We could hear the fighting, if distantly, and knew that danger might find us at any moment. But somebody had to try and turn the battle.

The moon was only a sliver, for which I was thankful, and the air was still. We stopped every time someone heard hooves thundering in the dark. Were more centaur still joining the fighting? I had to assume that was what was happening, and that made my decision all that more important. Either our efforts would make a difference to make the centaur pull back, or our departure, depriving the outpost of reserve defenders, would spell doom for those we’d left behind.

We rested briefly, every time we heard the centaur moving in the night. I couldn’t say how loud our movements were in the dark, but I didn’t want to trust that the enemy wouldn’t hear us like we heard them. The faces I studied during these breaks were worried, but excited. They had some idea of the trouble I was leading them into, but trusted me.

I wish they hadn’t.

The night progressed, and we spied fires ahead of us. Either this was a centaur village, or their campaign camp. Either would suit my plans. We stopped again, and I explained my plan in its simplicity. Fall on them, burn their holdings, and move on. If it was only a village, then it would be acceptable revenge for the centaur to return to – if it was their camp, then so much the better. We would ravage it, and then head back to the fighting, ambushing who we could along the way, and fall on them from the rear. It wasn’t the best of plans, not with how few we were, but I was certain it would work.

It was unfortunate that I had been as blind as Rethgar about the true extent of the centaur uprising, and that we simply had no idea how many of their kind they’d brought together for this push against the outpost.

It was a camp, we found, the closer we approached, and it wasn’t as empty as I had hoped. I was still confident that we could pull off the raid successfully, but we would have to fight a lot harder. The thought of abandoning my plan flitted briefly through my head, but by then it was already too late. Of course the centaur had sentries placed around the camp, but I hadn’t thought of that. We were challenged long before we got in range of the camp, and we had no choice but to try to violently subdue him. His shout of alarm came faster than our weapons.

Already on edge because of the fighting to the south, the camp came alive quickly. I gave only one order to the warriors around me, and only afterwards did I realize that the looks I saw on their faces wasn’t courage and an eagerness to close with their enemy, but rather fear.

“Destroy whatever you can. Kill whoever gets in your way. Regroup on the eastern side, and don’t stop.”

I led the charge with the most intimidating bellow I could manage, heading for the first centaur I could see, my mind emptying of all thoughts of those behind me – emptying of everything but what I’d been taught, and the darkness inside.

We met up on the far eastern side of the centaur encampment, bloody and battered, less four of our original number. Many of us were wounded and bleeding, but behind us, as we jogged into the darkness, we left the centaur camp in ruin. Scattered fires were spreading, quickly, and the despairing wails of the wounded and dying rose into the sky, slowly receding behind us as we moved.

My warriors didn’t seem afraid anymore. There was nothing but excitement and the flush of victory glistening in the eyes I met. I led them east for several minutes before angling south again. We stopped a little while after to bind wounds and try to get our bearings again. We were a little off course, but we could see the glow of the burning outpost buildings dimly to our southwest. I didn’t know how long it was until dawn, but the moon didn’t seem to have traveled very far in the night sky since we’d left.

Minutes later, we encountered the first centaur band rushing back through the night, heading for their camp. Either they were rotating their soldiers as we had been, or word had gotten to their front about what we’d done. Whatever the reason, they were on us only moments after I heard them. We were outnumbered, but after the first clash, I could tell we were winning. They hadn’t expected to find us, I think, and their surprise was greater than our own.

But the fighting wasn’t quiet, and my ears were open now, and over the clash of arms and the grunts of pain, and the screams, I heard more of the centaur coming, drawn by the sounds of battle. We would have been able to fend off the first group, but not the rest. Our attack had been a success, and had drawn their attention like I’d hoped, but I hadn’t thought about the consequences.

I did the only thing I could think of, even though I now feel it was a mistake. “Scatter!” I shouted, and then grunted as my blade splintered an already battered shield and bit into the arm of the centaur behind it. “Groups of three! Run and circle back to Rethgar. Don’t let them take us all!”

I got the attention of the two Tauren closest to me and jerked my head to the east. I looked back only once as we moved, seeing others already doing the same, while a valiant few held their ground to distract the arriving centaur marauders. I’d led them to their doom. Me, and me alone. I only hoped that a few would make it back.

We ran into the night.

I don’t even know when I lost the two who fled with me. All I can remember is frantic hours of running through the darkness, trying to dodge the roaming centaur bands. I don’t know how many times we had to fight, or how many fell to my blade, but the centaur didn’t stop searching for us until nearly dawn. By that time, they’d driven me far away from the outpost. I could have stopped and let them find me, and fight them then, but I wasn’t interested in dying just then.

I don’t remember when I took my more serious wounds either. The leg wound was the more surprising one. I’d felt my leg itching, and reached down to scratch it, and then nearly passed out from the pain when my nails dug into my exposed flesh.

The arrow dangling from my flesh beside my neck I could do nothing about, but I bound up my leg and continued on. The sky was growing lighter by the minute, but I still didn’t know where I was. I’d left any pursuers behind sometime during the night, however, so I thought I was safe.

I looked around myself more carefully as the sun rose, trying to recognize any sort of landmark. I’d been in the barrens plenty of times before, when I was hunting. I still hadn’t decided what I was going to do afterwards though. I’m not afraid to admit now that I was a little afraid of the consequences of my decisions catching up to me. I’d abandoned my post, and essentially forced others to do the same, since they trusted me enough to follow me. Not only that, I’d probably gotten most of them killed. I couldn’t be sure about that, but it was likely.

I hoped it wasn’t true, and I hoped that Rethgar and the rest of our Mulgore troops had managed to stop the centaur advance. But as much as I hoped, I couldn’t hold back the guilty thoughts. I stumbled along a while longer, mindlessly, almost overcome by fear and shame and the pain from wounds great and small. Eventually, so exhausted, I made myself rest, picking a shadowy tumble of boulders to hide myself from the day and hopefully prying eyes.

Loud, heavy grunting, followed by throaty, gentle laughter finally roused me. I opened bleary eyes and shook my head weakly, feeling so groggy at first that I didn’t know what was going on. It wasn’t until I saw the arrow from the corner of my eye that I remembered. My wounds itched and burned, and I was so stiff that I could barely move. My throat was parched, and hunger gnawed at my insides as I struggled to my feet. I swayed unsteadily, looking around. The light was failing already, and I hoped that it was still the same day as when I’d fallen asleep. I had neither food nor water, and I couldn’t trust my wounds not to fester. I needed to find out where I was and find help soon.

I heard the grunting sound again and remembered it awakening me to begin with. Was it a wild kodo in rut? I listened carefully, but no, that wasn’t it. The laughter came again, sounding peculiarly familiar.

To my right unfolded the vast plains, golden grasses perpetually flattened out by the relentless winds that howled down from the peaks of the Stonetalon Mountains and the other out of place mountains that rose unexpectedly from the plains. To my left rose dusty hills populated by spindly trees and swathes of desiccated brambles. The sounds were coming from the hills.

I was more curious than I was wary, feeling that help might lie that way as easily as danger. I staggered my first few steps, kicking up dust that irritated my nostrils, but a few moments later I was stumping my way up the closest slope.

I scrambled up the slope, slipping here and there as the dry soil gave way beneath my weight. When I reached the apex of the hill I swayed dizzily and shaded my eyes against the sun with my good hand. My wounded shoulder was too stiff to move the other, and, in fact, threatened to overwhelm me with pain if I even tried. I’d almost passed out once on the slope when I’d stumbled and had to stop myself from falling.

When the dizziness passed I could see a little more clearly, and the sight that greeted my sun-dazzled eyes was a pair of unfamiliar Tauren involved in some sort of struggle amongst the trees. The male bellowed something I couldn’t hear and lashed out with his hands, again and again while the female stepped back and laughed again – the sound of her voice confusing me.

It took a moment for me to realize, as I stumped down the slope, watching my footing amongst the stones and tangled brambles, that what I’d seen hadn’t been a fight at all. My first instinct was to rush to their aid, as unfit for fighting as I was, but what use would I be against the tree the large Tauren had been battling?

I know, it sounds odd, even now, but it’s the truth. At the time, I thought that my wounds and the sun had done something to my wits, but as I got closer I was certain that the large Tauren was attacking a tree. Their backs were to me, and the male was making so much noise that they neither heard nor saw me coming, slow as I was.

I wasn’t even really paying attention to them anymore – no, the green grass beneath their feet was much more interesting to me then, and what lay beyond. The sight of that sun-glistening oasis beyond the Tauren made my eyes water, and my dry throat ached in anticipation. I had no idea which oasis it was, but I was quite willing to risk the danger of snapjaws gnawing on me if it meant slaking my thirst.

I wasn’t ignoring the Tauren completely, however – they could be Grimtotem, after all, but I didn’t think that very likely.

“Ragh!” the large Tauren bellowed, lashing out at the tree again with his fists. Scaly bark and shreds of heartwood spun away under his assault. I couldn’t be certain, but it looked like he had some sort of strange clawed weapons attached to his hands and strapped to his forearms – such that I had never seen before. He bellowed again and renewed his assault with a fury for several moments before subsiding. He stood there panting as the female Tauren shook her head slowly and laughed again.

“Umu, that is not how you sharpen your claws. Look at them! Now they’re just covered in sap and you’ve hurt that tree!” she said softly, reproachingly.

“Nuh! Tree heal. Claws sharp, see?” he said as he thrust out one hand for the female to inspect, the nasty claws hovering just in front of her face.

“Umu!” She slapped the hand away and shook her head again. “I’ll show you again, and try to pay attention this time.”

I watched her body suddenly blur and shift smoothly into a feline form I was all too familiar with. Sleek, tawny fur covered her from head to tail-tip; a thick, fluffy, rich brown mane spilled out from her neck, and a pair of immaculate horns curved out from her head as she stepped gracefully forward to the tree the other Tauren had mauled.

She gave a little hop and reached up, stretching, her spine curved inwards as she extended her claws and let them bite carefully into the scaly bark. Images of my childhood surrounded by the druids of my clan flooded through my head as I watched her drag her claws slowly down the tree, scoring long lines into the bark that barely broke the outer surface.

When she was almost to the bottom, she withdrew her claws and sat back, tail tapping the ground lightly as she turned her head slightly to look at the other Tauren. It’s hard to actually smile in feline form, from what I’d see, but I could swear that was what I was seeing then.

The male Tauren reached out to touch her but she hissed suddenly and leapt away, shifting as she did until she was back to her normal form. “Don’t touch!” she said quickly. “You should know better.”

“Nuh,” he said in reply, and I couldn’t tell if that was an agreement, or denial.

“Did you watch?” she said then. “Did you see? Like that. Be gentle. Now try again.”

“I sees,” he replied, then savagely attacked the tree again, roaring and shaking his head as he did so. I watched the female sigh and shake her head.

My feet carried me steadily towards them and the oasis, but I was angling slowly to go around them. When the male, Umu, finally stopped, the female shook a finger at him. “No, Umu! I’ll show you one more time, and then that’s it!” She blurred again and shifted once more, but into her bear form. Memories of my first time shifting into bear form came to me then, and my eyes watered as I tried to push thoughts of those idyllic days away. Those days were long past.

The bear backed up a few steps, then grunted and lumbered forward, then reared back on hind legs and slapped her paws against the tree, much higher up than previously. She picked at the bark then with her large claws, dragging them down a little, then flung them back up to repeat. Umu watched in rapt attention, his head bobbing a little, and it took me a moment to realize he was slowly backing up as he watched. I wasn’t far from them now, and was surprised that they hadn’t noticed me yet.

“Umu does!” he suddenly shouted and sprinted forward, heavy muscles shifting under his hide as he lowered his head slightly and sped up, charging straight at the tree.

The bear’s head whipped around and she stumbled backwards, shifting back to normal as she held her hands up. “Gak! Umu no!”

But there was no stopping him, and Umu thundered forward and lashed out with his mighty fists and heavy brow, his body’s kinetic energy and rage exploding against the trunk of the tree with a muted booming sound, followed soon after by a crackling and strange, rippling shredding sound.

My eyes widened as I realized what those combined sound were, and I watched in awe as the tree slowly swayed away from Umu as he stood there shaking his head in confusion. Ruptured, shallow roots rose up out of the sandy soil as the tree’s own gravity proved its downfall with Umu’s help. Narrower, longer roots rippled under the surface of the grass and ripped small furrows in the ground as they were pulled along by the base of the tree as it toppled to the ground. I felt the earth shake under my feet as the tree hit, and a shower of sandy soil fell down around the two Tauren, and me as well, since I was barely a dozen feet from them as I passed by.

I trudged inexorably forward on the female’s right as she considered her companion with a withering look. “And this is why you shouldn’t be allowed to have claws! You are not a druid Umu!”

The water was so close now, drawing me forward hypnotically, and I couldn’t have stopped even if I wanted to. So entranced was I that I barely heard Umu’s shout of surprise.

“Hey! Who you be?”

“Are you okay?” I heard the female call from behind me, but distantly. There was an odd rushing sound in my ears.

The grass was cool beneath me, and I sank slightly into the moist soil with every step.

“Umu, help him!” I heard from behind me, but from very far away as I fell to my knees and leaned forward with a sigh. The rushing was louder, and I realized, with sudden dismay, that my arms weren’t responding to my leaning.

Blood rushed to my head and I collapsed into the welcome wetness of the water, senseless.
Part IX

I awakened suddenly, and was immediately disoriented. My eyes opened to see a shadowed stone ceiling above me, orange firelight barely penetrating the inkiness, but bathing the rest of the room comfortably. I was warm, and whatever I was laying on was comfortable, but I somehow felt constricted at the same time. I shifted a little, but found that I could barely move – a combination of my own stiff weakness, and whatever was binding me what I thought was a bed.

It only took a moment for panic to set in and I thrashed, ignoring my body’s protests, until I felt my bindings give way and I forced myself to sit up, panting heavily. Dizziness washed over me, threatening to take me to the dark place again and I think it was only through force of will that I managed to stay conscious.

My bindings, I’m embarrassed to admit, were merely blankets tucked snugly around me. I looked around slowly, taking in my surroundings. The room was small and circular, the walls seeming a mixture of stone and mortar, and the only other things in the room other than me and my bed were a single chair in one corner and a large, wood-filled brazier in another.

I heard drums, then, and cocked my head to the side, listening. The sound thundered on for a few moments, then subsided. I’d heard drums like that once before, on a trading trip with my old hunting partners when we brought a load of hides to the Drag in Orgrimmar. The drums were the Orcish manner of announcing the hour to the denizens of the city. It was early morning, now, I thought, recounting the drumbeats.

I was in Orgrimmar! I was confused then, wondering how I’d come to be there. The last thing I remembered was the sensation of water slapping me in the face. Seconds later, it all came rushing back to me and I groaned with shame and anxiety. Were any of the others still alive or had I gotten them all killed? What would Sark say, or any of them for that matter, when they found out I was still alive? Who were the two Tauren I’d seen, and had they brought me back to Orgrimmar?

I didn’t even know what day it was, or how long I’d been insensate in that bed. I threw back the covers and looked myself over, glossing over the fact that I was clad only in loincloth, and checked for the wounds I’d remembered taking, or at least remembered giving me difficulty and pain. When I was finished, I sighed. I was whole and healed. My healed wounds, combined with the fact that I felt so weak still, making me think I’d been abed a long time, made me believe that I’d been dead to the world around me for several weeks at least.

I was staring at the straw-stuffed mattress between my legs when I heard a tentative throat clearing to my right. “Uh, hi there,” said a soft voice and I glanced to my right to see a familiar female Tauren crowding the doorway, holding the leather curtain back with one hand. I stared blankly at her for a moment before I realized, prompted by the way her eyes kept looking off to the side instead of at me, that I was still only clad in my loincloth.

I snatched the linen blankets back and pulled them up to my chest and stammered a reply, blushing the whole while. “Hello. Uh – I’m in Orgrimmar right? I-I’m Wrallac.”

She smiled and nodded, her ears twitching slightly. “Yes, we brought you here almost three weeks ago,” she said slowly. “You took a long time to get better,” she continued in response, I assume, to my widening eyes. “You were part of that battle with the centaur, right? We showed up late to that fight, but we won, if you were curious?”

“Your and your friend came? Then the messages went through! Is Rethgar still alive?” I asked quickly, my eyes entranced by her rich clothing and how familiar she still looked.

She laughed lightly. “No, not just us! Most of our Tribe came when Rethgar’s messages arrived. There are other wounded in the city still,” she said slowly, frowning. “I never thought the centaur would ever try anything like that again.”

I shook my head wordlessly for a moment, feeling very out of place and uncomfortable. “Did your clan come all the way from Mulgore, then?”

Her mouth twitched in a small smile as she looked at me. “Not a clan, no. I – haven’t been part of a clan in a long, long time. My Tribe! The Ironsong Tribe. Us, and others, came to push the centaur back – although the worst of the fighting was over by the time we arrived.”

I nodded tiredly. I’d heard of them before of course – many had. There were various groups like theirs around Kalimdor – conglomerations of clanless wanderers and those without families, who’d eventually come together to form a new kind of extended family.

“I’m Mahiah,” she said after a while. “I, and a few others, who you’ll meet later if you like, looked after you from time to time when the other healers were busy.” She cocked her head slightly, and I wondered what she saw, looking me over.

“I’m – grateful,” I managed to say, suddenly beginning to feel dizzy again. “I’m Wrallac.”

She smiled again, and the sight of it did something strange to me that I couldn’t identify. “You said that already.”

“I did?” I asked, confused. The room seemed darker.

I saw her expression change as she looked me over again. “You should lie down again. I’ll go get some food and something fortifying to drink,” she paused, “if Rawne hasn’t gone through it all again already,” she finished, under her breath.

I nodded, and the movement made my eyes roll of their own accord and I slumped back into the bed, unconscious again before my head hit the pillow.

She did come back, and was there when I eventually awakened again, and was sitting in the chair in the corner reading something while my food, and something that burned when I drank it, sat on a table beside the bed. She was there many times when I woke up, after that day, and seemed to take a personal interest in my well-being for some reason. I assumed it was simply the type of Tauren she was.

Days passed, and I got to know her a little better. She told me of the Tribe and some of her friends, and tales of their misadventures and successes. Listening to her talk comforted me for some reason, and even to this day, I swear it was her company that helped me get better more than the bed rest.

I asked her once about her friend, Umu, wondering where he was, since I assumed he was her mate. She had shrugged and flicked one hand in a random direction.

“Someplace, doing whatever it is he does when he’s not trying to get himself, or the rest of us, killed.”

Her humor was like that most of the time – dry and wry at the same time, and although I never laughed when she tried to make me, I learned to smile.

She sometimes brought her Tribemates to meet me, and I was surprised at how likeable the majority of them were, considering the type of person I’d become over the years, and I got to know quite a few of them, but not as well as I’d gotten to know her. But it’s hard to change a lifetime of behavior in just a few weeks. That disappointed her, I think. I didn’t know why she was trying to help me as much as she was, but I appreciated it, and hoped to one day make up that kindness in turn.

One day, as I walked with her around the city, feeling the strength slowly return to my body, a druid I hadn’t met yet came rushing up to us, stopping just short of where we were to shift out of his travel form. He was bigger than I was by far, but not quite as large as Umu had been. He was one of the darkest looking Tauren I’d ever seen, and his fearsome looking equipment had me envying him immediately. This was a druid used to combat if I’d ever seen one, and one used to being in the thick of things. I couldn’t remember really meeting one of his kind before, and wondered if, had those dark days never happened so long ago, I might have become like him.

He looked me over, and I could feel his eyes linger on my broken horns, and I flushed in shame. “This is him?” he asked Mahiah, looking from her to me and back again quickly.

“Yes! Did you talk to him? What did he say?” she asked excitedly, and I wondered what was happening.

The other Tauren shrugged. “Not much, really. I talked to him, and he asked me a lot of questions, and then disappeared for a while before coming back with this,” he said, reaching into his the space between his hauberk and his tabard to pull out a tightly rolled scroll wrapped in a leather thong. He looked directly at me and I looked back at him with confusion.

“Wrallac, this is my friend Greyfith,” Mahiah said then. “I – sent him to Mulgore to talk with Sark.”

I turned and looked at her, still confused. “Sark. Why?” I asked, the shame of my actions that night still weighing heavily on my heart. I could only imagine what Sark and my other teachers would have to say about me, especially knowing that I was still alive.

“You mentioned him a couple times in your sleep. You even told me about him once, although I don’t know if you remember. You were still in bad shape at the time.”

“I did? In my sleep?” I flushed again, wondering what else I might have said – of if she’d witnessed any of my night terrors that I’d become so accustomed to.

The way she looked at me just then confirmed that thought. “Y-es. Among other names,” she said, voice trailing off for a moment before she turned to Greyfith again and took the scroll from him and handed it to me.

“Read it!” she demanded, and I looked from her to Greyfith uncertainly.

“Right now? Why? What does it say?” The anxiety was building within me, and although I was curious what the scroll contained, I feared it at the same time.

I watched Greyfith shrug and roll his head a little. “I don’t know. He just said to give it to you.”

Warily, I undid the leather thong, and unrolled the scroll and let my eyes scan the first words with fear in my heart.

For days after that I was in a bit of a daze, and even today I can think back on reading that and still feel confused. Sark didn’t blame me for what happened that night, even though I still blamed myself. In his eyes, I’d done what I needed to help Rethgar and the rest of our forces. The letter didn’t tell me what had happened to the rest of the warriors I’d led into the darkness against the centaur, but I assumed they were dead, and always have. I’ve never heard differently. But at the same time, I’ve never gone back to Thunder Bluff to talk with Sark or any of the others who’d been my teachers. Nor have I ever come across any of those I’d trained with.

To Sark, the letter seemed to indicate, there could be no blame to lay at anyone’s feet for the Centaur Debacle, as some came to know it. Nobody had been expecting what had happened. We were still in training, at the time, and did what we could despite the odds.

And because of who I was, as a person, Sark knew that I could never take up regular instruction again. It’s strange to me how well he knew what would be in my heart, and everything he said was correct, even though I still blamed myself.

My formal training was finished, Sark’s missive stated. I was free to pursue the rest of my training at my leisure. He went on to explain how a warrior’s training is almost never finished, and that every day comes with learning attached. He even recommended that I think about trying to join Ironsong.

His letter ended with the words “Learn to live, Wrallac, and forget the hate.” He knew me better than I thought. Oddly enough, though, his words did the opposite for me. I’d almost forgotten the hate, in my dedication to my training, and the subsequent days since the battle. Why had I sought training as a warrior to begin with? My clan, the Blackhoof. The humans. My shattered horns. Miah.

Hatred was the only thing keeping me alive! Sure, I’d learned to see that there could be more to my life, and had made a few friends, but the things that drove me before were still there, driving me, even if I tried to ignore them.

And maybe, just maybe, there were others like me among Ironsong. I thought it likely. But would they accept a misfit like me?

Of course they did. The Tribe had become family and home to many over the years, and I was welcomed. Not all that many really knew me, but the few that did vouched for me, even though they only knew me as the bed-ridden wounded warrior.

As I grew stronger I threw myself back into training. I never knew just how much more there was still to learn, and almost every day when adventuring with my new friends I learned something new. I felt myself growing more formidable, and knew that the others thought I was changing, but inside, I was still the same person. I learned, and savored life, but late at night, in the dark, I wept, and raged, and let the hate consume me.

I think the only person who knew that I wasn’t really the person I seemed was Mahiah, but that didn’t surprise me. We’d grown closer over time, and I truly felt her a friend, someone that I could one day talk to about the things inside me, and my past – one day, perhaps. There’d been nobody since Hamuul or Sark that I’d really talked to about the things that drove me, or maddened me.

But as much as there were things about me that I hid from the others, even from Mahiah, I came to learn that there were things about her that I didn’t know, and realized that I didn’t know her nearly as well as I’d come to think.

Ashenvale was where I finally learned that, and the day that it happened changed my life again, turning it completely upside down. Knowing what I’m going to say next, it’s becoming harder to do so. This writing tool I claimed from a dead owlbeast is elegant, but neither it nor my words alone can let you know how difficult what comes next is to me.

A large group of us were in Ashenvale, clearing out a nest of dragonkin that had taken up residence amongst the ruins surrounding a strange portal rumored to allow a powerful dragon entrance to our world. I didn’t know if that was true or not, but we’d been asked to look into things, to scout the area in preparation for the lorekeepers and other learned folk who would come to investigate. They wouldn’t be able to do much with dragonkin breathing down their necks, so we went to work.

I’d fought other dragonkin before, and thought I knew all there was to know about dealing with them, but Sark’s words rang true yet again. It was bitter fighting and I learned much about my own hubris and mortality that day, coming close to never seeing another sunset again.

In the end, we wiped out the nest of them, and we left it to the more bloody-minded of our companions to hunt down the actual nesting spots to destroy the eggs. It was dirty work, and distasteful, but it had to be done. I wondered how I would handle myself when those days would eventually come for me. I had plans, by then, and sometimes I hated myself for how much pleasure thinking about revenge gave me.

We had finished looking after our wounds and cleaning our gear, and were making our way back to Splintertree Post, but by a different route, having found ourselves on the far side of the ruins by the end of the fighting, when a shout from up ahead alerted us to more trouble. I, and those around me, rushed forward to where our forward people were already in combat against unknown foes. I couldn’t see much, but the area around us looked different from the ruins we’d just left. There were still fallen columns and tumbled walls, but it looked like someone had been digging in the area – a lot of digging.

“What’s going on?” shouted someone from behind me. I was making my way slowly forward, trying to get closer to Mahiah to watch over her, since she’d left my side to go talk with Greyfith minutes earlier.

“Venture Co.!” someone from up at the front of our group shouted back, and I stopped, digging me feet into the loamy ground. I was stunned. And then I felt the rage begin to build inside me and I moved forward again, murder and savagery a thick wall of redness pressing behind my eyes. Venture Company! Oh how I’d longed to set steel to their flesh since that day in Stonetalon.

But at the same moment that I felt my hatred surge, I witnessed something that made me stall. Mahiah had been shifting from foot to foot, ready to use her healing arts on those who needed them, but after hearing who our attackers were, she suddenly began to shake, and she snarled. This was no ordinary sound coming from her. This was something bestial and sounded unforgiving in nature.

I only had a moment to consider that sound before I saw her suddenly shift into bear form and lumber forward, kicking up the turf in her haste and knocking Tribemates aside in her hurry to get to the front. I followed quickly in her wake, and stood in stunned silence at what I witnessed.

We were on the edge of some sort of excavation, and several handfuls of shovel-wielding dwarves and humans were milling around in the background as their guards engaged our fighters. It wasn’t going to be much of a fight – I could tell that just from a glance. What I didn’t expect to see was Mahiah already in the thick of the fighting. She’d already charged through the first of the embattled guards and with a savage roar was amongst the first knot of those standing back, lashing out with sickle-clawed paws to rend the miners. Blood spewed and flesh flew as I watched her move from one to the next, shifting in between animal forms so quickly, doing as much deadly damage as possible that I could barely follow her.

She seemed insatiable, and I was shocked by the transformation from gentle, caring Mahiah to the ravening animal she now seemed. I started to move forward, to go to her aid, but a heavy hand on my shoulder stopped me.

“Don’t,” Greyfith said calmly, looking down at me. “Leave her be. There’s nothing to be done.”

I looked from him back to the fighting and saw he was right. The Venture Co. guards were already all down, and Mahiah was by herself massacring the last of them.

I watched her amble to the center of the body-strewn field and stand panting for several moments, head low to the ground, swaying from side to side, her claws digging into the blood-soaked ground. Then, suddenly, she blurred and was in her sleek, tawny cat form again. She crouched, claws sheathing in and out slowly, tail whipping back and forth spastically. Her eyes looked wild.

“What did – she didn’t shift back to normal?” I asked, turning my head to study Greyfith’s stricken-looking face. I’ve never even heard of that. I was never taught about --,” I stopped suddenly, realizing what I had been about to say. I swallowed my words and met Greyfith’s gaze.

“We call it powershifting for short, and it is dangerous, and almost never done. You were never taught that, because it’s almost never taught anymore. Most druids only learn about it accidentally,” he said, his gaze making me decidedly uncomfortable.

“What do you mean ‘never taught’?” I asked him suspiciously, a little on the defensive.

Greyfith smiled a little, though it didn’t reflect in his eyes. “Don’t be surprised that I know what I know, little Blackfoot. Did you think you were the only one left?”

“I – what do you mean?” I asked again, my voice catching in my throat as I looked from him to Mahiah. She had risen from her crouch and was weaving her way through the bodies towards us all again, but she still hadn’t shifted.

She came near and sat down not far from the two of us, and I stepped forward slightly, reaching out, only to be met by a head that whipped around and hissed at me. Greyfith’s hand was on my shoulder again and pulled me back. “Don’t,” he whispered. “Nobody can get through to her when she’s like this. It only happens every once in a while, but when it does, it’s always bad. It saddens me.”

I looked over my shoulder at him. “What’s wrong with her?”

“She – had a very bad experience long ago. She survived, but only by reverting to animalistic forms and living on instinct for a long time. Like I said – powershifting is dangerous. If you go too long, switching from form to form, the druid can forget his or her natural form, and forget who he or she is. Give her time. She’ll remember after a little while.” His voice was gentle, and he stared at her in a way that made me angry for some reason.

I stared at him, and then at Mahiah again for a few moments before turning my attention back to him. “What did you mean when you asked if I thought I was the only one?” I asked, my voice sounding distant as I considered how much there was about Mahiah, and about everyone, in fact, that I didn’t know.

Greyfith chuckled and patted my shoulder with his heavy hand. “Just what you thought it meant. Did you think every Blackfoot in the world was there that day? There are a few of us who were abroad that day. I was Blackfoot, although that is not who I am today. Some still wander the lands, though you would be hard-pressed to know them by sight alone. And not all that were taken in bondage that day remained in bondage,” he said, his eyes moving from mine to gaze at Mahiah again. I looked at her too, and felt a strange lump rising in my throat.

“What do you mean--?” I whispered.

Greyfith’s hand squeezed my shoulder firmly. “I know a little of your story, Wrallac,” he said, “now let me tell you another.”

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