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The Hunter's Horn: a Weezil Mystery
#1
The Hunter's Horn: a Weezil Mystery

When a goblin Private Detective (Third Class) needs to leave town fast, she can’t be too picky how she leaves it.

Eyebrows still smoking, I dashed up to an enormous Orc tightening the girth on the last kodo of his caravan. His four other kodo stood fully loaded with baggage, facing the great gate of the city, lined up and ready to go.

I tugged on the Orc’s sleeve.

"Take me with you," I gasped. "I'€™ll pay you well."

Straightening, the Orc turned to look down at me. He was massive, with a tree trunk of a neck protruding from buttress-like shoulders atop a granite wall of chest. His face was the greenish-yellow hue of a stagnant, scummy pond, broken by two small frog-like eyes, buried deep in the flesh of his face. Broken tombstone teeth rose crooked from a pinkish grey cemetery of gum. He was the ugliest Orc I’d ever seen, and that’s saying something. I took an involuntary step back.

"How much you pay me?" he growled.

I was in no position to be choosy.

"€œA hundred gold. Fifty now, fifty when we get there."€ It was almost all I had. Not quite all. I was no fool.

He shrugged his massive shoulders, making the cracked leather creak and groan. He turned back to the kodo’s harness.

Okay. I resisted the urge to pluck at his sleeve again. "€œA hundred and fifty."

Not bothering to look at me, he said, "Two hundred, up front."

Damn damn damn.

Shouts echoed from the Drag.

"Deal,"€ I said.

He turned, slowly, like a great bull kodo, and held out a broad, flat hand. Like a plate. A plate with sausagey fingers and thick, cracked fingernails.

My lips pressed together, I yanked my money bag from my belt and emptied it into his palm. One hundred and sixty eight gold pieces.

I took off my hat, a soft brown felt thing with holes for my ears, my favorite hat, with little flat pockets inside the lining in case, you know, I ran out of pants pockets and shirt pockets -- a goblin can’t have too many pockets -- and upended it over the pile of gold sitting in his palm. Nineteen more gold. Slipping my left shoe off, an old shoe whose sole was worn so thin I could feel the ground beneath my foot, gravely crunchy Azshara sand or hot soft ash from failed explosions or cold slickity-slippery puddles of rocket oil or soft warm fresh lumpy kodo muck, I’d stepped in them all, and I stuck my fingers under the shoe's tongue like I was gagging a goat and tipped eleven more gold pieces into his hand. Then I rolled up my right pants cuff, pants with knee patches I’d sewn myself, and pulled a handful of gold and silver and copper coins from inside an extra special inner pocket, and dumped them jingling into his hand.

Okay, I was a fool.

The Orc counted the coins one by one by one, pushing each one with his right forefinger up his left palm toward the fingers, his lips moving with the unaccustomed mental effort.

The shouts were coming around the corner now. Angry, accusatory shouts.

I gulped. "€œPlease hurry,"€ I said. "€œIf it's short I'll make up the difference."

He drew his brows together. "€œShut up," he said. "You make Drog lose count."

A bead of sweat trickled down the back of my neck, tickling the soft, raised hairs beneath my collar.

The fingers continued flicking the coins one by one. ... Eighty eight... eighty nine...

Cries echoed from the bank and auction house now. I took a step closer to him. Maybe, just maybe, his bulk would hide me. I was about the size of his great, bulging thigh – surely I could hide behind that? As long as smoke from my eyebrows didn’t give me away.

Drog closed his thick fingers over the mound of money, pulled a moneybag from where it hung on his belt, and dumped the coins inside in a long, tinkling cascade of metal.

"You twenty gold short,"€ he said. "€œPay up."

Heat surged through me -- I wasn't that short. But Drog grinned down at me, with his gleaming yellow tombstone teeth.

Slowly, cheeks burning, I pulled a thin silk purse from inside the sleeve of my shirt, a delicate purse sewn to my sleeve lining with a long thread of spider silk, unzipped its tiny zipper, and counted twenty more gold pieces into his palm. His smile broadened. My ears grew hot.

"€œDrog take you to Uldum now," he said.

Wait. Uldum?

But the Orc picked me up under the arms and swung me to the top of the towering pile of baggage on the last kodo as easily as though I were a lumpy bag of onions. Gripping one of the ropes with both my hands, trying to squeeze my fingers beneath it, I wished I had a third hand or a prehensile tail or an extra robotic arm attached to my belt to grip another rope too.

The luggage lurched to the left, pitched forward, rolled to the right, then swung left again. My stomach rose in my throat like a giant bubble of burning intestinal chili gas. The kodo had only gone two steps but already I hated riding on one.

The great maw of the Orgrimmar gate loomed over me, a mouth of giant iron and wood portcullis-teeth. As the great shadow of the gate covered me like a cold, blue-gray blanket and the angry shouting echoed in confusion around the bank and inn, I tried to press myself into invisibility against the knobbly baggage.

We were on our way.

[center]***[/center]

We traveled all day. My kodo lurched from side to side like a little boat bobbing on a choppy, rolling ocean, hour after hour after hour. It was the most nauseating trip I had ever taken. My frothy-sour guts floated up next to my lungs and sloshed against my heart, which didn’t want them, and threatened to escape out my throat. I kept my mouth tight shut. I might need those guts later.

The sunlight blistered the backs of my hands and the nape of my neck like radiation from a nuclear fusion reactor, which it was. The skin of my ankles cooked hot and tight and crispy. Sweat ran down my face onto the coarse gunny sacks, which chafed damp and harsh against my cheeks. I kept my eyes closed, mostly, but the brightness burned blood-red through my eyelids anyway, blood-red dotted with silver flashes of nausea around the edges.

When I did peek I caught sight of dry, red hills and gulleys and a brassy blue sky that shimmered with heat, and ahead of me, more pitching and rolling kodos, even less attractive from behind than they were from the front, if that is possible.

On the kodo directly in front of me rode another Orc, sitting upright on his pile of baggage, his stubby legs almost spread at right angles to his torso, a clutch of totems at his belt. His hair was tied into a short, stubby pony tail like a club, gathered at the back of his head. One arm looked smaller than the other, but I couldn’t be sure. He rolled at the hips, adjusting his weight to the movement of the kodo. He looked a lot more comfortable than I felt.

Ahead of him I could just glimpse the small figure of another goblin, sitting sideways on his kodo, not even holding on, drinking easily from a canteen, his face shaded by the rim of a sand-colored pith helmet, which appeared to have beetles glued to it.

Trying to focus on the hat-beetles at this distance made me feel even worse, so I shut my eyes again and squeezed them tight closed, which didn’t help. Time blurred into one long smear of iron-scented heat and I concentrated on not losing my breakfast. Smoked herring with garlic mayonnaise. Not, as it turned out, a good choice for breakfast today.

The sun hung low in the sky when the rolling and pitching stopped. Thank C'€™thun'€™s many-tentacled eyeballs. I clung to my ropes, my eyes still tight shut, my inner ears still lurching back and forth, my stomach still floating on a turbulent inner sea of dead herring and even deader garlic.

Big hands felt around my body, lifted me down from my perch and set me on my legs. Drog'€™s hands. My knees, no longer jointed, buckled beneath me. I fell flat on my face and hugged the ground. The sweet, sweet ground. I loved the ground.

"You don't travel much,"€ said a female voice.

I opened one eye. One bleary, watery eye.

A female orc was bending over me, her edges watery against the cloudless blue. Her face was lined like an old green purse, and two yellow tusks protruded from her lower jaw like little bone fishhooks. Her ears were pierced with four grimy red-bronze rings. From the dirt ground into the hinges it looked like she never removed them. A scraggly, greasy red braid fell over one skinny shoulder. Her face was weary but kind, and her brown eyes shone bright with amusement, their edges crinkled in an almost-smile. She was ugly, yes, but it was a better ugly than Drog.

Behind her I saw plains of yellow grass, dotted with dotted with thorny acacia trees and bits of scrub bush. I lifted my head and immediately wished that I hadn’t. But the blinding sparkle of the Southfury river and the red ridges of Durotar beyond told me that we were in the Northern Barrens. The road was nowhere in sight.

The caravan stood in a patch of bare earth pocked with gopher holes next to two acacia trees which cast their long, straggly, stick-bug shadows up the slope of a great, dry hill. Crushed dry grass showed where the kodo had tromped through the savannah to get to the campsite.

I sat up, a little wobbly.

"Well, the truth is, I only arrived from Azshara..."

Drog, busy unloading the kodo I’d ridden, right behind me, turned on her, "You no waste time talking, Harga!" he snapped. "€œHelp Blackhoof with kodo!"

Harga flashed him a sharp, irritated look. A stinging paper-cut of a look. But she didn't look surprised. She flicked her eyes upwards in faint derision, then strode off to pull two kodo into the scanty shade of one of the acacia trees and tether them there. A Tauren was already there, pouring water into collapsible leather troughs with metal ribs, into which the thirsty kodo dipped their square-lipped faces and slurped noisily. Blackhoof, presumably.

"Useless woman," Drog muttered. "Should never have married her."

I eyed him distastefully, my hands holding my still queasy stomach in place. What a charmer.

Drog busied himself with my kodo, removing the bumpy bags from its back and dropping them heavily to the ground beside me.

I eyed the other people traveling with this lout.

The Orc shaman who had ridden in front of me had dismounted, and was unharnessing his kodo himself. Or at least, he was trying to. His right arm hung by his side, limp and inert, swaying slightly as he heaved at the kodo'€™s girth strap with his strong left arm.

"Hey!"€ shouted Drog, "€œStop! Not like that!"

Drog sprang toward the shaman’s kodo but it was too late. Unmoored, the entire load of baggage slid from the kodo'€™s back, slowly and inexorably, like a burlap glacier falling off the land into the sea. It crashed to the ground with a cracking, crunching sound, and broke into shattered boxes of potatoes, onions, and turnips. A beet rolled past my foot.

"Stupid, stupid Orc! Know nothing of kodo! Get away!" Drog shouted.

"I was only trying to be useful,"€ said the Orc, in a stricken but well-educated voice. I looked at him curiously. I hadn't met many Orcs who spoke Common so well. I wondered if it had to do with his studies to become a Shaman.

I could see his face now. He was much younger than Drog. The line of his jaw was unblurred with age. So the wrinkles on his youthful face looked out of place: there were lines of endurance around his eyes, and of hardship around his mouth.

With his good arm Grum fumbled with one of the totems at his belt and thrust it into the ground, where it began to pulse -- it was a healing stream totem -- perhaps thinking it might help, but Drog kicked it over with his foot. It flew a few feet from its little round hole in the ground, trailing bits of dirt behind it.

"€œDrog fix. You no mess with kodo," Drog grunted, turning back to the kodo. "You useless."

Behind Drog'€™s back, Grum'€™s eyes flashed in anger. It was just a momentary expression, like a gleam of sunlight glinting off a knife blade, but he said nothing. He picked up his totem and tied it back onto his belt.

"€œBlackhoof! Clean this up!" Drog shouted.

The young male Tauren I'd seen pouring water for the kodo looked up. He had the height, but not the breadth, of an adult Tauren. His fur was chocolate brown, and horns and hooves were the deep, warm almost-black of cocoa beans. His gaze was steady and calm, the look of a person who’d worked his whole life among great beasts of burden, caring for them, soothing them, learning their ways. He hurried over to us, moving confidently between the kodo, pushing their great heads aside, slapping their necks in a friendly manner, until he got to the broken crates and spilled root vegetables, whereupon he knelt on the ground and began scooping them up with his hands and stuffing them into burlap bags.

I picked up the beet that had rolled by my foot, and a couple of parsnips too, and headed over to the spilled baggage to find a place for them. I'd spied four unbroken boxes made out of darker, stronger wood among the wreckage, sturdy boxes with iron corners. Perhaps these could be opened and their contents re-arranged to accommodate some additional vegetables.

But Drog stepped between me and the dark boxes, blocking my view of them, and held out his hand for the vegetables. I handed him the beet and parsnips. He nodded at me dismissively, and said, "€œBlackhoof will clear up. You go sit by campfire."

There was something in Drog's face that made me decide not to argue. If he wanted his kodo handler to do all the work, that was fine by me.

I retreated to the center of the campsite, where Harga had collected blackened stones and was forming them into a circle around an ash-filled depression in the ground. She dragged some logs from the surrounding weeds to use as make-shift benches. She knew right where to go. They had obviously camped here before.

I sat on one of the logs, joining a sullen Grum, not far from the third passenger, the shrewd-faced goblin with the beetle helmet. It was indeed covered with beetles, but they weren’t real ones. They’d been carved from stone. Scarabs. Glued all over his helmet. He was dressed in tailored, well-worn sand-colored traveling clothes, and he looked cool and collected after the hot ride, as though he were sitting on his own shady porch with a tall glass of iced tea in his hand.

He leaned toward me. "€œI figure you paid about a hundred and ninety gold too much for this trip,"€ he said, with a condescending grin.

I glared at him.

"€œBuketto Bolts," he said, holding out his hand. "Archaeologist. But you can call me Buck."

"Weezil,"€ I said. "Hunter. Private Detective." Third Class, I added in my head.

Buck raised an eyebrow, "Hunter? Where's your pet?"

I thought of the hermit crab with the little microphone glued to his shell, wandering somewhere in Orgrimmar. I didn't think I wanted to go into that right now.

"I don'€™t have one."

Buck's eyebrow rose further up his forehead, like a caterpillar, "What do you detect?"

"Cheating spouses, mostly. And lost pets. But I'm trying to land some bigger cases."

I tried not to sound apologetic. Project confidence, I told myself. Act like I could solve a theft, burglary, or even a murder if necessary. I tried not to think of the toy poodle I'€™d found for its owner last week, the high point of my career so far. I drew myself up. Weezil, Private Detective, Third Class, at your service!

I didn'€™t feel very tall.

Buck seemed about to speak, but we were interrupted by a sleek, feline presence that flowed into the circle of logs. A gorgeous, pale gold wyvern dropped gracefully into a smooth patch of ground and leaned languorously against one of the logs. She spread her wings, taking full possession of her spot, as though she’d waited her whole life to lie in just this position right here before us. Her scorpion tail arched over her back in a great sweeping curve. She turned her face toward me. I peered into two amber eyes, deep and inscrutable, portals into another world. Her gaze took my breath away. I steadied myself on my log.

Grum and Buck were staring at the wyvern too. Only Harga, dragging more logs into the circle, was unaffected by the animal's presence.

"You like?" boomed Drog's voice over my head. I jumped.

Drog strode proudly around face us, like a giant strutting rooster, "She rare color. Never see another like her. I kill twenty wyvern to get to her. Her name Lady."

I got the impression that he made this speech a lot.

Lady shifted her eyes from my face to her master's. She gave him a long, unblinking stare. Released from her gaze, I breathed again.

Drog thumped his chest, "Drog go all over world to find rarest animals for his collection." Leering at her, he waggled his fingers. I winced.

"Is that why you’re going to Uldum?"€ I asked.

"No, Drog have other business in Uldum. But it'€™s why we camp here tonight, and not at Crossroads."€ Then, with his massive hand, he pulled back the edge of his tunic to reveal a curved brown-grey kodo horn with a mouthpiece of smooth, cream-colored ivory. The sweeping body of the horn was intricately carved with bas relief sculptures of lions. Lions running, lions crouching, lions bringing down gazelles. But the center of the horn reclined a single carving, larger than all the others, of a majestic, white lion.

Drog tapped the carvings with a fingernail. "Tomorrow," he said, "€œthis lion will be mine."

Harga, rolling the last log into place, muttered, "€œJust what we need, another pet. He has a stableful of pets in Orgrimmar already, eating all our profits. But you'€™d never know it. He only goes about with his latest one."

I glanced at Drog, bracing myself for a cutting rebuke, but he didn't. He puffed out his chest and said, "€œIf Drog is to be envy of all he sees, he must have different pet each time." Bending, Drog fondled Lady's ears. She arched her neck against his hand.

I glanced at Harga, who had paused after placing the last log, and now stood panting from her effort, her hands dark with dirt and sap. She was staring at Drog and Lady, and there was something in her face that twisted my stomach. Her upper lip was arched with contempt, yes, arched like a drawn bow, but her eyes burned as she watched Drog stroke the wyvern'€™s head.

I wondered if Drog was ever as gentle with her as he was with his latest pet.


[center]***[/center]


Harga and Blackhoof set up a small tent for each of the three passengers: Grum, Buck and myself. Blackhoof set up a worn tent for himself, made of reddish kodo hide, and a larger one for Drog and Harga to share.

Everyone took their personal belongings into their tents, and Drog, I noticed, pulled the four dark boxes inside his tent, but I had no luggage to speak of. I thought wistfully of my footed pajamas in my quarters in Orgrimmar. They were probably long gone by now. Harga kindly lent me some wolf skins to sleep on.

As the sun went down over the savannah, stippling the grasstips with orange light, we ate a dinner of black Orc bread and slabs of yellowish cheese by the crackling campfire. I still felt nauseous from the day'€™s ride, and the sight of the greasy cheese set my stomach roiling again. I nibbled on it cautiously, listening to the other travelers talk.

Blackhoof, his chores done, stretched out his hooves to the fire. One of his hooves had a small crack. He pulled the cracked foot over his other knee, gingerly, as though it pained him, and pulled a file from his pocked with a ziiiiiiik. Harga scooted over to him on his log and cupped his ankle, her hands gentle, her face glowing softly in the firelight, while he began filing down the front edge of the hoof.

Grum leaned over to watch them, his face curious. Self-farriery was new to me, too.

Blackhoof looked up and smiled, "Imbalanced foot,"€ he said, "Not serious. I've had it since I was a kid. I need to file it down so it sits flat, so the crack doesn’t grow."

Grum nodded, then pressed his lips together. He held out his hand, and his fingertips glowed with a soft green light, the color of new spring leaves. Soft shoots of green wrapped around Blackhoof’s foot, twining and throbbing with life. Blackhoof laughed a little nervously, "€œThat tingles,"€ he said.

When the green shoots faded, the crack was gone. Blackhoof thumped on his hoof with his knuckles, then grinned at Grum. "Thanks,"€ he said.

"€œLooks like this caravan could use a good healing shaman,"€ Grum said.

Drog looked up from his place by the fire, where he was taking big bites out of his bread and cheese. "One-armed shaman no use,"€ he said. "Plenty two-armed shaman about."

"€œI'm a good healer,"€ Grum said, turning to face him.

Drog jabbed a finger at him, "You so good, heal arm."

Grum'€™s smile faded, "€œI don'€™t know how, yet."

"Useless," Drog said, and went back to his meal.

Grum glared at him, silence emanating from him like a bruise. He said nothing more.

A chill fell on the company after that exchange. I crawled into my tent. My bread and cheese had defeated me in the end, and I lay shivering for a good long while as darkness fell. Damn savannah climate --€“ scorching hot during the day, freezing at night. Scuffling and scraping noises told me the others were retiring to their tents, too.

I thought everyone was in bed when I heard Grum's low voice and Drog'€™s rumbling, impatient answer. Grass crunched beneath their feet: they were moving away from camp, but still the voices droned on.

Drog's voice rose. The conversation was turning into an argument. I could only catch bits and pieces of what Drog was saying.
... doesn'€™t remember... useless... Igrim... have no use... gold..."

Grum's voice was too low for me to hear.


[center]***[/center]


I came bolt upright in my tent, heart pounding in my chest like a samophlange piston.

What was that?

Echoes reverberated in the distance. Echoes of... a horn?

There it was again!

A distant summons rang clear and bright, then faded into rolling echoes.

A few stars shone softly through the round smokehole of my tent, but the light around them was pale grey. It was just before dawn, and it was cold. Finger-numbing, nose-running, throat-slicing cold. Wisps of steam rose before my eyes. Laying back down, I pulled my wolf hide right up to my chin and folded my legs tight, tucking my icy left foot into the crease behind my right knee to warm it up. With any luck I could snatch another ten minutes of sleep before...

A defiant yell sounded in the distance, followed by multiple deep-throated growls and a muted roar.

Lions.

I clutched the hide closer. Drog must be out there, somewhere, taming his next pet. The kodo stamped their feet and blew nervously through their noses. They didn'€™t like this any more than I did. My back ached with tension.

The growls died down.

I massaged the back of my neck, trying to get the muscles to unclench. All over. It was all over.

A single, distant scream tore through the silence.

This was unbearable. I tore off the furs, yanked on my clothes and hurled myself out of the tent.
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#2
Outside the tent the kodo milled together by their acacia tree, steam rising from their flanks and square-nosed faces.

I stood motionless under the grey sunrise sky, trying to listen through my panting, clenching my jaw to keep it from chattering. The echoes of that terrible inhuman scream faded away.

It was quiet.

Very quiet.

Nobody else had emerged from the other tents.

Where was everyone? The hair on my arm stood up like a hedgehog’s quills.

I approached Drog and Harga’s tent. Surely Harga would be there, even if Drog was out. Just outside their tent I coughed, hoping to wake her if she was still asleep, though it was hard to imagine anyone sleeping through that terrible shriek.

Silence.

Gulping, I peeked through the crack of their door flap.

It was dark in there, with only a little early light coming in through the smokehole. But it was enough light for me to see by. Their sleeping furs were empty.

I was about to check the next tent when I glimpsed the outline the four dark boxes at the back of the tent.

None of my business. At all.

I should just move on.

I glanced behind me. The camp was totally silent.

I would just take one peek. Just one.

Taking my courage in both hands, I crept inside.

Drog and Harga’s tent stank of unwashed bodies, a sour, grimy smell. I covered my nose with my hand.

At the back of the tent I ran my hands over the topmost iron-cornered box, ears straining for any sound of swishing footsteps through the grass. There! Hinges, and a fine, barely-perceptible groove that ran around the box like the imprint of a hair. And on the opposite side, a small but sturdy latch.

My fingers fumbled with the latch. Locked. Damn. But thankfully, it was a simple skeleton key lock, and as a good detective I always carried a ring of skeleton keys around with me. I tried the first one, careful not to scratch the finish. No go. I tried the second one, and third. Still nothing. Despite the cold, my hands began to sweat.

I didn’t want to be in this tent when Drog returned with his new lion.

A chirp broke the silence outside the tent. I leaped upwards, spun around, and landed on my feet facing the door, heart thudding in my ears.

But it was only the first bird of the morning. As I turned back to the chest, more birds joined in, shattering the dawn silence with a chorus of cheeps, chatters, and calls.

Fifth key. Aha! The key turned, pushing the pins upward, but it wasn’t a perfect fit: it made such a loud scraping, scratching noise, like a dog clawing at door, that I stopped, trembling.

No true First Class Detective would shake like I was. Summoning a resolve I didn’t know I had, I gripped the key tighter, and kept turning.

screeeeeeeeeeee

With a click, the lock opened. With the flats of my hands I eased the lid up, gently, softly, like I was lifting a sleeping hen off a nest.

The lid opened in total silence on well-oiled, well-cared-for hinges.

I peered inside.

The box was filled to the brim with curled wood shavings.

Packing material.

I thrust my hand into the shavings crinkle crumple crackle and spread my fingers, feeling around, right and left, up and down. Shavings overflowed onto the ground. Crap, I’d have to sweep those up.

In the very center of the box my wrist hit a hard object. Twisting, I grabbed it. It was small, about the size of my foot, but surprisingly heavy. I pulled it from the box. It was a loaf-shaped package snugly wrapped in linen and tied over and over with twine.

I turned it over in my hands, examining the many knots. It would be hard to re-tie the knots exactly the same way. I picked at the twine – just to see how tight the knots were, you understand – and discovered a little folded-up flap of linen.

I pulled it back, revealing a hard, cold substance – polished rock. It was hard to see in the dimness of the tent, but it looked black, black studded with faint specks that caught the light from the smokehole and sparkled, every so slightly. I ran my hand over it. It had grooves, straight carved grooves, rather like the toes of a carved paw.

I was just peeling back the linen to see more when the grass outside crackled under a rapidly approaching footstep.

I froze.

Drog.

He mustn’t find me here, messing with his baggage.

With utmost speed I stuffed the linen-wrapped package back in its box, scooped as much of the spilled packing material back inside as I could, my hands moving as fast as the spinning blade of a shredder crinkle crumple crackle. So loud! I bit my lip. Hard.

The footsteps crunched on gravel. The feet were in the camp now.

Crap crap crap.

I shut the box lid with a click and sat on it.

“Harga…” a voice outside said, “Harga?” The tone was low and soft, but there was something else in it, too: an anxious, upward lift at the end of the word. Worry.

And it didn’t sound like Drog.

I crept toward the door and peeked through the crack of the doorflap. It was Blackhoof, standing in the middle of the camp, panting, staring at the tent I was in.

Staring right at me through the tent door.

I had no time to think. Best defense is a good offense.

I took a deep breath, lowered my head and dashed blindly out of the tent, cannoning directly into Blackhoof. He took a step back with an “ooof!”

I clawed at him, tearing at his belt and clothing.

“Where is everyone? Where’s Drog? Where’s Harga? What was all that screaming?” I gasped. A button of his tunic popped off under my assault.

Grabbing my wrists, he held me away from his clothes. He squatted down to be at my eye level.

“Harga isn’t here?” he asked.

“Nobody’s here!”

He swore.

“What was that scream?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, “It was terrible. It woke me up, and when I found that Harga wasn’t beside…” his voice trailed off. He looked down at me, eyes wide as he realized what he’d said.

I should have known. The cracked hoof, last night. The gentleness. I should have known that Harga would find solace elsewhere. I eyed the young Tauren. His hands were trembling as they held my wrists, as his brown eyes looked into mine. I thought of Drog’s massive granite chest, the hands like plates, the thick neck. I had not seen Drog’s anger, but I could imagine it breaking on the two of them like a lashing, violent storm.

Blackhoof and Harga were braver than I would have been.

I held their secret in my hands, now.

“I won’t tell Drog,” I said.

Blackhoof’s shoulders relaxed for a moment, “Thank you.” His voice was almost a whisper. The sound of a secret shared.

Releasing my wrists, he stood up and asked, “Was Drog here when you woke up?”

I shook my head, “The camp was empty.”

Blackhoof looked sick. “Drog woke up alone, then. He knows. He knows. If he finds Harga first… that awful scream… Harga…”

He adjusted his quiver over his shoulder, and started loping toward the source of the scream with the mile-eating pace of a plainsrunner.

I ran after him, ponytails bobbing at the back of my neck.

But there was no way I could keep up with Blackhoof’s pace unassisted. At the edge of camp I activated the rocket belt which all goblins wear as a point of pride, shot forwards, and cannoned into him again, knocking him to the ground.

He picked himself up, shot me an unsmiling look but patient look – he was such a Tauren -- then swept up and sat me on his shoulders. I was so surprised I almost fell off backwards. I dug my fingers into his mane just in time.

He climbed up the side of the hill to a path that ran level along the hillside, like a belt on a fat lady. The height gave us a good view. The sun was up now, bathing the savannah in thin morning light. The greys and blacks of night were replaced by pastels of pale yellow grass, white-blue sky, and pink hillside.

Blackhoof’s shoulder gave me an extra six feet of height. I could get used to being so tall. As I bouncity-bounced along I made a mental note – stilts.

From my perch I started scanning the plain below us for signs of lions… and Harga.


[center]***[/center]


We’d been running for a quarter of an hour (and my rear end was getting sore) when a motion up ahead caught my eye. I squinted. About a mile ahead of us half a dozen vultures had congregated on the plain.

They weren’t circling – they were sitting on the ground, sitting in a large circle, facing something I couldn’t see. As I watched, one of them hopped forward awkwardly with a rolling sailor’s gait, wings half-outstretched like a wobbly “M” writ dark against the pale grass. And stopped. Folded its wings, shook its tail from side to side, and sat some more. Watching. Something.

Blackhoof had seen them too. Deep in his throat, I heard him moaning, no no no no no….. He quickened his pace. I clutched his chocolate-colored mane in white knuckles. I wasn’t going to get jounced off.

The path rose a little here, giving us a better view.

That’s when I saw the thing in the vulture’s midst.

I tightened my legs against Blackhoof’s neck. It wasn’t a log, no. Or a rock. My mind slowed down, my thoughts flowed thick, like syrup. The birdsong and morning breeze faded away in my ears; all I could hear was a curious humming. My vision narrowed to encompass only the motionless thing in the grass.

We reached the point of the path directly above it.

Blackhoof lifted me down, but I didn’t feel his hands. His mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear him.

All I could do was look down the slope.

The heavy-set body of an Orc lay face up in the grass, a deep jagged black-red void where the throat should have been, like a gaping, monstrous second mouth.

But it wasn’t Harga.

It was Drog.
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#3
Drog was laying face up at the foot of the slope beneath our path. He lay in a dry creek bed – it looked like a seasonal creek, one that would rage and foam after heavy rainfall, then dry up again.

Drog’s body lay in an eddy of hard little pebbles intermingled with broken sticks and leaves, debris from a previous flash flood. Beneath him seeped a dark, wet stain. His throat was torn clear away.

All around him were signs of struggle: dislodged pebbles; smears and spots of glistening red on the smooth stones; flattened, broken grass and clawed-up earth on the far side of the creek bed.

Curved, irregular marks in the creek bed led from the Orc’s body up the creek bed, off the pebbles and onto sand, heading away from the caravan camp, disappearing around the bend like a track.

And there! Following the orientation of two of the vultures, about five yards from his body, half in the creek bed and half in the yellow grass growing on the verge: the still, tawny shape of a lioness with a thick, black arrow shaft protruding from between her open, staring eyes. I shivered.

Once I knew what to look for I saw other lionesses. Another lay half-hidden by a tangle of brush ten yards further up the creek bed, an arrow so deep in her shoulder that only the feathered portion of the shaft was still visible. A third lioness lay stretched out in a little dip in the ground some ways beyond the creek, an arrow sticking from the front center of her chest.

Drog may have been a louse of the first degree, but he was a damn good shot.

I lifted my eyes to look across the plain to the base of the hill opposite us. The sun was up now, colors were brightening from pastels to bolder shades of bronze and yellow and bright blue sky.

A quarter mile away a kodo rib cage stuck out from the ground, not far from a stand of fat-trunked trees. Several lionesses lay around it, but this wasn’t a pride of relaxed, sleeping lions. One lioness was licking at the dark line of an arrow shaft sticking out of her hip, lick lick lick. Another lay in an uncomfortable position with her hip on a kodo bone. She was so still, it was impossible to tell if she was alive or not. She might have fallen there and not gotten up. This was an injured, subdued group of lionesses.

That’s when I saw him. Partly obscured by dark green brush near the ground lay a great, white lion. He was a magnificent beast, stark as the sun bleached kodo bones around him, with a luxuriant slate grey mane. He lay comfortably in the shade of his tree, hind legs to one side, forelegs out front, tail twitching behind him, surveying his surroundings. He was completely unharmed.

It was Echeyakee. Famous from end to end of Azeroth.

No wonder Drog had wanted to tame him.

Beside me, Blackhoof let out a long breath, “Looks like Drog went after one pet too many this time.”

I nodded, looking at Drog’s throat, imagining the lion attack that must have caused it, the great jaws, the slashing eye teeth, the tearing flesh. Poor bastard. Not that I was sorry… but man, what a way to go. I almost felt a pang of pity. Almost.

I turned to Blackhoof. “Look. There’s nothing we can do for him now. Why don’t you go back to camp and get a kodo so we can bring him back. I’ll stay here and keep watch over him.”

Blackhoof looked grateful to have an excuse to leave the grisly scene. And grateful that it hadn’t been Harga down there with her throat torn out. He strode back down the path toward the camp.

The events seemed clear enough: Drog had been overwhelmed by lions. But there was something bothering me about the whole thing.

I couldn’t see the kodo horn.

I decided to take a closer look.


[center]***[/center]


I waited until Blackhoof was out of sight, then I half walked, half slid down the slope to the lifeless body.

I approached the body gingerly. Vultures, sitting expectantly a few yards beyond him, hopped heavily away, wings half-spread in annoyance, their baked red heads turned to one side so they could still watch me out of their little pebble eyes.

As I crept closer a cloud of flies rose buzzing from the Orc’s neck. It was a ragged wound. Parallel gashes marked the wound on either side of his neck, and beneath one of the gashes spread the curve of a large circular bruise, purplish-blue under his green skin. Drog’s mouth was partly open; reddish foam flecked his lips and tongue. I could see daylight at the back of his throat. Oh, yuck. I looked away.

Blood had drenched the front of his body all the way down to the top of his trousers. Everything above his belt was a solid black-red. The blood had run down his body and soaked the ground beneath his body, circling the top of a gopher hole.

His stout bow lay near his hand, and beneath his shoulder I could just see the top of his quiver. He had about a dozen arrows left, thick black shafts like the ones embedded in the lionesses. There were two axe handles protruding from above his shoulders, too, from the axes still strapped to his back.

I walked cautiously around the body. There was no horn on the ground nearby.

I darted a glance at his waist. Maybe he’d hung it back on his belt.

I’d have to check his body. Involuntarily, my lip rose and my eye-corners squinched at the thought. Oh, yuck. Yuck yuck yuck. Life would be so much easier if I didn’t have a sense of smell. Or if I’d become a banker.

Approaching on tiptoe, as though his body were a bomb about to go off in my face blasting shrapnel into the hillside, which I also have experience with, I lifted one corner of his tunic with my thumb and forefinger. It was heavy and sodden, like a wet towel. I had to pinch it hard to lift it at all, and blood squeezed out of the material onto my fingers with a little squishy-squishing noise ew ew ew ew.

I peeked underneath.

I couldn’t see much in the tented darkness made by his tunic. Gritting my teeth, I thrust my hand along his wet belt, his sticky, wet belt. I found the place where I thought his horn had been, just along the right side of his belt, yes, there was the leather tie that had secured the horn in place, but the horn wasn’t there.

Where had the horn gone?

Then my eyes lit on the place where his money pouch had been, along the left side of his belt. His money pouch was gone, too.

I gulped.

Damn.

Not that I would have taken them, of course. But then, neither would the lions.

Someone… someone had been here. Someone had robbed him.

Feeling sick, I was about the lower the tunic when I saw another bag knotted to his belt, way back by the far curve of his waist, almost out of sight. This was a larger package, bigger than his money pouch, and knobbly.

I leaned over the body, almost resting on the great expanse of dark-wet belly. The sun was warming the body now. The blood smelled of iron and stale fluids, a sweet-sour-metal smell that roiled my stomach. I held my breath and tried not to lean on him. I really didn’t need a belly-print of fresh Orc blood across my chest.

I touched the package with my fingertips. It was hard. Following the neck of the bag up to his belt with my fingers, I began picking at the knot, which was swollen with blood. But with the fingers of both hands, poking and tugging, I loosened the knot and pulled the bag free, dragging it across the body with a fabric-on-bloody-fabric zzzzzz sound. It was so heavy I almost dropped it on my foot. I grabbed it with both hands just in time. Now both my palms were sticky with blood. Great.

Holding the weight with one hand, I opened the twisted, creased neck of the bag with the dark red fingers of the other.

I lifted out a heavy linen package wrapped round and round with twine, just like the one I’d found in the box at camp. The blood had not soaked through the bag to the linen, thank goodness: the wrapping was clean and soft except where my bloody fingers were smudging it. Oops.

This time, I was going to find out what was inside.

I pulled out my little pocket knife and cut the twine. No sense messing around with those knots.

I pulled the twine and linen cloth away, unfolding them like the petals of a big tropical flower in my hand, wiping my fingers on them at the same time, leaving pale-red smears, to reveal a stone figurine. It was about six inches tall, black and shiny as the pupil of a dragon’s eye, shot with faint lines of white like comet tails in the night sky. I had never seen anything like it. The figure had the body of a cat, but where the head should have been jutted the torso of a man. The little arms were raised above its head as though in supplication, but the hands were broken off at the wrists.

I gaped at it. Even to my untutored eye, I could recognize value when I saw it. I am a goblin, after all. This was a work of fine art. How did Drog get a hold of something like this? And where was he taking it?

I turned it over and over in my hands, admiring the crisp, sculpted lines, the calm expression on the tiny face, the detail of the toes and claws. I touched the broken wrists, the coarse grain of the unpolished broken stone. What a shame that it was broken.

Carefully, I wrapped it back in its linen wrappings. Now what? I could put it back on the body, but that seemed silly, if there were robbers about. Why leave it for thieves to find? So I stuck it deep in one of my pants pockets, where it made a big bulge on my thigh and pulled my pants down on that side. I hiked my pants up, jumping a bit to get them as high as possible, and tightened my belt, sucking in my gut so I could reach the last hole.

There. Satisfied that my pants weren’t going anywhere without me, I continued my investigation, walking slowly around the body.

His left ankle was bent at an odd angle. I leaned over to get a closer look. A small spur of bone protruded from the top of his boot. Ah, ouch. That would be a problem. And now that I was close to it, I could see that the right leg had an extra bend below the knee, and a faint stain of red, waffled by the weave of his trousers, showed that there was a bloodstain on the inside of his pants, just above the extra bend in his leg. Broken ankle, and broken leg. Both of them nasty compound fractures from the look of it.

I scratched my head, and immediately wished that I hadn’t. Now my hair was sticky.

This was all wrong. A compound fracture was not the kind of injury he’d be likely to get from a lion attack. Lions bit and tore: they didn’t break bones. Tripping, falling, twisting, crushing – that’s what broke bones.

I took a closer look at the ground by his feet. A foot or two away the track marks started, or rather ended, at his current location. The tracks consisted of long gouges in the creek bed next to ridges of pebbles scraped into long, roughly parallel lines, punctuated at intervals with half-obscured small pressure marks. I checked his legs. His knees and the toes of his boots were scuffed and coated with sand. I glanced up the body. So were the palms of his hands.

He had crawled here. On his hands and knees, dragging two broken lower legs. It didn’t bear thinking about too hard.

I began following the marks backwards. The signs of struggle ceased within a few yards. The lions had come upon him all at once, right here at the end of the trail.

This made no sense. Why would a man with two broken legs, dragging himself back toward camp on all fours, blow on a horn to summon a pride of lions to his location? Not even a fool would do that.

No, somebody else must have done it for him. Somebody else had come upon him crawling here, robbed him, and blown the horn… and then left him to be torn apart by the great beasts. My stomach churned. I remembered the dead lionesses, each killed with a single shot. Drog must have put up a pretty good fight, despite being so badly injured, before the lions had overwhelmed him.

I looked down at Drog. Here it was, unexpected as red roses in December: my very first murder case.

Now, I just had to make a good job of this.

I followed the drag marks backward, trying to read the story of the events leading up to Drog’s death. The drag marks went a surprisingly long way, about an eighth of a mile north along the base of the hill, following the creek bed. The path I’d been on with Blackhoof was way above my head, now.

The tracks came to an end. Or a beginning, rather. There was one deep footmark here in the sand, and where the other should have been there was a smooth, round stone, dislodged from its place in the sand. There was a pair of clear handmarks in front of them, and a bunch of large pressure marks to one side.

Here. He had fallen right here. Probably from the path above.

I looked up. Ah, there it was: a long cascade of dirt down the side of the steep slope, where a heavy object had slid down, dislodging pebbles and dirt on its way down. A few tufts of grass had been torn up, too, and lay drooping down the dry surface, hanging by a few roots.

Drog had fallen from the path. He’d landed badly, on the smooth stone, and had broken both his legs.

It would have been quite a fall. I peered up, estimating the distance from the floor of the savannah to the path to be about thirty feet.

I froze. A head was hanging over the path.

Someone was peering down at me.

Harga.
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#4
“Where’s Drog?” Harga asked from her perch up on the path, staring down at me with her eyebrows raised. She made as if to climb down, but I held up my hand. I didn’t want her down here messing up all the crawl marks. I scrambled up the steep slope with discrete bursts from my rocket belt, then sat down beside her, my legs dangling over the edge.

Harga kept darting little glances down the slope. “What you doing down dere, Weezil? Have you seen Drog?”

“Have you seen him this morning?” I countered.

She hesitated. “Drog left early dis morning to tame Echeyakee. He tries every time we come to de Northern Barrens.”

“Well, they found each other,” I said, cautiously.

She nodded, and her face relaxed. “He had great hopes of dat horn. Drog had never been able to find Echeyakee before – he so shy – so Drog bought de horn in Orgrimmar last week. The seller told him it summon Echeyakee.” She paused, then said, “I heard de lions. Is Drog back at camp with Echeyakee?”

“Do you know why Drog was arguing with Grum last night?” I asked, putting her off. I wanted to get as much out of her as I could before telling her what I’d seen.

Harga looked surprised. “I only know what Drog told me. He said Grum wanted a job with de caravan. Drog told him no… we didn’t have de money to hire more helpers, especially not one wit’ a bad arm.”

“Did Grum threaten him?”

“Grum? Wit’ his arm?” Harga chuckled.

“Was Drog scared?”

Harga laughed outright. “Of Grum? He said Grum was a useless whelp. He was upset by what happened afterwards, though.”

“Afterwards?”

“Yes. Drog didn’t sleep right after de argument. He stayed up by de campfire, and I lay awake too, waiting for him to come to de tent and fall asleep.” She looked away. I knew why she was waiting up, and where she’d gone after Drog had fallen asleep, but no need to let her know that.

“Bucketto joined him at de campfire after a while,” she continued. “Dey talk quiet for a long time – I couldn’t hear dem. But when Drog came to tent he seemed upset. He toss and turn on his furs, getting dem all wadded up, den he kick them straight again. He wouldn’t say why. Took him long time to fall asleep.”

She glanced at me. “Now, why you ask me all dese questions?”

I could not hold this off any longer. Best to be blunt. “I’m afraid Drog is… dead.” I said.

Harga gasped. Her face turned a paler shade of green, her lips turned grey. “Oh no…” she whispered, “No no no…”

She struggled with herself a moment, then to my surprise, burst into tears.


[center]***[/center]


She cried for a long time, sitting on the path, her head on her bent knees, arms wrapped around her shins, her shoulders shaking.

I watched her cry. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. My first impulse was to comfort her, to pat her hand, to offer sympathy to a grieving person, a new widow.

But I kept remembering the look on her face as she watched him stroke Lady’s head. Was her grief real?

And where had she gone after leaving Blackhoof this morning, and what was she doing out here, anyway, right at the spot Drog where was pushed off the path?

Maybe she had pushed him off, then followed him as he crawled toward camp, and finally blown the horn to finish him off – poetic justice, that, to let the next coveted pet kill him. She might have done it to protect Blackhoof, or herself. She could have taken the money to disguise the thing as a robbery.

I did not pat her hand.

Instead, I pulled the figurine from my pocket and unwrapped it, deftly hiding the pink finger-smears I’d made earlier. I held it out to her.

“Do you know what this is?” I asked.

She lifted her head from her knees and looked dully at it for a moment, her eyes wet and unfocused. Then she shook her head, “Never seen dat before.”

“Do you know anything about those black boxes Drog is hauling around?”

She wiped her eyes on her sleeve, leaving a wet streak like a dark cut on the leather. “Drog had dem made specially. We bring dem back and forth between Uldum and Orgrimmar. I don’t like dem – too heavy. But Drog always wants to bring dem.”

“Where were you at sunrise this morning?” I asked gently.

“At a lookout point about a mile up de path. I watched de sunrise from dere.”

“Was anyone with you?”

She shook her head.

“Why weren’t you in camp?”

She didn’t answer for a while. Then she said, slowly, “I needed some time to think.”

I leaned toward her, “I know about Blackhoof,” I said, in a low voice.

She darted a quick glance at me, her eyes questioning mine. She must have liked what she saw there, for she nodded slowly, her face tired. “Blackhoof was so sweet. He came to work for us six months ago. He was so good with de beasts, so patient… it such a relief to feel… kindness.”

“Why didn’t you leave Drog?” I asked, gently.

She smiled, a wan smile, without humor. “Drog and I loved each other. I guess you find dat hard to believe, but we did. I couldn’t just… leave him.

She pulled her legs closer to her body. “We met in de Valley of Trials. He was a real Orc’s Orc. He was good at what he did. Nobody could shoot a bow like he did. We made a good team: he wit’ his bow, me wit’ my big axe. We did everything together back den.

“When we got to Orgrimmar dat first spring, it was amazing,” the corners of her mouth turned up at the memory. “Dis big city! We never seen so many people. We stayed close to each other. We were de only people we knew. De second evening in Orgrimmar we… we got married. Down in de Drag. We wanted to hold on to something familiar in dis great big world, and each other was de only ting we had.

“But as time went on we met new people and made friends. Or at least… I made friends. Drog was always rude and impossible wit’ others, but I found work for us. Job after job, I got for us. I think he resented dat all his work came through me.

“I tink, after a year or two, he wanted to make something of himself on his own. But he couldn’t. He didn’t land many jobs, and when he did, he couldn’t keep dem. He just… turned people against himself. He kept coming back to me, out of work, hungry, and I’d take him back. Finally he stopped leaving me.

“Dat’s about when he started collecting pets. He couldn’t leave me, but he could always replace his latest pet. Sometimes he do it after an argument, he scream at me and storm out of de house and throw his latest animal in de stable and padlock de door and swear he never feed it again. Den he spend the next week talking about de next beautiful animal he would bring home, and when he got it, he be so kind to it, so sweet, while watching me de whole time, every time I turn around he be dere, watching… watching…” her voice trailed off.

I shifted a little uncomfortably. “Did you see Blackhoof this morning?”

She nodded. “I… we… usually go to a little clearing… about a half mile from camp… I woke before he did, though, when it was still night.”

“What did you do then?”

“I went out to look at the stars. You can’t see dem in Orgrimmar, you know. Too many torches and overhangs.”

“Did you see Blackhoof again?”

“No.”

“What about Drog?”

She shook her head. “I haven’t seen him since I left him asleep late last night.”

“Now that is a lie,” a voice snapped from further up the path.

I turned to see Bucketto strutting around the corner, “I saw you arguing with Drog right here, Harga, about an hour ago.”
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#5
Buck grinned at Harga. “What did you do, come back to see if he was still down there? Right where you pushed him off?”

Harga jumped to her feet, her face still streaked with tears. “Are you saying dat I killed him?”

“Well, it’s a good long drop, isn’t it?” said Buck.

“He was fine after de fall – he swore at me.” Harga tossed her long red braid, her wet face glaring defiantly. “He’s a tough Orc. And Lady was wit’ him. I knew she’d look after him.”

“He wasn’t fine, though,” I said. “He broke both his legs.”

She huffed, “I don’t believe you. If he so hurt, why he summon dat damn lion?”

“I’m not sure he did,” I said slowly.

“What do you mean? I heard de horn!”

“I think someone else blew the horn.” I said, eyeing her closely.

Her eyes widened.

“Did you blow it?” I asked.

Harga gaped at me.

“Dis crazy!” Harga whirled on Bucketto. “Ask Buck where he was! He upset Drog lat night at de campfire! I bet he did it!”

Bucketto laughed, “Me? Why would I do that?” He took a step backwards.

I eyed the scarabs glued onto his helmet. I had a sudden inspiration. I pulled the figurine from my pocket and thrust it at him.

“For this.”

Buck’s eyes grew wide and glittery, “So he did have another one! He lied to me!”

I jumped on his answer. “What do you know about these figurines?” I demanded.

Buck narrowed his eyes. “Didn’t Drog tell you, Harga?” he asked.

“Tell me what?”

“Where he gets all his money? How do you think he paid for that horn of his?”

Harga stared at him, “I have no idea. He keep saying we have no money. Last night he didn’t hire Grum because we have no money.”

“Well, he’s a liar. Look at this.” Buck pulled a linen bundle from his backpack and unwrapped it carefully. He pulled forth a little black stone figurine, the twin of the one I held in my hand: six inches tall, so shiny it looked wet. The cat’s body and the man’s torso, with the little arms raised up but broken off at the wrist.

The little goblin leaned toward Harga, his face suddenly serious. “Drog was smuggling antiquities from Uldum. Didn’t you know?”

Harga sat down heavily. “No, I didn’t. I had no idea. I thought we were carrying root vegetables and flour and bolts of cloth. I loaded dem myself.”

Buck leaned back. “Well, it might have been better if he’d let you in on it. He had no idea what these things are worth. This figurine is worth a fortune, and Drog traded it to my brother for an Echeyakee summoning horn, which is worth only one twentieth as much. My brother got the deal of a lifetime.

“But, being my brother, he had to brag about it so he came right over and told me the whole story. I noticed this…” Bucketto pointed to the broken-off hands of the figurine. “This is a known design: four figures holding up a funerary urn. I think Drog found the thing and smashed off the figurines. It was stupid of him -- intact and undamaged the urn and its figurines would have been worth half of Silvermoon City. But even so, I knew there were three more figurines out there, holding up their urn, and I wanted to find them. Looks like Weezil found one of them.”

And there’s another in Drog’s tent, I thought. But I said nothing about that.

Buck continued, “So I joined the caravan to find out where these were coming from. I met with Drog last night and asked if he had any more. He said he didn’t. I asked him to take me to the urn in Uldum -- I said I’d give him ten percent. He was angry, but I pointed out that I could always turn him in to the Uldum authorities for smuggling. He said he’d think about it and would meet me two miles up the path early this morning with his answer.”

“And what was his answer?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” Buck shrugged his shoulders under his sand-colored jacket. “He never made it to our meeting. Because you pushed him off the path.”

Harga scowled at him.

Buck grinned, “So you see, I had every reason to want Drog alive. Unlike you, Harga. Or you, Weezil, for that matter,” he said, wheeling on me.

“Me?” I gasped.

“Yeah, you. I saw how he ripped you off. You don’t have a gold piece to your name, now. Two hundred and twenty gold is a tidy sum. Enough to kill for, if you found an injured man with a lion summoning horn on him, all ready for blowing!

I laughed. “You’re kidding!”

“And you found a valuable relic on him instead, which you made away with!”

“And showed to you,” I interjected, “Do you think I would have pulled it out of my pocket if I had intended to steal it?”

“What were you doing out so early this morning, Weezil? Taking your money back?”

“No! Trying to figure out who killed him!” Like a good detective, First Class, I added in my head.

“You didn’t take his money while you were at it?”

“No!” I spluttered, “It was already gone!”

Buck leaned back and smiled, “Spoken like a true goblin.”

In the distance, I heard the jingling harness and the slow, heavy step of an approaching kodo, a pachyderm funereal procession of one.

Blackhoof had returned for the body.


[center]***[/center]


The three of us stared at each other for a moment. I don’t know what they were thinking, but I was thinking, Blackhoof, alone at the crime scene. I turned and hurried back down the path with the other two close behind me, irritated at myself for leaving the body alone, where Blackhoof could meddle with the evidence.

I wasn’t very good at this yet.

Because Blackhoof too had a motive to kill Drog: protecting himself against an irate husband. And perhaps more compelling: protecting Harga against her husband. I remembered his anxious face this morning when I told him Harga hadn’t been in camp all morning. Had he gone in search of her and encountered Drog instead, injured on the ground? Perhaps Drog had accused him, or even threatened him – it was not hard to imagine the belligerent Orc arguing with his kodo driver, even as he lay injured on the ground. Blackhoof could have grabbed the horn from him, called down the lions, and run back to camp in search of Harga, encountering me instead. And afterwards, he’d run straight back to the body, hadn’t he? As though he knew where it was.

It took only a few minutes to reach Drog’s body. Beside me, Harga let out a long, ragged sigh, almost a moan. Buck drew his breath in through his teeth.

Blackhoof and Grum were already down there. The whole area was trampled with their footprints. Damn.

The kodo stood to one side of the body, cropping the grass by the dry creek bed and munching it with soft, hollow, grinding sounds. Blackhoof had laid a canvas by the side of the body, a thick, khaki-colored canvas with dark round grommets along the side. He was standing on the canvas himself, holding it down with his hooves, while trying to ease Drog’s shoulder onto the canvas by clutching one lifeless arm in his hand and putting his other hand under the inert shoulder. Grum was on the other side, trying to push and lift Drog with his own good arm. They weren’t making much progress.

We half-walked, half-slid down the slope to them. Harga walked over to the body and stood over him, her face tired and worn. She laid a hand on his cheek, then drew it away. Dead flesh, I knew, feels nothing like live flesh – it’s curiously inert, inelastic, and too cool to the touch. It is not a comfortable thing to touch. Harga twisted her hands together.

Blackhoof came to stand by Harga’s side, his face solemn, his shoulders drooping, but there was a flicker of half-hidden warmth deep in his eyes as he looked at her, like a candlelight masked by a protective hand. He stood close to her, almost touching but not quite. Slowly, sadly, she laid her head on his shoulder, her eyes on Drog. Very gently, Blackhoof rested his chin on the top of her head, and slid a supportive arm around her shoulders, molding himself to her like a puzzle piece.

Grum, his face sober, his totems hanging uselessly on his belt, looked away. Buck fidgeted beside me, craning his neck ever so slightly, trying, I suppose, to get a view of Drog’s midriff to see if there might be any more priceless relics under his tunic.

I cast my gaze discretely about, looking for the kodo horn that had summoned Drog’s nemesis to tear him apart. I looked up on the slope, thinking he might have flung it up there for safekeeping, but there was nothing. I scanned the creek bed around me feet, and the grass on the far side. Nothing.

Damn. Where was the thing?

After a few moments Harga drew herself up, “We can’t leave him here,” she said, her voice thick, and made a move toward the canvas.

The four of us, Blackhoof, Harga, Buck and myself, came together to move the Orc’s body. Each of us held a limb and heaved. I held one of his lower legs under my arm, the one with the broken ankle. I didn’t want to pull on his foot, though I knew he could feel nothing. It just felt wrong, somewhow.

Moving Drog was like moving a kodo. It felt like a pound of him must way much more than a pound of goblin. We got his limbs up, two arms and two legs gripped in the hands of his fellow caravaners, but his lower back and thighs dragged resolutely on the ground, as though held by a magnet, and his head lolled grotesquely backwards, hanging only by the spine.

Grunting, straining, and pulling, we slid him onto the canvas, his lower back dragging a smear of pebbles, dirt, and blood behind it. Once we had him positioned in the middle, we laid his limbs back down. I straightened his boot.

I cast a quick glace at the spot where he had lain on the ground. It was a uniform red-black color, pebbles and leaves and twigs all the same, as though someone had dumped a vat of blood paint on the ground.

And there was no kodo horn. I’d hoped that perhaps he might have fallen on it, but no.

Blackhoof tied the edges of the canvas together with ropes through the grommets. Then he led the kodo over to the somber burden, looped ropes through the corners and middle of the canvas seam and threw them over the kodo’s back. Harga stepped over to hold the kodo’s head steady while Blackhoof, aided by Grum, leaned backwards against the rope, slowly lifting the body off the ground. While they held the rope tight Harga secured the slack to the kodo’s harness.

I was so engrossed in watching them that I almost missed the opportunity to look further afield for the horn.

As Harga tied knot after knot to the kodo’s harness, I ambled away from the center of the action and began to scan the ground on the further side of the creek bed for the missing horn – and anything else.

Grass, grass, grass, and more grass. Twigs. Leaves. Pebbles. A grasshopper, warmed by the early morning sun, leapt away from me with a buzz of brittle jewel-colored wings. How could I make sense of all this? How did First Class Detectives do this? I knew the basics of tracking, but this scene had been so trampled, first by lions and then by every member of this caravan – including myself – that any clue I might find on the ground would be hopelessly muddled by later interference.

Next time, I’d have to secure the scene. Keep everybody away except myself. If there was a next time. At this rate I wasn’t going to solve anything. All my suspects were crowded around the body as it was!

I hadn’t handled this very well, had I.

I peeked behind me. Harga was just sliding Drog’s long, black bow into the canvas to rest on top of his body, right where a bow should.

I had to hurry.

I searched back and forth, back and forth, like a puzzled pendulum, acutely aware of my own feet crushing the grass, making tracks of my own.

I came to the edge of a hollow in the ground, about thirty yards from Drog and invisible from the creek bed.

At the bottom of the hollow lay the still, tawny form of Drog’s wyvern.

Lady.

I jumped down to her.

Her face and shoulders were a mess of red scratches, each one swarming with flies. I waved them away; they rose in a heavy cloud around me, sluggish and sated. Her muzzle and chin were red and spiky with dried blood. Her left wing curved above her body, its translucent webbing hanging in sticky, twisted ribbons from the delicate wing bones. It was a desecration to see such a magnificent animal mangled like this. My eyes prickled. Kneeling by her side, I gently stroked the wiry hair of her nape.

It was easy enough to deduce what had happened to her. She had tried to fight off the lions on Drog’s behalf, tried to keep them away from her master, but she had failed.

What a waste.

I touched the soft, unstained fur behind her ears. For a moment I allowed myself to wish that I, too, had such a gallant companion, loyal to the very end. But I didn’t. My throat tightened.

I stood up. “Hey!” I shouted to the others, “Over here! Lady’s here!”

When I looked back down at the wyvern at my feet, I nearly jumped out of my skin.

Lady was looking straight up at me.
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#6
I knelt by her head and looked into her eyes, gleaming portals into an unknowable mind. “Lady,” I whispered, “Lady.”

“I wish she could talk,” said Buck, as he hopped down beside me, holding on to the brim of his beetle hat. “She could tell us who did it.”

Blackhoof arrived at the top of the hollow carrying a second square-folded canvas over one arm.

Grum slid down into the hollow with his totems. He knelt by her side, running his hands down her legs, looking at the gashes on her shoulders and wings. “She’s lost a lot of blood,” he said, “but none of the wounds have touched any major vessels or organs. I can patch her up, I think. If we can get her to a better healer, she’ll mend.”

Grum planted a healing totem in the ground for her. His palm glowed a soft grass-green, the color of new growth in April, as he waved it over her body. The edges of her wounds knit themselves back together, starting at the corners like a zipper. The scratches began to fade, even as I watched. Lady’s eyelids drooped until they were almost closed, turning her eyes into slivers of gleaming dark crescent moons. I stroked her head, warm and solid beneath my hand.

Grum pulled his totem up from its round hole in the ground and reattached it to his belt. “That’s all I can do,” he said, “She’ll need to get to Crossroads for better healing.”

Blackhoof spread the second canvas on the ground behind Lady’s back, then the four of us half-lifted, half-slid her onto its tan surface. Each of us holding a corner of the canvas, we carried her slung between us as though she were on a hammock, her tattered right wing arching like a giant skeleton hand over her body.

At the kodo, Lady slowly lifted her head to look at Drog’s lifeless body suspended in the other canvas. She exhaled a long, drawn-out breath, as though she’d been holding it for some time. Her wing drooped. I pressed my lips together. He didn’t deserve such loyalty from a pet he intended to throw away.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I know what he must have meant to you.”

Lady eased her head back onto the canvas and closed her eyes. She seemed to let herself go. Her head lolled from side to side with each of our steps.

Cradled in her canvas, we hoisted Lady onto the other side of the kodo and fastened her there. The kodo stood quietly, a long canvas-wrapped bundle on either side, as though it understood the gravity of what it had to do.

The somber procession started back to camp, walking along the creek bed. Blackhoof led the kodo by its halter, Harga walked alongside Drog with one hand on the ropes that held him up, Grum a few yards behind her, and Buck taking up the rear.

I fell into step beside Harga, two of my steps for every one of hers. I took a deep breath.

“Drog found out about you and Blackhoof.” I tried to sound as if I knew it for a fact. “That’s what you were arguing about. He threatened you, didn’t he.”

She seemed to pull her mind from a long way away to look down at me. After a long pause, she nodded. “He was furious. Threatened to break Blackhoof’s neck for him. But I told him he was no better dan me. He’d cheated on me, you know. She was sent into an internment camp with de kid, though, years ago.”

“So you pushed him off, and when you tired of watching him crawl you climbed down and blew the horn. Let the lions finish him off for you. Is that what happened?”

“No,” she said, her voice tired, too tired to be angry. “We had our troubles… but I didn’t want him dead.”

“But he threatened Blackhoof!”

She looked down at me, her eyes weary, her face framed on one side by her drooping red braid. “Ah,” she said, “I see you don’t understand. We do dis a lot. We did, dat is.”

“Did what?”

She smiled with one side of her mouth. “I cheat on him, he find out, he rampage about.”

“You did this… often?” I tried to wrap my mind around the idea, but it was like bending a board around a pole.

She nodded, slowly. “De jealous rages... dat’s how I knew he still love me.”

I looked up into her face. It was like peeking through a keyhole into someone else’s life, a life turbulent with waves of love and cruelty and longing and hurting.

“You… you heard the horn blow?” I continued, a little shaky.

She nodded, “I stomped off after he swore at me from down dere. I thought… I thought he was calling de lion himself, as he planned. I figured he go back to camp wit’ his new pet, fire Blackhoof, give him his month’s wages, and dat would be de end of it. Dat’s how dese things always ended. Until de next time.”

“And… Blackhoof? What would happen to him?” I looked ahead to the young kodo driver with the cocoa-colored mane, so young he was.

She shrugged, as though shaking off a fly. “He find another job easy. Dey always do.”

I felt like I’d swallowed a whole mackerel, and it was now floating belly-up in my stomach. Harga and Drog had been locked in an agonizing embrace; using their love to hurt each other more than any stranger possibly could.

I slowed my step. Harga nodded at me, then walked on ahead.


[center]***[/center]


I let Grum catch up to me. He was sunk in his thoughts, fingering the straps holding the totems to his belt.

“That was some nice healing you did on Lady,” I said.

“Thanks,” he gave me a wan smile. “I’m getting better.”

“How do you manage alone, as a healer? It’s got to be hard.”

He nodded. “As a healer, if I want something dead I have to have others kill it for me. I’m much more effective with other people.”

“Is that why you wanted to join the caravan?” I asked.

He smiled wryly, “Yes, but you saw how that went.”

“You went to Drog again last night, after we were all in bed.”

He licked his lips. “It was stupid. I thought I’d give it another try.”

I hesitated, remembering the argument of the night before. “Who is Igrim?” I asked.

He darted a sharp look at me. “How do you know that name?”

“I heard you say it last night. Who is she?”

He considered a moment. The kodo ambled ahead of us, its tail swinging heavily back and forth. “She was my mother,” he said. “I was raised in an internment camp in Arathi Highlands. The guards killed her when I was very small. They beat me, too – that’s how my arm got this way. Nerve damage to the shoulder. Much harder to heal than a broken bone.”

Internment camp.

I looked at his face. Yes… the lines of the nose and jaw were similar. Grum’s face was more refined, but the resemblance was there. “Drog was your father,” I said.

Grum inhaled sharply. He looked down at me, his face clouded. I gazed unblinking into his eyes. He considered for a moment, as if weighing his options, then nodded.

“I’d never met him until yesterday, when I joined the caravan,” Grum said. “My mother told me all about him, though, back in the internment camp, after the lights were out for the night. She’d lie next to me in my bunk and tell me all about Orgrimmar and my father. She told me what life was like outside the camp, and that when I got free I must find my father and ask him for help. She never doubted that he would help me.”

“He didn’t seem very happy to see you,” I said.

Grum shook his head. “He wasn’t… and… he didn’t even remember my mother.” His face darkened.

“So he wouldn’t hire you, even when he knew you were his son?”

“He said a one-armed shaman was no son of his.”

I nodded.

Grum continued, “I said if he wouldn’t give me a job… maybe he could give me a little money to help pay for further training. I said I’d never bother him again. But he refused me the money, too. He said he didn’t have any. I knew that was a lie, though. I saw you give him all that gold.”

“Where were you this morning?” I asked. Surely a real detective’s voice wouldn’t squeak like this. “Did you hear the roaring?”

He shook his head. “I was off looking for raptor nests south of camp. I can’t hunt very well,” he said, looking down at his arm, “but I can pick up eggs.”

“Did anyone see you out there?”

“No. I left pretty early. I needed to think about what to do next. I’d sort of… counted on my father helping me. But I realized this morning that I needed to strike out on my own, make something of myself, then come back one day and show my father how powerful I had become.”

His good hand curled into a fist as he spoke, “I planned to come back so powerful he’d beg me to join him, and I’d tell him no… I’d have much better opportunities than his dumpy little caravan.”

He smiled proudly, but he was no longer looking at me. His gaze was far away, probably lost in his fantasy of impressing his father.

“When did you get back to camp?”

Grum startled a little, as if he’d forgotten I was there. “After dawn. The camp was empty but I cooked my eggs over the campfire, then Blackhoof ran into camp. He told me Drog was dead and he had come back for a kodo to carry the body.”

“Were you upset?”

Grum looked down at his feet, kicking up the dust as he walked. “Yes. I’d only known my father for a day. I’d spent my life dreaming of getting to know him, and now he’s gone.”

“Even after he was so ungenerous to you, you were still upset?”

He nodded. “He was my father. Now… I have no one.”

Grum’s voice trailed off into silence.


[center]***[/center]


I trudged next to Grum back to camp. Nobody had an alibi, all of them had a motive. And I had no evidence pointing toward any one of them in particular. Any of them could have blown that horn and then raced away.

The horn.

Where was it? Tossed into the grass somewhere between the body and the camp? Tied to the guilty person’s belt? Smashed into little shards?

And where was the money? Ah… that would be harder to toss away in the grass. It might still be on the killer. I eyed the other members of the caravan, but it was impossible to tell if anyone was carrying a fat moneybag, and I had no authority to search them.

I felt the weakness of my position keenly.

We arrived back at camp in mid-morning. The doors of the vacant tents flapped open in a warm, morning breeze. The wind blew the faint off-smell of our garbage pile containing the remains of last night’s meal. Grasshoppers were tuning up for the day, with a zik zik zik of their hairpin-shaped legs on their crisp veined wings. It was going to be a hot day.

We lowered Lady to the ground first, easing her down on the strong ropes, opening the canvas and sliding her out like a giant stomach disgorging its contents into the center of camp. Lady lay limply by the circle of logs, her fur rusted with blood, foul-smelling, her eyes half-lidded.

Grum retrieved his pack from his tent, bent over her, and began bandaging her the old-fashioned way, cleaning the tatters of her wings with clean cloths dampened with water from his canteen. It would take a long time.

Blackhoof and Harga began breaking down the tents. In silence. Like a well-rehearsed team.

Lady moved her head restlessly on the hard ground. She could use something soft to put her head on. I walked to my tent to fetch one of my borrowed wolf furs.

Opening the flap, I stepped into a pocket of still, breathless air, hot as the engine room of a ship. It was hard to believe I’d been shivering in here just a few hours earlier.

The darkness shone purple and green as I blinked against it. Blinded by the darkness, fumbling around, I paused a moment to let my eyes adjust to the dim light after the glare of the day outside. Slowly, the garish colors faded away, and dark outlines came into view. The scalloped outlines of the soft grey wolf furs. The straight edge of the gunnysack ground pad I’d laid them on.

And something else.

My mouth went dry and sticky.

On the topmost wolf fur lay a brown-grey kodo horn, intricately carved with a bas relief sculpture of a majestic, white lion.
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#7
I almost fell over myself – there it was! The murder weapon, the thing that had called the lions down on an injured man. Oh boy oh boy oh boy!

Then another thought struck me with the velocity of a nine inch shell. Somebody was trying to frame me for the murder. I grabbed hold of the tent pole to steady myself. I was the smallest person here. I had no friends here, no authority, no possibility of protection. If they decided to pin this on me, they could do so, good and hard. I had means, motive and opportunity just as they had.

I felt as vulnerable as a bacon and fried egg sandwich surrounded by hyenas.

Okay. Okay. Breathe, Weezil, breathe.

I needed to think fast before anyone discovered this thing on me. Sweat trickled from beneath the hair at the back of my head.

Stay calm. Think like a detective, First Class.

First, examine the horn.

I crouched down on the ground next to the horn. I stared at it. But it looked just as it had the day before on Drog’s belt. There was no blood in the grooves of the lion carvings. No sand, no dirt. It hadn’t been on the ground. I looked at the mouthpiece. It was scratched with teeth marks from years of use. Not sure I could deduce anything from that, except that it was an old, well-used horn. I leant closer, until my nose almost touched the carved surface, and sniffed it. It smelled faintly of leather and sweat.

I wrapped my hand in my sleeve and lifted it gingerly by its flared mouth, using just my thumb and the side of my curved forefinger. It was heavy. I tipped it onto its other side.

Underneath it lay… a money bag. Drog’s money bag. Deflated, like a popped balloon.

Empty.

Whoever was trying to frame me had been too cheap to pass on the gold.

The bag was unknotted. And there was no blood on it. It must have been taken before Drog’s death, for that throat wound had stained the entire front of his body, including the figurine’s bag – his money bag would have been soaked if it had been there.

So the killer had robbed him before blowing the horn.

And then had come back to camp to put the items in my tent. Who had been back to camp?

Blackhoof could have done it early this morning, while I was in Drog and Harga’s tent. Or later, when he went back to fetch the kodo. Yes, he could have woken up alone, run after Harga, come upon Drog injured, taken the horn and the money as cover, blown the horn, and made it back to camp. It would be tight, but if he were a quick thinker and afraid for Harga’s life, he might have done it.

Harga could certainly have done it. After pushing him off, she could have followed along on the path above, run down to blow the horn and take the money, run back to camp to put the items in my tent, and gone out again, until she’d run into me poking around the place where she’d pushed Drog off.

Grum could have done it. Instead of having a contemplative morning hunting for eggs and figuring out his future he might have come upon his injured father, taken the money, blown the horn, and made it back to camp where Blackhoof found him.

Buck had been out all morning, too. He might have met with Drog after all, maybe had an argument over the percentage. Buck might have decided he could find the figurines on his own, so he didn’t need Drog and could keep all of the sale. He could have come upon Drog in the creek bed, swiped the money, blown the horn and taken it back to camp before heading out again and coming upon Harga and me on the path.

A shadow fell over the mouth of the tent.

Grum peeked in and asked, “Have you found those wolf skins for Lady yet?”

He blinked a bit in the dimness, then his gaze fell on the horn and the moneybag. His eyes widened. I froze. His face hardened into stone, as though he had seen a basilisk.

“So it was you!” he hissed. “You killed Drog… to get your money back! You killed him!” He left the door and the sun blazed in on me, dazzling my eyes. I heard his feet running away, his voice shouting, “Blackhoof! Harga!”

I stumbled out of the tent after him. I had nothing. No evidence. No defense.

Grum was running across the camp to where Harga and Blackhoof were loading one of the kodos on the far side of the cold firepit. Blackhoof glanced up, eyebrows raised. Harga stood to look at Grum, wiping the sweat from her face.

“It wasn’t me!” I yelled, running toward them, a bug among giants, “It wasn’t…”

That’s when I stepped in a gopher hole and fell flat on my face.

My teeth broke my fall. Gritty mouth full of gravel. My brain sloshed against the inside of my skull. I stepped outside of time.

A gopher hole.

A gopher hole.

There had been a gopher hole next to Drog’s body, a round hole ringed with blood.

But no self-respecting gopher would dig a hole in a creek bed. It’s too sandy – sandy walls don’t stay up. And a burrow dug there could flood at any moment.

But if it wasn’t a gopher hole, what was it? What else makes round holes in the ground?

Totems.

Totems

Grum was talking excitedly to Harga and Blackhoof, waving his arms, pointing. Shaking, I picked myself up and darted over to the pile of totems Grum had left next to Lady. The base of the Water totem was sandy, but I expected that -- Grum had used a healing stream totem when he’d healed Lady.

But the Earth totem was sandy, too. I bent to take a closer look. About five inches from the sharp bottom end was a thin red smear encircling the entire shaft.

A dark red smear, dotted with sand.

I sniffed it.

It was blood.

Buck stepped out of his tent, behind the firepit of cold, feathery ashes.

Cold. Ashes.

Grum hadn’t been cooking anything over a fire this morning. I glanced at the garbage pile. Last night’s dinner only. No eggshells.

Time slowed down. My ears filled with a distant humming like the drone of a thousand bees.

Harga and Blackhoof were charging toward me now, Grum on their heels. Harga’s mouth moved, her teeth gleamed, her hands waved slowly as though paddling through water. Blackhoof carried a length of kodo harness in two clenched fists. His eyes were hard cold glass, his horns pointy daggers.

“Wait! I didn’t do it!” But my voice came out as a whisper.

Blackhoof lunged at me like a charging bull. I jumped backwards. I took a long, long time to land.

“Check Grum’s Earth Totem!” I cried, “It has blood on it!”

Gathering himself to make another grab at me, Blackhoof hesitated for just an instant. A flinch, a glance. But it was enough. Grum leapt toward his totems, but Buck beat him to it. Buck snatched the Earth Totem right out of Grum’s fingertips.

“Check him for the money!” I cried.

Blackhoof changed direction and threw himself onto Grum, pinning him face down to the ground. Harga yanked up the edge of his tunic, jerked a money pouch from his belt and upended it.

Gold, an endless waterfall of gold cascaded to the ground, reflecting flashes of sun. Coins rolled, coins piled into a mound, coins slid down the sides of the pile like rivers off a mountain. chinkata chinkata chink.

Harga held the empty money bag, her hands clenched, her knuckles pale. She stared into Grum’s face, her eyes hard as river stones. Blackhoof’s fingers dug into the flesh of Grum’s shoulder. Buck clucked his tongue and shook his head, still eyeing the money. I felt sick. That money had been mine and it had helped to get a man murdered.

Grum’s eyes darted from one face to another, desperately, frantically, like a trapped rat scrabbling against a wall, a rat trying to find a hole to escape through. But the faces around him were as sheer as granite. There was no way out.

Grum’s eyes fell. The flesh of his face sagged downward. His whole body seemed to crumple under the battery of our silent gazes.

Blackhoof pressed a knee into Grum’s unresisting back and began tying his wrists together with the piece of kodo harness.

Harga, still holding the empty money bag, bent over Grum. “Why… ?” she asked, “Why did you do it?”

“He wouldn’t help his own son,” said Grum, in a thick voice. “I took what he should have given me. And… I gave him what he deserved.”

“You called the lions?” asked Harga.

Grum nodded, one side of his face pressed into the dirt, “I found him dragging himself along. I told him I’d heal him if he’d hire me. But he said he’d rather crawl back on his own… he didn’t want me… didn’t need me… would never need me. Me! His own son! I was so angry… I grabbed the money. It was enough to pay for most of my training.”

Grum’s lip curved upwards, revealing his yellow teeth, “And I… grabbed the horn too, because he valued it so much. I… wanted to hurt him. So I… took the thing he prized most.

“But he stood up on his knees and laughed. He laughed,” Grum’s voice tightened into a snarl, “It was horrible. I saw red... I had to make him feel. I wanted him to need me… to beg me… me… for help. So I… I blew the horn.

“Of course, he started shooting at them with that damn bow of his… cocky, as usual. I couldn’t stand it… I dropped a Stoneclaw totem to keep the lions off me and I… I walked away.”

Harga inhaled sharply through her nose.

Grum raised his eyes to look into hers, “If he’d called out for help, I’d have run back in an instant. I’d have healed him… I’d have attacked the lions myself… but he never called for me.

“So… I never looked back. I heard the roaring… the screaming… but I never turned round.”

Harga glared at Grum like she was sighting down the barrel of a gun. Her hands wadded the money bag into a ball in her fist.

Grum tried to hold her gaze, but he couldn’t do it. He dropped his gaze to the ground, and said nothing more.

“Tie him to a kodo,” Harga said. “I will take him to Orgrimmar to be tried for de murder of his father.”


[center]***[/center]


The caravan broke up that afternoon.

Harga, with Grum strapped onto one of her kodo, said she would head back to Orgrimmar immediately. Blackhoof offered to accompany her, and she nodded without looking at him.

Blackhoof smiled warmly at Harga as he helped her load all the kodo for the return trip, as though he hoped this might be the beginning of a partnership, but the strong, grim line of Harga’s jaw and the way she tightened the girths with a jerk told me she would not fall meekly in beside him, or beside anyone. But I said nothing to Blackhoof. No point popping his bright blue balloon.

Harga offered to return the money to me, seeing how I’d been cheated out of it, but I refused. Hardest thing I’ve done in a long time. But a deal is a deal, the money was Drog’s, and was now hers as next of kin. I gave her the figurine I’d found on Drog’s body too. If she could find a good buyer, she could buy herself out of caravanning entirely.

Buck decided to travel south to Uldum, on his own, to search for the broken urn.

Nobody wanted Lady, except me. Harga didn’t want anything to do with Drog’s pets. When she got to Orgrimmar she said she’d go to his stable, open all the doors, and release every single one of them.

I volunteered to stay with Lady in the Crossroads until she had finished healing, then take her to Highperch in Thousand Needles where Drog had found her, to release her back into the wild.

So Lady and I traveled south to the Crossroads. It was a slow journey, for she was very weak. We stayed in the inn. I found a missing netherweave silk purse for a visiting blood elf – sewn to the underside of the roof over the blacksmith’s anvil, long story – and with the finder’s fee I paid for a good healer to work on some of Lady’s deeper injuries.

Lady and I kept to ourselves, mostly. I just enjoyed the company of this magnificent animal, so poised and calm and beautiful. I knew I only had a short time with her.

Strangely, it bothered me when travelers in the inn assumed she was my pet. I’d have thought their mistake would have made me proud. But it didn’t. It embarrassed me. Nobody, I thought, should ever be Lady’s master again. I was only looking after her for a while, before escorting her to her own kind.

Two weeks later found us in a boat in Thousand Needles, rowing to Highperch. Lady stood in the bow of the boat, her paws on the prow, her face pointed into the wind, her scorpion tail arched over her back. Her wings were almost healed, now. Thin, pale lines on the webbing marked where the rents had been.

We reached the Highperch rookery in the late morning. It was crowded with nesting wyverns, sitting on clutches of blue and white eggs in nests that were six feet in diameter. Wyverns swooped between nests and soared above and splashed through the shallow water below.

Stepping delicately from the boat into the ankle-deep water, Lady splashed through the shallows to the back of the ravine, with me paddling slowly behind her.

When she stopped by a nest at the back I dragged my oars in the water until I had slowed almost to a stop. Then I stuck my oar into the mud and held the boat still, watching her.

The nest was broken. The back half of it had fallen away into the water. The tangle of submerged sticks was waterlogged and covered with algae. Lady nosed the nest, searching, pushing branches up with her nose, shoving them aside with her paws. But it was empty. Her wings drooped.

Around her other wyverns had landed to form a watchful circle, some in the water, some in nests over her head, some in the branches of neighboring trees. A circle of watchful feline faces. They did not rush up to her or greet her. They seemed wary, holding their wings half-open, as though ready to take flight. A few hissed softly under their breaths. One in the back arched its tail. They didn’t recognize her.

My spirits sank. Here I’d imagined a wonderful homecoming for her, maybe even a warm welcome from her family, nudging and pawing and purring and nose rubbing. But it wasn’t turning out that way.

How many wyverns had Drog killed to get to her? Twenty? I wondered if those had been Lady’s family, putting up a desperate attempt to shield her.

Suddenly, the wyverns all turned their heads toward one of the bushes growing by the base of the cliff. I could just see a violet doglike shape slinking through the underbrush. It was a hyena, probably taking refuge from the high waters, preying on wyvern eggs that had been laid too close to the ground or fallen from higher nests.

The wyverns rose in a great flapping cloud, the wind from their wings churning the water beneath, hissing and growling at the hyena. A nesting wyvern dove at it. So did another, and another.

The hyena tried to run, tail between his legs, but he was soon cornered further back against the cliff wall, where he cowered, legs bent, ears flat against his skull, lips pulled back in a soundless snarl. A fourth wyvern landed next to him with a splash, arched her scorpion tail tip over her back, and plunged it into the hyena’s neck.

As I watched, the hyena fell on its side in the shallow water, gasping and groaning, reddish foam bubbling from its mouth, coating its lips and tongue. A dark, circular bruise spread rapidly from the sting wound. Then the wyvern put her paw on the hyena’s shoulder, bent her head, and tore out its throat.

I gripped my oars.

The hyena sank limply into the shallows, blood gushing from its neck like a lake through a broken dam, turning the water a bright, swirling, billowing red. Its jaws fell open, and at the back of its throat I saw daylight, daylight in the darkness.

I turned, very slowly, to look at Lady, still standing on her ruined nest.

She was already looking at me with her deep, unblinking eyes.

Lady.

“Grum summoned the lions, but you killed him,” I whispered.

All the odd pieces fell into place. Drog’s sheathed axes -- he’d felt safe when he died. He’d felt safe, because he’d successfully beaten back the lionesses. Injured as he was, he’d shot them one by one while Lady had held them off -- the cuts and gashes on her body bore witness to her role in the battle -- until finally she and Drog had driven them away. Drog himself didn’t have a wound on him besides the throat wound. Because the lionesses had never reached him.

And Echeyakee didn’t have a mark on him… because in spite of his own injuries, in spite of his interview with Grum, in spite of the danger he was in, Drog had been careful not to shoot his next pet.

And so, after the battle, after the lionesses were dead or driven away, after she had fought so hard for him, after she had helped to save his life, Lady must have turned back to her master, only to see him trying to tame Echeyakee. She must have known what that meant: that she, too would soon languish in the stables in Orgrimmar for the rest of her life.

He had killed her family, destroyed her nest, kidnapped her, and still she had fought for him. But when he was on the point of discarding her for another, it must have been too much for her to bear.

I had my killer; I saw the crime – a crime of passion, a crime of self-defense. I had her. Her head stuffed and mounted on my wall, if I wished. I held her future in the palm of my hand.

She had suffered so much, and been treated so unjustly. Could I condemn her for what she had done?

I looked at her sleek, feline body, the graceful arch of her wings and tail, the noble outlines of her leonine head, and those bottomless eyes. The eyes of a wild creature tamed, the eyes of a loyal companion betrayed, the eyes of a masterless hunter on the edge of freedom.

I… could not.

“Lady,” I whispered. “Go. You are free.”

She dipped her head at me, every so slightly, the faintest of motions. Then she spread her wings and launched herself into the air. Leaning my elbows on my oars, I watched her rise up and over the sheer cliff that enclosed the rookery, her wings translucent against the dazzling blue of the sky.

I had found my murderer. No posse would hunt her down, no court would try her, no executioner would bring an axe down on her neck. She would live free, a wild creature living by the rules of the wild – but I would know what had really happened.

I had solved my first case.

I began rowing back to shore. Tied to my waist bumped the one thing Harga had given me, the one thing I had taken from the caravan: Drog’s carved kodo horn. Harga hadn’t wanted it. Couldn’t stand the sight of it.

She told me I should sell it and invest the proceeds. But I’m not going to sell it. I’m going to hang it on my wall – the wall of my office. And out front I’ll hang a shingle, my shingle, with a picture of a weasel on it, a weasel holding a magnifying glass over one eye, a weasel with a rocket belt around its long supple body. And above it, in big letters, I’ll paint:

[center]Weezil[/center]
[center]Private Detective, Third Class[/center]
[center]Open for business[/center]



The End
Reply
#8
Awesome stuff! *clap clap clap*

(I totally feel like a 3rd class writer now, heh.)
Reply
#9
Great job, Zlinka! I love reading your stuff. Smile
[Image: AWOeJWn.png]
Reply
#10
That was a really wonderful tale!
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