The blood is getting thinner, more fresh. The bright red contrasts sharply with the long, yellow grass. My wolf, Sampson, is alert, hackles risen as he weaves back and forth across the trail.
We discovered the blood trail while tracking a particularly large raptor. The blood trail is new, and much more recent than that of the raptor's, so I am pretty sure it's not from one of the raptor's victims.
The blood is also humanoid, so it appears a body is needing some assistance. This is the Barrens, a vast savannah of long grass, hot sun, few trees, little water and many, many predators. A body alone, without assistance, is prey here. Sampson and I set off to lend whatever aid we can.
Our quarry is obviously slowing. The blood pools are getting larger and are grouping together where the body stopped and rested. We crest a small hill and find what we are looking for lying in a small depression. It is a dwarf, female by the looks of it. And she's poked full of holes.
Now this is somewhat complicated. Me being an orc and all, we don't exactly get along with dwarves. An entire passel of them moved in the southern part of the Barrens, digging up old treasure and such. That stirs up the Tauren something fierce, and I like being on friendly terms with the bovine.
Now, if I was my brother, Sten, I would probably finish the job, or at least walk away. He hates the Alliance, having fought them all over Azeroth. Me? I'm not too particular. They leave me alone, I leave them alone. But here's a body in need, and there's an unwritten rule in the Barrens. One helps their neighbor and politics be damned. There's too few of us living here, and we all got to stick together.
Now healing is something where I have very little knowledge, but I do know the basics. The dwarf is unconscious, so first things first. I build a rough lean-to to get her out of the sun, and then I boil some water. If the wounds don't kill her outright, infection will finish her off. While the water is heating, I check her wounds. They are ugly cuts, made by swords and axes. There's also a couple of burns on her torso- probably the work of magic. It's clear that my patient has been in battle, and not the victim of a predator.
Once the water boils, I quickly wash and bandage her wounds. Then I make a more permanent camp. The patient is not going anywhere any time soon, so I might as well get set to wait it out.
The sun begins to set over the Stonetalons to the west, when the dwarf opens her eyes. Seeing me, she suddenly attempts to rise, only to fall back to the dirt gasping in pain. Biting back her agony, she glares at me and reaches for her weapons which I've left by her side.
"Rok garna retro, " she spits.
I just sit there. At this point, I am cooking a piece of meat from a kodo Sampson and I killed yesterday. I enjoy my cooking, and don't cotton to folks who attempt to interrupt it. Smiling at her in a friendly fashion, I tip my jungle hat. Sten sent this hat to me from somewheres called 'Sholazar'- a jungle in the middle of ice and snow. Now it's been a heck of a long time since I've seen snow. That whole concept of frozen water is hard for me to swallow. But at any rate, the hat is really good for keeping the sun out of my eyes, and I'm rather fond of it.
Anyways, so I talk to her in a calm manner trying to keep her from hurting herself even more.
"Now you's a fiesty gal, no arguing with that. But I think it'd be in your best interests if you stayed calm. Here- have a bite of kodo."
I reach out my arm with a piece of kodo at the end. Now she looks hungry, but suspicious too. Reckon she's never seen one of my kind showing any compassion. If she's an Alliance version of Sten, she'll probably try to beat me over the head with it- assuming she has any strength left.
She still glares at me, but slowly, she lets go of her weapons and takes the meat. I also hand her some water, and she lights into the food like a starving hyeana. I quickly cut off another piece of meat over the fire and throw it to Sampson. He hates playing second fiddle where food's concerned. He's not too happy about the dwarf being here as it is, but he's behaving.
We all eat in silence- well as silent as a wolf can be. I do end up giving the dwarf another haunch of meat- she's that hungry. But finally, we finish and she drops off to sleep- her weapons now firmly in her hands. I chuckle and stow my gear for the night.
It is another clear night, with the moon full as can be slowly and majestically sailing overhead. At night, the temperature drops to being cool and comfortable. Sampson's off patrolling and seeking scent of a female. Me, on the other hand, I'm resting my head in my hands laying on my back and watching the sky.
Now Ma raised no dummies. In fact, as an Ambassador of the Horde (as well as a damn fine warrior herself), she insisted on Sten and I learning to speak proper-like and learn what we could of the Alliance. Sten caught on better than I, but some lessons beat through this thick skull. So I put this learning to use.
Who is this gal that I've saved? She clearly is a warrior for the Alliance. Just as obvious, she was in battle. And that means, she probably collected her various perforations in a meeting with the Horde. If she was lucky, the other side, my side, thought she was dead and wouldn't come looking for her. If she wasn't....? Well, then, my work this evening probably was for naught.
Being a dwarf, she's made of stern stuff, and will probably be back on her feet in a couple of days or so. I have enough food and water for that, so we should be good. That's assuming, of course, that the Horde doesn't come and visit. Oh well, I'll deal with that if and when it comes.
Right now, I'm going to enjoy the evening. I can't says that I've traveled much around the world. I've seen a bit of the Stonetalons, a bit of Dustwallow and even taken the boat to Booty Bay. The Barrens, though, this is the best place on Azeroth. With the distant howls of hyeanas and the growls of the lions getting ready for their hunt, I close my eyes and enjoy the soft breeze of night.
It is a soft growl, one used for warning, and he doesn't have to do it twice. I am out of the bedroll and crouched by a rock, arrow nocked on my bow in an instant. This is the Barrens- slow reflexes get you killed.
It is still dark. A bit of light is present to the east, but not enough for solid vision. Sampson is beside me sniffing at the breeze, attempting to smell what my eyes cannot see. Ever since I was an orcling, I could easily use my other senses to detect prey, or danger. Now I let myself drift a bit, attempting to feel that which is out of place.
There. Two figures, just outside of our camp, are just sitting, evidently waiting for something. Being as silent as they are, their presence does not bode well. In the Barrens, one hails a fire before one gets close. Failing to do that often will get a body filled with various manner of arrows, rocks, bullets and other unwanted foreign material.
Obviously, these folk don't care about such protocols. Quietly, I reach out for my patient and touch her gently on the shoulder. In the dim light, I can see her eyes open. She's a pro, this one. She doesn't move a muscle, but with her eyes takes in the whole situation. She may not see or sense our visitors, but she sure as heck can see that I am worried. Slowly, she reaches out and grips her weapons.
Now me, I don't like to wait for trouble to get around to meeting me. Now that my ward is awake and aware, it is time for me to do some scouting of my own. Seems like some folks need a lesson on being polite.
Now the dwarf and me, we're in a pretty good position. We're covered on two sides with high, steep rock, and there's some thorny brush on another. The only way to reach us easily is from the west- a gentle slope of grass with little cover. I gently put my hand on Samspson's head and let him know to stay and watch over our patient. Then I move out slowly.
Light would be upon us soon, and I wanted to get the drop on our visitors before they had an opportunity to see me coming. Being mighty sneaky, I slowly make my way at a crouch through the long grass. Moving slow is not comfortable, and takes time, but is worth it. Just as the sky gets light enough to make out shapes, I pull up behind two mounted folk.
One is a tall, lanky troll and the other is a fellow orc. By the looks of their armor and weapons, they are soldiers- ones who have seen some action. The troll is the younger of the two, but still battle-scarred and carrys himself well. The orc, he's older. Thin, wispy white hair is tied into a tight braid running behind his head.
"Well, gents, it appears you were looking for me. Thought I'd save you the trouble of actually having to set up an ambush."
They turn around, and regard me patiently. They don't seem very worried, and that, in turn, worries me. I don't know about some folks, but if I have a body aiming an arrow at my head, it would be downright concerning to me.
The older orc has a scar over his eye making it droop a bit, but he's missing nothing. Filled with muscle and ornery, he's a guy to ride the river with. Now folks outside of the Barrens may not understand that expression, but when a body says someone is one to 'ride the river' with, they're referring to the only river in the Barrens- the Southfury.
Wide and deep, that river flows from Ashenvale in the north all the way down to the sea, separating the red lands of Durotar from the Barrens. It's the only fresh water for miles around and therefore attracts all manner of beasts. Only the toughest get the water, and everything else is prey. When you're part of a hunting/trapping party, you want tough, intelligent no-nonsense folk with you. This orc here, I could tell he was one you wanted at your back.
He looks at me and shifts his weight slightly in his saddle. "The name's Grant'ra. This here's Duliemen. We're from the Crossroads. We're looking for an enemy combatant. A dwarf. You seen her?"
Now we both know that I have 'seen her' and that she's at my campfire. I haven't moved my hands one bit at this point. My arrow is trained right at that orc and not likely to change.
"Mister, you could have hailed the fire as is custom and asked me that question all polite-like. The fact that you didn't has me almighty suspicious about your motives."
Well, sir, he looks at me cool as a peacebloom and then shrugs. "OK, then. Point taken. Who are you, hunter, and why are you providing aid and comfort to the enemy?"
"Name's Blon of the clan Riht. And I'm just helping a body in need. That 'enemy combatant' as you call her is mighty bad off and no threat to anyone at the moment. Now if you are here to take her back as a prisoner of war and treat her proper, we may be able to come to some arrangement. If, on the other hand, you're here to make a mess of my work, I'm not going to take too kindly to it."
Now this is when that young troll pipes up, "Hey mon, you be one of those Ally-lovers. Maybe we take choo out."
The way they're sitting, the lack of nervousness. There's someone else with them. Someone I can't detect. Someone who is damn good. I start to turn, but it is too late. A rap on the head, a sudden flick, and my bow is gone. A blade is now pressed against my back, and a soft voice whispers in my ear.
"I have heard of you, Blon of the clan Riht. I wonder if killing you will be pleasurable."
His voice is soft with no inflection. He is honestly curious, much like a body would be about the weather. Given that he is right next to me, I know he is one of the Forsaken. There is no warmth to him, only the coolness of death.
It's not common to see one of the Forsaken in these parts. They hail from a place called Lorderon- clear on another continent. Scuttlebutt has it that they once were human until one of their royal folk killed them. Funny thing is, they didn't die, but rather kept shambling around as corpses. At that point, the Alliance didn't want them anymore, so the Horde took them in. Being not-alive-but-not-dead is unsettling to most folks. Right now, that knife at my back is a bit more important.
That Grant'ra, now,he hasn't moved, and his expression hasn't changed a bit. This must be routine for him. He looks past me to my assailant.
"Macon, you may release this orc. I think we have made our point."
At the sound of the name, I can't help but be really nervous, really quick. Like I said before, there are few Forsaken in these parts, but a couple are well known. Cantrell Macon is one of those. He's a sell-sword, and one of the best assassins the Horde has- or at least had. Rumor has it that Macon fell out of favor after killing a few of the wrong folk during a parlay in the Warsong Gulch area. He was allowed to keep his head, and it and the rest of his body wandered down south to the Barrens. It seems like he must have patched things up a bit with the military if he's serving under the Crossroads.
The knife is retracted and the hand around my throat releases. Turning around, I get to see Macon for the first time. He's a mite over five feet tall, light gray skin and black, very black, eyes. He sees me looking at him and just shrugs. Keeping his knife handy, he peers out over the plains to the east, seemingly bored.
Grant'ra regards me briefly before pointing towards my camp. "I think it's time we had ourselves a look at the person in question. Shall we?"
There's really no choice in the matter. I take the opportunity to retrieve my bow, and then we make our way back up the slope. It's fully light now, and the coolness of the evening is being replaced with the first heat as the Sun starts its daily routine.
Macon's disappeared again somewhere, and I can't figure out where he's gone. He's a tough one to find when he doesn't want to be found. The rest of us slowly enter the camp, where Sampson is standing over the dwarf, hackles up and teeth bared. My patient, for her part, she's got a grip on her weapons and looks determined to go down swinging.
I make it a point to stand between the soldiers and the dwarf. "Well, sir, I reckon you've seen her. What I said before, I meant. If your intention is to mess up my patch job, I'm not going to be happy."
Now I know I'm stubborn. Kind of runs in the family. We Riht are just naturally stubborn, clefthoof-headed folk. Once we get an idea in our heads, it's awfully difficult for anyone to pry it away from us. Right now, that dwarf is my patient. And while I might be outgunned, I sure as heck am not going down without a fight. Of course, that fight might be mighty short if that Macon is around.
Grant'ra doesn't seem that deterred. "So, Blon, are you related to Curan of the clan Riht?"
"He's kin. One of the old Nagrand Riht."
Now Curan, he's a puzzle. He's the oldest Riht still alive as far as the kinfolk know. At one point, before we Riht came high-tailing it into Azeroth, he was our Shamen. Turns out that he made a deal with the demons and became a warlock. The story goes that he spent some time stirring up the clan to come into Azeroth and raise havoc. Of course, he didn't need to do much convincing. We Riht always love a good tussle. It's ingrained in our very souls. So when Curan told my Pa and others that there would be a good fight, we just naturally made ourselves available.
Well, we came a-raising hell, and of course, just like the rest of the Horde, we eventually were given a sound beating. Had a lot of fun until then, though.
The clan sort of scattered after the wars. Some were confined in the various prison camps. Others made do, either joining with Grom Hellscream like Pa or lived off the land and waited for something better to come along.
No one rightly knows where Curan went after the wars ended, but he resurfaced to stand by the clan during the Hyjal wars. He had thrown off his demon curse, and was back as a shaman. I got to see some action during those battles, and frankly, it was the last time I'd seen most of my kin.
Curan, on the other hand, he's moved down to the Barrens. I see him occassionally. Still tough as nails, he is old for an orc- even for a Riht.
Grant'ra nods at my statement. "He's a tough one. Helped me out of a bind awhile back."
He sets himself down on a rock on the other end of the campfire. Picking up a stick, he idly starts twirling one end into the dead ashes. Duliemen squats down on his haunches and stays silent, content to wait for the orc to finish his thought. Meanwhile the dwarf manages to get herself up in a sitting position, and Sampson, well, that wolf hasn't moved. He's mighty uncomfortable and his nature is to attack until comfort returns.
For that matter, I haven't moved either. That Macon is around here somewhere, and I need to be ready when he appears.
Grant'ra looks up. "I've also heard of you, Blon. Regthar speaks highly of you. Seems that you helped solve the Kolkar problem recently."
I nod. That was a while back. The Centaur had themselves an uprising. They attacked and held many of the oasis in the northern part of the Barrens, with the thought that they could keep all that water for themselves. They didn't figure on some of us not appreciating that sentiment. I notched myself a number of their scalps before they decided the whole thing wasn't really worth it.
The orc looks over to the dwarf and appraises her for a minute. "Looks like she's as bad off as you said. No honor in killing her now. Also, I suspect that you would object to us attempting it. And while I know that we would be successful, I've heard that you Riht don't take kindly to someone reducing your numbers. I don't need another enemy in this place." He chuckles ruefully.
Well, sir, he's probably right on all counts. I could probably draw back and get an arrow off before the soldiers could close on me. That would account for one, Sampson would take the other, but Macon would probably tip the balance in their favor.
Now me being dead would raise a new problem for these folk. We Riht are a fighting, feuding bunch. While we don't get together as a clan very often- Hell, I don't even know most of them anymore, when you kill one, it just naturally brings a few more to check out the situation. The thought is that if you beat a Riht, you must be someone worth fighting. And we love a good fight.
I nod to him again, "Much obliged."
Then his friendliness disappears. With a cold, hard stare, he stands up, "Blon of the clan Riht, you are now responsible for this prisoner. You will escort her to the dwarven dwellings in the south Barrens. If we see her in combat at the Crossroads again, we will consider you as personally responsible for the attack. Then, your family background means nothing, and you will be considered as outside of the law!"
It's been three days. Me and the dwarf, we rested for a couple of them before a settin' out. She's still weak, but a lesser being would have fallen dead by now. Dwarves have quite the constitution.
At any rate, we started yesterday to make the long trip to the South Barrens. At this point, she trusts me enough to allow me to help her over the rough spots. Of course, she keeps her weapons close to hand. It's slow going. My ward gets tired easy and has to stop and rest often. Generally, though, she's able to walk on her own.
Although I can't speak dwarf, I think she understands through various sign language and ground drawings what I plan to do. Heck, she even smiled at me last night. At least I think it was a smile. Hard to tell since she doesn't have tusks.
For his part, Sampson's gotten used to her. He even allows her to pet him. That's something. That wolf don't cotton to too many folks.
Now I reckon that Grant'ra's a straight shooter, but I can't vouch for any of the Horde we may come across. So, the best route to avoid them is to go cross country. That, of course, brings up another thorn. Babysittin' a weak dwarf travelling across miles of lions, raptors, hyenas and whatnot is one issue. The other is infringing upon the turf of the Kolkar and the Bristlebacks.
Now the Kolkar, they're a bit subdued at the moment. We may not see any of them while they're licking their wounds. But the Bristleback, they're another matter. Those quillboar have absolutely no give in them. If we run across some pig-folk, it's a simple equation- one of us is going to be pushing up briarthorn. They are sore-tooth mean, cunning and downright unafraid of anything. And we're going right through their territory.
We stop in a small depression caused by the occasional run-off from the hills. Any water has long since dried up, but the sandy bottom creates a viable place to set up a short camp. Around the area is some brush providing light cover from any wandering critters. The dwarf sets herself down on a flat stone, while I start a small fire and unlimber my pack. Taking a quick inventory, I figure we have enough water for one more day and food for about two. I'm going to need to find some more water really soon. Sampson and I can find food here easily, but water- that's the trick.
I check the dwarf's bandages and re-wrap where necessary. Then motioning her to stay hidden and quiet, I head out to scout around and maybe find some additional provisions. Sampson and me travel a bit, spiraling around the camp and searching for various escape routes and animal trails. In the Barrens, a body never knows when it has to hightail it out of someplace. Knowledge of the best options is critical. And animal trails are gold here- they lead to water.
We're a couple of miles away from camp, when we run across a good trail. Like most trails, it sets off rather straight. Multiple hooves have tamped the grass around it which is a good sign. Such heavily-used trails mean a good quantity of water. But it also means predators. We spend a bit of time analyzing the trail and determining the destination. Then we mosey down the side of it to have the tall grass close-to-hand for cover.
We go a fair bit until we crest a rise, and there it is. A good-sized pool of water cradled in the arms of rock under a jagged bluff. A small herd of kodo are happily bathing in the water and enjoying the cool. Some deer off to the side are grabbing a drink, and birds are flying overhead catching the warm updraft from the bluff.
Everything seems calm, so Sampson and I cautiously make our way down the slope to the pool. The slope itself is dirt since much of the grass has gotten itself trampled to death by thirsty critters. That means, we're pretty exposed. The mid-day sun is bright and rather unforgiving. Still, the animals don't seem worried, which is a good sign.
We get to the pool and are careful not to spook the kodo- not that they spook easy. Finding some water that hasn't been stirred up is a challenge, but soon the canteens are full. As I gather our things to head back to camp, Some birds that had been napping in a short, gnarled tree in the shade of the bluff about 50 yards from us suddenly fly upwards in alarm. Sampson growls, and I turn, arrow ready to fire.
Coming down the slope is one of the more nasty critters one will find in the Barrens- a stormsnout. Imagine a large kodo with spikes on its back, tail and nose. Most of these monsters are just mean, but this one- well, sir, he's one of the worst. While thunderlizards are generally bright-colored, this one is grey with age. His hide is dry and cracking, and he's in severe pain. That just makes for a meaner lizard. His dark eyes stare at Sampson and me, and there's all kinds of evil in his gaze.
With a bellow, the lizard charges. Sampson and I spring in opposite directions as a bolt of lighting shoots from its mouth. Rock and dirt shoot up in the sky where we stood just a split second before. On the good side, this isn't the first time Sampson and I've fought one of these.
I string an arrow to bow, and wait for Sampson to turn the critter and present its flank. Like hundreds of times before, the wolf executes his job perfectly. As the beast turns, it lets out another bellow, and lightning again shoots from its mouth, narrowly missing the wolf. My arrows bury themselves in the old lizard's heart. Now comes the rough part.
You see, these stormsnouts aren't the brightest of Azeroth's creatures. Even when dead, their brains don't generally catch on for quite a while. Many a hunter and trapper have died thinking they won a fight with these things only to find out there's plenty of sauce left in the stew.
Sure enough, that old critter spins around, firing another bolt at me and then charges. Now generally I can move out of the way of a pain-mad, charging mass of evil, except that his bolt hits me square in the chest. I go sailing backwards and smack into the side of the bluff. My wind's done gone from my lungs, and all hell is about to stick me with it's horns.
I would love to tell you that I recover enough to grab my axe, and kill the beast as it approaches, but that would be lying. Truth is, I am of no use to anyone, and sit here like a target dummy. Just as the stormsnout gets close enough to do some real damage, its heart finally gets around to telling the brain that it's dead. The beast drops at my feet.
My breath returns suddenly, and I pant a little bit before getting to my feet. Sampson cocks his head to one side and lazily rolls out his tongue. I growl at him, "You done laughing at me, you whelp?" At that, he jacks up his hind leg and scratches an ear. I turn my attention to the lizard.
Cracked hide notwithstanding, I can't leave all of this leather and food here to waste. So for the next couple of hours, I clean the carcass, and grab as much of the meat that I can. I also take some of the best skin, roll it up, and tie it to my pack. I'll have to stretch it out and tan it when I get back to camp.
Fully loaded, Sampson and I leave the pool area. By this time, the sun is on its way towards the horizon, and we are past time to get back to camp and tend to the dwarf. While she should have good cover and a defensible position, you never know what might wander in to keep her company.
After an hour or so, the answer makes itself known. As we walk into camp, we find the dwarf sprawled in the dirt, her weapons cast away from her. On the flat stone above, calmly staring at her, is Cantrell Macon.
Almost without thinking, I let loose two arrows, and Sampson lights after Macon like he is being shot out of a cannon. And at the same time, that dwarf rises up and tries to plant both of her maces in that undead's skull.
Mister, it's downright disturbing how fast that forsaken moves. One second he's there and the next, he's gone. Like a rabbit, he dives off the rock, rolls through the sand into the grass and disappears.
I run up to our little camp, another arrow nocked looking for the corpse, but he's well-hidden. Sampson circles the camp growling with his nose to the sand, but he's having trouble finding a scent. Satisfied that Macon's gone for a bit, I sling my bow back over my shoulder and go check on my ward.
She's not too bad- a few scrapes and such. Seems like Macon must have pushed her off the rock just before we got here. why he didn't kill her outright is puzzling.
The dwarf walks around the camp facing outwards and is ready for battle. She's definitely on the mend and getting stronger. Seeing that I've relaxed some, she holsters her maces, and then turns to face me with a determined look in her eye. Pointing to me, she states simply:
She then points to herself and says, "Clariquel".
Strange. We've been travelling for days, and I'm just getting around to learning her name. I chuckle and point to me, "Blon." I then point to my wolf, "Sampson".
She nods and begins to dust herself off. I take that time to think. Now why is Macon here? Either Grant'ra is not an orc of his word, or Macon has become a lone wolf. Both options are bad. And I still can't wrap my head around why the sellsword didn't just kill the gal. Following us through the Barrens ain't exactly recreation- at least for most folks.
I was planning to stretch that stormsnout's hide and cure it, but there's no time. Clariquel and I need to hightail it away from this camp and put some distance between us and Macon. That corpse might be awfully good with an ambush, but we'll see how good he is trying to follow us without being seen.
Clariquel understands immediately. She actually helps break down the camp and gets us ready to move. It's good to see her strength return. It makes our chances to survive the journey all that much greater. Unfortunately, night is going to be on us in about two hours, and that is when the Barrens generally wakes up.
We move out of camp and make our way south. Now, Macon knows where we're headed. If we go too much in a straight line, the corpse will be able to find some likely ambush spots. Thinking of that, we tend to drift a bit towards the west for a ways, and then come back to the east. The moves are subtle, but enough that he'll be hard-pressed to figure out our path. Plus, I reckon Macon's still a tenderfoot when it comes to the Barrens. I know this territory. He don't.
I don't want to travel too much at night. Clariquel may be strong, but she still has some mending to do. I would much rather find a good, defensive spot than travel in the dark with an assassin dogging my steps. So I head for an old Tauren spirit circle.
For those bodies that are superstitious, a spirit circle is a place to be avoided. The bovine tend to put the valued belongings of the departed within the circle in remembrance. The circle itself is surrounded by hide except for one side for entry. It is an insult to disturb the items within.
I hold a deep respect for the Tauren, and don't plan on infringing upon their site, but I do know that these circles tend to be on level ground with an excellent field of view around them. My plan is to dig in near one of these for the night.
Keeping an eye on our back-trail, we get to a circle just as the sun falls behind the Stonetalons. Quickly, Clariquel puts together the camp while I dig in a few traps, plant a tell or two and clear some grass. Macon will be able to sneak in here, but he might just run into some nasty surprises while he does so.
Sampson does his own "checking of the perimeter", and I hope that his enthusiasm doesn't lead to a few of the Barren's residents taking his marks as a challenge.
We set up watches. For her part, Clariquel seems to be getting better at understanding me. I still can't make out her words, but somehow the point gets across. What's really odd, now that I think about it, is that I automatically treat her as part of the pack. It's almost as if we've been part of the same hunting/trapping party for months, rather than just a few days- me being her escort and she being a prisoner headed back to her people.
In fact, it just seems natural that I trust her with taking a watch while I sleep. I would be bothered by it, but I guess I'm just too damn tired.
As it turns out, there is nothing to worry about. The next day dawns bright and clear. I am already up and have breakfast cooking. We will be eating well this morning- thunder lizard strips along with some bird eggs I dug up just before dawn. There's been no sign of Macon, but I'm not thinking that he's done given up.
Clariquel wakes up and goes behind the spirit circle to do her thing. I send Sampson after her to keep watch. As for me, I got my father's axe, Gutripper, beside me, and my bow close-to-hand.
Now Gutripper is downright nice for making a point. It's a massive axe that my father, Marrow, wielded to great effect for many years. Double-bladed with two large, half-moon crescents attach to a long, metal shaft, it is heavy and cumbersome. A skull decorates the shaft smack dab in the middle between the crescents. It is ugly, brutal and downright worrisome to those that wish to pick a fight with me. Truth is, though, I don't use it much. I carry it to preserve the memory of my Pa, and to convince the occasional blow-hard that they really don't want to pick a fight. Against Macon, it would be next to useless in my hands, but it is a comfort in case fighting gets a bit close.
We have breakfast, and the dwarf seems to really enjoy it. She makes some complementary noises, and I have to admit, I feel pretty good about that. A cook always likes to feel appreciated. We clean up, and break camp. My lizard leather really needs to be stretched soon if I'm going to be able to preserve it, but we ain't got the time. Right now, I expect that Macon's a watching us, and I'd prefer to not be a sitting plainstrider.
I pay my respects to the circle, and then we head out. Again, we mix up the direction, moving a bit southeast and then moseying to the southwest. The corpse might know we're a heading south, but at least he won't be able to set up an ambush with any degree of certainty.
I'm so busy looking at our back trail, that I pull a tenderfoot move. Cresting a hill, we run right into a bunch of Bristleback, painted up and ready for war.
It's a blur. Things happen so quick that it's hard to keep track. My first arrow goes into the throat of one of their shaman. That's pure luck but a good thing too. Them casters like to throw lightning but have to talk some before it comes out. My second arrow sticks itself in the fighting arm of one of their warriors. Would have got him in the chest, but he was too busy tripping over something and falling back down the hill.
Now Sampson likes to get in the middle of things, and he's doing himself proud by leaping into a spot between two of them. That damn wolf is going to get himself killed.
I just about drop my bow, though, when I see Clariquel leap into the mixup. She's got her twin maces flying around like a dustdevil and raising all kinds of havoc. Reminds me of a little version of Sten.
Speaking of Sten, he sure would be helpful here. I count about eight of these quillboar, and they're tickled pink about the prospect of grabbing our scalps. My brother's as crazy and mean as these pigs and would love this. Now that I think about it, Clariquel seems to be having a right good time herself. She's just brained one of the Bristlebacks and is happily wailing away on another.
I figure I better do my share, so I continue shooting arrows. First I help clear the ones Sampson's keeping busy. They've managed to get a few scratches on my friend, but it don't look too serious. Then we both give Clariquel some assistance.
Still, though, eight is an awful lot, and it gets a bit close. One manages to get behind Clariquel and leap on her back. I perforate that one, and Sampson grabs another ambitious quillboar attempting to drive its club into the dwarf. Mister, you don't want to be on the other end of that wolf's bite. He grabs that pig by the snout and shakes that body around something fierce.
Things are looking hopeful that we might get to keep our skins.
I hear the snap of a twig right behind me and turn, but I'm too late. That damn pig I winged earlier has snuck up on me and gets the drop. Suddenly, it freezes up. Its mouth opens in a silent scream, and black ooze drips from its tongue. Like a stone, the quillboar falls to the ground, a dagger stuck in its back. Some kind of green stuff drips from a sliver of exposed blade.
I don't have time to admire the work, though. Another quillboar has taken advantage of my distraction and rushes up the hill. I quickly sling my bow and grab Gutripper. I might not have the skill of Pa or Sten, but I'm a big orc packed with muscle. If I swing something heavy, anything it hits is going to hurt. Sure enough, that pig done splits in two, and ain't going to be a bother to anyone else.
And just like that, we're done.
Dead Bristlebacks decorate this little rise, but otherwise the Barrens seems to be moving along. A small herd of zhevra, the black and white stripes shining in the sun, lazily crop grass a couple of hundred yards to the west. Other than a slight breeze, nothing else moves.
Scanning the horizon all around us, I move towards Clariquel who is picking pieces of quillboar from her maces. She looks at me and shows me her teeth. I'm thinking it is a smile. Seems to have all of the right movement. I can't help but think that if she just had some tusks, and her skin was a bit green, she could be quite the looker- even if she is short.
Even though I know she can't understand me, I get to talking. It's an old habit of mine from being alone with Sampson all this time. When it comes time to reason things out, it just seems a bit easier to have someone to bounce things off of.
"Well, Clariquel, that Cantrell Macon is hereabouts. He done saved my life just now, but I take no comfort in it. He's a strange one, that forsaken. Sure wish I knew his angle."
The dwarf nods at me and says some things that make no sense. Seems like she wants to talk things through herself.
"I reckon that if he wanted to be seen to take the credit, he would've made hisself known by now. I still don't trust him, so we're going to have to make some tracks and find a good spot to make camp- one that we can control our entry points. Might as well have lunch here, though."
We wander a bit away from the camp. First though, I gather my arrows and a chill goes down my spine when I see that the poisoned dagger has disappeared, leaving a hole in the boar that almost killed me. That forsaken is very, very good.
The rest of the day passes without incident. We find a good camping spot in a depression under a bluff. It is not quite a cave, being a spot under more of an overhanging rock, but it keeps the sun off and has a good field of vision on three sides with the fourth being the cliff face above. The depression starts under the overhang, giving some cover from any passers-by. With the exception of a couple of gnarled trees, there's nothing but grass for miles around. It will be tough for anyone to get the drop on us here- except, of course, for a pro like Macon.
I lay a few traps and other surprises to give us notice of trespassers, and then examine my stormsnout skin. It's too late. The stuff is starting to rot. I start to cuss, but think better of it. Ma always says that if a body has time to curse, they have time to so something useful instead. Resigned, I drag it out a few hundred yards and leave it for the hyenas. It would have fetched a pretty good sum once properly tanned. Oh well. Once I finish delivering Clariquel back to her friends, there will plenty of time to hunt some more of the beasts.
Sampson settles down on his haunches at the top of the depression looking over the plains for any treats that happen to wander by. Me, I start a fire and begin to think about supper. That dwarf comes up to me while I get the food ready and starts chatting up a storm. Now she knows I can't make out anything she's saying, but it's sort of nice to have the sounds of a female nearby.
I'm not too used to women. Fact is, I try and stay my distance. I've seen first hand how they twist us males up 'til we don't know which way is what. An old Tauren once told me that it's a female's destiny to stir up males and ruin their happiness. Course he was keeping one eye out for his wife when he said it. Don't think she heard him, but he sure was jumpy after that anyway.
Me? I'm a hunter and a drifter. My home is the Barrens- all of it. The thought of settling down in any one place is downright unappetizing. Still, though, looking at the dwarf sitting down next to me, smiling and chatting happily, I can't help but think it might be kind of nice to have some orc gal looking at me with favor.
After dinner, Sampson and I decide to scout around. I'm getting ansy thinking about Macon. What possessed that corpse to save my life? And why didn't he show himself after? Doesn't make much sense.
The sun is setting as we set out. Clariquel is resting comfortable against a rock wall. She's got her weapons well in-hand, and I wouldn't want to be anyone trying to get the drop on her.
Sampson and I find Macon's tracks almost instantly. Seems like the forsaken has left us a trail to follow, and I figure that there's no harm in doing it. After all, if he wanted me dead, it would've happened already.
It's dusk when we come to the end of the trail. We're underneath a branch of one of the trees a good half mile or so from camp. The tree is gnarled and old- one of those old fellers that has seen tons of folks come and go in the Barrens for over a hundred years. In the dim light, I think I see a body in the branches, but it is too dark to make it out for sure. The voice confirms it though.
"So, Blon of the clan Riht, I am curious."
Now Sampson's hackles are raised, and he's looking for a way to climb the tree, but wolves aren't made like that, so all he can do is sit and grumble. Me, I just take a seat and look for some old body parts of that tree in order to build a fire. I figure that will do two things- give me some light and provide a fire for some parlay.
"What's on your mind, Macon?"
"You are a wandering sort. From my understanding, you are mostly the type that enjoys being on your own. Why then, do you tie yourself to the dwarf? She only hinders and interrupts your life."
"Grant'ra really gave me no choice, remember? I reckon he was pretty clear on my orders."
I get a small spark and start nursing some grass and other kindling into a pile. Just then a few drops of water fall neatly on my small flame. It's not hard to guess where the water came from. The corpse doesn't want a fire.
Amused, Macon responds, "Ah, Blon, you know very well that Grant'ra would be quite satisfied if you would have ensured the dwarf's death on the journey. You could have arranged that the first day. The dwarf would certainly not be missed by the others of her ilk, and the Horde would certainly be better off without another enemy."
"I beg your pardon?"
"The dwarf's name is Clariquel. And I became responsible for her the minute I helped her out."
In all honesty, that probably isn't true. It's just that I've spent a fair degree of time with the Tauren. They're natural hunters, and I've been on many an expedition with the bovine. They're pretty grounded folk and have a definite idea of right and wrong. What I said would be true in their minds, and that's good enough for me.
Or is it? I have no love for the Alliance. Not that I hate them either, but they've annoyed me from time-to-time with their attacks on the Crossroads and such. Putting myself in harm's way for one of them could be a real bone-headed move. But then, thinking of Clariquel, somehow I just can't bring myself to break her trust. In the Barrens, trust is something one earns and a body would have to be downright crazy to break it. I guess I've just never been known for smarts.
Soft laughter interrupts my musings, "Some orc you are, Blon. It has been a pleasure watching you, and I am certainly glad I didn't kill you earlier. This is much more ... enlightening. We shall speak again."
"Glad I've been able to help," I growl, but Macon's already gone. Sampson seems as surprised as I am. He sniffs a bit around the tree, but then kind of shrugs and looks at me like I can solve the dilemma of the disappearing corpse. I chuckle and scratch his ears. "Let's go home, whelp. It's time to hit the sack."
When we arrive back to the overhang, it is truly dark. A cloud hides the moon, and the fire has burned down to embers. I stoke the fire some and get the flames back to dancing. And then I cuss. Not some gentle, sailor stuff, either. This is a rip-roaring, hell-raising set of words that would've earned me a whoopin' back home.
Her bedroll is scattered and torn. A small pool of blood is darkening the rock behind where she was sleeping. Clariquel's gone.
Sampson immediately puts his nose to the ground, but the dancing light from the fire shows what happened. Razormanes. Even meaner than the Bristleback, the Razormanes are more organized and more dangerous. The fact that they came to the camp at night, took Clariquel and did it without Sampson or me noticing, well sir, that's something.
Now granted, we were a bit preoccupied with talking with Macon and all, but still, the camp is only a couple of hundred yards away. A body would think we'd be more observant. Oh well: As Ma would say, "No use making a fuss." Sampson and me- we got work to do.
The sign shows that Clariquel didn't leave without a fight, but she must not have been able to holler out for help. Probably the quillboar have a mage with them to keep her quiet. There's a mix of blood, so it would seem that Clariquel was able to provide an opinion or two for her captors.
At any rate, the tracks are obvious and lead to the south. It's dark, but if the pigs can travel without light, so can we. We head out into the grasslands.
Now most city folk don't use all of their senses when they travel into the open country. In the Barrens, that's just plain dumb. A body's nose can be as good as eyes in the dark.
As night falls here, the deep, thick smell of vegetation begins to rise as the warmth of the ground starts leeching into the cooling air. If the smell is just of grass and wild plants, all is normal. But sometimes, a body can smell the release of other scents. Well, tonight it's almost overwhelming. The scent of blood, sweat and excitement attaches itself to the more normal smells, practically painting a sign toward our retreating captors.
They're moving fast. Sampson and I trot out to follow. Now that the moon is coming out from behind a cloud, the Barrens is starting its normal nightly glow. This makes it tons easier. There's a wide swath of grass lying on its side and torn up. The good news is that the quillboar are making no attempt to hide their tracks. The bad news: It looks like there might be as many as thirty of them.
It ain't but a few minutes before we come across the first body. One of the Razormane lies face down into the dirt where he bled out and died. For the quillboar, there's no respect for the dead. They'll leave them lie where they dropped. Turning the body over, I see where somebody ripped open the pig's gut. Looks like Clariquel got at least one before she was taken. You got to admire the fortitude of the pig, though. Walking a mile holding one's innards together is quite the feat.
Since I don't see Clariquel's body anywhere, I hold on to the hope that she's still alive. Sampson and me move out quickly. One thing about the Barrens, fresh meat doesn't stay put very long. Already, we hear the calls of the hyenas.
About an hour passes before we catch up to the quillboar. Evidently, they move faster in the dark than I give them credit for. We come to a bare, circular, sandy area about fifty feet wide. A wooden stake the width of a pretty decent tree trunk is in the middle. Attached by chains, Clariquel stands next to the stake, bound and gagged. Her weapons and armor are discarded to the side.
About thirty Razormane are camped around the clearing. There's a few small fires, but it is clear that they plan to do something to the dwarf here. One of the quillboar, wearing robes, is talking up a storm with his snout in the air. Definitely a religious thing.
Sampson growls quietly. He's downright fond of Clariquel and wants to leap in there and take care of things. Sometimes, I wonder if he ain't part orc. Of course, I share his sentiment. But thirty Razormane? That's a bit much.
We scout around the fire a bit. I'm thinking that I might be able to take out some guards at the perimeter. Their eyes are hampered by the fire burning nearby. Most folks know that if you are on-guard in the dark, you got to keep your eyes away from the fire to prevent losing night sight. Evidently, nobody done told these quillboar. they keep looking back towards their priest, the fire and Clariquel. Obviously something is going to happen soon. That means that taking my time and slowly trimming the pigs a bit ain't going to work.
So I'm standing here, trying to figure out what I'm going to do next, when that priest pig pulls out a long dagger and makes to stab Clariquel. Well, sir, nobody's ever accused me of being bright. Before I know it, I'm shooting the priest, drawing Gutripper and leaping into the clearing with Sampson at my heels.
All noise stops as the pigs turn their attention to me, eyes wide in disbelief. They see their leader drop to the ground with an arrow in his skull, an enraged orc with a big axe and a wolf standing in front of their sacrificial dwarf. Then all hell breaks loose. They grab weapons and such and rush us. I swing Gutripper and break Clariquel's chains. As she reaches down to get her weapons, I set about to kill as many of the pigs as possible before I get overwhelmed.
Mister, the battle is fun as all get out, but it's pretty short. I get a couple of Razormane before I feel something rip into my side. Seems a shame that I won't get to collect their scalps. Something else slams into my head and I start falling. I hear Sampson yelp in pain, but see him yank down another quillboar before he goes out of sight. Crashing into the sand, my sight turns blurry. I sure hope Clariquel was able to get away.
I must be dreaming as all goes dark. I swear I hear a horn and see the glint of armor come crashing into the party.
The light seers through my head, and I can't help but groan. My head argues with my body a bit, but finally I open one eye. It's morning.
Bodies of quillboar lie around the clearing. With grim faces, dwarven warriors collect the corpses and take them to a pile where I'm guessing that they'll be burned. Sampson lies beside me. I can tell he's still alive, but he's bad off and currently unconscious.
Clariquel stands next to us, facing away, and has both maces drawn. In front of her are two warriors plus a silver-haired, older fellow. I can't make out what they're all saying, but she's mighty serious about something, and it ain't being well-received by the old dwarf.
Suddenly, he sees that I'm awake and motions to his two guards. As they start to walk towards me, Clariquel lifts her maces up and shouts at them. They stop, confused. Finally the leader lifts up his arms and rolls his eyes. Then he seems to think a bit, and suddenly points to Clariquel making some type of all-important-sounding pronouncement. I start to try and figure it all out, but my body's had enough and goes back to being dark.
When I awake again, only Clariquel and Sampson are with me. The wolf's looking better and is hobbling about. Me? I'm weak as a kitten. I've done lost a lot of blood, and I'm wearing more bandages than I am clothing.
I sit up, and the dwarf runs over to me to help. We're still in the clearing. A darkened pile of ash remains to one side where I'm guessing the quillboar bodies were burned. I notice that my weapons are lying neatly close to hand.
Clariquel feeds me some broth and looks me in the eyes. She then picks up a stick and says, "Blon- retgry chronu." Taking her stick to the sand, she draws a small circle. Then she draws four lines going into the circle from each side. Pointing to me and then to herself she then stabs the center of the circle with the stick.
I'm not very smart, but it dawns on me what she's saying. She means to escort me to the Crossroads. Even though it hurts like hell, I start laughing. The dwarves wanted to kill me, and she stepped in. And this is what she received in return. I laugh so hard, I spit up some blood, but Clariquel's eyes are dancing merily with mine.
"Clairquel," I say through fits, "Don't you know that mercy is downright dangerous?"
Originally Published on the Argent Dawn Role-Players site December 22, 2009- March 17, 2010