Ahead of us rose another cliff, and the road plunged into it through another carved archway. We halted outside it, and Madoran dismounted. The elf and I followed suit. My side ached. I put my hand to it, and it came away with blood. The axe, I thought, but I didn’t say anything.
“We can stop here for a while, if yeh need to,” said Madoran to Allyndil, who had grown pale. The elf was still pressing his hand to his shoulder.
The elf shook his head. “We should press on,” he said. “I know of healing herbs that grow in the wetlands, and fresh herbs heal better than the dried ones I carry.”
Madoran nodded. “Alright,” he said. He glanced at the tunnel’s carved archway. “This is the edge of my kingdom, and for their sake, we should leave our mounts here.”
“Your ram and all his golden armor?” I said.
“He’ll head home on his own, and the stables there will treat him well,” replied the dwarf.
“Through the tunnels and everything?” I said, suddenly admiring the homing instincts of this beast.
“Does he look to you like a creature that needs roads and tunnels to climb a mountain?” laughed Madoran. “Go on home,” he said, and slapped the ram on its rump. It obediently trotted back off down the road.
Allyndil set his free as well, and, on Madoran’s promise that she would find her way home or enjoy the rolling grassy forestlands of the Loch, I sent my magnificent quarter horse off as well. Madoran pulled off his regal robe, folded it, and tucked it gently into his pack. He set his golden circlet in on top of it. He pulled off and stowed his regal armor, and changed hastily into traveling clothes. Then we set off down the tunnel and into the mountain.
This tunnel was as the others had been: sloping steeply downward past stone archways and red banners. There were no electric lights here, though – Madoran prayed to his hammer for light again, and held it up before us –the red banners were tattered and faded. “This is the tunnel to the old Algaz Gate,” explained Madoran. “Before the lands to the north were overcome by the Scourge, this was a vibrant trade route. But now, all that is north of Khaz Modan is a few ruins and the decaying port of Menethil Harbor.”
The tunnel led to another, and in the great outdoors between them, I caught a view which caused my heart to leap into my throat. Above us, at snowy heights, stood a high cliff that might have been that above Ironforge (but surely wasn’t; we were too far east), and below us was the green mist into which Katy M had plunged to her death. I could see through it now, and some distance below us lay a wide, soggy plain, interlaced with channels of feted water and overhung periodically with saggy, soggy trees.
It was the color of it, though – the color that had swallowed M, and it made me sad and sick to my stomach all at once. I closed my eyes and shook the feeling out of my head.
The next tunnel lead to a third, shorter one, then another, which opened up onto a dirt path at the top of a dirt hill at the edge of the wetlands. The path was merely a shadow of an ancient route, and at the bottom of the dirt hill it disappeared immediately into the swamp.
The pain in my side persisted as we marched. “I want to get well into the swamp before we sleep,” said Madoran to both of us, “but you’re hurt. We can stop.”
Allyndil waved the thought away with his good arm. “I’m fine,” he said. I had stopped bleeding, at least, and I followed his cue. The elf struck off confidently into the swamp, and we followed.
Travel consisted of carefully fording stretches of shallow standing water, brackish and unpleasant, then hiking up onto spongy ground for a few blessed steps before plunging back into the fetid swamp-water. Even dry ground was wet, soggy and unpleasant.
Though thick, greenish-brown haze stood between us and the pale summer sun, the air was hot, and the smell of rotting plant-matter clung to my nostrils. To our left, the mountains rose like dull clouds.
We walked for the better part of an hour, the elf leading us north. I was dragging from fatigue, and the elf was growing paler by the minute. We halted as the sun climbed high into the sky.
Immediately, his pretension of health vanishing, Allyndil slumped to his knees. I held him up while Madoran spread a blanket on the soggy ground, and we lowered him into it.
The elf pulled his shirt away from his shoulder, and I gasped. The wound was a small, round bullet hole which had swollen and turned an unhealthy purplish-blue. Too-visible veins radiated from the hole, and a faint smell of rotting almonds rose from it. Allyndil gritted his teeth.
Madoran bent down to inspect the wound, producing a small first aid kit. “The bullet is still in there,” he mumbled, and a pair of tweezers appeared in his hands. Wiping them clean with an alcohol swab, he glanced at the elf. “You good?”
The elf nodded stonily.
Madoran plunged the tweezers into the wound. Allyndil sucked air in sharply through his teeth, but didn’t flinch. Madoran felt about for a moment, eliciting another hiss from the elf, before procuring a lump of metal, black and burnt on one side and flattened where it had hit a bone. Madoran examined it closely for a moment before offering it to the elf, who waved it away. Madoran let it drop into his own hand, then hurled it off into the haze. Somewhere, it plunked into the swamp.
“That’s quite a wound,” said Madoran dryly.
“I can heal it,” said the elf, his breath short. “I need watercress, cottonmouth venom and a fire. The watercress has waxy, entire leaves set opposite along a thick, light-green stem. The cottonmouth is a black snake, the only one in this area, and very poisonous.” Madoran nodded, jumped up and hurried off into the haze, his eyes darting across the ground.
I dropped my pack. Ajax’s carrier was on top, and I let him out. He sniffed the air with disdain, then clambered atop his carrier and set about cleaning his paws.
Fishing about beneath where his carrier had been, I pulled out a flint and tinder. There was no dry wood within arm’s reach, but a few minutes before we’d stopped, we’d passed a downed log sticking high enough out of the bog that it might provide dry fuel. I told the elf my intentions, reassured Ajax that I would return shortly, and struck off for it. Allyndil had pressed his fingers to the wound and begun chanting a prayer under his breath.
The log was where I’d remembered it, and I broke off an armful of dry branches and crumbly, rotted wood. Within minutes I was back at our camp and building the required fire. Allyndil had finished chanting, and already the swelling seemed to have gone down. He was pressing a cloth to it, wiping it across his brow from time to time.
“Incidentally,” I said, placing logs over tinder, “when you’ve healed yourself, I’ve got a wound as well, though it’s quite a bit less dire.”
“There’s nothing dire about my wound,” said Allyndil sternly. “Make the fire, then let’s see yours.”
I struck the tinder and blew on it, and in a moment it flared up, flames lapping the dry rotted wood, which caught quickly.
I pulled my travel jerkin off, and lifted my shirt enough to show Allyndil the gash on my side. The elf squinted at it and declared, “Axe wound, and a direct one. Those are never shallow, but this one is - you were a bear when you took it?”
I hadn’t grown used to the open discussion of my shape-shifting yet. My instincts toward keeping it a secret would be hard to shed, and I still wasn’t convinced that I should shed them at all. Still, I nodded.
“You’re a shape shifter,” the elf said bluntly.
“Yeah,” I replied, “always have been.”
“Not true,” said the elf. “From what I’ve understood, that’s a skill you learn, and not from wet-nurses or bartenders.”
I glanced at him, my eyebrows raised. He was right, of course: gaining enough control over my body to pull its very bones and muscles apart had taken years of work, from early calfhood until… until I prematurely ended my study of the druidic arts by running away, I thought acerbically. My mentor, an old bull, a powerful druid named Hokato Runetotem, had confronted me as I’d fled. I’d begged him to not tell anyone – and I’d meant my widowed mother. Even then, caught in the grip of adolescent rage, I’d mistrusted my decision, but then Hokato had banished me for my pride and selfishness, and I was gone and it was too late. The look on my old mentor’s face when he’d agreed to keep my confidence gave me such a twist inside to recall that I avoided thinking of it – of my flight, of Hokato, of my mother, of the imperfect cat and bear forms that had triggered my rage – as much as I possibly could. The thoughts which flowed from those memories were of the running, the homelessness, the loneliness that had dogged me from Mulgore to Orcmar to Storm City. Fleeing from one failed home to another had consumed the last decade of my life, but I thought about it rarely and talked about it less.
The elf had been looking piercingly at me, waiting to see if I responded to his challenge. “I learned, of course,” I said faintly.
“The other tauren,” said the elf, “who was to have accompanied you north, could change shapes as well. I met her once years ago and we aided each other. Her death is a tragedy.”
“M,” I said, nearly a whisper.
“You were close to her?” pressed the elf gently, keenly.
“No,” I said, glancing off into the misty marsh, “I met her just before we left for Ironforge…” I trailed off and squeezed my eyes shut, refusing to cry.
Why do I miss her so much? I thought. I’d only known her for a few days. But in that time, she’d guided me, and trusted me, and been, for lack of a better word, motherly. I had wandered homeless and hopeless for ten years, always running, always moving onward but never towards anything. She had, for a terribly short time, imposed structure on my formless life. That discipline and purpose had touched me, and having someone fill that role had impacted me more than I’d realized: it had given me hope that my life would be something worth living, hope I hadn’t had in more than a decade. Having lost M, the spark, the kindling, I had lost hope in myself again.
My head was in my hands now, and the years of self-destruction and self-pity which Katy M had jarred loose came flowing out. The elf had begun tending his wound again, singing a prayer of healing, but it soothed me as well. I was on this journey, for better or worse, and – maybe she was the spark I needed, I thought, the kindling to let me begin to finally, belatedly, grow up. A week ago, I had been the lowest initiate in a disagreeable cult: now I accompanied a king. That had to count for something.
Ajax climbed sympathetically onto my lap, and I scritched his ears gratefully. I couldn’t do this without you, kiddo, I thought at him. He purred.
Madoran returned fifteen minutes later, and I had dried my eyes and calmed my breathing. The dwarf clutched a handful of light green plants and a dead snake. Allyndil stopped signing and began issuing instructions from his blanket: Boil a quarter cup of our drinking water over four watercress leaves and one stem, broken up; extract the venom from the fangs of the snake (“That’s all you,” I said to Madoran, who glared good-naturedly at me) and add it to the boiling water; add another quarter cup of water.
We brought the simmering brew to the elf, who dipped his cloth in it. He pressed it into the wound, hissing lightly, and then, eyes closed, he began singing again. After a moment, he pulled the cloth out of the wound. The purple color had receded, leaving pink and healthy flesh around the wound, and a light, pure steam curled up from it. Another dip and press, and the wound had closed. I watched, mesmerized.
He stood up, fully healed. He motioned me to lie down on the blanket. I did so, and he dabbed at my wound with the watercress brew, washing blood away, prodding at it. It felt for a moment like it was burning, the wound reopening, and then as though waters were flooding into me, over the severed flesh, not soothing me but healing, mending. After a moment, the feeling had gone, and my flesh felt stronger for having been wounded.
Then we ate, and then, exhausted, we slept, the rest of the day and into the night.