Patchwork tents stood on either side of the road, and people gathered around the campfires, talking and cooking. The air smelled sweetly of burning grass, and hummed with low voices.
Faces turned to look as we passed. There were humans and orcs, trolls and a few pale elves, and more than one tauren. But they were all thin and gaunt and harried, empty looks in their eyes and their faces, and it cut across the crude lines drawn by race. These were the refugees of a different time. When I had lived in Orcmar for a few short years, I had resented these people their wealth and comfort, and had wished them all manner of ills. But I had lost my home, and my friends; I had lost my life and its calm, boring little delivery job: My world had burned, at the careless hands of the Law, and so had theirs. I would have traded all the excitement in the world for another day of easy boredom for these people.
We stopped in front of a tent. It was a proper canvas one, with a flap for a door and smoke issuing from a vent in the roof. The larger man pushed the flap open and stepped inside. The shorter man gestured me in with his head.
I ducked through the low flap. Inside the tent there was a fire, and a table with paper on it – parchment, I saw, on closer inspection, made from the skin of animals – and behind it, a proper chair. On the chair sat an older orc, wisps of white hair above a strong but creased face. Flanking him, eyes ahead and serious looks in their young eyes, was a pair of what must have been guards: a thick orc man and a younger, thinner human woman.
“Who’s this?” said the old orc wearily, looking up from the table.
“Found him across the river, m’lord,” said the short, scruffy man. “Didn’t know what had happened to Orcmar, and didn’t say where he was from, exactly. Was about to get et by some thugs, though.”
“Ah,” said the old orc. “Night time is their time. Are you hurt, bull?”
“A little,” I replied, nodding to the shallow wound in my shoulder.
The old orc peered at it. “It doesn’t look dire,” he said, and it took me a moment of pique to decide that he was right. “What few healers and priests we have are overworked,” he continued. “If you decide to stay with us, you will be seen to eventually. What’s your name?”
“Horse,” I replied.
“Huh,” he grunted. “Mine is Statton,” he continued, dignified. “Until the world rights itself or falls apart completely, this is my camp.”
“Statton,” I repeated. It was a funny name for an orc.
The old orc smiled thinly. “You were expecting something else? Something Orcish, with hard K’s and guttural rasps? I am a citizen of Rocktusk.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, bowing respectfully.
He nodded. “You are welcome here,” he said, “if you wish to be. We can offer you news in the morning, and a hard bed and protection tonight. Tomorrow you must earn your food like everyone else: we don’t have the luxury of much charity.”
I nodded, thinking back to the ruined tomb of Uther, to the last time someone had told me that. Charity seemed lean in these hard times. “Thank you,” I said, unsure if there was anything else I should say.
“Give him some linen for his shoulder, a loaf of bread and a place to sleep,” said Statton to my guides. He turned back to me. “Come see me tomorrow.”
The place to sleep was a spot of ground beside a campfire. The loaf of bread was small and hard, but I sat down on the cold ground and ate it hungrily, looking around at the rough tents – little more than patchwork cloth propped up on sticks. The sounds of low voices drifted from a few of them, and I felt suddenly lonely. I let Ajax out of his carrier, but he trotted off into the darkness to hunt mice. I sighed.
I peeled the cloth back from my shoulder and dabbed gingerly at the wound with the scrap of linen I’d been given, wiping the blood away. New blood, nearly black in the dim fire-light, still oozed from the shallow gash, and I pressed the cloth against it. I hissed in pain and then, wishing for the steady hand and healing song of Allyndil the ranger elf, I began humming softly to myself, one of the melodies with which he’d healed the ailments of the warriors of the Silver Hand.
Whether it was magic or merely the calming effect of the music in my mind, the wound’s dull pain began to ease, and in a minute the bleeding had stopped. I lay down and pulled my blanket over me.
My shoulder, legs, my sides, my back and my neck hurt. So did my head. It had been a long day since I’d woken up on a new continent, and I hadn’t had rest to let the enormity of what had happened sink in. I had run away from the bull and the murloc, from their strange and dangerous Law. It had been too much, I told myself firmly. They had asked too much faith in a mysterious, suicidal, apocalyptic mission.
I shivered. Maybe it had all been a bad dream, a vision: but I doubted it. Somewhere in the north, under the white, still-waxing moon, was a Scourge Lord, ready to make war on the living world, thanks to me. Maybe his war had already begun – no one had told me anything, least of all the bull and the murloc. I didn’t want to know, though. I wanted it to go away.
Fang’s parting jab surfaced in my memory. He’s following his own will for once! I ground my wide molars in frustration. I had unwillingly followed his will off a thousand foot drop, I thought, and the damned amphibian had actually made fun of me for it. I felt slighted like a playground calf on the wrong end of a prank.
As I railed against his pointless cruelty in my mind, a quiet part of it began replaying my journey. I had been all but kidnapped, drafted from my stagnant life onto a quest which I did not understand, for forces which I could not hope to comprehend. I had been a commander for a short time in Ironforge – carrying out the clearly-prescribed will of a mind greater than my own. I had dutifully followed Madoran north, and believed the twisting words of Ordinn. I cursed the Law-dwarf’s name. His lies had caused Rayn to die at my hesitation, had caused me to forsake Madoran, and Rhy, and to lead the evil Hannathras directly to the book. Ordinn’s fault, I thought. Not mine.
The deep voice of my old mentor Hokato, gentle but stern, came back to me, speaking the first lesson he had ever taught me. He’d made me repeat it until I knew its words and its meaning: “Every step you take is yours to make. Your smallest choices move mountains. With the smallest step you take,” we’d said, “You move the world.”
I’d chosen to follow. Maybe it was my fate I’d chosen, or maybe it was just a series of bad decisions. I didn’t know. But I realized that, inescapably, every step of the journey had been my own. No one had forced me to stay in Storm City and go to the mansion, to go north, to go into Under City with Rhy. My choice.
As I lay on the cold, trampled grass, staring up at the sky, Fang’s parting words took on a new meaning: he’d been cheering me on. Cheering me on as I took my will back into my own hands and flatly disobeyed his orders. I sighed and wondered why.
The white moon was nearly full now. I had given up trying to understand it. Maybe someone would explain it in the morning.
With the general hope that someone would explain everything in the morning, I rolled over with my back to the dying campfire, tucked my pack under my head, and went to sleep.
* * *
Having apparently been accepted as harmless – “Marauders come in packs, and spies have no business with us,” the old orc Statton had pronounced when I’d shown my face in the morning – I was shown to another tent. This one contained a young human woman, a low table with various tailoring supplies on it, and two enormous piles of cloth scraps. She was bent over one of them, rifling through it for something.
She looked up and smiled as I stooped low and entered. “Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I replied. She turned back to the pile.
I stood and waited while she found what she was looking for. She turned back around, holding up a worn backpack. “Thread!” she said, beaming.
“Thread,” she repeated. “We’re woefully short on it. You’re new, right? New people spend a day helping me get thread.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Great!” she said. “My name’s Jessica.” She held out her hand.
“Horse,” I said, accepting it.
“Funny name for a bull,” she said, smiling so widely that I couldn’t be annoyed.
“What do you make with the thread?” I said, instead.
“Tents,” she said. She turned and knelt on the far side of the table, and motioned me down. “No one fled with tents, but they fled with backpacks and spare clothes and sheets and all sorts of random scraps of cloth that they don’t really need any more. But they do need tents. So any time someone wants a tent, we give them one, and in return they give us all their spare cloth – any kind of linen, wool – anything, really. You don’t happen to have any bits you could spare, do you?” she smiled. “We’d really like you if you did.”
“I don’t think so,” I said awkwardly. It was true. “I can help, though!”
Jessica smiled again. “We probably like you anyway,” she replied. “Now.” She set the worn backpack down in the middle of the table. “We’re always low on thread, so we have to pull it out of sewn stuff and reuse it. This backpack is brilliant, though. Am I rude if I say that you’ve got bigger fingers and that I should probably do the thread-pulling?”
I looked down at my hands. I’d never done tailoring before, but it seemed like a fair assessment. I nodded.
“I’ll pull thread, then, and you tie it together and wind it around this,” she said, tossing a small, empty wooden spool at me. I caught it and sat heavily down at the table.
The work was tedious, and my wounded shoulder ached, and my big hands weren’t much better at tying the thread than they would have been at extracting it. Jessica was nimble, though, and quickly reduced the worn backpack to a pile of scraps. She started helping me tie the short, kinked lengths of thread together.
“You’re good at this,” I said.
“I’m a tailor,” she replied. “My dad was one, and he was teaching me – take over the family business kind of thing, you know?” She glanced up at me, then quickly back down, unsmiling. “So when New Rocktusk began to grow, Mayor Statton decided we needed a tent-maker, and he appointed me.”
“Statton seems like a good guy,” I said. “How’d he get to be mayor?”
“He was the mayor of Old Rocktusk,” she said, “so when the sky caught fire and Rocktusk was burning and we were panicking and packing and fleeing, he managed to keep a few of us organized enough to come here and start a refugee camp.”
My nose grew cold as she spoke. “When the sky was on fire?” I said.
She looked up from her work, across the table, a thoughtful look on her face, as though she couldn’t quite believe that I didn’t know. Then, “You noticed the new moon, right?” she said.
“I was wondering how that happened,” I lied.
“So is the rest of the world,” she sighed. “Well… one night, a month ago, my dad woke me up, with this scared, sober expression on his face. He told me not to ask questions, and pack whatever I wanted to save. I got up and threw some stuff in a bag, and when I went outside, the whole sky was covered in fire. Great balls of it were leaping across the sky and pounding the white moon, sending up puffs of dust, it was so strange. And everyone in the city was outside, screaming, running around and some houses had caught fire and people were shouting that it was because one of the fireballs had fallen on us and more would fall and kill us all and people were shouting that the city was being judged for its iniquity? They kept saying iniquity. I don’t even know what that means!” she cried. She shook her head, pausing for a moment to catch her breath. “I mean… everyone was already on edge because of the Whelp disappearing, but it had been weeks since that, and we’d come together and more of us were on guard duty, and we blocked off the slum canyons and Rocktusk was doing okay. And then the sky caught fire and we fell right off the edge of civilization.” She shook her head and sat in silence for a moment, staring at her thread, on the verge of tears.
“We fled,” she said at last. “My dad got me to the mayor, who was gathering some good fighters to get us safely out of town. My dad went back, to try and track down some other friends and spread the word that we were leaving.” A stony look fell over her face. “That’s the last time I saw him,” she said after a long pause, her voice dead.
I had stared at her as she spoke, a knot of ice growing in my stomach, clawing its way up my chest and into my throat.
I had pitied these people when I had thought they were victims of the same thoughtless, pitiless Law as me. I had vaguely wanted to help them. I had looked around at them and felt justified in running from the maniacal machinations of the bull and the murloc. But it was not the Law that had led Hannathras to the book, the book with the spells that required that the skies catch fire.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered.
She smiled. “It’s not your fault,” she said distantly.
She continued her story, how the whole district had burned, how they’d barely escaped; how Statton had set up the camp and spread the word to the scattered, hungry, cold refugees; how they lived in fear of the marauders, who would as soon eat you as look at you; how the new moon was spawning new and strange zealotries and religions among the people. But I wasn’t listening. I picked my thread back up and began numbly tying ends to ends again.
Jessica finished her story, and we lapsed into silence.
After the thread was finished, we began sewing the larger scraps together. “The little ones take too much thread,” she’d said.
At noon, we broke for food. The walk back to Statton’s tent, past gaunt, huddled, weathered mothers and children, was hell. The night before, and that morning, I had accepted the small fare from Statton, but now I refused. I rummaged around in my pack, finding some months-old jerky and some days-old bread which I guessed had been put there by M. Sitting alone, outside, I ate my fill. I let Ajax back out of his carrier to stretch his legs, and after sniffing about enough to get his bearings, he came and sat in my lap, looking up at me and purring. I scratched him behind his ears, and my misery lessened a little. “Thanks, kiddo,” I said.
I packed and stood and wandered west along the cobblestone road. I numbly handed the rest of my food to the first hungry-looking person I met, and shut my ears against her heart-felt thanks.
I wandered out of the city, into the brown grassland. The sky was overcast now, and a few lonely snowflakes whipped past me on a stiff north wind. It was winter, or late fall. It had been a month and some weeks since the Whelp had disappeared from Orcmar: if that was the same time that the Murloc had left Storm City, then I had been in forced hibernation for two months or more. I shook my head, furious again at Katy M.
The road began running uphill here, out of the river valley and up into the barren grasslands of middle Kali. Mulgore, the lush, green plains of my youth, were beyond them, far away to the west and south. I felt a sudden longing.
I turned around. The tent city of New Rocktusk spread out between me and the distant, brown river. I had paid my debt, I thought, for the loaf of bread, and no amount of sewing could pay off the debt I owed those people for their broken homes. Maybe I could pay it back some day, but not now, and not here.
A chill ran up my spine. I whirled around, but there was nothing. The wind, I thought.
Suddenly, with a dull thud and a dull pain at the back of my head, my vision blurred and I weaved unsteadily on my feet. I summoned my energy and forced my body into the shape of a bear just in time to feel a dagger slip into my thick flank. I turned heavily around, and came face to face with a black-clad, black-masked figure, slender and lithe, with a red arm-band and a dagger in her hand and a look of surprise in her green eyes. I leapt forward, pinning her to the ground with my thick paws, and shifted back into a bull.
“Ow,” I growled, and twisted her arm on the ground until the dagger fell from her fist. I picked it up, then reached forward to pull her mask off. She struggled for a moment, but I succeeded – and dark brown hair spilled out, and in a flash I recognized her soft face.
“Penelope?” I said, bewildered. “What are you doing here?”
It was the girl from Storm City, that I’d known in passing, that I’d chatted quietly with the last time I’d been at the Cathedral.
“I’m so sorry, Horse,” she said, breathless, fearful and sad. “They told me to.”
“Who told you to do what?” I demanded heatedly.
“The Resurrection,” she replied. “Horse, you’ve been sentenced to death.”