I roared in rage and dove at the table, but there was nothing beneath it but legs. The legs’ owners stared into their drinks, suppressed smiles on their faces.
I leapt to my hooves, looking sharply around. I spotted the gnome – standing on a stool at the bar, tossing coins onto it and balancing three enormous steins on her hands and head. I turned and stomped towards her, but she leapt effortlessly off the bar, beer and all, and scampered away. I made to follow her, but a little brown sack sitting on the bar caught my eye – it was my coin-purse. I picked it up, and a few coins still clinked inside it.
“Did that gnome just pay you with –” I started, but the bartender shrugged and cut me off with a muttered, “Money’s money,” as he stared down at the glass he was needlessly polishing.
I grimaced, slid my bag back into my pocket, and turned to scan the room. The gnome had settled along the far wall, across the small table from the orange-bearded dwarf. They were chatting amicably and sipping their beer, as though they’d been that way for hours. I stormed over, snorting in rage and ready to stuff the gnome down the dwarf’s throat.
The dwarf looked calmly up from his barely-too-big chair. “Beer?” he said, gesturing to the third chair. On the table sat the third beer, waiting, quaffer-less.
I stopped in my tracks. “Are you serious?” I growled, after a moment.
“Yeh,” replied the dwarf. “Sorry about the surprise greeting – it’s how we make friends. I saw you out in the square tonight, an’ ye looked like ye’d had a rough night, so we thought you could use a beer an’ some company.”
“I was having an awful night,” I growled, “and I was also trying to keep a low profile.”
“Overrated!” declared the dwarf cheerfully.
“I just disappear whenever, ‘cause I’m little,” said the gnome conspiratorially.
I stared at the absurd pair in disbelief, but then I glanced around at the rest of the room. Everyone had returned to their beers and conversations: my unwitting moment in the spotlight was over. I turned back around and huffed in frustration. With nothing else for it, I sat my backpack down, perched on the too-small chair, and grabbed the beer.
“So you’re incognito?” said the dwarf. “On the run from the law?”
“Something like that,” I muttered darkly into my beer.
The dwarf sat in silence for a moment. “I saw what happened to the man you were with,” he said quietly. “It was unjust, but these are unjust days: I hope that my consolation will be of some comfort.”
“It’s not,” I growled, but I relented: it was a small gesture, and from a complete stranger, but the idea that I wasn’t the only one in the world that felt the death’s injustice was comforting. I inhaled the inn’s warm air, and said, “Thanks, though.”
The dwarf nodded.
Then, “Unjust,” I growled, “it was criminal! He just killed him, put a knife in him for no reason, into another human!”
The dwarf looked up at me from his beer. “Is that worse than if he had been a dwarf,” he said quietly, “or a bull?”
“Of course it is,” I said. “Not that it woulda been great either way, of course, but you know what I mean.”
I pulled at my beer, and then, with a rush of emotion, I turned to the sympathetic dwarf and relayed, in breathless and furious detail, the story of John Caleb as he’d related it to me. And when I’d finished what I knew, I launched into what I do not: that his wife had died, that he had had children and that they lived on somewhere, maybe with the rest of his band. “They were looking for food,” I gritted, “and shelter, and a life. Same as these folks. They weren’t even marauders until they got spears thrown at them!”
The dwarf had listened intently, nodding and shaking his head at all the right times, until I reached this point: then he glanced around and said, “I believe yeh, but keep yer voice down when ye say such things in these parts. There’s others’ll take less kind to the sympathizing with them that’ve killed their kin.”
“I don’t care,” I muttered.
“Yeh do so,” said the dwarf, “an’ ye’d remember it the second ye got yerself in a knife-fight over it. I’m not sayin’ it isn’t unjust – I’m only sayin’ it’s true.”
“An’ think on this,” continued the dwarf. “Ye’re sayin’ that the folks that attacked us should be forgiven, because of how good folks do bad things in hard times. But ye’re refusin’ to forgive them that was attacked – ye’re holdin’ them to a higher standard, an’ why? Because one o’ them didn’ just die in yer arms, I think.”
Good folks’ll do bad things in hard times, I thought: almost exactly the words of John Caleb. And suddenly I thought back to Penelope, the Scarlet initiate turned assassin, and how close I’d come a few short hours ago to coldly slitting her throat. A chill ran down my back, and I stared miserably at the table.
I sighed. The dwarf was right, and I imagined for a moment if it had been one of Crossroads’ townsfolk, or Jessica the tentmaker, or Mayor Statton that I’d lowered dead to the ground. The rush of sympathy I’d felt for the marauders began to subside, balanced now with the sympathy I’d felt before, for these folk who clung still to the civil society. The civil society that I’d helped the Law ruin, I thought, and I squeezed my eyes shut for a time. Then I opened them and took another pull of beer. It was a thin, weak lager that I’d’ve wagered had been watered down to last longer. “I could use a good stout,” I said quietly.
“I could use some food!” chirped gnome, who had been sitting quietly.
My stomach rumbled at the thought. “What’s the No Food sign that’s hanging up outside mean?” I said. “Is there really no food here?”
“None that they’ll sell,” replied the dwarf. “Eatables are more precious than coin these days. Luckily,” and he grinned, “you’ve made some very useful friends. We’ve only been here six nights, but we’re as good as locals now.”
I nodded. “You’re a healer, aren’t you?” I said. “You were coming out of the healing tent, before, when you… when I first saw you,” I finished.
The dwarf nodded.
“And they like me because I’m funny,” piped the gnome.
“Something like that,” laughed the dwarf. “Go get us some food.”
“Food for three!” she said as she clambered down off her chair.
“Thanks,” I said gratefully. “I’m starving, and I’m out of rations.”
“No you’re not,” said the gnome, and then bounced off towards the bar.
I looked quizzically after her, then back at the dwarf. He shrugged. I looked down at my backpack, leaning innocently against a table leg. I pulled it open.
Atop everything else sat a thick loaf of bread and a paper-wrapped package. I pulled the package out and pulled the paper off, revealing the luscious pink of salmon flesh. My mouth began watering: it was a whole fish, that had been skinned, gutted, boned and cooked just enough to keep it from going bad. “Oh, wow,” I said.
It hadn’t been there the previous day when I’d left New Rocktusk: it could only have been put there by the bull and the murloc, restocking my pack while I’d been unconscious. For a brief moment it infuriated me that as I ran from them they insisted on caring for me, like good fairies watching over a wayward child. But I quickly decided that having food was preferable to not, and I tore off a chunk of fish and a chunk of bread, and began eating. It was delicious.
“Unexpected bounty?” said the dwarf.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said through a mouthful.
The gnome returned with three bowls of what looked like cabbage soup, and a thin, crusty loaf. I looked guiltily down at my salmon and hearty bread, and then slid them to the center of the table.
“Uther’s beard,” said the dwarf as the gnome grabbed a chunk of fish and crammed it into her mouth. “Ten thousand thanks – we haven’t had meat since we arrived.”
We ate in silence, and even the cabbage soup tasted delicious, so long as it wasn’t all we were eating. Before long the food had disappeared, and although I wasn’t stuffed, my stomach no longer ached and my mood had improved drastically. I had despaired before; now, the world seemed less inevitably doomed, and more just terribly out of joint with itself.
“So where are you two from?” I said, yearning suddenly for friendly conversation.
“From?” laughed the dwarf. “We were born in Khaz Modan, same as most dwarves and many gnomes, but we’ve been so far since we saw it last,” and he glanced at the gnome, “that I think it’s more accurate to say that we’re from the world.”
Huh, I thought. I guess I am too, I almost thought, but it was a painful thought and I put it out of my mind.
“You said you arrived here six nights ago – where were you before that?”
“With the furbolgs!” cried the gnome joyfully. “I liked the furbolgs.”
“The furbolgs? Wait, you were in the mountains?” I said disbelievingly – furbolgs emerged rarely from the mountains of northern Kali, and those of us that had lived in southern, civilized Kali feared to go there: rumors and legends told that dragons survived there, along with half-horse, half-bird creatures and other more terrible, formless fears.
“We lived there, for more’n a year,” replied the dwarf, “with a tribe of furbolgs, the Thistlefurs.”
“They let you live with them?” I said, more disbelieving still. They were secretive by nature, and not wont to accept outsiders.
“Aye,” said the dwarf. “Ye can get in with a lot more groups when ye’ve healing to offer ‘em.” He winked. “At any rate, we’d been away from news-tellers and –sellers for too long, out of the civilized world. An’ when we saw the sky burn and the moons dance we decided we’d walk it again for a spell.”
I nodded. “Cool,” I said, and meant it. “So,” and I glanced back and forth, “do you have names?”
“Ye’re on the run from something,” said the dwarf seriously. “Do you?”
I paused. “I guess no,” I said.
“Quid pro quo,” he replied, winking. “Neither do we.”
I nodded. Fair enough. “I’ll call you Redbeard, then,” I declared.
“It’s more auburn, I’d say,” said the dwarf thoughtfully, “especially when I’ve been outdoors.”
“You can call me Cherubim!” squeaked the gnome.
The dwarf sighed. “Cher,” he said, “that’s actually yer name. That defeats the purpose of the game.”
“But I like my name,” she replied, her forehead creased stubbornly.
Redbeard smiled into his beard, and I imagined that he’d had this sort of argument with her before. He shook his head and changed the subject.
“Well,” he said, “we’ve told you the bare bones of our story, so now ye’ll tell us what yeh can of yers!”
“It’s long,” I demurred, “and mostly really boring.” And confusing. But mostly boring. I couldn’t imagine anyone actually being entertained by the string of bewilderments that had happened to me since I’d been sent to the murloc’s office for eighty silver.
“Long!” laughed Redbeard. “Yer young – it’ll be longer still, Light willing.”
I perked up. “Light,” I said, “with a capital L? You’re not… that’s not how you heal, is it?”
The dwarf raised his eyebrows and smiled. “Ye’ve heard of it, then! Not enough have, these days. Tha’s why I roam – to bring the Light to the Lightless.”
“That’s awesome,” I said. “That’s gotta be an awesome life.” I wanna be a missionary, I thought.
“It’s got its ups and downs, same as anything,” he replied. “The Light doesn’t try to replace local gods and spirits, but some don’t see it that way.”
“Remember the trolls?” said Cherubim, and she shivered.
“So you’re followers of the Light. D’you know Anduin?” I said, grasping at straws. “He’s the leader of this group called the Silver Hand…”
The dwarf laughed. “O’course!” he said. “We’re not drinkin’ mates or anythin’, mind you, but o’ course I know him! Anduin of the Silver Hand is the head of Uther’s order, and it’s him that gives us our priesthood an’ teaches us its ways. A great man, that. How do you know him?”
“I was at his monastery,” I said, “visiting.” I faltered, unsure if I wanted to get into its sad fate.
“Ye traveled through the deadlands fer fun, did yeh?” laughed the dwarf. “Well, a friend of Anduin is a friend of the light-bringers,” and he thumped his hand to his barrel chest.
“Light-bringers, hmm,” I said. “How many more of you are there?”
“A few,” replied the dwarf. “A dozen or two. Not as many as there used to be. Uther’s Tomb is the only monastery of the Light left in the world. The rest of us have wee parishes in wee villages, or we wander. Do I know Anduin,” he laughed into his beard. “Tha’s like askin’ a dwarf if he knows Ordinn.”
“Ordinn,” I grunted distastefully, remembering the last time I’d seen him.
“Works for the Stone King in Ironforge,” explained the dwarf.
“No, I know who he is,” I said, wrinkling my nose. “He’s not in Ironforge any more. Neither is the Stone King.” Probably that triumph would make a better story to tell than the tragedy of Uther’s Tomb, I decided.
Redbeard looked at me in wonder. “Noooo kiddin’,” he breathed. “What happened?”
I relayed the story, going carefully over each thought as I said it to make sure it wouldn’t raise questions that I wouldn’t quite want to answer: how the Stone King had gone silent and Ordinn had disappeared; how the Herald of the Titans had taken over (the dwarf furrowed his brow in distaste at the news, and the gnome loudly declared, “They smell!”); how Madoran had returned with an army, that the gnomes had fought by our side as one (“Darn right we did!”). I regaled the pair with the story of the battle itself, holding them rapt as the wave of Heralds crashed against our fortification. They gasped as the griffins sniped us from above; they cheered as Madoran arrived with his populist army. I crescendoed as I boosted myself up to the top of the stone door, leaping off it and soaring over the fray—
I paused. “I landed on some guys,” I said lamely. “Hit them with my club. It was pretty cool.” Damnit, I thought, I suck at keeping secrets.
My momentum blunted, I hurried to the end of the story, with Madoran on the anvil in the middle of a throng of dwarves and gnomes and boldly reclaiming his family’s throne.
The dwarf grinned breathlessly. “An’ yeh said yer story’s boring,” he laughed. “I would’ve sheared my beard clean off to’ve been there.”
“I woulda stabbed some traitors in the kidney,” growled the gnome.
“So Madoran is King now,” said the dwarf, shaking his head and smiling. “That’s good, very good. He’s an upstanding dwarf, he is. When did this-all happen?”
I paused. “A couple months ago, or so,” I said. “I think. Before the moons.”
The dwarf nodded. “I expected as much,” he said. “The Shadow Council in Orcmar disappeared about the same time. Ratchet, too, so they say.”
I grunted noncommittally, pretending to think deeply on the strange coincidence. We lapsed into thoughtful silence.
The dwarf had all but declared that the disappearance of those city governments had been connected. I had just nearly failed at hiding the simple fact that I could turn into a bear, and I was afraid now that if the conversation turned to the Law, it would be painfully clear that I knew more than I was telling.
But why not tell? I thought. I had bailed on the Law. I was trying to put as much distance between its agents and me as I possibly could. Why continue to keep their dangerous secrets?
I was running, but they were keeping up, I thought. Each time it occurred to me, it was more and more frustrating. Screw it, I thought. I’m not their whipping boy any more. I opened my mouth, full of righteous indignation and ready to tell this strange but trustworthy dwarf everything, but a fleck of bread that had lodged between my back molars broke loose as I inhaled and hit the back of my throat; I doubled over in a fit of coughing which earned a concerned look from the dwarf. I swallowed the last bit of beer, and sighed.
“Ye’alright?” said the dwarf.
“Fine,” I muttered. In the mean time I’d thought better of spilling the Law’s secrets, and not only because it seemed to have power over crumbs of bread in my throat. Or maybe it had been a coincidence.
“Well,” said Redbeard. “I’m sure that somewhere, someone knows what this is all about. Until that someone is me, I’ll be content to do as I do and heal those in need. Strange days, these.”
“But I do wonder, what’s the connection?” continued the dwarf. “Between an apocalyptic fire-show in the sky and the sudden and simultaneous evacuation of power from every major city in the world?”
“Huh,” I said. I realized that, despite the fact that I knew more about what was going on than the rest of the world, I had no answer to his question.
Words spoken by Katy M months ago drifted back to me. None of us know why, she’d said, but it serves the purposes of the Law, it’s part of its plan. It wants chaos, lawlessness, something… It must’ve, I thought: it had spent six hundred years pulling the old alliances, the old prides apart, weakening kingdoms and peoples, weakening the world. And then chaos, and then Varimathras. And me, going along, playing the role of the patsy to perfection. I ground my teeth for a moment, fighting back tears of helplessness.
But it didn’t quite feel right, and I knew it. Quietly, more quietly than my wounded indignation, I was unshakably certain that I was missing something, some piece of the puzzle. It all just didn’t fit. I shook my head and took a deep breath.
“I mean, I don’t believe that the heavens arbitrarily dictate the rhythms of the world,” the dwarf was saying. “I don’t believe in portents that do nothing but portend. But there was fire in the sky and then the white moon gave birth to a blue moon. That doesn’t just happen, y’know? That wasn’t just a day like any other.”
You have no idea, I thought.
“It’s too bad the races are all broken up,” I said aloud, thinking to what the Law had painstakingly disassembled over its six-hundred year reign. “It’s too bad we don’t have our own cultures to fall back on any more, you know?”
The dwarf glanced at me, then at the table, thinking, and then made up his mind and looked back up at me. “Ye know what ye’re askin’ for, right?” he said. “I’m all for stronger ties between neighbors, but ye’re talkin’ about racial pride, an’ you can’t have racial pride without racial hatred.”
“Sure you can,” I said, and then faltered. What ancient history I knew was full of epic and bloody struggles between the races, between racial alliances. But there were other reasons, weren’t there? Something about the orcs invading from another world or something.
Then I thought back to my time in the slums of Orcmar, and my unlikely membership in an orcs-only gang, how their binding culture was hatred of non-orcs. Even my people, the tauren, our strongest heritage was ancient stories of ancient battles against the centaurs.
I sighed. “All I’m saying is that if the races were still together, everyone would have a home, that bands of people wouldn’t be wandering around and marauding as much.”
“You’re right,” replied the dwarf darkly, “there would be a dwarf city and a human city and an orc city, and we wouldn’t be sitting at the same table speaking the same language. And each city would have a well-organized army, and the orcs would march out in formation and kill the dwarves and vice versa. Then instead of bands of restless refugees, you’d have whole kingdoms burned to the ground, for no better reason than its inhabitants were shorter, or greener, or smelled worse than their enemies. I’ll take low-grade local chaos to that kind of war any day,” he finished.
“No, but, they might bring their armies together,” I said hopefully, “like the Argent Dawn,” and I almost added, “is,” but I caught myself.
The dwarf shook his head. “Too tenuous. The Dawn needed a common enemy, an’ it fell apart when it lost that.”
Sort of, I thought. Point taken, though. I sighed. “But,” I said lamely. “The world’s lost something, lost something real. No one is proud of what they are any more, and how can you become something better if you don’t care about what you are?”
“I’m a gnome!” cried the gnome.
“But what about now?” I said suddenly. “There’s no race pride, no race armies, but there’s still wars, there’s still fighting and killing and, and John Caleb!” I exclaimed, and in my mind his very name explained my point perfectly.
Redbeard sighed. “It’s powerful, the idea of ourselves versus the outsiders, and I don’t expect it’ll ever go away. But trust me, it’s worse. These lines, between us and your John Caleb, are formed and blurred away again by convenience and necessity, by the forces of mutual benefit. The lines of race, they don’t blur once they’re set in your head.”
I shook my head stubbornly. “But, I mean… pride.” I faltered. “Look. King Madoran’s speech at the end of the Battle of Ironforge… it was amazing. Everyone cheered,” I said, growing suddenly intense, “and everyone sang together, the Dwarven national anthem or something.” The dwarf hummed a few notes. “That’s the one,” I said, and the memory of it thrilled through me. “It was amazing. It was the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen, ever felt. I mean, these people had just fought together, some without armor, even! For their home. For pride. You can’t tell me that kind of pride is worth giving up for anything.” And yet, I’d run away from home. My stomachs twisted inside me. “It’s gone,” I said. “That pride is gone from the world.”
“So are the wars and the hatred that come with it, the real hatred that doesn’t heal itself with a dash of mutual understanding. Maybe,” gritted the dwarf, “ye’ve never held someone’s head in your lap, a warrior who fell in a battle over nothing, doing what ye can to ease his pain as he dies, because yer art doesn’t know how to put his entrails back in. Ye haven’t looked into his eyes as they glazed over into complete, pointless oblivion. Ye haven’t seen his wife and children, his brother, finding out that he died and declaring another cycle of hatred, another generation-long bout of racial pride,” he spat.
The gnome’s face had gone somber. “He was a fun furbolg, too,” she said quietly. “Let me play with his cubs.”
I stared at them in mute shock. The story had finally brought the reality, the harsh duality of pride and hatred into focus for me. I’d seen it before, in Orcmar and elsewhere, and I’d seen people die, but never in battle – not until Ironforge, when the thrill of victory had overwhelmed me. I shook my head dully.
“I’m sorry,” said the dwarf, heaving a sigh. “That was a bit intense. Bad form, snapping at new friends.”
I nodded. “I guess I just never quite managed to think of it that way before.”
“Well,” he replied. “Yeh should. Some conflicts have a blood cost that’s got to be paid. But senseless conflicts, the racial pride? Tha’s just blood wasted.” He shook his head.
“Yeah,” I said. I sighed again. “I guess… I just feel like I’ve got to be able to stand up and say, I’m a bull, and that’s good, without wanting to therefore kill everyone that’s not a bull. Because we’ve got to have something.”
“Aye,” said the dwarf, “and I believe yeh can, on yer own. But it’s a dangerous path, one that’s never ended well in the history of the world.”
I nodded, thinking. We’ve got to have something, I thought, but who I am, whether I have horns: that’s too easily perverted.
Then, in a flash, Mayor Statton came to mind, and his reaction to my consternation at his civilized-sounding name. I am a citizen of Rocktusk, he’d said.
It wasn’t that he’d said it – there were plenty of folks in Storm City that had been proud of what district they called home – but there had been something in the way he’d said it that had struck me as… as…
I am a citizen of Rocktusk. Not just Rocktusk. I am a citizen of civilization, he’d seemed to mean. I nodded, and took a breath, and then I said it out loud.
The dwarf cocked his head at me.
“‘I’m a living, thinking being,’” I continued. “‘I have control over my own destiny, and I’m proud of that, and of everyone else that can, too.’ Like, we’ve got that over the animals.”
“Pride in sentience?” laughed the dwarf. “Well, now’s the time, isn’t it? No wars and no governments, yet. The world may have come apart at the seams, but maybe all it needs is a hero with that philosophy to sew it back together again.”
There was a moment of silence, and as I absorbed what we’d just said, I grinned irrepressibly. Pan-sentient-ism, I thought. Everyone for everyone. It was a crazy idea plain and simple, but if Mayor Statton could mean it as surely as he did, then… And I felt a sudden burning desire to get up, to go apprentice myself to the old orc, and remake the world in his image. I suddenly realized that I’d known it before I’d met the Mayor, that whenever I’d had a quiet moment to dream, to think about how I would bring greatness to my family, to my tribe, that this was always the dream that I’d—
“It’d never work,” declared the gnome in the silence.
We both turned to look at her.
“Wouldn’t work,” she repeated, shrugging her tiny shoulders. “Pride in sentience? Too tenuous. Needs a common enemy, otherwise it’d never last.”
Our own words back at us.
The dwarf said something, and the gnome replied cheekily, but I wasn’t listening: my thoughts were racing. Needs a common enemy. “Oh,” I said quietly.
It was the piece I’d been missing, the piece that explained my disquieted suspicion that I’d misjudged the bull and the murloc. My mind flashed back to Katy M, sitting by a fire in a cave, months ago, professing faith in the Law’s design, then to her somber sadness at the fate of the refugees of Storm City, refugees by that same design. I thought to Fang’s strange and earnest words on the shore of the north seas, warning the spider-people to flee for their lives, how he’d refused to even try to stop the summoning of that danger – But it’s the right thing to do, I’d protested. What do you mean by that word, ‘right’? he’d whispered challengingly in my mind. Even when they’d appeared at Under City and with no explanation delivered the black book into the evil hands of Hannathras himself – I shuddered at the memory – there had been a keen sadness, an earnestness in their eyes. They had faith, I was certain, that what they were doing was somehow for the betterment of the world.
And what could drive such a believer in good to work so shamelessly for evil, to cast the world into the murderous throes of chaos? I sat back in my chair, staring at the stone and mortar wall in front of me. Needs a common enemy, I thought. Six hundred years of shattering the old allegiances, the old prides, and then, suddenly: Varimathras. “Ohhh,” I breathed.
I shook my head. Couldn’t be. It would be too right, too perfect. Too much like something they’d know I’d want to be part of. That would be just like them.
“I have to go,” I said, standing suddenly.
“Where to?” chirped Cherubim.
I paused. “I don’t know.” I sat back down. I was suddenly exhausted. “To bed, for now, I guess,” I said. I stood back up.
The dwarf nodded. “It was late when we started talkin’, and we haven’t been quick about it,” he smiled. “Thanks for the beer,” and he quaffed the remainder of his and winked.
“Thanks for the company,” I returned. “You’ll be around tomorrow, right?”
“We’ll be around next month, unless this town suddenly needs no more healing.”
“Bye!” said the gnome grinning widely. “Nice chatting with you!”
I smiled back at her, then picked up my pack and turned. My smile turned to a frown. Damn gnome. Before she’d spoken up, I’d been so sure that running had been the right decision, that I could at least be sure that the Law was bad.
I walked slowly back over to the old orc woman at the desk.
“Room?” she croaked.
“Yes, please,” I replied.
She peered again at the book in front of her. “How long?”
“Just the night,” I replied tiredly.
“Attack gnome?” she said, peering imperiously up at me. I glared back. “Juuuuust kidding,” she drawled.