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An Unofficial Fan Fiction Story by Tarlach (R. Buszka)

Tarlach awoke in a grassy field. A soft, amber glow caressed his face as the tall stalks of dry grass swayed in the wind. He rose to his feet, and slouched for a moment, pausing to survey his surroundings. His movement felt labored and staggering, as though he had to fight for every step. A solitary tree stood atop a hill, against the shadows of the night. As Tarlach pondered the tree, he noticed the long shadow cast by his body on the swaying grass. He turned to face the source of the amber glow, and saw behind him an entire forest, blazing with windswept flame. With a curiosity that he could not place, Tarlach walked across the flat grassland as the grass swayed in waves, seed heads crunching softly beneath his hooves with each deliberate step. He was not entirely sure that he was in control.

Tarlach could feel the heat on his face as he approached the flame-engulfed forest. As he neared the conflagration, he saw that a wide path led into the flaming forest. The licking flames did not encroach upon the path, but seemed to respect its presence. Tarlach tried to stop walking but found that he could not arrest his own forward motion. Don’t do this, he thought to himself as he walked towards the trailhead. His unease gave way to panic – what was controlling him? The thought flashed across his mind: Or, perhaps, who? The heat was much stronger now, warming Tarlach from head to toe against the coolness of the night. Through sheer will, he finally forced himself to stand still. For a moment he fought himself. His muscles tensed mightily as he devoted his every effort to remaining in place, but the force controlling him – moving him – was gaining the upper hand in the struggle. Tarlach’s muscles began to burn with the effort and tension, but it was useless. No. No! Tarlach felt himself take one ponderous step, and then another, and then another, until he was completely surrounded on both sides by the towering inferno. This is insane! Turn back! he shouted at himself as he continued to follow the path. But his legs refused to listen. The rush of the flames and the crackle of burning wood filled his ears, as smoke filled his lungs. He began to cough. Stop! Get out of here! he shouted soundlessly within his mind. His legs felt weak as saplings and sore from the effort of standing still, but now they inexorably did the bidding of whatever force now controlled them. Tarlach looked around, panic rising in his chest. The smoke and heat were becoming unbearable. It was choking him. He’d die if he didn’t get out! He looked frantically behind him, watching as the trailhead disappeared from sight around a bend in the path. Then, as he faced forward once more, a wide clearing unexpectedly appeared in front of him. A tall and noble-looking Tauren stood fearlessly in the middle of the clearing, seemingly unaffected by the fire as the woods blazed around him. The waves of heat clouded Tarlach’s vision, and every breath was agony as he staggered on. As he gasped for breath, he knew he was about to die. At first he could not see the other Tauren’s identity. He half-stumbled into the clearing, and the heat and smoke faded away, as though held back by some unseen force. Then the other Tauren turned to face Tarlach. In an instant, his panic faded. Those eyes, intense yet kind, familiar…Tarlach hadn’t seen those eyes in years! His knees grew weak, and his lungs burned. “Father—,” Tarlach managed to choke as he collapsed to the ground.

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Tarlach

Part 1: Journey to Thunder Bluff


One

“Tarlach, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The Tauren have never been a bloodthirsty people. The most we have ever desired is a peaceful existence, yet it has always somehow eluded our grasp. When the Centaur nearly wiped out our race, it was the Orcs who came to our rescue. My father, Cairne Bloodhoof, traded our allegiance for their protection from the Centaur. If he hadn’t made that decision the way he did, our tribe might never have survived. And we have honored our pact with the Orcs for a great many summers.” The young Tauren hunter Tarlach Steelmane and Baine Bloodhoof, son of Cairne Bloodhoof, sat together on an enormous log facing the tribal bonfire at Bloodhoof Village. Baine adjusted his posture, and stared into the base of the roaring fire at the glowing embers there. The sky boiled with low-hanging clouds, illuminated a deep dark-blue color by the fading light. Tarlach turned to Baine and continued the conversation. “But why must we continue to be allied with the Orcs? Their lust for blood and power could lead to their downfall, and then what will keep us from being pulled down with them?” Tarlach shook his mane, and directed his gaze to the rising flames. Baine collected his thoughts for a moment and then turned to Tarlach, who looked directly back into Baine’s intense eyes. Tarlach could not help but notice an internal struggle, and wasn’t sure whether Baine would sternly reprove him or answer. “We have fought bravely for our place in this world, Tarlach. There is a much bigger world out there than you or I fully comprehend. The Orcs have allowed us to have a part in that. I have never trusted any Orc farther than I could throw him, but my father does, and that is what matters now. There are those who say that Orcs are no longer the bloodthirsty monsters they once were. Indeed, their blood-curse was lifted after they defeated the demon lord Mannoroth and broke the bonds of the Blood Pact. I don’t believe anyone has ever fully understood the scope of what took place in those dark days, and that includes my father, ancestors watch over him. But what we have always understood is that the Orcs are our allies, and it is our duty as Tauren to honor that allegiance – even unto death. Tarlach, you are young yet. Your eyes have not seen the carnage and bloodshed that I have. You should be careful not to base your impressions of others on old stories, especially when the Orcs seem dedicated to keeping their past wrongs in the past.” Tarlach’s gaze had drifted to the dry, fire-illuminated ground, but it now returned to Baine, who cleared his throat and continued. “The Orcs have continued to show their goodwill towards our people, and we shall continue to show goodwill to them in return.” Tarlach sighed and looked back into the center of the fire. Thankfully, the reproach would have to wait until another time. He stood, and turned to leave. “Ancestors watch over you,” Baine offered. Tarlach smiled and replied, “And you as well.” He began to walk towards the village inn. The evening light had faded, and the starless, cloudy sky rumbled with thunder. As Tarlach neared the immense longhouse, a light rain began to fall, quickly increasing to a full downpour. The braves patrolling the camp looked up, and then continued solemnly making their rounds as the rain began to drench their hair and clothing, but other Tauren of the village hastily collected their belongings and sought shelter from the rain under the various skin-covered structures. Tarlach stood and marveled that the village’s tribal fire did not go out even in the deluge, even after the bonfire to the northeast had been extinguished by the rain. And then he noticed Baine, still sitting on the enormous log and staring into the fire as it defied the raindrops’ onslaught. Baine was very wise, and his friendship was dear to Tarlach, but when Baine was troubled, it was not difficult to spot. Baine Bloodhoof was much older than Tarlach, by nearly thirty summers. Yet he had already seen enough struggle and conflict to last a lifetime. From the moment the first tent peg was driven, Baine had overseen Bloodhoof village, a design of his father to build his son’s leadership ability. And, Tarlach felt sure, it wouldn’t be long before he would pass the test. “A leader is never born, Tarlach. Leadership is alloyed with wisdom, and tempered in unquenchable fires,” Baine had said, and it rang true indeed. Yet at times it lent an abrasive quality to the younger Bloodhoof’s personality. “Sometimes I wonder how you put up with me, Tarlach,” he would frequently state, to which Tarlach had always replied “With a great deal of courage and trust.” And, Tarlach thought to himself as the rain soaked his body, it had always been worth it for the sake of their friendship. Baine had been more than a mentor to him. The younger Bloodhoof was unmistakably his father’s son. There was no doubt in Tarlach’s mind that one day Baine would lead the Bloodhoof Tauren with wisdom, strength, and honor. Tarlach turned and walked into the inn. He regarded the innkeeper, Kauth, who looked strangely at Tarlach as he dripped profusely on the floor. “If you seek a place to dry off, you’d better do it over there,” he said, motioning towards the firepot near the back of the building, where two other Tauren sat, eating and drinking. Tarlach walked to the crackling fire, and calmly regarded the two other Tauren, who looked up briefly from their food and beverage, and then continued eating and drinking. He drew a stare, however, when he removed his sopping leather vest and trapper’s shirt, and hung them near the roaring fire. Now bare-chested except for a bone necklace, he reached into his pack which now lay beside his massive hooves and withdrew a smaller leathern pouch containing pieces of salted Battleboar meat. Taking a fire-poker from the nearby rack, he warmed its tip in the fire, and then punched it through the center of the piece of meat, and held it just above the flames until juices began to drip down its edges and the fat began to melt away. Tarlach had collected this meat only two days earlier, on Red Cloud Mesa south of Camp Narache, at the very southern edge of the Mulgore territory. The Battleboars had been trained by the Bristleback Quillboars of Brambleblade Ravine to create a constant nuisance in the region, and it gave Tarlach a sense of satisfaction to hunt them, much like the fulfillment of a vendetta. The inviting smell of the roasting meat drew the attention of Kauth, and two other Tauren who had been sitting nearby on the woven-leather hammocks, so Tarlach motioned for them to come join him by the fire. One of the two Tauren males was built like Tarlach, his fur a reddish-brown color. He had the simple clothing of a hunter, and carried an expensive-looking shotgun and a long-handled stone tomahawk. The other was massive, a gigantic and powerful specimen with bulging muscles, enormous horns, and heavy leather armor, most likely a warrior of widespread renown. Certainly not from around here – most Tauren warriors of renown sought their fortunes in other lands, sending back enough exciting stories of their victories to fill many a warm summer evening. The bigger Tauren appeared unarmed for the moment, but Tarlach had learned enough about Tauren warriors from Baine’s stories to know differently. The strength of Tauren warriors in hand-to-hand combat was nearly unmatched. The warrior and the other hunter sat on the two unoccupied floor mats, and the innkeeper stood beside Tarlach, near where his shirt was drying in the fire’s warmth. Tarlach felt slightly intimidated by the massive warrior, but he looked into the warrior’s eyes and understood that the warrior meant him no harm. He reached for the leather pouch and removed three additional slabs of the Battleboar meat, and pushed them onto the improvised spit. Outside, the rain assaulted the animal-hide exterior of the longhouse structure, creating a dull roar. But inside, any area not yet heated by the fire’s glow was warmed with unspoken Tauren brotherhood and friendship that night.


The following morning, as Tarlach awoke, he looked out the rear doorway leading onto the rear deck of the longhouse and watched the sunlight shimmering on the surface of nearby Stonebull Lake. The air was warm, but not humid, as the previous night’s rain had purged the atmosphere of the oppressive humidity that had plagued the region for the previous three days. The smell of pine sap and wet animal skins filled Tarlach’s nose. As he sat up on his bed, the idea of taking a bath in Stonebull Lake’s clear, cool water grew more and more attractive to him. The bed in which he sat was a manger of sorts, filled with straw that rustled with every movement, but covered in linen cloth to make the surface more comfortable. Tarlach pushed off the heavy animal-hide cover, and reached for his frayed pants, which hung at his bedside. He grabbed his large pack which contained his carefully-folded trapper’s shirt, and put that on as well. Taking up his pack, he rose, and walked down the ramp from the second story of the inn. The village was bustling with activity in the early morning. Owners of each skin-covered structure were using long sticks to lift up the areas of the skin coverings that had collected rainwater. As they did, sheets of water fell from the edges of the animal-hide tarpaulins and splashed onto the wet grass and moist soil. In the distance, a pair of enormous wind-sails caught the light breeze and slowly yet forcefully turned the massive stones in the grain mill. Two more rotating sets of wind-sails turned smaller grindstones in the grassy meadow between Bloodhoof Village and the main Mulgore road. A voice from beside drew Tarlach back into the moment. “Good morning, Tarlach,” Kauth said cheerfully. Tarlach turned and grinned. “Do you ever sleep?” he asked, with a laugh. “I trust everything was well for you?” the innkeeper asked. “Absolutely, Kauth. I’ve never been disappointed with your accommodations,” Tarlach replied good-naturedly. He walked out into the bright morning sun, and made his way through the busy village to its northeastern edge, and the shore of Stonebull Lake. In the early morning, it seemed unlikely that many people would be around to see him. The suspended rope bridge’s support structures towered nearby. To Tarlach’s chagrin, three young female Tauren were already at the lake’s shore, ankle-deep in the water and washing garments in the shadow of the bridge. They looked up, and waved happily to Tarlach. He waved back unenthusiastically, sighed, and then walked along the shoreline, circling the village until he was on its southwestern edge. He continued further along the shoreline, as it wound along the road and then into the open, grassy Mulgore wilderness. When he was sure he was far enough away from the road or the edge of the village, he set down his heavy pack in the wet grass. He untied his leather vest and unfastened his belt, and stripped to his loincloth. Tarlach’s hair was dark grey on his back and legs, and transitioned to white on his chest, abdomen, and lower jaw. An even darker grey, almost black mane sprouted from his head and the back of his neck, and short, similarly-colored facial hair grew from his chin and jaw line. Like most of his Tauren brethren, he was thoroughly muscle-bound, but since he was young, he had not developed much abdominal fat, which gave his body a lean appearance. He carefully removed the bone necklace his mother had given him when he left home to set out on his own, and he placed it in a side pouch on his leather pack. Tarlach walked into the water until it rose to his chest. Once he began to float, he rolled over onto his back, and kicked his legs lightly to propel him around in the water. Relaxation flooded his body as the warm sun shone down on him. When he had tired of paddling around the lake, he returned to the shallows, making his way back into shore. The water poured off his mane and hair as his body began to rise from the water’s surface. He walked up on the bank and, kneeling to the ground, reached into a small blue cloth pouch which normally hung at his belt, pulling out a small bar of soap. He cradled the small rectangular bar in his palm for a moment. Soap was an item not made in any significant quantity by the Tauren, but primarily imported from other regions of the world like many of the more modern elements of the Tauren lifestyle. Tarlach’s hunting rifle, a solid Blunderbuss piece, was another example of imported technological advancement. Only decades ago, the best ranging weapon available was a massive Tauren bow, which could reliably drive a stone-tipped arrow through a tree trunk at close range, but was inaccurate for long distances. Tauren traders brought the soap and other technologically advanced items like the Blunderbuss firearms into Thunder Bluff, where they could be purchased with Horde-standard gold, silver, and copper pieces. Still, the soap was considered by most to be a luxury item, one of the few luxuries Tarlach allowed himself to enjoy from time to time, whenever he had the money. The hunting had been good to him recently, and therefore the soap. Every bit was precious. Thankfully, a little of the soap went a long way for washing fur and hair, and Tarlach soon lathered his entire body, without consuming a significant portion of the bar. He walked back into the water, and began to rinse the soapy lather from his hair. Finally, he dunked his entire head and neck underwater and worked the last of the soap from his face and mane. Tarlach lifted his neck and head out of the water. He looked back at his pack on the shore, and froze. To his dismay, a Prairie Stalker (a type of wolf common on the Mulgore plains) was neck-deep inside! It snuffled around and easily found the leather pouch containing Tarlach’s last slab of Battleboar meat. The wolf’s teeth seized the piece of meat, and it withdrew its head from the pack, quickly consuming the piece. The wolf then began to walk away into the open grassland, which is what Tarlach would have preferred. No need for a confrontation now. The Tauren began to make his way to shore, but a moment too soon. The wolf’s ears twitched at the sound of the movement in the water, and it whirled to face Tarlach directly. Instinctively, the Tauren hunter reached to his side where his large steel axe ordinarily hung at his waist, but instead his hand grasped at water. The axe lay uselessly on shore, next to his knapsack, with a rawhide cover over the steel blade. The wolf snarled aggressively, and walked towards the shore of the lake, but stopped at the water’s edge, which suited Tarlach just fine. Tarlach and the wolf stared into the other’s eyes for a moment with as much fire and contempt as they could muster, which visibly unsettled the wolf. Tarlach thought for a moment about scrapping the whole idea and swimming across the lake, back to Bloodhoof village. Yeah, sure, he thought to himself sarcastically – a big, wet Tauren walking through a crowded village in broad daylight in nothing but a loincloth would go over real well. Then Tarlach formed a plan. He knew that while Prairie Stalkers could be formidable on land, they were somewhat helpless in the water. The wolf would likely jump at Tarlach as soon as it could, which meant that Tarlach didn’t necessarily have to be out of the water before the wolf would attack. But if everything went as expected, it wouldn’t matter. Tarlach floated to where his feet would touch the bottom, and then he began to run. Below the water’s surface, his massive hooves scrambled for traction as he picked up speed. The wolf lowered its head and readied itself to spring at Tarlach, but Tarlach was quicker. The wolf leapt at Tarlach, who dodged and met the wolf’s leap with a roundhouse kick to the head, which stunned the wolf for a moment and nearly threw the big Tauren off-balance. That moment was just enough for Tarlach to rip the rawhide cover from his axe and prepare for the wolf’s next rush. The wolf leapt, and Tarlach was ready. He swung his axe, and its blunt end connected soundly with the side of the wolf’s face, sending the wolf to the ground, in a daze. Tarlach lifted the axe blade high over his head and brought it down directly between the wolf’s eyes, bringing the wolf instantly to the ground and splitting its skull. The creature died instantly; it did not suffer. With the threat passed and the creature slowly bleeding out on the ground, Tarlach stood for a moment and calmed down. His body was still dripping wet. He heaved a sigh – thankfully the altercation was not as bloody as it could have been. Since there was little struggle, the animal’s pelt was completely unharmed. The almost perfectly-placed axe hit was a fluke, a blessing from the Earthmother. He pulled the axe blade out of the creature’s head, gathered his pack and belongings, and walked closer to town where wilderness animals were less likely to bother him. Quickly scanning the landscape for other threats and finding none, he laid out in the sun, and with a contented sigh, began to fall asleep.


An unexpected, distinctly female Tauren voice woke Tarlach. “You do this often?” the voice asked. Tarlach stirred. “Wuh--?”, he began as he opened his eyes. To his surprise, he found himself looking into the eyes of a young female Tauren, about his age. He lifted his head and remembered where he was. Then it dawned on him – he wasn’t wearing any pants! He jerked upright, gasped with dismay, and hastily reached for his frayed cloth pants, and pulled them to cover his loincloth. “I—uh…”, Tarlach tried to begin, realizing his attempt at modesty had been thoroughly blown. “Save it,” the female Tauren replied. “Believe it or not, you’re not the first nearly naked Tauren I’ve ever seen. What is your name anyway?” she asked, impatiently. “Tarlach Steelmane, a hunter,” Tarlach replied. “Oh, I get it… Is this supposed to be part of the whole wilderness thing?” the female Tauren asked. “For your information, I was taking a bath. Sheesh,” Tarlach replied. “Good, some of you guys could use one,” the female Tauren said. “Well, while we’re exchanging pleasantries, what is your name?” asked Tarlach. “My name is Sierra Stormcall, daughter of Kildare Stormcall of Camp Narache. I live in Bloodhoof village. I was looking for smooth stones for Zarlman Two-Moons. Then I found you…like that,” the female Tauren replied, trying to hide a smile. Tarlach made a face. “Quit goofing around and put your pants on, Tarlach”, Sierra ordered playfully. “Well, then don’t watch. I came out here for some privacy,” Tarlach quickly shot back. Sierra tried to hide a giggle, but Tarlach saw and frowned. “Do you even care that I’m trying to be modest?” he asked crossly. Sierra smiled and turned to face directly away from Tarlach. “That’s very gentlemanly of you, Tarlach,” Sierra said, as Tarlach pulled up his pants and tied them. “Okay, I’m decent now,” Tarlach said. Next time, he thought to himself, perhaps he would have to go all the way around the lake.


Two

“So what exactly do you hunt, Tarlach?” asked Sierra as the two of them walked leisurely back into Bloodhoof Village. “Just about anything, and a little of everything,” Tarlach replied courteously. The billowing sails of the grain mill rotated overhead. “I take great care to hunt only animals that are the most useful. The Earthmother would not have me wasting flesh,” he continued, as the shadow of one of the sails passed momentarily over his face. He looked up and saw that the sun was high in the sky. “It’s nearly midday. Would you like something to eat?” Tarlach asked Sierra as he reached into his pack and pulled out the stained leather pouch, which fell limp in his hands. Then he remembered the wolf. It had eaten his last remaining piece of meat from the Battleboar. “Curses,” Tarlach sighed as his face fell. Sierra smiled and laughed. “It’s a long story,” Tarlach said. “That’s all right, Tarlach. I have some meat saved. I’ve also got some bread, if you want some,” Sierra offered. “I would be honored to share a meal with you,” Tarlach replied with a smile, and Sierra laughed. The two of them entered Sierra’s tent, in the very northern section of the village. Sierra listened attentively as Tarlach told of the night before at the inn, and then going to Stonebull Lake to bathe, and then finding the Prairie Stalker rummaging through his knapsack, and eating the last of the meat. Tarlach also described how he had defeated the wolf, and it was this part of the story that seemed to pique Sierra’s interest. “Well, it sounds like you got more adventure than you bargained for, Tarlach,” Sierra said, after he finished the story. Tarlach smiled. “Nah, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle,” he replied courageously. Sierra paused for a moment, and then spoke. “Where do you call home, Tarlach?” asked the young Tauren female. “Home is any place that I can find a safe, cheap place to sleep, for now,” he replied. Sierra nodded. She understood the hunters’ tradition of following the movements of the game, and the vagabond lives that many hunters lived as a result. Frequently, hunters could be seen sleeping in the open, on an animal skin, using their packs as crude pillows. “Have you ever thought about settling down and having a family?” she asked. Tarlach paused for what seemed to him like a long time. “Someday, perhaps, when the right person comes along. There are still many adventures in this world, and I’d like to have a few more before I think about settling down,” he finally answered. “Could I be the ‘right person’?” Sierra asked. “I don’t know. Could you?” Tarlach asked coyly, with a grin. Sierra smiled and laughed. Tarlach felt different around Sierra. He would often become shy around females near his age, but Sierra was different. She was pleasant, welcoming. This set Tarlach at ease. When Tarlach had finished his half of the loaf of bread and his piece of Plainstrider meat, he rose to leave. “Thanks for your kindness, and for sharing your food with me. I’d better go get that wolf before something else does,” he said. Sierra stood, and walked with him to the tent’s entrance. “Well, I suppose I’ll see you around, then?” she asked. “Sure, you’ll see me from time to time,” Tarlach replied. As he walked away from the tent, he looked back, and saw Sierra standing there. She smiled and waved. Tarlach caught himself daydreaming about what life would be like with Sierra. She was charming, strong in a feminine way, and resourceful. But Tarlach knew that taking a female Tauren as his bride would mean that he’d have to settle down, and the way he saw things, he was still much too young to think about that. But she liked him. That much was clear. The midday warmth had led other Tauren to seek refuge in Stonebull Lake’s cool water. Young male and female Tauren children played together in the water, splashing, as two Tauren braves stood watch against predators. The presence of the braves gave the whole affair an official feel, as though Baine had given the order himself to go swimming in Stonebull Lake. For that matter, Tarlach thought, he wouldn’t be surprised to see Baine in the water himself. Other adult males and females were joining in the fun and relaxation as well. A female Tauren, whom Tarlach recognized as one of the three from earlier that morning, called out to him, “Come in! The water’s great!” The morning’s events were still fresh in Tarlach’s memory, and he didn’t exactly feel like going for another leisurely swim. “Perhaps another time,” he called back.


As he walked along the shoreline of Stonebull Lake, he came upon the place where he had struggled with the wolf earlier. Carrion birds had since arrived, and were picking at the wolf’s carcass, damaging the valuable pelt. Tarlach shooed them away with his hand. One of the birds reached out and snapped at Tarlach’s glove, which he reflexively pulled back. He drew his axe and with a loud “Heeyahhhh!” swung it near the birds, who squawked angrily and flew away. He rolled the wolf carcass onto its back and skillfully began to cut away the pelt from the dead animal’s muscle using a small, sharp skinning knife. Using his axe blade, he scraped the residual muscle and connecting tissue from the underside of the pelt. Yaw Sharpmane, one of the finest hunters in the village, had taught Tarlach to skin. It took patience and a steady hand. This wolf had fallen easily, and the pelt was relatively undamaged except for a portion on one side which had been picked open by the carrion birds. It would bring a good price, which would be even better if Tarlach could take it to the traders in Thunder Bluff, he knew. The journey would be long and dangerous, though, and Tarlach decided he’d had enough excitement for one day. For the rest of the afternoon, he was going to take it easy. With the wolf’s pelt safely stored in his pack, he turned back to the skinned carcass of the wolf. Wasting as little as possible, he used the serrated edge of the small knife to slice the dead animal’s meat into strips. Wolf meat wasn’t the best for many things, but it could be dried over a fire to make a tough jerky, which provided a welcome source of sustenance on long travels. Tarlach knelt over the wolf’s carcass and sliced off enough strips of meat to completely fill the stained leather pouch in which he kept his meat supply. Satisfied, he rose to his feet and packed up his implements. He started back towards the village, as a light afternoon breeze blew through his mane. The sun was beginning to set, hanging low and orange in the sky as in the distance Tauren continued to swim happily in the lake. Their playful shouts drifted into Tarlach’s ears, and he recalled the days when he was so young and carefree. As he came of age, however, he discovered his hunter’s calling, and felt the need to become independent and set out on his own. “Hunting is a Tauren’s greatest honor,” his father had once said. It was almost all he remembered of his father. Before Tarlach had departed for Camp Narache to begin a new life, his mother had given him the bone necklace he wore as a parting gift, reminding him that as long as he wore the strung-together fragments of bone, good fortune would follow him wherever he went. He wasn’t so sure of that, but he treasured the necklace dearly. The evening was fast approaching, which would bring all manner of dangerous beasts very soon, so Tarlach hastened back to the village, where Tauren were gathering around the enormous campfire for the evening. During the daylight hours, most Tauren simply went about their business, but with the coming of evening, the Tauren would show a side of themselves that many never truly appreciate. For Tauren, the evening was an opportunity to come together and share in each others’ experiences through the sharing of meat and stories. Tauren were already gathering near the tribal bonfire for the evening, opening their packs and carefully unwrapping pieces of meat. Waves of heat rose from the fire as Tarlach scanned the crowd for familiar Tauren faces. He saw and recognized the two Tauren from the previous night at the inn, and the face of Sierra Stormcall, whom he had met earlier that day. She stood with two other female Tauren, talking animatedly, and Tarlach decided he wouldn’t interrupt. He was never much of one for ‘shooting the bull’, anyway. He smiled at the irony of his idiom. “Tarlach,” a voice from behind said. Tarlach turned and saw Brave Windchaser standing next to him. The sharpened tip of Windchaser’s spear glinted in the amber sunlight. “Baine is looking for you. Come with me,” the Tauren brave said. Tarlach nodded and followed the brave as he began to walk towards the largest tent in the village. Baine stood near the entrance of the towering tent. “Hello, Tarlach, my friend. There is something you can do that will be a great help to me—and this entire village.” Tarlach’s eyebrows raised at this. Baine often had errands and tasks for Tarlach to do, which he was well-rewarded for, but this sounded more important than usual. “Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it,” Tarlach offered cheerfully. “Tarlach, you are one of my most trusted friends in this village, and that is why I am asking you to do this for me,” Baine spoke, as he produced a leather-wrapped bundle of what appeared to be sheets of Orcish paper. The top face of the bundle bore the Bloodhoof family mark. Tarlach smiled. He knew Baine was more than simply a friend. “I need you to take this package to my father in Thunder Bluff.” Tarlach’s eyes widened – he had only ever seen the great Tauren chief twice in person, and only at a distance. He’d never had occasion to personally meet Cairne Bloodhoof. “I’ll gladly do this for you. But, would you mind telling me what I’m carrying?” Tarlach asked, as he reached out and took the package. “These are records of the Venture Company, records which we seized in a recent raid of a traveling caravan. Baine lowered his head and stepped closer to Tarlach. “They’re plans. Venture wants us out, Tarlach. And they’re prepared to do almost anything to accomplish that,” Baine said grimly, in a guarded tone. “What sort of plans?” asked Tarlach. “Poisoning our water wells. There’s a purchase order for fifty barrels of a strong poison, and reports indicate that work is underway on a new injection well, for dumping the poison into the underground river that feeds the water wells on which we depend. Venture Company has been up to this mischief for a long time, but this escalates far beyond anything they have ever attempted before. They’re trying to kill us, Tarlach. If they will not stop at murder, words are no longer the answer. I’m asking my father for help – and fighters. We will not be intimidated in our own homelands, and I’m planning on sending Venture Company a message they won’t soon forget. You are capable and trusted, and these documents are precious. That is why I’m sending you, Tarlach. I know you will do whatever it takes to make sure my father receives this.” Tarlach nodded respectfully. Venture Company existed for one reason, and one reason alone – to extract and exploit natural resources wherever they were found, for gargantuan profit, while pushing the boundaries of legitimate business practices. Those resources were sent far away to be made into products, which the goblins sold at their various trading posts across the continent of Kalimdor. More recently, Venture Company had been poking its nose into the Mulgore territory, conducting mining exploration expeditions to the very furthest corners of Mulgore. It was quickly determined that not far beneath the open, fertile Mulgore plains lay a tremendous wealth of valuable mineral deposits. The only thing that stood in the greed-driven goblins’ path was the Tauren, who settled in Mulgore after the Orcs convinced the Tauren to take up a more settled lifestyle, and who were determined not to allow anyone to defile the land. And this latest development made perfectly clear what Venture Co. was planning to do about the Tauren. Tarlach looked out to the southeast, where in the distance four great purple sails rotated atop the nearby Winterhoof well as they caught the wind. For a moment he remembered a scene from his youth, being reprimanded by his mother for swinging from the rotating arms as a young Tauren child. His expression grew serious. “Baine, this is as important to me as it is to you. I will make sure your father receives this package,” Tarlach said. “And of course you’ll be handsomely compensated. My father is prepared to offer three gold pieces to civilian messengers in risky situations like this one. You won’t be traveling alone, either. Before you set out on your journey, go to the inn and find Aidan Thunderhoof and Griff Stoneblade. They have been sent from Thunder Bluff by my father to accompany you on your journey. Between the three of you, I don’t think there is any threat you need fear,” Baine said. “But let no one see that you have this package,” he warned. Tarlach quickly slid his pack off his shoulders, and opened it. He placed the wrapped bundle of documents at the very bottom. “If anyone should ask to search your pack, do not allow them,” Baine cautioned. “May our ancestors speed you on your way, and my thanks go with you,” Baine offered, as Tarlach turned to leave. Tarlach looked back to Baine, and smiled knowingly. Baine Bloodhoof could depend on him. Whatever Venture Co. had coming, they deserved every bit.


As the sun was setting, Tarlach walked out into the Mulgore plains to hunt for food. Walking south along the road, he soon spotted an Adult Plainstrider beneath an enormous connifer. Its head bobbed much like a bird as it strutted slowly along. It would do well enough. He quickly scanned the landscape for other threats. In the distance, a Prairie Stalker was minding its own business. Tarlach looked back at the plainstrider, which was still unaware of what the Tauren hunter had in mind. As the sky overhead began to turn from orange to purple, Tarlach knew he didn’t have a lot of time until more menacing beasts came out for the night. Wild Kodo beasts were not to be trifled with – and a difficult and dangerous battle would likely ensue. Tarlach reached behind himself and pulled his Blunderbuss hunting rifle, from his knapsack. He raised the muzzle, and looked down the barrel. Once he had precisely aligned the weapon, he fired once. The sharp report echoed off the nearby rock face. The first shot was a direct hit, catching the Plainstrider in its side. The Plainstrider squalled and began to run towards Tarlach. Wasting no time, Tarlach reloaded the weapon and fired again. By this point, the Plainstrider had covered nearly half the distance that originally separated Tarlach and itself. Tarlach began to jog quickly backwards, while reloading for a third shot. This close-range shot caught the Plainstrider in the chest, causing it to hesitate and squall in pain as the shot lodged itself deep within the creature’s body. The Plainstrider was bleeding heavily now, and Tarlach knew there wouldn’t be much more fight in the animal. He reached for his axe with his right hand, holding it away from his body and to the side, preparing to strike at the Plainstrider. The Plainstrider jumped at Tarlach, who caught the raptor’s leap in midair with his axe blade. The raptor lunged again, this time biting Tarlach on the left forearm, causing him to draw a breath and utter “Ahhh!” Tarlach pulled his axe back for a final swing, and cast a special spell called Raptor Strike to strengthen the blow. He felt force from an unknown source beginning to build in his arm. He released the building energy with a mighty swing at the creature’s neck, releasing a fountain of blood as the blade buried itself deeply. The Plainstrider began to stumble. It once again reached out to strike at Tarlach, but it missed, and fainted from blood loss. Letting out a heavy sigh and settling onto his heels, Tarlach stood and caught his breath. He slid the wooden handle of his axe back into its loop on his belt. As the purple sky began to grow darker and darker, Tarlach reached into a side pocket on his pack and withdrew his long hunting knife. This knife, different from the one he used for skinning, was longer and thicker, and had a sharpened edge with fearsome serrations designed specifically for cutting through the fibrous muscle and connecting tissue. It was with this reaching motion that Tarlach remembered the Plainstrider’s bite on his arm. He grimaced with the pain as he raised his arm to examine the wound. The Plainstrider’s short, sharp teeth had easily broken the skin, and the wound was beginning to bleed, with a few small red drops dripping from his arm onto the grass below. Tarlach knelt down in the grass, and reached into his pack for the textile dressings he kept for minor wounds. He slowly and skillfully wrapped the gauze around his forearm, being careful not to cut off the circulation. He used the edge of his hunting knife to cut off the excess from the textile strip, and then tied the loose ends together. He looked up and scowled – dressing the wound had cost him valuable daylight, which was quickly fading. Tarlach went immediately to work, slicing the skin from the Plainstrider’s carcass, which had nearly bled out, creating a red, sticky mess in the grass. The adult age of the Plainstrider meant that it would contain meat for at least five days – at least. The meat was pink, but still contained the dead animal’s blood. First, Tarlach cut into the side of the dead Plainstrider’s hip, slicing through the scaly skin. Pulling the skin back, he reached in and cut the leg meat from the bone. Working quickly with the serrated edge of the knife, he sawed through the hunk of meat with a satisfying “squish” sound following each stroke of the blade, sawing the muscle into slabs. Tarlach reached into his pack and pulled out four folded, lightly stained leather sacks, which each unfolded until they were quite large. He began to pile the Plainstrider meat into the sacks. He moved on to the other leg muscles, and the chest muscles, with his blade easily shearing the meat from the bone. Then he grabbed the Plainstrider by the feet, and rolled the carcass over to the other side. He repeated the same process as he had on the other side of the animal, slicing into the Plainstrider’s other hip and cutting away the leg meat. When he had finished, he had completely filled the leather sacks with the plainstrider’s meat. He tucked the sacks neatly away in his enormous knapsack, taking care not to spill any of the meat’s drippings or oozing blood on the package Baine Bloodhoof had given him. By this point, the sun had left the sky, and a bright full moon was illuminating the landscape as distant stars twinkled. Tarlach collected his pack – much heavier now – and turned towards Bloodhoof Village, whose torches and bonfires illuminated the perimeter with a warm, welcoming yellowish-orange glow.


Three

As Tarlach entered the village, most of the other Tauren had finished their evening meals and were sitting near the tribal bonfire in the center of the village. Some were going about their evening business, visiting the various vendors in the village. Kodo beasts stood obediently near the enormous wooden beam where they were tied, and the small fires inside the buildings in the village glowed yellow against the starry night sky. The night was clear, and the bright moon bathed in its silvery light every feature of the landscape that was not illuminated by the Tauren village’s fires. Far the distance, the lights of Thunder Bluff were barely visible. Thunder Bluff was an entirely different place from Bloodhoof Village or Camp Narache. Tarlach remembered the bustling marketplace, the enormous majestic totem that rose from the top of the mesa, and the gigantic elevators which lifted visitors to the elevated city. “There you are, Tarlach. I was wondering where you’d gone,” said a familiar female Tauren voice. Where he’d gone… He decided it was not best to tell Sierra about Baine’s assignment. “I went hunting,” Tarlach replied. Sierra walked around the end of the enormous log, and sat next to Tarlach. “I’m going to Thunder Bluff tomorrow,” Tarlach said. Sierra smiled. “You’ll have fun there, I’m sure,” she offered. “Do you know when you’ll be back?” she asked. Tarlach paused. “When you go to Thunder Bluff, you never know where the wind will take you,” Tarlach replied, repeating a saying he had heard often in the Tauren city. Once he had spent nearly a month there with his mother. A large flat stone sat near the base of the fire, and two of the slabs of Plainstrider meat sizzled there, heated by the fire’s coals. Sierra leaned forward to look at Tarlach, and it was then that she noticed the dressing on his left forearm. Blood was beginning to soak into the dressing material around the bite. “Tarlach, you’re hurt,” she said, worriedly. “Oh, that’s nothing. Don’t worry about that,” Tarlach tried to reassure her. But she persisted. “Be sure to have Maur Raincaller look at that,” she recommended. “In the morning, perhaps,” Tarlach said with a sigh. He could see Sierra was not satisfied. “But like I said, this is nothing, and I’m fine,” he added. Sierra reached out and grabbed Tarlach’s wrapped forearm firmly, causing pain to shoot up his arm. “Ahhh…”, he gasped, and just for a moment his face contorted. He hoped she hadn’t seen. But of course she had. “Tarlach, it’s not ‘fine’. You need to take care of yourself, Tarlach. Promise me you’ll talk to Maur,” Sierra pleaded. “All right, if it will make you feel better, I will talk to him—in the morning,” he said. Tarlach slowly drew his hunting knife, reached forward, and used it to flip the two fresh Plainstrider steaks. The meat was naturally pink but cooked to an almost white color. The smell tantalized Tarlach’s nose, as juices ran down the side of the flat rock into the soil. “They’re almost ready. Would you like one?” Tarlach offered. “That would be wonderful,” Sierra replied. She turned to him, and he looked at her, for what seemed like a long time, and suddenly he realized that their heads were growing closer together. It happened quickly – their lips locked, and the world seemed to spin around them. Thoughts began to whirl inside Tarlach’s head – what was she thinking? For that matter, what was he thinking? Tarlach quickly pulled away. “Sierra, I…I…,” Tarlach stuttered. “You want to do it again?” she asked. “Yeah,” Tarlach eventually replied. This time, they kissed slowly, with Tarlach reaching around embracing Sierra below her shoulder blades with his wounded arm. The kiss ended, and they stared into each other’s eyes for a moment. “When you’re done seeing the world, Tarlach, promise you’ll come back for me,” Sierra said softly. “It’s a promise,” Tarlach said, smiling widely, with his arm still around her shoulder. For a moment, he sat in stunned silence as he considered the gravity of what he had just said. He wanted to say something appropriately romantic, but words suddenly seemed to fail, and he could only sigh, with a silly grin on his face. She was lovely, with light brown hair, a smooth mane of darker brown hair, and a relatively slender figure, for a Tauren. His eyes were a steely blue, but hers were a dark brown. She wore a traditional Druidic dress, which fit tightly around her torso. A Druidic staff accompanied her wherever she went. Tarlach had heard things about the description-defying abilities of the Druids, including the ability to shape-shift into a variety of other bestial forms, though he had yet to personally witness this. He handed her one of the steaming Plainstrider steaks, and she began to eat it delicately. For a moment, he remembered his reaction when she found him sleeping on the shore of the lake, clad only in his loincloth. A chuckle welled up in his abdomen as he recalled the discomfort of the situation, which seemed comical now. “What’s so funny,” Sierra asked. “Oh, nothing,” he replied. She quickly pecked him on the cheek. “One more for the road,” she said, as she stood. She and walked away between the tents and buildings, looking back as she went. Tarlach suddenly realized how late it was. The smell of charring meat caught his attention, and he looked down to see that his Plainstrider steak was beginning to blacken. He quickly reached for it with one of his leather gloves, and blew on it to cool it, waving it in the air. He bit in, and the overcooked meat was dry and tough, but he could have cared less. Try as he might, he kept re-living the moment of Sierra’s kiss over and over in his mind. He tore at the Plainstrider steak with his teeth until he had eaten all of it, but each tough hunk seemed to stick in his throat as it went down. By this time, few Tauren remained near the campfire. Most had begun preparations for the night, and some were most likely even sleeping soundly in their closed-up tents. The instructions of Baine Bloodhoof echoed in Tarlach’s mind. “Before you set out on your journey, go to the inn and find Aidan Thunderhoof and Griff Stoneblade. They have been sent from Thunder Bluff by my father to accompany you on your journey,” he remembered Baine saying. Tarlach rose from his seat on the enormous rough-hewn log and walked to the inn, which was still brightly lit. Innkeeper Kauth greeted Tarlach with a welcoming smile. “Good evening, Tarlach. Are you coming in for the night?” the innkeeper asked. “I think so, yes,” Tarlach replied. He scanned the faces in the room, and imagined he had a pretty good idea who Baine had been referring to. They were sitting on wooden benches near the glowing fire in the firepot. Tarlach walked over to the firepot, and stood casually near the ramp which led to the second floor. “Hello, Tarlach, how are you doing?” the smaller Tauren asked. Actually, he wasn’t exactly small – he’d still tower over most humans, or orcs for that matter. But the larger Tauren was bound with massive sinews that dwarfed the smaller of the two Tauren. Tarlach recognized them as the same two Tauren that he had shared his meat with only the night before. He smiled. “I’m well, how about you?” he responded. “It is well with me, too. I assume you have spoken with Baine? My name is Griff Stoneblade. This guy here is Aidan Thunderhoof,” the smaller Tauren said, gesturing towards the massive Tauren warrior, who suddenly paid attention. “Greetings, Tarlach,” Aidan rumbled, in a voice that was deep even for a Tauren. “Have you two eaten yet? I burned up a Plainstrider steak earlier, but I feel like giving it another try,” Tarlach offered. “We’ve eaten. But, if you’re offering, I’ll accept your offer. What about you, Aidan?” Griff asked, turning to Aidan. The enormous Tauren looked at Tarlach and nodded once. “Me too,” Aidan said. Tarlach noticed that Aidan’s serious expression hadn’t changed even once. In fact, Tarlach was beginning to wonder if Aidan had ever smiled once in his life. “Excellent. Don’t worry – I have plenty,” Tarlach said, as he pulled out one of the heavy leather sacks containing the Plainstrider steaks. Just as he had done the night before, he used a fire-tender as a makeshift spit and skewered the Plainstrider steaks. He decided to cook an extra one for the big warrior, though he didn’t know if it would make much difference – Aidan looked as though he could eat twelve of the thick steaks without any trouble. “You ever been to Thunder Bluff before, Tarlach?” asked Griff. “A few times,” Tarlach replied. “Not frequently,” he added. “Cairne Bloodhoof has sent us to be your escort, and to give you whatever help you need along your way. Baine has great faith in you, Tarlach, and we are here to make sure that faith is not shaken,” Griff said. “As you well know, the journey is not without hardship,” Aidan spoke in his deep, almost authoritative tone. “You have my thanks, Griff and Aidan. I could probably make the trip successfully on my own, but I certainly appreciate the companionship,” Tarlach said, as juices dripped from the Plainstrider steaks into the licking flames. “I will need to thank Cairne Bloodhoof personally for his generosity,” he finished. “This time it’s a bit different, Tarlach,” Griff began. “We have orders to stay off the roads, to avoid detection by Venture Company,” Aidan said. “We will travel across the Mulgore plain, directly to Thunder Bluff,” Griff added. “In case you didn’t know, this particular region of Mulgore has the largest population of wild Kodo beasts anywhere in Mulgore. Trust me – this is no walk in the village,” he continued. “It would be unwise to attempt this journey alone, Tarlach,” Aidan rumbled. “The steaks are ready,” Griff commented, pointing towards the dripping meat. “Oh – I wasn’t paying attention,” Tarlach said. He withdrew the fire-poker and meat from the fire, and handed a steaming steak to Griff and Aidan, who each grasped it in their leather-gloved hands. They both began to munch contentedly at the edges of their steak as it cooled in their hands. Tarlach recalled the wolf-meat strips he had cut from the Prairie Stalker earlier that day. They still would need to be dried and salted. He decided instead of tackling the task himself, he would just sell the meat in the morning. A quiet suspicion tugged at his thoughts. It didn’t make sense – Tarlach could easily make it across the Mulgore plains to Thunder Bluff. He’d done it before. The threat was real, but Tarlach was hardly helpless. He was experienced. He was smart. He was clever. The pieces just didn’t fit – why would Baine ask his father Cairne for an escort to Thunder Bluff? Unless the threat wasn’t wildlife, but Venture Co. itself. Tarlach rose from his seat, and looked directly into Griff’s eyes with a stern expression. “All right, I want you to give it to me straight. Why did Cairne Bloodhoof really send you?” Tarlach demanded. Aidan looked up from his Plainstrider steak, suddenly interested. “You are clever, Tarlach. Indeed, Cairne did not merely send us to protect you from wildlife – that is your specialty. But know this: what you carry are original Venture Company documents. By now they will certainly have discovered the documents are missing. They know as well as we do that the moment those documents reach Thunder Bluff, their goose is cooked. They can kiss their plans for Mulgore goodbye. So they are doing everything they can to find the one who carries the documents, and regain possession of them by whatever means. Though the goblins are small, they are dauntless. And they won’t hesitate to kill the one they find carrying the documents, if they can. That is why Cairne sent us – he fully expects an ambush. Even now, Venture Company employees and hired mercenaries have been spotted near the main road to Thunder Bluff. So you begin to see why Cairne decided an escort for you was necessary,” Griff explained. “Time to pack it in, gentlemen,” the innkeeper said, yawning widely. “Tarlach, we are within earshot at all times, so if you should need us, give a shout,” Griff said, as he walked up the ramp. Aidan followed behind, and the ramp bowed under his tremendous bulk. “You too, Tarlach,” the innkeeper said. “I know, I know,” Tarlach replied as he gathered his belongings into his knapsack. He walked up the ramp, and dropped his heavy pack by his bedside. He removed his shirt and pants, and laid his axe on the other side of the bed, within easy reach. He had to be cautious. Pulling the cover off the bed, he climbed on and lay still. Sleep came quickly.


Tarlach’s eyes opened to a rustling sound. He recognized its source instantly. In the firelight, he saw the form of a very small, greenish figure with pointed ears and angular features…rummaging through his pack! The various items his pack carried were laying on the floor as the goblin intruder reached to the very bottom of the pack, and slowly began to lift out a rectangular bundle of papers wrapped in leather. The package! Instantly, Tarlach reached for his axe. “GrrAHH!” he yelled as leapt out of bed and brought the axe heavily down. The floor shook with the axe’s impact as the goblin narrowly dodged its honed edge. The goblin squealed, and began to run towards the ramp that would lead him to escape. Not if Tarlach had anything to say about it. He yanked his axe from the gash in the floor that its blade had created, and chased after the goblin, his hooves thundering on the wood floor of the inn’s second story. Just as the goblin reached the ramp, Tarlach threw the axe. If Tarlach had a strong swing, he had an even better throw, and the well-balanced axe cleaved the goblin cleanly in half. The bundle of papers slid across the floor to the very corner of the room. Suddenly, three other goblins appeared, each running for the package. Tarlach was quicker, however, and he snatched the bundle of papers at the last moment. Cornered, Tarlach snarled as his eyes darted from one goblin to the next, and the next, daring them to try something. Anything. “Tarlach! What’s happening?” Griff asked as he bounded out of bed – and then he saw the goblins, with shaking hands barely holding onto daggers as they closed in on the enraged, snarling Tarlach. Griff leaped across the room, swung his stone tomahawk, and cut down two of the three goblins. He raised the sharpened stone blade above his head again and splattered the third goblin where it stood. Tarlach was still breathing heavily, his lip curled revealing sharp, pointed teeth. “What happened?” Aidan asked as he thundered over. “Goblins. Four of ‘em,” Griff said. He looked at the ransacked backpack and then at Tarlach, standing there in his loincloth, with the package of bundled papers held tightly against his chest. “Well, we know what this means,” Griff said. “No more sleep, I suppose,” Tarlach growled angrily. “It means we need to get moving, now,” Aidan said. Tarlach knelt down near his pack, and returned the package of pages to the bottom of the cavernous knapsack. He reached to his sides and picked up the various items the goblin had removed, placing them back into the backpack. Suddenly he stopped, and his brow tensed with anger. “The little rat stole my money,” he growled. “How much did you have?” Griff asked. “Four silver, and fifty-three copper pieces,” Tarlach replied. It really wasn’t much. “At least they didn’t get this,” Tarlach said, as he pulled out the rolled pelt of the Prairie Stalker. The pelt was money in the bank, as far as any Tauren hunter was concerned. It would bring at least fifty in copper, possibly even a silver piece. “Found it,” Griff said, holding up a small leather pouch which jingled with the currency inside. It was splattered with blood from the decimated corpse of the unlucky goblin who had been carrying it. Griff tossed it to Tarlach, who heaved a heavy sigh and continued to stuff his belongings into the knapsack, while Aidan and Griff studied the remains of the Venture Co. goblins. When Tarlach had finished, he stood, and reached for his pants. “What’s happening in here?!” Innkeeper Kauth demanded, climbing the ramp. “Goblin robbers. Venture Company employees,” Griff answered. Tarlach fastened his belt, hoisted his pack to his shoulders, and walked to where the axe stuck in the wood floor of the inn. “We need to leave now. Here’s your payment,” Tarlach said to the innkeeper, stretching out his open hand with two silver pieces. “What about the damage to my floor?” Innkeeper Kauth asked impatiently, nodding towards the axe whose blade was still lodged in the transverse wooden beam. “High Chieftain Cairne Bloodhoof is prepared to compensate you for any damage we’ve caused,” Griff answered, and Kauth’s eyebrows raised at the authority the Tauren hunter claimed. “Very well. I suppose you’ll expect me to clean up this bloody mess, too,” Kauth sighed as he shook his head, and walked away.


Four

“We need to get moving, Tarlach. The goblins know you are carrying the evidence that will be their undoing, and they’ll be out everywhere looking for us before too long,” Griff said. Tarlach nodded, and hoisted his pack to his shoulders. He gently levered the handle of his axe until the blade pulled free. “All right, let’s go,” Tarlach said. Dawn had not yet broken, and most of the fires in the village had gone out, save for the enormous eternal campfire which burned constantly and brightly. As Tarlach, Griff, and Aidan walked north through the village, fire pits and fire pots smoldered around them. Lanterns hung from each end of the bridge across the narrow section of Stonebull Lake, casting a soft orange glow. Suddenly, Griff stopped. He turned to Tarlach and Aidan and whispered, “Those goblins will probably be waiting for us somewhere on the other side of the bridge. Be ready for anything.” Aidan laughed. The enormous warrior now carried an appropriately massive hammer, which looked to Tarlach like someone had shoved a barrel of ale on the end of a heavy wooden shaft. If any goblins dared to challenge the enormous Aidan, Tarlach thought to himself, they would soon be a goblin pancake. Griff turned and continued walking. Tarlach and Aidan followed him over the wet grass. They reached the suspended rope bridge and in single-file began to walk slowly, quietly across, with their hooves clopping softly on the planks as the bridge swayed above the water. Just as Griff had predicted, before the party had crossed halfway over the bridge’s span, three goblins stepped out from behind the bridge’s massive support pillars on the far end. “Halt, Tauren,” the largest one demanded. The two smaller goblins carried small torches. “Try and stop us, vermin,” Griff snarled, continuing to walk defiantly towards the goblins. “That was unwise,” the largest goblin replied. The two smaller goblins held their torches under the ropes supporting the handholds. The ropes smoldered for a moment, then caught fire and burned through. The handholds fell limp to either side of the wooden planks, and the bridge sagged. Griff stopped. “We know what you carry, Tauren. You wouldn’t want that Orcish paper to be ruined in this water, now, would you?” the large goblin threatened, with a thin smile. “Hand it over, Tauren, and we can avoid an unseemly altercation,” he continued. “You’ll never take it from us, goblin,” Griff hissed through clenched teeth. “Very well,” the goblin said, with the same smirk. “Our Tauren friends would like a much-needed bath,” he said to the two smaller goblins who held the torches. They knelt down on either side of the bridge and held their torches under the ropes that supported the planks. “Get off the bridge, now!” Griff barked to Aidan and Tarlach. Tarlach began to run for the shore. The very moment his hoof felt the chiseled stone block that anchored the bridge to the abutment, the ropes snapped at the other end, plunging Griff and Aidan into the cold water with an explosive splash. Tarlach bounded over the stone block at the very last moment and landed on the solid soil. He turned back to see Aidan and Griff noisily treading water, as the goblins laughed. Tarlach bared his teeth and growled with anger. He was ready to dive into the lake, swim to the other side, and smack the smirk off of the face of the largest goblin, but then he remembered – the goblin had a point. The water would ruin the Orcish paper, which was made from a dried slurry of wood and wool fibers, and it would wash away the ink. Griff and Aidan swam into shore near the bridge’s support structure. The bridge lay useless at the bottom of the lake. “Oh, Tauren,” the goblin called, “I’ve arranged for some…playmates for you. Play nice, okay?” Tarlach turned and saw three huge Venture Company laborers lumbering toward him from the southeast, along the edge of the lake. Big, dumb masses of muscle and body fat, Tarlach thought to himself. He reached for his axe, which hung at his belt on his right side. He could easily take one, but three? Probably not. Tarlach reached behind his head, and pulled out the Blunderbuss rifle. He fired at one of the laborers, but all three suddenly focused on him. That worked well, Tarlach thought sarcastically to himself. “A little help, guys!?” he yelled behind him, as Griff and Aidan climbed the bank, water dripping from their hair, manes, and soaked clothes. Griff brushed his long mane out of his eyes, assumed a defensive stance, and lifted his stone tomahawk. Aidan tightly gripped the shaft of his enormous hammer with both hands, and readied himself. Each Venture Company laborer was armed with a sharpened machete. And all three were headed straight for Tarlach. “Ruaahh!” Tarlach roared as he swung his axe. “Uuuhhhh,” the Venture Company laborer uttered as the blade bit deeply into its shoulder. Tarlach dodged the first swing of the laborer’s machete, but another laborer swung its machete and slashed the skin of Tarlach’s upper arm on his right, the one which held his axe. “Aahh!” Tarlach hissed as the blade bit, turning for an instant to look at the wound, which began to bleed. Aidan swung his hammer in a wide arc, and caught one of the laborers in the abdomen, sending it flying. He chased after it, and swung his hammer again, knocking the laborer down. Griff’s stone tomahawk cut deeply into the forearm of the third laborer, causing it to drop its machete. Griff took another step and slashed again, this time cutting the laborer across the abdomen and causing the laborer to bleed heavily. Tarlach swung his axe and cut into the hip of the laborer that was fighting him, and the laborer began to stumble. Tarlach held his axe up just in time to parry the laborer’s next swing. Blood began to run warm down the side of his arm. He felt the ground under him rise up, and he nearly lost his balance. He realized Aidan had just performed a powerful War Stomp, momentarily stunning all three Venture Co. laborers. Tarlach and Griff wasted no time at all, and used the opportunity to swing their blades at the necks of their attackers. Griff’s blade buried itself deeply in the neck of his attacker, cutting into the spine. Paralyzed, the laborer collapsed in a heap on the ground, bleeding from every wound. Tarlach’s axe sliced through his assailant’s jugular vein, and blood began to pump from the wound with every beat of the laborer’s heart. The laborer stumbled, and as its consciousness faded, it raised its arm to swing at Tarlach again, but a thrown tomahawk sliced completely through its neck before it could bring down its stroke. Tarlach turned and smiled uncomfortably at Griff as the decapitated laborer’s body sank to its knees and fell to the grass. The two turned and looked at Aidan, whose hammer was raised up over his head as his attacker lay, unconscious, at his feet. With a fearsome roar, Aidan brought the hammer head down with such force that Tarlach felt the shock of its impact through his hooves. Like an enormous melon, the head of the Venture Company laborer split gruesomely as it was crushed. Aidan relaxed his massive shoulders, and turned to look at Tarlach and Griff. Tarlach’s chest heaved with every breath as he sat down to examine his arm. Blood from the wound had soaked his fur to nearly his elbow, matting it together in clumps. “Tarlach, are you okay?” Griff asked. “Urhhh,” Tarlach groaned as he looked balefully back at Griff, who knelt down and cradled Tarlach’s wounded arm in his hands. “This looks bad, Tarlach. Do you have bandages?” Griff asked, noticing Tarlach’s other forearm, which already bore a dressing. “In my pack,” Tarlach replied, his voice raspy from the pain. Griff worked quickly, searching through Tarlach’s knapsack. He withdrew scraps of linen cloth. Not exactly the bandages he was looking for, but they would do. They would have to. Griff also found a frayed cloth belt, and another belt made of leather. He hooked the two belts together, and used them to hold the folded linen cloth over the wound and apply pressure. “You’ll be fine, Tarlach,” Griff said. Aidan trotted over. “What happened here?” he asked, as Griff tightened the belt over the linen scraps. Tarlach winced with the pain. The linen was already beginning to absorb blood. “We’ll need to delay for some time, and give shaman Raincaller an opportunity to check this out,” Griff replied. Griff held out his hand, and helped Tarlach to his feet. “Then we’ll get you something to eat, to get your strength back,” Griff added.


“Tarlach, this wound is bad, and you’ll carry it for many days,” Maur Raincaller said. The morning sunrise was beginning to filter through the tall conifer trees that surrounded the space as Tarlach sat on an enormous log near Bloodhoof Village’s tribal bonfire. The Tauren shaman held Tarlach’s arm in his hands, inspecting the deep cut. The wound’s bleeding had slowed, but the blood was beginning to dry and form matted clumps with Tarlach’s hair. “This wound was made with an enchanted Arcanite blade, and there is no Tauren spell that will heal it instantly. The Earthmother, however, has provided me with something that will speed its healing,” the shaman continued. Griff and Aidan stood nearby as Maur opened a small cloth pouch containing finely ground herbs. “Tarlach, I will not lie to you – this is going to burn like fire. But your healing time will be shortened by nearly half, perhaps more,” Maur cautioned. He pinched a small amount of the powdered herbs between his thumb and forefinger, and used his other hand to spread the two halves of the wound apart. Tarlach grimaced with the pain, as the forming scab separated. Maur dropped the powdered herbs into the cut, and pushed the two halves of the cut back together. Tarlach drew a tremendous breath, as his face contorted. “GrrUUAAHHHHHHH!”, the Tauren roared mightily as searing pain flooded his senses. The roar echoed throughout the village, and others nearby stopped in mid-stride to see where it had come from. “AHHhhhh,” Tarlach hissed, his teeth tightly clenched and his eyes narrowed to slits as he held his other hand over the wound. “The pain will pass momentarily, Tarlach,” Maur said. “You’ll need to take it easy on that arm, however,” he added. “Thank you, shaman,” Griff said. “We will take care of him for the remainder of our quest,” he continued. Maur put the linen cloth back over the wound and then tightened the belts Griff had used to hold the dressing in place. Tarlach’s facial expression slowly returned to normal, and he stood with some effort. The cut was still painful, but only if he tried to move his arm too violently. “Do you think you’ll be able to travel?” Griff asked Tarlach. “I believe so. The quest comes first,” Tarlach replied gamely. “Greetings, Tarlach,” a familiar voice said from behind. Tarlach turned, and found himself looking into the intense eyes of Baine Bloodhoof. “I understand you had quite a fight,” Baine said. “Well, I’d certainly be worse off if I didn’t have Griff and Aidan there to help me,” Tarlach replied, solemnly, and the truth of his statement began to sink in. One of the Venture laborers would have been no trouble. Two would have been pushing it. Baine smiled. “My father was wise to send the escort. Send him my greetings when you arrive,” he said. “It’s strange to see an Arcanite weapon in these parts,” Griff thought audibly. “Indeed. It seems Venture Co. been doing business with the dwarves. Go in the protection of our ancestors,” he said finally. Tarlach nodded, and Baine walked away. Tarlach’s pack sat next to the log where he had been sitting. “I’m starving,” he said aloud, as he knelt and reached into his pack for one of the stained leather sacks containing the Plainstrider meat. “We can eat before we set out again,” Griff offered. Tarlach placed two of the thick, tender Plainstrider steaks on a flat rock near the fire, and soon they were sizzling as the morning sun rose into view. Griff gnawed on a Plainstrider leg he had saved, while Aidan tore at a large strip of tough jerky. “Griff,” Tarlach began. “Yes, Tarlach?” Griff responded, with a mouthful of meat. “Do you think it will be like that all the way to Thunder Bluff?” he asked. “I don’t know, Tarlach. It could very well be. Venture Company does not lack the resources to make that happen if they want to. I certainly hope not. We may be ambushed again on our way, however, so be ready to defend yourself if that should happen,” Griff answered. “We do have one advantage, yet. Venture Company has lost the element of surprise,” Aidan said, with the same serious expression on his face. Tarlach looked back at the sizzling plainstrider steaks, and turned them over with his hunting knife. “I guess this means we’ll have to go around Stonebull Lake now,” Tarlach said. “Yeah…the hard way,” Griff replied, unenthusiastically. They would likely need to fight their way across the grassland, and it would be slow going. Tarlach lifted the cooked meat from the hot, flat rock it had cooked on, and began to tear at it with his teeth, and for a moment he savored its flavor. That morning had been a close call – too close. He looked towards the bridge. Two Tauren braves inspected the damage, wading into the water and pulling the bridge into shore for its repair. Tarlach, Aidan, and Griff would walk south, following the shore of the lake as it wound around Bloodhoof Village. They would then run directly north, across miles of tree-dotted grassland. There would be plenty of wildlife waiting to take a bite out of them if it could, but Baine had been right – and Tarlach didn’t feel there was any threat that he, the other hunter, and the mighty warrior couldn’t handle. Tarlach and Griff could use their rifles, as well. That would give them a decided advantage over any enemies they could see. And threats in sufficient number to pose a problem for the party would be difficult to hide in the open terrain that the three Tauren would be crossing. “Are you ready to get moving, Tarlach?” asked Griff. Tarlach quickly wolfed the last part of his Plainstrider steak. “I have some business I need to attend to while I am here. I need to sell some of my fresh meat, or else it will spoil,” Tarlach replied. He reached down with his right arm and began the motion to hoist his pack to his shoulders, but his wounded arm would have none of it. “Ahhh!” he uttered, quickly dropping the pack, and gripping the wound with his left hand. “Do you want me to carry it for you?” Aidan offered. “No, thanks. I can get it,” Tarlach replied. This time, he reached down with his left hand, and lifted the pack to his shoulders, gently sliding his right arm through the straps so as not to disturb the wound. He loped over to the market building in which the various tradesmen of the village met to do business. Entering in, he immediately sought out Pyall Silentstride, the cook of the village, who sat near the back of the skin-covered building. “Greetings, Tarlach. What brings you here?” Pyall asked amicably. “Are you buying meat today?” Tarlach asked. “Let me see what you have,” Pyall replied. Aidan and Griff were soon at Tarlach’s side. “Plainstrider leg meat and steaks, and some stringy wolf meat for making jerky,” Tarlach replied. He slid his pack from his shoulders, and opened it on the dirt floor. He withdrew the four stained leather sacks, bulging with the meat contained inside. He opened the sacks, and let Pyall examine the contents. “This is all very good meat, Tarlach. Why are you selling it?” Pyall asked. “I can’t carry it, and I won’t have time to salt it,” Tarlach replied. “Mmm. That’s a shame. I’ll make you a deal, Tarlach. I can buy the whole lot for two silver and seventy copper,” Pyall offered. “I’ll take your offer,” Tarlach said, proffering his hand. Pyall reached out, and they shook hands on the deal. Pyall untied his pouch of Horde-standard currency pieces from his belt, and counted the amount into Tarlach’s hands. “Satisfied?” Pyall asked when the deal was done. “Yes, we’re finished,” Tarlach replied. “Excellent. Take care, Tarlach,” Pyall said, as Tarlach, Griff, and Aidan turned to leave. Tarlach turned and waved, then ran to catch up with Aidan and Griff.


Five

The three Tauren trekked slowly south through Bloodhoof village, until they reached the shore of Stonebull Lake. Griff led, and Aidan brought up the rear as Tarlach walked between the two. The water of the lake reflected the image of the three Tauren as they rounded the lake’s southern end and turned north into open country. Tarlach’s wound still bothered him, with its soreness flaring into brutal pain every time Tarlach tried to do something useful with the arm. Even now, he allowed it to hang limp at his side. It maddened Tarlach – that was his axe hand. And if he couldn’t lift his axe, there was no telling what might happen to him in battle. In his mind, he silently appealed to the Earthmother to confound the ambush plans he was sure the goblins were making. Seed heads swayed atop the stalks of grass as the hooves of the three Tauren rose and fell with soft thumping sounds. Aidan snorted, and swatted a flying insect that had landed on his arm. This amused Tarlach, this gigantic warrior who could easily hammer a Troll into the ground like a tent peg, swatting a mere fly. But Tarlach’s mind soon returned to his predicament – it would be awkward handling the axe with his left arm. Then he remembered the words of the hunter trainer, Yaw Sharpmane: “As a hunter, you are able to tame and train a pet. You do this by channeling the animal’s spirit, and winning the animal’s loyalty. This is a taming rod. With it, you can channel the spirit of a beast. A pet can also help you attack targets, or defend against enemies. Tarlach! Are you paying attention?!” And in this moment, Tarlach felt glad that he had been. “Griff,” Tarlach said, and Griff stopped. Tarlach stopped as well, and Aidan nearly crashed into Tarlach’s back. Aidan snorted again. “What is it, Tarlach? We’re trying to make time here, all right?” Griff asked impatiently. “I’ve got an idea. With my wounded arm, I won’t make the best fighter, but you and I can both train pets. Let’s train a pair of Prairie Stalkers to help us in case we have a run-in with Venture Company,” Tarlach suggested. “Have you ever had a pet before, Tarlach?” Griff asked. “You’ll have to provide food for it, and care for it if it gets injured. As Tauren, it is our obligation to treat our pets as friends, not mere minions that do whatever we desire. As the steward of your pet, you are accountable to the Earthmother if you neglect your pet or fail to protect it,” he continued. “I know all this, Griff. Don’t worry, I can take care of a pet. But if I can’t tame it, I’ll need you to bail me out, since I probably won’t be able to fight it off,” Tarlach stated. “Okay, if you really want a pet, I’ll help you. After all, we are here to help you with whatever you need, but this is your journey, Tarlach, however you choose to walk it,” Griff replied. The three Tauren continued northward along the shore of the lake, but when they reached the point where the lake curved to the northeast, they began to travel across the open grassland. Griff held up his hand, and brought the party to a halt. Two Flatland Cougars prowled just ahead. “Cougars. Tarlach, you wait here. Aidan and I will handle these,” he whispered, motioning to Aidan who nodded, and followed. When Griff was within firing range, he pulled out a compact shotgun, and fired at the nearer of the two cougars. The cougar yowled and streaked towards Griff, who fired twice more. With each shot, the cougar writhed in pain. Griff then lifted his stone tomahawk, and sliced into the beast, which swiped at Griff’s legs, tearing at the heavy leather pants. Aidan entered the fray with his massive hammer and ended the fight quickly – with one stroke that crushed the animal’s rib cage, causing bones to protrude from the pelt. Tarlach sighed – the pelt was ruined. Griff fired at the second cougar, drawing its attention. Tarlach looked to the northeast, and saw his chance. A lone Prairie Stalker, most likely male, paced about with its nose to the ground near the shore of Stonebull Lake. Tarlach bent down, and slid his pack off his right shoulder. He opened the flap, and reached deep. His hands felt a familiar wooden shaft – the taming rod Yaw Sharpmane had given him. Using his left arm as before, he lifted the pack to his shoulders, and then grasped the taming rod with his right hand. Drawing a deep breath as excitement began to course through his body, he walked towards the animal. If this didn’t work, with Aidan and Griff distracted, he would be dead meat. If it worked, he would still get a major talking-to. Silently in his mind, he appealed to the Earthmother to allow him to channel the wolf’s spirit, and communicate directly with the creature. The wolf lifted its head, surprised to see that Tarlach had approached so closely, and then bared its teeth and attacked. Its teeth caught Tarlach’s pants, and ripped a gash in the sides of his leg. Tarlach winced with the pain of the bite, but quickly calmed himself, and began to think. Friend…Let’s be friends…I don’t want to hurt you, Tarlach thought. The animal hesitated, blinked, and then continued to tear at Tarlach’s shirt, pants, and belt. With some of the bites, the wolf had broken the skin, and blood slowly began to ooze. Tarlach shut out the pain. He had to do this quickly, or else he would be defenseless. He held his arm straight out, with the taming rod grasped tightly in his hand. He squeezed it tighter. Love…Friend…I love you…help me… Tarlach continued. Suddenly, a thought entered his head that was not his own. Friend? The wolf bit into Tarlach’s lower leg, the only exposed portion, and opened a tear, which also began to bleed. Friend, Tarlach replied inside his mind. Love…Friend…Food… The bite hurt. A lot. Tarlach’s mind began to race. Stop…Friend…Love…Tarlach…I love you…Friend... Food… Name… help me… Again, another thought entered his mind that did not come from him. Friend…Food? Name? And suddenly, the animal sat upright, as though dazed. Tarlach oozed blood from bites and tears on his legs, but he smiled. He had successfully channeled the animal’s spirit. He began to walk away, and the animal followed. Good, Tarlach thought to himself. He quickly sat down, and opened his pack. He withdrew the last stained leather sack, containing enough meat from the Plainstrider to feed himself, but now the food would feed two mouths. Tarlach opened the sack, and the wolf’s nose began to twitch. “Hungry fella,” Tarlach said softly as the wolf began to stick its nose into the sack. Tarlach pulled the sack away, and then removed a Plainstrider steak, and held it over the canine’s nose. The wolf jumped up and grabbed the steak in its jaws, and began to furiously tear at it. Food…Yes… Tarlach smiled, as the thoughts of the contented animal, a ferocious beast only moments ago, began to run through his mind. Name…name…do you have a name? Tarlach asked, and for a moment he felt silly. Animals didn’t have names, he felt sure. He had certainly never asked an animal what its name was. Silent…whisper…whisper…claw… came the mental feedback, and Tarlach’s eyes widened in surprise at the response. “Whisperclaw,” Tarlach said, smiling widely. His pet would be named Whisperclaw. Aidan and Griff ran over to Tarlach. “What’s this?” Aidan asked. “My pet. Whisperclaw,” Tarlach replied, just as the wolf finished the last morsel of the plainstrider steak. “Well, tan my hide. You actually did it,” Griff said, smiling proudly. The wolf wagged its tail, and rubbed against Tarlach’s side. “The way to a wolf’s heart is through its stomach, you might say,” Tarlach replied, as he closed his pack, and stood. Tarlach…Friend…Food… went the thoughts of the contented wolf as he followed at Tarlach’s side. “Tarlach, the last thing we needed was for you to keep getting torn up,” Griff scolded, noticing the bites on Tarlach’s legs for the first time. “We’re running out things to patch you up with,” he continued, as he turned to go. As the three Tauren walked north, they were accompanied by Tarlach’s newfound canine friend. An awkward moment passed. “Griff,” Tarlach said. “What now, Tarlach?” Griff sighed. “I want a pony,” Tarlach joked, smiling uncontrollably. Aidan heard, and began to laugh a deep, resonant laugh. “Shut up, Tarlach,” Griff replied as sternly as possible, but Tarlach saw the smile that formed at the corners of Griff’s mouth as he said it. Tarlach joined Aidan in the laughter, and Whisperclaw yipped. “Whisp has a sense of humor, too,” Tarlach commented. He looked behind himself, and for the first time, saw a broad smile on Aidan’s face.

As Tarlach, Griff, Aidan, and Whisperclaw traveled north, they soon came to a worn dirt path. Here was a wide cut into the mountain range, with a towering rock face braced by a massive wooden wall. This was a clandestine Dwarven mining operation that the Tauren had forcefully opposed for nearly a year. Baine didn’t know what the Dwarves were looking for, but Baine’s commitment to protecting the land from every threat meant that the Dwarven operation had to be shut down. Tarlach and three other Tauren had banded together to send the Dwarves a message, killing several of their excavators and appraisers, and bringing the smashed tools of the slain diggers to Baine as a trophy and proof of the accomplishment. Yet to Tarlach’s view, it seemed as though the dig site was as busy as ever, and for a moment he wondered where the Dwarves kept coming from. Griff stopped. “If Venture Company planned to attack us, this is probably where they’d try it. Keep your guard up,” he warned. He scanned the base of the mountain range, which seemed like the only reasonable place to hide. To the southeast, the purple cloth sails of the Thunderhorn water well slowly rotated. The barely-discernable sound of picks and hammers emanated from the Dwarven dig site, but no threats presented themselves. Nearby, a swoop hovered near to the ground, but it was not aware of the Tauren’s presence. Griff snorted, displeased. He knelt to the ground, reached into his weathered leather rucksack and withdrew a leathern envelope. He carefully measured a small amount of dried, ground leaves into the palm of his hand, and then returned the envelope to the heavy animal-hide pack. Then, still kneeling, he whispered hushed words into his palm, and allowed the crushed leaves to drift to the ground. “The goblins are well hidden, but they’re not far. Ready yourselves,” Griff cautioned. Whisperclaw’s thoughts broke into Tarlach’s mind again. Danger? Tarlach sighed, and turned to the wolf, who sniffed the air and then made eye contact. Not here. But not far away, Tarlach replied. He wondered how much of his thoughts the wolf could hear. The bond between a hunter and his pet was not like the servile relationship that most domesticated pets had towards their masters. Instead, the consciousness of the wild beast and the hunter seemed to intersect, which is why Tarlach could understand Whisperclaw’s thoughts as though the wolf were actually speaking to him, though no sound was made. Yes Tarlach…Very near, continued the stream of consciousness. Ready to fight…Defend…Protect you, the animal continued. Good friend, Tarlach replied, with a smile. The wolf wagged its tail, and lowered its head. “Well, let’s be on our way,” Aidan said. “We can make it there before evening.” The three Tauren continued across the grassland, but soon they encountered a different sort of obstacle. Two Prairie Stalkers and a Flatland Cougar prowled nearby, within sight. As the paths of the two Prairie Stalkers crossed, one of them snapped angrily at the other, which snarled and snapped back. They were hungry and aggressive, and the presence of the Flatland Prowler would only complicate things as well. “Tarlach, give me a hand,” Griff asked. “What is it, Griff?” Tarlach responded. “Your arm may be injured, but I imagine you can still shoot, right?” Griff asked in a hushed tone. The pain in the arm had decreased greatly, but Tarlach decided it was best not to place any demands on the arm until he was sure it had healed. Maur Raincaller’s remedy was working well, however. “I believe so,” Tarlach replied. Help Tarlach? Whisperclaw asked. No, Whisperclaw. No help now, Tarlach replied. The wolf seemed eager to do something, and if Tarlach’s fears came to pass, Whisperclaw would soon get that chance. The two Prairie Stalkers were barely within range of Tarlach’s flint-lock Blunderbuss rifle, but they would be an easy target for Griff’s compact shotgun. Griff knelt slowly down, and Tarlach followed suit. Whisperclaw lowered himself slowly to the ground, but the strong-hearted Aidan remained standing. Tarlach pulled back the flint and cocked it. He put his finger around the trigger and began to squeeze. The rifle bucked, and the report echoed across the grassland. Griff cooked off two shots into the Prairie Stalker he had selected, and then opened the breech to eject the brass cartridges. Both prairie stalkers began to charge immediately towards the Tauren. Tarlach reloaded, and fired a second shot at the Prairie Stalker as it was nearly on top of him. The Prairie Stalker crouched to leap at Tarlach, but its leap was deflected by Aidan’s heavy bracer. This stunned the wolf. Aidan reached his other hand towards Tarlach, helping him to his feet. The wolf leapt again, and this time Aidan caught the wolf between his two massive arms, and threw the wolf’s body to the ground. The attacking wolf staggered to its feet, and whirled to make another pass. Whisperclaw, Defend! Tarlach thought as intensely as he could. Whisperclaw did not hesitate. He streaked under Aidan’s tree-trunk arms and ripped at the Prairie Stalker’s shoulder with his powerful jaws and fearsome canine teeth, opening a bleeding wound. The prairie stalker growled and snapped at Whisperclaw, who dodged the attack. The two wolves circled each other, teeth bared, and snarling loudly. Suddenly Whisperclaw lunged and tore into the Prairie Stalker’s other shoulder, creating a wide gash which began to bleed as well. The two wolves snarled and snapped at each other until they became a tangled whirlwind of biting, snarling, and grey fur. For a moment, Tarlach couldn’t tell which wolf was which. Aidan stood and watched, marveling at the instinctive way the two wolves fought each other. Whisperclaw bit into the Prairie Stalker’s neck and pinned the other wolf to the ground. Then Whisperclaw closed his jaws, and blood began to flow from between his teeth. The wild Prairie Stalker snarled and struggled against Whisperclaw’s hold, but could do no more. The Prairie Stalker’s neck began to bleed more and more heavily, with its teeth snapping futilely at the air, and then it passed out. Whisperclaw’s chest heaved with heavy breathing as he slowly let go of the Prairie Stalker’s neck, and the dead wolf’s head went limp and lolled to the side. Griff knelt over the carcass of the Prairie Stalker he had been fighting, and began to slice away the animal’s pelt from its body with a large skinning knife. Tarlach knelt to the grass and examined Whisperclaw’s body. His pet had sustained minor cuts but was not bleeding particularly heavily from any of them. Good Friend, Tarlach thought. Love Tarlach, came the reply as the blood of the attacking Prairie Stalker dripped from Whisperclaw’s bared teeth. Aidan scratched his head. “Not every day you see that,” he commented. Griff crouched to fire at the Flatland Cougar, who faced away. Suddenly, the hair on the back of Whisperclaw’s neck raised up. The wolf’s thoughts broke into Tarlach’s consciousness. Danger…Very close… Tarlach scanned the landscape in front of him. It was then that he noticed small figures grouping together between two large, barren hills. It was Venture Company. Tarlach, Aidan, and Griff had come all this way without being challenged. Tarlach had entertained a feeling that they’d run into the Venture Company eventually. The outline of the mesas of Thunder Bluff was barely visible through the haze. The blast of Griff’s shotgun refocused Tarlach’s attention. The cougar yowled with the pain as the shot caught the cougar in its left hindquarter. The beast spun and charged towards Griff, who fired again. This time the shot caught the cougar in the chest, knocking its wind out. The creature slowed, but continued to lope towards the party as Griff readied his tomahawk. Aidan and Tarlach waited a short distance away. The cougar skidded to a halt just in front of Griff. It reached out with a front claw, and swiped at Griff’s leg. Griff swung his tomahawk, burying its blade in the cougar’s shoulder. The animal screamed in pain, but continued to attack. It lowered itself onto its hind legs, and prepared to spring at Griff. Whisperclaw did not hesitate. Defend! came the wolf’s thought as he rushed into the fray. 'The cougar pounced. Whisperclaw caught the cougar in mid-leap, bringing it to the ground. The cougar pawed at Whisperclaw, while Griff ran toward the two dueling animals. The cougar swiped at the wolf’s face, opening a small wound on Whisperclaw’s cheek and causing Whisperclaw to back away. Griff swung his tomahawk and caught the cougar between two ribs, opening a wound. The cougar yowled again. “Looks like he could use an extra hand,” Aidan said and ran to Griff’s side. He withdrew a long dagger, and plunged it into the cougar’s chest. The animal screamed, and leapt at Aidan as he stepped back. The warrior Tauren deflected the ferocious cat’s attack with his thick bracers, and the animal fell to the ground. It stood up and took two clumsy steps, but fainted in place, bleeding out onto the green Mulgore grass. Aidan lowered his arm to his side, walked to the Flatland Cougar, and withdrew his knife, covered in the cougar’s blood. “She’s all yours, Griff,” Aidan said, and Griff saw indeed that this had been a female cougar. Unfortunately, the struggle had ruined the pelt, which would be good for little more than scraps. Griff sighed. Whisperclaw shook his fur, and loped back to Tarlach, who had watched from a distance. He and Whisperclaw walked to the other two Tauren. Aidan wiped the blade of his long dagger and placed it in a leather pouch which hung on his belt. “Hey guys,” Tarlach began. “Our troubles aren’t over yet.” Tarlach pointed into the distance where between the two hills, the small figures waited. “Blast. It’s Venture. I imagined they would try something like this,” Griff growled. “If only you could fight, Tarlach…” Griff began. In the action of the day’s events, Tarlach had forgotten his wound almost entirely. He lifted his wounded arm and found that the painful sensation that had accompanied the movement in the past was nearly gone. He unlatched the belt, and pulled away the blood-stained linen, revealing a long scar where the wound had been. “It’s….gone!” Tarlach said, smiling happily. Maur Raincaller’s remedy had worked! Whisperclaw yipped. “Great, we’re a party of four now. Venture should be no trouble,” Griff said. Tarlach knelt, and cradled Whisperclaw’s muzzle in his hands, examining the cut on the side of the wolf’s face. “Whisp, you’re hurt,” Tarlach said. The wolf withdrew his muzzle from Tarlach’s hand. No problem…Whisperclaw okay, Whisperclaw said silently. “Well, what are we waiting for?” Aidan said, and began to run in the direction of the two hills. Tarlach and Griff followed, and Whisperclaw ran alongside.


Six

The Tauren capital city of Thunder Bluff loomed in the distance. Thunder Bluff was a marvel of modern engineering, a city perched atop four enormous mesas in the northern section of Mulgore. The mesas themselves were gigantic, standing as tall as at least thirty Tauren, standing on each other’s shoulders. And save for the huge Tauren-built elevators, there was no obvious way up. At one time, Tarlach surmised, the only way to reach the top of the Thunder Bluff mesas was to climb them, vertically. For that reason, Tauren everywhere regarded Thunder Bluff as a towering monument to the will and ingenuity of the deceptively simple Tauren race, and the city was a source of great pride for Tauren all over the continent of Kalimdor. The elevation also provided a remarkable natural defense – it was practically impenetrable to siege, being formed nearly completely from solid rock, and much taller than any siege engine could reach without being toppled by the wind. Trebuchets would be nearly useless as well, with few being capable of the near-vertical launch angle that would be necessary from close range. Wind power was plentiful in Mulgore, with the wind-swept grasslands dotted with wind-powered water well screws and grist mills. But on top of the mesas, during a strong storm, the wind could blow a person completely off their feet, which was why most structures in the city were anchored to massive wooden stakes. Tarlach counted six advanced-design tri-sail turbines atop the four mesas, which provided motive power for Thunder Bluff industry. The four travelers ran towards the small valley between the two hills. As they approached, they slowed to a walk, striding defiantly up to the waiting group. Twelve trolls, each taller than an orc yet shorter than a Tauren, blocked their path. Tarlach wondered why trolls were working for Venture Company – weren’t they supposed to be allied with the Horde? They were muscular, and each was armed with a single-edged axe blade on the end of a short wooden shaft. They wore leather chest armor and bracers, and heavy pants. They looked formidable, and fast. Very fast. And in the center of the line stood a familiar Venture Co. manager. “You would have done well to abandon this quest, Tauren,” the goblin manager hissed. “Never,” Tarlach said, assuming a defensive stance. He recognized the Venture Co. manager as the larger of the three goblins that had confronted the Tauren travelers on the bridge that crossed Stonebull Lake. “Such determination. Such foolishness. It may be foolish of me as well, but I’m willing to make a bargain with you, Tauren, if you brutes understand the concept of…a bargain,” the Venture Company manager said slowly, with his smirk widening to a grin. Aidan bared his teeth and growled. “I gore twerps like you on the end of my horns,” he snarled menacingly. The Venture Co. manager continued, unfazed. “You have something that belongs to me. I want it back. If you choose, you may turn this…item…over to me, and I will allow you to continue on your way. I will not harm another hair on your heads. Perhaps you might tell your chieftain that you conveniently…lost…the package along the way. Option B. You see my guards. You’re handily outnumbered, Tauren, even with your great size. All I need to do is simply…give the word…and my guards will chase you across Mulgore if need be. Even if you do willingly turn over the item that I seek, they will probably kill you just for the sheer sport of it.” Tarlach’s fists tightened. Attack? Whisperclaw asked. Griff became more and more tense. Not yet, Tarlach replied. “Make up your mind, Tauren. I’m famously impatient,” the Venture manager taunted. Griff smoldered, and for a moment Tarlach was almost sure he saw a wisp of steam rise from the hunter’s ears. “There is something you will soon learn about the Tauren people,” Griff snarled, taking a menacing step forward. “We are strong, resilient, intelligent, and numerous. And we NEVER, EVER BACK DOWN!” he continued, his voice rising to a roar. Tarlach felt the moment snap. Unleash your fury! Tarlach thought at Whisperclaw. A flash of silver fur raced past Tarlach, and plowed into the Venture Company manager, who screamed as he fell to the ground. “Get them!” the manager shouted between screams as Whisperclaw tore at the manager’s clothing. The Venture Company guards began to advance on the three Tauren. “Rip them apart!” Aidan shouted. The guards split up into three groups of four, one for each of the Tauren. One of the Venture Company guards rushed towards Tarlach, and swung at Tarlach with his axe. Tarlach dodged backwards, and parried the stroke with his own axe. He high-kicked the guard in the chest, and the guard stumbled backward. He swung his axe at another Venture Company guard. The stroke cut across the guard’s abdomen, spilling blood, entrails, and digestive juices. The guard began to scream and convulse with pain, and sank to the ground. “Their armor is weak! Aim for their stomachs!” Tarlach yelled, with barely enough time to swing the blunt end of his axe, knocking out another guard. Griff swung his tomahawk right, then left, fending off two of the attackers and forcing them to take a step back. He slammed the butt of the tomahawk’s long handle into the chest of one of the guards as the guard attempted to approach from behind, knocking the guard off his feet. “Betrayer of the Horde!” Aidan roared as he swung his hammer, knocking two of the troll guards to the ground. He plunged his dagger into the chest of a third, with the guard’s screams turning to gurgles as his lungs filled with blood. The guard fainted and collapsed to the ground. Tarlach swung his axe once more in the other direction, and cut open the abdomen of another of the Venture guards. The guard screamed and collapsed to the ground writhing in pain as he grasped his intestines, which were protruding from the large, wide wound. Whisperclaw’s muzzle was covered with blood as he ripped into the flailing, screaming Venture Company manager. The manager rolled over onto his bleeding belly, and began to scramble with his arms and legs, trying to escape, but the weight of the wolf pinned him in place. “Help me!” the manager screamed, but it was too late. The goblin felt Whisperclaw’s sharp teeth close around his neck. Griff swung the long handle of his tomahawk again, and its sharpened blade sliced forcefully into the abdomen of another of the guards, cutting it open and spilling blood and entrails. The guard collapsed in agony. Griff whirled to face the other two attackers, who finally worked up the will to engage the enormous Tauren hunter. It was their undoing. Griff raised his tomahawk above his head and looked from one troll to the other, waiting for one of them to make a move. One of the guards darted in, and Griff brought the tomahawk down with all his strength. It sliced deeply into the neck of the guard, opening a wound and releasing a rapid flow of blood from the wound. The guard screamed as he slowly bled out. Aidan whirled and faced a fourth guard. He lifted his massive war hammer above his head and brought it down upon the guard’s head, breaking the spine. The troll collapsed in a heap. Aidan knelt and withdrew his dagger from the dead body of one of the Venture Company guards as another guard ran in to strike. At the last moment, Aidan caught the Venture company guard unaware, parrying the axe shot off his massive bracer and driving the long dagger into the abdomen of the guard. The guard began to tremble in pain as the wound began to bleed, and then the guard fell to his knees and fainted in the dust. Griff swung his tomahawk again, and buried the blade in the side of the other guard’s abdomen. Griff pulled the blade out, and entrails clung to it. Suddenly a savage, burning pain ripped up his right side as an axe blade broke through the leather vest and sliced into the skin between his ribs. Fighting off the pain and with a mighty roar, Griff whirled and beheaded the Venture Company guard, the heavy, sharpened stone blade cutting cleanly through the spine. The head rolled on the ground, and the body sank to its knees, finally falling limp on the ground. Griff stood and caught his breath as the pain surged through his side. He didn’t need to look – he knew it would be bleeding. Aidan swung his hammer and knocked his last attacker to the ground, with its axe sliding across the dry ground. He reached down and grabbed the dazed guard by the neck. “Grr,” he growled as he drew the trembling guard close to his chest, with his hot breath blowing into the troll’s face. He began to bend the guard’s arm backward, and the guard cried out in pain as tendons and ligaments snapped. Then Aidan spun, and launched the guard into the side of one of the barren hills. The guard’s neck snapped, and the guard did not awaken. Tarlach watched this, and for a moment he understood why the race of men looked upon the Tauren as savage monsters, often the subject of children’s nightmares. Whisperclaw trotted back to Tarlach’s side, muzzle still covered with dried blood. He turned to look at the corpse of the manager. “Well, we won’t be hearing from him anytime soon,” he said, and Aidan shook his head grimly. A pained groan seized Tarlach’s attention. Tarlach and Aidan both turned to look at Griff as he sat, breathing heavily and holding his side. Blood ran down his side, into the dirt. “Griff!” Tarlach yelled, and ran to Griff’s side. “It’s…it’s real bad,” Griff hissed through clenched teeth as blood ran between his fingers. “Don’t say that, Griff! You’ll make it through,” Tarlach said, concerned. He lowered his pack to the dusty ground and withdrew the blood-stained linen. He took the two belts and linked them together, but they were not long enough to wrap twice around Griff’s chest. “Aidan, help me!” Tarlach called. Aidan ran over, and quickly unfastened his own belt, handing it to Tarlach. Tarlach took the belt and added it to the length. It was long enough, but just barely. The dressing, however, wasn’t nearly enough. “I need more material!” Tarlach shouted. Griff was losing it. His head began to sway, and his neck began sagged disturbingly. “Hang on, Griff. We can make it to Thunder Bluff,” Tarlach said. Griff shook his head, trying to shake off the effects of the blood loss. “Thanks, Tarlach,” he choked out between labored breaths. Whisperclaw walked up and began to lick gently at the edge of the dressing, where blood continued to soak through, staining Tarlach’s glove. Tarlach wanted to snarl and push Whisperclaw away, but then he remembered the way wolves licked their wounds when they were injured. Tarlach’s expression softened. Good friend, he thought. Whisperclaw wagged his tail slowly. Aidan ran to one of the dead Venture Co. guards and ripped the cloak from its back. He then carried it quickly to Tarlach, who folded it and tightened the linked belts around it. “There isn’t much time. We need to get him up to Thunder Bluff, and fast,” Tarlach said. If they ran, they might just make it. Aidan walked up behind Griff, and Tarlach stood in front. Aidan placed his hands under Griff’s shoulders and began to lift. Tarlach reached down and wrapped his arms underneath Griff’s legs, and between the two of them, they lifted the heavy wounded Tauren off the ground. “Ok, let’s hurry,” Tarlach said, and they began to run across the last open stretch of grassland that separated them from Thunder Bluff. Whisperclaw raced alongside. Griff was fading fast as they reached the southern elevator tower. Blood had thoroughly soaked the linen cloak taken from the Venture Company guard, and was beginning to drip a trail on the ground as they hastily climbed the ramp. “Hang on, buddy,” Aidan said softly, concern in his eyes. Tarlach looked up, and watched the huge elevator car descend, suspended by a heavy rope. The car swayed gently as the Aidan and Tarlach carried the wounded Griff on board. Whisperclaw, come here! Tarlach thought frantically. Safe? the wolf asked. Of course it’s safe! Come on! Tarlach replied. The wolf placed a paw on the elevator floor, and then trusted it with his weight. Just as Whisperclaw’s hind feet came on board, the rope creaked as it pulled tight, and the elevator began to ascend. It seemed like a long time, with Griff slowly bleeding a puddle on the floor of the elevator. Suddenly, Griff’s neck swayed to the side as he lost consciousness. “Griff! Griff!” Aidan shouted. “Stay with us, Griff!” Tarlach yelled. He looked up. They were just a few feet away from the walkway that lead to solid ground. The car shuddered, and stopped just a few inches above the walkway. “Quick!” Tarlach shouted, and he and Aidan jumped off the elevator car, carrying the unconscious Griff. “We need to find a healer!” Tarlach yelled to the female Bluffwatcher who stood guard at the top of the elevator. “Healing!” she cried out, as the two Tauren’s massive hooves clomped across the wooden walkway. As soon as they reached solid ground, they gently laid Griff in the grass. An Orc shaman was the first to respond to the call for healing. “No wound is a match for Orcish magic,” he said as he knelt by Griff’s side and unwrapped the blood-soaked dressing, which was beginning to cake with the dried blood. “There’s not much time. Draw some water from that pond,” the Orc commanded. Tarlach was surprised at the cordial demeanor of the orc, but the words galvanized him into action. He ran to the pond’s edge, threw off his backpack, and quickly retrieved an empty bowl that had been carved from a tree trunk. He scooped up an entire bowlful of the clear water, and carefully carried it back to the Orc, who peeled the blood-soaked linen dressing from Griff’s side. Tarlach made a face at the sight of the wound, and handed the bowl to the Orc. The Orc shaman poured the water over the gaping cut, washing away the blood. Then he stretched both his hands over the wound. He began to whisper words in another, foreign language, and slowly, green light began to surround his hands. It flowed onto the wound as though it was water, and tendrils of green light began to rise from the cut like steam. The blood around the cut began to steam, and flesh began to melt over the wound as though it had been candle wax. Tarlach had never witnessed this before, and it captivated him. When the wound was closed, it slowly began to sprout the same reddish-brown hair that covered the rest of Griff’s body. But Griff did not wake up. “Can you wake him?” Aidan asked. “He’s not asleep. He is dead,” the Orc said grimly, and Tarlach’s concerned expression began to contort as a tear welled up in his eye. Not this, not now! They had risked everything, but Tarlach didn’t really think that fate would come to collect. Aidan swore loudly. Out of the corner of his eye, Tarlach saw Aidan shoot an accusing look at him, and it cut him to the bone. “Don’t despair, friends. I can revive him. He’s only been dead for a minute,” the Orc said as he unfastened Griff’s vest and shirt. He placed his hands on Griff’s bare, light-colored chest, and spoke more undistinguishable words. White light began to shine from between his hands and Griff’s chest, and then with a sudden, furious motion, the Orc pressed down on Griff’s breastbone, and Griff’s eyes flashed open with the white light. He began to cough, gasping for breath, and sat up, the brilliant light fading from his eyes. “Griff!” Tarlach shouted happily. “We thought you were a goner,” Aidan said, letting out a sigh of relief. “Why am I laying down? Why are you all standing around? We still have a quest to finish,” he replied with a smile. “Yehahh!” Tarlach shouted for joy, pumping his fist into the air. Whisperclaw reared back on his hind legs, wagging his tail, and yipped. Aidan smiled widely. Griff leapt to his feet. He turned to the Orc. “I am indebted to you, shaman. What’s your name?” Griff asked. “My name is not important now. What is important is that you are alive. You have no debt with me,” the Orc replied. “You have my thanks as well,” Aidan said. “And mine,” Tarlach added. “I bid you safe journeys,” the Orc shaman said, and faded into the crowd. “Only one thing left to do now,” Tarlach said, taking up his pack. He walked towards the massive carved totem in the center of the city, as Griff and Aidan followed. Tarlach ran up the spiral ramp inside the totem until he came to the third level. The other two noisily followed. He burst through the doorway, and stopped. Merchants’ tents were lined up around the outside of the space, and in the middle, two totems bearing torches stood like sentinels at either side of a large amphitheater which centered around a ceremonial bonfire, whose coals still smoldered. Directly ahead stood a large, animal-skin building with a round doorway. At either side of the doorway stood an enormous black Tauren warrior, the Chief’s Honor Guard. Aidan and Griff ran up behind Tarlach. ‘Let’s finish this thing,” he said to the other two. In a dead run, the three Tauren made their way around the stone-paved path that circled the ceremonial amphitheater. Once they reached the large, round doorway, Tarlach turned to enter, but the guards crossed their blades, blocking the way. “Halt. What business do you have with the Chief?” one of the guards asked. Tarlach lowered his pack to the ground and withdrew the package. “Only this,” Tarlach replied, showing them the side of the package that was emblazoned with the Bloodhoof family insignia. The guards lifted their blades and opened the way. “Proceed,” one of the guards said. Tarlach stood in the doorway, and found himself face-to-face with the largest, oldest Tauren he had ever seen. He was nearly completely gray in color, with faded eyes and armed with an enormous log bearing tribal Tauren markings. His eyes almost seemed to glow a strange yellow color. It was Cairne Bloodhoof, the High Chieftain of the Tauren. “Greetings, travelers. What brings you here?” he asked in a booming voice. “A parcel, from your son Baine,” Tarlach replied, holding out the leather-bound package of paper so that Cairne could see the Bloodhoof insignia. “Ah, Tarlach Steelmane. It is good to meet you at last, after hearing so much from my son Baine,” Cairne said heartily. Griff and Aidan entered. “And Griff Stoneblade and Aidan Thunderhoof. Greetings to you as well,” Cairne added, regarding each of them. “Let’s see this, then,” Cairne said, reaching his hands out and taking the bundle of papers. He carefully opened the flap on the side of the leather parcel, and withdrew the top page. “Ah, excellent. A letter from my son. Dear father…hmm….” Cairne said, his voice trailing off as he read. Cairne’s face hardened as he read Baine’s letter. “Drive us out! Of Mulgore! That the goblins would even think that insults me to my core!” Cairne bellowed mightily, and Tarlach flinched. “We have never welcomed the Venture Company in our lands. My son shall have the assistance he requests,” he declared. Then he noticed Tarlach’s startled expression, and his own expression softened. “I only wish my son had contacted me earlier, instead of allowing the situation to progress this far. My son is very dear to my heart, and brings me great pride, but he is headstrong. He likes to handle things himself”, Cairne said. “Does he remind you of yourself when you were his age?” Tarlach asked. A smile broke across the old Tauren chief’s face, and he laughed heartily. “Very insightful, Tarlach! I understand now why my son values your friendship so greatly,” Cairne replied with a benevolent smile. “And you have proven its worth to you as well, by undertaking this arduous, dangerous quest,” he added, which brought a wide grin to Tarlach’s face. As hard as Tarlach tried to remain dignified in the presence of this most renowned of all Tauren, he could not help smiling. With a colossal effort, he straightened his face, and the grin faded. “It was not without its trials,” Tarlach said, as solemnly as he could, turning to look at Griff. “Tarlach Steelmane, you are an honored guest in Thunder Bluff today,” Cairne proclaimed. “You have my thanks, and the thanks of our people as well,” he continued. “Kneel, Tarlach,” he commanded, and Tarlach knelt on one knee. Cairne produced a small Tauren headdress with three feathers – one red, one blue, and one green. “By this headdress,” Cairne stated,” those around you will know that you have served me well.” Cairne placed the headdress on Tarlach’s head. “Rise, Tarlach of Bloodhoof Village,” Cairne commanded, and Tarlach stood. “I haven’t forgotten your reward, either,” the Chieftan said, pulling out a small money pouch and counting three gold pieces into Tarlach’s hand. Three gold! Tarlach had never even seen a gold piece before! “Tarlach, this is not just for your completion of this quest, but your willingness to serve me and my family for these many years. I knew your father, Tarlach. He was a fine Tauren, strong and courageous, closely in tune with the Earthmother,” Cairne said. Tarlach paused. His memories of his father were few, and none of them seemed to come to him at the moment. “My deepest thanks, Chief Bloodhoof,” Tarlach replied, bowing low. “I hope you will stay for a while, and enjoy the amenities this grand city has to offer,” Cairne said. “Indeed I will,” Tarlach replied. Cairne turned to Griff and Aidan. “You two have also served me well. Step forward,” Cairne commanded, and Griff and Aidan did so. Cairne counted out two gold pieces into the hand of the hunter and the warrior. “Thank you, Cairne,” Griff said. “Yes, thank you,” Aidan agreed. “You may go now if you wish, but know that you three are welcome in my presence at any time,” Cairne offered. “Thank you,” Tarlach replied, smiling widely as he turned to go. “I offer the protection of our ancestors, go in peace,” Cairne declared as Tarlach stepped out into the bright afternoon sun.

Part 2: A Forgotten Memory

Seven

The sun was beginning to set as Tarlach, Griff, and Aidan stood outside Chief Bloodhoof’s enormous hide-covered longhouse, underneath a towering conifer tree. “I had my doubts at the start, Tarlach, but you certainly proved your resolve,” Griff complimented. “Thanks, Griff. I really appreciate it,” Tarlach replied. Whisperclaw sat obediently at Tarlach’s feet, scratching his neck with a hind paw. “Well, I suppose you know by now that we aren’t actually civilians. Aidan and I are Arra'kanche, Servants of the Chief. We dressed as a common hunter and warrior so as to not arouse the curiosity of Venture Company,” Griff revealed. “Very clever,” Tarlach replied. Aidan sighed. “So, Tarlach, what will you do after this?” Griff asked. “To be honest, I don’t have any idea,” Tarlach asked. And he really didn’t. The thought of Keilah Stormcall flashed across his mind, but she knew he wasn’t ready to settle down just yet, and she was prepared to respect that. Whisperclaw licked his lips hungrily. Tarlach knelt down and rubbed the wolf’s neck. “I know what this guy wants to do next,” Tarlach said. He lowered his pack to the ground, and opened the flap. Whisperclaw’s nose began to twitch. Tarlach withdrew the discolored leather sack containing the last of the Plainstrider meat. He reached into the sack and removed a Plainstrider steak, and Whisperclaw rose on all four legs. Meat! came the wolf’s thought as his tail began to wag. “Yeah, little buddy, I’ve got you figured out,” Tarlach said with a smile. He tossed the entire steak onto the ground. “There you go. You deserve it,” he said as the wolf began to tear at the steak. Tarlach placed the pouch back in his rucksack and lifted it to his shoulders, rising to his feet. “Well, I guess this is it, right? A shame that we have to part ways so soon,” he said sorrowfully. “Well, there’s no reason we can’t stick together for the rest of the day, I suppose,” Griff said, with a grin. “So, what do you want to do?” Tarlach asked, looking vacantly across the space. “I know exactly what I want to do,” Aidan replied.


Griff and Aidan smiled as the bartender set down three enormous steel mugs, running over with light amber-colored foam. “This is what it’s all about, Tarlach,” Griff said, tipping back his head and gulping down the stout brew. “If you say so,” Tarlach replied, and lifted his mug to his mouth. He took a sip, and set the mug back down. The foam tingled as it lingered on his upper lip. Tauren were famous drinkers, thanks to their enormous body mass, though alcohol had never held much intrigue for Tarlach. The tavern was packed out with Tauren laughing and enjoying various drinks, all of the drinks very large. Tarlach lifted the mug again, and began to take another sip. With his free arm, Griff tipped Tarlach's mug back even further, and Tarlach coughed and sputtered, blowing a spray of beer from his nose. Griff removed his hand, and Tarlach set the mug down on the bar with a heavy thunk, gasping for breath and coughing. “What was that about?” Tarlach asked, indignantly. “Come on, Tarlach, you’ll never finish that if you keep drinking it like a lady. It’s beer. Haven’t you ever seen beer before?” Griff laughed. Tarlach scowled. If other Tauren could drink beer like it was water, so could he. “Okay, you’re on,” Tarlach said with a wry smile. “Barkeep!” Griff shouted. “There you go,” the bartender replied, setting down another foam-topped mug. Tarlach’s mug looked as though it had barely been touched at all. Tarlach looked up at the ornately-styled glass bottles of hard liquor on the shelf, and then at the barkeeper’s enormous horns, and remembered a saying he had heard once. Something about a bull in a china shop. Griff slid five copper pieces across the bar, and the barkeeper slid them into his cupped hand. “Ok, Tarlach, you ready?” Griff asked. Whisperclaw sat on his haunches on the floor, tongue lolling to the side, looking up at the two Tauren with great interest. Aidan set his empty mug down on the bar and turned to watch the two others. “I guess so…” Tarlach replied uneasily. “You’re not ready,” Griff said with a grin. “Ok, on three,” Tarlach said. “One…two…three!” Aidan shouted, and the two Tauren threw their heads back and guzzled the contents of their respective mugs as quickly as they could. Griff slammed his empty mug down on the table with a metallic clank, and drew a breath. Tarlach gulped once more, and then slammed his mug down, gasping loudly for air. Aidan began to laugh. “Grrrrah,” Tarlach growled. “Again?” Griff asked, laughing loudly. “Are you getting drunk?” Tarlach responded, looking strangely at Griff with his head cocked to the side. “It takes a lot more than that, Tarlach,” Griff replied with a chuckle, shaking his head. He raised his hand and snapped his fingers. He reached into his money pouch and withdrew five more copper pieces, pinched between his thumb and forefinger, slamming them dramatically onto the bar. “Two more, please,” he shouted. “All yours, Griff,” the bartender said, setting two more enormous mugs in front of Griff and Tarlach. “After this, we can go and get you fitted for your dress,” Griff laughed. Tarlach sighed a sigh that was almost as much a growl as a sigh. He turned and looked Griff directly in the eye. This time, he wouldn't be beaten. “Go,” he said in a deep, raspy voice, and the two were at it again. Their throats quivered as they gulped the mugs dry. Tarlach slammed his mug down, with Griff’s mug clanking a split-second after Tarlach’s. “Ahhh!!!” Griff exclaimed, laughing. “You’ve got some manhood after all!” he conceded, between laughs. Aidan was loving this, and Tarlach thought the enormous warrior was about to pass out from laughing so hard. Aidan's enormous chest strained for breath, which he finally drew with a loud gasp. Tarlach smiled. Outside, the sky was turning purple in the fading light, but inside the atmosphere was festive and bright. “I’m going to take a walk,” Tarlach said “Okay, suit yourself,” Griff said, as the bartender set down another mug. Tarlach stepped outside the pub, and knelt down. He removed a large piece of light leather, and sliced it into two very long strips. Using the tip of his skinning knife, he made a slot in each. He wrapped the leather strips into circles. Then he took some thin rope from his pack and tied the two ends of the straps together. He removed the blue and yellow feathers from his own headdress, and put them into the slots in other two loops of leather. He walked back into the tavern, holding the two hastily-fashioned headdresses. Griff and Aidan were still drinking themselves silly as Whisperclaw slept at their feet. He would wait. He put the headdresses into his pack, sighed, and made his way back to the lone empty seat at the bar.


“Damn, I’m out of coppers,” Griff fumed. “Let’s call it a night, then,” Aidan replied. Tarlach took one last gulp from his mug, and then climbed off the bar stool. Whisperclaw stood up, and stretched. Tarlach sighed as the group exited the tavern. The paths of Thunder Bluff were lit with giant crackling torches, as bonfires burned in front of almost every tent, longhouse, and building, casting a warm glow on the nearby ground. Other Tauren, milling about, cast dancing shadows on the ground. Tarlach was exhausted. He marveled at all the things that just one day had held for him. Then he remembered the headdresses he had made. “Friends, I wanted to give you these,” Tarlach said, stopping and reaching into his backpack. He withdrew the two other headdresses, each with a single yellow or blue feather. “Without your help, I never would have made it here, so it seems unfair that I should be the only one to wear Cairne’s gift,” he said. He walked up to Griff and placed the headdress with the blue feather on the Tauren hunter’s head, and then turned to Aidan and put the headdress with the yellow feather on the warrior’s head. “Thanks, Tarlach, that means a lot,” Griff said, suddenly serious. Aidan nodded. Tarlach sighed. “It has meant a lot to me as well, my friends. It will be a shame if our paths do not cross again,” he said sadly. “It is time for us to bid you farewell, Tarlach. May our ancestors guide and protect you,” Griff said. Tarlach smiled. “And you as well,” he replied as the other two Tauren turned and walked away, disappearing into the night. Whisperclaw sat and scratched his neck with a hind foot. “At least you’re not going to leave me,” Tarlach said, looking down at Whisperclaw, who looked back. Friend, the wolf replied. Tarlach made his way to the giant totem in the center of the main rise, and climbed down its spiraling ramp to the first level. Whisperclaw followed dutifully alongside, claws clicking on the wooden ramp.


The evening had given way to night, and the crowds had diminished somewhat, but many travelers still arrived, seeking safe haven in Thunder Bluff’s elevated mesas. The blacksmith’s fire still burned, and with each powerful stroke of the hammer, sparks flew against the dark. The elevator cars continued to rise and descend, their interiors illuminated by small torches. A large beacon burned brightly at the top of the pole that supported the main pulleys. Tarlach had only known Griff and Aidan for three days, but he was really beginning to miss their companionship. They had become a part of him, and now that they were gone, loneliness was beginning to set in. He knelt and scratched Whisperclaw behind the ears. “You and I are going to be together from now on, okay?” he said, certain that the wolf understood every word. Friend. Help Tarlach, Whisp replied. Tarlach patted the wolf’s back, and rose to his feet. At least he wouldn’t be alone. “Good friend,” Tarlach said. Whisp wagged his tail. Tarlach sighed, and he and his companion walked toward the inn. The Thunder Bluff inn was brightly lit, and fires crackled cheerily in the firepots as Tauren of every size, shape, and color sat around them, talking animatedly about the day’s experiences. Tarlach approached the innkeeper, Pala. “Greetings. How may I aid you?” she asked. “Are there any beds left?” Tarlach asked. “It’s a busy night. You’re just in time. I’ve two more beds, and then I begin setting up pallets on the floor,” she replied. Tarlach sighed with relief and smiled. He’d sleep on the floor if he had to, but he didn’t exactly relish the idea. “I also have some freshly-baked bread, if you are interested,” Pala offered, and suddenly Tarlach remembered how ravenously hungry he was. “That sounds wonderful,” Tarlach replied. He reached for his bag of copper pieces. “You may pay for it tomorrow, as part of your bed fee,” she replied. “Thanks. I really appreciate it,” Tarlach replied, as Pala walked to a nearby table, where a loaf of bread steamed. She broke off a large hunk of the loaf, and handed it to Tarlach. “Enjoy your stay,” she offered. Tarlach wearily climbed the ramp to the second floor. He sat on one of the unoccupied beds, and began to tear at the half loaf of bread. It was soft, moist and yeasty, the best Tarlach had enjoyed in quite a while. Whisperclaw stared longingly as Tarlach ate. Tarlach paused, and then pinched off a small amount of the loaf between his thumb and forefinger. He held it out to Whisperclaw. “Feel like giving this a try?” Tarlach asked. Whisperclaw sniffed the morsel of bread, and then withdrew. Smells not right,' the wolf responded. Tarlach chuckled lightly. “I guess if it hasn’t been running around, you don’t want any of it,” he said. Another wave of exhaustion swept him, and he lay down, letting his arms hang off the sides of the bed. It was heavenly. Whisperclaw pushed his snout under Tarlach’s arm. The big Tauren hand rubbed Whisperclaw’s neck, and the wolf laid down on the floor beside the bed. “What a day, Whisp.” Tarlach sighed lazily. He heard the rhythmic thump of Whisperclaw’s wagging tail against the floor. His eyes began to droop as he succumbed to slumber.


Tarlach awoke in a grassy field. A soft, amber glow caressed his face as the tall stalks of dry grass swayed in the wind. He rose to his feet, and slouched for a moment, pausing to survey his surroundings. His movement was labored and staggering, as though he were extremely drunk, or weak from blood loss, but he felt no wound. A solitary tree stood atop a hill, against the shadows of the night. As Tarlach pondered the tree, he noticed the long shadow cast by his body on the swaying grass. He turned to face the source of the amber glow, and saw behind him an entire forest, blazing with windswept flame. With a curiosity that he could not place, Tarlach walked across the flat grassland as the grass swayed in waves, seed heads crunching softly beneath his hooves with each deliberate step. He was not entirely sure that he was in control. Tarlach could feel the heat on his face as he approached the flame-engulfed forest. As he neared the conflagration, he saw that a wide path led into the flaming forest. The licking flames did not encroach upon the path, but seemed to respect its presence. Tarlach tried to stop walking but found that he could not arrest his own forward motion. Don’t do this, he thought to himself as he walked towards the trailhead. His unease gave way to panic – what was controlling him? The thought flashed across his mind: Or, perhaps, who? The heat was much stronger now, warming Tarlach from head to toe against the coolness of the night. Through sheer will, he finally forced himself to stand still. For a moment he fought himself. His muscles tensed mightily as he devoted his every effort to remaining in place, but the force controlling him – moving him – was gaining the upper hand in the struggle. Tarlach’s muscles began to burn with the effort and tension, but it was useless. No. No! Tarlach felt himself take one ponderous step, and then another, and then another, until he was completely surrounded on both sides by the towering inferno. This is insane! Turn back! he shouted at himself as he continued to follow the path. But his legs refused to listen. The rush of the flames and the crackle of burning wood filled his ears, as smoke filled his lungs. He began to cough. Stop! Get out of here! he shouted soundlessly within his mind. His legs felt weak as saplings and sore from the effort of standing still, but now they inexorably did the bidding of whatever force now controlled them. Tarlach looked around, panic rising in his chest. The smoke and heat were becoming unbearable. It was choking him. He’d die if he didn’t get out! He looked frantically behind him, watching as the trailhead disappeared from sight around a bend in the path. Then, as he faced forward once more, a wide clearing unexpectedly appeared in front of him. A tall and noble-looking Tauren stood fearlessly in the middle of the clearing, seemingly unaffected by the fire as the woods blazed around him. The waves of heat clouded Tarlach’s vision, and every breath was agony as he staggered on. As he gasped for breath, he knew he was about to die. At first he could not see the other Tauren’s identity. He half-stumbled into the clearing, and the heat and smoke faded away, as though held back by some unseen force. Then the other Tauren turned to face Tarlach. In an instant, his panic faded. Those eyes, intense yet kind, familiar…Tarlach hadn’t seen those eyes in years! His knees grew weak, and his lungs burned. “Father—,” Tarlach managed to choke as he collapsed to the ground.


Tarlach woke with a start, gasping for air. He sat up in the bed, breathing heavily. His heart pounded in his chest. He was back in the Thunder Bluff inn, and he saw now that he had never left. Two other Tauren, who Tarlach did not recognize, lay in the two other beds. Tarlach knew sleep would be impossible now. The image of the flaming forest was still seared onto his memory. And he had seen his father! His deepest, most repressed childhood memories came flooding back, and a tidal wave of sorrow overcame him. Tears welled in his eyes. He was so young…and his father never returned. The sound of his mother crying softly in the night filled his head, and his body began to shake with sobs as he closed his eyes in shame, tears streaming down the side of his face. The fire in the firepot crackled feebly as it extracted the energy from the last of its fuel. For a moment, Tarlach felt deeper loneliness than he had ever experienced in his life, the same loneliness he had felt as a child when he learned to accept his father’s death. Then Tarlach remembered what Cairne Bloodhoof had said to him. “I knew your father, Tarlach. Your father…” came the words once again, in the aged chieftain’s authoritative tone. Tarlach shook away the tears, and stood, causing Whisperclaw to stir slightly. He reached for his pants, and pulled them on, one leg at a time. He reached for his linen Trapper’s Shirt, where it hung on the bedpost. Taking up his pack from where it rested by his bedside, he walked to the large deck which jutted out from the back of the inn. There he stood, for what seemed like a long time, letting the early morning breeze blow through his mane, and pondering what the dream could possibly have meant. For the first time, Tarlach felt regret that he barely remembered anything about his father. Tarlach walked back into the inn and down the ramp to the ground floor. Whisperclaw roused himself and followed. “Good morning, Tarlach. You’re up very early. Did you enjoy your stay?” Pala asked. “It was fine, thank you,” Tarlach replied. He walked over to Pala and set his backpack down on the floor, withdrawing the sack of currency. He counted twenty copper pieces into the palm of his hand, and extended it to the innkeeper. “Thank you very much,” she said, taking the roughly-formed coins. The light of sunrise was beginning to spread across the sky as Tarlach walked out onto the dew-covered grass. Whisperclaw stretched and yawned. The Tauren hunter and his wolf companion walked along the stone-paved path to the enormous totem that contained the spiraling ramp. The city seemed largely deserted in the early morning light, but Tarlach had a feeling that even at this early hour, the Tauren chieftain would be awake. Tarlach’s hooves landed with a dull thud on the wooden ramp as he climbed past the second level, to the third. Whisperclaw followed closely behind, claws clicking as he went. Just as Tarlach had suspected, the majestic Tauren chief stood in the round doorway of his longhouse, with honor guard standing at attention at either side of the entrance. No one else was around, which seemed strange for Thunder Bluff, but Tarlach knew that once the sun rose, the streets would be as busy as ever. Somehow the deserted city seemed appropriate as Tarlach walked along the path that led from the totem to Chief Bloodhoof’s longhouse. Small birds chirped in the branches of the trees as the sky took on a lavender color, fading to a reddish-orange in the east. “Greetings, Tarlach. How may I aid you?” the chieftain asked as Tarlach stood before the round doorway. The glow in his eyes seemed brighter in the dim light. “I must speak with you, Cairne,” Tarlach replied. “Come inside,” Cairne said with a sigh, turning and walking deeper into the tent. Tarlach followed, looking uneasily at the armed guards. “Have a meal with me, Tarlach,” Cairne offered, motioning to an empty seat on the floor beside a low table. Tarlach walked over and sat down on the cougar-skin mat which lay on the floor. Whisperclaw sat obediently at Tarlach’s side. The Tauren chief unwrapped a loaf of bread, and two haunches of meat. Tarlach smiled; sharing a meal was a traditional Tauren sign of goodwill and friendship. Cairne tipped a wineskin and poured its contents into two goblets – one at Tarlach’s place setting and one at his own. Then he sat and lowered his head, closing his eyes in reverence. Tarlach did the same. “For this the fruit of your land O Earthmother we give thanks, and ask your blessing upon it,” Cairne said, and Tarlach agreed in prayer. The chief tore the loaf of bread into two halves, and set one half on Tarlach’s place setting. “Now, what is it that you seek, Tarlach?” Cairne asked. Tarlach looked into Cairne’s glowing eyes. “You said you knew my father. I need you to tell me what you remember about him,” he replied. “What is it that you wish to know?” the chief asked. Everything, Tarlach wanted to say. “I hardly remember anything about him at all. I was very young when he died,” he replied. Cairne lifted his goblet to his mouth and drank deeply. Tarlach lifted his and sipped. The wine was sweet, hardly fermented at all. He liked it, and took another sip, carefully setting the cup on the table. “Your father, Rilken Steelmane, was one of my trusted friends, a very long time ago, as we assisted the Orcs in colonizing Durotar. He was a hunter, and a very skilled one. He was intelligent, resourceful, and friendly, and he was also very well-spoken, which is uncommon in a hunter. He taught my son Baine how to shoot a rifle when he was only knee-high, but Baine has since followed his warrior’s calling and has little need for guns,” Cairne said. He lifted the haunch of meat, and took a bite. “Are you well, Tarlach? You haven’t touched your food yet,” Cairne said, looking strangely at Tarlach. “I’m fine. This is just very interesting,” Tarlach said. He reached for his haunch of the meat and took a large bite, chewing dramatically and smiling. Cairne raised an eyebrow, but continued. “You are very much like your father, Tarlach. You are also well-spoken, and quite skilled for your age. But you are also like your father in another important way – you were both willing to risk everything for friendship,” the Tauren chief said proudly. “My friendship with your father was very much like the one you have with my son, Tarlach. No matter how dangerous the mission, Rilken hardly ever said ‘no’ to a quest, and he quickly gained my trust. He walked tall and proud, and was never ashamed to stand up for himself and what we Tauren believe in,” he continued. Tarlach took a bite of the bread. The food was unpretentious, and it set Tarlach at ease. Whisperclaw scratched his neck with a hind foot. “I remember – you had only seen seven summers when your father vanished. I would not wish that upon anyone,” Cairne said solemnly. “What do you know about my father’s death?” Tarlach asked, and Cairne stopped chewing. His expression turned solemn. “No one ever exactly knew what happened to your father. He simply never returned, and was never found. It wouldn’t make sense for him to just run off – he was very devoted to you and your mother. Thankfully, it was not a quest that I sent him on. As a hunter, Rilken always sought a greater challenge. He believed firmly in self-improvement, and sharpening his skills. Sadly, I fear he met a challenge he couldn’t beat, and that is why he never returned. Rilken was never motivated by pride. Many times when a person is driven by their pride, I feel they often get what they deserve. But not your father. He did not deserve to die, Tarlach, and that is why it grieved me to lose him as a friend. It was hardest on your mother, though. She shared a special, deep bond with Rilken that few wives ever share with their husbands. When you were born, they settled in Bloodhoof Village.” Cairne paused, and sighed heavily. “Your mother grieved over your father’s death for years, and then she fell deeply ill. I wanted to help her, Tarlach, so I consulted with my wisest shamans, but none of their remedies could cure her of what I’m convinced was a broken heart. Her sickness lasted for a year and a season, and then one day she simply gave up on life. We should all be so blessed as to have a wife so devoted to her husband as she was, Tarlach.” Cairne said. Tarlach took another bite of the bread. “But I know there’s some other reason why you’re here, Tarlach, for you didn’t simply become interested in your father’s past this recently,” Cairne said, with a knowing look. “I saw my father in a dream, Cairne,” Tarlach said solemnly. “Then this is different. That was no mere dream, Tarlach. You know our ancestors are always watching over us, protecting us as we walk our life’s journey. When your father died, he went to be with our ancestors, and now he watches over you as well. The dream you had was likely your father’s way of letting you know that you have his protection,” Cairne said. “But there’s a chance he might still be alive?” Tarlach said, sitting upright. “No one has ever seen him or heard from him since his disappearance. His corpse has never been found, and no one has ever brought news of his death. If he is still alive, Tarlach, I cannot imagine where he might be,” Cairne replied. “Then I’ve got to go after him,” Tarlach said, rising to his feet. “Tarlach, it’s very unlikely that your father is still alive. So I must give you the same advice I gave him: Be on guard against foolish impulses. You are the only Steelmane left in Mulgore, and the last one left to carry your family name. You are adventurous, Tarlach, just as Rilken was. But our people would suffer a loss if you yourself are killed searching for your father,” Cairne said, his voice growing stern. “You must be reasonable, Tarlach.” Tarlach stood for a moment. “If there is the slightest possibility that my father is alive, I must find him,” he finally said. “Then I cannot stop you, Tarlach. It would not be fair to you or your father’s spirit if I should prevent you from embarking on this quest. But the best advice I can give you is to use your head. Make intelligent decisions along your way, and do not put yourself in unnecessary danger. Be patient, for if your father is still alive, I know he will wait for you as long as it takes.”


Eight

“Thank you, Cairne, for everything,” said Tarlach, and Whisperclaw rose to all four paws. “I had hoped you would stay a little longer, Tarlach. I do enjoy visits from friends. It is as though I were speaking to your father once again. But you have a strong sense of urgency about you, and I would not be the one to hinder you. If you believe your father is still alive, then you must go and see it for yourself,” Cairne replied. “The food was delicious. I know we’ll meet again soon,” Tarlach said, as he turned to go. “In life, rather than death, I hope. May our ancestors guide and protect you,” Cairne said. Tarlach looked back and smiled, and then stepped out the door into the cool morning air. As the light grew brighter, the streets of Thunder Bluff grew busier. Tarlach sat beneath the conifer tree where he had stood only the day before with Griff and Aidan, and once again his thoughts turned to them. He sighed, and wondered how long it would be before they had completely forgotten him. The ceremonial bonfire smoldered, as did the torches at the top of the two totems on either side of the raked seating that faced the threshold of Cairne’s longhouse. Tarlach turned to Whisperclaw, who stared intently. “You’ve been a good guest in Cairne’s house. Let’s get you some food,” Tarlach said, opening his pack and looking inside. The rolled Prairie Stalker pelt caught his eye. At one time, the wolves of Mulgore had nearly been hunted to extinction for their luxuriant silver fur and their perceived menace, but when the Orc warchief Thrall convinced Cairne and the Bloodhoof Tauren to live a settled life in Mulgore, the Tauren had quickly driven away the poachers and hunters, and soon the wolf population thrived once more. And, of course, having a land to call their own had brought together all of the Tauren tribes, under Cairne’s leadership. The pelt, however, would need to be sold. Food? Whisperclaw asked. “Oh, right,” Tarlach replied, awakening from his daydream. He reached into his pack and pulled out the sack of Plainstrider meat. Only two pieces remained. Whisperclaw’s tail thumped the ground. Tarlach removed one of the pieces and tossed it to the wolf, whose tongue lolled with expectancy. Whisperclaw caught the Plainstrider steak in his jaws, and bit down on the meat, chewing through. Tarlach watched the wolf’s throat quiver as it swallowed. Love Tarlach…Friend… came the wolf’s thoughts. Tarlach smiled. Whisperclaw was gaining loyalty, becoming a trusted companion. But the idea that a wild animal could somehow love him, and serve him out of that love, had been a foreign idea to him until meeting Whisperclaw.


Tarlach sold the pelt to Ahanu, a fearsome-looking yet kind leather armor merchant at the base of the enormous totem that dominated the silhouette of the city. Ahanu had been impressed at the untouched fur, and reassured Tarlach that the tear above the left eye hole could be easily repaired. For the pelt, Ahanu had given Tarlach eighty copper – nearly a full silver piece. Apparently, the hunting had been good for everyone, not just Tarlach, and so the pelt did not bring quite as high a price as Tarlach had expected, but Ahanu had always been fair and upstanding in the past, and so Tarlach felt it was best to give the merchant the benefit of the doubt. Tarlach’s mind still whirled with the events of the morning, and the night before. What could it possibly mean? Tarlach was pleased to know that his father had befriended Cairne. If everything the old Tauren chief said had been true, Tarlach thought, then his father was the kind he would be proud to have. And Tarlach swelled with pride to understand that he shared those qualities that made his father memorable to Cairne. But unfortunately it did not bring him any closer to finding his father, if his father was still alive. Tarlach’s heartbeat quickened at the thought of being reunited with his father. Rilken Steelmane had to be alive – he just had to. Tarlach walked in the direction of the elevators that would lead him to the base of the mesas of Thunder Bluff, but as he passed the inn, a familiar voice stopped him. “Tarlach!” It was the innkeeper, Pala, and she held a scrap of tan-colored Orcish paper. Tarlach and Whisperclaw walked over. “A messenger just came, and left this note for you. It looks important,” the female Tauren said, handing Tarlach the note. And indeed it did look important. It was not written with a piece of sharpened charcoal, but in ink. Yet the Taurahe characters were not carefully formed, but looked more like scratches on the paper, and droplets of ink had fallen nearby, leaving blots on the page. Tarlach folded the note once again and thanked Pala. He walked to a nearby tree to read the note. Whisperclaw sat obediently beside. Unfolding the note completely this time, Tarlach noticed that the page was headed with the Bloodhoof family insignia. It was from Cairne. Tarlach squinted – the note was nearly impossible to read in its hasty penmanship. Yet Tarlach slogged through the messy Taurahe symbols. It read:


My Friend Tarlach, If more knowledge about your father is what you desire, seek out Seer Wiserunner. He can be found in a cave that is well-hidden among the mountains southwest of Thunder Bluff. He will assist you in unlocking every memory of your father that is hidden in the deepest corners of your mind. Face this quest boldly, Tarlach, for it will define you as a person. We are not defined by what we do in this life. We are defined by who we are. And never forget what you leave behind.

Seek the Earthmother in all you do, and may she smile upon your journey.

Cairne.

Tarlach folded the note carefully and placed it inside his backpack, beside a pouch of tough meat jerky. He lifted the pack to his shoulders, and it felt strangely light. Time to go hunting, Tarlach thought to himself as he and Whisperclaw made their way to the elevators.


Cairne had not lied when he wrote that Seer Wiserunner’s cave was well-hidden. Tarlach and his canine companion had reached the mountain range and trekked south along its edge as far as the dwarves’ dig site, but it wasn’t until they walked north once more that Tarlach spotted the cave, high up along a steep slope. Why did seers always have to pick the most remote, isolated places to live? In Bloodhoof Village, there was Zarlman Two-Moons who spent his days looking into the tribal bonfire, but in Camp Narache there had been Seer Greytongue, who made his home in the mountains to the south and slightly west of Red Cloud Mesa. And yet many sought the wisdom of the seers, for they had received from the Earthmother the special blessing of Second Sight, the ability to see things before they happened. The humans frequently dismissed Second Sight as mere hallucination, a heightened intuition, or even a lucky guess, but among many other races the Tauren more fully understood the importance of the seers’ gift. And that was why Tarlach now trudged up the steep incline that led to the cave of Seer Wiserunner. He panted for breath as he reached the end of the climb. “Greetings, traveler,” the seer said, warmly. “What wisdom do you seek?” he asked as Tarlach sat on the cap of an enormous mushroom and drank from his canteen. He reached into his pack and produced the note. “Cairne Bloodhoof sends me to you. I need you to help me recover lost memories,” Tarlach replied, handing the note to the seer. “Ah, it is important, then. Very strange that you should come seeking memory. Many seek to be free from their memories, yet you have come to remember the past as though it were yesterday. I can do this for you, but first I must warn you – you may not be ready for what you see,” Seer Wiserunner said. “What do you mean by that?” Tarlach asked. “We as Tauren have excellent memories. A memory is never lost, simply forgotten. Instead, it is hidden, and there is always a good reason for it to be hidden away. When it comes back, you will not be able to stop it, but will be forced to experience it vividly a second time. Are you sure this is what you want to do?” the seer asked. “I am not afraid, Seer. There are things that I must know, no matter the price,” Tarlach replied. “Very well then. We shall rekindle your deepest memories, Tarlach,” the seer said. Wiserunner’s speech was slow and deliberate. “I must prepare a drink for you, to revive your memory. You must consume it in the depths of this cave, and you will fall into what appears to be a deep sleep, but during this time you shall not know sleep nor food nor water. There are things you must gather for me. I need two ambercorn and the foot of a Flatland Cougar. Collect these things, and then I can prepare the Waters of Remembrance.” Tarlach rose to his feet. “Then I’d better get going. Come along, Whisp,” Tarlach said as he took up his pack once more and began to walk carefully down the hill. Once he lost his footing and nearly began to slide, but caught himself. Whisperclaw had no trouble negotiating the slope, however. Ambercorn fell periodically from the conifer trees in Mulgore. The seed cones themselves did not fall to the ground. Instead, a cloudy yellow seed fell to the ground, a seed that had the appearance of a kernel of corn. In the autumn, these seeds were abundant, but in the springtime they would not be so easily found. Tarlach walked south toward a stand of conifer trees and knelt to the ground. The scent of the trees’ sap was cool and pleasing to Tarlach’s nose as he ran his fingers along the ground, hoping to turn up an ambercorn seed. Whisperclaw put his nose to the ground, and it twitched as the wolf sniffed. Suddenly Tarlach’s fingers felt what seemed like a smooth stone, but its vivid yellow color told differently. Tarlach picked up the ambercorn seed carefully, and placed it in a blue pouch that hung from his belt. Whisperclaw began to press his nose at the ground, and snuffled loudly. Then he pawed at the ground. Tarlach looked up just in time to see the yellow glint of the Ambercorn seed. “Wow, thanks, boy! You really are useful!” Tarlach exclaimed, and Whisperclaw’s tail wagged. Good Pet…Whisperclaw, the wolf replied. Tarlach stood. “Okay, now we need to find a cougar,” Tarlach said, and the wolf looked up at Tarlach knowingly. I smell…smell… Whisperclaw said to Tarlach. The wolf lifted his head and his nose twitched rapidly. …smell cougar there, came the wolf’s reply. Tarlach’s eyes scanned the grassland, and then he saw what his pet's sensitive nose had detected. Underneath a stand of trees, nearly a hundred yards away, a cougar indeed lay, licking its paws. Tarlach walked quietly towards the beast as Whisperclaw followed silently alongside, until the two were just within range of Tarlach’s rifle. The cougar remained unaware. Tarlach reached into his leather ammunition pouch and removed a handful of shot pellets. He loaded the first into the Blunderbuss rifle’s chamber, and then cocked the flint. He lined up the muzzle of the weapon with the unsuspecting cougar, put his large finger on the trigger, and pulled it back until he felt resistance. Silently in his mind, he cast a spell called Serpent’s Sting, and squeezed the trigger. The rifle bucked, and a sharp report echoed off the mountainside as the brightly-glowing shot raced through the air. Tarlach quickly opened the chamber and reloaded, firing again at the rapidly approaching cougar. Get him, Whisperclaw! Tarlach thought loudly, and his loyal pet raced toward the big cat. Tarlach slipped his rifle into his pack until only the flared end of the muzzle protruded, and reached for his axe. Whisperclaw’s teeth bit into the wolf’s shoulder, tearing away skin and drawing blood. The cougar yowled and whirled to face the wolf, swiping with its claws. Whisperclaw yelped as the cougar sliced along the wolf’s leg, and at the sound an anger began to rise within Tarlach. “Ruahh!” he yelled as he leapt into the fray. He shouted a Taurahe word – “Stri’can!” – and felt strength from the Raptor Strike spell flow warmly into the muscles of his arms. He swung his axe with deadly force, and it bit into the side of the cougar, who roared with the pain. The muscles of his arms burned from the powerful axe stroke, but he swung his axe again, this time catching the chest of the cougar as it reared back to leap. The swing knocked the cougar onto its back, shattering the animal's breastbone, and it feebly gasped its last. Tarlach unsheathed his hunting knife and began to slice through the forepaw of the cougar. The serrations hit bone and began to saw through it until the paw was held on by a thin strip of flesh. The knife easily cut through and freed the small furry paw, which oozed blood. Then he replaced his hunting knife and withdrew his skinning knife from his pack. This knife was sharper. Tarlach sliced along the animal’s neck, chest, belly, and legs, and pulled the skin away from the connecting tissue. He scraped the inside of the pelt with his axe blade, pulling away the lingering connecting tissue, and then rolled the pelt and stored it in his pack. Then he turned to Whisperclaw, who was bleeding from a cut on his front leg. The wolf looked up with plaintive eyes. “Poor guy,” Tarlach said, as Whisperclaw held up the bleeding forepaw. Tarlach reached into his pack, and withdrew a scrap of linen cloth. He tied it loosely around the wound, and whisperclaw began to bite at the cloth. “Don’t do that,” Tarlach commanded, and the wolf ceased. “Let’s go, buddy,” Tarlach said as he rose to his feet. Tarlach…good…friend…love, went the thoughts of the wolf as he limped alongside Tarlach.


“Ah, I see you’ve collected the necessary ingredients. That shows your desire for true knowledge and wisdom by your willingness to sacrifice to receive it,” the seer said kindly as Tarlach sat on the mushroom cap, tearing at a strip of tough jerky. Whisperclaw lay on the floor, with his head between his forepaws on the cold, moist stone floor of the cave. A glass crucible sat on the top of a barrel. Seer Wiserunner lifted the crucible, and held it underneath a stalactite which hung from the ceiling of the cave. Water dripped slowly until it had filled the crucible to the top. Then the seer dropped in the two ambercorn seeds and wringed blood from the cougar’s paw into the crucible. He raised his hands over the crucible and muttered something, and tendrils of green light began to swirl around it. Tarlach could see the liquid in the crucible begin to boil, and then swirl with great speed, glowing a bright blue. Then suddenly the light faded, and the liquid stopped swirling. “Tarlach, I give you…the Waters of Remembrance,” Seer Wiserunner declared, placing the crucible in Tarlach’s hand. “Go to the back of the cave, and drink deeply, and let your mind wander. Don’t worry…it knows the way,” the seer said cryptically. Following the seer's instructions, Tarlach walked to the deepest depths of the cave, near where a copper vein protruded from the rock. He sat on the wet floor of the cave, lifted the crucible to his lips, and poured the liquid down his gullet. It tasted sharp and bitter, like eating a raw ambercorn. “I don’t feel anything,” Tarlach said, but suddenly the world began to spin around him, and his head began to ache. “Ohh,” Tarlach moaned as the pain in his head grew stronger, and then he slumped to the side, breathing softly.


And in a moment, he was home. Bloodhoof village, but not as Tarlach remembered it. The enormous longhouse was gone, and so was the towering grain mill. The ‘village’ was hardly more than a camp, with tents and tipis scattered around a bonfire in the center. A stand of conifer trees offered their shade along the shore of Stonebull Lake. In the distance, the sails of the Winterhoof water well rotated slowly. Tarlach looked down at his hands and saw that they were very small. He was very small. There were few children in Bloodhoof Village, so Tarlach often found himself alone, exploring the shore of Stonebull lake, and that is where he sat now, throwing stones into the water. “Hey, Tiger,” came a calm, deep voice. His father always called him that. “What are you up to?” Rilken Steelmane asked Tarlach as he approached through the stand of conifer trees, twigs and ambercorn crackling at his feet. His father was every bit as big and strong as he had imagined, with muscles bulging under his clothes. His father’s strength had not been a distortion of his fanciful childhood mind after all, but had been very real. “Throwing rocks,” Tarlach replied. Had that been his voice? It was a far cry from the raspy, deep voice Tarlach had always possessed, and hearing himself speak as a child was strange. Tarlach lobbed another large stone into the lake, and it made a splash. “Hey, Tiger, watch this,” his father said, kneeling down and picking up a smooth, flat stone. With a deft flick of the wrist, his father launched the stone onto the water, and it skipped twice before disappearing beneath the surface. “See if you can do that,” he said. Tarlach searched for another flat, smooth stone, and mimicked the motion his father had made, but the rock entered at an angle and did not skip. Not even a splash. “Try again. This time, hold it like this,” his father said, kneeling and holding Tarlach’s hand, guiding it slowly through the motion. His father’s hands were enormous. “Ok, try it again,” his father said, rising to his feet, and Tarlach launched the stone. This time, he did not swing his arm, but flicked his wrist. The stone skipped twice and plopped below the surface of the lake. “I did it!” Tarlach cried happily. He was only five years old. His father laughed.


“Okay, line it up. That’s it,” Tarlach’s father said as he knelt. Fifty yards away was a tree stump, and on top sat a clay model of a four-legged creature. Tarlach held the long Blunderbuss rifle, and it was heavy in his hands. To get a better aim, he raised the butt of the gun to his nose, looking down the barrel. “No, Tarlach! Not like that!” his father shouted, pushing the butt of the gun away from Tarlach’s nose. “Why not?” Tarlach asked. “Because I don’t want to explain to your mother how you broke your nose firing my gun,” Rilken replied. “Only rest the gun on your shoulder, then look down the barrel like this,” his father said, taking the rifle and demonstrating. He pulled the trigger and the gun bucked, a wisp of smoke rising from the flint. The recoil of the firing action drove the gun back into his shoulder. He opened the chamber and inserted another shot pellet. “Now you try it,” he said, handing the rifle back to Tarlach. Tarlach took the rifle and rested the butt against his shoulder and looked down the barrel just as his father had done. He lined the muzzle up with the tree stump. “Ok, now fire it,” his father said. Tarlach nervously squeezed the trigger until he felt resistance, then hesitated. “Don’t worry, it’s very safe,” his father reassured him. Tarlach squeezed, and the tip of the muzzle blazed. The sharp recoil slammed the butt of the gun into his shoulder, and it hurt just a bit. “Okay, give me the rifle,” Rilken said, taking it carefully. Tarlach and his father walked to the tree stump. The clay model was obliterated, and shot pellets lodged themselves deeply into the core of the tree stump. “Great shot, Tarlach! You’re a natural marksman, Tiger,” his father said, beaming proudly. The dull ache in Tarlach’s shoulder was overcome by the swelling pride he felt at that moment. He was six years old.


Tarlach and his father stood at the edge of Bloodhoof village. The sun bathed the ground, and a cool breeze blew. “Tarlach, someday I’ll take you hunting with me, and you can shoot the gun,” his father said. “Someday I’ll be as big as you!” Tarlach exclaimed, excitedly, in the deeper voice of a more mature child. He was seven summers old now, he remembered. “Indeed you will. But you’re not there yet, Tiger. You need to stay here, son,” his father commanded. “Awww,” Tarlach groaned. “Cute kid. You know, he takes after his father,” came a deep voice from behind. “Good afternoon, Baine. A marvelous day, isn’t it?” Tarlach’s father responded good-naturedly. “Indeed it is, Rilken,” Baine replied. “But I wanted to go hunting with you!” Tarlach said stubbornly. This elicited a laugh from Baine. “No, Tarlach. You stay here. You’ll have more fun here anyway,” Tarlach’s father replied. “No I won’t. There’s never anyone around,” Tarlach said sullenly. The morning dragged into the afternoon. “What’cha doin?” Tarlach had followed Baine back to the shadow of the enormous carved totem at the center of the village. “Running a village,” Baine replied. “Can I help?” Tarlach asked. Baine heaved a heavy sigh and rolled his eyes. “I suppose, as long as you stay out of the way,” he replied in a low voice. “So, what do you do, just stand there all day?” Tarlach asked. “I wish it were that simple, young one. Are you always this bothersome?” Baine asked. “Yep,” Tarlach replied, attempting to balance himself on a large stone. They stood together for what seemed like a long time. The young Tarlach had decided it would be a fantastic idea to mimic Baine’s every motion. Baine turned his head to the right, and so did Tarlach. Baine scratched his side, and so did Tarlach. Baine sighed. So did Tarlach. “Stop that,” Baine said. “Awww,” Tarlach complained. Baine knelt to the ground and looked into Tarlach’s eyes. “I think I know a way you can help me, child,” he said. He pointed to a stand of conifer trees. “You see those sticks? They fall from the trees. They’re good for starting fires. Why don’t you go pick up every stick you find, and take them to Zarlman Two-Moons?” Tarlach’s face brightened. “Sure thing, Baine,” Tarlach said, and quickly set about the task. Baine grinned at his own cleverness. The tasks were so simple and mundane, yet Baine made them seem as though they carried a vital importance to the Tauren people, and Tarlach completed them happily.


“Tomorrow I’m going to the Crossroads, to speak with a very old friend of mine,” his father said. “Who’s that?” Tarlach heard himself ask, and his spirit leapt with expectancy. Outside the tent, the evening’s light faded. “Drakell Bloodmaul, an Orc, from Durotar,” his father answered. A name! Something Tarlach could work with. “Can I go with you, dad?” he asked. “Oh, no. The Barrens is no place for a young one, Tarlach. I can take care of myself, but if anything ever happened to you, I’d never be able to forgive myself,” his father said, suddenly serious. He turned and looked at Narashi, who stood beside him, and smiled. “I don’t think your mother could forgive me, either,” he said. “Tarlach, listen to your father. You’ll grow up to be just like him someday,” she said softly. “But I wanted to go,” Tarlach said, pouting. “I can take care of myself, too!” he added, standing up quickly. “Not until you’re older, Tarlach,” Rilken replied. Tarlach sat and looked at his feet. “Don’t be discouraged, son. You’ll make a fine hunter someday. As Cairne says, 'hunting is a Tauren’s greatest honor',” his father reassured him. The morning of the next day, Tarlach awakened to hushed conversation. “Be careful, Rilken. You don't know what's out there,” his mother said. “I always am,” he replied. Tarlach smiled, for he felt there was no threat his larger-than-life father couldn’t stand up to. He closed his eyes and returned to sleep. It had been the last time Tarlach remembered seeing his father alive.





Note: I'm still in the process of adding the content of this story. It already spans 12 chapters and 61 pages. And it's not even finished. Last updated: 12/20/2006

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