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Well mother... you said one day I would grow up, that there would be one day when I couldn't even recall what it was to be a calf. I s'pose that day has come. So is it time to share? Where are you?


AshenvaleEdit

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Rainsong crept out of the tent, glancing left to right for a sign of the nightwatch. The silver light of the moon shimmered on the leaves, but showed no burly bulls nearby. She turned back briefly as a small cry escaped from the straw pile in the corner. She smiled at her infant son as he tossed in his sleep, tussled mane and suckling thumbs. He showed no sign of waking up... it was safe to go now. Tucking the tent flap into place, she wrapped her linen cloak around her white shoulders, and stole away through the trees to the north. The further she found herself from camp, the more quickly she trod, until a brisk trot carried her into the deep dark woods of Windshear Crag. The cool night shivered her bones and brightened her breath as it escaped her panting mouth. The tunnel was up ahead, she had found it a dozen times before, she barely needed to see. The wind in the leaves sang a song that guided her past thorns, stickly branches, and murky nets of slick and sticky spidery silk.

Ahh.. will I ever know if I tell your story true? Have I massaged your words in my memory to fit my own desires, and purposes? Was this how it really happened? Oh, that you were here to tell it again...

The song changed, and she felt the walls of the mountain closing up. She saw the gaping cave entrance, beckoning her within. She sighed, and pulled out a small satchel of herbs. A touch of fadeleaf for luck, she said, crushing the dried leaves and scattering them at the entrance. A deepmoss spider, alerted by the sound, skittered down the rockface and reared up before her, dripping fangs exposed and threatening. No, no... said Rainsong. I am not who you want, not now... shhh... be still. She waved her gentle white hand before its many eyes; they quickly drew dark with sleep. She smiled with confidence of accomplishment. With a quick glance behind, for which she reprimanded herself with a frown, she crept into the tunnel. Ahh... to have the stealth and alert eyes of the cat, she thought. But soon enough!

I have been in that tunnel. But there were no woods surrounding it when I found my way there. Just sad splintered stumps... You would cry to see it now. Perhaps one day you will, if you return...

Elvuya waited patiently by the tunnel entrance, melding with the shadows to avoid the prowling wolves and bears. Not that they would bother me, she thought. I know them too well. She watched the moon do its slow dance across the clear sky. It's a peaceful night in Ashenvale, she thought to herself. Ah, but if her comrades of Astraanar only knew what she was doing... Such a peace would not last long. Her sharp ears perked up at the small subtle sounds of padding hooves coming through the moss covered tunnel. Ahh, you have come, she said as she melted out of the shadows and bowed before her student. I am here, friend, said Rainsong in her own tongue. They had given up trying to understand each other's words many meetings ago. Rainsong's inquisitive eyes spoke the question before she whispered in hushed Taurahe, what lesson do we learn tonight? Elvuya smiled warmly, taking her apprentice by the hand and leading her into the deep dark thick nature of the vale.

I will not relate the lessons, you would agree. Only those who hear the drumming of the earth, the melody of the leaves, and the song of the rain can truly understand anyhow. Oh that I could have finished my training under you, dear mother. Would it have changed who I have become? I come to cry each time I think I may have cut down Elvuya in battle... just for the sake of the honour of the Horde. What would you say to that? What would you say to me then?

The CentaurEdit

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And you said so plainly, our enemies may be our friends if we just will it to be so. Why did Duskhorn not listen to your wisdom? Where has that wisdom been blown to on the soft breeze?

The leaves of bruiseweed whispered their pungent odour on the morning wind, Rainsong sniffed the air and pushed her way through the thicket to where she knew the bush was thriving. There it was, digging into the sweet soil and reaching for such sunlight as it could in the narrow valley. She kneeled down gently on the soft earth and began the process of trimming back the longer branches, carefully placing the sprigs into her dark leather pouch. She hummed a soft mellow tune as she worked, soothing the small calf who was strapped to her back, sleeping soundly to the delicate whispering winds through the trees.

I have a memory, or perhaps I've shaped it out of my own clay that you left me with all your stories. That hood was warm, soft, and smelled of the musk of your rough black mane. Out of one womb and into another...

The drumming of hooves at first sounded like the small pebbles that sometimes dislodged themselves in hopes of finding rest on the valley floor. But it didn't end with a soft thud, it grew into a rumbling thunder that echoed off the cliff walls. Rainsong's ears perked up, her eyes opened wide, and her breath stopped. They had finally come... Securing her tools in her belt, she began running back north, then west, then north again. Soon she stood on the small pinnacle of rock that overlooked the main path, worn by centuries of migration and trade. She whimpered at what she saw, and wrung her hands in worry. At least one-hundred Centaur mauraders were stampeding down the path, spears and bows drawn, whooping and hollering with bloodlust. Within minutes they would descend upon the village. Rainsong shuddered with premonition, and leapt from her perch, diving into the thick brush and toward the pathway.

You taught me to channel the rumble of the Earth. I remember that moment when I first felt it flow up through my hooves, mingling and tingling through my body, and falling gently out through my fingertips. You have done this rabbit wrong, you said to me. You must heal her wounds and send her on her way. I watched in awe as the essence of nature flowed down from my shaking hands, and embraced the wounded rabbit in gentle healing.

Rainsong burst out of the woods and onto the dirt path. Dust eddies still swirled from the hooves, small tempests singing of the storm about to fall upon her people. She ran toward the village, feeling helpless and cold. With all that she had learned, she could do nothing to send warning. A silent and still brown shape lay in her path up ahead, she slowed to a trot, then a walk, then took tentative steps toward the downed Centaur. He was breathing heavily, the Tauren arrows had pierced him in three seperate places in his chest. His dark black eyes stared up at her as she drew closer, pleading for death. No... said Rainsong. No... I can't, oh Elvuya what would you do? Looking around with quick glances, she kneeled down beside the shivering and quivering body, placing her soft white hand on his neck. Oh, Earthmother guide me, she said softly under her breath. The healing power flowed up through the dry dusty path, beckoned by her call, and out over the bloody wounds. Her touch of nature sang a song of peace, and in an instant the Centaur leaped to his hooves, staring at Rainsong in disbelief. She stayed kneeling before him, not daring to look up in his eyes. Looking at her, at his spear, and at the setting sun, he mumbled few words that have been lost, and galloped away east, toward his home. A sigh of relief and pain met Rainsong's ears, and it took moments for her to realize it was her own.

There is no joy in victory when all you can feel is the pain and shame of the path that took you there. This one I learned years after I last saw your deep, dark eyes. But I know you would agree, mother.

She heard heavy hooves walking slowly, determined, toward her. She felt a rush of nerves, looking up only when she heard the footfalls cease. That was no healing from the spirits, said Coppertooth. I see no totems, I hear no prayers to your ancestors, he sneered at her. What dark arts did you perform to revive our enemy? You have wasted three good shots from my bow, young one. If it weren't for your soft child borne on your back or your powerful mate, I'd a mind to slay you where you kneel. Rainsong shivered, and stared at the old bull in defiance. I'm going to watch you, he said. I'm going to keep your secret, and watch you, he said. You had better know what's best for your family, he sneered, dropping an empty purse at her feet and slowly plodding away.

It was not the last visit of the Centaurs, even I remember them storming into camp as I tended to the fire. But they never touched your tent, mother. They never came near our corner of the village, and I know the people began to wonder why. The bravest and most honourable actions can condemn you. Oh, that I could see you again!

Grimtotem CouncilEdit

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The elder Tauren sat in a row, staring sternly at Rainsong. She stood proudly; had been given nothing more to wear but a frayed leather tunic. Their silence was deafening, each small grunting breath echoing off the canyon walls and calling out their spiteful intentions. So, mother Rainsong, do you deny that you have stolen gold from Elder Coppertooth? Her eyes flickered in a surprise that she determined not to expose. These were not the charges for which she had expected to be damned. For three years she had mixed and sold her potions to the Goblin traders, making just enough silver to cover Coppertooth's silence. Her eyes flicked briefly to the elderly, crippled bull who sat with an obtuse grin... how she hated the ignorant old fool. What would she say to these charges? Stolen gold from Coppertooth?

These memories are mine, though still shrouded in mist. I had poked my head through a short small rip in the hide of our tent, ordered to stay there for the duration of the council. I saw you standing there, shoulders thrust back in defiance, sturdy hooves holding you on your always sure footing.

Rainsong's mind swam with circumstances. If she denied the charge, her secret would surely be exposed. The Grimtotem council would condemn her to death for dealings with the "purple skins", and they would beat her son until he could take it no longer. He would admit to learning some of the secrets of the Eartmother, and his fate would match hers. There was nothing for it. The elder coughed, and asked her again. Mother Rainsong, do you deny the charge? She shook her head. No, I deny nothing. I stole the gold, I am guilty. The murmers of palpable pleasure rippled through the audience like sweet smelling smoke. She felt the vicious eyes of hostility burning into the back of her head, as her people watched her tried for tribal treason.

Oh, how I was tempted to cry out! That you had stolen, even from such a broken and rotten bull as Coppertooth, was unthinkable. But you had said to me, mother... you had said to me that I was one day to be a calf no longer. And one day, you would have to make a decision that would leave me on my own...

The judge smiled grimly, and looked out into the audience. Duskhorn, do you have anything to say about this matter? Rainsong felt the heat welling up into her face... what would her mate say, that soft-headed and thick-armed brute? He knew something, but had certainly not figured out the full story. Certainly not! Judge, I... I submit to the will of the council, said Duskhorn. Rainsong sighed, and felt all the heavy stones of stress fall from her shoulders. She would be banished from the village, she would have to leave young Rapha to grow up with his father. But she would not leave his young mind and soul to be sculpted by such ignorant intentions. She would find a way to visit him, to keep her promise to teach him the peace and tranquility of the world. She would find a way.

That you had left me! What would I have been today, but a wandering lost soul, fighting pointless battles and never hearing the choir of the wind and the trees. But that was not to be.

Judge StonetalonEdit

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Rapha pushed aside the moss shroud that disguised and covered the entrance to the small cramped cave. He smiled gently at his mother, who was kneeling trance-like by the fire, tending the coals with the edge of her skinning knife. She looked up at him slowly, her eyes warmly greeting him without words. Do you realize, said Rainsong, it's been five years to the day that you first visited me here? Rapha cocked his head, no, he replied. I hadn't thought of that. She stood slowly, gently squeezing his shoulder and looking deep into his eyes. You've come a long way, my son, said Rainsong in a near whisper. But I have so much left to learn, stammered Rapha impatiently, I am almost full-grown! Rainsong began to smile, but her face froze in fear as she stared over his shoulder. He felt a breeze at his back.

I have come to terms with the lack of blame, or fault, or fate. But you may have lived a long life in the cool shade of the evergreens, but for me and our lives that we chose to twine so closely. But perhaps you are still out there, stealthing through the bushes, saving yourself from further pain of loss and betrayal...

Rapha spun around, unprepared for the sight that struck his eyes. The undead slid from the shadows, dagger drawn and eyes blazing in fury. Before Rapha had a chance to act, he felt the blunt end of the weapon collapse at the side of his neck, and all went suddenly black. Rainsong gasped at the sight of the decomposing body, covered in tattered black leathers, giving off such a terrible stink of age. She watched her son crumple to the ground in a heap. Without a thought, she grabbed her gnarled staff from its resting place on the wall and swung it in a wide arc at the rogue's head. He ducked the blow, slipping to her left and catching her in the lower back with an elbow, then deftly slipping his dagger up to her throat. Rainsong froze, staring at the body of her only son flickering in the firelight, heedless of the dagger hovering so close by. You should come with me, said the rogue, and you will... whether you choose to or no. Rainsong opened her mouth to speak, but the small prick of a needle at her shoulder gave her pause. The poison worked quickly, and all she saw were the dancing shadows on the walls of the cave as she fell into a deep, dark and lonely sleep.

The most vivid memory I've ever had is burned into my mind from that dawn. I remember the sun coming up over the ridge, and my eyelids fluttering open. The searing pain in my neck soared down my spine and erupted all over my back... I began to let out a moan of protest before I saw you, all alone, on the pyre.

Rainsong kept her eyes closed, concentrating on the cool breeze tickling the leaves in the trees, and the faint screeches of swoops dancing in the clouds far above. She felt the rough cord binding her ankle and arms to the post, she felt the bundles of kindling crowding around her hooves. She waited patiently, breathing soft, full breaths. Exile Rainsong! came the call from below. She slowly opened her eyes and gazed down on Judge Stonetalon, the scarred and bitter old bull. A tear welled up as she saw Rapha, bound and gagged just behind the council, his wide eyes staring up pleadingly at her. Exile Rainsong, you have been charged with studying dark arts and passing them on to your... son. He turned and sneered at Rapha. You have no chance to plead, your sentence will be carried out, he said with a sickly smile. But first, you will bear witness to the punishment that you have brought upon your offspring. She imagined she felt the fires already burning below her, punishment for Rapha! The judge turned and walked deliberately back to the bound young bull, dragged him to his feet and shoved him toward an old stump that had been set up before the council. Rapha Duskhorn, you have been charged with associating with the dark arts, and will be marked as a traitor and outcast for your life to come. Forcing Rapha's head down to the stump, he picked up a length of cord and tied down his quivering neck. The judge began chanting the bitter sounds of a Grimtotem curse as he pulled his hatchet out from his belt. Rapha felt the curse working its way into his skull, reverberating with malicious intentions. The first hatchet blow shuddered throughout his bones, the second sent searing pain scorching through his eyes. He stayed concious for a moment, maybe two... as he saw the two sharp points of his newly grown horns topple to the ground by his side. Never to grow back again.

I touch the rough ends of my horns as I write this. The judge's curse was powerful, even my friends of the Moonglade were unable to reverse its affects, and they never grew. You would later look at my shorn horns and begin to cry, but I never blame you, mother!

The judge dropped his hatchet by Rapha's side, sneering at the weakness of the young bull for fainting at the pain and humiliation of the punishment. He deserved this! the judge shouted to the assembly, who were watching quietly, and not without pleasure. Rainsong struggled to cry out, but the sound stuck in her throat. Judge Stonetalon walked slowly up to the pyre, his putrid grin stinking the air around him and defiling the gentle breeze. And now, exile Rainsong, he said, now you will have your punishment. Taking a flint from his pouch, he lit a small piece of bark, and dropped it a the foot of the pyre. The dry wood immediately began to crackle, hiss, and pop. Rainsong closed her eyes and steeled herself for the end of things.

Would I stand so proud upon my own death? If I had been awake, if I had not been bound, would I have had the bravery to act? I know you would have, mother. As would others, others with more courage than I.

The claws shrieked out of the shadows without warning. Judge Stonetalon fell to his knees, dead before he hit the ground. The snarling black cat leapt over his body, exposing the bloody gash running down his back. Three other cats ran to and fro, clawing and ripping at council members as they shouted out and cried in panic. Rapha's eyes fluttered, then opened wide in disbelief. The dark dripping fangs before his face quickly shifted to the kind face of a smiling elf. I am Elvuya, she said with her own words, words that Rapha didn't need to understand. She quickly untied his knots, then drew a pair of short swords from their scabbards and let loose flury upon the advancing guards around her. Rapha pulled himself to his hooves in time to see a roaring bear slamming his full weight against the base of the pyre. With creaking complaining spinters, the post collapsed, dropping Rainsong to the ground away from the fire, beginning to roar in the noon sun. Come, run! said Elvuya, pulling Rapha by the hand and motioning for her allies to do the same with a dazed Rainsong. Elvuya turned once to flick two quick daggers at a burly bull with axe drawn, then pulling her friends along, ducked into the woods, and away to safety.

The leaves never smelled so sweet, the rippling brook never sounded so gentle. Freedom, and friendship, no matter what hardship lay ahead, was now finally ours.

CaravanEdit

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Elvuya and her companions stood by the side of the cart path, sadness and pride glowing in their eyes. Rainsong leaned on her son, smiling at them with glistening tears in her eyes. I cannot thank you enough, she said, and bowed. Elvuya smiled and bowed in return, saying nothing. For eight days, said Rapha, you have kept us safe and fed. We are forever in your debt. Again Elvuya bowed, and with a quick flick of her wrist, the four Elves shifted into the shadows, and were gone. Rainsong sighed heavily, and looked up into the dark eyes of her young son. Her eyes drifted to the rough edges of his shorn horns; her lids closed softly and she sighed once again. Come mother, said Rapha, let us be on our way. They lifted their meager pouches and sacks up on to the back of the rickety cart. The Goblin trader sat at the reigns, alternating his pipe smoking with picking his teeth with a long dirty fingernail. Rapha sneered in disgust, but ceased at a soft look from his mother. They clambered on the back of the cart, wedging themselves between mead barrels and stinking boxes of stonescale eels. The Goblin looked back at them, disdain flickering in his eyes. You have no gold, I know it, he rasped. Rainsong looked at him with clear confidence, and spoke in broken Orcish, we work for passage. The Goblin grunted, and turning whipped the dozing raptor into a trot down the dusty path.

I thought the world was such a large place, from the eastern edges of the mountains, to the dark receses of the valleys and coulies. I had heard tales of the Elven forests of the north, and the towering red mesas of the south, not to mention that unreachable home... Thunder Bluff. But what could prepare me for the scope of all I was to see?

The cart slowly rolled along, the valley walls spreading further apart and exposing more of the clear sky to Rapha's awe-struck eyes. The lush green grass gave way to sun-baked rocks and brown scrub. The soft and delicate trees of the forest gave way to the gnarled and hardy trees of the grasslands. Rainsong looked at her son, admiring the intelligent, critical look in his eyes. This was our home Rapha, she said. He looked over to her, cocking his head to one side. The home of our people, long before we were sundered. She sighed and turned to watch the scenery pass by, as the cart bumped along the uneven path. Rapha frowned, deep in thought, and wondered what it would have been like to see these lands, these barren lands, spotted with vibrant villages of Tauren. Tauren just like him, just like him and his mother.

You would laugh to know how I fell in love with the Crossroads. Today it is a haven for the traveller and adventurer. A center of trade and conflict, and an ever-mixed stewpot of language and culture. But that first impression, it was not so romantic at all, was it?

The cart stopped at the guard post, the Goblin trader pulling back on the reigns causing the irritable raptor to growl back at her master. What are you carrying through? asked one of the guards. Shipments for the port, and a pair of travellers, he replied. The Tauren guard nodded and walked around the cart, inspecting the crates and barrels, looking up and down Rapha and Rainsong without making any eye contact. The cart and supplies may come through, she said, but not these travellers. The Goblin shrugged, and turned around to the two forlorn passengers. Looks like this is your stop, he cackled, jerking his head to tell them off his cart. Rainsong steeled her eyes and glared at the Tauren guard. She spoke in slow, strong Taurahe, why will you not let your kin pass? The guard sneered and drew her axe, because you are not my kin, she said. The Grim are not given hospitality here. You'll move on, or find yourself never moving on again, she said clutching the axe handle and raising it in threat. Rainsong's eyes sung with shame and pride. She turned to Rapha, and muttered a few soft words to his confused and tired face, they hopped off the cart and began to walk north, on a small footpath that skirted the village. The Goblin called after them, you still owe me for passage! Don't think I won't forget! Rapha heard his raspy cackle long after the whip of the reigns had pulled the cart into the safety of the Crossroads, no longer burdened with unwanted cargo.

I cannot help but smile at the memory, though it may pain you to know it now. I can walk into the Crossroads with my head held high, guiding my powerful mount by her reigns. Have times changed, or have I? What if I spoke my Tauhare with a Grim accent? What would my life be like then?

RatchetEdit

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At the edge of your own world, you're likely to see yourself staring back, because you so soon realize that no matter how far you go, you can never escape all the things you've seen, done, and been a part of.

Rainsong dropped her pack to the ground with a thud, sighing deeply and massaging the deep knots in her lower back. Rapha followed suit, and with aching groans sat down at the water's edge. He looked out over the blue expanse that went on forever. The dumb-witted Orc tailor they had met on the road told them far-fetched stories of the land across the sea, of dragons, giants, and temples of savage trolls. Rapha had listened intently, half-believing, sparkles of adventure tingling in his eyes. There was no way to see over the ocean, but he knew that ships made the journey, and the docks were right here. Rainsong touched him gently on the shoulder. You've done well son, she said. It's been a long walk, hopefully we can find some rest here. Rapha nodded wearily. We will have to find work to pay our debt, she said softly but sternly. Rapha looked up at her, wanting to protest, but seeing that it was pointless. Remember my calf, she continued, no matter how you feel about those who you meet, or deal with, an agreement is the same in light or dark, in day or night, in pain or happiness. She turned away, and surveyed the ramshackle town that stretched out behind them. This is the beginning of finding our own hooves, she thought.

I have no love for the Goblins, but of course you know that. Their inventions sully the clear skies, their raspy voices twist the sweet breeze, and their money grubbing poisons the vibrant villages. But it was my first time in a cosmopolitan town, and I suppose I simply wished the best...

Rainsong walked slowly into the inn, having left Rapha by the docks to tend to their meagre belongings. She peered around the dingy and dusty room, listening to the murmer of shady deals and drunken story-telling. It took only a few moments to see who she expected. Pulling back her shoulders, and taking a deep breath, she walked slowly over to the disheveled Goblin who had driven them to the Crossroads. He chuckled venom when he saw her, looking from her hooves to her horns with a sneer. So you finally made it here, did you? I didn't see you on the road east, otherwise I surely would have stopped to pick you up! He cackled at his apparent joke, coughing as he took a puff from his foul-smelling pipe. I want to repay, but how? asked Rainsong in her broken Orcish. The Cart driver rolled his buggy eyes, and pointed across the Inn to a fat Goblin counting stacks of gold coins and sipping a bulging mug of mead. Rainsong walked over, and crouched by the tiny table. The Goblin listened to her story, and slowly began to smile, showing a pair of sparkling silver teeth. Welcome to the Venture Company, he said, pulling out a parchment. You can call me Fugz, and you'll just need to sign here...

I never minded hard work, following your example. Those six months toughened my muscles and sharpened my senses. My throat got used to the gutterals of Orcish, and my eyes got used to rough sharp steel and iron. The world began to grow in my mind, and the village of Ratchet seemed to shrink.

Rainsong looked at the pouch of coins with pride. She picked it up and jingled it around, laughing softly. Rapha looked up from where he sat at the foot of her bed, putting down his carving. His eyes shone with wonder at the sound of his mother's laugh, and he began to laugh himself. Soon the small room in the Broken Keel shook with thick and heavy Tauren chuckles, shaking the shutters and making the oil lamps dance in harmony. So, what do we do now? he asked with a childish grin. She looked down at him, smiling warmly. We follow the Earthmother's path, and forge our own destiny with her guidance. Where would you like to go? she asked. Rapha opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. There were suddenly so many choices. Rainsong smiled sweetly and put a finger to his lips, think about it my child, she said. Picking up the sack of coins, she walked out of the room and down the stairs into the tavern. The smoke stung at her eyes as she pushed her way through a crowd of rowdy singing dwarves, and up to Fugz. I have the payment for your driver, she said. She passed the pouch of coins to the greedy Goblin, and watched as he quickly counted it out and made a note in his ledger. Thank you for the work, she said, bowing. What? said Fugz indignantly. You think that's it? Rainsong paused and frowned, looking at the incredulous look on the slimy Goblin's face. You signed a contract, my dear, he said pulling out a roll of parchment. Unless you're looking to have the constabulary put you in the brig, you'll be working for us for another six months! Rainsong thought she felt her heart stop as she looked down at her scrawled signature. There it was, clear as the azure blue sky. Her Orcish had come a long way in six months... so that she could finally read to what she was committed. With a shudder, she steeled her eyes, glared at the grinning Goblin, and pushed her way back to the stairs, slowly making her way back to break her son's heart.

Break my heart? No, but dampen my spirits. I knew if we could survive six months of unloading crates and sorting filthy buckets of bolts and nails, we could do it again. But that contract said even more, and the irony in the details brought us pain that echoes to this day. Oh mother, your sense of honour has caused us both so much sadness, but filled my heart with such pride. If only you could see me now...

Bitter HomecomingEdit

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Mother and son sat in the back of the caravan, dejected, tired and filthy. A day and a half earlier they had been loaded in, along with one sickly Dwarf, a horribly grumpy Orc, and a fat stinking Ogre whose breath fouled every touch of air within their crowded confines. The door had been shut behind them, and they felt the great kodos pull away to the west. Rainsong looked down at her son. He was struggling to find a comfortable position to get some rest, leaning up against crates of sawblades and barrels of salt. She sighed at the thought of their last conversation in the inn. Why should we come with them? he had asked, the heat of anger boiling up in his throat. What is this... this contract to us anyway? he shouted. She soothed him with a hand on his shoulder, staying silent as she watched the fire melt enough for his ears and mind to open. Rapha... I'm sorry. But I made an agremeent with this Goblin, and regardless of how we feel about him, it must be honoured. As to why we have to leave Ratchet, well I only know that it's the wish of our employer. Rapha had sneered, then immediately blushed for the transgression against his mother. I don't understand, he had muttered softly, before slowly walking out of the inn. She watched out the small window as he strolled down toward the docks, where he had sat almost every evening since arriving in the town. Watching the great ships, with their billowing white sails, disappear into the east, and away from wherever they were.

You taught me that balance is the end of all things, mother. In my adventures I have not held back my strength when finding myself face to face with one of the Venture Company, I have spared none. But how many of those were like us, forced into service? I feel shame for rationalizing such acts by claiming I have already paid my dues.

She hadn't realized that sleep had found her when the caravan shuddered to a halt. A cool night breeze was barely fingering its way in through the cracks and crannies of the floor, and it smelled vaguely familiar. With the fouls sweat of the sleeping, snoring Ogre nearby, she could not quite isolate the odour. The door of the transport was unlatched from the outside; it slammed down with a thud forming the unloading ramp. Without a word to her, Rapha, or her companions, several Goblin workers clambered up and began to carry off the crates and barrels. Rainsong looked outside with a sinking heart. She knew the silhouette of the mountain against the dark sky, she knew the cool forest breeze tinged with bruiseweed, and she knew the sound of the spiders skittering along the rockfaces. They had returned to Stonetalon, they had returned to Windshear Crag. They were only half a day's walk from the village. Come on, you lazy migrants! yelled a fat Goblin with a blockish head. You may have had it easy out on the docks, but here we get work done! He scrambled up inside the caravan and poked each of them with the end of his staff, jolting Rapha rudely awake. He looked up from his broken sleep with groggy eyes, meeting the sad gaze of his mother. Wh.. Where are we? he asked. Rainsong sighed, looking back outside, and did not answer.

Know your enemy, or he will have the ultimate power over you. Befriend him, and you will have ultimate power yourself. But how far do you go to delve into the hearts of the darkest? Do you sin against your principles, do you cause pain and suffering to the very beauty that brought you into this world?

Rainsong lay in their tent, many hours of hard labour later, sobbing into the straw mattress. Rapha had been dragged away to separate quarters, leaving her alone with her thought, shame, and sorrow. Once her eyes had adjusted to the dim light, the view of the valley ripped all her hope and optimism from her breast, leaving her feeling alone, cold, and betrayed. What kind of fate is this, mother? she muttered to herself, drawing circles in the dirt floor of the tent. The vision was forever burned into her memory. Stump upon stump, felled trees everywhere, the sweet stink of sawdust, and the whine of oiled machines as they cut their way through all that she held dear. There is no magic here anymore, she thought. It has all been sullied and stripped, leaving nothing but a razed wasteland of avarice and greed. Rapha had been right, or had he? She couldn't decide. They had kept their word to Fugz, but had broken a sacred oath to the Earthmother. Is this what Elvuya meant by balance? she thought, recalling the Elf describing the word with gestures and props of water drops and bark cups. She cried herself to sleep, asking herself the same question again and again. Where does it end?

I don't know... I still don't.

WinterleafEdit

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Rapha hauled the bundle of wood along the newly hacked path, between trees that hadn't yet been destined for the mill. His thick shoulders ached with a satisfied burning, he knew he was no longer the childish and weak calf of only a year before. The sun was setting along the crest of the mountains, hours before it would set on the wide and open plains of Mulgore. Or so he imagined, somewhere in the back of his mind. A steamwhistle pierced the peaceful quiet, announcing a new caravan coming up from the coast. Rapha quickened his pace, the bundle bouncing along behind him on its sled. Caravans meant new workers, and new workers meant new stories. The night before he had huddled around the fire with a pair of Orcs who had rattled on in their gutteral language about their homes back in Orgrimmar, somewhere northeast along the Kalimdor coast. Rapha's Orcish was slowly improving, listening and asking questions to the migrant workers. They humoured him at first, chuckling at his naive eyes and fumbling words. But his intent stare and open ears won them over. Some nights he forgot that his mother was in the same camp as him, and he felt guilty, staring into the flickering firelight. But he wouldn't move, stay squat by the fire listening to the colourful tales.

You would enjoy watching me with the disciples in Bloodhoof, mother. I tell the same stories, and new ones. Stories of sunken temples, fire-breathing dragons, and battling deep in the heart of a boiling mountain. I can hardly believe those wide bright eyes were once mine!

The ramped door to the caravan slammed to the group with a thud and puff of dry, rain-deprived soil. Rapha peered through the dissipating cloud, trying to make out the dark shapes huddled in the cramped quarters. A pair of battered and bruised humans helped each other to their feet and then down the ramp, squinting in the waning sunlight. Rapha ignored their small shapes, focused on the dark figure bent low, moving tentatively forward. An Orcish foreman rambled up the ramp, poking at the last of the new workers with the blunt end of his axe. Come on, you lazy peons! he grunted. The dark shape stumbled forward into the pink light of the sunset. A young girl, certainly not much older than me, thought Rapha. And the most beautiful creature he had ever seen in his life. Bright, darting green eyes shimmered against her matted black fur, looking from face to face, but pausing ever so gently at his gaze. The foreman shoved the arrivals toward the mess tent. Many of them seemed rejuvinated by the smell of salty gruel bubbling in the cauldrons. But the dark Tauren stared around her with a look of defiance and pain, her eyes absorbing the torn stumps, the ravaged firepits, and the stink of steel. Rapha took a hoofstep toward her; a pair of burly scarred orcs stepped in front of him, looking up at his dazed face with a sneer. You got somewhere to go with that bundle, boy? one of them grunted. Rapha felt the muscles of his neck tense up, ready to crush their thick skulls with one blunt swipe. But the last rays of the sun, dancing over the crest of the mountain, sparkled in the back of his eyes, and sang that there was another day ahead of him.

You never answered my question. I asked about Duskhorn countless times as the stars swam above, and you tried to lull me to sleep. But you never answered. Is it he that I feel when I swing my mace and feel cold cruel satisfaction at the crunching connection? Is it his voice in my head that growls me to roar with anger and frustration? I do not believe you saw nothing in him, I cannot believe there was no love singing between you.

My name is Winterleaf, she said. Rapha bent down to help her up, where she crouched panting under the log she had slung over her two shoulders, one end now resting on the scarred forest floor. He thought of nothing to say, but helped her hoist the poor remains of the tree onto her strong back. She grunted a thanks, and began to plod down the trail toward the whining, stinking mill. Wh.. where are you from? Rapha managed to stammer out, as he walked behind her, dragging his load with far less grace and efficiency than he saw in her strong steps. She said nothing, continuing toward the depot, and heaving her work up on the pile of morning's sweat and tears. He followed suit, careful to avoid her eyes that soared around the camp, carefully and caustically. She stared up at the clouds and sighed, deep, rich and sorrowful. Does it matter? she asked. He shrugged, feeling the heat in his cheeks with his lack of words. And when do we get some time off? she asked, rubbing her strong shoulders and cracking her neck from side to side. As if making up for his lost tongue, the lunch steamhorn echoed its foreign call across the vale. Rapha spoke before he knew where the words sprung from. Follow me, he said. She nodded without looking at him. A moment passed, hanging in the air like a piece of down on a hot summer breeze. What, are we already here? she asked with a sly wink. The heat in his cheeks burned hotter, and he turned quickly, trotting off up the slope toward his own space. His own green clearing, his personal sanctuary, that he realized he was going to share for the first time.

I know I hardly came to see you for those two months, mother. Your duties and mine were worlds apart, and the sweet sadness of Winterleaf's eyes was like honey to the melancholy molasses of yours. You said you didn't blame me, but I felt your sadness and loneliness on the morning breeze. How was I to know we were to be parted so soon? All of us...

Rapha and Winterleaf lay on the cool grass. She fingered the limestone amulet around her neck, he had spent weeks carving the details, growling in frustration at each lack of perfection. When he gave it to her, she almost cried, and he thought he couldn't bear to see that. But she hadn't, she had run a soft dark finger down the white fur of his face, and said nothing. She stared at the stars, fingering the amulet and humming a gentle tune. Where does your name come from, Rapha? she asked. He took a moment, enjoying the question lingering in the night air between them. When I was a calf, only a few weeks old, I got sick, he said. And my mother said my sneezes rattled the timbers of the tents and shook the embers of the firepit. I would gasp for breath, and the sound I made, the sound that she said tore at her heart, became my name. The gasping for air, he said. The gasping for air... he repeated. Winterleaf turned and looked at his soft face in the moonlight, smiling gently. She began to speak, the stopped. Then took a breath of her own, and began again. My father said that it is only natural leaves should fall and die for the winter, she said. But he said I would live on through the coldest times. Rapha turned his head, and saw her eyes gazing at him. This winter will end, he said gently. And we'll find our own spring together. She smiled with warmth, but her eyes sang sadness. Some nights seem to last for eternity.

I'm still gasping for breath, mother. Every morning I wake up and reach desperately for the tinge of the natural world that is grasping for its own life, all around our politics, wars, and false drama. I'm still gasping for breath. And somewhere, sometime, somehow... I know there is a dark leaf clinging resolutely to a tree, while all the others give up and fall for the change of seasons.

The SunderingEdit

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Rainsong heard footsteps before she heard shouting. Her hands were sore from scrubbing dirty gruel pans, her eyes were stinging from the cruel chemical soap they forced upon her. She had been relegated to the mess hall kitchen after her split hoof would no longer allow her to lift her share of the loads. My bear strength would shatter those logs like twigs, she thought in one of her bitter moments, then brushed the thought aside like a dried leaf. She would live out the last three months of the agreement with dignity in an ignominious position, fouling the hands of a herbalist with the left-overs of Orcs and Ogres. She quickly dried her hands on her apron, perking up her ears at the shouts and calls that were growing from anger, to desperation, to panic. There was something very wrong. The Goblin kitchen manager was too busy picking his toenails to hear a thing, let alone notice Rainsong drop her apron and move slowly out of the tent. Glancing around at the deserted camp, she followed the sounds toward the mill. After ten hoofsteps, she heard the sounds cease as suddenly as they had began. The uncomfortable silence hung over the vale like a thick mouldy blanket. She quickened her pace.

I am glad you were not witness to my action that day. I am not sorry for what I did. But the shame I felt when your amber eyes broke through the thicket and fell upon my hands, is a smouldering fire that I will never drown out.

Rainsong stopped dead in her tracks. There was her son, standing with a huge solid log, his arms and shoulders shaking with the rush of foul actions finished. Workers and managers alike stood a few steps back, staring in disbelief and fear. At his feet, the day foreman lay, his green head cracked open and pouring itself into the dry soil. A few steps away, Winterleaf huddled against a stump, wincing and clutching an arm that was unnaturally bent and bruised. Rainsong took her breath, and begged the Earthmother silently, begged her to stop time for just two moments. The breezy clouds slowed to a crawl, the whirling dust eddies settled down for a rest, and the world froze around her. Rapha, what have you done? she asked. His head jerked up, his passionate burning eyes doused by her soft voice. He stammered, but no words came out. He... the bruisers... and Winterleaf, said Rapha in short bursts. Rainsong looked around, now seeing an Ogre bruiser laying unconcious in the shadow of the lumber pile. Rapha's eyes suddenly flared with panic, and the world around them spun back up to a frenzy. Drop that club! grunted a pair of bruisers, coming out of the crowd to circle around Rapha, who still held his weapon above his head, ready to strike. Drop that club, yer comin' with us, they grunted. Suddenly an old Orc reared up behind the pair, flailing his lumber axe in a wide arc and catching one of the pair on the side of his thick skull. Rainsong's heart sunk like a lead weight. There was no stopping the storm now, the surge had broken after so many months of building up. Clubs and axes were drawn, bullets flew, daggers slipped out of shadows, and a riot roared with a life of its own.

Do I remember what happened next? Only foggy misty memories, of you grabbing my arm, pulling up Winterleaf, and running. Running, running... into the woods, down the ravine, across the river, through the thickets, and into the brambles. Running... running...

The sounds of fighting were distant echoes when Rainsong stopped and turned back to her son and his mate. She said nothing. Pausing a moment to look them both up and down, she then ducked into the bushes, and came out with a few sprigs of mageroyal and bruiseweed. Here, she said to Winterleaf, sit down. Winterleaf did as she was told, still clutching the broken arm and fighting back the torrent of tears that was welling up inside. This will hurt, said Rainsong. Without warning, she grabbed the arm and pulled at it. Winterleaf opened her mouth to howl in pain, but no sound came out, and she fainted in a heap on the forest floor. Rainsong gently mumbled some words, and felt the fiercely gentle touch of nature spring up from the rocky soil below, and sprinkle itself down upon the wounded arm. She watched with grim satisfaction as the break set itself. Spitting into her hand, she crushed the herbs, and rubbed the poultice along Winterleaf's bruises, mumbling words all the while. Rapha stood in silence, avoiding looking at his mother, avoiding looking at his own hands, avoiding hearing the sad song of the breeze in the trees.

I still have not forgiven myself. It was not the last time I took a life, not by any means. I am a monster now, though at least a monster with a conscience. But you saw Duskhorn in me that night. And I know that no matter how far I run, I will never escape the two sides that live within me. How I wish it was all you.

Winterleaf sat huddled by the treestump, looking longingly at Rapha. She didn't dare to say a word, Rainsong sat between them, deep in thought and staring at the moon. They had moved deeper into the forest, but a foul odour of danger still lingered in the air. We must go our separate ways, said Rainsong suddenly. I will go north, Winterleaf you will go east, and Rapha you will go south. It will do us no good if we are caught together. Rapha opened his mouth to speak, but her glance told him all he needed to hear. I can conceal myself far better than either of you, she said. I will go north, past the camp, and lead them away from your trail. Come now, stand up. Both Rapha and Winterleaf stood shakily, both looked at Rainsong, then at each other. Winterleaf fingered the amulet around her neck, and said nothing. The bark of a hunting hyena broke the trance, and Rainsong jerked her head to listen carefully. We go now, she said. Turning to Rapha, she grabbed him by the shoulder. I will see you again, she said. Without another word, she shifted effortlessly into a cat, and drifted north into the shadows. Rapha shuddered with his lack of words, and turned to Winterleaf. She pulled the limestone amulet from her neck, and dropped it in his hand. As will I, she said. Kissing him gently, she ducked into the woods before her tears took control. Rapha was left alone in the moonlight. The sound of the hunting hyena shattered the night again, and he knew it was time to move. Clutching the necklace in his hand, he turned south, and leapt into the shadows.

But I haven't... I haven't seen either of you. Where are you, mother? Where did you go? I will not give up hope, as long as the sun rises, and the moon sets. I wil not give up hope.

Red Cloud MesaEdit

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The fur on Rapha's hands was caked with dirt and dried blood, they ached and burned from climbing. He had gone as far south as he could without coming close to the trade route in the center valley. Coming to the suddenly rising wall of the mountainside, he had stopped and dropped to his knees. His imagination was running like an antelope, out of control. He saw a hurricane of chaos, with Rainsong in the middle. Ogres and Orcs falling with blistering moonfire burns, Goblin corpses with claw shreds goring their small frail bodies, and everywhere the roar of an Earthmother gone mad with rage at wounds bled dry. But I do not turn around, I do not go back north, though Rapha to himself. What could I do against such reckless disorder and mayhem? I will listen to my mother, as she listens to her mother. I will continue south. But there he knelt, at the foot of the steep rock wall, running out of room to run. He had looked at the amulet that now hung around his neck. He studied the design that had been conceived in such blissful times. His large thick fingers desperately tried to trace the outline of the leaf pattern that he had spent so many pain-staking hours carving with his skinning knife. But his shaking hand collapsed around the amulet and held it tight, fighting for support from the warmth of the neck it was meant for, but had lost. And so he had climbed. There was a familiar but dangerous smell to the south, it smelled like pain that he had left behind. And directly to the east was the traders path that promised capture and likely death. So it was west over the mountains, regardless of his mother's instructions. And so he had climbed, climbed until his fingers could take it no more. He pulled himself onto a ledge, and looked out across the expanse of swaying green trees. There was no sign of the storm that still brewed, the storm that he was fleeing for nobody's sake but his own.

Earthmother knows best, whether there is such a thing as fate or not is not a question I've bothered to ponder. But there is no doubt in my mind that I climbed that day because I knew what I would find on the other side of the rise. And the sweet smell that greeted my flared nostrils...

Rapha smelled smoke. It was not the smoke of a forest fire, nor was it the sickly acrid smoke of the Goblin machines. It was the sweet smoke of a Tauren firepit, laced with herbs and tender attention paid. He slowly plodded along the crest of the ridge until he saw its source, a hazy cloud lazily billowing up from a clearing deep in a bowl valley. He squinted in the afternoon sun, and thought he saw a tent. No, two tents, three tents! They could be Grimtotem, he thought to himself. But somehow I do not think so... It feels.. different. The smell and sights reinvigorated him like a splash of cold fresh spring water, and he stumbled and slid down the steep slope and into the thick untouched forest. Every hoofstep gave him hope, and he imagined he could feel the warmth of a reception just beyond the next thicket. As he pushed his way through the growth, the sun set over the mountain, and darkness hugged about him like a tentative blanket. He shivered with the chill of the day's sweat. And then the trees gave way, and two pairs of eyes bored into his and stopped his advance dead in its tracks.

And now are these past memories, or was this just a few years ago? Where do we draw the line between history and today? Is it at last night's sunset, or the fireworks of the lunar new year? Is it from a first kiss, or the last day slept in your first bed? Those words feel like yesterday...

What is your business at Sunrock? came a bellowing voice from one of the guards. He did not draw his sword, nor stand defensively, simply looked upon Rapha with dark brown eyes and asked him again, your business, what is it? Rapha searched himself for a lie, some way to gain sympathy, something, anything to let him in this new world that looked so safe. But nothing bubbled up. He was only left with the truth. I need help, he said. I am lost, my family is gone, the Goblins want me dead... I think. I need help. Rapha kneeled before the guard, and touched his hoof in a sign of supplication. The big bull softly withdrew his hoof, and pulled Rapha to his feet. Where is your home? he asked in a gentle whisper. Rapha shook his head, stammered, and said nothing. The guard nodded, and murmered something in soothing soft Taurahe to his partner, then putting his arm around Rapha's shoulder, led him into camp.

The conversation with the Elder is unimportant. Indeed, my very presence at Sunrock Retreat was nothing more than a speck of dust on the breeze for the adventurers and travellers making their way through to the dangerous parts of the world. And then I travelled too...

The windrider looked at Rapha's worried face and chuckled. Do not worry, he said, this beast knows the way, and will not let you fall. Just grasp her mane and enjoy the beauty of Kalimdor from above. Rapha nodded tentatively and turned to the waiting Elder. I owe you... my thanks, said Rapha, bowing his head. You will repay us, I'm sure of it, said the Elder. Your training will continue, and I see greatness in you yet. Rapha held back the question that lingered on the tip of his tongue, but it was answered nonetheless. And yes, I will look out for your mother, Rapha. We all will. I will send her name on the wind to all places that it dares blow in these uncertain times. Have faith in the Earthmother, young one. Rapha nodded again. With a brief snap of a wicker switch, the windrider sent them on their way. Up, up, up on the morning's thermal updraft, then west, over the mountains, over the plains, and toward a place Rapha had only just heard of... Red Cloud Mesa. He held on tight and rolled the name around in his head. Red Cloud Mesa. The beginning of his story.

EpilogueEdit

And there it is... The story that you would have me tell. Does it need mentioning that I have yet to find you, or hear word of Winterleaf? Do I need to explain coming to terms with two halves? Do I need to explain why I took your name, and left that of Duskhorn far behind me? I don't think so. I hope your story speaks for itself. I hope my friends read it, and know the sacrifice of a mother for her son, for her world... for the future of all living things. Earthmother knows best.

AwardsEdit

ER Emblem Award

This story has been highlighted as a Weekly Featured Story.


--Lilithia 18:24, 20 February 2007 (GMT)

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