Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Even when humanity indelibly marked the continent as its own, the Hinterlands seemed to exist apart. The human nations never made any significant inroads into the wild and densely forested region, and in truth none had ever really wanted to do so.
History was more or less content to forget the Hinterlands (hence the name) until the Second War, when it became one of the rallying points for the last great forest troll army. Agile hunters and ax-throwers rushed out from the trees, laying waste to all they saw. After the orcs began their long and bloody retreat to the south the trolls faded back into the wilderness, splintered and fewer in number.
Of more importance to the Alliance were the fierce dwarves of the Wildhammer Clan. In ages past, the three great royal clans lived in the dwarven homeland. As any student of history could probably guess, they found themselves unable to get along. The Wildhammers departed amicably to the Wetlands and the Dark Iron Clan rather less so to the southern mountains. The War of the Three Hammers started a decade after the separation when the Dark Irons invaded the Wildhammer home at Grim Batol. The atrocities committed in Grim Batol’s great underground halls and tunnels forever scarred the Wildhammers, and they vowed to never again live below the earth's surface. They again moved, arriving in their current home of Aerie Peak. A century before the Second War, the Wildhammers sent colonists to the rugged Twilight Highlands just east of their fallen capital. The thane at the time spoke of reclaiming the grand subterranean halls, but the settlers found the flower-dotted hills more to their liking, and left Grim Batol to the ghosts of the past.
Growing up, we all held the Wildhammers in awe. Trained griffins became increasingly common but we never forgot that the Wildhammers were the first to tame the magnificent beasts. I thought it appropriate that, as I neared the ancient town of Aerie Peak (in my human disguise) a flight of three griffin riders soared over me in formation, the leader letting out a keening cry that echoed through the mountain ridges.
“It’s good to see a human here again. None of your kind have been here in a very, very long time.”
I sat at a massive spruce table in the local tavern’s common room. A dwarf with pale skin and a great, red beard that looked as if it had never seen a comb was speaking to me. Blue tattoos done in sharp strokes covered his bare and muscled arms. He was Hailen Rocktalon, a hunter who just back from a long and successful expedition.
“Times have been difficult, though I’m sure you know all about that.”
“I know they were. News doesn’t come around here too often.” The Wildhammer accent is softer and more musical than the harsh tonalities of their Bronzebeard cousins. The Wildhammers are more outwardly welcoming than the Bronzebeards but the friendship is mostly superficial. Unless you are born into the clan, you will always be an outsider.
“Have you had much trouble with the Scourge?”
“Not for some time. A few of their corpse-men jaunted down Plaguemist Ravine but they didn’t get far. The Cycles make no mention of the Scourge or any other undead so they won’t be the doom of us.”
“The Cycles say doom will come from the Great Beast Beneath, correct?”
“Ah, the lad knows his stuff! More ale if you will!” he called to the server. “This one’s on me. Not too many humans would know that.”
Unlike the pious and hardheaded dwarves to the south, Wildhammer religious practices are perhaps closer to modern orcish or tauren beliefs, revolving around various nature spirits. Prophecy is a particularly vibrant part of their faith, orally taught from generation to generation and committed to memory. It is considered the worst blasphemy for a Wildhammer to write the Cycles. There is a loophole; it’s perfectly acceptable for a non-Wildhammer to record the Cycles. The Dalaran library had about fifteen different translations.
“What about the trolls? Has there been any trouble with them?”
“No, they’re still scattered. And it’ll be a good long time before they dare try us again, ha ha! I fought in the Great War, see this?” He turned around and lifted his shirt to reveal an orcish skull tattooed onto his back.
“Every Wildhammer who fought in the Great War bears a mark for it. I killed many an orc in battle, and now their strength is written on my back and given over to me!” He flexed his arms and grinned fiercely.
“What do all the tattoos mean?”
“Oh, well each family line has it’s sigil. My father was a Rocktalon, so the Rocktalon mark goes on my left arm. I’m right-handed, so the sign of my mother’s family, the Skysingers, is on my right arm. On my chest here, the crossed arrows of a hunter. Every one of us is different. I don’t know how you humans tell each other apart, no offense.”
“None taken,” I laughed.
“Ah, you got a sense of humor, rare enough in these times.”
A great stone griffin carved of living rock stands watch over Aerie Peak. As long as it stands, say the Cycles, the Wildhammers will prosper. The soul of Aerie Peak, the griffin aviary, burns within. The dwarves who tend to the eggs and griffin matriarchs are the great shamans of the Wildhammer, second only to the Augur who acts as the clan’s spiritual head and prophet. In the inner sanctum, completely off-limits to any not of Wildhammer blood, stands the enchanted forge where the master artisans craft the mighty storm-hammers. The hammers supposedly channel the spirits of sky and storm, making them into powerful incendiary devices. They were used to terrific effect in the Second War.
I walked up the expertly cut stone ramps leading to the aviary with care, not wanting to tread on sacred ground. Fierce warriors watched my every move. I decided not to test their hospitality by actually entering the aviary. The Cycles speak of Parelon Stonehand, the great folk-hero of the Wildhammers, reaching the spot where I stood when only griffins inhabited the mountain. He earned the trust of the griffin matriarch by helping her defend her eggs against troll raiders. Thus he became the first to ever fly on a griffin’s back. The Spirit Father of the Griffins spoke to him in his first flight, promising that the Wildhammer would always be regarded as sons of the roost and that the strength of the griffins would be theirs.
Parelon Stonehand was probably an amalgamation of Ruddin Wildhammer, who led the dwarves on their northward exodus, and Shaynar the Bold, a warrior of some renown. Yet to actually see the great stone griffin, looking as if it were waiting to take flight, I could almost believe the tales of Parelon word for word.
I heard a shout far above and looked up to see a griffin soar past me. It wheeled around the great statue, slowly descending. Two heavily tattooed dwarves rode it, an older man in the front and a young woman behind. When it landed they dismounted, the man patting the head of the griffin as he talked to the woman in Dwarvish. She nodded, obviously pleased. The man then walked into the aviary, leading the griffin by the reins.
“That looks fun,” I said.
“Aye, if you haven’t done it you can’t imagine it, outlander. It’s not like those slow griffins they ride in the south; these are fierce as storms, as fierce as us,” she laughed. “I’m Molla, rider in training. What’s your name, outlander?”
“I’m Talus Corestiam. I’m simply trying to see as much of the world as I can.”
“You’ve come to the best part of it. The great sky above and the forest all around.”
“So are griffin riders like soldiers?” I asked.
“Not at all! We’re not like human knights. For them the horse is a tool, but the griffin is a part of us. Not everyone can ride a griffin. Many a Wildhammer cannot speak with the spirits.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Ah, sorry. I keep forgetting you outlanders don’t pay attention to the spirits. There’s a bond between a rider and a griffin. They’re creatures of the wild; we haven’t really tamed them. The griffins in Ironforge and Stormwind are a lesser breed, they’ve gone too far from their land. But here you must earn the respect of the griffin, as Parelon did long ago.”
In all honesty, what she said didn’t sound terribly different from what many knights have said about their own horses. The only real difference was in the terminology.
“So there’s a bond?”
“Aye, as strong as one between brothers or families. Sure, we defend Aerie Peak, but we also are the speakers for the spirits.”
“Priests, or shamans, of a sort.”
“Not of a sort, it is what we are.”
“Do you expect to see combat?”
“Perhaps against the trolls or the corpse-men. I’ve no fear of them and my storm hammer will be ready for when the Great Beast Below rises up again. Mark my words Talus, the Scourge is nothing to them. The Cycles make no mention of the Scourge or orcs.”
The Great Beast Below is probably a veiled reference to both the mass murders committed at Grim Batol and to the cruel entities that supposedly control the Dark Iron Clan. The Great Beast Below is the only thing the Wildhammers fear, or even acknowledge as a true threat. Despite the proximity to the forest trolls, the Wildhammers never really engaged in significant warfare with them. Even during the Second War, most of the trollish fury was vented at their ancient enemies, the elves. Aside from some unsuccessful raids, Aerie Peak was nearly untouched in the conflict.
Aerie Peak does not have an actual inn. Visitors are permitted to avail themselves of the fortress, which was built by visiting engineers from Ironforge and not often used by the Wildhammer. I ended up sleeping in what amounted to a barracks. On warm nights, the dwarves that live in the fortress usually go to their own homes for rest and sleep on the soft sod roofs of their homes.
Shortly before I went to bed I noticed the Wildhammers in the fortress walking out to the aviary in a torch-lit procession. I heard the whistling sound of flutes from above. I asked what was going on, and a guard told me that on every full moon, the Augur would recite part of the Cycles to the assembled clan. The Augur then navigates “the pathways of prophecy” to determine the best course of action for Aerie Peak until the next full moon. No outsiders were permitted, though I could hear the Augur’s crystal clear voice reciting what were probably tales of ancient heroes and valor.
I left early the next morning, heading east towards Quel’danil Lodge. The Lodge is one of the last high elf settlements in the world. The Scourge completely destroyed the ancient elven kingdom of Quel’thalas and put most of the people to the sword. Most of the survivors followed Prince Kael’thas into the service of demons. Those that remained eke out a marginal existence, cut off from the magic that once sustained their civilization. I do not know if the high elves can continue to survive as a race. At present, it seems unlikely, though the blood elves of Kael’thas may preserve aspects of the old culture.
Quel’danil Lodge is not far from Aerie Peak though the lack of any real road makes progress difficult. Happily, the journey was quite pleasant. The land is thick with flora, and even I could sense the purity in the air, untouched by the Plague. Most of the continent used to look like the Hinterlands.
I thought the Lodge abandoned when I first arrived. It is an elegant wooden structure situated by a crystal clear lake, adjacent to a few scattered cottages and pavilions. I finally saw an ageless elf in blue robes watching me from a balcony. I raised my hand in greeting, and he nodded but said nothing. Soft music played from inside the building.
Within the Lodge, a group of five high elves gathered around a sixth, who played the harp with astonishing skill. Cascades of notes filled the hall, adding color and life to the musty walls. They took no notice of me. Many high elves refused to learn the Common tongue, thinking it a poor language for their twin passions of art and magic. At first I thought they were too absorbed in the music to pay me any mind, but a closer look suggested otherwise. The audience barely listened as the harpist struggled to concentrate, sweat washing down his face. One of the other elves simply traced a magical sigil into parchment over and over again. They took in the world with eyes of sick hunger.
I only later met an elf that could (or would), converse with me. Dressed in the garb of a forest ranger, she introduced herself to me as Anrelle. She was also fragile in appearance but at least acted more vigorous than her kin inside the Lodge.
“We lived our lives through magic, more than any human mage. Some of us, like myself, still concerned ourselves with the material world. I never had much aptitude for magic, something that my family never tired of reminding me.”
“Yet because of that, you weren’t as affected by the destruction of the Sunwell.”
“Such is the truth. So many of our people have withered away. If a troll war party came from the woods this moment, some of us could not even defend themselves. We rangers are the custodians of our race’s funeral.”
“Don’t you think that rangers like yourself could start a new future for the race?”
“I have no reason to think so. How old are you?”
“Twenty-eight.” Physically I was, and always will be, twenty-five.
“I am 453 years old. All that time I dwelled in the light of Quel’thalas. I needed magic as well, the only difference was that I did not need as much of it. When you have lived in a land for as long as I, you cannot really live without it any longer.”
“I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but don’t you think you owe it to the memory of Quel’thalas to start anew?”
I feared that I upset her but she only gave a graceful and terribly sad smile.
“We were Quel’thalas. We still are. You may as well ask a man to keep on living after his heart has been ripped out. Do not mourn for us human. It was our ancestors who first brought demons to this world. This is merely justice. In these last years we shall appreciate the beauty in all things before we fade from this world.”
Anrelle sat down in the grass and looked out over the lake. A tear trickled down her face. I wished I could say something, yet every word I thought of sounded hollow. Speaking with her felt like staring into a mirror. Yet even if they were physically alive, the high elves were more spiritually dead than the Forsaken. Though too many of us are animated by hate, we are at least animated by something.
A few groups of night elves have tried helping the high elf survivors rediscover their ancient culture, though there is still little love between the two races. They were once one, but as Anrelle said, the aristocrats of ancient elven society dabbled in dark magic that tore the world asunder. Upon their exile, the nobles became the high elves.
I gave Anrelle a few words of comfort and took my leave. I did not wish to spend any more time in Quel’danil Lodge. On the way out I encountered a Wildhammer leaving one of the cottages. Though they seem mismatched, the Wildhammers and high elves were always close allies. This was why Aerie Peak welcomed the refugees from Quel’thalas. The Wildhammer was named Fann Thundercall. He acted as a liaison between Aerie Peak and Quel’danil.
“They can’t come out of it, it seems,” he mourned. “I don’t know if we’d be any different if we lost Aerie Peak. Perhaps it is not wise to put so much of oneself into a place.”
“That’s quite true. I thought I’d die when I found out about Dalaran. I still miss it.”
“Aye. You’re from Dalaran?”
“No, I’m from Lordaeron. I spent many years in Dalaran though.”
“The Wildhammers might join you. Between you and me I think my kin are too removed from the rest of the world. I don’t care what they say about the Cycles, those corpse-men are a threat! They’d smash Aerie Peak if they came down here in force. Yet we don’t seem to care at all.”
“I’m sure the Alliance would help you, even if you aren’t technically members any longer.”
“They would, I don’t know if it’d be enough though. They’ve got worries of their own, or so I hear. I’ve never been beyond the Hinterlands so my knowledge of the world amounts to little.”
“Do you think Aerie Peak could strengthen itself?”
“I think we could, I just don’t know if we will. I’m almost inclined to ask the trolls for help. I don’t like the savages but at least they’re alive. Dark times we live in I’m afraid.”
We parted ways and I went south to the untamed forests.
There is nothing about the trolls that is inherently savage.
It’s understandable why humans think this, of course. Hated as the orcs were, veterans of the Second War still spoke about the forest trolls with a particular dread and loathing. Perhaps it was the practiced cruelty with which the trolls treated their captives, nearly none of whom survived. People remembered wild shouts and drum beats raging from the darkest woods, the trolls practicing rituals to their strange gods. The trolls did not even show mercy to each other. After the Troll Wars, the tribes became embroiled in internecine warfare that did not stop until the Second War. The fighting started up again after that conflict ended.
Though they live in crude villages now, the trolls created the very first anthropoid civilization in the world, predating even the elves. The mighty Amani Empire in the north and the Gurubashi in the south were the great powers in those ancient days. The trolls built spectacular cities of stone and carved records and epic tales into clay tablets, all without the use of arcane magic. The Amani Empire, which once controlled the Hinterlands, was already a shadow of its former power at the start of the Troll Wars. Though the forces of Quel’thalas and Arathor put an end to the Amani, remnants of their wondrous temple-cities still remain. Civilization is in the troll race’s blood. Many humans stubbornly maintain that the ruins are actually leftovers of a forgotten elven or dwarven civilization. The nation of Stromgarde made it illegal to publicly attribute the construction of those ruins to the trolls, a crime punishable by a month in prison.
As I went deeper into the Hinterlands, trees and darkness encroaching on me, I could only think of troll atrocity stories. I had reason to be cautious. Only one of the three tribes in the Hinterlands is aligned with the Horde. The others are hostile to all they meet. I saw scattered bits of stone masonry as I walked: a foundation here, part of a wall there.
My goal was to reach Revantusk Village on the coast, the home of this sole friendly tribe. The neighboring Witherbark and Vilebranch tribes would kill me on sight. The wilderness area nearest to Aerie Peak is controlled by the remnants of the Witherbark Tribe, the most powerful of the three in the days before the Second War. They achieved lasting notoriety for their cruel atavism. Scholars believe that three-fourths of the tribe perished during the war. Now they live out a hardscrabble existence on the periphery of trollish land. Their defeat has not culled their viciousness. If anything, their loss nurtured it. Most live in small villages built in or near the ruins of the Amani Empire. Shadra’alor, a large temple complex to the south, is the religious heart of the Witherbark Tribe. There they pay homage to Shadra, the ancient Spider Loa, revered by most who were once Amani. I passed near the settlement of Hri’watha, which consisted of several tents scattered around a smaller ruin, but did not investigate further.
Progress through the Hinterlands became increasingly difficult. Undergrowth impeded my progress at every step. About a week after leaving Aerie Peak I stumbled across a road just east of Hri’watha. To this day I have never been able to find out why the road was there. Any of the original Amani roads would have long since been overtaken by the forest, so it had to have been a relatively new construction. The road led from Witherbark to Vilebranch territory and those two tribes are locked in an ancient blood feud, a fact that further baffled me. Surely it would make more strategic sense to raid through the forests, since the trolls are expert trackers.
I ended up traveling through the thicket on the side of the road. I feared that walking on the path made me an easy target though I didn’t think the forest would provide much protection from the trolls. Still, it would at least give me some shelter.
I only took short rests, wanting to reach Revantusk Village as soon as possible. I began to think it might have been wiser to have left the Hinterlands after visiting Aerie Peak. What happened next occurred so fast that I can only describe it as walking forward one moment, and then hanging upside down from a cunningly concealed trap the next. I wasn’t there very long before a party of five trolls emerged from the forest. They chattered with each other, harsh laughter interrupting their speech. One of them took what looked like a water skin from his belt and held it in front of my face.
I plunged into the fever dream of drugged travel, and can recall only snatches of nightmare. The great forest around me turned into an animal intent on my destruction, and the distorted faces of my trollish captors leered at me.
When I came to, I was first conscious of a pounding that I initially thought came from inside my head. I was lying on a hard, flat surface that quivered with each resounding beat. My wrists and feet were tightly bound, and a crude circlet of bone wrapped around my head. As vision returned, I realized that I lay on an altar. The beats came from large drums hit by the trolls with a frenetic intensity. Barely audible were eerie wails from a pair of flautists. Great stone serpents stared down at me from all sides. Suppressing my physical discomfort (something we Forsaken are adept at) I examined the nearest snake statue. The snake Loa, Ula-tek, is perhaps the most revered of all Loa for most trolls. I noticed that someone had subtly altered the statues; a crude imprint of wings was carved onto the sides of each idol.
The drums abruptly fell silent. Turning my head I saw a regal troll woman approach me. She wore a necklace graced with a yellow troll skull, and abstract tattoos adorned her green skin. Two fearsome warriors flanked her, their spears at the ready. I heard the faint roar of a waterfall off in the distance. Though I did not expect to survive, I vowed to at least make the attempt. Yet the sound and the presence of the Twisting Nether were unattainable, dampened by a numbing aura issuing from the circlet.
The woman stood next to the altar on which I lay. Raising her head she shouted something in her language and the multitudes responded in kind. The drums started up again, slow and stately. The priestess continued to speak, each word exultant. She drew a jagged flint knife from her belt and held it over me. I prepared for true death. Then her eyes widened, her face suddenly nauseated. She withdrew and turned to some of the trolls near her, yelling at them in fury. Their response sounded apologetic. Nervously, I tried to figure out what had happened.
Two more trolls grabbed me from the altar and roughly led me down some steps. Getting a better look at my surroundings, I realized I was in the middle of a ruined metropolis. Nature had reclaimed parts of the temple-city and large trees grew from broken flagstones. I heard more chanting from behind, though the trolls pushed me forward when I tried to look back.
I attempted to take stock of my situation. It seemed I had been about to become a sacrifice, only to get a last minute reprieve that I could not understand. I realized that my sockets still contained glass eyes. Forgetting to take it out was not that bad of a mistake. Even with the glass eyes, I could not really pass for any normal human without the other aspects of the disguise. Everything I carried with me was gone.
It was not until we were out of the altar area that I realized the sheer size of the ruin in which I walked. I figured (correctly as it turned out) that I was in Jintha’alor, the greatest of the old Amani cities in the region. The city is a fascinating piece of architectural work. Rather than being spread out, the trolls built Jintha’alor up in successive terraces. Scattered clusters of huts huddle by the brooding stone walls. Idols of Ula-tek coil on the walls and streets, intertwining with the masonry. Like the idols at the altar, all had wings carved into the sides. As Ula-tek was the Loa most associated with war, the statues signified the Amani Empire’s military prowess. I could not tell what the wings symbolized.
The two guards spoke as they guided me down, their crushing grip rendering escape impossible. My mind raced as I made wild guesses as to why the priestess spared me. Present in my mind was the possibility that they had something worse in store for me.
I saw few trolls on the first half of the journey down to the ground level. The lower terraces teemed in contrast, the trolls howling and shouting as I passed. They kept their distance despite their visible anger. Looking back on this, they probably stayed back to show respect to the Aman’zasi warriors (the remnants of an elite military unit from the Amani days) that escorted me.
Huts of hide and wood nestled are nestled at the base of the city, just beyond the forest dark. Most of the homes have small gardens fenced in with stakes of bone. I knew that I was in the territory of the Vilebranch Tribe, the most powerful troll group in the Hinterlands. They always lived in the shells of their ancient cities and considered themselves the true successors of the Amani. Many were descendents of Amani nobles and priests (or at least claimed to be), confirming their sense of superiority over their neighbors. It is again a testament to Zul’jin’s charisma that he convinced the decadent Vilebranch to join the Horde.
We came to a sudden stop. I spotted my supplies lying under a lean-to. One of the trolls pushed down on my shoulders and I went to my knees. He took out a long metal blade and gave a sinister chuckle. My hands (still tied behind my back) struggled with the binding. The troll raised the blade, his arm tensing to swing. I threw myself to the ground when he did.
Wasting no time I dislocated my arms and forced them over my head and in front of me. I barely felt it. I grabbed the vest of the troll with my bound hands and pulled him towards me. His startled face loomed in front of mine when I bit into his nose. The troll made a strangled scream and tried to pull away as I my teeth clamped down. I kept moving my body as best I could, narrowly avoiding death at the hands of his companion.
I released my captive who fell to the ground, his face awash with blood. I could move my arms relatively freely and I pushed the magic-dampening circlet off of my head and called for fire. Flames burst on the skin of the other troll and he frantically attempted to extinguish them. More warriors ran towards me, and I concentrated my energies, cold strands of Nether gathering in the sky above at my call.
Razors of ice rained from the heavens around me and the warriors jumped back, not fast enough to avoid painful gashes. I took advantage of their shock to chew through my fragile wrist bindings and untie my legs. As soon as I turned my focus to the bindings the storm began to dissipate, as I knew it would. I was ready with a blink spell that teleported me some ways forward, closer to my supplies.
A spinning ax slammed into the lean-to with a heart-stopping thud. True to form, the legendary ax throwers of the Hinterlands were ready to take me down. The warriors continued to charge, their morale boosted by their numbers. Though my arms still hung limply I grabbed the pack with the irreplaceable items and ran. My supply of mana, the internal energy connecting mages with the Twisting Nether, began to run low. I decided to focus it entirely on blinking forward.
A dull pain ran through my left arm. A Forsaken can only suffer mild pain. Unfortunately, this sometimes means we do not notice when we’ve suffered a grievous wound. My revelation came with the sudden lightness of my left shoulder, earlier dragged down by the disconnection and the pack.
An ax, through luck or skill, had severed my left arm at the elbow. The excised limb still gripped the pack and I grabbed my fallen arm with my right hand. I forced myself to run faster, hoping that their axes would not hit my legs. While I could outlast them, they could easily track me down if they truly wished.
I reached the forest, crashing madly through the thicket. At one point I tripped on a vine and went flying. I took advantage of the moment to relocate my arms. All signs of pursuit eventually ceased, though trollish stealth and hunting ability meant that they might continue chasing me. With no other real choice, I endured and kept moving east.
I felt completely exhausted, a sensation I’d nearly forgotten. Endurance of the dead or not, I had been moving through dense forest while constantly looking around for any sign of the Vilebranch, all the while knowing that I probably wouldn’t be able to detect them. I wearily stopped to rest the next day at sunset. I had some reason to be joyful. I stood at the top of a high ridge, looking down on a narrow coastal strand. I had at last arrived at the coast, Revantusk territory.
I nearly bolted when a lanky troll came into view, carrying a spear and five silvery pelts. He grabbed a branch and pulled himself up into the tree, readying his weapon in a show of astonishing agility.
“Hey... you are undead, yes? The thinking kind?” He spoke in thickly accented Orcish, and I realized with relief he was Revantusk.
“Yes. I am. I’m sorry, I thought you were Vilebranch.”
“I am a hunter of the Revantusk! I’m Zala’jan.”
“My name is Destron Allicant.”
“What happened to your arm?”
“One of the Vilebranch got a lucky shot.”
Zala’jan hopped down from the branch and approached me, his face alight with curiosity.
“Oh... it doesn’t grow back, does it? Your arm?”
“No, humans, and undead who used to be humans, can’t regenerate like you.”
“I’m very sorry. Are you in pain?”
“No. And it isn’t all that bad. If I can get to a skilled surgeon or healer they can reattach it. Though it will start to decay if I wait too long.”
“Roj’huan can help you. He is our greatest witch doctor. I am sure he can help you. How soon do you need it fixed?”
“The residual necromantic energy ought to last for at least a few weeks, probably more. I should be fine.”
“Good, it takes about another day of walking to get to the village.”
Zala’jan and I made camp on that rocky bluff. A night wind blew in from the Forbidding Sea, though neither of us were bothered. I was surprised by Zala’jan’s friendly nature. The Darkspear Tribe, which is the tribe to whom most Horde trolls owe their allegiance, are often quite unfriendly to the Forsaken, more so than orcs or tauren.
“So you were gathering furs?” I asked.
“Yes. Got five of them, best you’ve ever seen! They’ll give me much honor. You know honor?”
“I understand the old human conception—”
“Sorry, no. Humans don’t know honor. Humans don’t know anything, unless they’re dead like you.”
“Um, thank you.”
“It’s just the truth. With the Revantusk, if you have a lot of honor, you get a lot of respect. You get honor by hunting, or trapping, or killing. But this is special for me, these furs I have here.”
He smiled, baring his sharp teeth. The effect was a bit unsettling, even for me.
“With this I have enough honor to marry Naja. She’s the most beautiful girl in the village. Just in time too. In five days, she’ll have seen twenty summers.”
“What does that signify?”
“When a daughter is born, her father decides who she will marry. He’ll want her to marry someone with much honor. It’s not all up to him though. If she doesn’t want to marry the warrior her father chose, she can choose someone else.”
“And Naja chose you?”
“Yes! There’s more to it though. I have to get close to matching her father’s honor. The elders long ago said it was unfair to have to exactly match the father’s honor, because the father’s a lot older and probably has a lot more. It has to be close though. If she turns twenty and her chosen does not have enough honor, than she is married to the warrior of her father’s choosing. With these wolf furs though, I’ll have a little more than enough! Me and Naja will be married in a few days, our children will be great hunters!”
“Great! You won’t have any trouble from the other suitor?”
“No, I told Dren’jan that I had my eyes on Naja, so we competed in the Trials. There’s a trial of hunting, a trial of survival, a trial of combat, a trial of dancing and a trial of storytelling. I won everything except the combat, so he had to let me try to get enough honor. He’s an honorable man, so he will accept.”
Zala’jan was so enthusiastic that I began to feel happy just talking to him. We got off to an early start the next day, Zala’jan not wanting to waste any time. A beautiful morning sun glittered on the depthless gray sea. On the way, I asked about the curious behavior of the Vilebranch Tribe.
“I don’t know too much about the Vilebranch. They are blood enemies of the Revantusk. They hide in their cities because they cannot hunt. The Witherbark, they too are our enemies, but we respect them for being hunters.”
“So no ideas? It struck me as very strange.”
“Well... maybe it is because you are undead? Maybe they only wanted a living sacrifice?”
“I don’t know whether to feel grateful or insulted.”
“Ha ha, you Forsaken are good. We know you kill many humans, and they try to kill you. Do you kill elves also?”
“If the occasion calls for it, yes.”
“You spill the blood of humans, elves, Witherbark and Vilebranch. There’s no way we couldn’t like you. All humans should be like you.”
“Perhaps.” I wondered what he’d think of the Forsaken if he saw the Apothecarium. “There were many idols to Ula-tek in the city—”
“Ula-tek is mighty! It’s the spirit of Ula-tek that runs in every warrior. That’s why you see Ula-tek so much in the cities. Ula-tek made the cities stronger by being there.”
“I see, but someone had carved wings on the sides of all the idols.”
“The winged serpent is the servant of Atal’hakkar,” he said.
“Atal’hakkar was the old Loa of war, like Ula-tek is now. But Atal’hakkar was too cruel. Ula-tek is the Loa of war, but Atal’hakkar cared only for murder. He is the fallen Loa. Worshipping him is the worst blasphemy. Talk to Roj’huan, he can help you a lot more than I could about this.”
Revantusk Village is actually quite scenic. The houses there are much larger than the hovels of the Witherbark and Vilebranch tribes. The houses are surprisingly airy, often without any real walls which seemed problematic in a place as far north as the Hinterlands. The remarkable trollish adaptability made the inhabitants resistant to the cold. A number of orcs and blue-skinned Darkspear trolls also lived in the village, liaisons of the Horde who had again taken the Revantusk under their protection.
Zala’jan family and friends greeted him with joyous shouts. Naja ran up and embraced him. Troll women look marginally more human than the men, but their sharp features and low brows make them quite unappealing to humans. For all I knew, she was a ravishing beauty by Revantusk standards. Her father, looking stern and grim, spoke with grudging admiration. A richly adorned troll gave Zala’jan a ceremonial staff, and Zala’jan bowed at the gift. That was apparently Dren’jan. I later learned that even after a trollish man has been promised a wife, he will often compete for another in case someone takes his betrothed.
I expected the Revantusk to be quite wild yet their behavior was restrained and actually rather formal. Youths saluted their elders and the common folk deferred to the heads of the tribe. The next day I spoke with Roj’huan, the witch doctor. He was a very aged troll with a long mane of white hair. He lived in a spacious hut perched on raised stilts. Bones and herbs hung in mobiles from the grass roof, twisting gently in the soft breeze.
“It has been a long while since a Forsaken last came here. Your people have powerful magic, as we did once.” Roj’huan’s orcish was nearly flawless, for he had fought alongside the orcs in the Second War.
“I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the world, so I’ve been traveling a great deal.”
“The Loas smile upon those who seek knowledge, provided they do it with temperance and humility. You were asking about the Vilebranch and Atal’hakkar?”
“Zala’jan was right. Atal’hakkar, according to them at least, for who truly knows the mind of Atal’hakkar? would not have accepted the sacrifice of one already dead. As for Hakkar the Soulflayer,” he paused the grasp a mummified griffin talon he wore as an amulet, “he came from the south. Legends say that in their last days the Gurubashi turned to worship of him and paid dearly for it. What is known is that long ago, many lifetimes after the Elven War though still long before the Time of the Orcs, a prophet with dark magic came up from the south. He beguiled the Vilebranch and brought them to the worship of the Soulflayer. They have kept his abhorrent rituals since.” He shook his head sadly.
“This prophet was a Gurubashi?”
“He called himself Atal’jin, Chief of the Atal’ai. I know little about the Atal’ai, other than that they live far to the south and worship the Soulflayer.”
“Do you know much about the history of the Amani Empire?”
“I fear not. We were not as good at keeping alive our heritage as were the Gurubashi, even though we lasted longer. Not even our wisest can still read the ancient stone tablets. The Vilebranch say they can, but they lie. If they could, they would be the masters of this land.”
Roj’huan apologized about his unfamiliarity with human anatomy but nonetheless managed to reattach my arm with a brace. I could not use it though at least I would not have to carry it. I simply needed to seek a more proficient surgeon (preferably Forsaken) elsewhere.
Though I felt rested physically, I was not yet psychologically prepared to resume travel. I stayed among the Revantusk for a week. While obviously beneficial to learn as much as possible from the Revantusk, it also helped to gain the perspective of a fellow outsider, in this case an orcish warrior named Torm. Torm was an old veteran of the Second War. He’d spent much time with the Revantusk warriors in those days, and was thus ideal to act as a diplomat for the New Horde.
“Much of our time here is spent settling disputes,” explained Torm.
“What sort of disputes?”
“You probably know by now that the Revantusk focus on honor.”
Torm looked around. We were some ways from the village.
“The Revantusk don’t yet understand true honor. I do not say this to be insulting. I have great respect for their warriors, they’ve saved my life many times. But among my kind, honor comes from our behavior as well as our actions. Petty fights about honor are for children. An orc of true honor would not draw his ax at someone who insulted him. He has the honor to ignore it. Some insults cannot be so easily dismissed, but those are rare cases. Here though... even a tiny slight is enough to begin a duel to the death.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed it from my visit.”
“It’s much better than it was. This is why the Revantusk are so formal, why they have so many rules and rituals in their actions. They are done to avoid insult.”
“How do you resolve a fight?”
“You must remember, undead, that the Revantusk are not truly part of the New Horde yet. No matter what we say or do, we are only visitors. I was able to convince the elders that a non-lethal duel would be acceptable. Still, sometimes it goes too far. There was a non-lethal duel between two older trolls a month ago. It was over some ridiculously minor insult, but for them that was important. The duel ended, as agreed, with one of the combatants losing his arm. You’re familiar with the trollish ability of regeneration, correct?”
“I hoped it was settled. But after Kada’mor’s arm grew back, he and his opponent traveled to the north to finish their duel the proper way. Kada’mor was killed.”
“Was his killer punished?”
“No, of course not. If we tried to do that we’d be thrown out of the village. Nearly everyone endorsed their actions. The elders had a long talk with him, which I was not allowed to witness. It threw everything out of balance.”
Torm sighed, and shook his graying head.
“In the Second War I found kinship with these trolls. They were savage, and so was I. We delighted in the violence, in the bloodshed. Now that the demonic curse has been lifted from me the Revantusk seem like angry children. I’m no longer sure if I’m even the best orc for this job.”
I thanked Torm for his time and returned to the village. He missed being among his own kind. Undoubtedly he hoped to again find fellowship with the Revantusk, but he had changed too much.
Unlike the Darkspear Tribe, the Revantusk are very patriarchal. While women are accorded some degree of power in religious matters (witch doctors like Roj’huan are not religious figures per se, they are mainly healers and herbalists whose duties sometimes overlap into the theological sphere) they are still under the domination of the men. This has been changing, albeit very gradually.
To learn more I talked with Marata, a woman who had achieved some respect as a watcher, the title for the defenders of the village. She had an imperious bearing, suggestive of the Amani’s past glories.
“Much of it was the wisdom of Zul’jin,” she explained.
“I know he was the leader of the trolls during the Second War.”
“He was the greatest of leaders, greater than Thrall! He knew that we had to stick together if we were to survive.”
“What happened? The tribes seem to have fallen back into disunity.”
“The Witherbark fell to the humans like trees before a great storm. The Vilebranch ran back to their temples.”
“Where is Zul’jin now?”
“That I do not know. He will return though, mark my words.”
“How was he instrumental in having the women of the tribe rise to greater positions?”
“As I have said, he knew that we had to stand together. All of us would help.”
“Women became warriors, in other words.”
“No. Back then we would not risk the future of our tribe in conflict. We do now because we have to. You see, in the old days, we Revantusk moved through the forests, without any fixed home. In the Time of the Orcs, the menfolk would be away for long stretches of time. That’s why Zul’jin decreed that women should have control of the tribe in the mens’ absence. So we did, and did a better job than the men could ever do!”
“Why are you warriors now?”
“For defense. We must be careful, for the other tribes would seek to do us harm. If it hadn’t been for Zul’jin though, the men would still keep us in the village, even though there wouldn’t be enough to defend against the Vilebranch.”
“Are attacks common?”
“Not any longer and the spears of my sisters had much to do with that fact. There are other benefits too.”
“You seem to ask many questions. I’m sure Zala’jan told you about how a man earns a woman in Revantusk?”
“It was always the case that a daughter could dispute her father’s choice of a husband. But before the Time of the Orcs, before Zul’jin, any daughter who dared to take a stand against her father’s decision would be shamed. She would not be a desirable mate after that. But now she can make a stand. She must not be too haughty, for Zul’jin certainly did not teach us to forget shame, but she can make her opinions known and acted on.”
“Did the men argue against this?”
“Some did at first, but soon none could argue against Zul’jin. What troll would criticize someone with as much honor as he? He was wiser than the Amani of old. After he left, some tried to turn back to the old ways but few listened. When the orcs returned, they made sure that we followed Zul’jin’s ways.”
It was strange to hear such praise for Zul’jin. None can deny that he was a great tactician and leader. Just the same, his actions in raids upon elven and human villages can only be described as atrocities, his men murdering defenders and defenseless alike.
Zala’jan honored me by inviting me to his wedding. The Revantusk trolls gathered around a wooden spider idol, of Shadra, the Loa of life. Drummers let out a cascade of beats from an open-air hut. Zala’jan stepped out, wearing a bright red vest decorated with trophies of bone and hide. Other trolls who I took to be his family stood next to him. He walked five times around the idol of Shadra, each circuit symbolizing a stage of life: infancy, childhood, youth, patriarch, and elder. When done, he stepped back and genuflected to the idol. The drumming intensified for a moment, and then a priestess said a litany of Trollish words. The drum beats changed, becoming slow and somber as Naja approached her husband. She wore a long dress, also colored red. Her head was lowered, a blindfold blocking her sight. Zala’jan approached her, and at the word of the priestess, took Naja’s hand. He led her five times again around the idol, signifying how he would protect her and their future children. When this was done, Naja removed the blindfold and the two of them kissed.
Then began a long party, filled with gift giving and talking. It was pleasantly festive and though I was somewhat excluded (because I could not speak Zandali) I still found it enjoyable. I expected Revantusk dancing to be much like the acrobatic twists and turns of the Darkspear, yet it was very stately and restrained. It almost reminded me of a waltz, like what they used to have in Lordaeron. I wondered who had influenced whom.
I was fortunate in finding a Revantusk fisherman who offered to take me to the Arathi coast. The Revantusk were traditionally nomadic, subsisting on hunting and gathering. Fishing garnered no particular honor (though neither it is dishonorable). With their new village by the sea, fishing was too great an opportunity to ignore. Still not considered honorable, fishing is often undertaken by older trolls who already have a good deal of accumulated honor and no longer wish or need to hunt. The profession grew steadily more respectable since then. With older trolls engaged in fishing, the young trolls got more room to earn honor of their own.
The troll who took me was named Vel’jad, and had been a young warrior during the Second War. He had no reservations about taking a Forsaken on his small, seagoing canoe. We left with the dawn, moving out into the cold waters of the Forbidding Sea.