Author: korinaka PM
Shifting loyalties are not just misplaced obligation, and sympathy for the devil has nothing to do with time and its products. Old debts, grey areas, and blind traditions force a troll and a human to set aside petty battles and face a common threat.Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance/Adventure - Troll & Human - Chapters: 4 - Words: 31,161 - Reviews: 49 - Favs: 37 - Follows: 51 - Updated: 12-13-10 - Published: 01-16-10 - id: 5671461
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: Troll male/human female.
I have such a soft spot for this sort of pairing.
Though a paladin, she was not strong.
He observed her from a distance and could see that she wore heavy mail armor. She held before her a two-handed sword nearly the length of her body, angling the blade in a close protective stance that caused her forearms to shake violently with the effort to keep it upright. The tip of it dipped dangerously, and the creature she had been accosted by—a basilisk with several sizable wounds on its back and a missing tail—flicked a forked tongue at her.
With a heavy blow from that too-big sword, she struck the lumbering basilisk in a futile attempt to gain the upper hand. Though its scales appeared burnt and mangled, the beast had managed to entangle the girl in a battle that she was quickly losing. She added another bright red stripe across the ridge of its spine, and without accounting for the recoil of her sword against bone, she staggered back a step with a muted half-grunt, half-gasp.
This girl was obviously out of her skill level, out of her element, and completely out of her mind. She was in no way, shape, or form dressed for this part of the Stonetalon Mountains—not with her black quarter-sleeve shirt, thick cotton pants, and heavy cloak, anyway. A gust of hot wind cemented this fact, blowing loose dirt into his eyes that he rubbed out wearily.
How she even managed to trek this far unnoticed was something beyond his level of comprehension. No Alliance member as unskilled as she would willingly travel as deeply as she had into land that was unquestioningly held by Horde hands. The mountains, of course, were contested, but the lands she'd had to have traversed to get here were not. She was certainly no scout, as evidenced by her lack of camping gear, and whether she had a mount and lost it or just didn't have one altogether was up in the air. He wondered if she was trying to make her way to Stonetalon Peak. If she was, though, she was heading the complete wrong direction. In fact, it didn't appear as though she was trying to cross the mountains at all.
Despite her apparent clueless attitude to her situation, he was wary of her, and admittedly somewhat angry that she had dared sum up the gall to fearlessly navigate a handful of Horde territories and settlements. The connections the Darkspear tribe had with Horde were lax at times, and even downright hanging-by-a-thread at others, but territory was something that all trolls found reason to bristle about. They'd been run out of enough homes to know, and this human girl, sweating in her armor and pussyfooting pathetically from the sand in her greaves, reminded him painfully of this.
So Zek'jaf watched her struggle with the elder and obviously more powerful reptile, gaining a smug sense of satisfaction that the fight was not leaning in her favor, if nothing else. Her armor was failing her quickly, and the heat of the dry flatlands bore down on her viciously. It took a serious toll, and when the sweat on her palms and fatigue wracking her limbs caused her to drop her sword not once, but twice, he knew it wouldn't be long until she saw her end.
Sure enough, within minutes, she was knocked to the ground and her weapon kicked out of reach. Even if it had been left near her, though, he doubted she would be able to wield it again. He doubted she'd even be able to stand up. Sand shuffled into her clothing and shifted between her splayed fingers. Her weakened condition duly acknowledged, the monstrous basilisk brutally slashed at her struggling body with its talons, tearing gashes through her cloak and into her skin, marring the side of her neck, and staining a good portion of her with fresh, warm blood. As she tried to fumble away from him, grasping fingers into the loose ground, that damned ubiquitous sand peppered her injuries, making her cry out in pain for the second time. To whom she was crying out, he wasn't sure.
Zek'jaf settled back on his haunches, observing the basilisk sniff her and then nibble at her unmoving arm. He was witnessing the death of a human, and it made him feel equal parts satisfied and unsettled. Satisfied, because this human girl was receiving her just desserts: How many of his troll brethren had she killed in her lifetime? Just today? And unsettled, because he hadn't any idea of this was true. What if she'd just strayed accidentally far into Horde territory, skirting the contested territories too carelessly? Human paladins, as far as he was aware, focused almost solely on the eradication of the undead. It was entirely likely that she'd never harmed a Darkspear in her life, or even encountered one. Her lacking knowledge of the workings of this beast—strike the underbelly, the underbelly—and seemingly naïve and inexperienced footwork was a testament to this.
The more he thought on this, the more the Horde's—specifically Thrall, and his willingness to cooperate with the benign Alliance members—influence on him bubbled to the surface of his subconscious. He was beginning to feel sympathy for her, someone who was almost certainly undeserving of it. But all of the what-ifs raced through his head, even as the basilisk sunk teeth into her, wholly intent on eating his fill and leaving her carcass to dry in the searing sunlight. What if it was all an unfortunate accident? What if she'd been kidnapped and then dumped out here, left to fend for herself? She was so weak and helpless. How could she even have gotten so far on her own? What if she died before he could take action?
Something brief and fleeting caused him to feel a sting of guilt, or maybe just a wary sense of nostalgia. His father was talking to him, then, and they were all speaking in hushed tones, and a friendly stranger with cropped blond hair and a thick beard was patting him gently on the head.
If it was alright by his father, then it would be alright by him. How much harm could he cause anyway? Suddenly he felt a lot less like it was a mistake and a lot more like it was a simple favor.
Pulling daggers out of their holsters at his thighs, Zek'jaf scrambled out of hiding, shooing the beast from the defenseless girl. It turned its ire on him, but he slew it before it could truly enlighten him to the extent of its anger. It managed to taste a mouthful of his flesh once, but the bite mark hardly even drew blood. He didn't think twice on it and knelt in front of the female, who now lay on sand that was crimson and sticky.
She laid partially facedown in the sand, her hand, loosely fisted and drawn up near her shoulder, occasionally clenching. Blood from a previously unnoticed head injury had dripped into her eyes, smearing the sclera pinkish-red. She looked a damn mess, and at this point, he wasn't sure he could even do anything for her.
Idly, he tapped the gold band on her left ring finger. She inhaled sharply, and with what seemed like a final burst of strength, drew her hand away from him. The action startled him, and he'd danced backwards and away from her body, but with her still again, he once again advanced.
"You're real fucked up, mon," he drawled in Orcish, not bothering to hide his amusement. His next comment was said in whatever Common he hadn't forgotten. "How'd you get this far all by your lonesome, eh?"
As expected, she didn't respond. Her eyes, though, blue set in the backdrop of streaked, flooding red, stayed trained on him. Her breaths were shallow and ragged.
He sucked his teeth, scanning the area around them. The reptile's corpse lay a few feet from them, already attracting all manner of insects and buzzards, and he could see a few more scavengers in the distance.
"Eat me no, harm nothing," she husked, in horrible, broken Orcish. Zek'jaf actually raised his brow at this. First: She knew Orcish? And second: Why didn't she just use Common, since he clearly understood and spoke it? Still, she was a pretty lucky character, he figured, to have not only been rescued from the impatient claws of death, but to have stumbled upon (or been stumbled upon by) a troll who didn't practice cannibalism and held no real ostensible grudges toward her race. Even though, by all accounts and purposes, barring pasts and the figures that haunted them, he probably should.
"I've no desire ta eat you," he said in Common, shrugging.
She spoke no more after this, but never took her eyes off of him, watching him intently. Even when he pulled cloth out of his bag and bandaged what wounds he could, dusting the sand out of the lacerations on her neck, she didn't even flinch. Shock, no doubt, and with this in mind, he picked her unceremoniously up, marginally mindful of her injuries.
So where was he to go now? There was no way he'd make it to the Alliance settlement in the mountains with the girl in tow. Even if he could fend off the beasts that would surely be drawn by the smell of her fresh blood, there was a zero chance of him making it unnoticed. Tauren and orc shamans patrolled the mountains constantly, and even the rare troll hunter loitered about, thanks to Malaka'jin and its small wealth of his brethren. It was a great place to buy and sell leathers, but not such a great place for a human girl to recover from wounds.
Desperately, he racked his mind for other Alliance settlements in the area, but he knew of virtually none that were reachable. Ashenvale was absolutely out of the question. If he got anywhere near the settlements, night elves would be on him like flies to a corpse. Sure, they'd figure out that he had an injured Alliance in his care, but only after they'd killed him. Shoot first, ask questions later. He couldn't very well just drop her off there, either—the first stray wolf or forest bear that lumbered across her would have a heyday. Small Alliance camps peppered The Barrens, but he still came across the same problem: If he got anywhere near, they would kill him on-site. He was a skilled rogue, and proficient in the art of running and hiding in the shadows, but it would be near impossible to do with this very limp and very vulnerable girl in his care.
He grumbled to himself under his breath about stupid decisions and stupid memories and stupid, stupid feelings of paying off the debts of others, but it was definitely too late now. She was already comfortably situated in his arms, bleeding onto his chest and blowing warm breath across his right bicep. He was in too deep to leave her, despite just picking her up. And besides, he could hear the hiss and shuffle of oncoming basilisks, snaking their way to him and the blood scent through the sand.
He clicked his tongue, and Leb, his raptor mount, hopped out from behind an outcropping of rocks. The raptor stopped when he noticed the girl in his arms, sniffed the air in disdain, and turned his tail defiantly toward Zek'jaf.
"Leb, we don't got time for this," Zek'jaf growled, switching to Orcish seamlessly, clicking his tongue again. The raptor turned only slightly toward him, his dull hide seeming almost brilliant in the bright sun. "Unless you wanna fight the manner of brutes an' fiends headin' here, that is."
Leb, quite the coward when it came to fighting, but a steadfast mount and a stellar beast of burden, hastened back toward Zek'jaf, lowering his head obediently.
"Good boy," Zek'jaf cooed, laying the human across Leb's shoulders and then hoisting himself into his saddle. "I'll give you a treat when we get back ta Orgrimmar. Take us there quick, now."
Quick, he knew, meant a matter of hours, but it didn't weigh much on his mind. He'd been on his way home anyway, after having returned from a hunting venture, in which he'd gathered several fine leathers. Leb knew the way by his cold-blooded little heart, following the curving road through the northernmost tip of The Barrens, and then rushing over the bridge toward Orgrimmar. When they would pass by a caravan of goblins or even a lone tauren walking along the road, Zek'jaf would instruct him to ride just out of sight, returning to the road only when the coast was clear. The journey was overall successful, with Zek'jaf closely monitoring the human girl's condition. She didn't seem to get better or worse, which was good news. If she died on the way there, he'd feel stupid, and would be fairly duty-bound to conduct some fashion of proper burial for her. He was trying to remember the exact impromptu burial rites briefly explained to him in his training when Leb stopped abruptly, not much more than a mile out of the capital city of Orgrimmar.
Zek'jaf patted him and climbed off, taking the girl with him. "Run off ta the keep, now," he instructed, and Leb chanced one more affectionate snuggle against Zek'jaf's arm and a scornful snort in the girl's direction before bounding off to rest.
Feeling lost and more than a little puzzled, Zek'jaf stared at the gates of the city, looming in the distance. Sneaking in would be no easy task. It would be difficult to get around the guards patrolling the fences, but the worst would be steering through the watchful denizens. Luckily enough, he was a rogue and also a nearly lifelong resident of Orgrimmar, and if he knew anything, it was how to sneak in the backdoor. He'd come to Orgrimmar as a young teenager with his mother, an only child, his father having been killed in one of the many invasions of his homeland. He'd often slip out into the city when his mother went to sleep and marvel at the bustling nightlife, and then take one or two or six friends out of the city gates undetected. Together they'd find a nice spot where the moon was full and the stars were smiling gaily at them, and they'd drink their fill of the finest alcohol Zek'jaf could swindle, stumbling none-too-gracefully home.
He traced a route to one of the only gaps in the monolithic tusk-like pillars that herded Orgrimmar. Once in, assuring that no one had seen him enter, he decided on his destination and set to it, tucking the girl's arms in so that they didn't catch on anything as he ran.
He bounded over shops and stalls, bouncing on tent material pulled taut, slipping between support columns, torches, and other manner of obstacles. More than once he had to quickly stow the body of the human paladin, waving off the inquiring stares of the guards and explaining how he had to find a stiff drink this instant (to which the men chuckled at), or how he needed to find a gift for his ill younger sister's birthday immediately (to which the women swooned at). Most of the orc guards seemed to accept this, though the occasional troll would loiter around him to see just what exactly he was up to. It was at these times that he would surreptitiously glance back at where the girl was hidden, making sure not even a toe of her battered greaves was visible to anyone.
Near enough to the Valley of Wisdom that he could almost taste it, he darted through underground walkways that were hardly used, dark, and dingy. The Valley of Wisdom was virtually always empty, ironically enough, and he knew just the place where he could hide the girl. The closer he came to the endpoint of his journey, the more excited he became, his heart pounding loudly in his chest. If the girl had been conscious, he was sure she'd be able to hear it.
He hopped up the side of a dirt incline, straight toward a hut adorned with bright plumage, silk ribbons, burnished beads, and other manner of eye-catching baubles. Hurdling through the leather flap of the familiar, lavishly decorated apothecary, he dumped the half-dead girl into a pile of various folded cloth, neatly hidden in a convenient alcove. After making sure that, yes, she was indeed still breathing, though barely, and assuring that he was as well, he made his way into the backroom, where a female troll with enviable dark blue skin sat mixing liquids. As always, he felt a brief trickle of jealousy, self-conscious about his own light-cobalt tint, but it was gone in a flash.
At Zek'jaf's brash intrusion, the woman dropped the vial she was holding, and a greenish, somewhat gelatinous substance spattered the floor, burning through the opulent interwoven rug and into the dirt beneath it.
Zek'jaf, momentarily forgetting his original mission, backed way, way up.
"Zek'jaf, ya great bumblin' fool! Look what ya've done!"
"What is this mess you're servin' ta innocent citizens of Orgrimmar?" he nearly squawked, wincing down at the sizable hole in the rug. "Your crazy medicines will kill us all, mon!"
Standing up, she poked him hard in the chest, scowling darkly and completely missing the fine layer of blood that now darkened his leather armor. "My 'crazy medicines' are what's savin' us! Now what do ya t'ink you're doin', burstin' into my shop and spoilin' my supplies?"
Once again focused on the task at hand, Zek'jaf swept her thick finger away, only half noting that her fingernails had been painted black and polished until they shone. She was really starting to pay more attention to her looks—much more so than when they were young. "I need your help, Zul-kraa."
Scoffing, Zul-kraa turned around, her fanciful, burgundy apothecary's robes fluttering, the seams and edges glinting gold in the dim light of the backroom. She set to cleaning up the acidic substance, first pouring a small container of dirt on it, and then patting it with a steel trowel. "You're always wantin' my help," she muttered bitterly. "Always 'Zul-kraa, lend me six gold,' and 'Zul-kraa, give me a discount,' and 'Zul-kraa, set my broken leg.'"
"I know, Zuly, I ask you too many favors, but I'm bein' selfless this time, mon."
She grunted derisively at him and began to sweep up the mess, scolding him in Zandali and occasionally dotting the lecture with her heavily accented Orcish. Zek'jaf briefly ignored her in favor of sneaking off to check on the girl, who was still breathing and still motionless, but he returned in time to hear her chide him with, "And don't ya go givin' me no 'But I'm bein' selfless, Zuly!' nonsense! Ya ain't got a selfless bone in your body!"
Deciding that straightforwardness was probably the best route in this situation, Zek'jaf grabbed her by her arms to still her. Troll females tended to not take kindly to physical firmness from males, but it was so rare that Zek'jaf was angry or in any way physical that Zul-kraa immediately stilled. In grabbing her, he'd upset her hood, and it slipped off of her head to settle compliantly atop her shoulders. Her eyes, bright ocher and focused, were wide.
He felt awkward for holding her so long, and so he continued. "Zul-kraa, I'm tellin' the truth. I found a girl in the Stonetalon Mountains—almost dead, she was."
Seemingly forgetting his sudden physical contact with her, she brushed him off. "Why didn't ya say so? Bring her ta me; I'll fix her up for ya."
"She's not a troll."
Again, Zul-kraa abruptly stopped being busy. She hesitated in her speech. "Orc?"
He shook his head hurriedly.
Again, she hesitated. "I ain't got experience treatin' undead or tauren. Neetya knows a t'ing or two 'bout t'em, though."
"I can't bring her ta Neetya, Zuly," he said quietly, and his troll accent, once heavy during his adolescence on the much harsher Orcish language, seemed almost non-existent. No, he absolutely couldn't bring her to Neetya. For the sake of not only the girl's, but also for his and Zul-kraa's.
Zul-kraa put two obstinate, thick hands on her hips. "You're actin' all strange, Zek'jaf. What've ya gotten yaself into t'is time?"
He chewed on the inside of his lip, moving his jaw so that his tusks, curving inward and embarrassingly smaller than average, shifted back and forth. It was a nervous habit, and he knew that Zul-kraa could see it by the way she dropped her hands to her side and took a step toward him. "Jus' follow me," he finally managed.
He led her out from the backroom and into the middle of the shop, shuffling around newly delivered merchandise and colorful display sets of salves and herbs and bottles to the alcove. He was definitely starting to regret this—much more so than on the way here. He supposed if things went too bad, he could always turn her in to Thrall, or let her loose at the border of Ashenvale when she recovered. The night elves would take her in with open arms and give her appropriate accommodations. If worse came to worst, he could just say he was helping stimulate the black market economy of troll cannibalism by bringing in some fresh human meat—a delicacy to some.
Once again, Zul-kraa flew into a catty rage, putting her hands to her head and fisting her braided, violet hair. "Ya've ruined all the cloth! Ya break everyt'ing ya touch! Get your bleedin' blood elf off'a my cloth!"
"I already said she's no blood elf!"
Hastily, he scooped the girl into his arms, careful not to squeeze her frame too hard, Zul-kraa fretting over her ruined wares all the while. "I should kick ya outta my shop, Zek'jaf! Kick ya out an' never let ya back!"
"—Ya cost me hundreds 'a gold a year, an' ya never even offer ta help me!"
"—I should'a told my dear ol' mother ta keep ya as far away from me as possible! Ever since we was whelps, ya've caused me nothin' but trouble an' grief!"
Sighing dramatically, he waited until she turned around, her tiny female tusks twisting defiantly around her lips—something he'd always found undeniably adorable. But her pouting face fell to one of horror and then dismay, and, for once since Zek'jaf had known her, she was rendered unable to speak.
"I found a—"
"—human," Zul-kraa finished for him, softly, her voice subdued in a way that was rare for her. "Ya brought a human ta my shop."
"I brought her for you ta help her," he said, desperate to justify his actions, which seemed foolish, dangerous, and even mildly selfish in retrospect. "She was almost killed by one of the basilisks."
"Ya should've left her ta die!" Zul-kraa hissed, keeping her voice down. She hurried to the front of the shop, checked around for stragglers, and then secured the leather flap to the frame with steel fasteners. She lit several more torchlights as she scurried into the backroom, beckoning for Zek'jaf to follow.
He did as asked, setting the human paladin on the table where Zul-kraa had previously been conducting her apothecary chemistry. The giant troll table dwarfed the human, who was stretched completely out. Neither her head nor her feet reached any end of the table.
"Why did ya do it?" Zul-kraa questioned, the torchlight casting shadows across the both of them, intensifying her expression of confusion and betrayal. "Why did ya save her?"
"I couldn't jus' leave her ta die. I don't even know how she got as far as she did."
For a split second, Zul-kraa's harsh features softened, and she apparently found it difficult to look him in the eye. "Ya got a misplaced sense of liability, Zek. Ya don' have ta finish what—"
Very much so disliking where the conversation was headed, he cut her off abruptly, satisfied when her eyes narrowed and her lips set into a thin line. "It don' matter what I have ta finish or not, an' it ain't anyone's concern." The edge on Zul-kraa's tone returned with a wild vengeance, and he was grateful that he'd avoided delving into territory best left untouched.
"Why do ya t'ink she was so far into Horde land, then? T'ink she was jus'…jus' adventurin'? Ya know how humans be."
Most humans, a small portion of his mind supplied, but he pushed it far back into a place where it would hopefully never resurface. "I don't think so. She looked lost, an' no one as weak as her would've wandered into the mountains alone an' willin'ly. She wasn't even goin' toward the peak."
"How is a so-said 'innocent, ignorant' human ta know what the mountains be like, or even t'is part 'a Kalimdor? Use ya brain, Zek! No humans is friends 'a trolls."
"But they be friends of the orcs?" he argued, effectively quieting his female counterpart. He turned back to the girl and ran a ragged, shaking hand through his dark hair. It looked black in the room, but was a rich navy in proper light. One thing to be proud of, at least. "Enough 'a this. Can you heal her, or do I have ta try myself? I picked her up, an' I carried her with Leb all the way here. For now, I have an obligation ta her."
For a long while, Zul-kraa only stared at the immobile girl, assessing the situation and curling her hands into her robes. Zek'jaf listened to the crackling of the torches that sparsely decorated the walls, and then to the slight wind blowing past the canvas exterior of the shop. Only rarely did he glance at the human on the table, feeling awkward, uncomfortable, and almost completely at the mercy of Zul-kraa's compassion. The blood on the paladin had long since dried by now, and it crusted around the corners of her eyes and the creases of her neck. He wondered at what exact point she had closed her eyes. When they traveled through The Barrens, past the prides of giant cats and lonesome, roaming Stormhides? Or maybe when he snuck past hundreds of her mortal enemies in Orgrimmar, his own kind included? His stomach gave a weak lurch.
"Da only patients I be treatin' like her is blood elves, ya know. I don' know if I can help her."
He moved the girl's hair away from the wounds on her neck, surveying the depth of the gash there. His next words were earnest. "You can try."
With a sigh as heavy as the human's mail armor, Zul-kraa began to gather her supplies, pulling pre-made bandages from a wooden chest as well as various healing ointments and bottles of unidentifiable liquids. Some looked absolutely vile, and the smell of a particularly rancid-looking bottle of tonic had Zek'jaf retching. She pulled out the cork, and the liquid fizzed and bubbled frantically.
"Take da girl's clothes off, Zek. She's hurt bad." The command and statement, paired together, sounded sour to Zek'jaf, as though she didn't want to dirty herself by touching a human, of all things. He couldn't blame her, really, but figured it to be something of an overreaction.
He did as told, not voicing a word of displeasure or discontent. He realized the favor Zul-kraa was doing him, even if he himself didn't know why he'd made an attempt to save the human or what he was going to do with her after she had either healed or died. He felt ashamed, though, and angry at himself, and he stoically stripped layers of mail from her body, stewing in his thoughts and coming up with elaborate plans to apologize to Zul-kraa.
A bit of mail near the human's knee had pressed against bare skin, and it had turned her pale flesh a dingy copper color from wear and rust. She'd obviously been traveling for a while, and had either fallen into a body of water or been furiously rained upon. When he peeled her cloth underclothes off, sticky in some places and stiff in others from blood and sweat and sand, he couldn't help but inspect her scarcely seen, intact human anatomy. He hardly ever got a good look at humans outside of battle and a few goblin texts on them, and he felt as though he was of a very few in his race and his Horde sidings to view something like this. Her skin equaled the fairness of the blood elves, but was faintly tanned in places that often saw the sun. The flesh of her thighs was thick, if not dirtied from days of unaided journeying, and the curve of her hipbones were barely outlined under the thickness of her build. Humans females were stockier than the blood elves, and nowhere near as limber, but not nearly as muscular as the orc or troll females; it was something like the build of a shorter night elf.
"Stop oglin' an' finish undressin' the girl," Zul-kraa spat in unconcealed contempt.
He scoffed. "I was makin' mental notes on the human anatomy, not oglin'."
"Don'tcha be gettin' no hunger for da human girl, ya hear me? T'is is not'in' but trouble."
Frustrated and feeling like he'd done what he could, he stepped back and let his friend work. She poured the foul-smelling substance onto the girl's larger wounds, which pulled in the sand and debris and then solidified into gelatin. Zek'jaf marveled at the usefulness of this type of potion, even as Zul-kraa murmured curses in Zandali under her breath and swept the gelatin into a steel dish. With her cuts cleaned, she smoothed soothing balm onto the bandages and applied them neatly. She asked for his help once when wrapping a bandage around her ribcage, but was able to finish the job on her own shortly.
Once done, she stepped back, both admiring her quick work and scowling at the human girl. "Zek'jaf, put one 'a da cloth into da cauldron."
He did so quietly, stripping a piece of cloth from a bolt and setting it into the cauldron. Inside the cauldron was simple boiling water. He knew immediately what it was for, and after a moment passed, he retrieved the cloth with tongs, wrung it out, and handed it to Zul-kraa.
She pressed the cloth against the smaller cuts that lined the human's body, cleaning her along the way, and even going so far as to remove rust stains. When she was finished, she handed it back to Zek'jaf, who put it in a basket with other soiled linens.
The human on the table was not the human he had rescued from the mountains' base. With her body mostly clean of dirt and oil marks from the armor, her skin looked even paler. The red gashes of newly cleaned scrapes stood in stark contrast, as well as the blue-green and purple-black bruises that freckled her. Her brown hair, collarbone-length with a slight curl at the ends, was still matted in places with blood, but he figured she could take care of that when she woke up. If she woke up.
Zul-kraa moved methodically about the room, putting away her materials and straightening chairs, desks, and paperwork. She was positively a-flutter, as opposed to the human paladin, who lay utterly still with the exception of her chest and abdomen. They rose and fell very slowly, and if he listened well enough, Zek'jaf could hear the faint sound of something gurgling in the back of her throat. He brought this to Zul-kraa's attention, but she dismissed it, saying she couldn't hear anything.
"Could be da death rattle," she'd said around a shake of her head, rolling a parchment and tying a red ribbon around it gingerly. "I don' t'ink t'is girl's got long ta live. Wasted my supplies on da dead because 'a you, Zek."
A rarely experienced and long-forgotten feeling of failure snaked through his insides, and he could feel shame burning through him. It was true. He shouldn't have picked her up in the first place, no matter what his conscience told him, and no matter what any unpaid dues suggested. This girl was not the blond stranger who brought he and his mother gifts from foreign lands and traded war stories with his father. Regardless of all this, she'd been on the brink of death. She was lucky to have survived the trip to Orgrimmar, and he had doubts that she'd survive the night. The blood or other secretions in her throat was a testament to this: Internal bleeding was not something Zul-kraa was equipped to handle—very few were, in fact—and it was likely that she would die, even if the sound wasn't the death rattle. He had no excuse for saving her beyond his own selfish curiosity (why was she so far out and alone?) and a misplaced sense of sympathy (wouldn't he want someone to save him, Horde or not?). In doing so, though, he'd put everyone in Orgrimmar in danger. Confident though he was that the girl was little more than an amateur paladin, a blind follower of the Light who had veered tragically off of her set path, he still didn't know for sure that she presented no imminent threat to him, his people, or the other citizens of this city.
She seemed to notice his anxiety, and with a sigh, she moved to check on the girl, opening her mouth and tilting her head for better lighting. Zek'jaf felt oddly apprehensive for the diagnosis. Zul-kraa's announcement would mean the difference between the girl dying and living, essentially, or, more importantly to his staggering pride, his success or his failure.
She rolled her eyes after a moment. "Allergies," she spit. "Da girl has a stuffy nose. She's snorin'." She turned in a huff, returning to her busy work.
Feeling emotionally drained and needing a break from all of this hectic running about, Zek'jaf excused himself, much to the disapproval of Zul-kraa, who informed him that he needed to find her a place to stay, because she sure as hell wasn't staying in her shop. He breathed fresh air outside of the shop that wasn't tinted with medical supplies and incense. He needed to walk, though, and clear his head—formulate plans of action, plans of inaction, plans of plans. First and foremost, he needed a place for the girl to stay. He lived on his own in a veritable hovel in the northeast part of Orgrimmar, but it was in a clustered area with many people. Few would be out this late, but he didn't want to take chances.
He walked through the underground tunnels, around shops locking up their wares and blowing out torches, and through groups of milling late-night people. The tavern-goers had spilled outside, and they shambled drunkenly, cheerfully about, slapping their knees and shouting in Orcish. He caught a few rough words of Zandali here and there and what might have been the grunts of Taur-ahe, but paid no attention to it.
He came to the keep at last, treading softly past the mounts tethered for the night. The raptor pens were at the back, far removed from the other animals who did not own sharp teeth or claws to fight back with. Most of the raptors were sleeping, though some scuffled around their spacious stalls, kicking up bones and the leftovers from their dinners. Two larger raptors, settled in a corner in their own pen, their hides mottled and thick, nuzzled each other affectionately. He hadn't realized it was breeding season for them.
Leb lay quietly in his own stall, not tethered to anything. He was intelligent and trustworthy enough to pen himself up and not leave the keep unaccompanied. When Zek'jaf approached, he immediately stirred, rising to his feet and opening his wide, razor-toothed maw at him. It mimicked a smile, and Zek'jaf laughed, petting him warmly.
"Told you I'd give you a treat, eh, boy?" he teased, digging through a pouch at his hip for the spiced jerky. There was little else Leb loved more in the world than spiced jerky, and he snapped it up excitedly. The gnashing of his teeth woke the raptor in the stall beside him, who screeched angrily, but Zek'jaf scowled at this obviously superior raptor and Leb quieted his eating.
"Don't pay him no mind," Zek'jaf mumbled. "Jus' angry 'cause his master doesn't bring him no jerky." Leb cooed at him, swallowing the last of the seasoned, dried meat, and licked Zek'jaf's hand with his thin, pointed tongue.
The raptor in the next stall huffed at this, lying down and facing away from the two of them.
Zek'jaf spent a few more moments with Leb, sitting on the stall's gate and petting his scaly head. If Zul-kraa wouldn't take the human girl in, he'd have to give her lodging at his own home. It wouldn't be difficult to sneak her in—especially if he threw a cloak over her and claimed she was a blood elf acquaintance who'd had a little too much to drink. It was keeping her inside and away from prying eyesthat was the problem. How would she react when she woke? Would she scream, try to run? He hoped against all things that she'd be as civil to him as he was to her. He didn't want any more problems on his hands than he already had.
When he felt as though it was getting to be too late to stay out, and too late to keep Zul-kraa worried, he tugged the saddle off of Leb and hung it on its rack. He also unsnapped the large saddlebags from the belt over Leb's rump. He didn't want to leave all of the leather inside of them in Leb's pen, but had no choice. He'd have to retrieve them later tonight or early in the morning. For now, the girl's removal from Zul-kraa's shop took precedence.
"Leb, don't let anyone near the bags, hear me? Not even your feeder. I don't want no one messin' with my things."
Leb made a noise of acknowledgment, and, satisfied, Zek'jaf tethered him for the night. It seemed such a cruel thing to do to the loyal raptor, but it was the rules of the keep, and he had nowhere else to keep Leb if they were kicked out. Leb curled his body around the bags, settling in for sleep.
Zek'jaf sat for only a moment longer, listening to the sleeping sounds of the surrounding animals, but then decided that it was in his best interest to return to the shop. The longer he left the human in Zul-kraa's care, the more he was indebted to the apothecary. He winced inwardly at the thought. It was never a good thing to be indebted to Zul-kraa. He couldn't count the times she'd had him clean the medical grime caked to her work tables, or scrub the magical residue off of her rarely used training dummies. She'd trained to be a shaman once, but the behind-the-scenes life of an apothecary coupled with Neetya's insistence had changed her mind.
The walk back to the shop went significantly faster than the walk to the keep—much faster than he would have liked. Little had changed in how many people wandered the streets and what percentage of them were inebriated, but it seemed that time halved itself, and before he could really still his rapidly beating heart, he was already standing in front of the dirt incline.
A great shuffling of dirt occurred to the left of the shop, and his stomach bottomed out. Neetya, the owner of the shop and head apothecary, had built a space beside the shop to house her massive mount, a woolly mammoth appropriately named Colossa. It snorted quietly to itself and whipped its trunk to and fro, turning slowly and lumbering to the back of the stall. It had only been recently put away, if the fluttering of its ears and antsy demeanor said anything.
The shop was still and silent, so he figured nothing explosive had happened yet. Of course, the undead woman just might have already killed the paladin. Again, he felt a fresh surge of embarrassment. Neetya would think him a fool, and he couldn't say he wasn't deserving of the title.
He palmed aside the leather flap and found it unfastened. The front of the shop had been cleaned and tidied. Velvet curtains fell in bright red streaks over the shelves of glass goods, while the cabinets holding herbs and such had been closed and locked. The incense had been extinguished as well as all of the remaining torchlights. It all felt so familiar to him, like a home-away-from-home that might have smelled a little too much like herbs, salves, and frivolous fragrances. He could see touches of Zul-kraa everywhere he looked: beads and feathers woven into tapestries of ancient medicine-people, jars stacked in displays where the colors complemented each other perfectly. In stark contrast, Neetya's touches were much more mechanical and organized. Vials of medicine sat stiffly in racks, with little to no decorations adorning them. Her elixirs were laid out efficiently, stating the name and the price only, whereas Zul-kraa's displays created wreaths of herbs and pyramids of empty medical sacks. He absently wondered whose displays sold more, but was distracted when he heard muffled voices.
Neetya was in the shop, in the back, with Zul-kraa and the human. Whether that human was intact or not was up in the air. Zek'jaf mentally steeled himself for the berating that was to come next.
He stepped sheepishly into the backroom, ducking under the low overhang of the arching doorway. The leather flap for this was tied back in a golden-tasseled drawstring, where before it had only been hastily shoved to the side. Neetya's thing for orderliness tended to extend to every little thing.
The empty table caught his eye first and foremost, and he glanced about the room as inauspiciously as possible, trying to catch a sign of the paladin. He saw Zul-kraa with her back to him, her hands on her hips, and Neetya beside her, one arm crossed over her abdomen and her fingers stroking her own cheek languidly.
He coughed to announce his presence, though the two women had probably noticed him long before he'd set foot inside the shop. Neetya motioned for him to draw nearer with the bones of her exposed fingertips, never moving her fixation from the object in front of her. Zul-kraa glared a hole through him the whole way, and when she stepped aside to make room for him, he realized what they'd been poring over.
The human lay on a slab of polished steel normally reserved for patients. Her body was arranged in the anatomical position, palms up and feet approximately shoulder-width apart. Zul-kraa's learning had a tendency to rub off on the people around her, himself included. He began to explain himself to Neetya, but she held up a hand to silence him.
"Zul-kraa has already explained the presence of this human," she said simply. "And I have healed her to the best of my abilities."
Zek'jaf was dumbstruck. "You…healed her?"
"Yes." She glanced at him, her glowing eyes eerily curious behind a matted fringe of grey hair. She picked idly at a portion of her cheek where bone seemed to be clawing desperately at her skin, and Zek'jaf looked away. "She probably would not have died. But Zul-kraa mentioned that you seemed eager for her survival."
He rubbed the back of his neck. "Jus' seemed like a waste, savin' her an' all an' then havin' her die," he mumbled, feeling that familiar shame creep up his insides.
"Ya can be sure that da human is a waste," Zul-kraa bit, staring at Zek'jaf none too happily.
"Well, I wouldn't say that," Neetya replied, smiling only slightly. Her skin had a sickly yellowish tint naturally, but in the low light, it seemed even more noticeable. Her sharp hipbones broke through of her thin skin, and the place where the humerus, radius, and ulna bones connected to make her elbow showed likewise. When she moved her arm, he could see bits of leftover tendon and muscle flex and stretch. It was all very unnerving, but Zul-kraa didn't appear fazed by it at all.
At length, Neetya began to discuss the bones she'd mended, and as if to demonstrate her powers, she drew a hand encased in muted green light over a wide nick on the human's exposed kneecap. It healed before Zek'jaf's eyes, skin stitching together in a pattern that resembled burlap. A small amount of fresh blood remained, and Neetya smeared it with her fingertip before bringing the finger to her mouth for a taste. Her cannibalistic ways stayed heavily with her. That wasn't to say, of course, that trolls had forgotten their cannibalistic ways. It was still a practice among Darkspears, though in the significant minority, to reap the benefits of another's loss. However, Neetya's display was one of conceit, as if being a living corpse was something to be heralded. Once again, Zul-kraa was wholly undisturbed.
"She cannot stay here," Neetya stated, and Zek'jaf once more listened to the conversation. "I have exhausted any charity I am willing to give to the Alliance, let alone a human paladin." The word "paladin" was said with such venom that Zek'jaf had to wonder why she'd helped the girl in the first place. "I suppose I do not need to tell you that she is your responsibility."
"Nah, mon," he said somewhat dejectedly. And then, quieter: "I know that."
Silence reigned for a pregnant moment, and Zek'jaf busied himself by wondering how he'd get her to his home. She was almost naked, and having to carry her the entire way remained a chore he was not excited about in the least.
"Your good deed can only extend so far," Neetya said gently, her voice growing hoarse, following Zek'jaf's gaze to the unconscious girl on the table. "She cannot stay in Orgrimmar for long. She will be caught, and you with her. Show her to an Alliance settlement as soon as she can walk, for your benefit and hers."
Zul-kraa left the room in that instant, and Zek'jaf shifted uncomfortably in his position beside Neetya. He wasn't particularly frightened by her or any undead, really, but Neetya's presence in specific made him uneasy in ways he couldn't concretely pinpoint. She was nice enough, as he'd witnessed, and charismatic and intelligent, to boot, but knowing her bones poked through her skin and knowing she was missing a few organs and the mystery of just how she was walking around when the stench of decay and death clung to her despite the heavy incense bore down on his mind. He was inquisitive if he was anything, but this was one secret he just didn't have the gall to figure out.
His troll companion returned shortly, carrying a spare woolen blanket and a beaker of whitish liquid. "Da elixir increases magic potency," she explained to Zek'jaf, and Neetya smiled in something that resembled approval. "It feels a bit like da blood elf magic, but not exactly. It won' fool no one for long, though. Ya have to be quick, Zek."
He nodded and watched her pour a humble amount of the liquid over the girl, spreading it evenly about her chest. He felt what she had been talking about immediately. It was strikingly similar to the feeling of blood elf magic—powerful, but not unrestrained, and with the barest tinge of malevolence—but could in no way compare. Anyone within three feet of him for too long would instantly sense something was wrong.
"Pick her up," Zul-kraa instructed, and Zek'jaf did so, scooping the girl into his arms. Her head rolled heavily against his chest, and he could see Zul-kraa sneer as she laid the blanket over her. "Don' be makin' no stops, now. The elixir lasts for ten minutes an' ten minutes only."
"She should recover fully in five days' time," Neetya declared, just as Zek'jaf had begun to leave. "However, she will be ready to travel and walk on her own in three. These are, of course, estimates. Use your own judgment. But above all, do not keep her in the city for longer than is absolutely necessary."
"And ya owe me twenty silver for that elxir!" Zul-kraa reminded him angrily. He almost laughed, and was thankful for it.
"Thank you," Zek'jaf said, looking to both Neetya and Zul-kraa. The undead woman simply smiled and removed her crocheted hood, turning to set it on a shelf full of clothing behind her. Zul-kraa scoffed, rolled her eyes, and turned likewise around.
He set off from the apothecary shop at a quick walk, deliberately avoiding over-crowded places. The fumes of the elixir, concentrated mostly on her chest, gave him a minor ache at the back of his head. He wondered if this was how it felt to be in close proximity to a blood elf for too long, and then wondered instantly what it felt like to be in close proximity to a troll for too long. Or, really, if trolls' presences had any effect on people at all. As far as he could tell with the paladin in his care, humans had no presence, or at least not one as heady as that of blood elves and the undead.
He encountered two orc guards strolling leisurely, ever-vigilant for the streets of Orgrimmar, and before he could duck out of sight, they were upon him. The questioning did not last long, however, when Zek'jaf mentioned that the blood elf had contracted a strange disease and he was simply escorting her from the resident apothecaries to her own abode. After mentioning that the disease was highly contagious, the guards backed off, though they shot him wary glances. Their own skin was not worth an investigation into a nobody troll and his ill ward, as it seemed.
Further down the road, a throng of young tauren and orc teenagers came lumbering into sight, and he stooped quickly under an awning, having learned his lesson about swiftness and the act of being cautious, walking close to the side of the buildings. He'd avoided the more heavily populated areas, and so far he'd been lucky. Hopefully they didn't start conversation, because he didn't feel like using the same lie twice.
Perhaps testing his already worn luck, they hardly seemed to notice him. He upped his pace to a light jog, the paladin girl bouncing in his arms. Her arm slipped out from her chest to dangle listlessly, hand and fingers sticking out from underneath the blanket. He tried vainly to put it back, and then decided to continue on when his efforts miserably failed.
The entire way home afforded him an anticlimactic and overall successful trip. The torches along the main walkways stayed lit, and he avoided traveling in these places when he could. The telltale buildings of his house leaned against each other as if for support, and few windows remained lit from the burning of a late-night torch. He stopped for only a moment to lament his inevitable climbing of three flights of stairs. The views out his window were amazing, but this was going to be ridiculous.
Slowly, agonizingly, he made his way up the steps, his calves burning and his knees aching. He made it to the third floor in record time nonetheless, and upon reaching the front of his thick wooden door, he realized his conundrum.
Sighing, he set the girl on the ground and pulled a key from the bare keyring at his side. What followed could only be described as a brief, awkward dance involving himself, the girl, his door, and his key. Finally, though, he managed to get the two of them into his home, and out of sheer exhaustion, he lay her on his bed and took a seat beside her.
It was like owning a full-sized pet. He'd never live this down, and if anyone ever found out, he'd be kicked out of Orgrimmar for sure. Stretching his long limbs, he chanced a glance at her. She was still out cold, with no sign that she'd move anytime soon. "More trouble than you're worth," he grumbled, talking in equal parts to himself, the girl, and his father.
All of these memory trips had made him a little anxious to visit his mother, and he resolved to do so as soon as the girl was out of his hair. He rested only for a moment before he started on putting together the place where the girl would sleep.
He lay an extra sheet and blanket on the ground beside his bed and then set her down on top of that. He was sure it wasn't comfortable, but it wasn't like she had a choice in the matter anyway. He went about his nightly routine of locking the door and undressing quietly and tiredly, and when he fell into bed, he found that sleep came relatively easily.