I should have never come out here.
The thought rolled over and over again in Azshana's mind as she stared over the vast expanse of jungle brush and vines that laid before her. She was kneeling on a large slab of rock, slick with moss, that jutted out from the earth, trying to determine where she was, or where she might be going.
Of course, standing on top of a rock in the middle of the jungle where anyone - friendly or unfriendly - could see her was not the wisest of ideas, but she did not see any alternatives. Azshana had been lost in this place for several hours, and darkness was approaching. She would need to return to soon - or she would be forced to spend the night out here.
The trees and the mist obscured much of her view, and she frowned as she slowly turned fully around, seeing only more of the same shapeless brush and greenery that was so common in Feralas. She had no idea where she was.
I should have never come out here.
Azshana quietly slipped off the rock and sat resting under its shadow, planning her next move. She retrieved a piece of bread from her pack - the last of her rations - and slowly began eating it, still deep in thought.
A Night-Elf lost in the woods, she thought grimly. She could only imagine what her mother would have to say about that.
"Probably that I should have listened to her and never left Darnassus," she said aloud. Her mother always felt the need to impress her with advice - most of which, Azshana decided, was not completely sound.
Azshana finished the last of her bread, wondering what she could possibly do next. She had originally taken a shortcut through the woods to avoid meeting any horde on the main road. However, according to her estimates she should have reached civilization again a long time ago. She must have wandered to far south, or perhaps miscalculated the time needed to reach her destination, or have done one of the million possible things that could have resulted in her getting lost.
I should have never come out here.
The sole purpose of her journey was to see horde progress in their new encampment. They had slowly been inching westward, and it had been her duty to determine why. Azshana was relatively new to this region, and while she did not completely understand why they would send her over the more experienced elves in the area, she did not question her orders.
She sighed and unrolled her map, staring at it blankly, hoping to see some clue as to where she was in the jumble of rock and tree and brush. She traced the path she was planning to take with her finger, feeling sure that she should have reached the horde encampment by now.
It had been foolish to try to navigate through a jungle that she was not even familiar with. She should not have come out this way.
Should have stuck near the road - not on it, but within sight distance of it.
But none of that mattered now. The reality was that she would need to somehow find her way out of this mess and get to the horde encampment to finish her mission.
Azshana stiffened as she heard a distant roar of some creature, instinctively reaching for the sword by her side. The jungle was not empty, she knew, and while she was fortunate to have avoided most of its dangers, she knew that her luck could not last. After a moment of near silence, her shoulders slackened and slowly she sheathed her sword.
Azshana reached for her pack and found it to be disturbingly light - much lighter than it had been when she started. She would need food, and, soon, clean water as well. Not to mention she also had need of finding shelter for the night, as with every passing moment it became more and more clear to her that she would not be able to return to her camp before darkness fell.
With those thoughts in mind, she got to her feet and swung her pack over her shoulder. She had taken more than enough time to rest.
Suddenly Azshana froze, her long ears prickling as she strained her hearing. She had sworn that she had heard a noise in the brush, and slowly - almost casually - her hand drifted down to the hilt of her sword.
She had been reckless, she knew. Standing on that rock was - in hindsight - more risk than it was worth, and a chill ran down her spine as she wondered if she was being followed.
"Who's there," she whispered. The sword felt reassuring in her hand and once again - this time with more force - she said, "Who's there?"
There was no response, and, after a moment, she let out a long, shaky breath. Being alone in unfamiliar territory was making her paranoid, and, she admitted, more than a little afraid. She shuddered as she thought of what could happen if Orcs found her out here.
What are you doing out here? She said to herself. You don't belong here. Here, in the middle of contested territory where people died and no one cared.
A small, tiny corner of her that she could never admit to herself wished she had listened to mother.
Azshana turned and pushed herself through the entangling vines and tall growths that sprouted from the ground like so many blades of grass, sometimes drawing her sword to cut through the places where the vegetation was exceptionally thick. She was not entirely sure what she was looking for - perhaps a tree with branches large enough to support her while she slept - but she knew that moving was better than standing still.
The question she had asked herself earlier reappeared in her mind. What are you doing here?
There was no clear answer for her. Azshana could not recall the precise reason, but only remembered a pressing need to leave Teldrassil and its tranquil forests that some found relaxing but she found to be stifling.
He mother had not understood this. She never understood.
Azshana whirled around as she heard the brush rustling from behind her - and this time she felt no doubt. She drew her sword, her heart racing, trying very hard to keep herself calm. She had fought before, it was true, but never against the Horde and never for her life. And that was exactly what she suspected lurked in the underbrush - Horde. Despite herself her arms began to tremble and her sword wavered in her hand.
She steeled herself, getting a better grip on her sword, then said, "I know you're there," Azshana said with more confidence than she felt. "And I know you've been following me. Come out."
To her surprise, they did. A man crawled out from the place he was hiding - obviously the man who had made the noise - and stood to face her. She felt simultaneous relief and apprehension. While he was definitely not a member of the Horde, neither should he have been in this area of Feralas. It was not a safe area for anyone in the Alliance.
"Come on out," he said roughly in common, a small smirk on his face that Azshana was not entirely comfortable with. He was unshaven and dirty, his hair matted and damp, his face dark and smeared with mud. His ragged clothes told her that this man had been in the wilderness for a while. A dagger hung loosely on his waste.
Azshana gasped as two other men came out from the brush on either side of her, both having the same appearance as the first man. They grinned and glanced towards the first man for direction.
"The Alliance sent you?" she said, feeling fear once again creep into her bowels. She lowered her sword, but did not sheath it.
Her words elicited a hearty laugh from all three of them, and after a moment the first man, as if in response, slowly drew his dagger. It was rusted and stained with a dark liquid. "No dearie," he said, still wearing a smirk. "We don't have much to do with the Alliance." He paused for a moment, as if evaluating her. "You look lost. Maybe you should come with us."
"I'd rather not," Azshana said, her eyes switching between all three of the men around her. How could they find her in the middle of nowhere?
"It wasn't really a request, dearie," said the man. He gave her a full grin and she saw that his teeth were yellowed and broken. "Maybe you should put down that sword too. That wasn't a request, either."
Azshana did not reply, her mind racing with ways to escape this situation. They had her surrounded, and, given their appearance, they probably had a much better idea of the lay of the land than she.
The man on the right reached for her sword, grabbing her wrist with one hand as the other went for her neck. She whirled on him, her free hand going for the spare dagger she always kept in her pocket, but the other man had already grabbed her shoulders and pressed the blade of his dagger into the side of her neck. She froze, feeling the sharp tip already starting to draw blood. The man who had tried to grab her sword instead reached for her pocket, removing the knife that was hidden here.
The man with the broken teeth had not moved, and, still grinning, said "You don't want to be out here by your lonesome, dearie. Now we can make this easy, difficult, or bloody. Which would you have it?"
Azshana swallowed and closed her eyes, feeling a cold sensation sweep into her bowels. I should never have come out here. I should never have come out here.
There was no choice. Not at this point. She slackened her grip and heard rather than saw her sword fall to the ground. She opened her eyes and watched as the man bent to pick it up, pausing once to look it over.
"That's a good girl," he said. "No one'll hurt you unless ya want us to."
"What do you want with me?" Azshana asked in a whisper.
He looked at her, not answering immediately. He motioned for her and the two other men to follow him. Together they went through the jungle in the same direction that Azshana had originally came. "Nothin'," he said finally. "This is just business. Don't take it personal, dearie."
The dagger was removed from her neck and she was once again able to walk on her own - though the two men did not leave her side. She felt naked and ashamed - how had these three humans caught her unawares?
"What do you mean by business?" Azshana asked at last.
"Simple," said the man. "I take you to Desolace, I give you to my partners for some gold. After that doesn't really matter." He laughed and she could smell the stink from his breath.
Though the man didn't say it directly, Azshana understood the implications well enough. She was being sold. "What for?"
"Lotsa reasons, dearie," he said. "Someone always in need of a live person to do what they want with. Maybe need ya for an experiment. Maybe need ya for parts - I 'member selling a human to some alchemist who needed the freshest parts. You..." He looked her once over and grinned, and Azshana knew precisely what he was thinking. "...you might fetch a fair price to someone who happens to want a plaything."
He laughed again, and she did not ask anything more.
It did not take long to reach the bandits' camp, though in that time Azshana managed to learn a few things about her captors. From their discussions, she gathered that the man with the broken teeth was their leader of sorts, and also that his name was Gressle. More than that, it was clear that she was not the only one that these smugglers had taken.
The man next to her spoke for the first time when they reached camp. "Should we just throw this'un with the other?"
The makeshift camp was small, and - Azshana realized with a groan - within sight of the road. It was composed of two small tents and a massive cart that was current resting on two massive props. An aged kodo, that Azshana guessed pulled the cart, was tied nearby, grazing on the foliage. In the back of the cart, Azshana noticed, was a sort of wooden cage half-hidden by a pile of sacks and crates.
"Yeah," Gressle grunted. "Best off that way."
The man roughly grabbed her arm and took her towards the cart. He yanked the back open, and, climbed up into the cart, drew a pair of keys to unlock the wooden cage. Azshana gasped as she saw who the 'other' that the men had been referring to earlier was.
"Get inside," grunted the man, swinging the door open. He looked warily at her and then back to the other prisoner in the cage, his free hand on his sword. Getting impatient, he pulled her up onto the cart, and then threw her into the cage, locking it behind her.
Azshana was barely aware of her jailer anymore. Her focus was instead on the Troll that was sitting in the far corner, who was watching her with guarded eyes.
"Neither of you better cause any trouble," said the man outside, but Azshana was barely listening. "Gressle don't want no damaged goods."
And with that he strode away.
"You had best stay away from me, Troll," Azshana said in Darnassian. She felt very vulnerable without her weapon, and all too clearly she began to remember the tales her mother told her of the jungle trolls and their blood sacrifices and rituals. Not to mention the cannibalism...
"Wat dat supposed ta mean?" the Troll said in Common, looking up at her with darkened eyes. His face was half shadowed, and his long tusks seemed to gleam as he moved.
Azshana stood there, stunned. She had not expected the troll to be able to speak Common. What else could this troll possibly know? She found herself staring and quickly looked away. This was her first encounter with the Horde - Troll or otherwise.
"Nothing," she said, her voice quiet. The Troll simply stared at her for a long moment, as though expecting her to continue. Finally, he closed his eyes, and Azshana felt her heart begin to race once more.
I should never have come out here.
"Nothing," the Night-Elf said, and fell silent. Valzul watched her, studying her, disliking her almost instantly. What had she said in that foreign tongue of hers?
Somthin' high n' mighty, he thought. Leave it to Night Elves to be arrogant even when a prisoner in a cage.
It only took another moment for him to come to another conclusion.
Dis one be afraid.
It was apparently in the way her hand clutched one of the wooden poles of the door, in the way her legs shivered as though she were freezing, and in the rapid pace of her breaths. She was terrified, and was either too weak to do anything about it or too young. Valzul decided that it was likely a mixture of both.
He closed his eyes, wanting some sleep, not overly concerned with the Night-Elf in the cage with him. He felt her watching him, and the fear that was invariably behind it.
Valzul didn't like Night-Elves. He didn't like their behavior, he didn't like their way of speaking, and he didn't like the arrogant way they looked down on him. Most of all, however, he hated the way they tried to kill him every time he ran into one of their kind.
Dis one be harmless though, fo' now.
Indeed, it was clear that she was too terrified to move from her corner, much less do anything else. He doubted that her fear would permit her much sleep tonight, either. Her loss. This newcomer's presence certainly wouldn't keep him from sleeping.
"Where are we going?" she said suddenly, in a voice barely above a whisper.
Valzul opened one eye, and saw that she hadn't moved. "I dunno," he said. "Dis cart just come out of da Thousand Needles." He had only been picked up a few days ago, and more due to his own foolishness than the skill of the smugglers. The little he knew he had picked up by overhearing the conversations of his jailers. "Mebbe goin' to Desolace."
The Night-Elf didn't reply, instead staying silent.
Valzul continued to watch her, his curiosity aroused, and slowly he saw her bend her legs so that she could sit. She stayed in the far corner, however. Cautious bordering on paranoid, as though a few extra steps would prevent him from attacking her if he truly wanted to.
"My name be Valzul," he said at length, watching for her reaction. He paused, not even sure if she heard him. "Wat be your name?"
She glared at him, her expression a mixture of anger and fear. "That's none of your concern, Troll."
Valzul felt his temperature rise with her sneering comment. Her tone carried the same, native arrogance all Night-Elves managed to have, and her use of the word 'Troll', as though it were an insult...
"Dat be funny dat you tink you not be my concern," he said heatedly. "When we both be stuck in da same cage."
"I don't need your help," she said disdainfully. "I can take care of myself."
Valzul's eyes flashed. "Den how did you end up here?"
"Just stay away, Troll," she warned. Her voice quavered near the end, and she tried to cover it up, but Valzul heard anyway.
Dis Night-Elf don' know wat she be doin'.
Rather than respond, Valzul decided to let the exchange rest for the night and returned to closing his eyes, though his thoughts remained on the elf. She was not experienced, that much was clear. While a certain measure of fear was understandable - and even expected from anyone who was sane - her fear was untamed.
Valzul did not lie to himself. He feared what the smugglers would do with him as well. He knew how smugglers such as his captors operated - and in all likelihood he would end up as a source of organs and fluids for some backwater apothecary in Stonetalon. Unless he escaped, that is.
He laid back, listening, hearing her light and fast breaths, knowing that she would not be getting any sleep tonight.
"Not your problem, mon," Valzul mumbled to himself, and, after a moment, he was fast asleep.
The next morning Valzul woke to the sun beaming into his eyes. He roused himself, hearing commotion in the camp and suspecting that soon they would be moving on. He stood up, frowning as he noticed that the Night-Elf was watching him warily, her arms crossed over her knees. She had indeed not slept at all last night.
Valzul crossed the cage to get a better view of the camp, seeing that the tents were already packed away and that the smugglers were preparing to hook up the kodo to the cart. Nothing, he noted, was being left behind.
"We be leavin' soon," Valzul said to himself as much as to her. She looked up at him and he met her gaze. "If you be wantin' out of here, you need sleep." A memory of her words the previous night flashed through his mind and he added, "Or be elves too good fo' sleepin' too?"
"I don't need advice from a Troll," she muttered darkly.
"Den it be a long ride to Desolace, elfling."
The camp was almost completely packed up, and as the other two men began to bring the kodo over to the cart, Gresstle grabbed two hunks of bread out from a sack and handed them through the bars to Valzul.
"Eat," Gresstle said. "Give one to her."
Valzul nodded, taking one piece for himself and carelessly tossing the other to the elf in the corner. He took a large bite and swallowed, barely tasting it. From the corner of his eye he saw that the elf hadn't moved, and was instead staring at the bread as though it was insulting her.
"You eatin' that?" he asked, wondering why Night-Elves had to be so damned impossible.
"You expect me to eat that when it was tainted by a Troll?" she said in a scathing voice. Then, in Darnassian, she added, "Dal'lon Rath-forn Sellet."
Valzul turned sharply towards her, forgetting his bread. "Wat you say, elfling?" He felt his old anger rising, and once again wondered why he bothered speaking with this intolerable elf.
"The hands of the pure cannot mix with the hands of the sullied," she said, her eyes narrowed. "I will starve before eating that bread."
Laughter bubbled up into his throat - harsh, sharp laughter that had little to do with humor. He clutched his sides as he slid down to the ground, dropping his bread, his throat ready to break.
She stared at him, alarmed. Red entered her cheeks. "What is it that you find so amusing?"
"Pure?" Valzul echoed, grinning though it did not reach into his eyes. His laughter quickly died. "You call yourselves pure? Trolls be better with magic than Night-Elf fools."
"Better? Is that what led your kind to the Soulflayer?" she said bitingly. "Yes, that was quite a performance, with the Hakkar's sacrifices and terror and-"
"You be goin' into dangerous places, elfling" said Valzul warningly. His eyes flashed at the mention of the God's name, ancient stories flitting through his head.
She was standing now, fury lighting her eyes, her arms crossed defiantly. "Then don't start what you can't finish. Maybe you trolls should start learning to control your own voodoo tricks before you start using real powers."
Valzul was becoming truly angry now. His hand involuntarily drifted to his side where he normally kept his axe. Then, remembering where he was, he raised it again. "You too small to be messin' with Trolls, elfling."
"What are you going to do, Troll?" asked, her voice shaking though her eyes kept their fierce light.
"Don' call me dat, elfling," he warned.
"Don' say Troll like it be an insult," Valzul snarled. He rose to his full height, her head barely come up to his shoulders, and glared down at her.
"Then maybe you shouldn't say elfling like an insult, either," she retorted. "Besides, Troll barbarity makes it so that I hardly have to make it an insult."
Valzul knew exactly what she was referring to. "Den mebbe I should go ahead and eat you, eh? Make myself a nice meal. Cook you up in a pot and have at it."
The sudden fear in her eyes told him all he needed to know. He snorted and turned his back towards her, returning to his corner. "You elves don' know anything," he spat.
A sudden banging on the side of the cage stopped their exchange instantly. It was Gressle, his face red, looking between the Night-Elf and the Troll suspiciously.
"I don't want any trouble back here," he snapped. "You two keep away from each other - I don't need to be taking any price hits because of delivering damaged goods."
Gressle stared at the Troll. "Will that be a problem?"
"Nah, mon," said Valzul.
He turned his attention to the Night-Elf. "How about you?"
She looked at Gressle for a moment, glancing once at Valzul. "No."
"Good," Gressle said, then, looking inside the cage, saw Valzul's half-eaten piece of bread along side the Night-Elf's untouched piece. "Eat up, we're moving soon." He stepped away from the cage and returned to the front of the cart.
Valzul made no move to pick up his bread. Though his anger had cooled, he was still not in the mood for eating. He also felt more than a little ashamed - a Troll without self-control was a dead control, and he had shown no self-control.
How she get you all riled up, mon? he asked himself. Never before had he been in such an argument before. Dis be no good. If you to get out of dis, you need her. And she be needin' you too.
Valzul risked a glance in her direction, and noticed that her head was against the wall and her eyes were closed - fast asleep. The night had caught up with her.
He reached over and grabbed the piece of bread that he dropped during their argument, and promptly finished it. He was never one to waste food. He bordered on taking the piece that she abandoned as well, but, after a moment, decided against it. He was sure that she would be hungry when she woke.
Valzul took another moment to watch her as the cart slowly began rumbling away from camp. From the front he heard the grunts of the kodo as it tried to work up momentum, and he shifted his position to make himself more comfortable as the cart ran through the ruts and dips in the roughly cut path that they were taking.
It did not seem to bother the Night-Elf, however, as she was still fast asleep, her dark hair almost covering her eyes, despite the calls from the men up front and the many jolts they were receiving as the cart rode across a particularly rough patch.
Valzul did not see much in her. There was a fire in her anger, sure, but that was more fueled by her fear than anything. She was a manifestation of all the arrogance and intolerance that he saw in the Night-Elf race, and that did little to make him want to work with her.
But work with her he shall. He would need her to escape this place - he was certain. It was of little consequence of how offensive he found her - the reality was that he would have to tolerate her to live.
And, more than anything, Trolls knew how to survive.