The first bandit died only to the sound of blood bubbling from his slit throat, soaking his shirt and the red mask he had pulled down around his neck. The knife flashed bright steel in the filtered sunlight and then he collapsed face-first into the forest floor, coated with the leaves of the ancient trees surrounding the three men. His two companions started to their feet, one pulling his red mask up, the other drawing a short-sword. Their attacker wasn't human. It wasn't even part of the Alliance. It was a slight wisp of a troll with the blue skin of shallow water and garnet eyes on a thin, passive face.
Tarjanz moved as soon as the bandit was down. She ran for the second one, flipping the knife around with a twist of her wrist into a reverse grasp. He swung at her with the sword, she skidded to a stop and dropped to the ground, one hand on the earth, and then pushed herself up in a leap that slammed both knees into the man's chest. He went down and she stabbed the dagger into his breast and left it there, flipping backwards off of him and landing to face the third and last bandit. She already had another knife drawn from her belt.
There hadn't been anything of value on the bandits aside from the remains of a small lunch. It had been the smell of bread and cheese that had drawn Tarjanz to them, while they sat in the wild eating, thinking themselves alone. The road was some distance off. They had left their ambush point to relax and hope that the afternoon would bring some better pickings, for so far there had been no traffic. Tarjanz whistled as she emptied the last of their belt pouches onto the ground and rifled through the contents. A bit of Stormwind coinage. No food. She frowned and her stomach rumbled. The few mouthfuls she'd snatched wasn't enough. She'd have to keep moving and hope she found something before she starved.
"Dun worry, mon," she cheerfully told the corpse she crouched next to, "You not be lost an' ded, so long as Tarjanz be 'ere."
She lifted his wrist and made a couple cuts with the knife. A thin piece of skin fell from the back of his hand and she pinned this to one of the masks before stuffing it in her own belt pouch. The gruesome trophy had a tattoo of a cog on it. She left them there, wiping her knives clean on pants that could be taken for filthy rags, and walked away. The coins shone in the dim sunlight and after a while a fox came and started tearing at the cold meat on the bodies.
It was dusk and Jonathan was hauling in the last bucket of water from the well. Their one horse was eating oats and barely looked at him as he filled up the trough. He hung the bucket back on the wall and when he turned found his wife, Maria, standing in the open barn door.
"There's someone in the cellar."
Their son and daughter were hiding behind her skirts. Jonathan ran his hand through his hair nervously and took the sword Maria had brought from the house.
"Stay here and hide until it's safe," he told them and she moved inside the barn, shutting the door behind her and the children. He moved carefully, as quietly as he could to the open cellar doors that led to beneath their farmhouse. They lived almost outside of Stormwind's reach, in the forests of Elwynn that spanned for days in every direction before falling into the darkness of Duskwood to the south. The nearest town was two days away by horse and he and his family lived a very quiet life as farmers. The Defias bandits had bothered them before but in so remote a location Stormwind was not going to be of help and the Defias were unwilling to kill the only people they could easily raid when supplies were low. It was a terse agreement.
He climbed down into the cellar, walking slowly, and heard the slight sound of breathing. It almost sounded like one of his children, when he checked on them in the night. He sidestepped around the barrels of grain and stared at a pile of destroyed food. Apple cores, his wife's pickled vegetable jars open and empty, and the bones of the turkey he had killed just that morning. It hadn't been cooked yet. And it had been picked clean.
The culprit was sound asleep on her back, splayed out carelessly among the wreckage. She was filthy. Her hair was bright red and tied into dozens of braids that stuck out at crazy angles. Bits of bone, wood, and stones were tied in with them and a shrunken troll head was tied to her belt by its hair. She was also blue, had only three fingers, and tiny tusks at her open mouth.
"By the Light," he whispered. He reversed the sword and stepped forwards, holding it point-down above her chest. She didn't stir. The man took a deep breath. Her stomach bulged slightly from all she'd eaten and he could see her collarbones standing out stark under the ragged shirt. All skin and bones. No sign of a mature woman, troll or otherwise. She had the build of an awkward child. He closed his eyes, muscles trembling, and then let out a nervous breath and stepped back, lowering his sword. No. It wasn't right.
Tarjanz woke up when he had taken her daggers and was awkwardly tying her up. The knives lay well out of reach with the blood on them dried to rusted flakes. She stirred sleepily and turned her head to look at him as he finished the knot around her ankles. Her hands were already tied behind her back and she wiggled experimentally.
"Ey mon," she protested sleepily, "Whut dis be?"
"You broke in and stole our food," he replied, his voice shaking slightly, "And you're in Alliance territory. I've already sent word to Stormwind."
His son was old enough to travel to their neighbor, who could then get to town while he stood guard over the troll. They'd be able to do what he couldn't. He backed away, leaving her there and taking her knives, belt pouch, and skull with him. Her eyes remained fixed on him.
"Dun be leavin' me alone," she said and her voice trembled, "Dad! Dun take meh Dad!"
Jonathan and Maria put their daughter to bed and then stayed up looking through the troll's belongings. They were both frightened. Their son wouldn't be returning from the neighbor's until the morning. He doubted he'd be able to sleep, even with the cellar barred and locked from the outside. Spread out between them was a confusing array of things. The shrunken troll head sat prominently at the center of the table. Around it were small gems that would fetch quite a price, scattered with the skulls of small animals, a chipped ivory tusk from Northrend, coins from all across Azeroth and beyond, feathers, and even an empty hip flask with the emblem of the Scarlet Crusade. There were also bits of body parts in there. The ear from an orc. A finger that looked like it once belonged to a night elf. A number of scalps. And a patch of skin with the Defias cog tattoo. It looked and smelled fairly fresh.
"She doesn't look dangerous," Jonathan finally protested, not wanting to draw any conclusions from the trophies he saw, "She can't be any older than Nathan!"
"She's a troll," his wife replied gently, "They grow up killing. Those bandits that stole from us last summer were probably only four years older than our son, don't forget."
"Even if she can get out of those ropes she can't get out of the cellar," he said firmly, trying to reassure himself. "I'll stay up and watch through the night anyway. Go get some sleep."
He swept all the things off into a sack, knives, skull and all. This he hid in the rafters.
The night was quiet and Jonathan took some rest once the sun came up and Maria was awake. She was a strong and capable woman and had argued with the Defias bandits last time they came around. Talked them out of taking their horse. When he woke he went around to the cellar to check on their prisoner. He found the lock undone but neatly placed beside the doors. In the cellar he saw the rope coiled up and laying against the wall. The troll was gone. He ran back up and yelled at Maria to get inside. She called that Jessy was out playing at the edge of the field. He broke into a sprint, calling her name. She wasn't very old, ten summers at the most. He thought of the ear he'd found in the troll's belt pouch, and the finger. Cold sweat broke out along the back of his neck. Then he heard his daughter's voice calling back to him from one of the trees that had branches low enough for her to climb up in. His heart started to slow down.
"You need to go inside," he said, peering up through the leaves, "It's not safe right now."
And then the troll dropped out of the tree, hanging from one of the branches with her legs. She twisted to stare at him with wide eyes that had no pupil. He jerked back out of reach with a strangled cry.
"Et be safe," she said, "Not be no wolves or bandits 'round. Jessy seys dere be fruit inna dis tree but we dun find none yet."
Jonathan's mind reeled. He started to speak and stopped himself. The expression on the troll's face was that of a child, wide-eyed and curious. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves and decided to act on instinct.
"Jessy needs to come inside," he said firmly, as he would talk to his children, "She has to climb down and come inside."
The branches rustled and Jonathan saw his daughter doing as he said, carefully placing her feet while biting her lip in concentration. At the last branch she jumped and Jonathan moved to catch her. The troll was faster. A wiry arm grabbed hold of Jessy's hands and swung her to the ground, the girl squealing with delight. A second later the troll unfolded and just fell out of the tree to land on her feet. She stretched and yawned. Trolls were supposed to be tall, weren't they? This one reached his shoulder.
"I be hungry. Canna I have somethin' tah eat?"
Her name was Tarjanz. She was looking for her mother, who had went away when she was very young. Her father had raised her, then left her with the tribe when he was called away to the Hinterlands, where he had been killed. The last she'd seen of any living relatives was when her mother returned home to give her the shrunken head of her father. Since then she'd been on her own, traveling all over Kalimdor, Azeroth, and somehow even as far as Outlands. She'd been to Shattrath, Orgrimmar, Felwood, Stranglethorn, and yet she couldn't explain to him where she had come from originally or even give him her age. A handful of tribes allied with the Horde had taken her in from time to time but she hadn't really stayed in one place. As far as she knew, she was alone and that didn't seem to bother her. She asked for her father's skull back, saying she wanted to talk to him. He didn't tell her where it was and his wife was quick to distract her with food. Tarjanz was amazed at the porridge and even more thrilled at putting milk in it. She was on her second bowl when their son rode up the path between the fields to the farmhouse. Jonathan went out to meet him.
"They're riding in to town this morning," Nathan said, sliding from the saddle. He looked exhausted. "It's gonna be a bit before we'll get help from Stormwind. They figure they'll want to ask it why it's so far into Alliance territory so we're to keep it locked up until they get here. Or, yanno, take a bow and shoot it ourselves."
His son looked distinctly uncomfortable with the last part. Jonathan patted him on the back and walked the horse into the barn, explaining the events of the morning as he did so.
"I'm not quite sure how she got loose so easily," he said, "It's a whole mess of questions and none of it makes much sense. She keeps asking for her father like the skull is alive or something. There's no way to tell how old she is and I don't think her mind is all that sound. What is really strange is that she's speaking Common fluently and I'm not sure she realizes she's doing it."
One of the barn cats had wandered inside when the two returned to the kitchen. Tarjanz was on all fours, her face down low and nose to nose with it. Maria was just watching with a bemused look on her face while the kettle started to vibrate and whistle on the stove. The wooden bathtub had been pulled out and half-filled with water. Jonathan gave his wife a bemused look.
"She needs a bath," Maria replied defensively, "Nathan, go get some clothes that don't fit you that well anymore. And then both of you get."
He was at a loss at what to say.
The men finished their chores faster than usual that day. When they were allowed back inside the farmhouse they found Tarjanz sitting in the main room wearing Nathan's old clothes while Maria brushed her hair. It was very long and curly now that it wasn't braided. It was the color of carrots. Jonathan sat down carefully and watched. Maria looked content, Jessy was playing with her doll, and Tarjanz had a distant look on her face. He cleared his throat and asked in very simple words why she carried scalps with her. Her eyes snapped back to the present and she looked at him, her hands folded primly in her lap.
"I feel bad about fighten'," she said, "So iffin I hafta, and I do hafta a lot it seems, I take part of dem wit me so dat dere spirits not get lost. Den once dey understan' dey be dead, I let dem go. Et one thing tah kill dem. Annuder thing tah be lettin' em wander lost."
"Maria," he said, "She can't stay here."
"We've got time to figure it out. Stormwind won't be here for at least a week."
Tarjanz leaned forwards, heedless of the comb caught in her hair. She picked up the barn cat and set it in her lap, her face lighting up with childlike delight.
The days that followed brought no answers. Tarjanz ran about the farm unhindered and slept in their barn at night, up above in the hay. She terrorized the chickens, climbed up onto the roof, went wading in the nearby stream without rolling up her pants, and seemed to always have her hands full with one of the barn cats or their kittens. Despite her unruly behavior she did what she was told without question. In that respect she was easier to manage than their own children, who caused less trouble but refused to listen to their parents. Jonathan even got over her alien appearance but could not shake the unease when he saw how much agile grace she moved with. He kept her father's skull hidden as it was clear she wasn't leaving without it, or at least as long as she kept getting a steady meal from them. Maria had managed to come up with an idea and while it was a long-shot, it was better than nothing.
"We can't just let her go," she said one evening, "She might not leave and Stormwind will execute you as a traitor if they find out."
So when word came that Stormwind was nearby Jonathan would go to meet them in town and take Tarjanz with him. He'd take her to the Light's church and beg sanctuary for the troll. From there he could only pray that the soldiers honored that and took her to the paladins. And pray that the paladins did the right thing, whatever that might be. He certainly didn't know anymore. As it was, another group beat Stormwind to the farm. Jonathan saw them coming from the woods while working in the fields. They wore red masks over their mouth and nose. Defias. No. Not now. He yelled for Nathan to run to the house and warn Maria. There was no sight of Tarjanz. He took a deep breath and walked out to greet the bandits. If he gave them what they wanted they'd go and he and his would be safe.
There were five of them. Two carried crossbows. Jonathan nodded warily to their leader.
"A bit early in the season, isn't it?" he asked, "Crops are barely in the ground."
"We're not here for anything like that," the bandit replied, "Word has it you've captured yourself a troll."
"I have." His heart sank into his stomach.
"Strange thing to see a troll in Elwynn. Very strange. And too much of a coincidence that it turned up right around when some of my men turned up dead. Nasty business. Whatever killed them is very good at it. Got any thoughts about all this?"
"I don't know where she is. Got loose the first night-"
He didn't get any further. The bandit rammed a fist into his stomach and Jonathan doubled over. Another blow to the back of his head and he collapsed to the ground as his vision went blurry and for a moment he couldn't understand what the bandits were saying. It was hard to think above the pain. His family. He had to protect them. The bandit kicked him in the side when he tried to stand and Jonathan rolled with the impact, grabbing hold of the man's ankle and twisting it with one sharp jerk. There was a satisfying crunch of bone snapping and the man screamed. His companions swore and there was a rasp of steel as someone drew a sword. Jonathan started to stand and his eyes locked with those of one of the crossbowman. The click of the bolt sliding home was going to be the last thing he heard.
The man died, the crossbow sliding out of limp fingers. He simply fell to the ground like all his muscles had been cut and Tarjanz stood behind him, knives in hand. Her face was no longer animated with bewildered delight like it was when she'd found the litter of kittens in the barn. It was empty and passive. The second crossbowman moved to train his bow on her and she Shadow Danced. Her movements were languid, liquid, an enrapturing dance of motion twined with light. She crossed the distance between herself and the crossbowman, side-stepping a bolt and turning her shoulder to him, her arm following the movement and slipping across his neck, passing the dagger through the artery. The bandit with the drawn sword was moving to meet her and she fell to the ground, poised on her toes and one hand on the earth. The sword passed over her and she stood, coming in close to the man so that their bodies were pressed together, her knife biting in around his bellybutton and stopping just below the ribcage. Then she turned, continuing the dance, and brought up one knee and extended the leg, snapping the heel of her foot into the face of the fourth. He reeled back, his nose a ruined mess of blood and bone, and she seemed to just bow before him, bringing both arms forwards in horizontal sweeps that drove the knife blades into either side of his chest and then pulled them back out. She stared up at the last bandit, arms crossed, daggers dripping blood on either side of a cold stare.
He ran. He made it perhaps eight paces before he jerked with a sudden cry, body contorting before falling to the ground. An arrow quivered in his back and Jonathan dropped the crossbow. Tarjanz stood there, arms still crossed across her chest, one leg bent, the other in front of her like a dancer taking a bow after a particular magnificent performance. He remembered how easily she would do as she was bid. He wondered how many times she had been told to kill and done it without ever questioning why. Then her face cleared and she blinked, falling back into her normal posture and staring at him with wide eyes.
"We be safe now?" she whispered.
"Yes," he said. She nodded and walked past him, stooping by each dead bandit in turn. On the last she made a quick motion with the knife and came away carrying a patch of hair still attached to the skin.
"Dat one be lost," she told him, "Es name was Anerown. Tarjanz be carryin' him now, till he figure out where he need tah go."
"And where is that?"
"Dah Light, mon. Dey human, where else dey got?"
Nathan helped him dig graves for the bandits. Maria had Jessy hidden in her room and told the girl to stay there until everything was done. She then set to hemming up one of her dresses so that it would fit Tarjanz while the blood soaked out of her clothing. The troll sat in the main room and waited, dressed in one of Jonathan's shirts. She had cleaned her daggers somewhat and sheathed them and now sat staring at her father's skull with rapt attention. Maria had taken the troll's belongings down from the rafters when she saw the bandits. Tarjanz had taken the daggers and hunkered down against the wall, watching, and passed quietly out of sight and slipped through the window. No one had seen her up until the point she appeared behind the bandit that had been about to kill Jonathan.
She came and found the men once the dress was short enough to walk in. It looked awkward on her. Nathan and Jonathan had finished digging the graves and they were half-filled back in.
"I been talkin' wit meh Dad," she said, "'E says dat iffin I leave now dat I gots him back, it be big problems for you. Dat mebbeh even Stormwind come and take you away 'stead ah me."
"We'll deal with it," Jonathan replied, "I'll think of something."
"I be thinkin' dat since you been feedin' me an such dat I be goin' wit dem for a bit. Den slip away one night."
He felt his jaw tighten. The troll might be able to do it. After seeing her dispatch the bandits he thought she stood a good chance of escaping from the Stormwind guards - but not a definite chance. They might have sent someone more than rank and file, one of the heroes of the realm. Tarjanz wouldn't have the advantage of surprise and stealth with her. She'd be out-numbered and unarmed and possibly bound in chains. He slammed the shovel into the ground and let it stand there, turning to her and drawing himself up to his full height, crossing his arms and fixing her with his best parental glare of authority.
"No," he rumbled, "You're not doing that. You can't stay but you're not going with them. They might not even take you to Stormwind... might just take you out into the field and kill you right then and there and I'm not going to let that happen. You're going to pack your father's skull and your things up and I'm taking you away from here so you can find a clan or something that will take care of you. Find your mother. We'll lie to Stormwind. They weren't here when teh bandits showed up, after all, and they've never been here. But you have been and you stayed your hand when you could have killed us all in our sleep and you fought off the Defias when you could have just hidden and been safe. That's more than Stormwind has ever done. Do you understand any of what I just said?"
She mutely shook her head. Jonathan sighed and laughed softly. Nathan was giggling from behind him as well.
"Never mind then. Go pack your things and tell Maria to get you some food for the road."
"I be leavin'?"
The troll considered it for a moment. She looked confused, frightened, and a bit lost. It hurt.
"Den... iffin I be goin'... can I take one of dem kittens from dah barn wit me?"
Maria packed a knapsack full of food and what clothing they could spare. She gave Tarjanz strict instructions to be careful and to take a bath when she could. Also, to not let any men behave inappropriately around here, even if it was Thrall the Warchief himself.
"If anyone touches you and they shouldn't," she ordered the girl firmly, "You cut off whatever they've got sticking out."
Then Jonathan got on the horse and helped Tarjanz up on the saddle in front of him. She carried one of the kittens in her arms. He looked back at his family as he spurred his horse to the south. She did not.
He left her at the riverbank.
"The water is shallow enough to cross," he told her, "Watch out for the spiders on the other bank. They're in the shadows. There's a pass in the eastern mountains if you go far enough. Stay off the road."
"Leads to dah swamp," she said gravely, "I been dere before."
"Then I guess you don't need my directions."
"Meh Dad seys dat iffin you be a troll he be callin' you his brudder. But you bein' human, den you be my human uncle instead."
The two just looked at each other, Tarjanz as serious as she could be with her head tilted to one side and the barn cat in her arms. Then she turned and walked away. Johnathan watched her cross and enter the shadows of Duskwood. She didn't look back.
Stormwind never caught up. Maria dutifully met the guards when they came to the farm and explained to the captain that there had been some trouble with the Defias in the area. They had taken the troll. Jonathan had gone riding after but hadn't returned yet. He had tracked them as heading north. They set off in pursuit.
They never found Jonathan. They found the Defias instead.
Weeks later, a troll was spotted in Darkshire stealing pumpkins from a field. The watch gave chase and it escaped with only one pumpkin. The men figured it might have gotten away with more, if not for the fact that it had to devote one hand to carrying a squalling cat that howled in protest the entire time it was fleeing towards the east, heading for the Swamp of Sorrows.