"Ah, there's one," Sanja said. She knelt in the long grass and removed the small trowel from her backpack. The tool had been carved from a stag's antler, and was well-suited to digging in Mulgore's rich soil.
Her little brother bent over the tuber as she cleared away the dirt. "Karras root? Bleah!"
Jorga groaned and put his hands around his furry neck. He made a face as if he'd been stricken with Plague. "I hate karras root. Just leave it there."
"You do, huh? But you like the bread Mom bakes, don't you?"
She looked up and their wide, black noses almost touched. He wasn't a bad-looking kid – when he wasn't covered in grime, at least. Bright-blue eyes sparkled from his black face like inquisitive little birds in a cave. A pure white splotch on his forehead stretched from one little horn to the other, and his fuzzy ears laid out to the sides, taking in her every word.
Jorga nodded without blinking. His nostrils flared a bit at the strong scent of karras root.
"Well, what do you think bread is made from?" Sanja went back to digging. "First we bury the roots in the coals of a fire, and we let them bake for a while. That softens the pulp and takes away some of the bitterness. Then we dig them out and wash them, and then we pound them into a paste with a wooden pestle..."
Sanja grabbed the root with both of her muscular hands and yanked it free. She looked back up, but the boy was gone. The brief moment of sibling bonding had passed as suddenly as it had come.
Jorga was exploring the grasslands. She could see only his short, fluffy tail sticking up above the tall grass. She watched it dart this way and that.
The Tauren girl sighed as she dropped the root and trowel into her pack. There was no point in being frustrated. Just because she enjoyed cooking and herbalism, there was no reason to think that he could appreciate them.
"I caught a toad!" Jorga declared. He returned triumphantly and shoved the warty creature in Sanja's face. "He's cool, huh?"
She stood back up and swung the pack over her left shoulder. "Whatever you say, kid."
"Well, I'm keeping him!" Jorga inspected the creature closely before shoving him unceremoniously in his pocket. "I think I'll name him Thurg."
"Oh, I see," Sanja said thoughtfully.
Thurg was the name of an Orcish trapper who had lived with their tribe earlier that summer. Most of the boys had thought that the Orc was the greatest guy ever. They helped polish his rifle and were fascinated by his steel snares and traps. But despite the boys' approval, Sanja just didn't care for the man.
During his stay, Sanja had grown quite close to the trapper's slave girl, Elizabeth. The human woman was weak and frail, but she was a quiet, thoughtful person. She was quick to help others and could be persuaded to share fascinating stories of her travels.
Thurg treated Elizabeth well enough - for a slave. He fed and clothed her, and he seldom beat her, but their relationship never did sit well with Sanja.
The Tauren occasionally took slaves after defeating another tribe in battle, but Thurg had never even seen Elizabeth's village, much less helped conquer it.
Thurg had purchased the girl from a Goblin in Ratchet for a pocketful of coins. The Goblins hadn't conquered Elizabeth's village either. They had merely purchased their slaves from the pirates who had raided a ship she had sailed on.
Although Sanja didn't say it out loud, none of this buying and selling of people seemed particularly honorable - especially for an Orc.
Everyone knows that Orcs treasure their honor in much the same way that the Tauren do. If nothing else, that was the reason their two peoples got along so well.
"I guess the toad looks a little like him," the Tauren girl said. "Same shade of green... wide mouth... warty skin... bulging eyes..."
"Hey!" her brother complained as the comparisons to his idol turned unfavorable.
Thurg croaked a complaint from the boy's pants pocket.
"Same voice too..." she added, turning away so her brother couldn't see her grin.
"You take that back!"
But Sanja was done tormenting her brother. Her eyes were fixed on the mountains to the west.
# # #
"What is that?" Jorga whispered.
"It looks... a little like a zeppelin."
The pair stared at the craft as it sank lower and lower. Horde zeppelins rarely crossed over southern Mulgore, but they were easy enough to spot when they did. Their red and black hulls proudly displayed the Horde crest, and their large wooden cabins looked like peculiarly-misplaced kodo carts.
This balloon was brightly colored and smaller... much smaller. Hanging underneath it was a basket that was large enough to hold perhaps only a single person.
"I don't think they're going to make it back over the mountain," Jorga said.
Sanja nodded in agreement. "I don't think they'll stay aloft much longer at all."
The pair stared in silence as the craft made a graceless touchdown just north of Gaia's Tears - the great waterfall that fed Stonebull Lake. They grimaced in unison as the balloon collapsed silently in the early-afternoon sunshine.
"Do you think they were hurt?"
Sanja was hesitant to venture a guess. She adjusted her backpack's straps for what looked like a long trek. "Let's see if they need help."
# # #
Jorga led the way up the mountain and Sanja followed at a more controlled pace. Sooner or later, the child's seemingly-boundless energy would fail him, but she intended to conserve her strength.
"It's getting dark." He loved to point out the obvious. "Mom's gonna' worry. We should have gone back for help, and then hiked up the mountain."
"I know," Sanja sighed, "but it would take even longer to head back now. The whole tribe will be mad, but I keep thinking about the person that could be trapped up there. They don't know if anyone is even coming to rescue them. I think they'll be even more worried, don't you?"
The boy nodded his head.
At least the moon would be full tonight. That was a blessing; a good omen, perhaps.
# # #
The pair reached the top of the plateau near midnight. Despite living in Mulgore their entire lives, neither had been up there before.
Sanja wished that it had still been daytime. The pale blue moonlight lit the mountain, but she would have loved to be able to see out across the valley from this vantage point. From up here, she bet that you could see the entire world.
Despite the summer heat, the mighty Bull's Pride, to the south, was still capped in white. Snow melt from the mountain fed the lazy creek that meandered across the lush plateau.
Although very broad to the south, the plateau grew steadily narrower as the stream headed north. The ground here was merely a hundred yards deep, and the ledges fell away sharply on both sides; with Mulgore to the east and Desolace to the west. To the north were the knife-edge peaks of the Thunderhorn mountain range, forever shielding Mulgore's tranquility from the despair in Desolace.
Sanja focused on the danger up ahead. The stream made one last graceful arc across their path before spilling over the edge into Gaia's Tears. If they were going to make it to the crash site, then they would have ford the creek.
# # #
"Be careful!" Sanja shouted as they approached the banks. The thunder from the falls was unmistakable.
"I'm scared," Jorga said. He clung to his sister's arm as they stepped down, into the chilly water.
"We'll go slow. Don't you let go of my hand until we get to the other side." She didn't really need to tell him that. He held her hand in a death-grip.
The water wasn't all that deep, or cold, or even fast. There was a current, certainly, but the real terror of the crossing was the moss-slicked rocks underhoof. Some of the round river-rocks shifted as they stepped, causing the pair to stumble and catch themselves. It was all too easy to imagine slipping and being swept out across the dark and over the falls.
"I'm scared!" the boy repeated.
"We're almost there!" she shouted in reply.
When at last they reached the other side, they laid in the grass a while and caught their breath. The crossing had been the most terrifying adventure of their short lives. Her nerves were shot. Mom would kill them both if she ever found out.
"Don't you ever," Sanja shouted, "tell anyone we did that."
Jorga didn't say a word, but he nodded and put his hand on his chest in promise.
# # #
"I can see it right there." Sanja said. She lifted her brother up and pointed with an outstretched arm. "But be careful. It's getting really rocky. Don't you get ahead!"
The boy lead the way and soon they had reached the basket – crushed somewhat from the impact, and laid over on its side. It had been woven from thin strips of wood and reinforced with bands of metal.
"Doesn't look too bad," Sanja whispered. "They might have survived the crash."
"I don't see any... bodies," Jorga volunteered.
Beyond the basket lay a strange, metal oven. Through the cracks, they could see a small, blue flame still flickering inside it.
"I bet this thing made it go!" Jorga whispered in awe. Like most Tauren children, he was fascinated by anything made of metal. Such items from the outside world were rare and strange in Mulgore.
Bo, one of the village elders, actually had a steel knife. He had traded it from an Orc before Sanja was born, and he treasured it like a war-bonnet.
Sanja cared little for such things, but it was hard not to mystified by such an exotic item. Although not as sharp as a obsidian knife, it was durable beyond all comprehension. Bo delighted the calves by flinging the thing at trees. He threw the knife in such a way that the tip stuck deep in the wood. What sort of magic kept the blade from shattering? It was beyond her comprehension.
Sanja ripped a length of shattered wood from the basket and pulled a fist-sized horanza nut from her pack. With a bit of hammering, she shoved the wood deep into the nut's soft meat. Jorga held open the oven's hatch, and Sanja put the nut inside, just over the blue flame.
Soon the oil inside the nut began to boil and crackle. The pale, yellow torch would not burn terribly long, but it would be bright enough to help look for survivors.
The girl steeled her nerves and tried to prepare for any carnage she might see, but there was no gore splashed across the rocks. She let out a breath of relief.
"Hello? Is anyone out there?" she called.
Jorga called too.
Hundreds and hundreds of cords were tied to a giant hook on the top of the oven. The thin ropes were long and tangled, and lead to scraps of cloth in the distance – cloth that had once been a beautiful balloon.
"Did you hear something?" Jorga whispered.
"Hello?" Sanja called again.
There was a rustling ahead, and a moan. The boy rushed forward and the girl approached more cautiously.
"I found something!" Jorga crouched over a dark tangle of rope. "It's tiny," he whispered.
And indeed it was. The creature was the size of a newborn, and it struggled against the knot of cords about as meekly.
"Here, hold the torch."
Sanja took out her knife - carved from a kodo's ulna - and carefully cut the cords away. "Don't squirm," she whispered, "I don't want to cut you by accident."
Sanja's work soon exposed a tiny man. It was the strangest sort of creature they had ever seen. Pale and mostly-hairless, it looked a little like Thurg's slave girl had, but it was tiny – far too small to be anything but a baby.
But a baby with a long, flowing beard? And a pink one, at that...
"Are you okay?" Jorga asked.
"Are you in pain?" Sanja asked quietly as she carefully cut the cords from its tiny hands and feet. "Is anything broken?"
"Oh, Good Samaritan! You put end to my strife," the creature mumbled, its eyes only partially-open, "lest I might become carryout... for the local wildlife."
The man looked up into the girl's furry face. His eyes went wide and jaw slack.
An adolescent, Sanja was only six feet tall and a tiny fraction of the 800 pounds that the grown-up bulls in her village weighed. Her summer fur was short, black, and was covered with many pretty patches of white. She wore a buttoned vest and pants of soft, un-tinted leather that were stitched together with sinew. She had no shoes, but the longer fur on her feet covered the tops of her hooves.
The man said nothing for a moment as he swallowed a (relatively) large lump in his throat.
"My, you're a tall one," he squeaked. His voice was even quieter and more shrill than it had been initially.