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Chapter 16

The days were a blur.

There was hot sun on her back.

The smell of rich, dark soil in her nose.

The feel of the antler-bone digging tool in her hand.

Her nails ached. Her back ached. She had never been so tired, so confused in all of her life.

She slept a lot. She cried a lot. She couldn't manage the strength even to stand.

It rained once. Or perhaps twice? She couldn't remember seeking shelter.

Sometimes it was hard to tell if she was asleep or awake. Perhaps it was all just a horrible, terrible dream.

There was a light, tender touch on her face. A familiar voice.

"Are you okay, Sanja?" Kazbo asked.

She opened her eyes again and was thankful that the light was dim. She didn't know if it was morning or evening. She didn't care. She closed her eyes again.

"I found Theodore at the campsite," he whispered. "What's left of him, at least. There were these huge vultures..."

He resisted the urge to ask.

Kazbo swallowed a lump in his throat. "Where's... Jorga...?"

She opened her eyes once more and ran her fingers slowly across the mound of soil she had been hugging with her arm. The Gnome stared at the dirt and dried blood caked on her fingers.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

"I promised my Mom..."

"I know."

He tried to put his arms around her and she nearly smothered him with a hug. She held him like a drowning swimmer clinging to a log.

Then they were both crying.

"He hurt my brother... and I couldn't find anyone to help us. I tried. I tried so hard. But Jorga just... kind'a... faded... I held him in my arms the whole time, but I couldn't do anything."

"I'm so sorry, Sanja. I should never have left. This is all my fault! I will never forgive myself." Kazbo cursed himself repeatedly. "I wish that I had never tried to help that rogue. I was so damn proud of my balloon and he was so charming. I should never have listened to him. I should have seen what sort of monster he was. If I hadn't tried to help, he never would have met you. He never would have hurt Jorga."

"He hurt me too... I told him to stop. I did. I told him. But that only made him do it harder."

She was wailing and shaking. She was so dehydrated that the tears would no longer come. She squeezed the little man until he saw stars behind his eyes.

"Why did he do that? Why did he do that to me? What did I do?"

"I don't know, Sanja. I don't know." He sniffled hard. "I suppose he hated himself so much that he just wanted to hurt everyone. You didn't do anything wrong. You didn't do anything."

# # #

"Eat this, please," he whispered and put yet another soft piece of fruit in her mouth. Her lips were so parched that the sweet juice burned them. "You need your strength... Have you eaten anything since I left?" She could hear the tears in his voice.

She chewed slowly, but refused to open her eyes.

"I need you to come with me," he whispered when she finished.

"No! I promised..."

"You did. You took care of him. There's nothing more you can do for him now."

"No..."

He was pulling on her hand. "Please, Sanja. You know I'm not strong enough to drag you."

# # #

She was laying on some sort of hammock and swinging slowly. A soft wind was blowing across her. Sanja had never been so thirsty in her life.

She opened her eyes and immediately regretted it. She squeezed them closed as hard as she could.

"Where... where is the ground?" she whispered.

"What?"

"The ground! Where is the ground!" Sanja screamed.

"Oh! It's down there," Kazbo laughed. "Don't you remember getting on board? I told you about my idea back for the Brachiator 6000 back when my balloon first crashed."

She opened her eyes once more. Her hands gripped the knotted mesh beneath them until her knuckles started to tingle.

The hammock hung from a box of sorts that made strange whirring and whizzing noises. Ropes extended from the box to strange black grappling hooks that grabbed the nearby clouds. Some of the hooks let go and others grabbed hold in a strange sort of upside-down dance. They had a peculiar sort of rhythm that kept the contraption swinging slowly across the sky. It was sort of like it was falling constantly sideways.

She squeezed her eyes shut once more. "Where is it taking us?"

"To Mulgore, of course!" Kazbo shouted joyfully.

Sanja just shook her head. "No."

Kazbo moved close to her and his voice dropped down low. "What's wrong, Sanja?"

"I can't go back. I failed them. I let my little brother die."

"Don't say that. You did no such thing," the mage said. "You struggled to protect him. That's all they could ever have asked of you. You tried to save him. His death was not your fault."

"No," she whispered, "I can't face them."

There was a long pause while Kazbo petted her face. "Would you rather come back with me?"

She looked at him with one dark, miserable eye.

"You could come to Gnomeregan and meet my family. You could work with me in the library; reading books." He smiled softly at her. "You could write down some of the Tauren lore."

She shook her head. "I'll never be anyone's slave."

"Not as my slave, silly. You'd be there as my guest."

Sanja closed her eyes once more and waited for the swinging to stop.

# # #

Although the vehicle traveled faster than a rider on a horse, the trip was the longest Kazbo had ever taken. The days crept by at a crawl as Sanja ignored the Gnome's attempts to start a conversation. Some days she slept, some days she cried, and there were some days that Kazbo had to needle her relentlessly just to get her to eat.

He had experienced death before, and grieving as well. But despite all his years, he felt helpless to make the pain fade. She would need time to heal. She needed the support of loved ones on those days when she was able to accept it. No one could speed the process.

There were a couple of days before they reached the Thunderhorn mountain range where the desert skies had cleared. Kazbo grounded the device and made camp, waiting for the clouds to return. Sanja slept in the anemic shade of a jacao tree and refused to talk.

But the worst day of all, by far, was during the flight over the mountain itself. He had turned away to give the girl her privacy... with the tiny confines of the hammock, it was the best that he could manage. At first, he had tried landing the craft to heed nature's call, but that was often terrifying. When the clouds were rolling across the sky, it was nearly impossible to set down safely. After what could only be called a "close call," they both had agreed to handle their personal needs over the edge of the craft – just to minimize how often they had to risk descent.

But on this day, he made the mistake of turning back around too soon. She had finished her business, but was still trying to get her trousers back on – getting dressed on a hammock was far harder than either of them could ever have predicted. For some reason, seeing her without her pants caused an outburst of hysterics that lasted all day and deep into the night.

No apology could console her. Turning back around to face her only made things worse. Even trying to talk to her seemed to throw oil on the flames.

Kazbo wanted to land the craft out of fear that the Sanja might fling herself overboard, but the mountains were far too treacherous to risk it.

He could never have predicted this reaction. The three had bathed as a group and frolicked in an oasis pool. He remembered fondly how Jorga had splashed them both, and how they had retaliated as a team. The watery battle raged until the boy finally turned tail and ran back to the safety of the sand and scrub. Kazbo remembered pointing and laughing at his furry, little bottom and how indignant the boy had become. They had not been uncomfortable around him then.

She had changed so much.

He tried not to think about what Theodore could have done to her. He tried not to wonder why she had written her note on the rogue's small clothes.

# # #

Kazbo yawned and shook himself awake. Sanja was sitting upright and gripping one of the ropes that connected the hammock to the Brachiator 6000's whirring engine. She held it close to her body, with both of her arms.

"You look better today." The Gnome smiled.

She looked at him for a moment and smiled timidly before returning her gaze to the green fields below. "I ate the apples," she said. "I drank the water."

"Oh. Well, I'm sure we can find more."

More silence stretched.

"There!" Sanja pointed with an outstretched arm. "Tauren."

"Is it your tribe?"

They had seen three different utankans in as many days, but all of the tents were painted with strange markings that she had not recognized.

"I don't know. They're still far away."

# # #

The sentries surrounded the knotted rope. Although not preparing for a fight, they certainly seemed armed for one. Each carried a hammer or spear. Each wore a bone dagger on their belt.

The girl climbed carefully down and the men stared up in stunned silence. She jumped the last few feet and turned around to face the one elder standing among the sentries.

"Sanja? Could it be?" the older bull gasped. His greying muzzle hung open.

"Hello, Bo-ee," she replied meekly, including the suffix to show her respect.

Elder Bo turned to the man on his left. "Go get Bron and Grenda," he said, but the sentry was too shocked to react immediately. Bo added, "Run."

All that remained of the sentry was the sound of his hooves as he sprinted away.

"I want everyone to meet my savior," Sanja announced, gesturing up the rope. "This is Kazbo Fizzgimbels."

The excited whispers that had surrounded Sanja's unexpected return vanished, and the Gnome's strange contraption descended in silence.

Kazbo looked slowly up at the unbroken wall of towering Tauren-flesh that surrounded him. He swallowed the lump in his throat.

In the past month and a half, Kazbo had grown quite used to the nearly constant company of Tauren. He thought he was accustomed to the race's particular aroma and looking way up into the sky just to talk to Sanja. But none of that could have prepared him for this.

The entire utankan was pressing in around a circle to get a look at the child and Gnome. The smell of fur, sweat, and smoke was tremendous... nearly overwhelming. The bulls were larger than Kazbo had realized any one creature could be. He had met a few Draenei males, and they were large too; but this experience had nothing in common. The Draenei were not enemies. They did not loom over him, shoulder to shoulder, and push and shove to get closer. They didn't clutch weapons in their hands, and stare at him with somber, judgemental expressions.

"Pleased to meet you," Kazbo squeaked in Taurahe.

There was a collective gasp from the mob that surrounded them.

"Let me through! Please let me through!" a deep voice called. A small gap in the crowd opened suddenly and two arms that were as thick as oak trees reached in. Two enormous hands grabbed Sanja by the shoulders. She squeaked in surprise.

The last Kazbo saw of Sanja were her hooves as they vanished into the gap – before it slammed shut behind her.

A silence stretched. It seemed like hours, days, perhaps even years.

"We welcome you, Gnome," Bo finally said; but his slow, deep voice seemed to lack the warmth Sanja's had for even the most casual of conversations. "We thank you for bringing Sanja home to us. You may stay in my tent."

Without waiting for a reply, Bo turned and walked away through a corridor that opened before him. No one said another word and the silence began to stretch once more. Unsure of what to do, Kazbo followed behind.

Two armed sentries fell into position to march behind him.

# # #

Kazbo sat, alone, in the entrance of Bo's tent. The enormous bear hide beneath him was fluffy and soft. The Tauren-sized portions of vegetables and bread were more than enough to eat.

But no one said a word to the little Gnome. Even the cow that had brought him his dinner did not respond to Kazbo's attempts at friendly conversation.

The two sentries that had followed him to the tent stood stock-still, one at either side of the tent's entrance. They had not forbidden him from leaving, but neither had they told him he could go.

So Kazbo sat, alone in Bo's tent, and stared out through the open flap at the utankan's central campfire. The people gathered, they sang, they danced. But no one invited him to join in.

Kazbo watched for hours, hoping he would see Sanja dancing with the others, but he did not.

Eventually, Kazbo tried to sleep, but the party continued late into the night. The drums and commotion made it impossible to rest.

In the morning, he emerged from the tent and the two sentries looked down at him wordlessly. They fell in behind him and marched side by side.

After walking only a few yards, Kazbo turned around and faced one of the guards. "Could you please tell me where I would find Sanja?"

The huge bull grunted and nodded his head. Each of his enormous horns was longer than Kazbo was tall. He walked briskly ahead and Kazbo fell in behind him at a run. The remaining sentry took up the rear.

The trio walked through the maze of empty tents and sleeping Tauren. Some snored as loud as they sang. From the look of it, the revelers had not even bothered with the short walk back to their tents. Instead, they just slept where they fell, under the stars and the moonless sky.

At the edge of the village, they came upon a small campfire that was still blazing. Sanja sat beside it on crossed legs, huddled as close to it as she could manage without getting burned. She rocked slowly in place, crooning softly.

Kazbo ran to her side. "Sanja! You look so nice in your new clothes."

"Oh, Kazbo," the girl croaked.

"You sound terrible..."

Sanja nodded. "It's a Tauren tradition," she explained. "This is Jorga's shteowachi, his funeral. Grief is stored in the lungs, so you must sing it into the fire and let the flames carry all the sadness away with the smoke."

"Do you feel better?"

The girl shrugged. "I'm still sad, but I don't think I can sing any longer."

Sanja stood. The previously stoic sentries grinned like children as she walked over to them. One at a time, they bent their massive heads over to the girl and she kissed each gently on the cheek. "Thank you uncle Hass, uncle Schtota, for looking after my friend. Go get some sleep. I'll keep Kazbo company."

The black bull with the long horns, Hass, kissed Sanja's forehead. "We're so glad you're back." His voice was so deep that Kazbo thought he could feel it vibrating up through his shoes.

The tan bull with the shorter horns, Schtota, touched his forehead to hers. "We worried about you," he whispered.

They turned and walked away. Hass punched Schtota in the shoulder, but the huge bull merely flinched.

# # #

"I'm going to go," Kazbo said. "I'll head back to Gnomeregan."

Sanja smiled and shook her head. Her freshly-brushed mane swayed gently. "There isn't a cloud in the sky. Do you plan to walk?"

"I could," he replied.

She laughed and put a gentle hand to his back. "I know you could. But instead, let me cook you a little breakfast. Then we can roll up some shtumanialo bundles for the party tonight. I still have to sing the story of our adventures for everyone. I have to tell everyone how you rescued me."

She looked down at him. "Don't worry, I'll make sure that no one steps on you during the dance."

Kazbo laughed. "Thanks. I don't suppose you could leave out the part about how I got us stuck in Desolace in the first place..."

She smirked at him.

"I thought not," he sighed. They walked in silence for a bit. "I thought the mood here would be a lot more somber, with the news of Jorga's... passing."

Sanja shook her head. "The utankan scoured the area when we went missing. They found the balloon wreckage, our hoof prints leading back to the stream, and none leading away. They figured we had gone over the falls, even though they never found our bodies.

Sanja took a deep breath and smiled. Kazbo's heart felt lighter just seeing it.

"There was a story once, about a young boy who was surrounded by a raging forest fire. He was doomed; trapped without any route of escape," she explained. "So the sun took him away, body and soul, to the afterlife. The sun didn't want him to suffer pointlessly, but that meant that his family never found his body."

Sanja shrugged as she walked. "There's a lot more to the story than that... an exciting chase through the underworld, and his cousins trying to steal him back. But I guess everyone here sort of hoped that was what happened to us. They hoped that the sun took us away as we fell, so that we wouldn't have to suffer pointlessly."

She picked up a rock and threw it way out into the tall grass that surrounded the camp. Bugs buzzed happily in all directions.

"They already had a shteowachi for the both of us, so finding out what had really happened to Jorga didn't change anything. The tribe is just happy that I'm 'back from the dead'. That doesn't happen every day."

They walked to a smoldering cook fire and Sanja prodded various karras roots to see if any had been baked already.

"You know so many stories," Kazbo said. "I really meant my offer. If you wanted to come back with me..."

Sanja shook her head and smiled. "I would love to, but this is my home." She tried not feel sad when she saw the disappointed expression on the little man's face. "But I will make a pot for you to take back with you. In fact, I'll even show you how to do it, and then when you get home, you can teach little Sorassa how to make them, too."

"Thank you, Sanja, I'd really like that."

Sanja cleared her throat, and addressed him directly:

There was a young Tauren from Mulgore,

Keeping a friend out of peril her chore;

Though parting made him cranky,

She sent him back to his family;

For once safe at home, she won't worry anymore.

Kazbo's face lit up like the sun and his eyes sparkled. He sniffed back a tear. "Sanja! You made up a limerick just for me!"

She grinned and shrugged. Her ears drooped in a Tauren blush. "I did... even if it doesn't rhyme all that well." She added, "But don't expect another! It took me days just to come up with that one."

The end.