The guards were discussing what to do with them.
Tezkali spoke little Common and understood less, but the male humans’ behavior was clear to anyone with eyes and wits to see. That was the problem, though. She raised her head just enough to take in her fellow prisoners. They all had eyes, but few had the wits. Or, perhaps, the courage to use them.
A strange blend of pity and blame filled her. She understood their fear – how could she not? – but she could not understand their submission to it. Her teachers might be right, that this was simply the way the other races were made. Weak. Unwilling to do what was necessary to survive and best their enemies.
Or perhaps these have the right of it, and I’m too stubborn and stupid to give up when I’m beaten. She hissed laughter at the echo of her teachers’ chastisement. Her neighbor, a human girl with red hair and dull blue eyes, looked over at her. Tezkali rolled her eyes and singsonged a line or two of nonsense, pounding the coarse, grass-stuffed sacking that passed for bed and bedding rhythmically. The girl flinched.
Playing the half-crazed savage witch doctor was second nature now.
She didn’t know how long she’d been here. A month and some, most likely. Glimpses of the sun and moons through the high-set, netted and barred windows told her that much. Captured while checking her traps with Revantusk in sight -- her elders would have beaten her for such carelessness! Hauled like a sack of skins into a ship’s hold, drugs in the water they forced down her throat kept her in and out of consciousness. Her next moment of clarity was stumbling through the doorway of ‘here’: a large building hastily converted to hold living cargo. It was only later, when she had time to study their prison, that she recognized it as a former warehouse, and one not of Horde make.
She demanded her freedom, of course, and to know who they were. First from honest outrage and later to allay suspicions; the People were not known for being easily cowed. Their purpose behind her capture was apparent, given that all her fellow prisoners were female. Most were humans or blood elves, but there was a handful of orcs, even a goblin or two. No tauren. (There had been one other of the People, a warrior who flung herself at the knot of guards and gored one to death with her tusks before dying under the guards’ blades. The thud-thud-thud echoed in Tezkali’s dreams at times.) Jeers in Common and orcish confirmed it, as did the repeated rapes.
“Got to give you something good to remember, ladies,” a brown-haired human had smirked once. “No manners where you’re going.”
Tezkali bore the assaults. During her meditation to spiritually cleanse herself after the first, the loa whispered to her. Assistance, soon – watch for their messenger. She fought her next rapist thereafter, her wounds and blood promises to the loa of greater feasts in the future. Their agreement to her silent vow sang through her mind.
The days stretched into weeks. Tezkali refused to despair. Spirits didn’t keep the same reckoning of time as mortals. Prisoners were taken and sold, mostly humans. The number of women unsold dwindled. One evening the guards dragged in more prisoners, two sobbing humans and a blood elf who fought and screeched like a little jungle cat of Tezkali’s homeland. Tezkali watched through matted bangs as the guards played with their new toys, the loa’s whispers keenly in mind, though she despaired. Humans were weak, blood elves weaker still. She needed strength, a sister of the People or even an orc –
The blood elf reared and twisted, her naked back to Tezkali.
The loa’s whispers soared to a chorus of triumph. Here is our messenger. Here is your aid.
That had been six days ago. The blood elf refused to eat, drinking only because Tezkali and the other woman had been ordered to make her. She soiled and wet herself, Tezkali again ordered to tend her. The blood elf didn’t respond to anything; her eyes were open, but unseeing.
Useless to Tezkali in this state. She could not have mistaken the loa, however. This blood elf was the key to her freedom and her revenge, if she could but understand how.
And now time was running out. None of their captors wore tabards or uniforms, or anything marking rank. But she’d noticed the same symbol burned or carved into the few crates and barrels shoved here and there, and in the wood of the warehouse itself: matched squiggles that resembled a stream. Something had changed for whatever organization represented thus. Their jailors had grown distracted in the last day, tension thick as tree sap among them. Brief, heated arguments hastily shut down whenever certain men approached – those in charge, Tezkali guessed.
A broken agreement? The last time a pair or more of women had been taken away had been… Tezkali thought back. Before the blood elf’s arrival.
Not good. If their captors’main buyer disappeared, they might find others…or they might not. And what good were slaves no one wanted to a business? She would have to be ready.
A woman screamed. Then another.
Tezkali swore. The guards had taken a trio of them earlier, for their fun. If she was right –
Gunshots. Tezkali swore again.
The red-haired human stirred. “What’s happening?” she asked. She hugged her knees to her chest. “What’s happening? Are we being rescued?”
Another human laughed, the sound edged in hysteria. “Rescued? Girl, you’re so stupid – we’re being killed!” She laughed again. “Our salvation! Thank the Light!”
The red-head rounded on her, the rest of the slave women joining in. Tezkali ignored them. She needed to focus to use her powers.
They were in a jungle, near the ocean: scents and sounds and the weather had told her that much. She thought they might be near a town or fortress; some days she’d heard the faint clang of a bell or far-off shouting when the air was clear and still.
Without more knowledge of it, any settlement couldn’t be trusted. But the weather….
Tezkali rose to her full height. Throwing back her head, she raised her arms and her voice to the elements and the glory of the loa.
For a long, agonizing moment…nothing.
Darkness descended like a shroud. Wind keened in off the ocean. The scent of salt and burnt copper filled the air. A crack like thunder, then the warehouse shook as something crashed onto the roof. Men shouted in panic.
The door exploded. Wooden shards flew everywhere. A curtain of rain lanced sideways, drenching and surprisingly ice-cold. Women screamed, most in terror, some in pain. Lightning crackled, illuminating the warehouse in eye-searing blue and white. Tezkali sprang to the blood elf’s side, scooped her up in her arms, and made for the exit.
A perverse curiosity paused her at the shattered doorway. She turned to the crying, cowering women.
She could not leave them – not like this.
“GO!” Tezkali bellowed in Common. “RUN, YA FOOLS! YA BE FREE!”
Following her own advice, she bolted into the storm, toward the treeline. What she hoped was the treeline. She could barely see five steps in front of her.
Thunderheads roiled. Lightning struck again to her right – not close, not close – searing her vision. The rain slammed down like hail, and the wind howled like a thousand maddened dogs.
O spirits… did I do this?
No. She could raise storms, but not of this strength. The loa’s doing, the loa’s blessing.
Time ceased to exist. Life narrowed down to the lifting and setting down of feet as Tezkali ran, then walked, and finally staggered through the maelstrom. The blood elf, barely noticed before, grew a hundredweight, a loathsome burden agonized muscles urged her to discard. Branches slapped her, roots tangled her feet, snagged her hair. She pushed on.
Primordial shapes rose up, creaking and rain-tossed. She swerved around, stumbled against water-slick rock. Deeper blackness framed on the storm; instinct rather than thought moved her forward.
The rain disappeared. Jarred by its absence, Tezkali stood in place, shivering. At last she shifted – slowly, so slowly! – the blood elf to her shoulder, and reached out with her left hand, and took tentative steps in that direction.
The third brought her fingers against rock. Dry rock. Tezkali walked her hand up as far as she could. The rock went beyond her head.
She sank down against the wall, set the blood elf at her side away from the cave’s entrance. Exhausted, she wrapped her arms around her knees and waited for the storm to end. At some point she slept.
Tezkali woke to silence: no howling wind, no furious rain. Wan light slanted through the cave’s opening. She stretched out her legs, turning her head to allay the stiffness.
The blood elf. Did she live?
Her pulse beat steadily beneath Tezkail’s fingers.
So, so, so. The loa continued to smile on her. She’d better get busy keeping her end of their bargain.
She stood and took a good look at the cave. The floor was level and clean of debris, aside from what the storm had swept in. No animal scent or spoor. Peculiar. A circle of stones around a small shallow pit and two bundles of sticks …
Tezkali scowled. The little fire-pit’s presence was good news and bad. Good, because they wouldn’t be surprised by a returning four-footed owner. Bad, because they had two-legged predators to worry about.
There was little she could do for it now. Tezkali poked about the firepit for a striker. Nothing. She’d think of something.
She went back to the blood elf. The light was enough for Tezkali to examine her. The visible scrapes and abrasions didn’t appear infected; it was the wounds she couldn’t see that were a concern. She peeled away the woman’s clothing carefully. Stained, torn and piecemeal, but it was what they had for now. Then she made a thorough study of the deeper cuts and bite marks.
No sign of infection here, either… for now. The blood elf needed healing, they both needed warmth, food, water. They’d find none of those in here. Tezcali draped the driest of her clothing over the wounded one and left the cave.
Clouds still scudded overhead, grey and low, threatening more rain. Tezkali knew she couldn’t go far. Her own wounds were healing with the quickness that was the boon of the People; that didn’t mean she should be stupid and waste her strength. Moreover, she couldn’t guess if her former captors were eager to recover their lost property, or what dangers this particular jungle held.
The cave was set in a range of hills of mostly barren stone, and she crept along its foot. Signs of the storm’s destruction were everywhere: downed and shattered trees, pools and miniature rivers covering the ground. A log raised its up and rolled, something furry and mangled in its maw. Drowned animals weren’t safe to eat, but it might come to that: she lacked weapons to hunt or the means to make her traps. Let her find the proper rocks for sparks, at least.
Yards ahead, a huge fallen tree, wide-girthed and similar to its fellows in Stranglethorn, blocked her path. Tezkali slogged toward it. If some of the branches were dry, she could make a firebow.
She windmilled her arms to keep her balance.
A shape in the water.
She bent down and hefted it, as much as she could. Part of it was lodged under the monstrous tree. Humanoid, blue-grey skin with a stumpy body, misshapen limbs and a broad-flat nosed face. Tezkali hissed softly. Not unfamiliar, this one. She’d seen his living brothers. Broken Ones. They were in the Swamp of Sorrows.
Swollen with decay, it distended its sparse clothing.
Including its belt.
Tezkali grabbed the sodden leather. A water skin, two oiled pouches, a sheathed knife. The largest pouch held bits and pieces of plants; in the smallest pouch was a flint and strike-stone.
She murmured a prayer, retracing her steps to the cave. The Broken One remained where he had died, nourishment for the swamplife.
The loa provided for all.
Rough, deep. They matched the faces, like and yet not like their cousins the tauren, that hovered over her. Camp Taunka’lo was supposed to be a haven, but there was no haven for her. She was cold, cold, so cold she burned. Pain wracked her, spasms she couldn’t control. Worse was the blankness that crept up on her, stealing her thoughts.
”Candy? Candy-babe, Venomspite – what did you do?”
(Hands on her voices laughing her clothes her clothes her clothes)
Venomspite. Venomspite. She had worked for Middleton. He had wanted to help her with Dragonblight’s cold, but something else happened instead. Things she wouldn’t have noticed, comments she wouldn’t have understood grew to make sense. She thought of experiments on her own she might try one day. Stolen peeks at formulae in Middleton’s and Vicki Levine’s notes suddenly weren’t confusing scribbles but equations clear as spring water – did they really think their ciphers hide anything?
Their lies about the gnomes admitted, she reworked Middleton’s serum and combined it with a refinement of Vicki’s latest plague batch. Venomspite should not be, and she set out to make it not be anymore. Easy, so easy, since the Forsaken dismissed her as a threat to plunge her syringes into some, to spill their deserved destruction here and there.
But Middleton had had his revenge. First the exhaustion and memory loss, then the agony that struck her in the Storm Peaks. The taunka couldn’t help her, Shazzle whispering with their healers, and then, “Gonna send you back to Orgimmar, Hardkandy. Okay? Then to Thunder Bluff, maybe.”
A hot sour drink she was forced to consume. After, fragmented pictures: a windrider, Warsong Hold, a ship. Rocking motion of the sea that slowly brought her to herself. The ship sailed and sailed and sailed –
--until a monstrous crashing and screams and humans –
-- humans who seized her, dragged her onto another ship and onto land into the building
(Woooeee, got ourselves a pretty three-holer for a change, boys!)
and she fought and she fought because not again not again NOT AGAIN NEVER AGAIN NO NO
(Be nice to Lord Saltheril. He’s a very important man.)
hands hands hands pulling at her clothes her legs, her arms
(King’s balls, she’s tight. Think we’re the first?)
She had to get away, hide run run run but there was no place to hide to run no help no hope —
The blankness overwhelmed her. And this time, she welcomed it.
She stayed there in the dark. Protected. Safe. No one touched her here. No one hurt her. She would stay here forever.
A struck match. A candle’s glow. She ignored it. A torch, an oil lamp, dawn’s light peering over the horizon, the blazing noon sun –
She bolted upright like a marionette, eyes wide. Shapes and colors seesawed in her vision, nonsensical. Then, slowly, they took on form and meaning.
A being crouched at her feet. Blue-green skin. Dark blue hair tired up in a crest and braids. Tusks. Short leather shirt, leggings.. Hardkandy knew she should know what the person was called, but she couldn’t remember. She grasped for the word and after too long a moment seized it triumphantly. Troll. Troll woman.
“Shhh. Shh. Ya be safe here now.”
Hardkandy stared. Am I? (The magistrix asked about you.)
“Tezkali went through a lotta work to bring you back from that dark place.” The troll – Tezkali – rose slowly. Hardkandy watched her go to a small fire, pour liquid from a battered pot into a short, squat cup, and return.
“Drink.” She held the cup to Hardkandy. “Ya need fluid in ya, and medicines still. I coaxed what I could from the spirits for ya, but ya not be theirs. Do ya need me t’ hold it for you?”
Her eyes were not unkind, Hardkandy decided. She reached for the cup.
It was made of stone, completely smooth and dustless. Her hands shook as she brought it to her mouth and sipped cautiously. It smelled too sweet but tasted bitter, and soothed her throat. “Work?” she asked when the cup was empty. Her voice sounded hollow and coarse.
Tezkali nodded. “Work.” She tapped a small stick next to Hardkandy’s left foot. Carved, adorned with feathers, it reminded her somehow of fire. She peered around, and saw three others, at her right foot and her arms – where they would be if she were lying flat. “Earth, air, water.” Tezkali pointed to Hardkandy’s right foot, right arm, left arm. “Two days t’ carve the totems. Longer to get to Stonard.”
“Stonard?” A post with orcs and blood elves. She’d been there before. Hadn’t she?
“Later,” Tezkali said. A pause. “You got a name?”
“I…” Her tongue felt thick; the cave swayed. What was her name, anymore? What was wrong with her? “Hardkandy.”
“You just do what Tezkali say, Hardkandy, and get better.”
She drank the potions, ate the food Tezkali provided – snakes and fish for the most part, occasionally the Swamp’s smaller animal life – let her anoint the worst of her wounds with herbal pastes that stank and itched but seemed to draw the heat from them. She let Tezkali sponge-bathe her from the large battered metal pot used to heat water. (When asked where she found this, the troll shrugged and said, “That warehouse wasn’t the only thing destroyed in the storm.”) But she did all this through a haze. Her thoughts skittered like bugs on a pond, restless. She couldn’t sleep. In her dreams the voices and the terror came back.
Sometimes she heard them when she was awake.
“They gone, girl!” Tezkali, shaking her. “They can’t hurt ya no more.”
A lie. They both knew it.
Tezkali tried to distract her. She made Hardkandy weave long grasses into sleeping mats. She turned her long, sharpened staves in the fire pit’s coals to harden their points and tell Hardkandy what she’d done: cajoling earthen spirits to take on the shapes of the equipment they needed, her journey to Stonard.
“I don’t remember that.”
“Ya were here. I sung ya into a deep-trance, asked the spirits to watch ya.”
“Why’d you go?”
“To see if news of them reached there. Trade a few plants for some things can’t be found in the jungle.”
“They….the orcs didn’t stop you?”
Tezkali laughed. “Why would they? We’re not the Alliance, girl, to say, ‘You gotta ask permission to leave!’”
That day had been her best. It was also the rarest. More and more Hardkandy lay on her mat, striving to hear and see and feel nothing.
She owed Tezkali her life, a debt she could never repay. She was grateful. But all too often she found herself wishing Tezkali hadn’t tried quite so hard.