For the better part of two days, Ral'rush laid on a bedroll of hay in an infirmary tent with the local peons caring for him. Only moving when absolutely necessary, he slept off the broken arm and pierced lung, surviving due to a combination of regeneration, medical care, and nasty potions whose taste was only marginally less bad than dying. Not better; just less bad. After quaffing a particularly noxious blend which Chaitama had foisted upon him to stave off fluid buildup, he'd hoped for a bit of respite from talking. Such a respite was far off, of course.
Just as the nauseating flavor had started to dissipate, a visitor stamped on the ground to signal entry, and before Ral'rush could tell whoever it was to get lost, Chaitama preempted him by sweeping the tent flap open. "He be awake," she said, not only speaking on his behalf but also disappearing outside, relieving herself of responsibility. At first, he thought that his village witch doctor was proving to be as frustrating as she was necessary. When Ral'rush rolled over, however, he realized he'd sold her short and had to shape up, as the visitor wasn't one he'd want to rebuff.
"Commander," the wounded jungle troll coughed while sitting up, though Gar'thok held a palm out in a signal to remain seated.
"No need to rise in the infirmary," the aging orc said while kneeling near the open tent flap. "They told me the hole in your lung closed up this morning. That's a good sign."
"Yeah, they pulled the straw outta it this mornin, so I can breathe normal again." He sat on the pile of hay for a moment before thinking of why Razor Hill's leader was there. "You know, I didn't get debriefed yet."
Gar'thok shook his head. "There's no need, unless you have personal commentary. Grunts and peons alike heard your fellow Darkspear saying that Thrak had shot you, and the peons saw Thrak and Egokick kill each other. We found Banshee Loyalist paraphernalia in Thrak's knapsack, which was enough evidence for us. That, and the fact that he contributed nothing to the town's defense and was trudging around the cemetery."
"Good…I mean, bad that he sold us out, but good that the truth came out. The entire attack didn't make sense."
"Well, this wasn't entirely from him. Undead have been rising all across the globe - hollow, mindless undead, I mean, not our Forsaken allies. Many of them are rising on their own accord, but others are directed. This attack was too well-organized to have been random…and I doubt that Thrak acted alone. But, from what I can tell, he was the only one here on the ground. A security detail will arrive from Orgrimmar today to follow any trails he left and to interview all the members of his clan who came along with him, but it will be out of our hands by that point. Justice might be slow in coming, but it will come."
Ral'rush looked down while he listened. The story was so easy for Gar'thok to summarize in spite of its convoluted nature, but there was another point - one which was likely more simple - which didn't seem so easy to tell. "Egokick really put his life on the line, there," he murmured in confusion. Gar'thok seemed to pick up on the sentiment and nodded.
"He did what he had to do. He died a soldier's death."
"I don't get why he did it, though," the surviving Darkspear said.
Though not oblivious, Gar'thok hadn't initially assumed any deeper meaning behind Ral'rush's words. He was well-prepared for the discussion, however. "I noticed the animosity when the two of you arrived. Unit assignments can put together clashing personalities…it happens. But when it comes down to it - when a combat situation comes down to life or death - the truth about people comes out. We saw the truth of both Thrak and Egokick out there."
"I know that, but…the truth doesn't make sense. Thrak, yeah, okay, he be a snake…was a snake. But Egokick? Nothin about his behavior told me he was that kinda guy."
"A guy who did his job when duty called?" Gar'thok chuckled, deeply, as if he'd had this conversation before with other troops. "Look, you know this already. A person can seem near-worthless, with almost no redeeming qualities, but still rise to accept responsibility when absolutely necessary. In the same sense, some of the best people, people who seem flawless, crack under pressure. You got stuck with a commanding officer who worried you could take his position, and so he made poor decisions for your whole unit." Ral'rush looked up quizzically when Gar'thok shared such a detailed comment. "Chaitama told me about Egokick's behavior with the younger troops," the orc explained. "He wasn't a great leader. He may not have even been a great man. But when a soldier under his watch was threatened, he took action to protect his brother-in-arms. That doesn't mean the truth was hidden from you, or that you misunderstood him, or that you need to reassess all your interactions with him…it just means that you'd never seen his honor tested in an emergency, and now you know something about him you didn't know before. That's all."
The two of them fell quiet for a long time. Undoubtedly, Gar'thok had other duties to attend to, but he spent a few more minutes there in the infirmary tent. They hadn't seen each other in many years, and never knew each other that well anyway, but there was a sense of familiarity which was comfortable. Eventually, though, duty would call.
"I have letters to send to the next of kin for the people we lost…I've put it off for too long," the graying orc said while standing up and stretching his back.
"Don't worry man, I got it - that, and the stuff you said," Ral'rush replied.
"Good. Don't forget it. You did your part too by putting down that ogre and securing the town walls while unarmored, too." Gar'thok moved to leave. "Rest. You're the highest ranking among the Darkspear here, now. Your youngers will need you to remain able and fit."
The orcish leader took his leave, and Ral'rush found himself alone for a great deal of time. Though his regeneration was helping him, the mending was slow, and he spent so much time just laying on the pile of hay without moving that he fell asleep as the morning dragged on. Sometime in early noon, he woke up, slowly at first and then more quickly to the sound of commotion outside.
With a great deal of care, he worked himself into a sitting and then a standing position. A great deal of voices began talking excitedly outside while he rotated his arm to test the healed bone, spurring him to hobble over to the tent flap. He'd forgotten which side of the town the infirmary tent had been on over the past two days, and he felt a little disoriented when he walked outside into the bright sun. He held his hand up to his face for a bit of shade while watching a large amount of people - locals, reinforcements, faces he didn't recognize - lined up in the streets. Some were applauding, some were gawking, others were merely chatting and watching. A significant crowd had even gathered near the watchtower, partially blocking view of many bodies moving in close formation and at a moderate pace.
Over the heads and helmets of the people gathered, he could just barely see a motley crew of four, maybe five, colorful citizens riding atop their mounts while bearing a flag. As the riders moved through Razor Hill, all of those gathered began to applaud, cheering for the group of newcomers as they stopped near the watchtower next to a person who looked like Gar'thok through the crowd. Although the travelers stopped for a few moments, Ral'rush couldn't hear their conversation - not from that distance, and not with all the noise from people spontaneously clapping for the strangers riding through town. A moment later, the handful of guests rode westward out of town toward the watershed between Durotar and the Barrens, one of them waving what appeared to be the long parchments used for status reports in their hand. The locals continued to cheer for the visiting riders until they disappeared and then returned to their business.
"Some get all the glory."
Chaitama's voice caused Ral'rush to jump slightly, and his arm ached; the bone had mostly mended itself together, but it was still tender. He turned to find her leaning against one of the tent poles from the outside while watching the strange procession with him. "Were you listenin to me and Gar'thok in there?" he asked indignantly, but she was unfazed.
"Of course I was; nothin goes on here without me knowin."
He glared at her, but she didn't react, merely watching the locals disperse from the watchtower. He knew from experience that he'd be wasting his time if he tried to shame her for being annoying, so he gave up and just leaned on the other side of the tent pole with her. Life returned to normal in Razor Hill, aside from a peon detail he saw Oggy leading to repair damage to the walls. The heat of the day hadn't yet begun to decrease, and he swatted a fly away from his temples while trying to figure out what Chaitama was looking at.
"What you be lookin at?" he just asked directly.
She sneered at the locals. "Misdirection," she replied with no further explanation until he turned and grimaced at her indirect manner of speaking. She rolled her eyes at him. "Those people riding in on here? They be champions of Azeroth, as people to say. Adventurers famous all over the world for rubbin elbows with faction leaders and performing quests for major players. They just came from Orgrimmar - apparently, Lor'themar charged them with collecting damage reports from different parts of Durotar."
A measure of pain stung Ral'rush in the stomach. "We lost troops…damnit, people died defending this town, but they be clapping for a buncha strangers who rode through here to pick up pieces of paper?" he grumbled while watching everyone returning to their business in Razor Hill as if life were back to normal already. "Loa, some of our soldiers died! Why everybody be clapping for some high-class heroes who not even be here fightin on the front lines?"
"Misdirection," Chaitama repeated in a flat tone. "Those adventurers be famous; they know people, they interact with very important people, so everybody clapping for them because of their rep. In fact, those people you say who were fightin on the front lines be the ones clapping for those champions, so you can't really complain. They be forgetting their own contributions because the celebrated heroes arrived; nobody forced them to do that."
He snorted in disapproval. "I…seen this before; it not be new. But I be getting tired of it. You gotta know it too, Chai; those of us on the front lines do all the heavy liftin, but we not be the ones who get streets named after us." He looked down and shook his head. "The system not be fair."
In a petty act of mimicry, she snorted back at him. "If you can't beat em, join em."
"What does that even mean? Really, join em? What, just become…never mind."
The two of them leaned together for a while, for there was little else to do, as they whittled their time away. Their commanding officer was dead, and Gar'thok wouldn't likely be considered their CO since they'd traveled as reinforcements from outside the region. The younger recruits from their village certainly wouldn't know what to do, thus leaving the two of them to eventually decide on the next course of action. All of a sudden, Chaitama stirred, interrupting however many minutes of silence they'd had while watching the peons hurry by. Her eyes widened, and she gained that faraway look like when she was watching things which weren't really there. She even started turning her head back and forth, angling her head through the crowd. This time, it was Ral'rush's turn to roll his eyes.
"What this time?" he asked.
Though she didn't answer, she continued staring at the considerable number of people entering Razor Hill from the north before turning westward. For another few minutes, she froze while staring in that direction, and he watched as well just in case her weird mumbling actually meant something; there was a fifty-fifty chance whenever she behaved in this way.
Like clockwork, one of the travelers stopped by the watchtower where Gar'thok was and chatted briefly with the town's leader. Ral'rush followed Chaitama's gaze toward the newcomer, a blood elf, while the woman nonchalantly went about her business. Eventually, the traveler exited, leading her hawkstrider in the direction of the infirmary tent. Unassuming and plainly armored, the Sin'dorei visitor approached them, causing Chaitama to stand up straight (or as straight as her hunched posture could be) to receive the guest who saluted them. The woman looked like she'd come to find them specifically.
"Hail, citizens," the blood said. "I'm Lieutenant Althera of the Argent Crusade. I'm to understand that you're the two senior representatives of your reinforcements from Dustwallow Marsh?"
At first, Ral'rush stayed silent, leaving Chaitama to answer; the witch doctor bore a power which, while not flashy, was respected enough in their society for him to defer to her. Instead, Chaitama elbowed him in the arm which was still healing, causing him to growl at her until she pointed toward the blood elf with her nose. His brow arched while he tried to understand why she wouldn't answer, forcing her to throw the spotlight on him directly.
"He be the highest rankin military personnel from our group," Chaitama told the lieutenant while trying to grab Ral'rush by the elbow.
"Wha? Chai…yeah, our leader died durin the fightin," he said, perplexed by the tribal healer's refusal to handle the conversation.
Althera nodded in a reserved fashion, holding back any outward reaction. "The name is familiar based on my discussion with the town leader. You held off a breach of Razor Hill's wall and uncovered the betrayer in your midst?"
"Yep. That be him," Chaitama said on his behalf, suddenly speaking but preempting Ral'rush by doing so.
Chaitama's behavior confused him because it flouted their social mores; a witch doctor, or any other spiritual practitioner, would outrank a soldier among the Darkspear. Before he could resist, however, the lieutenant drew her own conclusions. "Allow me to thank you on behalf of the Argent Crusade; the fight against these recent undead incursions is carried out by those of you on the ground." The blood elf opened a satchel on her belt and pulled out a medallion which looked quite small and offered it to Ral'rush. "Please accept this Argent Commendation. This is a time when the people of Azeroth must stick together. Though it hasn't been announced publicly yet, we're preparing for an offensive in Icecrown." She lingered for a moment as if waiting for a response, causing Chaitama to grab Ral'rush by the arm again.
He looked over the medallion in his hand and moved the seemingly small object around. He knew the lieutenant was waiting for a more positive response, but he disappointed both people waiting on him.
"Thank you," he replied while tucking the medallion into his belt. "Good luck to you all."
Chaitama's jaw dropped open, but Althera carried the unspoken rejection of her offer with more dignity. "And to you as well," was all she said while nodding and turning to lead her hawkstrider away. Chaitama was quick to run to the other side of Ral'rush, away from the blood elf, to have a semi-private argument.
"What be wrong with you!" she hissed while drooling her neck up, glaring up at him. Under normal circumstances, a foot soldier like him wouldn't have defied a witch doctor, but she'd already opened the door for that herself.
"This shoulda been for our highest rankin soldier," he replied while trying to walk back into the tent, but Chaitama kept dashing left and right to block him unless he stepped on her.
"That be you!" she hissed again.
"Only be accident. I don't need recognition to know I did my part."
"This not only be about you!" She tried to wag her finger in his face, but he pushed her hand away. Such an act of defiance was out of turn on his part, but she didn't try it again, seeming to realize that she'd crossed a line. "We gotta whole wagon full of younguns who need to see that they can be rewarded if they work hard!"
"I not be an example of that. I be twice their age yet I still be a private. I got nothin to show them and nothin to prove."
"What you be showin them if you pass this up? They gonna know about the recruitment soon, and they gonna know that they weren't a part of it! Gimme." She held her hand out near his belt, and he gladly handed the medallion over only for her to put it back in his hand and close his fingers around it. "You be an adult now, you can't act only for yourself. If you go now, you can show them that they gotta reason to fight, and not just quick money to help with unemployment at the village. You can show them that they can do their part for the Horde, for Azeroth, and also be recognized for doin it."
"If it really be for the Horde or the planet, then they need to learn that they gotta be in it for knowin they did what be right, not to be recognized."
"Most of them be only fourteen or fifteen years old, they won't understand that!" Chaitama hissed, trying to take his hand and push it toward his chest. "When they grow up, they can see that, but right now they need motivation. Look, you gonna end up fightin this fight anyway! You know you will! Take this chance, show some gratitude toward the elfie, and jump on this bandwagon before everybody else. What you gonna wait for!"
Ral'rush opened his hand and looked at the medallion. Years of shattered dreams, unjust demotions, disappointment from superiors, and rough reality checks weighed on his mind, and he almost tossed the medallion. Curiosity still welled up inside of him, however, fighting against his protective shell of apathy and cynicism. He sighed through his nose, trying not to think about the future of his village's young warriors but failing to do so.
As if she couldn't be more crass, Chaitama blurted out: "Egokick died for this."
"Shut it," he replied dismissively, garnering an angry glare from her over his disrespect toward a tribal authority, but she remained silent as he turned away from her and granted her a small win for the day. "Lieutenant," he replied while walking after the blood elf who'd been walking at a strategically slow pace away from him. "Wait, I gotta say something."
Still holding her true reaction inside, Althera turned around and waited for him to catch up to her on the side of the dusty road. "Yes, citizen?" she replied, standing at attention and waiting for a random fighter on the street even though she obviously had better things to do.
He pursed his lips for a second, wondering if he'd come to regret the decision as he had his handful of other attempts to move ahead in his military career. "You said that your group be goin to Icecrown." Althera straightened up and released the reins of her hawkstrider, stoic and waiting for him to say it. "Well, me and my group from Dustwallow be ready to ride. We wanna go to Icecrown and help in the fight."
A slight smile swept across Althera's face, demure but professional. "I'm pleased to hear that; we need every pair of boots on the ground we can recruit. You can be briefed on the mission later, but for now, you'll need to round of your troops and move to Orgrimmar. If you leave this evening, you could arrive there within two days. Commander Throgg, our representative there, will be waiting."
Ral'rush scratched his head. "I dunno who that be, and I be guessing that he don't know me."
"Hence the commendation," Althera said while pointing to his hand. "That one bears a different inscription; he'll know what it means. Make haste to the capital, and you'll receive what you need to prepare."
Chaitama walked up to rejoin them, unintentionally humming while she grinned. Ral'rush looked down at the medallion again, feeling freed by his request to join and by his admission, internally, that being given a greater task made him happy. "Come to think of it," he replied, our troops will need mounts in terrain like Icecrown. We'd be better able to help out if this Throgg fellow could make that happen."
Althera's long eyebrows shot up, though her surprise didn't seem indignant. "That's a logical conclusion…I can send word separately to mention that your troops will need assistance in transportation."
"We need winter gear too; we be from a swamp, so the cold weather calls for warmer clothes."
"I suppose that makes sense," Althera replied.
"Also, I need word sent back to Dustwallow bringin my wife up here."
"That…can be arranged."
"And we need our own tent separate from the troops."
Althera paused for a moment, not having expected the list of demands, and Chaitama stood at Ral'rush and wondered if this was the same person she knew. Embarrassed by a combination of genteel manner and the desire to facilitate their recruitment, the blood elf looked down and collected her thoughts. "Very well," she replied with a measure of reluctance before looking up at him and hardening her gaze. "You need to leave now, by the way," she said, abruptly signaling an end to the conversation.
"Right," he replied, saluting and stepping back so she could leave cordially. "For the Urgent Crusade," he mispronounced, granting Althera a moment of pause.
"Right," she replied before swiftly taking her leave without looking back. Chaitama was still looking at Ral'rush as if he'd grown a second head.
"Took you long enough," she said in light mockery while walking away. He glared at her for a moment before letting it go.
"Where you goin now?"
"To tell the younglings," she replied while walking back toward the barracks. "You want to ask for things you deserve? Then work for it. We gotta leave soon since we gonna be camping at least two nights on the road."
Ral'rush watched her leave toward the barracks until she was gone, leaving him alone on the side of the road. He'd left nothing in the infirmary tent, so there was little he needed to do while he waited. Rubbing the medallion between his fingers, he watched the people of Razor Hill go back to their daily business. Near the watchtower, he could see the spot where Egokick had yelled in his ear a few days prior and remembered what having the seeming reprobate as a commander. He focused a little harder and tried to remember, instead, the sole instance when the deceased officer had done right by him. It then dawned on him that he may very well have to do the same for the villagers he'd accepted responsibility for by accepting the commendation.
He tucked the medallion back into his belt again. "Finally…" he said in a low voice, shadow boxing with his healing arm and walking away.