The fresh snow crunched under foot as the lone traveler paused beside the trail marker. The brightly colored scrap of flag snapping in the wind was the only indication that there was a trail through the high snows above the valley pass, and looking forward Ren could see nothing but undisturbed snow, pocked with the tiny marks and trails of the high mountain animals, but unmarked by climber’s feet.
Perfect. He tugged the wrap around his face down, exhaling a warm cloud of steam into the crystal clear air. The cold bit at his nose and throat, but it felt good to breathe unencumbered for a moment. He dug the end of his staff into the snow, steadying himself; his feet were wrapped in the mountain style, thick yak fur and oil cloth to keep the cold and wet alike out, but it covered his toes and the layers felt clumsy and awkward for someone used to soft leather boots and sandals.
In the valley below something cried out. Ren raised his head to listen, ears cocked beneath the fleece lined warmth of his hood. The cry came again, distinctly animal, and he shaded his eyes with one hand to watch the wide winged prey bird launch itself skyward from the cliffs opposite, something small clutched in its talons. Ren shrugged; he had been listening for the cries of the caravan traders for days, they all had, but an early snowstorm had delayed the pack trains in the lower Kun-Lai foothills and there was still no sign of them. Tugging his wrap back up, he looked ahead for the next trail marker and continued to climb.
The sun had passed its zenith before he stopped again, this time to veer off of the marked trail, climbing up to the shallow ledge above in a scrabble of claws and carefully placed feet. There, nestled in the lee of the rocks, a smudge of purplish green had caught his eye. Ren pulled himself up to the ledge, eyes bright, then yanked his wrap back down and leaned in to breath out a soft puff, brushing the snow from the delicate leaves of the tiny plant, which furled tight in protest.
“There you are, you beauty,” Ren crooned to it. He braced his feet, reaching for the bundle secured to his staff, and untied it with a deft tug. The warm gloves that left his claws free came loose, tugged off where he caught them with his teeth and then stuffed into his belt. The burlap bundle came apart to yield a little wicker bowl and a heavier pair of mushan hide gloves, tipped in metal caps that fit over his claws. Ren pulled them on, smoothing the long cuffs up over the cinched sleeves of his layered outer tunic, and gave himself another little push with a muted grunt, bracing his belly against the edge of the ledge and the tips of his toes on the rocks below as he reached for the small plant.
It took some work, and careful digging with his capped claws, to free the plant from the rocky soil. Ren teased the roots free carefully, ears lowered and tongue tucked against the back of his teeth in concentration. Qian Shui, called the Thousand Year Sleep for its long dormant periods, only bloomed once every dozen or so years on the highest peaks in the Kun-Lai ranges. Reports from Grummle traders of spotting the rare plant along the trails had been a large part of what had brought Ren out to the mountains. Qian Shui, properly prepared and dried, was prized by healers as the source of a deep, painless sleep when brewed in moderation.
The little plant came free, tipping into his palm, and Ren breathed out, carefully depositing the clumped dirt of the root ball into the wicker bowl and scooping fresh snow around it before wrapping the whole lot back into the burlap and attaching it back to his staff. The gloves he worked carefully free, turning the heavy hide inside out as he wriggled them off until the hands and capped fingers were tucked safely inside themselves. Fresh and undried, Qian Shui was sometimes referred to as Qian Shi - the Thousand Year Death, a painless and nearly untraceable poison, highly sought after by those who clung to the shadows and struck from behind, but another reason the herb was only rarely harvested as few herbalists were willing to risk their lives, first from the icy heights and then from the plant itself.
Ren pulled his regular gloves back on and slid carefully back down to the trail, dusting himself off once he was solidly on his feet. He had brought back three of the little plants so far, with the fourth now secured in his satchel. The best times, he had found, were when the snows were fresh - disturbances, be it from caravans or the high mountain herders or even the occasional lone hunter, tended to make the plants ten times as difficult to find, any nearby disruption pulling them in on themselves in the shelter of the snow. When a fresh dusting had begun to fall the night before he had gotten ready, pulling himself out of his warm bedroll before first light to brave the upper trails, and his diligence had paid off.
Humming a merry but toneless tune, Ren headed back down the trail. The herb dangling from his staff was worth a heavy bag of gold coin, but he had already traded two of the previous ones to the local healers and had no need to sell it. With luck - and the fresh snow the night before was a good indication his luck would continue to hold - the caravans might be delayed another day or two, giving him time to finish writing up the scroll on the herb that he was working on. Finished, he could send it safely back down the mountains with the Grummle traders to the archives in the Vale - a treatise on the harvesting, uses, and preservation of Qian Shui, by Lorewalker Ren Stoneclaw, of Shen-Zin Su.
That still gave him a little pleased sort of thrill when he had cause to dig out his official seal, the Lorewalker carved jade imprint in thick red ink and his name signed below. He had never, in his wildest dreams as a cub, imagined himself in the black trimmed yellow tabard of a Lorewalker - truth be told, he had cut out of or slept through more Lorewalker lessons on the Great Turtle than he could even rightly remember, no matter how many times his teachers and his parents had boxed his ears. Sending him to Master Shang’s academy had been the last despairing attempt of his mother to make something of her eldest wayward son, back when she had still held any hope that some discipline and training would make him settle down into a family and life amongst the Dai-Lo valley.
Instead, it had given him the opportunity, along with his cousin, to escape the turtle entirely. Communication with Shen-Zin Su was few and far between; Ren knew his name hadn’t been stricken from the family scrolls in disgrace, but not for lack of his mother ranting about it in the sporadic letters that reached him. He couldn’t regret it, though - the world was so much larger and greater than their little portion on the back of Shen-Zin Su, his youthful chaotic energy transformed into a desire to learn and explore and know, and never had he felt it quite as much as he did the first time he set foot on the ancestral shores of Pandaria. He had absorbed in months what the Lorewalkers of his youth had spent years trying to drill into his head and was still hungry, still wanting more, and for the first time the praise of his teaching masters had felt good, like something he had actually earned and wanted to keep.
The suggestion that his first proper research project coincide with his skill with herbs had been one he had embraced. He had been several months among the tiny communities - too small to be towns or villages, really, most no larger than a double handful of adults and the few cubs - who clung to the steep mountain slopes, dotted along the trade routes that the Grummles traveled. The seal of his newfound profession opened doors, and his willingness to lend a hand at whatever task presented itself had created a place for him and that was why, when he spotted a figure on the lower portion of the trail, he raised a hand to wave with a cheerful greeting.
The figure waved back, scrambling up the trail with renewed haste. Closer, the other yanked down their scarf, revealing the bright green eyes and solid russet mask marking of Mai Frostflower, the eldest daughter of the senior healers who ran the little waystation nestled in the pass. She was panting from her quick climb, her breath pluming in the cold air as she reached to urgently grasp at Ren’s sleeve. “Lorewalker! Thank the ancestors! No one was sure where you’d gone!”
Ren’s ears dropped reflexively beneath his hood even as he reached out to steady the younger female. She was still half cub, only as tall as his chest and lacking the healthy weight and curves she would eventually grow into, stuck for the season in that awkward inbetween state from plump cub to plump adult when everything was too thin while she seemed to shoot up overnight. Ren remembered those adolescent years with no fondness at all and tried to always listen to Mai as well as he did her elders so as not to slight her. “I was just walking the upper trails,” he told her. “I left word with Brother Snowmelt this morning. Why? What’s needed?”
Mai tugged at his arm, her claws prickling through the layers of his sleeve in her haste. “You have to come quickly,” she said, her eyes bright and wide. “Father said you’re the only one. You’re from Outside, aren’t you?”
Beneath his hood, Ren’s ears went completely flat, and he couldn’t quite help the grimace that bared a hint of tooth, though as things went “outside” was perhaps the least offensive way of saying it, and certainly a step up from “wild dog” which was at the other extreme of things he had heard flung at Pandaren from the Turtle by those who had stayed grounded in Pandaria. It wasn’t, however, something he had expected to hear now - not when his presence had been accepted in the mountain communities without question, his Dai-Lo accent passed off as a lowland thing and didn’t the Valley of the Winds have Stoneclaws in it? To be sure, Ren hadn’t tried to really hide it, but he hadn’t offered the information either; Mai’s father knew, as he had seen Ren’s official letter of recommendation, but he had seemed far more impressed with Lorewalker Cho’s seal than with noticing Ren’s origin.
Mai was still pulling at his arm, intent on dragging him down the path if he wouldn’t come himself. “We saw the signal right after breakfast,” she said breathlessly. The lined hide hat on her head was almost quivering, probably from the excited tremble of her ears beneath it. “The lookouts spotted it; we sent out a kite immediately, of course, as soon as we could - no telling if anyone else saw it, it was a strange thing, not a steady signal, more like a streak. Huang said it didn’t look like a signal at all, and Cousin Smallpebble said signals that aren’t signals are unlucky, but Father insisted and he says he’s glad he did, the wounds are the worst he’s seen in years, not since that time…”
“Wounds?” Ren felt his own ears prick unwillingly forward, picking up the pace of his steps. “Someone was hurt?”
“Yes!” Mai turned her wide eyes on him, nearly vibrating in her excitement. “Oh, but Lorewalker, that’s not all - the male they brought in… he has NO FUR.”