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A Breath of Air

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Something was wrong in Halfhill. It prickled at Wildstrike's nerves, a lifetime of instinct honed on the hunt making the fur at the base of his ears ruffle with the strain of pricking forward. Something was off, something he couldn't quite put his claw on in the early morning air that was starting to bear the brisk bite of a late autumn. Something about the market place, usually bustling with life at all hours, was wrong.

It was... quiet.

Oh, not silent, to be certain. Jian Ironpaw had fresh loaves out of her deep bellied clay oven, the smell beckoning one and all even more than her familiar hawker's cry announcing her wares. It was Chee Chee's day off and the little hozen was already ensconced at Bobo's makeshift bar, never mind the early hour, downing tankards of ale to go with the bread as was his usual want. Wildstrike spotted Hillpaw and Yoon at one of the tables that passed as a food court in the middle of the market, platters of grilled meat and bread and more tankards spread out between them. There were a few Grummle merchants wandering the clearing, heavy packs bulging with trade goods which they'd happily sling down and open up for any passing Halfhill farmer who wanted to haggle. There was the usual morning low babble of chatter as neighbors greeted each other, browsing the early laid out wares for the best choices for their own kitchens, those who weren't getting a bite to eat at the market itself. Over to the side Sungshin had a pot of something bubbling, students clustered around her feet to raptly watch the master as she dusted spices into the pot and chopped something for the lesson.

But all the same, it was strangely quiet.

Wildstrike grabbed a loaf of bread from Jian's platter, giving her a bright smile and a low bow along with a cheerful ’good morning’ - she grinned, bowing back, and where their hands nearly touched the coin he had palmed between his claws deftly and politely disappeared. The bread was crusty on the outside, fluffy and still piping hot on the inside. Wildstrike tore it apart to let it cool, popping it into his mouth and sucking in air to keep from burning his tongue as he made his way to Yoon’s side.

“Is something up?” He asked without preamble, sliding into a pause for breathe in the story - something Fish Felreed had said which Tina had heard and Yoon was now passing to Hillpaw with who knew how many other ears and mouths inbetween - which was engrossing the other two Pandaren.

Yoon flicked an ear at Wildstrike and even Hillpaw - who had been nodding along silently to Yoon’s gossip all while studiously applying himself to a char roasted wildfowl leg - glanced up, something like surprise in the prick of his ears and the narrowing of his eyes. The sensation along the back of Wildstrike’s ears and nape intensified and he was glad that he had left his bow and Freya at home; it kept the already fidgety devilsaur from picking up on his tension, which always made her even more cranky than usual.

“You didn’t hear?” Yoon asked, a thread of amazement in his tone.

Wildstrike had to scratch at the back of his neck to dispel the sensation of something there, something watching him, a dangerous sign out in the wilds where the hunter could become the hunted. He turned the gesture into a casual glance around the market - no, nothing out of place, nothing and no one new, even the ’guards’ - local boys armed with pitchforks that mostly kept curious goats and hungry mushan out of the market stalls - were lounging around with bits of breakfast as they chatted. “No,” Wildstrike admitted. “Should I have?” Narrowing his eyes, he focused back on Yoon. “Has Hoahan done something again?”

Yoon shook his head hastily - despite the public making up that had accompanied Yoon’s induction into the Tiller’s Union, the rough start and bristly feelings between the newest Tiller and Hoahan Mudclaw had lingered. The last time the head of the Tiller’s union had ’done’ something, a deliberate attempt to keep Yoon from finding out some particulars of a vote until it was nearly too late, Wildstrike had taken offense on behalf of his friend. They had both fumed for a night over the best Stormstout brew, and then Wildstrike had sewn for several days, and the end result had been the scandal of the year when Tina Mudclaw had gleefully shown up to market in Wildstrike’s best new gown design with her entire back fur bare from nape to tail, where wispy light silk was gathered to pool and drape to her feet and red ribbons - for luck and prosperity - had fluttered with every swish of her tail or rolling step of her hips. Yoon had nearly fainted and Hoahan had been on the verge of an apoplectic fit. The trade rights motion, which would have impacted Sunsong ranch and other farms that did extensive business beyond Halfhill, had died a fiery death, lost in the confusion as Hoahan shouted, raged, and browbeat a vote through to ban Wildstrike’s creation from being worn on account of decency. Gina, Tina, and Mina hadn’t spoken to their parent afterwards for weeks.

Yoon was grinning, the shared memory forefront on both their minds. “No, no, nothing like that. Think he’s celebrating, to be honest.” The other Pandaren’s brow wrinkled as he scratched at his throat fur. “Yer sure you haven’t heard nothing? I’d have thought... I mean, seeing as yer...”

Wildstrike grinned back, all teeth and rakish brow. “In on all the gossip?”

The other Pandaren had the grace to look embarassed, ears lowered and scuffing the toe of his sandal into the dirt. Hillpaw harumphed, slamming an empty tankard down with a belch. “What the cub’s trying to say is seeing as how you’re from the turtle and all.”

That made Wildstrike blink, grin sliding away. It wasn’t often, now, that anyone brought that up - oh, strangers sometimes looked askance at him, but he had been overseeing Sunsong Ranch for years, a regular around Halfhill, and his family was well settled over the mountains in the Vale. Cubs underfoot, more cubs on the way, and he hadn’t heard anything like “wild” or “turtle” slung at them like an epithet in ages. From someone he had counted as a friend it made his fur stand on end, hands clenching.

Yoon hastily stepped in, hands up, placating. “Now, he didn’t mean it like that! Yer good folk, Wildstrike, and you’ve always done right by us here. The turtle’s no different than... than if you’d moved here from Zou’chin or someplace, right? Just different, is all.”

“Don’t get your fur in a ruffle,” Hillpaw agreed, pouring another tankard and sliding it across the table towards Wildstrike. “Here, have a drink. Too early for that nonsense. No, what I meant was, seems like most of the others have up and left.”

“Left?” Wildstrike blinked at the other two, who nodded at him soberly. His gaze flicked around the marketplace; there was Jian putting bread out to cool, there was Kol busy turning skewers of meat over a hissing grill as one of the farmers waited to take one, the Grummles had opened their wares all over the end of Bobo’s bar and he was demanding they have a drink if they were going to take up space. There was Sungshin and... her cooking class, who were, one and all, underage Pandaren, not a one of them taller than knee high. Just cubs, not a hunched up Worgen or a whiskered Gnome in the batch.

Startled, Wildstrike turned around, taking in the whole market. Pandaren, and only Pandaren - no Orc bartering for supplies, no Dwarves at the bar, not a spec of outland armor to be seen. The quiet that had been bugging him was the lack - no voices raised in Common or any other language he couldn’t speak, no non-Pandaren races running through the market on their way to elsewhere. And the difference... the difference was remarkable.

It was quiet but not ominously so. There was a cheerful rolling cadence to the strolling Pandaren, a more orderly and less chaotic flow to their movements. There was a bounce in Jian’s step that Wildstrike had never seen, Sungshin was laughing as she ruffled a cub’s ears, and a tension that had always flowed through the market guards was gone. It was like the entirety of Halfhill had released a breath that they had been holding for as long as Wildstrike had been there.

It was peaceful and it was, Wildstrike realized, something that belonged there, soaked into the ground and air and water of their ancient land. Without the noise and clamor of outland visitors, it burst forth again, the clear stream bubbling from the rock to refresh and renew.

Yoon was waiting for him to turn back, the other Pandaren’s look almost hopeful. “So... whatever it was, you didn’t hear about it?”

Wildstrike scratched along his jaw and reached up to tighten his topknot with a tug. Alliance, or Horde, or maybe both, and he had his mail routed to Sunsong ranch but hadn’t checked it in days except to take in the orders Yoon left tacked up to the notice board. He could go check it, find out what had everyone in a tizzy... but he had resigned his commission shortly after arriving on the shores of Pandaria, when he and his mates had taken up residence in the Vale, and King Wrynn might send out notices but Wildstrike was in no respect obligated to do a damned thing about them. He had done his duty by the Alliance more times than he could count - if anything, they owed him.

“Didn’t hear a thing,” he told Yoon truthfully, and grabbed a skewer of meat before Hillpaw could swat his hand away, raising the tankard to them both. “Might check into it later... or might not. Not really our business, is it?” He winked at the other two, tearing a bite out of the skewer. “Thanks for this. Catch you later - Mei Mei looks like she could use some help, yeah?” So saying, he gave them a broad grin and sauntered off, pausing to draw in a deep breath. Yes, there was a touch of chill in the air that would turn into frost in a few weeks, but the sky was crystal blue and clear, the sun warm on his ears.

It was a beautiful day in Halfhill.