As Rexxar and Thrall made their way through the mountains, Thrall noticed an old keep in the distance. Rexxar noticed it as well, snorting under his breath.
"They've done some work since the last time I came through here," Rexxar said gruffly.
"Humans," Rexxar said. "From Kul Tiras."
"What, even now?" Thrall stared at Rexxar incredulously before looking down over the keep. Sure enough, the small figures going through a mostly-empty courtyard were obviously human. "Why was I not told of this? What are they doing?"
"Not much at all," Rexxar said with a shrug. "They harass the riders now and again, but they are hardly any threat."
Thrall could see how this would be true, yet he did not appreciate being surprised by this discovery. His silence must have spoken his thoughts as Rexxar shook his head and hitched his pack higher upon his shoulder.
"They're not worth a second thought, Thrall. The centaurs are more problematic than these humans. They don't even smell as bad."
Even so, Thrall noticed Rexxar was choosing a path that gave the human enclave a wide berth. It seemed to Thrall that his memory must be failing him, that he should not be surprised at the sight of humans in Durotar. While they had been beaten back many a time, it did not mean they would not return. He was all too aware of animosity against the Horde. He also felt disturbed that he was seeing this with his own eyes now and not before. Perhaps he had spent far too long behind the walls of Orgrimmar, trusting others to tell him of the ills of the surrounding land.
Thrall broke off from his reverie as Rexxar stopped suddenly. Thrall realized the keep was now far behind them, that he had been lost in his own thoughts for some time. What he saw now was a small village and the sight was much more welcoming than the cold stone keep. Thrall's smile was broad.
"Sen'jin! It's been some time since I have been here."
"I thought you might prefer a softer bed for a night," Rexxar said with a faint grin as he started down the hillside.
"I have been content with what we've had," Thrall protested, but Rexxar waved it off. Thrall grinned to himself, feeling much improved as they came closer to the small troll village.
"It might take awhile for you to get to that bed," Rexxar added with an amused look. "The clan hasn't seen their Warchief in some time."
Thrall's heart sank. It was unfortunately true, he had neglected this outlying haven of the Darkspear. "They are not angry about it, are they?"
"Are they?" Rexxar said with a shrug. "You're forgetting their children were raised to believe you saved them from a fate worse than death."
"Oh," Thrall said, though not entirely less uneasy. "But what do you mean, a fate worse than death?"
"Not having a home," Rexxar said. He turned away from Thrall and continued to walk down to the main path through the village. Someone must have already spotted them, because a small group of children were spying nearby. They were less gregarious than the orc orphans in his city, instead they shyly hid behind slender trees almost thinner than themselves. Thrall noticed some of them were dressed in little more than rags.
"Are many orphaned here as well?" Thrall asked Rexxar.
"Many," Rexxar said simply. "And more by the day. Zalazane doesn't care for the souls of children."
"Even now?" Thrall questioned. "Vol'jin has told me none of this."
"Vol'jin has been rather busy with your biddings," Rexxar said. "But if you ask Master Gadrin, I'm sure he could tell you more."
Thrall was about to ask why Rexxar had decided not to tell him more, but the children were now being followed by a number of older trolls. Many of them spoke to each other excitedly, a larger crowd now gathering. Thrall had not been expecting this and felt a bit embarrassed by the attention, but he returned the smiles in his direction. The trolls gave both Rexxar and Thrall a very respectable amount of space as the two continued on toward the center of the village. It did not take them long and Master Gadrin himself was there to greet them.
"We are glad you are here at last," Gadrin said, bowing low. Thrall caught the "at last" a moment too late, wondering just who had told the head of the village to expect them.
"For your greetings and hospitality," Thrall said, "we are grateful."
Gadrin grinned as he straightened up. When he spoke again to the gathered crowd, Thrall recognized the language as the troll's own ancient tongue. He had learned some Zandali from Vol'jin, but not enough to follow the entire speech. Once Gadrin was done, the trolls cheered and suddenly broke up their huddled crowd to tend to several things.
"Come, sit. You have earned us all a well-deserved day of feasting," Gadrin said as he crouched by the small pool at the center of the village. "I welcome you both here once more."
"We did not need such preparations," Thrall protested, though he too sat down near Gadrin as Rexxar did the same. "I do not wish to put out your people for a simple visit..."
"A blessing from the Warchief is hardly a simple visit," Gadrin frowned. "Surely you would not begrudge us a cause for celebration?"
"Of course not," Thrall said quickly. He also noted a touch of rue in the leader's words. Why was his mere passing through the town treated as a blessing? Perhaps Thrall had been away from here far too long.
"Perhaps the Warchief forgets that the Darkspear owe him a lifetime of servitude for their safety," Rexxar said.
"It is certainly not servitude," Thrall retorted, trying to keep his sudden anger in check. "I abhor that word. The Darkspear are welcome to Durotar because they are of the Horde, as are we all."
Gadrin seemed uneasy at Rexxar's words, but he seemed to choose not to speak, which made Thrall feel a need to clarify even more.
"Surely the Champion of the Horde does not feel that I would want any of my people to feel as if they were slaves," Thrall added quietly.
"Slaves?" Gadrin said. "Never, my Warchief. We are grateful, as always, for the sanctuary we have been given."
"And is Zalazane grateful for having so many sacrifices still within reach?" Rexxar said. Thrall felt his anger grow instead of smolder. Gadrin startled visibly, though his jaw set firm at the name.
"He has captured many of our village even now," Gadrin said in a low voice. "But we send as many warriors to the islands to beat Zalazane back!"
"I have no doubt of that," Rexxar said calmly. "But the adults are fewer and the children more plentiful."
"Is it help that you need?" Thrall interrupted, ignoring Rexxar completely and looking directly at Gadrin. "You know that I would send whatever assistance I can at a moment's notice, Master Gadrin. The welfare of Sen'jin is very important to me."
"Nothing you can do can throw off the shame of a clan denied by its own race," Rexxar said. Gadrin's face seemed to suddenly drain of color, but not as much as Thrall's own.
"Leave us!" Thrall snarled at Rexxar. Rexxar walked away without another word. Thrall felt the hot flush of rage in his face and expected the curious eyes of onlookers. Fortunately, the villagers were all off preparing for the evening's feast. The only gaze that met his own was a young male troll, perhaps not old enough to saddle his own mount. When his startled gaze met Thrall's, the youth seemed rooted to the spot. Gadrin barked a few words at the boy, enough to break him from his stunned look and run away.
Thrall looked back to Gadrin, his face apologetic. He began to speak, but then he realized the full effect of Rexxar's words upon him. The Darkspear had suffered much and now, still, even from one of their own? Thrall knew Gadrin's own brother had been killed by Zalazane. How terrible it must be to be reminded regularly of this one troll's evils.
"Your champion does not speak truth..." Gadrin said, hesitant. "But it is a truth in its own way. As it shall always be, for the fate we were handed."
"You are not outcasts," Thrall said firmly. "And certainly never slaves, not in the eyes of the Horde."
"You speak wisely," Gadrin replied, "but it remains as it is. The orcs provided and we have lived underneath --"
"You live underneath nothing!" Thrall said hotly. "I am not -- I will never be -- some dictator that demands your grovelling! You are as free a people as are the orcs or the tauren or any of the Horde."
"Thrall, do not be grieved by what you can't completely understand."
Thrall looked up sharply, but the voice was not Rexxar's. Instead, it was Vol'jin. He smiled wryly at Thrall's look of surprise, crouching down beside the other two men.
"I didn't want to miss the celebration," Vol'jin commented. "Particularly not here in Sen'jin."
"Excuse me," Gadrin seemed all too eager to be out of the middle of this conversation. "Speaking of the celebration, I best be off to check on things."
Thrall nodded absently, getting up at the same time as Gadrin. Without so much as a passing glance to Vol'jin, he angrily stalked off toward the coastline. Vol'jin followed, not speaking until Thrall came to the very edge of the sea. It seemed to Thrall that the Echo Isles had been much farther than before, but certainly not even time could have made them appear as close as they did now.
"You knew of this?" Thrall said icily.
"You did not tell me things were bad in Sen'jin," Thrall snapped, not having the patience at all for Vol'jin's feigned innocence. Vol'jin made a quiet sound of agreement, then he sighed.
"They are not so bad as you may think," Vol'jin said. "Things could certainly be worse. They could have no home."
"How can this be home when their shores are regularly invaded, as I have just now learned?" Thrall shouted. "Why am I told that the numbers of orphaned children are growing, when I have not seen a single orphaned troll in Orgrimmar?"
"Ah," Vol'jin said uncomfortably. "That would be because the Matron has told me not to bring any."
"What?" Thrall said, shocked. Vol'jin shrugged, seemingly unsurprised by Thrall's anger.
"They don't get along well with the orc children," Vol'jin said. "They would rather be hungry at the side of their own clan then well-fed among strangers."
"There are so many here," Thrall said. "We could open a new orphanage in Orgrimmar, perhaps bring some of the women from this village..."
"No, no, that would be terrible," Vol'jin said, holding up his hands in protest. "This is a fishing village, they breathe the sea. The stone and flame of Orgrimmar would be a prison, no offense."
"Then we will bring more provisions here," Thrall said, determined.
"We've tried that as well," Vol'jin said uneasily. "But the Kul Tiras marines..."
"Yet even more of something I have only now heard," Thrall said, seething. He glanced around before turning fully toward Vol'jin, his fury obvious. "Humans encroaching upon Horde lands, children orphaned --"
"-- and the sun rises and sets," Vol'jin retorted, undeterred by Thrall's anger. "None of this is different than it has ever been, Thrall. So the humans wreck a few carts coming from Razor Hill. Is that enough for the full might of the Horde? An old enemy of ours stabs at us from the sea --" Vol'jin nodded toward the Echo Isles, " -- is that cause for war? There are difficulties and there are hardships, but you can be sure we will survive."
Thrall was silent for a moment as he looked out over the sea. The surface was calm except for the occasional broken splash from a fisherman's line. A small group of children laughed as they chased after a skittering crawler, triumphant when they caught it, then letting it go for another chase.
"The Darkspear did give up much when we gave our allegiance to the Horde," Vol'jin said, his voice quiet. "But we were given something very important to us."
"Yes," Vol'jin said. "And if that home is threatened from time to time, so be it. We will fight, we will protect it. For it is our home."
"Do the people of Sen'jin feel they are owned?" Thrall asked. Vol'jin hesitated, but then he shook his head.
"You are revered in Sen'jin almost as much as any of our gods," Vol'jin said. "I gave my allegiance to the Horde in return for the lives of my people."
"Allegiance is so much more than... slavery," Thrall said, almost desperate in his need to erase that word. Vol'jin put his hand on Thrall's shoulder, his gaze sympathetic.
"It is not how Rexxar speaks of it," Vol'jin said. "He does not understand. But to be fair, Warchief, neither do you. We are enemies of many of our own clans because we gave our lives to the Horde. Our allegiance is not slavery, but it also is a debt that our children and our children's children will retain."
"I would have no child of the Darkspear owe a debt to me!" Thrall exclaimed. "I am no savior, I only did what I thought was right."
"It is done," Vol'jin said. "But believe me, the more you doubt our survival, the more we will doubt ourselves. The Kul Tiras are no more a threat than a biting fish. Zalazane... he too will be defeated, in time."
"Then what can be done?" Thrall said.
"What can be done?" Vol'jin squeezed Thrall's shoulder and then let it go. He grinned. "We celebrate tonight, yes? The day's catch will be plentiful and it will be thanks to your arrival."
The small tangle of children that had been playing on the shore now approached Thrall and Vol'jin. The eldest among them was holding the wriggling crawler tightly in her small hands. She shyly approached Thrall and offered up the crawler to him, speaking so softly that Thrall could have hardly understood her had it been in his own language. Thrall smiled and took the crawler, bowing low to her. Unlike those who might come before him in Grommash Hold, she looked at him full in the face and did not lower her eyes. Thrall admired her instantly. Only when one of her playmates tugged at her hand did she grin and run away.
"I think we'd best find a pot for your prize," Vol'jin laughed as he nodded to Thrall. Thrall laughed too as well, his heart eased by the laughter of the children on the shore.