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Baern

A Lesser Chieftain

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The last time Baern strode through Thunder Bluff, there had been blood. The Bloodhoof braves he walked past? They would have been his targets. The bustling tipis and longhouses nearby burned or looted. Instead, here he was, flanked by a pair of Ashtotem braves, just another tauren visitor to this tauren city. 

They stuck out, but less than he'd expected. Few regarded him with more than a passing glance and those that did linger only offered a few seconds of cold glaring before moving on with their day. The most garish thing about them was the warpaint they wore, but even that wasn't exactly uncommon. Farmers selling melons and leatherworkers tanning hides would also bear markings on their faces, chests and arms. In his head, he'd thought it an act of pride and dignity. A warrior chieftain standing tall as he went to meet with another. In reality, it felt more like the blustering of calves than the markings of warriors. They certainly had the build of warriors. Baern had ornate bone pauldrons carved in the shape of eagles with an enchanted axe strapped across his back. His warriors also wore thick plate, though they carried pairs of weapons to Baern's one. If anything, it was Baern's totem that stuck out the most. Few tauren carried totem harnesses like these, though it was common of Chieftains. But, through it all, they weren't stopped or bothered or harassed or harangued. Instead, they were just allowed to pass. Tauren coming to Thunder Bluff. Baern had been exiled years earlier, and yet? No one seemed to care. 

They got caught in a small queue passing from one level of the central bluff to the next, where Baern realized the sheer size of the central totem in the city. The great tree that formed the backbone of Ashtotem's hospital and guildhall was maybe half as large as this, even though he felt it a towering achievement. When they finally did reach the top level of the city, a tauren orator spoke the news for everyone to hear. "The Armistice has been signed! The Fourth War has ended! Your sons and daughters will be returning home from the front! The banshee queen remains at large! Horde forces are retreating from Darkshore and Arathi! The Armistice has been signed!" He went on and on like that, repeating the news and answering questions for the commonfolk gathered to hear it. Baern himself had only heard a few days prior, when the missive for this meeting arrived. 

Chieftain Baern Ashtotem, it read. I hope this letter finds you well. Nominally, your tribe and mine are enemies. And yet, your tribe stayed away from the war, healed the wounded, and rescued my generals when I crossed Sylvanas. Perhaps it is time we spoke, Chieftain to High Chieftain. It was that detail that irked Baern. High Chieftain. He hadn't told anyone about the meeting, even Arahe. Baine wasn't exactly someone she respected. Indeed, she loathed him for a variety of excellent reasons. Baern's reasons, on the other hand, hadn't proven true. Magatha Grimtotem, who he'd thought should lead the tauren, had shown her true colors when she abandoned her tribe to chase the power behind the Doomstone. Baine, who he'd thought a puppet of Garrosh and the Alliance, had shown his by standing up to Sylvanas and refusing to dishonor the Horde. It was this that motivated him to attend the meeting. A certain shame he felt in harboring that contempt for years. Still. High Chieftain. It embittered him. 

He'd arrived about on time, shephered into the longhouse by attendants. They waited for only a moment before being brought into another room with leather walls, this one containing a large, wooden pipe propped up on a wooden stand. A peace pipe, he'd realized. When two chieftains met, it was common for them to first imbibe from the pipe as an agreement not to draw arms, and then imbibe again to seal whatever agreement that were to be making. Shatichi  the ritual was called. Shared breath. 

"I'll be just a moment," the attendant said to Baern and his braves, before slipping through to the next room. 

"Are you going to smoke that, Chieftain?" One of them asked, skeptical and indignant about the ritual. It was ceremonies like these that the Ashtotem found to be weak and unbecoming of the tauren. Even Baern's own memories of the mechanics of Shatichi came from his father relating them with mockery, as if such a thing was hilarious for any tauren to be caught dead doing. 

 

"Hau," intoned High Chieftain Baine Bloodhoof, slipping through the flap and entering the room before Baern had an opportunity to answer. Like Baern, he wore a totem harness and feather headdress, but both were grander and more ornate than Baern's. The room went silent while the attendant placed some herbs in the pipe, and applied a small fire spell to get them to begin smouldering. The process only took a few seconds, but Baern felt as though the moment hung between everyone in that silence. The attendant stepped away and Baine gestured to the pipe. "Chieftain?"

Baern dropped his head low without hesitation and imbibed the grainy smoke, though his deep breath didn't last long. He coughed violently, spewing smoke and instinctively bringing one hand to his ribs, rubbing them like he used to. A small snicker came from one of his braves, but he ignored it and stepped aside, wordlessly letting Baine draw in the smoke much more gracefully. For him, the smoke streamed slowly and smoothly out of his nostrils and a small smile crossed his face. "Not used to smoking a peace pipe, I assume?" 

"It's not common that the Ashtotem engage with other tribes diplomatically," Baern answered. At least, he was able to keep his fur from fluffing up in embarrassment or his ears from flopping down in submission. 

"Well, Chieftain Ashtotem, I'd like to welcome you to Thunder Bluff. We breathe the same breath, so as long as you remain here, you and your braves are guaranteed safety, security and hospitality. I'm very glad that you answered my summons." 

Summons. It's the details that irked Baern. "I agree that it's important we talk," Baern said bitterly. "If I need to smoke a peace pipe and come to Thunder Bluff to do so? Fair enough. Let's talk." 

Baine nodded, the smile dripping a bit off his face. "Come, let's speak outside." The attendant held up the flap and Baine stepped aside to let Baern through. 

"Chieftain--" one of the braves interrupted, sounding anxious. 

"It's fine," Baern cut off. 

"But--"

"It's. Fine." Without another word, Baern took Baine's offer and led the way out through the flap. There was another behind that, the sun clearly shining out from the other side. The braves remained behind, following Baern's implicit order, as the attendant did Baine's. Without too much preamble, they found themselves walking out the back of the longhouse towards a less used walkway right on the edge of the bluff. 

"I much prefer the fresh air," Baine says as they walk, "so for most of my meetings like this I sneak out back. If we start to draw too much attention, we can head back inside." 

"Do you have meetings like this commonly?" Baern asked, skeptically. 

"Recently, yes. There are many tauren tribes spread through Kalimdor. Many chieftains who want my ear." 

"Well, you shouldn't count me among them," Baern said bitterly. "I'm happy to answer whatever questions about Ashtotem you might have but make no mistake. Ashtotem is not Horde and neither am I."

"You know, once the armistice was signed, I had one advisor counsel me to attack your village. He's a spiritwalker, an old one, who remembers vividly how the Ashtotem got their name," Baine says, though there isn't much of a threat in his words. "And I considered it, asking for a little more information on the village. And then, I heard about this hospital, the Ashtotem Hospital, and thought: This must be some mistake, some strange coincidence. But, no, sure enough, there's a hospital in Ashtotem Village. It's managed by the Cenarion Circle and treats both Horde and Alliance soldiers. And that, I thought, was very interesting! One of the most fearsome and warlike tribes of tauren, who were staunchly neutral in Sylvanas' war. Refusing to fight or even raid other tauren. Instead, I read a missive from Sunwalker Khrane in Taurajo reporting that the Ashtotem actually helped them repel invaders and have been dutiful trade partners for the better part of a year. And then, Cromor, one of my most trusted commanders, tells me that you, Baern Ashtotem, were responsible for rescuing him and five other my best warriors. Not Hamuul Runetotem or Sunwalker Dezco or Aponi Brightmane. They refused to cross the banshee queen, which I hold no ill will for. But you, aligned to no one, did so."

"So, on one hand I have a stubborn tribe that preys on other tauren. A tribe that has been responsible for, what? How many tribes have the Ashtotem burnt to a cinder? And on the other, I have a leader that has healed my wounded, traded with my people and rescued some of my closest friends. What am I to do with that?"

"The Ashtotem also stood side by side with the Bloodhoof in the Battle of Mount Hyjal. You and I met there, in fact, when our fathers agreed the Ashtotem would be the vanguard for the right flank," Baern points out. 

"That's not true," Baine counters, though his tone isn't confident. "I met your brother. You and I never met..."

"I was by Mourne's side the entire battle. You and I met. You complimented my armor.” A small silence grows between them, until Baine breaks it with a small chuckle. 

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember this at all,” he reports. “I remember meeting your brother and your father, though, which did cause me to wonder how they had died.” 

Baern lets it go. “My father died during the Cataclysm. He drowned when the Thousand Needles were flooded. My brother was killed. Or rather, I killed him.” 

“Because he was feeding the Ashtotem demonblood?” Baine asks.

“Precisely. I’d left the village to fight as a mercenary on Draenor and in Pandaria, only to return and find my brother corrupting the tribe. I killed him, then the Dreadlord who convinced him to go along with it.” 

“Very noble of you,” Baine notes. 

“Well, it led to war with Darkcloud Pinnacle, so not exactly that noble,” Baern says bitterly. 

“Yes, I remember that. I think one of my advisors told me not to worry, it was just Grimtotem infighting.”

“In a sense. My great-grandfather was Grimtotem and my great-grandmother was Ashtotem, both children of chieftains. That marriage bound our tribes together and guaranteed safety, security and supplies for one another. When I killed my brother and then asked for those three things from Darkcloud Pinnacle, the Grimtotem denied me. The violence escalated until we repelled their attack, I flew to the Pinnacle and killed Ohmr, their chieftain,” Baern recounts. “After the war, I told the Grimtotem at the Pinnacle, if they wanted to follow a warrior they could become Ashtotem and return with me. And a good amount did that.” 

“And that’s when you re-established the Ashtotem as their own tribe,” Baine surmises. “I see. I’m surprised so many Grimtotem were willing to join you.”

“I never was. The Grimtotem respect strength, but even with the tribes we destroyed over the years, there were always converts.” Talking about it so casually forces Baern to pause for a moment. He didn’t mean to sound callous, but it was callous. “Which, now, I see as something of a boon. A young Bloodhoof in my village has started writing down the stories of the Ashtotem and many of them include the customs and culture of tauren tribes long dead.” 

Baine holds his tongue, watching a pair of young braves walk along the path behind them. It’s obvious that conflict is apparent on his face. “Grim solace if I’ve ever heard it,” he says, after a moment. “But I certainly see the good that you’re trying to do. Baern, I’d like you and your tribe to join the Horde. There have been enough divisions in our ranks, it’s the time the tauren were finally united.” 

It was a plea Baern expected but with less… persuasive energy than he’d imagined. There was a hesitation there, a reluctance. He had come ready to bargain and barter, hoping to extract real concessions from the High Chieftain for helping unite the tauren. But Baine, by his tone and face, seemed to offer as a matter of course. Was he just exhausted? Drained from the war, the council, the armistice and everything in between? 

“I’m open to the idea, at the very least,” Baern grants. “I left the Horde on a principle, one that I have to admit was poor.” 

“You mean, the coup?” Baine asks. 

“Indeed. I think few tauren understand the thought process of the Grimtotem, at the time, but we saw Garrosh as the murderer and Magatha as the scapegoat. There was a great amount of respect for your father among the Ashtotem, at least. We trusted her when she said she was innocent and it made so much sense that Garrosh killed him to cull the closest rival to Warchief. Now, though, it’s beyond clear that Magatha couldn’t be trusted and that you weren’t some witless pawn.”

“Apology accepted,” Baine answers with a soft smile. 

“But-- I have bigger considerations than that. Ashtotem houses more than just tauren. We have Night Elves who live there, working in the hospital. One of our mesas is dedicated entirely to a group of Death Knights I’ve allowed to remain. These are independent citizens, not Horde citizens, and I would never evict them from their home.”

Baine closes his eyes and puts up his hands. “Granted. I expected as much and I’m more than happy to allow my chieftains to govern the inhabitants of their village as they see fit. Trade, however, with the Alliance is not open and would need to be ended.” 

“That’s fine,” Baern agrees. “I have no active routes with the Alliance, at this point. We were trading with New Thalanaar on the way to Camp Taurajo, but Teldrassil changed all that. Now, our only real trade partners are Desolation Hold, Camp Taurajo and the Speedbarge.” 

“Yes, I’m prepared to make that route to Desolation Hold even stronger. I understand that you have a hard time farming in the desert of the Needles, so I’ve instructed that we open up some of our stockpiles to flow south through the Hold.” 

“I’m much obliged. We’re doing much better on food now than last year, but the village grows bigger by the day and I’d like to keep those costs down, if I can.” Baern allows himself a small smile. This was turning out better than expected. “I’d also like to send someone here to represent our interests with you in any day to day decision making. There’s a Bloodhoof warrior in my village, Kimba Goldplain, who I think would love to return to Thunder Bluff.”

“You mean, you want to send me an advisor?” Baine asks. 

“I suppose if that’s what you want to call it, yes,” Baern answers, a little unsure of himself. “As I understand it, tribes send representatives to Thunder Bluff.” 

“Some do,” Baine answers apologetically, “but most of the smaller tribes keep their best people close to the chest rather than wasting their time in Thunder Bluff.” 

“Are you saying if I did send someone here, you’d ignore them?” Baern bites back harder and harsher than he’d intended. 

“I have a limited amount of time, Chieftain, and I choose what advisors to bring on very carefully,” Baine explains.

His mouth hanging open, Baern blinked and shook his head. Rationally, he understood the High Chieftain’s viewpoint, but those feelings of shame, indignity, and embarrassment flourished among the denial. 

“If you want me and my people to rejoin the Horde, I want a voice in Thunder Bluff. That’s very important to me and, I think, very reasonable!” Baern shouted, despite himself. 

“I agree,” Baine responds soothingly, like a father trying to calm down a child on the brink of tantrum. “But you must understand that it takes time for some of the lesser chieftains to bend my ear, especially chieftains that have the history of the Ashtotem. I believe in the good work that you’re doing and I’m grateful for everything that you’ve done for me. Rescuing my generals. Taking in refugees from my tribe. Healing my soldiers. But it just takes time…” 

Lesser chieftains. The rest of Baine’s words, no matter how respectful or well-reasoned, whistled past Baern’s ears like an inaudible wind. The only words in that response he found were lesser and chieftains. Over the last two years, Baern had killed his corrupted brother, killed the dreadlord who corrupted him, freed his people from the clutches of the Legion, became chieftain to an impoverished, starving village, killed a fel lord in single combat, died, became Valarjar, earned the trust of Bloodtotem, Bloodhoof and Death Knight refugees, rallied his people to defend against an overwhelming foe, defeated that foe, absorbed half of that tribe, built a hospital, avoided war, and helped heal the earthmother beneath his hooves by working with the Champions of Azeroth. 

Baern remembered a time when he thought himself a villain. A raider whose only purpose was to kill, conquer and dominate other people. He hated when the Ashtotem called him a hero, a title he hadn’t felt worthy of. But over time, that self image had bled away and he began to see himself through the eyes of others. It was satisfying, comforting even, to think he’d been able to shed that old life, earned the kind of dignity and honor that even Baine Bloodhoof would have to take notice of. 

That was never the truth. The truth, Baern realized, was all Ashtotem’s dramas and trials and victories and defeats were the movements of a few thousand tauren of a small tribe in a small village on the fringes of civilization. 

The shame and embarrassment bubbled to the surface as Baern realized Baine had been waiting patiently for him to say something, anything, with an empathetic, patient and even caring look on his face. Shame’s knife twisted in Baern’s gut. Even in this moment of humiliation, the High Chieftain wasn’t even heartless or oblivious enough that Baern could hide those feelings with indignant anger. 

“I don’t think it’s the right time,” Baern said finally, his voice fraying from speaking so quietly. “Things are going well in the village and with the tribe. I can’t disrupt that, at the moment.” 

Mercifully, Baine nodded. “If that is your wish, I’ll respect it. I do think there is a great potential for good among your tribe. And great potential in you, Chieftain.” 

“Thank you, High Chieftain,” Baern agreed, offering a sad smile, an implicit apology for overstepping bounds. Wordlessly, they returned to the room with the peace pipe, where Baern and Baine shared another breath together. This time, the Ashtotem chieftain didn’t descend into a coughing fit, and with just a bit of formal farewells, he and his two braves activated their hearthstones and returned to the windswept mesas they called home. 

Edited by Baern

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