Reforged

This short story was my entry for the 2011 Blizzard Global Writing Contest, in which I was honored to be named one of the top 7 finalists.

Set in the World of Warcraft universe, this is my version of the untold story behind Halduron Brightwing's decision to turn against his friend and ruler, Lor'themar Theron, and request aid from the Silver Covenant during the Zandalari uprising. Tae'thelan Bloodwatcher of the Reliquary plays a pivotal role in these events, and his actions will ultimately force Silvermoon's leadership to choose between duty and ambition.

I hope you enjoy it!

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1. Reforged

            “Traitorous filth!”

            Halduron Brightwing chased those words into the sanctuary just as the back side of Grand Magister Rommath’s hand bludgeoned Auric Sunchaser’s brow.  The edge of his signet ring drew blood just above the captain’s left temple.  A chorus of irate cries exploded from the quel’dorei pilgrims nearby, and the Sunwell’s sin’dorei honor guards brandished their weapons.

            “Damn the whole lot of them,” Halduron uttered beneath his breath.

            In a few powerful strides, the ranger general stood within the eye of this brewing storm.  His golden-white hair caught the glorious light of the Sunwell, seeming to set his head ablaze.  His eyes became emerald slits, and within their glare was an unmistakable oath to smite the first wretch who dared to make another move.

            No one was brash enough to try and call his bluff.  Even Lor’themar Theron stood mute, allowing his old friend’s gambit to play out.  The raging soon settled until the only sound left was the wordless aria of the Sunwell.

            “Have you all gone mad?” Halduron growled, his gaze lingering briefly on Rommath as he scanned the crowd.  “Do none of you have any respect for the ground upon which we stand?  I did not permit the bearer of Quel’Delar to enter this sacred place so that you could each try to hang your personal agendas upon the blade like it was some cheap valet!”

            Rommath straightened and smoothed a loose strand of his raven mane back into place.  “Well said, Ranger General,” he cooed, a barbed smile playing across his haughty façade.  “Would that the good Captain Sunchaser here have heeded such wise counsel before he so rudely insulted the regent lord.”

            Indignation flashed in Auric’s eyes, seeming all the bluer now set against the bright red stream running down his face.  “With all due respect, Grand Magister, I can hardly be held accountable if the regent lord finds the truth insulting.”

            Rommath’s face cracked with rage.  “Why, you insolent little…”

            That’s it, you self-righteous sycophant.  Halduron’s muscles tensed eagerly.  Just give me an excuse

            “Enough!”  Lor’themar’s clarion voice resounded, for the moment solidifying his authority over the crowd.  “Quel’Danas is neutral territory for all elves, and as such, the captain is of course free to express his opinion.  Besides, the ranger general raises an excellent point: this ought to be a day for celebration, not petty ideological debates.”

            Halduron caught an unpleasant whiff of insincerity.

            “Come, Rommath.  Let us leave our guests and return to fair Silvermoon, where we may drink to its enduring beauty, as well as to the health and success of Quel’Delar’s new wielder.”

            The grand magister bowed graciously to Lor’themar, casting one last triumphant glance in Auric’s direction.  Then, muttering an incantation, he conjured a portal of swirling arcane currents that hovered just above the floor.

            Lor’themar turned to Halduron.  “Won’t you be joining us?”  The earnestness in his tone relieved and upset Halduron at the same time.

            “Forgive me, Lord Regent, but my duties require my presence here.”  Halduron used the title deliberately, and he could see by the subtle drop in Lor’themar’s expression that his meaning was not missed.

            “Perhaps another time,” Lor’themar replied flatly.  With a nod to Rommath, the two stepped through the glowing vortex and were gone.

            Halduron motioned sharply for the Sunwell honor guards to resume their posts.  The scarlet-clad sentries obeyed, and soon the pilgrims went about their own business, but each group continued to watch the other warily.  Once the crowd had fully dispersed, Halduron turned his attention to Auric, who was gingerly inspecting his wound.  The expression on his face as he looked at the red stain on his finger, however, belied more pity than anger.

            A shadow of remorse stalked the edges of the ranger general’s thoughts.  Though he may be quel’dorei, Auric was still a Farstrider as far as Halduron was concerned—one of best with whom he’d ever served.  Mindful of the guards nearby, Halduron produced a strip of linen bandaging from a pouch inside his cloak, tossing it at Auric with mock disdain.  “Try not to bleed all over the floor,” he chided wryly.

            Auric studied Halduron for several moments, no doubt trying to gauge whether there was some duplicitous intent behind the ranger general’s gesture.  Finally, he half-smiled and pressed the cloth to his temple.  “‘Neutral territory,’ he says” Auric scoffed.  “Why is it, then, that the only armed guards on this island all have fel-tainted eyes?”

            Halduron ignored the slight.  “Just what, in Dath’Remar’s name, did you say to him, anyway?” he asked, forcing the topic.

            The captain shifted his gaze to the Sunwell, and he shook his head disapprovingly before responding.  “I merely alluded to the issue of ‘Regent Lord’ Theron’s legitimacy.”  He gave Halduron a sidelong glance, tapping his index finger upon his bandage.  “Obviously, the grand magister disagreed there was an issue.

            “But we both know who appointed Lor’themar to that position in the first place,” he added, his tone somber.  “Perhaps, like so many of his other decisions, that one did not have the best interests of Quel’Thalas at heart either.”

            A mixture of sensations washed over Halduron.  On one level, he bristled to hear Lor’themar’s competency called into question; on another, he balked at now having a measure of sympathy for Rommath’s earlier behavior.  But beneath it all, undeniable and unyielding as the loosed blade of a guillotine, was the sickening acknowledgment that Auric was telling him something he had already considered.

            Still, Halduron had known Lor’themar for far too long to give up on him just yet.  Squaring his shoulders, he gave Auric a mildly defiant look.  “Every man stands or falls according to his own choices, not those that were made for him.”

            “On that point, we can both agree,” Auric offered, nodding.  In a lower voice, he added, “Perhaps, one day, our divisive peoples will once again find a great deal more to agree upon.”

            Wistfully, Halduron replied, “We shall see.”  He gave his former comrade-at-arms an almost imperceptible bow, and then turned on his heels to leave the pilgrims to their prayers and meditations.

            As he strode through the muted corridors and perfectly manicured gardens of the Sunwell Plateau, the ranger general could sense the specter of Auric’s words pursuing him around every corner.  Lor’themar was a patriot; of that, Halduron had no question.  But over the past year, he had watched his old friend’s dealings with the quel’dorei grow increasingly hostile.  To be fair, the discord was hardly one-sided, but Halduron never fully supported the aggressive stance that the regent lord first tacitly, then openly allowed Aethas Sunreaver’s forces to take against the Silver Covenant.  In fact, he often wondered if the archmage’s lieutenants needed to be reminded that they were not in Northrend to fight a civil war.

            “Well, it’s about time.  I was beginning to think I was being ignored.”

            The voice caught Halduron off guard.  He had been so lost in contemplation that he hadn’t even realized he’d returned to the arched entryway of the compound.  In front of him, barred by two very relieved looking Wardens of the Sunwell, stood the fuming visage of Tae’thelan Bloodwatcher.

            “To what do I owe the…esteemed privilege of a visit from the high examiner?”  Halduron knew his grimace must have been apparent, but he didn’t care.

            “You know very well why I’m here,” Tae’thelan expressed archly, smoothing out a crease in his elegantly tailored tunic of gold and crimson runecloth.  “I would have arrived sooner, but information doesn’t pass among the magisters as efficiently as it used to these days.  I assume the blade is within, awaiting my inspection?”  Anticipation gleamed behind his richly polished monocle.

            Arrogant fool.  Halduron smiled subtly at what was sure to be disappointing news.  “I’m afraid not.  Allow me to share some efficient information with you, High Examiner: Quel’Delar has returned to Northrend, where it belongs, bolstering the ranks of those fighting to preserve the lives of everyone on Azeroth.”

            The look of utter incredulity on the high examiner’s face was one that Halduron wished he could preserve.  “Oh, that’s just brilliant!” Tae’thelan shrieked.  “Because we all know how well it turned out the last time the blade was born from our lands.  Why don’t we just wrap it up and place it at the doorstep of Icecrown Citadel while we’re at it!”

            “That blade is a symbol—a powerful one,” Halduron asserted, glowering.  “The fact that you, and so many others, have lost sight of that is a clear sign that we have need of it now more than ever!”

            “Oh, it’s powerful all right, but it has nothing to do with symbolism,” Tae’thelan sneered, reining in his frustration.  “Artifacts, like Quel’Delar, have no business being bandied around by incompetent mercenaries.  They must be kept in the right hands—the hands of those who know how and where they ought to be used.”

            Halduron gritted his teeth.  “And who decides who the ‘right hands’ are?”

            The high examiner’s eyes narrowed and he smiled knowingly.  “If you’ll excuse me, Ranger General, I just remembered some business in the capital that requires my immediate attention.  Good day.”  He bowed with all the false humility of a seasoned politician, then brusquely whirled around, flourishing his cloak, and strode off.

            Exasperation throbbed in Halduron’s head.  This had not been the day of hope and solidarity that it should have been, and he had seen plainly that it would take more than relics of bygone days to bridge the chasm between the disparate children of Silvermoon.  A chill wind began to harass the ranger general as he watched Tae’thelan’s retreating figure, and he turned to look at the sinking sun, heralding the onset of twilight.

            The horizon, Halduron noted solemnly, had never looked so bleak.

 

*          *          *

 

            Icy rain drove through the soaked layers of Halduron’s clothing like frozen bodkins.  Angry wind slashed at his face, and he barely had any feeling left in his lower legs, which were submerged in nearly three feet of brackish water.  All this the ranger general staunchly forced to the back of his mind as he hoisted a terrified girl into the arms of her overjoyed mother on the bridge above him.  There would be time enough to recuperate once the evacuation was complete.

            In the months following the end of the war in Northrend, Quel’Danas had seen a substantial increase in the number of pilgrims coming to visit the Sunwell, most wishing to offer prayers in honor of the fallen.  That made Halduron’s job all the more difficult now as his wardens found themselves stretched precariously thin when the merciless storm struck.

            Thus, it came as a most welcome surprise when the quel’dorei pilgrims volunteered unconditionally to assist however they could.  Halduron could see one of them at the far side of Dawnstar Village: a young mage, frantically conjuring makeshift levees out of ice in an attempt to divert the flood waters.  He admired the noble effort, however futile.

            “Sir!” called a thoroughly drenched warden, slogging his way over to Halduron.  “All points check in.  Every dwelling in Dawnstar is clear, sir.”

            “Good.  I want everyone to withdraw to the Plateau immediately.  We don’t know when the next surge will hit.”  Halduron quickly scanned the area.  Though the levees were helping to slow the advance, the water level continued to rise.  Unfortunately, Dawnstar sat within a basin, and aside from the torrential rain, colossal waves bombarding the island’s western shore were relentlessly dumping the ocean into the village.

            A faint yell drew Halduron’s attention toward the harbor.  Through the sheets of rain, he could just barely see that all five Silver Covenant ships anchored in the waters north of Sun’s Reach were still accounted for.  Due to the overflow of visitors, and the prejudice of Dawnstar’s innkeepers, the majority of quel’dorei were forced to lodge on their own ships.

            Why then, Halduron wondered with growing concern, were there only two skiffs ferrying the occupants to shore?

            Halduron directed the warden’s gaze northward.  “Who’s supervising the running of the skiffs down there?  Those ships should have been evacuated by now.”

            The warden’s dripping face appeared vaguely puzzled.  “No one, sir.  They’re not ours.”

            Halduron’s eyes flared, and he stomped over to fill the warden’s view with his infuriated visage.  “Those are elven civilians on those ships!  This is not the time to scrutinize political allegiances!”

            “I’m sorry, sir,” the warden began, now clearly confused, “but we have standing orders from the regent lord himself to make the safety of all sin’dorei our highest priority.  I thought you knew, sir.”

            The ranger general felt as though he’d just been struck.  In all the time Halduron had known him, Lor’themar had rigorously honored the chain of command.  To issue such an order, without consulting or even informing him…

            A cacophony of screams arrested Halduron’s thoughts.  His eyes followed the anguished cries of the quel’dorei beyond the water’s edge where, with toy-like ease, a massive swell lifted up the ship at the westernmost side of the fleet.  The anchor line snapped like a frayed thread, and with it time suddenly ground to an agonizing crawl.  An age passed over the next two seconds as all witnessed the swell drop the first ship on top of the next ship over.  Shattered timbers mingled with sea spray, and within moments, only the tumultuous water’s surface remained.

            Both ships had yet to be evacuated.

            A trained calmness settled over Halduron, forcing the present back into focus.  He had learned long ago that panic and remorse served neither the living nor the dead.  “Listen to me very carefully,” he gravely addressed the stunned warden, a tripwire in his voice.  “I don’t give a damn what other orders you’ve received.  You take whatever men you can spare, get down to the harbor, and make sure those people make it to the Plateau alive, or you can give the naga my regards when I personally send you to join those wretched souls.  Am I clear?

            “Absolutely, sir!” the warden shouted, urgency plunging through his spine as he rigidly saluted the ranger general, and then hurriedly sloshed off.

            Sparing one final glance at the water, Halduron took what solace he could from the bitter irony that those who had been exiled from their homeland in life would now find their eternal rest here in death.

 

            The storm raged for several days, and by the end, nearly a week more had passed before Halduron was sufficiently comfortable leaving the management of Quel’Danas to someone else.  As much as he wanted to keep an eye on the refugee situation, he had business on the mainland that could no longer afford to wait.

            A ship took Halduron to Sunsail Anchorage at daybreak, and from there it was only a few hours’ ride to Silvermoon.  Despite the long journey, he opted to head directly to Sunfury Spire upon reaching the city.  As he approached the entrance of the palatial tower, the rows of guards on both sides of the vaulting walkway each saluted the ranger general as he passed, their polished tower shields forming a glistening canyon of red and gold.  Inside, the resplendent sapphire drapery throughout the hall all but muted his determined stride.

            Two voices became distinct as Halduron approached the main reception chamber.  One he instantly recognized as Lor’themar’s; the other—

            “Well, speak the demon’s name!  If it isn’t Ranger General Brightwing himself,” spoke Tae’thelan Bloodwatcher with forced enthusiasm.  The practiced nonchalance that beamed from his face almost outshined a devious twinkle in his eye.

            Halduron was at a complete loss for words.  He searched Lor’themar’s face for an explanation.

            At once, the regent lord smiled warmly.  “It is good to see you again, old friend,” he offered, genuine sincerity in his tone as he came over and firmly placed his hand on Halduron’s shoulder.  “I can’t tell you how relieved I am that you made it through that storm.  It must have been absolutely dreadful out there on the island.”

            “Actually, Lor’themar,” Halduron warily replied, still wondering at Tae’thelan’s presence, “that’s precisely what I wanted to talk to you about.”

            “I see.  Well, perhaps we could address that later over dinner and, of course, a bottle of my finest wine.”  Lor’themar winked at Halduron conspiratorially.  “The high examiner and I were just discussing an issue that could greatly benefit from your input, thanks to your timely arrival.”

            “Is that so,” remarked Halduron, casting an openly suspicious gaze upon the high examiner.

            “Indubitably,” Tae’thelan quipped, assuming a patronizing air.  “As I’m sure that you’ve already been made aware, the disaster that struck Quel’Thalas was not unique.  Similar unnatural upheavals have occurred all over Azeroth.  But aside from destruction, they have also left a great number of artifacts exposed in their wake—relics of untold power that have been hidden for years, millennia even.”

            Watching Tae’thelan speak of these artifacts, Halduron couldn’t help but think of a child waking up on the morning of Winter’s Veil.  “That’s all very interesting,” he dryly remarked, “but what does that have to do with me?”

            Lor’themar interjected.  “The high examiner is putting together a number of expeditions to go forth and lay claim to as many of these artifacts as possible, before they fall into the hands of our enemies.  Conflicts are no doubt inevitable, and as such, he has requested that the Farstriders be dispatched to ensure the protection of the expeditions’ members.”

            Halduron struggled to keep himself from laughing openly.  “Well, Lor’themar, it truly is fortuitous that I arrived when I did.  After all, I would have hated for you have to give the high examiner such bad news yourself.”

            Lor’themar looked confused.  Tae’thelan’s façade wavered slightly.

            “To grant such a request would be absurd,” Halduron continued, all humor having fled his tone.  “The Farstriders are already stretched to their maximum.  Our numbers are still not what they were prior to the Scourge invasion.  You would have the audacity to ask me to leave our homeland vulnerable so that my men can baby-sit you while you dig through the dirt?”

            Tae’thelan drew a long, measured breath, steeling his composure.  He apparently was wise enough not to lash out with the regent lord standing next to him.  “Ranger General, you speak of protecting our homeland.  In that, the Farstriders and the Reliquary are united.  These artifacts can be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands.

            “And I’m not just talking about our enemies.  Those of us with the knowledge of how to properly handle these objects have an obligation to keep them away from those who don’t—both for their own safety, and that of those around them.  Or would you prefer a repeat of the incident at Quel’Lithien?”

            Halduron clenched his teeth and slowly closed the gap between him and the high examiner.  “Do not presume to think me so callous,” he hissed.  “I have nothing but sympathy for what happened to Captain Hawkspear’s men.  But, so that I may fulfill my obligation as ranger general of Quel’Thalas, I hereby officially deny your request.”

            Oddly, the high examiner didn’t appear phased by Halduron’s refusal.  He seemed as smug as ever as he turned expectantly toward the regent lord.

            For several moments, Lor’themar kept his gaze fixed on one of the ornamental shields mounted on the wall.  When at last he turned to Tae’thelan, his face had assumed a brittle mask of stoic resolve.  “High Examiner, please see to whatever preparations your teams require for their expeditions.  I will…personally see that they have the necessary Farstrider support before they are ready to depart.”

            “It shall be done, my lord.  And please accept my most humble gratitude.”  Tae’thelan bowed with deliberately unnecessary flair and turned to leave.  He muttered something to the ranger general as he passed, but Halduron didn’t catch it.  The injury Lor’themar had just inflicted left all others mute.

            Intense heat arose from some terrible abyss within Halduron’s being.  It threatened to consume him utterly, but the shock left him paralyzed.  No enemy in a century had accomplished what his closest friend rendered in a breath.

            Once Tae’thelan had gone, Lor’themar arduously seated himself upon the edge of the chamber’s opulently cushioned dais—once a throne for a now-defunct dynasty.  He leaned forward pensively, elbows upon his knees, chin resting heavily on his steepled fingers, and all the while he avoided meeting Halduron’s eyes.

            “I’m sorry, old friend,” Lor’themar evenly stated, breaking the stale silence.

            It wasn’t the feeble attempt at an apology, but rather the wrongful endearment that shook Halduron from his stupor.  “You’re sorry for what, exactly?” he snapped, his rage boiling over.  “First, you issue an order behind my back.  Now, you issue another over my head!  Are these warning shots, or has all this time spent sitting in that chair finally dulled your aim?”

            Lor’themar finally looked at Halduron.  There may have been some measure of pain behind his eyes, but Halduron couldn’t be sure, nor did he care.  The only thing of which he could be certain was that the eyes he looked into now had never appeared so foreign.

            “Halduron, I have always had nothing but the highest respect and admiration for you,” Lor’themar replied, his tone now firm.  “But you have to understand: Tae’thelan was sincere regarding the threat those artifacts pose to our sovereignty.  To ignore them would be to ignore my responsibility to keep our people safe.”

            “That responsibility is not yours alone!” Halduron roared.  “Did you not read any of the reports I sent from Quel’Danas?  How are we to respond if another crisis strikes our lands while the bulk of our forces are abroad?”

            Lor’themar was noticeably becoming irritated.  “What would you have me do then?  Should we hole ourselves up like dwarves, waiting for the next Frostmourne to come crashing through our gates, when instead we could be out there claiming such power for ourselves?  That kind of neglect and isolationism cost Quel’Thalas dearly, and I will not make the same mistakes as my predecessors!”

            “I can see that,” Halduron sneered.  “Clearly, you’re making all new ones.”

            The regent lord’s expression hardened, and his nostrils flared, but he spoke with restraint.  “Haven’t you had enough of our people playing the part of the victim?  The world has just undergone a dramatic change.  So why shouldn’t we?  For the sake of our survival, our people must chart a new course.  It’s time for the sin’dorei to start shaping Azeroth’s destiny, and stop letting it shape ours!”

            Halduron marveled in spite of himself.  This was no longer the reluctant soldier who had salvaged the burden of leadership after their prince traded his crown for a demon’s yoke.  Here now stood a resolute champion who embraced the mantle placed upon him, and for better or worse, doubt was no longer the master of his will.

            “I will not pretend that I do not sympathize with the heart of your intentions,” Halduron admitted with some trepidation, “but you must realize that you’re gambling with the lives of ordinary civilians if you think that I can ensure their protection with a gutted army.”

            “I have already weighed the risks,” Lor’themar flatly replied, “and I am confident that this path has the best chance of leading the sin’dorei to a shining and secure future.”

            “And what of the quel’dorei?  Where do they fit along this new path of yours?”

            The question visibly caught Lor’themar off guard, his expression becoming mired with incredulity.  Still, Halduron had the slim hope that Lor’themar might see the wisdom of reaching out, especially now, to bring their numbers back into the fold.

            “What of them?” Lor’themar parried, eyes narrowing defiantly.  “You, more than anyone, should already know the answer to that.  Unless you’ve come to tell me that Veressa Windrunner herself is waiting outside this chamber, ready to bend a knee to the Warchief on behalf of all her kind, then there is nothing to discuss on that front.”

            Halduron threw up his hands, exasperated.  “For Light’s sake, Lor’themar!  You were just lauding the need for change.  Well, this is something that needs to change!

            “Yes, at one time, the exile was necessary to preserve the fragile remains of Quel’Thalas from civil war.  You made the right decision then, and I still support it.  But you’re making the wrong one now!  Sustaining this division isn’t benefiting either of our peoples, and it’s only going to undermine any goals we have for the future.”

            Lor’themar inclined his head, and he drew a long breath, his mood settling.  “My friend, the wisdom of your words is not lost on me, and as always, I deeply appreciate your advice.”  He paused a moment, looking as though he was about to give the order to a firing squad.  “I wish the situation were so easily rectified.  But, as long as the quel’dorei refuse to offer fealty to our allies, I cannot permit them to live within our borders.”

            “Is it truly for the Horde that you desire their fealty, or for yourself?”  The arrow sang before Halduron even realized he had nocked it.

            The regent lord slowly stood, glaring at Halduron with the stark disappointment of a superior, no longer an equal.  “Our relationship affords you great leniency.  But you would do well to tread with more caution from now on.  If you were anyone else, I would have you arrested for such an insubordinate remark.”

            Halduron felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him.  His chest and shoulders strained beneath some unseen force.  He clenched his teeth to steel himself, and gave his one-time brother-in-arms a look raw with pity and regret.

            Lor’themar remained stoic, betraying no remorse at all, if he even felt any.  “You are dismissed, Ranger General.”

            “As you will, my lord.”  Halduron choked on the title like the name of a scorned lover.  He bowed, as duty dictated, and then fled the stifling, stinking corruption infesting the walls of that damnable seat of power.

            Outside, Halduron snatched his hawkstrider’s reigns from the stable attendant without a word.  As he mounted, there came a herald of distant thunder, and what started as a soft drizzle rapidly began picking up.

            “Looks like we may be in for another storm,” the attendant idly remarked.

            “Make no mistake,” Halduron grimly replied, “we most certainly are.”

 

*          *          *

 

            Cushions of hawkstrider down muffled the creak of ancient wood as Halduron slumped heavily against the back of his chair.  His eyes ached from hours of poring over reports.  Almost mechanically, he reached for the porcelain teapot at the end of his desk and upended it into his cup.  Empty.  That was his third pot of thistle tea this morning, and he’d been progressively sneaking in more bloodthistle petals into each one.

            Maybe I should just skip the swiftthistle altogether for the next one, he mused sardonically.

            Two sharp raps at the door ended Halduron’s fleeting peace.  “Just what I need,” he muttered, “more news of odd troll behavior.”  He halfheartedly sat up before calling to admit this latest interruption.

            A lean ranger briskly entered and saluted.  “Sir, Grand Magister Rommath and Chieftain Vol’jin of the Darkspear have just arrived and are waiting downstairs.  They’ve requested to speak with you as soon as possible.  They say it’s urgent.”

            Chieftain Vol’jin, here in Silvermoon?  Halduron knitted his brow in dismay.  The heads of state usually only traveled between the capitals for one of two reasons: funerals, and matters of war.  Now, the mounting worry that Halduron had been trying to repress for the last few months was rearing a very ugly and menacing head.

            “Send them up at once,” Halduron ordered.  The ranger immediately saluted and left, leaving the door open.  As he waited, Halduron made no effort to straighten up the chaotic state of his desk.  Trolls never bothered with such formalities, and he certainly felt no need to impress Rommath.

            Moments later, the pair entered.  Bone fetishes dangled from the dark blue mail of Vol’jin’s armor, clattering in time with his languid strides.  Rommath glided in from behind and aloofly took a seat opposite Halduron’s.  “Chieftain, Grand Magister,” Halduron addressed them, nodding to each, though with intentionally greater reverence for the former.  “I understand you have some urgent news.”

            “First of all,” spoke Vol’jin through his deep, thick accent, “I wanna tank ya for seein’ me on such short notice.”

            “Oh, I’m quite sure the good ranger general didn’t have anything more pressing to attend to, anyway,” Rommath said through a crooked smile.

            Doesn’t waste any time.  Halduron’s eyes contracted upon Rommath as if to staunch the surge of his irritation.  “Yes, well, you would know all about that, wouldn’t you, Grand Magister?”

            “’Ey, mon!” Vol’jin interjected, scowling.  “I don’ know what ya quarrel be, or if dis just some blood elf ting, but we don’ got time for it now.”

            Rommath stiffened in his chair, behaving as though the rebuke wasn’t meant for him.  “You are right of course, Chieftain.  Pay no heed to such frivolous banter.  By all means, please bring the ranger general up to speed of the situation.”

            Halduron turned his full attention to Vol’jin.  He didn’t like where this was going.

            After a few moments, Vol’jin nodded and began.  “Less dan a month ago, I get a cryptic letter callin’ for a meetin’ of all da chieftains to discuss ‘da future of da trolls.’  Da letter come from none other dan King Rastakhan.”

            Halduron recognized the name, but there was something about the way Vol’jin said it that disturbed him.  “Of the Zandalar?  I’d heard reports that their establishment in Stranglethorn had disappeared.  Given the global cataclysm, I had wondered if the rest of their civilization hadn’t met a similar fate.”

            “So did I, mon,” Vol’jin continued ominously, “until dat letter.  Naturally, I had to see what all dis be about, so I go to da meetin’.  I go dere hopin’ for a summit of peace, to bring an end to da warrin’ between da tribes.  Unfortunately, I got me wish.”

            “I’m afraid I don’t follow,” Halduron said reservedly.  His chair was suddenly feeling very uncomfortable.

            Vol’jin took a measured breath, and then went on.  “Da Zandalar wanna reunite all da troll tribes to bring back da old empire—an empire rivalin’ da might of da Horde and Alliance combined, and bein’ friend to none.

            “Da Darkspear, of course, be havin’ no part of dis insanity.  We always gonna stand by our Horde brothers.  But da other tribes—da ones lookin’ on da other races as stealin’ what once be dere lands—dey throwin’ dere lot in wit the Zandalar.”

            “The Amani.”  The full realization struck Halduron with a blunt and terrible force.  “This explains the reports I’ve been seeing.  Suspicious movements everywhere from Tor’Watha to Zeb’Nowa, yet Zul’Aman always appeared as quiet as ever.  They must be trying to draw our attention away from it in anticipation…of an invasion.”

            The crackle of Rommath’s laughter almost caused Halduron to fall out of his seat.  “Invasion?  Halduron, you must be out of your mind!  The Amani were decimated during their last uprising.  It’s simply inconceivable that they could have the numbers now to mount anything close to an invasion.”

            “Not on their own,” Halduron granted, ignoring the impertinence of Rommath’s outburst, “but this time, they’re not.  Lor’themar will have no choice now.  I must recall all of the Farstriders immediately.”

            “I’m afraid not, Ranger General,” Rommath smugly persisted.  “The regent lord is well informed of the situation, and has already declared that no troop recall will be necessary.  These are merely trolls we’re talking about, after all.  For over seven millennia, no troll has ever breached the walls of Silvermoon, and do you know why?  It’s because of their exceptional ineptitude for advanced military techniques.”  He then gave Vol’jin a deferential smile and added, “Present company excluded, of course.”

            “Of course,” Vol’jin echoed, glowering.

            Halduron rested his elbows heavily on the edge of his desk.  He felt as though he should be infuriated, but honestly, he expected nothing less.  “Military technique counts for little if you find yourself hopelessly outnumbered.  If I can’t recall the Farstriders, then the magisters and the blood knights will have to be deployed.”

            “That, too, is out of the question, I’m afraid.”  The smirk on Rommath’s face clearly showed he was enjoying this.  “The majority of the magisters and blood knights are maintaining our holdings throughout Outland and Northrend, and those in Silvermoon must remain here in order to safeguard the city.  The rest of Quel’Thalas has always been the sole protectorate of the Farstriders.  But, of course, you already knew that.”

            Halduron slammed both fists upon his desk.  The force toppled over his teacup, sending it rolling to the floor, shattering.  “What good are fortified foreign holdings when our very homeland is in jeopardy?!” he bellowed.

            Rommath stood, a pillar of self righteousness.  “Really, Halduron, such outbursts are very unprofessional, especially in the presence of visiting dignitaries.

            “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Chieftain, I have some other matters to which I must attend.”  Rommath nodded graciously to Vol’jin, then to Halduron he added, “Surely you over exaggerate the gravity of this situation.  The regent lord and I have every confidence that the rangers at your disposal will be more than sufficient to deal with a few unruly trolls.” 

            As Rommath reached the doorway, Halduron growled after him, “For your sake, Grand Magister, you’d better be right.”  He watched Rommath saunter out, and for the first time in a long time, Halduron had to admit to having absolutely no idea of what to do next.

            Finally, Vol’jin broke the uneasy silence.  “Dis may be small comfort to ya, blood elf, but I know how it be to deal wit a leader dat don’ listen to sense.  At dose times, I look to da spirits for guidance, and dey ain’t ever let me down.”

            The advice itself meant little to Halduron, but the sympathetic sentiment was most certainly a welcome change from what he’d been used to dealing with as of late.  “Thank you, Chieftain, but I fear that it will take more than spirits to see us through this.”

            Vol’jin shrugged.  “Ya never know, mon,” he said, a hint of old wisdom lifting his tone.  Then he stood, preparing to leave.  “I be goin’ now to deal wit da Gurubashi situation down in Stranglethorn, but I be back wit me best warriors as soon as I can, and den we be joinin’ ya in marchin’ on Zul’Aman.  Until den, spirits be wit ya, Ranger General.”

            Halduron stood and saluted respectfully.  “Shorel’aran, Chieftain.”

            When Vol’jin had gone, the ranger general once again slumped back into his chair.  Something glinted at the corner of his vision.  Looking down, he saw it was a fragment of his shattered teacup.  Staring at the scattered pieces of porcelain inlaid with streaks of gold, he couldn’t help but notice how strongly they resembled the alabaster walls of the city.

            Time to switch to wine, he thought glumly.

 

            Days passed, and after issuing the preliminary orders for all rangers throughout Eversong Woods to rendezvous at the Farstrider Enclave northwest of Zul’Aman, Halduron found himself at the last place that his pragmatic judgment told him he ought to be at a time like this—Sunwell Plateau.

            Look to the spirits, he said.  Halduron recalled Vol’jin’s words as he stared into the blinding column of golden, cosmic luminescence erupting from the tranquil pool in the center of the sanctuary.  Well, this is as close as it gets for me.

            Halduron had never been a particularly devout follower of the Light, but in this place, that didn’t seem to matter.  He couldn’t quite figure what it was, but the Sunwell had an uncanny ability to soothe even the most troubled mind.  Whether it was something real or just some placebo of the mind, Halduron didn’t care.  Right now, he would take mental fortitude from wherever he could get it.

            “Last time I saw that look on someone’s face, a child had just lost her kitten.”

            Though the speaker was behind Halduron, the voice was unmistakable.  “Good to see you too,” he replied dryly, hardly thrilled by the intrusion.

            Auric Sunchaser stepped up beside Halduron, sparing him a wry smile.  “Too bad I can’t say the same.  Pardon my saying so, but frankly, you look terrible.”

            Halduron couldn’t help but chuckle mildly at Auric’s blunt honesty.  It was refreshing, and he appreciated it.  “This is where I’m supposed to say that I’ve been through worse, and it’s probably true.  But under these circumstances, that hardly seems reassuring.”

            “This is about the Zandalari uprising, isn’t it?”

            Confused, and mildly suspicious, Halduron now turned to face Auric.  “You know about that?”

            Auric nodded.  “The whole of the Alliance knows of it, courtesy of your own troll friends, no less.  I can only imagine the look on King Varian’s face when that Darkspear envoy showed up in Stormwind Harbor.”  His amused smile then shifted, becoming more sincere.  “It’s quite admirable, really.  Not everyone has the strength of character to ask one’s enemy for help in a crisis.”

            Halduron could hardly believe it.  What was Vol’jin thinking?  Did Garrosh know of this?  Whatever the case may be, it was a risky gambit for both sides, and there would certainly be dire consequences.  Vol’jin must have been more desperate than he let on.

            Or perhaps, he’s the only one truly putting all things in perspective.

            Blinking, Halduron dismissed the notion.  “Well, as the Darkspear’s head of state, Chieftain Vol’jin has certain liberties at his disposal that the rest of us do not.”

            Auric cocked his head slightly, giving Halduron a thoughtful and distant look.  “You know, someone once told me that every man stands or falls according to his own choices, not the ones that were made for him.”

            At his periphery, Halduron could have sworn that the Sunwell flared for an instant ever so subtly.  He also felt somewhat warmer than before, but not in an uncomfortable way.  He wondered briefly if the stress was finally getting to him, or if maybe—just maybe—there was something more to Lady Liadrin’s maudlin evangelizing than mere flowery speech.

            Either way, Halduron was thunderstruck.  Suddenly, it became painfully clear to him that the very solution for which he’d been desperately searching for so long was now literally staring him right in the face.

            “Auric,” pleaded Halduron, his voice almost trembling, “I know our paths have taken us in opposite directions, and you have no sure reason to trust me, but, for the sake of our homeland, I must beg a favor of you now.”

            Without hesitation, Auric responded, “For Quel’Thalas, you have but to ask.”

            Halduron nodded gratefully.  “I need you make all possible haste to deliver a message on my behalf to the Violet Citadel in Dalaran…”

 

            Dawn approached.  To the east, practically a stone’s throw from where Halduron stood, the towering walls of Zul’Aman, adorned with massive spikes and ancient growth, carved an angry silhouette against the blue-gray sky.  None of the city’s bloodthirsty inhabitants had been spotted during the past three weeks, but the plumes of smoke rising from the ritual fires beyond those walls told the beleaguered ranger general the only thing that mattered: the Amani knew what was coming, and they were ready.

            Halduron’s forces could hardly say the same.  From the abandoned Amani edifice that he’d claimed for a forward command post, he could easily account for every tent of both his Farstriders and Vol’jin’s Siame-Quashi, fresh from the Stranglethorn campaign.  Less than two hundred fighters were all that stood between Silvermoon and the whole Amani army, bolstered by an unknown number of Zandalari reinforcements.

            Shame I won’t be there when Lor’themar finally realizes I was right.

            Snorting restlessly, Halduron stormed back down the crude stairway into the hut’s dim interior.  “Enough of this!  If the Silver Covenant wants to turn a deaf ear, then so be it.  The Zandalari went through a lot of trouble to start this war.  So, let’s not keep them waiting any longer.”

            Vol’jin looked up from where he sat by the fire, applying the ritual oils to his war bow.  “Ya sure, mon?  Ya know what we up against.”

            “The only thing worse than facing death is waiting to face it,” Halduron replied curtly.  “Besides, death isn’t even my chief concern.  I’m more troubled by what the Amani will do to our corpses afterward.”

            A grisly smile curled around Vol’jin’s tusks.  “Don’ be countin’ us corpses just yet, blood elf.  Bwonsamdi may be havin’ a taste for Amani blood.”

            Halduron found Vol’jin’s optimism mildly reassuring, if trite.  “We shall see,” he said, offering a wan smile in return.

            It was settled then.  Outnumbered as they were, both leaders agreed that the best course of action would be to somehow draw the Amani out of the city.  If they could take the main gate, then they could create a bottleneck for the enemy’s forces that might just level the playing field.  Vol’jin ordered his lieutenant to dispatch a number of scouts to infiltrate the city and discover how best to lure their quarry.  The attack would commence upon their return.

            To keep himself occupied, Halduron spent the next hour pensively studying old maps of the city.  He was just beginning to wish they’d set this plan into action days ago, when a sudden commotion arose outside of the hut.  Within moments, an anxious guard burst through the entrance and exclaimed, “Sir, please forgive the interruption, but a courier just arrived for you!”

            Halduron didn’t wait for an explanation.  He leapt to his feet and brushed past the guard to see this visitor for himself.  Just outside, a lightly-armored elven woman was dismounting from a sturdy quel’dorei steed, steam gently rising from its glistening coat in the crisp morning air.  That, along with the courier’s tabard depicting a silver sun set against a field of blue, instantly told Halduron who she represented.

            Upon noticing Halduron, the courier approached, removed her helm, and announced in a clear voice, “Ranger General Brightwing, I come before you on an errand of peace with a message from my mistress, Ranger General Veressa Windrunner.”  She paused briefly, as if to savor the fact that Halduron was on constant pins and needles.  “After much deliberation regarding your request, my lady has decided that the safety of Quel’Thalas must take precedence over the ideological differences between our peoples.

            “At this moment, she is riding north at the head of a legion of our best rangers from the recaptured port at the former Scarlet Enclave.  Barring any unforeseen delays, they should arrive within three days.”

            Outwardly, Halduron merely closed his eyes and drew a long, relaxed breath.  In truth though, he felt at that moment as if he could fly to the moons and back.  Still, he had to maintain some measure of dignity in the face one who was still technically his rival.  “And I presume Ranger General Windrunner sends no apologies for having not sent a more timely response?”

            The courier betrayed a subtle, mischievous smile.  “Naturally.”

            “Damn that Veressa,” Halduron muttered to Vol’jin, shaking his head.  “I should have expected she would keep me hanging until the bitter end.”

            “It like I say,” Vol’jin recounted, grinning, “da spirits ain’t never let me down, but ya never know when dey gonna act.”

            Halduron sighed with mock irritation, turning back to the courier.  “Well, we’ve waited this long.  I suppose we could wait another three days.  I’ll dispatch an escort detail to rendezvous with your people at the Thalassian Pass.”

            “Thank you, Ranger General, but that won’t be necessary,” the courier haughtily replied.  “We know the way.”

            “Of course,” Halduron admitted.  He gave orders for the courier and her mount to be given food and water, but before she was led away, a whim overtook him.  With open and genuine humility, he crossed his right fist over his chest and touched it to his left shoulder in a formal Thalassian salute.

            The courier seemed dumbstruck at first.  But soon, a remnant of mutual respect from bygone days crept into her expression, and she returned the salute in kind.

            From that simple exchange, Halduron finally understood.  To temper the woefully weakened ties that once bound the elves, they needed to acknowledge that, at their core, they were still same—not merely as a race, but as a people—forged by a shared cultural legacy that spanned millennia.  Somewhere along the way, they had all forgotten that.

            Soon, the Children of Silvermoon would again fight as one against a common enemy to protect their ancestral home.  There was no telling where this alliance would lead, or how long it would last, but at least it was a start.  For now, Halduron decided, it would be enough.

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