Beneath me the city of Thunder Bluff rises up from the ground, as if from nothing. The land around it is flat and green and unbroken but for the three solemn pillars on which sits the primitive city of the Tauren; the jewel in a crown of twigs; the home of a simple race.
I sniff contemptuously.
It’s certainly not Silvermoon.
“Why are we here again?” I demand of the woman in front of me on our mount. It’s more of a whine than I intended, but I don’t know if she can tell. It’s been months since Light’s Hope…longer since I died…and I’m still not used to the hollow echo in my voice. I asked Amal’thazad once, why the echo exists for some, but not all, of those taken by the scourge – the Lichs and the Death Knights, but not the ghouls or ghasts.
“Ghouls,” he told me, “are broken once. So they speak with one voice. The Lich King’s, or their own, but never both. But you, and me, and those like us…we are broken twice. Once in life, when we willingly chose a path forced on the lesser undead, and again in death, when the Lich King takes our will and makes it his own. So we speak with two voices. Our own, and his – even now, free of him at last, his voice echoes in our words. A reminder, I think. That free or chained, we cannot change what we are, or how we came to be.
“We are twice broken, Death Knight, and we will never be whole again.”
“We need a representative in Thunder Bluff,” he said, looking us over with an intense stare. His gaze rested longest on the Tauren among our number, knowing that, tactically, they were the best choice; knowing, too, that none of them would volunteer. I remember thinking how pathetic we looked. Once upon a few weeks ago we were one of the most feared and fearless organizations in Azeroth and beyond. But there we stood, the Ebon Blade’s chosen diplomats, not so far from the days when we could face down a dragon without fear or care, but terrified by something as ephemeral as the look in an old friend’s eyes, the pursed lips of an ex-lover, the turned back of your old family.
They should count themselves lucky, I thought contemptuously. I took my family with me.
And I stepped forward to volunteer with a sneer that clearly called them cowards.
I told myself it would be a simple posting, and give me more time to spend with my lovely new friend. An easy decision – perhaps too easy.
No one mentioned the fact that I had remained silent when they called for volunteers for Silvermoon.
I walk the market openly, with a good deal more nonchalance than I feel. I’m used to being watched with a combination of fear and respect. Among the scourge – the dead, I should say, as we are no longer scourge – there is little that compares to a Death Knight. We are rage and strength made manifest; we are ice and disease and fear, and everything that ever ended a life, given flesh and will and sent forth into the world. We are more than men and women, more than simply undead. We are gods among ghouls, how could they not respect us?
But that’s not what these people see. There is fear, to be sure, in their furtive glances and unsubtle gestures. They pull their children tighter, cover their valuables – they shiver as I walk by, and stiffen if we happen to touch. Oh, they fear me all right. But respect? I see nothing of respect. In the bovine eyes of those few who show more than bald fear I see sadness, and anger, and derision. Derision. These people – these savages! – deride me. They think me weak!
I am stronger than they could ever hope to be, eight feet of bull or not. Smarter, faster, better. I could kill any of them before they knew what was happening.
The arrogance is reflexive, but comforting. I draw it around me like a shroud and move through the market with a face of ice.
I sit in the tent that apparently passes for some kind of Tauren war room – it has a table, at least. I suppose I should be grateful for that – and listen without interest. All I hear around the room is Alliance this and Alliance that. You’d think it was the Alliance leading the scourge on a killing spree around Azeroth and Kalimdor. You’d think it was King Whatever-His-Name-Is that sent necropoli to the gates of Orgrimmar and Thunder Bluff and wherever else.
Idiots and fools and children, the lot of them.
“And what,” says an old crone of a cow at the back of the room, “does our esteemed guest think, hmmm?”
I arch a pale brow at her and draw on every inch of self-control and diplomacy in my body to keep from sneering. “Your esteemed guest,” I say dully, “is wondering why we are still discussing the Alliance when scourge run roughshod over Northrend, displacing the indigenous folk that live there and killing everything else.”
“Oh,” scoffs a large bull to my right, “and I suppose this Ebon Blade of yours cares deeply for the plight of indigenous people in Northrend.”
“To be honest,” I reply with a sigh, “I don’t give a kobold’s frozen ass about the indigenous people of Northrend, and I sincerely doubt my fellows do. I thought you might, having, as you do, a reputation as a compassionate and spiritual people, to say nothing of your close kinship with one of said displaced peoples. But I can see I was wrong on that, in much the same way you are wrong in your continued focus on an obsolete war with a people who should be your allies in this, not your enemies.” I get to my feet and turn toward the door. “Send for me if you decide you wish to discuss Arthas and the Scourge. I am bored with these trivialities.”
“No,” says the large bull as one of the older Tauren moves as though to stop me, “let him go. His advice is worthless anyway. Everyone knows he sold out to the scourge already. No reason to believe he wouldn’t do so again. We’re better off without him.”
So many things I could say in reply. Most of them petty or immature, all of them cutting and acidic. Yes, I sold out to the scourge. Yes, I could do so again. Arthas miscalculated when he let us go. He would take us back in a non-existent heart beat, rather than have us band with his enemies as we have, divulging his secrets and aiding their efforts.
And to be honest, if these idiots don’t open their fool eyes to the very real danger the Lich King presents…I may as well sell my soul again. It’ll be the same in the end anyway when he overruns us all.
But I say nothing and exit the tent. They will not send for me again.
I should have stayed at Archerus.
“You’re brooding,” she notes, flipping a page in her book.
“Am I?” I ask reflexively, and mentally check myself. Slouching in my chair, staring blankly out my glassless window at the rain, bitterly hoping it’s actually the start of a monsoon that will flood Mulgore in its entirety and drown this whole, stupid, bovine race. I grunt unattractively. “Yes, I suppose I am.”
“What are you brooding about?” she asks without looking up.
The wisest thing to do would be to not answer, because if I answer I’m sure she will feel compelled to talk some sense into me, and then she’ll stop reading, but I like it when she reads. She just looks so…I don’t know. I just like it.
But while I’ve always thought of myself as intelligent, wisdom isn’t a virtue I feel I can fairly claim. “I should have gone to Orgrimmar,” I say instead of remaining silent. I’m being petulant. “At least with Orcs you can play on their fire and their tempers and make them move. You can’t…you can’t move a cow. They just…stand there and glare at you, with their huge, wet eyes, and this look, like…like…they’re wilfully stupid. It’s the damndest thing. They’re stupid, but on purpose. I hate it.”
She looks up from her book and peers at me over the edge of her glasses, then sighs and closes the cover. She takes the spectacles from her face and sets them gently to the side. “Listen,” she says, getting to her feet and crossing over to me, “you’re coming at this from the wrong angle. Stop thinking like you’re in Silvermoon.” She folds her hands around mine and as always I am startled by how warm she is. I forget, sometimes, that the living are creatures of light and heat and the sun. I’ve been ice on the inside for so long now…. “You need to befriend these people, not bully them or frighten them into submission. You need to make them trust you.”
“Well how am I supposed to do that?” I demand. “I sold out to the scourge, remember? I’m a Death Knight, for love of the Light. One of Arthas’ elite soldiers. I mean, the things we’ve done…how could I ever get them to trust me?”
“Remind them,” she says slowly, “that you fell once, it’s true. But you got back up again.”
“It’s not that simple,” I argue, and pull my hands from hers, stubbornly returning my gaze to the rain. “Getting back up again isn’t enough.”
She sits where she is for a time and watches me. “Not enough for who, I wonder?” she says at last, then gets to her feet and returns to her chair. She places her glasses on her nose once more and opens her book.
Silence descends, broken only by the falling rain, and the sound of her breathing.
I wonder if she’s mad at me.
The morning dawns clear and bright, the sun glinting in the puddles and droplets left behind by the night’s rain. A deep voice calls hello from beyond the door of the inn and I step out, squinting into the light. It’s the large Tauren from the previous day’s conference. He gives me his typical, friendly expression – a unique mix of fear and loathing and mistrust. Warms my bitter little heart – and shrugs at me.
“So, we’re done discussing the—”
“Listen,” I interrupt him impulsively, “about yesterday. I didn’t mean to trivialize your war with the Alliance. I understand the threat they represent, and I understand they’re just as gung-ho about going to war with you as you are with them and you can’t not take them into account. They’re a factor, here and in Northrend, and they need to be considered.”
He blinks at me, too startled to say anything. I consider letting it drop there. Light knows the apology is burning at me on the inside, like I’ve swallowed bile and sulphur and something cooked up in an apothecary’s lab. But something my lady said to me last night has been stuck in my craw ever since. She’s right, as she usually is. This isn’t Silvermoon, or Orgrimmar, and I’ll get nowhere unless I stop pretending it is.
“But I need you to understand just what the scourge means to me. You…yesterday, you…noted that I had, in effect, sold my soul to the scourge once already, and that was true. Unfair perhaps,” and he at least has the grace to look embarrassed, “but true. But that’s exactly why I’m here. Because…because I fell once, and I’ve seen the other side. I know what’s over there. I know what the scourge intends and is capable of and it…is truly terrifying. And I say that as one of the creatures mothers tell stories about to frighten their children into behaving.” This admission earns me a startled laugh from the man, little more than a sudden snort, but it’s something, and it gives me the push I need to continue.
“So what,” he says, and his tone is belligerent, as though to make up for allowing himself to be amused by me, “this is redemption? Is that what you and your people are after?”
“No,” I tell him, and shake my head sadly. “We are beyond redemption. We know that. We know we chose our path, and that’s not something that can be forgiven. We are…twice broken,” I say softly, Amal’thazad’s words returning to me, unbidden, “and can never be whole again. Redemption is not possible. But salvation – for everyone else – that is within reach. We feel…well…,” I hesitate. If the others knew I was saying this; knew I was admitting it…. “We feel that we…owe the world we chose to leave behind. That if we can somehow help stop Arthas – if we can save the world from him and his legions – we will have repaid the debt we incurred when we fell – when we let Arthas break us the first time. It won’t redeem us, but at least…we will have righted the wrong that lays heavy on us now. We could breathe a little easier.” I offer him a crooked grin. “No pun intended,” I add, and earn myself another startled chuckle.
“Hmmm,” he says slowly, considering my words. “Fair enough, I suppose.” And that’s that. “At any rate, I came by to tell you that we actually finished discussing the Alliance yesterday and we’ve made our plans in that regard. We’d like to discuss Arthas and his friends today. Evidently you’d be a useful member of that discussion if you’re willing to join us.”
“I would indeed,” I say easily. “Let me just say goodbye to my friend. I can meet you there if you like.”
“I’ll wait,” he says with a negligent wave and his tail flicks from side to side. I raise an eyebrow at him, but nod and head inside. I give my lady a quick kiss and tell her I’m off for the day. She tells me to be nice and I don’t reply. True to his word, my large compatriot is still outside when I return.
“You know,” he says thoughtfully as we walk by the smithy on our way to Elder Rise, “I had this shield once. It was a huge thing, been in my family for generations. I let my son play with it one day, just because it was funny to see him try to lift it. He dropped it of course, and, just my luck, it rolled off down the bluff, and right over the side. Don’t know if you’ve ever peeked over the edge, but it’s a long way down. We found it in two pieces at the bottom, but Karn over there, he patched it right up for me. When I came to pay him he laughed and tossed it to me…but I missed the catch.”
It’s my turn to give a startled laugh. “Tell me it didn’t go over the edge again.”
“Oh it did,” he says, and his tail twitches with amusement. “We watched it go sailing over and Karn couldn’t stop apologizing, the whole wav down the elevator to go retrieve it. So we find it, and again it’s in two pieces, broke the other way this time. So Karn swears up and down he can fix it. We take it back up to his forge and he fixes it again and hands it back over to me, carefully this time. It’s up on my wall now, bolted there, too, so the boy can’t get at it. But every now and then I’m tempted to take it and throw it over the side, just to see if it would break again.”
“Why would you do that?” I demand, frowning at him. “Of course it’ll break again. It must be weaker now than before.”
“I’m not so sure,” he says with a massive shrug. “In order to fix it – in order to keep it from breaking again – Karn had to reinforce it. Make it sturdier, harder. It’s scarred and dented and ugly, but stronger for all of that. I’d wager it’s probably one of the best shields in Thunder Bluff.”
“But would it survive combat?” I ask him pointedly, and he offers me an honest-to-goodness grin as he holds the tent flap open for me. A map of Northrend adorns one side of the wall, and a collection of coloured pins representing the various factions are stuck all over it. There’s a smattering of dark blue ones pinned to the Shadow Vault in Icecrown, and a few others are mixed in with the other factions. For a moment we pause in the door and survey those little pins, considering all they stand for.
The Ebon Blade and our hopes and fears, and our only shot at repaying the debt that defines us.
“Only time will tell,” my large friend says, and I realize at last that he wasn’t really talking about shields.
Twice broken, I think to myself as we head to the table, never taking my eyes off the map.
But never again.