Lordaeron’s Lost

“Lordaeron’s Lost” is a tale I wrote in the summer and fall of 2008, prior to the much-anticipated release of the second expansion for World of Warcraft, Wrath of the Lich King.  It is the story of a survivor of a doomed expedition to Northrend that set sail at the height of the Third War under the command of a Lord Ardente of Lordaeron.  It was originally posted to the Sentinels (US) realm forum and to the forums of the Retribution of Arathor as a serial.

“Current” time for the story was circa six months before Scourge attacks against the major cities of Azeroth and the return of Varian Wrynn to Stormwind.


Lordaeron’s Lost

            The light of a campfire twinkled in the distance, beyond the rise, beyond the wastes, along the shore, though she couldn’t see the light of it.  One of the others, a slender man whose face she could just barely recall, squeezed her shoulder.  “Lights at the shore.  There’s hope.”
            She shivered, nodding, holding tight to the blanket-wrapped healer she was supporting.  “Good.”  Her teeth chattered and the priest pressed closer to her ribs, shuddering in the cold of Northrend’s winds.  “Is it Valgarde?”
            The former scout winced, then shook his head.  “I don’t think so.  We’re too far west, and the land looks wrong.  Whoever’s down there, though, they’ve fires burning, and it’s for more than just light.  They’re either survivors like us, or they’re from home.  Let’s go.”  He took her hand, to begin to lead his two companions down the rise.  She was all too willing to go, but the priest didn’t start moving right away, setting his heels into the crust of snow.
            “Need just one minute more,” he rasped, shivering.  The girl wrapped her ragged cloak around his spare form as well as her own, drawing him closer to her to share the heat of her body.  She wrapped a trembling hand around one of his and winced.
            “Your hands are like ice, Xaq.  Here…”  She fumbled for the hem of her nearly threadbare robe, ripping out some of what was left of its lining.  “Wrap them tighter, keep your fingers warm.”
            “Yours are still shaking,” he said through chattering teeth as she helped him wrap his hands up in the scraps.  “Didn’t the healing take?”
            “It took,” she murmured softly, soothingly, voice nearly lost in the wind.  “Some things only can be fixed so many times, Xaq.”
            The priest drew a shuddering breath and nodded slightly, then looked up toward the scout.  “All right.  Let’s go.”
            The scout nodded, taking the girl’s hand again.  Slowly, in the dim of gathering dusk, they made their way down the slope toward the dim of the flickering firelight at the coast.

            In the flickering light of their campfire, the bickering of the zeppelin’s crew lost in the crackling of wood and his wife’s soft humming, Faren drew his heavy gray cloak around both himself and his wife, Triv, who reclined against his chest, dwarven-crafted rifle within easy reach.  He stared off into the dim of the twilight, out over the desert of ice, with its dunes, watching as the biting wind sent swirls of granulated ice dancing across the snowpack.  Triv was staring at the fire, humming a tune Siryn had taught them long ago, during long months they’d traveled together.  Faren tensed suddenly, focus sharpening.
            “What’s wron’ ?”
            “There’s something out there.”  He started to stand as she sat up, reaching for her rifle.
            “Wha’ d’ya see?”  Triv checked to make sure she was fully loaded–never doubting for a moment that she was–before she slowly came up on one knee, peering off into the darkness, following her husband’s gaze.
            “Figures.  Three, I think, though maybe two.  Hard to make out, they’re not close enough yet, not quite.  Roughly humanoid, if I’m not seeing things.”
            “Scourge?  Demons?”
            He frowned, pursing his lips.  “I don’t know.  Stay here, cover me, and tell the crew to shut up.  We’re lucky we haven’t had something nasty come down on us yet.”
            “You’re th’one who wanted ‘t set down this far northwest o’ friendly skies,” Triv muttered, sighting down the barrel of her rifle.  “Be careful, huh?”
            He smiled lopsidedly, drawing his cloak around him.  “Always.”
            Faren had always moved with almost preternatural speed for a human, and most never asked why, or how, or when he’d picked up such talent.  That more than suited him–it was too long and complex a story to tell repeatedly.  The few people he’d trusted with the whys and wherefores were those he trusted with his very existence.
            He could only imagine what the three figures he approached out of the night and blowing snow thought was coming up on them when he came into their view.  The one in the lead shoved his companions behind him.  One stumbled, almost falling, only to be caught by the third, a woman in a threadbare robe.  Faren straightened to his full height slowly, regarding them with a wary gaze even as he realized how thin they all were, how ragged their appearance was.  The one in the lead, however, bore the tattered remnants of a tabard sporting the insignia of Lordaeron.  Faren frowned.
            “By the Light!  Are you of Lordaeron?”
            Faren winced at the relief and desperation mixed in the young man’s voice–he couldn’t be much more than twenty-five if he was a day.  The girl behind him was clearly supporting their other companion, sharing the frayed cloak she wore with him.  He swallowed the bile suddenly rising in his throat, trying to fight down the dread that had begun to build.  Who were these three, and more importantly, where had they come from?  Surely not Valgarde…  “No, Theramore.  Who are you?”
            “Theramore?”  The man looked to his companions, both of whom shook their heads.  He looked back at Faren.  “Where’s Theramore?”
            “Kalimdor.  Lady Jaina Proudmore’s land.  I say again, who are you?”
            It looked as if the girl was about to faint as she exhaled a breath she clearly didn’t realize she was holding.  “He’s friend, Tyrin.”
            The man licked chapped lips and nodded slightly, gaze flicking from the girl back to Faren.  “We’re what’s left of the last expedition from Lordaeron to head north.  You haven’t…you mean we’re the first you’ve seen?”
            Faren frowned.  “Then you’re from Valgarde?”
            “No,” he said.  “We’re not…of that force.”  He licked his lips again and looked back to his pair of companions.  “What if the others don’t make it?”
            “If they didn’t, it’s my fault,” the girl said quietly.  “Splitting up was my idea.”  She looked toward Faren.  “There should be more of us.  We escaped.”
            “Escaped?  From what?”
            “The Scourge,” she said quietly, drawing the man next to her tighter against herself.
            “Please, sir,” the young man who shivered against the girl rasped, “we just want to go home.  Take us home?”
            Faren snapped his mouth closed and nodded mutely, simply staring at them for a few long moments.  He swallowed hard before reaching out a hand to take the arm of the man in front of him.  “The name’s Faren.  Come on.  Lets get you warmed up and some food.”  As he began to bundle the ragged trio toward the light of the campfire, the girl turned her face toward him.
            “Thank you, Sir Faren.  Thank you so much.”
            A stray beam of moonlight broke through the clouds, enough to illuminate their faces with its blue-white light.  Faren swallowed hard again at the sight of the girl’s eyes, blue, but seemingly without pupils.  A deep frown of concern creasing his forehead, he slid an arm around her and the man she was supporting.
            “You’re welcome.  Careful…ground’s a little uneven.”
            “Thank you.”
            He tore his gaze away from her face and set himself grimly to the task of guiding these three back to camp, three of Lordaeron’s lost children.

            The fire crackled almost merrily outside the campaign tent, despite the wind that howled down toward the shore from over the wastes.  The three survivors huddled together, sharing blankets in the dim of a lamp turned down low.  Tyrin snored softly, stretched out on his back, relaxed for the first time in forever, his hand resting on Quin’s shoulder.  Quin herself was curled protectively around Xaq, who still shivered and whose teeth still chattered despite the relief from the bitter wind and their proximity to the fire’s warmth.  Her arms tightened around him as the tenor of his breathing changed, becoming more shaky, raspy–panicked.
            “Shh,” she soothed in his hear softly, tangling swollen, frail fingers through his dark hair.  “Shh, Xaq.  It’s all right.  We’re safe.  Shh.”
            He came awake with a startled gasp, body tense, sweat dampening his brow.  He lay there for a long moment, breathing heavily, unmoving but for that, before finally finding his voice.  “Quin?”
            “Right here, Xaq.  A nightmare?”
            He sat up, running his fingers through his hair and holding his head as he drew his knees up.  She came up with him, resting her hand along his scarred spine.  “We were falling down that cliff face, again.”  He exhaled, steadying himself.  “If I hadn’t fallen…the rest of you wouldn’t…”
            “Xaq, don’t talk like that.  We do for our own.”  She edged closer to him, pausing at Tyrin stirred, then rolled onto his side and drifted deeper into sleep.  She gave Xaq a hug, holding him tightly a moment.  “It’s what we swore when we left Valgarde, after we found the other ships burned.  We would protect each other, take care of each other.  None of us could have left you there.”  She managed a smile.  “Besides, I promised I’d bring you back to Mal, and I don’t mean to break that promise.  You’ll see her soon.”
            He uttered a shaky laugh.  “She’s moved on by now, I’m sure.  Probably given up on me as dead.”
            Quin stroked his hair, her voice soft.  “I remember the way she looked at you, the way she begged you not to come with us.  She still has hope, Xaq.  She has to.  Mallory will be waiting for you.”
            “And the paladin?  Your master’s son?  Will he be waiting for you?”
            She smiled weakly.  “I had no bindings on Tanitharil, and he had none on me.  I pray he’s still breathing, and has moved on.  He deserves that.”
            “So do you,” her friend murmured.
            Quin kissed his temple.  “Tanith and I together was my father’s dream, not mine.  Maybe someday there will be someone for me, but I don’t think it’s him.  And that’s all right.”  She gave him a gentle squeeze as the tent flap came open, a gust of cold air coming with it.  Quin felt her skin pucker at the feeling of the wind.  Xaq pressed against her chest, shivering violently, though only once.
            “Ev’rythin’ a’ight?”
            She nodded in response to the accented voice of their rescuer’s wife, a woman he’d introduced as Triv.  “We’re all right, thank you.”
            “She nodded,” Xaq murmured to Quin as the tent flap fell closed again.  He reached for a blanket, pulling it around himself.  Their rescuers hadn’t had much in the way of extra clothing, though both Faren and Triv had promised that they would work something out for the three before their zeppelin took to the skies again.
            “Thanks.”  Quin ruffled his hair.  “…he already figured it out, I think.  I don’t think he told her, do you?”
            Xaq chewed his lower lip, voice quiet.  “They both seem sharp.  She probably figured it out on her own.”  He tugged gently on her short hair, cut with a piece of glass back at the camp only a week before.  “It’s not like we’re back there.  You don’t have to hide it anymore.”
            She licked her lips, trying not to sigh.  “I know.  It’s…I guess I don’t want people to treat me differently because I can’t see them.”
            “You can, after a fashion.”
            “The wind and snow won’t always be there to be my eyes, Xaq.”  She squeezed her eyes closed against the bitter tears that began to well up.  “Why did they do this to us?”
            “Why did they do anything?” he mumbled, then sighed, rubbing her back gently.  “We’re still breathing.  They can’t countenance that.”
            Quin turned her face to her friend’s shoulder, uttering a quiet sob.  Xaq wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly, resting his chin against her head, murmuring, “None of us would have survived without you, Quin.  We’d have lost hope, slipped up, succumbed to their experiments and tortures.  Don’t forget that–don’t ever forget that.”
            She hiccupped a laugh.  “Then none of us would have survived without you, Xaq, because I know I couldn’t have.”  She sniffled, pulling away and wiping her eyes with the heel of her hand.  “So you stop blaming yourself for getting us into this!”
            He smiled, nodding.  “All right.  I give up.  I’ll stop.”
            Whether or not he actually would–well.  It wasn’t likely he’d give it up.  Quin took a steadying breath, then gently pushed his shoulder.  “Go back to sleep, now, Xaq,” she chided, starting to lay back down herself.  “We all need the rest, and right now Tyrin’s the only one getting it.  Not very fair, huh?”
            “Nothing is when it comes to Tyrin.”  The priest settled back down, curling comfortably next to her.  He squeezed her hand, her fingers still trembling.  “Still…?”
            “It’s all right,” she whispered.
            “But what about your magic?  You can’t cast when they’re shaking like that.”
            “It’s all right,” she repeated.  “I’ll figure something out.  It might still stop.”
            “What if it doesn’t?”
            She licked her lips, sighing.  “I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.  Good night, Xaq.  Sweet dreams.”
            “Sweet dreams,” he echoed, closing his eyes.  Quin ruffled his hair with her free hand one more time.  The pair fell asleep listening to Tyrin’s snoring and the sound of the wind outside.

            She came awake alone, swaddled in the blankets they’d shared.  She sucked in a breath as she realized neither Tyrin nor Xaq were within arm’s reach.  Panic began to set in as she pushed herself upright, wind howling outside.  Cold blew in from in front of her, blasting her face and neck with its chill as she sat up.  The flap was open.  Why was the flap open?  She pushed her way to her knees.
            Figures blocked the wind, largely, as she began to get up.  “You’re an idiot, Xaq,” Tyrin grunted as he hauled the priest back into the tent, depositing him unceremoniously onto the pile of skins they’d slept on.  Xaq groaned in response and Quin frowned.
            “What’s going on?”
            “Frier and Tasken made it in last night, with Talia and Dusk.  Our rescuers don’t have any real healers–girl with the gun is good for patch jobs, but nothing serious.  Dusk snapped his leg.  Xaq felt compelled to fix it.”  Tyrin threw a blanket over their friend even as Quin reached for Xaq’s face.
            “Xaq, why?  You’re not strong enough for that.”
            He laughed weakly, the sound echoing hollow.  Tyrin muttered a curse and ducked back out of the tent, securing the flap behind him, moving away from it into the wind and blowing snow.
            “Someone had to do something, Quin,” Xaq rasped, exhaling as he relaxed slightly.  He was still shivering with the chill from ouside.  “It was a bad break.  They could set it, but that wasn’t going to ensure that he made it home.”
            “What about ensuring that you make it home, for once?”  She shook her head, smiling helplessly.  “You’re not making it easy for me to keep that promise to Mal.”
            “We’ve come this far,” Xaq sighed.  “I’m not going to quit helping the others now just because I’m tired.”
            Quin sighed, pulling another blanket over her friend before drawing another around her own shoulders.  “You’re more than tired, Xaq.”
            “Don’t remind me,” he mumbled, easing onto his side and using her thigh as a pillow.  “I dreamed about her last night, Quin,” he said finally.  “What if we’re wrong about her?  What if she didn’t…?”
            She exhaled.  “Then we stick together until we find our way.  It won’t be the end of the world.”
            “What if it is, Quin?  What if we’ve…”
            “It’s not the end of the world, Xaq.”
            He sighed after a moment, curling slowly into a ball.  “I guess you’re right.”
            “I am.”  She stroked his hair, listening to the wind and the sound of his breathing evening out again, rasping softly in his throat, murmuring to herself as an afterthought, “I have to be.”

            Blanket wrapped around herself, she came out of the tent, pulling the flap closed behind her, garbed clumsily in some of Triv’s leathers and a clean shirt—clean clothes for the first time in years.  She’d scrubbed herself with snow after she’d been brought them, scrubbed herself so hard with it that Xaq had teased her about how raw she’d made her skin before frowning and telling her if she’d scrubbed harder, it’d be more than her hands that needed his attention.  Tyrin had just shaken his head.
            The wind was cold, filling her lungs and puckering her flesh, but she moved toward the fire, boots crunching on the sand mixed with snow of the shore, blanket drawn tighter.  Over the sound of the wind and the crackle of the fire that Triv and Faren had kept burning hot, she could hear the sound of metal against metal—the sound of someone settling the lid back onto a cast iron pot.  Her stomach growled, and she winced at the sound.  It smelled like some kind of stew.
            I haven’t looked forward to food…since before…
            She smiled in Faren’s direction, nodding and finding her way to a seat against a supply crate near the fire.  “Yeah, I think so.  Have they…?”  She tilted her head toward the tent she’d just left, where Xaq was sleeping again and Tyrin had been working at stringing a bow he’d acquired from their rescuers.
            “Not yet, but they will.”  He settled bowl in her hands, the warm ceramic bleeding heat into fragile, swollen fingers, fingers whose twitching eased in the heat from the stew.  “How many more do you think we can expect?  How many of you were there?”
            Quin licked her lips, fumbling for the spoon, stirring the stew before answering.  “There were three full squadrons of volunteers when we left, mixed light cavalry, archers, and knights, plus a detachment of spellguard and support troops.  Most of them…died…the Plague took them after…”  She bit down hard on her lip.  “It’s a messy story.”
            “It’s all right.”  The creak of leathers told her that he’d settled down nearby, the clatter of spoon against crockery told her that he was eating, now, too.  “We were more wondering how many of you escaped and might be making your way here.  We don’t want to take you all back and leave more behind.”
            “Oh.”  She moved stew around with her spoon, brow furrowing.  “Twelve of us escaped.  This time, anyway.  When they don’t bring our bodies back for the others to see…well.  There might be more.”  Quin started to eat, shifting her blanket closer up around her shoulders.
            Faren nodded.  “Well.  We’ll wait another day, maybe a day and a half.  We have seven of you.  Pretty good ratio, if you ask me.”
            Quin dipped her head in a slight nod, edging closer to the fire.  Her hands were shaking again.  If the last five died, it would be up to them to carry word of them home, back to whomever they had left.  Her hand strayed to her side, where a few scraps of parchment bore words of love for a few, and a list of the dead.  A list of those they’d lost.
            The only way anyone will ever know that they lived or died at all.
            “Are you all right?”
            She startled, surprised by Faren’s sudden nearness.  “Yes. Why?”
            His hand rested on her elbow, not squeezing, just resting there a moment.  A tremor shot down her arm, fingers twitching against the parchments’ hiding place.  “The way you had your hand made me wonder if we’d missed something before.  Just bruises and old wounds, then?”
            Quin swallowed, nodding.  “Yes,” she murmured, slowly withdrawing her hand.  “Just bruises and old wounds.”
            They lapsed into silence as she ate, the stew filling the cold hole in her belly, easing a gnawing pain she’d grown so used to that its absence startled her.  When at last she could scrape no more from the bowl, she carefully settled it at her feet on the bare, sandy ground.  Faren came quietly to collect it, pressing a mug of tea into her hands.
            “Did you leave anyone behind?”
            She stiffened, licking her lips.  “More than any of us would have liked.  More will run, though, now that they haven’t dragged us back.  When we aren’t found by the Scourge and come back to the camps…they’ll know we made it, so it’s possible.”  Quin took a slow sip of tea, letting it continue the work the stew had started in warming her up.  How many more will die trying, though?
            “What about back home?  When you left Lordaeron?”  His voice was quiet, gentle.
            It’s like he knows what this feels like, somewhow.  She exhaled.  “No one.  Plague took my parents.  Scattered their ashes from the battlements of the city before…”  She sighed.  Before things got worse.  She took a long swallow from her mug, squeezing her eyes shut.  That moment, up on the battlements with Tanith, watching as the dust that her parents had become drifted out over the still waters of the lake that moonless night, still haunted her dreams some nights.  She clung to it sometimes, to rescue her sanity when it began to flag, began to fail.  Quin drew a breath, steadying herself.  “Anyone else I left behind is probably either gone or long since forgotten me.”
            “Then there was someone?”
            She shook her head.  “Friends only.”  Resting her mug against her knees, she tilted her face toward the weak sunshine that peaked through gathering storm clouds.  “Smells like a storm.”  Her joints ached dimly, distantly, almost lost in the usual array of pains.  Feels like one, too.
            Faren grunted.  “We’ll be all right.  Batten down the hatches and all that.”  He was quiet for a moment.  “And we’ll keep an eye out for your friends.”
            “Thank you,” she murmured, brushing hair out of her face.  After one last sip of tea, she discarded the mug, rising unsteadily as the slowly rising wind tossed her hair back into her face, swirling around her, tangling the blanket around her legs and body.  Her thoughts weren’t on the arctic winds of Northrend, however, as she made her way back to the tent.  Her thoughts, rather, had been drawn back to a clear, chill evening more than five long years before.

Lordaeron, Circa c6 years ago
            The smell of burning flesh stung her nose; tears and smoke stung her eyes, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t leave.  She slowly lowered her hands, fingers still splayed, still tingling from her casting.  Sparks licked up into the sky, cast upward by the wind the pyre created from its own heat.  That selfsame wind ruffled the hem and sleeves of her violet robe.  She pressed her lips into a tight line, swallowing hard.
            “Your magic was never meant for this, Quin.”
            She looked down, long hair hiding her face.  “I know, Magister.  No one’s magic is meant for this.”
            The older woman’s slender hands grasped her shoulders tightly.  Quin had known from the start that she was not alone here, for all of her requests to be.  Tanith, she knew, was lurking just beyond her sight, in the trees beyond the pyre.  The presence of her teacher, her mentor, meant that the younger children of Lord Samuel Auroran and Aminestra Greymantle could not be far away at all.  She leaned back, into Mina’s supporting arms, exhaling a pained sigh.
            “Where are they?”
            “Not far,” Mina answered softly.  “For all of my protests that no one’s magic should ever have to be used this way, it is a thing that Jude needs to learn, given the world we live in.”
            “And Lyyn?”  Quin murmured, rubbing at her eyes, ignoring the stinging tears that had begun to escape, to roll down her face.  She’s a child.  They both are.  And you and Lord Samuel aren’t foolish people, nor are you weak.  This sickness won’t take you as it did them.  Would that I’d been born your daughter, Magister.  My heart would ache less for it.
            “Sam is in councils.  I’d not be leaving her alone in these dark times.”  Mina hugged her apprentice gently, stroking her hair.  “We’ll go, now, though, if you’d like us to.”
            Quin took a deep breath, held it a moment, then exhaled slowly.  “I won’t be long, Magister.  It…it won’t take long for this to burn to ashes.”  She gestured to her parents’ pyre, even now more than half burned through.  “I’m sure Tanitharil will be kind enough to walk me home.”
            Mina hugged her tightly, nodding a slight nod.  “Very well.  We’ll see you at breakfast.”  She stroked Quin’s cheek with her thumb and gave her a brave smile, then turned and disappeared into the night, tread silent, her navy blue robes merging with the dim.  Quin only watched her for a moment, turning slowly back toward the pyre.
            Nothing left for me here but friends and mentors, she thought, setting her jaw.  Maybe…but no.  No.  It’s not time to go yet.  I’ll know the right moment…and it’s not this one.
            Tanith waited respectfully beyond her sight until her tears had dried and the pyre had burned down to a scattering of embers and ash.  The mail of his armor rasped softly in the darkness, catching the light of the stars along curved edges, even as the starlight illuminated his silvery black hair.  He slowly circled the perimeter of the pyre, coming to gently touch her arm with a bare hand.
            “What do you want to do now?”  He murmured softly.
            Her hand covered his as she swallowed hard, rallying herself before she looked up at him.  Of all of her teacher’s children, Tanith, it seemed to her, was the most striking not fully human.  His gracefully strong build, more delicate facial features, and slightly pointed ears all marked him, but his hair, for her, was the giveaway.  His hair, she’d been told, was a gift of his Quel’dorei blood, three generations distant—from his mother’s grandfather, a full-blooded Quel’dorei mage, now returned to the earth and wind some years ago.
            She sighed again.  “I want the wind to carry their ashes out over Lordamere, Tanith.  Goddess knows that’s not possible, though, with things as they are.”
            The young knight—a handful of years her senior but still young nonetheless—smiled wryly at her.  “Taken on my mother’s religion, Quin?”  He stroked her cheek, shaking his head.  “Get he urns.  Leave the arrangements to me.  I’ll be back.”  He kissed her cheek and disappeared, like his mot, into the dim.
            Quin watched him go, finally sighing softly.  Her father had always hoped for a match between them, between she and Tanitharil Auroran.  She had been steadfastedly opposed to the idea on principle, but often she had to admit—both to herself and to Xaqriel, her confessor—that he kindled feelings in her no other man did.
            I have nothing, now, nothing but scraps, what’s left of my father’s accounts and enterprises, what left of Mum’s dowry.  Nothing that would win for me a marriage to the son of noble houses—nothing to win me a marriage to a knightly son of such!
            Casting one last glance toward the direction Tanith had gone in, she bent to begin gathering ashes.

Current time, Northrend
            She winced, tugging the tent flap tightly closed and fumbling with the bindings.  Tyrin was there quickly, steady hands aiding her trembling hands.  “I’m fine, Xaq,” she answered quickly, easing away from the flap and allowing Tyrin to complete the task without her.
            “Are you cold, Quin?  I know you were out by the fire, but your hands—”
            “Are fine,” she snapped.  She dropped heavily onto the pile of skins next to Xaq, who’d pushed himself up on an elbow.  “There’s a storm coming.  Can you feel it, too?”
            The former scout grunted to the affirmative as Xaq worked himself into a sitting position.  “Xaq was just complaining about the ache.”
            She turned toward him.  “Is it bad?”
            “No worse than your hands and knees are aching, I’d imagine.”  He kept his blanket pulled tight around his shoulders even as she let hers slip.  He took a hold of one of her hands, his fingers gently but firmly probing along her joints and bones.  In her mind’s eye, she could see his brow furrowed in concentration, lips pressed into a line as he checked work he’d done but suddenly doubted the soundness of.
            She closed her eyes, chiding as he pressed on a still-tender knuckle with his thumb.  “Careful, Xaq.  Want to crack it back open?”
            He let go, tone stern.  “I’m fixing that later.”
            “Save your strength.”  She drew her knee against her chest, resting her chin against it.  “You’ll need it for the return trip, I’m thinking.  You don’t handle boats that well, as I recall.”
            “Don’t remind me.”  He rocked up onto his knees, crawling around her to take her other hand.  “Don’t think we have to worry about that, though.”
            “It’s a zeppelin, Quin.  An airship.”
            She turned toward Tyrin, blinking.  “You’re certain?”
            “I know what a zeppelin looks like, Quin.”
            “I know you do.  That’s why I’m asking you.”
            She could almost hear the wry smile in his voice.  “It’s a zeppelin.  Hopefully, air travel will agree more with Master Xaqriel than seafaring did.”
            “Hopefully,” Xaq mumbled, relinquishing his grip on Quin’s other hand.  “Do we know when we’re leaving?”
            “Tomorrow, Faren said,” Quin answered, licking her lips.  “Not much time for the others to make it here, especially with a storm…”
            “Probably for the best,” Xaq murmured.  At her questioning expression, he elaborated, “Better some of us make it home than none of us, Quin.”
            She shuddered slightly, then nodded.  “I worry for Mariaeh.  Shouldn’t she…?”
            “I worry more for her in Andry’s company,” Tyrin said, sitting down near them amongst the warm skins.  “I’ve known that man all my life.  Something broke inside of him these past weeks.  We should have kept Mariaeh with us.”
            “He wouldn’t hear of it and you know it,” Xaq said quietly.  “That’s his wife and his unborn child.  Would you want either out of your sight?”  He scrubbed his hands over his face.  “Thanks be that we’ve managed to hide the pregnancy from them.  Who knows what they would have done had they known?”
            Quin shuddered, shaking her head.  “I’ve no desire to think on that.”  Thanks be to the Goddess and the Light that they think Mariaeh is dead.  Thanks be we’ve managed to fool them.  No child should be born into that.  She licked her lips, finally nodding firmly.  “We’ll see them by morning.  Nothing matters to Andry but getting them home to Lordaeron.  Nothing.”
            “They’re not taking us to Lordaeron,” Tyrin said softly.  “We’re bound for Kalimdor when we leave these shores.”
            “We’re bound to our people,” Quin responded firmly.  “Where Lordaeron’s people yet survive, so too will we.  That is home.  Out people will be our home, no matter where they may be.”  She closed her eyes, swallowing as she fought to remember faces rather than Capital City, rather than the lands, the trees.  Tanith’s face swam before her and she fought down a thick lump in her throat.
            Goddess, let them be happy, and let them forget me—if you are as merciful as Mina always said, they’ll have forgotten me long ago.  Long, long ago.

            The wind rose to a shriek within the next handful of hours and the trio found themselves huddled together, nestled among the skins and sharing their blankets.  Xaq was nestled under Quin’s arm, leaning against her chest and side even as she leaned back against Tyrin’s chest.  She had struck a precarious balance with him; he leaned against her and she leaned against him and they remained comfortable, upright, so long as the balance was maintained—and it would be, so long as she didn’t shift too much.  Tyrin was already asleep, displaying the scout’s almost inborn ability to snatch moments of rest when they were available, regardless of conditions.  She and Xaq remained awake, listening to the wind howl, battering at their tent’s walls and tearing at the tightly secured flap.
            “I wonder how many made it through alive,” Xaq murmured to her after a long while of silence.
            “Hopefully all five,” she answered, eyes closed.  They ached, probably from their exposure to the wind and cold.  It couldn’t be from light.  She couldn’t see light anymore.  “We’ll know in the morning.”
            “And from Lordaeron?  I wonder how many will be waiting for us.  Think Joshua’s married Tanith’s little sister yet?  What was her name?”
            “Jude,” Quin answered absently, trying to ignore the tightness in her throat.  Why does he have to keep talking like this?  What if they’re all dead?  Even if they’re not…  “I suppose they must be married by now.  There was never a question of her survival, anyway.”
            Xaq snorted softly.  “Aye, and she’d be the concern, wouldn’t she?  Too much like her hero.”
            Quin snorted herself, shaking her head slightly.  “I wasn’t her hero.”
            “Then you were the older sister she didn’t have, for certain.  She looked up to you.”
            “Hopefully, she learned that perhaps that wasn’t the wisest course.”  She gentle tugged Xaq’s hair.  “Why do you keep bringing it up, Xaq?  Why do you keep going on and on about it, about the people we left behind?”
            “Because you stopped, maybe?”  He tilted his head up to look at her.  “You dragged us all through by reminding us that there was even the barest shred of hope that we could see the people we loved back home again.  Now, when we’re a hairsbreadth from that being a reality, you suddenly don’t want to talk about the people who loved us anymore?  What’s gotten into you, Quin?”
            She pressed her lips into a tight line, thoughts in a turmoil.  I can’t lie to him.  I never really could.  “I can’t go back to the life I had before, Xaq,” she whispered, voice almost lost under the shrieking of the wind.  “It’s been pushed well beyond my reach.”
            He shifted more fully, staring at her.  She exhaled, chin dropping.  She wasn’t sure if his mouth was working soundlessly or if he was just staring at her, dumbfounded.  Regardless, he’d be over it momentarily and she braced herself for the coming protest.
            And come it did.
            “Quin!  By the Light, why would you even think that let alone say it?  Even if your vision doesn’t come back, there are ways around that!  Dalaran won’t give up on one of its brightest so easily.  Lady Mina won’t give up on her prized student so easily.”
            “It’s not just that, Xaq.”  She splayed her hands, feeling them tremble and twitch like a leaf in the wind.  “I’m not sure this is going to stop.  I wouldn’t trust myself to cast a cantrip, let alone anything potentially destructive.”
            His hands gently closed around hers, cupping fingers shattered by the Scourge more times than she could count, thumbs brushing over the backs of her hands as he drew them against his chest, cradling them.  “Have faith, Quin.  They won’t abandon you because I failed you in mending these.”  He squeezed her fingers gently as she winced, not from pain in her hands but from the fist tightening around her heart.
            Her fingers flexed in his grip. “Xaq…”  She squeezed her eyes more tightly closed, drawing him back toward her.  “Knowing what’s happened to me would break Mina’s heart.  I won’t do that to her, Xaq, I can’t.  They gave me too much for me to visit so much pain on her.”
            “And so you’ll do what?  Run?  Hide from everyone who ever loved you?”  He let go of one of her hands, brushing her hair away from her face.  “What am I supposed to tell them, Quin?  That you died so we could run?  You would rather them carry that grief and guilt rather than know the truth?  How is that more fair?”
            Would that grief and guilt be worse than seeing me as I am, broken, shattered, irrevocably changed?  There’s nothing that can be done for what’s happened to me.  She could hardly find the voice to speak.  “Go to sleep, Xaq.”
            “I will not!  You’re not going to run away from this, Quin, I won’t let you.  You said they gave you too much for you to hurt Mina.  What about Tanith and Joshua and Mal and the others?  What about them, Quin?  They loved you, too.  I’m sure that they still do.  So why would you even dream of being so unfairly cruel to them by letting them mourn your loss when you’re not dead?  Why break their hearts all over again?”
            Quin hissed.  “Why break their hearts again, Xaq?  You think that’s not already going to happen?  Why add the burden of taking care of me onto that pain?  That’s what they’ll want to do!”
            “If you tell them you can take care of yourself, Quin—”
            “They won’t believe it by any stretch of the imagination,” she snapped, setting her jaw.  “Tanith especially—”
            “Knows your strength,” Xaq cut in gently.  He reached to brush away the tears that had begun to trek down her cheeks.  “He knows how strong you are, Quin.”
            She sniffled, choking on her pain and squeezing blind eyes more tightly shut.  He also knows how vulnerable I am, how much need I have.
            He knows I ache, and he knows that we were in love.
            “Yes,” she whispered at last.  “He does.”

Lordaeron, circa six years ago
            The ashes shimmered a moment in the starlight as the wind caught them, making them swirl and dance before stealing them away, out of her vision, carrying them across and down to the waters of Lake Lordamere.
            “Goodbye,” she whispered, watching as the last of the ashes vanished from her sight.  One last tear traced a path down a slightly sooty cheek as the wind tugged at the hem of her robes.
            It was a moment before Tanith’s gloved hands rested on her shoulders.  “Are you all right, Quin?”
            She drew a deep breath, steadying and calming herself.  She nodded a little, reaching up with her free hand to squeeze his fingers.  “I will be.  Can we stay here a little while, or will your friend on the watch get in trouble?”
            “A little while.”  He drew her against him and she closed her eyes, rubbing her cheek against the heavy linen of his tabard, letting his arms enfold her in warmth and comfort.  She rested her head against the curve of his breastplate, exhaling a sigh as he laced his fingers through her hair.  “What will you do now, Quin?” he murmured, breath warm against her ear.  “It won’t be safe to stay here much longer.  The sickness draws closer—the other one, the one they reported from the outlying villages.  Some of the nobles are talking about taking extended holidays.”
            ”I don’t know,” she admitted quietly, reveling in the feeling of his fingers in her hair.  Fate, why are you so cruel?  Goddess…  “What will you do?”
            “I go where the Order and my king will,” he said quietly, though she thought she caught a slight hitch in his voice.
            “What’s wrong?”
            He shook his head slightly.  “Rumors, that’s all.  They’ve sent the prince to investigate the sickness that’s spreading.  I was supposed to go, but my father’s influence has kept me near the city.  He suspects something, though I don’t know what.”  Tanith licked his lips, staring out over the water, fingers still laced through her hair even as she lifted her cheek from his chest to stare at him.  “There’s talk of sending my grandfather to Dalaran as the king’s representative to the Kirin Tor.  There’s sounds that I would lead the honor guard, if that happened, and that my mother and my sisters would be a part of the entourage.”  He looked down at her, blue eyes meeting blue eyes.  “You could go with them.”
            Was there a hint of hope in his voice?  “I suppose that I could.”
            “But would you?”  He tugged off one of his gloves, then brushed stray hair from her face.  “Would you go with them?  Would you go with me?”
            Her shoulders rose and dropped in a shrug.  “I don’t know, Tanith.”
            His voice dropped to a bare whisper as he leaned close, mouth so near to her ear that she could feel his breath, errant strands of his silver-black hair tickling her cheek.  “Come with me, Quin.  I want you to come with me.  Please.”  His hand trembled as his fingers trailed along her jaw.  “Please.”
            She found herself breathless, heart in her throat.  She nodded, turning her face to his, body trembling as much as his hand was.
            Tanith kissed her, his gloved hand pressing against the small of her back as his bare fingers laced through her hair.  She felt a rush of warmth as he held her, as he kissed her.
            They came up for air a few moments later, her arms around his neck, a boyish smile on his face.
            “I was so afraid you’d say no,” he whispered, stroking her cheek.  “So very, very afraid.”  He closed his eyes, taking a breath and exhaling slowly.  “I couldn’t stand the thought of it…”
            She swallowed hard.  “How long?”
            He pressed his forehead into the crook of her neck.  “Since I came back from Northshire.”
            “Five years?”  She drew back, staring at him.  “I was a child!”
            “So was I, still.”  The rough of his fingers caught in her hair, palm brushing against her cheek.  “I fell more and more every day, and every day my courage failed me.”
            “Until tonight.”
            “Until tonight.”  He licked his lips.  “There’s too much at stake, Quin.  I won’t see you thrown to the wolves by anyone.”  He cradled her face in his hands.  “We’re not children anymore.”
            “No,” she murmured.  “We’re not.”  She rose on her toes, kissing him again, ignoring the part of her that was screaming inside that maybe, just maybe, this was a mistake.  It was drowned out by the pounding of her heart and the feeling that this was very, very right.

Current time, Northrend
            She was wrong about never having lied to Xaq, but not really—she’d only lied by omission, lied by never telling him about Tanith, what she’d done with Tanith—what she was to Tanith, what they’d been to each other.
            They had lapsed into silence after her soft-spoken admission.  Xaq had resumed his lean and fallen asleep, leaving her to her thoughts, to her memories.  The wind continued to howl outside, like a hungry creature seeking its quary.
            Then the shouting began.  Loud, urgent cries, first from the members of the airship’s crew set on watch, then Faren’s voice cut through the wind’s screaming.
            “Bring them into camp and keep a sharp eye for anything giving chase!”  The flap of their tent came open, bringing cold and snow swirling into the tent.  “Seems some of your friends have made it, even with the damned storm.  The priest awake?”
            Xaq had startled awake when the cold had gusted into the tent.  “I’m awake,” he mumbled, scrubbing the sleep from his eyes.  “How many?”
            “Two,” Faren answered, voice tight.  “Bundled in furs, looks like, but they’re not quite in full view yet.”  He licked his lips.  “Is one of them carrying?”
            Xaq hesitated before answering.  “Yes.  Her name is Mariaeh.”
            Quin managed a thin smile, murmuring to Xaq, “We shouldn’t have worried.”
            “I’m reserving judgement,” Xaq murmured back, standing up.  “I’m coming.  Tie that off tight; no sense in freezing the others.”  He took an extra blanket, wrapping it around his shoulders before leaving the tent with Faren.  Quin leaned back against Tyrin.
            “This won’t end well,” the scout muttered, half asleep and still leaning against her back.
            Quin sighed and shook her head, unwilling to acknowledge the sick feeling that he was right.
            Quin dozed, leaning against Tyrin, who had lapsed again into deeper sleep.   Her shallow sleep brought with it the phantoms of dreams that were memories, memories she’d been struggling to bury.  She came awake more than once to find tears on her face and her throat tight, the memory of Tanith’s face prominent in her mind, coupled with the realization that she would never see it again.  She would always dry her eyes and try to sleep again, finally giving up with Xaq’s return to the tent some hours later, heralded by a gust of wind and snow into the tent.
            “How are they?” she murmured, tugging her blanket up higher around herself.  Tyrin mumbled in his sleep behind her, then quieted.
            Xaq snorted softly, tying off the tent flap before moving deeper in, toward the warmth promised by blankets shared with his friends.  “Windblown and half-frozen, but otherwise much the same as they were when we split up.  Andry…seems like Andry.  As much as he’s himself lately, anyhow.”
            Quin frowned, exhaling.  “Are they asleep now?”
            “I stayed until they’d eaten and bedded down.”  Xaq settled next to her, peeling an edge of the blanket away from her body and wrapping it around himself.  She shivered, wincing.
            “Goddess, you’re freezing.”
            “I know it.  Storm’s bad.”  He tucked himself into a ball again, leaning against her side as she slid an arm around him, drawing him tight despite the chill.  “Hopefully it’ll have passed by morning.”
            She nodded, stroking his hair a moment before settling in herself.  Silence dragged a moment before Xaq spoke again, voice quiet.
            “What were you crying for?”
            She shook her head slightly, trying to deflect the question.  “Wind stung when you opened the flap, that’s all.”
            He snorted.  “I thought you couldn’t lie to me.  What’s wrong?”
            “Nothing’s wrong.”
            Teeth grinding, Quin squeezed her eyes shut.  “I don’t want to talk about it, Xaq.  Can you respect that and leave it there?”
            After a few moments of silence, he finally nodded.  “For now,” he warned quietly.  “Suffering in silence won’t help you, though, Quin, and it’s not going to make anything easier on us.”
            She made a quiet sound, shaking her head.  “Go back to sleep, Xaq.  I’ve gotten some.”
            “Sleep as deflection is getting to be one of your trademarks.”
            “Shut up, Xaq.”
            He smiled faintly, nodding again.  “Right.  You get some sleep, too.”
            I hope to.  Unfettered by memories that shouldn’t hurt nearly so much.  “I’ll try.”

            By morning, the storm had passed, and the last of their companions had stumbled into camp, half frozen and weary.  They’d been promptly put to bed, to sleep off their long hike through hardship and blowing snow.  The sunrise found Quin seated near the fire outside of her tent, feeling as if she’d barely slept at all but unable to will herself back into sleep and dreams.  The memories had woken her one too many times, shaking her with the pain they carried.
            His face shouldn’t bring me so much pain when it brought me so much comfort in the past.  She rested her forehead against her knees, drawn up to her chest to consolidate her warmth, to hold it.  The camp was awake around her, the zeppelin’s crew making ready to ship out before the sun reached its peak in the sky.
            Someone nudged her shoulder and she frowned, chiding herself.  I should have heard him coming.  She lifted her head, tilting it toward the figure looming over her.  “Huh?”
            “I said that you should have something hot to drink,” Faren repeated.  “You all right?”
            “Just tired,” she said, rubbing at her eyes, feeling the sleep-sand still clogging the corners, reminding her of the tears of the previous night.  “What are you making?”
            “Coffee or tea, take your pick.  Coffee’s hot; haven’t put the water on for tea yet.”
            “Coffee’s fine.”  Been a long time for that.  Bet it’ll taste good…  She reached up and accepted the earthenware mug he handed down to her, smiling faintly up at him.  “Thanks.”
            “You’re welcome.”  He settled down nearby, stretching his legs out toward the fire, presumably to warm his toes.  Quin wrapped both hands around her mug, taking a slow sip of the coffee, finding it as bitter and strangely soothing as it had been so long ago.
            She took a second sip of coffee before voicing the question that had tugged at her for so long.  Tilting her head toward Faren, she asked quietly, “Why do you two care so much?  You’re not of Lordaeron—not from the capital, anyway.”
            “How do you know I’m not from Lordaeron?”
            Could be I’m not stupid.  Quin smiled wryly.  “Accent.  You don’t sound it.  Nor does your wife.  And I don’t ever remember a place called Theramore, which means it didn’t exist when we left…so why do you and your wife care so much about a group of ragged survivors from Lordaeron?”
            There was a long silence, the crackling of the fire filling the void as the moments stretched out.  Faren answered finally, several minutes later, voice quiet.  “Because not helping you, not caring, would be wrong.”
            A frown creased her forehead as she took a small sip of coffee.  It makes sense.  But at the same time…  “But you didn’t have to.”
            “No, we didn’t.”  She heard him shifting position, heard him sigh.  “But that’s no reason not to do the right thing.”  There was a pause before he laughed softly.  “Besides.  You remind my wife a bit of a friend of ours.  Her elf-girl.”
            Quin blinked, frowning.  “Elf-girl?”
            Faren laughed again.  “Aye, elf-girl.  One of the kaldorei—night elves, in Common.  A long story.”
            Night elves?  I didn’t think…those were just legends, weren’t they?  She exhaled a breath silently.  I guess not.  “Oh,” she said in reply, leaning back against the old log, taking another sip of coffee.  “…how long will it be before we leave?”
            “A couple hours.  Your friends will get a little more sleep before we get underway.”
            Good, they need it.  “I suppose I’ll wake them soon, then.  So they can at least get some food into them…”  She let her voice trail away, thinking a moment.  I wonder if they’re traveling directly, or if we’re making stops.  “Will we be stopping at Valgarde?”
            “Do you need to?”  There was some surprise in Faren’s voice.
            Guess not.  Quin shook her head.  “No.  There’s nothing for us there.”
            “Ah.  Good.  We’d planned on heading straight to Theramore, weather permitting.  A few days, then we’ll be able to maybe find your families, get you settled again—get you to some sort of home.”
            She smiled faintly.  “Good.”  The others…I hope there’s people for all of them.  They deserve some kind of home, some kind of future—some kind of family going forward from here. Another sip of coffee allowed her to hide the sadness that suddenly welled up, letting her hide behind the rim of the earthenware mug.  Goddess.  What I wouldn’t give for something worth coming home to that wouldn’t hurt anyone more than it would help me.
            Faren’s hand was on her knee, then.  “We’ll find someplace for you, too.”
            He remembered.  Quin smiled weakly, nodding.  “Thanks.”
            The man’s boots crunched on the mix of snow and gravel as he walked away from the fire, leaving her settled there, huddled in her cloak.  She rubbed at the sleep-sand in her eyes again, frowning at the sting.
            Please don’t let them find Tanith for me.  Please.

            Xaq used her as a crutch again when they climbed aboard the zeppelin, tucked against her side and shivering in the wind.  He had checked Mariaeh, and on Dusk’s broken leg before he’d eaten, and the expenditure of energy was taking its toll on the priest.  Quin had scolded him soundly—again—and he seemed contrite for once.
            They were so close to getting back, getting home.
            Xaq eased away from her, leaning against a rail just in time for her to be engulfed in Mariaeh.  She oofed, trying to catch her breath as the other woman crushed her in a hug, stumbling to retain her balance.  “Hi Mari.  You’re all right, then?”
            She nodded, grip loosening.  “Andry made sure of it.  Are you?  Xaq wouldn’t say.”
            Quin laughed, almost able to see the expression of displeasure on her friend’s face as she undoubtedly was shooting a glare in the priest’s direction.  “I’m all right, Mari.  Ready to get away from this gods-forsaken tundra.”
            “Mmmph.  Yes.”  Mariaeh rocked back against her heels.  “ Thanks be to the Light I’ll not be having this child here…he’ll only know safety, and love.”
            “As well he deserves.”  Quin hugged her briefly again before reaching for Xaq. “You should get inside, and I should get him inside.  I think they’re pretty eager to get underway.”
            “So are we,” Mariaeh kissed her cheek, squeezed her hand, then continued on.  Heavy footsteps in her wake heralded Andry’s approach.
            Once upon a time, we never would have heard him coming until it was too late to react.  “Andry.”
            “Quin.”  The soldier sounded tired, more tired than she could remember him being.  Silence stretched between them a moment as the bigger man paused, then spoke again.  “She loves you like you were her own sister.”
            “She’s been a good friend,” she murmured in response, aware that Xaq was still leaning against the rail silently.
            “Keep her safe,” Andry whispered, then walked on, following Mariaeh.
            Quin frowned as Xaq drew against her again, murmuring to him, “What was that about?”
            Xaq shook his head slightly.  “I don’t think we want to know, Quin.  Let’s get inside.  It’s cold.”
            She nodded in agreement and resumed her course toward the stairway that would take them below decks, out of the wind and cold.
            Please.  Please just let us get home safe and sound.  Please.  Something in Andry’s voice had filled her with dread; had she not been blind already she would have shut her eyes against whatever she might see.
            Tyrin’s right.  Something’s snapped inside of him.  But he’s still lucid enough to realize it.
            But how long will that last?

            Days passed en route, uneventful but for Xaq’s bouts of motion sickness that left him clinging to the rail like a limp rag.  Quin stayed with him during the bouts, ignoring the sour smell the wind would catch and toss about sometimes.  If Xaq was utterly miserable, though, his misery was mirrored by the elation the others felt at the prospect of getting back, of seeing whatever family might have survived the war.  They didn’t talk about how few there might be left, about how everything would be different when they returned.
            They didn’t talk about how it wasn’t Lordaeron they were going home to.
            In retrospect, Quin would later admit, that probably was an omission that could have prevented heartache.
            They were pressed against the rail of the zeppelin—Xaq was clinging to it more than pressed against it, though the most recent spate of nausea seemed to have passed, finally.  Quin’s eyes were squeezed closed, her head thrown back, the wind running cold fingers through her hair.  It was strangely exhilarating, liberating—for a moment or three, she was able to forget all the worries that had plagued her these past weeks, since their escape, since their rescue.
            The riggers were shouting to each other above, moving across netting and checking the propellers, the air bag, the other equipment.  One of them was shouting something about sighting land, sighting Kalimdor.  Quin pushed off the rail, turning, as Xaq lifted is head.
            “I can see it, Quin,” he murmured, voice almost lost in the wind.  “Half-finished brickworks, but it’s there, almost in clear sight.  Flags snapping in the wind.”
            She smiled faintly, nodding.  “We’re almost there, then.”  Almost safe.  Almost…  Her smile faded and she exhaled a sigh.  Almost.
            It was another few moments before a commotion started up at the far end of the deck, near where some of the others had been clustered, shouting with the sound of wood and metal clattering against the deck.  Quin turned toward the sounds, brow furrowing.
            “That doesn’t sound good,” Xaq murmured at her side.
            “No.  And I don’t think it’s going to end well.”  She pushed off the rail and headed toward the sound, Xaq trailing slowly in her wake.
            Andry was shouting, almost incoherently, in Tyrin’s direction, and Tyrin was shouting back, trying to calm his old friend down.  Quin stopped several feet from the argument, brow furrowing deeply as she listened, picking out Andry’s words carefully, shouted at the top of his lungs.
            “You said they were taking us home!  That’s not home!  The coast is wrong!  It’s on the wrong bloody side!”
            “Calm down, Andry!  By the Light, that’s where anyone we have left will be!  The refugees from Lordaeron went there!”
            Xaq was at Quin’s shoulder, murmuring quietly, “This is bad.”
            She nodded grimly, taking a deep breath.  “Yeah.  It is.”
            A crowd was gathering.  Faren was shouting from the forecastle, wondering what was happening on the forward deck.  Andry paced, snarling, angry.
            “It’s not home.  They’re not taking us home.  They’re not taking us home!”
            “Andry, breathe, damn you!  Lordaeron is lost.  It fell.  We have to start over.”
            And Andry did breathe.  He took a long, deep breath, then spoke, voice low, toneless.  “I promised my wife that we would go home together, or we would die together.  I said I would bring her home.  We’re never going home, are we?”
            Oh no.
            “Answer me, Tyrin.  We’re never going home, are we?”
            Tyrin’s voice was quiet.  “Not today, Andry.  Not to Lordaeron.  We have to make a new home, now.”
            “I don’t want to make a new home, Tyrin.”  Wood rattled against wood as Andry pulled a belaying rod out of its holder.  “I made a promise.  Promises are kept.”  He began to turn, to walk across the deck toward where Mariaeh sat with Dusk.
            Tyrin grasped for his shoulder.  “Andry, don’t—”
            Andry led with the rod, Tyrin just barely managed to dodge taking the heavy shaft of wood to the cheekbone.  As it was, a wet snapping sound presaged thing breaking of Tyrin’s forearm like a twig.  He went down hard to the deck with a cry of pain, cradling the limb.
            “I’m sorry, my friend,” Andry whispered harshly, “but I keep my promises.”  He turned toward Mariaeh, who had begun to stand up from her seat.  “It’s time to go home, Mari,” he called, a hint of madness tingeing his tone.  “We’re going home now!”
            “Andry?  What are you talking about, sweetheart?  Are you—?”
            His maddened howl cut her off and she squeaked, standing stock-still for a moment before starting a mad dash around, toward where Quin stood with some of the sailors.  Faren was shouting somewhere behind them, but distant.  He’d never make it in time to stop this.
            Keep her safe. 
           Quin grasped for a blade, any blade, and found one coming to hand quickly.  Xaq had scrambled forward toward Tyrin, and the motion of her drawing someone else’s blade from its scabbard came unimpeded, hands wielding the blade with speed remembered from years ago, steady for the first time in weeks.  “No, Andry!  No!”
            He continued to rush toward Mariaeh, who was nearing them despite her advanced pregnancy.  His voice was a raw howl of mindless rage and pain, driven by something inside that was broken, unable to be mended.  She knew now that he would kill his wife, their unborn son.  His mind has finally shattered, after all the long years of hardship and pain that he had survived, tethered tightly to the promise that he would somehow get Mariaeh home, a tether that was suddenly severed by reality.  His mind was completely irrevocably shattered, finally gone, finally lost.
            She acted.  Fire arced along the blade as she moved, darting past Mariaeh as she ran, intercepting Andry only a heartbeat later, plunging the blade deep.  He shoved it deeper still as he impaled himself upon it, trying to push past her, to Mariaeh.  The others could see the gleam of madness suddenly die in his eyes as he pressed himself against the blade in Quin’s hands to its very hilt.  The belaying rod clattered to the ground.
            Blood flecked his unkempt beard.  “Thank you, Quin.”  He sagged, the flames along her blade dying.  Quin swallowed a sob as he slumped, sliding off her blade and to the decking.  Mariaeh rushed forward as Quin stumbled aside, dropping the blade and collapsing to her knees as she began to weep.

            Her eyes hurt, burned like small blazes, as she lay curled on the bunk of one of the tiny cabins belowdecks, and her hands shook as she clutched them against her chest.  There were no more tears left in her, no more tears to cry for Andry,  for Mariaeh and the baby that would never know his father.
            No more tears for innocence lost, for herself, for the girl she had been that was now truly dead.
            She winced at the feeling of a hand against her shoulder.  “Go away,” she whispered.
            “Not on your life,” Tyrin said softly, sitting down behind her on the narrow bunk.  He tousled her hair gently, settling in.  “Mariaeh is alive because of you, Quin.”
            “But Andry’s dead, and I killed him.”
            Tyrin exhaled a sigh.  “The Scourge killed Andry, not you.  What they did to him killed him.  They made him into that thing, and he knew it.  He knew that it could come to this.  We all knew it could.”  He squeezed her arm.  “That’s why he forgave all of us for what we might have to do before this ever happened.  Why Mariaeh forgives you for it.  It wasn’t your fault, Quin.”
            “The blade was still in my hands,” she murmured softly.  “And it was my blade that killed him.”
            “And it would have been better if he’d killed Mari and the baby?”
            She flinched.  That doesn’t stop the guilt.
            Tyrin was quiet for a long moment, then sighed.  “Well.  I came below to tell you that we’ll be landing soon, and riding in caravan to Theramore—least, that’s what they told us.  Faren said it wasn’t far, and we should be able to handle the trip all right.  Probably.  We’ll be among friends again by morning.”
            She made a small sound.  He squeezed her shoulder again.
            “Get some rest.”
            “I will,” she murmured, eager for him to be gone, though longing for the comfort his presence promised.  She squeezed her eyes shut.
            “Sweet dreams, Quin.”  With that, Tyrin rose and left the room as quietly as he’d come, easing the door shut behind him.
            She choked on a sob.  Sweet dreams indeed.  Never again, I’m afraid…never again.

            The air stank of swamp, of stagnant water, fungus, and rot.  Quin’s nose tried to close up at the smell of it, and she reflected wryly that she could handle long years of the stench of charnel, but wanted to cover her nose at the smell of a swamp.
            She hadn’t managed to sleep much at all, had found herself twisting in the covers of the cot, tossing and turning, thoughts alive with phantom visions of death, of pain.  She could almost see herself as one of the Scourge, blind though she was, mindlessly slaying everyone she had ever loved, everyone that would ever mean something to her, make a difference in her life.  She’d thought that she was out of tears, but she’d sobbed soundlessly the whole night, up into the small hours in the morning, when Xaq had come, murmuring something about needing a friend, and curled up in bed with her, held her tightly until her silent sobs eased and she lapsed into exhausted slumber for a few last hours.
            Wavering on her feet, she leaned a bit against Xaq as they disembarked from the zeppelin onto an unstable platform.  She struggled to catch her balance without toppling Xaq with her.  Tyrin’s shoulder was there quickly, balancing them both.
            “Wagons,” he said quietly, “waiting below.  First step’s about ten feet in front of you, Quin.”
            She nodded dimly.  Her concentration wasn’t what it should have been, she couldn’t get a clear mental image of what was before her.  It was more ephemeral, there, then suddenly gone again.
            It was like learning all over again, to see without her eyes.
            Her steps came tentatively, guided by her friends.  Xaq shivered, still cold, and he seemed even more frail now that they were back in friendly territory than he had been when they left Northrend.  She bit her lip, tilting her head toward him.
            “Are you going to make it?”
            He laughed a little, nodding.  “Too close now.  Besides, can’t have you breaking a promise to Mal, can I?”
            She managed to smile, hugging him gently before the trio stumbled down the stairs together—though she and Xaq were doing most of the stumbling.  Tyrin, despite the pain he must have been in, was still steady on his feet.  The stairs were rickety, creaking as they moved down them—Quin found herself very eager to be on solid ground.
            “Well.  Seems to be the end of the line for us.”
            Quin half turned, orienting toward the sound of Faren’s voice.  “You’re not coming with us?”
            “Nah.  Triv and I need to refuel and head back pretty fast.  Sooner we get back, sooner we can maybe find more of your friends, you know?”  He tousled her hair gently.  “We’ll see you after the next trip, maybe, after you’re settled.  Sam’ll see to the lot of you.”
            “Sam?”  Xaq asked, sounding confused.  “Who’s Sam?”
            “Our patron, Lord Samuel Auroran.  I told you that we worked for one of the refugee Houses, didn’t I?”
            Quin stiffened, but Faren only smiled, tousling her hair again.
            “Don’t worry.  They’ll take good care of you.”
            “We know, Master Faren.  Thank  you.  Thank you and your wife for helping us.”  Tyrin locked his good arm around Quin’s shoulders and started to steer her toward the wagons.  His voice came quietly in her ear.  “You know them.  You don’t have to be afraid.”
            Her voice was a weak whimper.  “I didn’t want them to know.”  Especially not now.  Not after what I’ve done.
            “Seems fate’s made that decision for you.”
            She squeezed her eyes shut against tears that she didn’t want to cry.  Goddess.  I don’t want Tanith to see me like this.  Please…

            The wagon creaked over the last bridge through the marsh and beyond the walls into Theramore.  The smell of rot was replaced slowly by the smell of the sea.  The wagons bore left, along the outer curtain wall, until they creaked to a stop.  Quin huddled in a ball, knees tight against her chest, in one corner of the wagon Tyrin and Xaq had manhandled her into.
            “Stretchers first, then the rest.  Take them to the second floor, north wing.  No one should be bothering any of them there.”
            Quin flinched.  Sam.
            “You’re certain this is what you want to do, then?”
            She nodded firmly.  “I have to, Sam.  I have to do something.  Tanith is going to the front, Mina is taking Lyyn to safety—Jude is already gone.  I have to do something.  This expedition may be my chance to make a difference for our people—for everyone.” 
           The reddish-haired man exhaled a sigh, shaking his head with a paternal smile.  “All right.  I’ll break the news to Mina.”
            She leaned forward, squeezing his hand in both of hers.  “Thank you, Sam.”  
           The smile turned wry.  “Don’t thank me, yet.  You’ll have to break the news to Tanith.”
           She buried her face in her hands.  Xaq touched her shoulder gently.
           “Come on, Quin.  Hiding won’t help this.”
            She swallowed, trying not to cry.  He tugged on her gently, folding her into a comforting hug for a few brief moments.
            “No matter what’s happened in the past, they’re the family we have, Quin.  They’re what we have.”
            Goddess, thank you for him.  Quin took a shaky breath, nodding weakly and beginning to stand, to make her way out of the wagon.  She climbed down with a little help from a nearby solider—she assumed it was a nearby soldier—and then turned to help Xaq down herself.
            A hand touched her shoulder as Xaq’s feet hit the dusty ground.  She flinched slightly, slowly turning, letting her unkempt hair fall into her face.  Calloused fingers tucked under her chin and lifted her face toward the light.  She flinched again at the gasp she heard, squeezing her eyes shut and turning her face away.
            The crushing force of Samuel Auroran’s bear hug caught her off-guard and left her gasping in surprise for air.  The man’s tears wet her cheek.  “By the Light, girl,” the old soldier whispered softly, “we thought you were dead.”
            She couldn’t hold back anymore.  Slumping against him, Quin pressed her face into his chest and began to cry.

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