Rules Of Engagement
By the end of things Jaina is too nerveless, frost-black, sweat-and-blood blinded to even know at first that her weightlessness is due to Thrall catching her by the arm and swinging her before him on his wolfmount. The night is unbearably dark in Kalimdor. The gory rain of swollen, diseased limbs from the meat wagons has at least stopped, but the thick and tarry smoke has blocked out the light of Ashenvale's stars - the smoke of the human camp burning, like sticky meat, like oil from the exploded steamers - and she's no night elf. She's blind as a bat in the midst of it all. There is only the sudden, hot impression of explosion, or implosion, of molten things streaking past in midair, and the sound - if Archimonde howled in the rush to get to the World Tree, she knows he'd be lost in the screaming din. The human post has fallen. They held out for so long; now somebody is yelling fall back, fall back and it could be Duke Lionheart but she can't tell any more, if she could ever. Her iceburnt fingers scrabble, gripping the sinewy leather strap by Thrall's reins, gripping the hot fur of the wolf - she goes from hot to cold by moments. The trees are burning, but the air still manages to be as chilled as the thick, foggy morning when she and Arthas came upon Stratholme.
Thrall's howling something; she feels it rumbling through his chest rather than hears it in his throat. Tov'osh, warriors!, and there's a shriller and more pathetic yell, and it takes her a few moments to realise it comes from her own mouth as a halfdozen grimy heads of her footmen swivel to see; they have no time, they're being swarmed. Retreat! Now! Run!. The sight of orc and human running in one mad dash away from a battlesite - yelling in the night and covered in blood - is one that isn't totally alien to the land of Azeroth; the only change is that one side is not systematically shoving blades in the others' backs as they flee. Tyrande's people are probably out there, too, but in the cold dark gloaming they're invisible, arrows between the whispering branches and the silent stamping hooves of the dryads on the broken sod. They break through the first reeking ranks of undead, their second wind, Jaina leaning low to stay clear of the orcish warchief's massive hammer as she spits into her palms and tries to conjure up what magic's left in her to beg a blizzard.
That does a little. (She's learned to stop being arrogantly disappointed that the undead don't melt beneath her fingers. All of the Kirin Tor together could not have stopped this.) Archimonde's teeming mass of rotting ghouls, however, gives equally little purchase; startling the Warchief, stained robes and her shaking hips bolstered against his shieldarm as she holds out her hands in near-supplication. There's always that faint stink of ozone as the portal swallows them and the first line of mingled knights and kodo-riders whole; they stomp in the middle of the undead formation, a wet jolt, her falling back against the shaman and his saddle enough to bruise her tailbone. And then they're away, into the ancient trees, past a grimfaced line of Druids of the Claw who keep the humans from crumbling as they head towards the orcish fortifications.
Riding on a wolf is the most unbearably uncomfortable thing in the world. She's tried it before, very ladylike just the once, sidesaddle in front of the ever self-possessed son of Durotan: they got to their destination quicker, but the bruises and grazes she got were in places really not worth mentioning. She can't even feel the bone-breaking canter now, and they're riding hell for leather. Jaina rubs her face, pushing away the hood, steaming locks of blonde hair moved out of her eyelashes and wet with her own sweat. This isn't a battle, she understands battles; she can even be cocky in battles; war is nothing, nothing, she grew up a war-baby on her father's ships and orc was one of her first words. This is a massacre. She's never been in one of those.
(It's quieter now. The screams are farther off.)
"Are you all right, Miss Proudmoore?"
It takes her a moment to register that Thrall's speaking, in his near-accentless and too-perfect Common. The head of his enormous hammer resting against the bunched-up muscles and leather straps on his wolf's neck and thus almost in her lap. It is testament to how far she has come, to who she now is, that she clinically flicks a dripping grey portion of something that is probably brains off from its slow slide down the bloodied metal to the seam of her robes. "I'm - I'm fine. Did we get everybody out?" It comes out hoarse like a banshee; she wets her lips with her tongue. She feels dry like a desert. "I had my riflemen assembling the east side before they came up over the embankment - "
"We're going to my defenses. We'll swell our ranks there."
"I feel like I failed - Tyrande."
It's out of her mouth before she can stop it; all she can do is twist her lips, and make what had originally been you into the name of the night-elf queen. Failing Tyrande Whisperwind would have been ridiculously easy: failing Thrall is something else entirely. And it's strange to feel him tense behind her - there's so much of him, and he's so much doughty staunch Orc, and he feels with his movements rather than with his face. If it makes any sense. Her mind has been slowly dissolving into mush.
"Miss Proudmoore," he says, and suddenly she wants to giggle absurdly and it's battle hysteria but Thrall is the most polite person she's ever met even when he's covered in blood and they're fleeing for their lives, and only he can say with such grace: "You defended your post long after anybody else could have kept it. I don't know if I could have kept that piece of godsforsaken land that long."
With anybody else it would have been almost patronizing. With him, it is flat and bare truth, naked and unadorned, taking her breath away. Antonidas was flowery in his constant effusive praise to Jaina and it left her stone cold; but she's an idiot if she's trying to tell herself that she's shoved the hulking shaman into her mentor position now that her old one is dead. (In fact, she envies Thrall his ability to mourn openly both Orgrim and Grommash - she was dry-eyed over Antonidas, like a wraith.)
"The dwarves came up with fire," she says, to bridge the gap, the flush of pure and fierce pleasure that this still can maybe be won. "We burn our dead when they fall; God, I think some of them aren't even dead yet when we burn them, anything to stop the skeletons. I think we're just out of pitch, if you soak rags in it and fire it from a range it works well enough and the bones calcify as the necromancers raise them - "
"Pitch isn't a problem, we'll give my warriors oil - "
"Oil works, but if it spatters and explodes it can fall on others - "
(A hot ball of scourgefire rocks them, mostly dissipated on Thrall's shield, but she cracks her head on his chin as the wolfmount bucks slightly. One of the shaman's thick dun-green arms locks around her middle, and she is pretty certain that he fractures one of her ribs: the black armour of Ogrim Doomhammer cuts into her mageweave, he stinks like corpses and Abominations, he is slick with blood, and it's the safest she's felt since this damn thing began.)
There is something of a ragged cheer as they thunder into the Horde base, hung with red, humans and orcs and dwarves and tauren and trolls - if they die here, she suddenly wonders what the historians will think, all the mixed bones - but there will be no more historians, there will be no more books. Her people have survived this far. The cheer is only barely we are not dead yet, and it's a thin thin thing, but as Thrall swings his leg over and dismounts on the churned-up grass to help her down she suddenly has foolish hot hope all over again. It comes and goes like a drug, potent, addicting, and her grin is bloodied and terrible and radiant as the orc warchief slips his hands beneath her armpits and lifts her down wholesale from his mount. The darkness is still there, all-encompassing, flickering and torchlit, and if the undead get to Nordrassil and Malfurion Stormrage they'll have to claw their way bodily through her.
And the shaman pauses, at that, his leatherclad hands on her arms: because the grin is pure mad bloodlust, as out of place on Jaina's thin little face as a sheep in Mulgore. They stare at each other, wild-eyed, for just the length of time it takes his heartbeat to reach his brain - and then it's over, his hand is back to the hammer hanging at his side in his belt, they are a single island in the sea of moving soldiers.
"Give me your men and I'll go eastward," she says, and she pulls her hood back over her tangled blonde hair. "You make your preparations, Thrall, and I'll reset the mines, we just need to buy time now. I'll take the next wave."
He wants to say, what the hell are you thinking, Miss Proudmoore, you're still gasping for breath, but it dies stillborn on his lips and all he can do is give his most curt nod in assent. "Take the spearmen, the trolls will give you a berth to work with. Don't try to push for ground."
Then he tries to turn away, to remount, because the night will be forever and there is so much for him to do; but suddenly there's her small hand at his arm, tugging, quick and insistent and light. Obediently he turns, and she raises her hands face-up to him. (One of her little fingers is broken; he can see how crooked it is, set at a painful angle against her knuckles.)
"Thrall," she calls out, "Thrall, will you bless me?"
He is dumb, he is awestruck, he does not know what to say, frozen as surely as if she had bespelled him. Then he presses his palms lightly to hers - they engulf them; the archmage's spread fingers barely make the radius of his palms - and with two fingers he touches her forehead, he touches with excruciating intimacy and gentleness the grimy curve of her pale throat. The orc shaman almost does not know where to look: at her burning eyes, at the ground, at her. "Spirits go with you, Jaina. Lok'tar Ogar!"
By the time Thrall is back up as mounted wolfrider she is gone, melting into the motley collection of milling warriors, lost in the press of wounded bodies and into the starless night. It doesn't matter: he can see her, her hot heart, alone in the darkness like it was a beacon with the shape of her name still on his tongue. It is a good day to die.