Title: Warcraft – Commiseration
Author: Rowan Seven
Teaser: In the aftermath of the Battle for the Undercity, Thrall and Sylvanas reflect. Contains WotLK expansion spoilers.
Disclaimer: Warcraft and all related characters and settings belong to Blizzard. This is a fan creation, and I make no claims to any of Blizzard's intellectual properties.
Author's Notes: This story was originally posted at a Warcraft fan messageboard and later submitted here. I edited it for Blizzard's 2009 Creative Writing Contest and have updated this version accordingly.
Lordaeron was no stranger to shattered dreams. Once a shining beacon of hope and light for all humanity, in recent years its people had been betrayed, its heroes scattered, and its beloved king murdered by his own corrupted son. Terenas' noble kingdom had become a cruel, despairing mockery of itself, a dessicated, diseased land called home by the dead and damned and covered in perpetual twilight, a realm of shadows where cruelty and fear reigned and with no signs of dawn in sight. The hopes for peace and a better tomorrow that its capital city had once embodied as the heart of the proud Alliance were as scattered as its king's cremated ashes, leaving only sorrow and anguish in their wake.
And thus it was only fitting that Lordaeron was home to this most recent tragedy too, Thrall, Son of Durotan, and Warchief of the mighty Horde thought ruefully as he sat on the steps of the stone dais that served as the Undercity's seat of power. As the shaman silently contemplated his own broken dreams, the powerful orc didn't feel like the visionary leader and savior of his people that so many viewed him as, the mighty hero who had overcome virtually insurmountable odds in battle after battle to lay the foundations for a new home where his race and their allies could live in peace. Instead, he felt weighed down by his dashed hopes and the awful responsibilities that now awaited him, burdened by tarnished promises and bleak options that were heavier than even the imposing black armor that protected his muscular green frame, and encumbered by a heavyheartedness made all the deeper by the high of elation and victory that had been his all but a mere hour ago.
For a few brief, treasured minutes, all had been right in the world as he led the charge to retake the Undercity from the dreadlord Varimathras and his cabal of demons and traitors. The power of the elements had flowed through him with a speed and intensity that was simultaneously energizing and inspiring, granting him blessed communion with the spirits of nature and allowing him to summon the earth's fundamental forces with an ease and naturalness no user of the arcane could possibly understand. And just as he'd been one with the spirit world, Thrall had exalted in the sensation of being at the heart and head of a truly united Horde. For once, there were no distinctions between living and dead, between orcs, trolls, and tauren and the Forsaken and Sindorei. There were only friends and allies, fellow warriors serving under their crimson and black banner. This was the goal that he as Warchief had striven to accomplish for years, and seeing his diverse coalition of races at last overcome their divisions to achieve unity...it had filled him with an incomparable pride as their leader. With such elemental and physical forces aligned behind him and the thrill of battle washing away the fears and worries that preceded any conflict...Thrall never doubted that victory would be his this night or that the Horde's flag would fly over the Undercity once again. And, indeed, the Horde had won a great triumph...but the taste of it was bittersweet all due to the words and actions of a single man.
Varian Wrynn, King of Stormwind.
In one moment, the human monarch had taken what had cost the lives of countless heroes at Mount Hyjal to establish and the monumental efforts of so many brave men and women since then to maintain and shattered the fragile, precious ceasefire that kept the Horde and Alliance at peace. All that he and Jaina had worked for, the sacrifices they had both made, in the hope of creating a new future for their peoples that was not bound by past hatreds, where orc and human, Horde and Alliance, were not doomed to fight each other, was now in ruins and beyond even his immense means to salvage. He was Warchief of the Horde, a legendary hero, one of the strongest shamans his people had ever known, and leader of one of the mightiest factions on Azeroth, and yet he was powerless to stop this vicious cycle of war that he had hoped would never repeat itself again. He would even partake of this senselessness and turn the Doomhammer and the power of the Horde against the Alliance once more because, as Warchief, it was his grim duty to defend his people and all those who followed him against the human king's hatred. He could do nothing less and, though he hated to admit it, it seemed that he could do nothing more either.
Varian Wrynn was beyond listening to reason. As a youth he had witnessed his kingdom's destruction during the First War, lost his father to the daggers of a Horde assassin, and lived through the violence of the Second War. As an adult, he cared nothing for the sacrifices the orcs had made in the Third War to save the world and redeem themselves, and what little inclination he might have had for peace had been extinguished through the strange series of events that had brought him to Kalimdor as an amnesiac gladiator, that disastrous summit at Theramore, and the death of his heroic friend, Bolvar Fordragon. Hatred and anger were guiding the human king, preventing him from seeing that the New Horde wasn't the same engine of destruction the Old Horde was in the past and that the actions of underground criminal organizations and traitors weren't emblematic of the Horde at large. Thrall knew and understood this – having suffered subjugation and tragedy himself he could even sympathize – but he also knew that, barring a miracle, King Wrynn would continue down this foolish, death-filled path and stubbornly cling to the bloody past and his own hate rather than embrace the bright possibilities of the future. It was Daelin Proudmoore all over again, but this time the odds of the conflict ending quickly and simply seemed slim to none.
The mention of the name brought another pang to the Warchief's heart as his thoughts turned to Jaina and the horrible choices and responsibilities that awaited her now, too. His path, at least, was clear. He would lead the Horde against its enemies and do everything in his power to ensure that those who followed him survived the coming conflict. Saurfang – Spirits bless him! – had made that transparent to him. The ruler of Theramore, however, was denied even the comfort of an easy decision. Unlike the rest of the Alliance, Theramore had a treaty with the Horde that guaranteed its protection, and the politics of the Alliance were loose enough that the island nation was under no obligation to obey Stormwind and answer King Wrynn's call to arms. For such a strategic human kingdom to keep its sword sheathed in a time of war, though, would assuredly provoke a harsh response from its so-called allies in the Eastern Kingdoms with consequences that could be very bad for Jaina and the people of Theramore. To break the pact with Durotar, however, invited a swift invasion of the island instead and after all the bad blood that had been spilled these past years Thrall doubted that his soldiers would be as merciful as they had been last time. And the third option, trying to maintain neutrality and balance the demands of the Alliance with the concerns of the Horde, would be a dangerous, nearly impossible feat that could make things even worse for Theramore if Jaina failed. His human friend was between a rock and a hard place and standing on ground that could collapse beneath her feet at any moment.
Thrall wanted to scream at the unfairness and stupidity of everything and release his rage, feel the elements resound with his anger and unite their power with his wrath and make war on this increasingly senseless, foolish world until people saw reason again. Instead, he listened to the calming, soothing voices of the spirits and heeded the call of common sense and wisdom. Conflict would only beget more conflict, and now more than ever Azeroth needed leaders with clear heads. The Horde had given in to fury once long ago, and it had all but destroyed them. It would be all too easy for history to repeat itself, and that was something he could not allow. And just as the spirits of nature survived even in this underground, tomb-like bastion of the dead in a land many had written off as beyond salvation, hope still existed in these dark times.
He just prayed that others would see this before it truly was too late.
Sylvanas Windrunner, Dark Lady of the Undercity and Banshee Queen of the Forsaken, was not a woman much given to introspection. Pondering her cursed existence as one of the undead and the regrets and defeats that haunted her obviously did not appeal to her, and she much preferred to focus on running her city and dealing with the problems that faced her people instead of confronting her own tragic past. She was a leader, now even more so than she had been in life, and engaging in meaningless reminiscing would only invite doubts and distractions that she could ill afford.
Now, though, the Undercity was largely empty and silent, home to the corpses of those who'd betrayed her and a bloody testament to her own failures. Even the sounds of the rats and cockroaches that infested the dark metropolis were missing, an unmistakable sign of the significance of the battle that had recently taken place. In this environment, she couldn't help but reflect as she stood alone on her pedestal, couldn't help but contemplate the unwelcome thoughts that came to her and couldn't help but remember the decisions – her decisions – that had led to this.
The first, of course, was letting that thrice-damned nathrezim live for so long. She should have severed Varimathras' traitorous horned head the moment Lordaeron was hers and she no longer needed his support. Instead, she'd arrogantly believed that she could tie his best interests to her own cause and idiotically let him continue on as her second in command. His betrayal seemed so inevitable in retrospect to Sylvanas, but at the time she'd let his usefulness and the petty pleasure she derived from having turned a member of the Legion into her servant when they'd wanted to do the same to her blind her to the simple truth of the dreadlord's deceptive nature.
The second, though, the second was much trickier to untangle and assign blame for, but there had always been an element of uncertainty with the Royal Apothecary Society, hadn't there? They had been her little pet project, tasked with simultaneously developing a new plague that could annihilate the Scourge and, on a more covert level, destroy any living being foolish enough to stand in her way. The Forsaken were few and their enemies many, so biological weapons had always made sense as a means to even and eventually force the odds in their favor. Besides, it had seemed patently obvious at the time of the Society's founding that the living could not be trusted and would never accept them, so why not research an insurance policy against them? She had, of course, known that there were quite a few minds in the Apothecary's ranks that not only wanted a means to guarantee their own existence but, consumed with hatred and loathing for the humans they had once been themselves, desired to end all mortal life itself. The Dark Lady had even encouraged this sentiment at times, knowing that their zeal would make them work all the harder for results, and if the entire world did forsake them...well, it would only be fitting to forsake the entire world in return. That stark option was one she had deliberately kept open just in case, trusting in Faranell and his disturbing devotion to her to keep the Society and its more radical members in line behind her agenda, whatever that eventually proved to be.
And then they'd joined the Horde.
The irony of the situation had not been lost on her, naturally. As the Ranger General of Quel'Thalas she had fought against the orcs tooth and nail during the Second War and watched in horror as they burned down her people's forests. She had despised the green-skinned invaders for the slaughter of her kin and exacted a terrible retribution on them with her arrows. The people of Lordaeron had suffered greatly too during the Second War because of the Horde, and many of those who followed her now had in life taken up either sword and shield or spell and staff to fight the black-blooded abominations. The Horde was the sworn enemy of humanity and the antithesis of all that they and Lordaeron had once stood for in the past...and now, in death, the Forsaken would reach out to those who had tried to wipe them out from the face of Azeroth and ask for their help? It had been an unsavory decision, but the Banshee Queen knew that she needed allies – strong allies – to discourage a potential Alliance invasion, and she had already sunken far lower to break free from the Scourge and survive. And besides, if circumstances called for it she could always destroy the savage beasts later on once they'd bought her minions enough time to develop their plague.
It was the perfect plan, and its execution had been even simpler than she'd imagined. As Silvermoon's military protector Sylvanas had not been ignorant of the New Horde and its claims to have turned over a new leaf though she had been skeptical, but in a way their rhetoric about redemption and second chances had made it even easier to demand a place for herself and the Forsaken in their coalition. Instead of having to convince them to accept a dangerous, powerful, and untrustworthy ally, her ambassadors appropriated their same language of victimhood and liberation and put them in the trap of an ethical dilemma – How could the Horde not aid them, a fellow people corrupted and almost destroyed by a great evil and now seeking to rebuild their lives and society? The Horde's leaders – Thrall, Cairne, and Vol'jin – had all been suspicious, but they'd gone along just as she'd known their inhibiting morals would force them to, and thus the Forsaken gained a place within the Horde.
Sylvanas had only intended their pact to be an alliance of convenience, a means to an end until the Forsaken were powerful and secure enough to stand on their own and decide their own destinies. Her people's initial reception into the Horde had done little to change this opinion and instead further confirmed her own suspicions of the living's tolerance for the dead. Only the tauren race showed her people true sympathy at the beginning, and they were naive, isolated fools of little use to her outside of their influential position within their barbaric union. Slowly, though, ever so slowly, as their four mismatched races worked together, fought together, and bled together across Azeroth and beyond, a strange, unexpected connection had formed. It had been tenuous and small at first, but as more orcs, trolls, and tauren saw the walking corpses they'd allied with prove themselves, as Forsaken discovered that the primitive savages they'd partnered with were actually willing to give them a chance, and as the sight of each other in their respective cities came to be genuinely welcomed...Entering into the Horde's coalition gave the Forsaken the one thing they'd never asked for and never expected, the one thing they didn't need and would have scoffed at had anybody suggested they even wanted it, the one thing they had believed was forever lost to them...
And in the Banshee Queen's own, unique case, trust.
Thrall was not what Sylvanas had expected of the Horde's Warchief, but even with his surprising traits she still knew that he knew better than to trust her. Were their positions reversed she wouldn't trust herself. And yet, instead of regarding their pact as the piece of paper to wrangle advantages out of she'd viewed it as, the Son of Durotan had treated her as an equal, included her in his counsels, and acted as if the words the Forsaken had spoken to gain their admittance were true despite the evidence piled up against them and did his best to look after and protect their wellbeing and best interests, even though just what constituted "best" for the Forsaken was a topic she and Thrall had discussed and debated endlessly.
Most of the time she'd thought of the Warchief as a fool, albeit a useful one, for placing so much trust in her, at other times she'd resented his infuriating hope that compassion would somehow change what the Forsaken were, as if wishful thinking could actually make a difference in this dark, ugly world, and, rarely, sometimes distastefully, yet with increasing frequency, she'd looked at him with respect. Allying with the Horde was supposed to have been another step on the Forsaken's path of independence and self-reliance, but because of Thrall's leadership it had instead subtly bound them into this defiant coalition, made them and their allies dependent on each other for survival, and somehow convinced her to act not just as the leader of the Forsaken but as one of the leaders of the Horde too. That had been part of her motivation in insisting so adamantly that the Blood Elves be allowed to join, not just for her own benefit or some faint affection her unbeating heart might still harbor for Silvermoon but because she'd also known that the Sindorei would be a boon to the Horde, and at some moment that eluded her best efforts to pinpoint what was good for the Horde had become good for the Undercity too. Like it or not, a bond had developed between the Forsaken and their allies, and while this bond was a chain and Sylvanas despised chains it was in part one of her own forging and, as uncomfortable as she was with it, it was a chain that she'd dared not break...a chain that had, in the end, saved her and her people.
The Dark Lady wanted to curse herself for being deceived for so long but was still far too angry and cursed Varimathras, Putress, and all those who'd betrayed her instead. She should have seen their little coup coming, the signs had all been there...and even if they hadn't, she should have been smart enough to realize that those zealous minds of hers hard at work in the Apothecary weren't hers any more than her mind was Arthas', that they would continue to regard everything as a means to their end just as she'd once done, and that they would continue to pursue their agenda with or without her...and that by keeping her "final option" alive even as she'd grown less inclined to utilize it she was all but ensuring its outcome of death. She could have forbidden the more intensive research targeting the living. She could have placed the Society and its members under more oversight. She could have explicitly stated that the primary target of the plague would be the Scourge and Scourge alone.
Could have, should have, would have...all meaningless words now that wouldn't change recent events and the bitter betrayals that had taken place and nearly killed her. Fighting for her life and her people, she had barely made it to the zeppelins with the refugees, and then they'd barely held off Varimathras' demon cohorts long enough to launch and escape across the ocean. Many more had scattered across the Plaguelands, hoping to find safety at the Sepulcher, Tarren Mill, or any other friendly outpost. The assault had been swift, the casualties staggering, and the similarities to her defeat at Silvermoon painfully and hauntingly clear. Sylvanas had once again lost her home and failed her people, and even as she'd nursed her rage, used it to overcome her injuries and make her stronger, the Dark Lady couldn't help but wonder and even dread the reception that was awaiting her in Kalimdor. All her assurances to Thrall that Varimathras was her puppet, that she held absolute sway over the Apothecary and their plagues, had been proven devastatingly false. What possible reasons could he have to continue to trust her or assume that these refugees weren't another deception designed to further spread the plague or lure him out into the open where he'd be more vulnerable to attack?
And yet, the Warchief had once again surprised her. When she'd taken a portal to Orgrimmar ahead of the zeppelins to inform him of the events in Tirisfal and plead her people's case, Thrall had, for reasons she couldn't fathom, accepted her words as truth. Even as possible war with the Alliance loomed nearer and any signs of closeness with the Forsaken would almost certainly do more harm than good, the Son of Durotan had made room for the Undercity's refugees in his capital and prepared to launch an immediate counterattack to retake Lordaeron even though it could have easily been a trap. Sylvanas didn't know or understand why, but not only had Thrall believed her but he also believed in her, and as her anger and sorrow gave way to retribution and hope she became determined, even with her injuries, to vindicate his trust in her and avenge herself.
The thrill of battle as the two of them led the Horde's forces into the Undercity had been intoxicating, and though the devastation of her city grieved the Banshee Queen's blackened heart the sense of unity and determination that surrounded and encompassed all of them had made her ebullient. Fighting side by side with Thrall, matching expressions of bloodlust on their faces as enemy after hated enemy fell before the power of the Dark Lady and the Warchief and their unstoppable onslaught, Sylvanas had felt truly alive again for the first time in years. Defeat was inconceivable as they tore through the Undercity like a force of nature, and any differences they might once have had, any schisms and prejudices and suspicions, melted away. In this moment, they were one. They were united. They were the Horde. And they would triumph today.
And triumphed they had...but it was a Pyrrhic victory because, although it had come too late to buy Varimathras and Putress the time they needed, the Alliance had issued its declaration of war. Stormwind's ruler was now a man blinded by his hatred and rage and driven by the need for vengeance, and while the Dark Lady was intimately familiar with such emotions from her own struggles she had nothing but contempt for King Wrynn because, unlike him, she had conquered her passions and made them serve her rather than the other way around. Couldn't the fool see that this was exactly what the Lich King wanted, Horde and Alliance divided and against each other with the Scourge poised to conquer in the aftermath? The human leader's irrationality should have astounded her, but Sylvanas already had a low opinion of humans and she had seen similar unreasoning bigotry in Garithos. To see it again in another leader of the Alliance was a disappointment but not a surprise.
And, really, it wasn't as if this was an unexpected development. The Dark Lady had never shared the Warchief's optimism that long-term peace between the Alliance and Horde could be achieved by anything other than a sword and had instead merely hoped that the ceasefire would hold long enough to bring retribution upon the Lich King and for the Forsaken to make themselves secure against any and all enemies. The former hope had been dashed and the latter ironically destroyed by enemies within, but at least now that the restraints of peace were gone she could act without their hindrance. The human king had called her a witch, and if that's what the Alliance thought of her...well, they would soon learn that she was one witch not to be trifled with.
The spiteful thought did little to quiet the Banshee Queen's unease as her reflections finally caught up to the immediate present and reminded her of the one thing that still needed doing. Although she was alone on her pedestal she was not alone in this chamber, and Thrall still sat on the dais' lower steps, resting from the exertions of the recent battle as he awaited the reports from the reconnaissance teams they'd sent out to survey the Undercity. Sylvanas didn't understand the Son of Durotan, but she knew what it felt like to have one's dreams broken by cruel Fate and could sympathize with him. Moreover, Thrall had proven himself time and time again as a precious ally and valuable leader, and though his trust was something Sylvanas had never expected it was something she dearly wanted now that it was at risk and she could not afford to lose it, not after it had clearly demonstrated its worth by being the factor that saved her. They needed to talk and, much as the thought of them rankled her, there were words that she needed to say.
The sound of light footsteps approaching from behind did not startle Thrall. Even in the midst of his private reflections he had never retreated so far inside his mind as to lose awareness of his surroundings or forget the dark soul he shared the Royal Chambers with. The path of the shaman often demanded that one inhabit two worlds at once, and this was a skill he'd learned to apply to other situations. That the footsteps did not stop behind him but continued to carry their owner forward until she stood beside him was unexpected, as was her decision to then lower herself to sit next to him on the steps. The leader of the Forsaken rarely made herself at ease around him or, as far as he knew, anyone else either. The Banshee Queen's words, though, came as a complete surprise to him.
The blue-eyed Son of Durotan blinked, both at the rarity of the words – Had the Dark Lady ever apologized to anyone before? – and the rare tone they were uttered in. In the many discussions they'd had together Sylvanas' ethereal voice was usually rigidly controlled, veiling the frightening cauldron of bitterness and passions that lay beneath the surface. At other times her words had been angry or confrontational, sometimes sly or even smugly triumphant when she had her way. Now, however, she spoke with remorse and sorrow and even guilt, three emotions the Banshee Queen seldom showed though Thrall knew that they dominated her life.
Had he been a lesser orc, the Warchief might have succumbed to the petty impulse to turn on his ally and spit her words back at her, scornfully say "So _now_ you're sorry?!" and storm out of the chamber. There was certainly much he could – arguably should – be angry at her for, but that was not the orc he was nor the orc he wanted to be, and Thrall easily fought off the childish urge. Sylvanas had suffered enough already – one look at her and her city was enough to make that obvious – and was being open and sincere with him, a difficult feat for one with so much pride. After everything they'd been through together the least she deserved was for him to respond in kind.
"Thank you," Thrall answered, turning his head to meet her penetrating gaze and not shrinking away from the red glow of her harsh eyes. One could lose their mind looking into those tormented crimson depths if they weren't careful. "Coming from you, that means a lot." He sighed once, tiredly, and then lifted the Doomhammer in a gesture intended to encompass the entire city. "Don't let regret consume you, Sylvanas. You're not the first person who's made the mistake of trusting demons, and though I wish it were otherwise and the results are always the same you won't be the last either. All we can do is learn from this and hope that today's destruction will save others from repeating the same error."
The Dark Lady seemed slightly startled at the Warchief's words and the lack of anger in them and sighed heavily herself. It would be so easy to leave this conversation where it was, an apology given and an apology accepted, and change the subject to more important and official matters like the rebuilding of the Undercity, but such a meager personal exchange was not the reason she'd initiated this discussion. There was more to be said, if for no other purpose than to clear the air between them. "Varimathras," she spat the name with a hatred she normally reserved for Arthas, "was not my only mistake. Believing he ever harbored any true loyalty to me was foolish, yes, but I share responsibility for the sins of the Royal Apothecary Society as well." Sylvanas lowered her eyes to the stone steps as she contemplated her own guilt. "I knew how twisted and depraved much of the Society was but still believed that I could control them, that they served my will and interests. And just like with that damned Nathrezim, my confidence was...misplaced." Her fists clenched together angrily at the thought of their betrayal...and at herself. So much time and effort, all wasted because of them and her own arrogance! She had been almost as bad as the Lich King himself in believing that she could control everyone around her, and that comparison unsettled her as few others could.
Thrall chuckled once, ruefully, and joined the Banshee Queen in staring at the ground, feeling uncharacteristically open around her. "You say that about yourself, but you're not the only one who has played with fire and been burned. I had- have high hopes for Garrosh," the Warchief said carefully, correcting himself as he felt the weight of another burden join those already on his mind, "and granted him a position of power to give him the opportunity to make a name for himself. He has so much potential, but instead of rising to the occasion Hellscream's taking the darker path of ruthlessness and brutality." He shook his head in exasperation at his late friend's headstrong son. "I don't want the rest of the Horde to follow the trail he's blazing, but every time I try to make him see sense he either misunderstands me or we're interrupted, like we were back in Orgrimmar." For a brief moment Thrall's sharp mind returned to his unfinished duel with Garrosh and he tightened his hold on the Doomhammer, the mighty weapon once again laying beside him. When he spoke again, it was in a voice filled with heavyheartedness. "Garrosh is well on his way to repeating his father's mistakes instead of his successes, and if that happens many will suffer and I will share the blame."
The armored orc turned to face his companion again, sky blue eyes sweeping over her with sympathy. "This is a dangerous but necessary game we play as leaders, Sylvanas. You with your apothecaries, me with my champions, we take risks for rewards we might never receive, but to do otherwise and always take the safe path is even worse." He placed his large right hand on her armored shoulder, a gesture of reassurance for her and perhaps for himself as well. Somewhat surprisingly, she didn't pull away. "Had you not given Putress your confidence, the Lich King's new plague might have killed us all. Had I not given Garrosh a chance, who's to say that we'd have had as much success in Northrend? Some risks pay off, others don't, and we can only do the best we can to manage them, hope that we're smart enough and wise enough to discern the difference between the two before it's too late, and pray that those we give our trust to eventually prove themselves worthy of it."
The former Ranger General of Silvermoon almost shook her head in disbelief at the Warchief's words, so strongly did they clash with her own philosophy of taking what was needed, using what you could, only giving what was earned, and repaying those who wronged you. Coming from anyone else such an optimistic, naive belief would have sounded like the epitome of idiocy to her, but Thrall said those words with such powerful conviction and, though he was many things, stupid was not one of them. Besides, was he really wrong to think such? Varimathras had earned his place at her side through his cunning and usefulness, Putress had gained the right to be a leader of the Society because of his brilliance and successful research, but both had betrayed her. In contrast, the Warchief had granted her his trust despite her having never done anything to earn it and, insomuch as the Banshee Queen could be loyal to anyone, she had become loyal to him and the Horde. Strange, that, but it was something to mull over later. There was a question she desired the answer to, a question that had haunted and puzzled her for years now, and this was the perfect opening for it.
"Is that why you've given me your trust, Thrall?" Sylvanas asked slowly, raising her head again to peer into the oceanic depths of his eyes as if she could wrest the truth out of them. "Because the risk of not doing so once the Forsaken joined the Horde was greater?" The Dark Lady didn't bother to hide the hungry curiosity in her voice.
The Warchief of the Horde was silent for a moment as he pondered the question and the response he would give. This conversation had become more personal than he'd ever expected, and he needed to choose his words carefully if he wanted to be honest with his undead companion and give her the understanding she sought. "Yes...and no. There is a place for trust, Sylvanas, but we must always be careful whom we give it to. I know some accuse me of being an idealist, but I well know that even the fairest faces can deceive and those we believe in most be gulled." Thrall paused for a moment as his mind focused on the events of the past. "You and the Forsaken, though...you were a very unique case."
Durotan's son grinned slightly, although the sense of seriousness never left him. "You are right in that the risks of not giving you my trust outweighed the benefits. For our pact to become truly meaningful I needed to give you and your people a chance and show them that there could be a place for them in the Horde if they wanted there to be, and I could hardly do that if I kept all of you at arm's length and acted like I expected the worst. Distrust is hardly a solid foundation to build a coalition on, and while it was another gamble so was allying with the Forsaken in the first place. Once that decision was made this one followed naturally, but...that is not the only reason."
"The spirits speak of you, Sylvanas," Thrall said solemnly, and were his hand not still on her left shoulder the Dark Lady might have recoiled from the sudden penetrating look he gave her, as if he could not only see her but through her and all of her defenses and secrets. "They speak of death and bitterness, tragedy and regret, but they also speak of who you were, of your nobility and courage and selfless determination, and who you could yet become." His blue eyes...how could he look at her tormented, wretched soul with such compassion and calm? "When we first met, I knew that you only wanted a partnership for your own ends, but were your goals that dissimilar from my own? A place to call home, a land where you and your people could live in peace and not hide who you are..."
"Vengeance," Sylvanas interrupted with a hiss, stubbornly refusing to break eye contact with the Warchief despite her own discomfort. "The hunger for revenge has always been a part of me and the Forsaken, revenge against the Scourge, against the humans, against the entire world that wronged us. That is something we don't have in common, Thrall, and you must know how important it is to me. If it wasn't-" Her mournful voice quickly dropped in tone. "If it wasn't, this would never have happened."
"And that's why I decided to treat you as an equal and give you my trust," Thrall confessed, looking at her intently. "Even with the common ground we shared, I could tell that you were torn between two paths – the path of vengeance, where power and fury are everything and you would raze the world down to its very foundations and sacrifice everything you'd made, everything you were for the sake of revenge, or the path of redemption, where you overcome the past and try to lead your people into a better future." A heavy sigh escaped him, memories of people he knew and people who were gone dancing through his head. "My people know how heavy the chains of the past can be too, and nobody breaks them without hope for a different tomorrow. Where that hope comes from though..." The Son of Durotan suddenly smiled despite his weariness, face aglow with a treasured insight. "Many orcs think of me as a savior for supposedly recovering their heritage and freeing them from bondage, but the truth is they had the power to do that themselves all along. Yes, they needed someone to believe in, but more than that..."
"More than that, my people needed someone to believe in them, just as you needed someone to believe in you," Thrall finished slowly, giving time for the weight and meaning of each word to sink in. "Sometimes, when someone has lost all other reasons to hope, the simple act of somebody else still believing in them is enough to remind them that nothing is inevitable and they and they alone are the ones who decide their own destinies, just as you and your Forsaken are doing today and every day you refuse to accept the world's judgement that you're monsters, that you're something less than human, that there's no place for you in Azeroth and no possibility of making a new life for yourselves."
"And do you regret it?" Sylvanas asked breathlessly, staring at him raptly with a strange, unreadable sheen to her eyes, and suddenly it was Thrall's turn to feel as if she was looking deep into his soul, as if she could see and know everything about him and that hiding anything, anything at all from her, was impossible. "Trusting me and helping me discover that death and sorrow were not the only things the future could hold for me, even though it has cost you the future you dreamed of, the future you fought and sacrificed for?" With great care, the Banshee Queen placed both of her gloved hands on top of his and gently lifted the Warchief's gauntlet off her shoulder. Instead of releasing it, though, the haunted elf guided their hands to the space between them and set them there, her cold, dead hands on top of his warm, living one. If they were to break physical contact, it would be up to him to pull back first.
"No," Thrall answered with neither hesitation nor doubt in his strong voice. "Helping you and the Forsaken was the right thing to do. The fact that you and so many of your people fled to Orgrimmar instead of joining Varimathras and supporting this-" He lifted and waved the Doomhammer with his free hand, once again indicating the city and the signs of battle and destruction that surrounded them. "-is proof enough of that. As for the Alliance," he said with a grimace, but the Dark Lady could tell that he remained undeterred, "though the prospects for peace look grim hope is not lost yet. Stormwind may yet see reason, and if not...there is always tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that. The future is still to be written, and if the two of us, with our many differences and radically different pasts, can come together in amity here...then truly nothing is impossible."
"Yes, this would have been something of a surprise a few years ago, wouldn't it?" Sylvanas spoke in a voice just above a whisper and with a hint of wry amusement, rare, magnificent warmth temporarily replacing the constant sadness in her burning, agonized crimson eyes. "You must have been practically the only one at the time who thought our alliance could ever become more than mere words on a piece of paper, but I'm glad to have been wrong. We...Thrall, I..." Slowly, the Dark Lady raised his plate gauntlet again and brought it towards her until the orc's large hand rested on her chest where her heart would be. She clasped it with both hands, tightly. "Thrall, the Forsaken owe you a great debt, and though we might never be able to repay it I want you to know that, no matter what the future might bring or what history might say about you or me, you have both my loyalty and my gratitude. From the bottom of my soul, thank you."
A thousand words and a thousand actions ran through Thrall's mind as he contemplated how to begin to respond to Sylvanas' outpouring of appreciation, but one option stood out more than any other. They had spoken of nothing but weighty matters these past days, of broken dreams and renewed promises, of trust and betrayal and redemption. There was far more to life than this, and it was time to introduce some levity to their conversation.
"So, does this mean I can call you Sylvie now?"
The look of sheer incredulity the Banshee Queen shot him was so priceless that Thrall could only hold his straight face for a second before his mouth opened wide and friendly, infectious laughter issued forth. A second later, also unable to contain her amusement as the absurdity of the situation sunk in, Sylvanas' rarely heard musical, ethereal laughter joined his and her frame shook so hard from mirth that the orc shaman could almost be forgiven for thinking that this must be what her heartbeat would feel like.
And as the Warchief and Dark Lady of the Horde sat on the steps and chatted and laughed together, the future that had minutes ago looked so dark suddenly seemed to become a bit brighter. Neither one knew what the next day would bring, but through their trials and tribulations together they had gained treasures here that would help them through both good times and bad times: trust, understanding, and, most precious and surprising of all...
Addendum: A number of years ago, when Warcraft III was still new and WoW had yet to be released, I tried to write a Sylvanas and Arthas pairing. Writing it was so difficult that, after the first page or two, I cried out in frustration that a Sylvanas and Thrall pairing would be easier. I continued to struggle with the story for a bit, but then Blizzard unexpectedly announced that the Forsaken were going to be a playable Horde race in WoW. This made me do a double-take, and suddenly a Sylvanas and Thrall pairing didn't sound quite as far-fetched. After thinking about it for a little longer I decided "Eh, why not?," abandoned the Sylvanas and Arthas tale which was unlikely to see the light of day at that point anyway, and wrote the comedy piece "Hearts of Ice and Storm." I never really took the pairing seriously and never expected Blizzard to either, but after reading about WotLK's Battle for the Undercity event...I mean, c'mon, seriously? Thrall and Sylvanas fighting side by side to reclaim the Undercity and defeat a demon? That's _got_ to be the Horde equivalent of a hot date right there, and when you factor in Sylvanas' new and more attractive appearance and suddenly discovered deference towards Thrall...it's _obvious_ that there's something going on between those two. Really, could Blizzard be any less subtle?
Heh, joking aside, Thrall and Sylvanas are two of my favorite Warcraft characters, and I've found the relationship that exists between them (and by extension between the rest of the Horde and the Forsaken) to be one of the more interesting developments in WoW. It's not a partnership you would expect but it makes sense on so many levels, and in my opinion there's something compelling from a storytelling perspective about having "good" races and individuals ally with "dark" races and individuals and try to build something together. It's a change from the usual straightforward, black and white morality that is often presented in fantasy universes (i.e. good races grouping with good races, evil races partnering with evil races) and creates interesting character and racial dynamics that are rich for exploration. The desire to analyze one such relationship that exists because of the Horde's coalition is part of why I decided to write this short story.
Anyway, there's some credit for this tale that I should give. First, Christie Golden has my thanks for her part in shaping and sharing the character who Thrall has become. Her novels had a strong influence on this work of fan fiction. Secondly, my thanks go to Blizzard. They have introduced me to many fascinating characters and vibrant settings, and I am a better writer because of it. Thirdly, I wish to express my gratitude to my friends and acquaintances in the Warcraft community. I haven't really kept in touch, but it is largely because of you that I stayed a passionate fan for as long as I did and took the time to learn so much of the lore and story. Warcraft fansites also have my gratitude because their existence allowed me research the Undercity event without actually playing the game. And finally, thank you to the audience for taking the time to read this. I hope you enjoyed this tale, but even if you didn't I hope it at least gave you something thoughtful to contemplate.