Pale as Grass in Winter
"We were young and in love and we had the willful blindness of youth. Every hour was filled with the promise of life eternal. I thought it would never end. It did." Brigitte Abbendis/Sally Whitemane.
Warning(s): This piece contains graphic depictions of torture, female-on-female sex and romance (both of which are rendered in detail), child abuse, and violence. I'll put up chapter-specific warnings where warranted, and also so you know where to get pr0nz!
I feel the need to point out at the outset that this is a first-person narrative that tries to be true to Brigitte's views. That doesn't mean that I, the author, agree with her opinions. As much as I adore her character, she is still High General Abbendis, and she still does some pretty awful stuff. So, you know, this is me, disclaiming Brigitte's bad attitude, bad ethics and any bad results you get from imitating them! I definitely recommend getting with Sally Whitemane counterparts though.
Also, spoilers for Ashbringer. But WoW is one giant sugar-coated spoiler pill anyway.
Fire sears in my skin.
I see nothing. My ears ring.
Sweat beads my back.
Pale as grass in winter, I tremble,
lost and dying.
They say that if you seek to find the Light, you need only look around you.
Presumably 'they' are not standing in Northrend, as I am.
In the winter here the sun scarcely rises over the horizon even at midday, turning the land to the dim blue of semi-twilight. The ice deepens to amethyst; we lunch in near darkness, bent like children at prayer, huddled together for warmth. The wood of the benches creaks occasionally, the wind screeching through the cracks in the masonry, but there is little talk. Silence is fitting.
I actually do eat with my men, sometimes, elbow-to-elbow with the soldiers in the mess. More and more I have wanted to be alone, though, and I sup in my office, sleep in my office, pray in my office. Outside my window the world is almost beautiful. No: it is beautiful. I lower my pen from my journal and turn towards the scene, peering at the dark dawn of afternoon, the sunlight dimmer than the fire that roars in my grate. I think, irresistibly, of Sally Whitemane, of her hair like white frost. I think of her bone-pale hands.
"You seem vexed, High General," Admiral Westwind says. His voice is gentle, mellifluous, but it cuts through my thoughts like a scythe. Always with him I feel as though I am being called to account for something, though I cannot say what.
"No. It's nothing." I shiver despite the warmth of the fire and long for my fur-lined cloak. "I wasn't…" I don't know quite what to say. I'd expected things to be rotten. Black soil, open graves. It seems a child's folly. I lean forwards in my chair and crane my neck to see around the ornate stained glass. "Sometimes I forget the land is dead."
He inclines his head to show he understands. It is one of the reasons I do not resent him more, his understanding. Strengthened, I resolve to tell my men that the Light teaches us a lesson here, that even evil can present a gorgeous face with all the trappings of glory. It will frighten them into vigilance, and fear will steel their hearts.
What? I go too far?
But you know nothing—nothing—of us, of what we fight. If you had seen what I have seen, if you had seen Lordaeron as it burned, the sky grey and orange shadows, if you had seen my father dying as he did—in my arms, chest bloodied, face a mask of what he was—you would understand that no step is a step beyond morality.
Sally understood that, maybe even better than I did. I could not have cared for her if she hadn't.
I met High Inquisitor Whitemane again after our extended parting the day my father died.
I think I must have cried for ten minutes when he fell, slumping into my arms like a child. Then suddenly I had no more tears. It was as if I'd stepped into a nightmare where everything had a frightful unreality and nothing had content. Shapes were moving. There were colours, shouting, the clamour of hooves on tiles. In the distance, faintly, I could smell wood burning.
"Sister Abbendis," Arcanist Doan was saying, calling me out of my dream world. "Sister Abbendis, please!"
The impossibility of my situation dawned on me. I stood, suddenly light-headed. "Take me to the Grand Crusader."
Arcanist Doan stood before me, hunched, wringing his hands. Old woman Doan, my father had often called him, and with a rush of scorn I thought the name rang true. "He is with Inquisitor Whitemane and Highlord Fordring, milady. I came to tell you, I think it best if—"
I turned on him, drawing my shoulders back and raising my chin a little to stare him down. I must have looked dreadful, wounded, deranged. Haggard. "Did you not hear me, Doan? I will see Dathrohan, and I will see him this instant."
He looked away. "As you will, milady."
Isillien, still kneeling at my father's side, gave me a look that was between wonder and pity and reproach. "Go to him, then. I will stay with Abbendis."
I did not say, I am Abbendis now, though had he been almost anyone else I would have. There was bitter strength in him, and against it all my angry fire fizzled to stillness. With Isillien I never took such liberties as losing my temper. I feared very few people, but I did fear him.
Arcanist Doan attempted to speak to me as I walked, but a single sharp word and he fell silent, abashed. Lovesick fool. I pity him a little now, but then I could find only contempt in my heart.
They were standing at the gates of the city, heads together—Taelan Fordring and Saidan Dathrohan and High Inquisitor Whitemane. Dathrohan was a head taller than her and twice her width at the shoulders, as big as a bear and more than as fierce. But she was the one I looked at, dressed like a barbarian priestess rather than a Mother of the Light's Faith, her long legs bare and completely unbloodied. She rested one of her feet on a pile of corpses, elbows perched on her knee. The effect was barely decent—even shell-shocked and numb with grief I noticed that.
"Brigitte!" Taelan called when he saw us. "Brigitte, is it true? Is the General really—?"
"Dead." The word sounded flat as I said it, and I can only imagine that I too was expressionless. "Yes."
There was a moment of shocked silence. Taelan looked away, but Sally turned her gaze on me, bright and red, as unreflective as solid stone.
"Do not be grieved, child." Dathrohan placed a huge hand around my shoulder as I approached, practically engulfing me. I hated paternal displays from old men—my father never shamed me with public affection, and that the Grand Crusader did filled me with senseless fury. I stiffened, but he did not pull away. "The High General perished a hero for the Crusade, and his soul will find peace in the hereafter."
He was in remarkably high spirits for some reason, I could tell, but he made the effort to be somber for my sake.
"Where is the body?" Fordring said suddenly. "It needs to be burned immediately. The Scourge would count it a feather in their caps to have Abbendis as one of theirs."
I could not resist this time. "Abbendis is right here. Father has Grand Inquisitor Isillien with him. Or is that not good enough for you?"
As suddenly as it had come, Dathrohan's grip on me was loosed. I staggered a little, my shoulder armour clanging against the steel of his plate. When I looked up at him I thought, for the briefest of moments, that I saw a shadow pass behind his eyes—something dark, something that turned the marrow of my bones to ice. And then the moment passed. "And so you came, and Isillien stayed, did he? Well."
I stared up at him, shaken, and as always I felt my confusion turning into anger. But Sally saved me the trouble of responding.
"This is not the place for a deliberation on leadership." She was not looking at me, had not spoken directly to me since I'd appeared. "If the High General is dead it would be well-advised for us to confer with the Grand Inquisitor, lord."
For some reason, the word—'dead'—cut me more deeply when she said it than when I did.
"Oh," Dathrohan said, looking down at me with an unreadable expression on his face, "I think you'll find the High General is very much alive and well, Sally."
I understood Isillien's icy anger in that moment. Unwittingly I had made the manoeuvre to step into my father's epaulets, take up his mantle. This without thinking, and yet—and yet how I must look to them, standing there, covered in the blood of the only person I had ever loved, the only person who had loved me, playing power games.
And somewhere, beneath my disbelief and horror, I thought, Good. Let them think me heartless. They will respect me more for it.
My father's bones should have been stripped of their flesh and meat by his brothers in the Light before being transferred to Lordaeron's catacombs, but times had changed and that honour could no longer be afforded even to a hero of the Crusade.
We burned his body there in Hearthglen, out in the open streets, beneath a sky the colour of a putrefied wound. We must have stunk half the remaining citizens out of their homes. No matter. Hearthglen was a town of warriors as much as refugees, and all who lived there knew it. It was a small price to pay for safety.
He should have been bathed in rosewater, slowly and carefully, his limbs anointed with smudges of charcoal, his forehead painted with the Light's Spear in true gold ink. A million impossible things. In Lordaeron when the high-ranking clergymen and paladins died their funerals showed the greatest possible pomp and ceremony. Tabards sewn with real silver thread, wakes that lasted weeks, obligatory mourning, hours of prayer. Death was sorrowful, but it was also a time of joy and celebration, of feasting, laughter, remembering.
Father would have none of that. The best I could do was sit beside him, his great hand in my smaller one. The fingers were too cold and stiff to bend. When I'd been very young he would tickle me, and I would shriek and squirm and laugh.
"I do not see the need for this rush," Sally said to Taelan, as if I had not been there. "Surely he would have risen by now, if the plague had contaminated him."
I felt his eyes on me as he said, "Inquisitor Whitemane, please, hush." You could practically hear him blushing. And Sally, wonder of wonders, did fall silent.
It took hours for the workers and low-ranking grunts to gather enough spare wood and dry branches to build the pyre, forming a bed of torn planks and wall panels and building up on top of it a pyramid of rushes, twigs, leaves, bound together with twine. Nobody asked for my assistance; I don't think I could have given it. My power had been utterly spent on that meeting and now, the cold weight of father's body leaning against my knee, I could barely breathe. I ached to weep, sure that if I could tear my hair and keen some of the horrible pressure in my chest would ease. But the most I could muster was a blurring in my eyes, a sting. I wondered if I was dehydrated.
"I can say the Light's Prayer, if it will comfort you."
I closed my eyes for a moment and turned. Sally stood over me, her face as impassive as ever, not a hint of pity touching her beautiful lips. But nor was there malice, nor mockery, nor scorn. There was simply… nothing. Like a doll come to life, breath without human feeling.
"I don't need your comfort." I turned back to my father.
She stayed for a moment, hovering over us silently. Did she grieve with me? Did she want to say something else, something that would help me, at least a little? I cannot know. I never knew, with her.
"As you will," she said. I heard her retreating footsteps behind my back.
It was full night by the time the wood was ready for the fire. Dathrohan, Isillien, Taelan and Doan carried him to it; Fordring looked so young amidst all these venerable men, so clearly moved by the honour of bearing the late High General that I felt a twinge of sadness for him, this boy I so often scorned who had no father of his own. Isillien came to stand by my side as the others arrayed my father's arms and legs; someone had closed his eyes earlier, before the death stiffness set in. He might have looked like he was sleeping, as they say, were it not for the dark, rusty stain that showed even through his tabard. Then Dathrohan said something ponderous and sombre, I do not know what, I was not listening, and Arcanist Doan set the whole thing to burning with a flick of his hands. The fire bloomed with a roar, catching the wood, father's hair, the cloak that mother had given to him years before I was born and he'd had all along, the tabard of the Crusade. Even in death, he was who he was.
"This is a terrible loss," Taelan said when he re-joined me, and I snuck a look at him, ready to hate him for his hypocrisy. Impossible. He seemed genuinely aggrieved. How curious.
Grand Inquisitor Isillien said the Holy Valediction—I remember it so well, standing there, unable to cry, watching as the threads of fire moved over my father's skin. How had he remembered it all, all those words in High Common, hours of them, and so well he could say it with true loss? It was beautiful, the conflagration and the prayer. Isillien had a voice to make a demon weep. The heat made my face burn, even at that distance, like the lash of a scourge. He had been my father's confidante, and at parts his voice caught and broke. Once, when he looked at the pyre, I thought I saw his eyes shining with unshed tears.
Does that surprise you? Isillien was my father's dearest friend, and he loved my father as well as he could, being what he was.
Hate me, I thought, if you must. But I loved him too.
It must have been close to dawn when the fire died down, when Isillien's hoarse voice faded to silence, when all that was left of my father was ash. I had not seen Sally Whitemane throughout, but in the light of the cinders I could make out her figure, tall and shapely and moving towards me.
"High General," Sally said by way of greeting. She didn't look at me but at some point on the horizon.
"Not yet, Whitemane." I spat her name, channelling all the hatred and fear I felt in that moment. "Too bad, isn't it? Well, I'm sure there's someone else for you to flatter."
I had startled her with my anger, I could tell. Now, finally, she turned those red eyes towards me, as if I were an insect under glass for her to inspect. The flickering light made her beauty monstrous, distorted. "Sister Abbendis, I merely wanted to give you my condolences."
"Consider them given."
If she heard the barb in my voice she ignored it. "I feel the loss of the late High General, as will all the Crusade. He was quite talented."
"It's amazing," I said, "to think you're capable of feeling anything at all."
She raised her pale eyebrows. "Considering how little you know me, Sister, I would think it wiser not to make those sorts of judgements."
In response I turned away, dismissing her. But she didn't leave. She put her gloved hand on my back, between my shoulder blades, the lightest touch. I felt her fingers like the prick of a barb, a strike of electricity, holding me in place. My muscles tensed, to flee or to linger I do not know. We stayed like that for an interminable amount of time, frozen in place, bound together by something darker than a common cause, and I thought of that day in the library, when the sun had come in through the windows and turned her skin to pearl, and her eyes had been seas without bottom.
She released me. Only then did she leave.
I sleep badly in Northrend, I confess it. But I never slept particularly well after Arthas Kinslayer tossed aside one crown in favour of another. It's just been a matter of restless dreams being better or worse. They were better in Lordaeron; they're worse here.
It might have something to do with the fact that I left an entire town of men and women, warriors and workers, children, to die at the feet of a Scourge necropolis while I traipsed off to Northrend. Oh so bravely. The strong arm of the Crusade indeed.
I have dreamt of nothing but death, of corpses and graves and bones and worse, since I set off on this mission. Sometimes the Light speaks to me in warnings, showing me images of what will befall Azeroth if I waver, but more often I think that the nightmares are coming from within me, within my own head, so lurid they make me wonder what sort of woman I am underneath everything to be thinking these things.
As always, I dream of New Avalon.
I see my men now, standing in the common room at the town hall, drawing up a plan of defense with the villagers. They are organising watches—they will have light on the street at all times. Helpless fools, frightened as children, thinking mother and daylight can chase away shadows. It will be only for your piece of mind. Torches cannot frighten the walking dead.
I can see the map. I can read the street names, see the grid, and, in impeccable handwriting, the people and the times of their watches. I feel a surge of maternal pride at the Guard-Captain's diligence even as my insides writhe with shame.
And I know it, then. This cannot be a dream. Dreams are not so well-ordered, so detailed. And with that: dread. Because I know what is coming.
Yes. The scene changes. I have a panorama of the entire Enclave: New Avalon, the farms, now burning and barren, the empty mine shafts where the workers, good honest men, were turned to undeath. I see the bay where our ships were burned; I see the defaced monument to my father. With my privileged perspective I see the riders before the guards do, a line of them, their chargers as black as the hills framing them, save for where their bones gleam wetly.
It is too dark for the watch to detect the assault. I see a pair of guards pause for a moment at the gates, and one shifts, squinting into the darkness, catching the flash of metal, a gauntlet or a blade, but she shakes her head and turns away.
Floating above the pair I am shaking, I want to reach out, to point, but I am still and distant and infinitely absent. I can't touch them, either of them. Powerless to move, powerless to speak, powerless to even look away.
Then the line of the Lich King's soldiers bursts into the light and they turn so slowly, agonisingly slowly, and of course the first knight raises his sword and cuts them down, carving through the woman's plate like crepe, but even though I am screaming silently that is not why. I know them, all of them: everyone I have ever known and cared for, in the colours of the Scourge—blue-black saronite and smoking silver and red and grey, the same grey as their flesh. I see Isillien, arms jerking loose in their sockets; where his hands grasp the reins of his charger you can see his fingers, the joints jutting through the skin, and the gaping, unhealed sores from where his fingernails were torn out. Taelan Fordring, united with his disgraced father in death; the brothers Mograine, their beautiful faces distorted and ruined, stitches bulging at Renault's throat where his head has been reattached. I see my father—I want to sob and I can't—his lips cracked, his eyes sunken and yet brilliant, too brilliant. When he moves to lift his sword the slash across the chestguard of his armour spurts blood.
She looks up at me, and I down at her. Her eyes are no longer red—they are blue, blue as frost, and the skin around them so pale I can see the veins, still and black. She is wearing her priestess's robes, but they are tattered and stiff with blood and filth, drenched in it just like the rest of her. Her hair is matted against her head, more like dishwater than snow. With one hand she grips the reins of her mount. With the other she clutches her stomach; I try to turn my head away but the thing in me forces me to see. The skin of her midsection has been flayed away, strip by strip, peeled off and left to hang like shreds of rubber.
She crooks her finger, more a spasm than a gesture, and I want to recoil but I can't. Hands I don't remember having, lift; my arms are moving, which is remarkable because I cannot feel them. Now I understand. I have not been floating above the scene. I have been there, in body, all along. The same as them.
I don't want to look, knowing, dreading what I am going to see. Perhaps not seeing will make it unreal, easier to bear. But I look anyway, my marionette's head tilting down. My hands are the colour of chalk, the flesh burned and peeling away. Through the gaps in my blackened leg guards I can see my skin is charred black, and when I dig my heels into my charger—why? Why am I doing that?—I see a pale shadow that can only be bone. The gold has melted and dripped off my gauntlets and hardened into veins on my legs, my torso, my hips, tearing gouges in the meat of my body when I move. I feel no pain, nothing, only horror. The bile should be rising in my throat. It isn't.
Then I notice: I am still wearing the tabard of the Crusade, the holy crimson flame that will light the world and burn undeath to ash. It's in immaculate condition. The Lich King has a sense of irony. Imagine that.
My horse flees down the hillside under my commands, but I am doing nothing, struggling against him in vain. For all my turmoil I don't even feel the twitch of a muscle. I am a passenger inside my body, driven by something I cannot fight. Our pace is relentless. My heart would be pounding, only it doesn't beat at all.
I pray, desperately, begging the Light for salvation, for mercy, for the oblivion of true death. Let this nightmare steed break a leg. Let us fall. Let the defenders overcome us.
(They won't. They couldn't when we lived. How could they now?)
You will learn as they have, He whispers. I don't need to wonder. I know who.
I cannot feel the Light. It will not come. I hear His call again and my hand, acting without my input, closes around the hilt of my icy sword. The lights of New Avalon dance before me. The gates shine, my charger's saronite muzzle shines. My blade shines even in the darkness, bright blue, but the shadows are so deep that I cannot see, I cannot move, I cannot even breath, and the Light will never reach me here, never again will it touch this ground—
The cry that shatters the silence is my own. I awake. For a moment I lie in bed, panting and sweating, blinking into the darkness, blind.
I sit up and shake myself. "It's not real," I say aloud. My mouth is moving normally. I can hear the click of my grandfather clock and, in my peripheral vision, I see the glow from my grate, the fire low but still lit. There is no light in Acherus, no warmth. There couldn't be, could there?
I toss the covers off me, shaking and disgusted with myself for it. Of course it was a dream—I knew that while I was in it. But there is wisdom in dreams; there is truth. Alonsus Faol saw the fall of Stormwind in a dream. Have I just seen the fall of the Crusade?
Outside my door, my squire snaps to attention as soon as I appear.
"Call for Admiral Westwind. Immediately."
He gives me a startled look, but the speed with which he obeys surprises even me.
I slink back to my bedchambers; knowing that I will be unable to sleep I throw myself into my armchair, staring into the fireplace. Brooding, my father would have said with unmistakeable reproach. I know I am brooding. I know I look a mess with my crimson dressing gown, too big for me so that it swallows my arms, and my worn wool socks that might have been white once-upon-a-time, and my snarl of hair. I do not care.
A knock sounds at my door a few moments later, loud and urgent.
"Enter," I say, not looking up.
Westwind enters; I can hear his boots on the hardwood. I do not rise to greet him, not at this hour. It is so late that any semblance of formality would seem superfluous, bizarre. Calling on him in the middle of the night is a breach of conduct as it stands.
"Thank you for coming," I say.
"Of course." There is a pause, and I do not like the feel of it. I am right. "Brigitte," he says, "that was perhaps not prudent."
I look up at him, all gleaming black mustachios and ivory skin and his magnificent decorated barrel of a chest. At the back of my mind I feel a strange unease at the fact that he is fully dressed. I push it away. "What?"
He sits down opposite me, his eyes never leaving my face. His hands when he grasps my own seem to burn like a furnace, and I wonder whether he is sick, and then I wonder whether I am sick. "Sending your squire for me in the middle of the night, dressed only in your dressing gown…" He clears his throat, and to my surprise I think I see the start of a blush on his pale cheeks. "Forgive me, I mean nothing by this, but they are men, Brigitte, and they will assume—if only out of jealousy… You are a beautiful woman still, and..."
"I'm sorry?" I stare at him, uncomprehending.
"Child, how does it look to summon your closest advisor, your confidante, with whom you spend all your time, in a mad rush and it so late?"
It looks—oh. He means they'll think we're—oh. I bury my head in my hands. "I didn't even think of that—I just… Of course you're right." As usual.
"Never mind," he says gently, "I am here now. Why did you call for me in such a panic, at such an unholy hour?"
I feel acutely stupid after the complete disaster I have made of this night, the miscalculation and naivete I have shown. The reality of what I have just done to myself seems to crash in like a collapsing roof, giving out under the weight of snow. And for what? A few scary images in my sleep? I am worse than a child.
But even as I think that, I remember the way Isillien's fingers scrabbled at the bones of his charger's neck, the way Sally held her flayed skin to her body, desperately. I close my eyes but that is even worse—the memory is so fresh, the red of blood and grey of organs, and behind it all the echoing call of Arthas Kinslayer, calling me to battle and to death and to his service.
Or was it the Lich King? I suddenly cannot remember.
"I had a nightmare." I sink into my fur wrap, avoiding his eyes. "A very vivid nightmare."
He doesn't seem at all surprised. His eyes are blue, ice blue, so pale they are nearly the same colour as the whites around them. "Tell me," he says.
I do tell him. The words come out slowly, with great difficulty. My mouth seems ungainly around them. And yet as I speak the images fade and distort, and I am left grasping at them, trying to piece together what it was that happened, what it was that was so horrific. I am losing threads and scraps, rambling like a little fool. My voice trails away to nothing, and my face is hot with something more than the fire's glow. A wasted chance. When have I ever had trouble speaking?
But Westwind regards me coolly, his face betraying no scorn. "It is a fearsome thing," he says at last.
"The dream?" I tighten the sash of my robes and withdraw my hands into the sleeves.
"No. Your fate."
Though spasm of pain passes through me, I will not look away. We stare at each other, and concealed within the frankness of two friends talking there is something that makes my hair stand on end. Does he sense that I do not entirely trust him? And yet I invited him here, to my private chambers, where I sit, unarmed and nearly naked before him with my guards far away.
"You have such a great burden to bear, and so young." He reaches out to stroke my cheek and I lean into it despite myself, closing my eyes. "Of course it is understandable that the stress would get to you. You drive yourself so hard."
I look up at him, this ox of a man. His face is gentle, just like my father's, and I want him to be like my father, but there is always this nagging tug inside me. His eyes are so cold, and his voice—why does his voice make me tremble and cower, my mind fading to a blank?
"Trust me, Brigitte," he says, as if he can read my thoughts. "You can, you know."
"Trust you?" I feel dazed, suddenly. I stare up at him, at his hard glacial eyes. "I—"
"Need someone to rely on." He takes my hand, holding my fingers so tightly in his it almost hurts. "Trust me. Confide in me. You are strong, and you can bear this burden."
He lets my hand go without warning and I almost cry out as feeling returns to my fingers. When he moves to stand before the fire his enormous frame blocks the light, and I am left sitting in his shadow, suddenly cold.
"But not alone, Brigitte. Not alone."
Author's Note: I've taken a few mild liberties with canon here and elsewhere. For example, I believe Saidan Dathrohan was with Brigitte when her dad died. But I'm sure you'll forgive me for something so minor, right, lovely reader?
Thanks, as ever, for tuning in. The next chapter is prepared and awaits editing. But, well, we all know how easy that is. Expect it early next week!