The claw descended to mangle and tear Valstann’s vulnerable flesh. Rejaxx jerked his arms wide, pulling the injured night elf into pieces. Blood splattered at the general’s feet as Fandral swayed where he stood, a thin moan mingling with the hum of the insect swarm.
The meaty rip, the buzzing song, the sound of hope dying.
Xavius was relentless. Hour after hour, night after night, he forced the arch-druid to relive his greatest failure. “Why?” asked his satyrs, but the demon lord only shrugged and smiled. Staghelm was marked for greatness if Xavius could break him; the kaldorei were long-lived and he was patient.
“Anan’da, Anan’da!” Istaria whooped, bounding past her mother with the speed of a jackrabbit and racing towards the approaching druid. Without breaking his stride, Fandral bent down to scoop up his giggling granddaughter, tossing her high into the air. Leyara watched them play with satisfaction, though the shards of her heart ground together to see echoes of Valstann mirroring themselves in Fandral’s face and Istaria’s eyes. Always, she thought, Now I am beyond mourning my husband, now I love my daughter for her own sake, but every so often, grief would creep up on her with the swiftness of night falling. The late afternoon sun limned Fandral and Istaria together against the sparkling curve of the lake, creating such a perfect moment that she locked the memory deep in her heart before letting Valstann go again.
Fandral lowered Istaria to the ground, her little legs churning, so that she bolted off into the weedy grass around the lakeshore as soon as she touched down. He shook his shaggy head, a small smile touching his lips, as he watched her run.
“She grows,” Leyara said, her eyes following her daughter.
“They never stay young as long as you like,” Fandral agreed. His tone made it clear Valstann was not far from his mind either. Like a cat shaking off water, he gave himself a brief shake and took her arm. Together they walked in comfortable silence to the chairs she had set out in front of her little house in anticipation of his visit. A bucket full of fresh lake water held bottles of her acorn beer. She uncorked one, handing it to Fandral. She did not like the gray cast to his skin, nor the lines under his eyes.
“Another bad night?” she asked softly.
He took a long draught of the beer. “This is good, Leyara. Your best batch this season.”
“Yes. It’s bad.” With a sigh, he set the bottle down in the grass between his feet. He moved like an injured man, careful of every bone and muscle, and she felt tears prick her eyes. She sipped her beer to cover her anxiety. He didn’t look at her as he spoke. “I cannot sleep for fear of it…” he began, but then he paused.
Silence loosened more tongues than endless questions, Leyara knew. She waited, aware he must remember teaching her that lesson himself. After a small sigh of irritation, he spoke again. “I see him. My son. Each night, I dream about how I saw him for the last time.” Every word was heavy with pain, dropping like stones from Fandral’s mouth to bruise Leyara’s tender flesh.
“Will you tell them to me?”
“No,” said Fandral gently. “Even if I could speak of it, I would not share it with you. Let him live in Istaria, not as I remember him.” He seemed to want to continue, but thought better of it and only took a sip of his ale.
She dropped her head low over her lap, trying to hide her spilling tears. How could she admit she, too, dreamed of Valstann? Of their nightly swims together, how he knew the exact way she took her tea, the time he felt Istaria kick as he cuddled her pregnant body close? Sweet memories, bitter only because they were gone. She felt their different sorrows divide them.
Neither elf spoke for a long time. The only sounds were Istaria’s thin piping voice and the cry of the gulls as they wheeled above. The pain of losing her husband was fresh as it had been five years ago. What was five years to an immortal? Only her daughter, shooting up like a blade of grass, marked the passage of time.
This time, Leyara broke the silence. “I should begin teaching my daughter what it means to be kaldorei, don’t you think, an’dalah?”
“Now more than ever. We will have need of strong elves.”
Fear prickled the hair at the nape of her neck. “What are you saying?”
To her surprise, Fandral chuckled. It made him look years younger than he had when he arrived. “Nothing portentous, Leyara. Only that as a people, we need to be diligent and train our youth to be proud kaldorei. To replace those we lost in the war against the silithid.”
She reached out to hold his hand, their fingers slippery and cold from the beer’s condensation.
“Nothing can replace what we lost there, Fandral.”
He nodded, his golden eyes on her face but jerked his gaze away as a splash and a shriek bounced off the water. In three quick strides, he’d crossed to the dock before Leyara could even stand. He knelt to fish among the reeds for a few heart-stopping moments, before lifting her dripping, squirming daughter up and out. His smile was rueful as he deposited Istaria into her mother’s arms.
“Best start with teaching her to swim,” was all he said.
Leyara taught Istaria how to swim, but that was only the beginning of her daughter’s maturation. She taught her to fish and to track and hunt beasts. Istaria learned herb-lore from her mother - herbs to cure, herbs to kill - and in time, Leyara taught her daughter her brewing secrets too. Everything she knew, she poured into Istaria: stillness and watchfulness, speed and stealth, haughty honour and compassion. She still saw Valstann in her daughter’s eyes, but it became a good pain, one that pricked her pride and swelled her heart. When she deemed Istaria’s training complete, she tattooed her daughter’s face herself and they got drunk together under the stars.
She was tending a particularly promising batch of mash when her daughter returned from her hunt. Leyara looked up from the still when she heard the soft footsteps, and saw Istaria with three rabbits flopping at her belt and a small bird cradled in one hand.
“Oh, Star, no! Not another one.”
Istaria grinned. She unhooked the string of rabbits to lay them out on the table and even Leyara had to admit they were fine and fat considering the earliness of the season. “Don’t tell me it’s a waste of time, Ma, not after all the work Hurricane does for us.”
Hearing his name, the hawk screeched out of the sky like a falling star. He pulled out of his dive to to perch on the lintel of the house’s door, ruffling his feathers and peering at Istaria’s bird. She made a rude noise at Hurricane. “You’ve already eaten twice today. This bird isn’t for you.” The hawk cocked his head at her before speeding off in a clatter of talons against wood.
Leyara shook her head, smiling despite herself, but still pointed out to her daughter that she held a starling, one that was little more than a baby.
“Does everything have to be useful before it’s worth saving?” Istaria retorted.
Leyara fiddled with the barley, managing to hide her exasperation, but only through sheer force of will and only because she loved her daughter. “You know I don’t believe that. But sometimes the innocent die, in nature.”
“That was war.”
Istaria huffed out a breath, and Leyara abandoned the fermenting grain to take her daughter’s free hand in her own. “You’re a grown woman, Star - you have been for centuries - but you’re also my girl. I trust you to do what is best.” She gave her a quick squeeze and then let go to begin skinning the rabbits for dinner. Istaria touched the little bird on the top of its head and it chirped softly in response. She looked into the still.
“This looks soft enough. Can I have some?” she asked.
Leyara snorted as she deftly stripped the skin from the rabbits. “That depends. Do you want a drunk starling on your hands?”
“Ah,” Istaria eyeballed the tiny thing, barely covered in pinfeathers. “Not particularly. I’ll see if I can dig something up in the garden instead.”
Leyara halted her preparations to smile at her daughter, her eyes curving into silvery crescents. “Will you chew the worms for it too?”
“Eugh!” But when the bird let out another feeble peep, Istaria sighed. “Maybe. If I must.”
Leyara was still laughing to herself when she began to debone the rabbits. The afternoon passed quietly, while Istaria hunted for her new little charge and Leyara prepared stew for the evening meal. She drew some water from the lake and set it to boil with the bones and meat. She was down by the shore, grubbing for arrowroot when a hawk shot over her head. Hurricane, returning for more scraps, she thought before the bird landed in the rushes and resolved itself into Fandral, sodden and staring.
“An’dalah!” she gasped, covering her mouth.
He grabbed her shoulders, quick and hard. “Where is Istaria?”
“Napping before dinner. An’dalah, what-“ She had never seen him like this before. Even after Valstann died, the quiet sober man Fandral had become did not have this air of scarce-contained fear. Her heart thrummed in her chest like a loosed bowstring.
“How soon can you travel?” he demanded.
“Travel?” Leyara jerked herself free of his grasp as he began dragging her towards the house, all the while shouting for Istaria, who bolted out, rubbing her eyes. “What is the matter? Fandral, talk sense!”
“Listen to me,” he said, “Mount Hyjal is under attack. They’re attempting to reach the World Tree. You cannot stay here, Leyara. Ashenvale is too close. Who knows how far their taint will spread before we can contain it?”
Her breath hissed in and out, ragged in her own ears. “Not silithid, surely.”
“No. The Burning Legion.”
Before she could stop herself, she let out a laugh like the harsh caw of a raven. Istaria gave her a worried look but Fandral only nodded.
“I swear it Leyara, by bone and blood, earth and sea. You both must leave as soon as you can. They are coming, but there are so many that they cannot move quickly. I should not have left - Malfurion forbade it - but I couldn’t leave you to face this unaware.”
She shook her head, slowly at first, then faster. “No, we’re not leaving. This is our home. It has been for hundreds of years.” The thought of leaving Mystral lake, its familiar forests - even the beasts of the area, whom she had lived with and hunted for generations - was more terrifying than any demon horde. “We’ll take to the woods. Live off the land. We can hunt and hide better than anyone else − you know it’s true.”
Istaria added, “Hurricane will be our eyes, if I ask him.”
Frustrated, Fandral pulled his beard, looking unhappy.
“Please, an’dalah. Don’t let your fear make me an exile.” He closed his eyes and Leyara felt a tiny flare of triumph.
“Alright. Alright!” He wheeled on his granddaughter. “Can you train your hawk to bring me messages ?”
Istaria gave him a look. “Anan’da, he’s a hawk. He will look out for danger, as any animal would, but you might as well ask me to ride a pig.”
“Right. Of course.” He looked aghast at even having asked. Leyara felt pity for her father-in-law and she went to embrace him. His strong arms came around her and he hugged her hard, the prickles of his beard rubbing against her tightly braided hair. Istaria came over and Fandral drew her into the hug as well. When he pulled back, he studied both women, memorizing their faces.
“I swore you two would lack for nothing while I lived, but now that true danger has come, I fear I cannot protect you.”
“An’dalah…” Leyara’s voice caught. “Protect yourself.”
He nodded. “I must ask more of you both, if you will.”
“Anything,” Istaria said, and she echoed her daughter. “Anything.”
He pressed a wrapped parcel into Leyara’s hands. “This book contains a number of druidic teachings - the ones that are safe to put down in writing. Take it with you. Study it.”
“Study- you mean, learn Cenarius’ teachings? Are you mad?”
Fandral looked grim. “Things are changing, Leyara. Tyrande has released Illidan Stormrage from prison to aid them against the Legion.”
“That cannot be! The wardens would never allow it.” Leyara was horrified. A warden’s oath was a calling for life; would kaldorei slaughter kaldorei before the Legion ever arrived?
“Even now, Illidan roams the northern corrupted woods, hunting demons with a crack force at his heels. He’s driven, I’ll give him that, but…” He shrugged, unable to put his thoughts into words. “Difficult times are ahead; I’d rather see you both prepared and find it unnecessary than not give you every possible chance.”
“Is it dangerous? To become a druid?”
A small grin quirked his lips. “Is it dangerous to hunt the saber in her lair? Of course, but no more than anything else in nature you would approach with caution. You are strong and talented in woods-craft, Leyara. Valstann loved you for that.” He nodded to his granddaughter. “And the bloodline of powerful druids runs in you, Star.” Her daughter’s eyes shimmered as he spoke, and Leyara suddenly knew Istaria had longed to study druidic lore for a long time. How had she never seen it before? She turned away, staring across the lake towards Hyjal in the north, feeling the tasks at hand weighing her down.
“You will do it?” he pressed her.
“Yes, of course. Could we do anything less, after all you’ve done for us?”
A measure of peace smoothed the lines of his face. “Thank you.” He glanced at the sun in the sky, low and red. “I have to go. Be safe. Do not lose hope.”
Leyara clasped her hands together to keep them from shaking, while her daughter ran up to kiss her grandfather twice on the cheek. “And you, an’dalah. Come home safely.” His eyes were thoughtful as he studied her; then he turned to run along the shore. With a cry and a flurry of feathers, Fandral transformed into a stormhawk and winged into the purpling sky, north to Hyjal - and the Legion.
Her daughter came alongside her. Had she always been so tall, so strong? Leyara supposed so and only a mother’s eyes would see Istaria as anything less than the capable adult she’d been for many centuries now. She allowed herself to rest her head on Istaria’s shoulder as the two women watched Fandral dwindle and disappear. She thought of this year’s batch of beer with regret and sighed.
“We should be gone before nightfall. Come on Star - do you think your hatchling is willing to travel?”
His son stood before him. Whole, unmaimed. Alive.
“Valstann,” Fandral breathed, not daring to speak above a whisper.
At the sound of his name, he rushed forward to grip his father in a bear hug, crushing him against his shoulder. “Father. Oh, father.”
Fandral blinked away tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. “No.” He shoved his son away roughly. “No! This isn’t real. You aren’t real. I saw you die that day in defense of Southwind. You died.”
“No, an’da, no!” Heedless, Valstann ran forward to grip his father again, by the hands this time, clutching them hard. Fandral quivered with need and despair, but did not snatch them back. He raised his chin, staring over his son’s head; he refused to give in. “Listen to me. Please.” Against his will, his eyes slid back to Valstann. He looked down on his son, knowing him to be a lie, but cherishing anyway the strong lines of his face, the sweep of hair across his brow.
“It was my death that wasn’t real. It was a … falseness, a simulacrum, that was destroyed.” Desperation slid across Valstann’s face as he struggled to find the words. “The whole thing was a foul sham, a deal wrought between the silithid and the Burning Legion.”
“Demons…” Fandral hissed.
“Yes!” Valstann swallowed hard. “You are right, in a way. I am not truly here with you. This is a sending, a dream. It is all I can do right now! When the Legion perished at Hyjal, something happened to my bonds. I am not imprisoned as I once was. There is so much happening!” he cried, blind with despair. “It is too fast, too much.” Tears tracked down his face. Dropping his head into his hands, Valstann let out a wracking sob. Alarmed, Fandral put his arms around his son’s shoulders, relishing the strength of him. Even the scent of him, woodsmoke and moss, was unchanged. Valstann, alive, he thought in wonderment.
Fandral cleared his throat. “A father is not all a man should live for. You should know, Leyara is alive, as is her daughter. Your daughter.” His son shivered, raising his head so that his eyes shone above the cradle of his arms. The tears made them waver and shimmer.
“I am coming to you, father. But I can’t do it alone. There is an herb I need, called morrowgrain…” In low, urgent voice, Valstann told Fandral everything he must do.
Xavius allowed himself a tiny smile. It was enough. When the demon army had invaded Hyjal, hoping to tap the power of the Well of Eternity, Xavius hung back with his satyrs. Despite being far from the battle, the rippling tear of the Well’s collapse had rocked him. He’d thought all hope lost, until Stormrage, the fool, handed his leadership over to Staghelm, submitting to barrow-sleep and the Emerald Dream. With Fandral tight in his clutches in the world, and the arch-druid under his power in the Nightmare, Xavius was unstoppable. The game table was set and he longed to push over the enemy’s king.
We stood firm against the threat of the Burning Legion, and destroyed the well of our being, a gift from the dragon aspects themselves, to thwart them. We learned to shoulder mortality so demons would not walk these lands again. Even the shattering of the earth itself could not shake us from our home. How dare these foul creatures even attempt it?
Leyara brooded, resting her chin on her knees, exhausted beyond belief. At Istaria’s touch, a cool hand on her bare shoulder, she raised her head. She accepted the bowl of soup and bread Istaria offered and began to eat, not with the relish she would have once employed after a long day but with the weary endurance of a soldier.
And we have yet to see a single orc, she thought, her mouth twisting.
They were coming, though; of that, there was no doubt. After the cataclysm pounded Ashenvale, orcs had poured into her lands like pus oozing from a split wound. A few weeks ago, sentinels crawled the hills above Mystral Lake, beseeching the elves who lived there to flee towards Astranaar or be recruited as willing men and women to fight with them and defend Silverwind Refuge from the invading army. Leyara had considered neither fighting nor fleeing, but simply packing Istaria off to the west and remaining to die in her home. But at her suggestion, her daughter shook her head, like a wolf with its prey, her teeth neatly scissoring into the tender spot between her pride and her weakness.
“Who are you?” Istaria cried.
“I am your mother!” Leyara snapped back, “I am doing what is best.” Her daughter glared at her with golden eyes - the eyes of her father, the eyes of her grandfather - and it was bare minutes before Leyara relented. “I am Leyara, wife to Valstann, daughter to Fandral, mother to Istaria. I am kaldorei.” As always, the recitation caused her to lift her head in pride. “I am a defender of these lands, a druid of Cenarius.”
“A druid of Cenarius,” Istaria echoed softly, “Mother, these are the self-same creatures that killed him. Can you truly let them wash over this land? What did we study these past ten years for?”
So Leyara bent to the greater wisdom of her daughter and together they left their home to join the army at Silverwind Refuge. The sentinels there welcomed them gladly, for druids were scarce in the defense of Ashenvale.
Her bowl was nearly empty. Leyara pushed her heel of bread into the dregs of her stew. She’d become accustomed to rationing out her efforts for mundane tasks like eating and washing. The bread became a soft mush she could shovel into her mouth with her hands. As she ate, Leyara recalled Istaria’s incredulity the night they met with commander Velene Starstrike.
“You don’t have enough druids for a full squadron?” she had asked.
Velene looked weary beyond telling. “Truth be told, we barely have enough for a patrol unless we count some of the druids twice. Your mother, for instance,” she said, nodding at Leyara, “will be counted towards our numbers for the melee lines, though she is also capable of a ranged assault. Given that we have many archers and very few druids, however, she will most likely be in the front.”
“How can this be?” Leyara cried. “Surely, Malfurion must see the danger the Horde presents, not just to Ashenvale, but to our World Trees! If we fall, it would lay bare the way to both Nordrassil and Teldrassil.”
“We have the numbers we have. They will have to be enough.”
“Fandral would have never let us stand alone like this,” Leyara had muttered then, and Velene shot her a dark look, which only strengthened her conviction. “We have more druids than ever, thanks to Fandral’s foresight to train the talent in young women as well as men. How can our numbers be so low? The defense of our lands is why we exist!”
“Fandral Staghelm also sought to corrupt Teldrassil and gave over your arch-druid to the Legion,” she said. When Istaria made a noise like an angry cat, she continued, quiet but stern. “Hold your tongue, Istaria, you know he is guilty - he admitted as much. Regardless, Malfurion being wrong does not make Fandral right, and Malfurion is the one with whom we are dealing. He has sent us all the druids we are likely to see from that quarter and so it falls to us to see that it is enough.” Then the commander bent her head to her maps and would listen no more to either woman. Even now, the conversation stung Leyara to remember it.
As if her thoughts had summoned the commander, Velene materialized out of the dusk. “It’s time, Leyara.”
Leyara set aside her bowl and rose in a fluid motion, despite her screaming muscles. They had been drilled hard these past weeks, for endurance as much as battle prowess. “It may weary us,” Velene had said, “but it may also save our lives when an orc cannot bear to swing another blow and we can.”
Tonight, Velene summoned all the druids of the claw to discuss her strategy. The building that backed onto the lake had become the command outpost for their troops. Scrolls and maps cluttered every surface in sight, and well-kept armour gleamed in the light from braziers lit against the evening chill. As soon as the last druid entered, she began to speak.
“We will fight soon. I’ve sent patrols out to harry the horde formation. Nothing major, but I aim to bleed them as much as I can before they reach us. Most of my sentinels are engaged in that endeavour, so I’m relying on your abilities to take the first push from the orcs. Small, tight formations are key, with so few of you. The Horde’s been steadily increasing their presence in Ashenvale and Silverwind is a plum target. We’re lucky they’ve been clear-cutting as they go. It gives them very little cover if we can force the orcs into a retreat - they’ll have no relief from our archers, which we have plenty of.” She splayed a hand over the red smear that indicated the barren land. “If we’re lucky, we’ll water the regrowth with their blood.”
Velene looked out at them all, her eyes hooded in the darkness. “I know you’ve trained to sustain heavy damage but I don’t intend to send you out there alone. I want you to arrow into their centre and split open their lines as best you can. Break the line, but then fall back.”
“They’ll just reform!” protested a druid from the back.
“If you press too far in without support, we won’t be able to keep you up, bear flesh or not. I’ll send in what sentinels I have left to hold the cracks open. You must fall back - allow the druids of the grove to do what they do best - and then back into the fray with you.”
She continued to speak and though Leyara tried to follow her commander’s words, a movement over the lake caught her eye. It staggered and swooped, growing larger so quickly that she barely had time to gasp, “Velene!” Captain Starstrike turned, narrowly avoiding a collision. The bedraggled stormcrow’s talons scrabbled against the wood floor as she sought to slow her landing. Her forward momentum stalled as she came to a rest at Leyara’s feet, shivering into the form of a breathless young woman.
“Horde! Less than half the night away!” she cried. Leyara knelt to clutch the trembling woman’s shoulders.
“Are you certain?” she asked her, as Velene cried, “Orana, our patrols-!”
She shook her head, over and over. “Gone. Gone, all of them. Even our lookouts - Elyon shot from the sky as he tried to flee! I only escaped because I saw… I crept to the shore on foot before taking flight.” Velene knelt also to comfort the sobbing druid, but her face was a pale paper mask of the competent captain from moments ago. Her mouth firmed into a line.
“Then we must flee also. Silverwind is lost.” An angry mutter arose at her words, but she stood, cutting it off with a slice of her hand. “No! It is lost.”
“Your patrols would not have returned in time to aid us even if we fought days from now!” said one young male druid, angry at the captain’s seeming deception.
“Not in the frontal assault, no, but they all knew when returning they would be savaging the back of the Horde’s formations. Without them, we have no way to close the pincers. We’re an anvil without a hammer.” Velene looked down as Leyara helped the scout to her feet. “We will still need the druids of the claw to secure our retreat.”
A louder mutter now, but this time Leyara spoke to the assembled druids. “We have no choice! It is our duty. If Ashenvale is lost to the Horde, then we must protect the druids of the grove as they retreat.”
“How convenient that your daughter is among them,” sneered the contentious druid, but she gave him a cold glare. Behind her, Velene was rousing her shield bearer, sending the woman scrambling for the exit and the tents beyond. “Think, you fool! Can we claw the earth back to life? Will our roars induce the seeds to sprout? The druids of the grove must escape to safety.”
Velene cleared her throat, and added her assent to Leyara’s words but also said, “If any of you swear allegiance to the grove as well, you may retreat with them.”
Some of the druids shuffled their feet, but none left. When Velene was satisfied with their loyalty, the night became a heady blur of commands and orders. Strong fighter that she was, Leyara would be one of the last druids to face the enemy. Each line would fall back as they weakened; Leyara’s line must hold the tide or break. Velene asked her to stay as the other druids went to arm themselves as best they could, and hurry those along who were to flee.
“Damn Malfurion,” Captain Starstrike murmured. Leyara held her tongue, unsure if she was meant to hear, but Velene gave her a crooked smile and a mug of liquor, saying, “Better than leaving it for those filthy orcs.” Leyara accepted it gratefully, though she only sipped it to take off the night’s chill. She thought of her bear’s shaggy form with a wry smile. She’d be warm soon enough.
“I told Orana to take the stormcrows with her and fly to alert Astranaar. Istaria is also aligned with them, is she not?” Her captain’s voice was deceptively casual.
“She is,” Leyara said cautiously. “Though I wish you all the luck in getting her to leave everyone behind.”
“Including her mother.” Velene said.
“Including me,” Leyara agreed and then swore in a heartfelt manner. “Damn Malfurion!”
“Now you sound like a Staghelm.”
The two women laughed together and it warmed Leyara better than the alcohol. When they stopped, she said, “But that’s the root of it, isn’t it? Malfurion kept so many druids behind because he suspected they were in league with Fandral. They could have turned the tide for us.”
“Or died with us,” Velene said, pragmatic to the end. She drained off her drink and moved to set the mug down on the table, the maps hustled away by her shield bearer. She turned the mug thoughtfully, then dropped it to the floor. Ceramic shards and droplets flew in every direction.
“Better than leaving it for the orcs?” asked Leyara.
Following Velene’s lead, Leyara tossed her mug to shatter against the wall. Together they abandoned Silverwind Refuge to the Horde.
The chains. The chains! They burned. Oh, he knew, somewhere deep within, it was only cold-wrought metal that bound him to the earthen walls of the barrow den. He knew the wardens had pressed him against the roots of Nordrassil, mocking his futile, false reign as arch-druid. He twitched, dreaming that his chains were green snakes, oozing toxins. Tiny insects with Valstann’s face crawled over him, clawing him with their sharp pincers. Rotten knots, the shambles of his dream to restore the kaldorei’s immortality, pressed into his back. Far away, a broken demon howled his name.
He slept and, dreaming, could not escape his failure. Valstann was dead and the longed-for reunion with his son a foul trick. He understood he had been coerced into keeping Malfurion trapped within the Emerald Nightmare. That, alone, would be enough to drive any man mad. But Fandral slept on in his chains, small tremors crossing his face, and believed he would have done it all willingly to feel once more the sweet hope that Valstann was alive.
Blood poured into her eye, stinging salt washing her vision red on the left side. Leyara blinked and she swung right with a small curse, barrelling into an orc. The war-axe skidded over the thick fur of her shoulder as the orc fell. She ended him with a heavy slap to the head, shearing it off his bulky green shoulders. Two more warriors, fast on the heels of the first, leaped back as she roared in fury at them.
The first two lines of druids had fallen back so soon, stumbling, bleeding, as a wave of orcs pressed them sorely from behind. Before she could blink, there were no more of her brothers and sisters before her, just a solid wall of screaming green flesh. Leyara laid about herself in a whirl of claws and teeth, bashing and tearing, backing up all the while so she didn’t slip in the mangled pieces of orc and elf. Too much, too fast! She could only pray Istaria and the other druids were safely dispersed into the woods west of Silverwind. As each line fell back, they were to slip away with designated patrols of grove-tenders for healing and escape.
Velene joined them after ensuring the safe retreat of the druids of the grove; a commander who would fight or fall with her people. Leyara respected her for that and the respect only grew as the sentinel’s blades danced in and out of each Horde warrior, as fast as two shooting stars. There would be no grove-tenders waiting for this last line. Only a bloody red retreat until they could melt into the shadows of the forest - or fall.
Her left eye still stung and Leyara shook her head irritably. A huge pressure burst along her shoulder and leg on her blinded side and she growled, struggling to see. An orc, sensing her weakness, had gotten inside the guard of her swiping paws and scored a deep wound along her left side. She felt the tickle of blood run down to the ground and pain washed through her in its wake. She bore down on the orc woman, pushing her deep into the bloodied mud with her right paw, but before she could finish her, Leyara stumbled. Her left foreleg would not bear her up. She shuffled back from the stunned warrior to catch her breath. The ranks closed around her, sealing her off from the enemy.
“Retreat!” Velene shouted at her, but she swung her head at the captain, the motion making her slightly dizzy. She would be killed before she could reach the trees. There would be no running on this wound. Swearing, Velene turned back to the fight. Well, she would die then. Leyara only hoped she could bury her teeth into a few more orcs before they overwhelmed her.
Savouring the last few gulps of air, she stepped forward to take her place among the line once again. Beneath her was the dampness of the earth. If she concentrated, she could feel the roots sprawling underground and sense trees that hadn’t yet felt the kiss of a shredder blade. If this was dying, it wasn’t so bad. Kind of… itchy. “No!” She wheeled about, her blunt head knocking down the surprised orc rushing her. As she turned, she pushed her rear claws deep into his gut. Never a wasted moment.
Through her good right eye - and suddenly, she realized her left had stopped stinging - she saw her daughter, arms raised in supplication, calling on earth and sky to bathe Leyara’s wounds. She could feel the deep gash knitting along her chest, tender but whole. The healing burned through her. The fierce memories of the earth, the rage of the barren lands to the east roiling through the grass and seed seared her with their need to be defended.
“THE EARTH REMEMBERS!” cried Istaria, her eyes glowing fierce and golden. Valstann’s eyes…
Leyara barely felt the booted pass of the orc that leapt over her healed shoulder, vaulting her wide, furry back. The axe came down through Istaria’s tall, lithe form with the momentum of a meteor. Her daughter, so graceful in life, crumpled artlessly. In pieces, Leyara thought fuzzily, so like her father. It was like another axe to the chest, the same crushing numbness. If pain came on its heels, she would be worse than useless; she would be cut to pieces like her daughter, like her husband. Reality crashed in and she drew a breath, roaring like the world’s ending. She jumped on the orc, grinding his face into the ground next to Istaria’s body. As one does to a naughty dog, she thought as she barked a humourless laugh into the writhing orc’s ear. Then the last of her humanity tattered away in the wave of despair and only the bear remained.
When the warrior came, there was nothing left under the bear but a red smear in the grass. She angled herself between the intruder and her daughter, growling. Her kill, her kin. This elf could not have her. She stopped a few feet away, dripping weapons held loosely, and spoke, “You must go now.”
“NO!” roared the she-bear. Having spoken, Leyara returned to herself. “I will not leave her.”
“Leave who, Leyara? Look at it. It’s meat.” To her credit, Velene did not flinch as she spoke.
Leyara shook her shaggy head, pacing. Beyond them both, the cries of the clashing forces spiralled up into the morning mists. “Shall I fix a basket to you like a mountain mule, to carry her pieces away?” A thin whine escaped the bear’s mouth but she did not speak. “Very well,” Velene said. “Then I shall stay here and defend you till we both die.”
“No!” Leyara cried again. She bowed her head, and the weight of her decision dragged at her. “You’re right. I must go.” Pressing her nose to her daughter’s hair, she inhaled deeply, trying to retain everything. Beneath the blood and sweat was the smell of ale and flowers and Hurricane. “Oh, Star.” She butted Istaria’s body gently, then padded over to Velene.
“I can’t thank you now,” she said, “but I hope someday I’ll remember what you did and think fondly of you.”
Velene jammed one of her blades home at her waist so she could lift a hand, sticky with blood, to scratch Leyara behind the ear. It lingered there, and then her hand dropped away. “Go with Elune, Leyara. I’ll cover your retreat.” Leyara turned towards the tree-line, trusting to her captain’s words. The air shimmered as she shifted into a lanky nightsaber and she loped away, melting into the shadows of the trees.
She did not go to Astranaar to rendezvous with the other defenders. Despite living in Ashenvale all her life, loving it as only a kaldorei and druid could, home was with her family. Ashenvale was no longer home. There was but one place left to go. She cut north, heading for the pass that led to Felwood. She hoped the druids of the Cenarion Circle would still call Fandral friend and share what news they had with her. She slept in trees and ate only what she could hunt as she ran. North, as Fandral has gone years and years ago.
I’m coming for you, anda’lah.
When she arrived at the edge of the Hyjal mountain range, she stopped at a lovely meadow cupped between two fingers of rock. She slumped into human form, weary beyond telling. Druids were not meant to spend days in form but it was easier than facing her loss. Something clacked softly in her hair. Leyara raised her hand and freed it. It was a crude necklace made of wooden beads; sometimes Istaria made them whiling away the hours during a hunt. It was warm from resting in her fur.
She remembered now. Istaria had placed a hand on her bear’s head just before they parted. She’d scratched her mother behind the ear, as she always did before they hunted together. Her daughter’s long fingers rested in her fur as they spoke of their plans to meet after the battle was broken. Leyara knew she was the rearguard, but didn’t see fit to disclose it to her daughter. One way or another, Istaria had never intended to leave her alone.
Her fingers seized tightly on the charm. She buried it there in the meadow while the beads still retained the heat of her flesh. She imagined she had simply been a means to preserve Istaria’s natural warmth in the wood. Her body might lie far away, but Istaria was here. Leyara prayed - to Elune, to Cenarius - for a long time at the little memorial before moving on.
Her hand cracked across the impassive warden’s face, tingling her fingers.
“I am his family! How dare you deny me entry?”
The warden said nothing but neither did she move from her post. The Hyjal barrow dens were swarming with wardens, far more than she’d expected. Leyara’s fury at being refused burned away her grief for Istaria, though she could feel it beneath her rage. If her grief were coals, this was an inferno and she would take the blaze any day. She drew back her hand for another slap, determined to gain entry or weary her arm trying, when a hand descended on her wrist, clenching it hard enough to make the bones ache.
A warden captain, her eyes glowing bright above her face-guard, watched as Leyara struggled to twist her arm free. She was strong from her years of training and her forced lope across Kalimdor, but the warden’s grip was as binding as iron. Well, what did she expect from the coterie that had trained Maiev Shadowsong? She forced herself to relax and the warden released her.
“I am Sayanna Stormrunner and Fandral is in my care. You’re only wasting your strength slapping Ishana. Come with me.”
Leyara followed. No choice; she must see Fandral, or she was lost. Sayanna led her to modest officer’s tent. The sun lit the purple silk with dapples of gold and green, and Leyara stole a moment to inhale the earthy scent of Hyjal’s vegetation. Underneath was a lingering tinge of ashiness but it was undeniably good to be in uncorrupted elven territory again. Inside Sayanna’s tent, the captain offered Leyara a pitcher of water. She poured herself a cup and drank it down quickly. At a nod, she poured a second glass before setting the pitcher aside.
“I am here to see my father,” Leyara said. Velene had named her a Staghelm and while she traveled, she’d claimed Fandral openly as her kin.
“Impossible,” Sayanna replied. Her voice, while quiet, was as iron-hard as her grip. “Not only is he a traitor to our race and the druids both, but he is also dangerously insane. He’s imprisoned as much for his own safety as he is for punishment. Impossible.” She touched her papers, as if this closed the conversation.
“Madness? Can it be true?” Leyara drew in a shocked breath. She’d heard before the battle that Fandral betrayed Malfurion to the Legion, and she wondered many times about his confession on her journey to Hyjal. But this new information gave her hope - he hadn’t meant to do such a thing! True, he and Malfurion did not often see eye to eye but he would not have betrayed the druid willingly, not when a massive defense needed to be mounted. Sayanna mistook her meaning.
“That last piece of information will not leave this tent, Leyara Staghelm. Not a breath of his insanity must reach the Twilight’s Hammer cult, for they will surely twist it to their own ends.”
“Please! I have to see him.” She was clutching the cup in her hand too strongly, causing her sore wrist to ache. “If he’s mad- I don’t have the healing skills my daughter did-“ she licked her lips, “- but I can ease his insanity. I know it! Oh, please.” She hated the tearful hitch in her voice but if there was even the slimmest thread of hope, she had to try. She would have begged unashamedly for Istaria’s life if there had been time.
“Do you think we haven’t tried already? Lady Tyrande herself tried to break the feverish madness upon him and failed.”
“Lady Tyrande?” Leyara gave a harsh laugh. “So the wardens have forgiven her for breaking faith with them?”
“That is a warden affair and not a druid’s business.” Sayanna replied in a cool tone. “Fandral is locked in a nightmare of his own making. So be it. Perhaps it will be a kinder fate than what Malfurion had planned for him.”
“Druid’s business and none of yours, warden.” Leyara sneered as she stood. She would accomplish nothing here today. Perhaps she would slap the guard a few more times before she left. She had more rage than she knew what to do with. Her anger burned hot enough to allow her to walk out of the captain’s tent standing tall and proud, but then it left in a sudden whoosh, deprived of fuel. What did it matter? Valstann was dead, Istaria was dead; chains and insanity meant Fandral was out of her reach forever. Istaria’s grave was the only place she was free to go.
She slumped into cat form and loped home.
Hands reached for Fandral, grabbing his chains, tugging him forward. A brilliant flash of green, sunlight on scales. Light at the end of a dark tunnel. Home.