Chapter 1 - Spring
Elwynn Forest was alive with color as its citizens crowded both sides of the road. A warm, spring breeze tumbled delicate tufts of cotton ester fluff and the white rose petals being thrown by the crowd as the parade passed. It lifted heady aromas of celebration food and sweet fragrances of spring flowers. Fluttering garlands, wreaths, and ribbons in spring colors hung from nearly every available space and from brightly decorated horses and carts. Above it all, minstrels played cheerful, upbeat melodies that carried over the treetops and deep into the forest.
It was a celebration of spring and of new allies. Today, the Draenei were officially joining the Alliance. The devout followers of the Light brought strength to the Alliance as they prepared a campaign against the Burning Legion.
Color and life and light were everywhere. The day was warm and only the faintest wisps of clouds marred the endless blue of the spring sky.
Una Whitebrook scowled down at the horse she had borrowed for the event as it hesitated once again, as if it were wondering what else it could do to try to unseat her. It seemed to sense she was paying attention and returned to behaving properly. The young, High Elf woman had grown up around horses all her life. She had learned to ride on her mother's gentle gray mare and her father's powerful Quel'dorei stallion. This animal was stubborn to a fault, much like the Dwarven paladin she had borrowed him from.
Una braced herself in the stirrups and carefully rose up off the saddle to gaze across the crowd as they entered the Valley of Heroes. From her position in the parade procession, she had already spied her parents and her neighbors — the Balhatchets, the Coopers, and the Castines. Hiram Stonemace, her mentor and Goldshire's favorite drunken paladin would be in the cathedral already in a rare show of soberness.
However, Una was hoping most to spot her cousin, Anaru. He was one of the few remaining High Elf paladins in existence including Anaru's brothers and herself. Anaru had been both her idol and a distant confidant throughout her training. In his last letter, he had been overjoyed and promised to be here.
She scanned the milling, cheering crowds for him. She hadn't seen her elder cousin ever since he had returned to Silvermoon after the Third War. In those tumultuous days, he had been like a brother to her. He had cared for her during those times when her parents had been called to the front lines and been her rock when so many of their family died to either the Scourge or the Burning Legion. She remembered him as a gangly youth and had difficulty picturing him as he probably was today. Back then, he had been all arms, legs, and much too big ears under a perpetually unruly mop of short, brown hair.
Her horse shied abruptly, set her off balance, and she sat back down hard in the saddle. The animal backed up until it had stepped out of the procession of paladins. The paladins behind her jostled to a stop as she struggled to bring him back into line. The animal only grunted and went the opposite way she wanted, backing into the paladins following her and she grimaced as protests erupted. Una growled down at the gelding and finally muscled him into compliance.
A blush spread across her freckled cheeks and the young High Elf tried to focus on the space between the horse's ears. Una took a deep breath and let it out slowly to calm herself.
The sun was warm upon her blue and silver armor and even warmer on the areas covered up by her dark blue tabard decorated with the Crest of the Alliance. She would be thankful to reach the cathedral district and under the more mature trees.
As she passed Trias Cheese Shop, an earsplitting whistle brought her attention back to the crowd. Her heart skipped a beat and she rose up from the saddle once again to scan the crowd. From the tone, it could only be Anaru or her Uncle. The whistle sounded again and a distant shout of "Una!" reached her ears over the din. Una swung her head to the left and caught the briefest glimpse of a familiar looking, muscular, brown haired High Elf waving frantically before he vanished again in the crowd.
The horse seized the opportunity to buck suddenly, flinging her into his neck. She managed to cling tenaciously to the saddle and reined him back in. She took a deep breath and rubbed her face with one hand, wincing from the pain in her chest. The young woman looked hopefully back where her cousin had been, but he was no where to be seen.
One of the paladins behind her shouted, "You outta tell Hiram that thing is a menace!"
"I plan to!" She replied tersely.
Much to her relief, the remainder of the parade blessedly went without incident. The royal box was situated under the tree in the market district; and, the paladins saluted King Anduin Wrynn, Highlord Bolvar Fordragon, and Lady Katrana Prestor. While the parade itself concluded there, the paladins continued onward to Cathedral Square.
Once there, she gratefully dismounted and allowed one of the stable masters to take the horse from her. They way she ached, she would be happy to never have to ride Hiram's horse ever again.
As they rehearsed, the paladins lined up in two columns on the steps of the cathedral to create a tunnel. She took up her spot in line, opposite her friend and neighbor, William Balhatchet. It was difficult not to crane her neck to search for these Draenei everyone was talking about. However, she was supposed to be ready to stand at attention soon. The Royal and Draenei procession would assemble at the palace and then proceed to the Cathedral of Light.
"What d'you think they're like?" Will was saying to his neighbor, another Dwarf. "These Draenei? They're supposed to be really something!"
"Dunno. Guess we'll be findin' out." The Dwarf replied.
Una bounced a little to shake some of the soreness out of her muscles. "Has anyone seen any?"
"I think Shane did, but he's already inside." Will replied, glancing at the Dwarf for confirmation and received a nod.
She saw a few senior paladins duck into the cathedral and citizens were starting to filter into the square. She anticipated any moment now they would be called to attention.
Near the orphanage, she spotted her cousin lift a little boy up into the branches of one of the small trees to join his friends. Her vision was obscured a moment and then she saw him stand up with another child seated upon his shoulders.
Will noted the direction of her gaze and turned around. The blond paladin grinned broadly and called as loudly as he dared as he waved, "Anaru!"
"Attention!" Lord Grayson Shadowbreaker barked. Una started and snapped to attention.
She could hear the sounds of the procession drawing closer. Will quickly flashed her one of his classic, broad smiles before his face became stoic once more.
A murmur rippled across the crowd as the Draenei entered the square. The reason became apparent soon as she saw the large, strange beasts and then the men and women riding them.
Impossibly tall, blue-skinned, with muscular tails; some with horns and odd tentacles erupting from their necks and faces. Their hooves rang sharply against the pavers of the square.
Una was acutely grateful she wasn't the only paladin openly staring at them. They managed to stay at attention, but it was difficult as they were being inspected themselves. The newcomers looked overwhelmed. They were trying to look everywhere at once, their glowing eyes wide.
A tall male paused in front of her and looked her up and down. His lip visibly curled in disgust as he looked down on her. For a moment, she thought he might say something, but instead he sneered once more and moved on.
Will looked at her quizzically and mouthed, "What the hell?"
She scrunched her face up and gave a minute shrug. The last of the Draenei passed and Lord Shadowbreaker gave the signal for the paladins to pivot sharply to face the cathedral and march inside.
From the back of the cathedral, she could barely follow the proceedings. The pews were filled with nobles, various dignitaries, and high ranking members of the clergy. The Draenei were kneeling before the leaders of the Alliance, but she was too far away to hear what was being said. At Lord Shadowbreaker's command, they allowed the Light to flow through them and towards the Draenei assembly.
Una gasped and heard a collective intake of breaths ripple across the Cathedral as each of the Draenei did the same, a strange symbol forming over their foreheads.
Afterwards, Una raced down the stairs in search of her cousin. He wasn't hard to find. He was seated on a bench in front of the orphanage, surrounded by a gaggle of children who were bombarding him with questions. He appeared to be patiently answering each of them as best he could. However, she could tell by the look on his face that he had just about had enough.
She waved until she caught his eye and he excused himself. He covered the distance between them in long, confident strides. Una flung her arms around him, hugging him tight. To her delight, she was rewarded by a laugh and a ferocious bear hug.
"Look at you!" He cried in joy when they broke the embrace. He held her hand and took a half step backwards as he sized her up. "Just look at you!"
He had changed himself. Anaru was no longer a gangly adolescent, but a mature, powerful paladin. His cleanly shaven, square face was that of a grown man, though a scattering of freckles still covered his cheekbones. His shoulders had broadened and powerful muscles stirred under his simple white shirt. His chestnut hair had grown darker and longer and he had pulled it back in a low ponytail. However, he had an odd tension in his voice and muscles that she couldn't quite identify.
And then she was being pulled back in for another fierce hug.
He was grinning from ear to ear when he let her go, "I am so proud of you. I'm sure Grandfather would be too."
Una nodded, smiled softly, and felt her eyes dampen slightly.
Together, they walked to the stables to retrieve his horse. To Una's surprise, it wasn't her grandfather's great, white warhorse, Ethos, but a glossy, black stallion.
"What happened to Ethos?" She asked in alarm.
"Oh, he's fine." Anaru explained, "He was getting old, so I retired him. The Blood Knights prefer black or dark brown chargers anyway... so does the Argent Dawn." He affectionately patted the stallion on the neck, "He comes from a solid blood line, so I put him to stud. Jet here was the first foal."
Una stroked the animal's velvety muzzle as Anaru saddled and bridled him, more than a little jealous. "He's gorgeous."
"He was worth the wait, I'll tell you that." Anaru stated proudly. He swung up into the saddle and helped her to mount behind him. He clicked his tongue against his teeth a couple times and Jet began to walk.
"Are you a member of the Argent Dawn now?" She asked him curiously.
"I'm a Commander," he replied, pressing his left knee into the animal's side to turn him onto the bridge. "Someone needs to keep the Scourge in check."
"So where are you most of the time?"
"Eh… I suppose I've been around the Dark Portal the most lately." He said after a moment, "I've been in Silithus, Tanaris, Winterspring, the Plaguelands, and Deadwind Pass too. I'm wherever disturbances of the demonic or undead variety appear."
She frowned deeply, "Are they sending you to Outland then?"
He shook his head, "No, there's enough domestic trouble to keep us occupied here on Azeroth."
"What exactly do you do?" They were passing through the busy market district now, pushing slowly through the throngs of festival goers and merchants.
"I command a mobile assault team — Ma'am." Anaru drew Jet to a halt to allow a mother with small children to pass. He nodded and touched the fingers of his right hand to his forehead in respect. When they had passed, he continued, "We basically go wherever the threat is the highest, take it out, and move on. Our mission at the Dark Portal is the longest we've ever held one position, aside from the Plaguelands. Darnassus is our headquarters, but it's not unusual to receive new orders before we've completed the current mission. But enough about me… what are your plans, Una?"
Una frowned and tightened her grip around his waist as he veered quickly around a heavily leaden cart. "I don't know, I hadn't thought much about it."
Her cousin chuckled, "A word of advice if I may: Find and join a cause you believe in. We paladins are too powerful and tend to wind up political tools — pawns — if we're not careful."
Una nodded. "Lord Uther must roll in his grave at the thought of that." As they passed through the gates, the crowds thinned and he kneed Jet into a trot.
"I doubt that. I'm sure he knew what would become of paladins. That was the same piece of advice Grandfather gave me when I was his squire." The road was open now, only a few sparse travelers headed into the city so he kicked Jet into a canter.
Una let loose a whoop of joy and wrapped her arms tightly around Anaru's waist. With a wolfish grin, he leaned forward and kicked the horse into a full gallop. It was as if they were flying through the trees rather than running. The wind whipped their hair and tugged at their clothes. He guided Jet south, towards the Castine's fence line. The horse neatly cleared it and they galloped further south to jump the opposite fence line.
Her parent's property was rapidly approaching now and she could see her family's small corral. Within, she could see three horses rather than just her parent's two horses.
Anaru slowed Jet, growled in frustration, and whined, "Uncle…! He was supposed to be in the barn!"
Soon, they were trotting alongside the fence. Una stared at the flea-bitten gray stallion with a white mane and tail placidly eating grass on the opposite side of the pasture. He had the elegant lines of a Quel'dorei horse, but flea-bitten gray wasn't one of the common colors.
"Anaru?" She asked, puzzled.
"Well… surprise?" He responded in chagrin.
Una inhaled sharply and slid off while they were still moving. She stumbled, climbed the fence, and jogged over to the animal. The horses lifted their heads to watch her.
The stallion whinnied softly as she approached. She held out her hand to him in wonder. The animal sniffed her fingers, his breath warm against her skin. She stroked his soft, warm muzzle and then caressed the animal's dish-shaped cheek.
Anaru had tied Jet off and climbed the fence himself. "He's another Ethos sired. His color wasn't desirable in Silvermoon; but, he's a fine horse. I thought you might like him."
The young paladin cried in joy and flung her arms around her cousin.
"Don't cry! Don't cry!" Anaru laughed as she sobbed elatedly into his chest. He patted her back and searched his pockets for a handkerchief. He finally located it and gave it to her. Una dabbed her eyes and then spun back around to embrace the horse around the neck.
The elder paladin chuckled and stepped over to pat the horse's back. "He's a fully trained charger. Not knowing your plans, I made sure he was exposed to the undead in the Dead Scar to desensitize him some."
Her parents were standing on the threshold of their house now. Una did her best to ignore the sour looks on their faces.
"What are you going to call him?" Anaru asked.
Una pursed her lips and thought for a few minutes. Most paladins in Lordaeron named their horses after admirable traits. Her Grandfather, a lover of civil debates and argumentative speeches, had named his horse Ethos… a word from Old Common meaning "ideals." Anaru had named his after a precious stone. She stroked the horse's flecked coat and then ran her fingers through the pale mane. The vestige of a memory rose quietly to the surface of her mind of a peaceful summer night in Lordaeron and her grandfather's strong arms cradling her while whispering stories of the Light and its champions.
"Vesper." Una said solemnly.
"Excellent name." Anaru nodded his approval. Both of them could feel the weight of her parents' gaze now. "We can go for a ride later. Come on…"
With difficulty, she left the corral and climbed the fence. Her parents' body language clearly declared their displeasure. Anaru transformed before her eyes, from her warm, loving cousin to a soldier. He stood a little straighter, his step confident, and his emerald eyes steely.
"Aunt Tyalaria. Uncle Ferran." Anaru said and once more touched the fingers of his right hand to his forehead in respect. "It's good to see both of you again."
"Anaru." Her father said callously. Her mother was noticeably silent.
"I hope you both have been well. I missed you." Anaru said, somehow making his voice crisp yet pleasant.
Her father nodded frostily.
Una shifted awkwardly. Anaru and his brothers had lived with them during the Third War. His brothers had been sent the moment Arthas' Scourge had entered Eversong Woods and then later that evening, a bedraggled and distraught Anaru had simply appeared in the Mage Quarter. However, now her parents were acting the same way they did towards Anaru's father and late mother. She had no idea what had gone on between their parents, but the rift had been ever deepening for as long as she could remember.
"Won't you come in?" Her mother finally said with difficulty. The words sounded forced.
"Of course." Anaru said politely.
Una followed her father in, her heart pounding in her chest. She was waiting for accusations to fly, vicious barbs, and an argument to start.
"How is your father? Brothers?" Her father asked.
Anaru nodded his face uncharacteristically stoic, "I have not had the opportunity to speak with them. I have been stationed at the Dark Portal for weeks and I was in Dead Wind Pass before that. As of our last correspondence, all was well."
She helped her mother set the table. A venison stew had been cooking over the fire since dawn and now it was thick and smelled delicious. Una tried to ignore the vague nausea settling in to her stomach despite the enticing aroma.
"You a member of those… Blood Knights?"
"Technically, yes. But I serve as a Commander for the Argent Dawn."
Una set a bowl of stew before her father and then her cousin. Her mouth was dry and her anxiety was only increasing.
"What exactly do they do?" Her father asked. She knew her father knew and she couldn't help but wonder where this was going.
"Thank you, Una." Anaru met her gaze and she marveled at how calm his eyes were. "We protect Azeroth from those that seek its destruction, including threats from the Burning Legion and Scourge."
Uneasy silence overtook the room. Una stared at the suddenly unappetizing stew before her.
"I suppose you see plenty of action then." Her father finally said.
Anaru actually laughed, "Oh yes, quite a bit, in fact. However, I'm proud to say I've only lost one man."
Una pleaded silently for Anaru to be careful. She couldn't say what her father was planning. However, nothing happened. The tension from her parents was thickening, but Anaru seemed oblivious. The rest of the dinner was conducted in silence.
"If you aren't careful, you'll end up like your mother." Her father finally said as he finished his stew. There was malice in his tone. Una shut her eyes and laid her spoon down.
Her Aunt Iloria had stood with Ranger-General Sylvanas Windrunner and the other rangers against Arthas and the Scourge. She was believed to have died defending the first Elf Gate, but no one knew for sure.
She looked to her cousin. She expected to see anger, pain, but the only expression that crossed his face was a bemused pity.
"If I should die, I will assure you it will not have been in vain." Anaru said gently, as though he were talking to the children outside the cathedral. "I won't argue this with you. I've made my peace; I hope you will do the same." With this, he stood and once again touched his fingers to his forehead. "Thank you, Aunt Tyalaria. The stew was delicious. Uncle Ferran, Una."
He inclined his head to her father and then to Una and walked out the door.
Una glared wrathfully at her parents and ran out after him.
Anaru must have guessed what she was going to do; he was hefting a spare saddle and bridle onto the fence. They remained silent as they saddled and bridled Vesper and within moments they were galloping through Elwynn Forest.
Una found the rhythmic gallop cleansing and almost cathartic. Vesper and Jet were equally matched, Anaru wasn't holding him back either. His face was stony; Una could only guess what was going on in his head.
At last he motioned in the direction of the bank of the Nazferiti River and veered off towards it as he slowed Jet. Una followed suit and was delighted as Vesper immediately responded.
Anaru dismounted and turned briefly in an aimless circle. With a startling suddenness, he punched a nearby tree. He covered his face with his palm and took several deep breaths. Una wrung her hands, watching him go through his emotions.
"I'm sorry." His voice trembled as he spoke. "I shouldn't have tried to visit them." He sat down under the tree and leaned against the trunk.
"I love them, but I'm almost out of patience too." Una acknowledged. "They've never been happy with my decision to become a paladin either. Papa told me once I'm becoming too much like Grandfather..."
He nodded but said nothing. Una sat down and leaned against the trunk next to him. Their horses contentedly grazed on the tender shoots of fresh, green grass. A calm silence fell over them as they listened to the sounds of the forest.
Abruptly Anaru stood, went to his horse, and retrieved something from his saddlebags. He returned, handed a small box to her, and sat down once again.
Una opened the box and discovered an aged, folded parchment and another smaller box, covered in black velvet. She unfolded the piece of parchment and felt her heart skip a beat. It was a letter, penned in her grandfather's elegant hand. The date was just days before he was killed by the Scourge while trying to hold the last line of defense before the Sunwell.
"I… didn't think I could give you that in front of Uncle Ferran." Anaru said softly. Whatever had been bothering him before was now at the forefront of his thoughts. "I'm so glad you followed me…"
Una nodded numbly and folded the letter. She left it unread and promised herself that she would read it later in private.
"Back when all the Blood Knights regained their powers by absorbing Light from… I guess we were drunk…"
"Drunken paladins," Una interrupted to half-heartedly muse, "There's a punch-line in that somewhere."
"Drunk on power." Anaru continued, grinning half-heartedly at her joke. "So a bunch of us got climbing gear and ventured into the ruins of Silvermoon. Before I knew it, we were near Grandfather's study. So I broke in… He had gifts already made for you and me, and letters."
He lifted a delicate chain from under his shirt and drew forth a truesilver pendant in the shape of a bird, crown, and clenched fist. He then put it back inside his shirt and patted it gently.
She opened the tiny, velvet box. Inside was a truesilver pendant in the shape of the Symbol of the Holy Light. Una swallowed, removed it from the box, and slipped the chain over her head. She fidgeted with it a moment, lost in her thoughts.
"… Did you ever lose your abilities?" She ventured awkwardly.
Anaru closed his eyes and shook his head. "No. But I probably would have eventually. Most of the others had."
"What about Welan and Kaleril?"
Anaru gave a caustic laugh she had never heard him make before, "They aren't real paladins…" He seemed to realize himself and attempted another angle, "They weren't paladins… before…" He sighed and his voice trailed off as he gave up all pretenses. "We don't get along. I love them, but I think there's too many years between myself and Welan… even more for Kaleril. We don't have much in common. I was already in the field with Grandfather when Kaleril was born. They didn't have to work for their power, they took it."
Una stared at the elder paladin, unsure of what to say. She had never seen Anaru flustered this badly. She knew he didn't like his brothers, she didn't like them either. Una supposed there was too many years between her younger cousins and herself as well. They were shallow and spoiled, in her opinion. However, she knew enough about Anaru to know that this subject shouldn't leave him so upset.
"Anaru… what's bothering you? Really." She finally said.
Anaru looked vaguely ill. He seemed intent on the grass and dirt beside him, digging a shallow hole with his fingers, shredding grass as he went. He suddenly seemed to brace himself and said, "I just found out myself… Look, Una… you're going to hear things over the coming days. Most of it will be true."
"What?" She demanded in a shrill tone. A bad feeling had settled into the pit of her stomach, a distinct feeling of dread that was growing.
"The least of it…?" His voice was barely a whisper. "Silvermoon has joined the Horde."
Author's Note: Thank you for reading my first fanfiction in six years. It's been a long time and it's felt wonderful to write for fun once again. Feedback of any kind would be greatly appreciated as I get used to this process again.
I'd also like to thank my good friend, KooriRoninHeart, for being my sounding board, beta reader, and such a wonderful friend for all these years. Love you, Sis!
Additional thanks go out to Joyleaf, Daishi, and Nehasane for also reading this for me. You guys are awesome!