She saw him in Shattrath, talking to a merchant about thread. It took her a moment to recognize him. He had changed so much. Her breath caught and a wave of emotion, powerful as pain, swept over her, bringing tears to the sockets of her eyes.
She had died, many years before. Her heart had not.
i. The Troll
Endless curiosity, willing inventiveness, and a lively interest in the opposite sex conspired to take Winter many places, over the years, that he did not deliberately aim to go. On the whole, his experiences had been remarkably good and when they had been less so, that too proved worthwhile. If the first spark of attraction began below his belt, it typically extended at least a bit beyond. The beautiful, strong women of his acquaintance easily excited his interest and, in the face of the evidence, the reverse was equally true. Winter rarely lacked for willing companions.
So the idea of setting out, deliberately, to woo a life-list of abstractly-chosen individuals was contrary to his manner despite what some thought of his roguish ways. He found women, all women, alluring but he had never planned to take on one of each race just to know he’d done it.
Not surprisingly, the subject came up in a woman’s company.
“It be a nice change, to take one’s time, to pause between” said the troll. “Our men take pride to mate every few minutes, though they exaggerate to claim eighty times in a night.”
Winter turned the big wineglass in his hands as he leaned across the table to smile at the woman. “I hear troll men are — abrupt.” He admired her dusky purple skin, not for the first time. “Which seems rather a shame. You deserve proper attention.”
She cackled, and he grinned at the sound, evidence of her good humor. “Slow attention, you mean! Your vigor and stamina suit me well enough. Maybe not ev’ry day but…”
Playfully, she chortled. “You not up to that challenge, mage. And I would be bored after while.”
“Bored! You wound my pride, Pique. Why then do you sneak into Stormwind? Or suggest I return to Ogrimmar like this?”
Her orange gaze sharpened. “We do appreciate the exotic, you and I, as much as we both appreciate the challenge of sneaking into each other’s cities.” A slow lazy smile bared her fangs. “Dat first time I challenged you to meet me in Ogrimmar? I said that just to taunt you, you with your dancing and your flirting and so brash, so impudent.”
Winter shrugged. “You stayed on my mind, after we first met. Then in Stranglethorn, you had grown more experienced. More…” His gaze caressed her.
She snorted. “A quick bang up de stairs in a goblin’s spare room? That would interest me? De heat of Booty Bay, it melted your brains.”
Winter laughed out loud, merrily. “I’d had a really bad week.” He didn’t share the images of curdling black magics and near drownings that flickered through his memory of that week. He had been much in need of respite and companionship, glad to find anyone he recognized on the docks of the goblin town.
The trollish shaman took a sip from her goblet. “I said, ‘Find me in Ogrimmar. Maybe den I reconsider.’ I thought that would put an end to it.”
Winter shrugged. “You didn’t think I was serious.”
“I knew of your reputation! But no, I did not think you would bother.”
Winter sat back, remembering how the woman’s challenge lodged in the back of his mind. It took time, but the night he stepped out of the shadows deep in the Drag with the deceptive orb clutched to his chest, looking for all the world like a brutish orcish bruiser … it had all been worth it. “You are quite something, Pique, and well worth the effort.”
Her orange eyes twinkled. “Always you rise to a challenge, man. And still you come to Ogrimmar.”
He grinned. “And it’s still a challenge.”
She barked a laugh. “Always will be! Human scum in our great city? Them who come hunting our warchief get what they deserve. Come for our women too? You Alliance trash would get the wrong idea.”
“No one can say Horde women are easy.” He winked at her. “Just very very good.”
Tossing her black mane with a mocking cackle, Pique’s eyes narrowed. “And what you know about other women of the Horde, Winter? How many lovers you take ‘cross the faction line, eh?”
ii. The Mage
She told herself she wasn’t watching for him. He was part of her old life. She was glad to have seen him, glad to learn he’d made something of himself. But that was the end of it.
But then she spotted Winter again and found herself drawing closer, inconspicuous as she paused to listen surreptitiously. Down in the Lower City, he talked animatedly with a bright-eyed gnome woman about the delights of frost magics. He glanced her way once, then turned his winning smile back on the little gnome. Clearly, he didn’t register a thought for an undead crone slouching by the mailbox. The city’s mob of refugee children, giggling as they ran by, attracted no more attention than she.
The gnome mage jumped off the crates to summon her drake, and Winter shouted with laughter, summoning his own great beast to follow after.
Ibbetta found herself being watched in turn, by one of the refugee orphans. The little draenei smiled tentatively, tugging at the skirt of her red jumper. Solemnly she accepted a bit of candy from Ibbetta’s tuckerbag, clearly unafraid of her skeletal grin.
Ibbetta longed to hug her but the child’s guardian called her away sharply, wary of her undead condition or because of her Scryer jewelry. It saddened her that the child would be taught fear so young.
The bonecrone sighed, thinking hard.
It pleased her that she and Winter shared a love of magic, though she suspected he was far more accomplished than she. Back when she still breathed as one of the warm, the living, she’d never had opportunity for such studies. A farm girl minded her priorities. Those obligations ended when she died.
At first, she had withdrawn from the horrible fact of her undeath, had become one of the insane and mindless ghouls wandering the orchards of Silverpine. Slowly she came to her senses, entering the vale of Deathknell and appealing for a chance to prove herself. When she would have drowned in undeath, the dark cleric there counseled her until she could accept the truth, embracing the unliving person she had become.
There was no going back. She had thought her family would want to know what had become of her. When she returned home, the townsfolk treated her badly. Boys she’d shared a toasting goblet with at New Year’s cursed her. Girlfriends she’d danced the firepole with in summer swore. Throwing stones, they fled to the stone-eyed fanatics in scarlet. No one loved the Forsaken. They could only see exposed joints and rotting flesh.
So she had put away thoughts of the time before waking to her nightmare. She began calling herself Crowbait because Ibbetta was dead and gone. She studied magecraft, and made a decent living answerable to no one. Once, such thinking would have seemed selfish. Now, it was merely a fact of life.
She didn’t like to be reminded.
iii. The Orc
Winter’s mouth twisted in the oval of his goatee, eyes both abashed and greatly amused. “Must we talk about this just now?” His hand returned to hers, stroking her scarred knuckles.
His eyebrows lifted and he took his hand away. “I didn’t figure you to be jealous, Pique.”
She scoffed. “Not that. You know better. We both have other lovers.” She folded her arms to lean on the table, looking at him intently. “But you make me curious now! I want to know. Tell me of your Horde lovers, Winter.”
He leaned into the back of the chair, a quiet smile on his face. “There was this blood elf…”
“Just one?” she heckled, interrupting.
Winter didn’t answer, grinning, eyes laughing.
“Go on then, what else? An orc?”
His grin evaporated and Pique tilted her head to watch the play of memory tumble across his face. He did not answer quickly. “Fortunately, scars don’t last. Orcs can be quite passionate when seeking to throw off cold memories of the Lich King’s yoke.”
“A death knight?” She whistled. “I be impressed.”
He smiled a quiet smile. “They do smell a bit… off. Good thing I don’t have a sensitive nose, eh?”
Pique stuck out her tongue at him. “You put up with me! Strong halitosis be just one of my feminine traits.”
Winter winked at her then grew more somber as his eyes hooded. “I try not to overthink these things but I suspect she chose me, a human — Alliance scum, as you say — because she believed her own would still reject her. The ordinary folk of Ogrimmar are slow to forgive the dead heroes returning, smelling of death and looking like the Scourge. I think she took their hatred very personally.”
“I been in de Warchief’s Hall when one of them presented papers to Thrall. He, at least, is not too quick to judge.”
Winter took a deep breath, thoughtful. “You are fortunate to have such a leader. But the lady, she knew what she’d done in service to Arthas and it pained her. She wasn’t sure she deserved the chance to redeem herself.” He paused. “Or even that she ever could.”
Pique’s words were soft. “How could taking a human lover change that?”
“She needed to convince herself that her body was her own, that she was truly alive once more.” Winter cleared his throat, sad and a little bitter. “But in the end, she hated herself for what she thought a weakness, needing comfort when nothing could comfort her again. She sought redemption a different way, trying to live up to her name.”
The troll looked at him curiously.
“Stealheart. She tried to extract mine. I wasn’t done with it.” His lips quirked, saddened. “We didn’t part on good terms.”
iv. The Blood Elves
She stayed in Shattrath when she might have moved on. She told herself it wasn’t deliberate. She did not mean to linger at places she had seen him, but she returned to the vast city at every opportunity. When she had earned enough respect among the powerful Scryers, she petitioned them to find her a permanent place to stay. In a town awash with refugees, even a tiny apartment came at a price. A very high price, but comfort always had a price.
She had learned to appreciate comfort.
The blood elves understood. Soft beds and silks and fine foods cushioned one against memories of destruction, families sundered, loved ones lost to death and worse than death. A comfortable chair, old wine some departed owner would never taste, to win the loving glance of someone held close if only for a night… who would not choose these?
The elves did, taking such compensations without regret or restraint. Like the Forsaken, their lives had been utterly changed by dreadful events not of their choosing. Those who survived has suffered much: the loss of countless kin and friends, and the light of the Sunwell itself. They clearly relished what beauty and comfort they could find. So did she.
She had few such comforts growing up. Her parents had made a simple home, filled with simple things for her and her brothers. Her coffin, lined with mageweave and sheep’s wool, was the softest bed she had ever known. She would have thanked her family but they misunderstood. That’s how she choose to view their response when she appeared at the paddock gate. No one could see past her grey flesh and lank hair, the protruding bones and empty sockets. They would not have tried to kill her, not if they knew. Surely, they just misunderstood.
It almost drove her back into insanity, to the bloody rampages she had committed when she first awoke to her condition. She spied on the townsfolk awhile, but it hurt to watch them living their breathing lives as she once had, unsuspecting and innocent. In the end, she stayed away. She had no place among them.
Seeing Winter, she couldn’t put the past out of her mind so easily. All she could see when her eyes closed was the memory of his tousled hair all disordered, so fine and so black, his bright eyes and his laughter. The sweet smell of his breath and the touch of his skin. She couldn’t put him out of her mind.
Part of her wondered how she ever had.
v. The Faire
Winter left in the dead of night because, always, he had to. Pique saw him to the edge of town, distracting the Ogrimmar guards who might otherwise take note. With the deceptive orb hiding his appearance, the modest disguise it offered concealed him from a casual glance. The magics of the device gave him an orc’s shape, back and legs bowed, brow beetling. He didn’t much like the twisting of his bones, the disorientation of a different mode of vision and hearing and moving, the crawling sensation that his skin was not his own. Underneath it all, he still remained the man he was, and if this was more than a costume it was also less than a complete metamorphosis. He’d been caught out a few times but mostly he could come and go in secret if he stuck to the hidden paths, confronting no one.
After regaining his own more comfortable body and his familiar black stallion, he’d galloped off for Mulgore. The Darkmoon Faire was in full swing out in the taurens’ green vales, and the troll had asked him to carry a note and package to her old friend Tam, living in Thunder Bluff.
“Always happy to help,” said Winter, in reply to her request, “but why not just put this in the mail?”
Pique grinned with a trace of mischief. “It be special, mon. I told her to watch for you.”
Winter raised one eyebrow, shaking his head, but the troll just cackled softly. Then her face sobered to a more serious gaze as she leaned in and took a last kiss. “You be a good man, Winter.”
The other eyebrow joined the first.”Don’t let that get around. It would ruin my reputation.”
Still serious, Pique shook her head without rising to his attempted humor. “Dey don’ need to hear it from me, mon. Now go before it get light.”
Because the Darkmoon Faire stood well outside of town, a tauren and a human could meet up easily, even if it scandalized the locals. Two blood elves stared, snickering, but Winter ignored them as he joined Tamanare at a merchant’s booth.
He’d first met the tauren woman on the same occasion when he originally met Pique, outside Ratchet, for the two often went adventuring together. Tall and graceful for all her bovine brawn, Tam was a druid of surprisingly good humor, with an easy-going way despite her fierce glower. Her deep throaty laugh made him smile, and he appreciated the earthy unpretentiousness of her manner. He liked Tam and respected the old soul that seemed to watch from behind her rich brown eyes.
He set the box on the merchant’s counter, laying Pique’s note on top. Tam broke the letter’s seal and scanned it, then re-read more slowly. The woman looked up at Winter and, evidently amused by his puzzled expression, slowly broke into a rich contralto belly laugh. Winter’s lips twitched, nonplussed.
She picked up the package, still unopened, turning it over in her big hands. “Let’s get a bite, then find a place to talk. I know a little dell where we can go enjoy the view.”
Riding into the hills, Winter chuckled at Tam’s characterization of a ‘nice little dell’ with harpy nests dangling from every tree. The creatures eyed them with hostility, chittering insults.
Among high hills sheltering a secluded canyon, both city and Faire alike had vanished. Far below, the grand plains of Mulgore swept out in a long unbroken vista. Dismounting, Tamanare laid her huge hand against a tree trunk, caressing rough bark. “I love this land, Winter. The Earthmother holds Mulgore close to her heart.”
Winter swung out of the saddle. “It’s a lovely region, Tam.” He watched curiously as she walked from tree to tree, a golden drift of pollen spilling from her broad fingers. “The view moves me but not as it affects you, I think.”
“Is nowhere special to you, Winter? No place sacred and sublime?”
His memories sparked, rising, spinning, falling away. “I can feel the power of beauty at the falls in Maraudon, or watching the stars from a sky island in Nagrand. The unspoiled parts of Northrend can be sublime. What you’re asking, though? No.”
The taura lay one arm across his shoulders, avoiding the pointier bits of his high spaulders. “That’s a shame. You are a man who could appreciate what the Earthmother shares.”
He turned in her hold, trying politely not to poke his face in her great breasts that loomed beside him. “I’d make a lousy druid, Tam.”
Tam smiled down at him, the gust of her warm breath stirring his hair. “That isn’t what I was suggesting.”
Winter stepped back to get a better look at her face, eyes curious. “What are you suggesting then?”
She took out a packet of funnel cakes brought from the Faire and tilted a horn toward the trees. “I suggest we eat before these get cold. Then let’s talk about Pique’s note.”
viii. The Aldor
She learned that Winter had grown into a man of renown and power. Adventurer, yes, free lance and available for hire, but people listened when he talked and he never lacked for companions. He disappeared often, gone to Northrend like so many, but then she would see him in Shattrath again, coming or going.
She sought out those he spoke with, people he took jobs for. She wanted to find out where he was going, what he was doing. She tried not to seem too interested.
It frustrated her to learn he had given his allegiance to the Aldors as she had given hers to the Scryers, and it frustrated her more that she could not follow him when he went up to the Aldors’ high enclave. But she took some amusement from occasions when she could stand close beside him at the Aldor bank. Although the snobbish draenei pointedly ignored her, she carried on genial conversations with nearby trolls and orcs, and let it seem that she was doing her own business while Winter went about his own.
She could not bring herself to talk to him.
ix. The Earthmother
Winter popped the last of the cake into his mouth, the deep-fried bread still crunchy and toasty. Satisfied, the mage leaned back on his elbows. “So what was in the note from Pique? Or should I ask?”
Tam swiped her hand through the green grass to clean off the cake’s oiliness. “Pique suggested I raise a topic that she and I have discussed.” She cleared her throat, pausing several moments. “Do you find me attractive, Winter?”
The man found himself briefly speechless before his brain started up again. He settled on something simple. “I like you, Tam.” His thoughts flickered rapidly, considering the question. “The person you are is attractive, but you’re tauren and I’m human. I don’t think either of us is predisposed to respond sexually, if that’s what you’re asking.”
She nodded sagely, agreeing. “The differences are rather extreme.”
“I don’t stand even so tall as your shoulder. And… how do I say this… you’re humanoid but…”
She chortled. “Livestock don’t turn you on, mage? Yet there are so many stories about wizards and sheep!”
“No.” His answer came swiftly, flatly, with only a tinge of irritation at the ancient jest leveled against every mage able to force a shapechange on his opponents in the field. He sat forward. “You are not a farmer’s cow, Tam, any more than I am ape. You are as much a person as I, as any gnome or an orc. Different, yes, but no animal.” He grinned abruptly, a sly expression lightening his face as he sat back again. “Anyway, I prefer makin’ bacon.”
Tam’s eyes widened.
“Pigs. I make pigs with my polymorphing magics nowadays. Not sheep. I send them off squealing before toasting them all crispy and done to a turn.”
Tam’s laughter echoed through the canyon as she rocked back on her haunches. “I think that’s too appropriate, Winter, given your reputation.” Her eyes sparked. “And your reputation definitely precedes you.”
He lifted his chin with a frank smile. “What would my tauren friend know about my reputation?”
Tam’s face lit with a rascally grin.”You climb in and out of windows from Stormwind to Ogrimmar, and imagine that no one notices? You think the only reputation you earn is among the warring factions of Outland and Northrend?” She snorted.
Winter shrugged sheepishly. “I don’t know how to answer that, Tam.”
She looked down on her huge double digits lacing and unlacing. Deliberately she set them on her knees. “Then I’ll answer my original question. I find you attractive, Winter. Like Pique’s, my interest grew slowly, but over time I saw a man I wanted to know better.”
“Those differences remain significant.”
“I’m not interested in complicated machinery. Nor am I interested in the same old bull. And our differences are of no consequence when shape and form are so changeable.”
In a burst of magic, a lean fighting cat lounged where the tauren druid sat a moment before. Another sparkling shift, and a pudgy moonkin ruffled her feathers and jiggled. Silently laughing, she changed back to her natural form. “I take many shapes, Winter, and druids love to experiment. But this shaping we can share.” She slid off the box lid, beneath which neatly prepared fish gleamed in tight-packed rows. “Pique’s gift. A full stack of savory delights.”
After Winter’s laughter faded, he grew serious. “Pique put you up to this, didn’t she? She thinks I should go out and sleep with a member of every intelligent race of Azeroth. She’ll be sending me after the goblins and the worgen next.”
He scratched his nose, bemused. “Tam, we eat those fish, it’s just a magical costume. Black leather assassin or a swashbuckler, one or the other. Take off the costume, the morphing drops away with the clothes.”
“Haven’t you experimented with taking off just parts of the costume instead of the whole, to see what holds the metamorphosis? For the assassin’s disguise, the kerchief masking one’s face is the keystone.”
“And the pirate? The cocked hat perhaps?” Winter grinned. “Kissing through black silk while half-dressed in leather. Sounds kinky.” His eyes lit with mischief. “Sounds fun.”
Tam’s deep-throated chortling sent harpies scuttling higher up into the trees. “It is.” At his raised eyebrow, she laughed again. “I am a druid. I am naturally experimental about shapechanging. Yes, eating these fish lets us change shape. But you and I will still be ourselves, our true bodies discernible beneath the magic, but with forms made compatible. Trust me: it is the best of both.”
She smiled gently as she picked out one of the blackened fish from the box and handed it to the man. “The Earthmother makes every form capable of happiness. Let’s make each other happy, Winter.”
x. The Scryers
She noticed the gnome mage when the small woman came into the back hall of the Scryers’ inn. She had seen Winter with her several times, so she had looked into what they were to one another. Adventuring companions, certainly. If there was more, it was gossip only, but Winter attracted a lot of that. The tiny mage chatted a few moments with the innkeeper, then found a seat, evidently waiting for another companion. On Scryers’ Tier, it wouldn’t be Winter she waited for and Crowbait grew less interested.
The gnome took a nibble or two from the roast pig on the table until a black-haired dwarven dame joined her. The two women fell to their meal with a will, chattering companionably. Much of their conversation turned on a frank appreciation of the blood elf boys nearby, all with a sly undertone that Crowbait would have blushed to hear in her living days. Once they finished eating, their conversation wandered to other subjects. The arcanist’s attention snapped to their words when Winter’s name came up.
“The lad thinks too much.” The dwarf found a bit of cucumber on the platter, considered it thoughtfully, then popped it into her mouth. “He’s too smart for his own good and loses sleep about things the rest of us know don’t bear thinking on.”
The gnome mage shrugged, wiping her small hands on a silky napkin. “Mages have to be smart, Caz. And he has his diversions for those occasions he would rather not think so much.”
The dwarf’s face took on a sad and rather tender look. “He was lookin’ for diversion in the bottom of a bottle when I saw him earlier this evening, Alyxx. I felt bad leavin’ to come here.” She paused and grinned. “Although it’s as like he loses sleep for a different reason most nights!”
Alyxx giggled and drank deep, her small face hidden in the huge goblet. “Intelligence feeds imagination. His ladies appreciate his imagination, I think.”
Caz nodded sagely, drawing deeply from the hookah a blood elf lad set beside the table. She smiled appreciatively as he walked away. “Oh aye, by all accounts they do. And there are many. Many accounts, no? And many women.” She chuckled good-naturedly. “Good thing we’re immune to his charms, eh? Sometimes I think you and I are the only women in all Azeroth not walkin’ funny.”
Alyxx spit out a spray of wine, laughing too hard. “Caz, that’s crude.” She carefully wiped her face and gown clean. “I’m sure there are other women who don’t find him completely irresistible.”
The hunter gave her an arch look.
Alyxx shrugged with studied indifference. “No matter what Winter thinks of himself, I would prefer having these blood elf lads on my menu.” She giggled impishly. “I do love being Scryer.”
They sat in companionable silence awhile, relaxing into the smoke and the wine and full bellies, and Crowbait wondered whether they had any more to say. After a time, the bonecrone gathered up her things, preparing to leave. Then the black-haired dwarf leaned back on the red divan with her head cradled in her hands. “Did he tell you about seeing that troll again?”
Crowbait sat back down.
“What, is he still stealing into Ogrimmar?” The little mage shifted a bolster under her ribs to prop herself up on one elbow.
“He mentioned he’d seen her when we talked earlier, aye. Remember when he snuck her into Stormwind during Fire Festival? All the guards chasing Horde come to piss on our fires, overlooking a lone troll heading for Old Town.”
“And what did the rest of Blade Hall think of having a troll there?”
Caz chuckled, a wry grin on her lips as her eyes traced filigree patterns on the ceiling. “Overall it was just ‘Ah, Winter! Up to your usual tricks?’ Can’t say the woman seemed a very nice person, but still… “ Her voice trailed off, musing. “I’d say he chose well if he wanted to ‘put troll on the menu’, as you might say.” She closed her eyes. “Though how he can stand troll breath I don’t know. I swear they save their sweat just t’ drink it down.”
Alyxx pondered, reaching out for another nibble from the platter. “I wonder. I wonder if he has managed to get them all ‘on the menu.'”
Caz sat up abruptly with a mischievous smile. “You’d keep this to yourself if I tell you something, Alyxx? As I said, Winter was gettin’ into his cups this evening but… you and he are old friends an’ all. I don’t believe as how he’d object to my repeating what he said.” Her accent thickened as she spoke, herself a bit into her cups.
Alyxx’s face took on a guarded look of deep bemusement.
“She challenged him. The troll. Again, aye. Askin’ if he’d take up with every one of the races of Azeroth. Seemed to think he wasn’t …up to it.” She chuckled, lying back down.
Alyxx shrugged dismissively. “I would venture to guess he’s slept with all the Alliance women long ago.” She went on, thinking aloud. “Troll, okay, given. Blood elf?” She chortled. “Orc? I guess. Oh Light, one of the tauren?” She shuddered, then shook her head. “But no. He’d never accept one of the Forsaken. I remember once he talked about what puts him off. A body at room temperature would definitely put him off.”
Caz sat up again, appraising the gnome. “Aye, but I recall as how he’d also said the gnome girls might be too childlike, too.” Her turquoise eyes gleamed, watching Alyxx closely. “I don’t think that stopped him.”
Alyxx patted her neatly looped braids, affecting innocence. “The pigtail sisterhood, perhaps. But he knows a mature woman when he sees one.”
Caz paused a moment and gave the slightest of nods. “See, his imagination takes him everywhere. And don’t it just get him into trouble everywhere, too.”
Alyxx smiled thoughtfully. “You know, Caz, that would be quite an achievement, sleeping with the Horde. Winter may not be out to notch his bedpost, but he does like… variety.” She sighed and shook her head. “I still can’t see him sleeping with one of the undead. The bones. They stick out, and not in the right places. And if the death knights smell like meat about to go off, the Forsaken are a bit past that. I can’t see it happening.”
Caz lifted an eyebrow. “This is Winter we’re talking about, lass.”
xi. The End of the World
Winter pulled into Shattrath on his new talbuk. After leaving Tam, he’d gone to Northrend awhile to fight the Scourge, wielding his powerful magics in the relentless, unceasing battles. But the blood-spattered snow and the bitter cold wore on him, the endless days and nights on the icy battlefields. Unlike Arthas, Winter was merely human; he needed to pause, to recover, and he had come back to the great sanctuary of Shattrath for awhile. In Outland, proving himself to the Broken was still work that mattered. He celebrated the rare feeling of accomplishment, proud of what the animal represented, a beautiful antelope trusted to only a few friends of the Kurenai.
He’d been delighted to come upon his old friend Cazzadora in the streets of the Lower City, to show off his new steed to her. Together they rolled into the World’s End Tavern around sunset, hours ago, taking a distant table away from the hubbub so they could have a celebratory drink, a chat, and take time to catch up on each other’s most recent escapades. The tavern lacked the homey feel of the tavern in Old Town, but with live music and comedians who knew their business, it offered a pleasant evening’s diversion.
Winter was pleased to find the dwarf had weathered the soul-bruising dangers of the Outland with surprising ease and pragmatism. He suspected that, when her time came to travel north, Caz would withstand the naked truths of that bitter land more easily than he. The dwarf did not let things get too complicated. When she left for a prearranged dinner a little later, she hugged him and cheerily promised to give his regards to their friend Alyxx.
Left alone, Winter slowly pushed his mug around the table, making complicated patterns from the condensation. Cazzadora’s company had held at bay all thoughts of the marrow-freezing cold of Northrend a little while. In the quiet of her departure, it crept in on him once more.
He ran his hand through the intractable tumble of hair that sprayed in his eyes, remembering with sudden raw pain what he had seen at the Wrathgate. His hair had turned stone white for a time after seeing the Highlord fall, the betrayal and death and the fiery destruction. The ashy stink and the screaming of good soldiers driven mad had ripped out his heart, and lent a desperate despair and soul-consuming anger to his every waking moment. Even now, no amount of distraction … not liquor, not women, not the fierce joy of putting down the monstrosities of the Lich King’s army … could entirely quiet his thoughts any longer.
Northrend was hard, hard as the deep glaciers that covered so much of the land. Although drawn to frosty magics when he was younger, Winter had brought more fire into his wizardry to keep his soul from freezing solid in the face of the horrible choices he had made, the things he had seen and done in the north. He had encountered Arthas time and again; he had died in the Lich King’s icy grip. He thought daily of the time when he might bring justice home against the corrupted paladin prince.
But that time was not now. He drained the drink in his hand, barely registering the tingle in his lips and the flush on his cheeks. He rubbed his bearded chin, testing the first breath of numbness that had begun to take root there. He missed the long nights in Blade Hall when friends and guildfolk gathered, the candlelit greatroom filled with laughter and stories and the lies they swapped. The hearthfire there warmed his heart like nowhere else.
He looked around for the barmaid, intending to order another drink, and instead found a pirate wench with a jaunty hat standing close by. He recognized the costume, created by the same preparation of fish he’d shared with Tam. She smiled tentatively, winked, and held out one of the two drinks in her hands.
xii. The Pirate
“Tam?” The two of them had parted fondly. Had she sought him out again?
The pirate shook her head. “Just a lady looking for a companion to share a drink with. You look like you could use one.”
Winter looked at her curiously, wondering what reality underlay the costume. “A companion? Or a drink? Because honestly, I’ve had quite a lot to drink already.”
“You were about to order another? So my answer must be both.“ She set the mug on the table and pushed it forward.
He acquiesced, accepting her gift. “Please, join me. I would welcome company.”
She nodded, taking the far seat across the table from him. “So why is a gentleman like you drinking alone tonight?”
He mustered a sly if somewhat drunken grin. “I’m not alone any more, am I? So tell me your name and we can start getting to know each other better.”
Her gaze slid away to watch a pair of adventurers come take an empty table nearby. Two death knights, a night elf and a dwarf, spoke of Tempest Keep with hushed awe as they sat and ordered drinks. “I know you a little already, Winterice. Or Winter, as you prefer.”
The mage cocked his head. “You have me at a disadvantage.” He did want company, conversation, companionship. A new friend would do as well as an old one. “Where do you know me from?”
She shrugged and he appreciated the low cut of the pirate costume. “I’ve seen you here in Shattrath.”
He nodded agreeably. “I spend much of my time elsewhere, but lately I returned to earn the Kurenai’s respect. I thought the talbuks were beautiful creatures from the first, and now the Broken trust me with two to call my own.” He sipped the drink in his hand. “So tell me about yourself, darlin’. Is Shattrath home?”
Her head bobbed once. “For now. I am in no hurry to go north. I don’t like the cold.”
Winter chuckled meaningfully. “Have someone accompany you, then, keep you nice and warm.” He winked. “I’d be happy to volunteer.”
The woman laughed but Winter heard a thread of bitterness. “You live up to your reputation, Winter.”
He sat back, rebuffed, doubts rumbling through the boozy fumes. “I meant no offense.” At the nearby table, the death knights’ conversation grew more animated. Their ghastly voices reverberated in the small space and Winter caught a whiff of their now-familiar deathscent.
The woman reached across the table to lay a hand on the back of his, her touch cool. “None taken. But I’ve heard about your ways, lad. Always on the hunt. Always quick to — get to the point, shall we say.”
His pride reared its head as he drew his attention back to her. “I don’t hear complaints.”
She agreed quickly. “Nor I. But don’t say you’d chaperone me around Northrend for weeks, a committed companion. That isn’t you.” Her hand tightened over his and her eyes softened. “That’s your way, your choice. It’s fine. But… “ She seemed suddenly at a loss. “Does that make you happy? Always so quick to move on?”
He pulled his hand out from under hers, the turn of the conversation troubling. Perhaps her company wasn’t right for him after all. “I think it must be time for me to go. I apologize… ”
“For what?” She got up, changing chairs, sitting closer. “Winter, your company is all I was looking for, this evening. To meet you. To talk. To get to know you a little better.”
He considered her words, whether to take his leave or take her offer… whatever it was she was offering. The lingering miasma of loneliness kept him in his seat. “You know me, yet share nothing of yourself.” He scowled at the unfinished drink by his hand and pushed it aside. “I don’t even know what you really look like.”
She shook her head. “This made it easier for me to approach you in the first place. I didn’t want… “ The words suddenly seemed to catch and choke her, leaving her looking dismayed and surprised. “You wouldn’t talk to me if… ”
The strangled pain in her voice arrested him, and the pirate costume could not hide the candlelit tears filling her eyes. He reached out to cradle her hand in both of his, feeling the bones beneath the skin of her disguise. Feeling the coolth of her flesh. Startled but determined not to show it, he took a guess.
“If I knew you were one of the Forsaken?”
xiii. The Undead
She lifted her head with stateliness, armor rising to shield the vulnerability she had exposed. “And if I am? Do you loathe the Dark Lady’s people, like so many?”
The mage kept his big hands wrapped around hers, warming her cool flesh. He took a moment before he spoke. “I hate the army of the undead that Arthas raised, those he has enslaved. I hate the Plague that corrupts, sucking life out of the land and the people, out of everything that went before. But the Forsaken? No more than I hate the death knights who fight back against the Lich King.”
He paused, considering, and his eyes grew hot. “Those who come to kill me and mine, yes. I have no love for the Horde fanatics. I’ve slain your kind in the keep of Stormwind when they came after my king. In Icecrown, the Horde undermines us, hampers Alliance efforts rather than see us work together against the greater evil. That’s stupid, it’s short-sighted, and I will kill those who get in my way. The Horde fostered Putress, and because of him good soldiers perished at the Wrathgate. A great man died there.”
“And one of ours as well. Varimathras and Putress betrayed us all.”
Winter took a deep breath, blood heated by drink and memory. He cooled his thoughts, reasserting control over his emotions. “King Varian would wage open war on the Horde, all of you, yet I see individuals, not faction. I judge people by the choices they make. Some humans are hateful, some trolls likeable. The person is what counts. Not the race and not the faction. In that, I believe the king is wrong.”
The pirate girl sat back, a smile playing on her lips. “Treasonous words for a human of the Alliance, Winter.”
“Tirion Fordring was called traitor and exiled because he believed race did not dictate honor. Neither do I.”
The woman became very still as she scrutinized Winter’s face, saying nothing. Finally he filled the long silence. “You still haven’t told me your name.”
In answer, she dropped her disguise. Dark green hair covered her skull in a limp bob, a feeble attempt at a pretty style. Her skeletal grin, half-fleshed, rose above a high-collared robe of seafoam and saffron edged with purple embroideries. Empty eyesockets glowed golden, as if the nearby candleflames flickered within. Pale bone gleamed. Winter realized the faint smell of decay in the air came, not from the nearby death knights, but from the Forsaken woman in the chair beside him.
She folded her hands in her lap, ungloved, the sharp bones defiantly bare. “I am Crowbait.”
Winter assessed her clothing with a practiced eye, seeing the garb of an adventurer and a spellcaster. She had set aside her heaviest gear tonight as he often did, high spaulders and thick gloves reserved for fighting in the field. He met her tightly-guarded gaze, then grinned abruptly, white teeth flashing. “Crowbait, eh? That could be said of any of the undead.”
She snorted, humor shattering the awkwardness. “Then I’m one of the few honest enough to use the name.”
“Well there you are, then. Honest and honorable, even if your allegiance is for the Horde.” He crossed his arms, one hand rising to play with the goatee circling his mouth. He was drunk indeed; his chin was quite numb. “So how did you learn about me? I usually notice people who notice me.”
“You’ve made a name for yourself, Winter, out in the field. And, yes, elsewhere too. I’d say you have attentions you haven’t even begun to notice, not only among women but of some males as well, if I am not mistaken.”
The mage glanced away toward the bar where a tall officer of the Shattered Sun stood listening to an earnest draenei paladin. He struggled not to grin, pleased and unable to demur. “I suppose. But gossip is no way to get to know someone.”
She nodded sharply. “That’s why I came over, to find out how much of the gossip about you was true… or not.” She wheezed, an undead’s cackle. “One story in particular left me most curious.”
His eyebrows disappeared up under the disorderly shock of hair curtaining his forehead. “Oh?”
Crowbait tilted her head, eye sockets gleaming. “I heard you set out to sleep with one of every race of Azeroth. Is it true?”
Blood rushed over Winter’s cheeks, setting them aflame beneath the numbness of drink. “A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.”
She laughed but not unkindly. “Perhaps the ladies do, then. Is it true?” she asked again.
He looked at her without speaking, Pique’s challenge surging to mind. He shifted uneasily in the chair, wondering who in hell might have spoken of this, how a stranger might have heard. “I’m not interested in every humanoid race of Azeroth, no. Furbolgs and naga and murlocs hold no interest for me.”
She nodded, smiling agreeably, then leaning closer, resting bony elbows on her knees. “The sentient folk then. Sleeping with the Horde? Taking a lover across the faction lines must be a delicate matter.”
“This is an indelicate conversation.”
“Lad, the Forsaken gave up such sensibilities long ago. Waking in your crypt changes one’s perspective. I want to know if you have slept with one of my kind. And if you want to.”
Her frankness surprised him. He had known other women as direct, as bold. He took no issue with being pursued instead of pursuer. However, being honest with himself, he recognized his interest in her as no different than his interest in Cazzadora’s company, quite lacking a sexual component. He had flirted with the pirate girl out of habit. The undead woman aroused him not at all although her questions did. Well, perhaps those sparks could be fanned if he sought to meet the challenge. He found a smile to share. “No, I have not slept with any of the Forsaken.”
“How do you know?”
Winter choked, smile vanishing. “What? I think I’d remember such a thing.”
“The Plague came to Lordaeron not so many years ago. Do you think there is no woman today, once warm and breathing, who now walks as one of the undead?” She smiled as Winter blinked once, twice. “If you were keeping score, would you count that? If you slept with such a one before the Plague claimed her? Before she died and was reborn?”
Winter blinked yet again, more rapidly. “Keeping score. A rude idea.” He looked into the bottom of his mug, wishing it held more drink to brace him for this odd conversation. “I can’t say. I don’t think it would count to meet the challenge I was posed.”
“Ha!” Crowbait sat back. “So sleeping with the Horde is an achievement you seek.”
To sort through the swirly thoughts in his skull grew more than Winter could manage. “How did we get into this exchange?” One treasonous thought rose past the alcohol and his bewilderment: if not now, when? He rejected the notion: she was an intriguing person but not an obvious bedmate.”Crowbait, no one deserves to be a notch on someone’s bedpost.”
Crowbait scritched her chair forward to let the barmaid pass behind. The World’s End Tavern was growing busy again, the musicians beginning to assemble on stage for another set. “That’s not what I have in mind, Winter.” She laid her hand on his knee. “Earlier I said your company was what I was looking for, and I meant it. Just that. To meet you, to get to know you better. You seemed very lost, tonight, when I spotted you here. Very lonely.” She cleared her throat, a dry rasp of dead flesh. “I’m glad I took the chance.”
The musicians began to settle into their places, the lights dropping. Crowbait rose to her feet directly in front of Winter. Lifting one bony hand to his temple, she stroked dark forelocks away from his face. “Let’s go talk some more, lad.” The musicians’ first fanfare blasted against the tavern’s walls, drawing an approving roar from the crowd. “Somewhere quieter.”
xiv. The Sleeper
Crowbait opened the door, quelling her nerves as Winter followed her in. Seeing her single room anew through his eyes, she realized how small, how dark and narrow the apartment was… indeed, how crypt-like, no matter how comfortably furnished.
She lit candles to brighten it, to cut the taint in the air with perfumed wax. If she could not escape the scent of death she carried with her, she could make it less noisome for him. Turning, she watched him search for a place to sit. He wavered, inebriated, finally perching on the edge of her well-pillowed divan, avoiding the bed. She smiled as reassuringly as she could, then took a seat at the crook of the divan against a mound of heavy bolsters to cushion her bony back.
Winter shifted so he could look at her sitting beside him. He smiled uncertainly, a shadow of his usual grin. Returning the smile, she leaned back with one elbow in the cushions, trying to seem relaxed, hoping to make him feel more so.
“You don’t have to do this, Crowbait.”
She shook her head at him. “Do what, Winter? Talk to you? In private, where we can hear ourselves think?” The distant music boomed from the next building over, the thunderous bass rumbling distantly.
He looked at her with bloodshot eyes.”You don’t have to put up with the fumblings of a drunk.”
She took a deep breath. “Oh Winter, I did’t say we would have sex.” His face stilled without registering the slightest reaction. “Oh, the Forsaken still can, still do; some of us. We are much like we have always been… we eat, drink, digest, evacuate.”
A strained chuckle escaped his lips. “That might be more than I wanted to know.”
She shrugged bony shoulders. “As I said, the delicate sensitivities of the living seem rather droll now. Truly, we can do most everything the living do. But mostly we don’t.” She eased back into the pillows. “We do not need sleep and we can’t procreate. I had a child back in the day, but now the biological clock has stopped. We joke about it.”
Winter shut his eyes. “Do you still feel? Pain, emotions?” He paused, then opened his eyes to stare at the candle flame across the room. It hissed and sputtered, flaring brighter, then settled back to a steady glow. His words emerged but a whisper. “It would be easier, I think, to feel less.”
She was silent several moments. “Our hearts do not die, Winter. We feel as much as ever. It’s what makes us… “ She stopped. “I was about to say it’s what makes us human. But not all the races are human, and yet all have equal depth of soul.” He turned and looked at her curiously. “We all feel. And you should not wish it otherwise for yourself.”
He leaned forward to clasp his hands, eyes tracing a whorled design in the thick carpets at his feet. “Cazzadora … a friend of mine … said I think too much. She’s wrong. I feel too much.”
He looked sideways at her across his bowed shoulder. “Crowbait, have you ever wondered if, when you fight some skeletal warrior in the Plaguelands or in Hellfire, whether those bones might once have been your own? We die time and time again, our bones left behind in the dirt when we take new bodies. What happens to them, to our bones? Does Arthas raise them for his own ends? He’s said as much. That fighting him, dying, we only swell the ranks of his armies. He ridicules us, the futility.”
Abruptly Winter stood, fingers curling into fists. He wavered unsteadily, looking down at the woman owlishly. “I remember. I remember how he mocked me even as he killed me. He takes our fallen heroes and corrupts them into death knights. He takes our bones, remakes them as his constructs, or we are rendered down into vileness in the hands of the Damned. We die and die and die, and his armies grow with every one of us who dies. Yet we throw ourselves into the breach endlessly, battling him, fighting the demons of Outland or against the creatures in the Teldrassil woods. Young, old, experienced in the ways of combat or barely able to hold a dagger. We die.” His breath caught, nearly a sob.
“We all come back, Winter. The way of the world is that we come back.”
He nodded with deliberate care, unsteadily. “Healthier than you, it’s true. The Forsaken rise undead yet again, but still you leave your bones on the battlefields. What can we truly accomplish when we do nothing but add to the Lich King’s armies? The mindless undead will win. Eventually, they will win.”
Crowbait tucked one leg beneath her to lean forward and take his hand. “Sit down again, Winter.” He did not move, just looked at her with cheeks flushed crimson and pale in the candlelight. She tugged his hand gently until he sat.
“You fight because it is the right thing to do. You gather friends to stand beside you. Shieldmates guard your back. Together you slay more than you are slain. Yes, always there is another day of battle tomorrow but you stand before the corrupt and the callous, the deadly creatures and the minions of ill intent who would destroy what little remains wholesome in our worlds. They hail you as a hero in Quel’Danas and in Dalaran, don’t they? On the fields of Icecrown?”
His voice was flat. “It means nothing. Adventurers like me, we come and go. The soldiers of the Alliance Vanguard stand against the Scourge day in and day out, weathering continuous assaults from the unending graves below Naxxramas. They are far more heroic than I will ever be.”
She brushed her hand through his hair gently. “You inspire them, Winter. They look up to you. You are strong and powerful; handsome too. I’m sure your mother must be very proud of you.”
He put his head in his hands for a long moment. Crowbait stroked his neck and his bowed back, bony fingers tangling in the silky strands of his long hair as he gathered his thoughts. When he lifted his head again, she glimpsed a tearful shine in his eyes. “She died when I was young. Sent me off to live on a farm with my uncles when she fell ill. I wasn’t even there when she died. That’s such a hero I am.”
Crowbait’s hand fell away. “And your father?”
“There’s one who did fancy himself a hero. Always another quest, some trogg to slay. That was clearly more important than his family.”
The woman waited patiently, letting the silence settle and pass. “Winter, do you have children of your own? What I mean to ask is, do you even know?”
His shoulders straightened and self-righteous anger burned in his expression. “I am a mage,” he said with a voice as cold as the Borean Tundra. His eyes glittered. “I do not father children accidentally.”
“So you have no one who loves you enough to wish it were otherwise. No one you love enough.”
Befuddlement and hurt and amusement and resignation tumbled over his face in quick succession. “Love and children and domestic bliss… no, not something I seek in a world so long splintered by war.” She saw memories fill his eyes.”A midnight hearth and a good companion? Those are important. A sound friendship. Shared affection.” Wistfulness tinged his words. “That is enough. In the world as it is today, that is as much as I can ask.”
Crowbait hesitated a moment, then hugged him. He closed his eyes, holding still a moment then leaning into her. His living warmth swept through her like the memory of kindness.
Her arms fell away when he straightened, not quite separating. “I should go.” He turned to look at her and the cords of his neck stood out below his beard. “I appreciate your company, Crowbait. But I am painfully tired. I need to sleep.”
“Why not take your rest here, Winter?” She stopped him before he could answer, bone digits on his lips.”I am not suggesting sex. Rest. Sleep. Sleep while someone holds you.” She smiled. “You were challenged to sleep with all the ladies of the Horde, right? Sleep here, then.”
Gentle appreciation slowly spread across his face. “Your offer is a generous one. I doubt that is what my challenger had in mind though.”
She pursed thin lips. “That doesn’t matter. I think what you need tonight, Winter, is comfort. Someone you can believe believes in you. Someone to care. Just that. Tomorrow can wait. Northrend can wait.” She touched his cheek, candlelight sculpting his face with the shadows of her bones. “Lie back awhile and see if I’m not right. If not, go up to your bed among the Aldor. Or off to Dalaran. Wherever you like. For now, just lay here a little while.”
Her hand traced down his bearded jawbone to the tip of his chin, turning his face toward her before letting her bony fingers fall away. She scooted back, giving him space to make his own choice.
He hesitated, then hitched his hip onto the divan, reclining half upright on the mounded bolsters, laying one arm across her tiny waist and his head on the pillows beside her bony shoulder. She shifted to wrap one arm around him, a fond embrace that drew him closer. She hoped he didn’t find her too ripe, to be this near.
He lay still, unmoving. She knew the coolness of her body sucked away the warmth of his, his flesh overheated by alcohol. He was powerfully warm and alive, and the presence of him beside her was more than she had expected when the evening began.
His breath slowed and she gently smiled. Her voice carried no more than the quietest whisper. “Sleep, Winter. Be at peace with someone who loves you.” She closed her eyes, drifting, reliving precious memories. “I cannot forget the first time you lay beside me. How happy I was that day.”
He stirred, surprising her. She had thought him asleep. “I’m sorry…” He licked dry lips to ease passage of his words, rising up on an elbow. “Forgive me. I… I don’t remember…”
She pulled him to her again, a chaste kiss on his forehead. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
“I wasn’t asleep. I was thinking.”
“Hush, then. It doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.”
He sat up fully, moving away from her, studying her face, concentrating. Finally he shook his head, defeated by the changes in her visage. “I’m sorry. What… was it in Stormwind? Or… ?”
She chuckled. “Some farmboy fumblings in a haystack, is that what you are thinking?”
He looked hurt.
“Lie down again, Winter. Your challenge to sleep with the Horde? Well, you have. I was once human, like you, regardless of what I am today. Once upon a time you curled up beside me, peaceful as a babe. If that won’t do, then sleep here now, and meet your challenge that way.”
His face clouded, eyes losing focus, and slowly he lay back down again. After a time, she spoke again, knowing he still listened. “Tomorrow I will be gone when you awake. You will go back to your life and forget about me. This is just for now. Just for tonight. Sleep. Just sleep and know that someone cares for you, Winter.”
She held the man in her arms and let him lay his heavy head on her thin breasts. She had only comfort to offer him. Only her love. His breathing slowed, and when enough time passed, she knew he truly did fall asleep. She cradled him against her just like a baby, relishing his warmth and the dear memory of him from so many years ago. She was proud to know him now, even if he did not know her. He would never know her. He had grown up strong, grown learned and well-travelled and wise in his way. A man to make a mother proud indeed.
She kissed her son’s forehead and she let him sleep.