Chapter 15: Bittersweet
Rhoelyn watched the portal wash over the carriage, the corona of blue and silver energy swallowing the ornate conveyance one avian step at a time as the hawkstrider team pulled them along. Behind them shone the blue skies of a lovely, sunny Quel’thalas day. Ahead were the slightly teal hues of the Draenor sky, the strange, alien world peeking through the yawning event horizon of the spell. If she leaned forward, she could see the pair of mages straining to hold the complex magic stable, their pale, blood elven faces grim and determined.
The priestess shuddered as she felt the energy wrap them in its grip, warping space and turning one single step into a leap across the planes. So far from home, however confused her definition of the word had become in the past year and a half, and terrifyingly far from wherever her brother might be. But also a leap closer to her other love, to Leothir. And to freedom for her gained little family.
At the thought, the nervous night elf looked down at the boy napping with his head in her lap and soothed her fingers through his beautiful amethyst curls. She could feel the weight of Ryni’s regard from the seat across from her, and she glanced up, slanting the young woman a reassuring smile that was mostly artifice. Inside, she was quaking. Desperate. Worried. Eager. Determined. For ill-defined reasons.
But she felt it coming, a moment she could almost taste when there would be tears and hard choices, when the chance would come to rid them of their collars and send them away. To make them safe from Emeria’s threats and Baritold’s lash and everything awful in that world. Rhoelyn had no idea why she was so sure, but she couldn’t deny that she was. Absolutely. And the knowledge was bittersweet because she was equally sure she wasn’t going with them. She was saying goodbye.
The priestess rested her head back on the padded seat and sighed, trying to find some small measure of calm before tears could threaten.
“Rhoe,” came the soft call, and Ryni leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees. “You should take a nap. We still have to travel for at least an hour before it’s time for lunch. You barely slept a wink, last night, and don’t even get me started on the past month.”
Her lips curling up in a soft smile, the healer answered equally quietly, “Ryni, dearest, have you been letting Faeroh rub off on you? You’ve both taken to being quite the mother hens, recently.”
Ryni snorted, flopping back against her seat and crossing her arms over her chest, heedless of the wrinkles in her ornately embroidered tunic. “Gee. I wonder why? You’ve only been working yourself to the bone to try to keep that perfectionist twit, Baritold, happy. Since Faye and the others left, you barely sleep. You only eat when we remind you. I can tell you’re losing weight. If Master Leothir’s letter hadn’t arrived when it did…”
Rhoelyn claimed Ryni’s hand as the girl let the thought trail, teasing it free. “Thank you,” she said.
Her companion blinked, but she unwrapped her arms to set her other hand overtop the healer’s. “F… for what?”
“For worrying,” Elune’s priestess answered, her smile tender. “For caring for my well being even when yours is threatened. But I am fine, Ryni. Truly. You mustn’t fuss.”
“Fine,” the girl grouched, giving her friend’s hands a little squeeze. “I won’t fuss. …if you lay your head back and nap. Rest, at least, if you won’t sleep!”
The small priestess smiled and murmured, “Very well, falore. I haven’t the energy to argue with you.” Her smile widened, a teasing, coy look lightening her face even as the smaller young woman growled at her.
“Exactly!” she bit out, exasperated, while her friend giggled and laid her head in the corner of the padded seat. Ryni’s gaze softened quickly, though, and she set the priestess’ hands back in her lap with tender care. “… rest, Rhoe. I’ll be right here.”
Moving with surprising swiftness, drowsiness drifted over Rhoelyn, weighting her eyelids and drawing the world beyond her own mind ever farther away. She tried to keep her liquid thoughts on the summons to the Swelltide warcamp, the graceful script of Leothir’s hand and the words that had filled her with elation. The tender sentiments much missed. The story about his new, black-haired rogue friend, her love’s wit and silver tongue evident on the page. And then a simple request: come join him at the warfront, just for a day and simply because he missed her so much.
She hadn’t been able to resist smiling at the sweet thought buried behind the request, just as she hadn’t been able to resist the opportunity that it represented. Her sleepy memories, blurred and disjointed, brushed through the hours and days of planning, the hushed conversations with Ryni and Faeroh as they’d continued to toil on the mansion’s chores. And that warm but trembly feeling of mixed hope and fear that sat at the core of her chest.
The priestess sucked in a deep breath, sending her drowsing mind back over the blueprint of what was coming one last time until the thoughts finally reached the point of dissolution. Soon enough, she was fast asleep, dusk-petal lips parted slightly as her breath whispered in and out.
Ryni settled back with a fond smile, watching Rhoelyn and her sweet little boy nap in the slanting sunlight that came in through the window as the carriage bobbed along the road to Shattrath City.
They ate their lunch on a blanket in the aqua-tinted grass of a small clearing, nibbling on fruit and sandwiches cut into small bite-sizes in the sin’dorei fashion and washing it down with fresh water that one of their guards had fetched from a nearby spring. Another of their escort, a kind-hearted young caster named Joelera, had even chilled it with a spell so that it was cool and refreshing and pure. Here, it seemed, outside of Baritold’s stern and disapproving influence, the blood elves were more inclined to treat their master’s treasured concubine and her family as they knew Leothir would prefer. In short, as they would have treated the lordling himself.
Rhoelyn found their kindness refreshing, and she exchanged a shy smile with the young man they’d called Orin, nodding her head in thanks as he came to clear away their leftovers. Beyond him, Alen capered around the field with his stuffed saber, fresh from his nap and filled with the excess energy of a toddler too long still. Ryni watched him with a grin, hunkering down in the tall grass and sneaking to a new spot only to pop up with a growl and earn a shocked, laughing screech from the boy. Her reward was to be “attacked” by his “pet saber”, and soon the pair of them were tumbling in the grass.
“Oh!” Rhoelyn whipped her head around. “Orin, do watch that rock.”
The guard paused and looked down by his boots, barely able to spy the stone hidden in the grass that would undoubtedly have tripped him. He blinked back up at her and smiled sincerely as he stepped over. “Thank you, consort. Though you must have keen eyes to have seen it.”
The priestess nodded while a shadow fell across her form. She looked up to smile at the ancient druid as Faeroh eased gracefully down to sit beside her, folding his legs in front of his body.
“You know,” he said lightly as he plucked a piece of grass by her knee and proceeded to sniff at it, “being mysterious is supposed to be my claim to fame. You’re going to confuse Leothir if you keep up these vague premonitions and unsubstantiated certainties. He won’t know which of us to kiss.”
Her egg-shell blue eyes widened before she looked away with a giggle, her cheeks darkening. “Goodness, dori’delar. That would be awful. I shall have to be terribly jealous if you get one of his kisses. I claim them all as my own.”
The druid chuckled, his smile wide under his neatly-trimmed white beard. “Then perhaps you could explain to me what’s going on inside that pretty head of yours? You insisted Ryni and Alen and I come along with you, going so far as to pull the wool over Baritold’s eyes to see to it.”
When she startled, eyes widening, he scoffed and patted her hand. “You did an excellent job of forging that part of Leothir’s letter, my girl, but not good enough to fool this old oak.”
Rhoelyn blushed even darker at that, leaning close to him. “You mustn’t tell any of them, Faeroh. Please.”
He raised a brow. “I won’t. But I’d appreciate knowing what this is all about. Why are we going to Swelltide with you?”
“You aren’t,” came the healer’s soft answer, and she clasped her hands nervously over her lap. “Something…”
His young companion sighed and wrinkled her nose before she leaned even closer to him, claiming his hands and tucking hers around them. ”Faeroh, do not ask me to explain, for I simply cannot. I only know that an opportunity approaches, closer with each passing hour. If we seize it, you will have your freedom before you can reach the warcamp.”
Even the wild and whimsical old druid was taken aback by that, and his brow furrowed as he peered at her with narrowed eyes and tilted head. His hands tightened on hers. “You don’t include yourself.”
When she shook her head, looking away, he went still for a long breath. “I… suppose,” the elder breathed at last, “that doesn’t surprise me, Rhoelyn. Though it saddens me.”
Elune’s silver priestess looked down, pulling her hands away from his to clench them together in her lap. “Leothir… I love him, dori’delar. He has my whole heart, and I fear it would stop beating if I left him. I miss my b-…. my old life and my freedom dearly, but I cannot have that happiness back without him. We are mate-…”
Faeroh clamped a hand over her mouth, gentle but stern. “Don’t use that word, ridiculous little girl.”
Though he used the lighthearted name, there was nothing light in his expression or tone, the flighty druid firmly on the ground while he considered the young woman who had earned his respect with her quiet strength and determined, open heart. “Until you are certain that he shares the sentiment, you must not use that word to me or anyone else.”
Rhoelyn blushed darkly and nodded, and the druid released her to rest his wrist on his knee.
“It’s all related,” he muttered as he stared out at Alen and Ryni playing.
The priestess blinked. “Faeroh? What is related?”
He just shook his head and reached up to rub his brow. “Everything, my girl. Absolutely everything. And I couldn’t explain it any more than you.”
The druid sighed and patted her knee, the serious weight of him evaporating like so much smoke. White teeth with slightly elongated incisors flashed as he suddenly smiled. “Well. That story isn’t mine. If I’m to be a free druid soon, then I do believe I’d better go remind myself of the wilds.”
And with that, Faeroh hopped up, his form immediately folding into a boulder-colored bear, tattooed and ornamented, that loped into the field to lend an element of reality to Ryni and Alen’s play. The boy’s pleased screeches rang through the air as Rhoelyn gaped, stunned by his abrupt change of mein and wondering just what other mysteries lay in store for all of them.
The midnight moon stared down at them when Elune’s priestess woke, filled with certainty and trembling with anxiety. She slid from her luxurious bedroll and tucked the corners back around Alen’s sleeping little body before turning away to step free of their campsite, slipping silently through the dark of familiar night while their sleepy guard glanced up at the stars.
Her steps were nothing compared to the chirping bugs and shushing grass, and she slipped by their relaxed keeper unseen, following a pull toward a small copse of scraggled, low trees in the distance and the little round hill beyond. Her toes peeped out from beneath her simple sleeping gown with each step, and the soft grey fabric dragged behind her as she began to climb the shallow slope, sidling around the occasional near-black boulder that jutted from the soil. For the moment, she simply wanted to crest that beckoning rise, uncertain what she would find when she did.
Rhoelyn rested her hand on the spindly trunk of a teenaged tree, her fingers trailing the rough bark as she started to push past it until the moment that a meaty hand seized her wrist and a deep, accented voice growled, “Halt.”
The priestess froze with a shocked scream that was cut off nearly before it could escape by a second palm clamping across her mouth. She tried to yank back only to trip over a rock, and suddenly both she and her unseen captor were sprawled on the angled hillside, her wrist still captured and his hand still covering her mouth as his weight crouched over her. She blinked up in blank, panicked shock at a pair of narrowed luminous blue eyes, squirming as golden Light gathered in her own. Perhaps, if she could burn h-
“Hadaal…” a soft voice intruded into the moment, smooth and alto and as soothing and calm as a spring breeze. “You are frightening her.”
Rhoelyn looked up from her assailant to the silhouette over his shoulders, a woman with her brown hair caught by the moon’s glow and her curved horns standing out against its silver disc. The healer’s eyes widened, and she went still, feeling something undefined click into place. This… this was what she’d been climbing the hill for. This and her.
“Let our friend up, now, please,” the draenei said, her smile gentle.
Once her big, angry companion pulled away, standing beside the fallen night elf, she leaned down and offered her hand… to just ever-so-slightly the wrong location. Eyes of a damaged, milky white peered at nothing beneath the woman’s blue forehead, the little ridges on the bridge of her nose only drawing attention to their uniqueness.
“Oh…” Rhoelyn’s brow furrowed as she accepted the help up and then reached out to trail her fingers along the draenei’s cheek. “That… that must have been terrifying, to slowly lose everything to darkness.”
The other woman laughed softly and claimed healer’s hand back, threading their fingers together. “Oh, no. I did not lose my sight to darkness, my friend, but to the wind and rock and fire and water. My vision is not impaired, it is expanded.”
That earned her a blink and a tentative smile. “I am relieved.”
Hadaal suddenly loomed over the draenei’s shoulder, clamping a hand there and growling, “We should go, Aleesa. We need to keep the others moving.”
Aleesa reached her free hand up and patted his, shaking her head. “This isn’t quite played out, Hadaal. I know it is very challenging for you, but you must be more patient. Ah, and duck.”
It was a testament to their odd relationship that the big man didn’t even question his companion’s instruction despite his puzzled look. Hadaal released her and dropped into an immediate crouch in the split second before a lithe cat leapt over him, claws extended and aimed with unerring accuracy at where his head had just been.
Aleesa chuckled and stepped away, tugging Rhoelyn with her to get them both out of harm’s way.
“Rh… Rhese?!” The healer stared at the shadowed cat while he crouched in the grass, hope lighting and then dimming in her eyes when Faeroh darted back through a moonbeam, showing her a silver-furred shoulder with the wrong tattoo. Rhoelyn’s face fell as Hadaal dodged back, drawing his hammer and swinging it to keep those claws from his blue flesh. The pair of them began an agile dance, dangerous and utterly silent as claws and metal danced away toward and around each other over and over again.
Aleesa rested a hand on the priestess’s back, soothing her through her self-inflicted heartbreak for a long while until finally she leaned over and prompted in a gentle voice, “Are you going to call your friend off? We are not here to harm any of you.”
The night elf wiped her sleeve across her eyes and nodded, taking a deep, steadying breath. “Y-yes. Yes, of course. …Faeroh! Faeroh, you needn’t fight them. They are friends.”
The sleek saber stopped mid-motion and backed away, glancing over at her. With barely a whisper, his form unfolded, and the ancient druid smiled his charming smile. “Well, why didn’t you say so earlier, ridiculous little girl? I might have mauled someone unnecessarily.”
Hadaal grumbled, “You might have tried,” as he straightened from his wary, wide stance and put his hammer back in its harness.
Aleesa and Faeroh both grinned at his surliness, while Rhoe just waited, worried and biting her lip. The shaman sobered, her sightless eyes slipping past the little night elf’s face.
“You are nervous. The winds whispered that tonight would be a triumph, but a troubling one. They were talking about you, Rhoelyn.”
Turning her attention back to Aleesa, Rhoe’s brow furrowed. “I did not tell you my name. Nor did Faeroh.”
Aleesa smiled. “I have known your name for… quite some time, dear priestess. I know you are loved and love in return. I know you are seeking vitally dear to you, also that he seeks you as well with the same desperation. And I know you came here, awoken from sleep by something you do not understand, to find this moment.” At the healer’s shocked look, she patted her back. “The winds whisper many things in my ear. Far from everything, but they give me enough to know what I must do, to know how wrong today is and to help guide it back toward right.”
Her dull, white eyes turned toward Faeroh. “It is time to fetch the children, elder. Can you get them past their keepers and guardians?”
The druid tilted his head, assessing her, his golden gaze heavy with wisdom. “I can, but should I?” He looked at Rhoelyn, shaggy eyebrows raising. Asking for permission.
His friend searched Aleesa’s kind face and then Hadaal’s stern one, torn between protective practicality and the pull of rightness, the instinct that said this was what she’d been waiting for. Rhoelyn closed her eyes and whispered a prayer to Elune, a simple plea, and the answer was instantaneous and unequivocable, a warm, suffusing feeling of comfort that started at the center of her chest and radiated out from there.
Tears filled her eyes as she leaned forward and wrapped Aleesa in a hug. “By Elune, I believe you, Aleesa. You can make them free and keep them safe. I understand, now,” she whispered against the shaman’s ear despite how her heart tore between joy and grief.
The draenei nodded and patted her back. “Yes. We will protect them, and we will take them from you. I am sorry, Rhoelyn, but I think it will be better than you fear in the end, even for you.”
The healer smiled bravely and pulled back, wiping at her eyes. “I will pay any price to have Alen grow up free from these collars. To remove Ryni from the shadow of her past repeating.” Her egg-shell blue eyes flicked to Faeroh, and that smile warmed even more. “To finally free our dori’delar from feeling like he has to play the slave to protect us all.”
Faeroh watched quietly, though his smile faded. “So this is what you were waiting for, hm?”
Nodding, his friend pulled away from Aleesa and stepped over to take his rough hands in hers. “It is, Faeroh. Elune has guided us to this chance. We should go get our young ones.”
The bearded old druid considered her with a rare, sober energy for a few heartbeats before his face suddenly split into another sunny grin, and he stepped back to bow, low and respectful and sincere, his fist clenched over his heart. Rhoelyn blushed softly at the honor, and regarded him with fond warmth as he agreed.
“Yes, priestess. Let’s get our littlest little elves back where they belong.”
Alensyr cuddled in the priestess’s arms, thumb in his mouth and tousled hair curling down over one closed eye while he settled back to sleep. The blanket she’d wrapped him in was silk and fur, one of his favorites, and his little stuffed saber was tucked securely in the crook of his elbow. Her pack was filled with all of his favorites, snacks and a sealed jug of deer milk, spare clothes, a few less-loved toys, and a brush for his darling amethyst curls. And, carefully attached to the outside, a charm of feather and crystal chained to a silver disc etched with a crescent moon, a treasure from her absent brother and the only piece of her she could think to leave with her son before she handed him away.
Rhoelyn smiled sadly, staring down at him with every ounce of a mother’s love and willing back tears that already threatened. It wasn’t even time for goodbye, yet.
The moon lit them only gently, cooperating with their need to stay hidden in the shadows behind the tent until Faeroh approached with Ryni in tow, the young woman a bit wide-eyed but certainly also wide awake, her pack on her back and her cloak pulled tight around her small form. She knew what they were about, evidenced by the way she practically bounced along behind him, eager and hopeful and tense, her bright eyes searching the night.
Faeroh leaned down to whisper in Rhoe’s ear, “They just switched out, so we have a fresh and awake guard.”
She could only nod and bite her lip, following as he turned away and beckoned them after him. The druid’s warning, she knew, shouldn’t be ignored, but it also couldn’t deter them as they strode into the dark, using the carriage as cover from the trio of fresh sentries. Still, dire penalties filled her head as they snuck from rock to tree to bush at a careful crawl, the way back out taking far longer than the way in.
By the time they had reached the small hill with its sparse trees, the first hints of pre-dawn were starting to soften the dark and all three adults were breathing much more easily. Aleesa and Hadaal waited just below the top of the rise, one with a kind smile and the other with a stern scowl. Trudging up the grassy slope, Ryni gaped at the draenei, her grip tight on the little stolen dagger she’d produced from somewhere during their walk.
“Th-they… they have horns!” she exclaimed, earning herself a chuckle from Faeroh and a little ‘shush’ from Rhoelyn.
“Of course they do, falore. They are draenei, and this is their home.” The small healer blushed slightly, inclining her head. “Aleesa and Hadaal are friends. This is my sister, Ryni.” She looked down at the toddler in her arms, lowering her voice when his little nose wrinkled in his sleep. “And my son, Alensyr.”
Hadaal bowed, while Aleesa stepped forward, offering her hands to Ryni with a warm smile. “I am pleased to meet you. We ha-”
The snap of a branch interrupted her, and they all spun at once as a curse whispered out of the night. Approaching from behind the trunk of a tree nearer the crest of the hill, Faye grimaced and stepped more lightly.
“Has it been so long that I have been reduced to this?” she grouched to herself at a whispered mutter, her gaze falling first on the pair of draenei while the others were still hidden from her view. “You two are taking too long. The others are anxious to m-”
She stopped immediately as she rounded another tree trunk and saw they weren’t alone, her luminous silver eyes at first narrowing warily and then widening when recognition set in. Before half a heartbeat had passed, the collarless sentinel was darting across the grass, her face splitting into a wide, rare smile. “You… How are you here?”
Faeroh smiled as she paused by him first, clasping his shoulders. She turned immediately to do the same to Ryni and then, more carefully, to Rhoelyn.
The druid answered her at a low rumble, “Serendipity, perhaps. Or the careful guidance of Elune and her priestess. I know which I believe.” He slanted a meaningful look at the silver-haired healer, who blushed darkly and gave them both a shy grin.
Faye nodded and bowed to Rhoelyn, only darkening her blush. “I know what I believe as well. It was exactly as you said, priestess. We threw our collars into the sea and followed…” With a smirk for Aleesa’s stern guardian, she quoted, “… the ‘angry blue demon’. We escaped the war camp, and now we’re free.”
Her smaller friend smiled warmly and took hold of her hands. “Freedom suits you, my fierce sister. May Elune grant that you never feel its lack, again.”
Into the silence of that prayer, Aleesa spoke up, soft but firm. “Time grows short. Fayrial is right that we have tarried long enough. You must say your goodbyes.”
Both Ryni and Fayrial blinked at her, brows drawing down at the same moment, but only Ryni spoke.
“Goodbye? What are you talking about?” Her attention swung to Rhoelyn, who bounced Alen when he stirred. “Rhoe? What’s she talking about?”
The priestess smiled, unable to keep sadness from tingeing the expression, and leaned forward to kiss her cheek despite her son’s sleepy protest. Ryni stood stock still while her friend rested her forehead against hers until the young woman started, whispering, “You intend to stay.” She sucked in a shocked, pained breath. “You’ll keep the collar on just to stay with Leothir?”
Over her shoulder, Faye’s face fell into resigned lines as Rhoelyn whispered back, “I cannot leave him. My heart is committed. I have made my choice, Rynifalore, but my wish is for you and Faeroh and Fayrial to take Alen and find freedom for you all.”
“No, I-” A tear dripped down the healer’s cheek as she interrupted her friend’s protest by straightening and shoving the sleeping boy into her arms. Alen squirmed, whimpering as his sleep was disturbed and curling into Ryni. They both held their breath until his thumb found his mouth, once more, and he relaxed.
“No.” Ryni whispered it, this time. “I want you to come with us, Rhoe. You shouldn’t stay.”
“I must. If I found freedom now, it would be at the cost of my heart. I cannot pay that price and still be me, Ryni,” the priestess responded, clenching her hands in front of her heart. “I am so sorry. Please go. Please. Take our boy to a safer life. I will join you when I can… someday…”
Her eyes filling with tears that she fought back bravely, the scarred young woman scowled and snapped, “Swear it. Swear that you’ll never give up, and you’ll come find us!”
Rhoelyn managed a watery smile and fisted her hand above her heart. “By the goddess’ grace, I swear I will never give up on reuniting our family, Ryni. On the day that I burn this collar, I will find you. Should Elune grant nothing else to me, I know she will someday give me this.”
And she felt it, the comfort and certainty in the idea settling into her heart with a reassuring weight. It made it much easier to wrap her arms around her pink-haired friend without bursting into tears, to hand off Alen’s pack and strain onto her tiptoes in order to kiss Faeroh’s cheek, to squeeze Faye tightly and whisper Elune’s blessings on them all.
It was only as she tried to bid goodbye to her sleeping son that she faltered, trembling. The priestess knelt before Ryni and tried to ignore the tears that escaped as she gently brushed Alen’s curls back and kissed his sleeping cheek.
“My little prince,” she whispered against his ear, the barest of sounds. “Elune will always guide me to you when you need me. Always.”
The toddler smiled in his sleep and mumbled “min’da” around his thumb, and Rhoelyn turned away with a bitten back sob only to find Faeroh waiting. He hugged her tight one last time while she choked back her tears and then released her abruptly and set her away with a grip on her shoulders.
The priestess nodded and straightened, wiping her sleeves across her eyes. Her voice was steady when she managed to say, “Go. Elune light your way.”
Ryni sniffled as Faye wrapped her arm around her shoulders and helped her turn away. “But I-”
A cry rang out from behind them, and Rhoelyn gasped, turning. Figures moved in the distance, their half dozen guards just visible swarming around their pair of empty tents as dawn crept up, the sun only just barely still hidden beneath the horizon. Their loss had been discovered, and she spun back with a wince.
“Hurry, now! I will see to them.”
Aleesa nodded and followed as Hadaal and Faye rushed Ryni and her precious burden around the side of the hill. Faeroh looked back at her just long enough to give the priestess a smile and a wink before his form folded, and he dashed after them on four feline paws.