"Do you think she would care, if she did know?"
That was the question Lor'themar had been dreading. "I do not know that, either. What if she does not?" He covered his face with his hands. "They were her rangers."
"They were yours when you exiled them," Halduron said quietly.
"Actually, they were yours," Lor'themar snapped back. He bristled a moment in fury, but then his shoulders sagged. Renthar's words echoed ghostly in his head. You send us here to be ignored, and then dare to be shocked when we suffer?
"I never wanted to see them dead," Lor'themar said at last, cringing to hear the plea in his own voice, "but I could not afford to lead a nation divided…"
A heavy hand on his shoulder made him lift his head.
"I know," Halduron said, placing a refilled glass in front of him. "Get a hold of yourself." His voice was gruff, but not unkind. "We always knew it was a risk to trust the Forsaken. But who else ever offered to fight for Quel'Thalas at all?"
Lor'themar lifted his glass. The afternoon sunlight shone through it and turned its contents a rusty red, like the soils of the Plaguelands.
Lor'themar tapped his fingers against his desk, dully recounting his notes from the various meetings with Aethas. He would have to give the archmage a definitive answer either today or tomorrow. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and glanced toward the wine on the shelf. A knock on the door disturbed his thoughts.
"Yes?" he answered.
The courier hastily bowed and addressed him.
"Lord Theron, your presence is requested in the hall."
Lor'themar frowned. Halduron and Rommath would have come themselves, and Aethas probably too, at this point.
"I am not available," he replied flatly.
"My lord," said the courier, "the Banshee Queen will not wait."
Lor'themar felt his heart sink into the pit of his stomach. He rose to his feet.
"No," he said quietly, "of course she will not. Show me to her."
The courier turned on his heel, but not without one uneasy glance at the regent lord. Lor'themar steeled himself as he followed.
He took the minutes that they spent walking to the front hall to collect his thoughts. During the years he had now spent ruling Quel'Thalas, he had found it to be very nearly a physical action, the way he had to draw the mantle of authority about himself. He could feel the change, right down to the tips of his fingers. In front of Sylvanas he would need all the resolve he could muster.
Halduron and Rommath joined him silently as he walked. The ranger-general's face was hard.
Rommath was more detached; he knew what to expect, but his horror was distant and impersonal, unlike Lor'themar and Halduron's. To them, Sylvanas's fate was a wound ripped raw again every time they saw her, and its pain had yet to dull.
In the hall where she stood, the light seemed to fade; it was not that it dimmed or dulled but that it collapsed and sunk into the space she occupied, as if even sunshine faltered around her. The ferocious white glow of her eyes threw the pallid skin of her pinched face into even greater relief. Her Royal Dreadguards flanked her, clutching blackened blades in their skeletal hands.
All Lor'themar could hear as he entered the hall was the echo of his own footsteps, and even that seemed to fade unnaturally quickly in the presence of the Banshee Queen.
"What brings you to Silvermoon, Sylvanas?" he asked.
"I have just returned from Orgrimmar," she said. Her voice scraped against the walls. As her mouth moved, Lor'themar could see the flesh around it crack and peel like a long-discarded snakeskin. "Arthas has dared to strike at the heart of the Horde."
Lor'themar's mouth went dry, and a great tide of unease began to rise in his chest. Sylvanas paused a moment, scrutinizing his face for a reaction. He clenched his teeth but remained quiet.
"The attack was successfully repelled," she continued. "But Arthas is only toying with us—we must bring the war to him. Warchief Thrall at last sees what we have long known." Her eyes glittered with a dangerous eagerness. "The Horde prepares for war. And the sin'dorei, Lor'themar, constitute a portion of the Horde."
Her words hit him like stones. He knew what she was asking, had always known that this day would come. And yet, as he stood in the hall, suddenly conscious of how its grand space swallowed him, he found himself unable to respond.
"Lor'themar." Sylvanas's words shattered around him in impatience. "We go to destroy Arthas—once and for all."
Slowly, Lor'themar shook his head.
"I appreciate that you and Warchief Thrall wish us to join you on the initial front in Northrend. But we are stretched too thin. We have already received a similar request from the Kirin Tor, but I cannot in good faith send our forces north. Since the events at Quel'Danas—"
"This is not a request, Lor'themar," she interrupted. Her eyes flashed red in anger. "You will send troops. They will accompany the Forsaken."
"Sylvanas," Lor'themar said quietly, "we have just fought a civil war. What can we possibly have to give?"
"Have you forgotten who is responsible for the state of Quel'Thalas in the first place? Who is ultimately to blame?" She searched his face for a reply, and when he gave none, she continued. "Well, I, at least, have not! My vengeance will not be denied, and you will give what I demand of you: the sin'dorei rangers and magi, as well as the Blood Knights."
"We cannot spare them, Sylvanas."
Her flaking lips curled into a sneer.
"Then you can hide here like a beaten dog if that is indeed your will, Lor'themar. Though if you believe anything can come from it, you are a fool. Do you think Arthas will be content to ignore you whilst you wait here and lick your wounds? Do you think I will tolerate such cowardice? I would warn you: those who do not stand with the Forsaken stand against them. And those who stand against the Forsaken will not stand long.
"For a while now my people have stood guard in these lands, and it is by my hand that you have any place within the Horde. You will aid us in Northrend, or I shall cease to aid you in Quel'Thalas."
In the south, near the Plaguelands, where the Scourge still ran rampant across the Dead Scar despite every effort, they could not afford the loss of Sylvanas's troops. He had not lied to Aurora and Renthar when he had said that their position in the Ghostlands was more secure, but he was not so naïve as to think it could be held by Thalassian forces alone. Without the Forsaken, Tranquillien would fall. And what, then, would follow?
For the second time since he had returned from Quel'Lithien, he heard Hawkspear's words in his memory.
We are no longer her people.
If Lor'themar was honest with himself, he could not deny that he had known it all the while.
"Send my exhausted people to find more death in Northrend, or risk losing Quel'Thalas to the Scourge once again." From far away he heard his own laugh, and it sounded more like one of Rommath's. "There is no choice here, Sylvanas."
The Banshee Queen eyed him dispassionately.
"I will expect your forces at the Undercity in two weeks, Lor'themar," she replied. "I will not be disappointed in this."
"Yes, my lady."
She turned to leave.
"How can you do this?" Lor'themar registered the desperate anger in Rommath's voice with a sort of dull surprise; the grand magister seemed still to believe somewhere that Sylvanas could be made to negotiate.
"This is blackmail!" Rommath continued, the knuckles of his fists paling as he clenched them around his staff. "It was you who pleaded to aid us in the first place! We never asked for your assistance; you gave it of your own free will! How can you call yourselves our allies in one breath and hold our lands for ransom in the next?"
Sylvanas considered him a moment, somehow managing to look down upon him though he was taller than she.
"You were never required to accept my offers," she said. "You chose to. All I ask for now is the will and power to defeat our greatest foe."
Rommath glared at her in sheer hatred, but Lor'themar spoke before he could.
"Is there anything else you wish to discuss, Sylvanas?" To his own ears he sounded defeated, bereft of will and passion. Discuss, a little voice taunted him. As if there could ever be any discussion with the Banshee Queen.
"No. I am finished here, Lor'themar."
"Shorel'aran, Sylvanas," he said. Her eyes flashed at the Thalassian farewell, and she said nothing more. Lor'themar watched her go with listless interest; he looked only because there was nothing else to see. He felt as brittle as a blade of grass in a frost.
As Lor'themar turned he noticed with distaste that Aethas had appeared at some point during the meeting. It vexed him that the archmage had witnessed his humiliation, but he had little strength left to concern himself with pride. Even through his daze, his mind was already preoccupied with lists. He was familiar with war. Halduron would summon Captain Sunbrand and Lieutenant Dawnrunner. Rommath would notify the magi; he could also represent the Blood Knights while they sent word to Liadrin. Aethas would indeed have his chance to prove himself. Lor'themar wandered back down the hallway as if in a dream.
He stopped and turned to the speaker, trying to tame his face, to appear attentive or interested. In truth, he was exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to return to his desk and be alone, to busy himself with necessary, mindless tasks and forget for a while what had transpired here.