The midnight sky over the elven kingdom was alight with the thousand stars nestled in its black velvet cape. It was not a sight Malthorion Dawnstar had paid much attention to previously, for the land itself had seldom been so dark that there was nothing but stars to look at. And yet there they were, circling benignly in the sky as the hours passed; and there was he, sitting in the grounds of what had once been Dawnstar Spire, watching them as if they held all the answers to the questions he couldn’t voice. His thumb moved absently in the darkness, caressing with near-reverence the gold chain of his father’s paladin insignia. Somehow, his father’s friend, Calendil Sunwing, had been able to retrieve it; he hadn’t asked how, and nor would he. It was a kind gesture, although it brought with it the weight of heavy implication. Emerion Dawnstar had served the Paladin Order of Quel’Thalas, as many generations of Dawnstars had before him; as the eldest son of House Dawnstar always had. He had forged an alliance with House Sunwing too, bringing peace to two families that had fought for generations. Malthorion had grown up knowing that the vows and friendships his father had made would fall into his keeping one day, but he had not expected it to happen so swiftly. Now he felt the weight of his lineage as surely as he felt the cold weight of the insignia Lord Sunwing had returned to him. And for the first time in his life, he didn’t want it.
There – with that admittance, he felt anger and fear well up in his heart, and his hand tighten around the chain. Lord Sunwing had cautioned him against showing too much emotion. It was important that the old families continued to conduct themselves with dignity, he had said. Malthorion understood. If Quel’thalas was to be restored to its former glory, its founding families needed to present a unified front. It was important that he found the strength to step into his father’s place at court, and maintain House Dawnstar’s presence. Silently, he willed his grasp on the insignia to lessen; his despair and grief to be set aside. He cast his eyes back to the stars, where they shone unchanging, treading the same paths across the sky that they had always trod, and always would. He envied them, he thought; he envied their ability to shine with eternal Light, strong and silent, lending their aid to lost and weary travelers. That was his job too, as a paladin; as the eldest son. To follow in his father’s footsteps; to embody the path his House had always represented. To find the strength to be silent and strong, and to be the Light in the darkness. But the Light had abandoned them; of that, Malthorion had no doubt. He could feel it in his blood, an emptiness that was at once as heavy as lead and as hollow as bone.
A movement in the sky caught his attention. Malthorion Dawnstar turned his head, and saw a shooting star fall from the sky and disappear beneath the horizon.
Even stars fall.
Aemorniel would have known. She would have teased him too, for his surprise. He leaned back against the crumbling garden wall and closed his eyes. It was selfish of him to wish her there; to wish that she hadn’t died, to wish that she had lived to go slowly out of her mind with the mana sickness alongside him. But in the deepest part of his heart, he wished it. He wished that he wouldn’t have to go back inside the ruins of his family’s home alone and sit in the dim light of the dawning sun with his mother, who had not risen from her bed now in days, and probably never would again. If they were both lucky, the sickness would just kill her. There were fates worse than death; he had seen that now. Not only in the horrific battle against Prince Arthas’ undead army, but in the wretched elves whose minds had been turned so thoroughly by the starving sickness that they had taken to cannibalism to feed their hunger, draining other elves of the magic inherent in their veins. The elves were enforcing a strict policy of intolerance; any who fed on another was executed immediately. The magi were frantically working to find a solution too, but it was not happening quickly enough. Even before he had left the city the numbers of elves losing their minds to the illness had been starting to increase. Lord Sunwing had advised him to take his mother “home” to what remained of the Spire when he’d found out she was ill. Malthorion had complied; at the time he hadn’t fully grasped the fact that it would fall on him to execute her, if she failed to recover or die.
Knowing the “right” thing to do had never been difficult before. Now the questions that came to mind seemed to own no clear solutions or easy paths. After they arrived at the Spire his mother had lost her mind to the insanity, and he knew that she no longer recognized him. She no longer recognized anything beyond her hunger. And while he had hoped and prayed that the magi would find their miraculous solution before her mind and body broke, he no longer believed it could. If her body failed first then she would die in the agony she’d been living in for the last three days; if her mind, then she would attack the only source of magic available, forgetting that it was her son.
It had been wise of Lord Sunwing to suggest he leave, he’d decided. It would not have benefited anybody to have to witness Lady Dawnstar’s decline. And it would not have benefited anybody either to witness the indecision that plagued him, and the riot taking place in his mind as he came to doubt everything he had ever been taught. For he knew that life was sacred, and that to even think of extinguishing it in anything but honorable combat was a violation of the paladin codes. But had he not been taught as well, that it was cruel to allow a dying or condemned man to suffer needlessly? And if he was certain – truly certain – of his mother’s inability to recover – was it not cruel to let her linger?
These questions had never been applicable in his personal life before. They had been far-off guidelines, rules for designated times and places where soldiers met to do their deadly dances and then left. No one had ever gotten inside the walls of Quel’thalas – inside their home – and succeeded in committing the genocide that was taking place; the genocide that they now fought to stave off, despite the invading army having already withdrawn. No one had ever violated the sanctuary of the Sun, and succeeded in separating the elves from their source of life. And certainly, no one had ever shaken his belief in what was “right” so thoroughly. For there was his knowledge that the sickness was in his blood too, and his fear that the dark thoughts he entertained were prompted by his own starvation, turning his thoughts to murderous places, and even justifying them. He had never contemplated killing one of his own kind before. But after three days of listening to his mother suffer it lay in his mind as surely as the insignia lay in his hand.
He could just leave. That thought had crossed his mind as well. He could saddle up his horse and ride away, leaving his mother’s fate to the Light, such as it was. Even more than that – he could leave Quel’thalas entirely to its ruin, and find somewhere quiet and private to lose his own mind in. He had been permitted to leave the city after all, and no man would come in search of him; no one would appear on the doorstep, demanding that he attend to his duty after watching his mother die. Lord Sunwing would not enforce House Dawnstar’s loyalty; he would just want to know where their alliances stood, now that Emerion had passed. There were more important things to do than convince errant sons to step into their father’s places. And Calendil himself was weary with the loss of his own family. He had not chosen to walk away, but his eyes were tired and betrayed him more than he knew. Perhaps he had asked Malthorion to take Mirian home, just so that he wouldn’t have to witness the death of one more friend.
What would his father have done?
On the horizon, the stars had begun to fade with the brightening sky; all but one – the “morning star”, for which his House was named – the herald of the new day; the star that could stand the longest in the Sun’s Light before being consumed by it.
But even stars fall, thought Malthorion, as he pulled himself stiffly from the stones he had been sitting on all night. The golden insignia he had been cradling shimmered brightly in the morning sun, sparkling like a rare jewel; like the morning star itself. He looked at it a moment longer, then put it away inside his shirt.
There were few rooms left in Dawnstar Spire that had survived the attack. Everywhere he stepped glass cracked underfoot, and each room was strewn with the debris that had once been his family’s possessions. The rooms on the east side were the rooms least affected; the rooms furthest from the path that Arthas’ army had taken. He had found a bedroom there for his mother, putting her to bed with a dreamless-sleep potion. He wished now that he’d thought to obtain more. She would wake when the Sun found her window, and there in the east, it would happen soon. She would wake and start to weep, as she now did daily. Then she would start to scream, and tear out her hair in her agony, and there would be nothing he could do, for he no longer had the Light to command to soothe her pain. It was unbearable to imagine another day of it; it was equally unbearable to imagine ending it.
She had heard the door open. Already her brow was creasing, skin waxy and pale as the pillow she lay upon, breathing shallow but beginning to rise as her conscious mind drifted closer to the surface of her dreams. If she awoke and attacked him, Malthorion thought, it would be easier. It would just be self-defense.
It would be easier.
But she didn’t move, and he knew that nothing would be made easy.
His fingers shook slightly as he knelt beside the bed, brushing the his mother’s long blonde hair away from her face with the back of his hand. She was cold, but he was acutely aware of her shallow breath, the fragile thread of life still present, and the too-sweet taint of sickness cloying in her blood. His fingertips touched the pale skin at her neck, then eased their way beneath her head until the pillow no longer cradled it, and her weight rested in his palm instead. He had never noticed how small she was – how feminine. The features of her face were as fine as the most delicately wrought porcelain. That a woman so tiny had brought a man into the world seemed inconceivable; but Malthorion seemed able to remember in that second every minute of his childhood with her. He remembered that she had always seemed this delicate to him, and that he had grown up wanting to protect her. She had encouraged him too, willing to be his docile “lady fair”, sitting in the shade while he ran around the gardens with his first sword. But what protection had he been able to offer when she really needed it? And what protection could he offer now, from an enemy he could neither see or defeat?
He placed his second hand at her throat, where it met the regal line of her jaw. Her pulse quickened at the touch, but even so, it beat weakly against his fingertips like the last fluttering beats a moth’s wings make against the bulb.
Light have mercy, he prayed.
The Light has gone, his thoughts reminded him.
He dislocated her neck, as though that thought alone compelled him to act; as though living in Quel’Thalas without the Light was the worst fate that could befall her. It was the quickest method he knew; too quick for her to awake and be afraid, and too quick to allow him to change his mind in the moment.
His hands pulled back the moment it was complete, as though the distance between them could stand as testament to the fact that it had not been he who did it. But the silence bore witness to no one, and as the minutes passed he let his forehead come to rest on the counterpane of her bed, his eyes closed and his heart heavy with the blood that had no Light within it. Not that it mattered; there were no more prayers to say, and even if there had been, he didn’t think himself worthy of saying them now. He needed to stand; he knew this. He needed to stand, and walk downstairs, and saddle his horse, and return to the city to stand shoulder to shoulder with House Sunwing, honoring his father’s alliances, and pledging himself to King Anasterian’s son. But his fists were clenched, and shaking. Again, he willed them to stop. This time, they did not obey.
In a moment, then, he told himself.
I just need a moment.
That moment passed. Slowly his fists unfolded, and he found the will to stand. It was as though there was new weight in his body; in his hands. Was this “strength”? Just adding more weight to carry, and finding again and again the ability to bear it? He looked at the body. If he would bear it, he thought, he must bear all of it. But it was no longer his mother; in the moment that had passed it had become just another corpse; a job that needed doing – the latest in a long and not yet ended string. But it was done. He felt nothing that he could express, and after a few minutes, he withdrew the insignia from his shirt. Once again, it shone eagerly in the Light of the new morn that was peering in from behind the curtains – the symbol of everything he had taken for granted, everything he had lost, and everything he still needed to do. With an air of deference, he pulled his blond hair over his shoulder, and fastened the insignia about his neck. Yes, he thought. Stars fall. And fathers die, and boys become men. Maybe it was moments like these that made those moments happen.
With that thought in mind, Malthorion Dawnstar left his mother’s side.