I saw ghosts this Winter Veil. Hardly the first, mind you. I remember as a little girl my father taking me to Auberdine for the first time. The excitement of finally seeing the big city was unbearable. However, once we arrived I hid within the folds of his cloak. Dwarves lumbering about with food clinging to huge beards, women warriors twice as wide at the shoulders as I was tall and people my size but with worn grown-up faces…. all that paled after the ghost.
Daring myself, I braved the dock that stretched as far as my eyes could see just outside the inn where my father was purchasing a holiday bauble for my mother. Unseen, I witnessed a dwarf clad in broken armor speaking with a night elf who’s name was Cerellean if I remember correct. Suddenly, the apparition materialized right before my eyes. Over the hammering of my heart, I heard this beautiful phantom console her lover, caressing his face. When he fell to the planks, sobbing, I fled to my father and buried my face in his cape. I had seen enough.
That was every bit of two thousand years ago and why that moment stands in stark contrast compared to rest of my obscure childhood eludes me to this day. Recalling memories a mere few hundred years old takes rigorous contemplation. This is why my pilgrimage into Winterspring is, I feel, the reason the spirits so easily found me.
Suffering the burial of my beloved husband in the ravaged forests of Ashenvale only weeks after our child’s birth, I made a difficult decision; to forego my calling as a priestess and raise my darling girl from the safety of a small village. We were… I mean to say, we are poor. I honed some trades that thousands had already exploited, bloating the auction houses to bursting. Though the two of us weren’t homeless and starving, night elves who endure ages can feel that kind of peril approach. Picture a warm, still day in late November. The plants lie dead or dying and the sky is one huge menacing cloud and you understand my meaning.
I tried selling raw Teldrassil materials, barely earning enough silver to purchase lodging near Dolanaar and food little better than fish or stringy meat. Now in her twelfth season, my girl humors her “old” mother, assisting me with a smile, all the while looking out the window at the young adventurers that pass by daily. She questions immortality and asks of my life when I was her age. Distressed, I have little advice and worse still, no tangible memories to share. I may as well tell her there is no past and future.
That troubling thought causes my maternal alarm to sound. I could almost feel my daughter succumbing to a meaningless existence; a demise that would take centuries to unfold.
That was NOT going to happen.
Winter Veil was just days away and masking my intentions, I told Shea that I would be on the road for just a little while. I would be back in time for the holiday. She suspected deception in that way children can during Winter Veil and asked no questions, but nodded knowingly. I would be unable to buy her anything this year; we simply didn’t have the funds. With the little bits and pieces I could afford to store away I spent weeks making a gift for Sunashea, as I do every year. It’s a dismal feeling, seeing your child watch her peers with things she’d never have, the hope on her face shrouded by the truth.
The hard northern region of Winterspring is little more than the stuff of tales to recent generations. Goblins, having abandoned it for more congested realms, were the last civilized race to attempt taming it.
Why I was drawn there is simple really… the snow. This land knows no cycle of life, only the shift of snow and time. The trees that towered in my youth stand taller still, their boughs nourished by the roots of heaven itself. No one ventures here unless it is in passing, high above, en route to Hyjal Peak. Dismounting in midflight so as to not draw the attention to my scarlet gryphon, I levitated down through the white flurry where Lake Kel’Theril once stood. Only blunt tips of ragged pillars still challenge the wind, the rest buried under age-old frost. The Highborne, once a pock on the wounded land, now manages only to confuse the wayward trespasser long enough to doom them to an icy slumber.
Dazed from my freefall into this bitter malice, I staggered east to escape their song. Their frigid weight melts away with each plunge through the virgin snow. The peaks and valleys are somehow foreign to me, hundreds of years having blinked by since my last Winterspring stay. Lost, I wonder how one could live so long and still play the fool; would my search for history and eternity be leaving my daughter an orphan?
Seeking shelter amongst lumps of cracked stone before the winds could whisk the life from me, I started at the sight of a transporter hood jutting from the deep, hard-packed snow. I was encircled by the ruins of Everlook.
“That’s the first thing you got right today, sweetie.”
I almost turned to the unexpected voice before realizing it came from directly in front of me. The owner smiled and bowed five paces from my freezing face.
“I know you, goblin,” I said just loud enough to hear myself above the gale, “Didn’t you once transport wares through Darkshore?” The one I addressed nodded and regarded me kindly.
“Right again, but the next question will cost you an elves hand.”
The past flared before me; a tiny me, recovering, but now jumping from my toasty bed and running to the mail carrier, my arms anxious for an embrace.
“A-Atnas?!” I cried out. I was suddenly flushed in the warmth of a comrade’s unexpected arrival.
“Yeah, yeah,” the flickering goblin protested, “Pay attention kiddo; tear these panels off, they should burn nicely. Don’t mess around now. Your clock needs winding, like, ten minutes ago.” Another memory surfaced: This forgotten friend explaining that a fire is both ritual and art to that younger me. Sleepily, I cast my holy nova spell, pounding the snow down in a wide circle until my mana rattled depleted. I tore off metallic parts of the dilapidated transporter and constructed a makeshift grate. All the while, the goblin laughed and joked about the trouble I caused him as a little girl. In less than a half hour, he had saved my life… the trickster. My body, responding to the heat, began to shake violently.
“It’s okay Beth,” I was assured, “just kick back and let your bio adjust.” The phantom’s eyes never left me. Just as I stopped hitching in my breath and regained some feeling to my fingers and toes he stood and held out his hand.
“I came to Winterspring to evoke my past so that I may share it with my daughter,” I said, no longer shivering, “It is beyond my vision and pains her even more than it does me. Is it you, my friend, delivering this precious gift?”
“My fee…” he replied, holding out one faded hand. I held out my own and the warmth there was replaced with a longing… an urgency. I was drawn away from the nurturing flames back into the cold and began to move south without coaxing.
“I passed beyond the walls of Azeroth long ago, wee one,” I heard my companion, who was no longer there, say, “I am now once again a part of your memory. If you can conjure me so easily then you can stir up some more goods. Keep your pace and I will keep my eyes on you as I have since that Winter Veil night when you first watched over me.”
It was not dark but it may as well have been. The blinding sunlight off the hillside snow made it impossible to see a path, much less my destination. There was no longer anyone by my side, if there ever was…
But what was I thinking? Of course there was. How else could I explain the slender box I now held under one arm, its vibrant strips of blue ribbon snapping in the air? It felt empty.
I continued south, the frigid air somehow held at bay from my inadequate armor, but I could feel the drain. Through my crystallized breath a dark figure soon manifested before my intended course. I passed it by, sensing (as one knowing she is caught in a dream) that this was no mere mortal. I felt to speak first would be careless, this much I was certain.
“May I join ya?” the stranger asked. The roaring empty hum of desolation departed on her words. I heard nothing but her voice, as if it were I thinking to myself. Instead of feeling violated, the sensation was of a lifelong friend whispering through cupped hands.
“Please,” I managed to utter, “I’m afraid I have no destination to speak of, but your company would be most welcomed.”
“Den you and I will be makin’ a fine party.” As I expected, she didn’t struggle through the drifts, but instead glided at my side. In easy silence we made our way for a short while until curiosity got the best of me.
“Your language is primitive Darkspear, is it not?” The specter laughed and as snow tumbled from the limbs of nearby trees, I felt my chill break away. The cowl that darkened her features couldn’t hide the delight I knew was on her face at that moment.
“Does dis troll look dat ancient, night elf?” With that, she threw back her hood and shook free her mass of blue braids. It was as if a waterfall suddenly discovered it had no boundaries. By appearances, she couldn’t have been more than twenty or thirty years old.
“I know you are much older than you appear, spirit,” I answered breathlessly, unable to look away from eyes like brooding sunsets over open water. She stopped walking and held an incredibly powerful-looking arm out to stop me as well. The tips of her fingers grazed my breastplate and the change before my eyes was both terrifying and wondrous.
I was awash with a humidity that stank of flora and decay. Weaving between a howl of destruction sang the harmony of priests. All I could see was a lone figure in the distance then the world fell white.
“Shessuna… How was it I forgot you?” I sighed and threw my arms around her. I feared she would vanish as I did so, but no, she returned my hug with heartfelt energy.
“It be easy to forget anything once enough clocks break down Beth. Dat be no fault on you. Many also forget dat special times such as Winter Veil are a time to stir dos memories back to da surface.”
Through her ghostly locks I watched sleet blasting off the precipice before me: Frostwhisper Gorge. It was several days on foot from ancient Everlook to this now deserted corridor facing Darkwhisper Gorge… impossible.
The troll’s hands, humming with a magic that had my senses reeling, were now wrapped gently around my wrists.
“Ya said you have no destination, if dat not be immortality den I don’t know what is,” she said and the biting winds died on her words. Snowflakes that struck like melting shurikens now held themselves aloft, cooling my brow.
“I don’t understand. Can one not have a purpose that has no end?” I felt her grip weaken and the realm began to return to something familiar.
“Beth, my sweet sister, as long as ya be havin’ a purpose you can never perish.”
Once again, I was alone, but no longer in the southern most region. I was back standing over the buried lake, but the troubled Highborne gave me a wide berth. The box I carried no longer felt empty, but I could not pry it open, its ribbon held fast. This was not my gift; it was for someone else.
My flight back to Darnassus was cold, dark and quiet. A memory, something important, wafted just beyond reach the entire ride home: I could not decipher it. It worried me, like a little girl searching for sleep Winter Veil Eve night even as it snuck up on her.
As I crept through the doorway of our shadowy hut, I saw my sleeping daughter and tried to put this strange, wonderful gift under our simple tree without being caught. I floated from one candle to the next, lighting each and that was when I saw the third spirit, a towering silhouette amongst my meager furnishings.
Neither of us spoke: what transpired next felt like it took days to unfold. A fire burst silently alive where the hearth embers once glowed dimly as we sat before one another, the sealed present between us. He urged me to open it. I pulled the ribbon and it took flight, succumbing to the flames.
I was that eager little night elf again, snatching the lid away as fast as I could. It was her, my doll, the one I never gave a name to.
How can I describe this? She appeared as old as Azeroth itself, shimmering delicately as my shaking hands held the box. I placed one finger on her sweet smiling lips to prove I wasn’t dreaming.
Soundlessly, she collapsed into a large sparkling mound of dust.
I was one instant from bursting into tears when the specter held me close and the sadness vanished. I looked up into his eyes and they were cheerful, mischievous even. He motioned to the coffer under my bed where my own gift to Sunashea was hidden. I slid the small chest out, opened it and withdrew the doll I had been working on for months. It was coarse and lifeless, a mockery of the one I had just destroyed, but the spirit held his hands out for it.
Taking it and nodding to me, his fingertip grazed the twinkling surface of dust that nearly filled the box Atnas gave me. Oh so gently, he flicked his hand over its lifeless eyes. The flashing powder blinked away as he did so, then he gingerly handed her to me.
Cradling the doll in my arms, I peered into her eyes, awestruck. They seemed to look back at me with gratitude and recognition. Blinded, my tears fell freely onto her beautiful face. As always, she didn’t protest. I held one hand out to thank my friend for returning to me. For returning the past so that I may share it with my daughter who would be stirring shortly.
But Shoo was gone. The fire was back to embers. Except for the gentle breathing of my child, the room was still. I placed Atnas’ magical box on a shelf, wrapped my daughter’s doll and spent the remainder of the predawn watching Shea sleep.
When she awoke to me sitting before her, she sprung from her bed and we embraced, laughing… a sliver of time that joined many thousand cherished memories. I placed the crudely-wrapped gift in her lap and held my breath. I relive that moment daily when she and the doll looked into one another’s eyes; that same crucial moment of some two thousand Winter Veil’s ago when a child’s new friend had made a vow to be there forever and ever.
The questions and concerns of Sunashea faded from that day forward. The answers either came to her or they no longer seemed so bothersome. We were still poor, but having survived the winter unscathed, we felt a change brewing. Happiness came to us in song. It came to us through our friendships in Darnassus. We worked hard and the joy it bought us made profit seem little more than a trifle. Years passed and one day my daughter, out of the blue, asked me to show her how to craft dolls. I retrieved Atnas’ archaic box… this was going to take some explaining.
She toiled, cheered and flew into rages before her worktable; all the wonderful properties of a craftsman who’s calling slowly achieved greatness. They were the happiest days of my life. It was Shoo’s final gift to me… understanding that Sunashea was my immortality.
Millennia have passed since that eventful season. My daughter is now revered as the finest doll maker in all of Azeroth. She will spend months working on one creation and then travel great distances to find the child that was always meant to be with it. She adamantly refuses payment for her labor, but the thanks she receives is overwhelming: Food or coin or at our door, some priceless keepsake hand-delivered or a child racing across her shop to hug her. These days I rarely leave the city, it tires me so. But tending to my grandchildren while their mother works or travels never drains me. Their love is unreserved year round, but it is Winter Veil when they gather close and become strangely quiet. It’s a time for story-telling.