Crossing over a hill toward the outpost of Valormok, or so my map had me believe, I heard the sound of armed combat. This wasn’t like the training halls I passed while waiting to talk to the Blademaster, where recruits were attacking straw and wooden dummies dressed in Alliance colors; this was real struggle, sword against sword as real people fought to the death. Quickening my pace, I saw a small band of night elves attacking the Horde camp! Orc woodcutters and trappers were trying to fend off the bladed aggressors, and I realized in that moment that I had a very real choice to make.

My sister heard about the great war between the Horde and Alliance, and left our family home to make her mark, to contribute in whatever small way to our eventual victory. I stayed home, tended the farm, cared for our animals and our neighbors. The food we raised helped the war effort too, and I didn’t know what difference a single young soldier could make. My mother didn’t understand Sina’s choice, but respected it, and always welcomed her back to our table when she returned.

Clad in dusty cloth pants and sturdy boots, I stood atop the ridge without any hint of real armour or martial training to my name. I had only ever used my ax to fell trees, and the occasional coyote that harassed our flock, never against other people. It was a straightforward choice, but by no means an easy one – should I race back to the rocketway exchange, hoping to return with skilled soldiers in time to help the camp, or should I take arms against our enemies myself? The former was certainly a safer choice, but if on my return the camp had been overrun, would I forever live with the guilt that maybe I could have done more?

Setting my jaw, I nervously loosed my ax from its bindings, feeling its comfortable heft in my hands in an altogether uncomfortable way. Before I knew it my legs had me barreling down the hill, toward one of the attackers who was already engaged with a woodsman. I didn’t know much about battle cries or tactics, but I was proud to see that my roar caught the elf by surprise, creating an opening for the short knife of his orc opponent. Crying out in pain, the elf staggered, trying to keep both of us in front of him.

I knew the woodsman would be far better equipped to handle the elf than I alone, but our foe didn’t know that – he just saw a nearly shirtless, travel-stained orc run out of the woods with a large ax swinging for his head. I was glad he overestimated me, because that meant he didn’t immediately stab me with that long sword of his. The woodsman and I circled slowly, framing the elf between us. When his attention was diverted I attacked, yelling and trying to cleave him in two as if he were an inconvenient sapling. He turned, quick as lightning, and parried my blow. I could feel the blood drain from my face, knowing he had a sound advantage, and recoiled, dropping my ax. The elf reared back to strike when suddenly he stiffened, gasped, and fell to the forest floor. The woodsman’s knife had found its mark.

He picked up my ax and handed it back to me as if he hadn’t just killed someone. “Thanks for that,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. “It would have been a toss-up if you hadn’t come down that hill like a banshee.”

Smiling, he sprinted to engage another elf, hoping to create another two-on-one that would end up poorly for the invader. I collapsed against the ground, eyes glued to the elf I had helped slay. It was because of me that he was dead, that his family would never have him home for dinner again. Tears welled up in my eyes, blurring the rest of the battlefield. For the first time I realized the true extent of the threat my sister took upon herself, and for a single terrible moment I imagined her laying in a field somewhere, glassy eyes seeing nothing.

Someone helped me to my feet, dusting off my simple farming clothes. It was the woodsman I helped, and he told me that they had run off the last of those elves, and that he was thankful for my help. He put my ax back in my hand and reassured me that I did well. “First time, eh?” he asked, the question all but rhetorical. I nodded anyway, and he directed me to a small stump placed near the outpost’s bonfire. “Take a load off, eat with us. Rest a bit while you process everything.”

I didn’t know what else to do but accept, and try to warm my cold bones by the fire, though it didn’t seem to help. Every time I closed my eyes I could see that elf’s face, and in my mind it morphed into my sister’s. What I had done may have saved that woodman’s life, but did his rescue cost something dear within myself?

That night the camp celebrated, and it made me feel at least marginally better that they cheered their survival, rather than the killing of those who attacked us. “Us,” I thought to myself. It really was all of us; to them, I wasn’t just some shy farm boy who didn’t know a thing about war, I was a useful asset who helped save their lives, and maybe even their camp. It would take a long while before that disparity would reconcile within me, I knew. For that night at least, it was good to at least try to enjoy some company, camaraderie, and freshly-roasted venison.

Though it took ages for me to finally fall asleep, I was very thankful that my rest was deep, dreamless, and without interruption.