Guards were coming, clanking in heavy armor through the two nearest tunnels and approaching fast. I hefted the unconscious dwarf on my shoulders, turned around and retreated into the throne room. “Fall back,” I hissed to our two red guards. They retreated into the chamber and pulled off their red tabards. I dropped the dwarf along the wall by the others, and he was quickly burlapped.
“Is the door set to blow?” I said, feeling suddenly in charge and finding no resistance to it.
“Sure is!” piped a high-pitched voice from the other side of the jagged hole we’d climbed through.
I glanced at each dwarven sergeant, and nodded.
The lieutenants began issuing rapid-fire commands to their dwarves. They lined up across the entrance of the throne room like clockwork, with the mages standing behind, wands ready.
The dwarf nearest the breeched stone door, one of the lieutenants, glanced down the line, then leaned towards the hole and cried, “Blow the lock!”
“Fire in the hole!” squeaked the gnome engineer. There was a sharp crack of an explosion and the rattling of stone fragments to the floor, and the enormous door creaked forward on its hinges, out into the chamber. The dwarves scooted into place behind it, setting their legs and preparing, aware that with a single mishap they would all be crushed. I stood just behind them, ready to push, and hoping against hope that the gnome engineer knew exactly what he was doing.
Five red-clad separatist dwarves appeared in the chamber’s entrance and stopped, shocked at our numbers, at me, at the ancient stone door with the jagged blast-hole hanging by its hinges. “Stay right there for a second,” I said to them, urgently, for their own good.
“Wha’s the meanin’ of this?” shouted one of them, sounding confused and quite serious.
“Just stay there!” I said. One of them stepped forward, and the others followed. I grimaced. “Blow the hinges!” I shouted.
“Fire in the hole!” squeaked the gnomish engineer. There was a string of small explosions, running from the top of the hinges to the bottom, and as it progressed, the door creaked, leaning dangerously, and then, with the last explosion, tearing free. The separatist guards stepped back, eyes wide, and then ran, shouting for backup. The door fell slowly, sideways across the blast hole, leaning ominously for a moment over our soldiers, but we put our shoulders into it and pushed, and the mages fired ice bolts into it, and as it collapsed to the floor it rocked over and landed perfectly, leaning sideways up against the throne room’s great entrance. What had been a nearly indefensible position was now a fortress.
The crash shook the floor, and echoed for several seconds in the cavernous city. If there had remained any beings in Ironforge Mountain that were ignorant of our presence, they knew now.
The older of the dwarven lieutenants signaled down the stairwell with a boisterous “Come on home, lads!” and dwarves and gnomes started pouring up the stairway into the throne room, clad in home-spun or home-hammered armor, wielding all manner of weapons. They bore four long, thick planks, which with my help they laid against the stone door, forming ramps. Four gnome mages scampered up, lying down at the top, watching the cavern, their wands at the ready. We placed soldiers, our strongest and best-armed, at each open end of the door.
When thirty soldiers or so had arrived and the room began to feel crowded, the lieutenant halted the influx, holding the rest of our army in reserve in the passage below. We had more than two hundred soldiers in all: among those that had chosen exile over the traitors, the idea of fighting alongside their prince to retake their home had been a popular one.
General Madoran had instructed us to try to expand from our current position if time allowed, but it didn’t. Within minutes, our gnome watchers reported movement across the cavern, and a moment later, that artillery was being set up. I walked to the stone barricade and strained on my hooves to see over. Across the cavern, there was a large and growing group of red guards, milling about, watching us. One wore a large, angular helm. The leader, I thought.
There were indeed two large crossbows being assembled at the front of their ranks. They flanked the cavern’s center aisle and aimed down it like a barrel, directly at us.
“Harass them,” I ordered the gnomes. Nodding eagerly, they began sporadically firing bolts of fire and ice across the cavern. Most fell short, but a few were greeted with shouts of surprise and pain. The separatists fell back.
A sharp ping! echoed from across the cavern, and a heavy metal bolt struck the far side of our fortification. The door shrugged the attack off. Another bolt fired, and this time, a flaming liquid exploded across the chamber’s back wall, splashing a couple of dwarves. “Mage, priest,” said the older lieutenant, “douse that and fix them!” Two gnomes busied themselves.
Moments later, another pair of pings echoed from the far side of the cavern, with one bolt bouncing uselessly off the stone door and one splashing us with more liquid fire. More mages began shooting ice at the fires, putting them out and giving relief to scalded soldiers.
There was a yell, in Dwarvish, from across the cavern, and then more shouts and a drum-roll of feet— “Here they come!” yelled the gnomish guards.
“Secure the barricade!” yelled someone, and a mass of dwarves rushed forward, hefting their shoulders against the stone. “Gnomes, when they get close, sheep the front row, then fireball the rest when they trip over the sheep! You lads at the end, look alive or ye won’t be for long!”
I peeked up over the barricade again. A wave of red dwarves, at least three hundred strong, was rumbling towards us, bearing the red battle standard of Ironforge, and yelling at the top of their lungs. My breath caught in my throat. There was another ping, and another splash of fire washed over us. The dousers were keeping everything contained, but panic and anger were growing in our ranks. “Let us at ‘em!” shouted one dwarf. “Patience,” shouted the lieutenant.
The gnomes counted down from five. At zero, there was a quick succession of pops, and a couple of bleats of fear from the far side of the barricade signaled that their spells had landed. Immediately they began summoning fire into their small hands, gathering it with their minds and hurling it into the midst of our enemies.
Then, with a shout, the wave of red broke on our fortification.
The great stone door shuttered, and twenty hearty dwarves put their shoulders against it and pushed. Separatist dwarves began spilling in around the edges, hacking and slashing ferociously at us. Several of our soldiers went down to the mad assault before the mages could sheep the attackers and knock them out. Newly-full burlap sacks were tossed unceremoniously to the back. Dwarves stepped up from the stairwell to replace the fallen.
Separatists had begun to stand on each other’s shoulders to get over the door. “Mages, fall back,” shouted the lieutenant. They slipped deftly off their planks, dropping on the heads of the barricade dwarves and scampering back.
The first few dwarves that made it over were met with swords and axes, and fell quickly. “Mages, take ‘em down!” yelled the lieutenant, and they began hurling fire and ice again. “Aim to disarm, not kill!” yelled the lieutenant.
“Yeh hear that?” shouted a voice from the other side of the wall, and an evil-looking dwarf popped his head over the wall. “Tha’s a sign of weakness, that is!”
“Stuff you!” yelled one of the gnomes angrily, and a moment later the offending dwarf was hit in the face with three powerful fireballs. He toppled over backwards, screaming. There were cheers from our ranks.
I pushed the wide planks aside to give myself freer movement behind the door, shouting warnings as they fell to the floor, and I began running back and forth along the stone door, behind the line of dwarves. Every time I saw a dwarf pop up over the door, I shouted with bloodlust and bashed him over the head. It freed the mages to concentrate on the ends of the barricades, and our army cheered at every one I hit.
Hearty cheers rose from the separatists, and a worried hush fell over our ranks. There was a piercing keen, and then a griffin winged by outside the chamber, armed with a small crossbow. With a ping, one of our soldiers cried out and fell. There were yells and screams from our soldiers, and more cheers from the other side. The number of separatist heads popping triumphantly over the top of the door was suddenly too much for me to handle alone. Another griffin winged past, and another soldier fell to its deadly bolts. The air smelled like blood now. “Mages!” called the sergeant. “Take them down!”
The first griffin winged past again, and was met with a barrage of magic, singeing its wings and wrapping its wings and legs in ice. It spiraled down to the cavern floor, happier to survive than continue to obey its incensed rider. In retaliation, another firebomb exploded off the back wall of our chamber, and the gnomes were too busy dousing the flames to confront the other griffin. Another soldier fell. I cursed loudly, and our troops cowered. More separatists began climbing over the fortification, and taking more of our soldiers down before they were dispatched. In the heat of the battle, the desperately terrifying possibility of loss suddenly upon us, the no-kill policy had turned into a fight for survival.
Then, suddenly, a horn rang out, clear and beautiful above the cacophony of battle. “For Khaz Modan!” cried a powerful, familiar voice from across the cavern. “For Madoran Bronzebeard!” shouted a crowd, a unified voice. We stood up, our ears perked, hoping against hope, and the vigor was back in our fight. Another separatist head popped over the door, and as I leapt up to bash it back, I caught a wonderful sight: General Madoran, atop a great, armored ram, charging down the center aisle of the great cavern, his eyes on fire, and, held above his head, his golden battle-hammer streaming with light. The great masses of Ironforge, hundreds and hundreds of armored and unarmored dwarves, followed him as one.
“Prince Madoran is coming!” I shouted. Our troops echoed my shout, passing the information down the stairwell. I looked up: the last griffin was circling, its armored rider trying to get a bead on Madoran with his crossbow. I pointed to him and called, “Mages!” Flames and ice leapt from our ranks, striking the griffin’s flanks. One lucky (or skilled) fireball struck the dwarf square in the head, and his beard caught on fire. He clawed at his face for a moment before pitching off the griffin and falling. There was no thump: only a dull, thick splash followed by terrified screaming, and then, nothing.
Then Madoran’s army crashed into the back of the separatist guard, and pressure eased on us as the separatists turned to face the new threat. Heads stopped popping over the door.
“Let us at ‘em!” shouted a soldier.
“Have at ‘em!” shouted the lieutenant, pointing forward. Cheers rose from our ranks, and soldiers flooded out the sides of the fortification, out of the chamber and up from the stairwell. “Go get ‘em! Capture their flag!” someone yelled.
And in the heat of the moment, with the crash of battle and the thrill of impending victory in me, I reached up to the top of the stone door and boosted myself up. What’s the point of having a secret ability if you don’t get to use it when it’s the coolest? I thought.
I gathered my legs under me and shouted, “For Khaz Modan!” and our dwarves cheered as one. Then I leapt, over the heads of our army, and in the air my bones pulled apart, my legs shrank and grew thicker, brown fur sprouted from my skin and I landed, a great slathering, horned brown bear.
There were shouts of wonder from our ranks, and shouts of terror from the separatists. I lashed out, tossing dwarves away like rag dolls, and then I reared back on my hind paws and roared.
Now powerfully outnumbered and facing strong attacks on all sides, the will to fight left the separatists. Those that could, fled. A few made to surrender, and Prince Madoran shouted that they were to be spared. Immediately, others began to surrender as well, turning on those that refused to in an effort to shut them up, and moments later, Madoran had possession of their battle flag and we had accepted the surrender of all the remaining separatists. The battle for Ironforge was over.
* * *
The cavern overflowed with soldiers and civilians. Those separatists that had surrendered had discarded their red tabards. Some had disappeared, going home in shame, while others had remained, joining in the victory celebration. I wondered if they had had their hearts in the insurrection at all – or if they had only fought because someone stronger than them had told them to. Then I wondered the same about those that had died.
For a moment, I looked around soberly, wishing that the rightful ruler of Ironforge could have been restored another way, but the victorious mood quickly swept me back up. I maneuvered my way over to Madoran, who stood at the great cavern’s center, next to the hot, dully-glowing anvil. He was giving orders to his lieutenants to secure the city and find the separatist leaders, who had disappeared from the battle when its tide had shifted. General Beren had arrived as well, and was receiving glowing praise from his cousin for the successful execution of his diversionary attack.
Madoran turned to me. “Bloody good job back there,” he said.
“You showed up just in time,” I replied, grinning. “We were losing hope when the griffins started picking us off.”
Madoran nodded, then grabbed the red separatist battle-standard and leapt up onto the hot anvil.
“For Ironforge!” he bellowed. The crowd erupted in cheers. “For the Bronzebeards!” he shouted again. The crowd cheered again. “For Khaz Modan!” he boomed. The crowd cheered wildly.
“Today we won a great battle,” he said to the crowd. “Those of you that chose exile, today your choice has been justified. We would not have won this battle without you.
“Those of you that chose your homes over a cold exile, I will never blame you for that: and it was you that picked up your family axes and hammers when duty called, it was you that fought and turned the tide of this battle. We would not have won without you.”
He paused. “My cousin, General Beren Bronzebeard,” and he pointed to him, standing below, “flew a dangerous diversionary mission tonight which allowed us to capture our beachhead. Beren, I am quite certain that this battle would not have even begun without you!” The dwarves and gnomes cheered heartily.
Madoran paused again, waiting for them to quiet down.
“There was something larger than a dwarf or a gnome charging through the battle at its climax,” he continued. My heart stopped. “He risked his life for us, and he gave us ferocious hope when we needed it most. Horse, the Great Bear,” he said, turning to me, “you have a hero’s heart, and I am fairly certain that we could not have won the battle without you!”
My nose turned bright red as the room’s multitude turned to face me. Why in the world was he talking about me? But they were shouting and cheering and the nearest ones were thumping me heartily on my back. I smiled awkwardly, wishing I could shrink to a gnome and disappear into the crowd.
The crowd quieted and looked back at Madoran. “This is the end of a painful schism in our people,” he said. He looked around at the sea of color, not one red tabard in sight. “To those misguided souls which fought against the people of Ironforge, I offer you clemency and good will, if you will accept it. To the leaders of this traitorous, murderous insurrection, I offer banishment or death.” There was stony silence, but much of the room was nodding fervently. Madoran paused, letting the silence ring.
Then he spoke, slowly and regally. “The Stone King has fallen silent,” he said. “Ordinn his emissary has fled. Pretenders to power have been defeated. In the name of my fathers and my family, and by the power of you the people of Ironforge, I accept the throne of my ancestors. I shall be known, from this day forward, as Thane Madoran Bronzebeard the Second, king of the dwarves and rightful king of Khaz Modan.”
The crowd burst into wild adulation. King Madoran stood proudly and solemnly, the battle-standard of Ironforge waving above his head amidst shouts of “For Khaz Modan!” and “Long live the King!”
Madoran continued once the cheering had died down: “Many good dwarves died tonight, on both sides of the battle. They were our friends and our loved ones, and their lives were the cost of this conflict. We must remember them, and pray for them, and always fight to keep alive what they fought and died for.” He bowed his head in a moment of silence, and across the cavern, heads bowed and prayers were whispered.
He looked back up. “Horse the Bear helped us tonight, and he requires our help tomorrow: I must leave with him and go north for a short period, on a mission of vital importance to all life, our own included. Until I return, I leave the command of my kingdom in the able hands of Beren Bronzebeard.”
Beren bowed deeply, and the people of Ironforge cheered him.
“I will commission a monument,” continued the king, “carved into the wall behind my throne, with the names of all who died tonight, and commemorating all those who lived and what they fought for. I will return for the dedication of that monument one month from today.”
He turned slowly, looking at the entire room, his subjects, his people again. He raised the standard over his head once again, and cried, “Khaz Modan!”
The people erupted, shouting and cheering and chanting his name and chanting and singing, and in a few moments, the entire hall had broken out in a Dwarvish song: their national anthem, I thought. The cavern and the city echoed with it, and I was sure it could be heard up to the highest pillars of the heavens. Its magnificence overwhelmed me, and I fought back tears. This is it, I thought. This is what pride feels like.
END OF PART ONE.