Somewhere, someone opened up a bottomless keg of dwarven lager, and the mass of singing, dancing, drinking dwarves and gnomes covered the whole of Ironforge proper. Rothfus ran back and forth through his library’s museum, swatting revelers away from the displays.
Madoran toured the celebration, flanked by Beren and me, accepting beer after celebratory beer. Luckily, they were dwarf-sized mugs, and quaffing them before the next one was thrust up at me a minute later was easy, for a time.
An hour later, as the constant flow of beer into my stomachs stated to go to my head, Madoran began bowing and excusing us from the party. He steered us towards the royal quarters, located off the Military Ward. I was shown immediately to the royal guest suite and its large (but not quite large enough) bed. I let Ajax out to play in the night, and slept like a baby.
Madoran woke me up some hours later, now wearing a golden circlet and a gold-fringed green velvet robe with a golden forge and a scarlet hammer on the back. It was eight in the evening, according to the bedside clock. He hadn’t slept, he said, and as he badgered me out of bed he regaled me with stories of the trials and travails of forming a new government: He’d had ministers and cabinet officials to choose, introducing each to Beren to make sure they met with the younger dwarf’s approval; he’d summoned several stonemasons, commissioning the monument which he had described in his victory speech; in secret, he said, he’d drafted and sent a letter to Andrew Underwood in Storm City, appraising him of the unfortunate and tragic setback which our quest had suffered. I packed as he spoke, and then, flanked by imperial guards, we walked through the cheering throngs of dwarves and gnomes, still celebrating, to Ironforge’s great gate.
There, waiting for their King, stood a battalion of green-clad dwarves and gnomes: much of the force which I had accompanied into battle the night before. Those who had wished to remain behind and begin putting their families back together had been given leave, but there were many for whom the first taste of battle had not been enough. “They don’t know where they’re going yet,” Madoran explained to me, “but they trust their commander and they trust their king.”
The battalion’s commander, one of the lieutenants along side of whom I had fought the night before, stepped forward. He bowed. “Yer Majesty,” he said, “we’re ready.”
“Good,” said Madoran. “Ye have yer orders.”
He turned to the battalion and raised his voice, hoarse from the long day’s work. “Ye fought valiantly last night, and tonight ye follow me faithfully to another battle. I’ll see you at the other end, and we will do good battle for Light and for liberty!
“C’mon, lad,” he said, turning back to me. Then the dwarf king, his royal robe flowing behind him, led the way briskly down the wide, steep road which descended from the stone city’s great gate to the valley below.
“We face a dilemma,” he said, once I’d caught up with him. “In the few weeks during which the insurgents held the capital Ironforge, they sought to extend their control over the whole of Khaz Modan, filling the countryside with willing and coerced agents. There were no standing armies – however the Stone King kept order, it wasn’t with armies – and here in the mountains you only need to hold a few key passes in order to choke things off. If I weren’t setting off on a more urgent journey, I’d march my army from one end of Khaz Modan to the other, spreadin’ the word that their rightful king has returned.”
“That’s you!” I said, grinning.
“Yer damn right it is,” said Madoran cheerily.
I was relieved: I had worried that banter which had been appropriate with a prince would no longer be so with a king. Madoran seemed as good-natured as ever, though.
“At any rate,” he continued, “Beren will have the pleasure of routing the insurgents. Our dilemma is that while guards will slow us down, having no guards may prove fatal to our journey. So instead of a whole army, the two of us shall have to make due with a small guard, and instead of a triumphant victory lap, their mission is to get us out of my kingdom as quickly as possible.”
We rounded a bend in the wide road, and in the valley below, standing at the crossroads towards which we were bound, stood a line of ten armored rams, each with an armored dwarf perched on top. An eleventh mounted dwarf stood forward from the rest, wearing a golden helm, adorned with great golden ram’s horns. “Atten-tion!” he shouted, and his dwarves snapped upright in their saddles, saluting as the king approached.
To the side stood another dwarf, unarmored, dressed in what might have been the drabs of a stable boy. He clutched the reins of another ram – this one clad in fine golden armor – and an enormous quarter horse, its legs wrapped against the wind.
“Horse,” said Madoran, glancing up at me as we approached, “I understand that in your native land, dignitaries ride on big ugly rhinoceros things: I’m afraid there are none in my kingdom. The largest animal we could find was a horse. I hope that it will do, and I hope that you take no offense.”
I grinned. “Nope,” I said. “Looks powerful.”
“Grand!” said the dwarf king. He turned and gracefully mounted his magnificent ram.
I took the reins of my horse, rubbing my big hand along her neck. I had never ridden a horse before, but whenever I had encountered them, I’d felt an immediate bond. It felt effortlessly natural in a way that I couldn’t quite explain, beyond the obvious fact that I’d spent more of my life as a horse than most people. I’d met an angry bear once, though, on a mission in Elwynn Forest for the Scarlets, and I hadn’t felt any such bond then.
It formed now: the horse arched her neck and tossed her head at my touch. “Hey girl,” I said quietly, “mind if I hop on your back?” I mounted carefully, taking a moment to find my balance. Although the saddle was a bit too small for me, the horse bore my weight with little apparent effort. I had never used reins before, and I let them drop now: it seemed more natural to guide the animal by pressing my hands against her neck.
The golden-helmed dwarf was yelling at his riders in Dwarvish, and they shouted in reply. They nudged their rams with their heels and guided them precisely into formation behind us.
As our battle over their brink had proved (I quickly suppressed the memory), the mountains to the north of Ironforge were impassable. So, with the last rays of the setting sun turning the snows orange and red behind us, I found myself once again heading east to go north. Most of Khaz Modan lay between us and the passes which led out of the mountains and down to the hostile wetlands beyond, and if we rode all night – when there might be fewer insurgent guards on the roads – we would reach the passes by the following morning. I was glad that Madoran had let me sleep.
Our mounts galloped along, their hooves echoing on the cobblestone road. I rode beside the dwarf king, who looked resplendent on his golden ram. His green robe billowed in the wind, and his golden circlet glittered in the last light of dusk.
“What’s the forge and the red hammer?” I said, nodding to the symbols which overlaid each other on his robe. “Your crest?”
“It is now,” said Madoran. “I had it designed last night. The red banner with the golden hammer was the crest of Khaz Modan until the insurgents polluted it. Nothing like a facist regime to ruin a perfectly good symbol, ye know?” He glanced at me, and I nodded.
“The red hammer represents the old crest,” continued the dwarf, “because you can never wholly abandon a beloved symbol. The forge emblem is Ironforge’s crest, and the deep green is the color of my family’s crest. Now that my family rules this land again, it will be this land’s color, as well.”
I nodded, my head swimming from the complicated politics of symbolism.
The sky plunged into deep black, and the stars shone brightly – more brightly than I’d ever seen, even back on the endless plains of my homeland. The terrible chill of the mountain night crept over us, and soon my nostrils were ringed with frost. I pulled the hood of my brown travel cloak up over my head.
“When’s the healer-elf joining us?” I said quietly to Madoran. I was looking forward to seeing him again.
“Allyndil is more than a healer,” Madoran answered, “he’s a ranger – he loves forests and fields, not great cavern halls. He’s gone to procure himself a mount, and will be joining us on down the road.”
“A ranger?” I said, interested.
“Aye – he has spent his life roaming this half of the world, healing as he can. He knows the lands to the north better than anyone, and he’ll be an indispensable guide once we leave my kingdom.”
“I wanna be a ranger,” I muttered.
For a quarter of an hour more, we rode in silence through the pitch black. Periodically, there were short stretches of low stone wall beside the road and an electric lamp glowed behind each, casting pools of yellow light into the night. Soon, though, as the steep cliffs wound away to our left, the great white moon rose ahead of us, bathing the world in cool, white light. The snow-laden trees glimmered like jeweled statues, standing like proud guardians of the ages. We passed reverently beneath them, and they neither noticed nor cared.
A shadow moved ahead of us to the side of the road, and Madoran held up a fist. Behind us, our guard halted. “Whoa,” I whispered to my horse, and we stopped.
The ranger elf stepped out of the shadows, clad now in thick leather and fur garments against the cold, followed obediently by a slender ram.
“Allyndil!” cried Madoran, dismounting and embracing the elf warmly. “So glad you could make it!”
“Of course, old friend,” he replied. He turned to me. “Your shoulder is better,” he said, by way of greeting.
I glanced down at my arm. The sling had fallen off during the pitched battle, and I hadn’t noticed. “Good job healing it,” I returned, by way of thanks.
The elf mounted his ram. I noticed that he used no saddle, and was guiding his mount as I did, with touches to the neck. I grinned.
The elf joined our party, riding at Madoran’s other side, and, with a nod to the dwarves behind us, we set off briskly into the night.
The wind had been cold at sunset, but as the night wore on, the temperature plunged. I wrapped my scarf tighter around me and thanked my ancestors for evolving thick, bristly hair. Still, the cold seeped in.
The moonlit mountains glittered about us, and, periodically, across some flat meadow or down a steep pass, the lights of dwarven towns glittered. The night and the insurgent travel ban did their jobs, though, and we ran into no one else on the road.
Allyndil, in a stoic approximation of enthusiasm, asked for the story of our battle as we rode. Madoran launched immediately into an animated recounting of it, although he pointedly omitted our trip to the Silver Sanctum. Allyndil is not a member of the Dawn, I thought, and sighed: It would be tough keeping track of what I was allowed to discuss with whom.
The dwarf deferred to me when our paths diverged, and I did my best to take over. He clicked his tongue when I was discovered by the guard – “Too hasty, lad, too hasty!” – but he cheered as the door landed perfectly, and at my game of whack-a-dwarf. “Knock ‘em out an’ not kill ‘em,” he said approvingly. The elf listened on in a stoic approximation of rapt.
Madoran insisted on taking back over when his populist army arrived, and recounted my part in the final battle as the most amazing, heroic maneuver that I had ever heard witnessed: I sailed out over the heads of the separatists, becoming a bear as I flew, landing in their midst and scattering them like paper.
Allyndil looked piercingly at me for a moment. “It wasn’t quite that awesome,” I said, embarrassed. Allyndil nodded, his face blank again.
“Ye’d make a terrible politician,” said Madoran, then continued the story.
When he got to the part of his speech where he’d selected me and Beren as the heroes of the night, I protested again. “Why me?” I said. “Why not just Beren, or Beren and Rothfus?”
“Rothfus would have hated the attention,” laughed Madoran. Me too!, I thought. “Beren, of course, needed to be introduced before they’d accept him as my stand-in while I’m gone. As for you,” and he glanced over at me. “It looks pretty bad when a king returns at the head of his army to retake his kingdom, then leaves right away for a nice vacation in the northlands.” Allyndil snorted. “But I’m not, am I?” continued the dwarf. “I’m repaying a debt, owed by the people of Ironforge, to a national hero. Sounds much better that way, see?”
Despite my hesitance to accept the mantle of hero, the dwarf’s writing it off handily as a political maneuver deflated me a little.
Madoran saw it. “You were a hero,” he said gently. “So was everyone else that threw themselves into a battle for love of home. You, though, you stood fast for love and home which wasn’t yours. I would have gilded you either way: but your bravery, your selflessness, and that bear move of yours! They made it easy for me.”
He paused. “You haven’t got the poise of one yet,” he said, “but I meant it when I said you have the heart of a hero.”
* * *
The moon had reached its apex before we stopped for a meal. Steep cliffs rose to the left of the road, and to the right, the land was hilly and studded with trees. It had been an hour since we passed our last lamppost.
The dwarven riders dismounted and sat, talking among themselves and eating rations from their backpacks. Allyndil strode purposefully off while Madoran and I busied ourselves lighting a weak fire of brush and tinder. The elf returned a minute later, a pair of rabbits dangling from each fist. “That was fast,” I said.
“Rabbits are easy,” he replied. “They just jump about on top of the snow waiting to be caught.”
“The healer and lover of animals kills them sometimes too?” I said impertinently.
He glanced at me, a stern eyebrow raised. “The hungry wolf kills rabbits too,” he said, “and the wolf is less gentle about it.”
I looked at the single, neat cut across each rabbit’s neck, and I understood.
“Death is part of life,” said the elf, and he knelt and began to prepare our sustenance.
As the rabbits sizzled over the fire, the dwarven commander approached. Madoran motioned him to sit down.
“No trouble so far, my Lord,” he said. “Yer aim is to the north: we’ll be takin’ the North Pass, then? It’s less heavily fortified than the South.”
“Although, if they’re held by the insurgents, the turrets above that Pass cover the last hundred paces before the tunnels,” replied Madoran thoughtfully. “We’ll be like rabbits in a barrel.”
“If we ride hard,” said the other, “we’ll make it before dawn. And once we’re past the turrets and through the tunnels, our intelligence suggests that the insurgents have made little headway in the Loch region. If worst comes to worst, we can fight our fight in the pass and let ye slip away through the Loch and towards Algaz.”
“Aye,” said Madoran. “If there is a battle to fight, then that’ll be our strategy. Once we’re away, return to Ironforge and offer my cousin whatever services you can.” He sighed. “I look forward to the day when my kingdom holds no danger for me,” he said quietly.
“We all do, my Lord,” replied the other.
Madoran reached into his pack and produced a loaf of strangely-shaped bread for each of us – “They’re flat on top so they stack,” he said – and Allyndil handed us each a cooked rabbit. The meat was savory and crisp, and I ate greedily. Then, with no further ceremony, we climbed back up on our mounts and rode off again.
Another hour or so on, I noticed a strange, angular shadow falling across a meadow to the south. As we drew even with it, it resolved itself into a great rectangular depression in the ground. “That doesn’t look natural,” I said, pointing.
“It’s not,” said Madoran. “Used to be a strip mine, a few hundred years ago.”
“The ugliest way there is to get what you need from the ground,” muttered the elf.
“Well,” said Madoran, “it’s not as though ye can ask nicely and the ground’ll just give it to you.”
“True,” said the elf lightly. “They would have to invent a special word for such improbable magics: ‘agriculture,’ for example.” I laughed.
The land between the mountains became hillier and wilder as we progressed, and the proud trees began to cluster together into forests. The cliffs began to rise more steeply about us, hiding the sinking moon for miles at a time.
Ahead in the darkness, a light glittered between snow-covered trees, and then we came suddenly upon our first lamppost in hours. It stood between the tines of a fork in the road: the right one, a mere dirt path, leading off up a shallow hill, and the left, plunging north into deeper forests. The commander called a short break, and we crouched in the snow eating rations from our packs.
“We’ll make it,” said the commander.
“It’ll be close,” said Madoran. Then we mounted up, cold and stiff, and rode off into the thick forests to the left.
High peaks rose to either side of us, and we were in the thickly-wooded North Pass. Moonlight illuminated the right-hand cliff, but high up and rising; soon, as the moon set in the outside world, even that light disappeared. Lampposts came more and more frequently, though, glittering ahead of us between the snow-covered trees. We were riding hard now, spurred on by the impending dawn, and in the near-pitch blackness of the pre-dawn darkness, I had only the sounds of rams’ hooves and a shadow against shadows ahead of me to follow. A last lamppost stood at the base of a cliff ahead of us, and the craggy cliffs completed their pincer move about us. The road plunged into the mountain through a stone archway, carved with knot-work patterns and flanked ominously by the dark red banners of the insurgents. As Madoran’s golden ram charged into the last lamppost’s pool of yellow light, a groggy-sounding shout echoed down from above. Others answered it as my horse galloped through the light and into the mountain, and a shot rang out, then more. From the tail end of our thundering ranks came a cry of pain, and some of the dwarves began shouting. “You and you,” shouted the commander over the whistle of the frigid wind which tore down past us, “Get him into the tunnel!” and a pair of riders turned. The rest of us, safe now, slowed our mounts. My horse’s flanks heaved. It took me a moment to realize that my own were, too, and I forced myself to breath easy. “Good girl,” I whispered to my mount.
The stone tunnel we were in was wide and high enough for us, although its smooth stone floor ran down too steeply to allow our mounts to go faster than a walk. Every twenty paces or so was another carved arch, jutting into the tunnel from the carved walls and ceiling, and more red banners hung between them.
We marched down for what seemed like the better part of an hour, the frigid wind behind us calming and warming somewhat. Early-morning blues filtered up from below, mixing with the harsh electric light, and then we stepped through the last archway and the tunnel ended. The path before us was perched on a small outcropping of rocks on the side of an perilously high cliff. Above us was rock and snow, and far below us I saw flat, green woodlands flowing in the pale morning light. A river ran through the middle of it, over a pile of what looked like ruined masonry to the north and away.
We plunged back into the mountain, leaving the idyllic view behind.
This tunnel was nearly as long as the first. Finally, it emptied out onto the green valley which I had glimpsed from above. The air here felt and smelled properly like summer, and Allyndil pulled off his thick furs and stowed them in his pack. The forest here was park-like, its trees thin and coniferous, and the grass beneath them was soft and green. Compared to shivering in the snow, camping here would be positively pleasant.
A low, round tower peeked between the trees over a small rise ahead of us, and as we rounded its base, a loud, brassy voice called, “Halt!” from above. I glanced up, and a red-clad dwarf looked down from one of the tower’s slit windows.
Madoran swore under his breath. “I thought you said they hadn’t made any headway in the Loch,” he hissed to his commander.
“That’s what we’d heard, my Lord,” the commander hissed back.
Twenty insurgent dwarves hefting battleaxes emerged from behind the tower and quickly surrounded us. In response, Madoran urged his golden ram forward. “Whom do you serve?” he boomed.
“We serve our creators the Titans,” said their leader, “an’ the rightful rulers of Khaz Modan. Why, do yeh serve someone else?”
“I serve the people of Khaz Modan,” replied Madoran darkly. “The Heralds of the Titans have been routed, and their leaders are banished from Ironforge. As for the rightful ruler of Khaz Modan, I am Thane Madoran the Second, and your king.”
The dwarves, taken aback by the declaration, began talking amongst themselves, casting worried glances at us. Madoran cast one back at the dwarven commander, who nodded.
The leader of the insurgent dwarves turned back towards us. “Prove it,” he said.
In my mind, Thane Madoran the Second threw back his regal robe revealing his regal armor, his hammer held aloft, glowing with the light of his ancestors, and our enemies fell to their knees and wept at the beautiful sight. His two traveling companions were behind him, ominous black silhouettes with fiery eyes.
The real Madoran was much more practical. He glanced back at commander and nodded sharply. The commander cried out in Dwarvish, and suddenly hammers were flying and axes were glancing off armor, and in the total chaos, Madoran charged forward and Allyndil and I followed him, and a moment later we had left the battle behind.
Ahead on the road, six insurgents on patrol marched toward us. The patrol’s lead pair held shiny muskets at attention. Madoran cursed and pulled his ram hard to the right, off the road and into the park-like woods. We made to follow, but the lead dwarf had shouted something, and then there was a terrific bang – I’d forgotten how loud guns were – and Allyndil cried out. I urged my horse around, and the elf had fallen from his mount onto the dusty road. The insurgent patrol was running towards him. I leapt off my mount and charged forward, falling to all fours, shrinking my arms to legs and my fingers to paws and claws and plowed into the dwarves as a bear. The dwarves yelled in fear and scattered. One of them swung an axe and it bit painfully into my flesh, but as a bear I had enough flesh to shrug the wound off.
The dwarves regrouped, hefting their axes and trying to flank me, but I fell back, snarling. Madoran burst suddenly onto the road behind them, swinging his hammer, and in a moment they had scattered again.
“Horse, come on, I can make it,” called the elf, struggling to his feet and pressing a hand to his shoulder. He pulled himself up onto his mount. As he galloped past me, I shifted back into a bull and leapt back on my own. A pair of shots rang out from the dwarven muskets behind us, but we galloped on down the road and safely out of sight.