My years in Orcmar had not been happy. I’d come into the old orc capital (now another prideless city-state) after years of wandering, with nothing of my own to show for it. I’d lived first in the slums, where a pair of warring gangs held power over our everyday lives. Although the Shadow Council (another branch, another construct of the Law – how had I not seen it?) was ostensibly the city’s government, it did little but declare states of emergency and curfews if the gang fighting got too brutal. (Thusly keeping any of the three from gaining the upper hand, thusly maintaining the status quo, for centuries…) The curfews were enforced with the allegedly gruesome, mysteriously-unwitnessed deaths of anyone that failed to comply. Fear of the Council was fear of the unknown.
Some weeks after arriving, I had fallen in with a guild called Thrall’s Revenge. It was a group of young orcs, feeling generally unsafe and helpless, angry at it, and xenophobic because of it. Their professed purpose was to reclaim Orcmar for orcs, but in truth, they existed for survival. They idolized the city’s ancient founder, or at least, their idea of him. They’d threatened to kill me as an outsider, but I’d told them – and meant it – that the Doomhammers and the Bloodhooves had sworn an ancient alliance, and that I stood by it. I was barely out of calfhood, though, and when I say I’d meant it, understand that meaning it greatly increased my chances of survival. As the years passed, I’d decided that the Thrall my ancestors had sworn allegiance to, the Thrall I’d learned about in my calfhood, was not the Thrall that these orcs worshiped.
The Drag, ruled by a vicious group of goblins who called themselves the Black Dragons, was the city’s gambling hub. The goblins had packed its dusty canyons with rows and rows of tight, rickety buildings, within which were fights, and chicken races, and darts, and almost anything you could imagine placing a bet on. So when I decided to abscond from the ideology and methods of Thrall’s Revenge, I took the high-minded step of stealing some silver from the guild and disappeared into the Drag. By luck, I got some unpaid work at one of the gambling stalls, collecting the ante for a game of cards, and, per the common practice, skimming some off the top for myself. I should have been saving, but of course I fell victim to the place’s rancid culture and gambled all of my money, and more, away.
Then I took the high-minded step of running away again. I stowed away aboard an airship, and, a month later, found myself in Storm City.
The Law was different here in the East. It acted more like a real government, passing judgments down through Fang to the rest of us, and dealing with those who failed to honor them. Not to say that our day-to-day lives hadn’t been run by the cults and the companies, but the city’s seedy factions operated within the bounds set forth by Fang.
For all the differences between the two cities – and there was all the difference in the world – the Law, the Council, still performed the same function: it kept the cities weak, chaotic and in stasis. It kept old pride from reestablishing itself, from reestablishing powerful kingdoms, from being a force in the world.
Suddenly and without warning, my mind was confronted with the consequences of my favorite theme, this racial pride which had largely disappeared from the world. It was coming apart at the seams now, and although the pride might reassert itself, it could only do so at great cost. The strong, the proud, would triumph, and the weak… the weak….
It was because of how things had been, I thought certainly, how the Law had made them. If the old prides had never been broken, they wouldn’t have to bloodily reassert themselves.
I shook my head. It was too much to think about all at once.
The sound of a pair of heavy boots faded slowly into my consciousness and pulled me out of my thoughts. Someone was moving through the silent tunnels, and making no secret of it.
Katy M stood, moving quietly around the fire and me, standing at the edge of the fire’s weak circle of light. “We’re waiting for Prince Madoran to join us,” she whispered over her shoulder. The dwarf from the Dawn and from the Panda Pub, I thought. “If it’s anyone else…” and she trailed off, looking back down the dark tunnel.
The footfalls grew louder, nearer, and it became clear that they were bound for our little alcove. They sounded distinctly dwarven to my untrained ears, and I tilted my head at M’s continued alertness. As she unstrapped and hefted her great mace, I moved my hand down to my own.
The footsteps were in our tunnel now, becoming clearer with each step, and still M crouched, and I watched her, tense, and then –
Prince Madoran stepped into the light. He wore a dark travel cloak, but underneath it was a bright silver chest-plate, and a silver and gold battle hammer dangled at his side. He looked regal.
“Well,” he said, “a fine good evenin’ to you as well,” then he marched to the fire and plopped down next to it.
M bowed to him. “No offense intended,” she said.
The dwarf grunted and waved it away. “No need,” he said cheerily. “If yeh weren’t on yer guard in these dangerous days, I’d think that much less of yeh!” He returned the bow from the neck.
“Mr. Horse,” he said, turning to me, “feeling better after your little scuffle earlier?”
“I am,” I said awkwardly.
“Well, if ye weren’t, I wouldn’t think less of yeh. Quite a wholloping ye gave yer attackers before ye went down, so says Fang the murloc.” He winked.
I glanced at M. She grunted, but it didn’t answer my unasked question. I burned with sudden embarrassment at the idea that everyone from the Dawn meeting knew that I’d lost my cool at Fang. I had good reasons!, I thought, but it didn’t help.
“Well,” said M, still standing. “We were waiting for Horse to wake up and you to arrive, so we have nothing more to wait for. So unless you need to rest your feet longer….”
“Not at all,” said Madoran. “I haven’t had as much excitement today as you both – just meetings.” He stood.
I climbed stiffly to my hooves. M returned to the fire, and, with no ceremony, stamped it out. We plunged into blackness.
There was a rustling and some baritone muttering of something like a prayer, and then a pure white light winked on in the darkness. It streamed from the dwarf’s hefty battle-hammer, held aloft over his head.
“Aw, cool,” I said.
“The Light,” replied the dwarf, “isn’t always just a metaphor.” He grinned.
“Lead the way, Light-bringer,” growled M.
“To Ironforge!” cried the dwarf, and marched off down the stone tunnel.
I tilted my head at him as I followed. I’d heard of the Light before – it was an old religion, the one that had built the Scarlet Cathedral, centuries before the Scarlets had taken it over. But I didn’t know anything more.
“I hope you won’t take offense,” said M to the dwarf, “but it was my intention to go past Ironforge, not through it. We need to make time.”
“Aw,” I said. I’d never been to that legendary city, and I’d been looking forward to it.
“And I hope I can change your mind,” said Madoran, “for more reasons than a host’s hubris. There is a document, a map which I should have had translated years ago. There are some interesting puzzles on it, and there is reason to believe that they are tied to your quest. I would like to send a copy of it north with you. There are those in the northlands who will know how to read it.”
“Interesting,” rumbled M.
“It won’t take more than a day to copy, and even if your Druidship isn’t road-weary, I’m sure Horse here won’t mind resting his hooves!” The dwarf winked at me.
“If you’re certain it’s important,” replied M, “then we can spare a day.”
“That’s a high threshold,” said Madoran wryly. “Nothing about any of this is certain.”
Our rocky, rough-cut passageway led quickly into a larger one, and we turned right. The walls and ceiling here were as rough as before, but the floor was worn smooth by what must have been centuries of foot-traffic. I asked generally if I was right.
“Aye,” said Madoran. “When they were first building the mansion, they discovered it in the woods at the bottom of the cliffs. It’s as old as Old Town, maybe even older – they used its stone to build the Old Abbey, back when the North End was Northshire.”
“Neat,” I muttered, looking around with new understanding at the rough walls, hewn out of solid rock.
The tunnel, which had been slanting down into the mountain, leveled off. Another smaller tunnel branched off to the right. I caught a glimpse of what might have been the remains of an old mine cart, upturned against the wall, before we passed and the side-tunnel plunged back into darkness.
We took the next turn, a left, and the new tunnel’s rough ceiling was nearly at head-level for me and M. The wall to the left disappeared for a time, replaced with a low, rickety wooden railing. Beyond it, the murky darkness swallowed up the beams of light from Madoran’s hammer, and the sound of dripping water echoed from far below. I nervously hugged the solid rock.
The passageway got narrower and lower as we progressed, and the air got mustier. Soon, Katy M had to stoop, and moments later I felt the bristles along the top of my head brushing the jagged rocks above.
Our passage ended abruptly with a smooth, blank wall. The dwarf held his hammer up for a moment, muttering some new spell or prayer at it, and then thrust it at me. “Hold this for a sec, will yeh?” he grunted. I hesitantly took it. It was heavy, and felt cold to the touch.
Madoran turned to the smooth, flat wall and pressed his palms flat against it, feeling around. He pushed, suddenly: and with the faint sound of stone grinding against stone, a circle appeared. It slid inward and rotated.
Cracks appeared around a large section of the wall, and suddenly Madoran wasn’t pushing on wall any more, he was pushing open a stone door.
“This part,” he said lightly, retrieving his hammer from my grasp, “we’re pretty sure was built by dwarves.” He winked at me and turned.
Behind the door was a short passageway, thankfully tall enough for me to stand upright in. The passageway ended and a narrow, claustrophobic stairway began and rose up into the solid rock. “Ever wonder how tall a mountain is?” growled M.
Madoran strode forward and started climbing briskly. “After you,” said M to me, and I began climbing.
The stairs had clearly been cut by craftsmen, each edge a near-perfect right angle. A shallow groove was worn into the middle of each step: we weren’t the first ones to have climbed them. I could see Madoran’s shadow cast sharply from above and his armored heels receding as he rounded the perpetual bend ahead of me, and I could hear M’s hooves clumping behind and below. Conversation was difficult, and so was kept to a minimum.
Every few turns of the spiral, a small, dark fissure opened up in the rock at horns-level. A faint, cool breeze drifted out of some of them, and I called up to Madoran to ask what they were.
“Air vents,” he replied. “Ah’ve always wondered where the air comes from, but we’ve yet to find a gnome brave enough to crawl in.”
Madoran was starting to breathe hard. I was too, but with legs which were longer than the dwarf’s entire body, I tried to hide it. Katy M alone showed no signs of fatigue.
“Enough!” cried Madoran, stopping so suddenly that we nearly collided. “Rest break!” I silently thanked him.
He thunked down on a step and I followed suit. M remained standing.
A few short moments later, Madoran leapt to his feet again. “Excelsior!” he said, pointing on up the staircase. I protested silently, but we started climbing again. I was still out of breath, but Madoran climbed with renewed vigor.
I’d been counting the stairs as we climbed. I fell back into the rhythm, but suddenly I couldn’t remember if I was on 452 or 453. The stairs kept coming, so I counted the number of stairs up the next spiral. With some quick mental math, I began counting spirals instead.
I lost count of spirals at two hundred, and I started counting rest breaks instead. At three, we ate a small meal of bread and fish. At four, my legs burned. After the fifth, I became petulant. “Are we there yet?” I said.
“A couple more hours,” said the dwarf.
“A couple hundred more stairs,” growled M. The dwarf grunted in disappointment, something about ruining his joke.
A few short minutes later, the staircase ended suddenly, and we entered a high, squared-off hallway. Runes and patterns adorned the walls. I ran a hand over them, and they felt as crisp as the day they’d been carved. After so many hours of stairs, my tired legs felt like they were walking blissfully downhill.
The hallway again ended abruptly with a nondescript stone wall. Madoran handed me the hammer, and, turning to the wall, repeated his door-conjuring trick.
The moment that cracks began to appear, cold air began to seep in. As he pushed, it grew to a wind, then a gale, and he pushed it open. A trickle of dirt fell across the doorway, blowing in at us. I handed the dwarf back his glowing hammer, and he stepped outside, followed by M, then by me, out onto a narrow ledge. The door sealed shut behind us.
It was night, and the moon shone down from its apex. I looked down, and regretted it immediately: we were high up on a cliff. It overlooked a dark ridge, and, beyond it, Storm City. I could see the Old Abbey’s steeple, lit from below by enormous electrical lights supplied by some goblin company or other. Beyond the North End and over another row of hills sat Old Town. It was dark there, but for a dull, ember-red glow.
I pursed my lips, and then whispered goodbye to Storm City. The wind tore my words away, casting them into the abyss. I turned and looked at M, her white face glowing in the moonlight.
“It’s beautiful,” she said distantly. I nodded.
M glanced at me, back in the present, and motioned me closer with her head. Her eyes locked on the view.
“Prince Madoran is one of the brightest and most honorable people I know,” she said quietly into the wind. “Trust his intentions. But we have discussed things which you should discuss with none but agents of the Law. You’ve done well so far,” she said. “Please continue to be judicious about what you reveal him, and be mindful that he may interpret your pauses and glances and glean more than you say.”
I nodded. “So I shouldn’t tell him what I know about the Law.”
“I should say not,” growled M, as though having to agree to the most obvious, most basic statement she’d ever heard.
“Plenty of time for gawking and conspiring later!” yelled Madoran. M nodded, and we turned along the ledge, against the wind, and began slowly picking our way north.
M led the way, testing each stretch of ledge before we stepped onto it. I went second, and Madoran, his hammer back at his side in favor of the bright moonlight, brought up the rear. The ledge was narrow at spots, where it had crumbled away decades or hours before. The whole thing looked to have been carved out of the cliff’s face by the same sure hands that had hollowed out the spiral staircase. I asked, and Madoran confirmed it.
The lights of Storm City receded out of view behind us as we wound our way along the ledge. As the hours progressed, our cliff and the one across the dark chasm from us began to rise less severely, spotted with tough grass. Soon the wind was lessening and the ledge broadening, until we were striding northeast and upwards through a cool mountain meadow. We were in the mountains now, not perched precariously at their edge.
We were above the tree line, but there were sporadic clumps of underbrush in the meadows. Though the air smelled different and the meadows sloped more, rolling grasses in the moonlight reminded me of Mulgore, my homeland, at night. Without quite meaning to, I began quietly humming. It was a lullaby, from my calfhood. It floated above the meadow, and I closed my eyes for a moment and pretended that it wasn’t my own voice singing it, but my mother’s.
I opened my eyes. Katy M had joined me in husky baritone, humming a harmony which I had never heard but which fit perfectly. I looked at her, my heart pounding. She was staring off into the distance, lost in thought – how I must have looked a moment before. I began singing.
Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,
go to sleep, little calf
When you awake, you will find
all your pretty little calves…
M looked at me strangely, not singing, but she continued humming her harmony.
Speckled and spotted and auburn and mottled
all your pretty little calves
Way down yonder, by the river
someone’s calf is crying for her mammy
When she wakes, she will find
cold and dark and not her mammy
Speckled and spotted, auburn and mottled…
All your pretty little calves
“That’s all I remember,” I said. “My mother used to sing me to sleep with it. She said it was about a servant-woman who was forced to leave her own calf and sing her master’s calf to sleep.”
“That tune had other words when I learned it,” said the other bull, “although yours were beautiful.”
“What other words?” I said. Madoran had fallen behind us, listening in respectful silence.
“It’s a very old song,” replied M, “from one of the old tauren tribes, back when we were a nomadic people.” She was silent for a moment. Then she began singing, her voice rich and dark in the cool night air. It was the same melody, but the words were different: they were in a language which sounded like my native tongue, but wasn’t. I listened in silence.
“It goes on for many verses,” said M. “It’s a dirge, a song of mourning, in Old Taurahe. A mother sings it of her son, a warrior named Berun Thunderhorn, who fought in wars against the centaurs. Each verse is a great deed that he performed: saving his brother’s calves; saving his village; killing enemies by the dozen, with his bare hands once his mace breaks; killing the enemy chief, bringing glory to his tribe.
“He dies at the end, though, by the hands of the centaur chief’s son, and the refrain is his mother saying that she doesn’t care about glory or heroes, that she wants her son back. I learned it when I was a calf,” she concluded pensively. “It reminds me of home.”
I didn’t respond. I missed home too, and I desperately wanted to go on missing it, but, even with M’s sympathy, the thoughts were too painful. I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, and then with a sigh I returned to the present. We walked on.
* * *
Hours on, the sky began to grow lighter before us. Madoran noted the impending dawn, and a few minutes later we had set up camp under a rocky overhang. We broke out supplies, and in a few minutes more we had boar meat roasting over a small fire.
I pulled my white cat carrier out of my backpack and set it on the ground. Ajax poked his nose and whiskers out curiously, sniffing at the predawn mountain chill. He stretched, then padded to the edge of the campfire, staring intently at the meat.
“Tha’s a good-lookin’ cat,” said the dwarf. “Where’d you get ‘im?”
“Bought him three years ago, off a crazy cat lady in Storm City,” I replied. M glanced over at me, and the shadow of a smile flitted across her face. “She disappeared, though,” I continued. “Never did find out what happened to her.”
“What did you name him?” asked M. I told her. She rummaged around in her own bag, and after a moment, she pulled out a folded, curled-up shape. It lifted its tiny green head, snuffed, and blinked sleepily. It unfolded its leathery wings and hopped out of M’s hands into the air, flapping about lazily. Ajax looked at it with some alarm, and scooted away to the opposite side of the fire.
“Aw, M,” I exclaimed, “you’ve got a whelp!” They were rarer than jewels: dragons and their kin had almost entirely disappeared from the world hundreds of years before. I’d seen two dragonkin in my whole life: one, a tiny black one, had been flapping about after a dignitary I’d been tracking for the Scarlets. They hadn’t told me why I was tailing him, but his body was discovered face-down in the Old Town canals two days later. The dragonling had remained, guarding the body, spitting fire at anyone that tried to get near.
The other was the Whelp, the large red dragonling that had ruled Orcmar as Fang had ruled Storm City. I wanted suddenly to ask M all about it, about the Whelp and the other agents, but the dwarf’s presence forbade it. I sighed.
M’s little green whelp flapped over to me and landed on the ground for a moment, sniffing my hooves, before taking off again.
M smiled at him. “I rescued his egg from a raptor. When he hatched, he imprinted on me, and he’s been eating nonstop ever since.” The tiny dragonkin screeched a high-pitched screech, and then burped a little puff of green fire. “I named him Screech,” she said, as close to affectionately as I’d seen the gruff bull say anything.
“If ye rescued him, yer not in the majority,” said the dwarf. “They’re popular with the aristocracy, an’ the aristocracy don’t rescue theirs, they buy ‘em. An’ do you know how the vendors get ‘em?” He paused dramatically. “They slaughter the grown-ups whenever they can find ‘em, as many as they find, and they cut ‘em open! And once in a great while, one of ‘em has an egg inside, tha’s not crushed and that’s ready to hatch.”
I raised my eyebrows at the grisly image.
“Aye,” muttered the dwarf darkly. “They cut them out of their own mothers.”
“It’s true,” said M distastefully. “I did rescue Screech, though,” she added, just a bit defensively.
Ajax had been creeping slowly around the campfire to where Screech was hovering. The cat gathered himself, back end twitching, ears perked, and after a moment of careful consideration he leapt up and swatted the whelpling’s dangling tail. Screech screeched and flapped up out of reach. He landed atop Katy M’s head, hissing like a teakettle and glaring at the offending cat, who, instead of caring, had begun grooming himself. In spite of myself, I grinned widely.
The pair maintained their fragile truce through the end of breakfast. Ajax licked my fingers, and Screech snapped scraps of boar meat out of the air, tossed to him by M, who then declared that she would keep watch against whatever native or alien threats lurked in the night. Satisfied and exhausted, the dwarf, the dragonling, the cat and I curled up under the rocky overhang and fell fast asleep.
* * *
Katy M shook me awake around noon. Madoran was dumping water on the fire’s embers, and our supplies were packed. Even Ajax had woken up before me, and was perched perkily on top of my bag. I got up and crated him.
The day’s trek took us across the mountain range’s peak. We shivered in the wind while hiking through ankle-deep snow which hadn’t melted yet and which might not melt before it snowed again in late summer. My legs, unused to the strain the previous day had placed on them, had started stiff and painful, but somehow snow and stretching soothed them, and they felt better as the day wore on.
We rested again at sunset, at our trek’s highest point, looking at the far distances of Az fading off into the bright west and the dusking east. Far behind us there was a green smear on the horizon, which M identified as the northern reaches of Elwynn Forest. The mountains glowed orange in the sunset.
We began our descent down into the night-fallen half of the world. While the steep bits were hard on the knees, we made good time. By the time the moon had risen enough to light our way, we were nearly to the tree line. Ahead of us and to the south, the darkness was speckled with points of flickering red light, like campfires.
“The refugees of Storm City,” said Katy M, following my eyes into the moonlit darkness. “Lakeshire and South Lakeshire have taken in as many as they can hold, and the rest are sleeping under the stars tonight. Most of them are never going to return home.” She spoke quietly, with deep, suppressed regret in her voice.
I sighed – the bull’s dire and confident prediction twisted especially – but I had said my piece to her and the murloc. I hoped that my journey, my mysterious quest, would in some way serve to lessen the suffering of these people.
“Tha’s a bit dour, don’t ye think?” said the dwarf. M didn’t respond.
We walked on in silence for a while, but my mind had been set in motion. “The Argent Dawn leader said you guys would tell me more about this quest,” I said.
M hissed. Madoran turned to me. “And we will,” he said easily. “But the mountains have ears, and this is not the place to discuss secrets.”
Oh, I thought. I glanced around at the darkness, nervous now.
* * *
We marched on, through the night. The trees thinned a bit, and the rock outcroppings had begun to take on a subtle reddish hue, even in the pale moonlight: we had entered Redridge.
As we passed the city and its flickering encampments to the south, we came upon a road – a pair of wagon ruts – running across our path. “Ah,” said Madoran brightly, “I was beginning to worry it wasn’t here any more.” We turned onto it and headed north.
The sky was beginning to glow light again. My mind and body ached from the uncharacteristic wear I had put it through, and it had been days since I’d gotten a proper night’s sleep. I was beyond exhausted, and I said so.
“Oh, me too,” said the dwarf, “but we’ve got a destination tonight, an’ we’ll sleep better there than we will under the stars.”
As we marched along, we kept awake by singing songs we knew, teaching each other bits and pieces, choruses so we could sing along. Storm City, during my time there, had not been a place which fostered such culture, but I remembered tribal songs from my calfhood, and drinking and brawling songs from my days in Orcmar, most of which translated perfectly into the rhythm of the road.
Madoran knew his own fair share of drinking songs, as well as several dwarven ballads. He sang one, telling the story of Thane Madoran, the Bronzebeard clan’s patriarch, who banished the Dark Iron Dwarves from Ironforge almost a thousand years before. “My namesake, that one,” said the dwarf proudly, “in case you didn’t pick that up on yer own.”
M kept to the back of our little caravan, looking dourly off into the thin forest on either side of the road. She didn’t sing.
The sun was well risen, and Madoran and I had run out of songs, when our road, long since reduced to a mere footpath, ended abruptly. Its terminus lay between two steep cliffs, at a huge, ancient black gate, long since fallen to ruin. We picked our way carefully over its carcass, avoiding the myriad sharp and snaggled edges. “Beaten down by an army of men, four hundred years ago,” said the dwarf back to us. “Dwarves helped.”
“So did orcs and trolls and bulls,” said M. “There was a great battle to defeat the evil of this place,” and she nodded ahead, “and afterwards, the Blackrock volcano became quiet.”
“Just ahead now,” Madoran said once we had reached the soft green grass on the other side. There was no more road to follow, but the late-morning sun and the rolling grasses made walking almost pleasant. We followed the red-rock cliff to the east, and before long, a few buildings came into view on a small rise in the distance. “That there,” said the dwarf, pointing, “means bread, and beer, and sleep!”
The hill was encircled by a wall of spiked logs at its base, with a gate at its northern point. At the top of the hill, low to the ground, stood a row of roosts. An enormous, beautiful golden-brown bird sat in each, head tucked under wing. “Griffins!” I exclaimed. I’d only ever seen them in books.
“Aye,” said Madoran. “They’re hatched and trained from chicks right here in the Steppes.” He looked up at me. “Yeh didn’t think we’d be walkin’ to Ironforge, did ye?” he said cheerily.
A dwarf, sporting a silver winged helmet and a thick red beard, greeted us at the gates. He bowed low to Madoran and said in a thick accent, “Welcome, my lord, to Morgan’s Rest.”
“An’ our rest as well,” said Madoran. M grunted, and for the first time since I’d met her, she looked like she wanted nothing more than to lie down and go to sleep. I agreed.
The nearest building was a stone inn, built into the ground, and we walked down a set of broad stone steps to enter it. A trio of young dwarves took our cloaks and our bags and bid us follow them to our three separate rooms.
A plate piled high with piping hot venison awaited me on a small table. I let Ajax out to stretch, then sat heavily on the bed. I seized the plate and its accompanying (tiny) fork, and devoured the food. I finished, set the plate back on the table, and within minutes I was fast asleep.