Wednesday, October 3, 2007
The Arathi Highlands
The cold and rocky highlands of Arathi were a strange place for human civilization to begin. Yet there it did, forged from the necessity of outside threats. Human tribes flocked from the hills and moors to follow the banner of Thoradin. Tempered in endless conflicts against trolls and other humans, they were already a force to be reckoned with.
Even after the strange and bloodless dissolution of the Arathor Empire, Arathi remained one of the core realms of the human race. The red flag of Stromgarde soon flew over the land, faithfully carried by the warrior leaders of old Arathor. Much like the empire that came before, Stromgarde was a nation of soldiers. The Troll Wars were long since over, but the trolls certainly were not.
The Scourge never reached Stromgarde, at least not in any significant way. It fell apart from within, abruptly and seemingly overnight. Like so much of the continent, Stromgarde today is little more than ruins and the memories of grandeur. The broken Thandol Span in the south is a fitting metaphor for the Highlands. Craftsmen and engineers from Khaz Modan had built the immense pair of bridges that reach across the Thandol Strait. Their work connected the continents of Lordaeron and Khaz Modan. Countless travelers crossed this marvel that seemed to defy the laws of nature and gravity. Only one of the bridges still stands. The Dark Iron dwarves destroyed its twin a year after the Third War.
The Revantusk fisherman brought me all the way to the deserted moors north of Thandol. I thanked him for his help, and he wished me luck. The Arathi Highlands possess an impressive quality of subtle might. A cold wind often blows over the pale grass and gray rocks covering the land. The mountains stand high and rugged, untouched by human or dwarf. Arathor and Stromgarde never fully tamed the Arathi Highlands; some of the easternmost reaches are almost pristine. Young Stromgarder nobles used to sojourn for a while in the eastern lands, living by their wits and sword and outwitting the indigenous trolls. This was a true rite of passage, and more than a few perished trying to complete it. Those who survived deserved their reputation for toughness. Some even said the trial unnaturally hardened them in spirit, though martial virtues were so highly regarded in Stromgarde that few considered it a problem.
I walked on roads long untread, thistles poking through the stones. Tucked away in the rugged landscape leaned empty farms, the fields long since lost to weeds and animals. I spent six days traveling through that lonesome place before reaching Hammerfall.
In the glory days of Stromgarde, the area currently occupied by Hammerfall was the location of Nortstat, the largest city in the nation outside of Strom itself. Norstat profited from mining the nearby mountains, and never quite settled down even after centuries of existence. Something about mines make a place more chaotic. Nortstat was a prime target for the orcish armies during the Second War. The majority of the attacking force consisted of trolls from the Witherbark Tribe, who hated Stromgarde with a fanatic intensity. Though the people of Nortstat made a valiant defense, the town was razed.
There were two great ironies in the subsequent history of the region. The first was the construction of the Nortstat Internment Camp for the disarmed and demoralized orcs. When Stromgarde seceded from the Alliance (partially because of resentment towards paying for the internment camps; they, like many humans, thought it best for the orcs to be destroyed) they allowed the Alliance to maintain the camp for a nominal fee. Thrall later freed the orcs there in his liberation campaign. The second irony was the resettlement of the camp by orcs. Called Hammerfall, it acts as the Horde base in the area. The former prisoners now rule as the masters.
Hammerfall still looks like a prison camp. A wall of sharpened stakes surround a motley collection of wooden huts and hide tents. In all fairness, the orcs only recently seized Hammerfall and the business of survival is more important than aesthetics.
Two orcs stood at the gate, nodding curtly as I entered. I suppressed an instinct to bolt. I was finally in a city of those I had been taught to fear. The orcs seemed indifferent to my presence. A battle-scarred orc leaning on his ax lounged outside a half-painted building just past the gate. Two green-cloaked Forsaken stood next to him. The orc looked up when he saw me.
“Hey, are you coming in to help out?” he demanded in a gruff and confrontational tone. The two Forsaken laughed.
“Help out with what?” I asked.
“If you have to ask you aren’t here to help,” he stated.
“Come now Grem, the campaignʼs only just begun. You know about the war right?” inquired one of the Forsaken.
“War? We’re now officially at war with the Alliance?”
“We are, though you aren’t. We Defilers have been carrying the battle to the humans for the last few months though we’ve only just begun recruiting help.”
“Defilers... I haven’t heard of them. Iʼve been traveling a great deal lately.”
“Haven’t heard of the Defilers?” roared Grem. “You will soon.”
“Calm down Grem. We are an independent organization that serves the Dark Lady in our own special way. We were created by order of the Dreadlord, Varimathras. There is much this land has to offer the Horde and we intend to take it from the humans who used to live here.”
“I see. This is like Alterac Valley then?” Except that in Alterac Valley it is an independent dwarven organization attacking the Horde.
“There is a similarity. Here the fight is over resources. We simply cannot have the humans getting their hands on it,” explained the Forsaken.
“This is where the contest between our peoples shall be decided,” stated Grem. “My father died in these lands for the honor of the Bleeding Hollow Clan! I shall finish the task he started!”
The two Forsaken snickered at that, though a glare from the orc silenced them.
“If you’ll be staying here a while, you’d do well to join up. Have a good day,” smiled the Defiler I thanked them and left.
I began to recall hearing about skirmishes in the Arathi Basin, but I didn’t know it had escalated to such a degree. The inn looks more like a barracks than a place for visitors. Orcs occupied nearly every hammock while Forsaken irregulars leaned against walls and sprawled on the floor. Orcs packed the main hall, eating and drinking at rough-hewn tables. I noticed that many of the orcs were missing an eye. I asked an orcish warrior named Taruk about it. Taruk was young, only recently arrived from Durotar far to the west. He returned to his birthplace coming to Hammerfall, as he was part of the generation raised in captivity.
“Did you lose your eye in the Basin?”
“No. My father was a warrior in the Bleeding Hollow Clan; it was custom for each warrior to remove an eye. He was dishonored in this land, made captive of the humans, and I seek to redeem his name.”
“The Bleeding Hollow Clan played a large role in the Second War, did they not?”
“Indeed. We taught the dwarves to fear, though many of us also met the steel of Stromgarde. Thousands of humans and dwarves fell to the ax of my father. Many of the Bleeding Hollow remained free for years after the war, though my father rotted away in this camp. I buried him, not far from here, and swore that I would not rest until every human was dead. Or undead,” he added.
“So you donʼt regard peace with humans as possible?”
“Nor desirable. They insulted us, undead. They put us in these camps, like cattle!”
“Yet Thrall would prefer to not wage active war with humans.”
“Thrall is a great orc. At times though, I fear he is naive. My brethren in Durotar too easily forget the past, I think. Do you know why this town is called Hammerfall?”
“I do not.”
“This is where the great Warchief, Orgrim Doomhammer fell in battle. He too marched with Thrall in the liberation, and was struck down by a group of cowardly humans. You would not be able to respect Doomhammer, as you only remember him as a ravager of your lands.”
Doomhammer was the Warchief of the Horde during the Second War. Tarukʼs opinions aside, I fail to understand how Doomhammer can be seen as anything but a monster. Orcs say he tried to hold back the demonic influence. Whether he did or not, thousands of humans were massacred by orcs under Orgrim’s orders, and I cannot feel any sympathy for him.
“Most orcs donʼt feel very comfortable with the Forsaken. Yet you do not mind?”
“The Forsaken are good warriors and you understand the human threat as many orcs do not. I shall never raise my hand against Thrall. But he does at times forget the past. No orc should ever languish in a prison built by weaklings.”
“What do you think the humans should have done after the Second War?”
“They should have allowed us to go free. This is not the place for a warrior.”
“The humans did not want to deal with orcish insurrection though. The orcs laid waste to Nortstat, Southshore, Caer Darrow... not to mention all of Stormwind.” I confess I began to feel rather angry towards Tarok.
“The war was over!” he snarled. “Our place is not in a prison. Why should you have any concern for humans? They would kill you even before they would kill me.”
“Iʼm simply asking a question.”
“Then I suggest you ask them elsewhere.”
I spent an uncomfortable night in Hammerfall. Taruk told his compatriots about my inquiries and I got more than a few unfriendly stares. I did not sleep at all, though even now I do not truly believe that they would have taken action against me.
I went down to the parlor room very early the next morning. It was mostly empty. A tauren (short for his species, though still much larger than me) swept the floor while a sleepy orcish woman tended to a meat rack.
“I apologize for the crowding. We havenʼt yet been able to accommodate all the warriors,” explained the tauren. “I am Adegwa, the innkeeper.”
“Believe me, Iʼve slept in much worse places. My name is Destron Allicant.”
“Would you like breakfast? I know the Forsaken do not need to eat as much, but I thought I would offer.”
“Iʼm not hungry, thank you. Could I ask a few questions?”
“How did the fight over Arathi Basin start?”
“For a long time both the Horde and Alliance were too weak in this land to occupy the Basin. When they got strong enough, both tried to. The Defilers say that Stromgarde no longer exists, so the land is forfeit to the humans. The Alliance says otherwise.”
“And it has valuable resources?”
“Much gold, room for agriculture. Really though, it is hatred that fuels the conflict. My peopleʼs only quarrel is with the dwarves, as they do not respect our lands in Kalimdor. Of course, Arathi Basin is the land of the humans’ ancestors, and the Horde shows little interest in respecting those ancestors.”
“You donʼt support the Horde efforts in the Basin?”
“You misunderstand me. I am of the Horde and I will never turn my back on the orcs or trolls. As long as we are at odds, the Basin must belong to the Horde, since the Alliance will use it against us. If the war ends, I would be content to return it to the humans.”
“What about all the effort that was spent on the Basin though? Donʼt you think Horde warriors would object?”
“They understand the importance of land. The orcs live by it.”
“Many of the orcs here seem quite eager to spill human blood.”
“Some of the orcs that arrived here in recent months are quite rash. Most of those already here are wiser and more patient They bear no love for the humans, and would not shed tears at their deaths. However, they are motivated more by necessity than by hatred. The Defilers do hate the humans, and they are the ones directing this campaign. Tell me undead, why would you turn on your living brethren? Are they not still the same kind as you?” he asked.
“They donʼt seem to think so. Most humans regard the Forsaken as monsters.”
“But by taking arms against them you prove them right!”
I was getting annoyed.
“What would you suggest doing?”
“Let it be known that you bear them no anger.”
“Adegwa, with all due respect youʼve obviously never been to the north. They hate us. Humans have cut down unarmed Forsaken who didnʼt even fight back. One time they killed Forsaken who were simply trying to pray at the tomb of one of humanityʼs greatest heroes, in hopes that he would heal them from beyond the grave. Look, would you rather have us be part of the Alliance?”
“I do not mean offense, undead—”
“I have a name! I think I mentioned it to you.”
“Again, I do not mean offense and I apologize if I have caused any. If you’ll excuse me, I have work to attend to. May your ancestors guide your path.”
Adegwa returned to his duties and I left the inn. It was a strange experience. I was not entirely approving of some of the actions of the Forsaken, such as the Apothecarium. Talking with Adegwa reminded me of the old bitterness Iʼd felt, when I considered the entire world an enemy that deserved only my cruelty.
I found a skilled Forsaken physician in Hammerfall who repaired my arm. Though movement with the arm is a hairʼs breadth slower than before, I could not complain. Before leaving Hammerfall I stopped by the camp to the north where the Defilers and their followers prepared for battle. They were in the process of sending reinforcements to the front. A couple of Forsaken in the green Defiler cloaks stood before a crowd of the other Horde races.
“Remember your hated enemies! They who put you in these prisons, to let you die! The humans are a crafty foe, they cannot be trusted. I once was a human, a respected man. Yet they turned their backs on me as soon as I became undead through no fault of my own. All Forsaken share this betrayal at the hands of those whom we once called our friends! We learned that the humans are not worthy of life. And if they would kill us, we who were once human, you can only imagine what they would do to you!” shouted a Forsaken, raising a skeletal fist in the air above him.
There were shouts from the crowd. A gang of orcs cheered in unison, perhaps remembering their own time in the camps. Others appeared more cautious, moving back from the assembly.
“It is here in Arathi that we shall find justice! In the age-old home of humanity we shall let them know that we will not suffer their depredations a moment longer! Our miseries will be repaid a thousandfold. Remember our betrayal, my Forsaken comrades! Remember Warchief Orgrim Doomhammer, my orcish comrades! One of your greatest heroes felled by the blade of a coward human, not far from where I now stand. From the Basin we will make new weapons to wage war against the deceitful and hateful foe until at least we reach victory! Death and destruction!” he shouted.
“Death and destruction!” roared the crowd.
I noticed that several orcs and trolls had withdrawn from the crowd, deciding instead to ready their equipment. They wore expressions of distaste. A few Forsaken worked among them. The dissenters understood that it was not the best time to argue with the Defiler agitator, and they soon marched off to the front.
Hammerfall is like a societal mirror image of Tarren Mill. In Tarren Mill, the orcs appear to have improved the Forsaken. In Hammerfall, the Forsaken have corrupted the orcs. The enthusiasm with which the orcs cheered the demagogue suggested that their old bloodlust was not completely demonic in nature.
At the same time, it is not so simple. Some of the orcs and even a few Forsaken shunned the Defiler philosophy, fighting for reasons besides vengeance. Again, a reversal could be seen when compared to the Hillsbrad Foothills. Back in Tarren Mill, Apothecary Lydon stubbornly continued to despise the living, orcs and humans alike. For the first time I began to wonder if my attempt to understand the world was doomed to failure.
I inserted my glass eyes, put color in my face, added the smell of life around my body, and put the metal brace to my back. I was getting closer to human territory. Among the burnt out villages that dot the moors and woods are even older remnants of the human presence. In ages past, before the Arathor Empire, the tribesmen of the land erected strange circles of massive stone. Some stand alone but others were assembled into formations resembling gates or doorways.
No one knew why these were built, much less how. The stones are immense and it staggers the mind to think that the primitive humans there could create such a marvel. It must be remembered that humans of that time did not have magic. Most scholars believe them to have once been temples. Regardless of their former usage, when I traveled by they were haunted by elementals that attacked all who came near.
Rain whipped down from overcast skies when I arrived at Refuge Point. The first sign of civilization was a pair of soldiers in Stromgarder armor. The red coloration on the edges of their helmets reminded me of the Scarlet Crusaders, and I shuddered inwardly.
“Hail stranger. Are you here for the war effort?” one of them asked, in the harsh Stromgarde accent.
“Iʼm simply visiting.”
“The south. I came from Lordaeron, and fled to Menethil Harbor when the Plague struck.”
“I see, I see. Your reasons for coming here?”
The two soldiers looked at each other doubtfully. I tried to look innocuous.
“Very well, you may proceed. For Stromgarde!” He said the last phrase with a smart salute.
“For Stromgarde,” I responded.
Refuge Point is a tent city nestled in a rocky canyon. The red banner of Stromgarde proudly waves above the tattered settlement. Refugee centers of that sort were common enough when the Scourge first came. I lived in one for a while, somewhere in what is today the Western Plaguelands. Those refugee camps were predictably awful, filled with gaunt-faced victims searching desperately for family and loved ones, or simply for food. One could smell death in those places and hear it in the hoarse pleas for sustenance.
This does not describe Refuge Point at all. The people there certainly look like they have suffered through great hardship, yet they walk with confidence and looked reasonably well fed. There is a sense of permanence to the place. The refugees care for their tents and even attend to things like personal appearance, at least as much as they are able. I passed a large tent where three middle-aged humans, two women and a man, played a robust old Stromgarde concerto with two violins and a flute. Presumably they were resting from their labors, visible in the woodpiles just outside their tent.
There are relatively few Stromgarde soldiers in Refuge Point. Instead, a large number of armed human militia troops (as well as handful of dwarves, night elves, and gnomes) keep the peace. They wear yellow tabards displaying a sunburst within a stylized stone circle. This is the emblem of the League of Arathor, a kind of paramilitary group that heavily overlaps with the official army of Stromgarde. I was fortunate enough to speak with Harald Ressen, a high ranking officer of the League. He was a cherubic man, with curly blonde hair and spectacles. From a small tent he organized the logistics for the League troops that fought for the Arathi Basin. Surprisingly, he was not actually a Stromgarder by birth. Harald was born to Stormwind refugees at the start of the Second War.
“I certainly would not lessen the suffering undergone by the Arathi people in this region. There is a major difference between our current situation and the one that the Arathi in Lordaeron had with the Scourge. For them it was much worse, which is why the camps you saw were in such awful conditions.”
I was momentarily confused.
“Arathi in Lordaeron?”
“Of course. All humans are Arathi. This is the birthplace of the species!”
“That is the position of the League of Arathor?” I asked.
“Indeed. I apologize if I seem dismissive of your confusion. For us, however, it is self-evident. Once, nearly all of humanity was ruled from Strom. The League sees no reason why this should not be so again.”
“How do you intend to go about reuniting us?”
“You look suspicious of me, Talus,” he laughed. “Have no fear. We do not wage war on our friends. Surely you would concede that we would be stronger as one nation though.”
“No offense, but this does seem a somewhat odd stance to take. After all, Stromgarde seceded from the Alliance.”
“A good point, but the situation was more complex. You see the Alliance was nothing more than an admission of the necessity of unity. Why, people ask, are the orcs so strong? They are united under Thrall. I hate Thrall, as all decent men do, yet I admire him all the same.”
“Not all of the orcs follow Thrall.”
“True, but the majority do. The problem with the Alliance was that it made a display of unity while fostering dissension. This was because Lordaeron and Stormwind had become soft and fearful. Please, do not think Iʼm disputing the courage of their soldiers, they were as valiant as any other! I speak instead of the culture. Those nations, along with Kul Tiras, Dalaran and yes, even Stromgarde had become places where the people pursued superficial goals. People say that Stromgarde was the great, disciplined kingdom, but they were getting as soft as everyone else.”
“How do you mean?”
“Simple. A nation is only a nation when a great leader can rule it. When people become concerned with getting rich, or buying fine silks, they lose sight of the nation. If Lordaeron had stayed in the old ways—if Stormwind had done so, the orcs would have never won the First War,” claimed Harald.
“The rule of nobles then?”
“No, not nobles. Nobles are as bad as commoners. Look at Alterac, for example. What is important is the ruler. The ruler must seize the reins of history, and with his nation forge a place within. All his followers would share in his glory.”
“I see. And how would this leader be found?”
“He will be one whom men follow, whom men would die for.”
“Would Stromgardeʼs current Steward be this leader?” The emperors of old Arathor abandoned their fading realm in ages past, founding Stormwind to the south. Since then, Stromgarde was ruled by the Stewards, warrior lines selected for their bravery and charisma by other soldiers.
“No. The Stewards are fine men, but they are not up to this task. Please do not confuse the League with Stromgarde. We seek to put all of humanity under the same banner, petty national differences are of no interest to us. We simply want to reestablish the preeminence of this region because of the symbolic importance it has for all of humanity.”
I thanked Harald for his time and departed. I tried to imagine all of humanity united under a single banner, something which had never truly been done (as there existed remote groups of humans that never belonged to the Arathor Empire). It seemed ludicrous. Why would the people of Kul Tiras and Stromgarde want to follow the same leader? The fall of the old Arathor Empire was an odd story because it collapsed more from apathy than from any outside source. After the Troll Wars, the animating force behind the Empire simply dissipated, a matter not helped by the fact that each successive emperor had less leadership ability than the last. Different groups went their own ways and some areas were simply neglected into independence. The last emperor, Falanur, departed for the south in pursuit of a personal vision, which was fulfilled in one form or another by the nation of Stormwind. His chosen successor in the old country died in a hunting accident without any clear heir, and the generals instituted the rule of the Stewards. Even the title of Steward implied a longing for a new emperor.
Ingra Vestian was a stern, middle-aged woman. Her job involved dealing with League-sponsored merchants who deliver food to Refuge Point. Some of the farms in Arathi still operate, yet supplementation from afar is needed to sustain the military activities in the region.
“Iʼm actually a bit confused about the League,” I said to her. “They are part of Stromgarde, yet they seem to want a new sovereign nation.”
“The League are brave, noble fools,” she sighed. “I should know, my son and daughter have both joined, their heads filled with nonsense about uniting humanity under someoneʼs sword arm.”
“It does seem like a farfetched ideal,” I agreed.
“Much worse, actually. All this talk about a great leader is wrongheaded. How much do you know of the rule of the Stewards?”
“Well now listen to someone who knows all about it, yes? We were always a hundred years behind everyone else. Lordaeron, Stormwind, Kul Tiras: they all had rulers, as all nations should. But their kings did not control every little aspect of a personʼs life, they wouldnʼt even try to. Only a stupid man would! The Stewards tried just that though.”
“Always we were to be on guard from the outside. The other humans were all our enemies, at least until the orcs came. The tradesmen in the city, they would meet others from Lordaeron and think, ʻyes, it is a good idea that nobles and kings shouldnʼt have too much power,ʼ and if the Stromgarde burghers said or did anything to change it, theyʼd be thrown in the dungeon! This happened to my husbandʼs brother. Even if you fought long and bravely in the army, it did not matter. You would get some money from the nation, yes, but you could not become a High Lord unless they decided you could, and unless you believed the exact same things that they believed they would want nothing to do with you.” Her lined face became flushed.
“And you fear that the League would continue this?”
“The people in the League are good people. They are strong, disciplined, the best you could expect of any soldier. They are the ones who defend us from those rotting monsters. I tell you though, all the people who came up with the ideas behind the League are blockheads. They would do worse than continue what the old Stewards did. For all my complaints, Stromgarde was getting better. Only little bit by little bit, yes, but better! A new Arathor, their version of it, would actually make things get worse. Stromgarde was my country. Arathor never was.”
The opinions of most in Refuge Point fall between the extremes of Harald and Ingra. Everyone appreciates the League for the security it provides, but most only want a restoration of the old nation, perhaps with changes and reforms. Many Stromgarders had complaints similar to Ingraʼs, particularly those hailing from the capital. The few League hardliners argue that unity creates greater strength. The League of Arathor dreams of a stable humanity with all of its traditional land restored to it, its security unchallenged by orcs or undead.
In truth, I do not find Ingraʼs fears of a new, tyrannical empire very credible. While I have no doubt that the League of Arathor has a definite ideology that it will attempt to realize, there is no reason for the other human nations to follow it. Stormwind has always respected Stromgarde but will never consent to being ruled from the old nation. Dalaran and Kul Tiras looked down on the Stromgarders as backwards, and who could say what the people of Gilneas thought? Nearly half of the League is not even from Stromgarde, yet only a minority of those foreigners fight for the ideals of Arathor. Most League warriors, Stromgarder or not, fight for the sake of defending the Basin. The leaders spout ideology without having much effect on the soldiers. Simply put, the League of Arathor is an attempt to impose a sort of order on the world, a dream that can probably never be achieved.
The monotonous sound of booted feet on the road was always with us on the journey to the capital. The soldiers, all Stromgarders, were hardened veterans. Many had fought in the Second War and carried mental and physical scars from countless battles. Some were young in age, but they still looked like cruel old men. Regardless of their pain they marched with the famed Stromgarder army discipline, stoically enduring the cold winds that cut like a knife and the squalls of rain that regularly batter the Highlands.
There is little to see from the road. The odd monolith or ancient structure interrupts the monotony of gray-green sward, yet those are rare. While the League of Arathor defends the people of Refuge Point, the national army holds on to the besieged loyalist quarter of the old city. Though I was not a member of the army, they were happy to have a mage on the journey.
“What do you remember of Stromgardeʼs fall?”
I asked the question on a night when the winds roared like a maddened beast, campfires flickering wildly from the motion. The man I asked was a lean soldier named Engmar. He gave a deep sigh before speaking.
“It was the doing of the Syndicate, bandits from old Alterac. For all the sins done against our people by orcs and undead, it was other humans who hurt us the most. I was patrolling the streets—we were very fearful in those days. We always kept an eye out for any undead in our midst, or anyone who might be infected. So many Stromgarders had already run away to Theramore or Stormwind.”
“Iʼve had my share of encounters with the Syndicate,” I said.
“Then you know what those beasts are capable of. Our great Steward, Thoras Trollbane, was ambushed by a pack of the brigands in the walls of his castle. I was not present but they say he slew five of them before he finally fell. By the time we heard, the castle was already in flames. So was the rest of the city, moments after that.”
“Some dark magic. The Syndicate employs demonic energies. We heard explosions all over the city. My home was destroyed, along with everyone in it.” Engmar closed his eyes for a moment.
“Can you go on?”
“Yes. Blood drenched the streets that day. Galen, the second son of Thoras, rallied us, yet it was not enough. We were so few. If those cowards who fled across the sea had stayed we would have been victorious. As it was, we were forced to flee the city.”
“How did you reclaim a portion of it?”
“Ogres came in from the wild where theyʼd been hiding since the end of the war. The Syndicate was stretched too thin so the ogres seized a big piece of the city. While they were fighting, we returned.”
Engmarʼs story revealed more than he intended. People spoke of the glories of Stromgarde, yet if that was the case, why had so many run away? The Plague never reached Stromgarde but when Jaina Proudmoore led the tattered remnants of Lordaeron across the sea, fleeing the Plague, many of her followers were Stromgarders. I suspect that Ingraʼs recollection of Stromgarde was the most accurate of the ones I heard.
We finally reached the broken gates of Stromgarde early on a cold, bright day. The walls of the city are actually relatively new, having been rebuilt a century before the orcish invasion. The foundations still bear signs of the ancient, original walls.
The soldiers proceeded carefully into the Grand Avenue, where the armies of Stromgarde once issued forth to do battle against orcs and trolls. Colorful banners and cheering throngs would have lined in the entryway in the recent past. When I went, it was deserted. Dead leaves swirled lazily around the crumbling stonework and scorch marks marred the walls. Such was the first city of humanity.
The Grand Avenue is a sort of boundary where Syndicate, Stromgarde, and ogres fight each other, rarely gaining much ground. The northwest portion of the city is held by Stromgarde and was actually a poor district of the city in the old days. Ogres rule the wealthy southwest corner, which is supposedly unrecognizable. The Syndicate controls the rest.
The Grand Avenue splits a little farther south. To our left was the entry to the Syndicate holdings, a street lined with ruined houses. Perhaps obeying some arcane sixth sense, I looked at the sky as we passed. A multitude of glowing, discolored spots hovered in the air above us.
“Spellfire incoming!” someone shouted. Trained by years of experience, the soldiers scattered. I did the same.
The first fireball struck the ground, shattering the cobblestones and hurling deadly fragments all around. More followed, and clogging the air with smoke, tainted with the harsh acridity of demonic magic. Keeping my head low, I ran, trying to balance on ground that shook with each impact. Screams and shouts added to the confusion. A fireball hit a soldier running beside me and blasted a hole in his chest, molten shards of armor hurtling through air and dust.
The lower floor of a collapsed building presented shelter and I ducked inside. Two soldiers already hid there, and they motioned for me to stay low though I scarcely needed any urging. The rain of fire stopped and the explosions gave way to the sound of arrows streaking through the air. We stood ankle-deep in stagnant water.
“Dammit!” cursed a soldier. “We need to kill their warlock, if he calls down more fire weʼre done for.”
“He wonʼt know where to call it... Jahn, Engmar, and I think Rulman are on the other side of the street. Others of us are in different places, Iʼm sure. Unless everyone else is dead,” said the other soldier, who was almost as big as an orc.
The arrows stopped, and the waiting game began.
“You mages can call down blizzards, canʼt you?” demanded the smaller soldier.
“Yes, but I canʼt see where they are. I wouldn’t know where to center it,” I said.
“The arrows came from the old tailor shop,” he informed.
“Which one is the tailor shop?”
“Over... damn, I canʼt point it out as long as their arrows are trained on us.”
“Hold on, I found something,” said the big soldier. He pointed to a small gap in the stone. I picked up a rotten beam of wood and waved it in view of the gap, to see if any Syndicate archers were trained on it. There was no response. Looking out from the small opening I saw five Syndicate archers in their trademark orange scarves on some scaffolding around the shell of the tailor shop. The scaffolds appeared to be of recent construction.
“I canʼt tell if their spellcaster is there or not. Should I wait?” I asked. “I might be able to collapse their platform, incapacitate some of their men. Itʼs your call.”
The smaller one nodded.
“Cause some chaos,” he ordered.
I readied my arcane energies for a pyroblast, keeping my hands low so as not to attract attention. I unleashed it when ready. The ruins of the shop burst into flame and the scaffold quickly collapsed. The two Stromgarders got up and ran to an impact crater a few yards ahead and I followed, actually teleporting a ways ahead of them. I hunkered down in the crater, half-filled with old rainwater and the stink of rot. Archers fired a volley at us, I think from a different location, their aim off-mark. Then came a flight of crossbow bolts launched from some of the other Stromgarders who had taken advantage of the confusion. There was no sign of the warlock, and I hoped that heʼd been killed in my conflagration.
Arrows whistled as we tried to stay out of sight. Then the smaller soldier shifted his body slightly and a Syndicate arrow buried itself into his head. He fell without a word. The other soldier grimaced and pressed himself into the ground. Time slowed to a halt in that terrible place. There is no way to truly describe the awful helplessness one feels while trapped in the midst of a battle. Undead though I was, an arrow in the brain could kill me as surely as any human so I did not risk looking over the rim to fire off a spell. In truth, the smoke and dust were so thick that I doubt I would have been able to hit anything.
“Did I overdo it?” I asked.
“No, you made a good call. Theyʼre retreating.”
“How can you tell?”
“It was just an ambush, all they wanted to do was kill as many of us as they could. They arenʼt prepared for a drawn out battle, and Stromgarder reinforcements will be here in a few minutes.”
It was true that the arrows from Syndicate territory had grown gradually fewer. Eventually they stopped, though I remained still. I then heard the clatter of hooves on the stone streets.
“Itʼs clear!” shouted a voice.
I slowly rose from the muck. A trio of fierce-looking knights had arrived, followed by a sizeable group of footmen. Several spellcasters stood among them, priests and mages. Though everything looked safe, they remained behind a makeshift barricade that used to be someoneʼs home. The inferno began to die down. Nearly everything flammable had been burnt before I came, so there was no place for the fire to spread. My faded sense of smell caught the stench of smoldering flesh.
“Good shot,” complimented one of the mages.
“Thank you. Though you cannot really miss with a pyroblast.”
“Iʼd have loved to see the bastardsʼ faces when it hit. Youʼre a volunteer?”
“Think you might stay on? As you can tell weʼre badly short of spellcasters. Stromgardeʼs old prejudice against the Art has come back to haunt it.”
“Iʼm afraid I have business elsewhere.”
“Ah, well youʼve still done us a service.”
We heard the sound of a brief scuffle and we turned to look at the source. Two soldiers dragged a Syndicate thug, grasping him tightly by the arms while he shouted and cursed. I realized that the Syndicate thug spoke in a Stromgarder accent.
“We found this one, sir,” said one of the soldiers.
“Your nationʼs dead, I have a new liege now,” spat the thug.
Clenching a mailed fist, the soldier punched the captiveʼs face and I heard a sickening crunch. The thug moaned as gore fell in thick streams from his mouth, several shattered teeth dropping from the wound.
“A traitorʼs reward for this one, eh?”
“Definitely. Letʼs find out what he knows first,” ordered a knight.
With our maimed prisoner in tow, we went to the last section of Stromgarde still held by its old inhabitants. Disappointingly, it too is full of ruined and dilapidated buildings. I sometimes think that the scorched remnants of a house would work as a fitting symbol for the entire continent. The lead knight, Captain Fulmor, thanked me and invited me to stay for as long as I needed.
I stayed in Stromgarde for two days. Mercifully, there was no battle during that time, and all I had to do was stay out of the way. The Stromgarders are in the unfortunate position of simply not having enough troops to make significant advances. Their strategy is to build more and more defenses, mostly as a deterrent. The idea is to get the Syndicate to fight the ogres, who are generally rather lax on defenses, and vice versa. They hope that both sides will eventually be weakened enough for Stromgarde to score a decisive blow. There is a fair amount of resentment towards the League of Arathor, though everyone I talked to reluctantly conceded that they did more good than bad.
I also learned that the majority of the Syndicate troops in the city are native Stromgarders, casting the ugly pall of a civil war over the already vicious conflict. It is not really possible for me to determine the backgrounds of the traitors, though it was quite mixed from what I heard. The soldiers there said about a third of the nation left for other lands after the fall of Dalaran. Of the remainder, only a small group went to the Syndicate. A plurality of the Syndicate troops in Strom came from outside the nation. Some hold to the belief that most of the Stromgarders under the Syndicate banner were deceived or coerced. Others simply use the fact as fuel for their rage.
I talked to a soldier named Marsel before leaving. Marsel was once a financially struggling student in the city. Though poor, he recalled those days with a joy too genuine to be mere sentiment. I could not help but think of my own time in Dalaran. His stories resembled Ingra's, speaking of the very real social problems that afflicted Stromgarde.
“What people donʼt always realize is that things were getting much better. Thoras Trollbane was relaxing all those rules, giving people more choice... but once you give a little bit, people start wanting more and more. I suppose the change didnʼt come fast enough. Or perhaps it was too fast.”
“Change is traditionally when upheavals take place,” I commented.
“What do you think of Stromgardeʼs future?”
“As bad as things are, I have hope. My father, Light rest his soul, said that many were in absolute despair during the Second War. Theyʼd have run away if there had been any place for them. For all the talk about Stromgarder discipline weʼre just as plagued by fear as anyone else. Some of us are angry at those who fled, but I am not. They had a duty to protect their loved ones, and many of us thought of running away when it seemed like the Scourge would consume the entire continent. We shall strive to reclaim our nation though, just the way Dalaran does now.”
As I left Stromgarde, I reflected on what I had learned. Rather than a simple matter of the dead fighting the living, Lordaeron is vastly more complicated than I could have imagined. Perhaps it is the state of the world to be divided into countless tiny disagreements rather than in great and decisive battles. Though Iʼm sure the situations during the First War and the Second War were also more complex than a casual history would imply, they were still conflicts between two relatively clear sides. However, the very nature of the Horde and Alliance conflict is of a kind that I think is new in history. Paradoxically, it is a war that is not a war. Beyond that mortal conflict are the deadlier threats of the Scourge and the depredations of peculiar entities such as the Scarlet Crusade and the Syndicate. I had the feeling that I was setting foot on a strange and bloody new world, and that its tapestry would grow more rather than less complex as I continued to the south.