Sunday, October 7, 2007
The Redridge Mountains
The banner of the Blackrock Clan (and by extension the entirety of the Old Horde) hung limp but menacing from a post driven into the rock. Human skulls dangled from the cross beam, a mute testimony to the savagery of the old ways. Whatever the numerous accomplishments of the orcish people in the days since then, they must never forget that they were cruelty incarnate under Blackhand and Doomhammer.
This truth will not soon be forgotten in the Redridge Mountains. Signs in the dry, windswept canyons of the northern reaches confirmed Marshal Maxwell’s reports of the orcish incursions. Crude camps and smoking pyres dot the rocky landscape. The full force of the Blackrock Clan remain in Blackrock Spire in order to fight the more dangerous Dark Irons. Still, Rend Blackhand, the warchief of the Old Horde, fully intends to one day reclaim his father’s empire.
I managed to avoid the attentions of the orcs as I made my way south. The land gradually becomes greener and milder past the canyons, a relief after the volcanic desolation I'd so recently traversed. The Redridge Mountains have always been a frontier region for Stormwind. When the settlers first arrived in the land they found themselves locked in combat with vicious gnoll tribes, themselves probably driven to Redridge by the Dark Iron Empire.
The violence of gnollish culture became their undoing, as the tribes could never unite long enough to pose a credible threat to the burgeoning human kingdom. Stormwind broke Gnoll power in Elwynn Forest and Westfall with relative ease. The hardest fought campaigns in the War of the Bloody Paw took place in the Redridge Mountains.
The gnolls used the terrain to their advantage, creeping out from the forested slopes at night to wreak havoc on the human encroachments. Even in distant Lordaeron, students recoiled in horror when reading descriptions of the Everstill Massacre, where gnolls slaughtered 2000 human settlers. Those unfortunates who survived the initial battle were marched into bonfires while still alive.
The War of the Bloody Paw never came to a conclusive end. Over time, the humans pushed the quarrelsome gnolls into the far places. Yet even at Stormwind’s height, no human traveled to the eastern sections of Redridge alone or unarmed. The man most responsible for the gnollish retreat was Baron Hartz Aldenmar, one of the most influential nobles in Stormwind’s early history.
Stormwind’s history was fraught with intrigue between the various noble families, each trying to seize or influence the throne. The worst period of such backstabbing and infighting was during the mercifully short-lived Cardhein Dynasty (during which the War of the Bloody Paw reached an apex of violence). Aldenmar used his military victory to gain influence among other nobles. For a while, the Aldenmar family enjoyed nearly undisputed rule in the Redridge Mountains. The Aldenmars were noted for brutality to the peasants beneath them.
Aldenmar reluctantly pledged his support when the Wrynns took control of the kingdom. King Oltmar Wrynn I had to allow Aldenmar some degree of autonomy. He could ill-afford to have the Aldenmar family set against the crown.
Baron Jesson Aldenmar (Hartz’s great-grandson) abused his subjects to such an extent that the oppressed peasants revolted. The commoners of Redridge were no strangers to combat. The gnolls still made sporadic raids into human territories, and the troops of Aldenmar could not always be there to repel the gnolls. An experienced militia guarded the people of the region, and they held no real loyalty to their lord. The revolt grew larger thanks to Jesson’s blundering, and he pleaded to the King for help.
In one of the most famous letters in human history, King Oltmar Wrynn II said that the peasants had only revolted due to Aldenmar’s own incompetence, and that royal aid would only be granted if Aldenmar declared his fief to be crown territory. Thus began the Stormwind Civil War.
Aldenmar made an alliance with some of the other nobles, mostly those who lived in the extremities of the kingdom. Despite the formidable army assembled by the nobility (including several gnoll tribes), they were unlikely to prevail. Their subjects often hated them and the rebel armies spent half their time suppressing vicious insurrections. Nonetheless, the war lasted nineteen long and bloody years. Peasant guerrillas captured Jesson Aldenmar and stoned him to death halfway through the conflict.
King Oltmar Wrynn II promised the rebel territories to those nobles who remained loyal. Because of the cunning legal documentation created by the king, the loyalist nobles received the land they were promised but were granted relatively little control over it. In a move hailed by some as heroic, others as demagogical, the king signed the Charter of Common Rights, a document protecting the commoners from the excesses of their lords. Whatever Oltmar’s motivations, the Charter was a major factor in Stormwind’s progress, creating a subject populace strongly loyal to the king. The nobles were naturally embittered, and made another attempt to wrest control of Stormwind a few centuries later. Needless to say, it failed.
Lordaeronian nobles gradually faded into a genteel and archaic uselessness, forever hovering about the royal court. The nobles of Stormwind were instead bloodied into submission. Though they too became little more than royal ornamentation, their machinations never entirely ceased.
The roads in Redridge are still of good quality. I followed a winding path down into the valley, reaching the northern shore of Lake Everstill after two days. Lake Everstill is one of the dominant features of the region, and the people of Redridge depend on it for their livelihood. I came across a patrol of five soldiers not long after reaching the water. Suited in armor, they looked quite capable of challenging the orcs of the Blackrock Clan. I could not tell if they were part of the Royal Stormwind Army or a well-armed local militia, though their discipline indicated the former. The leader saluted me.
“Sir, we would advise you to get to Lakeshire as soon as possible. There are orcs in the area,” he warned.
“Yes, I know. I’m headed there myself. Thank you.”
“Good day, sir.”
The road went into a steady decline in altitude. Large, rough-hewn stones, almost like the monoliths of Arathi, stand on the side of the road overlooking the lake. Stout trees grow from the loamy slopes on the other side. A thin breeze whistled through the leaves and I could hear the melody of birdsong in the branches. With the sun shining from a clear sky, a feeling of tranquility blessed the road to Lakeshire that day.
Lakeshire itself is a picturesque town overlooking an extension of Lake Everstill. Fishing boats ply the waters and workers load barges with all manner of goods destined for the markets of Stormwind City. Prosperous though it appears, there is an obvious tension in the town. Their anxieties serve to protect them. A crude but effective palisade of sharpened stakes blocks the road, and several cannons stand guard on the bridge.
Lakeshire Inn is immaculate, every inch the axiomatic mountain hostel. Observers from Lordaeron had described the people of Stormwind as obsessed with being perfect in all things, a trait evident in their well-maintained towns. Individual Stormwinders tend to be much more personally driven than most of inhabitants of the northern kingdoms. Perhaps the Stromgarders, from whom they are descended, come closest to having the Stormwinder drive. Certainly one does not see the lackadaisical carousing common in Dalaran or Kul Tiras.
“Orcs? I’m not scared. I’ve fought orcs before,” boasted Ensel Fletcher, an old but prodigiously strong man with a bristling white beard.
I was sitting at a table in the parlor. With Ensel was a young lad of about fifteen, whose body shook with barely restrained enthusiasm.
“There’s not a Lakeshireman alive who can’t use a weapon. My grandson here, Nerrin, I trained with the crossbow. Now he’ll get to try it on something a little fiercer than straw targets.”
Nerrin nodded eagerly.
“Did you fight in both wars?”
“I suppose. There was only one long war for me and a lot of the other folks in this town.”
“Old Lakeshire was destroyed towards the end of the First War, if I remember correctly.”
“Lakeshire was, but we weren’t! Look here, the sons and daughters of Redridge are a tougher breed than most. Even before the orcs, we were always ready in case the gnolls caused trouble. Months before the orcs took Lakeshire, we sent all of our children and infirm over to Stormwind City. The rest of us went up into the hills.”
“You haven’t heard about this?” interjected Nerrin.
“I’m afraid I have not, but I’d like to hear more.”
“Ha ha! I’ve got more stories to tell then there are stars in the sky. I’m sure Nerrin can tell you most of them by now,” he chuckled.
“They’re better than stories. They’re real.”
“The Lakeshire Returners we were called, since we wanted to return things back to the way they were. There weren’t too many of us, and in the first few years things looked awfully grim. The orcs were hunting us down, and the gnolls did not improve matters. Our only blessing was that the gnolls hated the orcs even more than they hated us!”
“You waged a guerrilla war for over ten years then.”
“We waged it well too! Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, it was not some grand adventure. Most of us didn’t make it, but we’d be damned before we surrendered to the greenskins. It paid off though! Lakeshire’s back, better than it was before.”
“The people of Lakeshire already had a degree of combat skill?”
“Of course. You’d be a fool to live out here if you couldn’t wield a sword or bow. That’s why we don’t have many fools here in Lakeshire! Until this month things were very peaceful, since the gnolls slunk back to the high places. The orcs killed most of them. There’s been enough time for a new generation. I have faith in our youth. If the orcs get here, Nerrin, me, and the rest of the town will be on the barricades.”
“Were you born here, Nerrin?”
He shook his head.
“I was born in Kul Tiras. My parents both ran up north.” He said it with vague disgust. “They sent me down here though, when I was five, and I’m very glad they did.”
“Your mother’s a good woman Nerrin,” chided Ensel. “Just too easily led astray by a handsome face.”
“I suppose. I’m still glad I’m down here, where you could teach me how to be a man. When those orcs come down here, we’ll give them a battle they won’t forget.”
“Don’t get too cocky, son. Remember—”
“Think of the arrow, not of victory.”
“It’s something I teach all the young people. When a warrior gets too focused on the glory of victory, he becomes overconfident, and that’s a sure way to the grave. You have to remember what it is you’re doing, keep your head on, stay alive. That’s the important thing.”
The next day I observed militia archers practicing in the light woodland just west of Lakeshire. Ensel’s confidence was not unfounded; their skill was remarkable. The high-ranking militia troops have arms and armor essentially identical to that of Stormwind soldiers. The only notable difference is the emblem of a sword and arrow placed on the shoulder plates and sword pommels. No militia in old Lordaeron had that sort of equipment.
“The kings of Stormwind always thought we should be able to defend ourselves against gnolls and noblemen,” explained Arnacy Dumar, an attractive blonde woman on a break from the training.
“So this kind of arrangement is typical?”
“No. It used to be! There was a time when every town in the kingdom had a militia like this. Nowadays though, or so I hear, most militias are kept around for parades and holidays.”
“Lakeshire’s recent history encouraged the maintenance of a skilled militia?”
“Not just recent history. We’ve always had to fight. My parents weren’t actually from Lakeshire, but the old-timers who fought the orcs all through the occupation made sure the new generation would keep up the tradition. It’s a good thing they did too.”
It would be a mistake to say that everyone in Lakeshire was as battle-ready as Ensel, Nerrin, or Arnacy. Some seemed quite anxious (which was entirely understandable) though they all believed in their home-grown army. The general consensus was that the militia was quite capable of holding off the orcs until the Royal Army arrived.
“I do wish the army would get here soon. I thought I’d seen the last of bloodshed in my life.”
I was talking with a very old woman named Mardera. She too had been one of the Lakeshire Returners. Exhaustion and age stooped her frame, though her eyes gleamed bright.
“There will not be nearly as many orcs as there was in the War, so I’m sure it won’t be as bad,” I said.
“Have you seen warfare, my boy?”
“Yes. Sorry, my last statement was rather glib. I’m from Lordaeron and I’ve seen the devastation of the Scourge. Still, it will not be as terrible here.”
“Life’s full of terrible things. But if the orcs attack this place, I still remember the Art.” She smiled at the last word.
“You’re a mage?”
“Ha! Nothing of the sort. I can tell you’re a mage. I’m one of the conjurers of old Stormwind. Most of my order died in the First War. Of those few who survived, most became mages. I hold to the old ways though. There’s a few mages here in Lakeshire, and I’ve made sure they won’t forget that conjuration once ruled in this land.”
The conjurers of Stormwind held a jealously separatist attitude in regards to the mages of Dalaran. Given the inherent instabilities in conjuration, a potent though unpredictable mix of arcane and infernal energies, the mages of Dalaran looked down on the practice. Because infernal magic became so associated with the Horde, few were inclined to resurrect the decimated order after the Second War.
I was puzzled by the fact that the people of Lakeshire did not take shelter in Stonewatch Keep. After asking around, I learned that Stonewatch Keep was little more than an observation post and could not effectively protect the townsfolk.
As it turned out, it was quite wise for the people to stay in the town. On the morning of the third day, Magistrate Solomon of Lakeshire gravely announced that Stonewatch Keep had fallen to the orcs.
The citizens of Lakeshire held an emergency meeting in the town hall, which was soon packed wall to wall. The news sent a nasty shock through the populace. No one expected the orcs to take Stonewatch Keep, and the speed in which it fell was even more disturbing.
The distinguished magistrate took the stand, urging for calm. After the Stormwind Civil War, nobles were prohibited from ruling the towns of the kingdom. Instead, the towns were crown possessions that answered only to the royal government. The magistrate (an elected position), would manage the town. They very rarely had any interference from the crown, so long as they did not overstep their bounds.
“As you know, a messenger pigeon came today. The orcs attacked Stonewatch Keep from the south. It seems that there is a second orcish encampment in the southern reaches, so the invading force is bigger than we thought. There is no doubt in my mind that Lakeshire will be next. That said, I have faith that the orcs will fall to our blades as they did in the past!”
The ensuing huzzah seemed a bit half-hearted. Admittedly, Stonewatch Keep had a very small garrison and Lakeshire was probably better defended. Despite this, the people were already feeling the fingers of defeat.
“The message was sent by five soldiers who managed to escape. Currently they are camped around Stonewatch Falls. Their names are: Josias Willender, Melric Howe, Ellie Osterwald, Danson Uldrus, and Telicia Carvalo. Some of them are gravely wounded and the place is crawling with orcs. It is my opinion that a small force be sent to rescue these people.”
The townspeople unanimously agreed. Apparently, Josias was a Dalaran-trained mage, making him invaluable for Lakeshire’s defense. For reasons I could not quite fathom, I volunteered to join them. We numbered six in all. Besides myself, there were four militia troopers and a youthful priest.
We departed Lakeshire in the late afternoon. Our mode of transportation consisted of two Everstill sails, a type of lake-boat. A steady wind could not always be relied upon, so they were also outfitted with oars. The sails were carefully packed so that they would carry enough supplies for both us and the soldiers we were rescuing. I could not create enough food for everyone.
Lakeshire and the sun both receded into the west as we went out across the peaceful waters of Everstill. The wind carried us for some time, only to die down several hours later. The leader of our expedition, a middle-aged fisherman named Dessel Calwyn, kept our boats close to the northern shore.
“Everstill isn’t as safe as it might look,” he explained to me. “Plenty of boats have come out here and never returned. It might help to think of it as being a bit more like a small ocean than a lake. By the way, you row quite well for somebody who doesn’t live here. Most outlanders get tired out in less than an hour. Did you come from around Lake Darrowmere? Or, um, Lordamere?”
“I’ve lived near both, but I’ve never spent much time on the waters. My endurance simply comes from travel. When you’ve walked from Hillsbrad to Redridge, you learn how to handle your energy.”
“Ah, true enough,” he laughed.
Night fell, and the northern crags loomed shadowy over our heads. The wind picked up again, cold and bitter in the dark. Brother Acolus, the priest, led us in a prayer of thanks. While the Light does not formally acknowledge any deity it is still common to pray for good fortune and be grateful for the same. Prayers are supposedly directed to the essence of the Light. In theory the good fortune received by a believer gives him joy that is in turn reflected onto others. In Lordaeron and Khaz Modan, prayers are brief utterances followed by a meditation that lasts anywhere between a few minutes to several hours. The priests of Stormwind are more animated than their northern brethren, and Acolus raised his arms in joy.
“With this blessing of the wind let us give the blessing of sanctuary unto our fellow man! Truly here, we do the work of the Light!”
“For all that is holy!” replied the militiamen.
“And for all that is just!” concluded Acolus.
The shoreline began to curve to the south. The next day we came to the tip of a peninsula, from which we we cut across the Everstill Narrows. Continuing along the shore would bring us within range of Stonewatch Keep’s cannons. Making relatively good time, we reached the mouth of the Stonewatch River at dusk. The river descends from a higher point in the mountains, cutting a narrow ravine in the rock. Its tortured path and fierce rapids render it impassable by boat. We moored the sails at a quiet inlet and went overland.
We traveled for some time, generally trying to keep the Stonewatch River within sight. The terrain around the river is steep and treacherous in places, slowing our progress. The Redridge Mountains are still a wild land, made only more fearful by the darkness. I could easily imagine that every rock and tree hid terrible beasts.
Dessel granted his weary company a rest period, though he warned that they could not afford to sleep for long. It was still dark when we started moving again. Among our number was a rugged-looking man named Varnin Coleson. Born among the Lakeshire Returners during the Second War, he was quite familiar with the land in which we walked. Varnin brewed tea made from an indigenous plant called the red-eye root. This tea has an effect similar to coffee, keeping the drinker alert despite exhaustion. The taste is so sour that even I found it hard to drink.
We arrived at our destination in the late morning, thanks to Coleson’s tracking skills. Stonewatch Falls is a magnificent sight. Great edifices of red stone rise above and around the azure waters of a small mountain lake, and a great waterfall spills down from a cleft high in the natural walls. A slab of rock sticks out from the rushing water, defying gravity since prehistory.
A narrow game trail led us down to the lake. We were all on edge, half-expecting a war party of orcs to ambush us.
“What’s that?” hissed Dessel. He pointed down to the shore. “Gnolls?”
“Those aren’t gnoll structures,” said Varnin. “I’ve never seen anything like them before.”
I got closer. Below us, on a tiny stretch of mud between the lake and the cliff, was a jumble of crude huts on stilts. For a moment I stared, as confused as the rest of the party. Then a terrible realization dawned on me.
“Those are murloc huts. At least, they’re nearly identical to them,” I said.
“Yes. They’re a race of fish-men that plague the coasts of the world. I never knew they could live in fresh water.”
“Are they dangerous? Or simply a nuisance?” asked Dessel.
“Quite dangerous. They are not very intelligent but they are fierce. If murlocs are here than we need to find the soldiers right away.”
“I don’t see any murlocs,” commented Acolus.
“They are hunting perhaps? I honestly cannot say for sure where they are. I know relatively little about the creatures. We should be very careful down at the lake. There could be any number of them beneath the surface.”
We nervously watched the empty murloc huts. The grass roofs were interlaced with scales that glittered in the sun like a mottled rainbow. I felt an instinctive loathing towards the village, welling up from some deep ancestral memory. Judging by the looks on their faces, my companions felt the same way.
Skirting the rocky edges of the lake we went to a small cave at the place the soldiers said they were hiding. The cave entrance was dark and the ground thick with mold and fungi. The fact that no one greeted us caused the hardened militiamen to expect the worst.
“Light protect us,” groaned Dessel.
Propped up against the damp wall of the cave were three skeletons, ribbons of flesh hanging from the bones. A crude etching of a fish done in a blue, phosphorescent pigment glowed on the wall over the bodies. Weeds adorned the skeletal arms and shoulders, and scales crowned their heads. The gutted and flayed remnants of small fish hung above them, attached with strings to the ceiling. Around the remains were scattered pieces of armor. The armor was in relatively good condition, and had clearly not been in the cave for long.
Acolus immediately began saying a prayer and we lowered our heads in sorrow. In his clear voice, he spoke of how their good deeds, bravery, and kindness would echo throughout history, the light of their souls living on eternally in the Light that bound us all. They made an attempt to identify the dead. A small amulet belonging to Ellie Osterwald was found, confirming our worst suspicions, but we could not identify the other two. Acolus put his hands over his face upon seeing the amulet though he remained silent. With that grim business behind us, we returned outside. The clean, fresh air of the mountains came as a relief after the cavern’s stinking dampness.
As we lacked both the time and a place for a burial, I volunteered to destroy the bodies. We gathered a safe distance from the cave and I fired a pyroblast into the opening. There was a flash and a dull boom, followed by a torrent of black smoke. The spell was powerful enough to destroy the bones as well as the murloc religious icons.
“There were five soldiers in all. The other two may still be alive. I think we should look for them,” stated Dessel. “Only until dusk though. We need to get back to Lakeshire as soon as we can.”
We agreed with Dessel, though in truth we were not sure where else to look. The murlocs emerged from the lake just past noon, their hunched and mottled forms dripping with water as they returned to their village. I have no idea what they were doing beneath the lake. Fortunately, they did not see us.
As sunset approached we reluctantly headed back up the trail. Before us remained the grim prospect of defending Lakeshire, and the knowledge that our rescue attempt had been in vain. Acolus seemed particularly shaken. I learned that Ellie was a friend of his. In fact, three of the soldiers were natives of Lakeshire. Lakeshire is still a small enough town that most inhabitants are familiar with one another, at least by name.
“Dessel! Thank the Light you’re here!” came a voice from a thicket at the end of the trail.
A bedraggled, wild-eyed woman rose from the leaves. She gripped a sword in her left hand.
“Telicia! We thought you were all dead! Are you hurt?”
“No, Josias is also alive. He’s hurt though. These monsters came out from the water-”
“We saw them. Where is Josias?”
“This way sir.”
Telicia led us into a copse of elm trees, where a bloody bearded man lay against a mass of roots. He was only barely conscious of our arrival, and a blood-soaked cloth was wrapped around his gut. Acolus immediately moved up to tend to him.
“The orcs came so fast, north and south at the same time. They had warlocks with them! Captain Uldrus led us out, and at first we were fine. Then he was dead! A harpoon flew out from the waters and killed him! One of them got Josias too, and I was able to help him escape but the rest were all killed!” sobbed Telicia. Varnin tried to comfort her without much success.
“How is Josias?” I asked.
“Not well. The wound’s already had time to fester. I could close it, but it wouldn’t do much good,” explained Acolus. “I have a few tricks up my sleeve though. Pray with me, brother Talus.”
I knelt beside him as he gave a prayer to draw upon the revitalizing qualities of the Light. A yellow nimbus surrounded Josias and he gave a ragged gasp. The light coalesced around him, centering on the bandaged wound. Acolus was attempting to purge the infection.
The glow vanished suddenly and Josias looked at us, his face confused. Acolus explained the situation to him. Though still quite weak, he was able to get back on his feet with our help. With two of the five in hand, we made our way back to the boats.
Lakeshire did not stay idle in our absence. The militia had engaged in skirmishes with orcish warriors north of the town just a day after we left. In response, the entire community took up arms in preparation. Archers watched the key entry points at all times, quite ready to cut down the invaders.
Both Josias and Telicia were badly shaken by their experience at Stonewatch Falls. Troubled though they were, necessity and loyalty prompted them to take up arms. Their faces stamped with anxiety and expectation, young and old alike manned the barricades. The previously enthusiastic air in Lakeshire was gone; the small battles that had occurred were bloodier than expected, and eleven townsfolk already lay dead. The news of murlocs in the lake further upset the defenders. Though they hoped that the royal army would arrive to protect them, they stoically prepared for the worst. In fact, the worst had a good chance of arriving; a small warship was docked next to Stonewatch Keep and we suspected that the orcs had commandeered it.
“You have fought orcs before, haven’t you?”
The second night after our return found me keeping watch on the northern palisade. A half-mile north of me was a simple watch post, where keen eyed irregulars looked for signs of invasion. Next to me was Nerrin, the youthful archer that I had met in the tavern.
“You think we can win, don’t you?”
“Have faith Nerrin. The orcs are as mortal as you.” I paused when I realized what I had just said. “And as I. Or anyone else.”
“I’m an excellent shot, so are some of the other people here. It just feels strange is all.”
I wondered if I was making a terrible mistake in staying. Why should I even help them? They would not hesitate to kill me if they knew I was Forsaken. Nonetheless, I was already there. My entire generation grew up reenacting the battles of the First and Second Wars on the fields. At that moment, I truly was reliving the continuation of an ancient war. The battles of the Second War are still being fought in the Wetlands. In Redridge, it is the First War that never truly ended.
Far to the east, the rays of the morning sun filled the dark sky with rose-colored light. A bright flash flickered from the watch post, signaling the orcish arrival.
A tense hush fell over the militiamen as they raised their crossbows in preparation, as their fathers had in the First War. The howls of orcish warriors soon carried down to us and we saw their massive silhouettes, ax blades glinting in the dawn’s half-light.
“Hold your fire!” ordered Corporal Bradley, a Lordaeronian veteran of the Third War.
I heard a click to my left as a nervous youth loosed a bolt. He hissed an oath and hurriedly reloaded his weapon.
“I can hit them from here,” I said.
Bradley looked at me for a moment, then nodded his assent. I gathered the energies of the arcane, directing them to a patch of land just in front of the charging warriors. The first razor-sharp shard of ice plummeted from the clear sky, followed by its innumerable fellows.
“Fire!” yelled Bradley.
A wave of crossbow quarrels shot out from the palisade into the arcane blizzard ahead. With the orcs hampered by the razor-sharp hail, the militiamen got time to fire a second volley. Then the orcs retaliated. Spear throwers hurled their weapons, and gasps rippled through the human forces as neighbors, friends, and relatives fell, shrieking in pain or made forever silent.
“Steady! Steady!” commanded Bradley, trying to keep order.
The swordsmen prepared themselves for the grisly theatre of melee as the orcs burst through the blizzard. Bursts of arcane energy rippled through the orcish masses at my command. However, they had magic of their own. Guarded by grunts were a number of orcs in tattered robes, beckoning burning imps and shadowy voidwalkers into the fray. Those same warlocks then attacked, unleashing bolts of shadow that streamed towards us. The wood of the palisade peeled and decayed at their impact, even as the small fires set by the imps began to consume the structure. At some point, camouflaged archers in the forested ridge above us were supposed to join the attack, assaulting the orcish flank. They had somehow been detained, either by the orcs or by the simple confusion of battle.
“They have wizards?” demanded a panicked voice.
“Hold the line! Aim at the warlocks and imps!”
The more experienced fighters, some of whom had fought with the Lakeshire Returners in years past, grimly kept to their task. Their courage kept the younger ones battling through their terror.
Following Bradley’s orders I cast a pyroblast at the assembled warlocks. Too late they saw the incandescent mass barge towards them. Two went down in flames, howling their last. Casting spells became more difficult as the mana necessary for my arcane connections faded with overuse.
The orcs reached the sharpened stakes of the palisade, hacking away at wood already damaged by shadow and flame. Swordsmen gallantly stepped up as the archers and myself retreated, firing at the oncoming rush of warriors. Suddenly, the swordsmen broke ranks and fled, heedless of Bradley’s orders. A few confusedly stopped and tried to rally their friends but we all saw that retreat to the more well-defended town proper was our only real option.
The blade of a spear buried itself into the ground next to my feet. I looked up to see a flight of spears soaring over. Then fortune came to our side. The archers on the ridge finally emerged, announcing themselves with a volley of arrows that cut down a few score of orcs. The invaders began to clamber up the steep but scalable ridge. According to plan, the archers faded back into the thicket. As they did so, we made our way back to Lakeshire though not before giving the orcs a few parting gifts.
More palisades stood in the streets of Lakeshire and archers waited in every house. I took position in the stables, resting to regain mana. I was glad to see Nerrin among the survivors, though he had a shocked look that did not bode well. Acolus and another priest tended to the wounded, closing wounds and replenishing blood with the Light. One of the wounded militiamen reported that Bradley had died in battle.
The sun burst forth from the horizon, its light a gorgeous sight in those mountains. The archers who came to our rescue returned, saying that the orcs had presumably stopped to consolidate their position. So we again waited, keeping watch on the waters of Everstill for the warship. The south road so far remained empty, granting us a small reprieve.
Not long before noon, the orcs pressed the attack. They came as a veritable black tide on the town. The more experienced fighters offered fierce resistance at the barricades, forcing the orcs to pay in blood for every advance. Then, elderly Mardera emerged from her home, clad in a faded blue robe. She approached the front, where the orcs had gotten close enough for melee even as waves of arrows fired from shops and houses swept through their ranks.
A faint halo of dull flame appeared over the orcish warriors as Mardera raised her arms. Then, fire struck down from the sky, announced by an inchoate roar. My own energies had returned and I contributed with spells of my own. It was strange and wonderful to again see a conjurer in action, and by the grim smile on her face I judged that Mardera felt the same as I.
As Mardera recovered she fired elemental blasts, and I rejoiced as I saw the orcish lines falter. A terrible stench filled the air, of spilt gore and burning bodies, and my ears rang with the screams and pleas of the dying. Then Mardera cast another spell.
The conjurers earned their name through their use of summoning spells. Though they did not go so far as to consort with demons, as do the warlocks, they were still quite fond of bringing dangerous entities from distant lands to the field of battle. At her bidding, four black scorpids sprang into reality along the orcish flanks, their razor pincers and poison stings wreaking havoc on the surprised warriors.
All in all, we were quite fortunate that the orcish warlocks were not very well trained. Even so, their shadow bolts and curses killed or weakened the militia soldiers. Too soon we saw some of the houses (occupied by archers) go up in flames thanks to the imps. I was able to put out a nearby conflagration with a frost bolt, but the fires in the other houses grew too great and too fast.
The dull percussion of cannon fire shook the ground. Looking back, I saw the cannons on the bridge come to life as a dark ship drifted towards the town. The warship, the emblem of the Blackrock Clan painted hastily over Stormwind's royal seal on the mast, turned about until it faced the bridge at an angle. I knew that the cannons in the town were inferior models, dating back to just after the Second War. The ship possessed a more recent incarnation of the weapon.
Wisely, the militia relocated some of the cannons to the shore, within closer range to their target. I could not watch the battle at the bridge as I was occupied with the ground war in the town. I heard an awful cracking sound and the earth shook. I glanced back to see a rapidly expanding cloud of smoke and dust, preceded by arcing chunks of masonry. The bridge had fallen.
While standing, the bridge blocked the ship from entering the small stretch of water next to Lakeshire. Without it, the ship was free to sail through. The cannons on the shore continued firing. They scored terrific hits on the side of the ship, splintering the deck and killing many of the crewmen. Wounded but still afloat, the ship returned fire even as it inexorably got closer to Lakeshire. It would only be a matter of time before it opened fire on the town.
My mind turned again to the orcs, whose attack finally seemed to be faltering. I launched off some weaker spells at the warriors as the militia continued its bloody work. Another explosion rocked the town and I looked back to see the ship in flames. At the time I believed it to be the work of the cannons, though I learned later that it was the doing of Josias, the mage I helped to rescue. Sadly he paid for his victory with his life as an orcish spear found its way into his chest.
With the destruction of the ship, the orcs broke into full retreat. A few were so consumed by bloodlust that they fought to the end. The militia of Lakeshire did not pursue them, and a brief silence fell over the town. Then the people sang cheers and prayers of thanks.
As I examined the aftermath, I was surprised to see that the battle had not actually been very large. One’s perception of combat tends to magnify things. Still, a grievous number of townsfolk lay dead, 76 in all. Among the dead was Mardera, hacked apart by grunts. The orcish dead were not exactly counted, though we were certain that more than a hundred perished. Though it made them terrifying in combat, the demonic rage of the orcs of the Old Horde was often a liability. Many of the orcish dead might have lived if they’d had the discipline to retreat.
The celebrations were subdued. For most, it was their first sight of real combat. The fact that every dead human had been part of the town dampened the sense of victory. They were comforted by their own prowess in battle, and by the certainty that the Royal Army would arrive in a matter of days.
I relaxed at the tavern with Ensel and Nerrin the next day. Nerrin looked years older than he had when I first met him, and his eyes seemed haunted. Two of his closest friends lay among the fallen. I did sense a silent bond of camaraderie between him and his grandfather. At last, Nerrin had lived the stories Ensel had told him. Perhaps it was an experience he would have preferred to forego. With his town and his people were under attack, he had no choice but to hold the line.
The damage to the bridge was less extensive than I thought, and local workers soon began to repair the structure, though it would likely be at least a few months before it was fully restored. Magistrate Solomon thanked me for my help, as did Acolus. I wished them the best of luck and began my journey to the forests of the west.