Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The Grizzly Hills: Part 2
“Talus Corestiam? Yes, I think I remember that name. You’re the itinerant mage who helped us for a while during the Defias Uprising.”
I smiled, nodding in acknowledgment.
“Yes, I am the same. I’m honored that you remember me, Commander Stoutmantle.”
“You were one of the first outsiders to help us.”
“How does Westfall fare today? I’ve heard it is returning to normalcy.”
“I wish I knew. Duty called me up here not long after Van Cleef’s death. I get letters from my wife, and she says things are improving there. People can travel the roads without fear, and the farms are being reclaimed. I look forward to seeing it,” said Gryan, with a wry smile. “Pardon me, I need to attend to some business. Good to have you in our company again, Talus.”
Considering how little I actually did for the People’s Militia in Westfall, I was surprised Gryan remembered me. We had never personally met, though I was familiar with some of his lieutenants, one of whom recognized me when the zeppelin reached the Westfall Brigade Encampment. Named Hilas Orestien, I had long ago followed him on patrol through Westfall’s fallow fields, hunting for Defias guerrillas.
“When they told me you’d gone off to Duskwood, I wondered if I’d ever see you again!” he laughed.
The leaders of the Thor Modan expedition knew that the Westfall Brigade could not afford to offer them permanent shelter. Thor Modan would simply have to wait. Until then, they planned to disperse to other archaeological sites throughout Northrend. A few would stay behind in order to learn more about the iron dwarves and the incoming army of earthen.
The Westfall Brigade Encampment is basically what one would expect of a Stormwind military camp. Rows of identical white tents line up along the edge of the redwood forest. A flowering meadow lies to the south, an pastoral patch of clear land in the endless forests.
Night soon fell over the Grizzly Hills, the stars bright and cold. The savory aroma of roasting pork wafted up from the kitchen tents, mixing with the forest’s brambly smell. Something there reminded me of summer nights in old Lordaeron, in the woods outside Andorhal. I spent most of my childhood summers in my uncle’s tavern, but he would always let me spend a few nights camping with the sons of other tradesmen. While never much for the outdoors, I still appreciated the time away from the hot and noisy tavern.
I was sitting next to a campfire with Hilas, who told me about the Westfall Brigade’s situation.
“The Brigade’s supposed to go into Zul’drak—but not yet! Even though, as we speak, the Scourge is demolishing the Drakkari and working their way east. The Lich King will soon have the entire empire in his grip.”
“Have you considered allying with the Drakkari?”
“They murdered the envoy we sent, and I hear that the same thing happened to the Horde ambassador. We cannot help the Drakkari, and Highlord Fordragon does not want to expend us fighting them.”
“I can’t imagine there are very many Drakkari.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Talus,” he said. Hilas leaned in close, his voice lowering to a hush. “Reports say that there are thousands of Drakkari warriors up there. I am not speaking of ice troll peasants here, I mean warriors.”
“How can they support such a population?”
“It should not be possible. Half of Zul’drak is a snowbound waste, and the other half is hardly good growing land. The Drakkari do not use arcane magic, so that explanation is out; even if they did, magic can only go so far.”
“What you’re saying is that the Scourge can get thousands of new minions once they conquer Zul’drak.”
“The Drakkari will bloody the Scourge, and we know that they burn the undead bodies. Still, you’re right. I think the rationale is that a reanimated Drakkari corpse is less dangerous than a living Drakkari fanatic. There simply are not enough men here to make an assault of troll-held Zul’drak feasible. If the Scourge is sufficiently weakened, we might have a chance. For now, Commander Stoutmantle concentrates on maintaining discipline.”
“How long have you been stationed here?”
“Nearly four months, which is too long for this army to sit around. I hate to use the flogging post, but some of the soldiers give us no choice. Discipline is essential.”
“One of the dwarves told me that the Westfall Brigade is an evolution of the People’s Militia.”
“I suppose you could say that. Most of the officers served in the People’s Militia. Talus, you saw what the Defias did to Westfall.”
“I will never forget it,” I said. I remembered the atrocities committed on the dusty plains, the fields of murdered farmers.
“When the King returned and ordered the militias across Stormwind to mobilize, well, you can imagine how the farmers felt. They were willing to fight, and fight they did, but after defeating the Defias they wanted to get back to their jobs. As did the king, in truth. Varian’s a wiser man than people give him credit for being, and he knew the farms of Westfall needed to operate again.”
Hilas fell silent, his expression searching.
“Most of these men are former Defias, collected from the lower ranks of that organization. Some of them were career criminals even before the uprising, but the majority are as much victims as anyone else in Westfall. Youths plucked from Menethil and Stormwind, kidnapped farmers’ sons... not all of them could adjust to a normal life. Some wanted to hang the whole lot of them, especially when a few started backsliding into crime after the Uprising. Not usually serious crimes, but enough to anger the citizenry. There was really only one thing we could do with them.
“The really young ones are still in Westfall, at Varian’s insistence. But those who reached adulthood during or after the Defias Uprising were shipped up here. Army life gives them the structure they need. I just hate having to send them to fight the Scourge.”
Thinking back to the horrors that the Defias inflicted on Westfall, I can hardly fault the citizenry for their anger. I do not at all blame them for sending the ex-Defias to Northrend in their place. The people of Westfall have earned a right to peace.
But as Hilas said, many of these former militants are also victims of the Defias. They’ve spent their lives being thrown into one conflict after another. Unnaturally hardened by their experiences, many of them may pose a real danger to society. Rehabilitation had met with only limited success. When new pressures appeared in Westfall, the ex-Defias were the first to go.
Part of me suspects that Northrend is meant to serve as an icy grave for these lost souls. Perhaps those who return from Northrend will at last find some semblance of lives. Perhaps they will simply be marched into new wars.
In many ways, Ulsten Farnham’s story was typical of the former Defias soldiers. A smile perpetually alight on his broad features, he told me about his origins in Lordaeron.
“My parents sent me away from Strahnbrad when they heard about the fall of Quel’thalas. I was supposed to go to Tarren Mill, but I fell in with refugees fleeing the continent and ended up living in Menethil Harbor for a year or so.”
“What did you do there?”
“Begged, mostly. When this fellow offered me a farm job in Westfall, I jumped at the chance. Of course, he turned to out to be Defias,” laughed Ulsten.
I met Ulsten the day after I reached the Westfall Brigade Encampment. Seemingly content with the rank of private, he did his duty with a good-natured nonchalance. Surprisingly friendly, he only expressed reservation when asked about the Defias. I soon gave up on the subject, not wanting to disturb him. Instead, I asked him about how he liked Northrend.
“Oh, I really love it. The Grizzly Hills remind me a bit of the forests around Strahnbrad, but even bigger and greener.”
“Are you worried about the Scourge?”
“Not really. I figure I should just enjoy things while I can, not worry too much about tomorrow. This is a great place. We get three meals a day, no questions asked. Sometimes the officers get cross, but they only execute the soldiers who try to desert. Most of the people here consider themselves lucky to be in an army like this.”
“What do you think you will do after the war?”
“I haven’t really thought about it. I figure the Alliance will still need troops to fight the Horde, or maybe those demons I keep hearing about.”
Most of the camp seemed to know and like Ulsten, and he introduced me to a number of other soldiers. Despite the general good feeling, there is a loose hierarchy among the enlisted men of the Westfall Brigade Encampment, one that reflects the pecking order of the old Defias Brotherhood.
At the bottom are the Stormwind natives, mostly from Westfall, who were pressed into the Defias ranks. Regarded as suspect by the Defias officers in the Uprising, they were given the most dangerous tasks. Many defected to the People’s Militia, though some feared reprisal for having once helped the Defias. This group enjoyed the highest rate of repatriation in Westfall, though those without connections (or who were associated with particularly heinous Defias activities) found themselves in a very tenuous position after the war. Only a small minority of the soldiers in the Westfall Brigade Encampment fall under this category.
The biggest group are former refugees like Ulsten. Shunned by the people of Westfall, most ended up in Northrend. Already toughened by their experiences in the Third War, they had adapted to Defias life more easily than most of the Stormwinders.
Ironically, the unofficial lords of the lower ranks also hail from Stormwind, at least for the most part. These are the criminals who joined Van Cleef in the early days, acting as largely apolitical legbreakers and financiers. The People’s Militia had made a special point of prosecuting these individuals when possible, but some managed to avoid the gallows. Nicknamed the Westfall Bosses, they are largely responsible for the hierarchy’s continued existence.
I met one of the Westfall Bosses that afternoon, a man named Drin Bessard. A smuggler before the Uprising, he’d made a small fortune funneling supplies to the Defias. Ulsten, guileless to a fault, took me to Drin that afternoon, once he finished his daily training.
Nearing middle-age, Drin greeted Ulsten with practiced insouciance. Drin sat on a crate, whittling a piece of wood.
“So who’s this fellow, Ulsten?”
“He’s named Talus. He’s a, uh, scholar, right?”
“Among other things.”
“What kind of other things?” inquired Drin.
“Whatever other things I need to be at the time,” I said, trying to adopt Drin’s casual demeanor. Judging from his mocking grin, I do not think I succeeded.
“Talus is Lordaeronian, like me.”
“I gathered. So what brings you to this place? Hardly where I’d expect to find an academic.”
“Sometimes you need to leave the academy to learn things.”
“True, very true. You know, Ulsten, time is a precious commodity. I’ve got maybe a few hours of free time today, and I don’t want to spend it debating philosophy with your friend here.”
“Well, I wanted to make a trade.”
Drin’s eyes widened in incredulity.
“Have you lost your mind?” he exclaimed, pointing to me.
“Relax, Drin! Talus is Lordaeronian, like me—”
“That doesn’t mean anything, you dimwit! You can’t—”
“No, it’s all right! Here, uh, Talus wants to buy something too.” Ulsten flashed me a pleading look, and I decided to play along.
“I’ve got some money to spend,” I said, wondering what Drin sold.
“You do, do you? I’ll let it go this time, but if you ever bring an outsider into my tent again, Ulsten, you will regret it.”
“Sorry. So could I get some berry juice?” By the way he said it, I could tell that berry juice was a euphemism.
“Let’s have your scholar friend trade first. What do you want?”
“Um, berry juice. Ulsten and I were going to make a toast to old Lordaeron.” I hoped I’d guessed correctly.
“Berry juice, huh? You don’t even know what that is.”
“I’m guessing it’s some kind of liquor, but I might be wrong.”
“Not bad. Now what will you give for it?”
I paused, not have even the remotest idea as to the price of black market alcohol in the Westfall Brigade Encampment. Perhaps sensing my uncertainty, Ulsten intervened.
“I’ll do kitchen duty for you, Drin. Maybe Talus can pay a silver.”
“I want two silvers from Talus.”
“Fair enough,” I said, giving two coins to Drin. He nodded and put them into a small pouch hanging from his belt. Ulsten removed a canteen from his own belt and handed it to Drin. Following Ulsten’s lead, I gave the black marketeer my waterskin.
Drin looked around, his head darting from side to side. Judging himself safe, he stood up and lifted the edge of the crate, taking out an earthen jug. With quick, efficient movements he filled the canteen and waterskin with the jug’s contents before returning them to us.
“Good doing business with you both. Now get out of here.”
“Thank you, Drin.”
Ulsten grinned openly as we walked away. An officer passed us, none the wiser to our cargo.
“This is probably the worst tasting stuff I’ve ever had in my life, but it takes you on a mad ride,” Ulsten said, when the officer was safely out of earshot.
“What is it made from?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. I think berries go into it, but so does other stuff.”
“Does he have a distillery?”
“I figure he must, but I don’t really ask about it. Not my business, you know?”
“Right, best to be prudent. What does Drin do with the money?”
“Like I said, not my business. My friend, Verdon, says that Drin uses it to buy some, uh, ‘unofficial’ goods from the supply caravans that come up here from Westguard Keep.”
“That would make sense. Does Drin sell anything else besides juice?”
“Sure, though I think that’s his main product. He deals in a lot of favors, having one fellow do something for another. Sells a lot of commendation signets too; have enough of those, and you can get some good stuff from the quartermaster.”
“How does he get signets?”
“From troopers who need favors, or just really want to get drunk. I mean, there’s beer in the camp, but they don’t let you have all that much at a time, and it’s weak stuff anyway.”
I followed Ulsten to his tent at the edge of camp. He sat down just outside of it. A field of yellow flowers stretched out before us, tended by squadrons of honeybees. I could hear their buzzing, a lively undercurrent to the sound of work in the camp. Ulsten raised his canteen and I returned the gesture with my waterskin.
“To old Lordaeron, right?”
“To Lordaeron,” I said.
Ulsten’s description could not prepare me for the drink’s truly revolting nature. A sickly-sweet miasma flooded my mouth, not quite masking the taste of stagnant water left out in the sun for days at a time. I almost spat it out, astonished at the foulness that sparked my deadened senses. Somehow I choked it down. Looking over to Ulsten, I saw a feverish blush creeping over his face.
“Like I said, it tastes horrible, but it gets the job done.”
“There has to be more than just berries in here,” I said, nausea blurring my vision.
Ulsten raised his canteen for another swig. As he did so, I emptied my waterskin, unwilling to drink more of the stuff. I also wanted to avoid being caught with contraband, though I suspected that the officers were not overly concerned with the matter. Drin’s black market relieved the pressures of life in a strange land. So long as it did not greatly disrupt the military routine, the authorities looked the other way, only making object lessons of those who took it to excess.
“Did you know that some of the People’s Militia, after the Uprising, wanted to make Gryan Stoutmantle the King of Westfall?”
“No, though I can understand why.”
“I really respect Gryan. Him and Father Torsen.”
“I remember Torsen,” I said. Torsen had acted as the spiritual voice of the People’s Militia. “What happened to Torsen?”
“He’s still in Westfall. Gryan refused to be king though, which was a smart move on his part since the real king came back. Gryan tried to put us all on farms. He even set up a few for ex-Defias like me.”
“Did you work on one?”
“For a while. I don’t think farm life is for me though. A lot of the men there kept getting in fights or stealing from other farms. They had to hang a few of them for attempted murder. I never got in that kind of trouble though.”
“You just didn’t like being on the farm?”
“I’m a soldier at heart, I guess. I wouldn’t ever want to go back to the Defias, but everything there felt bigger and more important. Matters of life and death, you know? Farming just seemed really pointless after that. I know farming is important, and some of the ex-Defias really got into it. I couldn’t feel it though.”
“You didn’t mind joining the Westfall Brigade?”
“I had my doubts, but I know I made the right choice. Honestly,” he paused, taking another gulp of berry juice. Ulsten let out a ferocious belch before continuing. “Honestly, this is a damned good life I have right now.”
I detected a hint of reproach on Vanya’s face as he looked back at the tents of the Westfall Brigade Encampment. To the southern eye, Vanya appeared as some half-mad northern prophet, his aquiline face obscured by a bristly brown beard that did not grow so much as explode from his chin. A heavy coat of black felt and a tall cylindrical cap of the same completed the image.
In truth, Vanya was one of the last remnants of Kirovar’s educated class. Sensing his keen intelligence, the bearded Kirovi priests of fallen Sanktagrad had taught him history and theology. Upon reaching seventeen years of age, the church elders sent him to study in Lordaeron’s Capital City.
“When first I arrived, I wondered if I had somehow ascended to the Light. How, I wondered, could such beauty exist on Azeroth?”
He returned to the north, only five years before the Scourge annihilated Kirovar. A survivor of Sanktagrad’s overnight destruction, Vanya had done what he could to care for the bodies and souls of the remaining Kirovi.
Hilas introduced me to Vanya on my third day in the camp. Pleased to meet a Lordaeronian scholar, Vanya told me of the Kirovi people’s situation.
The priest described Solstice Village as a place on the brink of collapse. Droves of refugees had fled to the forests after the fall of Eastwind Shore, straining the already limited food supply. Many died in the first year, but survival remained tenuous even after those deaths. Vanya came to the Westfall Brigade Encampment to seek help. He did not consider it viable to stay in Solstice Village indefinitely; he’d hoped to convince the Alliance to send enough supplies to last the village for another year or two. When that failed, he requested an armed escort to guide the refugees south. This too proved beyond the Valiance Expedition’s means; the Alliance could only spare a few extra donkeys. Wanting to learn more about the Kirovi, I offered to travel with him to Solstice Village and, if necessary, help with the evacuation. Vanya thanked me profusely.
He also feared for the spiritual health of Solstice Village.
“I am not sure that the hunters, who were the original inhabitants, were ever very pious. But now they openly reject the Light, preferring dark gods of the forest and the night.”
“Similar to what the people here worshipped before the missionaries arrived?”
“I do not think what they worship is the same. The hunters are not forthcoming about what they pray to, but there has been friction between the faithful and the misguided. I hoped the Alliance could at least spare a few priests to help me sway them, but it seems they need their healers. For when they start fighting the Scourge, I suppose.”
Riding Vanya’s donkeys, we traveled south on an ancient hunter’s path. Redwoods, some of them thousands of years old, stand tall on both sides, their tips piercing the sky. Grass and vines intrude on the fringes of the narrow path, the forest happy to fill the vacuum left by the Kirovi.
“Did you speak to Gryan?” I asked.
“Yes, I wish there were more like him. But he can only do so much. I brought a number of gifts with me: furs, tools, dried meats. When I offered them, Gryan refused, saying he did not want to accept gifts that he could not repay.”
“I can tell he is new to this land. Among us, refusing a gift is a great insult. However, I know that the ways of southerners are different from our own.”
We stopped traveling at sundown. Vanya dismounted and walked over to an ancient, moss-spattered tree, bigger than its neighbors. Two knots, looking almost like eyes in the dusk gloom, stared out from the trunk. Vanya knelt before the knots, taking out a small earthen flask and emptying some of its contents on the roots. When finished, he stood up, returned to his mule and began unpacking the bedroll.
“In these woods, one should always give a little water to the leshniki,” he said, pointing at the tree.
“The old men of the forest. They can either be the traveler’s best friend, or his worst enemy. Small gifts—they never ask for much—can make all the difference with a leshnik.”
“So the leshniki are spirits, of a sort?”
“You could say that, yes.”
“Do the Kirovi have shamans?”
“No. We are not like the taunka or the furbolgs, who live in a world haunted by spirits. Our spirits appear but rarely, and we cannot call them. The first missionaries who came to this land tried to convince us that the spirits did not exist. In the end, they were the ones convinced.”
We did not set up a campfire that night, wanting to avoid attracting wild animals or worse. Even during the height of their kingdom, the Kirovi had lived much closer to nature than did the humans of Lordaeron or Stormwind. They never benefitted from the arcane infrastructure that had tamed those lands. Much like the taunka, they view nature as fundamentally hostile. Having been a largely sedentary culture, at least until recently, the Kirovi were less vulnerable to changes in the environment. I asked Vanya about the taunka.
“The taunka and the forest are as one; any trespass against one shall be avenged by the other. That is an old Kirovi saying, though it is not really accurate. Besides, many taunka once lived on plains of the far west,” he added with a chuckle.
“Do the taunka defend the forests from human expansion?”
“They defend their own lands. I believe that the phrase’s original meaning referred to the unbelievable skill of the taunka hunters and trackers. A victim of an ambush could well believe the forest had attacked him. As battles between our people became less common, it began to be interpreted as the taunka being akin to the leshniki and other forest spirits. The same spirits that the taunka hate!”
“How do you know so much about the taunka?”
“Hunters from the Coldmane Tribe sometimes came to sell furs and hides in Sanktagrad. My father often traded with them, and he learned a bit about the taunka.”
“My understanding was that the Kirovi and the Coldmanes were not on the best of terms.”
“We were not, but most of the fighting took place during my grandfather’s generation. The Forest Crusade, we called it. A bloody, dreadful matter. I suppose the taunka won, though at great cost. Kirovar promised to leave the forests of the Grizzly Hills to the Coldmane Tribe. Hunters and woodsmen still encroached on taunka lands, but they were not officially supported by King Alyosha Fyederov in Paskaron. He did not officially condemn them either,” added Vanya, with a wry grin. “Now that so many Kirovi fled into those very same hunter camps, the taunka are quite outraged.”
“Have you been able to speak with representatives from the Coldmane Tribe?”
“I did, in fact, soon after the fall of Sanktagrad. I thought we had come to an agreement, but they started attacking a few months ago. I suspect that the hunters of Solstice provoked them. Ultimately, the taunka are a fickle people, and no human can claim to truly know them.”
“Do you speak the taunka language?”
“No more than a few words. Our brief diplomatic venture was conducted in Common.”
“The Kirovi allied with the taunka for a brief period, did they not?”
“Yes, to defeat the magnataurs. Do you know of the magnataurs?”
“Only that everyone in Northrend seems to hate them.”
“They are giants, walking on four legs like a beast, but also with arms the size of tree trunks, and great teeth that can chew through rock. Magnataurs once ruled much of this continent, demanding tribute and destroying those who could not pay. Finally, we had enough. Nevaksander Fyederov went from town to town, gathering the bravest men to do battle against the Magnataur. He befriended non-humans too. Taunka, tuskarr, and some wolvar marched under the banner of the Hero’s Concord.”
“Was Nevaksander the leader of the Concord?”
“The Concord’s leaders ruled together. All respected Nevaksander, but they were not subservient to him. After years of weakening the magnataurs, the Concord’s armies at last met them in the Battle of Bloody Snow. This took place far to the west, in a land called the Dragon Wastes where snow covers the ground all year long. Wit and courage faced brute strength. When the day ended, the power of the magnataurs was forever broken.”
“Was this before or after the Kirovi converted to the Holy Light?”
“Not long after. The Light made it easier for Nevaksander to unite us. He created Kirovar, which he intended to be a united kingdom of humans, taunka, and all the other races. Yet only the humans were interested. Perhaps the other races saw him as another tyrant, though he had treated them with respect during the campaign. There were some incidents of violence, many of them started by humans, I am sad to say. Nevaksander’s dream died with him, and his successors never saw the other Northrenders as anything besides foes and rivals.”
Solstice Village, which we reached the day after the next, is not far removed from the forest. Located at the top of a hill, the village is a scattered collection of slapdash log cabins and watch towers. Modest farm plots are attached to many of the cabins, growing either potatoes or cabbages.
Constant hardship has toughened the inhabitants. Their bushy eyebrows and unkempt beards gave them a feral air that I found oddly disquieting. The complete absence of animals furthered my unease. Our arrival was greeted with a barrage of sullen glares and bared teeth. No one spoke, though their expressions said volumes.
Then, an old woman rushed out at Vanya as we turned the corner, her aged and weather-beaten face wearing a look of relief.
“Father Vanya is back!” she called, her voice surprisingly robust.
Figures working in the fields stood up, dropping their implements and jogging towards us. The woman had already seized Vanya’s hand, showering it with kisses. Smiling sadly, the priest gently tried to disengage himself while dismounting, a task made difficult by his heavy coat.
“Father Vanya, what did the Lordaeronians say?”
“They are Stormwinders, not Lordaeronians. Please, Yeleda, I do not mean to disappoint but...” he trailed off, seeing the townsfolk crowd around him, seeking an answer he could not give. All the while, other Kirovi stared down at us with visible contempt.
“Brethren!” Vanya proclaimed, “The men of the south offer their condolences, but they cannot help us.”
“But what will we do?” demanded a man with a shaggy red beard.
“We will do whatever we must. But we cannot expect help from the army camp. They are here to do battle with the Scourge, which shall surely destroy us if it is not stopped. However, Gryan Stoutmantle, the leader of the southern warriors, says that we can find sanctuary if we go south ourselves, to Amberpine Lodge.”
“Can they not spare—”
“No!” snapped Vanya, with surprising force. Casting a nervous glance to the sides, he lowered his voice. “I will give a sermon at our church tomorrow, at noon. We can discuss in more detail there. Until then, be joyous in your duties, and kind to your neighbors. Whoever they may be.”
“What of your companion? Is he—”
“This is Talus, and he is my guest!”
The crowd only dispersed when Vanya led them in a brief prayer, one that I recognized as an archaic version of a traditional Lordaeronian prayer. As they left, a woman and two children, a boy and a girl, ran up to embrace Vanya. They met in gales of laughter and chatter, the woman kissing Vanya on the lips, while the children hugged his legs. Though obviously tired and worn, they seemed to light up in the priest’s presence.
“Talus, meet my darling wife, Svetna, and my children, Mishkin and Antalya!”
Svetna gave her husband a few more kisses before disengaging and turning to me. A cautious smile turned up on her careworn face.
“Our home is yours, Talus.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Svetna is a light in my life. We married here, in Solstice Village. Both our former spouses died in Sanktagrad’s fall,” explained Vanya.
I followed the happy family as they made their way home. Vanya’s house turned out to be a single-room cabin on the edge of town. The dirt floor and simple beds contrasted with artifacts from Sanktagrad’s domesticity. A beautiful, leather-bound copy of the Exegesis of the Light occupied a place of honor on a rough wooden altar, just below a colorful icon of St. Cyrillus, who had first brought the Light to the north. Near the bed, a colorful cuckoo clock hung on the wall. The arms were frozen in place; Vanya presumably kept it for decoration.
“Svetna, would you—”
“I was about to start before you even arrived, darling.”
With practiced ease, Svetna knelt before the hearth where a large pot hung over the ashes. Directing Mishkin to fetch water, and Antalya to get cabbages, she started a bright fire in the pile of kindling in the hearth.
“Since Talus is here, we should add some fish. Boiled cabbage is poor fare for a traveler,” said Svetna.
“Actually, I can create my own food. I would not feel right—” I began.
“Talus, please! Remember what I told you? I know that the Lordaeronians have their ways, and I respect them. But now you are among the Kirovi, and you must respect our customs. You will get a good meal, like it or not,” he laughed.
“If you insist,” I said, feeling a twinge of guilt.
Vanya went outside and returned a few minutes later with three fish dangling on a line, smelling strongly of pickles. The children came back soon after, and then started bombarding the priest with questions about the Westfall Brigade Encampment. As the smells of the cooking soup filled the tiny cabin, Svetna directed the conversation to events in the village. Her previously cheery tone turned grave.
“I fear that Orvan continues to bring more into his church,” she said. “Nearly all of the hunters follow him, and so do many of the refugees.”
“Why the refugees?”
“The hunters promise them meat if they abandon the Light. So far, they’ve been able to make good on that promise.”
“Light preserve us. The men of the Alliance say that they control Amberpine Lodge. I think that is where we must go.”
“A hunting lodge won’t have enough for us.”
“No, it will not. But from there we can go to a place called Westguard Keep, in the Howling Fjord. Gryan Stoutmantle, the leader of the Alliance here, said that we can at least get enough supplies for the rest of the journey at Amberpine.”
“Many of the faithful are the old and young. It will not be an easy journey for them.”
“I know. We cannot stay here, however. Not when they bully and persecute the pious. The Scourge approaches, and the furbolgs grow restless. If we do not leave soon, I fear we shall be trapped.”
I awoke to the sound of howling wolves. The dark cabin was still, save for the fitful breathing from Vanya’s bed. The howls continued, scores of them rising and falling without pause. No one in Vanya’s family appeared to even notice, so I assumed that such noise was common in the region.
Then I heard it, similar to but terribly distinct from the others. The howl of a wolf intertwined with the roar of an enraged human. I recalled glowing eyes and hunched forms loping through the forests of the night, a race of predators: the worgen.
I stood up, again hearing the cry of the worgen, followed by others like it. A child whimpered, silenced by a hush. I could just see Vanya sitting up in his bed, the shadows masking his features.
“Do you—” I whispered.
“Wait, do not talk,” he said.
Only minutes passed before the howls of the worgen faded. The wolves continued for a while longer before slinking back into the night. Vanya uttered a prayer before urging his family to try and sleep. Getting out of bed, he walked to my bedroll near the ashen hearth.
“You heard it too? We first heard those demon howls a few months after Orvan started his cult,” he said, keeping his voice low.
“Those are worgen.”
“Worgen? You know of these?”
“I’ve seen and fought them before. They are crosses between wolf and human, with the instincts of the former and the cruelty of the latter.”
“Can they be killed?”
“Yes, they are dangerous, but quite mortal.”
“Thank the Light for that.”
“I would not recommend fighting the worgen. Have you seen anything like a wolf that walks on two legs?”
“My parishioners have described all kinds of awful things in the woods. Some of them did resemble wolves. I figured they had seen Orvan’s followers, who don the skin of wolves when they pray and hunt.”
“I know of one case where seemingly normal humans can transform into worgen.” I quickly described my visit to the cursed Pyrewood Village in Silverpine Forest. Vanya was silent for a long while after I finished.
“That would explain much. I could never understand how Orvan’s men caught so many animals, always with their throats torn out as if by wild beasts. It is worse than I feared. Rest for now, Talus. I think we may have to leave this place sooner than I expected.”
I followed Vanya to his church at noon the next day. Rainclouds darkened the sky as we walked. The church was actually the home of one Petr Yezov, one of the original inhabitants of Solstice Village. Though a hunter, he had remained true to the Light. Completely ostracized by his fellows, he had no choice but to give up his profession and become a farmer. Petr still owned one of the larger houses in Solstice Village, though it appeared quite humble by outside standards.
Forty or so frightened Kirovi were already huddled inside, waiting for Vanya’s sermon. The hopes of every soul in that church seemed to rest on the priest’s shoulders, and he smiled with gentle grace as he moved through the sanctuary, touching clasped hands and whispering age-old blessings.
Lacking pews, the parishioners sat on the grimy floor. I took a seat near Sveta and her children. Vanya reached the head of the room and raised his hands.
“My brethren, open your hearts to each other. Long have we suffered, but we must never let our pain become a barrier to love. Instead, suffering should be our salvation, leading us to love and comfort each other.”
Vanya’s mysticism distinguished him from the rigorously intellectual Lordaeronian priests and the fiery Stormwind preachers. Our eyes closed in prayer, we, as a congregation, transcended the rude shell of the cabin, a world of light shining just beyond our senses. Thinking beings so often bind their souls in pain, not knowing that pain can also teach empathy. I do not mean to ennoble suffering, for there is nothing noble about it. However, suffering is a part of existence, a fact that obliges us to use it as best we can.
I wanted to tear out my glass eyes and reveal my true self before the congregation. I could nearly imagine them accepting me, merely another scarred child of the Light. Yet I denied this urge. In the end, I could not believe that they would react with anything other than horror.
Vanya kept his sermon short, necessity demanding pragmatism. He did not mention the worgen, instead explaining that the faithful could no longer stay in Solstice Village. The congregation’s reaction was mixed; while everyone knew an exodus was inevitable, not everyone had expected it so soon.
“We must go south, to Amberpine Lodge,” stated Vanya.
“That will take at least two weeks!” protested one parishioner.
“There is no future for us here in Solstice. Though the wolf cultists have never been violent towards us, they grow more aggressive by the day. We go hungry while they eat. We cannot rebel, for they own nearly all of the weapons. Departure is our only hope.”
Preparations began that day, even though a light rain was falling when the congregation dispersed. The drizzle turned into a downpour over the night, smashing the dirt roads into a mire. I helped the villagers over the next four days, though I must confess to being of little use to them. Having lived in cities nearly all of my life, I know very little about agricultural work.
Most of the efforts went to harvesting potatoes. Properly stored, potatoes keep relatively well, making them ideal for our purposes. Even before the Scourge, the inhabitants of Solstice Village could not get by on meat alone, and always had stores of food that they got from trading with the eastern farmers. The refugees continued to add to these reserves, so there was already a fair amount in the storehouses.
I finally met Orvan two days after the meeting. By this point, the planned departure of Vanya’s church was common knowledge. I think that Orvan came over to Vanya’s cabin simply to gloat. Orvan was a throwback to an older and darker age. Seven feet in height he held himself like a lord, striding down the still-muddy paths accompanied by two of his servants. He wore the skin of a wolf, its head covering his own. Filed yellow teeth met in a jagged grin, and sharpened metal blades curved out from his wristbands. Tattooed black serpents coiled on Orvan’s chest and around his arms; I do not know what they symbolized.
Vanya and I were digging up the last of the potatoes when Orvan appeared. The priest got to his feet, earth staining his hands and tunic. His bearded face broke into a warm smile as he greeted Orvan from behind a waist-high fence.
“Good morning, Orvan.”
“Good morning, Vanya. My pack tells me that your church is leaving Solstice Village, headed for softer lands to the south.”
“We do not wish to be a burden upon you any longer.”
“Do you at last know shame, Vanya? For too long have we let your religion of old women and crying children stay in our lands, taking our food and time.”
“In fairness, Orvan, we have not taken your food. In fact, you have taken ours.”
“That is the price you pay for living here! This land cannot support you, and we will not share our game with weaklings! Your Light is dead, Vanya, believed in only by fools.”
“The Light will never die, Orvan. The Scourge could destroy everything here, and it would live on wherever men hold brotherhood in their hearts. When your hunters help each other bring down their quarry, so too does the Light shine.”
With a single bound Orvan cleared the fence and landed inches in front of Vanya, his teeth bared. Vanya flinched but stood his ground.
“Is there something you want, Orvan?”
“Choose your words very carefully, priest,” growled Orvan.
“I always do. Such is the nature of a priest.”
“I could strike you down now. Your followers might fight back, but we will win in the end. You know this.”
“Orvan, unless you kill all of your friends and live alone in the forest for the rest of your days, the Light will shine on you in one form or another. You know this.”
An eternal moment passed between them, the threat of violence almost tangible. Just when I was sure Orvan would strike, the hunter stepped away and spat at Vanya’s feet.
“Begone, pitiful charlatan. The forest is only for the strong.”
I let out an explosive breath when Orvan walked away, feeling a newfound respect for Vanya. He smiled, though his face was wan. Sveta rushed out of the cabin.
“Vanya, what happened?”
“Nothing, dearest. Everything is fine.”
We finished preparations the next day, and the wolf cult did nothing to hinder us. Vanya explained that, while the wolf cult was certainly capable of destroying the faithful, they would lose enough of their own to make the prospect undesirable.
“They at least have some degree of the wolf’s pragmatism, even if they are unlike wolves in other ways,” he said.
The day of the exodus finally arrived. Improvised wagons stood in a line at the village’s southern gates, some of them made from the remnants of disassembled houses. Piles of burlap sacks filled them, each one bulging with potatoes. Donkeys stood tethered to the larger wagons, ears pressed back against their heads. I could feel the animals’ anxiety, their bodies straining for the forest’s comparative safety.
Some of the sturdier Kirovi pulled their own wagons, including Vanya. Looking at the makeshift caravan, with its weary protectors, I truly wondered if they could survive. It was easy to imagine success when consumed in the process of construction, yet hope seemed distant when it came to the finished product.
“Is everyone here?” asked Vanya, already mentally counting the faithful. “No last minute arrivals, I see.”
Vanya had earlier expressed his misgivings about leaving behind the souls intimidated into joining the wolf cult. In the end, he knew he had no other choice. We set off after Vanya led us in a short prayer. I walked near the front of the caravan, next to Petr and a former soldier named Tomyatkin. Armed with a hunting bow and sword respectively, they were the only ones besides myself with real combat experience.
Once so beautiful to my eyes, the boundless forests took on a menacing air when traveled with the weary and downtrodden. The Kirovi scanned the forests with fearful eyes, watchful for what they could not see. I knew I could protect myself, but I was less sure that I’d be able to adequately defend the Kirovi.
The line of wagons inched down a forest path strangled by vegetation. Petr and Tomyatkin cleared the way, their rusty machetes hacking the brush. The slow pace weighed on our spirits; nobody wanted to be near Solstice Village. Spread out as we were, we knew we’d be easy prey for the wolf cult if Orvan decided to attack.
We camped in a small clearing the first night, the refugees bunched up against the wagons and each other. Our caravan was already falling behind schedule, our progress thwarted by the road’s terrible conditions. Only Vanya’s faith kept the Kirovi going forward.
I kept watch that night, accompanied by Petr’s daughter, Edezhda, and a farmer named Kolyan. Having grown up during the reign of the wolf cult, Edezhda never had a chance to learn much about hunting. Even so, she possessed the keen senses of one raised in the forest. Still more a girl than a woman, she maintained an admirably confident facade.
The Kirovi fell into an exhausted sleep as soon as night fell. Stars emerged in a glittering expanse over the forest canopy. I stayed as silent as possible, fearful of missing a sign of attack. Thinking back to Vanya’s tales of taunka stealth, I wondered if I had any hope of detecting them.
Edezhda fared better.
“I hear something,” she whispered, her voice deceptively calm.
“Taunka, or maybe the wolf cult, I don’t know,” she whispered, a forced calm moderating her tone.
Her keen eyes peered into the darkness, and then to the slumbering Kirovi all around us. I realized we stood no chance in a fight. Half of the Kirovi would die before they could rouse themselves. Acting on a mad impulse, I shouted to the forest, my words Orcish.
“Taunka! We are not your enemies! We are fleeing your lands!”
Edezhda’s jaw dropped, and some of the sleepers awoke, confused and blinking, into the cold night. Only silence came from the forests.
“We are not the monsters who killed your people. Those still live in the village, the same one that we are escaping. Around me are the followers of Vanya, who tried to make peace with you.”
If taunka surrounded us, arrows at the ready, I could only hope that one among them knew Orcish. Seconds of cruel silence passed before a voice responded from the forest behind me. I recognized the taunka accent, harsh and low like a northern breeze.
“Vanya promised us that the Kirovi would not intrude upon Coldmane hunting grounds. He lied.”
“Not a lie, I assure you. The dark spirits of the forest spoke to the hunters of Solstice Village. Now they hunt the woods as cursed beasts, driven by evil. Vanya did what he could, but they would not listen.”
My hands trembled in fear. I only barely knew what I was saying, my words a helpless rush of half-understood taunka belief. Would my gambit doom the Kirovi? But what choice was there? They stood no chance of surviving a fight, and I could not raise my hand against the Horde’s newest ally. I imagined scores of taunka hunters staring at me, this sickly specimen of humanity who spoke the Orcish tongue.
“Powerful spirits do live in these forests. Our wise men can bind them, but you Kirovi never could.”
“The spirits found the hunters to be easy prey. Vanya’s people are done with this land. Their homes lie ruined to the east, and now they head south in search of a future. They seek no quarrel with the Coldmane Tribe.”
“Vanya’s father was honest with us, in the days when Sanktagrad stood,” said another voice. “Is Vanya among you?” he said in Common.
In fact, he had just awoken. It took a moment for him to respond.
“What troubles your village?”
“The hunters there worship a force of evil. I believe it is they who attacked. I am deeply sorry for whatever you have lost.”
“Your sorrow will not bring back the dead. Because you have always dealt fairly with us, we will permit you to leave. We came here tonight with the intent of watering the forest with your blood, but the words of your friend have swayed us. We long suspected a dark spirit at work within your village. Do not return to Solstice, for we will destroy it. Leave, as quickly as you can.”
I never even saw the Coldmane braves who came so close to attacking. I marveled that Edezhda had been able to hear them at all. His breathing labored, Vanya walked over to me.
“What did you say to them?”
“I explained our situation in the Orcish language; many of the taunka tribes are with the Horde. I thought it might put them at ease.”
“Perhaps it did.”
“I think they mostly spared us because of you, not me. I simply facilitated the process.”
“You gave us quite a fright. I thought you were speaking some wolf cult language,” he laughed. “I suppose it worked out. How do you know Orcish?”
“I studied it when I was younger. It’s proved a useful skill. Besides, the Horde and the Alliance both want to destroy the Scourge; I’d hardly consider the Horde an enemy.”
“I will take your word for it.”
Vanya calmed the anxious crowd and the Kirovi soon returned to sleep. I stayed awake, hoping for a peaceful journey.