Thursday, October 15, 2009
The Grizzly Hills: Part 3
Lieutenant Dumont, the commanding officer of Amberpine Lodge, was a man prepared for many things. I do not think he expected the weary and stinking mob of Kirovi refugees who descended on the lodge late one afternoon. He and his men stood with bewildered expressions as Vanya, his haggard face shining with relief, thanked them for the hospitality of Stormwind. Not one to waste time, Dumont ordered his troops to set up a camp for the Kirovi, and the savory smell of lamb stew soon filled the forest air.
Though peaceful, the strain of the journey took its toll. Exhaustion claimed the lives of five older refugees. We buried them in shallow graves as Vanya blessed the departed, refusing to abbreviate the rituals. Supplies ran low towards the end, the remaining potatoes spotted with mold and bruises. The force of Vanya’s personality maintained morale but we were all gladdened upon seeing the pointed watchtower of Amberpine Lodge.
I spent a few days at Amberpine in order to recover from the difficult journey. Vanya and the Kirovi settled in as best they could, knowing they would need to leave for Westguard in a few weeks. Happily, Lieutenant Dumont promised them a modest escort and sufficient supplies.
Amberpine Lodge occupies a position of strategic importance on the cliffs overlooking the Black River, which is mostly valuable as a source of food and water. The Black River’s waters crash down a series of steep cataracts before reaching the sea, rendering it useless for travel. On a more aesthetic note, the sight of the mighty current flowing around a multitude of rocky islands creates a truly unforgettable backdrop, an image of the wild at its most vibrant. Amberpine Ledge is situated above the portion of the river just south of Stag’s Leap, the biggest of the cataracts. The sound of surging waters is a constant in the lodge.
A remote Kirovi hunting post until a year ago, Amberpine Lodge now acts as a bustling supply depot for northbound caravans. Nor is that its only purpose, as I learned from talking to a scout named Trina Oswalt.
“Why is it that wherever we go, it turns out the goblins were there first? Sure enough, when we landed we found out that the Venture Company had set up shop all through the hills.”
The rapacious Venture Company represents the very worst of goblin society. More interested in loot than in trade, they see the entire world as their own.
“What were they doing?”
“Mostly lumber operations, with some quarries and mines. None of the natives were organized enough to fight them off so they just infested the place. They cleared out by the time we got here, and now we’re fighting the Horde over the remnants.”
“Wait, fighting the Horde? Are we at war now?”
“Not yet, though we’re closer to it now than before. The rules of engagement say that no official fighting can be done outside Venture Bay to the south and the Blue Sky Logging Grounds up north.”
“But these are actual soldiers fighting, not partisans?”
“Correct. Like I said, we’re getting close.”
“Why now? This seems like the worst time to do it.”
“I agree. Tell that to Garrosh Hellscream. He leads the Kalimdor Horde’s efforts here, and keeps trying to provoke us. He threatens diplomats, impedes Alliance traffic... I’m sure there’s more.”
Troubled, I thought back to what I knew about Garrosh Hellscream. The son of the legendary Grom Hellscream, the Horde had found him in the Mag’har village of Garadar. He joined Thrall in Orgrimmar after the Warchief came to visit. While influential by virtue of his heritage, I never thought he would rise to such an important position so quickly. My understanding had been that Saurfang was to lead the Warsong Offensive. Thrall must have changed his mind after I left Orgrimmar.
While traveling with Vanya I learned that the reclusive furbolgs maintain a town in the depths of the Grizzly Hills. Called Grizzlemaw, this ancient settlement is built in and around the stump of a giant tree. Soldiers in Amberpine told me that Grizzlemaw was of great interest to the druids, and that one had just gone there to learn more about the furbolgs (who are neutral to both the Horde and Alliance). I resolved to travel there as well.
Vanya said goodbye as I prepared to leave Amberpine.
“I think we owe you our lives, Talus. Nothing I say can ever repay you, but know that you will always find a home among the Kirovi. Take care around the furbolgs: they are friendlier than the taunka, but not by much.”
I returned to the wild, following the narrow forest paths through endless redwoods. The forest’s loamy scent combines with the clear air to intoxicate the senses. Unbound wilderness rules the land more thoroughly than any nation could hope to. Cold and limpid streams trickle past ancient granite boulders that wear wigs of moss on their gray crowns.
A terrific rainstorm drifted in from the east on the third day. The downpour cleared on the night of the sixth, and dawn’s brilliant light revealed Grizzlemaw. A jagged stump reaches up to the sky from the center of a broad plain, surrounded by the hollowed-out logs the furbolgs use as homes. The shattered remnants of the trunk lie to the west, its size almost inconceivable even at a great distance. I wondered what sort of disaster could have felled such a tree.
Another day passed before I reached the wooden gate of Grizzlemaw. A lone furbolg walked towards the palisade, a string of fish thrown over his bulky shoulder. He stopped when he saw me, his posture betraying his surprise. Thinking back to what little I knew about the furbolgs, I lowered my gaze so as not to cause offense; a direct stare is considered a challenge.
“Who are you, human?” he growled in Common, his muzzle distorting the words.
“My name is Destron Allicant. I was hoping I could spend some time in Grizzlemaw, and learn about your people.”
“Hmm.” The sound came as a deep rumble within his furry chest. “You are not Kirovi.”
“No, I am not actually any kind of human. I am a Forsaken, one of the Horde.”
“We know of the Forsaken. You look like a human, somewhat.”
“I’m wearing a disguise. Please forgive me, but I was afraid you might think me a Scourge.”
“We can tell the difference.”
With some embarrassment I removed the glass eyes. Pretending to be human becomes odious when done for too long.
“You are free to enter Grizzlemaw, but you have come at a very bad time. My tribe, the Ragefang, stands on the brink of war against the Winterpaw. You should see the lorespeaker; she’s the one who most often deals with outsiders.”
A furbolg lorespeaker is the tribe’s face to the outside world, as well as the one who remembers the stories of the ancestors. Though not a tribe’s official leader, the lorespeaker generally has more power than the chieftain or the lesser shamans, who deal with nature spirits instead of ancestors.
“Where might I find her?”
“Her hut is by the river. Take care going through Grizzlemaw. Some of my tribe are not acting as themselves.”
I felt the furbolg’s eyes on my back as I passed through the wooden gates. Grizzlemaw looks much like any other furbolg village, though much bigger. It consists of about twenty fenced-in compounds, each holding two or three log huts standing around a communal work area. Small vegetable gardens and smokehouses can be found in each compound, among other signs of habitation.
I saw relatively few furbolgs outside, even though it was past noon when I entered. They cast suspicious looks my way as they worked at their chores. Each and every furbolg carried a weapon of some sort, stout flint spears being the most common. The growling sounds of Ursine conversation are absent, and the sense of animosity almost tangible.
The lorespeaker’s house stood next to a rapidly flowing river. Wooden charms dangled from leather strips attached to the entryway, and engraved ursine figures danced across the trunk.
I knocked on the wall above the circular portal, the opening blocked by an abstractly decorated curtain. The curtain moved to the side, revealing a compact furbolg with thick, reddish-brown fur, wearing a mantle of feathers to indicate her office. She gave a start, probably not expecting a Forsaken to appear at her door, but soon regained composure.
“I am honored to be visited by a Horde citizen. I am Grehn, lorespeaker of the Ragefang Tribe.”
“I’m honored to be so graciously received. My name is Destron Allicant. I was told that visitors should come to you.”
“Speaking with visitors is one of the lorespeaker’s many duties. Please, come inside.”
It took a moment for my vision to adjust to the dim light. The hut’s interior was actually quite cozy. A small fire in the middle of the hut heated a clay pot filled with thick stew, puffs of smoke floating up through a hole in the ceiling. A matt of woven grass covered the floor towards the back, thick enough to double as a bed. Neatly arranged wicker baskets were placed next to wooden planters bursting with brightly colored flowers. The most remarkable sight was a gently glowing beehive at the back wall. Bees flew among the flowers, their buzzing no more than a gentle hum.
“Grizzlemaw is full of strangers these days. I fear this is a bad time to visit.”
“The furbolg I met outside said that the tribes are on the verge of war.”
“We are, yet no one knows why. Ragefang and Winterpaw have never quarreled. We knew that the spirits meant this land to belong to both tribes. The Winterpaw roamed the slopes of the Big Snow Mountain and we hunted in the forests. Men from one tribe would move to another to take wives there.”
“Is Grizzlemaw shared by the tribes?”
“Each tribe has its own village. We usually come to Grizzlemaw three times a year: the first day of spring, mid-summer, and Winter’s Veil. Yet today we are not here to celebrate a sacred occasion; we are here to hold counsel.”
“You are not fighting over Grizzlemaw?”
“I do not know. That is why I am so grateful to outsiders like yourself. There is another one here, a night elf druid named Felderon Whisperbough. I know that the Kaldorei are friends with the furbolgs in Kalimdor, and—forgive me. I have not been a good host. But I cannot talk to my own tribe. The spirits and ancestors are reticent, and offer me little help. Please, sit and rest yourself.”
I nodded and sat down against a curtain of moss. Grehn fretted, her claws clicking as they ran against each other. For the first time I saw Grehn’s exhaustion, her tangled fur jutting in messy tufts from her head and arms.
“I cannot be so addled as to forget hospitality!” she growled. “Here, take the soup.”
She produced a wooden bowl from the stacked items at the back and ran it through the cauldron. Practically shoving it into my hands she returned to her pacing. I took a sip, tasting what I guessed to be venison stock.
“If I can help in any way, I’ll do whatever I can,” I offered.
“Oh. What brought you to Grizzlemaw?”
“I hoped to learn about the furbolgs.”
“I am not sure how much you can learn. Just last year all was well. The taunka and Kirovi kept to their parts of the forest, and we kept to ours. I could call on the ghosts of the ancestors to hear their wisdom, and they guided us well.”
“Did this stop suddenly?”
“Yes. One night I stood in the ritual circle, to call the spirits of furbolgs past and hear their voices in the flames. They never came. The tribe must have trespassed against them in some way, but I cannot imagine how. Time passed without success, and there were... accusations. Kruwl, a shaman, blamed the Winterpaw, because their braves hunt mountain rams, which the Ragefang do not hunt.”
“Are the mountain rams an important animal to the Ragefang?”
“Not at all! I thought Kruwl was insane; we are indifferent to the mountain rams. Yet his words gripped the minds of the young. I still work to limit his influence, but many listen to him.”
“Have the forest spirits said anything?”
“They rarely speak. The forest was greatly angered by the goblin intrusion. Both our tribes raided the goblin camps in the north and south, but we are few in number and could do little. I’m very glad that the Horde and Alliance chased those awful creatures away from here.”
“If you do not mind my asking, how well do the furbolgs get along with the spirits of the forest?”
“We are part of the forest, and give it much respect. Why would we do otherwise?”
“I was curious. The taunka have a much more adversarial relationship with the spirits.”
“That is because the taunka live in lands not meant for them. We furbolgs will never leave the forests here, for this is where we are welcome. Trespassing beyond this land will invite terrible suffering.”
“Departure is not an option?”
“We cannot leave this land! Better to die here, where we are close to the ancestors.”
I nodded, taking another sip. Furbolgs are tied to the spirits of their homelands, even more so than the tauren. This was why the Burning Legion’s presence in Kalimdor proved so deadly to them. Some druids argue that the furbolgs should really be seen as an extension of the forest, as much a part of it as the trees. While perhaps an oversimplification, this theory is not without merit.
A tiny furbolg suddenly ducked under the drapes and rushed into the hut, looking like a little ball of fur. A rapid stream of high-pitched snarls and growls came from the newcomer as he skidded to a stop at Grehn’s massive feet. Then the child saw me and ducked behind Grehn’s legs, suddenly nervous. She picked him up, cradling him in her massive arms.
“This is my son, Ferl,” she said. “My second child. He is only a few years of age, and is not used to strangers.”
“I didn’t mean to disturb him. Should I leave?”
“You may stay, Ferl must learn to control his fears.”
She placed Ferl on the grass mat, giving him a sleekly carved wooden deer. Ferl, still looking at me as if I were some dangerous animal, scooted towards the baskets while clutching his toy.
“Is your older child in Grizzlemaw?”
“She is. My daughter, old enough to marry, but more interested in killing the Winterpaw,” Grehn said. “Her name is Hrehk. I do not want her to die in this war! Her words undermine my attempts for peace. Among our tribes, only a mother can be a lorespeaker. What does it say about me when my own daughter ignores my words?”
“Does the father support you?”
“He died years ago, soon after Ferl’s birth. I planned to find another mate, but now is a most difficult time.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What about the Winterpaw lorespeaker? Have you talked to her about this problem?”
“She also advises war.”
I spoke with Grehn well into the evening. None of the legends from either tribe made any mention of strife between the two. The lack of precedent made Grehn woefully ill-prepared to solve the problem. In search of explanation she darted from one theory to another. At last she apologized, saying it was none of my concern.
At sundown we went outside to share a meal with Grehn’s remaining friends. As lorespeaker, Grehn is exempt from hunting. Her only responsibility is to tell stories and seek wisdom. Recent events had eroded her authority; a shaman named Tohrhon was lorespeaker in all but name. Only a few hunters still supported Grehn.
A freshly caught deer served as dinner that night, eaten half-raw by the furbolgs. We sat around a blazing firepit in the compound of an older hunter named Hulruk. They spoke only a little before dinner, silenced by the looming threat of war. The communal meal became a sacred event, the last breath of a dying culture.
As the furbolgs finished gnawing on the bones, Hulruk took out a wooden pot the size of his head. Stylized bees decorated the surface. He passed it around and each furbolg dipped a paw into the gooey honey inside. They then licked their honey-drenched paws, still wet with blood from the deer. I took a small portion, though I was not entirely keen on eating it.
The furbolgs long ago domesticated the Northrend honeybee, a species capable of producing lambent honey. The Northrend honeybee is a remarkably docile species, and lacks a stinger. They are completely dependent on the furbolgs for survival. Honey is eaten about once a week. Most families own at least a single hive, like the glowing one at the back of Grehn’s home.
I later read an alchemical analysis of Northrend honey that stated it is vastly more nutritious than the regular variety. It may even regulate the ponderous furbolg metabolism. Such an astounding effect indicates the influence of extra-normal forces. Grehn explained that the spirits of the hive promised to strengthen the furbolg in return for protection.
Grehn told her story after the consumption of the honey, struggling to express a confidence she no longer felt. I could not understand her words, but I knew something was lacking. Her audience watched with sorrowful eyes as she went through the motions. When she finished, they scraped their claws together in the furbolg equivalent of applause, though no hope or joy lighted their faces. The gathering then dispersed, the hushed words of farewell barely audible over the sounds of the forest.
Grehn took me to the tree’s grand carcass early the next morning, leaving Ferl in Hulruk’s compound. Standing between the Ragefang and Winterpaw sections of Grizzlemaw, the great tree offers an important neutral ground. Not even the most aggressive hunters, claimed Grehn, would dare take up arms in its confines.
A jagged opening among the roots leads into Grizzlemaw’s center. A lone night elf sat in the tall grass outside, dressed in a human forester’s garb. His silver hair, neat and close-cropped, furthered his unusual appearance. He looked up as we approached, the mild expression of puzzlement soon replaced by a welcoming smile.
“Good morning to you, Grehn. I see you have another visitor. Forsaken?”
“That is correct, Felderon. Destron, this is the druid I mentioned to you.”
“I’m pleased to meet you,” I said.
“Felderon is here to study the great tree, which he calls Vordrassil,” mentioned Grehn.
“Vordrassil? Does it have a history with the Kaldorei?” I asked.
“Yes, actually. The druids are partly responsible for its creation. It is still of interest to the Cenarion Circle, which is why they sent me to see how it’s fared over the millennia.”
“Why was it created?”
“The druids wished to see what could be done with altered trees. Little did they know that the spirits of the Grizzly Hills had called them here to make a home for their favored children, the Ragefang and Winterpaw Tribes.”
“These must be powerful spirits,” I said, a bit confused.
“Only a fool would doubt them.”
I found it difficult to believe that the Cenarion Circle would respond to forest spirits; they are druids, not shamans. However, I said nothing, not wanting to cause a disruption.
“Do you have any idea what might be causing such anger here?” implored Grehn.
“I regret to say that I do not.”
Grehn sighed. Her dark eyes looked up at Vordrassil’s shattered trunk as if hoping to find an answer on the ancient surface. Then, she told us to follow her inside.
A realm of woodland splendor lies beyond Vordrassil’s entrance, like something plucked from a child’s storybook. Vordrassil may be dead but its corpse gives birth to all manner of life. Lush ferns and flowers thrive in the holy tomb, and curtains of thick moss garb the wide pathways going up and down the walls. Red-capped mushrooms, growing as tall as a man’s knee, cluster along the lower levels. Softly glowing beehives hang like lanterns from wooden posts along the paths. Made beautiful by the eternal dusk, swarms of fireflies dance in a kaleidoscope of light over the vast central expanse.
Perfectly circular doors lead into the walls, looking like the portals to the furbolg huts outside. There are three levels of doors, going from the shadowed and moss-cloaked portals at the bottom to the brightly lit doors at the top. A large pit opens up at the center of the lowest floor, the branches of an unseen tree reaching out over the edge. I spotted a few furbolgs collecting honey from the hive posts. Some wore brown fur, others white. I asked Grehn about this.
“The honey grown in Grizzlemaw’s hut is the sweetest of all, enriched by the whispers of our ancestors. In visions I would see our mothers and fathers working through the bees. Peace still rules here, if only barely.”
“There does not appear to be any animosity.”
“Sadly it still exists, though the beekeepers are better at hiding it. The importance of their work keeps their minds and spirits occupied. These are the only furbolgs who take permanent residence in Grizzlemaw.”
“Do they live in these homes along the walls?”
“Those are not homes, Destron. Those are tombs. The doors are not meant to be opened until Ursoc again strides through the mountains.”
“Ursoc? The Ancient?”
“Father of all furbolgs. Our stories tell how he perished fighting the dark spirits in times past. The beekeepers here worship his memory and await his return.”
“When shall he return?”
“Soon, I pray. Only then will there be peace. Not just for the furbolgs, but for the world. I assure you that the Lich King could not survive a single blow from Ursoc’s mighty paws.”
Grehn excused herself, saying she wanted to speak to one of the beekeepers. I was left with Felderon, who told me a bit about himself. The task of investigating Vordrassil had been meant for another; it fell to Felderon only when the original charge was recalled to Outland.
“Right now the Cenarion Circle keenly laments having ever created the Cenarion Expedition. No one is entirely sure if the expedition falls under the authority of the archdruids. Neither the Kaldorei or the Shu’halo are inclined to legalism, so such matters tend to be vaguely defined.”
Felderon did speak Ursine, though he soon found that the Northrend dialect is very nearly a different language. He talked about his accomplishments with just enough enthusiasm to expose his insecurity. The fact he was the Circle’s second choice clearly rankled him. I actually thought he possessed an admirably cosmopolitan quality, and was not surprised to learn he’d spent three years in Stormwind City. There, he'd picked up a number of human mannerisms, explaining his clothes and haircut.
“Why didn’t you return to customary elven garb upon your return to Kalimdor?” I asked.
“I came to prefer the human style. I do not think this preference endears me to Archdruid Remulos, however.”
Felderon also explained Vordassil’s history in more detail. As I’d suspected, what he said to Grehn had been altered to spare her beliefs; the spirits had never summoned the druids. He did not enjoy lying to her, but realized that telling her the truth would only make her harder to reach.
“I am sure you know about Nordrassil,” he said.
“Yes, the World Tree of the Kaldorei that was destroyed in the Third War.”
“Correct. Nordrassil gave immortality to my race, as well as great power. Long ago, after the Sundering, a small group of ambitious druids wondered if a second World Tree would increase the might of the Kaldorei. They hoped to put all of Azeroth under our protection.
“These druids, led by one Endaral Nightwind, stole away from the Emerald Dream and took with them acorns fallen from the branches of Nordrassil. Braving stormy seas and frigid wastes they at last reached the Grizzly Hills, the perfect place for another World Tree. Planting the seed in the ground, they began the Ritual of Growth.
“As they hoped, a vibrant sapling grew from the soil. Growing larger as the months passed, the rogue druids rejoiced. Then they saw the black spots on the limbs, and wounds of oily sap that turned into metal.”
“Metal? What sort of metal?”
“Saronite, in all likelihood. Still, the druids did not want to abandon their efforts. Soon Vordrassil stood as high as Nordrassil, corruption seeping from its core. Only then did a druid named Golhine Starfall convince his fellows that Vordrassil had to die. They were forced to kill Endaral, who’d begun worshipping the tree, and used their energies to destroy Vordrassil.”
“What happened to Golhine and the others?”
“They returned, appropriately contrite. The Cenarion Circle did not execute them, since they were skilled and capable of realizing error. Instead, they were blocked from the Emerald Dream for 3,000 years.”
“Why did Vordrassil become corrupt?”
“There is an evil here in Northrend. It is older than the furbolgs, older than the Titans. Somehow, Vordrassil’s roots tapped into this darkness. The Cenarion Circle believes that an Old God resides somewhere beneath this continent.”
“One of C’thun’s brethren. I was sent to learn if this Old God still presents a threat.”
“What is your verdict?”
“I am starting to suspect that it is, though this is more from the behavior of the furbolgs. Something is stirring them to violence.”
“Were you among the druids who created Vordrassil?”
“I should say not! I was born only five or so centuries ago. Besides, I see no reason that the Kaldorei should be immortal. Nordrassil’s fall released us from eternal bondage and ennui.”
“Do you enjoy being a druid?”
“Yes. Nothing forces me to be here, and the Cenarion Circle has no room for the unwilling. The idea of eternal service—since all Kaldorei are expected to serve nature in some way, even if most do very little—simply rankled me. I’m not alone in believing this, though very nearly so.”
“Does this have anything to do with your admiration for Stormwind culture?”
“Uh, perhaps. That’s an odd question, don’t you think? I admire some of Stormwind’s aesthetics, and never thought I needed a reason for it. Beauty is beauty. Anyway, there is something you may want to see at the lowest level of this place.”
I followed Felderon down the ramp to the deepest level of Vordrassil. A slender tree grows from the damp earth at the shadowed bottom layer. Though I’d noticed the upper branches from the entryway, I found it odd that a tree could grow with so little direct light.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It may be the source of the problem. Something is definitely unusual about this spot.”
“The tree doesn’t seem to have enough light, for one.”
“A good observation. There’s no way for me to be sure of this, but I cannot help wondering if this sapling is Vordrassil renewing itself.”
“What makes you think that?”
“The fact that it grows in shadow. Can you feel the pulse in the air here? The unwholesome warmth?”
“I do not feel anything unusual. However, my physical senses are somewhat limited. Wouldn’t the furbolgs notice something amiss?”
“One would think. The beekeepers are the only ones who live here, yet none of them claim anything unusual. It almost makes me wonder if—no, I could not believe that. Why would they regrow Vordrassil?”
“How would they?”
“That’s another question. Residual corruption, perhaps? Or maybe some lost seed exists in the forest? If I were fluent in the local dialect I might be able to learn more.”
“Can you test it?”
“I scraped off a sliver when the beekeepers weren’t looking. There’s certainly corruption in it, but I cannot glean any more information. I intend to take it back to Nighthaven for further analysis. I do not plan on staying here much longer.”
“What about the furbolgs?”
“I will see if I can convince Grehn to leave. She’s been quite kind, and I respect her ability to step back from the madness consuming her tribe. I do not think she will listen.”
Felderon accompanied Grehn and I back to her home in the mid-afternoon. We waited until sundown before trying to persuade the lorespeaker. She reacted as Felderon predicted, quite understandably demanding more proof of the druid’s theorized corruption. I could not fault her; I would also insist on more solid evidence. For all I knew, Felderon was completely wrong.
“I only want to help you. Dark times lie on the horizon for both tribes, surely you would not deny that,” urged Felderon. “Would you at least consider moving for Ferl’s sake?”
“You do not understand. You think yourself one with the forest simply because you are a druid? I’ve seen the magic you work; perhaps you protect the forest, but you are not of it the way my people are. Leaving this land is the worst thing that could happen to Ferl.”
“The relocation would not be permanent. Merely until things become more settled,” I said, my voice flat and without conviction.
“Destron, you know even less than Felderon. This forest and the spirits within is more than a home. It is part of us, and if I have to kill every Winterpaw to stay here, I will do just that!”
Her lips peeled back, sharp yellow teeth exposed in a horrible grin. Felderon stepped back, lowering his gaze and raising his hands.
“Forgive me, Grehn. I did not mean to offend.”
“Both of you, leave Grizzlemaw. You cannot help us,” she growled.
We left the ancient city that very night. Before we parted ways, Felderon and I could hear the deep wail of flutes calling out through Grizzlemaw, their tones grave and foreboding.
Crossing the Black River leads to a gentler land, the rugged terrain made level and the forests less dense. Kirovi farming villages had once prospered along the now-overgrown road leading to Dragonblight, benefitting from the trade between Paskaron and Sanktagrad. Dispersed by the Scourge, the ruined houses now collapse in on themselves and violet wildflowers grow tall in the fields.
Conquest Hold is the Kalimdor Horde’s most important strategic asset in eastern Northrend. Its placement is something of an anomaly; the overall Horde strategy had put the east in Forsaken hands. I first learned about Conquest Hold from the Forsaken in Vengeance Landing, who described it as a last minute extension designed to disrupt the Alliance's plans. Wedged between Westguard Keep in the south and Wintergarde in the west, Conquest Hold is in an ideal position to interfere with Alliance supply routes, should open war ever break out. For the same reason, it is also quite vulnerable to a counterattack.
My imagination conjured up a simple frontier outpost, like the ones scattered across the Barrens. Instead, Conquest Hold is a massive fortress of stone and steel. Black basalt walls bruise the eyes, metal spikes running along towers and battlements. A steel gate with a pointed arch offers entry, though the blades and spikes lining the frame promise death to the unwanted. Thick black smoke wreathes the defense towers, their tops capped by iron talons pointing to sky.
For a moment I imagined myself a human in the Second War, so much does Conquest Hold resemble the cruel fortress cities of the Old Horde. The brutalized peon engineers who had built those fortresses understood the value of intimidation. So too did the designers of Conquest Hold. Every inch seems designed to cause harm, as if the entire complex is itself a weapon. I wondered how much the Horde had spent on building Conquest Hold.
The inside is no more welcoming. A dour black keep squats in the courtyard’s western end, like some beast growling over its meal. Wooden warehouses and tents cling to the keep’s base, made pitiful by the structure’s size. Horde banners are everywhere, but look somehow out of place, overwhelmed by the sheer bulk of the defenses. Opposite the keep is a wide pit, probably about 50 yards across and spanned by a web of wire and metal beams, surrounded by bleachers and faded Horde banners.
“We always send some warriors out on sorties to contest the Alliance’s claim to this land,” said Vurg Stoneblade. A young orc, he’d risen quickly to the rank of captain thanks to his actions in Ashenvale.
“What about the Scourge?” I asked.
“I do not think the armies of the dead—Scourge dead, that is—consider this land a target. If it does, we’ll meet them on the field of battle.”
“So the main purpose of Conquest Hold is to secure the Horde’s control of the Grizzly Hills?”
“I’m just a warrior, Forsaken. My only desire is to find honor in battle, and satisfaction in victory. We all follow Conqueror Krenna’s orders.”
Every person I met in Conquest Hold made at least some mention of Krenna. Peons and many of the younger warriors hailed her as a bold example of the orcish spirit. Older warriors tended to hold a more neutral stance. Visitors often despised her.
“Don’t talk to me about her! I come here to trade, risking life and limb, and she makes me pay a tax to set up shop here. A tax in a frontier burg like this, can you believe it?” exclaimed a goblin trader named Glinkna Zgadgoz. She looked over her shoulder after her outburst, suddenly chastened.
“Trust me," she continued, "do not let anyone hear you saying bad things about her. I’ve seen folks end up in Conquest Pit for crossing Krenna.”
“That arena over there,” she said, pointing to the sunken cage. “Blood sport is a big business up here.”
“How? How can they afford such a luxury?”
“It doubles as a training ground. Grunts spar, peons bet on the outcome. If you watch, you have to bet, and the house takes ten percent of the cut. Worse things go on in there though. They capture ice trolls from up north, put them in fights to the death against each other or against anyone Krenna doesn’t like.”
“You... you must be mistaken,” I protested. I did not want to believe this.
“Oh, you think so? Why don’t you go spit in Krenna’s face and see what happens! People die in there; I’ve seen it. Krenna throws in some poor fool and the peons cheer when his guts spill on the dirt.”
“Simply for crossing her?”
“Okay, I’ll admit you have to do something a bit more severe than just annoy Krenna. If she thinks you’re a threat though, you’re in, like it or not.”
“A threat to what?”
“The honor and morale of Conquest Hold, whatever that means. She decides what makes a threat, of course. I’ve barely made two coins to rub together in this place, and I’m leaving first thing tomorrow.”
I had almost told Glinkna that Krenna was breaking the law. Only at the last minute did I realize that there was not really a law to break. Arenas do exist throughout orcish lands. Though meant for volunteer gladiators, the use of slave warriors was tacitly accepted so long as the slave owners maintained a facade of legitimacy. Only recently has Thrall taken steps to end this shameful and abominable practice, and I fear that he has not done enough.
In Orgrimmar, the word of Thrall usually keeps the worst aspects of orc culture in check. He rules by virtue of his wisdom and courage, and no one doubts these qualities. Yet he does not rule by way of law. This concept is largely foreign to the orcs. Ultimately, might still makes right. It’s easy to forget this fact when living under the Warchief’s civilized reign. Krenna’s brutality is a terrible reminder of the reality of orcish politics. She rules as a warlord, and is celebrated for it.
I thought back to the horrors I’d seen at New Agamand, of the apothecaries and their nightmarish poisons. My plan was to tell the Horde authorities of what I’d seen, but would I find a single listener in Conquest Hold? From the hateful Forsaken, to the fanatic dwarves, and the savage orcs, it seemed as if Northrend drives its invaders to madness.
Wooden cages are at the rim of Conquest Pit, each occupied by a Drakkari prisoner of war at the time of my visit. Fearsome even in captivity, they sharpened their tusks with flat stones and spoke to each other in some Zandali dialect. I found their nonchalance odd, though I’d heard that the Drakkari were an exceedingly violent culture. Perhaps they considered it a fine fate to die in an arena. Only a few bored orcs guarded them.
I made up my mind to inform the Conquest Hold authorities about New Agamand. I would present it as a solely strategic concern, rather than a moral or political one. That struck me as the best way to raise awareness of the Apothecarium’s misdeeds.
Though I was unable to secure an audience with Krenna (which was perhaps for the best), the guards at the keep directed me to her senior adviser, an orc shaman named Hurn’mok. I found him seated near the Conquest Pit, a scarred hulk cloaked in wolfskin. Eyes closed, he basked as best he could in the wan northern sun, his mouth upturned in a smile as if realizing the futility of his efforts. He turned out to be easygoing and receptive, a welcome relief from the harsh mood of Conquest Hold. I explained my concerns, describing the apothecaries as indifferent or hateful to all non-Forsaken, and suggesting how their actions might lead to calamity.
“There is a darkness within the Forsaken heart. Thank you for telling this to me, Destron. I shall let the conqueror know as soon as possible.”
“And then she will relay it to the leaders of the Warsong Offensive?”
“I assure you that she will.”
“Thank you for hearing me out. While I do not expect the apothecaries will do anything truly damaging to the Horde’s cause, they do pose a definite risk. How do you like it here in the Grizzly Hills?” I asked, changing the subject.
“This is a good land, worth dying for. Even the Alliance agrees!” he laughed.
“It must be of great strategic importance to expend so much effort,” I said, choosing my words with care.
“Fighting is our way.”
“Whatever their faults, the Alliance brings some of the toughest and craftiest warriors to the field of battle. It is good that our own warriors can test their skills in this land.”
“But there’s also a risk. If a promising warrior dies—”
“‘Glory comes with death in battle, and his brothers shall sing his name with pride.’ That’s from an old orc poem, centuries old. I can tell that you still think like a human. I do not mean to offend; you were once a human, so it is only natural. If anything, you should take pride in it. A culture is nothing without pride.”
“Fair enough, but Thrall learned a great deal from the humans, and adopted some of those lessons for the Horde.”
“And once I agreed with this. I served the Old Horde, and languished when the demon’s drive left us. When I heard this young shaman preaching honor and redemption, I knew I must follow him. I first started noticing the problems after the construction of Orgrimmar. We orcs were still like a people defeated. We used human words, followed human ideas, acted like humans... our minds were free, but our spirits remained shackled.”
“What is your opinion of the Warchief?”
“He saved the orcs, and I will always honor him for that. But more must be done. For many years I sought the wisdom of the spirits, but never found anything that helped. Only when I met the Mag’har did I realize that we must return to being orcs. Thrall saw the anger of the Old Horde, and told us to keep our souls in check, but I fear that he misunderstood the problem. The fury and passion of the Old Horde did not come from the orcish spirit; it came from demons. The Mag’har show us how our race is meant to be: a nation of gods and heroes. We do not hold back. When an orc rages, he rages with the power of a thousand storms. When he weeps, he weeps oceans of tears. Uncontrolled, savage, and glorious.”
“Cultures also change. The humans of today are not much like the ancient Arathi, who were actually closer to orcs in terms of culture.”
“Perhaps humans do, but they do not hear the voices of their ancestors. But the spirits of my fathers urge me to glory, and so too is it with the rest of my race. We are warriors.”
“What about the peons?”
Hurn’mok laughed again, louder than before.
“You Forsaken are clever. Your point is a good one though. Peons are what happens when orcs become too numerous. Still, we warriors and shamans are their heroes. We enrich their lives with our honor, and in return they serve us.”
“Since they serve you, and make it possible for you to fight, shouldn’t they also get some of their own honor?”
“No. Why would they? Peons work hard, but they do not fight. Who tells stories of construction projects?”
“The dwarves do.”
“Well, we are not dwarves, are we?” he scoffed, showing annoyance for the first time. “Stories are for heroes. We orcs are heroes, and the world is our saga.”
I wondered if Hurn’s arguments were really so different from those used by the demon-worshippers of the Old Horde. Some orcs hold up the Mag’har as examples of purity, immune to corruption, but they were very much a part of the larger orcish culture that did embrace the Burning Legion. Would it really be so beneficial to return to that traditional mindset?
Hurn said that orcs are orcs, and I agree. Certainly there are real, ingrained psychological differences between orcs and humans. But this does not mean that their cultures are immutable. Modern orcs are themselves divided among a number of different cultural paradigms, as are the humans and most other races.
I’d long looked forward to reaching Conquest Hold, hoping it would give me a comfortable and familiar example of the Horde at its best. Instead, I had only found bitter disappointment.