Kedg bounced enthusiastically atop the kodo and called out a charge, bellowing in a voice surprisingly deep for one so young. “For Orgrimmar! And the Warchief! For the Horde!” An orc he was, through and through. His exuberance was heartwarming in the otherwise cheerless Crusader camp. The kodo, Alhazad’s trustworthy Abhrams, was disinterested by comparison.
“Ready for war?” asked Alhazad with a grin, his thick fingers tying a satchel of rations to his stoic mount’s side.
The squire nodded emphatically. “Yup. We’re gonna tear down the walls of Icecrown, and make Arthas pay for all the evil he’s done!”
It was as though the boy read aloud a passage from the Argent Crusade’s scrolls, word for word, and delivered them with the zeal of the Highlord himself. “You’ve been watching Tirion’s tournament, haven’t you?”
Another excited nod. “Yup!”
“You don’t look ready. Where’s your armor? Are you going to fight Arthas with your bare hands?”
Immediately, the boy’s high spirits sank into a pout. “Crusader Darodan says I can’t have any of that yet. He barely lets me watch the Aspirants train. I have to sneak into the coliseum to watch the tournament, and Lady Paletress is always breaking up fights between us squires. You know, sparring!”
Kedg was no more than nine summers old and yet he burned for a fight. This was a strange yearning to see in one so young, thought Alhazad. He, at that age, sought the very same thing, battle, but his quest was to avenge his father’s death. Stranger still how that same quest brought him to the frozen steppes of Icecrown today. He wanted to tell the squire the same thing he whispered to Sohale, his baby daughter, when she determinedly toddled about with one of his old shields in tow: “The path of the warrior is one of anger and death, you deserve another way, a better way.”
Another war cry shouted out from the squire’s small lungs, and it became clear there would be no swaying the lad. His people knew fighting, it was in their blood. He had no father or mother to learn from, and no wrong to revenge, but still he sat pugnaciously atop Abhrams, envisioning himself riding deep into a throng of enemies, crushing skulls and winning a victory for his warchief. Alhazad realized he could only encourage the lad, or at least humor him, and hope that come Arthas’ death, impossible as that seemed, the fighting would finally be over.
“How about I make you a deal? You run and fetch the rest of my things, load up Abhrams here, and I’ll see about getting you a practice sword. Maybe I’ll even show you a few moves.”
Kedg’s eyes became wide as dinner plates, sparkling with anticipation. “You’d do that?”
“I would, when you’ve finished with your task. What do you say?”
The boy was off the kodo in a flash. “Zug zug! Right away, sir!” With similar speed, he darted off toward the far side of the coliseum, to Alhazad’s encampment, and vanished in a blur.
Alhazad amusedly shook his head, smiled, and turned back to Abhrams. “Don’t worry old friend,” he told the beast, “he won’t be coming with us.” The kodo watched him with one eye, perhaps thankful the kicking, squirming, noisy orc was gone for a time.
Or was he? As Alhazad adjusted a leather strap and a collection of sacks, someone shuffled up behind him. They moved slowly and sounded as if loaded for bear with equipment.
“Back already? I may have to buy you a real sword, then,” began Alhazad with a laugh, the tauren turning and expecting to see the squire with an armload of bedrolls and supplies. What met his eyes was unexpected. There stood Mishotah in full regalia, armored in mail cuirass and war-kilt. She was battle ready, axes in hand and shoulders squared, jaw set. “Ohhh no,” he said, his voice playfully sonorous, trying to remain jovial. He chuckled. “You can’t be serious.”
Mishotah’s stare was even, uncompromising. It stole the mirth from Alhazad as easily as the cold took the warmth from his blood.
With a frown, he softly spoke his realization. “You are serious.”
“When this all started, I asked if I could follow you. You said I could. I’ve followed you this far, and I’m going to follow you into the bowels of Icecrown Citadel if I have to.” Her voice was similarly strong, and the words rehearsed. She knew Alhazad would object and had her argument prepared.
“I can’t let you. You can’t. Who will care for our daughter?” His mind flooded with reasons, logic, explanations why he could not abide this, but even more powerful was a growing fear he might see his love, his wife, cut down by the enemy. Talk of that possibility alone would not sway her, however. “What will come of Sohale, when both her parents die? Worse, they’re raised as Scourge?”
Mishotah didn’t even flinch. Would nothing sway her? “I’m going. You need a fighter, and a healer.” So matter-of-fact, so certain, she could have been carved of ice.
This was something he could not argue with. On a very basic level, the army needed every hand that could hold a weapon or heal the wounded. If one could do both, as was the case with shamans and paladins, they were valued all the more. He could refuse her outright, and she would appeal to the Crusade, Cairne, or even the warchief, and they would clear her for the march. They’d send her straight to the front lines, even. “What about Sohale?”
“Kolenya will care for her until we get back.” She was sure of this, too. That they would return alive and capable of caring for their young one.
Alhazad breathed a slow sigh as the inevitability caught up to him. His mate would follow him to the Frozen Throne itself whether he wanted her to or not. Turning away, he could still feel her eyes on him, and more thoughts of a gruesome death for them both tugged at his heart. He hid his sorrowful face from her, though his voice quavered with emotion. “Until we get back.”
His heavy hand set upon Abrham’s barding, Alhazad blinked away a tear and looked to the gloomy horizon for hope. There the unfriendly peaks of Icecrown loomed alongside the dispiriting surgeon’s needles of the Citadel’s many spires; no reassurances existed, only a foreboding. He and his wife’s return to Mulgore, whole and hale, seemed as unlikely as Azeroth’s victory over the indomitable Lich King.
* * *
The march across the Icecrown glacier was a trial all its own. A line of Argent soldiers twenty thousand strong, war machines in tow, carved the icy plain like a knife. And just like a knife put to work, its blade was dulled a little with each stroke. Men were lost to the cold, or worse, the Scourge. Machines were mired in icy slop, many irreparably disabled, but the army marched on.
The colors of the moment were muted, deathly. Prevailing was the ubiquitous bedsheet white of a blizzard, something which afforded only occasional glimpses at the blue-black saronite fortifications. They were no more comforting, with walls and towers wretched and caliginous like day-old bruises. Cloud cover went unseen, but was thought to be the same pallid, corpselike gray that hung over the Crusader’s camp two days ago, unchanged. The frozen plain combined the discomfort of endless openness with that of a claustrophobia-inducing crypt, cowing even the most stalwart of Tirion’s crusaders.
The blizzard was perhaps the most daunting enemy they’d encountered yet. The Scourge footsoldiers were familiar and few, easily dispatched where they dared to intercede. The weather, however, was the Lich King’s greatest weapon against those who still lived and breathed. What his minions could not do in his defense, Northrend itself obliged with aplomb.
At the head of the army, the plain was cold, snowy, barren, and enshrouded in a cloak of blustery white. Further along, marching feet had stomped the frozen soil into a slippery slush, necessitating an even slower pace. Everywhere the wind was a banshee’s howl, deafening. When visibility was good, and it seldom was, half of one’s time was spent watching their footing, the other half looking to the sky for fear of the Lich King’s winged beasts. Too little of either was inviting death – an end wrought by a gargoyle’s swooping talons or, should one stumble and fall, the trampling boots of unseeing, unhearing comrades. The broken, frostbitten men coming back from the first march told these harried tales.
Reinforcements for the forward base had it marginally worse. If you were part of the second push to the frontline, you had to contend with muddied earth that had refrozen into a cratered, pock-marked mess all too ready to snare foot and wagon wheel alike. Alhazad and Mishotah had barely passed the Shadow Vault, and their company had already lost three horses, one wagon, and its driver, Crusader Marsden. His body was put to the flame on the spot in a hasty but necessary ritual, one that made passersby thankful the smell of liquefying flesh could be overpowered by the vacant odor of the ever-present, chilling wind.
Alhazad shouldered the weight of a second sack and trudged on, leading Abhrams by his bridle. Mishotah sat atop the beast, her hooves given some reprieve, though both their bodies were still assailed by the cold. The hands and face suffered the worst, with little to no protective pelt there to shield their skin from the arctic winds. Alhazad’s nostrils were rimmed with frost and felt as though they might freeze shut entirely, like his eyelids, and hands and lips were chapped nearly to the point of cracking open with wide, wind-stung fissures.
An hour in, the blizzard finally let up. The hissing wind died down. Everything smelled of leather, steel, stirred mud, crushed Scourge-bones, and felt of a burdening depression. By Alhazad’s estimation, the army was halfway through the Valley of Fallen Heroes.
There was another smell on the wintry air, one strange and unexpected. Freshly baked bread?
From behind, a hooded man came jauntily down the line, his rune-scribed hands rapidly dispensing conjured Mage Bread to those he passed. One such roll was practically tossed up to the riding Mishotah, who caught it without error, and another thrust into Alhazad’s unready hands. Creaky fingers dropped Abhram’s reins as they scurried to secure the morsel, nearly failing twice until their broad tips formed a sort of plinth upon which the roll resided. Alhazad paused in his step to admire the tasty treat.
He could not recall a time when he saw a finer piece of bread. Perhaps it was the hunger working on him, in addition to the unforgiving environs, the chill, the snow, all things alien to places he’d rather be. The roll was familiar: piping hot, browned to perfection, the egg-bread surely golden and soft on the inside, its crusty, flaky surface bearing a glint that spoke of buttery goodness. It lustered, and not simply with magic residual from its creation.
Inexorably, the column of troops marched on without him, Abhrams and Mishotah along with it. His mate glanced back, but Alhazad did not see her. Shoulders and bodies buffeted even his burly form, upsetting the precariousness of the baked good’s perch and, with horrible misfortune, ultimately casting it toward the sloppy ground below. One brief, exalted moment the bread lay before him like a holy chalice, and the next? Ruin, its greatness spilled onto the boot-stomped, blooded, muddied muck at his feet. Dissolving, dying, the roll stared helplessly up at him from within a bilious pool of vile Scourge-fluid.
There was no saving it. The finality of a meal missed, one meager in quantity but magnificent in quality, settled about his shoulders like a second cloak. Everything seemed colder, darker still, despite the increased visibility. Receiving another was out of the question; the magician-baker had long since moved down the line, and passing comrades were all happily chewing their rationed roll. Ignoring hunger pains, Alhazad screwed up his resolve and trudged forth to retrieve Abhram’s reins.
A nudge at his shoulder drew his eyes upward to his mate. She appeared as a manifestation of the Earthmother herself, fierce in arms but with a beautiful face and bright, loving eyes. Along with a smile, offered down to him was one half of her roll, the other already safely digesting within Mishotah’s belly. Alhazad wasted no time in snapping up the piece and stuffed it into his eager maw, then daring to return a smile, his expression grateful but brief lest he risk losing a crumb through quirked lips. Each bowed their heads and shared unspoken sentiments.
Turning forward again, Alhazad noticed the veil of clouds had begun to break. A single ray of An’she’s light, albeit slender, shown through to illuminate the path ahead. It may have been the light, or the bit of food on his belly, or Mishotah’s generosity, or a little of all three, but an equally small sliver of hope shown onto his heart. He felt stronger, as did his fellow soldiers, Horde and Alliance alike, and the army marched on.