The imp was helpful in Ringo Flinthammer’s journey upstream along the bank of the Thondroril River.
“Are Horde patrols going to be on this bank?”
“Is this a safe spot to sleep tonight?”
“Are those troll ruins over there dangerous?”
And so, with the imp’s ball tucked into a saddlebag, Ringo guided his ram north into the Alterac Mountains.
The boundary between the Alterac Mountains and the Plaguelands was an audible one: Beer Run’s hooves created a soft crunching sound as he stepped on the blighted soil.
The Scourge had tainted this land with Blight, mutating plants and animals, and causing the dead to rest uneasily in their graves. This land, once known as the Darrowmere Forest, was dying, and had been for six years.
The animals were uncomfortable just coming into the Plaguelands. Beer Run snorted and shook his head, and Ringo had to spend several minutes soothing him before the ram would move further from the Alterac Mountains behind them. Frostmaw and Daedalus complained less, but they looked around nervously, jumping at the slightest sound.
Ringo couldn’t blame them: Even with his dwarvish nose, the stench of rot was strong, and would just grow stronger in the days to come. He had a saddlebag full of sungrass for Beer Run to eat and dried meat for the other two; eating what they could find here would be madness.
Things were quiet here, too, as no natural creature lived in the Plaguelands, and the soft sound of the birds and squirrels and other small creatures Ringo had always been used to filling his world was suddenly gone.
Finally, the procession was moving again, this time along the water of Lake Darrowmere. This time, it was Ringo who slowed, looking down at the still and murky gray water.
He had made his first kill here, years ago, in the days after the Second War.
* * *
Ringo was a boy then, the second youngest of the Flinthammers, and his father had taken him with him on a trip to Stratholme, delivering dwarf-made armor, some of the first made by Mangorn that was worth selling.
They camped on the shores of the Darrowmere as the sun was going down over the Alterac Mountains one night.
The tent was up, the rams were fed and Magnus Flinthammer had overseen his son starting the campfire. And then the older dwarf had pulled out a fishing rod and a sack full of shiny lures.
“Ringo, come here. If ye’re going to be a rifleman,” which Ringo had announced at dinner before the pair had set out from home, “Ye’ll need to learn how to fish.”
“Huh?” Ringo goggled at the rod as it was thrust in his hand. His father steered him to the edge of the black water, then took his forearm and jerked it forward, casting the line out into the Darrowmere.
Magnus sat down on a rock beside his son, one hand hovering near his forearm and watching the bobber out in the water.
“The Flinthammers have been riflemen as long as there has been an Ironforge, Ringo. During times of peace, we are hunters, bringing home meat and hides for our families and communities. In wartime, we serve the king, defending our people against trolls or bandits or the Dark Irons.
“But we are always called on to kill. And if ye’re going to kill, ye should understand what ye’re doing.”
Ringo’s mind was spinning at this declaration. His father had fought in the Second War, but he never talked about it at home, at least not to anyone other than Ringo’s mother, and that only behind closed doors, after he thought Ringo and his little brother were asleep. Even when the family all visited the Heroes’ Vigil memorial in Elwynn Forest years later, Magnus had gone alone, without his wife and children.
“I shot an orc once,” Ringo said, still holding the fishing rod as though it were a poisonous Badlands snake, ready to strike at any moment. “It was a Dragonmaw.”
“Aye, yer mother told me,” Magnus said, his tone dark. He had been away from home the day the Dragonmaw Orcs descended on the Coldridge Valley and his family had to evacuate without him. “I need ye to understand what ye did that day.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
“Nay, son, ye didn’t. But it was more than ye might have realized ye have done.”
“I don’t understand …”
Magnus opened his mouth to respond when suddenly the bobber vanished beneath the surface with a “bloop” and the rod almost jerked out of Ringo’s hands.
“Hold onto it, boy! Nay, don’t jerk it back, ye’ll break the line. Steady now, slowly pull him back and forth, wear the fish out. Aye, aye … Now, start working the reel, the other way, aye, work the reel, slowly like, bring him in. Keep working him back and forth, wear him out.”
The blue-green fish, shining in the last rays of sunlight, leapt once from the water as Ringo reeled it in, and Magnus shot forward, grappling it and bringing it to shore. He laid the fish on bit of canvas tarp and removed the hook.
“Ringo, get my Tigerbane from my bag and come here.”
Ringo was never allowed to play with his father’s hunting knife and his eyes were wide as he brought it back to his father.
“No, not me,” Magnus said, looking down at the large sagefish flopping on the tarp. “Ye do it. Ye kill this fish to feed us tonight, just as ye shot that Dragonmaw to protect yer ma and wee brother. But this time, ye need to see what it is ye’ve done. Carefully now, cut off his head and end his pain.”
Ringo almost said he couldn’t do it, but a sharp look from his father stopped his words before they had escaped his lips. Ringo couldn’t meet the sagefish’s gaze as he placed the knife point-down on the tarp and lowered the blade, cutting off its head.
“Well done, Ringo. It’s easy killing with a blunderbuss, too easy. Some forget what it is they’ve done because of it. There are good reasons to kill: Ye can kill to feed yer family, ye can kill to protect them. Killin’ otherwise is a waste and it’s wrong. No son of mine will not know the difference.”
Ringo looked at the still waters of the Darrowmere now. If anything moved below its surface, it wasn’t truly alive. All these lands, with their rich wet earth and the seemingly endless green canopy, had been ruined, killed by the Scourge during the Third War.
Killed and left to rot, simply to take them from the men of Lordaeron.
Blinking at the ash blowing from the west, Ringo clicked his tongue and got Beer Run and the other animals moving again. He would spend the night in the ruins of Crown Guard Tower, and then begin the dangerous journey through the Plaguelands to Quel’Lithien Lodge to seek the council of Ranger Lord Hawkspear about what to expect in Quel’Thalas.