Seven years ago, in the Dragonblight of Northrend.
“Prince Arthas and his men are heroes!” Robaz the Frail said, tromping uphill through the snow. The two dwarves were walking away from the camp, and out into the pre-dawn gloom. “Without them, we would have been trapped until the undead finally overwhelmed us.”
“Yer nuts,” snapped Baelan Grimaxe, an axe slung over his shoulder. “Muradin could have rescued us on his own; he was just gatherin’ his strength. And anyway, Ah told ye; Ah didn’t like that look in Arthas’ eyes when he was grillin’ the prince about what brought us here.”
“Who goes there?” barked a voice from the darkness.
“I knew we shouldn’t have left camp for this discussion,” Robaz muttered, gripping his worn mace tightly. “This land is haunted.”
“Is that ye, Flinthammer?” Baelan growled back. “Didn’t think ye’d be skulking in the trees like a marmot.”
“Durkon Flinthammer does not skulk,” barked back the voice. The cavalier stepped out into view. “We were just coming up here for some privacy. My idiot siblings don’t trust anyone over four and a half feet tall.”
Three other dwarves stepped out of the cluster of birch trees.
“And our sister Ely,” Mordun winked.
“Screw ye guys!” roared Ely, the youngest Flinthammer boy.
“Keep your voice down, Ely,” Durkon snarled, slapping him in the back of the head, “Unless you want the undead to drop in on us.”
“Did I hear ye expressin’ doubts about Prince Arthas?” Mordun said, sizing up the newcomers. “That’s just what we were discussin’.”
“He seems to think the prince cannot be trusted!” Robaz blurted out. “The man is a paladin! A knight of the Silver Hand!”
“Don’t mean he can’t be touched in the head,” Mordrun said. “What’s he doin’ in Northrend, anywho? And why is he so interested in that sword Prince Muradin is searchin’ for?”
“Muradin is our prince and, at the moment, our employer,” Durkon said, as though that settled the matter. The Flinthammer Boys had been hired to guard the Explorers’ Guild Northrend expedition. “He has known Arthas since the boy was no taller than a gnome. It is not our place to …”
“Ta what?” Baelan snapped. “Protect ourselves? Ta watch out fer base treachery?”
“Durkon is correct,” Robaz said, stepping beside Durkon, shoulder-to-shoulder with him in agreement. “You’ll see, there’s no reason to …”
The sound of Durkon’s and Robaz’s skulls colliding echoed across the snow, and Baelan and the Flinthammer Boys waited a long moment to see if the sound had attracted the undead.
“Didn’t want to do that,” Bragh said, releasing his grip on the back of Durkon’s and Robaz’s heads. “Durkon’s a fool and yer friend is naïve. Tie them up. Got work to do.”
“I don’t like betraying Quartermaster Guildenstern’s confidence,” Ely said quietly. “It makes desertin’ even worse.”
“It’s not like that,” Mordun said, clapping a calloused hand on his little brother’s shoulder. “If we’re right and Arthas turns on our expedition, someone has to live to get the word to King Magni. Bragh has broken some of the local rams to the saddle, Baelan. We figure we’ll head east, to the forest over there. That bay at the southeastern tip of the continent is where our rescuers will come looking for us first.”
Robaz and Durkon woke to the smell of smoke and the bright light of morning.
“How dare you?” roared Durkon. “Tie me to a tree, will you?”
“Shut up,” Bragh sighed, putting a spyglass in front of his older brother. “Look.”
“What?” And then Durkon went silent for a long time. Robaz, tied to a tree beside him, strained to see where the smoke was coming from.
“Our ships … burned to the frames,” Durkon said finally.
“It were Arthas,” Bragh said, collapsing the spyglass and putting it away. “Mordrun, Ely: Untie them.”
“Why would he do that?” Robaz said, squinting at the beach through the smoke.
“Don’t rightly know,” said Mordun. “This morning, Arthas, leadin’ a bunch of bloody trolls, burned the ships while the men and dwarves were at duty posts inland. Then it looked like he changed sides and led a slaughter of the trolls. After that, they headed inland. We’ll check if there are any survivors and take them east and set up a fortified camp there; we don’t want to be waiting there if he finds that sword and comes back to finish the job.”
Durkon nodded dumbly and climbed onto the ram Mordrun led him to.
“First thing Ah do,” Baelan said, as he climbed into a ram’s saddle, “Ah’m buildin’ a tavern. Ah feel tha need to get very, very drunk.”