Chapter Six: A Cleansing Flame
Arthas and Muradin made their way back to the town and were met by Faldine. The veteran was sharpening her sword while observing the men drilling. She stood up and saluted as soon as she saw them. "Attention!" Then she looked to him as her men did the same. "Prince Arthas, you're here. Did you succeed?"
"Yes, Faldine, we did," said Arthas, feeling tired. "The undead are destroyed. Now we will turn our attention to less serious threats. The Forest Trolls have been raiding this village long enough. The time has come to destroy them once and for all."
"That's a fine idea," said Marywynn, coming out. "How are we going to lure them out?"
"We will kill two birds with one stone," said Arthas. "We'll take a force of men to their burial grounds and burn the bodies within. That should draw them out of hiding and make destroying them a simple matter."
"Well, we were going to do that anyway," said Faldine. "Ice Trolls have been burning their dead for decades. But I guess the Forest Trolls haven't fought the Scourge."
Arthas nodded. "Give me a few hours to rest. Then we will set out."
It would do no one in Lordaeron any good if he ran himself ragged. So he took what time he could to rest. It was all too short, and he didn't feel much better at the end of it. Only a little more grounded.
But he could not wait any longer. So he rose from his bed and made arrangements at once. Meeting his officers, he was pleased to see his men were ready to leave and assembled. "Alright, then. Let's get to it. I want scouts moving ahead of our force at all times. We can't afford to get caught in an ambush on our way.
"Marwynn, you will lead the vanguard."
Marwynn nodded. "Yes, sir."
Faldine kissed Marwynn on the cheek. "Good luck."
Arthas let it pass. "Faldine, I want you to oversee the supply lines. Trolls like to hijack those."
"Yes, sir," said Faldine. "Prince Arthas, I…"
"Yes?" said Arthas.
"I believe we ought to give the trolls a chance to surrender," said Faldine. "We had to work with them a lot during the Northrend Expedition. They aren't good company, but, well, they're mortal like any of us. I don't like the idea of burning out villages."
"I'll take it into consideration," said Arthas.
And so they marched. As the army did, Arthas walked along the lines of men, observing them. They were tired and bitter if resolved. Several were muttering among themselves. "This is exhausting. We just keep on moving no matter how many battles we win."
"The Prince knows best." said another. "If we hadn't been moving this quick, all those people would be dead or worse."
"I guess." said the first. "Where are we at the moment anyway?"
"We are some ways north of Hearthglen," said Arthas. "In the regions which were not as affected by the undead. A few days south of here and we'll be among the villages we saved from the undead army."
"We saved?" asked the man. "I wasn't there for Hearthglen.
Arthas frowned. There hadn't been a lot of survivors from that part. "Were you in active service?"
"No sir, I joined up for the Northrend Expedition." said the man, smiling slightly. "I think I got a bit more than we bargained for."
"We all did," said Arthas. "Just remember that we are a crusade of the righteous. We do what we need to so that others can live in peace. Every undead we slay, every mile we walk, it is for not just Lordaeron, but the world."
"Still, I don't know about fighting the Forest Trolls." said another. "I don't love them, but my village did some trading with them once. Couldn't we make an Alliance?"
"Negotiations have been attempted and have failed," said Arthas. "Our only alternative is, therefore, to initiate reprisals. We must end our conflict with them decisively. We must think of our subjects first
"Carry out your orders."
They nodded. "Yes, milord."
Conversations like this one were essential, reflected Arthas as he marched off. They ensured that the men knew Arthas cared, even if he was not as great as they thought him. He knew what they wanted from him, and he did the best to meet that want. That had been his whole life, really.
"A messenger from Captain Marwynn is here." said a soldier.
Arthas strode to meet the man, who saluted. "What news?"
"Prince Arthas, the trolls got wind of us." said the man. "We foiled several attempts at an ambush and beat them back. Now they've withdrawn to the burial grounds. From the looks of things, they wish to make a stand."
"Tell Captain Marwynn to hold them in place, but not to attack," said Arthas. "We will be there soon."
On they marched as quickly as they could. Soon the army came within sight of the burial grounds. It was a high mound with a single tunnel leading into it. On it had been built an entire Forest Troll village. They were assembled for war with many warriors on the hilltop, but they were not rushing to battle.
"Well, that's a lot of them," said Muradin.
"Encircle the hill and run out the flag of parley!" said Arthas, remembering Faldine's words.
And so it was encircled. Marwynn and Faldine arrayed their forces well, and soon the army had readied itself. It was a smaller army than Arthas had started with. One force after another had been broken off to defend ground or oversee the burning of bodies. Others had been killed or given alternate assignments.
But it was enough. He marched forward under a flag of parley a guard with him. The flag was waved, and Arthas shouted.
"Trolls of Lordaeron!" called Arthas. "You have raided my people and endangered the lives of all within Lordaeron. I call upon you to take your people and withdraw from our territory immediately. Lay down your arms, and you will not be harmed."
A spear arced through the air and plunged into the shoulder of the man holding the flag. Several others landed amongst them. Arthas grabbed the man and pulled him away, pulling out the spear and healing him. "Get the man behind lines, quickly!"
"We be surrendering!" called a mocking voice. "Come get our arms! We'll throw dem to ya!"
There was laughing among them at that. Arthas stood up and was glad that they'd gotten a new group of mortar crews while he was fighting the lich. A cold fury went through him. How dare they violate parley. "Savages.
"Open fire with all mortars!"
And so it began. The thunder of the guns ranged far and wide as a massive barrage of rockets was sent arcing into the air. The first few were scattered, but gradually they began to home in. Soon they landed in houses that exploded into a thousand pieces. Others consumed groups of forest trolls.
The beasts attempted a charge and ran straight into a withering barrage of rifle fire. Many were already dead, and soon they ran, desperately trying to duck for cover. Some sheltered within the burial grounds themselves. Little by little, Arthas found himself feeling a sense of pity. They were completely outmatched here.
"Marwynn, order the men to halt the bombardment," said Arthas.
"Halt the bombardment!" called Marwynn. "Halt!"
"Raise the flag of parley again," said Arthas.
Once again it was raised, and once again he went forward. "Again, I demand you surrender and withdraw from the dominions of Lordaeron! You are hopelessly outnumbered!"
There was silence for a moment.
Then the trolls rushed out of the burial ground and charged at him, howling with fury. Arthas sighed. "Here we go.
"Form up and defend! Not one must get through!"
He retreated to the line and then turned around to face them, hammer in hand. The trolls spears and axes were of little use against the shields of Lordaeron. Guns shot down many of them, even as the knights came forward to slaughter them. It was bloody, one-sided, and utterly miserable.
They might have deserved it, but Arthas felt no satisfaction. There was nothing glorious about slaughtering a rabid dog.
"The battle is over, Prince Arthas," said Marwynn. "We've won."
Arthas looked at the village and considered his options. "…Burn it all. Nothing will remain."
"They violated parley twice!" snapped Arthas. "I offered them the chance to leave freely twice, and they paid us back in our own blood. We are beyond negotiation now, Muradin. Cut off the heads. Burn the bodies."
"We ought to-"began Muradin.
"How many chances, Muradin?" asked Arthas. "How many times are we obligated to give these beasts a chance to stab us before it is enough? No, we're done. Kill them all. Maybe the next village will be more respectful."
And so the butchery began, though there was hardly anyone else to butcher. The mortars had obliterated most of the houses completely, killing almost everyone. Those who hadn't been killed were badly wounded. No wonder the trolls had refused a second time, they'd been the last of their village. They'd had nothing left to lose.
The bodies were burned. Arthas had priests perform burial rights on those they destroyed. It was an attempt to add some measure of dignity to all this. Hardly any of his men had been destroyed, and a message had been sent. So he walked before his men. "The brutes are slain, and their burial mounds are no more. Well done men."
"This is a nasty bit of business, lad," said Muradin.
Then a messenger arrived, looking as tired as Arthas felt. "Prince Arthas, the scouts report that they've found another undead bastion far to the south. It's just beyond the ruins of Andorhal City."
Andorhal City was a place he'd seen reduced to ashes by the Scourge. He'd had to resettle many of the people, and it was now a forsaken place. And now the Scourge had returned to it. With a sigh, he looked to Marwynn. "…Have your men get some rest. Two hours from now we'll move out to burn it down."
So began yet another series of battles Arthas had to fight. Every day was a blur of travel and carnage. He crushed bastions of undead wherever he went; he burned graveyards where he found them. When the Forest Trolls raided, he crushed them.
And then they won if this was winning.
Arthas supposed it was, in the sense that his scouts stopped reporting undead. They had started to run short of graveyards to burn. Meanwhile, the Forest Trolls were in a hurry to get away and usually surrendered. He had them escorted to the border with proper supplies. But he had no expectation that it would be the end of things. Reports indicated that many of the undead had fled into the mountains. With any luck, they and the Blackrock Orcs would eat each other.
The war hadn't so much ended as stopped.
And eventually, he found himself standing by a port alongside Muradin. The dwarf's ship had finally been arranged. And now that 'victory' had been won it was time for him to go. For a moment, the two stood there, waiting.
Finally, Muradin smiled in exhaustion. "Well, that takes care of our undead problem, for the moment. Which means I've got to head for home. Magni will want a full report from me on my findings."
"I understand, Muradin," said Arthas. "Still, I'd appreciate it if you could gather some support from the other nations. I have the feeling we'll need it soon." He paused. "Food shipments if possible. People may starve soon."
Muradin sighed. "Well, that's business as usual then. The wicked and good have no rest on Azeroth." Then moving forward, he hugged Arthas. "Good luck, lad."
Arthas returned the favor. "To you as well."
Muradin parted ways and made his way back to the ship.
The war situation had not developed to Mal'Ganis' advantage.
The humans had been weakened but had still won again. They'd burned through most of his bastions in Lordaeron. Fortunately, he'd foreseen such a possibility. He'd begun moving his operations to the Alterac Mountains. Those regions were not so well known to Lordaeron, and he could rebuild in time.
More importantly, his core plan was still intact. His cultist forces remained largely intact. And their operations were underway. But Mal'Ganis was beginning to suspect that he would only achieve a partial success.
That had been the word used for every one of his victories. Every 'defeat' was but a setback that helped his overall plan. Not that he didn't enjoy the game, in other circumstances he might drag it out. Yet Mal'Ganis was on a timetable. His superiors were already growing tired of waiting. If he did not show some results, he'd be replaced.
Mal'Ganis doubted he'd survived the resulting displeasure. Tichondrius was forbidden from killing him, but the higherups had no such compunctions.