Chapter Nine: Blackthorn
The training of the militia was going well. Arthas observed as little by little; they began to gain more professional skills. Wilhelm and his men saw them remade from a militia into soldiers. The victory over the raid had given them confidence.
The farmlands were going less well.
Farmer Aaton was a thin man whose clothes were too big for him. He was wearing a straw hat and had a look of desperation to him as he described what happened. "Prince Arthas, my farm, it was burned to the ground. My family and I barely managed to get out before the orcs arrived. That was everything we had.
"Where are the militia?" His voice was accusing.
"You have my apologies, Farmer Aaton." Said Arthas. "We are overstretched as things stand, but you have my word the matter will be handled."
"Your word won't bring my crops back." Said Aaton.
Arthas ignored the disrespect; times were hard. "Athanar, would you ensure that Aaton and his family are given shelter and food? At least until such a time as they can rebuild."
"As you wish, Prince Arthas." Said the priest.
Aaton was escorted away, and several more complaints came in. Most were of a similar nature. When things had settled down, Arthas looked down the table to where Wilhelm was sitting. "Captain Wilhelm, what are your thoughts?"
"These are probing strikes." Said Wilhelm, looking at the map. "They are meant to test our defenses and find the weak points."
"And how long until we can fortify ourselves?" asked Arthas.
"If the orcs attacked tomorrow, we could hold a number of strong points in the short term." Said Wilhelm. "And if the orcs took them, we could make them pay in blood."
"Then, we need to take drastic action." Decided Arthas, though privately, he suspected Wilhelm underestimated their chances.
"Then let us march forth Prince Arthas!" cried Sally. "Let us fall upon the orcs in their strongholds in Alterac and raze them to the ground!"
"As much as I'm sure it would make a good story, Sally, we should secure our own lands first." Said Wilhelm in a longsuffering tone. "And if we must attack something, we should destroy the orcish settlements."
"Once again, we will do no such thing." Said Arthas, giving the same answer as before.
"But Prince Arthas, they are invading our land." Said Sally.
"Land which no one now occupies." Said Arthas. "The peons are not harming anyone by their presence. If we launch an assault now, the orcs will rush to battle at once.
"The longer we drag this out, the better our chances.
"Besides, the peons may be of some use to us. I doubt they are fond of their masters, and that could give us an opportunity."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Wilhelm.
"Nothing at the moment." Said Arthas. "It is… a feeling, if you will. Has there been any news on food shipments?"
"Yes, Prince Arthas." Said Athanar. "Kul'tiras has begun shipping salted fish to Lordaeron en masse in order to help with the famine. Admiral Proudmoore has also dispatched a number of marine divisions. They are to help with the fortification of coastal settlements."
"That should go a long way to offsetting hunger and freeing up our remaining troops." Said Arthas. "Even if it is only a stopgap. But I've still received no word from Varian. What of Blackthorn?"
"In that regard, I have news that may be good or bad, depending on what you make of it?" said Wilhelm.
Arthas looked at him carefully. "What news?"
"It seems that there are several villages who have been smuggling him food." Said Wilhelm. "Alterac loyalists who only pretended to bend the knee."
"I do not think it was right to expect them to." Said Sally.
Arthas was surprised and looked up. "Sally?"
"I grew up on the borders with Alterac." Said Sally. "The people of Alterac were subjected to horrors far disproportionate to their crimes. Aiden Pernolde alone betrayed the Horde. But Thoras Trollbane subjected the whole nation to the Alliance's vengeance."
Arthas and his other officers shared a look. "…Did you just suggest that punishment was too great for a crime committed?"
"Thoras Trollbane was… ruthless." Said Sally, shifting awkwardly.
Wilhelm shuddered. "…At any rate, I have found one among their number who is willing to speak with us. I can call her in if you wish."
"Very well." Said Arthas. "Let her speak."
The woman that entered was slim and pretty with dark hair. She walked into the room and bowed quickly.
"This is Serena Townsend." Said Wilhelm. "The one I spoke of."
Arthas sat back in his chair. "What news do you bring us?"
Serena paused. "Some time ago, I was taken prisoner by the Syndicate. They would have sold me as a slave, but I managed to slip free. While there, I learned something.
"The Syndicate is actually two different groups who have agreed not to fight one another. One of them was led by Aiden Pernolde and the other by his son, Aliden Pernolde. The two despised each other. Aliden's Syndicate forbids slavery. It is mostly focused on ensuring the people of Alterac are not mistreated.
"Aiden's was focused on revenge on the Alliance and regaining past glories. Or so I gathered from some of the conversations. Now that Aiden is dead, there is a power vacuum, and Aliden is trying to take over. But large parts of the group are heading to a new master, the Dreadlord Mal'Ganis."
"I see." Said Arthas, not sure about her truthfulness. "How did you escape?"
"Blackthorn set me free and sent me here." Said Serena. "But I followed behind his forces and saw where he made his camp. He has a strong force, both of axemen and spearthrowers, and they are experts at stealth."
"Which means he could be invaluable to us." Said Arthas. "Every bit helps." He glanced at Sally. "Is there any news from Uther?"
"Prince Arthas, I received a letter this very day from him." Said Sally, offering it.
Arthas unrolled it and read:
I am concerned to hear of the resurgence in the Blackrock Clan. Unfortunately, I do not have any forces to spare. Just when the armies were disbanded, the undead made another grab at Stratholme. I've had to draw off my forces to put them down, and I cannot afford to leave Andorhal undefended.
We have not yet burned all the dead in that region.
The undead is using different tactics now. Before they would throw themselves without hesitation to their deaths. Now, however, they are evasive, gathering strength and striking where we are weakest. I would not be surprised if this orc resurgence was engineered to divide us.
You will have to hold your own until I can return. I have faith you can do that much. Just be thankful that the bodies of the dead are no longer enemy reinforcements.
Arthas sighed, expecting as much. If nothing else, he could count it as a vote of confidence, of sorts. "Uther is otherwise occupied. Our orders are to defend the settlements until he can return.
Serena, what use is the Dreadlord putting the bandits he recruits to?"
"I do not know, milord." Said Serena.
"Well, whatever it is, recruiting Blackthorn has just become our top priority." Said Arthas.
"Why?" asked Sally.
"The Syndicate was founded when we dispossessed the nobles of Alterac." Said Arthas. "If they are given a chance to regain something of what was lost, many of them will leave banditry behind. The nobles probably represent a large part of the leadership. It will probably decimate the Syndicate ranks overnight.
"Moreover, I suspect they may have a great deal of information on each other. With that, we could hunt down those who do not return.
"Serena, what do the common people of Alterac think of the Syndicate? Speak without fear."
Serena looked around as if trying to figure out if Arthas was merely polite, or if he meant it. "When Thoras Trollbane came to these lands, he reduced our capital to ashes. He killed men, women, and children, destroyed entire communities. All because of something King Pernolde did\that we didn't even know about.
"And Pernolde wasn't a bad king, not to us anyway."
"I see." Said Arthas. Then he leaned forward. "You will take me to Blackthorn."
Serena flinched. "He may decide to kill you. He is not fond of Lordaeron."
"Well, then it won't be any different from what will happen if I stay here." Said Arthas. "As long as he hears me out, we should not have a problem. Take me to."
"Yes, Prince Arthas." Said Serena.
Arthas, some guards, and Serena set out that very day. They traveled quickly north, going by strange paths. Several of them took them by isolated villages of peons, working under the gaze of orcs. He saw an orcish taskmaster standing by with a whip many times that day.
But at last, they went beyond the orcish colonies and into the highlands. As they waded across a shallow stream, Arthas looked to Serena. "Tell me, did your father tell you what it was he learned about the Cult of the Damned?"
"He said enough for me to know it was serious." Said Serena, looking pained.
"Do you know how Aiden learned of it?" asked Arthas.
"Mal'Ganis has eyes everywhere." Said Serena. "You never know who could be one of his spies. Wait a minute." She halted and raised a hand before pointing ahead. Peering into the trees, Arthas saw massive humanoid figures made of boulders. They were like a living avalanche. And a little beyond them was a large camp of humanoid rodents with candles.
"Rock golems and kobolds. What are they doing here?" asked Arthas.
"They must have fled into the highlands." Said Serena.
"Well, we'll have to slip past them." Said Arthas.
They took a wide berth around the group and began to turn to walk along the cliffs. The trees became thicker now, and soon they emerged into a clearing. There was a camp surrounded by a palisade. Dozens of men were standing by on the walls, and as they emerged, the gates open and a man rode out. He wore black armor and had a beard and mustache. In one hand, he carried a massive sword, and he was flanked by two men with axes.
"Hold where you are, stranger! What business do you have in the camp of Lord Blackthorn?"
Arthas stepped forward. "I am Arthas Menethil of Lordaeron. I've come to offer you a chance to serve the Alliance."
Blackthorn scoffed. "Serve the Alliance? Never! Alterac remembers too well what you have done!"
"Alterac may rise again." Said Arthas. "I'm offering to restore your titles, provide payment for your services, and give a full pardon. All I ask in return is that you help in destroying our common enemy, the orcs. Even as we speak, armies of orcs are mustering to attack the people of Alterac.
"My men alone cannot stop them. But with your aid, we can halt their advance and drive them back into the mountains. Or, if you'd prefer to remain in hiding, you can watch your people die and wait to be conquered."
Blackthorn remained silent. "One moment, while I speak with my officers."
It was far longer than a moment that Arthas waited. The sun was beginning to sink behind the trees when the gates opened, and Blackthorn emerged. "…Very well then, Prince Arthas. We will fight for Alterac, not for you. Men, ready your spears. We'll see if this Prince is as good as his word."
Arthas smiled. They might win yet.
One thing I'd like to get out of the way here is that I am deliberately going for as focused a narrative as possible. The problem with A Strategic Withdrawal is that I opened up so many different plot threads. I've been stuck for months because I don't know how to proceed. I am juggling so many narratives that they clash.